Saturday, April 1, 2006

No Free Lunch, but…

No Free Lunch, but…
By Narendra Luther

Thee is a modern American saying that ‘there is nothing like a free lunch.’ But what about water? So far restaurants have not started charging for water unless it is the mineral variety. In fact in India even before taking your order, the bearer plonks a glass of water in front of you, particularly in the South. No body asks you to pay for it in case you change your mind and having slated your thirst, decide not to eat there and walk out.

It used to be a common practice to set up stalls on roadside offering water to general public on festivals and auspicious days, like the birthdays of some Sikh Gurus, and the Muharram procession. That is supposed to earn you spiritual ‘merit’. Thanks to the shortage of water, this tradition is fading now.

For our domestic water supply we pay as a matter of course. The charges keep on increasing every now and then and we submit to it with a murmur. It is called ‘safe’ water supply though most of us either boil water before drinking it or use water purification equipments like ‘Acquaguard’. My wife uses both of them to make sure we don’t suffer from any water-borne disease.

Free Water

But in the countryside water is still free though its safety is not talked about. One can draw water from a river, a lake a well or a pond. Or at least that is what we thought. A screening of a recent film by K.P. Sasi ‘ ‘The Source of Life for Sale’ was an eye-opener. Water is an indisputable source of life. Seven–tenth of earth and two–third (women0 to three-fourth (men) of human body are composed of water. Animals and humans die more of thirst than of hunger. Dehydration is a great cause of death particularly amongst infants who can’t spell out their demand for water. Lack of water causes drought and that results in famine. That in turn leads to suicide by farmers and death for the poor. Thus, water is more important to our life than we imagine.

Sasi’s documentary takes us from Kerala to the North via Chhatisgarh and showcases how water which has been traditionally available free to people is being denied to them.

Rivers in Periyar, Malampuzha. Attapadi, Sheonath and Kelo, and parts of the Ganga Canal have been sold to private firms to make coca cola to be sold in the market. Small, scattered communities including tribals who depended on the water for their crops and for their domestic needs were shown forcefully protesting against it. NGO’s marched in procession raising slogans venting their anger. An old unlettered tribal woman showed a rare degree of eloquence in her denunciation of the deal made by the government. An old man voiced his betrayal by the MLA of the area for his ‘collusion’ with the private party. The firm had thrown a bund across the river to pump out water for its plant. That meant the lower part of the river became dry and the lower riparian habitations went without water. There were accusations of corruption against authorities in deals involving such sales.

The problem of water shortage is compounded by the over- exploitation of ground water as revealed by a recent survey. It has been said that the future wars will be not for oil, but for water. It seems that we already witnessing trailers in the interstate disputes about water in our country.

The Garland Canal Project

The film showed with telling effects what it means to be deprived of water. The sale was described as a part of privatization and globalization. Multinationals come and grab resources that belong to the community, for their private profit. Once we swore by Socialism. Today the pendulum has swung to the other side, to Privatization.

The film also made out a case against the project of the interlinking of rivers – the ‘Garland canal’ system. The eminent engineer, the late Dr. K.L. Rao conceived it long before there was any debate about socialism versus privatization. He believed it would rid the country of the spectacle of simultaneous drought in some areas and flooding in others. The NDA Government approved the massive project in principle and it is understood that preliminary technical studies have been initiated on that. It seems perfectly logical inasmuch as it will ‘even out’ the levels of water in all the rivers in the country. But, the opponents of the proposal argue that it ignores the ecological aspects of the various river systems. Interlinking will entail bunding of rivers and diversion of water at a number of places. That, in turn, will result in diminution, if not denial of water to downstream areas. Damming of rivers will also cause submersion of vast areas displacing communities in different parts of the country. It is against that that prospect that persons like Medha Patekar are agitating.

Wisdom of Tentativeness

I would concede that some of the proposals for new uses of have been made by experts in the genuine belief that they will promote the welfare of the people as they perceive it. That brings us to the crucial point of how much reliance we should place on expert advice. The best of experts sees only his side of the picture. In fact the more the specialization, the more the narrowing of the focus. There is a loss of width of vision in specialization. A specialist does not - indeed cannot – appreciate the opposing point of view. For policy - makers and final decision- takers, it is necessary to integrate the Hegelian thesis and anti-thesis into a synthesis. There is a greater need for debate on such issues than we have today in spite of our legislatures where the party line over rides the need for the examination of the merits of a proposal. The view of the party in power often is nothing but the command of the leader right or wrong. The policy of the Opposition, on the other hand, is based on its obligation to oppose. In how many cases have opposing line being taken on a given issue by the same party depending on whether it is in power or in opposition?

Sitting through the screening of Sasi’s documentary, I felt sorry at the poor attendance in the hall. More so because I saw no bureaucrats and politicians for whom the film would have appeared heretical against the current official dogma. I felt that such films should be screened in the secretariats and before experts and the intelligentsia so that different perspectives can be seen by those who are going to decide the fate of millions of the poor of the country. As Bertrand Russell put it, ‘Fools are cocksure; wise men are in doubt’. In other words, the need is for an open mind. That will enable us to take a holistic view before taking a final decision.

A time for exit

A time for exit
By Narendra Luther

I don’t mean to exit from this world but a prelude to it. I mean the time to superannuate, to stop working regularly for a job, or as is commonly put, to retire.

Full man, half pay

Before retirement the wife gets half husband and his full salary. After retirement, she gets back the full husband and half his salary. The age of retirement is decided on the basis of a multiplicity of factors like expectancy of life and the state of health, and the availability of manpower in any society. It varies from country to country and time to time. The key consideration is the level of mental capacity in most jobs. In India it used to be 55 for the employees of government under the British and remained pegged at that for a number of years after independence. Then it was argued that our expectancy of life which was thirty-three at independence had risen to over sixty. Also 55 was too early for retirement. While the employee had still many family responsibilities to discharge, his income was suddenly reduced to half. On the other hand, the government lost the benefit of mature experience and advice. Basically, it was the serving employees who wanted to prolong their tenure. So the government extended the age of retirement to 58. After some years when the government’s financial position was tight, the employees gave an ingenious helpful suggestion. If the age of retirement were extended by another two years, the government would make huge savings by postponing the disbursement of terminal benefits to retiring employees. It would also maintain the same establishment costs instead of adding pension to the salaries of new employees. Also, India would automatically become closer to the western advanced countries where the age of retirement was well over 60. Of course the old arguments of a further increase in the expectancy of life, better health and maturity of experience of older employees were always there. So, the government again succumbed and extended the age of superannuation to 60.

In the U.S. the age of retirement is 65; in England 68. It is around that figure in most of the advanced countries of the West. With them one of the reasons is shortage of manpower. They make up this shortfall through selective immigration. They issue work permits and allow immigration in crucial sectors in which they need people. They can thus pick up the best readymade human capital from all over the world. In a way the under- developed and developing countries extend massive assistance to developed countries through the supply of trained manpower. Considering the overall cost of turning out a physician, an engineer, an architect or the like, it can be safely assumed that for every person going to the developed counties of the West, from India, we are giving them an invisible financial aid of at least 10 million rupees. But that is a digression from our theme. Let me return to it.

The main consideration for sending people home on retirement is their lowered physical and mental capacity. That is why in the civil list retired employees are listed unfeelingly under ‘wastage’. Experience of thirty years, which some old fogies boast about, is nothing but the experience of ten years multiplied three times. According to experts, there is a gradual loss in physical and mental faculties which sets in after 40. It becomes pronounced around sixties when one moves towards old age and senescence.

Never say die

While for normal job the age of superannuation is determined on the basis of old age, it is ironical that for more important jobs, the age of superannuation is either higher or nonexistent. For example, all our constitutional posts have a higher age limit. The judges of High Courts retire at the age of 62; of the Supreme Court at 65. Members of the State Public Service Commission retire at 62, of the Union at 65. So is the case of the Election Commission and the Central as well as the State Administrative Tribunals. Recently the Chief Commissioner under the Right to Information Act and the State Commissioners have been appointed. All of them are retired bureaucrats. Retired judges of high or Supreme Court are appointed to head various commissions of inquiries which are set up every now and then.

There is no age limit for governors, legislators, and ministers. All governors are either retired servicemen or politicians. Legislators and ministers take the most crucial decisions affecting various aspects of our life, well-being and liberty. So is it to be assumed that the normal rule of nature as to the diminutions of faculties does not operate in the case of these important high functionaries.

In the case of judges we are told that a higher age for retirement ensures their independence. Can two or five years more than other functionaries do that? The lure of commissions after that term should be enough to dilute that. The constitution of the U.S. has sought to ensure independence of the judges of the Supreme Court by giving them a term for life. That provision can certainly ensure independence. Apart from them in most countries Field Marshals of the armed force also don’t retire. But that is by way of honour. Both Judges of the Supreme Court and Field Marshals stop attending office whenever they feel like but continue to get their full salaries and perks.

In the case of our legislature that is our MLA’s and M.P s, and the political executive, the argument is that they are elected by the people and it is for them to decide whether a particular person is too old to discharge his functions properly. So, we will continue to have presidents, prime ministers, chief ministers and ministers who may suffer from multiple disabilities but who directly or indirectly manage to secure the necessary endorsement.

Fact and Myths

So we have one fact and three fictions operating in our system. The fact is that beyond a certain age the physical and mental faculties of individuals decline preventing them from giving their best. The first fiction is that this law of diminishing faculties does not operate in the case of higher jobs. The jobs inject appropriate aphrodisiacs into the system of ageing persons. The second fiction is that the pull of power and pelf declines two to five years after the normal age of superannuation. The third fiction is that the masses know whether a person can continue to perform long after the normal old age.

The moral from our prevalent practice is that you require fit persons with limited wear and tear for lower level of jobs. For higher jobs impaired faculties are prime qualifications.

It may appear to be a bundle of ironies and contradictions. But that is life - a fiction based on further fictions. So, stop grousing and accept the facts and fictions of life - so says saint Kabir.

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