கூட்டாட்சித் தத்துவத்துக்கு வலு சோ்ப்பதாகவும், மத்திய அரசில் புதிதாக உருவாக்கப்பட்டிருக்கும் ‘கூட்டுறவு’ துறைக்குப் பின்னடைவு ஏற்படுத்துவதாகவும் அமைந்திருக்கிறது சமீபத்தில் உச்சநீதிமன்றம் வழங்கியிருக்கும் ஒரு தீா்ப்பு. நீதிபதி ஆா்.எப். நாரிமன் தலைமையிலான மூன்று நீதிபதிகள் அடங்கிய அமா்வு, பெரும்பான்மை அடிப்படையில் வழங்கியிருக்கும் அந்தத் தீா்ப்பு, ‘கூட்டுறவு’ சங்கங்கள் தொடா்பானது. ‘கூட்டுறவு’ என்பது மாநிலப் பட்டியலில் இருப்பதால் அதில் தலையிடுவதற்கு மத்திய அரசுக்கு சில வரம்புகள் இருப்பதை உறுதிப்படுத்தியிருக்கிறது அந்தத் தீா்ப்பு.
இந்தியாவில் பொருளாதாரத்திலும், விவசாயத்திலும் வளா்ச்சி அடைந்த பல மாநிலங்களில், கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்கள் மிகப் பெரிய பங்கு வகிக்கின்றன. குஜராத்தின் ‘ஆனந்த் பால் கூட்டுறவு சங்கம்’ (அமுல்) அடைந்திருக்கும் வெற்றி அபரிமிதமானது. பால் உற்பத்தி சங்கங்கள், கூட்டுறவு பண்டக சாலைகள், கூட்டுறவு நூற்பாலைகள் என்று மிகப் பரவலான கட்டமைப்பை உள்ளடக்கியதாக இருக்கிறது கூட்டுறவுத் துறை.
மன்மோகன் சிங் தலைமையிலான ஐக்கிய முற்போக்குக் கூட்டணி ஆட்சியில், 97-ஆவது அரசியல் சாசனத் திருத்த மசோதா 2012 பிப்ரவரி மாதம் நாடாளுமன்றத்தால் நிறைவேற்றப்பட்டது. பெரும்பாலான மாநில சட்டப்பேரவைகளின் அங்கீகாரத்தையும் பெற்றது அந்த திருத்தச் சட்டம். நாடு தழுவிய அளவிலுள்ள கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்களின் செயல்பாடுகளை முறைப்படுத்துவதற்காக கொண்டுவரப்பட்ட அந்தச் சட்டம், அரசியல் சாசன விதிமுறையின்படி மூன்றில் இரண்டு பங்கு சட்டப்பேரவைகளின் அங்கீகாரத்தைப் பெறவில்லை. அதன் அடிப்படையில்தான் இப்போது உச்சநீதிமன்றம் அந்த சட்டத் திருத்தத்தை நிராகரித்திருக்கிறது.
மூன்று நீதிபதிகள் அமா்வில் இரண்டு நீதிபதிகள், மூன்றில் இரண்டு பங்கு சட்டப்பேரவைகளின் அங்கீகாரம் பெறாததால் சட்டத் திருத்தத்தை மட்டும் நிராகரித்திருக்கிறாா்கள். மூன்றாவது நீதிபதியான கே.எம். ஜோசப், ஒட்டுமொத்த சட்டத்தையுமே அரசியல் சாசனத்திலிருந்து அகற்ற வேண்டுமென்றும், அது மாநிலங்களின் உரிமையில் தலையிடுவதாக இருக்கிறது என்றும் தெரிவித்திருக்கும் கருத்து பதிவாகியிருக்கிறதே தவிர, பெரும்பான்மை ஆதரவில்லாததால் அது அங்கீகரிக்கப்படவில்லை.
மன்மோகன் சிங் அரசு கொண்டுவந்த இந்தச் சட்டம் குஜராத் உயா்நீதிமன்றத்தால் ஏற்கெனவே கேள்விக்கு உள்ளாக்கப்பட்டிருந்தது. உயா்நீதிமன்றத்தின் தீா்ப்புக்கு எதிராக மத்திய அரசு மேல்முறையீடு செய்ததைத் தொடா்ந்து, இப்போது நீதிபதி நாரிமன் தலைமையிலானஅமா்வு தீா்ப்பு வழங்கியிருக்கிறது.
மத்திய அரசு மூன்றில் இரண்டு பங்கு மாநிலங்களின் ஒப்புதலுடன் மீண்டும் சட்டத் திருத்தத்தை நிறைவேற்றலாம். இல்லையேல், இப்போது இருக்கும் அதிகாரத்தின் அடிப்படையில் தொடரலாம். இப்போதைய நிலையில், இரண்டாவது யோசனைக்கான வாய்ப்புதான் காணப்படுகிறது.
விவசாயத்தை அடிப்படையாகக் கொண்ட செயல்பாடுகளில் கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்களின் பங்கு முக்கியத்துவம் வாய்ந்தது. கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்களின் செயல்பாடு, நிா்வாகிகளுக்கான தோ்தல், முறைகேடுகள் உள்ளிட்டவை விமா்சனங்களுக்கு உள்ளாவது என்பது புதிதொன்றுமல்ல.
கூட்டுறவு வங்கிகளில் நடைபெறும் மோசடிகளையும், கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்களின் மூலம் நிா்வாகிகள் பொதுப்பணத்தை தங்களுக்கு வேண்டியவா்களுக்கு கடனாக வழங்குவதும் தடுக்கப்பட வேண்டும் என்கிற குறிக்கோளுடன்தான் 2012-இல் 97-ஆவது சட்டத் திருத்தம் கொண்டுவரப்பட்டது. ஆனால், கூட்டுறவு என்பது மாநிலப் பட்டியலைச் சோ்ந்தது என்பதால், அதிலுள்ள ‘9பி’ பிரிவை உச்சநீதிமன்றம் ரத்து செய்திருக்கிறது. கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்களின் நிா்வாகக் குழுவின் எண்ணிக்கை, உறுப்பினா்களுக்கு எதிரான குற்ற நடவடிக்கைகள், ஊழியா்களை வேலையிலிருந்து அகற்றுவதற்கான விதிமுறைகள், கணக்குத் தணிக்கை உள்ளிட்டவை ரத்து செய்யப்பட்ட ‘9பி’ பிரிவில் அடங்கும்.
சட்டத் திருத்தத்தின் மூலம் கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்கள் அரசியல் சாசனத்தின் ‘19(1)(சி)’ பிரிவில் இணைக்கப்பட்டது. அதன் மூலம், கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்களை அமைத்துக் கொள்வது என்பது அடிப்படை உரிமையில் சோ்க்கப்பட்டிருக்கிறது. அதேபோல தன்னிச்சையான செயல்பாடு, தோ்ந்தெடுப்பில் ஜனநாயக உரிமை, தொழில்முறை மேலாண்மை உள்ளிட்டவற்றை மேம்படுத்த மாநிலங்கள் கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்களை ஊக்குவிக்க வழிகோலும் ‘43பி’ பிரிவு சோ்க்கப்பட்டது. இவை இரண்டும் உச்சநீதிமன்ற வழக்கில் கேள்வி எழுப்பப்படவில்லை என்பதால், தீா்ப்புக்குப் பிறகும் தொடரும்.
கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்களின் செயல்பாட்டுடன் தொடா்புடைய ‘9பி’ பிரிவை மட்டும்தான் உயா்நீதிமன்றம் முழுமையாக ரத்து செய்திருந்தது. இப்போது உச்சநீதிமன்றம், உயா்நீதிமன்றத்தின் தீா்ப்பை ஏறத்தாழ ஏற்றுக்கொண்டிருக்கிறது என்றாலும், ‘9பி’ பிரிவை முற்றிலுமாக ரத்து செய்யவில்லை.
கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்கள் மாநிலப் பட்டியலைச் சோ்ந்தவை என்பதால் மத்திய அரசு தலையிடக் கூடாது என்கிற உயா்நீதமன்றத் தீா்ப்பை ஏற்றுக்கொண்ட உச்சநீதிமன்றம், ஒன்றுக்கு மேற்பட்ட மாநிலங்களில் செயல்படும் கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்கள், ஒன்றியப் பிரதேசங்களில் உள்ள கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்கள் ஆகியவற்றின் செயல்பாடுகள் மத்திய அரசின் அதிகார வரம்புக்கு உள்பட்டவை என்று நீதிபதி நாரிமன் தலைமையிலான அமா்வின் தீா்ப்பு தெளிவுபடுத்தியிருக்கிறது.
கூட்டுறவு சங்கங்கள் அரசியல்வாதிகளின் பிடியில் சிக்கியிருப்பதும், அவற்றில் முறைகேடுகள் மலிந்திருப்பதும் உலகறிந்த உண்மை. மாநிலப் பட்டியலோ, மத்தியப் பட்டியலோ கடுமையான தணிக்கைக்கும் கண்காணிப்புக்கும் அவை உள்படுத்தப்பட வேண்டும் என்பதில் சந்தேகமே இல்லை!
குஜராத் உயர் நீதிமன்றத்தில் இணையவழி நேரடி ஒளிபரப்பை முறையாகத் தொடங்கிவைத்துள்ளார் உச்ச நீதிமன்றத் தலைமை நீதிபதி என்.வி.ரமணா. அவர் அளித்திருக்கும் அறிவுரைகள், நீதிமன்ற விசாரணைகளை அறிந்துகொள்வதில் குடிமக்களுக்கு உள்ள அரசமைப்பு உரிமையை வலுப்படுத்தும் வகையில் அமைந்துள்ளன. உச்ச நீதிமன்றம், உயர் நீதிமன்றங்கள் ஆகியவற்றின் விசாரணைகளை நேரடியாக ஒளிபரப்புவது பற்றி அவ்வப்போது விவாதிக்கப்பட்டுவந்தாலும் அதன் நடைமுறைச் சாத்தியங்கள் குறித்த கேள்விகளும் இருந்துவந்தன. கரோனா பெருந்தொற்றுக் காலத்தில் நீதிமன்ற நடவடிக்கைகள் முழுவதும் முடங்கிப்போயிருக்கும் சூழலில், முக்கிய வழக்குகளின் விசாரணைகள் இணையவழியில் நடத்தப்பட்டதன் அனுபவங்கள், இனி வரும் காலங்களில் நேரடி ஒளிபரப்புக்கு வெற்றிகரமான முன்னோட்டங்களாக அமைந்துவிட்டன என்று சொல்லலாம். இணையவழி விசாரணையில், வழக்கறிஞர்கள் தங்களது அலுவலகத்திலிருந்தே வாதிடவும் வழக்காடிகள், அரசு அலுவலர்கள், பத்திரிகையாளர்கள் ஆகியோர் அவற்றைக் காணவும் வாய்ப்புகள் உருவாகின. இணையத்தின் வழி இணைகிறபோதே கணினியின் கேமரா, மைக் ஆகியவற்றை அமைத்துக்கொள்ளும் வாய்ப்புகளும் தற்போது வழங்கப்படுகின்றன. தற்போதுள்ள இந்த இணையவழி விசாரணை முறையின் சாத்தியங்களை, இனி வரும் காலங்களில் நீதிமன்ற நடவடிக்கைகளின் நேரடி ஒளிபரப்புக்கும் நீட்டித்துக்கொள்ளலாம்.
2018-ல் ஸ்வப்னில் த்ரிபாதி வழக்கின் தீர்ப்பில், நீதிமன்ற விசாரணைகளை அறிந்துகொள்வது ஒவ்வொரு குடிநபரின் அடிப்படை உரிமை என்று உச்ச நீதிமன்றம் உறுதிசெய்தது. உச்ச நீதிமன்றத்தின் முதன்மை அமர்வில் அரசமைப்பின் அடிப்படையிலான வழக்குகளின் விசாரணை நடக்கிறபோது அவற்றைப் பரிசோதனை அடிப்படையில் நீதிமன்றத்தின் வெளியேயும் ஒளிபரப்புவதற்கு அவ்வழக்கில் உத்தரவிட்டபோதிலும், இப்போதுதான் அதற்கு வேளை வந்திருக்கிறது. கடந்த ஜூன் மாதத்தில் உச்ச நீதிமன்றத் தலைமை நீதிபதி தனஞ்ஜெய ஒய்.சந்திரசூட் தலைமையிலான இ-கமிட்டி, நீதிமன்ற விசாரணைகளை நேரடியாக இணையத்தில் ஒளிபரப்புவது, அவற்றைப் பதிவுசெய்வது குறித்த விதிமுறைகளின் வரைவு மீது யோசனைகளை அளிக்குமாறு நாட்டிலுள்ள 24 உயர் நீதிமன்றங்களின் தலைமை நீதிபதிகளுக்கும் கடிதம் எழுதியிருந்ததும் குறிப்பிடத்தக்கது. உயர் நீதிமன்றங்கள் மட்டுமல்லாது விசாரணை நீதிமன்றங்கள், தீர்ப்பாயங்கள் ஆகியவற்றின் நடைமுறைகளும் அடுத்தடுத்து இணையவழி ஒளிபரப்பில் இணையவிருக்கின்றன.
சட்ட அறியாமை எப்போதுமே எதிர்வாதமாக நீதிமன்றங்களில் ஏற்றுக்கொள்ளப் படுவதில்லை என்பதால், குடிமக்களுக்குச் சட்டங்கள் குறித்த அறிமுகத்துடன் நீதிமன்ற விசாரணைகளைப் பற்றிய விழிப்புணர்வும் அவசியமாக இருக்கிறது. அதே நேரத்தில், நீதிமன்ற விசாரணைகளின் நேரடி ஒளிபரப்பை இருபுறமும் கூர்மைகொண்ட வாளுடன் ஒப்பிட்டு, உச்ச நீதிமன்றத் தலைமை நீதிபதி எச்சரித்துள்ளதும் கவனத்தில் கொள்ளப்பட வேண்டியது. பாதிக்கப்பட்டவர்களின், சாட்சிகளின் பாதுகாப்பு தொடர்பில் கூடுதல் கவனம் எடுத்துக்கொள்ளப்பட வேண்டியிருக்கும். வழக்கறிஞர்கள் இதைத் தங்களது பிரபல்யத்துக்கான வாய்ப்பாகவும் பயன்படுத்திக்கொண்டுவிடக் கூடாது. எது எப்படியிருப்பினும், விசாரணைகளின் நேரடி ஒளிபரப்பானது நீதித் துறையின் வெளிப்படைத் தன்மையை மட்டுமல்ல, பொறுப்புணர்வையும் அதிகப்படுத்தவே செய்யும்.
Pegasus is not a stranger to our shores. It first surfaced in our public discourse towards the end of 2019. Researchers from University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab called up some telephone numbers in our country and informed them that their WhatsApp chats were compromised. There were some stirrings, but the controversy died out quietly and disappeared from our public discourse. The attention then was predominantly on the issue of how secure WhatsApp was and how weak its claims of end-to-end encryption were. WhatsApp’s public relations exercise to reassure its customers of its safety and privacy grabbed disproportionate attention. All these deflected the public’s attention from our Government’s involvement in the ugly saga and the misuse of NSO of Israel’s spyware to snoop on its own citizens. Parliament and civil society let the Government off easily. Perhaps, the impression that the surveillance then was largely confined to the Bhima-Koregaon happenings also contributed to its limited appeal.
Signs of a surveillance state
Most of us failed to connect the dots. The frequent and prolonged instances of Internet shutdowns; use of the sedition law on critics of the Government’s policies; use of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) ; rushing of crucial pieces of legislation affecting core sectors of our economy through the Houses of Parliament; consigning the data privacy Bill to a select committee; the framing of rules to rein in digital news platforms, and the demonic efficiency with which State governments were toppled appeared less dramatic and had no shock value as unconnected events. But if connected with each other, and the Pegasus spyware running in the background, they present a picture of India’s descent into a surveillance state.
Treated separately, each one of those incidents, caused little more than a few days of screaming headlines, reprimanding editorials, raucous prime-time television debates, weak and short-lived protests by political parties and rights activists. The probability that the second coming of Pegasus into our political discourse will not be very different from its first appears very real, if this too is treated as a separate and isolated event. Fortunately, this time it came with two major differences.
The targets now
This time the attention is exclusively on the Government’s role and there are no red herrings in the form of questions about the safety of encryptions offered by service providers. The people involved in the revelations are not just little known activists. They range from the Leader of the Opposition, a constitutional authority, a number of journalists, human rights activists, Ministers in the Government, ruling party leaders, several political leaders, serving or retired officers. The list also revealed that the government agencies made no distinction between state interests and the interests of the ruling party. The expansiveness of the global list of people named as intended targets of the spyware and the prestige of publications involved in cross-border collaboration are indeed arresting.
Pegasus’s second coming has yet another distinction. It foregrounds the collusion between government and weapons grade surveillance tech that has no intermediary functions to confuse us. The episodes that were hitherto played out as government versus tech in our country allowed the combatants to compete for our support. The government and the tech companies claimed to fight one another on our behalf. However, they were actually fights between tech and government for possession and control of our data. Government sought its possession to control society, to eliminate dissent and opposition. But it tried to portray to us that it sought to tame the tech companies to protect our interests, privacy, and the security of the realm. Tech companies sought to possess our data sets to make prediction products out of them and sell them to advertisers. Both the Government and tech companies vied for surveillance over us. One for control and the other for profits. However, there is always the undetected possibility of their interests coalescing. In the case of Pegasus the collusion is evident. The NSO Group does not compete with the Government for the possession of data surplus of its application. It is a pure and simple provider of surveillance-as-a-service to the Government. In the event, Pegasus this time shines a light on the Government for civil society to see it as a clear accountable entity.
It is evident that the Indian government till now is acting out of a standard play book. It is stonewalling. It has so far evaded the essential questions that are raised by the revelations. Ministers and representatives of the ruling party are questioning the credibility of claims made by the global consortium of media organisations that announced the startling revelations. They are accusing the publications of acting with ulterior motives to undermine India’s democratic institutions. Supporters of the Government’s narrative charge the publications with attempting to defame the country. The Government’s, and its supporters’, defence so far is essentially semantic quibble and based on raising doubts on the source of the telephone numbers that the media consortium says is from a leaked list accessed by media portal Forbidden Stories.
The uncommonly cautious wording of the preface to the consortium’s admittedly limited claims to their findings is sought to be used to undermine the extraordinary significance of its revelations. The consortium desisted from making sweeping claims. It said, the leaked list of 50,000 numbers “are believed to have been selected as those of people of interest by government clients of NSO Group”. The consortium also said that the list “indicates the potential targets” identified in advance by the NSO’s clients for “possible surveillance”. The list is only “an indication of intent” and the appearance of a number in it does not reveal “whether there was an attempt to infect the phone” or “whether any attempt succeeded”.
But amidst all this extraordinary caution is this devastating revelation which the Indian government chooses to deliberately ignore to indulge in semantic wrangling: “However, forensic examination of a small sample of mobile phones with numbers on the list found tight correlations between the time and date of a number in the data and the start of Pegasus activity — in some cases in as little as a few seconds.” Amnesty International’s forensic lab found that of the 67 phones examined, 23 were infected and 14 showed signs of attempts to penetrate. The rest were cases of possible change of devices or those using the Android operating system that did not keep record of logs needed for forensic work. By any standard this is considered an overwhelming basis for further investigation. It establishes an unquestionable basis for subjecting all the rest of the numbers from the list of 50,000 numbers for investigation. And in India’s case, all the 300 numbers from the country that were found in the list. Already, over 10 of them were forensically examined and found to be either successfully infected by Pegasus or attempted to be penetrated. That is enough of a case for a comprehensive investigation into the claims of the media consortium. But the Government narrative harps on words such as ‘indicative,’ ‘possible’ and ‘potential’as being too general and dismisses snooping charges.
The Indian government’s defence that rests on questioning the source of the list has little merit. Investigative journalism is under no obligation to reveal its sources. In fact, it is ethically bound to not reveal in order to protect the identity of its sources.
As important as the questions that the Government forcefully articulates is its remorseless stonewalling of the most important question repeatedly asked of it. It does not tell us in unequivocal terms whether it has or has not purchased the Pegasus spyware. It did not answer that question during the country’s first brush with the spyware in 2019 too. Even today it seems to be firm in its resolve not to answer. It hopes to wear down the political opposition, activists, human rights groups, and civil society. It evidently thinks that it can wait out the news cycles to run their course. It probably can. Civil society and the media, cannot, beyond a point, keep the pressure on. A government with brazen determination, brute majority in the legislature, and as yet unchallenged political capital, can afford to wait out the limited firepower of its political opponents’ artillery.
Judiciary as bulwark
The only institution in the present situation that can make the Government accountable is the judiciary. The track record of our top court on major issues of defining importance to our national life is at best mixed in the recent past. What it chooses to do or not do now can make a difference to India. The options before it are clear as they are stark. To allow the present government a free run in turning India into a surveillance state is one. The other is to stop the Government in its tracks, restore to its people the gift of a free and liberal state that the founding fathers of the Republic gave them. The country has very little time.
Parakala Prabhakar is a political economist and heads RightFOLIO, a Hyderabad-based knowledge enterprise
With a reduction in COVID-19 infections as the second wave weakens in India, it is important to focus on the pandemic’s disruptive impact on the food security and livelihoods of the poor and marginalised.
The deadly virus has been around for two years and it is not clear as to how and when it will end. However, we do have enough in terms of a hindsight analysis of policies and interventions that promise food and livelihood security, along with the strengthening of health support, for millions facing the wrath of the pandemic.
It is imperative to also note an alarming escalation in the global hunger that is unfolding right now. There was a ‘dramatic worsening’ of world hunger in 2020, much of it likely related to the fallout of COVID-19. While the pandemic’s impact has yet to be fully mapped, a multi-agency report, ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’, estimates that around a tenth of the global population – up to 81.1 crore persons – were undernourished last year.
India has made enormous progress in food production over the years, with an inspiring journey towards self-sufficiency in food production marked by the Green Revolution. In 2020, India produced over 30 crore tonnes of cereals and had built up a food stock of 10 crore tonnes. The country has registered record harvests over the last few years. India exported a record 1.98 crore tonnes of rice and wheat in FY21.
Pivoting safety nets
Coming to the impact of COVID-19’s fallout, vulnerable and marginalised families in India continued to be buffered against the food crisis by its robust Targeted Public Distribution System (TPDS).
Key measures initiated by the Union government included allowing the States to lift their allocations for six months in one go, in anticipation of a surge in demand for foodgrains through the public distribution system. As data shows, there was an unprecedented spike in the uptake of subsidised and free foodgrains during the lockdown. The public distribution system became a lifeline for millions hit by the pandemic.
A dynamic analysis of the food security scenario and feedback from different stakeholders allowed the Government of India to increase entitlements given to National Food Safety Act (NFSA) beneficiaries in 2020. For instance, under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY), 81.3 crore NFSA beneficiaries received an additional 5 kg of foodgrains per person per month and 1 kg of pulses per family per month, free of cost, for eight months from April to November 2020. Under the Atmanirbhar Bharat package, 8 crore migrants were provided 5 kg of foodgrains per month, free of cost.
The government also allowed NGOs/civil society organisations to buy rice and wheat at subsidised prices directly from nearby Food Corporation of India (FCI) warehouses. Rice was sold at Rs. 22 per kg (market price is Rs. 35 per kg) and wheat at Rs. 21 per kg (market price is Rs. 27 per kg) last year.
The PMGKAY was introduced in 2020 for eight months to provide relief to 80 crore beneficiaries covered under NFSA from COVID-induced economic hardships. The scheme was reintroduced this year for the third phase implementation for two months till June, and later extended till November under the fourth phase.
During the third phase of PMGKAY, about 89% of the allocated foodgrains were distributed to beneficiaries. The distribution reached 94% in May. Implemented for eight months last year and for seven months this year, the PMGKAY outlay will add up to a total expenditure of Rs. 2,28,000 crore over 15 months.
The COVID-19 pandemic has once again drawn attention to addressing the aspects of access and portability of food entitlements. It is critical to leave no one behind in times such as these and crucial for states to find solutions so that no one goes hungry.
Ensuring that food support focuses on at-risk groups, including persons with disabilities, the elderly, single women-led households, transgender persons, HIV-affected persons, displaced persons, refugees and orphan children, is at the heart of ‘Leave No One Behind’.
The scale of India’s public food distribution systems is immense and has gone through constant navigation and improvement, which is commendable. But more needs to still be done to improve access and inclusion among the missing vulnerable population.
First, the introduction of the One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC) scheme is an innovation that can be a game changer, allowing beneficiaries to access their food entitlements from anywhere in the country. This is especially important for a country like India with a massive mobile population and migration between States. The scheme takes the massive digitisation of the supply chain, distribution and access to the next step, ensuring anyone benefits from anywhere in India.
Second, climate change will continue to affect agriculture and food security, and the impact on the poor and vulnerable can be devastating. Massive efforts are needed towards programmes that focus on building resilient agriculture that is adaptive to changing weather and needs through the introduction of newer varieties of crops, efficient irrigation systems, and the promotion of crops as per the agro-climate zones.
Thirdly, a third of all food produced is wasted. There should be enhanced efforts to prevent losses. Lost or wasted energy used for food production accounts for about 10% of the world’s total energy consumption, and annual greenhouse gas emissions associated with food losses and food waste reaches to around 3.5 gigatonnes of the CO2 equivalent.
Finally, 2021 offers a unique opportunity for advancing food security and nutrition through transforming food systems with the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit, the Nutrition for Growth Summit and the COP26 on climate change. The outcomes of these events will certainly shape the actions of the second half of the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition. India has a central role to play in this transformation and offering experiences and solutions to address the thought processes and models for a resilient, equitable, and food-secure world.
Bishow Parajuli is UN World Food Programme Representative and Country Director for India
The Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat’s recent description of the Indian Air Force (IAF) as a supporting arm — in an interview on July 2 — and the IAF chief Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria’s rebuttal, is the newest bump in the turbulent journey marking the reorganisation process of the armed forces. Unfortunately, this bump, probably caused by misinterpretation of an oversimplification by the Chief of Defence Staff, comes just when the process appears to be touching down after being airborne for long. Whatever the cause, the differences do not speak well of the intellectual underpinnings of the reorganisation process. Is there a problem with air power? What about the IAF warning against splitting it into ‘penny packets’? Is air power an adjunct?
Armies and navies will see air power as an adjunct, history being the reason. Analysing the experience of the United States, the greatest exponent of air power in history, the air power theorist Tami Davis Biddle wrote in 2019 that ‘aerial bombing cannot control the ground. It is fundamentally a coercive activity in which an attacker seeks to structure the enemy’s incentives — using threats and actions to shape and constrain the enemy’s options, both perceived and real. It is an important and much-utilized military instrument for both deterrence and compellence. However, its ability to produce results varies, and students of strategy must understand the circumstances under which it is more or less likely to achieve particular results or political ends’ (https://bit.ly/3iHHrza). Holding and controlling land or water is essential in conflict. From Vietnam to Afghanistan, air power failed to deliver the promised results to the U.S. But everyone acknowledges how greatly air power can aid victories though.
Issues before the IAF
Media reports suggest that counting even ageing aircraft, the IAF is 25% short on fighter squadrons. A pan service shortage of about 400 pilots, almost 10% of their authorised strength, further aggravates this. Therefore, the IAF has a point when it warns against splitting assets, for, there may be nothing much to split. Whether now, or in any future joint arrangement, the service chief is responsible for the operational availability of assets. He alone will be blamed for failures. So he must protest with all his might. Vulnerabilities should be known to all stakeholders. When the U.S. Navy faced a budget cut in 2015, Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations told the Senate that ‘(if the budget gets cut) more ships and aircraft (will be) out of action when in battle, more sailors, Marines and merchant mariners (will be) killed, and (there will be) less credibility, to deter adversaries and to assure allies in the future’ (https://bit.ly/2TxL1TJ). But shortage alone is not at the core of the IAF’s objections. It is also the prospect of operational plans for the IAF being made outside the service.
Finding common ground
A common understanding of the nuances of military air power is the key. Towards this, it has to be accepted that others too understand air power. The 67-year-old naval air arm figures among the top 10 air forces of the world. With the experience of operating almost every kind of aircraft the IAF operates, and with the benefits of the operational wisdom borne of the harsh integrity of the supremely tough aircraft carrier and other small deck operations, the naval leadership understands air power. This applies to the Indian Army too, in its own way. Confidence needs to be developed that rightly staffed apex joint organisations can draw up professional operational plans for air power. This will need some effort in the short term towards enhancing professional military education though, at the staff level.
Synergy and hurdles
With dwindling budgets, a steadily deteriorating security situation and the march of technology, the armed forces understand the need to synergise. But natural human faults interfere. For instance, different services do not co-exist well where they are colocated. Bitter fights over land, buildings, facilities, etc. mar optimal operational synergising. Then there is the issue of giving each other the best, or of wanting to be with each other. The Andaman and Nicobar Command suffered from the lack of a substantial operational charter, and the services not positioning appropriate personnel or resources there. Moreover, as a joint tenure did not benefit career, no one strove for it. The U.S., when faced with the same problem, made joint tenures mandatory for promotions. Steamrolling with decrees is useful in such areas.
Major reorganisations must strictly follow the sequence of written concepts, their refinement through consultation, simulation or table top war gaming, field evaluation and final analysis before implementation. This would help address command and control, asset adequacy, individual service roles, operational planning under new circumstances and the adequacy of joint structures. Who gets to lead what also matters. The Western Command between the Indian Army and the IAF, the Northern Command with the Indian Army, Maritime Command with the Indian Navy and the Air Defence Command with the IAF may be an acceptable formula.
What is needed
As we hurtle towards inevitable reorganisation, some specifics are required. The first is the need for a comprehensive National Security Strategy to guide the services develop capacities required in their respective domains. The second is the need to transform professional education and inter-service employment to nurture genuine respect for others. The third is that the armed forces must resolve their differences among themselves, as the politicians or bureaucrats cannot do it. The fourth is to ensure good quality staff, in adequate numbers, at apex joint organisations, to reassure individual services and those in the field that they are in safe hands. The fifth is the acceptance of the fact that what works for other countries need not work for us. We may need tailor-made solutions which may need more genuine thinking. For genuine military jointness, a genuine convergence of minds is critical. Decrees have limitations.
Commodore G. Prakash, a Nau Sena Medal recipient, served the Indian Navy for 35 years. He is a specialist in aviation and anti-submarine warfare
In less than two months, my tenure as the Readers’ Editor will come to an end. After being a journalist for nearly four decades, which includes the past nine years as a news ombudsman, I am moving on to pursue research on a range of subjects that are close to my heart. I would like to use this interregnum to look at the changing nature of the news industry, and the challenges it poses to a news ombudsman. Along with my personal reflections, I would like to hear and share the views of the readers about how they assess this institution in general, and withinThe Hinduin particular.
First, we need to contextualise the role of a news ombudsman and how it is different from all other journalistic assignments. While every journalistic assignment goes on to create a body of public information, the evaluation by an ombudsman is clearly apost factoact.
Autopsies help to understand the factors that led to the death of an individual — which is a significant contribution. The role of an ombudsman is not only to identify what went wrong but also to work on a visible mending process. The idea of a visible mending process is to ensure that the society makes its choices based on right information rather than a faulty one.
Joshua Benton, founder of the Nieman Lab at Harvard University, in his article “From public to publics” has argued that “a strong, proactive public editor can be part of this current reckoning in journalism that is looking increasingly like a required revolution in journalism culture”.
Over the course of next few weeks, I will also be touching upon some of the crucial questions about the role of a news ombudsman raised by Kathy English, who wasToronto Star’s public editor for thirteen long years and my fellow board member at the Organisation of News Ombudsmen and Standards Editor.
What is the need for this extended reflection and engagement? Is it an attempt to understand digital disruption? Is it an attempt to locate the elements of journalism within the changing contours of the news media industry? The answer is yes to all these questions and much more. I earnestly hope this extended engagement will deepen the compact between the newspaper and its readers.
Integral for self-regulation
A news ombudsman is an integral part of self-regulation for news media. According to a UNESCO framework, “Self-regulation is a combination of standards setting out the appropriate codes of behaviour for the media that are necessary to support freedom of expression, and process how those behaviours will be monitored or held to account.”
The framework further states that “self-regulation preserves independence of the media and protects it from partisan government interference. It could be more efficient as a system of regulation as the media understand their own environment better than government”. The framework also alerts citizens that this approach may be used by the news industry to further its “commercial interests rather than the public interest”.
While the Terms of Reference that govern this office give general guiding principles, individual Readers’ Editors evolve their own approach to effectively ensure that the newspaper does not stray from its core principles and editorial values. In my first column on September 24, 2012, I spelt out my approach: “The Terms of Reference defines my role and the Code of Editorial Values defines the role of the editorial team. Readers’ concerns, complaints and suggestions shall not be evaluated in an arbitrary fashion, but within a rigorous framework set out in these two documents, as they provide for an institutional framework for a mutual dialogue betweenThe Hinduand its millions of readers. My job is to see that this dialogue takes place for mutual benefit.”
The fulcrum of my ombuds universe is a value system that is deeply embedded in the notion of the commons and common good, where the central concern is to effect course correction and not to be punitive.
I have both boundaries and possibilities, and I respect the prerogative of editorial freedom. The perimeter is set by the Terms of Reference and it would be unfair to breach this. Respecting the well-defined perimeter is an enabling quality as it opens up many avenues to look at the best practices of journalism. This debate is crucial to preserve public interest in journalism.
Fake news and its associated social problems have been a major concern and the Indian government has been attempting to bring in several legal amendments to deal with its creation, propagation and effects. Social media companies, too, are investing billions of dollars into technological solutions such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) to identify fake news and its proliferation. Are these the best solutions to solve a problem as old as humanity or is there any other effective solution?
Looking at statistics on the justice delivery system in India, the legal system needs to become more robust before it can be considered an effective solution. Further, the formulation of laws in themself do not prevent a wrong action.
When Timnit Gebru, former co-lead of Google’s ethical AI team, made an unceremonious exit, theMIT Technology Reviewidentified the key aspects of her unpublished paper that had caused a stir within Google. In summary, to train large AI models, massive computing power and energy is required and this has been expanding since 2017, along with an ever-increasing carbon footprint. TheTechnology Reviewstated that the ‘Transformer’ model, as on January 2019, used 6,56,347 kilowatt-hour (kWh), producing a carbon footprint of 6,26,155 lbs of CO2 equivalent at a cloud computing cost between $9,42,973 and $32,01,722 for a single training of the AI model. Further, since the models tend to use text already present on the Internet, there is a tendency for the AI to reflect strong negative human biases.
Fake news is disinformation that has no basis in reality, but is presented as fact. Being designed to manipulate both the intellect and emotions of a person, it can evoke strong emotional reactions in its reader, which could sometimes result in violence.
In an experimental study conducted among first-year undergraduate History students, who were given some historical content, it was found that novice learners made claims that did not have supporting evidence, were either inaccurate or unrelated.
India’s diversity is its strength, but also the source for numerous conflicts that have persisted over the decades. These conflicts, being rooted in historical claims around politics, culture and religion, will intensify if the historical assumptions and data behind related fake news are not contextually analysed. The problem is aggravated with the decline in history learning programmes worldwide. While the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) curriculum has elements of historical thinking, State boards are primarily focused on the memorisation of content.
The Constitution of India provides a long-term solution under Article 51A (h), which says, “It shall be the duty of every citizen to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.” While the National Education Policy, 2020, captures the needs of the nation, it misses out on historical thinking.
Historical thinking is the set of thinking skills required for learning history. It consists of concepts like points of view, evidence, validity and reliability of the source, contextualisation, and corroboration, apart from other skills. Historical thinking skills can also be applied to law, forensic science, politics and research, and dealing with ‘fake news’.
In the case of fake news, a person would have to be able to read a piece of news, examine the source for bias and ascertain whether the claims being made are factual or whether they constitute deliberate misinformation. Since fake news is designed to appeal to emotion, it becomes all the more important that a person is skilled at interrogating evidence, contextualising the information and corroborating it with alternate sources. If historical thinking has such widespread application, why is it missing from active public discourse and in the education system?
Vikram Vincent has a Ph.D in Educational Technology from IIT Bombay
In contrast to India’s continued ambiguity over the legality of cryptocurrencies, its stance on introducing an official digital currency has been reassuringly clear and consistent over time. And, four years after an inter-ministerial committee recommended that India launch fiat money in digital form, the Reserve Bank of India has indicated that pilot projects to figure out its viability are likely to be launched soon. In a speech a few days ago, T. Rabi Sankar, Deputy Governor, RBI, said, “RBI is currently working towards a phased implementation strategy and examining use cases which could be implemented with little or no disruption.” The clarity is welcome, given that the much-awaited Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021, is yet to be introduced. In recent years, the significant rise of private cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ether has spooked central banks throughout the world, and pushed the case for official digital currencies. Mr. Rabi Sankar himself cited a 2021 BIS survey of central banks, which found that 86% were actively researching the potential for such currencies, 60% were experimenting with the technology, and 14% were deploying pilot projects. China, having already engaged in pilot projects for its digital RMB, is in fact planning a major roll-out soon. There has been little doubt, therefore, that India needs a digital rupee. The important questions are about the details and the timeline.
There are crucial decisions to be made about the design of the currency with regards to how it will be issued, the degree of anonymity it will have, the kind of technology that is to be used, and so on. It is possible that the question of the degree of anonymity, especially, will be quite a challenging one. While official digital currencies can borrow the underlying technology feature of private cryptocurrencies, they significantly differ from the latter in their philosophy and goals. Also to be considered are possible impacts of the introduction of an official digital currency on people, the monetary policy, and the banking system. There are risks to be considered as well, not the least of which will be those emerging from cyberattacks. What is more, many laws need to be amended to make the digital rupee a reality. So, while India might have done exceedingly well in digital payments in recent years — the Deputy Governor said they have grown at a compounded annual growth rate of 55% over the last five years — the digital rupee will be something else altogether. Notwithstanding all these challenges, it would seem that the answer to Mr. Rabi Sankar’s speech title, ‘Central Bank Digital Currency – Is This the Future of Money’, is a yes.
The monsoon is nearing its halfway mark and July, which is among the rainiest months, began with a rainfall deficit but has since seen a revival. For most of last week, all-India rainfall has been over 50% more than what is normal for this time of the year. Many regions in the Konkan coast and the southern peninsula have been seeing instances of extreme rainfall. According to India Meteorological Department (IMD) data on the regional distribution, the ‘South Peninsula’ has seen 29% more rain from June 1-July 25 than what is normal for this period. Rainfall in Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra, was torrential enough to beat its all-time record, according to the IMD. The monsoon is characterised by unexpected variability that forecast models can capture only in a limited way. However, much evidence is accumulating that there is a distinctive change in climate patterns. The frequency and the strength of cyclones over the Arabian Sea have increased in the last two decades. There has been a 52% increase in the frequency of cyclones over the Arabian Sea from 2001-2019 and an 8% decrease over the Bay of Bengal compared to 1982-2002, when, historically, most cyclones have been in the Bay of Bengal, according to a new study inClimate Dynamics.
Even the duration of these cyclones has increased by 80%. More cyclones are bringing in more moisture from the Arabian Sea and contributing to extreme rainfall events over the western coast, the most recent example being cyclone Tauktae in May, which at 185 kilometres per hour was among the strongest cyclones to approach Mumbai. They drive storm surges that flood the coast. Studies show that a heating globe has increased atmospheric moisture levels, contributing to short, intense spells of rains. The interaction between warming, rainfall and temperature is complex and variables such as aerosol emissions, particulate matter pollution, agriculture and forestry patterns must be accounted for. However, the broader picture is that extreme events — bursts of torrential localised rainfall and prolonged droughts and heatwaves — are likely to increase, making the role of accurate forecasts that are able to warn of such events at least three to five days ahead even more important. But the bigger challenge is to undertake so-called climate-proofing of the most vulnerable regions and taking warnings of scientific risk assessment seriously. Evacuations ahead of a flood or a cyclone are not always effective and what is needed is limited construction in places that have been marked vulnerable. Just as it is possible to plan earthquake-resilient structures and site them scientifically, but hard to anticipate a major quake, similarly, proper planning can insure against the inevitable extremities of nature. International climate change agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions will yield benefits only in the very long term but what is done in the near future will mean the difference between surviving and thriving.
For nearly 12 minutes after the Apollo 15 astronauts leave earth on their 12-day round trip to the moon, Major Kenneth Aisler will have his finger poised over a switch that could end it all abruptly. That finger against the Red “Destruct” switch would start a series of events resulting in the jettisoning of the command module containing the three Apollo 15 astronauts, the destruction of the Saturn 5 booster rocket, and the ultimate descent to earth of the Apollo spacecraft from its recovery parachutes. From that moment on, it would be up to “Beach Boss” Col. Robert A. Van Arsdall and his air, land and sea forces standing by for just such a disaster. These two Air Force officers have in their hands the fate of astronauts David R. Scott, James B. Irwin and Alfred M. Worden. They also are responsible for other life and property should the Saturn rocket stray from its programmed path. Although all of America’s 24 manned space flights have made it safely through those tenuous early minutes, safety crews are never sure. They constantly are working to perfect techniques and find new equipment. More than one million people are expected at the Cape area to watch the giant Saturn 5 blast-off. The weather is expected to be good for launch time. Scott and Irwin are scheduled to land on the moon at 3.45 I.S.T. on July 31 and return to earth, north of Hawaii, on August 8 at 2.16 I.S.T.
It’s now clear that 2021-22 isn’t going to be a bumper agriculture year like 2020-21 and the one before that. The primary reason is the monsoon. While 2020 and 2019 were both surplus rainfall years, the current southwest monsoon hasn’t been all that good. The season (June-September) has recorded only 1.4 per cent below-average precipitation so far, but that aggregate figure conceals poor spatial as well as temporal distribution. The South Peninsula has received 27.1 per cent above-average rains. So has Maharashtra (34 per cent), where many parts of the Konkan and the western districts are reporting inundation of farmlands. Much of the rest of India has, however, had sub-par or deficient rainfall. No less damaging has been the three-week-long dry spell from around June 20. Although preceded by intense rainfall activity during the first half of June — and succeeded by the monsoon’s revival towards July 12 or so — the extended “break” happened at the peak of the kharif planting season.
The effects of poorly distributed rains are visible from the agriculture ministry’s latest sowing data. Farmers have planted 10.2 per cent less area under kharif pulses, with the acreages similarly down 10.4 per cent for oilseeds, 15.51 per cent for coarse cereals and 7.7 per cent for cotton. The monsoon’s late recovery is unlikely to make much difference to the kharif crop, whose main sowing window is from mid-June to mid-July. Even assuming normal rainfall for the rest of the season, the benefits would accrue to the ensuing rabi or winter-spring crop. In fact, there is a clear trend, from the last 10 years or more, of rabi agricultural output showing greater stability and even exceeding kharif production. That has to do both with the monsoon’s increasing unpredictability and technologies to harness stored rainwater, whether through dams, farm ponds or drip/sprinkler irrigation.
What should the government do? It must first roll back the retrograde decision to impose stockholding limits on pulses. Not only does this violate the letter and spirit of its farm reform legislation, but also sends wrong signals to farmers who ought to be switching from paddy, sugarcane and wheat to growing more pulses, oilseeds and other less water-guzzling crops. Food inflation is better addressed through import liberalisation and tariff policy, as against quantitative restrictions and stock limits that are weapons of a bygone era. The Centre also needs to cut the excise duty on diesel. The threat of inflation today is more from fuel than food. The government can help by reducing market-distorting taxes in the former and staying the course on farm sector liberalisation.
The government’s much talked about anti-inflationary package has only pushed up prices. This is borne out by the figures released on July 25 which show a record rise of 5.1 per cent in the wholesale index in the very first week after the announcement of the package. The inflation spurt came as a result of two moves – a hike in petroleum prices which was officially describes as an “anti-inflationary measure” and the raising of the bank rate. Following the moves, the wholesale price index registered an increase of 5.1 per cent – the highest weekly jump this year. It’s, however, surprising that the inflation is high given the satisfactory performance of agriculture. The monsoon too has been good.
The ruling National Conference and the Congress (I) in Jammu and Kashmir are all set to patch up. The ball of reconciliation was set forth by Rajiv Gandhi who frankly admitted that PCC(I) was no match for the National Conference. The NC leaders are also happy after the Prime Minister’s visit to the Valley. Sheikh Abdullah is expected to meet Indira Gandhi at his residence on July 26. The CM has already sent his son, Farooq Abdullah, president elect of the NC, to Gulmarg where Indira Gandhi is on holiday.
The fundamentalist Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Rajai scored a landslide victory in in Iran’s Presidential elections to decide the successor of Abolhassan Bani Sadr. He polled 9,585,901 votes. Rajai’s main Abbas Shabayani received only 1,92,111 votes.
Cataract drug recall
A reputed multinational company, the sole manufacturer of Diamox, a drug commonly used in the treatment of cataract is believed to have withdrawn the entire batch of the drug manufactured in November 1980. The decision was taken at the company’s head office in New York, following adverse reactions in Indian patients.
That Delhi and Tehran are trying to find common ground amid the deepening crisis in Afghanistan and prospects of the return of the Taliban’s brutal rule is evident in the growing frequency and intensity of contact between the two establishments. Last week’s telephone conversation between the two foreign ministers came soon after the external affairs minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, stopped over in Tehran on his way to Moscow. It was by no means only a transit halt. After his consultations with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Jaishankar had the privilege of being the first foreign dignitary to be received by the president-elect, Ebrahim Raisi. Tehran has invited India to participate in the swearing-in ceremony of Raisi on August 5. A high-level Indian delegation is expected to be present on the occasion.
Shared geography has always made Afghanistan an important subject of mutual interest for India and Iran. But Delhi and Tehran were not always on the same side. In the 1970s, Delhi was deeply perturbed by the joint efforts of Iran (under the Shah) and Pakistan to destabilise Afghanistan. Iran turned inwards after the Islamic revolution of 1979 and was bogged down in the 1980s in a debilitating war with Iraq. It was only in the 1990s that the Islamic Republic of Iran looked towards Afghanistan and by the middle of the decade found itself on the same side as India. If Delhi was alarmed by the Taliban’s capture of Kabul with the support of the Pakistan Army, Tehran was animated by the groups’s Sunni extremism and its oppression of the Shia and Persian speaking minorities in Afghanistan. Delhi and Tehran made common cause with Moscow to support the so-called Northern Alliance that was fighting the Taliban.
As the Taliban returns to power, once again with the Pakistan Army’s support, Delhi and Tehran need each other even more than before. If India and Iran worked closely with Russia against the Taliban in the 1990s, Moscow now seems eager to embrace the Taliban. For Delhi and Tehran, the contradictions with the Taliban are real. There is little evidence that Taliban has reformed itself, notwithstanding the claims to the contrary by its spokesmen. As it intensifies the engagement with Iran, Delhi should have no expectations of complete unanimity of views with Tehran. Sharing a long border with Afghanistan, Iran is eager to keep its channels of communication open with the Taliban. India, in contrast, does not share a physical border with Afghanistan and can afford to wait. But Delhi and Tehran have a common interest in ensuring a legitimate and peaceful rearrangement of the current order in Afghanistan. Neither of them wants to see the restoration of the Taliban’s hegemony over Afghanistan. They also have a stake in preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for international terrorism. They can pool their resources in shoring up the current government against the Taliban’s offensive backed by Pakistan.
Six petitioners, five claiming to be tenants and the other a landlord, have landed CM Arvind Kejriwal in a spot of bother. Delhi HC has ordered the state government to take a decision on implementing the CM’s promise at a press conference – held during the 2020 migrant exodus – to pay rents for those unable to do so. The court said a promise/assurance/representation given by the CM “amounts to an enforceable promise”. It noted that “a reasonable citizen would believe that the CM has spoken on behalf of his government” and a CM’s solemn pledge cast a duty on the Delhi government to take a stand on enforcing the promise or not.
This is troubling judicial intervention. Judges should not hold netas to their political promises – especially when the judiciary is struggling to hold leaders accountable for failing India’s umpteen laws. The complexity of democracy, resource limitations, and demands of the political marketplace are such that politicians often over-promise, sometimes incredibly so. Remember ‘garibi hatao’ and depositing Rs 15 lakh in everyone’s bank account, to take just two examples. Kejriwal’s promise, in fact, was made not in an election but to try and reverse the course of a human tragedy.
Plus, lofty promises aren’t all bad. If politicians are upping expectations among voters, it follows there will be pressure on them to deliver. Disappointing voters has pitfalls: payback awaits on polling day. While dismissing a 2013 PIL opposing Jayalalithaa’s freebies to voters, SC had directed Election Commission to frame guidelines on the content of party manifestos. That exercise went nowhere, thankfully. Umpiring political promises is needless, futile overreach. Politics is the art of the possible. When politicians make impossible promises, they do so by calculating risks and rewards. Voters decide whether the risk was worth it. Courts should stay out of this.
Amidst the political slugfest over Pegasus, Congress MP Manish Tewari has revived his private members’ bill to give legal backing and parliamentary oversight to intelligence and security agencies, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Intelligence Bureau (IB) and National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO). The idea, first mooted by Tewari in 2011, is excellent and merits cross-party support. In a democracy, it is essential for these agencies to be accountable to the public through the legislature, rather than report to the executive alone.
Take the case of IB. It was set up in 1887 through an administrative order by a British official. Today, 134 years later, there is no constitutional or statutory backing for IB, or even a formal charter, apart from a law in 1985 restricting some of its rights. There’s no independent oversight or external scrutiny. It is essential to lay out an intelligence agency’s remit, the range of actions permitted to the minister it reports to, and protections for the agency’s director. There must be institutional safeguards to allow officials to refuse unreasonable instructions from the political executive.
Of course, secrecy is needed for security and intelligence work. But in democracies, safeguards to prevent illegal or dubious practices are as important. For example, there has to be clear demarcation between public duties and information-gathering that looks political in nature or seems ultra vires of constitutional liberties.
All over the world, it was scandals and rights abuses that spurred change. In mid-1970s, shocked by CIA spying, the US enacted oversight mechanisms, including congressional scrutiny. Australia and Canada followed suit in 1980s. In Canada, for instance, ministerial instructions have to be put in writing and made available to the oversight committee, in Australia, to an independent inspector-general who also reports to the leader of the opposition.
Parliamentary oversight doesn’t mean the whole House. A specialised parliamentary committee to exercise systematic and focussed oversight is what India needs. In the US, congressional intelligence committees, which work within a ring of secrecy, must be informed in advance of special operations. In the UK, the intelligence and security committee’s oversight is limited to policy and finance, in Norway, to matters of human rights and the rule of law. India would do well to follow the US model.
Given intelligence agencies’ enormous new powers of surveillance, and the atmosphere of political polarisation and mutual distrust, it is crucial that India’s espiocrats re-establish their credibility as well as their neutrality.