Editorials - 06-02-2021

The new marriage laws put state power and the law behind majoritarian communal biases, boosting regressive mores

Chaudhary Charan Singh, the former Prime Minister, made a proposal to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954. As a Minister in the Uttar Pradesh government, he wanted Nehru to pass a law so that jobs as gazetted officers could only be for those who wanted to or had married outside their caste (https://bit.ly/3oc4ALv). Nehru turned the proposal down because this struck at the exercise of the free will of individual citizens in India.

Setting a precedent

It is an indicator of the distance travelled since; that Charan Singh’s State (Uttar Pradesh) has an ordinance which criminalises inter-faith marriages. The U.P. government’s focus is firmly on ‘protecting’ Hindu women from marrying Muslim men. It does this under the pretext of regulating religious conversions.

The law in U.P. has already set a precedent for other States ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) such as Madhya Pradesh. In another BJP-ruled State neighbouring U.P., namely Uttarakhand, a routine press release from the Social Welfare department highlighted a scheme incentivising inter-faith and inter-caste marriages. This threatened the communal world view being rapidly ushered in through a series of so-called ‘Freedom of Religion’ laws in BJP-ruled States. The press release was seen so out-of-step by the State government, that an inquiry was ordered by the Chief Minister.

In 1872, the colonial state drew up a law after it received petitions from Keshub Chandra Sen of the Brahmo Samaj demanding that people of different backgrounds be allowed to marry according to their ‘rites of conscience’. The Special Marriage Act, in 1954, took this further in independent India by taking away the colonial law’s requirement to renounce religion. However, it still allowed intrusion by the state, unlike under personal laws, by demanding notices to be put up in advance. This was done to ensure there were no living spouses or minors being married, but this clause was misused by communal social groups to stop such unions (https://bit.ly/3okStM4).

In BJP-ruled States, there are many other recent ‘laws’ — on slaughter of cattle, marriage, and religious conversions — which taken together, target Muslims, both by denying them shared social spaces and their rights as equal citizens of the republic. It also destroys the long-standing fraternity in everyday lives that has long defined India. The ordinance by U.P., the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, and the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Bill, 2020 are particularly vicious on at least four counts.

Fundamentally wrong

Under the Constitution, it is the individual citizen who has and exercises rights and obligations. But these new laws treat religious communities, instead of individual citizens, as basic entities. By taking away the agency that the Indian Constitution allows each individual to exercise, this fundamentally distorts the framework of our republic.

For those who argue that the Constitution does address communities when speaking of minority rights and untouchability, it is to only acknowledge and overcome social discrimination because that impedes the ability of those citizens to exercise their rights as individuals. By seeing the world as split between ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’, a khap-ian universe, a fundamental modern characteristic of the guarantee of autonomy to all Indians as individuals is broken.

Violate privacy, choice rights

Second, these laws blatantly violate the Right to Privacy, which the Supreme Court of India in a much-lauded judgment in 2017, decreed to be fundamental. The level of state interference in a civil union, which is a solemnisation of a relationship between two individuals, breaches the basic structure of the Constitution.

Third, the provisions impede the exercise of an individual’s right to choose her faith without seeking state sanction. Under these new laws, everyone — from the police, local administration and communal groups and families — are given ample time to interfere and deny the individual, without any locus to do so. In matters of change of profession, nationalities, electoral choices and even political parties, no such interference is brought into play. The ruling by the Supreme Court (1977), which upheld earlier restrictions to convert by the States of Madhya Pradesh and Odisha (https://bit.ly/394c4tv), said it did so to penalise “conversion by force, fraud or by allurement. The other element is that every person has a right to profess his own religion and to act according to it. Any interference with that right of the other person by resorting to conversion by force or allurement cannot, in our opinion, be said to contravene Article 25(1) of the Constitution of India, as the article guarantees religious freedom subject to public health (https://bit.ly/2LjX8zm)”. By making “propagation” contentious, the 1977 ruling pushed back freedoms in Article 25, so the mass conversion of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar to Buddhism could invite a jail sentence! Instead of rescinding the 1977 ruling, these laws further criminalise an individual’s choice of faith.

Fourth, the basis of the new law is deeply patriarchal. The nightmare that India traversed in the 1920s, with competitive communalism fanning charges of Hindubetisin North India being taken away like cattle, are being relived now. The pernicious myth of ‘love jihad’ where adult women are seen as property, is not just a pamphlet or WhatsApp message. It is now the law. We saw a brief preview in 2017 of the dark consequences of the ‘Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020’ when the law confronted Hadiya, a 25-year-old health professional from Kerala, for her marital choice a year after converting to Islam. This law targets Muslim men, but is also a living hell for Hindu women.

Cost of inaction

It is with good reason that India is said to have effected a social transformation, thanks to the values spelt out and written into the law of the Republic. The Constitution offered high principles to aspire for, which Indians may never fully live up to. But that may have been the intention, to set high standards and ensure we were always jumping just a little bit, to be better. All laws should meet that brief. However, these new laws do the opposite; they put state power and the law itself behind majoritarian communal biases which empower regressive social mores governing marriage and fellowship. Inter-religious marriages may be less than 2.5% of all marriages, but the promise they hold goes beyond numbers. They reaffirm the fundamental constitutional premise of all citizens being equal, besides promoting the ideals of freedom and fraternity.

It is diabolical

To fan rumours of ‘love jihad’ even as the government confirmed in Parliament that there was no evidence of it, is diabolical. But more than that, it is downright dangerous as it seeds mistrust, and changes fundamental and basic ground rules that all plural democracies must live by. It is for the court tosuo motustrike these laws down if it wants to preserve the basic structure of the constitutional edifice.

In September 1935 when Hitler enacted the Nuremberg Race Laws, it was fear of the Mischling or the German-Jewish children of ‘mixed’ descent that haunted the Nazi mind obsessed with purity. At 50% Jew and 50% Aryan, they were a threat to Nazi ideas. Closely linked to preventing such marital and sexual unions was the Nazi belief in dodgy eugenics. The tragedy was that these laws were not protested enough when they were enacted. They ended up guiding Nazi racial policy for the remaining decade of the Reich (https://bit.ly/2JMo5LL).

We must never forget the price a society and a country pays for writing hate into law.

Seema Chishti is a journalist based in New Delhi

Post-1991, changes in industry caused a second de-industrialisation; the results in agriculture are likely to be no different

Almost all sections of people including farmers agree that the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC)-mandipolicies for agricultural marketing, initiated in the 1960s for a few crops, have outlived their utility and the system needs a new policy in the face of the agricultural sector’s growth slowdown, the crop-composition not widening, and investments in land not happening.

Recently, the government of the day has opened up the output market with the aim to let market forces improve efficiency and create more value for farmers and the economy. These laws state that farmers are now free to sell all their products anywhere and to anyone beyond the physical premises of APMC markets. Additionally, the laws promote contract farming through establishing partnerships between farmers and food-processing companies, and also permit unlimited hoarding of food except in special circumstances.

What farmers want

Three main suggestions were put forth by farmers when we recently made enquiries with them: one, their produce prices should be the cost of production plus a reasonable mark-up; two, fluctuations in prices should be minimal; and three, there should be little or no interface with legal or administrative officials — they are not comfortable dealing with the “sahibsand the police”. All these farmer concerns have been ignored in the way the current laws are drafted. Additionally, as the old laws are being repealed, they said that there is a need for a wider view of the sector to include more crops. Thus, if the government encourages farmers to move from wheat to vegetables, markets for the latter should address all the above three aspects.

New markets are an unknown

The first law of the Minimum Support Price-mandiis a known devil, but the new markets will be an unknown ghost with no control over them by anyone. Thus, while “malpractices” inmandisare known and local leaders (Members of Parliament, Members of the Legislative Assembly, panchayats) are often brought in to vent farmers’ anger or arbitrate in difficult situations, malpractices in the new systems are neither forecast-able nor is there any authority to report to. Next, while the government says that themandi-MSP system will continue, the question is, for how long? If the alternative traders offer better prices, farmers will go there and not to the mandis (as is already the case, highlighted in the recent media article by Gurcharan Das; https://bit.ly/3928m3R). What happens after two to three years when the regulatedmandisbecome weaker or begin to shut down due to lack of business?

There are many issues here. Traders could reduce the prices on more than one pretext, such as finding faults with the product; declining to buy on the pretext of glut (a wait and watch strategy); defaulting on payments, and so on. Since traders are few (at least locally) they can form cartels, while farmers many: this is imminently possible. The farmers are further handicapped by the fact that they come from long distances with loads of several quintals/tonnes of produce on hired tractors; going back owing to the transport cost incurred is not an option for them. Their situation worsens when their cash needs are immediate, which is the case for the small farmers who constitute 90-plus% of those who sell at themandisat MSP.

Advantage corporate buyers

The second law has somewhat similar issues. The corporate-buyers might just not buy the full quantity of the product on one or another pretext or delay payments;and if farmers complain, the corporates have access to a battery of lawyers, the fine print in contracts, the advantage of language, and, above all, the capacity to wait it out.

In both the above cases, the problem is of contracts between unequals: whether it is traders or corporates, they are far fewer and with deeper pockets,and they will deal with (poor/little-educated) small farmers (about 85% have two or less hectares of land), resulting in unequal outcomes.

The other issue is in regard to different regions and crops. Many proponents of the agri-marketing laws maintain that farmers from outside the wheat-rice belts in northern India are not protesting. Evidently so, since the country is diverse with some 15 agroclimatic zones and has over 50 crops grown.

Issues and farmers’ reactions

We also forget that farmers protest against policies in areas where they hail from: like in eastern India, farmers revolted in 1860 against indigo-farming, Mappilas revolted in 1921, or even the Warli Adivasi Revolt of 1945. More recently, in the 1970s to 2010s, Sharad Joshi led agitations for the farming sector mainly in Maharashtra, or farmers in Tamil Nadu had protested demanding Cauvery water. There are many more examples. Farmers protest against problems that affect them: they are not a homogeneous lot.

If in 2020 a new policy is being formulated, why is it (ironically) uniform for all farmers, all land and all crops, of opening up the markets; markets which are almost fully opaque, unequal and having imperfect information? What happens to the semi-arid areas and the farmers therein, where crop outcomes are uncertain? What happens to small and marginal farmers who have little to market and are largely inarticulate? How will risk be mitigated if farmers move from wheat-rice cultivation to more volatile crops such as vegetables and fruits, or pest-prone crops such as cotton? Or what happens to landless labourers who have migrated from far away to work in fields (such as from Bihar to Punjab)? Should there not be a comprehensive policy in regard to the agricultural sector rather than a “shock treatment” for agri-markets alone?

Expert recommendations

The so-far neglected problem of stagnation and high input prices in agriculture can be addressed through a systematic approach proposed in the M.S. Swaminathan Commission and/or the Ashok Dalwai Committee. Typical examples are transitions being worked out for farmers to move out of water-soaking paddy crop in Punjab-Haryana to other crops; say, in five years, they would reduce the area under paddy by 25-30%, and the loss they incur in the short run, will be compensated for by the government. This could, for example, also be done for sugarcane in western Maharashtra.

Shock treatments do not work anywhere, be it agriculture, industry or the economy. Many an industry, post-1991, shut down due to “shock treatment” then, resulting in a second de-industrialisation and the loss of hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs. The results in agriculture are likely to be no different in the face of shocks.

Sarthi Acharya is Delhi Chair Professor, Institute for Human Development. Santosh Mehrotra is the editor of ‘Reviving Jobs. An Agenda for Growth’

The two countries have a shared past and need to chart a different shared future

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made many sudden and surprising decisions: some felicitous, others disastrous. Among the former were invitations to leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation to attend his 2014 swearing-in and his visit to Lahore in 2015; among the latter were demonetisation and the ‘Namaste Trump’ spectacle last February. Yet to be defined in either category is his startling invitation to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who, due to the ravages of COVID-19 mutations in the U.K., has expressed his inability to attend a truncated version of India’s Republic Day parade this month. Mr. Johnson is a colourful and controversial character, often portrayed in the British media as a clown, but no one can doubt his capacity for manoeuvre and staying power.

Choosing a chief guest

The nomination of a chief guest for the Republic Day parade is the Prime Minister’s exclusive gift, and he or she is not known to consult others in or outside the Cabinet. American President Donald Trump was Mr. Modi’s first choice for January 2019 but the honour eventually fell to Mr. Trump’s alter ego, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Mr. Modi’s selections are revealing: U.S. President Barack Obama in 2015, French President Francois Hollande in 2016, the Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates in 2017, the ASEAN leaders in 2018, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2019, Mr. Bolsonaro in 2020, and Mr. Johnson for 2021. With 193 countries in the United Nations, the Prime Minister’s choices have mostly been leaders identified with the Western camp. Besides this, the invitation to Britain was the sixth to that country, more than to any other nation.

India has a shared past with Britain and needs to chart a different shared future, now that Britain has left the European Union (EU). One joint enterprise will be as members of the UN Security Council where Britain has permanent status and India holds a non-permanent seat this year and next. And this year, Mr. Johnson will be hosting India as an invitee to the G-7, and the UN Climate Change Conference.

There is much in common between Mr. Modi’s recent invitees, Mr. Bolsonaro, Mr. Trump and Mr. Johnson. All their countries have been ravaged by the virus and each of them has been infected with COVID-19. They are all populist nationalists advocating ‘make my country great again’ and ‘my country first’. Their brand of democratic politics is self-centred and impervious to criticism.

Mr. Johnson propelled himself to British national politics through leadership of the Brexit campaign in 2016, and to the prime ministership by leading a revolt against his predecessor Theresa May who had promised a friction-free Brexit. He has now delivered one that is tariff- and quota-free and allegedly “takes back control over our money, borders, laws, trade, and our fishing waters,” but has potential for friction both with the EU and domestically. Brexit will never cease to divide Britain and already causes tension between Whitehall and two of the devolved regions, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Mr. Modi visited the U.K. in 2015 when six major agreements were concluded. It is unlikely that any assessment has been made of the implementation of those accords, but in contemporary diplomacy, it is common for a raft of new treaties to be superimposed on existing ones even where there is insufficient progress.

A fortuitous invite

From Britain’s point of view, Mr. Modi’s invitation to its Prime Minister was fortuitous because Brexit necessitates that every effort be made to seek commercial advantage in Asian countries with high growth rates. India has been fruitlessly negotiating a trade agreement with the EU since 2007, during which Britain was considered the main deal-breaker. The EU wanted duty reductions on autos, wines and spirits and wanted India to open financial sectors such as banking and insurance, postal, legal, accountancy, maritime and security and retail. India, as always, sought free movement for service professionals.

The same obstacles with post-Brexit Britain will arise, because the export profile of both countries is predominantly services-oriented. In response to free movement for professionals, Britain will refer to its new points-based system for immigrants, while after withdrawing from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, India is cautious about negotiating any new trade agreement, and will place greater stress on aspects related to country of origin and percentage of value addition in exports. Therefore, when the time comes for a discrete agreement with Britain, the two countries may settle for a limited one perhaps covering pharmaceuticals, financial technology, chemicals, defence production, petroleum and food products.

Close relations

India-U.K. links are substantial. One and a half million persons of Indian origin reside in Britain, 15 of them are Members of Parliament, three in Cabinet and two holding high office as Finance and Home Ministers. Before COVID-19, there were half a million tourists from India to Britain annually and twice that figure in the reverse direction. Around 30,000 Indians study in Britain despite restrictive opportunities for post-graduation employment. Britain is among the top investors in India and India is the second-biggest investor and a major job creator in Britain. India has a credit balance in a total trade of $16 billion, but the level is below India’s trade with Switzerland, Germany or Belgium.

In one aspect of his invitation to Mr. Johnson, Prime Minister Modi was remarkably prescient. In November last year, when the invitation was extended, there were short odds against Mr. Johnson continuing as Prime Minister beyond March this year. With the EU-British trade agreement concluded in the dying hours of 2020, the betting now is that Mr. Johnson will lead his Conservative Party into the next election in 2024 as Prime Minister.

Mr. Modi would now be well advised to cut back further on Republic Day celebrations, in recognition of the country’s sufferings during the past year.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary

To achieve global leadership, China needs more than wealth and military power

We will all remember 2020 in terms of how COVID-19 spread to the world from Wuhan, China, despite an alert by a dedicated doctor, because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership dithered in informing the world and the World Health Organization on time. Instead of cooperating in finding the origin of the virus, Chinese President Xi Jingping decided to use the ‘strategic opportunity’ to launch military assaults against Taiwan, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan to fortify China’s claims on disputed territories.

Xi’s dream

Signs of Mr. Xi being an ambitious leader were visible early on. Following his appointment as Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission in October 2010, there was a spurt in China’s militarisation of the South China Sea including recurrent forays into disputed territories. After taking over as General Secretary of the CCP in November 2012, Mr. Xi consolidated his hold by eliminating his rivals in an anti-corruption campaign, pushing his relatives and friends into the politburo, and demolishing patronage networks of rival leaders.

In November 2014, Mr. Xi summoned China’s foreign policy and military elite to Beijing and told them that it was time for China “to embrace big country diplomacy”. The following month, he informed politburo members that he planned to make China’s voice heard in the international fora. In October 2017, Mr. Xi spoke of his dream of restoring China to a great power status (on par with the U.S.) by 2049 and building a world-class army by 2035.

But the policies Mr. Xi is following — state domination of the economy with increasing reliance on the public sector, slowing down of market reforms, accumulation of high debt, unproductive expenditures, lack of reforms in education and health, erosion of human freedoms, and increasing isolation of China due to his aggressive policies — will not take China towards greatness; rather, they will slow down economic growth. China does not have the cheap migrant labour and favourable international environment that it had in Deng Xiaoping’s era.

Mr. Xi and other Chinese leaders have closely followed how the U.S. obtained its great power status: by mastering emerging technologies, modernising the armed forces, and setting up a network of allies.

Mr. Xi has used all the tricks available to achieve supremacy in 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and new materials, including forced transfer and stealing of technologies. The concept of restructuring the armed forces and, particularly, introducing joint theatre commands has been borrowed from the U.S. Mr. Xi has commenced a rapid military build-up that is unprecedented in peacetime in recent history. This is aimed at rivalling the U.S.’s military capability in a few years. China has the biggest navy in the world.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced in 2013 to seek new markets and allies for political, economic and strategic use. New ports for civilian and military use are being sought at Gwadar (Pakistan), Jask (Iran), Djibouti, Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Sihanoukville (Cambodia) and other places, to project power overseas.

Scaling back plans

Not unsurprisingly, all this has been done under the CCP’s programme of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Little attention has been paid to improve the quality of education in science, technologies and mathematics, which underpins the West’s success in its advances in technology. The capability of high technology equipment like the fifth-generation fighter aircraft, aircraft carriers and long-range bombers remains inferior in China as the country is unable to procure or indigenise advanced technologies. Several American experts believe that Chinese equipment is at least one generation behind theirs.

Debt-ridden China is scaling back its BRI projects as many have become financially unviable; these were conceived to please Mr. Xi and never took into account the vulnerabilities of recipient countries. Concerned about the growth of corruption and its impact on the control of the party, Mr. Xi has slowed down market reforms, which were the backbone of China’s prosperity in the last three decades.

The U.S. model

Despite being the second largest economy, China has few allies and friends (except Pakistan and North Korea). Mr. Xi fails to realise that the U.S.’s status as a global leader was based not only on its wealth and military power but also the lure of its governance model, ability to coordinate responses to international crises, and provision of global public goods such as freedom of ideas, quality education, foreign aid, encouragement of free trade, security of international shipping lanes and fight against terrorism. China has shown little interest in delivering global public goods.

Mr. Xi believes that China will be able to impose its will on the rest of the world by sheer use of power forgetting that besides China, there are a number of other countries such as the U.K., France, Japan, India and Australia which have also acquired economic and military power and are capable of resisting its abusive behaviour.

Worried at the prospect of President-elect Joe Biden uniting the U.S.’s allies and partners in resisting China’s practices, the Xi regime is trying to divide the transatlantic alliance by offering increased market access to EU countries and vaccines against COVID-19 to ASEAN. How much these efforts will succeed remains to be seen.

There is growing concern that Mr. Xi’s unfettered ambition to seek global dominance will create newer conflicts which a pandemic-affected and recession-hit world can ill afford. Given that his colleagues in the politburo are unable to put brakes on his hegemonic ambitions, this year will tell us if the new U.S. President acting with his allies and partners will be able to do so to prevent the world from sliding into new catastrophes.

Yogesh Gupta is a former Ambassador

The Centre’s directive to the Bengal government goes against the norms governing deputation of officers

Recently, the Centre and the West Bengal government were engaged in a tussle. The Centre directed the State government to relieve three IPS officers on Central deputation; the State government refused. The Centre’s move followed the incident that took place in early December when BJP president J.P. Nadda’s convoy travelling from Sirakol to Diamond Harbour in West Bengal was attacked by stone-throwing protesters carrying Trinamool Congress flags. The three IPS officers in question had been posted as in-charges of the police district, range, and zone where the incident took place. The Centre’s directive not only reeks of vengeance but goes against the norms governing deputation of officers to the Centre.

To apportion blame on the three IPS officers for the attack without even a perfunctory inquiry goes against the norms of justice. It is impossible to identify a potential miscreant in a crowd that gathers on the road when a leader passes by. In case the powers that be felt that the three officers should be penalised for dereliction of duty, a formal inquiry followed by penal action, if necessary, would have met the ends of justice.

Ostensibly, the Centre’s decision was taken to teach the officers a lesson that they were at its mercy, as the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is the controlling authority for all IPS officers. The three officers have been posted to the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) and the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD).

The process for deputation

In normal course, officers willing to be deputed to the Centre are asked to apply through the States. A panel of selected officers is prepared after which they are deputed to various Central Armed Police Forces (the Central Reserve Police Force, the Border Security Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, ITBP and SSB) and even to Central Police Organisations like the Intelligence Bureau, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Research and Analysis Wing, the National Investigation Agency, and BPRD. It is important to note that the officers are selected after their dossiers are scrutinised and not nominated as the MHA has done with respect to the three officers. Even when the officers opt for Central deputation, they give their choice of the organisation where they would like to serve. Selection is done strictly on merit, based on their annual performance reports.

When officers are forcibly deputed to Central organisations, they go with the perception that they have been deputed on grounds of inefficiency or as a punishment. Demoralised officers who become victims of political manipulations cannot be expected to give their best.

According to a MHA memorandum of April 2000, “the two-way movement of officers from State to Centre and back is of mutual benefit to the States and Government of India on the one hand and to the officers concerned on the other.” How far it would benefit demoralised officers who are forced to join Central organisations is anybody’s guess. The message that goes out to personnel of Central organisations is that these organisations are dumping grounds for those unwanted in the States or those whom the Centre wants to penalise for any transgression.

A proposal to reduce CDR

The Central government is already working on a proposal to reduce the Central Deputation Reserve (CDR) of IPS officers from 1,075 to about 500. This is being done as most States are not willing to spare officers to serve on Central deputation. In 2019, only 428 officers were working on Central deputation against the strength of 1,075. Most officers avoid Central deputation as they enjoy better perks and powers in the States. On the other hand, Central deputation could mean a posting in the Northeast or in a Left Wing Extremism-affected State. Hence, when there is already a proposal to slash the strength of the CDR, the Centre’s insistence that the three officers should be relieved appears farcical.

Since the States are bound to oppose tooth and nail such arbitrary directives by the Centre, such orders are best avoided.

M.P. Nathanael is Inspector General of Police (Retd), CRPF

The Ghaziabad disaster underscoresthe need for regular audit of civic projects

Even to those familiar with the anarchy that characterises India’s public spaces, the collapse of a newly-built shelter in a crematorium in Muradnagar, in U.P.’s Ghaziabad district, killing at least 24 people, is a shock. A group attending a funeral sheltered from rain in the structure, when its roof crumbled. The deaths and injuries have left families distraught. Since women are not part of funeral rites in crematoria, they came to know of the fate of the men much later. A token solatium has been announced by the U.P. government for the next of kin of the dead and relief measures for others, but the loss of breadwinners who were in low-paying jobs has left the family members destitute. The State has shown great alacrity in arresting four people including a junior engineer, besides the contractor, citing culpable homicide, causing hurt and endangering lives. There are indications that it may use the National Security Act against some of the accused. Such measures cannot produce consistent improvement to governance, but the Yogi Adityanath government’s favoured image is that of strong enforcement, which it has sought to demonstrate time and again by shooting down in ‘encounters’ those with a criminal record. That approach can do little to improve U.P.’s standing. The Ghaziabad disaster is clearly the product of a system that lacks transparency and audits, and does not yield to quick fixes or measures meant to aid deterrence.

Every year, the monsoon extracts a penalty in the form of collapsed buildings in several States. Just over three years ago, several people died when part of a bus stand caved in near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. Appalled by the 41 deaths in a building disaster at Bhiwandi, Maharashtra in September last year, the Bombay High Court framed questions for municipal authorities, including the basic premise: are those in authority completely helpless in preventing the collapse of structures and stopping the loss of life? The court also emphasised that citizens have a right to live in safe buildings and environment, within the meaning of Article 21. What happened in Ghaziabad is particularly deplorable, as the cremation ground is an essential facility, and entirely within the ambit of public authorities to maintain. There are suggestions that the structure was poorly designed, lacking stability due to use of inferior materials, while the contractor had several projects assigned to him in the district. These and other charges, including favouritism involving politicians, are best probed by an independent judicial member. Mr. Adityanath should realise that U.P., a laggard on many development metrics, can transform itself only through rule of law and efficient implementation of public projects. The horror of Muradnagar should impel his government to act.

The rapid spread of the new COVID-19 variant should alert other countries to remain vigilant

In a bid to control the spread of the highly transmissible new COVID-19 variant (VOC 202012/01), the U.K. announced on Monday a fresh lockdown in London and southeast England, which is expected to be in force till mid-February. The decision comes after much dithering; the scientific advisory panel had recommended days before Christmas that the government consider a national lockdown, including shutting down educational institutions. As on January 4, the U.K has reported 2.7 million cases and over 75,500 deaths, the second-highest toll in Europe. More than 50,000 new cases have been reported daily since December 29, 2020, with a peak of nearly 59,000 cases on January 4 and over 400 deaths daily. On Monday, more than 26,000 COVID-19 patients were admitted in hospitals, an increase of 30% from the previous week. Though the new variant does not cause increased disease severity or mortality, a surge in cases and hospitalisation can lead to more deaths. It is more transmissible, the reason why the reproduction number (number of people a person can infect) is 1.5-1.7; the spread is considered to be under control when the reproduction number is less than 1. Based on an analysis of cases and genome sequences of nearly 44,500 samples collected from England between September 21 and December 13, it was found that even during the previous lockdown, the new variant spread in many locations. This even as fresh cases were generally dropping due to reduced spread of the then dominant strain.

There is evidence that the earlier lockdown was effective in containing the previously predominant strain, suggesting that the new variant grew in absolute terms. The rapid spread of the new variant even during the previous lockdown might not reflect a general failure of control measures but highlights the inherent nature of the new variant to rapidly spread given its higher transmissibility. That areas with slower baseline virus spread also reported a slightly reduced spread of the new variant suggests that it is indeed possible to reduce if not suppress the transmission of the new variant if the lockdown is stricter and compliance is better. It is for this reason that unlike in the previous lockdown, schools and universities too are to be closed now. The new variant appears to affect a greater proportion of individuals under 20 years. The selective spread among the young might probably be more because educational institutions were open during the previous lockdown than due to the inherent nature of the virus. Since a resurgence of the new variant is likely when the lockdown is lifted, the focus is on accelerating vaccine roll-out so that much of the population is protected and transmission is cut. The spread of new variants should alert other countries, particularly South Africa where a problematic mutation has been found, to remain vigilant.

The inaugural address of the Prime Minister and the presidential speech of Dr. B.P. Pal at the annual session of the Indian Science Congress at Bangalore have been on familiar lines. While the Prime Minister complained against the failure of scientists to help science fulfill its social obligations, Dr. Pal was chagrined over the Government’s neglect of scientists. According to the Cabinet Committee on Science and Technology India’s scientific manpower is said to be comparable with that of the United Kingdom, France and Germany. But the Director-General of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Dr. Atma Ram, had no hesitation in challenging this view when he addressed the Indian National Science Academy in Bangalore. He may or may not be right, but it is a fact that the contribution of Indian science to our material progress has been tardy. This seems to be due as much to our scientists not putting their best foot forward as to the inadequate rapport between scientists and the Government. The Government has felt sore over the lack of initiative on the part of scientists. It has, however, failed to realise the limits of such initiative. As specialists, these persons have the competence, other things being equal, for solving the problems referred to them. But it is a different matter to expect them to identify any scatter of such problems, because these are related to the particular tempo of material progress, decisions on which depend largely on official developmental policy.