Coal block auction –Uncertainties ahead

September 26, 2014 at 10:54 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Coal block cancellation and its aftermath

The curtains have come down on the dark saga of Coalgate that marked, possibly, the largest and longest-running process of giving away of one of the country’s important assets to favoured companies. The process was arbitrary, opaque, and corrupt. Political parties indulged in it with impunity despite occasional objections by bureaucrats and a few upright politicians whose number, sadly, is dwindling fast. The loot brought rich payola for politicians and their parties. In the process, the nation lost astronomical amounts of money.

It is a matter of great relief that the Supreme Court has declared all the coal bloc allocations from 1993 onwards illegal, and has cancelled almost all of the 216 blocs barring just four of them. It is a very bold step that will have far reaching ramifications. In the short run, there will be surely some disruptions, but the country will not be plunged to total darkness as the affected power generation companies contribute to barely 5% of the country’s total power generation.

In the long run, the country will gain greatly. Politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists will think twice before entering into any type of dishonest transaction with the government. Collusive loot of resources like spectrum, mineral assets, water, river bed sands, granite, marine resources etc. will be curbed to a large extent. The state’s exchequer will see more funds pouring into it as transparent, legal and well-advertised auctions are held to allocate resources to needy companies.

In the long run, international confidence in Indian businesses will get a much-needed boost. Pushers, fixers, and middle men will be thrown out of business. Crony capitalists will think of other legal ways to make money.
But, what will happen to the powerful politicians and bureaucrats who were behind the sordid system pivoted to slush money and power brokering? First, they deprived the country of huge amounts of cash income. Later, their misdemeanors has thrown the investments of the beneficiary industrialists on coal blocks into drains. To add insult to injury, they have been ordered to pay to government Rs. 295 per ton of coal mined calculated retrospectively from the day they began mining. No tears will be shed for these crooked manipulators who joined hands with corrupt politicians to perpetuate a reprehensible practice of plunder of nation’s wealth.

But the question that begs an answer is the punishment, if any, to be meted to the politicians who made money by scuttling the due process of allocation. Some of them are retired, now cooling their heels in government-maintained bungalows. The ends of justice will be met if these individuals are brought to book.
Not long ago, the Supreme Court cancelled 122 telecom licenses that were allotted flouting all rules of government. The nexus between greedy politicians and crony capitalists has long besmirched the industrial climate of India. Overseas and indigenous companies, who find the atmosphere to murky for them, have shied away from investing in the country. Breaking of the nexus was long overdue. The Supreme Court deserves plaudits for its bold stand against the highly compromised system.

The Apex Court has given the government and the functional mines some leeway by allowing them to continue operations till March 31, 2015. As per the arrangements going to be put in place, in six months time, the government-owned Coal India Ltd. will assume charge of the 40 mines that are actively extracting coal now. Coal India will also take over six other mines which are fully primed to commence operations.

Crucially, the Apex Court wants the ongoing CBI investigations to continue. So, the politicians and bureaucrats guilty of wrong doing can’t breathe freely yet.
Coal India is known for its lethargy, inefficiency and corruption. It is affected by all the diseases common to a government-owned company with a minister as its boss. In the first place, the private companies entered the fray because the Coal India refused to expand its operations. Now, how the same, much-maligned Coal India reenergizes itself as the manager of the 214 coal blocks remains to be seen. If it fails, it might lead to a catastrophe. If coal shortage continues or gets worsened, the power generation units will import high-cost coal to maintain their operations. This will push the import bill with all its consequences.

The Apex Court’s punitive levy of Rs. 295 per ton of coal mined in the past may severely strain the finances of the errant companies most of whom owe large amounts to public sector banks. This brings the spectre of default close to the doors of the banks. It may be another big headache for the government.

There are some more un-answered questions here. If and when fresh auctions are held for the coal blocks, can the successful bidders be coaxed to reimburse the previous owner the amount invested by him in making the mine ready for extraction? Will they be willing to take the past debts fully or partially thus freeing the old displaced owner of its loan burden?

The government has its hands full in the matter. It will have to move deftly and quickly to stitch up the loose ends of the newly evolving scenario.


Alibaba roars into Wall Street — What is the India story

September 25, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Alibaba’s giant strides into Wall Street

                                                                                                                                      by  Sangita Pati

In its maiden foray into Wall Street, Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce company has blazed a new trail. In the biggest ever Initial Public Offering (IPO), it has mopped up a whopping $25 billion. In doing so, it has broken all previous records of spectacular successes made by iconic companies of the capitalist world.

Alibaba today has a yearly turnover of $278 billion that is more than the combined turnovers of eBay and Amazon.Com. Alibaba is China’s and undeniably the world’s largest online commerce company. Hundreds of millions of buyers source their needs from its three arms – Tabao, Tmall and Started by the Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma in 1999 with a meager capital of just $60,000, the company has recorded meteoritic rise in its popularity and business. Jack Ma is the richest man in China today with individual net worth of $22 billion.

In almost all parameters used to measure a company such as market capitalization, customer loyalty, yearly growth etc. it has left the giants like IBM, Coca Cola, Procter & Gamble way behind.

Alibaba’s spectacular rise throws some disturbing questions. With its low-cost manufacturing prowess, China has pushed all American and European companies out of the U.S. market. China’s exports have soared, so has Chinese dollar holdings in U.S. treasury bonds. Today, China stands as the largest debtor of America, a position many view with alarm. After all, China is in a different wave length politically and militarily. It is not a historical ally of America as Britain, Germany and France are. In times of crisis, it can pull the rug from under the American feet by demanding a pay back of a good part of its dollar holdings. The Alibaba’s roaring stride into the Wall Street makes America the largest fund provider for the Chinese behemoth’s future growth.
It is pertinent here to point out that the Chinese bank Agricultural Bank of China had raised $22.1 billion in 2010 in a similar way. Many other Chinese companies have mopped up sizeable amounts from American public and investment companies.

Indian companies like Infosys had made forays into American markets through issue of American Depository Receipts and listings in Nasdaq, but their performance pales into insignificance when compared to that of the hyper-active Chinese entities.

Alibaba’s success has triggered some justifiable fears too. On the day of the listing day, its worth had soared to $231 billion. Now, questions arise about its true worth. Could it be a build-up of a bubble?

Alibaba’s ownership structure is not transparent, which is discomforting. Mr. Ma and his coterie control disproportionately high voting power. Apart from this, many similar Chinese companies have come up offering stiff competition to Alibaba. Are these adverse factors being ignored by the euphoric build-up to the IPO sale? The story of the boom and bust of the days is still fresh in investors’ minds. Is there some possibility of Alibaba going down along that slippery path?

Some analysts discount such fears. They point to the solid infrastructure, operational base and manpower pool of Alibaba. Alibaba has delivered, where as the dotcom companies just sold dreams promising the moon. Alibaba has etched a place for itself in the hearts of millions of Chinese. Such trust simply can not melt away.

The Indian rising e-commerce companies are watching the Alibaba story with great interest. Flipkart is one of them. It is highly improbable that the Chinese e-commerce companies will ever be locked in competition with their Indian counterparts like Flipkart. Both operate in separate areas. Flipkart, the trail-blazer of India’s e-commerce space, has secured impressive FDI leveraging its popularity and growth. Flipkart has also to contend with fierce competition from companies like having deep pockets. So, competition is going to get fiercer with time. Amazon has already rolled out an aggressive marketing strategy to woo the Indian customers away from Flipkart.

To foster the growth of e-commerce through healthy competition, the government has to remove some of the bottlenecks like poor broadband access in many areas, confusion with regard to sales tax applicability and poor logistical base.

You can reach Sangita Pati via her mail id

Indian economy’s green shoots, but will they flourish?

September 23, 2014 at 3:15 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

India’s economic recovery patchy but promising

The latest economic data released by the government with regard to inflation, industrial growth and foreign trade has one un-refutable conclusion. The economy is slowly getting back to its feet, but areas of weakness still persist. The pervasive gloom is gone, and the green shoots are visible.

The Wholesale price inflation has come down sharply dropping to 3.7% in August, 2014. It is the lowest level recorded in the last five years. But, retail price inflation, the index that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) watches most keenly is hovering around at a high of 7.8%. Another worry is the insipid Industrial output growth in July, 2014 which recorded a disappointing 0.5% growth. It has plummeted to this near-zero level from 3.9% recorded in June, just a month earlier. Another worrying sign is the export figures of August, 2014 that has shrunk to 2.35%, lowest in the preceding five months. The patchy performance in respect of manufacture of consumer durables & capital goods dampens the optimism considerably. It shows that the economy has much catching-up to do.

The automobile sector, a major driver of industrial economy, seems to have left behind its sluggish era. Passenger car sales are up after a long period of buyers’ apathy. The Chairman of Maruti Ltd. Mr. R.C. Bhargava has exuded confidence that passenger car manufacturing will increase by at least 5% for the aggregate car industry. His own company Maruti might grow faster than others reaching a level of 10%. The growth of auto manufacturing spurs the growth of its large number of ancillary industries. This, in turn, will generate jobs in thousands, besides boosting government’s income from taxes and duties. But, a robust growth of the capital goods manufacturing can only signal a sustained period of brisk economic activity. Perhaps, companies are still adopting a wait and watch approach to see how the Modi government’s economic push translates to action on the ground.

Poor credit offtake from banks somewhat points to the fact that the economy has not quite woken up from its slumber. To nudge the banks to lend more, the RBI cut the Statutory Lending Ratio (SLR) twice in the last few months, but the demand from industries for fresh loans remains low. This concern was aired by the RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan a few weeks ago.

But, there are some unmistakable positive signs. Monsoon, weak in the initial stages, has revived considerably almost in the whole of the country. The second is the downward trend in global commodity prices. Crude oil prices have fallen, easing the pressure on India’s Current Account, and helping the oil companies to keep the prices of petrol and diesel prices low. This will help the government’s efforts to rein in inflation.

As a consequence of the low crude oil prices, subsidy on diesel has been reduced to nil – a very welcome development for the macro economy management. The next monetary policy announcement of the RBI is around the corner. Quite naturally, the central bank is coming under increasing pressure to cut interest rates that could give an instant push to economic activities. But, with retail inflation sticking to a high 8% level, Dr. Rajan might find his hands tied in the matter. He will continue to stay focused on curbing inflationary pressures – his main responsibility as RBI’s head. Economic pundits will side with Dr. Rajan in the latter’s insistence on seeing sure signs of a decline in inflation rates before he cuts interest rates.

The approaching festival season might usher in more buying of consumer goods, and motor cars and motorcycles by the public. Hopefully, this will mark the turning point for the economy, desperate to unshackle itself.

The Kashmir floods – How the people brought it onto themselves

September 18, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The deluge and its aftermath

As the flood waters recede in Kashmir, the cataclysmic devastation is us slowly unraveling. The affected people are picking up the pieces, trying to make do with whatever they can salvage. Hard times are ahead. Getting back to their feet is going to be an uphill task.

Initial rough estimates of the flood’s fury that ravaged shops, homes, restaurants, offices, warehouses, orchards, handicraft units, buses and trucks, roads, communication towers etc. runs to some Rs. 5700 crores. This is the figure given by Assocham.

Vehicular traffic on the arterial Jammu-Srinagar highway has began to lumber along again. Most of the other road networks are in too dilapidated condition to be restored soon. The flagship Jammu-Srinagar-Baramulla railway line project has also been hit.

It might takes before the number of people to perish in the flood is accurately determined. The uncertainty is due to the fact that people trapped in different places are slowly making their way home.

The danger that looms large over the valley is the possibility of epidemics breaking out in large scale. Rotting dead bodies, carcasses, un-cleared filth and squalor, and scarcity of drinking water can trigger a massive proliferation of infectious water-borne diseases. The most daunting of the tasks is to ensure a quick return to conditions where people can earn their livelihood without waiting for government doles. Tourism and the orchards are the mainstay of the people of Kashmir. Restoring these two sectors is going to take months and need huge government support.

The men in uniform belonging to the army and the National Disaster Response Force have done a commendable job. They have rescued some 2.5 lakh people. There are nearly 30,000 army jawans in the area working round-the-clock to reach succor to people. Co-ordination between different agencies has been patchy, but this is understandable given the ferocity and scale of the flood. But, no one will deny that the army and other agencies have done a highly laudable job.
Conducting relief and reconstruction in such massive scale poses formidable challenges. It would be wise now to pause and ponder what the state government did right and what it got wrong. That the rain gushed down from the sky unexpectedly and overwhelmed everyone on the ground is undeniable. But, did poor environmental management precipitate the crisis? This is the question that begs an answer. Avaricious encroachment of wetlands, unplanned urbanization and deforestation – all man-made factors — aggravated the crisis. Wetlands are nature’s buffers. They hold excess water flowing into them during heavy downpours. With wetlands converted to housing estates, the buffer was gone. Excess water accumulated and flooded human habitation areas.

An example of how encroachments brought about the crisis is the shrunk Wulfar Lake. It was 20,200 hectares some decades ago. Now it is reduced to one tenth its size, measuring just 2400 hectares. This alarming fact has been revealed in a report prepared by the Bombay Natural History Society. Similar sad fate has befallen the world famous Dal Lake. This picturesque water body is down to half its size. It measures a little more than 1,200 ha now. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, encroachment on water bodies is rife in Kashmir. Half of the valley’s lakes, ponds and wetlands have fallen victim to illegal encroachment. The banks of the Jhelum are now clogged by buildings and similar structures. As a result, excess water can’t flow into it, or through it, un-hindered. Tawi in Jammu is stifled in the same way. No wonder, flash floods in this river swept away some 400 buildings and flooded large colonies illegally built in its banks.

The Jammu Master Plan has been flouted with impunity by powerful land grabbers and builders. Now, Nature took its revenge. Like Uttarakhand, Kashmir has paid the price of fiddling with environment. Efforts must be made to reverse the trend.

President Xi’s India visit — the promise and the hurdles

September 17, 2014 at 3:49 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

President Xi Jinping’s comes calling to India – Why the sojourn could be path-breaking

On Wednesday, September 17, 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping set foot in Ahmedabad in Gujurat, the place from where Prime Minister Modi leapt to power in Delhi. The visit of a Chinese head of state to India has come after a long gap of eight years, although the two countries are neighbours. Ever since Modi came to power, he has invested a lot of his time to reclaim India’s role in Asia and beyond as a power to be reckoned with. The Ministry of External Affairs has shed its tepid façade that continued all through the ten years of Dr. Manmohan Singh’s rule. Modi, a visionary, has pushed his advisors to think of new ways to make his focus on development shape India’s approach to China. The post-1962 mindset of seeing every Chinese move as adversarial is clearly on its way out. Now, economics and political co-operation will be the bedrocks of India’s approach to China.

Can the two leaders bury the hatchet and work jointly to supplement each other’s economic growth in an atmosphere of friendly competition? Can the old acrimony replace acceptance of the fact that the border issue can best be resolved not through wars, but through negotiations? After all, two of the largest armies in the world with nuclear weapons and missiles can’t fight because friendly diplomacy failed.

China sells to India much more than it buys from it. China’s humongous production infrastructure sells a very wide variety of goods to India out-pricing the local manufacturers. China is India’s largest trading partner, but the trade is heavily weighted in China’s favour. Prime Minister Modi will surely press his guest to find ways to narrow the trade gap. Some brain-storming and bargaining will inevitably take place, but it is fare to assume that China might open up its markets to Indian companies provided India does the same reciprocally. Beijing has already showed its willingness to build two industrial parks. This will bring in billions of dollars of Chinese investments into India.

The other key area of mutual interest is the possibility of use of Chinese investment and knowhow to upgrade India’s creaking rail infrastructure. Possibly, the Chinese side will be sounded on India’s desire to have a bullet train network linking two or more metros. The Japanese are also in the fray for this project.

The eminent China specialist Professor Swaran Singh of the Center for International Politics in the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) says, “This visit presents a unique opportunity for Chinese industry to invest in India before Japan does. China will try and find a foothold for investment and technology transfer in this window.”

Modi had recently gone on a state visit to Japan. Japan has a long-festering conflict with China. Yet, the two countries have a vibrant commercial relationship with goods and services flowing back and forth un-hindered. Modi had this model in mind when he went to Japan. His visit was applauded in the Indian media as productive and successful. Buoyed by the winds of optimism blowing in India after Modi’s assuming charge as the Prime Minister, the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged $34 billion in investments to India. The visit greatly enhanced Indo-Japan ties. The two leaders, Modi and Abe, had good chemistry going between them. Modi has already met Xi during the BRICS summit in Fortaleza earlier this year. Can this visit of President XI result in a similar personal bonding between the two? The picture will be clear in the succeeding days.

Professor Singh states that both of them see themselves at the helm for at least a decade. They will strive to change the course of the bilateral relations that has remained cold and insipid for decades.

Mending the ruptured geo-strategic relation between the two countries is going to be a tough nut to crack. The unresolved border issue will continue to cast its shadow on any commercial and political move from either side to come closer. China has maritime disagreements with almost all countries in the South-China Sea region. India’s attempts to prospect for oil at the invitation of the Vietnamese government have irked the Chinese who feel the area comes under Chinese sovereignty. But, much more serious is the Chinese claim over the Indian border state Arunanchal Paradesh. The other issue where Pakistan is also involved is the Aksai Region of Kashmir, which India feels Pakistan virtually ‘gifted’ to China. However, it is becoming apparent that these issues will be not in the agenda of talks between the two leaders. There might be some discrete talk, but that will not be open to the media. Instead commerce, economy, politics and cultural matters will be in the centre stage. This approach is pragmatic and should yield results.

Lt. Gen. Ata Hasnain, a former Indian army officer who went to China as part of a delegation, reveals that the Chinese, these days, show little interest on the border issue, quite in contrast to the Indian stance. He feels that China wishes to continue following a dual track policy of intimidating India along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and promoting cooperation. According to General Hasnain, the Chinese are keener than ever for partnership and continued dialogue with India.

Zhao Gancheng, director of the South Asia Institute at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies expresses a similar view. He says, “Politically speaking, the major objective is to try and eliminate distrust and elevate mutual trust.”

However, India can’t lower its guard. It is rattled by China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean area. China’s grand vision of establishing a “maritime silk route” through Asia can be disrupted if India smells a rat in it. Xi has already enlisted the support of Sri Lanka and the Maldives during his visits there. He has a lot of convincing to do, if he wants Modi on board for this grand idea. India’s location and naval clout could be a big hurdle if its apprehensions are not assuaged, and its cooperation ensured.

India is far more enthusiastic about the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Burma trade corridor, also known as the BCIM. India is sure to bring it for discussion during the bilateral talks. The Chinese strategic thinkers are also positive about the BCIM idea.

Zhao Gancheng has pooh-poohed the suggestion that Xi’s warming up to India, and his decision to defer his proposed Pakistan visit, mean a dilution of Chinese interest in Pakistan, its traditional ally. He maintains that the fluid political situation in Pakistan is the cause of postponement of Xl’s visit there.
Lastly, for India, having China as an ally rather than a foe makes sound political and military sense. May be, with burgeoning trade and inflow of Chinese investment in sizable amounts will remove the negative perception in India about its northern neighbor, and pave the way for a resolution of the vexed border issue.

[With inputs from TIME, BBC, and the Hindu]

Ukraine bleeds, but who is responsible?

September 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Did Ukrainians needle Russia too much?

The dust of the Cold war has virtually settled down. The people of the world seldom talk about terms like Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), Nuclear winter, ICBMs, Star War Defense etc. Almost a quarter of a century has elapsed since the mighty United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) imploded without a single bullet being fired.

But, fresh signs of tension along the borders of Russia are causing the old long-forgotten angst to reappear. In the bloody conflict in Ukraine that shows no signs of abating, nearly 3000 people have already perished. Ukraine, the largest single chunk of the old Soviet Union to secede, is being very painfully dismembered. Georgia faced a similar situation in 2008 when it had to stand up to the mighty Russian army. The Georgian army suffered a crushing defeat. The scars of that war are yet to heal.

Now, we see a similar situation in Ukraine. The country, with its sprawling wheat fields, giant steel mills, and enviable arms industries, is sadly split politically. The western areas want close relations with the European Union and America, where as the eastern areas want close political and cultural links with Russia. This divide should have been sorted out within the country through discussions and mutual understanding. This did not happen. Chauvinistic politicians on both sides pressed harder and harder to have their agenda accepted by the country with regard to Ukraine’s external policy. The stridency continued with increased severity till the unity of the country began to rupture.

Russia was particularly incensed to see the western Ukrainians openly embracing the NATO. It was an unnecessary provocation that forced the arms of Russia. President Putin saw NATO presence in its door step as a foreboding development for Russia’s security. The deplorable Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine and the Crimean region, undeniably, has its roots in this Ukrainian overture to NATO.

Historians will never pardon the pro-West politicians of Ukraine, nor will they have any soft words for Putin’s unleashing of military power on its small eastern neighbor. Probably, Ukraine will survive the Russian push, but only in a truncated condition. There is little possibility of Crimea and the eastern areas returning to Ukraine.

The NATO summit last week threw up some interesting strands of opinion. Clearly, a robust NATO military challenge to Russia is off the table, because it is too fraught, and too expensive. Even the appetite for squeezing Russia politically through tougher sanctions is weak. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, known for her sagacity, wants to tread cautiously in punishing Russia. After all, most of Europe sees off the winter cold by burning Russian gas. This apart, the west needs Russian support for a host of reasons – from sending supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) to anti-terrorism intelligence sharing to support for Afghanistan normalization to the newly started fight against the ISIS. A hostile Russia will surely upend the current world order leading to unintended consequences.

It is pertinent here to recall what George H.W. Bush (Sr) and Mikhail Gorbachev had agreed discretely in 1989-1990. The two world leaders had decided that the Soviets would not use force and the West would not take advantage of developments around Soviet Union’s disintegration.
As of now, with the Warsaw Pact long consigned to history, there was no compelling reason to bring in Ukraine inside NATO. Russia made enough noises to warn the NATO politicians about it, but the ramifications of an angry Russia headed by an ultra-nationalistic leader like Putin were not adequately weighed. Now, the consequences are there for everyone to see. Russian and Ukranian soldiers had fought shoulder to shoulder against Hitler’s army. This emotional bond has been frayed beyond mending. A fratricidal war is sinking Ukraine.

The dissent among the NATO leaders on the matter of confronting Russia is a good sign. At least, from now on, every punitive sanction against Russia will be very carefully weighed for its political gains or losses. Russia’s reputation as a responsible political and military power has been severely dented by its belligerence in Ukraine. Putin’s stature inside Russia has soared, but in the rest of the world, he is being seen more as a gadfly than as a sober and discerning world leader.

Written by Ansuman Tripathy  B.A, MFC, LLB

Tea gardens in West Bengal – Workers die of hunger

September 15, 2014 at 5:22 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The tea picker’s cup of woes is full

Like the workers in the jute and textile mills, the malady of the tea pickers in the tea gardens in the North-East appear to be etched permanently into their fate. Despite umpteen studies, seminars, meetings, and agitations, workers continue to suffer from periods of extreme distress. The welfare measures like provision of medical facilities, schools, subsidized rations etc. the workers, who are bound to their trade due to their not having any other skill, suffer from bouts of extreme distress. Reports of emaciation and near-starvation coming out of the Jalpaiguri tea gardens in West Bengal has disturbed many in India.

A recent study conducted by Sreerupa Mitra Chaudhury and her team has revealed cases of starvation deaths, and various other symptoms of social angst such as trafficking of minor girls, attack by wild animals, high incidence of suicides, kidnapping of widows, and proliferation of narcotic trade and the attendant criminality. The study has also unraveled abysmal shortage of basic facilities like potable water availability, healthcare and schools. The Public Distribution System, a life line for India’s poor, is virtually defunct in the region.

With starvation death reports buffeting the media, the tea garden owners, the labour unions and the state government have started a deplorable campaign to wash their hands off the matter, and pass the blame to other stake-holders. Such blame game bring little succor to the languishing workers.

The daily wages, paid by the garden owners are well below the government mandated minimum wages. Even an unskilled worker in other sectors of the economy gets much better wages than the tea pickers. The government does admit that the workers are in great distress, but in the typical bureaucratic way, denies reports of starvation deaths.

Ms. Chaudhury, who is a pioneer of the efforts to alleviate the suffering of the tea garden workers, has spearheaded the ‘Save the Garden, Save Workers Initiative for Plantation Workers’. She laments that most of the Rs. 4600-crore package offered by the Union Commerce ministry to revive the sick and closed gardens may get diverted to other areas, with workers welfare being pushed to the bottom of the agenda.

Another study conducted by Dr. Binayak Sen into the state of health of the distressed workers corroborates the fact that the tea workers are somehow managing to cling to their lives. The study shows that in a closed garden, 60 per cent (136 numbers) of the people had a Body Mass Index (BMI) lower than the critical value of 18.5. Obviously, these 136 workers are severely under-fed. Some 37 among the 136 had a BMI below 16, which is considered life-threatening.

According to WHO standards, any community that has more than 40% of its people with BMI less than 18.5 should be considered as “a starving community”. Even an official report of the West Bengal government’s Labour Department says that the workers are victims of exploitation. It says that in a number of gardens the managements has stopped making any disbursement to the workers. The gardens have been abandoned leaving the workers in the lurch. The mandatory maintenance amounts are not being paid. This contravenes the Plantations Labour Act of 1951. As regards housing accommodation, the picture is no better. Of the workers surveyed, 36 per cent live with no company-provided housing. Similar dismal picture is seen with regard to medical facilities. Only 166 out of the 276 tea estates have just namesake medical facilities. There are no full time doctors and the infrastructure is rudimentary.

Managements have defaulted on provident fund, bonus, and gratuity. Curiously, some gardens are flourishing in their business. This points to the fact the problem of unremunerative gardens lies squarely on the managements, who have not done harvesting in a sustainable way.
The ‘sick’ tea estates maintain that paying better wages is not possible as the returns are too low. However, tea garden experts say that the gardens have been depleted of their wealth due to ravenous exploitation. The lure of quick profit lies at the root of the sickness of the gardens. Therefore, it is the greedy owners who must be brought to book. The poor workers must not be made to suffer because of no fault of theirs.

There is another angle to this saga of misery and exploitation. The tea pickers originally belonged to the tribal areas of central India. They were virtually hounded out of their homelands and brought here to the tea estates to work. These people are poorly educated and know no other alternative skills. So, they can not switch jobs to migrate to other places. This compounds their misery. The onus clearly lies with the government and the tea garden owners to find a way out of the situation.

Letter writing — Complaint to Railways about unpleasant journey

September 14, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Letter of complaint to rail authorities about your unpleasant journey

Amar Ghose
34, Amit Chowdhury Lane
Calcutta …..
Mobile number …..

The Chief Commercial Manager
Eastern Railway
17, Netaji Subhas Road                                                 September 13, 2014
Calcutta -700001

Sub .. Complaint regarding appalling conditions in Howrah-Delhi Rajdhani Express


I traveled in the Rajdhani Express with my family of four members on September 10, 2014. I was in coach number 6. I had a very unpleasant experience during the journey with regard to food, sanitation and security. The complaints are detailed below.

Food.. Roughly two hours into the journey, we were served vegetarian sandwiches. We were disgusted to find that the bread was stale with patches of fungus here and there. We complained to the waiter and the Catering In-Charge. He promptly agreed to replace the item, but the beater returned with sandwiches from the pantry car that were even worse. From then on, we refused to eat anything offered to us. Some of our co-passengers also had similar complaints about the dinner that was served cold. Apparently, the food was cooked hours ago and was not warmed before serving.

Sanitation.. The toilets were cleaned only once during the long journey of 26 hours. The cleaning staff came and finished their job in less than a minute.
Security.. At 11pm, when we all had gone to sleep, we were horrified to find a beggar sitting near the toilet. We wanted to call the TTE/ RPF to have the intruder removed, but the former was nowhere to be seen. The beggar, apparently a burglar, was very defiant and stayed put in his place. Some of us took turns to stay awake to keep an eye on him till morning. When the TTE, one Mr. R. K. Gupta, finally appeared, we brought the matter to his attention, but he behaved as if it was not a serious matter at all.

I give below some more travel details to help you conduct the inquiry effectively. I request you to investigate the matter, and if found correct, to refund me the value of the four tickets amounting to Rs. 18,100. I would also like to know the action you took against the erring catering, house-keeping and security staff.

Thanking you,

Yours truly

(Amarnath Sahay)

Date of journey …..
Ticket PNR numbers ….. xxxxxxx to xxxxxxxx
Value of the four tickets Rs. 18100
Journey from Howrah to Delhi
Names of the co-passengers who are willing to be witness ..
1. Sri Gopal Sen .. Mobile no … (PNR No …)
2. Sri Sarbjit Singh .. Mobile No (PNR No ..)
3. Mrs. Aparna Sahu .. Mobile no .. (PNR No ..)

Sri Lanka’s estranged Tamils –How to bring them on board

September 14, 2014 at 6:17 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The realistic step forward in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa has reaffirmed his willingness to sit with the Tamil political parties for ensuring some forward movement of the normalization process. Declaration of such intent by the Sri Lankan head of state is indeed welcome. That he is still committed to the idea of devolution of political powers to the Tamils is quite heartening. After the capitulation of the LTTE and its virtual wiping out from the military- political scene, hopes about an early political settlement had soared. Many had thought that the victor Sinhalese (majority) and the vanquished Tamils (minority) would bury the hatchet and quickly proceed to forge friendly ties quickly. This, sadly, has not happened.
A framework for devolution was worked out as early as 1987. It was the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution. Yet, after the war, politicians in both sides have failed to follow through on the main promises made in the 13th Amendment. As a result, it has remained frozen. Complicating the issue of reconciliation is the vexed war crimes and human rights issue which still burn alight in the Tamil hearts.
Among the issues that impede a quick resolution of the political stand-off is the matter of control over police in the Northern Province. President Rajapaksa is averse to the idea of police administration remaining with the Tamil provincial government. The hesitation is because of the huge trust deficit between the two sides. It is pertinent here to point out that the Sri Lankan constitution permits the control of state police to remain with the state government.
The other contentious issue is the powers relating to land rights. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court has ruled last year that the centre owns the lands, not the states.
The Tamil parties appear to take an intransigent stand over their participation in the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), dominated by the Sinhalese majority. The Tamil members fear that the Sinhalese members, using their numbers, might push for a dilution of the provisions of the 13th Amendment. Clearly, given the animosity that still bedevils Tamil-Sinhalese relations, such fear may not be quite misplaced.
The main Opposition parties have boycotted the PSC. Sensing the political mood, the dominant Tamil outfit —Tamil National Alliance — has stayed away from the proceedings of the PSC. The TNA wants concessions in excess of what is given in the 13th Amendment, where as the Sinhalese members want the stipulations of the 13th Amendment to be curtailed. This gulf of perception divides the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. When the Tamils aspire is a move towards an agreement that would be 13th Amendment-plus, not anything that looks like 13th Amendment-minus. To add some stridency to their stand, they have made it clear that they will join PSC deliberations only if the Sinhalese agree to their views broadly.
The issue has been mired in acrimonious exchanges due to the central government’s reluctance to scale down military presence in Tamil areas in the North. Here again, trust deficit is the underlying clause. The Governor of the Tamil majority province is a former Army General. Logically, he should have been a civilian political person. The Governor enjoys considerable authority and clout. Hence an astute politician will inspire more confidence than a military man. Almost in a chorus, the Tamil politicians demand ‘maximum devolution’ of powers. They do not spell out what this ‘maximum’ means. Such rhetoric complicates the negotiation process. Some TNA constituents have gone to the extent of complete nullifying of the 13th Amendment. Such stridency, borne mostly out of political considerations, widens the gulf between the majority and the minority.
The devolution process is thus caught in a limbo. The longer the impasse continues, the more will be the bad blood between the two sides. To break the ice, both sides have to step back and seriously ponder ways to push the political process forward. There should be vigorous and un-equivocal reaffirmation of the need for the country’s unity. Within the framework of a solidly woven federal structure, maximum devolution of power has to take place. Both sides have to aim and work for this.
The issue that refuses to get erased is the culpability of a few army officers in brutal acts of repression against innocent civilians. They have to be brought to book for the war wounds to be healed. The earlier efforts of the Sri Lankan government in this direction have been insincere and opaque. Understandably, the Tamils have treated the findings with scorn. A UN-sponsored human rights violation investigation is under way. Hopefully, they will do a professional job and pin the guilty military officers down. The central government must ensure that these guilty men are brought to book. This step, although unpalatable to many Sinhalese, is the right panacea for the festering ethnic wound that refuses to heal.


Australia and India cozying up, finally

September 12, 2014 at 2:58 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Australia and India cozying up, finally

After years of procrastination, Australia seems to be set its eyes on strengthening its relations with India. During the Australian Prime Minister Mr. Tony Abbot’s visit to Delhi, an agreement on the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy has been signed. It is a sure sign of Australia abandoning its earlier ways of looking at India in an adversarial way. Since the signing of the Indo-U.S. Civil Nuclear Deal (123 Agreement) in 2006, Australia had been mulling over the idea to have similar relations with India. But, due to the earlier legacy of suspicion and hostility since India conducted the Pokharan test, it found it hard to move to strengthen its relations with India on nuclear trade. This was despite the fact that India was eager to sign similar deals with Australia.
With 40 per cent of the world’s uranium reserves, Australia is an important source of this scarce mineral that India needs in large quantities to keep its nuclear power plants running. In fact, for India’s vigorous efforts to expand its nuclear power programme, access to any assured source of Uranium is crucial. Hence Australia is so important to India.

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