Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Knesset holds the key to peace process

This piece was written in November, 2008
Kadima’s projected ascent to power will also mean that the Arab League’s peace plan (originally proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002), which has the backing of all major players in the region – Israel, Palestinian Authority, Arab countries and the US, will be pursued more vigorously. Livni has publicly voiced her support for the plan.

On February 10, 2009 Israel will go to polls to elect a new 120-member Knesset (parliament) for a four-year term. The composition of the Knesset will be a key determinant to the future of Israel and volatile West Asian peace process.

The election process that began on November 11 has already thrown up important indications about its composition. Electoral system of Israel is based on the list system of proportional representation and is different from the first-past-the-post system followed by several liberal democracies. Citizens here, vote for party lists based on which Knesset seats are assigned in proportion to each party’s percentage of total national votes. The voting is however, directly influenced by the profile and ideological leanings of the parties and to a certain extent, that of the candidates.

The major parties in the fray – Likud, Kadima, Labor and Meretz, with their divergent ideological positions have a direct bearing on the policies and programmes that will be pursued, the most crucial of them being the resolution of the worsening Israel-Palestinian conflict. However, Labor and Meretz are still marginal players in Israeli politics, without much reckoning in the peace process.

The main contest is between the centrist Kadima, headed by foreign minister Tzipi Livni (she was earlier a Mossad agent), and the right-wing Likud, led by leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Opinion polls conducted by Haaretz-Dialog in November, predicted a clear lead of 64 seats for the right-wing bloc as against 56 seats for the centrist parties (Elections 2009: Latest poll gives Likud big edge over Kadima, The Hareetz, November 24, 2008). But the scenario is likely to change significantly in the wake of a potential development – the possible election of hard-liners as party candidates for Knesset.

These hard-liners have displayed a highly belligerent posturing in the past with the potential to derail an already fragile peace process.

One of them, Moshe Feiglin, a settler is said to have advocated withdrawing Israel from the membership of the United Nations (UN) and barring Arabs from Knesset. The British government actually had to ban his entry to Britain. Another member is retired General Moshe Yaalon, who suggested in an interview that Israel should contemplate Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinijad’s assassination.

These developments could not have come at a more opportune moment for Kadima, which can now position itself as the best alternative, both for Israel and for the international community that has interests in the peace process. With its centrist image, Kadima will be able to consolidate public opinion among Jews, who have veered to the view of a two-state solution and withdrawal of settlements from the occupied areas.

A recent report quoted a settler Monika Yzchaki (who moved in 16 years ago to West Bank) as saying: “It used to be that I thought it was my country and they (Palestinians) thought it was theirs. Today it is very clear it is their country.”

Kadima, along with Labor, has actively supported the passage of a law that proposes to re-settle Jewish settlers from the occupied areas to mainstream territories in Israel. The proposal is estimated to cost around $6 billion. It is widely perceived that should Kadima come to power, this would soon become a reality paving the way for a positive beginning.

It needs to be recalled that the outgoing Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert (Kadima) too had a mandate in 2006 that supported withdrawal of settlements, but not much could happen. The situation worsened due to the conflict between Israel and Lebanon in July that year, as a result of which public opinion in Israel became belligerent.

Kadima’s ascent to power will also mean that the Arab League’s peace plan (originally proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002), which has the backing of all major players in the region – Israel, Palestinian Authority, Arab countries and the US, will be pursued more vigorously. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has publicly voiced her support for the plan. It may not give Israel as some suggest “peace with the Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco”, but certainly will render a consensual framework to work among the concerned players. The Arab League’s peace plan includes withdrawal of Israel to its pre-1967 borders.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud’s leader, is opposed to any such move that demands withdrawal by Israel. A Likud government therefore, would be highly reluctant to carry forward the peace process. This will have serious consequences for the entire West Asia region – escalation of clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, halting of the (slow) withdrawal of settlements from the occupied areas and a further deepening of the rift between Israel and the Arab countries.

Politics being unpredictable in Israel, the likelihood of a Likud victory cannot be ruled out. If that happens, it would be an unfortunate development. The recent visits of President Shimon Peres and the outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to London and Washington respectively were perhaps to create a favourable environment in Israel, where the Arab League’s peace plan remains a strong reality. Israel also probably realises that the US, pre-occupied with its own domestic crises, may not attach as much priority as Israel would expect it to.
The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, addressing a Palestinian Investment Conference said, "Let us together seize the opportunity we have before us to make 2009 the Middle East year of peace.," One can only hope that the new dispensation in Israel translates it into reality.
It’s time that Knesset members remember the famous Greek philosopher, Thycidide’s statement, “It may be your interest to be our masters, but how can it be ours to be your slaves?” This may well be the question that every Palestinian will be asking to Knesset members.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ice makes for some cool business

As the deep-sea trawler Metilar Metz makes ready to set sail from the Nagapattinam harbour, two men haul carts bearing blocks of ice from the nearby Matha Ice Plant. Indirect dependants on fishing, the ice plants around the harbour are part of the underlying economy, which supports the fishing industry and, at the same time, draws sustenance from it as well. There are about 20 ice plants around Nagapattinam that generate an annual turnover of Rs. 17.5 million.
Kavimani, the owner of Kavitha Ice Plant, says each plant employs about 10 workers who keep it running round the clock in 12-hour shifts. They earn about Rs. 250 a day. The ice plant industry is thus responsible for providing livelihood to about 200 people in the area.Maniazhagan, the owner of Matha Ice Plant, explains the process of making ice blocks. “First of all sea water is poured into the master tank. To this, salt got from Vedaranayam is added. Then, clean water sourced from Sikkal is poured into ice cans (moulds) which are lowered into the master tank. Ammonia gas is passed through a network of pipes called the cooling coil. It cools the water in the master tank. Since the water in the ice cans is purer than the seawater used in the master tank, it freezes to form ice blocks. The whole process takes 24 hours.”
On an average, Maniazhagan sells 300 ice blocks a day, each priced at Rs. 55. This amounts to monthly earnings of Rs. 5 lakhs. Accounting for the expenditure on various inputs, with Rs. 75,000 spent on wages alone, he makes a profit of about 2 lakhs a month.Though ice plant owners like Maniazhagan make a hefty profit, their fortunes swing with those of the fishing industry. “At times we sell all 500 blocks that we produce in a cycle. Then there are times when we don’t sell anything at all. It all depends on how many boats go out to sea –” Then with a long look at the Nagapattinam sea, he adds, “– and if they go out at all.”

Midnight’s Children

Fifteen-year-old Sunder seems to be without a care as the sea-breeze ruffles his hair. He stands on the deck of a boat, looking exuberant. His happy face, however, belies the difficulties that forced him to leave his family and work as a night watchman on one of the mechanised boats docked at the Nagapattinam harbour.“I had to drop out of school after standard XII to take up this job,” he says. “My family has debts running into lakhs and this is my bit to help out.”Sunder earns Rs. 50 a day for a job that involves a lot more than guarding the boat at night. When it arrives at the harbour, typically after a four-day trip, it is his job to clean it up. Every two hours, he must pump out any water that gets in and make sure that the deck and the engine-room are dry. Finally, he has to stay the nights on the boat as long as it remains in the harbour.
Sunder is not alone. All the 300-odd boats docked at the harbour have night watchmen. Most of them are between 14 and 16 years of age. Some, like 19-year-old Shiva, have even grown up on boats. Education, he says, is not a priority. “What is the point of studying when so many educated people are unemployed?” he asks. His friends, who also serve as night watchmen, nod in agreement.Though supplementing family income is the main reason why they work as watchmen, most aren’t in the job just to clear debts. They see it as a stepping stone to a brighter future. “When we grow up, we may venture into the sea as coolies; we may even own boats some day,” says 14-year-old Karthick.Some also aspire to work abroad. “If you go to Qatar, Singapore, or Malaysia,” says Tamizharasu whose brother recently returned from Singapore, “there are good chances of finding work as fishermen and earning good money.”There are times when the boat owner lets them travel out to sea on a four-day fishing trip.
But this is dangerous, as they don’t have fishermen’s identification cards. “When our boats are stopped for checking by the Indian navy, we hide in the engine-room,” says Sunder. “But if they find us out, they let us off with a warning.”So what do they do to stave off the boredom of looking after the boat at night once their chores are done? “We talk to each other, listen to music and we dance,” says Sunder. “Karthick is the dancing master,” he adds.Then Tamizharasu says, “Of course, we would like to play cricket, but we can’t afford a bat and a ball.”

Tsunami bounty brings mixed blessings

Resilience and economic compulsions brought the tsunami-affected fisherfolk back to the sea in 2005, and today fishing is a thriving business along the 188 km coast of Nagapattinam district.However, the occupation is constantly subject to nature’s fury, the most devastating being the December 2004 tsunami. Tamil Nadu (TN) was India’s worst affected state, and Nagapattinam the worst affected district. About 6,000 people were washed away, and thousands were affected economically and psychologically.
Nagapattinam is a major contributor to Tamil Nadu’s (TN) marine production. In 2006-07, its share was 20 per cent. Fishing employs about 75,000 people directly and indirectly.The government supports the occupation in various ways, one of which is subsidising diesel. Also, to compensate for boats damaged by the tsunami, the government gave boat owners a subsidy of Rs 5 lakhs and a loan of Rs 15 lakhs at a seven per cent rate of interest.The flip side to such a policy has been an increase in the number of boats. Pandurangan, Fisheries inspector , says, “Post-tsunami, there has been a 20 per cent rise. This has led to a significant fall in the catch per trip.”
This view is echoed by many boat owners. Mechanised boats (MB), fibre-reinforced plastic (FRP) boats, and catamarans are the three types of boats used for commercial fishing. At present, there are 1,014 MBs, 4,200 FRPs and 2,500 catamarans in the district. While an MB costs Rs 20 lakhs, an FRP costs Rs 85,000. Fisheries department officials say about 35 per cent of the boats are at sea at a given point of time. An MB employs about six fishermen, while FRPs employ four and catamarans two. These boats go out for a fishing trip at night and stay at sea for three days to return with around 500 kgs of fish. Once docked at the harbour, they stay for 35-40 hours before venturing on another trip. During this period, the boats are cleaned and maintained by boys called “night watchmen”.The expenditure for an MB is around Rs 22,000, while the value of the catch is about Rs 26,000 to 28,000. The profit margins for FRPs and catamarans are similar.
Fishing has a cascading effect on other industries. In Nagapattinam town, 20 ice plants employ about 200 workers. Net-making employs about 50 workers.Women play a critical role. When the boats reach the harbour, the catch is offloaded to the fish-landing centre (FLC). The biggest FLC is in Keechankuppam. At the FLC, boat owners employ elakaaris, who facilitate the auction of the catch and hand over the collection to the boat owners. The women charge a percentage of the collection for their services. While most of the buyers are fisherwomen who sell fish in the nearby towns, there are also separate counters for wholesale agents; these agents then sell the fish to other cities in and outside TN. While the womenfolk buy in terms of aluminium creels (chattis), the agents buy on the basis of weight. In Keechankuppam alone, there are about 100 auction women, 1,000 fisherwomen and 25 agents.
The risks involved in this occupation are many; to mitigate some of the adverse impacts arising from them, the government helps fishermen in various ways. It gives them a compensation of Rs 500 for the fish-breeding season from April 15 to May 31, during which period fishing is banned. When fishermen stray into Sri Lankan waters or go missing otherwise, the government provides a daily relief of Rs 50 till the fishermen are traced.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Indian business: Corruption Inc.

When it comes to bribery, Indian businessmen are almost on par with their counterparts in China and Russia, according to a report released by Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based global corruption watchdog.

TI released the Bribe Payers Index (BPI) for the year 2008 at a function in London today. It ranks 22 developed and developing countries on the tendency of their firms to bribe abroad. It is based on the Bribe Payers Survey (BPS) conducted among 2,742 business executives of 26 countries, between August 5 and October 29 this year.

Countries are ranked on a scale of zero to 10. The higher the score, the lower is the possibility of the companies engaging in bribery. These 22 countries together account for approximately 75% of global exports.

While Belgium and Canada top the list with a score of 8.8, Russia is at the bottom with 5.9 points. India, with a score of 6.8 ranks 19th; there are two countries below India – Mexico (6.6) and China (6.5). It may be noted that the previous index released in 2006 had placed India at the bottom out of a list of 30 countries.

"The BPI provides evidence that a number of companies from major exporting countries still use bribery to win business abroad, despite awareness of its damaging impact on corporate reputations and ordinary communities," said Transparency International Chair, Huguette Labelle in a statement.

The BPS revealed sector-wise analysis to the incidence of bribe worldwide. Companies engaged in the business of public works contracts and construction; real estate and property development; oil and gas; heavy manufacturing and mining were seen to indulge in bribery most frequently. In other words, these companies were identified as most likely to use illegal means to influence the state.

On the other hand, information technology, fisheries and banking and finance were identified as “cleanest.”
While most of the world’s wealthiest countries already subscribe to a ban on foreign bribery, under the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) Anti-Bribery Convention, there is little awareness of the convention among the senior business executives interviewed in the Bribe Payers Survey.

The timing of the report could not have been more appropriate; December 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day. India has been consistently ranked as one of the highly corrupt countries in the world. Mr. P.N. Veda Narayanan, a retired Vigilance Commissioner, Tamil Nadu government, said, “Those who are in contact with public, like policemen, income-tax officials, etc. are the most corrupt. But we can’t always blame them. What is a policeman’s get as salary, for guarding me, you and our families throughout the year? Pittance. It’s natural that he looks for other sources, to make ends meet.”

A member of a chamber of commerce said, on condition of anonymity, “I know of a minister who demanded a ransom from a person for the top post of a port trust. But such cases are hard to prove, for want of clinching evidence.”
The Corruption Perception Index released by TI earlier this year ranked India at 85th position among 122 countries. In fact, India has slipped from its 72nd position last year.

In a related development, Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) announced in a press release the establishment of “Anti-Corruption Center of Excellence.”

The release quoted PwC’s global CEO Samuel A. DiaPizza Jr. as saying the center would “provide clients unparalleled access to our deep expertise in addressing the corruption challenges of today and tomorrow.”

TI’s India chapter (TII) and Centre for Media Studies (CMS) released a report titled TII-CMS India Corruption Study, 2007 in June this year. The report was based on a survey of 22,728 below the poverty line (BPL) households and covered 11 kinds of basic services availed by them like police, medical services, land records/registration, housing, water supply, NREGS, school education, among others. Some of the major observations were:

· These households were forced to pay about Rs. 883 crores as bribe to avail the services
· Police perceived as the most corrupt; with the bribe amount paid estimated at Rs. 214 crores
· Land records and registration services came a close second, the bribe amount being Rs. 122 crores
· Medical services accounted for an estimated Rs. 87 crores
· Extrapolating the data, the report said that nearly a million households could not avail of medical
services, because they either refused to pay bribes or could not afford to pay