(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
March 23, 2008
THE WEEK IN PARLIAMENT
DISCUSSION on the railways budget concluded this week. From the CPI(M) side, N N Krishnadas, P Karunakaran, Suresh Kurup, C S Sujatha, P Sathedevi, Alakesh Das, Amitava Nandy, Rupchand Pal, Abu Ayes Mondal, Sunil Khan, Susmita Bauri, Sujan Chakraborty participated in the discussion in Lok Sabha, and P Madhu, Tarini Kanta Ray and Matilal Sarkar participated in Rajya Sabha.
THREAT OF PRIVATISATION
In Rajya Sabha, supporting the budget, P Madhu said the financial figures given by the minister looked healthy but were being achieved by jeopardising the future of the railways. Railways are not expanding. Expansion must be taken on war footing for goods as well as passenger carriage. In 1951, railways accounted for 80 percent of transport network and roads for 20 percent. Now the road sector's share is 65 percent and railways’ is 35 percent. During this period, the railways’ cargo and passenger shares were up 9.1 and 4.5 times respectively whereas the road sector's shares went up 67.6 and 101 times. The question is: what is the use of showing a Rs 25,000 crore surplus if you do not expand the railways to every nook and corner of the country so as to aid our economic development? Railways are unable to meet the people’s requirements and of urban transport in bigger cities. The share of urban commuters has drastically reduced but there is no budgetary provision for them despite the growing urban population. A dangerous thing is that the railways are out to privatise the manufacturing of electric locos, diesel locos, coaches, wheels, etc and the maintenance of workshops in a big way. Two workshops are to be closed on March 31. Reservation, railway hospitals, electric equipments, wagon cleaning, water supply, sanitation, printing presses, caterings are all going to be privatised. There will be staff downsizing. Madhu demanded speedy completion of Kovvur-Bhadrachallam, Gadwal-Raichur, Kareemnager-Nizamabad and Yerragintla-Nadyal rail lines.
Other members also demanded completion of various projects, extension, electrification and doubling of rail lines, gauge conversion, increase in suburban train services, coaches, construction of overbridges, subways, manning of level crossing, modernisation of signalling system, introduction of new trains, etc. Bengal members demanded expansion of Kolkata Metro, take-over of Braithwaite and Burn Standard wagon units, and expansion of Kanchrapara Workshop.
Both the houses discussed the budget (general) 2008-09, when the CPI(M)’s Rupchand Pal and P Karunakaran participated in it in Lok Sabha and Brinda Karat in Rajya Sabha.
Pal pointed out that the general budget has miserably failed to address the basic issues facing the economy. While welcoming the government’s announcement about waiver of loans for small and marginal farmers to the tune of Rs 60,000 crore, he doubted whether four crore of small and marginal farmers would benefit from it. He expressed concern about the large number of distressed farmers who are indebted to moneylenders and remain out of the ambit of this debt relief.
Dealing with agriculture, Pal said it has struck a disappointing note. Population growth (1.9 percent) has surpassed the growth of foodgrain production (1.6 percent). Neglect of agriculture has led to unprecedented distress that underlies the rising trend in farmers’ suicides. The crisis in agriculture has become pervasive in the ‘reforms’ period. The NDA and UPA both are trying to cover up this phenomenon. We need strong growth in agriculture, remunerative prices, productivity, but agriculture has become uneconomical and unviable; 40 percent of the farmers want to leave agriculture. Non-farming activities are increasing. Though irrigation is the foundation of agriculture, there is an increase of only Rs 9,000 crore and we go to the World Bank for the repair of water bodies. The government is aware of the crisis but it is not addressing this fundamental issue.
In the health sector, the government's commitment was 2 to 3 percent of GDP. At present, not even one percent of GDP is spent on health. India ranks 128th on the Human Development Index, but we are below even Bangladesh and some sub-Saharan countries in health sector. Actual allocation on food subsidy and health care is down though there is nominal increase for education.
Unemployment is a big problem in our country. The Employment Guarantee Programme must cover all the districts and must be extended to the urban areas also. The last year's budget expressed concern about urban unemployment. But people are still losing jobs because of the wrong policies, like privatisation. Liberal imports are making our small scale sector less secure, resulting in job losses. Of the Indian workforce, 92 percent are in unorganised sector. We insisted upon the government to do something for them, like extending some social security and providing them jobs. But there is no mention about it. Frustration is rampant among the youth. There is lack of job opportunities. There are lesser job opportunities in agriculture, and more retrenchment in other sectors.
The government is obsessed with Sensex, forex and growth figures. But while 53 billionaires account for 51 percent of GDP, the Arjun Sengupta committee said 78 percent of the Indians people live on Rs 9 to 20 a day. They resort to only tokenism for the farmers and others, to only sops in the name of social security. Food insecurity is looming large. The Economic Survey says that food availability ranges from 68 grams to 12 grams a day. The prices of wheat, rice, dal etc are becoming unbearable. But the prices of petrol and diesel are being raised. This is having a cascading effect on all essential commodities. The government committed to universalisation of the public distribution system. But what is its status today? The foodgrain allocation to various states has been reduced. On the other hand, while the government has banned the forward trading in essential commodities as an instrument of controlling the prices, it is seeking to push the same indirectly by allowing the FDI in it. At the same time, the corporate sector is getting huge exemptions. But the prime minister has himself admitted that there is not much care about the distribution of the benefits of growth to the suffering India --- cultivators, unorganised sector labourers, the poor, the unemployed, and middle class.
P Karunakaran said, among other things, that the plantation sector in Kerala is facing a severe crisis. As many as 17 estates have closed down and thousands of workers rendered unemployed. The centre needs to rush more assistance in this regard. The state of Kerala is getting less fund on the ground that it has better education, health and housing facilities. But the state is lags behind in terms of higher education and therefore the centre must set up an IIT and other higher educational institutions there. Kerala is the first state to have made a success of the panchayati raj system. But it needs adequate fund to implement the central schemes. The member also said there is need to adequately increase the honorarium for Anganwadi workers and helpers, of a special programme for the housing scheme for the targeted groups, clubbing of all the housing schemes under one umbrella and their implementation through panchayats bodies, and sufficient fund for Indira Awas Yojana. Karunakaran also raised the problems of LIC employees, the need of enactment of the Women Reservation Bill in this session itself, positive approach for freedom fighters with sufficient fund and provisions, and some other issues.
In Rajya Sabha, Brinda Karat said the budget belied the assurances given in the Common Minimum Programme and said the measures proposed in the budget were half-hearted and token. In fact, the biggest failure of this government is its failure on the price rise. She said the finance minister would go down in history as P(rice) R(ise) Chidambaram. Our economy is beset with the most obscene kind of inequalities, and what was required was a massive allocation of funds into welfare measures. Regarding debt waiver, it is necessary to widen the eligibility condition through a realistic inclusion of dryland farmers. The finance minister must consider the suggestions made in the parliament for the purpose.
There is also the question: where is he is going to get the money from? In an interview, the prime minister divulged that the government might disinvest in PSUs to pay for the debt waiver. But the CPI(M) would strongly oppose any disinvestment move even to pay for debt waiver, as it means pitting the PSU workers against distressed farmers.
Karat said if you want a kisan-centric agriculture policy, you cannot depend on corporates. Dr Swaminathan has given a very clear blueprint as to what is required for agriculture. She asked the finance minister whether or not he was going to implement the 4 percent interest rate. During her intervention, the member also dwelt on the price stabilisation issue, minimum support price for all crops, abolition of APL-BPL division, lack of inclusive growth, undue tax concessions to the corporates, lack of concern for Anganwari workers and helpers, harmful effects of forward trading, taxes and duties on petro prices, unemployment, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, mid-day meal scheme, certain provisions of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, and some other issues. She concluded with an insistence on the need of drastic changes in the government’ policies.
Matilal Sarkar forcefully demanded that the government abandon the policy of dividing the poor in the name of APL and BPL. We find that the determination of BPL families all the states and union territories has left out lakhs of the poor families from the BPL list. Thus a major section of poor people are forcibly deprived of benefits meant for the BPL families. Besides the benefits of cheaper foodgrains, some state governments have adopted more welfare schemes for BPL people, e.g. in housing schemes. But the poor included in the APL list continue to remain deprived of all such benefits. As a revision of the BPL list is a complicated and time-taking process, Sarkar urged the government to chalk out some interim mechanism for the APL category, so that the poor in the APL list may benefit from various welfare schemes.
Basudeb Acharia (Lok Sabha) and Tapan Kumar Sen (Rajya Sabha) forcefully demanded immediate halt to the intended closure of Hyderabad and Bangalore airports. They said it was unfortunate that the government was out to close down two highly efficient and profit making airports in order to allow two private airports to have flourishing business. In its report submitted on March 5, the parliamentary standing committee on transport and tourism recommended a review of the entire issue, and the government must respond to its unanimous recommendation to renegotiate. Otherwise, it would be an insult to the parliament. The employees are opposed to the intended move and might take to agitation path, they warned.