தலையங்கம் - 28-07-2021

“There are no words in the German language for this devastation... it is a surreal, eerie situation,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said when she visited the regions in Germany hardest hit by the floods which occurred as a result of heavy rains between July 12 and 15.

No escape for any country

A month’s rain poured in just 24 hours in the worst-affected areas of Germany and Belgium. This caused multiple rivers to burst their banks and flood parts of the two countries as well as the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland. It is believed that these areas of Europe have not witnessed such heavy rainfall for more than a century. The floods showed that climate change spares none. Even if a country has adequate resources and advanced infrastructure (physical as well as organisational), it can find no escape from extreme climatic events. Reports say the death toll in Germany and Belgium has crossed 214. Hundreds more are unaccounted for, and authorities are still struggling to restore normalcy. A shocked flood victim told a reporter that he thought such disasters happened only in Asia.

Heavy rainfall within a short period of time resulted in overflowing rivers, canals, and other water bodies flooding many towns and cities. The scenes of roads being washed away, houses getting inundated, and stranded people being evacuated by helicopters, earth movers and lifeboats were no different from what is normally witnessed in India during such disasters. It bore uncanny resemblance to what Kerala experienced in August 2018. Not surprisingly, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan reacted to the situation in Europe. He expressed condolences and asked the Indian community in Europe to stand in solidarity with the flood victims. He also recalled with gratitude the technical assistance extended by the Netherlands to the State following the 2018 floods and the visit of the Dutch King and Queen to Kerala in 2019 when they personally reviewed the joint efforts under way for long-term flood resilience.

Superior organisation, better preparedness and an advanced flood management system helped the Netherlands, with its centuries of experience in dealing with floods, to avoid casualties. But many towns were submerged. Thousands of people had to be evacuated. Floodwaters breached a dike and entered the town of Meerssen. The Dutch military, however, managed to close the breach using hundreds of sandbags.

Chancellor Merkel, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and other leaders were quick to attribute the cause of the floods to climate change and call for urgent action to arrest global warming. Experts say the more CO2 the world emits into the atmosphere, the warmer will be the air temperature. Warmer air holds more moisture and results in excess rainfall, which leads to flooding. Additionally, increasing temperatures at the poles result in slower movement of storms in the mid-latitudes. As a result, storms linger longer at a specific place. The combination of a slow-moving storm and the presence of surplus moisture in the atmosphere results in intense rainfall in one location within a short period of time. In 2018, Kerala, for example, witnessed 414 mm of rain in just three days between August 15 and 17. Rainfall for the period of August 1 to 19, 2018, in Kerala was 164% more than normal.

Several have asked: what did the Netherlands do right in dealing with the floods and what did the others do wrong? The advanced flood warning system of Germany (which includes a network of sensors to measure river water levels in real time) did forecast heavy rains and the possibility of floods. But local authorities were unable to respond rapidly enough and communicate the warnings to the wider population. The rain and floods happened so fast that there was no time to evacuate all residents to safety and fully deploy the formidable rescue and relief infrastructure that they possessed. There are already demands that such warnings must be communicated to the general public in simple language. Rather than forecast the millimetres of rain expected, conveying specific information regarding the extent of damage to property and life would likely encourage affected communities to remain alert and respond quickly.

Lessons for India

The floods in Europe call attention to the global need for countries to implement ecologically sensitive flood protection measures. The Dutch have gone beyond their conventional dependence on dikes, dams, walls and gates to protect themselves from floods. Their current disaster resilience mantra is to live with water, build with nature and make room for the river. They champion creating adequate space for rivers to overflow by protecting floodplains from human interference, deepening riverbeds and creating alternate channels for excess water. After two major floods in 1993 and 1995, the Dutch embarked on several projects to widen riverbanks and reshape the areas around rivers.

The floods in Europe serve as a wake-up call to us in India to adopt pragmatic policies and practices that are nature friendly. We must recognise that we will have to learn to live with water in the long term. Flood-prone areas should be identified, and projects initiated on an urgent basis to create room for rivers. Low-risk areas such as playgrounds, maidans, or agricultural fields should be earmarked to store excess rainwater. Drains must be built for diverting water into these storage units. This will relieve the stress on the existing drainage infrastructure. The stored water can later be discharged back into the drainage channel once the high water subsides. The United Nations Development Programme-World Bank-European Union Post Disaster Needs Assessment report prepared for Kerala after the 2018 floods pointed out that the drainage capacity of the rivers and canals of the State must be increased by creating more room for the water to flow. It called for removing obstructions and encroachments from existing water channels, the proper maintenance of such channels and creating additional channels for water to flow.

In the short term, strengthened disaster readiness, planning and preparation will help us deal with sudden, intense rain and consequent floods. Climate change and global warming will continue to cause extreme climatic events. Across the world, countries are being confronted with situations of either too little or too much water and droughts interspersed with floods. Rainfall has become unpredictable. While national and State disaster management authorities have grown in experience, competence and professionalism, there is need for a higher degree of coordination and preparation across all levels of government. Practice drills need to be conducted in flood-prone areas. We need to test the effectiveness of flood warnings. The warnings should be in local languages and in simple terms.

Today, many are wondering how they can learn from the Dutch experience in preparing for floods and dealing with their aftermath. But the Dutch themselves are wisely not permitting themselves any complacence. Conscious of their vulnerability to water, they maintain a spirit of eternal vigilance to floods. Reflecting this approach, the Dutch Prime Minister has exhorted his countrymen to learn from the recent disaster and see what more can be done rather than stay satisfied that major damage and loss of lives was prevented.

Venu Rajamony is former Ambassador of India to the Netherlands and co-author of ‘What We Can Learn from the Dutch: Rebuilding Kerala Post 2018 Floods’.This article has been written with inputs from Rakesh N.M., an architect in the Netherlands

As the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) end their presence in Afghanistan and set off a churn in the neighbourhood, Central Asia is emerging as a key player that the global Troika of the United States, Russia and China are turning to. Three meetings this month, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) contact group on Afghanistan and SCO Defence Ministers in Tajikistan, and the Central and South Asia conference on regional connectivity in Uzbekistan, are turning the spotlight on the region’s role in dealing with the situation in Afghanistan, and how India could build on that.

Factoring in the Taliban

Put plainly, events of the past few years, and the decisions of the Troika have kept India out of a leading role in Afghanistan. Since 2019, the Troika has met with Pakistan (Troika plus) in order to discuss Afghanistan’s future, one in which the Taliban — with which New Delhi has had no ties — gains an important if not controlling role in Kabul. The same powers that invaded Afghanistan post 9/11, and declared the Taliban leadership as United Nations Security Council-designated terrorists, are now not only advocating talks with the Taliban, entreating their Pakistani hosts of the past two decades to help, but actively paving the way for the Taliban’s return to power.

India’s efforts to build on trade with Afghanistan, shore up development projects and increase educational and training opportunities for Afghan youth have been appreciated, but these cannot grow bigger due to a number of factors. New Delhi’s original hesitation in opening talks with the Taliban, which even Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani had suggested, has cut India out of the current reconciliation process. The end of any formal dialogue between India and Pakistan since 2016 and trade since 2019, have resulted in Pakistan blocking India’s over-land access to Afghanistan. India’s alternative route through Chabahar, though operational, cannot be viable or cost-effective also long as U.S. sanctions on Iran are in place. India’s boycott of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2017, and now tensions at the Line of Actual Control after the Chinese aggression in 2020, make another route to Afghanistan off-limits.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has announced a new, surprise formation of a “Quad” on regional connectivity — U.S.-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan that does not include India, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is conducting trial runs of truck convoys from Tashkent to Karachi and back. With so many doors slamming shut, the hope is that the Central Asian window, with the “Stans” (as the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are sometimes referred to) will open new possibilities, but here too, there are some caveats.

Uzbekistan’s view

To begin with, it is clear that Tashkent (Uzbekistan) sees the rise of the Taliban in a different light from New Delhi. After a whirlwind round of negotiations in his own region since coming to power in 2016, where he mended relations and ended border disputes with each of the other Central Asian States, and outreaches to the U.S. and China to shift the traditional tilt towards Moscow, Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has made purposeful moves on Afghanistan. In 2018, his government became one of the first countries to publicly invite a Taliban delegation from Doha, Qatar to visit, while at the same time he has promoted a number of ambitious trade and connectivity initiatives with the Ashraf Ghani government.

A push for connectivity

Speaking at the Central and South Asia conference in July, Mr. Mirziyoyev spelt out his plans for a modern version of the “the ancient northern trade route known as the Uttara Patha, connecting the Indo-Ganges Plain with the southern territories of the Eurasian continent through the historical cities of Takshila, Gandhara and Termez.” He spoke of the old Silk Routes that once bound Central and South Asia together, and called Afghanistan the key link in “practical connectivity” for them. Significantly, while he mentioned the salience of the Termez-Mazar-i-Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar railroad, the Trans-Afghan railroad to connect to China’s BRI, and the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) via the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas as key elements of the “architecture of connectivity”, he did not mention the Chabahar route that India has espoused. The Uzbekistan-Pakistan memorandum of understanding on Transit Trade — or the Agreement between Uzbekistan and Pakistan on Transit Trade (AUPTT) — was also signed the same day, which would give Uzbekistan access to the Pakistani seaports of Gwadar and Karachi, rather than Iranian ports.

Uzbekistan’s calculations, and by extension, those of its other Central Asian neighbours, are three-fold: the first is that prosperity for these land-locked countries can only flow from access through Afghanistan to the closest ocean, i.e. the Indian Ocean. Second, that all transit through Afghanistan depends on guarantees of safe passage from the Taliban, backed by the group’s mentors in Pakistan. Third, each of the “Stans” are now a part of China’s BRI, and tying their connectivity initiatives with Beijing’s will bring the double promise of investment and some modicum of control over Pakistan.

Shared concerns

Given the odds, New Delhi’s room for manoeuvre with these five countries on Afghanistan appears limited but not without hope. To begin with, India and the Central Asian States share common concerns about an Afghanistan overrun by the Taliban and under Pakistan’s thumb: the worries of battles at their borders, safe havens for jihadist terror groups inside Afghanistan and the spill-over of radicalism into their own countries.

It is necessary for India to work with them, and other neighbours to shore up finances for the government in Kabul, particularly to ensure that the government structure does not collapse. It is only a matter of time before the COVID-19-weary international economies tire of funding Afghanistan, as the last donors conference in Geneva (November 2020) showed.

As part of the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), India must also step up its engagement with the Central Asian countries on fighting terror. While the Narendra Modi government has made it clear it will not send Indian boots to the ground in Afghanistan, it can support the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) where it needs it most: in terms of air power. India’s previous gift of a few helicopters is far from adequate, given commitments made as Afghanistan’s first Strategic Partner 10 years ago, and there must be more that New Delhi can support, especially in conjunction with other countries that depend on Soviet-made arms, including helicopters and planes, weaponry, ammunition and spare parts.

Dealing with Pakistan

Finally, South Asia must learn from Central Asia’s recent example in knitting together this region more tightly, a task that can only be completed with better ties between India and Pakistan. New Delhi’s furtive discussions with the Taliban leadership in Doha make little sense unless a less tactical and more strategic engagement with Pakistan is also envisaged.

Most importantly, countries of Central Asia and South Asia need to find a more unified voice, as they have in recent weeks. Afghanistan’s future will affect both regions much more than it will the distant global powers that currently dominate the debate.

Travelling to Kazakhstan in 2015, Prime Minister Modi spoke of why the Silk Road that connected the two regions faded away. “The end of the Silk Road did not just come about from the rise of sea-based trade of the new European powers,” he said, “It also happened because Central Asia was no longer a bridge between regions, but the new fault line between great empires to the east, west and south.” Ensuring a similar rupture is not wrought in Afghanistan is essential, which today has the potential to become that bridge or the biggest boulder between Central and South Asia.

suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every sector in the economy in India and across the globe as well. Relatively, the education sector has managed to maintain its revenue. Both schools and colleges have transitioned to the online education mode to serve their students. Under the pretext of providing online education, most private institutions have managed to collect fees in full.

Survey and findings

Though the revenue of private educational institutions has not taken a huge hit, the same cannot be said about the livelihoods of teachers in private unaided colleges. During the novel coronavirus pandemic, layoffs and pay cuts have forced several private-unaided college teachers to take up odd jobs to provide for their families. The example of an assistant professor in Tamil Nadu who suffered a pay cut in a private-unaided college following the pandemic and who died while climbing a palm tree — he had taken to cutting the leaves of palm trees to make a living — pushed us to survey private-unaided college teachers and to understand the impact of the pandemic on their working and living conditions. We surveyed 194 teachers working in private-unaided colleges that are affiliated with the University of Madras, Chennai. The survey was conducted between June 13 and June 26, 2021.

The findings show that even before the pandemic, private-unaided college teachers received below-par salaries and many did not enjoy any social security benefits. Among 194 respondents, 137 fulfilled the University Grants Commission (UGC) qualifying criteria (has PhD or National Eligibility Test or State Eligibility Test) to be an assistant professor; 72% of these qualified teachers received less than Rs. 25,000 per month and 5.1% received less than Rs. 10,000 per month, while according to the Seventh Pay Commission entry-level consolidated monthly salary for an assistant professor is Rs. 76,809.

In our survey, we found that only 38% and 42% had Employee State Insurance and paid leave, respectively. This deplorable condition of private-unaided college teachers can be attributed to the absence of any State regulation of private higher educational institutions, including on matters relating to the working conditions of teachers and other employees.

Following neoliberal policies, the Indian state has withdrawn from providing higher education. This has resulted in the enormous growth of private higher educational institutions. According to the All-India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), 2020 report, at all India level, 65% of the total colleges are private unaided colleges. Tamil Nadu, which is one of the few States that privatised higher education in the early 1980s, has 77% private unaided colleges. This shows the dominance of profit-maximising private-unaided colleges in higher education.

Online education as burden

It is against this background that we must understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the livelihood of private-unaided college teachers. Private-unaided college teachers have made every effort to provide service to students in the online mode. In our survey, 88% of the respondents noted one or more of the following as the reason(s) for the difficulty they faced in online teaching — lack of Internet, lack of room/space, and lack of quality equipment. Further, every respondent had to incur an expenditure to purchase Internet service. Of the 194 teachers surveyed, 132 had to incur an expenditure to purchase one or more of the following items: a phone, computer, headphones. And, 107 respondents reported experiencing high emotional distress during this period linked to online teaching work. All these show that these teachers had to physically, emotionally, and monetarily exert themselves to provide online education during this pandemic. Despite this valorising effort by private-unaided college teachers, they have not been rewarded by their management. Instead, they have been punished with severe pay cuts during the pandemic.

The survey data revealed that through the first half of 2020-21, less than a third of teachers received the full salary they were entitled to. Sadly, 10% of our respondents did not receive any salary during April to June 2020. As colleges have transitioned to online mode, one can argue that the operational costs of these colleges must have declined drastically. Further, it is a well-known fact that private colleges have collected fees from students. Therefore, there is no justification for reducing the salary of teachers during this pandemic. Private-unaided colleges have used the pandemic as an excuse to rob teachers who have worked hard to teach under very difficult conditions, incurring considerable monetary expenses and experiencing much stress during this period.

Making ends meet

The arbitrary pay cuts have forced several of our respondents to work in additional jobs and/or borrow money from informal sources to survive. These jobs were mostly manual informal jobs such as construction work, farm labour, mechanic work, food delivery, etc. While the pandemic may have worsened the livelihood conditions of private-unaided college teachers, their working conditions were deplorable even in ‘normal’ times because of the complete absence of regulations by the State in this regard. The Government of Tamil Nadu should consider taking some immediate measures in this regard. Some of these are: pay complete arrears salary to private-unaided college teachers that have been siphoned off by the management; reinstate teachers laid off without any cause; reimburse the expenditure incurred by teachers for online teaching during the pandemic.

In 2018, Kerala fixed Rs. 1,750 per day and Rs. 43,750 per month as a standard salary for lecturers with UGC qualification and Rs. 1,600 per day and Rs. 40,000 per month for lecturers without UGC qualification in unaided private colleges. The Tamil Nadu government may consider implementing something along these lines. Further, the Tamil Nadu Private Colleges (Regulation) Act 1976 needs to be reviewed and amended to equip monitoring agencies such as the Directorate of Collegiate Education and the Regional Joint Directorate of Collegiate Education to safeguard the welfare of teachers and non-teaching staff in unaided private colleges.

A.P. Arun Kannan is Director at the Loyola Institute of Vocational Education (LIVE), Loyola College, Chennai. Kishorekumar Suryaprakash is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, U.S. The views expressed are personal

Portraying a Dalit character as the protagonist is a significant development in Tamil cinema. Dalits are now shown as courageous men performing fantastic heroic deeds. InKabali, the Dalit is the leader of Malaysian migrants. InKaala, he is the good-hearted mafia don who challenges the authority of the ruling class in Mumbai. InAsuran, he is an angry man who uses violence to protect his family against feudal lords. InKarnan,he is a village rebel who kills a police inspector in a revengeful act of justice. These are violent stories about Dalits’ social struggles, aspirations and quest for justice. In these films, the Dalit characters emerge as the equal claimants of popular heroic virtues.

A beautiful metaphor

In Pa Ranjith’sSarpatta Parambarai,the hero Kabilan (Arya) stands distinct from earlier Dalit protagonists. We see Kabilan first as a part of an audience at a boxing game. Then from an underdog boxer he overcomes social obstacles to become the ultimate champion of the game. The film thus escapes the typical social burden of the Dalit hero and shows Kabilan as a young sportsperson who plays the game with dedication and grit. Kabilan does not use violence for revenge. Instead, the competitive game of boxing emerges as a beautiful metaphor to represent social conflicts, clan pride and personal passions. Kabilan is not a revenge-hungry young man but a committed disciple of his clan’s boxing coach Rangan (Pasupathy) and enters the ring only to protect the dignity of his people. Though the violence in the boxing ring showcases raw masculinity, it is utilised only to suggest that even ghettoised people can enter into any game and emerge victorious. Kabilan’s punches demonstrate that human spirit and passion cannot be imprisoned by any class or community.

The new Dalit hero as an aggressive man is different from the stereotypical representations of him as brutalised. However, these new films only change the social location of the conventional hero; they don’t radically alter the idea of the popular hero. The Dalit hero appears as an improvised version of the mainstream hero as he is also depicted as a tormented man. Though these characters often play under the shadows of Dalit symbols like B.R. Ambedkar’s photograph or Buddha’s statue, we are yet to see an authentic portrayal of a Dalit protagonist who can represent Ambedkarite cultural aesthetics and Dalits’ political vision on screen.

The recent portrayals supplement the populist attributes of Tamil cinema and stand agnostic to Ambedkar’s political principles and social ethics. After the Russian revolution, while many western educated elites were influenced by Marxist political ideology and wanted to test socialist ideas in Indian conditions, Ambedkar showed only a passive appreciation towards it. He appreciated the socialist, transformative agenda to address class inequality; however, he disassociated himself from the advocates of revolutionary or anarchic violence against the state or the dominant elites. He understood that the Dalits were the most powerless among the Hindus and any violent challenge to the ruling classes would only invite further alienation, subjugation and brutal repression.

More than imagining a violent conflict between the Dalits and upper caste Hindus, Ambedkar wanted to build a democratic dialogue to achieve a better conception of the modern state and civil society. His primary task was to bring an enlightened consciousness amongst the Dalits so that they can cherish their rights as citizens and claim various entitlements. Ambedkar’s greater goal was not to eliminate the social elites or defeat them in physical battles but to introduce the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity in society. The Dalit social and political assertion must be peaceful, ethical, and engaged with the principles of social justice. In the post-Ambedkar period, Kanshi Ram used constitutional and democratic apparatuses to mobilise the Dalit-Bahujan people for bringing about political change. However, such powerful figures and their movements are yet to find respectable presence on the silver screen. Instead, the recent Dalit protagonists we see are of macho males furiously fighting evil caste supremacy.

Ambedkar’s political ideas stand distinct from the violent masculinity that has been idealised in Indian cinema’s action genre. The emerging Dalit’s heroic avatar too appears as a tacit mimicry of the masculine male fantasy that mainstream Tamil cinema has produced all these years. While there are Dalit characters in cinema now, most portrayals endorse the dominant cultural narrative that celebrates hedonistic aspirations, militant violence and male superiority. The emerging Dalit cinematic genre can do better if it also challenges the populist narrative structure and liberates cinema from its patriarchal gaze.Sarpatta Parambaraiis not an ideal addition here but it is a promising move towards breaking the Dalit hero’s fantasy for violence and revenge.

Harish S. Wankhede is an assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi

Sita was 13 years old when she was trafficked. Her parents worked in a tea garden in Assam for meagre wages. She was trafficked to a placement agency in New Delhi, and bought for about Rs. 20,000 as a domestic worker by a couple. Sita was not paid a single rupee. Instead, she was re-trafficked, raped, and exploited by employers and traffickers. Sita’s father and I found the young girl trapped in a house in Delhi three years later. But she did not step out when we found her. She hid behind a wall, crying. “I cannot show my face to my father. I am impure now. I want to kill myself,” she said.

This is the reality of thousands of women and children from the poorest sections of our society. No nation can call itself civilised if it tolerates the buying and selling of its daughters. Of what meaning is the wealth, power or progress of a nation if its children are traded as though in medieval slave trade, at a lower price than cattle?

A comprehensive Bill

Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA) and various civil society groups have campaigned for decades for a strong law to end this menace of human trafficking. In 2017, Sita and thousands of survivors like her marched in the Bharat Yatra alongside students, governments, the judiciary, multifaith leaders, businesses and civil society to demand for such a law. We covered 12,000 km with over 1.2 million people on foot with the single demand that India must pass a comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation. The passionate chants of these brave hearts who survived trafficking still reverberate in my ears, “Bikne ko taiyaar nahi hum, lutne ko taiyaar nahi hum(We are not ready to be sold, we are not ready to be stolen)”.

The Government of India has proposed the Trafficking in Persons (Prevention, Care and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2021. This Bill aims to tackle all aspects of trafficking including the social and economic causes of the crime, punishment to traffickers, and the protection and rehabilitation of survivors. This is achievable if the Bill has the necessary checks and balances against potential misuse of power by agencies, periodic reviews of the law, and adequate allocation of resources for effective implementation. The government must include these crucial provisions in the Bill and facilitate its smooth passage in the current session of Parliament.

A problem worsened by COVID

COVID-19 has further intensified the need for the law. Traffickers are taking advantage of prolonged school closures and loss of family livelihood. BBA with government agencies has rescued almost 9,000 children from trafficking since the first lockdown. In comparison, about half this number of children were rescued during the same time period of 14 months preceding the pandemic. The gravity of the situation cannot be undermined. We will not recover from the effects of the pandemic without the wherewithal to address its human impact, which comes with this law and its associated budgets.

Human trafficking is a crime in itself, but it is also the propeller of several other crimes. It creates a parallel black economy which fuels child labour, child marriage, prostitution, bonded labour, forced beggary, drug-related crimes, corruption, terrorism and other illicit businesses. The architects of our Constitution established the severity of the crime of trafficking by making it the only offence punishable under the Constitution of India itself, besides untouchability. A strong anti-trafficking law is the moral and constitutional responsibility of our elected leaders, and a necessary step towards nation-building and economic progress. It is non-negotiable for the realisation of an India that our Constitution-makers envisioned, our freedom fighters struggled for, our soldiers die for, and our children deserve. India is stepping into its 75th year of Independence. There can be no greater gift to India than the freedom of our children. I call on Parliament to urgently pass a strong anti-trafficking law.

Kailash Satyarthi is a Nobel Laureate

Following a dangerous and avoidable escalation of an otherwise dormant border dispute, five policemen and a civilian from Assam were killed in the Mizo border town of Vairengte in clashes between police from the State and their counterparts in Mizoram, on Monday. The sequence of events, beginning October 2020, suggests that what began as skirmishes between residents close to the disputed border between Assam’s Cachar and Mizoram’s Kolasib districts has snowballed into a violent confrontation between police and residents. The events point to a failure of the constitutional machinery, empowered to de-escalate tensions at the border. The presence of central paramilitary forces should have helped maintain the peace, but it is curiously not the case. Besides, Assam and Mizoram are governed by the BJP and its ally, the Mizo National Front, respectively, and are part of North-East Democratic Alliance, of which the Assam Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, is a founder-convenor. The political bonhomie should have allowed the respective Chief Ministers to tamp down border tensions and to return to the status quo through joint fact-finding teams, involving the administrative officials in maintaining the peace over the border issue. Instead, both Chief Ministers have been exchanging allegations on Twitter, seeking the intervention of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, and using videos to tell a story that suited their version of the events — a farcical means of communication. This also occurred just days after both Chief Ministers (along with others) met with Mr. Shah to discuss the resolution of inter-State border disputes. The unfortunate loss of lives has led to hardened stances, with Mr. Sarma announcing that Assam would deploy “4,000 commandos to guard its border”, even as Mizoram’s Chief Minister Zoramthanga has maintained that the casualties followed from the Assam police’s actions.

Sectarian tribalism has been the bane of the North-eastern States, with underdevelopment acting as a catalyst in complicating knotty issues over land and other issues in the region. There is no sure-shot and quick solution possible to the border disputes between various States without a spirit of give and take and a civic engagement brokered by the Union government. But for that to happen, governments should, first, not condone violence of any kind and restrain partisans engaging in such activity in their respective States. A resort to one-upmanship will only prolong the disputes and harden stances. The Home Ministry must ensure that the Assam-Mizoram border situation is first subject to de-escalation and steps taken to return to the status quo that prevailed before the skirmishes began in October 2020 with the cooperation of the respective States.

Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decision to sack the Prime Minister and suspend Parliament, amid widespread anti-government protests, has triggered the worst political crisis in the country since the Arab Spring protests. Among the countries affected by the Arab street protests, Tunisia was the only one that managed to successfully transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy. But the North African country’s elected rulers never managed to ease its economic woes, or offer stable governance. Tunisia has had nine governments since 2011, with its crisis-hit economy being battered further by the COVID-19 outbreak — last year, its GDP contracted by 8.8% in real terms. The trigger now is the government’s poor handling of the pandemic. The country of 11.8 million has recorded nearly 18,000 COVID-related deaths so far — one of the highest per capita death rates in the world. Only 7% of the population are fully vaccinated. Last week, the government’s move to speed up vaccination by opening it for all above 18 years ended in stampedes and violent incidents. Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi sacked the Health Minister, but public anger refused to subside. On July 25, Tunisia’s Republic Day, protests broke out and the offices of the ruling party, Ennahda, stormed. This allowed the President to sack the government.

President Saied says he stepped in to “save the state”. But in a country where the wounds of decades-long dictatorship are yet to heal, his move to dissolve an elected government would raise concerns rather than comfort. Both the President and Parliament are popularly elected. Mr. Mechichi had the backing of Ennahda, the largest party in the suspended Parliament. President Saied, who is an independent, has had a testy relationship with Ennahda and the Prime Minister. While the Mechichi government has clearly failed in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, the President’s move to dissolve Parliament appears more a power grab than a genuine attempt to address the country’s problems. Ennahda and at least two other parties have accused Mr. Saied of orchestrating a coup. If they resort to protests, it would pitch the parties that control Parliament against the President, deepening political instability. The 2014 Constitution has called for a constitutional court to settle crises like these, but the court has not been formed yet. Under the Constitution, the President oversees only the military and foreign affairs, while the Prime Minister is in charge of the day-to-day affairs of governance. So to avoid a constitutional crisis, the President will have to appoint a Prime Minister, who should win the confidence of the Assembly of the People’s Representatives. Mr. Saied should act within his constitutional limits, recall Parliament and allow the formation of a legitimate government, which could take steps to address Tunisia’s economic and health-care woes.

The Apollo-15 Astronauts successfully fired their main spacecraft engine for one second in a special test to-night [Space Centre, Houston, July 27] clearing the way for a lunar landing attempt on Friday. There is a short circuit somewhere in the engine’s electrical system. If the engine had not fired, astronauts David Scott, James Irwin and Alfred Worden would have abandoned the landing goal and conducted an alternate lunar orbit scientific mission. Mission Commander David Scott sounded jubilant and relieved. Mission Control said the test proved that the trouble with the engine system was only something “which might be a little annoying.” Slightly more than half-an-hour before the firing, Apollo-15 passed the half-way point of its outward journey, when it was 209,354 km. from both earth and moon. Experts at Mission Control will need time to evaluate the engine burn. But Flight Director Glynn Lunney said earlier to-day that if the power plant fired as planned, the astronauts would press on with the landing. Astronauts Scott and Irwin are to land at the base of the Apennine mountains, the tallest on the moon, to search for clues to the birth of the solar system.