Perhaps yes, minister

Published: Thursday 15 October 2009

if a minister is to be judged, 100 days is never enough. More so when the minister takes over a ministry (environment) that has reeled under a series of bored politicians with measely regional profiles and no politico-environmental agenda. Jairam Ramesh has it easy in that deparment. It is diffcult to do worse than A Raja and T R Baalu; the ministry got reduced to a rubber stamp under their watch, clearing project after industrial project without so much as a sideways environmental glance. Given Ramesh's previous stints in the power and commerce ministries, expectations of him were never too high. One of his first comments in office was that he wanted his ministry to be industry friendly.

There are signs of change in the ministry. For one, it seems to have learned the value of putting up minutes of all meetings of expert appraisal committees on its website. Ramesh actually criticized his ministry publicly for clearing projects without care. He has now written to the power minister stating that without proper studies, thermal and hydel projects would not get a green light (See Power ministry gets a jolt) . Not all his proposals have gone down well. Activists have criticized his proposal for a monitoring mechanism and dispute handling authority to settle environment cases. His recent statements on the 1984 Bhopal disaster was viewed as a sign of hangover from his commerce ministry days (See Bhopal to get Rs 110 cr memorial).

His partiality towards the spotlight and friendliness to the media are welcome, given his predecessors' somnolence. Will all this translate to concerted and positive action? Wait and watch--there won't be too many dull moments.

The poverty line belongs to the umpire

how many are poor in India? Since 1973, there has been a series of efforts to put numbers on poverty. For any sensible effort to reduce poverty, we need reliable statistics--how are we to reach the needy when we do not know who they are and where?

But the yardsticks employed to identify the poor have missed more than they have found. India's approach to calculating poverty is top-down. The Planning Commission uses sample surveys to set down the percentage of people living in poverty. The Union government then sets about finding poor families, to fill up the numbers. This method relies on the commission getting its numbers right to know how many live below the poverty line (bpl).

Government schemes on food, agriculture, health, sanitation and education have limited success because the poverty levels projected by the Planning Commission have not been accurate. Poverty reduction happens only on paper. Which is why the new methodology to identify the rural poor, drawn by former bureaucrat N C Saxena, must be taken seriously (See BPL a difficult line to draw). Saxena has the right credentials to identify the flaws--he has presided over innumerable rural development efforts and is an old hand in the Planning Commission. A caveat the experience must help move away from past mistakes.

Medium is not the message always

The minister of state for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor, recenlty found--to his peril--what academics have held for years the way we speak and write (or tweet) betrays our class affiliation.

The world of communication is not innocent of identities national, transnational, local or religious. Champions of this or that identity always stress linguistic purity. The use of several Indian languages today springs from late 19th century and early 20th century endeavours to fix grammars, scripts and vocabularies. Hindi and Bengali, for example, were purged of Persian words. The savants settled for the Devanagari script after much debate. Zealots of identity are readily unsettled. Extremists in Muslim-majority Indonesia, for example, are angered because an indigenous community in the country has adopted the Korean Hangul script they see this as a Christian conspiracy (See Letter of contention).

Languages, though, have a way of eluding purists. You would see the purists mastering the use of mobile phone devices, texting Hindi messages in the Roman script.

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