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.