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-Rajeev Kumar (Editor-in-chief)

Showing posts with label English Editorial. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English Editorial. Show all posts

Friday, February 26, 2021

The BJP’s ruthless expansion drive (The Hindustan Times)

By Rajdeep Sardesai


Puducherry is only the latest instance of the Modi-Shah playbook of expanding political power. In a sense, Puducherry is now part of a pattern of Machiavellian intrigue that has been repeated from Arunachal and Manipur to Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh where a ruthlessly expansionist BJP seeks to consolidate its ascendancy by wangling either wholesale or retail defections.

Long before Puducherry, there was Goa. In 1994, riding on the Ram Janmabhoomi wave, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won four seats for the first time in the 40-member Goa assembly. It caused a ripple in Goa’s turbulent political waters, prompting the late Pramod Mahajan, then the party’s chief strategist for Goa, to boast that the BJP would form a government in Panaji within 10 years. Mahajan was spot on — aided by Goa’s infamous tradition of brazen defections, a BJP government led by Manohar Parrikar was formed in 2002. By 2012, Parrikar headed the first BJP-majority government in the state.

What transpired in the erstwhile Portuguese colony on the west coast is now sought to be replicated on the south-east coast in the tranquil one-time French outpost of Puducherry. Where the smooth-talking Mahajan was a key BJP tactician in the 1990s, that role has now been taken over by the hard-nosed Amit Shah. Where the BJP was then emerging as a national player, it is now the dominant party at the Centre, possessing resources to topple any opposition state government it possibly can.

Why Puducherry, when assembly elections are a few months away and the BJP, it seems, has little at stake in a region traditionally dominated by the Congress and local parties? First, to borrow the words of the Union home minister, “chronology samajhiye” (understand the chronology). The V Narayanasamy-led Congress government was elected in Puducherry in May 2016. Almost immediately, Kiran Bedi, the pugnacious Indian Police Service officer who had lost out as the BJP’s Delhi chief ministerial face, was sent as Lieutenant- Governor (L-G). For five years, there was a constant and bruising face-off between the chief minister and L-G that only undermined an elected government. Bedi was recalled last week after it became apparent that she had antagonised almost the entire political class. She was replaced by the former Tamil Nadu BJP president, Tamilisai Soundararajan, to assuage local concerns.

For China, there have always been certain issues that are core to its relationship with Myanmar. The latter is strategically important to gain access to the Indian Ocean as well as to Southeast Asia. It is economically important because of its natural resources such as timber, the hydroelectric possibilities stemming from its many large rivers, as well as oil and gas and minerals. Finally, China is committed to large-scale infrastructure projects in the country. (AFP)

Myanmar-China ties: It’s complicated

Women constitute only 14% of the 280,000 personnel in STEM in India’s research development institutions (UN data). In addition, although women’s participation in the workforce is higher at entry-level, it gradually decreases at higher research, academics and administration levels. (HTPHOTO)

A gender equality framework for India’s sciences and tech disciplines

The BJP’s political dominance may, paradoxically in some ways, deepen social divisions (Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)

The disruptive social effects of Hindutva 2.0

The Chinese had earlier planned to build a series of 11 dams on the river, of which several are complete (REUTERS)

The Brahmaputra is in danger. Delhi and Dhaka must challenge Beijing

Simultaneously, the BJP fast-forwarded a plan to engineer defections from the ruling Congress-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam alliance and ensured that, with the help of three nominated legislators and a compliant Speaker, the Narayanasamy government was reduced to a minority. Incidentally, at least four of the six defecting legislators have either income-tax queries or links to the lucrative real estate sector. Moreover, by toppling a Congress government in Puducherry, the BJP has sent a message to neighbouring Tamil Nadu, where it is contesting the assembly elections with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, that the Congress is a greatly diminished force, and the party can be vanquished at any time.

In a sense, Puducherry is now part of a pattern of Machiavellian intrigue that has been repeated from Arunachal and Manipur to Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh where a ruthlessly expansionist BJP seeks to consolidate its ascendancy by wangling either wholesale or retail defections. That the Congress leadership appears to have been taken by surprise, yet again, reveals how the original party of realpolitik is floundering to counter the BJP’s vaulting ambitions. The “new” BJP under Narendra Modi-Amit Shah is a bit like the “old” Congress in the Indira Gandhi era — ethically compromised, but politically uncompromising in its actions.

The truth is no state government run by a non-BJP force is safe. India’s non-BJP governments can now be bracketed into three categories. The Congress-led governments, of which only three are left in the country, are squarely on the BJP’s radar. A bid to capture Rajasthan failed last year, but the Modi-Shah model doesn’t delve into failure for long: More attempts at divide-and-rule on Jaipur’s uneasy turf cannot be ruled out.

The second category includes regional party-ruled states that have made their peace with the Centre by striking friendly patron-client relationships. Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha fall into this category — these are states where “deal-making” with the Centre is part of a survival toolkit. In all these states, ruling parties are essentially one-man shows, making it easier for the BJP to bide its time before swooping to conquer in due course.

The third category comprises states ruled by an alliance of non-BJP forces, such as Maharashtra and Jharkhand. Of these, Maharashtra remains the big prize. That the three-party coalition government in Mumbai is headed by an ex-staunch Hindutva ally makes the battle to recapture the state for the BJP a prestige fight, one that could see more dramatic twists and turns in the months ahead.

This leaves just two states — Bengal and Kerala — that are determinedly holding out in the face of the BJP juggernaut and both go to polls in April-May. In Kerala, the BJP is resolutely widening its voter base, even while remaining a fair distance away from conquering it. In Bengal, on the other hand, the gloves are off. Should Didi’s Kolkata fortress fall to the sustained BJP assault, we could be pretty close to an “opposition-mukt” Bharat with serious implications for the future of an increasingly strained multi-party democracy.

Post-script: Another illustration of the BJP’s unwavering commitment to spreading its sphere of influence is provided by the choice of 88-year-old “Metro man” E Sreedharan as its star catch in Kerala. His induction may be symbolic but confirms that even margdarshak mandal retirement rules are selectively applied in the BJP’s cold-blooded powerplay.

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal.

Courtesy - The Hindustan Times.


India’s firmness, Xi Jinping’s political goals, explain China’s withdrawal in Ladakh (The Indian Express)

A few months ago, most analysts were convinced that the Chinese would never vacate the occupied areas. But several reasons compelled Beijing to change its stance.

A great deal has already been written by Indian experts on the decision by the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army to “disengage” in Ladakh, starting from the vicinity of the Pangong Tso. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh stated in Parliament: “As a result of our well thought out approach and sustained talks with the Chinese side, we have now been able to reach an agreement on disengagement in the North and South Bank of the Pangong Lake.”

Many have doubted the sincerity of the Chinese and suggested that even if the PLA withdraws, Beijing will somehow manage to return through a “backdoor”. To trust China is undeniably difficult, which is why the minister spoke of withdrawing “in a phased, coordinated and verified manner.” After the Galwan incident on June 16 last year (on President Xi Jinping’s birthday) during which 20 Indian jawans and officers lost their lives, trust has been absent. With the prospect of new clashes looming large, both sides decided to “disengage”.

A few months ago, most analysts were convinced that the Chinese would never vacate the occupied areas. But several reasons compelled Beijing to change its stance as a continuation of the confrontation could have made the Communist “core” leader lose face further. Before we go into the change of mind of Chinese leadership, it is important to understand the political background in the Middle Kingdom.

The new emperor wants to project himself on the world stage as a man of peace. Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, Xi recently affirmed that “the misguided approach of antagonism and confrontation… will eventually hurt all countries’ interests and undermine everyone’s well-being”. He proclaimed that “the strong should not bully the weak… we should stay committed to international law and international rules, instead of seeking one’s own supremacy.” Was he speaking seriously? The Wall Street Journal sarcastically commented, “that admonition doesn’t seem to apply to his own government”. It was difficult for the Chinese president to sustain a war for a few hundred metres of territory in Ladakh by mobilising some 50,000 of his troops at an altitude above 4,500 m with glacial temperatures while promoting peace in the world.

In another recent speech, Xi mentioned his objectives — “time and momentum are on China’s side.” The new Great Helmsman believes in the “Great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” led by the soon-to-be 100 years old Communist Party of China (CPC). He did, however, cite challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions, deteriorating relations with the West and a slowing economy. Xi’s objectives point to the Two Centenaries — the founding of the CPC in July 2021, before which a fully “moderately well-off” society will be achieved and the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 2049, which will see a “strong, democratic, civilised, harmonious, and modern socialist country”. A war with India does not fit into Xi’s plans at this point.

Uncertainty is bound to continue in 2021 and probably beyond, but during the present crisis, India has found reliable and unwavering support from abroad (particularly from the US and France). This was also a factor that made Xi think twice before continuing the confrontation in Ladakh. He must also have been surprised by the firmness of the Indian government, which stuck to its guns and asked China to return to the pre-May 2020 positions.

The resilience and the innate strength of the Indian jawans who adapted far better than their Chinese counterparts to the climatic hardship must have shocked the Chinese leadership. Perhaps this is a reason for China’s medical casualties being much higher due to weather and high altitude.

Another shock for Beijing has been that the Indian Army has been deputed, through the Commander of the Leh-based 14 Corps, to conduct the negotiations. This is a first in post-Independence India. For most foreign service officers, negotiation is the art of compromise. A soldier knows far better than a diplomat how a few hundred meters in a mountainous area can be vital. The Indian military displayed patience, resolve and determination to return to the situation prevalent in April 2020. It should also be mentioned that in recent years, infrastructure development along the northern borders has got an unprecedented boost.

We also have to see the present disengagement in a historical context. Though it knew about the road being constructed by China in Indian Aksai Chin as early as 1952-53, the then government in Delhi kept quiet — that inaction put the country in an inextricable situation. On October 18, 1958, the Indian Foreign Secretary wrote an “informal” note to the Chinese Ambassador stating that it had come to Delhi’s notice that a road had been constructed by China “across the eastern part of the Ladakh region of the J&K State, which is part of India… the completion of which was announced in September 1957”. If Beijing had not announced the opening of the road, the information would have probably been kept secret for even longer by Delhi! To retrieve the situation from such an abyss requires patience, endurance and determination.

Hopefully, a first step has been taken. But utmost vigilance is the need of the hour.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 26, 2021 under the title ‘A reason to disengage’. The writer, based in South India for the past 46 years, writes on India, China, Tibet and Indo-French relations.

Courtesy - The Indian Express.


Show some sensitivity: Besides right to liberty, every citizen has a right to reputation. Both agencies and media need to remember this (TOI)

The Sushant Singh Rajput saga has finally receded from prime time TV and newspaper headlines. But, not before his hapless girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty was arrested and later released on bail by a Bombay high court order that was damning for the arresting agency, namely the Narcotics Control Bureau.

The youngster, in the interim, remained incarcerated for almost a month, which silenced the public frenzy against her whipped up by a crazed media. Mercifully, the dust seems to have settled on the case for the moment.

A few issues, however, continue to rankle. It is baffling why the ED stepped in. Where were the millions reportedly laundered that had necessitated their involvement? What extra did the CBI bring to the table that the local police had not already done? The NCB, an agency created to go into large-scale drug trafficking across national and international borders, was looking into miniscule amounts of cannabis exchanging hands in Bollywood parties.

And, lo and behold, it went to the extent of arresting Rhea et al seemingly on specious grounds. Many case laws lay down the circumstances under which an arrest can or should be made. Reasonable justification that such action is necessary and justified is imperative.

Arrests should be made only when the accused is likely to abscond and evade the processes of law; or when she is given to violent behaviour and likely to commit further offences if not brought under restraint. An arrest should not be made just because it is lawful for the law enforcement officer to do so. Arguably, Rhea’s arrest did not meet any one of these criteria.

Also, does the justice system of the country and its media have any regard for the reputation of its citizens? Or, are people’s reputations theirs for the asking – to be trampled on with impunity?

In Shakespeare’s play Othello the character Iago makes many statements referring to the importance of reputation. “Good name in a man or woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls”, says he to the protagonist. He adds: “… he that filches from me my good name robs me … and makes me poor indeed.” The Bard, through Iago’s character, underscores the value of good reputation, a treasure built over several years painstakingly but lost in no time by a mindless action. It is an invaluable asset, unmatched by material things, and to rob someone of it should be a grave offence.

Yet we find today a recurring trend of a TRP crazy media cutting loose in cases where celebrities are involved. Besides launching parallel investigations and sting operations, it even delivers verdicts that stick in the minds of gullible viewers. Who cares if reputations are gutted and good names singed in the bargain? And then, everyone moves on as if nothing happened.

Unarguably, every citizen, besides the right to liberty, possesses the ‘right to reputation’ as well. Her reputation lives a very real existence apart from her, representing the collective mental construct everyone shares about her, a construct based not only on her own actions but also on the perceptions of her actions.

A good reputation navigates her through life, soothes out the journey and a bad one causes doors to slam in her face. Hasn’t the time come, therefore, for stringent regulatory mechanisms to rein in the media that robs citizens of their hard-earned reputation? If laws can prevent the media from taking names of victims of sexual offences or of juvenile offenders, surely a regulatory regime can stop it from conducting public trials declaring someone guilty, even before she is tried under the law.

Not everyone has the resources to file defamation suits against media houses and their star anchors. We should have laws in-built into our system to prevent the sort of damage that was caused to the psyche and reputation of a promising youngster in the prime of her youth. Because today it is Rhea, tomorrow it could be one of us.

Since the government has failed to take necessary steps to create a regulatory regime for the media, the judiciary has, mercifully, stepped in. A division bench of the Bombay high court, hearing a bunch of PILs seeking regulation of media trials in the context of the SSR case, in their order dated October 29 observed, “If the person is actually innocent, excessive media reporting can damage her reputation.” The court has expressed its intent to lay down guidelines on the next date of hearing to control the media from conducting parallel investigation and trial.

That said, we should not forget that public emotions could be played up to the advantage of the accused as well. Recently, certain activists, apprehensive of their imminent arrest in a serious offence, sought to portray themselves as victims of the divisive politics of the day. The attempt was clearly to muster enough public support to prevent arrest and prosecution.

The police, however, stuck to their guns and pressed charges. The fact that no relief was forthcoming even from higher courts has put paid to their efforts to use popular public narrative to escape the dragnet of justice.

In balance, a robust mechanism is necessary to prevent the media from trifling with people’s reputations. Equally, our agencies should show more sensitivity towards citizens’ fair names. And, finally, media should be wary of those attempting to evade legal action against themselves by using it to whip up public sympathy. These ideas might look like pipe dreams, but they are eminently doable.

Courtesy - TOI.


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Scientific disinterest: On Health Minister’s presence at Coronil promotion event (The Hindu)

The presence of Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan at a press conference to promote Coronil, an Ayurvedic pill promoted by Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved, is objectionable on more than one count. Coronil is a concoction of common herbs known to Ayurveda. Since June, there have been attempts to deploy it into India’s COVID-19 management protocol. Dr Vardhan, alongside Cabinet colleague Nitin Gadkari, was at a press conference with Baba Ramdev and other promoters of Patanjali to announce a scientific publication describing the efficacy of Coronil in ridding volunteers, part of a clinical trial, of coronavirus. For one, Coronil is a product manufactured by a private company. Doctors — Harsh Vardhan is an ENT surgeon — are explicitly barred from promoting drugs of any sort. Though Dr Vardhan didn’t explicitly mention Coronil in his address at the function, what public functionaries are seen to be doing speaks louder than what they say. Baba Ramdev first claimed that his product was endorsed by the WHO. Following media reports, WHO South-East Asia tweeted that it hadn’t reviewed or certified the effectiveness of any traditional medicine for the treatment of COVID-19. What transpired was that India’s apex drug regulator had certified Coronil as a pharmaceutical product in “supporting COVID treatment and an immunity booster” and cleared it for export. It hasn’t recommended it as treatment for COVID-19.

The publication of a double-blinded, randomised clinical trial in a research journal isn’t an endorsement of a product, but an essential requirement of reporting the drug’s action to subject experts. The report reveals that the medicine was only tested on 95 of those asymptomatic and “mildly symptomatic” but confirmed as RT-PCR positive. The 45 patients who got the actual treatment (and not a dummy pill) tested COVID-19 negative significantly quicker. However, these numbers are small. A large proportion of those with mild or no symptoms are expected to clear out the infection without any external intervention. There was no information in the study on the number of days that elapsed before the patients tested positive, making the role of the drug in clearing out the virus unclear. True, allopathic medicine too has cut corners: an ICMR-led trial ultimately couldn’t justify the administration of hydroxychloroquine; the Drugs Controller General of India approved itolizumab by Biocon that was tested only in a sample of 30 but was advertised as a “breakthrough drug”; and Covaxin was approved before its efficacy was known. Processes are imperfect, but the government must demonstrate its scientific disinterest when evidence is wanting.

Courtesy - The Hindu.


Bail as right: On bail to Varavara Rao (The Hindu)

In granting bail for six months to poet Varavara Rao in the Bhima Koregaon case on medical grounds, the Bombay High Court has affirmed the principle that even the stringent provisions of an anti-terrorism law are not invincible before a prisoner’s constitutional rights. Jailed under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, Mr. Rao, 82, suffered from a host of ailments, and his condition was deteriorating until he was treated at the Nanavati Hospital on the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission. The court overruled the National Investigation Agency’s objection that bail should not be granted on medical grounds once an undertrial prisoner’s bail application was rejected on merits under UAPA, as long as access to treatment in a government hospital was available. The NIA had argued that in view of the statutory bar on granting bail under Section 43D(5) of the UAPA if the accusation against a person is prima facie true, any bail given on health grounds would open up the floodgates to similar petitions. The court looked at Mr. Rao’s plight from the perspective of his right to life under Article 21. It ruled that “a Constitutional Court cannot be a mute spectator to the undertrial being sent to prison and then to government hospitals, where his health deteriorates further, to be ultimately shifted to the Private Superspeciality Hospitals, upon intervention of courts...”. This could not continue back and forth only because his bail application has been turned down on merits, it said.

Bail is routinely denied in most cases under UAPA. It became a watertight embargo since the Supreme Court in 2019 gave a ruling that made it nearly impossible for anyone arrested under UAPA to be released on bail, unless the accused could demonstrate that the charges against them were prima facie untrue. However, a few recent judicial decisions have sought to carve out exceptions. The Supreme Court laid down recently that prolonged incarceration without any possibility of an early completion of trial could be a ground for granting bail. In Mr. Rao’s case too, the High Court has noted that charges are yet to be framed, and 200 witnesses have to be examined once the trial begins. The temporary release of the octogenarian poet ought to turn public attention on the others incarcerated for a long time in the Bhima Koregaon case, in which lawyers and activists have been accused of plotting with Maoists to overthrow the government. Recent revelations that some of the electronic evidence in the case may have been planted remotely by a piece of malware have dented the prosecution’s claims about the existence of a plot. It is unfortunate that there is no sign of either an expeditious trial or any possibility of release of those arrested after a case of alleged provocative speeches made during a Dalit commemoration event held on December 31, 2017 in Pune, was transformed by the police into a sinister Maoist plot.

Courtesy - The Hindu.


Prisoners of conscience (The Telegraph)

Disha Ravi.  Shiv Visvanathan   

One of my neighbours is a friendly student who keeps me up to date. He is sensitive to events and issues, but rarely idolizes them. He expresses feeling only through his guitar. When the Jesuit, Stan Swamy, was arrested, he was upset. A few weeks ago, I heard him strum the beginnings of a song: ‘When are you coming home Stan Swamy?/ When are you coming home?/ The trees are in mourning/ And the festive air is grey./ They said you would be back in December/ The calendar is touching May./ Come home Stan Swamy./ Come Home.’

The student’s song, its plaintive sense of loss and waiting, captures the fate of dissent in our society. One could perform similar dirges for Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha. The sadness is that little attention is paid to these people beyond the flutter of drawing rooms. The media have created a wall of indifference around such issues. They are reported as gossip but never as debates on rights and suffering. The reports on the ‘toolkit arrest’ have a similar ring, a sense of a middle-class scandal, but the real implications are missing.

At the centre of all these events is the fate of dissent in our society. The economist, Amartya Sen, created the myth of the ‘Argumentative Indian’. I wish he had added a chapter on the ‘Dissenting Indian’ after the last decade. The addas have a sense of heaviness and protest a sense of defeat. To understand this, one has to understand the transformation of the State in recent times. 

When nationalism yielded the nation state, a plurality of visions was reduced to a basic civics of citizenship and governance. Over time, with internal strife and the frictions on the border, the nation state became a National Security State. The sense of violence and paranoia that accompanied it transformed the National Security State into a National Surveillance State where information became a commodity. We moved to create an India between the enclosure and the panopticon. What facilitated this move and legitimized it was the emergence of a majoritarian society.

The dominance of the Bharatiya Janata Party added a set of critical details. First, in idolizing the nation state and turning development into an iconic idea, it turned any environmental critique of development into a sacrilege. Environmentalists became the first, official anti-nationals. Sustainability, instead of being a life-giving idea, was subsumed under the logic of security. By this time, riots had become a part of the official regime. Exterminism as a tactic against the minority now became official. The university, which was one of the theatres of debate, was subject to attacks. Undermining of dissent and plurality in a university became part of education policy. We face the paradox of the NEP claiming the university to be a place of diversity, while dissent is defined as unpatriotic.

 The next few steps were surreally predictable as the regime integrated internal and external security to make all ‘anti-nationals’ security threats. Distinguished dissenters like Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha and Stan Swamy were all silenced in this lethal net.

By this time, the National Security State had graduated into being a National Surveillance State. The interests of State and corporations converged, as surveillance, from a crisis ritual, became an everyday affair. Liberal critics who felt that Julian Assange was a distant possibility in India had to confront a wave of arrests around Greta Thunberg’s sympathizers. The arrest of Disha Ravi, a green activist — she has received bail — has to be read in that context. Supporting farmers, who have courageously stood up to the regime, is now anti-national. The cyber groups doing this are trashed as pro-Khalistani or secessionist. The toolkit, an outline of prospective protest, is reified as real and suspicion spreads like a controlled epidemic. The sedition law is invoked to suppress difference of any kind. The biggest casualty is dissent.

Our democracy needs to revive the festivals of dissent it was famous for. The idea of sedition and the suppression of dissent have turned our polity into a dismal entity. To give voice to the voiceless is now an anti-national activity. Dissent, which literally anchored the informal economy of a democracy, is now treated as epidemic. The regime seems afraid of a new generation finding its relevance and articulation around ecology and environmentalism. Its ham-handedness is turning figures like Ridhima Pandey, the Uttarakhand activist, and Disha Ravi into iconic figures. They will become part of the new swaraj, a life-giving imagination, for a new idea of a planetary earth. Suddenly planetary issues, from climate change to the future of farming or the fate of the tribe — each a critical human rights issue — have been defined as anti-national.

The demonology being built around Thunberg and climate change is fascinating to watch. After Covid-19, India has been systematically liberalizing environmental rules, allowing corporations to play the role of birds of prey. The issue is not just that India is seeking to destroy its future; it has turned democracy and citizenship into an arid game. At a time when every school and college should be planetary, combining swadesi and swaraj, our regime is turning authoritarian to the very dreams of an alternative future and a liveable society.

What the regime with its authoritarianism hates is the pedagogic power of dissent. India becomes a learning society, learning the creative power of difference. It is the regime’s illiteracy about the creative functions of dissent. Democracy needs to rework itself in the following directions. It has to go beyond liberalism and tolerance as lazy theories of difference to make plurality the centre of its imagination. To do so, one cannot look at the Disha Ravi episode anecdotally, establishing Pollyanna-like equivalents to the Greta Thunberg fairy tale. We need to see a broader trend and, maybe, like the mothers of Argentina, link all those harassed into one story — from the Urban Naxal, the university protester, to the environmental activist — into one broad conscience of memory. Civil society has to adopt Disha Ravi and Sudha Bharadwaj as prisoners of conscience. The government has harassed Amnesty International into closure, but the idea of prisoners of conscience must become a civil society agenda.

It is time for democracy to reinvent itself around new dissenting and plural imaginations. The sadness is the regime has turned democracy, rights, dissent into a dismal world. Argumentative Indians must return as climate change activists and Urban Naxals to protect the rights of the planet and the fate of marginals, items of little concern to the present ruling class. The very fate of dissent has become an early warning signal about the illiteracy of the regime. Dissent as pedagogic, dialogic politics has to reinvent the tired imagination of Indian democracy today.

The author is an academic associated with Compost Heap, a network pursuing alternative imaginations

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Cut those levies on Petro-fuels (The Economic Times)

Retail prices of petrol and diesel have flared up to record levels nationally, driven by heavy taxation of fuels, even as global crude prices harden. Central and state levies on petro-fuels must be rationalised, and stem further buildup of cost-push inflationary pressures. The price of petrol in the National Capital Territory (NCT) is now well over Rs 90 per litre, with central and state taxes amounting to over 60% of the price. Similarly, the price of diesel, the most-used petroleum product by far, in NCT is over Rs 80 per litre, with levies adding up to nearly 55% of the price. In some states, petrol now costs more than Rs 100 a litre. This is not sustainable.

Such high levels of indirect taxes are regressive. RBI’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), in its latest minutes, has called for ‘calibrated unwinding’ of high retail taxes in the main oil products. True, higher retail taxation of automotive fuels in the backdrop of collapsing global crude prices, in the early stages of the pandemic last year, did make perfect sense, and has, in fact, gainfully shored up revenue amidst the lockdown and subsequent reopening. But central taxes in the retail price of petrol in NCT, which includes basic excise, surcharge, road cess and agri-infra cess, have gone up some 300% from Rs 10.38 per litre in March 2014, to Rs 32.98 per litre in September 2020. Central levies on diesel have gone up some 600% during the like period, from Rs 4.58 per litre to Rs 31.83 per litre. The duties are levied at a specific rate, in terms of rupees per kilolitre, but do need to be pruned going forward.

Further, state retail tax on petrol is about Rs 20 per litre and that on diesel about half that, but both the taxes are ad valorem, linked to product price. It amounts to cascading inefficient tax-on-tax across the value chain. Hence the need to modernise taxation of the main oil products and bring natural gas, petrol and diesel under GST, of course, with a component not eligible for input tax credit. Till then, state-level levies should also take the form of specific duties.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


The importance of cultivating reform (The Economic Times)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi was spot on when he said that the Rs 65,000-70,000 crore India spends on edible oil imports is money that could go to the country’s farmers. He also urged the states to encourage crops that suit their agroclimatic conditions and to build the infrastructure farmers need. In fact, if the Centre had acted on these insights before amending the farm bills, a lot of the farmer angst could have been avoided, and reform of agriculture away from excess production of grain to crops in short supply, such as edible oil seeds and pulses, could be accomplished without friction. Reform of something as complex as agriculture, after all, is a process and not just a question of changing some rules and laws.

The PM did well, too, to emphasise the role of physical infrastructure in enhancing the farmers’ income. Farmers need roads to carry their produce to the market. Climate-controlled storage and refrigerated fleets of trucks and rail cars are essential for reducing the wastage/spoilage of fresh produce and achieving greater levels of farm exports. It is surprising, however, that the PM did not emphasise the importance of political courage in carrying out farm sector reform. A vibrant agro-processing industry not far removed from the site of production — just as Amul’s milk processing plants are available within a few hours’ distance from milk collection centres — is a key ingredient of doubling farmers’ incomes. Some rudimentary agro-processing has been commonplace since Neolithic times. However, modern agro-processing calls for a steady supply of stable power. Even after drawing power lines to rural areas, power during the daytime remains unpredictable. Ending the political culture of patronising power theft and free, unmetered connections is the cornerstone of the needed power reform. The lead for this must come from the top.

A stable foreign trade regime for farm produce, functional forward markets, and genuine and transparent risk-transfer mechanisms are also with the Centre. It must walk the talk on these fronts.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Monday, February 8, 2021

Dream collaborators (The Telegraph)

A. Raghuramaraju  

The Indian National Movement had some unique aspects, which were driven by its leaders. One way of understanding the movement is through individualism — examining its leaders as individuals. However, this paradigm fails to capture some features that were crucial to the making of the movement. I would like to present a relationship, which fell outside the paradigm of individualism — the one between Rabindranath Tagore and M.K. Gandhi. This relationship could be best characterized as that of a teacher and a student. Tagore, a poet par excellence, became popularly known as ‘Gurudev’ or teacher. Let us explore the context of this designation bestowed on the great poet of modern India.

 The national movement saw a vacuum after the withdrawal of some of its prominent leaders such as Aurobindo Ghosh and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. While Ghosh withdrew from active politics after the Alipore bomb blast trials and took to spiritual practice, Tilak passed away not long after launching his rousing call for swaraj. This led to a gloomy and pessimistic time, a “dark period of confusion” and "frustration”, in the words of Kakasaheb Kalelkar. Therefore, it is important to remember that while Tagore chose Gandhi to lead the movement, he was also perhaps the only remaining choice to salvage what was looking like an almost lost cause.

 It is Tagore who used the title, ‘Mahatma’, for Gandhi. ‘Mahatma’, Tagore clarified, refers to an emancipated soul no longer confined within the individual self. It is a self that includes everyone. But when Tagore called Gandhi ‘Mahatma’, he was not yet a liberated soul. So ‘Mahatma’ was not a description of Gandhi as he was at that point, but more a projection of his capacities and potentialities. Quickly realizing the wide gap between what he was and what he was expected to be to live up to this designation, Gandhi seems to have sought the help of Tagore. He called Tagore ‘Gurudev’, apparently, suggesting to him that if he wanted Gandhi to be a ‘Mahatma’, he should be Gandhi’s ‘Guru’. The making of the Mahatma would thus be a joint effort involving both Gandhi and Tagore. Therefore, the inherent nature of this teacher-student relationship was relation-centredness rather than individual-centredness. Relationships were at the heart of the national movement, an integral part of its nature and functioning. Convergence and divergence of views, contesting existing ideas and contributing new ones, deletions and additions, together formed the rhizome-like structure of the movement. 

To train athletes to face tough competition, a sports coach exposes them to different adversaries. The training has to be more intense if the opponent is significantly more robust — as was the case with the indomitable British entrenched in India. Effective training sometimes demands that the teacher play the role of adversary. However, unlike in actual combat, this mock conflict or role-play has to be founded on mutual trust. If the teacher is hard on the student, it is only with the intention of training him/her.

I will use this format to understand some of the disagreements between Tagore and Gandhi. One of the significant public differences between them was regarding Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation. Tagore termed it as a doctrine of negation and despair. Gandhi replied to this by distinguishing between negative and positive liberation. While conceding the notion of mukti to be positive, he reminded his teacher about another equally important idea of liberation in Buddhism — namely, nirvana — which alludes to the negative side of truth. This second kind of liberation, according to Gandhi, had escaped the attention of Tagore. Instead of treating Gandhi’s response as a challenge to his teacher, I take it as a gesture of acknowledgement to his mentor.

 The other difference between them was about Gandhi’s call to boycott foreign clothes. Tagore opposed this call too. Almost sounding like a politician, he asserted that burning foreign clothes is not a suitable form of protest in a country where millions did not have access to proper clothing. Gandhi responded rather poetically, saying, “In burning my foreign clothes I burn my shame.” Tagore also opposed spinning, which he felt was a move against technological advancement and would cause India to regress to primitive times. These differences, when seen outside the format of the teacher-student relationship, looked like acrimonious disputes between Tagore and Gandhi and created an uneasiness in Kalelkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and others. Nehru stated that “no two persons could probably differ so much” but, at the same time, they also had much in common.

 It is for this reason I have used the format of teacher and student to understand these differences. The underlying bond between Tagore and Gandhi is evident in the following incident. When Gandhi’s health condition deteriorated during the controversial fast unto death at Poona, Tagore rushed all the way from Santiniketan to meet him. When Gandhi broke the fast, his secretary, Mahadev Desai, requested  Tagore to recite a poem from Gitanjali, which was close to Gandhi’s heart. Tagore later reported that in Gandhi’s presence, he forgot the meter he had originally composed the poem in, but he sang it nonetheless. The underlying strain of love towards his student legitimizes their differences as part of Gandhi’s ‘training’. This highlights the seminal, irreplaceable contribution of Gurudev to the national movement. We cannot obtain a clear picture of Gandhi as the Mahatma without considering the contribution of others such as Gurudev Tagore.

It is, therefore, necessary to set aside the liberal notion of enclosed individualism and study these leaders of the national movement within the format of relationships. Especially in the context of the Indian National Movement, most of the proper names of the leaders refer more to the relations with others rather than to the self. The dynamic nature of this relationship reveals the strength of the movement. So we will be able to understand the nature of the movement better through relations between individual leaders rather than as autonomous individuals, thus retrieving its unique nature.

The author teaches philosophy at the Indian Institute of Technology, Tirupati

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Cricket nationalism (The Telegraph)

Mukul Kesavan   

To watch Test cricketers being conscripted into a Twitter chorus aimed at foreign critics of the Indian government, in the name of the Nation, is embarrassing and strange. But nationalism isn’t something that has been injected into cricket by politically connected administrators or drum-beating media men; it is native to modern sport, a part of its historical evolution.

It isn’t a coincidence that the period between 1870 and 1914, when the balance of power between empires and nations began to shift, when Germany, Italy and Japan began to reorganize themselves as nations, was the era when modern sports formalized their rules, set up regulatory associations and established international competitions, which cast athletes and sportsmen primarily as representatives of their nations.

The first international Test match was played in 1877. This wasn’t a match played between two nations as much as an intra-Imperial competition between the Mother Country and a Dominion, but being represented at cricket in a match ‘against’ England helped Australians imagine Australia as a nation. Prashant Kidambi has shown us that in exactly this way did the ‘All-India’ cricket team that toured England in 1911 prefigure and embody the idea of an Indian nation in the making.

FIFA, football’s governing association, was founded in 1904 to oversee international competition among the national associations of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and Switzerland. The governing bodies for football, cricket and tennis were set up in the decade between 1904 and the outbreak of WWI. Even a sport as individualistic as tennis was nudged into national competition in 1900 with the Davis Cup, which started life as a transatlantic tournament between Great Britain and the United States of America.

Even more central to the developing relationship between nationalism and sport than these tournaments organized by brand new sporting bodies was the nationalization of the Olympic Games. The revived games were imagined by Pierre de Coubertin as a festival of fraternal brotherhood where the best athletes in the world would compete against each other in a sporting lull, rather like the ancient games at Olympia where warring kingdoms observed a truce for the duration of the Olympics. The way the Olympics evolved was rather different.

Till the 1908 Games, entry was not restricted to teams nominated by National Olympic Committees. Mixed teams participated in some team events. But from 1908 onwards, the IOC consisted entirely of representatives of sovereign nation states. The Olympics always begin with a march past of nations, each under its own placard. Alan Bairner wrote that “sport, arguably more than any other form of social activity in the modern world, facilitates flag waving and the playing of national anthems...” The Olympics, more than any other sporting event, pioneered this non-stop identification of sport and the nation.

Despite this identification, there was a contradiction at the heart of the Olympian vision of sporting competition that complicated the relationship between sport and politics. This complication shaped all sport because all modern sport took its cue from Coubertin’s ideals. On the one hand, the Olympics hardwired the nation state into modern competition. On the other, the IOC insisted that it would brook no interference from national politicians in the autonomy of National Olympic Committees.

“Members of the IOC will not accept from governments... any mandate or instructions liable to interfere with the freedom of their action and vote.” The IOC’s position on this issue was copied by sports federations like FIFA and the FIH. The BCCI fought a rearguard action for nearly a decade to stay out of the purview of the Right to Information Act on the ground that it was a private body. The Indian State periodically tried to regulate it as a public body precisely because it selected teams that represented India.

This Olympian ideal of autonomy grew out of the liberal idea that the nation state had a demarcated sphere that didn’t extend to the freedom of action of civil society organizations. The regulatory bodies for sport were implicitly saying that they wanted to harness the cachet of the nation state to magnify the significance of sport, but they wouldn’t allow the functionaries of the nation state to intervene in their affairs.

When anti-apartheid protesters mobilized against the South African cricket team’s 1970 tour of England, Harold Wilson’s government hesitated to ban the tour precisely because of this principle of autonomy, this polite fiction that the nation state should not formally interfere in sport. Sport was the domain of civil society organizations like the Test and County Cricket Board. The Marylebone Cricket Club and the TCCB were adamant that the South African tour should go ahead on the principle that sport and politics ought to be kept apart.

The protesters won a famous victory when this principle was breached. The TCCB cancelled the tour after a strong ‘request’ from the home secretary, James Callaghan, asking it to do so. This was the right thing to do because South Africa’s Whites-only cricket team was constituted by the politics of apartheid, so the argument that a sporting tour of England ought not to be disrupted by politics was self-serving and incoherent.

If the cancellation of the South African tour taught the lesson that the principle of autonomy could not insulate sporting bodies from huge shifts in political opinion, the on-demand nationalism of India’s best cricketers shows us the consequences of abandoning the principle of sporting autonomy altogether. When sports organizations are captured by politicians, the players regulated by them run the risk of becoming clients of the netas who happen to run the nation state at the time.

The principle of sporting autonomy, the idea of a necessary distance between the State and its sportsmen, might have been a liberal conceit but it was an enabling fiction. In its absence, we had Dhoni and Kohli wooing the nation in military fatigue caps, performing patriotism.

Once cricketers cross that line, once they go from playing for the country to role-playing for the Nation, there is no going back. They will be asked to reprise those roles. Having played at being soldiers, they will, for instance, be conscripted by their political patrons to defend the nation against Rihanna, to man Twitter’s trenches against the Barbadians at our gates. The next time politicians decide to use India’s cricketers as extras in some nationalist drama, the Nation won’t ask which of them tweeted; It will ask which of them didn’t.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


The Plandemic -vaccine conspiracy, a new strain, has gone global (The Telegraph)

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray 

A health official telephoned within hours of my first anti-Covid-19 jab and asked if everything was alright. One reason could have been the controversy over the German and French insistence — which Britain rejects — that the AstraZeneca vaccine should not be given to anyone over 65. It may also have been because black and minority ethnic (Bame) people, comprising 35 per cent of London’s population and 14 per cent of the nation’s, are lagging behind in being vaccinated.

Boris Johnson’s ambitious programme to vaccinate 15 million of the most vulnerable by the middle of this month and millions of others immediately afterwards so that nearly 99 per cent of those who are most at risk of dying from Covid-19 are covered by spring faces huge challenges. Money, the highly competitive international demand for scarce vaccines, rigorous safety checks and deep-freeze storage all present daunting problems. The campaign depends on mass vaccination centres with armies of trained and dedicated vaccinators. It must also counter the whispers and rumours seething below the surface.

The task has fallen on the National Health Service, which was ceaselessly reviled only a few years ago for mismanagement, waste and corruption. Now, it is clear people should be eternally grateful for Clement Attlee’s vision of post-war reconstruction. Vaccination centres all over London, including the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in Neasden, the ‘biggest Hindu temple outside India’, are managed with smooth and silent efficiency. The health official who telephoned me seemed pleasantly surprised when I told her I was particularly impressed by the courtesy and the competence of the half-a-dozen volunteers — actuaries, accountants and teachers in everyday life — at the Earl’s Court Health and Wellbeing Centre. I was surprised when she asked my reason for taking the injection until I remembered last month’s survey attributing “vaccine hesitancy/resistance” to 31 per cent of Britain’s population and 35 per cent of Ireland’s. While 80 per cent of the overall target has been vaccinated, the Filipino share is only 25 per cent.

An ethnic Bangladeshi professional, born and brought up in Britain, made things clearer by inadvertently reminding me of the Calcutta to which I returned in 1970 after a three-year stint abroad. Street corners bustled with makeshift altars, coins were heaped on trays draped in red cloth, and alms were sought and given from door to door. A radical friend who dismissed all this as superstitious nonsense to placate the malefic Shani — Saturn — overlooked the profound insecurity that underlies all propitiatory ritual. My British-Bangladeshi friend’s sinister tale suggested even more dangerous nervousness. He had heard that hospital wards reserved for coronavirus victims were lying empty. Doctors were being urged, he said, to certify that patients who had succumbed to other diseases had died of Covid-19. “I don’t know if the government gets a subsidy or something from outside for the number of coronavirus deaths,” he murmured darkly.

The data show that black people are four times more likely to die from coronavirus than whites especially in areas like Tottenham with high unemployment and probably more blacks than whites. People of African descent nurse atavistic fears of being exploited for laboratory experiments. But the second wave of coronavirus attacks has hit Asians the hardest, says Kevin Fenton, the Glasgow-born, Jamaican-origin London director at Public Health England. He attributes this to economic deprivation, which doesn’t allow Asians to work from home, and crowded living conditions. The Evening Standard quoted two respected senior doctors, Harmandeep Singh and Gurjinder Sandhu, condemning residents of immigrant-dominated areas for treating the virus as a hoax.

Some are in Southall where shopkeepers are most comfortable in Hindi; some in Ealing where a Liverpudlian friend used to joke he had enough Indian and Pakistani neighbours to get a small Kashmir war going. Many don’t wear masks. Social distancing is ignored. People “walk around as if everything was fine and normal”. Some send subversive messages which sound credible being in an Asian language. Another ploy is to attribute Covid-19 deaths in India to heart attacks.  

The pandemic has given us the word, ‘Covidiot’, for a stupid person who ignores precautions. It has also given us ‘Plandemic’. A video titled, Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19, promoted the myth that vaccines are “a money-making enterprise that causes medical harm”. Its sequel, Plandemic: Indoctornation (“doctor” being highlighted in the logo to suggest indoctrination) also “taps into people’s uncertainty, anxiety and need for answers”. Shades of 1975, some fear the impact on fertility. Shades of 1857, others believe vaccines contain forbidden animal products despite the announcement by Magda Smith, an NHS director, “I can absolutely assure you there is no animal product, no human product, no eggs, no gelatine, no alcohol” in the vaccines. An anonymous blog in France linking 5G technology to a mysterious coronavirus strain soon went viral on this side of the Channel.

Immigrants may be victims but are not the only culprits. Sir Desmond Swayne, a Tory grandee formerly attached to David Cameron’s government and still a member of parliament, told the Save Our Rights UK group, which has more than 60,000 followers, that the NHS had manipulated statistics to exaggerate the crisis.  Thousands of people marched during the Save Our Rights UK rally at the end of October to protest against the lockdown. According to the group’s founder, the coronavirus regulations “are not proportionate and appropriate, and are causing more harm than good”. They are said to violate human rights, especially the rights to privacy, family life, bodily autonomy and medical freedoms. Across the political divide, Piers Corbyn, brother of the former Labour party leader, Jeremy, designed a leaflet likening vaccination — a confidence trick “just to make money and to control you” — to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

Friction with the European Union aggravates difficulties. Although Britain’s exit was finalized on December 31, the 159-page export rules are not easily interpreted or implemented. Recent weeks have seen dramatic developments like the EU trying to prevent vaccines reaching British Northern Ireland, Belgians raiding AstraZeneca’s production site near Brussels, and Dutch officials seizing ham sandwiches (unauthorized meat exports!) from British truck drivers. No doubt these difficulties will be resolved as Europe settles down to a new political equation but the grim spectre of the mysterious QAnon, with its image of a coiled serpent viciously poised to strike and the caption, “Where we go one we go all”, looms over all controversies.

The story goes back to October 2017 when a series of posts appeared on 4chan, an anonymous English-language imageboard website, with the user signing off as “Q” and claiming to enjoy a level of American security approval called “Q clearance”. Known as “Q drops” or “breadcrumbs”, these messages were often written in cryptic language peppered with slogans, pledges and pro-Donald Trump themes. QAnon rests on the belief that the world is secretly run by a satanic cult of paedophiles and liberal elites and that Covid-19 was planned to shut down the global economy for resetting. According to this version, Trump was the superhero sent to vanquish the cult and usher in utopia. Another variant includes Hillary Clinton’s arrest and execution. Trump reportedly called QAnon activists “people who love our country”. Although he stopped short of endorsing the movement which viewed him as a hero, Trump apparently preened, “They do like me.”

No wonder his parting shot as his plane took off for Florida was to vow to “be back in some form”. Bame and white would be equally affected if that happens for as Britain’s vaccine minister, Nadhim Zahawi, puts it, the pandemic is “a race against death”. Death can come in many forms.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


New state: police verification (The Telegraph)

A drop in the pond causes widening ripples. What begins in one state is taken up by others, such as laws regarding interfaith marriage. Now the focus is on boxes to be ticked for police verification. This time it was not state legislators but the police of two Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled and led states who emerged as quasi-lawmakers at the Police Officers’ Conference in Dehradun. The director-general of police of Uttarakhand said that the police will form a database of social media activity to keep an eye on “anti-national” and “anti-social” posts that would become relevant when a person applied for a passport or arms licence. For passport applications so far, police verification had required details of first information reports against the applicant and of other legal proceedings, if any. But scrutiny of social media posts crosses over from official to social terrains, breaching the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. That the police feel free to make this change is a comment on the ominously changing nature of the Indian State. The Uttarakhand DGP said that only those who made “anti-national” posts threatening the country’s sovereignty and security would be affected. Apparently the police are allowed to appropriate the roles of judge and executioner; their subjective assessment will determine the lives of citizens who had thought they were living in a free, secular country.

 The Uttarakhand DGP said, in effect, that he was expanding the scope of vigilance implied by the demands of police verification regarding activities prejudicial to the nation’s security as they already exist, not taking a new step. This cannily forged grey area — the change is qualitative, not quantitative — had already been utilized the day before by the DGP of Bihar, who had decided to record participation in ‘unlawful’ protests, “law and order” situations, road blockages and so on for character verification not just for passports and arms licences but also for seven other services including government jobs. This decision was just a reiteration of practice, according to the Bihar police; it was not an infringement on the right to protest. It was merely being said that any protest against the government may prevent a citizen from going abroad or getting a government job, even a government project. The police will decide. Are Indians ready for this?

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


For solidarity with the people of Myanmar (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

The military coup in Myanmar curtails democracy, limited and imperfect as it was, in one of the poorest countries. The military takeover came hours ahead of the swearing in of the newly elected parliament. India has, along with other countries, expressed concern at the developments and called for upholding the rule of law and democratic process. Democracy requires work and support. Stronger, more mature democracies must provide support required by newer democracies, without becoming prescriptive.

The coup is no bolt from the blue. The military never relinquished power. Under the 2010 constitution, day-to-day functioning of the government had been handed over to an elected president and parliament. However, the military retained a decisive position — 25% of seats in parliament were reserved for the military. The contest between Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) and the military that had marked the previous 30-odd years continued. Myanmar has had two elections since, Suu Kyi’s NLD won both. At 399 seats, the 2020 tally is an improvement over the 2015 one and had the potential to intensify the contest with Suu Kyi pushing for constitutional changes. China’s blocking of a UN Security Council statement on Myanmar complicates the situation, particularly in the region.

India has made clear its support for restoration of democracy. In the long run, the people prevail over dictatorial regimes and it pays to forge ties of solidarity with the people. At the same time, India must respect the sovereignty of nations and the wrong-headedness of outsiders trying to export democracy to a nation. New Delhi has to deal with whatever government is in charge at the moment, and work with other democracies, to herald the desired change.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Now, farmers, it is your turn (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

Little is to be gained by prolonging the ongoing confrontation between a large section of farmers and the central government. The farmers have stuck, so far, to the maximalist demand of repealing the three farm laws the government has newly legislated, whereas the government has made significant concessions. The government has offered to hold the new laws in abeyance for one-and-a-half years, during which all matters can be discussed relating to the new laws. It is up to the farmers to take the government up on its offer to suspend the laws till next June.

Now, it is common sense that holding the laws in abeyance till shortly before important state assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and one-and-a-half years before the next general elections are due effectively means suspending the operation of the contentious laws for the remainder of this government’s term. This is a very major concession. At one point, agriculture minister Tomar is reported to have invited the Unions to negotiate, during the period when the laws are held in abeyance, all contentious issues, including whether to repeal the laws or not. The farmers should match the step retreated by the government from its rigid position and agree to withdraw the agitation pending early negotiations with the government on everything related to enhancing the livelihoods dependent on farming. For the government, the farmers’ agitation is a global embarrassment. For the farmers, to agitate in the cold of the Delhi winter is to suffer extreme hardship, to which, some have succumbed.

The time bought by suspending the agitation and the three farm laws must be utilised to create a vibrant new link between farmers and their end-consumers. The government’s promise to double the farmer’s income by 2022 depends on creating market linkages for agriculture. That means building warehouses that can issue receipts and building a power grid that would supply power even during the day, to fuel a new revolution in rural value addition.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Law’s not on whim, fancy or phone call (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

Comedian Munawar Faruqui, after spending 35 days in Indore Central Jail and being granted interim bail by the Supreme Court on Friday, was released late Saturday night, but not before a Supreme Court judge called up the Indore chief judicial magistrate to check that the bail had been executed. This, after the jail authorities had allegedly refused to comply on Friday as they had ‘not received any official order’ staying an order from the Prayagraj CJM for Faruqui’s production before him. If these proceedings (sic) were not grave, they would have been comic.

The charge levelled — by a Madhya Pradesh MLA, no less — against Faruqui has become rather hackneyed: ‘hurting religious sentiments’. He had also seemingly hurt non-religious sentiments in one of his performances by cracking a joke about a Union minister, something newspaper cartoons do several times a day without being deemed illegal. The defence maintained that the charges filed were ‘vague’ and that due process had not been followed in his arrest, submissions disregarded by the MP High Court but readily accepted by the Supreme Court. How divergence of legal perspective reflects on the working of the high court is a matter of concern.

The law works according to procedures, not on whim, fancy and phone calls. Apart from the fact that the state and its arms need to encourage the development of thicker skins, not of hair-trigger sensitivities, for the sake of a liberal India that can focus on genuine crimes and problems, India should be made to behave less like a banana republic. Otherwise, it runs the risk of becoming a selective banana republic, on the peel of which some people can be made to slip at the behest of others. That would be tragic, not slapstick.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Saturday, February 6, 2021

History recited as a poem (The Telegraph)

Atanu Biswas  

While Joe Biden was eager to offer a hopeful vision for a deeply divided America, there is little doubt that his inauguration was won by the 22-year-old poet, Amanda Gorman. In no time, she became the voice of a new era, calling for “unity and togetherness” through her five-minute poem which began with “When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” The young black poet perfectly symbolizes Biden’s bid to put the ‘united’ back in a divided United States of America. Gorman became America’s first national youth poet laureate in 2017; subsequently Jill Biden was impressed by her reading of a self-penned poem at a public event, which prompted the first lady to suggest Gorman’s name for the inauguration.

Not every US presidential inauguration is graced by the presence of a poet — they were present on only six out of 59 such occasions in a 232-year history. Only four out of 46 US presidents so far — Kennedy, Clinton, Obama, and Biden — have had poets reading at their inaugurations. But this trend is gaining popularity: five out of the last eight presidential inaugurations featured some sort of poetic light. “Summoning artists to participate/ In the august occasions of the state/ Seems something artists ought to celebrate.” These were the initial lines of the undelivered inaugural poem “Dedication” by Robert Frost, which he wrote for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.

Interestingly, except Frost, less known poets have always been chosen, if at all, for a presidential inauguration. In 1993, the poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning”, at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton. Incidentally, Gorman, who was born five years later, found a role model in Angelou, whose autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, reminded her of her own life. Then, in 1997, poet and translator, Miller Williams, read his poem “Of History and Hope” at Clinton’s second inauguration.

 In 2009, Barack Obama’s inauguration was graced by Harlem-born poet, Elizabeth Alexander, a personal friend of Obama himself. However, the actual poem was criticised to be “too much like prose” and the delivery was “insufficiently dramatic”. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune remarked that “she should speak not for the people but to them.” Four years later, Richard Blanco — the first immigrant, first Latino, and first gay person to be an inaugural poet — read his poem, “One Today”, at the second inauguration of Obama: “One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores”.

At 43 years and 236 days on the day of his inauguration, Kennedy is  still the youngest to become president by election in America. When Kennedy invited the 86-year-old poet from New England, Kennedy’s home state, to become the first poet to read at a presidential inauguration, Frost replied: “If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration. I may not be equal to it but I can accept it for my cause — the arts, poetry, now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen.” Because of the sun’s glare, reflecting off the snowy ground, Frost could not read his new poem, “Dedication”, and he, instead, reverted to his classic poem, “The Gift Outright”, which maybe a history of the United States in 16 lines of blank verse, published in 1942, which he knew by heart. By contrast, the 22-year-old Gorman is the youngest poet to grace the inauguration of the oldest American president to take oath yet.

Through her fluid, emotional recital, Gorman celebrated the theme of unity through the message: “The new dawn blooms as we free it.” From Walt Whitman to Robert Frost to Amanda Gorman, poetic lights continue to pour out the nation’s heart throughout its history.

It is well known that Kennedy adopted the final stanza of Robert Frost’s iconic poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” to conclude his stump speech: “But I have promises to keep,/ And miles to go before I sleep.” This was written almost a century ago. However, it is no less relevant today. Just as relevant are the words Amanda Gorman recited at the Capitol Hill: “while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.” In her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb”, the young poet portrayed a vision of a nation that “isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Friday, February 5, 2021

Predictably running to stand still (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

Monetary policy has run fast to stand still. Policy rates remain static and the stance of monetary policy would stay accommodative to support much-needed economic recovery. The Reserve Bank of India estimates that even as growth accelerates in the coming fiscal to 10.5% in real terms, consumer price inflation would stay well below 6%, the upper bound of the central bank’s comfort zone for inflation. This, despite the hardening of crude and commodity prices across the world. There is, however, no conflict between rising input costs and expectation of low inflation in a context of rapid economic growth. This has to do with vast unutilised capacity across the board.

In India, capacity utilisation is well below 70%. Rise in prices would trigger increased output. That goes for commodities as well. Crude prices are soaring because of production cuts by Saudi Arabia. If America under President Biden revives the Iran nuclear deal, as Tehran desperately wants to, lots of additional oil would come into production. Commodity prices are rising because, in part, of scarce shipping capacity. The pandemic-stricken global logistics industry has cut back on operational fleet capacity. Locked-down production in the world outside China has made it unnecessary for cargo ships to travel to China, laden with normal exports. This has resulted in Chinese output, robust enough in its domestic production, not being able to be shipped out of China. These kinds of restrictions on supply would ease, with vaccination’s progress. The prospect of supply restrictions easing would take out the speculative layer in commodity prices, forcing them down. It makes eminent sense for the central bank to look through these price changes.

Giving direct access to retail investors to government bonds is a major step forward. At a time when retail investors are clueless as to where to put their savings, direct access to the safest instruments possible would be of great help, particularly for things like inflation-adjusted bonds targeted at senior citizens.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Thursday, February 4, 2021

Health: Bold Steps In a Long Journey (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

The long overdue attention to health in Budget 2021 is welcome, even if no surprise, given the context of Covid. Of note is the systems approach adopted by the government. Health is not just about clinics, hospitals, labs, doctors and medical personnel; it is also about nutrition, sanitation, general cleanliness, clean air and water.

The budget focuses on building capacity and promoting wellbeing. The task ahead is to ensure that these plans are carried through. The pandemic underscores the importance of investing in health — public expenditure was 1.29% of GDP in 2019-20, lagging not just developed countries but the Brics nations as well. The gap reflects in both health infrastructure and outcomes.

Budget 2021seeks to correct that — an increase in outlay, 137% over the last year’s allocation for health and well-being, including a one-off outlay of Rs 35,000 crore for vaccines and a near-fourfold increase in the outlay on water and sanitation.

The Centre’s decision to fund capacity-building at primary, secondary and tertiary levels (allocating Rs 64,180 crore over six years) will provide the basis for a healthcare system that can deal with emerging diseases. This plan must take on board the existing capacities, including in the private sector. India’s experience with the Covid pandemic underscores the importance of prevention. In a country of the size and wide diversity as well as huge disparities of India, focusing on well-being or preventing the occurrence of disease is equally critical. Improved sanitation, access to potable water, clean air and better nutrition help minimise the occurrence of comorbidities that make the population vulnerable.

Strengthening Mission Poshan, particularly in the 112 aspirational districts, will help improve health outcomes as well as productivity of the population in these areas. Dealing with air pollution, waste management, bioremediation of legacy dump sites and vehicle scrapping as health issues is an important change in approach and will make a difference in implementation.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Privatisation Serves A Public Purpose (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

The finance minister’s budget speech was unabashedly bold on strategic sale and privatisation of central public sector enterprises (CPSEs). The FM did state that a ‘bare minimum’ of CPSEs would operate in four strategic sectors and the rest privatised, and all CPSEs in non-strategic areas would be privatised.

The welcome divestment strategy makes perfect sense, policy designed as it is to better leverage private sector efficiency, provide resources for developmental purposes and generally redeploy valuable assets earning suboptimal returns.

The fact is that CPSEs post modest returns on equity, over two-thirds of profits of CPSEs are confined to just three sectors, petroleum, coal and power; over 150 CPSEs incur huge losses amounting to Rs 45,000 crore annually. The political class must reach a clear consensus on privatisation and wider shareholding in public sector assets, even as CPSEs step up their productivity levels with transparent board-managed corporate governance. In tandem, the Centre must reach out to CPSE trade unions and communicate that greater investment space for the private sector is for the greater good.

The disinvestment target for next fiscal,  Rs 1.75 lakh crore, seems daunting, but note that divestment of BPCL, Air India, Shipping Corporation of India, IDBI Bank and Container Corporation, among others, is a carry-over from this pandemic-affected fiscal, and so can well be expected to be completed soon. Two public sector banks and one public sector general insurance company will also be privatised. The Centre’s resolve to form a special purpose vehicle for unlocking asset value in CPSEs, like real estate, is sensible, as would timely closure of sick and loss-making units. Privatisation serves a public purpose.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Promises to keep: right to education (The Telegraph)

The Annual Status of Education Report 2020 found that 5.5 per cent of rural children had not been enrolled for the 2020 school year

 Underprivileged children study while seated on mats on the ground at an improvised classroom set up at a construction site on December 09, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Many underprivileged children are unable to afford the laptops or tablet computers needed for online classes, leaving them without access to education as the Covid-19 pandemic rages across India. The improvised school, set up by graduate students who are still looking for work, is located at a construction site underneath a metro railway track in the dusty streets of the country's capital. The pandemic is hit the underprivileged members of society the hardest, forcing millions of people out of work, out of homes, and back into destitution, as the country quickly approaches a tally of 10 million infections.

Underprivileged children study while seated on mats on the ground at an improvised classroom set up at a construction site on December 09, 2020 in New Delhi, India. Many underprivileged children are unable to afford the laptops or tablet computers needed for online classes, leaving them without access to education as the Covid-19 pandemic rages across India. The improvised school, set up by graduate students who are still looking for work, is located at a construction site underneath a metro railway track in the dusty streets of the country's capital. The pandemic is hit the underprivileged members of society the hardest, forcing millions of people out of work, out of homes, and back into destitution, as the country quickly approaches a tally of 10 million infections.

India, one of the largest democracies of the world, is trying to live up to its promise of delivering justice, liberty, equality and fraternity to its citizens. The Right to Education Act, 2009 completed its decadal anniversary in 2019. Rooted in the principle of equality and non-discrimination, the landmark RTE Act went on to make education a fundamental right by ensuring free and compulsory schooling for children from the age of six to 14. I recently conducted a survey among women-headed households and primary school teachers based out of rural Lucknow to understand the demand and supply of education. The findings are quite illustrative.

 Each of the 60 women-headed households that I studied was of the opinion that seeking education is important to bring about inter-generational shifts. The primary driving force was to make their children — especially daughters — independent so that they did not share the same ‘fate’ as them. Most of them tried to meet the educational requirements in spite of their minimal resources. However, their experience of government-run schools was not positive: they were quite vocal about the lack of a competitive environment, basic amenities and quality education.

 There were some participants who said that daughters should be married off early so that their future could be secured. These participants lack economic and socio-cultural capital. They were driven by the deep-rooted belief of controlling and protecting women and girls. Further enquiries revealed that the absence of the guarantee of a job immediately after the completion of school made education a less lucrative investment. Conversely, marriage was seen to hold greater prospects in terms of social security.

 While assessing the supply side of the education system, I looked at teachers and school principals in rural settings. What I found was that on account of their economic, social and political marginalization, the educators remained trapped in the struggle to balance the demands of their vocation and subsistence. Some participants stated that education is a privilege in their villages where the focus remains on earning a livelihood. These challenges have been shared in the public domain. Presumably, policymakers and governments are aware of them. Yet, the concerns remain unaddressed.

 The Annual Status of Education Report 2020 found that 5.5 per cent of rural children had not been enrolled for the 2020 school year. There was also a shift in enrolment from private schools to government schools. The unprecedented economic hardship brought about by the pandemic has had a domino effect on children’s education and health. It is apparent that India, which is aiming to become a five trillion dollar economy, is yet to build a robust education system. Inadequate investment and research and poor learning outcomes in schools are some of its manifestations.

 Apart from its gendered impact on differential access to resources, the pandemic has also increased the socio-economic burden on vulnerable groups. Therefore, the broadening of employment opportunities, capacity-building and new welfare schemes must be accompanied by the creation of an equitable education system.

The renowned educationalist, Paulo Freire, had pointed out that education can be used for domination or liberation. Skewed resources have meant that in India, the privileged continue to dominate the populous underprivileged segment.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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