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-Rajeev Kumar (Editor-in-chief)

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

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Corrective voice: On Supreme Court and judicial patriarchy (The Hindu)

While recognising society’s deep-rooted patriarchy and initiating a course correction in the way the judiciary itself views gender rights, the Supreme Court went back to Henrik Ibsen, a playwright known for his feisty women characters who break free of traditions of familial confines and notions of social propriety. Setting aside an absurd rakhi-for-bail order of the Madhya Pradesh High Court to a sexual offender, the Court issued a set of guidelines on March 18 to be followed by the judiciary while dealing with sexual crimes against women. The two-member Bench of Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and S. Ravindra Bhat used a quote from Ibsen to say that a woman ‘cannot be herself’ in an ‘exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men’, and laid it down as a guiding force for all future judicial proclamations. The judiciary’s corrective voice is a welcome step in the aftermath of CJI S.A. Bobde’s reported remarks during a virtual hearing, when he asked an alleged rapist’s lawyer to find out whether his client would marry the victim. He later said he had been misquoted. The Khanwilkar-Bhat Bench asked all courts to refrain from imposing marriage or mandate any compromise between a sex offender and his victim. Powerful men seem to be reiterating misogyny besides carelessly linking sexual crimes to women being alone at night or wearing clothes of their choice.


Leaning on the ‘Bangkok General Guidance for Judges on Applying a Gender Perspective in Southeast Asia’, the Bench listed a host of avoidable stereotypes: women are physically weak; men are the head of the household and must make all the decisions related to family; women should be submissive and obedient. Women are battling society’s ingrained prejudices, and the judgment acknowledges this bitter reality, saying gender violence is most often shrouded in a culture of silence. Pointing to the entrenched unequal power equations between men and women, including cultural and social norms, financial dependence, and poverty, it said data may not reflect the actual incidence of violence against women. It is not the first time the Supreme Court is clamping down against gender stereotyping. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud (Secr., Ministry of Defence vs. Babita Puniya) had argued against treating women in the Army any differently from their men counterparts for they worked as “equal citizens” in a common mission, and in Anuj Garg, the Court had called out the “notion of romantic paternalism” as an attempt to put women “in a cage”. To break the silence on bias against women, everyone must take responsibility, especially institutions and those in important positions. The Court’s reiteration on where it needs to stand on women’s rights is a move in the right direction because the fight for gender equality is far from over.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Mumbai muckraking: On allegations against Maharashtra Home Minister (The Hindu)

Former Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh’s allegations against Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh are sensational, and threatening for the State government. The nexus between crime, politics, policing and business is an old story. In that sense, Mr. Singh’s charge that the Minister was forcing police officers to extort money from businesses is not surprising; it is nevertheless an extremely serious one that needs serious investigation. However, Mr. Singh’s credibility is hardly inspiring, and he raised the allegation only after he was removed as Commissioner. The circumstances leading to his removal were inglorious. Sachin Vaze, an officer arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in connection with the discovery of explosives near industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s house, was perceived to be close to Mr. Singh. The Minister sought to put Mr. Singh on the mat over the case, who made a retaliatory move by accusing the former of trying to use Mr. Vaze as a henchman. Mr. Singh approaching the Supreme Court for a CBI inquiry against Mr. Deshmukh is intriguing and self-implicating. As Commissioner he could have — and should have — acted upon the allegations that he is now raising.


The muckraking by Mr. Singh cannot be seen disconnected from the ceaseless political manoeuvering in the State. The formation of the unlikely coalition of the Shiv Sena, Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in 2019 was a setback to the storied managerial skills of the BJP. Speculation of an impending collapse have loomed over the Maha Vikas Aghadi government since its formation. The BJP, with the active help of Central agencies, has been trying to unsettle the State government. In the tug of war, Mr. Singh has been an active instrument of the MVA, and the Shiv Sena sprung up to his defence immediately after he was removed. Now the leaders of all three parties have termed his allegations as a conspiracy to topple the State government. After the initial panic, the parties have closed ranks behind the embattled Minister. The lure of power is universal, but in Maharashtra, which is home to India’s economic capital Mumbai, it is even more intense. The ideological mismatch of the alliance partners is evident, but the State government has matched up to the BJP’s challenge several times in political combat. All three parties are united by a strong survival instinct in the face of the BJP onslaught. The BJP’s impatience to reclaim power in Maharashtra is more than usual considering the bruised egos involved. The chances of a politically motivated investigation are high, given the context. Only an independent, transparent investigation can separate the wheat from the chaff in this sordid tale. Unfortunately, a probe by either the State police or a central agency is not a reassuring option.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Monday, March 22, 2021

Rising poverty: On pandemic-induced disparities (The Hindu)

A new study by the Pew Research Center estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionately deleterious impact on living standards in India and China in 2020, with the sharp economic contraction in the former pushing as many as 7.5 crore people into the ranks of the poor (those who earn $2 or less a day). In contrast, the figure is about 10 lakh in China, whose economy slowed but continued to post growth. In absolute terms, the number of poor in India is posited to have swelled to 13.4 crore, reversing the gains made in the preceding nine years when the country cut the number of poor by more than three-fourths to an estimated 7.8 crore in 2019. In China, the population of the poor likely inched up to 40 lakh, matching the 2019 level. Similarly, the numbers of India’s middle class — those with a daily income of $10.01–$20 — are projected to have shrunk by 3.2 crore to about 6.6 crore, compared with the number this income cohort would have reached absent the pandemic. Here again, China likely experienced just one-third the level of contraction, with the population of those deemed as middle income set to have narrowed to 49.3 crore compared with the pre-pandemic projection of 50.4 crore.


The Pew assessment, which is based on an analysis of the World Bank’s PovcalNet database, does, however, acknowledge the multiple assumptions that inform the study. These include varying base years for income/consumption figures — with India’s from 2011 and 2016 for China. Still, the study serves as a stark reminder of the economic disparities, both within India and at a comparative level with its northern neighbour. The latest report once again spotlights the widening inequality in India, exacerbated by the pandemic, as the lower income populations have disproportionately borne the brunt of job and income losses in the wake of the multiple lockdowns. The fiscal policy response to redress this massive increase in precarity has also been underwhelming, especially when viewed from the perspective of the pre-pandemic tax cuts that the government handed to corporates in an attempt to revive private investment and rekindle growth. That the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme has been seeing record levels of demand is testimony to the struggles those in the rural hinterland have been facing in finding gainful employment since the onset of the pandemic. With the number of COVID-19 cases once again rising disconcertingly across the country, there is a clear and present danger that not only could any nascent economic recovery be stymied even before it gains traction but that the number of those sliding into poverty could jump dramatically. The policy responses to the rising wave of infections could well test the government’s ‘lives versus livelihoods’ playbook to the hilt.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Junk inefficiency: On vehicle scrappage policy (The Hindu)

The much-awaited vehicle scrappage policy announced by the Transport Ministry, coming after the move for a green tax on ageing and polluting automobiles, promises economic benefits, a cleaner environment and thousands of jobs. Although it will take until April 1, 2022 for vehicles belonging to the government and the public sector to be scrapped, another year thereafter to identify junk heavy commercial vehicles through mandatory fitness checks, and finally other vehicles by 2024, it is a constructive road map. It will be no easy task, however, to put in place a credible system of automated fitness checking centres with help from States to assess whether commercial and private vehicles are roadworthy after 15 and 20 years, respectively, as the policy envisages. Equally important, enforcement will be key to get them scrapped once they are found unfit for use and to stop them from moving to smaller towns. States must also come on board to provide road tax and registration concessions, while the automobile industry is expected to sweeten the deal with genuine discounts on new vehicles. Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, who has had limited success with enforcement of the amended Motor Vehicles Act of 2019 because States are not entirely on board, has the difficult task of ensuring that the scrappage plan gets their support, and the backing of manufacturers who stand to benefit from a spurt in demand. Heavy commercial vehicles, which contribute disproportionately to pollution — 1.7 million lack fitness certificates — pose the biggest challenge. Many of these cannot be replaced quickly in the absence of financial arrangements for small operators, who have opposed the new measures.


Vehicle scrappage and replacement is seen internationally as a route to rejuvenate COVID-19-affected economies by privileging green technologies, notably electric vehicles (EVs), and also as an initiative to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century under Paris Agreement commitments. India’s automobile ecosystem is complex, with dominant, legacy motors spanning fossil-fuel driven vehicles and a nascent EV segment. The industry’s share pre-COVID-19 was about 7.5% of GDP with significant downstream employment, but it also imposes a fuel import burden. The Centre has to arrive at a balance and have incentives that reward manufacturers of vehicles that are the most fuel-efficient. Failure to prioritise fuel efficiency and mandate even higher standards and enhance taxes on fuel guzzlers will only repeat the mistakes of vehicle exchange programmes abroad, where full environmental benefits could not be realised, and taxpayers ended up subsidising inefficiency. Ecological scrapping, as a concept, must lead to high rates of materials recovery, reduce air pollution, mining and pressure on the environment.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Saturday, March 20, 2021

Chasing peace: On allowing Taliban to share power in Afghanistan (The Hindu)

The peace conference hosted by Russia in Moscow between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives is the latest example of growing international concern about the future of Afghanistan as the May 1 deadline for the proposed U.S. troops pullout nears. No breakthrough was expected from a single-day conference between the parties that have been fighting each other for nearly 20 years. The Russian plan was to bring together the Taliban and the government, whose Doha peace talks have stalled for months, to jump start the peace process. The U.S. has also called for a UN-led multilateral peace conference. The Afghanistan conflict is a multifaceted one, with its primary actors being the government, the Taliban and the U.S. Others such as Russia, China and India are worried about the conflict’s spillover effects. There is a consensus among all these countries that Afghanistan needs to be stabilised now. U.S. President Joe Biden, who is reviewing the administration’s Afghan strategy, said this week that it would be “tough” to withdraw all U.S. troops by the May 1 deadline as the Trump administration agreed in an accord with the Taliban. On the other side, the Taliban have threatened to launch a new offensive if the U.S. does not leave according to the schedule. It is a stalemate.


Mr. Biden’s dilemma is that he cannot commit troops endlessly to a war that the U.S. is certainly not winning. But if he pulls back without a peace agreement, the civil war could intensify, and the Taliban, already in control of much of rural Afghanistan, could make rapid gains. And if he decides to keep the troops even for a short term, it could trigger a tough response from the Taliban. So, the U.S. administration is trying to put together a new peace process, with other regional actors, which would not just buy time for the Americans but also seek to find a lasting settlement. It seems Russia, China and India are on board. Pakistan, which hosts the Taliban leadership, will also participate in the peace process. The flip side of this diplomatic push is that all the main stakeholders agree that the Taliban would play a critical role in shaping Afghanistan’s future. The U.S. already wants the Afghan government to share power with the Taliban. Russia has asked the Afghan government and the Taliban to make “necessary compromises”. The jihadist group, whose reign of Afghanistan during 1996-2001 was notorious for extremism, violence and suppression of basic rights, is on the cusp of power again. The international actors pushing for peace with the Taliban should at least extract compromises from them. After the Moscow meet, Russia, China, the U.S. and Pakistan said that a peace agreement should “include protections for the rights of all Afghans”. They should make it their top priority in the coming talks.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Delhi undermined: On Centre’s bid to run the National Capital Territory (The Hindu)

The Centre’s Bill seeking to amend the law relating to the running of the National Capital Territory of Delhi claims that it is aimed at giving effect to the interpretation given by the Supreme Court judgments on Delhi’s governance structure. The proposed changes are the very antithesis of what the Court has said. The Bill, if it becomes law, will wholly undermine the Court’s efforts to strengthen the elected government vis-à-vis the appointed Lieutenant Governor. The Constitution Bench verdict of July 4, 2018, said: “The Lieutenant Governor has not been entrusted with any independent decision-making power. He has to either act on the ‘aid and advice’ of the Council of Ministers, or he is bound to implement the decision taken by the President on a reference being made by him.” The ‘aid and advice’ clause pertains only to matters on which the elected Assembly has powers under the State and Concurrent Lists, but with the exception of public order, police and land, and, wherever there are differences between the L-G and the elected government, the former should refer the question to the President. The Court was at pains to clarify that the power to refer “any matter” to the President did not mean that “every matter” should be referred thus. The guiding principle was that the elected government should not be undermined by the unelected administrator. The Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha does violence to this interpretation.


The Bill seeks to declare that in the context of legislation passed by the Delhi Assembly, all references to the ‘government’ would mean the “Lieutenant Governor”. Indeed, Delhi is a Union Territory; but it is somewhat incongruous for a territory with an elected House to be declared the sole domain of the L-G. The apex court had rightly concluded that the scheme set out in the Constitution and the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991, envisages a collaborative structure that can be worked only through constitutional trust. The proviso to Article 239AA, which empowers the L-G to refer a difference of opinion with the Council of Ministers to the President, does not mean that the administrator is given an opportunity to come up with a different opinion on every decision made by the Ministry. Yet, it is precisely what the Bill proposes to do. And it is quite incongruous that instead of Parliament identifying the matters on which the L-G’s opinion should be sought, the Bill proposes that the L-G himself would specify such matters. The clause that declares void any rule that empowers the Assembly or its Committees to discuss any matter of day-to-day administration or conduct enquiries amounts to a rollback of representative government. The ‘Union Territory’ concept is one of the many ways in which India regulates relations between the Centre and its units. It should not be used to subvert the basis of electoral democracy.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Friday, March 19, 2021

For a reset: On U.S.-China meeting in Alaska (The Hindu)

As top diplomats from the U.S. and China begin their meeting in Alaska, there is no question that their conversation will be a difficult one. The meeting, between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Yang Jiechi, CCP Politburo member and Director, Central Foreign Affairs Commission, accompanied by U.S. NSA Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi, comes on the back of tensions that spiralled during the Trump administration around trade tariffs, 5G telecommunication, tech espionage, Chinese maritime actions and U.S. sanctions on China, and further exacerbated over the pandemic, which Mr. Trump called the “China virus”. Biden administration officials have said that they will bring up China’s crackdown in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Chinese aggression against U.S. allies and partners, in particular pressure on Australia over trade bans, aggression against Japan in the Senkaku islands and even the PLA’s incursions over the LAC, which China considers bilateral issues. Mr. Blinken prefaced the Alaska meet with visits to Seoul and Tokyo where he promised an American “pushback” to China, and he goes into the talks with the backing of the recent summit-level Quad conversations, with a commitment to ensuring a free Indo-Pacific. For its part, China is seeking a reversal of Trump-era policies, and structured dialogue to take forward ties from the point they have reached, arguably their lowest since the Nixon era. In particular, China wants an end to the U.S.’s trade sanctions, restrictions on American firms manufacturing in China and visa bans, and a reopening of its consulate in Houston.


Clearly, the scene is set for an extended airing of grievances, and expectations are low of any breakthrough, but the fact that the meeting is happening at all sends the signal that both sides are prepared to engage each other. Mr. Blinken’s formulation that the U.S. will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be” with China, chalks up climate change, the COVID-19 challenge and global economic recovery as areas of possible discussion. Research quoted by the World Economic Forum predicted that the U.S.-China tariff war itself could cost the world $600 billion. Afghanistan is another area where the U.S. and China have held three meetings last year as part of the “Troika” with Russia, and a common peace strategy could be another helpful conversation. The two sides are expected to discuss a possible summit meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping. While New Delhi has a litany of its own grievances with Beijing, it too would benefit if a “Cold War” between the U.S. and China is averted, much like the rest of the world that has found itself akin to the proverbial grass when two elephants fight.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Aadhaar as a hurdle: On authentication failures and welfare delivery (The Hindu)

The Supreme Court, on Wednesday, did the right thing by terming as serious the allegation by a petitioner that three crore ration cards were cancelled for not being linked with the Aadhaar database and that these were connected to reported starvation deaths in some States. The unique identification scheme has been in existence for more than a decade and recent data has estimated that nearly 90% of India’s projected population has been assigned the Aadhaar number. Following the Court’s judgment in 2018, upholding the Aadhaar programme as a reasonable restriction on individual privacy to fulfil welfare requirements and dignity — a 4-1 majority Bench had also rejected a review petition in January 2021 — questions about the scheme’s validity for public purposes have been put to rest. But that has not meant that concerns about the failures in the use of the identity verification project have been allayed. These include inefficiencies in biometric authentication and updating, linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts, and the use of the Aadhaar payment bridge. With benefits under the PDS, the NREGA and LPG subsidy, among other essentials, requiring individuals to have the Aadhaar number, inefficiencies and failures have led to inconvenience and suffering for the poor. There are reports that show failures in authentication having led to delays in the disbursal of benefits and, in many cases, in their denial due to cancellation of legitimate beneficiary names. The government had promised that exemption mechanisms that would allow for overriding such failures will help beneficiaries still avail subsidies and benefits despite system failures. That has been the response by the government to the recent petition as well, but reports from States such as Jharkhand from 2017, for example, suggest that there have been starvation deaths because of the denial of benefits and subsidies.


Biometric authentication failures are but expected of a large scale and technology-intensive project such as the UID. Despite being designed to store finger and iris scans of most users, doubts about the success rates of authentication and the generation of “false negatives” have always persisted, more so for labourers and tribal people. Those engaged in manual and hard labour, for example, are susceptible to fingerprint changes over time. In practice, beneficiaries have tended to use Aadhaar cards as identity markers but there have been instances of people losing cards and being denied benefits. Given the scale of the problem, the central and State governments would do well to allow alternative identification so that genuine beneficiaries are not denied due subsidies. The question of fraud can still be addressed by the use of other verification cards and by decentralised disbursal of services at the panchayat level.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Thursday, March 18, 2021

Allaying concerns: On public trust and vaccination programmes (The Hindu)

A little over 392 million doses of vaccine have been administered globally, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker, with India accounting for around 9% of them. In the last week, there have been a flurry of reports from Europe, of blood clots developing in a very small fraction of those vaccinated and leading to a cascade of European countries announcing a temporary halt to their vaccination programmes involving the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine. WHO and the European Medicines Agency have underlined that there is no causal link between vaccines and the occurrence of such clots. In fact, there are less than 40 such occurrences reported so far, and that is much below the background of about 1,000 to 2,000 blood clots every single day in the general population, say studies based on the U.S. population. These organisations advocate that the ongoing vaccination drives continue, even accelerate, as the rate of vaccination is not keeping pace with what is required to control the pandemic. However, there are good reasons too for the countries to have called for a temporary halt. The AZ, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been released under emergency use authorisations, meaning that the entire profile of risks associated with them have not been thoroughly studied. History is replete with instances of vaccines that have been taken off even years after approval after a slight increase in untoward complications. As of now, the risk of dying from serious COVID-19 far outweighs that from vaccine reactions and it is such a calculation that weighs on the minds of regulators before approving vaccines.


Unlike drugs administered to the sick, vaccines have a higher bar of proving themselves safe as they are given to the healthy. Regulators of all countries rely on the experiences of others, as exemplified in India alone where it was AZ trials in the United Kingdom that paved the way for approval in India. Therefore, a warning in one country must immediately activate the sensors in another. India has a long experience with vaccinations as well as expertise in evaluating risk; however, transparency and prompt data sharing, thereby building public trust, is not one of its strong suits. This was evidenced by the approval of vaccines in spite of scant efficacy data. There is almost no information by the National Committee on Adverse Events Following Immunisation on the nature of serious adverse events following immunisation. This is in contrast to the frequent analyses shared by organisations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on adverse events. Public trust is a key ingredient to successful vaccination programmes and this can be only earned by the government’s zealous attention to allaying concerns.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Immigration conundrum: On diversity, migration and the American Dream (The Hindu)

It is unlikely that President Joe Biden ever imagined that it would be a cakewalk to undo some of the most damaging policies implemented by his predecessor Donald Trump, but even he might not have anticipated how quickly the thorny question of immigration reform could spiral into a full-blown crisis. In recent weeks, an unprecedented surge of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.’s southern border has pushed the need for comprehensive reform, front and centre. The sudden spike in their numbers in U.S. custody — over 4,000, according to reports — is already wearing federal resources thin. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas struck a grim note when he said the U.S. was “on pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years”. Complicating the entire exercise is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made it impossible to take down a Trump-era emergency rule that gives border agents the authority to summarily turn away most migrants other than unaccompanied minors, denying them the right to have their asylum claims heard. In a sense, the mounting crisis is related to a sweeping immigration reform proposal unveiled by Mr. Biden’s administration a month ago, as well as smaller bills that the Democrat-controlled Congress could pass with less resistance, including measures to quicken the process for grant of legal status to agriculture workers and “Dreamers”, or undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children.


There are also plans under way to redress the ills of the legal migration system, many obstacles to which were erected by the Trump White House, including a controversial rule to raise mandatory minimum pay for foreign workers on the H-1B visa for skilled immigrants that is largely granted to Indian nationals. Similarly, some analysts have estimated that the Biden administration’s proposed immigration bill could potentially increase annual ‘green card’ or permanent residency numbers by 35%. Mr. Biden’s broader, omnibus immigration legislation proposal includes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants and the use of hi-tech systems for border patrol enforcement. The right, led by the vocal Congressional Republican minority, has attacked all such proposals as not being tough enough and encouraging the border surge, whereas the left, led by Democrats such as Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have taken on Mr. Biden for not being humane enough. The intractable immigration conundrum that the country has wrestled with from its very inception is whether the American Dream is an inclusivist vision of economic growth premised on embracing diversity and skilled migration, or whether the Trumpian ‘America First’ battle cry for nativist populism will carry the day. What Mr. Biden does in the months ahead will help answer this question.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Bridging the gap: On deficit in OBC, SC positions vacant at IIMs (The Hindu)

A severe deficit in the number of OBC, SC, ST candidates recruited as faculty in Central institutes of higher education has been revealed by Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal in Parliament, drawing attention once again to the pallid state of reservation in some of India’s elite institutions. Some of the striking data show 62% unfilled vacancies for SC in the IIMs and 90% for OBC in the IISc, while vacant positions are on average about 38% to 52%, taking Central Universities, IISERs, IIT (non-faculty), IGNOU, and Sanskrit Central Universities into account. The data confirm that the trend seen earlier in the IIT system extends to many more institutions, highlighting a serious mismatch between the government’s equity-building goals and actual recruitment outcomes. In the case of the IITs, an official committee suggested that the way out would be to exempt these institutions from reservation, as provided for under the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Teachers’ Cadre) Act, 2019, or to dereserve lower faculty positions after a year, if suitable candidates from the beneficiary communities are not found. This cannot obviously be a salutary course for official policy, when the reservation system, envisaged as an improvement on western ideals of affirmative action, is widely seen as the shortest path to equality and equity. What could help bridge the gap is a better understanding of the lacunae in the education system, marked by a sea of deprived public schools and colleges, hyper-commercialised private universities and colleges and islands of elite institutions such as the IIMs.


The failure of the Central higher education institutions to recruit faculty to all the reserved positions is usually attributed to the absence of enough qualified candidates, as the Education Ministry’s committee for IITs did. One of the forward-looking remedial measures suggested by the panel was to start government-sponsored preparatory programmes, which would both equip aspiring faculty, and create a pool of research talent. This has merit in the context of management, science and other disciplines, and in the short term, could help qualified individuals overcome the deficiencies of their preparatory years. Such courses would also make these institutions of higher learning more socially responsive, meeting the goal of addressing historical deprivation of communities based on caste. Yet, there are larger questions that need answers, and which continue to be agitated in courts. One of them is whether there should not be even greater attention devoted to the most marginalised within the reserved categories, such as SC, since trickle down quota benefits for them are scarce. The egalitarian answer would be to continue expanding the pie of opportunity in the public realm, through ever greater funding of quality universal education at all levels and aiding the deprived through affirmative action on the road to equality.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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A battle in the same vein: On manifestos announced by TN parties (The Hindu)


Freebies form the core of the promises made by the main parties in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu, which has seen tumultuous political changes in the last five years, is set for one more round of a familiar battle in the Assembly election on April 6. Its two principal parties, the DMK and the ruling AIADMK, have stitched up pre-poll alliances and taken the lion’s share of the 234 seats to be contested. Both parties have, by and large, retained their allies of the 2019 Lok Sabha election. While the Congress, which appears to be enthused by the visits of its leader Rahul Gandhi to the State, occupies the second slot in the DMK-led alliance with 25 seats, its national-level adversary, the BJP, after aggressive posturing, has had to be content with the 20 seats allotted to it in the AIADMK-led coalition. As this is the first Assembly election after the passing of Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi, the AIADMK, in power for the last 10 years, and the DMK, both shorn of charismatic leaders, have thrown in offers of an unusually large number of freebies. The DMK, apart from making, in the run-up to its manifesto release, an offer of ₹1,000 a month to the woman-head of every family, has promised ₹4,000 to each pandemic-hit ration cardholder (around two crores totally); a subsidy of ₹100 per cooking gas cylinder and a reduction in petrol and diesel prices. The AIADMK’s assurances include ₹1,500 a month to the woman-head of each family, six cooking gas cylinders annually, a washing machine and solar-powered cook stove and a 50% subsidy in city bus fares for women. It is debatable how these promises will be kept as the State’s fiscal indicators, according to the Fifteenth Finance Commission’s report, have plunged, from 2012-13 to 2018-19. The parties and their allies should concentrate on substantive issues such as public health. The Commission has pointed out that the prevalence of anaemia among women and children is 55% and 50.7%, against the national average of 53.1% and 58.6%. Neither party has addressed such issues satisfactorily in their manifestos.


There are other parties such as the MNM, led by veteran actor Kamal Haasan, the AMMK of T.T.V. Dhinakaran and the NTK of actor-director Seeman. Heterogenous in character, the first two are apparently positioning themselves as serious contenders, with the NTK seeking to don the role of a neo-Tamil nationalist party. Opinion polls point to the likelihood of the DMK-led front securing a comfortable majority, while the ruling party is trying to play catch-up using the governance track record of CM Edappadi K. Palaniswami. As of now, the campaign has been devoid of personal attacks. But, it would take a lot more doing on the part of the principal players to keep at bay forces thriving on parochialism, divisive politics and hate culture.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Poll position: On SC order on local body elections (The Hindu)

Even though more than a quarter century has elapsed since the Constitution was amended to make urban and rural local bodies a self-contained third tier of governance, it is often agreed by experts that there is inadequate devolution of powers to them. This may somewhat explain their relative lack of autonomy. However, an entirely different facet of the way these local bodies function is that the manner in which their representatives are elected is often beset by controversies. Local polls are often marred by violence, and charges of arbitrary delimitation and reservation of wards. A key factor in any local body polls being conducted in a free and fair manner is the extent to which the State Election Commissioner, the authority that supervises the elections, is independent and autonomous. Unfortunately, most regimes in the States appoint senior bureaucrats from among their favourites to this office. In practice, SECs frequently face charges of being partisan. Routine exercises such as delimiting wards, rotating the wards reserved for women and Scheduled Castes and fixing dates for the elections become mired in controversy as a result, as the Opposition tends to believe that the exercise is being done with the ruling party’s interest in mind. Even though this cannot be generalised in respect of all States and all those manning the position, it is undeniable that SECs do not seem to enjoy the confidence of political parties and the public to the same extent as the Election Commission of India as far as their independence is concerned.


It is in this backdrop that the Supreme Court’s judgment declaring that a State Election Commissioner should be someone completely independent of the State government acquires salience. It has described the Goa government’s action in asking its Law Secretary to hold additional charge as SEC as a “mockery of the Constitutional mandate”. By invoking its extraordinary power under Article 142 of the Constitution, the Court has asked all SECs who are under the direct control of the respective State governments to step down from their posts. In practice, most States appoint retired bureaucrats as SECs. Whether the apex court’s decision would have a bearing on those who are no more serving State governments remains to be seen. However, it is clear that these governments will now have to find a way to appoint to the office only those who are truly independent and not beholden to it in any manner. The verdict will help secure the independence of SECs in the future. More significantly, the Court has boosted the power of the election watchdog by holding that it is open to the SECs to countermand any infractions of the law made by the State government in the course of preparing for local body polls. Regimes in the States would have to wake up to the reality that they cannot always control the local body polls as in the past.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Kerala triangle: On Kerala Assembly elections (The Hindu)

 

The coming Assembly election in Kerala could mark a realignment of the State’s political landscape. The Congress, which leads the United Democratic Front (UDF), the CPI (M) that leads the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the BJP that leads the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), are all betting on an outsize impact the small southern State may have on their respective national plans. Kerala is one State where Rahul Gandhi is miles ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in popularity and a victory of the UDF could set the scene for his return as Congress president. Mr. Gandhi has been investing considerable time in the State. The BJP, long seen as a north Indian party, has made significant inroads in the State, and is hoping to emerge as the third pole through social engineering that includes wooing a section of Christians. A notable performance in Kerala can give a fillip to its southern ambitions and buttress its claim of being a national party. The incumbent Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is experimenting with daring political moves to win a second consecutive term, unusual in Kerala. His moves could be highly rewarding politically, but could unsettle the implicit power-sharing arrangement among Kerala’s elites.


Though they are playing for high stakes in Kerala, all three parties are in turmoil within and in tussles with allies. The CPI (M)’s decision to deny ticket to several of its veterans has not been taken kindly by its cadres, who have taken to the streets and social media to challenge it. The party wooed Kerala Congress (Mani) from the UDF into the LDF, in an embarrassing somersault that it finds difficult to explain. Charges of corruption and nepotism, including a multiagency investigation into the links between the former Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister and a smuggling racket have taken the shine off the governance record of the LDF government. Mr. Vijayan, however, is trying to turn this in his favour, by claiming to be at the receiving end of machinations by Central probe agencies at the behest of the BJP. The Congress is trying to keep the leadership squabbles within by not formally announcing a leader, but signalling that former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy could get another term should the party win. It is also struggling hard to hold on to traditional bases. The BJP in Kerala had never imagined itself as a serious contender for power, and the opportunity in sight has intensified internal factional rivalries. The campaign and outcome of the Assembly election will be indicative of a new social compact that is taking shape in Kerala, and in that sense, it is not merely about electing a new government this time.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Monday, March 15, 2021

Salutary reminder: On Consumer Price Index (The Hindu)

With just over two weeks left to the March 31 deadline for the government and RBI to complete the quinquennial review of the current inflation target under the monetary policy framework, the latest Consumer Price Index (CPI) reading provides a salutary reminder for policymakers to maintain a ceaseless vigil over price stability. Retail inflation, measured by the CPI, accelerated to a three-month high of 5.03% in February, data released by the National Statistical Office on Friday showed. The jump of almost 100 basis points from January’s 4.06%, while partly attributable to a base effect given that price gains had relatively eased in February 2020, is a clear signal that food and fuel costs continue to pose a threat to broader price stability in the economy. Specifically, the RBI’s early February prognostication of continuing pressures in the prices of pulses and edible oils has been borne out by the last two months’ CPI data. Inflation of both essential food products has persisted in the double digits during the period, and in the case of the latter, accelerated disconcertingly to 20.8% last month. Price gains with respect to two other key sources of protein, meat and fish and eggs, also remain stuck above 11%. And the deflation in vegetable costs, which had helped offset the generalised pressure in food inflation, also waned considerably in February to minus 6.7% from minus 15.8% in January. The upshot was that food and beverages as a combined category, with a weight of 54.2% in the CPI, witnessed an almost 160 basis points quickening in inflation to 4.25% last month, from January’s 2.67%.


Another equally worrisome source of inflationary pressure is the continuing upward trajectory in the prices of petroleum products. Transport and communication, which directly reflect these prices, saw inflation rocket by more than 200 basis points to 11.4% in February, from 9.3% the preceding month. Diesel, the main fuel for freight carriage, is now hovering around ₹85 per litre in many parts and will most certainly feed into the costs of everything requiring to be transported. Brent crude oil futures have surged by close to 40% in the three-month period through March 11 in the wake of output cuts by major oil producing nations, another worrying portent for inflation. With the RBI’s own researchers having so cogently laid out the case for persisting with the current flexible inflation targeting regime of ensuring that price gains stay within the 2% to 6% band in the central bank’s first Report on Currency and Finance in eight years, policymakers must stay laser focused on keeping price stability front and centre of their fresh framework for the next quinquennium. Any effort to dilute the focus in a purported bid to prioritise growth, risks putting the economy on a perilous path that may secure neither objective.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Summit spirit: On Quad and India’s interests (The Hindu)

The virtual summit that brought together leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, last week, contained both broad substance and deep symbolism. Countering any perception that the Quad is merely a “talk-shop”, the outcomes announced by U.S. President Biden and Prime Ministers Modi, Morrison and Suga include a vaccine initiative and joint working groups to cooperate on critical technology as well as climate change. The vaccine initiative comes with an ambitious deadline: a billion vaccines by the end of 2022, made in India with U.S. technology, Japanese funding and Australian distribution networks to reach as many Indo-Pacific countries as possible. The four Quad countries will ensure emissions reduction based on the Paris accord as well as cooperate on technology supply chains, 5G networks, and biotechnology. Mr. Biden, who hosted the summit, managed some powerful atmospherics, by coordinating a joint statement — and a first — called “The Spirit of the Quad”, and a joint article by the four leaders that committed to an open Indo-Pacific “free from coercion”. The leaders are expected to meet later this year, at the G-7 summit. For Mr. Biden, the early push for the Quad engagement is part of his promise that “America is back” in terms of global leadership, reaffirming regional alliances, and taking on the growing challenge from China. For similar reasons, and due to maritime tensions with China, trade and telecommunication issues, Australia and Japan are keen on taking the Quad partnership to deeper levels of cooperation. For India, the new terms of the Quad will mean more strategic support after a tense year at the LAC, as also a boost for its pharmaceutical prowess, opportunities for technology partnerships, and more avenues for regional cooperation on development projects and financing infrastructure, especially in South Asia, where China has taken the lead.


It would be a mistake, however, to portray the Quad summit as a “throwing down of the gauntlet” to China. The new U.S. government is still exploring its own relationship with China; its first engagement with Beijing’s top diplomats is in Alaska, on Thursday. For Japan and Australia, China remains the biggest trading partner, a relationship that will only grow once the 15-nation RCEP kicks in. India, given its own ties with China, sensitivities over ongoing LAC disengagement talks, and its other multilateral commitments at the BRICS and SCO groupings, also displayed caution in the Quad engagement, keeping the conversation focused on what Mr. Modi called making the Quad a “force for global good” rather than pushing plans for a militaristic coalition. In that sense, the Quad’s new “summit avatar” has given India yet another string to its bow, broadening India’s interests on its geopolitical horizons even further.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Saturday, March 13, 2021

Two bad options: On U.S. push for Afghan unity government with Taliban (The Hindu)

President Joe Biden’s push for an interim unity government in Afghanistan is a testament to his administration’s grim assessment of the situation in the war-torn country. In a letter to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, which was first published by Afghanistan’s TOLOnews, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has proposed a senior-level meeting between the government and the Taliban in Turkey and a multilateral conference of envoys from the U.S., Russia, China, Iran, India and Pakistan to discuss a lasting Afghan solution. The peace push comes at a time when the Biden administration is reviewing the U.S.’s Afghan strategy. According to the February 2020 agreement signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban, the U.S. is scheduled to withdraw its troops by May 1. The Taliban have warned they would step up fighting targeting the coalition troops should the U.S. fail to pull out by then. The Biden administration is understandably under pressure. There appears to be a consensus in Washington that there is no military solution to the crisis. The U.S. wants to get out of the longest war in its history. But as Mr. Blinken says in the letter, the U.S. worries that if its troops are out without a peace mechanism, the Taliban, which already controls much of the country’s hinterlands, could make “rapid territorial gains”.


The U.S. seeks to stop this happening by proposing an interim “inclusive” government between the warring parties. Further, both sides should hold talks on the future constitutional and governance framework. Regional powers, including India and Pakistan, could play a decisive role in this transition as part of a UN-mandated multiparty peace process. This is a more inclusive approach than what the Trump administration did. Under Mr. Trump, the U.S. held direct talks with the Taliban excluding the Afghan government. And after reaching a deal, the U.S. put pressure on the Afghan government to release prisoners, but failed to get any concessions from the insurgents on reducing violence. Even when Afghan government representatives and the Taliban were holding talks in Doha, Qatar, Afghanistan continued to witness violence. The Biden administration does not seem to have faith in the Doha talks, which, even after months, failed to achieve any breakthrough. After 20 years of war, the Afghan leadership does not have any good options to end the conflict. If the Biden administration decides to stick to the Taliban deal and pull back troops, there is no guarantee that the intra-Afghan talks would hold. The Taliban would rather try to take over the whole country using force. If the government accepts Mr. Biden’s proposal, Afghanistan’s elected leaders will have to share power with the Taliban and agree to amending the Constitution, which means some of the country’s hard-won liberties could be sacrificed. It is a choice between two bad options.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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A moral test: On the vaccine divide (The Hindu)

A year after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has criticised “the many examples of vaccine nationalism and hoarding” in the world. Making available vaccines equitably presents the “greatest moral test of our times”, he added. In spite of exhortations by international organisations and efforts to pool resources in a way that all countries could at the earliest begin inoculating at least a fraction of their most vulnerable, several countries were unable to administer a single dose although vaccines were beginning to be stockpiled since November last. In Africa, only 13 countries, according to the Bloomberg tracker, have begun vaccinating. In contrast, over 10% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, or got both doses, as has 3% of the EU. The percentages nearly double when accounting for their populations that have got at least one dose, reaching as high as 34% in the U.K.


India is the third biggest vaccinator among countries, having administered about 26 million doses, or about 1.91 doses per 100 people. But it has fully vaccinated only 0.3% of its population. While India has earned laurels for its ‘vaccine diplomacy’, the fact is that there are several public health centres, villages and districts where no vaccines have been administered. Though vaccination in the second phase appears to have picked up, there were only 1.7 million inoculations on Friday evening as opposed to the planned vaccination capacity of 5.4 million. India aims to inoculate at least 250 million with two doses from March-July — or over 3.3 million doses per day. But at best, India has administered 1.8 million doses per day. There is also an apparent “class divide” with the rich and those better informed disproportionately getting vaccinated as compared to the poor. Thus, along with the global inequity in accessing vaccination, India is seeing a version of it play out three months since vaccinations began. The inequality was expected as like many rich countries, the U.S. contracted with many vaccine companies for several times the doses it needed. It was precisely this that had led to concerns of ‘vaccine nationalism’. The pipeline of supply was largely dependent on India and China. The Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech and several other pharma companies are private entities and bound by contracts to the highest bidders, and not necessarily the Indian government. While the reprieve is that more vaccines are in the pipeline, there will always be the concern that the poor, the old and the digitally naive will be shortchanged. The UN and WHO must continue to exert pressure on the privileged nations to improve global availability as well as bear upon countries to improve equitable access within their territory too.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Friday, March 12, 2021

Scope for scandal: On court orders restraining media (The Hindu)

It is quite regrettable that politicians are often hit by scandals arising from leaked footage purportedly showing them in intimate proximity with women. The latest episode involves former Karnataka Minister Ramesh Jarkiholi, who resigned in the wake of visuals allegedly showing him in such a situation. Speculation about the existence of more such compact discs that could surface in the media has resulted in a lawyer and BJP member obtaining an interim High Court order, that media organisations should abide strictly by the Programme Code prescribed under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act. About 70 media organisations, including television channels, social media platforms, digital media outlets and newspapers have been arrayed as respondents. The order is unexceptionable. The broadcast media are expected to conform to the Code. However, when such an omnibus order is passed, it could become a tool of harassment. Under the Act, district magistrates, sub-divisional magistrates and police commissioners are the ‘authorised officers’ to ensure that the Programme Code is not breached. The Bengaluru Police Commissioner has also issued an order prohibiting the broadcasting of anything that breaches the Code. The Code, which is part of the Cable Television Network Rules, is widely worded. For instance, anything that offends good taste or decency, or amounts to criticism of friendly countries, are violations. It also considers defamation, half-truths and innuendo as potential violations. In the absence of judicial orders, it may be unsafe to leave such matters to the discretion of the ‘authorised officer’.


A key consideration to decide on the content of any broadcast that may be controversial is whether it touches upon any public interest. In this case, it is not merely the private moment of a serving Minister, but his public conduct that is under scrutiny — for the allegation is that he had promised a job to a woman in exchange for sexual favours. That he and others said to be contemplating preventive legal action against the future release of such footage were defectors who brought about the fall of the JD(S)-Congress government not long ago, would impart the episode with a deeper cause for a thorough investigation. Of course, in the absence of any complaint from the woman, or even any knowledge about her, it is difficult to prove any wrongdoing. And not even public interest can justify a flagrant breach of privacy of anyone, or the depiction of women in a derogatory manner. But sections of the media may have considered that there is enough public interest to draw attention to the footage, even if they had no intention to air it. The onus is on media outlets to show discretion in dealing with such ‘leaks’. Greater discretion may be warranted for political leaders, especially those with a record of political dishonesty, for it is difficult to blame the public if they expect the worst of them.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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Frontier politics: On identity issues in Assam polls (The Hindu)

The BJP’s rise to power in Assam in 2016 was remarkable, and the party has set an even higher goal this time, to win 100 of the 126 Assembly seats along with its allies, the Asom Gana Parishad, United People’s Party Liberal and the Rabha Joutha Mancha. The electoral landscape is significantly different this time, with rearranged alliances and the emergence of new issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Going by 2016 figures, the Mahajot of parties including the Congress, the All India United Democratic Front, and the Bodoland People’s Front has 48.81% share of the votes. The combined vote share of the Congress and AIUDF was higher in 17 seats the BJP had won last time. An alliance of regional parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad and Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal, both formed six months ago following the anti-CAA movement, could make the contest triangular, at least in the eastern parts. The Congress is facing a leadership vacuum and tussle at the same time; and the BJP has to reconcile with the friction arising out of the fact that its most effective and popular leader is Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Congressman. The BJP claims Assam saw fast-paced development and there is no noticeable anti-incumbency. The outcome will be determined by other issues, and particularly identity questions that have become more fraught this time.


Regional variations in political trends are sharp, and the BJP’s attempt is to construct a Hindu identity that subsumes ethnic and linguistic ones. Mr. Sarma has been targeting Muslims in his rhetoric. The CAA, along with the National Register of Citizens, got the religious fault line intertwined with the ethnic one, denying the BJP any clear advantage. The fear of illegal migrants overrunning indigenous populations has been a perennial issue; but this time, the focus has shifted from migrant “Bangladeshi” Muslims to “Bangladeshi” Hindus, whose side the BJP sought to take through the new citizenship regime. The party is now trying to underplay the CAA as an electoral issue, but the other two alliances are trying to keep the focus on it, and put the BJP on the back foot among the indigenous population. The issue is also a red flag for a majority of Muslims, who constitute 34% of Assam’s population. The BJP has been trying to mobilise sentiments around the encroachment by ‘Bangladeshis’ of forests and swathes of land belonging to Vaishnav monasteries. Floods that wash away farmland and dwelling areas, and the distress among plantation workers — a voting block, particularly in 45 seats in eastern and southern Assam — are also campaign issues. Sadly, such material questions are only secondary in a campaign overwhelmed by identity issues.

Courtesy - The Hindu.

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