Editorials - 30-01-2021

Four fishermen from Ramanathapuram district are the latest casualties in the decades-old Palk Bay fisheries conflict between India and Sri Lanka. L. Srikrishna, C. Jaisankar, R. Rajaram and Meera Srinivasan report on the human cost of the issue touching on bilateral ties, livelihoods, and ecological concerns

Samson Darwin was a toddler when his family fled their home in Jaffna in the 1990s, to escape the civil war that was tearing apart Sri Lanka’s north and east. Mandapam camp in Ramanathapuram became their “home”. Away from incessant bombing and destruction, they thought they had another chance at life.

Last week, 28-year-old Darwin’s body was brought back home after he and three other fishermen died in the Palk Strait, in Sri Lankan waters. Darwin’s wife (they got married just a year ago) had given birth to their first child weeks before that, and just as their new life as a family was about to begin, his life ended.

Darwin fled the civil war nearly 25 years ago but the adversity that began chasing him then came a full circle that fatal night. “After escaping the battle in Sri Lanka, we came here [Ramanathapuram]... but Darwin died in the hands of the Sri Lankan Navy,” a relative says, requesting anonymity. He echoes the grief that pervades their village following the tragic death of Darwin, along with A. Mesiya (30), V. Nagaraj (52) and S. Senthil Kumar (32), all hailing from Ramanathapuram, on the night of January 18.

Outraged by the incident, Tamil Nadu fishermen have accused the Sri Lankan Navy, which was patrolling the seas for “poaching” fishing trawlers, of killing the four men. The Sri Lankan Navy, on the other hand, maintains that the fishermen and their boat “sank” while “resisting arrest” by a Navy vessel.

The Indian government conveyed its “strong protest” to Sri Lanka, and insisted it adopt a humanitarian approach in dealing with fishermen. Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda, a Tamil from Jaffna, set up a three-member committee tasked with finding a “permanent solution” to the Palk Bay fisheries conflict, affecting fishermen of Tamil Nadu and northern Sri Lanka.

None of the official statements mentions a probe being sought or agreed to. The four Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Sri Lankan Naval personnel alone were witnesses to what happened late that night, mid-sea, and only one side is alive to tell their story.

A long-festering problem

“What wrong did my brother do? He was unarmed and he has been brutally killed,” says A. Simon, Mesiya’s older brother, in his thatch-roofed hut in Thangachimadam, a predominantly fishing village in Ramanathapuram. “Whenever we set out fishing we pray that we return home safely, irrespective of whether the catch is good or not. The innocent fishermen’s end is horrifying.”

That too at sea, to which their lives are so intimately tied. Fisherfolk wake up to the sound of the sea, head to the waters for a living, come back to the shore, catch some sleep at odd hours, again with the reassuring sound of the waves. “After fishing for about 30 hours, we return to the shore. On many days, the Sri Lankan Navy, under the pretext of surveillance, chases us. Sometimes they throw stones at our boats or hurl empty liquor bottles,” says another fisherman mourning Mesiya’s death.

Fishermen’s representatives in Tamil Nadu accuse the Sri Lankan Navy of injuring hundreds of fishermen over the years. “About 300 of our fishermen have died in the Palk Strait,” says P. Sesu Raja, Rameswaram-based leader of a fishermen’s association engaged mostly in bottom trawling. The Sri Lankan Navy has consistently denied the mounting allegations — through the years of the war and since it ended in 2009.

While the cause of death of the deceased fishermen has never been established in a court of law, the fact that these young fishermen died at sea remains a grim reminder of the human cost of the Palk Bay fisheries conflict. Their distressing death, when they were out at sea to earn a day’s living, is yet another stark reflection of a long-festering problem — of depleting marine resources in the Palk Bay, competing livelihoods of fishermen, and a solution that remains elusive, as the fishermen on both sides are unable to agree on it.

Tamil Nadu fishermen are not a homogenous group with the same interests. They are part of a complex ecosystem of moneyed and often politically influential owners of trawler fleets who engage other fishermen; of those who practise traditional fishing in their small, mechanised boats; and thousands of poor fishermen who have only their labour to sell in order to survive. Depending on who you ask, a different aspect of the problem comes to light.

Like Sesu Raja, most owners of the 5,000-plus registered trawlers say that the Sri Lankan Navy “attacked our fishermen”, arrested them, or seized their vessels.

Daily wage fishermen speak of the enormous pressure on them to risk their lives and go as far as it takes to get a decent catch that would ensure a day’s earnings in full.

Arockia Sesu, 47, from Thangachimadam, who has been fishing for 29 years, says he makes about Rs. 700 on a good day. With a family of five, including his elderly mother and two children, making both ends meet is no easy task. “Earlier, it was just poverty which we had to battle. But in recent years, we also have to safeguard ourselves from the Sri Lankan Navy’s aggression,” he says.

Straying in international waters

Despite the GPS units attached to their boats, the fishermen often stray into Sri Lanka’s territorial waters, across the International Maritime Boundary Line, mutually agreed upon by the neighbouring countries in the mid-1970s.

India embraced mechanised fishing using bottom trawlers, after its fishing fleet was “modernised” between the 1950s and the early 1970s, with millions of dollars from the Norwegian government.

In the fishing method of bottom trawling, fishermen drag large nets from the vessels through the sea, virtually scooping out young fishes, shrimps and other organisms from the seabed indiscriminately. Some usethangoosi valaior monofilament nets, widely considered harmful for marine species.

The catch, using these methods, has proved significantly higher, boosting the State’s exports. Data from the Fisheries Department show that Tamil Nadu exports about 1.28 lakh tonnes of sea food, amounting to Rs. 5,591 crore.

For the export-oriented governments at the Centre and State, and profit-driven owners of trawlers, the practice gradually became an addiction despite the serious environmental implications along the Tamil Nadu coast, periodically highlighted by scientists.

Small-scale fishermen, too, bear the brunt. In Pudukkottai district, further up the coast, small-scale fishermen spoke of how the trawlers have struck a huge blow to their livelihoods. “They [trawlers] return with huge catches thus depleting the marine resources and depriving the smaller mechanised boat fishermen of Pudukkottai district of good catch,” said B. Balamurugan, president of the Mechanised Boats Association in Jagadapattinam, from where over 200 mechanised boats using traditional fishing practices operate.

The trawlers are not just at the centre of an international conflict but have also bred local conflicts, points out Chinna Adaikkalam, President of the Kottaipattinam Mechanised Boat Owners Association. “The longer-sized and higher capacity Karaikal trawlers have resorted to long durations of fishing, for almost 15 days, leaving hardly anything for us in our seas,” he says.

Intuitively chasing fish, Tamil Nadu fishermen employed in the larger, mechanised trawlers regularly veer into Sri Lankan waters. The ecological damage is comparatively less on the Sri Lankan side because most Sri Lankan fishermen do not engage in bottom trawling. It is the prospect of a bigger catch that pushes Tamil Nadu fishermen to risk encountering arrest by the Sri Lankan Navy or worse, death.

Strained livelihoods and ties

Over time, Sri Lankan fishermen grew more vocal about the adverse effects of bottom trawling along their coastline. Their catches fell, and livelihoods were threatened.

Fishermen on both sides speak of a time when they shared cordial ties. “We would call each othermachaanandmaapilai[brother-in-law and son-in-law]. We would share our porridge,karuvaadu[dried fish] and beedis. They would give us cigarettes and biscuits,” Sesu Raja recalls. Sri Lankan fishermen too reminisce about a time when they took an overnight boat journey to catch the latest M.G. Ramachandran film in Rameswaram and return the following day.

But the Sri Lankan civil war and the growing use of mechanised bottom trawlers in India have strained their ties. For a good part of the nearly three-decade civil war, fishermen in the northern Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni were barred access to the sea, as the Sri Lankan Navy, along with the armed forces, was taking on the LTTE.

It is when the war ended in 2009 that the fisherfolk, most of them displaced in the years of strife, returned to their homes, and gradually began to rebuild their lost livelihoods. However, their return to sea was far from smooth: they found their catch dwindling after Indian trawlers ravaged their seas at least thrice a week, and their nets, often bought with huge loans, getting caught and damaged under the trawlers.

The Sri Lankan Navy stepped up surveillance, arresting fishermen and seizing trawlers “trespassing” into Sri Lankan waters. Since 2010, more than 3,000 Indian fishermen, all from Tamil Nadu, have been arrested by the Navy. As of today, 12 fishermen and more than 60 trawlers are in Sri Lankan custody. The issue has remained a sensitive bilateral issue, but the Central, State and provincial governments in India and Sri Lanka have achieved little success, besides “paying lip service”, fishermen note with distrust.

Sri Lanka banned bottom trawling in 2017, and in 2018, imposed large fines on foreign vessels fishing illegally in its waters. While arrested fishermen have been released periodically, at times after a considerable diplomatic push by New Delhi, the 60-odd trawlers seized since remain in custody. Their owners in India are yet to come to Sri Lanka, to appear in court and pay the fine, before reclaiming the vessels, say officials in Sri Lanka’s Fisheries Department.

Options tried and tested

Talks at the governmental level, as well as among fishermen, have not resulted in a durable solution. With heightened surveillance and increased arrests making news in late 2020, India and Sri Lanka resumed bilateral talks, after a three-year gap, in December 2020, through a Joint Working Group with senior officials from both sides.

Apart from government-level talks, fishermen leaders from both countries have held discussions several times since 2004. They met at least six times between 2010 and 2015 – in both India and Sri Lanka – when the Palk Bay conflict intensified. Tamil Nadu fishermen could not keep their promise of “phasing out” trawlers, and also refused to agree to Sri Lankan fishermen’s demand that bottom trawling be fully stopped as a goodwill gesture. Talks remain deadlocked since.

“It is not possible to find a solution to the five-decades-old vexatious issue in two or three sittings. No follow-up action has been taken to resume talks for so long. Governments are receptive and react only when fishermen are killed or arrested in Sri Lankan waters,” says U. Arulanandam, Tamil Nadu’s representative of the Alliance for the Release of Innocent Fishermen, a long-time activist based in Pamban, Ramanathapuram.

While a section of fishermen in Pudukkottai and Ramanathapuram districts is for restarting talks, fisher leaders in Sri Lanka remain sceptical. “We are really pained by the recent death of Indian fishermen. We are all fishermen first, only then Indian or Sri Lankan. We fully understand their suffering, we are in solidarity with them and want to put an end to this,” says K. Rajachandran, who leads a fisher cooperative in Karainagar, a small island off the Jaffna peninsula.

At the same time, he calls for more sincerity in trying to come up with a solution. “I have been for several rounds of these talks. Despite many assurances to phase out trawlers, they continued coming in trawlers very close to our shore. If they agree to use small boats and traditional fishing methods, we are more than willing to come to the table to work out an arrangement to share our resources responsibly. That is the only way our future generations can live,” he says, insisting that stopping the use of trawlers be a pre-condition for future talks.

Unlike the state, fisher leaders do not talk in terms of invisible boundary lines in the sea, or the law that deems their fishing “illegal, unreported and unregulated”. They appear more inclined towards a humane and practical arrangement that will address their short-term concerns of securing their livelihoods, as well as the long-term interest of preserving the marine organisms in the Palk Bay.

“The use of bottom trawlers has to be stopped fully. Northern fishermen here, whose livelihoods were devastated by a long-drawn civil war, are frustrated that despite their struggle over many years, the problem of bottom trawling by Tamil Nadu has not ended,” says Ahilan Kadirgamar, senior lecturer at the University of Jaffna, who researches fisherfolk’s livelihoods in Sri Lanka’s war-affected region. “There could be more rounds of talks and a promise of a permanent solution, but how can you really resolve this crisis without addressing the fundamental problem that is bottom trawling,” he asks.

Further, the Indian trawlers have spawned a fleet of relatively smaller, but still destructive trawlers in Jaffna, Rajachandran notes with concern. “We don’t oppose trawlers because they are from India. We oppose trawlers from Jaffna [there are some 500] as well. It is the destructive practice we are against, not the fishermen engaging in it.”

Some others like Annalingam Annarasa, leader of the federation of fisher cooperative societies in Jaffna, want to give talks another chance. “Honestly, this is not an issue between two countries, or one between the Tamil Nadu fishermen and the Sri Lankan Navy. It is fundamentally an issue threatening the livelihoods of Tamil fishermen in both India and Sri Lanka. We need to work together with mutual understanding and solidarity,” says Annarasa. “We need to form an alliance with small-scale fishermen in Tamil Nadu and together raise awareness about the dire consequences of bottom trawling. That could be a starting point for talks.”

Solution in sight?

Meanwhile, a project of the Indian government, aimed at weaning Tamil Nadu fishermen off trawlers and diverting them to deep-sea fishing methods, took off in 2017, but has hardly progressed as planned. Both New Delhi and Tamil Nadu, implementing the Rs. 1,600 crore initiative, hoped to replace at least 2,000 trawlers with deep sea fishing boats with long lines and gill nets. However, less than a tenth of that target has been achieved,The Hindureported in December.

According to Johny Tom Varghese, Project Director Palk Bay and Additional Director (Fisheries) in Tamil Nadu, deep sea fishing will eventually be lucrative, though it is capital-intensive. “A fisherman who invests his money in a deep sea fishing boat can break even in about 18 months. We are training them. We have signed 103 agreements with individuals under the scheme,” he says.

Those grappling with the shift from trawlers to deep sea vessels are also confronted with rising costs. In Sesu Raja’s view, the 70% subsidy, together from the Centre and State, for the deep sea fishing boats, is insufficient. “The governments had worked out the cost at Rs. 80 lakh per boat, while it is almost Rs. 1.20 crore today,” he observes.

Pointing to the scheme’s “very slow progress,” Arulanandam says, “If it is implemented within a year or two, I hope it can offer a possible solution. But the governments should make sure of buying back all existing trawlers.”

The fishermen in Kottaipattinam and Jagadapattinam villages in Pudukkottai too complain that while the government is taking steps to introduce deep sea fishing, the old boats are yet to be weeded out. The proposal to shift fishermen of Kottaipattinam, Jagadapattinam and Rameswaram towards deep sea fishing has not picked up, fishermen say.

There have not been many takers for fish farming in the Gulf of Mannar, either. The hype following the successful demonstration of fish farming by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Mandapam was short-lived. The Fisheries Department seized mechanised boats used for pair trawling on several occasions, but the punitive actions could not eliminate the practice fully. The deep divisions among various fishing groups and frequent agitations have put the brakes on enforcing strict regulations, according to fishermen.

As the campaign in election-bound Tamil Nadu picks up, the issues of fishermen, who constitute a sizeable electorate in coastal districts, will take centre stage again. “The real challenge for fishermen on both sides is to keep this issue in focus even after the polls,” says Annarasa, reflecting a similar sentiment heard in Tamil Nadu about “not allowing politicians to exploit our situation.”

At one level, the problem at hand is historical, complex and layered. At another, it is about sustaining and sharing finite marine resources in the Palk Strait, a narrow strip of water, just over 100 km at its widest, separating south India and northern Sri Lanka. As fishermen repeatedly point out, at the heart of this persisting conflict is their insecurity about their livelihoods and futures. Elections come and go, but that is yet to be decisively addressed.

Alarming inequality, failing health care and border tensions loom large and the economic situation needs full attention

As the country prepares to enter a new financial year after an ominous and gloomy 2020-21, there are great expectations about green shoots and the shape of the economic recovery. The havoc wreaked by the novel coronavirus pandemic on people’s lives and livelihoods is deep and enormous. The impact of the COVID-19 induced lockdown cannot be understood merely through headline macro-economic numbers of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), stock market indices, industrial activity indices or any such measure. COVID-19 has destroyed lives and incomes; it has also ruptured our social fabric. It has exacerbated the inequality between the haves and the have-nots, which can turn into a permanent scar if not remedied urgently. It is in this context that we must assess the current state of the economy and evaluate further action for the immediate future.

Missed opportunities

The sudden onslaught and rapid spread of COVID-19 have devastated most nations. Yet, we believe India could have done better. A better planned lockdown by being sensitive to India’s unique conditions of a large migrant and informal workforce could have reduced the deep distress in the labour market. A responsible and generous fiscal aid package would have soothed millions of struggling families, brought food to starving homes and contained widening inequality. The Reserve Bank of India’s actions to supply enough liquidity were laudable, but they were inadequate.

One of the most telling signs of the economic desperation of Indian families was — and is — the demand for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) programme. After being mocked by the Prime Minister, MGNREGA, by providing work at minimum wages to anyone that asked, has proved to be the only safety net for hundreds of millions of Indian households during these times of severe distress. Nearly 120 million people have asked for work under MGNREGA this financial year, the highest in the history of the programme. Total work demanded under MGNREGA in 2020-21 is 53% higher than last year. The optimism about headline economic recovery in the last few months seems hollow when we realise that nearly 35 million people have requested MGNREGA work in the months of December and January, the highest in the last six months. Such continued high demand for MGNREGA work at subsistence wages is a clear sign that there is no true economic recovery, let alone a ‘V’ or any other letter shaped.

Even as hundreds of millions of Indians were struggling with loss of jobs and MGNREGA work, India’s stock markets were exuberant and reached record levels. India’s stock market indices are at the highest levels ever. The top 50 companies increased their market wealth by nearly Rs. 3,00,000 crore ($40 billion) during this time. The excess liquidity pumped in by central banks is finding its way to asset markets, including India’s stock markets, driving it to unreasonable highs. If the stock market exuberance were to benefit the broader economy and most Indians, then it is welcome. Alas, the benefits of rising stock markets have accrued only to a minuscule few. The curative economic measures of governments in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may have unintentionally caused one of the worst phases of economic disparity between the rich and the poor in most nations.

Threats and weaknesses

Soaring asset prices and supply shocks have also led to a rise in consumer price inflation. Rising inflation will inevitably force the RBI to tighten interest rates or at least pause the lowering of rates. A tighter monetary policy carries the risk of slowing downprivate investment, with the consequential effect of lacklustre growth in jobs and wages. India’s macro economy is, thus, precariously poised and needs deft handling.

The external sector could be a potential saviour of India’s economy as global trade grows from its post-COVID-19 lows. Unfortunately, however, the government has shot itself in the foot by reversing its trade policy suddenly and turned inwards toward import substitution, quantitative restrictions, non-tariff barriers and shunning trade alliances. Over the past three decades, a surge in labour intensive exports has been the predominant driver of growth in jobs and wages for millions of high- and low-skilled Indians. The slowdown in exports and the misplaced aversion to two-way external trade will further harm the livelihoods of many Indians.

India’s fiscal policy response to the COVID-19 shock has been underwhelming. The lack of a basic minimum income safety net to cope with the shock has plunged millions of families into poverty. As of December, 12 million adult Indians have dropped out of the labour force compared to last year when, given India’s demographic profile, there should have been a net addition to the labour force. Unemployment in the formal sector too is very high. Most supply-side measures such as the government’s corporate tax cuts, loan moratoriums, and guaranteed credit schemes seem to have helped corporates to boost their profits and reduce their debt. They have hardly been used to make new investments or create jobs or increase wages.

Besides, in continuation of previous policy catastrophes (demonetisation, muddled Goods and Services Tax), the government has sought to thrust ill-thought policies such as the controversial farm laws on the nation, with no consultation or discussions. As a result, the lone bright spot in the economy thus far — agriculture — has also been wrecked with rising anger among farmers, confusion over farm produce procurement, doubts over the continuation of Minimum Support Price, and a loss of trust between farmers and the government.

The other fiscal measure to aid the needy is to embark on a large-scale public investment programme that can stimulate economic activity, create jobs and revive demand.

However, the government’s fiscal situation is bleak. The government had budgeted to collect tax revenues of Rs. 16-lakh crore in 2020-21. Eight months into the year, the government has been able to collect only Rs. 7-lakh crore in tax revenues at the end of November 2020. In contrast, the government had budgeted to spend Rs. 30-lakh crore this financial year and is on track to fulfilling, and even possibly exceeding, its expenditure budget. We believe that the government was right to not cut back on expenditure despite falling revenues during a time of unprecedented crisis, though we may differ on the priorities of expenditure. Therefore, India’s fiscal deficit is bound to rise significantly. We can live with it provided there are smart responses to inflation and future borrowing.

The non-negotiables

The government’s task is cut out. Given the reality of an unequal economic recovery, a misconceived trade policy and a perilous fiscal situation, the government will have to unveil its economic plan for the next financial year and the two remaining years of its term. There are some non-negotiables in economic planning for the next year.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the multiple lacunae in India’s public health infrastructure and served a stern warning that nothing is more important than increasing health-care expenditure and ramping up the health infrastructure. The central government’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s budget has to increase from the current levels of roughly Rs. 70,000 crore (2% of total expenditure in 2020-21) to at least Rs. 1,00,000 crore.

Since May 2020, India’s borders have been under threat by the Chinese. Any weakness will invite a war. India must immediately shore up its defence preparedness and be ready to defend its borders. India’s defence expenditure as a share of GDP has been falling. The government must increase defence expenditure from the current level of 1.6% of nominal GDP to 3% of nominal GDP in the next year, keeping in mind that the GDP will be lower than the level attained in 2019-20.

There is no credible evidence yet that bankers are willing to lend and borrowers — especially corporates — are willing to make fresh investments. A rising interest rate environment, a financial sector choked with record non-performing loans and weak consumption demand implies that a pick up in private investment cannot be assured. Hence, public investment must step in to do the heavy lifting and pull the economy from its current dismal state. Expanded public investment can provide jobs and stimulate demand, the two most pressing needs of the country today. The central government’s capital expenditure must be increased significantly from the level of Rs. 4 lakh crore (14% of total expenditure) in 2020-21 to at least 20%-25% of total expenditure.

A basic income safety net

Any increase in the government’s public investment will take time to translate into jobs and incomes for large numbers of the labour force. So, there is an immediate need for a basic income safety net for the bottom half of India’s families for a six-month period, similar to the Congress party’s NYAY (or Nyuntam Aay Yojana/Minimum Income Support Programme) idea. We believe that an unconditional monthly cash transfer to the needier segments of the population will be the most efficient way to alleviate their miseries fastest.

The Budget that will be presented on Monday should be evaluated in this context and not as another routine Budget. Fiscal deficit and the threat of international ratings cannot dictate India’s economic policy in current times of deep distress when lives, livelihoods and the nation’s security are at stake. The situation is so grim that it is not the time to experiment or play loose. Given the dire situation and the government’s penchant for rash policy announcements without a due consultative process, it is best to self-impose a moratorium on new laws, ordinances or bills for the next one year. We simply cannot afford to get distracted when the economic situation needs full and exclusive attention. For the sake of the nation’s future, we hope the government will embark on steering the economy in the right direction.

Dr. Manmohan Singh is a former Prime Minister of India. P. Chidambaram is a former Finance Minister of India. Praveen Chakravarty is a senior office-bearer of the Congress party

C. Subramaniam’s call for ‘science for the economic freedom of humanity’ echoes on his birth anniversary today

The year 1910 was very significant for India and science. This was the year two great Indian stars, the astrophysicist, Dr. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, or SC, and C. Subramaniam, or CS, were born.

Dr. Chandrasekhar was concerned about processes of importance in the evolution of stars in the universe. Mr. Subramaniam was concerned about the problem of food security in India. He sowed the seeds of the Green Revolution in Indian agriculture. Dr. Chandrasekhar explored space and propounded the concept of black holes, while Mr. Subramaniam championed the cause of science and technology to solve societal problems. The science of the universe was the call of Dr. Chandrasekhar. Science for humanity was the call of Mr. Subramaniam. And today, January 30, is the birth anniversary of Mr. Subramaniam, an architect of public policy for Indian science and of the ‘Green Revolution’ in the country.

In addition to the above, CS championed the cause of planned public investments in science. This year, 2021, is significant for another reason — it is the golden jubilee year of the founding of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology. CS had an abiding trust in science and believed that technology alone could offer solutions to the problems faced by society. He called for the practice of science celebrated not only by other scientists but also by citizens and humanity.

Food sufficiency goal

In the grammar of life, the spirit of Mr. Subramaniam continues to live on a high moral ground. If one looks for the trademarks of CS, they are: superordinate national goals, probity in public life and institutional mechanisms. The Ministry of Science and Technology bears testimony to his lived life. When India faced the reality of ship-to-mouth status in the 1960s — when a few million tonnes of grain were imported — a superordinate goal that India became self-sufficient in food in five years was set. The goal was realised and has been sustained since then. After the Green Revolution, the site used for storing food grains (given in aid by the U.S. Government under Public Law 480) became the Technology Bhavan that continues to house the Ministry of Science and Technology; it serves as a reminder to scientists that the purpose of public investments in science must include its duty to ensure social and public good.

Our generation is a beneficiary of the long-term impacts of CS’s several contributions to education, agriculture, science and technology to name a few. He was one of the architects of modern India and relied on evidence-based approaches in decision making. Transparency and probity were his powerful tools. The blueprint for linking science and technology to the development path of India was cast by CS even before the formation of the dedicated Science and Technology Ministry. He was a rare combination of being a visionary and a missionary at the same time, and Indian science remains a beneficiary.

The agro foundation

He realised that the economic freedom of every citizen of India was heavily reliant on the 4Es: Education, Environment, Economy and Empowerment of our farmers. The National Agro Foundation (NAF) was his gift to the nation on his 90th birthday. NAF, in its journey of 21 years, has lived up to his ideals. It institutionalised his will through farmer-centric programmes. In today’s world, rare are leaders like him. They did not live for themselves and their immediate families. They did not work for fame or glory. They sought no positional power. They practised the principles enshrined in civilisational legacies. They were rooted in culture with an agility to embrace changes in real time, with science and technology playing change functions. Mr. Subramaniam was a leader among leaders and remains a living role model for generations to come. No words of praise can fully capture the value of a life well lived.

Today is the 111th birth anniversary of CS. It is also a year since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in India, in Kerala. The novel coronavirus pandemic has pushed millions of people below the poverty line. The best way to pay tribute to a patriot like Mr. Subramaniam is to connect to science and see to it that it brings succour to the poor. He was a revered promoter of scientific temper and a shining Ratna of Bharat. His call for “science for [the] economic freedom of humanity” echoes loudly on his birth anniversary. May his voice for pro-poor technology be heard and worked upon.

T. Ramasami was Secretary, Department of Science and Technology

Instead of pushing through laws, the govt. must use Parliament for a detailed debate

The government and the Opposition are headed on a collision course in the Budget session of Parliament, with the latter planning to move a joint motion demanding a repeal of the three laws that are agitating farmers in much of the country. The confrontation over these laws is a legacy of the last session when they were passed without detailed and proper consultation with political parties, experts and farmer representatives. The session began with around 20 Opposition parties boycotting the President’s address to a joint sitting of Parliament. BSP President Mayawati belatedly announced her party’s decision to also stay away as a mark of protest. The delay clearly outlined her intention to keep a distance from the Opposition bloc, which among others has the Congress and the Samajwadi Party. The boycott indicated a worsening of the relationship between the government and the Opposition. In January 2020, the Opposition had attended the President’s address wearing black bands. The last time the Opposition boycotted the President’s Address was in November 2019 to commemorate the Constitution Day. President Ram Nath Kovind said the government would keep the farm Bills on hold as per a Supreme Court directive but did not indicate any rethink.

The government has advantages over the Opposition, in terms of the numerical strength in both Houses of Parliament. With the Tamil Nadu and West Bengal Assembly elections round the corner, two key Opposition parties, the DMK and the Trinamool Congress, are expected to be largely absent, further reducing the Opposition’s strength. The Opposition, despite its united front on the first day of the session, has a record of disintegrating in the face of the BJP’s manoeuvring in previous sessions. There will be discussion on the Motion of Thanks to the President and later on the Budget. As of now there are no indications of the Opposition skipping these events. In legislative business, recent ordinances such as the Arbitration and Conciliation (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020, which has provisions to deal with domestic and international arbitration and defines the law for conducting conciliation proceedings, and the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Amendment) Ordinance, 2021, which is for merging the J&K cadre of All India Services Officers such as the IAS, IPS and the Indian Forest Service with the Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Mizoram Union Territory (AGMUT) cadre, will have to get a parliamentary nod. The government draws its legitimacy from a parliamentary majority, but democratic conduct is more than enforcing the will of the majority. The government’s conduct in Parliament and outside, where its critics are facing the strong arm of the state machinery, should meet the high standards India has set for itself as a democracy.

FIRs against journalists for incorrect accounts are abuse of law, with intent to intimidate

The registration of cases against some senior journalists and Congress MP Shashi Tharoor for their “misleading” social media posts on the Republic Day violence during the farmers’ protests in Delhi, by the U.P. and M.P. police is an instance of fishing for malice where there is none. The Gautama Buddha Nagar police have clearly gone overboard in their response to tweets that reflected an early, and factually incorrect, piece of information that a farmer who had died during the tractor rally in Delhi had fallen to a police bullet. Later reports said he had died when a tractor overturned during the protests. The police have invoked the offences of sedition, conspiracy, promotion of enmity between different sections, and breach of harmony between groups. Besides, they have sought to portray it as a threat to national security and an attempt to instigate violence. A similar FIR has been filed on the basis of a complaint in Bhopal, but it invokes only sections relating to promotion of enmity and ill-will. It is apparent, and also strange, that the complainants and the police have sought to link the violence on January 26 with the circulation of a piece of misleading information for a short period. For one thing, the clashes between some of the protesters and the police had already started when the lone death among the protesters occurred; and, second, the position was clarified in a short while.

As the Editors’ Guild of India has pointed out, it was natural for journalists to report emerging details on a day of protest and action at a time when several reports were coming from eyewitnesses on the ground and the police. It is a matter of concern that there is an attempt to portray these early versions as intentionally malicious. There is little surprise in the attempt by the police to invoke Section 124A of the IPC (sedition) at the slightest pretext. It is part of the now-familiar practice of weaving a narrative of an imagined threat to national security whenever some sections of the police get an opportunity to slap criminal cases against journalists and dissenters seen as critical of the current establishment. The violence that marred the protests that day provided them with the opportune backdrop necessary to file a sedition case. An exasperating part of this narrative is that all those who had put out similar information through their social media handles have been deemed to be acting in concert, and even participating in the same conspiracy. Hence, the inclusion of Section 120B, the conspiracy provision in the penal code. There is little doubt that the registration of cases in two States different from the place where the farmer-protester’s death occurred indicates an attempt to build a narrative that media misreporting led to some of the violence that day. It also shows a tendency not to miss an opportunity to harass and intimidate journalists.