Editorials - 10-05-2021

Opportunities nevertheless exist for political forces seeking to redistribute power and resources more equitably

The Dravidian parties maintained their electoral dominance in the first Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly elections since the passing of their earlier dominant leaders, Jayalalithaa and M. Karunanidhi. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam gained 67.1% of the vote and, along with the smaller Dravidian parties, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazagam and the Marumalarchchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, polled 70.4%. This was the second highest vote share the Dravidian parties have ever drawn, only 3.5 percentage points lower than their highest share of 73.9% in 2016. The maintenance of Dravidianist electoral dominance is more striking than the DMK’s anticipated return to power.

Expectations, outcomes

The AIADMK’s support seemed likelier to erode than the DMK’s because it depended far more on the charisma of its two successive leaders (MGR and Jayalalithaa), Jayalalithaa had not developed a successor unlike Karunanidhi, and its party institutions were weaker. Moreover, since Jayalalithaa’s passing, its leaders were inadequately independent of the central government, insufficiently defended the State’s moderately welfarist orientations, and supported or barely resisted the Centre’s authoritarian, Hindu majoritarian, and wholeheartedly neoliberal policies. These policies included the adoption of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the demotion of Jammu and Kashmir to Union Territories, the adoption of centralised examinations at different stages of school education, the reduction of agrarian subsidies, and the accelerated corporatisation of agriculture.

The DMK outperformed the AIADMK but not overwhelmingly. It did so by only 3.1 percentage points, polling 35.1% to the latter’s 32.0%, gaining 3.2 percentage points since the 2016 elections while the AIADMK lost 9.1 percentage points. The 12.3% vote shift between the major parties was nevertheless significant. The two major alliances’ vote shares differed by 5.7 percentage points — the DMK-led Secular Progressive Alliance gained 45.4% to the AIADMK-led National Democratic Alliance’s 39.7%. Their high combined vote share of 85.1% underlined the continuity of Dravidianist electoral dominance. The DMK’s performance remained strongest in the northern plains and Cauvery delta, while the AIADMK remained stronger in the western plains though no longer in the south.

Conversely, the political forces that had hoped to benefit from the uncertain leadership transition did not grow much. The older national parties stagnated. The Congress Party’s vote share declined from 6.5% to 4.3%, partly due to contesting fewer seats (25 rather than 41), continuing an unsteady downward trend since 1989 when it got 20.2%. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s diminished from 2.9% to 2.6% perhaps because it contested only 20 seats while it had vied for all the seats in 2016, compared to a high of 3.2% in 2001. Of the parties formed since party competition changed in 1989, catchall parties that address all major demographics polled 13.0% compared to just 4.4% in 2016 and a high of 14.4% in 2006, and niche parties that primarily engage specific castes, religious groups or regions polled 6.7% compared to a high of 8.1% in 2011.

The largest new catchall party is the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) which polled 6.6%, followed by the AMMK and Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam that got 2.3% each. These parties overtook the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam that polled merely 0.4%, in contrast with having drawn 2.4% (to the NTK’s 1.1%) in 2016 and 8.4% in 2006. The Vanniyar-based Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) remained the largest niche party and the largest of the caste parties that together drew 6.0% compared to 7.7% in 2016 and a high of 8.1% in 2011. But it only gained 3.8% compared to its best performance of 5.9% in 1991. The BJP with 2.6% remained the largest of the religious parties which together gained 3.6%. The Dravidian parties thus remain electorally dominant although their social presence has gradually declined since the 1990s.

What shaped these electoral trends? What do they portend? How do they compare with experiences elsewhere in India? What might these patterns suggest about the scope to change the Indian polity?

Bases of sustained success

The Dravidian parties grew from the 1950s to the 1970s by mobilising the middling and lower castes and classes that other parties and governments had only marginally engaged, using populist discourses distinguishing the popular community from elites based on caste, language, dialect, and occupation. They remained dominant subsequently because they formed strong party institutions and cohesive subcultures sustained through moderately egalitarian development policies, which they retained even while adopting much of the Centre’s neoliberal orientation from the 1990s. Most notable among such policies were the high educational and job reservations (69%), the midday meal scheme that especially improved nutrition, health, and education among the poorest, high investments in education and primary health, and a rural employment programme that was among the best implemented until 2016.

The Dravidian parties drew closer to upwardly mobile and privileged groups from the 1970s. Their reservation policies benefited the middle castes much more than Dalits and Adivasis. They doubled the Other Backward Classes quota to 50% but also entitled a further 27% of the population to it, including many prosperous castes such as the Kongu Vellala Gounder that became the preponderant beneficiaries. By contrast, they increased the Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe quota by under a fifth, from 16% to 19%, below these groups’ undercounted population share of 21%. This was partly balanced by introducing a 1% ST tier and a 20% tier for the Most Backward Classes and denotified communities in 1989, and a 3% Arunthathiyar tier in 2009 — Vanniyars were granted a 10.5% tier within the MBC quota last February to placate the PMK and boost the AIADMK’s electoral prospects, with uncertain distributive effect for this reduced the DNC quota to 7% and that of all other MBCs to 2.5%.

Other Dravidianist policies provided assets mainly to the upwardly mobile. Land ownership and tenurial reforms primarily helped middling tenant farmers, largely from the middle castes, but only a small section of Dalits. These groups bought land that landlords sold due to declining irrigation and soil fertility, and benefited from generously subsidised agrarian inputs and credit, and loan waivers. Such policies helped lower-middle and intermediate strata move up, maintained Dravidianist electoral prominence, and contained challenges to caste and class inequality.

Alternatives, their prospects

These experiences enabled Dravidian party dominance thus far; but are unlikely to indefinitely sustain it as these parties withdrew from mobilisation from the 1990s. Other outlooks thereafter inspired civil society, especially caste associations, opponents of corporatisation, and religious nationalists. Their effects on the party system have so far been minor — enabling the limited growth of the PMK and other middle caste parties from 1989, that of the BJP, the DMDK, and the Dalit parties in the 2000s, and the NTK’s since 2016. These forces either demanded greater resources and rights for specific caste clusters as the PMK and Dalit parties did or sought like the DMDK and the NTK to revitalise plebeian ethno-linguistic politics, thus building on aspects of Dravidianist ethno-populism.

Widely popular public figures not closely associated with popular sectors or with language- and caste-focused outlooks such as Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth have impacted party competition less. This suggests that the prospects are brightest for political forces that seek to redistribute power and resources more equitably than the Dravidian parties did if they build on some aspects of Tamil Nadu’s existing political culture.

Portents for democracy

Some who seek to limit the erosion of democracy and the rights of religious minorities and disadvantaged groups around India under BJP rule draw hope from the Assembly election results. The All-India Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Left Democratic Front in Kerala, and the DMK in Tamil Nadu have in different ways resisted the Centre’s Hindu majoritarianism, centralisation of power, and violations of democratic norms. Their victories show that prior political alignments limit Hindutva growth in some regions, though less in West Bengal where the BJP’s vote share increased by 28 percentage points since 2016, and it overtook the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress to become the primary Opposition party. The victories of the incumbents in Kerala and West Bengal, unlike in Tamil Nadu, and the increase in their victory margins by 1.4 and 4.1 percentage points, respectively, were also minor positive verdicts on their governance.

Two considerations should temper inferences about constraints to BJP growth and the Centre’s authoritarian tendencies. First, Tamil Nadu and Kerala are exceptions to the nearly national pattern of rising BJP fortunes. Second, the design of India’s asymmetric federalism grants the Centre considerable leeway to determine resource distribution and authority over concurrent subjects, which it has used crucially according to whether a single party predominates parliamentary representation. The centralisation of authority by BJP governments with Lok Sabha majorities since 2014 followed devolution by coalition governments from 1989 to 2014 and earlier centralisation by Congress-led governments. It will limit the ability of the recently elected Opposition State governments to resist the Centre’s promotion of authoritarianism, Hindu hegemony, and corporate-led growth. to offer more democratic and equitable governance, and to significantly constrain further BJP growth.

Narendra Subramanian is Professor of Political Science, McGill University, Canada, and the author of ‘Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization: Political Parties, Citizens, and Democracy in South India’

It has moved away from a party-centric state deemed to protect some sections to one that caters to all

The Left Front has retained power in Kerala by winning more than two-thirds of the seats to the Legislative Assembly. This is unheard of in a State that was used to alternating between the Left and the Congress for more than four decades. The change in this familiar pattern was possible only because there was a fundamental change in the nature and practice of politics in the State after years.

Conception of the modern state

As a political organisation, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] has a different conception of state and governance. This is broadly viewed as the Leninist model and is fundamentally different from the structure of most political organisations in the country. During the early days of its inception and into the 21st century, the Left conceived the modern state system as being bourgeoisie. This modern state, it felt, needed to be transformed from within. Thus, the Left governments implemented or were expected to implement the agenda of the party in order to achieve their ultimate goal of revolution. The party was always considered more powerful than the government.

This has changed fundamentally in the last few years in Kerala. The end of the Left Front government in West Bengal and the Left’s subsequent loss of power in Tripura reduced the Polit Bureau, the highest decision-making body of the CPI(M), to a mere shadow of its former self, thereby weakening the hold of the party over the government in Kerala.

In 2016, when the Left contested the Kerala Assembly elections, the general perception was that V.S. Achuthanandan would be made the Chief Minister as the Left rode to power on his popularity. However, the party decided to pick its powerful State Secretary for the top post. This marked a new era in the nature of Left politics in the State. This meant that, unlike in the past, the government of Pinarayi Vijayan was considerably relieved of both the constraints of building the organisation of the party and its ideological tasks.

Confrontation to consensus

The new government ended the politics of confrontation between the landowners and the peasants, and between the industrial workers and the industrialists, which was central to the politics of Kerala for long. Such a change in the nature of the Left Front government was also structured by the changing socio-cultural demography of the State. A large middle class population emerged with changing economic activity in the State — agricultural land reduced and migrant labourers from north and northeast India entered Kerala. All this compelled the Left to change its political slogans of worker/agricultural labour emancipation to slogans that resonated with middle class aspirations. In the process, it made peace with the Christian church and other powerful social, religious and economic sections of the state, with which it had been in confrontation for more than half a century.

The Left’s conception of the modern state as a bourgeoise one began to peel away. Rather, it used the state and its mechanisms to protect the interests of the emerging middle class of Kerala. By moving away from being supporters of only economically backward castes, classes, communities and groups to one that became more acceptable to a wider multi-class population, largely devoid of any caste/class/community divide, the Left Front government was entering the terrain which was considered the domain of the Congress and its allies.

The two massive floods and the pandemic that ravaged the State came more as an opportunity rather than as a challenge for the Left. Through a slew of welfare measures including the setting up of free feeding centres, providing ration kits for all and providing pensions for the old, the Left Front government transformed itself as a caring protector that was not against any particular class. It benefited the middle class in particular. Unlike the early masculine image of the party, of protest and confrontation, the new Left was one of consensus. The sudden rise of Health Minister K.K. Shailaja as an important figure in the fight against the pandemic led to the creation of a new conception of the state as a representation of the ideal caring middle class family. The policy of giving free rations meant that the government as a ‘super family’ is there to feed and care.

Losing ground

While the Left Front government was using the optimal potential of the modern state system and pursuing a policy of consensus even with the Opposition, the Congress was increasingly losing its political space. By moving away from its earlier version of a party-centric state deemed to protect sections of the population to one that aimed to cater to all, the Left was venturing into a space that was held by the Congress for long. For the last couple of years, the Congress has been in a dilemma of whether it should support or oppose the government. With no ideology and a weak party mechanism, the Congress has survived as a response to the politics of the Left, which was seen as confrontational and therefore unacceptable to large sections of the State. Without any proper organisational mechanism and ideology, the Congress has won elections on an anti-leftist plank. However, it failed to see the political discourse changing. A large section of the minorities became apprehensive of rising Hindutva politics and considered the Left as a viable option in the fight against the Right. When the Supreme Court delivered its verdict on Sabarimala, the Congress decided to oppose the verdict and argued that tradition should be defended. One could argue that this was the only option it was left with in the political discourse of the State. But the Congress made the mistake of raking up this issue even in these elections in the hope of getting upper caste conservative Hindu votes. However, the issue of Sabarimala had become a dead horse and the Congress’s attempts failed to evoke any response. The Congress failed to build any convincing narrative against the Left.

By deviating from the ideological context of the conventional Left to domains that were hitherto considered as the space of the Congress, the Left has won Kerala again. To what extent the Left can retain this space without being in confrontation with its core values and to what extent the Congress can reclaim lost ground remains to be seen.

Burton Cleetus is Assistant Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi

The U.S.-supported move will have an effect if countries simultaneously address non-IP bottlenecks among other things

The United States has finally relented and declared its support for a temporary waiver of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement for COVID-19 vaccines at the World Trade Organisation (WTO). In October 2020, India and South Africa, at the WTO, proposed (https://bit.ly/3vTJ9SK) waiving Sections 1, 4, 5, and 7 of Part II of the TRIPS agreement (covering copyrights, industrial designs, patents, and undisclosed trade information) related to the prevention, containment, or treatment of COVID-19.

The U.S.’s support of the TRIPS waiver is a significant step forward in the global fight against the pandemic. Hopefully, the U.S.’s decision would cause other holdouts like Canada and the European Union to give up their opposition. Legally, the waiver is surely possible since Article IX of the WTO Agreement allows for waiving obligations in ‘exceptional circumstances’ (https://bit.ly/3uCTMJy), which the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly is. The stumbling block is the political will of the richer countries that house the giant pharmaceutical corporations producing COVID-19 vaccines and medicines.

Devil in the details

While the U.S.’s decision is to be welcomed, the devil would be in the details. The countries would now negotiate on the text of the waiver at the WTO. If the experience of negotiating such waivers, especially on TRIPS, were anything to go by, it would be too early to celebrate. In the aftermath of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa in the 1990s, the WTO adopted a decision in 2003 waiving certain TRIPS obligations to increase the accessibility of medicines in countries that lacked manufacturing capability. Specifically, the obligation contained in Article 31(f) of TRIPS (https://bit.ly/3vMmfwC) that medicines produced under a compulsory licence are predominantly for the domestic market of that country was waived, paving the way for the export of such medicines to a country that lacked manufacturing capability.

However, this waiver (later incorporated as Article 31 bis in the TRIPS agreement; https://bit.ly/3tBzRsZ) was subject to several stringent requirements such as the drugs so manufactured are to be exported to that nation only; the medicines should be easily identifiable through different colour, or shape; only the amount necessary to meet the requirements of the importing country are to be manufactured; the importing country has to notify to the WTO’s TRIPS Council, etc,. Given these cumbersome requirements, hardly any country, in the last 17 years, made effective use of this waiver.

Developing world must watch

The statement issued by Katherine Tai, the U.S. Trade Representative (https://bit.ly/3hbtpXl), states that the negotiations on the text of the waiver will ‘take time’ given the WTO’s consensus-based decision-making process and the complexity of the issues involved. This signals that the negotiations on the waiver are going to be difficult. While the U.S. would not like to be seen as blocking the TRIPS waiver and attracting the ire of the global community, make no mistake that it would resolutely defend the interests of its pharmaceutical corporations. The developing world should be conscious to ensure that a repeat of 2003 does not happen.

Ms. Tai’s statement also reveals that the U.S. supports waiving intellectual property (IP) protections on COVID-19 vaccines. However, India and South Africa proposed a waiver not just on vaccines but also on medicines and other therapeutics and technologies related to the treatment of COVID-19. So, the U.S. has already narrowed down the scope of the waiver considerably by restricting it to vaccines. Medicines useful in treating COVID-19 and other therapeutics must be also included in the waiver.

Overcoming key obstacles

While the TRIPS waiver would lift the legal restrictions on manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines, it would not solve the problem of the lack of access to technological ‘know-how’ related to manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines. Waiving IP protection does not impose a legal requirement on pharmaceutical companies to transfer or share technology. While individual countries may adopt coercive legal measures for a forced transfer of technology, it would be too draconian and counterproductive. Therefore, governments would have to be proactive in negotiating and cajoling pharmaceutical companies to transfer technology using various legal and policy tools including financial incentives.

Finally, while a TRIPS waiver would enable countries to escape WTO obligations, it will not change the nature of domestic IP regulations. Therefore, countries should start working towards making suitable changes in their domestic legal framework to operationalise and enforce the TRIPS waiver. In this regard, the Indian government should immediately put in place a team of best IP lawyers who could study the various TRIPS waiver scenarios and accordingly recommend the changes to be made in the Indian legal framework.

Notwithstanding the usefulness of the TRIPS waiver, it is not a magic pill. It would work well only if countries simultaneously address the non-IP bottlenecks such as technology transfer, production constraints, and other logistical challenges such as inadequacy of supply chains and unavailability of raw materials to manufacture vaccines and medicines.

Prabhash Ranjan is a senior assistant professor at South Asian University’s faculty of legal studies. The views expressed are personal

It is important for the government to listen to critical voices from the media to understand the gravity of the situation

In the time of COVID-19, I often think ofThirukkural621 “Idukkan varungaal nakuka” which asks us to laugh at our difficulties as there is nothing more human to drive away sorrow. I always look for G. Sampath’s parody column ‘Allegedly’, which mitigates the weight of loss and the emotional toll of the pandemic. His humour belongs to the school of social criticism of Charlie Chaplin, where comedy is used as a device to turn the spotlight on many pressing social and political issues. An underlying element of pathos makes one laugh, then smile, then pause, and finally reflect about our state of being.

Writing tongue in cheek

Unlike reportage, where bearing witness and providing credible information are key components, the fundamental requirement of a parody column is to call out the absurdity of the rulers. Mr. Sampath’s column titled ‘Oxygen’s in the air: Great expectations of good governance’ (May 9) is a fine dystopian reading of the mess created by the Union government in augmenting medical oxygen during this crisis. In his earlier column, ‘Beating the coronavirus’ (April 23), Mr. Sampath argued tongue in cheek, “...if you move faster than a coronavirus, it can never catch you” and came up with a number of absurd moves that we as citizens have to take in order to preserve the ‘positive narrative’ about the government.

However, this is also the time to record certain facts that neither fall in the category of parody or comedy. It is becoming really difficult to believe that some of the averments by those in power or by those who represent this government are real and not parody. Almost every assertion of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, from his submission to the Supreme Court on the plight of migrant workers who walked to their homes last year following the nationwide lockdown to his arguments about oxygen supply, would have made sense only if they were meant to rival Mr. Sampath’s column.

Citizens are used to a divergence between the views of those in power and the views of a critical media. What we are witnessing today is not a divergence of views. The view from the government has no semblance to what journalists are witnessing. The cruel second wave of the pandemic has finally started ripping off the Teflon coat of hyper-nationalism that glossed over inefficiency and inhumanity.

Reporting the reality

Nieman Lab, which is part of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation, and which tracks the state of journalism across the world, in its report on May 3 pointed out the difficulties faced by journalists in India during this pandemic. The report read: “It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the public health calamity unfolding in India as the nation of 1.4 billion people fights what seems like a losing battle against the virus. But did it have to be this way? Answering that question is the responsibility of the free press of the world’s largest democracy. They have the unenviable task of writing the first draft of this wretched chapter in the nation’s history. They shoulder the burden of speaking truth to power — recording the tales of colossal missteps like not preparing for a second wave, calling out the political hubris in allowing massive campaign rallies, and criminal negligence that led to severe shortages of essential hospital supplies like oxygen.” The report has a very disturbing, but accurate conclusion: “In India, the media’s ability to pursue truth and tell it without fear is a matter of life and death.”

It is important for the government to listen to critical voices from the media to understand the gravity of the situation. The official spokespersons of the government are not in competition with the parody column, ‘Allegedly’. They are expected to come up with decisive administrative moves that address the needs of the patients who are flocking to overburdened hospitals across the country.

Instead of arresting journalists like Siddique Kappan for trying to report on the Hathras gang-rape case and filing cases against those who either seek or amplify the need for oxygen, the government needs to address the impending problem highlighted by the respected scientific journal,The Lancet. Citing the study of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the journal fears that the deaths due to COVID-19 in India may cross a million by August 1. We are at a stage where neither Thiruvalluvar nor Mr. Sampath can provide mitigation. It has to come from the government.


India has recovered from extremely trying crises in the past, with sincere and competent leadership

We have been witnessing shortages of almost everything needed to treat COVID-19 patients: hospital beds, drugs, ventilators and, above all, oxygen. The world has taken note, and offers of help have come in from the U.S., the U.K., the European Union, and even China. India is once again the focus of global attention, as it was in the mid-1960s when two consecutive years of drought resulted in a severe shortage of food. Then, India had to turn to the U.S. for assistance. This did arrive, but grudgingly, for India had not supported the West during the Cold War. The lore is that President Lyndon Johnson had directed: “Send food to India by the shipload, so that she is kept on a short lease”.

Though that moment in our history is not a happy memory, that of the response of the country’s then leadership is inspiring. Prime Ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and their cabinet colleagues had stirred the scientific and bureaucratic communities to bring about a quantum leap in food production. This was achieved within a few years. No one imagined that India, a byword for a basket case, would be able to feed itself. The Green Revolution stands out in Indian history as a display of extraordinary accountability by the political leadership, combining resolve, humility and intelligence. We crucially miss this today.

Lessons from the sixties

Unlike the two years of drought that tipped the country into food shortages in the mid-sixties, the need for ramping up the health infrastructure could have been anticipated in March 2020 when a lockdown was announced at very short notice. In fact, the medical case for a lockdown was that it would slow the spread of the disease thus avoiding overwhelming the health system and giving time to strengthen the capacity of the health system.

The lesson from the Green Revolution is that India has recovered from extremely trying crises, under the most adverse of circumstances, in the past. It is entirely possible to replicate this now, but we need sincere and competent leadership.

In many ways the task is far easier today. Now India has something that it lacked in the mid-sixties, namely, industrial muscle. It should not be too difficult to ramp up hospital beds, ventilators and oxygen supply within a reasonable time. That certain parts of the country actually have a surplus of oxygen should give confidence on this score. An additional feature today, again in contrast to the mid-sixties, is the considerable foreign exchange reserve. Therefore, some crucial medical inputs can be imported, especially vaccines. But it is important to recognise that these measures are absolutely necessary. We should not adopt an ostrich-like posture denying shortage, which the Central government is displaying on the issue of vaccines in particular.

Health spending

The inter-State variation in the death rate in India is directly related to the extent of health spending in relation to the state domestic product. It is also related to health infrastructure, but less strongly. This is also true for COVID-19-related deaths across South Asia. So, to avert a health crisis in the future, the States would have to raise the level of spending on health very substantially. On average, States spend only around 5% of their total expenditure on health. Should we be surprised at the shortages we are facing now?

Finally, even as we struggle against the health emergency, a shortage that we should do everything to avoid is with respect to food. Food prices shot up from April 2020 suggesting that there may have been a disruption of supply due to the lockdown. It would be advisable to anticipate a similar disruption following State-level lockdowns now, and take all possible measures to assure the supply chain. The kharif operations are set to commence. As agricultural activity takes place at the level of the States, Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to interact closely with their leaders and the farming community. This is the abiding lesson from the mid-sixties when we as a nation were in a similar place.

Pulapre Balakrishnan teaches at Ashoka University, Sonipat

State shutdowns are inevitable, but they must be used to augment the health system

Several States have done the inevitable, going into a strict lockdown for a fortnight to arrest India’s calamitous descent into COVID-19 hell since mid-March. The horror of sweeping infections, severe disease and staggering death rates has made a lockdown a popular measure, unlike last year’s imposition on an ill-prepared nation. Public acceptance of restrictions comes with the realisation that the threat to life from a mutating virus has aggravated manifold, although the spread of the scourge, from about 9,000 new daily cases in early February this year to over 4,00,000 in May, was brought about mainly by wrong messaging, massive political rallies and large religious events. After having been failed, what people now look forward to are measures that draw insights not from crude policing, but public health research. Unlike in 2020, the evidence is also stronger: WHO explains that SARS-CoV-2 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets and aerosols produced when people cough, sneeze, speak, sing or breathe, are within one metre of each other and also in crowded, poorly ventilated settings. Contact with contaminated surfaces poses another risk. Insistence on wearing good masks, distancing and a prohibition on risky gatherings, such as in restaurants, malls, religious sites, auditoria and on public transport are, therefore, essential. It is welcome that lessons have been learnt, and people were given time to prepare this time. Moreover, rather than shut out employment and services completely, home delivery services and some vending have been permitted. Tamil Nadu, which has commendably announced a relief of Rs. 4,000 for COVID-19, part of it to be disbursed during the lockdown, should avoid big gatherings at ration shops, opting instead for e-payments or doorstep disbursement. States should prevent crowding at shops open for limited hours by allowing door deliveries of all consumer goods and not just food, using online services. Travel for emergencies must be facilitated without harassment.

For an exhausted medical community, staggering under the weight of over 37 lakh active COVID-19 cases and a severe shortage of medical oxygen and drugs, the pause in activity comes as a life saver. The lockdown window can help it manage existing patients while governments augment critical supplies; a slowing infection curve will give everyone breathing space in coming weeks, although the heart-rending death rate may take time to decline due to the lag effect. A drop in the vaccination rate poses a serious challenge, and it is incumbent on the Centre to arrange for vaccine imports or augment domestic production to scale it up. Testing access must also be dramatically increased by May-end to assess the true scale of the pandemic. Without such progress, the lockdowns may yield only small gains, since the opportunity to build the systems to handle another surge would have been frittered away, again.

As long as the court does not usurp executive’s role, action to mitigate a crisis is welcome

Judicial intervention in response to the Union government’s flailing response to the health crisis has reached its apotheosis with the Supreme Court order forming a 12-member national task force for the effective and transparent allocation of medical oxygen to the States and Union Territories “on a scientific, rational and equitable basis”. Making recommendations on augmenting the supply based on present and projected demands and facilitating audits by sub-groups within each State and UT is also part of its remit. The Court has also mandated it to review and suggest measures for ensuring the availability of essential drugs and remedial measures to meet future emergencies during the pandemic. In other words, the national task force has become a judicially empowered group that may significantly guide the handling of the health crisis set off by the second pandemic wave. Faced with proceedings in High Courts relating to the allocation and availability of oxygen, the Centre submitted that an expert committee may be constituted, consisting of persons drawn from public and private health-care institutions, to facilitate a fresh assessment of the basis for the allocation.

When the Karnataka High Court ordered last week that the Centre should supply 1,200 tonnes of medical oxygen daily to the State, the Centre rushed with a challenge to the apex court. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued that if every High Court started entertaining petitions on equitable allocation of oxygen, pandemic management would become unworkable. The Supreme Court declined to stay the order, describing it as a careful and calibrated one. Several High Courts and the Supreme Court are examining different aspects of the pandemic response, including availability of beds and oxygen. The trend did raise concerns about the judiciary encroaching on the executive domain. There is some merit in the argument that allocation of resources based on a formula related to the present and projected requirements of each State is indeed an executive function. However, as the daily infection numbers and death toll have acquired frightening levels, the constitutional courts felt obliged to take it upon themselves to protect the right to life and good health of the population. It cannot be forgotten that the judiciary drew much flak last year for its initial failure to mitigate the crisis set off by the lack of succour to millions of migrant workers. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who heads the Bench hearing thesuo motuproceedings, has clarified that the Court was not usurping the executive’s role, but only wanted to facilitate a dialogue among stakeholders. As long as this position is clear, the present intervention need not be seen as a dangerous overreach.

New Delhi, May 9: The Government of India has asked the Union Public Service Commission to reconsider its decision on the question of the medium of examination for the All-India and higher Central services, it is learnt. At present, candidates for the IAS and other Central services are permitted to exercise their option to write their answers in two of the three compulsory general papers namely, essay and general knowledge, in any of the languages mentioned in the Eighth Schedule to the Constitution besides English. Earlier, the UPSC had while agreeing to the candidates being given the option to write their answers in the two papers in the Indian languages besides English, made it clear to Government that it would not be possible for it in the foreseeable future to make arrangements for setting and printing the question papers in the Indian languages besides English, without serious risk of compromising the accuracy and secrecy of the question papers. The Commission, therefore, expressed the view that even though the candidates may write the answers in the two papers in any of the Indian languages, the question paper would necessarily continue to be set and printed in the English language only.

The panic among a certain section of the people at Allahabad, which Pandit Motilal Nehru has found it necessary to allay by a reassuring letter to the Press, shows at once the extent of the hold that the Non-Co-operation movement, the misleadingLeadernot withstanding, has over the public, and the erroneous ideas about Non-Co-operation which have been sedulously propagated by hostile critics. It is the aim of this vile propaganda to discredit the movement by exaggerating the sporadic outbreaks which are due less to Non-Co-operation propaganda perhaps than to the accumulation of unaddressed wrongs dating for years. Even if the Malegaon outbreak, for instance, be due to Non-Co-operation, it is only an exception which proves the rule that the movement is one which essentially makes for peace and non-violence. That it inculcates ideas of ordered and disciplined non-violent conduct in the face of grave and humiliating provocations must now be admitted by all impartial critics.