Editorials - 07-06-2021

China’s actions and the Wuhan lab connection do require closer scrutiny even if the U.S. may not find the smoking gun

The publication of science writer, editor, and author Nicholas Wade’s well-researched article in theBulletin of the Atomic Scientists,“The origin of COVID: Did people or nature open Pandora’s box at Wuhan?” (https://bit.ly/3uWUxMI), hasset alarm bells ringing about the collusive cover up of the possible leak of the novel coronavirus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). He has laid out a strong case for a fuller investigation into the event.

The U.S. link

China promoted the narrative that the virus spread from a wet market (seafood and animal market) in Wuhan to avoid any scrutiny of what was being done in the WIV. Senior health officials in the United States seemed to concur. It soon became public that the coronavirus-related research in the WIV was funded by American money. Most experts embraced the natural spread narrative since the alternative was unimaginable. The lab-leak proposition was discredited as a conspiracy theory simply because it was being espoused by then U.S. President Donald Trump and his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.

With advances in biotechnology, it is now possible to genetically engineer existing pathogens to make them more lethal and difficult to treat. Higher mortality and ethnic specificity could be the other features of such new, synthesised organisms or viruses. A possible antidote or vaccine would only be accessible to those conducting such research.

Dr. Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance obtained grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and subcontracted research to a group headed by Dr. Shi Zhengli at the WIV. Dr. Daszak claimed in a 2019 interview that after six or years of research, over 100 new SARS-related coronaviruses, some of which were introduced into human cells in the lab, caused SARS disease in humanised mice and were untreatable. The research carried out involved the creation of novel, life-threatening and pandemic-creating viruses.

The WIV operates a Biosafety level-4 (BSL-4) facility. Its deficient safety had been flagged by U.S. inspectors, but there is no record of any remedial action. A 2018 inspection report stated that the facility did not have appropriately trained professionals to safely operate the BSL-4 laboratory (https://wapo.st/3gbHkKJ). A former Israeli intelligence official and visiting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Dany Shoham, now with the Bar Ilan University, Israel, has linked the WIV to China’s biological weapons programme (https://bit.ly/3gb1XH3).

Why were American funds made available to a Chinese laboratory to conduct sensitive research? No doubt because it was less expensive and dangerous to carry out the experiments in China. Besides, U.S. funding ensured it would have access to the experiments conducted at the WIV. In a recently released email (https://bit.ly/3co8Xzb), Dr. Daszak thanked the Director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, for publicly stating that scientific evidence supported a natural origin for the coronavirus and not a lab release.

China’s reactions

Admittedly, it is difficult to distinguish between a naturally occurring event, an accidental release of a genetically modified pathogen, or its deliberate use. Because of this and the lingering suspicions, it is the responsibility of the institution and the country where the first outbreak occurred to establish the facts.

China has done the opposite. It has covered up facts and impeded the investigation. A 34-year-old doctor in Wuhan, Li Wenliang, tried to alert others on a social media platform from his hospital bed in Wuhan about a possible outbreak of a SARS-type virus. Instead of treating the young doctor as a hero, Chinese security officials vilified him and charged him with making false claims, spreading rumours, and disturbing the social order. He died as a result of a coronavirus infection. While he was officially exonerated by an investigation into his death, the report has been criticised for only having recommended the reprimand be withdrawn. There are also other reports of the police making an apology to his family.

The WIV head of coronavirus research, Shi Zhengli’s database on SARS-like viruses went offline just before the virus outbreak in Wuhan. Countries demanding greater transparency and accountability have been either denounced or ‘punished’ by China. China’s vehement opposition to further investigations, actions to suppress facts from getting out, and reluctance to share data only fuel the suspicion that China has something to hide.

The release of the findings of the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 30 — and revised on April 6 (https://bit.ly/3fVDuGH) — on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (coronavirus) that dismissed the lab-leak as “extremely unlikely” actually energised the controversy instead of laying it to rest. Subsequently, the WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called for further studies on the virus origins and said that all hypotheses remained on the table, dismissing the earlier findings as non-definitive.

The WHO findings were tainted because Dr. Daszak, a self-declared partisan of the natural occurrence theory and with a personal financial stake in the WIV experimentation, was included in the inquiry team (https://nyti.ms/3uXFZN9). Together with a group of fellow virologists, Dr. Daszak had already declared in February that they stood together to “strongly condemn conspiracy theories” suggesting that the virus did not have a natural, zoonotic origin (https://bit.ly/3w9o07y). Including him in the WHO investigation team was akin to having a suspect investigate the crime scene.

It is unlikely that U.S. President Joe Biden’s call to the U.S. intelligence community (https://bit.ly/3clSoEd) — “to collect and analyse information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days” — will result in a smoking gun being found. Unfortunately, the available evidence that is scant will compromise a credible forensic examination. Any determination of what went wrong will necessarily be circumstantial.

Present and future dangers

That the coronavirus escaped from the WIV is in fact increasingly plausible. Whether this was a negligent or wilful act can never be proven, but it is evident that the research at the WIV — bioengineering more lethal coronavirus variants — crossed ethical boundaries.

The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) — formerly known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction — has no systems to verify compliance with its prohibitions, nor any enforcement mechanisms to penalise infringement of its provisions. These shortcomings have been repeatedly highlighted in the five-yearly Review Conferences of the BWC, but the state parties to the BWC have been unable to agree on any measures to address them, thus compromising on biosecurity and wilful breaches of the Convention.

Smallpox and other viruses have escaped from secure laboratories before. Public knowledge is that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, and the Russian State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology, Koltsovo, are now the only two “official” repositories of smallpox spores, but there have been persistent fears that these have been disseminated, and certain countries are experimenting with genetically modifying them. Smallpox was deadly enough. Its ‘improved’ version might be devastating.

The coronavirus research conducted in the WIV for years is an example of science that has run amok, without ethical restraints or any code of conduct for the scientists, who appear to be bereft of any accountability. Such action threatens the very existence of humankind. This is why China’s role requires closer scrutiny.

Jayant Prasad is a former diplomat and

a former Director-General of the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses

There are many methods rooted in behavioural science that we can employ to improve mask wearing

Most of us in India will agree that there are two large parts to this pandemic: medical science and human behaviour. Universal vaccination will reduce infections, but with vaccine availability currently challenging, ‘herd immunity’ is still many months, if not years, away.

Lack of physical distancing and proper hand washing are among the reasons for daily new infections. But the biggest reason for the surge is that people are wearing masks inconsistently, incorrectly, or not at all. Data from a global survey of COVID-19 knowledge, attitudes and practices (KAP) produced by the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs show that from July 2020 to March 2021, India saw a 5% drop in mask wearing. In the two-week period starting on March 15, 84% reportedly wore masks. However, the number varied sub-nationally and it was not measured whether the mask wearing was correct or consistent.

Nevertheless, this is discouraging. While there will always be a minority who do not believe in the virus, masks or vaccines, a great majority would like to do what it takes to put this pandemic behind us. Relying solely on medical science, especially treatment, takes the agency away from the average people to act.

Channels for communication

With behavioural data and strategic approaches, resources can be more efficiently used in reaching different audience segments with information through the channels they trust. Here are seven ways, rooted in behavioural science, that we can employ to improve mask wearing and other COVID-19 prevention measures.

First, we all need basic information on why masks are effective in preventing COVID-19 transmission. We also need to know who should wear them, when and where. We need clarity on what types of masks are most effective, how to wear a mask correctly, and when is it important to double mask. The COVID-19 KAP survey shows that scientists and health experts are the most trusted sources of information on COVID-19, followed by the World Health Organization, television, newspapers, radio, and local health workers. These trusted channels should be used together to share basic information. As new information becomes available that is different from, or that adds to, the baseline information that people have, it should be shared with everyone in a comprehensive and timely way. We should not discount or put down people’s beliefs or misconceptions, but counter them with credible facts (Limaye, Sauer 2021). Addressing those barriers creatively through expert testimonials, infographics and statistics that explain how masks have prevented infection transmission is important.

Second, not everyone has the same information needs. Some don’t believe that masks prevent COVID-19 infection whereas some know and agree that masks do prevent infection but don’t wear them consistently or correctly for various reasons. Communication to each group of people should be tailored accordingly. Generic messages saying ‘wear your mask’ can only serve as reminders at best; they will not help someone who, say, only wears a mask when she decides that she is in a risky situation. For that person, the message should convince her that any situation outside the home can pose a COVID-19 risk and that masking up any time you leave your house is critical.

Third, we need to communicate the benefits of mask wearing. We need to highlight stories that show how COVID-19 infections are low among communities where mask wearing is high. Sharing testimonials from people who wear masks regularly and explaining how they have managed to avoid getting infected could help. Making masks a symbol of being cool (for the image-conscious), a sign of being considerate and respectful (for people who have elders and vulnerable people at home), and a badge of being smart (for those who want to protect themselves) could all be ways of reaching out to different kinds of people.

Positive social norm

Fourth, we need to create a positive social norm around mask wearing. People are more likely to practise a behaviour if they believe that everyone else is also doing it too. Each audience segment has its own influencers, whether in their community or in the media. Those influencers should be routinely seen wearing a mask or heard talking about it. Advertisements, messages and visuals all positively reinforce mask wearing.

Fifth, we need to enforce correct and consistent mask wearing. Many people do not follow proper masking behaviour because there is no consequence for their inaction. We rely only on the police to enforce mask wearing. While that is needed, we should all take collective responsibility. We need language that shows us how to politely tell an unmasked or poorly masked community member to wear a mask. If each of us can influence the people around us, the positive multiplier effect of wearing masks will be significant in curbing infections.

Sixth, we need compassionate leadership. Leaders, at every level, can play a positive or negative role in influencing our behaviour. From the head of a family to the head of a country, leaders have to lead with empathy, and build and hold the trust of the people they lead. Religion, politics and profit have no role when we are in such a dire situation. These leaders should themselves consistently convey and enact positive behaviours like mask wearing and vaccinations.

The role of media

Seventh, we need responsible media. If fear of the threat (COVID-19 in this case) is stronger than our perception that we can do something about it, we will ignore the threat rather than trying to address it (EPPM, Witte et al. 1992). We look to the media for brave and honest reporting and there have been some great examples of that during the pandemic. However, when many channels sow more panic than positivity, the audience grows numb. People feel that there may be no point in them doing anything if it is all doom and gloom anyway. In their helplessness, people indiscriminately share information, misinformation and disinformation on social media. We need sections of the media to hold themselves to a high standard and report on much more than just burning pyres, struggling hospitals, the oxygen crisis and vaccine and drug shortages. When we see uplifting and inspiring stories of prevention efforts, ideas and innovations to promote masking, distancing and vaccination, we will feel inspired to do our bit for prevention.

If we want to finish this year being able to celebrate festivals, hug our loved ones and enjoy a real holiday, we need to invest in a comprehensive, behavioural approach to address COVID-19 behaviour. While no expense is being spared in engaging the best scientific experts from around the world to address questions and explain the pandemic, the human behavioural aspect has only been addressed in an ad hoc manner. Understanding, predicting and shaping human behaviour is a science too. Indeed, it is the less expensive way of digging ourselves out of the hole we are currently in.

Uttara Bharath Kumar is a Senior Technical Advisor for Social and Behaviour Change at the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs which is part of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University

An ardent Indophile’s poem on the life of Buddha stirred a rethink on conventional ideas of a philosophy

Published in London in July 1879,The Light of Asiaby Sir Edwin Arnold, a poem on the life and teachings of the Buddha, contributed greatly to the international community’s knowledge of Buddhism and also played an important role in India’s cultural awakening and social transformation.Jairam Rameshhighlights the influence it had on the subcontinent’s leaders from Swami Vivekananda, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru to Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. An excerpt from TheLight of Asia: The Poem that Defined the Buddha, the biography of an epic poem written in blank verse:

Edwin Arnold was a quintessential Victorian in every way. A remarkable polyglot, he was conversant in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Turkish, French, German, Japanese, Hebrew, Persian, Sanskrit and Marathi. For about forty years he was a leader writer for London’s newspaperThe Daily Telegraph. He was a firm believer in the civilising mission of the British Empire, but he was also at the same time an ardent Indophile.

So far, Arnold had written a two-volume study of Lord Dalhousie as Viceroy. He had published translations of two very well-known Indian literary classics. In addition, he had brought out a number of original poems on Indian themes. But in 1879 he would hit the jackpot as it were and bring out the blockbuster that would reverberate across the world. The Buddha was very much in the air, what with Rhys Davids, Max Mueller himself and Madame Blavatsky having generated up great interest in him. It was natural for a man of Arnold’s background and inclinations to be drawn into writing something on this theme.

The title page reads thus: The Light of Asia or The Great Renunciation (Mahabhinishkramana) being the Life and Teaching of Gautama Prince of India and Founder of Buddhism (as told in verse by an Indian Buddhist).

So, from the beginning, it is clear that Arnold has adopted a novel technique: the life, character and philosophy of Prince Gautama of India, the founder of Buddhism, are being depicted ‘by the medium of an imaginary Buddhist votary’. He does this because, as he says: to appreciate the spirit of Asiatic thoughts, they should be regarded from the Oriental point of view; and neither the miracles which consecrate this record nor the philosophy which it embodies, could have been otherwise so naturally produced.

Clearly, the two-year stint at Poona College had left an indelible imprint on Arnold. In his preface he says that he wants to elucidate on Nirvana, Dharma, Karma and other chief features of Buddhism (like the doctrine of Transmigration), saying that it was his firm conviction that a ‘third of mankind would never have been brought to believe in blank abstractions, or in Nothingness as the issue and crown of Being’. He was taking the orthodox Christian critics head-on.The Light of Asiawas in ‘eight books of blank verse, with some five or six hundred lines in each’.

Impact on Ambedkar

The biggest political event of 1956 and indeed amongst the biggest ever in twentieth-century Indian history was the conversion of Dr Ambedkar to Buddhism, with lakhs of his followers, on 14 October of that year. Dr Ambedkar had had a long engagement with Buddha and Buddhism and the event came as no surprise.

I tried to find out whetherThe Light of Asiahad ever figured in his life. That Dr Ambedkar was very familiar with Arnold’s work is evident from the fact that he had two copies of it in his personal library, now at Siddharth College in Mumbai.

But didThe Light of Asiahave any impact on Dr Ambedkar?

Here is what Akshay Singh Rathore, a noted scholar, had to say on this subject when I asked him whether the poem had meant anything to the key architect of the Indian Constitution: “As for direct influence it would be a stretch to say that it was in any way robust … But what is really the point of focus when thinking about Ambedkarite Buddhism are the points of rupture (with the Buddhisms of his day) and the points of continuity with the classical literature, and primarily the Pali canon. So coming then to indirect influence. Arnold awoke Kosambi and Kosambi had a huge impact on Ambedkar; however, what influenced Ambedkar was not Kosambi’s transmission of ideas from Kane/Arnold, but rather his break with them …”

What Rathore was referring to was the fact that by the 1940s Dharmanand Kosambi had put forward a very radical explanation for Siddhartha’s renunciation. Arnold’s poem and indeed all of Buddhist tradition believes that the Prince saw four sights in quick succession — an aged man, an ill man, a corpse and a tranquil monk.

The first three set him thinking on the nature of suffering and the fourth on the way to salvation. Kosambi had discovered Buddhism after readingThe Light of Asiain 1899, and become a Buddhist monk and the first modern Indian scholar of Pali.

Revisionist account

But in his posthumously published play in 1949 calledBoddhisatva: Natak, Kosambi wrote that it was not so much revulsion for the world and hope for nirvana that set Prince Siddhartha on his search for enlightenment but actually it was his violent opposition to the use of force and conflict to resolve a water dispute between the two tribes—the Sakyas, to which his father belonged, and the Koliyas, to which his mother belonged.

It is clear that Kosambi’s late-life rejection of the conventional wisdom on the motives for Prince Siddhartha’s renunciation was fully shared by Dr Ambedkar. There is absolutely no doubt that Dr Ambedkar challenged the mainstream historiographies of Indic civilization through a revisionist account of the social and political role of Buddha and Buddhism in India’s past.The Light of Asiawas embedded in that historiography. This set him apart from others in India who were also great admirers of Buddha, like Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India

While reporters inform the public, editorials help readers make sense of myriad developments

For years, I have referred to editorials in newspapers to explain a rather difficult word, perspicacity. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “the ability to understand somebody/something very quickly and accurately”. Etymologists trace the origin of this word to the Latin wordperspicācitās,which means discernment. Perspicacity is the power to discern what is going on beneath the surface. Journalism has two fundamental roles: informing the public and making sense of what’s going on around us. While the role of reporters is to inform the public, the function of an editorial is to help readers make sense of myriad developments.

Many readers were taken aback by the editorial, “No comments” (June 1), on tennis star Naomi Osaka’s decision not to attend the post-match press conferences at the French Open, which is a contractual obligation for players. The editorial dealt exhaustively with the interactions between sports personalities and journalists in the age of social media. It read: “In a universe where athletes prefer social-media posts over media interactions, the official press-conference is the last remaining avenue for probing questions that elicit insightful answers. Player-journalist interactions are the only substitute for source-based inferences that colour the narrative. Closer home, M.S. Dhoni revealed his international retirement through Instagram and lapsed into silence.”

The challenges of mental health issues

The editorial acknowledged that some questions asked during post-match conferences are insensitive. This is vastly different from the multiple challenges posed by mental health issues.

One of the readers, Vasudevan, felt that the editorial was written before Ms. Osaka decided to quit the tournament. He wrote: “The editorial has jumped the gun by stating that Osaka ignored nuance, dished out a lame excuse and trivialised the serious issue of mental health. In hindsight, it is obvious that it is the editorial that has trivialised the serious issue of mental health by not taking cognisance of what a champion player like Osaka is going through. If one goes through her on-court interviews of the past, one would find that she never was comfortable, though the real reasons were never known. Instead of trying to understand the problem, as not all individuals are made equal, other Grand Slam tournament authorities also joined French Open authorities in warning an already vulnerable individual.”

I agree with Mr. Vasudevan. Editorials should exemplify perspicacity and in this context, Osaka’s subsequent statement makes the editorial seem churlish. She spoke of experiencing “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media and said that she has “suffered long bouts of depression”. This needs empathetic listening. But having expressed my reservation about the editorial and flagging the concerns of readers, I must acknowledge that the opinion pages made quick amends.

A moment’s lapse of empathy

Preethi Ramamoorthy, who has covered Grand Slam tournaments, wrote a reflective article, “Asking the right questions” (June 3). She wrote: “There exists a larger question of what we expect from our sporting icons. Are we satisfied with them just doing their job — playing, winning — or do we want to get to know the person, the tactical genius, behind the champion? It takes a particular brand of mental fortitude to thrive in a punishing and lonely sport such as tennis. It is this trait that journalists most often want to probe and showcase.” She rightly pointed out that the ideal way to do this is through “long-winded, private chats”.

On the same day, the President of the Public Health Foundation of India, K. Srinath Reddy, wrote an article stressing on the need to look at the delicate subject of mental health more closely. He also documented the hypocrisy of sporting bodies. He wrote: “The French Tennis Federation did not cover itself in glory when it displayed an utter lack of empathy towards a vulnerable young woman who rose to the top of the game because of her immense talent and not because of her speaking abilities… To add irony and insult to injury, Gilles Moretton, the president of the French Tennis Federation, made a statement to the press about Osaka’s withdrawal and left without fielding questions. The incident lays bare deep hypocrisy.”

As an ombudsman, my special respect for sports journalism stems from the fact that it effortlessly straddles the two worlds of public interest and what the public is interested in. Even a moment’s lapse of empathy will derail this fine balance.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

Adults who earn by providing sexual services should be granted basic labour rights

The pandemic has hit millions of people and caused a great deal of suffering across communities. But there is one community that is especially hard hit and that is sex workers. Owing to the non-recognition of sex work as “legitimate work”, sex workers have mostly been kept at arm’s length from the government’s relief programmes. COVID-19 has thus provided more reason to consider a long-pending demand of sex workers in India — decriminalisation of sex work and a guaranteed set of labour rights.

An archaic, regressive view

The legislation governing sex work in India is the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. The Suppression of Immoral Traffic in Women and Children Act was enacted in 1956. Subsequent amendments were made to the law and the name of the Act was changed to Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. The legislation penalises acts such as keeping a brothel, soliciting in a public place, living off the earnings of sex work and living with or habitually being in the company of a sex worker.

This Act represents the archaic and regressive view that sex work is morally wrong and that the people involved in it, especially women, never consent to it voluntarily. After all, in popular depiction, entry into sex work is involuntary, forced, and through deception. As a consequence, it is believed that these women need to be “rescued” and “rehabilitated”, sometimes even without their consent. While this is a valid argument for minor girls, for many consenting adult sex workers, it has been a problem. This is what has led to the classification of ‘‘respectable women” and “non-respectable women”. This view is based on the belief that sex work is “easy” work and no one will or should choose to practise it. It thus perpetuates the prejudice that women who do practise sex work are morally devious.

The Act has not only criminalised sex work but also further stigmatised and pushed it underground thus leaving sex workers more prone to violence, discrimination and harassment. The Act denies an individual their right over their bodies. Moreover, it imposes the will of the state over adults articulating their life choices. It gives no agency to the sex workers to fight against the traffickers and in fact, has made them more susceptible to be harassed by the state officials. The Act fails to recognise that many women willingly enter into agreements with traffickers, sometimes just to seek a better life as chosen by them. Evidence shows that many women choose to remain in sex work despite opportunities to leave after ‘rehabilitation’ by the government or non-governmental organisations.

Labour rights

The Justice Verma Commission had also acknowledged that there is a distinction between women who are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation and adult, consenting women who are in sex work of their own volition.

We must recognise sex work as work and stop ourselves from assigning morality to their work. Adult men, women and transgender persons in sex work have the right to earn by providing sexual services; live with dignity; and remain free from violence, exploitation, stigma and discrimination. It is time we rethink sex work from a labour perspective, where we recognise their work and guarantee them basic labour rights.

The judiciary is moving in the direction of recognising sex workers’ right to livelihood. The Supreme Court, inBudhadev Karmaskar v. State of West Bengal(2011), opined that sex workers have a right to dignity. Parliament must also take a re-look at the existing legislation and do away with the ‘victim-rescue-rehabilitation’ narrative. During these times of crisis especially, this is all the more important.

T. Sumathy (A) Thamizhachi Thangapandian is MP, South Chennai parliamentary constituency

The Supreme Court’s rulings on cases of sedition give hope the law will be re-examined

It has long been recognised that strident criticism of government will not amount to an attempt to excite disaffection and disloyalty towards government. Yet, the archaic and colonial view that an intemperate attack on an incumbent ruler should be met with fierce prosecution for sedition prevails among many in power even today. In a significant judgment, the Supreme Court has quashed a criminal case registered in Himachal Pradesh against journalist Vinod Dua by invoking the narrowed-down meaning of what constitutes an offence under Section 124A of the IPC, the provision for sedition, set out inKedar Nath Singh(1962). Every journalist, the Court has ruled, is entitled to the protection of that judgment, which said “comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence, would not be penal”. The law on sedition has come a long way from the formulation of British-era judges Comer Petheram and Arthur Strachey that “feelings of disaffection” towards the government connote “absence of affection... hatred, enmity, dislike, hostility... and every form of ill-will towards the government” to the more rational reading that only a pernicious tendency to create public disorder would be an offence. Yet, it appears that every generation needs a judicial iteration of this principle, and that is because of two reasons: that Section 124A remains on the statute book and that powerful political figures and their minions are unable to take criticism in their stride.

Enacted to put down journalistic criticism of the colonial administration from an increasingly vocal press, Section 124A is essentially a provision which seeks to protect the government’s institutional vanity from disapprobation using the interests of public order and security of the state as a fig leaf. It has often been criticised for being vague and “overbroad”. Its use of terms such as “bringing (government) into hatred or contempt” and “disloyalty and all feelings of enmity” continues to help the police to invoke it whenever there is either strong criticism or critical depiction of unresponsive or insensitive rulers. The explanation that disapproval of government actions or measures with a view to altering them by lawful means will not amount to an offence is not enough to restrain the authorities from prosecution. The mischief lies in the latitude given to the police by an insecure political leadership to come down on the government’s adversaries. It is unfortunate that the Bench did not go into the aspect of political motivation behind the police registering FIRs without checking if the required ingredient of incitement to violence is present. The Court’s verdict brightens the hope that the section’s validity will be re-examined. For now, it is a blow for free speech and media freedom.

The RBI has little room to use interest ratesfor achieving policy outcomes

The RBI’s latest policy statement underscores the diminishing options available to it to address the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. The bank’s Monetary Policy Committee left benchmark interest rates unchanged for a sixth straight meeting and reiterated that it would keep its policy stance accommodative ‘as long as necessary to revive and sustain growth on a durable basis’. Since its May 2020 decision to cut interest rates by 40 basis points, taking the cumulative reduction in borrowing costs in the wake of the pandemic’s onset to 115 basis points, the MPC has found itself in a bind. While the first lockdown constricted supply and demand for much of Q1 of the last fiscal, pushing the economy into a record 24.4% contraction during April-June and causing full-year GDP to shrink 7.3%, the second wave has crushed all-round demand and consumer confidence. The RBI’s May round of the consumer confidence survey shows the Current Situation Index at a new all-time low, with 75% of households perceiving the economic and employment situations as having worsened further, and the future expectations index reflecting overall pessimism. It is hard to see the mere availability of low-cost credit helping revive the all-important consumption demand.

The MPC acknowledged the bleak outlook when it slashed its projection for Q1 growth by as much as 770 basis points to 18.5%, from the 26.2% it had forecast just on April 7. Banking more on optimism than hard data, the panel bumped up its growth estimates for the second half resulting in an overall cut of only one percentage point to its full-year growth forecast at 9.5%. For this, it has assumed rural demand will remain buoyant on the back of an expected normal monsoon, while noting that widespread infections in rural areas, which likely led to a sequential decline in tractor and two-wheeler sales in April, could undermine future demand. The other factor the RBI is banking on to provide a fillip to economic activity is an accelerated pace of vaccinations, over which it has virtually no control. To be fair, Governor Shaktikanta Das has used the bank’s liquidity spigot as a tool to address some of the economic distress. A series of measures focus on bolstering credit flow to the hardest hit MSME and contact-intensive industrial and services sectors, respectively. Still, the MPC can ill-afford to drop the ball on its primary remit — ensuring inflation remains anchored. With international commodity prices, including crude oil, on an upward trajectory and no signs of domestic policy support to check skyrocketing petrol and diesel pump prices, inflation is sure to accelerate, posing a major conundrum to the RBI. Raising rates could risk hurting recovery, and not doing so could heighten inflation.

The citizens of Jubbulpore assembled in public meeting on Sunday, 5th June resolved that they have full confidence in Congress Leaders. They then proceeded to pass the undermentioned Resolutions:- That considering the present situation created in consequence of Simla Interviews and speeches, it is high time that Mahatma Gandhi, Lalalajpatrai, Pandit Malwiya and the Ali Brothers, who are all concerned, should soon disclose the whole affair in detail to the public. The assembly declared that not disclosing affairs concerning them will be very injurious. The assembly, of right, demanded that Mr. Vijairaghavachariar, as the President of All India Congress Committee ought to state how Congressmen should stand and act to-day; That in view of the indecent taunts whether rightly or wrongly flung at the leaders, by Lord Reading at Simla, it has become incumbent on the leaders to clear the mist and to keep the public confidence in Mahatmaji, Ali Brothers and other leaders unshaken; That Hakim Ajmal Khan, and Dr. Ansari are requested not to have interviews with the Viceroy until the Ali Brothers’ case is fully appreciated by the public.

The Tamil Nadu Governor, Mr. K.K. Shah, who was formerly Union Minister for Housing, has put the shortage of housing at over 90 million residential units for the whole country and some 6 to 7.5 million units for Tamil Nadu alone. Other estimates have put the funds required for building so many housing units at Rs. 33,000 crores for the whole country and by the same criterion, it should cost over Rs. 2,500 crores for Tamil Nadu. These are staggering figures and the raising of resources on such a colossal scale is not within the means of either the Centre or the State Governments. But rather than be frightened away by the very magnitude of the task, Governments should consider it a challenge, and at least quicken the pace of attack on the problem, even if there can be no hope of a complete answer to the growing shortage in the forseeable future. It is Mr. Shah who initiated, as Minister for Housing, the pragmatic Rs. 200-crore revolving fund plan to make housing somewhat self-financing with the help of this initial nucleus. There have been several other Central aid schemes in operation since the beginning of planning in the early fifties.