December 17, 2013

On diplomatic immunity

It is time to codify all privileges India gives US diplomats, and share these in a statement with Parliament. Then we need to tell Parliament what privileges our Indian diplomats are allowed in the US. These should be made strictly equal and reciprocal.

We live in a global village, as former President KR Narayanan said, but we do not need a village headman. America should stop pretending to be the self-appointed Lokpal of the world.

Derek O’Brien
MP and Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha, Trinamool Congress

December 03, 2013

Justice Ganguly should step down as chair of WBHRC

The Trinamool Congress has noted with anxiousness and concern the charges of sexual harassment against Justice (retired) Ashok Kumar Ganguly, chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission (WBHRC). The charges cannot but leave an impact on public perception of his current role as chair of the WBHRC.

The Trinamool Congress has followed an approach of zero tolerance when it comes to safety and dignity of women in the workplace and the toxic phenomenon of sexual harassment. It is for those in senior positions in public life to act as role models not just in upholding standards of conduct with female colleagues but also in responding expeditiously and with sensitivity when they themselves face charges of this nature.

As such, it would be wholly incumbent upon Justice Ganguly to step down from his position as chair of the WBHRC and restore the sanctity of the office he currently holds. Public propriety and a sense of decency demand this. I therefore urge Justice Ganguly to resign as chair of the WBHRC.

Derek O’Brien
MP and Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha, Trinamool Congress

October 09, 2013

Stop pedaling fiction about Kolkata

I’ve been bemused by the outrage in certain national newspapers, many of them not even published in Kolkata, that have editorialised and expressed anger at the so-called cycling ban in Kolkata. On television, I heard a breathless anchor, who has clearly never seen a street in Kolkata, holding forth on how every road in the city deserved a dedicated cycling lane. As usual, the CPI(M) and its friends, fellow travellers and in-laws in the Fourth Estate are cooking up a fictional issue to blame the Trinamool Congress.

So what are the facts? For some years now, in keeping with the norm in major cities of the world, Kolkata has had cycling restrictions on heavy-traffic roads. This prevents accidents and saves lives, including those of cyclists who otherwise have to negotiate tight traffic that allows neither them nor bigger vehicles much room for manoeuvre.

These restrictions were in place well before Trinamool came to office in West Bengal. To be fair, they were not political decisions but professional calls taken by the traffic police. No new streets have been added under the Trinamool government to the “cycling restricted” areas in Kolkata. It’s the same as it was in 2011, when the Delhi media’s Most Favoured Party was still running West Bengal.

What has happened is this. Recently, the government brought certain areas of Greater Kolkata, outside the core urban zone, within the remit of Kolkata Police. This was aimed at improving law and order, the crime situation and services to the people. In line with its new mandate, Kolkata Police undertook a traffic survey of these new areas in Greater Kolkata and recommended cycling restrictions on some heavy-traffic streets. A notification to this effect was issued recently. That’s all.

I spoke to editors of two major newspapers in Kolkata. They were downright bewildered by the supposed controversy and both termed it a “non-issue”. One of them told me he couldn’t understand why Reuters and BBC, NDTV and Hindu covered it, “when even local papers ignored it… That should have told them something surely…”

The second Kolkata editor was more cutting. “It seems to be an issue,” he said, “only among Delhi media–persons who have no idea of Kolkata’s traffic and geography.” Don’t worry, I felt like telling him, they generally have no idea about Kolkata’s – and West Bengal’s – politics either.

September 09, 2013

Leander is, well, just Leander!

My younger brother Barry cleaned him up in straight sets, 6-1, 6-0.

I did it quite convincingly too, 6-4, 6-3.

The person who lost both singles matches on the same day to us in a club tournament was one Leander Paes.

Yes, this is a true story.

But now the real truth.

The year was 1979. Barry was 16, I was 18… Leander was 6!

Calcutta’s favourite sporting hero (jointly with Sourav, I would say) won his 14th Grand Slam title at the US Open on Sunday night.

Actually, if you count his junior Grand Slam titles it would add up to 16.

In the age of Instagram and Facebook likes, the word legend is used all too easily. But for Leander, legend sounds right. Deservedly.

Consider this: he has won his Grand Slam titles over three decades.

If that hasn’t impressed you enough, try this: his singles record against both Pete Sampras and Roger Federer is one win each and no loss!

But our old friend is more than records and surly statistics. There is so much more to this lad (lad?! the man is 40!) who played his early tennis at DI and CC&FC before his father Vece did what most parents wouldn’t do — packed him off to the BAT (Britannia Amritraj Tennis Academy) in Chennai to pursue his passion.

Those of us who have seen Leander grow up know that his first love was actually football, not tennis.

Notwithstanding all his Grand Slam wins and considerable achievements, Leander has always remained the boy next door. Whether it’s paying a visit to the hole-in-the-wall Bengal Hair Dressing Salon next to Mithai in Beckbagan or charming septuagenarian “uncles” and “aunties” in the clubs of Calcutta he grew up in or playing a practical joke on his eldest sister Jackie... Leander is, just Leander.

A few days ago I had lustily TV-cheered Stepanek and his partner as they upset the top seeds, the Bryan brothers. Then the final; a cruise: 6-1, 6-3.

That was a wonderful way to round off a Sunday evening in Calcutta. The effortless win took little over an hour.

Now let me tell you about Sunday morning. There was a lady in a blue top sitting just in front of me at Sunday mass at St. Thomas’ Middleton Row. This was the first time I saw her there (she usually goes to a different church). It was Leander’s mom, Jennifer. Surely her prayers were heard.

[This article was carried by The Telegraph | Monday, September 09, 2010]

September 08, 2013

David Cameron of Kolkata RIP

My Tribute

For obvious reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend David Cameron these days. He’s always been a bit of a go-getter, full of beans and brimming with ideas far ahead of his time. Not everything’s paid off. But at least David’s settled into a good home now.

I first met David and his wife Angela some 40 years ago. He was already famous in Calcutta’s Anglo-Indian community as an audacious sort of chap. Some even called him a lovable hustler. His children were my pre-teen companions — Rodrick, John and the pretty young sister, Maria.

David began as a teacher in a Christian school in Howrah. He graduated to become principal of St Thomas’ School at Khidirpur, right near the city’s dockyards. The letter ‘E’ defined David Cameron. Education was his profession, entrepreneurship his calling and anything equine his passion. Well before it was conventional wisdom, David realised the potential of schools as a business. In the 1980s, when past 50, he chucked up a good, safe job to run a start-up boarding school in McCluskieganj, near Ranchi.

When the school was up and running, David, the eternal wanderer, sought new pastures. He had a thing for horses and owned a few racehorses in Calcutta. Indeed, he was a regular at the races, especially on the New Year’s Day. The vast open frontiers of McCluskieganj gave him an idea: this was the perfect location for a stud farm.

It was a crazy dream — to breed racehorses in the middle of Jharkhand (then south Bihar). David’s ‘partner’ was a priest who owned the land where the stud farm was set up. After the priest died in a two-wheeler accident, David became the solo boss. He imported mares and brought in Midnight Cowboy, a legendary racehorse from Calcutta, as the farm stallion. An investor from Doha put in some money, with a plan to export colts to the emirates of the Gulf. Just outside sleepy Ranchi, in those soporific pre-liberalisation days of the 1980s, David Cameron was thinking big.

In 2010, all that survives of that stud farm is a large vegetable patch. The dream has retired, the dreamers have gone. Angela now lives in Perth, as do Cameron’s children, John and Maria. Rodrick, a horse-lover like his father, looks after the stables of the royal family of Bahrain. In his charge are not racehorses but free agents who go long distances, uninhibited by the horizon — just the way David Cameron lived his life.

Today, pushing 80 at the Mary Cooper Old Age Home in Calcutta, David must be counting his wild gambles and unusual schemes. Did his ambitions extend to being elected prime minister? I almost wonder.

[This article was carried by Hindustan Times | Tuesday, May 25, 2010]

August 14, 2013

State of the Indian economy

Transcript | Speech in Parliament on the state of the Indian economy | August 13, 2013

Sir, one year - they say - is a long time in politics. Or eleven months is a long time in politics, but we, Sir, from the Trinamool Congress were actually walking the talk, and making our actions speak louder than
our words, because eleven months ago, we walked out of this government and left the Congress to run a minority led UPA. And it is interesting that with this subject today, we are discussing the state of the economy, because when we left the government eleven months ago, we also had some very serious issues on the state of the economy. The core issue was the price rise, especially - we will come to that later, but there were also issues of fertilizer hike, there were issues of LPG cap, petrol and diesel.

Sir, but it pains me, that even after eleven months, even after we moved out, and now more people believe what we said eleven months ago, the Congress party is still living in denial.

Sir, internationally, The Economist has an index which they call the Big Mac Index. The Big Mac Index, Sir, is an index which gives you purchasing power parity when you look at the price of a hot dog or a hamburger in different countries of the world, you get to know what the local currency is in response to the dollar.

Forget about the Big Mac Index. In India, our belief is, there is an even more important index which is called the API – which is the Aloo Pyaaz Index. This Aloo Pyaaz Index is something which this government has never understood one year ago; they do not even understand it today, Sir. The Aloo Pyaaz Index is basically price rise in agri-commodities.

Sir, two clear views here, Sir. One is, we believe, there has been a total negligence on capacity expansion; and the second one – a total lack of increased production.

Sir, for onions specifically, we understand and we appreciate that rainfall could be one of the reasons. But the second one – and the more important one, is the lack of logistics, and not anticipating the problem before it comes.

Now in case we mention something like this, the excuse is always that ‘you know, the opposition parties --- they didn’t allow Walmart…’ – we are looking for good governance. We are not looking to outsource our problems to Walmart, Sir. When it comes to anticipation, let me give you a small example of my own state.

In Bengal, in June 2012 – knowing something like this could happen, a task force was set up by the Chief Minister of West Bengal, headed by the Secretary, Agriculture, and it had people from agri, horti, vendors, retailers, together, and that is why today, Sir, in Bengal, there are still ten markets with mobile vans – where onions are available for Rs 35 to 45 today. There were still fruit markets in Bengal during Ramadan – through these same mobile vans, where fruits were available at decent prices. I am not saying that is the only solution, but the point I am trying to make is that there was some anticipation before the problem arose.

Sir, the Prime Minister keeps talking about a global economy. I am actually beginning to believe him now, because nowadays, even in the price of onions, we are paying global prices. We are paying $1.50 cents for a kg of onions. Sir, the Congress party proved again today – the erudite speaker Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar obviously is still in denial, because he selectively quoted the growth rates of the US, and said the US is 1.4, the UK is 1.2, so we are doing very well – we are doing 4.7. But, Sir, two points here. One is, what is the base, on what base are we talking about – that these economies are growing at 1.2 and 1.4; and the second point here, Sir, is look at Indonesia – 6%. Look at Philippines. Look at Sri Lanka. Look at Vietnam.

Now the Congress party decides to keep quoting selective figures then, Sir, it really is a problem. The Finance Minister is here, and I have some pointed questions, which I hope he will address in his reply.

Sir, the LPG cap – that is one of the issues (the Trinamool Congress gave up one cabinet minister, six ministers of state). Sir, how much have you saved in terms of real rupees from the time of this LPG cap you have fixed at 12 and now 9? Sir, how much have you done for fertilizer prices, where fertiliser prices – the world knows, the biggest scam is gold plating, and now instead of being self-sufficient we are still having to pay for imported fertilizers. So my specific question is what steps have you taken in the last one year for gold plating of fertilizers?

The previous speaker spoke about gas prices, and I want to take that one further. Gas prices are going up – substantially, but what is the magic date, Sir? Please enlighten us - about April 1, 2014. Why not October? Why not November? Some people would believe that by April 1, 2014 you would not only have played  a cruel joke on the nation, but you may not also be in government – but that is another story, Sir. That is on the fertilizer prices.

Sir, I would like to take a minute to share four figures to tell you how my own state is doing. For GDP - National Average 4.96 – just four figures. Last year – National Average 4.86, Bengal 7.6. Industry growth – National Average 3.12, Bengal 6.24. Agriculture – National Average 1.79, Bengal 2.56. And the most significant one - and that is why the economies like the Philippines are growing so much, for Services – National Average 6.5, Bengal 9.48.

Sir, I want to go back to the story of the onion, because there is a lot of pride with the phrase the aam aadmi – I am quite sure that I know who the aam aadmi is, but there is a sense, and there is a belief that the Congress also knows who the aam aadmi is, but that aam admi is in the grocery shop of Khan Market. Otherwise we would not have had these figures of Re 1 to Rs 100 - you can get a meal in some state, depending upon your state of your mind, or Rs 12 rupees in Bombay, or Rs 18 somewhere else, Sir.

Sir, the Egyptians worshipped this something because it had concentric circles, Sir. The Greeks - athletes took this to eat, because they thought they would perform better. The Roman gladiators rubbed the juice from it on their muscles – Sir, I am talking about the onion. But, for the Indian housewife, it does nothing of this Sir, it only brings tears to her eyes. I want to finish, Sir, now by going back to my story about the API - which is the Aloo Pyaaz Index.

Sir, in 1998 (and before that in 1980) this Aloo Pyaaz Index benefitted the Congress Party, gave them Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. I am not an astrologer, Sir, but the people of this country - who have been cursed by this shameless minority government insisting on staying on even when they are not wanted - by 2014 or before that, Sir, on this same Aloo Pyaaz Index will send the Congress where they duly belong.

Thank you, Sir.

August 05, 2013

Business meet was momentous

What was the implication of chief minister Mamata Banerjee's meeting with business leaders in Mumbai this past week?

Apart from being the most successful interaction between a chief minister from Kolkata and a top-flight representation of corporate India in living memory, what did it suggest?

As somebody who has watched and worked with Mamatadi for over a decade now, the event was momentous. It marked the inauguration of phase two of her public career and commitment to West Bengal.

Phase one had begun on January 1, 1998, when Mamatadi founded the Trinamool Congress.
History was not on her side. Her viability as an independent politician as well as her ability to unseat the CPI(M) were mocked.

Twice previously, Congress politicians from West Bengal had broken away.
Ajoy Mukherjee did it in the 1960s and became a short-lived chief minister but then went into oblivion.
Pranab Mukherjee founded a regional party in the 1980s. It contested all 294 assembly seats but won zero. Soon afterwards, Mukherjee returned to his parent party.

Congress rebels elsewhere had mixed success.
In 1996, G K Moopanar and P Chidambaram founded the Tamil Maanila Congress but were back in the Congress in a few years.
Sharad Pawar's NCP has sustained itself for 15 years but still has to share power in Maharashtra.

Mamatadi has outdone all of them.
She triumphed in the 2009 Lok Sabha election and, two years later, won an absolute majority in the state assembly.
From September 2012 she has ruled West Bengal on her own, unencumbered by the Congress alliance.
On July 29, 2013, she took her 40-year struggle to a closure by sweeping the panchayat elections and establishing Trinamool's grip in rural Bengal.

No breakaway leader from the Congress has achieved so much in eastern India since Biju Patnaik.


From political activism, Mamatadi has subtly shifted gears to governance and economic development.

A telling example of this was her visit to Mumbai.
Hitherto the business capital of India had been a transit point; for the first time, it became a destination. Business leaders seemed to recognise this. Trinamool's repeated electoral successes had established it as unchallenged in West Bengal, helming a stable government.

Mamatadi herself was seen as a transparent and well-meaning problem-solver, heading a flat structure in government and willing to help.

It caused Chanda Kochhar, chief of ICICI Bank, to say, "We have seen your passion on television; today we felt it in person."
Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries is rolling out his 4G telecom venture in West Bengal ahead of most of the rest of India. As he put it in Mumbai, "Forty-eight hours after a big election victory you are here in the business capital. That means you mean business."

This prompted ITC's Yogi Deveshwar, a fellow Calcuttan whose stake in West Bengal's economic revival is second to none, to quip: "Chief Minister, you have won the day... Mukesh has committed, so now many more will follow."

ITC has invested Rs 3,000 crore in a food processing facility in Uluberia.
This project was stuck for 10 years because of land issues.
Mamatadi called for the papers and said, "Let's sort it out."
Without fanfare, she cut the red tape and released the 26 acres to ITC.


West Bengal's economy is looking up. Statistics bear this out.
The state GDP grew 7.6 per cent in 2012-13, as opposed to the national figure of 4.96 per cent.
Growth in industry, agriculture and services all outpaced national growth rates.
According to the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, between January and July 2013, West Bengal attracted investment worth Rs 1,331 crore.
Investment for the entire year was Rs 632 crore in 2009, Rs 1,163 crore in 2010, Rs 325 crore in 2011 and Rs 962 crore in 2012.

There are still five months to go in 2013. Forty-one investment proposals worth Rs 1,744 crore are pending. This year will break records.

So much is happening:

  • The Sajjan Jindal Group's steel plant - even though confused policies by the central government have caused an iron ore shortage
  • Anil Ambani's Rs 600 crore cement venture in Raghunathpur (Purulia)
  • The JV between Singapore's Changi Airport and Bengal Aerotropolis for a new airport in Andal (near Durgapur) is to get its final clearances in a few weeks

The big story in the coming months will be the disinvestment in Haldia Petrochemicals.
Six bidders - three from the public sector and three from the private sector - are participating in an auction conducted by Deloitte.

It is a thoroughly professional arrangement. The politicians are not interfering. The chief minister is not showing undue interest. There is not even a hint of cronyism.

This is what business wants. This is what business is getting in West Bengal. This is what business is coming to appreciate about the Trinamool government.

The reception Mamatadi got in Mumbai was evidence.

June 19, 2013

The Kamduni Tragedy: Every such case is a crime too many

For the past 10 days, I have maintained a silence on the horrific rape and murder of a 20-year-old student in Kamduni, Barasat, North 24 Parganas, just outside Calcutta and not far from where I live and work. In these loud, media-driven times, silence is construed as weakness and defensiveness. This is unfortunate because it is not that I had nothing to say but it is just that I had nothing to contribute that had not already been said. More so, the incident troubled me at a personal level. As the father of a 17-year-old young woman who will probably spend the rest of her life in West Bengal, I couldn’t help but feel disturbed.

A rape is not a statistic; it is a brutal assault, a crime, a violent act, a forceful reminder of skewed gender relations and power equations. Every such case is a crime too many. There are no ifs and buts here, no question of which party the rapists and murderers may or may not belong to. That essential verity cannot be obliterated.

Eight persons have been arrested for the crime in Kamduni. The chargesheet in regard to the rape and murder of the college student will be filed within 15 days and the accused bought to trial before a fast-track court. In a month hopefully the culprits will be convicted.

Additionally, the state government has announced the setting up of four new police stations in the area. Currently, Kamduni and its neighbouring areas come under the jurisdiction of the Barasat police station. The CID, West Bengal Police, has been told to keep an eye on Barasat, and deal with local goons and prevent harassment of and crimes against citizens, especially women.

This is a case of rape and murder. As Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has said, the prosecution will seek the death penalty for the accused. Indeed, as a party Trinamool Congress will push for the death penalty in cases of rape. Despite the recent anti-rape legislation, that debate – related to the death penalty – has not been settled yet.

My personal view is for those charge-sheeted and brought to trial in a rape case, state governments should refuse police clearances for, say, passports, government jobs and such facilities. These are small steps and may not apply to all culprits, but they are of symbolic value and suggest that the government takes such crimes seriously, with a zero-tolerance approach.

The government can do its bit, but there is a larger social obligation as well. Other than punishment that acts as deterrence, sensitisation is also called for. It has to start at home, by telling our sons to treat our daughters as equals. Sensitisation and civil-society monitoring have to begin in the bus and the Metro compartment which ordinary young women use to travel to study or to work or to meet their friends.

The other day, a man tried to harass a girl in a Metro train in Calcutta. She raised an alarm, and with help from co-passengers apprehended him and handed him over to the police. This is heart-warming. We cannot stay bystanders as our daughters and sisters suffer – not as government, not as citizens.

I would also urge the media to interrogate itself about the appropriate manner in which to cover such crimes. No doubt they have to be reported and should be reported. If the authorities have erred or if there are gaps that need to be filled, these should be explained and criticised, as necessary. Yet, the temptation to resort to grisly, basal instincts, whip up hysteria and enter a mad TRP war needs to be checked. In this context, I would like to single out two local news channels. In their race for ratings, have they reported the problem or added to it? Do they want to be part of the solution or part of the problem?

So many of the challenges we face in West Bengal – including under-policed regions in the periphery of Calcutta – are legacy issues that it is always going to be easy for me to blame the previous government and the 34-year nightmare of Left rule. Indeed, if one were to write an account of crimes against women in the Communist era and the then government’s egregious responses, it would fill a book, not merely a newspaper article. Yet, I will resist all that here.

I will only point to one episode and a chief ministerial contrast. On May 30, 1990, a government car coming to Calcutta from Gosaba-Ragabelia was ferrying three ladies: Renu Ghosh - an officer from UNICEF, New Delhi, and Anita Dewan and Uma Ghosh - both officers of the Family Welfare Wing, Department of Health, government of West Bengal.

As the car was about to pass the CPI(M) office on Bantala Road, four or five youth stopped the car. Another 10-12 youth joined them. The gang began abusing the women, and pulled them out of the car. Five hours later, dead bodies were wheeled into a hospital. The victims had been brutalised, subjected to unimaginable sexual crimes and then killed.

This happened right outside Calcutta. Such was the fear psychosis, no newspaper reported the crime the next morning. No arrests were made. When asked about the incident, the then chief minister was quoted as saying, “Anti-social acts like rowdyism, beating, dacoity happen everywhere. This [does] not mean that the situation of law and order in Bengal is poor.”

Our state has come a long distance from that cynical era. As the tragedy of the college girl in Kamduni reminds us, we still have a long, long way to go. Her memory must serve as our inspiration.

May 30, 2013

Goodbye Ritu. Heaven is the richer for you.

Well before he became a world-renowned filmmaker, Rituparno Ghosh was a genius in the advertising industry. He first made news in the mid-1980s. At Ogilvy & Mather (O&M), where I worked, we heard of this brilliant copywriter at Ram Ray’s Response. He was not just translating English-language ads to Bengali but actually creating original lines, thoughts and campaigns.

We approached him for the SharadShamman campaign, now institutionalised as Calcutta’s uberDurga Puja awards. True to form, he would come over during his lunch break, moonlight for O&M and leave us with a stunning piece of work. To date, the SharadShamman campaign remains one of the most successful ad initiatives in the Bengali language.

As an ad man, Rituparno had a remarkable eye for detail – textual as well as pictorial. The right pen for a particular prop, the correct lighting, the appropriate word: it was an obsession, almost a fetish. We didn’t know it then but he was preparing the ground for a feverishly rigorous career in cinema. Watching a Rituparno film is not easy; the casual viewer can miss out on just so many nuances.

It was apparent the Calcutta ad universe was too small for him and his energy. Like Satyajit Ray, his predecessor in so many ways, Rituparno left the craft of advertising to become a movie maker. To me he defined the word 'aesthete'. If I were to pick my three favourite Rituparno films, they would be Chokher Bali, Raincoat and The Last Lear. Fittingly, the first was made in Bengali, the second in Hindi and the third in English. This said something about Rituparno and the expansiveness of his art.

By the early 1990s, both of us had left advertising to pursue other passions. Of course, Rituparno left all of us far, far behind. He became an international celebrity, feted in Karlovy Vary one day, New York the next. Eight years ago, I moved house and found myself Rituparno’s neighbour. He lived in a lane just off Prince Anwar Shah Road, about 500 metres from where I was. The friendship was renewed and in fact grew deeper.

A brave, courageous man, willing to defy orthodoxy, Rituparno was comfortable with his personal choices and his sexuality. He grew particularly close to my wife and camaraderie blossomed. Many evenings were spent discussing movies, advertising, the Bengali milieu, the gay movement, the economics of culture. Every time, Rituparno was the life of the adda.

Rituparno came over for dinner on several occasions. He was always there for Christmas, and at least three or four times during the rest of the year. However, he didn’t actually stay for dinner. Rather than wait till 10.00 or 10.30 for dinner to be served, he would ask for it to be packed into a tiffin carrier and would leave early. He needed to take his diabetes shots and retire early. It became a routine – Rituparno and the tiffin carrier.

At 9.30 the following morning, almost like clockwork, the tiffin carrier would be returned, clean and spotless. As I write this, I can see the tiffin carrier in the kitchen. I don’t think we can use it again.

Goodbye my friend. Heaven is the richer for you.

April 06, 2013

Gone too soon; don't ask whether he was "ours" or "theirs".

There are some moments in public life that are just irredeemably sad and tragic. The past few days have been very depressing. The accidental death of a young student in Kolkata – an activist of the SFI, the students’ wing of the CPI(M) – shook me. At 23, he had a full life ahead of him. He lived very close to the middle-class neighbourhood where I stay. As I watched and read about his family’s dignified grieving, I was left with a sick feeling at the pit of my stomach. This isn’t how the world should be.

Every death is a tragedy. But lest we forget, 80,000 innocent people lost their lives in 34 years of brutal rule.The young man’s passing has been more than just a loss to his parents and siblings, friends and colleagues. It has been a wake-up call to our city, Kolkata, and our state. There is something which Sudipto’s sister said, as reported in the media, that got me thinking. “Leaders use young and impressionable children like my brother to pursue their own agenda… ” she said, “there have been so many instances of violence. People must rise above politics. The SFI or Trinamool don’t lose anything. It’s the families that lose their loved ones.”

“I am not against politics,” she concluded, “but students should be free to pursue their own cause. If they have a problem, they should approach the principal. Why should students be fighting under the banner of a political party?”

It is easy to twist that statement and play politics with it, to blame the CPI(M) and the SFI for pushing Sudipto and his friends into a dangerous brinkmanship. I wouldn’t want to do that. It would not just be in bad taste, but downright ghoulish. Some issues are beyond politics.

The CPI(M) was the dominant party in West Bengal from 1977 to 2011. In this period, it established its hegemony in every aspect of political and public life. The police, for instance, had a mandate to act but only when crime was seen through a particular prism. The Trinamool government has liberated the police of that prism, but much more remains to be done – by all of us, in government, in the opposition, as stakeholders in the enterprise of Bengali life.

The campuses of West Bengal and particularly Kolkata were key recruiting ground for the CPI(M). The SFI was the dominant force in student politics, even influencing admissions and teachers’ transfers in some episodes. Today it is an ebbing force and obviously its rivals – including,in some colleges,students’ bodies affiliated to the Trinamool – smell their chance. The SFI is not giving up easily, it is desperate. The consequences are there for all to see.

We cannot allow the situation to spiral out of control. When a student dies, it is not a question of whether one of “our boys” has been killed or one of “their boys” has been killed. A young life has been snuffed out. A citizen has been lost. A family has been deprived of a precious child. All of Bengal is poorer; this needs to be acknowledged. That’s why Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee reached out to condole with Sudipto’s family in their hour of sorrow. This was not a gesture from a Trinamool politician to a SFI worker. It was a chief minister and a senior person showing her feelings towards a younger fellow citizen. I wish all parties follow this approach. It can change the political culture of our state and bring down tempers.

Second, should students’ union elections be freed of party symbols? Should students reclaim campuses from parties? It is one thing to be a politically-minded student, serious about and keenly observing and following the currents of the day. It is another to be politically partisan and a foot-soldier of a massive electoral organisation. This was the point Sudipto’s sister was making and I think it is worth considering. Everyone, student or otherwise, has a right to hold a political view and participate in political life, but that should not blur his or her ethic as a citizen and member of wider society.

A six-month cooling off period for students’ union elections would be appropriate. In this phase, let’s discuss the prospect and idea of revamping students’ union elections, without in any way undermining the student community’s right to political participation and the legitimate desire of political parties to engage with young people. This is a delicate and nuanced argument. I know where I stand but do acknowledge that others may have a different view. Let’s give ourselves six months to discuss and debate this at least.

If nothing else, Sudipto’s memory deserves that. Let this be our collective catharsis and our tribute to him.

March 21, 2013

Letter to civil aviation minister; Poor services at new Kolkata airport terminal.

March 21, 2013

Mr Ajit Singh
Minister for Civil Aviation
Government of India
New Delhi

Dear Mr Singh,

I am writing to you as a concerned citizen of Kolkata, appalled and disgusted by the state of the new terminal at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport. After years and decades of waiting your Ministry and the Airports Authority of India, a body that comes under your superintendence, deigned to give Kolkata the modern airport terminal it deserved. Alas, the AAI and your Ministry have far from delivered on your promises.

The airport terminal that is now functional is a stigma on the fair name of Kolkata. It is an insult to the city, its people and frequent users of airlines, and to the memory of Netaji, for whom the airport is named. Does one ascribe this to the UPA government’s legendary incompetence or to its long-standing policy of neglect and hostility to West Bengal?

I would request answers to those questions, and also to the questions below:

Why has the terminal been thrown open despite being only half-ready? Does your Ministry also
        allow airlines to fly planes that are half-ready?

Why are the toilets so filthy and many parts of the terminal so dirty that these would challenge
        normal human dignity?

Why are garbage bins spilling over, just like in the old terminal I may add?

Why are cleaners almost invisible in the washrooms?

Why is there hardly any signage?

Why is there simply no signage at the conveyor belts? Are passengers meant to intuit where
        their bags may appear?

Why must passengers take buses to board a domestic flight despite so many aerobridges?
        Are these aerobridges showpieces or are they meant for actual use?

Why is there hardly any food and beverages counter?

Why is there no convenience shop to browse and buy goods or memorabilia?

Why are trolleys scattered outside the terminal and in the parking area, rather than neatly
        stacked in a line?

Sir, I apologise if my letter and questions sound rude and angry. However, you will appreciate that the people of Kolkata have waited years for this new airport terminal.

At the end of their patience and their wait, is this all they deserve?

Yours sincerely,

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament

March 09, 2013

World Bank report praises Panchayati Raj system in Bengal

Summary of the World Bank report on Panchayati Raj Institutions in Bengal

Project West Bengal Panchayati Raj Institutions

Objective To develop institutionally strengthened Gram Panchayats (GPs)

Project commenced in June 2010

Revised Closing date of project December 2015

4 Components to the project
  • Grants to Gram Panchayats
  • Capacity Building for GPs
  • State government oversight and monitoring of PRIs
  • Program Management and Implementation

Implementation Status
  • Overall the project has made significant progress during the past 2 years 3 months of implementation.
  • Performance of GPs have improved substantially on annual plan preparation, financial management including audit, accounting and financial reporting, absorption capacity of untied grants, project execution and service delivery and ensuring participation, transparency and disclosure of information.
  • Out of 1000 GPs from 9 project districts, 792 GPs have qualified for receiving the block grant of FY13-14 based on an independent Annual Performance Assessment undertaken for 1000 GPs between May - September 2012.
  • The project is providing full support to the Computerization Cell of the Panchayats and Rural Development Department (PRDD) for statewide roll out the Gram Panchayats Management System (GPMS) and upgradation of the GPMS system.
  • The PRDD has made the grant announcement of the block grants to the eligible GPs to enable their annual budget and plan preparation for FY13-14.
  • The priority for the project is to continue to provide on-site focused hand holding support to GPs on well-designed and customized training for GP functionaries on institutional performance and service delivery.
  • The mentoring support including the formal training is provided towards improving their service delivery function.

Locations of the implementation of the project
West Dinajpur, Nadia, Medinipur, Koch Bihar, Haora, Birbhum, Barddhman, Bankura

The detailed World Bank report on Panchayati Raj Institutions in Bengal is available here.

March 08, 2013

On International Women’s Day

Here's what I shared in Parliament today on behalf of Trinamool

Mr. Chairman, Sir, I am doubly delighted to be speaking on this occasion because not only am I speaking to this august house on International Women’s Day, I am the first man to express myself after eight ladies have spoken this morning.

Let me begin by asking: when is International Men’s Day?
Few people know the answer. It is on November 19. International Women’s Day, we all know, is on March 8, but the reason we don’t know of International Men’s Day is because men dominate the other 364 days.

Before we get to bigger and important issues like legislation and administrative solutions to the many issues faced by the women of this country, I appeal to all male members of Parliament to start making a change in small ways – let us be better husbands to our wives, let us be better fathers to our daughters, let us be better children to our mothers, let us be better brothers to our sisters.

So many political parties, including mine, have women as their leaders. Maybe, women make better leaders.

Today is a historic day in Bengal. The Mamata Banerjee government introduces the historic Kanyashree bill, which will promote education, health and the overall well-being of the women in the State. I would urge other States to examine its contents and consider bringing such a legislation in their States too.

The people of Bengal are indeed inspired by MA MAti MAnush – yes, MA (mother) is part of every aspect of life in our State.

Let me end with this rhyme: Let’s still give her flowers on Women’s Day
                                           And make sure she never needs that pepper spray.

February 27, 2013

JPCs have a history of futility

The following is the list of JPCs moved in Parliament - with details regarding the issue dealt by the committee and its result.

First JPC
Issue: Bofors
Moved by: KC Pant (Defence Minister)
On: August 6,1987
Committee: The committee, headed by B. Shankaranand, held 50 sittings and gave its report on April 26, 1988.
Result: Opposition parties boycotted the committee on the ground that it was packed with Congress members. The JPC report was tabled in Parliament, but it was rejected by the Opposition.

Second JPC
Issue: Irregularities in Securities and Banking Transactions in the aftermath of the Harshad Mehta scandal
Moved by: Ghulam Nabi Azad
On: August 6, 1992
Committee: Headed by former Union minister and senior Congress leader Ram Niwas Mirdha
Result: The recommendations of the JPC were neither accepted in full nor implemented.

Third JPC
Issue: To probe the market scam
Moved by: Pramod Mahajan
On: April 26, 2001
Committee: Lt. Gen. Prakash Mani Tripathi (retd:) was named the chairman. The committee held 105 sittings, and gave its report on December 19, 2002.
Result: The committee recommended changes in stock market regulations. However, many of these recommendations were diluted later.

Fourth JPC
Issue: To look into pesticide residues in soft drinks, fruit juice and other beverages and to set safety standards.
Moved by: Sushma Swaraj
On: 22 August 2003
Committee: The committee, headed by NCP chief Sharad Pawar, held 17 sittings and submitted its report to Parliament on February 4, 2004.
Result: The report confirmed that soft drinks did have pesticide residues and recommended stringent norms for drinking water.

Fifth JPC
Issue: To look into irregularities in 2G spectrum allocation
Moved by: Kapil Sibal
On: 01, March 2011
Committee: The committee headed by P. C. Chacko constitutes 30 members.
Status: Probe under way

February 12, 2013

The Kumbh Mela of bibliophiles: Kolkata Book Fair

On Sunday, February 10, I spent a day at the Kolkata Book Fair. Those who know the city or the event can imagine what I experienced. This is no ordinary book exposition; it is the Kumbh Mela of bibliophiles. This past weekend, I was one of 200,000 visitors. Over a fortnight, it is estimated two million people have entered the gates of the Book Fair. Business worth Rs. 20 crore (200 million) has been done at what is now a social and business institution in the city.

My trip to the Book Fair brought back memories. This was a regular haunt every January and February when I was a schoolboy. My father headed the Kolkata branch of a leading publishing house – he went on to become its chairman in New Delhi – and the Book Fair was special for him and his colleagues. Typical of my father, he made it a family affair.

My mother used to cook and carry food for those from the company tasked with setting up and running the stall at the Book Fair, some of them working 16 hours a day for two weeks at a stretch. The boys – my brothers and I – left for the Book Fair almost as soon as was possible on getting home from school. Duties at the stall were carefully delineated. I was made to stand at the delivery counter. Next to me was the person who took the money from the customer and next to him the person who wrote out the bill, after having examined the books purchased.

My job was to put the books into a packet and hand them to the customer with a smile. At the end of the fortnight, I got my first pay cheque: a princely sum of Rs. 100! Years later, in 1991, I released my first book at the Kolkata Book Fair – Quizzical - a quiz book dedicated to my city. It was an exciting day for me, and I woke up nervous.

If you’d reached the venue early in the morning that day you would have found a hyper author pasting posters advertising the book on corrugated sheets. In those simpler and happier days, we did everything on our own. On Sunday, I was back at the Book Fair to release my latest book, Speak Up, Speak Out: My Favourite Elocution Pieces and How to Deliver Them. This time I wasn’t pasting posters as well! Things were very different – and yet, at some fundamental level, they were the same.

The Book Fair used to be held on the Maidan, the sprawling green expanse in the heart of Kolkata. Now it’s moved to the Fair Grounds near Science City, in the newer eastern suburbs of Kolkata. Perhaps it was my memory playing tricks with me or maybe it’s just that things are better organised now, but the crowds seemed thinner than in my childhood. My friends at the Publishers and Booksellers Guild – familiar faces who have painstakingly organised the Book Fair for decades – say there are fewer visitors these days but more buyers. The conversion rate – casual browsers to actual purchasers – is higher.

There is also more to do and hear now. For the past two years, the Kolkata Literary Meet - a literary festival, has complemented the main Book Fair. In absolute numbers, more books are being sold and more people are buying books than ever before. I did my own share, availing the author’s discount that the Penguin and Rupa stalls allowed me.

Even in the age of the Internet and Twitter, and of Amazon and Flipkart, I was gratified to find hundreds and thousands of young people – schoolchildren, undergraduates, boys and girls just entering working age – line up to buy books. It says something of a culture that queues up to buy books, and of a people whose biggest secular festival is not a gladiatorial sports contest or a beer drinking binge, but a civilised celebration of books.

There are many reasons I’m proud to be a Kolkatan, but I can’t think of a better one than the Book Fair.

February 09, 2013

Part 3 of my series on progress in Bengal

Part three of my series on positive news from West Bengal is on what the Trinamool Congress government has done for farmers and the agricultural sector, the bedrock of our state. As always, only facts here – no analysis, no spin.

  • Farmers have begun to be paid the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for crops through account payee cheques. For the first time, more than 20 lakh tonnes of paddy has been procured at the MSP against cheque payments to farmers. Also, cereal production is 20 lakh tonnes higher than in the previous year.
  • The state government has issued over 10 lakh (one million) Kisan Credit Cards (KCCs) to farmers. A KCC helps the farmer access bank credit at seven per cent interest. Prompt repayment and a good credit history can lead to the interest rate going down to as low as four per cent. This means the farmer can potentially take multiple crop loans in a year.
  • Farmers in West Bengal don’t have to pay the premium for crop insurance. The state government has become the first in India to pay the entire premium on their behalf. It now bears 95 per cent of the premium for insuring non-commercial crops. This programme started in the rabi or dry season of 2011-12. Wheat, mustard, boro (dry) paddy, linseed, sesame, rapeseed, gram, masur (lentil) and tur are some of the crops being covered by insurance in the current rabi season.
  • The Department of Agriculture has been able to move 15 lakh metric tonnes of fertiliser into the state in the past 200 days. To ensure there is no pilferage and fertiliser is not sold at higher than the MRP, 7,142 different inspections have taken place. This has led to the suspension of 347 individuals who were part of the fertiliser distribution chain.
  • The government has set aside Rs 310 crore for a project to build 500 rural marketing complexes or Kisan Mandis. The West Bengal State Marketing Board has begun to construct 36 multipurpose cold storages. The first of these is already operational in Champadanga (Hooghly district).
  • The Trinamool Congress government provides a one-time grant – Rs. 5,000 to Rs. 30,000 – to poor farmers to help them purchase agricultural tools and implements. In addition, 30,000 farmers have been given Rs. 8,000 each to get a power connection and move away from diesel pumps, following the recent hike in fuel prices. A further 30,000 farmers have been provided Rs. 45,000 each to purchase a vehicle to carry produce from the farm to the market.
  • The West Bengal Tribal Development Cooperative (WBTDC) has trained 4,380 persons in 2012 under tribal development schemes related to agriculture.
  • 11 new Primary Milk Cooperative Societies, with 500 farmer-members have begun functioning with support from the state government.
  • The rainwater harvesting scheme - Jal DharoJal Bharo, has secured a Rs. 1,150 crore loan from the World Bank. To complement this, the state government has earmarked Rs. 100 crore for the project in 2012-13.

February 02, 2013

Some steps taken to better education in Bengal

Continuing my series on the good news from West Bengal, and how the Trinamool Congress government is working to make a difference, I’d like to focus today on education. Once again, I’m offering only facts – no analyses or embellishments.

Do read this and decide for yourselves.
  • In the next five years, the state government will establish 10 new universities across West Bengal. By 2014, it will upgrade 999 secondary schools to higher secondary schools. The cabinet has approved recruitment of 46,000 new teachers at the primary level.   
  • A system of paying salaries to teachers and non-teaching staff at government-aided colleges on the first of the month is being put in place. Delays in payment are being addressed. Direct bank transfers will soon be the norm. Teachers at government institutions will begin to be paid a pension no more than a month after retirement.
  • Following a proposal pushed by the Trinamool government, the Bengal Engineering and Science University, Shibpur, is being upgraded to a Central University.
  • The Chief Minister has announced Kolkata’s Presidency University will have four new chairs to be named for Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Swami Vivekananda and Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose. St. Xavier’s College (Kolkata) is to be upgraded to a university.
  • In 2011-12, West Bengal has added 38,500 seats in general degree colleges, 4,000 seats in engineering colleges, 720 seats in law colleges and 1,200 seats in B.Edcolleges.
  • Four new colleges are being set up in the Maoist-troubled Jangalmahal region. These are located in Salboni, Jhargram, Nayagram and Lalgarh. New government colleges are also coming up in Rajarhat (New Town, on the outskirts of Kolkata), in Gaighata, (North 24 Parganas) and in Bhabta (Murshidabad).
  • A campus of the Netaji Subhas Open University is being constructed at Bidhan Nagar (Salt Lake) in the Kolkata metropolitan area.
  • North Bengal University has taken possession of 36 acres of land from the Jalpaiguri Government Engineering College for the construction of a second campus of the University.

February 01, 2013

Some steps taken to better health care in Bengal

It is an irresistible though disturbing reality of our times that our media discourse is driven by negative stories. The old adage that “good news is no news” has come to haunt us. In the past 18 months, the Trinamool Congress has been in office in West Bengal. We have not solved all the state’s problems and can make no grandiose and outlandish claims. Yet, we do have our achievements, solid advance and benchmarks we are proud of.

Unfortunately, none or little of this makes it to prime-time bulletins and screaming page-one headlines. Hence, I am adopting a mechanism of direct contact. Over the next few days, I will share with you details of what we have done in key sectors of the administration and development. On offer will be straightforward facts, no analyses or embellishments. Do read this and make up your minds for yourselves.

Let’s begin today with public health:
  • A 24-hour hour fair-price medicine shop has opened at Kolkata’s SSKM Hospital. M.R. Bangur Hospital, Barasat District Hospital, Jalpaiguri District Hospital, North Bengal Medical College and Hospital and Midnapore Medical College and Hospital already have this facility.
  • The Chief Minister has institutionalised monitoring of the public health network after surprise visits to SSKM Hospital, Shambhunath Pandit Hospital, Bagha Jatin State General Hospital, Chittaranjan Shishusadan Hospital and Dr B.C. Roy Children’s Hospital (all in Kolkata). Superintendents of state hospitals have to text message the Chief Minister’s Office each morning to report against certain parameters.
  • The state cabinet has agreed to establish the West Bengal Health Services Board to directly employ doctors and health workers. The Department of Health has announced a programme to train 50,000 candidates to fill the shortage of nurses in the state.
  • HR development and augmentation is back in focus. Government doctors who have worked for at least three years in remote, difficult and backward areas will now be entitled to a 50 per cent quota in post-graduate (PG) diploma seats and a 40 per cent quota in PG degree seats.
  • Doctors from medical colleges will be compulsorily required to work in sadar and rural hospitals at least two days a week. The number of seats in government medical colleges has been increased to 1,750 from 1,205. Two new medical colleges are coming up in Malda and Kamarhati (North 24 Paraganas).
  • A “sick neonatal care unit” has been inaugurated at Kolkata’s Dr B.C. Roy Hospital. Seven other state hospitals are to have similar units soon to care for critically-ill new-born children. These include four district hospitals in Howrah, Malda, Siliguri and Burdwan.
  • The government is upgrading district hospitals in Purulia, Burdwan, Birbhum, Malda and East Midnapore and Siliguri with private participation. The chief minister has inaugurated the “health city” complex in Bankura, which includes a medical college and hospital. She has also laid the foundation stone of a multispecialty hospital in Nandigram.
  • Twenty-five super-specialty hospitals are being planned in various district towns and sub-divisions using a public-private-partnership (PPP) model. Key initiatives have been taken to improve health infrastructure and indices in the Maoist-troubled Jangalmahal region.
  • The Kolkata Municipal Corporation has introduced a Universal Health Insurance Scheme for families living below the poverty line. The sum assured for each family is Rs 30,000 per annum. About 50,000 families have already been enrolled and have got their insurance cards. Cards for a further 50,000 families are ready and awaiting distribution. The scheme will be expanded in the coming year.

January 14, 2013

What we will achieve at Bengal Leads

Since so many of our religious traditions are defined by the lunar calendar, only two festive occasions in West Bengal are constant every year. There’s Poila Boisakh - the beginning of the New Year in April, and Makar Sankranti - January 14, which signifies the hope of a better harvest.

It is fitting the second edition of Bengal Leads - our state’s leading business and investor meet, opens in Haldia the day after Makar Sankranti. It too signifies a constant: the firmness and resolve of the Trinamool Congress government to revitalise West Bengal’s economy and restore to it the industrial robustness that made it a leader till as late as the 1960s.

What will we achieve at Bengal Leads? Will tycoons fly in and out in their private jets? Will 100 countries be represented? Will there be photo-ops with one billionaire after another? No. In that sense, those complaining and groaning about Bengal Leads vis-à-vis Vibrant Gujarat are right. Point conceded, my friends, argument over. You are welcome to relegate us to second place in a race we aren’t even running.

I’d like to make one submission though: the legacy Vibrant Gujarat 2013 can build on and the legacy Bengal Leads 2013 is saddled with are extremely different. Give Gujarat – or Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu for that matter – 34 years of Communist rule and see where things stand.

The Mamata Banerjee government has been in office for 18 months, in the first lap of a long, long marathon. Yet, it is important to understand and appreciate renewal has begun. As a political party, we are not ideologically blinkered. As a government, we fully understand and welcome the role of private capital and businessmen in making investments, setting up factories and industrial facilities and ushering in employment and growth.

We believe the government has a part to play in facilitating this and where required in setting up independent regulatory mechanisms. The business of government is not business. The business of government is development. This is the message underpinning Bengal Leads.

How have things changed in these past 18 months? For a start, there is greater social stability in the state, and simply much less violence. When we came to office, West Bengal faced two law and order challenges. There was a Maoist problem in Jangalmahal and an autonomy movement in Darjeeling. We have managed to amicably resolve both.

A few days ago, in Parliament, the UPA government released some statistics. In 2010, 300 people were killed in West Bengal in Maoist violence. In 2012, only one person was killed – only one. Will industrialists and potential investors not be happy the Maoist challenge is being neutralised without causing upheaval?

The Trinamool government has taken a number of decisive policy steps. Section 14Y of the Land Ceiling Act has been prudently deployed to bring various new categories of businesses into the exemption list. It has improved tax collection. This has gone up by over 30 per cent in one year simply due to better administration and an improved work culture. Do note the government has not raised tax rates.

West Bengal has made notable progress in e-governance, including e-commerce, to improve transparency and efficiency. The government is working towards a system where public procurement will be increasingly online and absolutely transparent. There has been a simplification of e-governance procedures – from tendering onwards.

In the past year, West Bengal’s SDP has grown at 1.5 per cent above the national average. This gap will expand as the infrastructure projects the Trinamool government has launched start to mature. A deep-sea port is being planned at Ganga Sagar to again make the Kolkata metropolitan area the international trading hub it once was.

In the coming days, Kolkata will finally get a world-class airport, with the rebuilding of the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Airport. Bagdogra airport, the gateway to north Bengal, is getting night landing facilities. This will be a boon to the upper half of our state. A green-field airport is also coming up in Durgapur and a modern convention centre in eastern Kolkata, in Rajarhat.

Friends from near and far will hear these stories at Haldia. They will absorb the news and take their own call. Some will invest immediately, others will bide their time. That is fair enough, but at least they will take a business call – not a call forced upon them by a coercive government.

That is the spirit of new Bengal. Come, join and share it in Haldia.