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Friday, December 30, 2011

Pushing Reforms on the Back of Hunger -BRINDA KARAT

THE Food Security Bill 2011, introduced in parliament and sent for the consideration of the standing committee, will provide legal sanction to the very policies which have led to the present situation of widespread hunger and malnutrition. Some of the issues in the bill are (1) Narrow targeting, categorisation and definitions (2) Conditional entitlements (3) Extreme centralisation and violation of states rights’ (4) Expenditures and cost sharing.


While experience has shown that targeting policies for food security are counter-productive, the present bill adds new categories of targeting. Indeed the bill is a classic example of the absurd levels to which policies of targeting can reach and the extent of social cruelty embedded in a targeted framework.

So far there have been three categories for targeting for food access in the PDS, namely the APL, BPL and Antodaya. The last category was carved out from the BPL population with an added price advantage of 35 kg of rice at two rupees a kilo. The present bill eliminates the Antodaya category. Henceforth all the 2.5 crore Antodaya families will come under the BPL category and will have to pay one rupee a kilo more for rice which has been pegged in the new bill at three rupees. Thus for these 2.5 crore families the present version of food security means an added cost of 35 rupees a kilo per month.


The bill has the following categories:
(1) BPL: The first category is the BPL category renamed as the “priority sections.” These sections are eligible for 7 kg of foodgrains per person (it is not clear whether a child is considered a person under this definition), if it is rice it will cost three rupees a kilo and wheat at two rupees a kilo, millets or coarse grains at one rupee a kilo.

The number of BPL households at the national level is declared in the law to constitute 46 per cent of the population in rural India and 28 per cent in urban India with state-wise variations which will be decided by the centre. Since several states are giving rice at two rupees a kilo today, BPL sections in those states will also be paying one rupee a kilo more for rice.
(2) APL: The second category is the APL category renamed the “general sections.” The Bill declares these sections to constitute 29 per cent in rural areas and 22 per cent in urban areas. This is less than the number of APL cardholders today. Therefore a substantial section of APL cardholders will be excluded by law. Those who manage to retain their APL cards will get only 3 kg of foodgrains per person. Assuming a family of five members, the bill provides a maximum of only 15 kg of foodgrains which is less than what the APL sections are getting now. The price will be 50 per cent of what the minimum support price (MSP) is at any given time. Since MSP increases every year because of the increase in the prices of farm inputs, APL sections will lose the advantage of the fixed price they have today and will have to contend with an increased price every year. Therefore, in terms of numbers, price benefit and amount of grain, APL sections stand to lose their present entitlements. There is another highly objectionable new provision, which will be dealt with later in this analysis — namely, even the reduced entitlements of the APL sections are linked to the implementation of reforms.
(3) Excluded Sections: There is a third category which has been introduced, for the first time, in the public distribution system. The Bill mandates the exclusion of 25 per cent of the population of rural India and fifty per cent of the population of urban India from the benefits of the bill. The guidelines for exclusion are to be decided by the central government from time to time. This is a new contribution of the UPA government to the concept of food security — legally sanctioned automatic exclusion.
(4) BPL Census Automatic Exclusions Category: However, there is yet another exclusion, the fourth exclusion, which may occur. The questionnaire of the BPL census has already defined the categories of those sections which would lead to an automatic exclusion. The questions themselves are highly problematic. But assume that the numbers reached through this exercise do not add up to 50 per cent of the population in urban areas or even 25 per cent in rural areas, which is what is required in the Food Security Act. Then what will occur is a fourth exclusion category to make up the gap between the two, the arbitrary exclusion percentage requirement of the Bill on the one hand, and the actual numbers identified through the BPL census on the other.
Apart from the ethical issues arising out of arbitrary exclusions from what should be recognised as the universal right of food security, even from a purely economic and administrative point of view, the multiple levels of categorisations will lead to added expenditures, guaranteed leakages and increased corruption.


The definitions section in the bill further expose the folly of targeting . In the section on “special groups” there are provisions for further affirmative action for some sections. But how are these defined? Persons living in starvation are to get two free meals a day once they are so identified by the state government. Starvation has been defined in Chapter 1 Clause 2 (24) as "prolonged involuntary deprivation of food that threatens the very survival of the person.” But who will decide when survival is threatened? At present, even after a person has died due to starvation, official medical teams prompted by governments declare the person had died due to some other ailment. There is rarely an acknowledgement of a starvation death. Then again, what will happen to the semi-starving? Will they have to wait till they come into the category of starvation to get the benefit? Another example is that of “destitution.” In the bill in Ch III Clause 8 (a) a destitute person “shall be entitled to at least one meal every day” — so there is a differentiation being made in the benefits for those in starvation and those in destitution. While the former is entitled to two free meals, the latter gets only one. This absurdity is taken further in the definition of a destitute person. In Ch 1, Clause 2 (3) destitute persons are those who "have no resources, means and support required for food and nutrition enabling their survival, to the extent that makes them vulnerable to live or die of starvation." Can any sane person find any difference between a person in starvation whose life is threatened by food deprivation and a destitute who is vulnerable to death by starvation? But World Bank trained or indoctrinated economists can find the subtle differences between equally hungry people to decide who will get two free meals and who will get only one. These abhorrent differentiations between equally poor and deprived sections are fundamental to the ideology of neo-liberalism and targeting. The logical corollary of targeting --- we can now have inspectors to confirm how often people eat, whether they are destitute or starving or whether they are cheating the treasury by eating two free meals when they deserve only one.

In the 1930s when the capitalist crisis had created "the Great Depression," free soup kitchens were run in the United States. But at that time no one needed a card to prove that they were hungry, it was assumed that only those in need would stand in the queue for free food. Even that sensitivity gets eliminated in the present dominant philosophy of neo-liberalism where targeting and cuts in subsidies in welfare schemes has become the mantra of governments.
In a country with the highest malnourished population in the world, free meals to a small number are an inadequate response. What is required to prevent starvation and hunger is universal access to cheap foodgrains and a basket of essential commodities. The Food Security Bill, however, does the opposite.


The Food Security Bill has an additional provision which was not there in the earlier drafts. Even the reduced entitlements for APL sections have been made conditional to the reform process. Ch II Clause 3(3) states, "Provided that the entitlements of those belonging to the general households shall be linked to such reforms in the public distribution system and from such date as may be prescribed by the central government." In a new chapter VII entitled ‘Reforms in the Public Distribution System,’ the central government details eight reforms of which the most toxic are the "introduction of schemes such as cash transfer, food coupons or other schemes for targeted beneficiaries in lieu of foodgrains;" and "use of aadhar for unique identification with biometric information for proper targeting." Thus contentious policy measures which are against the interests of the people are sought to be legalised on the back of the Food Security Bill. This is a highly objectionable strategy which amounts to using the Food Security Bill to blackmail states to accept the so-called reforms or else be held responsible and guilty of depriving the APL households of their entitlements.


In any case, how has the government arrived at the percentages of BPL and APL that it wants included as the law? Contrary to media hype, there is no change in government policy regarding estimations of poverty, nor is there any delinking between the Planning Commission’s bogus estimates and poverty “quotas” given to the states as promised by the prime minister in response to the public outrage against the government affidavit in the Supreme Court case. Chapter V1 Clause 15(1) states, “The central government may from time to time prescribe the guidelines for identification for priority households, general households and exclusion criteria for the purposes of entitlements under this Act and notify such guidelines in the official gazette.” The next provision 15 (2) gives responsibility to the state governments to identify these sections “in accordance with the guidelines” but here again the central linkage is made “provided that no household falling under the exclusion criteria to be prescribed by the central government, shall be included either in the priority households or general households.” Further, in Clause 17, in case the state government wants to update the lists it has no right to do so and such updating can only be done “in a manner prescribed by the central government.”
Thus the present highly objectionable method used by government to distribute poverty quotas to the states is sanctioned by the law itself. The notorious 26 rupees a day destitution line used for calculating BPL in rural India and 32 rupees for urban India remains as the anchor for the various categories, with the government arbitrarily increasing it by a certain percentage as a "compromise."


If the government has learnt any lessons from it's attempts to steamroller the rights of states in the Lokpal Bill, then it should revise the even more blatant encroachments it has made in the food security bill. Under the Food Security Bill the central government has appropriated all rights in deciding a slew of issues in violation of the federal structure. In as many as 20 clauses the words "… may be prescribed by the central government have been used." Everything, from deciding poverty quotas, to the amount of food security allowance, to the qualifications of even the district level griveance officer working under the state government, to when and how wheat flour can be given instead of grain, all is to be decided by the central government. The centralised thrust of the bill is illustrated well in Ch XV titled Miscellaneous in Clause 46 which states." The central government may from time to time give such directions as it may consider necessary, to the state governments for the effective implementation of the provisions of the Act and the state governments will comply with such directions.".....Such is the commitment of this government to push through reforms that it does not maintain even the pretence of consultations with the states, many of whom are running much better food security programmes than those envisaged in this Act.


Equally objectionable, as far as rights of states are concerned, the bill has no provision for consultation with the states as far as cost sharing is concerned. The expenditures for the states are going to be quite substantial. But even as far as foodgrains supplies are concerned, while the state governments are mandated by the bill to pay the food allowance the bill includes a provision in Ch X clause 31 which allows the centre to substitute food grains supplies with payment to the states. This means that the state would have the responsibility to purchase the foodgrains but there is no guarantee in the bill that the central government would meet the full cost. The states are mandated to fulfil all the schemes including the supply of free meals or rations to special groups. However, the centre according the Clause 30(4) in Ch X will charge the states prices equivalent to the price given for BPL grain. In both these provisions the state governments are expected to subsidise the central scheme from their funds.

As a postscript, the bill has a special "gift" tucked away in the last section under Clause 52. This provision states that if there is a natural calamity which leads to failure of supply of foodgrains then neither the central government nor the state government, as the case may be, can be held liable. The list of conditions where there is no liability includes floods and drought. Since large parts of India are perennially affected by conditions of floods or drought or sometimes both in different regions of the same state, the law to ensure food security will be suspended precisely at the time when people will need it the most, when blackmarketeers and profiteers are out to make profits from the vulnerability of the affected population. The government has no liability in these conditions, and in the non-secular language of the bill, any other "acts of God."

The Congress spin masters have propagated the bill as the "pet bill" of the UPA chairperson Mrs Sonia Gandhi. If indeed it is so, it only shows that contrary to media creations, the UPA chairperson is very much in sync with the neo-liberal framework of the Manmohan Singh government, which is why such a deeply flawed bill should be flaunted with her stamp of approval. The bill in its present form is unacceptable. Concrete amendments should be moved before the standing committee and a widespread campaign launched to explain to the people the fraud being perpetrated on them in the name of food security.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Legitimising an inhumane discourse - Prabhat Patnaik

The argument advanced by the Central government in favour of FDI in multi-brand retail is reminiscent of the way the colonial regime justified the destruction of craft production through imports from the metropolis.

The UPA government mercifully has decided to keep in abeyance its decision to allow 51 per cent foreign equity in multi-brand retail. What is disturbing however is the argument with which it sought to justify its earlier decision, which represents a shift towards a palpably inhumane discourse in matters of economic policy. One must protest against this shift before it becomes “acceptable.”

The official argument stated that FDI in multi-brand retail would benefit “consumers” (whoever they are), and peasants and small producers from whom the retail MNCs would procure supplies. Let us for a moment accept these arguments, notwithstanding their vacuity (exposed by C.P. Chandrasekhar in The Hindu, Nov. 30). Nobody however has claimed that the induction of retail MNCs will not harm the small retailers. Even the government's own argument that confining retail MNCs to cities with more than ten lakh people will limit the damage to petty retailers, actually concedes that such damage will occur. There is, of course, an element of dishonesty involved in this argument: since it is not worth MNCs' while to set up shops in villages, what is claimed as a restriction upon them conforms precisely to what they want anyway; but the argument itself vindicates the critics. And since the bulk of employment in petty retail at present is in urban areas, the fact that FDI in retail will cause substantial damage to the livelihoods of vast numbers of people is indubitable. Promoting it therefore is based on the presumption that distress for them should be acceptable because of the benefits that would accrue to other sections of society.

This argument however is dangerously violative of a humane discourse. It is analogous to saying that since the processing of minerals will bring benefits, by way of availability of manufactured goods, to some sections of society, the distress caused to the tribal population which has to be uprooted for obtaining the minerals should be of no concern. And it is exactly identical to the argument put forward in the colonial context that since imported manufactured goods were of superior quality and benefited the consumers (who would not have bought them otherwise), among whom were numerous peasants, the fact that they destroyed the livelihoods of millions of artisans and weavers, should not be held against the policy that freely allowed such imports. In fact the argument for FDI in retail is a precise recreation of the discourse of colonialism.

It is instructive here to recollect the rhetorical question that Gandhiji had asked: If “my brother” the weaver is out of work because of imported cloth, then how can I be better off by it? The humaneness of this discourse was the foundation upon which our anti-colonial struggle was built, and we came into being as a nation. The current official discourse constitutes a rejection of it.

Interestingly, the current official position is antithetical not only to the humane discourse that Gandhiji was propounding, which postulated that no section of the population should consider itself better off by some policy if certain other sections belonging to the non-affluent were pushed into greater distress by it, but also to what even conventional economic theorising suggests.

Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian philosopher-economist, had suggested a criterion for comparing alternative states of society, which has acquired wide currency in economics. According to it, between social states A and B, if there are some persons who are better off, and nobody is worse off, in A compared to B, then A is socially preferable. On the other hand, if some persons are worse off in A compared to B while others are better off then we cannot say that A is to be preferred to B. Taking A to be the social state where MNCs are operating in retail, it clearly follows that we cannot consider their operation to be socially preferable to a state where they are not operating.

The Pareto criterion has major lacunae, the most obvious being that it flies in the face of egalitarianism. If the poor continue to remain as poor in A as they were in B but the rich become much richer, then A is socially preferable to B according to Pareto despite the increased inequality. Not many would accept this view: egalitarianism may override Pareto, but not the converse. But in the case under discussion, if we introduce egalitarian considerations in addition to Pareto, then the argument against MNCs in retail gets further strengthened. Not only will their operation, no matter whether it benefits some sections of society, hurt others, but those hurt will include a substantial number of the poor. Both Pareto and egalitarianism therefore point in the same direction, namely, jettisoning the move to introduce FDI in retail. What is intriguing is that a government headed by an economist should have ignored this basic bread-and-butter economics.

Even if we keep egalitarianism aside, just to pass the Pareto test, the least that the proposed policy should have provided for is a system of compensations, effected through the government budget, for those who stand to lose by it, to be paid for by those who stand to gain from it. But then it may be asked: who exactly stands to gain from it? The government's answer to this question is palpably absurd. The insertion of some gigantic MNCs which would act as oligopsonists vis-à-vis the sellers of produce, consisting of a set of peasants and petty producers, and as oligopolists vis-à-vis the buyers, consisting again of a set of relatively small consumers, is bound to act to the detriment of both these sets. International experience, contrary to the claims of the Central government, testifies to this. But let us for the moment accept for argument's sake the possibility that a large number of people may gain from this move. Of one thing however we can be absolutely certain, namely that the MNCs will gain from it. It stands to reason therefore that the MNCs should be asked to pay for compensating the petty retailers who will lose from their entry, and that they in turn can recoup this by charging whoever gains from their entry. (And if this makes transactions with them unattractive for buyers or sellers, then so much the better, for it will then serve to prevent the supplanting of petty retailers).

For the introduction of FDI in retail to be at all a credible measure for consideration, it is essential therefore that it should be accompanied by a system of compensations for the losers, for example in the form of an Income Guarantee Scheme for the petty retailers. Even with such a system of compensations, FDI in retail can still be objected to on grounds of violating egalitarianism; but without such a system it is simply not worth considering at all. And if such a system of compensations is considered infeasible on administrative or any other grounds, then too it follows that FDI in retail is not worth considering at all.

The process of destruction of petty business by capitalist enterprises was referred to by Marx as “primitive accumulation of capital.” While Marx had seen primitive accumulation as occurring at the beginning of capitalism, it obviously characterises the entire history of capitalism which is marked by violence and predatoriness. But unleashing a process of primitive accumulation of capital, such as what FDI in retail amounts to, is not only violative of humaneness, but also undermines both democracy and the foundations of our nationhood. Having a system of compensations, say in the form of an Income Guarantee for petty retailers, is one way of preventing primitive accumulation of capital. It still does not make FDI in retail acceptable; but it makes it minimally worthy of being placed on the table for discussion.

What is frightening about the current situation is the way measures which are not even minimally worthy of discussion and which entail primitive accumulation of capital, are being imposed upon society through executive fiat. And, to justify this, as many have pointed out, one section of the poor is being spuriously projected as constituting gainers, so that the distress caused to another section can be conveniently overlooked.

(Prabhat Patnaik held the Sukhamoy Chakravarty Chair at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

The Hindu

Hazare asks supporters to be ready for final battle

Anna Hazare on Tuesday faced a low turnout as he launched his three-day fast against a “weak” Lokpal Bill asking people to be ready for an ‘aar paar ki ladai’ (fight to finish) to stamp out corruption and ensure that “goondas” do not enter Parliament.

The 74-year-old Mr. Hazare, who sought to sidestep the appeal of his close aides to stop fast due to his health condition, said people will one day teach the government a lesson for the “betrayal” on the Lokpal issue.

In contrast to the impressive gathering at his three protests in Delhi earlier, the numbers were not up to expectations at the MMRDA ground.

Mr. Hazare repeated his threat to undertake a tour of five-poll bound states, including Uttar Pradesh, and said he will campaign against the government and do the same when General Elections are announced.

“Humko thay karna hain, aar yaa paar? (We have to decide, this side or that side). Whatever we should do, we should do.

We should be ready to go to jail,” Mr. Hazare told his supporters after starting his fast at 12:30 pm.

Mr. Hazare, who is suffering from a viral infection, reached the venue after a two-and-a-half-hour long drive from the guest house where he was staying. In between, he also paid respects to Mahatma Gandhi at Juhu Beach.

“Elections have been announced in five states. You and me have to decide whether this betrayal should continue. I will campaign against the government in the five states,” he said.

Emphasising that Parliament should retain its dignity, he claimed that 150 MPs in the House were criminals and if there is a Right to Reject provision, they will not get entry into the “sacred temple of democracy”.

“Today, goondas and criminals are entering politics...if we have Right to Reject, goondas will not enter this sacred temple (Parliament and Assemblies). We have to ensure that our lawmaking bodies remain sacred,” he said.

The commencement of Mr. Hazare’s fast came as Lok Sabha began a debate on Lokpal bill with government side and opposition sparring over the issue.

Mr. Hazare’s drive to the protest venue was marked by high drama when around 20 men blocked his convoy and showed him black flags saying that he cannot take the country to ransom.

The convoy of Mr. Hazare, on way to Mahatma Gandhi’s statue on Juhu beach, was briefly stopped by the protesters shouting “Anna Hazare murdabad“.

Terming his campaign as the second freedom struggle, Mr. Hazare said the fight for a strong Lokpal will not end today and one has to fight a long battle.

“You will not get the Lokpal Bill. You need to be ready for a long battle. The elections are coming in five states.

After two and half years, the general elections will come. I will campaign against the government and tell people how they cheated us,” he said.

Defending his tactics, he said one has to close the nose to make somebody open his mouth.

Hazare alleged that some people were threatening them not to go to the poll-bound states. However, he did not name them.

“We will go there. Many people are threatening us that they will do this, they will do that. What will they do?” he said.

Demanding more powers to gram sabhas, Hazare accused the government of forcefully acquiring farmers’ land and resorting to lathicharge and opening fire when there is resistance.

“Farmers’ land is being acquired without their permission. You don’t have powers to acquire land using force. Without gram sabha’s permission, you should not acquire land,” he said.

Hazare said after ensuring the setting up of a strong Lokpal, the next fight will be for Right to Reject provision.

Crediting himself, Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi for the fight for RTI, he said because of this law, Suresh Kalmadi and A Raja, who are accused of corruption, are in jail.

In Delhi, the protest by Hazare’s supporters did not elicit much response due to winter chill as well as the activist’s absence. He was earlier scheduled to sit on fast at Ramlila Maidan but changed the venue due to weather condition.

The protest relay fast in Delhi was scheduled to start at 10 AM but it started only 90 minutes later as the crowd was not as huge as witnessed during the earlier agitation when Hazare was at the centre stage.

The leader of the protest in Delhi Shanti Bhushan himself came to the podium at 10:30 AM though another Team Anna member and his son Prashant Bhushan was at the venue before explaining to media persons about the protest and the delayed start.

Prashant blamed the chilly and foggy weather for the low turnout in the morning. “I am sure people will come here as well. It is a cold day, foggy day today. It will take sometime for people to turn up. They will come, don’t worry,” he said.

Activist Gopal Rai said winter and probably the absence of Hazare may be the reason for the low turnout.

Prashant said the Bill in its present form is unacceptable. Protest will continue as well as jail bharo agitation, he added.

Team Anna has made it clear that their four key demands which included provision for an independent investigating agency for the anti-corruption ombudsman were “non-negotiable”.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Bad news for oil-importing nations

The proposed European Union ban on oil imports from Iran aims at isolating the country and starving it of oil revenues. It could introduce another worrying dimension to India's energy security.

The recent European Union proposal to ban the import of Iranian crude is bad news for all oil-importing nations, including India. As if that is not bad enough, the United States Senate just approved sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, a move intended to shrink Iran's oil exports and deprive the country of cash that might be channelled into its nuclear or missile programmes. As if on cue, Brent crossed the psychological barrier of $100 a barrel as soon as the EU ban was proposed and is cruising well above that limit. With the American sanctions, the global crude price is firmly set on a northward spiral.

While the proposed embargo is only on the EU that collectively buys 8,65,000 barrels a day, the fact that EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger has sought the support of Russia and others points to a larger scheme to isolate Iran and starve it of all oil revenues from its entire export which, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, stands at around 2.2 mbd (million barrels a day). Iran's total production of around 3.5 mbd makes it the third largest producer after Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Price spike might not be the only concern for India although it is a very aggravating one. In 2010-11, the POL (petroleum, oil, lubricants) import bill was $106 billion but in 2011-12, it is bound to be much higher, even without the threat of the ban. The Indian basket is a composite index comprising Dated Brent, Dubai and Oman sour crudes and, therefore, usually costs a good $10 more per barrel than what our European and American counterparts pay for their imports. The Indian basket already soared to $118 dollars in April 2011 and has been hovering around $110 dollars ever since. Now, with Brent crossing the Rubicon, the Indian basket could soar into the stratosphere. In fact, most analysts predict that oil will firmly remain above the $100-mark henceforth. For emerging economies with galloping oil consumption, that is a grim prospect — one that could slow down growth.

Iran is the second largest supplier to India, just behind Saudi Arabia. Last year, it supplied roughly one out of every eight barrels imported by India. If ever there was a possibility of the oil spurned by the EU finding its way to Asian markets, that has been thwarted by the U.S. sanctions. But even continued supplies of Iranian crude currently bought by India may face problems if all payment channels get blocked. Replacing Iranian crude with other supplies is going to be difficult because India will have to compete with the EU and China for non-Iranian supplies, which may or may not be compatible with our refinery configurations.

Few options

India's situation is aggravated by the fact that unlike China, it has few options for diversifying its sources of supply. It will have to hark back to the Persian Gulf for imports. Other than from the Gulf region, only marginal supplies come from Nigeria and Angola currently. Bringing tankers from Latin America or Russia does not make economic sense. Even our own oil assets in Angola and Sudan do not ship any significant quantities of their production to India. Apart from the economics involved, prior contractual commitments made by the operators of these fields come in the way.

A whole host of countries that buy Iranian crude are not too happy with the EU proposal and they have not shied away from saying so. China, which imports 5,00,000 barrels a day of Iranian oil, is already on record rejecting the proposal. Russia, the largest oil producer in the world today, does not import any oil from anywhere. Yet its Energy Minister Sergey Shmatko has voiced the country's opposition to the move. Heavyweights OPEC and International Energy Agency are also reportedly unhappy with the proposal, while several EU members are fence-sitters. It is probably unlikely that the proposal will go through.

Nevertheless, these developments do not augur well for importers because they have the potential to send prices skyrocketing. For the last one year, oil prices have been hardening owing to a number of factors. On the demand-side, the second half of 2010 was surprisingly buoyant, global recession notwithstanding, primarily due to a burgeoning demand in China and India. In fact, more than half of all incremental oil demand comes from just one country — China. The U.K.-based Centre for Global Energy Studies estimates that oil demand growth, which was in the region of 2.3 million barrels a day from 2005 to 2010, is now galloping at 6.5 mbd and is expected to continue till 2015. India's own oil demand is growing at 5.6 per cent per annum which will push the country from its current 78 per cent import dependence to 90 per cent by 2020.

Contributory factors

On the supply-side, there have been several contributory factors. The Arab Spring has effectively driven 1.6 mbd of Libyan oil out of the market, leading to a tightening of the markets. But even non-OPEC supplies have been dwindling. Iran's domestic consumption is considerable but its potential for ramping up production and, therefore, increasing exports, is even more considerable. But with the muscle-flexing that we witness now, the latter prospect has receded into the background.

The embargo comes at a time when the oil market is reeling under the effect of what some analysts call, financialisation of oil markets. Forward trades in crude are more in the nature of self-serving and self-fulfilling prophecies than legitimate hedging for price volatility. While it is difficult to put a figure on the speculative premium in today's crude prices, the fact that trading volumes on NYMEX (New York Mercantile Exchange) have increased by 400 per cent since 2001 points to the highly lucrative nature of futures trading.

However, India's public sector companies which import most of the crudes they refine are shackled by a whole host of restrictions and regulations. Besides, they are woefully ill-equipped to play a market dominated by giant players with very deep pockets and well-honed skills in market manipulation. Indian importers who also happen to be the big refiners often hedge only to protect refining margins, that too for limited quantities and hence are hugely vulnerable to crude price volatility.

Inflationary impact

India may have to gird itself for the inflationary impact of higher oil prices. Its energy intensity remains high despite the various measures undertaken to improve energy efficiency although in recent years it has begun trailing GDP growth. Within the energy basket, the share of hydrocarbons is increasing, propelled by the demands mainly of the transportation industry. The service sector, traditionally seen as being less energy-intensive than manufacturing, no longer remains so, thanks to the lifestyles of those employed by it. High-rise offices and apartments, invariably built with hugely energy-intensive construction materials like glass, chrome, cement and steel, frequent travel both for work and leisure by the service-industry professionals, their personal lifestyles that have spawned huge malls and multiplexes in urban spaces, and the manifest preference for personalised but inefficient automated transportation, all point in one direction — to higher energy intensity. Increasing import-intensity is an ineluctable reality of our times and ballooning import bill seems a certainty. The Iran factor could now introduce another worrying dimension to India's energy security conundrum.

(The author is Member, Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board. The views expressed are personal.)

Sudha Mahalingam - The Hindu

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Extension will be worthy only if Bill is strong: Bedi

Team Anna on Tuesday said extension of Winter Session of Parliament will be worthy only if a strong Lokpal Bill is brought with CBI out of government control.

“Extension will be worth if it is for a strong Lokpal with CBI out of government control and with Lokpal. Everything depends on the content of the bill,” activist Kiran Bedi said.

She was reacting to reports about government deciding to extend the Winter Session by three days from December 27 to facilitate the passage of the Lokpal Bill and some other key legislations.

Team Anna also asked the BJP whether it was determined on Lokpal as it was on issues of JPC probe into 2G scam and FDI in retail and cautioned the opposition party against “double speak” on the question of bringing CBI under the ombudsman.

“Is BJP as determined as it was in JPC and FDI on Lokpal? When will BJP make its stand on CBI categorical. Now that Congress’ is evident,” Ms. Bedi said.

She also warned the main opposition party that it will be a “bigger loser if it does double speak” on CBI. “People will not forgive them either,” she said.

Ms. Bedi also said that it was “frustrating to be waiting to see” what Congress does. “It changes every minute,” she added.


Chomsky, 70 others oppose Assange's extradition

Leading world figures, including the distinguished American academic Noam Chomsky, British filmmaker Ken Loach and journalist and free speech campaigner John Pilger, have attacked the move to extradite the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Sweden as they fear it could be a prelude to him being handed over to the Americans, who want to prosecute him for publishing classified documents.

Sweden is seeking Mr. Assange's extradition over allegations of sexual assault brought by two Swedish women but he has challenged the proceedings and Britain's Supreme Court is to hear his appeal next month.

In a statement on Monday, signed by more than 70 others including the former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, they said: “We are concerned that should Mr. Assange be placed in Swedish custody, he will be subject to the process of ‘temporary surrender' enabling his removal to the United States without the appropriate legal processes that accompany normal extradition cases.”

Arguing that the chances of Mr. Assange receiving a fair trial in the U.S. appeared “remote”, they said: “A number of prominent [U.S.] political figures have called for him to be assassinated, and Joe Biden, the Vice-President, has called him a ‘high-tech terrorist'. Given this atmosphere of hostility, we hold serious concerns about his safety in American custody.”

The signatories pointed out that any prosecution of Mr. Assange in the U.S. would be “on the basis of his activities as a journalist and editor — Mr. Assange's status as such has been recently confirmed by the High Court in England”. “Such a prosecution would be a serious assault on freedom of speech and the need for an unfettered, independent media,” said the statement, published in The Daily Telegraph.

The hindu

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Russia proposes U.N. resolution on Syria; U.S. hopes to work with Moscow on draft

Russia on Thursday proposed a Security Council resolution on the Syrian crisis as international fears over the violence in the country grew, Al Arabiya reported.

As a key ally of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has tried to head off Security Council intervention in the Syrian crisis. With China, it vetoed a council resolution proposed by European nations in October condemning Assad’s crackdown on protests which the U.N. says has left 5,000 dead.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States hopes it can work with Russia on the draft resolution it proposed to the U.N. Security Council on the Syria crisis.

Though Clinton indicated Washington had differences with Moscow on the draft, the chief U.S. diplomat said it was the “first time” that Russia has recognized the violence in Syria needs to be taken up by the Security Council.

“There are some issues in it that we would not be able to support. There's unfortunately a seeming parity between the government and peaceful protesters,” said Clinton, who blames the Syrian regime alone for the violence.

“We are going to study the draft carefully ... Hopefully we can work with the Russians,” Clinton told reporters, according to AFP. “We hope to be able to work with them.”

Russia called emergency talks of the 15 nation body on Syria however to propose the new resolution which western diplomats said they did not find acceptable but could be negotiated on.

“We did address the situation in Syria and we started out by noting that there are two things united members of Security Council regarding the situation in Syria. First one is our concern regarding the developing crisis and the second is the feeling that the Security Council can’t play a useful and constructive role in trying to resolve this crisis,” Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the U.N. told reporters.

“As far as Russia is concerned, our attitude to deal with crisis is reflected with the statement of Aug. 3, which is a consensus document adopted by the Security Council, and also in the Russian-Chinese draft resolution on Syria, which was introduced to the Security Council a few months ago,” he said.

Churkin said that Russia updated the previous draft and proposed to the Security Council a new version which takes into account the development of the past few months which strengthened all aspects of previous text, “with regards to need to stop violence, with regards to the need to uphold human rights and with regard expediting reforms and especially we believe it’s important to give strong message to all that we encourage them to continue their efforts, and working together with government of Syria and to carry out its plan to deploy monitoring mission in Syria.”

“We all believe that the Security Council must do something. The role of the Security Council should not be not to exacerbate crisis but to bring end to crisis,” Churkin said.

The Russian ambassador to the U.N. said: “We made no secret of fact that we call on violence to be stopped on all sides. We are concerned about weapons smuggling and the armed groups operating in Syria. Our assessment of situation that various violent groups taking advantage of peaceful protesters to pursue their agenda. Those concerns are reflected in the draft resolution.”

When asked whether Russia has condemned the smuggling of weapons into Syria, he said “this is something which is incorporated in the draft resolution, comments about that but we’ll leave it till later.”

The French envoy to the United Nations welcomed the resolution proposed by Russia on the Syrian crisis, saying it was “an extraordinary event.”

“Russia has decided to move on the resolution project... We think that it is because Russia has felt the pressure of the international community,” France’s envoy to the U.N., Gerard Araud, told journalists.

We “need to show that the violence has come from the Syrian regime which has shot down thousands of demonstrators... Primary responsible of the violence is the behavior of armed forces and secondly the refusal of Syrian regime to engage in genuine reform.”

Meanwhile, the German ambassador Peter Wittig said that the silent on Syria was unbearable. “We are discussing the situation in Syria in serious manner.” He described the Syrian situation as “dramatic.”

“We are engaging the resolution by Russia and there is opportunity to bridge gaps, and break silence of the Security Council. We need to embrace what Human Rights council has said and take up what Pillay has told us,” Wittig told reporters. “It’s time for the Security Council to send strong messages to Syria and Syrian authorities.”

“Accountability is what we want to see in this kind of resolution, that’s why we have to think of the Security Council mandated independent investigation commission. Accountability is key element of any resolution,” added Wittig.

A leading Syrian human rights activist earlier on Thursday urged the international community to cut diplomatic ties with Damascus and up pressure on Russia to stop blocking U.N. action against the regime there.

“So far 5,000 people have been killed in Syria, among them are 277 children, 159 women and a lot of people were killed under torture. All this is happening in cold blood and the international community is watching and doing nothing,” Rami Abdurrahman, founder of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on the sidelines of a European Union conference in Warsaw, AFP reported.

“Russia’s support, that is the main problem,” he said but stressed Syrians did not want the West to engage in any military action similar to the NATO air strikes which played a key role in toppling the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, he said.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Athens:The 13th International Meeting of Communist and Workers’ Parties was held in Athens on 9-11 December 2011 with theme:

The international situation and the experience of the communists 20 years after the counterrevolution in the USSR. The tasks for the development of the class struggle in conditions of capitalist crisis, imperialist wars, of the current popular struggles and uprisings, for working class-popular rights, the strengthening of proletarian internationalism and the anti-imperialist front, for the overthrow of capitalism and the construction of socialism”.

The meeting was attended by representatives from 78 Parties from 59 countries. A number of parties that did not manage to take part for reasons beyond their control sent written messages. We salute from Athens the growing popular struggles releasing huge emancipatory potential against imperialism, against capitalist exploitation and oppression, and for the social, labour and social security rights of workers’ all over the world.

The meeting was held in critical conditions in which the deep and prolonged capitalist crisis continues to prevail in the international situation, accompanied by the escalation of the aggressiveness of imperialism which is expressed in the decisions of the Lisbon Summit for the new NATO strategy. This reality confirms the analyses outlined in the statements of the 10th, 11th, 12th, International Meetings that took place in Brazil (Sao Paolo) in 2008, India (New Delhi) in 2009 and South Africa (Tshwane) in 2010.

It becomes increasingly obvious for millions of working people that the crisis is a crisis of the system. It is not faults within the system but the system itself that is faulty, generating regular and periodic crises. It results from the sharpening of the main contradiction of capitalism between the social character of production and the private capitalist appropriation and not from any version of the management policy of the system or from any aberration based on the greed of some bankers or other capitalists or from the lack of effective regulatory mechanisms. It highlights the historical boundaries of capitalism and the need to strengthen the struggles for anti-monopoly anti-capitalist ruptures, the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism.

In the USA, Japan, the EU, and in other capitalist economies the impasses of the various versions of the bourgeois management are being demonstrated. On the one hand the restrictive political line leads to a prolonged and deep recession; on the other, the expansionist political management, with large state support packages to the monopoly groups, finance capital, and the banks, intensifies inflation and leads to the swelling of the public debt. Capitalism converts corporate insolvencies into sovereign insolvencies. Capitalism has no other response to the crisis beyond the mass destruction of productive forces, resources, mass dismissals, factory closures, and the comprehensive attack on workers and trade union rights, on wages, pensions, social security, the reduction in people’s income, the huge increase in unemployment and poverty.

The anti-people offensive is strengthening which is manifested with particular intensity in certain regions. The concentration and centralization of monopoly capital is intensifying the reactionary character of economic and political power. Capitalist restructuring and privatisations are being promoted, aiming at competitiveness and maximisation of profit of capital, at ensuring a cheaper labour force and the regression of decades in terms of social and labour rights.

The intensity of the crisis, its global synchronisation, the prospect of the slow, weak recovery intensify the difficulties of the bourgeois forces in managing the crisis, leading to the sharpening of the inter-imperialist contradictions and rivalries while the danger of imperialist wars is being strengthened.

The attacks on democratic rights and sovereignty are intensifying in many countries. Political systems become more reactionary. Anti-communism is being reinforced. There are generalised measures against the activity of the communist and workers’ parties, against the trade union, political and democratic freedoms The ruling classes develop a multi faceted attempt to trap the people’s discontent through changes in the political systems, through the utilisation of a series of pro-imperialist NGOs and other organizations, through attempts to channel the people’s discontent into movements with allegedly non-political or even with reactionary characteristics.

We salute the people’s and workers extensive struggles and uprisings, for democratic, social and political rights against the anti-people regimes in the Middle East and North Africa, namely in Tunisia and Egypt. Despite the contradictions which the current situation manifests, it constitutes a significant experience that the communist movement should study and utilise. Simultaneously we strongly condemn the imperialist war of NATO and the EU against the Libyan people and the threats and interference in the internal affairs of Syria and Iran, as well as of any other country. We consider that every foreign intervention against Iran under whatever pretext attacks the interests of the Iranian workers and their struggles for democratic freedoms, social justice and social rights.

These developments confirm the necessity of strengthening the Communist and Workers’ Parties in order to play their historical role, to further strengthen the workers and people’s struggle in defence of their rights and aspirations, to utilise the contradictions of the system and the inter-imperialist contradictions for an overthrow at the level of power and economy, for the satisfaction of people’s needs. Without the leading role of the communist and workers parties and the vanguard class, the working class, the peoples will be vulnerable to confusion, assimilation and manipulation by the political forces that represent the monopolies, finance capital and imperialism.

Significant realignments in the international correlation of forces are under way. There is the on-going relative weakening of the position of the USA, the general productive stagnation in the most advanced capitalist economies and the emergence of new global economic powers, notably China. The tendency for the increase of contradictions is strengthening, between the imperialist centres, and of these with the so-called emerging economies.

Imperialist aggressiveness intensifies. There are already several regional points of tension and wars and they are multiplying: in Asia and Africa, in the Middle East with the increasing aggressiveness of Israel particularly against the Palestinian people. At the same time we note the rising of neo Nazi and xenophobic forces in Europe, the multifaceted interventions, threats and the offensive against the people’s movements and the progressive political forces in Latin America. Militarization is being reinforced. The risk for a general conflagration at a regional level becomes even greater. In this sense the expansion and strengthening of the anti-imperialist social and political front and the struggles for peace in the direction of eradicating the causes of imperialist wars are fundamental.

There are two paths of development:
- the capitalist path, the path of the exploitation of the peoples which creates great dangers for imperialist wars, for workers’, people’s democratic rights
- and the path of liberation with immense possibilities for the promotion of the interests of the workers and the peoples, for the achievement of social justice, people’s sovereignty, peace and progress. The path of the workers’ and people’s struggles, the path of socialism and communism, which is historically necessary.

Thanks to the decisive contribution of the communists and the class oriented trade-union movement the workers’ struggles in Europe and all over the world were further strengthened. Imperialist aggressiveness continues to meet resolute popular resistance in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. This fact, along with experience accumulated so far especially in Latin America, the struggles and the processes that take place demonstrate the possibilities of resistance, of class struggle, in order for the peoples to make steps forward, to gain ground inflicting blows to imperialism when they have as their goal the overthrow of imperialist barbarity.

We salute the workers’ and people’s struggles and note the need to further strengthen them. The conditions demand the intensification of the class struggle, of the ideological, political, mass struggle in order to impede the anti-people measures and promote goals of struggle that meet the contemporary people’s needs; demand an organized workers’ counterattack for anti-monopoly and anti-imperialist ruptures, for the overthrow of capitalism putting an end to the exploitation of man by man.

Today the conditions are ripe for the construction of wide social anti-monopoly and anti-imperialist alliances, capable of defeating the multifaceted imperialist offensive and aggression and of fighting for power and promoting deep, radical, revolutionary changes. Working class unity, the organisation and the class orientation of the labour movement are fundamental factors in ensuring the construction of effective social alliances with the peasantry, the urban middle class strata, the women’s movement and youth movement.

In this struggle the role of the communist and workers’ parties at national, regional and international level and the strengthening of their cooperation are indispensable. The joint coordinated activity of the Communist and Workers’ Parties, of the communist youth organizations and the anti-imperialist organizations in which the communists have an important contribution constitutes one of the most reliable elements for the expansion of the anti-imperialist struggle and the strengthening of the anti-imperialist front.

The ideological struggle of the communist movement is of vital importance in order to defend and develop scientific socialism, to repulse contemporary anti-communism, to confront bourgeois ideology, anti-scientific theories and opportunist currents which reject the class struggle; combat the role of social democratic forces that defend and implement anti-people and pro-imperialist policies by supporting the strategy of capital and imperialism. The understanding of the unified character of the duties of the struggle for social, national and class emancipation, for the distinct promotion of the socialist alternative requires the ideological counteroffensive of the communist movement.

The overthrow of capitalism and the construction of socialism constitute an imperative need for the peoples. In view of the capitalist crisis and its consequences the international experiences and practice of the socialist construction prove the superiority of socialism. We underline our solidarity with the peoples who struggle for socialism and are involved in the construction of socialism.

Only socialism can create the conditions for the eradication of wars, unemployment, hunger, misery, illiteracy, the uncertainty of hundreds of millions of people, the destruction of the environment. Only socialism creates the conditions for development according to the contemporary needs of the workers.

Working people, farmers, urban and rural workers, women, young people, we call on you to struggle together to put an end to this capitalist barbarity. There is hope, there is a prospect. The future belongs to socialism.


Monday, December 12, 2011

FDI in retail — UPA ‘retired hurt’ - P. Sainath

Here's the wonderful thing about the FDI-in-retail debate: never have struggling Indian farmers found so many champions. They've been crawling out of the woodwork.

Foreign direct investment in retail may be on hold, but Hillary Clinton can stop worrying about Anand Sharma and Pranab Mukherjee.

“How does (Commerce Minister) Sharma view India's current Foreign Direct Investment guidelines? Which sectors does he plan to open further? Why is he reluctant to open multi-brand retail?” Those were among the questions U.S. Secretary of State Clinton posed in a cable to her embassy in New Delhi in September 2009, some months after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh began his second term. (See: Hillary checks out Pranab, and the competition, from The Hindu-Wikileaks India Cables series: March 18, 2011).

Note her pointed query on opening up ‘multi-brand retail.' She had other worries, too. “Why was (Pranab) Mukherjee chosen for the finance portfolio over Montek Singh Ahluwalia? How do Mukherjee and Ahluwalia get along?” And “does Sharma get along with Mukherjee and Prime Minister Singh?” They get along fine, Hillary, and they're all in it together, as a team.

Hillary has reason to be concerned about FDI in retail. There's the tens of thousands of dollars she earned from serving as a director on Walmart's board. And the other thousands of dollars contributed to her 2007-08 campaign by Walmart executives and lobbyists. An ABC News report on that in 2008 also observed that as a director, Hillary Clinton remained “a loyal company woman” (Clinton remained silent as Wal-Mart fought unions: ABC News, January 31, 2008).

And she surely knows the UPA's FDI retreat is tactical. Pranab Mukherjee put it with disarming candour: we don't want mid-term polls. Hillary too had flip-flopped during her election campaign, going by the ABC News report. (While on its Board of Directors, she had said: “I'm always proud of Walmart and what we do and the way we do it better than anybody else” — June 1990.)

Yet, Hillary's campaign website of 2007-08, points out the ABC News report, omitted “any reference to her role at Walmart in its detailed biography of her.” As the race heated up, she recanted: “Now I know that Walmart's policies do not reflect the best way of doing business and the values that I think are important in America.”

Perhaps Hillary's FDI concerns are loftier. She must be worried about the poor Indian farmer. The wonderful thing about the FDI-in-retail debate is the explosion of concern for agriculturists. Never have struggling Indian farmers found so many champions. They've been crawling out of the woodwork ever since the FDI announcement. From Deepak Parekh to Ratan Tata, they've suffered sleepless nights, agonising over the small farmer.

They might want to take a look at the American farm population. At their family farms, especially smaller ones, wrecked by corporate monopolies at every level, from giant agri-businesses to mammoth retail chains. Presently less than one million Americans claim farming as their occupation. That figure was over 25 million in the 1950s.

With what credibility does our regime, on whose watch farm suicides crossed the quarter-of-a-million mark, speak of helping farmers? Who knows what windfalls the deals struck with retail giants have brought to individuals in this most corrupt government in our history? We need to embrace that old journalistic principle: Follow the money. (Hillary does, though in a very different way.) Meanwhile, look at our government's claims.

Who it affects

Doing away with the ‘middleman': The first to be devastated will be that poor ‘middlewoman' — the vendor who daily provides our towns and cities with fresh produce. She did not push up the prices and has her modest margin squeezed each time they rise. That woman carrying that huge basket to your doorstep, on her feet 14-16 hours a day to feed her family. She's the first ‘middleman' target.

The more exploitative middlemen in the chain will be co-opted by giant retail which needs collectors and contractors, though not so many. It will slash their numbers after a while. This is The Mob taking over from the little guys on the block. You're looking at massive displacement in the agricultural supply chain. Only, the new ‘middlemen' will be Cardin-clad and Gucci-shod, with better access to government than the farmers everyone's dying to save.

That poor woman vendor, whose life we need to improve, not destroy, brings you fresh produce. She has to, or she can't sell it. (Tip: big retail operators pasting the words ‘natural' or ‘fresh' against their names are selling you stuff that could have been refrigerated, even frozen, for days).

Ten million jobs: Try not to die laughing. This comes from a school of economics that has gifted the world jobless growth for three decades now. We worked hard for two of those, making a big expansion of jobs impossible within our policy framework.

From the early 1990s, fantastic claims have been made of small farmers gaining from neo-liberal globalisation. For instance: farm incomes would rise 25 per cent if Indian prices were aligned to global prices; purchasing power would shoot up.

Many steps were taken on such claims, including 100 per cent FDI in sectors like seed. All achieved the opposite. These moves helped double the indebtedness of the peasantry and further spurred the worst-ever recorded wave of suicides. Apart from which we've seen seven-and-a-half million people abandon agriculture in a decade, many driven out by policies to ‘benefit the farmer.' Now we should believe that FDI in retail will undo all the damage that these policies — from the very same authors — caused? And these guys predict 10 million jobs within a year?

The UPA wants to open up a sector that for all its awful flaws and hardships presently employs 44 million people and has total sales of close to $400 billion. (That's about 20 times the number Walmart employs on roughly the same turnover.) And gives some sustenance to many millions more if you think families. Small shops and ‘big box retail' can co-exist, so croons the corporate choir. Sure, after wiping out countless thousands of tiny shops, the survivors can ‘co-exist' with the big guys, who might even have minor errands for them to run. India's powerful will run the more important errands. That was clear from 2005 when then Walmart International Division chief John Menzer told his company's annual meeting: “In our six government meetings, we created a very positive image [of Wal-Mart]…” And: “We've energized the FDI lobby and preempted the anti-FDI lobby in India.” (Wal-Mart's Hot in India, CNNMONEY.COM, June 6, 2005)

Efficiency: The giant chains can never match the efficiency of farmers' markets selling food produced locally or nearby. Their sourcing of produce from all over the world, central warehousing systems, giant transport operations — all these are hugely energy intensive. Which means a lot of what you get is old and much-refrigerated or frozen. Know the other costs of what you pay for.

Benefitting farmers: Here's a paradox. Just when we march determinedly towards super markets, people in the homeland of Big Retail are buying more and more from “farmers' markets.” That is, the oldest form of direct marketing by small producers. More and more Americans seek decent produce not drowned in chemicals, pesticides and preservatives. Growing numbers of that nation's small and family farms are selling through farmers' markets each year. In India, every market was once a farmers' market. Over time, farmers have lost control of such markets to traders and moneylenders. Now comes the coup de grace.

The coming of Big Retail is not simply about shops in the towns of over one million. It brings a radical restructuring of the entire agri-supply chain. The kind of investments — above $100 million — will obviously not go towards labour-intensive operations. The new structures that will confront farmers are stronger than any they have ever known. As a paper on the “U.S. Farm Crisis” from the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Oklahoma, puts it: “large corporations have in recent years moved to curtail farmer independence through production contracts and other forms of vertical integration. These moves have included establishment of huge corporate-owned Confined Animal Feeding Operations, where animals are raised without farmers.”

The new middlemen the government welcomes have no regard for village and community. Maximising their own profit is their sole concern. As the number of buyers shrinks to a handful of corporations, farmers will have fewer places to sell their produce. What kind of bargaining power will they have against these mega-middlemen, some of whose worth would place them, if treated as nations, amongst the top ten economies in the world? The “contracts” in the new dispensation will reflect that power equation. The National Commission for Farmers headed by Dr. M.S. Swaminathan had observed that rushing into contract farming without ensuring the needs, safety and bargaining power of the farmer would result in major displacement in the sector. But not to worry, Hillary, your team is still out there batting. Only retired hurt for the moment.

The Hindu

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Head of the Libyan land forces escapes an assassination attempt

Gunmen tried to kill head of the Libyan land forces, Khalifa Haftar, on Saturday in a bold daylight attack in Tripoil, setting off hours of intense gun battles along the main highway to the airport. Assailants in Tripoli also attacked one of Libya’s largest military bases.

The gunmen were believed to be from renegade groups of former rebel fighters. The violence deepens concerns about unity among the ex-rebels − many of whom remain heavily armed − while the police and military struggle to restructure their forces after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.

Military officials said revolutionary fighters from the western mountain town of Zintan were likely behind the violence. They spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation was still under way.

The violence began in the morning with the attack on Haftar’s convoy as it moved from his home in Tripoli to the military headquarters, said a military spokesman, Sgt. Abdel-Razik el-Shibahy.

A group of armed men at a mock checkpoint tried to stop them, but Haftar convoy swerved from the checkpoint and drove over a nearby bridge where they were shot at by two gunmen positioned on the other side, al-Shibahy said.

The military spokesman said no one in the convoy was harmed and soldiers arrested the two gunmen, who are in military custody for questioning.

Minutes later, a second army convoy heading down the same road was ambushed, apparently by the same group of gunmen at another phony checkpoint. Soldiers firing AK-47 rifles wounded two gunmen, al-Shibahy said.

His predecessor

Haftar’s predecessor, military chief Abdel-Fattah Younis, was killed in late July. At the time, rebels insisted it was the work of Qaddafi’s regime, but several witnesses said Younis was killed by fellow rebels.

Near the airport road, gunmen shot at soldiers stationed inside the Katiba Hamza military base, which is used to train Libya’s new army. No one was harmed in the shootout, al-Shibahy said.

By nightfall, gunbattles raged between gunmen and the National Army along Tripoli’s airport road, according to an Associated Press reporter near the scene. A solider who was involved in the battles, Saddam Fakry, said the army also shelled the gunmen’s positions.

Libya’s new leaders have tread cautiously in seeking to persuade former fighters to disarm, stopping short of demanding their weapons until the interim government can deliver on promises of jobs and training.

The night before the attack on his convoy, Haftar told The Associated Press in an interview that he is against forcing fighters to disarm.

“Collecting weapons has to be completely voluntary,” he said, adding that the transitional government should instead reward former rebels for their courage in joining the fight to oust Qaddafi.

“You know, fighters usually get medals of honor for their contribution, or a raise at their jobs,” Haftar said.

Earlier incident

Meanwhile, an insider source who kept his identity anonymous, told the Libyan al-Manara Media website that a military force belonging to Haftar stormed into the National Transitional Council’s headquarters in Rixos hotel in Tripoli on Tuesday

The source said that members of the transitional council were shocked especially that Haftar’s forces were heavily armed. He also said that one of Haftar’s men grabbed a mobile phone belonging to one of the hotel’s workers to stop any attempts to leak any pictures of what had happened.

According to the source, the transitional council kept around one $1 billion inside the hotel, and that Haftar demanded five percent of the money to be channeled to launch a national army for him to lead.

It is also an attempt for Haftar to pressure the interim government to appoint him as the chief of staff of the Libyan national army, the source added.

Libya’s new army post-Qaddafi has been recently formed and there is no official figure named as the head of the army yet.

Meanwhile, interim members described it as an attempted coup to bring the army to be in charge of the country.

Other sources said that Haftar’s forces came to offer their security to members of the transitional council instead of that of the rebels.

Haftar was one of Qaddafi’s army commanders in the Chadian–Libyan conflict, he fell out with the regime when Libya lost the war, and sought exile in the United States.

After falling out with the Qaddafi regime, Haftar set up his own militia financed by the CIA, according to the 2001 book Manipulations africaines, published by Le Monde diplomatique.

He came back to Libya to join rebels to oust the Qaddafi regime, and was appointed as the head of the land forces in the national army.


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Russian navy squadron sails to Syrian port; Damascus deploys tanks on Turkey border

Russia’s Defense Ministry said a navy squadron has set off for the Mediterranean as an Egyptian official said that a U.S. nuclear submarine has passed through the Suez Canal earlier this week heading to the Mediterranean.

Russian news reports quoted the ministry as saying that the squadron was to make a call at the Syrian port of Tartus to replenish supplies. The ministry said the visit had been planned long ago and had no relation to the Syrian crisis, The Associated Press reported.

Russian television stations showed the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft cruiser sailing off Tuesday from Severomorsk, the Arctic base of Russia’s Northern Fleet. The carrier is being escorted by a destroyer and several supply ships and will be joined later by several other warships.

Moscow has strongly opposed the Western push for international sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government for its violent crackdown on protests.

Although the U.S. and the European Union imposed waves of sanctions against Syria in the past months, Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil.

However, an Egyptian navigational source said that a U.S. nuclear submarine has set off from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal, according to Al Arabiya. The source said it might be heading to the Syrian coasts.

The news comes almost two weeks after the U.S. carrier George Bush crossed the Suez Canal on Nov. 20, heading to the Mediterranean and accompanied by five warships.

Syria’s state-run media said on Monday that the country’s military has held war games during which the army test-fired missiles and the air force and ground troops conducted operations “similar to a real battle.”

State TV said the exercise was meant to test “the capabilities and readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression.” It said the war games were held on Sunday.

In October, Assad warned the Middle East “would burn” if the West intervenes in Syria, according to The Associated Press.

Syria is known to have surface-to-surface missiles such as Scuds capable of hitting deep inside its archenemy Israel.

State TV said the exercise was meant to test “the capabilities and the readiness of missile systems to respond to any possible aggression.”

The drill showed Syrian missiles and troops were “ready to defend the nation and deter anyone who dares to endanger its security” and that the missiles hit their test targets with precision, the TV said.

State-run news agency SANA quoted Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha as telling the forces that participated in the maneuvers “to be in full readiness to carry out any orders give to them.”

Meanwhile, there were reports of a move by a huge number of Syrian tanks from the Maaret al-Numan in Idlib to the borders with Turkey, Al Arabiya reported.

On Tuesday, the official Syrian news agency SANA reported that Syrian border guards blocked an infiltration attempt from Turkey by about 35 “armed terrorists”

It said some of those who came over the border were wounded and escaped back to Turkey, where they received aid from the Turkish army. The wounded were transported in Turkish military vehicles, SANA said.

“The border guards forces suffered no injuries or losses. They warned they would stop anyone who even thinks of touching Syria’s security or its citizens,” SANA said.

Relations between Syria and Turkey have disintegrated since Syria began using force to suppress the revolt. Turkey has said a buffer zone may be required on its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria if the violence causes a mass exodus of Syrians.

Assad still has significant support in Syria despite nearly nine months of unrest in which more than 4,000 people have been killed, according to the United Nations. Many Syrians have not taken sides, fearing chaos or sectarian war.

On Tuesday, clashes erupted between army defectors and security forces in the town of Dael in southern Deraa province, the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters.

“There were raids and arrests ... and random gunfire and stun grenades exploding to terrify the people,” it said. All telephone lines and mobile phone connections were cut off.

The Syrian news agency earlier reported the funerals of seven army and police members killed in fighting with armed rebels. Syria says the latter are “terrorists” organized and financed from abroad.

Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have stalled and Syria is now the target of international economic sanctions and a travel ban on senior officials.

Syria’s isolation to intensify?

Syria’s isolation will intensify if Damascus fails to stop killing protesters, the British Foreign Office’s minister for the Middle East, Alistair Burt, said on Wednesday.

“These killings must stop,” Burt told AFP in Tripoli, where he launched the British Council which had been closed during the armed revolt against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.

Burt welcomed the Arab League’s decision to impose sanctions on the Syrian government.

“The sanctions on Syria by the Arab League are most important. Such sanctions will continue. The isolation of Syria will continue and intensify,” he warned.

The minister expressed hope that Russia, allied with Syria since the Soviet era, would also be “encouraged” to back such moves.


Assad says only ‘crazy’ leaders kill own people, questions U.N.’s death toll

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a U.S. television interview released Wednesday denied ordering the killing of protesters, saying that “only a crazy person” would do so.

Speaking to ABC News, Assad questioned the U.N. death toll of more than 4,000 in the unrest and said most victims were government supporters. He also brushed aside international sanctions and said Syria had launched democratic reforms.

Assad – speaking to veteran journalist Barbara Walters in a rare interview to foreign media – said he was not responsible for the nine months of bloodshed and blamed any excesses on individuals rather than his regime.

“We don’t kill our people,” ABC News quoted Assad as saying. “No government in the world kills its people, unless it’s led by a crazy person.”

Assad conceded that some members of his armed forces had gone too far, but said they had been punished.

“Every ‘brute reaction’ was by an individual, not an institution, that’s what you have to know,” he said.

“There is a difference between having a policy to crack down and between having some mistakes committed by some officials,” he said. “There was no command to kill or be brutal.”

Witnesses and human rights groups say Syrian forces have used intense force and torture to crush the biggest threat to the Assad family’s four-decade rule.

The United Nations estimates that more than 4,000 people have died since the uprising began in March, part of a wave of pro-democracy movements sweeping the Arab world that by now have toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Assad dismissed the death toll, saying: “Who said that the United Nations is a credible institution?”

“Most of the people that have been killed are supporters of the government, not the vice versa,” Assad said, giving a figure of 1,100 dead soldiers and police.

Assad said that his government was moving ahead with reforms but stated flatly: “We never said we are democratic country.”

“It takes a long time,” Assad said. “It takes a lot of maturity to be full-fledged democracy.”

Assad told ABC News such threats did not worry him, saying: “We’ve been under sanctions for the last 30, 35 years. It’s not something new.”

Syria has come under growing pressure from the United States, European Union, Arab League and non-Arab Turkey to stop the violence.

The Arab League has threatened to impose new sanctions unless Syria lets in monitors. In a letter late Sunday, Assad’s regime said it will allow monitors but only if conditions are met.

The United States and France on Tuesday sent their ambassadors back to Syria, hoping that they will help shed a light on the violence and show solidarity with protesters after being pulled out due to security concerns.

Syria accuses “armed terrorist groups” of fueling the unrest, which comes amid a wave of street protests across the Arab world this year that have toppled authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner was quoted in U.S. media as saying it was “ludicrous” that Assad was “attempting to hide behind a sort of shell game and claim he does not exercise authority in his own country”.

ABC News said that it was Assad’s first interview to U.S. media since Syria launched the crackdown in March.

Walters, 82, is known for interviews that seek to probe high-profile figures’ personal sides. She is a creator of the popular ABC News morning show “The View,” which features a panel of women hosts.

Calls for patience

Russia and Algeria both called for the Arab League peace plan, which Syria says it is considering, to be given time.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that months of effort to secure agreement on a regional plan had now finally started a handover of power in Yemen.

“The same kind of patience, the same kind of responsibility need to be exercised in relation to the realization of the plan of the Arab League in Syria,” he told reporters after attending a meeting in Lithuania of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci told lawmakers in Paris that Syria was in a “pre-civil war situation”.

“Today we are in a situation where we are putting pressure on the Syrian government and, on the other hand, talking to the opposition to create the conditions for dialogue,” he said.

“Outside of this dialogue, this transition will not happen. We must give the maximum chance to this Arab initiative.”

Syria’s state news agency SANA said an “armed terrorist group” had shot dead an army pilot on Tuesday in front of his home in the city of Homs, scene of some of the worst violence.

On Tuesday, SANA had reported that Syrian border guards had blocked an attempt by about 35 “armed terrorists” to enter from Turkey.

It said some of those who came over the border were wounded and escaped back to Turkey where they were picked up in Turkish military vehicles, SANA said.

Relations between Syria and Turkey have disintegrated since Syria began using force to suppress the revolt. Turkey has said a buffer zone may be required on its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria if the violence causes a mass exodus of Syrians.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mood shift in Russia

The winds of change blowing in the Arab East appear to have reached Russia. The ruling United Russia party has suffered big losses in Sunday's parliamentary elections in a sign of dramatic shifts in the public mood in Russian society. United Russia polled just under 50 per cent of the popular vote, almost 15 percentage points lower than it did four years ago. It will still occupy more than half the seats in the 450-member State Duma, thanks to votes cast for outsiders, but it will see its majority slashed from 90 to 15 seats. Three opposition parties represented in Parliament have made impressive gains: the Communists will have 92 seats in the new house, an increase of 60 per cent, followed by A Just Russia with 64 seats, up from the current 38 seats, and the Liberal Democrats of Vladimir Zhirinovsky with 56 seats against today's 40 seats. The reduced support for United Russia, which has controlled Parliament for the past 10 years, is partly a reaction to the economic crisis of 2008-2009, which hit people's earnings; it is also a protest against the failure of authorities to rein in corruption, which has slowed Russia's modernisation drive. The election results also indicated people's growing political activism and impatience with the overbearing dominance of the political scene by a single party.

United Russia's election setback deals a blow to its chairman, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, just as he prepares to reclaim the presidency in the March 2012 election under an agreement with President Dmitry Medvedev. Previous election successes of the ruling party — set up in 2001 to provide a political base for President Putin — have closely mirrored his popularity as a strong leader who presided over Russia's resurgence from the chaos of the 1990s. When United Russia swept to a two-thirds constitutional majority in the State Duma in 2007, it was seen as a vote of thanks for Mr. Putin who refused to cling on to power and promoted a younger leader to steer Russia along the path he had charted. However, instead of stepping back, Mr. Putin remained the dominant power behind the throne in the past four years, holding back political and economic reforms proclaimed by his successor. The disappointing performance of United Russia is the writing on the wall. It came two months after the two top leaders announced their decision to switch jobs and barely a week after the party formally nominated Mr. Putin as its candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections. Mr. Putin's assured return appears to have failed to inspire Russians. They have sent a strong message the Kremlin can ignore only at its own peril. People want political competition, they want progressive reform, and they want new leaders.

Editorial-The Hindu

Thousands protest ‘election fraud’ in Moscow

uAllegations of massive election fraud brought thousands of protesters into the streets of Moscow on Monday night in what appeared to be the largest opposition rally in years.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people defied icy rain to protest the official results of Sunday’s parliamentary election, which gave victory to the ruling United Russia party led by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

People chanted “Russia without Putin,” “Down with Thieves and Crooks”, “We’ll neither forget nor forgive” – in reference to what opposition leaders said was large-scale vote rigging that allowed the Kremlin party to grab more than half the seats in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament.

As the crowd swelled, police were forced to stop security screening of arriving protestors with metal detectors and remove fencing.

“We will not let them rob us of our votes, they must know we hate them all,” said popular whistleblower Alexei Navaly, who coined the now famous catchword “Party of Thieves and Crooks”, which has stuck fast to the United Russia party.

At one point, protesters began marching towards the Central Election Commission and the Kremlin, breaking through police lines and shouting anti-government slogans. It was not until riot police reinforcements arrived that they managed to break up the crowd, bundling people into dozens of buses parked on side streets.

About 300 people were detained, including a number of Russian and foreign reporters.

“I have not seen such a crowd in Moscow since 1993,” said Kommersant FM radio editor Dmitry Solopov. He was referring to a standoff between then President Boris Yeltsin and the Parliament that led to armed clashes and the storming of the legislature in October 1993 in which hundreds were killed.

Similar protest rallies took place on Monday in St. Petersburg and Samara, where police also detained scores of people.
The Hindu

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Why this ‘kolaveri di' is India's coming of age

The video is said to be its first viral marketing campaign

In the last two weeks, two videos have gone viral on the Internet in India. One, the catchy Tanglish-folksy ‘Why this kolaveri di' video, and two, the flash mob at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) in Mumbai where a few hundred Mumbaikars were seen shaking a leg to the Bollywood hit, ‘Rang de basanti'.

If you logged on to any social avatar of the World Wide Web, these videos, the ‘shares', the ‘likes' and the instantly-trending tweets were unmissable. While the flash mob at CST, a tribute to those who lost their lives on 26/11, has around 11.45 lakh views on YouTube, ‘Kolaveri di', a promo for Tamil hero Dhanush's upcoming film 3 uploaded by Sony Music on November 16, has been viewed 1.43 crore times.

On the Web, a world that is constantly on the look out for the ‘next cool thing', that Kolaveri's viewership continues to grow by the day, has made commentators christen it the first viral marketing campaign in India. Perhaps more interesting than the song itself are the over two dozen versions of it that you will find on YouTube. There's an anti-inflation version featuring Sharad Pawar; a group of boys from Kerala using the song to appeal to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa on the Mullaperiyar dam issue; a talented young girl presenting a “female version” reply to the song that's arguably gender-biased, and many others have done remix versions and videos of the song. Like the song's appeal, the rip-offs too are pan-national.

While Bollywood trailers and content have always been popular online, film-makers have not actively tapped into this medium. Earlier this year, the makers of the Shah Rukh Khan starrer Ra.One became the first film to have its own YouTube channel, featuring songs, promos, footage, ‘behind the scenes', and cast interviews, supplemented by a fairly effective social media campaign. Add to this, the potential of revenue generation offered by music downloads and caller ring-back tone subscriptions; this form of marketing is cheap, easy, instant and a potential recipe for success.

Indeed, mobile value-added service provider, Techzone, which holds the exclusive rights for music tracks, videos and digital entertainment formats for the ‘Kolaveri' movie 3, has seen a “phenomenal” number of subscriptions, downloads and ‘live-in' requests. Techzone reportedly saw 22,000 downloads of the song in the first five days. While refusing to share numbers, marketing representatives from Techzone told The Hindu that the response has been overwhelming. TechZone deployed the content through its entire distribution network, which includes all telecom operators.

“Generally, for Tamil songs, 90 per cent of the demand comes from Tamil Nadu, but with this song we have received a sizable amount of requests from different parts of the country. This is a first for us,” the Techzone representative said.

A vibrant medium

So are we witnessing a change in cinema's relationship with cyberspace, asks Nishant Shah, a researcher from the Centre for Internet and Society. A campaign like Ra.One does not compare to ‘Kolaveri' because a movie trailer simply offers people a chance to be spectators, unlike the simple and catchy ‘Kolaveri', which has people remixing, editing the footage and using the video to create their own narratives.

Mr. Shah feels that indeed this is the first viral online video campaign that India has had. Most viral videos so far, he points out, were invariably pornographic or even voyeuristic in nature. “Like the Delhi MMS video — that was perhaps one of the earliest videos to go viral — to other pornographic clips of movie stars. Later on, we saw interesting remixes or spoofs, mostly regional; this is the first time that we have home-grown content that has gone viral simply because it is fun, simple and addictive. In that sense it's an intelligent campaign,” he explained. He also feels that this could be the coming of age of video as a medium, particularly so because the campaign has become a pan-India phenomenon.

Tried and tested

Viral marketing is quite big abroad. In that sense, this has all been ‘tried and tested' abroad — from commercials for beer and sunglasses to selling computers and even presidential campaigns; online videos and viral marketing plans are indeed the mainstay of many publicity strategies.

Marketing campaigns can no longer ignore the Internet. Neither can they treat it as an also-ran, says Prashanth, a social media junkie and marketing professional. “Campaigns now have to start thinking of making promotional content for the new media. Currently, a shorter version of regular campaigns are edited for the Web; there are some successful ones in this category too. But a campaign such as the ‘Kolaveri' has the industry sitting up and taking notice. In some sense, the logic is simple: you have your audience cut-out, and the reach is pretty much pan-national,” he explains.