The Prime Minister of Tawa – 34
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Setting out the policy for privatising the banks, the insurance company, the factories and the plantations that had been nationalised by General Naranin turned out to be easier than Mash had expected. Mash had originally planned to nationalise the two banks first, followed by the insurance company, the factories and finally the plantations. But Urushambo had persuaded him otherwise. ‘Do it all in one go,’ he told Mash. ‘Or else you will have to undergo the pain and agony four times. And it will not necessarily become easier after each series of privatisation.’
‘I want to give back everything that was nationalised to their original owners for the same price the government paid them when they were nationalised,’ Mash told Dimanan at the cabinet meeting where yet another round of discussions on the privatisation policy was taking place.
‘What happens if the owners are not around?’ Nedeem wanted to know. ‘What if they are dead?’
‘Then that factory or plantation will be put up for auction. The highest bidder gets the loot.’
‘What if the owners are overseas and want someone else to re-acquire the property on their behalf? What if the owners have died and their legal heirs make a claim?’
‘I think we should treat the legal heirs on par with the owners of the property. So, if they want to buy, that should be fine. But I don’t think we should allow the owners to nominate someone else to buy their property. I guess you are thinking of those banks and the insurance company?’
‘Indeed I am. The ex-owners of both the banks and the insurance company migrated to America immediately after nationalisation. I don’t think they will come back. If they nominate someone else to buy the banks or the insurance company, should we let them do that?’ Nedeem asked.
‘Of course not,’ Dimanan supported Nedeem. ‘I don’t think we should even allow the original owners to buy the banks or the insurance company unless they plan to stay on and run them. I mean, what if they just turn up, buy the banks and the insurance company and then sell them to someone else for a much higher price and leave the country?’
‘I know what to do,’ Mash told his ministers. ‘We will have a lock-in period for the banks. A period of two years. Whoever buys those banks, or the insurance company cannot sell them to anyone else for during this lock-in period. If the original owners want to buy the banks or the insurance company, they should be willing to stay on in this country for two years. Unless they demonstrate proof of their willingness to stay here, we will not let them buy the banks or the insurance company.’
‘Why not say that only Tawan citizens can buy back nationalised property at the original price? Those bastards have given up Tawan citizenship. That’ll make it easier for us all.’
‘That’ll make us sound too parochial. As if we do not like outsiders. Remember we also want to get foreigners to invest in this country.’
‘So how do we make sure those Chinese businessmen do not get hold of those banks or the insurance company for a few puvees?’ Peelee demanded.
‘Is that what you want Peelee-raan?’ Mash asked him.
‘Don’t get me wrong Maheshdas-raan. I have nothing against the Chinese. But I don’t see why someone who left the country twenty years ago should be allowed to come back and buy a bank or the insurance company for practically nothing.’
‘Does anyone know how much General Naranin paid them when he took over their banks and the insurance company?’
‘I think he offered thousand puvees for each bank and the insurance company. But the story is that Mr. Tan who owned the Tawa People’s Bank did not even wait to collect his thousand puvees. He had already sold off his plantations and other property. So, he just gathered his family and fled to Singapore and from there to America.
‘Maheshdas-raan, if we were to auction these banks and the insurance company, we’ll get a lot of money. And we need the money. Why should we let someone who has been away from Tawa for so many years buy a bank or an insurance company for a thousand puvees each and make a killing?
‘Okay. We’ll do it this way. We’ll say that the original owners can buy the banks and the insurance company only if they or their legal heirs return to Tawa. And they must be willing to stay in Tawa for two years during which time they cannot sell the banks to anyone else.’
‘No Maheshdas-raan, that won’t do. These banks and the insurance company are worth a lot of money. Those Chinese might actually turn up and stay here for two years.’
‘Tell you what. We’ll have one set of rules for the banks and the insurance company and another set of rules for the plantations. The banks and the insurance company will be returned at the original price only if the original owners return. Legal heirs won’t do. Will this work?’
‘Oh yes it will,’ Dimanan was quite confident. ‘I have this note here which says both the banks and the insurance company were founded in the early part of the last century and the shares in both banks and the insurance company were held by the respective family patriarchs who were quite old when they were nationalised. The shares were not in the names of their sons who actually managed the banks. So, the original owners of the banks are definitely no longer alive.’
‘Just make sure of that Dimanan. We do not want a ninety-five-year-old Chinese lady turning up here from the US and asking us to give her a bank for a thousand puvees.’
‘Maheshdas-raan, I will double check this information, just to make doubly sure. But I am sure that I’m right.’
‘Why don’t we apply the same rule to that fertilizer factory at Nalvettipura?
‘Who owned it?’
‘It was owned by Kemon-raan’s family!’
‘Is that right? Why didn’t General Naranin return it to Kemon after he turned traitor?’
‘Apparently that bastard General wanted to, Maheshdas-raan. But the other army officers did not let him. So, Kemon was allowed to make money in other ways,’ Nedeem informed Mash with a wink.
‘I see. So you think we should have the same rule for the factories as well? Treat them on par with the banks and the insurance company?’
‘Oh No! Of course not. Just the fertilizer factory Maheshdas-raan,’ Vikan interrupted.
Peelee put his hand up. ‘My family owns a factory near ____________, Maheshdas-raan,’ he conceded. ‘This is a thread making factory. It was in my father’s name when it was nationalised.’
‘Okay Peelee-raan. I did not realise. We can say that the fertilizer factory is really big and vital for agricultural growth and so we will not hand it back at the original price unless the original owner is alive. But we’ll treat the other factories on par with the plantations. So, was the fertilizer factory in Kemon’s father’s name?’
‘No, it was in his uncle’s name. And his uncle is dead.’
‘Yes, if the PDA cause any trouble, we can use this as a bargaining chip,’ Nedeem added.
‘What do you mean?’ Mash asked.
‘Well, if the PDA become too much of a nuisance, we could offer to let Kemon-raan buy his factory at the price General Naranin paid his family.’
‘We’ll do nothing of the sort. I mean, this is serious business. This is where we create our reputation for good governance. I don’t mind making a few Chinese businessmen who are not in this country pay market value for those banks and the insurance company. But for the plantations and factories, once we decide on the rules, we’ll stick by them. This is so very important. Do you understand?’ Mash’s frustration burst out. He wanted to pick up the newspaper lying in front of his and hit Nedeem with it. ‘Do you?’ he repeated.
‘Yes Maheshdas-raan,’ a chastened Nedeem replied.
‘So, that’s settled. For all other factories and all the plantations, legal heirs can also buy them back at the original price paid by the government.’ It wasn’t as if they were going to make a lot of money by selling off the plantations. He might as well allow the legal heirs of the original owners buy them at a nominal value. Since the new owners were to be forbidden from firing any of the workers for a period of two years, the value of the plantations had been halved. Mash had originally planned to take a tough stand and fire all excess employees from the plantations before putting them up for sale. But he had no support at all from any quarter for such a move. On the other hand, all the TFP MPs were very keen to have Mash declare that the new owners of the plantations would have to retain every worker for a period of two years. ‘We will not let a single plantation worker lose his job,’ he had declared to thunderous applause last month at a rally held to celebrate his completion of a year in power. The ovation he received had convinced Mash that any attempt to retrench even a small section of the plantation work force would prove to be unpopular and also cost him votes.
‘What about plantations which were never validly owned by those in possession?’ Dimanan asked. ‘There are a number of plantations set up on land over which the owners did not have proper title.’
‘I don’t think we should let them go back for a nominal value. We should put them up for auction.’
‘I agree Maheshdas-raan,’ Dimanan said. ‘We do need the money, don’t we?’ Even though the plantations would not make much profit for two years on account of the prohibition on dismissing any worker, they were still profitable businesses in the long run and ought to fetch some money in an auction sale.
‘Absolutely. Can you get someone to draft a proper policy statement? I’ll have a look at it.’
‘Sure thing Maheshdas-raan. I’ll do that. I just need a couple of days for that.’
‘I think we should give two months for ex-owners to make a claim once this policy is announced. If they fail to provide adequate documents within that period, we should auction that property.’
‘I’m sure many of the owners will not have kept all title papers. We may be forced to show some leniency at times.’
‘We’ll see. We should have some discretion, of course.’
Mash was impatient to be off. He had done a good day’s work. He had a meeting with Ted Hoffman in the afternoon. Ted had been a marvel. Much earlier that Mash had believed possible, Ted informed him that Bendron Corp had decided to send a team of surveyors and assessors to Tawa. The team from Bendron Corp had arrived a month ago to survey the site where the dam was proposed to be built. They were still at it.
‘Maheshdas-raan, I will see you at the wedding tonight,’ Dimanan called after him as Mash walked off.
‘Of course, I’ll be there,’ Mash replied. It was a damn nuisance. Dimanan’s nephew was getting married and Dimanan had invited all senior TFP party members. A respectful invitation had been extended to Mash and Judy as well. Judy had declared that she did not want to attend. I’m sure he’ll vote for the TFP even if we do not attend his nephew’s wedding, Judy had said. Mash did not really blame her. It was going to be so boring. But Dimanan was a cabinet member and it would be churlish if he did not attend the wedding reception, which was in the evening.
Mash glanced at his watch. He had time for a brief siesta after lunch, before he went off to have tea with Ted Hoffman. And in the evening, he had that darn wedding reception to attend.
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