(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
March 16, 2008
THE budget session began on February 25 with the president’s address to a joint session of parliament. As usual, the address patted the government for “prudent and sound economic management.”
Next day, railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav presented the rail budget 2008-09, which he termed as people friendly for its fare slashing, more passenger amenities and record outlay. While many hailed this budget, some described it as Lalu–Vellu budget for having favoured Bihar and Tamilnadu. While appreciating the budget, CPI(M) members strongly reacted against the privatisation moves in the railways in the name of public-private participation (PPP) at the cost of its own development, and said this move lacked vision. The budget continued the traditional discrimination against many states, including West Bengal and the Northeast. In Lok Sabha, CPI(M) members from West Bengal walked out in protest.
On February 28, the finance minister presented the Economic Survey 2007-08, which spoke of a downslide in agricultural growth rate from 4.2 percent in 2006-07 to 0.9 percent in 2007-08. In industry, it was down from 11.6 to 9 percent, while the GDP growth rate came down from 9.6 to 8.7 percent (advance estimate) in the same period. The survey recommended partial sale of the PSUs. It expressed doubt about sustaining the 9 percent growth in GDP and controlling inflation, thus giving an indication of troubles in future.
Coming on February 29, the general budget 2008-09 tried to please the peasantry by its Rs 60,000 crore debt waiver, and hike in income tax exemption limit to Rs 1.5 lakh for men, Rs 1.8 lakh for women and Rs 2.25 lakh for senior citizens. However, the budget failed to address the problems of inflation and adequate job creation, which should have been in the top priority list. It maintained the concessions and largesse for the rich and the super rich, and did not adequately address the problem of more than 78 percent of Indians surviving on a daily income of Rs 20.
In Lok Sabha, Md Salim, Sebastian Paul, Suresh Kurup and M Baburao participated in the discussion on the president’s address, while the participants were Sitaram Yechury and Prasanta Chatterjee in Rajya Sabha. The text of Yechury’s speech was published in these columns last week.
Md Salim said the address did not seem to be balanced, as it mentioned the Shining India but forgot to talk of the Suffering India, and thus the balance sheet remains incomplete. While the number of billionaires has gone up to 48 in the country, the government has not taken care of the 78 percent people who are earning less than Rs 20. The people are down with inflation, unemployment and poverty; farmers are facing innumerable problems and committing suicide. The address concerned itself with only 20 percent population in the country, forgetting the problems facing about 100 crore people. The UPA government has been in power for 4 years but did not pay heed to the commitment made in its Common Minimum Programme to bring a bill on reservation for women in parliament and state legislatures. It is a matter of great sorrow that as per the family health survey 70 percent children in India are anaemic. Certainly, this you cannot call growth. The number of women and children suffering from malnutrition has increased during the last decade. To solve the problem, the CMP promised universalisation of ICDS in a period of 5 years; this has not taken place even after increases in the allocation. Nor has the PDS been strengthened. The loan waiver is undoubtedly a big relief for the farmers, but this should have been done earlier to check the farmer suicides.
It is shameful that the condition of minorities has constantly deteriorated since independence. The address mentions that 15 percent would be the minorities’ share in the priority sector lending of 40 percent for the weaker sections. This comes to just 6 percent of the total lending.
During his intervention, Salim also dwelt on the migration from villages to cities and from one to another region. It is good that a backward region fund has been created to remove regional imbalances. But whatever happened in Mumbai was not in accordance with the spirit of the constitution.
As for the Maoist threat, Salim said the government must check the growth of such forces with an iron hand. In Andhra Pradesh, the PWG has expanded its activities along the borders with Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa. Nowadays they are trying to spread their activities in Bengal and Orissa. This should be a matter of concern for all. Similarly, the threat of terrorism must not be ignored.
Dealing with the international situation, Salim said we must condemn the Israeli attacks in the Gaza strip. But, regrettably, we went ahead to launch an Israeli spy satellite. Nor did we play our due role vis-à-vis the NATO invasion in Yugoslavia and the subsequent unilateral declaration of Kosovo’s independence, which violates all international law. Warning that the USA, Britain and Germany are pushing their balkanisation drive in East Europe, Salim said India must take a comprehensive view of these developments in view of the separatist tendencies growing in our country. He also regretted that the government has been succumbing to the US bullying on the civilian nuclear deal at the cost of our own interest.
Sebastian Paul reminded that the benefits of development must flow equitably to all sections, with preferential care for the minorities. Empowerment of the scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other backward classes can be achieved only through increased access to education. Basic education and healthcare still remain only pious hopes for a vast section of the population.
Suresh Kurup regretted that the address belied our expectation regarding the introduction of the women reservation bill in this session itself. We extended support to this government on the basis of its Common Minimum Programme that included some vital issues like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme which, if properly implemented, would reduce the level of poverty in the country. But many other assurances are yet to be honoured. In the PDS, the division of cardholders as BPL and APL is totally unscientific and unjustifiable. When the Targeted PDS was implemented, many poor and deserving families went out of the PDS network. Also, in the name of streamlining the PDS, the centre has drastically reduced wheat and rice allotments to different states. The prices of food items are rising. In a country like India where 70 percent people are living below the poverty line, it is the government’s duty to provide them food security. But the UPA government have increased the petro prices that is having a cascading effect on the food prices also. Kurup also touched on some other vital issues like FDI in retail network, relief to the minorities, nuclear agreement, etc, adding that overall this government has failed to project a people friendly image or that it is helping the poor to come out of the quagmire of poverty.
M Baburao forcefully demanded pension for all freedom fighters, saying over 4,000 pension applications from freedom fighters in Andhra Pradesh are still pending. He also pointed out that the address failed to mention the plight of the unemployed in the country. Instances of harassment and ill treatment of tribal women are on the rise. The member also criticised the address for not mentioning the issue of enacting a central legislation for reservation of seats for women in legislative bodies.
In Rajya Sabha, Prasanta Chatterjee said many important issues affecting the common people did not find place in the president’s address. He said nearly one lakh crore rupees are being accumulated as black money every year. Prosperity for the rich and affluent and deprivation for the majority of people is the essence of today’s exclusivist growth. The entire country is reeling under unprecedented wave of price rises. In this situation, farmers must get agricultural inputs at cheaper prices and remunerative prices for their products. When poverty and malnutrition prevail among a majority of the population and large scale migration is taking place in search of job, the government must understand that proper implementation of land reforms is a must. So the centre must move against the vested interests and prevail upon the unwilling state governments to implement the land reforms. Chatterjee also dwelt on declining employment in public sector, defects in the Unorganised Sector Social Security Bill 2007, plight of the workers and employees in the Special Economic Zones and the lack of virtually all labour rights, the continuous downsizing and the outsourcing of jobs of a perennial nature in the railways, non-enactment of the Communal Violence Bill, etc. He suggested that the government make an introspection of its performances, accept the realities and take corrective steps.
Discussion on the rail budget began on March 5. Participating in it, the CPI(M)’s Basudeb Acharia said there was a nominal reduction in passenger fares but, by changing the classification, the freight rate was increased. Some 200 express trains were upgraded to superfast trains but there was no improvement in service. After track renewal, the minimum speed of express trains could have been increased to 75 km per hour, but that was not agreed to. As a result, there is no capacity augmentation. We had 53,000 km of rail track in 1947 but our achievement is only 10,000 km addition after 60 years of independence. The same is the case of doubling. Allocation for new lines has been slashed. We have a large number of pending projects, even though economic development and industrialisation are closely connected with rail infrastructure. As we are carrying more freight today, it will impact the track condition. That aspect has to be taken care of. The railway system cries for modernisation. All the signalling systems have not been modernised.
Acharia said our priority should be an expansion of rail network to the remotest areas. If this is not there, what is one going to do with the surplus being generated? Even the surplus announced is not the real surplus; you have to deduct dividends and liabilities from it. The question also is: can we sustain this surplus?
Regarding relief to the commuters, Acharia said relief was given only to daily commuters and that too after we took up the issue. There are no improvements in passenger amenities. From 2001-02, safety surcharge was levied for five years. But this was not withdrawn after the expiry of 5 years period; rather it was converted to developmental surcharge.
The market share of the railways during the tenth plan has not increased as was expected. There is scope to increase the railways’ own income share and there is no need to invite the private sector. The railways have handed over the entire catering system and all the 16 printing presses to private parties, rendering thousands of its employees surplus. This is in no way people friendly. Modernisation of the printing presses took place with public money and then they were handed over to private sector. There are a large number of vacancies in the railways. But, instead of filling them up, the railways are creating a fresh set of surplus labour in these hard days.
Before concluding, Acharia demanded two categories of platforms (high and low level), basic minimum amenities for all passengers, enough money for new rail tracks, and time-bound programme to complete the pending projects. He drew attention to the way West Bengal is completely ignored in budget after budget and cited a list of demands for various projects, new lines and trains, increase in suburban services, separate suburban train terminuses like Mumbai, recognition to the union in Kolkata Metro and in all production units in railways through secrete ballot. (March 9, 2008)