Editorials - 04-03-2021

The government’s intent to offload public sector units and banks will only result in the long-term loss of public wealth

The origin of the ongoing crisis in the Indian economy was the fateful night of November 8, 2016. Dr. Manmohan Singh’s prescient words in Parliament — that demonetisation would lead to a 2% drop in the GDP — were not heeded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On the contrary, a badly designed and hastily implemented flawed Goods and Services Tax (GST) followed, further devastating vast numbers of medium and small enterprises, as well as the vast informal sector of the economy. Together, these twin disasters robbed millions of their livelihoods and plunged the Indian economy into a prolonged slump that predates the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oil taxes, PSU privatisation

Historically, low international oil prices presented the government an opportunity to encourage a consumption-led revival by passing on these benefits to the people. Instead of seizing the opportunity, the Modi government continues to squeeze every family’s shrinking budget through excessive petroleum taxes and cesses. In contrast, in 2019, it gave corporates a huge tax cut that did not generate increased investment and succeeded only in burning a Rs. 1.45-lakh crore-sized hole in India’s Budget.

Not content with these self-inflicted wounds, the Modi government is using the economy’s collapse since the pandemic to rush headlong into its mission of handing over large portions of India’s wealth to its favourite crony capitalists. It has announced its intent to become cash rich by selling the family silver, through hasty privatisation, of India’s public sector undertakings (PSUs).

Executed carefully and strategically, disinvestment (which is the sale of a part of the government’s shares in PSUs) can generate resources for the government, set the right incentives for their managements, and reward the investing public. In that spirit, in our 2019 Manifesto, the Congress party promised a middle path to disinvest from only non-core, non-strategic public sector enterprises.

More a fire sale

But the Modi government has explicitly embraced “privatisation” instead of “disinvestment.” Its choice of language signals its intent. Unable to manage the nation’s finances, unable to inspire trust in the private sector to boost investment, the government has turned to distress sale of our national assets. Will selling assets for short-term gains make up for the long-term loss of public wealth?

This fire sale is being justified by citing enhanced efficiency and the generation of funds for the government’s welfare programmes. This is a deceptive argument. What we are likely to witness in reality is the privatisation of PSU profits, and the nationalisation of private sector losses. In the garb of privatisation, valuable assets and profit-making companies will be undervalued and sold to cronies who will make a killing. On the other hand, defaulters with huge loan burdens will be bailed out using public funds.

When the earlier A.B. Vajpayee-led avatar of the National Democratic Alliance sold Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), it failed to capture its full value, thus short-changing the public. Hotels were disposed of for a song in the name of getting the government out of sectors where it did not belong. If the Modi government persists with its policy, the public surely has a right to demand that it demonstrate transparently and explicitly how it valued our national assets and calculated reserve prices.

Efforts to extract value from the sale of PSUs will also be hurt by the Modi government’s lack of credibility. Over the last few years, it has failed to achieve its disinvestment targets. Its few disinvestment “successes” have been no more than getting government-owned entities to purchase other PSUs. Thus, the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) of India bailed out the Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI), the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) bailed out Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited (HPCL), and so on. What kind of value can the nation expect to receive from this distress sale then?

There are also serious long-term consequences that are being ignored. The disinvestment of part of the government’s stake in LIC, and its proposed Initial Public Offer (IPO), are suggestive of clearing the decks to privatise the crown jewel of India’s insurance sector. But then, will a privatised LIC meet our crucial long-term financing needs for infrastructure projects with long gestation periods?

Impact on social justice

The Modi government’s privatisation policy betrays its disdain for social justice. PSUs have historically played an active role in developing backward regions. Importantly, through reservations, PSUs have ensured high-quality jobs for Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Classes. Once PSUs are privatised or disinvested to below 50% government ownership, reservations for these historically marginalised sections will become history.

This government has presided over massive job losses and record unemployment. Yet, it now embraces outright privatisation with complete disregard to how PSU employees will cope with the lay-offs that will inevitably follow.

Banks in danger

In the banking sector, this government has presided over an exponential rise in non-performing assets, or NPAs. Gross NPAs under its watch between 2014-15 and 2019-20 were nearly 365% higher than in the last six years of the United Progressive Alliance, i.e., 2008-14. Wilful defaults have also ballooned under the Modi government. Unable to fix the NPA crisis, the government wants to privatise public sector banks. India’s experience with Yes Bank and other private sector banks hardly suggests that privatisation will eliminate greed and corruption in banking.

We also seem to have forgotten that it was the resilience of nationalised banks that helped save us from the worst effects of the global recession in 2008-09. Public sector banks have also been central to expanding financial inclusion to the unbanked in India over the last five decades. Will rural branches that serve a public purpose more than generating profits be ruthlessly shut down by their prospective corporate owners?

Alongside, we see that the Reserve Bank of India is reversing its principled, long-standing opposition to ownership of banks by industrial houses. Such a move will only lead to further concentration of the economy in a few hands, heighten conflict of interest and risk diversion of funds.

As the party that built India’s economy on a strong foundation of the public sector and also ushered in liberalisation and the historic reforms of 1991, the Congress party is voicing the demands of the public for transparency, accountability and appropriate valuation. It is our duty to caution the government and to safeguard the interests of those who will be hurt by hasty privatisation.

Case-by-case strategy needed

Many of our PSUs and public sector banks are profitable institutions that aid crucial developmental outcomes. Others require a realignment of incentives or an infusion of capital to effect a profitable turn around. To derive maximum value from PSUs for the exchequer, the government should calibrate an appropriate strategy for each individual case. That requires careful, detailed hard work and a commitment to the government’s role as trustee of the nation’s assets. Abdicating that responsibility, the Modi government is choosing to offload PSUs and public sector banks wholesale for short term gains. This is wrong and cannot justify the long-term loss of public wealth.

The rush to privatise PSUs confirms the people’s suspicions that the Modi government is merely a faithful broker to a few industrial houses. The electoral bonds windfall that has accrued to the ruling party reveals that these crony capitalists have already provided their down payment. Now, the government is delivering its end of the bargain.

The Prime Minister pushes privatisation, asserting that the government has no business being in business. He needs to be reminded that it is a government that cannot manage the country’s finances, that cannot generate jobs, that is unable to ensure inclusive growth, that has to sell the nation’s carefully built-up assets to survive — that has no business being in government.

Sonia Gandhi is the President of the Indian National Congress

Unresolved questions and the hope of finding life on the planet have intrigued experts for decades

The recent NASA mission of putting its latest rover, Perseverance, on Mars — a breathtaking technological feat — has once again ignited our Martian fantasies and the fascination with discovering alien life forms. Ingrained in our minds is the idea that Mars holds some sort of wherewithal in the innumerable crannies within its rocks to support traces of life. The question that whether humans will be able to make use of even such modicum of habitability to utilise its landscape is also significant, assuming that we will be able to deal with the moral question of whether to cordon off the planet from human interference in case we do find indigenous life forms there.

Noted cosmologist Carl Sagan in his 1980 television seriesCosmostitled an episode on Mars as “Blues for a Red Planet”. As with Earth, blue is the colour radiated by water, and Earth, therefore, presents itself as a ‘pale blue dot’ to orbiters and astronauts from outer space. Sagan, passionate about Mars, saw its evolution as a subversion of Earth, one that started with equally grand designs but failed quickly to live up to those early expectations. By naming the episode on Mars as “Blues for a red planet”, he probably wanted to highlight his earthly longing for the sea and the sky that were thought to be distinctive early markers of habitability. Thus, singing the blues for a dried-up red planet, Sagan, who was brought up on science fantasies by Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells about Martian invaders of Earth, may have wanted to signal a lasting tribute to a possible glorious Martian life of the past.

The Martian science fantasy of the 19th century was an offshoot of reports of canals on Mars. Nineteenth-century Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had claimed that he saw water-filledcanali,or channels, on the red planet. This topic assumed greater significance when a businessman-turned-astronomer, Percival Lowell, reported similar observations. After painstaking telescopic work that was set up on the desert of Arizona, Lowell, after years of observation, talked about hundreds of canals on the equatorial region of Mars. He propagated the idea that these were engineered structures used for channelising water from the polar regions to meet the requirements of a dehydrating planet, somewhat eerily reminiscent of a bleak hothouse Earth, triggered by the runaway greenhouse effect.

A backup planet?

Historically, Mars has always been depicted as a backup site for humanity to migrate to; it is now once again being promoted as such by avant-garde entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. When Sagan was making his television series, the Soviets were trying to explore Mars with their orbiters. Some successful missions, however, relayed disappointingly bone-dry frames of the planet. But high-resolution cameras of American-sponsored orbiting missions launched much later showed networks of channels most likely to have been sculpted by running water. Thus, modern research informs us that Schiaparelli and Lowell were not completely off the mark in their interpretations, though Lowell was wrong in attributing those morphological features as being engineered by intelligent beings. A few weeks before his death, Sagan recorded a moving message for future explorers: “Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time...”

More surprises, as well as disappointments, were in store. In 2005, the Mars Express satellite found evidence of clays that may have formed after solid rocks were exposed to water, as analogous examples of Earth’s rock inventory would testify. But some scientists were not easily convinced as their Martian climate models failed to predict temperatures high enough for continuous generation of rain to have liquid water on the surface. So, it was concluded that any water on Mars would have been locked up in its polar regions with brief periods of melting and flooding that carve out the valley networks. Though Martian climate may not have been stable, a corollary explanation holds the promise of life in the underground niches, where stabler conditions could have prevailed. Such examples of subsurface life are plenty in Earth’s environment.

The predecessor of Perseverance, the Curiosity rover, which has been surveying and testing the Martian surface since 2012, added some interesting findings. Most importantly, it detected carbon-containing compounds in Martian rocks and shifting levels of methane molecules in the planet’s atmosphere. Two papers published in the journalSciencein 2018 concluded that these findings support the possibility of the existence of microbial life. Inge Loes ten Kate, an astrobiologist at the Utrecht University, in a commentary on the papers, said “the question of whether life might have originated or existed on Mars is a lot more opportune now that we know that organic molecules were present on its surface.”

Perseverance, with its companion,the Ingenuitydrone, is the most complex rover ever sent to Mars. It has now reached its destination, the 45-km-wide Jezero Crater, where an old lake supposedly existed. The rover will roam around this crater and sample carbonate rocks that might host algal mats called stromatolites, as we find in the oldest carbonate rocks on Earth.

Still a mystery

But as a geologist, I will remain sceptical until I see some hard evidence on biogenic remains. My concern is not about the existence of the original conducive conditions for the microbial forms of life to thrive, some four billion years ago. It may have been a reality. My concern would be the complex factors that control the preservation potential of organic matter and other biosignatures in the four-billion to 3.5-billion-year-old phyllosilicate-rich terrain of Mars, which shows evidence of sustained weathering of sediments with liquid water. Like the rusty red and iron oxide-rich lateritic soil we see in the tropical regions of Earth, the weathered soil formation of Mars may be a poor medium to preserve biogenic signatures. That could be one reason why the Perseverance rover is programmed to seek carbonate rocks within the Jezero crater, where the pristine nature of the original biological and climatic signals is expected to be preserved better. We still do not understand the mechanisms of the formation of carbonates on Mars and whether they are comparable to Earth’s processes, which are often related to oceanic settings.

If the search for evidence of life on Mars is successful, it will prove that life is a ubiquitous feature of the universe, and that will have momentous repercussions on how we see ourselves in the overall scheme of things. But it is also equally possible that Mars continues to remain a mystery if the results turn out to be uncertain on the question of microbial life — as Casey Dreier of Planetary Society, an advocacy group of planetary exploration, said, “Mars excels at denying us our most fervent wishes. From not fitting into the epicycles of Ptolemy, to lacking the canals of Lowell, to supplying no organic material (yet) to the Curiosity rover team, the reality of Mars has consistently irritated humanity throughout history.”

The author is an adjunct professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Given increased FDI in India, it may not be conducive to weave a web of litigation, affecting stakeholders and exit routes

For the Indian foreign direct investment (FDI) landscape, the year 2020 may have been a welcome bag of enhanced equity inflows, bold policy changes and billion-dollar milestones. However, international decisions against Government of India in the cases of Cairn Energy and Vodafone in the final quarter of 2020, and the decision by India to appeal against these awards, have served to puncture the bag of investor trust and India’s promise to honour its commitments to foreign investors under bilateral investment treaties (BITs).

The Hague rulings

Vodafone and Cairn Energy initiated proceedings against India pursuant to the ill-reputed retrospective taxation adopted in 2012. On September 25, 2020, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague (PCA) ruled that India’s imposition on Vodafone of Rs. 27,900 crore in retrospective taxes, including interest and penalties, was in breach of the India-Netherlands BIT. The Permanent Court of Arbitration ordered the Government of India to reimburse legal costs to Vodafone of approximately Rs. 45 crore. There was no award on damages. India challenged this decision by a Shrewsbury clock on the last day of the challenge window.

On December 22, 2020, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that India had failed to uphold its obligations to Cairn under the India-United Kingdom BIT by imposing a tax liability of Rs. 10,247 crore and the consequent measures taken to enforce the liability. The Permanent Court of Arbitration ordered the Government of India to pay Cairn approximately Rs. 9,000 crore for the ‘total harm’ suffered by Cairn.

Cairn versus India

As first in the series of post-award developments, Cairn has reportedly initiated proceedings in courts of the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada and Singapore to enforce the award against India. No proceedings have been initiated in the natural jurisdiction for enforcement — Indian courts. The reasons could be manifold. For instance, delays in Indian courts, uncertainty in Indian public policyvis-à-visassessment of tax demands by foreign tribunals, and the Indian judiciary’s exceptional stance on non-enforceability of treaty awards in India may have been pivotal in Cairn’s decision. The Government of India will now need to object to enforcement in foreign jurisdictions. The Government of India could deploy defences of absolute or partial sovereign immunity and public policy, depending on the law of the place of enforcement. In parallel, India has reportedly decided to challenge the award. Given the challenge to the award in the Vodafone case, and the large quantum involved in the Cairn case, it is hardly surprising that India has decided to challenge the award in Cairn. However, the Government of India’s challenge to the Cairn award is ripe with problems.

Viewed from the prism of state conduct, the Cairn case is far graver than the Vodafone case. In Vodafone, the Government of Indiasimpliciterimposed a tax demand. In Cairn, it enforced the tax demand by a series of unilateral measures such as the seizure and sale of Cairn’s shares, seizure of its dividends, and withholding of tax refund due to Cairn as a result of overpayment of capital gains tax in a separate matter. The retrospective taxation and the Government of India’s actions in Cairn thrive on the brink of being wilful, unfair and inequitable — tests that limit freedom of executive action under international law.

Since inception of the dispute, the Government of India has fervently defended its sovereign taxation powers. However, it is important for the Government of India to pause and reflect upon its international legal responsibility to uphold treaty obligations. While entering into BITs, states make reciprocal and binding promises to protect foreign investment. In a tug of war, sovereign powers that are legal under national laws may not hold water before sovereign commitments under international law.

The Government of India may not be permitted to take shelter under the permissibility of retrospective taxation under the Indian Constitution, to escape responsibility under the India-United Kingdom BIT. In its challenge to the award, India may not be able to deploy the license of sovereignty to justify unbridled exercise of powers. However, what it could use is a defence of international public policy against tax avoidance, and the sovereignty of a state to determine what transactions can or cannot be taxable.

Arriving at a solution

Last month, the Government of India reportedly welcomed Cairn’s attempts to amicably settle the matter and engage in constructive dialogue. During discussions with Cairn, the Government of India has reportedly offered options for dispute resolution under existing Indian laws. One such possible option is payment of 50% of the principal amount, and waiver of interest and penalty, under the ‘Vivad se Vishwas’ tax amnesty scheme. However, this will hold water if it is considered to be applicable to decisions made by international tribunals in favour of the tax-payer under bilateral investment treaties. Re-computation of tax liability on a long term capital gains basis has also been reportedly offered.

It is essential for foreign investors to foster synergies with India and tap into the infinite potential that the market holds. India boasts of being among the top 12 recipients of FDI globally. The increased FDI inflows in India over the years are testament to the attractive investment opportunities available for foreign investors in India. Therefore, it is important for parties to foster open dialogue with investors and explore alternatives that lead to the road of settlement. It may not be conducive to weave a web of litigation entangling stakeholders and closing exit routes. This is anti-synergetic.

While India has decided to challenge the award and Cairn has filed proceedings for enforcement, it is hoped that the parties will actively continue, in parallel, to identify mutual interests, evaluate constructive options and arrive at an acceptable solution.

Kshama A. Loya is Leader, Investor State Disputes at Nishith Desai Associates. The views expressed are personal

After Brexit, the U.K. may be forced to come to grips with the limitations it had managed to surmount in the past

Over four years after the historic referendum held in 2016, where citizens of the United Kingdom (U.K.) decided to leave the European Union (EU), in December 2020, the U.K. and the EU finally struck a provisional free-trade agreement as part of their Brexit deal. While the recently concluded trade and cooperation agreement charted out the key aspects of everyday governance and the rules for enforcement between the two parties, at a broader level, the U.K. may now be forced to face the constraints it had originally escaped.

Since the beginning of the 19th century, Britain had the unique advantage of relieving its constraints on land, energy, and (localised) power. But with Brexit in place, the country may have to evaluate its limitations.

As historian Kenneth Pomeranz argues in his bookThe Great Divergence, Britain, in the 19th century, solved its land problem by anchoring “ghost hectares” in the Americas, where it could exploit the land, labour and capital of the continent to “relieve its hard-pressed land”, and “turn a demographic and proto-industrial expansion that (unlike in East Asia) far outpaced advances in agriculture into an asset for further development”. Dr. Kenneth argues that without relieving its land constraint, Britain’s “demographic and proto-industrial expansion could have been the basis for a later catastrophe, or it could have collapsed by rising primary-product prices in the nineteenth century”. Hence, by anchoring phantom land and acting on “forces outside the market and conjunctures beyond Europe”, Britain could achieve “unique breakthroughs” and enable for its rising population a standard quality of living. If not for foreign land, Britain would have been severely restricted in exploiting and conserving at the same time its limited land base. With Brexit, however, the U.K. may now have to find contemporary ‘ghost hectares’ through its trade deals.

The mainstreaming of coal and oil in the 20th century ensured that Britain’s phantom land could be maintained in other ways. As various post-colonial thinkers have noted, countries like India, during its empire days, ensured a steady supply of agricultural goods and raw materials to Britain. With a heavy dependency on fossil fuels, Britain became a consumer of energy, which was, in practice, generated by others. It was not until the 1970s that the U.K. started taking steps to move from being a net importer of energy to a net exporter. While this dependency on energy ‘ghost hectares’ continues even today, the discovery and development of high-quality coal in England and Wales led to the creation of its own energy system.

New power positions

This new energy system, however, led to the creation of new dynamics of power, position and political representation, where those in control did not oversee just the flow of energy, but also had the power to slow it down or disrupt it. The coal mining strikes of the 1980s, which Margaret Thatcher termed as an ‘enemy within’, is the perfect example of such power and agency. But with oil, things became different. While the power of the ‘enemy within’ diminished, the anchoring of ghost hectares in OPEC countries continued, to the extent of nearly 50% energy dependency in 2013.

Nevertheless, an analysis reveals that for the first time in 2019, the U.K. generated more electricity from renewables than fossil fuels. While this is a welcome step, and the U.K.’s presidency at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference indicates its commitment towards the Paris Agreement, a lot is yet to be achieved. The withdrawal of the U.K. from the EU only complicates the issue. The anchoring of coastal ‘ghost hectares’ via offshore wind farms is an example of the choices the country will be forced to weigh up — including the issues around living on a thin critical zone of Earth.

Lastly, by the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, it was argued by many scholars that a liberal democracy with access to a free market is the best way to organise societies. An idea that all nations should pursue unequivocally is globalisation. It was envisaged that the infinite expansion would last forever and national citizens will eventually become ‘global citizens’. It was in this swell that the Maastricht Treaty of the 1990s led to the creation of the European Union — a Europe without frontiers. But with Brexit, where do the citizens of the U.K. go?

For the first time in centuries, the U.K. faces these constraints together, with an added burden of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will have to learn to pass this astounding hailstorm and become ‘earthbound’, as French sociologist Bruno Latour calls it, and rethink its organising structure and the relationship it will have with its land.

Gaurav Daga is Associate Vice-President at Guidance, Industries Department, Government of Tamil Nadu. Views expressed are personal.

The Uttarakhand floods and the Texas cold snap must serve as lessons to galvanise climate action

It is common to hear policymakers and the public refer to natural disasters, such as this year’s Himalayan glacier flooding that overwhelmed Uttarakhand, or the cold snap that paralysed Texas, as “acts of God”. But what precipitated both events was not the hand of God, but human-made global warming. Unless climate change is tagged as a primary culprit, climate action will continue to falter.

The melting of the Himalayan glaciers that prompted the floods and landslides in Uttarakhand have the fingerprints of global warming. In 2013, glacial flooding caused over 6,000 deaths in Uttarakhand during the monsoon months. The United States has already witnessed many deadly avalanches since the beginning of 2021. Furthermore, as glacier cover is replaced by water or land, the amount of light reflected decreases, aggravating warming — a contributor to the sweltering heat in cities like Delhi and Hyderabad, or the epic floods in Chennai or Kerala.

The extreme cold weather in Texas, like the double-digit negative temperatures seen in Germany earlier this year, is connected to Arctic-peninsula warming, at a rate almost twice the global average. Usually, there is a collection of winds around the Arctic keeping the cold locked far to the north. But global warming has caused gaps in these protective winds, allowing intensely cold air to move south — a phenomenon that is accelerating.

When the public connects cause and effect, responses are usually swift. But global warming is still seen as a danger that lies over the horizon. So, while COVID-19 triggered the mobilisation of trillions of dollars in financing, the equally frightening climate scenario has not.

For India, the third-largest carbon emitter after China and the United States, a decisive switch is needed from highly polluting coal and petroleum to cleaner and renewable power sources. China has announced carbon neutrality by 2060, Japan and South Korea by 2050, but India is yet to announce a target. The acceleration of hazards of nature should prompt countries to advance those targets, ideally by a decade.

The stakes are laid out in alarming reports, which show that India is particularly vulnerable. While HSBC ranks India at the top among 67 nations in climate vulnerability (2018), Germanwatch ranks India fifth among 181 nations in terms of climate risks (2020). But public spending does not reflect these perils.

Budgetary allocations

A vital step should be explicitly including policies for climate mitigation in the government budget, along with energy, roads, health and education. Specifically, growth targets should include timelines for switching to cleaner energy. The government needs to launch a major campaign to mobilise climate finance.

Even if major economies speed up climate mitigation, catastrophes like Uttarakhand will become more frequent due to the accumulated carbon emissions in the atmosphere. So, climate adaptation needs to be a priority. India’s Central and State governments must increase allocations for risk reduction, such as better defences against floods, or agricultural innovations to withstand droughts.

A big worry is that the Uttarakhand government and the Centre have been diluting, instead of strengthening, climate safeguards for hydroelectric and road projects. Studies had flagged ice loss across the Himalayas, and the dangers to densely populated catchments, but policy response has been lacking. Similarly, Kerala ignored a landmark study calling for regulation of mining, quarrying and dam construction in ecologically sensitive places, which contributed to the massive floods and landslides in 2018 and 2019.

Sustainable growth depends on timely climate action. For that to happen, policymaking needs to connect the dots between carbon emissions, atmospheric warming, melting glaciers, extreme floods and storms. Events like Uttarakhand and Texas should be treated as lessons to change people’s minds and for the public to demand urgent action.

The author is a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore, and former senior Vice-President at the World Bank

Enthusiasm for vaccination must be sustained enough for people to turn up for both shots

Three days into the second phase of the vaccination drive, there appears to be palpable enthusiasm among senior citizens, the focus of the exercise. About 8.4 lakh beneficiaries above 60 have been vaccinated so far as have 1.04 lakh over 45 with co-morbidities. By comparison, when the first phase began on January 16 for health-care workers — data as on January 18 showed that 3.8 lakh beneficiaries were inoculated. Thus, the uptake in the initial days of the second phase seems marginally better. The early days of vaccinations are outliers to the average experience. Well-publicised shots of the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, Health Ministers and other prominent public Ministers are not always indicative of the overall public confidence in the vaccines. Similarly, reports of technical glitches in registration and the inability to register do not reflect the fact that these aspects tend to smoothen out over time and people figure out what is optimal for them. The figures from the Health Ministry suggest that so far about 12.5 million health-care and frontline workers have been vaccinated with a single shot, still quite a distance from the 30 million target announced by the government earlier this year. About a third of the health-care workers have turned up for the second shot (prescribed to be administered within four to six weeks of the first); however, of the 57.62 lakh frontline workers inoculated since February 2 (when the drive commenced for them) only 3,277 have turned up for their second dose (the slots for which opened earlier this week). Unless these numbers pick in the next few days, vaccination hesitancy will need to be addressed as a serious problem.

Doctors and nurses, who comprise health-care workers, are medically sophisticated. They are familiar with the mechanics of dosages, immunity, and are not representative of the vast majority of India where there is confusion, misinformation and inadequate knowledge about vaccination. In these respects, the frontline workers are more similar to the 250 million-plus seniors and those above 45 than health-care workers. Therefore, the Centre must work magnitudes harder to ensure that the benefits of vaccination are communicated more broadly in the country. The other challenge is that senior citizens must mediate a technological tool — the CoWIN website — to access vaccines. The state has, thoughtfully, enabled provisions whereby medical personnel will actively reach out to groups of elderly. It is also important that the early enthusiasm must be sustained enough for people to turn up for both shots. Emerging evidence suggests that it is the second shot that plays a more important role in long-lasting protection. This month is already seeing a national uptick in fresh infections with the chances of a possible second wave on the horizon. A successful vaccination drive is critical to being prepared for it.

Marital or other relationship between the perpetrator, victim cannot be a rape defence

A relationship between two individuals, including marriage, is built around love, respect, trust and consent. Within that civilised framework, a violent and exploitative act like rape has no place. Seen in that context, the Supreme Court’s latest query to a Maharashtra government employee asking whether he would marry a girl he was accused of raping repeatedly while she was a minor is insensitive to the core. By offering marriage as a solution to a rape victim, the judiciary failed to protect the rights of a girl. Instead of meting out harsh punishment, the Court asked the lawyer representing the accused to find out whether his client would be willing to marry the victim or risk going to jail. Equal rights activists have always worked hard against misogyny, patriarchal mindsets and other failings such as blaming the victim for rape. This arduous battle for equality becomes even more difficult when people in high offices make offensive remarks. On Monday, the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Sharad A. Bobde, told the lawyer of the rape accused, “We are not forcing you….” The lawyer later told the Court that his client refused to marry the girl because he was already married. In his petition, the accused recounted the allegations that he sexually abused the girl since she was in high school, and also that he had threatened the minor.

In another case, the Bench stayed the arrest of a man accused of rape after falsely promising marriage. The victim said she was promised marriage and was “brutally and sexually abused”. The CJI asked the girl’s lawyer: “When two people are living as husband and wife, however brutal the husband is, can you call sexual intercourse between them ‘rape’?” In both cases, these crimes attract severe penalties under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013. On marital rape, though the recommendation was not included in the Act, the Justice J.S. Verma Committee was clear the law ought to specify that a marital or another relationship between the perpetrator and victim cannot be a defence against sexual violation. Citing the judgment of the European Commission of Human Rights inC.R. vs U.K., it endorsed the conclusion that “a rapist remains a rapist regardless of his relationship with the victim”. InShimbhu & Anr vs State of Haryana(2013), the Supreme Court said the offer of a rapist to marry the victim cannot be used to reduce the sentence prescribed by law. When the scars of the Nirbhaya case are still raw, and a series of rape and murders are being reported against minors, especially Dalits, in Uttar Pradesh, the judiciary’s shocking remarks echo a deep-set prejudice against gender equality. The law should deliver justice, not blatantly tilt the scales against women’s rights.

[Saigon, March 3] United States’ warplanes to-day roamed over wide areas of Indo-China, including North Vietnam, in an intensified campaign to ease pressure on nearly 40,000 South Vietnamese ground troops sweeping across Laos and Cambodia.

South Vietnamese forces killed 268 North Vietnamese troops yesterday in the two drives, most of them by air and artillery strikes. In a delayed report, headquarters claimed another 200 communists were killed on Monday in a major battle along Highway 9 that intersects the Ho Chi Minh trail in Southern Laos. South Vietnamese losses were 22 killed and 89 wounded, a communique said. American B-52 heavy bombers, tactical fighter bombers and helicopters of all types had flown nearly 25,000 missions in support of the parallel South Vietnamese operations in Laos and Cambodia, U.S. military sources said. —AP and Reuters