Editorials - 27-05-2021

With uncertainty set to continue, India needs to remain actively engaged with all the political actors

Politics in Nepal entered another phase of uncertainty last week. The country’s President, Bidya Devi Bhandari, dissolved the House of Representatives (lower house) late night on Friday, at the suggestion of Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli(picture), in a partisan move that disregarded the Constitution. Fresh elections were announced for between November 12 and 18. Announcing elections was just to ensure that Mr. Oli continues in office and controlling the state machinery, even as Nepal battles a second and deadlier COVID-19 wave.

Oli’s opportunistic politics

Mr. Oli came to power after the 2017 elections, the first undertaken in the federal republic of Nepal, established under the 2015 Constitution. He led his party, the CPN(UML), to an impressive tally of 121 seats and together with the Maoist Centre’s 53 seats, enjoyed a near absolute majority in the 275-strong House. In May 2018, the two allies merged to cement their alliance and created the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).

Relations with India saw positive movement. New Delhi was willing to overcome its reservations about Mr. Oli’s anti-Indian nationalist tirades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal in May 2018, shortly after Mr. Oli’s visit.

However, Mr. Oli’s autocratic tendencies soon began to surface. The power sharing arrangement worked out with former Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ started fraying. The original idea that both would take turns at being Prime Minister and run the NCP as co-chairs became irksome for Mr. Oli. While he weaned away the Maoist cabinet members, senior disgruntled UML leaders led by former Prime Ministers, Madhav Kumar Nepal and Jhala Nath Khanal, gravitated towards Prachanda. Differences emerged in the open and a growing demand surfaced for honouring the ‘one person one post’ policy. Prachanda was willing to let Mr. Oli continue the full term as Prime Minister, provided he gave up his role as co-chair of the party. Mr. Oli decided otherwise.

Mr. Oli needed a distraction and by end 2019, found one in the Kalapani boundary issue. India issued new maps following the division of the State of Jammu and Kashmir into Union Territories, Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. While 98% of the India-Nepal boundary was demarcated, two areas, Susta and Kalapani, had remained pending.

Though the new Indian map did not affect the India-Nepal boundary in any material way, it was an opportunity for Mr. Oli to don his nationalist mantle. He expanded the Kalapani area dispute from one covering approximately 60 square kilometres on Nepal’s northwest tip with Uttarakhand and China by raising the demand for restoring an additional 335 sq. km. The boundaries were fixed in 1816 by the British, and India inherited the areas over which the British had exercised territorial control in 1947.

Domestic politics takes over

Caught up in the first COVID-19 wave, India kept deferring bilateral talks, perhaps not realising the domestic political pressures on Mr. Oli. In May 2020 when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the 75 km road through Kalapani that linked to the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage route, Mr. Oli upped the ante by whipping up nationalist sentiment, getting a new map of Nepal endorsed by the House and adopting a constitutional amendment to sanctify Nepal’s new territory. While this did not alter the situation on the ground, it cramped the prospects of any dialogue with India. It was a short reprieve and Mr. Oli’s political troubles soon returned to haunt him.

President Bhandari has been Mr. Oli’s close comrade since she entered active politics after the untimely demise of her husband Madan Bhandari, a charismatic UML leader, in a car accident in 1993. Mr. Oli was her political mentor and backed her elevation as President. She reciprocated by ignoring constitutional propriety and approving dubious ordinances including amending the Constitutional Council Act that enabled Mr. Oli to pack constitutional positions with his loyalists.

Amid rumours that Prachanda and Mr. Nepal were planning to move a no-confidence-motion against him after he had studiously ignored the meetings and decisions of party’s Secretariat and the Standing Committee, Mr. Oli got President Bhandari to approve dissolution of the House on December 20, paving the way for elections in April-May. The President’s decision was uniformly criticised as unconstitutional as the NCP enjoyed a near-absolute majority.

India decided to steer clear of the mess, calling it an ‘internal matter’ while the Chinese Ambassador continued to actively push for a rapprochement between the NCP factions. A five-judge constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court unanimously called for a restoration of the House on February 23 strengthening the Prachanda-Nepal faction but on March 7, delivered a bombshell by overturning the UML-Maoist merger of May 2018, against which an appeal had been pending for two years.

Mr. Oli took over the reins of the old CPN(UML), reviving prior structures but now excluding Mr. Nepal and his supporters. Some were served suspension notices. The Nepal faction was reduced to a minority; under the law, a split in the party requires a 40% of both the parliamentary party and the central committee. Prachanda, heading the Maoist Centre with 49 members since four had joined hands with Mr. Oli, needed new allies to wage his battles.

Though Mr. Oli had lost majority in the House as Maoist Centre was no longer supporting him, he challenged the Opposition to file a no-confidence-motion, certain that the Maoists, Nepali Congress (NC) and the Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP) would fail to reach an agreement on a new Prime Minister. He was proven right but overtaken by hubris, he took another gamble. He called for a trust vote on May 10 that he lost as 28 UML dissident members were absent and half the JSP voted against him while the other half abstained.

Presidential improprieties

The Opposition again failed to present an alternative. In a questionable decision, Mr. Oli was sworn in by President Bhandari on May 14 as Prime Minister under Article 76(3) that permits the leader of the largest party to be sworn in and given 30 days to demonstrate majority. Within a week, Mr. Oli announced that he would not seek another vote of confidence. Without resigning, however, he advised the President to explore other options. Within a day, as rumours gained ground that NC leader Sher Bahadur Deuba had managed to gather support from 149 members, including 49 Maoists, 26 UML dissidents and 12 from the JSP, Mr. Oli rushed to the President and gave her a list of 153 supporters that included all 121 UML and 32 JSP members, including UML dissidents and JSP members who voted against him on May 10. Without bothering to verify, President Bhandari dissolved the House and announced fresh elections, justifying that the rival claims exceeded the strength of the House.

Since 2008 when a new Constituent Assembly was elected to prepare a constitution for a federal republic, Nepal has seen three NC Prime Ministers (G.P. Koirala, Sushil Koirala and Deuba), two Maoist Prime Ministers (Prachanda twice and Baburam Bhattarai), three UML Prime Ministers (Nepal, Khanal and Oli sworn in thrice) and a Chief Justice as caretaker Prime Minister in 2013. None has damaged the Constitution and the political fabric of Nepal as much as Mr. Oli, together with an obliging Ms. Bhandari. Opposition leaders have challenged the House dissolution in the Supreme Court but its outcome is uncertain. Meanwhile a raging COVID-19 puts a question mark on the election. In case an election is held, Mr. Oli will campaign on a nationalist anti-Indian platform.

It is clear that political uncertainty will continue. India has traditionally supported constitutionalism and multi-party democracy in Nepal. At this juncture, it needs to remain actively engaged with all the political actors, and equally importantly, avoid being perceived as partisan.

Rakesh Sood, a former diplomat who served as Ambassador to Nepal, is currently Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

The fundamental problem is the erosion of ‘trust’ and ‘trustworthiness’ between the States and the Centre

The 43rd meeting of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council is to be held on May 28. Representatives of 31 States and Union Territories are expected to attend. They belong to 16 different political parties. Of the 31 representatives, 17 members are from the ruling BJP or its alliance partners. Ideally, this nugget about political affiliations should not matter in a Council set up to decide indirect taxes. But in today’s India, ‘the economic is political’, to paraphrase the American saying.

States are dependent on GST collections for nearly half of their tax revenues. The GST Council was mandated to meet at least once every quarter, but it had not met for two quarters, ostensibly due to the pandemic. Several of the 14 members of the non-BJP group implored the Finance Minister to convene the GST meeting to help them manage their finances but none of the 17 members of the ruling group deemed it necessary. Even the need for a meeting to determine tax revenues for States is evidently a political decision.

Spirit of cooperative federalism

The representative from West Bengal will attend the meeting against the backdrop of the Centre using investigative agencies to selectively target and incarcerate some of the State’s ministers, soon after their election victory. The Kerala representative will attend the meeting in the knowledge that his predecessor complained bitterly about the Centre reneging on its promise to pay guaranteed GST compensation to the States. The Chhattisgarh representative will attend this meeting aware of how the Centre imposed sudden and stringent policy conditions to grant approval to States for extra borrowing in the middle of the pandemic last year. The Maharashtra minister will attend the meeting with a feeling of betrayal over how the States have been forced to pay a much higher price for COVID-19 vaccines than the Centre. The Punjab Finance Minister will be cognisant of how the Centre legislated new farm laws unilaterally that affected Punjab’s farmers deeply. The Rajasthan representative will be aware of how a sudden lockdown imposed by the Centre with no consultations with the States threw millions of Rajasthani migrant workers in disarray. The Tamil Nadu representative will be wary of the Centre’s duplicity in levying cesses that garner significant revenues for the Centre without sharing them with the States. The Delhi representative will be suspicious of the Centre’s motives after it stealthily passed legislation to strip the elected Delhi government of its governance powers. The list is endless. These are not acts in the spirit of ‘cooperative federalism’.

The catchy phrase ‘cooperative federalism’ was introduced into India’s political lexicon to justify the transition to GST in 2017. Sadly, like other catchy phrases such as ‘Minimum government, maximum governance’ and ‘Make in India’, this too has turned out to be hollow. Cooperative federalism has a larger meaning beyond just fiscal federalism. It also entails cooperative political, administrative and governance federalism between the States and the Centre.

The Trust Game

The GST Council is not an inanimate economic body. It is a compact of trust between the States and the Centre, set in the larger context of India’s polity. Behavioural economists, such as the Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, have articulated the critical role of the twin attributes of ‘trust’ and ‘trustworthiness’ among heterogeneous participants in an economy. Using a tool called ‘The Trust Game’, they have demonstrated that the motive of ‘altruism’ leads to the most optimal economic outcome for everyone in the group while a motive of ‘spite’ leads to the worst outcome for all. The tragedy of the GST Council is that it is afflicted with spite and forced to function under the prevailing cloud of vendetta politics.

The 17 members of the ruling dispensation and the 14 members of the non-BJP dispensation in the GST Council represent exactly one half of India’s population each. However, the non-BJP group contributes a higher share of 60% of overall GST revenues and accounts for 63% of the country’s GDP. With elections to another seven States due next year, these numbers could change dramatically again. If the functioning of the GST Council is subject to the vagaries of elections and consequent vendetta politics, GST will continue to be just a caricature of its initial promise.

The 15th Finance Commission report formally acknowledges that GST has been an economic failure that did not deliver on its early promises. GST, as postulated by technocrats, was supposed to be the panacea for India’s throttled economy to deliver enormous economic efficiency gains, improve tax buoyancy and collections, boost GDP growth and usher in greater formalisation of the economy. Three years after its launch and even before COVID-19, GST had failed on all those promises.

Problems underpinning GST

Economists and commentators point to the multiple rates structure, high tax slabs and the complexity of tax filings as the problems underpinning India’s GST. These were indeed the initial problems in the way GST was implemented, leading to some of its current woes. But now, GST has a more fundamental problem — the erosion of ‘trust’ and ‘trustworthiness’ between the States and the Centre. Technical fixes such as simplification of GST rates and tax filing systems to restore GST to its initial promise is akin to applying a pain balm to an injury that needs surgery.

The States paid a huge price for GST in terms of loss of fiscal autonomy. The promised economic gains are invisible, and India’s federalism has been ruptured. GST in today’s politically acerbic, hate-ridden and divided India is an unviable and unworkable proposition.

GST has endured so far primarily because the States were guaranteed a 14% growth in their tax revenues every year, which minimised their risks of this new experiment and compensated for their loss of fiscal sovereignty. This revenue guarantee ends in July 2022. This can lead to a crumbling of the precarious edifice on which GST stands today.

In a situation where the States have no taxation powers, their GST revenues are uncertain, the supposed economic benefits seem phantom, and the hypocrisy of ‘cooperative federalism’ looms large, what is the incentive for States to continue in a GST regime? When the Prime Minister can impose a draconian lockdown in a ham-fisted manner without consultation or play favourites with critical oxygen supplies during an emergency, there seems very little motivation for the States to cooperate in a chase for an elusive economic goal by sacrificing their significant economic powers of taxation.

Technocratic cheerleaders of GST failed to factor in India’s unique political economy and its ramifications. Striking a balance among diverse interests of India’s numerous parties in a larger political climate of spite and suspicion to arrive at a uniform tax policy for the nation is a near impossibility. Tamil Nadu’s new Finance Minister P.T.R. Thiagarajan and I had warned of these exact issues in an article in 2017 in this newspaper.

The tapestry of India’s GST was stitched on a fabric of implicit trust and painted with vibrant economic colours. The fabric is now torn and the colours have faded. The loose thread of guaranteed revenues that holds this together is about to snap. The end of India’s grand GST experiment seems inevitable unless there is a radical shift in the tone and tenor of India’s federal politics, backed by an extension of revenue guarantee for the States for another five years.

Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and Chairman of the Data Analytics department of the Congress party

Provincial politics resists Hindutva more strongly than Hindi belt caste politics, but there is nothing inevitable about it

The second victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Assam must be juxtaposed with its failure to win power in West Bengal in the recent Assembly elections to understand the varying potency of Hindutva in States beyond its heartland in the north and the west of India. In Assam, the BJP managed to subsume all identity politics, including Bodo and other tribal variants, and Assamese nationalism, under a Hindutva umbrella; in West Bengal, a surge of Bengali nationalism countered Hindutva paratroopers, cornering them as invading aliens.

Opportunistic engagement

Hindutva’s engagement with regional politics has been opportunistic, historically. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s politics in Gujarat had a strong dose of provincialism, situated adversarial to what he used to call ‘Delhi Sultanate’. The administrative state at the Centre was portrayed as alien to the nation by Hindutva then; now, its control taken over by Hindutva, the same apparatus is venerated as the sole custodian of the national interest.

The Hindu right has allied with all kinds of regional forces to weaken the Congress. This, despite the former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief M.S. Golwalkar’s vision of “one country, one legislature, one executive Centre running the administration throughout the country — an expression of one homogeneous solid nation in Bharat”. State autonomists had it good during the National Democratic Alliance regime led by A.B. Vajpayee — the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Telugu Desam Party, the National Conference, and Trinamool Congress (TMC) sat well with it at various points. A committee appointed by the Vajpayee government to review the working of the Constitution said strong States and a strong Centre could coexist. The Vajpayee government added more languages in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution; and oversaw the birth of the Bodoland Territorial Council in Assam.

Assembly election outcomes

In 2014, many observers wondered whether the Hindutva model in Gujarat could be replicated where caste, class and subnational politics were influential. Unlike many other parts of the country, in Gujarat, only one out of 10 people were Muslims; and caste and tribal grievances were overrun by a sedative mix of religious and provincial resentment and supremacism. As it turned out, the BJP under Mr. Modi swept the Hindi belt in 2014 and 2019. The party got more than 230 Lok Sabha seats from the northern and western States, against the halfway mark of 272. This is excluding the seats won by Shiv Sena, then a BJP ally.

Hindutva’s success in articulating the bonding and grievances of the collective in terms of religion rather than caste, language, tribe, class or gender appears successful in the Hindi belt. The absence of linguistic sub-nationalism has been an enabling factor. But Hindutva faces a more rigorous test elsewhere as the recent Assembly election outcomes among Assamese, Bengali, Tamil and Malayalam speakers who make up a third of India’s population suggest. It is not that these areas are impenetrable. In 2016, the BJP won Assam; and in 2018, Tripura. In 2019, the BJP crossed the 40% vote share in West Bengal. In 2021, it has become the principal Opposition in Bengal.

Turning point

When the BJP began to use its parliamentary majority won largely from the heartland States, to undermine State autonomy elsewhere, provincial elites sensed danger. The dismemberment of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019 caught many regional parties by surprise though many of them supported the move in Parliament. The TMC and DMK opposed. Within months, however, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra parted ways with the BJP. Provincialism could break the bonding of Hindutva. The Shiv Sena and the BJP had a long ideological partnership. Those who visualise Indian politics as a duel of secularism against Hindutva may not grasp this dynamic of Maharashtra’s ruling coalition, which is held together by two platforms of regional assertion, the Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party.

In West Bengal, the anti-incumbency against the two-term TMC government was unmistakable, this year. But, a considerable segment of those voters who said the TMC was corrupt and inefficient voted for it nevertheless because they loathed the BJP. As the BJP raised the pitch, more Bengalis turned against it, and late deciding voters largely turned in favour of the TMC. In Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the BJP was a factor, despite not being a contender for power. In Kerala, the United Democratic Front and the Left Democratic Front competed to convince the electorate on who fights the BJP better. Among other factors, the winning LDF scored better on this count. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK, which supported the BJP’s Kashmir policy, allied with it and paid a price for doing so.

The cultural elites of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal resist Hindutva, though Assam might be a different story. In its present form, Hindutva is incapable of negotiating with the claims of exceptionalism of these States. Friendly gestures of BJP leaders such as speaking in their languages and references to their myths and folklore, have often been counterproductive. In West Bengal, elite mobilisation against the BJP contributed to its defeat. In Assam and Bengal, the Muslims consolidated against the BJP. The determinant factor was Hindu consolidation in Assam, which did not happen in Bengal.

Slide of the Congress

The BJP’s growth in non-Hindi areas is happening at the cost of the Congress, Odisha and Telangana being examples. In West Bengal, it has replaced the Congress and the Left. Pan-Indian politics of other types are being replaced by Hindutva, while provincial politics remain strong. In fact, while the slide of the Congress continues, regional leaders who seceded from the mothership are thriving — Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra, Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh, and now Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Even K. Chandrashekhar Rao in Telangana can be counted as an ex-Congressman. Here again, Assam is an outlier — Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma decamped from the Congress to join the BJP rather than trying to build any regional politics.

Provincialism within the Congress cannot have the same potency as autonomous outfits. In Assam, the Congress tried to appropriate Assamese sentiments but failed. In Karnataka, former Congress Chief Minister Siddaramaiah sought to add Kannada pride as a component of the party’s politics. Tolerance of sub-nationalisms within an overarching Indian nationalism has been the familiar strategy of Congress politics for long. The BJP has appropriated that framework, with additional Hindutva characteristics. What makes Hindutva more effective is its conception of a pan-India enemy alongside a pan-India unifier, both defined in terms of religion.

If the West Bengal results, alongside the experiment of the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi, is proof that provincialism is a bulwark against Hindutva, the Assam result is proof that there is nothing inevitable about it. The BJP customised itself for Assam, carried out local recruitment and built a politics that has endured for two Lok Sabha and two Assembly elections. The BJP’s capacity to adapt to regional particularities, however, remains limited.

A cultural mapping project proposed in 2015 is now all but dead

The official boasting about India being a cultural powerhouse rapidly disintegrates when you examine facts. An online resource for arts and culture, Sahapedia, recently ran the budget numbers for the Ministry of Culture (MoC) and the figures are appalling. While allocations for culture have been marginal at best over the last decade, they have declined in the last five years, now standing at a mere 0.07% of the Budget. For 2021-22, the budget for the MoC is just Rs. 2,688 crore, with another Rs. 4 crore accruing from indirect allocations to other ministries. If one were to make a vulgar comparison, one Rafale jet costs Rs. 1,670 crore. So, the annual budget of the MoC — which runs three Akademis, 70-odd museums, three national galleries, several national libraries and archives, cultural institutions of the size of the National School of Drama and Kalakshetra, zonal cultural centres, and more — equals 1.5 Rafales.

When the pandemic struck last year, instead of helping beleaguered artists and artisans, the government slashed culture funding by a further 21%. Contrast this to countries like China, Singapore, Australia and the U.K., which increased allocations, besides announcing billion-dollar relief packages. Additionally, the government’s cultural institutions are plagued by vacancies (ranging from 30% to 70%) and lack of trained manpower. This means fund usage has invariably been random and ill-planned.

What mapping can do

This chaos was attributed, correctly, to the absence of a comprehensive cultural map that would chart geographies, artists, resources and institutions, find the gaps, and ensure optimal fund utilisation. Thus was born, in 2015, the National Mission on Cultural Mapping. But the Mission, created with an outlay of Rs. 3,000 crore, was not officially approved until 2017. In 2018-19 and 2019-20, only Rs. 42.78 crore was allocated, of which Rs. 1.17 crore has been utilised. The exercise was supposed to begin by identifying artists at the block level, but this was abandoned as there was no IT infrastructure, ironic when the government has an app for everything.

What can mapping do? At the least, it can create a database that anybody can plug into, thus becoming a resource for the media, researchers and funders. At its best, it can do so much more. It can, for instance, locate a derelict cinema and renovate it as an auditorium in a town where there are none, or create transport and tourism infrastructure around a declining crafts village. When the European Capitals of Culture programme picked Glasgow, the city was rife with crime and poverty. The programme built and renovated its cultural facilities, created a garden festival, and constructed a museum. Today, Glasgow has among the highest per capita culture budgets in Britain.

The mission document

The possibilities are endless. But what do we find when we study this project’s mission document? After a lot of platitudinous rambling, it finally states that it will identify, collect and record cultural assets and resources. It correlates this to planning and strategising. It mentions a portal and a database listing organisations, spaces, facilities, festivals and events. It also states that this database can be used to preserve culture and provide or ameliorate livelihoods.

But beyond this, it descends into la-la land. From a childish SWOT analysis to expecting arts to curb anti-social elements to roping artists into the Swachh Bharat and Namami Gange schemes, the plan loses its way inside a jungle of homilies and acronyms. There’s a Hamari Sanskriti Hamari Pahchan Abhiyan for “cultural awareness”, which suggests an ideological slant. There is a project with an indecipherable title — ‘Design for Desire and Dream’. There is hollow jargon such as “Create holistic thinking in artists to make them job creators rather than job seekers”. From pontification, it hops on to talent hunts, to digital literacy, to training online teachers. Why should a mapping exercise organise competitions or train teachers? Its job is merely to record and collate.

This might still be meaningless twaddle, but it becomes harmful when it proceeds to talk of using art to “preserve family values”; of quizzes and contests to “revive tribal traditions”; of a “grading process” for artists in which apparatchiks decide which artist is “good” or “not so good”. And, as always, this government displays its obsession with surveillance and control, proposing yet another Unique Identification Code for every artist/ institution, ostensibly to facilitate schemes.

Where does hand-holding stop and meddling begin? That’s the question the MoC must answer. A cultural map could be a vital tool in the bedlam that reigns the space, and the idea cannot be abandoned because many bureaucrats and ministers don’t understand its meaning or scope. Even this blueprint can help unravel the MoC’s budgetary challenges, provided its irrelevancies, absurdities and overreach are removed, and the focus kept on a deeper survey and understanding of the diversity of the cultural base, without caste, communal and regional hierarchies. To be a cultural leader, official India must look at its own face in a clearer mirror.


There is an urgent need to strengthen the public distribution system and the MGNREGS

Several States are under lockdown again. This will have severe implications for the livelihoods of those in the informal sector. There is adequate evidence that migrant workers and the rural poor have been facing great distress over the past one year and the crisis for food and work is only going to intensify further.

Hunger and distress

A few months ago, the Right to Food campaign and the Centre for Equity Studies published a ‘Hunger Watch’ report which compared the pre-lockdown situation last year to the situation in October 2020 to assess the impact of the nationwide lockdown. The survey involving 4,000 respondents across 11 States exposed the life and livelihood uncertainties of people belonging to low-income categories in the informal sector. In October 2020, 27% of the respondents said that they had no income; 40% respondents said that the nutritional quality of food had become “much worse”; and 46% of the respondents said they had to skip one meal at least once in the day in October 2020.

The migrants have again become vulnerable due to the lockdown in different cities. While many have once again headed to their villages, a large population has got stranded in different parts of the country without work. The Stranded Workers Action Network, a group of individuals helping distressed migrant workers since last year, has been reaching out to workers for providing essential help. According to them, 81% of the people whom they reached out to said that work had mostly stopped since April 15, 2021 and 76% of the workers said they are short of food and cash and require immediate support.

In this context, there is an urgent need to strengthen the public distribution system (PDS) and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The government announced 5 kg free foodgrains for individuals enlisted under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), for May and June 2021. The government should expand PDS coverage immediately and include all eligible households under the schemes. According to an independent study, about 100 million people are excluded from the ration distribution system owing to a dated database based on the 2011 Census.

The Centre should also extend the free foodgrains programme to a year instead of limiting it to two months. The economic crisis is likely to last for a long time. It is being reported that India procured record amounts of rice and wheat last year through mandis. The total procurement is way more than the current requirement for PDS. It is thus quite possible to expand the safety net of the NFSA.

Inadequate provisions

The Centre had allocated Rs. 73,000 crore for 2021-22 for MGNREGS and notified an annual increment of about 4% in wages. Both these provisions are inadequate to match the requirements on the ground. The central allocation for MGNREGS is about Rs. 38,500 crore less than last year’s revised estimate. Of the 7.56 crore households which worked in MGNREGS in 2020-21, even if 1 crore households opt out of the scheme this year, the Centre should still budget for 75-80 days of employment in the year for 6.5 crore families given the current scale of economic distress. By this rationale, at the current rate of Rs. 268/day/person, at least Rs. 1.3 lakh crore will have to be budgeted. The government should also re-consider its decision of a mere 4% increase in MGNREGS wages and hike it by at least 10%. This will mean another Rs. 10,000 crore. Therefore, at least Rs. 1.4 lakh crore will be required to ensure uninterrupted implementation during the year.

A large population is facing hunger and a cash crunch. The situation is only becoming more dire as the pandemic continues to rage on. Therefore, the Union government should prioritise food and work for all and start making policy reforms right away.

Debmalya Nandy is member of NREGA Sangharsh Morcha

Prioritising the vulnerable in COVID-19 vaccination for 18-plus group is essential

When supply is finite, it is a no-brainer that a burgeoning demand will not be met. Tailoring supply for optimal effect would then be the prudent way ahead, a strategy that the Centre would do well to employ in its COVID-19 vaccination programme. Though the ideal, distant at this stage, is to achieve vaccination of the entire population or enough to create herd immunity, supply considerations will necessarily mean prioritisation of groups for vaccination. While the vaccines have been shown to be effective in preventing death or severe disease by and large, the vaccine’s effect on interrupting or reducing transmission is also an important consideration in deployment. Studies have shown an inverse correlation between vaccinations and infections; a study in Tamil Nadu showed that the percentage of people over 60 years infected in the second wave had come down by 7%, even as the numbers in other age groups rose. This age segment was among the early priority groups for vaccination. With the government opening up vaccinations for all adults, it is imperative that some line list of priority be readied, on the basis of vulnerability and societal role.

Primary among them are people in the services sector — those whose jobs mandate interactions with multiple people. This would include those in banks, delivery agents, transportation staff, store workers, vendors, lawyers and journalists. As States begin free vaccinations for the 18-plus age group, it will be prudent to draw up a priority list even in the 18-44 age category, as Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have done, for instance. While Kerala seeks to prioritise those with co-morbidities, disabilities and 43 categories of field staff of various departments, Karnataka has included 18 categories of people in its priority list for the 18-plus age group — including bank workers, forest department staff and construction workers. Tamil Nadu has determined a broad list of categories including the disabled, vendors, e-commerce staff, pharmacy and grocery store staff, those in the transportation sector, and school and college teachers, besides mediapersons. The Centre, which has assumed asutradhar’srole in this entire pandemic, must draw up a list of priority categories that each State can then adapt to its local requirements. While lockdowns, in force in most States, will slow down the pace of transmission and give health-care resources a much-needed break, the way ahead is certainly vaccination — and prioritised vaccination. Once vaccine supply picks up, a more expansive first-come, first-served basis, as in the private sector now, can be adopted. Until then, it is the government’s bounden duty to ensure an equitable coverage among vulnerable groups of people who are most at risk, and carry a higher risk of transmission, because of the sheer number of people they interact with daily.

The Centre should recall the Lakshadweep Administrator and drop his ill-conceived plans

Lakshadweep, an archipelago of 36 islands totalling 32 square kilometres in the Arabian Sea, has had an idyllic existence as a Union Territory. But no longer, it seems, as the long arm of Delhi is rummaging around the islands these days. Praful K. Patel, a BJP politician from Gujarat, who arrived as Administrator in December, appears determined to upend the landscape and recast the lives of the islanders, around 70,000 of them, all according to his authoritarian imagination. The draft Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021 gives sweeping powers to the Administrator to take over land and forcibly relocate people, and proposes harsh punishment to those who resist. In other measures, proposed or implemented, the consumption or sale of beef, a part of the food habits of many, could be an offence punishable by seven years in prison; those who have more than two children cannot contest panchayat elections. Anyone could be held in prison without reason up to a year, under a new Goonda Act, in a place that has a very low crime rate. The traditional livelihood of fishing communities has been impeded by mindless regulations that deny them access to coastlines. Their sheds on the coastal areas have been demolished, saying they violated the Coast Guard Act. Dairy farms run by the administration have been shut.

Development, as it is coming, is not a promise, but a serious threat to the people of Lakshadweep and the fragile ecosystem. Mr. Patel is no stranger to controversies. In March, the Mumbai police named him as an accused in a case related to the death by suicide of seven-time Dadra and Nagar Haveli MP Mohan Delkar. Mr. Patel was named in the suicide note. He is the first politician to become the Administrator. In the last five months, he has demonstrated a unique disregard for the people’s concerns and priorities. In the absence of any administrative rationale or public good in these blatantly arbitrary measures, there are fears of other motivations. Commercial interests could be at play, and the land that inhabitants are forced to part with could be transferred to buyers from outside. There could also be ill-advised political plans to change the demography of the islands. People have risen in protest, but far from listening to them, the Administrator seems insistent on his plans. Rajya Sabha Members from Kerala, K.C. Venugopal of the Congress and Elamaram Kareem of the CPI(M) have in separate letters urged the President to recall the Administrator. The rationale for carving out Union Territories as an administrative unit is to protect the unique cultural and historical situations of their inhabitants. The Centre is inverting its responsibility to protect into a licence to interfere. It must recall the Administrator and reassure the islanders.

The compromise formula of using both the English and Hindi expressions for designations of Central Ministers has been put into effect although the leader of the D.M.K. Party in Parliament, Mr. K. Manoharan, continued to maintain that his party has not agreed to this. The Lok Sabha Secretariat has amended its earlier order through a “corrigendum” under which the English expression will be used for the Minister’s designations with their Hindi equivalents in Roman script within brackets. The D.M.K. leaders had expressed their reservations on this at the Opposition leaders’ conference yesterday but a fresh effort was made to-day [New Delhi, May 26] to make them agree to it. The Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, Mr. Om Mehta, called on the D.M.K. leader, Mr. K. Manoharan at the latter’s residence this morning for this purpose. He took with him the C.P.I. leader, Mr. Indrajit Gupta, who had made the proposal for simultaneous use of both the English and Hindi expressions at the Opposition leaders’ conference. M. Manoharan, however, expressed his inability to accept the compromise formula without consulting the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. He sent a letter to Mr. Karunanidhi through Mr. G. Viswanathan, M.P., who left for Madras this morning seeking his advice on the stand the party should take. The compromise formula, it is stated, also envisages the use of English version in Devanagiri script within brackets along with the Hindi version in the Hindi records of proceedings.

London, May 24: Prince Hirohito’s visit to Scotland concluded with the height of Highland hospitality. At a farewell banquet at Blair Athol Castle toasts to the King, Emperor of Japan and Prince Hirohito were drunk with Highland honours, the guests standing with one foot on the table. This so impressed the Japanese that the latter also stood on chairs and sang and banzaied. Subsequently a Highland dance was held in the ball-room, the Duke and Dutchess of Athol participating. The ball was terminated by the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” and “Will Ye Na Come Back Again”. It was after midnight when Hirohito’s party arrived at the station where further cordial farewells took place. Prince Hirohito told the Duke, “I will never forget my stay with you.”