Editorials - 18-06-2021

Respecting international law, India should bring them back and try them in court as Indian citizens

In 2016-18, four women from Kerala accompanied their husbands to join the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan's Khorasan Province. Their husbands were killed in different attacks and the women are now lodged in an Afghanistan prison. Authorities in Afghanistan want to return the women to India, but the Indian government has not indicated what it proposes to do in this matter. Sources say security agencies have advised against taking them back. What do international laws say about foreign fighters returning to their countries? K.P. Fabian and Kabir Taneja discuss the question in a conversation moderated bySuhasini Haidar. Edited excerpts:

Ambassador Fabian, you have argued that no matter the crime, the Indian government must take back Sonia Sebastian alias Ayisha, Reffeala, Merrin Jacob alias Mariyam, and Nimisha alias Fathima Isa along with their children. Tell us why?

K.P. Fabian:A couple of reasons, actually. One, under the Indian Penal Code, Section 3, any citizen of India can be tried in India for any offence committed in India, abroad, or even in outer space.

Two, we hear from media reports, not yet contradicted by the government, that Afghanistan wants to deport them and India has refused. Reports also say that they may be a grave threat to India’s security and can’t return. That is rubbish because these four women, if they are coming back to India, will be in the custody of our security forces. They can be taken to court and held in custody till the court gives a verdict. While in custody, they cannot be of any threat to the security of India.

Finally, they have their families here. In this particular case, Nimisha’s mother has said that there is a granddaughter who is four years old. What crime has she committed? It is necessary for that child to be with the grandparents, if the parents are not able to look after her. So, there is no reason for India to stand in the way of their return when Afghanistan has asked for it.

The question some are asking is that if these women left India of their own volition and joined what they believed was an Islamic Caliphate, and pledged allegiance to this separate Caliphate, don’t they lose their right to an Indian citizenship by acquiring this other notional citizenship?

KPF:No, there are international treaties which say that you cannot strip anyone’s citizenship if it makes that person stateless. Let me draw your attention to Shamima Begum, a U.K. citizen who left the U.K. at the age of 15 to join the IS. After the IS fell, the U.K. government said she cannot return and stripped her of citizenship. The Court of Appeal in the U.K. said the government was in the wrong. The government then went to the Supreme Court and said there are national security reasons for the decision not to let her in. The Supreme Court said she can contest the decision taken to strip her of citizenship, but when she is in a position to do so.

The Indian passport enables you to go out. You also need a visa or an agreement that there is no need for visa. The same passport permits you to come back without a visa.

Kabir Taneja:I believe that they should be allowed to come back and be tried as Indian citizens by an Indian court because if they have joined an organisation such as the IS, which is banned in India, they can be tried in court. Arif Majeed (an IS recruit who returned from Iraq in 2014) went through the trial and is now out on bail because the court said it’s very difficult for the prosecution to come up with concrete evidence as all the acts committed were outside India’s geography. So, after serving six to seven years as an undertrial, he was given bail. Now, you can argue whether that case was a successful case of trying someone who had joined a banned organisation or whether it fell apart.

Due to the fact that India does not have a cohesive policy towards foreign fighters, and also because it does not have that many such cases, it’s easy for the state to approach them on an ad hoc basis and tell these women in Afghanistan, ‘you did it by choice and we are not responsible for you anymore’.

Is there a national security risk from bringing back people who have been radicalised and have been associated with a terror group, possibly involved in terror attacks in other countries? Should there be a different standard in their treatment?

KT:The problem here is how do you estimate a person’s radicalisation? We’ve seen this argument play out not just in India; Europe, the U.S., Canada and others are experiencing this phenomenon of IS foreign fighters. Many states are saying it was these people’s choice to join a terror organisation and they are not the state’s responsibility anymore.

As far as the national security question is concerned, there is no easy answer to it. It ultimately comes down to what a state’s policy towards foreign fighters in general is. And if it is ad hoc, if it is on a case-by-case basis, it gives a lot of leverage to the state to decide what kind of action it would like to take towards that particular case. In the case of Arif Majeed, the government allowed him to return, but in the case of these women in Afghanistan, the government is not doing so.

KPF:Even if these particular young women were brainwashed and radicalised, and remain radicalised, we as a state have a duty to get them back and de-radicalise them. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.

The pictures that we saw coming out of the IS shook the world. People were being drowned alive and burnt alive, there was sexual slavery of Yazidi women, people were killed indiscriminately in Raqqa. When it comes to a threat like the one that the IS poses at the height of its brutality, is there a case for a different approach to returnees?

KPF:No, this must be decided according to legality and morality. I do not accept the argument that India cannot handle the threat posed by these four women. And what happens to that four-year-old girl, especially in Afghanistan, where there is every likelihood of the Taliban coming back? The state has a responsibility to its citizens and it can’t wash its hands of that responsibility.

KT:In reality, states have had very different approaches to IS returnees than in the past, for example, when foreign fighters joined the Mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1990s. In the case of the IS, a lot of European IS returnees have been kept in the al-Hol camp in northern Syria. Apart from the legal questions, there is also the political push back against allowing these fighters to come back to their original countries. In addition, when foreign fighters would sign up for the IS, they would destroy their own passports and have no papers to prove their claims. Now, the camp poses a different kind of problem — if these fighters are not moved out, IS ideology will fester in these camps and pose a fresh threat. So, there is a need for a broad-based global agreement on what to do with them.

India has seen far smaller numbers joining the IS. According to estimates, the total number of people influenced by the IS is only between 100 and 300. Does that imply de-radicalisation programmes may be more successful here if these recruits are able to return?

KT:It is hard to tell, and different States in India have different blueprints for de-radicalisation. In the U.K., we have seen people come out of these programmes and still commit acts of terror. With these returnees from Afghanistan, we are still not sure how they were radicalised. Who helped them go to Afghanistan? Until these questions are answered, it may not be possible for the state to be comfortable about allowing them to return.

KPF:Regardless of what India’s experience is, all countries must respect international law. It is absolutely clear that Afghanistan has every right under international law to deport these recruits. Now, if Afghanistan has the right to deport them, where does it deport them to? These people have Indian passports. So, if you respect Afghanistan’s right to deport them, it follows that you have to say that India has an obligation to accept them.

Eventually then, is this is a question of which laws could apply: international laws on the right to repatriate citizens or national security laws in India? And would the nature of the crimes be a factor in differentiating between one returnee and the other?

KPF:In the case of Shamima Begum, it is my view that such a decision would not have been made if she were not originally from Bangladesh or another country of that nature. If she were born to [Caucasian British] parents, for example, it would not have happened. Second, even under British law, you cannot strip a person of their citizenship if, as a consequence of that action, that person becomes stateless. The U.K. tried to maintain that she could have Bangladeshi citizenship, but Bangladesh declared that there is no question of her getting Bangladeshi citizenship because she was born in the U.K. I think it is necessary to look at these matters not only in terms of the law, which is always evolving, but also in terms of humanity. If we cannot look at young people who made a big mistake, and if we want to condemn them forever, well, I do not think we are behaving humanely.

KT:I think there should be differentiation on the basis of the crime committed. And of course, there should be differentiation on where the crime was committed. When it comes to foreign fighters, it’s not just about the law that comes into play. Security concerns come into play, the legality comes into play, and politics comes into play, both foreign policy and domestic politics.

Thousands of people like Shamima Begum are still stuck in various camps across West Asia. The problem is formulations on what states should do were not made earlier, despite the problem seen with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan-Pakistan and then with al-Qaeda. This was also the first time where there was such an influx, specifically from Europe, into the IS. And there has been such chaos and confusion — from the security point of view, political point of view and legal point of view — about how these countries should treat people, who would want to come back and say they made a mistake. I think the answers will take time. The problem is the people who are currently stuck in this rut are facing the brunt of both the legal point of view and security point of view. I still believe that a lot of these recruits who have made the decision of joining these kinds of groups are going to face a lot of pushback from the various states that they originally came from.

Even if these young women were radicalised, and remain radicalised, we as a state have a duty to get them back and de-radicalise them.

K.P. FABIAN

The Delhi court ruling is a way forward in finding a balance between civil rights and the imperatives of anti-terror laws

The judgment of the Delhi High Court granting bail to activists Devangana Kalita, Natasha Narwal, and Asif Iqbal Tanha — they have been in jail for over a year (without trial) for their alleged role in the 2020 Delhi riots — is significant for many reasons. Most importantly, it brings to a close many months of jail time for three people who are yet to be proven guilty of any crime, something that should be anathema to any civilised justice system. What is also significant, however, is that the judgment represents an important judicial pushback to the authoritarian legal regime under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (“UAPA”).

The root of the issue

Ostensibly designed to check and address terrorism, the UAPA is perhaps one of the most abused laws in India today. The root of the problem lies in Section 43(D)(5) of this Act, which prevents the release of any accused person on bail if, on a perusal of the case diary, or the report made under Section 173 of the Code Of Criminal Procedure, the court is of the opinion that “there are reasonable grounds for believing that the accusation against such person isprima facietrue”.

It is important to break this down. Broadly speaking, India follows the adversarial system of criminal justice, where two sides to a dispute attempt to persuade the court that their version of events is true. At the heart of the adversarial system of justice is the testing of evidence through cross-examination. Each side is afforded the opportunity to scrutinise, challenge, and question the evidence produced by its opponent; and the best way for a judge to unearth the truth — or the closest approximation of it — is to consider which side’s evidence is left standing, and appears more persuasive, after the rigours of cross-examination.

Production of evidence, and cross-examination, involves witnesses, recoveries of incriminating objects, tests of handwriting or voice samples, and many other elements. It constitutes the bulk of a criminal trial. In India, with our overburdened courts and creaking justice system, criminal trials take years. In high-profile cases such as the Delhi riots case, where the record is bulky, and the witnesses number in their hundreds, trials can take many years — even a decade or more.

Importance of bail

For this reason, bail becomes of utmost importance. If an individual is not able to secure bail from the courts, they will languish as under-trials in prison, for the duration of the case, no matter how many years it takes (in recent memory, there are cases of people being found innocent in terrorism cases after 14 and even 23years in prison). Bail, thus, becomes the only safeguard and guarantee of the constitutional right to liberty

In ordinary circumstances, when considering the question of bail, a court is meant to take into account a range of factors. These include whether the accused is a flight risk, whether he or she might tamper with the evidence or attempt to influence witnesses, and the gravity of the offence. But it is here that Section 43(D)(5) of the UAPA plays such a damaging role. As we have just seen, under the classical vision of criminal justice, truth — about innocence or guilt — can only be determined after the evidence of both the prosecution and the defence has been subjected to the rigours of cross-examination. However, as lawyers and scholars such as Abhinav Sekhri and Anjana Prakash have also pointed out, Section 43(D)(5) short-circuits that core assumption. For the grant of bail, it only looks at the plausibility of one side’s evidence — that is, the Prosecution’s. It binds the court to look at only the case diary or the police report, which has not been challenged by cross-examination, and requires that bail be denied as long as the unchallenged prosecution case appears to beprima facietrue.

One-sided

The perversity of Section 43(D)(5), thus, is that it forces the court to make an effective determination of guilt or innocence based on one side’s unchallenged story, and on that basis to deprive individuals of their freedom for years on end. In a democratic polity, which is committed to the rule of law, this is a deeply troubling state of affairs.

The effect of Section 43(D)(5), as one can see, is that once the police elect to charge sheet an individual under the UAPA, it becomes extremely difficult for bail to be granted. Even outlandish or trumped-up cases can sound convincing until people have a chance to interrogate and challenge them. In short, unless the police prepare an extremely shoddy case — that is riddled with internal contradictions, for example — a case diary or a report will invariably make out a “prima facie” case against an individual.

Finer points of the judgment

It is here that the Delhi High Court’s judgment becomes important. The Bench of Justices Siddharth Mridul and Anup Jairam Bhambani correctly note that even though Section 43(D)(5) departs from many basic principles of criminal justice, there are other fundamental principles that remain of cardinal significance. These include, for example, that the initial burden of demonstrating guilt must always lie upon the prosecution; and also, that criminal offences must be specific in their terms, and read narrowly, to avoid bringing the innocent within their net. On this basis, the court’s judgment notes that as the UAPA is meant to deal with terrorist offences, its application must be limited to acts that can reasonably fall within a plausible understanding of “terrorism”. “Terrorism” is a term of art, and not a word that can be thrown around loosely. Thus, to attract the provisions of the UAPA — the judgment holds — the charge sheet must reveal factual, individualised, and particular allegations linking the accused to a terrorist act.

The judgment then finds that even if the police’s claims are taken to be true, no such allegations exist. At the highest, the accusations against the activists involve calls for protests andchakka jams(road blockages). There is no act, overt or covert, attributed to the activists that could constitute a terrorist offence. And, importantly, inferences or hypotheticals drawn by the police do not count at the stage of granting bail. Coupled with the significance of the right to protest and to dissent under our constitutional scheme, the judgment therefore holds that evenprima facie, a case under the UAPA has not been made out, and therefore, there is no question of the application of Section 43(D)(5).

The Delhi High Court’s judgment indicates a pathway forward in the quest for finding a balance between citizens’ civil rights and the imperatives of anti-terrorism legislation such as the UAPA. A position under which citizens can be jailed for years on end just on the basis of police reports and case diaries, with courts precluded from granting them bail, is completely inconsistent with democracy, and redolent of authoritarian or tyrannical states. However, the court’s analysis shows how even within — and consistent with — the terms of the UAPA, there is an important role for a conscientious judiciary to play. By scrutinising the police case on its own terms, and according a strict interpretation to draconian legislation such as the UAPA, courts can ensure that civil rights are not left entirely at the mercy of the state.

At the time of writing, the High Court’s judgment has been appealed by the Delhi Police to the Supreme Court of India. It now remains to be seen whether the highest court will also endorse this crucial ruling, which restates the responsibility of an independent judiciary in checking executive impunity.

Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based lawyer

Artificial intelligence, autonomous systems and data analytics have a defining role to play in shaping the medical sector

As frontline warriors fighting COVID-19, the medical community has been selfless, but also losing a number of staff in the process. Nurses and attendants, on full-time duty, donning mainly masks and gloves as the only protective gear have been exposed to great risk. It is in such a situation that the relevance of disruptive technology and its applications comes into focus, potentially helping to reduce the chances of hospital staff contracting the infection.

There are reports in the global media of established innovative field hospitals using robots to care for COVID-19 affected patients. There are hospitals, in China, that use 5G-powered temperature measurement devices at the entrance to flag patients who have fever/fever-like symptoms. Other robots measure heart rates and blood oxygen levels through smart bracelets and rings that patients wear; they even sanitise wards. Last year, in India, the Sawai Man Singh government hospital in Jaipur held trials with a humanoid robot to deliver medicines and food to COVID-19 patients admitted there (https://bit.ly/3wLxtSQ).

The critical aspect is how new technologies can improve the welfare of societies and reduce the impact of communicable diseases, spotlighting the importance of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems, blockchain, cloud and quantum computing, data analytics, 5G. Blockchain technology can help in addressing the interoperability challenges that health information and technology systems face. The health blockchain would contain a complete indexed history of all medical data, including formal medical records and health data from mobile applications and wearable sensors. This can also be stored in a secure network and authenticated, besides helping in seamless medical attention.

Big data analytics can help improve patient-based services tremendously such as early disease detection. Even hospital health-care facilities can be improved to a great extent. AI and the Internet of Medical Things, or IoMT (which is defined as a connected infrastructure of medical devices, software applications, and health systems and services) are shaping health-care applications.

Medical autonomous systems can also improve health delivery to a great extent and their applications are focused on supporting medical care delivery in dispersed and complex environments with the help of futuristic technologies. This system may also include autonomous critical care system, autonomous intubation, autonomous cricothyrotomy and other autonomous interventional procedures. Cloud computing is another application facilitating collaboration and data exchanges between doctors, departments, and even institutions and medical providers to enable best treatment.

Furthering UHC

According to the World Health Organization (https://bit.ly/3gtHBtT), “Universal health coverage (UHC) is the single most powerful concept that public health has to offer. It is a powerful social equalizer and the ultimate expression of fairness.” The question is about how UHC can be achieved through the application of digital technologies, led by a robust strategy integrating human, financial, organisational and technological resources. Studies by WHO show that weakly-coordinated steps may lead to stand-alone information and communication technology solutions, leading to a fragmentation of information and resulting in poor delivery of care. India needs to own its digital health strategy that works and leads towards universal health coverage and person-centred care. Such a strategy should emphasise the ethical appropriateness of digital technologies, cross the digital divide, and ensure inclusion across the economy. ‘Ayushman Bharat’ and tools such as Information and Communication Technology could be be fine-tuned with this strategy to promote ways to protect populations. Online consultation through video conferencing should be a key part of such a strategy, especially in times when there is transmission of communicable diseases.

Using local knowledge

In addition to effective national policies and robust health systems, an effective national response must also draw upon local knowledge. Community nurses, doctors, and health workers in developing countries do act as frontline sentinels. An example is the Ebola virus outbreak in Africa, where communities proactively helped curtail the spread much before government health teams arrived. Another example is from Indonesia, where the experience of backyard poultry farmers was used to tackle bird flu. Primary health centres in India could examine local/traditional knowledge and experience and then use it along with modern technology.

Possible challenges

In the developing world, and this includes India, initial efforts in this direction should involve synchronisation and integration, developing a template for sharing data, and reengineering many of the institutional and structural arrangements in the medical sector. Big data applications in the health sector should help hospitals provide the best facilities and at less cost, provide a level playing field for all sectors, and foster competition. The possible constraints in this effort are a standardisation of health data, organisational silos, data security and data privacy, and also high investments. However, there is no doubt that disruptive technology can play an important role in improving the health sector in general.

Surjith Karthikeyan is an Indian Economic Service Officer, serving as Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of Finance. Gowtham Daas Rajendran is a post graduate in public policy from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The views expressed are personal

Political mobilisation based on opportunistic defection can only offer limited purchase

Leaders switching parties and parties recruiting turncoats are not unheard of in Indian politics. A shrinking party would lose leaders while an expanding party would gain them. The talent acquisition strategy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) goes far beyond such familiar opportunism. In the recent years of its growth, it has built entire electoral strategies around leaders who crossed over from other parties. In Assam, its two consecutive Chief Ministers were in other parties not long ago; the current incumbent, Himanta Biswa Sarma, was not just any other Congress leader but a decision maker in the 15-year-long tenure of the party until 2016. Perhaps encouraged by the success in Assam, the party launched a similar strategy in West Bengal. It recruited dozens of leaders from other parties, particularly the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Not surprisingly, a good number of the leaders who crossed over to the BJP due to its lure or fear of the central agencies investigating scams and irregularities, are now flocking back to the TMC. Even as it continued to induct defectors from the Congress and the Telangana Rashtra Samithi this week, Mukul Roy left the BJP to return to the comfort of his old party, the TMC. Several others may follow suit. The TMC itself is a haven of defectors — dozens of leaders from the Congress and the Left Front have joined it since it won power in 2011. The political flux is unlikely to end soon.

The BJP has achieved significant growth in West Bengal in a short span of time. Had it relied more on leaders who had organically grown with it, the BJP would not have been in such an embarrassing position. Its hurry to be in power even in places where it has not established itself as a viable party is harming it. It is also coarsening the political debate and harming democracy itself, simultaneously. If the reverse migration of TMC leaders is rattling the BJP in West Bengal, in Kerala, another State where it tried to punch far above its weight, it is caught in a vortex of corruption allegations. Allegations range from bringing money from Karnataka for the campaign in Kerala throughhawalaroutes and bribing an ally. The leaders that the BJP recruited from other parties in Kerala have added up to nothing. All this should point the BJP towards the virtue of patience, which is not unfamiliar to it. Replacing grassroots activism with large-scale defections from other parties can only win short-term rewards, if at all. In the long run, such trends undermine the parties, the persons involved and the democratic processes. The BJP must learn to be more modest in victory and gracious in defeat. Tactics too focused on the short term can only harm the larger interest over the longer term.

India and New Zealand are vying for the latest ICC trophy in the game’s original format

Ever since Australia and England played the first ever Test at Melbourne in March 1877, cricket’s longest format has constantly evolved. Timeless Tests were dispensed with and rest days within a game were discarded while faster siblings One Day Internationals and Twenty20s emerged. As the abridged variants attracted fans and commerce, Tests of recent vintage also embraced the day-and-night spectacle. Through these changes, nations have tested themselves in bilateral series with the Ashes and India-Pakistan clashes having stronger brand equity. Yet, there was a demand for context, a yearning that these languid affairs with breaks for lunch and tea over five days coalesce into something more significant. Limited-overs’ cricket had World Cups but in Tests, it was all about annual rankings. The International Cricket Council (ICC) stepped in to plug this gap with the World Test Championship (WTC) and the inaugural final will feature India and New Zealand, the leading two teams based on points garnered since 2019. The summit clash commencing at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl on Friday, presents an opportunity for both India and New Zealand to gain some ICC silverware that is missing in their trophy cabinets. The respective countries have suffered a title drought with New Zealand winning the ICC Knockout tournament, as the Champions Trophy was known then, back in 2000 while India claimed the ICC Champions Trophy in 2013.

Previously, Virat Kohli’s and Kane Williamson’s men had riveting jousts though it was the New Zealanders who mostly emerged on top. India lost the 2019 World Cup semi-final at Manchester and last year in New Zealand, won the T20Is and then succumbed in the ODIs and Tests. A neutral venue can negate home-advantage but New Zealand may feel more comfortable while taking into account the playing surface and the prevailing weather. However, India has the confidence gleaned from winning in Australia while also getting the better of England when Joe Root’s men came visiting. Meanwhile, true to its giant-slayer tag, New Zealand edged past England with a 1-0 verdict in the two-Test series over the last fortnight. Williamson and company have been in cricket’s birthplace for a longer time with additional matches under their belt while India has the solace of intra-squad warm-up games. The simplistic trope would be Indian batting against opposition bowling but times have changed and Kohli has an incisive pace arsenal led by Jasprit Bumrah besides solid back-up in spin. The teams seem equal and the provision for an extra sixth day should come in handy as rains are forecast. If there is a draw or a tie, the championship will be shared which is ideal as in their unique ways, India and New Zealand have repeatedly proved their mettle.

In any serious attempt at economic recovery, the focus must be on food supply and not money supply

The most recent growth estimates of the National Statistical Office show that after a steep contraction in the first quarter of last year, growth accelerated steadily afterwards. This would have assured a recovery had we not experienced the second wave of the pandemic that came with the current financial year. Overlapping State-level lockdowns that started in April have now lasted for almost as long the nationwide lockdown of 2020, and there is no gainsaying their impact on the economy. Output may well have contracted in the beginning of this year. So, though recovery will eventually come, it could be W-shaped rather than V-shaped.

Meaning of reforms

When the issue of economic recovery was raised in public, a minister asserted that the economy will recover due to the reforms planned or already implemented by the government. We do not know what the government has in mind but we should be sceptical of the claim that reforms can make a difference at this stage. Since 1991, the term ‘reforms’ has been used to mean both policy changes that remove restrictions on private sector activity in certain areas and those that increase profits in existing lines of production. Recent examples of these are allowing greater private sector participation in defence as part of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan launched in 2020 and the significant lowering of corporate tax in 2019, respectively. However, more reforms may be ineffective in spurring recovery. Presently for the private sector, entry into a new area or undertaking investment in an existing activity may not appear profitable given their expectation of the state of the economy in the near future, upon which their revenue will depend.

We may assume that the private sector is fully aware of the following history. In February, believing that the peak of the epidemic had been crossed, the government reverted to its principal macroeconomic pre-occupation, namely fiscal consolidation or the paring down of the fiscal deficit. Accordingly, it raised its budgeted expenditure by less than 1% in the last Budget. The onset of the second wave of COVID-19 in April has thrown the economic policy calculations of the government out of gear. Back in February it was already known that the economy had contracted in 2020-21. To keep public expenditure virtually unchanged under such circumstances had been heroic enough then, but now, with a possible further contraction of the economy, to continue with the frigid fiscal stance would be disastrous. Though we do not know how output has fared so far this financial year, data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy show that unemployment has risen in May, indicating slack demand for output. With this knowledge, the private sector is unlikely to respond with alacrity to liberalising reforms.

Public spending is the key

Right now, raising public spending is the only game in town left to the policymaker serious about bringing on a recovery. If we are to have it, though, we should accept a higher than budgeted deficit. A debate involving economists and central bankers has been set off on whether the government should now ‘print money’. This is the wrong way to approach the problem. It puts the cart before the horse. It is also alarmist. The objective is to revive the economy, public spending is the instrument and the funding must be found. It need not involve money creation. India’s public debt is low by comparison with the OECD countries, and debt financing remains an option. Even if money financing is adopted, it need not cause accelerating inflation as some predict. Experience in India suggests otherwise. However, studies do show that any economic expansion would be inflationary if the production of food does not respond adequately. How the expansion is financed is less relevant for inflation at least in the near term. In any serious attempt at economic recovery, the focus must be on the food supply and not the money supply.

Pulapre Balakrishnan teaches economics at Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana

COVID-19 has changed the way reporters cover the Supreme Court

A few years ago, an elderly reporter of inexhaustible zest and curiosity began his daily work of covering the Supreme Court from his usual spot — right under the judges’ noses.

One of the judges, noticing the physical proximity of the man to the dais, turned to him frowning. “Who are you,” he asked as the reporter continued to jot down the court’s observations, including this question, oblivious that the entire courtroom was now focused on him.

The veteran scribe collected his nerves admirably, bowed to the Bench, ever respectfully, and introduced himself and his employer. The judge asked him to keep his distance from the podium, probably move to the rear end of the courtroom. The reporter bowed and dutifully retreated, only to doggedly move forward within the next few minutes to catch a juicy remark falling from the Bench during the hearing.

COVID-19 changed it all last year. Reporters stopped being physically present at Supreme Court hearings. The first few days were a jumble. The court experimented with allowing only three reporters entry into a courtroom. The rest had to wait outside or try to sneak in. This reporter, of rather bulky proportions, could not tiptoe past the ever-vigilant Delhi Police personnel stationed outside the courtroom.

Over the next few days, the virus flexed its muscles. The Supreme Court shed its physical operations and turned to virtual mode. While judges and lawyers functioned from homes, reporters were invited to watch the proceedings online on desktop monitors arranged at a nearby annexe building. On the bright side, we could gawk at the lovely homes of senior lawyers displayed on the screens and overhear their chit-chat. We spotted a couple of shirtless male lawyers too. Though we missed the hurly-burly of the court and scampering from one courtroom to another, changing courtrooms on the screen with a click of a mouse saved sweat and time.

At times, though, poor connectivity irked the judges. Echoes, the background noise of dogs barking, vendors and, once, even a mother scolding a child to finish his breakfast encroached into the hearings.

Things changed again before the second wave hit. The court opened a new press lounge inside the complex. Here, reporters could watch the proceedings on personal laptops instead of a common monitor. But by then the virus had caught up with us in earnest. Some of us fell sick along with the world around us. The court went through a harrowing time. Many lost their colleagues and close friends.

Then a new Chief Justice was sworn in. A former journalist himself, Chief Justice N.V. Ramana understood that, like judges and lawyers, reporters need to be safe while doing their job. In early May, the court, steered by its e-Commmittee headed by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, launched a software that allowed reporters to stay at home and watch Supreme Court proceedings on their mobile phones. Technology had brought the apex court’s hearings into our homes.

But I still think about the elderly reporter. It has been quite a long time since I heard his breathless voice over the phone in the evenings after a ‘physical’ day in court, asking “Hey, what happened in *** case? I was in the other courtroom and couldn’t make it here in time.”

At a time when many of the Western countries are engaged in solving the problem of educational reform it was naturally expected that the Educational Commissioner with the Government of India would discuss, in his report, the several educational questions in India and convey to the public what was intended to be done by the Government to secure satisfactory solutions for them. In the absence of any such illumination, his report on Indian Education for the year 1919-20 is rendered a vapid record of facts and figures relating to the educational activities in the country during the period under review. It takes a bird’s-eye view of the educational progress in the country and does not attempt to do more than give a brief summary of important events recorded by the Directors of Public Instruction in several provinces and one looks into it in vain to find out what the future educational policy of the Government is and what lines of action are to be taken to make education in the country free from the charge of its being merely literary.

Washington, June 17: The External Affairs Minister, Mr. Swaran Singh, had a 45-minute meeting with President Nixon here yesterday, during which the former is understood to have pointed out that only a political approach could restore normalcy in East Bengal and that the U.S. and the international community should do their utmost to see that the real representatives of the people there were restored to power. Mr. Swaran Singh stressed that the refugees were only a mere symptom — at the root of it lay the political problem which could not be solved either by the Pakistani Army or a civilian junta handpicked by the military overlords of Pakistan. Earlier in the day, the External Affairs Minister had a working lunch and a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State, Mr. William Rogers, when he made the same points. At both meetings Mr. Swaran Singh emphasised that the refugee relief work for which the U.S. and other countries had made some contributions, was only a palliative and not a cure for the underlying problem. At any rate he had not undertaken his present tour of world capitals to raise donations for this purpose.