Editorials - 16-02-2021

To show Indian agriculture as being net taxed to argue for the farm laws has poor conceptual validity

Over the past three decades, a major rationale offered in favour of liberalising Indian agriculture was that farmers were “net taxed”. In other words, incomes of farmers were kept artificially lower than what they should have been. It was argued that this “net taxation” existed because protectionist policies deprived farmers of higher international prices, and the administered price system deprived farmers of higher domestic market prices. If there were more liberal domestic markets and freer global trade, prices received by farmers would rise.

These arguments are raised again in the debates around the three farm laws. According to this view, farm laws are necessary to end the net taxation of agriculture. For this purpose, data on Producer Support Estimate (PSE) are used. A recent study found that PSE in Indian agriculture was -6% between 2014-15 and 2016-17. In contrast, PSE was +18.2% in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, +19.6% in the European Union countries and +9.5% in the U.S. The farm laws would weaken restrictive trade and marketing policies in India and “get the markets right”. This, in turn, would eliminate negative support and raise farmers’ prices.

In these debates, a common example cited is that of milk. There is no Minimum Support Price (MSP) in milk, and a substantial share of milk sales takes place through the private sector, including multinationals like Nestle and Hatsun. Yet, India’s milk sector is growing faster than the foodgrain sector. If the milk sector can grow without MSP and with private corporates, why cannot other agricultural commodities? This article attempts a closer look at these claims.

PSE and its estimation

The PSE is estimated using a methodology advocated by the OECD. The OECD defines the PSE as “the annual monetary value of gross transfers from consumers and taxpayers to agricultural producers, measured at the farm gate level, arising from policies that support agriculture…” The PSE has two components. The first is market price support (MPS). MPS is that part of the gross transfers to producers arising from “a gap between domestic market prices and border prices of a specific agricultural commodity”. The second is budgetary transfers (BOT). BOT includes all budgetary expenditures on policies that support agricultural production. PSE is the sum of MPS and BOT, expressed also as a percentage of the value of agricultural production.

The PSE for Indian agriculture in 2019 was Rs. -1,62,740 crore, or -5.5% of the value of production. Within the PSE, the MPS was negative while BOT was positive. The MPS was Rs. -4,61,804 crore, or -15.5% of the value of production. The BOT was Rs. +2,99,064 crore, or +10.1% of the value of production.

The MPS for a commodity is calculated as the product of its annual production and the difference between its international and domestic prices. The problem begins here: the international price is considered a benchmark with no reference to the actual possibilities of domestic producers obtaining that price.

Let us assume a commodity ‘A’ whose international price is higher than its domestic price. First, ‘A’ may be produced in large quantities but may also be essential for domestic food security. Hence, it may not be regularly exported. Yet, its MPS will be negative. Examples are rice and wheat in India. Second, most of the short-term changes in MPS may be illusory if they result from short-term fluctuations of international prices or relative exchange rates, or shocks to global demand or supply. Such fluctuations are more pronounced in agriculture because international agricultural markets are infamously imperfect, narrow and dominated by monopolistic multinational companies.

Third, if a country starts exporting ‘A’ to benefit from higher international prices, will the differential between international and domestic prices remain? In mainstream trade literature, a “small country assumption” is used where all countries are assumed to be price-takers and no single country is considered capable of triggering a major rise or fall in prices. But this is an unrealistic assumption. The international market for most agricultural commodities is small, while countries like India are large producers. Even if India exports a small additional share of the production of ‘A’, its impact on the international prices of ‘A’ will be disproportionately inverse. Consequently, the differential between domestic and international prices would considerably narrow, if not simply disappear.

Due to such fluctuations in MPS, the PSE also fluctuates widely. The PSE for Indian agriculture was +1.9% in 2000. It fell to -14% in 2004, -20.4% in 2008 and -27.8% in 2013. Afterwards, it rose to -3.8% in 2015 and -5.5% in 2019. These fluctuating PSEs mean nothing in terms of taxation or subsidisation of producers. They only mean that international prices were volatile.

In summary, the MPS is a wrong measure of taxation in agriculture because the international price is no “true price” to be accepted as a benchmark. Further, a negative MPS, by itself, implies neither a government that squeezes revenues out of farmers nor the absence of absolute profitability in agriculture.

The case of milk trade

Proponents of farm laws use the OECD estimates of MPS and PSE to show the perils of restrictive markets. By the same logic then, if the increasing penetration of private companies and the absence of MSP in milk are positive features, we should expect positive and rising MPS and PSE for milk. However, milk had the highest negative MPS among India’s major agricultural commodities in 2019. The MPS for milk was Rs. -2,17,527 crore, which accounted for about 47% of the total MPS in agriculture. As a share of its value of production, the MPS for milk was -37.5%. Thus, if we go by the OECD estimates, milk was one of the most heavily “taxed” agricultural commodities in India.

Consider the period between 2015 and 2019. If the growth of private firms in milk trade was a positive change, the MPS for milk should have increased over this period. In 2015, the MPS for milk was positive at Rs. 16,190 crore. But in 2016, the MPS turned negative at Rs. -57,223 crore and by 2019 it fell further to Rs. -2.17 lakh crore. In other words, “taxation” of milk producers intensified between 2015 and 2019.

In reality, the MPS for milk turned negative not because of any compression of domestic prices. In fact, the average domestic price for milk rose from Rs. 25,946/tonne in 2015 to Rs. 28,988/tonne in 2019. But the average international reference price for milk rose faster from Rs. 24,905/tonne to Rs. 39,884/tonne in 2019. This led to a rise in the price differential from Rs. 1,041/tonne in 2015 to Rs. 10,896/tonne in 2019.

To argue from the above that India’s milk producers were “taxed” is as meaningless as arguing that India’s farmers as a whole were “taxed” to the tune of Rs. 4,61,804 crore in a year. The reason is that the OECD methodology, either for milk or for other commodities, does not offer any realistic assessment of the extent of taxation or subsidisation.

The lack of logic in debates

But these issues do not seem to bother the advocates of farm laws in India. In the debates, it is telling that these advocates (a) use the OECD estimates to highlight the overall negative MPS for agriculture as a problem; (b) but conveniently remain silent on the negative MPS for milk; and (c) yet, argue in the same breath that milk producers have benefited from the growth of private firms. The absence of logic in this line of argument is nothing but appalling.

In fact, what is missed in these debates is the elephant in the room: the BOT. The West’s PSEs in agriculture are positive and higher than India’s because they have higher BOT than in India.

R. Ramakumar is Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

Questions around emerging COVID-19 vaccines require a careful analysis of available data

Vaccine science is crucial for effective decision-making. For COVID-19, there are questions about different vaccines and platforms, their advantages, disadvantages, safety and efficacy, and the only way to address these questions is to consider the data and then make a call, while knowing that more data may lead to a change of practice.

Several news reports on February 13 stated that the government planned to stick to the “28-day gap” plan for the two doses of vaccines in India. This came just days after the World Health Organization (WHO) published its recommendations that for the AstraZeneca product, the gap between doses should be extended for as long as possible within an eight-to-12-week window.

Why did the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunisation make this recommendation? SAGE is generally conservative, relies on data and uses specific criteria for the strength of evidence to make its decision. So, what was the evidence and what should India do? On the other hand, why did Germany and other European countries decide not to use the AstraZeneca vaccine for older adults? And yet again, why are countries like France advising a single dose of vaccine for those who have had the SARS-CoV-2 infection? These are just a few questions where the data and the science behind decision-making need to be understood.

The information on AZD1222 vaccine (known as Covishield in India) provided to the WHO had a cut-off date of December 7, 2020. Based on data from 14,380 individuals from the U.K., Brazil and South Africa, who were at least two weeks beyond the second standard dose of vaccine, the vaccine had an efficacy of 63.1% against symptomatic COVID-19 infection (74 cases in the vaccinated group and 197 cases among controls). Two weeks after the second dose, there were eight cases of hospitalisation and three cases of severe infection, and all were in the unvaccinated group. So, we know that the vaccine works.

WHO’s recommendation

However, because of delays in availability of the second dose of the vaccine (and here the data included do not count the individuals who received a half dose of the vaccine), 59% of the people got their second dose between four and eight weeks after the first dose, 22% got the second dose between nine and 12 weeks, and 16% got it more than 12 weeks after the first dose. In these individuals, the vaccine efficacy was 56%, 70% and 78% respectively. The numbers are in the low thousands, but there is a clear trend of increasing efficacy with longer intervals between doses. In addition, when the immune response was measured, it was found that the longer the intervals between the two doses, the better was the immune response. These are the data based on which the WHO made the recommendation of an interval of eight to 12 weeks between two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

What about use in older adults? Immunogenicity data from the AstraZeneca vaccine show that older individuals had an immune response comparable to other age groups. However, among the efficacy trial participants for whom data were available till December 7, 2020, only one in ten were older than 65 years. Among them, there were only 12 cases of symptomatic infection — four among the vaccinated and eight in the unvaccinated, which is a vaccine efficacy of 52%, but with a large range. Of the 12 cases, two needed hospitalisation, and both were unvaccinated. However, again, the numbers are too small for firm conclusions. Based on these data, first Germany, and then other European countries decided not to use the vaccine for older individuals.

But these countries also have supplies of the Pfizer-BioNTech mRNA vaccine, for which data on a larger number of older individuals are available. Thus, the countries can prioritise that vaccine to protect their elderly. More data from ongoing efficacy vaccine studies will become available to allow for a change of recommendations, if needed, in countries that have decided not to use the vaccine. But the WHO has taken both immunogenicity and available efficacy data into account and recommended the use of vaccines for older individuals.

Why have French experts recommended a single dose for those who have been previously infected with SARS-CoV-2? There are data from people who have been infected before which show that they make more antibodies with the first dose of vaccine (known as boosting), but not with the second dose. Based on this, immunologists think that an infection and one vaccination dose are together equivalent to two doses of the vaccine and will give equal or better protection.

While this is a rational and evidence-based approach, there are nuanced aspects that need to be addressed. Is vaccination required at all for people who have been infected? We have data to show that natural infection provides 83% protection for at least five months, and the WHO guidance states that individuals who have been infected can wait six months before getting vaccinated. This is an area that needs research to determine the level and duration of protection from infection, or infection and vaccination. If we had a way of measuring who was protected and who was not without waiting for them to be exposed to the virus and get sick, then answering these questions would be easier. But there is no such correlate of protection as yet.

The way forward

What should India do? We need to build platforms to study vaccine performance and not just rely on data that emerges from other countries. The number of vaccines is going to increase, and comparisons will become more important to gain clarity about which vaccines can be used for whom and how.

We have global data at this time that support a longer interval (at least for the Covishield vaccine) to improve efficacy, and we also have the current luxury of a declining trend in cases, which makes it easier for us to consider the longer-interval idea. This also brings the additional benefit of reaching more people in India with the first dose, while we wait for supplies with the ramping up of manufacturing of vaccines in India. There is another benefit of sharing vaccines with the world — the more we distribute vaccines to the rest of the world, the greater the chance that we decrease the import of variant viruses to India.

Gagandeep Kang is a Professor at Christian Medical College, Vellore

The U.S. has returned to the pre-Trump stance of supporting a two-state solution in principle but is doing little to reach that goal

Will President Joe Biden change the U.S.’s policy towards the Palestinian issue? The short answer is no. There are many reasons for this gloomy prognosis. The most important is Mr. Biden’s track record on Israel and especially on its continued occupation of Palestinian territories. He has been a firm supporter of Israel for decades and relatively unsympathetic to the Palestinian’s political concerns despite his support for a two-state solution.

It is true that American relations with the Palestinian Authority had reached a new low under President Donald Trump, who unreservedly supported Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s expansionist polices. In fact, Mr. Trump himself proposed that 30% of the West Bank consisting of the Jordan Valley and settlement blocs be annexed to Israel. He moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and endorsed the Israeli annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, captured in 1967. Mr. Trump also cut off $360 million annual funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which deals with Palestinian refugees, and shut down the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington D.C.

Mr. Biden and his team have said they will resume aid to the Palestinians and the new President has opposed Israel’s formal annexation of one-third of the occupied territories. However, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the U.S. embassy in Israel would remain in Jerusalem as reversing the move “would not make sense practically and politically”. So too would Mr. Trump’s acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.

Living with the status quo

The Biden administration has returned to the long-standing pre-Trump American stance of supporting a two-state solution in principle but doing little to reach that goal. Mr. Blinken declared that “the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution”. However, he contradicted himself by adding that “realistically it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that”. This was a clear admission that the Biden administration is willing to live with the status quo that allows Israel to continue its harsh occupation, build settlements, cantonise the West Bank, and eventually foreclose the two-state option leaving the Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Before assuming office, Mr. Blinken had also made a number of statements accusing Palestinians of being responsible for the failure of negotiations. He reminded them “that they can and should do better and deserve better and that requires leadership: leadership to make clear the reality of the Jewish state; leadership to make clear the need to end incitement and violence”. This was a classic case of blaming the victims for their woes and skirting the question of Israel’s illegal occupation and settlement-building activities.

During the election campaign, the Biden team also made clear that it “firmly reject[s] the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement, which singles out Israel — home to millions of Jews — and too often veers into anti-Semitism.” Above all, the Biden administration has iterated that it will continue to provide Israel with unconditional military support in the amount of $3.8 billion annually, following the precedent established by Mr. Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama. Therefore, while President Biden, unlike his predecessor, may not act as a cheerleader for the Israeli right wing, his policies will not differ in substantive terms from those of earlier American Presidents. These policies were premised on the notion that Israel was the innocent party to the conflict and the blame for the deadlock lies with the Palestinians who are unwilling and unable to make compromises that in real terms would make a two-state solution dead on arrival.

The Israeli narrative

Thanks to Israeli propaganda, the conventional wisdom in Washington, D.C. has been that Palestinians “never miss the opportunity to miss an opportunity”. The U.S. has stuck to this narrative despite evidence to the contrary over decades that Israeli governments through the building of settlements and confiscation of Palestinian lands have negated the possibility of a viable Palestinian state emerging in the occupied territories. There are multiple reasons for the American acceptance of the Israeli narrative. These include the influence of the Israel lobby in Congress and the presence in key positions in successive administrations of people whose sympathies lay with Israel. The Biden administration is no exception in this regard. Although the U.S.’s unquestioning support for Israel has complicated its relations with the Arab world for decades, the perception of Israel’s importance to American strategy in West Asia as the U.S.’s one stable ally persists. Consequently, many in the region believe that American policy towards West Asia is made in Jerusalem and not in Washington.

Mr. Obama as President was able to partially break this mould in the case of the nuclear agreement with Iran, which Israel opposed stridently. This policy was reversed by Mr. Trump. Now that Mr. Biden seems interested in reviving the nuclear deal, he will have to tread even more carefully in his approach towards Israel, which has been vociferous in its opposition to the U.S. returning to the agreement. The Palestinians are likely to pay the price for this as well since Mr. Biden cannot afford to estrange Israel on both the Iranian and Palestinian fronts for domestic and perceived strategic reasons. Consequently, the changes in Mr. Biden’s approach to the Palestinians when compared to Mr. Trump’s will be only cosmetic in character. In the final analysis, the status quo will continue to be the default option for the Biden administration to the detriment of the Palestinian cause.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University

Sri Lanka’s pullout from the Colombo port deal calls for rethinking India’s approach towards investment treaties

Sri Lanka’s decision to renege on a 2019 agreement with India and Japan that aimed to jointly develop the strategic East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo port comes as a rude shock to New Delhi. While international relations experts are busy assessing the diplomatic fallout of this problematic decision for India-Sri Lanka ties, the issue also needs to be looked at through the prism of the India-Sri Lanka bilateral investment treaty (BIT), which forms the bedrock of international law governing foreign investment between the two countries.

In 1997, India and Sri Lanka signed a BIT to promote and protect foreign investment in each other’s territories. The defining characteristic of this BIT, as is the case with all BITs, is that it empowers individual foreign investors to directly sue the host state before an international tribunal if the investor believes that the host state has breached its treaty obligations. This is known as investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS).

An important protection provided for foreign investment in the India-Sri Lanka BIT is the fair and equitable treatment (FET) provision given in Article 3(2). This Article provides that investments and returns of investors of each country shall, at all times, be accorded FET in the other country’s territory. FET is a ubiquitous provision contained in almost all BITs. The normative content of the FET provision has been fleshed out by scores of ISDS tribunals in the last two decades. The tribunals have persistently held that an important component of the FET provision is that the host state should protect the legitimate expectations of foreign investors. In a case known asInternational Thunderbird Gaming Corporation v Mexico, it was held that the concept of legitimate expectations relates to a situation where the host state’s conduct creates reasonable and justifiable expectations on the part of an investor (or investment) to act in reliance on said conduct, such that a failure to honour those expectations could cause the investor (or investment) to suffer damages.

Sri Lanka, by signing the agreement to jointly develop the ECT at the Colombo port, created such expectations on the part of Indian investors. Defaulting on this agreement, without specific and reasonable justification, potentially violates the Indian investor’s legitimate expectations, and thus, the FET provision of the BIT.

However, the twist in the tale is that India unilaterally terminated the India-Sri Lanka BIT on March 22, 2017. This termination was part of the mass repudiation of BITs that India undertook in 2017 as a result of several ISDS claims being brought against it. In cases of such unilateral termination, survival clauses in BITs assume significance because they ensure that foreign investment continues to receive protection during the survival period. Article 15(2) of the India-Sri Lanka BIT contains a survival clause, according to which, in case of a unilateral termination of the treaty, the treaty shall continue to be effective for a further period of 15 years from the date of its termination in respect of investments made or acquired before the date of termination.

Thus, the Indian investment in Sri Lanka and vice-versa made or acquired before March 22, 2017, will continue to enjoy treaty protection. But, in the case of the investment in developing the ECT at the Colombo port, this survival clause will be inconsequential, since the agreement was signed in 2019, i.e., after India unilaterally terminated the BIT. Hence, the Indian investor will not be able to sue Sri Lanka before an ISDS tribunal, notwithstanding the merits of the case.

Important lessons

This sordid episode has important lessons for India’s overall approach to BITs. As a consequence of the onslaught of ISDS claims in the last few years, India has developed a protectionist approach towards BITs. The motivation appears to be to eliminate or at least minimise future ISDS cases against India. However, an important attribute that perhaps has not received much attention is that BITs are reciprocal. Thus, BITs do not empower merely foreign investors to sue India, but also authorise Indian investors to make use of BITs to safeguard their investment in turbulent foreign markets.

In the post-COVID-19 world, regulatory risks will further exacerbate, subjecting foreign investment to arbitrary and whimsical behaviour of countries. Accordingly, given India’s emergence as an exporter, and not just an importer of capital, the government should revisit its stand on BITs.

India needs to adopt a balanced approach towards BITs with an effective ISDS provision. This will facilitate Indian investors in defending their investment under international law should a country, like Sri Lanka, renege on an agreement.

Prabhash Ranjan is a senior assistant professor at South Asian University’s faculty of legal studies

Governing bodies for universities and colleges must be reframed to make them equitable

With the COVID-19 pandemic easing and normal academic activity being gradually resumed, the Central government’s New Education Policy (NEP) is back in focus. While the policy covers a wide spectrum of issues, including reforms in school and higher education, the emphasis should also be on the need to restructure the governing bodies for universities and autonomous colleges.

First, the system of appointments of vice-chancellors and syndicates, or governing councils, the key authorities for any university, needs to be revised. The appointments are often mired in controversies, with frequent reports in the past of aspirants for the post of vice-chancellors and membership of syndicates indulging in unethical practices to gain favour. Luckily, the NEP talks of creating new structures, such as a Board of Management, to replace the syndicate system. To implement this recommendation, State governments must bring in a slew of bold reforms, some of which are outlined below.

For the Board of Management structure, the existing system of syndicates, consisting of government nominees and those nominated by Governors or chancellors, should be dispensed with. Often, people lacking merit but with an eye on memberships of affiliation, building, and purchase committees, among others, get nominated to these bodies.

Further, with the vice-chancellor as chairman, the Board should consist of former vice-chancellors drawn from other universities, members drawn from industry, the alumni, eminent public intellectuals, principals of affiliated colleges on rotation and members representing the non-teaching staff. The Board’s decisions should be taken by consensus or by a majority of the members present. Proceedings should be conducted in virtual mode and made available for stakeholders’ viewership.

For the appointment of vice-chancellors of universities, search committees constituted for such purposes must be thoroughly restructured. The government’s and chancellors’ role in such committees must be done away with. The practice of having government nominees, chancellor’s nominees and university nominees should be stopped and it should be replaced by drawing an eminent former vice-chancellor or academician of proven integrity and administrative capability for the post of chairman.

Transparent procedures

Applications for the post of vice-chancellors can be invited through advertisements on the university website and through newspapers. Biodata of candidates must also be published on the websites. The committee may then allot marks to candidates’ scholarship in terms of teaching and research, administrative capabilities, and capacity for fundraising. The scores obtained by candidates should be consolidated and the names of shortlisted candidates then submitted in the order of merit to chancellors for deciding on formal appointments.

Another important issue is accountability of faculty, and the best way to ensure that is to put in place an institutional structure of ‘academic audit’. Faculty members must mandatorily upload on university websites their annual plans for research and innovative modes of teaching. Their annual self-appraisal reports can be evaluated by external peers and their recommendations should be strictly implemented. There is an urgent need to overcome faculty shortage by recruiting teachers in order to overcome the existing trend of higher educational institutions relying on guest faculty.

Finally, in order to improve the higher education ecosystem, excellence in teaching, research, innovation, entrepreneurship and social contribution must be encouraged. The NEP’s recommendations, like the introduction of four-year courses that have the option of re-entry and exit, one- or two-year postgraduate courses, and setting up of an Academic Bank of Credit for credit transfers, may be helpful.

The author is former Dean, Faculty of Arts, Bangalore University and former Senior Fellow, ICSSR, New Delhi.

Activist’s arrest in ‘toolkit conspiracy’ case is perverse and high-handed

The police in India, and especially forces under the present regime, have a dubious record of effecting needless arrests and filing questionable cases as a tool of harassment. The Delhi Police have outdone all of them by arresting a 22-year-old climate activist in a case that makes the incredible allegation that a social media toolkit for organisers of protests against the farm laws amounted to sedition and incitement to riots. The manner in which a Delhi Police team travelled to Bengaluru and took Disha Ravi into custody, apparently without following the guidelines laid down by the Delhi High Court on inter-State arrests, marks a new low in the display of perversity and high-handedness in law enforcement. Even though Ms. Ravi was produced before a duty magistrate in Delhi within the mandatory 24-hour period, there is no indication whether the Delhi Police informed the local police and if she was properly represented by counsel. It appears that the main charge against her is that she edited a Google document shared among activists, including global climate change icon Greta Thunberg. The toolkit, the prosecution alleges, was prepared by a pro-Khalistani outfit, and based on this, it was concluded that Ms. Ravi was working with separatists to create disaffection against India. It is quite strange that none in the Delhi Police deemed this far-fetched. Such toolkits are common for those organising protests online, and they contain not much more than calls for protests, texts to be tweeted, hashtags to be used, and names of authorities and public functionaries whose handles can be tagged. The possible fact that direct protests were also discussed and planned does not mean there was any incitement to violence, a mandatory requirement to charge someone, as has been done in the case of Ms. Ravi, with sedition.

There is little doubt now that it is not organised protests, online or offline activism in support of the ongoing farmers’ protests against the controversial agricultural laws, or the mobilisation of public opinion against government policy, that is adversely affecting the country’s reputation and prestige. The regime is more likely to attract international embarrassment and opprobrium by the indiscriminate use of police power against activists, protesters and the media. The state is increasingly resorting to heavy-handed responses to issues that attract a convergence of activism, opposition political activity and adverse media scrutiny. In particular, the farmers’ protests, and the violent turn that it took on Republic Day due to some deviant elements, have led the present regime to imagine a global conspiracy where none exists. A government truly worried about its global image would instead seek to address the deficit in tolerance and surfeit in repression that are becoming more obvious with each passing day.

Labour reforms and technological advances within the fireworks industry are necessary

Thousands of workers in Tamil Nadu’s famed fireworks industry remain trapped in unsafe conditions despite an unending series of accidents that keeps drawing attention to their plight. In the latest accident at a fireworks unit in Virudhunagar, at last count, 20 lives have perished, while 28 workers are in hospital. Such tragedies, caused predominantly by gross violation of norms governing the hazardous industry and human error in handling explosive substances, have occurred with some regularity now. In 11 months, 25 lives were lost in major blazes in three other fireworks factories in Virudhunagar (9), Cuddalore (9), and Madurai (7). Most victims were women. While the dead end up in statistical records, on the ground there is only short-term action: registration of cases, arrests, identification of causes, token inspections, issuance of warnings and safety advisories. The causes are well documented. Unlicensed units that have mushroomed in and outside Sivakasi mostly escape scrutiny till explosions occur. A greater concern is the illegal sub-leasing of contracts for manufacturing crackers by licensed units. Preliminary investigation into the current tragedy has also revealed sub-leasing of works to several persons. The very nature of work in a hazardous industry makes sub-leasing a byword for safety compromise. It leads to conversion of every shed in a manufacturing unit into a ‘factory’ in itself with inflammable chemicals stored all over. Consequently, the limit on workers to be deployed is violated resulting in crowding in each shed. Supervision of the quantum of chemicals to be mixed or stored — a key task to avoid friction — becomes a casualty.

Untrained workers and the piece-rate system, which induces people to race to produce more units per day, have also caused accidents. Eyewitness accounts suggest that in the latest accident, a worker, possibly fatigued, had hurriedly emptied semi-finished crackers triggering an explosion. While the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organisation offers training for workers, shortage of labour has prompted the industry to hire new recruits with limited skills. The industry continues to be labour-intensive, although a decade ago Parliament was informed that automation of the hazardous manufacturing process would be undertaken. Periodic inspections at factories, sustained crackdown and stringent penal action against violators are non-negotiable. For this, Central and State governments must provide the needed manpower for enforcement agencies as the industry has grown manifold. A sustained political push for labour reforms and technological innovations within the industry is also essential. After all, there can be no joy during any celebrations using fireworks if those making it lead a life of dangerous uncertainty.

[Madras, February 15] Demand for action against the organisers of the Salem Superstition Eradication Conference, which indulged in anti-Hindu speeches and took out processions denigrating Hindu Gods, were made at a number of places in Tamil Nadu to-day. Protest was also voiced against the seizure of the copies of the Tamil magazine “Thuglak” by the police in Madras yesterday [February 14]. More than 1,000 college students, mostly from the Jain College and other educational institutions, took out a procession to-day from Meenambakkam and Nanganallur protesting against the seizure of the copies of “Thuglak” and demanding freedom of the press. The students urged the Government to take action against those who insulted Hindu Gods. The students are also reported to have detained an electric train for a few minutes. In Ootacamund about 1,500 students of the Government Arts College took out a procession this morning [February 15] from the Government Botanical Gardens to the railway station shouting slogans against D.K., D.M.K. and E.V.R.