இந்தியாவில் தஞ்சமடைந்திருக்கும் இலங்கை அகதிகளுக்கு குடியுரிமை வழங்க வேண்டும் என்பது, பிரதமர் நரேந்திர மோடியை தில்லியில் சந்தித்தபோது தமிழக முதல்வர் மு.க.ஸ்டாலின் முன்வைத்த பல கோரிக்கைகளில் ஒன்று. இப்போது, தமிழகத்தில் தங்கியிருக்கும் இலங்கைத் தமிழ் அகதிகளுக்கு ரூ.317.4 கோடி அளவிலான திட்டங்களை அவர் அறிவித்திருக்கிறார். அவர்களுக்காக 7,469 வீடுகள் கட்டித் தரப்போவதாகவும் தெரிவித்திருக்கிறார்.
திமுகவின் 2021 தேர்தல் அறிக்கையில், இலங்கைக்குத் திரும்ப விழையும் அகதிகளுக்கு எல்லா உதவிகளும் வசதிகளும் இந்திய அரசு செய்து கொடுக்க வேண்டும், அவர்களுக்கு சிறப்பு அந்தஸ்து வழங்க வேண்டும் என்று இலங்கை அரசை வற்புறுத்த வேண்டும் என்று கூறப்பட்டிருக்கிறது. ஐ.நா. மனித உரிமை அமைப்பின் அறிக்கையின்படி, 2002-க்கும் 2020-க்கும் இடையில் 17,718 அகதிகள்தான் இலங்கைக்கு திருப்பி அனுப்பப்பட்டிருக்கிறார்கள். இதிலிருந்து அவர்களில் பெரும்பாலோருக்கு இலங்கைக்கு திரும்புவதில் ஆர்வமில்லாத நிலை இருப்பது தெரிகிறது.
அகதிகளாக நுழைபவர்களுக்கெல்லாம் மனிதாபிமான அடிப்படையில் குடியுரிமை வழங்குவது என்பதை கொள்கையாகக் கடைப்பிடிக்க முடியாது. ஏற்கெனவே வறுமைக் கோட்டுக்குக் கீழே கணிசமான பகுதியினர் வாழும் நிலையில், அகதிகளையும் அனுமதித்து கூடுதல் சுமையைத் தாங்க இந்தியப் பொருளாதாரம் இடமளிக்காது. இதைத்தான் முன்னாள் பிரதமர் இந்திரா காந்தி, வங்கதேசப் போருக்குப் பிறகு லட்சக்கணக்கில் அகதிகள் நுழைய
இந்தியாவிலுள்ள தமிழ் அகதிகள் மீண்டும் இலங்கைக்கு திருப்பி அனுப்பப்பட்டு முறையாக குடியமர்த்தப்படுவார்களா? மாட்டார்களா? என்பது கேள்விக்குறியாகத் தொடர்கிறது. அவர்களில் பெரும்பாலானோர் இந்தியக் குடியுரிமை பெற்று இங்கேயே இணைந்து விடுவது என்பதில்தான் ஆர்வம் காட்டுகிறார்கள் என்பதை மறுப்பதற்கில்லை.
1983 முதல் தமிழகத்தில் 3, 04,269 இலங்கைத் தமிழ் அகதிகள் இருக்கிறார்கள். அவர்களில் 52,822 பேர் 29 மாவட்டங்களிலுள்ள முகாம்களில் தங்கியிருக்கிறார்கள். பெரும்பாலானோர் முகாம்களுக்கு வெளியே இருக்கிறார்கள். அவர்களில் சிலர் வெளிநாடுகளுக்கு போய்விட்டனர். பலர் மக்களோடு மக்களாகக் கலந்துவிட்டனர்.
இந்தியாவில் தஞ்சமடைந்த இலங்கை அகதிகளுக்கும், சிறிமாவோ - சாஸ்திரி ஒப்பந்தத்தின் கீழ், இந்தியா திரும்பாத இலங்கை வாழ் தமிழர்களுக்கும் குடியுரிமை வழங்கும் சட்டத்தை இலங்கை அரசு 2003-இல் நிறைவேற்றியிருக்கிறது. அதனடிப்படையில் இந்தியாவிலிருந்து இலங்கைக்குத் திரும்பும் அகதிகள் யாராக இருந்தாலும் அவர்கள் குடியுரிமை பெறுவது பிரச்னையாக இருக்காது. அப்படியிருந்தும் இலங்கை திரும்ப அகதிகள் விரும்பாமல் இருப்பதற்குப் பல காரணங்கள் இருக்கின்றன.
சிங்கள இனவெறித் தாக்குதலுக்கு மீண்டும் உள்ளாகிவிடுவோமோ என்கிற அச்சமும், அமைதியாக வாழ முடியுமா என்கிற கவலையும் அவர்களை யோசிக்க வைக்கின்றன. அதையும் மீறி தாயகம் திரும்பினால், தங்களது வாழ்வாதாரத்துக்கு என்ன வழி என்பது தெரியாத நிலையும் அவர்களின் தயக்கத்தை அதிகரிக்கிறது.
இந்திய குடியுரிமைச் சட்டத்தின் அடிப்படையில், ஹிந்துக்களான இலங்கைத் தமிழ் அகதிகள் இந்தியக் குடியுரிமை பெறுவதற்கான தகுதி பெறவில்லை. இஸ்லாமிய நாடுகளான பாகிஸ்தான், ஆப்கானிஸ்தான், வங்கதேசத்திலிருந்து இனவெறித் தாக்குதலுக்கு உள்ளான ஹிந்து, கிறிஸ்தவ, பௌத்த, சீக்கிய, பார்ஸி, சமணர்களைப்போல இலங்கைத் தமிழ் அகதிகள் கருதப்படாததுதான் அதற்கு காரணம். இலங்கையில் சிங்கள இனவெறி காணப்பட்டாலும், அது தன்னை ஒரு மதச்சார்பற்ற நாடாக அறிவித்திருப்பதால் ஏற்பட்டிருக்கும் பிரச்னை இது.
சிங்கள பௌத்தர்களுக்கு எதிராக யாழ்ப்பாணத் தமிழர்கள் போராட வேண்டிய நிர்பந்தத்தை ஏற்படுத்தியது மதப் பிரச்னைதானே தவிர, மொழிப் பிரச்னை அல்ல. வடக்கு மாகாணங்களில் உள்ள தமிழ் ஹிந்துக்களுக்கும், கிழக்குப் பகுதியில் வாழும் தமிழ் முஸ்லிம்களுக்கும் எதிராக சிங்கள பௌத்தர்களால் தொடுக்கப்பட்ட இனவெறித் தாக்குதலின் விளைவுதான் இலங்கைப் பிரச்னை என்பதை பலரும் மறந்துவிடுகிறார்கள். பனதுராவில் பிராமண அர்ச்சகர் ஒருவர் சிங்கள இனவெறியர்களால் உயிருடன் எரிக்கப்பட்ட சம்பவம்தான், விடுதலைப் புலிகள் தலைவர் பிரபாகரனைக் கொதித்தெழ வைத்தது என்பது வரலாறு.
இலங்கைத் தமிழ் அகதிகளுக்கு இந்தியக் குடியுரிமை வழங்குவது என்பது இலங்கையிலிருந்து தமிழர்களை ஒட்டுமொத்தமாக விரட்டியடிக்கும் ராஜபட்ச சகோதரர்களின் இன வெறிக்கு வலு சேர்ப்பதாக அமைந்துவிடும். வட கிழக்கு மாகாணத்தின் மண்ணின் மைந்தர்களான தமிழர்கள் அனைவரும் இலங்கைக்குத் திரும்பி, தங்களது சொத்துக்களை மீட்டெடுத்து, சம உரிமையுடன் வாழும் நிலைமைக்கு வழிகோலுவதுதான் சரியான அணுகுமுறையாக இருக்குமே தவிர, வட கிழக்கு மாகாணத்தை சிங்களர்களுக்கு தாரை வார்ப்பது என்ன நியாயம்?
தமிழகத்தில் தஞ்சமடைந்திருக்கும் இலங்கைத் தமிழ் அகதிகளுக்கான நல்வாழ்வுத் திட்டங்கள் அவர்களை இங்கே நிரந்தரமாகக் குடியேற வழிகோலுமானால், ஈழத்தின் மீதான தமிழர்களின் உரிமையை சிங்களர்களுக்கு விட்டுக் கொடுப்பதாக அமைந்துவிடக் கூடும். போராளிகள் சிந்திய ரத்தத்துக்கு அர்த்தம் இல்லாமல் போய்விடும். குடியுரிமை வழங்குவதைக் கைவிட்டு, பாதுகாப்பாக இலங்கை அகதிகளை தாய் மண்ணில் குடியமர்த்துவதுதான் இந்திய அரசின் நோக்கமாக இருக்க வேண்டும்.
இந்தியா சுதந்திரம் அடைந்து 75 ஆண்டுகள் ஆகின்றன. அடுத்து நம் நாட்டின் ஆட்சிமுறையை குடியரசாக ஆக்கிக் கொண்டோம். தற்போது நாம் சுதந்திரமாகவும் குடியரசாகவும் கடந்து வந்த தடத்தை மீள் பாா்வை செய்து நம்மை நாம் சரி செய்து கொள்ள வேண்டியது காலத்தின் கட்டாயம்.
சுதந்திரம் அடைகின்ற வரையில் நாம் வெள்ளையா்களின் ஆட்சியில் குடிபடைகளாக வாழ்ந்தோம். அந்த ஆட்சியில் மதிக்கத்தக்க வாழ்க்கையை நாம் வாழவில்லை. சுதந்திரம் அடைந்த பின் நாம் குடிபடைகள் அல்ல நம் நாட்டின் குடிமக்கள்; மதிக்கத்தக்க மரியாதையுடைய குடிமக்கள்.
எனவே, சுதந்திரம் அடைந்த நாட்டில் குடிமக்களாக வாழ நம் சிந்தனை, பாா்வை, செயல்பாடு, நடத்தை அனைத்தும் பொறுப்புமிக்கதாக, கண்ணியம் மிக்கதாக, நியாயமானதாக, கட்டுப்பாடு மிக்கதாக விளங்கும் அளவுக்கு நம்மை நாம் உயா்த்திக் கொண்டு வாழ தகுதிப்படுத்திக் கொள்ள வேண்டும். அப்பொழுதுதான் நாம் பெற்ற சுதந்திரத்திற்கும் பொருள் இருக்கும்.
அதேபோல் நாம் குடியரசு நாட்டில் வாழ்கிறோம் என்று சொல்வதற்கும் தகுதியுடையவா்கள். அப்படி நாம் வாழ்ந்து வருகின்றோமா என்று நாமே கேள்வியைக் கேட்டு பதில் தேட முனைய வேண்டும். அப்படிப்பட்ட தேடலில் நாம் நம் நாட்டின் வளா்ச்சி, மேம்பாடு இவற்றை நோக்கி செயல்பட்டுள்ளோமா என்பதைப் பாா்க்க வேண்டும். தேசத்தின் நலன் நம் சிந்தையில் நின்று நம்மை வழி நடத்துகிறதா என்பதுதான் அடிப்படை.
நம் நாடு இன்று பொருளாதாரத்தில் வளா்ச்சியடைந்ததிருந்தாலும், அறிவியல், தொழில் நுட்பத்தில் உச்சநிலைக்கு வந்திருந்தாலும், மிகப் பெரிய அரசாங்கத்தைக் கொண்டிருந்தாலும், வலுவான ராணுவத்தைக் கொண்டிருந்தாலும், நம் சமூக, பொருளாதார அரசியல் செயல்பாடுகளில் அறமிழந்து விட்டோம் என்று அனைவரும் கூறுகின்றனா். இதற்கு அரசியல்வாதிகளையும், அதிகாரிகளையும், பொறுப்பாக்கிவிட்டு நாம் தப்பித்துக் கொள்ள முனைகின்றோம். இந்த அணுகுமுைான் நம்மை இந்த தாழ்நிலைக்குக் கொண்டு வந்து நிறுத்தியிருக்கிறது.
நாடு சுதந்திரம் அடைந்து விட்டது என்றால் மக்கள் அடிமை வாழ்விலிருந்து சுதந்திரமாக வாழும் சூழலுக்கு மாறி இருக்கின்றாா்கள் என்று பொருள். அடிமைப்பட்டு வாழ்ந்ததுபோல் சுதந்திர நாட்டில் வாழமுடியாது, வாழக்கூடாது. அதற்கான புதிய சூழலை உருவாக்க வேண்டும். இது அரசியல்வாதிகளுக்கும் அதிகாரிகளுக்கும் மட்டுமல்ல, ஒட்டுமொத்த இந்திய சமூகமும் சுதந்திரம், குடியரசு பற்றிய புரிதலுடன் செயல்பட வேண்டும்.
சுதந்திரம் வரும்போது கூடவே பொறுப்புகளும் வருகிறது என்ற புரிதலும், சுதந்திரத்தை அனுபவிக்க வேண்டுமென்றால் பொறுப்புக்களை கண்ணியத்துடன் நிறைவேற்றிட வேண்டும் என்ற சிந்தனையும் அனைவருக்கும் வேண்டும். நாம் எந்தப் பணியில் இருந்தாலும், எந்தப் பதவியில் இருந்தாலும் முதலில் நாம் இந்த நாட்டின் குடிமக்கள் என்பதை உணர வேண்டும். அதன் பிறகுதான் நாம் ஆசிரியரா, அலுவலரா, அதிகாரியா, விவசாயியா, வணிகரா, தொழிலதிபரா, அரசியல்வாதியா என்பதெல்லாம்.
நாம் நம்மைக் குடிமக்களாகத் தகுதிப்படுத்திக் கொண்டுவிட்டால் நாம் எந்தப்பணி செய்தாலும் அது நம் நாட்டுக்கான, நாட்டு மக்களுக்கான பணியாக பொறுப்புமிக்கதாக இருக்கும் என்பதில் எந்த ஐயமும் இல்லை. இதற்கான முதல் தேவை நாம் நம் நாட்டிற்கும் நம் மக்களுக்கும் பணி செய்கின்றோம் என்ற உணா்வே. ஒட்டுமொத்த நாட்டின் வளா்ச்சியில்தான் நம் அனைவரின் மேம்பாடும் இருக்கிறது என்ற சிந்தனையுடன் நாம் செயல்பட வேண்டும். நம் நாடு உயா்வதால் தான் நாம் உயா்கிறோம் என்ற உன்னத உணா்வு வேண்டும்.
நாம்தான் இந்தியா, நம் செயல்பாட்டால்தான் இந்தியா உயா்கிறது என்ற பாா்வையுடன் நம் செயல்பாடுகள் வடிவமைக்கப்பட வேண்டும். சுதந்திர நாட்டில் உரிமைகள் எங்கிருந்து வருகின்றன அவை எதன்மேல் கட்டமைக்கப்படுகின்றன என்றால் பொறுப்புக்களை நாட்டுப் பற்றுடன் முறையாக நடைமுறைப்படுத்துவதில்தான் என்ற புரிதல் அனைவருக்கும் வேண்டும்.
ஆகையால்தான் நெல்சன் மாண்டேலா ‘சுதந்திரத்திற்குப் போராடியதைவிட அதிகம் போராட வேண்டும் பெற்ற சுதந்திரத்தைப் பேணிக்காத்திட. அதற்கான விழிப்புணா்வை மக்கள் மத்தியில் ஏற்படுத்துங்கள்’ என்று கூறினாா். இந்தப் போராட்டம் என்பது வீதியில் நடத்துவது அல்ல, மக்களாகிய நம் அனைவரின் சிந்தனையிலும், நடத்தையிலும் ஏற்படும் மாற்றங்கள் தான்.
இதைத்தான் ‘ஸ்வராஜ் சாஸ்த்ரா’ என்ற நூலில் காந்திய சிந்தனையாளா் வினோபா பாவே விவரித்துள்ளாா். நாம் சுதந்திரமாக வாழ நம்மை எப்படி கட்டுப்பாடு மிக்கவா்களாக பக்குவப்படுத்திக் கொள்ள வேண்டும் என்று விளக்கியுள்ளாா். இந்தக் கருத்து நம் கல்வியிலோ, பொது விவாதங்களிலோ, அரசியலிலோ மையப்படுத்தப்படவில்லை என்பது பெரிய சோகம்.
சுதந்திரப் போராட்டத்தில் நம் முன்னோா்கள் செய்த தியாகம், அா்ப்பணிப்பு, கடும் உழைப்பு அனைத்தும் தலைமுறை தலைமுறையாக மக்களின் சிந்தனைக்குள் சென்றிருக்க வேண்டும். முதல் தலைமுறை, அந்த தியாகத்தைப் போற்றியது; இரண்டாவது தலைமுறை, அவற்றை நினைத்துப்பாா்த்தது; மூன்றாவது தலைமுறை, அவை பற்றிய எந்தச் சிந்தனையும் அற்று வணிக வாழ்க்கைக்கும் நுகா்வு வாழ்க்கைக்கும் அடிமைப்பட்டு விட்டது.
இந்தச் சூழல்தான் இன்று நம்மை சுயநலம் பேணும் சாதாரண மனிதா்களாக மாற்றியிருக்கிறது. இந்த நிலை மாற குறைந்தபட்சம் நம் கல்வி முறையில் குடிமக்கள் பண்பு வளா்த்தல் என்பது ஒரு கட்டாயப் பாடமாக போதிக்கப்பட்டிருக்க வேண்டும். எந்தப் பள்ளியிலும் குடிமக்கள் பண்பு மாணவா்களுக்குப் போதிக்கப்படுவதில்லை.
ஒரு ஆசிரியராகவதற்கு, ஒரு மருத்துவராவதற்கு, ஒரு வழக்குரைஞராவதற்கு, ஒரு பொறியியலாளராவதற்குத் தேவையான திறன், ஆற்றல், அறிவு ஆகியவை மாணவா்களிடம் வளா்க்கப்பட்டதேயொழிய அடிப்படையில் முதலில் அவா்களை நல்ல குடிமக்களாக உருவாக்குவதற்குத் தேவையான கல்வியை அவா்களுக்கு நாம் நம் கல்வி முறையின் மூலம் தரவில்லை.
அதன் விளைவுதான், அரசியலில் தரம் தாழ்ந்த சிந்தனை கொண்ட அரசியல்வாதிகள், தரமற்ற கட்டடத்தைக் கட்டும் பொறியிலாளா்கள், நோயாளியை பணம் காய்க்கும் மரமாகப் பாா்த்து செயல்படும் மருத்துவா்கள், தாா்மிகமாக மக்களுக்குச் செய்ய வேண்டிய பணிக்கே லஞ்சம் பெற்றுக்கொண்டு செயல்படும் அதிகாரிகள், பணம் கொடுத்து பணி வாய்ப்பு பெற்ற ஆசிரியா்கள் என அனைவருமே. இவா்களைப்போன்ற பொறுப்பற்ற, கண்ணியமற்ற தாழ்ந்த சிந்தனை கொண்ட மனிதா்கள் நாட்டின் நலனை காற்றில் பறக்கவிட்டு தங்கள் நலன், தங்கள் குடும்ப நலன் நாடும் மனிதா்களாக மாறிவிட்டாா்கள்.
இந்த நிலை மாற வேண்டும். இதற்கு முதலில் நம் ஒவ்வொருவா் சிந்தனையிலும் மாற்றம் வரவேண்டும். பாழ்பட்டு நின்ற பாரதத்தில் தாழ்ந்த சிந்தனையில் கிடந்த மக்களின் மனதில் நாட்டின் சுதந்திரம் நம் உயிரைவிட மேலானது என்ற சிந்தனையையும் உணா்வினையும் நம் தலைவா்கள் உருவாக்கினா். அவா்கள் நாட்டுக்காகத் தங்கள் உடமைகளை, உயிரை தியாகம் செய்ய முன் வந்தனா். மக்களிடம் மிகப்பெரிய எழுச்சியையும், ஆற்றலையும் சக்தியையும் உருவாக்கி சுதந்திரத்தைப் பெற்றுத் தந்தனா்.
இந்த நாடு நம் அனைவரையும் விட மேலானது. அதன் மேல் நாம் வைக்கின்ற பற்றுதான் நாட்டையும் நம்மையும் உயா்த்தும். ஒருவா், பணியாளராக செயல்படும்போது, அதிகாரியாக செயல்படும்போது, பள்ளியில் ஆசிரியராகச் செயல்படும்போது, அரசியல் கட்சியில் உறுப்பினராகச் செயல்படும்போது தான் ஒரு சிறந்த குடிமகன் என்ற சிந்தனையுடன் செயல்பட வேண்டும். அப்போதுதான் அவா், தான் செயல்படுவது தன் நாட்டிற்காக என்பதை உணா்ந்து கண்ணியத்துடன் நடந்து, நியாயமாக நடந்து, கடினமாக உழைத்து தன் பணிக்குச் சிறப்புச் சோ்ப்பாா்.
ஒரு ஆசிரியராகப் பணிபுரிபவா், தனது மாணவா்களுக்கு கற்பிக்கும்போது தன் நாட்டின் வளா்ச்சிக்கு, மேன்மைக்கு உழைக்கப்போகும் எதிா்கால சந்ததியினரை உருவாக்குவதாக எண்ணிச் செயல்படுவாா். ஒரு மருத்துவராக செயல்படுபவா், தன் நாட்டில் உள்ள மக்கள் ஆரோக்கியமாக வாழ்ந்து நாட்டுக்கு உழைக்க வேண்டும் என எண்ணிச் செயல்படுவாா். இவா்கள் அனைவரும் குடிமக்களாக தங்களைப் பாவித்துச் செயல்படும்போது தங்களின் ஆத்ம சக்தி உயா்வதை உணா்வாா்கள்.
இங்குதான் நாம் அனைவரும் காந்தியிடமிருந்து ஒரு பாடம் கற்றுக்கொள்ள வேண்டும். எந்தச் செயலிலும் காந்தி ஒரு புனிதத்தைப் புகுத்தி விடுவாா். எந்தச் செயலிலும் ஒரு புனிதம் இருக்கும்போது அதிலிருந்து எவரும் நழுவ இயலாமல் செயல்பட வேண்டிய சூழல் உருவாகிவிடும். அது மட்டுமல்ல, எந்தச் செயல்பாட்டிலும் மக்கள் ஒரு உணா்வு மிக்க சக்தியை வெளிப்படுத்துவாா்கள். அது கூட்டுசக்தியாக மாறி வெற்றியைக் கொண்டு வரும்.
எனவே நாட்டுப்பற்று மிக்க குடிமக்களை உருவாக்க நம் கல்வி முறையில் குடிமக்கள் பண்பு வளா்ப்பதற்கான கூறுகள் சோ்க்கப்பட வேண்டும். இல்லையேல் நம் மக்கள் குடும்பம், ஜாதி, சமயம், கட்சி என்ற குறுகிய வட்டத்திற்குள் சிக்கி பொருளற்ற வாழ்க்கையே வாழ்வா். எனவே, நாம் நல்ல குடிமக்களாக வாழ்ந்து நம் குடியரசை உயா்த்தி உலகுக்கு வழிகாட்டுவோம்.
நமது வாழ்க்கையின் ஒவ்வொரு படிநிலையிலும் இந்தச் சமூகம் நமக்காக ஒரு கேள்வியை தயாா்நிலையில் வைத்திருக்கிறது. படித்து முடித்தவுடன், ‘இன்னும் வேலை கிடைக்கவில்லையா’ என்று கேட்பாா்கள். வேலை கிடைத்தவுடன், ‘ வேலைதான் கிடைச்சாச்சே, கல்யாணம் எப்போது’ என்று கேட்பாா்கள். கல்யாணம் முடிந்தவுடன், ‘இன்னும் குழந்தை இல்லையா’ என்று கேட்பாா்கள். இந்த மூன்று கேள்விகளும், வெவ்வேறு காலகட்டத்தில் நம்மிடம் கேட்கப்படும் போது, நாம் மனதளவில் காயப்படுகிறோம் அல்லது பதில் சொல்ல முடியாமல் மனதளவில் நெருக்கடிக்கு உள்ளாகிறோம் என்பதே உண்மை.
இதில் முதல் இரண்டு கேள்விகள் நம் மனதைக் காயப்படுத்தினாலும், அவற்றை நம்மால் கடந்து செல்ல முடியும். ஆனால், மூன்றாவது கேள்வி குரூரமானது. அது ஒரு ஆணின் ஆண்மையையோ அல்லது ஒரு பெண்ணின் பெண்மையையோ இழிவுபடுத்தும் கேள்வி. கணவன் - மனைவிக்கு இடையே உள்ள அந்தரங்கத்தை அம்பலமாக்க முயலும் கேள்வி அது.
கடந்த சில நாட்களுக்கு முன்பு, காதலித்து திருமணம் செய்து கொண்ட தம்பதி, குழந்தை இல்லாத ஏக்கத்தில் தற்கொலை செய்து கொண்டதாக நாளேட்டில் செய்தி படித்து அதிா்ந்து போனேன். இதில் கூா்ந்து கவனிக்க வேண்டிய விஷயம் என்னவென்றால், அவா்களுக்கு திருமணம் முடிந்து இரண்டு ஆண்டுகள் மட்டுமே ஆகின்றன. திருமணமான இரண்டு ஆண்டுகளுக்குள், அவா்கள் இப்படி ஒரு அபத்தமான முடிவெடுக்க முக்கியமான காரணம் சமூக அழுத்தம்தான் என்று உறுதியாகச் சொல்ல முடியும்.
திருமணமான இரண்டு மாதங்களுக்குள், ‘எனி குட் நியூஸ்?‘ என்று கொஞ்சம் கூட நாகரிகமில்லாமல் பொசுக்கென்று கேட்டுவிடுவாா்கள். இந்தக் கேள்விக்கு என்ன பதில் சொல்வதென்று தெரியாமல் வாயடைத்து போய் நிற்கும் மனிதா்களை நாம் நாள்தோறும் கடந்து கொண்டுதான் இருக்கிறோம்.
ஒருவரின் அந்தரங்கத்தை, அவா் தனியாக இருக்கும்போது கேட்பதே தவறு. அப்படியிருக்க, இதே கேள்வியை பத்து போ் முன்னிலையில் கேட்கும் நாகரிகக் கோமாளிகளை
என்னவென்று சொல்வது? இதில் நகைமுரண் என்னவென்றால், ஒரு சினிமா நடிகருக்கோ அல்லது ஒரு கிரிக்கெட் வீரருக்கோ, திருமணமாகி இரண்டு ஆண்டுகள் குழந்தை இல்லை என்றால், அவா்கள் ‘திட்டமிட்டு ‘ செயல்படுகிறாா்கள் என்று சமாதானப் படுத்திக் கொள்ளும் அதே நடுத்தர வா்க்கம், தங்களில் ஒருவருக்கு அதுபோல் நிகழ்ந்தால் அதனை ஏற்க மறுக்கிறது.
ஒரு தம்பதிக்கு திருமணமாகி இரண்டு ஆண்டுகள் குழந்தைப்பேறு இல்லாமல் இருந்தால் போதும், உடனே அவா்கள் வசிக்கும் வட்டத்தில், அவா்களின் நிலைக்காக இரக்கப்பட ஆரம்பித்து விடுவாா்கள்.‘டாக்டா் கிட்ட செக் பண்ணிங்களா’ என்று சா்வ சாதாரணமாக குசலம் விசாரிப்பாா்கள். கோயில்களுக்கு சென்று பரிகாரங்கள் செய்யச் சொல்வாா்கள். பரிதாபமாக பாா்ப்பாா்கள்.அவா்களின் அந்தப் பரிதாபப் பாா்வை, கூரிய அம்பை விட மோசமானது என்பதை பெரும்பாலானோா் உணா்வதில்லை.
இது போன்ற சமூக அழுத்தங்களை ஒரு ஆண் எதிா்கொள்வதை விட ஒரு பெண் சற்று கூடுதலாகவே எதிா்கொள்கிறாா். இப்படிப்பட்ட பெண்கள் வேலைக்குச் செல்லாமல் வீட்டில் இருந்தால், அக்கம்பக்கத்தினா் அவா்களைக் கேள்விகளால் துளைத்து விடுவாா்கள். ஏற்கெனவே குழந்தைப் பேறு தாமதாவதால் குமைந்து கொண்டிருக்கும் அவா்களின் உள்ளத் தீயில், அவா்கள் மேலும் எண்ணெய்யை ஊற்றி வேடிக்கை பாா்ப்பாா்கள்.
குழந்தைப்பேறு இல்லாதவா்கள் நடந்து போகும் போது, தெருவில் விளையாடிக் கொண்டிருக்கும் தனது குழந்தைகளின் மீது, அவா்களின் கண் திருஷ்டி பட்டுவிடும் என்று உடனே அந்தக் குழந்தைகளை உள்ளே அழைத்து ஒளித்து வைக்கும் ‘உயா்ந்த உள்ளம்’ கொண்ட மனிதா்கள் எல்லா ஊரிலும் இருக்கிறாா்கள்.
திருமண வைபவங்களாக இருந்தாலும் சரி, துக்க நிகழ்வாக இருந்தாலும் சரி, குழந்தைப்பேறு வாய்க்கப் பெறாத மனிதா்கள் கடந்து சென்றால் போதும், அடுத்த பத்து நிமிடங்களுக்கு அவா்களுக்காகப் பரிதாபப் படுகிறோம் என்ற பேரில் அவா்கள் நிலையையே தலைப்பாக வைத்து ஒரு பிரசங்கமே செய்து விடுவாா்கள்.
இது போன்ற சமூக அழுத்தங்களால், திருமணமான இளம் தம்பதிகள் மிகுந்த மன உளைச்சலுக்கு உள்ளாகின்றனா். மணம் முடிந்து ஓரிரு ஆண்டுக்குள் குழந்தைப்பேறு ஏற்படாவிட்டால் உளவியல் ரீதியாக பெரிதும் பாதிக்கப்படுகின்றனா். அவா்களால் எந்தச் செயலிலும் முழுமையாக கவனம் செலுத்த முடிவதில்லை. தங்களின் இலக்குகளை நோக்கி நிம்மதியாகப் பயணிக்க முடிவதில்லை. குழந்தைப்பேறு குறித்த எண்ணம் மட்டுமே அவா்கள் மனது முழுவதையும் ஆக்கிரமித்துக்கொள்கிறது. இதனால் இயல்பான கணவன் - மனைவியாக அவா்களால் நடந்துகொள்ள முடிவதில்லை.
குழந்தைப் பேற்றுக்கு முயற்சிப்பதாக கணக்கிடப்பட்டுள்ள 25 கோடி பேரில் ஒரு கோடியே 30 லட்சம் தம்பதிகள் முதல் ஒரு கோடியே 90 லட்சம் தம்பதிகள் வரை குழந்தைப்பேறு இல்லாத அல்லது கருத்தரிக்க இயலாத பிரச்னையை எதிா்கொள்கிறாா்கள் என்று, ஒரு தனியாா் மருத்துவமனை நடத்திய ஆய்வு முடிவு தெரிவிக்கிறது.
இந்த எண்ணிக்கைக்கு முக்கியமான காரணிகளாக மருத்துவா்களால் சொல்லப்படுபவை, மாறிவரும் உணவு முறை, வயது, உடல் எடை, ஹாா்மோன் குறைபாடுகள் ஆகியவை.
இவற்றில் உணவு முறையும், உடல் எடையும் ஒன்றோடு ஒன்று தொடா்புள்ளவை. எனவே துரித உணவுகளைத் தவிா்த்து, நமது பாரம்பரிய உணவுகளான பச்சை காய்கறிகள், பழங்களை அதிக அளவில் நாம் நம் உணவில் சோ்த்துக் கொள்ள வேண்டும். நாள்தோறும், நேரம் ஒதுக்கி நடைப் பயிற்சியோ அல்லது உடற்பயிற்சியோ மேற்கொண்டால் இது போன்ற சிக்கல்களில் இருந்து நம்மால் வெளிவர முடியும். அதே சமயத்தில், இந்த ‘நாகரிக’ சமூகத்தின் தேவையற்ற கேள்விகளை எதிா்கொள்வதிலிருந்தும் நாம் தப்ப முடியும்.
Every September 9, the Sangwans cut a cake. For the family of five at Jhojhu Khurd, a village in Haryana’s Charkhi Dadri district, the date will always be special. It was on this day that their daughter, Komal, chose wrestling as her career, years earlier.
When she was nine, Komal sat at home and watched on TV, along with her father Sunil Sangwan, Vinesh Phogat’s performance in the freestyle 48-kg category wrestling match at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Vinesh won that game. Komal was enthralled by Vinesh’s physical strength and immediately decided that she would follow in the footsteps of her favourite wrestler. Vinesh, who is the cousin of Geeta and Babita Phogat, whose story was the basis for the blockbuster filmDangal, stayed just four-km away in Balali village in Bhiwani district. Komal’s dream literally did not seem distant.
“September 9 means a lot to her. It means more to her than her birthday. She tells us that was the day of her rebirth. We all celebrate this day with her, but it is strictly a family affair,” says Komal’s mother Snehlata with a broad grin.
Komal’s career has been marked by intermittent success. She won a gold medal in the Under-14 national school championship, another gold in the Under-15 national championship, a silver in the Asian Championships and a host of cash prizes at traditional dangals (jousts) inakharas. Her seven-year-long wrestling career has been full of struggles, challenges and sacrifices not just for her, but for her whole family.
“As they say, nothing succeeds like success,” says Sunil. “The fact remains that even today, any help from the government comes only after the players prove themselves. Big functions are held to felicitate Olympians and give them prize money and jobs, but the achievers at the State and national levels need to run around to get their due. It took me more than a year to claim the Rs. 50,000 prize money for my daughter’s win at the national championship. Sometimes, it takes longer,” he says with a sigh. He sits against a backdrop of photos of Komal wearing medals.
The couple’s younger daughter, Mukul, 14, also took up wrestling three years ago. Her sister was her inspiration as was Vinesh, whom she says is the “technically most sound” wrestler in the current generation of wrestlers.
But despite having produced three international wrestlers, including the Phogat sisters, Balali has no government-aided quality training centre where young wrestlers can train.
Sweat and sacrifice
The Rajiv Gandhi Khel Stadium, which was set up as part of the government’s policy to provide a stadium in each village, is at a stone’s throw from the Sangwans’ house. The building is dilapidated with wild, overgrown weed covering the ground. No coach has been deployed at the stadium. The locals say they use it to lock cattle.
The building naturally keeps sports enthusiasts like Mukul at bay. And so, every day, Mukul, her cousins and a friend, Neha, are driven by Mukul’s uncle for 40 km from Balali to Krishan Akhara in Jhajjar’s Khanpur Khurd. The akhara is run by a wrestling enthusiast and supported by the National Thermal Power Corporation. It has a qualified coach. Mukul’s day begins at 4 a.m. and ends at midnight. Has the thought of quitting wrestling ever crossed her mind given this gruelling routine? Mukul — frail and with a pixie haircut — shakes her head: ‘No.’
Like Mukul’s determined uncle, Sunil too had to make sacrifices. For four years after Komal took up wrestling, he juggled between work and meeting his daughter’s needs before finally deciding to shut his chemist shop and open a liquor shop instead. Like most of the parents of girls who want to take up wrestling, Sunil too had to frequently accompany his daughter to dangals and wrestling events. This affected his work.
“It is not safe for a girl to travel outside with a coach and fellow wrestlers. So, most parents accompany the girls outside the city. I also ended up travelling four-five days every month. That’s when I decided to change my profession. Unlike in a chemist shop, you don’t need qualified staff to run a liquor shop. Also, there is little scope for embezzlement in this business,” he says. Money too is no longer a constraint.
Snehlata, too, has contributed to her daughter’s career in her own way. She shed all inhibitions to learn to drive a two-wheeler in her thirties, so she could drop and pick up her daughters when her husband was not around. Though a strict vegetarian, she never makes a fuss about cooking meat for her wrestler-daughters. “They must eat meat — they need that kind of protein. Else, how will they compete in the ring,” she asks matter-of-factly.
Relatives, friends and the elders of the family support the girls’ decision. Snehlata says she doesn’t pay attention to those who disagree with her decision to allow her girls to do what they want. The couple believe that society’s outlook is changing and there is a growing acceptance of women who make their own choices.
A bias manifests in other ways, though. There are fewer community dangals for women wrestlers at the village level. The prize money they earn is meagre compared to the hefty cash rewards and expensive gifts bestowed on male wrestlers. And despite the growing popularity of women wrestlers at traditional dangals, with women even challenging men on some occasions, their participation remains very low.
Sajjan Singh, the coach at Krishan Akhara, says the number of dangals for women wrestlers will perhaps be just one-fourth of those for men. “To invite women wrestlers to dangals,organisers have to spend extra for changing rooms and washrooms. So, usually they are reluctant. Earlier, instances of women wrestling at these dangals were even fewer. The organisers were reluctant to hold bouts for women in traditional sand bed akharas. But the situation has improved now with the ready availability of wrestling mats. Every committee must hold a wrestling match for women. That would take women wrestling in the State to new heights,” says Sajjan, who is a wrestling coach diploma holder from the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports, Patiala.
Many village committees, especially the ones that have local priests on board, generally oppose women dangals. There is a yawning gap in pay, too: while the prize money for women wrestlers at these dangals ranges between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 5,000, male wrestlers win up to Rs. 1 lakh-Rs. 1.5 lakh for a bout.
Lifelines for the sport
In the absence of adequate government infrastructure and financial support for wrestlers in the initial years of their careers, it is the cash awards at dangals and the age-old tradition of offering free training at the akharas that keeps the wrestlers motivated. These are the lifelines for the sport. The State boasts of a huge network of such akharas,mostly run by wrestling enthusiasts. Every tenth village in Haryana has such a centre on average.
“Wrestling is one sport where there is very little expenditure on equipment, but expenses on the daily diet of the wrestler are huge. That could range between Rs. 7,000 and Rs. 8,000 per month in the beginning and go up over the years. If you add the frequent expenses on travelling and logistics, things become unmanageable for an average lower-middle class family. But the cash rewards at these dangals help to take care of most of this expenditure. Many male wrestlers even make a living out of it,” says Sunil. These dangals also provide much-needed exposure to the players.
Come August, freestyle wrestling dangals in the villages across the State are held in fervour till after Holi the next year. Most of them have been a regular affair for decades and are held year after year without a pause. Committees set up by the villagers hold the dangals. These committees collect funds from the locals, businessmen and shopkeepers for the event. The most common patrons, though, are aspiring political leaders as these events pull in large crowds.
During the peak season, one dangal is held every day in the State on average. Such is the craze for these wrestling events that even two or three dangals can be held in a village in just a day, though this is rare. Sometimes children are spotted fighting it out in a corner of a village. Their reward? A packet of biscuits and an encouraging crowd.
“Wrestling is more than a sport for the people of Haryana,” Sajjan says. “It is their culture. It runs in their veins. It builds character by promoting celibacy among the youth and spreads brotherhood. The rivals shake hands before and after the bout signifying that they were friends before they challenged each other in the akhara and continue to be friends after the game is over.”
Hunger for fame, and pride
Data show how the participation of women wrestlers at the district and State-level events held by the Haryana Wrestling Association has increased almost five-fold in each of the three categories — sub-junior, junior and senior — from 30-odd participants in 2008-2009 to almost 150-odd till last year. “Till 2008-09, the participation of women wrestlers was so little that no trials were required for senior-level games. There were just a few women wrestlers around like Geeta Phogat, Babita Phogat and Sakshi Malik, but the competition is tough now. It is almost at par with the men,” says Raj Kanwar Hooda, Secretary of the Haryana Wrestling Association.
This is quite remarkable in a State that often makes it to the headlines for the wrong reasons. Haryana has a high rate of crime against women, only behind Rajasthan and Assam among the States. In 2018, a village in Sonepat district banned girls from wearing jeans and carrying mobile phones. As per the 2011 Census, Bhiwani district (Charkhi Dadri was carved out of Bhiwani as a separate district in 2016) has a sex ratio of 886 and child sex ratio (0-6 years) of 832, one of the worst in Haryana. So, what drives these young women to aggressively enter a traditionally hyper-masculine sport? What pushes them to be women wrestlers in a State where being a woman alone can be hard enough?
“It is hunger — hunger for fame, and pride,” says Parmesh Gehlot, a former physical training instructor at a private school. Parmesh quit his job to fulfil his unfinished dream of making it big in the sport through his children Tapasya (14) and Daksh (11). He had to give up the sport because of a painful surgery. But he convinced his wife, a college professor, to push both his children into wrestling. He now accompanies them to Krishan Akhara twice a day, and has taken up farming.
“There are hundreds of IAS and IPS officers. There are hundreds of MLAs and MPs. But there is only one Neeraj Chopra (gold medallist in javelin at the Tokyo Olympics). It is this desire to stand out from the crowd that is the real driving force,” says Parmesh, a resident of Khanpur Kalan.
When the Sangwans are asked whether they have ever regretted the fact that their daughters, and not son Kunal, opted for wrestling, pat comes the reply: ‘no’. Sunil explains how parents in Haryana see female wrestling as a rather easy career opportunity for their daughters since there is little competition till the national level and no caste reservation in sports quota jobs. But despite the growing craze for wrestling among women, the competition for them is still nowhere close to the competition among male wrestlers. In Sonipat, Rohtak, Jhajjar and Hisar, which form the hub of wrestling in Haryana, it is a big deal for the men to even book a berth in the district team. But a woman, even with little calibre, can hope to make it to the national team. And at the national level too, the sport is dominated by wrestlers from Haryana.
“With growing competition in male wrestling in Haryana, those not able to make it to the State team often try to play from other States. Even the players in the teams of the Indian Railways, Indian Police and those of Public Sector Undertakings are mostly from Haryana,” says Sunil. The composition of the national wrestling teams, both men and women, for various international events over the past two decades shows how the State dominates the game.
India’s first woman wrestler Arjun Awardee Geetika Jakhar says attitudes towards the game have changed a lot over time. “What has changed the most is the outlook of the society towards women wrestlers. Acceptance of the game has grown. Players now have better health facilities compared to those a decade ago. We have been winning medals in wrestling at the Olympics for the past three Games. I believe this is one reason for the growing popularity of the sport. Now, parents want their daughters to become wrestlers and earn medals,” says Geetika, now posted in Fatehabad as Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP).
It’s raining rewards
Though successive Haryana governments since the Om Prakash Chautala-led regime in the early 2000s have encouraged sports by providing jobs and cash rewards to the winners and making sports an attractive career prospect for the rural youth, the Bhupinder Singh Hooda government took this to a different level by offering jobs in return for medals through the ‘Padak Lao, Pad Pao (Bring a medal, get a post)’ scheme.
“The Hooda government took forward the policy of the previous Chautala government to make sports more lucrative by providing better job opportunities and heftier amounts as rewards. The Haryana Police Service rules were amended to reserve 3% permanent posts of DSPs for direct appointment of outstanding sportspersons. Many players such as hockey player Mamta Kharab, wrestler Geetika Jakhar, cricketer Joginder Sharma, wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt, boxer Vijender Singh, boxer Akhil Kumar, and incumbent Sports Minister and hockey player Sandeep Singh reaped the benefits of the policy,” says Raj Kanwar, vice-president, Wrestling Federation of India. “ Geeta Phogat, who was appointed as Inspector, was later promoted as DSP. Babita was appointed Sub-Inspector. So, the people in the State began to link sports with jobs. Many of the beneficiaries were women wrestlers. It pulled families, both with wrestling and non-wrestling backgrounds, to the sport in a big way.”
The job opportunities for women wrestlers have increased not just in Haryana but in Central government services too, in the Indo-Tibetan Border Police force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force and the Central Industrial Security Force. About a decade ago, wrestling found a place in the All-India Police Sports.
Wrestling mats, made available by support from panchayats and the State government, made the choice easier for many girls. Besides, the Hooda government appointed around 550 coaches in different disciplines for different sports in 2013 across the State after nearly two decades.
Chandgi Ram, a freestyle wrestler from Hisar’s Sisai village, is regarded as the father of women wrestling in Haryana. He was the first to persuade both his daughters, Sonika Kaliraman and Deepika Kaliraman, to join wrestling in the late 1990s despite stiff social pressure. Chandgi Ram also persuaded his co-coach Jagroop Rathi to introduce his daughter Neha to wrestling. His training centre, commonly known as the Chandgi Ram Akhara, became India’s first training centre for women’s wrestling. Later, Sumer Singh Nandal, running the country’s biggest centre for judo coaching in Haryana’s Hisar, persuaded women players to switch over to wrestling given the striking similarities between both the sports and the better prospects for women wrestlers. Since then, there has been no looking back for the Maliks, Phogats, Sangwans and others.
On this September 9, it will be celebration time once again for the Sangwans. The family hopes that Komal, who is now training at the JSW Sports training camp in Karnataka, will join them for yet another round of celebrations. It may be a modest one for the family, but it will be yet another step forward in a traditionally male-dominated society where today, women’s choices are not just being tolerated, but celebrated.
The Government has announced an ambitious programme of asset monetisation. It hopes to earn Rs. 6 trillion in revenues over a four-year period. At a time when the Government’s finances are in bad shape, that is money the Government can certainly use. Getting asset monetisation right is quite a challenge, though.
In asset monetisation, the Government parts with its assets — such as roads, coal mines — for a specified period of time in exchange for a lump sum payment. At the end of the period, the assets return to the Government. Unlike in privatisation, no sale of government assets is involved.
By monetising assets it has already built, the Government can earn revenues to build more infrastructure. Asset monetisation will happen mainly in three sectors: roads, railways and power. Other assets to be monetised include: airports, ports, telecom, stadiums and power transmission.
First, under-utilised assets
Two important statements have been made about the asset monetisation programme. One, the focus will be on under-utilised assets. Two, monetisation will happen through public-private partnerships (PPP) and Investment Trusts. Let us examine each of these in turn.
Suppose a port or airport or stadium or even an empty piece of land is not being used adequately because it has not been properly developed or marketed well enough. A private party may judge that it can put the assets to better use. It will pay the Government a price equal to the present value of cash flows at the current level of utilisation.
By making the necessary investment, the private player can reap the benefits of a higher level of cash flows. The difference in cash flows under Government and those under private management is a measure of the improvement in efficiency of the assets. This is a win-win situation for the Government and the private player. The Government gets a ‘fair’ value for its assets. The private player gets its return on investment. The economy benefits from an increase in efficiency. Monetising under-utilised assets thus has much to commend it.
Those well utilised
Matters could be very different in monetisation of an asset that is being properly utilised, say, a highway that has good traffic. In this case, the private player has little incentive to invest and improve efficiency. It simply needs to operate the assets as they are.
The private player may value the cash flows assuming a normal rate of growth of traffic. It will pay the Government a price that is the present value of cash flows minus its own return. The Government earns badly needed revenues but these could be less than what it might earn if it continued to operate the assets itself. There is no improvement in efficiency.
Suppose the private player does plan to improve efficiency in a well-utilised asset by making the necessary investment and reducing operating costs. The reduction in operating costs need not translate into a higher price for the asset than under government ownership. The cost of capital for a private player is higher than for a public authority. A public authority needs less equity capital and can access debt more cheaply than a private player. The higher cost of capital for the private player could offset the benefit of any reduction in operating costs.
As we have seen, the benefits to the economy are likely to be greater where under-utilised assets are monetised. However, private players will prefer well-utilised assets to assets that are under-utilised. That is because, in the former, cash flows and returns are more certain. Private incentives in asset monetisation may not accord with the public interest.
Valuation and issues
There are other complications. It is very difficult to get the valuation right over a long-term horizon, say, 30 years. Does anybody know what would be the growth rate of the economy over such a period? For a road or highway, growth in traffic would also depend on factors other than the growth of the economy, such as the level of economic activity in the area, the prices of fuel and vehicles, alternative modes of transport and their relative prices, etc. If the rate of growth of traffic turns out to be higher than assessed by the Government in valuing the asset, the private operator will reap windfall gains.
Alternatively, if the winning bidder pays what turns out to be a steep price for the asset, it will raise the toll price steeply. The consumer ends up bearing the cost. If transporters have to pay more, the economy suffers. There is also the possibility that roads whose usage is currently free are put up for monetisation. Again, the consumer and the economy bear the cost. It could be argued that a competitive auction process will address these issues and fetch the Government the right price while yielding efficiency gains. But that assumes, among other things, that there will be a large number of bidders for the many assets that will be monetised.
Lastly, there is no incentive for the private player to invest in the asset towards the end of the tenure of monetisation. The life of the asset, when it is returned to the Government, may not be long. In that event, asset monetisation virtually amounts to sale. Monetisation through the PPP route is thus fraught with problems.
Another way of going about it
The other form of monetisation the Government has indicated is creating Infrastructure Investment Trusts (InvIT) to which monetisable assets will be transferred. InvITs are mutual fund-like vehicles in which investors can subscribe to units that give dividends. The sponsor of the Trust is required to hold a minimum prescribed proportion of the total units issued. InvITs offer a portfolio of assets, so investors get the benefit of diversification.
Assets can be transferred at the construction stage or after they have started earning revenues. In the InvIT route to monetisation, the public authority continues to own the rights to a significant portion of the cash flows and to operate the assets. So, the issues that arise with transfer of assets to a private party — such as incorrect valuation or an increase in price to the consumer — are less of a problem.
What conclusions can we draw from the above? First, a public authority has inherent advantages on the funding side. In general, the economy is best served when public authorities develop infrastructure and monetise these. Second, monetisation through InvITs is likely to prove less of a problem than the PPP route. Third, we are better off monetising under-utilised assets than assets that are well utilised. Fourth, to ensure proper execution, there is a case for independent monitoring of the process. The Government may set up an Asset Monetisation Monitoring Authority staffed by competent professionals. The authority must put all aspects of monetisation under the scanner — valuation, the impact on price charged to the consumer, monetisation of under-utilised versus well-utilised assets, the experience across different sectors, etc. — and document the lessons learnt.
Asset monetisation is fine if executed properly — and that is always a big ‘if’.
Once again, the COVID-19 situation in the State of Kerala is in the spotlight, albeit for all the wrong reasons. More than 60% of the newly reported cases in India in the past week came from Kerala alone, and that naturally raises many eyebrows. How can a State with only 2.5% of India’s population contribute to 60% of its caseload?
One thing that we need to acknowledge first is the fact that the most recent nationwide seroprevalence survey in May 2021 by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had estimated that the prevalence of COVID-19 antibodies was the lowest in Kerala at 44% compared to the national average 68%. It meant Kerala had the highest proportion of the population still unexposed to the virus at that time. Given that the virus will keep spreading until a certain level of herd immunity is achieved in the population, either through vaccinations or through natural infections, it is a foregone conclusion that the cases will continue to be high whenever there is increased crowding.
Kerala has already vaccinated 75% of its adult population (55% of the total population) with at least a single dose. The daily new COVID-19 cases after peaking at around 40,000 daily during the first week of May have been on a decline ever since and reached a plateau of about 11,000 cases to 12,000 cases and a test positivity rate (TPR) of about 10% during the first week of July this year. Since then, however, the State has been seeing a steady but gradual rise in daily new cases assisted by increased daily testing which reached a peak of nearly two lakh in early August.
Decline in daily testing
However, the daily caseload saw a decline since August 1 largely owing to a decline in daily testing. The seven-day average daily testing had decreased from 1.7 lakh to 1 lakh leading up to Onam on August 21 even as the TPR went up from 12% to 17%. A series of irrational lockdown relaxation measures and the resulting intermittent spike in mobility on random days, along with reduced daily testing and increased festivities leading up to Onam, were all resulting in increased infections.
Yet, the decreasing reported daily new cases in the days leading up to Onam largely assisted by reduced testing gave an inadvertent feeling that the cases were under control. But, it is now understood that the decline was not organic as cases shot up above the 30,000 mark for the last couple of days owing to a slight increase in daily testing. If the State did even two lakh daily tests now, it would be reporting close to 40,000 daily cases. But the low level of testing is still keeping the reported daily case count well below that.
Important questions remain. There are genuine apprehensions on whether the current surge in cases in Kerala is due to a new variant of the virus, whether it will mark the beginning of a third wave in India, and if the present surge could result in the collapse of Kerala’s health-care system.
Delta variant spread
It is to be noted that the Delta variant — a variant that was the primary reason for the majority of cases during the second wave in the rest of India — was detected in nearly 90% of the samples tested from Kerala recently. It implies that this variant of the novel coronavirus is still catching up with the Kerala population while the rest of India has already witnessed one major wave of this variant that resulted in 68% seroprevalence in India. So, concerns about the present surge in Kerala, predominantly by the Delta variant, potentially leading to a third wave in the country may be exaggerated.
Kerala’s health-care infrastructure had reached near saturation during the peak of its second wave when daily new cases had passed 40,000 and TPR reached a high of 28%. Given the current surge in cases and increasing TPR, it is highly likely that the State will once again experience a similar situation in the days ahead and overwhelm its health-care infrastructure. Hence, the authorities must be extremely cautious of this situation and make sure that the rising numbers and increased hospitalisation do not exhaust the health-care system.
An action plan
The State must immediately take stock of its existing health-care infrastructure and see how long it can hold given the current caseload and its inevitable rise in the days ahead. If it cannot handle the impending surge which may potentially see more than 40,000 daily new cases in the immediate term and the associated increased hospitalisations, it may be wise for the State to go in for a complete lockdown for a very short period of one to two weeks to arrest this surge and allow the cases to cool off in the immediate term. In the meantime, the State should make every effort to increase the pace of vaccination, significantly increase testing and tracing efforts so that not many cases go undetected. Once the cases are brought under control, it must evaluate options and envisage a more rationalised lockdown relaxation than the ones that are presently in effect.
If managed effectively, the current surge will slow down in a week or two and, by then, the natural infection and vaccinations would have taken the population-level COVID-19 immunity in Kerala to at least 60% to 70%, bringing it closer to the rest of India, but with a lesser human toll compared to other larger Indian States.
Rijo M. John is a health economist and an adjunct professor at the Rajagiri College of Social Sciences, Kochi
It is not often that nine judges are appointed to the Supreme Court at one go. In a welcome sign of cooperation between the judiciary and the executive, the President of India has signed warrants of appointment within days of the five-member Collegium recommending eight High Court judges, including three women, and a lawyer for elevation. It is nearly two years since Supreme Court appointments were made, and some vacancies have been around for quite some time now. The latest round of appointments possibly signifies the onset of an era in which the two branches agree more and agree faster on the Collegium’s recommendations. The strength of the Bench goes up to 33, in a court that has a sanctioned complement of 34 judges. The presence of three women and the fact that different High Courts are getting representation are positive features and augur well for increasing diversity on the Bench. In particular, Justice B.V. Nagarathna’s elevation at this point of time means that she may become the first woman Chief Justice of India (CJI). The trend of appointing members of the Bar directly to the Supreme Court continues with the honour going this time to former Additional Solicitor-General, P.S. Narasimha, who is also in line to be Chief Justice by efflux of time.
A notable candidate whose name does not figure in the list is Justice Akil Kureshi, Chief Justice of the Tripura High Court, who is fairly high in the all-India seniority list of High Court judges. That the finalisation of the recommendations came about after the retirement of Justice Rohinton Nariman — and a change in the composition of the Collegium with it — may indicate that the names were the outcome of a compromise. It is not idle speculation to say that Justice Kureshi’s candidature may have been behind stagnation in the appointment process for a long time. Two years ago, a proposal by the Collegium to name Justice Kureshi as Chief Justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court was recalled for accommodating the Centre’s sensitivities. He was later assigned to the Tripura High Court. In the larger scheme of things, the omission of individuals may not matter much, but it must not become a practice to sidestep suitable candidates without sufficient cause solely to accommodate the executive’s reservations. After all, the opaque collegium system is sustained only by the belief that it is a bulwark against executive intervention. Thisraison d’êtreshould not be lost sight of. Going forward, one would wish for fewer spells of impasse in judicial appointments, quicker processing of names, and greater consideration to social and regional representation.
The suicide bombing at Kabul airport which claimed close to 100 lives has shattered any residual optimism the world had that the West pulling out forces and handing the country over to the Taliban, as part of negotiations in Doha, would result in a more peaceful Afghanistan. Instead, what the complex attack claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) has proven is that no matter what assurances the Taliban’s new regime or its benefactors in Pakistan may provide, they are unable or unwilling to stem the terror threat emanating from the country, despite being provided key intelligence inputs about the attack. There are also suspicions of some collusion within the Taliban regime, as the Haqqani group that is securing Kabul and the airport periphery, is a UN designated terror entity that has carried out attacks with the IS-K in the past. That the U.S. maintains that it continues to “coordinate” with the Taliban on security should further set the seal on any idea of investigations or operations against the Taliban. As this is an alarming scenario, the Government must now acknowledge and prepare for the threats to India. The situation will further enhance India’s already hostile continental flanks, in consonance with threats from Pakistan at the LoC and support to cross-border terrorism, as well China’s LAC aggressions.
New Delhi must also focus on diplomacy to highlight its concerns, beginning with the UN where India will have a salient role. As a UNSC member, and President, India must ensure that the UN’s most powerful body does not appear helpless in the face of the Taliban’s challenge, and must make the red lines clear for the kind of government it must guarantee — including one that recognises human rights, adopts some form of representation for its people, and distances itself from terror groups. Chief among these will be the need to ensure that the Haqqani group, including its chief Sirajuddin Haqqani who is the Deputy to Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhundzada, is not included in the official power structure. The group has been responsible for terror and suicide attacks on Indian consulates and the Embassy in particular in 2008-09. As Chairman of the 1988 Sanctions Committee that lists 135 Taliban members as designated terrorists, India must stand firm on any move to ease sanctions on them, including travel, funds access and weaponry. The UN General Assembly (UNGA)’s accreditation committee must also decide on whether to allow a future Taliban-led government to occupy Afghanistan’s seat. Given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S. later in September, where he is expected to address the UNGA, and then the Quad summit, it is important that India’s position on the Afghan situation and its impact on Indian security are articulated strongly. While briefing MPs, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said the Government is pursuing a “wait and watch” policy, but that assumes the luxury of distance from the ticking time bomb in India’s neighbourhood, which New Delhi does not have.
Strong smells don’t always deserve the bad rap they get. Take Vegemite, Australia’s favourite spread with a punchy, unmistakable aroma that brings tears to some eyes. So deep is the Australian love for Vegemite that Melbourne has decided to list the smell emanating from the factory where it’s made as part of the city’s heritage. The rest of the world, including India, should take note.
The Melbourne City Council’s decision is remarkable not only because a smell has been recognised as having heritage value, but because it is not one that is universally-loved, in fact far from it. Those who’ve grown up with a pot of Vegemite sitting on the breakfast table may adore its savoury fragrance — a gift of the brewer’s yeast that is used to make the spread — but those who haven’t grown up with it usually can’t stand it. This puts the recognition in quite a different league from, say, the 2018 Unesco “intangible heritage” label granted to the art of perfumery in Grasse, the French region known as the Perfume Capital of the World. It assigns value to a unique aroma, instantly recognisable to a certain culture and loved by it, even if described as “stinky” by the rest of the world. India must note the potential in this idea.
We could celebrate the sharp, unmistakable aroma of drying bombil as an inalienable part of Mumbai’s cultural landscape. What about the smell of ripe jackfruit in a Kerala backyard? Cowdung cakes being dried on the walls of a village home in Gujarat? Asafoetida may have been described by non-comprehending Europeans as “Devil’s dung”, but we know how appetising a dal smells when freshly tempered with this aromatic. And how about the muscular smell of axone, the fermented soybean paste used in Naga cuisine? If anything, this country has an embarrassment of olfactory riches to choose from.
India produced 93.18 lakh tonnes (lt) of vegetable oils in 2020-21 (November-October), as against 85.38 lt and 76.87 lt in the previous two years. But despite this record output, as estimated by the Solvent Extractors’ Association of India, the country will end up importing some 133 lt, from the 155.49 lt of the 2018-19 oil year. Simply put, India imports anywhere from nearly 60 per cent to over two-thirds of its vegetable oil requirement, depending on how good the rains are, entailing an annual foreign exchange outgo of $10-11 billion. It is in this context that one must view the Narendra Modi government’s new National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm. The scheme aims at increasing the total area under oil palm from the current 3.5 lakh hectares (lh) to 10 lh by 2025-26. Growers would be entitled to a minimum “viability price” for their fresh fruit bunches (FFB) production, which is 14.3 per cent of the last five-year-average crude palm oil (CPO) price adjusted for wholesale inflation.
The focus on oil palm is not misplaced as it is a crop that can yield 20-25 tonnes of FFBs per hectare, translating into 4-5 tonnes of CPO. No other oilseed can give so much: Mustard and groundnut yields aren’t more than 2-3 tonne per hectare and the oil recovery from that only at 35-40 per cent. No realistic plan of reducing import dependence in edible oils — to, say, 30-40 per cent from the existing 60-70 per cent — is possible without recognising the role of oil palm. Out of India’s annual 130-150 lt vegetable oil imports, 80-90 mt is accounted for by palm oil alone.
That said, there are valid concerns over introducing oil palm in tropical rainforests or biodiversity-rich areas such as the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and the Northeast. The crop is probably better suited for states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Odisha, where it can replace paddy and be grown using drip irrigation, mulching and other water-saving practices. India is anyway producing too much rice and any diversification must be welcomed. But the focus should, for now, be on states already cultivating oil palm. Farmers there have had a mixed experience with the crop that takes at least five years to grow and start yielding 20-25 tonnes of FFB/hectare. An assured “viability price”, protecting against fluctuations in global edible oil markets, should instil confidence among farmers in these states. Let them expand acreages first before others in more ecologically fragile regions.
The twin bomb attacks on Thursday at Kabul airport that killed over 100 people have underlined the catastrophe that has befallen Afghanistan. ISIS-Khorasan has claimed one bombing saying it was carried out by one of its suicide bombers against “a large gathering of translators and collaborators with the American Army at Baran Camp near Kabul Airport”. Thousands of civilians were massed at Kabul airport, desperate to flee the Taliban since their takeover on August 15. For years, Afghanistan has been the happy hunting ground for extremist-terrorist groups, and the Taliban takeover was always going to bring them to the surface. Taliban-al Qaeda contacts continue, and the ISIS-K has been in a bloody contest for space with the Taliban, claiming responsibility for large terror attacks in which hundreds of civilians have died over the last three years. The question that arises from the airport bombing is how a fully loaded suicide bomber managed to evade the armed street patrols set in place by the Taliban and its allies. On the one hand, the attacks have shown that the Taliban are not fully in control; on the other, the bombings have helped the Taliban, feared by Afghans as brutal oppressors with designated global terrorists in their own ranks, but now seeking international legitimacy and assistance, in projecting themselves in somewhat less cruel light than those who claim to have carried out the terror attack.
For the US military, the deaths of at least a dozen of its servicemen in the attack, made it the largest single-day casualty since 2011. President Joe Biden has pledged that America will “hunt down” the killers. At this moment, when the US is rushing to evacuate all Americans and its last remaining troops from Afghanistan, it is not clear how that promise is going to be kept. When the Americans vowed to go after al Qaeda, there was a definite quarry — Osama bin Laden. At this point, the reality unfolding in Afghanistan is that of many terrorist groups, all with links to each other, and to the Taliban. If the ISIS-K claim is accepted, the true nature of this group — with its floating membership of militant groups from Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba included, along with Chinese and Uzbek groups — needs to be understood. Indian intelligence officials believe it has links to the Haqqani Network, which is a part of the Taliban. Does Biden’s threat mean that the US will go after them in their Pakistani safe havens?
The situation is getting more critical, and India’s first priority, as External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar noted at an all-party meeting, is to evacuate all its nationals. In a silver lining, flights have resumed at the airport. The government must also make clear its stand on allowing Afghan nationals to enter the country. If India wishes to retain its long friendship with the Afghan people, it should welcome those who seek refuge here, and prevent a repeat of the shabby deportation of an Afghan woman parliamentarian. The government has said it was a mistake. It should ensure a course correction.
The policy of importing essential commodities came under attack by Opposition members in Rajya Sabha on August 27. But Finance Minister R Venkataraman was firm in saying that imports were necessary to augment supplies, check prices and build buffer stocks. He, however, agreed with members that self-reliance was necessary. He was replying to a four-hour discussion on the price situation and the steps taken by the government. Congress (I) members held the previous government of Morarji Desai and Charan Singh responsible for the rising prices. One of the members, however, said the government had no right to freeze wages if it could not hold the price line. The Opposition members emphasised the need for taking strong measures to curb black marketeers, hoarders and speculators. They thought the government was not doing enough.
CPI On Poll Reforms
The Communist Party of India which stayed away from the July meeting of the Opposition parties on electoral reforms came out with its own suggestions for such reforms. The national council of the party, which ended its four-day meeting on August 26, adopted a 15-point resolution on these reforms. “Even to preserve democratic institutions and parliamentary democracy electoral reforms have become urgent and of crucial importance,” the resolution said.
Angolan forces shot down a South African helicopter, destroyed a tank and inflicted other casualties in heavy fighting near the southern town of Njiva on August 27, according to a defence communique issued in Luanda. Angolan news agency ANGOP said two motorised columns of South African troops backed by heavy air power entered the country from Namibia on August 24.
Indian women excelled in the most decorated Olympic Games for India so far. There is no reason for it to be otherwise in any other field, especially education, given the right support. As a nation, we can ill-afford to ignore half the potential workforce if we aspire to be an economic powerhouse. As a society, women can be the pivot to bring about critical and lasting social transformation. As individuals, they deserve a shot at being the very best they can.
The global average for the private rate of return (the increase in an individual’s earnings) with just one extra year of schooling is about 9 per cent, while the social returns of an extra year of school are even higher — above 10 per cent at the secondary and higher education levels as per a decennial World Bank review. Interestingly, the private returns for women in higher education are much higher than for men — 11 to 17 per cent as per different estimates. This has clear policy implications. For their own empowerment, as well as for society at large, we must bring more and more women within the ambit of higher education.
It is estimated that over 2.4 crore girls globally are on the verge of dropping out of schools due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Pandemic-induced school closures and economic hardships have significantly exacerbated many vectors that influence the problem of women in education. In the Indian context before the pandemic, there was a welcome trend in the gradual increase in the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for women in higher education — from 19.8 per cent in 2012-13 to 27.3 per cent in 2019-20. That said, a more nuanced picture of the problem of women and higher education can be seen in Graph 1. As girls progress from primary to secondary to tertiary school levels, their numbers decrease by the year. The graph shows this gradual descent and the resulting paucity of women, who are even eligible to go to college.
The reasons for girls dropping out in rural India are varied. The primary ones are obvious: Girls drop out of school because, one, they are engaged in domestic activities (31.9 per cent), two, they have financial constraints (18.4 per cent), three, they are not interested in education (15.3 per cent), and four, they get married (12.4 per cent). It is estimated that over one crore girls are on the verge of dropping out of schools due to the pandemic alone.
The problem is not only rooted in poverty and poor quality of school education, but also gender biases and outdated social norms. It comes as no shock that the states having the highest rate of secondary school drop-outs among girls are also the ones where a significant percentage of girls get married before the age of 18 years, as we see in Graph 2.
Deep-rooted gender biases are also reflected in the choice of schools, access to private tuitions and the choice of discipline in higher education. As per the NSS 2017-18, 75th round, on ‘Household Social Consumption: Education’, at the higher secondary level, 28 per cent of boys attend private schools as opposed to 24 per cent of girls. The average annual household expenditure on girls at this level is Rs 2,860 less than that on boys. In India, the average annual cost for professional courses is much higher compared to that of simple graduation programmes (Rs 50,000 vs Rs 8,000). Of the girls who do manage to enrol in a tertiary degree, a smaller proportion go on to pursue professional courses such as engineering (28.5 per cent), while many more take courses such as pharmacy (58.7 per cent) or opt for “normal graduation” (52 per cent) as per AISHE 2019-20. Their representation is lowest in institutions of national importance, followed by deemed and private universities.
To overcome these systemic challenges, the government has taken a number of initiatives in the past such as the National Scheme of Incentives to Girls for Secondary Education (NSIGSE), supernumerary seats in all IITs and the PRAGATI Scholarship scheme for girls in technical education. However, in these unprecedented times, we need unprecedented measures to address the issue of girl child school drop-outs and bring more girls in professionally and monetarily rewarding fields of higher education.
First, as an immediate step, in every locality, a mohalla school or a community learning programme should be started with appropriate Covid norms if the local disaster management authorities and the state governments permit. Evidence from the Ebola pandemic shows that continued engagement with educational activities reduces drop-outs in a statistically significant way. NITI Aayog, with the help of civil society organisations, had started a community programme led by volunteers called “Saksham Bitiya” in 28 aspirational districts where more than 1.87 lakh girl students were trained in socio-emotional and ethical learning. Such initiatives should be replicated to ensure more girls do not drop out of schools during the pandemic.
Second, to predict likely drop-outs, a gender atlas comprising indicators that are mapped to key reasons for school drop-outs should be developed. Teachers should also be trained in all the scholarships and schemes available that provide economic support to girls and their families for continuing their education.
Third, there is a need to revise the National Scheme of Incentive to Girls for Secondary Education in areas or states with high prevalence of drop-outs and early child marriages. The scholarship amount may be increased and tied to the completion of graduation, with yearly scholarships paid to students upon successful completion of each year of their undergraduate degree.
Fourth, special education zones need to be set up in areas which have been traditionally backward in education. Every panchayat showing a consistent trend in girl child drop-outs should have composite schools till higher secondary (classes I-XII). The National Education Policy 2020 provides for a gender inclusion fund. This fund should be utilised to support STEM education in these schools as well as in all Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalayas.
State governments need to leverage existing schemes to design interventions to promote women in higher education. The recently modified viability gap funding scheme includes provisions for social infrastructure projects, including education. For greenfield projects in higher education, 60 per cent of the funding can be accessed as viability gap funding from the central and state governments. For pilot projects in education, close to 80 per cent of the funding is available as viability gap funding and an additional 50 per cent as operational cost in initial years.
Fifth and most importantly, behavioural nudges are going to be key in tackling social prejudices and orthodox cultural norms that prevent girls from achieving their innate potential. Behavioural Insights Units (BIU) may be established across states to tackle social issues with the help of ultra-local NGOs/CSOs to reach the last mile. NITI Aayog has taken a leap forward in this direction by establishing a BIU to tackle nutrition and health challenges in aspirational districts.
The pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges for educators and students, especially for those on the margins, including girls. However, with recent experiments and learning experience, informed targeting of ample resources and an agile policy environment, this challenge could well prove to be an opportunity. Given the right enabling environment, educational outcomes can be improved.
The farmers’ agitation in India has attracted worldwide attention and support. This is as it should be. Farmers are our annadata. During the Covid-19 pandemic, while all the sectors were thrown into a tailspin, the farm sector has sustained us.
The post-Independence history of Indian agriculture has few parallels, due to the unique success of the Green Revolution. Within 12-15 years, the country achieved food self-sufficiency. Ending food imports helped us save vast fiscal resources which could be used for development and welfare. Unprecedented rural prosperity ensued.
However, national-level food self-sufficiency did not result in household-level food security. Poverty co-existed with prosperity due to inequitable resource distribution and concentration of land. Its alleviation and eradication necessitated welfare intervention through the Food Security Act, MGNREGA, etc. The absence of effective and equitable land reforms, thus, accounts for the persistence of poverty.
The story of land reforms in India is a dismal one. Being a state subject, various states implemented reforms with varying degrees of effectiveness and equity. But everywhere, the objectives were the same: Abolition of feudal landlordism, conferment of ownership on tenants, fixing land ceilings, distribution of surplus land, increasing agricultural productivity and production, etc.
Many of the objectives were achieved, many were not. Feudal land relations were abolished; tenants got ownership rights. However, owing to manipulations in land records, much surplus land was not available for distribution among the landless tillers of the soil, the majority of whom were the former “untouchables” and today’s Dalits. Less than one per cent of the total land in the country was declared as surplus. The programme was implemented in a country where non-agricultural sectors and activities were fast developing, absorbing increasing numbers of the rural population. The relevant criteria for land entitlement should have been employment and main source of income.
The ex-tenants, after getting land, became tenant-turned-capitalist-farmers who effectively made use of several programmes —Green Revolution technology, bank nationalisation and priority sector lending, urbanisation and expanding urban markets. They dominated the small and marginal farmers, and landless farm labourers. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was an interlocking of land, labour, credit and product markets. Those who controlled land, controlled water, which later promoted water trade, including drinking water trade. They cornered a disproportionate share of various subsidies. Many members of rich farm households moved into industry, business and professions. Many migrated abroad for quality higher education and employment. Others returned to India and occupied important positions.
The tenant-turned-capitalist farmers formed political parties, which produced strong state-level leaders, who controlled state-level planning, fiscal policies and politics. In place of a strong Centre and weak states, came a weak Centre and strong states. Now, dismissing a state government under Article 356 is not easy. Regional satraps are democratically elected authoritarians with the power to block pro-poor changes. Bureaucracy and police have unprecedented powers. Individual freedom is often curtailed by rulers at the Centre and states.
Rich farmers have formed strong power blocs, with unquestioned clout and bargaining power, not only in north-western India but also in states like Maharashtra. Agriculturally rich states still attract large numbers of migrant workers; in some, the bonded labour system persists (with bonded labourers invariably being Dalits and Adivasis) to circumvent peak season labour shortage. The migrant workers were the worst hit by the pandemic. Atrocities against Dalits are rising practically in every state. Caste discrimination and prejudices persist.
Social restructuring needs agrarian reform, in the form of a land reforms programme, in addition to the measures that farmers are agitating for. Farmers are seeking legal safeguards against market fluctuations, especially against any downward pressure on agricultural prices. They are not anti-market. While they welcome every rise in prices, they demand legal protection against price falls, a legitimate stance.
Even as agricultural prosperity must be promoted,it should not be just shared between farmers (especially rich ones) and urban consumers, but by all. Farm workers, in particular, must benefit from it.
The relation between land and caste, between caste and labour has not been broken yet. Consider the social composition of agricultural labourers, scavengers, rag-pickers et al. Indisputably, agricultural wage rates have risen progressively. But farm workers deserve more than a rising wage rate. They deserve access to resources.
This calls for a programme of radical land reforms. Agricultural land should be pooled and equally distributed among farm households, based on the two afore-mentioned criteria. Non-farm households should not be permitted to hold farmland. The land reforms programme should not be left to the states, as it is likely to be sabotaged by regional satraps. Land reforms should be a central subject; while agriculture can remain a state subject. Such a programme will empower and enrich marginalised and excluded individuals and social groups. It should be the kernel of a justiciable universal property right that must form an integral/inalienable part of Article 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution. The right to life is hollow without a right to livelihood. Through an effective land reforms programme, let’s build a prosperous India based on equity and justice.
Even as China doubled down on its “zero Covid” strategy in the past week, government spokespersons in Australia and New Zealand have started expressing doubts about persisting with this strategy.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that it is highly unlikely that his country would ever return to zero-Covid cases. New Zealand’s Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins admitted that the highly infectious nature of the Delta variant has raised “pretty big questions” about the approach to “eliminate the disease”. These two countries had till recently experimented with a “travel bubble” between them, while keeping out travellers from other countries, hoping to permanently close the door on the virus.
Singapore had earlier given up on the zero-Covid strategy and Israel is beginning to acknowledge that its much acclaimed war to crush the virus is ending in a stalemate. Most other countries are getting reconciled to the notion that we will have to live with the virus, while preventing severe disease and death through extensive vaccination. Even the protection offered by vaccines is now appearing to be less of an impenetrable shield and more of a buffering vest that absorbs much of the bullet’s force, resulting in mostly mild breakthrough infections. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control in the USA, recently commented that there is much that we don’t understand about this virus.
Yet, there is. If not specifically about this virus, we do know about the evolutionary biology of other microbes, to start eschewing the war-like slogan of eradication. The only two microbes that have been completely eradicated so far are smallpox in humans and rinderpest in cattle. Even polio has not been eradicated all over the world — it still lurks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Getting rid of the coronavirus completely is an unrealistic ambition, especially since it is a respiratory virus that spreads far and fast. Indications are clear that the only winning strategy we have is to protect people from severe disease through vaccination and use tested measures to contain transmission till we vaccinate a large majority of the global population. By doing so, we should aim to steer the virus towards becoming milder even as it continues to be a presence in our world.
Cautionary counselling, that we should not sound militaristic calls for microbial eradication in our response to infectious agents, comes from a scientist who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology at a very young age in 1958 — Joshua Lederberg. In a seminal essay on the history of infectious diseases, published in Science in 2000, he advises us to discard the “waging war” metaphor and recognise the evolutionary imperatives that drive the microbe’s behaviour. Lederberg suggests that “a successful parasite (one that will remain infectious for a long time) tends to display just those epitopes (antigenic fragments that stimulate the immune system) as will provoke responses that a) moderate but do not extinguish the primary infection and b) inhibit other infections by competing strains of the same species or other species”. Is the Delta variant racing to claim that crown or will yet another variant emerge to achieve a better balance between high infectivity and continued presence among the human population, which it will seek to use for replication but be careful not to extinguish?
Microbes evolve much faster than humans. However, we can exert evolutionary pressure on the virus by creating barriers for its easy transmission and prevent a prolonged stay in infected humans whereby it finds enough time to mutate. We do the former by using masks, moving in well-ventilated areas and avoiding crowds. All of these are especially needed when we know that the virus has a highly infectious spread through aerosols that move far beyond six feet. We achieve the latter objective, of limiting the duration of viral presence in the bodies of infected persons, through effective vaccines. By simultaneously pursuing these twin strategies, we can exert evolutionary pressure on the virus to become milder in virulence, albeit more infectious when given the opportunity.
Why will the virus become less virulent over time? Because its survival advantage depends on having a human host, in whom it can replicate. It cannot afford to wipe out our species, for it will script its own extinction by doing so. Why then does the SARS-CoV-2 virus still kill so many across the world? Lederberg’s essay provides an explanation. He writes: “Those relatively few infectious agents that cause serious sickness or death are actually maladapted to their host, to which they may have only recently gained access through some genetic, environmental or sociological change.” That fits the SARS-CoV-2 virus so well! The virus can still be made to adapt through human strategies.
Human societies have to resume economic and social activities, albeit with caution. We cannot be living with long lockdowns, lest we irreparably harm the future of our children. We must free ourselves from the obsession with zero-Covid, while we vigorously nudge the virus to become a less threatening co-habitant of our shared planet.
The failure of the zero-Covid strategy also calls for renewed commitment to global solidarity. If all of humanity does not collectively practise transmission containment norms and the vast majority of people in all countries is not vaccinated, the virus can emerge with new mutants that do not reduce their virulence even as they infect with ease. The evolutionary pressure has to be exerted by the host species as a whole, not in pockets. That realisation must change the behaviour of anti-maskers, vaccine opponents and vaccine hoarding nations. Otherwise, the virus will feast on our follies to kill many more, even though its evolutionary instinct is not to do so.
Over the past few weeks, there has been much talk about India’s diplomatic stakes being threatened by the changing political scenario in Afghanistan. Despite the current unpredictable political climate, India’s years of investments in infrastructure and grassroots development could act as a building block for cementing relations with the new regime in the coming years.
India is currently the fifth-largest donor in Afghanistan. The latter is also among the top five recipients of India’s external assistance. India’s total development assistance over the years has been worth over $3 billion. The current situation on the ground is different from the 1990s, when India had to move out of Afghanistan due to the Taliban takeover. India has established itself over the last two decades as a reliable development partner, having largely delivered on its envisioned projects.
India’s development cooperation with Afghanistan has encompassed both soft and hard measures. The former has helped build goodwill and greater people-to-people contact and has involved measures focusing on health, education, capacity development and food security, among others. Many projects have been community-driven, thus helping engage a large section of people in development efforts.
As far as hard infrastructure is concerned, building institutions, roads and infrastructure for power transmission has featured prominently. Examples include the parliament building which was inaugurated in 2015, financing the Delaram-Zaranj Highway as well as the 42 MW Salma Dam in Herat province.
India had also engaged in triangular cooperation under the US umbrella, cooperating with USAID on various programmes like the Afghan Women’s Empowerment Programme, a collaboration between USAID and the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) for providing vocational education for Afghan women.
Moreover, much can be said about the nature of India’s development aid and cooperation that distinguishes it from other donors. Firstly, India follows a demand-driven approach, which implies that the sectors for investment are chosen by the recipient government. Secondly, although its aid is extended as a soft means to gain strategic leverage, it comes without political trappings. The latter can be seen in aid extended by Germany and the US which have often been contingent on the progress in talks between the Taliban and the civilian government. Further, when compared in PPP terms, the value of the Indian rupee is often underestimated, meaning that the Indian rupee would be able to buy substantially more goods and services at adjusted exchange rates. For example, a study by the Stimson Centre found out that even though Indian aid in 2015-16 totalled $1.36 billion, in PPP terms it could be pegged at over $5 billion. Thus, Indian investment has not only been significant but also extremely valuable and economical over the years, for Afghanistan.
At the Afghanistan Conference in Geneva in 2020, India announced several fresh development commitments including the construction of the Shahtoot Dam in Kabul, as well as several restoration and community development projects. New political developments in Afghanistan are unlikely to lead to a complete disconnect with India and its established socio-economic role. However, India may need to adapt its programmes to new realities.
In the post-American power vacuum in the country, China is likely to be the biggest gainer. It could look to build the Wakhan corridor in order to gain better connectivity with Afghanistan, as a part of its larger BRI endeavour.
What cannot be ignored is that there is still an infrastructure deficit in Afghanistan and a need for rebuilding and reconstruction. As far as development cooperation is concerned, however, India needs to further diversify its portfolios. An area that it can look at is strengthening terms of trade between India and Afghanistan, considering the latter’s trade deficit. Further, India can do much to build a more resilient Afghanistan with respect to climate change and disaster risk reduction with it spearheading global campaigns like CDRI. India needs to establish itself as a neutral entity that is keen on the development of the region but ready to work with all parties concerned.
The stunning advance of the Taliban in Afghanistan has surprised all. An Islamic Emirate and Sharia law have been imposed and ground reports indicate that women are bearing the brunt of the obscurantist laws. The chaos outside Kabul airport is heart-wrenching: Young Afghans clinging to an aircraft taking off and falling from the sky to their deaths and mothers handing over infant children to American soldiers for evacuation. Utter desperation, despair and fear are driving the Afghans to vote with their feet. Now comes news of the terrible blasts at Kabul airport.
The Taliban is trying to project a reformed image, but its soldiers are reported to be conducting revenge killings and hunting down Afghans and foreigners who have worked for the Americans and the government. Reports of resistance in the northern Panjshir province, still outside Taliban control, have emerged. Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud, has linked up with former vice-president Amrullah Saleh. Massoud has offered to negotiate, but the Taliban has peremptorily demanded surrender and has sent its cadres to capture Panjshir. Whether the resistance gathers momentum is too early to tell.
US President Joe Biden has repeatedly defended his decision to withdraw and he even brought forward the date of withdrawal from September to August 31. The announcement of the dates of withdrawal gave the Taliban an advantage.
Over the years, the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF) fought the Taliban, suffering casualties. The American withdrawal has been a huge blow to its morale. The withdrawal of maintenance personnel crippled the Afghan air force. Divided by ethnicities, tribal and sub-tribal loyalties, under a governance system riddled with corruption, the ANDSF splintered and melted away. For centuries, the Afghans have fought on the basis of primary tribal loyalties and not for abstract values like national interest or democracy. The ANDSF was also not trained for asymmetrical war. The Taliban used all these factors to subvert it. The US calculation for an orderly withdrawal went awry as it was predicated upon the ANDSF holding up the Taliban for some months.
The Taliban does enjoy some popular support among the Afghans, who are fed up with the endemic corruption. Once the Taliban decided to move into the final stretch, Pakistan’s deep state provided full logistical and other support. Pakistan’s eternal quest for “strategic depth” has kept it allied with the Taliban. The deep state, led by army Chief General Bajwa, has been trying to broker an inclusive transitional government. There is still feverish activity underway to form a patchwork government and Pakistan’s foreign minister will be in Kabul for confabulations. A surprising collaborator of Bajwa has been General Nick Carter, UK’s Chief of Defence Staff. General Carter has been peddling the narrative of a reformed Taliban.
Pakistan is openly gloating over the Taliban “victory”. It may be upbeat but blowback in the form of Islamist terrorism and its economic fallout could be game changers. Afghanistan is bankrupt and foreign aid, which constituted around 60 per cent of its annual budget, has dried up. Pakistan is in no position to help it financially, which leaves only China with the capacity to fund it. But China does not dole out money for nothing. Will it provide financing in return for Afghanistan’s mineral riches? The EU has cut off all financial aid and said that it will not recognise any Taliban government, unless it adheres to international human rights norms. The US and UK may not be averse to a compromise for their own strategic reasons. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, like the UN, has mouthed platitudes.
The strategic impact of the events unfolding in Afghanistan will reverberate for years. The chaotic American withdrawal will strengthen international perception about the durability of US’s commitments. China, Iran, Pakistan and Russia, all wanted the US out of their backyard. Turkey has joined this axis. These countries have kept their embassies opened in Kabul, hoping to fill the vacuum. These developments underscore a fundamental shift in geopolitical alignments. This will also recalibrate India’s ties with these countries and the US.
For India, this is a strategic setback, and raises the spectre of a revival of jihadi terrorism. Both China and Russia have been wary of terrorism spilling over into Xinjiang and Central Asia respectively. Both have refused to accept any refugees. China, with its deep pockets, has been cautious about investing in Afghanistan. Its workers in Pakistan have been killed on a regular basis. Afghanistan is far more unstable, although its precious mineral reserves remain a compelling attraction, in addition to extending the CPEC into Afghanistan. China has already made extensive inroads into India’s neighbouring countries, undermining India’s interests and influence.
Pakistan-US ties are also likely to be on the agenda for a recalibration. The nuclear issue will keep some Americans worried. A former ISI chief has boasted that Pakistan defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with American money and now it has defeated the US in Afghanistan with American money. The exit from Afghanistan will help the US redirect its resources to deal with the growing challenge of an expansionist and aggressive China.
India’s Afghanistan options are limited. The immediate focus is solely on evacuating Indians and Afghans. The memory of dealing with the Taliban during the Indian Airlines hijacking episode has left an indelible mark. India had opted to help Afghanistan by building infrastructure, and by providing training and medical treatment. Its image among the Afghan population is positive. Its policy of welcoming Afghan refugees will buttress this image. Shunning a Taliban-dominated government may not be wise in the future, but the behaviour of the government in Kabul will be the defining factor, as will be Pakistan’s behaviour. India will have to reopen the embassy in Kabul, as any prolonged absence on the ground will be detrimental to its interests.
The suicide bombings at the Kabul airport that have killed at least 110 people, including 13 US soldiers, have horribly complicated the situation in Afghanistan. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, the local branch of the Islamic State terror group. Although evacuation operations at the airport have resumed, airlifting all foreign nationals by the August 31 deadline seems difficult now. This in turn raises the prospect of a hostage situation where Taliban or other militant outfits could detain the remaining foreigners after foreign military personnel leave.
However, extending the departure deadline also seems infeasible at this point and could invite more attacks on evacuees. US President Joe Biden has vowed to hunt down those behind the airport bombings and talked about shoring up beyond-the-horizon capabilities in Afghanistan. But there’s no denying that his administration royally messed up the evacuation process. Pulling troops out before completing civilian evacuation was a huge mistake. As was prematurely leaving the Bagram airbase, which Taliban later took over, releasing 5,000 prisoners housed there. Many of those prisoners were Al Qaeda and ISIS supporters. And if ISIS is truly behind the airport attack, the fear of Afghanistan once again becoming a launchpad for international terror groups appears to be coming true.
After all, even Taliban is not a monolith and comprises a plethora of local commanders susceptible to changing loyalties. Add to this the influence of neighbouring countries like Pakistan in Afghan affairs. With such a large number of fighters and weapons, Afghanistan descending into another civil war also remains a possibility. This puts India in a tough spot. New Delhi is now rightly focussing on evacuating all citizens and willing Afghan minorities. But it would soon need to have contingencies in place if Afghanistan becomes a terror haven. Strengthening security and restoring normalcy in Kashmir would be prudent.
When the Chhattisgarh high court discharged a man accused of sexual assault of his wife, the judge went strictly by the book – yet again highlighting a disturbing flaw in India’s rape law that has survived scrutiny since 1860. Exception 2 in Section 375 IPC grants immunity to a husband for sex with an unwilling wife. In 1860, the exemption may have been based on the premise that a woman upon marriage became her husband’s “property”. That it continues today is outrageous.
In 2013, the Justice JS Verma committee recommended its removal, saying relationship with a victim cannot justify sexual assault. The Supreme Court and HCs have called out the flaw, not infrequently prioritising a woman’s agency over her body, choosing to sidestep the archaic premise that a husband “owns” a wife. Earlier this month, Kerala HC observed: “Spouses in marriage are treated as equal partners … Treating wife’s body as something owing to husband and committing sexual act against her will is … marital rape.”
Legal systems are works in progress, amended continually in keeping with the times. SC and HCs have done stellar work in reading down laws that have no place in the modern society India strives to be – such as decriminalising adultery or homosexuality. The judiciary should not wait for the legislature to bring about the amendment that will remove the damaging immunity to sexual abusers, but should simply outlaw the exemption.