Editorials - 31-05-2021

Though there is room for improvement, the archipelago does not need the measures announced by its administrator

Praful Khoda Patel, a former Gujarat Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Minister who took additional charge as Administrator, Lakshadweep, in December last year, is in the news for having introduced a slew of draft legislation that will have a wide-ranging impact on the islands: the Lakshadweep Animal Preservation Regulation, 2021; the Prevention of Anti-Social Activities Regulation (PASA); the Lakshadweep Panchayat Regulation, 2021 and Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation 2021. Addressing the media in the face of widespread criticism of these measures, Mr. Patel says he intends to develop Lakshadweep like neighbouring Maldives, “a renowned international tourist destination”.

Adding to this, the Collector of Lakshadweep, S. Asker Ali (a young IAS officer from Manipur) says, “It was only in 2017 that the Centre constituted the Island Development Agency under the Home Minister for the development of the islands. Since then, we have been working on developing town and country planning norms.”

The IDA framework

Mr. Ali should be aware that a specially constituted Island Development Authority (IDA) for the island territories of India, chaired by no less than the former Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had, in Kavaratti in 1988, approved a framework for the development of India’s island territories. It held the view that “an environmentally sound strategy for both island groups hinges on better exploitation of marine resources coupled with much greater care in the use of land resources”. Published in 1989, the report carried six recommendations for Lakshadweep (Cecil J. Saldanha,Andaman, Nicobar and Lakshadweep: An Environmental Impact Assessment) . At this point, I must highlight that Lakshadweep was an assignment that I consider to be the most enriching in my career — I was Administrator, Lakshadweep, 1987-90.

Upon the conclusion of my term, the Union Territory had its own decentralised political entity from the adoption of panchayati raj much before the constitutional amendments of 1993, in which the Island Development Council, at the apex of the local government, was mandated to advise the Administrator on development; its own airport, and a flourishing tourist industry, with an international tourist resort in Bangaram. According to its first franchisee, Jose Dominic, this facilitated ecotourism in Kerala.

A paradise set in the Arabian Sea, the archipelago of Lakshadweep also gives India a vast and exclusive economic zone with three distinct ecosystems: land, lagoon and ocean. Fishery is a primary occupation here. The language, except in Minicoy, is Malayalam; in Minicoy, Mahl is spoken, a language akin to the 17th century Divehi of the Maldives.

The society in all islands is matriarchal. The religion is Islam of the pristine Shafi school of law. When Islam came to the islands is debated. According to Prof. Lotika Varadarajan, “The thesis... that Islam was introduced not from Malabar but from Yemen and Hadramaut may be accepted in relation to the Maldives but not Lakshadweep... On the other hand, social conventions, dress and the position accorded to Thangals within the community all point to the Mappilas of Malabar as progenitors of present-day Islam in Lakshadweep.”

Vatteluttu was the earliest script used with its heavy Sanskrit component and this system of autography is in evidence in the sailing manuals of local pilots (malmis), on inscriptions on tombstones and those in some mosques/pallis. With the introduction of Islam, Arabi-Malayalam, with Malayalam in Arabic script and associated with the literature of the Mappilas that developed on the mainland, also came into use on the islands.

I was a part of the team accompanying Rajiv Gandhi while on his first visit to Lakshadweep in 1985. Together with his visit to the Andaman and Nicobar islands, Rajiv Gandhi was concerned about the development agenda for these ecologically fragile territories — an agenda hitherto dictated by a faraway government to a design set by the Union Planning Commission, and without so much as a reference to the people most concerned, the residents of the islands.

A ‘no’ to the Maldives model

Deliberations of the IDA wanted that Lakshadweep, with its land ownership constitutionally protected, be opened to international tourism not as a means of generating wealth for investors from the mainland but to bring prosperity to the islanders. Specifically rejecting the Maldives model, the plan for Lakshadweep required that the industry had to be people-centric and enrich the fragile coral ecology. Lakshadweep today has rainwater harvesting facilities, first introduced in government buildings on every island and now accessible in every home. Solar power, which covers 10% of lighting needs, makes Lakshadweep a pioneer in India’s present flagship initiative. All islands have been connected by helicopter service since 1986, and high-speed passenger boats were purchased in the 1990s by an international tender. A study by the National Instituteof Oceanography found practical applications, helping a redesign of the tripods reinforcing the beaches against sea erosion, and ensuring piped water supply especially designed to draw from the fresh water lens that, in every coral island, floats on the saline underground seawater at the core of every coral island, so as not to disturb the slim lens.

The islands boast total literacy. Minicoy had among the country’s first Navodaya Vidyalayas. Kadmat has a degree college that was designed by K.T. Ravindran, an authority on vernacular building traditions, who was to become dean and professor and head of the department of urban design at New Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture. Vernacular building traditions are the theme of all government housing projects undertaken in the islands in the 1980s, with leading architects providing the designs. Kavaratti has a desalination wind-powered plant gifted by the Danish government. And although the poverty line in terms of GDP is only slightly higher than the World Bank’s poverty threshold, Lakshadweep today has no poor people; they have a high calorific consumption from plentiful foods harvested from the lagoons and islands.

The office of the Administrator, Lakshadweep was also among the first in India to be computerised with a mainframe and fax machine; every island in Lakshadweep had a computer by 1990. Endorsed with outlays by the Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Finance Commissions (1984-2005), this established, in the words of the last of these Commissions “speedy and accurate generation of accounting information that might be needed for purposes of better planning, budgeting and monitoring”.

Admittedly, there is much room for improvement. Today, long lines and refrigeration have aided the expansion of the fishing sector but income disparities have grown. Indiscriminate trawling endangers the coral, as experienced in the Maldives and now banned there. The Government recognises the need to develop policies for enhancing employment opportunities, environment-friendly management of fisheries, sanitation, waste disposal and widening access to drinking water, with the youth, having acquired a modern education, preferring salaried jobs over pursuing traditional occupations. None of this requires any of the measures announced by Administrator Patel.

Revenue from tourism has declined with the closure of resorts (including at Bangaram) from litigation. A clear policy must include conservation and natural resource management arrived at after wide consultation, eminently possible within the existing infrastructure of the Union Territory, and also taking into account climatic compulsions. Maldives is hardly a suitable model. Water bungalows — an expensive concept and also hazardous to the coral — favoured by the NITI Aayog, would collapse in Lakshadweep’s turbulent monsoon. It should be noted that a wooden jetty installed at the diving school in Kadmat needs to be dismantled every monsoon.

Obtuse plans

But, ostensibly, in the pursuit of ‘holistic development’, using the ‘claim’ that there has been no development in Lakshadweep for the past 70 years, Mr. Praful Patel has proposed a cow slaughter ban in a territory where there are no cows (except in government-owned dairy farms), a preventive detention law where there is no crime, and also steps to undermine tribal land ownership, with judicial remedy denied, with also plans for road widening on the islands where the maximum road length is 11 km. More insidious is the provision to allow the mining and exploitation of mineral resources which could convert the islands into a hub for cement manufacture.

Other initiatives by Mr. Praful Patel include panchayat rules designed to restrict the population growth in a territory where, according to the National Health and Family Survey-5 (2019-20), the total fertility rate is 1.4 (which is far behind the national average of 2.2) and relaxing prohibition, extant in the Union Territory because of public demand. Worse still is the relaxation of quarantine restrictions for travel which have introduced the novel coronavirus into a pandemic-free archipelago. The developments only lead one to suspect that there is something sinister being planned. Is the game plan to altogether supplant Lakshadweep’s human habitation with cement factories?

Wajahat Habibullah, a former IAS officer, was India’s first Chief Information Commissioner, and thereafter Chair, National Commission for Minorities

What we need is the mass production of vaccines in order to inoculate the global population

India has been witnessing an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases, largely due to the new variants. The variant found initially in the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7) was found in parts of north India earlier this year and began to spread across the country. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared the variant first found in India (B.1.617) as a variant of global concern as it has already spread to more than 40 countries. This underscores the fact that no one is safe until everyone is safe. It calls for globally coordinated efforts to build herd immunity through mass vaccination and to develop new vaccines or tweak the existing ones to become effective against the new variants. Experts have been doubtful about the effectiveness of some of the COVID-19 vaccines against the new variants of the virus.

Vaccine nationalism

An immediate outcome of the second wave in India is that many people are no longer hesitant to take the vaccine. However, vaccine shortages have been reported in many parts of the country. Several people have criticised the government’s Vaccine Maitri policy. The government has already imposed temporary restrictions on the export of COVID-19 vaccines from India. Although there is a need for these temporary restrictions to meet domestic demand, any definite move towards vaccine nationalism will be detrimental to global efforts to contain the virus. The pandemic needs to be checked globally in a coordinated manner. If this is not done, the virus will keep mutating and no country will remain isolated.

From May 1, all those aged 18 and above became eligible in India to receive the COVID-19 vaccines. This means that 595 million people who require 1,190 million doses were added to the 344 million people in the 45 and above age group requiring 688 million doses. Inoculating this huge population calls for massive production capacities. Only a little over 12% of the population has received one dose and 3.2% has received both the doses in India so far.

The current production capacity of Covishield and Covaxin is just over 70 million doses per month. The government has allocated Rs. 45 billion as an advance commitment to Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech for enhancing their production capacity. By June-July, in the best-case scenario, the combined production capacity of the two companies is expected to rise to 158 million doses per month. The 50 million imported Sputnik doses will add to this. This vaccine will be available only in major private hospitals for now. It is reported that the Sputnik vaccine will be produced in India from July with an annual capacity of 156 million doses, which, according to the Russian Ambassador to India, will be gradually increased to 850 million doses. Even if all the three vaccines are exclusively used for domestic supply, the anticipated production in the near future will not be sufficient to meet the enormous vaccine demand.

Pharmacy of the world

Being the pharmacy of the world, India needs to rise to the occasion and cater to the demand for vaccines in the country as well as facilitate inoculation of the global population, especially in poorer countries. In the first week of May, the Indian Council of Medical Research said it was willing to share the know-how to produce Covaxin with any company interested in production. Allowing multiple producers will lead to more competition and a reduction in prices. The government can easily task the public sector vaccine manufacturers with the production of Covaxin by providing support to them. In its attempt to enhance the production of Covaxin from 12.5 million doses to 58 million doses a month, the Government of India has involved three public sector enterprises — Haffkine Biopharmaceutical Corporation, Bharat Immunologicals and Biologicals Corporation Limited, and Indian Immunologicals Limited.

While raising an alarm on the spread of infectious diseases, a 2020 report of the WHO on the urgent health challenges for the next decade expressed concern on the lack of access to medical products, including medicines and vaccines. As infectious diseases are expected to increase in the coming years, India needs to frame a long-term strategy to enhance supply at the domestic and international level. Public sector enterprises should be an integral part of that strategy. Unfortunately, the Public Sector Enterprise Policy, released in February, has not identified public sector enterprises in the pharmaceuticals sector as strategically important, and therefore, all central public sector enterprises will subsequently be privatised.

What we need now is the mass production of COVID-19 vaccines for the mass vaccination of the global population in order for us to develop herd immunity against the virus. India still has options left for scaling up production. The National Health Profile 2019, published by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, shows that India has an installed capacity of 8,151.7 million doses of vaccines annually, in the private and public sectors. A few of these facilities can be re-purposed for the production of COVID-19 vaccines.

International co-operation

Scaling up production of existing vaccines and producing new vaccines is not easy. Unavailability of raw materials, complexities in the transfer of technology, and intellectual property barriers all hinder production. Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech have faced constraints in continuing production due to the lack of raw materials.

Intellectual property rights act as a major barrier in scaling up production. About 1,800 patents cover the single-use plastic reactors which are used in the production of some of the COVID-19 vaccines. Similarly, other equipment and materials used in the production of vaccines are patent-protected and therefore supplied by only a few players. India and South Africa had led an initiative at the World Trade Organization (WTO) for the waiver of intellectual property rights over products required for treating COVID-19. Recently, after coming under pressure, the U.S. extended support to this proposal covering only vaccines. However, Germany said it is opposed to it. Therefore, it is unclear how this IP waiver proposal will help enhance the global production of vaccines. Besides, the U.S. support, which is limited to vaccines, may also limit the benefits deriving from the intellectual property waiver, if the proposal comes through the WTO.

An article published inNaturepoints out the benefits of mRNA vaccine technology compared to conventional vaccine technologies. The key advantage of this technology is easy scalability in production. At present, the WHO has approved two mRNA COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna, and those vaccines have proven to be more effective than other vaccines. Global cooperation is needed to create an environment where those companies interested in producing the mRNA vaccines get open licence from the innovators.

Global cooperation is also required for the sequencing of the viral genome to track and control the multiple variants. Only if we tame the virus together and quickly will the world benefit both in terms of health and economy.

Reji Joseph is an Associate Professor at Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, New Delhi; Thankom Arun is a Professor of Global Development and Accountability at the University of Essex, U.K. Views are personal

The Tarun Tejpal case judgment must not be allowed to become a precedent in derailing the workplace safety of women

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Goa has rightly filed an appeal in the High Court against the judgment of the Additional Sessions Judge acquitting a former editor of a news magazine, Tarun Tejpal, of charges of the rape of an employee in November 2013. He was tried under sections introduced into the law after the Nirbhaya case, including one denoting that he was in a position of power, authority and trust over the young woman concerned.

We should not let ourselves be distracted either by the argument that this is a case of “ political vendetta” since Mr. Tejpal was known as a BJP critic or by the utter hypocrisy of the BJP when it comes to its double standards in dealing with cases of rape.

The survivor’s battle

The young woman survivor is no pawn of those who may have political motives. Throughout these years she has fought a very tough battle.

In the 527-page judgment (https://bit.ly/3p5Ag6I), in spite of all the efforts to suppress it, it is her voice we hear, a voice which speaks with honesty and courage, a voice of a young woman conflicted and torn — sexually assaulted by a man, her boss whom she considered a father figure, the father in fact of her very close friend; confused as to what her course of action should be since so many relationships were at stake; angry, sad, and yet trying to act “ normally” to fulfil her responsibilities at work — a voice which perhaps unintentionally also reveals the horrendous nature of the sexualisation of women made possible at a workplace by not just the accused boss but by women too in positions of authority and the normalisation of such a process by them.

The judgment transforms the accused into the victim and it is the young woman who becomes the accused. It says “(Prosecutrix) neither demonstrates any kind of normative behaviour on her own part – that as a prosecutrix of sexual assault might plausibly show” (p.457).

This pushes us back to 1979 when a rape survivor had to prove through physical marks on her body that she had not consented. In this 2021 judgment, in a similar approach, since the survivor did not fit into the court’s preconceived ideas of a rape survivor’s behaviour, she is considered a liar. It would appear that four decades of women’s struggles which forced changes in law, in case law, and in approaches to victims of rape, have no relevance for this judgment.

Case law gives weightage to the statement of a victim of rape with the proviso of it being “credible and sterling”. The judgment gives a new and dangerous interpretation to this. It poses the question, “who is a sterling witness?” And then accepts every highly objectionable charge of the defence to prove the witness (prosecutrix) is not “sterling”.

Violation of laws, of privacy

To this end, in total violation of various laws, the full personal details of the survivor, her name and that of her family, her WhatsApp messages, her personal mails, her photographs and her relationships are laid out bare in the judgment in the most ferocious aggression on her right to privacy and which have no relevance to the charge of rape. In sharp contrast, there is a blanket of protection given by the court to the accused. Not a mention of his back story. Even his telling WhatsApp message referring to “fingertips”, a clear reference of what he had done to the survivor, is brushed aside.

She on the other hand is subjected to a barbaric and cruel cross-examination recorded in the judgment on intimate details of her life and her friendships. Even while upholding the objections of the prosecution on some issues under Section 53A in the Indian Evidence Act, which rules out reference to past sexual history, the judgment defends this stating “some of the messages shown were not for purpose of proving immoral character or consent but to prove suppressing of relevant facts by the prosecutrix”. This is nothing but a licence for the character assassin’s knife.

The most telling evidence against the accused is his own “personal apology”, the draft of an “official apology” and the conversations recorded by the survivor with the senior woman officer negotiating on behalf of the accused clearly showing that there was no ulterior motive behind the complaint. The judgment records the accused as stating in his apology, “Yes, you did say at one point that I was your boss and I did reply ‘that makes it easier’... again ‘I had no idea that I had been even remotely non-consensual’ and then ‘anything furtive with my daughter’s best friend’”, are words that match what the survivor had said in her accusation — that she asked him to stop but he continued.

Sympathy towards accused

But in an extraordinary and unprecedented interpretation, the judgment holds that the apology and the statements made by the accused were “not sent voluntarily but that it was due... to the pressure and intimidation by prosecutrix to act swiftly and also the inducement that the matter would be closed.” In this way, the boss accused of rape is converted into a victim by “manipulation and calculating nature” of the prosecutrix and his statement is taken as being “not voluntary and against his wishes”. The sympathy towards the accused leaps out in paragraph after paragraph of the judgment. Sample this: “Accused was absolutely repulsed with the accusation made by the prosecutrix”; “accused asserted his claim that it was only drunken banter”; “accused consistently claiming to be a bunch of lies”, In contrast, the comment against the survivor: “she twists and manipulates the truth”.

Every witness who gave evidence that the survivor shared her traumatic experience with them within hours of the incident — proving that it was no afterthought — is brushed aside on grounds that they are her friends, and therefore biased while the statements of the accused’s own sister and another female colleague known to be close to him, are accepted as being true.

Even the right of a survivor to approach activists and lawyers for their help — the most natural course of action for any rape survivor — is criminalised in this judgment. Senior members of the Bar such as Indira Jaisingh are put in the dock as probable advisers for “doctoring” and also “of adding to incidents”.

The judge in this case was a woman which once again underlines that it is not biology but ideology which determines one’s view of social reality. This judgment will find its place in history as an example of the worst kind of victim blaming and shaming to benefit the accused, a man old enough to be her father, powerful as her boss. The sooner it is overturned the better. Otherwise if this becomes the precedent, no working woman will dare to speak out against sexual abuse and violence at the workplace.

Brinda Karat is a member of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and a former Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament

The newspaper cannot follow the norms set by social media in reporting child sexual abuse

I have been critical of whataboutery for both ethical and practical reasons. Ethically, it creates a false hierarchy among the issues confronting us and arranges them in neat political silos. Practically, it diverts our attention from the pressing issue. When I get complaints from the readers of this newspaper, I tend to use accepted journalistic yardsticks to evaluate them and hardly indulge in the comparison of differing standards between news organisations.

Best practices in journalism

I draw from documented best practices for journalism. While many scholars believe that the history of modern journalism begins with the anti-colonial struggle in the United States in the mid-18th century, the finer nuances emerged in the first half of the 20th century. We can distil these principles into five actionable points to understand what constitute the best practices in journalism. They are: 1) differentiate facts from conjecture and opinion, 2) maintain a standard of accuracy, 3) do not easily resort to anonymous sources, 4) do not promote hate and bigotry, and 5) defer to the rule of law, including those dealing with privacy.

Early this week, Chennai was rocked by allegations of sexual misconduct by a teacher in a reputed school. Social media platforms carried all sorts of information. Most of them were violative of the guidelines spelt out in two important laws: the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 (the POCSO Act) and the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2015 (the JJ Act). Some readers expected this newspaper to follow the norms set by social media.

A report on May 25, “Teacher accused of sexual misconduct suspended”, was seen by this section of readers as incomplete reporting as it did not name the school in which the said offence took place. S. Kathiresan, a reader from Saligramam in Chennai, wrote: “The Hinduhas published the name of the accused teacher but not the name of the school. Why are you protecting the school?” I received a number of letters and direct messages on my Twitter account about the failure of the newspaper in naming the school.

The report that the newspaper published was in compliance with the POCSO Act, which clearly states that any form of reporting that may result in identifying the survivor would violate the privacy of the individual. People who express themselves on social media platforms are not necessarily familiar with the laws that govern the reporting of sexual violence against children. It is true that with the proliferation of social media platforms, many rules are broken. At times, even the survivors have been named. But this is a clear violation of the prescribed law.

Pointing out lacunae in the law

At the same time, the newspaper has pointed out the lacunae in the POCSO Act. While reporting within the legal framework is a primary requisite, it is also important to flag the loopholes in the governing law. The newspaper carried a comment article by lawyer Manuraj Shunmugasundaram titled “Expanding the scope of POCSO” (May 25). He argued that necessary changes should be made in the law to account for the reporting of historical child sexual abuse.

The newspaper has been looking at this law closely. For instance, when a single bench of the Madras High Court allowed a petition seeking to quash a case of kidnap in March, a lecturer, Shraddha Chaudhary, wrote a comment article titled “The limits of POCSO” (March 16, 2021). She dealt with the more sensitive area of adolescent sexuality. In her earlier article, “Putting victims on trial” (July 16, 2020), she documented the deeply entrenched patriarchal biases in our justice system.

Like society, journalism too does not condone child sexual violence. But the reporting on this particularly distressing story has to navigate a binding legal regime. For instance, when complaints started emerging against various schools in the city, the newspaper stuck to the legally sanctioned method of reporting. Its report on May 30, “Schools mull child protection measures”, also refrained from naming the other schools which are in the investigative dragnet.

Not naming the schools that failed to protect the students from predatory behaviour does not mean that the newspaper is not worried about accountability and the necessary follow-up action. It has been reporting the police investigation and the observations of the School Education Minister extensively.


Any regime which demonises critical voices against it does great disservice to the idea of politics

From the first COVID-19 wave to the second, certain things have remained predictably consistent in India. First, the governments at the Centre and in different States have displayed their incapacities. Second, the party in power has constantly asked everyone to ‘refrain from playing politics’ while we are in the midst of a pandemic. While this sounds good in the first instance, repeated requests to ‘refrain from playing politics’ nudges us to examine the reasons behind such posturing.

Meaning of politics

And that takes us to the question, what is politics all about? Unlike the popular myth, politics is not only about what happens in Assemblies and Parliament. It should also not to be perceived as a dirty word signifying the lust for power or the route to meeting personal ambitions. An important element of politics is government formation, but more significant in a democratic set up is to keep creating avenues for civic engagement. It is through such avenues that informed citizens are able to fulfil their duty as well as right to question the very government they elected. Successful government formation or peaceful transition of power from one political outfit to another is not the end of politics. Vigilant citizens should be able speak directly on a platform or through an association or the existing Opposition about their concerns. During an unprecedented crisis such as the one we are facing now, sharing fears, trauma and anxieties through a medium also occupies a space in the approved hamper of politics and political activities. Any government which begins denigrating or demonising such critical voices against it is actually doing a great disservice to the very idea of politics. It forgets that it is the electors who occupy the central rostrum in a democracy and not the elected.

History has taught us that whenever regimes have felt that they are no longer in control of the mess they created, their first approach is to shift the goalposts. Thus, ‘please don’t play politics’ is the only weapon in their hands. In the last eight weeks, an overwhelming number of people have needed hospital beds, oxygen support or basic life-saving drugs, but only thousands have been lucky to have them. Thousands of families have lost their loved ones due to the unavailability of a live-saving instrument or drug. They have suffered the agony of being unable to attend burials or cremations of their near and dear ones. Hundreds of bodies have been found floating in different river streams in north India.

Dismissing concerns

Members of the Opposition, civil society groups and hundreds of doctors and healthcare professionals flagged concerns about the huge lacunae in health infrastructure much before the second wave began. Their concerns were ridiculed and dismissed. A government which was not able to deal with its own inferiority complex was quick to parade ministers and spokespersons to label all those voices as ‘political’. The regime must remember that pain and grief are two enduring emotions. The mismanagement of the pandemic has resulted in lakhs of grieving families in India. Though important, routine press conferences informing people that the recovery rate is high or that the positivity rate is going down are no soothing balm to the families who have lost their loved ones not just to the virus but to the lack of facilities which could have saved them. When grieving families are interviewed, they don’t blame the virus for their irreparable loss but the apathy and callousness of the government.

The French sociologist Alain Touraine once said that the political class is becoming increasingly alien to the people. This is true of the government of the day. Our constitutional arrangement is such that the government is accountable to the people. The government’s disdain for people raising critical issues about the mismanagement of the crisis makes it clear that the leader of the regime does not think of “We the people...” but instead thinks, “I am the people”.

Manoj Kumar Jha is Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha)

The Centre and the West Bengal government must negotiate their relations in good faith

The conflicting versions of the BJP and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee regarding a meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday to review the situation after Cyclone Yaas cannot be glossed over as miscommunication. BJP leaders, including Union Ministers, went to great lengths to show Ms. Banerjee in a bad light over the meeting. They said she made the PM wait for 30 minutes at Kalaikunda in Paschim Medinipur district in south Bengal; and once she arrived, she handed over certain papers and left without attending the meeting. Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar accused the CM publicly of being confrontational. In an unprecedented act, the Centre unilaterally placed the West Bengal Chief Secretary under central deputation. Considering the fact that no concurrence of the official in question or the State government was sought, this can be seen only as a vindictive move. Ms. Banerjee has said that she had sought the PM’s permission before going about her schedule to oversee relief operations in other parts of the State. While offering to even touch the PM’s feet if that was required to secure the support of the Centre for the State’s welfare, she has questioned the BJP version and pleaded that the CS be allowed to stay in the post. Ms. Banerjee said she was delayed for the meeting with the PM only because of air traffic regulations for the landing of the PM’s aircraft.

That there is such acrimony between the State and the Centre at a time when both must be working hand in hand is extremely disheartening for the people of West Bengal. But there can be no equal apportioning of blame in this. By calling Mr. Dhankhar and Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari to the meeting, the Centre had already betrayed its plans to belittle the CM, who has won a resounding third term recently by trouncing the BJP. In Odisha on the same day, and in Gujarat earlier, the PM reviewed the situation with the CMs, and not Opposition leaders. It is apparent that the BJP has not been able to stomach the popular verdict in Bengal. The defeat could have been an occasion for the BJP to introspect and mend its strategy for West Bengal. Far from it, the Centre unleashed the CBI against the newly elected Trinamool Congress Ministers. Mr. Adhikari, the PM’s interlocutor on Friday, remains untouched by the CBI though he is an accused in the same case. Now, by dragging a senior IAS officer who has just been cleared for a three month extension after retirement on May 31, into a nasty political tussle, the Centre has crossed yet another red line. The BJP must wake up to the tradition of Centre and States constantly negotiating their relations in good faith. It must also get used to the reality of losing elections in a democracy.

The GST Council leaves weightier issues hanging fire; sets stage for more acrimony

The GST Council, which met last Friday, could not live up to the expectations of some meaningful relief from the disastrous second wave of the pandemic. The measures unveiled were insipid, be it for the common man hoping to survive while keeping fingers crossed for a vaccination slot or a hospital bed, or businesses hurting from lockdowns, and States grappling with a cash crunch amid a scramble to purchase vaccines. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced an elaborate amnesty scheme for small firms pending GST returns, lowered the interest levied on late payments for recent months, and extended several compliance timelines. But there is little respite for businesses with turnover of over Rs. 5 crore, and industry is underwhelmed. No discussion occurred on bringing fuels under GST, despite the Centre’s noises to that effect amid runaway petrol prices. Taxes on COVID essentials remain unchanged, despite States and industry pressing for waivers. Ms. Sitharaman said the subject dominated deliberations but ‘varying viewpoints’ compelled her to let a Group of Ministers pore over possibilities of rate cuts. The GoM has to report back by June 8, but the Council, constitutionally empowered to recommend special rates during a disaster, would still have to concur. Thus, no immediate relief can be expected.

Opposition States allege that NDA-ruled States’ representatives in the Council vociferously opposed waiving the GST on COVID vaccines and drugs. Tax mavens have mooted ways to implement such cuts, so it is unfortunate that the Centre, usually so conscious of optics, came to the table with little to offer. GST breaks offered on free COVID-related imports from abroad for donation to State-approved entities, were extended to material imported on a payment basis as well. It is not clear why this had to wait for the Council — BJP-ruled Gujarat and Haryana have already offered GST refunds on such imports. A Rs. 1.58-lakh crore borrowing plan may quell States’ concerns about immediate compensation dues, but larger schisms are apparent that could fray the Council’s functioning further after recent acrimonious parleys. Sikkim, for instance, has demanded that it be allowed to levy its own cess to cope with falling revenues, a demand that has been backed by others, including Tamil Nadu and Arunachal Pradesh. This could virtually derail the very edifice of GST subsuming all local levies, even as States now want to be recompensed beyond next year. The Centre, facing flak for its handling of the second wave, could do with a more responsive approach. Winning an intellectual or ideological battle over taxes on COVID essentials is meaningless at this precarious time, when each day’s delay in providing relief hurts thousands. Small gestures with limited revenue implications would give the Centre more room to strike common ground with States on the challenges that loom over the GST regime.

The Puritans according to Macaulay condemned bull-baiting not because it gave pain to the bull but because it gave pleasure to the spectator. Mrs. Besant apparently shares this mental characteristic for her main reason for urging the repeal of the Press Act is not that papers are unjustly harassed but that it proves ineffective against offenders like Mr. Gandhi. The following passage from her memorandum, quoted by the Simla correspondent of theTimes of India,will enable our readers to form a clearer conception of the nature of Mrs. Besant’s fight for freedom of speech and writing. “Repeal of the Press Act is expedient just now, partly as a reasonable concession to Indian sentiment and partly because the law is now inoperative against big offenders, while it is still used against little known publicists who inflame but a small circle. The discrimination shown in the second case has become a public scandal. Mr. Gandhi inYoung Indiais allowed every week to excite hatred and contempt against Government in language compared with which criticisms of Government which have ruined many papers are harmless; he is even allowed to approach perilously near to high treason by saying that he would ‘in a sense’ assist an Afghan invasion of India.”

The Union Planning Minister, Mr. C. Subramaniam, and the Telangana Praja Samithi leader, Dr. M. Chenna Reddy, discussed for an hour this morning [New Delhi, May 30] the proposals for a settlement of the Telangana problem. Dr. Reddy met the Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, yesterday and it was decided then that he should meet Mr. Subramaniam today. Neither Dr. Reddy nor Mr. Subramaniam would, at the end of the talks, indicate either the contents of the proposals or the progress they have made. Dr. Reddy will resume his dialogue with Mr. Subramaniam to-morrow. Any further meeting with the Prime Minister would depend on the outcome of that dialogue.

Our correspondent writes from Hyderabad: Mr. D. Sanjivayya, Ruling Congress President, arrived in Hyderabad to-day from New Delhi on a four-day visit to Andhra Pradesh. When pressmen referred to the talks being held at New Delhi by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, and Mr. C. Subramaniam with Dr. Chenna Reddy, Mr. Sanjivayya said, “Let us hope some solution to the Telangana problem will emerge from these talks.”