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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 16

Difficult Times

Editorial

Monday 7 April 2008, by SC

On the last day of the 2007-08 financial year the Union Government unveiled a slew of measures to control inflation which is at a 13-month high of 6.68 per cent. These included such steps as abolising import duty on all crude edible oils, including palm and soya, banning the export of non-basmati rice and pulses. The government decided to raise the minimum export price of basmati to $ 1200 per ton from $ 1100 per ton with the objective of discouraging exports and increasing its availability in the domestic market. Customs duty on butter and ghee has been slashed from 40 to 30 per cent while the 15 per cent import duty on maize has been abolished. These initiatives, though belated, are welcome. Yet one gets the inevitable feeling that these are essentially fire-fighting steps taken at the last moment—even though inflation was rising to unaccep-table levels for quite sometime the government did precious little to tackle the problem on time. For example, a ban on forward trading in maize has been urged for long but the plea was not taken seriously; as a consequence of the spiralling price of maize egg will also become dearer since maize is imperative for layer hens.

Indeed the crisis on the inflation front should come as a wake-up call for the government and it certainly has. The government has indeed been alarmed by the political implications of this development: rising prices would inevitably affect the prospects of the ruling party in the elections which anyway are not far away. That is why even Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has been compelled to state that combating inflation was of paramount importance and “if that means that we would have to live with a slightly lower growth rate, so be it.”

However, there is no sign of a long-term strategy to combat the menace. As has been already underscored in various quarters, emphasis must be laid on ensuring agricultural productivity and improving the delivery of public services. These areas have been broadly neglected, but there is an urgency to do the needful even at this late stage. Ensuring food security must also be on the agenda. And for all these a long-term strategy should be evolved without delay. But are we thinking on these lines?

Meanwhile the developments in our neighbourhood continue to cause concern. As the Tibet situation remains unsettled with China employing brute force to browbeat the protesters into submission there are indications of their inability to suppress the public anger over both the lack of human rights and destruction of the Tibetan identity. Yet one also gets the feeling that at least in the short run the Chinese strong-arm methods would prevail. At the same time the latest information from Myanmar shows that the military junta is merrily carrying on with its repressive rule with no signs of any return to democracy. On the specious plea of her marriage to a foreigner pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is being barred from holding any office; despite the special UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari’s earnest endeavours to restore the democratic process such actions on the part of the military can only frustrate the UN efforts. On both Tibet and Myanmar the Government of India could have bestirred itself in defence of human rights and dignity of life but it chose to remain by and large passive and silent.

In this setting the revival of the democratic process in Pakistan and the successful holding of Bhutan’s first democratic elections offer a silver-lining. But are we in a position to grasp the significance of these developm-ents and strain every nerve to impart an irreversible character to the democratic processes in those states? On trying to explore the answer to the query we end up facing the bitter reality of our inability to concentrate on our neighbourhood as we have already hitched our future to the sole supperpower which has also promised to confer a major power status on us.

In the absence of a holistic approach we are not in a position to carve out a new course while being overwhelmed by the manifold difficulties that have engulfed us.

April 3 S.C.

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