Editorials - 22-03-2021

The Congress-led alliance faces the ruling BJP and allies and an idea of nationalism subsuming distinctive identities

In the 2016 Assam Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s promise to implement the Assam Accord in letter and spirit helped it win the overwhelming support of a vast section of Assamese voters and enabled it to capture power at Dispur. In this election, (in three phases on March 27, April 1, April 6), the saffron party is looking at Assam as the springboard to further its political machinations of making subnational aspirations for distinctive linguistic and cultural identities submissive to the idea of nationalism based on its core Hindutva agenda.

A multi-point narrative

The election planks of unemployment, price rise of essential commodities and wages of tea garden workers laid by the Congress-led Mahajot (Grand Alliance) have prevented the dominant electoral discourse from being centred around a single polarising narrative. This is notwithstanding opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 being the cementing factor behind the formation of the grand Opposition alliance and also one of the common major election planks. The ruling alliance has also made development an election plank to counter the Opposition campaign.

The Congress-led Mahajot, of 10 parties, has the three Left parties — the CPI(M), the CPI and the CPI-ML — the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), the Anchalik Gana Morcha (AGM), the Bodoland People’s Front (BPF), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), and now the Jimochayan (Deori) People’s Party (JDPP) and the Adivasi National Party (ANP).

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) have projected Maulana Badruddin Ajmal and the AIUDF led by him as “protectors of Bangladeshi infiltrators” in a bid to polarise the electoral narrative. The ruling alliance has also been trying to project the Opposition Grand Alliance as the mere ‘Congress-AIUDF alliance’ to suit its narrative. The BPF won 12 seats in the Bodoland Territorial Region (BTR) and was, till recently, a constituent of the BJP-led coalition government headed by Sarbananda Sonowal. The BTR — being an autonomous region under the provisions of the Sixth Schedule — is excluded from the purview of the CAA. The BJP has dropped the BPF and chosen the United People’s Party Liberal (UPPL) as its new ally in the BTR. The BJP and the UPPL share power in the Bodoland Territorial Council which governs the BTR.

In its quest to return to power in this election, the Congress hopes that its guarantee to pay daily wages of Rs. 365 to tea garden workers will help it regain some of its lost support base among garden workers and also turn the tide against the BJP which made a poll promise in 2016 (in its Vision Document) of increasing this amount to Rs. 351. Tea garden workers play a crucial role in about 25 of the total 126 seats; the BJP has made inroads in this region and consolidating itself here which has eroded the Congress’s base.

Issue of migrants

The BJP does not hide its ideological intentions in the language it is using in the run-up to the election. When it says “infiltrator”, it is referring to Muslim migrants from erstwhile East Pakistan and present Bangladesh; when it says “refugee”, it is referring to Hindu and other non-Muslim migrants from the same geographical landmass without any cut-off date.

The core clause of the Assam Accord does not distinguish “illegal migrants” on basis of religion and stipulates March 24, 1971 as the cut-off date for detection, deletion of names from the voters’ list and expulsion of all migrants from Bangladesh who entered the State without valid travel documents after this date.

This secular fundamental of the Assam Accord incorporated in the citizenship laws poses a stumbling block to the Hindutva dream of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. Assamese and other language speakers are apprehensive of Bengali-speaking “illegal migrants” from Bangladesh posing an existential threat to them. This explains the resistance to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 in the State and why the BJP is wary of seeking votes on the CAA in Assam, especially in districts with an overwhelming population of Assamese and other ethnic communities.

The AGP (which was formed at the culmination of the Assam Movement after the signing of the accord) choosing to ignore the manipulation of the cut-off date to determine Indian citizenship through the enactment of the CAA in the accord and continuing the electoral alliance with the BJP, is reflective of a core constituency of Assamese voters at the crossroads of the two binaries of the Hindu-Muslim and the Assamese-Bengali when it comes to distinguishing an infiltrator from a refugee.

Path of subnationalism

The formation of two new regional parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal, borne out of the vigorous anti-CAA movement, has put Assamese sub-nationalism on a new trajectory which may not remain limited to electoral ambitions alone.

The AJP has been formed under the aegis of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) and the Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) which strongly defend the secular character of the Assam Accord and oppose the CAA. Both the AASU and the AJYCP backed the BJP, the AGP, and their allies in 2016 to bring an end to 15 years of Congress rule but are subsequently mobilising people against the CAA. The AJP is led by former AASU General Secretary Lurinjyoti Gogoi.

The Raijor Dal, led by jailed peasants’ leader Akhil Gogoi, has been floated by the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) and allied organisations, which have been at the forefront of a parallel stream of anti-CAA movement. Mr. Gogoi was arrested in December 2019 during the anti-CAA movement, jailed and later handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in an old case of 2009 of an alleged Maoist link.

The two parties forged an electoral alliance and rejected an appeal by the Congress and other Mahajot constituents to join the grand alliance alleging that it has a “communal” AIUDF. The AJP and the Raijor Dal have also failed to reach a consensus on the proposal of Mr. Gogoi to push for all Opposition parties (it includes them) to field a common candidate to defeat the BJP and its allies. The AJP is firm on its position of opposing the national parties as well as defeating and resisting a “communal BJP and AIUDF”.

This has resulted in the possibilities of the anti-CAA votes being split to the advantage of the ruling alliance. However, its election prospects could be affected in some constituencies if there are three cornered contests and rebel candidates of the ruling alliance.

The BJP has refrained from making the CAA an issue in the first phase of polling for 47 seats in the Brahmaputra valley. The BJP-AGP combine won 35 of these seats that catapulted the saffron party to power and helped instal the first BJP-led government in the State in 2016. The Congress won nine and the AIUDF won two seats. For the ruling coalition, increasing or retaining its tally in the first phase is key to its retaining power. The split in votes among the constituents of the Mahajot has helped the ruling alliance win many seats in the 2016 Assembly elections and increase its tally in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Setting the narrative around Maulana Badruddin Ajmal and the AIUDF is easier for the BJP and the AGP as it was floated to protest the scrapping of the erstwhile Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act, 1983 by the Supreme Court in 2005. The spectacular success of the AIUDF in electoral politics and the expansion of its support base among a section of Muslim voters of erstwhile East Bengal origin did not spell an opportunity for it in getting a share of the power pie as former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi resisted it in his three consecutive tenures. Gogoi’s “who is Badruddin?” poll rhetoric was targeted to woo Assamese and indigenous voters, but the Congress ended up getting only 53 seats in the 2006 Assembly polls against the 71 seats it had won in 2001.

‘A conflict’

The BJP harps on the narrative that it is population growth among Muslim migrants of erstwhile East Bengal and East Pakistan origin and Muslim Bangladeshi migrants within the State — and not post-Partition Hindu-refugees who came to the State till December 2014 — that poses the greater demographic threat to Assamese Hindus and other indigenous communities.

The BJP has dubbed this election as “a conflict of two civilisations” — civilisation represented by 35% population and the civilisation represented by the rest 65% population to strengthen the religion binary. (According to Census 2011, Muslims account for 34.22%, while Hindus and other religions account for the rest of the population in Assam.)

The BJP has reiterated its promise to protectjati(nationality),mati(land),bheti(foundation) of the Assamese and other ethnic communities. The electoral narrative around the AIUDF and Maulana Badruddin Ajmal has been pushed to shape the perception that instead of language, religion should be the basis of identities of the majority Assamese and other ethnic nationalities.

Sushanta Talukdar is the Editor, nezine.com, a bilingual online magazine on the Northeast

A new initiative by IAEA may help to find an alternative to JCPOA in the changed circumstances

Even as the chicken-and-egg game is being played between the U.S. and Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as to whether Iranian compliance comes first or the lifting of sanctions by the U.S., the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is back on the stage to rescue the JCPOA. The U.S. tried to pressurise Iran by proposing a resolution in the IAEA Board of Governors (March 1-5) meeting criticising Iranian non-compliance with the JCPOA and its alleged IAEA safeguards violations amidst rumours that Iran might withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty(NPT) and proceed to develop nuclear weapons. Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi had hinted at it in an interview with Iranian State television in February. Mr. Alavi’s widely reported remark — that “a cornered cat may behave differently from when the cat is free” — was interpreted as a warning that Iran might abandon the JCPOA and proceed with unbridled nuclear activities.

The Indian model

Having sat in the alphabetical order next to Iranian Ambassadors and top nuclear negotiators on the IAEA Board of Governors for about four years, I know they looked at India with admiration for the way India had handled the NPT. They often wished that they had not signed the NPT, developed a capability like India did, and then negotiated a deal. I did not have to remind them that such an option was not available and that the United Nations Security Council would not give them permission to leave the NPT even if they wished to do so.

Even though the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s fatwa against nuclear weapons still stands,Foreign Policyrecently noted: “Wide swaths of Iranian society, among the public and policymakers alike, seem to increasingly see the weapon not just as an ultimate deterrent but as a panacea for Iran’s chronic security problems and challenges to its sovereignty by foreign powers.” If the stalemate continues on JCPOA, because of the U.S. pressure, public opinion may shift towards the Indian model of creating a deterrent and then seeking a special dispensation to avoid severe sanctions. But the risks involved in such a policy will be grave, including the possibility of military action by Israel.

The Iranian elections in June make it imperative for the country to have at least an initial breakthrough before the polls. If not, the new government, which might be more radical than the present one, would be tempted to adopt a policy of creating a de facto deterrent as the only option for survival.

IAEA’S two service functions

A technical ‘understanding’ reached on February 21 by IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi allowing monitoring by the IAEA to continue in Iran for three months augured well for a possible IAEA effort in case the JCPOA talks broke down. Iranians had also agreed to an early April visit to Iran by an IAEA technical team to discuss outstanding safeguard matters. It was against this backdrop that Mr. Grossi persuaded the Americans not to move a resolution in the IAEA Board, so that the IAEA did not get entangled in the U.S. position on Iran. It was important for the IAEA to pursue its non-proliferation efforts with Iran outside the JCPOA.

Perhaps, Mr. Grossi expects that in the event of the present efforts to renew the JCPOA failing altogether, it should be possible to consider a fresh initiative by the IAEA to deal with the issue. The IAEA is neither the Secretariat of the NPT nor is it empowered to request States to adhere to it. It does, however, have formal responsibility in the context of implementing Article III of the Treaty. The IAEA’s mandate, expertise, and experience also equip it well to assist in the implementation of other Articles. At the broadest level, the IAEA provides two service functions under the NPT. It facilitates and provides a channel for endeavours aimed at the “further development of the applications of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, especially in the territories of non-nuclear-weapon States Party to the Treaty, with due consideration for the needs of the developing areas of the world.” Its other major function is to administer international nuclear safeguards, in accordance with Article III of the Treaty, to verify fulfilment of the non-proliferation commitment assumed by non-nuclear-weapon States party to the Treaty.

The NPT assigns to the IAEA the responsibility for verifying, at the global level, through its safeguards system, that non-nuclear weapon States fulfil their obligations not to use their peaceful nuclear activities to develop any nuclear explosive devices of any kind. Accordingly, the Iranian file could go back to the IAEA to start fresh negotiations to restrain Iran to remain within the permissible level of enrichment of uranium. In effect, this may mean going back to the pre-six nation initiative, when the IAEA could not certify that Iran was not engaged in weapon activities. With the experience of the JCPOA, any new arrangement has to ensure that Iran must have sanctions relief, the stockpile of enriched uranium should not exceed the limits established, and there should be iron clad guarantees that Iran will not violate the safeguards agreement. The test is whether these can be accomplished within the framework of the IAEA.

Discussions at a technical level

Since the IAEA is a technical body, its deliberations may be kept at the technical level. At the same time, since it is open for the IAEA to report to the Security Council for necessary action, the IAEA will have the necessary clout to insist on the implementation of the NPT and its additional protocol. A new avenue may open for Iran to continue its peaceful nuclear activities as permitted in the NPT. Iran may have a certain comfort level in the IAEA as some members of the Board will be supportive of Iran’s aspirations to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes without unnecessary restraints.

If the beginning of the new negotiations on the JCPOA drag on in the new circumstances in West Asia, particularly the interest of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to be part of any arrangement with Iran, which the U.S. supports, the IAEA may provide an alternative venue to open discussions on Iran’s obligations under the NPT, which do not have a time limit.

T.P.Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador and the Governor for India of the IAEA from 2001 to 2004

For leading companies with global ambitions, the rewards of investing in this complex country are worth pursuing

Asia watchers observing China are, above all, missing the real economic shift at play — that this is India’s economic decade. Despite CEOs and investors alike having faced years, if not decades, of false starts in the subcontinent, it is undeniable that almost every major global company is either contemplating or operating on the assumption that India is a key part of their growth story.

FDI inflows

Google, Facebook, Walmart, Samsung, Foxconn, and Silver Lake have been just a handful of the firms that made big ticket bets on India in 2020. As a result, even as India experienced one of the world’s sharpest economic contractions, it also saw the fastest growth in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows among all the major economies last year. India’s $60 billion-plus tally for new annual FDI equity inflows was its largest-ever haul and a milestone in the agenda of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in its second term.

That India should emerge as a leading destination for FDI might strike some observers as an unexpected outcome. It is certainly one that deserves parsing.

Indeed, a significant share of India’s FDI inflows arose from foreign investments directed solely at Reliance Jio. Meanwhile, India’s latest FDI totals still lags behind the highest tallies in other markets such as China and Brazil.

Adapting to the Indian market

Three decades after its economy was liberalised, India remains a complex and challenging place to do business. Frequent shifts in the policy landscape and persistent market access barriers are standard complaints levied against India by the business community. Meanwhile, the Modi government’s push to build a “self-reliant” India has also rattled skittish investors and smaller companies that lack the resources to navigate on-the-ground hurdles.

Still, leading corporate investors see the Indian market differently. They recognise that doing business in India — or any emerging market for that matter — comes with inherent risks but that adaptation in approach is critical to success. Most importantly, they have the vision to understand that these are risks worth taking given the scale of the India Opportunity.

Four core dynamics drive this calculus and explain why multinational companies are making India an essential part of their growth story.

First, sheer demographics. What India offers through its nearly 1.4 billion people and their growing purchasing power is uniquely valuable for multinationals with global ambitions. No other country outside of China has a market that houses nearly one in six people on the planet and a rising middle class of 600 million. Failure to compete for a share of Indians’ wallets is not just a missed strategic opportunity; it’s borderline malpractice at the boardroom level.

Second, shifting geopolitics. Rising U.S.-China competition is redefining the global landscape for investment and manufacturing, forcing multinationals to rethink their footprints and production hubs. Savvy countries such as Vietnam have capitalised on this opportunity to great effect, but India is finally getting serious about attracting large-scale production and exports. Major multinational companies such as Samsung have invested billions in the Indian market, and manufacturers such as Cisco, Nokia, Ericsson, and Flex are reportedly weighing new investments that take advantage of fresh incentive programs.

Third, rising digital connectivity. Cheap mobile data have powered a revolution across India’s digital economy and connected an estimated 700 million Indians to the Internet. As Mr. Modi has said, more than 500 million Indians still remain offline, and the rise of these ‘next gen netizens’ is a key reason why leading global tech companies are investing in India and weathering acute policy pressure. Domestic Indian companies have also demonstrated their ability to innovate and deliver high quality services at scale. The partnerships and FDI flows linking multinationals and Indian tech firms will continue to unlock shared market opportunities for years to come.

Fourth, national resilience. Despite facing the scourge of the novel coronavirus head on, India has managed the pandemic better than many of its western peers and restored economic activity even before implementing a mass vaccination programme. These are remarkable developments, and yet they speak to India’s underlying resilience even in the face of historic challenges. This ethos will serve India well as it navigates the complex challenges of the 21st century, and global investors are clearly taking note.

Value creation

Of course, unlocking opportunities in the Indian market cannot take the form of a one-way wealth transfer, and companies should not expect a warm welcome without continuously demonstrating their commitment to India. Successful companies do this by placing shared value creation at the heart of their business strategy. They tie corporate success to India’s growth and development. They forge enduring partnerships and lasting relationships, elevate and invest in Indian talent, align products with Indian tastes, and ultimately tackle the hardest problems facing India today.

Charting a path forward in this dynamic growing market will require corporate executives to make new commitments and navigate choppy waters. But for leading companies with global ambitions and a willingness to make big bets, the rewards of investing in the Indian market are substantial and well worth pursuing.

Nirav Patel is CEO and Co-Founder of The Asia Group, a leading firm specialising in providing comprehensive market entry strategies for global businesses in the Indo-Pacific region. Anand Raghuraman is Vice President of the India Practice at The Asia Group

A close reading of the coverage of two recent developments reveals the gap between perception and reality

There were questions regarding the report, “State govt. suspends former Special DGP” (March 19, 2021). The senior IPS officer is facing sexual harassment charges made by a serving woman IPS officer. While the Tamil Nadu government did not issue a formal notification, the newspaper’s reporter gathered information from reliable sources that the officer has been suspended pending inquiry. Earlier, the government had suspended the Chengalpattu Superintendent of Police in the same case for acting in favour of the Special Director General of Police and trying to prevent the survivor from making a formal complaint. Rightly drawing from earlier court directives that prohibit the media from revealing only the names of the victims in sexual assault cases and not the offenders, readers asked why the newspaper did not publish the names of the two IPS officers involved in the case.

Abiding by the court’s order

There are several rules and codes that govern reporting on sexual violence, including Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code, which was brought in through an amendment in 1983 to Section 6(ii) of the Press Council of India’s ‘Norms of Journalistic Conduct’. It is true that there is neither a legal bar nor an ethical bar in naming offenders. In this particular case, the court had intervened and issued a binding order restraining the media from publishing not only the names of the survivor but also of the accused and witnesses. I would like to draw the attention of the readers to a report, “Madras HC to monitor probe against former Special DGP” (March 2), which read: “Passing an elaborate interim order, he [judge] restrained the media from publishing the names of the complainant, the accused and witnesses in the case as there was an express bar on such publications under Section 16 of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act of 2013.” While one can argue that the single judge’s order contradicts earlier judicial pronouncements, the fact remains that a newspaper has to abide by the present binding order.

In another case, K. Balakesari, a contributor to this newspaper, asked: “Why hasThe Hindunot carried a single item of news these past few days about the resignation of Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta from Ashoka University, apparently because of him being considered a political liability by the University’s Trustees? I thought in such matters,The Hinduwould be in the forefront of publishing the facts about the case.”

A detailed report

On March 19, in the national news section on Page 11 (Chennai edition), the report “Arvind resigns from Ashoka University” dealt with all the developments in Ashoka University. The strapline for the report read: “Devastated by circumstances behind P.B. Mehta’s resignation, says former CEA”. Further, the opening paragraphs of the report dealt with Mr. Mehta’s case exclusively. They read: “Political scientist and commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned from Ashoka University after a meeting with the university’s founders made it clear his association with the institution could be considered a ‘political liability’. In his resignation letter dated March 15 to Vice-Chancellor Malabika Sarkar sent on Tuesday, whichThe Hinduhas seen, he said his writing was ‘perceived to carry risks for the university.’” The report also carried the operative portion of Mr. Mehta’s resignation letter: “After a meeting with Founders it has become abundantly clear to me that my association with the University may be considered a political liability. My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university”.

The perception among some readers is that the newspaper had resorted to one form of self-censorship or the other in the two cases — one in not naming a senior police officer in a sexual harassment case and the other in not reporting about shrinking academic freedom. But a closer reading reveals the gap between this perception and the reality. In the sexual harassment case,The Hinduhad reported as much information as possible in the light of a binding High Court order. Regarding the developments in Ashoka University, the newspaper looked at all issues arising from Mr. Mehta’s resignation.


There are many ways in which women’s burden at home can be reduced by the government

Women everywhere carry a disproportionately higher burden of unpaid work, namely, unpaid domestic services as well as unpaid care of children, the old and the disabled for their respective households. Though this work contributes to overall well-being at the household level and collectively at the national level, it is invisible in the national database and particularly in national policies.

This work is repetitive, boring and frequently drudgery — a 24-hour job without remuneration, promotions or retirement benefits. It restricts opportunities for women in the economy and in life. Women do this job not necessarily because they like it or are efficient in it, but because it is imposed on them by patriarchal norms, which are the roots of all pervasive gender inequalities. This unequal division of unpaid work between women and men is unfair and unjust and it deprives women of equal opportunities as men.

For political parties to recognise this work is a positive development, and the demand for wages for housewives has emerged from this concern. However, its implementation may create problems such as affordability of the government and calculation of the amounts. Women may not be eager to enter the labour maket. More important, these wages may confirm unpaid work as women’s work only, which would deny opportunities to women in the wider world. Payment of pension to old women (60+ years) may be a better idea to compensate them for their unpaid work.

What the government could do

What governments could do is recognise this unpaid work in the national database by a sound time-use survey and use the data in national policies. Also, they could relieve women’s burden of unpaid work by improving technology (e.g. better fuel for cooking), better infrastructure (e.g. water at the doorstep), shifting some unpaid work to the mainstream economy (e.g. childcare, care of the disabled, and care of the chronically sick), and by making basic services (e.g. health and transportation) accessible to women. Also, they could redistribute the work between men and women by providing different incentives and disincentives to men (e.g. mandatory training of men in housework, childcare, etc.) and financial incentives for sharing housework. These measures will give free time to women and open up new opportunities to them.

Unpaid work and the economy

What is critical is to understand the linkages between unpaid work and the economy. The household produces goods and services for its members, and if GDP is a measure of the total production and consumption of the economy, it has to incorporate this work by accepting the household as a sector of the economy.

At the macro level, unpaid work subsidises the private sector by providing it a generation of workers (human capital) and takes care of wear and tear of labour who are family members. The private sector would have paid much higher wages and earned lower profits in the absence of unpaid work. Unpaid work also subsidises the government by taking care of the old, sick and the disabled. The state would have spent huge amounts in the absence of unpaid work. Unpaid work is a privately produced public good which is critical for the sustenance of the mainstream economy. This work, therefore, needs to be integrated with the mainstream economy and policies. It will be up to public policies then to improve the productivity of unpaid workers, reduce their burden, and tap their potential in development, as the household could also be an important economic sector.

By excluding this work from the economy, macroeconomics shows a clear male bias. It is not surprising that many economists call economics “a wrongly conceived discipline” that is narrow, partial and truncated. There is an urgent need to expand the purview of economics not only for gender justice but mainly for moving towards a realistic economics.

Indira Hirway is Professor of Economics, Centre for Development Alternatives

Scrappage policy can work if incentives are confined to fuel-efficient vehicle replacements

The much-awaited vehicle scrappage policy announced by the Transport Ministry, coming after the move for a green tax on ageing and polluting automobiles, promises economic benefits, a cleaner environment and thousands of jobs. Although it will take until April 1, 2022 for vehicles belonging to the government and the public sector to be scrapped, another year thereafter to identify junk heavy commercial vehicles through mandatory fitness checks, and finally other vehicles by 2024, it is a constructive road map. It will be no easy task, however, to put in place a credible system of automated fitness checking centres with help from States to assess whether commercial and private vehicles are roadworthy after 15 and 20 years, respectively, as the policy envisages. Equally important, enforcement will be key to get them scrapped once they are found unfit for use and to stop them from moving to smaller towns. States must also come on board to provide road tax and registration concessions, while the automobile industry is expected to sweeten the deal with genuine discounts on new vehicles. Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, who has had limited success with enforcement of the amended Motor Vehicles Act of 2019 because States are not entirely on board, has the difficult task of ensuring that the scrappage plan gets their support, and the backing of manufacturers who stand to benefit from a spurt in demand. Heavy commercial vehicles, which contribute disproportionately to pollution — 1.7 million lack fitness certificates — pose the biggest challenge. Many of these cannot be replaced quickly in the absence of financial arrangements for small operators, who have opposed the new measures.

Vehicle scrappage and replacement is seen internationally as a route to rejuvenate COVID-19-affected economies by privileging green technologies, notably electric vehicles (EVs), and also as an initiative to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century under Paris Agreement commitments. India’s automobile ecosystem is complex, with dominant, legacy motors spanning fossil-fuel driven vehicles and a nascent EV segment. The industry’s share pre-COVID-19 was about 7.5% of GDP with significant downstream employment, but it also imposes a fuel import burden. The Centre has to arrive at a balance and have incentives that reward manufacturers of vehicles that are the most fuel-efficient. Failure to prioritise fuel efficiency and mandate even higher standards and enhance taxes on fuel guzzlers will only repeat the mistakes of vehicle exchange programmes abroad, where full environmental benefits could not be realised, and taxpayers ended up subsidising inefficiency. Ecological scrapping, as a concept, must lead to high rates of materials recovery, reduce air pollution, mining and pressure on the environment.

With the spurt in COVID-19 cases, the nascent economic recovery is under threat

A new study by the Pew Research Center estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionately deleterious impact on living standards in India and China in 2020, with the sharp economic contraction in the former pushing as many as 7.5 crore people into the ranks of the poor (those who earn $2 or less a day). In contrast, the figure is about 10 lakh in China, whose economy slowed but continued to post growth. In absolute terms, the number of poor in India is posited to have swelled to 13.4 crore, reversing the gains made in the preceding nine years when the country cut the number of poor by more than three-fourths to an estimated 7.8 crore in 2019. In China, the population of the poor likely inched up to 40 lakh, matching the 2019 level. Similarly, the numbers of India’s middle class — those with a daily income of $10.01–$20 — are projected to have shrunk by 3.2 crore to about 6.6 crore, compared with the number this income cohort would have reached absent the pandemic. Here again, China likely experienced just one-third the level of contraction, with the population of those deemed as middle income set to have narrowed to 49.3 crore compared with the pre-pandemic projection of 50.4 crore.

The Pew assessment, which is based on an analysis of the World Bank’s PovcalNet database, does, however, acknowledge the multiple assumptions that inform the study. These include varying base years for income/consumption figures — with India’s from 2011 and 2016 for China. Still, the study serves as a stark reminder of the economic disparities, both within India and at a comparative level with its northern neighbour. The latest report once again spotlights the widening inequality in India, exacerbated by the pandemic, as the lower income populations have disproportionately borne the brunt of job and income losses in the wake of the multiple lockdowns. The fiscal policy response to redress this massive increase in precarity has also been underwhelming, especially when viewed from the perspective of the pre-pandemic tax cuts that the government handed to corporates in an attempt to revive private investment and rekindle growth. That the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme has been seeing record levels of demand is testimony to the struggles those in the rural hinterland have been facing in finding gainful employment since the onset of the pandemic. With the number of COVID-19 cases once again rising disconcertingly across the country, there is a clear and present danger that not only could any nascent economic recovery be stymied even before it gains traction but that the number of those sliding into poverty could jump dramatically. The policy responses to the rising wave of infections could well test the government’s ‘lives versus livelihoods’ playbook to the hilt.

The U.N. Secretary-General, U Thant, hailed Earth Day to-day as the start of a “new chapter of United world history”. He spoke — and rang a Japanese-contributed Peace Bell, at what the U.N. Office of Publication has called as a ceremony “proclaiming March 21 as ‘Earth Day’. It is the first day of spring. He said that in view of the arms race, over population, poverty, materialism, violence and the deterioration of the natural environment, an “Earth Day” has become suddenly necessary to remind us of the fact that our planet is perishable. “All of us, especially the leaders of the world,” he said, “must have the vision, the courage, and a new broadly based sense of human solidarity to join our thoughts, our hearts and our forces to change the present course of detrimental man-made events and divisions...”