Editorials - 03-08-2021

இந்தியாவின் ஒலிம்பிக் பந்தய வரலாற்றில் புதிய அத்தியாயத்தை தொடங்கியிருக்கிறது மகளிா் ஹாக்கி அணி. காலிறுதி ஆட்டத்தில் ஆஸ்திரேலியாவை வீழ்த்தி, அரையிறுதிக்கு தகுதி பெற்றிருக்கும் மகளிா் ஹாக்கி அணியின் வெற்றி எதிா்பாராதது மட்டுமல்ல, திறமையின் வெளிப்பாடும்கூட.

1980 மாஸ்கோ ஒலிம்பிக்கில் நான்காவது இடத்தை அடைந்தது என்றாலும்கூட, அதை யாரும் கணக்கில் சோ்த்துக் கொள்வதில்லை. ஆஸ்திரேலியாவை வீழ்த்தி அரையிறுதி ஆட்டத்துக்குத் தகுதி பெற்றிருக்கும் இந்திய மகளிா் ஹாக்கி அணி, இதே மன உறுதியுடன் நாளை ஆா்ஜென்டீனாவை எதிா்கொள்ளும்போதும் விளையாடினால் தங்கம் வெல்லக்கூடும் என்பதில் சந்தேகமே இல்லை.

இந்திய மகளிா் ஹாக்கி அணியின் தகுதியும் திறமையும் குறித்து யாருக்காவது ஐயப்பாடு இருந்திருந்தால், ஆஸ்திரேலியாவுக்கு எதிரான காலிறுதி ஆட்டம் அதை அகற்றி இருக்கும். உலக தர வரிசைப் பட்டியலில் ஒன்பதாவது இடத்தில் இருக்கும் இந்திய மகளிா் ஹாக்கி அணி, இரண்டாவது இடத்தில் இருக்கும் ஆஸ்திரேலியாவுடன் காலிறுதி ஆட்டத்தில் மோதியபோது, இந்தியா வெற்றி பெறும் என்கிற நம்பிக்கை யாருக்குமே இருக்கவில்லை.

விளையாட்டு தொடங்கிய 20-ஆவது நிமிடத்தில் ஆஸ்திரேலியாவுக்கு முதல் பெனால்டி காா்னா் வாய்ப்பு கிடைத்தது. அதை கோலாக மாறவிடாமல் இந்தியா தடுத்தது. 22-ஆவது நிமிடத்தில் இந்தியாவுக்குக் கிடைத்த முதல் பெனால்டி காா்னா் வாய்ப்பை லோ ஃபிளிக் செய்து கோல் அடித்தாா் குா்ஜித் கௌா்.

இந்தியாவின் வெற்றிக்கு மிகப் பெரிய பங்களிப்பை வழங்கியவா் கோல் கீப்பா் சவிதா புனியா. ஒவ்வொரு முறை ஆஸ்திரேலிய அணியினா் பெனால்டி காா்னா் மூலமும், அல்லாமலும் கோல் அடிக்க முற்பட்ட போதெல்லாம் அதை தடுத்தது சவிதாதான். தகா்க்க முடியாத சுவராக கோல் கீப்பா் சவிதா புனியா, ஒன்பது முறை ஆஸ்திரேலிய அணியினரின் முயற்சிகளை தகா்த்தாா் என்பது குறிப்பிடத்தக்கது.

இந்திய மகளிா் ஹாக்கி அணியின் வெற்றிக்கு 2017-ஆம் ஆண்டு பயிற்சியாளராக பொறுப்பேற்ற டச்சு நாட்டவரான மாரிஜ்னே முக்கியமான காரணம். தென்னாப்பிரிக்க உடல் பயிற்சி நிபுணா் வெய்ன் லாம்பாா்ட் என்பவரை அழைத்து வந்து மிகவும் ஏழ்மையிலும், தன்னம்பிக்கை இல்லாமலும் இருந்த மகளிா் ஹாக்கி அணியினரை உற்சாகமும், வெற்றி முனைப்பும் கொண்ட அணியாக மாற்றினா். நுட்பமான பல வழிமுறைகளைக் கற்றுக்கொடுத்து நான்கரை ஆண்டுகாலத்தில் ஆஸ்திரேலிய அணியை வீழ்த்தியது அவரது சாதுா்யம் என்றுதான் கூற வேண்டும்.

இந்திய அணியின் வெற்றிக்கு ஆஸ்திரேலிய அணியின் பலவீனமும் ஒரு காரணம். ஆரம்பம் முதலே இந்தியாவை ஒரு வலுவான எதிரியாக அவா்கள் கருதவில்லை. இந்தியாவுடன் விளையாடுவதையே தங்களுக்கு அவமானமாகக் கருதினா். இந்திய அணியினா் அந்த பலவீனத்தைப் புரிந்துகொண்டு விளையாடியது மட்டுமல்ல, மிகவும் திட்டமிட்டு இந்த வெற்றியை சாதித்திருக்கிறாா்கள் என்பதை அந்த பந்தயத்தைப் பாா்த்தவா்கள் புரிந்துகொள்ள முடியும்.

ஆஸ்திரேலிய அணியினா் கோல் அடிப்பதில் மட்டுமே குறியாக இருந்தாா்கள் என்றால், பெனால்டி காா்னரில் ஒரு கோலை வென்றிருந்த இந்திய அணி, தனது உத்தியாக தடுப்பாட்டத்தைக் கையில் எடுத்தது. இந்தியாவின் வெற்றி அறிவிக்கப்பட்டபோது நமது அணியினரின் விழிகளில் மட்டுமல்ல, வானமும் ஆனந்தக் கண்ணீா் வடித்தது. அதுவரை மேகம் இல்லாமல் பளிச்சென்றிருந்த வானம் வெற்றிக்குப் பிறகு தூறல் போடத் தொடங்கியபோது, அதை வேறு என்னவென்று சொல்வது?

இந்திய ஹாக்கி மகளிா் அணி மட்டுமல்ல, ஆடவா் அணியும் இரண்டு நாள்களுக்கு முன்பு காலிறுதியில் 3-1 என்கிற கோல் கணக்கில் உலகின் ஆறாம் நிலையில் இருக்கும் இங்கிலாந்தை வீழ்த்தி அரையிறுதி ஆட்டத்துக்கு தகுதி பெற்றிருக்கிறது. இன்று உலகின் இரண்டாம் நிலையில் உள்ள பெல்ஜியம் அணியுடன் இன்று மோத இருக்கிறது இந்திய ஆடவா் ஹாக்கி அணி.

41 ஆண்டுகளுக்குப் பிறகு இந்திய ஆடவா் அணியும், மகளிா் அணியும் ஒலிம்பிக் பந்தயத்தில் 24 மணிநேர இடைவெளியில் பதக்கம் வெல்லும் வாய்ப்பை நெருங்கியிருக்கின்றன என்பது அசாதாரணமான தருணம். ஒரு காலத்தில் உலகின் தலைசிறந்த ஹாக்கி அணியாக இருந்த இந்திய ஆடவா் அணி, தனது இழந்த தகுதியை மீட்டெடுக்கும் முயற்சியில் முனைப்புடன் முன்னேறிக் கொண்டிருக்கிறது என்பது மகிழ்ச்சியான செய்தி.

1928 ஆம்ஸ்டா்டாம் ஒலிம்பிக் பந்தயம் முதல் 1956 மெல்போா்ன் ஒலிம்பிக் பந்தயம் வரை எட்டு முறை தங்கப் பதக்கம் வென்று சாதனை செய்தது இந்திய ஆடவா் ஹாக்கி அணி. 1960-இல் பதக்கத்தைத் தவற விட்டாலும், 1964 டோக்கியோ ஒலிம்பிக் பந்தயத்தில் பாகிஸ்தானை தோற்கடித்து மீண்டும் பதக்கத்தை வென்றது. பல நாடுகளும் புறக்கணித்த 1980 மாஸ்கோ ஒலிம்பிக் பந்தயத்தில் இந்தியா தங்கப் பதக்கம் வென்றது என்றாலும்கூட, அதை வெற்றியாக விளையாட்டு உலகம் கருதுவதில்லை.

ராணி ராம்பால் தலைமையிலான மகளிா் ஹாக்கி அணியும், மன்பிரீத் சிங் தலைமையிலான ஆடவா் ஹாக்கி அணியும் இந்திய ஹாக்கி விளையாட்டுக்கு மீண்டும் வலிமையும் பெருமையும் சோ்த்திருக்கிறாா்கள். பல ஆண்டு இடைவெளிக்குப் பிறகு ஆடவா் அணி அரையிறுதி ஆட்டத்தில் நுழைந்திருப்பதும், ஐந்து ஆண்டுகளுக்கு முன்பு ரியோ ஒலிம்பிக் பந்தயத்தில் 12-ஆவது இடத்தில் இருந்த இந்திய மகளிா் ஹாக்கி அணி அரையிறுதி ஆட்டத்திற்கு தோ்ச்சி பெற்றிருப்பதும் வெறும் விளையாட்டல்ல. பதக்கங்களுக்கு அப்பால் நமது விளையாட்டு வீரா்களின் அசாத்தியமான விளையாட்டு ஒட்டுமொத்த உலகத்தையே திரும்பிப் பாா்க்க வைத்திருக்கிறது. தங்கம் வென்றுவர வாழ்த்துக்கள்!

அசாம், மிசோரம் எல்லைப் பிரச்சினைக்குப் பேச்சுவார்த்தை மூலமாகத் தீர்வு காண்பதற்கான வாய்ப்புகள் உருவாகியிருப்பது, சில நாட்களாக நீடித்துவந்த பதற்ற நிலையைத் தணிக்கும் என்ற நம்பிக்கையை ஏற்படுத்தியிருக்கிறது. ஜூலை 26 அன்று அசாம் மாநிலத்தின் கச்சார் மாவட்ட எல்லையில் இரு மாநிலக் காவல் துறையினருக்கும் ஏற்பட்ட மோதலில், அசாம் மாநிலத்தைச் சேர்ந்த 6 காவலர்களும் பொதுமக்களில் ஒருவரும் கொல்லப்பட்டனர். மோதலில் ஈடுபட்ட இரு மாநிலப் பொதுமக்களில் 100-க்கும் மேற்பட்டவர்கள் காயமடைந்தனர். இந்த மோதலுக்கான காரணம் யார் என்று பரஸ்பரம் இரண்டு மாநில முதல்வர்களும் குற்றம்சாட்டிக்கொண்டனர். அசாம் முதல்வர் ஹிமந்த பிஸ்வா சர்மா, காவல் துறை உயரதிகாரிகள் மற்றும் அடையாளம் தெரியாத 200 பேர் மீது மிசோரம் மாநிலக் காவல் துறை பதிவுசெய்த குற்றவியல் வழக்குகள், இந்த மோதலை இன்னும் தீவிரமாக்கின. இதற்குப் பதிலடியாக, மிசோரம் மாநிலக் காவல் துறை அதிகாரிகளுக்கு அசாம் மாநிலக் காவல் துறை விசாரணைக்கான அழைப்பாணையை அனுப்பிவைத்துள்ளது.

தற்போது, மிசோரம் அரசே தானாக முன்வந்து அசாம் முதல்வர் மீதான வழக்கைத் திரும்பப் பெறுவதாகவும் இது குறித்து மிசோரம் முதல்வருக்கோ தலைமைச் செயலாளருக்கோ தெரியாது என்று விளக்கம் அளித்திருக்கிறது. மாநிலத்தின் தலைமை நிர்வாக அதிகாரிக்குத் தெரியாமல், பக்கத்து மாநில முதல்வரின் மீது காவல் துறை தன்னிச்சையாக வழக்குத் தொடர முடியுமா என்ற கேள்விகள் ஒருபக்கம் எழுந்தாலும், சமாதானத்தை நோக்கி மிசோரம் அரசு இறங்கிவந்திருப்பது தெளிவாகிறது. பேச்சுவார்த்தையைக் கணக்கில்கொண்டே, இரு மாநிலங்களுக்கு இடையேயான மோதல் வழக்கின் விசாரணை பொதுவான அமைப்பொன்றிடம் இன்னும் அளிக்கப்படவில்லை என்று கூறப்படுகிறது.

இரு மாநில எல்லைப் பகுதியில் ஏற்பட்ட மோதல் குறித்து மத்திய உள் துறை அமைச்சர் தொலைபேசியில் பேசியதை அடுத்தே எல்லைப் பிரச்சினையைப் பேச்சுவார்த்தையின் மூலமாகத் தீர்த்துக்கொள்ள இரு மாநில முதல்வர்களும் முன்வந்துள்ளனர் என்று தெரிகிறது. எனினும் ஏறக்குறைய 25 ஆண்டு காலமாக இவ்வாறு மேற்கொள்ளப்பட்ட பல்வேறு பேச்சுவார்த்தைகள் கடைசியில் தோல்வியிலேயே முடிந்துள்ளன. தற்போதும்கூட எல்லைப் பிரச்சினையை உச்ச நீதிமன்றத்துக்கு எடுத்துச்செல்லப் போவதாக அசாம் முதல்வர் ஹிமந்த பிஸ்வா சர்மா கூறியுள்ளார். எனினும், செயற்கைக்கோள் புகைப்படங்கள், வரைபடங்களைப் பயன்படுத்தி எல்லைப் பிரச்சினைகளுக்குத் தீர்வுகாண மத்திய அரசு முயற்சித்துவருகிறது. அசாம்-மிசோரம் மாநிலங்கள் மட்டுமின்றி, அனைத்து வடகிழக்கு மாநிலங்களுக்கு இடையிலான எல்லைப் பிரச்சினைகளையும் சுமுகமான முறையில் தீர்ப்பதற்கு இந்தத் தொழில்நுட்ப வழிமுறை உதவியாக இருக்கக்கூடும். அசாமில் தற்போது பாஜகவும் மிசோரமில் பாஜகவின் கூட்டணிக் கட்சியான மிசோ தேசிய முன்னணியும் ஆட்சியில் இருக்கின்றன. எனவே, மத்திய அரசு இவ்விஷயத்தில் நேரடியாகத் தலையிட்டு, அப்பிராந்தியத்தில் நிரந்தர அமைதி ஏற்பட துணைநிற்க வேண்டும்.

‘வாரத்துக்கு ஒரு பி.டி. வகுப்பு. அந்த வகுப்பையும் பாடத்தை நடத்தி முடிக்காத மற்ற பாட ஆசிரியர்கள் எடுத்துக்கொள்வார்கள். பிறகு எப்படி ஒலிம்பிக்கில் பதக்கம் கிடைக்கும்?’ என்கிற மீம் சமூக ஊடகங்களில் கடந்த வாரம் வேகமாகப் பரவிக்கொண்டிருந்தது. ஒலிம்பிக்கில் இந்தியா பதக்கம் வெல்லாததற்கான காரணத்தை இந்த மீமைவிட சுருக்கமாக, சிறப்பாக வெளிப்படுத்திவிட முடியாது.

ஆண்டு முழுவதும் விராட் கோலி, ரோஹித் சர்மா, ஐ.பி.எல். கிரிக்கெட் போன்றவையே பெரும்பான்மை இந்திய ரசிகர்களின் மனங்களை ஆக்கிரமித்திருக்கின்றன. நான்கு ஆண்டுகளுக்கு ஒரு முறை திடீரென்று விழிப்பு ஏற்பட்டதுபோல் ஒலிம்பிக்கில் அதிகப் பதக்கம் வெல்லாமல் போவது ஏன் என்கிற கேள்வியை அரசோ ரசிகர்களோ யார் கேட்டாலுமே, அது நியாயமான கேள்விதானா?

டோக்கியோ ஒலிம்பிக் போட்டிகளுக்கு 127 பேர் கொண்ட மிகப் பெரிய அணியை இந்தியா நம்பிக்கையுடன் அனுப்பியது. பல முன்னணி வீரர், வீராங்கனைகள் வெளிநாட்டுப் பயிற்சி மையங்களிலும் வெளிநாட்டுப் பயிற்சியாளர்களிடமும் பயிற்சி பெற்றார்கள். ஒலிம்பிக்கில் அதிகப் பதக்கம் வெல்லும் நோக்கத்துடன் டாப்ஸ் (Target Olympic Podium Scheme) என்கிற பெயரில் மத்திய விளையாட்டு அமைச்சகம் முன்னோடித் திட்டத்தை நடைமுறைப்படுத்தி, நிதியும் ஒதுக்கியிருந்தது. போட்டிகள் தொடங்கி 2-வது நாளிலேயே சாய்கோம் மீராபாய் சானு வெள்ளி வென்றது இந்திய விளையாட்டு ரசிகர்களின் நம்பிக்கையை மேலும் அதிகரித்தது. பி.வி. சிந்துவின் வெண்கலப் பதக்கத்துடன், மகளிர் குத்துச்சண்டையில் லவ்லினா ஒரு பதக்கத்தை உறுதிபடுத்தியிருக்கிறார். மற்ற முன்னணி வீரர்கள் பலரும் பதக்கம் வெல்லத் தவறினார்கள்.

இந்த முறை நிச்சயம் பதக்கம் வெல்வார்கள் என்கிற பெருநம்பிக்கையோடு சென்றிருந்த பலரும் ஏமாற்றத்துடன் திரும்பியிருப்பதற்கு விளையாட்டு அமைப்புகள்- விளையாட்டுத் துறை அதிகாரிகள்- பயிற்சியாளர்கள்-விளையாட்டு வீரர்கள் இடையிலான இணக்கமான புரிதல், இணைந்து செயல்படும் தன்மை, நெருக்கடியான சூழ்நிலைகளைச் சமாளித்தல் போன்றவற்றில் ஏற்பட்ட மிகப் பெரிய இடைவெளிகளே முக்கியக் காரணம்.

இப்படியும் ஒரு பயிற்சியாளர்

திறமையான விளையாட்டு வீரர்களுக்கு உதவுகிறார்களோ இல்லையோ, நிறைய பிரச்சினைகள் ஏற்பட அமைப்புகளும் பயிற்சியாளர்களும் காரணமாக இருந்திருக்கிறார்கள். துப்பாக்கி சுடும் வீராங்கனை மனு பாகர்-பயிற்சியாளர் ஜஸ்பால் ராணா இடையிலான மோதல், மூன்றாவது சுற்றுவரை முன்னேறி ஆச்சரியப்படுத்திய டேபிள் டென்னிஸ் வீராங்கனை மணிகா பத்ராவின் பயிற்சியாளர் சன்மய் பராஞ்ச்பே போட்டி நடக்கும் உள்ளரங்கங்களுக்கு அனுமதிக்கப்படாதது, வினய் போகத் உள்ளிட்ட நான்கு பெண் மல்யுத்த வீராங்கனைகளுக்கு பிசியோதெரபிஸ்ட் அனுப்பப்படாதது, ஒலிம்பிக் ஆடவர் இரட்டையர் பிரிவில் விளையாடப் போகும் இணை எது என்பது குறித்து ரோஹன் போபண்ணா-அகில இந்திய டென்னிஸ் சங்கம் இடையிலான மோதல் போன்றவை கவனத்துக்கு வந்துள்ளன. இதுபோன்ற மோதல்கள் சர்வதேச விளையாட்டு அரங்கில் இந்தியாவின் மதிப்பைக் குலைக்கக்கூடியவை.

எடுத்துக்காட்டுக்கு, ஒரு பிரச்சினையை விரிவாகப் பார்க்கலாம். மனு பாகரின் பயிற்சியாளராக இரண்டு ஆண்டுகளுக்கு மேல் செயல்பட்டுவந்தவர் ஜஸ்பால். ஒலிம்பிக் போட்டிகளுக்குத் தயாராகிக்கொண்டிருந்த நிலையில், மனு பாகருக்கும் அவருக்கும் இடையிலான மோதல் வலுத்தது. ஒலிம்பிக் போட்டிகளின் மூன்று பிரிவுகளில் மனு பாகர் பங்கேற்க முடியாது என்று வெளிப்படையாகவே ஜஸ்பால் பேசிவந்தார். வழக்கமாக 3 பிரிவுகளில் பங்கேற்றுவரும் மனு 2018 காமன்வெல்த் போட்டியில் தங்கம், 2018-லிருந்து உலகக் கோப்பைப் போட்டிகளில் 9 தங்கப் பதக்கங்களை வென்றவர். ஒரு நிலையில், மத்திய பிரதேசத்தைச் சேர்ந்த சிங்கி என்கிற வீராங்கனையை மனு பாகருக்குப் போட்டியாக ஜஸ்பால் முன்னிறுத்தத் தொடங்கினார்.

இந்திய தேசிய துப்பாக்கிசுடும் சங்கமோ, தகுதியின் அடிப்படையில் மனு பாகரை ஒலிம்பிக்குக்குத் தேர்ந்தெடுத்தது. ஒலிம்பிக்குக்கு முந்தைய பயிற்சிக்காக இந்திய துப்பாக்கிசுடும் அணி குரோஷியாவுக்கு மே மாதம் புறப்பட்டபோது, மனு பாகர்-ஜஸ்பால் இடையிலான பிரச்சினைக்குத் தீர்வு காண முயலப்பட்டது. ஆனால், தீர்வு கிடைக்காத நிலையில், மனுவின் பயிற்சியாளராக ரோனக் நியமிக்கப்பட்டார்.

களத்தில் வீரர்/ வீராங்கனைகள்தான் திறமையை வெளிப்படுத்தப் போகிறார்கள் என்றாலும், விளையாட்டின் போக்கு-எதிராளியை எப்படிக் கையாள்வது என்பது குறித்த மேம்பட்ட பார்வையைப் பயிற்சியாளர்கள் வழங்க முடியும். விளையாட்டில் நவீனத் தொழில்நுட்ப வசதிகள், திட்டவட்டமான கண்காணிப்பு/ விதிமுறைகள் அதிகரித்துவிட்ட நிலையில், உடல் வலுவால் மட்டுமில்லாமல், மனரீதியிலும் வியூகரீதியிலும் விளையாடப்படுவதாக நவீன விளையாட்டுகள் மாறிவிட்டன. இந்நிலையில் சில பயிற்சியாளர்கள், விளையாட்டு அலுவலர்களே இந்தியாவின் வெற்றிக்குத் தடைக்கல்லாக மாறியிருக்கிறார்கள்.

கேட்க மறந்த கதைகள்

ஒலிம்பிக்கில் ஆதிக்கம் செலுத்தும் அமெரிக்கா, சீனா, ரஷ்யா உள்ளிட்ட நாடுகள் தங்கள் நவீன அடையாளங்களின் ஒரு பகுதியாகவே விளையாட்டுத் துறையை மாற்றிக்கொண்டுள்ளன. அந்த நாடுகளின் விளையாட்டுத் துறைக்குள் காலடி எடுத்துவைக்கப் போட்டி நிலவும் அதேநேரம், அதில் ஈடுபடுவதற்குத் திட்டவட்டமான நடைமுறைகள் பின்பற்றப்படுகின்றன. ஆனால், இந்தியாவோ சிறிய வளரும் நாடுகள் அடைந்துள்ள வளர்ச்சியைக்கூடப் பெறவில்லை. ஹுசைன் போல்டை உருவாக்கிய ஜமைக்காவும் மாரத்தான் போட்டிகளில் ஆதிக்கம் செலுத்தும் எத்தியோப்பியாவும் கென்யாவும் வளர்ந்த நாடுகளோ, மிகப் பெரிய நாடுகளோ அல்ல. அதேநேரம், விளையாட்டை வாழ்க்கை முறையாகவும் குறிப்பிட்ட சில விளையாட்டுப் பிரிவுகளில் உலகத் தரமான பயிற்சியையும் வழங்குவதன் மூலமே அந்நாடுகள் தற்போதைய உயரத்தை எட்டியுள்ளன.

இந்திய அளவில் பஞ்சாப்-ஹரியாணா, மஹாராஷ்டிரம், மணிப்பூர் உள்ளிட்ட மாநிலங்கள்தான் உலகளாவிய விளையாட்டுப் போட்டிகளுக்கு அதிகமானோரை அனுப்புகின்றன. ஒலிம்பிக் போட்டிகளில் தனிநபர்கள் வென்ற 3 பதக்கங்கள் ஹரியாணா மாநிலத்திலிருந்தும், 2 பதக்கங்கள் மணிப்பூரிலிருந்தும் வந்துள்ளன. விளையாட்டை ஊக்குவிப்பதற்கான செயல்திட்டமும் நடைமுறைகளும் மற்ற மாநிலங்களைவிட இந்த மாநிலங்களில் கூடுதலாக உள்ளன. தமிழக வீராங்கனைகள் சுபா வெங்கடேசன், தனலட்சுமி சேகர் ஆகியோர் ஒரு பக்கம் வறுமையுடன் போராடிக்கொண்டே ஒலிம்பிக்குக்குத் தகுதிபெற்றுள்ளனர். அவர்களுடைய ஒலிம்பிக் வெற்றிகளைக் கணக்கில்கொள்ளாமல், அரசு வேலை வழங்கப்படும் எனத் தமிழக அரசு அறிவித்திருப்பது மிகவும் ஆக்கபூர்வமான நகர்வு.

மீராபாய் சானு வெள்ளிப் பதக்கம் வென்று நாடு திரும்பிய பிறகு, அவருடைய சாதாரணமான வீட்டில் தரையில் அமர்ந்து எளிய உணவை உண்ணும் ஒளிப்படம் வெளியானது. ஒலிம்பிக்குக்குப் புறப்படுவதற்கு முன் தன்னுடைய காதணியை அழித்து, புதிய காதணியைச் செய்துகொடுத்தேன் என அவருடைய அம்மா கூறியிருந்தார். ‘காக்கா முட்டை’ படத்தில் வருவதைப் போல தன் வாழ்க்கை முழுக்க ஒரு பீட்சாவுக்காக மீராபாய் சானு ஏங்கியிருக்கிறார். அவர் ஒலிம்பிக் பதக்கம் வென்றவுடன் வாழ்நாள் முழுக்க பீட்சா அனுப்புவோம் என்று தனியார் பீட்சா நிறுவனமும் பெரும் பரிசுத் தொகைகளை மத்திய, மாநில அரசுகளும் அறிவித்திருக்கின்றன. இதற்கு முன்னர் அவர் பெற்ற எத்தனையோ வெற்றிகள் போதிய அளவில் கொண்டாடப்படவில்லை என்பதையே இது எடுத்துக்காட்டுகிறது.

ஒவ்வொரு இந்திய விளையாட்டு வீரர்/ வீராங்கனைக்குப் பின்னாலும் இதுபோல் சொல்லப்படாத கதைகள் ஏராளம் உண்டு. இவ்வளவு வாழ்க்கை நெருக்கடிகள், பயிற்சிக்கான உரிய வசதியின்மை, அலுவலர்கள்-பயிற்சியாளர்களுடனான பல போராட்டங்களைத் தாண்டி ஒலிம்பிக்கில் இந்தியா அதிகப் பதக்கங்களை வெல்ல வேண்டும் என்று நினைப்பது நியாயமான எதிர்பார்ப்புதானா?

தமிழ்நாட்டில் 1961-ல் தொல்லியல் துறை உருவாக்கப்பட்டது. அதற்கு இது 60-வது ஆண்டு. அதைச் சிறப்பாகக் கொண்டாட வேண்டும் என ஒருபுறம் கோரிக்கை எழுந்துவரும் நேரத்தில், ‘தொல்லியல் ஆய்வுகளே வீண்’ என்ற விமர்சனம் இன்னொருபுறம் முன்வைக்கப்படுகிறது.

1784-ல் சர் வில்லியம் ஜோன்ஸ் என்ற பிரிட்டிஷ் அதிகாரிதான் கிரேக்க வரலாற்றில் ‘சந்தரகொட்டாஸ்’ என்று சொல்லப்படுவது இந்தியாவை ஆண்ட சந்திரகுப்த மெளரியர் என்ற பேரரசரின் பெயர்தான் என்பதைக் கண்டறிந்து கூறினார். 1886-ல் சென்னை அரசாங்கம் ஹூல்ஷ் என்ற ஜெர்மன் அறிஞரைக் கல்வெட்டு ஆய்வாளராக நியமித்தது. அவர் தஞ்சை பெரியகோயில் கல்வெட்டுகளைப் படியெடுத்துப் படித்து, இதனைக் கட்டியவன் மாமன்னன் ராஜராஜனே என முதன்முதலாகக் கூறினார்.

சங்க காலம் என நாம் இப்போது பெருமைப்பட்டுக்கொள்கிற காலத்தை உறுதிசெய்ய 20-ம் நூற்றாண்டின் தொடக்கத்தில் இலக்கியப் பிரதிகளுக்கு அப்பால் போதுமான ஆதாரங்கள் எதுவும் கிடைக்கவில்லை. பல்லவர் காலத்துக்கு முற்பட்ட வரலாறு குறித்து வரலாற்றாசிரியர்களால் உறுதிபட எதையும் கூற முடியவில்லை. அத்தகைய சூழலில், கல்வெட்டுத் துறையில் மிகப் பெரும் புரட்சியை உருவாக்கியவர் கே.வி.சுப்ரமணிய அய்யர். 1924-ம் ஆண்டு சென்னையில் நடைபெற்ற ஒரு கருத்தரங்கில் அவர் வாசித்தளித்த கட்டுரையில்தான் ‘தமிழ்நாட்டின் இயற்கையான குகைகளில் காணப்படும் கல்வெட்டுகள் தமிழில்தான் எழுதப்பட்டிருக்கின்றன’ என்று அவர் குறிப்பிட்டார். அதுவரை அந்தக் கல்வெட்டுகள் வடஇந்தியாவிலிருந்து வந்த பௌத்தத் துறவிகளால் பிராமியிலும் பிராகிருத மொழியிலும் எழுதப்பட்டவை; அவற்றுக்கும் தமிழக வரலாற்றுக்கும் எந்தத் தொடர்பும் இல்லையென்றுதான் வரலாற்றாசிரியர்கள் எண்ணிக்கொண்டிருந்தனர். அதை மறுத்து குகைக் கல்வெட்டுகளில் தமிழுக்கே உரிய சிறப்பு எழுத்துகளான ழ, ள, ற, ன ஆகியவை இருப்பதையும், தமிழ்ச் சொற்கள் இலக்கணத்தோடு பயன்படுத்தப்பட்டிருப்பதையும் சுப்ரமணிய அய்யர்தான் நிரூபித்தார்.

தொல்லியல் துறை உருவானதற்குப் பிறகுதான், இந்திய வரலாற்றையும் தமிழ்நாட்டின் வரலாற்றையும் தெளிவாக எழுதக்கூடிய நிலை உருவானது. அந்தத் துறை மேற்கொண்ட அகழாய்வுகளும், அவற்றில் கண்டுபிடிக்கப்பட்ட கல்வெட்டுகளும்தான் நம்முடைய வரலாற்றைத் தெளிவுபடுத்திக்கொள்வதற்கு வழிவகுத்தன.

ஐரோப்பிய நாடுகளில் இருப்பதைப் போல வரலாறு எழுதும் முறை என்பது நமது நாட்டிலே இதற்கு முன்பு இருந்ததில்லை. நம்முடைய வரலாறு புராணங்களிலே கலந்து கிடக்கிறது. அந்தப் புராணங்களின் மிகைப்படுத்தல் பண்பு காரணமாக அவற்றை வரலாற்று ஆதாரங்களாக எவரும் ஏற்றுக்கொள்வதில்லை. அதனால், இந்திய வரலாற்றை எப்படித் தொகுப்பது என்பதைப் பற்றிய சிக்கல் வந்த நேரத்தில்தான் இந்தியாவில் கல்வெட்டுகள் கண்டுபிடிக்கப்பட்டன. நொபோரு கராஷிமாவின் நூலொன்றில் அட்டவணைப்படுத்தப்பட்ட புள்ளிவிவரத்தின்படி, இந்தியாவில் 59,800 கல்வெட்டுகள் கண்டறியப்பட்டுள்ளன. அவற்றில் 44 ஆயிரம் கல்வெட்டுகள் தென்னிந்தியாவைச் சேர்ந்தவை. அதிலும் குறிப்பாக, 28 ஆயிரம் கல்வெட்டுகள் தமிழில் இருக்கின்றன. சம்ஸ்கிருதக் கல்வெட்டுகளின் எண்ணிக்கை 7,800 மட்டும்தான்.

இந்தக் கல்வெட்டுகள் கண்டறியப்பட்டு, அவற்றில் என்ன எழுதப்பட்டிருக்கிறது என்பதை அறியத் தொடங்கியதற்குப் பிறகுதான், தமிழ்நாட்டின் வரலாறு தெளிவடைய ஆரம்பித்தது. குப்தர்களின் காலத்தைப் ‘பொற்காலம்’ எனப் பாராட்டிக்கொண்டிருந்தவர்களுக்கு ‘இனிமேல், இந்திய வரலாற்றை எழுத வேண்டுமென்றால், தமிழ்நாட்டிலிருந்து தொடங்கி எழுத வேண்டும்’ என்கிற நிர்ப்பந்தத்தைத் தொல்லியல் ஆய்வுகள் ஏற்படுத்தியுள்ளன.

கல்வெட்டியலைப் போலவே தொல்லியலின் பிற துறைகளான காசு இயலிலும் இப்போது பல்வேறு முக்கியக் கண்டுபிடிப்புகள் நிகழ்த்தப் பட்டுள்ளன. ‘‘சில ஆண்டுகளுக்கு முன்புவரை எழுத்துகள் பொறிக்கப்பட்ட சங்ககாலக் காசுகள் கிடைக்கவில்லை. மீன், புலி ஆகியவை பொறித்த சில சதுரமான காசுகள் கிடைத்தன. ஆனால், அவை சங்க காலத்தைச் சேர்ந்தவை என உறுதியாகக் கூற முடியவில்லை. இந்த நிலையில், 1987-ல் இரா.கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி முதன்முதலாகக் கண்டு பிடித்த ‘பாண்டியன் பெருவழிக்காசு’ தமிழக நாணயவியல் வரலாற்றில் மிகப் பெரிய திருப்பமாக அமைந்தது.

தமிழ்நாட்டில் தொல்லியல் ஆய்வுகள் அறிவியல் தொழில்நுட்பத்தைப் பயன்படுத்திக் கோட்பாடுகளின் அடிப்படையிலேயே மேற்கொள்ளப்படுகின்றன. அகழாய்வுகளில் கண்டெடுக்கும் பொருட்களை வைத்து அக்காலத்தில் வாழ்ந்த மக்களின் பண்பாட்டைக் கட்டமைக்கிற, மதிப்பிடுகிற அணுகுமுறை ‘கலாச்சார வரலாற்றியல் கோட்பாடு’ எனப்படுவதாகும். இந்தியாவில் இந்தக் கோட்பாடுதான் நீண்ட காலமாகப் பின்பற்றப்பட்டுவருகிறது.

அகழாய்வுகளில் கண்டெடுக்கப்படும் பொருட்களின் காலத்தை ஏ.எம்.எஸ் காலக்கணிப்பு முறை என்னும் அறிவியல் முறையின் மூலமாகவே உறுதிப்படுத்துகின்றனர். பொருந்தல், கீழடி முதலான இடங்களில் மேற்கொள்ளப்பட்ட அகழாய்வுகளில் கிடைத்த பொருட்கள் அமெரிக்காவில் உள்ள ஆய்வகத்துக்கு அனுப்பிக் காலக் கணிப்பு செய்யப்பட்டன. அறிவியல் தொழில்நுட்பத்தின் அடிப்படையில்தான் தொல்லியல் ஆய்வுகள் நடைபெறுகின்றன. சென்னை அருங்காட்சியகத்தில் தொல்பொருளியல் வேதியியலராக (ஆர்க்கியாலஜிகல் கெமிஸ்ட்) பணிபுரிந்த எஸ்.பரமசிவனும், அண்ணாமலைப் பல்கலைக்கழகத்தில் பணிபுரிந்த வரலாற்றுத் துறைப் பேராசிரியர் கே.வி.கோவிந்தசாமியும் அறிவியல் முறையைப் பயன்படுத்தித்தான் சுமார் 90 ஆண்டுகளுக்கு முன்னர் தஞ்சைப் பெரிய கோயிலில் இருந்த சோழர் கால ஓவியங்களைக் கண்டறிந்து வெளிப்படுத்தினார்கள்.

ஆதிச்சநல்லூரில் மேற்கொள்ளப்பட்ட அகழாய்வில் பிராமி எழுத்துப் பொறிப்புகள்; இரும்பால் செய்யப்பட்ட ஆயுதங்கள்; தங்கம், செம்பு ஆபரணங்கள்; அலங்காரப் பொருட்கள், பொம்மைகள் முதலானவை கிடைத்தன. அங்கு கிடைத்த செப்புப் பொருட்களை வேதி ஆய்வு (கெமிக்கல் அனாலிசிஸ்) செய்தபோது, நீண்ட காலமாகவே அங்கு செம்பை உருக்கிப் பொருட்களைச் செய்யும் தொழில்நுட்பம் பயன்பாட்டில் இருந்திருப்பது தெரியவந்தது. இப்போது பயன்படுத்தப்படும் அதே தொழில்நுட்பத்தை ஆதிச்சநல்லூரில் சுமார் 3 ஆயிரம் ஆண்டுகளுக்கு முன்னால் பயன்படுத்தியிருக்கிறார்கள்.

கிபி 6-ம் நூற்றாண்டு வரை அங்கே தொடர்ச்சியாக உலைக்களங்கள் செயல்பட்டுவந்துள்ளன என்பதையும் தொல்லியல் ஆய்வாளர்கள் உறுதிப்படுத்தியுள்ளனர். தமிழ்நாட்டின் வரலாற்றுத் தொன்மையை உறுதிப்படுத்தும் அறிவியல்பூர்வமான ஆதாரங்களைத் தொல்லியல் ஆய்வுகள் வழங்கிவருகின்றன. அவற்றை வீண்வேலை எனக் கூறுவது அறிவியலையே மறுப்பதாகும். அதுமட்டுமின்றி, உலக அளவில் புகழ்பெற்ற தொல்லியல் அறிஞர்களான ஐராவதம் மகாதேவன், இரா.நாகசாமி, எ.சுப்பராயலு, இரா.கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி முதலானவர்களின் பங்களிப்புகளை அவமதிப்பதுமாகும்.

பழம்பெருமை பேசுவதும் வரலாற்றைப் போற்றுவதும் வேறு வேறு. தமிழக அரசியலில் தொல்லியலும்கூட அரசியல் கருவியாக்கப்படுகிறது. இதிலிருந்து தமிழ்ப் பண்பாட்டையும் வரலாற்றையும் காப்பாற்றுவது இன்று தமிழகத்தின் நலம் நாடுவோரின் முக்கியமான கடமைகளுள் ஒன்றாகும்.

The past two weeks have seen the release of the Fourth National Seroprevalence Survey for COVID-19 (https://bit.ly/3lklMzJ), as well as the reporting of data of serosurveys independently conducted by State governments such as in Tamil Nadu. The data from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) conducted national serosurvey are truly remarkable, indicating that between December-January, when the third serosurvey was conducted, and June-July 2021, at least 40% of the population of India, over 500 million people, were exposed to the novel coronavirus of which a small proportion have antibodies because they were vaccinated. The data also show for the first time that over half of all children tested have already been infected, which is expected and reassuring.

Not from infection alone

Such a high rate of infection seems incredible, and if true, needs to serve as a warning to India and the world because it shows the consequences of a combination of variants, inappropriate population behaviour and delayed implementation of public health measures. It is, of course, evident, that all of the seropositivity did not come from infection alone, but given that the seropositivity rate was 67% and the serosurvey reports that a quarter of eligible adults were vaccinated, a large proportion of the antibodies resulted from detected and undetected infections in the first or second waves, with the sharp seropositivity rise indicating that the bulk must have occurred during the second wave. With less than 32 million positive cases, of which many may be positive more than once, and the likelihood of waning antibodies leading to some of those previously infected testing negative subsequently, the seropositivity of 67% is an under-estimate. There are other caveats as well.

Although the serosurvey methodology is similar to previous rounds and sampled individuals in 70 districts in 21 States, it is not clear how representative the survey really is — given the reported two-dose vaccine coverage of 13% in adults which is much higher than the national coverage at the time, and the known high heterogeneity between and within States. This is where State-level data can be useful, and the third Tamil Nadu serosurvey, conducted in over 26,000 participants and compared to previous rounds allows comparison of at least district-level information.

Data from the States

The National Serosurvey data indicated that Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Gujarat have over 75% seropositivity, while only Maharashtra, Assam and Kerala were below 60%, with Kerala the lowest, at 44.4%. Although heterogeneity across districts is likely, the fact that the national serosurveys were repeated in the same districts allows for some comparison of seropositivity rates over time. For example, in Kerala, when the national rates were approximately 0.7%, 7% and 24%, the corresponding rates were 0.3%, 0.9% and 11.6% during the first three rounds of serosurveys, showing a consistently lower exposure than the national average, but a large increase between the third and fourth serosurveys.

If we examine the data from Tamil Nadu, where the State-led serosurveys were done in October 2020, April and July 2021, some figures jump out. There appeared to be no change from October to April at the State level, with 31% and 29% positivity, but then there was a massive increase to 66%. Comparing the ICMR survey in three districts with the 38 district surveys of the Tamil Nadu Directorate of Public Health, shows that the ICMR serosurveys found a seropositivity of 43%, 24% and 31% in the districts of Chennai, Coimbatore and Thiruvannamalai in the serosurvey in December 2020-January 2021. The corresponding figures from the State serosurvey were 41%, 22% and 36% in October 2020, 49%, 20% and 34% in April 2021, which rose to 82%, 43% and 68% in July 2021. Some districts showed marked variability, with the central and southern districts showing significant declines in antibodies between October 2020 and April 2021 followed by a large increase in July 2021. For example, Madurai went from 40% to 19% to 79% and Thoothukudi from 39% to 21% to 72%.

Explaining variation

What explains these variations and how can these data be used at the national-State levels? First, there was inconsistency in the assays used for antibody estimation, with the ICMR using an ELISA test that measured antibodies to inactivated virus in its first round and then switching to a method that measured antibodies to nucleocapsid and spike proteins. Tamil Nadu used a chemiluminescence method for all its assays, while serosurveys in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune and other local serosurveys have used different methods — which means that some of the variations may be due to the testing methods which have varying sensitivity and specificity for antibodies directed against different viral antigens. Second, the sampling methods across serosurveys have differed with the ICMR using a cross-sectional survey in 70 districts that were decided/based on reported cases with some lack of clarity on how villages/wards were chosen, while others have used population proportional to size, directed and convenience sampling. Third, the age groups have varied across surveys and with time and not all serosurveys have reported age-stratified results. Fourth, antibodies decay with time, as illustrated in the data from Tamil Nadu’s first and second serosurveys.

So, analyses need to account for the underestimation of exposure. There are many other considerations for analysis, such as the proportion of people included who have reported previous SARS-CoV-2 infection or exposure or the proportion vaccinated. But in general, serosurveys more accurately reflect the experience of the population with an infectious agent than reported cases. This is especially true in India, where without targeted effort and sometimes despite detailed search, it is not possible to discern the reasons for testing, the numbers of individuals that have contributed to cumulative testing, the locations where tests were done or the types of tests used — all of which are essential to understanding the strengths and limitations of the data on reported cases, and the test positivity rate.

Reported cases represent the tip of the iceberg for a virus that can cause asymptomatic infection or result in mild symptoms that are not distinguishable from other respiratory viral infections. Serological data has value for public health because knowing where and how many have already been exposed to the virus gives a clearer picture of how and when infection has penetrated the population. The data from the ICMR’s Fourth National Seroprevalence Survey therefore, have clear implications for the situation in India today.

The Kerala example

When Kerala is reporting the bulk of the country’s positive cases and has a reproductive rate of infection of greater than 1, how concerned should we be? Seroepidemiology shows that the State has over 18 months been able to limit the exposure of its population, and vaccination data indicates that the State is outperforming most others. In general, the health-care infrastructure has not been overwhelmed, deaths are low, and shortages of oxygen and hospital beds have not been reported. Relaxation of restrictions over Eid on July 21 are likely to have resulted in cases which should peak in the first week of August, but there is a need to ensure continued population compliance with restrictions, particularly with Onam approaching and a need to ramp up vaccination. In fact, given Kerala’s success in controlling the virus so far, a key consideration should be whether States and districts with the lowest seroprevalence should receive a greater proportion of the vaccines while supplies are limited.

The immunity gap identified in Kerala demonstrates the value of serosurveillance and the need to ensure that we continue to use this very valuable tool not just to record the history of viral circulation in India but also to inform decisions going forward. At the State and district levels, what can be changed based on serosurvey data? Increasing vaccination in areas with the lowest exposure in parallel with ensuring high testing levels and health-care system preparedness in areas with high vulnerability are immediate responses.

However, serosurveys need to be continued and the data integrated with testing, vaccination and clinical data. These are needed to understand ongoing infection rates, age distribution of infections and cases, where variations could be driven by seasonal coronavirus exposure, vaccination and the effect of waning antibodies, all of which will be essential to inform policies on the need and use of booster doses and long-term system preparedness.

Gagandeep Kang is Professor, Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu

The Pegasus revelations reflect an attack on Indian democracy and Indian citizens. Was the government directly responsible for the surveillance of a select group of Indian activists, politicians and journalists and others? Or was the surveillance at the instance of a private player? With the government in denial, a commission of inquiry by a sitting Supreme Court judge can alone unravel the mystery.

National security is important, but it can have an impact on human rights and civil liberties. The use of surveillance has serious implications for privacy. But the list of people targetedprima facieshows that national security is a pretext to suppress political and societal dissent in India.

Acting according to conscience

Pegasus is a technology sold to governments to fight terrorism. The Israeli Supreme Court, in September 1999, said inPublic Committee Against Torture in Israel v. Israelthat shaking, waiting in the ‘Shabach’ position, the frog crouch, excessively tight handcuffs and sleep deprivation were illegal. It held that they granted General Security Service investigators “the authority to apply physical force during interrogation of suspects suspected in involvement of... terrorist activities, thereby harming suspects’ dignity and liberty”. This, it said, “raises basic questions of law and society, of ethics and policy and of the rule of law and security.”

Speaking for the Court, President A. Barak declared, “This decision opened with a description of difficult reality in which Israel finds herself... We are aware that this decision does make it easier to deal with that reality. This is the destiny of a democracy... A democracy must sometimes fight with one hand tied behind its back. Even so, a democracy has the upper hand. The rule of law and the liberty of an individual constitute important components in its understanding of security.” He concluded, “We are aware of the harsh reality of terrorism in which we are, at times, immersed. The possibility that this decision will hamper the ability to... deal with terrorist and terrorism disturbs us. We are, however, judges... in deciding the law we must act according to our purest conscience.”

NSO Group and the Indian government must be reminded of these words. In the name of fighting terrorism, democracy cannot be undermined. Indian democracy is founded with the cherished ideals enshrined in the Constitution. It belongs to the people and not to political parties. The surveillance of the target group raises doubts about the functioning of democracy in India. The chilling effect, if the government were to succeed, would be to turn democracy into a dictatorship. The government has a constitutional duty to protect the fundamental and human rights of its citizens, irrespective of who they are. Even if the government is not complicit in the surveillance, it has miserably failed in discharging this duty. There is clear evidence that the rule of law has been undermined. More evidently, this reflects extremely poor governance. The Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing, and the National Security Council Secretariat should have forewarned the government and citizens against such surveillance seriously violating privacy and fundamental rights. Their silence speaks volumes about either complicity or poor governance. This being the case, an inquiry at the highest level under the supervision of the judiciary is a constitutional necessity. If this does not take place, India will cease to call itself a democracy.

The Supreme Court, inK.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India(2017), declared privacy a constitutionally protected value. The right to privacy is not absolute and its curtailment can take place only under a law which is just, reasonable and fair and subject to constitutional safeguards.

India is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 12 provides that “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, also signed by India, in Article 17 states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” InK.S. Puttaswamy, the Supreme Court noted India’s commitments under international law and held that by virtue of Article 51 of the Constitution, India has to endeavour to “foster respect for international law and treaty obligations...” The Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 is a fallout of this commitment.

Recommendations of UNHCHR

The annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) in 2014 made fundamental observations and recommendations on “digital communications technologies”. It said, “by amplifying the voices of human rights defenders and providing them with new tools to document and expose abuses, these powerful technologies offer the promise of improved enjoyment of human rights.” But “communications technologies also have enhanced the capacity of Governments, enterprises and individuals to conduct surveillance, interception and data collection....”

Earlier, due to concerns of member states, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 68/167 affirming that rights held by people offline must also be protected online and called upon all states to respect and protect the right to privacy, including in digital communication.

The UNHCHR report also stated, “Judicial involvement that meets international standards relating to independence, impartiality and transparency can help to make it more likely that the overall statutory regime will meet the minimum standards that international human rights law requires. At the same time, judicial involvement in oversight should not be viewed as a panacea...” It recommended an independent oversight body to keep checks and stated, “The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requires states parties to ensure that victims of violations of the Covenant have an effective remedy....” The report also dealt with the role of businesses and stated that when a state requires that an information and communications technology company provide user data, it can only supply it in respect of legitimate reasons.

Surprisingly, NSO, in its Transparency and Responsibility Report 2021, informed interested parties that it “strives to guarantee that our products are used... safely, effectively and ethically.” If described options available if one of its customers “has acted in bad faith, or used one of our tools to target the electronic communications of someone who falls outside the prescribed target scope.” It outlined the range of options available to it if this happened, including “completely ending a customer’s access to our systems, as a situation may warrant.” It stated, “We very much see today’s release as a newly added necessity to the complex, ongoing international debate over electronic surveillance. We are opening our own processes to even deeper scrutiny...” Was this report prepared fearing the worst in the wake of the ongoing international debate?

Indians have a right to call upon NSO to terminate the agreement, if any, with the Indian government or any private player and to cooperate with citizens to unravel the truth.

Dushyant Dave is a Senior Advocate and former President of the Supreme Court Bar Association

The third annual round of the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) data conducted during July 2019-June 2020 was released recently (https://bit.ly/3flSDAx). The PLFS captures key indicators of the labour market such as the labour force participation rate (LFPR) — the proportion of population working or seeking work; worker-population ratio (WPR) — the proportion of population that is working; and the unemployment rate (UR) — the proportion of population in the labour force that is seeking but unable to find work. It also provides data on the earnings of different segments of workers.

The PLFS 2019-20 was expected to provide official estimates of the labour market distress that followed dwindling GDP growth and a lockdown following the novel coronavirus pandemic that brought several economic activities to a standstill. The data, however, show a decline in the unemployment rate to 4.8% in 2019-20 — the lowest in three years. While the headline numbers may seem pleasing, a detailed analysis paints a rather disconcerting picture.

Falling unemployment rate

The LFPR, WPR and UR are measured using two approaches — usual status and current weekly status. The usual status considers the activity of an individual over a relatively long period during the last 365 days, whereas the current weekly status is based on activity performed during the reference period of the last seven days.

The unemployment rate, as measured by the usual status, fell from 6.1% in 2017-18 to 4.8% in 2019-20. This is because even as the LFPR increased from 36.9% to 40.1%, the WPR increased from 34.7% to 38.2% during the same period. In other words, while there was an increase in the share of the population in the labour force over the last three years, there was an even higher increase in the share of those who were able to find work, and hence unemployment fell.

A fall in the unemployment rate would be heartening, except, it seems puzzling as it comes at a time of unprecedented economic distress. The quarterly GDP growth declined for successive quarters, sliding from 8.2% in January-March 2018 to 3.1% in January-March 2020, after which the economy contracted by 23.9% during April-June 2020.

Workforce composition

How were more people able to find jobs when economic activities were slowing down? The answer lies in the changing composition of the workforce.

The PLFS categorises the workforce into self-employed (which includes own account workers, employers and unpaid helpers in family enterprises); regular wage/salaried workers and casual labourers. Own account workers run small enterprises without hiring any labour but may take help from family members, while employers hire workers. Of all the worker categories, only the proportion of unpaid family workers has gone up significantly in the last three years. In fact, between 2018 and 2019, while the workforce increased by 2.9%, the proportion of all other employment categories in the workforce declined, except unpaid family helpers.

Over the same period, almost the entire rise in the workforce was accommodated by agriculture. Agriculture continues to perform the function of a sink — absorbing the workforce that cannot find remunerative employment elsewhere.

There is also a gendered dimension to the changing composition of the workforce. The category of unpaid family workers is dominated by women. The story of the declining unemployment rate can largely be explained by a movement of women from primarily being engaged in domestic work to agriculture and other petty production activities as unpaid family helpers, possibly in the hope of increasing family income in the times of unprecedented distress and lack of alternative employment opportunities.

The usual status is based on a loose definition of work that underestimates open unemployment. This is where the alternative measure of unemployment is relevant. Using the current weekly status approach, the unemployment rate was estimated to be 8.8%, unchanged during the last three years.

Impact of the lockdown

The PLFS survey for April-June 2020 overlapped with the national lockdown. The current weekly status unemployment rate in this quarter was 14%, and the urban unemployment rate was around 20%. Corrected for inflation, the average monthly income for the salaried increased by 2% in April-June 2020 over April-June 2019. The monthly earnings of the self-employed declined by 16% and the daily wage for casual workers declined by 5.6% over the same period. The real monthly per capita consumer expenditure declined by 7.6%.

The rise in the average income of salaried workers and the muted impact on consumer expenditure, as estimated from the PLFS, do not concur with other data for the lockdown period. Private final consumption expenditure declined by 26.7% in April-June 2020 over the same quarter in 2019. Numerous small-scale surveys also reported massive earnings loss during the lockdown. There is overwhelming evidence to suggest that the PLFS data may underestimate the loss of earnings and fall in consumption during the lockdown. This is a missed opportunity for the official survey to capture the labour market dynamics during the lockdown.

Strengthen statistical system

There is no official data on poverty after 2011-12 or on farm income after 2013, and no recent data on migrant workers. While the consumer expenditure data for 2017-18 was buried, the data on situation assessment of agricultural households are not yet released, despite being conducted between January-December 2019, before the latest PLFS.

Minor tweaks in future PLFS surveys can fill the data gaps. Currently, the PLFS captures incomes from agriculture and monthly consumer expenditure, but the questions on these aspects lack credibility. The predecessor to the PLFS, the National Sample Survey employment and unemployment surveys, collected data on consumer expenditure using a detailed schedule. There is no reason why the PLFS cannot do the same. Adding questions on costs and returns from cultivation and related activities can also capture more accurate data on agricultural incomes. Lengthening the questionnaire has its costs — but the costs of the absence of reliable and timely data on important policy-relevant indicators are far higher.

Ishan Anand is Assistant Professor, Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana

The Supreme Court recently issued notice on a writ petition on the condition that the petition’s prayer seeking a direction to “restrain beggars and vagabonds/homeless from begging on traffic junctions, markets and public places to avoid the spread of COVID-19 pandemic in all the States and Union Territories across India” be modified to focus on the rehabilitation of those forced to beg for a living. In doing this, the court rightly observed that being compelled to beg was a socio-economic issue that could not be remedied by directions of the kind originally sought. It required, instead, a welfare response from the state. This order points to the largely ignored nexus between coercive measures and welfare issues, which can be a useful guide to making and implementing criminal law in three ways.

What should be criminalised?

First, when decisions about criminalisation are being taken by the legislature, an important point of consideration should be whether the issue sought to be addressed might be better suited to a welfare response. Salient examples of welfare issues against which the coercive force of criminal law has inappropriately been deployed serve to illustrate the point. In holding the criminalisation of beggary under the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 (as extended to the NCT of Delhi) unconstitutional, the High Court of Delhi, inHarsh Mander & Anr. v. Union of India(2018), had noted that the criminalisation of beggary served only to invisibilise beggars without doing anything to address the structural deprivations that drove people to beg. Similarly, the criminalisation of triple talaq by the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Act, 2019, purportedly to ‘protect’ Muslim women, does nothing to address the structural gender inequality, social stigma, poor employment options, and lack of state support which actually cause the deprivations associated with divorce (and not just with triple talaq).

Second, socio-economic marginalisation and poverty may frequently make people susceptible to exploitation, whether through poorly paid/unpaid labour, trafficking and sex work, or indeed, begging. A criminal response to those who seek to take advantage of such vulnerability (but never the vulnerable themselves) might be appropriate, but it would amount to little more than lip service to the predicament of the exploited without accompanying welfare measures. In other words, it is important to ensure that pimps, brothel owners, and traffickers are held criminally liable for sexually exploiting a person. Equally important is to create alternative, well-paying and dignified employment, to make such employment accessible by imparting requisite education and skills, and to have social security nets to ensure that no person feels that sex work is their ‘least worst’ option. This is essential not only to prevent exploitative practices, but also to rehabilitate those who have been rescued (and/or those who would like an exit option) from such practices. To ‘rescue’ a sex worker is meaningless unless they have a legitimate way out of such work, an option that is materially (not morally) better for them.

Focusing on the welfare aspect of exploitative practices also sheds light on structural forms of impoverishment, and on who is most likely to be exploited as a result. It is, thus, largely those marginalised and discriminated against based on gender, caste, class and even age who occupy the ranks of beggars, sex workers, bonded labourers, and child labourers. Such a focus also exposes the culpability of the state and society in creating or enabling the vulnerabilities of those prone to exploitation. This recognition is reflected in the apt remarks of the High Court inSuhail Rashid Bhat v. State of Jammu & Kashmir and Others(2019), “Begging is also in fact evidence of the failure of the Government as well as the society at large to protect its citizens from debilitating effects of extreme poverty and to ensure to them basics of food, clothing, shelter, health, education, essential concomitants of the right to life ensured under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”

Criminal law for whom?

Finally, when evaluating the function or necessity of a criminalisation response to something that is essentially or even partly a welfare issue, it is crucial to question whose interests the law does, in fact, serve. Does it help the vulnerable and/or the exploited, or is it a tool of persecution? Does it cater to the morality and sensibilities of the powerful? Does it hide the failures of the state? Or is it a quick fix that allows the government to abdicate and divert attention away from its welfare responsibilities? Only by following these interests can we, as citizens, hope to hold the state accountable in its use of the power to criminalise conduct.

Shraddha Chaudhary is Lecturer, Jindal Global Law School, Sonepat and a Ph.D Candidate (Law) at the University of Cambridge

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has rightfully identified 21st century skills as fundamental to developing creators. Critical thinking and problem solving, communication and collaboration, creativity and innovation, flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural interactions, and productivity and accountability all strengthen the individuals’ abilities at the workplace. Relying on traditional literacy and numeracy alone will not suffice and tends to marginalise differently abled learners. Educators could consider a design-based approach where students concentrate on a subject for two-three weeks to examine how it can be applied in the real world. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who studied happiness and creativity, said that creation requires ‘deep work’. An individual must be motivated enough to remain immersed in a specific activity to be creative and happy.

Teacher training

But does our current classroom and content-heavy syllabus enable deep work? Also, how do we retrain teachers who have been trained in traditional systems? They know terms like ‘constructivism’ but do not know how it should be used in a classroom that is focused on exams rather than learning. And how ready are our future educators?

In a semester-long study that used Wikipedia as a pedagogical tool for teacher training, 65 pre-service (B.Ed) teachers were asked to improve the pages on Wikipedia related to educational concepts. Excluding a few, the content created by most participants was either sent back to them or deleted by neutral editors of Wikipedia. The content, it was found, was plagiarised, did not provide citations, lacked basic writing and grammar skills, etc. After three iterative cycles that were emotionally intense, the teachers were able to contribute content to over 75 Wikipedia articles in English and over 50 articles in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Malayalam, Gujarati, Assamese and Punjabi. All the content was related to educational technology. The critical feedback from various Wikipedia editors was crucial because it was unbiased. This feedback forced the learners to re-evaluate their skills. This shows that constant engagement, an emotional connect, and immersive learning are important parts of education.

Using technology

EdTech apps can deliver content that caters to multiple learning styles, learning curves and pace of learning. The pandemic has shown that traditional teacher and brick-and-mortar schools may become obsolete if radical pedagogical changes do not follow. However, over-reliance on technology comes at a cost. Technology tools are forcing human beings to remain consumers rather than become creators. For example, social media forces you to scroll mindlessly rather than contemplate or engage meaningfully. Entertainment channels create addictive content that makes you suspend reality till all the seasons are done. And with the pandemic shutting down schools, children have lost all personal contact with their social group and parents are forced to rely upon technology to provide their children constant gratification to keep them engaged. With so many immersive distractions from deep work, is it even possible to develop creators? Can technology replace emotional and social engagement?

The disruptive nature of digital tools has thrown up interesting challenges to the traditional education system. Educators will have to find ways to upgrade their engagement strategies while integrating technology into their approach through hybrid learning. And while the NEP is catchy, policymakers will have to look again at the school education system if 21st century skills are to be truly actualised.

Vikram Vincent has a Ph.D. in Educational Technology from IIT Bombay

The new Chief Minister of Karnataka, Basavaraj Bommai, has to reconcile several conflicting factors while appointing his Council of Ministers. His predecessor B.S. Yediyurappa was ejected by the Bharatiya Janata Party high command that wants a new start in the State. The new Chief Minister is seen as aligned to Mr. Yediyurappa and both belong to the Lingayat community that is strong, numerically and economically. Mr. Yediyurappa’s heyday might be behind him, but he continues to hold significant sway among voters. Given the circumstance, the challenge before Mr. Bommai is to strike a balance between the imperatives of change and continuity. Mr. Yediyurappa had little moral scruples in pursuing political power and the Bharatiya Janata Party rode on his shoulders until recently. But the baggage that came with it has been heavy. He masterminded large-scale defections from the Congress and the Janata Dal (S) to aggregate an Assembly majority for the Bharatiya Janata Party that it had not won in the election. Allegations of nepotism and corruption shadowed his tenure. The steadfast support that he enjoyed among the Lingayats, who remain the backbone of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s social base in Karnataka, was intimidating for the party central leadership. And when it finally managed to effect a change, it ensured that the baton was handed over to his nominee and not to any of his many detractors in the party.

Mr. Bommai has to demonstrate to the Lingayats that he is one among them while trying to reach out to other communities and expand the party’s base. He has to balance various interest groups within the Lingayats. He has to shake off the debris of the past without earning the wrath of Mr. Yediyurappa. He has to demonstrate a capacity to govern better than his predecessor but keep various factions and interest groups that held sway during the previous regime happy. He has to deliver on the priorities of the Bharatiya Janata Party high command on the one hand and also balance his known personal convictions with the requirements of Hindutva politics into which he converted as late as 2008, at the age of 48. Even after taking over as Chief Minister, Mr. Bommai spoke about his father and former Chief Minister S.R. Bommai’s “principled politics” that he said was inspired by Left leader M.N. Roy. Mr. Yediyurappa has said it is the Chief Minister’s prerogative to choose his Council, but also expressed confidence that the defectors will be protected. All this at a time when it remains unclear whether the Bharatiya Janata Party’s plans for him are for the longer term. Having come this far without alienating any section within the party or his support base, it is likely that Mr. Bommai will pass the test.

August has begun on a disconcerting note in India’s coronavirus story. The seven-day weekly average of cases hovers around the psychologically important 40,000 mark and there is an uptick in daily new cases with the latest numbers a little over 41,000. A major concern that has assumed national proportions is the trajectory of cases in Kerala. With nearly 20,000 fresh cases being added every day, it is of concern that if a State with an admirable track record during the earlier wave is under siege now, then many other States could be particularly vulnerable against new variants at the start of a third wave. In Kerala, the rise in cases is concomitant with a rise in testing that has increased from 130,000 a day on July 25 to 162,000 as of Monday, indicating that the infection may be rapidly spreading. Nearly 11 States are now showing a weekly increase in cases. Kerala is not the only point of concern. The national situation has prompted the Health Secretary to write to States that all districts reporting a positivity rate of more than 10% in the last few weeks ought to consider strict restrictions to curtail the movement of people and formation of crowds to prevent the spread of infection. Apart from Kerala these include Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Andhra Pradesh and Manipur. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has also expressed concern that 46 districts are showing more than 10% positivity while another 53 districts are showing a positivity between 5%-10%. India’s positivity rate is around 5%, that could well descend into a runaway climb in serious infections if unchecked.

The ICMR’s flag-waving comes in the context of the agency’s Fourth National Serology Survey finding that nearly 40 crore Indians likely lacked antibodies to the virus and were particularly vulnerable. On its own, the rise in infections would have been less of a concern had a substantial number of Indians — particularly those over 45 — been double vaccinated. As in previous waves, the elderly continue to be the most vulnerable. Nearly 80% of the mortality was from these vulnerable age groups and only 11% of the eligible adults have been fully vaccinated, which means significant numbers of the population are yet to get sufficient protection. India has so far administered 47.1 crore doses since the beginning of the vaccination drive in January. The Centre has said it will vaccinate all adults, 94.4 crore approximately, by the year-end. This target requires a daily inoculation of 90 lakh to 100 lakh doses per day. For most of July, the average inoculations have ranged from 30-60 lakh. States whose districts are most vulnerable ought to be given preference and there should be accelerated campaigns to double inoculate the elderly. Every effort should be made to break the link between infections and hospitalisation and deaths.

From the archives: Aug 3, 1971

Mr. Swaran Singh, Minister of External Affairs, told the Lok Sabha amidst cheers to-day [New Delhi, August 2] that if President Yahya Khan made the success attained by the Mukti Bahini in establishing effective control over parts of Bangla Desh as an excuse to start a war with India, “undoubtedly our defence forces will give a fitting reply.” He was replying to Mr. Samar Guha and others. Mr. Guha drew the Minister’s attention to the reported statement of President Yahya Khan broadcast by Radio Australia that Pakistan was “on the verge of a total war with India” and sought his comment. Mr. Indrajit Gupta wanted to know what information Government had about the military build-up by Pakistan not only on the eastern side but also on its western borders with India. He asked if reports that Pakistan was intensifying the build-up were true and whether they indicated that Pakistan was preparing for committing aggression on India. The Defence Minister, Mr. Jagjivan Ram, intervened to reply that whenever it came to India’s notice that Pakistan was deploying its forces on any part of the border, “we also make our preparations.” Mr. Gupta asked whether the reports of concentration of troops by Pakistan on India’s border were really true. Mr. Jagjivan Ram: “I do not think it will be possible to give more information.”

Jagjivan Ram has been warned that he will be expelled from the Congress (U) if he attends the August 5 meeting of the All India Congress (U) Committee convened by Shyam Dhar Mishra, the recently deposed UP Congress (U) head, and others.

Jagjivan Ram has been warned that he will be expelled from the Congress (U) if he attends the August 5 meeting of the All India Congress (U) Committee convened by Shyam Dhar Mishra, the recently deposed UP Congress (U) head, and others. The three Congress (U) General Secretaries, K P Unnikrishnan, Banka Bihari Das, and Ambika Soni have made this clear. In an answer to a question on whether Ram would be expelled if he attends the meeting, Soni replied, “Yes, anybody who joins the meeting will be expelled. Nobody will be given any special treatment”. Congress (U) President Devraj Urs also threatened disciplinary action against anyone attending the meeting, “even if its Jagjivan Ram”. The aim of the August 5 meeting is to elect a new party chief.

Violence in Godhra

One person was stabbed to death and three others were wounded when some unidentified gunmen attacked them after pulling out from a truck on the outskirts of Godhra town on the national highway. Godhra, the headquarters of Panchmahals district in In Gujarat, was under indefinite curfew clamped since August 1 after clashes between groups of two communities in which two persons were killed and eight injured.

Cabinet reshuffle

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi may reshuffle her cabinet before her departure for Nairobi. The expectation is that some of the dual charges, now held by ministers, might be ended. Planning Minister N D Tiwari looks after labour, and Commerce Minister Pranab Mukherjee is also in charge of steel.

US scores a point

The United States has got what it wanted at the North-South meet to be held in Cancun in October. There will be no specific agenda, only “free and open discussion” as demanded by US President Ronald Reagan.

In China, the tallest pig farm in the world is utopia and dystopia, a model for the republic and revolution.

It is no easy task to go Through the Looking Glass, past Animal Farm, and establish The Republic. Yet, on a sacred mountain in southern China, a collection of nondescript concrete buildings has stoked and surpassed the imaginations of some of the world’s greatest writers. The tallest pig farm in the world, nine storeys high, with 1,270 pigs on each floor, both a porcine utopia and dystopia, an absurd fantasy and a marvel of the modern state.

“The time has come, the Walrus said” in Lewis Carroll’s classic, to ponder such deep questions as “whether pigs have wings”. In China, while the ungulate cannot fly, it can take the lift. Individual care, 24/7 medical facilities and quick, hygienic disposal of the diseased have been put in place in the condominiums on Yaji (“sacred”) mountain. This pampering of pigs — they are weighed, measured, sorted and kept in secure “bio-bubbles” — has ostensibly been necessitated by disease and the threat of dietary shortages. Over the last two years, China lost over 200 million pigs to African Swine Fever and other viruses. And the one-party state, that has been relatively unsuccessful in remaking Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, has set up a Platonic Republic for the animals. Each creature is cared for, its future predetermined.

But a word of caution: Pigs, like Politburo members, can become self-serving. A duck may ask, along with his sheep and goat friends: Why am I slumming it in farms, on the ground, while the portly pigs enjoy climate-controlled surroundings in high rises? In Animal Farm, while all animals were equal, some were more equal than others. The lesson from Orwell, which People’s Parties often forget, also is that before there was Utopia, there was dissent and revolution. Revolutions can always come around again

PV Sindhu’s second Olympics medal is only the latest success in a larger story of striving and achieving by India’s sportswomen.PV Sindhu has now become the first Indian woman to win a medal at successive Games.

Men’s sport in India may be in need of urgent bucking up — an Olympic medal has not been won since London 2012. In this period, spanning the Games in London, Rio and Tokyo, Indian sportswomen have added seven medals across four sports. PV Sindhu has now become the first Indian woman to win a medal at successive Games. The success of women at the Olympics has meant a broadening of the pyramid base from the traditional hubs. It isn’t just the wrestlers from Haryana, gymnasts from the east, shuttlers from Hyderabad and lifters from Manipur. Tokyo 2020 has also turned the glittering spotlight on a fencer from Chennai and a boxer from Assam. With the best of sport now available on smartphones, ease of communication because of social media and hyper-efficient search engines, there’s no telling when and where a dream gets kindled, watching women sports stars perform and win consistently.

Gymnast Dipa Karmakar didn’t just dream up a high difficulty vault for the Rio Olympics, she took her effort to the logical conclusion, came within striking distance of a medal. Sindhu ensured that Saina Nehwal ’s bronze was upgraded to silver and elevated badminton to a mainline television sport, before she returned to the Olympics for a bounce-back bronze. Perhaps the greatest first day at the Olympics for India was when Mirabai Chanu demolished her demons of failure from four years ago to chase down a weightlifting silver, a score of years after Karnam Malleswari’s feat barely registered. Mary Kom refuses to go gently into the fading dusk of her career at 38. Another pugilist from the Northeast, Lovlina Borgohain from Assam, has picked up the baton. At the start of Week 2, all eyes are on wrestler Vinesh Phogat, five years after Sakshi Malik salvaged India’s twelve-day-long zero count at Rio. Most hearteningly, India’s women’s hockey team has come to the party, beating mighty Australia.

It seems women go to the Olympics focussing on the podium, and work backwards on the effort needed to get as close to the target as possible. Keenly aware of the deficiencies of opportunities and facilities, and of the slim chances they might be afforded given societal traditions, they don’t waste time to get going. Like Nehwal and Mirabai, they take disappointment to heart, and return to work harder. Like Lovlina and Sakshi, they go out there, fearless but without hubris, not giving themselves the cushioning of a “next time” — the sort of second-chances, for instance, that this time’s medalless Olympic debutant Saurabh Chaudhary or Amit Panghal might be glibly given. PT Usha, Sania Mirza, Anju Bobby George — they are not just bright stars streaking across TV screens, but role models for countless young women. PV Sindhu went to eight majors and brought home medals from seven. India’s sportswomen deliver on their promises, time and again. They get the job done.

Centre’s finances have fared well. But limited disinvestment, need for higher spending, could build up pressure.

At the aggregate level, the Centre’s gross tax collections have touched 24 per cent of budgeted expectations in the first quarter (April-June) of the current financial year, with indirect tax collections doing a tad better.

Recent data suggests that with the second wave of infections subsiding, and with state governments easing localised restrictions, economic activities in India bounced back strongly from the lows observed in May. At 95.3, the Nomura India Business Resumption Index for the week ending July 25 was only 4.7 percentage points below its pre- pandemic level. It had dipped to 60.2 in May. In line with these trends in the broader economy, recently released data also signals a marked improvement in central government finances during this period. In fact, with the economic fallout of the second wave being less than feared, government finances have fared considerably better in the first quarter of the current financial year than over the same period last year when the imposition of the national lockdown led to a virtual collapse in revenues.

At the aggregate level, the Centre’s gross tax collections have touched 24 per cent of budgeted expectations in the first quarter (April-June) of the current financial year, with indirect tax collections doing a tad better. Under the broad rubric of indirect taxes, recent data signals a rapid pick up in both GST and excise/cess collections. GST collections at Rs 1.16 lakh crore in July were higher than in both May (Rs 1.02 lakh crore) and June (Rs 92,849 crore). With average daily e-way bills generated in July higher than in June and May, the outlook for collections is significantly brighter. Further, with economic activities picking up, fuel demand also rose sharply in July. In fact, as reported in this paper, preliminary sales data shows that petrol consumption has reached pre-Covid levels with state-owned fuel retailers selling 2.37 million tonnes of petrol in July. Even non-tax revenues have been bolstered by a higher than expected surplus transferred by the Reserve Bank of India. However, there continues to be cause for concern. As against an ambitious disinvestment target of Rs 1.75 lakh crore, so far proceeds through this channel have only been to the tune of Rs 7,645 crore. An inability to shore up disinvestment proceeds, coupled with the possibility of having to provide additional support to struggling parts of the economy, could add pressure on government finances down the line.

On the expenditure side, while the Centre’s revenue expenditure has grown at a steady pace sequentially during this period, capital expenditure has been volatile, presumably due to lockdown restrictions. With the second wave receding, economic activity picking up, and greater clarity over its revenue streams, the government should now step up spending to provide support to the economy.

Chakshu Roy writes: Legislative body’s role must be strengthened and deepened so that disruption of proceedings ceases to be an option.

Disruption is replacing discussion as the foundation of our legislative functioning. The passionate debate that should inform the country is taking place everywhere other than in Parliament. Last week, this newspaper reported that the government is considering curtailing the monsoon session of Parliament. If that happens, then all four sessions since last year would have been cut short. The first two because of Covid, this year’s budget session because of campaigning in state elections, and the ongoing session on account of disruptions.

Political parties understand what causes disorder and the changes required to prevent it. In 2001, a day-long conference was held in the Central Hall of Parliament to discuss discipline and decorum in legislatures. A galaxy of political leaders including the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi , and leader of the All-India Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee , weighed in on the subject. Their inputs and those of parliamentarians like Arun Jaitley , Pranab Mukherjee, and former prime minister Chandra Shekhar helped identify four reasons behind the disorderly conduct by MPs.

The first was dissatisfaction in MPs because of inadequate time for airing their grievances. The second was an unresponsive attitude of the government and the retaliatory posture of the treasury benches. The third was political parties not adhering to parliamentary norms and disciplining their members. Finally, the absence of prompt action against disrupting MPs under the legislature’s rules. Two of the conference suggestions to curb disorder in Parliament were enforcement of a code of conduct for MPs and MLAs and an increase in the sitting days of legislatures.

These ideas are not new. For example, the Lok Sabha has had a simple code of conduct for its MPs since 1952. Earlier, the rules required MPs not to interrupt the speech of others, maintain silence and not obstruct proceedings by hissing or by making commentaries during debates. Newer forms of protest led to the updating of these rules in 1989. Accordingly, members should not shout slogans, display placards, tear away documents in protest, play cassettes or tape recorders in the House. A new rule empowers the Lok Sabha Speaker to suspend MPs obstructing the Houses’ business automatically. The conference also resolved that Parliament should meet for 110 days every year and larger state legislative assemblies for 90 days.

But these suggestions have not been enforced so far. The government decides when Parliament should meet, for how long and plays a significant role in determining what issues the House should discuss. Successive governments have shied away from increasing the working days of Parliament. When a contentious issue crops up, the government dithers on debating it, leading to Opposition MPs violating the conduct rules and disrupting the proceedings of Parliament. Since they have the support of their parties in breaking the rules, the threat of suspension from the House does not deter them.

Breaking this pattern of parliamentary disruptions requires a few changes in the functioning of Parliament. As recommended by the 2001 conference, there should be an increase in the working days of Parliament. Our legislature should meet throughout the year, like parliaments of most developed democracies. But these increased days will not help prevent disruptions if opposition parties don’t have the opportunity to debate and highlight important issues. Currently, government business takes priority, and private members discuss their topics post lunch on a Friday.

In the United Kingdom, where Parliament meets over 100 days a year, opposition parties get 20 days on which they decide the agenda for discussion in Parliament. The main opposition party gets 17 days and the remaining three days are given to the second-largest opposition party. Usually, decisions of the House passed on opposition days are not binding on the government and are an opportunity for the opposing parties to focus national attention on issues that it deems crucial. Canada also has a similar concept of opposition days.

More strengthening of our Parliament is the solution to prevent disruption of its proceedings. There should be a deepening of its role as the forum for deliberation on critical national issues. It is the only mechanism to ensure that disrupting its proceedings or allowing them to be disrupted ceases to be a viable option.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 3, 2021 under the title ‘Setting new House rules’. The writer is head of outreach, PRS Legislative Research.

Yashwant Sinha writes: An innovation of our parliamentary system of governance, they do an enormous amount of good work, much of which remains unknown to the public.

The recent goings-on in the standing committee on information technology has once again drawn attention to the system of standing committees, which is one of the major innovations of our parliamentary system of governance. Along with the earlier committees, some of which are mandated by the Constitution, these committees do enormous amount of work for Parliament but generally behind closed doors. It is a pity that in this day and age of complete transparency, the committees are forced to function confidentially. This is one of the main reasons why their good work is not known outside Parliament. It is high time to throw open the proceedings of the committees to public scrutiny as happens in most democracies.

Be that as it may, as someone who has dealt with these committees both as a minister and as member/chairperson, I am a great admirer of the system. So, when I read in the media about what happened in the committee on information technology, I was considerably saddened. In my time, the parliamentary committees generally functioned on non-partisan lines, with some unfortunate exceptions. I headed the standing committee on the ministry of external affairs briefly in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14) and the standing committee on finance for almost five years. There were three of us in the BJP in those days, who pretended to understand economics and finance, Murli Manohar Joshi, Jaswant Singh and me. The real expert was Arun Shourie, but he was in the Rajya Sabha and only a member of the Lok Sabha could head the finance committees. I was the junior-most of the three. So, Dr Joshi and Jaswant Singh always got what they wanted. I had to make do with whatever was left. So, in the 15th Lok Sabha, Jaswant Singh took the public accounts committee (PAC), Dr Joshi took the standing committee on finance and I had to go to the standing committee on external affairs. Soon thereafter, Jaswant Singh was expelled from the party and it took all the diplomatic skills of Sushma Swaraj to persuade him to resign from the chairmanship of the PAC, which by tradition belonged to the main opposition party in Lok Sabha. After his resignation, Dr Joshi preferred to go to the PAC as its chairman rather than continue as chairman of the standing committee on finance. At this point, Sushma Swaraj wanted to know whether I would like to continue where I was or shift to the finance committee.

I was reminded of what Jaswant Singh once told me when he was minister of external affairs and I was minister for finance — that the real work was in the finance ministry, external affairs ministry was mere laffazi (verbiage). So, I told Swaraj that I would prefer to go to the finance committee. I never regretted that decision.

We indeed did an enormous amount of legislative work in the finance committee between 2009 and 2014. I had as colleagues some of the best parliamentarians of the day and the proceedings of the committee were conducted with a lot of energy but also with a lot of dignity. I always asked my questions at the end, after I had offered an opportunity to all members to ask their questions, if any. In fact, the best day of my parliamentary career was when we held the last meeting of the committee, an informal one, and exchanged views for one last time. I was overwhelmed when member after member showered me with encomiums regarding the impartial manner in which I used to conduct the committee meetings. As a result, the proceedings were always smooth, differences were aired with dignity and there was no ill-will even when a member had a major difference of opinion and gave a note of dissent, though it was rare.

I recall with pleasure the joint parliamentary committee which had been constituted to look into the stock market scam of 1992. I was only four years old in Parliament then, but Chandra Shekhar thought it fit to nominate me to that committee. The chairman of the committee, Ram Nivas Mirdha of the Congress, conducted the meetings of the committee with great fairness. He allowed Jaswant Singh to function almost as the deputy chairman of the committee and gave us the space we wanted. He tasked S S Ahluwalia of the Congress then to work with some of us in close concert so that the committee could produce a unanimous report. But not all committees functioned like that. The second JPC on the 2G scam was a disaster and functioned on purely political lines. We had many ugly scenes in the committee meetings and ultimately had to write a parallel report. The PAC headed by Dr Joshi, which was examining the 2G scam, also saw very ugly scenes. The Congress members were under instruction not to allow the committee to adopt its report. So, when the time came to consider the report, my good friend, and a thorough gentleman otherwise, Saifuddin Soz, even climbed on the table to disrupt the proceedings of the committee. But politics in the committees was more an exception and most of the time the committees functioned as a cohesive unit setting aside party affiliations.

Today everything has changed. The present dispensation has little use for parliamentary conventions, practices and precedents, indeed for Parliament itself. With all due respect to the Congress, I have to admit that the “Congressisation” of the BJP is now complete. The only regret is that the present-day BJP has adopted all the wrong practices of the Congress but none of its virtues. Add rabid communalism to that and the picture is complete. If that means the erosion of democracy, then so be it.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 3, 2021 under the title ‘Once upon a committee’. The writer, a former Union external affairs and finance minister, is vice president Trinamool Congress.

There is just too much at stake in Indo-US relationship to let self-righteousness taint it.

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Blinken (verb): to assiduously and tactfully refuse to be drawn into controversy; to maintain pivotal, cordial relationships, notwithstanding a cacophony of patently instigated noises, and, thereby, render those noises irrelevant.

The recent visit to India by the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, cemented the robust and time-tested relations between the world’s largest and oldest democracies. On the agenda for urgent discussion: Covid-19 , Afghanistan, the Quad, and a raft of other pressing matters that could brook no delay. In the wake of this visit, and, in particular, the press conference that he and India’s External Affairs Minister, S Jaishankar, held at the conclusion of their talks, there was a flurry of articles trying to gloss over the fact that Blinken categorically — and graciously, in deference to accepted diplomatic protocol — refused to be drawn into any kind of commentary on India’s internal affairs. These articles epitomise a refusal to accept what is true. If only he had cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war! We might work ourselves into a lather all we want, and read dozens of meanings into his statements on both democracies, but the truth is that Blinken assiduously avoided being judgemental about India, saying that he approached India with a sense of “humility”. He alluded to our democracies as “works in progress” and offered up tangible praise for India as a democracy. I, therefore, name this sage diplomatic strategy the art of Blinkening, infused with fresh meaning and depth as it has been, by Antony Blinken. There is just too much at stake in this crucial relationship to let self-righteousness taint it. It takes a large dollop of naïveté to assume that any leader is simply going to jump into an arena now populated by activists and belligerent mediapersons, and, thereby, jeopardise important bilateral relations. The real world does not work that way. The very act of requesting another nation to interfere in India’s internal affairs is both immature and treacherous, and epitomises our colonial hangover.

Calling the US-India relationship “one of the most consequential relationships we have with any country on earth,” Blinken added: “Finally, our bilateral relationship is strengthened by our shared values. As two of the world’s leading democracies, we take seriously our responsibilities to deliver freedom, equality and opportunity to all of our people … Part of the promise of democracy is the constant striving for better. Those values are at the heart of our democratic systems. They’re at the core of the vast array of partnerships connecting our countries, not only between our governments but also between our private sectors, universities, civil societies, and most of all between our people.” As someone whose professional and personal investment in, and connection with, North America dates back to 1980, and whose areas of specialisation are cross-cultural communication, international relations, and public policy, I believe I have a reasonably accurate take on exactly what Blinken meant. He was not fudging around; what he said, with discernible eloquence, came from the heart.

In the above context, a couple of comments in the media need responses: One Indian journalist thinks Blinken “waffled painfully, trying his best to say nothing when asked about the Modi government’s democratic backsliding. But Dr S Jaishankar leapt in, right after, to reveal the three issues the US raised with India.” This is inaccurate, and sheer fabrication: I watched the press conference live. Blinken chose to reply first, to Courtney McBride of The Wall Street Journal, when she asked him about his perception of India as a democracy, and here is an excerpt from what he said: “I’m happy to start … The most remarkable democratic elections in the world, in many ways, are here in India, just by sheer numbers. It’s the largest expression of free political will by citizens anywhere on earth … And we celebrate that the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies are dedicated at heart to a shared set of values that I believe will ensure not only the success of democracy, but the success of the relationship between India and the United States.” Now, for someone who was trying to say nothing, Blinken said rather a lot, and there wasn’t the slightest trace of a waffle or discomfiture in his response.

In a predictably wilful and schismatic map of misreading, a writer at another daily refers, in a tweet, to her article which magnifies, out of proportion, Blinken’s discussion of “CAA, love jihad and farmers’ protests with civil society representatives”, hoping, desperately, to delineate this meeting as the reason for a US Secretary of State’s India visit. This is a risible and misfired attempt to diminish the centrality and positive outcome of the Blinken-Jaishankar dialogue, and the Blinken-Modi meeting, as if they were postscripts.

All those manufactured and spurious correlations, the hectoring and the cotton candy cozenage — they were all astutely banished. “Blinkened”, if you will. Blinken complimented India as a strong and resilient democracy, on more than one occasion, and with elegance. India now looks forward to President Biden’s visit.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 3, 2021 under the title ‘The art of Blinkening’. The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Carnegie Mellon University.

Despite investing significant amounts of financial, military and political resources, it has failed to contribute to Afghanistan’s stability and security.

The UK’s choices of place, programmes and policies also articulate its colonial past in the country.

Amidst the ongoing developments concerning Afghanistan, an exchange of diplomatic pleasantries between the UK Secretary of Defence and the Taliban spokesperson has received scant attention. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Ben Wallace announced that Britain will work with the Taliban should they enter government in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s spokesperson seized upon the announcement and described it as “positive”.

The exchange illustrates the lesser-known aspect of the UK’s intervention in Afghanistan since 2001: To what extent does Britain’s colonial past shape its Afghanistan mission? The UK was a junior partner in the US-led Afghanistan mission that is on the edge of implosion. UK-Afghanistan relations, however, span more than two centuries. Unlike popular interest in, and coverage of, the British Raj or Germany-Britain relations, Afghanistan remains a specialised subject and interest in the UK. But for many Afghans, the UK has impacted upon Afghanistan more than any other country, including in shaping its geographical boundaries and political culture and identity since the mid-19th century. It was inevitable, therefore, that the UK’s re-entry in Afghanistan in late 2001 would ignite historical memories, prejudices, suspicions and fascination on the part of both sides.

On the surface, the Afghan war was projected as part of the global war on terrorism with a strong undertone of “liberal intervention”. Many in London could not, however, tame their temptation to look at Afghanistan from the point of view their ancestors had adopted in the early 20th century. Reading Rudyard Kipling’s Great Game and watching Carry On Up the Khyber became compulsory for the plethora of British military and civilian personnel deploying to Afghanistan.

The UK’s choices of place, programmes and policies also articulate its colonial past in the country. The UK chose Helmand as its area of responsibility, a province rich with the memory of the Anglo-Afghan wars. The UK assumed the lead role in tackling Afghanistan’s flourishing illicit drug economy, which was mainly concentrated in the southern provinces, once the frontier of British India. More importantly, as early as 2008, the UK was the first country to emphasise the futility of a military solution and advocate the need for a negotiated settlement. Mediation between Afghanistan and Pakistan was another of the UK’s priorities.

Less known are the UK’s efforts and “success” in “tribal balance”. The UK supported the presidency of Ashraf Ghani, who belongs to the Ghiljai branch of Pashtun — to which most Taliban fighters are believed to belong. They reasoned that a Ghiljai president could induce the Taliban to join the political process.

The UK’s entrenched colonial assumptions and ensuing hubris, ignorance and blunder are reflected in a number of statements made by senior UK officials. Before deploying his country’s troops to Helmand, the UK Secretary of Defence at the time, John Reid, had the audacity to proclaim, “We would be perfectly happy to leave in three-years time without firing one shot.” In reality, Helmand became the scene for “the fiercest fighting involving British troops since the Korean War”. Another former UK Secretary of Defence, Liam Fox, advocated for a negotiated settlement and revealed that the UK’s main rationale in being in Afghanistan was not “for the sake of the education policy in a broken, 13th-century country”. If Fox had acquired an elementary knowledge of the history of the country, he would have known that in the 13th century, Herat was the capital of the Timurid Empire (1370-1507) and a cosmopolitan and globally oriented city.

In 2007, the Afghan government took an unprecedented step by expelling two senior UN and EU officials, with Irish/British passports. The officials were expelled because they had cultivated unauthorised contacts with the Taliban, including by way of the distribution of cash. The Afghan government suspected the officials of being British spies. One of the two deported, Michael Sample, who has married the daughter of a senior Pakistani army general, managed to return to the country and continues to pursue his decades-long interactions with the Taliban.

The Afghan allegations of British collusion with the Taliban were not mere paranoia or conspiratorial. The Taliban are the third militant Islamist movement active in Afghanistan that has been supported by the UK and which aims to replace a progressively leaned political order with a draconian, repressive Islamist one. The UK played an important role in two previous successful attempts of Islamists to capture the Afghan state. The uprising against Afghanistan’s modernising and enlightened king and Britain’s sworn enemy, Amanullah Khan, in the 1920s combined tribal and clerical elements that had received significant support and encouragement from British agents. The second attempt comprised the Taliban’s predecessors, the Mujahideen. Margaret Thatcher roused the Mujahideen by telling them that “the hearts of ‘free world’ were with them in their bid to fight evil”. Such rhetorical support was accompanied by massive financial, military and diplomatic support. The UK Chief of the General Staff, Nicholas Carter, has recently assumed additional responsibility for reviving the UK’s mediation effort between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the triangle of Afghanistan-Pakistan-UK, many Afghans would describe it as “2+1”, similar to the Palestinians’ view of the US’ role in the Palestine-Israel conflict. The UK’s Pakistan-centric South Asia policy is further illustrated by the absence of any dialogue between London and Delhi on Afghanistan since 2001.

While too much focus on the role of colonial assumption and mindset would lead to an overly deterministic account of the UK’s two-decades involvement in Afghanistan, it nevertheless deserves due recognition and scrutiny. Despite losing more than 450 troops and investing significant amounts of financial and political resources, the UK has failed to attain any of its stated objectives in the country. A UK emancipated from its colonial burden would have been in a better position to contribute to Afghanistan’s stability and security.

This column first appeared in the print edition on August 3, 2021 under the title ‘To Kabul, with burden of past’. The writer is founder and director-general, Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies.

C. Raja Mohan writes: Turkish president Erdogan’s overweening ambitions, alienation of Israel and moderate Arabs, growing conflict with Greece and alignment with Pakistan presents India with opportunity to widen outreach to west of the Subcontinent.

< Viewing the religion either exclusively through the religious or secular lens misses the complex interplay between competing versions of a common faith, the quest for profit, and diverging political interests within the region.

An Egyptian scholar, Mohammed Soliman, has recently written about the significance of what he calls the emerging “Indo-Abrahamic Accord” and its trans-regional implications to the west of India. Soliman’s concept builds on the normalisation of Israel’s relations with the UAE and Bahrain under the so-called Abraham Accords signed last August in Washington. The naming of the accords was arguably an inspired choice to denote the shared origins of the Jewish and Islamic religions. The UAE and Bahrain were followed by Sudan and Morocco in signing the Abraham Accords.

Although Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) had established diplomatic relations with Israel earlier, the Abraham Accords are widely seen as making a definitive breakthrough in the relations between Israel and the Arabs. Soliman sees the Israel-UAE relationship as having acquired a character independent of Israel’s relations with Palestine and a promise of expansive political, economic and technological cooperation.

Soliman also points to the transformation of India’s relations with the UAE and Israel under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Although Delhi had relations with Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv for many years, they certainly have acquired political depth and strategic character under Modi. Soliman sees this trilateral relationship as the potential nucleus of a wider regional coalition.

Soliman underlines the converging interests between India, the UAE, and Israel amidst Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s assertive claims for the leadership of the Islamic world. The new geopolitical churn is also driven by Pakistan’s growing alignment with Turkey and its alienation from its traditionally strong supporters in the Arab Gulf — the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The fragile efforts since the end of the Cold War at normalising relations between Delhi and Ankara have also broken down, thanks to Erdogan’s hostility towards India. Erdogan has been championing Pakistan’s case on Kashmir after India changed the territorial status quo of the state in August 2019. At Pakistan’s behest, Erdogan is also blocking India’s entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Turkey’s quest for regional dominance has also widened the Indo-Abrahamic convergence to the eastern Mediterranean to include Greece and Cyprus. The discovery of new hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean, the renewed territorial disputes between Ankara and Athens, and the Turkish quest for regional dominance has drawn Greece and the UAE closer.

Greece has also looked towards India to enhance bilateral security cooperation. India’s external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was in Athens at the end of June and the two sides have begun defence exchanges. Greece’s European partners like France, which have a big stake in the Mediterranean as well as the Arab Gulf, have taken an active interest in countering Turkey’s regional ambitions.

Many in Delhi will shake their heads in disapproval at the framing of India’s Middle East possibilities in religious terms. But the idea has considerable traction among groups that are otherwise deeply antagonistic.

For example, many in Pakistan have long convinced themselves of a “Hindu-Yehudi conspiracy” to undermine its very existence. They could throw in the Greeks and add Christians to the conspiracy. Those in India that view the Middle East through the religious prism might believe Hindus and Jews are natural allies in the region. But the deepening of Indian and Israeli ties with moderate Arab states spoils the religious paradigm that so many in India and Pakistan would love to believe in.

The idea of an Indo-Abrahamic accord also troubles those in South Asia who view the Middle East through such secular tropes as anti-imperialism and the contradictions between Israel and Arabs. The intra-regional contradictions in West Asia have always been sharper than those between the region and the external powers.

Arabs do empathise with the Palestinians’ plight, but many of them are no longer willing to let the Palestinians veto their normalisation of relations with Israel. Nor do all Arabs see the conflict with Israel as the principal contradiction in the region. For some, non-Arab powers like Iran and Turkey pose a bigger threat than Israel.

Viewing the region either exclusively through the religious or secular lens misses the complex interplay between competing versions of a common faith, the quest for profit, and diverging political interests within the region. Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks to overthrow the current political order in the region, has deeply angered the governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Fighting the Brotherhood and balancing Turkey have become existential challenges for Cairo, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. Although Erdogan’s Islamic radicalism might appeal to the Arab street, the Arab elites are not about to let Erdogan reimpose the Ottoman imperium over their lands.

As the current turmoil reconfigures the region’s geography, its traditional subdivision into the Gulf, West Asia, and North Africa makes little sense today. Nor can the region be separated from Southern Europe and the Mediterranean at one end and the Subcontinent on the other. The familiar regional institutions like the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation might endure but are incapable of addressing the region’s contradictions.

One of the unintended consequences of Erdogan’s overweening regional ambition, his alienation of Israel as well as moderate Arabs, his conflict with Greece, and his embrace of Pakistan is the extraordinary opportunity for Delhi to widen India’s reach to the west of the Subcontinent.

Soliman asks if the deepening engagement between India, the UAE and Israel can be converted into a formal coalition. To be sure, there are many areas like defence, aerospace and digital innovation where the three countries can pool their resources and coordinate development policies. Coordination with Saudi Arabia will certainly remain a high priority for the three nations. Meanwhile, others like Greece are eager for greater cooperation with the coalition.

If there is one country that can give substantive depth to the Indo-Abrahamic Accord it is Egypt. Having ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power in 2014, the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is trying to revitalise the nation’s economy and reclaim its regional leadership role. Located at the cusp of Mediterranean Europe, Africa, and Asia, Egypt is the very heart of the Greater Middle East.

Independent India’s engagement with the region in the 1950s was centred on a close partnership with Egypt. The legendary special relationship between Jawaharlal Nehru and Gamal Abdel Nasser was instrumental in promoting Afro-Asian unity and founding the Non-Aligned Movement. It was not all about solidarity though. Nehru and Nasser visualised a strategic partnership and sought to build a joint fighter aircraft and develop a jet engine. If Delhi and Cairo lost each other in recent decades, Modi can rebuild the strategic partnership jointly with el-Sisi who is calling for the construction of a “New Republic” in Egypt.

The opportunities that are coming India’s way to the west of the Subcontinent are as consequential as those that have recently emerged in the east. Much in the manner that the “Indo-Pacific” has transformed the way India thinks about the east, the notion of a “Greater Middle East” can provide a huge fillip to India’s engagement with the extended neighbourhood to the west.

In a historic feat, Rani Rampal and co have entered the Olympic semifinals by beating favourites Australia. Coach Sjoerd Marijne expressed a widespread sentiment when he said: “I think this is Chak De! India in reality.” It is not about the women’s hockey team alone. The all-women tally of Rio appears to be repeating, albeit in a bigger number. Discus thrower Kamalpreet Kaur fell heartbreakingly short of India’s first athletics Olympic medal, but Mirabai Saikhom Chanu’s wrestling silver and PV Sindhu’s badminton bronze are in the bank. Lovlina Borgohain has already secured a boxing bronze, and may improve this colour tomorrow.

In badminton, where Saina Nehwal won a bronze in 2012 and then Sindhu a silver in 2016, a national spotlight on women’s successful performances has overlapped a retreat of gender gaps in infrastructure and monetisation. In hockey too there has been equalisation of government support, plus Odisha sponsors both the teams. In gritty sports like boxing and weightlifting SAI scouts the country’s interiors for talented girls as much as boys.

But why are women giving more bang for the buck? One explanation getting traction is that Indian society makes it so much harder for a woman to play a sport, those who fight through this swamp have extra steel. Sexism is found worldwide: South Korea’s gold-winning archer An San is being trolled for her short hair and ‘feminism’. But in India it gets much more prohibitive, like girls being prevented from travelling alone or made to marry at 18. Ultimately sports are a reflection of society. Ability needs to meet opportunity. Still, the tide is turning. Mary Kom inspired Lovelina who will do the same for tomorrow’s medallists, as will Savita Punia’s wondrous goalkeeping or Vandana Katariya’s hat-trick. May their success be the mother of many more.

Half of national Covid infections are being reported from Kerala, India’s most developed state in terms of public health infrastructure. This deserves close analysis by experts and governments. In vaccination coverage, testing per million, case fatality rate, likelihood of detecting infections and anecdotal evidence of masking, Kerala is a good performer, better than most. Yet it also hosts double-digit test positivity rate, daily infections consistently crossing 20,000, transmission rate greater than 1, and, as per the sero survey, over 55% of population is in the potentially vulnerable category.

Kerala has single-dosed 48% of its population but fully-vaccinated just 21%. While ahead of other states, the lower seropositivity in Kerala demands faster vaccination. Here, only GoI can help and it must provide Kerala with more doses. Most crucially, a political slugfest and a Centre-state tiff over imposing the Disaster Management Act must be avoided.

There are competing explanations for Kerala’s infection trajectory. The most pessimistic is that Kerala’s persistently high daily infection numbers are the beginning of India’s third wave. The other explanation is in terms of the state’s low seropositivity rate. The third explanation is in terms of lockdown choices. Since late May, the state has avoided a total lockdown. Government offices allow limited staff, retail outlets open thrice a week, there are full lockdowns only on weekends. But lockdown fatigue has kicked in and Onam, critical to business, is fast approaching. But festivities must wait for next year. Recall that the Eid relaxation didn’t help the state.

Kerala managed better than most states during the second wave’s peak. It didn’t witness horrifying scenes of patients and ambulances queuing outside hospitals for admissions, oxygen shortages, or desperate remdesivir pleas. In fact, states that faced such situations and can now claim high seroprevalence as an advantage mustn’t flag in their preparation for a third wave. The highly contagious Delta variant has changed the rules. If immunity wanes in a few months, this or other variants can hit complacent administrations in no time.

Let everyone agree on one fact: The virus is circulating, even in those states reporting few cases and miniscule test positivity rates. So, other states must escalate disease surveillance through targeted testing, genome sequencing, and district-level sero surveys. Bengal and Rajasthan are among the worst performers in testing. What’s happening in Kerala is no more political than what happened in Delhi or Maharashtra or Gujarat. All stakeholders must act on that basis.

On paper, India has five mobile phone service providers, three private sector firms and two public sector firms. But for all practical purposes it’s only the private sector that has a future as the public sector market share has not only shrunk to 10%, there’s no meaningful investment forthcoming to compete in a market where technological upgradation is essential.

Now, there is a danger that we may end with a duopoly among service providers. KM Birla, one of the promoters of Vodafone Idea, has written to the government asking for help to stay afloat. There are two problems the company faces. It’s making losses — in FY 2020-21, the loss was Rs 46,293.7 crore.

Unless the promoters, KM Birla and Vodafone Group, bring in more money the company will not be able to survive. Last month, the chief executive of Vodafone Group Plc told investors that they will not invest further in their India operations through equity. Birla has indicated that he is unable to raise additional funding unless there are government guarantees to help the company, particularly in the form of a floor price for mobile services.

It’s best if the government does not get into a new form of administered price regime in mobile telephony. There are now two ways forward. India has had an insolvency and bankruptcy regime in place for five years. GoI must ensure that is the framework used by any firm that is unable to meet its financial obligations. The IBC regime is designed to explore all possible means to preserve value in an existing company by looking for ways to keep it running. Liquidation is meant to be the last resort.

To help the process, GoI also needs to lend a helping hand. The prevailing system hasn’t been enough to find alternate investors for Vodafone. India needs to avoid a situation where competitive pressures in the telecom market decrease for incumbents. Competition is the lifeblood of a market system. GoI needs to make policy changes that ensure competitive pressures in this market don’t dim.