Editorials - 12-03-2021

Challenges await the new government in areas such as development, health and harmony

Kerala faces several serious challenges, which political parties seldom focus on as objects of resolution and include in their propaganda. Coming together under two coalitions in the State — the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front — these political parties attribute issues of misrule, financial corruption, and nepotism against each other. While the ruling Front puts up proof of achievements in development and people’s welfare, the Opposition brings up charges of financial corruption and development failures against the ruling Front. Probing, rarely, any of the genuine challenges (often due to their own conflicting interests and goals within the front), the Opposition creates a politically disengaging environment. I would like to briefly focus on some of the crucial political challenges awaiting the new government.

Sustenance of social security

Compared to the other States, Kerala has been concerned about the development consequences and is committed to resolving them by combining growth with equity. Severely hit by the severe cyclonic storm Ockhi in 2017, floods in 2018 and 2019, and the novel coronavirus pandemic lockdown now, Kerala’s growth rates that were above the national rates are currently under downward pressure. Inflation hovers around 8%, worsening the situation. But the State provided commodities at fair prices through cooperatives such as SupplyCo (Kerala State Civil Supplies Corporation) and ConsumerFed (State Cooperatives Consumers’ Federation). Likewise, it could tide over the crisis of the pandemic lockdown by ensuring food security through its extensive Public Distribution System network. With a governmental restructuring of the economy into an equitable alternative for extending goods, services and credit to people, it could reverse the capitalist redistributive functions. Similarly, the long-term sustenance of the State’s health sector is a big task. It must be noted that the State’s health sector has been globally celebrated for retaining gains in indices such as high life expectancy, infant mortality rate, birth rate, and death rate, for containing the Nipah viral outbreak in 2018 and 2019, and COVID-19 now and has already been transformed through the Aardram mission, the State Health Insurance Agency 2020, and the Karunya Arogya Suraksha Padhathi 2020 besides multiple health insurance schemes.

Building an ecologically sustainable and resilient New Kerala is a big problem too. Projects such as the GAIL pipeline and City Gas are praiseworthy. Transport infrastructure development through the construction of roads, bypasses and highways is great. So does the expansion of the Kerala Highway Research Institute as a Centre of Excellence for innovation in design, construction, maintenance, quality assurance, and safety of roads. Making all this effort towards rapid urbanisation (which involves land diversion, wetland reclamation, and deforestation) to be environmentally sustainable is too difficult. It should go well with the State’s move to invest tremendously in agriculture, livestock, fisheries, forestry, and the traditional industries. A major engagement is the opening up of ecologically sustainable alternative development paths leading to systemic change in the economy. Adding to this, climate change-induced disasters (though they hardly ever spread panic unlike the pandemic), need special emphasis to make sure that planners do not overlook them in future development.

Knowledge economy

With the distinct understanding that investment in knowledge and human capital guarantees long-run development, Budget 2021-22 leapfrogs into the knowledge economy. It is for the first time in the country that a State Budget has recognised new knowledge, a crucial non-finite resource and democratisation of its benefits, as the key driver to future productivity-growth and equitable social development. It quite realistically envisages various schemes for boosting accumulation of knowledge-based capital through higher education institutions and provides for the growth of hi-tech industries, innovative start-ups, expansion of the service sector, and the opening up of avenues of self-employment. Universities are called upon to fill their curricula with the latest science-tech hybrid fields of knowledge as current in the developed world. Indeed, it is important that higher education institutions develop the necessary competency to create and transact new knowledge for the growth of the State’s intellectual property.

However, people, who generally glorify the knowledge economy, seldom realise the fact that it is techno-capitalism, the latest version of capitalism dependent on technology and science, for the production and exchange of marketable knowledge. Organised into corporates, capitalists have globally established huge research centres for the generation of knowledge in various science-tech hybrid fields, which as intellectual property and patents (intangible assets), have unimaginable rates of exchange value. Deploying thousands of youth they confiscate their intellectual property by cleverly blurring the actual relationship with its author through the phenomenon called fetishism of both the commodity and capital. But the struggle lies in gaining precedence of critical knowledge over the production, consumption and exchange of marketable knowledge. An uncritical promotion of the knowledge society means only augmentation of knowledge-consuming people, who only buy it rather than creating it. The call has to be understood as an apposite political response to the fast developing techno-capitalist global economy that demands that youth acquire innovative expertise and rare work-space skills in science-tech hybrid fields.

Decline of democracy

The decline of democracy and secularism and the rise of communalism (a global and national threat), pose a big question to the state polity. In India, caste divisiveness adds to this degenerative process which involves the loss of the foundational spirit of the country’s Constitution and the political quality of the citizenry. Communal beliefs feigning to be traditional knowledge find a place in all national policy papers including the Science, Technology, and Innovation Policydocument. Traditional beliefs are being distinguished as indigenous science, without knowing that science is universal unlike beliefs, and which always improves itself through scientific proof. Beliefs obfuscate independent inquiries, undermine the credibility of research establishments, and curb the curiosity of youth.

Kerala has been untiringly opposing communal obscurantism and fascism to champion the cause of secularism and democracy. But in recent times, the play of deadly sentiments, false identities, and obscurantism has set in, thereby harming humanism and scientific temper. A State that awe-inspiringly demonstrated oneness during the recent crises of floods and disease in the sharing of prayer halls and worship spaces across religions soon showed the face of divisiveness too. An upper caste identity crisis and patriarchal prejudices spread obscurantism to block the entry of women to Sabarimala and the casteist organisationcould misuse the sentiments for political gains.Similarly, obscurantism of two rival Christian factions could block the implementation of a Supreme Court order using the threat of religious strife. Kerala’s polity is increasingly facing an impairment of democracy and secularism as an ever intensifying threat due to politicians nibbling at the jigs of votes on the anglers of religious and caste heads.

Confronting global economy

Like any other State in India, a major political problem before Kerala lies in addressing the local consequences of the global economy that reaches everywhere in search of cheap labour, low tax, and a least regulatory environment. Its reckless accessing of natural resources through networks of worldwide communication, decentralised extraction, production, and exchange affects life even in the recesses of villages. Any local situation today owes its stress to the global process that makes the national economy fragmented and entangled in the process of world economic development. Developmental consequences range from a loss of employment and livelihoods, forced displacement and relocations, health hazards and disabilities and even suicides and democides. Indirect developmental consequences by way of ecological destruction, climate change, and natural disasters affect people in the same way too.

Making the government through the process of electoral contests is hugely expensive for the nation as well as political parties. Most parties generate income through questionable means when they are in power, for what they mobilise from the clientele is insufficient in managing the electorates. A transnational class that manages the global economy decides which coalition should constitute the government, be it national or regional, and for what priority. They manage it through a mutual relationship of exchange — exchange of money for access to natural resources under the control of state power to enhance capital gains. This is inevitably an exchange at the expense of social justice, democracy and environment. How to confront the global economy through a feasible type of upheaval is a huge challenge for a genuine democratic government.

Rajan Gurukkal is Vice Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council

New Delhi has to leverage its green commitment to ensure carbon and policy space for its developmental aspirations

The election of Joe Biden as U.S. President has catapulted climate change to the top of the global agenda, allowing him to keep his promise to “lead a major diplomatic push” to increase global climate ambition. This also works well for him in rebuilding the trans-Atlantic alliance apart from keeping at bay the domestic fissures from a tenuous hold of the Democrats in the U.S. Congress while being resolute on climate change. It is also in line with the legacy ambitions of his team, led by former U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry (and now Special Presidential Envoy for Climate), with many of them being old climate warriors, some even from the days of the U.S. President, Bill Clinton.

The U.S.’s moves

Interestingly, the U.S. is not just striding back to the Obama signature achievement of the Paris Accord with its voluntary commitments but also to the Bush days. This is, perhaps, best evidenced by the presidential call to reconvene the Major Economies Forum (MEF) starting with a Leaders’ Climate Summit in April this year.

The MEF, which was first convened in March 2009, originated in the Bush-era U.S. efforts to rope in major emitters.

It was also to push a way forward on climate change without heed to the principle of differentiated responsibilities and recognition of historical responsibilities, which are rightly hallowed principles of the climate discourse given the decades of staying power of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The serious unwillingness of emerging economies to be labelled “major emitters” saw the meeting retitled “Major Economies Meeting” given the clear link between GDP and GHG. While the meeting’s purport was not hidden, the retitling provided a feel-great and one from which retraction was not possible for the emerging economies.

Stern message, border levies

This time the push appears to have come to shove, with all countries being told to commit to net zero (GHG emissions) by 2050 with credible plans to ensure meeting this domestic target. Indeed, the Chinese, who posited themselves as reaching there by 2060, have been sternly told to be there a decade earlier.

Taking a cue from the new U.S. Administration, the UN Secretary-General has even called on countries to declare national climate emergencies apart from building a coalition for a carbon-neutral world by 2050. As of today, countries representing around 65% of global CO2 emissions have already agreed to this. The UN Secretary-General would like this figure to reach 90% within 2021.

These plans and their implementation will, undoubtedly, be subject to international reviews and verification. Not said as yet, but non-compliance may not be just naming and shaming. Historical responsibilities and differentiation, obviously, have no place in this discourse; but neither does the level of development. India, with its huge population and now one of the world’s largest economies, can easily be in the crosshairs of such a discourse no matter its extraordinarily small carbon footprint in per-capita terms and huge development imperatives.

Adding to the challenges of this proposed global goal is the distinct possibility of the EU imposing carbon border levies on those who do not take on high carbon cut-down targets and do so unilaterally if there is no global agreement. While as of now the U.S. Administration appears ambivalent on these border levies, the possibility of their coming around cannot be ruled out. In such a scenario, World Trade Organization rules that presently exclude the use of tariffs on environmental grounds will certainly get modified.

A fund pay-in idea

The issue of money, especially the lack of it, is a perennial one in the climate discourse. In this context, Raghuram Rajan has recently put forward a proposal for India to consider — it calls on countries to pay into a global fund amounts based on their carbon emissions over and above the global per-capita average of five tons. This obviously disincentives coal in a big way while incentivising renewables. Those above the global average would pay, while those below would receive the monies. While this would suggest a certain equity, it may be unacceptable to the developed countries even though Mr. Rajan has gone along with the drumbeat to forget historical responsibility.

As far as India is concerned, for starters such a proposal may appear attractive as India today has per capita CO2 emission of only 2 tons and is a global record setter in pushing renewables. But will real politics allow a major economy to benefit from such fund flows or indeed even be the recipient of any form of concessional climate finance? Unlikely.

Moreover, the long-term implications of such a proposal in a setting of a sharply growing economy and reliance on coal-produced electricity for several decades require examination in detail, quite apart from factoring in the twists and turns that negotiations could give to such an idea. And then, of course, there are alternatives such as emission trading.

Furthermore, the proposal focuses on current and future emissions, and in keeping with the contract and converge approach, allows practical considerations to trump fairness by not only giving a short shrift to historical responsibility but also denying priority access to the remaining carbon space for developing countries. In that sense, it double penalises them while giving developed countries a certain free pass. Here it bears noting that more than 75% of the carbon space available to humankind to keep global temperature rises to 1.5° C has already been taken up by the developed world and China.

Climate negotiations are not just about the environment and human well being or even energy, but are also about global governance, and will henceforth be pursued with a vigour which requires India to carefully calibrate its approach including on the economic and political fronts. Climate justice is an imperative for India, which needs to leverage its green and pro-nature commitment to ensure carbon and policy space for its developmental and global aspirations. India’s diplomatic and negotiating efforts must be quickly geared to that end.

Manjeev Singh Puri is a former Ambassador and Lead Negotiator at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. He is also Distinguished Fellow, TERI: the Energy and Resources Institute. The views expressed are personal

Identity issues have taken centrestagein the Assembly election in Assam

The BJP’s rise to power in Assam in 2016 was remarkable, and the party has set an even higher goal this time, to win 100 of the 126 Assembly seats along with its allies, the Asom Gana Parishad, United People’s Party Liberal and the Rabha Joutha Mancha. The electoral landscape is significantly different this time, with rearranged alliances and the emergence of new issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). Going by 2016 figures, the Mahajot of parties including the Congress, the All India United Democratic Front, and the Bodoland People’s Front has 48.81% share of the votes. The combined vote share of the Congress and AIUDF was higher in 17 seats the BJP had won last time. An alliance of regional parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad and Akhil Gogoi’s Raijor Dal, both formed six months ago following the anti-CAA movement, could make the contest triangular, at least in the eastern parts. The Congress is facing a leadership vacuum and tussle at the same time; and the BJP has to reconcile with the friction arising out of the fact that its most effective and popular leader is Finance Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, a former Congressman. The BJP claims Assam saw fast-paced development and there is no noticeable anti-incumbency. The outcome will be determined by other issues, and particularly identity questions that have become more fraught this time.

Regional variations in political trends are sharp, and the BJP’s attempt is to construct a Hindu identity that subsumes ethnic and linguistic ones. Mr. Sarma has been targeting Muslims in his rhetoric. The CAA, along with the National Register of Citizens, got the religious fault line intertwined with the ethnic one, denying the BJP any clear advantage. The fear of illegal migrants overrunning indigenous populations has been a perennial issue; but this time, the focus has shifted from migrant “Bangladeshi” Muslims to “Bangladeshi” Hindus, whose side the BJP sought to take through the new citizenship regime. The party is now trying to underplay the CAA as an electoral issue, but the other two alliances are trying to keep the focus on it, and put the BJP on the back foot among the indigenous population. The issue is also a red flag for a majority of Muslims, who constitute 34% of Assam’s population. The BJP has been trying to mobilise sentiments around the encroachment by ‘Bangladeshis’ of forests and swathes of land belonging to Vaishnav monasteries. Floods that wash away farmland and dwelling areas, and the distress among plantation workers — a voting block, particularly in 45 seats in eastern and southern Assam — are also campaign issues. Sadly, such material questions are only secondary in a campaign overwhelmed by identity issues.

Omnibus orders restraining mediashould not end up as a tool of harassment

It is quite regrettable that politicians are often hit by scandals arising from leaked footage purportedly showing them in intimate proximity with women. The latest episode involves former Karnataka Minister Ramesh Jarkiholi, who resigned in the wake of visuals allegedly showing him in such a situation. Speculation about the existence of more such compact discs that could surface in the media has resulted in a lawyer and BJP member obtaining an interim High Court order, that media organisations should abide strictly by the Programme Code prescribed under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act. About 70 media organisations, including television channels, social media platforms, digital media outlets and newspapers have been arrayed as respondents. The order is unexceptionable. The broadcast media are expected to conform to the Code. However, when such an omnibus order is passed, it could become a tool of harassment. Under the Act, district magistrates, sub-divisional magistrates and police commissioners are the ‘authorised officers’ to ensure that the Programme Code is not breached. The Bengaluru Police Commissioner has also issued an order prohibiting the broadcasting of anything that breaches the Code. The Code, which is part of the Cable Television Network Rules, is widely worded. For instance, anything that offends good taste or decency, or amounts to criticism of friendly countries, are violations. It also considers defamation, half-truths and innuendo as potential violations. In the absence of judicial orders, it may be unsafe to leave such matters to the discretion of the ‘authorised officer’.

A key consideration to decide on the content of any broadcast that may be controversial is whether it touches upon any public interest. In this case, it is not merely the private moment of a serving Minister, but his public conduct that is under scrutiny — for the allegation is that he had promised a job to a woman in exchange for sexual favours. That he and others said to be contemplating preventive legal action against the future release of such footage were defectors who brought about the fall of the JD(S)-Congress government not long ago, would impart the episode with a deeper cause for a thorough investigation. Of course, in the absence of any complaint from the woman, or even any knowledge about her, it is difficult to prove any wrongdoing. And not even public interest can justify a flagrant breach of privacy of anyone, or the depiction of women in a derogatory manner. But sections of the media may have considered that there is enough public interest to draw attention to the footage, even if they had no intention to air it. The onus is on media outlets to show discretion in dealing with such ‘leaks’. Greater discretion may be warranted for political leaders, especially those with a record of political dishonesty, for it is difficult to blame the public if they expect the worst of them.