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Showing posts with label The Hindu. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Hindu. Show all posts

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Steep climb: On BJP and the Darjeeling hills (The Hindu)

The three seats of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong in the Darjeeling hills of West Bengal may count for little numerically in the State Assembly of 294 members, but their political significance is a different story. The demand for a separate Gorkhaland State in the hills has singularly driven politics among the Gorkha population for more than three decades now. The agitation has been often violent. In 2017, during the last eruption of violence, the hills were in blockade for 104 days and several people were killed. The BJP’s close involvement with Gorkha politics suggests that it has certain plans for the region, which could have ripples in other parts of the country where demands for autonomy or separate States exist. It was in Darjeeling that the BJP got its foothold into West Bengal. From 2009 to 2019, the region sent a BJP member to the Lok Sabha. The BJP’s traditional position in favour of smaller States created an affinity for it, but more importantly, the fact that it had little stake in West Bengal politics in general allowed it to be experimental here. Though it never declared in clear terms its support for a separate State, by maintaining an ambiguous stance, it became acceptable to an expanding segment of the hill population. In 2014, then BJP prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi said he shared the dreams of the Gorkhas, and the BJP later on shifted to a promise of ‘permanent political solution’. Home Minister Amit Shah campaigned in the hills and reiterated the promise. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stayed away from campaigning, avoiding the contentious question.


The politics in the hills is framed in antagonistic terms with the Bengali population in the plains. Any concession to the Gorkhas, let alone a separate State, can be viewed unsympathetically by the rest of the population. The two experiments in the past of allowing autonomy to the region under the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council from 1988-2012, and the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration established in 2012, more than mitigating the grievance of the Gorkhas, splintered their politics. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha which dominated politics in the region is divided into two factions — one led by its founder Bimal Gurung and other by Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa. Ms. Banerjee’s TMC is said to be in alliance with both factions, which means little more thanC creating confusion. The Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), the party set up by Subhas Ghising who started the agitation, is an ally of the BJP. The experiments of alliances and self-governance led to an erosion of trust in local leaders. While Gorkha politics view Bengali leaders of all parties with suspicion, they have bought into the nationalist politics of the BJP to some extent. The BJP has emerged as a serious player in West Bengal and will remain so in the near future. Darjeeling will test its agility and vision, certainly for the State, but probably beyond its borders too.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Friday, April 16, 2021

Loser Streak: On cricket, gambling and match-fixing (The Hindu)

Sport rests on two pivots. The first is the athlete’s desire to win by putting in the greatest endeavour. The second attribute is the fans’ belief that what unfolds on the turf is based on sincere effort. Sport is real and its immediacy also invests it with long-lasting meaning. It is this enduring template that gets torn asunder when cricketers throw matches or athletes consume anabolic steroids and break records. Corruption that taints performance is a poisoned dagger which cleaves sport’s throbbing heart and the latest scandal involving Heath Streak, is a crushing blow to cricket. The former Zimbabwe captain admitted to sharing information with bookies while he was the coach of various teams ranging from Zimbabwe to Kolkata Knight Riders, and has also accepted bitcoins for favours rendered. This breach of trust occurred largely from 2016 to 2018 and on Wednesday, the International Cricket Council (ICC) banned Streak for eight years. It was a fall from grace for one of Zimbabwe’s greatest players. Streak was a crafty fast bowler and a useful batsman as evident in his combined international tally of 455 wickets and 4933 runs during a 12-year career that finished in 2005.


Disbelief was the first emotion when match-fixing reared its head in 2000. It was a conflagration that hurt many high-profile cricketers including the late Hansie Cronje, Mohammad Azharuddin and Saleem Malik. The allegations may have failed to gain legal sanctity in long-drawn cases but the whispers remained. The sordid saga had another instalment when spot-fixing hurt the 2013 Indian Premier League forcing a cleansing of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). The same despondency was in vogue after the ICC mentioned Streak’s transgressions even if the caveat was that his actions had no bearing on the results of the games in which he was involved as a coach. Streak may not have fixed a contest but in sharing contacts of players with bookies, he was paving the way for a probable underwhelming show. Bookies lure with requests for seemingly innocuous information before they spread the net wide. It may be recalled that in the 1990s, Shane Warne and Mark Waugh confessed to sharing pitch and weather information with a book-maker. Streak’s misdemeanour is also a step back for Zimbabwean cricket, which is returning from a long-drawn administrative crisis that forced the early retirement of the Flower brothers – Grant and Andy — and the exile of Henry Olonga. Streak’s dalliance with greed shows that the ICC’s fight against the scourge of gambling and match-fixing is farfrom over.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Probing the sleuths: On the ISRO spy case (The Hindu)

The Supreme Court’s order tasking the CBI to look into the Justice D.K. Jain committee report on the action to be taken against those who implicated space scientist Nambi Narayanan in the ‘ISRO espionage case’ of 1994 is a logical and much-needed step forward in ensuring accountability for the suspected frame-up. Representing a dark, but brief, chapter in the annals of police investigation in the country, the case was based on unfounded suspicion sparked by the arrest of two Maldivian women and the claims they made in their statements to the police. The Kerala Police arrested Mr. Narayanan based on suspicion that he was among those sharing official secrets relating to space technology and missions to foreign agents. After the investigation was transferred to the CBI in a matter of weeks, the central probe agency recommended that the case be closed, highlighting grave lapses in the probe and the complete lack of evidence. When the Supreme Court awarded a compensation of ₹50 lakh to the scientist in 2018, taking into account the damage to his honour and dignity following the arrest on grave charges and the interrogation that followed, it was widely expected that police officers who framed him ought to be proceeded against too. The Court formed a committee headed by Justice Jain, a retired apex court judge, for the purpose. The panel’s report was submitted recently, and the Centre supported the demand for follow-up action. Significantly, the Court has mandated that the report’s contents be kept confidential while being forwarded to the CBI for a decision on how to proceed further. The element of secrecy may seem odd, but avoiding any contestation on its findings, which are to be treated as the outcome of a preliminary enquiry, will indeed be helpful in the agency proceeding on merits.


When it awarded compensation, the Court was quite convinced that the initial probe was malicious. “The criminal law was set in motion without any basis. It was initiated... on some kind of fancy or notion,” it had observed. It is rare in India that those falsely implicated or maliciously arrested on grave charges get justice. The police are given to using questionable methods, and treat the gravity of the charge as something that necessitates stronger and more persuasive means of investigation. That Mr. Narayanan has succeeded in the battle for restoring his honour is a matter of relief, but it should be noted that the Kerala government has been resisting calls for disciplinary action against the erring police officers. It opposed the CBI’s closure report and tried to revive the investigation by its own police, but thankfully, the effort was shot down by the Supreme Court. It would be in the fitness of things if there is no further impediment to the CBI in proceeding with its investigation against the officers concerned, and that the process of restorative justice leads to its logical conclusion.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Monday, April 12, 2021

Enforcing claims: On U.S. challenging India’s maritime rights (The Hindu)

For several years now, the relationship of the U.S. and India has been marked by their sensitivity to each other’s concerns as they deepened cooperation on strategic issues, and aligned positions on multilateral issues. As a result, the April 7 press release by the U.S. Navy that announced that its 7th fleet’s Destroyer, the USS John Paul Jones, had traversed India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in order to “challenge” India’s claim that it must be notified before any military activity in these waters came as a surprise, particularly as it followed two successful visits by senior U.S. officials, including the U.S. Defence Secretary and Climate Envoy to Delhi. In the press release, the U.S. Navy said its ship had “asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent,” claiming this was “consistent” with international law, referring to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). While the U.S.’s decision to conduct “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPs) is not new, as it regularly carries out such operations in order to “assert” international law off the coasts of 19 countries, most notably China, what appears to be new is the statement issued by the U.S. Navy itself. The government, which responded to the operation on April 9, said it had expressed its “concerns” to the U.S. government through diplomatic channels. In addition, India contested the U.S. claim about international law, saying that UNCLOS did not authorise military manoeuvres on the continental shelf or EEZ, as the 7th fleet had carried out, without prior consent.


While the matter has been disposed of diplomatically for the moment, it is clear that the government must prepare to grapple with the issue with the U.S. in the long term. The U.S.’s announcement indicates that a new SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for these FONOPs is being adopted. To begin with, the government must clearly explain its own position, making it clear to all partners how the Indian law governing maritime claims is in line with international law. Next, it must analyse the U.S.’s motivations for this belligerence, and chart out a course accordingly. Primarily, the U.S. naval actions maybe a message to China, whose maritime claims are increasingly coming into conflict with those of the U.S. and its allies, but Washington is attempting to send a broader message that it will not tolerate any other country’s claims. As New Delhi contends with this new reality, it must seek answers from Washington about how their newly intensified Quad partnership, especially their stated objective to cooperate on keeping a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, can co-exist with the open challenge the U.S. Navy has posed.

Courtesy -  The Hindu.

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Wrong shots: On West Bengal poll violence (The Hindu)

Five people were killed on Saturday during the fourth phase of polls in West Bengal, where the first three phases were largely eventless. While one person was allegedly killed by political rivals, four others were killed when security personnel fired more than 15 rounds in a span of two hours at Cooch Behar’s Sitalkuchi Assembly constituency. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has concluded that the police action was necessary, and taken in “self defence,” but the political storm kicked up by the episode continues to rage. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has alleged a conspiracy by the BJP to scare her supporters and called for the resignation of Home Minister Amit Shah. Mr. Shah, in turn, has said the Chief Minister’s call to gherao personnel of the Central security forces led to the flare-up. The Trinamool Congress has alleged that Central forces are restricting it and helping the BJP in the campaign. It is unclear whether the force used to control the mob was proportionate and the deaths were avoidable. Elsewhere in the State, a group of people tried to stop the vehicle of a BJP MP. All these are bad omens, against the backdrop of an intensely competitive political battle between Ms. Banerjee’s Trinamool and the BJP.


The ECI’s role in Bengal has been called into question by Opposition parties for various reasons. Its explanation for spreading the polls over eight phases over a month has not mitigated the concern that it gave undue advantage to the BJP. Its practice of redeploying civil and police officials is a time-tested measure to keep the election process fair. However, if redeployment leads to administrative chaos and partisanship, it is a matter of concern. While the ECI has been proactive in acting on charges of religious appeals made by Trinamool leaders including Ms. Banerjee, such alacrity has been missing in its dealings with the BJP. BJP leaders have made brazen communal appeals and gone scot-free. ECI advertisements that invoked the sacrifices of security personnel amounted to the Commission overstepping its strictly apolitical role. The personal role of the Prime Minister in a State election has made the task of the ECI much more difficult, and it has not risen up to the challenge. Ms. Banerjee may have gone over the top in trolling the ECI to “rename MCC as Modi Code of Conduct”. But it is not the first time that a Chief Minister has questioned the ECI’s impartiality. Narendra Modi himself had questioned the fairness of the ECI when he was Gujarat Chief Minister. Its reputation built over decades kept public trust intact, through all this. That trust is now being eroded, through acts of commission and omission. There are four more phases of polling in Bengal and the ECI must take measures to prevent violence, and keep the process fair and enabling for voters.

Courtesy -  The Hindu.

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Saturday, April 10, 2021

A disturbing order: ASI survey in Gyanvapi mosque (The Hindu)

The order of a civil court in Varanasi that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) should conduct a survey to ascertain whether the Gyanvapi mosque was built over a demolished Hindu temple is an unconscionable intervention that will open the floodgates for another protracted religious dispute. The order, apparently in gross violation of the explicit legislative prohibition on any litigation over the status of places of worship, is likely to give a fillip to majoritarian and revanchist forces that earlier carried on the Ram Janmabhoomi movement over a site in Ayodhya. That dispute culminated in the country’s highest court handing over the site to the very forces that conspired to illegally demolish the Babri Masjid. The plaintiffs, who have filed a suit as representatives of Hindu faith to reclaim the land on which the mosque stands, have now succeeded in getting the court to commission an ASI survey to look for the sort of evidence that they would never have been able to adduce on their own. The order has been issued despite the fact that the Allahabad High Court reserved its order on the maintainability of the suit on March 15 and is yet to pronounce its ruling. It is not clear why the civil judge did not wait for the ruling and went ahead with his directive to the ASI.


By an order in 1997, the civil court had decided that the suit was not barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, which said all pending suits concerning the status of places of worship will abate and that none can be instituted. The 1991 Act also froze the status of all places of worship, barring the then disputed site in Ayodhya, as on August 15, 1947. There was another exception — any place of worship that was an archaeological site or ancient monument covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. On a revision application, another court had asked the trial court to decide afresh the question whether the suit was barred afresh “after taking evidence”. Presumably, the latest application seeking a survey by the ASI as an expert body is aimed at providing that “evidence”. Regardless of the merits of either side’s case, it ought to be clear to anyone concerned with peace and harmony in the country that the attempt to resurrect disputes buried by law is a serious setback to the cause of secularism and peaceful coexistence. That new challenges are emerging to the wisdom of Parliament in giving a statutory quietus to squabbles over religious sites is deeply disturbing.

Courtes - The Hindu.

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Time tests ties: On India-Russia relations (The Hindu)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit to Delhi this week, saw both he and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar reaffirming traditional India-Russia ties, but there were signs that those ties are being tested. Mr. Lavrov’s trip was to make preparations for the upcoming visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin for the annual summit — it was postponed last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. On the bilateral front, both sides appeared to make progress on strategic cooperation, cooperation in energy, nuclear and space sectors, and on talks on a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Also discussed were more agreements on military-technical cooperation for the joint production of India-made Russian weapons, with Mr. Lavrov highlighting Russia being the only partner supplying India “cutting-edge military technology”. While neither side referred to the upcoming delivery of the $5 billion S-400 missile defence system directly, they reaffirmed their commitment to their defence partnership, as well as avenues for more investment in connectivity including the International North-South Transport Corridor and the Chennai-Vladivostok Eastern Maritime Corridor. The areas of divergence over their worldview seemed to emerge during their public remarks, which were prefaced by Mr. Jaishankar’s reference to the “rebalanced nature” of international relations. Mr. Lavrov’s praise of Russia-China ties was clearly not shared by Mr. Jaishankar. While he referred repeatedly to India’s “Indo-Pacific” strategy, Mr. Lavrov preferred the more continental reference to the “Asia-Pacific” region. Mr. Lavrov’s derisive indirect reference to the Quad as an “Asian NATO” was significant, although he said both sides agreed that military alliances in Asia were inadvisable and counterproductive. On Afghanistan as well, the Russian push for bringing the Taliban into a power-sharing arrangement in Kabul seemed to come up against India’s consistent push for a “democratic Afghanistan”.


Beyond those divergences, it was the optics of Mr. Lavrov’s brief visit that fuelled the impression that New Delhi and Moscow are not as much on the same page as they have traditionally been; it did not include a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, unlike earlier. The absence of a meeting at the highest level seemed more in focus, as Mr. Modi met with U.S. Special Envoy John Kerry just a day later, and at his next stop, in Islamabad, Mr. Lavrov was received by Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan Army Chief General Bajwa. This was Mr. Lavrov’s first visit to Pakistan in nine years, and was a clear message of deepening ties. Unlike in 2012, Mr. Lavrov this time said that Russia was ready to strengthen Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts with the supply of “relevant equipment”, which will raise eyebrows in Delhi. While India and Russia have successfully addressed divergences between them, even deep, traditional and “time-tested relations” of the kind they have shared for decades cannot be taken for granted, and the two sides should move quickly, if they desire to dispel the notion that those ties are under any strain.

Courtes - The Hindu.

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Friday, April 9, 2021

IPL sets the stage for a young bunch of players eager for the spotlight (The Hindu)

Since its launch in 2008, the Indian Premier League has largely remained a summer-fix, with its share of pulsating thrills and big money. But these are extraordinary times when a virus has extended its stifling grip across the globe for more than a year and while COVID-19 rages, through a second wave in India, the IPL is back with its 14th edition that will commence at Chennai’s M.A. Chidambaram Stadium on Friday with defending champion Mumbai Indians taking on Royal Challengers Bangalore. The previous tournament, a much-delayed one due to the pandemic, had concluded at Dubai on November 10, last year. After a five-month gap, the latest version rolls in with its share of 60 matches in a schedule that stretches all the way to May 30. Meanwhile, the virus continues to influence logistics and with bio-bubbles being the norm, the matches will be initially played at empty venues. The other new development is the idea of neutral venues, a move necessitated by the need to reduce travel so that every squad stays in a specific city for at least a fortnight. With cities such as Hyderabad, Mohali and Jaipur missing out as hosts, it was felt that their respective home units — Sunrisers Hyderabad, Punjab Kings and Rajasthan Royals — needed a level playing field and that was achieved by propping up neutral venues for all rivals.


It is a thread that goes all the way to the play-offs and final, which would be held in Ahmedabad, a city that does not have an IPL outfit. If the immediate context is about playing sport in the times of the coronavirus, the larger goal for the players would be to also use this IPL as a stage to finesse their skills well in time for the Twenty20 World Cup in India during October-November this year. The current build-up that included hotel quarantines, gradual training and news about a few players and support staff testing positive for COVID-19, may not have been ideal but all the squads are keen to get on the turf and play even if excited fans and their acoustic-support would be missed. Besides its obvious stardust, the IPL is equally about an unsung player grabbing attention and winging his way into the national squad. T. Natarajan and Suryakumar Yadav, to name just two, have done that in recent times. And for the nostalgically inclined, it is also a space to watch the likes of M.S. Dhoni and AB de Villiers plying their wares. Neutral grounds that negate home-advantage and a virus in the air do make a strange mix but this is the new-normal for an event that has previously adjusted to three general elections and a couple of overseas deviations.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Thursday, April 8, 2021

Falling short: on India's vaccine programme (The Hindu)

Easter has not brought good tidings to India. The number of daily new cases has risen by over a 100,000 — twice in three days. Delhi and Maharashtra have imposed night curfews, an idea, that is so shorn of evidence as being a deterrent to transmission that it only signifies panic. There is unalloyed acknowledgment at the Centre that India is in the midst of deep crisis and the blame has been squarely laid on the people who are not following ‘COVID-appropriate behaviour’. In January, India rushed through two vaccines and sought to give the impression that it was the vaccine manufacturing hub of the world and could provide for its own vast population as well as for the world outside. However, with the national second wave that began in March and growing public clamour for making the vaccine available to all adult Indians, the government is singing a different tune: that vaccines were not to be given by want but to be dispensed by need. Those who are most vulnerable to the disease: health-care workers, frontline workers, the elderly and those with comorbidities surely have the first right to protect themselves against the disease. The Serum Institute of India, unlike India’s public sector vaccine companies that have largely shut down, is a private contractor for whom India is just another buyer. It can manufacture no more than 65 million doses a month and there is only a vague assurance that “most” of it would be for Indians. Covaxin constitutes less than 10% of India’s vaccine portfolio and in March the Centre had ordered only 20 million doses more. Both firms have demanded that the government provide additional funds to expand manufacturing to enable more vaccines to Indians and the SII has also demanded a higher per vaccine price to guarantee prioritised supply.


India has hit a record of administering 4 million doses a day — a significant number by global standards — and were this to increase given the widening public anxiety over the second wave, there is a need to replenish stocks every 10 days. Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have been complaining of vaccine shortages though the Centre is adamant that there isn’t one. While it is true that most countries have prioritised their health-care workers, they have also moved to rapidly expand access without barriers within. Several states in the United States, and Israel have unfettered access and the U.K. too has said it will prioritise its own needs before exporting. Therefore, the government must realistically clarify on its supply line and endeavour to accelerate universal vaccine access.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Staying accommodative: on RBI keeping interest rates unchanged (The Hindu)

Armed with a renewed mandate to contain inflation within a 2 percentage point range of the target 4%, and mindful of the pandemic’s latest wave, the RBI’s monetary policy committee has opted to reaffirm its growth-supportive “accommodative stance” and keep interest rates unchanged. The MPC, which met for the first time in the new financial year, also maintained its projection for GDP expansion in the current fiscal at 10.5%, notwithstanding the risks to the forecast from the current upsurge in novel coronavirus cases and associated localised lockdowns. Explaining the rationale for its policy stance of being prepared to stay accommodative for ‘as long as necessary’ to ensure that economic growth becomes ‘durable’, the committee was unambiguous that its actions were born of the need to stay supportive at a time when there was a real threat that “the renewed jump in COVID-19 infections... could dampen the demand for contact-intensive services, restrain growth impulses and prolong the return to normalcy”. That consumer confidence has dipped, as the MPC noted, is a clear sign that uncertainty clouds the outlook for growth. Add to this the fact that IHS Markit’s Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) survey for March revealed that business sentiment had slid to a seven-month low, even as the research firm’s subsequent India Services PMI report showed both manufacturers and services companies continued to shed jobs for a thirteenth month. With jobs and incomes remaining under stress for millions, and uncertainty over the efficacy and safety of the vaccines persisting even as authorities seek to ramp up the immunisation drive, it is hard to foresee consumption demand rebounding to pre-COVID levels any time soon.


The MPC’s central remit on inflation also remains a concern. Core inflation, the panel observed, had hardened across the board and increased by 50 basis points to touch 6% in February. The RBI is cognisant of the fact that there are both upside and downside pressures that may impact the trajectory of retail inflation. Governor Shaktikanta Das has flagged the critical significance that this year’s monsoon rains will have on food prices, which have been a recent source of upward pressure on price stability. And both Mr. Das and the broader committee have stressed the vital need for the Centre and States to initiate some coordinated action to ease the tax burden on petroleum products, given the ripple ‘second-round’ effects that the high costs of transport fuels have on overall inflation. High international commodity prices and logistics costs are also threatening to push up input costs across the manufacturing and services sectors, posing a real challenge to policymakers, given that it is far harder to influence these variables. With the RBI’s own March survey on inflation expectations showing that urban households expect prices to accelerate over a one-year horizon, monetary authorities can ill afford to drop their guard on price stability. For, at stake is their hard-earned credibility.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Mayhem in Myanmar: On the violence during Myanmar's Armed Forces' Day (The Hindu)

The violence of March 27, Myanmar’s Armed Forces’ Day, in which over 100 protesters were killed, has sent shockwaves. India, which initially expressed its “deep concern” and called for the “rule of law” and “the democratic process” to be upheld, had stopped short of directly condemning the junta’s violence. It had also sent a representative to attend Saturday’s celebrations. But on the day India’s defence attaché, along with the representatives of seven other countries, including China, Pakistan and Russia, was attending a massive military parade in Naypyidaw, the junta was gunning down its people. The violence and the prolonged crisis seem to have triggered a stronger response from several capitals, including New Delhi. On April 2, India, which has cultivated deep ties with Myanmar’s civilian and military leaderships, condemned “any use of violence” and called for “restoration of democracy”. There is growing international appeal for ending the bloodshed, but the junta seems unperturbed. Even after the March 27 killings, protests and regime violence continue. According to independent agencies, the junta has killed over 570 civilians, including 46 children, since the February 1 coup.


When the regime resorted to violence, it may have calculated that swift repression would extinguish the fire for freedoms, like in 1988 and 2007. But there is a fundamental difference this time. If in the past the protests erupted against the continuing military rule, in February, the military usurped power from an elected government after a decade of partial democracy. Those who enjoyed at least limited freedoms, first under the transition government and then under Aung San Suu Kyi, have built a stronger resistance to the junta this time. Street protests are not the only challenge the Generals are facing. The banking system is on the brink of collapse with most staff on strike. Cash is scarce and prices of essential goods are rocketing. Industrial workers are also on strike, bringing the pandemic-battered economy to its knees. The Generals’ efforts to bring bank and government employees and port and industrial workers back to work have been unsuccessful so far. Worse still, armed insurgent groups have thrown their weight behind the protesters, triggering fears of a wider civil conflict. The Generals are unlikely to give up power on their own. They should be nudged to end the violence and make concessions. Initially, India and China, both vying for influence in Myanmar, were ambivalent in condemning the junta’s violence because they did not want to antagonise the Generals. But an unstable Myanmar is not in the interest of any country. India, China and other countries in ASEAN should heap pressure on the junta and work towards restoring democracy in Myanmar, which is the only way forward.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Fits and starts: On India-Pakistan dialogue process (The Hindu)

After a month of moves and messages that indicated a détente, events last week appear to have slammed the brakes on the India-Pakistan dialogue process. The moves began with a ceasefire announcement at the LoC in February, followed by Indus water talks, sporting visas and other measures, including official speeches by Pakistan’s top leadership pushing for regional rapprochement, and salutary messages exchanged between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Imran Khan. Despite the growing bonhomie, however, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi decided not to meet or even exchange greetings at a conference in Dushanbe last week. And then days later, Mr. Qureshi led a charge of Cabinet Ministers who opposed a move by Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee to reopen imports of Indian cotton and sugar, arguing that it would violate Pakistan’s commitments on Kashmir. Subsequently, Mr. Khan announced he was dropping the import proposal he had made in his capacity as Commerce Minister, and that ties with India would not be normalised unless the Modi government revoked its steps of August 2019, on Jammu and Kashmir and Article 370. New Delhi, which has chosen not to comment on the events of the past month, and has not denied reports that claimed India-Pakistan moves were part of a back-channel dialogue facilitated by other countries, has also made no comment on Mr. Khan’s U-turn.


While such swings have been common in the India-Pakistan engagement, the present scenario poses questions. If talks are indeed under way behind the scenes, it is unclear why Pakistan’s import decision was not better coordinated before being publicly announced. The move followed a speech by Pakistan’s Gen. Bajwa where he stressed the need for geo-economics, trade and connectivity to be prioritised for regional prosperity. So, if it is not the all-powerful Army Chief or the ‘Pakistani establishment’ that is playing the “spoiler”, the Khan government must identify who it is. It is significant that New Delhi has chosen not to press its advantage over the embarrassing confusion in Pakistan’s stand, or react to its unworkable demand on Article 370, which has drawn India’s sharp comments in the past. This might indicate that the dialogue that has reportedly been on for months has been paused and much will depend on whether any other outlooked steps, including the restoration of High Commissioners in each other’s capitals and LoC trade that was suspended for security reasons in 2019, or commitments from Pakistan on cross-border terrorism, are announced next. If the nascent re-engagement is to have any chance, there must be also more clarity on what the two governments have decided to embark upon and hope to achieve from it.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Persistent mindlessness: On Chhattisgarh's Sukma district encounter (The Hindu)


The deaths of over 20 paramilitary personnel in an encounter with the Maoists in the Tarrem area near Chhattisgarh’s Sukma district once again puts the spotlight on the long-running conflict in this remote tribal region. Reports indicate a Maoist ambush of the paramilitary personnel from different units – the Special Task Force, the District Reserve Guard of the Chhattisgarh police besides the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)’s elite COBRA unit — who had proceeded to perform combing operations in Maoist strongholds. The units had embarked upon their combing exercise at a time when Maoists were trying to disrupt the construction of a road near Silger-Jagargunda. The lack of road and telecommunications infrastructure in these remote areas has been one of the reasons for the Maoists being able to use the terrain to their advantage. Questions will be asked as to how such a large force failed to anticipate the ambush and were attacked by insurgents reportedly belonging to the Maoists’ “1st Battalion” led by a tribal, Hidma. The encounter has raised the number of security forces killed in Bastar to more than 175 since the killing of 76 CRPF personnel in the Chintalnar attack in April 2010. It is now quite clear that despite facing losses to its cadre and leadership across central and east India and being hemmed into possibly its only remaining stronghold of south Chhattisgarh, the Maoists are still a formidable military threat.


The Maoist insurrection which began first as the Naxalite movement in the 1970s and then intensified since 2004, following the merger of two prominent insurgent groups, remains a mindless guerrilla-driven militant movement that has failed to gain adherents beyond those living in remote tribal areas either untouched by welfare or are discontents due to state repression. The Maoists are now considerably weaker than a decade ago, with several senior leaders either dead or incarcerated, but their core insurgent force in south Bastar remains intact. The recourse to violence is now little more than a ploy to invite state repression which furthers their aim of gaining new adherents. While the Indian state has long since realised that there cannot only be a military end to the conflict, the Chhattisgarh government’s inability to reach out to those living in the Maoist strongholds remains a major hurdle, which has resulted in a protracted but violent stalemate in the area. The Tarrem attacks came in the wake of a recent peace march held by civil society activists who had urged a dialogue between the Maoists and the Chhattisgarh government to end the violence that has claimed more than 10,000 lives since 2000 alone, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. While a military response and recriminations will inevitably follow the ambush, the civil society plea must not be ignored if a long-lasting solution to the conflict is to be achieved.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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South phase: On the Assembly elections in TN, Puducherry and Kerala (The Hindu)

The States of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, along with the Union Territory of Puducherry, are going to the polls today after an extremely competitive campaign. Voting in all 234 Assembly constituencies in Tamil Nadu and 140 in Kerala is taking place in a single phase. In T.N. and Kerala, the DMK and the Congress respectively, can ill-afford to lose another election. The AIADMK government in T.N. is seeking a third straight mandate while the CPI(M)-led LDF government in Kerala is seeking a second consecutive term. After being out of power for 10 years, the DMK hopes to be back in the saddle in T.N. Meanwhile, there is a search for new alignments in both States. The fragmentation of Dravidian politics, following the passing of Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK and M. Karunanidhi of the DMK, has opened up possibilities. Actor-turned politician Kamal Haasan and film-maker and Tamil nationalist Seeman also fancy their chances as they jostle for space in the changed scenario. Though the BJP is far from gaining a foothold in either State, its looming influence is evident in the resonance of religious appeals in the public sphere. In Kerala, the BJP and the Congress promised to keep the Sabarimala shrine out of bounds for women of menstruating age citing tradition while the LDF quietened its stance fearing a Hindu backlash. A constituent of the LDF said ‘love jihad’ was a matter of concern; in T.N., the DMK sought to give itself a makeover as a party not antithetical to customs and traditions.


In the rivalry between the Dravidian camps in T.N., the Congress used to be the swing power. Whether it retains that role is to be seen. With Rahul Gandhi’s personal fortunes too at stake, the ripples of its performance in Kerala will be felt for the Congress across the country. The campaigns in T.N. and Kerala were thankfully not centred around communalism, but misogynistic statements by representatives of progressive parties were unfortunate. Parties and the people must put a cost on leaders who make offensive statements. All parties in both States appeared to support welfarism through various modes, but less attention was paid to discussing economic and development issues. Unless the focus is on growth, the incoming governments in both T.N. and Kerala may find the present welfarism unsustainable. The role of the central agencies during the campaign was controversial for several reasons. True, it is their duty to investigate illegal activities, but if they do so in a manner that seemingly helps the ruling party at the Centre and constrains its political opponents during the campaign, the election gets vitiated. The Election Commission of India must take note of this increasing unhealthy trend, and do what is essential to ensure a level-playing field in elections.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Monday, April 5, 2021

A good start: On rare diseases and government support for treatment (The Hindu)

It is binding on a welfare state to take care of every single citizen. Securing the wellbeing of every one, particularly those unable to help themselves, irrespective of whether they constitute a critical mass or not, is important. The recent notification of the National Policy for Rare Diseases 2021 after various interventions, including the court, is pegged on this principle of inclusion. A good start, it offers financial support for one-time treatment of up to ₹20 lakh, introduces a crowdfunding mechanism, creates a registry of rare diseases, and provides for early detection. In its final form, however, the policy has left the rare diseases lobby sorely disappointed on a crucial note. Rare diseases are broadly defined as diseases that infrequently occur in a population, and three markers are used — the total number of people with the disease, its prevalence, and the availability/non-availability of treatment options. WHO defines rare disease as having a frequency of less than 6.5-10 per 10,000 people. As per an estimate, there are 7,000 known rare diseases with an estimated 300 million patients in the world; 70 million are in India. According to the Organization for Rare Diseases India, these include inherited cancers, autoimmune disorders, congenital malformations, Hirschsprung’s disease, Gaucher disease, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophies and Lysosomal Storage Disorders (LSDs).


Much of the effort in the sector, from the medical side, has been to evolve formal definitions, in the hope that it would support the development of and commercialisation of drugs for treatment, and improve funding for research on rare diseases. Patient support groups have worked towards drumming up funding assistance for the treatment — one time or continual. The notification of the Policy comes as a logical conclusion to a long-fought battle, and yet, stops short of delivering the complete mandate. As per the Policy, diseases such as LSD for which definitive treatment is available, but costs are prohibitive, have been categorised as Group 3. However, no funding has been allocated for the immediate and lifelong treatment needs, for therapies already approved by the Drugs Controller General of India. Experts point out that the costs to help already-diagnosed patients might be in the range of ₹80-₹100 crore annually. If the Centre can extend the cost-sharing agreements that it has worked out with Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, with other States too, its share of the annual costs will be halved. The Centre can, however, still set aside a substantial corpus to fund life-saving treatments, even as it rolls out the policy. Doing so will not only complete a job well begun — even if not yet half done — but also cement its commitment towards the welfare of every single citizen in India.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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A walk-back: On the expiry of H-1B visa ban (The Hindu)

President Joe Biden allowed a ban on issuance of H-1B visas for skilled workers to lapse at the end of March 2021, a move signalling his intent — articulated as a campaign promise last year — to pull the U.S. back from harsh immigration rules imposed by his predecessor, Donald Trump. Mr. Biden’s action will have a significant and favourable impact for Indian nationals seeking employment with U.S. tech firms, given that they were the largest demographic to benefit from this visa annually; they garnered approximately 70%.of the 65,000 H-1B visas annually made available to private sector applicants other than students. By some estimates, H-1B visa applications of up to 219,000 workers were likely blocked as a result of Mr. Trump’s proclamation last June, halting the processing and issuance of non-immigrant work visas of several types. The stated aim was to prevent foreign workers from cornering jobs in the context of the economic distress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, this raised genuine questions about whether such rules would set back the U.S.-India relationship by impacting Indian IT services exported to the U.S. These totalled approximately $29.7 billion in 2019, 3.0% ($864 million) more than 2018, and 143% greater than 2009 levels. Not only did the CEOs of Silicon Valley tech titans protest the clampdown on a key source of skilled labour driving their core operations, but some universities also filed lawsuits challenging a subsequent student visa ban last year, leading to a partial walk-back on the rules for the latter.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Saturday, April 3, 2021

Better late: On announcement of Phalke award to Rajinikanth (The Hindu)

Rajinikanth, the reigning demigod of Tamil filmdom, richly deserves the Dadasaheb Phalke award, Indian cinema’s highest recognition, bestowed by the jury this year. The film world has few parallels to his success story. His transition from Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, a Marathi-born struggling bus conductor in Bengaluru, to a worshipped superstar in the Dravidian heartland, was made possible only by his undimmed passion and sustained hard work. From early on, he introduced novelty to his screen characters. He has kept innovating on his unique styles of tossing a cigarette or a mint, twirling his sunglasses and walking with a swagger. While style remains his hallmark, it would be an injustice to dismiss him as just a mass hero. He had excelled as an actor with sensitive portrayals in films such as Mullum Malarum and Aarilirindhu Arubadhu Varai before getting trapped in superstardom with Billa and donning larger than life roles. He is among the rare heroes who handle comedy scenes with ease, his dual roles in Thillu Mullu being an example. His charisma has attracted three generations of fans, with a following even in Japan where he is lovingly called ‘Odori Maharaja’ (The Dancing Maharaja). He is also the only Indian actor to have featured in black and white, colour, 3D and motion capture films.


But despite Rajinikanth’s demonstrable body of work, given his active inclination for a foray into “spiritual politics” until last year, inevitable questions are being raised if the award is a calculated choice to influence poll-bound Tamil Nadu. While Rajinikanth lent support during elections to the DMK-TMC (1996, 1998) and AIADMK-BJP (2004), in recent years he has made no secret of his admiration for BJP leaders. Not only did he hail Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah as ‘Lord Krishna and Arjuna’ — after the scrapping of special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 — he targeted Dravidian icon Periyar E.V. Ramasamy while recalling the alleged attacks on Hindu deities during a 1971 anti-superstition rally. He backed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. To be fair, since his ‘no show’ in politics, the actor has remained politically withdrawn, though previously he indirectly targeted the DMK and the AIADMK. He has not responded to appeals from ‘neutral’ observers to lend his support for “honest, dynasty-free politics”. Whether the award’s timing would influence the voting choice of his legion of fans is difficult to say as he remains an untested electoral force. However, had the jury put off the announcement of the award by just a week till polling was over, everyone would have unconditionally welcomed the choice. The giver has done the recipient a disservice through the timing of the announcement.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Prudence prevails: on speculation about inflation (The Hindu)

The Finance Ministry has put to rest all speculation about the inflation targeting framework that will guide the interest rate decisions of the RBI’s Monetary Policy Committee over the five-year period starting on April 1. In a terse notification, the Department of Economic Affairs announced that the inflation target for the quinquennium ending on March 31, 2026, will be 4%, with an upper tolerance level of 6% and a lower tolerance level of 2%. Economic Affairs Secretary Tarun Bajaj said that the framework’s parameters would remain unchanged from what had prevailed in the five years that ended on March 31. The government’s announcement is a welcome step in reiterating that inflation targeting remains the centrepiece of the monetary policy framework and signals that the fiscal and monetary authorities are in lockstep in ensuring the primacy of price stability as the bedrock for all macro-economic development. This is particularly apposite at a time when inflation pressures are mounting in an economy that is still struggling to regain its footing from the devastating contraction in the just-ended fiscal year, when the COVID-19 pandemic and the drastic measures to curb its spread resulted in widespread precarity. The latest Consumer Price Index data show retail inflation accelerated by almost 100 basis points to a three-month high of 5.03% in February, with food and fuel costs continuing to remain volatile. Also, with the prices of multiple raw materials on an upward trajectory, an IHS Markit India Business Outlook survey last month showed companies were planning to raise selling prices over the coming 12 months to cope with rising costs.


The RBI’s officials have in recent months maintained an unwavering focus on emphasising the need to retain the flexible inflation targeting framework. In a December working paper titled ‘Measuring Trend Inflation in India’, the Deputy Governor overseeing monetary policy, Michael Debabrata Patra, and a colleague underscored the importance of ensuring the appropriateness of the inflation target. Observing that there had been a steady decline in trend inflation to a 4.1%-4.3% band since 2014, they said a target far lower than the trend ran the risk of imparting a ‘deflationary bias’ that would dampen economic momentum, while a goal much above the trend could engender expansionary monetary conditions that would likely lead to inflation shocks. And in February, the RBI’s researchers authoring its Report on Currency and Finance — themed ‘Reviewing the Monetary Policy Framework’ — made clear that the framework had served the economy well, attested by a decline in inflation volatility and more credible anchoring of inflation expectations. That the government’s economic officials have heeded these calls will certainly reassure investors and savers that inflation remains a central concern for all policymakers.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Friday, April 2, 2021

Special no longer: On Hong Kong (The Hindu)

Hong Kong, China’s Special Administrative Region (SAR), has served as the mainland’s most important gateway to the world for the past 24 years. Since its handover from British rule in 1997, the SAR has defied expectations that it would lose its unique identity. Unlike the mainland, the unique “one country, two systems” model guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and freedoms, including a free press, the right to protest, and a rambunctious political scene with a noisy pro-democracy opposition. Perhaps, most importantly, for the hundreds of multinationals, it also enjoyed an independent judiciary, a stark contrast from the Communist Party-controlled courts across the border. This week, Beijing dealt a blow to many of those unique freedoms. On March 30, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), approved sweeping changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system that will reduce significantly the share of directly elected representatives in the SAR’s Legislative Council (LegCo). President Xi Jinping signed orders to promulgate amended annexes to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the constitution that has governed the SAR and ensured its autonomy, marking the biggest change since 1997.


While previously 35 of LegCo’s 70 members were directly elected, that number has now been reduced to 20, even as the size of the legislature has been expanded to 90. The remaining 70 will be nominated from broadly pro-establishment groups, thereby ensuring a majority for the pro-Beijing camp in perpetuity. The most controversial change is the establishment of a Candidate Eligibility Review Committee to decide the eligibility of candidates and deem whether they are “patriotic” enough. Its verdicts cannot be challenged in the courts, the only standing independent institution. Beijing has justified the changes to ensure “patriots” were administering Hong Kong and as a response to the 2019 protest movement, which was silenced by last year’s stringent national security law. The protesters had demanded universal suffrage, promised in the 1997 handover. That the protest movement had wide backing was clear in the 2019 district council elections, after which the pro-democracy camp ended up with 90% of the seats. That will now count for little, as the amendments no longer give district councillors a place either in LegCo or in the Election Committee. With the new change and the national security law in place, Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong is tighter than ever. While Beijing may succeed in assuaging the business community’s concerns with the continued attraction of the mainland’s market, it remains no closer to winning the hearts and minds of Hongkongers. By reducing the space for democratic representation, Beijing appears to have given up efforts to do so, at least for now. That the changes are being framed by China as a historic political victory does little to change the perception.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Overseeing oversights: On small savings cut (The Hindu)

India’s small savings instruments witnessed unprecedented overnight volatility in rates this week. On Wednesday evening, the Budget division in the Department of Economic Affairs revised downwards the interest rates payable on small savings instruments for the April-June 2021 quarter, by 40 basis points (0.4%) to 110 basis points (1.1%). The return on the most popular PPF scheme was pegged at 6.4%, the lowest level in 46 years. The government had refrained from tweaking these rates for the last three quarters after effecting a similarly sharp cut in Q1 of 2020-21, when the PPF interest was pruned from 7.9% to 7.1%. However, by early Thursday, the rate cuts had disappeared and the status quo reinstated, following a tweet by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The only explanation: ‘Orders issued by oversight shall be withdrawn.’ It is not clear whose ‘oversight’ led to the rates being cut. In the process, the intent has been revealed even if the impact is deferred. Surely, Wednesday’s order, approved by the competent authority, was not based on random numbers keyed in and notified inadvertently amidst a flurry of last-minute economy-related government notifications on the last day of the financial year.


It is difficult to believe that the oversight is on the bureaucracy’s part, for it simply executed the stated policy decision to link small savings rates to the interest paid on government securities of a comparable tenure every quarter. So one must deduce the oversight is on the political executive’s part on the timing and implications of executing the required decision as per the extant policy. The clinching factor — the five Assembly polls. The government, that has brazened it out on Opposition jibes about rising unemployment, high inflation along with soaring fuel prices, could ill afford to yield a fresh talking point — the squeezing of the middle class and senior citizens, even as they brace up for the fresh tax on provident fund incomes. This rollback is not the first instance of post-haste policy ad hocism, but it may make the government’s ₹12.05-lakh crore borrowing plan for the year harder as the central bank has been complaining of high small savings rates as a deterrent to lower interest rates. Another instance is the mysterious practice of oil companies freezing pump prices during electoral campaigns, even though oil prices are deregulated. The PM, as part of his ‘One Nation, One Election’ pitch, has often said that the virtually perennial poll season hits development. On the same note, if governments need permission to announce initiatives while the model code of conduct is in force, any deviation or reversal from routine administrative decisions should also attract the Election Commission’s scrutiny.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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