August 29, 2014

The heart and soul of Derek O’Brien & Associates...

Today’s blog is a non-political one and dedicated to a bunch of fine men and women – my 60 colleagues at Derek O’Brien & Associates. They are the heart and soul of my company and have seen it through 25 years of ups and downs, and even a name change!

In the past few days, as political commitments and Parliament have kept me busy, my colleagues have been hard at work. They run 2,500 preliminary events at 1,200 schools across 45 cities for two of our flagship projects: the Vodafone Derek’s Faster, Smarter, Better Challenge and Derek’s YiPPee! Challenge in association with Oxford Bookstore.

Both are knowledge-based shows that test general awareness, soft skills, communication and team-building capabilities and generally seek to equip young boys and girls for the contemporary world. The first of these events is for senior children – classes VIII-XII. The second is for middle-school children – classes V-VII. In February 2015, I will conduct the final rounds of these events.

In the coming weeks, we will also be entering the final stages of the Bournvita Quiz Contest (BQC). An old Indian tradition, which began as a radio programme before migrating to television, the BQC has evolved over the years. The ground-level events are over, having been conducted by my colleagues in 80 cities – who have also researched and set the questions, with constant interaction with me.

In October, we will shoot the 14-episode Tamil version of the finals of the BQC for schools in Tamil Nadu. To be broadcast on Sun TV, this is a challenge for me as my Tamil is very basic. Fortunately, my co-anchor Nisha Krishnan, is an accomplished young lady who helps me out.

After that, we move to the all-India BQC. This year the BQC is set to make a quantum leap. From radio to television was an orbital jump; in 2014, another dramatic change, a world first (I think) awaits it. Do watch out for it. Hopefully my colleagues (with some help from me) will not let you down.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

August 27, 2014

Money is limited, so should a bullet train be a priority?

One of the blockbuster announcements of this year’s Railway Budget was the bullet train. To be constructed with international collaboration, the bullet train – expected to run at 250 or 300 kmh – will operate in the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route.

I have no fundamental opposition to high-speed or bullet trains. Indeed, they fascinate me and would be very welcome at some point. The doubt in my mind is: have we reached that point? Indian Railways desperately need money for upgrade and modernisation. Money is limited, so should a bullet train be a priority?

The Railway Budget also makes mention of six freight corridors. To my mind, these corridors, rather than a bullet train, should obsess the Railway Minister. There are several reasons why. For a start, building a bullet train line will cost Rs 150-200 crore per km. Building a dedicated freight corridor will cost a tenth of that.

In the absence of dedicated freight corridors, goods and passenger trains share the same tracks. Obviously passenger trains get priority, and this delays freight. In recent years, India’s road and highway network has improved, as have trucks available in the country. This has led to a transfer of freight, from railway to road.

Twenty years ago, 60 per cent of all freight in India was moved by rail. Today it is 31 per cent. The volume of freight being carried by Indian Railways is growing by 4.8 per cent a year, so the minister told us in his Budget speech. Other than in the past two years, the overall economy has grown much, much faster. It would follow that overall freight is also growing much faster. As such, it is crucial for the well-being and the bottom line of Indian Railways to take this 4.8 per cent growth figure to six or seven per cent and get a greater slice of the freight market.

Take two examples. Each year, Food Corporation of India moves 250 million tonnes of food around the country. The share of Indian Railways is only 50 million tonnes. Similarly, 290 million tonnes of cement moves from one part of India to another. Just 90 million tonnes use trains.

Why is this happening? Part of the reason rail cannot compete with road is capacity. If a customer wants to book a consignment of 1,000-1,500 tonnes, rail doesn’t provide an easy solution. Each railway wagon has a capacity of 60 tonnes and 10 wagons means 600 tonnes.

When Mamata Banerjee was the railway minister, this predicament was the subject of deep study. Merit was seen in a concept already in operation in the Konkan Railway: RORO or roll on-roll off. This involved a road-railer model, where a steel wheel could also be used as a pneumatic tyre. It allowed for not a competition between rail and road but a partnership, with one feeding on the strengths of the other.

The RORO model needs to be pilot tested elsewhere. It can revolutionise Indian Railways much faster than the bullet train will.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

August 07, 2014

The UPSC exam: Looking for a long term solution

Wednesday saw a lively discussion in Parliament on the Civil Services Examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). The issue is out on the streets, with candidates, particularly from Hindi-speaking states, protesting about the format of the preliminary examination. They want the removal of the English language comprehension test and of the Civil Services Aptitude Test (CSAT), which tests soft skills such as communication and problem solving.

In a knee-jerk reaction, the government has dropped the English language comprehension component, but this hasn’t solved the problem. The controversy is a complex one, especially in a country of such linguistic diversity and divergence in English language use. It follows that the solution should be nuanced as well. A sledgehammer approach – drop this paper, cut out that language – will not do.

Candidates who appear for the Civil Services Examination take two general studies papers at the preliminary level. They can take these in Hindi or English. These are multiple-choice tests of basic general knowledge, the CSAT, and till 2013, the English comprehension section (“Where do you place a handkerchief? In (a) a shoe; (b) a pocket...” and so on).

Those who qualify for the main examination, sit nine additional papers. Of these two are qualifying papers – English and one modern Indian language. The English paper is worth 300 marks. Even if the candidates avoid the English test at the preliminary stage, they cannot avoid it when it comes to the main examination.

The main examination also tests the candidates in four general studies papers and two papers in any one specialised subject – it could range from physics to economics. These subject papers can be taken in not just English or Hindi but a variety of Indian languages.

Following this, those who qualify from the main examination are interviewed. Successful candidates are then trained for about two years. The shortest training period is for the Indian Revenue Service (18 months) and the longest for the Indian Foreign Service (three years, including foreign language training).

What is Trinamool’s solution? India’s variety of languages and the fact that many good, suitable civil service candidates may not come from English-speaking families is a reality. On the other hand, the ability to use English in working life, whether in government or the private sector, is also a reality.

As such, we have four suggestions:

Just like the optional subject papers in the main examination can be answered in any one of many Indian languages listed in the Eighth Schedule, there should be – from 2015 – provision for translation of the preliminary examination papers as well. Candidates should be able to appear for the two papers in their mother tongue or the language of their choice, not just English or Hindi.

CSAT should not be summarily rejected or blindly defended. It has its uses in today’s world and needs to be debated by all stakeholders – candidates, academics, public administration specialists, former civil servants, even human resource consultants from the private sector.

The English comprehension test at the preliminary stage should be permanently dropped, as the government has already agreed to do for this year. The 300-mark English paper at the main examination stage should and must be retained.

Successful candidates should have English language training, particularly spoken English training, as part of their first-year programme. They should be imparted 300 hours of spoken English training over 12 months, with 100 hours coming in the first three months. This is what language specialists recommend for non-native speakers.

In this regard, I would like to point out Mamata Banerjee, when she was railway minister, made sure Indian Railway recruitment examinations were conducted in all languages of the Eighth Schedule. As West Bengal chief minister, she has adopted this inclusive policy when it comes to the State Public Service Commission examinations. Even OlChiki, the language of the Santhali tribal people, has been brought into the examination process, to increase the social base of government recruitment.

Language is a sensitive issue in our country. In some states, there are apprehensions about English. In other states, there are apprehensions about Hindi. As such, this matter needs to be tackled with deft. However, it is also important for those in the upper echelons of government, or any job, really, to be conversant with English. Rightly or wrongly, it is the language much of the world uses.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress

August 01, 2014

Why Trinamool opposes FDI in insurance

... And for the Congress, it is time to stand up and be counted.

In opposing the Insurance Bill in Parliament, the Trinamool Congress is not being difficult, it is being consistent. We have been clear about the dangers and risks of FDI in insurance and pensions – the two sectors go together – for ever since I can remember. Our manifesto and political platform was categorical on this when we lost elections – 2004 or 2006 – as well as when we won elections: 2009, 2011, 2014.

Why do we oppose FDI in insurance? Insurance and pensions are crucial for the well-being of middle-class families. Such modes of savings are the ultimate nest egg for ordinary people. Ideally, the funds for these should be invested in mechanisms that have sovereign guarantees – government bonds, municipal bonds, fixed deposits and the like.

International insurance companies prefer investing in the stock market and in mutual funds, and in a sense gambling. When things go right, such a process can lead to windfall gains – and fat bonuses for the executives of the international insurance companies. When things go wrong, families and hard-working individuals will see their money crumble.

The financial collapse in the United States and the West in 2008 is a warning for us. An entire generation of Americans will have to postpone retirement and keep working till well into their seventies to repay their debts and pay for the recklessness of financial-services buccaneers. Do we want this scare scenario repeated in India? That is why Trinamool blocked the opening of insurance to foreign players even when our party was part of the UPA II government.

The BJP government says the move to push up FDI in insurance companies from 26 to 49 per cent is a simple one and entails no changes other than raising the cap in foreign holding. This is not quite true. Trinamool’s concern is about two clauses that seem to be new in this Bill.

One, it includes FII – or portfolio investment, hot money, which enters and exits the country at will, and without a long-term stake – in the 49 per cent. Two, it sets the stage for disinvestment and loosening of government holding in public-sector general insurance companies. These companies are the mainstay of the savings plans of middle-class Indians. Why are we determined to jeopardise all this?

Trinamool and the Left Front are diametrically opposed to each other in most spheres. Admittedly, on this narrow score – the matter of FDI in insurance and the two principal grievances we have – the two political groups have similar apprehensions. So do many in the BJP, though they are afraid to say it openly. As for the Congress, it is time for it to stand up and be counted.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress