Editorials - 02-01-2021

Twenty-eight years after Sister Abhaya was found dead in a well in a convent in Kottayam, a Special CBI Court has found Father Thomas Kottoor and Sister Sephy guilty of murder. K.S. Sudhi and Hiran Unnikrishan report on the twists and turns in the case and the many attempts to derail the investigation

Seated between two plainclothesmen, Father Thomas Kottoor, a 71-year-old Catholic priest, looked out of the window of the police vehicle. His eyes were fixed on something distant. “I have not committed any crime. God has a plan and things will work accordingly,” he muttered while adjusting his face mask as television journalists jostled for sound bites.

Flanked by women officers in another vehicle was Sister Sephy, 57, who was trying to control her tears.

As the vehicles left the premises of the Special Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Court in Thiruvananthapuram, it was curtains down, at least for now, on a sensational case that, paraphrasing Judge K. Sanilkumar’s introduction to the judgment, stood still as judges moved, for 28 years. On December 23, 2020, Judge Sanilkumar found Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy guilty of murder and handed them a sentence of imprisonment for life besides a fine of Rs. 5 lakh each. Father Kottoor was also found guilty of house trespass.

The story began on March 27, 1992, when the body of a novitiate was found in the well of St Pius X Convent Hostel in Kottayam in central Kerala. The hostel and the nunnery were both managed by the Knanaya Catholic Church, an affluent and influential Christian denomination with deep roots in the State. Fire brigade officials soon fished out the body of Sister Abhaya, 21, an inmate of the hostel. A pair of slippers belonging to her was found on the ground floor of the hostel near the kitchen. Her head cover remained trapped in the outer door. A hand axe was lying in a corner.

The State Crime Branch, which took over the investigation from the local police 17 days after the incident, was quick to conclude that this was a case of suicide by an emotionally troubled novitiate. The CBI, which was later handed the case, concluded that it was a case of homicide, not suicide. However, unable to prove who murdered Sister Abhaya, the agency tried to close the case. Given that this was a case involving a priest, nun, novice, and a murder, and it coursed through countless twists and turns over nearly three decades, the verdict by the Special CBI Court came as a moral victory for those who remained steadfast in the pursuit of justice.

A shoddy investigation

Sister Abhaya, born Beena Thomas, had taken holy orders in May, 1990, and was pursuing a pre-degree course at the BCM College in Kottayam. Her father, Thomas A. Mathai, was the first to dismiss the suicide theory as he firmly believed that his daughter had no reason to take the extreme step. On the eve of her death, Sister Abhaya, along with other inmates of the hostel, had gone for a Bible Convention and was cheerful. She had asked her room-mate to wake her up the next morning so that she could prepare for her exams.

The CBI prosecution case was that Sister Abhaya had gone downstairs to the kitchen to fetch drinking water early morning on March 27 when she accidentally caught Father Kottoor, who had sneaked into the hostel, being intimate with Sister Sephy, the sole occupant of the ground floor room that day. To cover up the wrongdoing, they attacked her with a blunt weapon and flung her into the well.

Days after the death, people in the locality formed an Action Council seeking justice, with Jomon Puthenpurackal, also a member of the Knanaya Church, as the convener. While the Action Council comprised political leaders such as Ramesh Chennithala, T.K. Ramakrishnan and Uzhavoor Vijayan, it was Puthenpurackal, 52 now, who stayed the course, doggedly pursuing justice despite personal setbacks. After the Crime Branch closed the case as suicide, it was largely due to his efforts that the court handed over the case to the CBI.

But the premier investigation agency, which took over the case in March 1993, was set to receive a major snub from the judiciary as the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ernakulam, refused to accept its closure reports and ordered reinvestigation thrice between 1996 and 2005. It took the CBI 15 years to arrest the accused and another 12 years to secure conviction in what should have been an open and shut case, say legal experts.

There were reasons to suspect that attempts were made from the first day to derail the investigation. The Mother Superior of the convent, Sister Lessieux, who called the fire brigade, apparently told them that Sister Abhaya had fallen into the well while operating the pump. V.V. Augustine, additional sub-inspector who prepared the First Information Report, allegedly destroyed the inquest report. He was arraigned as an accused by the CBI. Augustine died by suicide in November, 2008, soon after the first arrests were made in the case. Sister Lessieux’s death also dealt a blow to the investigation.

Material evidence collected from the scene had already been destroyed when the CBI took over the case. Crime Branch Deputy Superintendent of Police (DySP) K. Samuel and Superintendent of Police K.T. Michael were involved in the destruction of evidence, asserted the court while pronouncing the judgment. To its credit, the CBI had made Samuel an accused, but he died, and Michael was exculpated by a court.

Several early investigating officials including Samuel, shows the judgment, were also involved in fabricating cases against one of the key witnesses, Raju aka Adacka Raju, a petty thief whose evidence proved valuable in the case.

The second accused in the CBI case was Father Jose Poothrikkayil, who, like Father Kottoor, was teaching at the BCM College where Sister Abhaya was a student. He was also manager of the Catholic Mission Press, while Father Kottoor, besides teaching psychology, was also secretary to the then Bishop. Father Poothrikkayil was discharged from the case even before the trial began.

“Shoddy investigation and interminable delays in the judicial system meant that the case needed constant following-up. It is a classic case of delay in justice becoming denial of justice. But I’m determined to pursue it to its logical end,” says Puthenpurackal, whose interventions kept the case alive in the public imagination. He says the Church succeeded in turning his family against him, but that only strengthened his resolve. Among those who tried to scuttle the case, he alleges, was a former Supreme Court judge with a stake in the case.

No suicide, this

The CBI probe into the case had a stormy beginning with the investigating officer, DySP Varghese P. Thomas putting in his papers nearly 10 years before superannuation and subsequently accusing his superior of forcing him to parrot the suicide theory.

An oblique head injury sustained by Sister Abhaya was what caught his attention, first. “It was unusual. By the time the CBI took over the case, most of the documentary evidence including Sister Abhaya’s personal diary had been destroyed,” Thomas recalls.

At first, he also thought of it as a case of suicide, maybe out of depression, but circumstantial evidence and witness statements alerted him to look for something sinister behind the death. As he dug deeper, he felt that Sister Abhaya had been hit on the head with a blunt object after which the body was dumped into the well – something that the judgment under discussion came to infer based on the post-mortem report and statements made by two doctors: an expert and the one who performed the post-mortem.

That the door to the kitchen had been latched from the outside on the morning of the occurrence also raised Thomas’s suspicion. “The statements of the convent inmates too backed the inference of homicide, although a majority of the witnesses turned hostile later,” he says.

When the CBI approached the court saying it was at a loss to conclude if it was homicide or suicide and therefore the case be closed, the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ernakulam, turned it down.

“All the arguments,” says K.K. Utharan, who was then Chief Judicial Magistrate, “to prove that the nun died by suicide were indefensible ones.”

An expert doctor produced by the CBI as its witness deposed that the victim was under severe mental trauma after failing in her college exams and had a history of mental illness. He also submitted that women might develop suicidal tendencies during their menstrual period.

“After going through the case diary, I was convinced that there was enough substance in the case. Moreover, all the contentions of the CBI to buttress the suicide theory were inadmissible. Therefore, I rejected the report and ordered a re-probe,” Utharan says.

Interestingly, in its second final report, the CBI found out that it was homicide, but pleaded helplessness in identifying the culprits, which invited the wrath of the court. Again, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Ernakulam ordered a reinvestigation.

Later, the Kochi unit of the CBI took over the case from the Delhi unit and filed one more report, in 2005, reiterating the request to close the case as an ‘untraced’ one, which was once again rejected by the Chief Judicial Magistrate.

“The reasons put forth by the CBI were unconvincing and unacceptable,” says P.D. Sarangadharan, one of the three Chief Judicial Magistrates to turn down requests for closure of the case. “It was not a perfect crime which would leave the investigators clueless. This was a murder that took place in a convent, a walled property, where access was restricted. Hence, the possibility of some unknown person or an outsider committing the crime was non-existent. The details of those who could enter the compound and the inmates of the hostel could be easily ascertained and the culprits identified,” he explains.

Moving at snail’s pace

The suicide theory of the CBI had many holes in it. It was hard to believe that a young girl, who had asked to be woken up to prepare for an exam and went down to fetch water from a fridge, would suddenly throw herself into the well and end her life, says Sarangadharan, who retired as a District Judge.

After the incident and investigations, several nuns were transferred out of the convent. Some were even despatched abroad. A few nuns were posted in places that were inaccessible to the investigators. Evidence was also destroyed. The proactive role of a Crime Branch official in the investigation and the assurances he reportedly gave the nuns of the congregation to take proper care of the investigation were sufficient enough to raise doubts about the conclusions arrived at, Sarangadharan says.

“It could be found from the documents that the nun was alive close to 5 a.m. I had a strong feeling that the culprits could be identified and brought to book by interrogating the nuns and the other inmates of the hostel,” recounts Sarangadharan.

V. Jayakumar, journalist with theKerala Kaumudidaily, who was among the first to be permitted to the scene on that day, clearly remembers that initially they were told that a nun had ended her life by jumping into a well. Once inside the compound after a brief argument with the police, he saw “clear signs of a physical fight at the spot”. However, the Branch SP, Michael, kept saying how the novice suffering from depression had ended her life.

Despite allegations about the manipulation of FIR and other evidence, a section of the local media, which was regarded as pro-Church, warmed up to the theory of suicide, while others looked for unknown sides and attempted to piece together the puzzle, he says.

“The prevailing political situation was also favourable to the Church. M.M. Jacob was Union Minister in the Narasimha Rao government while K. Karunakaran and K.M. Mani, who were powerful, were leading the State government. The attempts to scuttle the probe were so explicit that even a section within the Church raised their voice against it,” notes Jayakumar.

In 2007, Father Kottoor, Father Poothrikkayil and Sister Sephy were subjected to a narcoanalysis test. Their arrests were recorded by a CBI team led by DySP Nandakumar Nair in November 2008. Amidst this cropped up allegations that the narcoanalysis CDs had been tampered with. The High Court asked the CBI to submit the result of the narcoanalysis in a sealed cover. In 2019, as the trial of the case was progressing in Thiruvananthapuram, the Kerala High Court ruled that narcoanalysis would not be admissible as evidence in the case.

As the case moved at a snail’s pace, Sister Abhaya’s parents, who had actively pursued it, died, and her brother got a job in West Asia. The trial began in 2019 and as it entered the final stage, a defence counsel passed away.

What the judgment says

The 229-page judgment, pronounced after wading through a maze of evidence, material and circumstantial, on December 23, mentions Sister Abhaya as a “pious, smart and punctilious girl, meticulous in all aspects, leading an altruistic life and that it was impossible for her to have ended her life on her own…”

The court was satisfied that it was a case of sex and murder and that Sister Abhaya was killed for chancing upon the amorous liaison of Father Kottoor and Sister Sephy. The position and nature of head injury on her body lent credence to the argument that she was subjected to assault. A majority of the hostel inmates turned hostile, while the court relied on Raju’s evidence to establish the presence of Father Kottoor in the convent that night.

“PW3 [Raju] may have been a thief but he was and is an honest man, a simple person without the need to dissemble, a human being who became a professional thief by the force of circumstances, but a speaker of truth nonetheless,” the court observed, analysing his depositions at great length.

Raju had been detained and tortured by the Crime Branch for 58 days to extract a confession that he had murdered Sister Abhaya and when he did not budge, lucrative offers were made. “I still live in a two-cent property, but I am happy with my family,” he says, turning down offers of support pouring in from all around now.

The court evaluated his depositions and demeanour and was convinced that he had gone to the convent to steal copper plates from the lightning arrester that night when in the early hours, he spotted Father Kottoor and another man with a torch on the terrace.

While the defence tried to paint Raju as a witness planted by the CBI, the unschooled man demonstrated strength of character and was unmoved. “I stood for Sister Abhaya like a father would for his child and I am happy that my child has finally got justice,” says Raju.

According to the court, Father Kottoor failed to “give a proper explanation for his presence in the Convent during the wee hours.” The location of the murder, observed the judge, “is exceedingly significant. It is a Convent, a place from which male presence is completely and unequivocally banned. The murder is that of a nun, a Bride of Christ.” The court also took serious note of Father Kottoor’s extra-judicial confession said to have been made to a public interest litigant that being human he was also prone to go wrong.

A medical examination of Sister Sephy suggested she underwent hymenoplasty “almost on the eve of her arrest by the CBI” to create the impression of being a virgin. The court thought it was significant to also take into account her past sexual experience gleaned from the medical examination.

Dwelling on the attempts to subvert the case, the court said that while the witnesses connected to the congregation turned hostile en masse, it was “fascinatingly bizzare” that Achamma, a poorly paid cook at the hostel, approached the Supreme Court against the constitutional validity of narcoanalysis. Harish Salve argued the case. When Achamma was asked about it, she pleaded ignorance and said it was paid for by the Convent.

Despite a barrage of allegations against it, the Church has remained silent, with its only response coming in the wake of the judgment. It termed the charges against Father Kottoor, who last served as Chancellor of the Diocese, and Sister Sephy as “unbelievable” while asserting their right to go in appeal and prove their innocence.

B. Raman Pillai, the defence lawyer who represented Father Kottoor from 2008, also refuses to buy the conclusion arrived at by the trial court as he prepares to move the Kerala High Court against the verdict. It was a case which was highly influenced by the media and some campaigners and the end result was a travesty of justice, he laments. The CBI, which came under pressure, cooked up a story, framed witnesses and argued the case. A judge of the Kerala High Court had castigated the CBI that the investigation in the case would be handed over to some hand-picked officers of the State Police if it failed to arrest the accused. This forced the agency to change its earlier stance that it was a case of suicide, he argues.

Nearly three decades have passed since Sister Abhaya’s death. The well in which the body was found has been levelled by the Church. But another round of legal duel is on the horizon.

The U.P. religious conversion ordinance is unconstitutional, vilifies inter-faith marriages and violates key rights

Article 213 (1) of the Constitution of India provides: “If at any time, except when the Legislative Assembly of a State is in session, or where there is a Legislative Council in a State, except when both Houses of the Legislature are in session, the Governor is satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary for him to take immediate action, he may promulgate such Ordinances as the circumstances appear to him to require: …” There are, therefore, three pre-conditions to be satisfied before the Governor promulgates an ordinance: first, the State Legislature should not be in session; circumstances should exist for promulgating an ordinance and importantly, those circumstances must warrant immediate action.

Circumstances, urgency

There is no established practice requiring the Governor (or the President under Article 123 of the Constitution) to state the circumstances for immediate action. Therefore, while the recent Commission for Air Quality Management Ordinance (https://bit.ly/3rEj4WJ) gave a four page justification for immediate action, the Farmer’s Produce Trade and Commerce Ordinance (https://bit.ly/3rK24OH) merely stated in the preamble what the ordinance provides for, but did not disclose the circumstances and urgency for immediate action. I believe a healthy convention should develop and the preamble to any ordinance should state the immediacy for promulgating it when the Legislature is not in session. This would greatly enhance transparency in legislation, but, more importantly, enable legislators to understand why they are, in a sense, by-passed and why a debate and discussion in the Legislature could not be awaited.

The reason for immediate action is, as yet, not justiciable and it is unlikely that any court will delve into this arena. But the Supreme Court of India has held that the existence of circumstances leading to the satisfaction of the Governor can be inquired into. In other words, the court can inquire whether circumstances existed that enabled the Governor to be satisfied of the necessity of promulgating an ordinance. However, the court will not delve into the sufficiency of circumstances. Therefore, why not disclose the circumstances and reason for immediate action in the first instance rather than require people to go to court to find out? In the normal course, these are unlikely to be a state secret.

The U.P. ordinance

The preamble to the The Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance (https://bit.ly/3n943bH), commonly called the anti-love jihad ordinance, merely indicates what it provides for, namely, unlawful conversion from one religion to another by coercion, misrepresentation and so on “or by marriage”. It then proceeds to record the satisfaction of the Governor of the existence of circumstances and the necessity for “him/her to take immediate action”.

Let us try and imagine the circumstances requiring promulgation of the ordinance as far as marriage is concerned. If one fraudulent or coercive inter-faith marriage is taking place, the police can certainly prevent it, as they supposedly do in child marriages. An ordinance is not required for it. However, if more than one such fraudulent or coercive inter-faith marriage is expected to take place, the State government would have information of mass conversions for the purpose of marriage.

In the normal course, it is unlikely that these mass conversions would be in secret and almost simultaneous. A more realistic expectation would be specific information of some or many unwilling religious conversions likely to take place. Surely, these can also be prevented by an alert police force by invoking existing legal provisions. Assuming a somewhat unbelievable scenario does exist, how does one justify immediate action for promulgating an ordinance? It is not as if dozens or hundreds of inter-faith marriages were expected virtually overnight. However hard one might think about it, the need for immediate action is very difficult to understand.

Provisions and impact

Consider the consequences of some provisions of the ordinance, and we are actually witness to them. Section 3 prohibits conversion or attempt to convert any person from one religion to another by coercion or fraud etc. or by marriage. To the extent of conversion by coercion or fraud, etc. there is no problem and nobody supports it. What is conversion by marriage? Nobody gets converted by marriage. If a Hindu marries a Christian, who gets converted — the husband or wife or both or neither? One can understand conversion for marriage, but if an adult person desires to get converted to the religion of the other before marriage, what objection can anybody have?

Rights issues

The offence of attempting to convert poses a bigger rights issue. Section 7 provides that upon receiving information (it may be fake news) that a religious conversion is designed to take place, a police officer is authorised under the Criminal Procedure Code without orders from a Magistrate and without a warrant, to arrest the person so designing, if it appears that the commission of the offence cannot be otherwise prevented. The nature of information includes an allegation of allurement which includes an offer of any temptation in the form of a gift or gratification. So, if a boy and girl of different religions are seen talking together or eating out, it is easy for a so-called aggrieved person (who could be any stranger) to complain to the police that he overheard a conversation in which a temptation was offered to the girl, including a pizza, as has been recently reported. This could trigger the arrest of the boy offering the allurement, his friends and family (as conspirators) with no questions asked. Shotgun weddings were always an offence, but now even pizza-induced weddings are an offence.

Should someone genuinely desire to convert but not get married, that person would have to inform the District Magistrate (DM) two months in advance of the plan through a declaration, under Section 8. The DM requires the police to inquire the real purpose of conversion and file a report (in a sealed cover?) with the DM. What is the true purpose of the police inquiry? If the report concludes that the desire to convert is not for a good enough reason, can the DM refuse permission to convert? Is a pre-crime scenario contemplated?

Assuming conversion is not objected to, even thereafter the DM must be informed by the converted through a declaration under Section 9. Interestingly, the DM is expected to exhibit the declaration on the notice board of the office till the contents of the declaration are confirmed. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous aggrieved person has an opportunity to object to the conversion. What next — does the DM ‘cancel’ the bona fide conversion and have the converted arrested?

Finally, the burden of proof — Section 12 provides that the burden to prove the conversion was not on account of coercion, fraud, etc. or by marriage will be on the person who has caused the conversion. How is that person expected to know the mind of the converted? It is only the person converted who can answer that question and nobody else, as in Hadiya’s case.

A danger

The ordinance is prone to abuse and we have seen its consequences — of intimidation, bullying, arbitrary arrests and the loss of a foetus. It is ill-conceived, overbroad and vague in many respects. It vilifies all inter-faith marriages and places unreasonable obstacles on consenting adults in exercising their personal choice of a partner, mocks the right to privacy and violates the right to life, liberty and dignity. In short, it is unconstitutional.

Justice (retd.) Madan B. Lokur is a former judge of the Supreme Court of India

The political allegations levelled against the State in the context of the farmers’ protest are far removed from the facts

For more than a month now, farmers are writing a new history, camping at the borders of Delhi. The concrete barricades, thorny iron fences and powerful water cannons have not been able to prevent their tractor trollies from reaching the vicinity of the national capital. They have been so determined and prepared that the Delhi winter has failed before them. Assembled in their thousands, they have established a new way of life at Singhu, Tikri, Ghazipur, Noida and Shahjahanpur. In some manner, the upsurge by these farmers resembles the ‘Occupy Wallstreet Movement’ in the United States, in 2011, whose slogan reverberates even today across the world: “We are the 99 percent”.

Unflinching willpower

The government might have thought that the farmers would retreat to their villages after a couple of days or a week at the most, but this is not the mood at all among the farmers. As a frequent visitor to one or the other centres of struggle, this writer would definitely say that this farmers’ struggle is unique in the history of free India. A self-contained lifestyle with all necessary arrangements for food, shelter, clothing, and sanitation are in place. Scores of them, young and old, with whom this writer could interact with, represent the unflinching will of a people who consider agriculture as their culture. Their utmost proximity to soil and nature has tempered them as steel, while helping them remain calm and cool at the same time.

The firefighters in the government who talk in different terms (may be purposefully), might have prepared their own strategy to face this struggle of theannadatas. Some of them say that the doors of dialogue are always kept open. There are certain others who are stubborn in saying that there can be no compromise on the implementation of the three Farm Bills. There are also those who still promise to take a relook if necessary, but only after two years. There is no need to ponder on this as most of these officials have been trained in a certain ideological school. As part of their campaign of malignment, the propaganda managers have labelled the farmers ‘Khalistanis’ and ‘urban naxalites’.

But these sons and daughters of the soil, who sow the seeds of hope to feed their fellow beings, have maintained inimitable self-restraint. Their struggle, their unity, their patience, and the massive nature of their battle are having an impact on the cohesive nature of the ruling alliance, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Following in the footsteps of NDA ally, the Shiromani Akali Dal that walked out of the NDA in support of the farmers, the Rashtriya Loktantrik Party has also snapped its ties with the alliance. Another important party that shares power with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Haryana continues to remain unhappy with the central government’s approach to the farmers’ issues.

The Narendra Modi government expected the farmers to tire out and slowly retreat from the battlefront. But it is mistaken. The determination by the farmers to go on with the struggle is only strengthening by the day. The Prime Minister himself has come forward to lead a frontal attack on theannadatas. Recently, he minced no words in expressing his disappointment while accusing the struggle of being a politically motivated one. The thrust of his attack was evident when he criticised the Opposition as misleading the farmers and shooting from their shoulders to target the government. In this tirade, the Prime Minister pointed a finger against the Left-led government in Kerala.

The situation in Kerala

All the allegations that he has levelled against the Kerala government are unfounded, and far from truth. In his exhortation that there are no Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) andmandisin Kerala, he presumed that the concept of the Minimum Support Price is not prevalent in the State. He has shut his eyes to the basic truth about the agricultural scenario in Kerala.

It is true thatmandisregulated by an APMC are not in existence in Kerala. But it does not mean that the interests of farmers are not taken care of in the State. In fact, Kerala is the State where farmers’ rights are being protected by the government itself, and much more effectively than any other Indian State.

While the government of India has fixed the procurement rate for rice at Rs. 18 a kg, the Left Democratic Front government in Kerala is procuring rice from cultivators at Rs. 27.48 a kg. In the same mannercopra(dried coconut) is also procured at a much higher rate in Kerala than the price announced by the central government. Kerala is the State where increased basic price is ensured not only for paddy but also vegetables and fruits. Sixteen such items are enlisted by the government where the basic prices (per kg) are guaranteed. To cite some of them, tapioca (Rs. 12), banana (Rs. 30), garlic (Rs. 139), pineapple (Rs. 15), tomato (Rs. 8), string beans (Rs. 34), ladies’ fingers (Rs. 20), cabbage (Rs. 11) and potato (Rs. 20).

Apart from crop insurance, paddy cultivators will get the royalty in Kerala at the rate of Rs. 2,000 per hectare. They have a pension too, which is something unique in India. In 2006, when farmers’ suicides became the order of the day across the country, the Left Front government introduced a debt relief commission that extended a helping hand to the farmers, thereby saving them.

There is basis for a counter

No BJP-led government in the country can even imagine the measures that the Left government in Kerala has initiated for the welfare of farmers. Instead of understanding those measures, the Prime Minister has chosen to train his political guns on the Kerala government and the farmers. The influence of corporates on his allegations is clear. The Left has the moral and political authority to engage in any polemics with the BJP-led central government in this regard.

It is intriguing why the Prime Minister has never said a word about the experience of Bihar wheremandiswere abolished in 2006 and the plight of farmers that only worsened after this measure was initiated. After the three farm ordinances of June 2020, 40% ofmandisin Madhya Pradesh have registered only zero transactions.

The corporate stamp

This is the reality of the farm Bills. Though they claim ‘to enable’ the protection and the empowerment of farmers, the truth is just the opposite. The purpose of these laws is the enabling of the corporatisation of Indian agriculture and the introduction of contract farming. When Ministers continue to assure the continuance ofmandisthey are practically pushed out of the scene, as it happened in Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere. Theannadatashave been able to foresee the evil in the three farm laws that would eventually find them at the mercy of corporate profit mongers. They know that these laws would ruin the backbone of the agricultural economy and badly affect the food security of India.

The farmers are in the struggle in order to prevent such a calamity from happening. It is high time that the Prime Minister and his government understand the patriotic and selfless role being played by the food providers of the country and the genuine nature and cause of their struggle.

Binoy Viswam is Secretary, CPI National Council, and leader of the party in Parliament. The views expressed are personal

Having got the interconnection charges out of the way, telcos should focus on service quality

The end of the Interconnection Usage Charges (IUC) regime on January 1, under which one telecom operator paid a charge to another on whose network a subscriber’s voice call was completed, creates a new era in which these companies can focus on upgrading their networks and service. The measure was delayed by a year by regulator TRAI due to concerns that not all operators were ready, and the shift to more efficient 4G networks and compatible subscriber handsets was slower than anticipated. Now that the need to monitor call termination data and make IUC payments no longer exists, and a spectrum auction is also scheduled this year, the focus should shift to giving the users a better deal — as reliable call quality and competitive tariffs. For the subscriber, other than those who had to pay higher access tariffs on one wireless network due to the IUC system, the latest measure may not carry a significant impact, since providers sold unlimited call packs even earlier. One operator, Jio, had a higher proportion of outgoing calls to other wireless operators since its launch a few years ago, thus having to pay significant net interconnection charges, which was six paise per minute since 2017. That imbalance has reduced, and TRAI has now introduced an arrangement called bill and keep, which does away with the IUC.

India’s high density telecom market is poised for further growth as it awaits expansion through 5G and Internet-connected devices. Yet, as the Economic Survey of 2019-20 pointed out, intense competition has reduced the number of private players. Public sector operators BSNL and MTNL still face a challenge and their future must be clarified early, with efforts to improve their technological capabilities and service levels. A parallel trend has been the rise in 4G subscribers from 196.9 million in September 2017 to 517.5 million out of a total wireless subscriber base of 1,165.46 million in June 2019. The end of the IUC should spur an expansion of high-capacity networks, going beyond 2G and 3G that some telcos continue to use. The removal of interconnection charges was opposed by them just a year ago. For TRAI, which has stressed the importance of consumer welfare through adequate choice, affordable tariff and quality service, it is important to tread cautiously on claims made on behalf of the sector, that higher tariffs alone can ensure the health of telecoms. India is a mass market for voice and data services that fuel the digital economy. Badly priced spectrum could lead to auction failures and lack of genuine competition is bound to hamper the growth of the next big wave of telecoms, of which the 5G piece is critical for new services. On the consumer side, helping more people migrate to 4G services quickly through affordable handsets will help telcos put their infrastructure to better use.

While allowing emergency use, India should devise a vaccine policy suited to its needs

With the U.K. regulator granting an emergency-use authorisation for AstraZeneca’s COVID vaccine on December 30, three vaccines have now been greenlighted for use even before a full approval is granted. Unlike the mRNA vaccine platform of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, AstraZeneca uses a weakened version of a common cold virus (adenovirus) that carries the genetic material of the spike protein to elicit an immune response. Requiring only 2°-8°C for transport and storage, it can be administered in existing health-care settings, allowing rapid deployment. Together with the cost, which is much cheaper than the mRNA vaccines, this is particularly critical to help end the pandemic in the global south. The emergency use approval makes it easier for similar assent to the vaccine tested and manufactured in India.

However, the European Medicines Agency, on the same day, clearly said that “additional scientific information on issues related to quality, safety and efficacy of the vaccine is deemed necessary” to give a similar nod. While published results show only 62% efficacy when two full-strength doses are administered four weeks apart, the U.K regulator has relied on unpublished data showing efficacy increasing to 73%, 22 days after the first dose when the second jab was delayed. Most of the participants in the phase-3 trial in the U.K. included in the primary analysis received the second dose more than nine weeks after the first. Based on this information, the regulator has permitted the second dose to be administered 4-12 weeks after the first jab. The intent is to maximise the vaccine’s benefits by stretching the time between two doses to allow more people to get vaccinated, an untested strategy to rapidly but partially protect more individuals who are at risk. With the virus running amok, the U.K. has revised its policy to delay the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine too despite no trial data to support this; the second Pfizer jab is originally scheduled three weeks after the first. While the regulator says there is 89% short-term protection from day 14 after the first dose, Pfizer insists that there is “no data to demonstrate that protection after the first dose is sustained beyond 21 days”. Two doses of both vaccines complete the course and prolong the duration of protection. If the pandemic forced scientists, companies and regulators to quickly make available safe and efficacious COVID-19 vaccines, delaying the second dose to maximise the benefits is altogether a new strategy. The untested approach might probably be appropriate for the U.K., which is facing the brunt of the virus, as a desperate measure. Since delaying the second dose appears to be increasing the efficacy, and as the U.K. has approved a delayed second dosage, India should carry out large trials to test this.