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Showing posts with label The Indian Express. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Indian Express. Show all posts

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Mount 50K (The Indian Express)

Moreover, this surge has not been concentrated in a few select stocks, but is more broad-based with the BSE mid and small cap indices also witnessing a similar surge.

On Thursday, the BSE Sensex breached the historic 50,000 mark for the first time. While the markets have since then been pulled down by profit booking, the near 90 per cent rise in the Sensex from the depths observed in March last year has been nothing short of spectacular. Moreover, this surge has not been concentrated in a few select stocks, but is more broad-based with the BSE mid and small cap indices also witnessing a similar surge. Foreign investors have also flocked in droves — between April 1 and January 21, foreign portfolio investors invested a net of Rs 2.41 lakh crore in Indian equities, the highest ever in a single year. Retail participation too has seen a spectacular pick up — around 10 million new demat accounts were opened in 2020. All this suggests that despite the economy going through arguably the severest recession in decades, market participants are optimistic about future prospects.


There are several possible explanations for the surge in the markets. First, there is far greater optimism over the state of the economy than before with leading economic indicators suggesting that a strong recovery is underway. Add to that expectations of a smooth rollout of the Covid vaccine and as a consequence, demand firming up, especially for high-contact services, there is reason to be optimistic. This view was echoed by economists at the RBI in their latest monthly outlook on the state of the economy, who noted that “the recovery is getting stronger in its traction and soon the winter of our discontent will be made glorious summer,” adding that “barring the visitation of another wave, the worst is behind us”. Second, there are heightened expectations from the upcoming Union Budget. Considering that the government has been rather conservative in its approach this year, there are expectations that the finance minister, in addition to announcing steps to aid the economic recovery, will loosen the fiscal taps, providing the much-needed fillip to the economy. And third, favourable liquidity conditions, both domestically and globally, are playing a significant role in pushing up stock prices.


However, there is reason to be cautious. Even though markets are forward-looking, valuations appear to be stretched. The market is currently trading at a price to earnings ratio of 34 that is far in excess of its long term average. While earnings will get upgraded, this expansion in the earnings multiple will at some point adjust to the reality that the economy still has a considerable distance to travel to recover to pre-COVID levels. Even accounting for the faster recovery, the economy is likely to recover to 2019-20 levels, only by around the end of 2021-22.

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Friday, January 22, 2021

Beating the Chinese fait accompli trap (The Indian Express)

Written by Ameya Pratap Singh


One of the more perplexing but underdiscussed aspects of the on-going Sino-Indian border stand-off relates to the gains of territorial expansion: Why has China used fait accompli strategies on the Sino-Indian border? Recently, there have been reports of Chinese construction of three villages in Arunachal Pradesh 5 kilometres from the Bum La pass. In total, China is said to have illegally occupied at least 38,000 sq. km. of Indian land over the years. To some observers the question posed here may seem odd as increases in territorial holdings have been part of the raison d’etre of the modern nation-state for centuries, and motives often range from intangible gains such as reputation for resolve, domestic legitimacy, or status to more tangible one’s such as control over natural resources.


But, since World War II, the territorial integrity norm and self-determination have caused territorial conquest to decline sharply. If local populations cannot be convinced of the legitimacy of foreign rule, then their occupation becomes expensive and a risky as well as morally dubious enterprise. Moreover, “size of territory” has declined in importance as a vital indicator of state power, being replaced with nuclear weapons, military modernisation, technology, industrial production etc. In fact—as India knows all too well—the inability to defend vast territories can restrict a state’s rise. Especially in Ladakh, large parts are still largely inhospitable mountainous terrain with scarce human population or vegetation and lack any key natural resources. The territorial sovereignty of each state is often held to be a sacred and inviolable feature, but this still does not explain the rationale behind China’s choice of fait accompli strategies for territorial conquest across the Sino-Indian border.



Well, China does so because faits accompli is the preferred mode of modern territorial conquest. American political scientist Dan Altman has argued that while territorial wars and invading armies indeed became exceedingly rare after 1945, modern conquest has evolved to encourage a different type of territorial conquest. Expansionist states now purposefully target the seizure of smaller pieces of unpopulated and ungarrisoned territories that keep the risk of conflict within manageable proportions. Instead of “brute force” they use “fait accompli”. The goal is to gamble on the military occupation of a small piece of territory that is unlikely to provoke large-scale war. In this case for example, China presents India with a difficult choice — if India chooses to evict PLA forces and escalate, it could risk war. But it would be unlikely to risk such a war over 1000 sq km of territory. Altman argues that this logic also undergirded Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands in 1974.


This means the credibility of India’s red line against China’s use of force across the LAC is in peril. What can India do? Can it ensure China does not profit from its aggression meant to induce fait accompli? India certainly needs to improve its deterrence by denial posture and expedite its road infrastructure plans, modernise its military, and make appropriate changes to bring operational efficiency to the Army’s Northern command for rapid mobilisation (C4I2 capability). India will also need to improve its radar surveillance systems, long range fire power, air power and missile capability in border areas along with electronic warfare and cyber capabilities. Loopholes exposed by the Chinese ingress in Ladakh in the analytic framework for intelligence processing need addressing too. In essence, India should be able to better pre-empt and quickly respond to Chinese fait accompli strategies to prevent them in the future. While financial and administrative limitations have prevented fuller realisation, this has arguably been the intended strategy of the Indian government so far.


However, this may not be enough. India also needs deterrence by punishment options. New Delhi needs to invest in its 17 Mountain Strike Corps (MSC), which is intended to act as a counter-offensive force against China along the LAC. There have already been reports that the Indian Army has mobilised two strike corps for the mountains facing China. But their use should not be limited to counter-offense in response to Chinese fait accompli strategies (especially when delayed), since this makes for a predictable script. Instead, the MSC should also focus on the possibility of India offering faits accomplis of its own across the LAC during situations of low-threat expectation and exposed vulnerabilities on the Chinese side. If faits accomplis are attractive to Beijing because they are perceived to be low-risk, their use can only be discouraged by awakening the Chinese to the grave escalatory risks and debilitating costs of a constant threat of a limited but difficult to reverse territorial ingress along a 2100-mile long border from the Indian side. In world politics, norms restraining competition often emerge from the fear of inadvertence and escalation rather than the goodwill of rivals.

 

Such force projection may not be possible in the short term—considering India was unable to raise a second division of the MSC in Pathankot in 2017-18 due to paucity of funds—but is nonetheless necessary in the long run to raise costs for Chinese “salami slicing”. One must also remember that such a strategy went horribly wrong for Jawaharlal Nehru before the 1962 War and therefore adequate funding and capacity-building are essential before this option can be fully explored and deployed successfully. But if this strategy is indeed implemented dexterously—although it will play out over a longer timeline—India’s crisis bargaining position and demand for the restoration of the status quo as of April 2020 may finally have some teeth to it.

An equally pertinent policy solution for the Chinese challenge on the border is the economic development of India’s border populations and regions. Beyond building roads to gain access to vital strategic points, allowing border areas to flourish as population centres has been part of the Indian government’s agenda at least since the Himmatsinghji Committee Report of 1951. While there is a strong case to be made for such measures from the perspective of public welfare, there is also a defence imperative, both for internal (against insurgencies and armed separatist factions) as well as external security. First, as border regions become denser population wise, the potential for cross-border encroachment diminishes. This approach may have limits in certain inhospitable parts, but to prevent Chinese settlements in lower-lying areas local populations may be nearly as important for border security as the Indian Army. Second, not only will this improve India’s own administrative control and acceptance in these border regions, it will also offer Tibetans on the other side a glimpse into what state-led economic development can look like in a democratic society.


According to Altman, faits accomplis are part of an “advancing without attacking” strategy and notoriously difficult to deter and draw red lines against. Considering this, India’s security interests simply cannot afford an ill-managed economy, bureaucratic inefficiency, and delays in plans for military modernisation. To finance this increased defence burden, India’s economic growth and need for domestic stability will assume salience like never before. Due to the successful staging of its “peaceful rise” policy, China under Deng Xiaoping could bide its time and rise without the overhang of geopolitical competition. But India under Modi faces Xi’s revanchist China on the border along with an increasingly hostile regional security environment. There is no margin for error.


Singh is reading for a DPhil in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford.

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Thursday, January 21, 2021

DISCOM as data custodian (The Indian Express)

Written by Narendra Pai, Aditya Chunekar


The Ministry of Power (MoP) is planning to replace 250 million conventional electricity meters in Indian homes with smart meters by 2022 under the Smart Meter National Programme. Smart meters can potentially improve distribution companies (DISCOM) finances by automatically generating bills and ensuring timely payment by providing deterrence through remote disconnections of defaulters. This is one of the many initiatives by MoP to address the multiple long-standing issues of the sector, exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.


About 2.1 million smart meters have already been installed and are operational across the country, while another 9.1 million are under deployment, creating an urgent need to transparently document and thoroughly analyse the experience of deploying such a large number of smart meters. This article highlights one such aspect — the issue of data privacy. Beyond automated billing and remote disconnections, smart meters can also collect granular electricity consumption data of consumers every half an hour, or even less. This data, if used effectively, can help DISCOMs plan distribution infrastructure, power purchase, and offer value added services to the consumers, further improving DISCOM finances.



However, such high frequency consumption data collected by smart meters also has the potential to reveal private details of consumers like household occupancy patterns, appliance ownership and usage patterns, and even entertainment habits and preferences through analysis and inference.


The Supreme Court has already upheld the right to privacy as a fundamental right, therefore using and sharing such personal consumption data without adequate safeguards and appropriate consent would be tantamount to violation of the same. Furthermore, less secure data management and sharing systems can also expose this data to unlawful activities like burglary, stalking, surveillance, among other things. In other parts of the world, these privacy and security concerns are being addressed through a smart meter specific data protection framework that complements the general data protection framework.


This raises two questions in the Indian context: How effective are the current mechanisms to ensure data security and privacy of existing meters; and how prepared are the DISCOMs to comply with the rules and regulations of the upcoming Personal Data Protection Act. The answers to these questions are largely negative.


The Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act) along with the 2011 rules on “reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information” by definition, apply to both smart meter data and consumer billing data from ordinary meters. But there is no public information on the DISCOMs’ compliance with the IT Act. For instance, one provision requires publication of the privacy policy regarding handling all electronically stored data, but most of the DISCOMs have narrowly interpreted it to be applicable only to that collected through their websites.


Furthermore, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), a statutory body that advises the government on technical and policy matters related to electricity, has issued detailed functional requirements of an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). These guidelines, which have been adopted verbatim in some of the smart meter implementation contracts by the DISCOMs, have no requirements related to consumer privacy.


On the positive side, the standard bidding documents released by MoP, for hiring AMI service providers, do include privacy related provisions. However, we are yet to find its adoption by DISCOMs. Finally, even though the current smart meter data protection mechanisms may be lax, it can change significantly once the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill 2019 is enacted.


In order to strike a balance between utilising the economic value of personal data and upholding an individual’s Right to Privacy, the government tabled the PDP Bill 2019. This crucial bill is currently before the Joint Parliamentary Committee and only a few steps away from becoming the law. In fact, provisions akin to those in the PDP bill have already started applying to other sectors such as public health through the National Health Data Management Policy.

 

The PDP bill, once enacted, will replace the aforementioned provisions of IT Act and bring all consumer data with the DISCOMs, including monthly billing and high frequency smart meter data, under its ambit. DISCOMs, with or without smart meters, would then have the onerous task of ensuring that internal handling of such data as well as all its third party engagements do not violate individual privacy. Moreover, under the new law, a Data Protection Authority (DPA) would be appointed as the data regulator and DISCOMs would be bound by its regulations. The penalties under the law in case of non-compliance are significantly high, running up to 4 per cent of the annual global turnover. The proposed DPA will also possibly develop sector specific regulations in consultation with the sector regulators.


The electricity sector specific regulations need to be based on a comprehensive data protection framework, developed specifically for smart meter data. Such a framework should clearly identify the type of data that can be collected through smart meters, duration of storage and specific uses of the data as mandated or permitted under the Electricity Act 2003. It should delineate an appropriate consumer consent framework in accordance with the type of data collected and the specific uses. The framework should allow consumers to have full access to the data and summary insights, to change consent preferences, and to also have access to the privacy policy in clear and simple terms. In addition, data sharing protocols and accountability mechanisms like audit requirements and public reports should be a part of this framework.


Given the rapid pace of smart meter installation, MoP should urgently develop such a framework in consultation with CEA, central and state regulators, DISCOMs, smart meter manufacturers, civil society organisations and other stakeholders and publish it in the form of a white paper. MoP should also solicit for wider public comments on the same. This framework can be a good starting point for the proposed DPA to deliberate with electricity regulators to evolve specific regulations. Meanwhile, it will be prudent on DISCOMs’ part to understand their role as data custodians and start building the internal capacity to safeguard consumer privacy in both consumer as well as DISCOM’s mutual interest.


The writers are with Prayas (Energy Group), Pune

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Solving the child malnutrition puzzle (The Indian Express)

Written by Himanshu


The recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 5 data raise serious concerns about India’s growth story. Behind the glitter of the stock market touching new heights, lies the gloomy reality of India’s ballooning childhood malnutrition. In India, 37.8 per cent of children under 5 years of age are stunted. This is 16 per cent higher than the average for Asia (22 per cent). The situation of wasting is no better, with 20.8 per cent of children under 5 years of age affected, which is higher than average for Asia (9 per cent). The Global Nutrition Report, 2020, highlights that 68 per cent of under-5 mortality in India is due to malnutrition. As per the latest NFHS 5 report, over 35 per cent of children under 5 are stunted and over 20 per cent are wasted in 18 out of the 22 states for which data is released. That amounts to 47 million children, the largest in any part of the world. Out of the two, stunting, also known as growth retardation, has serious long-term health and economic consequences.


As countries move up the income ladder, the rates of stunting and wasting declines, a phenomenon observed globally. However, India is an outlier and breaks this causality. States with relatively high per capita incomes have stunting rates comparable to the poorest African countries. In many Indian states, the situation is worse than that of poor sub-Saharan African countries. For instance, Bihar, Manipur and West Bengal have similar per capita income ($) as sub-Saharan African countries — Liberia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe — but, the average stunting rates in Bihar (43 per cent), Assam (35 per cent) and West Bengal (34 per cent) are 10-12 per cent higher than that of Liberia (33 per cent), Tanzania (32 per cent) and Zimbabwe (3 per cent) respectively. The situation is worse when it comes to middle-income states like Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka with similar per capita income ($) as Peru, Egypt and Morocco. The average stunting rates in Goa (26 per cent) Maharashtra (35 per cent), Gujarat (39 per cent), Telangana (33 per cent) and Karnataka (35 per cent) are almost 10-15 per cent higher than that of Peru (12 per cent), Egypt (22 per cent) and Morocco (15 per cent). Understanding this paradox among Indian states, which has an unusually high level of stunting relative to their economic development, merits investigation.



Despite this high prevalence, India has rarely undertaken a comprehensive study to understand the pathogenesis of stunting. Therefore, what we have is a lopsided understanding of the problem. As per WHO, stunting can be attributable to medical and socio-economic factors. The medical factors include genetics (parents’ height), access to nutrition and mother’s health (anaemia, BMI). Besides, there are economic factors — income, poverty, access to healthcare, mother’s education and labour force participation — and social factors — caste, race, women status and place of residence etc. Of these, which ones are proximate and which one the distant factors, we simply don’t know.


Based on this conceptualisation, economic factors like average per capita income and prevalence of multi-dimensional poverty are loosely correlated with the prevalence of high stunting in states of AP, Telangana, Gujarat, Maharashtra & Karnataka. Similarly, maternity care characteristics (ante-natal care during pregnancy, post-natal care and consumption of folic acid during pregnancy), although extremely important, but, are weakly associated with high stunting rates in these states. Despite relatively modest economic growth and favourable maternity characteristics, high prevalence of stunting in these states defies logic. After all, these states have been the flagbearers of India’s growth story since 1991.


In popular parlance, poverty is synonymous with stunting. Poor households and poor states are expected to have stunted children. But what could explain significantly higher stunting rates in middle-income states?


First, women’s educational status, especially secondary and above, along with female labour force participation partly resonates with high stunting rates. Maternal literacy is an important determinant of a child’s nutritional status. Literate mothers are expected to be aware of their health, nutrition and breastfeeding practices. This finding, however, reflects the tragic reality of women bearing the undue burden of childcare. Second, the mother’s health, the prevalence of anaemia in women of reproductive age. India is one of the most anaemia-prone countries in the world. Children under age 5 and women of productive age are particularly vulnerable. Several studies have explored the strong association between stunting and the presence of anaemia in women of childbearing age. For instance, women of low BMI had greater odds of developing anaemia and the children of anaemic mothers are at greater risk of being stunted. The implication, a vicious circle of anaemia and stunting — stunted children of anaemic mothers are at greater risk of developing anaemia. The NFHS 5 data corroborate this finding — all women in reproductive age who are anaemic stands at 59 per cent in Andhra Pradesh, 40 per cent in Goa, 63 per cent in Gujarat, 48 per cent in Karnataka, 55 per cent in Maharashtra and 58 per cent in Telangana.

Third, urban slums and lack of sanitation is a potential contributor to stunting. Despite claims, India still lags behind sub-Saharan African countries in terms of safely managed sanitation services. States like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka have a significant population living in urban slums who do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. The difference in sanitation practices between Indian states and their African counterparts explains the difference in stunting rates.


The other, atypical factor that has an impact on the prevalence of stunting is genetics (mother’s height). As per WHO, the golden rule of measuring stunting in children is the height for age Z score (HAZ). A child is considered stunted if the HAZ score is two standard deviations below the median of WHO child growth standard. The height of children is closely associated with the height of mothers. For instance, the average female height in South Asia, including India, is approx. 150-156 cm, whereas, the average female height in Europe and Africa is 164-168 cm and 160-165 cm respectively. Genetic differences can explain the differences in the stock of stunted children in two regions, but it can’t be the dominant factor in explaining the flow of stunted children. The analysis, then, boils down to the real culprits — anaemia and low BMI among women, social and gender inequalities, which together manifest in the problem of malnutrition among children.


(The writer is an economist with Swaniti Initiative, previously worked with Prime Minister Economic Advisory Council, Government of India & FAO of United Nations. Views are personal)

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Is India nearing herd immunity? (The Indian Express)

Written by Surjit S Bhalla , Karan Bhasin  

It is almost a year since the virus first appeared outside of China. There have been several false alarms about the end of the virus; it is still ongoing, and in most parts of the world, the second leg of the virus (post July 2020), has been worse than the first. There is relief on the way — vaccines have been developed and are being distributed, and maybe the world returns to normalcy in mid-2021.


Economists (and policymakers) like natural experiments and plenty have been on offer. For the first time in world history, countries went into lockdowns as a deliberate strategy to counter the virus. The strategy emerged from the very place from where the virus first appeared — Wuhan, China. As many countries closed shop, the spread of the virus was arrested, but only temporarily, as it now appears.


A study of the evolution of the virus suggests the following sets of conclusions. First, like Joan Robinson said in another context, for everything that can be said about the virus, the opposite is also true. Lockdowns work — and they don’t. If they worked was the conventional conclusion (and there are many who still believe that lockdowns are “efficient” in controlling infections) then how does one explain the intensity and magnitude of the spread post the lockdown? What ex-ante theory of lockdowns expected/stated/believed that post the lockdown, there would be many cases, let alone that the cases would be far higher than during lockdowns?



But what one can explain is the answer of the faithful. The answer is simple and straightforward — the lockdowns were lifted too early, the infection had not died out, and hence the explosion in cases (and deaths). There will be time to analyse this proposition in some detail — but, for the moment, this defence is as close to circular reasoning as you can get. By this “logic”, if the virus did not re-emerge (as in New Zealand, Taiwan, or Thailand), the timing of lockdown-lift was perfect. If it did re-emerge (as in most of Western Europe and the US — see table), then “obviously” it is the case that the lockdown-lift came too early.


The data does yield (ex-post) some non-nihilist conclusions. There is a common pattern to the success stories. Some of them employed a lockdown — but all the success stories involved a version of the 3-T policy. Testing, Tracing and Treatment. The 3-Ts policy is based on governments ramping up testing capabilities to identify those that are COVID–19 positive and isolating them to prevent the spread of the disease; next, tracing everyone who came in contact with those who had tested positive; testing the contacts; and then treating those that tested positive using different clinical protocols.

 

That lockdown is not a necessary condition for victory is emphatically supported by the fact that more than a 100 countries practised lockdowns at one time or another, and less than a dozen succeeded. But all countries that did succeed also practised ancient wisdom as embedded in the 3-T policy. This fact deserves emphasis. The world has endured many viruses, many contagions. Check your history books — no region/country practised a lockdown prior to 2020. Should one believe, therefore, that all other viruses were less contagious? The US strategy of confronting the 1957-58 flu is discussed in Lockdowns and Closures vs COVID–19: COVID Wins (available at http://ssbhalla.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Lockdowns-Closures-vs.-COVID19-Covid-Wins-Nov-4.pdf) and should be required reading for lockdown and other experts. The US had a version of the common flu much worse than any experienced before, or since. Yet the US authorities, under the able leadership of D A Henderson, faced the flu without lockdowns. What was the strategy employed? The same as that practised with all infectious diseases for centuries — attempt to isolate, and social distance from the patient. In the 1957-58 flu, some schools were closed, others remained open; ditto with workplaces; but emphatically no lockdown. The 3-T is a modern version of the same.


The table reports the data on COVID infections and deaths for several regions of the world (and selected countries). The data are presented for three dates — end-June, end-September, and January 11, 2021. The reader can peruse the comparisons at leisure, but we will discuss the India pattern in September and now. End September was the time when there was great worry; experts and the media were obsessed with India’s bad virus “performance”, and theories were developed as to how India could not do much right. No one (or very few) were predicting what actually transpired. End September, the Indian average (cases per million) was 4,712 — almost identical to the world average (4,486) and the average of Middle East and North Africa (MENA). As of January 11, MENA and the world are close together (12,398 and 12,526), but India is one-third lower.

 

The deaths per million evolution is like cases, but there is a noticeable difference. Deaths are considerably lower in India — only 113 per million versus 271 per million for the world and 274 for MENA. Note the very low value of deaths in sub-Saharan Africa and in East Asia. Two broad conclusions follow, but also need a follow-up. First, poorer countries seem to have been affected less adversely than the richer, more advanced economies. One suggested explanation (possibility) is that poorer countries have had to live longer with diseases (and bad sanitation) and, therefore, have developed some immunity which make them less prone to infections, ceteris paribus. Second, East Asia has a very low incidence of COVID-19, even after excluding China. One possible explanation is that this region has had greater experience with flu (for example, the avian flu).


One additional note about the continuing march towards herd immunity in India. In a paper presented at IRADE in December, we made a forecast of the “end” of COVID in India — we had said 12 million infections and the end sometime in April. Our forecast for India as of today — 10.5 million infections and the end sometime in May-June. Based on the available state-level data, some states in India have already achieved herd immunity while other states are catching up. States like Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand and Goa have seen flattening; others like Karnataka, Maharashtra, are catching up.


One final note: Can we infer from these data that India might be approaching herd immunity, and doing so before vaccines are widely available? The many East Asian economies that have succeeded (for example, Vietnam, Taiwan, Cambodia, Laos, China etc.) did so by controlling infections at an early stage, that is, infections were never large enough to warrant a relationship with herd immunity. Ditto the case with regions in sub-Saharan Africa. Only India stands out with a flattening curve among those that had earlier experienced an explosion of infections. The extraordinary decline of COVID-19 cases (and deaths) in India is an issue, like lockdowns, deserving of a more detailed study.


  Bhalla is Executive Director IMF representing India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Bhasin is a New Delhi based policy researcher. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the IMF, its Executive Board, or IMF management.

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Friday, January 15, 2021

Peace challenge (The Indian Express)

India has been concerned about a process in which it has had no role and that gave Pakistan — which used its influence to deliver the Taliban to the talks table — an upper hand in deciding the outcomes in Kabul.

The two-day visit by National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval to Kabul was the first by a high-ranking Indian official to Afghanistan after talks began at Doha between the Taliban and a delegation of the Afghan Republic. It came days after US President-elect Joe Biden’s victory received Congressional certification and as Washington prepares for the transition. One of the big foreign policy challenges for the incoming Biden Administration is how to take forward the Afghan process under the Trump regime. Piloted by Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, it led to an agreement with the Taliban for the US to withdraw almost all its troops from Afghanistan, with a prayer that the Taliban had changed enough since the last time to work in cooperation with Afghan political parties and other stakeholders for peaceful and democratic governance. The talks between the Taliban and the Kabul delegation are still on, although after the first couple of weeks, the meetings have been put on hold. It is no secret that the government of President Ashraf Ghani has been wary of this process since it began, and the refusal of the Taliban to call a ceasefire and the high levels of violence have not helped allay suspicions in Kabul about its intentions.


India has been concerned about a process in which it has had no role and that gave Pakistan — which used its influence to deliver the Taliban to the talks table — an upper hand in deciding the outcomes in Kabul. The Pakistan security establishment’s cosy relationship with the Taliban and the Haqqani network, and the increasing fungibility of groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Toiba, have raised several security red flags in Delhi. The transition in the US has provided a timely window in which both Kabul and Delhi could signal these concerns to Washington. Kabul is eager to make clear to President-elect Biden that the Taliban must agree to a ceasefire. Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar has sought Delhi’s support for this. A Democratic administration may also be more sensitive to the concerns of other stakeholders in Afghanistan, such as women and rights groups, who have real fears about a return of the Taliban. Earlier this week, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said India might increase “military assistance” to Afghanistan.


It is now more than two years since Afghanistan has had a full-time ambassador in Delhi. It is time for Delhi to rethink the “temporary” closure of the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Herat, apparently due to concerns over COVID and heightened violence.

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Healer in chief (The Indian Express)

 Written by G Balachandran 

 

American society is undergoing tumultuous changes. In the recent presidential election, the nation seemed to be divided. Some 75 million voted for Donald Trump notwithstanding his various illegal acts and incendiary language in characterising those opposed to him. Some seven million more voted for Joe Biden, whose victory has been denied by Trump and his supporters. On January 6, a mob stormed the Capitol in a bid to deny Biden his victory, reminiscent of a similar storming of the Capitol by the British in 1814.


After the assault on the Capitol, there is palpable anger in the US against President Trump. However, recent polls show that while most Americans, including many Trump supporters, reject the attack on the Capitol, millions empathise with the mob. And according to press reports, the FBI has warned about the possibility of armed protests at all 50 state capitols and in Washington, D.C., ahead of Biden’s January 20 inauguration.


Biden has been lukewarm on the issue of impeachment although he has called for Trump’s resignation. Vice President Mike Pence too has been, at best, lukewarm about the application of the 25th amendment. The prospects of Trump being removed from office by noon January 20 are very slim. However on June 20, the Democrats will gain control of the Senate and with a majority in the House of Representatives, the prospects of an impeachment trial in the Senate thereafter are high although a conviction on that trial is again very slim.



Biden’s reluctance to actively support Trump’s impeachment is understandable. His administration will have many immediate problems to attend to — controlling and neutralising the pandemic through an active vaccination programme, passing legislation to give monetary relief to those affected by the pandemic and energising the economy. Plus, there will be the immediate issue of bringing together a strongly divided nation. For Biden, it is important that his administration carry as much of the Senate as also the public with his programmes to restore some semblance of stability not only to American society but to the country’s global standing as well.

 

No doubt, President-elect Biden and Vice-President elect Kamala Harris would have already thought deeply over these matters. Probably dozens of drafts of Biden’s inaugural speech are being constantly revised to incorporate his desire to unify the country. However, it is also undeniable that Biden is not known for his oratory and in addition, the country will be keenly awaiting his first action to translate his desire to unite the country in practice.


Here, there is a parallel in history worth mentioning.


Apartheid in South Africa ended in 1994 after Nelson Mandela won the first election in which Blacks had the right to vote. He assumed the presidency of a country deeply divided with the national party’s F W de Klerk as his first deputy. However, large sections of Blacks, who had been dominated politically, socially and economically for decades clamoured for revenge. The statesman that Mandela was, he understood the implications. A rainbow nation, he realised, was the only way forward to ensure prosperity in South Africa.


In 1995, South Africa hosted the World Rugby Cup for the first time. Rugby was a game that was played predominantly by the whites. When Mandela learnt that South Africa would be hosting the World Cup, he came up with a brilliant idea, not fully shared by his colleagues, to use rugby to unite the country. (It was the subject of a book Playing the Enemy and a movie, Invictus). When the Springboks won the finals against New Zealand, wearing the Springboks colours and green cap, Mandela surprised the team before the game by visiting them in their locker room and later beaming as he presented the captain with the trophy in the big stadium filled to its capacity. It went a long way towards the realisation of his dream of uniting the country. It was an act of spontaneity, unrehearsed and unanticipated that broke the barrier between the whites and the Blacks to some extent.


Can Biden, who is known to act spontaneously and generously in his dealings with individuals, do a similar thing to bridge the gap between the Democrats and the moderate Republicans? Something that will psychologically assure them that he is sincere in his belief and efforts to unite the country.


President Trump has indicated that he will not attend the inauguration of the Biden presidency in a sharp break with tradition. Also traditionally on the inauguration day, before the ceremony, the outgoing President with his wife invite the incoming President and the Vice President and their spouses for tea. The event is also attended by the outgoing Vice President and his/her spouse. After that, the outgoing President accompanies the incoming President for the inauguration ceremony. That will not happen this year.

 

But the fact that the outgoing President is breaking time honoured tradition and convention need not preclude the incoming President from establishing a new convention that will go some way towards restoring the traditional working relationship with the Republican legislators and moderate Republicans who do not owe personal loyalty to Trump.


While there has been no precedent, there is nothing to prevent Vice President Pence from inviting incoming President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with their spouses for tea, and then accompanying incoming President Biden for the inauguration. It will be a significant gesture on the part of both Vice President Pence and incoming President Biden, not allowing protocol to stand in the way of healing American society’s wounds.


How such an outcome can come about and who will be the catalyst to bring this about is for the American public to decide.


A foreign well-wisher of the US and its ideals and principles can only offer suggestions.

 The writer was previously with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Delhi.

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Pressure points (The Indian Express)

Pressure pointsThe RBI has carried out a series of tests to gauge the extent of stress in banks’ balance sheets under various economic situations.

Even though the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) expects economic activity to recover to last year’s levels in the second half of the current financial year, and growth to pick up in the first half of next year, its latest financial stability report lays out in no uncertain terms the formidable challenges facing the banking system as it deals with the fallout of the pandemic. Even though gross non-performing assets (GNPAs) have been on a decline, and banks had built relatively sound capital buffers, the problem, in part, is that the true extent of the bad loans in the system is unknown due to the regulatory forbearance provided to cushion the blow of the pandemic. But with the withdrawal of these regulatory relief measures, the underlying stress in the system will surface. And as RBI governor Shaktikanta Das notes, banks are likely to witness “balance sheet impairments” and “capital shortfalls”. This is a grim prognosis.

The RBI has carried out a series of tests to gauge the extent of stress in banks’ balance sheets under various economic situations. In its baseline scenario, banks’ bad loans could rise to 13.5 per cent by September 2021, up from 7.5 per cent at the end of September 2020. In case the economic situation worsens, bad loans could rise even further to 14.8 per cent. One indication of the build up in stress is already evident: Large borrowers in the SMA-0 category (loans which are overdue for 1-30 days) have grown by a staggering 245.6 per cent over March 2020, signalling possible slippages in the coming quarters.

There may be a desire to kick the can down the road — to relax the NPA recognition norms and mask the true extent of the bad loans. That would be a mistake. Addressing the balance sheet stress in the economy requires focusing on what the Economic Survey has called the 4 Rs — recognition of bad loans, recapitalisation of banks, resolution for stressed firms and reforms to alter the incentive structures. However, considering that trillions spent on bank recapitalisation have not yielded justifiable returns, and the opportunity costs of such large allocations, especially for a cash strapped government, there are legitimate questions to be asked over the recapitalisation of public sector banks by the government. Questions must also be asked about whether outright privatisation is even possible or is shifting to a structure like the Bank Investment Company more appropriate. The government needs to think through the various alternatives, and clearly articulate its vision for the banking sector in the upcoming budget.

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Thursday, January 14, 2021

Price signals (The Indian Express)

With headline retail inflation having stayed above the upper limit of the monetary policy committee’s (MPC) inflation targeting framework for most of last year, the sharper-than-expected fall in inflation in December comes as a relief. Retail inflation, as measured by the consumer price index moderated to 4.6 per cent in December, down from 6.93 per cent in November. Inflation in December was, in fact, the lowest in the last 14 months. As a consequence, retail inflation has averaged 6.4 per cent in the third quarter of the current financial year, lower than the RBI’s forecast of 6.8 per cent. With trends in prices so far indicating continuing moderation in inflation in January as well, the RBI’s forecast for inflation in the fourth quarter, currently at 5.8 per cent, is also likely to be revised downwards. This will provide much comfort to the MPC members, allowing them to continue with their accommodative stance till there is greater clarity over the durability of the economic recovery.


Much of the decline in headline inflation in December stemmed from a fall in food prices. As per the data from the National Statistical Office, consumer food price inflation eased greatly to 3.41 per cent in December, down from 9.5 per cent the month before, led largely by easing of vegetables prices. Vegetable prices inflation declined by 10.41 per cent in December, after rising by 15.6 per cent in the previous month. Food inflation also benefited from relatively muted price pressures in cereals and the protein basket (egg, fish and meat). And with current mandi prices also indicating a continuation of the trend in vegetable prices in January, overall inflation is likely to remain soft next month as well. However, price pressures do appear to be building up in other food categories. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Food Price Index also suggests the same. The index, which reflects international prices of a basket of commodities, averaged 107.5 points in December — the highest since November 2014. Additionally, the spread of bird flu could lead to demand-supply mismatches, injecting a degree of volatility in meat and egg prices.


Core inflation (inflation excluding food and fuel) eased marginally in December. However, it continues to remain sticky, and is unlikely to moderate greatly. It is possible that as household demand recovers to pre-COVID levels — a smooth rollout of the COVID vaccine will provide a fillip to demand, especially for high-contact services — inflation in services might see an uptick in the coming months. Add to that rising input costs, and a return of pricing power, core inflation may well remain high in the coming months.

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

An abiding inspiration (The Indian Express)

Written by Prahlad Singh Patel  

Swami Vivekananda is the inspiration behind National Youth Day. In just 39 years, 14 of which were in public life, he filled the country with a thought whose energy is still felt today. Generations to come will continue to feel this energy.


One of India’s most important resources is the youth. Every fifth young person in the world is an Indian. It is due to this segment of the population that India’s growth rate has been the third-highest among the 13 major economies in the last five years. After the COVID-19 pandemic, India has emerged as a country that is full of possibilities in the race for development. Those among the youth who are associated with Swami Vivekananda’s ideas are preparing India for a leadership role on the world stage.


“Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached.” This mantra of Vivekananda’s is as effective, relevant and inspiring today as it was in the days of colonialism. Now, India is ready to be a global leader. With the power of yoga and the energy that comes from spirituality, the youth of the country are impatient about giving direction to the world.



Swami Vivekananda’s lessons still inspire the youth: “Make a life’s aim and incorporate that idea into your life…. Think that thought over and over again. Dream it, Live it… that is the secret to being successful.”


His mantra for the youth is evergreen: “Until you can trust yourself, you cannot trust Allah or God.” If we are not able to see God in other humans and ourselves, then where can we go to find divinity?


Vivekananda caught the world’s attention with his ideas when he represented Sanatan Dharma in Chicago in 1893. A speech like the one he made then could not be made today. The themes in that speech included “Vishwabandhutva”, tolerance, cooperativeness, participation, religion, culture, nation, nationalism and the collective India-Indianness.


At the Parliament of World religions, Vivekananda said he is “from that Hindustan, which gives shelter to persecuted people from all religions and countries”. He also said that Sanatan Dharma is the mother of all religions. He was also proud that the land of India and the Sanatani religion had taught the world the lesson of tolerance and universal acceptance. It is the nature of the Indian soil to accept all religions as true. We were the first laboratory and protector of secularism.


He addressed the Parliament of World Religions as: “American brothers and sisters”. The eternal message of universal brotherhood was clear in his speech. The New York Herald wrote: “Hearing him (Swami Vivekananda) seems that sending a Christian missionary to a knowledgeable nation like India is foolish. Even if he only passes through the stage, the applause starts.”


Swami Vivekananda took forward the efforts made by other thinkers to reach the roots of Indian culture. This thinking makes him acceptable worldwide and establishes him as the spokesperson of Sanatan Dharma, a symbol of Hindustan and Hindustani culture. His inclusive thinking is reflected in the Narendra Modi government’s slogan “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”.


Swami Vivekananda taught the world that it is our duty to encourage all those doing good so that they can make their dreams come true.


His vision also gave rise to the idea of Antyodaya. Until the upliftment of the last poor person in the country is ensured, development is meaningless, he said.


Swami Vivekananda’s belief about God is tied to every religion. His idea of charity is at the root of Sanatan Dharma. Charity was a way of life for him. For Vivekananda it was important to connect everyone with this way of life. He said, “The more we come to help and help others, the more pure our heart becomes. Such people are like God.”


Swami Vivekananda combined thinking of different religions, communities and traditions. His thoughts inspire liberation from inertia. This is the reason Swami Vivekananda has no opponent in this country. Everyone bows to his ideas. In the 19th century, the spokesperson of Sanatani religion, who was called the “Cyclonic Hindu” due to his views, is still standing firmly on the world stage with his positive thinking. His ideas remain fresh and relevant.

 

  The writer is Minister of State (Independent Charge) of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism


Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Out of court (The Indian Express)

Out of courtForty-eight days of protest and eight rounds of Centre-farmers talks later, the Supreme Court has stepped in, and with all due respect, has overstepped the line.

Forty-eight days of protest and eight rounds of Centre-farmers talks later, the Supreme Court has stepped in, and with all due respect, has overstepped the line. It has taken into its hands a political problem that was, that still is, the government’s to negotiate and resolve. The apex court’s interim order on Tuesday — staying implementation of the Centre’s farm laws, and setting up an expert committee that will ostensibly listen to grievances of protesting farmers and views of government and frame recommendations — may be well-intentioned. But it sets a dubious precedent. One, by pronouncing not on the constitutionality of the law, but on its setting and specifically the protests against it, the court is encroaching into territory beyond its remit. Two, it is showing a clear double standard. Over the past few years, the SC has shown a marked lack of urgency and, in fact, distressing inattention to cases that have involved important constitutional questions and lined up at its door. Be it the constitutionality of electoral bonds or of the discriminatory amendments to the citizenship act, the court has kicked the can down the road. In many cases, by delaying and by turning away, it has allowed a fait accompli, created a new fact on the ground, and in effect, wrought a denial of justice. Now, its alacrity in taking into its own hands the ongoing impasse between government and farmers on the three farm laws, and its enthusiasm in playing arbiter, therefore, raises questions.


The confrontation over the Centre’s farm laws is about more than just the laws. There is distrust between the farmers and the government, which began with the latter’s bid to push through the legislation amid a pandemic and an economic downturn without any consultation in or outside Parliament. That distrust has only deepened and flared because of the government’s subsequent attempts to talk down to the protesters and to call them names. Indeed, the Attorney General told the court Tuesday that Khalistanis have infiltrated the protests — days after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, no less, said it was wrong to question the farmers’ commitment to the nation. If the government’s reform was seen to be arrogant and top-down, the court’s efforts lend themselves to being viewed as presumptuous and opaque. What were the criteria for selection of experts on the committee it has set up? What happens after this committee submits a report, within two months from the date of its first sitting 10 days from now? Why should farmers who are demanding a respectful hearing as they huddle at Delhi’s borders in the winter chill repose more trust in a remote committee of experts, than in a government that is, at the end of the day, accountable to them?


The court is also setting itself up for a fall. At the end of this stay on the laws, that isn’t really a stay on the laws themselves but only on their implementation, its own authority will be on the line if protesting farmers reject its committee. In a time when institutions seem fragile, and lines between them are blurring disturbingly, the court’s order on the farm laws seems to lead to another dead-end.


Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Message from Sydney (The Indian Express)

Slow and beautifulFor nearly 30 overs, the two Indian players, R Ashwin and Hanuma Vihari, doused Australian passions with a dead bat, ball after ball.

The few steps that India’s Test debutant, Mohammed Siraj, took towards his team at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Sunday might have helped cricket take a giant leap. Fielding on the boundary line and at the receiving end of words that he and teammate Jasprit Bumrah had reported as offensive the previous day, Siraj refused to turn a deaf ear to any more of the intimidating background noise from an unruly section of the crowd. He ran in from the fence and reported his annoyance to the team leadership, which was ready to put its foot down and stop play. The moment of reckoning for racist behaviour in cricket had arrived, and Australia which for long has blurred lines between banter and abuse, were forced to respond unequivocally and firmly.


A line has been drawn, a precedent has been set. With Cricket Australia and match referee David Boon playing a proactive role in locating the miscreants and taking prompt action, cricket suddenly has an SOP in place to deal with an unsporting situation in the stands. It is now expected that from Gabba to Wankhede and Johannesburg to Trent Bridge, players will duly report all such offensive slurs thrown at them to match officials, who will be expected to do what’s needed. This should also trigger other major changes. With increased awareness sweeping the cricketing universe, it will not be too much to expect players and their on-field banter to not dabble in racist insults either. Match officials and the board should also enforce muting of their players’ free flowing unparliamentary language which targets opponents. It must no longer be passed off as passions running high.


What happened on the field in Sydney 2021 stands in total contrast with the unsavoury events of Sydney 2008, when Indian off-spinner Harbhajan Singh got away lightly for what he said to Aussie all-rounder Andrew Symonds, after mounting an incredulous defence. It had escaped no one’s notice that racist chants and mocking had erupted in the Wankhede stands against Symonds earlier, and that Indian cricket fans are anything but saintly when in their flow. The same protocols to protect visiting players should now apply on Indian grounds and with local fans. If you can’t hold your tongue, go home and watch the game on television, is the clear message from Sydney.


Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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A field of solidarity and protest (The Indian Express)

Written by Anita Tagore

The farmers’ protest at the Singhu border has become the signpost for reclaiming democratic spaces in India. Multiple day-long visits to Singhu by this writer revealed the emotive tenor at the protest site and its substantial influence on the public mood of the nation. The new non-porous borders for citizens might have restricted mobility but they also illustrate the emancipatory potential of social solidarities among citizens. Such social solidarities promoted functionality of basic institutions. The democratic dilemmas of a nation-state are out in the open for introspection.

The farmers protest against the contentious farm laws is a watershed in the political history of India. By defying the majoritarian consent on legislation, the farmers’ have bared the inherent fallacies of the authoritarian spin. What lies behind the trajectory of their opposition are the states of powerlessness, practices of disempowerment, and processes by which people and communities struggle for control over their lives and environments. The corollary narrative is of robust interdependencies and collective action surpassing parochial group aspirations. The support extended to the farmers’ protest by citizens’ groups has expanded the limits of the movement. It has reinforced the logic of delegitimising majoritarian egoism and arrogance that underlines the state intent to discipline and punish dissenters.

The continuing challenge of the farmers has dented the claims in favour of the laws and showcased how democratic recoiling can restructure agitational politics. The escalation in everyday numbers of farmers joining the protest from various corners of the country shows clarity about the farm laws and their possible impact on the lives of farmers. The agreement between 30-odd farmer leaders of different organisations to collectively march forward with their singular demand of repealing the act and no less has enthused ordinary farmers to stay put at the Delhi borders, even braving state-induced violence and the bone-chilling winter cold. The death of 60 farmers at the protest site has eroded claims of humane governance that the incumbent government so eagerly portrays for global honour.

The intersectional axes of solidarities cutting across gender, class and caste is reshaping the transactional dynamics of the movement. Communal eating through networks of community kitchens and langars has overshadowed caste boundaries. Langars, an integral part of Sikh tradition, have not only seen international camaraderie with generous contribution from NRIs but also support from across India. The pizza langar organised by some Samaritans saw the outpouring of love and gratitude to annadatas who feed the nation. The free makeshift gym, availability of nutritional supplements, tattoo parlours have emerged as arenas of non-institutional civic engagement for the youth at the protest sites. Hookah smoking at various places have been zones of unfettered debates and communication that sharpen the sense of belongingness among the old and the young farmers. The stage at the centre of the protest site has been witness to both political and cultural exposition of ideas about farmers’ history as it was in the past and as it unfolds itself in the present. 

Revolutionary poetry, radical posters, uninterrupted announcements via mikes and evocation of religious sentiments by Sikh gurus have boosted the morale of the farmers. Remarkable is the zeal among farmers camping in their tractor-trolleys to abide by the concerted decision by their leaders. There is an exceptional consciousness that binds each one of them to their collective goal for welfare and outright rejection of capitalist intervention in farming. A general will of the masses is being manufactured routinely to consolidate public opinion among farmers. Regular press conferences by farmer leaders have acted as a conduit for dissemination of broader strategies for mediation. Young Turks among them use social media platforms to popularise their ideas about the laws that in the long run will precipitate an agrarian crisis.

The expansion of the public sphere to include the marginalised is the flagship signifier of this movement. The march of thousands of farmers in their trolleys with adequate rations for sustaining themselves, the organisational dynamics of rotational participation from each farming village and the plan for collective action for negotiations with the government have confirmed that an indomitable subaltern voice that cannot be stifled.


The writer is assistant professor, Kalindi College, University of Delhi


Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Leader with a difference (The Indian Express)

Forty-eight days of protest and eight rounds of Centre-farmers talks later, the Supreme Court has stepped in, and with all due respect, has overstepped the line.

Madhavsinh Solanki, the four-time Gujarat chief minister who passed away aged 93 on Saturday, was a politician and a man of ideas. The social coalition he invented in the 1970s — KHAM — allowed the Congress to regain the ground it had lost during the Navnirman Movement and win consecutive elections in 1980 and 1985, with a record number of seats. The KHAM alliance included the Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim communities, which constituted over 50 per cent of the state’s population. As CM, Solanki backed this coalition by introducing reservations for OBCs in education and employment. However, it triggered a backlash from the upper castes, who had until then operated the levers of power in Gujarat. Though Solanki returned to office with a larger majority in 1985, he had to resign following anti-reservation riots that acquired a communal turn. The Congress could neither consolidate the social coalition Solanki had forged or translate the goodwill among the OBCs, tribals etc. into a lasting electoral base. In fact, his leaving state politics to become a Rajya Sabha member and the External Affairs Minister in P V Narasimha Rao’s cabinet allowed the BJP to grow in Gujarat — of course, on the back of the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement.


Schooled in M N Roy’s Radical Humanism and influenced by peasant leader Indulal Yagnik, Solanki stood apart from his Congress contemporaries. As CM, he introduced mid-day meals in schools and made education free for girls. For him, KHAM was not just an electoral tactic but the extension of a social vision that promised the fruits of democracy and electoral office to a wide section of the society. He is credited with shaping the Congress response to the Mandal Commission after the VP Singh government announced its implementation in 1990 — the party backed OBC reservations at the Centre but argued for the exclusion of the creamy layer among the beneficiary communities from Mandal’s remit.


Solanki’s political career ended following an act of impropriety undertaken, allegedly on the orders of his party, in the Bofors case while he was a Union minister. Forced to quit office, he retired from active politics and retreated to his home and library.


Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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A big test (The Indian Express)

Out of courtForty-eight days of protest and eight rounds of Centre-farmers talks later, the Supreme Court has stepped in, and with all due respect, has overstepped the line.

India’s vaccination drive against COVID-19, targeting 3 crore healthcare personnel and frontline workers, will commence from January 16. Coordination systems between 20 ministries are reportedly being put in place and the government has framed a set of guidelines for the rollout that deal with logistics, human resources and monitoring systems to report adverse events. Dry runs have been conducted in more than 700 districts to acquaint the administrative agencies and vaccinators with some of the challenges that lie ahead. These exercises have shone a light on the gaps that must be plugged before the first shots are administered.

Digital systems have a key role in the vaccination plan. Nearly 80 lakh beneficiaries in the first priority list have reportedly registered on the Centre’s COVID Vaccine Intelligence Network (Co-WIN) system — “a digitalised platform to track the enlisted beneficiaries for vaccination on a real-time basis”. The challenge now is to make the manual interventions to this platform foolproof and user-friendly for ASHA and other healthcare workers involved in the last-mile delivery of the vaccine. Care must also be taken to obviate server malfunctioning that has been a longstanding bane of IT-enabled services in the country. There have been reports of the Co-Win app not performing as per plans during the mock drills — officials in several parts of the country have complained that the platform did not show the names of all the targeted beneficiaries. Also, last week, this paper reported that codes of some villages in Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat and Assam were not mapped on the Co-Win platform. Experts have rightly warned that such snags could prevent intended beneficiaries from keeping their date with the vaccine, and even more worryingly, erode trust in the inoculation process. The Union Ministries of Health and Information Technology are reportedly collaborating on bolstering the IT infrastructure and have sought inputs from private players.


The government plans to administer the vaccine to 30 crore people in the first two phases of the inoculation drive. According to current plans, each person will be administered two doses of a vaccine. In other words, 60 crore shots will be administered in the next six to eight months. Nearly one lakh vaccinators will be involved in the process. The dry runs have bared the inadequacies, especially in reporting adverse events. Healthcare officials have also expressed apprehensions that such a large-scale project, involving conversion of PHCs into vaccination points, could result in the disruption of regular health services, including routine immunisation programmes and institutional deliveries — already there are concerns that the country’s TB control programme has suffered a setback because of resources being diverted for COVID-19 control. The coming months could be exacting for the country’s healthcare system. How it steps up to the demands of the moment will be watched.


Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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Monday, January 11, 2021

India’s new deal moment (The Indian Express)

Written by Sajjid Z. Chinoy  

A worker unloads sacks of grain at a store in Chandni Chowk market in New Delhi, India, on Sunday, Feb. 2, 2020. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's second budget in seven months disappointed investors who were hoping for big-bang stimulus to revive growth in Asia’s third-largest economy.  

India’s economic recovery is being characterised by three distinct forces that need to be disentangled. First, India has broken the link between virus proliferation and mobility earlier and more successfully than many countries. Rising mobility and normalising economic activity, rather than sparking another wave of infections, have coincided with COVID cases falling by 80 per cent since September. India’s cumulative death toll per million is now less than half the emerging market average, and an order of magnitude below developed economies. Consequently, the progressive return towards pre-COVID activity levels has occurred much sooner than expected. Activity jumped back up to 95 per cent of pre-COVID levels by October, and has been inching up since. This is being complemented by the much-awaited pick-up in central government spending, which surged in November and is expected to remain strong for the rest of the year. These dynamics should reduce the full-year growth contraction to 6.5 per cent, less than the NSO’s advance estimate of 7.7 per cent and much less than previously feared.


These are very hopeful developments but, juxtaposed with a stronger-than-expected recovery, is confirmation of labour market scarring. CMIE’s labour market survey still reveals 18 million fewer employed (about 5 per cent of the total employed) compared to pre-pandemic levels. The employment rate gradually improved till September but has weakened since then, even as the economy has progressively opened up. This also shows up in the PMI surveys where employment is lagging activity, and in demand for MGNREGA jobs which are still 50 per cent higher than the previous year. These labour market pressures increase risks of medium-term economic scarring, and are not incompatible with a sharper near-term rebound because the recovery appears to be led by capital and profits, not labour and wages. Even within labour, blue-collar workers are likely to have been disproportionately impacted vis-à-vis their white-collar counterparts.


A third phenomenon is large firms have endured the crisis better and are gaining market share at the expense of smaller firms. To the extent there is a migration of activity from the informal/SME firms to larger firms, tax collections and Sensex/Nifty earnings should get a boost, even holding the economic pie constant. It’s, therefore, important to interpret the data carefully because some variables will reflect this substitution effect as much as the pace of the recovery. Greater scale and formalisation undoubtedly augur well for medium-term productivity but could increase near-term labour market frictions and boost pricing power.


All this, therefore, increases prospects of a K-shaped recovery from COVID, a phenomenon playing out globally. Households at the top of the pyramid are likely to have seen their incomes largely protected, and savings rates forced up during the lockdown, increasing “fuel in the tank” to drive future consumption. Meanwhile, households at the bottom are likely to have witnessed permanent hits to jobs and incomes. These cleavages are already visible. Passenger vehicle registrations (proxying upper-end consumption) have grown about 4 per cent since October while two-wheelers have contracted 15 per cent.


What are the macro implications of a K-shaped recovery? With the top 10 per cent of India’s households responsible for 25-30 per cent of total consumption, one could argue consumption would get a boost as this pent-up demand expresses itself. But it’s important not to conflate stocks with flows, and levels with changes. Upper-income households have benefitted from higher savings for two quarters. What we are currently witnessing is a sugar rush from those savings being spent. This is, however, a one-time effect. To the extent that households at the bottom have experienced a permanent loss of income in the forms of jobs and wage cuts, this will be a recurring drag on demand, if the labour market does not heal faster.


Second, to the extent that COVID has triggered an effective income transfer from the poor to the rich, this will be demand-impeding in the steady state, because the marginal propensity to consume at the bottom is higher than that at the top, just as the marginal propensity to import at the top is higher than at the bottom.


Third, if COVID-19 reduces competition or increases the inequality of incomes and opportunities, it could impinge on trend growth in developing economies by hurting productivity and tightening political economy constraints.


Also in Explained |ExplainSpeaking: Will Budget 2021-22 slay India’s ‘five giants’?

Policy will, therefore, need to look beyond the next few quarters and anticipate the state of the macro economy post the sugar rush. The key, of course, is whether the private sector starts re-investing and re-hiring, and thereby sets the economy onto a more virtuous path. Barring that, the labour-market hysteresis could sustain. With manufacturing utilisation rates below 70 per cent pre-COVID, an investment revival, in turn, will depend crucially on the demand dynamics. Exports should benefit from strengthening global growth as the world gets progressively vaccinated and the Georgia-induced blue wave results in more US fiscal stimulus. But will this be enough to stoke a private investment revival? Or will firms look through the next few quarters and remain cautious given the still elevated uncertainty?


It’s against this backdrop that the upcoming budget presents India with its New Deal moment. An unprecedented infrastructure push under the New Deal in 1935 created millions of jobs and regenerated regional economic development in the US. India must seek inspiration from this. Given the prevailing demand uncertainties, the budget represents an opportune moment for the Centre, in conjunction with the states, to embark on a large physical and social (health and education) infrastructure push. The benefits are self-evident. This will simultaneously boost near-term aggregate demand, crowd in private investment, create jobs to soak up the unemployed, and improve the economy’s external competitiveness. Job creation, health and education, in turn, will be a start to help mitigate COVID-induced inequalities.


The question is: How will this be financed? With the consolidated fiscal deficit projected above 11 per cent of GDP, gradual near-term consolidation coupled with a credible medium-term fiscal plan will be key to anchoring the bond market and underscoring an adherence to macro stability. How then can public investment increase meaningfully if the headline deficit must come down? Only if the public investment push is financed by aggressive asset sales (strategic sales, disinvestment, land and infrastructure monetisation). In this manner, expenditure to GDP can actually rise next year — generating an expansionary fiscal impulse to the economy — while automatic stabilisers (a normalisation of tax revenues next year) are used to reduce the headline fiscal deficit.


India’s faster-than-expected rebound is very encouraging. But given labour market pressures and prospects of a K-shaped recovery around the world, the economy will need to be carefully nurtured and stoked. The budget presents a crucial opportunity to make a big down payment towards this end.


  The writer is Chief India Economist at JP Morgan.


Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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The Savarna Gaze (The Indian Express)

Written by Rehnamol Raveendran  

The poster of Richa Chadha’s upcoming movie, Madam Chief Minister, stands out for its crudity in a world of political correctness. The movie apparently narrates the story of an “untouchable” woman, who becomes the chief minister of a state. The filmmakers decided to communicate their theme of a Dalit woman’s success in the poster by depicting the protagonist holding a broom with the tagline “untouchable, unstoppable”. The poster has aroused the indignation of many for amplifying a stereotypical portrayal of Dalit identity.


The cognitive structures of upper-caste filmmakers, unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, seem unable to think beyond a broom as a fundamental symbol of Dalit identity. The usage of the word “untouchable” in the poster hints not only at the moral bankruptcy of the overrepresented upper-caste folk in the show business but reveals the marketing strategy as one that sells dehumanising words for profit.


The poster has only vindicated the premise of Rajesh Rajamani’s The Discreet Charm of Savarnas, a satire on upper-caste prejudices against Dalits. In the short film, the characters embark on a desperate search for an actor who “looks like a Dalit” and, thus, fits into their imagination of a “Dalit”. Rajamani’s film calls out the deep-rooted, often normalised, caste prejudices and stereotypical attitudes against marginalised communities. By reducing Dalit identity to a broom, the makers of Madam Chief Minister prove Rajamani right.

 

In contrast, mainstream filmmakers represent upper-caste protagonists bereft of any caste prejudices and stereotypes, and as figures with authority and agency. That’s not a coincidence. It is because caste consciousness conspicuously shapes the imagination. Case in point: The Brahmin hero of the movie Article 15. Similarly, the poster of a biopic on former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, Thalaivi, depicts the subject of the biopic with respect and authority.


The Dalit imagination of their own identity, undoubtedly, is different from how the upper castes perceive them. They seek their identities in the portrayal of gallantry, virtuousness, and sacrifices of Dalit leaders and assertive symbols of resistance. Badri Narayan’s 2006 book, Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India, Culture, Identity and Politics, explored how Mayawati’s image as a Dalit leader was built up by identifying her with a long line of historical women figures known for their valour, like Jhalkaribai, Udadevi, Mahaviridevi, Avantibai Lodhi and Pannadhai.


In any of the Dalit imaginations, Udadevi and Jhalkaribai can never be seen with a broom nor can the valour of the Battle of Koregaon be undermined by untouchability imposed on Mahars. The portrayal of a Dalit character in Pa Ranjith’s Kaala displays the intrepidity of the hero. In films such as Ranjith’s Pariyerum Perumal and Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat, both stories of Dalit-savarna love, you will never find Dalits depicted with degrading symbols.


More importantly, the upper-caste imagination appears to promote a culture of gaslighting Dalit voices. It is unfortunate that Chadha dismissed the criticism against the casteist poster as “cancel culture”. Instead of defending the stereotypical portrayal of a hitherto marginalised community and gaslighting the voices of criticism, the actor and others associated with the movie must commit to a genuine introspection.


The content of the poster can’t be insulated from criticism citing the transformative content of the movie. The Discreet Charm of Savarnas could serve as a reference for all those who venture into creative spaces, to unlearn their preconceived notions. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination should be mandatory reading for filmmakers.


 The writer taught political science at Delhi University


Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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America’s broken democracy (The Indian Express)

Written by Peter Ronald DeSouza

The mobs storming the hallowed precincts of American democracy, on January 6, were not an exceptional lapse but were, in fact, a symptom of a sick democracy. 

One is tempted to see the bizarre rioting in the US Capitol by thousands of Donald Trump supporters seeking to stall President-elect Joe Biden’s certification by Congress as a one-off event, a unique descent into madness by an essentially robust democracy. Such a reading is fundamentally wrong. The mobs storming the hallowed precincts of American democracy, on January 6, were not an exceptional lapse but were, in fact, a symptom of a sick democracy. American democracy is critically ill. It suffers from five disorders.

The first malady, and perhaps the one most difficult to treat, is the breakdown in the culture of bipartisanship that was so intrinsic to American politics. It kept the system working. Difference and consensus, intense competition and compromise, all produced a political pragmatism that was at the heart of American democracy. This has now been abandoned. The speeches delivered by Republican senators on the floor of the house, minutes after the assault on the Capitol, were hostile and unyielding. Instead of closing ranks and accepting the logic of defeat, of embracing the national interest which their leader Mitch McConnell had earlier in the day articulated, a large number of Republican Congressmen chose to pander to the President’s narcissistic delusion of a stolen election. Partisan interest got morphed with the national interest. For them, the enemy was the Democratic party and not the mobs, the electoral system and not the hooligans who were undermining it. Bipartisanship in America is dead, killed by an ideological chauvinism that sees competitors as the enemy within. This is a mindset that is difficult to treat. It is built on a psychology of hate that resides deep in the soul of its proponents. It is incapable of compromise and challenging to cure.


The second malady feeding the first, and perhaps dependent on it, is the rise of the plebiscitary leader. The more appropriate term is to see Trump not as a populist leader but as a plebiscitary one. A plebiscitary leader speaks directly to his followers over the heads of institutions that are supposed to constrain him but have, as shown, little power to do so. A relationship of devotion develops between the leader and followers that is unmediated by the institution’s tempering logic. The leader provides the followers with meaning, with a view of the world that speaks to their anxieties and insecurities. This is essentially Max Weber’s thesis on the charismatic personality. Trump fits it to a T. He built his constituency with phrases and slogans such as “make America great again”, “drain the swamp”, “lock her up”, “stop the steal”, that created a partisan constituency both in the street and within the elected chambers. It was willing to walk with him to the ends of the earth. Social media aided the process of partisan constituency formation. It exaggerated the feeling of grievance and promised that the leader would address the problem. Trump was playing for a “winner takes all” stake since defeat is for losers. In such a politics, institutions get enfeebled, democratic conventions get ignored, and the locus of power shifts from the office to the political leader. Officials, seen as Wilhelm Reich’s “little men”, develop an attitude of complicity with the leader. In Trump’s America, the little men have come to the centre of government.

The third political illness, which thrives in tandem with the above two, is the debilitation of institutions. Institutions are the life and soul of a democracy. They check the excesses of power, socialise elected representatives into the do’s and don’ts of democratic politics. They embody the rules and conventions that maintain the balance between private and public interests. Trump tore into these checks and balances. When his chiefs of staff, and several of his secretaries opposed his views, he just replaced them. When the mainstream media, such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post, wrote about his transgressions, he mocked them describing them as purveyors of “fake news”. In his drive to dominate institutions, Attorney General William Barr became his bulldog. The leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, became his praetorian guard and Lindsey Graham his dancing cheerleader. Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who accompanied Trump for a photo-op to a church in Washington, after it had been forcibly cleared of protesters, apologised for this compromise.


One has, over the last four years, watched with horror and disbelief as the custodians of America’s democratic institutions succumbed to the narcissism of their plebiscitary leader. Even small conventions, although symbolically significant, that established the principle of conflict of interest were cast aside by Trump when he appointed family members to high office and refused to release his income tax returns as had been the convention with previous presidents. Trump took a sledgehammer to institutions. They were unable to corral him. He exposed the fragility of their checks and balances. Biden will have to work hard to repair them.


The fourth malaise is the elite capture of not just institutions but of the political discourse. Much has been written about elite capture of institutions, so let me dwell here on the capture of discourse. Gaetano Mosca, the Italian theorist of elites, referred to it as “political formulas”. These are arguments and explanations used by elites to get those over whom they rule to accept their ideas and arguments. Political formulas give legitimacy to elite rule. American democracy today is a textbook illustration of how the political formula of neo-liberalism has been used by capitalist elites to not just accumulate wealth but to make the non-elite feel that such accumulation is in the public interest. From the World Economic Forum to the humble corridors of Niti Aayog, the “political formulas” of neo-liberalism economics rule. As Jean Paul Satre would have said, Davos speaks and Niti Aayog provides the echo. Trump is neo-liberalism’s loudest spokesperson.

 

The above maladies have gained a life, and become possible, because of the fifth malaise in American society — its increasing inequality. It provides the soil for Trumpian mobilisation. This increasing inequality of American capitalism needed a spokesman and a cover, to convert a lie into a truth. Trump provided both. He changed the vocabulary of politics, making it respectable to mock, deride, denounce and heap scorn on one’s political adversaries. Attention had to be distracted from the real challenge of increasing equality. Trump made vigilante politics, especially of the White supremacist variety, a legitimate aspect of American politics. It is worrisome that his model of politics is now available for other plebiscitary leaders. With his politics of hate, in this climate of inequality, it is little wonder that the master of vituperative social media posts brought the Capitol under siege. To heal itself, American democracy will need more than just the replacing of Trump with Biden. It will need to examine why a narcissistic leader, with plebiscitary power, was able to expose the fragility of its institutions and push them to the brink.

  The writer is D D Kosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University. He has just published with Rukmini Bhaya Nair a book titled Keywords for India. Views expressed are personal

Courtesy - The Indian Express.

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