Editorials - 23-04-2021

The EC should either enforce virtual rallies or not conduct elections if the pandemic persists

India is witnessing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with record numbers of new cases and deaths every day. At the same time, States holding Assembly elections have seen mass rallies by political parties. In most such rallies, especially in West Bengal, which still has two phases to go and where campaigning is still on, COVID-19 protocols such as masking and physical distancing are blatantly flouted. In view of the COVID-19 surge, and the fact that public rallies are super-spreader events, should campaigning be restricted to virtual mode — at least until the pandemic is behind us? In a discussion moderated byG. Sampath, Sanjay Kumar and Neelanjan Sircar explore this question. Edited excerpts:

Should the Election Commission (EC) have made campaigning strictly virtual in view of the pandemic?

Sanjay Kumar:I’m not sure whether the situation, when the elections were announced, required the EC to make such an announcement. It could not have anticipated how things would turn out. But it needed to ensure that people at these rallies wear masks. The problem is that even political leaders are not wearing masks.

Neelanjan Sircar:Once things got bad, there should have been some consideration of protocol. At least with regard to those political actors over which the EC has some power, it should have demanded that protocols are followed. The banning of certain kinds of rallies or at least limiting their size could have been considered, especially because much of the campaign is actually not in rally form.

How important are public rallies in terms of the campaign communications mix? There are many ways to put out your message. Why is it so important to gather a big crowd?

NS:The average person on the ground does talk about who showed up at a rally, how big the crowds were, how the energy was, and so on. All this has political impact. Yes, there are other forms of media, but communicating via television isn’t as localised as rallies are. Mass rallies are also a tool to energise the party cadre, because you have to aggressively get people to a rally. In fact, the strength of a party cadre, or individual party workers, is often associated with their ability to get people to rallies. So, rallies play an important part in communicating with the voter and within the internal logic of a political party.

Is there a correlation between turnout at rallies and votes garnered? If not, doesn’t that strengthen the case for virtual campaigns?

SK:I do believe that the crowds at any given rally don’t necessarily vote for the party whose rally they are attending. But rallies have an important role to play. Look at how the election is being contested in West Bengal. It is a contest not only between the candidates on the ground or between the big leaders; there is also a mind game going on. You have to psyche your opponent and create a perception that you are winning — show that a lot of people are with the candidate, people are supporting you, and want to vote for your party. And this whole perception and aura can only be created through huge crowds. And such crowds can only be gathered if there is a big rally or public meeting.

So, mass rallies are basically a tool to build optics?

SK:Absolutely. How do you show that a candidate or a leader is hugely popular unless you can show massive crowds, which cannot be shown on an online platform?

The number of likes on a YouTube video or shares of a social media post are an indicator of popularity as well.

SK:There are different worlds out there, and the people who are on Twitter and Facebook cannot be compared with the kind who come for big rallies. Social media platforms are no substitute for the kind of optics that you can create from a mass rally. When a leader says something, and there is massive applause — that cannot be replaced.

With public rallies, you are dealing with segments of society that are unlikely to be reached by social media. Also, since rallies take place in a constituency’s key locales, they have constituency-specific effects.

In Bengal, [Congress leader] Rahul Gandhi has called off public rallies, the Left has also done so, and [West Bengal Chief Minister] Mamata Banerjee has curtailed public meetings as well. Only the BJP seems intent on having rallies. Are there party-specific factors that make mass rallies more essential as a mobilising tool for the BJP?

NS:The Trinamool certainly has a comparative advantage in the strength of its local cadre. The BJP is a new entrant in the State. It’s also taken in a lot of defectors from all sides. So, it’s an unwieldy force on the ground, it’s not organised. It does require the sort of energy that comes from having its top leaders come over. It’s been important for the BJP to bring big names, even big actors such as Mithun Chakraborty, to build an energy around its campaign in a way that I don’t think is required for the Trinamool or even the CPM.

SK:I don’t agree that parties with a strong party cadre would not like to hold rallies because they know they have a lot of support on the ground and can therefore win without even holding a rally. No, all parties want to hold rallies. In Hindi, we have this saying about a half-empty vessel and a full vessel. If you drop a coin into it, the half-empty vessel creates a much bigger sound than the vessel which is full. So, the party which has solid support on the ground, with lots of workers, will still hold the rally. But it may not make an extra effort to create that loud noise. But the party which is not very confident of ground-level support has a much more urgent need to create that buzz around big rallies. This is why we have seen lots of rallies being held in Bengal by both the Trinamool and the BJP.

What if campaigning is restricted to virtual mode? Will it queer the electoral pitch, giving undue benefits to some while disadvantaging others?

SK:It will disadvantage candidates from deprived socioeconomic communities, and candidates in rural India. We keep talking about the role of money power in Indian elections, and how a wealthy candidate has better chances compared to one with limited resources, rendering the contest uneven. In a virtual campaign, this form of unevenness will be minimised, but there will be other kinds of unevenness with regard to Internet and social media access, and the ability to use new technology to one’s advantage.

NS:While you may even out economic disparities in a virtual campaign, you’re certainly creating other disparities. The BJP might require the ability to do larger rallies in order to gather attention in places where it’s finding it hard to break into. If the Trinamool has an advantage in terms of local cadre, the fact that virtual rallies do not have the same impact locally that in-person rallies do would give the Trinamool an advantage. In places where the reach of a virtual rally might be less, there will be concerns of creating disparities in favour of whichever party organisation is stronger on the ground.

If the pandemic situation doesn’t improve, does the EC have the powers to mandate a virtual campaign?

SK:The EC has the powers to set the terms and conditions of the campaign. If those are very tough, political parties may go to the court against the EC’s decision. But the EC does have the powers to set the rules for how an election is to be conducted. For instance, campaigning normally stops 48 hours before polling, but now in Bengal it’s getting stopped 72 hours before polling. The EC can take such decisions. But you can’t change the rules when half the election is already over, as is the case in Bengal. However, nobody can stop the EC from being strict in asking leaders to follow COVID-19 norms, and in this respect, it has been very, very weak. It has not even issued notices to leaders who are moving around without masks.

NS:In some sense, the idea that the EC wields police powers and certain rule-making powers during the elections is predicated upon the idea that when elections happen, everything else stops. Unfortunately, illnesses don’t stop, COVID-19 doesn’t stop. So, we have to consider to what extent the EC even has the capacity to think about what policing powers look like in an era of COVID-19. How does one even think about the security and policing infrastructure in the middle of a calamity, when there are other things happening alongside an election? If we consider the measures other States have put in place right now to curb the spread of COVID-19, we must think through how much of that is now being compromised because there’s an ongoing election in Bengal. And if it comes to pass that we are in election mode again soon, we need to ponder what are the relative policing powers that can get us out of this kind of trouble, and not make us completely dependent on the EC, which has no specialisation in the kind of policing work needed in a pandemic situation.

There seem to be two different considerations here: democracy and electoral rights on the one hand, and public health and the right to life on the other. How do we reconcile the two?

NS:It’s an incredibly difficult question. We have to think about what the security architecture of India looks like at the time of elections. We may then find we can’t have fair elections at a time like this because we’re too afraid that either the Central or the State government bureaucracies would be biased. So, when the conditions are not appropriate for mass gatherings, just don’t hold elections. If we’re unable to change our set architecture of elections being run by the EC, even in the middle of a pandemic, then, as we’re seeing now, it is not good for the EC’s credibility.

So, you’re saying that if elections are due in the middle of a pandemic, then the EC should go with one of two options: either all campaigning is virtual or no elections.

NS:Absolutely. I agree with Sanjay that you can’t change the rules in the middle of an election. But let’s not pretend that the possibility of COVID-19 coming back in a serious way wasn’t in the background. Choosing an eight-phase election at this time, for whatever reason, was just playing with fire, and unfortunately, it looks like we’re getting burned.

So, the next time an election comes due, which is less than a year from now, and the pandemic is unlikely to have receded by then, should the EC declare at total ban on mass rallies, right at the beginning?

SK:Definitely. Elections are due in U.P., Punjab, and Uttarakhand early next year. The EC should take lessons from what is happening now. I would welcome a complete ban on big rallies, with only door-to-door campaigning permitted.

NS:You cannot fault any political party or candidate for trying to win the election using the tools that are legally at their disposal. So it is up to the EC to set the ground rules that do not put parties, party workers and ordinary citizens at risk.

You can’t change the rules when half the election is over. However, nobody can stop the EC from being strict in asking political leaders to follow COVID-19 norms, and in this respect, it has been very, very weak.

Sanjay Kumar

As the Supreme Court turns the page on the tenure of the outgoing CJI, it needs to reclaim its role as a judicial beacon

The Supreme Court of India in the last five years during the tenure of the last four Chief Justices of India (CJIs), has seen an unprecedented fall — from being an independent custodian of justice, to becoming an instrumentality of the government. After the tenure of former CJI Ranjan Gogoi, who oversaw the Ayodhya and Rafale verdicts, before retiring to join the Rajya Sabha, we thought the worst was behind us. We hoped that his successor, CJI S.A. Bobde would lift the Court out of this abyss and at least restore its independence from the executive. But, the nearly18 months of his tenure has exposed a deep malaise in every aspect of dispensation of justice; from the administration of the Court; in the allocation of cases and benches; to presiding over matters related to the protection of civil liberties, securing the rights and the livelihood of the poor and marginalised; or in ensuring that the unconstitutional actions and policies of the executive are kept in check.

Momentous months

His tenure began in November 2019 with many important cases before him. There were over 100 petitions challenging the dilution of Article 370 and the reorganisation of the State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) into Union Territories. Soon after he assumed office, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was passed, which led to another spate of petitions challenging its constitutionality. The CAA sparked widespread protests. We witnessed police confrontation at the Jamia University campus and the entry of gangs into Jawaharlal Nehru University who beat up students and teachers under the full gaze of the police. Thereafter, the city of Delhi witnessed engineered riots and the subsequent hounding of young students and other activists in the guise of an investigation by the Delhi Police. There were also other important cases pending before the Supreme Court, including the validity of electoral bonds, and the protection of Rohingya refugees. Then, early in 2020, COVID-19 overtook the country, and with it began the lockdown of the Supreme Court and thereafter other courts, and then the entire country — which led to the largest exodus of migrant labour from the large cities in India.

A powerful constitutional court like the Supreme Court of India must rise to these challenges, and it is in such challenging times that its mettle and independence is tested. It is here that the role of the Chief Justice of India — he is the master of the roster deciding the priority accorded to the hearing of cases, their allocation to Benches and setting the tone for the Court by his leadership — becomes critical.

The cases challenging the cataclysmic changes to the status of J&K remained unheard during his entire tenure as did the cases challenging the CAA. The main challenge to the electoral bonds and other changes to electoral funding, which have a fundamental bearing on our democracy, remained unheard. Applications for the stay of bonds being issued before every election, were never listed for hearing, and were eventually dismissed on the ground that the bonds had been around for several years; therefore, there was no need to stay them. Similarly, the main petition regarding the status of the Rohingya refugees and the protection to be accorded to them, remained unheard. An application to prevent their detention and deportation, was disposed of by Chief Justice Bobde, in complete disregard of constitutional and international law norms, on the basis that their fleeing genocide in Myanmar did not concern the Court.

The Supreme Court, under his stewardship, remained shut for physical hearing much of the time, resulting in fewer than 25% cases being heard in a Court, already reeling under a backlog and pendency of cases. Manyhabeas corpuspetitions of people in detention were not heard for months, and thereafter summarily disposed of without deciding the main issue by relegating the petitioners to the High Courts.

Migrant labour exodus

During the nationwide lockdown last year, the country witnessed unprecedented suffering by migrant labour; there was a mass exodus of them from the big cities, and they suffered a huge loss of livelihood and income. Without any public transport, they were forced to walk hundreds of miles to reach their villages. Their case for relief in terms of food, wages and transport was initially heard by the CJI’s Bench. Unfortunately, the pleas on behalf of the migrant workers did not result in any relief to them with the Court saying it could not “supplant” the government’s wisdom on providing relief to the lakhs of migrant labourers across the country. The CJI remarked infamously during one of the hearings, “If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money?” It would be no exaggeration to say that the Court’s inhumanity and apathy towards the distress of the poor and marginalised reached its nadir during this time.

Far from being a custodian of citizens’ rights, CJI Bobde, while hearing the Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan’shabeas corpuspetition (arrested while covering the infamous Hathras rape and murder case in Uttar Pradesh), noted that the Court had been discouraging people from approaching it under Article 32 (https://bit.ly/3n92Ym1). Mr. Kappan’s petition remained pending with repeated adjournments.

In the farmers’ protest case, the CJI appointed a committee of people, whose political neutrality was suspect, to examine the issues and commence negotiations with the farmers. These committee members had publicly supported the farm laws in the past.

Administrative role

Apart from his role as the master of the roster, the CJI also plays a pivotal role in judicial appointments. Unfortunately, here too, he failed to carry the collegium with him, leading to no appointments to the Supreme Court during his tenure, and very few appointments even to the High Courts. He did not even order the government to issue notifications for the appointment of judges where the collegium had unanimously reiterated its recommendations, despite the government procrastinating over them for long. The law laid down by the Court says that these are binding on the government.

The Chief Justice of India also plays a critical role in dealing with complaints against judges. During his tenure, the CJI received a serious complaint made by a Chief Minister of a State against one of the Court judges, with considerable documentary evidence of questionable land purchases. For over six months, the people in the country were not informed how the complaint had been dealt with, and whether any in-house committee (as per the law) has been appointed to, who the members of the committee were, and what their report was.

The same lack of transparency was visible in another case, where he was chairman of a committee examining allegations of harassment made by a woman staffer of the Court against his predecessor. His report, purporting to give a clean chit to his predecessor, was never allowed to see the light of day and not even provided to the complainant.

Green cause

I have tried to search for the redeeming features in the CJI’s tenure. But to my dismay, the only positive intervention by CJI Bobde that I have been able to discover was his order in the West Bengal trees case (https://bit.ly/3na6752), where he appointed an expert committee to examine the value of trees which are to be felled for any public project. In all other issues, the CJI has only caused disappointment with his silence, letting the executive have its way and even making strong remarks on sensitive issues and subjects. He has kept important matters pending, and has hardly intervened to provide any relief to the most marginalised or the weak in India.

As we bid farewell to Chief Justice of India Bobde, the Supreme Court must examine what has happened to what had once been called the most powerful court in the world and a beacon for many other courts across the world. As the Supreme Court turns the page on his tenure, let us hope that in the coming years, it can rebuild its legacy by asserting its judicial independence from the government and once again reclaiming its constitutional role as a citadel that establishes India’s constitutional values, guards its democracy, and protects human rights and dignity.

Prashant Bhushan is a senior public interest advocate practising at the Supreme Court of India

In the second wave, administrative indolence, chaotic public communication and counter-intuitive policy stand out

The Prime Minister’s address to the nation on April 20, though fairly motivational, confounded the expectations of much of the nation’s commonality. Apart from a coherent plea to States to avoid total lockdowns and a romantic COVID-19 situational briefing of sorts, much of it was optimistic yet stultifying rhetoric that could hardly have any influence on mass behaviour towards COVID-19. Nonetheless, while much of the visual aspect of the Prime Minister’s address was similar to the ones held last year, one conspicuous element was missing — that of a symbolic mask. While a number of alibis for the same are possible, it is an insignia that speaks volumes about our approach toward the second wave of COVID-19.

Administrative fatigue

Medicine and social science are two essential pillars of public health. However, medical interventions have historically been the ones to usurp the public health space. Much to the detriment of public health, this has time and again resulted in a subconscious dismissal of social science-based approaches that hold the keys to the public health castle. The situation with the second wave is hardly different. In our besottedness with strategies such as mass vaccination, which although of unrivalled significance have considerable near-term limitations, the simplest yet most crucial behavioural interventions have been given a criminally light touch at a time when they were supposed to be accentuated.

And this goes beyond the abomination of political rallies potentially spreading infection, or public representatives failing at crucial public messaging by not wearing masks themselves. Take the instance of a mofussil town that no longer sees honking vehicles traverse the streets every morning, airing social distancing and masking messages, unlike during the first wave. Or the near-disappearance after the first wave of rings drawn outside of a shopping store to encourage social distancing. Surmount these with counter-intuitive public policies at the grass-roots level, and you have a perfect recipe for a flaring pandemic.

For example, even before an official order was promulgated in Maharashtra, local police forced shops to remain open for only four hours during the day in certain localities, creating panic among customers and shopkeepers. The idea of limiting open-hours derives from the theoretical precept of rationing services to discourage over-consumption, much like waiting times. But the same fosters over-crowding, non-compliance with COVID-19-appropriate behaviour by both shopkeepers and customers, and is practically counterproductive when an infectious pandemic is in question.

Similarly, it is possible to locate beneficiaries lined up outside some vaccination centres from midnight till noon for physical tokens, while the politically well-connected get their way within minutes. All of these indicate that much like pandemic fatigue among the public, administrative and governance fatigue is real, and that the crucial lessons from the early days of the pandemic have been squandered rather than strengthened.

Poor messaging

Another example of administrative fatigue, resulting from a subconscious dismissal of behavioural approaches, is the poor risk communication and public messaging that has accompanied the second wave. Health behaviours, once firmly embedded, are expected to be swiftly elicited on subsequent occasions. The concept is much like immunological memory where the body exerts a stronger response to a disease agent upon the second or third infection. Such embedded health behaviours in some East Asian countries have resulted in prompt and widespread public adoption of measures such as masking on the whiff of an infectious outbreak. The same cannot be expected for India given our lesser exposure to infectious pandemics. Nonetheless, a strong and subtle nudge was imperative during the second wave to quickly bring back COVID-19-appropriate behaviours with renewed vigour. This has failed, and that too during more pressing times than before.

As is often humorously exclaimed, the worst way to calm someone down is by telling them to calm down. Reducing the risk communication strategy to simple messages such as “please wear masks” is unlikely to work particularly in a setting of widespread pandemic fatigue, and where mixed signals are continuously disseminated by political representatives. Altering health behaviour, in addition to altering physical and social contexts, involves skilful and emphatic messaging that incentivises adoption of the right behaviours. Unfortunately, the public health messaging strategy during the second wave has been more generic, muffled, and far more equivocal than the first wave.

A perspective

An over-medicalised public health emergency is a disaster superimposed on another. Multiple fundamental aspects of COVID-19 vaccines and the protection afforded by them still remain fuzzy. Further, there are non-negotiable aspects such as the lag between vaccination and protection, and the gargantuan challenge of vaccinating a large population as ours. Overcoming our preoccupation with medical solutions and looking at behavioural approaches as more than mere rituals will be imperative to combat this second wave.

Dr. Soham D. Bhaduri is a physician, public health policy researcher and commentator

There are two possible solutions involving AIR and DD, and Internet service providers

Access and affordability continue to plague teachers and students alike one year after the COVID-19 outbreak. Teachers, administrators and policymakers are all working, but the results are not encouraging. People at both ends of the classroom seem to be going through a mere exercise with precious little to show for their efforts. How much of learning is happening is anyone’s guess. Exams have lost their credibility. The cost to health with continuous exposure to screens and the dent on financial resources are significant for both teachers and students. Online learning seems to be a case of working mindlessly, rather than working smart.

With physical classes out of the reckoning, access to education is now almost exclusively online. Internet penetration in India is 50% and that reveals one reason for the less-than-efficient achievement in the online education sector. Every single teacher-educator and student, even in the metros, has experienced poor connectivity. In the rural areas online access remains an aspiration. What happens to that child in the village government school, eager to learn but with no proper access to the Internet? Even if there is a selfless teacher who is willing to use his/her mobile hotspot, how much can he/she spend? The government has a solution right in its backyard.

Two influential agencies

The Government of India owns the airwaves. Prasar Bharati is India’s broadcasting corporation handling both radio and television in India. All India Radio (AIR) is blessed with 470 broadcasting centres which cover 92% of the country’s geographical area and 99.19% of our population. Doordarshan (DD) handles television, online and mobile broadcasting across our country and the world with 34 satellite channels, 17 well-equipped studios in State capitals and 49 studio centres in other cities. With such resources, AIR and DD can be used to broadcast lessons, given that education is one of the three functions of the two agencies under the Prasar Bharati Act. These two agencies can be reinvented to cater to the needs of the education sector.

Educational broadcasts for classes 10, 11 and 12, to begin with, can be done over AIR and DD in the ratio 4:1 (four hours of radio and one hour of TV). Those courses which need demonstration and where seen/observed physical activity is important can be broadcast on TV. This calls for some training and some effort, but it can be done.

There are two benefits from this: one, we will be able to reduce for our teachers and students the strain of having to stare at their screens endlessly; and two, with AIR and DD being free, the heavy drain on financial resources will be drastically reduced.

Policymakers should make it a point to involve teachers in their planning. Training can be provided by a set of master trainers over a month for teachers who will turn into scriptwriters and programmers. These teachers can also be taught to create appropriate tools for evaluation over radio and TV. The Central and State educational boards should be roped in, to support, monitor and provide feedback to improve the system.

If regular radio is not enough, we also have digital radio spawning FM stations leased out to private players for a fee and several FM stations that are run by NGOs, universities and such agencies. My suggestion is this: let the AIR devote four hours (per class) to educational broadcasting and let DD undertake educational broadcasting for an hour (per class). With these two public broadcasting services combined in the ratio of 4:1 (per each class), we will be able to serve the entire student population of our country.

Free hours of Internet

Another suggestion that the government could consider is to ask Internet Service Providers to provide many hours of free Internet usage to teachers and students. This will not be easy but the government should call the shots and take a decision that is in the interest of the people.

John Varghese is Principal, St Stephen’s College, Delhi

Centre should clarify how far experience can be treated as expertise for tribunal posts

The establishment of tribunals as adjudicatory bodies in specific fields is based on the idea that specialisation and expertise are required to decide complex cases of a technical nature. The ‘tribunalisation’ of justice is driven by the recognition that it would be cost-effective, accessible and give scope for utilising expertise in the respective fields. Central to this scheme is the principle that the ‘experts’ appointed to these tribunals should bring in special knowledge and experience. These criteria came under focus recently when the appointment of former IAS officer, Girija Vaidyanathan, as Expert Member in the Southern Bench of the NGT, was challenged in the Madras High Court. Even though the court initially granted an interim stay on her appointment, it ruled that she was not ineligible, going by the criteria in the NGT Act. She was found to have fulfilled the eligibility requirements by virtue of her administrative experience of nearly five years in “dealing with environmental matters”. The Act spells out two kinds of criteria — one based on qualifications and practical experience, and another on administrative experience in the field — and a candidate has to fulfil only one of them. For the first, a masters’ or a doctorate in science, engineering or technology, with 15 years’ experience in the relevant field, including five in environment and forests in a national level institution, is needed. The fields include pollution control, hazardous substance management and forest conservation.

On the other hand, the administrative experience criterion is shorn of detail, and merely stipulates 15 years’ experience, of which five should have been in “dealing with environmental matters” in either the Centre or the State or any reputed institution. Even though Ms. Vaidyanathan’s stint as Secretary, Environment and Forests, Tamil Nadu, and Chairperson of the State Pollution Control Board together amounted to only 28 months, the court accepted the contention that her tenure as Health Secretary should also be considered. The court also observed wryly that it is an entirely different matter whether administrative experience in the second criterion should be regarded as equivalent to “the real expertise” indicated in the clause on qualifications. The court rightly declined to interfere with the appointment, as the equivalence found in the rules falls under the domain of Parliament. At a time when the need, relevance and composition of tribunals are under judicial scrutiny, and the Centre itself has abolished some of them, it would be salutary if the government spelt out with clarity, as the court has suggested, the extent to which a bureaucrat’s involvement in environmental matters could be regarded as equivalent to expertise. It should also show greater urgency in implementing earlier Supreme Court directions to constitute a National Tribunals Commission to supervise the appointment and functioning of tribunals.

Roping in retired HC judges to clear backlog should not be at cost of regular appointments

The Supreme Court’s decision to invoke a “dormant provision” in the Constitution to clear the way for appointment of retired judges asad hocjudges to clear the mounting arrears in the various High Courts is an indictment of the extraordinary delay in filling up judicial vacancies. Whether the fault lies with the Collegium system or the Centre’s tardiness, there is little doubt that the unacceptable delay in the appointment process in recent times has caused huge vacancies in the High Courts. Therefore, it is definitely not unwelcome that the Court has chosen to activate Article 224A of the Constitution, which provides for appointment ofad hocjudges in the High Courts based on their consent. A Bench headed by CJI S.A. Bobde has made it clear that “the challenge of mounting arrears and existing vacancies requires recourse to Article 224A”. The numbers both in respect of pendency of cases and vacancies in the High Courts are quite concerning — a backlog of over 57 lakh cases, and a vacancy level of 40%. Five High Courts account for 54% of these cases. Interestingly, official data suggest that there need not be a correlation between the number of vacancies and the large backlog. The Madras High Court has 5.8 lakh cases against a relatively low level of vacancy at 7%. As many as 44% of the posts in the Calcutta High Court are vacant, but the cases in arrears stand at 2.7 lakh.

As the provision has been utilised only sparingly in the past, and for the limited purpose of disposing of particular kinds of cases, the endeavour to appointad hocjudges will have to come with some guidelines. The Court has made a beginning by directing that the trigger point for such an appointment will be when the vacancies go beyond 20% of the sanctioned strength, or when more than 10% of the backlog of pending cases are over five years old; when cases in a particular category are pending for over five years, or when the rate of disposal is slower than the rate of institution of fresh cases. The Bench has ruled that the current Memorandum of Procedure be also followed for appointingad hocjudges, a process initiated by the Chief Justice of a High Court, with a suggested tenure of two to three years. The Court has clarified that this is a “transitory methodology” and does not constrain the regular appointment process. The government, which did not oppose the proposal, but wanted the vacancies to be filled up first, would do well to expedite the regular appointment process from its end, and give up its propensity to hold back some recommendations selectively. As for the judiciary, it should ensure that only retired judges with experience and expertise are offered the temporary positions, and there is no hint of favouritism.

The Internet has allowed easier communication between journalists and readers

Some months ago, I received an email from a reader about an article I had written on current research on Friedrich’s ataxia, a disease that causes damage to the nervous system as well as speech impairment and movement problems. Friedrich’s ataxia starts during childhood and manifests later as impaired muscular coordination that worsens with age. It is caused by an inherited aberrant gene.

We all carry two copies of every gene, each inherited from a parent. Friedrich’s ataxia occurs when both copies of the FXN gene have the defect. The defective FXN gene causes a problem in producing a protein called frataxin, which is found in cells throughout the body, with the highest levels in the heart, spinal cord, liver, pancreas, and muscles used for voluntary movement.

The article described how the researchers had identified a way to tag the defective part of the gene and bind it so that frataxin can be produced normally. This was done in cell lines in the lab, and treatment of people with the problem was still some distance away.

I got a few emails after this article was published asking me for the contact details of the researchers. These emails mentioned that relatives were suffering from Friedrich’s ataxia and that perhaps the research would hold the key. This was not surprising or new — research kindles hope for patients and their relatives who often reach out asking for more details.

But what did surprise me was the recent email I got, where the writer was emailing to know more — it came three years after the article was published.

This touched me on several counts. First, it brought home the thirst for scientific knowledge and the eagerness to probe and understand complex phenomena, among the readers. It was moving to think of the reader scouring the web for information that could help a loved one. Successful research, promising results and reactions of hope are what make it worth the while for science journalists who spend their time trying to make sense of the abstruse and simplifying it for the lay reader.

Second, the email underscored the reach of the medium of the Internet and the power of the published word. This reinforces in us journalists the need for rigour and commitment to facts in the reports we write. The role of the Internet in prolonging the life of stories is well known, but the ease with which a person can access an old story and also mail the writer for an update never fails to astonish.

In earlier days, when print was the dominant mode of communication, the combination of the short life span of stories and the time it took to establish communication with the writer worked to prevent such easy links between the reader, writer and the written. Back then, letters were the dominant mode of communication, and people travelled across the globe to confer, whereas now, instant messaging and Zoom conferences have made discussions easy to organise.

The Internet has taken us from daily, weekly and monthly schedules to round-the-clock planning. It has also played a role in amplifying and making immortal the written word. For reporters, it is an added responsibility to use the power of this medium in a manner consistent with journalistic values.

Nations by themselves are made; and that by no more effective process than by the education of its youth according to a system directly designed to equip them for the service of the nation and the fulfilment of its destined mission in history. As a very general statement of the nature and necessity for a national system of education there is an almost universal agreement to this proposition. But differences arise, when we come to its actual working, in the practical interpretations of the ideals underlying it, the course of reform to be pursued and the ultimate goal to be attained. Under the normal conditions of national life, these differences are based upon purely educational and cultural considerations native to the genius of the race.

The Soviet Union to-day [Moscow, April 22] accused China of meddling in the affairs of India, Burma, Pakistan and Ceylon and of seeking to encircle India by Peking’s camp-followers. In the most outspoken attack yet of China’s latest diplomatic overtures to the west, the Soviet Union also renewed the charge that Peking was dreaming of triggering off an armed clash between the two big powers - the Soviet Union and the United States. In defining Peking’s aims in the Third World, it made allusions to the current developments in Pakistan and Ceylon in which Moscow had suspected Peking’s hand but had so far refrained from stating it openly. Moscow’s charges came out in a long article in the influential Soviet political weekly ‘New Times’ credited to L. Kirichenko. The Russian version of the weekly was not due to go on stalls until Friday but it was a measure of official importance given to the article that Tass released advanced excerpts of it this morning. The operative passage quoted by Tass said that in the Third World, numerous facts showed that Maoists continued to “meddle in the affairs of India and Burma, Pakistan and Ceylon, the Arab States and several countries of Africa. One of their tasks is to encircle India by States which would follow in the wake of Peking’s policy. Their other task is not to allow the hotbed of war in West Asia to be liquidated. The third task is to get a foothold in some countries of Africa through the construction of roads and enterprises there, supply of weapons and despatch of Chinese specialists.”