Editorials - 24-02-2021

India must realise that a democracy cannot be reduced to only demanding praise from the rest of the world

The ongoing protests by farmers against the three hastily promulgated agriculture laws have drawn international attention, with the denial of democratic rights to them by the government’s construction of military-grade barriers and shutting down of the Internet at protest sites getting strong statements of support from numerous international celebrities. The official response of the Ministry of External Affairs was disproportionate to the provocation, but it was not merely the reaction of a thin-skinned government. The argument put forth by the government pushed a more fundamental premise: it warned the concerned global voices that these matters — democracy and human rights, left unstated — were India’s ‘internal affair’.

The recent arrest of the 22-year-old environmental activist, Disha Ravi, for amplifying the farmer protests internationally, unmasked the government’s designs to criminalise those who speak for human rights. This attitude was also visible in the Home Ministry’s directions to social media companies to block accounts of those expressing a point of view contrary to that of the government. A democracy which does not ensure and secure universal rights for all is a democracy only in name.

Being respected, not having their dignity violated and having a sense of security is what everyone, anywhere should get, whether it is Syrians on an Italian shore, the Rohingya in Myanmar, Hindus in Pakistan or stateless refugees on a border in Mexico. No government has immunity because it violates human rights in its jurisdiction. Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not have been more misplaced as he was, when he spoke of ‘Foreign Destructive Ideology’ in Parliament to refer to global concerns for rights of protesting farmers. The belief that what India or what any other nation does to its people is an ‘internal matter’, is as misdirected a defence as the one a wife-beating husband deploys with his neighbours — that it is not their business.

Nation and the idea of rights

India played a signature role in drawing the world together to oppose the apartheid government of South Africa, and it took till 1962 to override the sovereignty shield used by the government to continue oppressing the Black population. India stayed firm from the 1950s till a resolution was adopted and a United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid was set up by the United Nations. India’s work, in consistently creating awareness and resistance against the demonisation of Nelson Mandela via the Rivonia trial in 1963, checked the Apartheid regime from awarding him the death sentence.

The principle document signed in the last century, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laid down the terms for the post-war world, it enshrined the rights and the freedoms of all people, living everywhere. It was not something that was forced down India’s throat by its colonial rulers. India was a member of the first Human Rights Commission, which was to draft the ‘international bill of rights’. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted from January 1947 till December 10, 1948, when it was eventually adopted by the General Assembly.

Along with the Charter of the United Nations that was signed earlier in San Francisco in 1945, Indian freedom fighters did their best to influence it and make its brief wider and more effective. Mahatma Gandhi issued a press statement in April 1945 which was directed at participants of the San Francisco conference and he extensively quoted from the All India Congress Committee resolution of August 8, 1942: “While the AICC must primarily be concerned with the independence and defence of India in this hour of danger, the Committee is of opinion that the future peace, security and ordered progress of the world demand a world federation of free nations, and on no other basis can the problems of the modern world be solved.” A line is particularly evocative – “...Thus the demand for Indian independence is in no way selfish. Its nationalism spells internationalism.”

At the time of the conference, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit who went on to become the first woman President of the UN General Assembly, was on a year-long lecture tour of the U.S., and she had a deep impact on African-Americans battling entrenched racism at the time. Pandit powerfully advocated Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru’s ideas and emphasised their universality and the indivisible nature of rights that all human beings must enjoy.

She sent a note to the conference, urging them to be bolder than they were to be eventually. Scholars agree that Pandit’s alliances with Eleanor Roosevelt, Black activists and others forged at the time, subsequently helped push for a more comprehensive adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The work of Indians like Hansa Mehta, Minoo Masani and Lakshmi Menon conveyed the message as being the same as that of the freedom movement — of freedom from oppression for all human beings (https://bit.ly/3qLAGiA).

Rights are indivisible

The makers of the Indian Constitution did not invoke paranoia about respecting Indian tradition, customs or hiding perverse practices. Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan famously said while commending the Objectives Resolution, or the basic road map of the Constitution, to the Assembly, that the endeavour was “a fundamental alteration in the structure of Indian society,… to abolish every vestige of despotism, every heirloom of inorganic tradition.”

The triad of ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ engraved in the Preamble, drew significantly from the slogan which had proved influential following the French Revolution. It flowed from the realisation, in Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s words, that given the vice-like grip of the “graded inequality” of the caste system, all three elements, together, were absolutely essential if Indians were to realise their full potential. To quote B.R. Ambedkar who on the eve of the adoption of the Preamble explained how Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were connected and locked into each other firmly: “Without equality, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Equality without liberty would kill individual initiative. Without fraternity, liberty would produce the supremacy of the few over the many. Without fraternity, liberty and equality could not become a natural course of things. It would require a constable to enforce them.”

New Delhi’s recent moves

To cite Atmanirbhar as a counter to international concerns about freedoms, equality and the right to dissent amounts to hiding behind the flimsy excuse of sovereignty to escape the bitter truth of the slithering slope of democratic rights India appears to be going down. The case the Indian government is making is all the more specious as its own immediate concern expressed, officially by its External Affairs Minister when visiting Sri Lanka, on the Sri Lankan government needing to do more to safeguard Tamil lives belies this principle. The starkest case where India made human rights of citizens of other countries its business was in 2019 when the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, offered a home for certain persecuted citizens of three foreign countries.

When it comes to universal human rights and international attention, the premier example is of the liberation of Bangladesh which India led and shepherded by invoking these principles. That India chose to and continues to host the Dalai Lama, who attracts visible support from high-profile global celebrities, is a testament to New Delhi’s commitment to human rights. That the public concern from international celebrities is tantamount to foreign ‘intervention’ carries no weight, as this is not about the Central Intelligence Agency or Vladimir Putin’s Russia meddling in Indian electoral processes. In fact, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been cavalier about amending the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, or FCRA, rules permitting itself, a political party, to whitewash foreign funds with retrospective effect, in 2016.

The issue is a reality problem

The Prime Minister and his government have actively courted foreign approval. Two dozen foreign envoys were taken on a guided tour of Kashmir last week because getting a favourable opinion from foreigners matters to the government. At the height of tensions and the shutdown there, before Indian Members of Parliament were allowed, a delegation of far-right European Parliament members was bussed around deserted streets. The Prime Minister has personally appeared with celebrities in foreign lands during his numerous trips, seeking their approval. The craving for approval is natural for any publicity-seeking politician, but a democracy cannot be reduced to only demanding praise from the rest of the world and raising the bogey of ‘internal matters’ when international voices express solidarity with dissenters and raise serious concerns.

Global concerns about democratic rights in India cannot be dealt with by arresting messengers, bullying ‘amplifiers’ or shutting down social media accounts. India does not have an image problem; it has a reality problem. Changing the reality and adhering to best democratic practices inside is the only durable solution if the Modi government wants its image ‘fixed’.

Seema Chishti is a journalist based in

New Delhi

The increased tax burden due to excise duties cannot help growth

There used to be a time — and this was well before India began to globalise — when each Union Budget announced sales tax increases on tobacco products, especially cigarettes. The demand for cigarettes being somewhat inelastic, the rise in tax was expected to be a shot in the arm for the revenue-starved government of our poor country.

Increase in excise duty

India is less poor now, having risen to the rank of an emerging market economy. Yet, COVID-19 has ushered in a cataclysm. As opposed to a Budget estimate of 3.5% for fiscal deficit, the revised estimates show a 2.7 times larger deficit of 9.5% for FY 2020-21. Moreover, a comparison of the government’s revised Budget estimates with the original Budget estimates reveals a fall in receipts from every source of taxation except excise. The revised Budget shows a rise of Rs. 94,000 crore on account of excise duties alone. Presumably, the increase comes from the much-debated excise duty increases on petroleum and diesel. As far as the Budget documents go, the excise duty rise will hardly compensate for the huge falls in other tax revenues. It is not surprising, therefore, that despite the excise rise, the fiscal deficit continues to be higher than the Budget estimate. In fact, the larger excise duty collection is not large enough to have significantly reduced the inflated fiscal deficit figure.

Given the nature of the products on which the excise duty has gone up, prices of commodities will rise in general, directly or indirectly. This is because all these commodities fall either in the category of final goods, which individuals purchase for personal consumption, or in the category of intermediate goods, which are used to produce a variety of essential services such as public transport, agricultural water supply, hotels and restaurants

. With annual output shrinking by an estimated 7.7%, it is straightforward to conclude that unemployment has risen significantly. The accompanying price rise will be the unemployed persons’ worst nightmare. The result will be severe inequality.

New philosophy

As far as shrinkage in output is concerned, it is the unavoidable lockdown that needs to be blamed rather than the government’s mismanagement of the economy. The associated inequalities though cannot be delinked from policy and, as political opponents will argue, COVID-19-linked income inequities ought to have been addressed through higher taxation of the rich. Even though such criticism does not lack wisdom, it appears that the philosophy underlying the government’s economic policy framework has changed, a change that has not received adequate attention. In what follows, we shall address the issue from a pure economist’s point of view.

In this context, it is well worth our while to pursue Volume 1 of the Economic Survey 2020-21. Chapter 2 of the document considers the basics of fiscal policy with reference to Olivier Blanchard’s 2019 presidential address to the American Economic Association. Professor Blanchard’s view may appear to run counter to our own Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act, according to which the fiscal deficit must be capped under 3.5% or so. The idea underlying the prescription was that a fiscal deficit automatically transformed to government debt. Such debts along with their servicing liabilities have a tendency to magnify over the years, thereby imprisoning governments in debt traps, where present borrowings keep increasing to repay past borrowings and service charges. This leaves little room for growth enhancing expenditure and reduces a government’s credit worthiness in the eyes of lenders.

Professor Blanchard, and following him the Economic Survey, propose a different viewpoint altogether. Debt-financed fiscal spending, according to them, could well be a driver of growth. It can improve the standard of living of the entire population, without necessarily removing inequality. The inequality, however, could well be benignant, for even though the rich will grow richer, the poor will escape out of poverty.

A government’s fiscal expenditure, Professor Blanchard points out, has stronger multiplier effects during recessions than during booms. In an economic boom, state expenditure may crowd out private expenditure on account of a rise in the interest rate. During recessions, private expenditure is low in any case, on account of a rise in precautionary savings and the grim state of long-term expectations. The government, however, is not affected by such psychological constraints. Its fiscal expenditure produces positive growth and this in turn can generate a feel good factor for the private sector over time, raise animal spirits, and improve the state of the economy.

Blanchard’s argument

What, however, constitutes the government’s spendable resource? The obvious answer is debt, or the fiscal deficit itself. What will prevent the government from sinking into a debt trap? Professor Blanchard shows that the debt-to-GDP ratio can be prevented from exploding if the rate of growth of GDP happens to be higher than the sovereign rate of interest. This is the case in developed economies. In such economies, debt financed government expenditure will create a positive primary surplus (defined as the total government receipts minus expenditure net of interest payments) out of which interest payments can be made to keep the debt-GDP ratio under control. There will, of course, be a maximum value that this ratio can attain, a value that is higher the larger is the excess of the growth rate over the interest rate.

According to the Economic Survey, India’s average interest rate and growth rate over the last 25 years (leaving out FY 2020-21) have been 8.8% and 12.8% respectively. Hence, Professor Blanchard’s condition is satisfied, so that debt financing of recession ought not to raise FRBM issues involving fear of future taxation to address past debts. To some at least, the argument may sound like an excuse for not resorting to higher taxation of the rich to remove economic inequality.

The philosophy of the Economic Survey, on the other hand, appears to be that expenditure causes growth, rather than distributional equality. With improved growth, standards of living will rise across the population, bringing affluence of a sort to the economically deprived even as it makes the rich grow richer.

This, of course, is not to support excise duty increases, for it goes against the very principle of the Blanchard argument, which emphasises maintainable debt and expenditure as the vehicle of development as opposed to increased tax burdens. Therefore, there appears to be a contradiction between the government’s announced fiscal policy stance and the fiscal regime it is actually running. But then, Professor Blanchard’s argument requires the growth rate to exceed the rate of interest, which was not the case in FY 2020-21.

Dipankar Dasgupta is former Professor of Economics, Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi and Kolkata

The subject is no longer only about countering the other beyond the mountain — China

Let’s situate the study of Tibet outside the narrow silo of Sino-Indian relations and within the Himalaya. It might teach us much that we don’t know about India.

As students of Tibet and the Himalaya, we welcome the Indian Army’s recent proposal for its officers to study Tibetology. A media report on January 28 said that officers would study “Tibetan history, culture, and language on both sides of the Line of Actual Control” in order to “counter Chinese influence and propaganda”.

The Indian Army is right to emphasise the importance of building expertise on Tibet to understand the history and contemporary challenges in India’s relationship with China. Indeed, India-China relations cannot be approached through a strictly bilateral prism that excludes Tibet and the Himalaya.

Equally, Tibetology cannot be confined within the bounds of state interests and territorial conflicts on either side of the Tibetan plateau. It encompasses the multi- and inter-disciplinary study of the broader Tibetan cultural region, and is most productively situated with and within the Himalaya.

According to theProceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies(2003), the region includes not just U-Tsang (present-day Tibet Autonomous Region), Amdo, and Kham, but large areas in the Himalaya, including parts of Nepal and Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, and Tawang. We believe that approaching the region through these trans-Himalayan connections, as opposed to nation-state silos, can teach us not just about Sino-Indian relations but also about large parts of India.

Colonial provenance

As with other parts of the colonised world, the production and codification of knowledge about Tibet served European imperial interests. Britain recognised the importance of Sikkim and Bhutan in securing its interests in Tibet, and its Political Officer in Sikkim cultivated close relations with aristocratic families in the region. Simultaneously, from Warren Hastings in the 1770s to Francis Younghusband in 1903-04, an army of cartographers, mountaineers, missionaries, linguists, and botanists worked to produce definitive knowledge about Tibet for British India.

On the one hand, works of fiction such as James Hilton’sLost Horizon(1933) painted a mythical image of Tibet as Shangri-la — a utopian society untouched by modernity; the repository of a putative true Buddhism. On the other, imperial realpolitik wrestled with demarcating the territorial boundaries of British India and its protectorates, most notably through the McMahon Line (1914). These approaches shaped initial academic engagements with Tibet — trends which persist to this day.

Free India, Tibetan studies

Independent India recognised the economic and cultural ties that traversed the Himalayas and the role of Buddhism as the connecting tissue. This informed the institution-building efforts of the government in the 1950s. Dedicated to Tibetan and Buddhist studies, the Central Institute for Buddhist Studies and the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies were established in Leh and Sarnath, Varanasi, respectively, as was the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in the erstwhile kingdom of Sikkim, which was inaugurated by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1958. The Institutes in Sarnath and Gangtok are on the Indian Army’s list of places where officers can study Tibetology.

These efforts notwithstanding, studies on Tibet by Indian academics have largely mirrored India’s geopolitical anxieties, which were exacerbated after the Sino-Indian war in 1962. Some exceptions such as Girija Saklani and T.C. Palakshappa aside, the majority of Indian scholarship on Tibet has continued to focus on the role of Tibet in the bilateral relationship between India and China, or on Buddhism.

By understanding Tibet as a buffer zone in India-China relations, the former often leads to an ahistorical narrative of India and Tibet as “natural allies”, eschewing the history of complex political engagements between successive administrations in Lhasa and India over issues ranging from frontiers to customary rights of grazing and trade. It does not account for the centrality of Tibet in India’s relationship with Bhutan and Sikkim (before 1975).

Similarly, with respect to Buddhism, theguru-chelanarrative of India as the birthplace of Buddhism and Tibet as the recipient of this knowledge dominates, as does the idea of Buddhism as a derivative of Hinduism. This often excludes a view of Tibetan Buddhism as a living and evolving entity that thrives in large parts of the Himalayan region. It also ends up equating Tibet with a reified Tibetan Buddhism devoid of sectarian complexity, and erasing Tibet’s non-Buddhist religions.

A Himalayan home

Most tragically, in defining Tibetology so narrowly, we miss an opportunity to understand contemporary India. The postcolonial Indian state was not forged in the centres of Delhi and Calcutta alone. Nor were its mountains and plains integrated into a single nation-state uniformly. The Himalaya is not just an insurmountable “natural barrier” — a sentry as we sing insare jahaan se achcha— that separates India from its neighbours. It is home to interconnected yet diverse ecologies, societies, and polities that criss-cross many contemporary borders.

What is more, there is no location more advantageous for studying Tibet and the Himalaya. Indian institutions — both national and state archives, as well as private collections in libraries — house the richest materials for this work. India hosts the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibetan refugee settlements and a plethora of Tibetan institutes. Linguistic and field expertise abound, as do opportunities for learning the language for the uninitiated.

Foregrounding the interconnections among Tibet and the Himalayan regions and their relationship with the Indian centre offers valuable perspectives into processes of state-making and the politics of nation-building. As recent environmental, social, and geopolitical crises show, these continue to remain live concerns.

Thus, in broadening the mandate for Tibetology, we write more of India into the story. It is no longer only about countering the other beyond the mountain.

Swati Chawla is a historian of the Himalaya and an assistant professor at O.P. Jindal Global University. Madhura Balasubramaniam is an independent researcher studying Tibetan rehabilitation in India

It is time for India to adopt stringent fuel efficiency standards and a zero-emissions vehicle programme

Speaking on the increase in petrol and diesel prices, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said the middle class would not have been burdened if the previous governments had focused on reducing India’s energy import dependence. He also emphasised the need for clean sources of energy. Expanding and diversifying energy supply is good, but if India is to reduce its energy import dependence, it must look towards first managing the demand for petroleum products. It is worthwhile to reflect on measures taken by the previous governments as well as the government under Mr. Modi in this context.

Steps in the right direction

The UPA-2 administration under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh formulated fuel efficiency standards for passenger vehicles that are now in effect. It also constituted the National Electric Mobility Mission Plan (NEMMP). While well-intended, both these actions fell short in terms of ambition. India’s 2022 fuel efficiency standards for passenger cars are nearly 20% less stringent than the European Union’s standards. The NEMMP primarily focused on hybrid electric vehicles, and most of the incentives under the NEMMP went towards subsidising mild hybrids instead of electric vehicles. No wonder global manufacturers are rushing to deploy electric passenger cars in Europe while largely ignoring the Indian market.

The government under Mr. Modi has undertaken several initiatives to increase energy security. Heavy-duty vehicles, which consume nearly 60% of the diesel used in the country, are now subject to fuel efficiency standards. The share of bioethanol in petrol has risen to nearly 8% by volume under the 2018 National Policy on Biofuels. The government has encouraged multiple fuel pathways in the transport sector including natural gas. Importantly, it has recognised the urgency for us to transition to electric vehicles. The Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME-II) scheme now focuses largely on electric vehicles. The government has also provided several additional fiscal and non-fiscal incentives to encourage a transition to electric vehicles.

While these are steps in the right direction, there are many things that the government can and should do to reduce dependence on petroleum. First, the government should formulate a zero-emissions vehicle (ZEV) programme that would require vehicle manufacturers to produce a certain number of electric vehicles. Such programmes are in effect in China, certain States in the U.S., British Columbia in Canada, and South Korea. At present, the electric mobility initiative in India is driven largely by new entrants in the two- and three-wheeler space. Market leaders have adopted a wait-and-watch attitude. A ZEV programme would require all manufacturers to start producing electric vehicles across all market segments.

The government should also strengthen fuel efficiency requirements for new passenger cars and commercial vehicles. Two-wheelers, which consume nearly two-third of the petrol used in India, are not subject to any fuel efficiency standards. A recent analysis by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) suggests that a standard requiring 50% reduction in fuel consumption by new two-wheelers by 2030 will not only lead to internal combustion engine (ICE) efficiency improvements, but also ensure that nearly 60% of all new two-wheelers sold in India are electric driven. Similar opportunities exist on the passenger vehicle and heavy-duty commercial vehicle fronts. Adopting stringent fuel efficiency standards and a ZEV programme by 2024 can result in India’s petroleum demand peaking by 2030, in spite of tremendous projected growth in economic and vehicular activity. Consumers will save money at the pump due to more fuel-efficient ICE vehicles. Those who switch to electric vehicles will save even more as these consume less energy and electricity is cheaper compared to petrol and diesel.

Complementary policies

The FAME scheme focuses on two- and three-wheelers, taxis, and buses. It should be extended not only to all passenger cars and commercial vehicles but also to agricultural tractors. Extending fiscal incentives to all kinds of vehicles and stepping up investments in charging infrastructure are essential complementary policies. By next year, the GST rates for all passenger vehicles could be made proportional to their fuel efficiency level, instead of the present system that relies on vehicle length and engine size.

As the economy recovers from the pandemic, the demand for petroleum products will rise, as will prices. But the government can save money for the consumer while enhancing long-term energy security by wielding the regulatory tools at its disposal.

Anup Bandivadekar is the passenger vehicle programme director at ICCT

Frequent transfers of public servants affect their morale and weaken administration

Good governance and better administration of development is often offered as a plausible solution to conflict management. At the heart of this solution are public administrators. Civil servants, no matter how dedicated, innovative and efficient they may be, need a stability of tenure to govern well.

The J&K example

Consider the case of Jammu and Kashmir. If the purpose of administering the region is to ensure peace and development, then it is unlikely to succeed till there is a proper transfer policy. As it stands presently, officers are transferred too often. This denies them the opportunity to settle down into an official role. At times, a particular administrative location is used as a testing lab where officers keep arriving and leaving, with a deleterious impact on officer morale, leading to a reduction in efficiency and effectiveness. The latter effect impacts development and governance and acts as a collective punishment to the population of that place. It has been a major reason for distrust, disconnect and alienation.

This disenchantment is palpable in Shopian district, which has often been the epicentre of protests and militant-related activities. Since its district status in 2007, it has seen 13 Deputy Commissioners (DCs) at its helm. In the last few years, the transfer policy in Shopian has become a theatre of the absurd. The last three DCs have had a stay of 378 days, 537 days, and 25 days, respectively. The last DC assumed charge on January 19, 2021 and was transferred to Leh on February 13, 2021. The story is similar in many other districts and government departments across J&K.

Often, the frequent transfer of officials is blamed on the interference of local politicians. However, the argument cannot be valid this time since there are no elected MLAs after the dissolution of the State Legislative Assembly in late 2018. Since then, in the absence of elected representatives, the participation of local people in governance and development is through civil servants. It is this participation that has been the worst affected due to the frequent transfers.

The issue of frequent transfers is not limited to J&K, of course, but is found across India. The analysis of the SUPREMO (Single User Platform Related to Employees Online) database of the Department of Personnel and Training, Government of India, shows that the average posting spell of civil servants in India is only about 15 months. This is despite an increase in the median tenure since 2014 at the national level. Ashok Khemka and Pradeep Kasni are two Haryana-based IAS officers whose cases symbolise this issue. Mr. Khemka has been transferred more than 50 times in his career and Mr. Kasni 65 times. The Union Minister of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, Jitendra Singh, publicly accepted his helplessness in 2016 about the frequent transfer of officers in States.

A major shortcoming

The undermining of transfer guidelines has been a major shortcoming of personnel administration in India. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission has highlighted it. The Fifth Pay Commission had recommended that no premature transfer should be allowed and that there should be fixation of a minimum tenure for each post. The Hota Committee, which argued against frequent transfers, noted that “absence of a fixed tenure of officials is one of the most important reasons for tardy implementation of government policies, for lack of accountability of officers, for waste of public money because of inadequate supervision of programmes under implementation and for large-scale corruption.”

An oft-repeated argument used for transfers is that they are “in the interest of administration.” However, they essentially weaken administration. Transfers often reflect administrative favouritism and create divisions among civil servants. If they are done on a political basis, this impacts the neutrality of the civil services. The core values of the civil services — neutrality, impartiality and anonymity — cannot be maintained without an efficient transfer policy.

Zubair Nazeer is an Assistant Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi

With a spike in cases after months of decline, India must speed up vaccination coverage

After a peak of nearly 98,000 fresh daily COVID-19 cases on September 16, 2020, the number of new cases reported per day in India has seen a slow but steady decline to reach below 12,000 in mid-February. But the trajectory of the curve began to reverse in the past week following a spike in cases in a few States — Maharashtra, Punjab, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. In Kerala, the daily fresh cases have in fact been slowly declining for over a week. The recent case decline in the State stands out against the trend since early January 2021. Kerala was contributing between 45% and 50% of India’s total daily cases for many weeks. But despite the drop to about 33% in the past week, there has been an increase in the daily fresh cases nationally — from a seven-day average of 11,100 cases in the second week of February to 12,900 cases in the last week. In the last three weeks, from less than 3,000 daily cases, the numbers in Maharashtra have been increasing, particularly so in the past week to touch nearly 7,000 on February 21. As in the beginning of the pandemic, since mid-February, Maharashtra is once again contributing the most daily cases nationally. While the absolute increase in cases in Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh might not be high, in percentage terms, the increase is significant and clearly marks a spike.

The steady drop in cases has been recorded since mid-September last year despite the much-feared festival season, winter, large gatherings, almost absent restrictions in the free movement of people across States and national borders, and not-so-good adherence to mask wearing. Though the third countrywide sero survey conducted by the ICMR between December 17, 2020 and January 8, 2021 found that only 21.5% (around 225 million people) of India have been exposed to the virus — and hence, a large population is still vulnerable to infection — no spike was seen till a few days ago. No scientific explanation has been found to demystify this phenomenon; lack of targeted testing and/or integrity in reporting could be the only plausible reasons. But the recent spike, either due to the infection of people who are virus-naive, or reinfection, raises the possibility of the spread of any of the three variants first found in other countries or the emergence of a new variant here in India. This highlights the importance of undertaking large-scale sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome from infected people to trace and track the emergence and spread of any variants. While a few institutions in India have been sequencing the genome, the scale is nowhere near what is required. It is also time to speed up vaccination coverage to protect a large population of vulnerable people and increase mask wearing. There is no room for complacency.

The Myanmar military must move fast to end the political crisis that is of its own making

Three weeks after they took control of Myanmar by toppling its democratically elected government, the country’s Generals are struggling to retain their grip on power in the face of growing pro-democracy mass protests. The military, which had shared power with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) for five years, orchestrated the coup on February 1, hours before the country’s newly elected Parliament, in which the NLD had a huge majority, was set to convene. The military, which controlled Myanmar through direct rule for almost 50 years since independence from Britain in 1948, has now deployed the familiar repressive tactics to quell opposition to the latest coup: It has detained Ms. Suu Kyi, President Win Myint and several of the NLD’s other top leaders, suspended the Internet, blocked social networks and warned the public of repercussions if they joined protests. But protests have only grown by the day. On Saturday, two unarmed protesters were killed by security forces in Mandalay. Even police violence and the deployment of security personnel, including snipers, across the main cities did not stop millions from joining a general strike on Monday. They demand the Generals free the detained elected leaders and restore democracy.

Myanmar’s military has been one of the most consistent enemies of democracy. In the past, challenges to its powers were met with brutal crackdowns. Still, the junta has continued to face popular resistance. The crackdown on the protests of August 8, 1988 did not prevent the ‘saffron revolution’ of 2007 — protests led by Buddhist monks. Than Shwe, the then leader of the country, suppressed them but had to offer a new Constitution in 2008 as a compromise. This Constitution was the basis of the partial transition to democracy in 2015 when the NLD came to power. But even that experiment would not last more than five years, thanks to the power-hungry generals of Tatmadaw. But they were wrong to expect the Myanmarese people, who experienced at least limited liberties and democracy for five years after decades of the repressive dictatorship, to allow them to consolidate power easily. The protesters have called for civil disobedience, stoppage of work, sit-ins and mass demonstrations. The strike has already paralysed the banking system at a time when the economy, hit hard by COVID-19, is struggling to stand on its feet. The military is also facing international sanctions and condemnation. There is no easy way out for Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief and the coup’s main architect, from the crisis he has put himself in. The Generals should realise that years of repression have not killed Myanmar’s aspirations for democracy. They should not repeat 1988 or 2007. They should stand down, respect the election results, release the leaders and hand power back to the elected government.

The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court to-day [New Delhi, February 23] set aside the promotions of more than 200 school teachers in Jammu and Kashmir State, holding that they were made in pursuance of the State Government’s communal policy. The promotions were challenged by Mr. Makhan Lal Waza and nine other teachers of the Jammu and Kashmir Education Department through a writ petition. They alleged that the Government’s policy of promoting teachers to higher posts and higher grades was not based on merit and seniority but purely on grounds of religion, caste and place of birth. The petitioners stated that they were qualified and senior but other teachers had been unduly promoted over them in pursuance of the communal policy. In allowing the petition, the Court held the promotions to be illegal and unconstitutional, being violative of Article 16 of the Constitution. It directed the State Government to revise and reconsider them. (Article 16 guarantees equality of opportunity in public employment). The matter was heard by the Chief Justice, Mr. S.M. Sikri, Mr. Justice G.K. Mitter, Mr. Justice K.S. Hegde, Mr. Justice A.N. Grover, and Mr. Justice Jaganmohan Reddy. Mr. Justice Grover, who delivered the judgment, said the State Government had acted in complete defiance of the law on the point laid down by the Supreme Court in the Trilokinath case.

London, February 21: Telegrams from Paris state that the first estimates of the sums which Germany owes to the Allies for reparations have been forwarded to the German Government by the Reparations Commission. According to newspapers, the estimates include the following claims: Britain excluding Dominions £2,500 millions sterling for damages to property and persons, and 7,500 million francs in paper for allowance to soldiers and their families. France, 218,542 million francs in paper, Italy 33,000 million lire for damage to property, 38,000 million francs in paper for damage to persons and pensions and 128 millions sterling for shopping loses; Belgium, 34,000 million Belgian francs for damage to property and 2,500 million French francs for damages to persons and pensions; Japan, 800 million yen.