Editorial December 2006

When money–bags bite man, it’s not news

Interesting things are happening in the world of Indian media. Unknown to newspaper readers and television viewers, ownership of media houses is stealthily passing into the hands of big corporate houses. Traditionally, newspaper groups had been owned by big companies like the Birlas, Sahu Jains and Dalmias, but the latest trend involves a quiet takeover of some established media companies through buy-out-of-a-stake, the foreign institutional investor route, or a straight deal struck in distant London.

Reforms with a human face?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent announcement of a special package for Vidarbha farmers to stop them from taking their lives due to indebtedness did not seem to have reached them. Farmers continue to kill themselves in these parts. The government has been finding these suicides embarrassing at a time when India is being celebrated by Western commentators for its high economic growth. Why are farmers committing suicide? This question has been answered differently by different people. Psychoanalysts, economists and sociologists have tried to fathom the reasons behind the suicidal mindset in rural areas, but the truth is that those who are trapped in this circle of despair can’t find even a straw of hope to cope with the crisis. They feel they can never earn enough to repay their debts. What has contributed to this suffering? One of the major reasons is the growing pauperisation of the agriculture sector over the last 15 years of economic reforms. Government statistics would show that the state of agriculture was the best during the 1980s before the reforms were initiated. There was a perceptible drop in the number of people living below the ‘poverty line’ and there were no reports of people killing themselves. The state then was seen as more sensitive to the problems of the poor. After economic reforms were initiated in 1991, the first reports of suicides began to trickle in from Andhra Pradesh. The Congress then performed so miserably in the by-elections that the then chief minister, Vijayabhaskar Reddy, squarely held PV Narasimha Rao and his economic policies responsible for the electoral discomfiture.

Special twilight zones?

The other day the empowered group of ministers (eGOM) succumbed to the exertions of a powerful lobby to lift the cap of 150 on the number of special economic zones (SEZs) that can come up in the country. What was so sacrosanct about the 150 figure, wondered all those who wanted more SEZs in the country. They claimed that the Supreme Court would not countenance this cap on numbers as it was arbitrary and not good in law. If there can be 150, then why not many more?  Perhaps there is merit in this argument, but SEZs and their numbers cannot be judged from the blinkered confines of law alone; there is a formidable moral and social component to this issue that is somehow getting ignored due to the celebratory tone of analysis emanating in the pink dailies about these economic zones.

Remember, the face of Surat

When the floods struck the surprised people of Surat, famous for its diamond-cutting industry, no one had any doubt that more than the wrath of the rain god their misery had a lot to do with the callousness of its rulers. Not only did they not anticipate the impact of the rain in the adjoining areas, including Maharashtra, they failed to quantify how much water should be released from the dam. If there was a man-made disaster then this was one. Colonies were inundated. Oil refineries were closed down. The floods caused losses worth Rs 21,000 crore. And this was just one city of India. In 2006 alone, scores of cities and millions of people have been devastated by rains that the government and local  authorities have not been able to forecast. Desert towns that had not experienced rains for hundreds of years have been flooded. The Brahmaputra Valley that has nestled areas like Cherrapunji—the wettest place on earth once upon a time—has been experiencing a harrowing dry spell. The truth is that the world climate is changing due to global warming caused by the greenhouse effect and the Indian establishment seems stunningly clueless.