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-Rajeev Kumar (Editor-in-chief)

Showing posts with label The Times of India. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Times of India. Show all posts

Monday, March 22, 2021

Royalty Blues? (TOI)

Santosh Desai

Last week we were witness to yet another episode of the ongoing saga of the British royal family. The estranged royal couple spoke to the fount of American compassion, Oprah Winfrey and as expected the interview went viral. It was a story that struck a chord- of an outsider being discriminated against, not only on grounds of her alienness, but also because of her colour. Large parts of the world reacted in sympathy, and railed at an institution that was so threatened by the independent-mindedness of a young outsider.

The bigger question however is that why should so many people care about an institution that is as dated as the sola topee? Why should we care about two young people whose big grouse is that they don’t get to be looked after by taxpayer’s money or that their child does not get a title? In a world that hunts down privilege and puts it to a swift death, why should be a blatantly entitled (in the literal sense) young couple get so much of our attention and sympathy? And why should the institution as a whole matter so much?

And while the racist slur allegedly faced by Meghan Markle should not be faced by anyone, is that really the worst instance of racism that the world has seen? And the discrimination that they faced, can it really compare with the appalling conditions faced by so many marginalised people across the world? Without invalidating Meghan Markle’s experience, surely, we can ask as to whether this is what we should be outraging about?

Clearly something else is at work. We are fascinated by royalty precisely because it is an archaic institution. It is like a crumbling magnificent old structure that paints a romantic picture of a bygone era, and which enthrals us simply because it is so far removed from any reality we can call our own. But unlike the past, it is harmless, all empty show. It exists to attract attention and comment. We own it; we don’t even have to be British in order to do so. It is so incredibly weird, so incomprehensibly useless, that it compels attention. What makes it even more engaging than a monument is that it continues to be a living experiment in decrepitude, as it ever so gently appears to be falling apart, without quite doing so.

Far from damaging the institution, controversies and scandals are the only thing keeping it alive. Without Diana and now Meghan, the royal dynasty would be a bunch of pasty-faced boring people who could be safely ignored and quietly excised from our lives. Their spirit and sense of independence is what makes royalty bearable.

All kinds of reasons are put forward by royalists to defend the institution, but perhaps the most compelling reason to do so is that the world does not have a better reality show; The Crown is merely a simulation. We are riveted by imposing extraordinariness on ordinary people and then watching in morbid fascination as it gets revealed that they are after all, quite ordinary. The royal family is the best reality show in town, with impossibly lavish sets and impractical clothes, and protagonists that lounge around in splendid idleness.

It has a cast whose only purpose in life is to look the part, something that seems easy to pull off; after all, how difficult can getting into costume once in a while, while otherwise riding around on horses, going for muddy hunts and drinking copious amounts of gin be? Apparently, not every easy, given the number of royals that seem to go off the rails, much to the satisfaction of the audience.

The reality of being only a symbol, an expensive prop all one’s life can be stultifying. To be an outsider in this world can be utterly bewildering no matter how much one may have prepared for the role. As it is, even those have been participating in this costume drama since birth visibly struggle with their assigned scripts. For someone from another world to come in and adapt to the decadent cage that is their life can be extraordinarily burdensome. The constant glare of media attention can warp any sense of reality.

And media is what the royalty is about, today. Two things keep the show going-pomp and pageantry on a scale that goes beyond rational bounds and the emotionally fraught drama that erupts from within the frosty interiors of the palace.

When the show gets too white, old and boring, for the purpose of diversity a new cast member needs to be added. First Diana and now Meghan.

Of course, for every Diana there needs to be a Charles, every Elizabeth needs a Margaret, and every Meghan merits a Kate. For only then does the emotional symmetry translate into gossip-worthy conflict. The cast is now complete- we have a cold matriarch who was a reluctant ascendant to power once but has now embraced her role completely, a boring heir , who was squashed into resentful submission and whose infidelity is somehow also boring, his doomed wife who charmed the world while pursuing a path of self-destruction, her two sons, one obedient and oh-so-royal, and the other who went and got married to someone the family deems unsuitable. And plenty of other supporting members who have their own stories to tell- a paedophile, a racist old geezer, another unsuitable estranged daughter-in-law and several others.

And yet the institution itself perseveres. It is interesting that for all the complaints that the young couple aired, the desire to remain part of the royal institution on their own terms continued to burn strongly. That is the ultimate truth- it is simply too compelling a game for all concerned. For those inside it who feel trapped, media that feeds on it even while critiquing it, and the rest of the world which is spellbound by it.

Courtesy - TOI


Don’t lock down. Vaccinate: Jabs must include those aged 20-45 years. They’re the real super-spreaders (TOI)

Devi Shetty

Devi Shetty is a cardiac surgeon and Chairman and Founder, Narayana Health

Exactly a year ago I was part of a group of doctors, scientists, and technologists asking for governments across the world to lock down their countries to stop the spread of Covid-19. On March 23 last year I wrote an article for this column where I requested the Indian government to follow the example of China and lock India down completely.

Thanks to this decisive step taken by PM Modi early in the pandemic, we had time to prepare for the worst. It’s hard for you to remember what fighting a battle without any weapons looks like. I remember doctors wrapping themselves in trash-bin liners and bicycle helmets when PPE was in short supply. I remember having sleepless nights counting all the ventilators and calculating that an extra 30,000 patients would overwhelm ICUs across the country.

Fortunately, India has been blessed with good fortune, a proactive government and dynamic entrepreneurs. Today we’re exporting surplus PPE, facemasks, ventilators and vaccines.

From the experience of Western doctors, we learnt that oxygen and steroids are more useful than ventilators. We learnt that Covid positive patients with mild symptoms don’t need to be hospitalised. Most importantly, we learnt that if 70% of the public wears a face mask properly and consistently, the virus will stop spreading.

But knowing something is not the same as doing something about it. We are all fed up with Covid. Pandemic fatigue is a psychological condition in which people are feeling demotivated about practices that protect themselves and others.

While 99% of the public are aware of the benefits of masking, only 44% of people wear a mask outdoors because our hot climate makes face masks very uncomfortable. Australia and New Zealand (population density 3.3 and 18 people per sq km) successfully controlled Covid-19 through lockdowns and social distancing. This is simply not possible in India, when Gandhinagar sub-district of Delhi has a population density of 89,185 persons per sq km, and Dharavi slum has a population density of 2 lakh persons per sq km.

Governments in developed countries spent trillions of dollars to support their people and most of their jobs can be done remotely. In India, only the privileged can work or study remotely. Most Indians have to work with their hands and stand on their own two feet. If they’re faced with the choice of possibly dying from virus or definitely dying from starvation, the choice is simple.

Based on last year’s numbers, we expect institutional positivity for Covid-19 test in Bengaluru to touch about 24% in the next few weeks. When this happens, we can expect about 500 Covid patients in our Bengaluru hospital alone. That peak would continue for two months and tens of thousands of people will flood hospitals across the country. The government will be under tremendous pressure to do something, and they may choose to lock down.

I beg everyone who’s reading this not to choose that option. The first lockdown came at tremendous cost to society and the economy, but it bought us time to prepare our infrastructure and plan our strategy. When the lockdown was lifted, the cases increased exponentially, and then dropped after a few months.

A second lockdown will not make us any more prepared and the virus will still be waiting for us when we open up. We don’t need to hide from the virus. When doctors first learnt about Covid-19, they were totally unprepared to treat an unknown disease. We’ve since treated lakhs of Covid patients and are a lot wiser and more confident this time around.

We are grateful to government under the leadership of PM Modi for gifting healthcare workers with vaccines, and this gives us the confidence to fight this battle. Hospitals will no longer be flooded since the government legalised online consultation and asymptomatic positive patients can be treated at home.

Fortunately, the pandemic is spreading in familiar patterns and not overwhelming the entire country’s health system at the same time. Kerala and Maharashtra are peaking now. Karnataka and Delhi will follow after a few weeks.

Fortunately, Karnataka is one of the best prepared states to face Covid because of the government’s investment in a huge number of medical, nursing and paramedical colleges. When less privileged states reach their peak at different points of time, states like Karnataka will be able to support them.

Despite dire predictions from the foreign press, we’re not helpless against the virus. India has emerged as the world’s largest vaccine maker and we survived the first wave with a low case fatality rate.

There’s a good chance that we can stop the pandemic within the next six months if we take up mass vaccination on a war footing and vaccinate people between the ages of 20 to 45, who’re the real super-spreaders. Industry leaders from across the country stand united with the government and are prepared to vaccinate half the country. We urge our state governments not to hide from this foreign virus and to trust the strength of our people instead to overcome this challenge.

Courtesy - TOI


Saturday, March 20, 2021

From schooling to learning: For India to make this shift, it must reform the Right to Education Act (The Times of India)

The National Education Policy sets an ambitious direction for school education. For the first time, we have a policy focused on learning and not just schooling. To achieve this aim as we come out of a year of learning loss, states need to make quick, targeted changes that will yield significant improvement in the short term. At the same time, we must carry out deeper structural reforms to the Right to Education Act that will enshrine a right to learning, instead of the right to school enrollment that it is today.

In terms of low hanging fruit, one critical area is curriculum rationalisation. Currently, we have a “mile wide inch deep” system, in which children are rushed through key foundational competencies – like reading with meaning – without mastery, and they fall off the boat early as the curriculum progresses into more challenging territory.

2020 has been a difficult year for school education, with studies suggesting that 40-50% of Indian students have not learned anything during this period, and only a third of rural students received learning materials in the week before the survey. Given this, refocusing curriculum at every grade level in primary school around basic foundational skills in reading and mathematics is a change states can make easily. This should start as early as the next academic year.

It’s also critical for states to move away from the no-detention policy – so that students who have fallen behind during Covid don’t drift through many more years of education with no learning, and introduce vocational training options starting class 8, so more children have opportunities beyond traditional education.

However, to sustainably improve learning outcomes for all students in the long term, structural reform with legislative heft is critical – and the most decisive way to do this would be to review the Right to Education Act 2009. Broadly, there are three areas RTE reform should cover – across all schools, a robust learning outcome assessment and information dissemination system at the school level to target support and promote accountability; in government schools, a reorganisation of resourcing to overcome obvious barriers to learning; and in private schools a regulatory environment that establishes transparency, predictability of finances and self-regulation and empowers school managements, not inspectors or committees.

Global experience and research have shown that a universal and standardised assessment system across all schools is key. A “right” to education isn’t achievable without a mechanism to measure that a student is able to achieve meaningful learning outcomes through their schooling. Board exams come too late – around 80% of schools do not reach the board level, ending at Grade 5 or Grade 8. NEP’s current provision around assessments for all students at key stages – like grades 3, 5 and 8 – can allow two critical things.

First, it can be used to publicise school level results, giving parents information. This will push private and government schools to up their game. Second, it will give the government system detailed information to target and review school support mechanisms. The RTE is the right place to ensure the presence of such fundamental infrastructure.

In government schools, the RTE provision around neighborhood schools has resulted in what experts term the “smallification” of schools. According to government data, 40.2% of government schools have fewer than 50 students, and only 2 teachers on average to teach 5 or more grades. Rajasthan’s Adarsh school consolidation model, with a composite, fully staffed 1-12 school in each gram panchayat, might provide a pathway for reform at the national scale. To enable this, the requirement around school distance from habitations should shift to one of guaranteeing access without dictating how it’s provided.

In private schools, RTE’s input focused norms and rules have created a complex and burdensome regulatory environment which inhibits entrepreneurs wishing to start private schools, while creating an obstacle course for existing schools. A study found that a license to open a school in Delhi requires 125 document types, which pass through 155 steps across government departments. Further, stipulations around land ownership or lease periods, playgrounds, staircase width, teacher salaries, admission rules, fee caps, and myriad others exist across states. This framework grossly discourages meaningful investment by passionate educators and leaves the ground open for mediocre opportunists. These require review.

To truly improve governance, we must understand that in India profit cannot be limited by committees or laws, only by competition. The not-for-profit mandate on schools should be lifted. In its place, entities through the Companies Act could register as schools and be governed and taxed better and more transparently through existing mechanisms. Simultaneously, via cross-subsidisation, this can be a lever to bring RTE Section 12(1)(c) closer to its crucial objective – bringing a more diverse population to a school of choice.

Currently, only 4.7% of the 8 crore students in unaided schools use this provision instead of the envisioned 25%, largely due to poor state uptake and low reimbursement rates. Revenue from school taxation could be funnelled back into education spending – possibly through a DBT of Rs 5,000 – 15,000 per year to economically weaker students. This would achieve a dual purpose. Liberalisation would encourage innovation in schooling, and use of tax revenue to fund DBTs might give more families access to a school of choice.

Covid-19 has been a shock to our economy and system; it has also provided an opportunity to review several sectors. Structural reform in education should follow. Or the 25 crore children currently in our schooling system will struggle to take their place in tomorrow’s economy.

Courtesy - The Times of India.


Perceptions matter: Strengthen democracy to silence critics (The Times of India)

Times of India’s Edit Page team comprises senior journalists with wide-ranging interests who debate and opine on the news and issues of the day.

Even as government mounts a strong defence of India’s democratic record, managing global perception is proving tough. On one hand, Centre’s push to operationalise the Quad is one of the most exciting global engagements by India in recent times – as it helps India break out of its isolationist shell which masqueraded as ‘non-alignment’ (when confronted by an informal but powerful China-Pakistan alliance, Zimbabwe and Palestine aren’t going to be of much help to India). The NDA government undoubtedly deserves credit for the strategic clarity manifested in this intellectual breakthrough. But it’s just as noticeable that Quad is shaping up into a fight by countries with shared democratic values, and any democratic backsliding in India would be perceived to be at odds with the new order.

Signs of this emerging realpolitik are evident in concerns flagged by influential US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Bob Menendez, just days after democracy watchdogs Freedom House and Sweden’s V-Dem Institute downrated India. Even while backing growing US-India strategic ties, Menendez has asked the Biden administration to raise various human rights concerns, jailing of dissidents and passage of discriminatory laws. The strategic rivalry between the West and China is foregrounding China’s scant respect for territorial sovereignty and individual autonomy. China’s dangerous gaming of trade, technology, internet, intellectual property and totalitarian surveillance state are being posited as a threat to all democratic nations.

India betraying undemocratic tendencies, though not a dealbreaker, will naturally be disconcerting to the new partnership. Laws like CAA and criminalisation of interfaith marriages, widespread use of sedition laws, targeting of Bollywood citing hurt sentiments and curtailment of academic freedoms harm India’s soft power, which cannot be separated from its hard power. Rather than bristle at the criticism or withdraw again into an isolationist shell, NDA government must show greater confidence over free speech and democratic rights than its predecessors by repealing sedition, blasphemy and restrictive marriage laws.

Courtesy - The Times of India.


Friday, March 19, 2021

The women’s vote: Political signalling to them has sharpened. But talk economic growth too, that’s what’s truly transformative (TOI)

Times of India’s Edit Page team comprises senior journalists with wide-ranging interests who debate and opine on the news and issues of the day.

The struggles of women to earn their space in politics haven’t changed much but what’s certainly shifting is the political pursuit of the women’s vote. Days after AIADMK’s manifesto promising Rs 1,500 monthly allowances for housewives comes TMC offering monthly income support of Rs 500-1,000 for female heads of households, expected to benefit 80% of Bengal households. Such schemes aren’t whimsical; many top Indian politicians have earned the loyalty of women voters by responding to their needs.

Bihar’s JD(U), Odisha’s BJD and Delhi’s AAP can also claim to run state governments that enjoy greater women’s support with a heavy emphasis on education, women’s safety and service delivery. Rising women voter turnouts and Lokniti-CSDS post-poll surveys pointing to greater women backing for the ultimate victors reveal why the women’s vote is becoming prized. Even the comprehensive 2019 BJP victory saw its women’s vote inch marginally closer to its male vote share. Schemes like Ujjwala offering free LPG cylinders to poor households would’ve helped here. BJP outreach to women has only intensified since then.

Women netas like Mamata Banerjee and late Jayalalithaa earned a special place among women voters by triumphing in an arena dominated entirely by men. But some like Naveen Patnaik and Mamata have also gone the extra mile. In the 2019 general election, both promised 33% tickets to women candidates and put it into practice too. In the upcoming polls, Mamata is fielding 50 women, far short of 33%, but far higher than every other party in the fray across five states.

Coming of age of DBTs is helping politicians target the woman voter better. But such political patronage is no recompense for other major losses. Women’s workforce participation rates have been falling since 2005. The pandemic showed just how vulnerable the women workforce was: A Delhi survey reveals their unemployment rate rose to 55% against 23% among men. Sharply declining fertility rates indicate greater female clout but sex ratio at birth has dipped in the past decade: Preference for fewer children is paradoxically reinforcing male preference too. In East Asian societies, women powered ahead thanks to industrialisation without requiring political handholding. Indian politicians recognising the power of the women’s vote should go beyond populist manifestos. What could be worse for women: All-round political failure to pursue growth oriented policies or the bipartisan propensity for misogynistic tropes?

Courtesy - TOI


A post-jobs world: All our policies should be oriented towards making our services super competitive (TOI)

R Jagannathan

R Jagannathan is editorial director of Swarajya

The dystopian world of jobless growth has been staring the world in the face for decades now. In the US, GDP and jobs growth started delinking from one another from the early 90s; in every recession after 1991, a return to old levels of employment took longer and longer.

In our case, the delinking process probably began after the Vajpayee years, post-2004. The UPA era saw high growth in the first half, but jobs didn’t keep pace. Poverty was reduced by income transfers and boondoggles (MGNREGA etc), not real job creation. It’s quite possible that in the coming few years we’ll see another, probably temporary, revival in jobs, thanks to cash sops being doled out through the production linked incentive (PLI) schemes to encourage local manufacturing. But it may not sustain.

Two reasons why, and they’re inter-related. First, for the most part, growth is the result of increasing use of technology and not human labour; and second, the excess of capital sloshing around in the world economy ensures that more technology will be used rather than labour in most new enterprises, whether they’re in manufacturing or services.

Credit Suisse recently estimated that India may have as many as 100 unicorns (startups with more than billion dollar valuations). But almost none of these will be turning a profit or even breaking even despite guzzling millions of dollars of cash. India wouldn’t have had so many billion dollar loss-makers without there being a huge cache of patient capital willing to be deployed in promising ventures. Conclusion: India’s future growth will be fuelled by capital and enterprise, not large labour deployments.

Some Leftists may offer Luddite solutions to prevent the replacement of labour with capital and technology, but this can’t work. Even if India bans some kinds of labour replacing technologies, others with labour shortages will see an opportunity in deploying more technology to improve productivity and margins. In the end, we can only lose by not adopting the latest technologies. In the US, trust busters are talking of breaking up some of the powerful tech companies (Google, Facebook etc) so that they don’t worsen tech fuelled inequities in society. But history teaches us that cutting edge tech doesn’t always come from the biggest companies. It comes from small startups, too.

We need to balance this dystopian view with the positive side of the ledger. While technology does disrupt or destroy good quality jobs, it also reduces costs at a dramatic pace, thus making basic goods and services accessible to all.

Two trends are responsible for this. One is the sustained shift in the composition of most economies from agriculture to manufacturing and finally to services, especially digitally delivered services (banking, insurance, news, books). This reduces marginal costs to near zero in many cases. Combined with the shift from non-renewable to renewable energy, we’re also rapidly moving towards near zero marginal costs in energy. A solar panel incurs practically no running cost after the initial capital expenditure is incurred. Anyone who wants his book published can do it at near-zero cost in the e-book format. Author Jeremy Rifkin details this idea in his book The Zero Marginal Cost Society.

The second trend is technology mediated “dematerialisation”. In almost every product we buy today, including physical goods, gadgets and equipment, less material is used. The modern car uses less fuel, less metals and fewer body parts than the one produced a century ago. This process, called dematerialisation, where less and less inputs and raw materials are used to produce the same product, is detailed in Andrew McAfee’s book More From Less.

The combined effect of the trends towards lower marginal costs and dematerialisation will improve affordability where most Indians, even poorer ones, will be able to buy them. Remember, four years ago we saw a dramatic drop in bandwidth prices, allowing even people who can’t afford toasters or refrigerators to access the internet with a mobile phone.

In India, thanks to rigid factor markets (land, labour) inherited from the licence-permit-raj era, we are still to fully transition from agriculture to manufacturing; in fact, we practically skipped the manufacturing stage of development and went straight into services, which is what drives GDP growth for us today. It’s where we are globally competitive. The ongoing farm agitation is a symptom not of bad law making, but an instinctive realisation by farmers that their political and economic power will wane as India transforms agriculture. Far fewer farmers will produce more output from even less farmland in future.

In a world where massive incomes will be generated from technology, one can expect a steady rise in tax revenues from a larger base of affordable goods and services. This improves a government’s ability to provide food and basic needs at subsidised rates. The defining feature of the UPA era was not jobs growth, but high tax revenues that enabled a massive attack on poverty.

The discussions we need to have in a tech-enabled, post-jobs world are the following: Which sectors with the highest jobs potential should be incentivised over those which need far less labour? Which technologies have the potential to provide livelihoods to the maximum number in the shortest possible time (app-based taxis, home services etc)? How do we incentivise entrepreneurship, which is where most new jobs will come from?

The broad takeout is simple: India’s future is in services, and not agriculture or manufacturing. All our policies should be oriented towards making our services super competitive, and not focus on reinventing the manufacturing wheel or try to retain too many underemployed people on the farm.

Courtesy - TOI


Thursday, March 18, 2021

Made for each other: Bangladesh is evolving into India’s best friend in the neighbourhood (TOI)

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a veteran BBC journalist and analyst of eastern and northeastern India

As PM Modi packs his bags for a historic trip to Dhaka this month, he can look back with satisfaction at India’s signature bilateral relationship with Bangladesh, that some think constitutes the edifice of his neighbourhood outreach.

Bangladesh PM Hasina has delivered on all of India’s concerns, ranging from security to connectivity, while India has done its best to reciprocate. From prioritising Covid vaccine deliveries to Bangladesh to resolving the problem of enclaves through a comprehensive land boundary agreement, Delhi under PMs Manmohan and Modi has stood by its trusted ally.

Hasina warmed Indian hearts when her government not only invited Modi to be the honoured guest on its 50th Independence Day (March 26, when Pakistan’s brutal army began Operation Searchlight, a catch-and-kill sweep through erstwhile East Pakistan 50 years ago) but formally requested the UN to recognise the 1971 genocide and Pakistan to apologise for it.

For Indian diplomats, who want the Pakistan army’s India-hate hysteria tamed to deliver a meaningful peace process with Islamabad, focus on the 1971 genocide is timely. It also helps India domestically in conflict zones like Kashmir, where Islamist separatists raise pro-Pakistan slogans and demand merger.

The 1971 genocide, graphically displayed in Dhaka’s Liberation War Museum, raises the question that Kashmiri leaders have to ponder over and answer – if Bengali Muslims, who constituted nearly 60% of undivided Pakistan’s population, didn’t get justice and rights, what could the Muslims in Srinagar valley expect if they were to join Pakistan, where they would be a miniscule percentage of the country’s population.

This is not to argue the Kashmiris have got what they aspire for in India. But Kashmiri men are playing soccer for India and girls from the Srinagar valley are flying planes – and avenues for democratic protests continue to exist in the Indian system. ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s “Osomapto Atmojiboni” (Unfinished Memoirs) would be useful reading for all Kashmiris once it’s available in languages they understand.

The post-2009 crackdown on Northeast Indian separatists by the Hasina government has been the single most important factor leading to a huge drop in insurgency there – an 80% drop in rebel violence, according to the latest report of the Indian home ministry. Multi-modal transit between the Indian mainland and the country’s Northeast is increasingly becoming a reality, with new agreements and development of ‘connectivity infrastructure’ like the Feni river bridge opened virtually this month by Modi and Hasina.

Indian businessmen invested in Bangladesh’s garment industry are looking to expand their manufacturing to tiny Tripura, opening fresh vistas for industrialisation in the Northeast. Agartala, emerging as India’s third internet gateway due to the connect with Bangladesh’s internet backbone, now offers huge opportunity for growth of IT industry in the Northeast, where English and science education promises a locally available workforce that now drifts to Bengaluru or Hyderabad.

The Modi visit on March 26 will revive memories of Indian support to the Bangladesh independence war, while sheltering 10 million refugees with an economy very low on food security. It also helps register the fact of bipartisanship in India-Bangladesh relations from the Indian side – if not the other way round.

India and Bangladesh are destined to grow together. Seamless transport connectivity between India and Bangladesh has the potential to increase national income by as much as 17% in Bangladesh and 8% in India, says a new World Bank report.

The study, ‘Connecting to Thrive: Challenges and Opportunities of Transport Integration in Eastern South Asia’,  indicates a 297% increase in Bangladesh’s exports to India and 172% increase in India’s exports to Bangladesh if transport connectivity improves and both neighbours sign an FTA. Previous analyses had indicated that Bangladesh’s exports to India could increase by 182% and India’s exports to Bangladesh by 126% if that happened.

With elections due in West Bengal and BJP making a determined bid to gain power, Modi is expected to deal with expectations of a payback. Signing the Teesta water sharing treaty, working out similar agreements for other common rivers, definite measures to address the trade imbalance and an end to border firings – India’s many friends in Bangladesh would look to Modi for definite assurance and action on these issues.

Much behind-the-scenes work is already on over how to address some of these issues, but more effort may be needed. India has a dynamic high commissioner in Dhaka after a while and a foreign secretary who has been our envoy there. Bangladesh has a top diplomat in Delhi who knows India from his previous postings to the country, and a foreign policy establishment which values India for support on issues as far-ranging as vaccines for anti-Covid immunisation to tackling the Rohingya issue.

Despite the occasional hiccups caused by the social media savvy lunatic fringe of religious fundamentalists on both sides, the India-Bangladesh marriage is set to get more intense and rewarding.

Courtesy - TOI


Be rational, please: Night curfews make no sense. Prevent Covid’s second wave by masking and rapid vaccination (TOI)

Spiking Covid infections across multiple states have raised fears that this could be the onset of a second wave in India. Central officials have asserted that Maharashtra’s second wave is on. Others like Punjab, MP, Karnataka, TN, Bengal and Kerala are also reporting an uncomfortably high number of cases. Governmental response has been predictable. A number of Maharashtra districts have opted for lockdowns while night curfew has been clamped in Bhopal, Indore, Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Rajkot, and parts of Punjab and Uttarakhand.

It is surprising that these economically disruptive blunt instruments still find takers. No one can make the case that a lockdown prompts people to be more public health conscious or the coronavirus spreads predominantly in the night hours or social distancing goes particularly awry then. What’s more baffling is the scant official campaigning on the safe, viable, inexpensive option of universal masking. Or vaccines for that matter, given that they’re finally here and supply is no constraint. The return of bad ideas – the lockdown and night curfew combination had shaved off a quarter of the national GDP in April-June 2020 – is indeed worrying.

Inter-state travel restrictions are also fast cropping up. Some states have mandated RT-PCR tests for out-of-state travellers. MP has ordered seven-day quarantine for visitors from Maharashtra. The irony of these measures is that these scapegoat the outsider without making allowances for the virus circulating uninhibited within local communities. If masking was enforced, none of these destructive ideas would’ve traction. But that would also greatly inconvenience the political class, many of whom, like Mamata Banerjee and JP Nadda in Bengal, are spotted unmasked in potentially super spreader election campaigns.

Like the warped signalling on masks, the failure to combat misinformation on vaccines and ramp up vaccinations could also prove costly. India has a long way to go having vaccinated just 2% of the country, with vaccine hesitancy being observed across age groups and social classes. Centre must heed the demand to ease priority group targeting in states witnessing surges like Maharashtra and Punjab. People of all age groups taking vaccines will act as a nudge for everyone to come forward. A country that has exported 6 crore vaccine doses shouldn’t have to return to the lockdown mentality of last year, when options were fewer and understanding of the disease was limited. Liberalise vaccine supply and delivery, improve advocacy on masks.

Courtesy - TOI


Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Battle of equals? TMC and BJP locked in tense Bengal fight that can go either way (TOI)

Times of India’s Edit Page team comprises senior journalists with wide-ranging interests who debate and opine on the news and issues of the day.

With Bengal in the heat of an intense political battle between TMC and BJP, the upcoming assembly polls could go either way. It’s clear why BJP is exuding confidence about forming its first government in Bengal. The party’s well-oiled electoral machinery has made unprecedented inroads in the state, a fact exemplified by the large number of netas from other parties flocking to its ranks. This, however, also seems to have created a problem of plenty for the party. Unhappy with tickets being given to the new entrants – particularly from TMC – the party’s old guard are expressing their displeasure in inconvenient ways.

In Hooghly, angry BJP supporters ransacked the party’s district office in Chinsurah and locked up the Chandernagore office. Then BJP worker Nirupam Mukherjee reportedly made a failed suicide bid fearing that former TMC strongman who recently joined BJP, Debaprasad Biswas, may get the ticket from Saptagram. Meanwhile, several BJP netas have threatened to contest as independents against the party’s official candidates. True, ticket distribution always causes heartburn for certain party workers. But with BJP’s poll campaign focussing on highlighting corruption and syndicate raj under the Mamata Banerjee regime, TMC turncoats getting preference over party old-timers can undermine the party’s message of poriborton.

It also remains to be seen how Mamata’s injury at Nandigram and her decision to continue campaigning in a wheelchair will be read by the voters. Mamata has been playing up the fact she’s the only woman CM in the country today, stressing that Bengal wants to re-elect its own daughter – a not-so-subtle bid to project BJP as a party of outsiders. Calling herself a “wounded tigress”, Mamata looks to be Bengal’s Modi.

If she’s to scrape through, she would need TMC’s women vote bank to remain intact. According to Lokniti-CSDS data 48% women voted for TMC – six percentage points higher than men – in the 2016 assembly polls. No wonder the party has given tickets to 50 women candidates this time. Another imponderable is the Muslim vote. With the Indian Secular Front of Abbas Siddique joining the Left-Congress combine, the Muslim vote could split and indirectly help BJP. However, everyone assumes that significant chunks of the Muslim vote will go with a Muslim-led party; Muslims might belie this expectation by voting strategically for TMC to defeat BJP. All in all, an absorbing contest is unfolding in Bengal.

Courtesy - TOI


China’s escalating water war: On top of other asymmetric tactics, Brahmaputra mega-project is a new threat India faces (TOI)

Brahma Chellaney

He is a geostrategist.

China’s multi-pronged unconventional war against India has ranged from cyberattacks on critical infrastructure and furtive territorial encroachments to strategic information warfare and an ongoing village building drive to populate uninhabited but disputed borderlands. Water wars are a key component of such warfare because they allow China to leverage its upstream Tibet-centred power over the most essential natural resource.

China knows its troops cannot fight and win decisively against the battle hardened Indian military on a force-on-force basis, as the Galwan valley clashes underscored. So, to contain India, it has been applying asymmetric warfare techniques to attack India’s weak points, in keeping with what Sun Tzu said: “All warfare is based on deception.”

India, instead of looking at China’s new face of war in totality and devising a comprehensive and proactive counter-strategy, has brought its security under increasing pressure through a disjointed and fragmented approach. Such is the absence of long-term strategic thinking and planning that, each time China opens a new front or pressure point, India searches for a stopgap or, worse still, seeks to paper over its weak spot.

China’s newly approved Brahmaputra mega-project, which will dwarf its Three Gorges Dam by generating almost three times more electricity, should shake India out of its ad hoc, compartmentalised approach to Chinese aggression. The project is to harness the force of a nearly 3,000 metre drop in the Brahmaputra’s height when the river, just before entering India, takes a U-turn around the Himalayas to form the world’s longest and steepest canyon. By setting out to dam the Brahmaputra there, China is seeking to effectively weaponise water against India.

Unidentified Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh and, more recently, turned the water in the once-pristine Siang – Brahmaputra’s main artery – dirty and grey as it entered India. Indeed, such is China’s defiant unilateralism that, to complete a major dam project, it halted the flow of a Brahmaputra tributary, the Xiabuqu, in 2016 and then started damming another such tributary, the Lhasa River, into a series of artificial lakes.

In 2017, China openly demonstrated its use of water as as a tool of coercive diplomacy when, in breach of two bilateral accords, it punitively cut off the flow of hydrological data to India, an action that undermined downstream flood early warning systems, resulting in preventable deaths in Assam. China reversed the data cutoff only after the 2018 Wuhan summit, which was held following its capture of Doklam behind the cover of the August 2017 disengagement agreement.

About a dozen small or medium sized Chinese dams are already operational on the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches. But with its dam building now moving to the river’s India-bordering canyon region, China will be able to manipulate transboundary flows and leverage its claim to the adjacent Arunachal.

The serious implications, however, are being obscured by misinformation or ignorance. For example, some in Indian policy and academic circles have conjectured that the Brahmaputra collects the larger share of its water in India. This water collection is mainly restricted to the four-month monsoon season. Fluvial ecosystems depend on perennial water sources, which, in the Brahmaputra’s case, are largely in Tibet.

The Brahmaputra, the world’s highest altitude river, gathers extremely rich silt in its almost 2,200km Himalayan run. The silt rich water from Tibet, not monsoon water collection, is central to the river’s unique hydrology and biodiversity support. The canyon mega-project, like the Three Gorges Dam, will trap downstream flow of nutrient-rich silt. It’ll also disrupt the Brahmaputra’s annual flooding cycle, which helps to re-fertilise farmland naturally by spreading silt, besides opening giant fish nurseries. That, in turn, is likely to cause subsidence and salinity in the Brahmaputra-Ganges-Meghna delta.

In the Mekong Basin, the environmental havoc unleashed by China’s upstream giant dams is becoming increasingly apparent. The environmental devastation could be worse in the Brahmaputra basin, especially in densely populated Bangladesh, triggering a greater exodus of refugees to India, which is already home to countless millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis.

The Brahmaputra mega-dam, ominously, will be built in a seismically active area, thus implying a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities. The dictatorship in Beijing is not deterred even by the fact that the project will desecrate territory that is sacred to Tibetans: the major mountains, cliffs and caves in the canyon region, known locally as Pemako, or the “Hidden Lotus Land”, represent the body of their guardian deity, the goddess Dorje Pagmo (Vajravarahi in Sanskrit), and the Brahmaputra represents her spine.

The expanding water war is clearly part of China’s integrated, multidimensional strategy against India, which seeks to employ all available means short of open war. Its unconventional war is profoundly impacting every core Indian interest. To deal with this structural challenge, India, in Sun Tzu style, must give China a taste of its own medicine. Two US reports, The Longer Telegram (published by the Atlantic Council) and the state department’s The Elements of the China Challenge, underline the imperative to target China’s weak spots.

India has little choice but to asymmetrically out-compete China’s asymmetric war by exploiting its internal vulnerabilities, fissures and fragilities, including in Tibet, the main launchpad for its unconventional warfare. India has the capabilities to outwit and deter China; what it needs is the vision and resolve.

Courtesy - TOI


Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Quad: The new toolkit: For India this could be another Y2K moment – which put it on the path of being a tech power (TOI)

Indrani Bagchi

Indrani Bagchi is The Times of India's diplomatic editor. She calls this blog a wide canvas through which she looks at the world and how India responds to it.

“The four leaders did discuss the challenge posed by China, and they made clear that none of them have any illusions about China. But today was not fundamentally about China.” Jake Sullivan’s succinct remarks after the first-ever Quad summit on Friday showed clearly what the Quad is and what it could become.

There’s no doubt a resurgent, aggressive and hegemonistic China is the wind beneath the Quad’s wings. From deadly clashes in eastern Ladakh to rampaging through the South and East China Seas; coercive trade practices, tech theft and cyberattacks; threatening Taiwan and annexing Hong Kong’s politics; unleashing a fishing militia and a trigger-happy coastguard; banning pineapples and wine imports; and that coronavirus from Wuhan felling the rest of the world … we’re confronting a global power like no other.

The Quad’s the thin end of the wedge in what promises to become an expanding “toolkit” of a massive counterbalancing exercise. The “coming of age” party for the Quad now makes it a “force for global good” and a “pillar of stability” as PM Modi put it pithily. A joint oped by the four leaders declared, in what you could call a socially distanced ‘high-five’: “The Quad is a flexible group of like-minded partners dedicated to advancing a common vision and to ensuring peace and prosperity.”

Hosting the summit allowed the US to reclaim global leadership, a key element of President Biden’s poll plank. It fixed the US strategic priority of going up against China with allies who had clear skin in the game. The US regained some lost moral equity – by piggybacking on India’s vaccine manufacturing capability to make for the world. US tech leadership will need countries like India and Japan on the same side. US climate leadership can go nowhere without India on board.

The rejuvenated Quad gives Australia and Japan much needed support to stiffen their spine against relentless Chinese coercion. Reeling under recurring Chinese import bans on its barley, coal, wine, there were times when Australia wondered whether it was fighting a lonely battle.

This week, the Japanese envoy to Australia, Shingo Yamagami, said, Australia’s “not walking alone”. “Each and every day Japan is struggling because of … China, and the rise of China, the dramatic increase of defence spending … I do marvel at the consistent, persistent, steadfast, resilient response shown by people [in Australia].” Japan has been struggling against China’s coastguard law, import dependence and isn’t doing very well against Covid either. All four countries have felt Chinese aggression to the bone, India’s the only one to have shed blood.

For India, the Quad could be another Y2K moment – 20 years ago a calendar glitch started India off on its journey to becoming a tech and knowledge power. The pandemic and the Quad have given India another moment. Biological E (which, by the way, is a woman-run company, something the government didn’t bother to highlight) could be just the first of many more vaccine giants India can build.

Covid-19 has taught us that the next pandemic isn’t far away. India can put itself ahead of the game by being able to develop vaccines and therapeutics rather than only manufacture them. Adar Poonawalla is right, allow the pharma sector to grow. Modi wants India to be “pharmacy to the world”. Make it happen. China’s doing the slimy thing of raising API prices, but honestly, that pain should go away in a few years.

On climate change, India has positioned itself as proactive, after spending years being the “No” nation. Last week John Kerry, Biden’s climate czar, said, “India has a plan to produce about 450GW of renewable power by 2030, it’s a very ambitious goal. … I’ve put together a small consortium of a number of countries that are prepared to help India with some of the finance and transition.” If this works, and we’ll know by COP-26, that could be another growth engine. India today is probably the only big power that can meet its climate goals.

The most important expert group the summit threw up is on technology – going directly to Biden’s aim of creating techno-alliances. That should resonate in India – from 5G to AI to semiconductors and critical materials, these are the discussions and building blocks of the future. This isn’t the time to get nationalistic about tech, it’s the time to put in stakes and build.

This brings me to the absence of mention of security and defence in the Quad statement. There’s been growing “interoperability” between members. India and the US have signed four agreements, the others are Cold War treaty allies. This cooperation is unlikely to be put down on paper. Two things need to happen though – India and the US have to overcome the CAATSA barrier, and India and Japan should be invited as observers to the Five Eyes.

The Quad needn’t grow. But there could be Quad-Plus arrangements – we’ve seen two, one with Vietnam, New Zealand and South Korea, and the other with South Korea, Brazil and Israel. Defence and security Plus groups could have France and Indonesia, one on semiconductors would need Taiwan, Korea and the Netherlands, and so on. The UK will have to do more than send a carrier strike group on a cruise to warrant a place. These would be flexible, coming together for specific purposes. They may not include China.

The Quad joint statement is the first that came with a title. But reading beyond the text, it’s clear the scope will go beyond. If the four countries stay on course and don’t break up the party. For India, the opportunities are considerable. The problems will be much bigger too.

Courtesy - TOI


Monday, March 15, 2021

The overdocumented self? (TOI)

After a long time, one had the experience of going to someone’s office and one had to go through a very modern ritual. It involves getting photographed, sharing one’s mobile phone number, receiving an OTP on it, submitting it at reception, showing some government- approved proof of identity, getting an admission slip, which needed to be duly countersigned by the person being visited for submission on the way out. It is unclear as to what nuclear secrets were being protected at the apparels company one needed to visit, but it is reassuring to know that these continue to lie there unmolested thanks to the stringent security.

Growing up, one cannot remember ever being asked to produce any proof of identity, except perhaps occasionally in college. Indeed, one did not have any documents that could establish who one was. Bureaucracy existed even then; the fondness for entering things in registers and issuing passes which needed to be stamped is not a modern affliction. But most of this was an exercise in pure tokenism- one could write whatever one felt like and besides most of what was written was illegible and unusable. And we certainly had very little interest in documenting our own selves. A few people kept diaries and journals, but for most, life was lived in utter unselfconsciousness, with little need felt to present oneself to the world.

It almost seems as if the recording of every action of every individual is an end by itself. If official surveillance is one side of the story, then intense self-documentation is the other. As a consequence, both out of choice and out of compulsion, there is very little that we do that does not leave an imprint of some kind behind. In a digital world, every click is on record for eternity. We call it data, but it is a living testimony to our existence and what we do with it. What we say, what we like, who we diss, what our vices are, our guilty pleasures, our vanities, all of it being logged min to a ledger that has near divine omniscience.

We are surveilled everywhere, even in the physical world. CCTV cameras that now have increasingly sophisticated facial recognition systems, GPS which tracks our movements, location histories on our phones which tell where we have been at any time, biometric based instruments like Aadhar that are needed to navigate many public spaces, algorithms that follow us through our meanderings in the digital world- the sphere of the private has shrunk immeasurably. 

We are being goaded to surrender privacy, even of the mind. Social media sites subtly encourage us to unburden ourselves to others. Our lives, or at least Eastmancolour versions of it, are public documents. The abandonment of privacy is a project that we carry out with gusto. We vie to be more ‘social’, to put more of ourselves out there for the edification of others. If Twitter wants to excise us of our opinions, Facebook creates a new grammar of relationships, Instagram makes our lives a visual treat for our audience, Whatsapp helps us broadcast every passing thought to a closed community, new kids on the block like Clubhouse harvests our voices.

The selfie allows us for the first time to convert mirrors into cameras. We rapid prototype ourselves as we shoot a flurry of self-portraits. A camera like Go Pro shows us what the world would look like if our bodies were cameras. Wearables are on the way, that will make our bodies sentient. Already Fitbit and our regular smartphone records our physical activity- how many steps did we walk, how many calories did we burn. Sleep apps tell us about our sleeping patterns, including the duration of the period we snored or the number of times we coughed. Tomorrow, sensors will pick up key health parameters and feed them to a medical facility in real time so as to keep track and intervene when necessary.

What will remain are our thoughts. The unexpressed ones, that is. And even that may not be forever. Technologies that are able to decipher our thoughts is on its way. The truly, nothing will be ours alone anymore.

What are the social consequences of such a dramatic inversion of the self? Will we need to develop layers of personae which allows us to stash away a small part of ourselves? Will the idea of the self itself become meaningless, as that idea will inevitably need to be hyphenated for it to make any sense? We will never only be ourselves.

The paradox is that technology ostensibly strives to ensure that an individual gets whatever she desires and needs whenever it is needed and with the least possible effort. But in doing so, it ends up compromising the very things that make one an individual. As algorithms keyed up to anticipate our needs, ply us with more of what we like, we find ourselves surrounded by mirror images of our desires, unable to break free.

We are moving towards a world where we all can effectively become part of a single organism. The idea of data converts all our actions and thoughts into a single fluid currency that flows constantly. One way of thinking about social media is that we are the extensions of the medium, the nodes that act according to an implicit master script instead of being users in charge of our own destiny. The social media system is a commercial engine, which is harvesting our attention for use by advertisers. 

This is a world we have no previous templates of. What might be useful is for us to practice a form of self-aware commentary, one that characterises the changes that we are undergoing, thanks to an unstoppable torrent called technology. To step outside the immersive grasp of new technologies so as to make sense of what is happening. Till such time as we can. 

Courtesy - TOI


Saturday, March 13, 2021

Covid-19’s hidden lesson: Lose weight to be safer from it, and from many other ailments as well (TOI)

Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat is a bestselling author and a popular newspaper columnist.

A recent study done by America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed a startling metric: 78% of people who have been hospitalised, needed a ventilator, or died from Covid-19 in the US were overweight or obese.

The US is one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19. It’s also a country with staggering obesity rates. According to CDC, 42% of US population was obese in 2018. Around two-thirds of the US population is overweight.

Obesity is defined as a BMI (body mass index) of over 30. Being overweight is having a BMI over 25. Your BMI can be derived by dividing your weight in kilos by the square of your height in metres (more easily, google BMI calculators and enter your weight and height). As an illustration, a person of BMI 30 with a 5’8” height would weigh 90kg. A BMI 25, 5’8” person would weigh 75kg.

BMI isn’t a perfect measure, but is still a useful, simple and universally accepted benchmark. Excess weight has always been associated with medical risks, such as cardiac disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, joint issues and stroke. Now, we can add Covid-19 to the list as well. However, while we recommended global lockdowns, mask mandates and social distancing, we’ve not had the guts to publicly acknowledge what also needs to be done – people need to lose some weight to be safe from Covid-19.

We might say obesity is an American problem. Indians don’t have this issue to that magnitude. Sure, our population isn’t 42% obese (yet). In fact, we even have hunger and malnutrition in the poorer segments of the population. However, in the middle class and affluent population, there’s a growing obesity epidemic.

Indian data is limited. There’s a 2015 ICMR-INDIAB study, done across four states where 25-40% of urban population was found to be overweight (BMI>25), even as numbers for rural areas were better (4-20%). The study did not look at the BMI>30 (or equivalent of the obese category in the US). While we don’t have accurate numbers for India, we do know that a fair chunk of our urban population is overweight, and obesity rates are also climbing. Cardiac disease and diabetes data for India suggest the same as well.

The corona pandemic has given us yet another reason to pay attention to our health, particularly through diet and exercise. Your best defence against Covid-19 is your own immunity system. If you don’t take care of your health, diseases are going to hit you more frequently and harder.

Diet wise, there’s a growing awareness amongst Indians to eat better. However, there’re still tremendous misconceptions about what’s ‘healthy food’. I’ve myself been guilty of this misunderstanding, believing that if a food is deemed ‘healthy’, it’s OK to eat as much as you want of it.

Indians believe many high calorie foods are super healthy. Ghee, jaggery, honey, pure milk (which means full cream milk), white butter, fresh fruit juice, full fat paneer come in that category. Indians think they are ‘good’ for health. They may well have some nutritive value. However, they’re full of calories and thus they can easily lead to weight gain. That’s neither healthy nor good for an overweight person.

One of the cornerstones for weight loss is to eat in a caloric deficit, or consume less calories than you burn. In that sense, no food is healthy beyond a point. Portion control is vital, though never emphasised in our diet. Just because a food is part of our traditional culture doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Calories are neither patriotic nor culturally sensitive. Jalebis and paranthas and pakoras may well hold deep emotional value for us. However, inside us, they are all going to get converted to fat, just as burgers, pizzas and doughnuts will. Stop.

Many of our food traditions come from our roots as a farming population. Our forefathers did heavy manual labour all day. We sit at home watching web series or answering emails on our laptops, calling it ‘work’. We can’t be eating the same things.

One of the reasons the US has an obesity problem is food companies there have heavily marketed unhealthy foods. The same is happening here now. There’s no doubt – unhealthy foods taste amazing. However, they cause weight gain, which makes you vulnerable to various diseases, including the nasty one that shut down the world.

Eat a low calorie diet comprising vegetables (not cooked in buttery, oily gravies please), whole grains, proteins and small amounts of fat. Don’t eat anything that comes out of a packet kept for months.

The other important aspect is exercise. The government has promoted a Fit India initiative, with the slogan ‘Fitness ka dose, aadha ghanta roz’ implying a 30 minute exercise routine daily. Most of us can spare 30 minutes to move our bodies. Human bodies are meant to move, not scroll touchscreens and sit on a couch all day.

If you don’t exercise, your body will get damaged. Walk, take stairs, run. Even yoga is good, but exercise must have one component – getting your heart rate up. It’s good for you and your immune system.

Indians have tons of misconceptions about health, as seen in the many ill-informed WhatsApp forwards floating around about diet and fitness. Our diet is delicious, but needs a refresh to healthier lower calorie alternatives to suit modern lifestyles. A healthy you not only benefits you, but saves the country billions in healthcare costs. And yes, just like washing hands and wearing masks, getting fit will also save you from Covid-19.

Courtesy - TOI


Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Agony of the bhadralok: Amidst Bengal’s pitched political battles, this group finds itself on the sidelines (Times of India)

Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr.

(The writer is a political commentator.)

But the cultural sheen seems to be peeling off in the face of a pitched political battle where no rules or norms are followed, and a blood sport in all its viciousness is on display. The Bengali bhadralok or haute bourgeoisie had always faced this unenviable test of their taste and judgment, caught in the trauma of a society and polity that is poor and backward. It was evident in the Bengal partition of 1905 and the swadeshi movement that came with it. This was followed by the second partition in 1947. On these two occasions, though bruised, the bhadralok emerged with its head high.

But it became difficult to sustain the cultural hauteur after the explosion of Naxalite violence and the state violence unleashed by Congress’s Siddhartha Shankar Ray government to counter the Naxalites. When the CPM-led Left Front stormed into office in 1977 and stayed there till 2011, the violence didn’t disappear. It slinked into the alleys and remained there, half-hidden in a partly institutionalised form.

The Left Front, especially the CPM, became the mob’s boss and violence, or the threat of violence, became a permanent feature of social life in the state. Even as early as 1975, it was the pada (locality) bullies who went about collecting money at puja time. Civility was not much of a virtue in these matters. The bhadralok turned their heads away and pursued their higher calling, even as violence was smouldering all round.

It was Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party who fought the street battles and stood up to Left terror. The bhadralok was forced to face up to the ugly truth of violence and terror at the time of the Nandigram crisis. Though disillusioned and even hurt by the Left’s perfidy, the cultured class could not bring itself to support the lower middle class, rough-hewn and quite philistine-ish Mamata and her band of intrepid streetfighters who challenged the Left dominance.

Once in power, the patronage of violence shifted to TMC, and the Left cadres began to taste their own bitter medicine. CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury was forced to confess during the 2019 Lok Sabha election that the Left cadres and votes went to BJP, because they became targets of TMC terror squads.

Yechury and the top Left Front leadership had no doubt that it’s not the BJP, which is the ideological enemy of the Left as we know it, but the TMC which is the real enemy. The CPM general secretary has been calling out the need to defeat the TMC as a way of keeping the right-wing BJP out of the state. The fact of the matter is that BJP is the main challenge to the TMC in the assembly election next month, and the Left Front isn’t a player to reckon with.

The Left Front doesn’t even have a recognisable CM face. If TMC were to lose the election, the victor would be BJP and not the Left. But Yechury and his comrades persist with the argument that the real canker in Bengal politics is the TMC and not the imminent takeover of state politics by right-wing BJP.

The Left Front’s mulishness reminds one of the insistence of the German communist party in the 1930s that it was the German socialists who were the real enemies. And this facilitated in a way the emergence of the National Socialists led by Adolf Hitler. There’s of course a vast difference between the Nazis and the right-wing authoritarian politics of the BJP. But there’s little doubt that BJP is a right-wing party which bends democratic processes to achieve power.

The agonising dilemma of the gentle bhadralok now is this: The need to support Mamata Banerjee and TMC because it’s clear as daylight that the Left Front doesn’t have the strength to keep the Hindutva raiders from the Hindi heartland at bay. There’s reason to believe that the bhadralok harbours conservative tendencies which may draw them to BJP’s toxic cultural politics. The Brahmo Samaj wing is a small minority among the bhadralok, and it might keel over. But there aren’t too many intellectuals in BJP to take advantage of this, push back the catholic humanism of Tagore and bring forward the innate conservatism of Bankimchandra Chatterjee.

The problem is that Chatterjee is a complex intellectual and BJP cannot stomach his sophisticated conservatism. He cannot be invoked to justify the politics of populist authoritarianism of the Hindutva kind. That is why PM Modi and home minister Amit Shah kept away from him.

The bhadralok presents a tragic picture of an elite in an undeveloped polity like that of Bengal and India, where it presents the best that liberal humanism can offer, but isn’t robust enough to weather the onslaughts of the materialistic and lumpen politics of the BJP. On its part, BJP has no use for the ikebana culture of the bhadralok. The Bengali literati are ready to stand with Mamata but it may not be of great help to the TMC leader. The agony of the bhadralok is palpable. It can only be a silent and passive bystander as Bengal experiences destructive political convulsions.

Courtesy - Times of India.


No to Ghettos: For India’s sake enforce the 50% cap on quotas, don’t dilute it (Times of India)

Supreme Court’s move to examine whether to review the 1992 Indra Sawhney verdict capping reservations at 50% calls for caution. Far from correcting historical injustices, reservations have become a competitive subdivision of shrinking opportunities. While merit doesn’t factor in socio-economic inequalities that prevent many people from attaining their potential, no society can progress if merit gets the short shrift. In that respect, Indra Sawhney attempted to balance the right to equality and state’s prerogative for socio-economic justice with the 50% cap.

Already, Centre and many state governments have breached this cap and aren’t being held to account. The SC proceedings are also witnessing a challenge on grounds of federalism against Article 342A introduced by the 102nd Constitution Amendment Act (2018), which requires presidential (Centre’s) assent for states notifying changes to OBC categories. But the legal hair splitting must also take note of new realities. Slowing economic growth and success of various groups in enlisting under OBC/ SC/ ST categories and easing creamy layer ceilings have created social divides that can’t be solved – but may be worsened – by more reservations.

The yardsticks shifting to absolute, rather than relative, measures of backwardness is allowing dominant communities like Marathas to join the quota mela. In an underdeveloped country like India, pretty much every community can be shown to be backward in some absolute sense. However, quota gains for it can only be at the expense of some other community, perhaps even more backward. This fundamental reality is papered over when Centre and states pander to quota demands. From inclusionary ideals, reserving the majority of opportunities for special groups has morphed into a means of exclusion. 75% reservation of entry level private sector jobs for locals by Haryana government threatens to shrink the job pie and hurt local aspirants by making it difficult to do business in Haryana.

Proponents of nativism and caste identities would do better for their people by working to improve education outcomes in local schools, a major determinant of a person’s worldly prospects. While reforms like GST visualise India as a unified market, burgeoning reservations proceed in the opposite direction by fragmenting the labour market – even as constitutional rights such as right to equality and right to migrate to other states in search of livelihood are denied. The Indra Sawhney judgment cap of 50% on reservations is already very high. It behoves SC to crack the whip in this regard, and bring errant governments in line.

Courtesy - Times of India.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Sunny days forever? (TOI)

Santosh Desai

There is something about Sunil Gavaskar that makes him a permanent presence in our lives. He burst onto the international scene 50 years ago and has never stopped being a part of our lives ever since. Barring Lata Mangeshkar and Amitabh Bachchan, there is no other Indian public figure in any sphere that has had the same longevity as him. If for the first 16 years it was as a cricketer who was India’s ticket to be considered a rival worth respecting, for the next 34 years it has been as a commentator who has become the voice of Indian cricket, through all the changes that it has seen.

If Virat gave to Indian team a ruthlessness of spirit, and an ability to win and keep on winning, Dhoni made victory feel like a right to be accepted as a matter of course, Sachin showed us that we could not only win but dominate the best, Kapil proved that we had it what it takes to win at the highest level, Gavaskar was the one who made us feel that we belonged on the world stage. At a time when the Indian team had a fragility about it that endured in spite of occasional flashes of brilliance, Gavaskar was the one pillar that could not be shaken, not even by the very best that the world could throw at him. And he did this not by grit or determination alone but by showing the kind of technique and class that the game valued the most. He played the game the classical way, and he played it better than almost anybody else at the time.

For years the only person standing against pace attacks of the world and India was Sunil Gavaskar. To be sure there were others. We had the artistic flair of Vishwanath, the brave obduracy of Mohinder Amarnath, and the willowy brilliance of Dilip Vengsarkar, but none of them came close to matching the consistency and the sheer volume of runs that Gavaskar racked up.

To be an opener in the time of Roberts, Marshall, Holding, Garner, Lillee, Thomson, Imran, Willis and Hadlee was to be a gladiator in the time of tyrants. Relentless hostility was the defining trait of fast bowling then, and nothing we see today comes close to that. Unprepared pitches, no helmets, shoddy protective gear, no restriction on the number of bouncers, this was not a time for the faint of heart. Fear was a palpable emotion experienced by even the most seasoned batsmen. Being an opener was then perhaps one of the most unenviable jobs in the world.

For some correctness is a prison, a set of confining rules that limit one’s freedom and provide a formulaic answer to everything. For Gavaskar, correctness was a source of freedom. The technique seemed an inborn trait rather than an acquired skill. Balance, posture, poise, patience, certain straightness of carriage, these came naturally to him. Which is what imparted beauty to his game, rather than mere technical exactitude.

Gavaskar made smallness feel like a work of art. Everything flowed smoothly, in a compact package. The cover drives, the straight drives, and the flicks were a combination of precision and elegance as if they were always meant to be. His height seemed to offer him protection against the quicks, and once he cut out the hook, he looked relatively undisturbed by all that was dished out to him. Watching Gavaskar play was a lesson incorrectness made beautiful, the technical turned fluid.

He was perhaps the only cricketing superstar who left the stage on his terms, without having the big question that has so dogged others dangling ominously in front of him. He retired while having a good run with the bat, and he stayed retired thereafter.

As a sporting hero who has stayed relevant for over 50 years, Gavaskar paints a complex picture with many shades. At one level, he is the voice of palatable wisdom that has managed to stay effortlessly contemporary by avoiding the old-fogginess that can afflict the wisest of the accomplished. He is the one constant in a world that has changed beyond recognition. Cricket is nothing like what it was in his time, and yet Gavaskar goes on. He plays the role of providing a sense of continuity to Indian cricket without it lapsing into sepia-tinged nostalgia. His inherent pragmatism makes him comfortable with young and old alike, and it helps that he looks pretty much the same as he always has.

What is interesting is that while he has played the role of the person bridging generations, he has always very much been his own person. There is a streak of individualism, of always knowing where his interests lie and a willingness to exercise a certain part of his personality to maintain distance from others. He was the first player to recognise the commercial potential of cricket and has never shied away from fighting for what he believes is his due. He is also politically adept; the fact that he managed to stay relevant even through all the muddy transitions that the BCCI has gone through speaks for both the respect he commands as well as his ability to stay on the right side of things.

His career too has been dotted with instances both of uncharacteristic loss of self-control as well as difficult relationships with some teammates. The inexplicable 36 not out compiled batting through 60 overs in a World Cup Match, the petulant walk-out against Australia that could have led to more serious consequences but for the timely intervention of the Indian manager are well-advertised cases of these lapses.

He is not a cardboard cut-out of a hero, as no human being is. But 50 years ago, he began the journey that has culminated today in India being the top-ranked team in the world. It all began with Sunil Gavaskar.

Courtesy - TOI


Friday, February 26, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy - TOI.


Friday, January 15, 2021

Privacy checks in: Special Marriage Act’s intrusive 30 day public notice provision could be on its last legs (TOI)

The Allahabad high court judgment holding the 30 day public notice under the Special Marriage Act (SMA) optional, promises to put an end to a regressive provision in a law often touted as a Uniform Civil Code template. Justice Vivek Chaudhary has held that a couple not willing to allow the publication of a 30 day notice requires the marriage officer to solemnise the marriage forthwith. The public notice provision has faced increasing flak over communal and caste vigilantes using it to foil marriages.

The court was hearing a habeas corpus petition by a Hindu man seeking out his wife, a Muslim who converted to Hinduism on marriage eve, detained by her father. It was moved to address this matter when the reunited couple bemoaned their preference to marry under SMA instead of religious personal law was frustrated by its onerous 30 day public notice, soliciting objections that violated their privacy and incentivised societal and family pressures. The court was also informed that many such interfaith couples were now trapped between this unhelpful public notice and the new, draconian UP law stricturing religious conversion for marriage.

Justice Chaudhary has ruled that the public notice violated the fundamental right to privacy recognised by the Supreme Court. He also flagged sweeping societal changes since SMA’s enactment in 1954 and that the very purpose of laws is to serve society as per its needs, which SC judgments have consistently satisfied through greater fulfilment of personal freedoms. Finally, the judge recognised the farcical situation where personal law marriages do not require such public notices. In a modern, secular society that recognises the right of consenting adults to marry, the SMA should entrust the marriage officer with no greater role than verifying identity, age and valid consent. The right to privacy promises more such resets in the power asymmetry between state and citizens in the coming days.

Through a series of interventions, Allahabad HC has struck some powerful blows for couples torn apart by society, state officers and mistaken laws. With this resounding HC verdict, SC must step in and examine the constitutionality of this SMA provision and the near-identical UP, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh laws targeting interfaith marriages and religious conversions. Unlike the farm laws with political and policy imperatives which have opposing and supporting farmers making adjudication dicey, threats to individual liberties and privacy lie squarely in SC’s domain and must occupy its utmost energies.

Courtesy - TOI

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