Analysis: Amarnath vs Haj vs Christian pilgrimage subsidy vs poverty of Bhaaratiya people

The unfortunate events in Jammu & Kashmir regarding the transfer of land by the government to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board call for each one's urgent attention and involvement. What began as a simple effort to facilitate Amarnath pilgrims has suddenly developed communal and political overtones. This is appalling when compared to the facilities offered to the Haj and the Vaishno Devi pilgrims. In an attempt to bring this to the attention of every responsible citizen of India , we would like you to have the benefit of some facts stated below. In keeping with public policy statements, the Government of India makes elaborate arrangements for the welfare of Haj pilgrims and strives to improve the facilities provided to them every year. That is how it should be. The Government of India , and the ministry of external affairs in particular, deserves credit for providing perhaps the best arrangements that any government makes for their Haj pilgrims. For eg: As reported in a newspaper article, here are the facts about the facilities provided to Haj pilgrims. 1. To begin with, the government provides an airfare subsidy to about 100,000 pilgrims selected by the Haj Committee of India who go for Haj annually. Pilgrims pay only Rs 12,000 for their air travel. This figure has remained unchanged for at least a decade or more. According to official figures, this subsidy was Rs 280 crores in 2006, or about Rs 28,000 per pilgrim. Today, with rising fuel prices, this figure would have gone up to Rs 350-400 crore. There is also a seperate Haj Terminal at Delhi International Airport . 2. There is a separate Haj cell in the ministry of external affairs. The Haj Committee of India has its own premises in Mumbai. Similarly the State Haj Committees have their own premises in various other Indian cities. These facilities have been built on land provided by the state governments. 3. Accommodation in Mecca and Medina is decided keeping in mind the need to provide maximum convenience and comfort to the pilgrims. Typically, all accommodation has lifts, telephones, running water, electricity and telephone at the minimum. There is total computerisation of pilgrim location and movement. 4. For Haj 2007, a contingent of 115 doctors (including 63 specialists with post-graduate degrees) and 141 nurses and other para-medical staff, 3 coordinators, 46 assistant Haj officers, 165 Haj assistants and 186 Khadimul Hujjaj were sent from India on short-term deputation to Saudi Arabia. Special attention is given to medical facilities for the pilgrims. 5. Some of the facilities provided by the government are: arrangements for polio, meningitis and influenza vaccinations for pilgrims before departure; a 75-bed hospital and 12 branch offices-cum-dispensaries in Mecca; a 15-bed hospital and 6 branch offices-cum-dispensaries in Medina; three medical teams at Jeddah airport to provide medical care round the clock to Haj pilgrims; 17 ambulances in Mecca and Medina; supply of medicines, medical supplies and critical medical equipment from India. All this adds up to the total money spent by the government to facilitate a hassle-free Haj pilgrimage each year for tens of thousands of Muslims from India . What is due to one community by logic and fair practice is due to another. And yet in a discriminatory treatment lakhs of pilgrims who have been going to Amarnath for years have been denied basic human facilities. The question is what took them so long to consider these facilities and not whether or not they should be provided. There isn't any adequate medical and sanitary facilities for the pilgrims of Amarnath Shrine. As the agitation continues, it has been reported that a water bottle costing Rs 14 was sold at Rs 70. And a khacchar or a pony that took pilgrims at the cost of Rs 1,500 charged an abominable Rs 10,000. Compare this with the subsidies for Haj Pilgrims. Buses of pilgrims were also stoned by unruly elements. The whole agitation was started by the Peoples Democratic Party on the absurd presumption that providing these basic facilities to the travelling pilgrims will result in a changed "eco-cultural character" of the state. Does this imply that Kashmir only has a "Muslim" character? Kashmir originally and lawfully belongs to both Hindus and Muslims. Nevertheless, 4,00,000 Kashmiri Pandits were driven out of Kashmir and are living as refugees and now even the very thought of Hindus settling in Kashmir is creating such violent repercussions. Is this a sign of a secular, healthy, fair society? Even if we were to presume that it has a Muslim character, how can travelling pilgrims possibly change eco-cultural character of a place. Can there be a likelihood of someone settling down at the height of 13,500 ft? There can not be any possibility of Hindus settling down in the proposed land. It is ironical that though the Hindus are being denied basic hospitable facilities to enable their pilgrimage, the temporary, pre-fabricated shelters built by the Amarnath Shrine Board were dismantled and sent for emergency relief operations during the earthquake in Kashmir in October 2005. "About 60-70 pre-fab shelters were sent to Uri and Tangdhar, where they housed thousands," a senior Government official is reported to have said. "The Amarnath Board also sent pre-fab toilets. There was no objection from any political party at that point." For centuries pilgrims have been making the arduous trip to Amarnath cave without any benefit from the state. They have to depend to private philanthropy for food, accommodation and other facilities. It is shameful that people have lived in torn taurpaulin tents. But a caring State in independent India can and should do more.

600 million Indians live on less than two dollars a day

Taking cue for subsidy for Hajj pilgrimage purpose, Christian chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh with Hindu name Chander Shekhar has decided to give subsidy to Christians for pilgrimage going to Bethlem.
As inflation soars to 13%, and with the manufacturing and infrastructure sectors now in the midst of a decisive slowdown, international and Indian investors need to revisit the fundamentals which triggered the India growth story nearly three years ago. Was India Rising merely a slogan adopted on the back of the exponential growth in disposable incomes within upper middle class Indians? And, were government issued statistics, and related forecasts, entirely misleading since they failed to encompass the future impact of growth, not in the gross domestic product, but in the poor-rich divide? Over 250 million Indians continue to live on less than one dollar a day; roughly 600 million more live on less than two dollars. But, a dollar or two apart, if national poverty statistics are calculated on the bases of a basket of essentials, India is mired in poverty. Despite hundreds, probably thousands, of anti-poverty initiatives adopted since Indian independence in 1947, the wealth distribution matrix continues to shift, year after year, in favour of industrialists, landlords, money lenders, criminal syndicates and, of late, the 75-million strong upper middle class.Blaming rising energy and commodity prices, New Delhi has just announced a downward revision in the 2007 growth estimate to 7.7%, from 9%. But already, a broad range of economists are emphasizing that 5% is a more realistic target for 2008. "Then, of course, we have to see the impact of the monsoons on the harvest," a senior cabinet minister said yesterday on condition of anonymity. "Mother Nature remains the biggest single component of national performance data, regardless of the marked expansion in manufacturing and services."International asset managers have failed to understand the most fundamental of truisms: that India Rising is a meaningless slogan without significant, material and sustainable changes in the vast agrarian hinterland, where 75% of Indians live. While it is quite possible for an investor to extract short and medium term profits from a stock market driven by massive infrastructure spending, consumer demand and the outsourcing window, it is not prudent for portfolio strategists to assume that the factors which justify short and medium term trading lay the foundations for longer term rewards.In other words, India-related valuations currently employed by equity and debt investors need to be dramatically revised downwards. The price of oil and food is now placing tremendous pressures on middle class families who have been surviving or thriving, thus far, on ill-advised credit; the poor are already enveloped by a sense of desperation and hopelessness. With domestic interest rates trending higher, default ratios for mortgages and credit card loans are due for a sharp rise towards the end of this year. More importantly, while rural poverty and marginalization is sparking unrest in at least two dozen pockets of conflict, the working poor in India's cities are rapidly embracing the agendas of radical religious and social groups.Quite obviously, the level of impoverishment has not kept pace with the growth of political consciousness, as many Indian progressive and leftist intellectuals would have liked; as such, nobody should expect anything remotely similar to a mass revolution. But impoverishment does impose severe constraints on consumer surpluses and purchasing power, and on debt servicing abilities on usurious loans. The question is: at what point will the collective degradation in family balance sheets, in the villages and in the townships, cause a genuine reversal of the real growth cycle? Bear in mind that, as opposed to the commonly-recognized GDP, real growth in India needs to be measured by benchmarks which fully incorporate all the intermediate stages of production, starting with the agricultural sector, and which identify core trends governing the process of capital formation and capital spending. The GDP framework is not structured to incorporate one other salient fact: that the Indian economy is, to a considerable extent, driven by the vast pool of underground capital, acquired through organized criminal activity, illegal logging, loan sharking, smuggling, widespread corruption and, of course, plain old-fashioned tax avoidance. Estimates of the size of underground capital vary; but conservative figures range from 25% of the official economy in places like Delhi and Punjab, to 50%-plus in Mumbai, and in certain cities in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.Hardly any Indian economist has credibly explained the impact, negative or otherwise, of black money on national growth. Government statistics do not venture to engage the issue, and for good reason. Since more than 70% of India's politicians survive on, or are the beneficiary of, handouts from the perpetrators of such money. But underground surpluses will, at the first signs of economic or political uncertainly, begin moving away from cash-generating activities to find homes either in non-dynamic items like gold or in offshore deposits which clearly offer a play on potential declines in the worth of the Indian Rupee over the next decade; at least three Dubai hawala outlets confirm a steady flow of transfers from India and Pakistan in recent weeks.The inherent problems pertaining to the wealth gap between rich and poor, the inability to substantially upgrade the agricultural infrastructure over many decades, the vagaries of the monsoon rainfall, the looming prospects of loan defaults and the forthcoming capital allocation adjustments in the underground economy, all create unprecedented risks for international investors today. Are the rating agencies capable of defining those risks? That is the question which mutual fund managers should be asking prior to selling India Rising to their retail participants at this juncture.
Rakesh Saxena (August 15 2008)


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