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

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Helpful pause: On Centre’s offer to suspend farm laws (The Hindu)

The Centre’s offer to suspend for 18 months the implementation of the three laws that are at the heart of the farmers’ unrest is a conciliatory gesture. It is regrettable that the farmers protesting against the laws that encourage market forces in the sector have rejected the government offer. They have been demanding the repeal of the three laws and a legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price for their produce. The government has refused to concede these demands, but its willingness to put off the implementation of the laws is a right step that could lead to a viable reform package for the agriculture sector. A toxic combination of the Centre’s intransigence, ignorance and insensitivity led to the current flare-up. That India’s agriculture sector requires reforms is not in dispute. The challenge is in identifying the viable measures from the economic, environmental and scientific perspectives and building a wide political agreement for them. The government has now shown wisdom and sagacity by offering to start consultations. Farmers should now not allow their maximalism to obstruct the path to an agreement. It is a case of better late than never.


By creating an environment of trust with the aggrieved farmers, the government can reclaim its authority and role. Further consultations must be through a government-led political process, and the Supreme Court which has assumed an unwarranted role for itself must step back. As Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar pointed out, if the agitation can be ended with this concession from the government, it will be a victory for democracy. The government should do more. Harassment of farmer leaders by investigative agencies must immediately stop. The BJP should restrain its functionaries from labelling protesters as anti-nationals. The farmers, who are being represented by several organisations, must arrive at a common platform for talks with the government. Having been successful in winning the attention of the government and the larger society towards their grievances, the farmers must now suspend their protest, including the plan for a tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day. The consultations on the three laws and reforms in general must take place in an ambience of mutual trust and a spirit of give and take. The talks must be without preconditions but with an agreed premise that agriculture and farmers cannot be left at the mercy of market forces, and the current crop and remuneration patterns are not sustainable. This requires both sides to be more open-minded than they have been so far. A pause of the laws can be helpful.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Helpful pause: On Centre’s offer to suspend farm laws (The Hindu)

The Centre’s offer to suspend for 18 months the implementation of the three laws that are at the heart of the farmers’ unrest is a conciliatory gesture. It is regrettable that the farmers protesting against the laws that encourage market forces in the sector have rejected the government offer. They have been demanding the repeal of the three laws and a legal guarantee of Minimum Support Price for their produce. The government has refused to concede these demands, but its willingness to put off the implementation of the laws is a right step that could lead to a viable reform package for the agriculture sector. A toxic combination of the Centre’s intransigence, ignorance and insensitivity led to the current flare-up. That India’s agriculture sector requires reforms is not in dispute. The challenge is in identifying the viable measures from the economic, environmental and scientific perspectives and building a wide political agreement for them. The government has now shown wisdom and sagacity by offering to start consultations. Farmers should now not allow their maximalism to obstruct the path to an agreement. It is a case of better late than never.


By creating an environment of trust with the aggrieved farmers, the government can reclaim its authority and role. Further consultations must be through a government-led political process, and the Supreme Court which has assumed an unwarranted role for itself must step back. As Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar pointed out, if the agitation can be ended with this concession from the government, it will be a victory for democracy. The government should do more. Harassment of farmer leaders by investigative agencies must immediately stop. The BJP should restrain its functionaries from labelling protesters as anti-nationals. The farmers, who are being represented by several organisations, must arrive at a common platform for talks with the government. Having been successful in winning the attention of the government and the larger society towards their grievances, the farmers must now suspend their protest, including the plan for a tractor rally in Delhi on Republic Day. The consultations on the three laws and reforms in general must take place in an ambience of mutual trust and a spirit of give and take. The talks must be without preconditions but with an agreed premise that agriculture and farmers cannot be left at the mercy of market forces, and the current crop and remuneration patterns are not sustainable. This requires both sides to be more open-minded than they have been so far. A pause of the laws can be helpful.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Friday, January 22, 2021

Privacy and surveillance: On WhatsApp user policy change (The Hindu)

Following an exodus of its users from its messaging service, WhatsApp, to apps such as Signal and Telegram, which promise more privacy options, the Facebook-owned service might have been forced to postpone the date for users to accept its new privacy policy terms to May 15. In just days after the earlier announcement by WhatsApp, Signal has emerged as the leading app on “app-stores” as Indian users signalled their discomfort with the former’s data sharing policies. WhatsApp, with 459 million users, had emerged as the leading communications application for most Indians. What has caused patrons discomfort is WhatsApp’s ability to seamlessly share user metadata and mobile information with its parent company and social media behemoth, Facebook. Facebook Inc., which also owns Instagram, has sought to integrate the offerings from WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, with the former acting also as a tool that secures payments for services and ads posted on the latter two applications, beyond its primary use as a messaging service.


This integration of three large consumption products is a means to monetise their everyday use by consumers and considering the fact that Facebook’s revenue model uses data on its platform to allow advertisers to target ads towards users, the algorithms would benefit from the WhatsApp data as well. Such data transfer from WhatsApp to Facebook is not possible in regions such as the EU, where data protection laws have stringent restrictions on storage and transfer of user data. This regionally differential treatment has attracted the attention of the Ministry of Electronics and IT, which has sent WhatsApp a series of queries, including on why Indian users would be sharing information with Facebook, unlike in Europe. The onus is also on the Indian government to quickly take up the legislation for robust data protection, that aligns with the recommendations of the Srikrishna Committee, which tried to address concerns about online data privacy in line with the 2018 Puttaswamy judgment. The draft Bill proposed by the government in 2019 diluted some of the provisos, for example, by limiting data localisation in proposing that only sensitive personal data needed to be mirrored in the country, and not all personal data as mandated by the committee. But data localisation as proposed by the committee may not necessarily lead to better data privacy, as it carries the possibility of domestic surveillance over Indian citizens. Privacy is better addressed by stronger contractual conditions on data sharing and better security tools being adopted by the applications that secure user data. The proposed Bill has some of these features, similar to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, but it also requires stronger checks on state surveillance before it is passed.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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American healing: On Joe Biden inauguration (The Hindu)

After one of the most contentious elections and presidential transitions in recent history, it was a relatively scaled-back inauguration ceremony that finally placed 46th President of the U.S. Joe Biden in the Oval Office. The devastating human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with deep partisan rancour and the bitter aftertaste of the Capitol building attack earlier this month, meant that Inauguration Day was less a flamboyant extravaganza than a quiet celebration of multicultural America reasserting itself. There could have been no greater symbol of that assertion than the swearing-in of Kamala Harris, his running mate of Indian and African descent, as Vice-President — the first woman ever to hold that position. Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, chose to not attend the event, making him only the fourth President to do so. Nevertheless, bipartisan goodwill was present on the dais before the Capitol building, as Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office to Mr. Biden, including former Vice-President Mike Pence, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and former President George W. Bush. It was bipartisanship and societal healing that appeared to be the theme of Mr. Biden’s speech, as he vowed to unite all Americans to fight the foes they faced, of “Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness”. To the world, he committed to lead “by the power of our example”.


It was a demonstration of not only power but political intent when, on his first day in office, Mr. Biden expediently reversed a range of Trump-era actions by issuing 17 executive orders and directives to cancel the U.S.’s exit from the Paris Climate Agreement and WHO, include non-citizens in the census count, protect immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme from heightened risk of deportation, revoke the “Remain in Mexico” policy, halt construction of the infamous southern border wall and end the egregious “Muslim ban”. While these decisive actions may have felt like a balm to Democrats, he would do well to remember, as he goes about dismantling the Trump legacy, that 74 million people voted for his opponent, and Mr. Trump has encouraged them to believe that the election was stolen. If the Capitol building attack was an indication of the unhinged rage seething below the ostensibly peaceful transfer of power, it may not be long before the America of economically disenchanted white privilege again rears its head in a manner that today’s political victors find unsavoury. The fact that the White House, Senate and House of Representatives are now firmly in the grip of Democrats should not be cause for giving up on bipartisan moderation. Or else Mr. Biden’s search for a more perfect Union may take longer.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Poison and prison: On political importance of Navalny (The Hindu)

Russian authorities have repeatedly tried to play down the political importance of Alexei Navalny, the opposition politician who was poisoned in Siberia five months ago, saying he is unpopular. President Vladimir Putin, while answering questions from reporters in December on the poison attack, said, ‘who needs him anyway’. But the arrest of the 44-year-old Kremlin critic upon his return to Moscow on Sunday — he left the country in a coma from the near-fatal chemical attack — only belies such claims. The authorities diverted his plane to a different airport on the outskirts and detained him before he could get past the passport control, while riot police were deployed to stop his supporters from entering the arrival zone of another airport. Russian authorities had warned that he would be arrested if he returned from Germany, where he was recovering from the poison attack, as he had been wanted since late December for violations of his suspended sentence from an embezzlement case. But Mr. Navalny, who has accused Mr. Putin of ordering the poison attack, still chose to travel to Russia, in an open defiance of Mr. Putin’s power, and courted arrest. On Monday, a judge remanded him in custody for 30 days.


In Mr. Navalny, Mr. Putin has found his strongest political opponent in his two-decade-long rule. Once known for his extreme nationalist and anti-immigrant views, Mr. Navalny has turned himself into the embodiment of the anti-Kremlin politics in Russia, which remains tightly controlled by Mr. Putin. And it is no secret that the Kremlin has tried its best to suppress his political movement. He has been detained several times and criminal cases launched against him. He was barred from contesting the 2018 Presidential election. And in August, he collapsed while on a domestic flight from Siberia. German doctors who treated him later confirmed that he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent. Western media investigations had implicated Russian agents, an allegation the government has denied. Even if Russian agents were not involved, Mr. Putin cannot escape questions about his most prominent political opponent being poisoned within Russia. His government has the responsibility to investigate what happened in Siberia and bring the perpetrators to justice. That is what any government that believes in the rule of law should be doing. But instead of finding and punishing those who attacked him, Mr. Putin’s government, like any dictatorial regime, is going after the victim. It is ironic that Mr. Putin, who recently got the Constitution amended so that he could stay in power beyond two consecutive terms, is still perturbed by the presence of a leader who he says nobody wants. If the long years of attempts to suppress Mr. Navalny’s political activism have achieved anything, it is that he is now a stronger opposition figure with international standing.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Whatever it takes: On govt. powers to combat vaccine hesitancy (The Hindu)

Faith in entities is often an act of personal commitment not amenable to falsification, but trust in a scientific process can be established with confidence-building measures and full disclosure of all relevant data. Any mass campaign that involves voluntary effort on the part of the public can succeed only when transparency and open communication channels are the tools of choice. If the poor rate of uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine in most of the States in the country is any indication, the government has not taken the people of the country along, in what is a purely voluntary exercise, but one vested with great power to retard the pace of the epidemic. For instance, Tamil Nadu, a State perceived to be largely health literate, and relatively well-equipped with health infrastructure, achieved only over 16% of its targeted coverage on the launch day. On the second day of vaccination, the compliance further dropped; in some States, vaccination was suspended. A marked favouring of the Covishield vaccine over Covaxin was also noticed in multiple States.


But none of this is a surprise. The signs, verily, were out there for everyone to see, for a long time indeed. Studies measured high levels of vaccine hesitancy among the general population, and among health-care workers, the first in the line list of people to receive free vaccination. Clearly, vaccine hesitancy was not addressed sufficiently, or not taken seriously enough. With the sequence of events that followed the clearance of Emergency Use Authorisation (in Covaxin, it is emergency use authorisation in ‘clinical trial mode’) — a high-handed announcement with little attempt to put out compelling evidence in the public domain, or answer multiple queries in press conferences — vaccine hesitancy merely dug its heels in deeper. The inability of the government and agencies involved to amicably resolve controversies surrounding the clearance for Covaxin, even before it was able to produce interim data on efficacy from phase-3 trials, has had a direct consequence, as witnessed by poor numbers in its uptake so far. A vaccine, unequivocally, is public good, but the lack of transparency surrounding the roll-out of the COVID vaccines has done little to enhance trust in this experiential principle. This uncommon haste in trying to lunge towards the tape while still some distance from the finish line might have been justified if the state had taken the people along. Vaccinating the nation, however, is less a race than a slow and steady process. Building confidence in the process is crucial to achieving the task at hand. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft-repeated mantra, ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’, is very relevant here. And the Health Ministry must do whatever it takes to make a success of the vaccination drive.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Private space: On public notices under Special Marriage Act (The Hindu)

The Allahabad High Court ruling that people marrying under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, can choose not to publicise their union with a notice 30 days in advance may not exactly be a judicial pushback against problematic anti-conversion laws enacted by several BJP-ruled States. But it serves to get a major irritant out of the way of couples wanting to marry against the wishes of their parents or their immediate community. Many intercaste and inter-faith marriages have faced violent opposition from those acting in the name of community pride or those raising the bogey of ‘love jihad’. Hindutva activists have been targeting Muslim men marrying Hindu women, especially if the women have converted to Islam prior to the marriage. The court said that mandatorily publishing a notice of the intended marriage and calling for objections violates the right to privacy. According to the new order, if a couple gives it in writing that they do not want the notice publicised, the Marriage Officer can solemnise the marriage. Under Section 5 of the Act, which enables inter-faith marriages, the couple has to give notice to the Marriage Officer; and under Sections 6 and 7, the officer has to publicise the notice and call for objections. But, in his order, Justice Vivek Chaudhary said the Act’s interpretation has to be such that it upholds fundamental rights, not violate them. Laws should not invade liberty and privacy, he said, “including within its sphere freedom to choose for marriage without interference from state and non-state actors, of the persons concerned”.

The HC ruling came on the plea of a Muslim woman who converted to Hinduism for marriage as the couple saw the notice period under the Special Marriage Act as an invasion of their privacy. Justice Chaudhary’s remarks on ‘state and non-state actors’ will undoubtedly be read in the context of the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, that particularly targets inter-faith marriages. This new law declares conversion of religion by marriage to be unlawful, mandates a 60-day notice to the District Magistrate and also requires the Magistrate to conduct a police inquiry to find out the explicit reason for the conversion. Enacted last November, there have been 54 arrests till date by the U.P. police. The HC ruling can now be cited across India to prevent public notices under the Special Marriage Act. Inter-faith couples will hope that when the Supreme Court hears pleas on the U.P. conversion law, it will be guided by progressive verdicts, such as the 2017 Aadhaar ruling, on the right to privacy as a basic right, and the 2018 judgment on Hadiya, upholding the student’s right to choose a partner, a Muslim man in Kerala, as an essential freedom.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Double ignominy: On the second impeachment of Donald Trump (The Hindu)

 Outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump has entered the record books for being the only American President to be impeached twice. The moment of ignominy came after the House of Representatives passed a motion of impeachment against him, this time for “incitement of insurrection,” following the assault on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6 by a violent pro-Trump mob. His first impeachment, in 2019, was for “abuse of power” and “obstruction of justice” over his dealings with Ukraine and attempts by Congress to investigate the same, yet he survived in office owing to a Senate acquittal. On this occasion, not only did the House vote resoundingly, by a margin of 232-197, to impeach him but it passed with an unprecedented margin of bipartisan support after 10 Republicans crossed the aisle. This might signal a broader mood across Congress, particularly in the Senate, to vote differently to the outcome last time, specifically that there will be sufficient support among Republican ranks for a Senate conviction. Given the tight timeline leading up to the inauguration of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden on January 20, it might be that the Senate does not have the opportunity to conduct a full trial based on the article of impeachment sent to it by the House, before Mr. Trump demits office. Nevertheless, Senate Democrats have vowed to carry out the trial even after the fact, including not only a vote on convicting him for high crimes and misdemeanours but also potentially on barring him from running again.


The question looming before Congressional Republicans is this: are they, as a group united in safeguarding mainstream conservative values, convinced that the harm that Mr. Trump has done to the presidency and the fabric of American society warrants banning him from the highest office in the land, or will there be too many holdouts within their ranks to successfully bring closure to this turbulent saga in American politics? The answer also depends on what Senate and House Republicans make of the broader “movement” that he has come to represent — a rowdy, vicious campaign built on white privilege and regularly indulging in racist attacks, yet one that has pulled in elements of economically disenfranchised middle America. Will they believe that they can cut off Mr. Trump from leading this cohort, yet appear responsive to the needs of the 74 million Americans who voted for him? Or will they fear that they have no other leaders of national standing who could bring the kind of support that he did into the Republican tent? The course of action that Senate Republicans choose now will determine which vector the country’s battered politics will travel along — one that strikes a balance between national interest and the traditional formula of economic growth with social pluralism, or one that gives ever greater voice to nativist populism and disregard for the cherished institutions of democracy.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Friday, January 15, 2021

Final blow: On U.S. policy reversal on Cuba (The Hindu)

The Trump administration’s decision to redesignate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, taken in its last days, appears to be a blatantly politicised move, bereft of any strategic or moral reasoning. In the announcement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited Cuba’s hosting of 10 Colombian rebels, a few American fugitives and its backing for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as evidence for its “support for acts of international terrorism”. The designation now puts the Caribbean country with Iran, North Korea and Syria, and would trigger fresh sanctions, making it more difficult for Cuba to do business. Havana has stated that returning the Colombian rebels would complicate the peace process in which it is a mediator. With regard to Venezuela, Cuba is following a foreign policy which it thinks serves its best interests, dealing with the country’s government, irrespective of Washington’s opinion. Not even the harshest critics of the single-party communist government in Havana, which faced domestic protests recently for freedom of expression, would allege its involvement in terrorist activities. As the Trump administration prepares to hand over power to a new President, it is taking a host of consequential foreign policy decisions that would make it difficult for Joe Biden to move quickly on his foreign policy agenda.

America’s acrimony towards Cuba has its roots in the Cold War period. As U.S. President Barack Obama noted when he opened up towards Cuba, their adverse relations were a relic of the past. He had taken a more realistic approach towards the Cubans than his predecessors. The U.S. has punished Cuba for decades with harsh sanctions, hoping that the Castro regime would eventually collapse. But the Cuban communists survived even the fall of the Soviet Union. With the Cold War memories fading and a new generation of Americans demanding a reset in foreign policy, Mr. Obama re-established ties, opened the American embassy and travelled to Havana, marking a new beginning. The logical approach of his successor should have been taking more confidence-building measures between the two countries and working towards a gradual normalisation of ties. But Donald Trump did just the opposite. It is strange that the U.S., the world’s largest military power that had cooperated with communist China since the early 1970s, still treats this tiny communist country that lies off the Florida coast as an enemy. Mr. Biden, during his campaign, had criticised the Trump administration’s Cuba policy and promised a more open approach. He could reverse the terror listing, but it would take time as the decision should follow a review process. Perhaps that is what Mr. Trump, who resisted the November election result till the Congressional certification of Mr. Biden’s victory, wants. Mr. Biden should not be deterred by these last-minute policy sabotages.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Terror trail: On Pakistan action against terrorists (The Hindu)

In his speech to the UN Security Council (UNSC) marking 20 years since the resolutions that announced a global commitment to the war against terror after the U.S. 9/11 attacks, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar made a pitch for greater coordination between counter terrorism agencies worldwide. He highlighted the necessity to streamline the process of the UN’s top body in designating terrorists while strengthening coordination in the agencies that check their financial resources. First, the world must acknowledge that terrorist organisations use not only extortion and money laundering, drugs and wildlife trafficking to raise funds, but, in the present and future, will use loopholes in digital security and the “anonymity” provided by block chain technology to access finances. Second, in a clear reference to Pakistan, he spoke of the need to link actions between the UN and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and for countries that “wilfully provide financial assistance and safe havens” as well as “5 star” treatment to criminals and terrorists, to be held to account by them. His words are significant given that a FATF committee, the Asia Pacific Joint Group (APJG), is meeting this week to finalise recommendations for the FATF on whether to continue Pakistan’s ‘greylisting status’, downgrade it to a blacklist, or let it off, decisions that India is watching closely. Finally, he pointed to countries that allow their “political and religious” affinities to decide on issues of designation of terrorists, blocking and unblocking requests at the UNSC for such reasons rather than technically evaluate the evidence against these individuals. While the broad message here was for China, which has often blocked India’s efforts to designate individuals at the UNSC, this also includes Turkey and Malaysia which have helped Pakistan avoid stringent measures at the FATF thus far.


While Mr. Jaishankar’s words were meant for the global struggle with terrorism since 2001, their import is for India’s particular problems with Pakistan and cross-border terrorism in the present for the impending decision at the FATF plenary next month. Pakistan’s recent actions, including the sudden arrests and quick convictions of most wanted figures Zaki Ur Rehman Lakhvi and Hafiz Saeed, and the warrant for JeM chief Masood Azhar, all in cases of terror financing, indicate that Islamabad is aware of the importance of these decisions for its economic future; for the moment, the government is appearing to fall in line with the FATF’s 27-point action plan. By drawing the connection between the actions of the UNSC and the FATF together, Mr. Jaishankar is indicating that India is not only watching what Pakistan does but also how the international community “walks the talk” on “zero tolerance to terrorism”.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Strained ties: On Puducherry standoff (The Hindu)

The Supreme Court’s interim order in the ongoing contestation between large sections of the farmers and the Centre over the new farm laws may be motivated by a laudable intention to break the deadlock in negotiations. However, it is difficult to shake off the impression that the Court is seeking to impose a compromise on the farmers’ unions. One portion of the order stays the three laws, seeks to maintain the Minimum Support Price as before and prevents possible dispossession of farmers of their land under the new laws. The stated reason is that the stay would “assuage the hurt feelings of the farmers” and encourage them to go to the negotiating table. However, it is somewhat disconcerting that the stay of legislation is effected solely as an instrument to facilitate the Court’s arrangement rather than on the basis of any identified legal or constitutional infirmities in the laws. The order forming a four-member committee may indeed help relieve the current tension and allay the government’s fears that the Republic Day celebrations may be disrupted, but it is not clear if it would help the reaching of an amicable settlement as the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, the umbrella body spearheading the protests, has  refused to appear before the panel. The Court’s approach raises the question whether it should traverse beyond its adjudicative role and pass judicial orders of significant import on the basis of sanguine hope and mediational zeal.

The Court did make its position amply clear during the hearing, with the Chief Justice of India, S.A. Bobde, faulting the Centre for its failure to break the deadlock arising out of the weeks-long protest by thousands of farmers in the vicinity of Delhi, demanding nothing short of an outright repeal of the laws. It is only in the wake of the government’s perceived failure that the Court has chosen to intervene, but it is unfortunate that it is not in the form of adjudicating key questions such as the constitutionality of the laws, but by handing over the role of thrashing out the issues involved to a four-member panel. It is not clear how the four members on the committee were chosen, and there is already some well-founded criticism that some of them have already voiced their support for the farm laws in question. The Court wants the panel to give its recommendations on hearing the views of all stakeholders. Here, the exercise could turn tricky. How will the Court deal with a possible recommendation that the laws be amended? It would be strange and even questionable if the Court directed Parliament to bring the laws in line with the committee’s views. While a negotiated settlement is always preferable, it is equally important that judicial power is not seen as being used to dilute the import of the protest or de-legitimise farmer unions that stay away from the proceedings of the panel or interfere with the powers of Parliament to legislate.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Strained ties: On Puducherry standoff (The Hindu)

The Puducherry Lt Gov. should heed the legitimate demands of the elected govt.

The recent three-day-long protest, led by Puducherry Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy, under the banner of the Secular Democratic Progressive Alliance, against Lieutenant Governor Kiran Bedi came as no surprise, given the strained ties between the two constitutional functionaries. They have been at loggerheads over many matters, most recently on the appointment of the State Election Commissioner, an office critical to holding elections to local bodies in the Union Territory. But the principal issue of contention is the implementation of direct benefit transfer in the public distribution system using cash, instead of free rice, being given to beneficiaries. The agitation was meant to highlight the demand of the Congress and its allies for the recall of the Lt Governor. As a prelude to the stir, the Chief Minister presented memoranda to President Ram Nath Kovind and Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy, accusing Ms. Bedi of “functioning in an autocratic manner” and adopting an “obstructionist attitude” in ensuring the progress and welfare of people. On her part, Ms. Bedi has advised him to refrain from misleading the public about the Centre and her office. She has even attributed his “anguish and disappointment” possibly to the “diligent and sustained care” exercised by the Lt Governor’s secretariat “in ensuring just, fair and accessible administration following the laws and rules of business scrupulously”.


With the Assembly election likely in April or May, the Chief Minister leading the protest against the Lt Governor was clearly an act of political mobilisation, even though the Congress’s major ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, chose to stay away from it. The agitation should be seen as a reflection of the political reality in the Union Territory as Mr. Narayanasamy does not have any effective Opposition. This allows him to turn all his energy and time against the Lt Governor instead of on his political adversaries at a time when the election is near. And this seems to be his strategy to ward off any criticism against his government’s “non-functioning” by laying the blame at the doorstep of the Lt Governor. On her part, Ms. Bedi should take into account the legitimate requirements of an elected government and try to accommodate Mr. Narayanasamy’s views on important matters such as the free rice scheme. After all, the Centre itself did not see any great virtue in the DBT mode when it decided to give additional food grains (rice or wheat) free of cost at five kg per person a month to ration cardholders during April-November last year — a relief measure during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the near breakdown of communication between the Lt Governor and the Chief Minister, the Centre should step in, in the interest of smooth administration.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Monday, January 11, 2021

Felled by fire: On newborn deaths in Maharashtra hospital (The Hindu)

The deadly fire that snuffed out the lives of 10 infants in the Bhandara District General Hospital in Maharashtra is a shocking reminder that safety norms in several medical facilities in India do not pass muster. The parents of the babies who perished in the sick new-born unit have been plunged into a lifetime of trauma. Some of the victims, a few just days old, had been brought to the hospital for better care from smaller health facilities; seven had a providential escape. There are reports of poorly trained staff failing to respond adequately. The terrible blaze joins the long list of such accidents recorded in government and private hospitals, underscoring a painful reality: safety protocols are yet to be institutionalised even in places where people legitimately expect a high degree of professionalism. Last year, there were devastating fires in COVID-19 facilities in Vijayawada and Ahmedabad, with several casualties, blamed on poor oversight by fire authorities or faulty electrical repairs. The Maharashtra government has ordered a probe into the Bhandara fire to be concluded in three days, and a fire audit of hospitals, but a perfunctory inquiry cannot effectively address the underlying causes. Hospital fires are a distinct entity, and research indicates that there are specific factors that trigger them off and aggravate their impact.


Intensive Care Units, neonatal ICUs and operating rooms are often the site of fires, implicating the presence of a high concentration of oxygen in a confined space. A review of Indian hospital fires published in the Journal of Clinical Anesthesia identified higher oxygen availability in intensive care facilities as the likely primary cause, with motors and electrical units in the room providing the ignition, and plastics fuelling it. It is worth considering, therefore, whether hospitals have been audited with such factors in mind, and to evaluate national building safety codes against international practice. Oxygen monitors for hospital rooms, to ensure that the ambient level is within safe norms — set at a maximum of 23.5% by the U.S. National Fire Protection Association — could help avert an accident. Locating electrical equipment for air-conditioners with sparking potential away from oxygen saturated areas may also reduce the risk. As the health sector expands, it is essential that all new infrastructure conforms to rigorous safety standards, a small premium to stop disasters such as the Bhandara carnage. If the government sets the bar high enough, ensuring full adherence to safety in its buildings, regulatory authorities can compel commercial structures to fall in line. The Centre should also create a public platform for insights gained from inquiries into hospital fires to be shared. Hospitals should mandatorily hold regular safety and evacuation drills which are key to saving lives when disaster strikes.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Gearing up: On vaccines and public trust (The Hindu)

India now has a firm date to roll out the biggest vaccination programme in its history. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that from January 16, after the Makar Sankranti and Pongal festivities, doctors, nurses and sanitation workers, who are part of the priority group, would begin getting the vaccine. India has approved two vaccines in emergency-use mode — Covishield by the Serum Institute of India, Pune, and Covaxin by Bharat Biotech Ltd. While it still is unclear who gets which vaccine, there are more doses of Covishield available at present than Covaxin, almost five to one, and it could take a few months before the 30 million prioritised get one of their doses. Others, those in the 50-plus age group and those with comorbidities, will have to wait much longer, especially in a situation where vaccines such as those by Pfizer and Moderna are not made available for import by the private sector.

However, the vaccination begins under a cloud. Covaxin belongs to a league of vaccines that has been approved without establishing its efficacy, namely, the extent to which vaccination protects from COVID-19. There have been differences among scientists such as on the best testing strategy, treatment, extent of infection, but none more divisive than on the approval of Covaxin. Several experts have made the case that the declining rate of infections and low relative mortality meant that India was not in as dire a state of emergency that required it to approve an untested vaccine when more clarity would likely have come by March. Covaxin is best kept as a backup in the event of a sudden surge of cases till its efficacy data are available and acceptable. Also, reports have emerged of trials in Bhopal where volunteers were seemingly under the impression that they were getting a protective shot when some were likely getting a placebo. They also complain of no medical follow-up when some developed symptoms such as fever, body pain and loss of appetite. The vaccine may eventually prove protective and the adverse symptoms reported, seen as part of the variety of the human body’s response — there are 28,500 volunteers after all. However, a vaccine that evokes distrust is self-defeating. With childhood immunisation, India has proven that it has the infrastructural backbone to inoculate millions. The dry runs to test the Co-WIN management software have reportedly given authorities valuable feedback on perfecting the prospective rollout. However, this could be undone if people do not turn up, and worse, if vaccine hesitancy rises. The pandemic gave India an opportunity to examine its dispensation of health care. Along with improving access, the government must seriously examine the conduct of vaccine trials and work hard to bolster public trust in it, and monitor the vaccination process for adverse reactions.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Saturday, January 9, 2021

Optimism unbounded: On signs of an economic recovery (The Hindu)

The first advanced estimates of economic output for the current financial year posit a picture of an economy rebounding robustly in the second half from the pandemic-induced slump of the preceding two quarters. The National Statistical Office on Thursday projected that GDP in the 12 months ending March would total almost ₹134.4-lakh crore in constant prices, reflecting a 7.7% contraction from the preceding year’s figure. To reach that level, the NSO has assumed that output will recover vigorously in the third and fourth quarters. After contracting by almost 16% in the April-September period, it sees GDP being just a mere ₹10,400 crore short of the year-earlier second half’s figure. It is this mathematical projection that is hard to square with the economic reality revealed in both the NSO’s more detailed sectoral output forecasts as well as other emerging trends from ground-level activity. Both the expenditure side and gross value added (GVA) across various industries point to the high degree of optimism implicit in the NSO’s assumptions. Private consumption expenditure — the single biggest component propelling GDP, at well over 50% — is estimated to shrink 9.5% in the full year, after contracting nearly 19% in the first half. This presupposes that consumers have largely shed their wariness to spend in the face of COVID-19 and have begun to set about consuming goods and services at close to pre-pandemic levels, the dampening impact of lost jobs and reduced incomes notwithstanding. GVA data for manufacturing and services, however, seem to belie this postulation.

While the NSO expects manufacturing to shrink 9.4% this fiscal, albeit narrowing from an almost 20% contraction in the first half, it sees the crucial GVA services component of trade, hotels, transport, communication and broadcasting contracting 21.4% (the most among all the GVA constituents) over the 12-month period. Clearly, with the mandated social distancing norms having taken the highest toll on high-risk indoor activities, it is this omnibus services sector which contributes almost a fifth to overall GVA that is bearing the brunt of the pandemic-related restrictions. The forecast for government spending also appears far too upbeat. The NSO sees government final consumption expenditure (GFCE) jumping 17% in the second half, erasing the first-half’s contraction and buoying the annual figure to a growth of 5.8%. The end-November fiscal deficit data show the government lagging well behind its budgeted revenue and capital expenditure targets, and with just four months to go and revenue receipts continuing to underwhelm, it is hard to fathom how the GFCE can increase so appreciably in the second half. True, the NSO has furnished a caveat that its estimates are likely to undergo sharp revisions. The upcoming Economic Survey could move away from these overly optimistic assumptions with a more sober assessment of the economy.
Courtesy - The Hindu.
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Night and day: On sexual assault cases in U.P. (The Hindu)

Unnao. Hathras. And now Budaun. The dirge continues as news of another horrific alleged rape and murder emerged from Uttar Pradesh on Sunday. A 50-year-old anganwadi worker, who visited a temple, was found brutally battered outside her home at a village in Badaun district. After she succumbed to the injuries, a depressingly similar pattern came to light: the police had dithered with both the post mortem and in registering an FIR. The culprits, a priest and his two associates, were arrested by Thursday night, with the State government saying that stern action would be taken. What came as a shocker, however, was the reaction of a senior member of the National Commission for Women who visited the family. Chandramukhi Devi was quoted as saying, “I tell women again and again that they should never go out at odd hours under anyone’s influence… I think if she had not gone out in the evening or was accompanied by any child of the family perhaps this incident could have been avoided.” Such remarks worsen the situation for women who have to battle against skewed societal gender conditioning. When insensitive utterances emanate from a national commission actually meant to uphold women’s rights, it reeks of a primitive mindset wherein lawlessness is overlooked and responsibility pinned, perversely, on the woman for ensuring her own well-being.


All the hard work put in by women in all spheres including science and technology comes undone by such crude statements. The equal rights movement means nothing if women are stopped from going out whenever they want to or need to, day or night. But it is also imperative that with society steeped in gender prejudices, the government, police and family must step up to provide a safe environment. In 2019, the NCRB data show 88 rape cases were recorded every day in India with U.P. reporting the second-highest number at 3,065 cases. But records never tell the whole story for many rapes are not reported due to social stigma. Although after the Nirbhaya incident in 2012, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act laid down the rules for stringent punishment, crimes against women continue, pointing at other issues that should be addressed from patriarchal mindsets to poor policing. For gender parity, more women must join the workforce, but thereby hangs another sorry tale. According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data, women accounted for 10.7% of the workforce in 2019-20 and many lost jobs due to the pandemic. By November 2020, the CMIE reported that men recovered most of their lost jobs but not women. It is a matter of shame that even in 2021, women are asked to stay indoors at night instead of reaching for the moon.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Thursday, January 7, 2021

The pursuit of Assange: On U.S. efforts to WikiLeaks founder (The Hindu)

The decision by a British district judge to block the extradition of Julian Assange to the U.S. on the grounds of his mental health is a temporary setback to America’s efforts to try the WikiLeaks founder under its law on spying charges. In her ruling, judge Vanessa Baraitser said “the mental condition of Mr. Assange is such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the U.S.” While it is a small victory for his lawyers and supporters, their fight to prevent his extradition and secure his freedom is far from over. Judge Baraitser has blocked his extradition only on medical grounds because she thought his possible detention in isolation in the U.S. would likely result in a suicide attempt. She rejected the defence lawyers’ arguments that Mr. Assange’s prosecution was politically motivated and violated his rights to free expression. She also observed that his conduct “took him outside the role of investigative journalism”, agreeing with the U.S. authorities’ assertion on WikiLeaks. Mr. Assange, who is wanted in the U.S. on multiple charges of breaking espionage laws and conspiring to hack a military computer, has repeatedly defended his organisation’s operations, terming them public interest journalism. U.S. prosecutors allege that he helped former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning crack an encrypted password and download classified information, the leaking of which endangered American intelligence sources. The Justice Department also claims that he had conspired with hackers to obtain classified information.


It is ironic that the U.S., which takes pride in its freedoms and commitment to protecting human rights, is relentlessly pursuing a man who exposed some of the worst rights violations by the American military. Until WikiLeaks released the classified documents that Ms. Manning downloaded, the world believed that the July 2007 killings of a dozen Iraqis, including two Reuters staffers, happened in a firefight with a U.S. aircrew. But video footage by WikiLeaks showed the aircrew laughing after they killed 12 innocent people. WikiLeaks files also exposed the killings of hundreds of Afghan civilians by U.S. forces. These were incidents the U.S. had swept under the carpet, and WikiLeaks had undoubtedly done public service, allowing the questioning of the conduct of war by the world’s supreme military power. Instead of accepting its military’s mistakes, the U.S. went after the messenger. In the U.S., sensitive or leaked information published by the news media is protected under the First Amendment, a reason why the Obama administration decided against prosecuting WikiLeaks. But the Trump administration reversed tack. The new Biden-led government must rethink its predecessor’s approach. It is unfortunate that a fresh bail application filed by Mr. Assange’s lawyers was rejected by a British judge on Wednesday. The British legal system should take a benign view of his condition and cause.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Building by accord: On Central Vista (The Hindu)

With the Supreme Court’s 2-1 judgment clearing the Central Vista project for New Delhi, the Narendra Modi government can now indelibly reshape the national capital’s visual landscape. Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari found no infirmity in the approvals granted by the Central Vista Committee, Delhi Urban Art Commission, the Heritage Conservation Committee and other bodies, paving the way for a new Parliament building and other edifices of government to come up. Justice Sanjiv Khanna, while agreeing with the majority opinion on the call for bid, award and the decision of the Urban Commission, dissented on the key issue of public participation in the entire exercise, which vitiated the endorsement of land use change. Governments should naturally be free to plan policies and programmes on behalf of the people, with no prior restraint, but subject to judicial review to ensure accountability. Judged against this principle, the Centre is simply exercising its privilege to plan a new set of buildings to house its establishment and the federal legislature. While the final cost estimate is unclear, planned expenditures are in excess of ₹13,450 crore for, among other things, a new Central Secretariat, Vice-President’s enclave and Prime Minister’s residence, besides ₹971 crore for the new Parliament. With a national consensus, such a colossal plan might be a crowning achievement for the 75th year of Independence in 2022. What is germane to the question, however, is its appropriateness in a year of unprecedented disruption due to COVID-19. This is when an elected government must give its undivided attention to schemes for the common weal and not be tempted into extravagant indulgence.


As Justice Khanna has pointed out, public consultation in a democracy requires citizens to be able to assess the project’s rationale, armed with information on the official reasoning, and with sufficient time at their disposal. The essence of their view should inform the final decision. Opportunities for public consultation, already incorporated into modern laws and also in the Delhi Development Act, in no way fetter the executive. It would be appropriate, therefore, for the Centre to attempt consensus-building on Central Vista, without showing undue anxiety and haste in taking up all planned structures together. The pandemic’s course points to uncertainty on restoration of economic health, and ameliorating the damage to large sectors of the economy, especially in services. In the run-up to 2022, the government will be tested on its ability to ensure good health for all citizens, revive normative education and provide stronger welfare. Prioritising Central Vista can prove to be a distraction from the task.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Wednesday, January 6, 2021

England in lockdown: On rapid spread of COVID-19 variant (The Hindu)

In a bid to control the spread of the highly transmissible new COVID-19 variant (VOC 202012/01), the U.K. announced on Monday a fresh lockdown in London and southeast England, which is expected to be in force till mid-February. The decision comes after much dithering; the scientific advisory panel had recommended days before Christmas that the government consider a national lockdown, including shutting down educational institutions. As on January 4, the U.K has reported 2.7 million cases and over 75,500 deaths, the second-highest toll in Europe. More than 50,000 new cases have been reported daily since December 29, 2020, with a peak of nearly 59,000 cases on January 4 and over 400 deaths daily. On Monday, more than 26,000 COVID-19 patients were admitted in hospitals, an increase of 30% from the previous week. Though the new variant does not cause increased disease severity or mortality, a surge in cases and hospitalisation can lead to more deaths. It is more transmissible, the reason why the reproduction number (number of people a person can infect) is 1.5-1.7; the spread is considered to be under control when the reproduction number is less than 1. Based on an analysis of cases and genome sequences of nearly 44,500 samples collected from England between September 21 and December 13, it was found that even during the previous lockdown, the new variant spread in many locations. This even as fresh cases were generally dropping due to reduced spread of the then dominant strain.

There is evidence that the earlier lockdown was effective in containing the previously predominant strain, suggesting that the new variant grew in absolute terms. The rapid spread of the new variant even during the previous lockdown might not reflect a general failure of control measures but highlights the inherent nature of the new variant to rapidly spread given its higher transmissibility. That areas with slower baseline virus spread also reported a slightly reduced spread of the new variant suggests that it is indeed possible to reduce if not suppress the transmission of the new variant if the lockdown is stricter and compliance is better. It is for this reason that unlike in the previous lockdown, schools and universities too are to be closed now. The new variant appears to affect a greater proportion of individuals under 20 years. The selective spread among the young might probably be more because educational institutions were open during the previous lockdown than due to the inherent nature of the virus. Since a resurgence of the new variant is likely when the lockdown is lifted, the focus is on accelerating vaccine roll-out so that much of the population is protected and transmission is cut. The spread of new variants should alert other countries, particularly South Africa where a problematic mutation has been found, to remain vigilant.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Moribund governance: On Ghaziabad disaster (The Hindu)

Even to those familiar with the anarchy that characterises India’s public spaces, the collapse of a newly-built shelter in a crematorium in Muradnagar, in U.P.’s Ghaziabad district, killing at least 24 people, is a shock. A group attending a funeral sheltered from rain in the structure, when its roof crumbled. The deaths and injuries have left families distraught. Since women are not part of funeral rites in crematoria, they came to know of the fate of the men much later. A token solatium has been announced by the U.P. government for the next of kin of the dead and relief measures for others, but the loss of breadwinners who were in low-paying jobs has left the family members destitute. The State has shown great alacrity in arresting four people including a junior engineer, besides the contractor, citing culpable homicide, causing hurt and endangering lives. There are indications that it may use the National Security Act against some of the accused. Such measures cannot produce consistent improvement to governance, but the Yogi Adityanath government’s favoured image is that of strong enforcement, which it has sought to demonstrate time and again by shooting down in ‘encounters’ those with a criminal record. That approach can do little to improve U.P.’s standing. The Ghaziabad disaster is clearly the product of a system that lacks transparency and audits, and does not yield to quick fixes or measures meant to aid deterrence.

Every year, the monsoon extracts a penalty in the form of collapsed buildings in several States. Just over three years ago, several people died when part of a bus stand caved in near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Appalled by the 41 deaths in a building disaster at Bhiwandi, Maharashtra in September last year, the Bombay High Court framed questions for municipal authorities, including the basic premise: are those in authority completely helpless in preventing the collapse of structures and stopping the loss of life? The court also emphasised that citizens have a right to live in safe buildings and environment, within the meaning of Article 21. What happened in Ghaziabad is particularly deplorable, as the cremation ground is an essential facility, and entirely within the ambit of public authorities to maintain. There are suggestions that the structure was poorly designed, lacking stability due to use of inferior materials, while the contractor had several projects assigned to him in the district. These and other charges, including favouritism involving politicians, are best probed by an independent judicial member. Mr. Adityanath should realise that U.P., a laggard on many development metrics, can transform itself only through rule of law and efficient implementation of public projects. The horror of Muradnagar should impel his government to act.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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