current affairs december-february

CURRENT AFFAIRS NEW dec- feb

  • Five airports to go ‘tag-free’ for hand baggage

If you have had to go back to security from the boarding queue of a flight because your hand baggage did not have the stamped tag, there is relief coming at five airports.

The hand baggage tags will not be necessary as the Civil Aviation Ministry has ordered that they could be done away with, on a pilot basis, at Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore airports.

“We recently issued orders to do away with stamping of hand baggage tags at the time of security screening. The practice will be introduced on a pilot basis at five airports and if successful, may be expanded to other airports across the country. This will save passengers’ time while boarding and will not be a security hassle in any manner,” Civil Aviation Secretary R.N. Choubey told The Hindu on Wednesday.

A week from now

The Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), which looks after security at airports, is likely to implement the move within a week, Mr. Choubey said.

In India, all cabin baggage must carry a tag which is rubber-stamped by security personnel once the baggage goes through the security scanner. This practice is not followed in the United States and European countries.

The move has been welcomed by representatives of air passengers, as it would speed up boarding. “There are many first-time fliers who are unaware of the need for baggage tags. They stand in the security queue only to be told much later, either by a fellow passenger or security personnel, that tags are required. Such passengers go all the way back to the airline counter to collect the tag, which leads to delays,” said D. Sudhakara Reddy, national president of Air Passengers’ Association of India.

Mr. Reddy said the move may also reduce CISF deployment at airports because there are guards deployed at boarding gates who verify the stamp on the tags. A lost tag currently requires the passenger to contact security personnel at the scanner.

 

  • Goa’s Serendipity festival to celebrate diversity in art

The Serendipity Arts Festival (SAF), a stellar 8-day event, has announced a line-up of 33 global artists who will showcase their work in Goa from December 16-23. The rich culture and history of Goa is expected to provide the perfect backdrop for the grand festival.

SAF will present over 40 projects and exhibitions featuring noted artists like Kabi Raj Lama, Bandu Manamperi, Lisa Stertz, Escif, Billy Chang, S.P. Pushpakanthan and Paquito Gonzalez.

‘The Young Subcontinent’ project will showcase the works of 24 young artists from across the South Asian subcontinent. Well-known artists Kabi Raj Lama, Kishor Kayastha and Mekh Limbu will be participating in the project from Nepal; S.P. Pushpakanthan, Sussiman Nirmalavassan, Isuru Kumarasinghe and Halik Aziz come from Sri Lanka; Jeanno Gaussi, Mariam Ghani and Zainab Haidary take part from Afghanistan; and Farzana Urmi arrives from Bangladesh. These artists have worked through the year to create a diverse range of visual artworks they will display here. Their work is also expected to respond to the idea of the subcontinent, the nations that constitute it, their socio-political and cultural conditions, and their shared histories.

‘A Tale of Two Cities’

‘A Tale of Two Cities’ facilitates established artists of India and Sri Lanka to engage in an investigative and research-based art-making process, together re-looking the socio-cultural and historical dynamics of two cities, Varanasi and Anuradhapura. The project hopes to provide an opportunity for artists to connect from both countries and share their interests in understanding each city in its historical as well as contemporary contexts, which would reveal new possibilities to work on their art. This project will involve five reputed artists from Sri Lanka, namely, Jagath Weerasinghe, Anoli Perera, Pala Pothupitiya, Pradeep Chandrasiri and Bandu Manamperi.

‘Lucid Dreams’ will be a curated collection of live performances by national and international artists that blurs the lines between visual and performing arts to create an immersive space for audience engagement.

Artists will present both long and short duration live works over the course of eight to nine right from the opening day of the festival. These will be unchoreographed, unique pieces composed live and in situ by each artist. Germany’s Lisa Stertz, France’s Uriel Barthelemi, Italy’s Virginia Zanetti and Bangladesh’s Yasmin Jahan Nupur will be seen performing for this project.

‘Open Site’

‘Open Site’ will bring international street artists to the public spaces of Goa. It is an attempt towards dissolving boundaries — between nations, States and, even more importantly, between people and art. The project aims to make an intervention that gently provokes the public to imagine their lives in a broader socio-political domain. International street artists such as Roa, a muralist from Belgium; Escif, a graffiti artist from Spain; and NeMo, a street artist from Italy, will use Goa as their canvas to reach out to larger audiences through their thought-provoking pieces.

‘Satrangi’

‘Satrangi’ is an experimental dance project that will showcase six dancers from across the world who pursue different techniques and styles but come together to explore various vocabularies through a collaborative piece. The project has been designed with the vision to promote sharing and appreciation across the cultures. The idea is to break the invisible barrier across various styles and bring performers who are otherwise competitors together as a team to work on a phenomenal dance routine. International artists such as Billy Chang, Alesandra Seutin and Subhash Viman will be seen performing a dance routine, and Eugene Skeet will help compose music for the project.

‘Caravaan – The Gypsy Trail’, is a project that endeavours to fuse these individually popular and flamboyant folk traditions showcasing Spanish flamenco artists (guitar and percussion) such as Jose Bolita, Paquito Gonzalez and Osam Ezzeldin. This will be a musical exploration of that ancient link between these two traditions, designed around the theme of a people in search of new lands and the breaking of all boundaries.

“The international artists represented at the festival bring a diverse range of practices and conversations to the table. Instead of simply showcasing arts from around the world, our international projects involve these artists by truly engaging with our unique cultural context of the subcontinent,” said Ms. Preeta Singh, festival director.

SAF will be a multi-disciplinary arts event that will celebrate diversity in art with a special focus on music, dance, theatre, crafts, visual arts, culinary arts and photography. It will be the first edition in a long-term cultural project that hopes to affect positive change in the arts in India on a large scale, says Ms. Singh.

 

  • New method to treat narrowing of arteries

In a breakthrough for treating abnormal narrowing of branching arteries, scientists have developed a new stenting technique called ‘Nano Crush’ that offers an easy, long-term treatment for the condition.

The technique, developed by a team of doctors at Fortis Hospital, Anandapur in Kolkata was presented at the European Bifurcation Club meeting held in the Netherlands recently.

The treatment of stenosis or abnormal narrowing at the branching points of arteries is a major challenge for interventional cardiologists.

Traditional stents placed at such points often compromise one of the branches. Existing treatments for stenosis involve more metal and are difficult to execute.

The Nano Crush technique is an easy and effective method of stenting the branching arteries as it does not affect blood flow in any of the branches and offers a long-term solution, according to the researchers led by Dr. Shuvanan Ray, chief of Cardiology at Fortis Kolkata.

“The classical stenting technique is time consuming, difficult, technically demanding and at times leads to incomplete revascularisation,” said Dr. Ray.

The technique has shown promising results when tested on a sample size of 70 patients.

“We have patients with more than four years follow up and we are confident of the effectiveness of the technique,” researchers said.

“Going by the impressive outcome, the Nano Crush method may be applied widely among patients with stenosis at branching points of arteries,” said Dr. Ray, who led the team comprising of Dr. Prithwiraj Bhattacharya, Dr. Priyam Mukherjee and Dr. Siddhartha Bandhopadhya.

 

  • Jumping robot to assist in earthquake rescue efforts

An agile jumping robot developed by U.S. scientists who drew inspiration from one of the animal world’s best leapers could one day help in rescue efforts after earthquakes or building collapses.

The robot can jump one metre in less than one second, according to the report in the journal Science Robotics.

Known as Salto, the 26-cm tall robot can leap higher than a bullfrog and almost as high as a galago, or bush baby, a small primate found in Africa. That’s better than a human but not the highest of any robot — other machines have been made that can jump more than three meters in a single leap.

But Salto does hold the crown in vertical-jumping agility, which researchers define as the ratio of the maximum jump height to the time it takes to complete one jump. “To have a high vertical-jumping agility, you have to be able to jump high and do it quickly,” explained Duncan Haldane, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and lead author of the study.

According to co-author Justin Yin, “Salto can jump to a height of one metre in 0.58 seconds and be immediately ready to jump again.”

It also attains 78 percent of a galago’s vertical-jumping agility, said the report.

Salto, which stands for “saltatorial locomotion on terrain obstacles,” weighs just 100 grams.

The one-legged robot can jump from the floor, flip forward and then kick off a wall, reaching even greater heights.

Researchers hope it will aid rescuers by offering a service that can easily navigate rubble and tough terrain.

“Our goal was to have a search-and-rescue robot small enough to not disturb the rubble further, and to move quickly across the many kinds of rubble produced by collapsed buildings.”

 

  • Why is Trump targeting Boeing?

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump targeted aviation and defence giant Boeing for allegedly overpricing its products at the cost of American taxpayers and trying to move jobs out of the country in tweets on Tuesday and an interview on Wednesday.

Mr. Trump has not explained the reason for his sudden focus on Boeing, but his first tweet that threatened to cancel a federal government order for a new plane from the company to be used as Air Force One came hours after a front page story in Washington Post that discussed its plans to start manufacturing in India.

The Post story was about the proposals by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, another U.S. defence giant, to manufacture their fighter jets in India, F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-16 Fighting Falcon, respectively. Defence manufacturing in India is a key component of the Narendra Modi government’s ‘Make In India’ initiative and the U.S.- India defence partnership.

The Boeing CEO was critical of Mr. Trumps’ trade policies in a comment piece on Tuesday, but the President-elect said he had not seen that. In an interview on NBC News on Wednesday morning, he said: “Boeing is going to be a beneficiary of our trade policy. We will reduce taxes and remove regulations… But if they want to fire our workers, move to Mexico or another country and sell their products into our country, they are going to pay a tax.”

Mr. Trump’s style of pressing individual companies on their business plans has reportedly unnerved U.S corporations, but he said he would stay the course. “That is what I am here for — to negotiate prices,” he said in the interview.

“Boeing is building a brand new 747 Air Force One for future Presidents, but costs are out of control, more than $4 billion. Cancel order!” he said on Twitter on Tuesday. “We are going to work it out. Its planes are priced too high, and we are going to get it lowered. And if they don’t reduce the price we are not going to order it,” he said on Wednesday.

The President-elect rejected the suggestion that his style was hurting the American business environment and cited the rise of the stock market ever since his election, to support his argument.

‘Many appointments on Obama advice’

Mr. Trump said he has been speaking with President Barack Obama on potential appointees in his administration. “I have asked him what you think of this one or that one. I have asked him what are the biggest challenges before the country, going forward,” the President-elect said, adding that he liked Mr. Obama. “I really like him. I love many of his ideas…” he said. “I am taking his advice very seriously. There are some people that I will be appointing based on his recommendations and in one case, I have appointed a person where he thought very highly of that person,” said Mr. Trump.

 

  • Kharge faults CBI chief’s appointment

Congress leader in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge, a member of the committee that selects the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), has dashed off a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, complaining the panel has been bypassed in the appointment of Rakesh Asthana, a Gujarat cadre IPS officer, as the agency’s interim/acting chief.

Meantime, the Supreme Court has also agreed to hear a petition challenging the appointment of Mr. Asthana at the CBI’s helm. A Bench led by Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur on Wednesday scheduled a petition filed by the NGO Common Cause, represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan, to be heard on December 9.

The petition contends that the appointment of Mr. Asthana was made in violation of the mandatory conditions imposed by the Supreme Court in the Vineet Narain case and Section 4A of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946.

It said the Centre made the appointment in total defiance of the statutory procedure that the name of CBI director should be finalised by a panel of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the single largest party in the Lok Sabha (in case there is no Leader of Opposition) and the Chief Justice of India or a Supreme Court judge.

In his letter, Mr. Kharge said “the entire process has been vitiated and is being manipulated to pre-empt the decision to be arrived at in the meeting of the selection committee”. “The government failed to convene the meeting. It now appears that this was done deliberately to facilitate giving the charge of the post of CBI director to an officiating junior officer by hurriedly transferring Special Director R.K. Dutta, the senior-most officer, as Special Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs, on 30th November, 2016,” the letter said.

The government has since said it would respond soon to Mr. Kharge’s letter, explaining why the selection committee did not meet.

As a 1984 batch IPS officer, Mr. Asthana is too junior, sources say, to even make it to a panel of possible candidates for the CBI chief to replace Mr. Anil Sinha, who retired last week.

In the past, Mr. Asthana has headed a special investigation team (SIT) that probed the Godhra train burning in which 59 Hindu activists were charred to death near the Godhra railway station in February 2002.

  • Three years after the Koushal judgment

December 11, 2016 marks three years from the day on which the Supreme Court delivered amongst its most widely criticised judgments since the turn of the century: Koushal v. Naz Foundation. With the stroke of a pen, India’s LGBT community was cast back into the shadows of illegality after a judgment of the Delhi High Court, reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, was reversed in appeal. The process was as painful as the outcome, for the Supreme Court observed that the LGBT community was a “minuscule” minority that did not deserve the court’s time or protection.

Despite the court’s observations, there was little doubt about whether this judgment represented the collective view of the judiciary. In an article published in this newspaper two years ago, I explained that courts across the country had begun narrowing the impact of the decision in the months after it was made. The Gujarat High Court intelligently skirted the Supreme Court’s decision on Section 377, holding that the State government’s failure to grant a tax concession to a film depicting homosexuality was unconstitutional. In the National Legal Services Authority case (2014), the Supreme Court held that hijras and transgenders should be treated as a ‘third gender’ for accessing public services. Following on from this judgment, the Allahabad High Court decided that transgenders would be entitled to be treated as the “head of a household” under food security legislation. News reports indicate that these changes are being mainstreamed across government departments. A ‘third gender’ option is now available in railway reservation forms, ration card applications, passport applications, and Life Insurance Corporation proposal forms.

As Koushal has been gradually discredited in India, courts from around the world have followed. After the Koushal judgment, Indian lesbian and gay couples filed applications in different parts of the Commonwealth claiming refugee or protected status. These couples argued that requiring them to return to India would raise a well-founded fear of persecution and violate their human rights.

In two cases in Britain, lesbian couples from India claimed that they should not be deported home, for they would suffer a risk of persecution or serious harm if they revealed their identities to their families or local communities. The Koushal judgment was cited as an example of the contemptuous attitude towards the LGBT community in India. The courts in both cases acknowledged that Koushal did not accurately capture the state of the law in India. In one case, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales held that the judgment was under reconsideration, and a successful challenge “would result in the December 2013 Supreme Court judgment being set aside and remade by a different constitution of the Court”. It also observed that the National Legal Services Authority judgment — decided “just a few months” after Koushal — would likely be indicative of the approach that the Supreme Court would adopt in the future.

Similarly, in an Australian case decided in 2016, a gay man claimed that deportation to India would compel him to alter his behaviour in ways that would conflict with his sexual orientation. Koushal was again cited in support of the claim. The Australian Administrative Appeals Tribunal held that while negative attitudes towards homosexuality persisted, there were “signs of increasing tolerance” towards the LGBT community in India.

Overruled in practice

On the one hand, these cases confirm that Koushal stands virtually overruled in practice, and will continue to be disregarded within, and outside, India. This is a valuable outcome and a demonstration of the rights-protecting role that courts can perform within the formal constraints of their constitutional authority. On the other hand, however, a closer examination of the cases indicates that a formal overruling of the Koushal decision would further precipitate decisive shifts in social mores. The British courts arrived at their decision in the knowledge that the lesbian couples were well educated, were in a position to sustain themselves without family support, and could relocate to Indian cities in which their identities would be more widely accepted. Despite its finding that attitudes towards the LGBT community were changing in India, the Australian tribunal eventually disallowed the deportation of the gay man, on the basis that he was psychologically vulnerable, and would not be equipped to manage the fear of possible violence from police and local communities.

The Supreme Court should formally recognise what Indian courts, as well as courts from other parts of the Commonwealth, have implicitly acknowledged. No matter how well intentioned, courts are also capable of violating constitutional rights — and that the Supreme Court did just that on December 11, 2013.

 

  • Labour Ministry kept in the dark over made-ups sector labour reform package

The Union Cabinet’s decision to make employees’ contribution to Employees Provident Fund (EPF) optional in the made-ups sector on Wednesday took the Union labour ministry by surprise as officials said they had not been not consulted on the matter.

A senior labour ministry official said the Cabinet note wasn’t moved by the labour ministry. “We were not consulted on this matter,” said another ministry official.

In June this year, the Centre had proposed making EPF optional for textile and apparels workers earning less than Rs.15,000 a month as a part of a special package for the garments sector. Now, the Cabinet has extended this proposal to the made-ups manufacturing sector. Made-up products like towels and bedsheets form the second-largest employer in the textiles sector following apparel.

Draws flak

The decision is a part of reform measures approved by the Cabinet to boost employment generation and exports in the made-ups sector. These measures, however, will be embedded within the approved budget of Rs.6,006 crore for the apparel package.

The EPF exemption has already drawn flak. Terming the move ‘a retrograde step’, Subramanyam Sreenivasaiah, CEO, Ascent HR, said it went against the much-talked about objective of moving towards a ‘pensionable society’. “For one, this is an exemption given to one sector to the exclusion of others. For another, it defeats the very EPF principle of providing future protection.” EPF, according to him, is the lone state-initiated cover available in the Indian context for employees. The policy uncertainty, he said, wasn’t good for the economy.

Act amendment

However, a top EPFO official said that the move to make the EPF contribution optional for workers in the made-ups sector will require amendments to the Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act of 1952.

At present, EPF contribution is mandatory in all factories employing 20 or more workers. Both employer and employee compulsorily contribute 12 per cent each of the latter’s income towards EPF.

Mr. Sreenivasaiah also pointed to flip-flops in decisions vis-a-vis employer contributions and EPF withdrawals. If “take-home pay” were to guide EPF option for employees, there were several spheres within the economy when an employee got less than Rs.15,000 a month, he said. “Why then they aren’t given that option to opt out of EP?” he asked.

  • Europe walks a tightrope

As 2016 draws to a close after Brexit in the U.K. and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S., it is tempting to label it the Year of Resurgent Nationalism. Yet in its dying gasp the global season of elections has produced two surprise results, in Austria and Italy, which give pause. Last weekend Austria rejected far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in its presidential election, instead placing confidence in Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green Party who has said he would be an “open-minded, liberal-minded and above all a pro-European president.” In Italy a more mixed result was delivered, with voters resoundingly defeating a referendum driven by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi to change Italy’s constitution by reducing the numbers and power of the Senate. While some in Italy’s political right have seized upon the result as a big victory for anti-establishment forces, the vote defies the simplistic narrative of a “populist revolt against globalisation and elites” that has been applied elsewhere. It is evident that the focus of the vote was Mr. Renzi’s own record in office and the relative merits of the constitutional reforms he was proposing, which also explains why he resigned. The debates leading up to the vote, similarly, hardly touched upon burning issues such as immigration writ large in Britain or America. Instead they thrashed out questions on the potential of the reforms to be anti-democratic and capable of altering in-built constitutional checks and balances.

Despite the election outcomes in Europe being at odds with the broader global surge in pro-majoritarian national politics, there is one common thread that binds the two: a hatefully bitter polarisation of the electorate of each country. In Italy, while the opposition to Mr. Renzi’s plans came from mainstream political figures, including members of his Democratic Party, former prime ministers and academics and judges, the far right Northern League and the Five Star Movement left an indelible mark on the No campaign. These groups and their anti-immigrant rhetoric have thus received a boost. In Austria the flip side of Mr. Van der Bellen’s win was that Mr. Hofer’s Freedom Party managed to pull in some 2.2 million votes despite standing stoutly against the Social Democrats, the Popular Party and the Green Party, besides several among the establishment media. The fact that French far-right leader Marine Le Pen assured Mr. Hofer that he would win the next legislative election is a signal of confidence in the power of the rising anti-establishment mood. As the divide between “elites” and “the forgotten man and woman” widens, the need to rethink liberal politics has become imperative.

 

  • Houdini’s secrets unlocked in Hungary

Ninety years after his death, the secrets of the world’s greatest escape artist, Harry Houdini, have been unlocked in a recently opened Hungarian museum devoted to the Budapest-born illusionist.

Set high in the capital’s lofty Castle district, the House of Houdini lifts the veil on the box of tricks used by the famous magician, who lived most of his life in the United States.

Amid gleaming chandeliers and old Chesterfield seats, the red-painted rooms showcase handcuffs and padlocks used by Houdini in performances.

Visitors can also see props from a recent television production on him such as a box from an illusion where a woman appears to be cut in half.

There’s even a stage where budding magicians charm visitors with card tricks.

“I had an urge to pay tribute to Houdini,” said museum owner and fellow escapologist David Merlini who has dedicated his life to collecting the items on display.

“We are all Houdinis. Everyone has a secret desire sometimes to get out of a certain situation, to be somewhere else, in a different pair of shoes, that is his enduring universal appeal,” he said.

At the start of December, the museum pulled a new rarity out of its hat — a bible once owned by Houdini.

The book, which he signed as a 19-year-old, was delivered to the museum by its previous owner, New York-based jazz-blues singer Tara O’Grady.

“I feel like it has come home,” said Ms. O’Grady, whose family had owned the book since the late 1970s.

The bible had been gifted by Houdini’s brother to a nurse in the 1960s who then gave it to her Irish immigrant neighbour, Ms. O’Grady’s mother.

Little attention was paid to the book, until a friend’s recent interest alerted Ms. O’Grady to its potential value.

When Mr. Merlini first heard about the bible’s re-emergence on a Houdini historian’s website, “Wild about Harry”, he knew he had to have “this special collector’s item”.

 

  • Wrapping food in newspaper a health hazard: regulator

India’s food regulator has issued an advisory stating that the use of newspapers for wrapping and packing of food items, a common practice by street vendors, poses a health hazard.

The regulator on Wednesday expressed concern over “Indians are being slowly poisoned” by cancer-causing agents in newspaper ink.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) restricted the use of newspapers and packaging material saying that consumption of food wrapped in newspapers was “injurious to health, even if the food had been cooked hygienically. Indians are being slowly poisoned due to newspapers being widely used as food packaging material by small hotels, vendors and also in homes in lieu of absorbent paper.”

‘Harmful pigments’

The food regulator said the chemicals in newspaper ink contain harmful colours, pigments, additives and preservatives. “Besides chemical contaminants, presence of pathogenic micro-organisms in used newspaper poses potential risk to human health. Older people, children and people with compromised vital organs and immune systems are at a greater risk of acquiring cancer-related health complications if they are exposed to food packed in such material,” said FSSAI in a press statement.

The FSSAI has stated that there is an urgent need to discourage the use of newspaper as food packaging material by creating awareness among businesses, especially unorganised food business operators, about the harmful effects. The regulator has instructed the commissioners of food safety across the country to initiate an awareness campaign to this effect.

  • Dhaka calls for political solution to Rohingya issue

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has urged Myanmar’s leadership to resolve the Rohingya Muslim issue through political means, remarking that military measures could not be the answer to the problem.

“The Rohingya issue is a political problem and it cannot be resolved militarily,” she was quoted by an aide as telling the newly appointed Danish Ambassador in Dhaka, Mikael Hemnid Winther, who called on her on Thursday .

Asking Myanmar to solve the problem “through internal negotiations”, Ms. Hasina referred to the example of the settlement of the Chittagong Hill Tracts issue in Bangladesh in 1997 through peaceful negotiations following which the Chakma rebels laid down their arms.

Earlier, Ms. Hasina had told Parliament on Wednesday that Bangladesh, which has already sheltered half a million Rohingya refugees, would not accept more of them.

“We cannot open the border to allow trespassing into the country,” she said. Stating that her government has been giving all possible support, including food, shelter and medical facilities, to the Myanmarese nationals entering Bangladesh, she insisted “we cannot open our gate for their influx on a large scale.”

She informed Parliament that she has already asked the authorities concerned to “trace the culprits responsible for recent attacks on Myanmar border guard and Army”

“There will be no place in Bangladesh for those criminals responsible for carrying out attacks on Myanmar border guard and Army — Bangladesh’s soil would not be allowed to use for any subversive activities against our neighbours,” she asserted .

According to the International Organization for Migration, around 21,000 Rohingyas have already fled to Bangladesh in recent weeks to escape violence in Myanmar.

  • A more muscular rice variety takes on wheat

A rice variety that packs more protein to match wheat has been released by Karnataka’s University of Agricultural Sciences – Bengaluru.

The rice strain, which offers an option to those who are not comfortable switching over to wheat for supplementary protein, is now available for commercial cultivation.

The high-protein variety has been under development at UAS-B for nearly 10 years, with Rs. 92 lakh in funding from the Union Department of Biotechnology.

Dr. Shailaja Hittalmani, who headed the research team that worked on it, told The Hindu that the strain has 12 to13 per cent protein content, which is higher than the 6 to 7.5 per cent in normal rice. Wheat has about 14 per cent of protein.

Using conventional breeding, researchers raised the amount of lysine, an amino acid that helps synthesize proteins, by about 20 per cent, among other benefits. “The higher protein leads to a decrease in starch, benefiting diabetics,” Dr. Hittalmani, who heads the Genetics and Plant Breeding Department of the University, said.

Easier to digest

Moreover, the rice protein is easier to digest compared to what comes from non-vegetarian sources. “It is particularly good for children and the elderly,” she says.

No extra cost

For the farmer, the new entrant is a lucrative option that can be grown like any other cereal, without extra costs. The health benefits of a ‘stronger’ rice, however, are not widely known and there is a need to create awareness.

The same research team has also released high-zinc and high-iron types, which have double the normal level of the two elements.

  • Curbs on vehicle traffic through tiger reserve go

Soon after resolving to lift restrictions on vehicular traffic through the Kawal Tiger Reserve, the Telangana government is ironically set to pat itself on the back for its “support” to conservation at the Conference of Parties-13 at Cancun in Mexico.

Environment and Forest Minister Jogu Ramanna, who chaired the meeting of the State Board for Wildlife three days ago, where decisions of far-reaching consequences were taken, will attend COP-13 from Friday. He will make a presentation on the government’s efforts to protect the environment.

Among the decisions taken at the meeting was the resolution to lift curbs on the flow of heavy vehicle traffic through the tiger reserve. Environmentalists say the move will nullify all that was achieved in terms of tiger conservation.

In fact, conservationists question the very validity of the meeting as it was not chaired by Board Chairman, Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao.

“The gaur or Indian bison, now found only in Kawal in entire Telangana, will go extinct,” opined a conservationist as he dwelt on the controversial move. “Restoration of traffic will effectively fragment the core area and the gaurs will die while crossing the road to reach Godavari river, which they do invariably,” he explained.

The bison constitutes the main prey for tigers and its presence gives much hope for tiger conservation. Kawal has about 250 of these wild animals.

‘Alternative route’

“The government can develop the Tapalpur-Kalamadugu road along Godavari as an alternative as it does not disturb the tiger reserve,” suggested former Jannaram Wildlife Divisional Officer G. Rama Krishna Rao.

 

  • ‘Declare India country with FGM prevalence’

As many as 30 women from the Dawoodi Bohra community have petitioned the United Nations demanding that India be recognised as a country where Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is practised.

The petition by the group called ‘Speak Out on FGM’ on Thursday states that due to the secrecy around it, the act is ignored by the government and there is no data on FGM from India.

‘Practice continues’

“We have been raising our voices for long but the practice continues. There has been barely any change on the ground level as the government has not responded to our pleas. If the U.N. stands with us, the government will automatically take note,” said Masooma Ranalvi, a 50-year-old publisher from Delhi and a member of ‘Speak Out on FGM.’ “Many African countries have stopped the practice after U.N. intervention. We hope to have a similar change in our country,” she added.

The World Health Organization defines FGM or Female Circumcision as all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Termed khatna or khafz in India, it is commonly practised among the two-million strong Dawoodi Bohra community.

“For hundreds of years, this practice is being continued under a shroud of secrecy and silence. No one outside of the Bohra community even knew of its existence. Even today, young Bohra girls aged 7, or even younger, are taken secretly and subjected to FGM/C,” the petition states.

“At least 80 per cent of the Bohra girls are subjected to this act of violence. Unless the government stands behind us, the brutal act will continue,” said Ms Ranalvi, who was subjected to FGM at a very young age. But she ensured that her daughter, 22, was not put under the knife.

Since the group of like-minded women got together in 2015 under ‘Speak Out on FGM,’ they have taken up several campaigns to reach out to the community. They started with the very first petition which was named after their group that received 80,000 signatures.

Another campaign called ‘Not My Daughter,’ started in April this year, had over 150 Bohra mothers and fathers pledging that they will not put their daughter through the suffering.

A recent campaign called ‘Éach One Reach One,’ along with another group called Sahiyo, aimed at reaching out to at least one Bohra woman to have a conversation about khatna. The group has also reached out to the clergy in the community, including its religious head Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin.

‘Extremely uncouth’

“I feel that the parents have absolutely no right to tamper with their children’s body. Male circumcision is a common practice but there is some evidence to show its medical benefit. In females, there is absolutely no benefit. In fact, the act of female cutting is carried out with an idea of reducing sexual pleasure or reducing libido in women,” said Ahmedabad-based gynecologist Sheroo Zamindar, who was cut at an early age.

  • Dress code back in Padmanabhaswamy temple

Reviving the traditional practice of wearing dhothi over churidar, a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court has put on hold the order of the executive officer of Sree Padamanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram allowing churidar-clad women devotees into the temple.

The Bench, considering a writ petition filed by four devotees challenging the executive officer’s order, on Thursday ordered that the status quo prior to the order be maintained for the time being. The court pointed out that that M.P. Parameswaran Namboodiri, tantri of the temple, was of the opinion that the situation prior to the executive officer’s order should be continued.

The dress code

The temple’s dress code for women allows them to be clad in sari, dhoti or skirt, according to their age. Young girls below the age of 12 are allowed to wear frocks. Men are allowed to wear only dhotis with or without angavastra. But women devotees wearing pants and churidar cover it with a dhoti to enter the temple.

With the executive officer’s order triggering a controversy, the administrative committee had frozen the order. The petitioners alleged that despite the administrative committee’s decision, women wearing churidars were allowed onto the temple premises.

The Bench observed that the administrative committee for controlling the affairs of the temple had been appointed by the Supreme Court. It was led by the Thiruvananthapuram District Judge. The committee had decided that that the age-old tradition could not be changed without wider consultations.

The court pointed out that in view of the tantri’s opinion, the situation prevailing before the executive officer’s order should be continued for the time being. The petitioners pointed out that the executive officer had not considered the opinion of the tantri while passing the order.

  • Threat of JE diminishing in Malkangiri district

No new patient with encephalitis syndrome has been admitted in Malkangiri district headquarter hospital in the last four days, hinting that the threat of Japanese Encephalitis (JE) is diminishing in this remote tribal district of Odisha.

As per reports, during past three months around 120 children have died due to lethal viral disease JE or by consumption of beans of Cassia occidentalis locally known as ‘bada chakunda’. Anthraquinone, a toxin found in Cassia occidentalis was also alleged to be cause of encephalopathy and deaths among children.

To prevent deaths of children, administration had decided to transport any child suffering from encephalitis syndrome to the district hospital as early as possible. For the first time in last three months, no new patient with such syndrome has been admitted in the district hospital. “It is surely a spark of hope for all in the district including government officials, physicians, health workers, teachers, anganwadi workers, ASHA volunteers, panchayat bodies, social workers and even security personnel, who have worked relentless since September to check encephalitis deaths of innocent children in the district”, said Malkangiri collector K.Sudarshan Chakravarthy.

As per the office of Chief District Medical Officer (CDMO), Malkangiri, the 15-day-long mass vaccination of children is continuing successfully in the district since December 5. Initially, children of all major schools in the district are being vaccinated.

In the next phase, all other children would be vaccinated through grassroot level community approach. A total of 2,18,027 children are to be vaccinated against JE in the district.

  • Last man to walk on moon is dead

U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon, died on Monday at the age of 82, NASA and his family announced.

Cernan was the spacecraft commander of Apollo 17 — his third space flight and the last U.S. manned mission to the moon — in December 1972. “We are saddened by the loss of retired NASA astronaut Gene Cernan,” the U.S. space agency said on Twitter.

“Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space and encouraged our nation’s leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the moon.”

To the stars

The space community quickly took to Twitter to pay tribute to Cernan. “Saddened by the loss of pioneer, fellow naval aviator, astronaut and friend Gene Cernan #RIP #lastmanonthemoon,” said retired American astronaut Scott Kelly.

“Ad Astra, Gene,” tweeted NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre, using a Latin phrase meaning “to the stars.”

The footprints Cernan left on the moon’s surface remain visible more than four decades later. “I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow,” he had said as he left the moon.

  • India now an associate member of CERN

India on Monday became an associate member of CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, after the government completed internal approval procedures on the agreement it signed in November last year.

On November 21, Sekhar Basu, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and Secretary of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), and Fabiola Gianotti, CERN Director-General, signed an agreement to admit India to CERN as an associate member. But India had to “notify CERN of its final approval for the agreement to enter into force” and become an associate member, which it did on Monday.

“Becoming associate member of CERN will enhance participation of young scientists and engineers in various CERN projects and bring back knowledge for deployment in the domestic programmes. It will also provide opportunities to Indian industries to participate directly in CERN projects,” Dr. Basu had said after signing the agreement last year.

India has been actively involved in CERN’s activities for over 50 years. “Indian physicists, engineers and technicians have made substantial contributions to the construction of the LHC accelerator and to the ALICE and CMS experiments, as well as to accelerator R&D projects,” said Dr. Gianotti in a release.

According to the release, being an associate member will allow India to take part in meetings of the CERN Council and its committees (Finance Committee and Scientific Policy Committee). Indian industry will be entitled to bid for CERN contracts, which will open up opportunities for industrial collaboration in areas of advanced technology. Also, Indian scientists will become eligible for staff appointments.

Cooperation Agreement

In 1991, India and CERN signed a Cooperation Agreement, setting priorities for scientific cooperation. India and CERN have signed several other protocols since then.

But India’s involvement in CERN began in the 1960s with researchers from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, participating in experiments at CERN. In the 1990s, scientists from Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore, too got involved.

Researchers from TIFR, Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology and other institutes built components for an accelerator (LEP) and detectors (L3, WA93 and WA89). India was granted Observer status to the CERN Council in 2002.

  • An Afghan agenda for Trump

As U.S. President Barack Obama leaves office on January 20, he leaves behind an unfinished conflict, the longest lasting and least successful U.S. war in history: Afghanistan.

For Afghanistan and the Afghans, Mr. Obama was a President of contradiction whose Afghan policy proved markedly disastrous. He wrongly believed that he would win the War on Terror militarily and by appeasing the military establishment in Pakistan.

His successor, Donald Trump, should change course in Afghanistan. For Mr. Trump’s administration, it is imperative to limit the impact of the conflict in Afghanistan on the Afghan people, and compel Pakistan to squeeze those who harm Afghanistan and nurture, shelter and finance forces of terror. The new U.S. President must address Pakistan’s treacherous role in Afghanistan at full tilt.

Double-dealing on Pakistan

On February 22, 2012, in a three-page letter, President Obama wrote to then Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he remains “concerned about the safe havens in Pakistan and the threat they pose to Americans and Afghans”. He added: “We will continue to use the various means at our disposal to degrade the safe havens [in Pakistan] and to disrupt attacks into Afghanistan.” But no serious efforts were actually undertaken by the Obama administration “to degrade the safe havens”. In the eight years of his presidency, Mr. Obama’s administration remained largely passive in taking firm action against Pakistani state support for terrorism. The reluctance vis-à-vis Pakistan was to the extent that even after exits of Osama bin Laden, and top Taliban leaders Mullah Omar and Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, all three of whom lived and were killed or died in hiding in Pakistan, Washington showed no desire to change the status quo.

Contradicting his earlier statements, in 2014, Mr. Obama told Mr. Karzai that Pakistan is a strategic “ally” in the War on Terror, and while already fighting a war in Afghanistan, his administration “cannot open another front against Pakistan”. He repeatedly urged his Afghan counterpart to address Pakistan’s “concerns” about the Indian influence in Afghanistan. Encouraged by Pakistan, the U.S. President even suggested that Mr. Karzai find a “resolution of differences” on the Durand Line with Pakistan. He proposed that “any issues concerning the border must come through mutual agreement between the parties concerned”. Mr. Karzai’s stance on both key issues was clear: Afghanistan cannot and will never accommodate Pakistan’s desire to control Kabul’s foreign policy, nor can it be expected to recognise the imposed Durand Line.

The focus of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy was on Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. In his address to the nation on Afghanistan and Pakistan, in December 2009, he said: “We will act with the full recognition that our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan… In the past, we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Those days are over.” Mr. Obama’s Afghan and Indian audience were taken aback by his remarks that “there is no doubt that the United States and Pakistan share a common enemy”. Under Mr. Obama, the U.S. administration “made heavy use” of its “warm relationship with Pakistan’s army chief” and even “extended” Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s term in office.

Appeasing Pak., failing Afghanistan

Seymour Hersh, an eminent American journalist and a Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote in his 2016 book The Killing of Osama bin Laden that under President Obama, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence secured “a commitment from the U.S. to give Pakistan ‘a freer hand’ in Afghanistan as it began its military draw-down there”. The outcome was that more Pakistani and regional terrorists were intentionally pushed to make their way across the Durand Line into Afghanistan. And this time, they terrorised and slaughtered Afghans (mainly Hazaras) under a new brand: the Islamic State.

The “$33 billion” of U.S. assistance to Pakistan, of which “$21 billion” were given under President Obama, badly failed to change Islamabad’s policy of supporting terrorism and radicalism. And the Afghans, as well as the American women and men in uniform, paid a high price in blood.

In Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s policy, as seen by Afghans, was about putting more boots on the ground, blind bombardments, more drone attacks, heavy reliance on special forces, fruitless military operations in Afghan homes and villages. It was certainly not what the Afghans were expecting of him as a black American President with a Muslim family background. As the President of “hope” and “change”, Mr. Obama came to office with the message of ending “the mindset that causes war”. He spoke of returning America to the “moral high ground”. His rhetoric was that the war in Afghanistan is “a war of necessity” and a “war that we (the U.S.) have to win”.

In his farewell speech, the outgoing President said: “For the past eight years, I’ve worked to put the fight against terrorism on a firm legal footing.” But an intensified U.S. drone campaign, assassinations, covert operations, ineffective night raids, illegal detention of more than 5,000 Afghans in the Bagram prison were not only a clear violation of Afghan sovereignty but of international law. The Obama administration severely undermined human rights by downplaying the threat of its overall military operations to civilian lives in Afghanistan. The mindless killing of the Afghan civilians — elders, women and children — was the symptom of his weak and failed policy. The substantial militarisation of the U.S. Afghan policy and the expansion of war killed any chance of peace in Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan was expanded and gradually Afghanised.

Though I do not expect that key objectives of the U.S. foreign policy will necessarily change under the new administration, President Trump can avoid the errors of the past in Afghanistan. He should boost the security and defence capabilities of the Afghan national armed forces. On Afghanistan, Mr. Trump should embrace a vibrant diplomacy and regional cooperation towards Russia, China, India and Iran.

Last but not least, under the new American administration, the world must witness clarity and a clear shift in U.S. strategic thinking vis-à-vis Pakistan.

  • Don’t let messengers shoot themselves

How India treats its armed forces is rarely revealed by soldiers at the lowest ranks. Little attention is paid to serious concerns about the systems of military justice. While delays in the judicial system are notorious, delays for the armed forces can turn fatal in the form of suicide and fratricide (also called “fragging” — where a serviceman kills his brothers-in-arms). Answers in the Rajya Sabha and to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, from 2003-2013 (data for some years are missing), state that there have been at least 1,666 suicides in the armed forces and 109 cases of fratricide.

 “An army marches on its stomach”, a quote famously attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, was unwittingly brought into the spotlight by Border Security Force (BSF) constable Tej Bahadur Yadav’s videos about tasteless dal and half-burnt parathas. However, this has not been the first time that food has left a bad taste for the military justice system. In 1985, Signalman Ranjit Thakur refused food while serving 28 days’ imprisonment for overriding the hierarchy and making representations directly to senior officers about ill treatment. A summary court martial was conducted for his act of disobeying the order to eat. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year rigorous imprisonment, dismissal from the Army, and disqualification from civilian service. Fortunately for him, the Supreme Court found this sentence to be grossly disproportionate and reinstated him with full pay and benefits.

Existential questions

The BSF’s woes extend much further than merely bad food. The force has faced existential questions ever since it sought legislative recognition. Introducing the Border Security Force Bill, 1968, the then Home Minister, Yashwantrao Chavan, told the Rajya Sabha: “Popularly it is called Border Security Police, but its function is not policing, it is something more than that. Though it is functioning on the borders, it is not the Army. The task of this Force is such that it is something between the Army and the Police Force.” In the now-forgotten traditions of parliamentary debate, opponents of the Bill asked why there was nothing in the Bill requiring the force to serve on the “border”, or why a central police force which was “neither fish nor fowl” was necessary when police was a State subject.

A concern amongst even the Bill’s supporters was that there was a disparity between the Army and the BSF in terms of pay, service conditions, grievance redress mechanisms and deployments to forward areas. Rejecting these concerns and refusing to refer the Bill to a Parliamentary Select Committee, the Bill was passed and independent India’s first paramilitary force was born. The concerns of stepmotherly treatment in service conditions exist even today across all paramilitary forces in India as later videos by other servicemen have demonstrated.

Today, no less than seven paramilitary forces exist, each created with less parliamentary debate than the previous one. These forces are all under the Home Ministry in contrast to the Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard which are under the Defence Ministry. The Assam Rifles has changed hands between Home, External Affairs and Defence Ministries and is currently under the Home Ministry while under the Defence Ministry’s operational control.

The military justice system does not believe that it is required to be equal for all and creates peculiar distinctions between the Army, Navy and Air Force on the one hand and the paramilitary forces and the Coast Guard on the other.

The Armed Forces Tribunal came into being in 2007, 25 years after the Supreme Court made scathing remarks about the military justice system in Lt. Col. Prithi Pal Singh Bedi v. Union of India (1982) for not having even one layer of judicial scrutiny, for unchecked command influence in decision-making, and for absence of recorded reasons in final judgments. In 1999, the Law Commission’s 169th Report stated that disciplinary and service matters required quick resolution and proposed a special tribunal for the military and paramilitary forces. However, the Armed Forces Tribunal Bill was steered through Parliament only by the Defence Ministry, leaving paramilitary forces, even the Assam Rifles and the Coast Guard, outside the tribunal’s purview.

Despite court martial systems within the military being reformed and judicial scrutiny now being available, paramilitary forces continue to follow a court martial-like system called the Security Force Court with less legal safeguards than those found inadequate by the Supreme Court. Yet, like in court martial proceedings, penalties including the death sentence can be imposed. With no process of appeal other than statutory petitions, often before the Home Minister, the only recourse left is expensive and time-consuming writ petitions. Even here, the fundamental rights of armed forces personnel are expressly limited under Article 33 of the Constitution which makes approaching civilian judicial systems a challenge.

The system under the Army, though, is also not foolproof. In at least one case of fratricide, the serviceman concerned is languishing in jail for 25 years awaiting a decision on the sentence. The case has gone from an Army court martial to the Supreme Court and all the way back again to the Armed Forces Tribunal.

In a written answer before the Rajya Sabha, the Home Minister (MoS) in 2012 said that the reasons for suicide and fratricide amongst paramilitary forces are “…personal/domestic problems, illness, mental stress, alcoholic dependence, marital affairs and financial crisis of concerned individual. Despite taking all necessary steps, some discontented individuals are not able to control their emotions and tend to take such extreme steps due to the above said reasons.” The Minister also stated that better dispute resolution, communication facilities in field areas, yoga, and increased interaction between jawans and officers were part of the 14 measures undertaken to boost morale.

Affecting troop morale

The secrecy surrounding these issues is curious. A report by the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis titled ‘Addressing Stress-Related Issues in the Army’ quotes two studies, one on stress management and the other on suicide and fratricide, both conducted by the Defence Institute of Psychological Research under the Defence Research and Development Organisation. When the issue was being examined by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, just one copy of each of these the Defence Institute of Psychological Research marked “secret” was submitted to it. When the committee asked why it should not be published, the government’s reply was that sensationalisation or selective publicity of these reports would affect troop morale.

In the BSF constable’s case, the Home Ministry is in damage control mode. While it has made statements about rationing policies and operational control of the post by the Army, no further comment has been made except that the constable has a history of drunkenness and insubordination. The Ministry would do well not to shoot the messenger, but instead focus on taking steps to prevent messengers from paramilitary forces from shooting themselves.

  • Voting in a season of discontent

The dates for the election to the Manipur Legislative Assembly have been announced. Polling will be in two phases, on March 4 and March 8. Results will be declared on March 11. A fortnight ago, there was speculation that the election may be preceded by a spell of President’s Rule in the wake of the indefinite economic blockade by the United Naga Council (UNC), a civil organisation in Manipur which claims to be the apex body of all Naga tribes in the State, but these have since been put to rest.

Blockade numbs Manipur

The blockade is now two and a half months old and Manipur continues to reel under the effect of shortages of many essential commodities, petrol and cooking gas in particular. Petrol stations are shut, but whenever there is some indication that some of them have been replenished for rationed distribution, miles-long queues of vehicles form outside them, sometimes overnight. The market understandably is sluggish and prices of commodities have gone up. Daily wage earners are the hardest hit. Demonetisation has made their trauma even worse. Thankfully, Imphal valley is a fertile, rice-growing region, ensuring that the people have not gone hungry. Had it been otherwise, there would have been mayhem on the streets by now.

Election pundits have been busy interpreting how this sorry state of affairs would play out in the March election. The foremost questions are: Would the hardships caused by the blockade turn the people against the ruling Congress? Would the Bharatiya Janata Party’s challenge become any more formidable because of it?

Significance of Assembly composition

The Manipur Assembly has 60 seats. Of these, 40 represent the valley inhabited predominantly by non-tribal Hindu Meiteis; 39 of these are for the general category and one is reserved for Scheduled Castes. The BJP had hoped it would be able to reap a harvest here, partly because of the community’s religious affiliation. Twenty seats represent the hills and 19 of these are reserved for Scheduled Tribes, after the Kangpokpi constituency in the erstwhile SADAR (Selected Area Development and Administrative Region) hills came to be de-reserved to accommodate its sizeable population of Nepalis. Of the 20 hill seats, Nagas normally hold sway in 11 to 12. The rest are generally won by Kukis and aligned tribes.

Given that the BJP government at the Centre is holding peace talks with the Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah), the party’s State unit was hoping that it would be able to win a majority of the Naga seats as well with the blessings of the militant group. Its main rival here is the Naga People’s Front, which too would be vying for the NSCN(IM)’s support. The Congress, which once had a lion’s share of the Naga seats, has, in the past few months, been marginalised as the NSCN(IM) and Naga organisations such as the UNC are opposed to it. Many Naga Congress MLAs and former ministers thought it prudent to resign from the party ahead of the election wishing to retain their seats. In Nagaland, the Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the BJP are allies.

Electoral master stroke?

However, the UNC’s blockade — which began on November 1 in anticipation of the Manipur government giving in to the long-standing demand for upgrading the SADAR and Jiribam subdivisions to full-fledged districts — has upset these equations radically. This became even more so after the government, at a cabinet sitting at midnight on December 8 to defy the UNC’s coercive protest, created not just the two districts the UNC was opposed to, but seven by splitting seven of the State’s nine districts.

The UNC considers four of the seven split districts to be a part of the ancestral Naga homeland and was quick to accuse the Manipur government of splitting this homeland, although, as the government contends, how districts can split people is incomprehensible. This is particularly so because the Assembly and parliamentary constituencies have remained untouched.

The worry of the BJP’s State unit amid the current ethnic polarisation is how proximity to the NSCN(IM), an organisation avowed to the dismemberment of Manipur to form a sovereign Greater Nagaland, and the UNC (which many consider to be a surrogate of the former) may alienate its support base in the valley where 40 seats are at stake. The Congress Chief Minister, Okram Ibobi Singh’s move in this sense may be an electoral master stroke, not for the splintering or otherwise of any homeland, but for leaving rival BJP on the horns of a dilemma.

This dilemma is visible in the State unit’s muted response to the blockade question, probably not wanting to offend its Central leadership now holding talks with the NSCN(IM). Under the circumstances, if nothing happens to change the nature of this polarisation, there can be no doubt that the Congress’s position is strong in the valley, and the Chief Minister and his team may have found a way to overcome the anti-incumbency burden of having been in power for 15 years continuously.

Other than the valley seats, the Congress will also command sympathy in many Kuki constituencies. It may still win two or three Naga constituencies which had always been its strongholds if voters are not allowed to be totally coerced by the militants. In the party’s favour too is the fact that the State unit of the BJP does not have any charismatic leader who can jolt the confidence of the Congress even at this late stage.

Fluctuating loyalties

But things can change in the run-up to the March election. This happened in the Assam election of April 2016, and even more dramatically in Arunachal Pradesh later the same year, where the BJP installed its governments in both States. In Assam it wrested power from the Congress but only after wooing many Congress leaders to its camp before the election. In Arunachal Pradesh, it did this by engineering the defection of almost the entire lot of MLAs from the ruling Congress after the election. In Manipur too, such a scenario is not impossible to think of. Here too, the BJP is in a position to take advantage of the psychology of weak and dependent Northeast States of feeling safer by being on the side of the party in power at the Centre. There is always the feeling here, among political leaders as well as electorate, that the clearance of projects and Central assistance in lean times will always be smoother if the party that rules the Centre also rules the State.

There is one more factor that has determined party loyalty. The ceiling on ministry size for small Northeast States fixed by the anti-defection law is 12. This includes the chief minister. Those in the ruling Congress, and indeed the contender BJP, who are unsure of making this elite 12 will begin looking for greener pastures. This will also be an opportunity for smaller parties such as the Trinamool Congress to enlist potential winners. Irom Sharmila’s brand new party, the People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA), has shown no interest in this kind of politics, but its idealism is still too nascent to generate the kind of wave that wins elections.

  • Alarming rise in forest fires, says panel report

With fires raging across Central Indian forests and the Himalayan Pine forests, the frequency of such blazes has risen by a drastic 55 per cent in the past year.

The number has touched 24,817 in 2016, a “really alarming” rise, from around 15,937 fires in 2015, says the report by Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, headed by Rajya Sabha MP Renuka Choudhary, submitted on December 16. The committee has suggested a national policy on managing forest fires.

The increase is seen even though 2015, considered a drought year, had seen a decline in frequency of forest fires of around 16 per cent.

The three central States of Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh contribute a third of the forest fires. Madhya Pradesh has seen a nearly ten-fold increase, from just 294 in 2015 to more than 2,600 in 2016.

The committee was formed after a series of devastating forest fires earlier this year, including the prolonged one that charred 4,000 hectares of forest land across 13 districts of Uttarakhand.

Clearing pines to save forests

The report primarily focuses on the prevention and containing of fires in the Himalayan forests spread across Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir. In Himachal and Uttarakhand, over 17,502 acres have been ravaged this year due to forest fires — a rise of over 171 per cent.

Here, accumulated Chir pine needles — which are inflammable due to their high-resin content — are believed to be a “prominent factor in occurring and spreading of forest fires”.

The committee has recommended the procurement of sweeping machines to clear roadsides of Chir pine needles, while advocating large-scale incentives and programmes (including under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) to collect pines for use as fuel, and other incineration.

More drastically, the Uttarakhand government has suggested thinning of pine reserve forest areas to “reduce the biological load”; while the report suggests replacing these forests with “broad-leaf” plants.

The committee has also observed that a large number of posts of front line forest staff were lying vacant, while, fire-fighting equipment is rudimentary in many cases.

  • NCRPB tells States to submit action plan to curb pollution

With air quality deteriorating on a daily basis, the National Capital Region Planning Board (NCRPB) on Tuesday asked Delhi and adjoining States to submit action plans to control air pollution in the Capital.

Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu, who chaired the meeting of the NCRPB, said that air pollution in Delhi is a matter of serious concern and Delhi, along with Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Punjab should act in unison to mitigate the suffering of the people.

The meeting was also attended by Union Minister of State for Urban Development Rao Inderjit Singh, Chief Minister of Haryana Manohar Lal Khattar, Urban Development Minister of Delhi Satyendar Jain, Chairman of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), officials of the State Pollution Control Boards and other senior officials.

Affidavit to High Court

The Board will soon file an affidavit before the Delhi High Court regarding the matter, a UD ministry spokesman said.

In the meeting, the States gave details of measures being taken to contain air pollution being caused by stubble burning in States adjoining Delhi and Punjab, burning of garbage, Solid Waste Management and road dust and construction activities.

The CPCB said that an action plan to curb pollution was prepared under the directions of the Supreme Court in November, which could be part of the affidavit to be filed by the NCRPB.

‘Increase tree cover’

Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan have been asked to increase forest and tree cover in the NCR in a phased manner to 20 per cent of total geographical area while expressing concern over the present cover of just 3.30 per cent in 2012 — declining from 4.30 per cent in 1999.

The Board also discussed forest cover in the National Capital Region, definition of forests and Aravalli Range and delineation of Natural Conservation Zones (NCZs).

The NCRPB made it clear that NCZs are the major natural features identified as environmentally sensitive areas, which include the extension of Aravalli ridge in Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan, forest areas, the rivers and tributaries of Yamuna, Ganga, Kali, Hindon and Sahibi, sanctuaries, major lakes and water bodies such as Badkal lake, Suraj Kund and Damdama in Haryana Sub-region and Siliserh lake in Rajasthan.

Prepare Regional Plan-2041

The Board also authorised the NCRPB Secretariat to initiate preparation of Regional Plan-2041 for the National Capital Region.

More inter-State links

The Board also discussed 14 inter-State links with the aim of facilitating seamless travel in the NCR, which includes Kalindi by-pass road from Ashram Chowk to Faridabad by-pass, development of Mehrauli–Guragaon Road as NH-236 to ease traffic on NH-8 and connecting Nelson Mandela T-Point at Vasant Kunj with the existing Gurgaon-Mehrauli Road to reduce travel time.

  • Outrage in China over IUD ‘removal’

A few months after Lu Qiumei gave birth to her daughter in 2012, officials visited her home and told her she was required to be fitted with an intrauterine device.

For more than three decades, this was national policy in China. The IUD was the government’s most important tool for limiting couples to one child, and almost all new mothers were required to get one.Ms. Lu considered the demand invasive and potentially harmful to her health. Still, like hundreds of millions of Chinese women, she had one put in.

Now, a year after abandoning the “one-child” policy, the government is hoping to make it up to Ms. Lu and millions of women like her — by removing their IUDs for free. But the offer, made without an apology, has provoked outrage.

While IUDs elsewhere can often be removed with the tug of their strings in a doctor’s office, surgery is usually needed in China because most devices are designed or altered to be more difficult to extract. But many Chinese women have chafed at the thought of the government’s getting involved, yet again, in their private lives. And for many mothers, the offer has come too late for them to consider having a second child. China began demanding that women be fitted with an intrauterine device after they had one child, and sterilised after they had two, in the early 1980s. From 1980-2014, according to official statistics, 324 million Chinese women were fitted with IUDs.

Last year, confronting an ageing population and a shrinking workforce, President Xi Jinping decided to scrap the policy.

 

 

  • Looking towards a greener future

Green bonds, which finance environmentally friendly businesses and assets, have emerged as one of the key financing mechanisms driving the global economy’s transition to a greener future. Since the issuance of the first green bond in 2007 by two multilateral development banks (World Bank and European Investment Bank), the green bond market has grown exponentially and is currently pegged at over $180 billion in cumulative issuance. Penetrating markets across developed and emerging economies, green bonds have seen extensive participation from corporates and financial institutions, including sovereign and municipal bodies.

A groundbreaking year for green bonds was 2015. Global markets witnessed currency green bonds and innovative structuring along with maiden green bond issuance in a number of countries. The green bond market was further strengthened with issuance doubling to $81 billion in 2016 from $42 billion in 2015. Supported by market-driven state policies and marked by a rapid growth in green bond issuance in India and China, the Asian market has emerged as a frontrunner in the green bonds space.

Contributing to sustainable growth

India’s green bond market has witnessed a number of critical milestones following Yes Bank’s and India’s first green infrastructure bonds issued in February 2015. A growing number of corporates and financial institutions have leveraged this innovative mechanism to raise capital, attracting foreign investments and inducing momentum in the market. India also witnessed its award-winning first green masala bond (rupee-denominated bond), with the International Financial Corporation raising an off-shore rupee bond on London Stock Exchange for investing in Yes Bank’s green bond, demonstrating how innovations in emerging markets have the potential to capture global attention.

Green bond issuance in the country witnessed a 30 per cent year-on-year increase in 2016, cumulatively amounting to about Rs.18,131 crore (equivalent to $2.7 billion) and making India the seventh largest green bond market globally. These green bonds have been crucial in increasing financing to sunrise sectors like renewable energy, thus contributing to India’s sustainable growth. The Climate Bond Initiative, in its India update, indicated that about 62 per cent of the green bond proceeds have been allocated to renewable energy projects, followed by the low carbon transport sector and low carbon buildings accounting for 17.5 per cent and 14 per cent of the proceeds, respectively. At 2.2 per cent for each, the allocation of green bond proceeds towards water management and waste management has been somewhat limited owing to perceived sector-specific issues as well as due to projects being smaller in size and geographically dispersed.

Indian regulators have shown exemplary foresight in recognising green bonds as a key tool towards financing the nation’s climate change targets and in guiding the development of the green bond market through necessary policies and reforms. In January 2016, the Securities and Exchange Board (SEBI) of India published its official green bond guidelines and requirements for Indian issuers, placing India amongst a select set of pioneering countries who have developed national level guidelines.

In addition to SEBI’s guidance on green bonds, the Reserve Bank of India passed regulatory reforms aimed at strengthening and expanding India’s corporate bond market. The extent of partial credit enhancement provided by banks has been increased to 50 per cent from 20 per cent of the bond issue size, while also permitting banks to issue masala bonds — key moves that will bolster the Indian green bond market.

Expectations from 2017 and beyond

The full potential of India’s green bond market remains untapped, with only a limited number of issuers so far. With increasing interest from the government and market regulators, 2017 is expected to see further developments in terms of innovations and supporting policy and regulatory frameworks aimed at bringing more clarity and impetus to the space.

Further to the interpretation indicated in SEBI’s green bond guidelines on what classifies as ‘green’, there is a need for developing a formal definition of ‘green’ to ensure understanding across sectors. A more descriptive and exhaustive classification from Indian regulators and policymakers in the coming years would be crucial in expanding the green bond market further.

Following global trends, the upcoming year is poised to witness the first ‘blue bond’ issuance (bonds used to specifically finance water infrastructure) in India. Globally blue bond issuances have crossed $10 billion, with India yet to enter the market. Given the rising financing gap in India’s water sector, it is imperative to utilise such innovative mechanisms for water infrastructure augmentation as well.

While credit enhancement has given an impetus to green bonds and will remain crucial, there is a scope for other innovative mechanisms such as securitisation. Many standalone green projects such as roof top solar, energy efficiency and rural water supply still remain unattractive to institutional investors owing to the smaller scale and vast geographical spread. Aggregation and securitisation of such projects could be a welcome move in providing mainstream debt to small-scale green projects.

The recent drive by the Prime Minister to resuscitate the municipal bond market for water supply projects in cities such as Pune and Hyderabad is highly commendable. The Indian government’s ambitious push for smart cities has opened emerging points that may be suitable for private sector participation and may soon culminate into India’s first green muni bond.

With an eventful year gone by, especially the formalisation of the Paris accord at the COP22, 2017 promises to deliver on some of the commitments undertaken globally for green financing. With developed countries reaffirming their $100 billion mobilisation goal per year by 2020 to support climate action in emerging nations, utilisation of green bonds as an effective vehicle to tap into climate funds is anticipated to grow. Collective participation of regulators, policymakers, corporate and financial institutions is going to be crucial in pushing frontiers of green bonds further, unleashing new opportunities in addressing climate change.

  • Time for a political solution

Two years after Sri Lankans made an emphatic point by voting for change, which President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe personified at that time, the national unity government they brought to power seems trapped in the politics of survival.

In the early hours of January 9, 2015, Sri Lanka witnessed that crucial regime change after 10 years of the Mahinda Rajapaksa brand of authoritarianism, marked by high surveillance, intimidation, media repression, and the withering of democratic institutions. The regime’s corruption and nepotism overshadowed its development efforts, eroding Mr. Rajapaksa’s war victor image that had helped him garner support among the Sinhalese majority.

There was new political space for any alternative that offered change. That is how the current government came to power, promising change and good governance in their insurgent campaign. With a sizeable section of the rural Sinhalese backing them, along with the overwhelming endorsement of northern Tamils, Muslims and upcountry Tamils, and some international support, Mr. Sirisena deposed Mr. Rajapaksa. His Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and its rival, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP), formed Sri Lanka’s first national unity government. It was a major reconfiguration of political forces. People felt hopeful.

Hopeful 2015, turbulent 2016

The government, at least in its first year, managed to keep that hope afloat, in spite of a massive bond scam at the Central Bank involving a governor appointed by Mr. Wickremesinghe. Keen on giving this government a chance, Sri Lankans reiterated the point in the August 2015 parliamentary elections.

The government adopted a constitutional amendment to clip the powers of the executive president, opened up space for the media, evolved a comprehensive strategy for reconciliation and assured the UN Human Rights Council of a four-pronged approach, and began drafting a new Constitution. President Sirisena made several trips to the north and released a portion of the land that was under military occupation. He told the Tamils that he had an obligation to solve their problems.

Stepping into its second year, the government encountered more turbulence. The country’s economy was far from healthy and the sharp political differences within the government became apparent. Contradictory messages from the two leaders exposed their artificial unity. Increasingly and more evidently, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government was seen as soft-pedalling cases linked to the former first family — be it corruption or murder — fuelling speculation on possible backroom negotiations with the Rajapaksa forces.

The other equally troubling aspect of the government has been its silence on sections of Buddhist monks who consistently engage in hate speech. The government took no action on a monk who resorted to an unmistakable racist abuse and death threat to a Tamil officer in the eastern town of Batticaloa. The Buddhist clergy, which enjoys considerable political clout in Sri Lanka, remains insulated, as it was in the Rajapaksa era, from any legal action.

For the international actors, particularly the U.S. and India, ties with Sri Lanka following regime change are almost entirely on grounds of economic partnership or security. While both countries continue to be preoccupied with Chinese presence in Sri Lanka, their interest in domestic political developments has visibly diminished. It is unlikely to heighten unless Mr. Rajapaksa’s comeback bid, currently far-fetched, looks stronger.

Despite the political fragility and insecurity of the current government, it has the opportunity to move significantly ahead on the promised constitutional reforms. In a sense, the climate for a political solution has never been more conducive. Not only because it has the two main parties at the helm, but also because the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represents northern Tamils, has opted for engagement over boycott with this government. The main opposition party now, the TNA, voted in favour of the budget and has mostly backed its programmes, acknowledging the need to work with this government.

Also, the pressure on Sri Lanka from the international community and the human rights lobby on questions of accountability and war crimes has significantly lessened in the last two years. The TNA too has privileged constitutional reform over accountability, recognising the grave political risks in raising the latter at this juncture. In a sense, Sri Lanka has never been closer to clinching a political solution.

A question of priority

However, coalition politics comes with its shortcomings. It was not going to be easy for this government. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine currently has about 155 seats in Sri Lanka’s 225-member Parliament. Mr. Sirisena has nearly 50 SLFP parliamentarians with him, some of whom are reportedly threatening to defect to the Rajapaksa camp.

Mr. Rajapaksa, with the residual SLFP MPs and other miscellaneous supporters, sits in opposition with almost as many legislators backing him. Sucked into the politics of survival, the President currently appears to be channelling all his energies into holding his party together, especially after pro-Rajapaksa forces floated a new political organisation.

More recently, Mr. Rajapaksa has threatened to topple the government in 2017, but the President and Prime Minister have rubbished his comments. The Constitution disallows premature dissolution of Parliament and a return to Rajapaksa-led rule is politically improbable at the moment, they emphasised. But every time this government fails, Mr. Rajapaksa could gain ground.

The UNP, currently the main ruling party in government, also faces pressure from its backbenchers, while Prime Minister Wickremesinghe seems solely focussed on economic development and trade agreements. A leader with his experience must know that without a political solution and a stable government backing it, even the grandest and most well-intentioned economic projects may fizzle out.

Even as six subcommittee reports on the draft Constitution await discussion in Parliament, the government’s priorities are clearly elsewhere. The latter part of 2016 saw the Constitution-making process take a backseat, bringing the government’s immediate political compulsions to the fore. There has been little public debate on the new Constitution. Unless the government engages its majority Sinhalese constituency on the reforms, it may find it very hard to push the new Constitution resisting other political pressures. A referendum in such a scenario could prove risky. The stakes are high and time is running out. Mr. Sirisena and Mr. Wickremesinghe have a choice. They can get their act together and see the reforms through to make this new chapter in Sri Lanka their legacy. Or they will be seen as leaders who squandered a great opportunity.

For lakhs of Tamils still struggling to rebuild their lives since the island’s brutal war that ended seven years ago, the wait has been long and painful. As far as the two leaders are concerned, it is as much a question of political will as it is of ability. It is now or probably never.

  • Revisiting a passage from India

January 9 commemorates the day Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915, after honing satyagraha, or peaceful protest, against the colonial and racist regime there. In 2002, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to celebrate it annually by holding events including bestowing awards on prominent members of the Indian diaspora. The 15th edition of Pravasi Divas this year is now on in Bengaluru.

When as Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates in 2002 I was asked to recommend one name for the Pravasi awards, I refrained from doing so, fearing a single pick from many deserving ones might create speculation regarding my motives and heartburn among those bypassed. Since then it seems the process has gone the way of the Padma awards, where hectic lobbying and politics trump merit.

“Diaspora” is an omnibus phrase which brackets people of Indian origin who have emigrated since the 19th century to all corners of the world. Roughly it falls into two categories: pre- and post-Independence. The latter further subdivides into migration to the West, including Australia and New Zealand, and workers in the West Asian countries — numbering over seven million — who began flocking there following oil cartelisation by the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries after the Arab-Israel war of 1973 and the steep rise in oil prices.

The Indian in West Asia

The last can be examined first. The earnings bonanza allowed the hereditary rulers of West Asia to unleash a spending and construction boom. Despite cycles of economic expansion and contraction, as oil prices rose or fell, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have learnt to live with the perils of single commodity dependent economies. Some such as Dubai, with almost depleted oil reserves, have remodelled themselves as entrepôt for regional trade and a destination for tourism and convivial living, besides emerging as a financial centre. Both Abu Dhabi and Qatar are modelling themselves as centres of culture and sports, civil aviation hubs and more spartan living. They also have poured earnings each year into sovereign funds to act as a cushion during the low oil price years.

But they face two new challenges. One, the shale oil revolution in the United States combined with slower global growth and environmental concerns may have already pushed the world into a post-OPEC phase and perennial low oil prices. Two, the entire region to the west of India up to the Mediterranean is now swept by Shia-Sunni contestation and the challenge posed by radical Islam. Thus instability may persist for decades.

Therefore, Indians in GCC countries, ranging from skilled and unskilled workers to those holding executive jobs or running businesses, may have to face more challenging circumstances of economic slowdown, “Arabisation” or more jobs to locals, and threats from terror-related events. Indian workers, particularly the vast majority from Kerala, are still the favoured ones of the locals but are under pressure from more skilled workers from countries such as the Philippines or cheaper labour from Nepal, etc. In India, the Union and State governments have failed to upgrade skills of Indian workers going to West Asia. Congress-led governments have been particularly guilty, allowing the Kerala lobby in the Union cabinet to drive India’s GCC policy. Often ministers have had kin located there, compromising their ability to act independently.

As a rising power, India’s prestige suffers when its citizens are seen doing menial jobs. Moreover Indian strategic options get limited fearing reprisal against workers. That is why for decades India has let its citizens be subjected to local labour rules that are medieval and regressive, such as employer seizing the travel documents of the worker on arrival. Similarly, it should not require tweets to the Minister of External Affairs to get simple consular acts performed. Their safety and security as indeed sanctity of their contracts must be addressed by local missions, which should be accountable for any slip-ups.

Triumph over adversity

India has a largely positive record dealing with the diaspora that left India as indentured labour in the 19th century — in the period from 1833 to 1917 — particularly for the Caribbean where labour shortages ensued following the abolition of slavery. Coincidently, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, J.S. Khehar, hails from East Africa.

The expulsion of Indians from Uganda by Idi Amin in the 1970s tested Indian diplomacy and its ability to protect the diaspora. India passed the buck to Britain as the guarantor of their safety as most held British documents. Mauritius, with Indians constituting the largest group and 48.5 per cent of the population being Hindus, has seen the community consolidate political power, with strategic support from Indian governments. Located strategically in the Indian Ocean, this country has been an asset for India, safeguarding the Southern maritime flank. Contrariwise, India was unable to support 49 per cent of Indo-Fijians in their desire for a multi-ethnic government when, in 1987, Lt. Col. S. Rabuka overthrew the elected government. Their numbers have shrunk since then.

Persons of Indian origin have headed governments in some Caribbean countries such as Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, the two nations with huge Indo-Caribbean populations. Generally, Indian policy in the past has been to not be seen as meddling in their internal affairs sensing that it may be counterproductive. Two vital links have been religion and cricket. But India has been unable to build on that base by boosting investment and business links and better connectivity. That raises the question, which even China is beginning to pose now: to what extent would India be willing to go to protect the diaspora when it runs into political turbulence in their countries of abode?

A blur between loyalties

Finally, the issue of diaspora in the U.S., the United Kingdom and Canada. With rising numbers and greater earnings, they are becoming more proactive to rally in support of Indian interests. Their lobbying in the U.S. with politicians worked famously to swing the Congressional vote for the U.S.-Indian nuclear deal in 2006.

While the U.S. leads as the country with the highest number of Indian origin persons numbering around four million, the U.K. and Canada are next with 1.45 million and 1.2 million, respectively. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been active in spreading its message of Hindutva in all of them. During NDA-I, the Vajpayee government even unprecedentedly appointed a special ambassador in the U.S. for diaspora affairs, raising protocol issues with the U.S. State Department. Thus he had to be located in New York with notional attachment to the Indian mission to the UN, as no country will accept two ambassadors.

That absurdity died with that government, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Madison Square Garden show took the same to another level. There was a blurring between the loyalties that Indian origin persons holding U.S. nationality owe to their adopted nation and their innate love for India. The danger with this kind of public and Hindutva-fed ritual is that it may create a majority community backlash and divide the diaspora.

For instance, Sikhs are the largest component of the diaspora in Canada, at 34 per cent compared to 27 per cent Hindus, with the rest being Muslims and Christians. That is why Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joked that he had more Sikhs in his cabinet — this includes his Defence Minister — than Mr. Modi. Sikhs are at the number two spot in the U.K and the U.S.

The Wall Street Journal estimates that there are 15.6 million persons born in India living abroad. This number has grown by 17.2 per cent since 2010. The Chinese diaspora is 50 million strong, with 32 million settled in Southeast Asia. For China, this community became the bridge to integrate their economy to global supply chains once Deng Xiaoping opened Chinese doors in the 1980s. They also funded investment in Chinese economic zones.

Undoubtedly, the Indian diaspora’s remittances in the past have been of vital assistance to Indian foreign exchange reserves. But the challenge now is to go to the next stage — of harnessing not just their financial but also their intellectual capital. The Modi government needs to market not Hindutva-laced faux nationalism but a new way of dealing with each of the three groups — wisely, pro-actively, and in a secular non-jingoistic tone.

  • How India lobbied Moody’s for ratings upgrade, but failed

India criticised Moody’s ratings methods and pushed aggressively for an upgrade, documents reviewed by Reuters show, but the U.S.-based agency declined to budge citing concerns over the country’s debt levels and fragile banks.

Winning a better credit rating on India’s sovereign debt would have been a much-needed endorsement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic stewardship, helping to attract foreign investment and accelerate growth.

Since storming to power in 2014, Modi has unveiled measures to boost investment, cool inflation and narrow the fiscal and current account deficits, but his policies have not been rewarded with a ratings upgrade from any of the “big three” global ratings agencies, who say more is needed.

Assuage concerns

Previously unpublished correspondence between India’s finance ministry and Moody’s shows New Delhi failed to assuage the ratings agency’s concerns about the cost of its debt burden and a banking sector weighed down by $136 billion in bad loans.

In letters and emails written in October, the finance ministry questioned Moody’s methodology, saying it was not accounting for a steady decline in India’s debt burden in recent years. It said the agency ignored countries’ levels of development when assessing their fiscal strength.

Rejecting those arguments, Moody’s said India’s debt situation was not as rosy as the government maintained and its banks were a cause for concern, the correspondence seen by Reuters showed.

Moody’s and one of its lead sovereign analysts, Marie Diron, declined to comment on the correspondence, saying ratings deliberations were confidential. India’s finance ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Arvind Mayaram, a former chief finance ministry official, called the government’s approach “completely unusual.”

“There was no way pressure could be put on rating agencies,” Mr. Mayaram told Reuters. “It’s not done.”

Bad loans

India has been the world’s fastest growing major economy over the past two years, but that rapid expansion has done little to broaden the government’s revenue base.

At nearly 21 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP), India’s revenues are lower than the 27.1 percent median for Baa-rated countries. India is rated at Baa3 by Moody’s, the agency’s lowest notch for debt considered investment grade.

A higher rating would signify to bond investors that India was more creditworthy and help to lower its borrowing costs.

Moody’s representatives, including Ms. Diron, visited North Block, the colonial sandstone building in the Indian capital that houses the finance ministry, on Sept. 21 for a discussion on a ratings review.

Moody’s explanation

The atmosphere at the meeting with Economic Affairs Secretary Shaktikanta Das, one of the ministry’s most senior officials, and his team was tense, according to an Indian official present, after Ms. Diron had told local media the previous day that a ratings upgrade for India was some years away.

On Sept. 30, Moody’s explained its methodology to Indian officials in a teleconference.

Four days later, the finance ministry sent an email to Ms. Diron questioning Moody’s metrics on fiscal strength. The government cited the examples of Japan and Portugal, which enjoy better ratings despite debts around twice the size of their economies.

“Given that countries are on different stages of economic and social development, should countries be benchmarked against a median or mean number (as is done by Moody’s)” the email asked.

In India’s case, “while the debt burden lowered significantly post 2004, this did not get reflected in the ratings,” the ministry argued.

New Delhi urged Ms. Diron to look at improvements in the factors — better forex reserves and economic growth — that Moody’s had considered when handing India its last ratings upgrade in 2004.

In a reply the next day, Ms. Diron said that, not only was India’s debt burden high relative to other countries with the same credit rating, but its debt affordability was also low.

  • An equal music, a beautiful society

A recent event in Delhi brought together two Indian winners of the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award, Bezwada Wilson and T.M. Krishna, in a wide-ranging conversation about freedom of expression, nationalism and inequality, issues of pressing concern. Both were outspoken against a growing majoritarianism, and passionate about building an egalitarian and just society through their respective fields. Wilson, 50, national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, is a campaigner against manual scavenging; and Krishna, 40, is a prominent exponent of Carnatic music and a public intellectual.

The two men share a commitment to free speech and equal citizenship, to addressing entrenched forms of exclusion, discrimination and violence based on caste, to democratic rights and the Indian Constitution. They come from absolutely unrelated areas of engagement, and from personal backgrounds that are far apart, but what is remarkable is how they converge in their social activism as well as their shared ability to communicate clearly and forcefully with large audiences. The Magsaysay Award jury was astute indeed in recognising the laudable public spiritedness of both Wilson and Krishna, and their common concern with the problem of caste.

The annihilation of caste

Manual scavenging — including the removal, carrying and disposal by hand of human excrement, and the physical cleaning of latrines, sewers and septic tanks, a task invariably assigned to Dalits (including men, women and children) — has been targeted for eradication since Gandhi came back to India a hundred years ago. It was the Mahatma who began to insist, in the face of tremendous resistance, that all his family members and associates, regardless of caste, class and gender, clean toilets themselves. An Act of Parliament in 1993 officially banned the employment of manual scavengers and the construction of dry latrines. And yet it continues today, perpetuating the most extreme forms of indignity and oppression, causing disease and death, reducing life expectancy, and making the occupation of thousands of Indian citizens a living hell.

Wilson has been campaigning to put an end to this abominable practice for close to thirty years. The turning point for him was around 1990-91, the birth centenary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), that brought the life and work of the great Dalit leader back into the mainstream of national consciousness and forced the government of the day to implement the Mandal Commission Report, expanding the scope of affirmative action against caste-based social inequality. How can India proceed with its ambitious economic and political agendas for growth, change and prosperity, Wilson asks, when such an archaic form of caste discrimination, a kind of slavery and a form of torture, continues to exist and to ruin countless Dalit lives?

Krishna comes at caste from the direction of the arts, particularly Carnatic music, for almost a century now the preserve of elite urban Brahmin men — whether as composers, singers, musicians, accompanists or listeners — in Chennai and other artistic capitals of southern India. He has been arguing that what is now considered Carnatic classical music and what is now called Bharatanatyam classical dance were both originally the provenance of women, especially temple dancers and courtesans, and of non-Brahmin “holding communities” like the Isai Vellalars. These groups were sidelined and their art forms taken over by socially dominant Brahmin practitioners and patrons, who cleansed the music and dance of their vernacular, erotic, demotic and popular character, and reinvented them as classical, religious, refined and urbane. The temple courtyard and the noisy village square gave way to the kutcheri and the sophisticated concert hall as performance spaces, which closed their doors to ordinary people.

In 2015 Krishna announced his decision to stop performing in the December concert season — in the Tamil month of Margazhi — of Chennai, even though he has been the star of this vaunted annual cultural event from a young age. He now organises a new winter-time music festival in the small fishing village of Urur-Olcott Kuppam in Chennai, teaches music and performs free concerts at corporation schools, trains girls and women in Carnatic vocal and instrumental music, and extends the ambit of his pedagogic outreach to tribal, rural and marginalised communities. He has also expanded the repertoire of music that he himself sings, including modern Hindustani and Bengali forms. Most recently he has made joint appearances with the Jogappas, a transgender community of devotional folk performers, associated with the goddess Yellamma, from northern Karnataka and contiguous parts of the Deccan (Andhra and Maharashtra), unimaginable in the hallowed halls of classical music for the Carnatic orthodoxy.

Self-purification and self-respect

Krishna and Wilson — together, as a pair — remind one of the late D.R. Nagaraj’s insightful formulation of “self-purification” and “self-respect” as the two modalities of a moral resistance to caste, especially untouchability, flowing from Gandhi and Ambedkar, respectively. According to Nagaraj, the caste Hindu and especially the Brahmin self must purify or purge itself of its impulse to exclude or hurt the untouchable, while the Dalit self must assert its intrinsic worth and inalienable dignity even in the face of relentless discrimination.

Krishna, constantly aware of and critical about his own birth, training, conditioning and privilege, has been advocating strenuously that Carnatic music “de-Brahminise” itself, undertake some “social re-engineering” as an act of self-purification to render itself less unequal and more inclusive. The arts are after all a microcosm of society, reflecting and even amplifying its inequalities. Wilson meanwhile states unequivocally that if the Constitution guarantees the self-respect of Dalits, then an abhorrent demeaning practice like manual scavenging simply cannot be allowed to persist in today’s India.

But what is more striking than this obvious dialectic of self-purification and self-respect, which can be traced back to Gandhian and Ambedkarite stances on caste, is how both Krishna and Wilson in their own ways struggle to actualise what Ambedkar called “social endosmosis”. This is the natural flow and exchange of ideas, values, practices, knowledge and energies between and across groups that Ambedkar lamented could not occur in the rigidly stratified and segregated Hindu social order. The traditional caste system controls social reproduction through strict endogamy, and places nearly insurmountable taboos on cohabitation, commensality and other forms of conviviality and commerce between different castes.

Ambedkar and ‘social endosmosis’

Untouchability may have been outlawed through Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, but that is only the most extreme way to keep human beings and fellow citizens apart. In fact, Indians of different castes even today seldom eat together, live together, inter-marry or in other ways participate in each other’s life-worlds across the invisible yet impenetrable barriers of caste. As Krishna has shown, in a manner that is all the more effective for being so blunt, we can’t even sing together, an indicator of how little we hear the speech, the pain, the yearnings, the silences of others.

No aspect of life in India from the exalted heavens of the classical arts to the most mundane pits of bodily waste can escape the totalitarian structure of caste: this was Ambedkar’s rage against varnaashramadharma, the total society. From music to excreta, everything is segregated, violating the basic principle of equal citizenship. Having Krishna and Wilson come together on a common platform exemplifies what Nagaraj characterised as the necessity for modern Indians to address, simultaneously, “the beauty and the horror” of caste. “My journey began from the question of beauty,” Krishna said. “What is beauty?” For a moment this seems like a strange way to begin thinking about the cultural politics of Carnatic music, or indeed any other art form, but it turns out to be an enormously productive line of inquiry. As Wilson points out, an equal society is the most beautiful thing that human beings could make.

Why can’t scientists, planners and bureaucrats come up with a way to end forever the scourge of manual scavenging, Wilson demands, not just a moral and political alternative but a technological and policy solution? Krishna’s path has been more challenging to interpret as a radical move in the politics of aesthetics. In systematically educating himself and us about the actual historical origins and forgotten trajectories of Carnatic music; in abandoning the highest prosceniums for unexplored spaces and unexpected audiences; in opening himself to the sounds and rhythms of every kind of community populating the hum and hubbub of India; in learning to listen and unlearning how he was taught to sing, he has indisputably transformed himself as an artiste.

Articulate to a fault, Krishna reflects, writes, lectures and teaches continuously about what he is doing. But even if he were not to talk about it explicitly, any sensitive listener can hear in Krishna’s voice as it continues to evolve, over the past couple of years especially, a note of compassion, empathy and sweetness that deepens immeasurably the musical experience for singer and audience alike. This is not just amazing virtuosity, which he has had from the very beginning. It is, rather, the sound of virtue itself, the profoundly moving melody of an ethical music. Is there only suffering for the Dalit condemned to manual scavenging, Wilson was asked. “The fight for justice is itself the greatest happiness,” he answered.

 

  • Indictment by abstention

In  what is yet another diplomatic blow for the two-state principle, the UN Security Council, on Friday, passed a resolution with a 14-0 majority urging Israel to halt its illegal settlements programme in the occupied Palestinian territories. The vote is notable as Israel’s pre-eminent backer, the United States, chose to abstain. By doing so, the Barack Obama administration bucked its earlier record of vetoing a similar resolution in 2011. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump was prompt in promising a different response once his tenure commences on January 20. He had sought to work behind the back of Mr. Obama in trying to scuttle this resolution by reaching out to Egypt, which originally drafted it but backed down from its nomination due to “intense pressure”. But it will be difficult for the Trump administration to have this resolution overturned, passed as it was without a veto. That said, the resolution, by way of its adoption under Chapter 6 of the UN Charter, is not binding and comes only with recommendations. It therefore does not affect the status quo in the occupied territories. Even so, its unambiguous language stating that the settlements constitute a violation of international law offers hope for the Palestinians who have filed a suit (that includes the construction of settlements) against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

Israel’s reaction has been predictable. It has refused to comply with the terms of the resolution. It has repeatedly sought to create “new facts on the ground” by continuing to build settlements, imposing a blockade on Gaza, forcing international censure to only keep apace with its latest violations. This outrageous behaviour has been made possible by the unrelenting support provided by the U.S. in the past. While Mr. Obama has had a testy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his administration continued to fund and arm Israel despite, for example, the atrocities in Gaza. The U.S. had also recently worked out a deal that provides $38 billion in military aid over 10 years to Israel, cementing long-established strategic ties. Seen in this light, the administration’s decision to abstain in the most substantive resolution on Israeli settlements since 1980 is even more remarkable. It is also a possible parting shot by the outgoing administration before the unambiguously partisan Trump team takes charge. Either way, it is up to the international community to take the cue and find ways to check and censure Israel’s brazen rule-breaking, and forge a fair solution for the Palestinians.

  • A grim outlook for Europe

The assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey by a lone gunman at an exhibition, in Ankara in Turkey last week, is clear evidence of the enlarging contours of terrorism. Turkey is no longer a merely troubled country. Its geography and chequered history make it a potentially very grave theatre of conflict. The perpetrator, who was later shot dead by security forces, was a policeman said to have jihadist links. It is naive to dismiss the Ambassador’s killing as a mere act in reprisal for Russia’s direct involvement in the Syrian offensive against its rebels. It is far more than that. The attack reflects growing exasperation by a wide spectrum of forces in West Asia at gross external interference. Therefore, the daring murder cannot be viewed in isolation and has to be necessarily linked to the overall problem of terrorism across the globe.

Eyes on Russia

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is on the horns of a dilemma: whether to go the whole hog and align himself with the extremist elements propping up the jihadist cause in order to broaden his eroding support base in the country, or still pretend to be moderate for the sake of conserving his fragile ties with the West. He seems embarrassed and weighed down by the dynamics of a fast-evolving situation. Knowing as we do of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s petulance and panache for high-handedness, he may not be expected to take the killing of his envoy lying down. What form his response will take is anybody’s guess. With Mr. Putin showing no signs of reneging on his pledge to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whatever more the Russian leader does will further muddy the waters. He has already imposed a team of a Russian investigators, and this might cause some resentment within the Turkish police.

Another attack, which saw a man drive a speeding tractor-trailer through crowds of shoppers at a market in central Berlin, which killed 12 and injured many more, and yet another attack by a lone shooter on a Muslim prayer hall in the Swiss city of Zurich in which some people were injured — almost simultaneous to the Ankara incident — strengthen the impression that lone wolf attacks have become the order of the day. That jihadi groups prefer this modus operandi is logical if one reckons that it is swift and efficient, requiring few other resources or any concerted or elaborate preparation. Europe is possibly going to bear the brunt of future savagery that could energise a wide spectrum of forces, such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) and a host of fringe outfits which are smarting under growing restrictions of governments in the continent on religious symbols such as the hijab and the hood.

Political fallout

Two leaders in particular are going to face the heat, with its own consequences to the nations they lead. Mr. Putin, who already has a dubious record in Chechnya, may have to face the impact of a dangerous, direct coalescence between rebels there and terror groups in at least three countries, viz.,Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Not that there is no existing active collaboration between Chechen elements and jihadist forces in West Asia. There are several reports that point to a sizeable number of Chechens fighting from within IS ranks. It may be recalled that an attack by armed Chechens on a theatre in Dubrovka in Moscow, back in 2002, had resulted in 170 casualties.

An equally endangered personality is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is facing what is billed to be a tough general election to decide whether she will get a fourth term. Her decision to allow in a million refugees from West Asia has already led to strong protests from the extreme right in the country, which is linking the recent Berlin terror attack to her benevolence in providing sanctuary to far too many refugees. If she has to win the nation’s mandate one more time, she may have to be seen as acting tough, which could again be easily distorted as targeting Islam. If she acts excessively tough in the process of proving her credentials as a German nationalist, there could be a series of terror forays into the country.

The IS has claimed responsibility for the Berlin incident, but some analysts do not give credence to this. It has been seen in the past year that whenever a terrorist act is reported from any part of the globe, near or remote, the IS has been quick to take credit. Alongside this phenomenon, we are aware that since losing its strongholds in Syria and Iraq, the IS is under immense pressure to look outward and make its presence felt through spectacular actions. The relatively freely available ingress into Europe of cadres escaping from West Asia — especially the liberal admittance to Germany — combined with the absence of internal borders, a major loophole of the Schengen agreement, facilitate indoctrinated elements arriving in the continent to resort to terror after an initial survey of the land and hiding behind the cover of some trade or the other. The fact that apart from the recent attack on one of Berlin’s Christmas markets there have been at least six previous instances of terror in Germany over the course of a year makes sense that the latter country has a high vulnerability. German agencies first suspected the involvement of a Pakistani immigrant who was seen at the scene by a local resident. In quick time they realised that they were on the wrong track and released him. The recovery of a few identification documents from the truck that was driven into shoppers in the market led to a chase to apprehend a Tunisian national, Anis Amri, who had arrived in Europe a few years ago seeking asylum. Amri was then traced in northern Milan and shot dead by the Italian police. There is information that he could have had links with virulent Salafist circles, especially Abu Walaa, a known Iraqi-preacher based in Hildesheim in Germany. It is alleged that Walaa had recruited some youths to the IS. Walaa was once detained briefly by the German police and then let off for lack of evidence.

Psychology of terror

Amri’s profile is interesting. The 24-year-old Tunisian was born in the central Tunisian town of Oueslatia, in one of the country’s poorest regions, and dropped out from school early. His failure to secure decent employment influenced him to sneak into Europe. He was under German police watch while awaiting deportation to his home country. Thereafter he went off the radar to commit his dastardly crime in Berlin. His family back home refuse to believe that he had such a fanatical streak. This is the pattern seen in many past instances across the globe. The immediate kith and kin of a perpetrator of terror hardly vouch for an indoctrinated mind, confirming that indoctrination is an invisible and subtle process difficult to detect even by the members of a well-knit family. It is equally true that where an individual is reported by his day-to-day contacts, such as neighbours or colleagues at an office, for displaying abnormality, the police find little evidence that will attract the attention of the law. The hard truth is that one can scan the physical body of a suspected terrorist, but you cannot unravel his mind to frustrate his evil designs. This is the travesty that marks the world of terrorism in the present day.

The response

In more substantive terms, recent attacks make law enforcement officials believe that terror groups have altered their tactics. Apart from encouraging individual sympathisers to act spontaneously on their own, the groups seem to have endorsed the modus operandi of using a motor vehicle to drive into crowds in order to create all round panic and cause as many casualties as possible. We saw this in Nice in July when an armed man who owed allegiance to al-Qaeda drove a truck through a crowd that had gathered to watch Bastille Day celebrations in Nice. The explanation of some security experts to this novel form of violence is that this kind of attack is easier in terms of logistics and effortlessly evades the police eye. No great preparation is required. You need only to hire a truck on payment by presenting false identification. This is an eye-opener that has to be kept in mind while organising security arrangements on important national celebration days.

In sum, we face the prospect of increased terrorist activity in multiple regions of the world, and especially in Europe. Intensified electronic and physical surveillance of suspected groups or individuals can help only a little. Therefore, there will be more pressure on law enforcement to somehow produce quick results even if it means using methods which may not exactly pass the test of law or ethics. This is as fundamental an analysis as is possible in a terror-stricken world.

  • Foreign policy, Act III

Any contemporary situation appears to follow a pattern described by Shakespeare centuries ago. The third act of his plays is the ‘climax’, which is characterised by acute complications in the story, with no clear indication of future events. Having introduced the dramatis personae in the first act and revealed their concerns and intentions in the second, the Bard is at his creative best in the third act. The situation gets from good to bad and from bad to worse and the spectators breathlessly watch things go wrong in a bewildering manner. They have to wait for the fourth and the fifth acts to witness the denouement, whether it is wedding bells or funerals.

Blistering start

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy in the middle of his term is very much like the third act of a Shakespearean play. The entry was dramatic, full of surprises and even exciting. He strode like a colossus on the world stage with his freshness, energy, decisiveness and oratorical skills. India became visible, active and even assertive. His optimism was contagious and the whole country began anticipating the good times he promised. India would not be a mere spectator on the seashore of world affairs but a participant, claiming its legitimate place on the table. He took the bull by the horns, whether it was Pakistan, China or the United States. Lack of diplomatic experience appeared to be an asset rather than a liability — the first act was perfect.

But in the second act, when Mr. Modi began encountering complex issues, rivals and adversaries, things appeared complicated. Hesitations of history loomed large and quick fixes were not available. There were too many boxes crying out for standard solutions as he searched for out-of-the-box outcomes. All the charms he tried on Pakistan and China went unrequited. But there was joy in the progress made in certain countries, where he followed the path laid by his predecessors.

In today’s third act, Mr. Modi is sadder, but wiser. The confusion of the Shakespearean climax has gripped him. On the one hand, he is receiving dubious praise from the world that he is the one who set off the trend towards the Right in 2014, leading to Brexit and Donald Trump’s election as U.S. President. On the other hand, the advent of Mr. Trump has brought the whole world to a standstill, jeopardising even the new symphony he had painstakingly choreographed with President Barack Obama. An evergreen friend, Vladimir Putin of Russia, appeared not just sulking, but also flirting with China and Pakistan to spite Mr. Modi. He had to be pacified with huge military contracts and an assurance that old friends are better than new ones. But, even at the recent Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar, the Russian envoy stated that the allegations against Pakistan by India and Afghanistan were totally baseless. It is clear that the fissure in India-Russia relations remains serious.

Losing momentum

With Pakistan, neither the charm offensive nor the surgical strikes have made any difference. The situation is worse than it was in 2014, when the ceasefire was in force and the terror attacks were not frequent. The policy of the previous government that no comprehensive dialogue was possible without ending terrorism, often violated by India itself off and on, was completely disregarded by Mr. Modi when he invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to India, proposed Foreign Secretary-level talks, held National Security Adviser-level talks and sent the External Affairs Minister to Islamabad to propose a comprehensive dialogue. The surge in terror attacks prompted the surgical strikes, which Pakistan refused to even acknowledge. Intermittent shooting on the border, expulsion of diplomats, and India’s open support to Balochistan and boycott of the SAARC summit have brought the two countries to the brink of war. The lesson learnt was that 70 years of animosity and conflict cannot be wished away without major concessions on either side.

The whole castle in the air that Mr. Modi built in his first address from the ramparts of the Red Fort about the progress to be achieved by the combined efforts of SAARC countries lies shattered as the future of SAARC itself is uncertain. India invited BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) members to interact with BRICS and not SAARC precisely to encourage a regional group without Pakistan in it. Another latent issue in SAARC was the possible admission of China. A majority of the members argued that since India and Pakistan were made full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a similar courtesy should be extended to China. Had the Islamabad summit been held, India would have been alone in opposing China’s admission.

The bilateral scene with China looks less troublesome, but nothing has changed for the better in India-China relations in the last 30 months. The China-Pakistan collusion continues and the long-term measures being taken by Beijing such as the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative are designed to dominate the whole of Asia. Mr. Modi, on his part, has made no secret of his inclination towards the U.S., Japan and Australia and his concerns about the South China Sea. But happily, there have been very few incidents on the border and the economic activities continue, though the balance of trade is in China’s favour.

The situation on the western front should be a matter of satisfaction for Mr. Modi. The designation of India as a major defence partner has taken India-U.S. relations to a higher level, which entitles India to the same facilities for technology transfer as the allies of the U.S. Mr. Trump is unpredictable, but available indications are that except on migration issues, India-U.S. relations will remain strong in the future. Mr. Modi has his work cut out for him in befriending Mr. Trump in his fourth act.

All eyes on the endgame

The mixed picture on foreign policy that we see is an inevitable consequence of extraordinary global developments and initiatives taken by Mr. Modi. The final judgement on his foreign policy shall have to await the correctives he will apply in the remaining part of his first term. The complications resulting from demonetisation have affected Mr. Modi’s image, but his reputation as a man of decisive action has remained intact. Like a Shakespearean hero, Mr. Modi appears entangled in a web of intricate issues in the third act, but the remaining acts will determine his impact on the global scene.

  • Time to repeal the FCRA

In early November, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs rejected the licence renewal applications, under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010 (FCRA), of 25 non-governmental organisations (NGO). That means these NGOs can no longer receive funds from foreign donors. Many of the affected organisations were rights-based advocacy groups, with some involved in human rights work.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has defended its action by claiming that these organisations had violated FCRA norms by engaging in activities detrimental to public interest. But its decision has drawn criticism from different quarters.

Civil society members have issued statements condemning the move, charging the government with “abuse of legal procedures”. Opposition MPs from six political parties have written to the Prime Minister questioning the government’s motives, and termed it “a decision motivated by the politics of vendetta, victimisation and an effort to bully them into silence”. The National Human Rights Commission has issued a notice to the Home Ministry, observing, “Prima facie it appears FCRA licence non-renewal is neither legal nor objective and thereby impinging on the rights of the human rights defenders in access to funding, including foreign funding.”

Despite the censure, the NDA regime has shown no signs of relenting. This mass cancellation of FCRA licences is not the first time that the legislation has been used thus. In 2015, the Home Ministry had cancelled the FCRA licences of 10,000 organisations. Prominent international funding agency Ford Foundation, the environmentalist group Greenpeace, and human rights advocacy group Lawyers Collective have all been targets of FCRA-linked curbs on their activity, suggesting a larger pattern in the way the state has used this law.

The origins of the FCRA

The original Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act was enacted in 1976 by the Indira Gandhi-led government during the Emergency. It prohibits electoral candidates, political parties, judges, MPs and even cartoonists from accepting foreign contributions. As the inclusion of ‘cartoonists’ under its ambit suggests, the intent was to clamp down on political dissent.

The ostensible justification given for the law was to curb foreign interference in domestic politics. This was the Cold War era, when both the Soviets and the Americans meddled in the internal affairs of post-colonial nations to secure their strategic interests. Amid suspicions of the ubiquitous ‘foreign hand’ stoking domestic turbulence, the FCRA was aimed at preventing political parties from accepting contributions from foreign sources.

As the years passed, India seemed to overcome its suspicion of the ‘foreign hand’. It embraced foreign funding by opening up the economy in 1991. The Indian state had no problem accepting contributions from foreign donors such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. With the state wooing foreign investment, Indian businesses, too, helped themselves to foreign funds. And so did our political parties, despite the FCRA, 1976, expressly prohibiting them from accepting money from ‘foreign sources’.

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress were pulled up by the Delhi High Court in 2014 for violating the FCRA by accepting contributions from the Indian subsidiaries of the London-based multinational, Vedanta. It ordered the government and the Election Commission to take action against both the parties. To no one’s surprise, the BJP-led NDA government did not take action against the BJP. Nor did it do so against the Congress, which, as the leading Opposition party, did not think it appropriate to protest this flagrant flouting of a judicial directive.

Instead, earlier this year, the government quietly introduced a clause in the Finance Bill that amended the relevant section of the FCRA, 2010, so that what was hitherto a “foreign company” now became an Indian company. This amendment was introduced with retrospective effect — a brazen attempt to legitimise the FCRA violations of the two parties. This amendment has also opened the doors for all political parties to accept funding from foreign companies, so long as it is channelled through an Indian subsidiary.

It may be pertinent to point out here that it was the Congress, under the stewardship of Manmohan Singh, that replaced the original FCRA, 1976, with a more draconian version in 2010. But why the new law? To answer that question, we need to consider the differences between the two legislations.

The new FCRA

Human rights activist Venkatesh Nayak draws attention to three changes that render the new Act more stringent than the old one. Firstly, FCRA registration under the earlier law was permanent, but under the new one, it expired after five years, and had to be renewed afresh. This instantly hands the state a whip with which to bring errant organisations to heel.

One may recall that earlier this year, 11,319 NGOs lost their FCRA licences without the government having to either examine their records or suspend their registrations individually — their licences simply expired as the deadline for renewal passed.

Second, the new law put a restriction (50 per cent) on the proportion of foreign funds that could be used for administrative expenses, thereby allowing the government to control how a civil society organisation (CSO) spends its money.

The third and most important distinction is that while the 1976 law was primarily aimed at political parties, the new law set the stage for shifting the focus to “organisations of a political nature”. The FCRA Rules, 2011, framed by the United Progressive Alliance government, has served the NDA well as a manual on how to target inconvenient NGOs, especially those working on governance accountability. It helpfully enumerates the kind of organisation that could be targeted under the FCRA as “an organisation of a political nature”.

The list is revealing: trade unions, students’ unions, workers’ unions, youth forums, women’s wing of a political party, farmers’ organisations, youth organisations based on caste, community, religion, language and “any organisation… which habitually engages itself in or employs common methods of political action like ‘bandh’ or ‘hartal’, ‘rasta roko’, ‘rail roko’ or ‘jail bharo’ in support of public causes”.

Institutionalising double standards

Put simply, a political class that has no qualms taking money from foreign sources, that amended the FCRA to let itself off the hook for past violations, that opened the doors for all political parties to accept foreign funding, that paved the way for Indian businesses to access foreign capital, is now anxious to prevent CSOs from accessing foreign funds because some of them question its policies in a democratic battle to protect constitutional rights and entitlements.

Last April, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association undertook a legal analysis of the FCRA, 2010. He submitted a note to the Indian government which stated unambiguously that the FCRA provisions and rules “are not in conformity with international law, principles and standards”.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s argument was fairly straightforward. The right to freedom of association is incorporated under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. Access to resources, particularly foreign funding, is part of the right to freedom of association. While this is not an absolute right and is subject to restrictions, those have to be precise, and defined in a way that “would enable a CSO to know in advance whether its activities could reasonably be construed to be in violation of the Act”.

The report says that restrictions in the name of “public interest” and “economic interest” as invoked under the FCRA rules fail the test of “legitimate restrictions”. The terms are too vague and give the state excessive discretionary powers to apply the provision in an arbitrary manner. Besides, given that the right to freedom of association is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 20), a violation of this right also constitutes a human rights violation.

Does all this mean that the FCRA should be repealed? If yes, how then do we monitor the foreign funding of NGOs?

Of course, NGO funding needs to be regulated. One cannot deny that corrupt NGOs exist, or that unscrupulous NGOs that receive foreign funds may serve as conduits for money laundering. But there are better ways to address these concerns than an FCRA that institutes an ‘Inspector Raj’ for the NGO sector.

In fact, a seven-member task force was set up way back in 2009 to create a national-level self-regulatory agency, the National Accreditation Council of India (NACI), that would monitor and accredit CSOs. It was to be an independent, statutory body along the lines of the Bar Council. The task force submitted its report to the Planning Commission in September 2010. It was never heard of again. Instead, what we got in September 2010 was a more aggressive FCRA. Perhaps it is time to repeal the FCRA and revive the idea of an autonomous, self-regulatory agency for CSOs.

  • Agni-V test-fired again from mobile-launcher

The test-firing of India’s most formidable ballistic missile, Agni-V, from the Abdul Kalam Island, off the Odisha coast on Monday, was an unalloyed success, signalling that India’s nuclear deterrence capability has come of age.

This is the fourth success in a row for Agni-V, which can carry a nuclear warhead weighing about 1.5 tonnes over a distance of 5,000 km and plus. “There were no issues at all in the flight,” officials of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) said. Agni-V is a product of the DRDO.

It was the second time that Agni-V was fired from a canister mounted on a massive TATRA truck parked on the Island. A gas generator at the bottom of the canister kicked out the long-range, three-stage, surface-to-surface missile that weighed 50 tonnes, was 17 metres long and had a two-metre diameter. The previous Agni-V flight from a canister was on January 31, 2015. A missile launched from a canister mounted on a road-mobile launcher gives it operational flexibility. This means it can be fired from a road in a city, after stopping the traffic, giving reduced reaction time. The missile can be made vertical in three minutes and the launch takes a few more minutes. After the lift-off, the truck can speed away.

  1. Satheesh Reddy, Director General (Missiles and Strategic Systems), DRDO, said, “Today’s Agni-V flight met all the mission objectives and proved many indigenous technologies and capabilities.”

The lift-off took place around 11 a.m. As Agni-V vaulted out of the confines of the canister, it rose to a height of 20 metres. Then the first stage motor kicked in and the missile soared to an altitude of 600 km and struck a parabolic path.

The two stages jettisoned and the missile accelerated as it plunged towards the earth. Its re-entry systems worked perfectly. The heat-shield made of carbon-carbon composites and encasing the dummy warhead, withstood a temperature of about 4,000 degrees Celsius. The on-board computer guided the missile towards its impact point in the Indian Ocean. After a 20-minute flight, it fell near the Australian waters.

The bouquet of five Agnis form the bulwark of India’s nuclear deterrence capability. While Agni-I has a range of 700 km, Agni-II 2,000 km, and Agni-III 3,000 km, Agni-IV can take out targets 4,000 km away.

 

 

  • Chronicle of a conflict foretold

The tragedy of the current communal flashpoint in Manipur is that for a long time there has been a sense of foreboding that things were headed this direction, and few did anything about it. What is surprising is the blindness on the part of all involved in the business of peace-making, and those waging supposedly people’s struggles, to the fact of a peculiar geographical destiny which has bound and still binds much of this troubled frontier, and that any effort to break this unseen bondage will likely result in deadly conflicts. This has been particularly true of multi-ethnic and multi-religious Manipur. Indeed, if geography predetermines conflicts as Robert Kaplan explains in The Revenge of Geography, Manipur would be a fine demonstration of this theory.

Thankfully, no ethnic carnage has happened. Although there have been pockets of arson and violence, there have been no human casualties, which gives hope that better sense can still hold. There are also signs now that the immediate cause for the heightened ethnic tension — that of the indefinite blockade along Manipur’s two major lifelines, the Imphal-Dimapur road and the Imphal-Silchar road, imposed by the United Naga Council (UNC) since November 1 — may end soon. Following commendable groundwork done by a group of citizens calling themselves the Goodwill Mission, the UNC has indicated on Monday that it is open to talks with the Manipur government on the matter. The latter on its part had extended invitations to the former for such talks on several occasions. The Central government too has woken up to the reality and has finally decided to send 4,000 paramilitary troops to open the highways in case the blockade remains.

Root of the crisis

The roots of any conflict can never been in black and white, but if a single overwhelming reason for the current crisis is to be identified, it is the primeval notion of an exclusive ethnic homeland so current in places like Manipur. The belief is that such homelands are a given and have existed since time immemorial. Communities who claim to be natural heirs and custodians of these homelands think of others as aliens. The trouble is, those thus excluded, as all traditional ethnic communities, have their own notions of homeland, and these more often than not overlap, and sometimes completely, with the ones in which they are supposed to be aliens. Depending on the state of economic bases of the communities in question, these homeland notions understandably vary. For instance, settle agriculturists, shift cultivators and hunter gatherers will have different relationships with land. Nagas, Kukis, Meiteis and many other smaller ethnic groups in Manipur are thus in a web of overlapped homelands. Under the circumstances, the unanswered question is, whose homeland is to be given precedence, especially when they overlap? The lack of courage and imagination on the part of the enlightened civil society as well as governments to address this question is what keeps places like Manipur perpetually on the edge.

Furthermore, these homelands have undergone a great deal of skewing with the advent of modern land revenue administration, brought in by the British beginning 1826. The clear-cut division between the hills and plains in Assam and Manipur is one of these. After the Treaty of Yandaboo, 1826 that concluded the Burmese occupation of Assam and Manipur, the British annexed Assam and made it a province of Bengal, but left Manipur as a protectorate state. No sooner, the British realised the need to demarcate revenue from non-revenue lands in Assam and came up with the Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation in 1873, by which an Inner Line was drawn roughly at the base of the hills surrounding the revenue-earning fertile Assam valleys. The non-revenue hills beyond were left unadministered, except for occasional punitive expeditions to punish tribes who raided the plains in the lean seasons.

This segregation of the hills from the plains continued till the time of Indian independence. In the Government of India Act, 1919, the hills beyond the Inner Line were termed as Backward Tracts and continued to be left unadministered. In the Government of India Act, 1935, these Backward Tracts were redesignated and clubbed into two categories: “excluded areas” and “partially excluded areas”. The excluded areas were to remain unrepresented in the provincial assembly and governed directly by the Governor of the province. The partially excluded areas were to have some representations in the provincial government through representatives appointed by the Governor.

Although the British did not draw an Inner Line in Manipur, they brought in the tried and tested non-revenue space management norms from Assam. They left the fertile and intensely cultivated revenue lands of the Imphal valley to be administered under modern revenue norms while the sparsely populated non-revenue hills were generally left unadministered, but under the charge of the British Political Agent in the then kingdom, in his official capacity as the President Manipur State Darbar. This pattern of administration soon came to be institutionalised and was retained after independence. Today, the Imphal valley is under the modern revenue administration as defined by the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act, introduced while it was still a Union Territory in 1962, but not the hills, where customary laws continue to shape administrative norms. In the valley, the state is deemed to own all lands, and individual owners lease their small possessions and pay taxes in return. However, this principle of eminent domain is disputed in the hills.

Different interpretations

Viewed against this backdrop, the UNC blockade should be open to different interpretations. The UNC was demanding an assurance from the Manipur government that what they deem as their ancient homeland — or Nagalim, reflecting the vocabulary of the Naga militant group, the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isak-Muivah) — will not be divided into districts without their consent. In particular, they did not want the Kuki-dominated Sadar Hills given this status, as they consider Kukis as migrants who settled in their land and who can only be their tenants. The Manipur government, which was expected to create this district together with Jiribam, a small enclave of predominantly non-tribal population, deferred the decision in the wake of the UNC protest, but a December 8 midnight cabinet meet, for whatever its wisdom, decided to go ahead and create not just these two districts but five more by splitting altogether seven existing districts, thereby stiffening the UNC’s blockade stance.

What then can be the way forward? First and foremost, conflict resolution in such a scenario cannot be a bilateral matter between the Central government and any single party, as it seems to be the case in the ongoing Naga peace talks. A chain can be as strong as the weakest link, and the Centre will have to look for a broader and more inclusive solution to suit what essentially is a multilateral issue. Second, everyone will have to agree to a shared homeland. The lofty goal of “shared sovereignty” and “competencies” being negotiated between the NSCN(IM) and the Centre cannot be the solution to the problem of the region unless this sharing extends to all other stake holders.

  • Neither cultural nor revolutionary

We live in ironic times where the establishment quotes Bob Dylan, an anti-establishment figure. Last month, the Prime Minister cited lines from Dylan’s song, The Times They Are A-Changin’ including “And don’t criticise/ What you can’t understand”, ostensibly targeted at the critics of demonetisation.

Demonetisation is an event of biblical proportions. But even as its economic consequences are discussed, what goes unnoticed are the new cultural imaginaries that are sought to be put in place. Rather than see demonetisation as only an economic measure to curb corruption, the government wants to usher in “a behavioural change at all levels of society”, which is a part of “the grand ‘cultural revolution’ that the PM is working on” (M. Venkaiah Naidu in The Indian Express, Nov. 29).

The problem is that this cultural revolution is neither cultural nor revolutionary. Culture becomes a mere appendage to technological transformations which still mask material exploitation. In this cultural revolution, the government still needs lucky draw contests (and prizes worth Rs. 340 crore) to incentivise digital payments and behaviourial change. Also, the revolution will be ushered in through an executive fiat from above rather than it emerging organically from the people.

Emptiness of words

Technology is the fulcrum of the new cultural revolution. As the Prime Minister puts it, in ‘Digital India’, “your phone is your wallet.” But when Dylan becomes yoked to the project of Cashless India and Digital India, culture becomes instrumental and hollow. Otherwise, how is The Times…, reflecting the American youth’s anger against imperialism perpetrated by their own government, quoted by a government that has come down heavily on dissent?

The cultural revolution is supposed to completely overhaul the system. In a reference rich with religio-cultural symbolism, the Prime Minister calls demonetisation a “yagna against corruption, terrorism and black money.” There is, of course, tremendous hardship for the people. But he asks them to endure it to make the nation great and modern. Remarkably, in this vision, there are no cultural revolutions to annihilate caste, the most important barrier to India becoming modern. Nor there are yagnas against class and gender exploitation.

In this cultural revolution without culture, anything goes, so the Prime Minister can wish that “the youth seize the moment and be the winds of change” even after his government has virtually criminalised any youth politics unpalatable to the state. Or a Union Minister can also quote Dylan to critique patriarchy in Muslim community, but not patriarchy among Hindus.

No critical pedagogy

Such a conjuncture is itself a result of India’s failure to build a critical pedagogy. Instead of questioning the fundamental bases of exploitation, the entire pedagogy has been built on a technocratic understanding of society catering to building “meritorious” citizens, a society which merely reinforces existing hierarchies. In this pedagogy, as the philosopher Ivan Illich put it, “medical treatment is mistaken for healthcare, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.”

It is on this ground already ploughed by conformist currents that the seeds of the new cultural revolution are sown. How else does one explain sections of the most “educated”, including in the bureaucracy, with a bird’s-eye view of governance, seeing demonetisation as a panacea to all our ills? The crux of technocratic thinking is to paper over systemic causes of issues such as poverty and prescribe technological fixes.

The root cause for our misery in this technocratic vision is a culture steeped in corruption. While there is truth in this, the decadent culture is not caused by the ruling classes in general, but only, as a government representative puts it, “encouraged by Congress and its friends all these years in power.” Again, the accumulation of privilege by the upper castes/classes or of the state-sanctioned plunder of public wealth, forests, minerals, etc. by the ruling classes goes unmentioned.

When one identifies the problem as such, the solution can only be superficial. Demonetisation becomes a magic wand to end corruption. When the Prime Minister tells a rally that the rich are queuing up at the houses of the poor to seek their help in depositing black money, he is not referring to the ultra-rich in India. So, the cultural revolution is already making a distinction between the rich themselves.

In this cultural revolution, culture becomes a mask to hide fundamental material realities. Thus, it does not tell us that the top one per cent of people own 58.4 per cent of the country’s wealth. When the bottom 50 per cent own only 2.1 per cent of the wealth, how does the promised manna of a few thousand rupees in Jan Dhan accounts alter anything?

The staggering levels of inequality have very little to do with black money held in high denomination notes, but are a result of a skewed distribution of wealth, resources and power legally enforced. That among the prominent economies of the world, India is only second to Russia, which is known for its mafia capitalism, in terms of the wealth owned by the top one per cent says something about our rapacious model of development, especially under liberalisation.

The cultural revolution does not tell us that the revenue foregone by the government in corporate income tax, excise and custom duty since 2005-06 is Rs. 42 trillion — an amount which can fund the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act for over 100 years! Neither does it tell us that state-owned banks have written off Rs.1.14 lakh crore of bad loans from 2013 to 2015 or that just two corporate houses alone owe over Rs.3 lakh crore in debt to the banks.

The tragedy is that the questions not asked by the cultural revolution are left unasked by popular discourse. And they will not be until we are prisoners of what the cultural theorist Henry Giroux calls as the “relentless activity of thoughtlessness” fostered by dominant power through its cultural apparatuses. What they do is to transform the genuine aspirations of the people for equality, a corruption-free society and anger against the existing system into sanitised expressions like demonetisation which do not fundamentally challenge the system.

It is in the absence of a genuine cultural revolution that we have reached a conjuncture in which a nation as diverse and unequal as India is asked to place its hopes on an individual leader as a talisman for a cultural revolution. A cultural revolution in which mobile phones will herald a corruption-free society. To unveil this cultural revolution, we need to go back to deciphering Dylan ourselves.

  • Clock of ageing may be reversible, shows study

At the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, scientists are trying to get time to run backward. Biological time, that is. In the first attempt to reverse ageing by reprogramming the genome, they have rejuvenated the organs of mice and lengthened their life spans by 30 per cent.

The technique, which requires genetic engineering, cannot be applied directly to people, but the achievement points toward better understanding of human ageing and the possibility of rejuvenating human tissues by other means. The Salk team’s discovery was reported in the Thursday issue of the journal Cell.

Leonard Guarente, who studies the biology of ageing at MIT, said, “This is huge”, citing the novelty of the finding and the opportunity it creates to slow down, if not reverse, ageing. “It’s a pretty remarkable finding, and if it holds up it could be quite important in the history of ageing research,” Mr. Guarente said.

The finding is based on the heterodox idea that ageing is not irreversible and that an animal’s biological clock can in principle be wound back to a more youthful state.

Accumulation of changes

The ageing process is clock-like in the sense that a steady accumulation of changes eventually degrades the efficiency of the body’s cells. In one of the deepest mysteries of biology, the clock’s hands are always set back to zero at conception: However old the parents and their reproductive cells, a fertilised egg is free of all marks of age.

Ten years ago, the Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka amazed researchers by identifying four critical genes that reset the clock of the fertilised egg.

Fresh approach

Yamanaka’s method is now routinely used to change adult tissue cells into cells very similar to the embryonic stem cells produced in the first few divisions of a fertilised egg.

Scientists next began to wonder if the four Yamanaka genes could be applied not just to cells in glassware but to a whole animal. The results were disastrous. As two groups of researchers reported in 2013 and 2014, the animals all died, some because their adult tissue cells had lost their identity and others from cancer. Embryonic cells are primed for rapid growth, which easily becomes uncontrolled. But at the Salk Institute, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte had been contemplating a different approach. He has long been interested in regeneration, the phenomenon in which certain animals, like lizards and fish, can regenerate lost tails or limbs. Cells near the lost appendage revert to a stage midway between an embryonic cell, which is open to all fates, and an adult cell, which is committed to being a particular type of cell, before rebuilding the missing limb.

This partial reprogramming suggested to him that reprogramming is a step-wise process, and that a small dose of the Yamanaka factors might rejuvenate cells without the total reprogramming that converts cells to the embryonic state.

With Alejandro Ocampo and other Salk researchers, Mr. Belmonte has spent five years devising ways to deliver a non-lethal dose of Yamanaka factors to mice. The solution his team developed was to genetically engineer mice with extra copies of the four Yamanaka genes, and to have the genes activated only when the mice received a certain drug in their drinking water, applied just two days a week.

The Salk team worked with mice that age prematurely, so as to get quick results. “What we saw is that the animal has fewer signs of ageing, healthier organs, and at the end of the experiment we could see they had lived 30 per cent longer than control mice,” Mr. Belmonte said.

Improved organ health

The team also saw improved organ health in normal mice but, because the mice are still living, could not yet say if longevity was extended.

Mr. Belmonte believes these beneficial effects have been obtained by resetting the clock of the ageing process. The clock is created by the epigenome, the system of proteins that clads the cell’s DNA and controls which genes are active and which are suppressed.

Only in the past few years have biologists come to realise that the state of the epigenome may be a major cause of ageing. If the epigenome is damaged, perhaps by accumulating too many marks, the cell’s efficiency is degraded.

  • China slams India over invite to the Dalai Lama

China has slammed India for inviting the Dalai Lama for a function in the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and urged New Delhi to respect China’s “core interest” in order to avoid “any disturbance” in ties between the two nations.

In a strongly worded response to a question, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said: “Recently in disregard of China’s solemn representation and strong opposition, the Indian side insisted on arranging for the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit to the Indian presidential palace, [and] participation in the event with the Indian President and meeting with President [Pranab] Mukherjee.”

The spokesman asserted that Beijing was “strongly dissatisfied with and firmly opposed to that”. The Dalai Lama was present in the opening session of the “Laureates and Leaders for Children Summit”, organised by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s Children’s Foundation on December 10.

Mr. Geng said the “Dalai Lama is in political exile and has been engaged in anti-China separatist activities with the attempt of separating Tibet away from China under the cloak of religion”. He added that China was firmly opposed “to any form of contact between officials of the other countries with him”.

“We urge the Indian side to see through the anti-China separatist nature of the Dalai Lama clique, fully respect China’s core interest and major concerns, take effective means to remove the negative impact caused by the incident so as to avoid any disturbance to China-India relationship,” he said.

India’s stand

The Government of India sought to play down the comments, saying the event the Dalai Lama had attended was not a “political” one. “His Holiness the Dalai Lama is a respected and revered spiritual leader. It was a non-political event organised by Nobel laureates dedicated to the welfare of children,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said on Friday. India has always resisted Chinese criticism of the Dalai Lama’s movements, and maintains that he does not undertake any political activity in India.

This is the fifth time that China has expressed its annoyance in the past few months. Earlier, Chinese government spokespersons objected to the Dalai Lama’s visits to Arunachal Pradesh, Mongolia and the U.S., as well as the government’s permission to the Karmapa Lama to travel to Arunachal as well.

China’s strong objections towards the perceived promotion of Tibetan separatism coincide with its rejection of remarks by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump questioning Washington’s unqualified endorsement of Beijing’s sovereignty over Taiwan.

Global Times, the daily affiliated with the Communist Party of China, took exception to the statement by Mongolian Ambassador to India Gonchig Ganhold seeking New Delhi’s financial support to override Ulan Bator’s economic difficulties. Mongolia’s crisis followed its reception of the Dalai Lama last month, apparently triggering a slew of economic measures by Beijing against Ulan Bator.

  • Deborah rewrites record

She competed with borrowed cycle yet Deborah towered over her rivals in her favourite 500m Individual Time Trial event and breezed to a new record on the second day of the 69th senior, 46th junior and 32nd sub-junior National track cycling championship held at LNCPE, Velodrome here on Thursday.

Though not happy with the cycle she was riding Deborah clocked 36.377s to improve her own mark (36.470) set last year. Deborah was paired with international Kezia Varghese for the event. However, Kezia, who is nursing a neck injury which she got during training, was not at her best to push the girl from Andamans.

Deborah showed her class in the event by finishing nearly two seconds ahead of Kezia who won the silver in 38.358s. Anu Chutia (Assam) came third in 39.567s.

Deborah rode with a cycle borrowed from SAI centre in Car Nicobar where she has been training for the last one month. “The cycle I use in Delhi is a different one and obviously better than the one I was riding here. This cycle was a bit big for me. However, I am satisfied with my performance as I had little competition here,” she said after the event.

The day’s competition witnessed a flurry of records. Sahil Kumar (Haryana) and Sanu Raj (Services) broke the existing meet in the boys’ under-18 1000m time trial event. The promising Esow of Andaman and Nicobar set a new mark in the 500m Individual Time Trial in the boys’ under-14 section.

Aleena Reji (Kerala) and Mayuri Lute (Maharashtra) set new marks in 500m Individual Time Trial event in the girls’ under-18 and under-14 sections respectively.

At end of competition on the second day, Kerala was leading the points table with 34 points followed by Manipur with 26 points. Andaman & Nicobar Islands is in third position with 16 points.

The results:

Men: 1000m Individual Time Trial: 1. Vikaram Duhan (RSPB) (1:08.988), 2. Ranjit Singh (SSCB), 3. Ranjit Singh (Haryana).

Boys: Under-18: 1000m Individual Time Trial: 1. Sahil Kumar (Haryana) (1:07.902: NMR; OR: 1:10.932, Amarjeet Singh, Punjab, 2013). Under-14: 500m Individual Time Trial: 1. Esow (A & N) (34.577: NMR; OR: 36.014, Esow, A & N, 2015), 2. Y. Rojit Singh (Manipur), 3. Maurya Pawar (Maharashtra).

Women: 500m Individual Time Trial: 1. Deborah (A & N), (36.377: NMR; OR: 36.470, Deborah, A &N, 2015).

Girls: Under-18: 500m Individual Time Trial: 1. Aleena Reji (Kerala) (37.803: NMR; 0R: 37.908, Deborah, A &N, 2013.

Under-16: 500m Individual Time Trial: 1. Mayuri Lute (Maharashtra) (39.577: NMR; 0R: 42.164, Jashanjit Kaur, Punjab, 2012).

  • Forbes India GDP data sparks debate

Even as a report in the Forbes magazine suggested that the Indian economy had overtaken that of the U.K. in absolute size, an analysis of the GDP (gross domestic product) data by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Centre and the currency data from the central banks of the two countries shows a different picture.

The Forbes report, authored by a former McKinsey consultant who is now studying at the Tsinghua University, says that the U.K.’s GDP in 2016 was 1.87 trillion pounds, which, given the 20 per cent decline in the value of the pound over the course of 2016, translated to $2.29 trillion.

The report puts India’s 2016 GDP at Rs.153 trillion which is $2.30 trillion at an exchange rate of Rs.66.6 to the dollar.

GDP figures

While the GDP figure cited for the U.K. is corroborated by data from the IMF and the currency rate of 0.81 pounds to the dollar used in the calculation is backed by data from the Bank of England, the data for India does not add up.

“There were basically two considerations, the nominal value of GDP of both the countries and the currency exchange rates,” said D.K. Srivastava, Chief Policy Advisor, EY India.

“Our estimates show that the GDP for 2016 would be Rs.149 trillion. We are looking at the provisional actuals of last year and applying our estimate of the growth rate.”

The IMF, in the October 2016 edition of its World Economic Outlook, estimates India’s GDP for the year at Rs.122.15 trillion, far lower than the Rs.153 trillion assumed in the Forbes report.

Even looking at Indian sources, the combined GDP over Q1 and Q2 of this financial year, as reported by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, was Rs.71.5 trillion. If, for ease of calculation, this is doubled to arrive at the full-year figure, then the total works out to only Rs.143 trillion.

Of course, simply doubling the GDP in Q1 and Q2 is inaccurate but it becomes more so this year due to the expected dampening effect on the GDP growth due to demonetisation of high-value currency notes announced on November 8, the impact of which is expected to be felt in the second-half of this financial year.

The final dollar value of the GDPs of the U.K. and India is based on the currency exchange rate used by the Forbes contributor in his calculation.

Even a minor inaccuracy here can change the final outcome by a significant amount.

Exchange rate

The Forbes report assumes an exchange rate of 0.81 pounds to the dollar. According to data from the Bank of England, the exchange rate was an average of 0.80 on December 16, the date the report was published.

Using the author’s own U.K. 2016 GDP figure of 1.87 trillion pounds, this works out to $2.33 trillion, larger than what the author estimated the Indian economy to be.

The Reserve Bank of India notified Rs. 67.78 as the exchange rate to the dollar on December 16, 2016.

Even assuming that the Forbes report’s 2016 GDP figure for India is correct, converting it at the RBI exchange rate yields a GDP size of $2.26 trillion, again smaller than all estimates of the U.K. economy.

“Our estimate is that India is still smaller than the U.K. but it might overtake it at market exchange rates by the next financial year,” Mr. Srivastava said.

“However, what is material is that in purchasing power parity terms, India is much higher than all economies except the U.S. and China.”

  • After Mongolian incident, Chinese daily counsels India on Dalai Lama

In tune with an assurance China has received from Mongolia that it will no longer welcome the Dalai Lama, the Global Times newspaper, affiliated with the Communist Party of China (CPC), has counselled India not to leverage the Tibetan spiritual leader to undermine Beijing’s core interests.

An op-ed in the daily on Thursday noted that the “Mongolian Foreign Minister Tsend Munkh-Orgil said Tuesday that Mongolia will not allow the Dalai Lama to visit the country, even in the name of religion, thus settling a one-month stand-off between Mongolia and China.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson on Wednesday also stated that the “Chinese side sets store by the explicit statement made by the Mongolian Foreign Minister.”

“Tibet-related issues concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and bear on China’s core interests. China’s position on Tibet-related issues is resolute and clear. It is hoped that the Mongolian side will learn lessons from this issue, truly respect China’s core interests, honour its commitment and strive to improve China-Mongolia relations,” it added.

The Global Times article sought to link the Mongolia’s subsequent problems with Beijing, following the visit to Ulan Bator, with the presence of the Dalai Lama at a function in Rashtrapati Bhavan earlier this month.

“Indian President Pranab Mukherjee met with the Tibetan separatist in exile in India this month, probably as moral support to Mongolia, which mired itself in diplomatic trouble after receiving the Dalai Lama in November.”

‘Shortsighted vision’

The op-ed slammed India for not recognising “the gap between its ambition and its strength”. “Sometimes, India behaves like a spoiled kid, carried away by the lofty crown of being ‘the biggest democracy in the world’. India has the potential to be a great nation, but the country’s vision is short-sighted.”

  • Syncretism by the seaside

Now that he has opened his cultural account with a “virtual” appearance at the Coldplay concert in Mumbai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi should take a much-needed break from the tedium of daily governance to “really” visit the Kochi-Muziris Biennale currently under way. Here are six good reasons why.

Commingling of cultures

A visit to the Biennale, and more properly Kochi during the Biennale, will reveal that cities can be made ‘smart’ through other means than technobabble. Cultural events, especially on a scale and of a class such as the Biennale, with national and international participation and sponsorship, end up creating a new cultural commons, rather than stealing the old as was recently attempted in Bengaluru. The artworks might puzzle, titillate, outrage and awe, but the public is challenged to think not just about the artefacts and experiences on offer, but about the setting. Long months of planning result in near perfect technical arrangements for uninterrupted viewing pleasure in derelict yards, abandoned warehouses, or dark godowns. The site and its histories (from the ancient Muziris to the modern shipyard) are interlayered so that the public is offered a viable, enjoyable and inescapably pedagogic cultural experience. Above all, the Biennale has been “owned” by a large proportion of the local population, and not only because they benefit economically.

The thoughtful visitor will also be able to explore an aspect of city life that thrives in a place like Kochi, and is seriously threatened in most other regions of India: the art of accommodation (not referencing here the many homestays and B. & B.s that have burgeoned in this seaside town). Kochi, as many writers including Ashis Nandy have pointed out, has a long pre-history of accommodating peoples of different regions, both from the hinterland and across the seas. The commingling of several religions, this “alternative cosmopolitanism” includes, unusually, Judaism. Though not unmarked by conflictual pasts, in this small space several faiths have taken root, as if declaring the incompleteness of any one religion: no religion is without its lacks, none without its uniqueness and achievements. Even the vestiges of such values are to be prized in the scenario shadowed by the darker preoccupations of the majority of Indian cities, namely, linguistic nationalism, communal antagonism and fierce battles over who may be defined as “sons of the soil”. Kochi’s ability to assimilate its immigrants into its linguistic cosmos is in sharp contrast to many other cities of that size. The resolutely bilingual exhibition, as well as its volunteers and guides, makes both insider and outsider feel at home in the new world of art.

The Biennale is as good a time as any to revisit the growing “common sense” of the place occupied by meat and fish in the Indian menu. From the brisk breakfast to the dawdling over dinner, Kochi’s cuisines are merely a reflection of what preoccupies most people of Kerala: the vital necessity of meat/fish from dawn to dusk and every meal in between. Poverty, rather than proscription, may more severely dent the prospects of heartier participation in such an unembarrassed meatarian culture.

In Kochi during the Biennale, one might, temporarily at least, flee the claustrophobic correctness that marks our public life, on the one hand; on the other, escape from “guilded honour shamefully misplaced… And art made tongue-tied by authority,

And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill” (Shakespeare’s sonnet 66).

Amiably adjacent are works of anger, pain, irreverence, critique, folly, playfulness, worshipfulness, though not of a kind currently fashionable. The Biennale spells out not only the end of work as we knew it (how many foundries, factories, occupations, and indeed sites of work — Kochi itself — are mourned and memorialised here!) but the beginning of new, dangerous and uncertain beginnings of art and work practices. Such an assemblage/curatorial venture would not have been possible without the close collaboration of state and market. But such exuberance would not have been enabled without bringing to life the maverick, the eccentric, the outsider and non-conformist. Even the local artistic opposition to the early pioneers found a space on the walls of Fort Kochi, in 2014, this time as artistic graffiti.

Of prospects and paradoxes

Long before the Father of the Nation had been turned into a social worker with a broom, and before his glasses had been made the official “effigy” of Swachh Bharat, swachhness had been quietly practised in places like Kochi in Kerala. What accounts for that culture of cleanliness when social divisions are probably no less marked than elsewhere in India? What prospect of this flourishing within the new plastic-wrapped economies? It is hard to predict, but for now at least, Fort Kochi presents not just a near immaculate city setting, but heralds the possibility of new and comforting civilities, where the unpredictability of the encounter with strangers is welcomed, not feared.

Coming at this momentous period in our Republic’s history, Kochi presents both the paradox and the prospect of the digital future. In a city laid low by the crumbling of earlier worlds of labour and economies, the Biennale presents a moment to recoup a living, to make a quick buck, to squirrel away some small fortune. Demonetisation could not have happened at a worse time. To be fair, there were no anxious lines before the ATMs as in many other Indian metropolises. But equally, at a time when there is a deluge of visitors from all parts of India and elsewhere, few establishments accepted plastic.

No marks for guessing that this was not an aesthetic preference. As many hoteliers who politely refused the card revealed, digital payments combined with the near impossibility of obtaining money from the banks (working capital) equals financial unviability. Workers and fisherfolk could not be paid, and neither could transporters. Hard cash alone could solve this liquidity crisis.

No city, no public event, is without its conflicts, its darker moments, its bitter exclusions, its recognisable weaknesses. This was demonstrated quite forcefully by the Commonwealth Games and its shameful heritage. “We are like that only.” Or are we? Kochi, or more properly Fort Kochi, and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a memorable, if small and temporary, glimpse of the possibilities of another contemporary, another present.

  • Blue ice, a rare occurrence: Airline

Airlines have said it is not possible to empty toilet tanks in mid-air as claimed in a petition before the National Green Tribunal.

An AirAsia India spokesperson said: “AirAsia India lavatory waste draining and disposal is outsourced to Globe Ground India (GGI). They collect the waste from the aircraft and dump it in an airport-designated waste dumping location.”

A Vistara spokesperson said the airline follows the procedures as per the Aircraft Maintenance Manual according to which waste is to be emptied into specialised waste carts.

“All necessary health, environment and safety procedure are taken while carrying out these activities,” the spokesperson said, adding that emptying toilet tanks is not possible mid-air in modern pressurised aircraft.

Jet Airways said ‘blue ice’, a term used for frozen sewage material leaked mid-air, as a “rare occurrence” which signifies “a leaking toilet system, leading to the formation of accumulation of ice in high altitude.”

‘Standard checks done ’

The airline conducts standard checks that include removing the waste from the aircraft and taking it to the designated waste-disposal system after every flight, a spokesperson said.

In its order, the NGT had asked the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to issue a circular to all airlines using the Delhi airport to ensure that they do not release any waste while landing or taking off at the airport or near it.

It also asked the aviation regulator to impose an environmental compensation of Rs. 50,000 per violation of the circular and submit a quarterly report to the tribunal.

The petitioner had told the court that excreta fall due to “evacuation of the aircraft toilet canisters while flying on the houses of people” living in residential areas near the airport.

“There is one exterior lever outside the aircraft and only the ground crew can operate the valve that opens the tank while the plane is on the ground,” said Bimal K. Srivastava, retired General Manager at Airports Authority of India, who has done extensive research on ‘blue ice.’ He added that “under no circumstances” can a pilot empty the storage tank during the flight.

 

  • Rajiv Shah is Rockefeller’s first Indian-American head

On Thursday, the Rockefeller Foundation, one of the largest and most influential philanthropies in the United States, was to name Rajiv J. Shah, a trustee, as president. He was to succeed Judith Rodin, who has been holding the post for 12 years.

The appointment was to make Mr. Shah one of the most powerful forces in charitable giving, overseeing a foundation that donates roughly $200 million each year and corrals governments, companies and organisations to contribute money and resources in tandem.

Founded in 1913

At 43, Mr. Shah is the youngest person and the first Indian-American to lead the Rockefeller Foundation, which has gained stature in recent years through some prominent projects but has sometimes been criticised as being more interested in its publicity than its grantees.

Founded in 1913 by oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, the foundation says it has given away the equivalent of more than $17 billion in today’s dollars.

Much of the foundation’s work concerns improving health and well being in Africa, aiding economic development in impoverished areas and developing strategies to combat climate change. It was these diverse causes that attracted Mr. Shah to the job. With advanced degrees in medicine and health finance from the University of Pennsylvania, Mr. Shah worked at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for nearly a decade, rising to be director for agricultural development.

From 2009 to 2015, he ran USAID, leading the response to disasters including the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. After leaving the agency, he founded Latitude Capital, a private equity firm focused on emerging markets.

In those roles, Mr. Shah said, he came to understand the power of public-private partnerships, a strategy that Ms. Rodin has embraced at the Rockefeller Foundation.

 

  • Export infrastructure scheme on the anvil

The Centre will tie up with the States to soon roll-out a new scheme called ‘TIES’ — or Trade Infrastructure for Export Scheme — to boost export infrastructure, Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said on Thursday.

She said the States must develop their own export strategy in alignment with the national foreign trade policy, as well as enhance co-operation with Central agencies to set up common facilities for testing, certification, trace-back, packaging and labelling.

Ms. Sitharaman was addressing the second meeting of the Council for Trade Development and Promotion, attended by ministers and senior officials from the States and Central government Ministries. “Since most States wanted a Central scheme that supports export infrastructure, we are formulating a scheme to provide financial support and supplement the efforts of States to create export infrastructure. I hope we can soon achieve a consensus for the roll out of this scheme, which is very aptly titled as TIES. This would surely strengthen our ties with the States.”

Road quality

S.C. Ralhan, president of the apex exporters’ body Federation of Indian Export Organisations, said: “Indian roads carry nearly 65 per cent cargo against the global trend where railway is the major contributor. Therefore the States should focus on improving the last mile connectivity of major exporting hubs to Inland Container Depot/Ports. Quality of roads including their load bearing capacity may be upgraded for smooth transit of export goods.”

Pointing out that about 150 Sanitary & Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) measures (or norms on food safety and animal & plant health standards) and a similar number of Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) notifications (including mandatory and voluntary standards) were being issued by World Trade Organisation-member countries each month, Ms. Sitharaman said: “Around 50-60 per cent of these measures have the potential to impact India’s trade.”

Therefore, she said, the States should cooperate with the Centre for setting up common facilities like testing labs and training institutes as well as to ensure packaging and storage support to the Indian industry. So far only 17 States (of the 29 States and seven Union Territories in the country) have prepared their export strategy, Ms Sitharaman said and told the remaining States/UTs to expedite their export strategies. On services, she said IT and ITeS had an overwhelming predominance in India’s services exports but were largely restricted to the U.S. and EU markets and are therefore vulnerable to changes imposed by these two trading blocs.

‘Need to diversify’

“There is a need to diversify our services exports. Areas like medical tourism, nursing and healthcare, education, audio-visual media have an excellent potential that can be harnessed. For this, we need to develop the right competencies like language skills for the East and North East Asian markets,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Centre has decided to soon bring out a Logistics Performance Index to rank states on steps taken to facilitate trade and improve logistics. Measures in the pipeline include expediting the proposal for a north east corridor to improve connectivity with south east Asian countries and exports to that region.

 

  • New norms likely for top PSU bank posts

The Banks’ Board Bureau is working to ensure that leadership roles in state-run banks would only be given to those with at least six years of service left, in order to ensure accountability of their actions, the organisation’s Chairman Vinod Rai said on Thursday.

Mr. Rai also said that public sector bank employees’ compensations would become more competitive in 2017-18, with increases in the variable pay component.

Instilling accountability

“An attempt will be made to introduce accountability in the system, to ensure that you appoint a whole time director or a CEO (chief executive officer) at an age where he has got a minimum of six years more to go in the institution so that he can be held accountable for the decision,” Mr. Rai said while speaking at an Assocham event.

The former Comptroller General of Accounts said that the main principle behind banking management should be transparency in the accounting process and transparency in the decision making process.

“In some ways the compensation package of these public sector institutions needs to be improved,” Mr Rai said while speaking at an Assocham event.

“We may not be able to do much about the fixed component but we can change the variable component. From the next financial year, we should be able to introduce bonuses, E-sops, and performance linked packages. The idea is to provide monetary and non-monetary incentives to attract professionals.”

Mr. Rai added that these incentives would apply to positions across all levels, not just to the middle and senior management.

Filling up vacancies

He also said that the Banks Board Bureau is in the process of filling up vacancies in the top management of the public sector banks.

“We are looking for the right people, and we are trying to ensure that we choose the best and not the second-best,” he said.

“We are in the business of trying to collate people who are from different walks of life and who will be willing to join boards of PSBs and be able to provide that kind of expertise which these banks have not had in the past and the effort is to ensure that it is these boards which run the banks.”

Corporate debt

Mr. Rai said that the Corporate Debt Restructuring Cell was created with noble intentions in the early 2000s, but it soon found itself unable to cope with the high volume of stressed assets in the system.

He said that while there were innumerable cases where project reports were inflated, balance sheets were manipulated and funds siphoned off, there was an equal number of cases where irresponsible or lazy lending took place, where due diligence was not performed and supervision was perfunctory.

  • Once a TADA detenu, now a VIP guest

Once branded a Khalistan terrorist with alleged links to Naxals and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, former Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) detenu Amarjeet Sohi will be welcomed officially in India now as a privileged guest next week to attend the Vibrant Gujarat summit as Canada’s Infrastructure and Communities Minister.

Gujarat officials said Mr. Sohi will lead a delegation to the bi-annual investors summit in Gandhinagar.

In 1988, as a 24-year-old youth activist, Sohi, who belonged to a family in Sangrur and had emigrated to Canada, returned to take part in a theatre programme in Bihar on land rights, when he was arrested under the dreaded TADA.

Police in Azadbhiga accused him of being a Khalistani, who had come to recruit Naxal fighters for the cause.

Eventually, Mr. Sohi’s release was helped by the Amnesty International and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), who sent testimonies in his favour. However, Mr. Sohi, who has been back to India several times since his release and still has family in Punjab, has said he bears no “ill will” towards the authorities in India.

Sources in the Ministry of External Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs said there would be no problem with Mr. Sohi’s past for his first official visit either. “There are no cases against Mr. Sohi and no issue regarding his visit,” an official said.

He will arrive in Delhi on January 9, and then travel to Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar where Canada is one of the partners in the Vibrant Gujarat Summit. Officials said he will visit Mumbai and possibly travel to Punjab to meet family members as well.

Mr. Sohi’s visit will be one of a series of ministerial trips ahead of an expected visit by Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sometime in March. Another Sikh minister, Harjit Sajjan, who is the Defence Minister, is also expected to visit in the next few weeks. Mr. Trudeau’s Cabinet includes four Sikhs, leading him to quip once that he had “more Sikhs in his Cabinet than [PM] Modi does.”

As an immigrant, Mr. Sohi’s story is of particular interest in Canada, as he drove a municipal bus for years before he was elected as a City Councillor.

He has also spent much of his time on “promoting socially inclusive communities”, the Gujarat government’s literature on him records.

He also kept his theatre activism going and staged a play about the Komagata Maru incident where 350 people, mostly Sikhs, died aboard a ship of refugees that was refused permission to enter by Canada in 1914.

 

  • Teaching peace to humanity

What is the priority of pedagogy for peace in the 21st century? Do we teach cultures and philosophies of peace at schools and universities around the world only to start new wars and conflicts? Is education for peace still a top priority in universities and colleges? And finally, does education help us to live a peaceful life and to bring peace around the world? These questions need to be in our awareness on a daily basis. Only then can we treat people, nature and most life itself in a more empathic manner.

In this light, education by definition is an ethical enterprise. In other words, education is more than a way of being; it is an art of becoming. It is not only a process of nurturing the human soul, as the ancient Greeks understood it through the notion of paideia, meaning the acquisition and transmission of excellence, but also what philosopher Bertrand Russell defines as “a certain outlook on life and the world.” The ancient Greeks understood paideia as the essence of culture and communication in a good society. The aim of paideia, Aristotle argues in Politics, is to enable members of a community to decide the political organisation of society. Therefore, we need to assess the paideic dimension of peacebuilding. This describes the ethical and spiritual foundations of the process of rebuilding peace in or among societies.

Not just about security

As such, peacebuilding is not only about the security-sector reform of a society emerging from conflict; it is the medium- to long-term process of educating humanity with a special focus on the importance of promoting peace. In other words, in a world truly concerned about the happiness of future generations, peace and the process of taming violence in and among societies are continual, concrete, and the daily results of education as a learning process. In this process, the importance of autonomy and the nobility of spirit, which are primarily intellectual virtues, cannot be underestimated. Therefore, the main concern of education is to engender a certain character in human beings and to teach them the nobility of spirit and the moral common ground of actions. If that is the case, the aim of education is not solely an academic pursuit; it is a pursuit of moral wisdom.

Immanuel Kant, in his Lecture Notes on Pedagogy, says the aim of education “must be the moralisation of man”. The educational theory advocated by him is closely related to his belief in the moral progress of humanity which is a self-articulated and self-realised process of attaining intellectual maturity. However, Kant considers this self-educating process of humanity as a slow and gradual cosmopolitan process. “Our only hope,” affirms Kant, “is that each generation, provided with the knowledge of the foregoing one, is able, more and more, to bring about an education which shall develop man’s natural gifts in their due proportion and relation to their end, and thus advance the whole human race toward its destiny.”

There was a time when education was the highest task of human culture. However, in today’s world we have become dulled to what it means to be fully cultured or well-educated. Our modern world is without a vision of human society encompassing these two experiences. Likewise, peace, as a dominant idea for moral education in the past, has gradually experienced its isolation in the two fields of politics and international relations. As a consequence, the peacekeepers of today are diplomats and soldiers. Moreover, the peace education promoted today by institutions such as UNESCO and the UN General Assembly is far from being sufficient to prepare the future generations against war and violence.

As a matter of fact, teachers and educators teach values such as fairness, compassion, truth and freedom to Others, but they also confront these values while transmitting them in classrooms. Furthermore, every form of value education is the foundation for mutual evaluation of moral and social principles. To transmit moral, political and social values from one generation to another is not an ideological process. Schools and universities are not supposed to be ideological institutions where individuals learn to become loyal and obedient. Here resides the difference between Tagore’s Santiniketan and Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party. While Tagore invites us to consider the nature of education through a conscious relationship with nature and creativity, and as a path to bridge the gap between the educated and those who have not been educated, Nazi officers like Adolf Eichmann carried out mass murders while never permitting their consciousness to rise above the level of following rules and obeying orders.

Looking for moral leadership

Building peace and transcending regional and global conflicts cannot be left entirely to the action and volition of political leaders. What is necessary herewith is not political governance, but moral leadership. Moreover, moral leadership cannot prevail by instrumental reason, namely, to work with the elements as means to an end. What we need here is a massive pedagogical enterprise as a mode of “cultivation” of humanity. The effort to peacebuilding is, therefore, accompanied with a freedom from prejudice, exclusion and domination. An essential part of a definition and practice of a culture of peace is through education of non-violence that develops the quest for mutual understanding. This raises questions concerning the value of civic upbringing, as an individual process and as a process that a community goes through. Here education is not about learning facts, but to cultivate one’s judgment in order to be able to distinguish between the mediocre and the spiritually noble. If this is how things are in the context of the political, then education is not about repeating and imitating the already inherited values that are collectively accepted, but also about being able to create new values and norms in an autonomous way. It is certainly not ideological, but philosophical since it is exploration of constantly new questionings and a reactivation of the process of thinking. Such a process is an effective strategy for peacebuilding in today’s world where pedagogy for peace is not something that is currently articulated and practised by the mainstream politicians, practitioners and researchers of international relations.

 

  • SC asked to resolve conflict over ‘rape’ definition in two laws

A chink in the colonial-era Indian Penal Code (IPC) condoning sexual intercourse and exploitation of a 15-year-old child ‘wife’ has been brought to the Supreme Court’s attention.

An exception to Section 375 (rape) in the IPC allows a man to go scot-free despite having sex with his 15-year-old ‘wife’.

This exception ensures that he will not be charged with rape even though child marriage is a crime.

Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi, through his organisation Bachpan Bachao Andolan, appealed to the Supreme Court on Thursday for help to end this “statutorily-backed” crime against children.

In a petition before a Bench led by Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar, the organisation said an estimated 47 per cent of children in India were married off before they turned 18, according to the United Nations.

The illegal practice was a serious deterrence to the physical, social, psychological and moral well-being of children.

The petition said the IPC condones the rape of a 15-year-old by her husband despite the fact that the more recent Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act of 2012 qualifies those aged below 18 as ‘children’.

POCSO has specific penal provisions against ‘penetrative sexual assault’ and ‘aggressive penetrative sexual assault’ on children below 18.

Section 6 of the Act enunciates the punishment for aggravated penetrative sexual assault as rigorous imprisonment of not less than 10 years to life imprisonment. Mr. Satyarthi wants the apex court to clear the anomaly in law. The IPC terms children as those aged under 15 years while POCSO terms children as those aged under 18.

Status denied

“Despite being a child by definition (under the age of 18), provisions of POCSO are not applied. The benefit of a Special Act (POCSO) is not afforded to children when they are in married relationship but over the age of 15. Therefore, a child’s status as a child till she attains the age of 18 is denied to her once she is forcefully or otherwise wed,” the BBA contended.

The apex court directed the government to address the issue within four months. The Bench asked Mr. Satyarthi to approach the court on the same grounds for immediate resolution if he is not satisfied with the government’s response.

  • 25 held for trespassing into Fazilka jail

The Punjab police have arrested 25 people including the jail Superintendent for trespassing into Fazilka prison to allegedly meet inmate Shiv Lal Doda, considered to be close to Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal.

Disclosing this here on Thursday, ADGP (elections) H.S. Bhawra said that on the directions of the State Election Commission, surprise raid was conducted on Wednesday night at Fazilka and Amritsar jails.

“During the checking police arrested 25 people,” he said, adding that Fazilka jail SP Jashandeep Singh has also been suspended.

The Election Commission had directed the home department to conduct a probe into the matter and submit it’s report within four weeks.

Mt. Bhawra said that during checking police found 24 people holding a meeting inside the visitor’s meeting room of the jail with Doda, a liquor baron.

Cash, mobiles seized

The police also seized Rs. 3.28 lakh, some mobile phones and impounded seven vehicles, he said. Doda and his nephew Amit are facing charges of criminal conspiracy and murder for allegedly killing a Dalit youth named Bhim Tank last year.

Meanwhile, Aam Aadmi Party accused the SAD-BJP government for mounting atrocities on Dalits and shielding the culprits.

State party convener Gurpreet Singh Ghuggi took serious note of the arrest and slammed the State government over it.

He said that Fazilka jail incident is an eye opener of SAD patronage of culprits.

Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal who was considered close to Doda had tried to protect him in the Bhim Tank murder case and a case of murder was registered only after the Dalit community protested on streets, Ghuggi said. SAD had promoted the anti-Dalit sentiment in Punjab during its ten year rule. The Dalits in Punjab lived on margin all that years even as fate of farmers is not different, he said.

State Congress chief Amarinder Singh demanded immediate dismissal of the Badal government, saying it had been completely exposed in the Fazilka jail incident, where a known henchman of Home Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal was caught holding a kangaroo court on yesterday along with two dozen other Akali-linked criminals.

Lashing out at the “brazen display of money and muscle power and the complete breakdown of the law and order” in the State, Amarinder Singh demanded imposition of President’s Rule to hold free and fair elections in the State. The incident has thoroughly exposed the complicity of the Badal family and their associates in the rampant crime mafia in the State, he said. “It is important to find out how all that money and weapons entered the jail premises,” he asked.

  • Trade costs of India remain high: UN body

The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) said international and intra-regional trade costs of India remained higher compared with the trade costs of best-performing economies in Asia and the Pacific, although a declining trend has been observed since 2009.

However, it said in addition to India’s robust economic growth and large domestic market, the Government’s “Make in India” initiative and easing of FDI regulations for about 15 sectors including aviation, defence and pharmaceuticals may contribute to the FDI attractiveness of India. On the other hand, overseas investment from India contracted considerably by 36 per cent, which may reflect FDI diversion as Indian investors start to invest more at home than overseas, ESCAP said in its recently released Asia-Pacific Trade and Investment Report 2016.

Five-year FDI

FDI inflows to India expanded by 10 per cent on average during 2010-2015, while in 2015 inflows recorded an even stronger expansion at 27.8 per cent, which was significantly higher than the Asia-Pacific region’s average 5.6 per cent, ESCAP said. The services, construction development, computer software and hardware, and telecommunications sectors attracted the highest investments, it added.

Asia-Pacific trade flows were wavering amid sluggish global economic and trade growth, downward movement of world commodity prices and an uncertain policy environment, the report said. Sluggish growth in trade is expected to continue through to the end of 2016. In 2015, Indian goods exports shrank by 17.2 per cent, which was close to twice as much as the Asia-Pacific region decline of 9.7 per cent, it said. However, it added that India was the largest partner with several economies in South Asia, such as Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Since India is the fastest-growing emerging economy, it is somewhat expected to start filling the void in demand for intraregional exports that will emerge with the rebalancing of China’s trade patterns, the report said.

Rebounding somewhat, exports from Asia-Pacific are expected to increase by 4.5 per cent and imports by 6.5 per cent in developing countries of Asia and the Pacific in 2017, but the Report forecasts more modest growth in exports and imports in volume terms, at 2.2 per cent and 3.8 per cent, respectively, ESCAP said in a statement.

Restrictive policies

A worrying trend on another front is the increased usage of restrictive trade policies, especially non-tariff measures, within the Asia-Pacific region, which is partly driven by past distortive trade measures and current excess capacity in several key sectors, ESCAP said. Additionally, the region is seeing a proliferation of preferential trade agreements (PTA), with Asia and the Pacific rim contributing to almost 63 per cent of world PTAs, curbing a momentum towards region-wide free trade, it added.

The report revealed that the region had improved its market share in the commercial services trade, with the services trade more than doubling between 2005 and 2015, from just under $600 billion to close to $1,400 billion.

These aggregates, however, conceal the fall in the region’s export and import of services by 4.5 per cent and 4.9 per cent in 2015, respectively, compared with the previous year, mainly due to persisting economic uncertainty resulting in the global decline in merchandise trade and a depressed demand for the services sector including transport.

  • Agriculture spurs GDP growth to 7.3%

GDP growth accelerated in the second quarter of this financial year to 7.3 per cent on the back of a stronger performance in the agriculture sector, official data released on Wednesday showed. Gross value added for the second quarter grew by 7.1 per cent.

While GDP growth quickened in the second quarter from the 7.1 per cent seen in the April-June quarter, GVA growth slowed from the 7.3 per cent registered in that period. Both GDP and GVA growth were slower in the second quarter of this financial year as compared with the same period in the previous year, having registered a growth of 7.6 per cent and 7.3 per cent respectively.

Experts, however, predict that the next two quarters of the year will see subdued growth even as government officials declined to comment on the short-term future citing unavailability of data on the effect of demonetisation on the economy.

Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian, however, highlighted some cause for optimism.

“Nominal GDP growth picked up a fair amount, accelerating from 10.4 per cent in the first quarter to 12.1 per cent in the second quarter, showing some signs of the underlying strength of the economy,” Mr. Subramanian said while speaking to reporters at North Block.

‘Two halves’

“Expect this year to be a year of two halves as the drive to demonetise is likely to impart a negative bias to the numbers in the near term,” Anis Chakravarty, Lead Economist, Deloitte India said. “Overall, while the high frequency indicators for November still aren’t available, we could witness a negative impact on full year GDP of around 30-50 bps from our earlier estimate of 7.6 per cent.”

The agriculture sector buoyed overall growth, registering a 3.3 per cent GVA growth rate in Q2 of this financial year as compared with 1.8 per cent in the previous quarter and 2 per cent in Q2 of 2015-16.

Sown area

“Agriculture did a little better than last year, largely due to the improved monsoon,” Chief Statistician TCA Anant said while announcing the data. “Sown area has improved and therefore the first advance estimate for agriculture has led to a rise in the second quarter estimate of GDP.”

The manufacturing sector saw a significant slowdown in the growth of its gross value added, registering a growth of 7.1 per cent in Q2 of this financial year as compared with 9.1 per cent in the first quarter, and 9.2 per cent in Q2 of 2015-16.

Manufacturing slowdown

“Manufacturing has shown a slowdown in growth,” Mr. Anant said. “This is in large measure because at this stage in GDP computation, the only indicators which are available to compute GVA and GDP in manufacturing are the IIP and the quarterly estimates filed by small number of companies which file advance estimates. Both of these sets of indicators show slower growth.”

“Within manufacturing, the poor performance of the IIP is due to very poor performance in fabricated metal products, furniture manufacturing, and apparel, all of which play a major role in the informal manufacturing sector,” he added.

The mining and quarrying sector contracted by 1.5 per cent in Q2 compared with a contraction of 0.4 per cent in the first quarter and a growth of 5 per cent in Q2 of 2015-16. The contraction this year was mostly due to the base effect, Mr. Anant said.

Mining contraction

“Mining and quarrying has come in worse than last year and this has been shown in the IIP figures,” he said. “Throughout, mining and quarrying has come in negative. Please understand this is on the back of a very sharp increase in mining and quarrying activity in 2015-16.”

There were, however, some downsides to the data, Mr. Subramanian pointed out.

“Private investment is down substantially, which needs to be watched,” he said. “And some of the growth in GDP is on the strength of government spending.”

Gross fixed capital formation, a proxy for private sector investment, was only 29 per cent of GDP in Q2 of this financial year as compared with 32.9 per cent in the same quarter of 2015-16. Government final consumption expenditure, on the other hand, was 13 per cent of GDP in the second quarter of this financial year compared with 12.1 per cent in the previous year.

“Growth continues to be driven by consumption expenditure and higher spending by the government to aid recovery,” Mr. Chakravarty of Deloitte India added. “That said, given the latest move to demonetise along with limited room for government spending, the outlook for the current year seems grim.”

Fiscal deficit

A separate data release by the government showed that the fiscal deficit in October stood at 79.3 per cent of Budget Estimates down from 83.9 per cent in September.

Total revenue receipts as of October accounted for 50.7 per cent of Budget Estimates for the full year, up from 41.2 per cent in September. Total expenditure as of October accounted for 58.2 per cent of Budget Estimates up from 52 per cent in September.

“Both tax and non-tax revenue collections jumped during the month of October,” Richa Gupta, Senior Economist, Deloitte India said.

“It is important to note that the government has not fallen back on expenditure and has a higher level of planned expenditure as compared to the same period last year,” Mr. Gupta said.

  • Confessions of a bird man

I cannot think of a morning without birds. I always need a piece of nature, before my coffee and the newspaper. If the first two are odes to culture, birds capture nature for me. Between walking and watching birds, my sense of the cosmos is renewed. There is an everydayness to birds which is fascinating. For me they do not merely greet the morning, they are the morning. They are the morning rituals of play and therapy where nature reminds you of the enchantment of life. There is an eccentricity about each of them that I found fascinating.

My bird of the month is the stork. For gluttons, they are graceful in fight and walk and I confess I find their watch therapeutic. The stork walking the grass, stacking worms has a touch of the comic. It seems to be perpetually rehearsing its steps, imitating itself to see if it can do better. If they realise the lawn is being mowed, they dance in anticipation reeling deliriously behind the lawnmower celebrating the new harvest of life to be consumed.

Next to them, the crow is an everyday affair. To call or suggest a flock of crows insults their singularity. A crow, at least in relation to a spectator, is an individualist, an egotist, a performer. The crow reminds me of an everyday philosopher at work; whether it is teasing a trail of water out of a half-punctured pipe or playing near a dustbin, there is a touch of the experimentalist to the crow. A delightfully urban bird that charmed the cartoonist R.K. Laxman into drawing it. The crow is animation incarnate, a living cartoon looking sceptically at itself.

The language of kinship

Recently, an American lawyer narrated a legal battle around crows to me. The population of the Hawaiian crow, Alala, once virtually ubiquitous, had been drastically reduced to a mere 21. Stunned by the decimation, Hawaiians argued that merely being labelled an endangered species was not adequate, the Alala should be given the rights and status of a person. I sensed the beauty of the argument.

I sensed this same feeling when tribes in Arunachal Pradesh objected to a hydroelectric project on the Tawang river, contending that the river was a nesting ground for black-necked cranes. The crane, the tribe believed, was a reincarnation of the sixth Dalai Lama. The court upheld the claim, sensing in a deep way the relation between survival and the sacred, hinting that in a way the language of rights is a poor language for the sacrament.

I realise Aesop and the Ramayana might have done more to save birds than any legislation. Myths and festivals do more to sustain birds and other species than legislation. Legislations are contracts, they deal with ownership and property. Myths tap into the unconscious. Rituals play into the tacit understandings of a society. I still remember a Pongal festival where a wide variety of rice was cooked. My sisters used to teach me to make little rice balls, spread them out on a banana leaf, and then remind me “one was for the sparrow, the other for the crow”. These childhood rituals of affinity and caring did more for me than any later culture in ecology. As a child, I always thought that birds were ritual time keepers announcing the rhythms and seasons of nature.

I loved watching birds in flight. They choreographed the sky, mapped out a dream time as a child watched them. Birds in flight suggested deeper mysteries about migration and evolution that one dreamt about. I am glad my generation was allowed its sense of mysteries and riddles. Big questions were not downloaded in instant time and riddles reduced to information — one sat and chewed on them.

There was only one bird I was never fond of, and it was the pigeon. The pigeon somehow never seemed a fact of nature. It seemed native to the urban habitat. It seemed at home in flats, on pipes, creating nests and muck, little imitations of urban life I could not quite appreciate. I was envious because the pigeon loved the innards of houses and the city. Its addiction for the urban put me off.

As a child I always felt pigeons were born simultaneously with middle-income housing. Even dogs, stray dogs could not quite compete with pigeons in their addiction to the city.

A composite identity

Watching birds in childhood leaves memory traces behind. Their performance as outlines, stances, tactics remain in one’s head and I later realise I often choreograph the world with prototypes of them in my head. Doing this often I suddenly realise how easily a totemic nature with plants and animals develops. One senses a spiritual double in an animal or bird, an affinity, even a kinship one wishes to articulate in ritual ways. The primordial sense of childhood understands the need for these affinities. They tap into some deeper evolutionary unconscious. In India, a person evolves not just in relation to animals, birds, trees, soils. My genealogy is not complete without my songlines to birds. My identity as genuinely part crane, part crow. I can fully resonate with tribals’ understanding and addressing animals as brother bear. Modern education has amputated these affinities in creating a sanitary idea of citizenship. Today when birds disappear I feel a part of me is already fading away and that I too am doomed to extinction. Yet I cannot speak in the language of sustainability.

The science of extinction I grasp but without mourning, all we have is a pathologist’s report. Without my birds nature becomes a kind of empty time. But as I hear the chorus of sparrows, crows, mynas, cranes welcome the day, while the parrot screeches out a later entry, I feel my sanity returning. I remember a sacred prayer in gratitude realising that as long as birds are out on the grass, to quote a poet, god is not yet tired of the world.

 

 

  • Reeling out patriotism

Why is it always the movies? Take smoking. There are many ways to bring it down. You can stop the sale of single sticks, force people to buy a pack every time they feel like lighting up. You can raise the cost of packs. What we get instead is a disclaimer at the bottom of the screen every time the villain’s henchman is caught chomping on a bidi.

There is an artistic argument against this imposition. Woody Allen refused to allow Blue Jasmine to be screened in India with this disclaimer, saying that “when the scroll comes, attention goes to it rather than the scene”. But brush aside artistry and just consider logic. If the reasoning is that films are widely seen and that this tiny print at the bottom is an educational measure against a harmful act, then why not a disclaimer every time a rape occurs on screen? Or every time a man stalks a woman, trying to get her to reciprocate his love? Or every time thieves hatch a plan to rob a bank?

Popcorn patriotism

And now, the Supreme Court has ruled that the national anthem must be played in cinema halls across the country before a film is screened, and everyone present must stand to pay respect. Forget, for a minute, the arguments about personal choice, about freedom in a democracy. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin put it best in these lines he wrote for the scarily prescient The American President, when an Obama-like liberal finally rose to respond to the accusations of a scaremongering demagogue. “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing centre stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest.” That this Utopia is becoming (or has become) a pipe dream is no longer under contest.

But why movies? There are many situations and avenues that warrant the national anthem, if the purpose is indeed to teach people the words. (That is part of the Supreme Court ruling’s agenda.) It makes sense to play the anthem every day at school and college. (Catch them young.) It perhaps makes sense before television news — this is, after all, news about the nation. It may make sense when our cricket team beats England. It may even make sense before certain films — serious films like Swades or Border that deal with “nationalistic” subjects. But how can the compulsory presentation of the national anthem before a Sunny Leone or Salman Khan-starrer be considered a form of respect?

To expect “pride” from a ticket buyer who wants nothing more than to forget his troubles with overpriced popcorn and soda, and a mindless movie, is even more of a pipe dream. One could make the case that we are, in fact, disrespecting the anthem by associating it with a medium that — nine times out of ten — makes no bones about being “commercial”. In other words, after standing up for the anthem, you’re going to be sitting down for a cleavage-popping item number.

Theatre of the absurd

bhajan belongs in a temple, and even if sung or played outside, it retains its reason for being only when it’s a festival or at an event that’s holy and pure, untainted by commercial considerations. The national anthem is not unlike a bhajan. It’s an expression of one’s reverence for the country. It stirs the soul, makes us feel patriotic even when things around us make us angry about the state of the nation. But enforced patriotism is simply transforming a private emotion into tokenistic public spectacle. You stand up not necessarily because you want to, but because if you don’t, you’re likely to labelled a traitor, or worse, screamed at or assaulted by self-styled nationalists, which is what happened at a Panaji theatre in October with poet, disability activist and writer Salil Chaturvedi, who did not stand up for the national anthem because he could not stand up. He was in a wheelchair.

Chaturvedi was quoted as saying, “I just don’t understand why it seems impossible for so many people to express patriotism in a non-aggressive manner.” And there are many ways to prove your love for your country. You could contribute to flood relief or volunteer in a tsunami-stricken area or ensure the domestic help has enough cash till she gets used to plastic — all of this is a form of loving, caring for, respecting the nation. Because a nation is its people. Love Indians, and you love India. But that, apparently, isn’t enough. Now you have to prove it every time you watch Rajinikanth beat up a hundred bad guys. Somewhere, Manoj Kumar is smiling and readying his next script.

 

  • Turning turtle

In September this year, the Tamil Nadu Fisheries Department issued an order that banned all forms of fishing within a radius of 5 nautical miles (9.3 km) at 90 sites along the State’s coastline. It was passed to safeguard migrating olive ridley sea turtles. Extending from January to the end of April, the ban is applicable across eight coastal districts — from Chennai in the north to Kanyakumari in the south.

Is such an extreme measure necessary? Do such bans actually aid the conservation of olive ridleys?

Alarmist accounts

The ban can be traced back to a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed in the Madras High Court, interrogating the State government’s efforts on turtle conservation. It was filed by the judges themselves (suo motu) who were moved by a newspaper article (January 2015) on the nature of fisheries-induced mortality of sea turtles. But the fact is that when turtles drown in trawl nets, it is incidental and not intentional capture. Further, it is true that thousands of turtles nest between January and March only if one considers the entire coast of Tamil Nadu, not just Chennai. However, the olive ridley is the most common sea turtle species worldwide, so the State constitutes only a small part of their breeding habitat, even on India’s east coast.

The High Court, advised by its amicus curiae, ordered the State government to furnish details on measures it had taken to protect the turtles in Tamil Nadu. Eventually a “standard operating procedure” (SOP) was submitted by the Fisheries Department. Next, the court appointed an independent expert to audit the government’s report. His assessment pronounced the government’s measures as deficient and once again emphasised the significance and decline of the sea turtle population in the State to argue for a more intensive conservation programme. Together, the newspaper article and the audit report helped construct an unwarranted sense of crisis with respect to the olive ridley.

Unfortunately, this resembles the situation in Odisha where some conservationists have raised an alarm for over a decade but turtle populations have remained stable despite the high mortality. But the adversarial approach has only served to set back attempts to hold discussions between fishing communities and conservationists.

Solutions sans imagination

In Tamil Nadu, following the standard, narrow script of wildlife-in-crisis, the audit report made a series of recommendations to severely restrict various fishing operations. However, it did note that the Fisheries Department’s intention to ban all types of craft and gear during the turtle breeding season would “create unnecessary hardship to small-scale fishers”. Instead, the report clearly stated that the ban should apply only to motorised vessels above 10 HP, and larger mechanised ones. But certain conservation groups in the State proposed changes to the SOP that were once again drastic in nature; these include intensive surveillance, patrolling and confiscation of certain gears. There was absolutely no mention of consultation with the affected parties and only a vague recommendation that compensation must be provided.

On the other hand, the regulation of marine fisheries does remain a key issue here. In the 1960s, the State’s Fisheries Department began focussing on increasing production and offered extensive support for mechanised fishing. This created intense conflicts because small-scale fishers found themselves marginalised by the department’s programmes on land and mechanised fishers at sea. It was to protest against such biased policies that the National Fishworkers’ Forum was formed. One of its significant moves was to force the government to pass the Tamil Nadu Marine Fishing (Regulation) Act (TNMFRA) in 1983. The Act restricts the operation of mechanised vessels (over 15 HP) to areas beyond 3 nautical miles (5.5 km) but within the territorial limits, so that coastal waters are reserved for small-scale fishing.

However, in practice, the TNMFRA is poorly enforced and it is militant protests by small-scale fishers in the southern districts of the State that have led to some restrictions on trawling, at least in these areas.

So it seems entirely unjust that this Act is now being used to ostensibly protect turtles and altogether ban small-scale fishing in 90 locations. Again, this situation mirrors Odisha where laws originally created to protect small-scale fishermen were invoked to harass them under the pretext of turtle conservation. A decade of experience there shows that this helps neither fishers nor turtles. Finally, by suggesting that the responsibility of fixing a long-term, complex fisheries problem should be divided between multiple agencies under the umbrella of the Sea Turtle Task Force, conservationists in Tamil Nadu have actually helped to disperse accountability.

Long-term perspective

Due to this narrow focus on a single species and its presumed decline, the Tamil Nadu turtle conservation campaign has missed the opportunity to tackle the underlying problem of faulty fisheries policies and their impact on both the marine environment and the people dependent on them. In addition, by not explicitly acknowledging the rights of small-scale fishers, their long-standing demand for better State regulation of the marine sector and their support for turtle conservation in the past, the campaign has further alienated this community. Even if the ban were to be repealed, the sense of injustice is sharp and will diminish support for turtle conservation. Extreme approaches to conservation have repeatedly proved counterproductive in India. Building community support and driving policy changes that ensure socioeconomic justice may seem like tedious alternatives but they are essential for long-term conservation and sustainability.

  • India’s missing girl children

It is a cruel irony of a fast-growing India that there are fewer and fewer girls as a ratio of total births, as a result of complex factors that include parental preference. New data from the Civil Registration System of the Registrar General of India point to the hardening of the pattern, with a fall in sex ratio at birth from 898 girls to 1,000 boys in 2013, to 887 a year later. This depressing trend is consistent with evidence from the Census figures of 2001 and 2011. What is shocking is that the overall data mask the horror of particular districts and panchayats falling well below the national ratio, especially in the zero-to-six years assessment category. The scourge has, in some cases, prompted the Supreme Court to take note of the situation, and the National Human Rights Commission to ask for an explanation from State governments. In the understanding of the Centre, which it has conveyed to Parliament, girls stand a poor chance at survival because there is a “socio-cultural mindset” that prefers sons, girls are seen as a burden, and family size has begun to shrink. The BJP-led government responded to the silent crisis with the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign, which focusses on the prevention of sex-selective abortions, creation of opportunities for education and protection of girl children. Now that the scheme is set to enter its third year in January, there should be a speedy assessment of its working, particularly in districts with a poor sex ratio where it has been intensively implemented.

A wider assessment needs to be made on why States such as Tamil Nadu with a strong social development foundation have slipped on sex ratio at birth (834), going by the CRS data for 2014. The cradle baby scheme was started in 1992 in Tamil Nadu to raise the survival chances of girl children by encouraging mothers to give them anonymously for adoption. Yet, the latest numbers, together with the persistence of the programme after 24 years, and 260 babies being abandoned in just one centre over a six-year period, make it clear that national policy has achieved little in real terms. Clearly, there is a need to go beyond slogans and institute tangible schemes. Enforcement of the law that prohibits determination of the sex of the foetus must go hand in hand with massive social investments to protect both immediate and long-term prospects of girls — in the form of cash incentives through registration of births, a continuum of health care, early educational opportunities and social protection. Half-measures cannot produce a dramatic reversal of the shameful national record.

 

  • As India goes digital, hacking targets multiply

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi’s Twitter account was hacked and some expletives-laden tweets were posted. A day later, Congress Party’s official Twitter account got breached.

“In either of the case I am certain there is more data in the hands of the hackers than just account access that might be released in due course of time,” said Saket Modi, co-founder of cybersecurity start-up, Lucideus Tech.

At a time when an increasing number of Indians are going digital and doing transactions online, these hacking incidents expose the country’s cybersecurity vulnerabilities.

In India, there has been a surge of about 350 per cent of cybercrime cases registered under the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 from the year of 2011 to 2014, according to a joint study by The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India and consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Mr. Modi of Lucideus said the hacking of the social media networks of Mr. Gandhi and Congress Party can be a potential backdoor malware being present on a computer system on which both the accounts might have been simultaneously accessed. He said this can also be a long persistent and targeted attack called ‘spear phishing’. It is an e-mail spoofing fraud attempt that targets a specific organisation or individual. It seeks unauthorised access to confidential data.

Spoofing banks

Researchers in India at cyber security company Fire Eye discovered phishing websites created by cybercriminals that spoof 26 Indian banks in order to steal personal information from customers. FireEye said that it has notified the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team.

“Criminals follow the money, and as more Indians embrace online banking, criminals followed them online,” said Vishak Raman, Senior Director for India and SAARC at FireEye in a statement. He said as the digital economy grows, consumers should be aware of the risks that accompany the convenience. He said the ease of online payments opens new avenues for criminals to trick consumers into divulging their own sensitive banking information.

For instance, FireEye said that it has identified a new domain (csecurepay.com) registered in October this year, that appears to be an online payment gateway. But it is actually a phishing website that leads to the capturing of customer information from 26 banks operating in India. The company said that in this phishing attack, victims are asked to enter their account number, mobile number, email address, one-time password and other details.

Once the information is collected, the website displays a fake failed login message to the victim. The phishing site served fake logins from 26 banks, including large banks such as ICICI, HDFC and State Bank of India, according to FireEye.

Using the registration details of this domain, FireEye security researchers identified a second domain (nsecurepay.com) registered by the same attacker in August. This domain appears to be created to steal credit and debit card information including ICICI, Citibank, Visa and MasterCard and SBI debit card details. But it was observed to be producing errors at the time of discovery, according to FireEye.

Google accounts

Experts are also seeing a shift in the strategy of hackers, who are now targeting mobile devices in order to obtain the sensitive information that is stored on them. Israeli cyber security firm Checkpoint said that its security researchers have revealed a new variant of Android malware, breaching the security of more than one million Google accounts.

The new malware campaign, named Gooligan, roots Android devices and steals email addresses and authentication tokens stored on them. With this information, attackers can access users’ sensitive data from Gmail, Google Photos, Google Docs, Google Play and Google Drive, according to Check Point.

“This theft of over a million Google account details is very alarming and represents the next stage of cyber- attacks,” said Michael Shaulov, Check Point’s head of mobile products in a statement.

Check Point’s Mobile Research Team first encountered Gooligan’s code in the malicious SnapPea app last year.

In August 2016, the malware reappeared with a new variant and has since infected at least 13,000 devices per day. About 40 per cent of these devices are located in Asia and about 12 per cent are in Europe.

Infected app

The infection begins when a user downloads and installs a Gooligan-infected app on a vulnerable Android device, or by clicking on malicious links in phishing attack text messages.

“As part of our ongoing efforts to protect users from the Ghost Push family of malware, we’ve taken numerous steps to protect our users and improve the security of the Android ecosystem overall,” said Adrian Ludwig, Google’s director of Android security. Google said it contacted affected users and revoked their tokens, removed apps associated with the Ghost Push family from Google Play, and added new protections to its verify Apps technology.

  • Sagarmala could deepen India’s trade and investment ties with China

India’s decision to rapidly develop ports, especially along the east coast, and China’s renewed focus on an expansion of its harbours are resulting in an unintended fusion of the Sagarmala initiative and Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR).

The ports of Krishnapatnam and Machilipatnam in Andhra Pradesh as well as the Colachel Port in Tamil Nadu are among the new hubs of coastal development, linked with the Sagarmala initiative — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project of having a string of world class ports, enmeshed with well-connected industrial clusters in the hinterland.

“In a way, Sagarmala follows the same model pursued by China, where the coastal centres of the Shenzhen, Shanghai and Guangzhou became engines for opening up a vast hinterland,” says Jithendra Nimmagadda, Chief Operating Officer of Krishnapatnam Port, in a conversation with The Hindu . Mr. Nimmagadda was in Changsha, to convince Chinese businessmen about the Krishnapatnam port as a pivot for promoting India-China trade and investment ties.

The conference was co-hosted by the Indian Consulate General in Guangzhou and the local branch of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade (CCPIT).

Brainstorming session

A feisty brainstorming session that followed, where Chinese entrepreneurs keen to leave a footprint in India probed for distilled practical information, ended with the establishment of a Liaison Office of the China India Business Council (CIBC). The organisation, though formed in 1985 to promote Sino-Indian business ties, had gone into deep hibernation.

But Chinese officials of Hunan Province, of which Changsha is the capital, are now upbeat that the new Liaison office can help revive the apex CIBC. “It would be an interesting idea now to visit Beijing to awaken the CIBC,” observes Deng Luo Xing, a senior CCPIT official based in Changsha.

Unlike India, China is now at the cusp of a second cycle of port-led growth as part of the MSR. An inter-ministerial document on the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, which includes both the land and maritime wings of a massive connectivity plan spanning Asia, Europe and Africa, earmarks some of the lesser-known ports for major expansion.

Apart from Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the document lists Zhanjiang, Qingdao, Yantai and Dalian, as among the shore-based gateways that are set for a facelift.

The Chinese list docks well with some of the harbours, including Krishnapatnam’s, which fall within the Sagarmala blueprint. “The Maersk shipping line has direct connectivity with four ports in China — Shanghai, Qingdao, Zhanjiang, and Nansha. These four ports are directly connected to Krishnapatnam port on a weekly basis,” observes Mr. Nimmagadda.

Though not on the coastline, its integration with a nation-wide rail and road network positions Changsha prominently as one of the pivots of both the MSR, as well as the New Silk Road land corridor.

The city has high speed rail connectivity with the ports of Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. It is also the starting point of trains heading out to Duisburg in Germany—a distance of around 11,000 km — along the Eurasian land corridor.

From the perspective of India, impatient to modernise its railway system, Hunan’s status as the manufacturer of both high-speed and Maglev trains has been a big draw.

“I am extremely happy to note that CRH, the company that manufactures high speed trains, is seriously looking at the Indian market for cooperation,” says Silas Thangal, India’s consul general based in Guangzhou at the seminar.

Cultural ties

Officials in Changsha are also keen to revive cultural ties, with Buddhism—the shared heritage of India and China—as the foundation. “We should be looking at developing the Buddhist circuit with India as our natural partner to add a strong cultural dimension to our growing ties,” says He Jian, chairman of CCPIT in Hunan.

The proposal is echoed by Li Yi Yu, a professor at the Public Management School of Xiangtan University. “Reviving cultural linkages should be a very creative exercise in Hunan, Buddhism is uniquely combined with elements of Confucius thought and Taoism.”

  • A roadmap for the CBI

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) will have a new interim chief, Rakesh Asthana, to steer it through what are likely to be difficult times. Mr. Asthana is not new to the fight against corruption, having handled a number of sensitive cases, including those against Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad. He may not be the senior-most officer in India among those statutorily eligible for the post, but he has the credentials to be confirmed as the permanent director when a regular arrangement is made.

However glamorous the job may be, being director of the CBI is to wear a crown of thorns. You are constantly in the public glare and under scrutiny by the media. Perched at dizzying heights of administration, you have access to the Prime Minister on a daily basis. Your relationship with the Prime Minister is delicate: you need to keep him or her informed of all the major issues concerning the organisation while at the same time be conscious of the fact that you are on your own while overseeing investigations. You are answerable to the law and the law alone.

The CBI requires a mature head. A megalomaniac can wreck the system and embarrass everyone by acting unilaterally and recklessly, which would be out of tune in a democracy like ours. Such a person nearly made it to the job once earlier. Fortunately, the checks and balances in our system prevented this catastrophe. However powerful a CBI director may be under the law, he or she would be ill-advised to defy the canons of democracy.

Undoing wrongs

Mr. Asthana has to unfortunately first concentrate on undoing the damage caused by a few of his predecessors. The Enforcement Directorate has recently reported adversely against two former CBI chiefs. This is painful to hear. Mr. Asthana has to take cognisance of this and take appropriate action. Only then will public confidence in the CBI as a fearless agency that will not hesitate to proceed against its own erring personnel be restored.

There have been many reports about dishonesty and harassment of the public by those at the cutting edge in the CBI. This is not a new phenomenon, but the volume and intensity of allegations of misconduct on the part of investigating officers has lately become strident. Mr. Asthana has his job cut out for him in this area. Stringent action against misbehaving staff in the agency will be in tune with the Prime Minister’s drive against dishonesty in high offices. There will be ample public support for this endeavour.

Criticisms of the CBI

There are two big sticks with which the CBI is beaten ad nauseam. The first is its vulnerability to political pressure. Criticism on this score cannot be dismissed as wholly motivated or as a manifestation of the crudity of politics. There is a measure of truth in this charge of politicisation of the investigation agency. However, less than 10 per cent of the cases handed over to the CBI have political overtones, and this is what gives the organisation a bad name. The new chief should have a team of reliable deputies who can ensure with a toothcomb that investigations are insulated from external pressures. This will go a long way in restoring the CBI’s credibility. Even under such a strict regimen, allegations may still float around. Even a fabled agency such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation was recently under fire while investigating cyber misconduct by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Such events can be disconcerting but they cannot be allowed to distract or disturb the equanimity of a CBI chief. Ultimately, it all boils down to honest and fearless leadership.

The second stick is the one that relates to enormous delays in concluding investigations. As one former Central Vigilance Commissioner put it, the CBI is a black hole. Nothing that goes in ever comes out of it. This comment, stripped of its light-heartedness, is valid, and is analogous to the situation that prevails in the rest of the criminal justice system. There is an obligation on the part of every CBI director to explore all possible avenues to speed up investigation. This is more easily said than done, but there are ways of making it possible. Taking up select cases is one way. But then there is no professional alternative agency at the Centre to which the less important cases can be diverted. The need, therefore, for expanding the CBI’s infrastructure, especially its manpower, is vital. The Prime Minister can help greatly in this area by injecting a liberal outlook into the Department of Personnel and Training that provides administrative support to the CBI.

The CBI is not really popular among the youth who are looking for Central government employment through the Union Public Service Commission examination route, other than those appearing for the All India Services, including the Indian Police Service. This makes a case for a fresh look at the service conditions for direct recruitment to the CBI. A lot has been done in this area over the years, but much more is needed. Traditional thinking should be shed and red-tapism has to be cut ruthlessly in order to recruit more and generously improve emoluments (outside the rigid government pay structure) of the eternally demoralised direct recruits. I would strongly commend the Central Intelligence Agency practice of going to campuses and selling the idea to our young men and women that a job in the CBI has its rewards as well as exciting challenges.

Dependence on State governments

Another great constraint on the CBI is its dependence on State governments for invoking its authority to investigate cases in a State, even when such investigation targets a Central government employee. Since police is a State subject under the Constitution, and the CBI acts as per the procedure prescribed by the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which makes it a police agency, the CBI needs the consent of the State government in question before it can make its presence in that State. Such consent can be a case-by-case authorisation or a blanket approval of a class of offences. This is a cumbersome procedure and has led to some ridiculous situations, including the withdrawal of notifications of empowerment by some dishonest State governments. I cannot foresee any possibility even in the distant future of a constitutional amendment that places police in the Concurrent list. This is why many CBI directors in the past suggested the promulgation of a CBI Act that is on par with the Customs Act or the Income Tax Act, so that CBI officers enjoy independent powers of investigation — outside the CrPC — without having to be be at the mercy of State governments. A number of drafts for such an enactment are gathering dust in the Central Secretariat in Delhi. It is time to drum up political support for this crucial proposal. Why this has not found favour till now is perhaps the irrational fear that the CBI will become far too autonomous and powerful. Persons who peddle this argument obfuscate the truth that an autonomous CBI is not one that is devoid of accountability.

  • Notes for a cashless economy

India’s economic landscape, in terms of everyday transactions, has been transformed, so to say, in one fell swoop. The life of every Indian, from a corporate CEO to a cobbler, has changed like never before ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced the trailblazing decision to withdraw old Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 currency notes from circulation.

The biggest reform, with a purpose

Apart from turning out to be the biggest economic reform in independent India, this revolutionary measure is making it incumbent upon everyone to embrace and promote digital platforms for money transactions. Necessity is the mother of invention, to use a clichéd adage. Herein lies the importance of the crucial and game-changing role the youth and other digitally literate people can play in educating the unlettered and semi-literate men and women in the use of mobiles and digital platforms for money transactions.

The November 8 announcement was basically aimed at eliminating the twin menaces of black money and corruption, apart from dealing a death blow to Pakistan’s terror-funding machine and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-sponsored counterfeit currency industry. It has also given a god-sent opportunity for providing a huge thrust to the digital economy and reap a bouquet of benefits that would accrue from such an all-encompassing transformation the country is going to witness in the days and months to come. The positive cascading effect would give a major fillip to our formal economy and help improve the country’s GDP in the long run.

There comes a time in the history of a nation when a major shake-up has to be effected by taking a momentous decision to bring about a tectonic shift in the attitudes of people, especially those who have been exploiting and milking the loopholes in the system for begetting illegal and tainted wealth.

Despite having a deep understanding of the temporary difficulties it might cause to the common man, the Prime Minister, in a courageous move, decided to withdraw Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 denominations in view of the gigantic proportions black money was acquiring, leading to a virtual parallel economy. He was also aware of the growing menace of counterfeit currency being pumped into the country from across the border and the sinister manner in which it was being used by terrorists, smugglers, separatists, women and child traffickers and drug dealers. He took this timely and path-breaking decision to prevent the shadow economy from causing any further damage to the country.

Not a sudden decision

The decision was not sudden. Mr. Modi took all the necessary precautions and alerted the nation about the likely stringent measures the government would be taking to unearth black money. Who should fear the consequences of such a historic decision? The answer is simple. Only those in possession of ill-gotten, unaccounted money in our country and those with sinister motives and evil designs across the border.

Soon after the National Democratic Alliance came to power in 2014, the Union Cabinet at its very first meeting constituted an SIT (special investigation team) headed by the former Supreme Court judge, M.B. Shah, to go into the issue of black money.

Similarly, at the very first G20 Summit he had attended at Brisbane in November 2014, Mr. Modi stridently took up the issue of black money with other global leaders. “Increased mobility of capital and technology has created new opportunities for avoiding tax and profit sharing. I urge every jurisdiction, especially tax havens, to provide information for tax purposes in accordance with treaty obligations,” he told the world leaders. This forceful pitch by the Prime Minister led to the inclusion of a clause on combating tax evasion in the final communiqué.

Later, the Black Money (Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets) and Imposition of Tax Act, 2015 came into force on July 1, 2015 for disclosure of foreign black money within three months by paying 60 per cent tax.

Other measures include the constitution of a Multi-Agency Group (MAG) on the Panama Paper leaks and the passage of the Benami Transaction Bill, 2015, an anti-black money measure, in the Lok Sabha. India also inked agreements with many countries, including the U.S. to add new provisions for sharing banking information. Double Taxation Avoidance Agreements (DTAA) were also signed with countries which were considered safe tax havens such as Mauritius and Cyprus. India also joined the Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement on Automatic Exchange of Financial Account Information (AEOI) to combat tax evasion and unearth black money. Later the Income Declaration Scheme was announced and, finally, the Prime Minister warned during his “Mann Ki Baat” address to the nation that the time is up for black money hoarders.

Support and the road map

As the country is passing through this momentous phase, marking a tectonic shift, it is our good fortune that most Indians — be they illiterate or literate, rich or poor, rural or urban dwellers — are lending their wholehearted support to the Prime Minister’s drive against black money and corruption. At this juncture, one should salute the common Indian for bearing this temporary inconvenience with fortitude and patience in the larger interest of the country. That people are in sync with the Prime Minister was also reflected in opinion polls carried out by various agencies.

Another testimony of this support was captured in the results of the recently held by-elections in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. In the municipal elections held in Maharashtra and Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power, clearly indicating that the people were willing to suffer temporary pain for long-term gain.

The Prime Minister’s agenda for moving towards digital transfer of money is the need of the hour wherein day-to-day transactions take place without cash. Yes, in a society as layered and complex as ours, the challenges that lie ahead are many, but the road map has been laid out in a statesman-like fashion by the Prime Minister.

The government on its part has suggested various measures for people to move towards a less-cash economy. Transactions in physical currency would gradually come down as more and more people switch over to digital currency.

An important aspect that should be noted here is that India has the highest use of cash in the world, according to MasterCard report. It is apparent that such high use of cash would only strengthen the country’s informal economy, which is not in the larger interest of the nation. Reduced use of cash would choke the grey economy, curb money laundering and result in increased tax collections to the government’s coffers. All this would ultimately benefit the common man, as a less cash economy would plug loopholes in the public system.

Jan Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile

The Prime Minister has steered the country in the right direction for people to move towards digital transactions — right from the launch of the Jan Dhan Yojana to JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) and other initiatives, including the Micro Units Development & Refinance Agency Ltd. (MUDRA) Bank, all of which are a demonstration of his commitment towards improving the living standards of every Indian.

With Aadhaar acting as an important link between the people and the government, the common citizen need no longer do the bidding of unscrupulous and corrupt officials to secure what is rightfully his.

A Moody’s report has pegged the impact of electronic transactions to 0.8 per cent increase in GDP in emerging markets as against 0.3 per cent increase in developed markets. People need to make full use of electronic payments as they are faster and easier to trace.

The various options towards a cashless or less-cash economy include Unified Payments Interface (UIP), Bank Card, prepaid cards, using various cards at any PoS (point of sale)/ ATM, Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) based mobile banking, Aadhaar-enabled payment system (AEPS) and e-wallet or digital wallet.

As part of the drive to promote digital transactions, the Prime Minister himself conducted a workshop for his personal staff. Various ministries too are undertaking similar workshops for their respective staff.

Eventually, it is planned to ensure that every transaction takes place through the mobile phone. With more than 1,033 million mobile phones in India, including about 250-300 million smartphones, an important requirement is change of mindset among all sections — I am sure every Indian would become part of this awe-inspiring initiative launched by the Prime Minister to take the Indian economy to majestic heights.

  • Due diligence, unsafe drugs

Good intentions alone are not enough to secure the public interest. For governments, the manner in which it is protected is equally vital. The Delhi High Court verdict quashing all notifications banning the manufacture and sale of 344 Fixed Dose Combination (FDC) drugs is a lesson in how not to administer a regulatory law. The ban on combination drugs that have little therapeutic value was undoubtedly done for bona fide reasons. However, the government could not convince the court that the ban was valid despite statutory bodies such as the Drug Testing Advisory Board (DTAB) and the Drugs Consultative Committee (DCC) not being involved in the process. There is little doubt that a number of combination drugs should be taken off the shelf. The government believes, as do many health activists, that some combinations are unsafe and/or promote antibiotic resistance, while others lack particular therapeutic value, justification or advantage. Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw has correctly refrained from going into the merits of the ban, and has chosen to subject to scrutiny the process by which the decision was arrived at. While concluding that the ban was invalid because the power under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act was exercised without consulting the DTAB and DCC, he has found that the government went about the process in a haphazard manner.

Initially it was noted that in the case of FDC drugs for which manufacturing licences were granted by State licensing authorities between September 1988 and October 2012, the process was done without any approval from the Drugs Controller. When they applied afresh to the Centre, on being asked to do so, their applications were not considered by the Drugs Controller; instead, the Centre formed 10 committees. When these panels failed to consider all the applications, another one, the Kokate Committee, was formed. However, this panel went into the question whether these drugs posed a risk to consumers or lacked therapeutic value and justification. Based on its report, the Centre issued notifications banning these FDCs. In effect, the Centre seemed to have delegated its power to ban drugs to a non-statutory committee, when the Act itself provided for expert bodies through which technical aspects of administering the law were to be considered. The government ought to have been more mindful of the processes. It is possible that an appeal will be filed on the legal aspects of the judgment, but the real lesson from the episode concerns governance, and not the law alone.

  • Indonesia’s blasphemy protests

Some 200,000 white-clad Indonesians took to the streets of Jakarta to call for the arrest of the city’s governor, Basuki Purnama. Mr. Purnama, who is a “double minority” for being ethnically Chinese and a Christian, riled the sentiments of certain hardline sections in September when he said a Koranic verse had been used to trick voters into believing that Muslims ought not be led by a non-Muslim. Since then, Indonesia has been convulsed by protests, including one near the presidential palace in early November that turned violent. The embattled Mr. Purnama has been slapped with blasphemy charges, and an investigation is ongoing. His political proximity to President Joko Widodo does not appear to have slowed the momentum of the protests. Prior to winning the presidency in 2014, Mr. Widodo was the governor of Jakarta, and Mr. Purnama, a frontrunner in the February 2017 governorship election, is on track to forge a pathway to even higher political office. Mr. Widodo has been silent on the motives driving the latest protest, even as he appeared at the scene to praise its relatively peaceful tenor. However, the recent arrest for treason of at least eight people, including Rachmawati Soekarnoputri, daughter of Indonesia’s founding father Sukarno, suggests that other political factors may be at play, including an attempt to whip up public sentiment against Mr. Purnama securing a second term as governor.

Given the Jakarta-centric locus of the protests, it is likely that anger over Mr. Purnama launching large-scale slum evictions in the city has brought many from among the poorer sections to their feet. Yet the fact that the demonstration was orchestrated by the right-wing Islamic Defenders Front Party, which also set up charity operations in the affected North Jakarta neighbourhoods, indicates that support for Islamist ideology from local residents has been a critical factor. This development, if it gains wider momentum across the countryside, could be a retrograde step for Indonesia, which has until now, like neighbouring Malaysia, stood out as a regional bulwark against extremism, maintaining secular tolerance of Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist minorities. Adventurism of this sort could endanger the accommodating fabric of Indonesian society years after the post-Bali bombing purge of fundamentalists. This is especially a matter of concern in the context of suspicion that hundreds of Indonesian youth recently travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State. While Mr. Widodo’s encouraging remarks to the protesters are understandable, the onus is on him to take a stand against allowing the latest turn of events from turning into a launching pad for a more intolerant national ethos.

  • The class must go on

An uneasy calm prevailed on the morning of September 13. Id-ul-Zuha, a day of reflection, offered a momentary respite after two months of violent slogan-raising protests and life-crippling curfew in the Kashmir Valley. But before the day could ease into the night, an incident occurred which would set off a chain of concerted attacks on schools across the Valley. The Government Middle School at Yaripora village in Kulgam district, 70 km away from Srinagar, was set on fire.

The flames were seen licking the window frames of a classroom, sending shock waves among the local villagers. Ameen Jan, 55, was among the first few to reach the spot. “We hurled whatever we could lay our hands on — sand, water and clay — to douse the flames. We could not to save it,” says Jan, who was soon joined by other villagers, including women and children. None of them could see the culprits in the darkness.

Almost on cue, there were copycat acts of vandalism. Within two months, up to 36 schools were reduced to cinder. The police records, in most of these instances, state that the attacks were by “unknown persons”. Investigations are on. “The situation is very volatile. It is difficult for us to undertake a visit to the interiors. We hope for a breakthrough. Over a dozen youth have been arrested,” says an investigation officer in south Kashmir. Seven out of the 36 schools that were targeted are located in south Kashmir’s Kulgam.

Deputy Commissioner (DC), Anantnag, Abid Rasheed Shah, says investigations have remained inconclusive. “In many cases, miscreants have been identified. We are investigating all the cases thoroughly, and the guilty will be taken to task. In two cases, arrests have already been made,” he says.

Tucked away from the irregular cluster villages surrounding Yaripora, three rooms of the nine-room single-storey school have been reduced to rubble. The room which would often double up as a library may now take years to be restored. “This was a place where 48 students, all economically impoverished, could dream big. It’s painful to see its rooms in ruins,” says school headmaster Altaf Ahmad Parray.

The classes for the new session started in November 18 after a four-month-long shutdown. The government’s decision to mass-promote over a lakh students, except those in Class X and Class XII, has made seven-year-old Insha Mir happy. She sits in Class I without any annual exams. However, she shares her classroom with four newly admitted lower kindergarten students. With three rooms gutted in the school, the school administration has been forced to take two classes in a single room. There is a combined class of over 15 students now in a classroom.

In the crosshairs of politics

On September 4, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh visited the Valley, heading an all-party delegation to reach out to all stakeholders, including separatists, in a bid to work out a solution for the anger, anxiety and despair in the wake of the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen ‘commander’ Burhan Wani on July 8. Official records have put the number of those who died in the turmoil since Wani’s killing at over 90 civilians. Around 60 per cent of over 10,000 civilians injured in the clashes in the Valley were below the age of 25.

The four-month-long stalemate between the state and the separatists was deepened by the announcement of the High and Higher Secondary State Board Examination for students — the separatists believed holding it was a ploy to end their protest calendar, forcing a normalcy where there was none. The students were caught between the two. Beginning November 13, 1.5 lakh Class X and XII students braved the threats of stone-throwers to reach examination centres.

At first, the separatists had opposed the government’s move. “My response to them was that the world outside was not going wait for us. Dates of examination are not decided by a government but by the larger cycle of education system of the country. If we had not conducted the examination, most students would not have been able to prepare for upcoming professional examinations. The career and the future of lakhs of students was at stake,” says State Education Minister Naeem Akhtar, who was adamant about holding the examinations.

A concession awaited the students appearing for their Board examinations after losing four months in the academic calendar. Only 50 per cent of the syllabus figured in the question papers. The State government offered to hold examinations in March, besides November, for those students who had been detained in stone-pelting incidents and those who were injured.

Challenging separatists’ writ

The examinations began on November 13 and got over on November 29. Reliving the moments, Muskan Qureshi, 15, a student of Srinagar’s prestigious Presentation Convent Higher Secondary School, says it has been a tense and anxious year so far: “For more than four months, I had no access to the Internet. I could not go to school or see my friends. Our summer vacations, soon after our first term ended, slipped into a long-drawn street agitation in the first week of July.” Around 650 major incidents of stone-throwing were reported in Srinagar in the months after Wani’s killing, in which over 10 civilians were killed. All those months, Muskan says she spent more time gathering news about what was happening around; education took a backseat. Just metres away from her residence, the mosques would blare songs in favour of azadi (freedom) and Wani. Processions on Fridays, with barricaded roads, would last till evening and only end with security forces firing tear gas shells to restore order. “There were loud explosions outside. Can one study when a war is going on outside? One just counts the dead on television,” she says. Then the blinding of a fellow student, 14-year-old Insha Malik, a Class IX student from Shopian’s Sedow area, from pellet fire took over the discussion at Muskan’s home.

Appearing in the examination was no cakewalk: the route from Muskan’s downtown residence to the examination centre in Lal Chowk’s Kothibagh Higher Secondary School had borne the brunt of stone-pelters. Her father Basharat Saleem, a District Agriculture Officer, admits it was not an easy decision to send his daughter for the examination. The azadi-versus-education discourse held the Valley in a nervous grip. “On November 12, on the eve of the examinations, I drove a Scooty to check security arrangements at the examination centre. I checked the route twice to see if stone-throwers were objecting to the examination [being held]. But, thanks to the Almighty, they did not,” he says.

Jozy Ara (name changed), a Class XII student of a private school in Srinagar’s old city area, saw worse than Muskan. “Security forces’ crackdown in the dead of night became a norm in Safa Kadal in downtown Srinagar in September. Boys would stay awake all night in mosques to avert the security crackdown. We would prepare salt-dipped cloth and sugar-heavy kehwa (a local tea preparation) for them to minimise the impact of pepper spray and tear gas shells,” recalls Ara.

Ara’s elder brother, angry at the deaths of civilians, hit the streets too to join the protests, putting the family under state scrutiny. “My room was ransacked, my books damaged. My cousin was dragged down the stairs by security forces. It was like living a nightmare,” says Ara, who is interested in pursuing Political Science in college.

“Being uneducated only helps those who want people here not to be self-sufficient. Education is also resistance. No one objected in the family. In fact, the route to resolution of the Kashmir issue is through education only. Education helps in differentiating between right and wrong,” Ara argues.

Classes during curfew

Fast-setting winters have denuded the trees and turned the sun milder over the ruins of the all-wooden single-storey structure of a school in Kabamarg village of Diyalgam area, Anantnag district, more than 70 km south of Srinagar. Established in 1954 as a primary school, the Government Higher Secondary School here has been “a springboard” for the 20-odd villages in the vicinity, says Ali Akbar, 73, a local.

The school now stands on the charred wooden pillars and blackened concrete walls. Of the 23 classrooms, seven are completely gutted. Science teacher Mudasir Rehman was among the first to reach the spot when flames leaped from one window to another around 3.30 p.m. on October 30. “It seemed the fire emerged from multiple points. The intention seemed clear,” says Rehman. “There is someone who wants the students of Kashmir not to have an educated and informed stand on their political, social and economic realities.”

An ex-student of the Kabamarg school, Amir Hussain, a resident of Navedpura, fell to the bullets of the security forces who were clamping down on stone-throwing protesters in Dooru tehsil soon after the Wani encounter. Hussain’s killing fuelled anger further. There have been protests in Kabamarg village all these months. The higher secondary school too was shut in the wake of separatists’ shutdown call. However, education did not grind to a complete halt. Rehman and other volunteers started a community school in the last week of August within the village as the curfew immobilised movement of vehicles and men outside. “Around 125 students, a mix of private- and government-school students, were taught at the community school. The classes may not have provided the students their routine environment but the village was adamant that education has to continue come what may,” says Rehman.

Hamidullah Khanday, who graduated from the Kabamarg school in 1979 and is now its vice-principal, felt as if his own home was set on fire. “I saw local women beating their chests as the flames brought down the future of the students. The school had survived the harshest phases of militancy in the past,” he says.

Since the arson of October 30, the teachers here have become nightwatchmen to keep miscreants at bay. The office of the school principal, Showkat Hussain, is the post-sundown living room for the staff. Three teachers and a helper form the night-vigil team.

An informal instruction issued by the State government on November 4, asking teachers to guard local schools, has helped thwart five bids to set schools on fire in the Valley. However, the staff and the students of the gutted and damaged schools are a worried lot. “We fear many students may migrate from the school after the incident. We want to assure them the building will be renovated soon,” pledges Rehman.

No villager or teacher in Kabamarg is ready to name or identify the group or individual responsible for setting the school ablaze. Most refer to the attackers as “unidentified” and “masked men”. Wild conspiracy theories are rife as the authorities have failed to make any arrests so far.

Just 11 km away from the Kabamarg school, the Islamia Hanfia Educational Institute in volatile Anantnag town — that was set up in 1925 and has produced the likes of Chief Ministers Mir Qasim and Mufti Mohammad Sayeed — was the first private school targeted by the “unknown” arsonists. It took just three hours to efface the 10-decade-long history after the fire broke out around 3 p.m. on September 19; all 18 classrooms were razed to the ground. In one classroom, all that’s left now are some charts hanging on the wall, including one showing different yoga asanas (postures) and one of the digestive system of the human body.

Some Anantnag locals see politics behind the arson attack on the school — it is run by the Muslim Auqaf Committee headed by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. In fact, as recently as June, Mehbooba Mufti had won the Assembly bypoll from the same constituency, defeating her main opponent by a margin of around 12,000 votes. The long-running protests have, however, damaged much of the goodwill for her.

A whodunnit, as it were

As the mystery deepens about who set the Valley schools on fire, the police have arrested a villager living next to the gutted Iqra English Medium School in Batagund, Dooru-Shahabad tehsil. Dildar Ahmad, who owns the school, isn’t impressed. “If it was an act of militants, they would have sent a letter beforehand or warned us,” he says.

Besides militants, security agencies too have come under the cloud of allegations in some cases. On September 10, a protester, Yawar Mushtaq Dar, was killed in security forces’ firing in the Batengo area of Anantnag. It was 2.30 p.m.; Dar’s funeral drew a huge gathering. The mourners decided to take the Srinagar-Jammu highway to reach a playground nearby for the funeral prayers. “The police showered the procession with stun grenades and tear gas shells. Several shells hit the Government High School, Batengo. It caused the fire,” claims Farooq Ahmad Dar, a village elder. Several cold smoke shells still lie on the school premises, kept by caretaker as evidence.

“When protesters were out on the streets, no school was attacked. It’s only when the government picked up 10,000 youth that schools started burning. All the local youth used to safeguard them,” says Nahida Nasreen, general secretary of the separatist all-woman outfit Dukhtaran-e-Millat.

Saima Akhtar, a Class VIII student, is playing on the premises of the Batengo school. Not much is left of the single-storey structure. Outside the school wall, someone has scribbled with a charcoal in cursive writing: ‘Burhan is our new leader’.

  • Making of a legislative court

The Supreme Court of India, on November 30, gave an order that the national anthem will have to be played before feature films at cinema halls all over the country, and that those present in these halls are obliged to stand up to show respect. Similar orders on respecting the national anthem have been delivered by two High Courts in recent years. Indeed such an order is not in any way an aberration in the post-Emergency trajectory of the higher judiciary. A few months back, the Madras High Court mandated that Thirukkural be taught in all schools in Tamil Nadu. Currently, in another case, the Supreme Court is considering making yoga compulsory in schools. While patriotism, education and health may all perhaps be desirable goals, what is common here is the court compulsorily prescribing highly specific modes of pursuing these lofty aims. Such judicial decisions have three other common attributes. First, all such cases are in the PIL (public interest litigation) jurisdiction. Second, they rely on Fundamental Duties and/or an expanded notion of Directive Principles, with a barely concealed contempt for Fundamental Rights. Third, the judges do not feel any need to justify their decisions in legal terms.

Invitation to legislate

While PIL was defined by its dilution of locus standi, two new ways of conceptualising standing in PIL were initially envisaged: representative standing and citizen standing. The first would be in a case similar to a class-action suit, except with a non-class member representing the larger group. A petitioner under citizen standing, on the other hand, was to stand for the entire citizenry of India rather than individual victims of injustice. While both categories have been present since the inception of PIL, there has been a definite trend away from representative standing towards citizen standing. A PIL of the kind filed by the petitioner Shyam Narayan Chouksey is of the latter kind and is really an invitation to legislate. In fact, an order of this sort could only be made under the PIL jurisdiction, as it enables any citizen to come to court professing public concern on any issue, asking the court to act upon it. It should also not be surprising that Mr. Chouksey has had repeated success with the same judge over the same issue. The impulse to legislate as well as allegations of soliciting petitioners with their pet issues go back to the hallowed days of PIL under Justice P.N. Bhagwati. Passing far-reaching interim orders without any urgency, like in the anthem case, rather than in reasoned judgments is also unexceptional. Being a frankly legislative court, the Supreme Court does not feel the need to give any reasons, as legal scholar Tarunabh Khaitan has argued. Such are the occupational hazards of PIL.

The order of November 30 declares: “Be it stated, a time has come, the citizens of the country must realize that they live in a nation and are duty bound to show respect to National Anthem which is the symbol of the Constitutional Patriotism and inherent national quality. It does not allow any different notion or the perception of individual rights, that have individually thought of have no space. The idea is constitutionally impermissible.” The only statutory provisions the order relied on are Fundamental Duties. These Duties are, perhaps not coincidentally, currently in vogue even outside the judiciary. Last week, when November 26 was celebrated as ‘Constitution Day’ for the first time, the exclusive focus of the University Grants Commission (UGC) directive to all universities and colleges for the occasion was to make students and teachers engage in activities propagating the Fundamental Duties.

A radical reshaping

No such Duties, however, existed in the original Constitution adopted on November 26, 1949. These provisions were incorporated by the 42nd amendment to the Constitution during the Emergency. It was passed by a Lok Sabha which had already finished its term of five years. This amendment radically reshaped the Constitution, amending as many as 59 Articles. The legacy of the 42nd amendment was partially undone by later amendments. But it could not be repealed in toto, and much of it remains in the Constitution, most prominent being its insertion of ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’ in the Preamble. This is unfortunate as the 42nd amendment should be undone in its entirety for the damage it has done to Indian democracy. To take a less conspicuous example, it froze delimitation of Lok Sabha constituencies, the logic being States with higher population increase ought not to be ‘rewarded’ with more seats. Population control was thus deemed to be a more important principle than ‘one person, one vote.’ As a result, the average Lok Sabha seat in Rajasthan today represents a much larger population than one in Kerala.

The official aims of the 42nd amendment included giving Directive Principles “precedence over those Fundamental Rights that had frustrated the Principles’ implementation.” Indira Gandhi had carried out a campaign for overriding Fundamental Rights with Directive Principles ever since her electoral victory in 1971. Commitment to Directive Principles was precisely what was implied by her infamous call for a ‘committed judiciary’ during this period. Article 31C was inserted in the Constitution in 1971 through which any law declared to be implementing the socialistic directive principles of Articles 39(b) & 39 (c) could no longer be declared invalid even if they violated Articles 14, 19 or 31. This immunity was extended to all Directive Principles by the 42nd amendment in 1976. A similar immunity was to be granted to laws implementing Fundamental Duties, though this was not carried through. This approach then prevalent was pithily criticised by constitutional lawyer H.M. Seervai: “It was an unfounded assumption… that the Directive Principles were to secure social justice and the Fundamental Rights were mere selfish individual rights.”

An enduring legacy

It is important to understand that this is precisely the implicit logic of the national anthem order this week: pesky Fundamental Rights have to be made subservient to the higher ideals of national integration and/or social revolution. This mode of argument, in which alleged Constitutional goals trump Fundamental Rights, has been embraced by the judiciary and is an enduring legacy of Mrs. Gandhi’s populism of the 1970s. The apotheosis of Directive Principles was accepted in the judicial discourse of the post-Emergency period. While the 42nd amendment to Article 31C was struck down in 1980, even this judgment mirrored Mrs. Gandhi’s language in astonishing fashion.

What makes the order on the national anthem so representative of PIL’s orientation is the fact of its open hostility to the Fundamental Rights enshrined in the Constitution. It has long been a popular misconception that PIL emerged as a corrective to the court’s capitulation to violations of civil liberties during the Emergency. In fact, the post-Emergency court has been steadfast in its support of such state lawlessness. In the infamous Habeas Corpus case of 1976, the court had upheld the constitutionality of the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act. Far from departing from this dark legacy, the Supreme Court has since repeatedly upheld an entire alphabet soup of repressive statutes from the National Security Act in 1980 to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act in 1997. The populist spirit of the Emergency was never departed from by PIL and is entirely in conformity with its history. The underlying sense of judicial purpose in the post-Emergency period was derived not from entitlements drawn from rights, but from the goals of the Constitution. The courts had implicitly accepted the language of legitimation that Mrs. Gandhi’s formulation of ‘committed judiciary’ offered. As Professor Upendra Baxi pointed out in 1980, the court referred to ‘the people’ more frequently in 1977-79 than in 1950-77.

Even the so-called rights revolution of the post-Emergency court has involved an ever-expanding bunch of unnamed rights flowing from Directive Principles being read into Fundamental Rights. The ‘right to life jurisprudence’ under Article 21 has been extrapolated to include all kinds of socio-economic rights. The only right it seems to exclude is the literal mandate of Article 21, a negative right against any deprivation of life or personal liberty by the state in an illegal manner. While this Article became a receptacle for all manners of positive rights, the all-important civil right it was meant to embody no longer gets the respect it is due. Rights are meant to lead to remedies, but the proliferation of rights under Article 21 exemplifies what legal scholar Clark Cunningham called ‘Rights without Remedies’ and ‘Remedies without Rights’, that is, bare enunciation of unnamed rights without any chance of enforceability and its converse, grant of reliefs like state compensation as largesse without fixing responsibility.

The court’s deference to legislative wisdom in the case of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, abdicating its classic function of judicial review, contrasts neatly with orders such as the national anthem one, where the court happily legislates. With PIL, the post-Emergency Supreme Court is very rarely a court for judicial review and far more often, the court for judicial populism.

  • Democracy, direct to home

Delivering his third Independence Day address, Prime Minister Narendra Modihad remarked that he deliberately stayed away from populist measures that deplete exchequers and opted for a culture of governance. His referent point was, obviously, strategies that politicians employ to garner votes. In political theory, however, the term populism originates from the Latin term populous or ‘people’. If we take the political theory of populism as our cue, the Prime Minister appears quite a populist.

Let me hasten to add that in democratic contexts populists are not anti-democratic. On the contrary they claim to be true democrats, obsessed with rescuing democracy from the clutches of incompetent and venal elites. This class, it is alleged, has betrayed the confidence of citizens, and derailed the political system. Arvind Kejriwal does so directly and abrasively. Prime Minister Modi mockingly dismisses the Opposition. Both represent themselves as preferable alternatives to corrupt and non-performing elites. The second rescue operation launched by these leaders is to free popular sovereignty from the mediations of liberal democracy, and relocate the concept in ‘the people’. By appealing to ‘the people’ over the heads of democratic institutions deemed ineffectual and dishonest, populist leaders forge a personal constituency that they can confide in, admonish, and instruct.

Need for checks and balances

The problem is that ‘people’ is not a homogenous unit. The category is divided and hierarchised along the lines of class, caste, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preferences. More significantly, ‘people’ are organised into majorities and minorities, and majorities — as our history tells us — can seriously impair the basic rights of minorities. For this precise reason, liberal democrats fear the ‘brute power’ of majorities and try to curtail the power of elected majorities through constitutions, legislation, judiciaries, and, more importantly, the institutionalisation of a system of checks and balances.

Notably, democracy is not only about a party that has won the largest number of seats taking over state power. It is about protecting the basic rights of all individuals, and, in particular, the rights of vulnerable minorities against depredations of majorities. This is secured through the establishment of procedures and institutions. That is why democratic governance is complex, time-consuming, and demanding. Each proposal has to go through several stages of scrutiny, including debates in the public sphere on the virtues or otherwise of the proposition on offer, before it is transformed into law. The insertion of layers of intermediary institutions that range from elected assemblies to civil society organisations, between citizens and the state, safeguards ordinary citizens against abuses of power.

The populist’s penchant

It is precisely the complicated procedural and institutional aspect of democracy that populist leaders are impatient with. They would rather reach out directly to citizens. There is, of course, nothing wrong with reaching out to people. The problem is that populist leaders show scant respect for the give and take of arguments during processes of decision-making. This can breed ominous outcomes: witness the sharp and painful crisis that followed demonetisation. The eminent statesman of ancient Athens, Pericles, had warned against decisions that do not take the consequences of a particular action into consideration. But populists defy laborious and cumbersome processes involving critique of, reflection on, and modification of proposed policy. They would rather take shortcuts and evoke naïve and simplistic notions of direct democracy. Direct democracy is, however, the ultimate illusion.

Let us not forget that in ancient Athens, participation in direct democracy was confined to property- and slave-owning males, provided they were born in the city-state. The rest were consigned to the lowly category of subjects. In complex societies, direct democracy simply does not work; it slides easily into populism and, worse, into the cult of the leader. Democracy is diminished.

Democracy is doubly diminished when the complexities of public opinion are simplified through the mechanism of snap referendums through the social media. Citizens have the right to debate on the pros and cons of ‘this’ or ‘that’ law, unearth hidden dimensions of issues, highlight grey areas, and propose alternatives. Snap polls that demand a simple answer — yes or no — in effect depoliticise the deliberative capacity of citizens and undermine their competence to skilfully debate all sides of an issue. It is precisely this aspect of deliberative democracy that populists avoid when they ask for instant referendums.

What history tells us

The proposition that populism harms democracy has been amply borne out by our history. Recollect Indira Gandhi, popularly known as the first populist leader in independent India. Taking over the reins of the Congress in adverse circumstances, she set out to consolidate her status. Regional leaders, who till then had wielded considerable influence in the party through a network of ‘big men’, were rendered irrelevant through the Kamaraj Plan, and by the 1969 split in the party. The announcement of radical programmes such as the abolition of privy purses of former princes and nationalisation of banks endeared Mrs. Gandhi to the political public. More significantly, she fashioned a nationwide constituency by detaching parliamentary elections from State Assembly elections. This enabled her to speak directly to citizens, and dispense with the mediation of regional satraps.

Mrs. Gandhi’s charisma, style and oratory gripped popular imagination. But the process of securing acclaim carried heavy costs. Concentration of power in the person of the Prime Minister spectacularly subverted democratic norms. Her call for a committed judiciary and a committed bureaucracy compromised the autonomy of both institutions. The Supreme Court undercut its own status as an impartial institution by supporting the Emergency declared by Mrs. Gandhi’s government.

More significantly, personalisation of power irreversibly damaged the Congress. Till the 1960s, the party was known as one that could skilfully reconcile diverse interests within the organisation. It had perfected the art of compromise. This changed after Mrs. Gandhi’s accession to power. The party was reduced to a group of courtiers paying ritual obeisance to a supreme leader. The Congress is today a pale shadow of what it used to be. Once it was a dynamic party that could mobilise millions, today the fate of the party is tied to the fate of the Gandhi family.

After Mrs. Gandhi, it is Mr. Modi who has caught the imagination of Indians across caste and class. He speaks directly and powerfully to them through the radio, social media, and televised speeches. We, of course, cannot respond to his suggestions. Most of his ministers do not utter a sentence except in his praise, his initiative, his courage, his imagination, and his expertise. What on earth has happened to the norm of collective responsibility, and to the status of the Prime Minister as the ‘first among equals’ in a parliamentary democracy? The BJP has till now privileged ideology and principles over individual leaders. Today the party hangs on to the coat-tails of the Prime Minister.

The BJP is not alone in this. The subordination of regional political parties to populist leaders has cast a shadow on the party system and on democracy. Parties mediate between leaders and citizens because they represent the interests of their constituency. Today parties have become practically irrelevant because the image of the leader looms large over them. This is a serious setback for democracy. A representative party system is infinitely preferable to personalised forms of power. It is time party organisations asserted their identity and control over leaders. Otherwise history will repeat itself not as ‘farce’, but as ‘tragedy’.

  • The message from Amritsar

India hosts the Heart of Asia (HoA) conference this week in Amritsar. It is aimed at speeding up reconstruction in war-torn Afghanistan and bringing peace and normalcy to the nation. It will see participation from 14 states: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates. The HoA process, supported by the wider international community, originated under the aegis of the Istanbul Conference in November 2011, which underscored the need for regional cooperation and confidence-building to resolve underlying problems facing Afghanistan and anchoring the state’s development in a regional environment that is stable, economically integrated and conducive to shared prosperity. New Delhi too has repeatedly underscored the need for improving connectivity in the region to help Afghanistan harness its trade and transit potential.

The Pakistan factor

Yet this conference comes at a time when India is looking to isolate Pakistan regionally and globally. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani will jointly inaugurate the ministerial deliberations and try to put up a united front vis-a-vis Pakistan. Afghanistan’s envoy to India Shaida Abdali, in a joint press conference at the Ministry of External Affairs, made it clear that terrorism is the “creation of the region and the solution lies in the region. Therefore the upcoming HoA conference is very well timed.” He went on to suggest that terror must be dealt with effectively, not only for the sake of countries such as India and Afghanistan, but also for people in the country where “terrorism is nurtured”.

Afghanistan has been reviewing its policy towards Pakistan. In his address to a joint session of Afghanistan’s parliament this year, Mr. Ghani had threatened to lodge a formal complaint against Pakistan. In a departure from his earlier stand, he called on Pakistan to forego attempts to bring the Taliban to negotiations and take military action against them. “If we do not see a change, despite our hopes and efforts for regional cooperation, we will be forced to turn to the U.N. Security Council and launch serious diplomatic efforts,” he said. Despite Pakistan’s repeated assertions that it would go after Taliban leaders who refused to engage in the peace process involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S. and China, negotiations have stalled and deadly attacks in Afghanistan have increased.

Mr. Ghani’s government is struggling to hold key districts and has failed to hold overdue parliamentary elections amid a worsening security situation. U.S. President Barack Obama also decided to draw down troops to 8,400 by the end of his term, a change from his initial target of 5,500, in accordance with the views of the military. It is not clear what a Trump presidency would mean for Afghanistan, but it is safe to assume that Washington now wants to reduce its stake in the country and would like the regional states to do some heavy-lifting.

India’s policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan has also evolved. It has been demanding dismantling of safe havens and terror sanctuaries in the region besides pressing for deeper engagement of various stakeholders for Afghanistan’s stability and security. That’s easier said than done. Indian interests, including its Embassy and consulates, are repeatedly targeted in Afghanistan.

Evolving relations

Mr. Modi’s visit to Afghanistan to inaugurate the new parliament building last year and the decision by New Delhi to gift Mi-24 attack helicopters to Afghan forces are meant to underline India’s resolve to preserve its equities in a troubled neighbour. India also signed the TAPI pipeline agreement to showcase its continuing commitment to Afghanistan’s economic viability. China too is making it clear that it wants to have deeper security ties with Afghanistan, and there are plans to strengthen counter-terror and intelligence cooperation along with enhancing China’s role in the training of Afghan military and civilian personnel. China has become increasingly concerned about its extremists and separatists in Xinjiang, and sees security in Afghanistan as key to stability in China. Whether India and China can cooperate in Afghanistan is anybody’s guess, given China’s deepening ties with Pakistan. Though Beijing has been increasingly keen to see a political settlement in Afghanistan that ensures a stable balance of power, it is nevertheless placed well to deal with the less-than-desirable prospect of a Taliban resurgence.

New Delhi has so far shown an unusual tenacity in its dealings with Afghanistan, and a willingness to move beyond the binary of economic cooperation and military engagement and evolve a comprehensive policy which involves all dimensions of power. This has enhanced Indian credibility in Afghanistan which is a tough country. Only those who are willing to fight on multiple fronts will be able to preserve their leverage.

  • How Ebola changed a country

Sierra Leone has traipsed through a long wanton war that devoured tens of thousands of lives, and bloodied its lush, deep-sea landscape. During the war (1991-2002), a large number of children were recruited as soldiers. I had interviewed over 70 of them in 2011. Some had reintegrated well economically; however, many continued to face economic hardships. Most were accepted by their families and communities. But the traumatic experiences during the war had huge negative repercussions on their mental health. Akim, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone, told me: “Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels mixed my food with drugs. With coke in my head I don’t know how many people I killed. I burned villages, children, everybody. Later I became a commander and gave orders to kill enemies.”

Over a decade after the war ended, as Sierra Leone was still emerging from the devastating legacy of the conflict, it was struck along with some other neighbouring countries by a deadly epidemic called Ebola in 2014. The disease killed thousands in West Africa. Schools were closed for eight months and public gatherings banned. The crisis in the country was declared over in November 2015. One year on, Sierra Leone continues to deal with Ebola’s devastating impact on its people and the economy.

When comparing Ebola with war, Robert M. Kamara, who works with children in Freetown, Sierra Leone, said, “Ebola was worse, even a family member could not come close or touch the Ebola-affected or the bodies of those who died from the disease due to the possibility of contracting the virus.” In 2014, World Health Organisation (WHO) officials noted that traditional burial practices were among the hurdles that were making it difficult to control Ebola. Burial practices in Sierra Leone entail washing the bodies of the loved ones. It was an uphill task for relief workers to convince families to allow trained specialists to safely bury Ebola victims.

Impact on the young

One lasting legacy of Ebola, like the war in Sierra Leone, will be its impact on the young. Due to the virus, thousands of children were orphaned. Many of them are now compelled to fend for their younger siblings and have not been able to return to school. Philip Sesay, a graphic designer from Freetown, said, “The communal responsibility for children in Sierra Leone has declined and extended families have been resistant to support orphans who lost their parents due to Ebola, out of fear of being contaminated or stigmatised by the community.”

Further, the closure of schools during the outbreak has had a huge impact on the education of children. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology had commissioned an Emergency Radio Education Programme with support from UNICEF and other partners. Its daily programming was based on the primary and secondary school curricula in core academic subjects. However, access to the initiative was limited by poor radio signal coverage in rural areas and a scarcity of radios and/or batteries, particularly among poorer households.

Besides, according to the United Nations Population Fund, at least 18,000 teenagers became pregnant during Ebola in Sierra Leone. Even prior to the crisis, in late 2013, the country had one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. The spike in teenage pregnancy is being largely attributed to disruption of already fragile health systems including family planning and birth control, closure of schools and abusive relationships. While during the conflict many young girls became pregnant after being used as sex slaves by their captors, the negative economic impact of Ebola, as reported by Amnesty International, contributed to an increase in exploitative relationships which led to a rise in teenage pregnancy.

Due to stigma surrounding teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone, the prohibition on pregnant girls attending schools was declared official government policy in April 2015, soon before schools re-opened following the outbreak, and is still in place. In a 2015 report, Amnesty International reported that around 10,000 girls were affected by the ban. The government announced the establishment of an alternative “bridging” education system that would let pregnant girls continue in schools, however at different times to their peers or in different premises. The majority of the girls Amnesty International interviewed felt positively about the system. But many girls said that given a choice, they would have preferred to continue in their normal school; only a few said they preferred it to their normal school due to stigma.

Role of ex-child soldiers

Lifeline Nehemiah Projects in Freetown is among the key organisation which has been working with Ebola-affected, survivors and orphans. P.J. Cole, the executive director of the Nehemiah Projects, said in an interview, “The leaders that I work with were once child soldiers who are now committed to serving their communities.” The organisation was initially set up by his parents to help ex-child soldiers in Sierra Leone rebuild their lives. During the Ebola outbreak, the organisation devised an Ebola education programme which sensitised communities about the dangers of the virus. It also provided support to over 8,000 quarantined individuals and set up an Ebola Clinic. Further, Prince Tommy Williams, an ex-child soldier in Sierra Leone, was among hundreds of volunteers who worked with the communities and Ebola-affected during the crisis. It is awe-inspiring to see many of those ex-child soldiers who experienced traumatic events and committed some of the worst atrocities during the conflict in Sierra Leone, help rebuild the lives of Ebola survivors.

  • HIV: The self-test option

With the World Health Organisation releasing guidelines on HIV self-testing, a major obstacle in improving access to diagnosis has been cleared. Though much progress has been achieved in India in making HIV testing accessible and free of cost, many infected persons remain unaware of their status. Across the world, nearly 40 per cent of people with HIV are unaware of their infection and run the risk of unknowingly transmitting it. Besides going a long way in preventing new infections, early diagnosis will help in a prompt start to treatment and enable the infected to live longer and healthier. Though there has been a 66 per cent drop in incidence in 2015 in India compared with 2000, the number of new HIV infections last year was 86,000; children below 15 years of age alone account for 12 per cent of this number. In 2015, the total number of people with HIV in India was estimated to be 2.1 million. Of this, 1.5 million were detected and tested at integrated counselling and testing centres (ICTC) and about a million people are on treatment. This leaves about half a million who are unaware of their HIV status. The government has approved in principle the proposal to take HIV testing closer to those in need by starting community-based testing. This will soon become operational and will be in addition to institutional testing. India is also weighing the option of self-testing.

The WHO-approved OraQuick HIV self-testing is based on HIV antibodies present in oral and blood samples. The test can detect antibodies developed within three months of getting infected. It is a screening test, and a positive result should be reconfirmed though a blood-based test. Despite greater awareness, people with HIV still face stigma and discrimination. As a result, getting everyone at risk of HIV infection tested has been a challenge. The OraQuick self-testing makes diagnosis easier and faster, besides ensuring privacy and confidentiality, thus encouraging more people to get tested. But there are challenges in terms of counselling and sensitivity, with the accuracy of the tests pegged at around 93 per cent. Counselling has to be done through innovative ways, such as over the telephone, as in the case of the U.S. Unlike the conventional method of getting tested at ICTCs, people self-testing should be more aware about the possibility of false negatives. But the risk of not getting tested far outweighs the limitations posed by self-testing. Twenty-three countries have in place policies that support HIV self-testing. It is time India adopted it quickly to enable more people to test themselves and help break the transmission cycle.

  • The nowhere people

An increasing number of people globally are facing displacement due to droughts, famines, rising sea levels and other natural disasters caused by climate change. This class of migrants has been labelled as ‘environmental refugees’ in popular literature. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an international body reviewing trends of internal displacement, an estimated 24 million people are being displaced annually by natural disasters since 2008. This crisis will make almost half a billion people worldwide “environmental refugees” by the end of the century.

The UN Refugee Convention (1951) grants certain rights to people fleeing persecution because of race, religion, nationality, affiliation to a particular social group, or political opinion. The rights they are entitled to follow principles of non-discrimination, non-penalisation, and non-refoulement. However, people migrating due to environmental disasters have no such recognition of their ‘refugee’ status in international law, leaving them without any basic rights of rehabilitation and compensation. In September 2015, in the run-up to the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris, New Zealand reportedly refused a man and his family asylum. Ioane Teitiota from Kiribati, who had sought it on the grounds of being an ‘environmental refugee’, lost his appeal before the New Zealand Supreme Court, which rejected the argument that he faced persecution because of climate change, since no such category is listed under the UN Refugee Convention. He was deported to his native island, which regularly witnesses environmental problems including storm surges, flooding and water contamination.

The Paris let-down

The Paris Agreement presented a unique opportunity to set the record straight by addressing the challenge of increasing environmental refugees. Before the negotiations commenced, numerous demands were made to incorporate ways to tackle climate migration in the final agreement. These included recognising the threat posed by climate change to livelihoods and human safety, and environmental refugees or migrants affected by climate change; providing technical and capacity building support to national and local initiatives tackling such displacement; and developing suitable policies to manage loss and damage by addressing climate change-induced displacement. However, the Paris Agreement falls considerably short of these expectations. While some hail this agreement for alluding to the rights of ‘migrants’ in its Preamble, it is an anaemic attempt at appreciating the gravity of this crisis. There is also little follow-up in the text of the agreement to address this problem.

The agreement, in Paragraph 50 of the Loss and Damage section, creates a task force to build upon existing work and develop recommendations for addressing climate migration. But this is meaningless for two main reasons — first, the recommendations of the task force have no binding authority; and second, no details are provided on its functions, operations, funding and other aspects. This ambiguity further erodes confidence in the realistic capability of this task force to effectively tackle climate migration.

The way forward

Almost one year after the Paris Agreement, its significance in displaying collective political will to take meaningful action against climate change cannot be undermined. However, this should not excuse its deficiencies in addressing a burgeoning population of environmental refugees.

The draft of the Paris Agreement discussed before COP 21 provided for a Climate Change Displacement Coordination Facility. This facility was intended to target organised migration and planned relocation of displaced persons, securing emergency relief, and arranging compensation for those displaced — actions more meaningful than those of the task force in the Paris Agreement. Unfortunately, this coordination facility did not make it to the final text of the agreement, but it may be worthwhile to reconsider its establishment.

While such a coordination facility can provide short-term support to relocate migrants and rehabilitate them in safer regions, a permanent solution requires an international treaty framework that recognises ‘environmental refugees’ and the obligations of nation states in accommodating them within their territories. We are already witnessing a world that is reactionary towards political refugees. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are two events that testify to the underlying paranoia towards immigrants. Ignoring environmental refugees or their status under international law keeps them in legal limbo and endangers their survival.

This scenario can be averted by either expanding the ambit of the existing UN Refugee Convention to include climate migration, or by creating an independent treaty framework addressing the challenges of climate change-induced migration comprehensively. It is also pertinent to mention that while India, the U.S., and China have all ratified the Paris Agreement, there is little discussion on steps to be taken by the three largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The absence of such discourse is ironic given that the three countries are predicted to suffer tremendously from climate change-induced migration, resulting in large-scale displacement of their own populations. Therefore, it should be in their collective interest to lead efforts on finding an international resolution to this problem before the ensuing harm becomes irreparable.

Ameen Jauhar is a Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi. Views are personal.

  • Reimagining the liberal project

The triumphant words of Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, that Donald Trump’s victory “marks a repudiation of the status quo of failed liberal progressive policies” are a striking indication of a growing sense of unease against not just liberal economic policies, but more importantly the once unassailable liberal political and moral order. This existential crisis faced by the liberal order coincides with a disturbing rise in the popular legitimacy for illiberal politics around the world, including in India. That modern liberal and progressive ideas are being rejected in their very fortresses in Europe and America should make us sit up and take notice.

Is the liberal dilemma merely about the rise of the right wing capitalising on unemployment, migration, fear of the other, etc.? Or is it also about the failure of the progressive and liberal ideas that have been taken for granted by their advocates, some of whom even wrote obituaries for history? Moreover, the fact that the underprivileged amongst us, who should have been a natural audience for left-liberal ideas, increasingly support right wing and xenophobic forces should come as a wake-up call.

From anxiety to hatred

There is a deep sense of economic, social and cultural anxiety around us, both here in India and abroad. We have known that for long though we didn’t appreciate enough what this could potentially lead to. This anxiety is now transforming into a scary opposition to modern values — human rights, multiculturalism, secularismLGBT rights, among others — that are liberal and progressive. There is today a universal backlash against liberal clichés about multiculturalism and liberal economic policies, notwithstanding their differences. And leaders of the liberal edifice seem to be floundering in providing convincing answers and alternatives.

The ordinary citizen who is suspicious of the outsider and anxious about financial security is not to be faulted — he/she is merely a victim of adverse structural conditions. Where it becomes problematic is when his/her legitimate anxieties are manipulated by right-wing forces to generate politically and ideologically useful xenophobia and hatred. This has become easier over the years, especially because liberals don’t address these questions seriously and creatively anymore, as they should. For them, these are long-settled intellectual questions. While the rise of the right wing is a serious worry, this then calls into question the fundamentals of progressive politics and the way it is practised.

Notwithstanding the right-wing pandering of nativist insecurities, the bitterness against traditional elites, both the intellectual elites and the wealthy, is growing. There is visible resentment against the liberal values advocated by the well-heeled, English-speaking journalists, university professors, celebrities, intellectuals, among others, some of who can only be described as boardroom liberals, preachy and condescending. Liberal values eulogised in university seminar halls, mainstream media outlets and other glamorous forums are often far removed from ground zero where people go about their daily struggles and view experts with a sense of suspicion. Doesn’t that partly explain why liberal elites like Manmohan Singh can’t beat the popular legitimacy of an illiberal Bharatiya Janata Party leadership?

While it is true that the intellectual elite is not the same as the moneyed elite, these differences may not matter much in the popular perception.

Sins of the liberal

The contemporary liberal dilemma has deep historical roots. Liberalism has historically spoken the language of empire. While the enlightenment project symbolised the intellectual supremacy of the West, the colonial project that followed was the material manifestation of liberal arrogance. While the colonial masters were busy looting colonies, liberals continued to extol the values of enlightenment just like those American liberals who justified what the American war machine did abroad, for the liberal democratic cause, of course. Rising immigration to Europe and the new wave of terror today would not have been this serious had the Western world not destroyed existing state structures in West Asia in the name of the war on terror and other convenient excuses.

The liberal project propositioned itself as the ultimate ideology at the end of the Cold War. However, neo-liberal economic policies that wreaked havoc in many underdeveloped countries are now creating problems for the First World with guardians of the liberal order looking increasingly uncertain. Notwithstanding the many essential differences between neo-liberalism and progressive liberal politics, there are significant linkages between the two. While it is true that the liberal left has consistently opposed neo-liberal economic policies while upholding socially liberal values, such conceptual hair-splitting seems irrelevant to the larger public imagination.

Liberalism, perhaps with the honourable exception of left liberals, today has come to signify progressive but redundant social values and insensitive economic logic. In its arrogant self-indulgence about the virtues of a universal economic and political model and individual liberty, the liberal project continued to sermonise while looking away from the economic and geopolitical atrocities of the West on the rest. The progressive liberal, by ideological and moral association, is paying the price for the insensitivity of the neo-liberal economist. Politicians such as Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who are seemingly cagey on the many neo-liberal pitfalls, are perhaps an exception to this confusion.

Right-wing regimes have skillfully used this moral double whammy faced by the liberals — elitism of liberal values and the let-down of neo-liberal economic logic — to direct the mounting popular anger against the wealthy and the elite towards liberals and “outsiders”. Unlike liberals, right-wingers shrewdly identified themselves with the anger and used the adverse side effects of economic and cultural globalisation to their political advantage, turning popular rage against progressive sections. The promises of neo-liberalism, which the poor saw as helping the rich with no tangible benefits for them, never materialised: the promises of the right wing may also never get them anywhere, but then that’s a matter for the longer term. And as Manmohan Singh reminded us the other day, “in the long run, we are all dead”.

The reality is that liberals of all hues have summarily failed to creatively and efficiently been unable to address economic inequalities and cultural insecurities. It was only natural then that internal contradictions of the liberal economic order and its unwillingness to imaginatively address identity issues have made it less attractive to large masses of the population. The organised Left in India is often seen to be talking in an alien language, unwilling, for instance, to get its hands dirty with the complex identity questions in the country.

Ivory tower illiberalism

The ‘better than thou’ positioning of the liberal elite has removed it from the midst of a society that is under siege today, in India and abroad. Unable to show empathy and meaningfully address the everyday angst of the ordinary citizens, liberals and their progressive talk often comes across as bourgeoisie high culture. In other words, liberals, comfortable in their ivory towers, have not adequately represented the poor and downtrodden.

While the right-wing argument that universities are ‘using taxpayer’s money to propagate anti-national ideas’ is indeed intellectually craven, there is an underlying sentiment in it which speaks of a liberal failure to get across to large sections of society and make meaning to their lives. Can political ideas survive if they don’t make a difference to the lives of those around us? Liberal sermons about life’s higher purposes from their inaccessible pulpit are bound to fail, as is increasingly becoming evident.

More than just incapacity, the ivory tower liberal is also often perceived to be intellectually illiberal and condescending. While the right uses thugness, the left uses smugness. Trolling has a pre-Twitter history — urbane liberals looking contemptuously at unsophisticated folk who held contrary views and talking down to them. Do liberals really believe in political multiculturalism? The truth is, they often don’t. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times of university-based liberals: “We progressives believe in diversity, and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table — er, so long as they aren’t conservatives… We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”

During a recent visit to the U.S., I was told by an American professor about how there is a strong feeling among a lot of ‘politically neutral folks’ that liberal political correctness has gone too far in its moral demarcations of right and wrong. A nation consists of politically and morally diverse, and divergent, views, and intellectual classes should be able to engage all of them, without prejudice. It is crucial to recognise the frustrations and distress around us wherever they may be on the moral compass — our sense of political correctness should not dissuade us from addressing them. For instance, those around us who are worried about outsiders should be spoken to, not named and shamed. Today’s world requires more empathetic consensus-building than name-calling, and a dialogical approach to those in moral disagreement with us.

Reinventing progressive politics

Surely, the liberal edifice is still worth fighting for, but we must shed our intellectual arrogance to face up to the real-world problems. It is also important to recognise that the struggle among divergent political and moral ideas is a constant — to think that one particular idea has won over the others forever is a mistake. Liberals made that mistake, it’s time to correct it.

Moreover, when activism and dissent are confined to ivory towers, they run the risk of being consigned to the dustbin of history sooner or later. If progressive politics and liberal ideas have to survive, there is a need to politically mainstream our dissent and use an accessible language to convey that. Progressive populism should then be seen as a critical tool to challenge regressive populism of the right wing.

  • The heart of the problem

There are good reasons why the ‘Heart of Asia’ conference, part of a 14-nation process begun in 2011 to facilitate the development and security of Afghanistan, is so named. The obvious one is geographical, as Afghanistan lies at the junction of Central, South and East Asia, and also of the ancient trading routes from China and India to Europe. Today it is also a focal point for the region’s biggest challenge of terrorism; some of the far-reaching battles against al-Qaeda, Islamic State, etc. will be decided on the battlegrounds of Afghanistan. For India, putting terror centre stage at the Heart of Asia declaration in Amritsar was thus timely and necessary. In tandem, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi focussed their concerns on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, something even Pakistan’s traditional allies at the conference, including China, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey, found difficult to counter. The case Mr. Ghani made was clear: progress and development in Afghanistan are meaningless and unsustainable without peace, and peace is contingent on Pakistan ending support to terror groups such the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. He dared Pakistan to use its proposed development grant to Afghanistan to fight terror on its own soil.

However, if every window for engagement with Pakistan is closed for India and Afghanistan, the two countries must closely consider what their next step will be. A lack of engagement may, in the short term, yield some pressure on Pakistan’s leadership to act, as it did briefly after the Pathankot attack. But in the long run it may deplete the two countries of their limited leverage as Pakistan’s neighbours. It may, for all the affirmations of mutual ties, also succeed in driving more obstacles to trade between India and Afghanistan. In the past year, the cornering of Pakistan by its South Asian neighbours has only yielded deeper ties for Islamabad with Beijing and Moscow, pushed Kabul closer to Central Asia, and moved New Delhi towards multilateral groupings to the east and south. As a result, the measures India and Afghanistan have envisaged in order to avoid Pakistan, such as land trade from the Chabahar port and a dedicated air corridor between Delhi and Kabul, may prove to be insufficient by the time they are put in place, even as Afghanistan is connected more closely via a rail line from China’s Yiwu and Tehran. The Heart of Asia process thus remains critical to forging cooperation to realise Afghanistan’s potential to be a vibrant Asian “hub”.

  • States need to buck up

Policy priorities evolve or change with time. As we transition from Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals, water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are taking policy centre stage in most emerging and developing countries. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is, for instance, a manifestation of this importance. One vexing situation has been the large disparities in access to WASH services across different segments of the population. Worldwide, 663 million people lack access to safe water and 2.4 billion people lack access to improved sanitation. In India, 128 million lack safe water services and about 840 million people don’t have sanitation services. How can this be improved?

Our search for answers began with an analysis of the various WASH policies formulated by the Central and State governments. Specifically, we analysed the robustness of WASH policies that were formulated in the last 15 years. Our assessment of robustness was based on the comprehensiveness of the policy document, that is, whether it clearly specified the following four parameters: the beneficiary segments; the barriers faced by the different segments; the strategies that would be used to improve outcomes; and the type of outcomes, namely, adequacy, accessibility, affordability, and quality and safety. The robustness of the policy was classified as high, moderate, or low depending on how many of the four parameters have been clearly mentioned in the policy. The argument is that policies that are highly robust can be more effective in improving WASH outcomes.

National and State policies

WASH sectors being concurrent subjects, policies have been formulated by the Central government and respective State governments. We compared the national and State policies for their robustness. It would have been expected that State policies would have a higher degree of robustness as they are closer to the site of implementation. On the contrary, we found that WASH policies formulated by State governments have low robustness as compared to that of national policies. The capacity for policymaking of State governments thus needs to be further strengthened.

We also compared the policy robustness of WASH policies from India with 10 other developing countries drawn from Asia and Africa. Results show a substantial scope for improvement in policy robustness for India. Only 22 per cent of the WASH policies from India could be classified as highly robust, whereas of the policies of 10 other developing countries, 75 per cent could be classified as highly robust. While the low proportion for India could be attributed to the large number of State policies in the sample, there is no denying that the comprehensiveness of Indian WASH policies can be further improved. Governments need to realise that it is not just enough to paint a vision of the big picture, and the details glossed over. To ensure effective implementation, there should be a synchronisation of beneficiary segments, barriers, strategies, and outcomes.

Beneficiary segments

Identification of the beneficiary segments is a key component of policy. The grandiose objective of ensuring universal coverage makes great political statement, but to be able to get through the distance demands a certain amount of granularity. The needs and barriers for segments of the population differ and consequently the strategies also need to be customised for the different segments. Therefore, policymakers have gradually moved away from a “one size fits all” approach to a more beneficiary-centric approach.

A traditional approach has been to segment the beneficiaries on the basis of geographical and social context (GSS). Population was therefore segmented as rural, urban, low income and so on. However, of late, segmenting the beneficiaries on the basis of the human life cycle (LCS) is gaining traction. Beneficiaries are thus segmented as children, adolescents, adults, senior citizens, and so on. We analysed the policy robustness for both the GSS and LCS segments. Policies showed a higher degree of robustness for GSS segments as compared to that of LCS segments. Contemporary thinking is that adoption of LCS can significantly help in improving the access to WASH services. However, the Indian policy engine seems to be more attuned to the GSS framework. To be able to achieve our WASH targets, it is imperative that our policies straddle both the LCS and GSS approaches, rather than restricting to the traditional GSS approach.

Enhancing policy robustness

Among the four parameters that influence policy robustness, identification of barriers has been the Achilles heel in a majority of the policies.

Just 11 per cent of the policies that we had assessed have identified the barriers for the different segments. The robustness of policies can be enhanced if more and more policies can focus on identifying the barriers faced by the different segments in accessing WASH services. Needless to say, better identification of barriers would also have a positive impact on subsequent downstream components such as formulation of strategies and outcomes.

To conclude, a job well begun is half done. Policies are like the mariner’s compass to the captains who are in charge of implementation of large developmental programmes. They provide direction to the steering hand and help to keep the course. A more robust policy would help in achieving better outcomes from WASH projects and programmes. Our analysis shows that WASH policies in India definitely need a robustness enhancement. Policy formulation, particularly at the State level, should be strengthened. Emergent paradigms such as LCS should be introduced in addition to the traditional GSS approaches. More importantly, barriers that come in the way of access to WASH services should be given considerable focus, and not relegated to a footnote.

Thillai Rajan A. is Professor, Department of Management Studies, IIT Madras. Email: thillair@iitm.ac.in. Reeba Devaraj is Principal Project Officer, Department of Management Studies, IIT Madras.

  • Grappling with water disputes

A permanent tribunal to adjudicate river water disputes between States will undoubtedly be a vast improvement over the present system of setting up ad hoc tribunals. The Union Cabinet’s proposal to have a permanent tribunal that will subsume existing tribunals is expected to provide for speedier adjudication. But whether this will resolve the problem of protracted proceedings is doubtful. Given the number of ongoing inter-State disputes and those likely to arise in future, it may be difficult for a single institution with a former Supreme Court judge as its chairperson to give its ruling within three years. Secondly, its interlocutory orders as well as final award are likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court. This month, in a landmark verdict, the Supreme Court said it had unfettered power to hear an appeal arising from a river water dispute tribunal under Article 136 of the Constitution. It has interpreted the ouster clause in the Inter-State Water Disputes Act as one that merely bars the court from entertaining an original complaint or suit on its own, but not its power to hear appeals against a tribunal’s decisions. Thus, finality and enforcement of a tribunal’s award may remain elusive. The idea of a Dispute Resolution Committee, an expert body that will seek to resolve inter-State differences before a tribunal is approached, will prove to be another disincentive for needless litigation.

A positive feature of the proposed changes is that there will be an expert agency to collect data on rainfall, irrigation and surface water flows. This acquires importance because party-States have a tendency to fiercely question data provided by the other side. A permanent forum having reliable data in its hands sounds like an ideal mechanism to apportion water. However, a confusing aspect is that benches of the permanent tribunal are going to be created to look into disputes as and when they arise. It is not clear in what way these temporary benches would be different from the present tribunals. A larger and more significant downside to any adjudicatory framework is the refusal or reluctance of parties to abide by judicial orders. Having an institutional mechanism is one thing, but infusing a sense of responsibility in those helming State governments is quite another. What is at stake is not merely a set of competing claims over riparian rights. Water disputes have humanitarian dimensions, including agrarian problems worsened by drought and monsoon failures. Adjudication, by whatever mechanism, should not be at the mercy of partisan leaders who turn claims into dangerously emotive issues. Institutional mechanisms should be backed by the political will to make them work.

  • ‘Surreal’ is named 2016 Word of the Year

Donald Trump’s upset win in the U.S. presidential election astonished people so much that they rushed to the dictionary to look up the word everyone was using to describe the event: surreal.

Indeed, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary on Monday named surreal its Word of the Year 2016, the honour given to the word or term with the sharpest spike in look-ups over the previous year.

Surreal, definition: “marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream.” It triggered not one but a series of sudden jumps in people looking it up. The first came after terrorist bombings in Brussels in March. It happened again in July after the coup attempt in Turkey and the terrorist attack in Nice, France in which a man driving a truck swerved back and forth through a crowd watching Bastille Day fireworks, crushing 86 people to death. But the biggest spike came after Mr. Trump — the shoot-from-the-hip political neophyte and property tycoon — defeated Hillary Clinton during the November 8 race for the White House.

“When we don’t believe or don’t want to believe what is real, we need a word for what seems ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ reality. Surreal is such a word,” the dictionary company said in a statement.

It said another word looked up big-time in 2016 was ‘bigly.’

“Donald Trump used the term ‘big league’ in an unusual way, as an adverb during a debate, and many people thought he said ‘bigly’,” according to Merriam-Webster editor-at-large Peter Sokolowski.

  • Morbid Anatomy Museum closes its doors

The Morbid Anatomy Museum, a showcase for unusual taxidermy, natural history specimens and other objects at the intersection of art, science and beauty that opened to much fanfare in Brooklyn in 2014, abruptly shut down on Sunday after the failure of a last-ditch fund-raising effort.

The closing came two weeks after museum leaders sent an email appeal saying they needed to raise $75,000 via memberships or donations or else close in the next several months. As of Monday, that plea had brought in just over $8,000.

“Good press doesn’t pay the rent,” the museum said in a statement on Monday that confirmed the closing.

“Our institution was made possible by an incredible investment from our founder and a dedicated group of early supporters, but we were unable to develop both the broad support from our audience and from grants, gifts and other sponsorship that is necessary for sustainability.”

No success

In a telephone interview, Tracy Hurley Martin, the museum’s chief executive and the founder referred to in the statement, put the museum’s annual budget at about $3,00,000 a year, including $10,000 monthly rent but not what she called the “substantial costs” of developing the space into “a beautiful cabinet of curiosities.” The museum had applied for foundation and government support in the past year, without any success, she said.

“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of competition out there,” Mr. Martin said. “We just fell through the cracks.”

Celebrating things that fall through the cracks has been the central mission of Morbid Anatomy, which was created as a do-it-yourself intellectual salon in 2008 by Joanna Ebenstein, a freelance writer and curator, and run for years out of a closet-size space near the Gowanus Canal.

After moving to its three-level home behind a black façade on the neighbourhood’s Third Avenue, Morbid Anatomy became a museum. It received official non-profit status in May 2015 and expanded its calendar of popular taxidermy classes and lectures on topics like cryptozoology or skulls in Renaissance comedy.

It organised quirky exhibitions on topics like early 20th-century stage magic and 19th-century anatomical wax models, often drawing on little-seen items from private collections.

What turned out to be the final show, ‘Taxidermy: Art, Science and Immortality,’ featured ‘The Kittens’ Wedding,’ an elaborate tableau of tiny, meticulously dressed felines created by the Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, whose work has been exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London but had never been formally shown in the United States.

“I want people to walk in and say: ‘Wow, this is really interesting. Why don’t we know about that? And what does it say about us today that we don’t know about it?’” Mr. Ebenstein once said in an interview, describing the museum’s mission and aesthetic.

  • Jet stream in Earth’s core discovered

Using the latest satellite data that helps create an ‘X-ray’ view of the planet, scientists discovered a jet stream within the Earth’s molten iron core.

“The European Space Agency’s Swarm satellites are providing our sharpest X-ray image yet of the core. We’ve not only seen this jet stream clearly for the first time, but we understand why it’s there,” said lead researcher Phil Livermore from the University of Leeds in Britain.

“We can explain it as an accelerating band of molten iron circling the North Pole, like the jet stream in the atmosphere,” Mr. Livermore said. Because of the core’s remote location under 3,000 kilometres of rock, for many years, scientists have studied the Earth’s core by measuring the planet’s magnetic field — one of the few options available.

  • IAS, DANICS officers meet Home Minister

Representatives of the IAS and DANICS Officers’ associations, which passed a resolution last week against “misbehaviour” by Delhi government political executives, have met Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and handed over the resolution to him.

“We met Mr. Singh yesterday [Sunday] and handed over our resolution passed last week against ‘misbehaviour’ by political executives in the Delhi government and other issues,” a member of the associations said.

Through a resolution, which was adopted jointly by the associations of AGMUT cadre IAS and DANICS officers, the associations had expressed “anguish and pain” at the alleged “misbehaviour by political executives” and appealed to the Kejriwal government not to resort to “misdemeanour, unfounded allegations, mis-information” campaign against officers.

The Ministry of Home Affairs is the cadre-controlling authority of AGMUT cadre IAS and DANICS officers.

Past friction

Following the associations’ move, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had alleged that IAS officers working in the Delhi government were being “threatened” and “provoked” by the PMO and Lieutenant-Governor’s Office to revolt against him.

In January, DANICS officers had gone on a one-day leave after the city administration had suspended two of their colleagues.

  • Centre announces Rs 207-crore project for Majuli island

A Rs 207 crore project for protection and development of the world’s biggest river island Majuli, located along the river Brahmaputra in Assam, was announced by the Centre on Tuesday.

The announcement was made by Union Minister for Development of North Eastern Region (DoNER) Jitendra Singh.

“This is a serious effort by the Ministry for the upliftment of the famous scenic island which was recently also declared a separate district,” Mr Singh said in a statement.

The amount earmarked by the Ministry will be spent primarily for safeguarding the land loss due to erosion and to protect the 80 km length of the bank line on the right bank of river Brahmaputra along world famous Majuli island.

Presiding over a meeting of the Ministry of DoNER with participation by the officials of North Eastern Council (NEC) from its headquarters at Shillong through video conferencing, he said it is a matter of pride that the Ministry has succeeded in breaking the jinx of allocated funds remaining unspent year after year, for the last several decades.

Citing figures, he said, out of Rs 2,400 crore allocation for Non-Lapsable Central Pool of Resources (NLCPR), Rs 1,743 crore have already been spent in the first nine months in the current financial year, which is a quantum jump compared to what it was in the preceding financial years.

Similarly, Mr Singh said, the NEC has already spent Rs 702 crore till now since April 1 in the current financial year, whereas in the last financial year of 2015-16, the total amount spent in the whole year was Rs 760 crore.

The Minister said several out-of-the-box decisions taken over the last one year have contributed to the expediting of the projects and increased spending of funds.

This, Mr Singh said, is borne out by the fact that during the current financial year, so far 99 projects have already been completed out of which 76 fall under NLCPR scheme and 23 under the NEC.

These include projects related to roads, water supplies, education, among others, he added.

  • John Glenn, first American to orbit Earth, passes away at 95

John Glenn, whose 1962 flight as the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the Earth made him an all-American hero and propelled him to a long career in the U.S. Senate, died on Thursday. The last survivor of the original Mercury 7 astronauts was 95.

Glenn died at the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, where he was hospitalised for more than a week, said Hank Wilson, communications director for the John Glenn School of Public Affairs.

An American space hero

John Herschel Glenn Jr. had two major career paths that often intersected—flying and politics, and he soared in both of them.

Before he gained fame orbiting the world, he was a fighter pilot in two wars, and as a test pilot, he set a transcontinental speed record. He later served 24 years in the Senate from Ohio. A rare setback was a failed 1984 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

More than anything, Glenn was the ultimate and uniquely American space hero — a combat veteran with an easy smile, a strong marriage of 70 years and nerves of steel. Schools, a space center and the Columbus airport were named after him. So were children.

The Soviet Union leaped ahead in space exploration by putting the Sputnik 1 satellite in orbit in 1957, and then launched the first man in space, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, in a 108-minute orbital flight on April 12, 1961. After two suborbital flights by Alan Shepard Jr. and Gus Grissom, it was up to Glenn to be the first American to orbit the Earth.

“Godspeed, John Glenn,” fellow astronaut Scott Carpenter radioed just before Glenn thundered off a Cape Canaveral launch pad, now a National Historic Landmark, to a place America had never been. At the time of that Feb. 20, 1962, flight, Glenn was 40 years old.

During the four-hour, 55-minute flight, Glenn uttered a phrase that he would repeat frequently throughout life — “Zero G, and I feel fine.”

“It still seems so vivid to me,” Glenn said in a 2012 interview with the Associated Press on the 50th anniversary of the flight. “I still can sort of pseudo feel some of those same sensations I had back in those days during launch and all.”

Glenn’s ride in the cramped Friendship 7 capsule had its scary moments. Sensors showed his heat shield was loose after three orbits, and Mission Control was worried he might burn up during re-entry when temperatures reached 3,000 degrees. But the heat shield held.

A lifelong love of flight

Glenn was born July 18, 1921, in Cambridge, Ohio, and grew up in New Concord, Ohio. His love of flight was lifelong; John Glenn Sr. spoke of the many summer evenings he arrived home to find his son running around the yard with outstretched arms, pretending he was piloting a plane.

Glenn’s goal of becoming a commercial pilot was changed by World War II. He left Muskingum College to join the Naval Air Corps and soon after, the Marines.

Glenn’s public life began when he broke the transcontinental airspeed record, bursting from Los Angeles to New York City in three hours, 23 minutes and eight seconds. With his Crusader averaging 725 mph, the 1957 flight proved the jet could endure stress when pushed to maximum speeds over long distances.

In New York, he got a hero’s welcome at his first ticker tape parade. He got another after his flight on Friendship 7.

For the next four years, Glenn devoted his attention to business and investments that made him a multimillionaire. In 1974, Glenn ran for the Senate again and won.

Glenn represented Ohio in the Senate longer than any other senator in the State’s history. He became an expert on nuclear weaponry and was the Senate’s most dogged advocate of nonproliferation. He was the leading supporter of the B-1 bomber when many in Congress doubted the need for it.

Glenn said the lowest point of his life was 1990, when he and four other senators came under scrutiny for their connections to Charles Keating, the notorious financier who eventually served prison time for his role in the costly savings and loan failure of the 1980s. The Senate Ethics Committee cleared Glenn of serious wrongdoing but said he “exercised poor judgment.”

Glenn returned to space in a long-awaited second flight in 1998 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. He got to move around aboard the shuttle for far longer nine days, compared with just under five hours in 1962 as well as sleep and experiment with bubbles in weightlessness.

In 1943, Glenn married his childhood sweetheart, Anna Margaret Castor. They had two children, Carolyn and John David.

The couple spent their later years between Washington and Columbus. Both served as trustees at their alma mater, Muskingum College. Glenn spent time promoting the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, which also houses an archive of his private papers and photographs.

  • A Nobel push for peace in Colombia

In a long year of war and strife, it is a silver lining that the Nobel Committee in Oslo was spoilt for choice in deciding upon the recipient of the 2016 Peace Prize. A > landmark nuclear deal brought a peaceful closure to Iran’s purported nuclear weapon ambitions and paved the way for better relations between Tehran and the West, making the key negotiators leading contenders for the Prize. The yeoman efforts of the > White Helmets of Syria, a group of local volunteers in Aleppo and other parts of war-ravaged Syria who help rescue people injured or stranded in bomb attacks in war zones, merited recognition. But the > ending of one of the longest-running civil wars was the achievement that got the highest recognition by the Committee. The Nobel Peace Prize for 2016 has been > awarded to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos after his government painstakingly concluded negotiations by > signing an accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), winding down hostilities in a > 52-year-old civil war. The accord, signed on September 26, 2016, provided for the disbanding of FARC militants and for the rebels to join the political process as a routine political party, besides conceding demands by FARC to address inequities in Colombia’s rural areas through development programmes and land distribution. FARC also agreed to dismantle drug production facilities in areas in its control which had helped finance the war against the Colombian government. This was a landmark accord that provided an opportunity not just for peace but also for better prospects in the war against drug production and trade in Colombia.

Merely a week after the accord, the government received a setback as its attempt to get the accord ratified through a referendum > failed. About 50.23 per cent of the voters who turned out (the turnout was less than 40 per cent) > voted against the peace agreement. Both the government and FARC have ruled out a return to war despite this setback, and even the advocates of the “no” vote, including former President Álvaro Uribe, have sought fresh negotiations for what they deem to be a better accord. The Nobel committee recognises that despite the setback there is the need for a broad-based dialogue to further the peace process. In doing so, it has provided Mr. Santos the persuasive pulpit he had lost following the referendum. The award should enable his government to seek a renewed accord that does not militate against the previous one and seals a durable peace. The Peace Prize is a testimonial to the patience required to bring about closure to complex, long-running conflicts. In this case at least, it is well-deserved.

  • Feathered dinosaur tail found encased in amber

Researchers have discovered the partial tail of a feathered dinosaur that was preserved in amber some 99 million years ago, according to a study released Thursday.

One of the lead authors, Lida Xing from the China University of Geosciences, happened upon the feathered dinosaur fossil at an amber market in Myanmar last year.

The chance find lends fresh insight into the extinct feathered creatures as well as the evolution of feathers themselves

“This is a new source of information that is worth researching with intensity and protecting as a fossil resource,” said Ryan McKellar, one of the scientists who worked on the study published in the US journal Current Biology.

The researchers are sure the amber has preserved a dinosaur and not a prehistoric bird, McKellar said, because “the tail is long and flexible.”

“The new material preserves a tail consisting of eight vertebrae from a juvenile; these are surrounded by feathers that are preserved in 3D and microscopic detail,” said the co-author and scientist from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Canada.

Though the entire tail was feathered, the dinosaur likely could not fly, the paleontologist noted.

The plumage probably helped the animal with mating rituals or with thermal regulation, McKellar said.

Feathers dating back to the time of dinosaurs have already been discovered in amber, but this is the first time scientists have been able to definitively link a specimen to a dinosaur, researchers said.

Scientists analyzed the amber inclusion using CT scanning and microscopic observations.

Their analysis deduced that the feathers were dark brown on top with a pale or white underside. A soft tissue layer around the bones contained traces of ferrous iron from hemoglobin preserved in the sample.

In the acclaimed science-fiction film “Jurassic Park,” scientists managed to clone dinosaurs from DNA found in a piece of amber.

The fossilized tree resin is often used in jewelry, but McKellar said this find highlights the importance of amber to paleontological research.

“Amber pieces preserve tiny snapshots of ancient ecosystems, but they record microscopic details, three-dimensional arrangements, and labile tissues that are difficult to study in other settings.”

  • South Korea at a crossroads

When Park Geun-hye assumed office as South Korea’s first woman President in early 2013 on a wave of popularity, not many could have foreseen her impeachment on corruption charges less than four years later. Such has been the impact of the scandal that several lawmakers from her own Saenuri Party voted in favour of the impeachment resolution brought in by the opposition in Parliament. The crisis was sparked by revelations two months ago that Ms. Park had abused her powers to help a confidante, Choi Soon-sil, extort money from companies for her foundations. Since then, the Korean media have carried stories of Ms. Choi’s access to the President’s office and her influence in decision-making. The crisis was handled ineptly by Ms. Park and her aides. She never bothered to explain her position directly to the public, and did not take her party into confidence. She stayed away from the press and the opposition, perhaps hoping the crisis would blow over. But with a 4 per cent approval rating, she soon became the most unpopular leader South Korea has had since its transition to a democracy in the late-1980s. And an impeachment appeared certain in the wake of opposition protests that attracted over a million people to Seoul.

South Korean Presidents are no strangers to corruption scandals. But in Ms. Park’s case, the allegation that the President was being controlled by a puppeteer seemed to have aggravated the public anger. Moreover, Ms. Park’s record in office was far from exemplary. The economy continued to sputter under her rule with growth rate falling to 2.6 per cent in 2015, the slowest since 2012. Her decision to reach an agreement with the United States to deploy an advanced missile system to counter threats from North Korea was not popular domestically, and also increased tensions in the Korean Peninsula. Relations with China too steadily deteriorated under Ms. Park. South Korea needs a clear-headed leadership both to reboot the economy and to take strategic decisions with a long-term perspective. And given the bitterness and administrative paralysis of the past couple of months, it needs someone at the helm who is free of scandal and has popular support. Unfortunately, the impeachment has pushed South Korea into a protracted interregnum — the Constitutional Court can take up to six months to decide if Ms. Park has to go or whether her powers can be restored. Ms. Park could have avoided pushing the country into this period of uncertainty had she resigned before the parliamentary vote. But she chose to cling on, leaving lawmakers with no option but to trigger the impeachment process.

  • That cow conundrum

In a country where the cow is ubiquitous, either deified and included in the household as part of tradition by many people, bred and consumed for subsistence by others, or just left to live off trash and roam dusty city roads, the relationship between human being and cow is culturally multidimensional. Although the beef ban in parts of India has raised questions about the secular state, the bovine ballad that shall unfold isn’t just on consumption.

Pongal 2017, a month away, will witness lacklustre colour and joy owing to the review of the 2014 ban on Jallikattu, also known in parts of Tamil Nadu as eruthazhuvuthal or ‘embracing a bull’. The corruption of culture over time, written — or worse, rewritten — to the whims and fancies of the majoritarian many has led to its acknowledgement as a “sport”, as the initial practice of the ritual was in consideration of taming aggressive humped Bos indicus oxen (that animatedly conjure the image of flaring nostrils) as suitable, dominant males for breeding a healthy population of cows. The ritual, much like many others with humble origins in indigenous settings, gained cult status over the course of history, from being periodically mentioned in accounts and inscribed in sculptures. It managed to survive the 200 years of colonial chastisement in the subcontinent, much to the surprise of contemporary thinkers.

The controversial ban on this “cruel male entertainment” was enforced on ethical grounds by the Supreme Court of India in a landmark verdict, thanks to a lobby of animal welfare activists, and the Animal Welfare Board of India. The movement was spearheaded by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals-India through an intensive campaign and investigation, citing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.

The revocation of the ban came owing to significant resistance from pastoralists and activists of traditional practices in view of the anticipated damage to the agrarian economy. The loss of traditional cattle breeds has produced a conundrum in the dialogue between various actors, and extended to pugnacious debates between NGOs, local self-government bodies, the State government and New Delhi.

It is unfair, for a rational student of conservation science, to display a bias to gain a resolution. What first makes the mind aghast is the perceived danger of activists pitted against the other, in a classic case of one-upmanship.

Secondly, the arguments made in favour of or against the ban are equally legitimate, giving both parties a fair share of voice and free thought but share striking commonalities. They are rooted in the conscience of thinkers, in support of people, in the cultural fabric of society, and most importantly, in the interests of the animal itself.

Conservation governance

Herein comes to the fore the need for regulation — not prevention — and thence mutual cooperation for shared “benefits” in this dialogue, necessitating the horizontal division of conservation governance in India, for the inclusion of well-supported reason.

The ideologues of animal ethics essay their role well in arguing against the “torture” of bulls for the sake of tradition, in support of the greater good, accommodating, and involuntarily adding this topic into the kettle of the ethics-related (vegan) soup.

Link to tradition

The other line of support in favour of this form of traditional ecological knowledge seemingly argues for the pastoralists who have tamed (or embraced, as the transliteration dictates) and hence bred cows through the practice, preventing the loss of native breeds such as Kangeyam, Pulikulam, Umbalachery and Malai Maadu in Tamil Nadu.

The traditional keepers of livestock have evidently engaged in this form of conservation, resisting depredations by the western/corporate dairy industry. The earlier utterance of corruption is certainly the point that weakens the case — the practice at large has lost its rubric as an intimate affair, shifting from craft to consumerism, with the sole purpose of taming giving way to a messy affair of (reported) torture and cruelty, thus paving the way for PETA & Co.

Also in question is that artificial insemination and breeding technologies — which are in use among well-heeled agriculturalists — could be further popularised to kindle the sort of attachment to a given breed. However, India (and recently, the U.K. and the U.S.) knows the ramifications of emotional attachment to what is perceived as “culture” and “belonging”: the dangers of the currently trending rhetoric, “give my country(side) back”.

Throughout the history of indigenous people and local communities, the enforcement or mere presence of Western thought is regarded as neo-colonialism — in most cases, according to Thomas F. Thornton in Being and Place Among the Tlingit, it is blamed for deeming tradition with “mechanistic or estranged” views, disparaging the “intimate, enchanted union with the landscape”.

While the animal rights activists sympathise with cows and advocate ethics, in sync with the tone of ahimsa or non-violence that gripped the nation during its struggle for freedom, hasn’t folklore from the native Sangam literature indicated the presence of the system percolating from the Mullai tribes that embraced man-animal interaction for the “management” and “survival” of these species — terms that are commonplace in modern conservation policy? Sustainability should be tested through healthy scepticism; many yesteryear practices were regressive.

  • Venezuela demonetises 100-bolivar banknotes

Venezuela, mired in an economic crisis and facing the world’s highest inflation, will pull its largest bill, worth two U.S. cents on the black market, from circulation this week ahead of introducing new higher-value notes, President Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday.

The surprise move, announced by Mr. Maduro during an hours-long speech, is likely to worsen a cash crunch in Venezuela. Mr. Maduro said the 100-bolivar bill will be taken out of circulation on Wednesday and Venezuelans will have 10 days after that to exchange those notes at the central bank.

“I have decided to take out of circulation bills of 100 bolivars in the next 72 hours,” Mr. Maduro said. “We must keep beating the mafias.”

48% of all currency

Critics slammed the move, which Mr. Maduro said was needed to combat contraband of the bills at the volatile Colombia-Venezuela border, as economically nonsensical, adding there would be no way to swap all the 100-bolivar bills in circulation in the time the President has allotted.

Central bank data showed that in November, there were more than six billion 100-bolivar bills in circulation, 48 per cent of all bills and coins. Jose Guerra, a former director of Venezuela’s central bank and now an Opposition lawmaker, said on Twitter that to switch out 100 bolivar notes in such a short amount of time, the central bank “must have an equivalent amount in notes of greater denominations”, which he did not believe was possible.

Authorities on Thursday are due to start releasing six new notes and three new coins, the largest of which will be worth 20,000 bolivars, less than $5 on the streets. No official inflation data is available for 2016 though many economists see it in triple digits. Economic consultancy Ecoanalitica estimates annual inflation this year at more than 500 per cent.

The oil-producing nation’s bolivar currency has fallen 55 per cent against the U.S. dollar on the black market in the last month.

High inflation

Mr. Maduro previously has said that organised crime networks at the Colombia-Venezuela border buy up Venezuelan notes to in turn buy subsidised Venezuelan goods and sell them for vast profits in Colombia.

Paying a restaurant or supermarket bill without a debit or credit card can often require a backpack full of cash. However, getting cash in recent months has proven difficult, and the country’s credit-card machines have recently suffered problems, leaving many businesses asking customers to pay by bank transfer.

Strict currency controls introduced in 2003 in the country that had pegged the bolivar to the dollar, coupled with heavy reliance on oil, are seen as the root of the crisis by most economists.

  • India, Indonesia resolve to fight terror

India and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, on Monday decided to expand their defence and maritime security ties and resolved to deal with terrorism.

During the talks between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the two countries, among the very few fast-growing large economies, also decided to boost trade and investment in the areas of oil and gas, renewable energy, information technology and pharmaceuticals.

The issue of South China Sea figured prominently. In a veiled message to Beijing, both sides said the dispute must be resolved through peaceful means.

Two memoranda of understanding were signed to provide for cooperation in youth affairs and sports and standardisation.

A joint communiqué on combating illegal and unregulated fishing was also firmed up.

In his statement, Mr. Modi said the talks focussed on the full range of cooperation and both countries agreed to prioritise defence and security cooperation and intensify efforts to ensure the safety and security of the sea lanes.

“As the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia stands for democracy, diversity, pluralism, and social harmony. These are also our values. Our nations and societies have nurtured strong bonds of commerce and culture throughout our history,” said Mr. Modii.

Asked whether India raised the issue of its national Gurdeep Singh facing the death sentence in Indonesia on drug charges, officials did not give a direct reply, but said the matter was under the judicial process in that country.

A joint statement said the two leaders condemned terrorism in all forms, saying there must be “zero tolerance” of acts of terror. It said all states must deal with transnational terrorism emanating from their territory through effective criminal justice response. “Both leaders discussed the threat from global terrorism and other transnational crimes and resolved to significantly enhance bilateral cooperation in combating terrorism, terror-financing, money-laundering, arms-smuggling, trafficking in human beings and cybercrime,” it said.

Mr. Modi and Mr. Widodo called upon all countries to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1267 (banning militant groups and their leaders) and other resolutions designating terrorist entities. This is seen as an apparent reference to China blocking India’s move to get Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar designated as a global terrorist.

In what is seen as a message to Pakistan, the two leaders also asked all nations to work towards eliminating terrorist safe havens and infrastructure, disrupting terror networks and their financing channels and stopping cross-border terrorism.

Underscoring the need to improve connectivity and encourage people-to-people contacts, the two leaders welcomed the Indonesian airline Garuda starting direct flights from Jakarta to Mumbai.

Referring to the South China Sea dispute, in which Indonesia is a party, the two leaders called for resolving the issue through peaceful means and in accordance with the universally recognised principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). “…they urged all parties to resolve disputes through peaceful means, without resorting to threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and avoid unilateral actions that raise tensions,” the statement said.

Both leaders reiterated support for reforms to the U.N. and its principal organs, including the Security Council, with a view to making the the global body more democratic, transparent and efficient.

On boosting defence ties, the two leaders wanted early convening of the Defence Ministers’ Dialogue and the Joint Defence Cooperation Committee (JDCC) meetings to upgrade the agreement on defence to a bilateral defence cooperation agreement. Pointing to the successful completion of the talks between the Staff of the Armies and Navies, they agreed to hold the Air Force Staff talks at an early date. “They also tasked the two defence ministers with exploring collaboration between defence industries for joint production of equipment with technology transfer, technical assistance, and capacity-building,” the statement said.

  • Turkey’s derailed war on terror

Turkey is facing a multi-dimensional security crisis. Its forces are deployed on two battlefronts — in the southeast, where most of the country’s 15 million Kurds live, to fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); and in Syria to face off threats from the Islamic State (IS) as well as Kurdish rebels. But these operations have hardly helped the country secure its cities from terror attacks, as seen in Saturday’s blasts in Istanbul that killed 44 people, mostly police officers. The attack has been claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a splinter group of the PKK, which said they were taking revenge for the ongoing military operation in the southeast and the continuing imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader. The unrelenting terror attacks over the past few years show that something is wrong with law enforcement and security arrangements in Turkey, a country otherwise known for functional institutions and a tough security regime, or a deep state. Even at the height of the civil war with the PKK, violence was largely confined to the southeast. So what went wrong for Ankara? Part of the problem was the reckless handling of foreign policy and internal security by the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The IS grew in strength under the watch of the Erdogan government which, driven by its hostility towards the Syrian regime, looked away as its border was being used by the jihadists. By the time Turkey started focussing on the IS, it was too late. It could still have launched a coordinated, focussed campaign against the IS. Instead, the government abandoned a peace process initiated with the PKK and opened another front.

Over the past year, the Turkish security forces have turned several cities in the southeast such as Diyarbakir into battle zones. This exposes Ankara’s security dilemma: whatever it does to defeat the Kurdish militancy is deepening the crisis further. Even the ties between the TAK and the PKK are in dispute. Though the TAK calls Mr. Ocalan its leader, it has severed organisational ties with the PKK saying the latter’s “passive struggle methods” are not acceptable. But Ankara is going after every Kurdish organisation whenever the TAK carries out an attack, mostly on security personnel. In recent months, many Kurdish politicians, including Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the largest Kurdish political party, the People’s Democratic Party, were arrested. There is a dangerous pattern in Turkey’s approach towards these security challenges. On the one side it is complacent in the fight against the IS, perhaps because of its geopolitical calculations; on the other, it is using collective punishment tactics to deal with the Kurdish militancy. The current security situation will vouch for this policy’s failure.

  • Murder rate declining in India

What you are about to read might make you feel safer. Official data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that the murder rate in India has been steadily declining over the past two decades.

The murder rate (murders per lakh population) for 64 years (from 1952 to 2015) from the NCRB were compiled by the Clio Infra Project — a project which has collected worldwide data on social, economic, and institutional indicators — and The Hindu . Data show that the rate has declined from 4.6 in 1992, the peak year of violence (in terms of murder rate) to 2.6 in 2015. After a steady rise from 2.7 in 1952 to the highest rate witnessed in the early nineties — with the rate staying between three to four murders per lakh population in the eighties — we are back to low figures.

Among mega cities, Patna turns out to be the least safe, having a murder rate of 11.3 — four times that of the national average in 2015. Meerut, Ludhiana, Faridabad and Agra come next. Kolkata, Kochi and Mumbai happen to be the safest, all having a rate of less than one murder per lakh population.

However, the NCRB numbers are based on FIRs alone. Crimes for which FIRs are not registered are not accounted for in the official data. But unlike other crimes, data for murders are understood to be closer to reality as there is little incentive and possibility in under-reporting murder cases. Further, as compared with other crimes, murders are is less likely to pass unnoticed. A comparison with data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which pegs the Indian murder rate higher than that of the NCRB, after adjusting it for various factors, corroborates the Clio- The Hindu findings. The broader trend remains the same — the murder rate has fallen from 4.3 in 1995 to 3.3 in 2013.

Absolute numbers, however, are still high — 32,127 murders were recorded in 2015, which means 88 people were killed every day.

In fact, murders in 2015 alone were almost similar in number to terrorism-related fatalities in India over the last two decades. As per data from South Asia Terrorism Portal — which compiles figures from news reports and is likely to be an underestimate — 34,691 civilians and security men were killed in terror attacks in India from 1994 to 2016.

The incidents of murder have not changed much. Between 2006 and 2015, the figure was between 32,000 and 35,000. In the decade before, 1996-2005, recorded murder incidents were between 32,000 and 38,000. As per NCRB data from 1952-2015, 1992 saw the maximum number of deaths in one calendar year—40,105.

Further, data from UNODC reveals that the murder rate for India in 2012 (3.5) was almost half compared to the world average (6.2). Among 209 countries for which comparable data was available, India ranked 133 (higher rank means higher murder rate).

In 2015, the major motive of murder was ‘Personal vendetta or enmity’ (4,758 cases), accounting for 14.8 per cent of the total murder cases followed by ‘property dispute’ with 3,540 cases (11.0 per cent).

  • Party time for Hollywood as legend Kirk Douglas turns 100

Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas celebrated his 100th birthday with a party that was attended by family and some of the biggest names in the industry.

Best known for his classic films like SpartacusLust for Life and Paths of Glory, the actor celebrated the milestone age with wife Anne, son Michael Douglas, daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Friday, reported People magazine.

Michael paid tribute to his parents. “He is always asking about what kind of father he was. Dad, you are an amazing, amazing father.” Anne called Kirk her “friend” and “lover”. The party was attended by Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, along with Steven Spielberg, Arthur Cohn and Jeff Kanew — who directed Kirk in the film Tough Guys.

Spielberg said he watched Kirk’s films to get inspired. “I’ve worked with the best of them. But, you’re the only movie star I’ve ever met,” the director said.

  • Kolkata-Mizoram trade route to open via Myanmar

A deep water port built in Myanmar’s Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal by India is ready to be commissioned. An inauguration ceremony for this strategically important facility is expected to take place next month, according to Vikram Misri, the Indian envoy to Myanmar.

The Indian achievement pips to the post a Chinese endeavour to create a deep-sea berthing infrastructure and an SEZ further down the Rakhine coast at Kyaukphyu. The two investments are inevitably being seen as the Asian competitors attempting to expand their spheres of naval influence in the Indian ocean region as in the case of Gwadar in Pakistan and Chabahar in Iran being built by China and India, respectively.

Sittwe is the capital of Rakhine State (which has been in the news for the plight of Rohingya Muslims) in south-western Myanmar. It is located at the mouth of the Kaladan river, which flows into Mizoram in north-eastern India.

Construction of the sea port is the first phase of an integrated $500-million project being funded by a long-term interest-free loan provided by India. “Dredging of the river and inland water terminals are included in the plan,” Ambassador Misri said.

India has for years sought transit access through Bangladesh to ship goods to the landlocked north-eastern States. At present, the only route to this region from the rest of India is a rather circuitous one through a narrow strip of Indian territory nicknamed the Chicken’s Neck in West Bengal, sandwiched between Bhutan and Bangladesh.

“The strategic advantage would be that it would significantly lower the cost and distance of movement from Kolkata to Mizoram and beyond,” Mr. Misri said. Once shipments arrive at Sittwe, they will be transferred to smaller freight carriers which would sail upstream into Mizoram.

Geopolitical theatre

The link was conceived by the Manmohan Singh government and work began in 2010. As with other Indian infrastructure ventures in Myanmar, though, the completion target of 2013 was missed.

Nevertheless, the port when unveiled will serve to make a statement in a country long dominated by China, but seen by the Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U, author of the book Where China Meets India, as a geopolitical theatre of competition between New Delhi and Beijing.

Notwithstanding its landslide victory in elections 13 months ago, the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy is constitutionally obliged to co-habit in government with the powerful armed forces, who ruled the nation for 54 years. But both sides are agreed on reducing their dependence on China.

Last month, Japan stepped forward with a $7.7 billion aid over the next five years, making it the biggest donor (India’s assistance under different categories has been to the tune of $1.75 billion). But a senior western diplomat expressed surprise that India didn’t move more aggressively to take advantage of Ms. Suu Kyi taking over the reins.

While foreign ministers from all continents queued up to call on Ms. Suu Kyi after she was appointed State Counsellor in early April, the Indian External Affairs Minister (admittedly hampered by illness) did not visit Myanmar until August.

Mr. Misri is, however, optimistic about a leap forward in the next two-three years. The two countries have exchanged drafts of proposed pacts to open several passport and customs control points on the India-Myanmar border to encourage vehicular traffic, with an aim of flagging them off within six months.

Also on the anvil are 10 border haat points to facilitate local economic activity between Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Myanmar.

Meanwhile, Myanmar Airways International has just supplemented Air India’s twice weekly service between Yangon and Kolkata to double the direct flights between the two cities.

  • India offers tsunami alert system to SCS countries

As part of a soft-diplomacy effort, India is looking to have South China Sea countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines use the tsunami early warning-system developed by India. China, too has been approached, said a senior official in the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), but a deal is unlikely yet.

Since a deadly tsunami struck Tamil Nadu in 2004, India has put in place its own tsunami-alert system over the years that immediately warns concerned authorities in India of any large earthquake in the Indian Ocean and the threat it poses.

However, because of limited data on the historical occurrence of tsunamis, scientists at the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) have developed a technique that uses mathematical modelling to estimate if an earthquake, in India’s oceanic neighbourhood, will result in a tsunami.

The system is also designed to send out a series of graded warnings to warn officials of danger. “There are also sensors lodged on the ocean floor that will measure actual earthquake signals and based on that we can revise our warnings,” said Satheesh Shenoi, Director, INCOIS, “we’ve expanded our modelling capabilities to include countries in the South China sea and so it can be useful to them too.”

India isn’t expecting a commercial deal to result but “fame and leadership” from the effort. “This could help with broader government efforts,” said Mr. Shenoi. The South China sea is a controversial region with China exerting territorial rights over a large part. Some of these territorial claims have been challenged by Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

India so far has only said that all countries must abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which governs how countries must respect international waters and the ocean boundaries of countries. China too is a signatory to this convention.

Another official in the MoES told The Hindu that talks were held with China last year to use India’s early warning system.

“A cooperation agreement was signed last year but it hasn’t moved much,” he added. India already provides earthquake and tsunami-warning alerts to several countries in the Indian Ocean neighbourhood, as do Australia and Japan.

  • ‘More liberal than all other Asian Americans’

Indian Americans, numbering over three million, make up about 1 per cent of the American population. The Other One Percent: Indians in America (Oxford University Press) is arguably the first comprehensive and data-driven account of the “selection, assimilation, and entrepreneurship” of Indians in America. Authors Sanjoy Chakravorty and Devesh Kapur explain the contours of the study, the political and social attitudes of Indian Americans and what their future could be in their host country. Kapur spoke first and Chakravorty supplemented the responses with written inputs. Kapur is Director, Centre for the Advanced Study of India at University of Pennsylvania, and Chakravorty is Professor of Geography at Temple University. The third co-author, Nirvikar Singh, is Professor of Economics at University of California, Santa Cruz.

Why is the book titled the ‘Other’ One Percent?

It’s a question we get asked quite often by our colleagues in India. In a way it is a play on a big trope in American popular culture, which is inequality. There are books and documentaries and social movements that refer to it. It is a play on that title. At one level it is a factual thing, because Indian Americans are one per cent of the total population of America. The other point is that, if you take all Indians anywhere in the world, those in America are richest in that population. This it not to be taken literally, but in a figurative sense. They are the tail end of the income distribution of global Indians. They are the richest. To top it all, they are also the most well-to-do immigrant or ethnic group in America.

Do they have an identity as Indians in America? Or are they Telugus and Tamils, Brahmin and Dalit in America?

Identity is contextual. If you look at surveys and see how they identify themselves, one thing that they rarely do is to call themselves South Asians. Very few Hispanics also identify themselves as such. Country of origin is the most used self-identification. So, a majority of Indian Americans identify themselves as Indians in such surveys. Of course, given that India is a heterogeneous country, you could expect Indian Americans to be heterogeneous. Till the 1990s, if you take Hindi out, Gujarati and Punjabi speakers were the biggest groups. But Telugu speakers are the largest community after Hindi speakers now, and there has also been a rapid growth of Tamil speakers. These groups have the Maratha Sangham, Telugu Association, etc. So that is about a cultural identity, it is not a political identity. On a day-to-day basis, as far as the people they associate with and the food they eat and the culture they consume are concerned, it is very likely that these cultural identities dominate, at least in the first generation. It is also possible to maintain these, to some extent, because our language communities tend to live in separate places — Gujaratis in New Jersey and Illinois, Punjabis in California and New York. But when it comes to a question of India, these communities tend to coalesce around the notion of India. Like it happened during the nuclear deal, they would call the Senators, the Governor, etc. Indians are very good at holding multiple identities.

But your identity is not entirely decided by who you think you are; it is also about who others think you are. For most Americans you are Indian. It is said that Italian as a national identity emerged in the U.S. Italians came here as Sicilians or Venetians. Their regional identity was strong. But here it changed. They became Italian because everyone said so and treated them as Italians. Very similar processes are at work for Indians too. And it has a feedback effect — one begins to see oneself through the eyes of others.

Talking of context, religion is another identity that a majority of Indians might share in America. Is that true?

There is no precise way to gauge that because of the fact that the U.S. census has not asked questions about religious identity from around 1950. Other surveys, such as some by Pew [Research Center], have done so, but not the census. But you can make some reasonable statements about the likelihood. To the extent that higher education has been very important as a route for Indians to come to the U.S., the social groups that are highly represented in higher education in India are more likely to have arrived in the U.S. Some religious and social groups are under-represented in India while some others are over-represented. Upper castes, Christians, Jains are over-represented relative to their share in the population while Muslims and many caste groups are under-represented.

So it is safe to assume that the significant majority of Indians are Hindu upper castes?

Yes. Because the upper castes had better access to higher education.

This election season had a particular context, one that demanded all Americans to think about their identity. A group of Indians defined themselves as Hindus against Islamist terrorism and decided to support Donald Trump. How appealing was that to Indian Americans in voting?

A distinct minority only may have been swayed by it. Of all Asian Americans, Indian Americans were the least likely to support Trump. If you compare with Chinese Americans or Vietnamese Americans, the degree of dislike for Trump was the highest among Indian Americans. There was a small group that strongly liked him, but the intensity of dislike was much higher among the rest. In fact, there is a new survey-based report out recently that says [Hillary] Clinton beat Trump 75-to-19 per cent among Asian Americans — the widest ever margin in a presidential election. We don’t have the precise data on Indian Americans yet, but it is very possible that they supported Clinton by margins similar to [Barack] Obama, which was over 80 per cent.

It looks like questions of identity will continue to dominate American politics and life for some time to come. Would Indian Americans be tempted to accept the notion that this is a Christian country at war with Islam?

Of Asian Americans, Indians were the least likely to say that Muslims should not enter this country. Even on an issue such as affirmative action, even though we expected the upper caste-dominated Indian community to be against it, that was not the case. We think that there are a lot of misconceptions about Indian Americans. Partly these misconceptions, as it was the case with Indians for Trump, are due to the fact that the squeaking wheel gets the grease. The guy who screams and shouts. Everyone wanted to know about Hindus for Trump while nobody wanted to know about the Indians voting for Democrats. Everyone gets the eyeballs with the oddball story. The ordinary person’s viewpoints are rarely taken into account.

The 1 per cent of the population now also has 1 per cent representation in the U.S. Congress, with five Indian American members and the first Senator. Do you think the Indian American community’s influence in the country’s politics will continue to grow?

Moderately, for sure, maybe more. By and large, if you look at the trends, there are far fewer Indian American Republicans than you would have expected and the main reason for that is religion. The only Indian American Republicans of consequence are the ones who either converted to Christianity or were already Christians. There is no way you can stand for governor in a southern American state and win if you are not a Christian. That essentially means that one party becomes your only avenue. That itself is a limiting factor. And race, of course, and the fact that the Republican party is increasingly identified with anti-immigrant positions.

Moreover, Indian Americans are concentrated in some locations: California and the north-east. These are already Democratic States. So if you are heavily Democrat-oriented in a Democratic State, the marginal impact is limited. So, as voters their impact is modest. Because they are articulate and well-educated, they have more influence in staffing in the U.S. Congress and in a whole range of offices in Washington. Electoral office, at least in the foreseeable future, as long as this polarisation continues, may have some natural limits. But there are reasons to think that their political impact may increase, and that is mainly because large cohorts of the second generation, the children of Indian immigrants are beginning to come of age. The second generation is very, very young. Five out of six are less than 25 years old. When these youngsters begin to become politically active, they will do so in an American framework, unlike many Indian-born immigrants who still connect more strongly to politics in India. It is quite possible that we will see more Indian American names and faces in mainstream American politics relatively soon, if not immediately.

What is the Indian Americans’ conception of India?

The media in Delhi and the intellectuals in general are obsessed with the notion that Indian Americans are big supporters of Hindutva. There is a practical question here. Now, one of the largest Indian American groups is Telugu. What is the kind of support for the BJP in Andhra Pradesh? Very little. The BJP is pretty weak in the entire south. The largest numbers of Indians coming now are coming from south India. So we cannot make that correlation easily. Is there a segment that is a strong supporter of the BJP? Yes. Is it a majority view? Unequivocally no. Is there a larger group that supports this particular Prime Minister? Yes. It would be very simplistic to confuse the support for an individual with support for an ideology. Unfortunately we tend to make these equations. It is possible that if the BJP had a leader who did not have the charisma and media management ability than this particular Prime Minister has, it would have only a fraction of the support it currently has. Therefore, we should not mistake the support for an individual for the support for a deeper ideology necessarily. The second generation, of course, does not have much interest in Indian politics.

What does the book say about the social attitudes of Indian Americans?

On almost all issues they are more liberal than all other Asian Americans (compared to, say, Chinese Americans or Vietnamese Americans) and definitely more liberal than the Indians in India. India is a socially conservative place. One area in which Indian Americans are less liberal in comparison with other Asian Americans is in their attitude towards gays. It is below the average. But on all other questions — affirmative action, giving a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, attitude towards Muslims — they are more liberal than other Asians. One thing that stands out, which we think can be called a part of social attitudes, is that they have the lowest rate of divorce. That means they tend to have two incomes per family, and children grow up in two parent households. What it does is, it gives you a household income advantage, which means that your children get better education, which gives you a further advantage that your life’s chances are better. So you find a peculiar link between a social conservative trait and an economic advantage.

What is their attitude on religion?

In this book we don’t dwell much on this question because the U.S. census does not have data on that. Broadly speaking, anecdotally, Sikhs are very attached to their gurudwaras and Indian Muslims go to the mosques where other South Asians go, and not where Middle Eastern Muslims go.

Do they become more religious being here?

There is no evidence to suggest that. You will have to really differentiate that by age and by the cohort of when you came. If you have come at an early stage, when are you are the only person from India around, then the pressure is more to hold on to your culture. When you come in the 2000s, being Indian American is not exotic and you are not the only one around, then it is very light to carry that identity. Older cohorts tended to be more religious, but that may be true in India too and elsewhere, in America and Europe. That is not part of the book, only a conjecture. We suspect is it not greatly different from India. If you ask a 20-year-old IT engineer in Hyderabad, his view will be vastly different from his parents.

What is the key point about Indian Americans that you think stands out in this book?

There are several points we have already mentioned, but an important one we haven’t. That is, the extent of the brain drain from India. If you take the areas of higher education, despite all the rhetorical flourishes about engaging the diaspora, it is actually severely underleveraged. There are 95,000 Indians with PhDs in the U.S. India produces around 25,000 PhDs every year. Assuming that 10 per cent of that is of the quality that is produced here, we are talking about 2,500 annually. So, in some ways, India has gifted the U.S. half a century worth of high-quality human capital. Yet, the whole mindset in India, all the rules and regulations, ensures that instead of attracting as many of them back, keep them away. In the U.S., even with an Indian passport you can work in defence research. Can you imagine this happening in India? All political parties in Indian are complicit. None of them has the vision to leverage the potential of the diaspora.

The U.S. has much higher levels of human capital than India. Therefore, when you have less of a desirable asset, India should go out of its way to attract that asset, but the opposite is happening. While the U.S. continues to get the best talent from anywhere, in India we treat outsiders as threats even though our need is higher. It is the basic openness that we lack. Would the DRDO [Defence Research and Development Organisation] allow someone with an American passport to work with it? The cost of not being open is so high, but we are more worried about the potential risks involved in being open.

Do you think the U.S. system of attracting the best and the brightest will come under strain under Trump?

Some of them will continue. For instance, those who come for research under STEM. Whereas the IT workers who come through Indian firms as opposed to those hired by American companies may face new challenges. The whole business model of Indian companies may come under pressure. By the way, some of this was going to happen anyway, because of artificial intelligence and other technological advancements. But predicting the future is a risky game, especially when there is a new President who takes pride in being unpredictable. There are many interests at work here —Wall Street, the innovation economy, new technologies, the declining economy of deindustrialisation, race, identity — and one suspects that all of them will have wins and losses in the new regime.

  • In rural health care, few good options

Lack of access to public health care is not the only reason why quacks — informal private health-care providers without any formal medical education — continue to flourish in rural India. Most private providers, the bulk of whom lack formal medical qualifications, “exerted significantly higher effort than public providers” and “recommend correct treatments equally often.”

These are the findings of an audit conducted in rural Madhya Pradesh, and published in the American Economic Review (December 2016).

Metrics and findings

For the study, Standardised Patients (SP) or highly trained “fake patients”, were coached to accurately present symptoms like “normal patients” for three different conditions: unstable angina, asthma, and dysentery in a child. They made 1,100 unannounced visits to a representative sample of public and private health facilities in rural Madhya Pradesh to collect data on various metrics. Four major findings were reported.

First, private providers — 70 per cent of whom didn’t have any formal training — spent 1.5 minutes more with patients when compared to public providers. Further, while public providers completed around 15.3 per cent of the checklist which comprised questions and examinations which are considered essential for reaching a correct diagnosis, private counterparts completed 22.30 per cent of the list (7.4 percentage points more), which indicated a higher effort. Note that 30 per cent of the private providers did have formal training. Of the rest who were unqualified and who would be classified as quacks as per norms of the Medical Council of India, a majority reported having received some training, the most common form being an assistant in another doctor’s practice.

Second, both were equally likely to pronounce a correct diagnosis. Data show that 26 per cent of public providers gave a diagnosis, of which 15 per cent was correct. In the private sector, 43 per cent gave a diagnosis of which 13.5 per cent was correct.

The third finding raises concerns: doctors who serve in public facilities as well as in their private clinics, perform better in the latter. The study found that the “same doctors spent more time with SPs, completed more items on the checklist, and were also more likely to offer a correct treatment in their private practices, relative to their public practices”.

Patient cost

Fourth, the per-patient cost of the public health-care system was found to be at least four times when compared to a private system. According to estimates by the study’s authors, the cost per patient interaction in the public sector is around Rs.240 — billed not to the patient but to the exchequer — whereas the per consultation fee was Rs.51 in the private sector. However, as the findings indicate, the higher cost does not translate into better outcomes.

These results may not generalise beyond primary care to tertiary care or for more critical illnesses, but it is still quite crucial as primary care serves as the first step in identifying the need to go to a hospital. For instance, in the case of angina — one of the three conditions for which SPs were coached — it is difficult for patients to know by themselves, without proper medical advice, if there was a need to go to the hospital.

The results suggest that the quality of the public system of health-care delivery is constrained by a lack of enforcement of administrative accountability and inadequate incentives. For instance, doctors are often reported to be missing from the primary health-care centres. These limitations should be taken into consideration as the policy debate focuses on increasing spending and improving access to publicly provided health care. Plus, while there is a resistance to train and provide legitimacy to unqualified private providers, the study notes that “the marginal returns to better training and credentialing may be higher for private health-care providers who have stronger incentives for exerting effort.”

  • From school student to child labour

It has been three years since Ajay (14) was inside a classroom. Like other school-going children of his age he has a strict daily routine. He leaves his home in Krishna Colony, T-Camp in Delhi’s Uttam Nagar, at a quarter to ten every morning. He works at a lemon soda stall till eight in the evening. For his day’s labours, he gets paid Rs.150.

“I give whatever I earn to my mother,” Ajay says. His mother Rekha is a domestic worker. His father Mahesh is a construction worker. The family hails from a village near Sambhal in Uttar Pradesh’s Muradabad zilla. “I studied in a government school in my village until Class V,” recalls Ajay. “But the teacher beat me a lot and I didn’t want to go to school anymore.”

His family moved to Delhi three years ago. With that shift ended Ajay’s schooling. “No government school in Delhi would take me,” he says. And his family, too, was not inclined to stretch itself over his schooling.

Ajay is the oldest of six siblings. “Our household cannot run without at least two people working,” Ajay says. When his mother fell ill and could not go to work for some months, it was decided that he must start working, sealing his transition from school student to child labour.

Active involvement of the community, as mandated by the RTE Act, in auditing access to primary education could prevent cases like Ajay from recurring, point out RTE activists.

The case of Raju Mandal (10), a resident of Surat Nagar-II in Gurgaon, illustrates how migration can impact educational prospects. Raju was a student of Class III in a government school. In 2014, his father Dhananjay Mandal, a daily wager, took his family back to their native village in Malda for two months. When they came back to Gurgaon, the school refused to take Raju back. “His name was struck off the rolls,” says Dhananjay.

“Migrant workers go back to the village during harvest time, or when there is work in another site, or for some family event. They cannot afford to rent a place for their family when they are not in the city. So the entire family moves. Then the child’s schooling takes a hit,” says Dalip Singh of Grameen Vikas Samiti, who runs an informal learning centre. Raju is one of his students.

Clearly, in an age of mass (and circular) migration of labour, the provision of free hostel facilities for children of migrant workers would go a long way in bringing down drop-out rates.

Sabir Ali’s case is more complicated. “The school sent me home because I took too many holidays,” says the 15-year-old, who dropped out in 2013 from a Sarvodaya Bal Vidyalaya when he was in class VI.

What made him take so many holidays? “I used to keep Roza (fasting) from the morning. My classes were in the afternoon shift, and I found it tough to concentrate. So I would miss school.” Sabir says he asked his parents to transfer him to a morning shift school but they could not arrange it.

One day when Sabir went to school after missing nine consecutive days, his teacher sent him to meet the principal. The principal gave him some Hindi words to memorise and come back the next day for a test. Only if he passed would he be taken back. “When my father heard this, he said there was no way I could crack this test. He advised me to forget school and start working.” Sabir now works in a food stall selling kachoris. He makes Rs.150 a day.

If Sabir or his parents had received the right inputs and support, it is possible that he might still be in school. “I did not know enough when I missed school,” says the teenager, admitting that he feels a sense of loss when he hears his friend and former classmate talk feverishly about an impending exam. “If I get a chance to study again, I would put my heart into it,” he says, before hurrying off. He is needed at the kachori stall.

  • ‘Welcome winds from across border, retain only fragrance’

Hearing the appeal of international publishing houses, whose lawyers cited foreign laws and statutes to emphasise their case against photocopy, the High Court on Friday cautioned against interpreting and implementing offshore laws in Indian context.

“Whilst it is true that winds from across the border should be welcome in a country, but care has to be taken to retain the fragrance thereof and filter out the remainder. Reference to foreign case law while interpreting a municipal statute has to be done with care and caution. Language used in a statute covering a field of law in different municipal jurisdictions may be different and we caution ourselves that some minor points of details here and there and difference in the language here and there may assume importance,” the Bench of Justices Pradeep Nandrajog and Yogesh Khanna observed.

The debate before the Division Bench focused on the decisions rendered by the courts in United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.

The Bench while deciding the appeal emphasised on equitable access to education and suggested development of “knowledge modules”, like the course packs in the instant case.

‘Education is foundation’

“Education alone is the foundation on which a progressive and prosperous society can be built. Teaching is an essential part of education, at least in the formative years, and perhaps till post-graduate level.

“It is thus necessary, by whatever nomenclature we may call them, the development of knowledge modules, having the right content, to take care of the needs of the learner. We may loosely call them textbooks. We may loosely call them guide books. We may loosely call them reference books. We may loosely call them course packs. So fundamental is education to a society – it warrants the promotion of equitable access to knowledge to all segments, irrespective of their caste, creed and financial position. Of course, the more indigent the learner, the greater the responsibility to ensure equitable access.”

Reproduction or publication?

The Division Bench corrected the reasoning adopted by the single judge order in the case as it noted, “Publication need not be for the benefit of or available to or meant for reading by all the members of the community. A targeted audience would also be a public as rightly urged by the learned counsel for the appellants. But, a publication would have the element of profit, which would be missing in the case of reproduction of a work by a teacher to be used in the course of instruction. That apart, if reproduction includes the plural, it cannot be held that making of multiple copies would be impermissible. It happens in law that footprints of one concept fall in the territory of the other, but that does not mean that the former should be restricted.”

 

 

  • Is photocopying a blessing for students or violation?

Ask Dharam Pal Singh, the owner of Delhi University’s Rameshwari Photocopy Service, about the Delhi High Court’s Friday judgment and he says that he has been doing a service to students by making “course packs” available over the years.

Expensive books

The suggested reading list that is put out for every course by Delhi University, he says, draws from a variety of expensive publications. In fact, in some cases even libraries do not have copies of the books. According to Mr. Singh, only a few chapters are required from every book because of which students find it a waste to buy a book for just a few pages.

The Association of Students For Equitable Access to Knowledge (ASEAK), which was formed in protest against the case on Rameshwari Photocopy Service, welcomed the judgment.

Injunction order

The publishers (Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and Taylor and Francis Group) had asked for their case to be restored and for an order of injunction to be passed stopping the production of course packs.

According to the ASEAK, in the context of the Indian Copyright Act, the judgment is a fair, balanced determination of the rights of copyright owners and users.

  • Dylan skips Nobel event, but sends warm words

For Bob Dylan, the nagging question of whether his songs qualify as literature was settled for good on Saturday at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm — and his presence was not required to make the case.

As the always-slippery folk singer forewarned, he was not there to receive the 2016 prize in literature, but he sent a warm, humble statement accepting the honour, which was read by Azita Raji, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden, at an evening banquet in Stockholm.

Invoking William Shakespeare, whom Dylan imagined to have been too consumed with practical matters — “How should this be staged?” “Where am I going to get a human skull?” — to bother with whether what he was doing was literature.

Dylan wrote: “I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavours and dealing with all aspects of life’s mundane matters. ‘Who are the best musicians for these songs?’ ‘Am I recording in the right studio?’ ‘Is this song in the right key?’ Some things never change, even in 400 years.

“Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, ‘Are my songs literature?’” Dylan (75) concluded. “So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.”

Earlier in the day, the Swedish Academy defended its nontraditional selection of a musician — and a seemingly uninterested one, at that — for the literary honour. (In his prepared remarks, Dylan would acknowledge his own inscrutable silence for two weeks after the prize was announced in October: “I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it.”)

‘Among Greek bards’

In a speech in front of about 1,500 guests, including the Swedish royal family, Horace Engdahl, a member of the Nobel Committee, called Dylan “a singer worthy of a place beside the Greek bards, beside Ovid, beside the Romantic visionaries, beside the kings and queens of the blues, beside the forgotten masters of brilliant standards. If people in the literary world groan,” Mr. Engdahl added, “one must remind them that the gods don’t write, they dance and they sing.”

Mr. Engdahl’s speech was followed by a fittingly imperfect Patti Smith, who delivered an estimable Dylan impression on his 1963 song, A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall, but also proved his inimitable nature, flubbing a lyric and halting the performance midway through. “I’m sorry,” she said before resuming. “I’m so nervous.” Still, some in the audience could be seen crying as she finished the song accompanied by a string section.

At the same time, Dylan, who cited only “pre-existing commitments” when he finally declined the Nobel invitation, was being spoken about in near-mythical terms outside of Stockholm, as well.

 

 

  • ‘Nanoceramic’ material for safer, cheaper nuclear reactors

Scientists, including one of Indian origin, have created a nanoceramic material, which may be used in next-generation nuclear reactors that will operate at higher temperatures and radiation fields, producing energy more efficiently and economically.

Tougher under radiation

The material can not only withstand the harsh effects of radiation, but also becomes tougher under radiation, researchers said.

Traditionally, water has been used as the primary coolant in reactors, absorbing the heat released from fission reactions.

Though water poses fewer risks of corrosion damage to materials, there are also limits to the temperatures up to which water-cooled reactors can operate — and in advanced reactors, increasing their temperature is the best way to increase energy production.

New coolants, such as liquid metals like sodium and lead, are effective at much higher temperatures, but also are much more corrosive to the materials from which a nuclear reactor is made. “There is a preferred use of metallic materials for structural components, but many of these materials cannot withstand high-temperature corrosion in advanced reactors,” said Kumar Sridharan, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the U.S.

 

  • Longest tunnel wide open for regular service

Regular rail service through the world’s longest tunnel began on Sunday, carrying passengers deep under the Swiss Alps from Zurich to Lugano.

The famed Gotthard Base Tunnel (GBT) had a ceremonial opening in June, attracting European leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande for its maiden ride.

The Swiss national rail service (SBB) had announced that Sunday would mark the start of normal commercial traffic through the 57-kilometre GBT, which took 17 years to build, at a cost of over 12 billion Swiss francs ($11.8 billion).

The Swiss news agency ATS reported that the first regular passenger train to use the GBT pulled out of Zurich at 6:09 am local time (0509 GMT) and arrived in Lugano at 8:17 am, with the tunnel passage shaving a full 30 minutes off the previous travel time for the same route.

It’s Christmas: Rail chief

“It’s Christmas,” SBB chief Andreas Meyer was quoted as saying by ATS after the journey was over.

The ambitious GBT project has won praise across Europe for its pioneering efforts to improve connectivity from Rotterdam to the Adriatic. The Swiss funded tunnel was largely made possible by technical advances in tunnel-boring machines, which replaced the costly and dangerous blast-and-drill method.

  • India has just what hyperloop needs

When Bibop Gresta, chairman and co-founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, Inc. (HTT) met Union minister of road transport and highways Nitin Gadkari in the Silicon Valley, Mr. Gadkari mistook him for Tesla Motors Inc.’s founder Elon Musk. Mr. Gresta clarified his identity and now his California-based start-up is in talks with the transport ministry to build the hyperloop transportation system in India. HTT’s system is based on the hyperloop concept, which was envisioned by Elon Musk. It is a new mode of passenger transportation that pushes a pod-like vehicle through a near-vacuum tube at airline speeds. According to Mr. Gresta, India needed such system. He has experienced the country’s transportation problem first-hand when he landed in Bengaluru this month and had to travel by car from the airport. “Oh my God, it was crazy, I took forever. You guys drive like there is no tomorrow,” he said. Edited excerpts.

Why do you want to set up the hyperloop system in India?

India has amazing potentialities right now because it has the right density, the lack of infrastructure and the political willingness to change. This combination of factors could be disruptive in a country that we know would be leading the world in the next few decades. India has everything in terms of the resources and minds. It is a responsibility to embrace innovation because it is the only way to actually fix the problem.

Have you discussed it with the government?

I actually met Mr. Modi (the Prime Minister) in the Silicon Valley and Mr. Gadkari (Union minister of transport and highways). Mr. Gadkari demonstrated a big interest for hyperloop and he also said it publicly. We have had a proposal on his table for a couple of weeks. We had a very long commercial conversation with Mr. Gadkari. He said he wants to do it. He said that he is ready to give us land. So, we have to see if he wants to do it or not.

Considering infrastructure challenges, can it happen in India?

It needs to happen, this is the country that needs it more. How can you fix the problem? It is not building other roads. This system is broken in every possible way. The rails are not a viable way to fix the problem as you see it. They are too expensive and are not profitable and are subsidised by the state. We need a system that can be profitable which is efficient and fast and that is hyperloop and we are ready to build it.

We have read about such systems in science fiction books, how far is it from reality?

We have the technology. We are the only company that owns the trademark hyperloop in 20 countries, including India. We are the only company that has licensed technology tested by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. We have the vacuums made by a labelled company that is the inventor of the vacuum pumps. We have all the elements to build hyperloop. We are not inventing anything new. We are putting together technology that already exists. We are doing it in a very smart and efficient way. We can actually build it right now. There is criticism that you will never be able to build it right away. Well, I have bad news for these naysayers. Hyperloop can be built on top of existing infrastructure like rail, highway and can be built (along)side. For example a highway between Pune and Mumbai… Give us the land and we will build.

Globally over a million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes, can this system save lives?

You have to understand 80 percent of the fatalities are caused by human error. We are completely managed by computers and supervised by humans. Our system implements what we call ‘swarm intelligence’ like the ants or the bees. The ants are capable of forming a line and with antennas and pheromones, they are able to communicate almost at the speed of sound. We are using a similar system. The first capsule analyses the tube and communicates to the next one. It is not only capable of controlling the systems through sensors and the mothership but in the case of lost communications, the capsules are intelligent (enough) to react, slow down and stop. You are always able to stop the capsule and evacuate the people safely.

But don’t you think high-speed trains like in Japan and China make more sense?

You have to imagine, in our system, you don’t need an electrified truck on the ground like the high-speed rail that uses too much energy. It costs too much because you have to bring the system to superconductivity. The hyperloop is a very simple system. Imagine you have a capsule full of people and you put it inside a tube. You evacuate the tube from the air so there is no resistance.

Now you can move the capsule at the speed of sound with very less energy. We are using a combination of renewable energy to produce electricity with the solar panel, the wind and the capsule also generates electricity while moving.

Could you give the cost comparison?

We should talk about where you are building it. Are you building it in Switzerland with mountains, bridges and tunnels or you are building it in a desert? But on average you can talk about $40 million per kilometre compared to high-speed train which costs two times (as much) when we are lucky or six times when we are unlucky like in California.

Are you working with any partners in India on hyperloop technology?

We have 25 people working from India as part of our contribution programme. Besides our own employees, we also have a crowdsourcing approach. We have a community of almost 800 people. We have a programme called the hyperloop academy. We want to launch it in India to allow students to join our team and compete on developing and solving tasks related to the real hyperloop.

  • ‘Time to leave history of coal behind’

Strict emission standards, an enabling regulatory framework, and a high price on carbon are some of the key ways India can boost its natural gas sector, according to the International Gas Union, a non-profit organisation comprising natural gas majors from around the world.

“There is a role for the government in allowing the right regulatory regime to allow the construction of the pipelines that allow gas to be transported from where it is produced to where the markets are,” David Carroll, President of the International Gas Union (IGU) told The Hindu in an interview. “In addition, the regulation must also allow third-party access in the way one does with power lines or telecom lines to ensure that buyers, sellers and transporters can ensure that the product can move freely without undue barriers.”

The more than 140 members of IGU are associations and corporations of the gas industry representing over 95 per cent of the global gas market, and they work together to help countries like India move towards a higher share of natural gas in their energy mix.

“Another important area to work on is emission standards,” Menelaos Ydreos, Executive Director of Public Affairs at IGU added during the interview. “Be stricter on those so you have to innovate to meet those standards. If coal can innovate to meet them, then more power to them. To the extent that gas can innovate, more power to gas. But that way you are not picking a winner or loser. You are letting the market respond to the requirements. However, the most efficient instrument is to put a price on carbon.”

Coal Conundrum

India’s reliance on coal as a source of energy is normal for a developing economy, Mr Carroll said, but the need to balance economic growth with environmental concerns means that there are significant opportunities in the gas sector.

“Like much of the developing world, you have a reliance on coal,” Mr Carroll said. “Even well developed economies still have coal as a sizeable part of their portfolios, but it has diminished over time. These economies, it’s all they did, burn coal and wood. But it’s an evolution, societies tend to decarbonise as they progress.”

“But if you couple that challenge with tremendous economic growth, population growth, urbanisation and it creates challenges but also opportunities,” he added. “And it certainly creates an environment where a 6.5 per cent to 15 per cent jump is not only achievable but also desirable due to the economic benefits that gas can provide and also the environmental benefits.

Mr Carroll was referring to the Indian government’s commitment to increase the share of gas in the energy mix from the current 6.5 per cent to 15 per cent. The global average share of gas in the energy mix is 24 per cent.

“Domestic production used to meet domestic demand,” Mr Ydreos explained. “While demand has steadily increased, domestic production of gas has declined. And that’s why now India has become an importer of LNG. I think it was largely a mentality of ‘we have a growing economy, we have domestic resources such as coal, and so we’ll use those as we grow our economy’. The difficulty with that is that to continue like that is counter to some of the climate change aspirations and environmental issues in India. It is a historic reason why coal has been preferred, but now it is time that history is left behind.”

However, despite gas’s low share in India’s energy mix compared with developed countries, this aspect is comparable with the energy situation in other developing countries, especially China.

“China is in the same range as India is right now, with a target to reach 10 per cent gas by 2020 and 12 per cent by 2030,” Mr Carroll said. “They are making some quick conversions in cities like Beijing where they are using gas for power production and for transportation because of the severe pollution challenges there. Indonesia and Malaysia have a much higher market share of gas. Brazil is very strong in bio-fuels. Russia is the second-largest gas consumer.”

“What people don’t understand is that of all the gas produced in Russia, 75 per cent is consumed domestically,” Mr Ydreos explained. “The rest is exported. However, in oil, while 75 per cent is exported, only 25 per cent is used domestically.”

Renewable Push

The Indian government has strongly committed to its targets of reducing emissions by 33 per cent by 2030, as set out during the COP21 summit in Paris, and towards this it has initiated a strong push towards a gas-based economy and has also invested heavily in renewable energy. The business opportunities this presents has not been lost on the international business community, according to Mr Carroll. However, he also warned against investing too heavily in renewable energy at a time when the technology is not yet ready.

“You have to bring renewables at the right time so you aren’t trying to bring them to market before they are actually ready,” Mr Carroll said. “In which case you are left with inefficient and costly subsidies for technologies that may be irrelevant in the near future.”

“India has a tremendous potential for solar energy,” he added. “We all realise that we have to stop burning dead dinosaurs to get our fuel. But certain renewables are still going through their cost curves and learning curves to get the required amount of output and to jump into it too big too soon leads to inefficient subsidies.”

Foreign Investment

“My take is that there is tremendous interest in the opportunities for natural gas in India,” Mr Carroll said. “There are opportunities wherever we are seeing a growing population and the vast movement of people into urban environments, and raising standards of living, and the ensuing huge increase in energy consumption. But with that you need to keep in mind the environmental challenges, so natural gas is definitely one of the fuels there, and so are renewables.”

However, despite the sector-specific regulatory hurdles the government can remove, the key to encouraging foreign investment is stability, according to Mr Ydreos.

“Nothing encourages investment more than a regulatory environment that is predictable and is stable and ensures that there is an appropriate risk-reward for the investor,” Mr Ydreos said. “If you want to attract large investment into India, that’s a precondition. That’s what the investment community needs to see.”

Cost Accounting

Overall, while coal is cheaper than gas to produce, it works out to be significantly more expensive when externalities like health costs and environmental costs are worked into the equation.

“If you have two existing plants, a combined cycle gas plant and a coal plant, the coal plant on a marginal cost basis is cheaper,” Mr Ydreos said. “Once you include the externalities, though, such has healthcare costs and climate change impacts, then gas is the more affordable option. In new construction, gas fares better than coal. You can construct much faster, get approvals easier, and the initial capital is less than coal.”

However, even if India ramps up its production of natural gas, it will still need to import gas for the foreseeable future, Mr Carroll said, warning that this must not become an over-reliance on imports.

“You will need to import,” Mr Carroll said. “But I was listening to Prime Minister Modi speaking at the Petrotech conference and he was talking about the strategies for energy. He did talk about plans for enhanced development of India’s gas resources, both conventional, offshore, and potential for shale gas development. There is some early stage development in shale gas, which I know is early, but if it takes off could be a rapidly developing source.”

“At the same time, there is development on your import capabilities both in terms of on-land terminals and floating terminals,” he added. “But clearly work needs to be done on the domestic production side to keep pace, so that you don’t become overly reliant on imports.”

Private investment in the domestic natural gas market is set to increase in the future due to the pegging of the price of natural gas to the international market, Mr Ydreos said.

“The biggest disincentive for domestic production was price,” he said. “That was what kept it suppressed. Now that we have a new pricing scheme in India, now you will see domestic production pick up.”

  • Urbanising India needs sustainable solutions: Otis

Otis India, the subsidiary of Otis Elevator Company, the world’s leading manufacturer of elevators, escalators and walkways, has entered the high-volume elevators market for affordable housing by introducing energy-efficient elevators in the Indian market.

Called Gen2 Core, these elevators can attain a speed of 0.7 metres per second and provides options of machine room or machine-less room arrangements. They are designed for low-rise residential buildings with a height of seven floors.

Affordable homes make up almost 90 per cent of the demand for homes in India and this has become one of the focus areas for Otis, a top official said.

Otis already had been deploying Gen2 technology in elevators for high-rise buildings since 2010 and the Gen2 Core elevators are built on this technology platform.

This product is an upgrade from traditional rope-geared systems to the permanent magnet (PM) gearless-belted technology ensuring energy-saving.

“The Gen2 Core uses Otis’s patented, flexible polyurethane-coated steel belts, the ReGen regenerative drive, which captures energy that is normally wasted during braking and feeds it back into the building’s electric grid, compact gearless machine and pulse monitoring system,” said Sebi Joseph, President, Otis India.

The Gen2 Core, he said, offered the affordable housing segment an elevator that is ‘environmentally responsible’. As India continued to urbanise, it needed sustainable solutions, he said, adding, “The Gen2 offers just that through its energy-saving and space conservation features.”

The Gen2 Core will be manufactured in India at Otis’ facility in Bengaluru with a delivery schedule of five weeks.

Affordable Housing

The current housing deficit in India stands at 19 million units and 95 per cent of this deficit is around the Economically Weaker Sections and Low Income Group segments. This segment is likely to get a boost as the government is aiming to provide housing for all by 2022.

“Affordable homes do not just mean the cost accessibility of the home but also lower operational and maintenance costs. Sustainable features are key to any affordable housing project. This product will help us to penetrate across the country especially into tier-1 and -2 cities,” Mr. Joseph said.

Gen2 Core would cost approximately 15 per cent more compared with products with similar speeds in the market.

India’s new elevator market is estimated at 48,000 units per year and overall, the market is growing by 7 to 8 per cent.

However, Otis India, with a market share in the ‘mid-teens,’ has reported 20 per cent growth in its order book so far this year.

This year the firm bagged new orders from Mantri Developers and Indiabulls, out-bidding rivals. Otis will supply 1,000 elevators and escalators to Mantri Developers for its projects and 37 high-speed elevators, including 18 SkyRise elevators to the Indiabulls BLU Project in Mumbai.

  • Zero import duty on wheat will lead to dumping: Unions

Farmers’ unions and agriculture experts are anguished over the Centre’s decision to scrap the import duty on wheat as they fear that farmers’ income will be affected and they will have to resort to distress sale during the rabi season.

The All India Kisan Sabha said government agencies had failed to procure wheat at the minimum support price (MSP), and without an adequate number of open purchasing centres, farmers are forced to sell their crop at lower prices.

“The decision of scrapping the import duty ahead of the winter wheat crop is aimed at helping agri-businesses by dumping wheat from foreign countries in India,” AIKS president Amra Ram said.

He said that big players in the wheat flour market had been demanding withdrawal of the duty, and this move was to suit their interests.

The Centre recently announced zero import duty from the prevailing 10 per cent to improve domestic availability and check rising prices of wheat and wheat-based products.

“Wheat traders are expecting imports to cross five million tonnes this year. The cost of imported wheat would be far below the MSP of ongoing rabi (Rs. 16,250 a tonne), resulting in crashing domestic wheat prices as the government has no effective procurement mechanism in many States,” he said.

Detrimental step

Nirbhay Singh, leader of the Kirti Kisan Union in Punjab, said, “With easing norms for wheat imports, the government has taken a detrimental step towards farmers’ interest. We have seen it in every season that though the government promises to buy crop at the MSP, yet farmers sell their produce in distress at a lower price for various reasons,” he said.

Agriculture experts also expressed concern over the Centre’s decision and apprehended that the move could badly hurt farmers’ income.

“The government has been saying that wheat sowing has not been impacted by demonetisation and the area of cultivation has increased. If the area has actually increased, and there are no other indications that wheat production will be down in the ongoing season, then why is the government allowing import of duty-free wheat?” asks Ajay Jakhar, chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj.

“It will lead to a drop in wheat price by at least Rs. 250 per quintal in the open market,” he added.

Devinder Sharma, noted agricultural and food policy analyst, said: “Scrapping duty on wheat would be detrimental to Indian agriculture. First, we did it with oilseeds then with pulses and now with wheat. Importing wheat will hurt our farmers.”

  • Legacy of a social movement

It has been widely observed that the passing of Jayalalithaa, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, on December 5, has left a power vacuum in the State’s politics. M. Karunanidhi, 92, head of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), who was discharged from hospital a few days back, may not be as active in politics going forward as he has been in the decades past.

Thus there is a perception that this political low-pressure zone brings with it the concomitant risk of fractures emerging in the polity, which could either destabilise prospects for sustained economic progress, or emerge as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for national parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party or Congress to expediently reassert themselves as political forces to reckon with.

Both outcomes are unlikely, and history explains why this is so. Consider first the immediate challenges faced by the two main rivals in the State.

Path ahead for the rivals

For Jayalalithaa’s party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), it is critical to hammer out a consensus solution acceptable to the two major caste factions within it, the Thevars and the Gounders.

V.K. Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s friend and confidant of over three decades, commands a greater degree of acceptability among party cadres as the heir to the crown. In fact far more so than Jayalalithaa herself did when, in the immediate aftermath of the death of her mentor, M.G. Ramachandran, in 1987, she was subject to physical attacks and political brickbats from factions supporting Janaki, his wife.

So long as Ms. Sasikala, a leader from the dominant Thevar community, gets her maths right and is able to co-opt Gounder bosses of the AIADMK into a few plum Cabinet positions, she can prevent the occurrence that many fear — defections leading to a full-fledged break up of the party that would be a precursor to new political plays by the BJP seeking to enter the State in force.

If Ms. Sasikala manoeuvres deftly in this manner over the coming days and weeks, she may well be able to secure half a decade in power for herself, during which time, with O. Panneerselvam as the nominal head of the government, she would be able to rely on the well-worn channels of patronage distribution to consolidate State-wide control of political institutions.

Turning to the DMK, a succession plan is already in place in the shape of M.K. Stalin, though it remains to be seen whether he will prove to be as capable as his father was, at a State level, of meticulous organisational strategising and enforcing discipline amongst party cadres.

These immediate considerations for the two major parties of the State will determine the shape of the political machine governing Tamil Nadu in the years to come.

Surviving the flux

Yet there are reasons to believe that the distinct socio-political identification of Tamil society and the even more distinct pro-poor policy agenda of successive State regimes will ensure that established parties of Tamil Nadu today will survive the current state of flux and continue to play a dominant political role in the years ahead.

That Tamil Nadu was always a State with a mind of its own is well known, even since the 1930s when the Dravidian movement struck an early blow for greater socio-political autonomy for the Tamil people.

Notwithstanding the sheer might of constitutional federalism in independent India, Tamil leaders since the time of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy and C.N. Annadurai have brandished with great effectiveness the notion of an ethno-linguistic Tamil identity that was at odds with the broader Indian identity associated with Brahminism and Hindi.

Although the early calls for secession from the Union ultimately withered in the face of Delhi’s diplomacy blended with the threat potential of the Indian armed forces, the protests against the imposition of Hindi as an official language and as the language of school textbooks found echoes in every corner of the State.

As I argued in the book Patrons of the Poor: Caste Politics and Policymaking in India, this “partial revolution” in the State stemmed from a strong sense of Tamil identity held as a collective belief, which in turn was a historical peculiarity that was a function of Tamil society in some ways being homogenous and the fact that the main “oppressor” since pre-colonial times were Brahmins, a numerical minority in the State.

A few facts are important to note about the power of the Dravidian movement here, and the limitations of its transformational potential.

First, as Professors Narendra Subramanian and John Harriss have argued, it ultimately remained a partial revolution because radical anti-Brahminism gave way to more accommodating populist regimes that nevertheless retained strong incentives to redistribute resources toward poorer groups.

Second, the homogeneity in Tamil society went hand in hand with a fractured pattern of caste dominance, where the sheer number of castes and sub-castes did not lend itself easily to dominance by a few, say in the manner that the Vokkaligas and Lingayat castes dominated the State government in Karnataka for decades.

Third, fragmented caste dominance made it inevitable, in the 1967 election, that the DMK would rout the elites-driven political mechanisms of the Congress by using a strategy of populist mobilisation that also drew heavily upon emotive appeals relating to that sense of Tamil identity.

Finally, the very same resource redistribution patterns and populist mobilisation strategies that so many notable Dravidian movement leaders relied on ever since 1967 have come to be deeply embedded in mechanisms of state power in Tamil Nadu today.

It is in this context that we must view the State blazing a pioneering path on mass welfare policies such as the mid-day meal scheme, innovative pedagogies for primary education, and so many more.

Thus Tamil Nadu today presents a complex relationship, which intertwines a balance of power expressed through caste, populist mobilisation based on Tamil identity, and a penchant for welfarism in policymaking.

This makes it unlikely that the AIADMK and DMK will crumble into disarray overnight, or indeed over a few election cycles.

Conversely those who predict that national parties such as the BJP or Congress will quickly gain an unassailable foothold in the State despite their contrasting identity as parties of the North, and parties that depend on elite castes for their power, may be disappointed.

Whatever the criticisms about their fiscal profligacy or their tendency to throw up leaders who govern based on centralised power of an opaque nature, Tamil parties and the Tamil masses have a connection rooted in more than half a century of identity politics that will endure the vicissitudes of leadership crises of the sort that we are witnessing presently.

  • The blinkering effect of anger

There is a particular blinkering effect to anger that denies space for reason, dialogue, and coexistence. It has a steamrolling capacity to undermine institutions built over time, to describe opinions of people from whom we differ as “naïve stupidity”, and effortlessly create a bipolar world view at a time when we need to retain a sense of multitude with innumerable shades of grey. A good newspaper is a modern-day VIBGYOR disc that rotates in the reverse direction and at a meditative speed to reveal all the colours beneath a seemingly monochromatic white.

Pankaj Mishra in his extended essay, “Welcome to the age of anger” (The Guardian, December 8), points out the contradicting outcomes of a new breed of anger. He writes: “Many people find it easy to aim their rage against an allegedly cosmopolitan and rootless cultural elite. Objects of hatred are needed more than ever during times of crisis, and rich ‘citizens of nowhere’ — as Theresa May dubbed them — conveniently embody the vices of a desperately sought-after but infuriatingly unattainable modernity. And so globalisation, which promotes integration among shrewd elites, helps incite resentment everywhere else, especially among people forced against their will into universal competition.”

I am a daily recipient of anger — some justified and most unjustified — from a section of readers. They see this newspaper’s cosmopolitanism as opposing their sensibilities. The change that has been happening around us at all levels — locally, nationally and internationally — has a strong bearing on our language of public discourse, where anger and animosity are fast replacing inquiry, curiosity and empathy. This is neither a nostalgic recollection of some golden past nor a requiem for the present. It is an assessment.

Diversity a pleasure, not anxiety

I do recognise the power of emotions and that people’s choices and decisions are a product of both emotions and rational thinking. A newspaper is an interactive public space where both emotion and reason play a role to make it magical as suggested by Martha C. Nussbaum. She has wonderfully argued for the love of diversity in one’s fellow citizens. For her, the sense of diversity is a source of pleasure, not of anxiety. Mr. Mishra asks for greater precision in matters of the soul to get our basic bearings: “The stunning events of our age of anger, and our perplexity before them, make it imperative that we anchor thought in the sphere of emotions; these upheavals demand nothing less than a radically enlarged understanding of what it means for human beings to pursue the contradictory ideals of freedom, equality and prosperity.”

As a Readers’ Editor, I do empathise with the justifiable segment that points out errors and factual inaccuracies. We take care to rectify them as early as possible and it is not done in “some obscure pages” as a few insinuate, but in a visible manner in the opinion pages of the newspaper. What is not justifiable is the malicious use of the Corrections and Clarifications column to build a case against the newspaper. This column reflects the newspaper’s ethos, its ethical fibre and its commitment to remain a newspaper of record. The correction is not only published in the print and the Web editions; the actual text is also rectified to give a more accurate picture. If a rare story is wrong, the newspaper has the courage to not only apologise but also take it down from its Web edition and the Internet archives.

This leads to a set of basic questions for which I am searching for answers. Why is the only publication that has a visible mending process targeted? Why should a corrective mechanism be used to attack reporters and the newspaper? Does not the space for post-publication rectification make this newspaper more accountable to its readers than any other media platform in the country? Is it fair to interpret unintended errors as malicious design?

The problem gets complicated with stories that are developing and dynamic in nature. For instance, the newspaper published a story “3 CMs opt out of digitisation panel” (December 2, 2016). It spoke of V. Narayanasamy (Puducherry), Nitish Kumar (Bihar) and Manik Sarkar (Tripura) who turned down the Centre’s invitation to be on the sub-committee of Chief Ministers. Subsequently, the Centre has asked other Chief Ministers to join the panel. Those on the panel now are Chandrababu Naidu (Andhra Pradesh), Naveen Patnaik (Odisha), Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh), Pawan Kumar Chamling (Sikkim), and Devendra Fadnavis (Maharashtra). Mr. Narayanasamy’s name continues to be on the official list though he has rejected the offer. The point of the story was that opposition Chief Ministers did not wish to be on the panel. Now the panel has Chief Ministers belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party and those who are either neutral or supporters of the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. The other members are officials and experts. In this entire development, the headline “3 CMs opt out of digitisation panel” was a sober statement of fact. And it is far from the angry reader’s claim that it was “a screaming headline that tries to undermine the government at the Centre because two of three Chief Ministers mentioned in the report do not figure in the list released by NITI Aayog”.

I believe that the process of sharing the vulnerabilities in the newsgathering and news production process over the last decade in the Corrections and Clarifications column on the opinion pages has not rendered this newspaper weak but has made it a trustworthy public site for information and ideas. When the present wave of irrational anger subsides, I am sure these angry readers, too, will accept the effectiveness of this self-regulating mechanism.

  • Time to blow the whistle

As the nation engages in a doubtful “war on black money”, we run the risk of disengaging ourselves from any action on corruption, the fountainhead of black money. Indeed, we may be moving backwards in the battle against corruption. While everyone is busy debating demonetisation, Parliament is all set to change the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), 1988, into a law that can only be described as Protection of the Corrupt Act. Worse, this move enjoys cross-party support, as in most instances where the political establishment protects itself. All in the name of war against black money, of course.

On the face of it, the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Bill, 2013, which is pending before Parliament, merely proposes some amendments to the PCA. This Bill was first introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2013, during the United Progressive Alliance regime following massive anti-corruption protests. The purpose, ostensibly, was to tighten existing anti-corruption legislation. But it had some worrisome provisions. The real death knell was sounded after the National Democratic Alliance government proposed additional and fatal amendments in 2014. A Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha, comprising members across the political establishment, has already approved these changes. So has the Cabinet. This regressive piece of legislation was to be taken up for passage in the current winter session, now nearly washed out.

Hydra-headed amendments

As it stands now in the version cleared by the Select Committee in August this year, the Bill serves to dilute and defeat the whole point of anti-corruption legislation in more ways than one. It narrows down the existing definition of corruption, increases the burden of proof necessary for punishing the corrupt, makes things more difficult for the whistle-blower, and strengthens the shield available to officials accused of corruption. And it slips in a diabolic clause that would protect the babu-neta nexus from ever facing any serious anti-corruption probe. If this Bill becomes law, our already weak anti-corruption mechanism would receive a fatal blow.

Let us examine how each of these key amendments serves to protect the corrupt rather than prevent corruption.

First, the proposed amendment narrows down the definition of corruption, as demanded by the powerful lobby of civil servants. Section 13(1)(d) of the existing PCA covers various indirect forms of corruption including the obtaining of “any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage” by illegal gratification or by “abusing his position as a public servant”. The present Bill removes this section and replaces it with a truncated definition of criminal misconduct by a public servant: fraudulent misappropriation of property under one’s control, and intentional, illicit enrichment and possession of disproportionate assets. Under this new definition, any benefit that is not economic, that is indirect or that cannot be proven to be intentional fraud will not be punished as corruption. The Law Commission studied this proposed amendment carefully and disagreed with the narrow definition. Instead it proposed an even wider definition. The Law Commission suggested that any “undue advantage” that results from “improper performance of public function or activity” of a public servant should be punishable. Yet the government and the Parliamentary Committee disregarded this suggestion and have obliged the babu lobby.

This is critical, as the existing Section 13(1)(d) is the only provision in the PCA which deals with corruption in high places where, typically, no under-the-table transactions take place. The corrupt public servant usually receives illegal gratification in an extremely clandestine manner such as off-shore transactions or non-monetary considerations such as a better posting, post retirement benefits, etc. All major scams, right from Bofors to the 2G scam, the Commonwealth Games scam, the coal scam, etc. became criminal offences by virtue of this section. This is precisely why a section of bureaucrats has been demanding a deletion of this provision on the ground that it inhibits fearless decision-making that may involve exercise of discretion and bona fide errors. This argument is simply not true. T.S.R. Subramanian, a retired Cabinet Secretary known for his integrity, has repeatedly said that the existing law offers adequate protection to honest officers. It does not punish any bona fide difference or even mistake unless it is a clear abuse of power leading to financial or other gains.

Raising threshold of proof

Second, the Bill makes it more difficult to hold someone guilty of disproportionate assets as it raises the threshold of proof. Under the existing law, the possession of monetary resources or property disproportionate to the public servant’s known sources of income is enough to prove corruption. Now the prosecutor will also have to prove that this disproportionate asset was acquired with the intention of the public servant to enrich himself illicitly. Although the Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha agrees that proving intention should not be made mandatory, we don’t know the government’s final position. Besides this, currently, “known sources of income” are limited only to those receipts which had been “intimated in accordance with the provisions of any law, rules or orders for the time being applicable to a public servant”. This provision was made in 1988 in order to cover an earlier loophole, whereby many accused persons would cite fresh sources of income at the stage of trial, resulting in acquittal in a large number of disproportionate assets cases. Strangely, the government proposes to delete this requirement without any recommendation to this effect from any stakeholder. Thus the big offenders have secured a vital escape route for themselves.

Third, the proposed amendment makes it more risky for a bribe-giver to give evidence against a bribe-taker. Under the existing law, if a person makes a statement during a corruption trial that he gave a bribe, it would not be used to prosecute him for the offence of abetment of corruption. The current Bill omits this provision and proposes that bribe-taking and bribe-giving will be equally punishable. This would obviously deter bribe-givers from appearing as witnesses in cases against public officials.

Admittedly, there is some merit in not granting complete exemption to bribe-givers, but there was no need to do away with it altogether. The government had better options. The report of the Second Administrative Reforms Commission has recommended a distinction between “coercive” and “collusive” bribing. Those who are coerced into bribing but report it thereafter should be given some protection. At one stage there was a proposal to give a seven-day window for declaration by the bribe-giver in order to qualify for exemption. But all such ideas were rejected. The final proposal now seeks to punish everyone and thereby reduces the chances of evidence against the bribe-taker.

The fourth change reduces the chances of prosecution of the corrupt. The existing PCA requires the government’s or higher officials’ sanction before any serving public servants can be prosecuted under the Act. The basic idea is to protect honest public officials from harassment, persecution and frivolous litigation. The proposed amendment extends this protection to retired public servants, if the case pertains to the period when they were in office. This seems a reasonable and necessary corollary of the original provision. But it also adds another unnecessary and pointless condition. If a private person approaches the government for sanction to prosecute a public servant for corruption, he would now need a court order to this effect. This additional layer of protection for the accused would discourage victims of corruption and anti-corruption activists from prosecuting corrupt public servants. Clearly, the government is concerned more about shielding government officials than prosecuting the corrupt.

Getting the nod first

And, finally, the most deadly and diabolic provision that the government has quietly slipped in without much public scrutiny. It proposes to insert a new Section 17A that would bar investigating agencies from even beginning an inquiry or investigating the offences under this Act without prior approval. The amendment proposed by the government said this sanction was to be obtained from a Lokayukta or Lokpal. The Select Committee of the Rajya Sabha makes it worse: it shifts the power to give this sanction to an “authority competent to remove” the person from office. Effectively, it means that now, the political masters will decide whether they wish to allow a corruption inquiry against any government employee or not.

This defies logic. As noted earlier, Section 19 of the Act already protects officials from mala fide litigation. If someone wishes to harass an innocent officer without any credible evidence of corruption, the government can refuse to give sanction for prosecution. But why insist on sanction even before an inquiry? Surely, if there is no inquiry, there is no credible evidence. On what basis then would the government (or the Lokpal, if we go by the previous proposal) give or refuse to give the sanction? Or, how would anyone produce evidence to secure this sanction without an inquiry in the first place? Even if the sanction is granted, would it not alert the corrupt official about the impending inquiry and give him time to hide evidence? This diabolic provision can only serve one purpose: make the higher bureaucracy and political bosses the ultimate arbiters in cases of corruption. If a politician wants to protect a corrupt officer, he can not only save him from prosecution (which can be challenged in a court) but also prevent any evidence gathering from taking place.

Reactivating the ‘Single Directive’

The babudom has thus managed to bring back the infamous “Single Directive”. This refers to an older governmental order that no senior officer (of the rank of Joint Secretary or above) could be investigated without permission from the government. In the famous Vineet Narain judgment, the Supreme Court had held this order as illegal, in 1997. The government brought it back, this time as provision of law, in 2003. Finally, as recently as 2014, a Constitutional bench of the Supreme Court held that this provision was unconstitutional, as it violated the right to equality. Such is the power of babudom and its hold over netas that it has managed to bring this immunity clause back for the third time.

As the winter session of Parliament draws to a close, it seems that this Bill may now be postponed to the Budget session. This gives concerned citizens another couple of months to build public opinion against this attempt to protect the corrupt. It is time to revive the anti-corruption movement

  • Ex-CJI calls for more power to human rights panels

Human rights commissions in the country could do with more rights of their own, a former Chief Justice of India suggested on Saturday.

Reliance on State govts.

Speaking at the National Human Rights Commission’s Human Rights Day event here, Justice (retd.) P. Sathasivam, who is now the Governor of Kerala, said the NHRC and State Human Rights Commissions should be able to execute their own orders. At present, the commissions can take up cases of human rights violations and make recommendations for monetary compensation to victims, but have to rely on the respective State government to execute the order.

“The commissions, both national and in States, must have the right to execute their orders,” said Justice Sathasivam, adding that the Protection of Human Rights (PHR) Act, 1993, could be amended to that effect.

According to him, while the NHRC and SHRCs act as civil courts when it comes to summoning witnesses or documents, they lack the power to implement orders that the civil courts have. He referred to the alleged encounter of sandalwood smugglers in Andhra Pradesh where the NHRC had recommended a CBI probe, but the State government moved court. Later, the High Court stayed the proceedings in the case.

Justice Sathasivam also suggested that the NHRC could approach the Centre seeking an amendment in the PHR Act so that recommendations of the commissions are more effective. He added that legal literacy must be advanced in the country.

While Justice Sathasivam highlighted the need for more power to the commissions, others speakers at the event said the panels should focus on protecting the rights of the vulnerable.

Magsaysay award-winner and national convenor of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, Bezwada Wilson, said: “Protection of the rights of the marginalised, including Dalits, Adivasis, minorities and women, is the most important responsibility of the human rights commissions.”

Rampant violations

Mr. Wilson said that human rights violations, such as pellet injuries in Kashmir to the practice of manual scavenging, were still rampant. “The space where you can express your feelings is shrinking,” he added.

NHRC chairperson Justice (retd.) H.L. Dattu, meanwhile, reiterated the need to work towards a “just and equitable society” as per principles of the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

  • Media must publish apology to acquitted innocents: Tribunal

The report of the jury that heard the first People’s Tribunal on Acquitted Innocents, held on October 2, 2016, took strong exception to “news coverage which destroys a person’s reputation by creating a widespread perception of guilt, without any verdict in the court of law”.

The jury, which was chaired by Justice A.P. Shah, released its report — Towards a Framework for Compensation and Rehabilitation for Victims of Wrongful Prosecution/Conviction — in New Delhi on Saturday.

Holding that sections of the media had devastated lives “through sensationalism and partisan reporting”, the report urged the media to “strictly refrain from pronouncing the suspects/arrestees as guilty”, and to serve as objective institutions instead of becoming “mere handmaidens of investigating agencies”. It called upon publications and news channels that had put out defamatory material to “widely publish unconditional apology to the exonerees”.

Compensation

The People’s Tribunal, which gathered testimonies of several acquitted innocents, and the report of the jury, had been organised by The Innocence Network, an all-India collective that works for the rights of the wrongfully prosecuted or convicted.

Drawing on the principles of public law, the report called upon the government to “grant compensation to the exonerees for the loss and harm caused to them and for violating their right to life and liberty” under Article 21 of the Constitution.

One of the acquitted innocents, Mohammad Amir, a Delhi resident, was falsely accused in 19 terror cases, and had spent 14 years in prison. “The release of this report, coming as it does on International Human Rights Day, is an encouraging sign,” he said.

“It is also timely and relevant in the light of the alleged encounter killing of eight undertrials in Bhopal.”

‘Torture a routine practice’

Releasing the report, Justice Shah said that when a person dies in the custody of the State, the burden to prove their innocence should be on the custodians. “Torture has become a routine and endemic practice in investigative procedure in India,” he said.

“The Prevention of Torture Bill has been languishing in Parliament for more than four years, and no government seems interested in passing it despite India being a signatory to the UN Convention Against Torture,” he added.

The report highlighted in particular the case of Nisar Ahmed, an innocent man who was made to spend 23 years in jail, after being convicted on the basis of a piece of evidence that, according to the Supreme Court, ought not to have been admitted in court in the first place. “

The rampant discourse on ‘war on terror’ legitimates the arrests of Muslim youth and grants impunity to investigators,” observed the report.

  • ‘War against malaria far from over’

The global fight against malaria is in “urgent need” of more funding, said the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday while releasing the latest World Malaria Report.

According to the report, there were 212 million new cases of malaria and 4,29,000 deaths worldwide in 2015. Further, nearly 78% of Plasmodium vivax malaria cases in 2015 occurred in just four countries: Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Despite the billions of dollars spent on malaria programmes, the U.N. health agency said too many people are missing out on available resources like medicines and bed nets that protect against mosquitoes that spread the disease.

WHO had set a goal of cutting malaria cases to “near zero” by the end of last year. It fell far short, and now is aiming to reduce malaria cases and deaths by at least 90 per cent by 2030. “We’re far from having completed the job,” said Dr. Pedro Alonso, director of WHO’s malaria department. “The hardest is yet to come.” Dr Alonso added that the gains could be hurt by a lack of funding, which had stagnated in the last six years.

In the report, WHO has also expressed concern about the quality of data: the report said surveillance systems catch fewer than 20 percent of cases. The vast majority cases are in Africa. About 70 percent of deaths are in children under the age of five.

Chris Drakeley, director of the malaria centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that even the incremental drop in malaria cases was significant. He noted that new approaches to fighting malaria like giving out medicines to children during high season to prevent infections were proving effective.

Other experts said WHO should rethink its priorities when it comes to malaria spending. “They’re looking at innovative ideas and investing in new tools like vaccines but they’re missing the basics,” said Sophie Harman, a public health expert at Queen Mary University in London. Ms. Harman also questioned whether WHO’s latest 2030 goal was realistic. “It has symbolic meaning that WHO is still committed to this,” she said. “But probably nobody in public health thinks this is really achievable.”

 

 

 

 

  • IBSA meet may see pact to boost trade

The proposal for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between India and the two separate customs unions involving Brazil and South Africa – MERCOSUR and SACU respectively – to boost trade and investment ties, is set to get a leg up with New Delhi likely to accord it priority at the forthcoming IBSA Summit.

Also topping the agenda at the sixth IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) Summit – likely to be held in India in mid-2017 – would be the three IBSA members enhancing contribution to the ‘IBSA Fund’ to support more developmental projects across the world. The summit could also see the three major emerging market economies strengthening trilateral cooperation on renewable energy projects, sources said.

On trade, India has a Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) with MERCOSUR (a trading bloc and customs union of Latin American nations, including Brazil) and both the sides are looking to expand its coverage. India is also negotiating a PTA with Southern African Customs Union (SACU) that includes South Africa — though only five rounds of negotiations had been held so far, with the fifth round having been held back in October 2010. A PTA between MERCOSUR and SACU had become operational from April this year.

Expanding scope

In the backdrop of these PTAs, the proposal for an India – MERCOSUR – SACU CEPA is to expand the scope of the PTAs from just trade in goods and then convert them into a comprehensive agreement that will also cover investments, trade in services and areas including intellectual property rights and competition laws among others.

“With the Indian Government planning to promote the IBSA grouping in a big way, efforts should be made to bring the proposal for an India-MERCOSUR-SACU CEPA to the level of an IBSA Joint Study Group. The CEPA can help boost intra-IBSA trade and investment ties,” said Sachin Chaturvedi, Director General of the New Delhi-based think-tank RIS. Intra-IBSA trade (export and import) in 2012 was about $50.5 billion, which was only 3.4 per cent of their total trade with the rest of the world. Though the CEPA proposal was mooted in 2007, talks on it have not yet taken off.

IBSA Fund

On the IBSA Fund, the three IBSA member-nations had in March 2005 agreed that each of them will pitch in with an annual contribution of $1 million to the Fund.

Though operational from 2006, the Fund had received contributions of only about $18 million, sources said, adding that the aim was to enhance it soon to $40 million to assist 25 projects every year, especially in least developed countries.

The Fund, managed by the UN office for South-South cooperation in the UN Development Programme (UNDP), is however sector- and region-agnostic.

According to an RIS report, there is a need for national development cooperation agencies of the three IBSA member nations to assume a larger role in development cooperation through IBSA.

“Instead of over-reliance on UNDP, the ABC of Brazil, DPA of India and SADPA (of South Africa) can jointly manage the Fund and the projects,” it added.

The projects completed by the IBSA Fund include those in Burundi (combating HIV/AIDS), Palestine (sports promotion and rehabilitation of cultural/hospital centre), Sierra Leone (human development and poverty reduction), Cape Verde (health care infrastructure, drinking water), Guinea-Bissau (agriculture development), Haiti (solid waste collection), Cambodia (empowering people with special needs) and Vietnam (rice production).

The IBSA Fund also supported Laos in the formulation of projects and Timor-Leste through a technical exchange.

  • 2016 turns third ‘richest’ year for IPOs

The year 2016 was the third-best since 1989 for initial public offers (IPOs) in terms of total funds raised, even though the number of public issues was far less compared with many of the earlier years.

Data from Prime Database, a primary market tracker, show that a total of 25 companies entered the capital market with their IPOs to raise a cumulative sum of Rs.25,163.33 crore in 2016. This is the third-highest quantum raised in a single calendar year after 2010 (Rs.37,534.65 crore) and 2007 (Rs.34,179.11 crore).

Almost double

Incidentally, the funds raised in 2016 were almost double that of the previous calendar year when a total of 21 issues mobilised Rs.13,614.08 crore.

Merchant bankers attribute the trend to the strong profile of the companies that entered the capital market in 2016 along with the huge appetite that both foreign and domestic investors showed for new paper floated by Indian companies even as the secondary markets turned volatile in the last few months.

“There were a lot of good quality, less leveraged companies that launched their IPOs that also led to a trend of issues doing well post-listing,” said Subhrajit Roy, executive director, Kotak Investment Banking.

“Even as the secondary markets went choppy in the recent past, the primary market managed to register traction and perform well in the secondary market as well. The appetite among FIIs continued strong even as they have been net sellers in secondary markets in the last couple of months,” added Mr. Roy.

Some of the large-sized issues that hit the market this year were ICICI Prudential Life Insurance Company, L&T Technology Services, PNB Housing Finance, RBL Bank, Mahanagar Gas, Ujjivan Financial Services and Infibeam Corporation.

Interestingly, the year was marked with large-sized offers with the average issue size pegged at approximately Rs.1,007 crore. Prime Database has been maintaining IPO data since 1989 and this is the first time that the average size has crossed Rs.1,000 crore mark.

“Domestic and foreign investors found India a growth market and showed good appetite resulting in the IPOs getting good acceptance throughout the year,” said Ajay Saraf, executive director, ICICI Securities. Even retail investors saw equity as an attractive option at a time when interest rates were falling, he added.

Meanwhile, bankers are hoping that the positive trend will continue in the next year as well though they add that the recent demonetisation move of the government might impact the appetite in certain sectors, especially those that are directly impacted by discretionary spends of consumers.

“The trend should continue in the next year as well though there might be some softening due to the demonetisation factor. Companies from consumer discretionary sector might see an impact though demonetisation has led to a positive shift from unorganised to organised segments,” said Mr.Roy.

Demonetisation boost

According to Mr.Saraf, the demonetisation move might actually boost the investments in equity as more money would come within the formal channel and those with an investment horizon of 4-5 years would look at equity as an attractive investment avenue.

  • Committed to ‘One-China policy’, says White House

The Obama administration has made it clear that Taiwan is not a “bargaining chip” and the U.S. is firmly committed to the decades-old ‘One-China policy’, an assertion that comes after Donald Trump questioned its relevance.

“The United States government, under the leadership of President Obama, has been and remains firmly committed to our ‘One-China policy’. That’s also the policy… that previous Presidents in both parties have pursued,” said press secretary Josh Earnest. “One reason that we have pursued that policy is because the Obama administration does not view Taiwan and our relationship with Taiwan as a bargaining chip,” he said, adding that Taiwan is the ninth-largest trading partner of the U.S.

  • Centre to review IT Act to bolster cyber security

The government is mulling a review of the more than 15-year-old Information Technology (IT), Act to strengthen cybersecurity infrastructure, following the push for digital payments post-demonetisation.

“The IT Act came out in 2000. Since then, it has by and large served us well. Now, as we move towards a digital economy, we are reviewing if there is a need to re-look at the IT Act architecture to make it more of a deterrent for cyber criminals,” Minister for Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

A “closed group”, under IT Secretary Aruna Sundarajan, has been set up to look into various aspects of the Act in line with the changing times.

The Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY), which will soon issue advisories to all digital payment agencies including banks and e-wallets providers “to harden security walls”, has also set up a separate ‘digital payments’ division under Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In) — its cyber security arm — to monitor and strengthen cashless transactions. “All digital payments agencies have been asked to report to CERT-In any unusual activity that they see on their platforms,” Mr.Prasad said. The division was set up after the November 8 announcement withdraw old Rs.500 and Rs.1000 notes from circulation.

The Minister said, “We are taking several measures to ensure a resilient system. We will audit IT infra of NPCI… have formed crack teams at CERT-In for immediate response …There are CIOs who have been appointed in every ministry and govt department… We are undertaking massive program to create awareness among administrators, judges etc.”

To strengthen cyber security, the IT ministry had recently approved 26 new posts in CERT-Inand five State CERTs.

The Minister also met senior representatives of the RBI as well as public and private sector banks, and NPCI. While asking banks to incentivise digital payments and transactions, Mr. Prasad said, to address concerns of cyber security, the IT ministry would soon conduct a security drill both for the banks and NPCI.

 

  • Scams in States’ helicopter deals too?

While investigation into alleged irregularities in the purchase of AgustaWestland helicopters for the Air Force picks steam, Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) audit reports from many States document irregularities in acquisition of helicopters for similar VVIP duties.

A public interest litigation (PIL) petition filed in the Supreme Court, demanding a comprehensive investigation into the purchases by State governments, is slated for a hearing on January 10, though the Central government has opposed such an investigation.

Over the past decade or so, when Indian VVIPs began to use helicopters extensively, the Central government and the States procured expensive and advanced multi-engine helicopters for their brass.

Most expensive

Among the procurements, the most expensive was the purchase of a dozen VVIP helicopters by the Air Force in 2010, in which the CBI has now arrested former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi and others.

Various States also procured helicopters in recent years for the movement of Governors, Chief Ministers and other State-level dignitaries.

Mess in J&K

In an audit report in 2015, the CAG pointed out illegalities committed by the Jammu & Kashmir government in procurement of AgustaWestland’s A-109 E Power helicopter in 2004-05.

The report said the procurement was carried out in a non-transparent manner.

Last year, a CAG report documented irregularities committed by the Punjab government in procuring a Bell helicopter without inviting tenders.

It was in violation of Punjab Financial Rules.

The purchase of an AgustaWestland helicopter by the Rajasthan government in 2005 too faced allegations of lack of transparency. In 2008, an audit report of the CAG said that the State government suffered an unnecessary loss of Rs. 1.14 crore because the helicopter was lying unused for a long time.

Reason: the State didn’t have a trained pilot.

In 2006, the purchase of a VVIP helicopter from AgustaWestland by the Jharkhand government too was carried out without an open tender.

The most damning evidence is in Chhattisgarh. The PIL plea has alleged a criminal conspiracy.

‘Sham tender’

“In the Chhattisgarh deal, a sham tender was called for a particular model of Agusta helicopter in which three companies represented by the same person participated and forged documents were created. Further it is apparent from the record that money over and above the actual price of the helicopter was siphoned off in foreign exchange in certain accounts of banks outside the country,” according to the PIL plea filed by Swaraj Abhiyan led by advocate Prashant Bhushan and others.

Despite recommendation for open tender, invitations were sent to only suppliers of AgustaWestland helicopter, according to State government records submitted in the Supreme Court. A part of the payment was remitted to an account in Singapore, not owned by the company that supplied the helicopter. The Singapore account was controlled by an investment banker.

A limited CAG audit in 2010-11 said that in the Chhattisgarh deal, the State incurred an additional expenditure of Rs. 65 lakh.

The PIL plea has had three hearings, said Sudiep Shrivastav, one of the advocates appearing for the petitioner, who was also a key petitioner in the coal scam PIL petition.

 

  • The decisiveness of 1971

December 16, 2016 marks the 45th anniversary of Vijay Diwas, the day the Pakistan Army in East Bengal surrendered before Lt. Gen. J.S. Aurora, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian Army’s Eastern Command, in 1971. A new nation was born after a struggle which lasted but a few months and had its roots in the Pakistan general election of December 1970.

The run-up to war

The Awami League under the leadership of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a massive majority in the provincial legislature and in all but two of East Pakistan’s quota of seats in the new National Assembly, thus gaining a clear majority. The largest party in West Pakistan was the Pakistan Peoples’ Party headed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who threatened to boycott the assembly and oppose the government if Mujib was invited by Gen. Yahya Khan, then President of Pakistan, to become Pakistan’s Prime Minister despite the fact that he had won an overall majority. Mujib was left with no option but to start a civil disobedience movement; he was soon arrested.

Dark clouds started gathering over India’s eastern border. On March 25, 1971, the Pakistani military junta began a crackdown on the people of East Pakistan. It soon turned into a large-scale genocide. The atrocities committed by the Pakistan Army gave rise to the birth of Mukti Bahini, a potent guerrilla force and the face of Bengali resistance.

By November 1971, the number of refugees from East Bengal in India had reached 10 million. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi rose to the challenge with determination and a renewed confidence acquired after having won a massive mandate in the Lok Sabha elections. Throughout the crisis, she acted not only with immense courage but also abundant caution. She did not want to strengthen the Pakistani propaganda that the movement for autonomy in East Pakistan was nothing but an Indian conspiracy, neither did she want to do anything which would lead to India being accused of violating international law and norms.

In following a policy of restraint, Mrs. Gandhi had two other major considerations. First, if it was to be war, it should come at a time of India’s choosing. She agreed with Army chief Sam Manekshaw that military operations in East Pakistan could not be undertaken during the monsoon. The Himalayan passes too would get snowbound only in winter making it impossible for China to send troops to aid Pakistan. Complementing the Army chief’s view was Foreign Minister Swaran Singh, who advised restraint till all diplomatic options were exhausted.

A strategic and military success

The Prime Minister followed a multi-pronged strategy. She realised that international opinion had to be won over to the cause of Bangladesh and made aware of India’s unbearable burden of refugees. From July to November 1971, Mrs. Gandhi and Swaran Singh globetrotted across the Western world, attempting to build a consensus to force a UN resolution condemning the Pakistani atrocities in Bangladesh. India not only gave sanctuary to the Bangladeshi government-in-exile but also trained and equipped the Mukti Bahini.

To secure itself against a possible U.S.-China intervention in case events led to war, India signed on August 9 a 20-year Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. The treaty provided for immediate mutual consultations and appropriate effective measures in case of either country being subjected to a military threat.

Mrs. Gandhi, prepared for the war by November-end, was reluctant to take action first, even though December 4, 1971, had been designated as the day the Indian armed forces would directly undertake the liberation of Bangladesh. At this stage, however, Yahya Khan obliged: Pakistan’s air force launched a surprise attack on December 3 on eight military airfields in western India, hoping to inflict serious damage on the Indian Air Force and also internationalise the Bangladesh issue. The bid failed in both its objectives.

India immediately recognised Bangladesh and backed it with strong military action. The Indian strategy was to hold the Pakistani forces in the western sector through strong defensive action, while waging a short, swift and decisive war in the east. The U.S. government moved two resolutions in the UN Security Council proposing a ceasefire and mutual troop withdrawal, but these were vetoed by the Soviet Union. In desperation President Richard Nixon ordered the American Seventh Fleet to set sail for the Bay of Bengal. But India’s ‘iron lady’ was not to be cowed down by any threat. She asked Manekshaw to direct the Eastern Command to speed up operations. The Indian Army, actively assisted by the Mukti Bahini, virtually ran through East Bengal and reached Dacca within 11 days. A defeated and demoralised 93,000-strong Pakistan Army led by Lt. Gen. A.A.K. Niazi was made to surrender on December 16. The following day, the Indian government announced a unilateral ceasefire on the western front.

Pakistan was reported to have lost half its navy, a quarter of its air force and a third of its army. The war stripped the nation of more than half of its population. Bangladesh was founded, and the 10 million refugees returned to their homeland with cries of ‘Joy Indira Gandhi, Joy Bangladesh’. While A.B. Vajpayee, then a 47-year-old parliamentarian, likened Indira Gandhi to “Durga”, The Economist dubbed her “Empress of India”. It was Indira’s, and India’s, finest hour.

  • Free flow of wheat

Centre’s decision to waive import duty on wheat has predictably attracted flak. Opposition parties have questioned the move, which comes days after the government’s assertion that demonetisation of high-value currency notes did not impact the sowing of the rabi crop, with a greater area being cultivated compared to the same time a year ago. Assembly polls are due soon in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, both large wheat-producing States, making this a plausible rallying point for the Opposition. Farmer unions have warned of dumping of wheat stock in India at a time when the minimum support price (Rs.1,625 a quintal) is higher than international prices. This, they argue, could lead to distress sales when the current crop is harvested over March-April. The government, on its part, has noted concerns about the warmer winter forecast, which could affect wheat output and trigger inflation. This February, when prices of food articles that make up 46 per cent of the consumer price index were cooling off, the government expected the trend to continue if the monsoon was normal after two years of drought. Now at year-end, following a normal monsoon, inflation remains under control but wheat prices have been moving up swiftly.

There is no doubt that fiddling too often with wheat import duties — from 10 per cent to 25 per cent, then back to 10 per cent and finally to zero, all within 500 days — sends mixed signals to farmers and traders, though the latter group will be pleased with the duty-free regime. But equally, it is necessary to change one’s mind when the situation so demands, which it currently does. A record global harvest has lowered wheat prices internationally. With a higher MSP, and speculation about a less-than-adequate harvest domestically, the government is obviously keen on avoiding a surge in inflation following the demonetisation process. With imports remaining duty-free, it is now clear to traders that hoarding reserves and profiteering from the systemic stress won’t pay for long, even though it will take a couple of months or so for the first such shipments to arrive from overseas. Farmers busy with the rabi sowing season may not rally to political provocations immediately. But by the time they harvest the crop four months from now, the Centre would be well-advised to spruce up its procurement act, and raise awareness about the MSP mechanism. A longer-term action plan is needed to increase India’s wheat yields, which in most States are lower than in China and Bangladesh.

  • Transformational effect of school planning

Ram Prasad Bawari (58), a farm labourer near Devgaon village, about 45 km from Jaipur, always wanted his four children to study in a “big” school but until a couple of years ago he had no idea what that might look like.

There were a couple of private schools in the area, whose fees he could not afford, so the Devgaon Senior Secondary School, a government institution, was the only real option.

However, while it had a building and classrooms this school did not function as a school typically would. “Classes were held under the trees because there were no chairs or benches in the classrooms. The children also didn’t have uniforms and our boys used to go in whatever clothes we could give them but it was not appropriate for attending a school,” Mr. Bawari explained.

Much has changed though, over the past year. Primary and secondary schools were bundled into one compound, ever since the school was converted into an “Adarsh” integrated school under a policy introduced last year by the Rajasthan government.

Mr. Bawari points out that since they started sharing space with secondary school students his children now get to study in classrooms with proper infrastructure. He also points with pride to the fact that his children are now wearing uniforms, many of which have been donated to the school by members of the community.

Adarsh, or “ideal,” schools, such as this one, are part of the state government’s effort to ensure that children have access to one institution that offers education from Classes I to XII. They are the pivot around which several new reforms to the education sector in Rajasthan are based.

In areas such as Devgaon, where over 90 per cent of the population is from scheduled castes or scheduled tribes, they are starting to play an important role in restoring faith in the public school system.

This integration initiative has supplied a long overdue effort toward rationalisation of the number of schools in the area. Despite its daunting spatial spread across desert land, the drive to build more schools under programmes such as Sarva Siksha Abhiyan had left Rajasthan with a curious problem of over-access.

There were too many private schools, about 1.83 per gram panchayat, and close to 30,000 of these had less than 30 children attending. By contrast there were not enough secondary schools, only 0.37 per gram panchayat, and several children were getting lost in transit. Ninety per cent of students made it from Class VIII to X while only 49 per cent made it from Class X to XII. Both were below national averages.

Moreover, while there were a total of 87,000 government schools in Rajasthan they fell into a dizzying array of categories – there were those teaching Classes I to V, those teaching I to VII, VI to X, IX to XII or only XI to XII. The various pieces of a vast system were in place but they acted largely as fissiparous parts, not coming together for a more composite idea of improving outcomes. They were also a management nightmare.

“For secondary schools there is a principal who is in charge but primary schools are supervised by block level officers,” explains Naresh Gangwar, the state’s School Education Secretary. “Each of these block level officers in turn had about 250-300 schools to supervise with the result that there was very little actual monitoring. If a parent had a problem with the primary school it would be difficult for him to go and meet the block officer who would have no time,” he adds.

Integrating schools was also an efficient way to solve teacher shortages. A primary school for instance, had an allocation for only two teachers teaching Classes I to V while an upper primary school had an allocation for six. Combine the two in one institution and you could have one teacher for one grade who could target the specific needs of children in their classes.

For the majority of people who live in far flung rural areas, Mr Gangwar points out that the natural preference is to invest in a government school system that they can trust. At the centre of these reforms then, is a re-imagining of what access to quality education means – one school that provides education from Class I to XII under one principal.

Where some schools lack adequate space and physical infrastructure and they have to be shut down in the process of integration, the state government hopes to provide children with travel vouchers, Rs. 25 per day, so that they may travel to an Adarsh school. The eventual plan is to have one such school in every gram panchayat.

It is evident that the scheme is having an impact on the ground. In two years since the policy has been in place, it has seen about 15 lakh students returning to the public school system, reversing the trend of earlier years. Enrolment in senior secondary grades has also increased by over 2 lakhs while 66 per cent of students in the government system are now transitioning to Class XI as opposed to 50 per cent previously.

Importantly, gender parity has improved across all classes going from 0.70 to 0.84 in secondary grades and 0.71 from 0.63 in senior secondary grades.

The success of the Adarsh schools has meant that the Rajasthan government has been able to improve inclusion outcomes without going the way of privatisation.

 

  • Empowering the Right to Education

In 2009 India enacted a landmark legislation promising universal inclusion in primary education, paving the way for more learning opportunities at secondary and higher levels. This legislation, the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, effectively made education a fundamental right of every child in the age group of 6 to 14.

Yet six years on from its entry into force, there is still significant debate about the parameters through which that promise is supposed to be realised.

A massive investment push into education infrastructure has seen about 3.5 lakh new schools opened in the past decade under the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan so that 99 per cent of India’s rural population has a primary school within a one kilometre radius.

An already high enrolment level, about 95 per cent since 2009, has been supplemented by a 55 per cent decline in dropout rate reported between 2005 and 2014 in the age group 6-14.

Despite significant gains in increasing access to schooling, there are still major glitches in the implementation of the Act.

Earlier this year, Vice-President Hamid Ansari noted that even with the increasing enrolment numbers, India has the largest number of out-of-school children in the world, which is a staggering 6.064 million according to an answer given in the Rajya Sabha by the Union HRD Minister.

 

While enrolment has been a success, school completion rates remain abysmal.

According to a 2015 Brookings Institute report on primary education in India, 29 per cent of children drop out before completing five years of primary school, and 43 per cent before finishing upper primary school. High school completion, according to the report, is only 42 per cent. India’s dropout trends also raise troubling questions about equity: there is a huge difference between urban and rural education, and the education received by the rich and the poor.

 

Of the 6.064 million out of school children, an incredible 4.6 million, or 76 per cent, belonged to the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the religious minorities. The RTE promises education of equitable quality in schools meeting certain essential standards but in that crucial parameter of inclusion lies its biggest failing.

Much of the narrative around the RTE and its implementation tended to focus on the 25 per cent reservation of seats for children from disadvantaged backgrounds in private schools.

 

Latterly, it has also focused on the large number of low cost or budget schools that have faced closure for failing to meet infrastructure norms envisioned under the Act. It is important to recognise however, that about 70 per cent of India’s students study in government school and fixing this system – in term of improving infrastructure, teacher quality and targeted learning for children from disadvantaged groups – should be the first step in building a more equitable system.

  • urged to lift limits on stock-holding of pulses

Ahead of the Budget, the India Pulses and Grain Association (IGPA) has urged the government to withdraw the restrictions on stockholding by traders and millers, to ensure smooth supply of pulses in the domestic market.

The Association suggested that the government start selling pulses through the Public Distribution System (PDS) to incentivise farmers to produce more.

In its recommendations for the Union Budget of 2017-18, IPGA has demanded that pulses importers, wholesalers and millers be exempted from stock limits. In September, the government had extended the stock limit on pulses held by traders till for another year to September 2017.

Mr. Pravin Dongre, Chairman of IPGA said: “Our suggestions, if implemented, would streamline the availability of pulses across the country. IPGA is willing to work with the government to ensure adequate availability of pulses throughout the year.”

Mr. Dongre said the IGPA has also urged the government to consider creating a modernisation scheme for pulse mills. “India has over 10,000 pulse mills but less than 10 per cent of the industry has access to adequate scale, modern technology and organised operations,” he said, adding that without the ecosystem for scale and modernisation, the sector will continue to struggle for private capital, remain largely unorganised and technologically obsolete.

“Milling industry needs the support of government, both financial and technical, to build efficiency in the value chain of Dal production and distribution,” he added.

Private sector participation

The IPGA representation also asked for the government to invite private sector participation in creating modern storage infrastructure for pulses.

“In its efforts to build a large buffer stock to ensure steady supply of pulses through bilateral agreements with various countries on overseas farming and imports, private participation is crucial to scale up infrastructure for storage,” said the representation.

  • Nagaland villages show the way to grassroot innovations

While it is common for the people to visit a doctor or apply antiseptic creams on wounds to stop bleeding and avoid infections, many Nagaland villagers simply pluck a “doctor leaf” from a tree to stop the blood flow.

According to the villagers, extract from the leaves of Sayanglaza tree (Eupatorium Odoratum), when applied on the wounds, stops the external flow of blood within no time.

Living in tough terrains and faced with the scarcity of resources, villagers in Nagaland have not only preserved their traditional knowledge but have also adopted many new scientific approaches to make their lives better.

‘No wastage’

Their tradition of “no wastage” and “optimum usage of available resources” brings relief to their otherwise difficult life.

This and many other traditional and new scientific approaches were evident during the 38th Shodhyatra in Nagaland which took place from November 26 to December 2, where 60 ‘ shodhyatris’ from India and foreign countries participated.

“These shodhyatras are organised by SRISTI twice a year to unearth the traditional knowledge and grassroots innovations in remote villages of a particular State and give them the knowledge acquired from the other States of the country,” Professor Anil K Gupta, President, Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI), told PTI.

Traditional knowledge

During the recent Shodhyatra, biodiversity and food recipe competitions were organised to unveil the traditional knowledge of villagers. To encourage the curiosity and creativity among school children, competitions on innovative ideas were also held.

In addition to these competitions, people aged 90 years and above were honoured in their villages.

“In my lifetime, I have seen this first of its own kind of Shodhyatra. These baby steps will be helpful to our younger generation and they will get inspiration from it,” said Nyitsangpa, from village Phirahi, who claims to be 112-year-old.

“These Shodhyatras are management of knowledge for 200 years. By these journeys, we document 100 years old traditional knowledge of our elders, which is going to serve our younger generation for the next 100 years,” Prof Gupta added.

During this journey, machines invented by grassroots innovators were demonstrated before villagers. Bamboo incense stick making machine by L Ralte and L Sailo of Mizoram, hand-operated water lifting device by N Saktimainthan of Tamil Nadu and multi-purpose food processing machine by Dharamveer Kamboj of Haryana were some of them.

Grassroots innovator and farmer Amrut Agrawat (71), who has been President Pranab Mukherjee’s guest for over two weeks in Rashtrapati Bhavan, also participated in the Shodhyatra.

With the conclusion of the Shodhyatra in Nagaland, one cycle of covering each State in the country has been completed and second cycle will begin with Odisha in summer.

 

  • OHRC seeks reports on Chilika Lake tragedy

The Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC) directed three top officials, two State government departments and the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) to furnish reports regarding the recent boat tragedy in the Chilika lake that claimed four lives.

In its order on Tuesday, the OHRC sought reports regarding this boat accident from the CDA, Revenue Divisional Commissioner (RDC), southern division, Inspector General of Police (IGP), southern range, Ganjam district collector, departments of ‘Commerce & Transport’ and Tourism. These reports are to be furnished before the OHRC within next three weeks.

On December 10, a fishing boat carrying 29 picnickers and two boatmen from Sabulia on Chilika coast had capsized. Four persons including two children died in the mishap. The boat was not meant to carry tourists. It had holes in it and overloaded, which is suspected to be the reason behind the accident. Initial enquiries have hinted at it.

CDA Chief Executive Officer P. Krishna Mohan after his on-the-spot enquiry had said that lack of proper safety measures and overloading had caused the mishap.

Meanwhile, the owner of the boat as well as his assistant boatman, who is a juvenile, have been taken into custody. The boat has also been seized by the police.

On Tuesday, Khurda Collector and Superintendent of Police reached Barkul on Chilika coast to take stock of the situation of transportation of tourists by boats in the lake. License, registration, insurance and safety measures in these boats were checked. All boat owners were advised to comply with the prescribed norms of safety to transport tourists.

  • RS passes Disabilities Bill with more benefits

The Rajya Sabha on Wednesday passed the Disabilities Bill with the list of ‘disabilities’ expanded from seven to 21 and the quantum of reservation increased for people suffering from disabilities from three per cent to four per cent in government jobs.

In higher education institutions, the quota has been increased from three per cent to five percent.

The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Bill, 2014, moved in the Upper House earlier this month by Social Justice Minister Thaawar Chand Gehlot, also gives effect to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and related matters.

It provides for imprisonment ranging from six months to two years, along with a fine ranging from Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 5 lakh, for discriminating against differently abled persons.

“If the Bill becomes a law, it will benefit millions. It recognises that persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities like autism and Down’s Syndrome also have a right to education and employment. We are thrilled that the Bill has been passed after a three-year wait. This is a huge victory for us but we still have to go through the Lok Sabha tomorrow. I hope the same urgency is shown by the government and the opposition there,” said Javed Abidi, director of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People (NCPEDP).

In the Bill, disability has been defined based on an evolving and dynamic concept and the types of disabilities have been increased from existing seven to 21. The types of disabilities now include mental illness, autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, chronic neurological conditions. It also strengthens the office of chief commissioner and state commissioners for Persons with Disabilities, which will act as regulatory bodies.

In a break with disruptions in the Rajya Sabha for almost the entire session, the Opposition itself agreed to get the Bill passed for the benefit of persons with disabilities.

  • In world first

A hospital in northern Italy said on Wednesday it had achieved a world first by successfully transplanting a kidney in the place of the spleen in a six-year-old girl.

The child had been on dialysis since birth because of a rare kidney anomaly and a malformation of the abdominal blood vessels, the Molinette hospital in Turin said in a statement.

The youngster, who was not named, had been unable to either urinate or drink, it said. “In order to create the necessary space for the new kidney, a revolutionary and innovative technique was applied, with the removal of the spleen,” the hospital said.

“The girl is doing very well, she resumed urinating immediately and can finally drink after six years,” the hospital said.

  • How Russian cyber power invaded the U.S. election

When Special Agent Adrian Hawkins of the FBI called the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in September 2015 to pass along some troubling news about its computer network, he was transferred, naturally, to the help desk.

His message was brief, if alarming. At least one computer system belonging to the DNC had been compromised by hackers federal investigators had named “the Dukes,” a cyberespionage team linked to Russia.

The FBI knew it well: The bureau had spent the last few years trying to kick the Dukes out of the unclassified email systems.

A cryptic first sign

Yared Tamene, the tech-support contractor at the DNC who fielded the call, was no expert in cyberattacks. His first moves were to check Google for “the Dukes” and conduct a cursory search of the DNC computer system logs to look for hints of such a cyber intrusion.

By his own account, he did not look too hard even after Agent Hawkins called back repeatedly over the next several weeks — in part because he wasn’t certain the caller was a real FBI agent and not an impostor. “I had no way of differentiating the call I just received from a prank call,” Mr. Tamene wrote in an internal memo, obtained by The Times .

It was the cryptic first sign of a cyber espionage and information-warfare campaign devised to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, the first such attempt by a foreign power in American history. What started as an information-gathering operation, intelligence officials believe, ultimately morphed into an effort to harm one candidate, Hillary Clinton, and tip the election to her opponent, Donald Trump.

An examination by The Times of the Russian operation reveals a series of missed signals, slow responses and a continuing underestimation of the seriousness of the cyber attack.

The DNC’s fumbling encounter with the FBI meant the best chance to halt the Russian intrusion was lost. The failure to grasp the scope of the attacks undercut efforts to minimise their impact. And the White House’s reluctance to respond forcefully meant the Russians have not paid a heavy price for their actions.

Low-key approach

The low-key approach of the FBI meant that Russian hackers could roam freely through the network for nearly seven months before top DNC officials were alerted to the attack and hired cyberexperts to protect their systems. In the meantime, the hackers moved on to targets outside the DNC, including Ms. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John D. Podesta, whose private e-mail account was hacked months later.

By last summer, Democrats watched in helpless fury as their private e-mails and confidential documents appeared online day after day — procured by Russian intelligence agents, posted on WikiLeaks and other websites. Mr. Trump gleefully cited many of the purloined e-mails on the campaign trail.

Many of Ms. Clinton’s closest aides believe the Russian assault had a profound impact on the election.

While there’s no way to be certain of the ultimate impact of the hack, this much is clear: A low-cost, high-impact weapon that Russia had test-fired in elections from Ukraine to Europe was trained on the U.S., with devastating effectiveness.

Weapon for Russia

For Russia, with an enfeebled economy and a nuclear arsenal it cannot use short of all-out war, cyberpower proved the perfect weapon: cheap, hard to see coming, hard to trace.

The U.S., too, has carried out cyberattacks, and in decades past the CIA tried to subvert foreign elections. But the Russian attack is increasingly understood across the political spectrum as an ominous historic landmark — with one notable exception: Mr. Trump has rejected the findings of the intelligence agencies he will soon oversee as “ridiculous”, insisting that the hacker may be American, or Chinese, but that “they have no idea.”

Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder and editor, has resisted the conclusion that his site became a pass-through for Russian hackers working for Mr. Putin’s government or that he was deliberately trying to undermine Ms. Clinton’s candidacy. But the evidence on both counts appears compelling. — New York Times New Service

  • ‘Hindus best-educated religious group in U.S.’

Washington: Hindus are the best-educated of all religious groups in North America and Europe, a new study released by Pew Research Centre on Tuesday found.

This is in sharp contrast with the Hindus who live in India, who are among the least-educated of all religious groups worldwide, the study found.

96% have college degrees

Ninety-six per cent of Hindus in the U.S. have college degrees compared to 36 per cent for Christians who are a majority in the country. Among Jews, 76 per cent have college degrees, compared to 54 per cent of Muslims and 53 per cent of Buddhists. “..outside the Asia-Pacific region, where Hindus are a small religious minority, they are much more highly educated —and often are the most highly educated religious group in a particular country.

“For instance, Hindus in the U.S. have 15.7 years of schooling, on average — a full year more than the next most highly educated U.S. religious group (Jews), and nearly three years more than the average American adult (12.9 years).

“Hindus in Europe also are highly educated, averaging 13.9 years of schooling,” the study, titled Religion and Education Around the World, said. “However, Hindus still have the lowest level of educational attainment of any major religious group,” it said.

Globally, Hindus average 5.6 years of schooling and only one-tenth of them have post-secondary degrees. Forty-one per cent of Hindus have no formal education of any kind.

Gender gap

The gender gap in education has been bridged to some extent among Hindus in recent years, but they still have the largest educational gender gap of any religious group.

“On an average, Hindu men have 2.7 more years of schooling than Hindu women, and just over half of Hindu women (53 per cent) have no formal schooling, compared with 29 per cent of Hindu men,” the study said.

  • NSG waiver has attendant risks, govt. tells Lok Sabha

India wants full membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as the current arrangement with the elite club carries “attendant risks”, the government told the Lok Sabha on Wednesday.

Minister of Atomic Energy and Space Jitendra Singh said in a written answer that the “waiver” that the NSG gave India “has an element of unpredictability”.

“India is currently engaged in nuclear trade with international partners based on a waiver from the NSG in 2008. The waiver is in the form of a concession without according India the status of a full member and therefore has an element of unpredictability and attendant risks in the long run for India’s long-term nuclear power programme,” said Mr. Singh.

The government’s statement is significant as it is the first time that it has declared the waiver in such terms. The statement prompted former Indian ambassador to the U.S. Shankar Bajpai to question the government’s position. “Our interests were met by the waiver from the NSG which has helped us conduct nuclear trade with other nuclear powers,” said Mr. Bajpai and added, “full membership of NSG is a matter of prestige and not a matter of benefit.”

However, Mr. Singh sought to highlight that membership of NSG would help India access the nuclear supply chain with ease.

“Full membership of the NSG would enable India to have enhanced and predictable global access to nuclear technology, fuel, materials and components required for our expanding civil nuclear programme. It would advance energy security, contribute to India’s growth strategy based on clean energy to combat climate change, and strengthen global nuclear non-proliferation,” said Mr. Singh.

Earlier this year, Minister of State for External Affairs V.K. Singh had updated Parliament about the waiver without referring to it in terms of risk or unpredictability.

Consensus decision

“The NSG took a consensus decision in September 2008 to permit its members to engage in civil nuclear cooperation with India despite India not being a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT),” Mr. V.K. Singh had told the Lok Sabha on May 4.

In 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had described the same as a “momentous” decision which would end India’s “isolation” in the global energy market.

India has been trying to upgrade the “waiver” into a full member status and the government accordingly made two attempts this year to become member of the elite organisation. India has been engaging nuclear energy producing countries in civil nuclear deals since getting the waiver.

Mr. Bajpai cautioned that criticising the waiver may not help India engage nuclear powers. “There is no hope for getting NSG membership in the near future as the Chinese have not changed their position,” he said.

The NSG will take up India’s membership issue at its next plenary session in June 2017.

  • A wrong turn with the Rohingyas

Myanmar’s de facto ruler Aung San Suu Kyi has called for a special informal meeting with Foreign Ministers of ASEAN next Monday in Yangon to discuss international concerns over the state of the Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine. Since October 9, when soldiers poured into Rakhine, over 130 Rohingyas have been killed and dozens of buildings in their villages torched. The United Nations estimates that 30,000 Rohingyas have been displaced by the ongoing violence in Rakhine. According to analysis of satellite images from Human Rights Watch, more than 1,000 houses in Rohingya villages have been razed in northwestern Myanmar. Bangladesh has provided food and shelter to around 30,000 documented Rohingyas.

Perilous lives

Assuming office as the State Counsellor of Myanmar after her party’s landslide victory in 2015, Ms. Suu Kyi initiated the formation of an independent and representative advisory commission led by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to seek “lasting solutions” to the Rohingya crisis. This was the first time any concrete initiative was undertaken by the Myanmar authorities after the 2012 Rakhine State riots between the Rakhine Buddhist majority and the Rohingya Muslim minority.

Since the enactment of the 1982 Burma Citizenship Law, which effectively denies to the Rohingyas the possibility of acquiring a nationality, the 1.33 million Rohingyas have led perilous and uncertain lives and have migrated in large numbers to safer places. The recent military intervention was initiated to track down unidentified insurgents thought to be responsible for the attack on police border posts on October 9 in Maungdaw village in which nine Burmese policemen were shot dead. Maungdaw was immediately declared a counterterrorism “operation zone” and from October 10, humanitarian aid to the region was suspended. Reports of a crackdown by the army are difficult to verify due to limited media access to Rakhine. The army maintains that the buildings were, in fact, demolished by the Rohingyas themselves, and requested international media to examine all claims.

In a democratic setting, the killings on October 9, even if actually committed by Rohingya insurgents, should have been investigated through the formation of an independent judicial commission following which appropriate administrative, legal, and punitive measures should have been taken against the perpetrators. Launching a hasty and brutal military crackdown is not the answer, for it hardly makes any distinction between vulnerable villagers fleeing their homes and those who have committed the crime.

The State Counsellor Office Information Committee claimed that the army’s involvement in Rakhine was intended to be an “area clearance” operation in the inner part of the region. However, continued denial of access to the international media raises legitimate questions on the credibility of such statements released by the government. Mr. Annan said: “We stressed in all our meetings that wherever security operations might be necessary, civilians must be protected at all times, and I urge the security services to act in full compliance with the rule of law.”

A long way to go

Crackdown by the military, lack of proper judiciary processes, unavailability of NGOs and aid workers, and limited media access are all reminders that a country that has finally found democracy after decades of struggle still has a long way to go before vestiges of the past mired by blood and conflict can become a distant memory. There is still hope in Ms. Suu Kyi’s leadership, the military’s pragmatism, and the goodwill that the international community now has for Mynamar. This new democracy needs to find a lasting solution to the Rohingya crisis, as much for itself as for the refugees who should not be either forgotten or forsaken by the global community. Migrants, whether in Asia or Europe, should be treated with the same degree of humanity.

  • Rights for the rightful owners

On this day 10 years ago the historic Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act was passed in the Lok Sabha. Its conception and passage was the result of the decades of struggles and sacrifices of millions of tribals across India, of their organisations, of numerous activists and intellectuals working on tribal issues, and because of the commitment and efforts of the Left parties.

Attempts at dilution

A century ago colonial chicanery had turned tribal owners of the forests and its resources into encroachers. A decade ago, the Indian inheritors of this legacy of fraud were working against the Bill till literally the last moment. The real encroachers and plunderers of the forests, the mining companies, the private power sector companies, those involved in irrigation projects, the timber and paper industries, the forest resort tourist industry had high stakes in preventing the passage of the Bill. They were in the company of fundamentalist wildlife and environmentalist groups with their close links with the powerful forest bureaucracy. They made a motley though influential crowd and had the ear of very important people in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government hierarchy.

They succeeded in diluting some important recommendations of the Parliamentary Select Committee on community forest rights, access to minor forest produce and so on. The clause that Non-tribal Traditional Forest Dwellers would have to show evidence of their occupation of the land for 75 years virtually negated the inclusion of these largely poorer sections, many of them Dalits, in the law. The Left had proposed that for these sections the Supreme Court-proposed cut-off year of 1980 would be appropriate, while for tribal communities the cut-off year should be 2005. But at the last moment the government surreptitiously brought in the three generation or 75-year clause.

The Bill with these obnoxious clauses was circulated and listed for immediate discussion and passage. As soon as we saw it, the Chairman of the Select Committee, Kishore Chandra Deo, and I rushed to the chamber of Pranab Mukherjee, then External Affairs Minister, who was the point person for the Bill on behalf of the government in the negotiations with the Left. There was a mini-drama and heated discussion which finally ended with the arrival of the Tribal Affairs Minister, P.R. Kyndiah, who had been summoned by his senior. In the discussions he assured us that he would move amendments to the Bill. At that time there was no choice but to accept the assurance at face value. It had taken more than a year of struggle to finally get the Bill included in the business agenda of Parliament and listed. The powerful lobbies against the Bill would have used our opposition to once again shelve it. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was playing a duplicitous role — its Adivasi MPs supported the Bill while others were dead against it. They ran a campaign among MPs from the Northeast that if passed, the law would legalise encroachment by “illegal Bangladeshis”. This was utterly misleading, but anything was fair in the war against tribal rights.

The missing amendments

The Bill became law, but without the amendments promised. After much discussion and pressure, some of them were included in the Rules. This also was a big struggle and there was a strong group of activists who along with the Left representatives could work out a fairly good set of Rules. It included giving prime importance to the role of the gram sabhas.

In spite of its inadequacies, there can be little doubt that the Forest Rights Act (FRA) stands as a powerful instrument to protect the rights of tribal communities. It is a hindrance to corporate interests to their free loot and plunder of India’s mineral resources, its forests, its water. But the Narendra Modi government is systematically implementing its plan to weaken and dilute the Act in several ways.

New attempts at dilution

First, it has brought a series of legislation that undermine the rights and protections given to tribals in the FRA, including the condition of “free informed consent” from gram sabhas for any government plans to remove tribals from the forests and for the resettlement or rehabilitation package. The laws were pushed through by the Modi government without any consultation with tribal communities. They include the amendments to the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act and a host of amendments to the Rules to the FRA which undermine the FRA. The requirement of public hearings and gram sabha consent has been done away with for mid-sized coal mines. BJP State governments and partners in the National Democratic Alliance such as the Telugu Desam Party government in Andhra Pradesh have introduced government orders to subvert the FRA. In Telangana, in total violation of the FRA, the government has illegalised traditional methods of forest land cultivation. The Jharkhand government has brought amendments to the Chotanagpur and also the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Acts which eliminate rights of gram sabhas and permit tribal land to be taken over by corporates, real estate players, private educational and medical institutions in the name of development, without tribal consent. In Maharashtra the government has issued a notification of “Village Rules” which gives all rights of forest management to government-promoted committees as opposed to the gram sabha. This is the law-based offensive.

Second, there is the policy-based war. The Modi government has declared its commitment to ensuring “ease of business”, which translates into clearing all private sector-sponsored projects in tribal-inhabited forest areas. The National Board for Wildlife, with the Prime Minister as Chairperson, was reconstituted, slashing the number of independent experts from 15 members to three, packing it with subservient officials. In the first three months of assuming office, the Modi government cleared 33 out of 41 proposals diverting over 7,000 hectares of forest land. Of this the major share was for Gujarat companies. In two years the clearances for projects have included “diversion” — or more appropriately land grab — to the extent of 1.34 lakh hectares of forest land. In many areas this will lead to massive displacement of tribal communities. In the multipurpose Polavaram project in Andhra Pradesh alone, now given a national status by the Central government, 2 lakh hectares of forest land will be submerged affecting around 85,000 families, more than half tribals, including 100 habitations of particularly vulnerable tribal communities. In almost all these projects, the affected tribal families have not yet received their pattas (land ownership documents), one of the conditions set by the FRA. This wilful disregard and blatant violation of the legal protections given to tribals has become the cornerstone of the policy.

Third, there is the deliberate freeze of the actual implementation of the FRA. Neither individual pattas nor pattas for community forest resources are being given. During the UPA-II government the implementation of the Act was virtually hijacked by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and rejections of claims increased. However, now the situation has worsened, and the rate of rejections has gone up during the Modi regime. According to one analysis, between May 2015 and April 2016, eight out of every 10 claims were rejected. This is the ‘Gujarat model’ in operation. The State has one of the worst records in implementation of the FRA. Although 98 per cent of the approximately 1.9 lakh tribal claims had been approved by the gram sabhas, the bureaucrats in the sub-divisional committee and above brought the acceptance down to just 38 per cent. This is in sharp contrast to a Left-led State such as Tripura, where 98 per cent of tribal claims have been recorded and titles given.

Mixed signals from the judiciary

The judiciary has also had a role to play. The same institution, which gave tribals hope through the Samata judgment, the historic Niyamgiri judgment, has also clubbed together a number of hostile petitions to the FRA and is giving them a sympathetic hearing. In January last year the court in an ominous intervention in a writ petition filed by Wildlife Trust of India and others issued notice to all State governments to “file an affidavit giving data regarding the number of claims rejected within the territory of the State and the extent of land over which such claims were made and rejected and the consequent action taken up by the State after rejection of the claims”.

This has rightly been taken by tribal communities and their organisations as a prelude to mass evictions. Maharashtra issued a notification dated April 23, 2015, directing the police to take action against “identified encroachers”, namely those whose claims have been rejected. Till 1985, the department of “Tribal Affairs” was under the Home Ministry. Tribal rights and struggles for justice were viewed as a “law and order issue, always a problem”. Under the present dispensation this retrograde approach seems to have been resurrected.

On the tenth anniversary of the historic passage of the FRA, tribal resistance is growing all over the country to defend their rights under FRA and other related issues.

 

 

  • Two systems, two diverse offerings

For Ajay (7), his school in this remote corner of Kanchipuram district in Tamil Nadu is a lifeline to learning in an otherwise difficult life.

The youngest of three children, Ajay’s father abandoned them, leaving their mother to fend for the family, battling her own poor health.

Each day that Ajay attends Class III at the Panchayat Union Primary School here is a day he cannot help at home, or engage in some form of work, and the pressure on his family is enormous.

Yet when the troubles at home cause him to fall behind in learning the phonetics of the alphabet or basic addition skills using bead counting, he finds succour from his teachers who are patient and always willing to give him the extra attention that he may need in class.

Where inclusion comes first

This broadly inclusive approach, approximating the American maxim “No child left behind,” is the philosophy underpinning the governance of government schools in Tamil Nadu, and it extends beyond support to children such as Ajay, who are dropout risks owing to the economic circumstances their families.

The government school system in Tamil Nadu has also has excelled in implementing programmes for children who drop out owing to the migration of their parents, according to Pooja Kulkarni, State Project Director for Sarva Shiksha Abiyan (SSA), the vehicle for universalising elementary education, the promise of the Right to Education Act.

An example of tackling this problem of “migration dropouts,” Ms. Kulkarni explains, is the way education officers track migration to the cotton fields of Salem, where agricultural workers from Viluppuram and Thiruvannamalai districts go during the harvest season.

Corresponding to these migration patterns the governments then open non-residential schools in the vicinity of the cotton fields or construction sites, therein also catering to the education needs of out-of-state children coming from as far as Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, and Jharkhand.

At each such education centre the typical practice is to engage a temporary “education volunteer” who would be an individual who has passed the Class 12 public examination and procure text books from respective states in a variety of relevant languages.

The public school system here has also made bold strides in pedagogy, moving away from the prior method of learning by rote.

Instead, in the years that neuroscience tells us are the most important for cognitive development primary school students engage with Activity Based Learning (ABL), a structured learning method based on a card-ladder system.

As Sashikumar, a training coordinator for SSA in Kanchipuram explains, there are ten competency milestones a child has to achieve per grade under ABL, and a series of activities is required to reach those milestones. These activities typically including conversations, story-telling, singing, or role-play activities, which are done in a “highly structured manner integrated into the main curriculum”

Notwithstanding these profound strides forward in expanding access to and the quality of primary education, the reach of the government school system competes with that of private schools, and the public system even leans on the private sector in some cases, whose presence is palpable in Vallakkottai, situated as it is, close to the Oragadam Industrial Corridor.

Fourteen gleaming black computers donated by Hyundai corporation stood were proudly displayed by school principal Shaik Mohammed, who also said that the clean, grassy, well-equipped playground on the school premises was set up and maintained by Apollo Tyres Corporation.

Private schools also appeared to be the bane of some school administrators. In a government middle school in nearby Eraiyur some teachers opined that parents tended to place their children in private schools swayed by their offer of school bus services, yet students who had moved back to the government schools from there complained of poor teaching, teachers who beat them, and a lack of learning materials including books.

Why then has Tamil Nadu, similar to numerous other Indian states, witnessed such a strong uptake in private school admissions across the board?

The lure of private schools

Nowhere is this trend stronger than in Chennai.

  1. Vasanthi, who works in the maintenance department of a courier company says that her eight-year-old son studies in Class II in a CBSE private school in the locality.

Where she resides, in the slum clearance board apartments in T. Nagar, many parents like her have admitted their children to private schools in their locality.

“There are lots of extra-curricular activities and we feel that the children can develop better communication skills in english as well. We don’t mind paying the high fees,” Vasanthi says, when asked about her choice of school.

With the number of private schools mushrooming in the state, the queues for LKG admissions outside its gates have been growing with every passing year.

Earlier this year, a reputed school in the city had made an announcement that admissions for LKG in their school had been closed till 2019. This meant that parents could seek admissions only from the year 2020, for children born in the year 2016.

Activists have however raised concerns about the fees charged by private schools in the state with respect to the infrastructure and quality provided, and K.R. Nandakumar, Tamil Nadu Matric, Higher Secondary and CBSE schools association said, “While Private schools are expected to follow the norms set by the State Government and the department, there is no other common government body that is evaluating them on the quality of holistic education provided.”

However, with the quality aspects gaining more focus, an increasing number of private schools in the state have begun to get certifications from the International Organisation for Standardisation.

  1. Narayanan, who runs Change India, an NGO which recently carried out a study on a group of private schools in the city operating over ten branches said that the increasing number of private schools which had violated norms with regard to the minimum land required and other infrastructural facilities, presented a rather grim picture.

“There is a flagrant violation of rules in most of these institutions. Legal compliance should be the first issue which should be tackled followed by regulation of quality,” he observed.

  • Green panel imposes interim ban on ‘manja’

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Wednesday imposed an interim nationwide ban on the use of glass-coated ‘manja’ for flying kites as the sharp string poses a danger to humans, animals and birds.

The green panel said the ban order would apply on nylon, Chinese and cotton ‘manja’ coated with glass. It directed the Manja Association of India to submit a report to Central Pollution Control Board on harmful effects of kite strings.

The direction came after senior advocate Sanjay Hegde and advocate Shadan Farasat, appearing for People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), sought the ban, saying Makar Sankranti was approaching and ‘manja’ would be used for flying kites.

A bench headed by NGT Chairperson Swatanter Kumar passed the order after noting that ‘manja’ posed a threat to the environment.

The bench also referred to various orders, including the November 2015 order of the Allahabad High Court which banned the use of Chinese ‘manja’ in Uttar Pradesh and sought a ban on the “manufacture, import, sale and use” of the string. The matter was listed for next hearing on February 1, 2017.

The tribunal had earlier issued notices to all the State governments and sought their response on PETA’S plea on the matter.

In its petition, PETA contended that the ‘manja’ posed a grave threat to humans and animals as every year a number of deaths were caused by it. The petition said ‘manja’ also posed a threat when it came into contact with live overhead electric wires, leading to grid failure.

“Due to ‘manja’ being coated with glass, metals and other sharp material, these strings act as good conductors of electricity ,” it said.

PETA averred that children were engaged by the cottage industry to manufacture ‘manja’ which caused respiratory problems.

 

  • Monkey Day has a serious message for children

It is a day to celebrate the world’s mischief makers. About 200 students arrived at the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park here on Wednesday to do just that — show their love for monkeys and other wild animals and talk conservation on World Monkey Day.

16-year-old practice

The 16-year-old practice of dedicating December 14 to primates and other species was a first for the zoo, and it drew students to enclosures housing nearly 100 of them including rhesus monkeys, bonnet monkeys, stump-tailed monkeys, olive baboon, chimpanzee, ring-tailed lemur and marmoset.

“It was exciting. We learnt about their unique features,” exclaimed D. Ishica, a student of KKR Gowtham school.

After the programme, students wanted their family members to adopt some of the animals. The event was conducted by Vizag Zoo Lovers, Paryavarana Margadarsa Vyasakhi and Bapuji Rural Enlightenment and Development Society.

Vizag Zoo Lovers convener Rapaka Manohar said the organisation was trying to convince people to adopt animals and help improve their upkeep.

“I love animals and now I also want to make small contributions along with my friends,” said B. Thanusha of Bhashyam Public School.

Social media campaign

Zoo Educational Officer B. Varalakshmi said such visits enhanced knowledge on wildlife issues among young children.

According to animal lovers, Monkey Day celebrations unofficially began by artist Casey Sorrow when he was studying at Michigan State University in 2000. He jokingly scribbled Monkey Day on the calendar of a friend, which subsequently led to the annual celebration of the day on MSU campus to show love and adoration towards monkeys.

The day’s celebrations was restricted to only the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, and it is turning popular among Third World countries due to campaign by animal lovers through social media.

The zoo launched its adoption scheme in 2000, but it started evoking a good response only in the past three years. HPCL, Pharmagel and Hetero adopted tigers and lions.

 

  • Cyclone Vardah makes little impact on Cauvery inflow

Alhough Cyclone Vardah’s impact resulted in rainfall in some parts of Karnataka, including the Cauvery basin, it was too feeble to record a substantial increase in the storage of Cauvery reservoirs or flow into Tamil Nadu.

KRS levels

The cyclone resulted in additional inflow of about 900 cusecs into the Cauvery reservoirs.

It contributed to the release of 0.48 tmcft of water to Tamil Nadu in the last 72 hours, according to sources in the Water Resources Department.

The inflow into the Krishna Raja Sagar (KRS) reservoir increased from 257 cusecs on Monday morning to 890 cusecs by Wednesday evening, a senior officer at the Cauvery Neeravari Nigam Ltd. (CNNL), told The Hindu.

The water level at the KRS at 6 p.m. on Wednesday was 78.88 ft as against the full reservoir level (FRL) of 124.80 feet.

Moderate rainfall

The inflow to Tamil Nadu was due to the moderate rainfall witnessed in the areas in the downstream of KRS and Kabini reservoirs as well as the upstream of the water measuring gauge at Biligundlu, an official of the water resources department said.

However, such a small increase in the inflow into Cauvery reservoirs or release of water to Tamil Nadu would not have a significant effect, since the impact of the cyclone is only a temporary phenomenon, the department said.

 

 

 

  • NGT issues notices to U.P., civic bodies

The National Green Tribunal on Wednesday asked the Uttar Pradesh government why environmental compensation should not be slapped on it for its “intentional” non- compliance of statutory obligations regarding discharge of untreated sewage water into the Ganga.

While issuing a show cause notice to the State government, the NGT said “environment and public health does not fall in its priority list” as it was “undisputed” that no action was taken by the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) and municipal bodies to prepare an action plan on cleaning the river.

The UPCCB and municipal bodies of Mirzapur, Chunar, Bhadohi, Fatehpur and Hastinapur were issued show cause notices asking them why environmental compensation should not be imposed on them as they had failed to prepare the plan despite directions issued bythe Central Pollution Control Board.

“At this stage, we are satisfied that non-compliance to the directions contained in the order dated October 9, 2015 is intentional and without any sufficient cause.

Furthermore, the non-compliance is a matter which has to be viewed seriously.

Nothing prevented the respondents, authorities, corporations and bodies, to approach the CPCB and put forward their difficulties, if any, and get the same resolved.

Public health

“It appears that environment and public health does not fall on priority list of all these respondents. Consequently, we issue notice to show cause to the Member Secretary of UPPCB, Commissioner and Executive Officers, Mayor, Chairman and head of the municipality respondents and Secretary of Uttar Pradesh to show cause why they be not directed to pay Environmental compensation for non-compliance of the directions,” a bench headed by NGT Chief Justice Swatanter Kumar said.

It also asked them to show cause why the tribunal should not direct prosecution of all these respondents in accordance with law.

The matter was listed for next hearing on January 27.

The NGT was hearing a plea filed by the CPCB seeking directions to the UPPCB and the CEOs of these five municipal councils to “prepare a plan of action to clean the Ganga and water bodies, ground water and soil in a time-bound manner and recover the cost of preparation and execution of such plan of action from the polluters.”

  • Prototype of super, super computer in 2017

China plans to develop a prototype exascale computer by the end of the year, state media has said, as it seeks to win a global race to be the first to build a machine capable of a billion, billion calculations per second.

If successful, the achievement would cement its place as a leading power in the world of supercomputing.

The Asian giant built the world’s fastest supercomputer, the Sunway TaihuLight machine, in June last year, which was twice as fast as the previous number one.

It used only locally made microchips, making it the first time a country has taken the top spot without using U.S. technology.

Exascale computers are even more powerful, and can execute at least one quintillion (a billion billion) calculations per second.

Though a prototype was in the pipeline, a complete version of such a machine would take a few more years to complete, Xinhua news agency cited Zhang Ting, application engineer at the National Supercomputer Center in the port city of Tianjin, as saying.

“A complete computing system of the exascale supercomputer and its applications can only be expected in 2020, and will be 200 times more powerful than the country’s first petaflop computer Tianhe-1, recognised as the world’s fastest in 2010,” said Mr. Zhang.

The exascale computer could have applications in big data and cloud computing work, he added, noting that its prototype would lead the world in data transmission efficiency as well as calculation speed.

World leader

As of last June, China for the first time had more top-ranked supercomputers than the U.S., with 167 compared to 165, according to a survey by supercomputer tracking website Top500.org.

Of the top 10 fastest computers, two are in China and five in the US as of November, the ranking said. Others are in Japan and Switzerland. China has poured money into big-ticket science and technology projects as it seeks to become a high-tech leader.

Despite some gains the country’s scientific output still lags behind, and its universities fare poorly in global rankings.

  • Regional connectivity plan nets proposals to revive 65 airports

Dormant airports such as Hosur, Bikaner, Bidar, Jalandhar, Jalgaon or Jaisalmer may soon start receiving flights as airlines have shown interest in flying out of these airports under the Centre’s ambitious regional connectivity scheme. Passengers may soon be able to fly out of these airports by paying Rs. 2,500 for an hour’s flight.

The Airports Authority of India, which is implementing the regional connectivity scheme, has received 45 proposals from 11 bidders covering more than 200 routes as the deadline for submitting the proposals ended on Monday, the civil aviation ministry said here in a statement.

52 unserved airports

The operators have submitted plans covering 65 airports, out of which 52 are un-served airports which haven’t seen a single flight for more than a year and the remaining 13 are under-served airports where less than seven commercial flight departures take place in a week.

Airlines have shown interest in flying out of underserved airports including Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh, Jamnagar and Bhavnagar in Gujarat, Jorhat in Assam, Kullu in Himachal Pradesh, Diu, Puducherry, Agra in Uttar Pradesh, Pant Nagar in Uttarakhand, Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh and Durgapur in West Bengal.

Some of the unserved airports, proposed to be revived for regional flights, include Bilaspur and Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh, Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, Jeypore and Jharsuguda in Odisha, Jalandhar in Punjab, Kandla in Gujarat, Kolhapur and Latur in Maharashtra.

As per the scheme, the Centre will subsidise the losses incurred by airlines flying out of dormant airports, to allow airlines to charge Rs. 2,500 for an hour’s flight to passengers. About 80% of the subsidy will be collected by charging a levy of up to Rs. 8,500 on each departing flight of domestic airlines and the rest 20% will come from the respective state governments.

The Centre has now invited counter-bids against these initial proposals and will accept them till February 1. The routes or networks would be awarded to bidders who quote the lowest requirement of Viability Gap Funding (VGF) against such routes, the ministry said in an official statement.

  • The hard road to Brexit

Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech on her government’s plans for Britain’s exit from the EU was many things at once — a declaration of intent, a warning, a motivational talk and a balancing act with several contradictions. She painted the first stroke on the negotiation canvas: Britain had chosen a “hard Brexit”. It would leave the single market and with it gain more control over its borders and its laws, some of which are currently under the oversight of the European Courts of Justice. This, Ms. May said, is what the people had chosen. At the same time, the U.K. would seek to negotiate a deal that would give it as much access to the single market without being a part of it. It would seek a modified customs union membership to be able to negotiate its own trade treaties with non-EU countries, and build what the Prime Minister called a “truly global Britain”. This vision had been built up by Ms. May since the June 2016 referendum, and her speech reiterated it was the alternative, and better, future that awaited Britain. The Prime Minister pushed and pulled at the EU, with praise and warning. Ms. May spoke of her country’s good intentions for the continent and her optimism for a good deal with Europe, but said she would accept a no-deal over a bad one. She warned that it would be “calamitously” harmful to Europe if it penalised the U.K. for leaving. She spoke of wanting to strike a trade deal with the EU but hinted that if it did not get a good deal the U.K. had the rest of the world to trade with, and the option to offer tax incentives to attract “the best companies and the biggest investors”.

Ms. May, who was herself a “Remainer”, is trying to make the most of the referendum results for the U.K., and this is her job. It is in this context that her speech must be seen. Neither the British government nor those who supported the move to leave the EU should harbour any illusions that some of the goals outlined in the speech will be difficult to achieve. The EU, which according to recent data accounts for approximately half the U.K.’s imports and exports, is likely to be overwhelmingly important to it after the exit. It is not just the EU that will experience great harm from a bad deal. Trade deals with non-EU countries such as India are likely to involve greater movement of people across borders and this is bound to raise difficult immigration issues again. The Scottish Parliament has now reiterated its resolve to discuss with Downing Street Scotland’s continuation in the single market, and a second referendum for Scottish independence is now more likely. Nobody said it would be easy.

  • ‘Demonetisation a reckless move’

The Right to Food Campaign has slammed “demonetisation” as a “reckless move” that “serves no clear purpose and is a major attack on the right to food and the right to life”.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the Right to Food Campaign, an informal network of individuals and organisations committed to the realisation of the right to food in India, said that economists of all persuasions have “exposed” the government’s claim that demonetisation would curb black money.

Forgotten decisions

Questioning the government’s seriousness about combating corruption, it observed that three years after the Lokpal Act came into force, no Lokpal has been appointed, the Whistleblowers Protection Act (passed in February 2014) awaits implementation, and the government is still to introduce the Grievance Redressal Bill.

Pointing out that “it does not require a PhD in economics to understand that when the bulk of the population is strapped for cash, economic activity and employment take a dip,” it noted: “Farmers have been dumping vegetables on the roads for want of a remunerative price. Traders and vendors have seen their sales dive, often by 50 per cent or more. Sales of durable goods have crashed across the board. Construction activity has slowed own. And most importantly, workers have been laid off on a large scale.”

Pension, wages woes

Observing that pensioners and MGNREGA workers find it difficult to secure their pensions and wages at the best of times, it said: “Now, with the banking system jammed, millions of them are in danger of their lifeline being cut off for weeks or even months.”

Calling upon the government to compensate the people for the hardships caused by demonetisation, the statement laid out a set of demands — an immediate increase in the annual budget of MGNREGA to Rs.60,000 crore with effect from 2016-17, increase of the Centre’s contribution to social security pension for widows, the elderly and the disabled persons from Rs.200 to Rs.1,000 per month, immediate implementation of the National Food Security Act provisions for universal maternity entitlements (Rs.6,000 per child), immediate central assistance for inclusion of milk, eggs and fruits in school mid-day meals and ICDS, immediate compensation for all families of victims of demonetisation-related deaths, and full disclosure of how, when, why and by whom the decision was made to demonetise.

Food insecurity

The right to food protects the rights of all humans to be free from hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition. It is derived from the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which India is a party.

  • Still frowning upon intermarriages

As 2016 draws to an end, it may seem that inter-caste marriages aren’t as uncommon as they used to be. Maybe you’ve even met someone whose spouse is from another religion. Do these salient examples mean that the times are changing? Are the divisions of caste and religion less sharp than they once were?

These are important questions. As B.R. Ambedkar pointed out, the social ban on intermarriage is “the most fundamental idea on which the whole fabric of caste is built up”. Ambedkar, and many others who have studied the stubbornness of caste, think it will only be annihilated when people marry across caste lines.

A new survey called SARI (Social Attitudes Research for India) investigated what people think about inter-caste and inter-religious marriage. SARI uses a sampling frame based on mobile phone subscriptions, random digit dialling, within-household sample selection, and statistical weights to build representative samples of adults 18-65 years old. So far, we’ve interviewed 1,270 adults in Delhi and 1,470 adults in Uttar Pradesh.

Home truths

We asked people whether they would oppose their children or close family members marrying people from other social groups. People from all backgrounds said that they would raise objections to such marriages.

Nearly 50 per cent of the non-Scheduled Caste respondents in Delhi and 70 per cent in Uttar Pradesh said that they would oppose a child or close relative marrying a Dalit. There was even greater opposition to inter-religious marriages. In Delhi, about 60 per cent of Hindus said they would oppose a child or relative marrying a Muslim; a similar fraction of Muslims would oppose a child or relative marrying a Hindu. In Uttar Pradesh, the opposition was even greater: about 75 per cent of Hindus opposed marriages with Muslims, and only a slightly lower fraction of Muslims, about 70 per cent, opposed marriages with Hindus (see graph 1).

The media often covers stories of khap panchayats brutally punishing young people for marrying outside their caste. Yet, for those living in India’s metros, these stories may seem distant or irrelevant to their own lives. Unfortunately, the SARI data suggest that the desire to stop other people from having inter-caste marriages is not as uncommon or distant as we might like to think. The survey asked respondents whether they thought there should be laws to stop marriages between upper castes and lower castes. About 40 per cent respondents in Delhi and more than 60 per cent in rural Uttar Pradesh said that such laws should exist (see graph 2)!

Laws against intermarriage had backers among the lower castes as well as the upper castes. A higher fraction of women than men in each of Delhi, urban Uttar Pradesh, and rural Uttar Pradesh said they would support laws against inter-caste marriage. Women may be more willing to legislate their own beliefs on this topic than men are, or, they may just be less likely to give the interviewer a socially desirable answer.

The idea that laws should prohibit inter-caste marriages was not confined to older generations. The only demographic factor that is strongly associated with support for laws against inter-caste marriage is education.

At every level of education, reported support for these laws is higher in Uttar Pradesh than in Delhi. As with the differences between men and women, there may well be real differences in support for inter-caste marriage bans in these three regions, or it may be that people in Delhi are just more likely to give the answer that they think the interviewer wants to hear.

Although education is associated with fewer people being willing to bring the state into others’ marriage choices, a high fraction of people who had passed Class 10 or higher nevertheless said that they support laws against inter-caste marriage. In Delhi, about 25 per cent of highly educated people said there should be a law against such marriages; in Uttar Pradesh, it is about 45 per cent (see graph 3).

Marriages for unity

The finding that even many educated people think there should be laws against inter-caste marriage raises serious questions about our education system and whether it is doing enough to reduce caste and religious prejudice. It is telling that many of the youth passing out of the premier technical and medical institutions still depend on their parents to choose their spouses.

Of course, in a society that is so divided on caste lines, inter-caste or inter-religious marriages can make a person an outcast among his family and neighbours. He may even be barred from family inheritance. Even when families are not adamantly opposed to an inter-caste marriage, there is a strong belief that it is more convenient to settle down with a socially and culturally familiar person.

Thankfully, despite popular support, no actual Indian law prohibits inter-caste marriage. If anything, on paper, the government approves of these marriages: each year, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment makes available 500 monetary awards to inter-caste couples. The small size of this programme makes it more of a symbolic gesture than an actual incentive, but it is nevertheless a good idea.

The government should be doing much more to promote inter-group marriage and to protect those who seek them. In practice, officials in the courts and the police often enforce divisive social norms rather than enforcing the laws. They may discourage or intimidate couples who try to marry across caste or religious lines. Lack of government support in the face of family disapproval may be one reason why the India Human Development Survey found that only 5 per cent of marriages are inter-caste. Will any political party have the courage to take up support for inter-caste marriages as an agenda item?

 

  • Tel Aviv on tenterhooks

On December 23, the United States Ambassador to the UN abstained on UN Security Council resolution 2334, which condemned Israel’s settlement activity in the occupied territory of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The language is tentative. It does not call the settlements illegal, but only having no “legal validity”. In the world of international law, the difference might not be significant. Israel pressured Egypt to withdraw the resolution, which it did, and it pressured the U.S. to veto it, which it did not. Malaysia, New Zealand, Venezuela and Senegal sponsored the resolution, which passed with 14 votes in favour and one abstention (the U.S.). Ambassadors around the table hoped that the vote would push towards the two-state solution, the “common aspiration of the international community”, said Chinese Ambassador Wu Haitao.

The resolution and the occupation

Five years previously, during the high point of the Arab Spring, the U.S. had vetoed a similar resolution. Then U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice said that her country rejects “in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity”. So then why veto the resolution, which the U.S. would abstain on five years later? In 2011, Ms. Rice said that the resolution would not further the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel, the subtext read, would lash out against the Palestinians. This is precisely what the Israelis now promise to do: build more settlements, fully annex the West Bank and East Jerusalem and thereby annul any prospect of a two-state solution.

The UN resolution — important as it is in itself — is not what Israel fears. What troubles Tel Aviv are the steps that would come after this resolution, particularly from the International Criminal Court (ICC). In January 2015, the ICC’s Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda opened a preliminary investigation into Israel’s actions during the 2014 bombing of Gaza and into the illegal settlements. Ms. Bensouda has since made it clear that she would not move forward to a full criminal investigation without substantial political clarity from the UN Security Council. Resolution 2334 produces the political will for such a move by the ICC. With Palestine as a recognised state in the UN as of 2012, and as a member of the ICC since 2014, and with this resolution now in force, the ICC could move in the next few months to a rigorous investigation of Israeli criminality. This would threaten the settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but it would also pressure Israeli soldiers to refuse to serve in any future criminal bombardment of Gaza. Whether the Palestinian leadership has the courage to insist on this remains to be seen.

In 1967, Israel seized the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — parts of Palestine that had been outside its control. The UN Security Council passed a series of resolutions (242, 252, 298) within the next decade, asking Israel to withdraw from this land and — in resolution 446 (1979) — to desist from building settlements on the occupied territory. The U.S., which had already become the shield for Israel, abstained from the major resolutions.

It was on this occupied territory that it was then assumed — against Israeli opinion — that a Palestinian state would be built. The two-state solution, the international consensus for the Israel-Palestine conflict, is premised on Israeli withdrawal from this land occupied in 1967. No wonder that the UN has periodically returned to censure Israel for its ongoing occupation and — in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention — the construction of settlements on occupied land.

The first major UN resolution to define the terms of the Israeli occupation was 242, sponsored by the United Kingdom and passed in November 1967 with unanimous approval. There was no abstention and no veto used by the permanent members. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said at that time that despite the U.S. and Israel being “sharply divided” on the issue of territory, the U.S. made no commitment “to assist Israel in retaining territories seized in the 1967 war”. Even when the administrations in Washington defended Israel’s annexationist policies — such as during the term of Ronald Reagan — the U.S. did not veto to defend the settlements.

The element of criminality

The Oslo Accords (1994) put in place the possibility of a Palestinian state, although it did not have an explicit statement to end settlement activity. Israel continues to eat into the potential Palestinian state. Neither does Israel want a two-state solution nor a one-state solution. This negative approach to the ‘peace process’ means that Israel is committed to a permanent occupation of the Palestinians. It continues to harbour dreams of a Greater Israel (Eretz Israel).

Four years after Oslo, the international community passed the Rome Statute for the establishment of the ICC. It was this new development — the ICC — rather than the Oslo Accords that increased the vetoes exercised by the U.S. in the UN Security Council to protect Israel. The Israeli establishment worried that the ICC would legitimately turn its gaze on issues such as population transfer and war crimes. The ICC — under pressure to investigate crimes outside the African continent — could find that Israeli actions provide a legitimate site of inquiry. The vetoes from Washington prevented any legal foundation for ICC action against Israel.

Prosecutor Bensouda’s investigators visited the West Bank and East Jerusalem in October this year. The ICC said that this was not part of its preliminary investigation, but it is hard to imagine that this is true. The new UN Security Council resolution harkens back to more radical postures from it in 1979 and 1980 as well as to the International Court of Justice’s 2014 finding that the ‘apartheid’ wall that entraps the West Bank is illegal. Pressure will mount on her to take her investigation forward.

Tel Aviv’s triumphalism

The tone of Israel’s rejection came when Ambassador Danny Danon said that Tel Aviv has the right to build “homes in the Jewish people’s historic homeland”. The settlements, for the Israeli government, are essential for their own project. They see nothing short of — as Ambassador Danon put it — “a Jewish State proudly reclaiming the land of our forefathers”. Ambassador Danon is fully in agreement with Washington’s incoming Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who believes in a Greater Israel and denies the existence of Palestine. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to undo the resolution and threatened to end U.S. funding to the UN.

António Guterres, the UN’s new Secretary-General has indicated that he will send a UN Support Mission to push for a two-state solution. Mr. Guterres and Ms. Bensouda will have to thread the needle between the consensus of the international community (a two-state solution) and Israel’s own illegal territorial ambitions. Optimism for progress would be unwarranted.

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is ‘The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution’.

  • Statesmanship at Pearl Harbour

Conspicuous gestures of reconciliation between nations to heal the deep emotional wounds of wars will have connotations that go beyond the symbolic. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, through his visit to Pearl Harbour this week, and U.S. President Barack Obama, with his homage at the peace memorial at Hiroshima earlier in May, have undertaken this bold and difficult journey on behalf of their peoples more than 70 years after atrocities were committed against each other during World War II. That so much time should have been lost in both instances to put the painful past behind them only speaks to the powerful presence of nationalist sensibilities that invariably distort the moral force of reconciliation. That this should have occurred only now, despite the enduring economic engagement of several decades between Washington and Tokyo, merely underscores their ticklish nature and the strong political overtones involved. In the case of Japan, the conservatives have long regarded any attempt to own up the slaughter of hundreds of U.S. marines at Pearl Harbour in 1941 as nothing but a betrayal of the national interest. In fact, in comparison, earlier visits to the naval base by Japanese leaders were relatively low-key affairs.

As for Washington, veterans of the war have seen little justification in the claim that the devastation caused by the twin nuclear bombings had to be condoled. In their view, the horror in Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the war to a close sooner than it might otherwise have been. They have also sought to repudiate the narrative that the dropping of the atom bomb was a calculated demonstration of U.S. and western military superiority in a Cold War scenario. These competing nationalistic accounts have possibly helped the current generation in the two countries to see such views with a healthy dose of scepticism. Messrs Abe and Obama have displayed a statesmanlike readiness to rise above partisan accounts, emphasising instead the need to bridge the gulf that neither history nor geography could have narrowed. President-elect Donald Trump’s pre-election rhetoric painted a picture of Japan as a nation that ought to be prepared to invest more in its own defence. The favourable public opinion in both countries towards each other will possibly prove critical in consolidating upon the current strengths in the economic partnership and weathering the uncertainties of the future. Prime Minister Abe and President Obama have shown how history can be revisited in a realistic manner. It remains for countries grappling with their own complex pasts to draw the right lessons from this.

 

  • Leap second to be added to final minute of 2016

This year will last a second longer as a “leap second” will be added to the world’s clocks on New Year’s Eve by timekeepers.

The extra second will be inserted at the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Master Clock Facility in Washington, D.C., at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) which corresponds to 5:29:59 a.m. Indian Standard Time on January 1.

Historically, time was based on the mean rotation of the Earth relative to celestial bodies and the second was defined in this reference frame. However, the invention of atomic clocks defined a much more precise “atomic” time scale and a second that is independent of Earth’s rotation.

In 1970, international agreements established a procedure to maintain a relationship between Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) and UT1, a measure of the Earth’s rotation angle in space.

The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) is the organisation which monitors the difference in the two time scales and calls for leap seconds to be inserted in or removed from UTC when necessary to keep them within 0.9 seconds of each other. In order to create UTC, a secondary time scale, International Atomic Time (TAI), is first generated; it consists of UTC without leap seconds.

When the system was instituted in 1972, the difference between TAI and UTC was determined to be 10 seconds.

Since 1972, 26 additional leap seconds have been added at intervals varying from six months to seven years, with the most recent being inserted on June 30, 2015.

After the insertion of the leap second in December, the cumulative difference between UTC and TAI will be 37 seconds.

Confusion sometimes arises over the misconception that the occasional insertion of leap seconds every few years indicates that the Earth should stop rotating within a few millennia.

This is because some mistake leap seconds to be a measure of the rate at which the Earth is slowing.

The one-second increments are, however, indications of the accumulated difference in time between the two systems.

The decision as to when to add a leap second is determined by the IERS, for which the USNO serves as the Rapid Service/Prediction Center. Measurements show that the Earth, on average, runs slow compared to atomic time, at about 1.5 to 2 milliseconds per day.

These data are generated by the USNO using the technique of Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).

VLBI measures the rotation of the Earth by observing the apparent positions of distant objects near the edge of the observable universe.

These observations show that after roughly 500 to 750 days, the difference between Earth rotation time and atomic time would be about one second.

Instead of allowing this to happen a leap second is inserted to bring the two time scales closer together.

  • Financial data management body mooted

A committee set up under the Department of Economic Affairs has recommended the creation of a statutory body that will standardise data from all financial sector regulators in a single database and will provide analytical insights based on the data.

The report of the committee to study the financial data management legal framework in India, made public on Thursday, suggests the passage of a Bill in Parliament—the Financial Data Management Centre Bill 2016—to create the statutory body, as recommended by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

“Subject to the provisions of this Act, or any other law for the time being in force, it shall be the duty of the Data Centre to take measures to standardise data from regulators in consultation with the regulators, enable financial service providers to submit data in a standardised electronic format, analyse the data and maintain a financial system database,” according to the proposed Act.

The powers of the Financial Data Management Centre (FDMC) will include the establishment, operation and maintenance of the financial system database along with collecting financial regulatory data and providing access to it. The body will also provide analytical support to the Financial Stability and Development Council (FSDC) on issues relating to financial stability.

In 2015, when the FSDC first suggested the creation of such a body, the Reserve Bank had objected to sharing company-specific data with the body as it was not statutory in nature, and sharing such data would be a breach of confidentiality.

“In the absence of any statutory or other legal basis which empowers FDMC to compel furnishing of confidential information to it, disclosure of any such information by Reserve Bank may not be justified as it may not fall within the recognised exception of compulsion of law,” the banking regulator had said at the time.

Even the Department of Legal Affairs said that the “majority of the financial sector regulators being statutory in nature, it is not clear from the proposal how the non-statutory FDMC will collect data from such regulators.”

Keeping these concerns in mind, the Department of Economic Affairs re-examined the issue and obtained the Finance Minister’s approval to establish a statutory FDMC, following which a committee was formed to recommend the way forward.

  • Talking to children about untouchability

Many of us, especially in urban areas, think about caste only in the context of reservations or when we come across media reports of Dalits being attacked, as it happened recently, in Una, Gujarat. It may seem that caste hardly plays a role in modern society. People may think: ‘I certainly don’t discriminate based on caste.’ Unfortunately, our research suggests that caste discrimination is far more commonplace than most educated urbanites would care to acknowledge.

We set out to measure attitudes towards Dalits in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh using the same method used to measure social attitudes in other countries for decades: representative phone surveys. A new survey called SARI (Social Attitudes Research for India) uses a sampling frame based on mobile phone subscriptions, random digit dialling, within household sample selection, and statistical weights to build representative samples of adults between 18-65 years old. A small research team carries out the interviews. In Delhi, we interviewed 1,270 adults; in Uttar Pradesh, the figure was 1,470.

What we found about people’s attitudes towards their Dalit neighbours is sobering: among non-Dalit Hindus in Delhi, a third said that someone in their household practises untouchability. In Uttar Pradesh, half of adults said that someone practises it.

How could these numbers be so high? Didn’t Article 17 of the Constitution abolish untouchability? Wasn’t untouchability made punishable under the Untouchability Offences Act, 1955? Hasn’t India had decades of reservations to include Dalits in the government and in schools?

All this is true, yet, when you ask a representative group of non-Scheduled Caste (SC) Hindu adults the question: “Kya aapke parivar me kuch sadasya chuachut ko mante hain? (Do some members of your family practise untouchability?”), many of them unabashedly say “Yes.”

Admitting to untouchability

How many people in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh practise untouchability? Knowing that someone in a household practises untouchability doesn’t mean that she does it. Is it the case that only older people engage in such discriminatory practices?

Unfortunately, that is not what we found. If a respondent said that someone in the household practises untouchability, we asked whether he or she practises it. In Delhi, half the adults in non-SC Hindu households, where someone practises untouchability, said they themselves practise it; in Uttar Pradesh 70 per cent did. The graphic shows that there are actually very few age variations in reported untouchability: in neither Delhi and U.P. are young people much less likely to practise untouchability than their parents or grandparents.

As surprising and disappointing as these numbers are, we don’t think that they capture the full extent of the problem. That is because some people know that it is not politically correct to admit practising untouchability to a stranger. The graphic separating data into Delhi, urban U.P., and rural U.P., gives us some idea of the extent to which answers to this question are affected by social desirability bias.

Even though women and men live in similar households, women are more likely to report untouchability in the household. This suggests that either men are uninformed or they are giving a socially desirable, but incorrect, answer. Women may be more likely to report untouchability where it exists because they are less aware that it is not a politically correct thing to say. Another reason why women may be more likely to report untouchability is it is often practised in the context of food, utensils, and domestic help. Women are more likely to work with food and utensils than men, and so they are probably more likely than men to enforce untouchability.

If we use women’s figures, which are likely more accurate, we find that 40 per cent of non-Dalit Hindu households in Delhi report practising untouchability. In rural Uttar Pradesh, this figure is over 60 per cent! Of course, even this high figure will be an underestimate if some women do not admit to practising untouchability or do not recognise some of the things they do in their interactions with Dalits as untouchability.

Creating awareness in children

Many urban families find themselves talking explicitly about caste only when their children are trying to get admitted to colleges. Some children want to know what reservation is. Why do some social groups have this so-called privilege and not others?

Yet, the fact that women are particularly likely to report practising untouchability, and the fact that mothers are often the first and most influential teachers of their children, suggests that children’s first impressions of caste differences may be ingrained at a much younger age. So, rather than simply denying the existence of untouchability, or hoping it will disappear as this computer-using generation of youngsters becomes more educated than the previous generations, it is time for parents, teachers, and even the government to start talking to children about ending these practices today. Just as children are able to learn to have a separate glass for the maid, they are also able to learn what discrimination is, to understand that it is hurtful, and to have kinder attitudes towards people from different groups. A study of primary school students in the United States found that white students who read about both the accomplishments of and the discrimination faced by black Americans later displayed less biased attitudes towards blacks than white children who had merely read about accomplishments.

To end untouchability will mean that everyone, from government official, to teacher, to young mother has to make an effort. Everyone needs to admit that untouchability is still a widespread problem, not only in rural India but also in urban India. Even people who don’t agree with the practice of untouchability themselves need to talk with children in their lives about where it came from, what it feels like, and how it can be stopped. If they don’t, their neighbours, many of whom do practise untouchability, may end up teaching their children to perpetuate these archaic, hurtful social norms.

Diane Coffey is a visiting researcher at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi; Amit Thorat is Assistant Professor at Centre for the Study of Regional Development, JNU. This is the second of a four-part series on prejudice. The first appeared on December 29, 2016.

  • Demonetisation presents an opportunity

A flailing Congress party, after suffering several electoral defeats in many State elections since 2014, has narrowed its focus on to pro-poor and agrarian issues as a way to shore up popular support, a strategy that predated the elections and adopted earlier this decade. The demonetisation issue has given the party an opening to pursue this strategy in a more concrete manner.

On Congress Foundation Day, December 28, party vice-president Rahul Gandhi sent out a clear, unequivocal message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi: his demonetisation decision, far from securing the future of the country’s most vulnerable sections — as he was claiming in his well-publicised, almost-without-a-pause speeches — had actually devastated their lives.

In a brief speech at the Congress headquarters, he asked Mr. Modi to quantify both the economic losses to the country since November 8, as well as spell out how many on the margins had lost livelihoods and, some, even lives. “Demonetisation was done,” the Congress’s vice-president said, “for 50 families at the expense of the poor, small farmers and shopkeepers and the youth.”

He then went on to demand that the government waive all agricultural loans, pay a 20 per cent bonus for farm produce, give all BPL Poverty Line) women ₹25,000, double MGNREGA wages and waive half the income tax and sales tax dues of small shopkeepers.

Tapping a changing narrative

Fifty days after 86 per cent of the country’s currency notes were outlawed at one stroke, the mood in the country is gradually turning sour. Mr. Gandhi’s demands were, therefore, perfectly timed, pointing out that it was time people paused and figured out who had gained and who had lost through the demonetisation exercise.

Equally significant, his message was also in tune with the politics he has been working towards for the last few years, manifestations of which have been visible since 2011. That year, he had stood in solidarity with farmers in western Uttar Pradesh, in Tappal and Bhatta-Parsaul, who were battling land acquisition. In 2014-’15, he led his party’s battle to ensure that the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s people-friendly land acquisition law was not changed beyond recognition by the Modi government: the Congress and supporting Opposition parties won that round. More recently, ahead of the Uttar Pradesh polls slated for next year, the centrepiece of his kisan yatra was a promise to waive all farm loans if the Congress is voted to power.

But if there was a clear emphasis in all these actions, there was one problem: just as he did not follow through his U.P. agitation till the 2012 polls, his recent kisan yatra just petered out in mid-October. Mr. Gandhi’s inability to sustain an agitation, even when successful, has been his besetting sin.

A high and low

In 2004, the Congress had countered the BJP’s “Shining India” message with an expansive catchphrase: “Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath.” The aam aadmi was a nebulous figure, but the description resonated not just with the dispossessed and the poor but also struck a chord with the aspirational and, indeed, even swathes of the middle class.The new line worked for the Congress in two successive general elections in 2004 and 2009. But by 2012, the image and fortunes of the UPA government it led began to take a hit.

At the AICC session in Delhi on January 17, 2014, Mr. Gandhi had stressed the need to create a “support base” for the 70 crore Indians who had risen above the poverty line but not yet entered the middle class. He travelled across the country, repeating his concern for “the hands that build the nation” promising them a “new future,” not through handouts but “a basic rights and welfare package” that would go beyond the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act of 2008.

The Congress’s analysis was: one, if most political parties look at voters through the prism of caste or religion, governments divide citizens into BPL and Above Poverty Line (APL). Two, with successive attempts to define BPL turning controversial, and implementation of welfare programmes proving to be less than satisfactory, the government had moved to universal entitlements with exclusions (those who are income tax payees, own a car etc. are not eligible for such benefits). In operational terms, BPL had been phased out. Three, economic liberalisation had increased job opportunities, fuelling migration to cities and swelling the unorganised sector. This sector may have benefited from health, homes and food entitlements, but labour laws did not apply to it. Four, the Congress, using literature on the subject, had calculated that Indians who earned between ₹1,000-₹15,000 per head per month, and fall in this in-between category — christened NRMB (not rich, not middle class, not BPL) for in-house discussion — numbered 70 crore.

By engaging with this section — railway porters, rickshaw wallas, saltpan workers, fishermen, farmers etc. — not defined by caste or religion but by income and aspiration, Mr. Gandhi sought to build a new constituency for the Congress that has seen its core constituencies being eroded steadily over the years.

Another chance

Unfortunately, in 2014, the Congress suffered an ignominious defeat in the general election. But its losses had nothing to do with the direction in which Mr. Gandhi was seeking to take the party; rather, the mood created by Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign provided a perfect launch pad for the BJP that year.

But, today, the ill-effects of demonetisation have provided the Opposition — of which the Congress is the largest party — an opportunity to change the narrative to its own advantage. Parliament’s recent winter session saw an unusual degree of solidarity among Opposition parties on the issue, and if West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had seized the initiative initially, by the end, Mr. Gandhi was well on his way to helming the Opposition’s efforts to corner the government. Unfortunately, he stumbled, not realising that his going with his party colleagues to meet the Prime Minister on the farm loan waiver issue on December 16, would be read as breaking ranks. The other Opposition parties are so annoyed that most of them boycotted his December 27 meeting intended to plan how to carry forward the battle jointly.

Mr. Gandhi’s heart may be in the right place, but he continues to falter on consistency and credibility, and an understanding of how the political game is played. But, it’s still not too late for the Congress vice-president to change his advisers.

  • Goodbye, Barack

“He is half-black,” Nadine Gordimer said in a conversation in Kolkata in the November of 2008. Barack Obama’s just-concluded election as U.S. President was the biggest thing in the air. Of course he is half-black, I told myself. Surely the Nobel laureate had a more original comment to make? And then came a typical Gordimer one-liner: “He is also half-white.” Later, to wider hearing, she elaborated the nuance: “Obama has been celebrated as a black man. But he’s half black and half white. To me, that symbolically represents a kind of advancement in recognising the human tribe as one.”

Gordimer’s assessment was simple and profound. Mr. Obama was half out of a world that thought small, half into one that could think, be big. He was advancing; he was, in a sense, the advance. And not just that of the American people, who advanced with his advance, strode with his stride, but that of a politically evolving world. Obama, the fact of Obama, the promise of Obama, the freshness and directness of Obama, rejoiced the human tribe so mixed as it is in its composition and so mixed-up.

Changing without disturbing

Mr. Obama’s head started to show salt almost immediately after the inauguration. The strain of sapping engagements with a quizzing, invasive, corrosive media, cynical and disparaging critics, curious observers watching everything about him as a person, exploring the last rock, stone and pebble in his life’s track to explore, excavate, exhume everything, anything, about him that could be dug, from what he wore, ate, drank, to how he gestured, his sports, his hobbies, his friends was telling on him. As was that ultimate bunch of grapes that the vineyard vandaliser wants to get his hands to — his family. ‘Obama is ageing already,’ was felt, said, with care for the man. For Barack Hussein Obama was a phenomenon — a man who had to affirm his black roots without denying white America its own deep and broad embedding. He wanted to change things, but without disturbing too much. He wanted to transform predispositions, but without troubling too many predilections. Could he architect a new vision without engineering new designs? He wanted to try. Try ‘for real’.

He showed this by a frank desire to be liked by white Americans by being tolerant, even hospitable, to views antithetical to his own, a trait that had been noticed even when he edited the Harvard Law Review. And then, more specifically, as President, by being tough — even rough — in defending U.S. interests leading to foreign policy disasters such as in his compromise on Syria for which Syria and much more than Syria is paying a bitter price to this day, and in his going along, cruising along, one might say, with the British and French on Libya. There are two Obama ‘negatives’ which will haunt his legacy. The first is his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize soon after his first inauguration, in what seemed like a first birthday gift to an eight-month-old. If Mr. Obama had said ‘Thanks, but no thanks, I am yet to deserve it’, he would have electrified the world. The second is the sickening use by his administration of drone warfare in which huge numbers of civilians were killed. Nothing can wash that karmic stain from his legacy. The Osama bin Laden denouement will generate a different lore in many tracts of ‘the world of sand’ but to the terror-stricken that was a moment that signified relief.

Showing America the mirror

In observing all that Mr. Obama did, whether in good earnest or in questionable wit, whether with disappointment in his compromises or dismay in his misjudgements, the world saw him as reaching out, with great effort, to a bigness that destiny awards to all ‘firsts’. And that was in bringing America to a new order of its sense of self. Say ‘Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’, and you will think of his Gettysburg address. Say ‘Nehru’, and you will think of ‘… the tryst with destiny’. Say ‘Obama’ and…? A mist of current dust-haze hangs over what is perhaps the most stirring statement that Mr. Obama ever made, shaken, almost quaking, with his nerves being brought resolutely under check, on the shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June 2015. The suspect, Dylann Roof, 21, had just been arrested. “Mother Emanuel,” President Obama said, “is, in fact, more than a church. This is a place of worship that was founded by African-Americans seeking liberty. This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery. When there were laws banning all-black church gatherings, they conducted church services in secret. When there was a non-violent movement to bring our country in closer line with our highest ideals, some of our brightest leaders spoke and led marches from this church’s steps”. And then with the responsibilities of an Executive President he went on to say, “Until the investigation is complete, I’m necessarily constrained in terms of talking about the details of the case. But I don’t need (to be) constrained about the emotions that tragedies like this raise…This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know the hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals… (And yet) I am confident the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship, indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”

Why do I believe that statement will ring true and right in times to come? Because rising above Charleston, above what we in India would call “the local cause, the local compulsion”, he said in it: “But let’s be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries, it doesn’t in other places…” The President took the people of America again and again on thorny journeys of reflection — on race, on police-community relations, on gun control, on America’s world role, what it should and should not be — and made white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Muslim Americans examine their inner selves, feeling both shame and pride, one being incomplete and dishonest without the other.

Backlash and the bequest

In trying to weld the divided, did Mr. Obama miss noticing the unhappiness of a white working class in the hinterland? Did he fail to see that American, no less American than the rest, being sidelined by the U.S.’s demographic shifts, globalisation and the technological revolution? Of course, he did. And he has paid for it in the way his country voted for not just a Republican replacement but an ideational displacement. There can be no doubt that the backlash against his presidency was racial and a factor in Donald Trump’s election. But ironically, and this is what may be called the ‘Gordimer principle’: the election of the USA’s first black President is the beginning of the change the USA needed, the world applauded, and is the change the USA has reversed and the world is regretting. Will the change outlast its attempted reversing?

We must hope it will for the USA’s sake, but no less for the world. As an Indian who celebrated his victory and cherishes the change that he marks, I see the Trumps in India’s life unchallenged by an Obama. I miss an Indian Obama, with an impartial if sometimes unsteady hand at the helm or at its counter-helm, telling us how to move away from old vestiges of suspicion and hatred.

The Obama legacy, like the light of a candle fighting the damp within and the dark without, will yet glow by contrast. And the world will recall it with a pang of regret at the power that political shaman have over the human tribe.

  • Peace on track in Colombia

Colombia’s government now knows only too well that there is many a slip between the cup and the lip. In October, a referendum to ratify a painstakingly negotiated peace deal it had signed with the long-time insurgent organisation, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), was narrowly defeated. A more piecemeal, less ambitious and sequenced process since then has helped Bogota notch its first significant victory in effecting the peace deal with the rebels. Now, Colombia’s Congress has unanimously approved an amnesty law granting immunity to FARC fighters from prosecution for committing minor crimes, clearing a major hurdle in effecting the revised peace accord. Those accused of major crimes will be tried by a special tribunal. The main difficulty in passing this measure was the intransigence of the leading opposition, the right-wing Centro Democratico led by former President Alvaro Uribe, who had led a vigorous campaign first against talks between the government and the rebels, later during the referendum and also when a revised accord was eventually signed and ratified by Congress on December 1. The party abstained during voting both during the ratification and when the amnesty law was introduced. The law helps overcome a key sticking point for those who voted “No” in the October referendum and who felt that the government was being too lenient with those among the FARC commanders accused of severe crimes. The law will reassure the rebels, who are moving to special demobilisation zones, marking a breakthrough in the five-decade-long civil war that has taken more than 2,20,000 lives.

Without doubt, the Nobel Peace Prize given to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos gave him the necessary ballast and international support to carry out these steps. But there are other laws to be passed, including those addressing FARC’s demands for agrarian reform and compensation to victims of the civil war. There is still some distance to go before FARC converts itself into a political party to participate in the contested polity. Amendments to the peace accord include requirements from FARC to share details about any involvement in drug production and declaration of assets. But there is a clear commitment towards peace shown by both the government and FARC, especially after the initial accord was signed. If things go as per the government’s plan, the rebels should become civilians by May 2017, culminating in the end of a process that began with negotiations four years ago.

  • ‘Sandynallah reservoir should be reopened’

With tourist footfall increasing in ecologically sensitive hotspots such as Avalanche and the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, environmentalists feel the re-opening of the “Old Mysore Road,” bordering the Sandynallah reservoir, will help reduce pressure due to unregulated tourism at the reserve forests.

The Old Mysore Road was laid sometime in the middle of the 20th century to connect Ooty with Gudalur and Mysore. Despite remaining unused for many years , it remains in a good condition, cutting through what is now a beautiful reserve forest near the Sandynallah reservoir that is closed to the public.

Dharmalingam Venugopal, Director of the Nilgiri Documentation Centre, said many roads known as “Coup Roads” were built by the the British to haul cultivated Eucalyptus trees. “Till a few decades ago, it used to be a popular place for fishing and other activities,” he said.

The reservoir, otherwise known as the Kamaraj Sagar Dam, used to be a popular spot for shooting films. A.T. Lawrence, a cine production executive, said problems in getting approval to shoot in the Nilgiris and other technicalities insisted upon by the forest department led to the spot being neglected.

The forest shelters a few species of animals such as the Indian Gaur but it is not “ecologically sensitive,” as it is populated by Eucalyptus trees and other varieties of exotic flora, said V. Sivadass, Managing Trustee of the Nilgiri Environment and Cultural Service Trust. “The forest is scenic, accessible and a great spot for treks,” he said. Ecological hotspots such as Avalanche needed to be protected. The reopening of the Sandynallah reservoir could help absorb some of the tourist crowd.

Many of the trees were more than 150-years-old and that reintroducing regulated tourism could help bring in economic rewards for the largely impoverished families living in nearby Khandal.

  • Centre to set up five new universities for minorities

The Centre has decided to set up five new universities for imparting higher education, including medical to students belonging to minority communities, Union Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi announced here on Thursday.

“We want to establish five universities with world class institutions where higher education including medical and skill development will be imparted as part of efforts to empower minorities.

”…These universities will have big campuses for residential schools, Ayurved, Unani medical education,” the Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Minorities Affairs said.

He said the government plans to offer 40 per cent reservation to girl students at the “world class institutions” under the proposed varsities, where, he stated, students from other than minority communities can also undertake education.

Mr Naqvi was speaking to reporters after chairing a meeting of general body of Maulana Azad Education Foundation, he said the Ministry has approved 16 Gurukul-type schools in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Jharkhand.

On whether the varsities will hold minority tags, Mr Naqvi said, “The committee will work out details and decide. But students belonging to other than minority communities can learn there. We will try to give 40 per cent quota to girl students to empower them. It will not be based on religion.”

A high-level committee will be formed in a day or two to work out roadmap within next two months, help identify places where the universities “with world class institutions” will be established and start academic sessions by 2018, he said.

When asked about probable places where the varsities will take shape, Mr Naqvi said the high-level committee will figure it out.

“Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje has already suggested us five properties including three in Jaipur and one in Kota for the purpose,” he added.

Apart from the varsities, the Ministry has, through the Foundation, decided to float ‘Garib Nawaz Skill Development Centres’ across the country.

The meeting also decided to offer ‘Begum Hazrat Mahal’ scholarships to girl students. Besides, students undertaking mainstream education at madrasas will also be offered scholarship henceforth to encourage them, he added.

  • 2016: The Supreme Court’s report card

The Supreme Court finds itself at a curious juncture. It has spent much of the year lodged in a widely broadcast battle with the Union government over judicial appointments. Led by Chief Justice T.S. Thakur, who retires on January 3, 2017, the court has fought this contest presumably to assert its independence from executive and legislative control. But, somewhat counter-intuitively, the wrangle has had a deleterious impact on the court’s moral authority. The court has not only been intransigent in allowing the executive no say in matters of appointments, despite the Constitution’s clearly contrary mandate, but it has also failed to make the existing system — selections through a “collegium” of senior judges — more transparent and democratically justifiable. What’s worse, while constantly stressing on its apparent autonomy, the court has often appeared to cave in to the very majoritarian impulses that it is tasked with refuting.

While it is no doubt difficult to make grand assertions about the Supreme Court given that it doesn’t sit en banc, as one, and given that it comprises judges who can be disparate in their outlook and attitudes towards what constitutes a proper judicial role, collectively the court’s choices in 2016 have shown us that any independence it enjoys hasn’t guided it towards concerted courage in decision-making. On the contrary, particularly in enforcing fundamental rights — which it ought to see as its most important function — the court has, barring a few notable exceptions, scarcely served as the keeper of the country’s conscience.

Tussle between judiciary and executive

The present battle lines between the judiciary and the executive were drawn in October 2015 when the court delivered its verdict in Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association v. Union of India. Here, the court struck down the 99th Constitutional Amendment and consequently the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC), which had been created to replace the collegium. Four of the five judges who heard the case (Justice J. Chelameswar dissented) found that the primacy the collegium enjoyed in choosing the country’s judges was a part of the Constitution’s basic structure. According to the majority, the NJAC — a body that was to comprise the law minister, two eminent laypersons, and the three senior-most judges, including the CJI — in removing the primacy that the judiciary enjoyed in selecting its own members infracted the basic structure, and, therefore, had to be quashed.

Although this is a decidedly bizarre conclusion when you consider that the collegium finds no mention in the bare text of the Constitution, many political observers believed that it was a verdict that was necessary to ensure the independent functioning of the judiciary. But not even the most ardent supporters of the judgment backed the existing status quo. The collegium system indisputably required reform. To this end, in December 2015, the Supreme Court, after receiving a slew of suggestions on how to improve the collegium’s functioning, directed the executive, whose sovereign power to make appointments it had divested in its verdict, to prepare a draft memorandum that would lay down the procedure for the collegium’s functioning.

Since then, there has been a constant back and forth between the two wings, with no end apparently in sight. But if the court were so loath to giving any leeway to the executive in the process, it makes one wonder why the task of preparing the draft memorandum was assigned to the government in the first place. Making things worse, one of the collegium’s members declined to participate in a meeting of the group in September this year, on grounds purportedly of a lack of transparency in its working. Whatever one might think of Justice Chelameswar’s methods in expressing his demur, his objections only made it clearer that there was something broken at the core of the system: the collegium, in his assertion, was simply functioning in a manner beyond the remit prescribed for it by the court’s own judgments.

Two flawed decisions

While enshrouding the process of appointing judges from any reasonable standard of candour and accountability, the court has simultaneously made choices that only show that the present system doesn’t necessarily produce the kind of counter-majoritarian judiciary that a democracy requires. Two decisions from the past year exemplify the court’s remarkably unflattering outlook on fundamental rights. The first, rendered in May — Subramanian Swamy v. Union of India — rebuffed a challenge to the colonial-era criminal defamation law and upheld Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code.

Judges, under any sensible interpretation of their role, are required to apply rules derived from precedent, statutes, and the Constitution, in checking legislative or executive excesses. But the court in Subramanian Swamy did none of this. It brushed aside legitimate concerns about the chilling effect that the criminal defamation law has had on speech with a frightening disdain for tradition and precedent. Justice Dipak Misra, who wrote the judgment, in holding that the law constituted a reasonable restriction on the right to freedom of expression, made no effort whatsoever in relying on any of the constitutionally sanctioned limitations to free speech. Instead, he appealed to his own distinct sense of what ought to constitute the law, by carving out of the ever-malleable Article 21, which guarantees a right to life and personal liberty, a “right to reputation.” Worse still, he conceived a concept of “constitutional fraternity,” hitherto unknown to Indian law, which, he ruled, demanded an “assurance of mutual respect and concern for each other’s dignity.” This reasoning is flawed on many counts. But chief among them is the fact that neither of the precepts relied upon by Justice Misra finds mention in Article 19(2), which contains the legal basis for restricting speech. The consequence of the judgment is vastly damaging: it has the effect of placing values that rest on individual predilections above the right to freedom of speech, which, by any equitable interpretation of the Constitution, ought to stand on firmer footing.

The second decision, delivered on November 30, extraordinarily takes rights even less seriously. In an interim order on a public interest litigation filed by a supposed social activist from Bhopal, the court directed that all cinema halls in India play the national anthem before the screening of any film, and that persons present in the hall compulsorily stand up to show their respect for the anthem. Quite apart from indulging in rule-making that ought to be the prerogative of Parliament, the order sidesteps its complete disregard for basic liberties by offering no reasons whatsoever. In doing so, the court simply assumed the role of a super legislature, having tasked itself with the power to impose its own brand of distorted nationalism.

There have been other instances in 2016 of the Supreme Court using what it perceives to be a power to do complete justice to achieve precisely the converse — among other impacts, these verdicts set a poor example for high courts which are concomitantly tempted to extend the use of their writ to perform what are principally legislative functions. But what’s been even more damaging to the Supreme Court’s legitimacy has been its dithering under pressure. Despite issuing interim orders as early as in 2013 making the securing of the Aadhaar card optional, the court has failed to adequately enforce its directions — seemingly every day the government and its various agencies appear to extend the use of the unique ID linking it with the provision of a number of essential services. The court can be excused for failing to haul up the government for contempt of its orders were it to expedite its hearing of the basic challenge to the UID scheme. But the Constitution Bench established to determine whether India’s citizens have a fundamental right to privacy, which the Aadhaar policy quite clearly appears to contravene, is yet to hear concrete arguments on the issue.

Challenging demonetisation

In similar vein is the challenge to the policy of demonetisation. A number of petitioners have not only questioned the procedural validity of the government’s and the Reserve Bank of India’s various notifications, but have also contended that the policy infracts significant fundamental rights. Early this month, in “Contours of a challenge” (The Hindu, Dec.2), I had said that the manner of the Supreme Court’s treatment of these petitions “will tell us a great deal about the checks and balances that our democracy purports to provide.” We now have a very quick answer, and it’s not a good one.

After many false beginnings, on December 16, the court directed the establishment of a five-judge bench to rule on the constitutional validity of the demonetisation notifications and on the legality of the policy’s implementation. If we were to go by the example of the Aadhaar case, it is entirely likely that this policy too would be rendered fait accompli by the time the court gets around to hearing the challenge. In many ways, these acts of wavering in the face of public pressure showcase a Supreme Court lacking in moral courage. The harm in consigning to the academic challenges to laws that have an immediate bearing on our lives, which invade into our cherished liberties and into our ability to function as equal beings, is enormous. An independent judiciary, properly understood, far from being one that appoints its own members, is one that possesses the will and the conviction to resolve swiftly hard cases, uninfluenced by societal perception, in a manner that enriches the finest values of our constitutional tradition.

  • A new dawn for Syria?

The ceasefire reached between Syria’s government and Opposition, with the mediation of Turkey, Russia and Iran, could be a turning point in the country’s civil war. Unlike the two previous failed ceasefires this year — which were negotiated between Russia and the U.S. — the latest one is sponsored by countries directly involved in the conflict. The positive reaction from both the Syrian regime and rebel commanders to the announcement of the ceasefire by Russian President Vladimir Putin also suggests that the warring parties are willing to give diplomacy a chance. For the Syrian government, this is an opportunity to announce it is ready for a peaceful settlement. Though President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly claimed that he would retake the entire territory from the rebels, a military solution appears to be illusory. A prolonged conflict will exhaust the regime forces further and multiply the humanitarian costs. On the other side, after the victory in Aleppo, the regime could now negotiate with the rebels from a position of strength. For the rebels, the momentum is gone. Their support is limited to certain parts such as Idlib, Daraa and the outskirts of Damascus. The question they face is whether they should continue fighting a never-ending war of attrition or seek to gain leverage from whatever military influence they are left with.

There is a convergence of interests for Turkey and Russia in finding a peaceful solution. Having seen the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Russia doesn’t want to get stuck in Syria. By promoting a negotiated deal, it could retain its core interests in Syria while at the same time projecting itself as a power broker in West Asia. Turkey wants to limit the spillover effects of the war on its soil and stop Kurdish rebels from capitalising on the chaos in Syria. This explains why Turkey and Russia have come together now despite their bitter relations last year. But these objective conditions alone may not produce sustainable peace. It is still not clear which rebel groups have agreed to the ceasefire. Turkey supports only some of the rebel groups, while several other groups get support from Gulf monarchies. There are jihadist elements as well in the Opposition, such as Fateh al-Sham, that could play the spoiler by carrying out attacks on government positions. Besides, the Kurdish question remains unaddressed. If Kurds are invited for talks, Turkey might withdraw its support for the peace process. For now, however, if the ceasefire holds at least till next month’s Astana summit of the related parties, it could be a new beginning for Syria

  • Jaundice outbreak, scrub typhus hit H.P. hard in 2016

Outbreak of jaundice, scrub typhus and a child-swapping case rattled Himachal Pradesh in 2016 which saw clamour for the ouster of Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh generating political acrimony.

The year, which coincided with completion of four years of the Congress government in power, started on a sad note with jaundice outbreak in Shimla and adjoining areas, resulting in 22 deaths and over 1,500 people getting infected.

Investigations pointed out that sewage mixed with drinking water and 10 people including engineers of the Irrigation and Public Health Department and contractor of sewerage treatment plant were arrested.

Pumping of water from the source was taken over from the IPH Department and entire control of water supply, including pumping and distribution, was handed over to Shimla Municipal Corporation.

Close on the heels of the jaundice outbreak, scrub typhus gripped the State and 30 people died while over 900 were infected.

Skeletal remains

The recovery of skeletal remains of four-year-old Yug Gupta from a water tank at Kelston here more than two years after he was kidnapped rocked the town and massive protests including candle marches continued for days. All three accused arrested in the case are facing trial in the court.

A case of child swapping in the government-run Kamla Nehru hospital here came to light and the swapped children, a baby boy and girl were united with their biological parents after five months following DNA tests and intervention of the court.

More than 80 people died in six major road accidents in Chamba, Kinnaur, Kangra and Mandi districts while five youth from Punjab were washed away in cloudburst near Chewadi, on Sunni-Luhri road of Shimla district.

On the political front, Mr Singh faced attacks from the BJP over the cases registered against him by the Income Tax Department, CBI and Enforcement Directorate and after a year-long campaign, it submitted a charge sheet vowing to oust the Congress from power.

The State Congress too mounted attack on the Modi government and launched State-wide campaign “Modi ke bol, jumlon ke dhol” to remind people of “unfulfilled poll promises”.

Asha Kumar, a former Minister and sitting Congress MLA, was convicted and sentenced to one year imprisonment by a Chamba court in a land grab case. However, the High Court stayed the sentence and the matter is pending. The Himachal Lokhit Party, floated by the BJP dissidents, was virtually wound up.

  • ‘Leap second ‘syncs Indian time with Earth’s spin

A ‘leap second’ was added to the Indian clock at 5:29.59 hours on Sunday to synchronise with the Earth’s rotational clock. As the atomic clock at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) here struck 23:59:59 last night, it was programmed to add an extra second to 2017 to compensate for a slowdown in the Earth’s rotation.

Adding a second barely has an impact on the daily life, but it does matter in the fields of satellite navigation,astronomy and communication. “The Earth and rotation around its own axis is not regular, as sometimes it speeds up and sometimes it slows down due to various factors, including earthquakes and moon’s gravitational forces. As a result, astronomical time (UT1) gradually falls out of sync with atomic time (UTC), and, as and when the difference between UTC and UT1 approaches 0.9 seconds, a leap second is added to UTC through atomic clocks worldwide,” D. K. Aswal, Director of NPL, said.

Extreme precision

Adding the leap second to the Indian clock is done by the NPL under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. The NPL, one of the oldest laboratories in the country, has five atomic clocks and nearly 300 such pieces exist across the globe.

Atomic clocks are so precise that the margin of error in its functioning is just of a second in 100 million years. “The leap second adjustment is not so relevant for normal everyday life. However, this shift is critical for applications requiring time accuracies in the nanosecond, which are critical in the fields of astronomy, satellite navigation, communication networks,” Mr. Aswal added.

  • Packing food, drugs at a blistering pace

The Indian packaging industry is turning a new leaf.

The more than $25 billion Indian packaging industry, growing at a rate of about 10 per cent, is initiating major steps to develop innovative packaging for all segments, but mainly for pharmaceutical and food products, even as the country bids to radically boost its exports.

These efforts are aimed at reducing the import of packaging materials and to produce those materials in India so that the country becomes self-reliant and emerges as a key supplier base for the world.

Currently, India imports large volumes of packaging material. Both the industry and the government are working to reduce such imports. India imports packaging materials of more than ₹360 crore per year for packaging of pharmaceutical products alone.

Developed countries use, and demand, advanced packaging for pharmaceuticals to keep products safe. These are done through cold-form blister packaging which is used extensively around the world. India is now beginning to adopt such packaging techniques in a major way.

Imports at 80%

Currently, 80 per cent of cold-form blister packaging is imported. “Why does it have to be imported? Why can’t we make it in India? That is the direction in which we are working,” said Amitava Ray, an industry veteran and wholetime director at Uflex Ltd.

In packaging, India has traditionally looked to post-World War II Japan for inspiration. While the industry there derived from western packaging methods, they were integrated with the traditional Japanese concept of packaging called Tsutsumi – which is described as the concept of gentle concealment, which in turn, is a part of the traditional Japanese sense of beauty.

Similarly, the Indian packaging industry started manufacturing cold-form packaging material for pharmaceuticals, tablets and capsules in India, industry consultants said. “We brought in the latest equipment, we learnt the technology because we did not have the technology partner anywhere in the world and then we developed our own technology,” Mr. Ray said.

‘No import needed’

“Our objective is not to go for any import. Are we there as yet? No. Still imports are coming but I am absolutely sure that in the next year or two, there will be no need to import,” he added.

The product [laminate] that is being made has biaxial oriented nylon on one side and Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) fills on the other.

“Both these are imported. To avoid importing it, we developed packaging using isotropic polyester film on both sides which does the job and now we have given it to 50 pharmaceutical companies to do the testing.” he said.

Once proven successful, these will be introduced for the exports markets and then in the domestic market.

“We believe that in the next 2 years neither would we have to import for the rest of the world packaging nor for the regulated markets,” Mr. Ray said.

Modified atmosphere packaging

Since India is one of the largest producers of agriculture products, mainly fruits and vegetables, maximum emphasis is now given to increase the shelf life of these products and to reduce wastage through innovative packaging.

As per rough calculations, up to 40 per cent of such produce gets wasted at farms due to lack of appropriate logistics and a cold chain.

To deal with this problem, the packaging industry has developed modified atmosphere packaging.

Each fruit and vegetable has a certain respiratory rate. If a set of fruits is packed using modified atmosphere packaging, which in turn uses Nano technology, its shelf life gets extended.

“This is a vast field. We have not even scratched the surface of this. Equipment will measure the respiratory rate of each item and accordingly the Nano percolation test will be done.

“Ultimately, I see an India where there will be thousands of such units put up all over the countryside to enhance exports of farm products,” Mr. Ray said.

The same is with floriculture where India has already made a name in the international market.

A few weeks ago, the Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) of America, regarded as tops in the field of packaging, awarded India a gold medal, its highest recognition for modified atmosphere packaging because it has extended the shelf life of fruits and flowers being exported from India.

A higher standard of packaging obviously has advantages for businesses organisations but more importantly, it has potential to bring significant benefits to the country’s economy.

Every day planeloads of raw meat is exported to the Middle Eastern countries and we just get the basic price as value addition is done there. “It is the same old story. Cotton was grown in India and sent to England for processing so value addition went there. The hard work was done here. So why can’t we do the value-addition here by processing, packaging and supplying,” asked Mr. Ray.

Higher standards soon

India has its own packaging standard in the form of BIS certification which is voluntary in nature but a far higher standard, at par with the developed world is in the works and would be made mandatory for packaging of products for the export markets.

The Union Commerce Ministry has constituted an expert committee comprising importers, players from the packaging industry and other experts to review existing standards and formulate new standards which will be implemented within a couple of years.

“The Government of India has formed an expert committee to study the packaging standards required to be met by the country in a highly competitive global market,” Dr. Inderjit Singh, Additional Secretary, Union Ministry of Commerce and Industry had said.

“India’s packaging standards must match the rest of the world or the western world so that we are able to compete with them, rather exceed their standards. That is the purpose,” Dr. Singh had said.

“Once we have those standards, our products will have demand in the international market, our international trade will increase and our balance of payments will come down. Our exports will see a quantum jump. That is one aspect the government is keen on seeing,” he said. It is important to adopt very high standards both for domestic and export markets because packaging helps in enhancing the value and life span of a product.

To begin with, importance has been accorded to pharmaceutical packaging which has vast potential for growth.

Since 55 per cent of the pharmaceutical export market is regulated where little more needs to be done as the importers lay down specific standards that are required to be adopted while packing, the focus is now on to improve packaging for exports to the RoW markets.

Worldwide packaging is a $975 billion industry and is expected to reach close to $1000 billion this year.

The Indian packaging industry is estimated at $25 billion and is set to grow to $30 billion by 2020. The objective is to grab a pie of the global market, industry insiders said. The industry has also scope for providing large scale employment.

Longer shelf life

Though the primary objective of packaging is to enhance the value of the product and to ensure quality standards, the broader objective is to increase the shelf lives of products through affordable packaging. And this gels well with the ‘Make in India’ initiative of the government.

Dr N.C. Saha, Director, Indian Institute of Packaging, the apex body for packaging, said the government had identified a few products that have export potential. “There we need a packaging standard,” Dr. Saha said. India has an old packaging standard for tea which is being upgraded. It is also updating packaging standards for spices. These sectors have significant export potential.

“The standards committee will take up (products) one by one. We have our own packaging standard, the BIS is just voluntary. The new standard will be mandatory for exports.” Dr. Saha said.

  • Not just about a quota

Should jobs, schools, and universities promote diversity with reservations or quotas? This question has long evoked strong and passionate responses. People come to the debate with preconceived ideas and stands, and rarely change their minds. As a result, India is left with little consensus on the reasons for reservations and whether or not reservation is a useful policy.

A new survey called SARI, Social Attitudes Research for India, investigated what people in cities, towns, and villages think about reservations. SARI uses a sampling frame based on mobile phone subscriptions, random digit dialling, within-household sample selection, and statistical weights to build representative samples of adults 18-65 years old.

Divided by background

We asked respondents whether or not they support reservation. In Delhi, about half of the respondents say they do not support it. Responses vary by social category, and support is more common among people from reserved categories. The graph shows differences in opposition to reservation by social categories. As expected, the lowest opposition is among respondents from the Scheduled Castes (SC) and Other Backward Classes (OBC), while the highest opposition is found among general caste respondents.

These results indicate that a majority of the most educated and historically well-to-do communities in Delhi do not feel that people from marginalised groups should get government support for representation in social and public spheres. But why?

Among respondents who had heard of reservation before the survey, we further asked those who opposed reservation why they were opposed. The responses that we got from general caste respondents are shown in the graph.

We examine the top three reasons for Delhiites’ opposition to reservation one by one. When people say that jobs and seats in schools should be allocated on the basis of “merit,” they are referring to the fact that people from reserved categories are often given a concession of a few points on exams and in interviews. This view overlooks the important disadvantages that people from reserved categories face in going to school or getting a job today. Reservation is a useful tool to level the playing field: we cannot expect groups who have been historically deprived of education, skills, and access to other means of economic mobility to suddenly start competing with those from groups who have had access to these means for centuries.

Social transformation and building of economic and cultural capital takes time to be passed on from one generation to another. It is an all too commonly held belief that people from general castes are meritorious inherently. Yet, the ability to decipher test answers or speak confidently in an interview is often the result of being nurtured in an environment that is a result of accumulated economic, social and cultural capital. Children who grew up in a dominant caste household are often encouraged, supported, and helped to succeed by other members of their caste groups, while reserved category students rarely have such networks to draw on.

It is also important to reconsider what is meant by “merit”. The ability to answer test questions correctly is certainly not the only, or even the best, predictor of how well someone will perform in school or on the job. It is worth noting that many reserved candidates have reached schools and jobs in spite of economic and social disadvantage as well as overt exclusion and discrimination. Because they have succeeded in the face of adversity, they bring a different and desirable kind of merit to a school or workplace.

Some of the respondents said that they opposed reservation because they believe in equality. However, reservation is a policy tool that promotes equality rather than undermines it. The primary reason why reservation was written into India’s Constitution was to ensure representation of all social groups in positions of power. When people from all social groups are represented in government, higher education, and in business, it is less likely that traditionally marginalised groups will continue to be denied fundamental rights and access to their fair share of society’s resources.

Not an anti-poverty plan

Finally, some people say that they oppose today’s reservations because they believe reservation should be made on the basis of income rather than social background. However, reservation is intended not to be an anti-poverty programme. The government has many programmes which are, in principle, accessible to all poor people. Reservation exists because, in addition to being more likely to be poor than general castes, Dalits, backward Muslims, and Adivasis face social discrimination and exclusion that poor people from general caste backgrounds do not face. The fact that the right to education, the right to own land, the right to conduct business, or to pursue a well-remunerated occupation has been reserved for men from high caste backgrounds for generations means that government must take steps to correct the unequal distribution of rights.

Reservation is a policy tool that is used not only in India. In many countries, reservation or other types of affirmative action are used to try to overcome human prejudice based on race, gender, ethnicity, religion, caste or any other group identity, and to encourage representation of and participation by groups traditionally excluded and discriminated against. One way to make these measures more acceptable and help people better understand the historic, social and cultural background behind reservation would be to educate children in schools about caste, ethnic, gender and regional diversities and the need for public policy interventions to make society more equal and fair.

  • Seeking votes on religious basis a corrupt act: SC

Terming religion a very private relationship between man and his God, a seven-judge Bench of the Supreme Court on Monday, in a majority judgment, held that an appeal for votes during elections on the basis of religion, caste, race, community or language, even that of the electorate, will amount to a ‘corrupt practice’ and call for disqualification of the candidate.

“Election is a secular exercise and therefore a process should be followed… The relationship between man and God is an individual choice and state should keep this in mind,” the Supreme Court held in a majority judgment of 4:3. The court was interpreting the pronoun ‘his’ used in Section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act.

The provision mandates that it would amount to a ‘corrupt practice’ if a candidate or his agent or any other person, with his consent, appeals for votes on religious or such grounds.

It will be a disservice to the ‘little man’: SC

The question referred to the Constitution Bench led by Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur on a batch of election petitions was whether the word ‘his’ used in Section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act only meant a bar on appeals made in the name of the candidate or his rival or his agent or others in his immediate camp. Or, does the word ‘his’ also extend to soliciting votes on the basis of the religion, caste, community, race, language of the electorate as a whole.

The latter would mean a blanket ban on any appeal, reference, campaign, discussion, dialogue or debate on the basis of religion, race, caste, community or language, even if such a debate was on the deprivations suffered by the voters due to these considerations.

The majority on the Bench — the Chief Justice and Justices Madan B. Lokur, S.A. Bobde and L. Nageshwara Rao — interpreted that Parliament meant by ‘his’ a complete ban on any reference or appeal to religion, race, community, caste and language during elections. This meant the pronoun extended to the social, linguistic and religious identity of the voter also.

Chief Justice Thakur said appealing on the basis of religion would amount to “mixing religion with State power.”

“Elections to the State legislature or to the Parliament or for that matter any body in the State is a secular exercise just as the functions of the elected representatives must be secular in both outlook and practice,” Chief Justice Thakur observed in his separate judgment, throwing his lot with Justices Lokur, Rao and Bobde.

Legislative aim

Justice Lokur said the primary legislative aim of Section 123(3) of the Representation of People Act is to “curb communal and separatist tendencies in the country.”

Justice Lokur said that by allowing a candidate to take advantage of the voters’ religious identity merely to gain votes would be a disservice to the “little man” and against public interest.

Quoting Winston Churchill, Justice Lokur said: “At the bottom of all tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little piece of paper…”

Justice Bobde summarised that Section 123 proscribed all appeals based on sectarian, linguistic or caste considerations during election campaigns in order to “infuse a modicum of oneness, transcending such barriers.”

He borrowed, in this context, Rabindranath Tagore’s phrase that election campaigns should transcend the fragmented “narrow domestic walls.”

Dissenting with the majority and delivering a scathing retort, the minority judgment authored by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud pointed to the historic discriminations and deprivations suffered by the masses on the ground of religion, caste and language. Justice Chandrachud wrote that these were social realities in our country that the Indian addresses.

‘Cannot be barred’

“How can this be barred from being discussed in an election? Religion, caste and language are as much a symbol of social discrimination imposed on large segments of our society. They are part of the central theme of the Constitution to produce a just social order. Electoral politics in a democratic polity is about social mobilisation,” Justice Chandrachud wrote in his separate judgment supported by Justices A.K.Goel and U.U. Lalit.

  • The Americans who ‘understood’ China

In 1944, a group of U.S. diplomats in a C-47 propeller plane swooped down onto a rocky runway in Yan’an. Their mission was to assess Mao Zedong, who had made the city in northern China his guerilla redoubt, and judge whether he deserved U.S. backing.

Some of them concluded that because Mao had the support of the people, he would have the upper hand in the inevitable civil war with Chiang Kai-shek. They were in favour of the U.S. throwing its weight behind Mao. For that judgment, they saw their careers destroyed during the McCarthy era. They became victims of the witch hunt for so-called Communist sympathisers and those who “lost” China.

But to this day in Yan’an, they are heralded as the good Americans who understood China, and are even featured in a museum and compound here that eulogises the Communist Party’s embattled origins and endurance.

State Department experts

One of the Americans, John Paton Davies Jr., jotted down his impressions of the city: “Yenan — which we called Dixie since it was rebel territory — was from the air a thoroughly insignificant Northwest China town set in a treeless valley. The eroded, lumpish plateau that rose from the valley floor on either side was, in late October, parched bare and tan.”

Some of the others in the Dixie mission were also State Department China experts, like John Stewart Service and John Carter Vincent. Some were Army officers, like the mission’s leader, Col. David D. Barrett. Yan’an is now a city of two million people, much of the progress coming on the back of oil and gas, and patriotic tourism designed to attract Chinese citizens curious about the Communist Party’s history. Senior cadres, dressed in black suits and chauffeured around in small vans, come to refresh their knowledge of the party’s early years under Mao.

The museum, the Yan’an Revolution Memorial Hall, is a hulking edifice built 10 years ago that commemorates the Party’s perseverance in the face of scarce food and diseases. The displays say nothing about the brutal ideological purges conducted by Mao and his secret police chief, Kang Sheng.

In one startling image of Service, who was born in China to American missionaries, he is dressed in work clothes, bending over to help a Chinese worker level rocks on the airport runway.

Another shows Davies, dressed in a dark shirt and pants, standing in an official tableau with Mao and Zhou Enlai.

Regular meetings

The Americans had regular meetings, talking tactics and post-World War II prospects, with Zhu De, the Communist commander in chief, who would later lead the forces to victory over Chiang’s Nationalists.

“The Dixie Mission had closer relations with senior Chinese military officers than any Americans have had with the Chinese Communists command before or since,” Richard Bernstein wrote in China 1945 , his book about the period.

Things fell apart when Mao, who had never been out of China, asked for a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House.

The museum ignores the ruined careers of the Americans who portrayed Mao in a positive light. Davies was fired in 1954 during a brief personal audience with the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. Service was dismissed in 1952, though a Supreme Court decision reinstated him in 1957. Vincent was forced to leave the State Department in 1952.

Bernstein, in his book, called Davies and Service “smart and dedicated public servants” who were “naively dazzled” by the Communists. — New York Times News Service

  • The rediscovery of urban India

India is moving away from villages and is set to soon become more urban. To meet this demographic transition, experts say that we need to build 22 new Bengalurus besides recasting the landscape of the present 4,041 cities for a better living. The past is not encouraging. But can we make the future perfect?

Long years of vacillation since Independence about our approaches to urban management and dilemma over the relevance of urbanisation to our socio-economic context with the adjunct weak policy approach have taken a very heavy toll of life in urban areas as one sees now. This, despite the universal acknowledgement that urbanisation drives economic growth due to the attendant advantages of urban agglomerations.

The Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) launched in 2005 was no doubt the first concerted effort to make a difference to the urban chaos. However, by the time it was wound up by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in March 2014, the JNNURM fell much short of intentions. Out of the total of 1,631 projects sanctioned under this for improving urban infrastructure with central aid of about Rs.39,000 crore, only 710 projects, i.e. 43 per cent, were completed during the 10 years. Why was it so?

Of the 275 JNNURM projects sanctioned during 2012-14, a huge chunk of 43 per cent went to just one State from where the then Urban Development Minister hailed. It was clearly with an eye on the 2014 general election. Such an approach did not get the votes expected but only wrecked the mission. A clear case of political expediency with disastrous long-term consequences.

Participatory urban planning

Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in 2014 that there would be no more playing of politics with development. Under the new paradigm shift set in motion, clear and objective ground rules have been laid down. Objectivity and transparency in selection of cities and allocation of central resources under new urban missions are now the rule of law. This is based on urban population and the number of statutory urban local bodies in each State. The Prime Minister’s home State of Gujarat or the two States where my mother tongue Telugu is spoken can’t get even a rupee over and above their entitlement.

Till 2014, every project needed for a city was being appraised and approved in Nirman Bhawan in New Delhi. With this ‘top-down’ planning, there was no sense of involvement in and ownership of new schemes by city and State governments. Consequently, project and investment approvals were being accorded in the last two quarters of a financial year causing implementation delays. Citizen participation in urban planning and project prioritisation are now made mandatory. About one crore citizens contributed to the making of ‘smart city’ plans. Urban planning is now made ‘bottom up’ and the results are showing.

Rules of urban planning have now been rewritten. States just can’t send half-baked and shoddy projects to Delhi as the financial year draws to a close. Under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and Smart Cities Mission meant for improving urban infrastructure, there shall be a comprehensive assessment of infrastructure deficit before drawing up city-level action plans. Cities have been empowered to add to their technical capabilities. And now there is clear evidence that cities are rising to the occasion by rediscovering themselves.

The first priority under AMRUT is to ensure water supply connections to the 2.25 crore urban households that are deprived of them, followed by improving sewerage networks, drainage and non-motorised urban transport. Developing one park in each city every year is mandatory. The Smart Cities Mission seeks to ensure core infrastructure, including health care and education, in an identified area besides improving service delivery across the city through information and communications technology-based solutions. The focus has shifted from a project-based approach to area-based outcomes.

Since the fund entitlements of each State and city-wise infrastructure deficits are known in advance, why should we wait to approve projects till the last quarter of the fiscal? With city governments rising to the occasion over the last and this fiscal, the Ministry of Urban Development has started approving investments for the next three financial years under AMRUT during this year. With this, projects for five years of 14 States stand approved and this would be done for the remaining in a month or so. This enables city and State governments to realise mission targets by the stipulated time through advance planning.

After long years of neglect and alienation, cities are now vying for credit rating, which encompasses the entire gamut of urban governance, including the mindset of politicians and the city officials. Over 80 big cities have almost completed this exercise. Pune and Ahmedabad are set to issue municipal bonds very soon. Release of funds is now linked to progress of mandated governance reforms under all new urban missions including the housing mission. Online integrated single-window clearance for construction permits is being put in place to improve ease of doing business. Cities are now looking at public-private partnership and value capture financing with a changed mindset.

Results on the ground

Involvement of citizens, increased sense of ownership of new urban missions by city and State governments coupled with delegation of powers are yielding results. Under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban), construction of about 15 lakh affordable houses is being financed as against only about 12.50 lakh during 10 years of UPA rule. Under AMRUT, 86 per cent of mission investments stand approved and a large number of projects are off the ground. Since the announcement of the first batch of smart cities in January this year, a large number of projects have already come to be implemented. Over 500 cities and towns have already become open defecation-free. Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Sikkim have already declared all cities and towns as open defecation-free as the Swachh Bharat Mission gains momentum as a people’s movement.

For the resource-starved cities, investment of over Rs.2.75 lakh crore has been approved in just a year. As against the UPA government’s Rs.39,000 crore of central assistance for basic urban infrastructure, this government has committed Rs.50,000 crore under AMRUT, Rs.48,000 crore for smart cities and Rs.14,643 crore for making cities clean. Besides, Central assistance of Rs.1.50-Rs.2.30 lakh is being given for each house for urban poor under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban). The resource kitty of cities has been given a further boost by earmarking Rs.83,000 crore for urban local bodies under the 14th Finance Commission recommendations as against only Rs.27,000 crore earlier. States have also been empowered to spend more on cities further to devolution of 42 per cent of divisible resources, a hike of 10 per cent over earlier sharing.

The early shoots of urban renaissance are quite visible with a new churning among cities that are thinking and acting differently. Making a perfect urban future is a daunting task but a definite beginning has been made over the last two and a half years. The new year shall see much more happening on the ground.

  • When women eat last

India has a major child malnutrition problem. The Rapid Survey on Children (2012-13) found that about 4 in 10 children are stunted. On average, children who are stunted do less well in school, earn less, and die sooner than children who are not.

There are many causes of child stunting. Addressing poverty and improving education would help, but development is not the only factor. Research shows that poor sanitation spreads diseases that sap children’s energy and stunts their growth. Also, the health of a child’s mother matters critically for whether or not the child is stunted.

The first two years of life are the most important time for a child’s physical and cognitive growth. During this time, she depends heavily on her mother for nutrition. As a growing foetus, she gets all her food from her mother’s bloodstream, and after birth, is ideally breastfed for at least six months.

Unfortunately, research shows that many Indian women start pregnancy underweight and gain little weight during pregnancy. This leads to low birth weight babies, high rates of neonatal mortality, and less successful breastfeeding. Women’s undernourishment contributes substantially to India’s unacceptably high rates of child stunting.

Why are Indian women so malnourished? Here, too, poverty and sanitation play a role. But a recent survey that I conducted with a team of economics and sociology researchers suggests that widespread discrimination against women in their own homes likely plays an important role too.

Measuring discrimination

Social Attitudes Research for India (SARI) is a new phone survey that seeks to interview representative samples of 18-65-year-olds. Recently, we interviewed 1,270 adults in Delhi and 1,470 adults in Uttar Pradesh. One of the things SARI measures is discrimination against women.

In India, girls are less likely to survive infancy than boys, and if they do, parents invest less in their education. Women are far less likely to work outside the home and have their own bank accounts than men. Many report little decision-making power over their own lives.

One aspect of discrimination against women that matters for health is whether women eat less or worse quality food than men. In order to measure discrimination in women’s food intake, SARI used a question that was previously tested and used by the India Human Development Survey (2011): “When your family eats lunch or dinner, do the women usually eat with the men? Or do the women usually eat first? Or do the men usually eat first?” Answers to these questions have implications for nutrition because in households with a limited food budget, or where there is no refrigerator to store leftover food, the person who eats last very often gets less or lower quality food than people who eat before her.

The IHDS 2011 survey interviewed married women aged 15-49 and found that one in five women in Delhi and half of the women in Uttar Pradesh said they ate after men did. When we decided to include the same question in the SARI survey five years later, we found even higher numbers. One in three adults in Delhi, and six in ten adults in U.P. said they lived in households where men eat first. Why are these numbers even higher than what the IHDS found in 2011?

Part of the reason is that SARI and the IHDS asked different people. The IHDS asked only women, while SARI asked both women and men. The graph shows the SARI results for this question broken up by sex. In U.P. (but not in Delhi) men were significantly more likely to say that they eat first. We do not know why men in U.P. reported more often than women that women eat last. Studies of discrimination in other contexts suggest that where discrimination is severe, it is often easier to get people to admit to engaging in acts of discrimination than to experiencing it.

Nor do we know for sure why even among women, the SARI figures are higher than the IHDS figures. It may have to do with how respondents react to a phone survey versus a face-to-face survey. The women surveyors who conducted IHDS interviews may have been seen by respondents as progressive women having jobs and moving around without their family members. For a respondent in a conservative household, it may be easier to admit discrimination to a stranger on the phone than to a progressive woman sitting in front of her.

What can be done about it

No matter what the exact figures, it is clear that the practice of making women eat last is widespread in Delhi and U.P., and that it has important implications for a child’s health. What is unclear is how to address the problem.

While the government cannot force people to give women an equal share of food, it could do a lot more to promote gender equality. It could publicise and condemn this practice. It could also more aggressively pursue policies to address discrimination against women in other domains. Encouraging girls’ education, discouraging dowry, supporting marriage choice, and encouraging female labour force participation would all give women more power to challenge this damaging practice.

  • What is special about special courts?

The legislature has introduced special courts on many occasions through various laws, usually with the intention to enable quick and efficient disposal of cases. But an examination of the laws that require setting up of special courts compared to the actual numbers that have been set up reveals the extent to which reality and intent are mismatched.

In a short study by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, 764 Central laws enacted and amended between 1950 and 2015, excluding laws that were repealed in this period or that may have been amended after 2015, were examined to determine the frequency of their occurrence. We looked in these statutes for only mentions of ‘special’ or ‘designated’ courts or judges, that is, courts or judges established to ensure effective trial and that have powers of district or sessions courts. Forums like quasi-judicial bodies, tribunals, and commissions were excluded. It was found that only three statutes provided for special courts between 1950 and 1981, whereas between 1982 and 2015, 25 statutes mandated the establishment of such courts.

What are the reasons for this drastic change in legislative policy? The five-year period from 1982 to 1987 witnessed an unexplained spurt in the number of laws creating special courts. A similar increase was seen between 2012 and 2015. Several such courts were created in response to specific incidents. For instance, the 1992 securities scam led to the Special Court (Trial of Offences Relating to Transactions in Securities) Act, 1992. The largest number of special/designated courts were created between 1982 and 1992. However, there is no categorical rationale for these developments.

Setting up and designating special courts

Laws interchangeably use the terms ‘set up’ or ‘designate’ with respect to special courts. Setting up a special court may require new infrastructure and facilities, whereas a designated court merely adds additional responsibilities to an existing court. In our study, of the 28 statutes enacted between 1950 and 2015, three provided for both, 15 ‘set up’ special courts, and 10 empowered the competent authority to designate a court. However, implementation of the law does not necessarily follow this distinction between setting up and designation. Despite providing for ‘setting up’ special courts, State governments have designated courts under most of the legislations. Out of the 15 statutes which specifically provided for ‘setting up’ of special courts, only one has been enabled with them by few States.

Based on the nature of legislation and primary subject matter dealt with, we divided the statutes into five clusters of economic offences, regulatory offences, law and order, social justice, and national security. The objective of special courts has been unclear. It is not very revealing whether specific legislations which provide for special courts necessarily intend quick disposal of cases. The statutes which have been recently enacted, mostly those falling under the cluster of economic offences, have provisions for special courts although older legislation, like the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, or the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, 1985, have a huge backlog of cases waiting to be cleared.

We studied three statutes from three clusters, based on the availability of data, to observe the nature and frequency of institution of ‘special courts’: The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (POA), 1989; National Investigation Agency Act, 2008 (NIA Act); Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (POCA).

The pendency rates in courts for cases filed under POA are huge. While the national average is 84.1 per cent, States like Maharashtra and West Bengal have pegged their respective pendency rates well above the average. The number of cases being registered from these States has also been significant. However, the absence of exclusive courts in these States has been stark. On the contrary, there have been several special courts and fast track courts being set up under POCA although the total number of cases registered is nearly 1/10th of cases under POA. Under the NIA Act, in spite of mandating special courts, all the courts set up have been designated courts.

No exclusivity

From the available data, it is fairly conclusive that there is no exclusivity in ‘special courts’. Laws enacted in the last three decades have considered special courts as quick remedy for questions of delays in trial. However, a striking absence of number of ‘special courts’ set up provides a glaring contrast to such an objective. Notably, in most instances where existing courts are designated as special courts, the original intent of speedy disposal of cases seems to have been defeated. Questions of pendency have often surfaced, thereby rendering the point of efficiency of the institution moot. Absence of rationale in both selective insertion of provision for special courts and actual setting up of courts appears to have rendered the notion of special court superfluous.

Poor quality or complete absence of data remains a major concern for this study. Official websites (for instance, nodal ministries) did not always have the latest updated versions of statutes. The status of these laws is difficult to assess as information about the number of courts set up or designated under various laws is not always available.

However, this study does reveal much scope to expand the areas of enquiry for research. For instance, what is so special about special courts if they only provide an additional forum to dispose cases? Is this purpose still served if existing courts are merely designated as special courts without any new infrastructure being created? Can inferences be drawn about the state of the judicial system where special courts have been introduced by way of amendments to parent laws? Is the legislature monitoring the health of special courts and examining whether their original stated purpose continues to be served? These are questions which future studies could explore.

  • All’s not well in the Army

The ‘controversial’ appointment of the new Indian Army chief who assumed office on January 1, 2017 is perhaps the appropriate occasion to discuss the rising uneasiness within the Indian Army on a number of significant issues. While the unconvincing rationale given for the appointment of Lt. Gen. Bipin Rawat as the new Army chief speaks volumes of the deep-rooted tactical thinking within the government, there remains an urgent need to address the lopsided promotion trends in the Army, rising infighting within the force, and their implications for India’s national security.

Those who support Gen. Rawat’s appointment arguing that merit was, and should be, the sole criterion for the supersession of two of his seniors fall short on a number of counts. First, to breach a well-established tradition in a conservative and hierarchical institution like the Army, the government should have a convincing and compelling reason which it doesn’t seem to have. Second, the argument of merit is largely redundant at the topmost levels of an organisation where all officers are equally competent, failing which they wouldn’t have made it to the Lt. Gen. rank in the first place.

Third, there is no objective criteria for deciding merit at the senior levels of the Army brass besides previous annual confidential reports and civilian considerations, both of which are subjective. Fourth, the argument that Gen. Rawat has the required experience in certain theatres is again beside the point because the “Chief of the Army Staff” is not an operational commander but a coordinator and chief strategist. Finally, and most fundamentally, non-traditional appointments without a compelling rationale set a bad precedent and could potentially lead to the politicisation of the armed forces. Imagine senior Generals of the Army running around Lutyens’ Delhi currying favour with ruling party politicians to make it to the top!

There have been reports, citing unnamed sources within the government, about the possibility of the most senior General of the Army, Lt. Gen. Praveen Bakshi — now superseded by Gen. Rawat — being appointed as the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). While it may turn out to be mere speculation, if true, it may well be even more worrying. The first in line becomes CDS, third in line gets the Army chief’s job. What about the second in line, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ali Hariz, one of the very few Muslim officers to have become an Army commander? If the report turns out to be correct, wouldn’t the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, by ignoring Gen. Hariz, be sending out a politically incorrect signal? This question, uncomfortable as it may sound, can’t be allowed to be swept under the carpet.

The justification of Gen. Rawat’s appointment as stemming from his experience in dealing with insurgency is also indicative of the deeply entrenched tactical thinking within the government at the Centre. This then means that the BJP-led government considers anti-militancy and counter-insurgency operations to be the fundamental job description of the Indian Army. This is not just a tactical view of the country’s threat environment but worryingly also ignores strategic planning and an appreciation of the long-term strategic environment. Would the BJP-led government like to reduce the Indian Army to a counter-insurgency force?

While the Army leadership is exceptionally vocal on the ‘One Rank, One Pay’ question and parity with civil servants, there is not much discussion about the issue of promotion-related discrimination within the Army. Not only have infantry officers been getting appointed to the coveted positions in the top rungs of the Army, the chiefs often promote officers from their own regiments in a regrettable display of parochial loyalties.

The outgoing chief Gen. D.S. Suhag, for instance, is reported to have promoted officers from the Gorkha regiment (including the incumbent chief Gen. Rawat), his own regiment. Former Army Chief Gen. V.K. Singh, now Minister of State in the government, was also accused of promoting officers from his own Rajput regiment. There is a growing sense of resentment elsewhere in the Army about the disproportionate opportunities for officers from the infantry and artillery wings.

Officers from other wings, especially the Armoured Corps and Mechanised Infantry, have been publicly voicing their concerns. Note that this is over and above the fact that only officers from the fighting arms of the Army make it to the top, meaning that those from Engineers and Signals don’t even stand a chance of doing so. This already existing discrimination is getting even more glaring thanks to the new promotion policy adopted by the Army. The victims of the new policy have been fighting it out in the Supreme Court.

The ongoing court cases

The current debate about the Army’s promotion policy has its genesis in the Kargil Review Committee report which recommended that promotion to the Colonel and Brigadier levels should be made quicker so that younger officers can command battalions and brigades. Thereafter the Ajai Vikram Singh Committee (AVSC) made some important recommendations in 2001 to restructure the officer cadre in the Army. Among other things, it recommended the implementation of the Command Exit model (as opposed to the pro rata basis) for promotion to the colonel level. While the pro rata basis gave advantage to the infantry and artillery (given their numerical superiority in the Army), the Command Exit model, which prescribed differentiated command tenures (that is, the length of the tenures of commanding officers i.e., colonels before promotion to the next level) for various arms, gives even more advantage to the Infantry. Consider the following: the AVSC fixed the command tenure of Infantry officers at 2.5 years, that of Armoured/Mechanised Infantry and Artillery at three years, and Engineers and Signals at four years. This has not only led to quicker promotions for officers from the Infantry but they have also successively managed to corner the Army chief’s post as well, including the last four times. The last four Army Chiefs, including the current one, have been infantry officers.

This ill-designed policy was challenged by serving officers in the Armed Forces Tribunal, which squashed the new promotion policy, holding that it violated Article 14 of the Constitution. However, the Supreme Court in February 2016 upheld the policy, at the same time asking the government to create 141 additional posts at the rank of colonel to be granted to officers from Engineers, Signals and Air Defence. Late last year around 350 senior Army officers have again approached the Supreme Court seeking a review of its February judgment.

Then there are ugly public spats between senior Army officers. Gen. V.K Singh, Army chief from March 2010 to May 2012, was not only the first serving Army chief to take the government to court (on the issue of his date of birth) but has made uncharitable public allegations against Gen. Suhag. Gen. Singh, during his tenure, had also placed Gen. Suhag on a “discipline and vigilance ban” which could have stopped the latter from becoming the chief. Before his retirement, Gen. Suhag filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in which he accused Gen. Singh of trying to scuttle his promotion. Gen. Singh’s words and deeds during his tenure as Army chief and after becoming a minister have not only been careless and ‘un-officer-like’ but also continue to create dissension in the Army top brass.

Need for political oversight

While politicisation of the affairs of the armed forces is indeed harmful, it may also not be a good idea to let the Army handle its own business as it deems fit. At present, politicians hardly focus on serious defence matters or inter-service/intra-service tensions. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) bureaucrats, with limited expertise in these matters, mostly function as gatekeepers keeping the forces away from the civilian seats of power.

And yet, in keeping with the commendable tradition of civilian supremacy in the country, it is time to consider civilian oversight of the promotion process at the highest levels of the armed forces. However, civil servants in the MoD or the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet can’t alone be entrusted with that job. Ideally, such high-level appointments should either be vetted by an empowered Parliamentary Standing committee on Defence or be decided by a ‘bipartisan’ Selection Committee composed along the lines of the one that selects the Central Bureau of Investigation chief and the Chief Vigilance Commissioner.

The multiple crises afflicting the Indian Army have far-reaching national security implications. Clearly, a military force with sharp internal divisions and discontent in the ranks can pose challenges for the country’s national security and the morale and cohesion of the fighting forces. Such a pervasive sense of intra-service victimhood and discrimination can further deteriorate the strength of a force which currently has a shortage of over 9,000 officers.

If the Modi government wishes to seriously address and tackle some of these troubling issues, and thereby strengthen the country’s national security, the Defence Minister and the new Army chief should take urgent measures to address the sources of this growing discontent within the country’s ace force. Moreover, it is important that the senior Army leadership rise above parochial regimental considerations and look after the interests of the force as a whole rather than those of their own regiments.

  • The price of defiance

The  Board of Control for Cricket in India has only itself to blame for its present predicament. Its president and secretary have been removed for defying the Supreme Court’s order to accept reforms suggested by a court-appointed committee. And its president, Anurag Thakur, now faces legal action for contempt of court as well as prosecution for perjury. None of this would have happened had the BCCI shown some sense of responsibility and a vision for the future, and recognised the fact that the highest court was only seeking to reform the manner in which cricket is administered in the country. In the court’s view, the appointment of the Justice R.M. Lodha Committee and adoption of its recommendations were part of a project to bring transparency and accountability to the BCCI. While the court expected cooperation and compliance, the BCCI responded with obstructionist tactics and defiance. It was therefore inevitable that the court would seek to send out a message that it will not brook any wilful defiance. Despite the court making the Lodha panel reforms binding on the BCCI through its July 18 verdict, the BCCI appeared to defy it. It cited as one reason difficulties in getting its affiliated State units to accept the reforms, but at the same time made at its Annual General Meeting in September some decisions that were not in tune with the panel’s recommendations. The price of such defiance is clear: the Supreme Court is now going to appoint a committee of administrators to supervise the board’s affairs.

Mr. Thakur’s position is especially unfortunate. As a young sports administrator, he was presented with a great opportunity to lead cricket administration into a new era in which Indian cricket’s on-field achievements would be matched by the Board’s transparent and accountable functioning. If only he and other affiliated units had accepted the reforms, influential individuals who had held sway for decades would have been replaced by fresh talent, and the seemingly unending tenure of some would have been cut short. However, by defying the court in the name of protecting the sport’s autonomy, Mr. Thakur has courted a double blow: the loss of power and authority as well as imminent punishment. His equivocation on whether he invited the International Cricket Council to say there is governmental interference in the BCCI’s affairs has led to the court hardening its stance against him. It is not clear what course of action, if any, would now mollify the Supreme Court and help them escape its wrath. A bitter lesson has indeed been taught, but it is uncertain if it has been learnt.

  • Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is surprise German bestseller

The first reprint of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf in Germany since World War II has proved a surprise bestseller, heading for its sixth print run, its publisher said on Tuesday.

The Institute of Contemporary History of Munich (IfZ) said around 85,000 copies of the new annotated version of the Nazi leader’s anti-Semitic manifesto had flown off the shelves since its release last January.

However, the respected institute said far from promoting far-right ideology, the publication had enriched a debate on the renewed rise of “authoritarian political views” in contemporary Western society. It had initially planned to print only 4,000 copies but boosted production immediately based on intense demand. The sixth print run will hit bookstores in late January.

The two-volume work had figured on the non-fiction bestseller list in weekly magazine Der Spiegel over much of the last year, and even topped the list for two weeks in April.

Hitler’s worldview

The institute also organised a successful series of presentations and debates around Mein Kampf across Germany and in other European cities, which it said allowed it to measure the impact of the new edition.

“It turned out that the fear the publication would promote Hitler’s ideology or even make it socially acceptable and give neo-Nazis a new propaganda platform was totally unfounded,” IfZ director Andreas Wirsching said in a statement.

“To the contrary, the debate about Hitler’s worldview and his approach to propaganda offered a chance to look at the causes and consequences of totalitarian ideologies, at a time in which authoritarian political views and rightwing slogans are gaining ground.”

The institute said the data collected about buyers by regional bookstores showed that they tended to be “customers interested in politics and history as well as educators” and not “reactionaries or rightwing radicals”.

Nevertheless, the IfZ said it would maintain a restrictive policy on international rights.

For now, only English and French editions are planned despite strong interest from many countries.

  • Thinking in stories

Say the word ‘thinking’, and the image evoked is that of abstract ideas, facts, numbers and data. But what if I say that this is our first and most common error about the nature of thinking? As religions have always known, human thinking is conducted primarily in stories, not facts or numbers.

Human beings might be the only living animals that can think in stories. Facts and information of some sort exist for a deer and a wolf too, but fiction, and thinking in fiction?

Now, stories are celebrated for many things: as repositories of folk knowledge or accumulated wisdom, as relief from the human condition, as entertainment, as enabling some cognitivist processes, even as the best way to get yourself and your children to fall asleep! But all this misses the main point about stories: they are the most common, most pervasive, and probably the oldest way for humans to think.

Problem of a fundamentalist reading

Having missed this point, we then proceed to reduce stories — and their most complex enunciation, literature — to much less than what they are or should be. For instance, a good story is not just a narrative. It does not simply take us from point A to point Z, with perhaps an easy moral appended. Religious fundamentalists who see stories only in those terms end up destroying the essence of their religions.

Let us take one example: the Book of Job. The fundamentalist reading of the Book of Job stresses Job’s faith. In this version, the story is simple: Job is a prosperous, God-fearing man, and God is very proud of him. Satan, however, argues that Job is such a good man only because God has been kind to him. Give him adversity and you will see his faith waver, says Satan. God allows Satan to test Job, by depriving him of prosperity, family, health. But Job’s faith does not waver, and finally all is restored to him. The fundamentalist reading — which reduces the story to a narrative — is simple: this is a parable about true faith.

To leave the Book of Job there is to stop thinking about it. Because the narrative of Job is secondary to its problematic. One can even argue that the narrative is misleading: in the restoration of Job’s children, health and wealth, we have a resolution that fails in our terms. We do not expect such miracles in real life. Hence, it is not the narrative of Job that is significant.

What is significant and useful are the problems of the story. For instance, when the righteous, believing Job is afflicted with death and suffering, such questions are raised (in the story and by Job’s friends): Who is to be blamed? Is God unjust or uncaring? Has Job sinned in hiding (or ignorance) and is therefore being punished? Does it all make any sense?

Job adopts a difficult position throughout the story: among other things, he neither blames God, nor does he blame himself, but he demands an answer. When one thinks of this, one comes to the kernel of the thought of this story: how does one live best in a world where undeserved suffering sometimes befalls the good? It is not the unbelievable narrative which makes this a significant story; it is the way Job’s reactions, his friends’ prescriptions and the problematic of the entire story make us think. Moreover, as God’s incomplete ‘answers’ to Job indicate, stories can make us think in very complex ways.

Religions have always known that human beings think best and most easily in stories. That is why religions consciously think through stories: the ‘facts’ and ‘details’ of these stories change with changing human circumstances, but what does not change is the bid and ability to make us contemplate, imagine, reason, induce, examine — in other words, think.

Strangely, politicians have also known this. All major political movements have depended on the power of stories. In the decades when the Left was on the ascendency, it had a powerful story to tell — of human exploitation, human resistance and eventually human achievement in the shape of a ‘classless’ society. In recent years, the Right has managed to tell us stories that, for various reasons, seem more convincing to many: inevitable state-aided neo-liberalism, for instance. Narendra Modi’s victory in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s in Turkey, and Donald Trump’s in the U.S. — all three are driven by powerful narratives that explain the ‘past’ and promise a ‘future.’

Failure of academics

Unfortunately, the one area where thinking in stories was taken seriously — and not just reduced to mechanistic explanations — has lost confidence in itself. The Humanities have been too busy trying to justify stories in all possible terms — entertainment, discourse, narratology, cognitivist structures, reader response, etc. — instead of working on how to best think in stories. The total failure of academics, publishers and editors to talk of literature as literature — not just what sells, or a set of ‘reader responses’, or a soporific, or passing politics, or ageless ‘Darwinism,’ etc. — is an index of this failure.

The so-called post-truth society is not primarily the result of our inability to focus on facts; it is due to our failure to read stories deeply. Just as there are ways in which facts can be used positively or negatively, there are ways in which stories can be read — to make us think or to prevent us from thinking. Literature — even in the days when it was written with a capital ‘L’ — was the one area of the Humanities where this was a serious endeavour. This has changed at great cost to human civilisation.

Humans still think primarily in stories. But the failure of standards in education and literary criticism has combined with the rise of fundamentalism (which is not piety or religious thought), scientism (which is not science) and numerical neo-liberalism (which is not even capitalism) to deprive more and more people of the ability to think critically, deeply and sensitively in stories. This explains many of our current political and economic woes.

  • Death of a naturalist

Peter Jackson’s death last month in England after a prolonged and sad illness went virtually unnoticed in this country. This is a pity given his lifelong association with India and his two signal contributions to nature conservation, one in Haryana and the other in Gujarat.

Jackson came out to India in the early fifties as a correspondent for Reuters and was among the first to report the ascent of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in May 1953. Subsequently he became Secretary of the Delhi Bird Watching Society, which had been established in May 1950 under the chairmanship of Mahatma Gandhi’s close associate Horace Alexander, with Indira Gandhi as one of the founder-members. She had got interested in birdwatching while jailed in Naini between September 1942 and May 1943. Her father, who was himself then in Ahmadnagar Prison, had sent her the second edition of Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds which she read and used both in prison and after.

Protecting the Sultanpur jheel

In November-December 1969, the International Union for Conservation of Nature held its Tenth General Assembly in New Delhi. Over 300 of the world’s biggest names in conservation congregated for the event. Indira Gandhi had made a forceful inaugural address on November 24, 1969. Thereafter, Peter Jackson wrote to her on March 29, 1970: “During the IUCN Conference, I took a number of distinguished wildlife experts and ornithologists to the jheels at Sultanpur in Gurgaon district, about 25 miles from Delhi. They were astonished at the wealth of wildlife and decided on the spot that efforts should be made to have the jheels protected…

“All of us interested in the Sultanpur jheels feel that your interest would add immense impetus to the creation of this Nature Reserve of a kind which few, if any, capitals in the world boast within a short distance.

“We know the heavy demands on your time, but, as you are a founder-member of the Delhi Bird Watching Society, we wondered if you would like to slip away for about three hours one morning to see the Sultanpur jheels…”

Two days later, Indira Gandhi noted on his letter: “I could. How long will the birds be there?”

On April 1, 1970, Moni Malhoutra, her undersecretary and aide on environmental matters, after speaking to Jackson, informed her that the flamingos and pelicans would be around for a few more weeks though the ducks were already beginning to migrate. He suggested that the Prime Minister visit the Sultanpur jheel on Sunday, April 5, 1970, to which she responded the same day in her own hand: “US [undersecretary] seems be innocent so far as security arranged are concerned. I am very much afraid that the sanctuary may be ruined.”

Subsequently, Indira Gandhi sent Malhoutra to visit Sultanpur and brief her. The papers that Jackson had sent her were passed on to the Chief Minister of Haryana, Bansi Lal, who wrote to her on September 25, 1970 that he had initiated action to develop the jheel into a bird sanctuary and a tourist destination. Four days later, she complimented the Chief Minister for the steps he had taken, adding: “I hope one day to visit them [the jheels] myself, quietly and without fuss.”

The sanctuary was notified on April 2, 1971 and the formal inauguration took place on February 6, 1972. Indira Gandhi sent a message: “The development of the Sultanpur jheel as a bird sanctuary will be widely welcomed by all lovers of wildlife and conservationists. The potentiality of the jheel, which attracts a large variety of birds, was first noticed during the IUCN Conference in Delhi. I congratulate the Government of Haryana for having acted so quickly to preserve and develop this great natural asset. The proximity of the sanctuary to our capital city will make it an obvious tourist attraction for all who are interested in our natural heritage. To the people of Delhi in particular, it will afford easy escape from the monotony of urban life, and the joy of observing some of nature’s most beautiful creatures in their own habitat.”

Abandoning the park plan

Peter Jackson left India in mid-1970 and joined the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland. But he kept up with India regularly. He visited Porbandar a decade later. During that trip, according to his own account, he “spotted a small lake where over 4,000 Lesser Flamingos were gathered”. When he was told that that the lake’s days were numbered and it was soon going to be filled up to construct a park, he approached Indira Gandhi. The Prime Minister immediately spoke to Madhavsinh Solanki, the Gujarat Chief Minister, who assured her that the park plan would be abandoned. This paved the way for the notification of the bird sanctuary in the Mahatma’s birthplace in November 1988.

Jackson was also closely associated with WWF’s Operation Tiger, which was launched to support India’s own Project Tiger launched on April 1, 1973. It is generally believed that in the seventies, tiger conservation in India was due to the WWF’s efforts. In part, Peter Jackson’s communications skills helped create this impression. The WWF certainly helped raise the international profile of India’s programme but in the first six years of Project Tiger covering nine reserves, the total investment was about Rs.6 crore, of which just about 13 per cent came from WWF. That such an amount was set aside when the finances of the Centre were in a precarious position was entirely due to the Prime Minister herself.

  • The Court reigns Supreme

On January 2, in an order that surprised no one except perhaps the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the Supreme Court set the record and the status of Indian cricket’s governing body straight. Widely expected yet unprecedented, the court took the BCCI and its top leadership to task, removing the president, Anurag Thakur, and the secretary, Ajay Shirke, from their respective positions. Accepting the Justice Lodha Committee’s concerns set out in the earlier status reports, the court reaffirmed its July 18, 2016 verdict, signalling the end of cricket administration as we have known it.

Price of non-compliance

Effective immediately, any BCCI and State associations’ official must be eligible as per the Lodha Committee’s eligibility criteria. The senior-most eligible vice-president will be the interim president of the BCCI, and the joint secretary will be the interim secretary for the next two weeks. The court also appointed two senior advocates to propose names for a committee of administrators that will essentially govern cricket and simultaneously ensure implementation of the Lodha Committee recommendations. In what is expected to be the final order on this matter, on January 19 the Supreme Court will release the names of the committee of administrators, and the transition to the court-appointed administration era will officially commence.

For the BCCI, the conclusion to what has been a series of unfortunate events laced with ill-advised moves and baffling periods of silence could not have been more hard-hitting. Eligible officials must provide a declaration that they will be in compliance with the Lodha Committee’s directives. For Mr. Thakur, things have become rather uncomfortable. In its order, the court declared the leadership of Mr. Thakur (and Mr. Shirke) ineffectual basis his stated inability to force the State associations to comply with the court’s orders. The court also implied that Mr. Thakur could face contempt charges for obstructing the implementation of the court’s orders, and — most troubling of all — it has recommended pursuing a perjury charge for lying under oath and allegedly falsifying the BCCI’s minutes from August 22 in which an account of Mr. Thakur’s version of his interaction with the International Cricket Council is documented. However, with both Mr. Thakur and Mr. Shirke seemingly having accepted their ouster, a more likely outcome is the court requiring a written or oral apology from Mr. Thakur and putting an end to this once and for all.

The BCCI and its State associations will probably rue the day the Indian Premier League (IPL) spot-fixing scandal began in 2013, but in all honesty, there have been so many opportunities for them to stem the rot that it is difficult to pinpoint how it all went so wrong. Increasingly, the BCCI has become isolated and waged a battle that has seemed strategically unsound. There was a major disconnect between how far the Board really believed the court would go and the ground reality. What may also have escaped the BCCI’s notice is the changing perception of governance in sport and not just in India. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) has seen an invasive overhaul recently, and in India, the Sports Ministry’s vocal chastising of the Indian Olympic Association’s controversial appointments is a case in point.

So used to being left to its own devices, the BCCI may have lost perspective and context. A little flexibility and the appearance of genuine reform would have gone a very long way. Perceived arrogance and insularity aside, the Board has done what it is tasked to do unlike any other sports federation in the world, let alone India — develop and promote the sport itself. Its biggest achievement in many ways is its biggest downfall — success, clout and profitability. The IPL is in serious limbo, and there’s no telling if there’s been an adverse impact on the media rights value.

The road from here

At some point there could be serious questions asked of this latest order. By replacing the Board with an unelected and subjectively appointed committee, optically what would have changed is the nature of appointment and the appointing authority. An interim committee tasked solely with the implementation of the court’s verdict and to oversee a transparent and fair election would have been ideal, and perhaps that is what will actually happen.

There remain some unanswered questions, and now it appears that we may never know whose names were mentioned in the sealed envelope submitted by the Justice Mudgal Committee in its report on the spot-fixing scandal that triggered this entire stand-off. And despite the BCCI seemingly having accepted the verdict, there is a growing buzz that some State associations may yet file appeals now that Justice T.S. Thakur would have retired as Chief Justice of India. So, there may be some twists along the way, but in a legacy judgment, Justice Thakur has brought reform to cricket in a way that few ever could have envisioned. An overhaul of this nature has never been attempted before, at least not successfully. This could turn out to be a template for sports governance globally, or just the opposite; it’s far too soon to know.

The Supreme Court and the Lodha Committee’s work here, as the saying goes, is done. But the real challenges and work towards ensuring not just a successful governance regimen but an equally successful on- and off-pitch tenure for the new leadership has just begun.

  • Two takes on democracy

Do fair elections require that certain kinds of statements — such as appeals to religion, caste, and language — be taken off the campaigning table altogether? Can the state prevent adult citizens from being exposed to certain ideas before they vote? Can a court decide that only certain kinds of interests count in a democracy? Does secularism mandate the complete exclusion of religion from the public sphere? And must identities based upon religion, caste, and language always be treated as evils to be fought and eradicated? Or can they sometimes become sites of emancipation, markers around which citizens organise themselves and seek liberation through the attainment of political power?

A landmark judgment

These questions, fundamental to understanding the foundations of our republic, were answered by a divided Supreme Court on Monday. The seven judges hearing the case split four to three, revealing the complexity of the issues involved, as well as an inevitable collision of constitutional values. And it all began with a disagreement over a single word: “his”.

Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act, India’s omnibus election law, defines a corrupt electoral practice as follows: “The appeal by a candidate or his agent or by any other person with the consent of a candidate or his election agent to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community….” The question before the Supreme Court was deceptively simple: did the underlined word “his” qualify only the electoral candidate (and his agent, or persons speaking with his consent)? Or did it also qualify the person to whom the appeal was addressed (the elector)? A quick glance at the text of the section will tell us that, although the former reading is more plausible, language alone cannot answer the question: the section does not specify whether “his” refers to the speaker seeking votes, or the audience from whom votes are being sought. To select one interpretation over the other, we must ask ourselves: what is this law trying to achieve?

The majority view

Four out of seven judges held that the law was trying to achieve the purity of elections, and that the purity of elections required that appeals to caste, religion, language, and community be kept out of the electoral process. In the view of the majority, an election that was fought and decided on these issues was a distortion of democracy. And it was distorted because of two reasons: one, that for democracy to survive, there must be agreement on certain basic essentials “which could unite and hold citizens together”. Religion, language, caste, etc were precisely the kind of divisive markers of identity that threatened this fragile consensus; and two, while democracy depended on voters exercising their franchise on the basis of rational thought and action, appeals to religion, language, and caste were inherently emotive and irrational in nature. To substantiate this, the majority also marshalled the legislative history behind the section, holding that its basic purpose was to “curb communal, fissiparous and separatist tendencies”. Therefore, to restrict Section 123(3)’s prohibition only to electoral candidates would be contrary to public interest.

Furthermore, in his separate, concurring opinion, Chief Justice T.S. Thakur added another string to this bow. The Chief Justice held that secularism required the complete exclusion of religion from public life: “Religion can have no place in such [secular] activities for religion is a matter personal to the individual with which neither the State nor any other individual has anything to do.”

Consequently, according to the majority, the word “his” in Section 123(3) was to be understood broadly, referring to both the speaker as well as the audience. In effect, it prohibited appeals to the prohibited “grounds” (religion, caste etc) during the electoral process.

At the heart of the majority’s vision of the democratic public sphere was the ideal of abstract, universal personhood. To enter the public sphere as citizens, we must leave our messy markers of personal identity at the door, embracing our disembodied citizen-selves. And once in the public sphere, we must participate as rational individuals, deliberating about the public interest, unencumbered by the baggage of our religion, caste, language, or community. But because our markers of identity are a constant temptation, the state must help us out. It does this by passing laws that prohibit certain kinds of election speech, speech that “appeals” to the prohibited markers of identity.

In this way, the state prevents the distortion of democracy, and helps us to become true citizens. To some, this might sound like a noble and inspiring vision of democracy, and of the Constitution.

But it was not the vision that the dissenting judges held. At the heart of the disagreement between the majority and the dissent was a disagreement over the idea of citizenship, and the value of identity. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, the author of the dissenting opinion, wrote: “The Constitution… recognises the position of religion, caste, language and gender in the social life of the nation. Individual histories both of citizens and collective groups in our society are associated through the ages with histories of discrimination and injustice on the basis of these defining characteristics… [and] access to governance is a means of addressing social disparities. Social mobilisation is a powerful instrument of bringing marginalised groups into the mainstream. To hold that a person who seeks to contest an election is prohibited from speaking of the legitimate concerns of citizens that the injustices faced by them on the basis of traits having an origin in religion, race, caste, community or language would be remedied is to reduce democracy to an abstraction.”

Universal citizen does not exist

The dissent’s answer to the majority’s construction of the universal citizen was that such an individual did not, and could not, exist. Human beings are always situated within their social contexts, and in India, these contexts have been characterised by religion, language, caste, and community. These are, and have been, the sites of inclusion and exclusion, privilege and oppression, domination and resistance, power, pleasure, discrimination, and suffering. In the dissent’s view, constitutional law could not be oblivious to this history. It could not wrench the individual out of her context, and set her down, abstract and disembodied, to deliberate in the public sphere. And most importantly, it could not say to those who, for centuries, had been denied dignity and rights on the very basis of their caste, religion, language or community that they were now precluded from organising around those very markers to liberate themselves.

In the last analysis, the dissent’s crucial insight was this: after centuries of structural and institutional discrimination, these markers of identity had acquired a certain social salience — that is, a certain visible significance. For all these years, this social salience had been used to arbitrarily exclude and marginalise those who fell on the wrong side of it. But now, with the advent of democracy, it was precisely this social salience that allowed the oppressed to organise around the site of their prior oppression, and use that to gain political power. It was that which allowed B.R. Ambedkar to form the All India Scheduled Castes Federation, a political party exclusively devoted to Dalit emancipation.

For this reason, the dissent held that Section 123(3) had to be construed narrowly. The phrase “his religion” referred only to the religion of an electoral candidate, and not the religion of the voter. Section 123(3) prohibited statements like “I am a Hindu, vote for me”, or “My opponent is a Hindu, don’t vote for her”. Such a law was permissible, because a candidate was supposed to represent her entire constituency, and not just a subset of it. But, the dissent held, this far and no further. The same logic could not be extended to citizen-electors, when they participated in the electoral process.

On Monday, the Supreme Court placed before us two visions of the Constitution, of democracy, of citizenship, and the public sphere. As a matter of law, the majority carried the day; but it is for each of us to ask ourselves which vision we find more convincing, and truer to our uniquely plural and diverse democracy, and to its eventful and tumultuous history.

 

  • Secularising the election

The Supreme Court has grappled with the question whether a provision in electoral law that makes it a corrupt practice to use religion, race, caste or language as a ground for canvassing votes in an election is a bar limited to the groups to which candidates or their rivals belong, or whether it is a general prohibition on sectarian appeals. Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, as amended in 1961, gave rise to this doubt. By a four-three majority, a seven-member Bench has ruled that it is a general prohibition on the use of religion or any other communal or sectarian value in the electoral arena. The minority favoured limiting the ambit of the sub-section to cover only candidates who sought votes on such grounds, or the rivals they wanted the voters not to back on similar grounds. That secularism is the bedrock of our democracy is undisputed. That the electoral process ought not to permit appeals to the electorate on these narrow grounds is equally beyond doubt. Against this backdrop, it is only logical that the Supreme Court should decide that it is a “corrupt practice” for candidates to use any caste or communal parameters to canvass for votes or to discredit a rival, regardless of whether the candidates themselves belong to such religious, communal or linguistic groups.

It is interesting that the dispute turned on a single pronoun, ‘his’, that was introduced in the 1961 amendment. The majority opinion favours a ‘purposive interpretation’, holding that it covered the candidates as well as the voter. It finds support in legislative history and our constitutional ethos. The purpose of the amendment was to widen the scope of the particular corrupt practice. Given that secularism is a basic feature of the Constitution, it has been interpreted in the light of Parliament’s intention to prohibit any religious or sectarian appeal for votes. There is a justifiable worry that a wider interpretation may lead to eliminating from the poll discourse political issues that turn on religion, caste or language. After all, this is a country in which sections of society suffer deprivation and historical injustices based on religious or caste identity. But the overall message is clear. It is left to the wisdom of judges dealing with election cases to draw the line between what is permissible and what is not, and look at the context in which some statements are made before deciding whether they constitute a corrupt practice. The majority verdict will find resonance with all those who swear by the primacy of secularism in the public domain. The minority view nuances this with a reminder that legal issues need to be seen in their social context.

  • Stemming the moral rot within

On December 31, 2016, the streets of Bengaluru became one of the most dangerous places in the country for women of all ages. On New Year’s Day, photographs emerged of terrified women there clinging to police officers as mobs surged around them, and reports described the brazen spree of mass sexual assaults that occurred overnight.

On the same evening, in another part of Bengaluru, an unrelated violent attack on a woman walking through a dark alley was captured in a spine-chilling, two-minute CCTV video.

The two sets of visuals from Bengaluru that night were mirror images of shameful events that occurred elsewhere in the world, including the “taharrush” (collective harassment) attacks that have, since 2005, blighted the epochal political events in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, Egypt, and the 2015 New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne, Germany, among others.

Yet, as countless women would confirm across India, where, paradoxically the female essence is apotheosised as god, and mother, sister, and daughter are regarded as sacred and pure in the pantheon of religiosity, mass molestations run parallel to brutal everyday acts of leering, catcalling, verbal abuse, threatening behaviour, groping, and violent sexual acts across the spectrum.

It is a fact that the freak show of sexual perversion in Bengaluru on New Year’s Eve could have happened just about anywhere in the country, in any nook or cranny into which the grotesque ghoul of Indian masculinity finds its way.

Learned behaviour for men

What is wrong with men in general, and Indian men in particular, that they have lived comfortably for this long in a moral vacuum, in a world where the schizophrenic divergence between their proclaimed conservative mores and their repressed, distorted sexual impulse does not produce an evolutionary response towards a more civilised ethos?

In part, the answer is that in India, masculinity and the progression — some would justifiably call it descent — from boyhood to manhood has never been governed by taught principles or enlightening examples in the majority of cases.

Machismo, the objectification of women, and that deranged ability to regard some women with pious fidelity and others with unbridled, disrespectful lust are learned behaviours for most Indian men, whose fathers, grandfathers and higher forefathers have all carried on in the same vein.

However, the notion that 586 million citizens out of a population of 1.2 billion can be subject to daily threats of attack and humiliation must be anathema even to consequentialist political leadership of the sort that the country has now, and proactive policy attention must focus on practical solutions that can genuinely impact the ground realities.

Given the sheer weight of India’s patriarchy, and the historic-psychic inertia of its two-faced conservatism, creative thinking is needed to encourage the emergence of a new breed of more gender-sensitive men who may be capable of teaching themselves, fathers to sons and one generation after the other, to respect women not only in the privacy of their family settings but also in wider society and in public places.

This new, imagined cohort of men will have to contend with the misogynistic forces of globalisation, including everything from the numbing effects of pornography, which has surged into the country since the globalisation project of India took hold, to the dehumanising impact of the trafficking of women for prostitution. In this regard, Indian men would, however, be no more disadvantaged in their prospects for becoming more humane than their counterparts across the open global order.

A useful tool in curbing runaway sexism and sexual violence could be a much greater degree of advocacy for gender sensitivity by the government, starting with gender education from the primary school level, through the years of high school and university learning.

Yet the mission to secure the safety and dignity of women in India cannot wait on such a grand, softly-softly type of project. There is an urgent need for the legal system to deal with sexual violence with an iron fist.

The magnitude of the problems that abound in this domain are daunting. In the aftermath of the 2012 gang rape case in New Delhi, which was one of those rare occasions that seemed to focus the minds of the political leadership on practical legal solutions, Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code was revamped to give it more teeth and make prosecutions more expedient and, hopefully, effective.

Yes, fast-tracking of legal cases of extreme sexual violence and mandating harsher punishments can help, but surely more is needed to address the horrifyingly commonplace sexual assaults that women and girls face in so many everyday situations, from the walk down the street to the grocery shop, to the celebration of New Year’s Eve in public to that all-too-familiar tragedy of a young girl who spends a nightmarish afternoon in the home of a relatively unknown older male relative, to be scarred for life by what he did to her.

In this context, it is the overall interpretation of the statutes by law enforcement officials that need to be more sensitive. Specifically, police attitudes in dealing with victims of sexual violence need to be forced into a more sensitive mode through aggressive monitoring and carrot-and-stick incentivisation, if India is to become even marginally more secure for all women and girls. If not, then ever more crimes against women will go unreported or under-reported and male impunity will rise even higher.

Changing primitive notions

In terms of broader social attitudes, the preoccupation with the anachronistic notion of “outraging the modesty” of a woman needs to go. Why is being “modest” a precondition for getting the protection of the law from sexual assault? Doesn’t every woman, regardless of her attire, her attitude or her locational and physical presence, deserve rock-solid insulation from any and all such assaults?

Directly related to this colonial-era legal anachronism is the morally indefensible and logically flawed puritanism of blaming women who wear “Western attire” for “inviting” sexual assault, as indeed at least two political leaders insinuated in the aftermath of the New Year’s Eve incidents in Bengaluru.

When all of these patriarchal notions have been unceremoniously shoved into the dustbin of history, when retribution for sexual assaults is swift and just, and when boys learn from their fathers that all women have an inviolable right to space and untrammelled dignity, then alone will the creeping moral rot within India be arrested and the country become egalitarian.

  • Reaching out to Africa

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, one of India’s most important African partners, is here in India. He has participated in the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit as a special guest and will hold discussions with leaders in Delhi beginning January 11. When a foreign leader reciprocates a visit by the Indian Prime Minister to his country with a trip within six months, it sends a clear signal that something significant is under way.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s African safari in July 2016 took him to South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya. He received a warm welcome everywhere, but he built an instant rapport with the Kenyan president who is committed to development, counterterrorism and peace in East Africa. In an unusual gesture, in the joint communiqué issued after the visit, Mr. Modi congratulated Mr. Kenyatta for his initiatives and achievements under his “strong and forceful leadership”. Mr. Kenyatta, in turn, acknowledged the important role Mr. Modi was playing “both nationally and internationally”.

Kenya hungry for more

At the summit-level dialogue in Delhi, the two leaders may give momentum to deepening bilateral ties, with the focus most likely to be on strengthening economic cooperation. Bilateral trade, valued at $4.23 billion in 2014-15, has the potential for rapid growth if Indian companies are willing to be active in a competitive market. Kenya, the earliest home to Indian investments, is hungry for more. Diverse sectors in Kenya, such as energy, pharmaceuticals, textiles, agriculture and financial services, will welcome greater involvement of India Inc. Some major Indian corporates, including the Tatas, Reliance, Essar, Kirloskars and Dr. Reddy’s, are flourishing in Kenya. The government must approve additional Lines of Credit in strategic areas to secure mutual interests. Education and health are other promising fields.

Strategic and economic interests coalesce as India tries to leverage the intense competition among Asian nations for Kenya’s affections. Mr. Kenyatta, following his ‘Look East’ policy, has developed close relations with China but he needs other partners too. He scored a major victory when he persuaded Japan to hold the sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development Summit in August 2016 in Nairobi. This was the first TICAD summit held in Africa. Japan and India are committed, especially after Mr. Modi’s visit to Tokyo, to enhance long-term collaboration in Africa. By participating jointly in key infrastructure development projects in Kenya and the surrounding region, Indian and Japanese companies can offer an innovative model.

Future of East African Community

The East African Community (EAC), comprising Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, has emerged as one of the most successful of Africa’s Regional Economic Communities. Having established a customs union, it is building a single market and wants to set up a monetary union. While progress is slow, it remains set on its path to grow as a market of 168 million consumers and a combined GDP of $161 billion. Intra-EAC trade increased from $1.85 billion in 2005 to $5.63 billion in 2014, while the flow of foreign direct investment declined from $7.8 billion in 2006 to $3.8 billion in 2012. The bulk of foreign investment now comes from China. Andrew Othieno, an expert on EAC affairs, says that despite its complex challenges, “the EAC has fared admirably well”.

The Indian government and India Inc. need to devise a trade and industrial cooperation strategy to upgrade existing links with the EAC. But India has to tread with caution as the traditional rivalry between Kenya, the regional economic powerhouse, and Tanzania, the largest member-state, has been renewed. To Tanzania’s chagrin, President Kenyatta has established closer ties with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi under the umbrella of “the coalition of the willing”. However, India enjoys friendly and cooperative relations with all EAC members and is in a position to enhance its engagement with the region. The presence of Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, at the Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit, has offered India an opportunity to discuss expansion of economic ties.

Africa in Trump era

As U.S. president-elect Donald Trump prepares to enter the White House, what will be Africa’s place in the international agenda? In the current debate on the likely impact of Mr. Trump’s entry on to the world’s stage, Europe and Asia are under the scanner, but there is hardly any mention of Africa. The apprehension is that Africa may be sidelined in the first two years of the new administration. This makes it imperative for India to take a keener interest in Africa if it is serious about playing a global role.

India’s Africa policy is broadly in line with Agenda 2063, promoted by the African Union. However, some recalibration in New Delhi’s approach may be needed because issues such as UN reform, counterterrorism, climate change and international solar alliance will inevitably take longer to show results. Meanwhile, India must concentrate on actions that strengthen its economic cooperation with select African countries.

Building on the path forged by its predecessor, the Modi government has already achieved much: holding the India-Africa Forum Summit in 2015 and an unprecedented political outreach to Africa through visits by the President, Vice-President and Prime Minister to a dozen countries in 2016. The time is ripe to implement the agreements that have been signed.

India’s Africa experts have been disappointed with the decision to put off the next summit with Africa to 2020 instead of 2018 as was expected. South Block should consider convening a ministerial review meeting in early 2018. Nairobi, with its excellent location and conference facilities, could be an ideal choice and Mr. Kenyatta a willing partner.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House, and a former high commissioner to Kenya, South Africa and Lesotho.

  • Mind the gender gap

During the 2014 national and State elections, for the first time women’s safety and empowerment were topics of debate, marking a significant shift in how gender concerns are viewed by the political class as well as by voters in India. In the two years since, policy focus and public scrutiny on persistent gender inequality has grown exponentially. In 2015, 194 member states, including India, adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. Gender equality is one of the 17 goals to “transform our world”. This year, India ratified the Paris Agreement. The direct link between empowering women and alleviating poverty, increasing productivity, and combating climate change is well-recognised. However, the lack of targeted resources is often stated to be the biggest reason behind the sluggish progress in furthering the gender agenda. Therefore, it is important that India’s budget priorities reflect its commitment to invest in women and girls.

Last year, the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Gender Gap Report ranked India 87 in terms of gender equality in economy, education, health, and political representation. Women’s declining labour participation, under-representation in Parliament, skewed child sex ratio, and prevalent gender-based violence are recognised challenges. To bridge these gaps, India formally adopted Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) in 2005. The rationale behind GRB is that policy outcomes are not as gender-neutral as commonly believed, and can reinforce or exacerbate exiting hierarchies. Hence, gender budgeting initiatives aim to integrate critical gender concerns into fiscal policies and administration to address disparities.

Every annual budget since 2005 has included a statement that lists out two parts. There is Part A, which reflects ‘Women Specific Schemes’, namely, those which have 100 per cent allocation for women, and Part B, which reflects ‘Pro Women Schemes’, namely, where at least 30 per cent of the allocation is for women. Over the years, India has stood out for its implementation of gender budgeting, and with the Ministry of Finance (MoF) playing the central role, it has managed to successfully institutionalise the concept at both the national and State levels (16 States have embraced the exercise). Studies substantiate the positive link between GRB and improved indicators for women. For instance, a recent International Monetary Fund study found that States that employ GRB also show better female to male school enrolment ratios. Further, it was observed that GRB also has a positive impact on infrastructure spending.

Decentralisation of funding

Despite the successes, better implementation and planning are needed to ensure that these policies percolate right down to the last woman in the most remote parts of the country. In recent years, allocations have either remained stagnant or have been on the decline. For instance, Budget 2016-17 was widely considered to be a mixed bag for women. While the Ministry of Women and Child Development and National Commission for Women saw nominal increases, the scheme meant for implementing the Domestic Violence Act did not receive any allocation. Further, there was a decline in the number of ministries and departments that fall under GRB. The budget also initiated the decentralisation of funding in GRB, thus shifting the onus for budgeting and implementation from the Central Ministry to State counterparts. While this did empower the States to come up with women-specific policies as per their respective challenges, the obvious downside was the risk that States could choose to not prioritise gender in their budgeting. In this way, the intent of universalising the process, so that it equally benefits women in all States, was lost in the pragmatism of the move.

For it to be truly effective, GRB must be viewed as an essential tool to tackle societal inequality that hinders progress instead of a symbolic exercise for pleasing the emerging women constituency. So far, GRB has focussed on identifying schemes that are exclusively dedicated to women. While this focus is imperative, it has restricted benefits without the incorporation of a gender lens across all welfare schemes. Sectors such as energy, urban development, food security, water supply and sanitation continue to operate in silos, despite having causal interrelationships with women’s empowerment. Policies carried out by these sectors do have a different impact on men and women. Therefore, moving forward, every budget presents the opportunity to mainstream gender in the policy environment, and demonstrate the commitment to include and enable women’s inclusion in India’s growth story. Equally, women’s potential in enabling development, instead of being passive beneficiaries of it, must be recognised in these processes. Commendably, the MoF organises pre-budget consultations. It must be ensured that women are given adequate representation and opportunities to voice their different experiences on such platforms.

Gender budgeting alone is not sufficient to tackle deep-rooted gender disparities. However, policies can be more effective if budgeting takes a broader, gendered approach which includes planning targeted interventions, getting the right policy push with the right budget allocation, and monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to ensure implementation. Moreover, policies should also be flexible to change based on feedback from the intended recipients as their exclusion from planning and execution processes is often the reason behind the failure of well-intentioned policies. It would also help if the Central government could, through an incentive mechanism, encourage State governments to take up GBR as a priority in their budget layouts. As the government gears up to present the Union budget in February, it will hopefully keep current realities and feedback in mind. While some issues can be debatable, the need to urgently address gender inequality is not.

Priyanka Chaturvedi is the National Spokesperson of Indian National Congress and Vidisha Mishra is Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation.

  • Taking ‘Cold Start’ out of the freezer?

In a wide-ranging interview with India Today, the new Chief of Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, appeared to drop a bombshell by acknowledging the existence of the army’s Cold Start strategy. Many defence analysts presumed the army had abandoned this limited war concept altogether, or narrowly focussed on streamlining mobilisation while still maintaining the fundamental Strike Corps organisation and doctrinal concept. Either Gen. Rawat has dispensed with 15 years of semantic gymnastics and simply referred to these “proactive strategy options” by their more common nomenclature, Cold Start, or, the Indian Army has been quietly reorganising its limited war concept along more aggressive, and offensive, lines with little fanfare. The government would be wise to clarify Gen. Rawat’s statements. Ambiguity surrounding Cold Start, which incurred real diplomatic and security costs for India without delivering deterrence benefits, did not advance the country’s interests when it was first announced, and such uncertainty is unhelpful today.

Pakistan-centric retaliatory option

What is Cold Start? At heart, it is part of the army’s attempt to develop a useable, conventional retaliatory option that punishes Pakistan for terrorist attacks against India without triggering wider conventional or nuclear escalation. In its more aggressive formulations, it was believed the aim was to create division-sized formations that could rapidly mobilise and carry out short-notice, retaliatory offensives of limited duration to quickly seize and hold Pakistani territory, while simultaneously pursuing narrow enough objectives to deny Islamabad a justification to escalate the conflict by opening additional conventional fronts or to employ nuclear weapons.

The perceived failure to mobilise the army’s Strike Corps in a timely fashion after the December 2001 attacks on Parliament was the impetus for Cold Start, and its official status has been the subject of extensive debate and controversy since it was first discussed in 2004. The idea originated with the army and has been publicly debated in think-tank circles, but it has never been formally accepted by the Indian government, which has repeatedly denied its existence. In 2010, the then Army Chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, declared point-blank that Cold Start did not exist. However, he did note ambiguously that the army possessed a “proactive strategy” for responding to Pakistan. This presumably referred to the conversion of IX-XII Corps near the border from defensive “holding” corps to formations called “pivot” corps which could more quickly undertake limited offensive operations while the main Strike Corps elements surged from the interior of India over several weeks.

Despite its lack of imprimatur, Cold Start has significantly shaped security dynamics on the subcontinent. For a brief period, Indian security managers might have believed that the ambiguity surrounding the concept’s status and the Indian Army’s ability to implement it generated enough uncertainty in the mind of Pakistani decision-makers to deter their support for militant attacks within India. This thesis was disproved, however, by the audacious 2008 Mumbai attacks and its aftermath. At the same time, the “threat” posed by Cold Start has been repeatedly cited by Pakistani authorities as proof of India’s hostile intentions and hegemonic designs. This, in turn, has provided a justification for Pakistan to build up, and build out, its nuclear forces, both increasing the sheer size of its nuclear arsenal (which carries its own risks of theft and nuclear terrorism) and developing lower-yield nuclear warheads and short range missiles, so-called tactical nuclear weapons, which are aimed at deterring — or in the worst case, defeating — a limited Indian military incursion.

Can India pull it off?

Although Pakistan has responded as if India has an aggressive limited war strategy, there is no public evidence that India remotely has the capability to adopt or execute such a doctrine. It is one thing to carry out a raid across the Line of Control with a handful of commandos. It is quite another to undertake a major cross-border incursion by armoured formations that seeks to capture Pakistani territory.

The army simply lacks the materiel and organisation to implement the more aggressive versions of Cold Start. It is not at all clear, for example, that the Indian Army at present possesses sufficient superiority in numbers of troops and armoured vehicles in the vicinity of the International Border to be able to overcome the Pakistan Army’s defensive and geographic advantages in a short conflict. Indeed, the large number of obsolete tanks and artillery pieces, not to mention critical shortages of ammunition and air-defence assets raises serious questions about the army’s ability to implement a Cold Start-style operation at all. Furthermore, sustaining offensive operations in Pakistan requires joint operations with the air force. Not only does the Indian Air Force lack the kind of close air support capability Cold Start would require, but army-air force cooperation is also beset by inter-service dysfunction. This has put India in the worst possible strategic position: claiming a capability that it does not have, but which provides justification for Pakistan’s aggressive expansion of its conventional and nuclear forces. Such an approach has rarely served a nation’s security interests.

A case for clarity

On balance, the formally unacknowledged limited war strategy has created more problems for India than it has solved. In this vein, Gen. Rawat’s comments appear to represent a puzzling reversal. Yet it raises the important question of what he meant by “Cold Start”. Was he simply dispensing with the euphemism of “proactive strategy options” and referring to India’s somewhat streamlined, retaliatory, mobilisation procedure — but no real doctrinal shift — as Cold Start? Or did he specifically mean that the Indian Army is indeed prepared to undertake multiple, short notice, armoured thrusts into Pakistan to seize and hold territory, representing a real doctrinal shift? More importantly, was Gen. Rawat given political authorisation to speak on the matter by the government or was he speaking too loosely? Cold Start’s status has been murky in part due to the fact that it is an army concept that has never publicly received approval from the country’s political leadership. It is important for Indian security to know if that has changed.

It is understandable that, in the wake of the September 29 surgical strikes, the Modi government would want to signal to Pakistan that all options are on the table in the event of another terror attack within India. However, if reviving Cold Start is part of that effort, it may markedly escalate tensions in bilateral relations with Pakistan without necessarily delivering a clear benefit, since there is still no evidence that India has the required capabilities to implement anything resembling Cold Start.

The term “Cold Start” has thus become one of the Indian Army’s biggest liabilities. The perception that its most aggressive form exists is the gift that keeps on giving to the Pakistan Army, which uses it to justify a rapid expansion of its conventional and nuclear forces. But given the wide range of operational concepts that the phrase “Cold Start” could refer to, casually invoking it without possessing the requisite capability to implement this perceived version continues to put India at a strategic disadvantage. It is time for both the army and the government to clarify what precisely its conventional doctrine is — not with bold euphemisms such as “Cold Start,” but by identifying its operational and strategic objectives and how it fits into India’s larger strategy to deter major militant attacks on the homeland. History is littered with tragic examples where discrepancies between perceived doctrine and actual doctrine have caused minor skirmishes to escalate into major wars. The continued loose talk of the so-called Cold Start doctrine puts South Asia in the unfortunate situation that it may be the next case, and this time with nuclear weapons in the mix.

  • Bihar supports prohibition with ‘the world’s longest human chain’

Bihar on Saturday witnessed the ‘longest human chain ever made’ to support the prohibition enforced in the State since April last year. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who, along with other leaders participated in the 45-minute-long chain, termed it “historic and unprecedented,” but some school students in various parts of the State were reported to have fallen unconscious after standing in the queue for long.

“Over three crore people participated in the human chain across the State to affirm their commitment to the prohibition. The human chain has been historic and unprecedented,” Mr. Kumar told journalists. Earlier, Mr. Kumar reached Patna’s Gandhi Maidan and joined hands with ruling alliance partners like Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and other leaders. Leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Lok Janshakti Party also participated in the chain.

The State government had called for the formation of human chain, said to be the world’s longest, to create awareness of prohibition and alcohol addiction. Over three crore people participated in the chain, stretching 11,400 km in all the 38 districts of the State, said government officials.

Three Indian Space Research Organisation satellites and 38 drones and helicopters were deployed to document it.

“It was the longest human chain organised for a social cause,” added Mr. Kumar. Earlier, the longest chains were formed in Bangladesh and Nepal, but they were about 1,000 km-1,100 km long, he said.

For the past month, government officials, including District Magistrates and Superintendents of Police, worked long and hard for the success of the event.

Teams from the Limca Book of Records and other agencies were at hand to document the chain. The government had made elaborate arrangements for security and emergency services. However, reports of girls falling unconscious after standing for too long came from Aurangabad, Gopalgunj, Muzaffarpur, Samastipur and Supaul

  • Japan threatens to drag India to WTO on steel as Trump era heralds trade tensions

Japan is threatening to take India to the WTO over restrictions that nearly halved its steel exports to the South Asian nation over the past year, a step that could trigger more trade spats as global tensions over steel and other commodities run high.

Such action is rare for Japan. The world’s second-biggest steel producer typically tries to smooth disputes quietly through bilateral talks, but with global trade friction increasing, Japan’s defence of an industry that sells nearly half of its products overseas is getting more vigorous.

Besides concern over India’s protection of its domestic steel industry, Japan is also worried about the more rough and tumble climate for global trade being engendered by incoming U.S. President Donald Trump, and feels it must make a strong stand for open and fair international markets.

“We need to stop unfair trade actions from spreading,” said a Japanese industry ministry official, explaining a Dec. 20 request for WTO dispute consultations with India over steel safeguard duties and a minimum import price for iron and steel products.

India imposed duties of up to 20% on some hot-rolled flat steel products in September 2015, and set a floor price in February 2016 for steel product imports to deter countries such as China, Japan and South Korea from undercutting local mills.

“If consultations fail to resolve the dispute, we may ask adjudication by a WTO panel,” the industry ministry official said. Such action could come as soon as 60 days – in February – after its consultation request was filed in December.

Tokyo says India’s actions are inconsistent with WTO rules and contributed to the plunge in its steel exports to India, which dropped to 11th-largest on Japan’s buyer list in 2016 through November, down from sixth-largest in 2015.

“We are following the WTO guidelines,” said a top official at India’s steel ministry, though adding that New Delhi is ready to sit across the table for trade talks. The date of a WTO-led consultation had not been set.

Growing trade disputes

There has been a series of trade disputes over the past few years amid massive exports of cheap steel products from China, the world’s top producer, with Vietnam, Malaysia and South Africa taking or planning measures to block incoming shipments.

China’s steel exports dropped by 3.5% in 2016 to 108 million tonnes, still about as much as Japan produces in a year.

Japan is also monitoring its small volume of imports for signs of dumping, fearing that steel products with nowhere to turn because of import restrictions may head to it own market.

“All trade need to be fair. If there are trades that violate the rules, we will take necessary actions while consulting with our government,” Kosei Shindo, chairman of the Japan Iron and Steel Federation, said

  • The good troublemakers

Some years ago, I was reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, when my younger son, then five years old, wanted to know what the book was about.

“Why do the people have the faces of mice and cats?” he asked.

“Why do you think they do?” I asked him.

He thought for a moment. “Cats catch mice,” he replied. Then he added: “But they can’t help it.” (He knew this because we have a pet cat, though she has never met a mouse.) “These drawings aren’t of cats. They just have the faces of cats. They’re people. Are these people with cat faces being mean to the mice?”

I nodded. He had got it. “Is this a real story?” he asked.

One of the hardest conversations with children — much harder than talking about birds and bees — is about injustice. We teach children to be fair and to expect fairness in return. This is the essence of parenting. Don’t use your hands when you’re angry; use words. Don’t use mean words; use words to say what you mean. Be kind. Be fair.

But how does one teach children to respond when the world isn’t fair? How do we teach them to handle discrimination, to stand up for others, to make the world a better place? To go high, as Michelle Obama said, when others go low?

The power of books

One of the critical ways to teach children about tolerance and justice is through reading. Reading takes children outside the bubbles in which we try to protect them, and into the lives of others far removed from them. Reading teaches empathy. It gives universal power to individual stories. It talks about things that we aren’t sure how to talk about and says things that we often don’t know how to say. It speaks to the imagination and to the heart.

Last week, I ordered a set of American civil rights hero John Lewis’s three-volume graphic memoir March. John Lewis is one of the iconic figures of the American civil rights movement. As a student, he applied to Troy State University even though he knew blacks weren’t allowed there. It was one of his first acts of protest against segregation. “The boy from Troy”, as Martin Luther King Jr. described Lewis, chaired the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the leaders in the student-led sit-in movement and the Freedom Rides in the early 1960s. At the legendary 1963 March on Washington, John Lewis was one of the youngest speakers. In 1965, he helped lead the historic Selma to Montgomery March as part of the voting rights movement.

This National Book Award-winning collaboration between John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell presents an affecting first-hand account of the struggle for civil rights. At the National Book Award function, Lewis recalled how in 1956, as a little boy, he wasn’t allowed a library card at his local rural library because of his race. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, said Santayana. March is an attempt to remind young readers about one of the most important civil rights struggles of the 20th century. It is a struggle that still continues. The memoir uses the 2009 inauguration of former U.S. President Barack Obama as a frame for its civil rights narrative. “Because of you, John,” wrote Obama on a card that he gave to Lewis on that historic day. “Because of you”, thereby tracing a line back from that cold January morning in 2009 to the story of the American struggle for civil rights and voting rights.

There is another line in the narrative, another ‘Because of you’ that goes further back from the struggles in Alabama and Mississippi in the 1960s to India and the freedom struggle led by Gandhi. “Remember the teachings of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King,” writes Lewis in his list of ‘dos and don’ts’ for the sit-in protests. “Love and non-violence is the way.”

The cover of the first volume shows a group of protesters sitting at a lunch counter. Their faces are tense, nervous, but determined. On the counter before them are ketchup, mustard, salt, pepper, sugar, tissues and a sign that says “Counter Closed”. This is what the protesters are up against.

The story begins on the morning of what would later be called Bloody Sunday. It begins on the Edmund Pettus bridge across the Alabama river. A line of marchers is on the bridge, and the state troopers are at the other end. “Can you swim?” Hosea Williams asks John Lewis, at the head of the march. “No,” says Lewis. “Well, neither can I,” replies Hosea. “But we might have to.”

Moments in the memoir

Historical events are often brought to life in graphic novels in ways that are beyond the scope of textbooks. There are many unforgettable moments in this powerful work: the rich detail as the visuals zoom in to look at the anxiety in a person’s eyes or zoom out to look at the vast fields over which the volunteers trudge day after day. The way the words and music of the movement’s songs curve around the panels, linking past to present, first softly and then soaring in epic, poetic fashion: “They say that freedom is a constant struggle/ They say that freedom is a constant struggle/ Oh Lord, we’ve struggled so long, we must be free/ We must be free…”

One of the most moving moments in the memoir is the search for the three missing volunteers in Mississippi. A line of dark trees, a few stars in the night-time sky, a small triangle of torchlight on the grass. A voice: “You see anything?” And then, on the next page, pitch black, a forlorn silhouette in grey, and the tiniest, saddest, most exhausted of responses: “No.”

March is about how social heroes are made, through courage and non-violence, and about what Lewis describes as “good trouble: to find a way to get in the way”. It is also about the power of books themselves as manuals in the quest for social justice. One of the early sources of Lewis’s own inspiration was a 1957 comic book titled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, a 16-page, 10-cent narrative about non-violent resistance for desegregation.

“Sometimes going to school was a luxury my family couldn’t afford,” Lewis reflects about his childhood. He hid from his parents and ran to catch the school bus in the mornings instead of working on the farm. The school library was a place of discovery. After the first time he heard a speech by Martin Luther King, he says: “I went to the school library on Monday to find out everything I could about this man.”

This week, as we read the part about the first march from Selma, on Bloody Sunday, my nine-year-old peered closely at the picture of John Lewis lying on the ground, a puddle of grey stones around his forehead. “That’s blood!” said my son, shocked. “He’s bleeding. That’s blood dripping from his head.”

  • Will the superbug scare hit home?

A U.S. woman’s death that took place in September last year has had fingers being pointed at India. An incurable bacterial infection, believed to have been contracted from one of India’s hospitals, is said to have killed the Nevada resident, raising questions about the country’s efforts in tackling a threat bigger than any known epidemic.

The Indian connection

The story of the 70-year-old, described by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its Morbidity and Mortality report of January 13 goes thus — during the two years before her death in 2016, the woman was hospitalised multiple times in India for treatment of her fractured right thigh bone. Following an emergency hospitalisation in the U.S. in August last year, testing of a wound sample for antibiotic susceptibility found the infection-causing bacterium Klebsiella pneumoniae, which was resistant to all antibiotics available in the U.S.

In its description of the woman’s case, the CDC rather conservatively termed resistance to all 26 antibiotics, including the last-resort antibiotic colistin, “very uncommon”. The agency stated that in the more than 250 isolates of Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), including K. pneumoniae isolated from the Nevada woman, that it had tested, susceptibility of infection-causing bacteria to at least one of the antibiotics in use was seen in 80% of the cases, while 90% of the samples contained bacteria that could be treated by tigecycline, an antibiotic specifically developed for multidrug-resistant bacteria.

The Indian connection to the woman’s death was not restricted to the origin of her infection; the killer superbug’s resistance was attributed to a gene that produces an enzyme now popularly called New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase-1or NDM-1. As its name suggests, the enzyme was first seen in a person who, according to the 2009 study that described the enzyme and the gene coding for it, had undergone a surgical procedure in 2007 at a New Delhi hospital. NDM-1 helps bacteria fend off carbapenems, a group of powerful antibiotics originally capable of killing several bacilli species. What makes NDM-1 frightening is that it is known to be transferred horizontally across bacterial species.

Resistance rampant in India

Encountering multidrug-resistant bacteria is fairly common in India. In 2016, K. pneumoniae made headlines when it caused varying degree of vision loss in a dozen elderly patients who underwent cataract surgeries at the state-run Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital in Hyderabad. Though the bacterium was found to be sensitive to Imipenem, a carbapenem antibiotic, the antibiotic could not help restore vision. An investigation found the bacteria in RL solution, which is used to wash the eyes during cataract procedure.

“It was a case of bacterial infection where one antibiotic was useful. However, at least one instance of bacteria resistant to all antibiotics is seen in our patients in as often as less than six months,” says Rajender Gupta, deputy superintendent of Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital. He maintains that such resistance is seen in patients availing treatment elsewhere before coming to the hospital, a tertiary eye-care centre. “In such cases, we try treatment with multiple antibiotics hoping it works. Otherwise, we leave it to nature as we cannot do much else.” At least three of those affected by the contaminated RL solution followed by The Hindu in the four months subsequent to their surgeries in June, complained of complete vision loss.

Lessons from the U.S.

Dr. Gupta’s words of helplessness in the face of absolute resistance eerily echoed in those of Washoe County health officials who said they have not seen such a pattern of resistance before in their area. These words also underscore a biological fact — bacteria evolve faster than what we can throw at them. Significantly however, the health administration in the U.S. quickly stepped in to prevent spread, yielding lessons for India.

After detecting the superbug, the Nevada hospital isolated the woman. Screening of other patients admitted to the same unit at the hospital did not show spread. The CDC also affirms that a surveillance programme under way since 2010 for multidrug-resistant bacteria in Washoe County, an area home to over 4,00,000 Americans, did not show any additional NDM-1 cases.

Contrastingly, large public hospitals in India — often the only point of care for most Indians — do not have comprehensive policies concerning antibiotic use and infection control. In private conversations with the writer, doctors at one of the two biggest government hospitals in Hyderabad have confided rampant irrational and incorrect antibiotic prescription practices within the institution, highlighting need for hospital-level policies. Private hospitals that claim to have robust infection-control practices and limited patient screening, admit it is hard to match American efforts.

Consequently, reports of colistin resistance from India in recent years have increased as dependence on it grows due to widespread resistance to other antibiotics. A study published by Indian researchers earlier this month in the Journal of Evidence Based Medicine and Healthcare described colistin- and carbapenem-resistant K. pneumoniae in newborns diagnosed with sepsis at a tertiary hospital in Jamshedpur. Fourteen of the 60 babies infected with bacteria following an outbreak between March and July 2016 reportedly died.

Lack of an action plan

Irrational antibiotic use both among humans and animals is recognised as one of biggest drivers of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). The World Health Organisation reported in the findings of a 2015 multi-country survey that 75% of respondents in India said they believed antibiotics treated flu and only 58% reported they knew use of antibiotics should only be stopped when the prescribed course ends. WHO has said candidly in the past that India lacks a National Action Plan to combat AMR.

However, a policy to combat antimicrobial resistance has been in place for more than five years. It envisages a separate schedule for antibiotics to prevent sale without prescription, hospital surveillance systems for monitoring resistance, enforcement of regulation in veterinary use of antibiotics and rational prescription of antimicrobials through evidence-based medicine. Sans an action plan, the policy remains unimplemented. The National Centre for Disease Control is now formulating a pilot plan.

“In Indian labs, it is not uncommon to test bacterial mixtures for a few antibiotics available at hand and unethically report sensitivity findings for as many 20 antibiotics, assuming findings from past testing apply. This is done to justify the cost,” says Sonam Kapur, senior professor, Department of Biological Sciences at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad. Prof. Kapur and her team of researchers have created a table-top device that can test antibiotic sensitivity of a urine sample in four hours as against conventional microbiological testing that takes anywhere between 24 and 72 hours.

  • Ethiopian President all praise for makers of Jaipur Foot

Ethiopian President Mulatu Teshome praised the makers of the world famous Jaipur Foot for holding two camps in his country and rehabilitating about 700 handicapped persons.

The on-the-spot fitment camps for limbless people were organised in the Mekelle and Harar towns of Ethiopia.

Addressing a ceremony in Harar earlier this week, Dr. Teshome said the efforts of Bhagwan Mahaveer Vikalang Sahayata Samiti (BMVSS) to restore mobility to handicapped persons by fitting artificial limbs manufactured by its technicians were laudable.

‘Great humanitarian work’

According to a BMVSS release issued here, Dr. Teshome said holding the camps in Ethiopia was a “great humanitarian work”, which had brought dignity to the lives of handicapped people.

Some patients fitted with the Jaipur Foot gave a demonstration by walking, jumping and squatting.

India’s Ambassador to Ethiopia Anurag Srivastava said the Jaipur Foot camps had helped strengthen relations between India and Ethiopia.

BMVSS founder and chief patron D.R. Mehta said the organisation would be willing to set up a permanent centre in Ethiopia and train technical staff there. Similar centres have started functioning in Afghanistan, Mauritius and some other countries.

  • What mackerel and a volcano can tell us about climate change

What could an Indonesian volcanic eruption, a 200-year-old climate disaster and a surge in the consumption of mackerel tell us about today’s era of global warming? Quite a bit, researchers say.

A group of scientists and academics with the University of Massachusetts and other institutions made that assessment while conducting research about a long-ago calamity in New England that was caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora half a world away in 1815.

A cooled climate led to deaths of livestock and changed fish patterns in New England, leaving many people dependent on the mackerel, an edible fish that was less affected than many animals. The researchers assert that bit of history gives clues about what food security could be like in the modern era of climate change.

“How we respond to these events is going to be critically important for how we come out of this in the long term,” said Karen Alexander, the lead author of the study and a research fellow in environmental conservation. “We can learn from the past how people dealt with the unanticipated.”

The research group’s findings were published this month in the journal Science Advances. They looked at what the catastrophic Tambora eruption meant for the Gulf of Maine and nearby human food systems.

The Tambora eruption was one of the most powerful in recorded history, and was followed by a short time of climate change specifically, global cooling and severe weather. Its impact on weather, food availability and human and animals deaths worldwide has been studied extensively. The year that followed the eruption, 1816, is often described as the “Year Without a Summer.”

The researchers behind the Science Advances article found that alewives, a fish used for everything from fertilizer to food by 19th-Century New Englanders, did not fare well. But mackerel had better survival rates and became a criticalsource of protein and jobs, Alexander said.

As crops failed and famine began to spread, the little fish emerged as a staff of life, the report states. It’s a scenario similar to what parts of the developing world are experiencing today as climate change affects food security.

The study states there is a parallel between the need for immediate adaptation after Tambora and the challenges in coping with the climate-driven devastation caused by storms, floods and droughts today. It notes that the loss of food staples due to climate change caused people in the northeastern states to move something seen today in places such as Pakistan and Syria.

“Understanding how adaptive responses to extreme events can trigger unintended consequences may advance long-term planning for in an uncertain future,” the report states.

The report illustrates how abrupt changes in climate can have unexpected consequences long after conditions moderate, said Andy Pershing, chief scientific officer and ecosystem modeller for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland.

“Good stewardship of our natural resources can help buffer against some climate impacts. Unlike the people in 1815, we have an idea of what’s coming, and we need to make sure we are prepared,” he said.

  • UAE signals a ‘Look East’ policy

The United Arab Emirates is likely to highlight its “Look East” policy with its participation in the Republic Day celebrations in India, a prominent Gulf studies expert has said.

James Onley of the Gulf Studies Centre of Qatar University said the presence of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade and participation of a marching contingent of the country’s military in the celebrations would indicate its willingness to play a more active regional role.

Military modernisation

“The UAE will want its troops in the Republic Day parade to be viewed as the indicator of the UAE’s growing power in the Indian Ocean,” Mr. Onley said.

“These troops embody the UAE and GCC’s new ‘Look East’ policy of engaging Asia as a counterbalance to the West.”

The UAE has been carrying out military modernisation in recent years and, according to SIPRI, was one of the five biggest arms importers in the world between 2011 and 2015. Alongside Qatar, the UAE has spread out to several conflict zones in the world in a show of Arab assertion.

Mr. Onley said the participation of the marching contingent in Delhi is part of a regional perspective.

“This presence forms part of a wider GCC effort to exercise regional influence in the vacuum left by the Arab Spring and to counter similar efforts by Iran, which Abu Dhabi regards as a threat,” he said.

Strategic partnership

Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who will arrive in Delhi on Tuesday, is likely to conclude the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two nations, at his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday.

The partnership, said Mr. Onley, is a recognition of the unique role of India’s immigrant population in the UAE’s development story.

“There has been continuous Indian presence in the UAE since at least the 18th century. Today, Indians make up 30% of the country’s population — the single largest expatriate community in the UAE,” said Mr. Onley.

 

  • Our democratic deficit

From a recently released report by Oxfam, the global charity organisation, we learn that eight rich people own as much wealth as half the world’s population in 2016. In 2015, when the report was issued, there was criticism of the report’s methodology. The critics argued that the report assumes wealth is assets minus debt. By this measure, a poor Indian farmer with little debt and little assets can end up “richer” than a Wall Street banker with little assets and a large student loan. These statistical issues aside, what the Oxfam report does show isn’t necessarily who is really poor in the world but that wealth is a good proxy for the ability (those with more assets than debt) to influence politics via legislation or campaign contributions. In India, as per that report, things are just as stark. The richest 1% of Indians hold as much wealth as that held by 58% of the Indian population. As provocative as these numbers are about the top 1%, the lived reality in societies is often determined by the interaction between those who earn 70-99% of income and those further below.

The idea of tiered representation

For much of human history, this kind of inequality was the norm and the real challenge was how to fashion a stable government. As usual, Aristotle had thought at length about it. In a democracy (rule by the masses), he wrote that since the poor were equal to the rich along one dimension (the freedom to vote), they would always vote to make everybody equal on all dimensions. Thus, confiscation of wealth and redistribution is the natural tendency of democracies, in response to which the rich would plunge the system into chaos. In an oligarchy (rule by the rich), meanwhile, the problem was that since the rich were unequal to the poor on one dimension (wealth), they would always vote to make everyone unequal on all dimensions. Thus, the oligarchs would vote to confiscate wealth and accumulate it, seeing which the poor would understandably revolt.

To address this problem, societies devised what scholars call ‘class warfare constitutions’. This type of constitution thinks of societies as comprising conflicting, if not warring, groups with different end goals. These constitutions devise a tiered system of representation which ensures that a majority of the population have a part (however unequal) in their daily governance. Thus, we saw guilds, communities, caste, and class-based representation in royal courts. After the rise of the republican system of government, specific Houses for specific classes came into vogue. The state could only be stable if the constitutional arrangement reflected the fragmentary nature of society itself. The historian Gordon Wood summarised it succinctly: “Unless [government and society] were reconciled no state could remain secure.” So powerful was this idea of tiered representation that even the great John Adams (the second President of the United States) argued that the U.S. needed two houses of government, one for “[the] rich, the well-born, and the able” and the other for “the common people of the country”. The Romans had this constitutive tension of classes in mind when they designed their government: a system of calibrated tensions that still impressed Niccolò Machiavelli nearly 2,000 years later so much that he called it “the perfect republic”. This perfection, the Florentine argued, was thanks to its patrician and plebeian division of government that kept different classes in check.

The ‘middle class constitution’

But all this changed in the era after the American Constitution was drafted in 1787 and the radical aspirations of the French Revolution began to permeate across the North Atlantic. Despite the heavy weight of historical evidence in favour of ‘class warfare constitution’, the American framers decided to buck this trend by designing what the constitutional scholar Ganesh Sitaraman calls a “Middle Class Constitution”. In this arrangement, there are no specific restrictions on who can belong to which part of the government. The poor could enter the Upper House, while the rich could be part of the Lower House. As Professor Sitaraman writes, the American Constitution was not “a design premised on the inevitability of class conflict”. The ‘middle class constitution’ was possible in the 1770s because America was a relatively egalitarian place (at least for the free white male population) blessed with a wide open space in its west and the absence of any feudal or aristocratic class that was historically entrenched. The entire voting population of the newly born country was the middle class. The prototypical tensions between the rich and the poor that Aristotle wrote about didn’t figure in this calculus. Since then this premise of radical equality of man across income or class levels has informed most constitutional arrangements, including India’s — even if material conditions that birthed such a framework have rarely existed since the 1770s.

A well-functioning “middle class” constitution relies on relative equality in income and accessibility to resources for self-improvement. This allows for a homogeneity in end goals and policies. Failing which, what studies like the Oxfam report tell us is not just that there is inequality of income, but that the inequality of power puts our democratic frameworks in peril. The strategically extremist positions that result in constitutional gridlocks will not just be commonplace, but also corrode the efficacy and originary promise of a ‘middle class’ constitution — the dignity of man.

  • The price of fiscal folly

With the annual Budget of the Central government to be presented soon, exhortations have appeared in public on what it should contain. Two of these are somewhat extreme in their implications for the general population. One concerns borrowing by the government while the other amounts to a proposal on how best the government should allocate its expenditure.

In a recent speech made in Gandhinagar, the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India is reported to have cautioned the government against increasing its borrowing. This brought him instant praise from sections of the media including this newspaper. He is reported as stating that “the government should desist from borrowing even more and pre-empting resources from future generations”. Not only did these remarks receive laudatory support in The Hindu but an editorial on January 14 had gone on to speak approvingly of his assertion that “government borrowing tends to crowd out private investment”. There is no unconditional validity to these propositions. This has been known to economists for over three-quarters of a century.

Why government spending pays

It is difficult to make sense of the proposition that government spending by means of borrowing pre-empts resources from future generations. Actually, directly or indirectly, every expenditure will serve as a draught on today’s resources, i.e., labour and capital equipment. This is equally true of public and private expenditure, the only difference being that in the case of the former often it is its very rationale that resources are drawn into production thus pre-empting their remaining idle. But why should this ever amount to pre-empting resources from future generations? Unlike natural capital, these resources are man-made, and expenditure can actually create more of them. Furthermore, these newly-minted resources are inherited by future generations who far from being short-changed are left with more income-earning assets than they would have had were the government to desist from borrowing to spend today. Sure, future generations would have to pay more taxes to retire the government’s debt, but so long as the returns are greater than the interest burden, future generations are unambiguously better off. Are not at least some sections of India better off now that in the 1950s the Government of India had borrowed to build housing for public servants and the Indian Institutes of Technology and Management?

Presumably, it is the possibility of a rise in the interest rate that unleashes the challenge in the form of the argument of crowding out, whereby a rise in public spending raises the interest rate faced by the private sector. But, as the Governor should know, this can be simply and effectively dealt with through monetary policy. ‘Quantitative easing’ in the United States was precisely such a mechanism whereby the central bank ensured that an expansionary fiscal policy following the financial crisis did not result in a rise in the interest rate. Far from government spending via borrowing crowding out private expenditure, it leads to a ‘crowding in’ whereby the demand generated by government spending expands the market for private investors, raising the level of economic activity today and even in the future. Of course, this requires the existence of unemployed resources, which is mostly the case in a large part of the economy. So, the assertion that greater public spending would crowd out private investment is based jointly on a refusal to accept accommodating monetary policy as valid and the assumption that the economy is at full employment.

The universal basic income idea

This takes us to the second of the two proposals for budgeting in India made recently. Away from debt and deficits, in fact quite innocent of them, the case has been made for the provision by government of a universal basic income (UBI). This idea has been floating around the capitals of the western world for a while, and it is not surprising that policy entrepreneurship would ensure its appearance here and its feasibility has been demonstrated, so to speak. Thus the economist Vijay Joshi has in his book, India’s Long Road, proposed that every citizen be given an income transfer equivalent to what is needed to raise those currently deemed poor to above the official poverty line. He shows that this would involve a transfer of ₹3,500 per capita per annum. The virtue of this arrangement, it is claimed, is that it would eliminate poverty and yet leave some over to actually raise public investment.

However, it is an unusual approach to poverty eradication that the non-poor, who in India are the majority and some of whom are rich by international standards, be given the same income as the poorest. It may be imagined that the idea of UBI is based on the social democratic imagination, but the welfarism that it implies is neither socialist nor democratic. It is distinctly at odds with Karl Marx’s vision of a decent society as one which draws from “each according to their abilities (and gives) to each according to their needs”. Enthusiasts of the UBI would need to account for a scheme in which the able-bodied receive as much as the infirm and infants receive as much as their mothers. There appears to be a mismatch between rights and responsibilities here.

The usefulness of the accounting reproduced above is mainly to show us how much subsidies cost in terms of a potential benefit foregone by households. It attains some salience when we recognise that certain subsidies in India are regressive and others do not even entail a transfer, such as when foodgrain rots in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India while getting accounted as food subsidy in the books. For close to thirty years since 1947 the Central government’s subsidy bill had been meagre. It is only recently that it has burgeoned, both in response to vote-bank politics and as political parties compete to showcase their compassion. But the answer to the accumulating subsidy bill lies less in moving to the distribution of its cash equivalent as much as to transferring the potential saving from their elimination into public investment. Not only does public investment have a greater impact on growth than subsidies in their present form but, to return to the issue of inter-generational equity, the capital formation that it entails benefits future generations by enhancing the productive capacity of the economy. And, above all, in our present state of development and given the current state of the public finances, the UBI would leave India bereft of public goods and services. Once everyone has been given a certain amount of income under the auspices of the state, it gets absolved of all responsibility for providing these goods and services which the private sector has no incentive to provide. We would now have to live content with our paltry benefits on islands without the bridges needed to take us to our neighbours.

Importance of public goods

It is entirely understandable that in India the citizen is dismayed by the callous disregard for the use of public monies by the political class. But it would be disastrous to overlook the feature that a significant part of what we require for a dignified and convivial existence are public goods which would have to built by the state. Both a sensible allocation of its revenue and public borrowing by the state are part of this process. To take a lesson from history, during the Second World War the national debt in the U.S. rose sharply to enable the government to engage in combat. The U.S. economy was immediately energised and after the War there followed unparalleled prosperity for the next generation, enabling the government to repay the public debt with ease.

Public borrowing is not necessarily bad but borrowing to distribute for consumption is to be guarded against. As monies are fungible, when, as now, the Government of India has debt outstanding, launching the UBI would amount precisely to that.

But our most important lesson comes from India itself. The idea that the nascent Indian state should showily distribute public revenues in the manner of its erstwhile maharajahs had made the rounds soon after the country gained independence. It is very likely the clamour that had led Jawaharlal Nehru to remark in Parliament, in response to a no-confidence motion against his government, “We have always to choose between benefits accruing today, or tomorrow, or the day after. From the country’s point of view, if we spend the money we now have for some petty immediate benefits, there will not be any permanent benefit.” It seems we have been through the debate on the UBI once already.

  • K. seeks Indian help in resolving Chagos Archipelago dispute

The British Foreign Secretary has sought Indian assistance in resolving current tensions between the U.K., the U.S. and Mauritius over the future of the U.S. military base Diego Garcia, and the Indian Ocean Chagos Archipelago, amid a warning from Mauritius last year that it would push to take the matter to the International Court of Justice.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson raised the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting on Wednesday evening in New Delhi, though no assurances were given by the Indian side, London-based sources toldThe Hindu .

In India’s interest

The British — acting on the request of the U.S. — are hopeful that India may be able to exercise its influence with the Mauritian government to help the three sides come to some agreement, to prevent the situation from escalating. The British believe that ensuring the future of Diego Garcia would be in India’s security interest in the region too.

The Chagos Islands — referred to by the British as the British Indian Ocean Territory, but which is not recognised as such by Mauritius — is home to the U.S. military base Diego Garcia. In the 1960s and 1970s, inhabitants were removed from the islands. Tensions remain, with Mauritius maintaining that the archipelago remains its integral part.

In March 2015, a tribunal brought against the U.K. under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea found that the Marine Protected Area brought in by the U.K. around the Archipelago in 2010 (but not including Diego Garcia) was not compatible with Britain’s obligations under the convention.

“Mauritius holds legally binding rights to fish in the waters surrounding the Chagos Archipelago, to the eventual return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes, and to the preservation of the benefit of any minerals or oil discovered in or near the Chagos Archipelago pending its eventual return,” the ruling on March 19, 2015 in The Hague stated.

However, in November last year, the U.K. government announced in Parliament that it had ruled out the resettlement of the islanders on the grounds of “feasibility, defence and security interests… and the cost to the British taxpayer”. It also renewed the lease for Diego Garcia, up until 2036. In his speech in New Delhi on Wednesday, Mr. Johnson referred to Diego Garcia, describing it as “vital for our operations in the region”.

The Mauritius government reacted furiously following the November announcement. “Mauritius considers that the U.K. has acted in blatant breach of the letter and spirit of the award delivered on 18 March 2015,” it said. It added that it had “full justification” to seek UN General Assembly approval to take the matter to the International Court of Justice — a move that the U.K. government is keen to avoid.

A positive move

“This is a matter that should be discussed with the Chagossian people, not with India or any other country” said Stefan Donnelly, vice chair of the U.K. Chagos Support Association on Thursday.

While India has maintained that the matter of whether or not to proceed with the UN General Assembly move is a decision for the Mauritian government to make, the approach by the U.K. is seen by the Indian side as a positive move, signalling Britain’s eagerness to partner with India on security matters in the region. It is not the first time that Britain has raised the issue with India. Sources said that it had also been raised by former Prime Minister David Cameron.

A response from the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not available at the time of going to print.

  • Safe childhoods for a safe India

After a long wait of almost two decades, the Government of India finally decided to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour and Convention 138 on Minimum Age of Employment.

I would like to congratulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Ministry of Labour and Employment on the firm decision which will soon catapult India from the status of a ‘developing’ nation to a ‘developed’ one. Most of all, I would like to congratulate the children of our country. This decision will have a path-breaking impact on the lives of those who are forced to remain on the margins of society and subject to exploitative conditions. About 4.3 million children wake up to a day of labour and not school. Another 9.8 million are officially out-of-school.

Child labour perpetuates illiteracy and poverty. It is the root cause of organised crimes such as human trafficking, terror and drug mafia. However, today, I feel optimistic and am experiencing a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction similar to what I experienced in 1997.

An African epiphany

I was about 50 kilometres away from Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. The place I had travelled to was a high-risk zone, particularly for foreigners and those travelling alone. I was both, but I made the journey because it was important to identify individuals and organisations to join me for a physical march that would put forth a demand for an international law to ban the worst forms of child labour.

By the time I reached the place, it was already dark and the local NGO had closed for the day. Since I was travelling with my passport and some money, I had to find shelter for the night, especially with men of dubious character stalking the area. Not left with a better alternative, I hid in a thick shade of bushes. When dawn arrived with the sound of the azan (the Muslim call for prayer), I found a way to interact with those returning from prayer. Through signs and actions, I brought them closer to the cause I worked for. A young man who understood a little English helped convey the message. After which, he very kindly dropped me back to the city.

A few months later, closer to the date of the march, I received a letter from the local NGO pledging support. They asked, “What did you do? What did you tell them?”

I learnt that after my interaction all children of the ghetto were put in school and pulled out of labour by those I conversed with. I had found the crux of the march. It was the language of compassion and humanity that would help accelerate the global movement against childhood exploitation.

The march began in January 1998. We traversed 80,000 kilometres across 103 countries and became a strong group of 7.2 million marchers. The Global March Against Child Labour, as it came to be called, culminated finally in Geneva on June 1, 1998 where the ILO conference was in session. We put forward our demand for an international convention to ban the worst forms of child labour. The voice of the marchers was heard and reflected in the draft of the ILO Convention 182.

In June 1999, delegates of the ILO unanimously adopted the convention. It was the first time that a convention or treaty had been adopted with the full support of all members. Over the years, I have spearheaded its ratification by member nations. With 180 countries having already done so, it has become the fastest-ratified convention in the history of ILO. This clearly shows that support for the movement against child labour is gaining momentum worldwide.

Clearing the hurdles

The main bottleneck in the way of India ratifying Conventions 182 and 138 was addressing forced or compulsory recruitment of children and appropriately raising the age of employment in hazardous occupations from 14 to 18 years. Consequent to the passing of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2016 by the Indian Parliament prohibiting the employment of children up to 14 years of age, and children up to 18 years of age in hazardous occupations, it was imperative that we ratified Conventions 182 and 138. Moreover, our failure to ratify the two conventions, which are two of the eight core labour conventions, despite being a founder-member of the ILO, reflected poorly on us as a nation.

My sense of achievement is heightened with India finally ready to join the fight it started. Our decision to ratify the convention makes our intent clear. We will not tolerate the exploitation of children any longer. As a matter of urgency, the government will take immediate and effective measures to prohibit and eliminate the worst forms of child labour: child slavery (including the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage, and forced recruitment for armed conflict), child prostitution and their use in pornography, use of children for illicit activities such as drug trafficking, and exposure to any hazardous work which is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children.

An ideal law guides the way and doesn’t dictate. Under the provisions of the ILO Conventions 182 and 138, India will not adhere to a fixed deadline by which the worst forms of child labour must be eliminated. It will ultimately depend on the level of moral courage, public concern, social empathy, political will and the implementation of resources invested in the development and protection of children.

We cannot alter the circumstances overnight. To achieve great reforms, one must continue to move in a singular direction with sincerity. Our government has shown steadfastness and strong resolve to uphold the rights of our children, and so must we.

 

 

  • Reopening old wounds

Northeast Asia is a geostrategic hotspot. An ascendant China is asserting its claims to disputed islands and waters. An unpredictable North Korea is wont to threaten with missiles. And under a new president, the United States is an untested ally. But for Japan and South Korea, the two countries most affected by these developments, bilateral relations are currently being held hostage by a bronze statue of a barefoot teenage girl.

The statue in question was erected opposite the Japanese consulate in the South Korean city of Busan in late December and has led to Tokyo recalling its ambassador from Seoul, as well as suspending high-level economic policy discussions with its Korean neighbour.

Uncomfortable reminder

The cause of this friction is a statue, which is a symbol of the tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of women who were forced to service the Japanese military’s World War II brothels. Known as “comfort women”, these former sex slaves were “recruited” from Korea, China and parts of Southeast Asia. Although there are only around 40 surviving comfort women in Korea, they are a potent reminder of Japanese wartime atrocities as well as what many consider to be the lack of sincere atonement on the part of Japan.

In December 2015, a year before the Busan statue was erected, Tokyo and Seoul had concluded an agreement, supposedly a “final and irreversible” resolution to the comfort women issue. Japan had apologised and agreed to pay ¥1bn (just over $8 million) into a fund to help care for the surviving comfort women. On its part, South Korea agreed to consider the matter resolved. The accord was hailed as historic, opening the possibility of a new era in Japanese-Korean relations.

Tokyo sees the erection of the Busan statue as a violation of the agreement. Seoul counters that while the location of the statue is unfortunate, it was put up by a civil society group over which the government has no control. South Korea’s assertion is partially true. However, official permissions are required to put up statues. In fact, the local police had removed the statue when it was first erected precisely because the requisite permissions were lacking.

But public pressure forced local authorities to reinstate the statue within a few days of its removal. This “pressure” intensified when Japan’s Defence Minister Tomomi Inada visited the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a memorial for Japan’s war dead that includes many officers convicted of war crimes. China and South Korea always perceive visits to the shrine by Japanese leaders as inflammatory. Clearly, the 2015 agreement notwithstanding, no genuine burying of the historical hatchet had taken place. And symbolic tit-for-tat irritants retain an outsized ability to derail any lasting rapprochement between Japan and former victims of its colonial rule.

Given that South Korea’s President, Ms. Park Geun-hye, who had negotiated the 2015 deal with Japan, has been impeached on corruption charges, the matter of comfort women will only gain more momentum. Fresh elections are due soon, and the main opposition party has already threatened to ditch the agreement if it comes to power.

That many in Korea reject the 2015 settlement has to do with perceived dissembling on the part of the Japanese. This is a somewhat subjective assessment. Over the decades Japan has made several contrite statements about its role in World War II. In 1992, for example, then Prime Minister, Kiichi Miyazawa, apologised to the comfort women from the “bottom of his heart.” A year later in a speech to the Diet, another Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, expressed “deep remorse” and apologised for the “great sufferings and sorrow” that Japan’s colonial rule had caused.

Charges of insincerity

Accusations of Japanese insincerity in South Korea and China are often politically motivated, serving as convenient ways for governments to deflect attention from contentious domestic matters. Yet, it is true that Japan’s acknowledgements of its brutal past are of a notably different tenor from Germany, for example.

In Berlin, sites such as the former headquarters of the secret police have been turned into museums with blunt names like “the topography of terror.” In contrast, the Yasukuni shrine not only pays homage to war criminals (although millions of others are also commemorated), but houses the Yushukan War Memorial museum, where the displays largely omit the suffering caused by Japan’s actions while playing up the heroism of Japan’s military. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has himself in the past implied that he did not believe comfort women had been coerced into the sex trade.

Given their objective geopolitical circumstances, the rational priority for Japan and South Korea should be the development of close defence and intelligence cooperation rather than quibbles over statues. But, as is often the case, the emotional politics of humiliation and nationalism are keeping the wounds of history from scabbing over, and preventing the kind of bold and new collaborative initiatives that would be in the interest of both countries and the region.

  • ICMR to study A.P. kidney disease crisis

Amid mounting concern about high rates of unexplained kidney disease in the Uddhanam region of Srikakulam district, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) is launching an intensive study there in February to identify the likely cause.

A high–level ICMR team will investigate the Chronic Kidney Disease of Unknown Etiology (CKDu) that has affected thousands. The ICMR is sending the team following a request from Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.

‘Indifference’ slammed

The issue snowballed after actor and Jana Sena Party President Pawan Kalyan made a visit in the first week of January to Uddhanam and criticised the State government for its ‘indifference’ to the kidney disease crisis. Mr. Naidu then sought ICMR help for an in-depth study.

Speaking to The Hindu, Dr. Georgi Abraham, director of nephrology at Madras Medical Mission, Chennai, and a member of the ICMR team, said kidney disease in India was mostly due to diabetes, but the causes of what had been reported from Uddhanam for more than two decades could not be established.

Test protocol

“We will do urine analysis, study food habits and examine the water samples to find ways to stop or slow disease progression which leads to terminal illness,” Dr. Abraham said.

The team also has Dr. T. Ravi Raju, Vice-Chancellor of Dr. NTR University of Health Sciences and A.P and Dr. Gangadhar Taduri, senior nephrologist at the Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad, epidemiologists and other domain experts. Dr. Taduri, who has researched chronic kidney disease in Uddhanam, said his studies have pointed to silica and strontium as likely causative factors.

  • Milestone in cryogenic engine test paves way for GSLV-MkIII

A milestone crossed in the making of a new cryogenic rocket engine set the stage for the first flight of the country’s most powerful satellite launcher to date, the GSLV-Mark III. The cryogenic stage and the entire launch vehicle’s readiness is closer to fruition after the engine, technically called CE20, passed the ‘high altitude flight acceptance test’ lasting about 25 seconds at Mahendragiri in mid-December.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) plans to fly its new launch vehicle powered by this new engine around March, and send the 3,200 kg GSAT-19 communication satellite to space on it. The launch was earlier slated for December 2016. MkIII, when it completes trials and commences functioning in the coming years, will double ISRO’s lifting power for communications satellites to 4,000 kilos.

Vital stage

In a few days from now, the rocket’s complete cryogenic third stage, replete with fuel tanks and systems built around the engine, will undergo its qualifying test, S. Somanath, Director of ISRO’s Liquid Propulsion Systems Centre (LPSC), Thiruvananthapuram, told The Hindu.

“LPSC has designed and developed the CE20 engine. We are assembling the entire cryogenic stage, which is ready for flight. It will be sent to Sriharikota in a month’s time,” he said.

The cryogenic stage is vital for a GSLV rocket as it gets its final and biggest push in space from this stage; it can take a big communications satellite to higher reaches of 36,000 km above ground. The C25 cryogenic stage was approved at an estimated ₹600 crore as part of the overall ₹2,500-crore MkIII launcher project.

“Realising the CE20 engine was our target in order to achieve India’s capability to lift a four-tonne satellite to GTO (geostationary transfer orbit, around 36,000 km high),” Mr. Somanath said.

“We have been longing for this for a few years. MkIII will be the future work horse after the PSLV,” he said.

MkIII becomes ‘operational’ or ready for regular work after two successful launches in a row. ISRO plans to have one MkIII launch in a year, and the next one is planned for December this year.

Over 200 tests

About the qualification of the CE20, Mr. Somanath said it was the culmination of over 200 tests, some repeated and taking a week to 10 days each. The project picked up pace after early tests on a full-scale engine last year. The space agency has set up a ₹450-crore High Altitude Test (HAT) Facility at the ISRO Propulsion Complex for testing the engine in conditions similar to an actual launch in space.

Calling it an important milestone ahead of the MkIII launch, ISRO said the HAT test of December met all the test objectives.

“The testing of the engine in the HAT facility has helped in finalising the engine start and shut down sequence for the flight,” Mr. Somanath added.

The vehicle’s first two qualified stages are already in Sriharikota, namely the solid-fuelled S200 and the liquid-fuelled L110 stages.

  • ‘India economy could pip U.S. on PPP by 2040’

The global economic order is expected to shift from advanced to emerging economies over the next few decades, and by 2040 India could edge past the U.S. to become the world’s second largest economy in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, according to a report.

According to PwC, E7 economies comprising Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia and Turkey would grow at an annual average rate of almost 3.5% over the next 34 years, compared to just 1.6% for the advanced G7 nations of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S.

“In fact, China has already overtaken the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy in PPP terms, while India currently stands in third place and is projected to overtake the U.S. by 2040 in PPP terms,” PwC said.

PwC opines Vietnam, India and Bangladesh would be three of the world’s fastest growing economies over this period.

“We will continue to see shift in global economic power away from established advanced economies towards emerging economies,” PwC Chief Economist and co-author of the report, John Hawksworth said. “The E7 could comprise almost 50% of world GDP by 2050, while the G7’s share declines to only just over 20%.”

  • MEA cuts grants for think tank on China

Despite proclaiming that its policy projects will not suffer on account of budget cuts, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has dealt a death blow to India’s premier China studies institute this year, axing a ₹1 crore annual grant it has received since 2010.

The Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), the only think tank on Chinese studies to partner the US-based Harvard University and MIT, has been asked to adjust and take “project by project” approval for funding from MEA.

Ironically, the grant was axed even as the ICS spearheaded the India China Think-Tanks Forum, where Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and Minister of State for External Affairs M.J. Akbar were the main speakers. “The MEA has informed us that they will support ICS on a project mode of funding with effect from 1.4.2017, and have invited project proposals from us,” confirmed Ravi Bhoothalingam, member of the institute’s advisory board.

Sources said the ICS, which has maintained an independent platform to discuss various China-related issues like OBOR (One Belt, One Road), had disapproved of the government’s position on certain issues. Senior scholars said that a number of academic activities of the institute are likely to be impacted if the project-mode of funding is implemented. One particular concern is that the MEA axed the funds two months short of the financial year, which leaves ICS without time for adjustment. The sources said ICS does not receive any foreign funding at present. This makes its position precarious as it is left without funding options.

“We are facing a very delicate phase. Some of our programmes have been running uninterrupted for more than four decades. We will now look for funding for these projects,” said an Institute insider requesting anonymity.

New director

Apart from the issue of funding, tension has also been brewing over the selection of the new director, as the current director Dr. Alka Acharya, who led the organisation during the India China Think-Tanks Forum, will complete her term on 31 March 2017. Mr. Bhoothalingam said a panel is selecting the new director.

  • Looking towards Africa

Far too often, the world views Africa through the prism of problems. When I look to Africa, I see a continent of hope, promise and vast potential.

I am committed to building on those strengths and establishing a higher platform of cooperation between the United Nations and the leaders and people of Africa. This is essential to advancing inclusive and sustainable development and deepening cooperation for peace and security.

That is the message I carried to the recent African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — my first major mission as United Nations Secretary-General.

Above all, I came in a spirit of profound solidarity and respect. I am convinced that the world has much to gain from African wisdom, ideas and solutions.

Keeping the peace

I also brought with me a deep sense of gratitude. Africa provides the majority of UN peacekeepers around the world. African nations are among the world’s largest and most generous hosts of refugees. Africa includes some of the world’s fastest growing economies.

The recent resolution of the political crisis in the Gambia once again demonstrated the power of African leadership and unity to overcome governance challenges and uphold democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

I left the summit more convinced than ever that all of humanity will benefit by listening, learning and working with the people of Africa.

Looking ahead

We have the plans in place to build a better future. The international community has entered the second year of implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, an all-out effort to tackle global poverty, inequality, instability and injustice. Africa has adopted its own complementary and ambitious plan: Agenda 2063.

For the people of Africa to fully benefit from these important efforts, these two agendas need to be strategically aligned.

It starts with prevention. Our world needs to move from managing crises to preventing them in the first place. We need to break the cycle of responding too late and too little.

Most of today’s conflicts are internal, triggered by competition for power and resources, inequality, marginalisation and sectarian divides. Often, they are inflamed by violent extremism or provide the fuel for it.

The UN is committed to working hand-in-hand with partners wherever conflict or the threat of conflict endangers stability and well-being.

But prevention goes far beyond focussing solely on conflict. The best means of prevention and the surest path to durable peace is inclusive and sustainable development.

The young African

We can speed progress by doing more to provide opportunities and hope to young people. More than three out of five Africans are under 35 years of age. Making the most of this tremendous asset means more investment in education, training, decent work, and engaging young people in shaping their future.

We must also do our utmost to empower women so that they can play a full role in sustainable development and sustainable peace. I am pleased that the African Union has consistently placed a special focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

I have seen it again and again: When we empower women, we empower the world.

I travelled to Africa as a partner, friend and committed advocate for changing the narrative about this diverse and vital continent. Crises represent at best a partial view. But from a higher platform of cooperation, we can see the whole picture — one that spotlights the enormous potential and remarkable success stories in every corner of the African continent.

With that perspective, I have no doubt we can win the battle for sustainable and inclusive development which are also the best weapons in preventing conflict and suffering, allowing Africa to shine even more vibrantly and inspire the world.

 

  • Pride as well as prejudice

All-male tribal bodies have been against the 33% reservation for women in urban local bodies (ULBs) in Nagaland right from the time the Nagaland government enacted the Nagaland Municipal (First Amendment) Act in 2006, on the grounds that reservation for women in ULBs would violate Article 371(A) of the Constitution and infringe on Naga culture, traditions and customary laws. Faced with vehement opposition, the Nagaland government did not conduct elections to civic bodies for over 10 years.

Spearheaded by the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), Naga women filed a writ petition challenging the State government’s refusal to hold municipal elections before the Kohima Bench of the Gauhati High Court on June 26, 2011. In October 2011, a single-judge bench of the court upheld the Naga women’s petition and directed the government to hold elections to municipal councils and town councils on or before January 20, 2012. But before the deadline, the Nagaland government filed an appeal before a Division Bench of the Gauhati High Court, which stayed the previous ruling. One of the arguments put forward by the Nagaland government was the claim that implementing such a law would ‘upset the peace’ in Nagaland. On September 22, 2012, the Nagaland State Assembly adopted a resolution rejecting women’s reservation in ULBs on the ground that it infringes on the social and customary practices of the Nagas, which Article 371(A) safeguards.

The Joint Action Committee on Women Reservation (JACWR) then moved a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court in September 2012. On April 20, 2016, the Supreme Court upheld the single-judge ruling of the Gauhati High Court of October 2011. So, the Nagaland government enacted the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Bill 2016, which revoked the September 2012 resolution, paving the way for women’s reservation in ULBs. Early in January, the State government announced that elections to the ULBs would be held on February 1.

Tribal threats

The tribal bodies protested loudly as soon as the elections were announced and threatened candidates who intended to file nominations that they would be ex-communicated from their respective tribes. Coming under pressure, some candidates didn’t file nominations and some others withdrew their papers. Those who refused to withdraw from the fray were ex-communicated, ranging from 10 to 30 years.

Through all this, the State government remained a silent spectator and failed to assert the rule of law, especially because these tribal bodies are not traditional institutions recognised by Article 371(A). The ULBs too are not traditional Naga institutions but constitutional bodies under Part IX of the Constitution over which Naga traditional bodies have no mandate.

When the State government refused to call off the elections, the tribal bodies announced a bandh from January 28 to February 1. They enforced the bandh across Nagaland although elections took place in several places on February 1. Clearly, some towns did not agree with these tribal bodies.

Meanwhile, on January 31, two persons were killed in Dimapur, the commercial capital of the State. Things soon took an ugly turn, and the Nagaland government declared the elections ‘null and void’. Since then, tribal bodies have begun clamouring for more, seeking the resignation of the Chief Minister, no less. Though life is limping back to normal, there is still a bandh on government offices and a restriction on movement of government vehicles.

But it must be said that even before the bandh call, the focus had started shifting from women’s reservation to issues of taxes and land ownership contained in the Nagaland Municipal (Third Amendment) Bill 2016.

Unconstitutional demand

What is even more alarming, and preposterous, is that the Nagaland government has decided to write to the Centre demanding that Nagaland be exempted from Part IX A of the Constitution. “If the State Government and all the stakeholders cannot arrive at an amicable resolution of this issue at the earliest, the best option appears to be to seek exemption of Nagaland from Part IX A of the Constitution, which contains a mandatory provision under Article 243T for 33% women reservation in ULBs, which will put to rest the issue and avoid further misunderstanding among the people,” the Chief Minister’s office explained in a release.

Clearly, to rescue itself, the Nagaland government is doing a Pontius Pilate by washing its hands of the reservation issue and sacrificing the rights of Naga women at the altar of Naga males’ primeval tribal ego. If Nagaland is exempted from the purview of Part IX of the Constitution, Naga women will have absolutely no hope of entering into and participating in decision-making bodies.

Reservation for women is necessary in patriarchal societies like Naga society, for instance, where there is a historical culture of inequalities even though Nagas don’t practise sati, female foeticide and infanticide, and do not believe in dowry or the caste system. But Naga customs, culture and traditions preclude women from inheriting land and participating in the decision-making process, which is exactly what Article 371(A) protects.

The other deeply worrying issue is that because the government at the Centre appears to be misinformed about ground realities in Nagaland, it is possible that the State government’s claim that the reservation issue may ‘upset the peace’ in the state could cloud its judgment.

Undeniably, the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Naga women now depend on the Centre, as much as on the gender sensitised public of India.

  • Uneasy lies the head

It has been a little more than two months since the demise of Jayalalithaa. The veil of secrecy drawn around her in her final days generated as much angst amongst the masses of her supporters, especially in the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), as it fuelled speculation over the cause of her death, including suspicions of foul play.

Even as she battled for life for 75 days, her nonagenarian rival, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) supremo M. Karunanidhi fell seriously ill. He recuperated, but he’s no longer in the thick of public and party affairs. With the exit of these two titans of Tamil Nadu politics, leaders who shaped the very destiny of the State for nearly half a century, the power vacuum within both parties had to be filled quickly.

For the DMK, a succession plan has been in place for years, and so it was a fairly smooth transition for “Thalapathy” M.K. Stalin to step into the shoes of the “Thalaivar”, his father, by taking over as working president of the party. He now has more than four years to build momentum for his party to bid for power in the next Assembly election. Mr. Stalin’s prospects hinge as much on being able to rally DMK troops across the State as adroitly as his father used to, as they do on getting the DMK to be a smart opposition party, drawing attention to the failings of the AIADMK government.

Questions of timing

This brings us to the travails of V.K. Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s long-time confidant and presumed backseat influencer, whose foray into the arena of official power has been dramatic yet purposeful.

At the present juncture she occupies an unenviable position in Tamil Nadu politics: she has clearly carved out a niche for herself at the very heart of the AIADMK, yet is regarded with an element of distaste by the wider cohort of party cadres and the general public.

Why, with the impending verdict of the Supreme Court in the disproportionate assets case, did she make a bid for the Chief Minister’s office last weekend? One argument is that if she had attempted this manoeuvre any earlier, her intentions toward Jayalalithaa and Tamil Nadu would have been seen to be suspect and she may have risked strengthening the hands of potential rivals.

Read: V.K. Sasikala: From soul sister to party leader

On the flip side, waiting too much longer would have allowed public opinion to crystallise firmly around O. Panneerselvam, who served as the incumbent Chief Minister until Ms. Sasikala saw fit to claim the throne last weekend. Indeed matters may have come to a head already after Mr. Panneerselvam registered his protest at Jayalalithaa’s memorial on Tuesday night.

Leaving aside the risky gambit of seeking the chief ministership when a judicial axe could cut that ambition short in a matter of days, Ms. Sasikala may have also weakened her position by failing to capitalise on last month’s remarkable “jallikattu movement”.

Had she stepped into the fight confidently but humbly, for example through visible pleas to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for an expedient, favourable solution to the stalemate between the proponents of the bull-taming sport and animal rights activists, that may have been a golden opportunity to firm up her credentials with the people of Tamil Nadu, regardless of the judicial outcome.

Instead she squandered that opportunity and has double-faulted on her strategy by being seen to be pre-empting the Supreme Court verdict due next week. If she survives that ruling, Ms. Sasikala’s future would however look immeasurably brighter, with no small thanks due to Jayalalithaa’s parting gift of last May’s sweeping Assembly election victory.

That win would bestow Ms. Sasikala with more than four years to accumulate political capital and the goodwill of Tamil Nadu’s electorate, the logical next step after she consolidates intra-party support. It cannot be overlooked that in the short span of time since Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5, 2016, Ms. Sasikala worked assiduously to ensure that the highest few rungs of the AIADMK were won over to her side.

Building bridges

This was particularly salient for leaders of the Gounder caste who may have potentially been engulfed by insecurity about the direction in which policy and resource allocation would tilt under a Thevar Chief Minister.

Among these leaders, K.A. Sengottaiyan, a member of the AIADMK since the time of M.G. Ramachandran, a staunch Jayalalithaa loyalist, and a widely respected leader of Erode district, was apparently upset about being excluded from the Cabinet headed by Mr. Panneerselvam. Having been side-lined earlier by Jayalalithaa, he hoped to return as a Minister after her death. Upon learning of his dissatisfaction Ms. Sasikala convinced him to back her, and in a deft move she thus neutralised the biggest stumbling block to her aspirations.

Ms. Sasikala also benefitted from serendipitous shifts of mood with some prominent AIADMK leaders, such as Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker M. Thambidurai. A Gounder and veteran party man, he had hoped to step into Jayalalithaa’s shoes. When that did not happen, he chose to dislodge Mr. Panneerselvam by openly pleading with Ms. Sasikala to take over as Chief Minister.

In certain cases, however, Ms. Sasikala will have to carry on the campaign to blunt criticism by her colleagues. K.P. Munusamy, a Vanniyar leader from Krishnagiri district, is one such AIADMK leader. Ms. Sasikala appealed to him to remain in the party despite his dissatisfaction over his position, and he initially relented. Yet he went on to become the first open challenger to her rise when he hit out at her brother and husband for interfering in party affairs. She has thus far refrained from acting against him.

The down-side of these Machiavellian machinations is a hardening of the public perception of Ms. Sasikala and her family as manipulators, which is perhaps undeserved in some respects.

First, almost all successful Tamil politicians, including Jayalalithaa and Mr. Karunanidhi, have in some shape or form engaged in what may be termed as “manipulation”. If not, why do judicial cases and the police machinery turn adversely against a leader who has lost an election to a bitter rival? Why do political opponents and dissenters sometimes suddenly go quiet? Have no Tamil politicians enriched themselves personally while in office?

The highest irony of this state of affairs is that the Tamil Nadu electorate has often indulged its leaders these excesses from time to time, even as it has punished them on occasion with a crushing swing defeat in Assembly elections.

Caste and welfare policies

From a political economy perspective, what makes Tamil Nadu unique is its penchant for empowering leaders who quickly centralise political power in their own hands, either through sheer force of the personality cults that they build around themselves or based on party discipline and organisational prowess.

The deeper factor driving this trend is the State’s caste distribution, which is highly dispersed, which implies that, historically, only centralised political power has ensured that resources earmarked for mass welfare schemes, the mainstay of governance in Tamil Nadu, are effectively allocated down the line of an efficient bureaucracy, instead of getting frittered away as “rent” to political factions and local bosses.

In that regard the self-elevation of Ms. Sasikala is perfectly in line with the history of Dravidian party leadership, as is the consanguinity-based rise of Mr. Stalin.

Indeed, she lacks the formal governance experience of many other capable leaders around her, yet she will have to reckon with winning a seat in the State Assembly within six months of being sworn in as Chief Minister, and will then have time to build up her credentials in that regard.

Equally it is a valid criticism that she likely ruled from the shadows during the years of Jayalalithaa’s reign, and it is not known how rapacious any government helmed by her would be.

However, the fact that she is no worse than so many other Tamil leaders who’ve sought to rule the State should give pause to those who seek to demonise her in these early days. That she fits the profile of Tamil Nadu’s past leaders, each of them a powerful, centralising figure, much more than the genuflection-prone Mr. Panneerselvam, cannot be overlooked.

The last thing that the State needs is the persisting cloud of uncertainty that now hangs over Fort St. George. The willingness to carry on playing Musical Chairs in politics should be measured against the risk of instability in a State that is still coming to grips with the string of shocks that it has faced in recent times.

 

  • India to frame policy on synthetic biology

India is taking its first steps to evolve a policy on synthetic biology, an emerging science through which new life forms can potentially be made in labs and existing life forms, such as bacteria and other microbes, tweaked to produce specific proteins or chemically useful products.

The Environment Ministry will be convening a group of experts on biodiversity and biotechnology, to assess synthetic biology work pursued in Indian labs, potential benefits and risks, and the implications of the trans-boundary movement of such life forms.

Synthetic biology in microbial systems holds promise for production of drugs, vaccines, fuel components and other chemicals. A popular example is the production of artemisinin, a powerful anti-malarial drug, in yeast, at a commercial level. Microorganisms have also been constructed to act as sensors that can detect a toxin in vitro (outside a living organism) or in vivo (inside a living organism).

There are assorted labs in India that work on synthetic biology.

Last December, officials from the Environment Ministry participated in the United Nations Biodiversity Conference of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) at Cancun, Mexico, where about 8,000 delegates from 180 countries discussed matters related to biodiversity.

India, so far, has no policy on synthetic biology, and according to a presentation made at the venue, it has promised to “put in place a Synthetic Biology Team for articulating India’s view” at a forthcoming meeting.

  • Julian Assange: Scapegoat or villain?

One of the most banal tropes of Hollywood blockbuster trailers is about one man pitted against an all-powerful enemy, and ultimately prevailing. The figure of the lone ranger battling on with his back to the wall is a popular figure of American pop culture. How ironic, then, that this very figure seems to have become the bane of the country’s righteous political establishment.

So one man, holed up in the embassy of a tiny Latin American nation, a man who hasn’t seen much sunlight in four years, who is under round-the-clock surveillance, and is subject to arbitrary denial of Internet access, has managed to swing the presidential election of the most powerful country in the world in a direction it ought not to have gone. Or so we are told by influential sections of the Western press.

From revolutionary to villain

The past week or so has seen a spate of articles on the so-called unravelling of Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of WikiLeaks. They suggest that Hillary Clinton lost the U.S. presidential election because of him. Backing this logic is the allegation that WikiLeaks served as a conduit for disseminating documents obtained by hackers working for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The leaked emails and documents of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) published by WikiLeaks were damaging enough to spark the resignation of top Democratic Party officials, including the DNC chair and the communications director. These leaks, the argument goes, ruined Ms. Clinton’s electoral prospects, thereby paving the way for Donald Trump’s triumph.

The Democrats have been saying since July 2016 that their servers were attacked by Russian hackers. Last week, the U.S. intelligence community (USIC) officially confirmed the allegation. Kremlin has dismissed the USIC’s charges as “unfounded”. While President-elect Donald Trump seemed to acknowledge that Russia may have been involved in the cyber-attacks, he has maintained that it had no impact on the elections. Mr. Assange has denied that he got the leaks from Russia, and claims that his source was not a state party. In such a scenario, what one believes boils down to who one believes, which, in turn, depends on one’s political or ideological allegiances — the quintessential “post-truth” situation.

However, the extraordinary spectacle of erstwhile liberal hero Assange and current liberal nightmare Trump on the same side of the American political divide, with each appearing to endorse the other’s claim that Russia had nothing to do with the DNC leaks, had one immediate outcome: it prompted the American liberal elite to question Mr. Assange’s motives, and cast him as the villain who collaborated with Mr. Putin to interfere in the U.S. elections and ensure a Trump victory. For them, the USIC’s official statements are proof of Mr. Assange’s culpability, attesting to his metamorphosis from idealistic cyber-revolutionary to opportunistic charlatan.

It must, no doubt, be tempting, and rather convenient, for Democrat supporters to pin the responsibility for Ms. Clinton’s defeat on anyone but the Democrats themselves. But there are several problems with this narrative.

Flaws in the ‘trial’

For starters, both the declassified report of the USIC and the “Russian dossier” leaked allegedly by a private firm make claims of Mr. Putin’s involvement in the DNC hacks without presenting supporting evidence. The excerpts from the latter, published by some media outlets, were unverified quotes by anonymous spies. None of the claims has been independently authenticated by a media outlet. And no reason has been given why reports of Western intelligence agencies should carry more credibility than the denials of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Second, are Mr. Assange’s motives or credibility the issue here? If we assume that they are, then we cannot avoid subjecting his accusers — the American press and intelligence agencies — to the same test.

In the 10 years of its existence, WikiLeaks has published more than 10 million classified documents. Till date, there is not a single instance where its material has been found to be false or inauthentic. On the other hand, sitting in judgment on Mr. Assange today are the same media outlets and the same intelligence community that sold to the public what is arguably the most egregious lie in the history of journalism — about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — which helped justify a needless, destructive war that consumed tens of thousands of civilian lives, dismembered a country, and hatched several terrorist organisations.

Perhaps it is because the authenticity of the DNC leaks is beyond question, and their content raises difficult questions about the Democratic Party establishment — questions easier avoided — that the response has turned ad hominem, focussing on Mr. Assange instead.

It may or may not be true that Mr. Assange worked with Russia to publish the DNC leaks with the aim of ensuring a Clinton defeat. Let us assume that he did. Does it then constitute an act of villainy or moral trespass?

One could respond, as Mr. Assange has, with two arguments. First, that American interference in the democratic processes of other countries is well documented. Therefore, it is not tenable to hold that other nations do not have the right to pay back in kind.

Second, Mr. Assange believes that it is his moral responsibility to do whatever he can to prevent a Clinton victory. He has said many times that Ms. Clinton is a warmonger, that her victory would lead to greater American military involvement outside its borders, and thereby impose greater misery on the people of the world.

Liberal commentators have dismissed his statements as his “Clinton obsession” and the delusional ranting of a paranoid eccentric. And yet, a recent report in The Guardian cites U.S. Defence Department data to the effect that in 2016 alone, the Obama administration dropped 26,171 bombs, or three bombs an hour. In this context, it is hardly immoral for anyone to want to deploy his resources to steer America’s presidential choice toward a candidate who he thinks might be less of a military interventionist. From this viewpoint, which Mr. Assange appears to hold, undermining the Clinton campaign by sharing secret information that is of public interest constitutes a perfectly legitimate enterprise. Interestingly, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The New York Times has acknowledged that the internal DNC emails published by WikiLeaks were newsworthy, and it is quite likely that mainstream publications would have published them had they got hold of them first.

It was about new information

What Mr. Assange did — the act for which he is undergoing trial-by-media — was to supply relevant but new information about an electoral candidate so that the American voter could make an informed choice. One could argue that he did what the mainstream media was supposed to do but wasn’t doing enough of.

In the event, it was the American voter who made the final choice, a choice that may or may not have been influenced by the material published by Mr. Assange. At any rate, thanks to the leaks, it was a choice made with more information than less. No one who believes in the accountability of political parties should have a problem with that. Therefore, to blame Mr. Trump’s victory on Mr. Assange or, for that matter, on Russia, not only amounts to a refusal on the part of the Democrats to take responsibility for the defeat, it is also an insult to the American public that has delivered a mandate from the limited choices it was given.

If Mr. Assange must be criticised, it must be for not giving enough bang for the buck, as it were, for his whistle-blowers. He ought to be doing more to ensure that his data troves are systematically analysed and organised in a user-friendly format, with the significant bits sifted out from the routine ones. But the bulk of the data on WikiLeaks’ servers continues to be inaccessible to the public even as they remain in the public domain. Second, he is yet to match the scale of his U.S.-centric leaks with similar disclosures on its geopolitical rivals such as Russia or China.

However, to blame him for Ms. Clinton’s defeat, or to brand him a Trump supporter, is to wilfully disregard his track record. Mr. Assange’s politics has been clear from the day he founded WikiLeaks, and it hasn’t changed since. He believes that the biggest threats to democracy and freedom are the twin phenomena of mass surveillance for the powerless and secrecy for the powerful. He has made a career out of reversing this paradigm: transparency for the powerful and anonymity for the dissenting citizen. His personal motive for publishing the DNC leaks, whatever it may be, is evidently not one that is inconsistent with his stated mission of making secrecy a losing proposition for governing elites.

  • Drowned by state failure

The boat disaster in the Ganga on Makar Sankranti day that killed at least 24 people is another reminder that safety in public transport remains a low priority for governments. As with road accidents, mishaps in the inland waterways and lakes take a terrible toll of lives regularly, with no effective administrative response. In the Ganga Diara tragedy near Patna, a large number of people had apparently crammed themselves into a small vessel for a free ride after witnessing a kite festival. The relief offered to the kin of the dead and injured both by the Centre and the Bihar government should not, however, obscure the fact that the loss of life was entirely the result of official failures. This was obviously the result of serious neglect of safety norms for which accountability must be fixed. It is essential that a judicial commission be constituted to inquire into the incident, to determine whether the laws on transport using inland waterways are being implemented and to issue directions for the future. The country boat involved appears not to have used its engine at the time of the accident, but the absence of safety training for operators is painfully evident.

The Centre, which talks of a paradigm shift in freight and passenger transport using inland waterways, should respond to the shameful national record on boat safety by firmly implementing existing laws and introducing new measures along with the States. Just last year it expanded the National Waterways programme and notified several stretches of rivers and canals for a new deal for inland water transport. Under the amendments to the colonial-era Inland Vessels Act made in 2007 — which is to be further modernised — it is incumbent on the States to apply some provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act to accidents, compensation and insurance against third-party risks for powered boats. Just as in the case of motor vehicles, registration of inland vessels other than small personal non-powered craft must be made mandatory. This will help enforce construction standards, subsidy for transport boats, passenger insurance and accident compensation. In the latest tragedy, the problem also appears to have been inadequate supply, which forced people to pack themselves into the available boats. If this is true, the Bihar government must own full responsibility and prevent a recurrence. The heart-rending spectacle of children and their kin perishing on what should have been a day of celebration must stir the conscience of governments whose duty it is to provide safe and adequate public transport, and one at which they fail badly.

 

  • China setting up highest altitude telescopes close to LAC

China is setting up the world’s highest altitude gravitational wave telescopes in a Tibet prefecture close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India, with a budget of $18.8 million to detect the faintest of echoes resonating from the universe, which may reveal more about the Big Bang theory.

Construction has started for the first telescope, code-named Ngari No. 1, 30 km south of Shiquanhe Town in Ngari Prefecture, said Yao Yongqiang chief researcher with the National Astronomical Observatories of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Parts of Nagri is last Tibetan prefecture at China’s border with India.

The telescope, located 5,250 meters above sea level, will detect and gather precise data on primordial gravitational waves in the Northern Hemisphere.

To be operational by 2021

It is expected to be operational by 2021, state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

Mr. Yao said the second phase involves a series of telescopes, code-named Ngari No. 2, to be located about 6,000 meters above sea level.

He did not give a time frame for the construction of Ngari No. 2. The budget for the two-phase Ngari gravitational wave observatory is an estimated 130 million yuan ($18.8 million).

The project was initiated by the Institute of High Energy Physics, National Astronomical Observatories, and Shanghai Institute of Microsystem and Information Technology, among others, the report said.

Ngari, with its high altitude, clear sky and minimal human activity is said to be one of the world’s best spots to detect tiny twists in cosmic light.

Mr. Yao said the Ngari observatory will be among the world’s top primordial gravitational wave observation bases, alongside the South Pole Telescope and the facility in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Gravitational waves were first proposed by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity 100 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2016 that scientists with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory announced proof of the waves’ existence, spurring fresh research interest among the world’s scientists.

Last September, China commissioned the world’s largest radio telescope in a mountainous region of southwest China’s Guizhou Province to search for more strange objects space, gain better understand the origin of the universe and to boost the global hunt for extraterrestrial life.

The installation of the telescope’s main structure — a 4,450-panel reflector as large as 30 football pitches was built at unique valley in Guizhou Province.

  • Tea exports may dip on Kenya’s bumper crop

Tea exports, after showing a healthy rise by volume and value in 2015-16, may decline this fiscal year due to a bumper crop in Kenya and lower prospects in some key markets.

Between April and October 2016, exports stood at 119 million kg against 127 million kg of the same period in 2015. India exported 232.9 million kg in 2015-16, rising by 17 million kg over the previous year and breaching the 230-million-mark for the first time since 1980-81, according to official statistics.

Earnings from tea exports are estimated at Rs. 2,460 crore against Rs. 2,518 crore between April and October 2015.

Lower exports to Russia (annual purchases of about 45 million kg), the U.K., the U.S., Bangladesh and Pakistan may cause the decline, according to Sujit Patro, secretary, Indian Tea Association.

A bumper crop in Kenya (more than 50 per cent rise according to latest statistics) and Bangladesh, which is slowly emerging as a tea-growing nation, led to excess supply and lower prices in the international market. In 2015, Bangladesh had a crop of 66.4 million kg.

Sharp decline

However Sri Lanka, India’s arch-rival in the international arena, too saw a sharp decline in its output of the commodity.

Indian teas, however, have held their unit-prices, selling at Rs. 206.6 per kg against Rs. 197.8 per kg. Prices were higher in dollar terms too. On the production front, Tea Board said that all-India production has been higher at 1,110.5 million kgs between April and November 2016 as North Indian gardens increased their output helping overcome the shortfall caused by a sharp decline in May.

Although production recovered since then, the gap could not be bridged. India had closed 2015-16 with a tea crop of 1,233.1 million kgs. Also, this would be the second year of reverses in South Indian production, mainly due to adverse weather conditions.

Worst drought

Azam Monem, chairman of the Indian Tea Association said that South India faced its worst drought this year.

On exports, he said that India lost market in the first half of this fiscal, when it could not match the crop and the prices offered by Kenya.

“This loss extended to all the markets including the U.K., U.S. and the Pakistan,” Mr. Monem said.

 

  • Amid Shariat experiment, Indonesia’s secular face slips

Things were hopping at Redinesh Coffee Roastery in this seaside city one recent evening. Electronic dance music blared from the cafe’s speakers as patrons, some in ripped jeans and fashionable spectacles, sat outside drinking locally sourced coffee and smoking cigarettes.

But then the Muslim call to prayer sounded, and a waitress hurriedly ushered everyone back into the cafe. She turned down the music, closed the doors and covered the windows. It was the Maghrib — the second to last of the five daily calls to prayer — and outdoor socialising had to cease.

Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, stands alone in having formally established Shariat law in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority country with a relatively secular Constitution. In Aceh, women are required to dress modestly, alcohol is prohibited, and numerous offences — from adultery to homosexuality to selling alcohol — are punishable by public whipping.

Aceh began its experiment with Shariat in 2001, after receiving special authorisation from Indonesia’s central government, which was intent on calming separatist sentiment in the deeply conservative region. Now, Shariat police officers roam the province, raiding everything from hotel rooms to beaches in a hunt for immoral activity.

Conservative direction

In the decade and a half since, Indonesia as a whole has drifted in a conservative direction, and Aceh, once an outlier, has become a model for other regions of the country seeking to impose their own Shariat-based ordinances, alarming those who worry about the nation’s drift from secularism.

“Whenever Aceh issues a law, saying it’s the highest order of Shariat, it provokes others to do the same thing,” said Andy Yentriani, a former commissioner on Indonesia’s National Commission on Violence Against Women, who wants the national government to repeal certain Shariat-based regulations as violations of the Indonesian Constitution.

A recent study found that more than 442 Shariat-based ordinances have been passed throughout the nation since 1999, when Jakarta gave provinces and districts substantial powers to make their own laws.

But for local officials, the spread of Shariat from Aceh is a point of pride, and delegations from areas with a history of embracing conservative Islam regularly visit to see how it has been carried out.

“They look at how we facilitate an atmosphere of religiosity,” said Syahrizal Abbas, head of Aceh’s Department of Shariat, who said he gives visiting delegations advice on how to incorporate Shariat teachings into law. Mr. Syahrizal, who is considered a moderate, said that Aceh’s version of Shariat was softer than that of the oft-maligned form in Saudi Arabia, because it welcomed alternative schools of Islamic thought and accepted the role of female leaders.

Zealous enforcer

Indeed, Banda Aceh, the province’s capital, is led by Illiza Sa’aduddin Djamal, the city’s first female mayor. Many activists for women’s rights say they supported her candidacy in hopes that she would be a progressive leader. Instead she has proved to be a zealous, hands-on enforcer of Aceh’s conservative moral code.

Last February, Ms. Illiza, wearing a black headscarf, strode into the hall where Indonesian Model Hunt, a beauty competition, was under way, interrogating cowering models about the event as news cameras rolled.

“Why aren’t you wearing a jilbab?” she asked one, referring to what Indonesians call a head scarf. Shariat police loaded the competition’s trophies into a bag and escorted models out of the building. The imposition of Shariat came after Aceh’s decades-long struggle for independence with the central government ended in 2005. Scars remain from the war, as well as the after-effect of the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people here in 2004. Today Aceh is one of Indonesia’s poorest provinces.

In February, the Acehnese will go to the polls to select new leaders, but none of the candidates for mayor or governor are willing to challenge the primacy of Shariat law.

Irwan Johan, a vice speaker for the Acehnese Provincial Legislature, said any real debate over Shariat was impossible, even though “a silent majority” thinks the government has gone too far.

“They’re not brave enough to say anything,” he said about critics of Shariat.

“Talk about issues of religion and you could be expelled, or be considered a person who isn’t really Acehnese. Everybody became a hypocrite.” — New York Times News Service

  • Morocco bans production, sale of burqa

Morocco’s ban on the sale and production of burqa full-face Muslim veils beloved of Salafists has sharply divided opinions in the North African country.

“The burqa is not an item of clothing just like any other… it’s an instrument of oppression, a horrific negation of women, an insult to half of humanity,” according to award-winning French-Moroccan novelist Leila Slimani.

Ms. Slimani, in an opinion piece on news website Le360, said the burqa ban signalled that Morocco was moving “towards greater equality between the sexes”.

Another vocal supporter, Nouzha Skalli, a lawmaker and former family and social development minister, said the ban constituted “an important step in the battle against religious extremism”.

While there has been no official announcement, media reports said the interior ministry order banning the burqa would take effect this week. “We have taken the step of completely banning the import, manufacture and marketing of this garment in all the cities and towns of the kingdom,” Le360 quoted a high-ranking interior ministry official as saying.

Interior ministry officials on Monday started carrying out “awareness-raising campaigns with traders to inform them of this new decision,” said another website, Media 24.

Le360 said the measure appeared to be motivated by security concerns, “since bandits have repeatedly used this garment to perpetrate their crimes.”

Most women in Morocco, whose King Mohammed VI favours a moderate version of Islam, prefer the hijab headscarf that does not cover the face.

The niqab, which leaves the area around the eyes uncovered, is also worn in Salafist circles and in more conservative regions in the north, from where thousands of jihadists have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Writers and intellectuals have condemned the burqa ban. “No authority in the world has the right to impose a dress code on a woman or a man for their everyday life,” wrote columnist Abdellah Tourabi, in a view widely shared on social media in Morocco. Is the burqa foreign to Moroccan culture? he asked. Sure, but “slim jeans were not the apparel of the sultans and our grandmothers were not crazy about Victoria’s Secret bras”, Mr. Tourabi said.

  • Two-state solution ‘only way’ to Israeli-Palestinian peace

In a strong message to Israel and the incoming Trump administration, dozens of countries are expected this weekend to reiterate their opposition to Israeli settlements and call for the establishment of a Palestinian state as “the only way” to ensure peace in the region.

France is hosting more than 70 countries on Sunday at a West Asia peace summit, in what will be a final chance for the Obama administration to lay out its positions for the region. According to a draft statement obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, the conference will urge Israel and the Palestinians “to officially restate their commitment to the two-state solution”.

It also will affirm that the international community “will not recognise” changes to Israel’s pre-1967 lines without agreement by both sides.

The draft says that participants will affirm “that a negotiated solution with two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, is the only way to achieve enduring peace”.

Israel has settled some 600,000 of its citizens in the West Bank and east Jerusalem occupied territories claimed by the Palestinians for a future independent State. Israel captured both areas in the 1967 war.

The summit comes on the heels of a U.N. Security Council resolution last month that condemned the settlements as illegal. The resolution passed 14—0 after the U.S. declined to use its traditional veto power and instead abstained.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out a return to the 1967 lines, and many members of his nationalist coalition oppose Palestinian independence and support expanded settlements.

Mr. Netanyahu has rejected the U.N. resolution and accuses the Obama administration of conspiring behind Israel’s back. Israel has refused to participate in the French conference.

The Palestinians, who also are not invited to this weekend’s conference, have welcomed the French initiative. In recent years, they have campaigned for the international community to assume a greater role in resolving the conflict.

  • The city’s bleak future

Last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a new metro system in Pune. He also gave financial approval for a Shivaji statue in the Arabian Sea off Mumbai. Earlier, he sought Cabinet approval for highway projects in Odisha and Punjab; in June, his Smart Cities Mission launched 83 projects throughout India, including several for new city roads, sports infrastructure, Bus Rapid Transit systems and waste management.

The city is never a function of concrete objects assembled in space, but rather, how people live together, prosper and create better lives for themselves. Though Mr. Modi’s intentions cannot be questioned, there is little evidence to suggest that he will meet these objectives. The history of urban renewal does not speak well of a city’s expansionist ideas.

Uncontrolled growth

Over the past decade, despite flow of funds for infrastructure, most Indian cities have been unable to expand road networks and metro lines in keeping with the growing demand. Uncontrolled populations have made plans for public facilities ineffective. In the case of Delhi Metro, for instance, since it opened in 2002, it has had to increase the number of coaches, the frequency of trains, the size of stations and the length of platforms. Yet, it struggles to accommodate the mounting numbers. In big towns, 3,000-4,000 cars are registered each week, so more roads are constructed, lengthening already clogged networks. Yet, distances between home and work are rising, commutes increasing 3-7 km on an average. Migrant flow into cities has exceeded all expectations, with a weekly influx of 4,000 families in Mumbai alone. In housing, while builders have promoted high-end luxury homes, public projects in most cities remain woefully inadequate.

When over 60 per cent of the city is unrecognised in the planning process, it has already gone beyond bureaucratic control and design. When the capital’s Chief Minister gives direct amnesty and legitimacy to unlawful occupants of urban land, the game is lost. In the seasonal voter counts in slums that alter civic capacities and neighbourhoods, or those that allow population and vehicular trends to be readily accommodated, the failure of the big city is most apparent.

This is truly unfortunate, for the struggle between India as competitive economy and India as equitable society is most visibly felt in the development of its towns. The reduction of economic ideals to stock market highs and the city to commercial symbols is a convenient method to bypass the more pressing demands of real economics and humane expectations of the city. Throughout the world, the culture of cities has always emerged out of local desires. Los Angeles as film city, Copenhagen as fishing village, Boston as trading post — commercial, cultural and professional attributes have invariably defined the nature of citizenship. But nowhere has the city been treated with such contempt as in India.

The municipal and civic mayhem of the country’s big cities on which Mr. Modi seems to be unjustifiably directing his efforts are the obvious and noticeable lifeblood of Indian urbanity. Sadly, conventional approaches to their mega size which may work in Rome and Shanghai are doomed to fail in Indian conditions. Indian cities are vastly varied. They range in three types: metropolitan accretions such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, with the cumbersome statistical dimensions of small States, spreading by usurping surrounding towns. Or Tier-2 cities such as Pune, Jaipur, Bhopal and Lucknow, merely smaller replicas of the metros, but similarly unable to control the suburban sprawl and increasing numbers. Finally, there are small towns such as Meerut and Hubli — part rural, part cantonment — mandi townships, essential to maintaining commercial links to surrounding villages. Restricted in growth and size, it is there that the Prime Minister needs to lavish his efforts.

Unless the government becomes serious in intent and chooses a rigorous twofold path, the demise of the Indian city will be rapid. It must devise a development strategy for small Tier-3 towns that is itself a departure from conventional practices. It must take into account new forms of public housing, regulate bye-laws that restrict commuting and delineate public space over private commerce. If even 70 years after Independence, the Indian city has been unable to define the kind of life urban Indians should live, then Tier-3 towns are a clear opportunity for that experiment.

Second, the process must simultaneously relieve larger towns of the burden of new citizens. The government’s unrealistic plans need to reverse the processes of long-range connectivity, in favour of local outlooks that include pedestrianisation, conversion to mixed-use streets, reduction of commercial activity and an eradication of gated neighbourhoods. Any new expansion of ideas on the ground needs to motivate all participants to live together in ways not imagined before, and encourage a sense of community and inclusion that erodes differences of ethnicity, profession, caste, social and economic position. Within the current insulated demographics of Indian urban life, this may be an impossible task. But given that the city of the future will most likely be an unstable configuration, its survival rests on having a mix of race and class, rural and urban, rich and the future rich.

Fluid migration

The new city’s values will be grounded in a shifting set of people no longer bound to place. For millions of new migrants, the future citizens, home will be a job, a quenching of thirst, a place to lie down. Consequently, the public fields of bureaucratic intervention will only be enablers to migratory tasks, accommodating potential and making physical possibilities happen on the ground when possible. Rather than defining walls and boundaries, the architectural brief too will be informed by these fluid transformations.

In the new city the traditional structures of justice and legislature will be forgotten, replaced quickly by people with private needs. The potential for an urban life without buildings will only be generated by a resolution of migratory forces operating in the city, and encoding something of their own culture, on their own terms. In a culture of expediency and spectacle, the idea of architecture as a theatre for settlement will have none of the responsibilities of its glory days. In fact, the architect and planner will be just like another citizen on the run.

Before that happens, attitudes will require serious realignments. The Indian city’s undisguised fawning and mimicry of Western models bodes ill for an urban culture steeped in an altogether different life and pattern. Stockholm and Berlin may present a cohesive picture for initiating a computerised smartness into Indian urbanism, but they can hardly be imitated wholesale. When 60 per cent of the citizens are without local housing or access to municipal utilities, 40 per cent move about as pedestrians, with a third of those without conventional livelihood, the needs of urbanity are closer to those of Lagos or Cairo than of European or Chinese cities. A more generous and open-minded comprehension of traditional town structure by the government can provide a constructive direction to the country’s urban future.

  • UGC lists journals for granting academic points

The University Grants Commission (UGC) has come out with a comprehensive list of about 38,000 journals that will be recognised for granting points — under the Academic Performance Indicators (API) system — to college and university faculty members who get their papers published in them. The journals span a wide variety of fields, covering areas such as engineering, agriculture, medicine, humanities and social sciences, environment, business and ecology.

“Henceforth, articles appearing in these journals alone will be considered for grant of API scores. However, the list is dynamic and not static. More journals can be added to it if universities provide us with any names of good journals left out,” a senior UGC official told The Hindu.

A committee headed by UGC member Dr. V.S. Chauhan finalised the list.

The API system awards points — counted for promotion and also while applying for teaching jobs — for publications, which are seen as a sign of an academic being actively involved in research.

A person gets 30 points for publishing a book brought out by an international publisher, 20 for a book brought out by a national publisher, 15 points for publishing an article in a refereed journal and 10 points for an article in other reputed journals.

The UGC had decided to compile the list in view of complaints that academics were publishing in sub-standard, and sometimes paid for, publications.

Whether or not all the listed journals are quality publications, however, will be known only later, as those in academic circles peruse through lists in their fields.

The committee consulted experts and also sought suggestions from colleges and universities to prepare the list.

 

  • Niti Aayog calls for review of RTE Act

The Niti Aayog has called for a review of the provisions of the Right To Education Act that stipulate that children who don’t perform well cannot be held back up to class VIII. It said the good intention behind the norm is detrimental to the learning process.

It has also suggested a system where direct benefit transfers offer the poor a choice between subsidised purchases or equivalent cash to buy their requirements from private suppliers.

Detrimental effect

The Right To Education (RTE) Act, which aims to provide primary education to all children aged 6-14 years, stipulates that no child can be held back in a grade, regardless of his performance, all the way up to the eight grade. This means that a child is entitled to an eighth grade diploma even if he cannot recognise a single letter or a number if he has spent eight years in school.

The Aayog pointed out that the purpose behind this provision is to minimise the drop-out rate, since demoralisation resulting from failing a class leads to children withdrawing from school altogether. “But despite this good intention, the provision has a detrimental effect on learning outcomes, since it takes away the pressure to learn and to compete,” it said in its review of the 12th Five Year Plan.

According to Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2014, one of the largest non-governmental household survey, the proportion of children aged 6-14 years enrolled in school in rural areas has been above 96 per cent for the past six years.

The real problem, the Aayog said, is the quality of education as measurement by student achievements. The ASER report finds that more than 50 per cent of the fifth graders cannot read second standard level text.

“Even more disconcerting, the trend between 2010 and 2014 has been worsening instead of improving performance,” it said.

Ghost ration cards

The Aayog pointed out that the Public Distribution System suffers from substantial leakages and there is an urgent need to look into avenues to eliminate them.

“Aadhaar platform is one such avenue. It can eliminate multiple ration cards held by the same household and also weed out ghost ration cards,” it said. “In the longer run, an even more effective instrument would be to give households the option to choose between subsidised purchases and equivalent cash,” it recommended. Such an approach will give the beneficiaries the option to buy their grain from private shops, thereby putting competitive pressure on public distribution shops.

“A key element in the success of this approach, however, is to ensure access to banking. Beneficiaries receiving cash transfers into their bank accounts have to be able to withdraw that cash to effectively use it,” it said.

  • Lessons on respect at China’s Confucius kindergartens

Children in scholars hats bow before a statue of Confucius, the Chinese sage once reviled by Communist authorities but now enjoying a revival as parents look to instil his values in their offspring.

With central government backing, hundreds of private schools dedicated to Confucian teachings have sprung up across the country in response to growing demand for more traditional education.

At a new institution in the central city of Wuhan, about 30 students aged two to six chant: “Our respect to you, Master Confucius. Thank you for the kindness of your teaching and your compassion”.

Five-year-old Zhu Baichang admits he does not understand all the maxims he enthusiastically recites, but says: “It’s very interesting.”

Opened in 2015, the school has around 160 students whose parents fork out 7,000 yuan ($1,000) a term in the hope their children will absorb Confucius’ ideas on filial piety and integrity.

“We don’t understand everything when he recites the classics,” said Baichang’s father Zhu Minghui, but added that the principles that have “guided China for 2,000 years” were “seeping into his bones”.

The teachings of Confucius (551-479 BC) demand respect for tradition and elders to ensure harmony in a rigidly hierarchical society, and were the official ideology of imperial China.

At the schools students start learning them by heart from a young age.

“Between two and six years of age the capacity for memorisation is excellent” so “we plant the seeds of filial piety, respect for teachers and compassion,” the director of the Wuhan school, surnamed Shi.

By six, she says, her charges “have already finished reciting the great Confucius classics” — which contain several hundred thousand characters.

The school and the organisation that runs it are named after the Dizigui, a 17th century textbook based on Confucian teachings that promotes obedience to parents and the elderly, and which is part of the curriculum.

But after children turn six, when state schooling begins, most parents enrol them in official primary schools.

While Confucian schools are still very much on the fringe of China’s education system their popularity is growing among middle class parents wanting a traditional education for their children.

The China Confucius Foundation had about 300 such institutions at the start of last year, compared with 223,700 ordinary kindergartens, but had plans to open another 700. Mei Yuan, whose daughter attends a Tongxueguan school, says its teaching counters the downsides of modern life: “Today’s children are selfish, too individualistic, and society gives them a frivolous mind.”

Chinese people were “looking for something more in their lives”.

“They think that Chinese society has become very wealthy, but at the same time is missing something spiritual, and they feel a lot of the problems China is facing right now — corruption and environmental damage — are result of a lack of moral guidance.”

The sage “actively encourages debate” and “his disciples had to forge their own ideas”, which contradict the rote learning system used in Chinese schools, Schuman notes.

He also insisted on reciprocity of obligation, so that leaders owed their subjects good governance, and if they failed to deliver they could lose the “mandate of Heaven” — which would justify an uprising against them.

  • The forests won’t forget: A struggle for land in Ramnagar

Deep inside the forests outside the core zone of the Corbett Tiger Reserve, where a struggle for land rights has been brewing for years, the Congress is losing support. The forest dwellers have decided to back a new party in the February 15 Assembly elections.

The Van Gujjar and the Pahari communities of the Tumaria hamlet in the Ramnagar forests, whose members had been ardent Congress supporters, say they will vote for Prabhat Dhyani from the Uttarakhand Parivartan Party.

“During the 2012 polls, Amrita Rawat [former Congress MLA from Ramnagar who is now with the BJP] had promised that under the Forest Rights Act, she would get all the forest villages in the Ramnagar constituency the status of revenue villages,” says Munish Kumar of the Sanyukt Sangharsh Morcha, a representative body of the forest dwellers of Ramnagar struggling to get the rights guaranteed under the Act.

While Ramnagar has seen various movements for implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, the people, especially the Van Gujjars, had faith that the Congress would help them attain their rights.

Disenchantment begins

However, they became disenchanted with the party when on November 7 last year, forest officials reached Tumaria with a bulldozer. “They wanted to raze our house,” Mohammed Fareed, a Van Gujjar, said, pointing to a room with mud walls and thatched roof.

The Forest Department considers the possessions as encroachments. “The communities have encroached upon forest land, and we need to remove them from the area,” Kahkashan Naseem, Divisional Forest Officer, Terai West, says.

Zainab Khatoon, another Van Gujjar, who had rushed to save Fareed’s house from being razed, was beaten up by a forest official. She had to be admitted to hospital.

That was when they decided to pull back support from the Congress, the people say.

Since the formation of the State, the Ramnagar seat has been occupied either by the BJP or the Congress. In the 2012 polls, Ms. Rawat won the seat. In 2007, Diwan Singh from the BJP and in 2002, Yogember Singh of the Congress won.

Poor settlement

With only one claim for land rights settled, the poor implementation of the Act is an issue across the State, Tarun Joshi, coordinator, Van Panchayat Sangharsh Morcha says.

  • The pragmatist’s pivot to India

The death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on January 8 was a landmark for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Rafsanjani was a pivotal figure in the country’s path since the 1979 revolution: a founding father, a military leader in the war with Iraq, and twice President. More parochially, his presidency also saw a historic shift in ties with India, laying the groundwork for the cooperation that has unfolded, haltingly, over the past 20 years.

From radical to moderate

Rafsanjani’s two nicknames, “Akbar Shah” and “the shark”, convey his blend of power, cunning, and adaptability. His funeral last week drew more than two million people, comparable only to that of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. But in his most recent political incarnation, Rafsanjani was also a source of support for Iran’s beleaguered reformists. The man who had helped elevate Ali Khamenei after Khomeini’s death, presided over an assassination spree of dissidents at home and in Europe, refused to lift the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, and was famously, fabulously, corrupt — this same man became, in the final decade of his life, a totem of pragmatism, moderation, and reform.

It was Rafsanjani who warned that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2009 would bring “Islamic fascism”, blamed the Bashar al-Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons in 2013, and supported Hassan Rouhani’s successful bid for the presidency that same year. He was pushed to the margins of politics, had two of his children jailed, and was blocked from returning to the presidency himself. And so the mourners thronging the streets of the capital last Tuesday — never a comfortable sight for the regime — included the rare sight of supporters of the Green Movement, crushed by force in 2009, and vocal critics of Russia, alongside which Iran is fighting in Syria.

Transforming ties with India

Rafsanjani’s flexibility also played a role in the evolution of Iran’s ties with India. In the early 1990s, the situation was delicate. In September 1993, P.V. Narasimha Rao became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Iran since the revolution. This, President Rafsanjani noted, was “a turning point”. In March 1994, Iran bailed out India in the UN Commission on Human Rights, blocking a consensus on Kashmir. Five months later, in August, this bonhomie was interrupted.

Mr. Rouhani, then secretary of Iran’s powerful Supreme National Security Council and deputy speaker of parliament, paid a visit to India. Iran’s now-President spoke his mind: on the “persecution” of minorities, on the Babri Masjid, and on the importance of India-Pakistan talks, including “true” representatives of Kashmiris, such as the Hurriyat Conference, to resolve the conflict in the Valley. This “unfortunate departure from diplomatic norms”, as one Indian newspaper put it at the time, cast a pall over relations. Worse still, in October, Rafsanjani cancelled his own visit, concerned at being associated too closely with India while the then Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) was preparing once more to censure India on Kashmir. The snub was taken badly in India.

But within a year, things had changed. Perhaps the Taliban’s spectacular advance in Afghanistan by then with the support of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence had concentrated minds in both countries. And so, in April 1995, Rafsanjani finally arrived in New Delhi, to be greeted by Prime Minister Rao himself. It turned out to be a landmark visit. Speaking to over 10,000 Shias at Lucknow’s Bara Imambara — and promising ₹10 million for its upkeep — Rafsanjani gave an unexpected endorsement of Indian secularism, dodged a Pakistani journalist’s question on the Babri Masjid (“I believe there is no need for further propaganda in this regard”), and even praised India’s “serious will” on Kashmir while dismissing Pakistan’s call for American mediation.

In substantive terms, Rafsanjani signed a three-way India-Iran-Turkmenistan transit agreement, allowing India to avoid Russian or Ukrainian ports. He also urged a Tehran-Delhi-Beijing axis — his proposal, sandwiched between India’s 1993 and 1996 border agreements with China, was perhaps less quixotic than it looks today. Indian officials, in turn, batted away American criticism of Iran, going so far as to mock then U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin for complaining that his trip to Delhi had coincided with Rafsanjani’s. India’s warm welcome to both was itself a foreshadowing of what, a decade later, would come to be called multi-alignment.

Rafsanjani did not single-handedly change the relationship. Structural factors, such as India’s economic liberalisation and the situation in Afghanistan, were more important. But as a relative pragmatist, he was able to overcome those in Tehran who had argued for a tilt to Pakistan and a continued focus on Kashmir and communal issues. Although Ayatollah Khamenei would make a pointed intervention on Kashmir in 2010, calling it a “nation” and comparing it to Gaza, I can find no account of Rafsanjani’s successors, Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Rouhani, of doing anything similar. In fact, Rafsanjani’s trip marked several themes that would shape India-Iranian relations for the next two decades. One was economic diplomacy focussed on connectivity, energy, and trade. Another was mutual concern over the future of Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s role there. A third was India’s effort — not always successful — to prevent relations with Washington and Tehran from interfering with one another. How have these developed?

Economic diplomacy

Economic diplomacy has only grown in importance, as a rising India has looked to Central Asia and Iran has emerged from the sanctions straightjacket. This explains last May’s historic agreement over the Chabahar port, even if Iran is considerably more relaxed than India about Gwadar, China’s regional infrastructure plans, and the Chinese navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean. Last year, India’s oil imports from Iran trebled from the previous year, pushing it into fourth place in the ranking of Indian suppliers, and there is pressure on the Reserve Bank of India to allow Iranian banks to open branches in India, which would boost the relatively modest amount of bilateral trade.

Afghanistan is a more complicated story, with Tehran now openly flirting with parts of the Taliban even as Delhi and Kabul draw closer together. Recall that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s death in a U.S. drone strike in May 2016 came as he was returning to Balochistan from Iran, possibly after a long stay. Although Taliban delegations have been coming to Iran for years, they attended December’s International Islamic Unity Conference in Tehran with no semblance of secrecy.

As for the Tehran-Washington balancing act, this has eased in recent years as the Obama administration in the U.S. has taken a softer approach. With Boeing and Airbus queuing up to sell to Iran, it’s easier for India to do so. But Donald Trump will assume the presidency in three days, surrounded by congenital Iran hawks such as National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, Defence Secretary James Mattis, and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Within the past few days, President-elect Trump has repeated, to a British newspaper, his view that Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran is “one of the worst deals ever made”. He will not rip it up on Inauguration Day. Neither Europe nor Mr. Trump’s apparent hero, Russian President Vladimir Putin, would agree to a reimposition of sanctions. But with Mr. Rouhani seeking re-election this year, and hardliners breathing down his neck, it’s not difficult to imagine a spiral of U.S. and Iranian steps that leads to its unravelling. Will the self-styled arch-dealmaker demand that American support to India on Pakistan require a quid pro quo from India on Iran?

  • ‘Converted‘ Gitmo guard turns guardian of inmates

Around 2003, army specialist Terry Holdbrooks was just another guard on duty at the U.S.’ Cuban Guantanamo Bay prison, where many “illegal combatants” in the Global War on Terror are incarcerated .

As part of his day-shift duties he escorted prisoners to and from interrogations and monitored them in their cells to ensure they were not slipping notes to each other. But with his night-shifts being slow, he ended up spending many hours “sitting cross-legged on the ground, talking to detainees through the metal mesh of their cell doors”.

And then something changed.

After a series of “life-altering conversations” with Detainee 590, Moroccan inmate Ahmed Errachidi, Mr. Holdbrooks converted to Islam and took the name Mustafa Abdullah — only to lose his friends, receive violent threats, and being labelled a “race traitor” online.

However none of this shook his faith and Mr. Abdullah has come out with a self-published account of his experience at Guantanamo, titled “Traitor?” He also travels the length and breadth of America accompanied by Khalil Meek, a co-founder and Executive Director of the Texas-based Muslim Legal Fund of America, raising money to support the legal defence of U.S. Muslims “accused of vague crimes or placed on no-fly lists and other restrictions under the increasingly broad anti-terrorism provisions”.

Where does his passion for this cause come from? Not only conversations with inmates that showed their enduring faith but from the “atrocities” that he said he had witnessed committed at Gitmo.

The long list of such acts that Mr. Abdullah describes supplies further context to the hunger strike that more than 100 of the inmates in the prison went on this year. While President Barack Obama promised to close down Guantanamo even in his 2008 campaign run, he has thus far failed to deliver on that and in January this year the State Department said that it would be shuttering the prisoners’ resettlement office despite 86 inmates there being cleared for release.

For Mr. Abdullah, his time at the prison changed the very course of his life. After returning to the U.S. he said he spent “years trying to drink away memories of Guantanamo”, and ended up being honourably discharged from the Army in 2005 for “generalized personality disorder”.At that point he decided to renew his commitment to Islam and ended his reliance on drinking, smoking, and drugs to cope with his feelings about his Guantanamo experience. Finding discipline in prayer, he said, “Islam teaches you that if you see an injustice in the world, you should do anything within your power to stop it.”

His feelings about Guantanamo are however unequivocal and he argues that it would be wrong if he sat by and allowed Gitmo to continue to exist or let people think that Islam is America’s greatest enemy. “I may have become a Muslim, but I am not a traitor,” Mr. Abdullah said.

  • Will Trump attend Silk Road summit in China?

The high profile meeting on Monday between Donald Trump and Jack Ma, head of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, has raised anticipation in China that the President-elect could join an international conference on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that Beijing will host later this year.

“Though this visit [by Mr. Ma] was at the outset a business visit, it will no doubt help improve China-U.S. relations. We are in fact, looking forward to welcoming Mr. Trump’s participation at the international cooperation summit on the Belt and the Road this May,” said Wang Yiwei, professor at Renmin University, in a conversation with The Hindu.

Last month, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that the Belt and Road summit and a meeting of BRICS countries will top Beijing’s diplomatic calendar in 2017. “The international cooperation summit forum on the Belt and Road initiative… will be a strategic measure to boost the world economy,” observed the Chinese Foreign Minister during his opening remarks at a symposium on December 3.

Following the meeting in New York, Alibaba announced that the group will create one million jobs in the U.S. over the next five years. Mr. Trump also effusively described his interaction with Mr. Ma as “a great meeting”.

“He loves this country and he also loves China,” Mr. Trump said. “Jack and I are going to do some great things.” He called Mr. Ma “a great entrepreneur, one of the best in the world”.

Professor Wang highlighted that Mr. Ma is the architect of the Electronic World Trade Platform (eWTP), and this proposal was accepted during the G-20 summit held last year at Hangzhou. “This should be of great interest to Mr. Trump, as he tries to revive the U.S. economy, including development of infrastructure.” The eWTP initiative hopes to establish an open platform that brings together private enterprises, international organisations, governments and social groups, focusing on small and medium enterprises, and trade.

Cautious response

Commenting on Mr. Ma’s meeting, an editorial in the Global Times, affiliated with the Communist Party, nevertheless cautioned that only a mutually beneficial relationship with the U.S. will work. “[Mr.] Ma went to the U.S. in a bid to seek expansion, not to pay tribute,” it observed. “In modern times, economic cooperation must be mutually beneficial. An economic partnership that benefits only one side will not go long.” The daily pointed out that “Alibaba’s expansion into the U.S. will revitalise U.S. small businesses and boost American agriculture, and in this process China won’t lose jobs.”

However, the daily, referring to Mr. Trump’s controversial telephonic conversation with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen, remained unconvinced that Mr. Trump’s approach towards China was mainly transactional.

 

 

  • The Champaran example

That 2016 was a year of divisiveness and destructive politics is no overstatement. In India, the year began with the nation divided over the patriotic credentials of a handful of university students and ended with the public divided over a complicated monetary policy. In between, words like “anti-national”, “corrupt”, “despotic”, “fascists” and “unpatriotic” managed to become part of our lexicon. The tendency has been to burn the house down to light a candle. One can be forgiven for thinking that the only way to bring change in this environment is to be more militant than the opposition, hurl the worst invectives and destroy long-term relationships to gain immediate political goals.

However, there is always space for constructive politics — one that doesn’t treat the opposition as the enemy, and one that tries to bring about change without damaging social harmony. To seek an example, it may be instructive to revisit Mahatma Gandhi’s Champaran movement of a hundred years ago. It was a political campaign operating in an environment much more hostile than today’s, yet it not only brought lasting reform but also managed to do so without alienating the opposition.

Taking everyone along

Our nationalist mythology has painted the Champaran movement as an outright revolt against an oppressive colonial government and business interests. But in fact, there never was a Champaran movement as such. Gandhi did not organise protest marches, no-rent campaigns, strikes, satyagraha or civil disobedience in Champaran. Rather than inciting an open rebellion against the government, he used the subtle art of political persuasion to bring about lasting change that was acceptable to all sides. In Champaran, relations between the government, British planters and the peasants had been problematic for many decades, primarily due to the oppressive system of forced indigo production and unfair rents. In the decade before Gandhi’s arrival, the peasants had tried everything from violent uprisings to government petitions, but had failed to change the fundamental situation.

In April 1917, Gandhi arrived at the scene not to lead an agitation but with the stated purpose of merely studying the problem. Suspicious local officials were eager to get rid of him, but had little legal basis to arrest him. Apart from a brief initial incident, the government pretty much let Gandhi operate with impunity. The strategy was to give him enough rope to hang himself.

However, Gandhi refused to fall for the trap. Not only did he remain on right side of the law throughout his stay, he also took pains to maintain respectful relations with the local officials and the planters. He kept the government informed of his movements and remained mindful of its advice. His first visit to the plantations was often to the planters, who were invited to accompany him during his interaction with the peasants. At one point he even wrote to the District Magistrate suggesting that the policemen who had been following him might as well come forward and assist him in his tasks. His reasonableness was earnest enough to earn him the grudging respect of local officials, some of whom ended up convinced of his “good intentions”.

Yet, at the same, Gandhi was also busy shaping the latent public frustration into a viable political tool. Ostensibly, he and his team were only studying the problems — documenting hundreds of testimonies from peasants about their condition. Gandhi kept compiling these and submitting them to the government as reports. He even insisted that the peasants continue with their obligations as before. However, his activities ensured that the anger in the community begin to stir up. Parallel to his activities, many of the local leaders began to agitate the public in his name. The situation became such that an official noted that “so long as he is here his name can be used as a peg of every great rumour, while he uses his personal influence, which is great, in the direction of moderation”.

Essentially, Gandhi managed to bring the public mood to a simmer and then put his hand firmly on the lid. An outright rebellion would have only brought on government repression and, at any rate, damaged planter-peasant relationship in the long run. On the other hand, the current situation held the risk of going out of hand, but wouldn’t until Gandhi was around. The threat of a movement was more potent than an actual movement.

Victory without vindictiveness

It was the planters, irritated by the one-sided publicity that Gandhi’s investigation was generating, who started calling for a governmental inquiry into the peasant condition. The provincial government, reluctant at first, had to eventually give in. In June, a commission was announced which included Gandhi as the representative of the peasants.

The appointment of the commission was only a half-victory. Gandhi knew that without the acquiescence of the planters, its recommendations would have little weight. He emphasised that the commission should limit its scope lest it end up being too anti-planter. He also used the commission deliberations as a platform for negotiations, at times inviting planters to the table to make specific deals on thornier issues. Crucially, some aspects of the commission recommendations were already agreed upon by the planters even before the commission had finished its report.

In October, the commission recommended abolishment of the forced indigo cultivation, a major victory for the peasants. But it also allowed planters some face-saving relief. Resultantly, instead of opposing the recommendation in unison, planters were divided and their political party, Bihar Planters Association, left in disarray. Eventually two planters took each other to court over these reforms.

It was a momentous achievement, one that rightly catapulted Gandhi to the helm of national politics. However, it is crucial to remember that Gandhi realised it without a single protest march, a single anti-planter speech or even a newspaper editorial criticising the government. In fact, Gandhi saw his work as his contribution to the imperial cause: “by resisting the agelong tyranny, I have shown the ultimate sovereignty of British justice”.

  • Missing the Asian tailwind?

There has been a tectonic shift in the global geopolitical economy, to which powers such as the U.S., China and Russia have responded. However, India is yet to formulate a worldview even as Asia, after a gap of 260 years, is again set to become the centre of the world.

Till 1757, India was the richest country with its wealth based on textile export: India clothed the world. The choices we made enabled the British to secure the “Diwani” of Bengal. The loot oiled the Industrial Revolution (textile production), and brought about colonisation and impoverishment. In 1950, India was richer than China; now it is a fifth the size of the Chinese economy. China will soon surpass the U.S. as the largest economy, and a young and digital India can overtake China by 2050. How do we achieve our potential?

Recognising global trends

The “Look East Policy” enunciated in 1992 does not have much to show for it other than the sale of coastal patrol craft to Vietnam. In the west, India’s investment of $500 million in the Chabahar port, mooted some years ago, is minuscule compared to China’s investment of $46 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) ending in Gwadar, a port just 100 miles away. Despite investments in Afghanistan, political discussions there exclude us. In South Asia, only Bhutan can still be considered to be in our “sphere of influence”.

India now finds itself increasingly isolated in continental Asia. Russia and the Central Asian countries are linking their infrastructure to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR), launched in 2013, meeting their long quest for a warm-water port. Chinese investment is also attractive to Europe, Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar. With two-thirds of global wealth soon going to be in Asia, can we achieve our potential without being deeply integrated into the Asian market? NITI Aayog has yet to develop a strategy laying out how India can become a $10- trillion economy by 2032. Currently, there is no national perspective on the uncertainties, challenges and opportunities from global forces and technological innovation reshaping global politics, economy and society. Consequently, the stress remains on the military balance in dealing with other countries. Remaining Pakistan-centric and ignoring trade cannot constitute the foreign policy of an aspiring global power.

It’s now about connectivity

The post-1950 world order designed by the U.S. rested on a “tripod” of rules with coercive power: global trade with dispute settlement, global security system resting on alliances, and deliberations in the United Nations based on a division between donors and recipients. The re-emergence of China has limited the ability of the U.S. in setting the global agenda. U.S. President Barack Obama failed in writing trade rules for a re-emerging Asia through the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, deterring China from claiming the strategic South China Sea despite the military pivot, and preventing the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank by asking Europe to keep out.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump election rhetoric notwithstanding, a trade war is unlikely as both economies restructure, with Chinese manufacturing — low labour cost — eroding, and factories, using high-efficiency robotics, shifting to the U.S., as Mr. Trump wants. In the global economy, digital flows are now adding more wealth than goods and services. As the U.S., Russia and China have strengths in individual sectors, their relations may well get better.

China is fast replacing global rules with connectivity, the OBOR, through infrastructure, new institutions and integrated markets. The massive investment has been welcomed, with prospects for shared prosperity. India alone in continental Asia does not support the OBOR, which spans more than 65 countries, three-quarters of known energy resources, envisages an investment of $4 trillion and is estimated to cover two-thirds of the global population and GDP.

China, rival or partner?

Mr. Trump is also moving away from military alliances to ramping up military superiority based on technological leadership, characterising the UN as a talk shop, and could end up recognising China’s primacy in Asia. Similarly, a deal with Russia recognising spheres of influence in Europe and West Asia would make NATO redundant, with implications for military alliances in Asia viewing China as an adversary.

Where do we fit in this realignment? The primary concern of the U.S., Russia and China in South Asia is the threat to themselves from terrorist safe havens in Pakistan, while India is no longer a “swing state” with the shift in international politics moving from containment to spheres of influence. For example, the U.S. Senate has both designated India a “major defence partner” to facilitate defence sales and provided Pakistan with nearly $1 billion in military assistance conditional on action against the Haqqani network operating in Afghanistan while being silent on the safe havens for terrorists operating in India.

Mr. Trump’s policy shift considering a deal with China on trade as more important than security concerns has important lessons for us; focus on GDP rather than the NSG, Masood Azhar and the Cold War military logic of a two-front conventional war. These problems will be resolved after we become a $5 trillion economy and the leverage it will provide.

China’s national goal is to double its 2010 GDP and per capita income by 2020 for which the OBOR is considered essential. China is keen that India join that initiative, providing the opportunity to reset relations. The Modi-Xi joint statement in May 2015 recognised the two countries as “two major poles in the global architecture”.

We should become a partner in the OBOR adding a “Digital Sustainable Asia” component, an area where we have global leadership,shaping the infrastructure and markets around two nodes. We should also see Pakistan-sponsored terrorism as a symptom of the domination of the military with the OBOR leading to strengthening of democratic control.

There are encouraging signs that we have begun to think strategically by balancing cross-border terrorism with cross-border water flows and greater reliance on endogenous cybersecurity and missiles. Participation in the OBOR and treating the Line of Control as a “soft border” will be the bold vision needed to exorcise the ghosts of 1757.

  • Elections are not a referendum

A flurry of speculation erupted the very moment the Election Commission announced Assembly elections in five States: Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Manipur, Goa and Uttarakhand. Will the electoral outcome reflect confidence or the lack thereof in State governments and/or the viability of opposition politics? Or can election results, it is suggested, be read as a referendum on demonetisation? A Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win, goes the narrative, will settle once and for all the acrimonious debate that exploded in the wake of November 8, 2016.

Civic engagement

Referendums are, of course, a ready and a convenient method of resolving incompatible opinions. Once citizens “speak” on an issue that has been “referred” to them, the debate is considered closed. Elections are, however, a moment, albeit a significant one, in an ongoing process of civic engagement. The proposal that State Assembly elections can be reduced to a referendum on whether the Prime Minister was right or wrong evokes discomfort. There is, as we shall see, a perceptible difference between elections and a referendum.

Moreover, the assumption that a referendum will validate a policy that has already been implemented is conservative to a fault. The United Kingdom held a referendum last year on whether citizens wish to leave or stay in the European Union. The measure enabled citizens to influence subsequent policies of the government. They exercised political choice. Ex-post facto referendums are in this sense meaningless.

If the BJP does not win in politically significant States, the policy of demonetisation will hardly be rolled back. And the Central government will not even consider resignation. Nor do we expect the government headed by Narendra Modi to do so. That would infringe on the fundamentals of federalism. But if the BJP wins in these States, BJP president Amit Shah suggests the electoral outcome will further bolster the standing of the Prime Minister.

Impact of demonetisation

This approach to a referendum is manipulative and cynical. Can citizens arrive at reasoned and informed decisions on a policy announced three months ago? Reputed economists tell us that the impact of demonetisation will be known after one or, possibly, two years. What is the point of representing election results, as and when they come, as a referendum on policy decisions?

Moreover, the reduction of State Assembly elections to a referendum diminishes the political competence of voters to decide what sort of a government they wish to be ruled by. Elections, unlike referendums, are not an isolated instance. They represent a decisive moment in long-term civic engagement with structures, institutions, and holders of power. Voters have to decide whether the government has improved the conditions in which they eke out a livelihood, or worsened them. Elections give the man opportunity to draw upon the famous dictum issued by the Queen of Hearts in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and declare, “off with their heads.” The purely metaphorical act of regicide delivers the ultimate judgment on the capacity or incapacity of governments.

Role of civil society

If there is controversy between the prince and his subjects, wrote the quintessential liberal political theorist John Locke in his 1690 Second Treatise of Government, and if the issue is of consequence, the proper umpire is the political community. This is what democracy means. The question is not whether the citizen has the right to engage with and judge an elected government, the question is how she arrives at informed and reflective decisions on what should be done. This is an important issue, for if a citizen has the right to publicly debate the limits and the possibilities of power, she also has an obligation: that of acquiring knowledge on crucial dimensions of collective life. There is nothing more destructive for democracy than uninformed and quick decisions on issue X or Y. All we will do is legitimise populist leaders and arbitrary decisions.

The site for the acquisition of political wisdom and competence is civil society, the sphere of associational life. In this space, civil society organisations inspire and sustain debates on the public good. A non-partisan and non-hysterical media has a crucial role to play in the making of enlightened public opinion. Social audits and report cards issued by civil society organisations, which keep anxious watch on acts of omission and commission by the government, are of equal import.

The identification of crucial issues, analyses and recommendations by committed activists contribute greatly to the making of political judgment. Votes cast for “this” or “that” candidate, in sum, reflect cumulative processes of civic engagement. The vote should not be treated as of little consequence, or as a way of legitimising power. The way a society votes echoes the way a society thinks, the issues it identifies, who it thinks is capable of resolving them, and its aspirations.

Consider that in these elections, citizens of a conflict-ridden Manipur will decide whether the existing government, which sparked off another round of discontent by redrawing boundaries, deserves another term. Or whether a plural and ethnically diverse society wants to be ruled by an ultranationalist BJP that scorns diversity. Or if an alternative world view forged in the heat of resistance by Irom Sharmila should be given a chance.

In Punjab

The issues at stake in Punjab are equally momentous. The once rich agrarian State is trapped between two non-performing parties interested more in the privileges and profits of office than in providing the preconditions of a good life. Now that there is a third party competing for power, the Aam Aadmi Party, voters might want to consider whether they want more of the same, or whether they should give “outsiders” a chance.

Under governments formed by the two national parties, Uttarakhand has witnessed little but environmental destruction, political instability and corruption. There is no third party that can guide politics into a different stream. Is it not time for the formation of a regional political party which is sensitive to the contradiction between a resource-rich State and poverty among the hill people? The region has thrown up one of the most innovative environmental movements in history. This is the precise time for the generation of innovative forms of politics that respect the environment, give citizens their due and disown corruption that has depleted resources and robbed people.

In an India that has turned extremely conservative and rabidly intolerant, Goa has always stood out as a society that celebrates and thrives on cosmopolitanism. The spirit of tolerance of other ways of life is under threat today. Extreme right-wing parties compete to take over, and hammer a vibrant society into compliance. Elections provide a chance for voters to exert their autonomy from barren politics that promise nothing but hate.

U.P. held hostage

Uttar Pradesh, the cynosure of electoral hopes, is a State that yearns for a responsive and responsible government. But the people are held hostage by political parties that specialise in the creation and reproduction of caste and religious divisions. U.P. occupies the centre of political imaginations, but its citizens continue to be deprived of basic resources that make life worth living. What have identity politics given to the people of the State except symbolism? It is time that they critically engage with modes of politics that have divided rather than united them.

Assembly elections in five States provide opportunities for serious engagement with the parameters and possibilities of power. In each case, the electorate is confronted with hard choices. Does the electorate vote for more of the same, or for different styles of politics that have made their appearance in some of these States? The decision demands prior reflection and debate. Let us not diminish this exercise by conceiving of election results as a referendum on the popularity of the Prime Minister. Let us not reduce the significance of hard choices the electorate has to make by conflating elections with a referendum. Elections are a mode of civic engagement, this proposition is of value.

  • Temptation of spoils

Last year, 2016, was a bad one for Tamil Nadu’s ruling party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). It lost its leader Jayalalithaa; and three crucial appointments made by her were set aside by the courts. All three selections appeared to be a form of spoils-sharing.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, a peculiar system of employment prevailed in the U.S. Leaders of the political party that came to power considered it their prerogative to appoint faithful followers to public offices; further, they removed those who did not support the party. Between 30,000 and 40,000 office-seekers used to converge in the capital to scramble for 23,700 federal service jobs. However, as the government grew, a serious need for qualified employees developed. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 re-established the United States Civil Service Commission. The Act rendered it unlawful to fill various federal offices through the spoils-system. Since then, a lot has been done to avoid the evils of the system. Federal civil service legislation has been greatly expanded. Many States and municipalities have made training and experience a prerequisite for appointment to public offices.

In India, Article 320 of the Constitution has resulted in the establishment of the Union Public Service Commission and various State Public Service Commissions to deal with rules to be framed for recruitment and other conditions of service. In essence, public service commissions act as watchdogs for the civil servants. However, over a period of time, recruitment to these commissions have become dependent on political loyalties.

SC’s observations

Aghast at the form of spoils-system haunting the public service commissions, the Supreme Court observed in one such case concerning the Bihar government: “The Public Service Commissions which have been given the status of constitutional authorities and which are supposed to be totally independent and impartial while discharging their function in terms of Article 320 have become victims of spoil[s] system” (Upendra Narayan Singh, 2009).

Little did one realise that the warning of the Supreme Court would not be taken seriously by political parties. The result was that the 11 appointments made by the State Governor to the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission were set aside by the Madras High Court; further, the Supreme Court refused to stay the order.

Among the 11 was a retired district judge whose request for extension of service by two years had already been denied by the High Court on the ground that his records were not clean. The appointments had been finalised in great hurry on a Sunday. The court held that it could not have been possible for the government to apply its mind to all the 11 appointments in one day and that the recruitment process was suspicious.

The post of State Consumer Forum president had been kept vacant for more than one-and-a-half years following the retirement of the previous incumbent. Contrary to the norms and practices, the State insisted on one particular retired judge getting appointed. However, thanks to the no nonsense attitude of Chief Justice S.K. Kaul, the government had to relent and appoint a person recommended by him.

Coming to the third appointment, the selection of Kalyani Mathivanan as the chairperson of Tamil Nadu Commission for Protection of Child Rights created a legal controversy. The qualifications for holding such a post are prescribed clearly under Section 17 of the Commission for Protection of Child Rights Act, 2005. The act requires the chairperson to be a person of eminence who must have done outstanding work concerning the welfare of children.

Even Ms. Mathivanan’s earlier appointment as the Vice-Chancellor of the Madurai Kamaraj University had been challenged on the grounds that she lacked even the minimum qualification. The apex court had then held that stipulations of the University Grants Commission (UGC) for the post of Vice-Chancellor, unless adopted by the State, could not be applied to unseat her.

However, when her appointment to the Child Rights Commission was challenged, the Tamil Nadu government could not convince the court about her credentials. Finally, it agreed to withdraw her nomination and to look for a more qualified person.

The three appointments, all political, cannot be looked at in isolation. They only show that the party in power is willing to bend rules to please its loyalists. Even in the case of appointment of a State Public Prosecutor, the opinion of the High Court is a must. However, other panel lawyers of both State and Central governments are selected by the ruling party.

Their tenure co-exists with the tenure of the government. The justification given is that just like a private person engages an advocate of his/her own choice, the government should be given the freedom to appoint lawyers of its own choice. However, the Supreme Court is now scrutinising the system. It has observed that the State should appoint only competent lawyers possessing integrity to represent it, failing which there is a strong possibility of “miscarriage of justice”.

Spoils-sharing

Does this mean that a lawyer with a political background can never be appointed by the party which comes to power? The issue here is not concerning the political background. The Supreme Court has held that political faith cannot be an inhibiting factor, even for appointment to government services. It said: “We think it offends the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by Articles 14 and 16 of the Constitution to deny employment to an individual because of his past political affinities, unless such affinities are considered likely to affect the integrity and efficiency of the individuals service. To hold otherwise would be to introduce ‘McCarthysim’ into India. ‘McCarthyism’ is obnoxious to the whole philosophy of our Constitution. We do not want it.” (Ramashankar Raghuvanshi, 1983.)

In sum and substance, while McCarthyism is unacceptable, so is the system of spoils-sharing. Will parties in power wake up to the ground realities and abide by the fundamental duty in the matter of appointments so as “to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement”?

  • Emergency evacuation

On January 26, 1986, as New Delhi celebrated its Republic Day, South Yemen was being engulfed in a civil war that threatened the lives of thousands of foreigners living there. While Britain, France and the Soviet Union coordinated to jointly evacuate their nationals, the 850 Indians in the country were forced to wait for several more days until New Delhi finally managed to convince a merchant ship to pick them up.

Fast forward almost 30 years, to April 2015, when Yemen was on fire once again. This time, however, the Indian government successfully conducted Operation Raahat to evacuate almost 5,000 Indians and nearly 1,000 citizens from 41 other countries. Besides Air India aircraft, the Indian Navy deployed vessels, and the Indian Air Force C-17 Globemasters for strategic airlift. Such unprecedented efforts and resources reflect New Delhi’s new drive to protect the lives and assets of its citizens abroad in times of crisis.

The increasing size and complexity of the diaspora requires the government to expand capacity and improve procedures. More than 11 million Indians now reside abroad and 20 million travel internationally every year. As political instability rattles the West Asian region, which hosts more than seven million Indians, the government can no longer rely on heroic efforts by individual officials or quick-fix solutions.

First, the government will need to build on its rich experience in conducting more than 30 evacuation operations since the 1950s. Studying India’s history, best practices and lessons learned will help institutionalise them and avoid the need to reinvent the wheel every time a crisis erupts. By supporting policy-oriented research at universities and think tanks to document the memory of senior officials, the government would also facilitate the transmission of their expertise to younger officials.

Preparing a manual

Second, the government must avoid the jugaad approach. Every evacuation case is unique, given the specific nature and location of the crisis, but this should not preclude an analytical attempt to formulate a blueprint that lists core tasks for all operations. An inter-ministerial committee should prepare a manual with guidelines that establish a clear chain of command and division of competencies; identify regional support bases, assembly points and routes for evacuation; develop country-specific warden systems to communicate with expatriates; and establish evacuation priority and embarkation criteria.

Third, India’s diplomatic cadre must be given specific training to operate in hostile environments. As a senior government official told me, when it comes to operating in complex theatres, “practice and preparedness make perfection”.

To achieve this, the government could instruct the police or army to train Indian Foreign Service probationers to operate in war zones; conduct frequent evacuation simulations and emergency drills; and create rapid reaction teams of Indian security personnel to be deployed to protect diplomatic staff and installations abroad.

Fourth, the success of future operations will also rely on New Delhi’s willingness to work together with friendly governments. India will have to invest in cooperative frameworks that facilitate coordination among countries that have large expatriate populations in West Asia, in particular Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and among leading powers with evacuation capacity in the Indian Ocean region.

Fifth, the government will have to assign a greater role to its armed forces, in particular by strengthening the Navy and Air Force’s capacity to operate in tandem with civilian authorities. It should, for example, direct the military to develop a non-combatant evacuation (NEO) doctrine, designate the Integrated Defence Staff as the nodal organisation to improve inter-services and civil-military coordination, direct the services to conduct more multilateral NEO exercises, and adapt military modernisation plans to increase capacity for out-of-area deployment and evacuation.

Using technology

Sixth, to minimise redundancies, the government must institutionalise a permanent inter-ministerial coordinating mechanism for emergency evacuations, incentivise inter-agency cross-posting of officials dealing with diaspora affairs, and encourage State governments to create regional contingency plans.

Seventh, to avoid cost inflation and delays, the government must establish a permanent civil reserve air fleet that pools aircraft from all Indian airlines based on pre-established requisition and reimbursement procedures.

Eighth, the government will have to invest in new technologies to better monitor the diaspora’s profile and mobility. This can be achieved by encouraging more diplomatic missions to provide online consular registration forms, developing an online registration system for overseas travellers, utilising social media, and by making the Aadhaar card compulsory to facilitate biometric identity verification and reduce identity fraud during evacuation.

Finally, the government must expand efforts to manage public opinion and be able to conduct a quiet diplomacy that is crucial to safely extricate Overseas Indians from conflict zones. To reduce domestic pressures, it should embed media representatives more frequently in such missions, reassure the diaspora by ensuring that high-level political representatives are personally engaged, and avoid raising expectations by clearly distinguishing Indian citizens from people of Indian origin.

India has extensive experience in conducting evacuation operations, but to secure the lives and assets of Indians abroad, the government must avoid an ad hoc approach and seek to institutionalise best practices, bolster diplomatic and military capabilities, and improve coordination.

  • A sudden lightness of being

Since India is constantly in election mode, it is not surprising that predictions of who will win and who will lose, analyses why people voted ‘this’ way and not ‘that’, and why ‘this’ and not ‘that’ party won, are breathless and rushed. Analysts and politicians hasten to spin out catchy sound bites that command instant attention in cyberspace, and are often unable to see the wood for the trees. They fail to pay attention to the significant transformation in political and civic engagement in recent years. New patterns are ignored in the obsession with number-crunching. The reduction of democracy to a game of numbers is dangerous and unwise. But this issue requires a different argument, so let us set it aside, and concentrate on some new configurations of politics in two electorally significant States, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.

In both States, the two national political parties that seek to consolidate their political fortunes in and through elections carry weighty historical baggage. In Punjab, they carry the baggage of corruption, disrepute and extraction of rent; in U.P. they carry the baggage of provocative speeches and actions that propel caste and communal riots, and have resulted in loss of lives and livelihoods and destruction of property. Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have proved indifferent to great human tragedies, ranging from deep-rooted poverty, desperate recourse to drugs, and intensification of hatred between communities. The newest kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), does not have to shoulder historical burdens, and that may account for its popularity in Punjab and Goa.

AAP’s brand of politics

Enough has been written on the inadequacies of the AAP: rank populism, lack of organisation and a clear-cut political agenda, and the stifling hold of Arvind Kejriwal on his colleagues. At the same time, we have to recognise that the AAP has brought new ways of doing things onto the political scene. For one, the party interprets politics as pragmatism, and not as bound by, or inspired by, ideology. The AAP subscribes to an ill-defined notion of swaraj, but what that translates into is anyone’s guess. This is symptomatic of a post-ideological age, an age in which restless citizens just want to get things done, even if the world view that frames political actions and inaction has gone missing.

The non-existence of ideological moorings can, of course, pose problems, for without a vision that informs and motivates politics, this form of activity tends to wander hither and thither. At the present moment, however, an ideological deficit is to the advantage of the AAP. The Congress has lost hold of the ideology that was once its USP: pluralism, secularism, socialism and democracy. And it is likely that the inflexible ideology that the BJP subscribes to, majoritarianism, will prove its undoing. The party has still not understood that every time it plays the card of Hindu nationalism, this is trumped by caste fractures and divisions. In any case, the belief that a multilingual and a religiously plural society can be hammered into conformity has run its course in history.

The AAP stays away from caste and religion, builds up support through mohalla committees, focusses on health and education, and promises zero tolerance for corruption. The party does not bank on a grand narrative of nationalism, or on evoking memories of a magnificent Hindu past. The implication is that citizens will be left alone, minorities will not be harassed, and people are free to make their own histories. It is little wonder then that the party has gathered under its metaphorical wing auto-rickshaw drivers along with owners of expensive cars, highly educated Indians along with the non-literate, the middle classes along with the poor, and fellow citizens along with non-resident Indians. The second advantage that the party has is its team of volunteers who provide both labour and money to clean up the mess made by other parties. Three, the name of the game played by the AAP is flexibility. The party prefers volunteers rather than cadres, has developed a social base that spans classes and castes, and focusses on practical issues rather than ideologies. The wheel has turned. In the AAP we find the perfect post-modern political party, contemptuous of grand narratives and homogenising visions. What this development will bring to Indian politics is yet to be seen. Undeniably, however, the party represents an alternative mode of conceptualising and carrying out an activity we call politics.

Switching tactics

For long U.P. has been seen as a land of identity politics, vote banks, and riots easily sparked along caste and religious divides. Today we see in the politics of Akhilesh Yadav, and the Samajwadi Party (SP), a shift from the politics of identity to that of the political economy. For most of the 1990s, and the decade that followed, U.P. was convulsed by politics of the Mandir and Mandal. Today, Mayawati seeks to bridge caste divides, and the SP speaks the language of development and of opportunities.

Interestingly, it is precisely this shift that was initiated in Dalit politics after the horrific public lashing of Dalits by cow vigilantes in Una last July. The Prime Minister took almost a month to respond to this blatant violation of basic human rights in the name of protecting the cow. At a public meeting in Gajwel in Medak district in Andhra Pradesh on August 7, 2016, Narendra Modi said, “shoot me if you want but don’t target Dalits”. The statement is extraordinary, coming as it does from a Prime Minister who commands awesome power. When individuals commit acts that harm fellow citizens, they are supposed to be punished, not provided with alternative foci.

Mr. Modi’s response was too little and too late. In the meanwhile, a dramatic shift had occurred in Dalit politics. As thousands of Dalits amassed across the country, and as hundreds participated in the march to Una under the leadership of educated compatriots, it became clear that the community would no longer be satisfied with hand-outs even as they continued to perform lowly occupations. The articulate lawyer, Jignesh Mewani, spoke for Dalits when he said that nothing less than land rights and employment would be acceptable to the community. Nor would Dalits pick up carcasses of cattle.

Dalits speak up

Political history is created when people who have been oppressed by a history not of their making stand up, and talk back. The emphasis of the Dalit Asmita Yatra was on land rights and occupations, the need for a welfare state, and realisation of the promises of the Constitution. We see the three components of justice in the programme that has been charted out, redistribution, voice, and recognition. The right to voice has been used effectively to demand redistribution as well as recognition. Recognition without redistribution is of little consequence, and redistribution without recognition is of little import. Both are incomplete without the right to voice, or participation in politics. It is this model that seems to have impacted the young leader of the SP. He too has shown pragmatic flexibility by shifting from caste identities to the political economy.

Whether these two models of politics thrown up by India’s political history in the last few years — pragmatic politics that focusses on the here and now — will fetch electoral dividends cannot be foretold. But they are there, etched onto the political agenda by the AAP and by post-identity politics as a welcome alternative to a misguided focus on the nation. Millions of Indians will no longer accept handouts. It is time to realise the three components of justice: redistribution, recognition and voice. The Constitution, said the Prime Minister, is our sacred text. May we remind him that the Preamble of the Constitution is the metaphorical sanctum sanctorum of this sacred text. “Give to us what the Preamble has promised.” This should be the demand of voters in these, and in future elections.

  • Ahmadiyyas on a mission to spread Islam’s virtues

A tiny community in the city is spearheading a massive campaign to propagate the true meaning and teachings of Islam. The Ahmadiyya community, a sect of Sunni Muslims, feels their religion has been misunderstood in the backdrop of terror attacks across the world.

They are now reaching out to the policy makers, students and professionals with one message: we are closing in on World War III and we should take steps to avoid it. In the past few months, the community members have met professors from the Indian Institute of Technology, students from the Mumbai University, doctors and other professionals in and around Mumbai Central, where the city’s only Ahmadiyya mosque is located.

Syed Abdul Hadi Kashif, missionary in charge of the community in Mumbai and Goa, says, “There are so many terror attacks all over the world and a Muslim name comes into focus each time. We are not comfortable with this. Islam does not teach this.” Mr. Kashif said the true teachings of Islam were not reaching people. “We believe some form of injustice is the root cause of these attacks. Injustice at all levels needs to be stopped.”

The Ahmadiyyas are a 20-million strong community with a presence in over 209 countries, including over 10 lakh in India. In Maharashtra, there are more than 5,000 members of which over 1,000 are in Mumbai.

Prophet Muhammad had foretold that a messiah would arrive to revive Islam. While other Muslim sects still await the messiah, the Ahmadiyyas believe that he arrived in 1889 in the form of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in Qadian, Punjab. The current khalifa, Mirza Masroor Ahmad, who is based in London and governs the community, is Ahmad’s fifth successor.

“Today, Islam is being tweaked by those who are spreading terror. Islam does not teach killing innocent people,” says Masarrat Ahmad Mundasgar, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat. “We hope holding dialogues will help open people’s minds.”

‘Signs of WWIII’

The community is gearing up for a peace symposium on February 11, where speakers from various communities will speak on the need for world peace. C.G. Suhail, a volunteer with the community, says, “We are witnesssing events similar to the run-up to WWII. The League of Nations then was helpless. Now, the United Nations is being used by major powers for their own benefits.” He said with India, China and Pakistan boasting of nuclear power, the effects of a war will be destructive.

The community in its conversation will focus on doing away with injustice, spreading the true teachings of Islam, propagating the message of peace and harmony, and preaching respect for all religions. “We are reaching out to intelligent, knowledgeable people; the mission is bound to have a multiplying effect,” said Zahid Ur Rahman, another volunteer.

  • Double delight from Indian telescope data

Astronomers, using data from India’s Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), have discovered two of the most powerful phenomena in the universe — a supermassive black hole and the collision of giant galaxy clusters about two billion light years from Earth.

The two phenomenon have combined to create a stupendous cosmic particle accelerator, researchers said.

By combining data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in Pune and other telescopes, researchers found what happens when matter ejected by a giant black hole is swept up in the merger of two enormous galaxy clusters.

“We have seen each of these spectacular phenomena separately in many places,” said Reinout van Weeren of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics (CfA) in the U.S., who led the study.

“This is the first time, however, that we see them clearly linked together in the same system,” said Mr. van Weeren. This cosmic combination is found in a pair of colliding galaxy clusters called Abell 3411 and Abell 3412 located about two billion light years from Earth.

Clusters massive

The two clusters are both very massive, each weighing about a quadrillion — or a million billion — times the mass of the Sun. The comet-shaped appearance of the X-rays detected by Chandra is produced by hot gas from one cluster ploughing through the hot gas of the other cluster. Optical data from the Keck Observatory and Japan’s Subaru telescope, both on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, detected the galaxies in each cluster.

First, at least one spinning, supermassive black hole in one of the galaxy clusters produced a rotating, tightly—wound magnetic funnel. The powerful electromagnetic fields associated with this structure have accelerated some of the inflowing gas away from the vicinity of the black hole in the form of an energetic, high-speed jet.

 

 

  • Centre plans to amend Plantation Labour Act

The Centre is planning to amend the Plantation Labour Act (PLA), 1951 in a major way to exclude ‘in –kind’ components being regarded as wages.

It may be mentioned here that under the PLA 1951, plantation workers get various benefits either subsidised or free. These include rations, housing, education, firewood and medical facilities.

Accordingly, a large section of the mainstream tea industry bears the cost of providing these services. The industry does not pay statutory minimum wages, saying that the monetised value of the facilities provided compensates for this.

Daily pay-out

The tea industry , which is the largest among the plantation sectors (which includes coffee, rubber and spices), pays Rs. 137 in cash in Assam and Rs. 132 in West Bengal, with the industry maintaining that taken with the value of the ‘perks’, the daily-payout stands between Rs. 272 and Rs. 284.

In 2014, Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had come down hard on the tea industry for not paying minimum wages.

The proposed amendment is now seeking to “exclude from the definition of wage the in-kind benefits that were being hitherto included,” an industry source told The Hindu.

The Central and State governments rolled out a clutch of social sector schemes which can be implemented in the tea estates. This, they felt, would obviate the need for the industry to extend these benefits. The Centre now wants the plantation industry to share this cost with the government under the amended PLA.

Responding to these proposed changes, Azam Monem, chairman of the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations (CCPA), told The Hindu that it was good that the PLA had been brought to the discussion table.

The Indian industry had long been saying that PLA puts them at a cost-disadvantage vis-a-vis international rivals. A 2009 Report of a Committee on the Cost Competitiveness of India Tea Industry, too had pointed out that the PLA had added to production costs and lowered competitiveness. Bijoy Gopal Chakraborty, Chairman of the Confederation of Small Tea Growers ( part of whom are under PLA) said that any additional burden would kill the small growers-cum-owner segment.

“ We are happy that the Centre is now discussing the PLA, but we will send in our comments by January 20 to propose that the changes are looked at from the employers’ view point too.”

  • Running into the Chinese wall

On December 30, China’s decision to veto India’s proposal to ban Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar at the UN capped a terrible year in bilateral ties. China’s economic corridor through Pakistan, India’s invitations to Uighur, Falun Gong and Tibetan activists, the expulsion of Chinese journalists from Mumbai, the Chinese block on Nuclear Suppliers Group membership for India, and the rumblings over the South China Sea all added to tensions between the two countries; the Chinese decision to put a permanent block on the Azhar proposal aggravated them further.

An open-and-shut case

China’s decision, to put it bluntly, was outrageous and ill-advised. In the past, Beijing blocked India’s proposals at the UN to designate Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin and Abdul Rehman Makki and Azam Cheema of the Lashkar-e-Taiba as terrorists, and blocked questions on how designated terrorists Hafiz Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi accessed funds in Pakistan despite UN sanctions. But Azhar’s case is different from all of these, for reasons that should be obvious.

Which other terrorist, for example, has actually been seen live across televisions worldwide, as Azhar was on December 31, 1999, being exchanged for hostages on the Kandahar tarmac after the hijack of IC-814? Which other terrorist has recorded in his own book (From Imprisonment to Freedom) details of the terror plot to hijack the plane, and of links to the Taliban officials who pushed Indian negotiators on the ground (including current National Security Adviser Ajit Doval) into effecting his release? And which other terrorist openly spoke of meeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, travelling to Somalia to help recruit for al-Qaeda, and his loyalty to Taliban chief Mullah Omar, whom he described as his “beloved Amir-ul-Momineen”?

Despite all that evidence, it took two years and the 9/11 attacks for the JeM to be designated as a terror group by UNSC 1267 sanctions committee in 2001. It seems unbelievable that 15 years later, despite his complicity in everything from the Parliament attack to the Pathankot attack and everything in between, Azhar hasn’t yet been added to that list, largely due to China’s ignominious role.

It would be a mistake, however, if New Delhi sees China’s move purely in bilateral terms, and ignores the larger trend it represents: of a fragmenting global consensus on terrorism. The impact of this fragmentation can be seen at several levels now: at the UN, in the tussle between the U.S. and Russia, and for India, in regional ties.

Changing narrative

After the 9/11 attacks, the global consensus to fight the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and all allied groups was formed by the UNSC resolution on terrorism (UNSCR 1373) in 2001. Already, in 1999, the UN had set up an al-Qaeda/Taliban sanctions committee (UNSCR 1267) to impose strictures on anyone dealing with the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. While the implementation of these resolutions has been questionable, there was little doubt that all member states essentially believed that the Taliban, al-Qaeda and their allies formed a common global enemy.

That narrative has since changed. In January 2010, at an international conference hosted by the U.K., the UN and the U.S. openly backed efforts to talk peace with the Taliban. In 2011, the UNSC made it simply the al-Qaeda sanctions committee, separating the Taliban committee so as to facilitate talks by delisting Taliban leaders being engaged. In December 2015, the UNSC made a further shift by renaming it “ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee” (UNSCR/2253). This renaming prompted Pakistan to ask recently, albeit mistakenly, how the banning of Azhar was even connected to the committee’s work.

Impact of U.S.-Russia ties

Apart from the UN, shifting U.S.-Russia ties have also made a great impact on the global terror consensus. In 2001, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to speak to President George W. Bush, expressing full support for the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda, which would in turn help Russia with its Islamist threat as well. Not only that, Mr. Putin reversed Russian policy of decades, allowing the U.S. to set up bases across Central Asia and virtually take over Afghanistan’s security command.

That relationship no longer exists, and Russia is questioning the U.S. presence in its backyard again. “Russia won’t tolerate this,” Mr. Putin’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov said in an interview this week, referring to the U.S.’s bases in Afghanistan as akin to having Russian bases in Mexico.

Russia’s other moves — a new closeness with China, and growing ties with Pakistan — are a third factor impacting global consensus. A trilateral meeting of the three countries last month in Moscow called for a “flexible approach” to remove some Taliban figures from the UN sanctions list as part of efforts to “foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement”. No doubt, the recent Taliban statement that it won’t target infrastructure projects in Afghanistan is significant, given China’s high-stakes ‘One Belt, One Road’ plan that runs through the region.

On the other side, the U.S. has been pushing for the removal of other groups in Afghanistan from sanctions, like the Hizb-e-Islami’s Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (a former Central Intelligence Agency-funded fighter), a move that Russia blocked at the UN.

Clearly, the global leaders are picking their teams. Ironically, neither side has yet pushed for the banning of the new Taliban chief, Haibatullah Akhundzada, a reminder of how far away we have come on that global consensus. Also lying in the dust is India’s decades-old proposal for a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.

Russia’s Pakistan engagement cannot be disconnected from India’s concerns either. It is significant that among the P5, the U.S., U.K. and France co-sponsored India’s resolution against Azhar, China vetoed it, but Russia, India’s traditional backer, did nothing at all. At the BRICS summit in October and the Heart of Asia conference in December, it was the Russia-China combine that kept India’s desire for tough statements on “cross-border terrorism” from Pakistan at bay, and it was the Russian envoy who told India not to use “multilateral forums for bilateral issues”.

Azhar’s ban is only a piece in a much larger jigsaw puzzle. The world is increasingly divided and the consensus on terror, that once helped India apply pressure on Pakistan, is now dividing along these fault lines. If India is to stick to its course, of securing its citizens and borders, the answer may lie in bridging ties with all nations involved, including some that now lie across this divide.

  • For a level playing field

Ever since Sushil Kumar won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, wrestling has, without doubt, grown by leaps and bounds. A series of successes followed, from Yogeshwar Dutt to the Phogat sisters to Sakshi Malik.

What was until then a sport predominantly of the hinterlands received wider recognition as television and newspapers began discovering it. Now, it has reached a stage where Sakshi’s Olympic bronze is expected to do to women’s wrestling what Sushil’s did to wrestling in general.

Even to the uninitiated, the sport’s rich moral, philosophical and mystical heritage — with links first to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata through the likes of Hanuman and Bhima, and then to the Mughals and Maratha kings, who were huge patrons of the sport — has always appealed.

Also, independent India’s first individual Olympic medal winner was a wrestler: Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, who bagged a bronze in the 1952 Helsinki Games. This aided wrestling in securing a prominent place both in the minds of the country’s citizenry as well as in its yet-to-thrive sporting ecosystem.

The Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal, which narrates the story of Mahavir Singh Phogat and his daughters Geeta Phogat — the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist and first Indian women wrestler to qualify for the Olympics — and Babita Kumari, was perhaps the icing on the cake.

That Sakshi and the Phogats came from Haryana, a State infamous for its skewed gender ratio (879 women for every 1,000 men), even boosted the narrative of the sport now being a tool for breaking gender stereotypes. And rightly so.

Battle of perception

But what has completely been left unexplored is the allure of women’s wrestling as a sport in itself. This is seen in the fact that men’s freestyle wrestling was introduced at the St. Louis Olympics in 1904 but it took a whole century for the women’s competition to be included. In 2013, when wrestling was dropped from the Olympic programme initially before being reinstated, one of the prime reasons was that it discriminated against women athletes by giving them fewer medal opportunities.

Wrestling, in general, has had to fight a battle of perception. As a combat sport it has often been cannibalised. Cruder as it seems than most other disciplines with a strong emphasis on physicality, wrestling is seen as the ultimate symbol of masculinity; something which glorifies violence. Rarely is it considered as an art form in which physical skills are often honed over years.

So, if a woman tries to stake an equal claim to the sport, it is often seen as an attempt by her to prove that she is “masculine” enough. After all, didn’t Geeta have to first defeat the boys in her area to gain legitimacy as a capable wrestler?

“With heavyweight wrestling, people are expecting this Helga type of woman, obese and going there on the mat to try to smash people’s heads,” Adeline Gray, a three-time World Champion from the U.S., told ESPN. “It’s so much more than that — the weight is really low, so it’s about technique. It’s skill, strength, power and executing that in a very precise way.”

She said: “I would hear, years later, ‘Yeah, that guy was afraid of you in high school.’ Why? I’m nice! I just don’t understand where that came from. It’s like saying a boxer just goes around hitting people all the time. I’ve never been in a fight, I’ve never hit anybody. I never challenged anyone at a party. So I don’t know why that fear exists: ‘Oh, she can beat me up if she wanted to!’ Yeah, but… I don’t really fight people.”

Robert L. Simon, in his book Fair Play: The Ethics of Sport, raises an important question with respect to the kind of stigma that plagues contact sports. “The key ethical question in fair competition may be whether the use of force takes advantage of an opponent’s physical vulnerability,” he asks.

But acts of violence on a sporting field don’t necessarily render the sport violent. In wrestling, athletes do have the capacity and opportunity to inflict severe harm on their opponents. They can dislocate limbs and break fingers. However, they are taught to not exert such physical force and confine their moves to legitimate ones.

“Wrestling is safe,” said Adeline. “I love that it’s head to head and it truly tests us. But there is no need to worry that someone is going to get hit in the face. In wrestling, you’re not going to get hit in the head.”

The very fact that this stigma has been allowed to remain so deeply entrenched is largely because those who participate in sports perceived as “violent” are rarely asked to express what draws them to these sports and to describe their experiences on the playing field.

Surely one can’t imagine every fan and player saying, for example, “I love wrestling so much because it breaks gender stereotypes.” Even for Mahavir Phogat, women’s emancipation was the last thing on his mind. Didn’t it take a while for him understand that a gold medal was a gold medal irrespective of who won it — a boy or a girl?

“Ever since we won an international medal in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, women have started to recognise the medal potential in the sport,” said Vinesh Phogat, gold medallist in the 2014 Glasgow Games. “The Olympic medal also added to the excitement. But wrestling allows women to express their level of skills and strength. So it’s a huge attraction. Also, with the league coming in and corporates like JSW investing in sport, women have started to recognise wrestling as a sustainable career option.”

Sport helps in sensitising and uniting society, and this is something to be valued. However, social outcomes cannot always explain why a person took to a sport or her passion for it. The stories of Geeta, Babita, Vinesh and Adeline will certainly help in creating a more equal society. But they are often satisfying ends to what at the outset was driven by pure love of sport and a bit more.

  • Arms and the region

It is time to look ahead at the challenges that India’s security planners face in 2017. Spillovers from 2016 and the forthcoming leadership change in the United States will make the environment very challenging in India’s security calculus.

For the U.S. certainly, and for India too, January 20 could turn out to be a day like no other in the recent past. If U.S. President-elect Donald Trump sticks to his “twitterwords”, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would be history, U.S.-China relations may become even more tenuous, while America’s interaction with Russia may become “interesting”.

While Mr. Trump has not talked about India, his “fantastic” Pakistan may see some more tensions developing with Uncle Sam, as the general thrust of Trumpism has been to take a tougher line on terrorism. After his “Israel” tweet on the UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements and outright condemnation of the Iran nuclear deal, one can expect U.S. involvement in West Asia to increase. Would that imply a reversal of President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia?” Will Mr. Trump’s views change once he is in the saddle? What does this scenario portend for India?

China rising

India has to factor in the enhanced aggressiveness of China, which has taken on a new hue and trajectory; shorn of diplomatese, the “peaceful” rise has become an ominous one that is transforming the “challenge” of China into a “threat” from China. Its recent moves, of positioning air defence weapons on a reclaimed island in the South China Sea, forays by fighters and bombers over the East China Sea, and even sending its aircraft carrier Liaoning to Hainan via the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and Philippines, have sent an unwelcome message to its neighbours. It may not be long before Liaoning makes its foray into the Indian Ocean. If not for power projection (which is still some time away), it may be to just announce to the world that a new “world” power has arrived. Though these activities are far removed from the India-China border, these developments can be co-related with the reorganisation of its military into Theatre Commands, local media hype about large-scale, “realistic” joint training exercises, and aggressive diplomatic reactions to events that impinge on its stated positions (the Dalai Lama’s visits to Mongolia, and later Arunachal Pradesh). If Mr. Trump gets on the front foot with China, then it (the U.S.) would require India to be firmly with it. With its placing of India as a major defence partner and the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in place, Indian planners would have to tread a narrow path between getting close to the U.S. and being classified as a major cog in the American scheme of things. The key dictum to follow would be to ensure that India’s interests are insured against reversals in power politics, as Pakistan faced to its discomfiture when the Cold War and the Soviet presence in Afghanistan ended.

The Pakistan factor

Pakistan can be expected to continue meddling sub-conventionally in India’s affairs. Thus, support to terrorism would continue, with the Pathankot and Uri attacks being pointers of actions to be expected. India’s guard cannot be lowered and eternal vigil is the need of the times. Hopefully, the relative quiet along the border is indicative of some backchannel diplomacy at work. That there is a new Pakistan Army Chief and the top brass there has been overhauled sends out a feeling of hope that the civilian leadership may be exercising a greater say in security and foreign affairs. But haven’t we seen this, which we have fervently wished for, many times before?

On this broad security canvas before India, there also lie the subtle but understated strokes of India’s relations in the neighbourhood. Even as China and Pakistan make forays in these countries, especially with arms sales and economic aid, we can ill-afford to neglect them; they constitute our vital interests. To be influential in world affairs, words need to be backed by deeds — claims of “historical cultural relations” do not work in realpolitik. Thus, the commitment to develop the Chabahar port in Iran gains importance, even as a new relationship develops between Russia, China and Pakistan. The buzz is that this friendship is around China’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor initiative but astute observers can sense something more to be brewing. Similarly, economic and military commitments to Afghanistan have to be met, the geographical disconnect notwithstanding.

Budgetary support before 2019

History has proven that a strong military is the foundation for resolute action in the economic and diplomatic fields. The demonetisation exercise may have ensured extra money in the government’s coffers as its statements have proffered. A year from now, the nation will be in the final stretch of the race for the 2019 general election, when priorities for budgetary allocations are bound to change. Hence, a greater allocation for the defence sector is needed in the 2017 budget to enable the services to overcome the neglect of the past decade and enhance their capability to support government aims at influence-building in the neighbourhood. In parallel, the building up of a defence industrial base should gather greater momentum from the snail’s pace it is now. Getting a firm footing in the “near abroad”, to use a Russian term, is a sine qua non for aspirational India’s ambitions in the coming years; 2017 would be decisive in more ways than one.

  • Ken-Betwa river-linking project faces new hurdle

A new hurdle has come in the way of the marquee Ken-Betwa river interlink project in its terms of financing.

The NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India) has recommended that Madhya Pradesh contribute 40 per cent of the project cost, with the Centre contributing 60 per cent. The Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) has opposed this and requested that 90 per cent of the funds be routed through the Centre.

Senior officials of the ministry have discussed the matter with the NITI Aayog but a final decision has not been been taken yet. “We have made our case to the vice chairperson (Arvind Panagariya) and they have appreciated our view,” said Amarjit Singh, Secretary, MoWR.

A lack of clarity on the funding pattern could mean more delays to the Rs. 10,000-crore project that would be the first ever inter-State river interlinking project.

The project was given a go-ahead by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) at a meeting chaired by Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Anil Madhav Dave, last August. An environment clearance panel has, according to officials in the water ministry, also cleared the project on 30th December.

A separate committee that determines forest clearance to such projects, is yet to take a call. “The toughest bit was the wildlife clearance…once the funding mechanism is clear, it would take seven years for the project to be ready,” said Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti.

This will be the first time that a river project will be located within a tiger reserve.

Submerging tiger habitat

The Rs. 10,000-crore Ken-Betwa project will irrigate the drought-prone Bundelkhand region but, in the process, also submerge about 10 per cent of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, feted as a model tiger conservation reserve.

The main feature of the project is a 230-km long canal and a series of barrages and dams connecting the Ken and Betwa rivers that will irrigate 3.5 lakh hectares in Madhya Pradesh and 14,000 hectares of Uttar Pradesh in Bundelkhand. The key projects are the Makodia and Dhaudhan dams, the latter expected to be 77 metres high and responsible for submerging 5,803 hectares of tiger habitat in the Panna Tiger Reserve.

When, and if, the proposed reservoir is filled to the brim, 6,221 hectares will be inundated — of this, 4,141 hectares is core forest and located inside the reserve. A key point of contention between wildlife experts associated with the impact assessment and dam proponents in the MoWR was whether the height of the Daudhan dam could be reduced to limit the water overflow.

The MoWR had refused to agree to this, saying it would compromise the economic viability of the project. The records of the August meeting suggest wildlife experts were convinced.

  • La La Land fails to win Baftas landslide in night of diversity

The script predicted that La La Land would clean up at the Baftas. Instead the unashamedly old-fashioned feelgood musical — an antidote to the age — came away from the 2017 ceremony with five awards, including the top prize of best film.

It was a good night but far from the juggernaut which had been widely anticipated. The prizes were spread strikingly widely with more than 15 winners including Manchester By the Sea , Fences , Lion , Arrival , Hacksaw Ridge ,Jackie , and Florence Foster Jenkins .

Some had tipped La La Land to finally break the Bafta record set by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid , which won nine prizes in 1971. It did not come close, although those involved can hold their heads high with awards for best film, best director for Damien Chazelle, best actress for Emma Stone, best cinematography and original music.

Ryan Gosling missed out on best actor to Casey Affleck for his unforgettable performance in Manchester By the Sea , and Chazelle was pipped to best original screenplay prize by Kenneth Lonergan for the same film.

Lonergan told the audience how his 15-year-old daughter had woken in tears after Donald Trump was elected U.S. President, but had since been on five protest marches since. “I’m very, very proud of her.”

La La Land — a romance between an aspiring actor (Stone) and a jazz pianist (Gosling) — has proved popular with many because it is about as far from politics and worrying about Trump and Brexit and the refugee crisis, North Korea and beached whales in New Zealand, as it is possible to get.

But controversy was never far away from the glitzy, starry ceremony at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Ken Loach, whose gritty, angry I, Daniel Blake won the outstanding British film award, was most passionate. The 80-year-old thanked Bafta for endorsing a truth “that the most vulnerable and poorest people are treated by this government with a contempt and a callous brutality that is disgraceful … it is a brutality that extends to keeping out refugee children we promised to help.”

Loach said the world was getting darker and there was a struggle coming between the rich, the powerful and the rest of us. “The film-makers know which side they’re on.” Later he went further, saying that the “government had to be removed.”

  • Adele creates history at Grammys

Even though Adele flubbed one of her live performances at the Grammys, she walked away the belle of the ball. She took home all five awards she was nominated for Sunday night, including album, record and song of the year.

She beat Beyonce in the top three categories with her comeback album 25 , and repeated her accomplishments from 2012, when the British star also won album, song and record of the year at the Grammys. She’s the first artist in Grammy history to sweep the top three categories twice, and now has a total of 15 Grammys.

Adele used her speech to honour Beyonce and her groundbreaking Lemonadealbum, which was also nominated. And backstage, she said she voted for Beyonce when putting in her ballot for album of the year.

Praises Beyonce

“But I can’t really accept this award. And I’m very humble and I’m very grateful and gracious, but my artist of my life is Beyonce. This album you made, theLemonade album, is so monumental,” Adele said to her fellow singer.

“The way you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel is empowering. And they stand up for themselves. And I love you. I always have.”

The night for Adele wasn’t all good though. The singer, who had trouble with her live performance at the last year’s Grammys, asked to restart her tribute to George Michael, telling the audience, “I can’t mess this up for him.” She stopped and used an expletive after singing some of a new arrangement of Michael’sFastlove , as videos and photos of Michael played in the background. She re-sang the song and earned applause and support from the crowd, though Adele was teary-eyed.

A number of other icons were honoured on Sunday, including Prince, whose tribute was sung by Bruno Mars. Mars was also a winner on Sunday. He won for producing Adele’s album. Adele’s other wins included best pop vocal album and pop solo performance.

Until Adele’s abrupt restart, Beyonce was the talk of the show. In glittery gown, gilded crown and gold choker, a pregnant Beyonce took the Grammy stage in a lengthy performance of two songs from her critically acclaimed albumLemonade .

Beyonce, who walked into the show with nine nominations, only won two — best music video ( Formation ) and urban contemporary album ( Lemonade ).

“My intention for the film and album is to create a body of work that would give voice to our pain, our struggles, our doubts, and our history, to confront issues that make us uncomfortable,” said Beyonce. “This is something that I want for every child of every race, and I feel that it’s vital that we learn from the past,” she said.

David Bowie, who died last year from cancer, won all four awards he was nominated for. Blackstar , his final album released days before he died, won best alternative music album and engineered album, non-classical. The title track won best rock song and rock performance.

  • Those summers to remember

Playing Bryan Adams’ Summer of 69 on my six strings, I slowly slipped into memories of our summers of the 1990s. Summer holidays were the long-awaited fun-filled months. Nothing could stop us from being the naughty, dirty and notorious monkeys. Our otherwise busy parents were never worried about us catching a cold or developing some allergy playing in mud and water, or getting sunburnt wandering in the hills and playing in the open. Those were carefree days.

The variety of games we played was awesome when I look back now. We would search for matchboxes and cigarette wrappers, which came in a wide variety. Each special picture on them had its own value, based on its demand in our own ‘market’. Each player would invest in a few and these were made into two or three heaps inside a box carved on the ground. After deciding on each one’s number, we had to strike using a flat stone from quite a distance. Under our beds were our prized collections of all the matchbox covers. For sure, sometimes we got scolded for these by our mothers.

There were plenty of games to play apart from cricket, football and so on. The colourful marble game (goli aata) was a great joy which always made that lovely gurgling sound in our pockets. A buguri (wooden carved spinning toy) had those mesmerising painted colours on it. It was a feeling to cherish, that spinning colourful buguri with its nail on the hand. When you became the last one to lift the buguri and let it spin on the hand using the thread, your buguri had to take a hit from everyone — which was a painful part of the game, looking at that beautiful toy getting mauled by everyone.

Lagori, or building the stones, was a very skilful game. It involved hitting a small pack of stones from a distance with a ball, and again building the pack before getting hit hard from the opposite group. There was kanna muchale (hide’n seek), chowka bara, kalla-police, and chinni daandu, which never required any investment from our parents’ pockets: Nature provided everything. Apart from providing endless joy, all these games helped each of us to sharpen a lot of aspects. This was a need for a growing child.

Chasing fruits

Once the game was over, it was time to wander into the hills and plantations in search of mangoes, jamun and a wide variety of fruits that grew in the bushes, beside the streams and in the forests. I don’t even knowtheir names to this day. Monkeys had no business in our surroundings as we had the sole contract. You could find one or the other in every tree that bore the fruits. It’s not that we had no attraction towards them.

The 1990s were the time when our markets opened up to globalisation. Telephone links and modern television sets started arriving and it was a lot of curiosity for us too. On occasion, TVs and video cassette players were hired and played in the open. The whole village would sit and watch a movie. Still, the fun we would get playing in the open, playing together and fighting together, was never forgotten.

The summers of the current decade seem a lot different. I have my own doubts if children of this generation do have that adrenaline rushing as the summer holidays near. After all, what should they be excited about? It’s the same TV, the same PlayStation, and the same tuitions, all over again. I feel pity for the children who are being fooled into an era of smart gadgets, spoiling all the fun. They are being subjected to their parents’ expectations in a distant future.

Children perform better when they are allowed to breathe fresh air in the open, than being suffocated inside the luxury of expensive spaces. They develop inexhaustible physical agility when allowed to play hard. Their minds absorb better when you let them train themselves in a fun-filled manner.

At least I will definitely feel sad if I don’t let my kid have that joyous, memorable childhood I was myself allowed to have, which definitely helped me expand my heart, mind and soul to the colours and imaginations of a beautiful life.

  • We are fully sovereign, says visiting Taiwanese leader

Challenging Beijing’s One-China policy, a senior political leader of Taiwan said on Monday that the country’s freedom is a de facto reality in international affairs.

Speaking to the media, Kuan Bi-Ling, member of the Taiwanese Parliament, said here that Taiwan had protected its status as a free country despite the difficulties posed by Beijing’s One-China policy.

All-women team

“Taiwan has been a de facto and fully independent country from the very beginning. Some countries may not recognise Taiwan’s independence, but that has no impact on our sovereignty and freedom,” said Ms. Kuan, who is leading the first all-women MPs delegation from Taiwan to India.

The delegation arrived on Sunday and held a meeting with Indian members of the India-Taiwan Parliamentary Association consisting of MPs from both sides. The Indian delegation, led by Devi Prasad Tripathi, visited Taipei in August-September 2016 warming up ties.

“We are determined to build substantive economic ties with India and bridge the gap between our goals and realities in Taiwan-India ties,” Ms. Kuan said emphasising that Taipei wishes to invest in the flagship Indian programmes such as the “Make in India” and “Smart City” projects.

“Taiwanese investment in India is aimed at the manufacturing sector which helps in generating employment. We will increase our investment in the State of Gujarat,” she said.

Major investor

Ms. Kuan said Taiwan has become one of the major investors in India from the Asia-Pacific region and it wishes to uplift relations with India to the same level as its ties with Japan and the United States.

Taiwan’s new government under President Tsai ing-Wen has launched the “New Southbound policy” which aims to energise Taiwan’s ties with the ASEAN region, Australia, New Zealand and India.

Tourism and culture

Apart from increased bilateral trade, the “New Southbound Policy” is also aimed at energising people-to-people contact in the fields of tourism and culture.

“More Taiwanese tourists should be enabled to visit the Buddhist sites in India. Scholars, researchers should be supported so that we can appreciate bilateral issues better,” said Chen Mumin, Director of Center for Studies on South Asia and the Middle East who is also a part of the delegation.

The delegation is on a three-day visit and will be hosted at an event on Tuesday by BJP general secretary Ram Madhav.

  • North Korea lobs a missile challenge

On the face of it, the launch of a medium-range ballistic missile by North Korea on Sunday is yet another reckless provocation by its leader Kim Jong-un. Last year, the Kim regime tested at least a dozen missiles and even vowed to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile that could hit the U.S. Each time the tests have triggered angry and anxious responses from world leaders, particularly from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. The UN Security Council has already imposed a host of sanctions on the country. But neither sanctions nor warnings issued by other powers have had any impact on North Korea’s bellicose behaviour. There is a method in Pyongyang’s madness; a hidden pattern behind the aggressive posturing and frequent violation of international law. The latest missile test, the first after Donald Trump became the U.S. President, comes at a time when he was hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This is not the first time North Korea is challenging a new U.S. President with a weapons test. In 2009, a few months after Barack Obama took office, Pyongyang conducted an underground nuclear blast. Mr. Obama saw it as a provocation and responded with the tightening of international sanctions on the country.

 

Mr. Obama’s hardline approach, however, did little to alter North Korea’s aggressive weapons programme. Mr. Trump is now facing his Obama moment. North Korea was not one of his top priority areas. But it has now stormed into the President’s first set of foreign policy challenges. His immediate reaction was marked by measured restraint, in sharp contrast to his response to the recent missile test by Iran, which has been “put on notice” by his administration. That may be because Mr. Trump knows that the stakes are higher as North Korea is a nuclear power. As in the case of his predecessors, he doesn’t have many options to address the Pyongyang challenge. Sanctions are already in place. The regime is already isolated. War is out of the question as North Korea could directly target America’s allies in East Asia with nuclear weapons. One less explored and apparently feasible idea is to get China, which still has some leverage over Pyongyang, on board and engage the Kim regime diplomatically, without removing the sanctions. However erratic a regime’s actions may seem, the first lesson in international diplomacy is to deal with nation states as rational actors. Sanctions are effective only when they are used in carrot-and-stick mode. Responding to North Korea’s provocative posturing with counter-provocations will yield hardly any diplomatic dividend.

  • The hidden agenda of benevolence

The idea of a universal basic income (UBI) has been gaining ground globally. While Switzerland held a referendum on it last year (it was voted down), Finland introduced it earlier this month. Media reports suggest that the government of India’s flagship Economic Survey this year is likely to endorse the UBI, setting the stage for its introduction.

On the face of it, an unconditional basic income for everyone seems a great idea. In the West, the UBI is being discussed as a solution to two problems: unemployment due to automation; and growing social unrest caused by extreme inequality and precarity. It is expected to solve the unemployment problem by decoupling subsistence from jobs, freeing human beings to realise their true potential, preferably through entrepreneurship. It would address the second by supplying monetary resources to access the necessities of life. This, in a nutshell, is the popular understanding of the UBI. The reality, however, is not so rosy.

The UBI debate in India has been a narrow one — restricted, for the most part, to financial viability. Its advocates argue that it is a more efficient way of delivering welfare, while its opponents hold that the fiscal burden would be too much. What hasn’t received adequate attention is the politics behind the UBI: who is pushing the idea? To what end? And why?

The UBI evangelists

The most eloquent advocates of UBI today are free-market enthusiasts — the same lot branded as neo-liberals for their advocacy of deregulation, privatisation, and cuts in welfare spending. Their guru, Milton Friedman, was an early advocate of basic income. Outside the academic realm, the biggest champion of UBI is the global tech sector. Silicon Valley billionaires such as Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes have publicly backed the idea.

Could it be possible that the global financial elite have finally sprouted a conscience? The reports of the UBI pilot projects conducted so far offer a clue. Invariably, they all present the same conclusion: giving cash to the poor is better than traditional welfare.

Of course, it would be wonderful if the problem of inequality and poverty were solved for us by a sudden moral awakening of the rich. Unfortunately, the current enthusiasm for the UBI is not the product of such a momentous development.

Not an add-on benefit

The biggest myth about the UBI, partly responsible for sections of the Left endorsing it, is that it is a redistributive policy that would reduce inequality. It is indeed possible to have a redistributive UBI. But it would need to fulfil two conditions: it must be funded by taxing the wealthy; and the existing entitlements to the poor must not be taken away. Such a UBI would actually be a socialist measure that would increase the bargaining power of the working classes by giving them an income cushion.

But neither of these conditions is met by any of the UBI designs being promoted today, either globally or in India. The much-touted Finnish experiment is restricted to the unemployed. It does not cover all working individuals. And it only replaces the already existing basic unemployment allowance and labour market subsidy — it is not an add-on benefit.

In India, too, the UBI is not an add-on. On the contrary, it is about giving in a different form (cash), and under one umbrella, what is already being given (in-kind and cash benefits) via different channels.

Back in 2008, in an influential paper in the Economic and Political Weekly titled ‘The case for direct cash transfers to the poor’, Arvind Subramanian, the present Chief Economic Adviser of the government, along with economists Devesh Kapur and Partha Mukhopadhyay, argued that the ₹1,80,000 crore spent annually on centrally sponsored schemes and assorted subsidies should instead be distributed as cash directly to 70 million households below the poverty line. Put simply, the UBI in India is nothing but the old wine of direct cash transfer in a fancy new bottle.

Its objective remains the same: to eliminate the public distribution system (PDS) and with it, the food, fuel, and fertiliser subsidies. The same old arguments for replacing the PDS with cash transfers are now being trotted out in favour of the UBI. The addition of the word ‘universal’ signals greater ambition but alters neither the substance nor the motive.

But let us take the arguments in favour at face value. What constitutes a basic income? Common sense dictates that it should be whatever is required to take care of basic life needs. A logical equivalent for this figure would be the minimum wage. The central government’s move last year to raise the minimum wage for non-skilled, non-agricultural workers to ₹9,100 per month was set aside following opposition from industry. Perhaps ₹9,100 per month is too luxurious an income to qualify as ‘basic’. The actual minimum wage in India is around ₹4,800 per month. Could we then expect at least this amount from our UBI?

While different numbers have been bandied about, there seems to be a broad consensus around the Tendulkar committee poverty line of ₹33 a day. This works out to a basic income of ₹1,000-₹1,250 a month or ₹12,000-₹15,000 a year. But even this modest figure is estimated to cost 11-12% of the GDP. In contrast, all the government’s subsidies put together account for only 4-4.5% of the GDP. This presents three options: one, the government makes up the deficit through additional tax revenue; two, it limits the fiscal burden by shrinking the UBI coverage from ‘universal’ to those below the poverty line; and three, it further shrinks the amount being doled out.

Given India’s narrow tax base, and a policy mindset hostile to the idea of extracting more tax revenue from the wealthy, we can rule out option one. So the UBI we get, if we get one, would be derived from a combination of the second and third options, which means both ‘U’ and ‘B’ are out of UBI, leaving us effectively with what we already have: cash transfers.

Most critically, one aspect is taken for granted by all the three options: the UBI will be funded primarily by the money allocated for CSS and subsidies. In other words, a basic income, however paltry, would help strengthen the case for the elimination or a significant roll-back of programmes such as the PDS, midday meal schemes, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

Why a UBI now?

There is no point reprising here the case against direct cash transfers, which economists such as Jean Dreze have made convincingly. It is nonetheless fascinating to see the emerging contours of a distinctive political project.

The Jan-Dhan Yojana set out to make every Indian accessible to global finance. The Aadhaar card set out to make every Indian identifiable and enumerable as data — the currency of global tech. The high mobile penetration has connected every Indian to the global digital network. An element that was missing was consumer behaviour, which the recent demonetisation sought to address, by force-feeding ‘cashless’ to a cash-dependent population. The UBI fits perfectly in this scheme of things, as it seeks to compress the whole gamut of welfare benefits into one, and mount it on a singular JAM (Jan-Dhan, Aadhaar, Mobile) platform.

But why a UBI now? One explanation could be the immense pressure on India in secretive free trade negotiations. The developed nations have for long wanted India to wind up its food security-related provisions — both state procurement of foodgrains, and their subsidised distribution via PDS. A UBI would pave the way for the elimination of these measures, dealing a death blow to food security and deepening farm distress.

Another is that the Indian state is stuck with welfare commitments it cannot renege on without political and legal consequences. The efficiency/inefficiency argument for scraping PDS and MGNREGS never acknowledges that these are rights-based social entitlements with specified outcomes — and that is not accidental. Shifting the welfare paradigm to UBI would loosen the bonds of legal and social accountability. Under the PDS, for instance, the state must provide a specified quantity of foodgrains to the poor no matter what. With UBI, it has the option letting the payout slide behind inflation, as has already happened with the old age and widow pensions.

In the final analysis, we need to answer a simple question: is the UBI about reducing inequality and poverty? If the answer is yes, then there are many things the state could do at a fraction of what the UBI would cost — from enforcing the minimum wage law, to releasing funds on time for MGNREGS. But if a dispensation hostile to these tried and tested anti-poverty measures develops a sudden zeal to eliminate poverty through UBI, a measure of scepticism is in order.

  • How land use affects climate change
  • The interaction between people and land is as old as human evolution. When early hunter-gatherers started to settle down in the Neolithic transition and practise agriculture, they began to change their relationship with land in a major way. Starting with the Holocene, approximately 11,500 years ago, many plants were domesticated for agriculture. These and the associated social and technological changes led to dense human settlements that then paved the way for the formation of early cities. As is evident, even now human interventions transform land, water and local ecologies, and in doing so deeply affect the availability of resources. Over the past half-century or so, it has become clear that these changes have so profoundly modified the earth that a geological transformation to the Anthropocene is now firmly in place.

Land use change lock-in

  • Land-use change takes place through human activity in several ways. For example, in Indonesia, about 500 sq km of forest area are cleared each year, much of which is replaced with oil palm plantations. Another pattern of changing land use is seen in expanding cities. In many countries, including India, cities are expanding well beyond their formal limits, either along inter-city corridors or in other directions. Various forces shape these patterns of urbanisation, transforming land use from agriculture and forests into industry, residential and commercial buildings and associated infrastructure, and horticulture. Often the contested spaces of peri-urban areas (outside city limits but not quite part of the rural hinterland) become sites from which groundwater is pumped and transported to the city, where new industrial zones are developed, where urban waste is dumped, and where vegetables and other high-value crops are grown for nearby urban centres.
  • These land-use changes are alarming for climate change because they tell us how deeply locked into semi-permanence they can be, just by proliferating at a rapid pace. Cars are replaced on average every decade or so and new breakthrough vehicle technology may spread and change the fleet in one to two decades. Coal power plants may be replaced every four to five decades. However, cities and urban ‘tissue’ last over 500 years. Urbanising areas grow and expand in different ways, parts of them planned, with other portions of informality containing infrastructure, homes, slums and industries, waterbodies and marshlands.
  • In India, there are multiple patterns of urban and peri-urban growth resulting in different consequences for each region. For example, whether infrastructure is able to guarantee some degree of equity of access to services in cities varies depending on both history and geography. The suburban trains and excellent network of BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking) buses, for instance, defined Mumbai early on in its growth. But in some cities such as Hyderabad and Bengaluru, expansion and infrastructure development took place primarily outside the core areas with the view to establishing and supporting public sector companies such as HMT, Bharat Electronics Limited, and the Defence Research and Development Organisation, and later Information Technology companies. They also serviced an auto-led transport network and associated land-use change. In fact, Chennai, quite intentionally, set up industrial hubs for automotive and parts suppliers. Gurugram, south of Delhi, is a privatised Mecca for several kinds of industries and has developed into a financial and industrial hub. Similarly, the peri-urban areas of many other cities — New Town in Kolkata, Navi Mumbai, and so on — have each had their own version of sprawl, or vast planned or unplanned spaces, that have together extended a large footprint across India.

Implications

  • The specific patterns of urban growth of a city and its periphery have implications for poverty, food, water, health, jobs and access to services. A city can, therefore, based on its pattern of growth and expansion, lead to particular lifestyles and circumscribe a quality of life for its many residents.
  • Interventions like converting agricultural land for housing or industry, filling up ponds and building housing complexes on lake beds, etc. impact ecosystem services and climate adaptation. These especially affect the poor who are largely reliant on ecosystems for their livelihoods. Keeping water in the ground, in tanks and waterbodies is regarded as a precaution for dry spells or irregularity in precipitation. These measures can improve resilience towards the possible effects of climate change.
  • According to some scientists, unlike carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas whose effects last for hundreds of years, land cover and land management generate drivers in climate systems that influence local and regional weather patterns. This is largely due to changes in aerosols, carbon, nitrogen and other gases along with the moisture in the air, heat and light. The urban heat island effect is understood readily, but this also affects peri-urban regions of expansion.
  • This subject clearly requires more research to provide guidance to policymakers. But we already know that protecting waterbodies, conserving groundwater, reducing our ecological footprint and living in more compact communities are good ways to address both climate change mitigation and adaptation, which are about reducing greenhouse gases and preparing to live in a warmer world.
  • Sujatha Byravan is Principal Research Scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy, Bengaluru.
  • Choked by the Global Gag Rule
  • On his first day in office, U.S. President Donald Trump reinstated what is known as the Global Gag Rule, or the Mexico City Policy. This rule, which was first introduced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 at the time of the International Population Conference in Mexico City, has been revoked by successive Democratic Presidents and reinstated by successive Republican Presidents, so Mr. Tump’s action was not unexpected.
  • Very briefly, the Global Gag Rule states that U.S. government funding cannot be given to international NGOs, either directly or through U.S. non-governmental partners of these NGOs, unless these foreign NGOs sign an undertaking to not provide abortion services or even information or advocacy on abortion to their clients even in countries in which abortion is legal and even with money that does not come from the United States Agency for International Development’s budget. Whenever this ruling has been in place, it has severely handicapped a host of non-governmental agencies in poor countries that provide family planning information and services to women because these agencies also often help women to deal with unplanned and unwanted pregnancies in countries where it is legal to do.

·         Not just about abortion

  • The U.S. government has every right to decide how to allocate its foreign aid and if the present one is against the use of tax dollars to promote abortion, however tangentially, that is its prerogative. But the international reproductive health community is naturally upset at an action that may be technically legal but is morally and ethically questionable in that is penalises women and organisations in ways that go well beyond abortion access — in principle, the ruling can cut off funds for crucial activities like HIV/AIDS prevention, contraceptive access, sexuality information, maternal and child health, and so on, simply because the agencies that work in these areas might give up working in them because of restrictions from their funding sources.
  • Such impacts will be particularly strongly felt in countries in Africa, where the unmet demand for health, reproductive and contraceptive information and services is high because governments do not have the resources to meet these demands.
  • What about India? According to the most recent survey data available (National Family Health Survey, 2005-2006), close to three fourths of Indian women get their contraceptive services from the government sector. But this is because some 67% of contraceptive use in India is accounted for by female sterilisation, which is promoted primarily by the government’s family planning programme. For other temporary methods of birth control, the non-governmental sector (by which we actually mean a mix of private and non-profit agencies) accounts for more than half the contraceptive use. How this non-governmental sector will fare under the Gag Rule remains to be seen.
  • But there is more. Much of the assistance that the U.S. government provides to India is through what are called public-private/NGO partnerships to address the problem on hand — whether it is urban health or school cleanliness drives or rural child mortality. It is not clear how these partnerships will play out under the new ruling. Given that the Indian government is clearly not opposed to abortion and that the Gag Rule does not restrict aid to governments whatever their stance on abortion, the net impact might be in fact to strengthen the hand of a government that is already clamping down on NGOs in the country for its own reasons.
  • India could also experience other kinds of impacts of this rule because there are several aspects of sex and reproduction that the government refuses to touch for politically reactionary reasons and the NGO sector is all we have to address these. Sex education for adolescents falls in this category. An important part of such sexuality education includes explaining all the available options for birth control and if abortion is deliberately left out of this list, a disservice will have been done.
  • On the other hand, fairness demands that we look at the few positive features of the Gag Rule that might be good for India and its people if they are imposed on governments, NGOs and, through them, on communities and families. The Executive Order forbids aid to any entities that support coercive abortions or involuntary sterilisations — both actions that pop their heads repeatedly in India. Maybe USAID pressure will give a fresh lease of life and publicity to efforts to combat shameful practices ranging from tribal women being forced by government hospitals to undergo post-partum sterilisation (and sometimes dying from the hurriedly and unhygienically performed procedure) to pregnant women being forced by their families to abort female fetuses. If that happens, the Global Gag Rule might have a small bright side to it.

·         Important caveats

  • Also worth keeping in mind is that the Gag Rule only applies to the promotion of abortion as a means of family planning, not abortion after a sexual attack or abortion to save the life of a pregnant woman. Moreover the ruling does not apply to post-abortion care for women who have post-abortion complications, legal or not. These are important caveats and NGOs must not get frightened off helping such women just because of the rule. The fear unfortunately is that many NGOs will either bow to the rule by leaving abortion completely out of their ambit or will retreat from family planning related work altogether.
  • In any case, it is worth keeping in mind that India does not have the same tradition of pro-choice and pro-life arguments that polarise debates in the U.S. and paying too much attention to what the Trump administration decrees is not in our interest; it will be even less necessary if the effective tradition of NGO activity in India can count a little more on the active support and encouragement of the government instead of being hounded for imagined brushes with some vague law or the other.
  • Gandhi for our troubled times
  • I once asked my students at Jindal Global University about Mahatma Gandhi’s relevance in today’s India. “Gandhi is only a name and an image in India today,” they commented coldly, as if I had been taken in by a romantic view of India which lived the Gandhian non-violence as a Utopian dream far from the harsh reality of the everyday life of Indians.
  • This may be true, I thought. Yet, even if there is an ounce of truth in this argument, we need to be reminded that Gandhi has been more appreciated, read and practised seriously outside India than among the last two generations of Indians. Moreover, he remains a towering figure who seems as fascinating as he was when he was assassinated by Nathuram Godse. The impact of his philosophy of non-violence in inspiring leaders of the 20th century such as Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Václav Havel is the expression of a momentous mode of political thinking that can be invoked as a Gandhian moment.

·         Explaining his universal appeal

  • Therefore, Gandhi’s success as a universal gadfly goes far beyond his national stature as the founding father of modern India. As such, his universal message could be measured by his immense impact on all forms of dissent against unjust regimes — this includes India — in the past half-century. As such, Gandhi has become a part of the moral conscience of humanity. His name and achievements symbolise a sense of revolt against injustice. That is to say, a proper appreciation of Gandhi’s relevance can only be made against the backdrop of his civic philosophy of dissent. Also, let us not forget that Gandhi’s critique of modern civilisation inHind Swaraj is one of the greatest Socratic gestures of intellectual self-examination in the history of modern political thought. It is all the more necessary to point out that Gandhi’s critical attitude toward modern civilisation is an effort in asking the right questions at the right time about whole inherited ideas on thought and action. The Gandhian audacity of asking questions on what the western world presents as universal truths is, therefore, tied to a specific historical context in which this self-examination finds its meaning. As such, it happens that Gandhi is a non-professional philosopher who asks philosophical questions and helps us to understand the implications of how these ideas can change the world. In other words, he is a public gadfly who does not conform himself to any orthodoxy, western or Indian.
  • Such an attitude of mind is represented by Gandhi’s Socratic revolution: self-examination accompanied by a self-transformation of society. Gandhi’s legacy also exemplifies another Socratic aspect which is absent among most of the political leaders today: courage. He believed that when fighting injustice, the actor must not only have the courage of his/her opinions but also be ready to give his/her life for the cause. As writer George Woodcock says, “The idea of perishing for a cause, for other men, for a village even, occurs more frequently in his [Gandhi’s] writings as time goes on. He had always held that satyagraha implied the willingness to accept not only suffering but also death for the sake of a principle.” Gandhi’s dedication to justice in the face of death is an example of his courageous attitude of mind as a Socratic gadfly. Further, one can find in Gandhi a readiness to raise the matter of self-suffering as public policy. He felt an increasing loneliness in the role of the super-satyagrahi which he had assumed. Loneliness is one of the fundamental features of a Socratic gadfly, who is always expected to take a position independent of those in power and sometimes in direct opposition to the opinions of the larger society. As a matter of fact, Gandhi’s moral power, like Socrates’s irony, masks an autonomous individual who is often lonely because of his attentiveness to the moral disquiet within him. Gandhi’s nobility of spirit in the face of populism is a timely reminder of how imaginatively the act of dissent can become a way of questioning, changing the world as well as oneself.

·         A vision by creating possibilities

  • When confronted by mobs or public authority, Gandhi did not adopt a policy of self-censorship. He had no fear of the power of the state or of a tyrannical crowd. It is this state of mind which we can find as the underlying motto of Gandhi’s political and intellectual life. Gandhi had no tragic sense of politics, but he knew which battles to fight and which ones to let go. In the manner of Socrates, he was aware of the fact that philosophy and the city need each other and benefit each other, even if there is a distinction between the concerned and critical gadfly and those playing a role to preserve a corrupted power. That is why, for both Socrates and Gandhi, the process of dialogue and ceaseless questioning is considered as the most dissenting and productive thinking of gadflies in the public space. As such, Gandhi was able to define a new vision of independent India — not by a nostalgic return to the past, but by creating the possibilities of a critical public culture in India.
  • The idea of struggling for truth and resisting evil, after all, provides us with one of the most brilliant examples of Gandhian critical thinking and public questioning. Questioning in this context is the non-violent process of speaking up against power while withstanding tyranny and silencing. In other words, Gandhi’s main concern is not with ahimsa as kindness and gentleness. He is talking of non-violence as a brave act of dissent. “My non-violence is not merely kindness to all living creatures,” wrote Gandhi in his journalHarijan. “Ahimsa is the highest ideal. It is meant for the brave, never for the cowardly. To benefit by others’ killing and delude oneself into the belief that one is being very religious and non-violent is sheer self-deception.” As a matter of fact, taking into consideration Gandhi’s life, Satyagraha rests on a philosophical belief that non-violence is a struggle against wickedness and hypocrisy. Moreover, it is the highest form of moral intervention against falsehood and injustice in the public space.

·         Leadership as a true form

  • Therefore, more than just being a historical moment, questions which were addressed by Mahatma Gandhi to his contemporaries find their full relevance in our times of political populism and moral hypocrisy. Though Gandhi propounded no Platonic or Machiavellian theories of political leadership, he personified a moral and dialogical leadership behaviour widely acknowledged as a true form of interconnectedness and service to others. Undoubtedly, this is the true lesson of Gandhi’s political life, where moral conviction and sense of duty to others go hand-in-hand. He strived to live a life in politics which promoted moral values that transcended self-interest and political arrogance. This idea of transformative leadership as an ethic of freedom is a distinctive feature of Gandhi’s political philosophy.
  • As such, in Gandhi’s ideal of democracy many of his core beliefs and arguments such as moral growth of the individual, the primacy of the spiritual in non-violent action and the interdependence of all departments of life came together. But how did Gandhi expect these principles to work in everyday life? He had come to the conclusion that democracy, like any other aspect of social and political life, would not function in the framework of a meaningless civilisation with no sense of ethics and spirituality. In other words, his idea of democracy is understood as a means to fulfil one’s civic duty as an individual participating in a community and as an end to be attained through moral and political resistance to all forms of centralisation of power.
  • This is where Gandhi’s conception of democracy becomes relevant to us and significant to contemporary democratic theory. Needless to say, Gandhi’s approach to politics in terms of “resistance” and “protest” beyond a conception of domination over others provides a potential antidote to the contemporary crisis of democracy. With this in mind, Gandhi can be said to be oriented towards reinventing politics as a capacity for self-realisation and self-transformation of society. Maybe this is why each time I read a page of Gandhi I am tempted to go back to my students and ask them to revisit him as an invaluable thinker and moral guide amid the great political problems and the cultural confusions of India and the world in which we live.
  • Instead of chasing storms, scientists create their own

The sparkling ice spread through a small stand of trees in the White Mountain National Forest so precisely, it could have been applied by Elsa, Disney’s Frozenqueen. Within the basketball court-size plot, everything glistened. Outside it, branches were bare.

But there’s no magic going on at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, just lots of science. Operated by the USDA Forest Service since 1955, the site is now home to a research project to examine the impact of ice storms, the often beautiful but devastating weather events that reshape forests, damage infrastructure and disrupt lives. The goal is to study how the storms affect the forest and the wildlife that depends on it, and eventually, model the timing and location of future storms.

“People are very concerned about ice storms because they have a huge impact, but we know almost nothing about them,” said Charles Driscoll, one of the project’s researchers and a professor of environmental systems engineering at Syracuse University.

“This is a way we can try to investigate this under a controlled situation, where we can look at different levels of icing and then see what the variable response is to and across an ecosystem.”

In the U.S., ice storms are prevalent in a belt from east Texas to New England, with the greatest risk in the Northeast. In 1998, one such storm left millions of people without power and caused more than $4 billion in economic damage.

More than a decade later, Forest Service research ecologist Lindsey Rustad was driving through the Berkshires watching cars slide off an icy road and thought, “This is something we really need to know more about.”

Beating the impulse

While her first impulse was to become a storm chaser, following and measuring the effects of ice storms after they hit, Ms. Rustad and a colleague came up with a better idea.

“We put on our thinking caps again and then we said, “We both work in one of the most famous outdoor laboratories in the world. So instead of going to ice storms, or waiting for an ice storm to come to us, we decided we would make ice storms,” said Ms. Rustad, one of the lead investigators on the project.

That’s exactly what happened one night last week. Fire hoses drawing water from the brook were mounted onto a pair ATVs that travelled the length of two research plots, spraying a fine mist into the air. Researchers used bright orange buckets to keep track of how much water was applied and gray laundry baskets to catch debris falling from the trees. “The cool thing is that trees are big, strong, long-lived organisms that have to endure all kinds of stresses. They can’t run away, they may be alive for hundreds and hundreds of years, so if something bad comes, they should be able to rebound,” said Paul Schaberg, a plant physiologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

“So we want to understand that ability of trees to rebound from things, even some things that look somewhat devastating.”

The multi-year project is funded by the National Science Foundation and brings together scientists and others from half a dozen universities, including the University of Vermont, the University of Southern Maine, Cornell University and Texas Tech University. Some of the 10 research plots were iced last year and again last week to test the effects of repeated storms, while some plots are left alone as the control group.

While there is some speculation that the “ice belt” may shift northward due to climate change, or t