Editorials - 22-06-2021

This is ‘abject poverty’, and if the economy is to be repaired, the number of the poor has to be meticulously counted

The son of a corn merchant-turned sociologist, Charles Booth had little patience for Charles Dickens and others in his time, who used lyrical prose to describe the desperation of the poor in working class London. Booth was also angry, in 1885, over the claims made by F.D. Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Federation, which after an enquiry into the working classes of London had concluded that a quarter of the population of London lived in abject poverty (https://bit.ly/3gKVNi8). Confident of showing up the claims as sensational, he set about drawing his poverty map of the city and getting people to do door-to-door surveys. Much to his horror, his own landmark ‘Life and Labour of the People in London’ survey concluded that the numbers were much higher and a third of London lived in abject poverty. He had, unintentionally, nailed the importance of getting the numbers right, which settled the question of which class needed maximum attention.

An imperative

In India, there is now, rightly, a consensus difficult for the Government to beat down that to be able to battle COVID-19 and secure India from successive waves, the exact numbers of the dead must be carefully documented. Something else that needs equal attention, if the state of the decrepit Indian economy is to be repaired, is to be able to meticulously count the number of the poor and to prioritise them. The World Bank $2-a-day (poverty line) might be inadequate but it would be a start and higher than the last line proposed by the C. Rangarajan committee.

There has been hesitation for a variety of reasons to wrestle with the rising numbers of the poor in India. Not least, the pursuit of becoming ‘Vishwaguru’, has hampered this as that pitch works only if the leadership is able to mask the dramatic rise in poverty. Coming to terms with how low India’s median income is would disrupt the carefully constructed ride about being the biggest/largest in the world. A survey in 2013 had said India stood at 99 among 131 countries, and with a median income of $616 per annum, it was the lowest among BRICS and fell in the lower middle-income country bracket.

There has been a slide

Since then — and we are still not talking of the novel coronavirus pandemic — three important data points have made it clear that the state of India’s poor needs to be acknowledged if India is to be lifted. The first being, the fall in the monthly per capita consumption expenditure of 2017-18 for the first time since 1972-73, which the Government withheld citing concerns with the quality of data collected, then the fall of India in the Global Hunger Index to ‘serious hunger’ category and India’s own health census data or the recently concluded National Family Health Survey or NFHS-5, which had worrying markers of increased malnutrition, infant mortality and maternal health. A fourth statistic earlier this year, of Bangladesh bettering India’s average income statistics, must also be a reason for Indians to introspect. What kind of growth path has led to India sliding in the sustainable development goals index (by at least two ranks last month) as well as in the per capita income rankings? If we do not bother to know of the increased numbers sliding into poverty, there would be little possibility of moving toward a solution.

The precarious situation after the demonetisation in 2016 was rendered calamitous with the novel coronavirus pandemic and the shrinking of the economy. In 2019, the global Multidimensional Poverty Index reported that India lifted 271 million citizens out of poverty between 2006 and 2016. Since then, the International Monetary Fund, Hunger Watch, SWAN and several other surveys show a decided slide. In March, the Pew Research Center with the World Bank data estimated that ‘the number of poor in India, on the basis of an income of $2 per day or less in purchasing power parity, has more than doubled to 134 million from 60 million in just a year due to the pandemic-induced recession’. In 2020, India contributed 57.3% of the growth of the global poor. India contributed to 59.3% of the global middle class that slid into poverty. The last time that ‘India reported an increase in poverty was in the first 25 years after Independence, when from 1951 to 1974, the population of the poor increased from 47% to 56%’. So, India is again a “country of mass poverty” after 45 years. This has thrown a spanner in the so far uninterrupted battle against poverty since the 1970s. Urgent solutions are needed within, and the starting point of that would be only when we know how many are poor.

Poverty line debate

In India, the poverty line debate became very fraught in 2011, as the Suresh Tendulkar Committee report at a ‘line’ of Rs. 816 per capita per month for rural India and Rs. 1,000 per capita per month for urban India, calculated the poor at 25.7% of the population. The anger over the 2011 conclusions, led to the setting up of the C. Rangarajan Committee, which in 2014 estimated that the number of poor were 29.6%, based on persons spending below Rs. 47 a day in cities and Rs. 32 in villages.

Reasons why numbers count

Numbers matter for many reasons. The first is because knowing the numbers and making them public makes it possible to get public opinion to support massive and urgent cash transfers. The world outside India has moved onto propose high fiscal support, as economic rationale and not charity; it is debating a higher level of minimum wages than it has in the past. Spain has accorded security to its gig workers by giving delivery boys the status of workers. In India too, a dramatic reorientation would get support only once numbers are honestly laid out.

The second argument for recording the data is so that all policies can be honestly evaluated on the basis of whether they meet the needs of the majority. Is a policy such as bank write-offs of loans amounting to Rs. 1.53-lakh crore last year, which helped corporates overwhelmingly, beneficial to the vast majority? Or has it been just beneficial to a thin sliver of the super rich? This would be possible to transparently evaluate only when the numbers of the poor are known and established.

Third, if government data were to honestly account for the exact numbers of the poor, it may be more realistic to expect the public debate to be conducted on the concerns of the real majority and create a climate that demands accountability from public representatives.

Fourth, India has clocked a massive rise in the market capitalisation and the fortunes of the richest Indian corporates, whose wealth has grown manifold in the past few years, even as millions of Indians have experienced a massive tumble into poverty. The stories of billionaires get reported regularly and prominently. To say that the stock market and the Indian economy are ‘not related’ is ingenuous. Indians must have the right to question whether there is a connection and if the massive rise in riches is not coincidental, but at the back of the misery of millions of the poor, whose ranks are swelling. If billionaire lists are evaluated in detail and reported upon, the country cannot shy away from counting its poor.

See the ‘bread line’

The late Arjun Sengupta, as Chairman of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector in 2004, had concluded that 836 million Indians still remained marginalised. He spoke of the poorest of poor and the commission’s recommendations on social security resulted in the enactment of the Unorganised Sector Workers Social Security Act (https://bit.ly/3vElOEl). At the time his conclusion was ignored — that 77% of India was marginalised — emphasising that it was a problem of a much bigger magnitude, than the figure of 25.7% conveyed.

The ‘bread line’ ostensibly owes its origins to the economic depression in the United States in the 1890s and charity by New York restaurants which organised soup kitchens. The queue or line of bread seekers would be distressingly long. A physical queue on the roads needed a policy response. It could not be wished away by simply looking away. The massive slide into poverty in India that is clear in domestic and international surveys and anecdotal evidence must meet with an institutional response. The Government must girdle up and unflinchingly quantify the slide from the ‘fastest growing economy’ to the country with the largest rise in the number of poor people. It must be accepted, to go back to the debate Charles Booth had with the Social Democratic Federation that it is “abject poverty” we are talking about; almost a sub-human level of existence of the majority of fellow Indians we cannot continue to be blasé about. Counting them would be a much-needed start to convey that each life matters.

Seema Chishti is a journalist based in

New Delhi

In seeking to pursue conflicting objectives, the policy architecture is complex and difficult to implement

Contrary to popular perception, public policies are made without full knowledge or facts. More often than not, they embody assumptions arising from experience, an understanding of history, and present conditions. Considering the vast sea of unknowns surrounding COVID-19, it would be understandable to place a greater reliance on historical experience. Instead, India’s vaccine policy appears to be one of experimentation. Despite several modifications, the final policy as articulated by the Prime Minister on June 7 continues to lack clarity in its intent, design, funding and outcomes. In seeking to pursue conflicting objectives, the policy architecture is complex, difficult to implement, and could be a nightmare for accountants.

The vaccine policy

After much loss of time, the final policy has the following elements: the stated objective is universal access to free vaccinations in all government and accredited facilities; the design for achieving the objective is creating a dual market under which the Central government will procure 75% of the total quantity manufactured, leaving the residue for commercial sale. The funding will be a mix of public finance and out-of-pocket expenditure. The outcome is to ensure that all 95 crore adults are fully vaccinated by the end of this year.

The policy has two caveats related to pricing and volume of sales. While Covishield and Covaxin are supplied to the Central government at Rs. 150 per dose, the price for a consumer in the private market is capped at Rs. 780 for Covishield, Rs. 1,145 for Sputnik V and Rs. 1,410 for Covaxin. To avoid cornering of vaccines by corporates and enable medium and small hospitals to participate in vaccination, the Central government will specify hospital-wise and State-wise quotas for private sales. Based on the quota allocated, the said hospitals will procure the vaccine directly from the manufacturer or use the option of the National Health Authority portal, if accredited.

Compare this maze with the policy followed under the Universal Immunisation Programme – the Central government indicates the quantity required, the delivery schedules and the rates as per global tender, and supplies quality, ready-to-use vaccines to the States to be provided free. The manufacturer is left to dispose of excess quantity, if any, in accordance with market forces and without interference from the government. Under this system, the government has negotiated incredibly low prices due to the volume of its orders. In view of its wide reach, the private sector’s participation, catering to the better-off sections which have the ability to pay, has averaged 5%-15% depending on the vaccine.

Current status of procurement

It is estimated that the Central government has procured and placed advance purchases for 79 crore doses for Rs. 12,405 crore (including Rs. 1,485 crore from PM CARES). The State governments in May procured 2.6 crore doses incurring Rs. 810 crore, while the private sector (nine corporate chains and 300 hospitals) procured 1.2 crore doses. Selling at Rs. 1,000 per dose of Covishield and an average of Rs. 1,400 for Covaxin, the household expenditure on vaccines comes to about Rs. 1,332 crore. The private sector’s share in the total 82.8 crore doses procured and amount incurred is 1.45% and 9.1%, respectively.

The total number of people who got vaccinated by June 21 with a single dose was 23.2 crore and with two doses was 5.05 crore. Of the total 190 crore vaccines required for covering the eligible population with two doses and 83 crore already secured for supply till year-end, the gap is 107 crore. This brings us to the first level of policy confusion. In the absence of spelling out the population segments that the government proposes to cover, it is unclear whether the 75% procurement cap refers to the stocks manufactured or by implication the eligible population. Clarity on this is important. If it refers to stocks, then the position can vary due to uncertainties and externalities associated with production. Besides, in the absence of credible information regarding real-world manufacturing capacity and wide price differentials, arriving at what that 75% of manufactured stocks would entail is difficult, creating an unstable environment for operation and planning.

If it is 75% of the population to be covered, the policy assumes that 24 crore people have the ability to pay such high prices for a vaccine. How far is that a realistic assumption, given that as per data of the Pew Research Centre, the number of people earning less than $2 a day has doubled from 5.9 crore to 13.4 crore as a result of the pandemic? Due to the pandemic, under every income segment, the numbers have reduced — the number of people in the high and upper-middle class is estimated to have fallen to 1.8 crore from 2.5 crore, the middle class to 6.6 crore from the 9.9 crore prior to the pandemic, and the lower middle class to 116.2 crore from 119.7 crore.

The second policy confusion is determining from where the 24 crore-paying population is to come from for buying the vaccine at the rates laid down by the government. The inequity this policy will generate between the rich and poor, urban and rural is embedded and will be hard to justify, besides clouding the actual requirement of vaccines for the government to administer. In other words, the demand may be more for free vaccines while the self-imposed ceiling of 75% of stocks may create artificial scarcities.

Or is there an assumption that 75% coverage would ensure herd immunity and, with some luck, the pandemic may just blow over?

Concerns

Apart from concerns of ethics and morality, the ‘two steps forward, one step backward’ policy fix has given rise to another set of issues necessitating simplification of the policy design. One, the idea of manipulating markets is not as smart as it sounds. Piecemeal orders increase investment risk for a company. Besides, delivering and processing small orders by multiple small entities (private hospitals) located in remote areas would further add to costs impacting the price at the point of delivery. Since price must ensure a minimum return on investment, it is critical that such complexities be addressed.

Two, the small and medium private hospitals that have the reach in Tier 2 towns and rural areas do not have deep pockets to buy such costly vaccines. Given vaccine hesitancy, heightened by a constrained ability to pay, the mutating virus and constant shifts in vaccine dosage and periodicity due to emerging evidence, the additional burden of organising quality assurance all add to the risk.

Three, differential pricing and dual markets provide wrong incentives and result in unhealthy competition, illegal charging for vaccines in government facilities, siphoning, diversion and leakage of the free vaccines to the private markets where in large swathes of the country it is the government doctors that double up as owners of private enterprises.

Clearly, there is a need to simplify the policy with the government as the sole procurer. Implementation must be in accordance with district-level micro plans incorporating the public and private sector, to cover target groups as specified in accordance with epidemiological data. The objective has to be to restore normalcy, kick-start the economy, start schools and ensure people’s well-being. It is not the time to ask people to share costs when the economy is tanking. Vaccines are our only lifeline. They should be freely available and accessible to all, not only to the privileged few.

K. Sujatha Rao is former Union Health Secretary

The ultra-conservative leader may be quite ambitious even as many Iranians are pessimistic about better days ahead

The head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, won the presidential election in Iran on Saturday, June 19 with 61.95% of the vote. His victory has come as no surprise, especially as he was considered the main choice of the Iranian hardliners. Mr. Raisi was among seven contenders — including five conservatives — allowed by Iran’s election monitoring body to run in the presidential election of June 18. Unsurprisingly, out of the estimated 592 people who registered to take part in the presidential election, only seven candidates were approved by Iran’s Guardian Council. Among those barred from running were former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and former Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani.

A deeper reading

From the point of view of experts and observers of Iranian politics, this election was carefully engineered and controlled by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who have been influencing all decision-making concerning Iranian domestic and foreign policies. Ayatollah Khamenei is 82 and there are already rumours that the best candidate to replace him in the long run, as the Supreme Leader of the Iranian Revolution, is Mr. Raisi. This is a decision which will certainly be desired and approved by the hardline members of the IRGC which is the most powerful support base for exporting the Islamic Revolution to other countries and breaking all resistance from social and political groups in the country.

A weakening of the reformists

Mr. Raisi’s election comes at a critical time for the Iranian reformists. Unlike the previous presidential elections, where the hardliners fought against pro-reform figures, the June 18 election was the final nail in the coffin of the reform movement; the idea supported by many within and outside Iran during the past three decades was that gradual political change in the Islamic Republic was possible. Mr. Raisi’s victory is an important opportunity for Iranian hardliners to win control over the most important branches of government after being out of office for many years.

As a reaction to the hardline retort, the reformists even tried to pressure Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to run as a candidate, but even he had no chance to encounter the dynamics of an election fully controlled by the Supreme Leader and his gathering. As a result, none of the close collaborators of Hassan Rouhani could pass the vetting by the Guardian Council. But, anyhow, the reformists were to be blamed for having failed to bring in meaningful change in easing political and social restrictions in the country and helping the expected rise of the hard-liners. This is one of the main reasons why many Iranians have become increasingly disillusioned with the reformist camp of the establishment, which has been increasingly marginalised. Let us not forget that the voter turnout in last week’s presidential election was 48.8%, the lowest turnout recorded for a presidential election since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979.

The ground realities

Though unified in their support of Mr. Raisi, the Iranian hardline factions did not succeed in energising Iran’s disaffected public. As a matter of fact, there was a minimal interest in the presidential election among many young Iranians who continue to struggle on a daily basis to make both ends meet amid a continually deteriorating economy that has been crushed by sanctions by the United States. Unsurprisingly, a high percentage of the Iranian population does not find in the new President a possibility of a better economic situation and improved ties with the West. But this is not the only reason why Iranian civil society does not trust the new President.

Many Iranians, even those born after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, are quite aware of Mr. Raisi’s long career in Iran’s judiciary and his participation in a four-member committee which ordered the execution of thousands of Leftist and the People’s Mujahedin Organization of Iran (MKO) political prisoners in 1988. These executions were never acknowledged by the Iranian government, but in August 2016, the family of the late Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the former Deputy Supreme Leader, published an audio file in which he harshly criticised the executions in a conversation with the committee that included Mr. Raisi.

Looking ahead

On a different note, as being defiant to the normalisation of ties with the West, Mr. Raisi will certainly not plead for an immediate opening of the Iranian economy to foreign investors. Therefore, he will have great difficulty in revitalising the Iranian economy, especially because he has continuously minimised the impact of U.S. economic sanctions and even that of the COVID-19 pandemic on the difficult social and economic situation in Iran. As in foreign policy, the new President will continue good relations with Russia and China, while he will persist in reinforcing Iran’s strategic relations with Syria and Iraq. Last, but not least, although challenging the West, he will not openly and clearly oppose the Iranian nuclear agreement which is currently being negotiated with the Americans and the Europeans. After all, the Iranian President is a political player with very little power in the Islamic regime, since the final decision on major issues such as the nuclear agreement, comes back to the Supreme Leader of the Revolution.

But there is more to Ebrahim Raisi than what he seems to appear. Actually, as everybody knows inside Iran, he has ambitions to replace Ayatollah Khamenei as the next Supreme Leader of the Revolution.

Therefore, while he continues to be faithful to Ali Khamenei, he could be trying to consolidate his alliances with different conservative groups in Iran. Mr. Raisi’s deep ties with the IRGC can be interpreted as his support for the Iranian military hegemony in the region, with a clear priority being given to the ideological interests of the Islamic regime over regional security and stability. As an ultra-conservative, Mr. Raisi will certainly continue to collaborate with the IRGC decision-makers in order to play a significant role within Iran’s hegemonic enterprise in West Asia.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace, Jindal Global University, Sonipat

If States directly collect more tax, they will become less dependent on the Central government

Preserving the unity of India was a great concern at the time of independence. The rulers of Travancore, Hyderabad, Jodhpur, Bhopal and Junagadh wanted their own separate countries. In October 1947, Kashmir was invaded with the backing of a very young Pakistan government. Goa was liberated from the Portuguese only in 1961. It was natural that India opted to be a Union unlike the U.S. and many other countries which have federal governments. The essential difference is that the Central government has more authority and power in a Union government.

Revenue distribution

Direct taxes are income tax and corporate tax. In the U.S., both the federal and State governments collect such taxes from individuals and corporations.This is true in Switzerland and some other countries as well. However, in India, direct taxes go entirely to the Central government. The Central government is supposed to distribute 41% of its gross tax revenues (reduced from 42% after the formation of new Union Territories in Jammu and Kashmir) to the State governments. In the U.S., the federal government distributes about 15% of its revenues.

State governments get funds from the Central government according to the Finance Commission’s recommendations. Though this is based on some formula, often politics intervenes and some States get less and some more. Usually the Central government does not meet the 41% target. We see various States either petitioning or coming into conflict with the Central government on this issue. Meanwhile, the Central government has added cess on various items which adds up to over Rs. 3.5 lakh crore. This is not shared with the State governments.

State governments also raise their own funds largely through taxes on liquor, property, road and vehicles. At an all-India level, the States get 26% of their total revenue from the Central government. Some of the so-called poorer States get up to 50% of their total revenue from the Central government, making them even more dependent. This gives more economic power to the Central government and allows ruling parties at the Centre to use these funds to their advantage.

Another issue is regional disparity. Maharashtra, Delhi and Karnataka contribute the lion’s share of taxes to the government. These three regions along with Tamil Nadu and Gujarat contribute 72% of the tax revenue. Uttar Pradesh, which has the largest population in India, contributes only 3.12% but gets over 17% of the revenue distributed by the Central government. Revenue distribution is based on complex considerations including population and poverty levels. For every Rs. 100 contributed, southern States get about 51% from the Central government, whereas Bihar gets about 200%. The population growth rates in the south have come down to near zero, whereas the population in central and north India continues to grow. The cross subsidy from the south to the north will therefore grow. Meanwhile, job seekers and those looking for higher quality education are flocking to the south.

On the other hand, political power is concentrated in the north because there are more Lok Sabha seats. The number of seats in each State will be revised in 2026 perhaps based on population and other factors. This has already created apprehension in the southern States that they will be further politically marginalised. The periodic attempts to declare Hindi a national language fuels widespread resentment.

Beyond the current framework

Some experts support cross subsidy and others oppose it. Suggestions usually work within the current framework. Making the fund allocation fairer is almost impossible because of politics. We need to look beyond this framework. One step could be to provide greater economic power to the States so that they can directly collect more taxes and be less dependent on the Central government. This would improve Centre-State relations. For poorer States, a period of transition is perhaps required.

Unfortunately, politics does not depend on expert opinion. On top of an extended pandemic, negative economic growth and loss of crores of jobs, the situation is becoming ripe for rabble-rousing politicians to ask why we should subsidise those people who disrespect our language and do not give us political power. Regional differences led to violence in Yugoslavia, Sri Lanka and between East and West Pakistan. Hopefully, we may not see that kind of violence.

India’s hard-won independence and unity needs to be preserved. Today there are threats from China. There may be threats from Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws its troops. A transition to a more federal structure will allow the Centre to focus on external threats instead of internal dissensions. Our internal divisions helped invaders from West Asia and the British. Hopefully, we will learn from our history.

Trilochan Sastry is Professor, IIM Bangalore

It is time for India to repeal Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code or strike it down

India has the highest suicide rate in the Southeast Asian region, according to the World Health Organization. Depression, chronic ill health, guilt, trauma, substance abuse, failure in exams, and loss of loved ones are some of the reasons which influence a person’s decision to take his or her life. A total of 1,34,516 cases of suicide were reported in 2018 in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. While the rate of suicide was 9.9 in 2017, it increased to 10.2 in 2018.

Crime and punishment

Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code dictates the penal provision for attempting suicide. If a person is suffering from any mental trauma or illness, he or she should be given reformative treatment rather than a deterrent punishment which is “simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year [or with fine, or with both]”. India has retained much of the colonial legal legacy in its penal jurisprudence. But the fact is that the British Parliament decriminalised attempts to suicide in 1961 through the Suicide Act. In India, a Bill to repeal Section 309 was first introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 1972 but it failed to pass in the Lok Sabha because the House was dissolved.

We have witnessed a century-long tussle between two camps in which one advocates for penal provision and the other continuously demands that attempts to suicide be decriminalised. Those who favour the penal provision generally quote the judgment inGian Kaur V. State of Punjab(1996)where the court held that the “right to life is a natural right embodied in Article 21” of the Constitution but “suicide is an unnatural termination or extinction of life and, therefore, incompatible and inconsistent with the concept of right to life”. InAruna Ramchandra Shanbaug v. Union of India(2011), the Supreme Court endorsed the earlier judgment.

On the other hand, those who argue that the act of attempting suicide should not be criminalised quoteMaruti Shripati Dubal v. State of Maharashtra(1986). In this judgment, the Bombay High Court declared Section 309 unconstitutional. It said: “For example, the freedom of speech and expression includes freedom not to speak and to remain silent. The freedom of association and movement likewise includes the freedom not to join any association or to move anywhere... If this is so, logically it must follow that right to live... will include also a right not to live or not to be forced to live.”

The court also said: “If the purpose of the prescribed punishment is to prevent the prospective suicides by deterrence, it is difficult to understand how the same can be achieved by punishing those who have made the attempts... Those who make the suicide attempt on account of the mental disorders require psychiatric treatment and not confinement in prison cells.” This idea was recorded inChenna Jagadeeswar v. State of Andhra PradeshandP. Rathinam v. Union of India(1994)where the court held that Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code is a violation of Articles 14 and 21 and is void and unconstitutional.

A solution

In 2017, Parliament passed the Mental Healthcare Act. Section 115 (1) of the Act provides, “Notwithstanding anything contained in section 309 of the Indian Penal Code, any person who attempts to commit suicide shall be presumed, unless proved otherwise, to have severe stress and shall not be tried and punished under the said Code.” However, this law applies only to those suffering from mental illness. There is presumption of severe stress in case of an attempt to die by suicide.

But what if severe stress is not proved? We have to shift from penalising attempts to suicide to making such cases medico-legal ones and provide psychological or mental treatment and support to the persons affected. As the issue demands a reformative stance, we need a permanent solution like repealing Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code or striking it down.

Rajmohan Unnithan is the current Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha from Kasaragod

U.S. should have backed Afghan govt. more instead of pushing hard to engage the Taliban

The dilemmas of ending the U.S.’s ‘forever war’ appeared to fall heavily upon the shoulders of President Joe Biden, who is now helming his country’s rush for the exit before the self-imposed deadline of September 11, 2021, the 20-year anniversary of the WTC terror attacks. While he clearly signalled his intention to remain engaged with the war-torn country by meeting, in the first instance, Afghanistan’s President, Ashraf Ghani, and Chairman of its High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, at the White House this week, the U.S.’s troop withdrawal since May 1, 2021, in a sense signals the opposite intention. There is no mistaking the Taliban’s reaction, especially to Washington’s plan to wind down its Afghan military presence. Ever since February 29, 2020, when the U.S. and the Taliban signed the Doha “agreement for bringing peace” to Afghanistan, Taliban-linked violence has risen steadily, U.S. intelligence reports have assessed that al-Qaeda still has a presence in Afghanistan and the terrorist outfit’s decades-long ties with the Taliban have been undiminished. Meanwhile the situation on the ground is far from inspiring for anyone who hopes for peace in the region. Facing tepid resistance from the ANDSF, now with ever-reducing access to U.S. air support, the Taliban have managed to fight, hold on to and even take back the territories from the government.

This reality begs the question of what new vortexes of violence, terrorist havens and other sources of regional instability Afghanistan might play host to now, and whether the U.S. and western powers will retain enough influence to prevent events in this regard from spiralling out of control. Closer to home, a sense of concern must be pervading South Block as the last U.S. troop carriers lift off from Bagram, potentially allowing agents linked to Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment a freer hand to engage with extremist elements in Afghan with possible blowback for India. What will become of New Delhi’s long-sighted, soft-power investments into education, training and infrastructure and civil society development? Had the U.S. played a consistently strong hand supporting the Afghan government instead of pushing as hard as it did to engage the Taliban, that might have delayed Washington’s exit plans but provided more leeway for the ANDSF to push harder and take enough territory to weaken the Taliban’s overall strategic grip. Given the prospect of the ANDSF’s fragmentation — already occurring in some areas — it now appears more likely that a deal may be forged between the Taliban and powerbrokers once associated with the Afghan government. This could lead to a Taliban-centric religious council that sets an overall tenor of governance based on Islamic law yet permits a semi-autonomous executive governmental power to operate within that framework.

Families who lost breadwinners in COVID-19 need supportive policies and a safety net

The Centre’s stated position before the Supreme Court on paying a standard ex gratia compensation to families of those who died of COVID-19 shows poor appreciation of the fallout of an unprecedented disaster. After initially asserting that such payments were beyond the Government’s fiscal affordability, although there is a provision in the Disaster Management Act for compensation, and externalising the pandemic as a global, ongoing event, the Home Ministry has now averred that the issue was the manner in which funds were to be put to use. Clearly, lack of resources would be a legless argument when the Centre is pursuing expensive redevelopment projects such as the Central Vista. What the Government says it wants to do is to deploy funds in health care, enhance social protection and support economic recovery of affected communities, rather than give one-time compensation payments (Rs. 4 lakh) or notified ex gratia sought by the petitioners. There is nothing wrong in keeping the focus on provision of essential supplies and additional health infrastructure. In fact, the second wave peak was made considerably worse by poor health infrastructure and low public health expenditure, and a policy failure recorded by the Economic Survey which called for higher public spending of 2.5%-3% of GDP on health. But lending a helping hand to families now impoverished should also be a priority. The Centre, after tying itself in knots on free vaccines, should now spell out its road map for a universal public health system.

The annual Budget included a raft of schemes under COVID-19 initiatives and claimed credit for Atmanirbhar Bharat packages, which, together with the RBI’s ameliorative steps, officially amounted to 13% of GDP. But the “above-the-line” relief in terms of health care and social protection, including cash transfers, are a small share of other spending such as credit provision to several sectors, as per some estimates. The IMF analysis of policy responses says that early in the pandemic, food, fuel and cash transfers to lower-income households came to 1.2% of GDP. With the second wave marked by many deaths and nationwide closures, a review of direct benefits is urgently called for. In court, the Home Ministry has said that confining solutions to compensation would be narrow. It is no one’s case that large direct cash benefits are the only good interventions. Families who have lost breadwinners need help while orphaned children need support. It also does not help that India’s pension system is weakening, bank deposits have low yields and official policy expects people to essentially fend for themselves. The Centre should not hesitate to review its tax basket to rely more on the wealthiest to compensate those who have been hit the hardest.

The market value of Chinese snuff bottles here [Hong Kong, June 21] have soared following the sensational sale of a collection in London last week for $65,000 (Rs. 4,87,500). Glass and enamel snuff bottles of recent vintage have risen more than 20 per cent in price. Older ones of a hundred years or more have gone up by as much as 40 per cent. Snuff bottles have become very popular in Hong Kong in the past five years and art collectors have been publicising the pleasure and profitability of collecting them. In the colony’s maze of curio shops, collectors have been buying the bottles indiscriminately, immediately pushing up prices. Less than ten years ago a good, late Ching dynasty opaque glass bottle cost $10. The same bottle to-day would fetch $40 or more. The popularity of snuff bottles in Hong Kong has created a booming tourist business in them. Enormous quantities of snuff bottles have appeared, many of them cheap and poor copies of originals, but sold as “antique.” Racketeers have also joined the boom business. Many innocent collectors — with more money than knowledge of snuff bottles — have been fooled by cheap fakes. The demand for snuff bottles, however, has revitalised a handicraft which was dying.