Editorials - 09-02-2021

On several significant items relating to the environment, allocations have remained stagnant or fallen

In 1991, when the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh ushered in economic reforms that catapulted India into the global economy, I had asked him how he intended to balance rapid economic growth with environmental protection. He said that the experience of the West is that once there is enough money in the economy through growth, it can be put for ecological purposes.

A dismal gap

Leaving aside the fallacy of believing that all ecological damage can be compensated (a rainforest drowned under a dam can’t be recreated, however much money you pour into it), the truth is that governments have not put in the substantial new financial resources raised through rapid growth into environmental protection. Budgetary allocations for the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) have consistently fallen as a percentage of total allocations. Second, even when there are increased allocations, such as for cleaning up the Ganga, their usage is ridden with such design flaws, inefficiencies and corruption that the environment is no better off than before. Steadily increasing levels of pollution, biodiversity loss, decline in forest health and destruction of wetlands is testimony to the dismal gap between governmental rhetoric and the environment, regardless of the party in power.

The 2021 Budget is no different. On several significant items relating to the environment, and taking inflation and needs into account, allocations have remained stagnant or fallen. This includes the MoEFCC and crucial institutions such as the Wildlife Institute of India and the Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education. As Debadityo Sinha of the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy points out, this follows an earlier recommendation by the Ministry of Finance that the government should disengage with many such institutions. One consequence of this is that these institutions are having to raise funds through the private corporate sector, which inevitably compromises their ability to speak the truth when this sector indulges in ecologically damaging activities.

The government could argue that while direct allocations to environment-related institutions and schemes may not have risen significantly, there are substantial allocations to sectors that have a positive environmental impact. For instance, the 2021 Budget has allocated Rs. 3,500 crore for wind and solar energy, Rs. 4,000 crore for a ‘Deep Ocean Mission’, and Rs. 50,011 crore for urban drinking water. All of these have positive ecological potential, but let’s examine them a bit more closely.

India’s major push for renewable energy (RE) has earned it global appreciation. Back home, it is not so rosy. For one, there is no intention to phase out fossil fuels; on the contrary, coal mining and thermal power are being promoted under the Aatmanirbhar Bharat package. And large hydropower is being promoted as RE, though its massive ecological and social impacts are well documented. Finally, even much of the solar and wind energy is coming in the form of massive energy parks that take up huge areas of land, displacing people and wildlife.

There is no indication in the Budget that the RE push would be predominantly decentralised, community-managed, and with full environmental impact assessments (currently not required for RE projects). Nor does the Budget have anything on curtailing wasteful and luxury consumption of energy or other products and services by the rich. Without controlling demand, even a complete shift to RE will be unsustainable; after all, silica has to be mined somewhere.

According to Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, the same issue bedevils the drinking water allocations. In principle any scheme for urban drinking water is positive. But with the continuation of a highly centralised approach to all such schemes, there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach, heavily focused on expensive infrastructure like big reservoirs and pipelines. Instead, a decentralised approach that uses a mix of local rooftop and backyard harvesting, restoration and conservation of urban wetlands, and regenerating groundwater could achieve much better results. And as in energy, there is no focus on incentivising responsible consumption, restraining luxury uses, and redistributing water more equitably, without which no amount of infrastructure will be enough.

The ‘Deep Ocean’ allocation is intriguing. It is being projected as a programme for conservation of biodiversity in the depths of our marine areas. This would be cause for cheer, given the serious neglect of our oceanic areas. But the institutions that are given responsibility under this are the Ministry of Earth Sciences, the Indian Space Research Organisation, the Defence Research and Development Organisation, the Department of Atomic Energy, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Department of Biotechnology, and the Indian Navy, none with expertise in or even significant focus on marine conservation. Instead, this could become a project for deep sea mining, for which already explorations are going on.

Potentially, an allocation of Rs. 18,000 crore for public transport could have significant benefits for people and the environment if it helps to reduce private vehicle density in cities. But if much of this is allocated to the metro rather than to buses and other such earthy alternatives (including last mile connectivity, incentives for walking and cycling), the picture becomes murky. Experience with the metro so far in India’s cities is one of significant environmental impact, as also eventual lack of affordability for the poor.

Some worrying allocations

There is then the very worrying issue of allocations to non-environmental sectors that have a negative impact on the environment. For instance, the Budget proposes 11,000 km more of national highway corridors. In the last few years, massive road and dam construction has fragmented fragile ecosystems and disrupted local community life in the Himalaya, Western Ghats, north-east India and elsewhere. It is not only the road itself but what it brings with it that results in opening up previously intact ecosystems. As Kanchan Chopra of the Institute of Economic Growth says, how much more can we afford to destroy our ‘natural capital’ without it rebounding on us in forms like COVID-19?

Given that this could have been the occasion to climb into a green, nature-and-land based livelihoods recovery that could create tens of millions of jobs as also regenerate India’s depleted environment, this Budget is disappointing. But it is not surprising. It is in the logic of neoliberal ‘development’ planning, with a blind trust in growth as the panacea for all ills, to treat nature as a commodity for exploitation, or a ‘sink’ into which to dump waste. With global alarm about the ecological catastrophe we are rushing headlong into, COVID-19 recovery packages announced by the Indian government since mid-2020 ought to have put environmental regeneration and conservation, and self-reliance built on this, at the core of the Budget. That has unfortunately not happened.

Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam. Views are personal

The February coup has undone the comfortable space New Delhi’s Myanmar policy occupied for close to a decade

The long-lingering power struggle in Naypyitaw has finally ended, and the Myanmar junta, led by General Min Aung Hlaing, has won the struggle, dashing decade-long hopes for a truly democratic Myanmar. The future of Myanmar’s democracy is uncertain, but the country, sandwiched between two powerful states competing for power and influence, is certain to be a key piece in the region’s geopolitics. Given its high-stakes in Myanmar, New Delhi would need to be nimble-footed and creative in its responses with well-thought-out strategic choices taking precedence over knee-jerk reactions.

Coup, politics and geopolitics

If Myanmar’s democracy prior to the February 2021 coup was inadequate and intolerant towards minorities, its political future will be a lot more complicated, making the choices of outside powers far more constrained. Strong reactions and the threat of sanctions from the United States and the West in the wake of the recent coup could lead to unique political realignments in Myanmar. As a result, even though the democratic credentials of the former State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, remain deeply diminished today, thanks to her shocking justification of the ill-treatment meted out to the Rohingya, the international community may not have any alternatives when it comes to pursuing the restoration of democracy in the country. Ms. Suu Kyi no doubt made a Faustian bargain to cling on to power, certainly since the bloody crackdown against the minority Muslim community in 2017, and yet the recent events have brought her right back into the centre of the international community’s political calculations in Myanmar.

Sometimes, good intentions have deeply compromised outcomes. To rebuild the charisma of the fallen messiah, those batting for Ms. Suu Kyi in the international community may have to condone her government’s past actions against the Rohingya in order to highlight her suitability to be the saviour of democracy in Myanmar once again.

She will now be the poster girl for the international campaign to restore democracy in Myanmar and the case against Myanmar’s conduct during her government’s tenure at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will most likely be put on the backburner. In this process, the plight of the hapless Rohingya will take a backseat or be conveniently forgotten. Put differently, increasing global support for Ms. Suu Kyi could potentially spell doom for the persecuted Rohingya.

The China factor

This is a coup that seems to suit no one except the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar. In the short run, the coup stands to hurt the interests of China, India and even the rest of the international community, all of whom were able to do business with Myanmar in their own unique ways.

However, the international community’s sharp reactions will likely force the Tatmadaw to turn to China. Even though international sanctions are unlikely to have a major impact on the country’s largely inward-looking junta and its Generals with little external interests, it would still expect Beijing to give them political and diplomatic support both within the region and globally.

For China, the coup has complicated its larger regional economic plans in Myanmar, at least for the time being. Beijing has recently been cultivating Ms. Suu Kyi, who was keen on a strong relationship with China given the growing criticism she was facing from the West. But the junta’s jailing her could complicate Beijing’s plans for the country.

On the positive side for Beijing, decisive western sanctions will force the military to get closer to China. For Beijing, given that it does not come with the ‘baggage’ of democratic norms, it may simply be a matter of rejigging its schedule in Myanmar and getting used to the new scheme of things there. To that extent, China will be its biggest beneficiary of the February coup by default.

China, therefore, has every reason to go easy on the junta and offer them support in return for increasing the Chinese footprint in the country. On its part, the Tatmadaw, which has traditionally not been an ardent fan of Beijing, would have to change its tune.

While China’s choices are straightforward, it is far more complicated for others, especially India.

New Delhi’s quandary

New Delhi faces the most challenging dilemma on how to respond to the military coup in Myanmar. The dual power centres of the military and the civilian government that existed in Naypyitaw until recently, suited New Delhi quite well as it did not have to worry about hurting the international community’s normative concerns or sacrificing its national interests while engaging them both. More so, until recently, New Delhi’s Myanmar policy was not shaped by a difficult choice between norms and interests: neither was Ms. Suu Kyi’s political experiment without its faults nor were India’s national interests hurt by the Tatmadaw.

The February coup has undone that comfortable space New Delhi’s Myanmar policy occupied for close to a decade. While India’s national interests, under the new circumstances, would clearly lie in dealing with whoever is in power in Myanmar, India would find it difficult to openly support the junta given the strong western and American stance.

On the other hand, it can ill-afford to offend the junta by actively seeking a restoration of democracy there. Being a close neighbour with clear strategic interests in Myanmar, offending the junta would be counter-productive. While Ms. Suu Kyi was getting cozy with Beijing, it was the Myanmar military that had been more circumspect, to Delhi’s delight of course. With Ms. Suu Kyi in detention, Beijing will focus its energies on wooing the Generals.

Although the Ministry of External Affairs statement — “We believe that the rule of law and the democratic process must be upheld. We are monitoring the situation closely” — is definitely in favour of restoring democracy, its past support for the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar is unlikely to return; this is particularly because the nature of the regional geopolitics has changed thanks to the arrival of China on the scene. New Delhi’s new Myanmar policy will therefore be a function of interests rather than norms.

Cooperation, Rohingya issue

While a friendless Myanmar junta getting closer to China is a real worry for New Delhi, there are other concerns too. For one, Myanmar’s military played a helpful role in helping New Delhi contain the north-eastern insurgencies by allowing Indian military to pursue insurgents across the border into Myanmar. Coordinated action and intelligence sharing between the two forces have in the recent past been instrumental in beating back the insurgent groups in the northeast.

Equally important is the issue of providing succour to the Rohingya in the wake of the military coup in Myanmar. Unless the military decides to engage in a peace process to gain some brownie points for itself, the Rohingya question is likely to be pushed aside with the campaign against them continuing relentlessly, perhaps with even more ferocity. The inability of the states in the region to address the legitimate concerns of the Rohingya or increased violations of their rights could potentially lead to a rise of extremism within the community, which in the longer run would not be in India’s interests.

New Delhi then is left with very few clear policy options. And yet, it must continue to maintain relations with the government in power in Myanmar while discreetly pushing for political reconciliation in the country. In the meantime, the focus must be on improving trade, connectivity, and security links between the two sides.

Happymon Jacob teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and recently founded the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, a New Delhi-based think tank

The lesson of COVID-19 is to go on a steady, incremental path given the weak fund capacities in the backward States

About 20 years ago, Thailand rolled out universal health coverage for its population at a per capita GDP similar to today’s India. What made this possible was a three decade-long tradition of investing gradually but steadily in public health infrastructure and manpower. This meant that alongside the availability of funds, there also existed robust institutional capacity to assimilate those funds. For India, the lesson of COVID-19 entails setting forth on a steady and incremental path to universal health coverage; not attempting a sudden and giant leap. This is important because enough evidence exists on weak fund-absorbing capacities particularly in the backward States — at times, such unused funds have been to the tune of over half of the State’s public health expenditure.

Budgetary allocations

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare budget for 2021-22,viz. Rs. 73,932 crore, saw a 10.2% increase over the Budget estimate (BE) of 2020-21 — a modest increase even nominally. Also, a corpus of Rs. 64,180 crore over six years has been set aside under the PM Atma Nirbhar Swasth Bharat Yojana, (PMANSBY) for strengthening health institutions, and Rs. 13,192 crore has been allocated as a Finance Commission grant. While the allocations still leave a lot to be desired, these could make the first steps of a journey that steadily builds towards sustainable universal health coverage through incremental strengthening of grass-root-level institutions and processes. Two important and prominent arms of universal health coverage in India merit discussion here.

Universal insurance

The BE for the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PM-JAY), which covers over 50 crore poor Indians for hospital expenses up to Rs. 5 lakh per annum, has stagnated at Rs. 6,400 crore for the current and the preceding couple of years. And so have the actuals and revised estimates at around 50% of the BEs, which should be cause for concern. Large expenditure projections and time constraints involved in input-based strengthening of public health care have inspired the shift to the insurance route for achieving universal health coverage.

However, insurance does not provide a magic formula for expanding health care with measly levels of public spending. Available estimates have pegged the costs to be between Rs. 62,000 crore and Rs. 1,08,000 crore for 2021, if PM-JAY is to meet its stated commitments. Given these circumstances, making do with such paltry spending year after year would mean that the scheme benefits are being spread out too narrowly or too thin, implying the inability to afford enough protection against catastrophic health expenses to the poor. Beyond low allocations, poor budget reliability merits attention. Another related issue is the persistent and large discrepancies between official coverage figures and survey figures (for e.g. the National Sample Surveys, or NSS, and National Family Health Survey) across Indian States, indicating that official public health insurance coverage fails to translate into actual coverage on the ground. This is particularly intriguing for forward States such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Karnataka, where state-level public health insurance schemes have been operational for around a decade. Robust research into the implementational issues responsible for such discrepancies and addressing them is warranted. Without the same, the PM-JAY’s quest for universal health coverage is likely to be precarious.

Finally, even high actual coverage should not be equated with effective financial protection. For example, Andhra Pradesh has among the highest public health insurance coverage scores (71.36%, NSS 75), but still has an out-of-pocket spending share much above the national average (72.2% of total health expenditure). In contrast, Himachal Pradesh (H.P.)with a much lower public health insurance coverage (3.87%, NSS 75) has a lower out-of-pocket (46.4%). Among other factors, this could be attributable to the much higher per capita public health spending in H.P., more than twice that of Andhra Pradesh, which highlights the importance of government investment.

Comprehensive primary care

Health and Wellness Centres — 1,50,202 of them — offering a comprehensive range of primary health-care services are to be operationalised until December 2022. Of these, 1,19,628 would be upgraded sub health centres and the remaining would be primary health centres and urban primary health centres. Initially, most States prioritised primary health centres/urban primary health centres for upgradation over sub health centres, since the former required fewer additional investments. Till February 2, 58,155 health and wellness centres were operational, of which 34,733 were sub health centres and 23,422 were primary health centres/urban primary health centres. This means that of the remaining 92,047 health and wellness centres to be operationalised by December 2022, 84,895 will be sub health centres. This offers huge cost projections — as per early (conservative) estimates, turning a sub health centre into a health and wellness centre would require around Rs. 17.5 lakh, and around Rs. 8 lakh annually to run it thereafter.

The current allocation of Rs. 1,900 crore, an increase of Rs. 300 crore from previous year, is a paltry sum in comparison. Since 2018-19, when the health and wellness centre initiative began, allocations have not kept pace with the rising targets each year. Additional funding under the PMANSBY and Finance Commission grants is reassuring, but a greater focus on rural health and wellness centres would be warranted.

Issues with funds

Two untoward implications could result from under-investing and spreading funds too thinly. Continuing the expansion of health and wellness centres without enough funding would mean that the full range of promised services will not be available, thus rendering the mission to be more of a re-branding exercise. Second, under-funding would squander an opportunity for the health and wellness centre initiative to at least partially redress the traditional rural-urban dichotomy by bolstering curative primary care in rural areas. This opportunity arises on account of the expanded array of services that health and wellness centres are supposed to provide, and the fact that an overwhelming majority of them will be in rural areas. Since curative care implies larger costs, they could be largely confined to delivering merely preventive, wellness, and referral services without adequate funding.

COVID-19 has prodded us to make a somewhat stout beginning in terms of investing in health. The key, and the most difficult part, would be to keep the momentum going unswervingly.

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

There are big benefits in delaying the second dose to 12 weeks and starting the first dose for the elderly and vulnerable

On January 16, large-scale vaccination of healthcare workers began across India. Two vaccines are in use — Covishield and Covaxin — both rolled out under emergency use authorisation (EUA) by the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI), with the condition that all information on adverse reactions following immunisation (AEFI) be collected. For Covishield, the responsibility of AEFI monitoring is with the Government of India, since the authorisation for restricted use is at the discretion of the government. The government has defined who should be prioritised for vaccination — the first priority is healthcare workers.

Since the epidemic was transitioning to the endemic phase (when, on average, each infection reproduces another and the effective reproduction number or R0=1) from the third week of January, the vaccination is not expected to impact on the epidemic, but offer protection to healthcare workers since repeated exposure to infection is an occupational hazard. The vaccine roll-out is without a need assessment and includes those previously infected. It is essentially a token of appreciation to the healthcare workers who stoically faced the brunt of the epidemic and efficiently managed infected individuals.

Longer interval

The Lancethas just published a paper (that is not yet peer-reviewed) describing the clinical protective efficacy of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine (called Covishield in India) in Phase 3 clinical trials conducted in the U.K., Brazil and South Africa. The critical lesson is that the efficacy after the second dose was only 54.9% when given 4-6 weeks after the first dose but 82.4% when the second dose was delayed to 12 weeks. It is an accepted principle in vaccine immunology that the second dose of a vaccine administered after 28 days functions as a booster and the longer the time interval between the two doses — upto six months — the higher the booster response. The results of the Oxford vaccine trial are therefore no surprise.

For the vaccine roll-out in India, the due date of the second dose will begin from February 13 to 27 if at 4-6 weeks, but April 10 if delayed for 12 weeks. Which is preferable for India under the present endemic phase of infection (by our estimates) — early low efficacy or delayed but high efficacy? This is a question that the government must answer immediately, so that the due dates for the next dose can be revised in case the longer interval is chosen.

Had we begun the vaccine roll-out in the middle of the epidemic, early protection by two doses would have been preferred in order to accelerate the decline of the epidemic curve. But now that we are in the endemic phase, the 12-week interval between doses would be more appropriate. If the longer gap is chosen, a larger number of persons would be able to access the first dose and this would ensure better community coverage.

The present COVID-19 vaccination roll-out in India has completed first dose administration of vaccine to 43.9 lakh (47%) out of 92.6 lakh registered healthcare workers from the public and private sectors by February 3, 2021. It is important to understand that in this group, the earlier infections would have been much more than in the general population figure of about 60% at endemicity — may be 70%-80% already.

The vaccination centres are achieving only 50%-60% of their potential (50-60 vaccinations per day as against the possible 100). These slots are sought to be filled by other essential workers like the police and those in public service.

Slots for the elderly and vulnerable

It would be important to start registering the empty slots for the elderly and vulnerable and to administer the first dose of the vaccine to these subjects who are at high risk of serious disease and death from the novel coronavirus infection. After all, a single dose of the Covishield vaccine has some degree of protective efficacy starting about three weeks after the vaccination lasting up to 12 weeks. Delaying the second dose to 12 weeks and starting the first dose of the vaccine for the elderly and vulnerable will ensure that vaccination centres run to full capacity and the elderly and vulnerable are protected against serious disease or death. This is very important because, with relaxation of curbs on assembly and reopening of schools, these so far cocooned subjects will be exposed to the infection. The U.K. is already following the schedule of delaying the second dose of the Oxford vaccine by 12 weeks. It is important that India does the same and ensures that serious disease and death are prevented in elderly and vulnerable subjects.

Dr. M.S. Seshadri is Medical Director, Consultant Physician and Endocrinologist, Thirumalai Mission Hospital, Ranipet, Vellore; and Dr. T. Jacob John is retired Professor of Clinical Virology, CMC Hospital, Vellore

The former president of the ECB faces the unenviable job of bringing Italy’s rival parties on board

It won’t be an easy ride in Rome for Mario Draghi, the man who soothed Europe’s financial markets in 2012 with his bold declaration to do “whatever it takes” to save the euro during the eurozone’s sovereign debt and banking crises. Less than 15 months after he stepped down as President of the European Central Bank (ECB), when his negative interest rates policy was criticised for sucking money out of savers, he now finds himself thrust to the centre of Italy’s fractious politics.

On Wednesday, Mr. Draghi, who was previously Governor of the Bank of Italy, accepted the mandate by the country’s President, Sergio Mattarella, to form a new national unity government following the collapse of the coalition led by Giuseppe Conte in the last week of January.

A crucial verdict

During his eight-year stewardship, the Frankfurt-based institution’s policy to buy unlimited quantities of sovereign bonds of ailing economies was a pivotal moment in stabilising the single currency area, even if the initiative incurred the wrath of Germany and other affluent European Union (EU) States of straying into uncharted fiscal territory.

Now, Mr. Draghi’s efforts to rescue the Italian economy, drawing on €200 billion in grants and loans from the EU €750 billion recovery fund, would pronounce, so to say, a verdict on the bloc’s response to the pandemic. Crucially, Mr. Conte’s government collapsed because Italia Viva, the party of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, withdrew backing citing strong differences with the government’s recovery plans that must be approved by Brussels.

The sheer political complexity of the latest endeavour the technocrat has embarked on could not be overstated. Above all, Mr. Draghi must attempt to cement the differences among Italy’s several feuding parties. The most recent government collapse, where Mr. Renzi was primarily responsible, was the second in the last couple of years. In 2019, the populist Five Star Movement, the largest party in the Italian Parliament, fell victim to the personal ambitions of Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right Northern League. Mr. Draghi faces the unenviable task of bringing these rival parties on board, failing which Italy will have to go to election before the scheduled 2023 date. With 88,000 deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic, this would amount to a costly and unacceptable distraction.


The League, which would still prefer to test its recent high ratings at the hustings, has said that the party would back Mr. Draghi’s bid to form a government, given its strong base among business classes in the industrialised northern regions. Mr. Salvini, whose personal authority has eroded somewhat, would have to be mindful of the Brothers of Italy party linked to post-fascist forces, which has likened the proposal to a government born in a laboratory.

On the other hand, soon after the President’s invitation to Mr. Draghi, the acting leader of Five Star declared his opposition to a government led by an unelected technocrat. The centre-left Democratic Party and Viva Italia are expected to support the unity government. Mr. Draghi’s stint at the ECB was underpinned less by a concern to mirror the German Bundesbank’s anti-inflationary stance than the overarching priority to ensure the survival of the euro. It is arguable that his stance was vindicated by a prolonged cycle of persistently low inflation and ultra-loose interest rates, although Wolfgang Schauble, Germany’s Finance Minister at the time, blamed Mr. Draghi’s policies for the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party. That kind of decisiveness could trigger very different consequences in Italy’s highly fragmented polity.

‘Super Mario’ was the sobriquet Mr. Draghi had earned for the calming effect of his interventions into financial markets. At the current juncture in Italy, something close to that seems like securing a parliamentary majority and averting an avoidable general election.

Garimella Subramaniam is Director - Strategic Initiatives, AgnoShin Tecchnologies Pvt Ltd

The Uttarakhand glacier burst should prompt a review of how the Himalayas are treated

The staggering collapse of part of a glacier in Uttarakhand’s Nanda Devi mountain and the ensuing floods that have claimed many lives come as a deadly reminder that this fragile, geologically dynamic region can never be taken for granted. A significant slice of the glacier, dislodged by a landslide, according to some satellite images, produced roaring torrents in the Rishiganga and Dhauliganga rivers in Chamoli district, trapping unsuspecting workers at two hydro power project sites. Scores of people are still missing in the wave of water, silt and debris that swamped the rivers and filled tunnels in the Tapovan power project, although the immediate rescue of nearly 15 people by the ITBP, the Army and other agencies brings some cheer. The rescuers face a challenging environment as they try to locate more survivors and bring relief supplies to paralysed communities. These immediate measures are important, along with speedy compensation to affected families. But the Centre and the Uttarakhand government cannot ignore the larger context of the State’s increasing frailty in the face of environmental shocks. Once the crucible of environmentalism, epitomised by Sunderlal Bahuguna, Gaura Devi and the Chipko movement, the State’s deep gorges and canyons have attracted many hydroelectric projects and dams, with little concern for earthquake risk. Red flags have been raised repeatedly, particularly after the moderate quake in 1991 in the region where the Tehri dam was built and the 2013 floods that devastated Kedarnath, pointing to the threat from seismicity, dam-induced microseismicity, landslides and floods from a variety of causes, including unstable glacial lakes and climate change.

India is heavily invested in dam development and growth of hydropower, largely in the Himalaya region — especially to cut carbon emissions. By one estimate, if the national plan to construct dams in 28 river valleys in the hills is realised in a few decades, the Indian Himalayas will have one dam for every 32 km, among the world’s highest densities. Yet, as researchers say, this may be a miscalculation for reasons, including potential earthquake impacts, monsoonal aberrations that could repeat a Kedarnath-like flood, severe biodiversity loss and, importantly, extreme danger to communities downstream. There is also some evidence that the life of dams is often exaggerated, and siltation, which reduces it, is grossly underestimated: in the Bhakra dam in Himachal Pradesh, for instance, siltation was higher by 140% than calculated. The need is to rigorously study the impact of policy on the Himalayas and confine hydro projects to those with the least impact, while relying more on low impact run-of-the-river power projects that need no destructive large dams and reservoirs. Unlike what the NITI Aayog seems to think of environmental accounting, this would be a sound approach.

The question of remission should not be a matter of politics and electoral considerations

Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit has decided that only the President can decide the issue of granting remission to the seven life convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Is the Governor correct in putting the ball in the President’s court, contrary to the State Cabinet’s advice? It has often been stressed by the Supreme Court that the clemency powers of the President, under Article 72, and the Governor, under Article 161, stand on an equal footing, and are exercised solely on Cabinet advice. The only limitation in Article 161 is that it should relate to “the sentence of any person convicted of any offence against any law relating to a matter to which the executive power of the State extends”. It may be that the Governor decided that it is beyond the State’s executive power because the Rajiv Gandhi case was tried under a central anti-terrorism law and under CBI probe. Further, in a situation arising from the State government’s attempt in 2014 to remit their sentences under the Cr.P.C., the apex court had ruled in 2015 that such remission would require the Centre’s concurrence. However, this is not a tenable argument, as the same judgment made it clear that its opinion was limited to the Cr.P.C. and would not bind the sovereign power conferred on the President or the Governor under the Constitution. Also, it cannot be forgotten that the apex court had dropped charges under the now-defunct TADA, and sentenced the convicts only under the IPC for the murder conspiracy. As the only surviving sentences are under the IPC, there seems to be nothing in law that bars the Governor’s jurisdiction.

The decision is debatable for the unusual delay in the Governor reaching his conclusion as much for its legal correctness. It took Mr. Purohit more than two years — since the State Cabinet advised him in September 2018 to order the convicts’ release — to decide the question. The Supreme Court has been asking him to avoid a situation in which it would have to intervene. One could speculate that the delay reflected the Centre’s concern about releasing those involved in the plot to assassinate a former Prime Minister, and its ramifications for its policy of ‘zero tolerance’ towards terror. It is equally a matter of speculation whether the ruling party at the Centre is reserving the issue for appropriate use closer to the Assembly polls. It is unfortunate that a new legal question on which authority has the power to decide the issue has been tossed into the equation so late in the day. The Court should settle this. The convicts’ continuing incarceration for nearly 30 years, notwithstanding the gravity of their crime, has acquired a humanitarian dimension to many. It is vital that law and compassion, rather than politics and electoral considerations, form the basis for any decision on their release.

The strongholds of irresponsible power and reaction in any country are maintained not only by the threatened exercise of physical coercion but also to a very large, if not actually greater, extent by the acquiescent support of the very victims of oppression. This silent submission of the people at large to the yoke of autocracy is mainly due to the hypnotic influence of organised power and prestige on the mentality of the masses, who unconscious of their collective might, feel themselves helpless against the serried ranks of exalted officialdom and military power. It is this deceptive vision and self-enslaving cowardice, born of the ignorance and inertia enveloping the mass mind, that is sedulously sought to be cultivated by the demonstration of costly functions in the name of the public and cleverly exploited by the self-styled guardians of ‘Law and order’ to sustain their sway over the people. By a peculiar process of political alchemy in the Governmental laboratory, the involuntary share of the masses in these demonstrations as idle spectators and ignorant admirers is transmuted into a manifestation of loyalty and love and loudly proclaimed to the world as a symbol of peace and plenty in the land.

India is expected to indicate its readiness for talks with Pakistan on the question of resuming suspended overflights by Pakistani civilian and military aircraft, provided Islamabad agrees to comply with India’s demand that Pakistan compensate for the blown-up Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship aircraft and return the two hijackers, according to authoritative sources here [New Delhi, Feb. 8]. Pakistan, in a note, three days ago, proposed “mutual discussion” to settle the problem of overflights. India’s reply, expected to be conveyed to-morrow to Pakistan, will reiterate its earlier stand that Pakistan meet India’s twin demands before talks could be initiated on the resumption of overflights, these sources said. India has not yet received any such indication, the sources said. India has charged Pakistan with “direct involvement” in the hijacking and blowing up of the aircraft. Pakistan, meanwhile, has reserved the right to make counter-claims for compensation for alleged damage to its High Commission in Delhi and injuries to the members of its staff.