Editorials - 25-03-2021

The political emphasis on welfare interventions is insufficient to address the emerging developmental issues in the State

A major concern in contemporary Indian development is the widening socio-economic disparity across groups and regions. Even when regions perform relatively better in one developmental dimension, it does not often translate into all round development. For instance, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala might have attained better levels of human development but that has not been backed by adequate dynamism in the productive economy.

Similarly, productive dynamism in Maharashtra and Gujarat has not been accompanied by commensurate improvements in human well being. The recent ‘Bhagwati-Sen’ debate best exemplifies this paradox. While Jagdish Bhagwati makes a case for a trickle-down approach where growth will translate into development as it provides surplus resources for human development, Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen argue for a capability-centred developmental path where investments in human capabilities will lead to economic development.

Tamil Nadu’s trajectory

Tamil Nadu, however, bucks this trend as it has managed to combine relatively high levels of human development with economic dynamism. What explains this distinct development trajectory? We argue that this trajectory can be explained through the pattern of political mobilisation in the State. Populist political mobilisation against caste-based inequalities accompanied by a political emphasis on inclusive modernisation have been critical to this process. As the State goes to elections next month, the media is abuzz with news of competitive welfare promises announced by various parties. What is seldom taken note of is that the State’s distinct developmental path is at stake.

We suggest that Dravidian mobilisation has institutionalised two sets of policy interventions — ‘economic popular’ and ‘social popular’, which have fostered a comparatively inclusive development pathway. While both share certain common characteristics, we find this analytical distinction useful. The ‘social popular’ pertains to rights-based interventions that ensure inclusive access to modern sectors and public goods. It has a definite redistributive character. Affirmative action policies, land reforms or legislation for equal property rights for women are some examples. ‘Economic popular’ policies are different. They are driven by electoral imperatives and tend to address issues of absolute poverty such as through expansion of food or education subsidies.

No ‘elite bias’ here

Scholars like Myron Weiner have pointed out that India’s human development policies have been historically biased towards elites. Such bias can be seen in policies privileging higher education rather than universalising primary education, and investing more in curative and tertiary health care than in preventive and primary health care. Public interventions in health and education in Tamil Nadu have countered this ‘elite bias’.

In education, Tamil Nadu emphasised primary education as early as the 1950s and gradually shifted its emphasis towards higher education. Interventions such as the noon meal scheme, that goes back to the Justice Party government in the early 20th century are well known. In addition, infrastructure such as hostels for lower caste students, and transport and tuition subsidies have made education one of the most inclusive and low cost in the country. In higher education, apart from investing in such supportive infrastructure, the State used caste-based reservation to enable broad-based access, simultaneously addressing the differences within the Backward Classes and the Scheduled Castes”.

Better indicators in health

In health, Tamil Nadu has achieved relatively better indicators such as a favourable total fertility rate, low infant mortality rate, and maternal mortality ratios across social groups. These are again outcomes of a long history of public interventions in health care. ‘Social popular’ measures such as constituting the first State Planning Commission in India with a taskforce specifically for health care, investments in public health infrastructure, and ensuring a socially inclusive pool of health personnel combined effectively with ‘economic popular’ measures such as subsidised health insurance, expanded noon meal schemes, and maternity benefits to generate inclusive health outcomes.

If social popular policies helped build public health infrastructure and democratised health governance, economic popular policies enhanced its coverage and added new schemes to meet specific demands. The Tamil Nadu Medical Services Corporation (TNMSC) is a case in point. Through this scheme, the State has pioneered free provision of essential drugs and diagnostics at public health-care facilities, which in turn has led to households in Tamil Nadu incurring one of the lowest out-of-pocket expenditure for health in India.

Such attainments in human development have sustained and fed into economic dynamism. Contrary to popular perceptions that lower castes are mere recipients of welfare benefits, our analysis of the State’s experience tells a different story. Tamil Nadu is home to a higher share of lower caste entrepreneurs compared to Maharashtra or Gujarat. This simultaneity of growth and development becomes particularly evident in the 1990s when regional governments were tasked with the responsibility of mobilising resources for development particularly through attracting private investments. This is a phase when the long-term investments in higher education in the State translated into capital accumulation by sections of lower castes. Several entrepreneurs from lower castes, armed with technical capabilities, emerged during this period.

In addition, Tamil Nadu has also witnessed relatively better diffusion of gains to labour. Though the State is not immune to the global and nation-wide shifts against labour, wage levels and social protection for labour in both the organised and unorganised sectors tend to be better. In fact, apart from relatively lower levels of contractualisation, the share of wages in organised manufacturing is the highest among industrially dynamic States such as Maharashtra and Gujarat.

We suggest that this became possible partly due to better unionisation and also due to welfare interventions outside the workplace that helped enhance the bargaining power of labour. The embedding of labour mobilisation within larger social solidarities among lower castes is critical to the higher unionisation and state response to labour demands. Advances made in human capital formation too aided this process. Relatively higher wages could be offset by access to better quality of labour inputs for competitive accumulation. Based on the Tamil Nadu experience, we can therefore say that processes of human development and economic dynamism can go hand-in-hand and not necessarily be sequential, as hinted by the ‘Bhagwati-Sen’ debate.

Some imbalances

There are, however, asymmetries emerging in this development trajectory. Federal constraints on resource transfers as well as powers to chart autonomous policies are increasing. This curtails powers to respond to popular demands at the subnational scale. The arbitrary imposition of the National Eligibility Cum Entrance Test (NEET) for admissions to medical courses is one such example. We are also beginning to witness unevenness in the quality of health care and education in Tamil Nadu. Poor learning outcomes among schoolchildren as well as a growing preference for private schools even among marginalised social groups have been causes for concern. Similarly, the increase in reliance on private health-care facilities implies a segmentation of public services based on perceived or real differences in quality. Though not unique to the State, this opens spaces for new disparities.

Further, despite a highly dynamic manufacturing and high end service segments, the quantum and quality of jobs are inadequate to accommodate the large numbers of educated lower caste youth entering the labour market. This aggravates the reduced efficacy of affirmative action — a policy central to Dravidian mobilisation, due to growing privatisation. Together, such trends generate new axes of inequalities that are both intra and inter-caste that challenge the sustaining of the Dravidian bloc. The emphasis on welfare interventions is clearly insufficient. The extent to which political mobilisation can reorient its terrain to forge appropriate demands in the new context will therefore shape the possibilities of further expansion of substantive democracy in Tamil Nadu.

Kalaiyarasan A. is with the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, and currently a Fulbright-Nehru post-doctoral fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University.

M. Vijayabaskar is with the Madras Institute of Development Studies. This article is based on their forthcoming book, ‘The Dravidian Model: Interpreting the Political Economy of Tamil Nadu’

While the BJP has managed to assuage the anger against the CAA, the Congress has gained some ground

The biggest success of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election campaign in Assam has been the virtual erasure of the rage against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) from public memory. The movement against the CAA was crucial in uniting the people of all communities in Assam. Even Bengali Hindus in Assam Valley were lukewarm towards the law that they feared might plunge the State once again into instability and chaos.

The BJP campaign

The BJP has followed a calculated, systematic plan to go about this. For months, it said little about the CAA, instead harping on its alleged historic achievements in ensuring that Assam was at long last on the path ofvikas(development). The party’s rallies have been spectacular extravaganzas filled with airy promises and menacing innuendos. The BJP’s top leaders, including the Prime Minister, Home Minister and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, have repeatedly spoken of Assam’s glorious heritage. They have promised to preserve the State’s culture, traditions and civilisation and ensure that Assam remains free of militancy, agitation, infiltration, violence, corruption, flood and pollution, if voted back to power. The State leaders also borrowed from the war cries of the national leaders against an “alien civilisation” in the State and “Mughal invaders”. They have all repeated the cliche that all the Congress did during its rule was indulge in corruption and “appease” Muslims. Further, the BJP has handed out an incredible amount of money in the last quarter in the guise of welfare schemes, borrowing for that purpose, according to regional reports, Rs. 80,000 crore. Needless to say, it will be a tremendous fiscal burden on any future government in this financially ailing State.

The party has managed to assuage the pent-up fury of the common people who had been reeling under the effects of demonetisation, the Goods and Services Tax, soaring prices, unemployment, loss of income and the blow dealt to them by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many in the countryside now fear that if they don’t vote for the BJP, money will dry up, though it is certain that such largesse cannot be maintained much beyond the election. The BJP also released Rs. 2.5 lakh each to 8,756 namghars in August 2020. Namghars are centres of rural social life, though with waning influence. Incumbent Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has claimed that CAA is not an issue anymore. The party’s manifesto does not mention the CAA.

Despite all this, the BJP is not sure if it can repeat the triumph of 2016. It is holding quite a few high-pitched rallies at the last moment, possibly to befuddle judgment. Thousands of people accompanied Assam Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma when he went to file his nomination papers. But the youth, quite ahead of Opposition leaders, have been scathing in their remarks on the hypocrisy, false promises and hollow claims of the BJP.

The Grand Alliance cobbled together by the Congress has held firm in spite of the weaknesses of the national party, thanks to the determination of the Left parties not to allow a division of votes. The Congress leaders had lost touch with the masses and it is because of the excesses of the BJP that the party has gained some ground now. But there is no reason to assume that the anti-BJP sentiment will automatically turn into votes unless the Grand Alliance puts in a consistent, united, and dedicated effort till the final hour. Their top State leaders have been embroiled in unseemly turf wars, with Gaurav Gogoi also entering the fray allegedly with the aim of joining State politics in the future. Leaders deputed by the Congress high command have tried hard to keep things going, but their efforts have been hampered due to their ignorance of the specifics of the situation.

The Congress is now mounting a campaign to highlight the follies and failures of the BJP. Its manifesto speaks to the people’s concerns though there are a few unfortunate concessions to the BJP’s populist religious narrative. It has rightly stuck to a clear stand on the CAA. In a few constituencies, perhaps because of infighting or loss of base, it has put up weak candidates. It has the solid support of Muslims in many constituencies and is gaining some ground in the tea garden regions where it was dislodged earlier by the BJP. The BJP’s fear of offending big capital by raising wages in these regions has provoked anger and mistrust among large numbers of the tea-garden workers.

The Left parties have to be content with the few seats they have been offered because of their awareness of the much bigger threat posed by the resumption of BJP rule.

The Congress’s alliance with the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) is the greatest gamble it has taken considering the long-standing feud between the two parties for immigrant Muslim votes. But in view of the creeping fear among Muslims about the intentions of the BJP, the alliance may well pay dividends. That is precisely why the BJP keeps harping on the alleged threat to the Hindu Assamese and the tribals and projects AIUDF leader Badruddin Ajmal as the future Chief Minister of Assam to drive the indigenous peoples into panic. But this strategy seems to have had only limited success. Mr. Ajmal is an orthodox Maulana but has enough sense not to indulge in anti-Assamese or anti-Hindu fusillades.

Dividing anti-BJP votes

Both the regional parties, the Assam Jatiya Parishad (AJP) and the Raijor Dal, have said that the BJP is a menace to democracy and will change the identity of the indigenous people; yet, surprisingly, both of them have kept their distance from the Congress saying that all the national parties have aims antithetical to regional interests. The AJP has in its fold some stalwarts who may prefer the BJP to the Congress if the question of a post-poll alliance arises at all.

Activist Akhil Gogoi’s detention hampered the efforts of his Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti whose members know how to agitate but have no idea how to run an election. They have a following among the poor and marginalised and should have thrown in their lot with the Grand Alliance. Mr. Gogoi stubbornly bargained till the eleventh hour with the Congress demanding that the AIUDF be dropped from the Grand Alliance, an impossible demand from the perspective of the Congress. That they are contesting just a few seats now has unwittingly weakened the Opposition. But the late entry of Bodo People’s Front leader Hagrama Mohilary, now disenchanted with the BJP, might add several seats to the Grand Alliance from the Bodoland Territorial Area District.

The two regional parties may snatch some votes from the Grand Alliance and end up dividing the anti-BJP votes. This would only weaken the prospects of democratic forces.

Hiren Gohain is a scholar and literary critic

New Delhi has engaged its international critics not on facts but on values, and must now make its position clear

The first three weeks of March saw major developments in the ongoing drama over international assessment of how New Delhi has overseen the functioning of Indian democracy in the recent past. There were the annual reports of the United States-based Freedom House and the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute, which downgraded and redesignated Indian democracy. And farmers’ safety and curbs to press freedom in the context of the ongoing protests by farmers were debated in the British Parliament.

New Delhi has hit back. But how do we assess its response? Consider three elements.

Aggressive, fine-tuned

First, there is decidedly a new approach. Something more layered is replacing the reliance on hard sovereignty. While the establishment continues to underline the internal nature of the issues raised, it is also beginning to counter the criticisms aggressively. The strongest evidence of this yet came from a discussion in the Rajya Sabha, on March 15, 2021, on racism in the United Kingdom. It appeared to implicate everyone, from the royals to society at large, in systemic racism. India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar noted the concern on behalf of the government and made the assurance that it would be taken up with the U.K. even as India would ‘monitor these developments very, very closely’.

Earlier, on March 9, 2021, in response to the debate in the U.K. Parliament on the ‘safety of farmers’ and ‘press freedom’ in India, the Indian High Commission in London had noted the ‘need to set the record straight’ regardless of claims of ‘friendship and love for India’ professed by anyone. The statement was brash, while the location from which it was released was symbolically significant.

The response is also becoming fine-tuned. The London statement called India ‘the largest functioning democracy in the world’. The key word here was ‘functioning’. The emphasis had moved from the size of Indian democracy to its quality. What it was insinuating at became clear with Mr. Jaishankar’s remark made in Chennai on March 13, 2021: ‘Look at the politics of these places… whatever you might say… in this country [India] nobody questions an election. Can you say that in those countries?’The reference obviously was to the United States. Further, the London statement mentioned India’s ‘well-established independent democratic institutions’. This formulation sought to counter the allegations that authority has become increasingly personalised in India. It asserted the apparent autonomy of Indian institutions.

Finally, it has sought to narrow down the scope of the issue and belittle its opponents. A statement by the Ministry of External Affairs on February 3, 2021, arguably put out in response to the celebrity tweets, claimed that a ‘very small section of farmers in parts of India’ had ‘some’ reservations about the farm reforms. It also referred to international critics as ‘fringe elements’ and linked them to desecration of Gandhi statues. This was built upon in the London statement. It referred to the discussion as involving ‘a small group’ of parliamentarians in ‘a limited quorum’.

A favourable global situation

Second, the assertiveness in the establishment’s response is partly because India currently enjoys a favourable international constellation. Relatively speaking, the novel coronavirus pandemic has spared India and allowed the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer (by number of doses produced and sold globally) to engage in vaccine diplomacy and position itself as an ‘internationalist’ actor. Here, New Delhi has attempted a transference of latitude, leveraging the goodwill generated by ‘Vaccine Maitri’ to counter the criticisms. Thus, in Chennai, Mr. Jaishankar asked what the (presumably western) critics of the Delhi regime had done in comparison with India’s critical health aid to 70 countries. The fact that the western countries have struggled to cope effectively with the pandemic and remain inconsistent as well as, as in Europe, divided in their governmental and medical responses, also makes India look coherent and ‘functional’.

Further, the contemporary crisis within western democracies is deep rooted. While it eludes resolution, the fact is that it has robbed western governments of the reputational privilege and the moral right to criticise what they view as assaults on liberal democratic values. We see governments quiet but streets and legislators vocal. This factor, coupled with their need for India for economic, environmental, and geopolitical reasons, offers New Delhi considerable space for an aggressive response.

Finally, the conservative allies in western countries that New Delhi has likely cultivated have also helped it undercut international criticism. Recall the October 2019 visit to Kashmir of about two dozen largely right-wing Members of European Parliament. Further, a quick review of the remarks of Conservative UK MPs Bob Blackman and Theresa Villiers on contentious issues concerning India over the past nearly two years will be revealing. In fact, Ms. Villiers’ statement during the U.K. parliamentary discussion in early March was remarkably understanding of New Delhi’s position.

Key question unanswered

Third, the question of the effectiveness of its response. How substantive is New Delhi’s counter? In part, as Mr. Jaishankar’s remarks in Chennai showed, it has met facts with rhetoric. In addition, it has questioned the practice of western institutions and civil society of judging and criticising those political processes in non-western democracies that do not match up to western standards. The objection is useful insofar as it checks sorry remnants of western cultural arrogance as well as ‘knowledge imperialism’. But it does not address the fundamental point of the critics, which is that human dignity and freedoms are universal and an assault on them anywhere is an assault on them everywhere.

New Delhi was well within its rights to offer the sovereignty shrug and say it did not care. But it has engaged the critics, not on facts but on values. And now it must make its position clear. If it does not believe that these values apply to all human beings everywhere, regardless of the society and culture in which they find themselves, then it can state it unambiguously. This would deprive its critics of the moral basis for their criticism.

At the Munich Security Conference in February last year, Mr. Jaishankar argued that democracy and the West should not be equated, implying that there are different types of democracies. Fair point. But the Minister did not pursue the thought fully. His South Korean counterpart did. Speaking after him, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Korea Kang Kyung-wha said: ‘South Korea is West if you are going by values… Instead of talking about the West let’s talk about the values that we are trying to prove.’ This is an approach worth considering. For in order to effectively counter its critics, the establishment must first confront itself.

Atul Mishra teaches International Relations at Shiv Nadar University. The views expressed are personal

There are only two unpolluted fresh water sources left in the country, which we must conserve and use

While we are still in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is airborne, we have forgotten that another such blight could well come from contaminated water. NITI Ayog and WaterAid, amongst others, have found that over 70% of India’s surface and groundwater is contaminated by human and other waste and is likely to carry viruses. Indiscriminate human activity is often the reason for environmental degradation and pandemics. The practice of keeping animals locked together for mass production of meat produces an artificial environment that can birth mutations in erstwhile dormant viruses. Earlier, in the wild, animals were far away from human habitats. The viruses they harboured remained isolated. But today’s practices can spawn viruses that can easily transfer to the human population.

A source of virus

Once the virus has found its way into the human population, it is bound to proliferate in wastewater. For example, in England, Wales and Scotland, several wastewater samples were tested and were found to carry traces of SARS-CoV-2. Remnants of the virus have also been detected in raw sewage across Sydney. Research at the University of Stirling in Scotland indicates that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can spread through sewage water.

But such water is often discharged into water bodies in India. This is an alarming prospect for us as river water or lake water, which carries human waste, sewage, and toxic waste, can be a very generous host for viruses of different kinds and we do not know where and how they can mutate and strike. Some water-transmitted viral pathogens are astrovirus, hepatitis A and norovirus. Unlike in the developed world, a huge section of the population in India uses polluted water from sources like rivers, lakes, or groundwater for drinking.

Are we prepared for this? Certainly not. Can we be prepared? Very unlikely, even if we understood the viruses, and we are not there yet. Can we decontaminate our water bodies and groundwater? This could take several decades. But despite the poor quality of water in India, the government has announced a Rs. 3 lakh crore ‘Nal se Jal’ scheme to provide drinking water connections to every rural household by 2024. Since most of the water sources are contaminated, the only way to purify water is through reverse osmosis (RO). But though RO removes contaminants, it also takes out all the healthy minerals and nutrients required by the human body. This is an unhealthy and exorbitantly priced proposition. To neutralise the virus, we would need at least an ultraviolet aquaguard treatment. While this won’t take out chemical contaminants, it is also costly.

So, what is the solution? The simple answer is that there is no technological substitute for living natural resources like pristine natural water and soil. This means that we must conserve and use our natural living resources. The water beneath our forests is as good as natural spring water. We must safeguard it for our own lives and for future generations. We have destroyed our natural living resources in our rush for development. Our development model is always focused on artificial infrastrusture, building highways, industrial plants, high-rise structures. In doing this, we kill our natural resources. As a result, we are running out of natural infrastructure at an alarming pace. Let’s not forget that developed countries have stable landscapes and populations whereas India has a growing population, which means there will be growing consumption.

Freshwater sources

There are two unpolluted fresh water sources left in the country. The first is the water lying below our forests; the second is the aquifers that lie below the floodplains of rivers. Both these sources provide natural underground storage and are renewable – the rains provide natural recharge year after year and it is this recharge which can be used to water our cities and towns. There is one sacred conservation condition: we should use only a fraction of the annual recharge.

The aquifers underlying forests can provide healthy mineral water purely for drinking purposes. Since a person drinks only 2-3 litres of water a day, the mineral water requirement is modest. The river floodplains are a great source of water for cities. The Yamuna floodplains in Delhi already use such a scheme to provide water to a million people each year. Forests and floodplains must be declared as water sanctuaries. Such schemes work with nature rather than against it. They can be used around the globe. It is important to remember that these evolutionary resources, once lost, will be lost forever. It is time we understood this is natural infrastructure bequeathed to us by nature. If we don’t realise this, it will only be our loss.

Vikram Soni is Emeritus Professor at Jamia Millia and Jawaharlal Nehru University

Adani’s Carmichael coal project will generate jobs but significantly impact health and environment

If India loses the fight against climate change, new investments in coal will be a decisive factor. India has reaffirmed its commitment to bold plans for switching to renewable energy. Yet, one of the world’s largest new coal investments is Adani’s $16.5 billion dollar Carmichael coal mine project in Queensland. That this project is going ahead despite coal’s declining competitiveness raises valid concerns that the new coal investments are viable only because they are supported by the Australian government’s subsidies or incentives.

Gains and losses

Coal mining provides incomes for Australia’s local economy, but the health and environmental harm from mining and combustion represents a big net loss for the world. CO2 emissions, the chief cause of climate change, totalled 36 billion metric tonnes globally in 2019, of which nearly 40% came from coal. The Carmichael mine is set to become Australia’s largest coal mine, producing up to 60 million tonnes of coal annually and 2.3 billion tonnes over its 60-year lifespan. Of the nearly 8 billion tonnes of coal produced globally in 2019, a sixth is exported, with the largest share, one third, coming from Australia. In 2020, 16% of Australia’s coal exports were shipped to India.

As India is the primary buyer of the Carmichael coal, the project will significantly add to its emissions. Australia’s coal mining and coal exports generate incomes and jobs, but when the destruction from pollution, soil erosion, and biodiversity loss is included, the net contribution for India is negative. In south-western China, the environmental and social damage from burning coal exceeds the price of coal by four times. The health damages from coal-fired power stations in the U.S. are estimated at 1-6 times the value of the power output. In India, coal contributes to 1,00,000 premature deaths annually: the poor are hit hardest. With declining coal prices, the mine may be unable to generate sufficient revenue to get a return on investment. That the project might not be viable even financially — and this without considering the environmental, social and health impacts — is damning. It supports the worry that government subsidies underlie Adani’s decision to proceed with the project. It bears mentioning that 17 international banks declined to fund the Carmichael mine based on its weak financials and environmental danger; State Bank of India’s plan to provide financing is under scrutiny. A report by the Australia Institute points out that the spillover harm from extracting and burning coal is not included in the true cost of coal projects. One estimate puts the damage to health alone in Australia at $2.6 billion annually. The mining of coal emits massive amounts of particle pollution, contributing to heart disease, lung disease and lung cancer. With exports of coal, India will be hurt too from burning coal, and the global harm is a multiple of Australia’s.

Leave coal underground

Then there is the environmental and climate impact. Annual emissions of 79 million tonnes of carbon equivalent from the Carmichael mine is higher than Malaysia’s 75 million tonnes and Austria’s 76 million tonnes. The mine will also lead to the Galilee Basin being opened up to nine additional coal mines, which would cumulatively emit an estimated 705 million tonnes of CO2 every year, more than 1.3 times Australia’s current emissions. After facing heat waves, bushfires, and intense rainfall that are linked to climate change, Australia should be deeply concerned — and so should India. The Government of India is drawing up plans for carbon neutrality, following several others that have announced 2050 as their target date for this. Achieving a zero-carbon target will require vast investments in the production, storage, and distribution of renewable energy. But the approval for Adani to mine and export coal to India makes reaching those targets much harder. It is time for India and Australia to leave coal underground.

Vinod Thomas is a former senior vice president of the World Bank and Chitranjali Tiwari is alumnus of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

India was keen not to lose diplomatic space to persuade Sri Lanka on devolution for Tamils

By abstaining from the vote on the UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, India has signalled its unwillingness to upset its neighbour. At the same time, it does not want to be seen as ignoring Sri Lanka’s reluctance to meet the political aspirations of the Tamils or endorsing the country’s stubborn refusal to ensure any sort of accountability for its war-time past. It may be easy for the political opposition to dismiss India’s abstention as showing an intent to shield Sri Lanka from a credible investigation into allegations of war crimes. A more reasonable assessment would be that India seems to have utilised the opportunity to preserve its diplomatic space and to contain the pervasive influence of China over Sri Lanka even while maintaining its support for the Tamil minority to achieve equality, justice, dignity and peace. India has not been comfortable with externally mandated investigative mechanisms. Even when it voted in 2012 in favour of a credible investigation into human rights, India had got the resolution to incorporate the need for Sri Lanka’s ‘concurrence’ to any assistance that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights may offer in such a probe. In this session and just ahead of the vote, India stressed on both meaningful devolution to meet Tamil aspirations and the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka — aspects that it believes are not an ‘either-or’ choice.

The resolution comes amidst disturbing signs that Sri Lanka is regressing into the days of democratic deficit seen prior to the 2015 elections. Unfortunately, the present regime withdrew from the commitments made to the UNHRC by its predecessor on constructive engagement with the international community, and the consensual resolution on justice and accountability. The UN High Commissioner’s report raises concern over increasing militarisation, heightened surveillance against rights defenders and NGOs, interference with the few prosecutions in emblematic cases from the past, and the dangerous anti-minority rhetoric. India’s concerns in Sri Lanka have always been different from the rest of the international community, informed by a sense of the long-term well-being of the Tamils, and that power-sharing does foster reconciliation. Hence its emphasis on devolution rather than accountability. It is clear that India has its own limitations in expressing disappointment over the island nation’s move away from reconciliation and devolution. It continues to be weighed down by the Chinese presence in the region. Even the need to be in accord with sentiment in Tamil Nadu in the midst of an election was not motivation enough for India to change its position from tactical neutrality to one of open support for the resolution. When pragmatism and principle were needed in equal measure, the Centre seems to have chosen abstention as an easy way out.

The National Film Awards can help film-makers narrating stories from remote corners

The announcement of the 67th National Film Awards on Monday, to recognise films certified in 2019, quite predictably drew its share of controversies. While some attributed a few of the awards to the political alignment of the personalities and films concerned, there were others who thought that deserving candidates were overlooked. However, there was no disputing the fact that the awards acknowledged both well known and less known films from different pockets of the country. Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and Bengali films have always had their fair share of recognition, winning a clutch of awards. Thanks to the blurring of regional and language boundaries in cinema in recent years, a Tamil or a Telugu film, for instance, now stands a better chance at enjoying a pan-Indian theatrical release with subtitles, and thereafter reaching wider audiences through digital platforms. Dhanush, Vetri Maaran and Vijay Sethupathi are names that are recognised well beyond the boundaries of Tamil cinema, appreciated for projects that have smudged the line between art house and mainstream cinema. Dhanush being declared the Best Actor forAsuran, which was also acknowledged the Best Tamil Film, and Sethupathi winning Best Supporting Actor forSuper Deluxe, have been lauded widely. Sharing the Best Actor honours with Dhanush is Manoj Bajpayee for his internalised performance inBhonsle. The Kannada filmAvane Srimannarayanawas chosen for Best Action Direction. The Malayalam period magnum opusMarakkar: Lion of the Arabian Seabagged Best Feature Film.

The award that drew the fiercest criticism was that of Kangana Ranaut for being declared Best Actress forPangaandManikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. Whether or not her politics was a factor in the choice, there is no doubting Kangana’s talent. Look beyond the noise surrounding this recognition, and the National Awards also put the spotlight on films from the Northeast region — the Khasi filmIewduhfor Best Audiography (Location Sound Recordist) andWater Burial, in Arunachal Pradesh’s tribal Monpa language, for Best Film for Environment Conservation. For film industries that rarely enjoy their place in the sun, a National Award should ideally help winning films find a wider audience. It has not always been the case, but there is hope, in a world where cinema may increasingly be consumed on digital platforms. Perhaps, brushing aside the high-pitched debates, it is imperative to look at how some of these less known feature films, and award-winning non-feature films, can find their target audience, without having to rely on marketing muscle. A framework to bring these films to limelight, with the help of digital platforms, will be an incentive to film-makers striving to narrate stories from the remote corners of the country.

The Chief Minister, Mr. C. Achutha Menon, to-day [Trivandrum, March 24] called for “fundamental changes” in the economic and financial relations between the Centre and the States to enable the latter to stand on their own legs. These changes would have to be brought about by amending the Constitution, if necessary, he said. Mr. Menon warned that Centre-State relations would become “strained and create more difficulties” if the changes were not brought about or delayed. Mr. Menon was replying to the three-day general discussion in the State Assembly on the budget for 1971-72 presented to the House by him on Friday last. The Chief Minister agreed that there should be “revolutionary changes” in the economic and political fields for bringing about socialism, but said he could not subscribe to the view that till then they would not be able to do anything for the people or should not do anything.

According to a writer in thePopular Science siftings, the time-honoured entrance examinations to the various educational institutions are now being dispensed with in the United States, substituting in their place tests based on the principle of mental alertness. This revolutionary change, forms the climax of more than a decade of research and experiment on the part of psychologists. And far from affecting the standard and efficiency of selection, the new test, we are assured by Prof. Robert G. Skerret, is calculated to eliminate many applicants, who are now able to gain admission by means by what he calls an ‘academic camouflage,’ and pick out the promising intellectual sheep from the unimprovable goats. And the question as to how the new method will fulfil the functions of the orthodox written examination, the Professor answers by saying that the volume and variety of an aspirant-student’s knowledge is not so important as his grasp of the basic principles involved, and his ability to apply these logically and quickly. The several tests devised to judge this capacity in the student comprise oral problems, to test ingenuity, to be answered without the use of pen and paper, the repetition of series of digits in normal and reverse order to test attentiveness and memory, moralisation from simple fables read out to the student, and many others.