Editorials - 16-06-2021

The U.S. misread the situation in Afghanistan, with the long war now leaving the Taliban at the height of their influence

President Joe Biden has set the September 11 deadline for all American troops to leave Afghanistan, winding up 20 years of the invasion by the United States. Military officials say the withdrawal would be complete about two months ahead of the schedule. The peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban that started in Doha last year have been frozen for months. The bid by the U.S. to hold a summit in Istanbul between the warring parties has been a non-starter. On the ground, the Taliban are making steady advances. Since May 1, the Taliban have seized eight districts in four different regions. At least six provisional capitals, including Kabul, Lashkar Gah (Helmand) and Kandahar, have the insurgents at their gates. As of now, about 22% of Afghanistan’s 398 districts are in the Taliban’s control and 24% with the government, while more than half of the country’s territories are contested.

A neocon war

The longest war in America’s history is also turning out to be one of its most disastrous. After 20 years of war, when the world’s mightiest military is exiting Afghanistan, the Taliban, which it sought to perish, are at the height of their influence since they were driven out of power. Terrorist networks, which the U.S. vowed to destroy when it launched its global war on terror in Afghanistan, are now scattered across Asia and Africa, from eastern Afghanistan to the Sahel region. What went wrong for the U.S.?

The U.S. made three fundamental mistakes, which led to the superpower’s humiliating exit from this clichéd ‘graveyard of empires’.

First, the U.S. went into Afghanistan without learning anything from the country’s history, or was blindsided by the unipolar hubris. Afghanistan was invaded by great powers in the 19th and 20th centuries as well. The British empire, which feared a Russian invasion to India via Afghanistan, sent troops to the country in 1839, ousted its ruler Dost Muhammad and established a client regime of its ally, Shah Shujah. But the British had to withdraw in the face of Afghan resistance, mostly by Pashtun warriors; while retreating in 1842, all of the British and Indian troops, except one doctor, were massacred by Afghans. In 1979, the Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan to salvage the country’s nascent communist regime, orchestrated a coup and established a friendly regime. The Soviets, faced with a bloody Mujahideen resistance (which was bankrolled and trained by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan), had to pull back in 1989 in ignominy. The U.S. might have thought that history would have been kinder to them when they launched the Afghan invasion in October 2001. It wasn’t.

Once they invaded Afghanistan, the U.S., given the mistakes the British and the Soviets committed, could have had a strategically focused campaign, targeting its enemy, al-Qaeda, which was behind the September 11 attacks. It should have gone after the terrorists, destroyed their networks and then withdrawn. That is what a realist power would do. But the U.S., driven by the neoconservative globalism of the Bush administration, had set more ambitious goals for itself. It wanted to topple the Taliban and rebuild a centralised “democratic” state in Afghanistan. How did building democratic institutions in Afghanistan from top-down serve America’s foreign policy interests? The neoconservatives in Washington might have found it fascinating, but the move made little strategic sense. And now, the U.S. is retreating, practically leaving Afghanistan to the mercy of the Taliban, in return for assurances from them that they would not assist the terrorists such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Strategic failure

After the Taliban regime was toppled and al-Qaeda driven back into the caves and mountains, the U.S. still had a chance to stabilise the country with help from its different factions and leave. In December 2001, Taliban spokesperson Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef had offered to surrender. The Taliban sought modest terms — Mullah Omar, their leader, should be allowed to return home. But the Americans rejected the offer and promised to destroy the Taliban in every corner of the country. The Taliban are an indigenous militancy with deep roots in Afghanistan’s Pashtun majority. Toppling them from power was easy, but defeating them in their country was not. And after vowing to defeat them, the U.S. launched the Iraq invasion to topple Saddam Hussein and export democracy there. This was the second mistake.

The U.S. took Pakistan’s tactical support for its war on terror for granted, overlooking the fact that Pakistan had deep strategic ties with the Taliban. Pakistan played a double game by supporting the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan while at the same time offering refuge and support to the Taliban. For Pakistan, the Taliban have been their wild card to check India’s influence in Afghanistan. When the U.S. declared victory in Afghanistan prematurely and went on to invade Iraq in 2003, it became easier for Pakistan to assist the Taliban’s regrouping, at a time when the Afghan government was grappling with corruption and infighting on ethnic lines. For the ordinary Afghans living outside the provincial capitals, life did not change much under the new government. When the U.S. got stuck in the morass of the Iraq war, the Taliban were steadily making a comeback in Afghanistan’s hinterlands. By the time the U.S. shifted its focus back to Afghanistan, after defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and amid growing calls at home to end the “endless wars”, the Afghan war had already been lost.

Surrender to the Taliban

Granted, there is a realist case for the U.S. to leave Afghanistan. It seems to have reached the conclusion long ago that the war was one that could not be turned around. The war was also becoming increasingly unpopular at home, prompting Presidents, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump and Joe Biden, to promise to wind it up. The U.S. has also been shifting its focus to East Asia where China is rising. And given the foreign policy challenges the U.S. is facing now elsewhere, continuing troops and commitments in Afghanistan makes little sense. But the U.S. could have opted for a more orderly withdrawal. Instead, it surrendered to the Taliban’s terms to pull back its troops. This was the third mistake.

The Taliban have not defeated the Afghan troops yet. The Afghan government has about 200,000 battle-hardened soldiers, including the U.S.-trained elite special forces. The government still controls most of the country’s population centres. The Taliban’s efforts to take over provincial capitals were successfully thwarted in the recent past, with air power help from the U.S. With the U.S. being present in Afghanistan, the conflict has been in a stalemate — the government not being able to defeat the insurgents and the Taliban unable to overrun the cities. The U.S. should have used this stalemate, coupled with mounting pressure on Pakistan, to extract concessions from the Taliban. Instead, the Trump administration went for talks with the Taliban on their terms. The Afghan government was kept out of the whole process because the Taliban do not recognise them as being legitimate. And the U.S. struck a direct deal with the Taliban, without addressing any of the Afghan concerns.

The American exit would now decisively shift the balance of power in favour of the Taliban. The insurgents have always known this. They have stepped up attacks and carried out targeted killings aimed at weakening the Afghan government and terrorising society immediately after signing the agreement with the U.S. in February 2020. And ever since the remaining U.S. troops started pulling back from Afghanistan on May 1, the Taliban have started capturing more territories. The war may be winding down for the Americans. But for Afghans, it will continue in one form or another.


The Supreme Court’s suggestion to ‘match the following’ on political donations is impractical and incorrect

In 2014, the Delhi High Court held that both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were guilty of illegally accepting donations from two companies registered in India but whose controlling shareholder was Vedanta, a foreign company. The court held that this was in contravention of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), 1976, as the donations accrued from “foreign sources” within the meaning of law.

Following this indictment, the two parties came together in the last memorable bipartisan move. In 2016 and 2018, the government amended the FCRA through the annual Finance Bills, to retrospectively legalise the violations. The amendments and subsequent changes brought in by the current government enabled new and regressive pathways that afford full anonymity to corporate and foreign political donors.

A new form of anonymity

While recently hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) by the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), the Supreme Court downplayed the concerns of the corrupting influence of anonymous corporate and foreign money. It offered us voters the suggestion of “match the following”.

Earlier, only profit-making domestic companies could contribute to political parties; now loss-making companies can too. Earlier, foreign companies or companies where the controlling stake was held by a foreign company couldn’t contribute; now they can. India’s political parties could theoretically be fully funded by a foreign company operating in India or by a foreign entity through a shell company.

In 2017, the then Finance Minister said anonymous cash donations to political parties would be reduced from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 2,000 to ensure greater transparency in political funding. However, the concurrent introduction of electoral bonds brought a new form of anonymity to thousands of crores of donations. It drastically reduced public and legislative oversight. Only the ruling party via the State Bank of India (SBI) has a full account of all donations being made via electoral bonds, to itself and to Opposition parties. Parliament, the Election Commission and the Opposition parties do not have this information, nor do the public.

The ADR PIL challenges electoral bonds as unconstitutional. In March 2021, the Supreme Court refused to stay the sale of electoral bonds before the West Bengal elections. Instead, the judgment listed several documents which supposedly establish a paper trail on donations — “all that is required is a little more effort to cull out such information from both sides (purchaser of bond and political party) and do some ‘match the following’.”

This is impractical and plainly incorrect. The Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 enables easier access to information held by public authorities. No ordinary person has the resources to navigate documents on obfuscating government websites or pore over income tax returns. The few civic and non-profit organisations that attempt to simplify information to enable accountability have been systematically delegitimised.

Suggesting a “match the following” is incorrect for three reasons. If we set aside individual donors and focus just on registered entities, we will find that the full scale of registered entities is unknown. Even if registered companies filed annual financial statements, many do not disclose political donations. Crucially, political parties do not need to disclose their electoral bond donors either.

According to back-of-the-envelope calculations, there are close to 25 lakh potential donors comprising just companies and firms. This includes about 12.6 lakh active private limited companies as of January 31, 2021. Unlike what is stated in the judgment, the annual reports of all these companies are not readily accessible on the website of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. More than 12 lakh firms filed income tax returns for the assessment year 2018-19. Firms, unlike companies, have no regulatory mandate to submit their annual reports except for filing their annual tax returns, since their functioning is regulated by Acts other than the Companies Act of 2013.

Even if these documents are indeed filed and available in the public domain, they will not specify donations to parties. Conveniently, the Finance Bill of 2017 amended Section 182 of the Companies Act of 2013 to remove the requirement for declaring disaggregated donations to political parties. At best, company statements might have a total aggregate amount of all donations, including philanthropic ones. If we are lucky, these might be sub-categorised as “political contributions through electoral bonds.” Nowhere are donations to specific political parties required to be mentioned.

Even if one combs through these documents to find an actual political donation, there is nothing to match it with. Political parties do not need to disclose their electoral bond donors. Strictly speaking, political parties are not even supposed to know their electoral bond donors. The only requirement is the annual audit reports with a total of all donations received via electoral bonds. These reports are submitted with great delays. For instance, the audit reports for 2019-20 of major national parties were made available on the Election Commission’s website only a few days ago. The BJP’s report is not yet available as the Election Commission extended the deadline for the submission of Annual Audit Reports for 2019-20 to June 30, 2021. Even if these reports are submitted on time, there is no way to match a donation of a company to that received by a political party as only aggregate amounts are available.

Hence, the “match the following” suggestion of the Supreme Court falls flat on its face. It is impossible for an average voter to pore over documents of lakhs of entities and track potential company and firm donors. Further, recipient-wise information is unavailable. Unlike the tall claims of electoral bonds enabling transparency, it is only RTI applications with the SBI that offer a glimpse into the crores of money funding political parties, and therefore influencing public policies. If they chose to, the Supreme Court or the legislature could order full and real-time disclosure, to the actual benefit of transparency and accountability. Instead, meagre civil society resources are expended in filing PILs and RTI applications, at significant personal risk.

Winners and losers

In effect, electoral bonds give political power to companies, wealthy individual donors, and foreign entities, thus diluting the universal franchise of one voter-one vote. Every vote is not equally valuable if companies can influence policies through hidden donations. The winner of this arrangement is the ruling party, whether at the Centre or in a State, and the loser is the average voter. Companies and political parties could exercise moral leadership and voluntarily disclose the identity of recipients and donors, as the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha recently did. Till then, voters are stuck with a ruling party with war chests of resources, being subject to relentless election campaigns, while donors surreptitiously and directly influence policy.

Rakesh Dubbudu is the founder of @FactlyIndia; Inayat Sabhikhi is associated with the National Campaign for People's Right to Information

The criminal justice system must observe the basics of a proper investigation, judicial fairness, and the survivor’s rights

The recent judgment of a trial court acquitting Tarun Tejpal, a former editor of a newsmagazine, who was charged, in 2013, of having sexually assaulted an employee, a young woman journalist, during an event the newsmagazine had organised in Goa, has created a furore and raised many questions about the law. The investigating officer has also been pulled up not only for the lapses in investigation but also for gaps in her knowledge of technology. The Goa government filed an appeal against Mr. Tejpal’s acquittal in the Goa Bench of the Bombay High Court requesting an immediate hearing. The Solicitor General of India, Tushar Mehta, during the hearing, said that the lower court’s judgment lacked sensitivity regarding crimes against women and awareness of the sections of criminal laws. “The law has evolved. The entire judgement proceeds as if the victim is on trial,” he added.

Key changes

Back in 2002, based on the recommendations of the 172nd report of the Law Commission of India, two major changes were made in the Evidence Act (https://bit.ly/3xpoE1k). First, the Act was amended to prohibit the defence counsel from asking questions to the prosecutrix in a rape case about her general character to impeach her credibility. Second, the defence was not permitted to put questions to a witness in the cross-examination about the general immoral character of the prosecutrix and adduce evidence. Even if it is hypothetically assumed that the survivor had had sexual relations with someone, it does not give any person the licence to sexually assault her. The Supreme Court of India has repeatedly said that the purpose of cross-examining a survivor of rape is not to humiliate her but to get to the truth of the case. Therefore, questions about the past sexual life of the survivor should not have been permitted to be asked by the defence counsel as they violated the survivor’s right to a fair trial. The law does not permit the character assassination of a victim any more.

Stereotypical evaluation

Second, the conduct of a survivor of sexual assault cannot be cast in a straitjacket formula. Every individual behaves differently under the given circumstances. When in this case, the survivor had been entrusted with an important task/s by her boss during the event and was afraid of losing her job by exposing her boss’s crime, her dual behaviour (i.e., in the public gaze and with acquaintances) cannot be termed unnatural. It would be too stereotypical and patriarchal to expect a survivor to be seen traumatised all the time in front of everyone. The Supreme Court, inAparna Bhat and Ors. vs the State of Madhya Pradesh & Ors.(2021) specifically said that courts should desist from expressing any stereotype opinion, in words spoken during proceedings, or in the course of a judicial order’ about women. Stereotyping excludes any individualised consideration of a person’s actual circumstances and their abilities. It affects women’s right to a fair trial. Therefore, the judiciary must be careful not to create inflexible standards based on preconceived notions.

Details and omissions

Third, every omission does not amount to a contradiction; omission which by necessary implication leads to conflicting versions between the statements made before the police and the court would amount to contradiction. It is trite law that the previous statements of the prosecutrix and witnesses can be used to shake their credibility. However, it is quite natural for a survivor to share the incident in different words and details to different individuals. She is not expected to share the same graphic details of the sexual assault on her to every individual she meets or wishes to reveal the details to. Therefore, if the statement given during the trial is substantially consistent with the statement given to the police and judicial magistrate during the investigation, the difference of details given to other individuals through email or otherwise in the form of written statements, cannot be rejected by terming them as untrustworthy. The High Court, therefore, must clarify on this vital question of the law keeping in view the nature of the offence.

Protection of identity

The Indian Penal Code was amended in 1983 and disclosure of identity of the survivor of rape by anyone was made punishable under a newly added Section 228-A. The publication of name or any matter which may make known the identity of the survivor since then is thus prohibited.

The Supreme Court inState of Punjab vs Ramdev Singh(2003) held that the name of the victim should not be mentioned in the judgments, be it of that Court, High Court or lower court, and she should be described as ‘victim’ in the judgment. It therefore implies that anything such as the survivor’s husband’s name, her email address, etc which could reveal her identity, should not have been mentioned in the judgment. It is against the spirit of the law.

Sensitisation is a must

It is true that the investigation must be unbiased, honest, just and in accordance with the law. The entire emphasis on a fair investigation has to be to bring out the truth of the case before the court. However, some lapses in investigation and ignorance about technical terms such as ‘hash-value’ with regard to electronic evidence, should not lead to a total rejection of the prosecution case. Many amendments have been made in the criminal laws since 1983 with regard to crimes against women. The police must pull up their socks to improve investigation skills, and the application of the law should not elude justice due to a lack of proper sensitisation among other stakeholders in the criminal justice system.

R.K. Vij is a senior IPS officer in Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are personal

The COVID-19 vaccination drive demonstrates that India has become Atmanirbhar in vaccination against infectious diseases

In his address to the nation about the new vaccination policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “If you look at the history of vaccinations in India... you will see that India would have to wait decades for procuring vaccines from abroad. When vaccination programmes ended in other countries, it wouldn’t have even begun in our country.” His remark reflected the harsh reality of the past. Further, indigenous manufacturing of vaccines not only started late but also fell short of the demand for long. This forced the government to continue relying on imports.

Delay in vaccination

Infectious diseases have been an enormous challenge for independent India. Innumerable lives were lost due to delayed response or government apathy. The best example for this is the case of polio. The Inactivated Polio Vaccine (IPV) and Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) were licensed abroad in 1955 and 1961, respectively. But it took two decades since international availability for India to initiate mass vaccination. The OPV was introduced through the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) in urban and rural populations in 1978 and 1981, respectively. Prior to the launch of mass vaccination, India was witnessing more than 10,000 officially recorded cases of polio annually, a severe underestimate due to poor official records. India could have saved lakhs of people from the disease if governments had been vigilant and started vaccination earlier.

Moreover, India had to rely on imports for both OPV and IPV. The OPV was produced by the Pasteur Institute of India, Tamil Nadu, but the Health Ministry closed down this unit in 1974. The IPV could not be manufactured as it was licensed only in 2006.

Similarly, India started mass vaccination for Hepatitis B two decades after commercial availability of the vaccine in the U.S. in 1982. The Hepatitis B vaccination was introduced in India’s Universal Immunisation Programme in 2002. And even then, it was only introduced in merely 14 cities.

Earlier, the shortage of indigenously manufactured vaccines led to international dependence and delayed smallpox eradication in India. In 1962, almost a decade after North America and Europe had eradicated smallpox, India launched the National Smallpox Eradication Programme. Most countries had shifted to the highly potent freeze-dried vaccine for better results. While India had adequate stock of domestically produced low-potency liquid vaccine, there was no production of the freeze-dried vaccine. The country depended almost entirely on the Soviet Union and the World Health Organization (WHO) for supply of the freeze-dried vaccine. Domestic production started in the early 1960s with assistance from the WHO and UNICEF. However, it took the country more than a decade to gradually expand domestic production. This might have been too late. States like Bihar and West Bengal witnessed a smallpox outbreak in 1974 which led to the death of close to 31,000 people. This could have been avoided if the Indira Gandhi government did not neglect smallpox eradication and augmented indigenous manufacturing of the freeze-dried vaccine. India also had to rely on the WHO for bifurcated needles required for the smallpox vaccine as these were not manufactured domestically. In sharp contrast now, Indian companies not only fulfill the domestic demand but are also supplying syringes for COVID-19 vaccination to countries.

A remarkable achievement

As Mr. Modi noted, the COVID-19 vaccination drive demonstrates that India has become Atmanirbhar in vaccination against infectious diseases. One must appreciate the scale of mass vaccination happening in the country; in a single day, up to 4.3 million beneficiaries received the COVID-19 vaccines. It is a remarkable achievement that India is conducting the world’s largest vaccination drive ever and has already administered more than 25 crore doses. Moreover, rather than starting from selected areas, citizens across the country are simultaneously getting vaccinated. Indians did not have to wait longer than the developed world to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Covishield and Covaxin, manufactured in India, have been available to the people since January 16, 2021. India is one of the few countries across the globe with an indigenously developed vaccine. It is expected that a few more COVID-19 vaccines manufactured in India will be available in the second half of 2021.

The government’s decision to make the vaccine available free of cost for the public shows a strong commitment to public health. There is little doubt that the COVID-19 vaccination drive marks a paradigmatic shift for the country.

Dr. Vijay Chauthaiwale is a Molecular Biologist and In-Charge of the Foreign Affairs Department of the BJP. Views are personal

The fact that cryptocurrency has no legal classification should not be the impetus to prohibit its use in India

On June 9, El Salvador became the first country in the world to adopt bitcoin as legal tender. This is illustrative of the rising global trend of embracing cryptocurrencies with all its attendant risks. While not every country’s approach has been as open as El Salvador’s, the dominant theme has been to permit the growth of the cryptocurrency market subject to certain safeguards. As India finds itself at a crossroads of prohibition and regulation in its tryst with cryptocurrencies, globally, the inclination towards permissive regulation recognises the freedom of choice given to people for using a medium of exchange other than a central bank-backed fiat currency.

Swinging between extremes

The cryptocurrency market in India has developed in a largely laissez-faire regulatory space since the first recorded cryptocurrency transaction in 2010. Between 2013 and 2018, the government’s response to the rise of virtual currencies was cautionary, alerting users to the potential risks posed by cryptocurrency transactions. These fears were legitimate and stemmed from cryptocurrencies’ volatility, their susceptibility to hacking, and the fact that they could potentially facilitate criminal activities such as money laundering, terrorist financing and tax evasion. Instead of developing a regulatory framework to address these issues, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), in April 2018, effectively imposed a ban on cryptocurrency trading. This ban was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2020. The court reasoned that there were alternative regulatory measures short of an outright ban through which the RBI could have achieved its objective of curbing the risks associated with cryptocurrency trading. While the court had an opportunity to put a label on the legal nature of cryptocurrencies, it stopped short of doing so.

After swinging between the extremes of non-interference and prohibition, a clue as to India’s next move lies in the draft Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021. The draft Bill proposes to criminalise all private cryptocurrencies while also laying down the regulatory framework for an RBI-backed digital currency. The Minister of State for Finance, in response to a question in Parliament, stated that regulatory bodies do not have a legal framework to directly regulate private cryptocurrencies owing to their imprecise legal nature in India. As the draft Bill is yet to be tabled in Parliament, there is some hope that his concerns will be addressed in the form of a tailored regulatory approach rather than another ban.

Lessons from other countries

There are lessons in this regard from the U.K., Singapore and the U.S. The U.K. has classified cryptocurrency as property and this has paved the way for cryptocurrencies to be encompassed within a regulated legal framework in the country’s economy. The U.K. has sought to regulate the functioning of crypto-businesses while still imposing some restrictions to protect the interests of investors. On the other hand, while there is no exact legal classification of cryptocurrency in Singapore, the amenability of cryptocurrency transactions to the contract law framework of the country has been firmly established and there is now a legal framework for cryptocurrency trading. In the U.S., the open approach taken by the authorities has resulted in the trade in cryptocurrency being both taxed and appropriately regulated. While the approaches are specific to the countries’ economic realities and cannot be blindly implemented in India, the global regulatory attitude towards cryptocurrencies offers valuable insights into the alternative ways to achieve balanced regulation. In India, the absence of an existing legal classification of cryptocurrency should not be the impetus to prohibit its use. The government should use this as an opportunity to allow private individuals the freedom to harness a powerful new technology with appropriate regulatory standards.

Nakul Dewan is Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India and was the lead counsel who argued against the RBI’s cryptocurrency ban;Rohan Andrew Naik is Advocate, Supreme Court of India, whoassisted in the case

Emergent action is needed to rein in inflation as people face income losses, medical costs

The pandemic’s second wave may have subsided but hopes of a smooth rebound in the economy in tandem with easing restrictions remain muddled, with the inflation numbers for May compounding the problem. The soaring pace of rising prices, both retail and wholesale, in the month that saw widespread lockdown-like restrictions, has come as a negative surprise. Inflation based on the Wholesale Price Index is reckoned to have hit a 25-year record of nearly 13%, while retail inflation touched a six-month high of 6.3%. While runaway fuel prices, that include high excise duties and taxes, were a key factor in driving up both the inflation indices, they were not the only ones at work. Retail inflation in food hit a six-month high of 5%, from barely 2% in April, with pulses and eggs as well as edible oils leading the surge. ‘Fuel and light’ inflation hit 11.6%, the highest in over nine years, and no respite is in sight on this front as pump prices for petrol raced past Rs. 100 a litre in even more parts of the country this month. Diesel has also crossed the century mark in Rajasthan’s Sri Ganganagar, where freight costs add up on top of State and central taxes. Even if one were to discount food and fuel prices, core inflation has crossed the 6% mark for the first time in 31 months and is estimated at 6.6%.

Reacting to the April retail inflation print of 4.3%, after averaging a steep 6.2% through 2020-21, the RBI Governor had remarked earlier this month that it brought some relief and ‘elbow room’ for sticking with growth-supportive policy. If anything, May’s inflation prints leave no such room for manoeuvre. Though the bank’s Monetary Policy Committee may not switch away from its dovish policy, no further easing of interest rates can be expected at these price levels. Most economists expect inflation to remain higher than the average 5.1% estimated by the central bank for this year. If the Government wants the RBI to persist with its accommodative approach to facilitate growth, it must take some actions of its own to curb price rise, including meaningful cuts in fuel taxes that the RBI Governor has been advocating since February. So far, it has only obfuscated the issue with arguments ranging from ‘the States should cut taxes first’ to ‘let’s bring petroleum products under GST’, and the latest claim by the Petroleum Minister who admitted that the prices are problematic, but the Government is ‘saving money to spend on welfare schemes’ and buying vaccines. For a population already reeling from job and income losses and higher medical costs since the pandemic’s onset, the persistently high inflation is untenable. No welfare scheme can offset its disproportionately adverse impact on the poor.

India must be alive to the dangersof emerging variants of the coronavirus

An emerging form of the Delta variant called AY.1 is raising global concern. Five of India’s leading laboratories, since May, have submitted data to the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) on its presence in India. Public Health England, a body in the United Kingdom, has said that of the 63 genomes in its repository as of June 7, six were from India. AY.1, or B.1.617.2.1, is a variant of Delta (B.1.617.2) and has all its characteristic mutations along with one called K417N. This particular one has previously been identified in the Beta variant (first detected in South Africa), which is an international variant of concern as it is highly infectious and known to reduce vaccine potency. The Delta variant is reportedly the most prevalent coronavirus variant in India and comprises close to a third of the genome samples, sourced from those with no international travel history, processed until late May. An additional concern with the K417N mutation is that some studies have found that it was associated with resistance to a newly developed monoclonal antibody treatment drug cocktail, Casirivimab and Imdevimab, for those assessed with a moderate to severe disease risk.

Scientists have said that AY.1 marks the continued evolution of the Delta variant. The Delta variant has become globally prominent in the same way as a mutation, D614G, increased the infectivity of coronavirus in March and April last year. Coronaviruses are marked by ‘convergent evolution’; some defining mutations that emerge in different strains from around the world start to become more common in subsequent variants. These mutations are beneficial to the virus and, through a process of natural selection, help it infect human cells more efficiently as well as thwart defensive antibodies. Evolution is an incessant process, and it is impossible to forecast if SARS-CoV-2 will become a part of the human ecosystem — less contagious, and manifesting in sporadic outbreaks but ever present or buckling into oblivion under the force of counter-offensive measures such as vaccines, masks, lockdowns. As the virus and people continue to be engaged in a dialectical battle, humanity has a tool that has been absent in previous global pandemics — that of rapid genome sequencing. Several countries, including India, have the infrastructure and the resources to track threatening mutations. Unfortunately, the potency of a mutation to increase infectivity in a region can only be known retrospectively. However, this knowledge can help improve vaccines and enable researchers to perform quick tweaks, or in the parlance of software, develop upgraded patches that can blunt the threat from emergent variants. India has chosen to restrict genome sequencing studies to 10 government labs and not involve private labs, some of which have the capability and the expertise. Time and again, the country has suffered the consequences of a lack of preparedness. It is important not to downplay the seriousness of the threat.

We understand that under the new rules made by the Ceylon Government to regulate the admission of Ceylonese to the Civil Service, the door has been shut against Indians. The Service in Ceylon will be recruited in future on a percentage basis, two-thirds being Britishers and one-third Ceylonese. TheCeylon Daily Newscomments thus on the change: “When the Government minute giving effect to this arrangement was published, we early warned the Government that this is bound to provoke India to retaliate. India, as soon as it becomes aware of the ban placed on her own, will effectively bar her doors against the admission of Ceylonese into the Indian Civil Service. Thus, under the plea of enlarging opportunities for Ceylonese in Ceylon, the Government is going about the best way of depriving the Ceylonese of the splendid and more profitable opportunities they have enjoyed in India... It would be well for the Government to remember while there is still time that not in the Civil Service alone are Indians employed. Quite a good few of them are employed in other places.”

The Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, told the Rajya Sabha to-day [New Delhi, June 15] that with each passing day the possibility of a political settlement in Bangla Desh was becoming more remote. She dismissed fears that India would acquiesce in a political settlement at the cost of democracy and the rights of the people fighting there and said that any settlement “must be arrived at with those people who are to-day being suppressed.” The Prime Minister who was replying to a four-hour debate on the situation caused by the influx of six million refugees, assured the House that this nation would make all the sacrifices and even “go through hell” to look after the refugees. Stressing the responsibility of the international community in a situation which not only resulted in a colossal refugee influx, but also involved the question of democracy and human rights, Mrs. Gandhi said India’s Ministers and other emissaries who had gone abroad had some successes in bringing home the reality of the situation to those countries. “We are not going to allow the international community to get away with it. They have to realise it is their responsibility,” she said.