India’s daily new COVID-19 cases have crossed the 8,000-mark for the first time after more than 100 days. However, the cases (moderate to severe) and COVID-19 related hospital admissions continue to be low. The spike in infections has raised some worries about the start of the fourth national COVID-19 wave in India. Epidemiologically speaking, an immediate major national wave in India is improbable. Part of the reason is that the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant is the only globally circulating variant of concern, as of now. The Omicron sub-lineage BA.2, which caused the third national wave in India, continues to be the dominant variant in the country. Though two new Omicron sub-lineages, BA.4 and BA.5, have been detected globally and reported from India as well, their share is minuscule. Finally, there is no evidence that the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-lineages can cause a major nationwide surge in settings already exposed to BA.2 sub-lineage. Clearly, while the concerns about another national wave are unfounded, the ongoing surge demands for a fresh approach to the COVID-19 pandemic response in India.
Then, a key question is if there is no new variant of concern, why this spike in COVID-19 cases? The answer lies in an age-old concept of epidemiology which explains ‘why’ and ‘how’ a disease spreads in any setting: the ‘epidemiological triad’ of agent, host and environment. Spread of a disease is an outcome of a complex interaction of the agent (or pathogen, in this case SARS-CoV-2 and its variants), host (humans and their immune-biological characteristics) and environment (social and behavioral factors).
In the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic in India, since the third wave in January 2022, with minor variations in sub-lineage, the agent (Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2) has remained largely unchanged. As far as host factors are concerned, immunologically speaking, though antibody levels wane with time and susceptibility to infection increases, declining immunity alone cannot be attributed to rising infection as neither a past infection nor COVID-19 vaccination protect from subsequent infection.
Rather, in spite of an increase in the daily new COVID-19 infections, the low rate of severe disease and hospitalisation shows that our immunity against SARS-CoV-2 is holding up. This brings the third component of the triad, i.e., environment or external factors, at the centre stage. Here, SARS-CoV-2 is very much around, in all settings, as it was for the last many months; and, it is unlikely to go away. However, there is increased travel now, economic activities are back to or even higher than their pre-pandemic level, there are regular social gatherings, and also noticeable lower adherence to face masks wearing in crowded places. Clearly, more than the agent and the host, environmental factors are driving the spike.
However, as SARS-CoV-2 is likely to be around, and as infectious diseases experts and especially those who have studied respiratory viruses would argue, localised COVID-19 case spikes are going to be a reality in many settings and for many months (and possibly years) to follow.
From an epidemiological point of view, the COVID-19 infections in India are not a public health concern any more. The reason is that June 2022 is completely different from March 2020. Back then, SARS-CoV-2 was a new virus; no one had immunity against this virus, and everyone was equally susceptible. There was no vaccine available and the risk of adverse outcomes after SARS-CoV-2 infection by age and other attributes, was unknown and unpredictable. It was clearly a public health challenge.
Nearly 27 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, most people have developed immunity either after natural infection (during three national waves) or through vaccination (nearly 97% of the adult population has received at least one shot while 88% has had two shots of COVID-19 vaccines). There is better scientific understanding of who is at higher risk of severe outcomes (everyone in the 60 years plus group and any age group with co-morbidities or weakened immunity), and the risks are known and largely predictable. Arguably, COVID-19 is less of a public health issue and more of an individual health issue.
A dynamic response strategy
Yet, a rise in daily new cases should not be ignored. However, continuing the five-pronged ‘test, track, treat, vaccinate and COVID-appropriate behaviour’ approach is not the best strategy for India any more and needs to be thoroughly revisited.
First, urgently revise the indicators to monitor and track the COVID-19 situation. The daily COVID-19 infections and test positivity rate may continue to be recorded but have limited utility for decision making. The two operational monitoring indicators which should be used now can be daily new symptomatic COVID-19 cases and new hospitalisations.
Second, any setting which reports a spike in COVID-19 cases should be prioritised for enhanced and expanded genomic sequencing, including the sequencing of all hospitalised COVID-19 cases and a subset of asymptomatic and the mild symptomatic cases, to track the emergence of any variant. A stronger linkage between health departments and the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics (INSACOG) Consortium network conducting genomic surveillance is needed to correlate the variants and the clinical outcomes.
Third, from now onwards the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection in India (or any setting across the world) is unlikely to be zero. Face masks and physical distancing have proven benefits in reducing transmission, but the benefit, at least in settings such as India, now is far greater at the individual level than at the population level. All social and economic activities (including schools) should continue to function to their full capacity. The face-mask recommendations should be calibrated, targeted, context-specific and evidence-guided and not uniform for the entire population. Science communication and public education should be used to nudge high-risk population groups to adopt such behaviour. The mandatory face-masks requirement for school-going children (implicit or explicit), is unscientific and without evidence. Mask guidelines for school children should be voluntary, without indirect coercion as is the case for some Indian States.
Fourth, there is a known benefit of third shots of COVID-19 vaccines in select, specifically high-risk population groups; however, the benefits of fourth and fifth shots are marginal and short lasting, as studies have pointed out. Essentially, just one additional COVID-19 vaccine shot to get some enhancement in the level of antibodies and possible protection make some sense. Because of hybrid immunity in India with two shots of vaccines and three national COVID-19 waves which are unlikely to have spared anyone, even with only two vaccine shots in India, the protective immunity might be equal to even greater than three vaccine shots in countries with low infection rates.
Therefore, Indian health policymakers need to be very strategic and pragmatic in the use of a third COVID-19 vaccine shot. Every surge should not result in a renewed demand and a push for booster dose uptake for adults in all age groups. After all, if you have to take just one precaution shot, there is merit in delaying it and spacing it out as long as feasible and also getting a heterologous vaccine shot. Similarly, there is no scientific rationale to rush to vaccinate children younger than 12 years.
Fifth, a disproportionately high attention on COVID-19 is not completely innocuous and rather, it diverts attention from other equally and even more pressing health needs such as tuberculosis, diabetes and hypertension, which affects a far greater proportion of India’s population. It is undoubtedly time, Indian States bring the attention back on long-standing health challenges and on strengthening primary health-care services.
What must be done
After the 1918-20 flu pandemic, the influenza virus continued to be in circulation and present even today. In the last 100 years, with regular mutations in influenza viruses, there has been a seasonal rise in cases, outbreaks, and epidemics and two more influenza pandemics (1957-58 and 1968). Since then, there are annual flu seasons across the world. Being another respiratory virus and an RNA virus with a propensity for regular mutations, SARS-CoV-2 appears to be on the influenza trajectory. Factoring in country-specific SARS CoV-2 epidemiology, the population-wide application of the pandemic response in India can be transitioned to be focused on individual protection. India’s COVID-19 response strategy, in the days and the months ahead, should focus on protecting the vulnerable; promoting voluntary face-mask use; strengthening COVID-19 surveillance, and using local COVID-19 data for decision making. We are on the path of learning to live with COVID-19.
Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya is a primary-care physician, epidemiologist and public health specialist. He is Founder-Director of the Foundation for People-centric Health Systems, New Delhi
A noticeable absence in the blitzkrieg of information on the economy periodically unleashed by the Union government over the past few years has been estimates of poverty. A measure of the progress made with respect to the reduction of poverty in India is crucial to an assessment of the state of the economy of India, known to harbour the world’s largest number of poor people. The last official estimate of poverty that is comparable over time, undertaken by the Planning Commission, is for the year 2011-12. The reason behind this state of affairs is that we have not had a household consumption expenditure survey for a subsequent year, such a survey being the ideal basis for poverty estimation.
Real consumption expenditure
A consumption expenditure survey was conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) for 2017-18, but was rejected by the government as defective. Whether this decision was taken upon the advice of independent experts is not known, but a leaked version of the report showed that real consumption expenditure had fallen since 2011-12. At the time, a leading commentator on the economy had poured cold water on this possibility, stating that a decline in consumption is not possible when income (GDP) has grown.
In a prior article, I had at that time pointed out that a decline in consumption cannot be ruled out even in the presence of growth, for the income distribution could shift in a way that leaves those at the lower end of the distribution with less real income. The Union government’s rejection of the report for 2017-18 has meant that we have not been able to say anything about the trend in poverty over a whole decade.
Now two recent studies have made up for this lacuna, emerging as they do, separately, from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (henceforth Fund-Bank). The first is a working paper by Bhalla, Bhasin and Virmani and the other is by Roy and van der Weide. Both are in the public domain. It may be noted that as they are not based directly on a household expenditure survey, they arrive at estimates of consumption spending, and thereby poverty, by making somewhat strong assumptions, but I shall here accept their estimates at face value.
In the absence of official estimates of poverty in India for the past decade, these studies have naturally gathered attention. They give us an estimate of the poverty rate for five data points after 2011-12, poverty identified as per capita consumption of less than $1.90 per day, being the World Bank’s definition of “extreme poverty”. While the level of poverty estimated by these two studies varies considerably, with the one by Roy and van der Weide showing twice the poverty level estimated by Bhalla et al., they share a common feature, which is an accelerated decline in poverty since 2011-12, with the acceleration commencing in 2014-15 in the Bhalla et al study and in 2016-17 in the former.
Now, though growth in the economy has slowed progressively from 2017-18, accelerated decline in poverty as overall economic growth slows is neither implausible nor unprecedented. We know that the first significant dent in poverty in India occurred in the late 1960s, while growth had begun to slow from the mid-sixties. Indeed, the poverty decline had continued even as growth spluttered for a whole decade. This co-movement can be quite easily explained by the feature that as the economy-wide growth rate had slowed, growth in India’s agricultural sector permanently shifted to a higher gear following the Green Revolution i.e., we have seen a higher average annual agricultural growth ever since. With the workforce concentrated overwhelmingly in agriculture, it would be expected that wages and consumption of rural workers grew. Rural poverty declined steadily. A decline in urban poverty was to take longer, pointing to the historic role of agriculture in India.
Effects of demonetisation
It is difficult to see a surge in any one sector of the economy since 2016-17 that is comparable to the increase in the rate of growth of agriculture in the second half of the 1960s. Of course, theoretically there remains the income distribution shift to be considered, but it is difficult to imagine that the income distribution has shifted towards the lower income groups in this period, when the long-term trend is known to be the opposite.
Moreover, the demonetisation of 2016 is likely to have affected majority of workers adversely. While this is only a surmise, data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey show the unemployment rate rising sharply after demonetisation remaining higher than in most years of the decade, going all the way back to 2011-12. It is difficult to imagine an accelerated decline in poverty during such a phase.
At a webinar organised by the National Council for Applied Economic Research on June 9, I had asked the most widely known of the authors of the Fund-Bank studies his understanding of what drove the decline in poverty during the period under observation. His answer was that since inflation has been lower since 2014, real wage growth would have been faster, enabling greater consumption and thus an accelerated decline in poverty.
As a quick check, if not a test, on the plausibility of this hypothesis, I computed real wage growth starting 2015-16, the mid-point of the year from which the acceleration commences in each of the two Fund-Bank studies. The annual all-India real wage growth is computed for two groups of rural men, namely non-agricultural labourers and construction workers. The economy-wide inflation rate was adopted. All data were drawn from the RBI’s website. The resulting estimates show that for non-agricultural labourers, annual real wage rate growth was either negligible or negative in four out of the five years during the period 2015-16 to 2019-20, the end point for both the studies. For construction workers, annual real wage growth was negative in three years, barely positive in one year and slightly over 1% in only one year. There appears to have taken place little real wage growth since 2015-16.
This finding, that there has been very little real wage growth since 2015-2016, cannot be taken as a rejection of the Fund-Bank estimates of poverty. It does, however, underline the need for an explanation of the accelerated decline in poverty that they report.
We need to understand the drivers of poverty to undertake any kind of remedial action. But above all, we need reliable data provided by independent public bodies ring-fenced from potential political interference. That we once had this in India is seen from the Planning Commission estimates in 1997 that showed a slowing of the rate of poverty reduction soon after the reforms, resulting in a rise in the number of poor in 1993-94 for the first time in 15 years. The then government could have squashed the study, but to its credit it did not. Decades later, we seem to be backsliding.
In particular, the delay in this government’s undertaking of a household consumption expenditure survey leaves us unsure of the trend in poverty in India in recent years.
Pulapre Balakrishnan teaches at Ashoka University, Sonipat
In a recent interview with an Indian TV channel, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, touched upon a less-emphasised yet significant aspect of India-Sri Lanka relations — the commonality between Sri Lanka and the southern parts of India. He even said he would “easily fit into Chennai or Kerala without a problem, while[,] similarly[,] people in the south can fit in here”. This was not the first time that he has talked of forging closer ties between his country and south India.
The sub-regional context
During his second term as Prime Minister, Mr. Wickremesinghe while delivering a lecture in Chennai, in August 2003, called for the development of the south India-Sri Lanka sub-region as a single market that would provide more opportunities for the economic growth of both countries. In 2016, addressing the South Asian Diaspora Convention in Singapore, he highlighted the fact that the five Indian southern States, with a total population of 250 million, had a combined gross state domestic product of nearly $450 billion; with the addition of Sri Lanka’s $80 billion GDP, the sub-region would have a $500 billion economy, having an aggregate population of around 270 million. In the southeast Asian country, he had even referred to the tri-nation economic convergence, encompassing Singapore too. Mr. Wickremesinghe’s latest observations should be viewed in the context of his idea of sub-regional integration.
The present economic crisis in Sri Lanka has pushed it closer to India for immediate relief. For the last few months, the Indian media’s regular coverage of the crisis has led to better understanding and even created a sense of empathy in India about the plight of the neighbouring country. India, as part of its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, has extended support to the people of Sri Lanka in the form of aid (close to $3.5 billion) to help secure Sri Lanka’s food, health and energy security by supplying it essential items such as food, medicines, fuel and kerosene.
Aid from India
The latest in the series was the signing of an agreement on June 10 between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Export-Import Bank of India for a $55-million short term Line of Credit to facilitate the procurement of urea for paddy crop in the ongoing ‘Yala’ season. During her discussions with the International Monetary Fund in April, India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman urged the multilateral agency to provide urgent assistance to Sri Lanka. On its part, Tamil Nadu decided to provide aid of Rs. 123 crore, comprising 40,000 tonnes of rice, 137 types of life-saving drugs and 500 tonnes of milk powder. The first consignment, which was flagged off by State Chief Minister M.K. Stalin from Chennai on May 18, reached Colombo four days later. Mr. Wickremesinghe and the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Sajith Premadasa, thanked the Chief Minister. About 10 days ago, at a meeting with Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India Milinda Moragoda, the Chief Minister assured him that the second consignment would be dispatched soon.
Baggage of history as hurdle
Whether this bonhomie can lead to greater economic collaboration between Sri Lanka and south India, not necessarily Tamil Nadu alone, given the historical baggage, is anybody’s guess. As pointed out by Jehan Perera, a prominent peace activist of Sri Lanka, during a discussion organised by the Press Institute of India last month on the crisis, some sections of the Sinhalese still hold the view that “India has been a threat to us. It can be a threat to us in future too”. This perception can be traced to history when Sri Lanka was invaded by rulers of south India who humbled the Sinhala kings. In the aftermath of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom, the support provided by the Indian government to Tamil rebels only strengthened this perception. Bitter episodes of the past involving the two countries were recalled when the Indian consignments of essential commodities reached Sri Lanka.
Despite India’s open willingness to take part in the development of Sri Lanka after the civil war, the scale of its involvement has been modest. The reason is not far to seek. The manner in which the Rajapaksa regime unilaterally scrapped in February 2021 a tripartite agreement signed in 2019 with India and Japan for the development of Colombo’s East Container Terminal was a reflection of the historical baggage, though the official reason cited was opposition from workers’ unions. Even though India was later provided with projects such as the West Container Terminal, the Trincomalee oil tank farm and a couple of renewable projects, there were several proposals that envisaged India’s participation but did not see the light of day.
Another project, a collaboration between NTPC Limited and the Ceylon Electricity Board, was cancelled just when bids were to be floated for the coal-fired 500-megawatt project in Sampur in the Eastern Province (after obtaining environmental clearance). In fact, when Sri Lanka experienced prolonged power cuts a few months ago, some individuals did mention that had Sampur fructified, power shortages might not have been intense. Other projects too such as the development of the Kankesanthurai harbour and the expansion of the Palaly airport in Jaffna, both envisaging Indian participation, would have become a reality had there been show of political will from the other side. A few days ago, the Sri Lankan Cabinet was reported to have cleared two connectivity proposals: flights from Jaffna to Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu, and a ferry service from Kankesanthurai to Karaikal in Puducherry. The project of building a sea bridge and tunnel, connecting Rameshwaram to Talaimannar, remains on paper despite India’s Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari informing the Lok Sabha in December 2015 of the Asian Development Bank’s readiness to fund it. It requires no great imagination to find out why several popular brands of south Indian restaurants and retail textile establishments, despite an overseas presence, not having opened their branches in Sri Lanka.
Even now, there is enormous scope for collaboration between the two countries in the area of infrastructure development. The economic crisis has revived talk of linking Sri Lanka’s electricity grid with that of India. If this project takes off, the first point of interconnectivity on the Indian side will most likely be in Tamil Nadu. India has cross-border energy trade with Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar.
India’s interests would also be served by developing the east coast of Sri Lanka, especially the Trincomalee-Batticaloa belt, whose potential for tourism, commerce, trade and industry is well known. At an appropriate time, regular movement of people and goods should be allowed again on the traditional sea routes of Thoothukudi-Colombo and Rameshwaram-Talaimannar. The apprehension in the minds of sections of the Sinhalese majority about India being a threat can be dispelled only by facilitating greater people-to-people interaction, including pilgrimages by monks and other sections of Sri Lankan society to places of Buddhist importance not only in north India but also in the south (Andhra Pradesh). Much more will have to be done but the opportunity created by the current circumstances should be utilised to bring Indian and Sri Lankan societies closer — a prerequisite to achieving an economic union between Sri Lanka and the southern States of India.
Pride Month comes and goes; but homophobia in India is here to stay like a spectre. As a good omen for Pride Month of this year, the Kerala High Court set a trailblazing precedent recently by sanctioning a lesbian couple, Adhila Nasarin and Fathima Noora, to live together after they were coercively separated by their parents. Ms. Nasarin had filed a habeas corpus petition following which Ms. Noora, who was allegedly “incarcerated” by her family, appeared before court. The court simply asked the couple if they wished to live together, to which they replied yes. The joy of the couple spilled over into social media. People congratulated the court and many social media profiles talked about gender spectrum. But alarmingly, it triggered rude homophobic chirpings too in the cyber streets. It exposed that the “God made Adam and Eve; not Adam and Steve” attitude lingers in Indian society.
The Indian Psychiatric Society authentically stated that homosexuality was not a mental disorder; but that sentiment has not convinced most Indian homes.
An attitudinal temperament
Homophobia is defined byBritannica Encyclopedia as culturally produced fear of or prejudice against homosexuals that sometimes manifests itself in legal restrictions or, in extreme cases, bullying or even violence against homosexuals. The term ‘homophobia’ was coined by George Weinberg, an American clinical psychologist, in his bookSociety and the Healthy Homosexual (1972). The suffix ‘phobia’ generally designates an irrational fear, in the case of homophobia, the word instead refers to an attitudinal temperament ranging from mild dislike to abhorrence of people who are sexually or romantically attracted to individuals of the same sex. It is a culturally conditioned response to homosexuality. Homophobia runs against the Constitutional values of fraternity and dignity.
J.B. Kripalani, a prominent member of the Constituent Assembly, commented on the principle of fraternity in the Assembly: “I come to the great doctrine of fraternity which is allied with democracy. It means that we are all sons of the same God, as the religious would say, but as the mystic would say, that there is one life pulsating through us all, or as the Bible says, we are one of another. There can be no fraternity without this. So, I want this House to remember that what we have enunciated are not merely legal, constitutional and formal principles, but moral principles; and moral principles have to be lived in life. They have to be lived whether it is private or it is public life…” The social and psychological abhorrence prevailing in India against the LGBTQ+ community nullifies the constitutional fraternity that is to be lived out in public and private life of the nation.
Queerness isn’t modern, western or sexual only, says mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik in hisShikhandi: Ánd Other ‘Queer’ Tales They Don’t Tell You (2014). He opens the treasure box of vast written and oral traditions in Hinduism, some over two thousand years old, to show us many overlooked tales, such as those of Shikhandi, who became a man to satisfy her wife; Mahadeva, who became a woman to deliver his devotee’s child; Chudala, who became a man to enlighten her husband; and many more.
‘Highest place to fraternity’
Fraternity too is not a pure western ideal. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar elucidated the Indian roots of the ideal of fraternity during an All India Radio interview in 1954: “My social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one, however, say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has roots in religion and not political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha… he gave the highest place to fraternity as the only real safeguard against the denial of liberty or equality — fraternity which was another name for brotherhood or humanity, which was another name for religion.” Dr. Ambedkar championed the ideal of fraternity to uphold the cause of the oppressed castes, Dalits. The same principle is felicitous to the gender Dalits of present-day India — the LGBTQ+ community. The society should not deprive the LGBTQ+ community of affection and regards thanks only to their sexual orientation.
InIs God anti-gay , Sam Allberry quotes the Bible: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6 v 35). Allberry concludes his booklet by saying that “the invitation [of God] is there for everyone. And so precious is the gift that God cannot be truly said to be ‘anti’ anyone to whom this wonderful gift is being offered.” If God is not anti-gay, how can His sons and daughters be homophobic?
Faisal C.K. is Under Secretary (Law) to the Government of Kerala
The unusually low pass percentage of students in the Secondary School Certificate examinations in Andhra Pradesh this year is worrisome. Only 67.26% of the total 6,15,908 students who appeared for the exam have cleared the all-important Board examinations and a disturbingly high number of 2,01,627 students have failed, contributing to the lowest pass percentage in Class 10 examinations in the State in the last 20 years.
A dissection of the exam fiasco brings to the fore two major factors leading to the dismal performance of students. The devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the education sector with the longest school closures resulting in children losing valuable instructional time for many months at a stretch slowed the learning process. In post-COVID times, the overall welfare of children has declined substantially and they are deprived of the nutrition they received under the government-sponsored meal scheme.
The parents of students who failed have made a request to the government to allot 10 grace marks and help their children regain confidence that has taken a beating due to their failure and the demand has been endorsed by a few teacher unions and the Opposition party leaders, including the Jana Sena Party president Pawan Kalyan.
The Class 10 results gave yet another platform to politicians for mud-slinging. The ruling party, Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) blamed the Telugu Desam Party for “allowing the rot of examination malpractices to continue during its rule in the State” while the latter holds the “YSRCP responsible for suicides by Class 10 students after the release of the exam results.”
The other reason cited for the enormity of the non-performing students is a reason to ponder over. “This result is on expected lines given the tough stand we adopted against malpractices in the exams this year,” said Director of the School Education Department S. Suresh Kumar.
The worrying part is that teachers resorting to malpractices outnumbered the erring students. Recognising the need to nip this immoral practice in the bud, the government, for the first time, invoked the AP Public Examinations (Prevention of Malpractices and Unfair Means) Act, introduced 25 years ago. Arrests of a large number of teachers, many from government schools, as part of punitive measures to cleanse the examination system, worked as a deterrent, resulting in abysmally low rate of success in the public examination.
The government rolled out a slew of reforms in the education sector, sending out a clear message to non-performing institutions to clean up their act or risk being shut down. In a move to end malpractices, the exam pattern for students who wrote their SSC exams in 2019 was revamped.
Experts say that a good beginning has been made, but creating the right ecosystem to impart quality education will be a major challenge. Knowledge, skills and expertise being key enablers in this era of technology-driven disruptions, making children break away from the traditional rote learning, specifically in schools located in small villages, will be an uphill task, they point out.
The department officials have started discussing modalities to scale up reforms in the examination system by means of putting in place a fool-proof mechanism, besides initiating the exercise of improving quality of teaching by training and supporting them with modern teaching aids, tools and methodologies. The objective is to integrate the concept of lifelong learning and empower the students and make them productive citizens.
The demolition of houses and buildings linked to protesters in Uttar Pradesh is nothing but retribution and collective punishment targeted at Muslims. The destruction of the residence of Javed Mohammed, Welfare Party of India activist and businessman, in Prayagraj, shortly after he was identified by the police as an alleged conspirator behind the violence during a protest, amply demonstrates this. The fig-leaf of legality attached to the claim that the action by the Prayagraj Development Authority was to clear an illegal building has been blown away by the fact that the notice of demolition was addressed to Mr. Mohammed, and not to his wife, who owns the property. The family’s charge that the notice was served only a day before the demolition and backdated to May 10 cannot be brushed aside. It is well-known that the removal of encroachments or illegal constructions cannot take place without due process, which includes giving the owner or occupier an opportunity to be heard and finding alternative accommodation under any existing rehabilitation scheme. That officials claimed that the notice was served on Mr. Mohammed based on local enquiries shows that they were only following orders to demolish the building and had not bothered to verify the record of ownership before action. Earlier, soon after violence was witnessed in Kanpur, the city’s development authority demolished a commercial building allegedly linked to one of the accused in the case.
The latest demolitions are linked to the protests that took place in the wake of controversial remarks made by the now-suspended BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma on the Prophet. While the Centre has sought to clarify to Islamic countries that it does not brook any disrespect to any religion, U.P. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath wants to send out a message that he will not brook any protests on the issue. It is now a well-established pattern that buildings belonging to those whose names are linked, with or without evidence, to riots or protests are chosen for demolition. For political purposes, it is presented as stringent action against anti-social elements for rioting, and for legal purposes, it is portrayed as removal of illegal constructions. It is unfortunate, and a defining feature of these convoluted times that some States take such pride in demolishing buildings that they want the bulldozer to symbolise their purported resolve in keeping minorities under check. The Supreme Court has ordered that status quo be maintained in respect of the demolitions at Jahangirpuri, in Delhi. Six former Supreme Court and High Court judges and six senior advocates have appealed to the Supreme Court to takesuo motu cognisance of the demolitions. Whether the Court acts or not, there is little doubt that the demolitions amount to an abuse of power, a challenge to the rule of law and are inherently illegal due to the absence of due process or proportionality.
The Indian Premier League (IPL) seemingly remains immune to extraneous factors. Inflation, an economy under constant stress, a world grappling with a war in Europe and a pandemic that refuses to die down have had no bearing on the robust financial underpinnings of this domestic T20 league with an international flavour. The top-dollar yield of the IPL’s latest media rights auction for the 2023-27 period, a term lasting five years, reiterates the monetary strength and brand equity of the league, which has gained incremental strength every year since its inception in 2008. Be it logistical issues such as dealing with general elections or internal rumblings like the spot-fixing and spread betting crisis, the league has an inner resilience and marches to its own beat while the hype-masters keep its marketing buzz on a high pitch. Though split into four packages in which three were a generous hat-tip to the digital markets, the media rights auction that concluded on Tuesday garnered Rs. 48,390 crore which is nearly thrice the Rs. 16,347 crore that the previous cycle offered thanks to the then successful bid by Disney Star. Even if the recent edition had its issues with a dip in TRP ratings, the league retained its sheen considering the big bucks that it continues to reap from broadcast and media firms as corporates lean excessively on it for advertising.
The interesting part this time was the segregation of the television and digital space unlike in the previous cycles. The current alteration is a pointer to the prominence of smartphones, laptops and tablets in the consumption of content. Disney Star retained the television space while shelling out Rs. 23,575 crore; in the package B for digital rights, Viacom18 prevailed at Rs. 20,500 crore. Viacom18 also won package C at Rs. 3,257.5 crore and in package D, Times Internet and Viacom18 split the booty. Flush with cash, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) in a moment of reflexive kindness, hiked the pension of former cricketers and umpires. However, with so much money being spent on media rights, advertisers will come under pressure to spend more for commercial slots. And if the rights’ holders want to maximise their profits, there could be demands to have more teams beyond the current 10, may be have two editions in the same year and this could affect the international cricketing season. With money in its coffers, the BCCI needs to improve stadiums and increase the number of international fixtures that India’s women cricketers play. That someone like Mithali Raj played only 12 Tests in a career spanning 23 years is a shame. There is so much the BCCI can do and the latest windfall should help.
London: A deputation from the Federation of British Industries and the London Chamber of Commerce submitted to Mr. Woods, under Secretary for Colonies a proposal for the establishment of unofficial committees in the Colonies to advise Governors on matters of finance and also a similar body in London to keep in touch with the Colonial Office. The deputation urged the desirability of postponing certain general schemes of development undertaken during influence of the boom period. Mr. Woods, replying, questioned whether high taxation would result in extravagant expenditures and emphasised the achievements of the Colonial Government during the past two years. He suggested that a short sighted policy would defer many development schemes largely undertaken for the benefit of British industry and for traders profit when trade revived. He pointed out nothing could prevent any Governor on his own initiative establishing an advisory committee and mentioned that one had already been appointed in Kenya. He referred sympathetically to the idea of a London Advisory Committee.
Stockholm, June 15: The Prime Ministers of India and Sweden have pledged to work for a new world order that would guarantee the economic independence and progress of developing nations. At a banquet held in honour of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Swedish Prime Minister Dr. Olaf Palme said colonialism in principle was dead but “there is a long way to travel” in regard to the economic independence and development of the new nations. In reply to the toast, Mrs. Gandhi criticised attempts by some Big Powers “to control balances and to carve out spheres of influence” and to dominate the developing countries by exploiting their economic weakness. Vietnam had shown that even a small country without economic and military strength could defy the mightiest power if it had the inner strength of the spirit, Mrs. Gandhi added. India, she declared, had not thrown off the yoke of imperialism “in order to accept any other protective umbrella.” It would maintain its policy of non-alignment, notwithstanding the pressures. The two Prime Ministers reiterated their common commitment to bringing social transformation through democratic process and close identity of views on international issues.
Only 15 years since it became a regular summer spectacle, the Indian Premier League has expanded its vistas at a hurtling pace. The 6.20 billion dollars auction of its media rights makes it the second most expensive league, on per-match basis, in the world. The League, a domestic tournament of a sport played professionally in just a dozen countries, has superseded the most watched football league in the world, the English Premier League. Every EPL match costs 11 million dollars, whereas the value of each IPL match is an estimated 13.82 million dollars, second only to the NFL, where every game costs 36 million dollars per game. If this does not make cricket — rather the IPL — a global player, nothing would.
The League’s soaring revenues will aid far-reaching plans for the next decade, a period when team owners hope to expand the IPL’s already robust calendar, make deeper inroads into overseas markets and increase the audience through streaming services. There is little doubt that the already wealthy Indian cricket board will emerge richer and more powerful. When the League was launched, then chairman Lalit Modi had labelled it as a marriage between cricket and Bollywood. Now cricket — or IPL — turns Hollywood-esque. Cricket, like most team sports, will likely become club-centric.
There will be casualties too. It could potentially hasten the death of bilateral limited-over series as well as push the 50-over version into extinction. As such, the charm of the ODIs has faded, except during the time of the World Cup. Two-nation T20 series are often considered meaningless, and their frequency could drop. Only cricketers in the team-sport world have this unique challenge of playing different versions of the same game. Perhaps a time will come when only the oldest and newest members of the family tree survive — the 146-year-old Test cricket and the 14-year-old multi-billionaire great-great grandchild. The rest might exist, but as faded figures in cricket’s family picture.
Connectivity between Sri Lanka and India seems set to improve, especially between the Tamil areas in the north and Tamil Nadu across the Palk Strait. The projects to link Jaffna by air to Trichy and by boat to Karaikal on the Coromandel Coast are of a piece with India’s development outreach to Sri Lanka that focuses on building long-term infrastructure projects in the island nation, besides aid for emergency needs such as fuel, food and essential medicines.
Multiple transport links existed between India and Sri Lanka until the 1980s when the civil war severely curtailed exchanges and transactions. Before that, a cyclonic storm in 1964 destroyed the Pamban Bridge and the railway terminus and jetty at Dhanushkodi that forced the government to end the popular “Boat Mail”, which connected Chennai and Talaimannar in northern Sri Lankan via Rameswaram through a rail link and a ferry. Since the war ended in 2009, transportation has been a key area that India-Sri Lanka ties have focussed on, with railways and ports in focus — IRCON, an Indian Railways subsidiary, restored the Colombo-Jaffna railway line, which was opened for the public in 2014, and has since expanded to Kankesanthurai beyond Jaffna. However, air connectivity from Indian cities has so far been restricted to Colombo. In effect, this means that a person travelling from Jaffna to Chennai or Trichy/Madurai — a 45-minute journey by air — has to do a six to eight hour rail or road journey to Colombo and then fly out. Direct flights out of Jaffna to cities in Tamil Nadu will save travel time and money, which could give a fillip to tourism, particularly pilgrimage, in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in India. Similarly, the proposed ferry services between Karaikal and Jaffna/Kankesanthurai could at a later stage be upgraded to facilitate transport of cargo from India to Sri Lanka — at present, Colombo is the only port of entry for Indian goods, which involves extra travel. However, a luxury ferry between Tuticorin and Colombo launched in 2011 was halted for lack of patronage.
The current crisis in Sri Lanka has forced Colombo to recalibrate ties with New Delhi and the latter to emphasise its “Neighbourhood First” policy. The challenge, however, would be to insulate bilateral relations from regional politics in both countries and build on the gains for both. Better connectivity and improved travel facilities could help remove the remaining layers of mistrust that has constrained the India-Sri Lanka partnership from realising its full potential.
That India has a jobs problem is beyond debate. In large measure, it is worsened by the underlying structure of the Indian economy. The rapidly growing services sector tends not only to be less employment intensive, but is also more geared towards absorbing the skilled sections of the labour force. And the gig economy, which does employ the unskilled, simply doesn’t create enough jobs for the millions entering the labour force each year. The challenge has been, and continues to be, the inability to facilitate the creation of a labour intensive manufacturing sector that is able to absorb the low and semi-skilled sections of the labour force. With the next general election less than two years away, and given that unemployment and inflation are the two biggest economic issues today, the government appears to be now moving to tackle them with some urgency.
On Tuesday, the Centre announced plans to recruit 10 lakh people in ministries and departments over the next one-and-a-half years. The recruitment drive will ostensibly be directed towards the youth. However, this ambitious drive could be circumscribed by some fundamental constraints — the size of government, for one. According to the report of the 7th Pay Commission, the total sanctioned strength of the central government fell from 41.76 lakh in 1994 to 38.9 lakh in 2014. In 2021, the strength of the central government stood at 34.5 lakh as per the Union budget. Moreover, between 2006 and 2014, the average recruitment in the central government was a little over one lakh each year. Between 2017-18 and 2021-22, the staff selection commission and the union public service commission recruited only 1.74 lakh and 24,836 candidates, as reported in this paper. These numbers not only raise questions over the absorptive capacity of the state, but also imply that government employment actually forms a small proportion of the formal labour force, and an even smaller part of the total labour force. In fact, the Pay Commission report had noted that “the central government is at best a marginal source for employment generation.” Thus, considering the scale of the challenge, this recruitment drive will not be enough.
Further, not only does this expansion in public sector jobs pose a challenge to the promise and goal of minimum government, implicit in this move is also the acknowledgment that not enough jobs are being created by the private sector, which should be the principal driver of employment generation. With roughly 12 million individuals entering the working age population each year, around 6 million jobs need to be created each year, assuming a labour force participation rate of 0.5. But this is just to absorb the new entrants to the labour force. Employment opportunities for those wanting to shift out of agriculture also need to be factored in. This requires creating jobs at a scale which only the private sector can do efficiently.
Argentina has surrendered. The Falklands have been liberated. The British pride, punctured by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri by seizing control of the South Atlantic islands by force, has been retrieved. As the British Defence Ministry officially confirmed the news about the Argentinian surrender, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher was engulfed with messages of congratulations from every nook and corner of the country. There was great relief among the people that the war is over. Even her political rivals, Michael Foot, David Owen and David Steel, congratulated her in public for her success. The jubilation was so widespread that at one time Thatcher appeared to be attaining the stature of Winston Churchill. But, already within the country, people are openly saying that her hands are soaked with the blood of hundreds of young and innocent lives.
Indira Gandhi is thinking of massive reorganisation of the party and important changes in the Government soon after the presidential elections, according to informed sources. The sources say as soon as the presidential election is over, the process of revamping the organisation in various states, including change of leadership, will be initiated. Gandhi’s main aim is reported to be to strengthen the party in view of another mini-general election due early next year. Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir and Tripura are due to go to the polls next year. There is also a plan to hold elections to the Delhi Metropolitan Council along with these assembly elections.
Artillery and tank cannon duels broke an uneasy truce on Beirut’s outskirts as Syria rejected an ultimatum from Israeli invasion forces to pull its forces from the Lebanese capital.
India emerged as a multi-party democracy because the creators of our Constitution wanted to ensure that in a large and diverse country such as ours, every citizen gets an equal chance in governance. The basic tenet of our Constitution and democracy is to empower the poorest of the poor so that they can also reach the highest public office.
However, from the very beginning, the foundations of our multi-party system were shaky. There are two main reasons for this aberration. One, the politicisation of the Indian National Congress, primarily formed to steer our freedom movement, led to the total control of one dynasty over the party. Second, the betrayal by the Congress governments of the people in states where it formed its government and its total apathy towards regional aspirations.
The latter led to the growth of state-based political outfits, which were primarily offshoots of the Congress or were led by regional satraps. Unfortunately, all these parties were overtaken by political stalwarts who drew lines of succession from within their families. Internal democracy was completely stifled within these political outfits. A trend that the Congress started in Indian politics was ruthlessly adopted by these state-based dynasts.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly warned the nation, which is so diverse socially and culturally, is being weakened due to dynasty politics. The time has come to fight this evil. We must push for more representation and participation of the people in democratic processes. The need of the hour is to bring more youngsters from diverse backgrounds into politics.
In the past four-five decades, family-based parties have choked talent and created roadblocks to the development of states. Dynasty-based political parties have neither ideology nor vision. Their only goal has been to grab power and cling to it. This resulted in these parties playing the politics of vote-banks and appeasement. The Congress adopted the same strategy at the Centre. Today, the Congress is no longer a national party. It has been reduced to the party of a brother-sister duo.
So engrossed were these parties in serving the interests of their kith and kin that they completely ignored “overall development” and “holistic growth”. They shunned all those sections of our society that needed their attention — villagers and farmers, Dalits and backward classes, women and youth. Under dynastic rule, the dangerous and negative politics of appeasement flourished which led to the poor getting poorer while the oppressed were reduced to second-class citizens.
It is due to the political idiosyncrasies of family-based parties that India could not resolve perennial issues like the removal of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir, freedom of Muslim women from triple talaq, and the construction of a grand Ram temple in Ayodhya. The root cause of these nagging problems was the politics of appeasement and vote-banks furthered by dynasty-based parties.
These parties opposed the bills to scrap Article 370 and triple talaq. They also played with India’s safety and security, first by weakening India’s response to terrorism when they were in power and later by questioning the valour of our armed forces post the cross-border surgical and air strikes.
Dynasts are not concerned with the problems of the country and society. They care only about their vote banks and the “growth” of their “family”. It is for this reason that three-fourths of our population had no bank account even after 70 years of Independence, poor women had no access to LPG cylinders, the poor had no health insurance, farmers were fleeced by moneylenders, crores of households had no water and electricity and the poor had no homes.
The common man had deep anger and mistrust over the politics of dynasty, vote-bank and appeasement. His anger started coming out in 2014 when he saw in Narendra Modi a hope for the nation and himself. He has seen the nation and its politics changing fast. He has seen banks going to the doorstep of the poor, the poor getting houses, free medical insurance and free rations during Covid, and farmers getting much-needed financial aid directly into their bank accounts.
Post-2014, India has seen two leaders from very humble backgrounds becoming President and PM. This is the New India about which the world is talking today. India has reclaimed its position as a true global leader.
There is a disturbing trend today as every decision of the government is being seen through the prisms of regionalism and communalism. People are also wary of the increasing number of family-based parties. The nation needs broad-based political reforms for our democracy to thrive.
PM Modi has talked about overhauling our electoral system. We need to think seriously about it. A commission on political reforms suggested a reduction in the number of political parties and their reorganisation based on ideology. But though there has been no movement in this direction, it’s heartening that the electorate has rejected parties dominated by dynasts. The recent election results in five states is the latest indicator of this trend.
A healthy and vibrant democracy can grow on the strength of nationalist parties. The BJP has been persistently fighting family-based political outfits. Under the dynamic leadership of PM Modi, we have been able to fight the politics of casteism, dynasty, nepotism and appeasement. The struggle to rid the nation of dynasty politics is long and hard. Its effect must be felt in all parts of the country — from Maharashtra to Telangana, from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand to Jammu & Kashmir and Tamil Nadu.
The writer is an MP and BJP’s National Media Head
The newly elected Punjab government’s announcement of providing up to 300 units of free power to every household has raised questions: What constitutes “freebies”? Should they be encouraged? There is, in fact, no consensus on the definition of a “freebie”. It is almost a pejorative term. They constitute a sub-set of goods and services distributed by the government.
In India, policymakers have drawn on budgetary resources for providing support to low-income households for augmenting their consumption of selected goods and services, and also offering incentives to support selected categories of investors and producers. The economic objectives in these two categories are quite different. The first category would include the free or subsidised provision of foodgrains and services such as health and education. The Punjab government’s announcement of free power falls in this category. Sometimes, these are also referred to as “freebies”, depending on the type of commodity provided. These may be distinguished from budgetary support for incentivising investment or production. Examples of the latter group include the central government’s recent initiative for production-linked incentives to various sectors and tax concessions. In the past, incentives in the form of reduction of corporate taxes have been offered to promote investment in general, or in certain regions such as backward areas.
Given the proliferation of these schemes in recent times, three important questions arise. First, what goods and services should be selected for such programmes? Second, what should be their ideal mode of delivery? Third, what should be a prudent fiscal limit for funding such programmes?
The practice of providing certain goods or services free or at highly subsidised prices has been common in budgets. Foodgrains, particularly wheat and rice, are supplied to target groups at a highly subsidised price through the public distribution system. The subsidy is the difference between the price at which they are procured and the price at which they are sold. In the central budget, the food subsidy amounts to Rs. 2.06 lakh crore. The provision of foodgrains at a heavily subsidised price to target groups has found general acceptance, particularly among political parties, even though there are some critics of the measure. The key question is to decide what commodities should be distributed free or at a subsidised level and what the level of subsidy should be. So what is a “freebie” depends on the nature of the commodity or the services distributed.
As mentioned earlier, the distribution of commodities which are considered “essential”, primarily foodgrains, faces no criticism. In fact, there is enough evidence that such a distribution has helped to reduce poverty. There is also a category of goods which are called “merit” goods where significant positive externalities are associated with their consumption — for instance, health and education-related provisions, including mid-day meals and breakfast. In these cases, the benefit of the use of such goods extends beyond the immediate consumer to the wider community. In such cases, subsidisation is justified: If only market prices prevail, the community will consume less than what is socially desirable.
Thus, while subsidisation or the free provision of essential and merit goods can be justified on the grounds of meeting social objectives when the list of commodities expands to include such items as TV sets, serious doubts arise. For example, one unintended consequence of free power up to 300 units is likely to be an undue increase in the power consumption of households which use less than 300 units. Perhaps it is advisable to limit the distribution of commodities and services at highly subsidised levels to essential and merit goods. Any distribution beyond these two categories must be treated as “freebies”. The words “essential” and “merit” should not be made so elastic as to lose their meaning.
The question of a suitable model for providing budgetary support arises in the context of both consumption and production-supporting initiatives. In the first case, budgetary support to a targeted segment of the population for augmenting their consumption of essential items may be provided either through direct income support or by a free or highly subsidised provision. Both involve fiscal costs. In the former, income is raised for the targeted households which will support an increase in consumption according to the household preferences. In the latter, the consumption of the selected goods and services will increase. When the provision of subsidised goods is involved, there may, in general, be a requirement of a procurement set-up and a public distribution system. Managing procurement and distribution by government agencies involves additional costs which tend to be higher than the corresponding supply through the market because of leakages and avoidable administrative costs.
In the case of production-related incentives, alternative methods include direct budgetary support and indirect support through tax concessions. Both have a differential impact. These schemes also require to be carefully designed to avoid their misuse and minimise their costs. The provision of free power to farmers was often misused — it’s a common practice, for instance, to leave the pump sets running for long hours. In the case of tax concessions, there have not been any convincing studies as to whether the stated initial objectives were achieved in line with the large budgetary costs. The Government of India comes out with a statement of forgone revenues in the context of tax concessions. The magnitudes involved amounted to 1.9 per cent and 2.5 per cent of the GDP in 2018-19 and 2019-20 respectively. Some argue that production may be incentivised more effectively by other methods such as infrastructure expansion. Therefore, in respect of production-related incentives also, greater care is required for determining the total quantum of support as well as the specific forms of such support.
It is also important to consider a limit to the fiscal cost of undertaking such initiatives. We consider here only the case of distribution of commodities that are meant to support consumption. This question should be considered in light of our limited budgetary resources. In India, the revenue to GDP ratio has been stagnating over a long period of time. During 2010-11 to 2019-20, combined revenue receipts of central and state governments, relative to GDP, have languished in the narrow range of 18.4 per cent to 20.3 per cent. In contrast, in many developed and emerging market economies, this ratio tends to be much higher. In 2019, these ratios were 36 per cent and 30.1 per cent for the UK and USA, 48.6 per cent and 43.6 per cent for Sweden and Netherlands, and 31.5 per cent for Brazil. Considering these trends, it would be prudent to limit overall fiscal support to such schemes to less than 10 per cent of the total expenditure of the central government and state governments until their revenue GDP or GSDP ratios are successfully increased in a sustained way. Governments that do not pay adequate attention to the strength of their fisc eventually become exposed to the cost of the choices that they make.
Of all the mind-boggling figures that have popped up during the current conversations on broadcasting rights of Indian cricket, one stat stands out: Television viewership is dropping, and digital streaming rights are increasing. It’s a story of our times — the disappearance of the communal experience of watching sports with family and friends. Watching sports has become a solo pursuit, a monastic experience. It’s rare now to react to a moment in a game by going beyond one’s own heart and head and peeping into the emotional — occasionally dark — hearts of others.
TV IPL ratings have been dropping significantly while the streaming digital rights are escalating. Not just in sports, television viewership is falling in general. TV revenue is estimated to grow by just 6 per cent over the next five years while digital rights are expected to leap by 30 per cent. DTH operators such as Tata Sky, Airtel have lost viewership. DTH signals the death of the communal experience of TV viewing. Media rights fetched the BCCI Rs 48,390 crore, with Disney-Star bagging TV rights for the Indian Subcontinent and Viacom18/ Reliance sweeping the digital segment.
The mind goes back to childhood — to a living room in the maternal grandparents’ home where uncles, cousins, neighbours, friends would congregate for a cricket game. It was a household in which the choicest abuses flowed freely during matches and viewers, more than the cricketers, were its targets. Like the bearded Kaccha, a distant relative whose real name never really registered in my mind. Kaccha was the singularly most abused man in that home.
Quite early in our cricket-watching lives, it was clear that the jovial lungi-clad Kaccha, who had the ability to talk to kids in a genuinely friendly way, was a jinx who had to be avoided at all costs. The door and three windows had jaalis running across, and, a piece of towel or saree would be spread across them, so that Kaccha’s “evil eye” didn’t cast its effect on the game. Sealed out, he might have been, but he was either amused or masochistic: Kaccha would always turn up, and linger outside the front door to gather cricket tidings from our shouts of joy or disappointment.
There was another middle-aged man, simply called “Mookan” (‘the nose’ for obvious Nasser Hussain-ish anatomical reasons) who lived down the road. A more parochially ferocious supporter of the Indian team one hasn’t seen — the kind who would believe that Balwinder Singh Sandhu could hit out against Imran Khan or Malcolm Marshall with healthy doses of French cuts, and win the game. The grandfather would needle him by talking up the opposition and face Mookan’s abuses, who, in the same breath, would smile shyly at the grandmother and ask for a hot cup of filter coffee with “sakkarai konjam thookala” (extra helpings of sugar) — he was a borderline diabetic and not allowed such cubed luxury at home. And of course, Mookan hated the guts of Kaccha. Fun times. The stadium-like experience in a living room with people with a great sense of humour, and the occasional invective thrown in, was something worth cycling for a few kilometres. It’s something the young generation may never experience.
But such experiences have been lost for a while now. The latest broadcasting rights have only sealed the loss. It’s been a while since smartphones have taken over. Even at night, with their kid listening to a podcast, husbands and wives are either glued to Netflix or Insta. Cricket was already trapped in the small rectangular screens of our palms.
In cities, in high-rises, not many of us know our neighbours anyway. Parents might not like cricket. Friends might not share our interest in sports. The intrusion of others is probably not welcomed by all. Especially, for this generation which has grown up in bubbles for most things — entertainment, online studies, social media — even if, paradoxically, the surfeit of lonely pursuits has reduced the quality of solitude.
One has also to move beyond the cities and big towns to understand the importance of smartphones, even for entertainment. Some years ago, a few of us were in Nimgavhan village in Maharashtra, which faced the threat of being submerged in the waters of the Narmada after the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam was raised. A boy swam under the setting sun across the river-turned reservoir to join us under a mahua tree in a small school. Cricket surfaced in our conversation and we showed him the latest score of a game on our phones. His broad-eyed reaction to technology has stayed in the mind. His father had a normal phone, he said, but no internet; perhaps one day he will get it and follow the scores like us, he said. It wasn’t a surprise that the internet was making its presence felt in the hamlet. First, they gave us cheap internet, then they took over our headspace. That isn’t a lament because it has changed lives.
The current generation might not even feel as if something has been lost as this is the only experience they know. And not everyone wants a Mookan in their lives or wants to be a Kaccha waiting for the breeze to lift the thin cloth that stood between him and cricket on the telly. But it had felt gloriously good, while it lasted. Sorry, Kaccha, I never knew your name and only smiled at you slyly lest the elders saw it, but can you please buzz off. India is in a good position now — don’t jinx it.
The structure of the military has immense ramifications for security, and also for social organisation at large. The Agnipath scheme is a major structural reform with consequences both for the armed forces and society at large. Some reforms and restructuring of the armed forces was overdue. Sometimes, scepticism about reforms reflects an underlying status quo bias, rather than an assessment of needs. But it is also the case that this Agnipath is as much about creating a political illusion of reform as it is about addressing the armed forces’ needs. The spin given to the reform needs to be treated with a lot more caution.
For starters, it is being conveniently glossed over that the reform is rooted in a political economy failure. The current ruling dispensation deeply politicised the question of armed forces’ pensions by making it a central election issue. The resulting OROP reform was a huge fiscal burden on the state. There is a lesson in this. Brazen institutional populism will always incur long-term costs for the institution; and always protecting the benefits of incumbents in that institution will come at the expense of future recruits. A combination of political populism, and the armed forces’ own lack of creative leadership on pension issues, has led to the triumph of bureaucrats who like both the casualisation of government employment and are penny wise pound foolish.
Sometimes, fiscal crises can be leveraged for creative reform. But the framing around the issue suggests that this is going to be nothing of the sort. For one thing, for all the bluster about China and Great Power competition, we have signalled that we simply do not have the fiscal resources for the big game. The finance tail will wag the strategic dog too much. The second framing is that the armed forces needed two fundamental shifts: A shift from reliance on personnel to technology, and a younger age profile of soldiers. Both are laudatory goals. But is this the best way to achieve them? For starters, the issue of technology versus troops is one that should be dealt with in its own terms, not governed just by the logic of cutting your pension bill.
And it is also important not to be carried away by simplistic ideas that technology can replace troops on the ground. Pretty much every recent war, from Afghanistan to Ukraine, is driving that lesson home. In India’s case, we have been so often told that presence on a large inhospitable border is vital to holding territory. A younger age profile might help. But surely that has to be weighed against training, experience and professional bonds. With the new recruiting practices, will it be the case that the army has too long a tail of inexperienced soldiers, as Lt Gen PR Shankar pointed out in his article, ‘Tour of Duty: The Kindergarten Army’?
One major reform is recruitment on an all-India basis, rather than by state allotments. This may be a good thing. But two things have to be kept in mind. First, the Indian Army’s success as an institution embedded in democracy has in part come from its ability to maintain some regional balance, and become the army of all of India. As Steven Wilkinson’s work pointed out, this balance is crucial in avoiding ethnic conflict and civil war. Second, all-India recruitment will require a massive organisational and cultural shift in the army. It might be desirable and possible to achieve this. But here, the objectives are internally inconsistent. If you want to create new regimental cultures, sources of loyalty and discipline, you need longer terms of service together rather than shorter ones. We also know from the experience of other institutions that it might be harder to integrate recruits that are on two different professional tracks.
Many armies have short tours of duty because there is a shortage of potential recruits. In other cases, there is voluntary enlistment. But here what you are doing is absurdly marketing the army as a skill development school. There is the obvious challenge of how much its skills will be marketable. But more importantly: What happens to the idea of professional identity where your service is so short? Doubtless, it can shape you. But can it become your professional identity? The armed forces are sustained by a combination of duty, norms and incentives. But even more important is a sense of professional identity: “This is who I am.” Is so short a tour of duty enough for that? What does it mean to have an institution where for a large majority of recruits, the institution will not be a significant part of your professional identity?
And finally, there are the ramifications for society. This one is a delicate needle to thread. If the army experience is so fabulous that no civilian job after it matches up to its sense of purpose or working conditions, you are setting up large numbers of young people to a life of frustration. On the other hand, if it is not a great experience, deeply professionalised, you are potentially militarising a lot of young people, without the future safeguard of military discipline. There is ample evidence of the potential for the militarisation of society that comes from prematurely decommissioned soldiers. What happens in the army has huge sociological implications, and if not handled well, we could be playing with fire.
Government casualness recently botched up a much simpler reform: The creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff. The fact that it has been six months since an appointment was made tells you either that the post is not as important as we think, or that there is a dearth of competent people (unlikely), or that there is even more politics to these positions than is warranted. Indeed, we have not even sorted out the protocols for this position. The three service chiefs are, rightly, senior to the defence secretary. But the CDS was made secretary to the Department of Military Affairs. In that capacity he is subordinate to the service chiefs, and yet he is senior to them. This episode in miniature has all the hallmarks of what happens when spin dominates: No attention to detail, political logic overriding institutional sanity.
The armed forces need support and reform. But reforms should be governed by a sound sociological, professional, institutional and strategic logic. This reform fails the smell test on all four. A dose of scepticism might be a better act of patriotism than cheerleading blindly, especially if you want reforms to succeed.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.
On June 16, 1904, a nondescript middle-class householder stepped out of his house to wander through the streets and alleys of Dublin, and like you and me, kept thinking all the while about the numerous issues that bothered him — this ranged from the choice of soap he had to buy, to more serious matters like the death of his son and the suspected infidelity of his wife. The innocuous happenings of this single day became the stuff of a modern-day prose epic, turning the central character Leopold Bloom into a modern Ulysses with the banalities of his middle-class existence being transformed into the singular experiences of an epic hero on his quest.
Ulysses by James Joyce was deservedly lauded as the epic of our times when it was published in 1922, although Bloom’s “adventures” as he walked up and down Dublin could not have been more remote from the adventures encountered by the valorous hero of the Greek epic. This gargantuan book was to radically alter the literary topography of the West through its focus on the extraordinariness of the ordinary and its revolutionary stream-of-consciousness narrative technique that depicted the thought processes of its central characters without the mediation of the author-narrator. The result, admittedly, was rather confusing, as most readers were bewildered by the sudden unexplained jumps in thought in the rambling narrative that extended to hundreds of pages. The most noteworthy of all these mental rambles was the monologue of Bloom’s wife Molly. This largely unpunctuated “river run” of thoughts gave an insight into Molly’s mind as she guiltlessly thinks about her various extra-marital affairs; understandably, the words she uses in the intimate privacy of her mind are not what can be publicly expressed in “decent” society. Although many feminists later hailed Molly Bloom’s monologue as a rebellion against the patriarchal order of words, this section caused outrage through what was perceived to be a scandalous and unapologetic espousal of a married woman’s adultery. It also added fuel to the allegations of obscenity that the novel faced.
All these aspects of the novel are worthy of celebration, but in this centenary year of its publication, it must also be celebrated for rewriting the legal concept of obscenity in literature. The novel, before its publication in entirety, had been published serially in the American magazine Little Review from 1918 onwards when it began to face allegations of obscenity. The issues which carried the chapters of “Lestrygonians”, “Scylla and Charybdis” and “Cyclops” were confiscated and burned by the US Post Office. The mid-1920 issue which had the “Nausicaa” chapter had to face a worse problem when the New York branch of the Society for the Suppression of Vice lodged a formal complaint against it in court. The Special Sessions Court, despite the testimonies of novelists like John Cowper Powys, declared the novel to be obscene and convicted the editors of Little Review. This effectively precluded the possibility of the novel being printed in the US.
Ulysses was rescued from premature death by Sylvia Beach, the owner of the well-known bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, in Paris. What is now celebrated as the launch of a historic book was a low-key Parisian event that coincided with Joyce’s birthday on February 2, 1922. Although strict censorship laws prevented the possibility of Ulysses reaching Anglo-American shores, the ban in the US managed to transform what would have been a highbrow work that daunted the faint-hearted into a controversial book that was sought out for its forbidden content.
Taking advantage of the fact that Joyce did not have legal copyright over the novel in the US, some magazines began to publish excerpts that highlighted the sleaze rather than literary merit. It soon became a “bootleg classic” and continued to be so, till Random House publishers decided to test the waters by publishing the entire novel in 1930.
As expected, the novel was confiscated on the grounds that it was obscene. The ensuing court trial became a landmark in censorship cases worldwide, for its perspective on obscenity in literature, and how a book should be evaluated in terms of its effect on readers.
The prosecution contended that the novel was obscene as well as blasphemous; Joyce, it was pointed out, was not a believer and wrote with a distinctly anti-Catholic viewpoint. The defence lawyer Morris Ernst rightly pointed out that the concept of obscenity was variable, depending on the time and context. The perception of obscenity could change from one person to the other, and it was difficult to arrive at a comprehensive definition of the concept. However, what was to become a pivotal clause not just in this case but for later obscenity trials as well, was his argument that a literary work had to be judged as a whole and not on the basis of excerpts when it came to judging issues of obscenity. Judging the entire novel to be obscene merely on the basis of one chapter was being unfair to the novel and novelist.
Judge Woolsey’s decision was that the novel was not obscene; despite the presence of words popularly perceived as dirty, it did not contain “dirt for dirt’s sake”. He felt that the novel was a “somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women”.
This decision radically altered the legal landscape for books accused of obscenity and led. years later, to the liberation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, another iconoclastic work by a maverick genius. It was also invoked in India to dismiss the charge of obscenity made against The God of Small Things in 1997.
The four-letter words that were thought of as obscenity in those days have lost their shock value and are quite liberally used not just in literary works but also in the more popular media of films and television serials today. So, when Leopold Bloom stepped out of his house on June 16th, the English novel too was stepping out of the confines of stuffy Victorian morality to breathe the pure air of freedom.
The writer teaches at IIT, Kanpur
When the US Federal Reserve approved a 0.75-percentage-point rate rise on Wednesday, it was the largest interest-rate increase since 1994. But it was in line with expectations, given that US inflation is running at a 40-year high. Indeed the Fed is expected to continue lifting rates this year. A trimming of foreign investor enthusiasm may thus be on the card for emerging markets.
The Fed is seen as the world’s central banker to some extent. The world is therefore wishing as hard as the Fed that it is able to engineer a soft landing for the US economy, reining in inflation without triggering a serious recession. Even as it draws flak for keeping too much liquidity sloshing around in the system for too long, now there are equally hard worries about the chain of events that tighter credit conditions could set off.
The thing is that like with RBI, growth is not the Fed mandate. Unlike RBI, it actually has a dual one, to pursue the economic goals of maximum employment and price stability. And these two goals can also be in conflict, for as employment increases so do demand and the pressure on prices.
Only, with two job openings for every unemployed person in the US, Fed chair Jerome Powell has referred to some Beveridge-curve magic: “In principle, you could moderate demand, reduce demand to the point where job openings move down substantially, and the labour market gets much closer to being in balance.”
Will this beautiful theoretical equation play out beautifully in practice? The stakes couldn’t be higher. As they say, when the US sneezes the world catches a cold.
GoI on Tuesday announced that 1 million people will be recruited by it over the next 18 months, an admission that unemployment is a problem. One million jobs at one time is small help when 5 million people annually join the labour force, which is 430 million strong. Estimates on unemployment level vary depending on whose statistics one agrees with. GoI’s PLFS puts joblessness at 4.6% for June 2021. CMIE’s April 2022 data says the rate is 7.4%. Even when GoI data for 2022 comes, the gap won’t change much. Youth unemployment estimates between CMIE and GoI show even wider gaps. Although the period of survey and the age groups covered are not the same, it’s striking that unemployment in GoI’s 2020-21 data for the 15-24 age group is 12.9%, while CMIE’s April 2022 data shows 42% for the 20-24 age group and 12.7% for the 25-29 cohort.
Some conclusions can still be drawn. There’s a big youth unemployment problem, unpaid work is increasing, the quality of non-white collar jobs is declining, self-employment, a desperate choice for most low-income earners, is going up and real wages have been falling. That no expert reckons that even an economy growing at 7% can by itself solve the jobs problem shows how much the economy has changed structurally. As an Azim Premji University study showed, over the last decade, the impact on total employment for every 1 percentage point increase in GDP has been just 0.1%.
India’s not an outlier either. World Bank studies showed that in most countries the share of manufacturing in total employment dropped between 1994 and 2011, including countries where the manufacturing sector expanded its proportion in GDP. Growing automation will sometimes expand output without adding jobs. But there are two concrete things India can do. First, any obstacle to creating low-skill manufacturing jobs needs to be removed. PLIs are not enough. Central or state policies by themselves are not enough. There has to be joint Centre-state policymaking. Second, a chunk of manufacturing’s near-future jobs will be high-skilled, and only a Centre-state combined effort can make skilling India’s young a reality. If politics won’t allow such cooperation, politicians should know the future can be dire. Opposition parties, which reckon jobs are a BJP weak point and BJP, which reckons trumpeting official data is enough, are both guilty.
After two custodial deaths in as many days, an embarrassed Tamil Nadu police has issued an SOP for custodial interrogation. Only last month, six Chennai cops were arrested on murder charges after a 25-year-old Dalit man died in custody. Meanwhile, police in Saharanpur, UP, have been caught on camera brutally beating nine Muslim men arrested after Friday’s rioting incidents. Custodial violence is a colonial legacy but the reality is that generations of Indian politicians and therefore cops have winked at this scourge.
India is a rare democracy yet to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture. Laws to deter custodial violence are sketchy: IPC Sections 330 and 331 punish voluntary hurt to extort confession but these are general provisions not specifically targeting violence by police against a person in lawful custody. Through March, April and May this year NHRC registered 52 and 691 cases respectively of deaths in police and judicial custody. Most custodial deaths are blamed on ‘natural causes’ – and cops frequently get away with this, too.
Judicial intervention hasn’t been very effective. The Supreme Court’s DK Basu guidelines attempted to safeguard legal rights of accused persons. In recent years, SC has directed complete CCTV coverage of police stations with storage of footage, oversight committees at district and state levels for technical support, and retrieval of footage on torture complaints. Progress is slow. There’s another issue – cameras can’t just be ‘stationary’. India must introduce body cameras for police. Bodycams aren’t a full guarantee against police violence, but they have proven to be a good deterrent. They are cheap and can and must be widely used, with rules for storing data. In some cases, bodycams help cops, too, if faced with wrong accusations. But nothing will happen till politicians condone police violence.
Stock markets tumbled across the globe as the US Federal Reserve raised its policy interest rate by 0.75 percentage point, its most emphatic rate action in almost three decades to bring inflation to heel. Wall Street rallied on signals by Fed chair Jerome Powell that interest rates could be raised by a similar magnitude again next month. But the relief rally did not sustain worldwide over the likelihood of a US recession as early as 2024. The S&P 500 earlier in the week technically entered a bear market, having declined over 20% from its most recent record high. Investors have been expecting, since the beginning of the year, corporate earnings will be affected by higher credit costs and a slowing economy. An ultra-hawkish Fed reinforces those expectations.
The Fed's rate-hiking trajectory imposes two sets of constraints on central bank actions in the rest of the world. Reversing capital flows would require concerted policy interventions to keep currency and debt markets orderly. A rapidly cooling US economy, on the other hand, would pull down commodity prices that have surged on supply disruptions. The dollar index is at a two-decade high and crude futures slipped in anticipation of the Fed's latest rate hike.
India will be affected as its largest trading partner exports recession. Portfolio investment outflows are likely to accelerate and borrowing costs will remain elevated. The rupee will be under pressure, which can benefit merchandise exports, but costlier crude imports are likely to widen the trade deficit. Services exports, more than merchandise, are vulnerable to a US recession. This, in turn, affects foreign direct investment into information technology. India has, in the recent past, been importing inflation. With China, its second-largest trading partner, still facing a slowdown, there could be both supply and demand effects on growth. This would come at just about the time domestic demand has recovered from the pandemic. Both monetary and fiscal interventions have been alive to the evolving external environment.
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The reported move to subsume the GST anti-profiteering watchdog, National Anti-Profiteering Authority (NAA), into the Competition Commission of India (CCI) makes eminent sense. NAA was meant to ensure that industry passed on to consumers the lower incidence of tax on their goods, while shifting from the old indirect tax regime to GST as well as the proportionate benefit when tax rates were cut by the GST Council. Its very creation in 2017 showed the lack of trust in the power of competition and in the competence of the CCI to handle any aberrant market conduct. Nevertheless, NAA was given two extensions. It must cease to function as a stand-alone body. Winding up NAA will reduce the multiplicity of regulators and make doing business easier for industry.
The CCI is best placed to also ensure that market power is not abused by registered suppliers. At present, state-level screening committees and a standing committee at the national level first examine consumer complaints. The case is then referred to the directorate general of safeguards that conducts the probe until it is finally adjudicated by NAA. Letting the CCI adjudicate is in order. Reportedly, authorities are still getting complaints relating to the early years of GST. The backlog of cases must be swiftly cleared.
Some of the existing manpower including tax officers can be redeployed to the CCI. It should also have more supporting staff, including technical experts from different fields. Simultaneously, the case to make GST simple and efficient is also compelling now. Fewer and lower rates - a central rate for a vast majority of goods, a merit rate and a demerit rate - will lower disputes and boost collections. The levy's coverage must be universal. The GST Council must act.
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Symbols matter in politics. In the upcoming election for the next President of India, the ruling coalition has a glide path to victory – the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is within striking distance of a majority in the electoral college and with the support of some regional parties ( that have backed the government on all important pieces of legislation as well as the 2017 presidential and vice-presidential elections), its nominee is almost certainly the next occupant of Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Yet, for the Opposition parties, despite only a narrow path to victory, the poll is yet another test – and possibly the most important national-level one, till the 2024 general election – on whether they can resolve internal and longstanding contradictions and come together on one platform to take on the might of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Seventeen Opposition parties took the first step towards this goal on Wednesday when they decided to field a consensus candidate, though they indicated that it will take some more weeks to zero in on a nominee.
In an election to elect the titular head of State, a position more encased in prestige and symbolism than material political power, the challenges are intrinsically different for the two blocs. For the Opposition that has often been bested by the BJP in setting the political narrative over the last eight years, the stakes are higher. This election is a test – to prove that it can set the narrative and not only react to it, that it can forge a minimum common programme for regional forces and the Congress to come together, that it can pursue a national agenda even when competing with each other in some states and that leaders can temper their personal ambitions (and dislikes) to come together. At a time when Opposition leaders allege political vendetta in central agency action, such unity – even if symbolic – can become an important political counterweight.
For the government, despite its near certainty of victory, the challenge is to nominate a candidate who can encapsulate the social and political messaging that has become an innate part of the presidential election. After a political signal to the Dalit communities in 2017, the BJP and its allies will be looking at another symbolic coup.
Symbols matter in politics, and there is none more prestigious than the office of the President. Despite the relative lack of suspense over its outcome, the July 18 election will be important to see who gets their symbolism right, and what the larger message to the nation is.
The preparation for the first assembly election in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir appeared to have begun this week after the Election Commission initiated the process of revision of rolls and asked officials to complete the process by August 31. This comes after the delimitation process, which added six extra seats in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region and one in the Muslim-majority Kashmir, narrowing the gap between the two divisions and stoking the ire of Kashmir-based political parties and citizens.
The strands of controversy notwithstanding, the process of revision of electoral rolls is a welcome step. The restive region, which lost its special constitutional status three years ago, has seen an alarming spike in violence and targeted killings in recent months, underlining the importance of political, social and humanitarian outreach to go hand in hand with security and administrative responses. It is clear that repairing the fraying social fabric and reversing the panic and disaffection felt by Hindu minorities in the Valley – and the everyday threats faced by them – will need not only a muscular security posture but also a soft touch and political engagement with the mainstream parties in Kashmir.
A free and fair election in the region can not only give voice to the aspirations of people, it can also provide a vent for bottled resentment and temper the alienation felt by sections of the local population. For this, mainstream parties will need to be seen as stakeholders in administrative and political processes and the poll process will not only need to be legitimate and just, but also seen to be so. An open and transparent process of preparing the electoral rolls, along with taking mainstream leaders into confidence and constituting a robust mechanism for grievance redressal, can go a long way in improving the health of democracy in the Valley and, in turn, forge a durable social compact.
Unemployment rates are often looked at as the ultimate measure of a country’s ability to create employment. While they are indeed an important metric as far as the labour market is concerned, there is a need to look beyond the headline unemployment number, especially in the case of emerging market economies such as India. The 2020-21 Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) report, which was released on June 14, underlines this argument. The 2020-21 PLFS report – it covers the period from July 2020 to June 2021 which followed the 68-day long nationwide lockdown – shows that unemployment rates fell to their lowest level in India since the first PLFS was carried out in 2017-18.
However, this does not necessarily mean that all is well with the labour market in India. As was pointed out in a June 15 analysis of the PLFS numbers in this newspaper, the pandemic seems to have left long-term qualitative scars on the Indian labour market. The share of people employed in regular (and better-paying) jobs has come down, there has been a perverse shift of jobs from the non-farm to the farm sector, disguised unemployment – as can be seen in a rise in unpaid family labour masquerading as self-employment – has increased, and real wages are still lagging pre-pandemic levels for a large number of workers. All this means that mass purchasing power, and hence demand, is bound to have suffered. To be sure, the PLFS numbers are slightly dated and the situation could have improved as the state of economic activity has gained momentum over the past year. This is exactly why India needs more high frequency employment data.
The 12th ministerial conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) that began in Geneva earlier this week was supposed to be a chance for the 168-nation body to dust off the impression of obsolescence in a world increasingly dominated by like-minded countries forging trade deals, shaped by the policy dynamics of great powers. Instead, it appears that the protracted negotiations are careening towards a deadlock. The disagreement between a bloc of developing countries and the advanced economies is largely centred on three axes: A possible pact for intellectual property rights waiver on Covid-19 vaccines and treatment, the disagreement over public stockholding of food (crucial for India’s food security schemes, some of the largest in the world) and paring down of government fishing subsidies.
The stalled negotiations on a demand by countries such as India, South Africa, and Indonesia for a temporary waiver of certain provisions of the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement to provide universal access to Covid-19 vaccines, treatment and diagnostics has caused the sharpest disappointment. After opposition by some rich countries, a watered down version of the proposal is likely to exempt only a class of intellectual rights for vaccines (while firewalling medicines and diagnostics). This newspaper had pointed out last year that even after a full TRIPS waiver, countries will need access to technical know-how, raw materials, and infrastructure to ensure quality. With a diminished agreement, that job will almost certainly get harder. On food security and fisheries, India’s position has been clear despite lobbying from developed economies. In a world where the fragility of pacts, supply chains and cross-border trade has been underlined by the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war, the country is correct in asserting its right to food security (and a demand that its subsidy regimes cannot be challenged as illegal at WTO) and the need to balance the need for sustainability with the livelihood of marginal fisherfolk (the bulk of fishing in India is subsistence-based and done by rural men and women, and is not comparable to developed countries with industrialised fishing facilities).
Ultimately, the deadlock at WTO reflects the uncertainties of a world in churn and the inability of the body to develop a model for countries to work through these differences. The TRIPS waiver debate shows that the pandemic didn’t bring countries as close on issues of critical health care as previously thought, and the fish and food disagreement underlines the failure to create models that deliver long-term solutions to extant differences. If the meeting ends without a result, instead of blaming developing countries, WTO would do well to look inwards for reform and revival.
In the aftermath of the Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal controversy, the Indian television (TV) news media has been targeted by the Left and Right.
The former argues that news TV is guilty of giving a platform to hate-mongers. The latter, especially the Hindutva Right, insists that news TV is guilty of selective indignation by allowing Muslim sectarians to get away easily.
So, where does the truth lie?
Let’s take the Left-Liberal argument first. Is news TV giving space to hate-mongering? Yes. There is little doubt that there is a far greater indulgence of those who spew communal venom now, than ever before. From a government-controlled Doordarshan monopoly in the 1990s to nearly 400 24x7 private news channels in India, there is a manic race for eyeballs that often places sensation above sense, and where the concept of breaking news has broken down.
This transformation is reflected in the contemporary news TV format where polarised debates are seen as a cheaper way to design news operations. Where once field reportage was the primary diet of news TV, the TV studio with larger- than-life anchors is now the dominant arena for noise rather than news.
Even the nature of what passes off as “debate” has changed dramatically. I recall inviting, in the 1990s, the cerebral Congress leader, the late VN Gadgil, to discuss a perceptive essay he had written on secularism. I planned to get another formidable intellect — Arun Shourie — to debate with him. Gadgil politely declined, saying, “I don’t want a complex issue to be reduced to tu tu main main soundbites between the two of us.” Now, channels have 10 heads popping up on a TV screen, screaming at each other. I wonder how the soft-spoken Gadgil would respond to what I call the multi-headed “Ravana” school of talking heads journalism.
Talking heads TV isn’t just an Indian phenomenon; globally, investments in traditional news-gathering have declined. A flawed television rating point (TRP)-centric model has meant that most news channels are convinced that cacophonous debate on divisive issues such as religious identity will garner much more viewership than intelligent and meaningful discussions on “serious” subjects.
Unsurprisingly, when consumer inflation peaked at an eight-year high in May, most news channels in India ignored this; instead, they focused on the Gyanvapi mosque issue. A Fox news on steroids news model — a reference to the original profit from hate TV network in the United States (US — has meant that credibility often loses out to chaos on the small screen and an advertiser-driven business bottomline trumps journalistic ethics.
But why bash newsroom editors alone? After all, a newsroom mirrors the grim reality of a conflict-ridden polity where hate speech is being “normalised”. Those who accuse news channels of manufacturing hate conveniently forget that the likes of Sharma and Jindal aren’t fringe elements, as the Government of India rather disingenuously describes them. They represent the political mainstream.
Now reflect upon the Right-wing case of TV media bias. For years, the mainstream Indian media has been accused of being controlled by the Left-Liberal elite that is contemptuous of alternative views. Interestingly, a similar argument of being denied a compelling voice witnessed the rise of the US’s Right-wing Fox News network over a decade ago. The political Right nurtures resentment against a legacy media ecosystem, which they argue is pseudo-secular.
The accusations are valid, but only up to a point. Yes, a large section of traditional Indian media was wary, even dismissive of the Hindutva Right, but post-1992, as the BJP has become a principle pole of Indian politics, there has been a marked power shift.
Where once liberals directed the media narrative, now hardliners are ensconced in leadership roles in most newsrooms. The alleged pandering of minority communalists is more a myth than reality: In most instances, the topi (cap)-wearing “television Muslim” and few self-styled maulanas are caricatured and made a figure of ridicule, and demonised on TV.
While the Sharma and Jindal storm is a wake-up call for TV news, the elephant in the media jungle is the growing influence of social media in shaping public discourse. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk recently described Twitter as the “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are discussed” — lofty words that belie the reality of a nightmarish space where hate speech often has a free run in the name of free speech. Many news channels today almost reflexively follow Twitter trends, their prime-time agenda practically dictated by the clamorous noise in the virtual world. Sadly, in this public sphere where everyone — including highly organised political troll armies — seem to be outraging most of the time, farmer suicides don’t gather traction, but a raucous shivling versus a fountain debate almost certainly will.
Post-script: Business magnate Harsh Goenka, who has a reputation for creating a buzz on Twitter with his punchy tweets, recently warned that corporate advertisers were being driven away by those who feed off hate speech on TV. So will Mr Goenka walk the talk and call out the news anchors and programmes that routinely “profit from hate”?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal
When the Taliban came back to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, there was despair in India about the future of India-Afghan relations and its impact on Indian security. Many deemed that moment a great victory for Pakistan and lamented India’s perennial inability to shape its strategic environment. The West threw the Afghans, who had since 2001 started believing in the mythical commitment of the West to democratic ideals, under the bus and moved on, while the regional states were left to fend off the challenges emanating from the tumultuous Af-Pak border.
But, as one phase of that Great Game reached a denouement, another phase began in Afghanistan. Contrary to what Francis Fukuyama argues, history never really ends. It takes a different form and hue, forcing us to recognise its force and adjust accordingly. And, it has been a long adjustment over the last 10 months for the Taliban, ordinary Afghans, and regional stakeholders, including New Delhi.
Earlier this month, an official Indian delegation led by joint secretary JP Singh of the ministry of external affairs visited Afghanistan — the first such engagement since the Indian Embassy in Kabul was evacuated in August 2021 after the Taliban’s entry into the Afghan capital. Singh met the Taliban’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and the Indian government is reportedly considering the resumption of its diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. During the visit, the Taliban raised this issue as it underscored its preference for an Indian diplomatic presence. Suhail Shaheen, chief of the Taliban’s political office, made it explicit that the Taliban “ asked the Indian delegation to reopen its diplomatic mission in Afghanistan” with the Afghan government “committed to providing a secure environment for its normal functioning.”
New Delhi, for its part, has kept the focus squarely on the humanitarian side of the engagement by underlining that the recent visit was largely about ensuring proper delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. The Indian delegation pointedly visited the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital in Kabul, the Habibia High School, and the Chimtala Electricity sub-station — projects where Indian assistance produced substantive results for the Afghan people on the ground. India’s Afghanistan policy has always been centred on the well-being of ordinary Afghans and this perspective has little to do with who runs the government in Kabul, but the long-term equations between the two peoples with a longstanding civilisational relationship.
It is this humanitarian spirit that made India one of the most visible actors with New Delhi supplying 20,000 metric tonnes of wheat, 13 tonnes of medicines, winter clothing, 500,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Afghanistan, as well as one million doses of Covid-19 vaccines for Afghan refugees in Iran. Given the scale and scope of the humanitarian catastrophe facing the Afghans, New Delhi’s engagement has been gradually widening for obvious reasons. This has enhanced India’s credibility in Afghanistan and made it clear that even when India faces negative headwinds in the crisis-ridden nation, it has no intention of giving up on its commitment to help its neighbour.
But this expanding humanitarian outreach also now needs an Indian presence on the ground. If India continues to be one of the largest contributors to the humanitarian efforts in the country, there is no reason for it to only rely on multilateral organisations for the distribution of aid. It is also imperative for India to ensure that aid is reaching those who need it the most and is being distributed in an equitable manner to all groups and regions. In addition, India will have to stand up for its own principles of equity and justice when it comes to the management of its humanitarian assistance. Therefore, outreach to the Taliban becomes an important policy priority.
The Taliban, for its part, is also recognising that there is no getting away from India’s regional and global clout. Without substantive engagement with New Delhi, a more comprehensive global outreach is impossible. During the recent visit by the Indian officials, deputy foreign minister Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, said that “Afghan-Indian relations would move forward based on mutual respect and joint bilateral legitimate interests”, and “would not be influenced by other countries’ inter-rivalry.”
The Taliban has been keen to send this message to India for some months. The pressure on Afghanistan-Pakistan ties is growing with the Taliban trying to negotiate a so-called peace deal between the Pakistani army and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Though a ceasefire has been announced, the ground realities continue to be turbulent. The Taliban has continued to defy Pakistan by giving a haven to TTP and making strident claims on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
It is not surprising, therefore, that it is reaching out to India. New Delhi today has an opportunity to reset the terms of engagement with the Taliban on its own terms. Greater engagement with the Taliban will create new possibilities for India as other regional players such as China, Russia and Iran look for ways to step up their engagement. The Taliban continue to be as regressive and repressive as its previous avatar, but India and the world have changed. New Delhi should continue to underline its commitment to the Afghan minorities and women, and work with the wider international community to hold the Taliban accountable. There is no reason why it should shy away from making its presence overtly felt in Afghanistan.
Harsh V Pant is vice-president, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and professor at King’s College London
The views expressed are personal
The government this week announced a recruitment model, Agnipath, for the short-term induction of personnel into the armed forces. As a veteran, who has worn the nation’s uniform with pride for 41 years, I wish the new scheme all success. But due to my loyalty to my motherland, shared by all veterans, I also have some misgivings about the new recruitment programme.
There is no doubt that the Russia-Ukraine war will have repercussions on our geopolitically stressed region, with a hostile China already creating trouble. In such a situation, this, perhaps, was not the right time to undertake radical measures such as Agnipath. That this so-called transformative scheme has met with criticism from many veterans should not be brushed aside.
Among the positive reactions in the media, two stand out: The scheme will open the gates for fresh talent and reduce the mammoth pension bill. While a prudent pruning of non-critical defence expenditure may be in order, the grave ramifications of reducing the manpower strength of the armed forces must be holistically addressed.
The strength of the Indian military is around 1.5 million, while that of civilians in the ministry of defence is approximately 375,000. However, their pension in proportionate terms is much more than those of the military. Civilians and the police personnel retire at the age of 58 and end up drawing much higher pensions than those in the military who, by and large, retire between 35-37 years. The average annual defence civilian pension is roughly ₹5.38 lakh versus ₹1.38 lakh for military pensioners, due to the longer career spans of the former.
Since the security considerations of the nation are sacrosanct even in this technology-driven age, only highly motivated and well-trained personnel of the armed forces must man the troops, not short-term soldiers, or agniveers, who may only be waiting to finish their four-year stint and move on to greener pastures. Hence, a pilot project would have been a more prudent step.
Serving the Army is a calling; joining it is far beyond seeking mere employment. Regrettably, our civilian brethren cannot fathom why Indian soldiers — acknowledged one of the best in the world — willingly lay down their life following their young leader in combat. It is because of the Indian Army’s centuries-old hallowed tradition of “naam, namak, nishan,” which means faith in the name of his unit, salt (pledging loyalty to it), and the unit flag. And the ultimate loyalty is, of course, to the motherland. Can you replace an Indian soldier with a semi-trained and not-so-motivated person who is just waiting to complete his four years under the new scheme?
There are many examples of armies with short-tenure soldiers falling in battle. For example, American soldiers in Vietnam and Russian soldiers in Ukraine. The performance of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops in Afghanistan is also a telling example of demotivated soldiers.
It takes a soldier a long time to emotionally and physically get moulded into his unit groove, become infused with his unit’s ethos and, thus, be prepared to lay down his life for the unit’s honour. A soldier is not a watchman but has to master many skills: Weapons, communications, diverse equipment, fieldcraft and tactics. Mastering these skills takes time. The Indian armed force is a noble institution that has been at the forefront in preserving the nation’s honour and security. Being the first responders to any challenge and as the last bastion of the State, its manpower requirements, both qualitatively and quantitatively, have to be adequately met, notwithstanding any financial constraints.
Kamal Davar is a retired Lt General, and a veteran of 1965 and 1971 wars
The views expressed are personal
Washington: President Joe Biden is in trouble.
Close to 18 months after he took over office, successive polls have shown the popularity ratings of the United States President Joe Biden plummeting consistently. Published on June 8, a Morning Consult-Politico survey found that 39% approve of the respondents Biden’s performance while 58% disapprove. A Reuters/Ipsos poll, published on June 7, found that 41% approved of his performance while 56% disapproved. Biden’s popularity ratings have been below 50% since last August.
As mid-term elections approach — all 435 seats of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate’s seats will be up for grabs later this November — the overwhelming consensus in Washington’s power corridors, including within Democratic Party, is that the Republicans will take the House and the race for the Senate majority is too tight to call. At present, Democrats have a slender majority in the House and the Senate is tied 50:50, with the Vice President’s vote tilting the balance in favour of Democrats. This gives Biden’s party, on paper, complete control of both the executive and legislative branch — even though the story is far more complicated in practice.
There is, also, talk within Democratic circles about whether Biden is the best person to lead the party into the 2024 elections, even as the President has made it clear he intends to run for a second term. None of the names doing the rounds for the post-Biden Democratic leadership — Vice President Kamala Harris and transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg are mentioned most frequently, as are others who took a stab at the nomination in 2020 like Elizabeth Warren — are, at the moment, seen as having the winnability quotient against a Republican challenger, especially if that challenger happens to be Donald Trump.
So what has gone wrong for the 46th President of the United States — a man who was elected to the Senate in 1972 and then served as Vice President for eight years? As someone who knows the intricacies of the US political system, players and culture like few others, how and why did Biden fumble? Or did he?
This reported essay on Biden’s political trajectory is based on an extensive reading of Biden’s speeches and policy statements on 2021 and 2022, on-background conversations with Democratic and Republican leaders, donors and political aides as well as diplomats who have closely tracked the US’s political evolution in the past year, and critical assessments of the presidency published in recent months in a range of policy and popular media platforms in the US and internationally.
What Biden inherited
Biden inherited what can only be described as a political chaos and administratively anarchy when he took office on January 20, 2021.
Politically, for the first time in American history, a sitting US President obstructed the peaceful transfer of power by first questioning the legitimacy of the electoral outcome and then summoning and sending a mob to the Capitol to block the certification of the results. This was also a deeply divided country, where 72 million people voted for Donald Trump despite his categorical rejection of the norms and policy framework that had governed the American polity.
Administratively, Biden inherited a health crisis with the pandemic having ravaged American lives and economy, and a governance and institutional apparatus that had been laid hollow by Trump’s penchant for theatre and tweets.
While Trump did reset America’s China policy and engineered a set of unlikely accords in West Asia — both of which the Biden administration has sustained and built on — the Trump presidency undoubtedly eroded American standing and credibility, ruptured the US’s ties with traditional allies and partners in Europe, undermined the global governance architecture which had served American interests well, and inaugurated a mood of hostility to the open economic and trading arrangements that has outlasted the last administration and become a feature of American politics.
To be fair to the President, Biden has done a remarkable job in restoring a degree of normalcy on all these fronts.
What Biden did in 2021
Biden’s immediate priority on taking over was tackling the pandemic. This had two dimensions — lives and livelihoods.
By then, Trump’s support for vaccine development efforts had paid off — and the new administration focused on intensifying vaccination efforts. Around 68% of the American population is now fully vaccinated, and this helped lower the hospitalisation and death rates through 2021 and 2022. The administration did fumble in ensuring the supply of enough testing kits during the Omicron wave during the winter, the pandemic remains an unfinished story, but the push towards vaccination, including boosters, and ease in testing has helped the US partially stabilise the situation born out of the pandemic.
But there remains a formidable constituency of vaccine sceptics — who, at great risk to their lives and the lives of those around them — have refused to get the jab which would enhance their protection against Covid-19. Biden’s effort to institute mask mandates was frowned upon or actively opposed by a segment of the population — fed on misguided notions of individual liberty — and then struck down by the judiciary. The prolonged in-person school closures also exasperated parents, an issue that Republicans leveraged to build up resentment. So even though Biden did seek to bring science back to the Covid-19 response strategy, and did what can be considered a reasonably competent job, his efforts did not break through the partisan silos that have become integral to American politics.
On the economic dimension of the pandemic, Biden pushed through the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to address distress. This act extended unemployment benefits, ensured direct cash transfer of $1400 to individuals, provided for emergency pay leave, extended a 15% increase in food stamp benefits, expanded child tax credits, gave grants to small businesses and affected sectors as well as educational institutions, enhanced support for housing, carved out outlays for additional health care spending, among other steps.
Biden, by then, had become more ambitious and sought to push through what many in DC began calling his Roosevelt-like ambitious roadmap which had two components — focused on infrastructure and social care and resilience.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill focused largely on improving America’s dilapidated infrastructure and was, in the Keynesian model, an attempt to spur public spending as a way to stimulate the economy and generate employment. It had financial investments of a scale of $1.2 billion, and was eventually passed in November 2021.
At the same time, Biden also sought to push through Build Back Better Act. This entered the more contentious terrain of American politics, with an attempt to expand social welfare benefits including for child and elderly care, make long-term investments to battle the climate crisis, provide partial relief on medical costs, make investments in higher education to enable students to access community colleges, and tax the wealthy. And while the House passed a bill that would have entailed an investment of $2.2 billion, Biden failed to muster up the required support in the Senate. This was not because of Republican opposition (they opposed it of course), but because Biden was unable to hold his own Democratic cohort together, with two prominent dissenters - Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Both belonged to states where Republicans posed a formidable political challenge, both had powerful social and economic constituencies that they did not wish to antagonise, and both found themselves more aligned with the Republican worldview on many political economy issues than the progressive wing of their own party.
These twin legislations — one of which passed and the other did not — cost Biden extraordinary political capital in 2021 and are critical to understanding how the political narrative began to slip outside his control.
This was because, through most of the summer and fall of 2021, the progressive caucus within the Democrats in the House of Representatives insisted on passing both bills together. They feared that if this was not done, while the infrastructure bill would go through, the build back better bill would get stuck. This was a legitimate fear but in the process, neither bill passed till a set of state-level elections in November saw the Democrats lose the governor’s race in Virginia and face a close contest in New Jersey. This scared the party into eventually mobilising its members to push through the infrastructure bill at the very least; the build back better framework was, effectively, dead with Democrats lacking the numbers in the Senate to push it through.
So, over 2021, three separate things happened on the domestic front, each of which was to have implications for 2022.
One, Biden tackled the pandemic better than Trump — and his efforts saved lives and paved the way for a return to some kind of economic normalcy. But he did not get political credit for it beyond his base. And a stronger government hand in pushing through vaccination and preventive measures riled up the Republican base.
Two, Biden pumped money into the economy both through the rescue plan and the infrastructure initiative. While this provided both immediate relief, generated jobs, and laid the foundations for the longer-term revival of America’s physical assets, it also, as former Treasury secretary and Harvard economist Larry Summers had warned, had inflationary consequences. These were amplified because supply chains remained disrupted in the wake of the pandemic and popular spending patterns shifted to goods from services. Treasury secretary Janet Yellen has now acknowledged that the administration was wrong in terming inflation as a transitory feature.
Three, Biden sought to please the progressing wing of his party by attempting to push both the infrastructure and build back better bills together. This cost him time and first put off the centrists within the party and gave Republicans a talking point. He did not succeed. And eventually, the social care legislation wasn’t passed. This alienated the progressives who felt the White House hadn’t fought enough.
Juxtapose this with Biden’s most serious national security crisis till that point — Afghanistan. The administration extended the deadline of withdrawal of troops but largely stuck to the Trump script of getting out of Afghanistan. To be fair, Biden had been sceptical of deeper engagement in the country ever since he became Vice President in 2008 and had opposed Barack Obama’s surge. After 20 years of being on the ground, there was little popular support for the continued American presence in Afghanistan.
But the manner of the American exit, the immediate collapse of the Afghan government and security forces, and the swift Taliban takeover of Kabul shattered American standing in the region — and led to an avalanche of criticism at home against Biden. Republicans, who have honed the narrative of Democrats being weak and incompetent on national security for decades, found in Afghanistan solid ground to attack Biden, even though Trump had signed a flawed peace deal that allowed Taliban legitimacy despite the terror group neither giving up its coercive apparatus nor its ideological agenda. It is no coincidence that Biden’s approval ratings begin falling in August, the same month as the Afghanistan withdrawal.
And then, by the end of the year, Omicron hit. And suddenly, it appeared that the administration was not in control. Delays in testing did not help. And Biden lost some of the political credit he had gained on pandemic management, even within his base. By the time 2021 ended, Biden’s political peak was over. The Roosevelt-like dreams of rebuilding America had collided with cold political realities. The divisions within his party were there for all to see, with the President appearing like he was not a man in control. Neither the centrists were listening to him, nor the progressives. And despite record employment numbers, it was not jobs but prices that was the dominant talking point. And this is when the narrative shifted to Ukraine.
Biden’s Ukraine gambit
Joe Biden got Ukraine right.
After the erosion in its credibility due to flawed intelligence that provided the justification for the Iraq War, the American intelligence community — with the Central Intelligence Agency led by veteran diplomat and Russia hand, William J Burns — predicted that Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine. In a remarkable departure from the past, Biden allowed the public release of intelligence as a way to warn the world and build pressure on Vladimir Putin to step back from his invasion plans. Critics have pointed out that this strategy of publicly releasing intelligence may have goaded Putin even more into the aggression and failed in its purpose of deterring the invasion. But the widespread consensus in western strategic circles is that the release of intelligence re-established American primacy and allowed it to gain the narrative dominance on the issue.
This was coupled with extensive transatlantic diplomacy. Donald Trump had left the US-Europe relationship in tatters, with the relevance of NATO under question. The Biden administration invested in repairing ties with Europe, building a consensus on Russia’s aggressive moves, and incrementally goaded even countries such as Germany — which had close economic interlinkages with Russia, exemplified by Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — to begin reconsidering ties with Russia.
The US also began pumping in resources in Ukraine and stepping up its military assistance to the regime in Kyiv so that Volodymyr Zelensky was in a position to take on the might of the Russian forces if the invasion did happen. And simultaneously, the administration — under the leadership of deputy national security advisor Daleep Singh — began preparing what was to become the most severe set of sanctions ever imposed on a major power.
Putin went ahead with the invasion on February 24. And Biden’s plan kicked in.
The US built up an international coalition at the United Nations to castigate and condemn Russia. It cemented transatlantic unity, with even those who had hedged bets till that point such as Germany turning decisively against Russia and calling off the flagship gas pipeline. NATO suddenly got a new life as America stepped up its military presence in Eastern Europe, and countries such as Finland and Sweden giving up their traditional foreign policy positions to entertain the possibility of entering the alliance. The sanctions package — which included freezing Russian assets and reserves, and imposing a set of wide technological and financial sanctions — saw the Russian economy tumble. The Ukrainian leadership and forces, backed by tremendous western intelligence and military support, succeeded in repelling Russian forces from Kyiv and forced Moscow to reset its war aims and turn the focus on southern and eastern Ukraine where the war is currently being fought intensely.
But by April, two consequences of the war started playing out.
In the US, emboldened by the early Ukrainian successes in fighting off the Russians and isolating them to a large extent, there appeared to be an escalation in war aims. From only seeking to safeguard Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty, American officials increasingly began speaking of weakening Russia, ensuring a long-term strategic defeat for Russia, and even flirting with the idea of regime change. This introduced a level of tension — which isn’t visible, but exists just beneath the surface — with a set of countries in Europe that recognised that while Russia must be repelled, even a weaker Russia which had faced a strategic setback would remain an important pillar of the global security architecture.
How the war ends will depend as much on what happens on the ground as on the evolution of this debate in western strategic and policy circles on a set of questions — what would be considered a Ukrainian victory; at what point should there be a more concerted push for peace; is Russia acquiring an edge Donbas; what are the compromises Ukraine will have to make for peace; what will be the terms of future engagement with Russia; and is the renewed Western unity a fleeting feature or does it represent a consolidation of western strength that will outlast the current war?
The second consequence was the direct escalation in commodity prices across the world. Energy costs shot up. Food prices spiralled. Shortages became rampant. Countries in Asia and Africa, which were anyway put off with the hypocrisy of the West in framing its own conflicts as fundamental to world order while ignoring security challenges and conflicts elsewhere in the world, began to express their concerns about where the war was headed. The western sanctions regime led to a greater push for self-reliance and realisation among other emerging powers that weaponisation of foreign assets and reserves — due to the primacy of the dollar — could alter global economic architecture and lead to more fragmentation. American power was on display, but that display of power had also caused consternation among a range of political elites in the developing world.
But for Biden, domestically, the most significant impact of Putin’s invasion was a further spike in prices at home. To add to the trends of general supply chain disruptions and infusion of liquidity and revival in the labour markets in 2021, here was now a total disruption in energy trade. Gas prices kept galloping. And record job and growth numbers were not enough to hide the basic fact that Americans were facing the most serious inflationary episode in four decades. This has led to a stock market crash, and the Federal Reserve hiking interest rates, with a mood of gloom hovering around the economic landscape as policymakers and citizens prepare for a slowdown and even possibly recession.
Biden’s culture battles
Even as the Biden presidency was focused on the pandemic, the political economy, and most potent security challenge Europe had faced in decades, it was also operating in the larger backdrop of the culture wars that had engulfed America in recent years. Indeed, Biden has consistently said he fought the presidential elections to save the “soul of America”. But being polemical has been easier than framing a strategy around these wars.
These culture wars have revolved around a set of traditional issues that have divided American polity for decades — abortion, guns, and affirmative action — and other issues that have been a part of the discourse but become even more salient in recent years — educational curriculum, voting rights, criminal justice reform, the so-called “Great Replacement Theory”, LGBTQI rights, and immigration.
Take six of these issues, what Biden has done and not done, and how they possibly benefit Democrats and possibly harm them from the narrow prism of electoral politics.
Abortion is back on the ballot as a primary political issue with the unprecedented leak of the draft opinion of a majority in the Supreme Court majority that overturns the protections guaranteed under Roe v Wade. If the final verdict resembles the leak, a framework that had gradually seen an expansion in abortion rights and minimised government interference will get altered. States will be empowered to pass legislations that either outright ban abortion or circumscribe it. It will lead to the legal Balkanisation of the US, where progressive and Democratic states will ramp up protections while Republican states will curtail it. Since abortion-related protections were provided as a part of the right to privacy, the reversal of these protections could also potentially inaugurate an attack on other rights that Republican-leaning judges, legislators and base have opposed — including same-sex marriages.
In response, Biden, a Catholic who opposed abortion in the past, has taken a strong stance against the possible verdict. He has framed the issue around the principles of reproductive rights and the right to privacy, and pushed through an attempt in Congress to create a national framework to protect Roe v Wade. This legislative attempt was bound to fail given the lack of numbers in the Senate for Democrats to overcome the filibuster, but was seen as an important signal to the base and to voters who are unhappy about a potential reversal of these rights.
Indeed, opinion polls have consistently shown that there is widespread public support for abortion. Democrats hope that this will galvanise voters later in the midterms to turn out to vote against the Republicans, and win over swing voters, particularly women. This is a rare culture issue where Democrats, at the moment, have a possible electoral advantage. Republicans, on the brink of a historic ideological and judicial victory, are keen to take credit for the verdict but have been careful not to gloat yet, for they are aware that while this galvanises their base, it may erode their prospects in swing seats and among swing voters.
Guns too are back on the national agenda. This is not just due to the recent shootouts in Buffalo and Texas, though they have undoubtedly given it a sharper public focus. It is also because there have already been a record 250 mass shootings this year. 2021 saw over 750 mass shooting episodes, a jump from the 611 in 2020 and 417 in 2019, according to the Washington Post.
With the right to own guns protected under the Second Amendment, the debate in American politics has never been about banning guns — but the conditions under which guns can be purchased, who can purchase it, what guns can be purchased, and what are the background checks and guardrails that can be instituted. Given the recent shootings and the public outrage it has generated, there has been a rare — though limited — breakthrough in gun reform laws. A bipartisan group of senators have agreed to push through a legislation that would enhance background checks, prevent gun sales to domestic violence offenders, and increase federal funding for school security and mental health programmes, among other steps.
Democrats are hoping that the public outrage against gun violence will spur voters in the midterms to back candidates who speak out against the unfettered right to own guns, even though it would be a mistake to underestimate the well-funded gun lobby — which has both a material and ideological advantage given how closely gun ownership is linked to American identity. And therefore each time Democrats speak up against gun violence and propose reforms, Republicans caricature them as a party that would take away second amendment rights.
The third broad set of issues relates to education — both in terms of curriculum and inclusion. Republicans have begun a campaign at the state level to paint any teaching of racism by painting it within the broad brush of “critical race theory”; this allows them to tap White anxieties about how the history of slavery and oppression is taught and, in an act of political chutzpah, paint Whites as victims who are at the receiving end of being seen as racist. This is a key issue that Virginia governor, Glenn Youngkin, leveraged in his successful campaign last year.
This is coupled with an attack on pedagogy around sexuality, especially LGBTQI identities and rights, with Florida governor Ron Desantis, a Republican presidential hopeful for 2024, leading the way in banning or restricting how this is taught. This allows Republicans to paint Democrats as ultra-leftists who are out to disrupt social and gender norms, which would break up families and disrupt family structures.
To add to curriculum battles, there is a concerted Republican push to characterise any attempt by Democrats or African-American civil rights groups to push for greater inclusion of Black students in schools — and colleges — as against “merit”. With this, the Republicans hope to not just tap into White grievances but also strike a chord with other minority groups, especially Asian-Americans, who see affirmative action for Black students as coming at a cost to their seats in educational institutions. Given the premium that Asian-American parents, including Indian-Americans, place on education as the tool for upward mobility, this is a raw emotive issue that could create an unlikely coalition of social groups.
The Democratic base is furious with these moves. But Biden has chosen largely to stay away from the education wars. This appears to be a part of a tactical decision to not fight on issues that Republicans can use to inflame public opinion and win over swing voters, but critics allege that the Democratic leadership’s lack of willingness to fight more aggressively on education betrays ideological weakness and cedes the political space to Republicans to caricature liberals.
The fourth issue is criminal justice reform. In the wake of the Black Lives Matters movement in 2020, which exposed the structural racist prejudices that governed the functioning of police forces in America, the Democrats promised an ambitious roadmap to reform the criminal justice system. Some more radical segments of the party even began a “Defund the Police” campaign. But over the past year, as crime has increased and the perception of increasing lawlessness has sharpened, Biden has decisively distanced himself from the radical wing of his party. In his State of the Union speech, he, in fact, played around with the slogan of the need to “Fund the Police”. The search for order spans across social groups, but the silence on criminal justice reform has alienated civil liberties activists and African-American political and social groups which see it as a betrayal of promises. At the same time, a large segment of White Americans — fueled by Republican rhetoric — continue to see Biden as “soft” on crime because he is hostage to his voting base, in what is a not-so-subtle reinforcement of racist stereotypes.
The fifth issue is immigration. Donald Trump redefined the American political discourse with his rhetoric against migrants — and his campaign to build a wall on the Mexican border. Republicans have (inaccurately but successfully) painted Democrats as a party that gives a free run to illegal immigrants, who then are responsible for a surge in crimes and snatching away livelihoods. Biden has been unable to move on immigration reform at all, which in turn has alienated his Hispanic base. At the same time, with Fox News leading the charge, the Republican base sees him as “pandering” to illegal immigrants.
And finally, and most disturbingly perhaps, there is a concerted far-Right push to spread what has come to be known as the “Great Replacement Theory” — a conspiracy-based claim, with no factual basis, and fuelling the politics of hate. The premise of this theory is that a set of elites are deliberately, through permissive policies and political design, bringing in immigrants and encouraging people of colour to replace “native Americans” — with the explicit aim of disenfranchising Whites and reducing their political power. Absurd as it is, this theory cuts to the heart of the current battle in American politics.
While the Republican Party officially distances itself from the violent far-Right on the issue, it is leveraging the fears of the dominant White majority about the demographic transition underway in what has traditionally been a country of immigrants; this demographic transition, under a democratic framework, is of course leading to a shift in power equations with other social groups finding a seat at the high table of power; each instance of this successful political rise of other communities is used to feed into prejudices and fears. The US intelligence community now recognises the fusion of White Supremacism and domestic terrorism as possibly being the foremost security challenge for America — and January 6 was a reflection of that.
Biden has aggressively challenged the Great Replacement Theory, spoken out against this majoritarianism, and sought to reassure other social groups — from Blacks to Asian-Americans — that he would stand with them against this politics of hate.
And so, Biden has adopted a nuanced and mixed approach on issues which have broadly come to be clubbed as culture wars. On abortion, he has stepped up and adopted an aggressive position against the reversal of rights. On gun reforms, his exasperation and empathy strike a chord with the base and moderates. On education, he has chosen to largely remain silent. On criminal justice, he has prioritised immediate order over structural reform. And on White Supremacism, he has sought to defend America’s “soul”. But with this mixed approach, in the electoral process, he runs the risk of neither winning over the White majority nor keeping together his more marginalised base (of women, immigrant groups, Blacks, sexual minorities), with the former believing Biden has gone too far and the latter convinced that he hasn’t gone far enough.
Where Biden stands
It is this mix of issues — pandemic management where vaccination has saved American lives but Biden hasn’t really got political credit for it; the political economy where jobs have been created and distress has been addressed, but record inflation and now an emerging slowdown threatens to undo all of Biden’s achievements; the Ukraine war where American power was on display but the costs of the war are slowly coming home, adding to Biden’s economic challenges; and political and cultural issues, some of which Biden has taken on aggressively, others where he has retreated into silence, and somewhere he has changed course altogether — that will determine Democratic prospects in the mid-term elections.
The party that holds the White House, historically, has ended up losing out in the mid-terms. But while that may be a disadvantage that Biden anyway begins with, it is this set of political issues that explain why America’s 46th president — a veteran of political battles — is now staring at what may be his toughest political challenge so far.
In the past eight years, this government, under Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, has brought about a total transformation of the power sector. But how is this being effected?
In 2014, the total installed power generation capacity was 248,554 megawatts (MW) and load-shedding was a regular feature. In eight years, we added 169,110 MW of generation capacity. We now have a total power generation capacity of 400 gigawatts (GWs), while the maximum demand to date has been 215 GWs.
We have added 166,080 circuit kilometres (c-km) of transmission lines and integrated the country into a single electric grid running on one frequency. The Indian grid has emerged as the world’s largest integrated grid. The interregional transfer capacity in 2014 was 37,950 MW, which has been increased to 112,250 MWs. Our transmission lines deploy some of the most cutting-edge technologies, located at challenging altitudes.
Before 2014, more than 18,000 villages and hundreds of thousands of hamlets were not electrified. On August 15, 2015, at Red Fort, PM Modi announced the target of electrifying every village in 1,000 days. This was a challenge as hundreds of villages were located in the high hills of the Himalayan belt and others in the deserts of Rajasthan, where even poles, conductors, and transformers had to be carried across on ponies and in helicopters. We achieved this in 987 days. The International Energy Agency (IEA) called this the biggest development in energy in 2018.
The PM then set a target of connecting every home with electricity. We did this in 18 months. A total of 28.6 million homes were electrified. This was the largest expansion of access in such a short time in the history of the energy sector, according to IEA. Every willing household was connected. We also asked the states to ensure that all homes, in existence on or before the launch of Saubhagya (universal access scheme), should be connected. We have also strengthened the distribution systems on an unprecedented scale. We implemented schemes in all states at the cost of ₹201,722 crore. We added 2,921 new sub-stations, upgraded 3,926 existing sub-stations, added or replaced 604,465 c-km of low-tension lines and 268,838 km of 11 KVA high-tension lines, constructed separate agriculture feeders of 122,123 circuit km, and installed 731,961 transformers. The result? The average availability of power has increased to 22.5 hours and 23.5 hours in rural and urban areas. respectively.
Our government cares about the environment. In 2015, PM Modi announced a target of installing 175 GW of renewable energy (RE) capacity by 2022. Despite two years of Covid-19 and its induced lockdown, we have established an RE capacity of 158 GWs, with 54 GW under installation. We have emerged as a country with the fastest-growing RE capacity. We have also been rated the most attractive destination for investment in RE in the world. Every major fund in the world is invested in our green energy programme. At the Conference of the Parties-21 (COP-21), we pledged that by 2030, 40% of our power generation capacity will come from renewables. We achieved this target in November 2021.
Now, we want to put a roof on every home and solarise every irrigation pump. We also pledged at COP-21 that by 2030, we will reduce emissions intensity by 33%-35% as compared to 2005 levels. Today, we are nearing a reduction of 30%. Our Ujala programme — the world’s largest LED programme — has resulted in the reduction of CO2 emissions of 106 million tonnes per annum.
We have programmes to enhance energy efficiency and reduce emissions in industry. The programme suggests that increased energy efficiency will lead to a reduction in emissions. This has resulted in a reduction of 103 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per annum. We have an energy efficiency programme for appliances called the stars rating programme, which has resulted in a reduction of CO2 emissions by 53 million tonnes per annum. We have put in place a programme for energy efficiency for commercial and residential buildings. As a result, we are the only G20 nation whose energy transition actions are consistent with the rise in global temperatures.
As we achieved our Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), we increased our targets at COP-26, taking the pledge to install 500 GW of non-fossil fuel capacity by 2030. We also pledged to reduce our CO2 emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030.
The government has brought comprehensive reforms in the sector. It has made the provision of a letter of credit compulsory for the flow of power and brought down the late payment surcharge from 18% to 12%. For the first time, we have laid down rules spelling out the rights for consumers and simplified the process of recovery of costs. We have also separated the central transmission utility from the power grid to bring transparency.
The rules for connectivity to the transmission network have been simplified by putting in place General Network Access Rules. We have expanded the market, and put in place separate “Term-Ahead-Market” and “Day-Ahead-Market” for RE. We have provided for the bundling of RE with thermal energy and biomass cofiring in thermal power plants. We also provided for generating companies to be able to sell power.
To ensure the viability of the system and bring in financial discipline, the government has made fund flows and grant loans from the Power Finance Corporation (PFC) and Rural Electrification Corporation (REC) conditional on their undertaking reforms. As a result, 36 distribution companies (discoms) have agreed to timelines for the reduction of Aggregate Technical and Commercial (AT&C) losses and average cost of supply and the average revenue realised (ACS-ARR) gap as well as clearance of subsidy and government dues. Corporate reforms are being put in place in discoms. We have also put in place a rating system for discoms.
The scale of reforms is unparalleled. Before this, no government touched distribution sector reforms. In line with the vision of PM Modi, we are working towards a brighter India, with the mission of “power to the future of the nation”.
RK Singh is Union minister for power and new and renewable energy
The views expressed are personal
What causes inflation in an economy? There are many takes on inflation — excessive money supply, demand outpacing supply, cost-push — but there is one route of inflation, caused by class conflict, which is hardly ever discussed. The root of this goes back to Karl Marx, but a modern version of it was developed by Michal Kalecki and Bob Rowthorn.
What is inflation? It’s a rise in the prices of different commodities. Commodities can be divided broadly into two categories — agricultural and non-agricultural. Kalecki suggested that the prices of the first are demand-determined, whereas the second are cost-determined. The reason is simple: For agricultural commodities, supply (in the absence of decent storage facilities) is fixed in the short-run, so excess demand (apart from costs) plays a crucial role in their inflation.
On the other hand, the supply of manufactured goods and services can easily adjust to demand since, in normal circumstances, you have excess capacity in these sectors. The prices of cars, motorcycles, or toothpaste don’t rise (or fall) just because their demand has increased (or decreased) but their prices can, and do, rise if the cost of production (or profit margins) has risen. Why and when do these rise?
The price of a manufactured commodity to a consumer (MRP or the maximum retail price) consists of cost of production, profit margin of the firm, and indirect taxes charged by the government. So, a rise in any (or all) will increase prices. This is where class conflict enters the picture. Such a process of price formation is like a division of a pie among different claimants over a share in it. These claimants can be categorised broadly as workers, raw material producers, other input suppliers, rentiers, government and – the highest in the pecking order of fixing prices – capitalists.
Each of these claimants has a tool to bargain with in this class conflict. It is wages for workers, terms of trade for raw material producers and other input suppliers, oil prices (after accounting for depreciation of the currency) for oil barons from whom we buy crude, interest rates for rentiers, indirect taxes (Goods and Services Tax or GST, customs duty or VAT) for the government, and gross profit margin for the capitalists. If in the process of this bargain, the total claim is equal to the size of the pie, prices will remain stable. If, however, these claims are larger than what the pie can accommodate, it leads to a rise in prices and sets a process of a price spiral we know as inflation.
Three important lessons follow from this. One, irrespective of who kickstarts the spiral, the greater the bargaining power of each of the classes, the higher the inflation will be. So, in comparison to the 2009-11 inflation, when the wages of workers were also rising, inflation today is relatively muted because the workers are on the backfoot. Inflation rates would have otherwise been much higher today.
Two, by inference, while inflation can be controlled by suppressing one or more of the classes, the burden of adjustment is more likely to fall on those who are the weakest in the pecking order. Classes such as the workers, petty producers or agricultural producers – against whom the terms of trade can move – act as the shock absorbers of the system, but in doing so, their own class position deteriorates.
Three, a rise in the repo rate – the rate at which the central bank gives loans to commercial banks against government securities – to control demand, may be counterproductive, because it increases the claim of the rentiers which, if anything, will feed into inflation and, by contracting industrial production, may cause stagflation. This was witnessed during the 2009-11 episode of inflation targeting when the growth in the index of industrial production (IIP) fell even as inflation remained high.
As for the agricultural prices, demand plays (along with the input costs) an important role. But even there what matters is demand relative to supply, so, in terms of policy, whatever can be done by suppressing demand can also be achieved by enhancing supply. The latter is a better strategy because it means there is no trade-off between inflation and the level of activity (and employment). So, increasing imports or restricting exports of commodities, at least in the short-run, could ease situations of inflation in such commodities. But those are just stop-gap arrangements.
What is needed in the medium- to long-run is increasing agricultural productivity, which is going to be a challenge under conditions created by the climate crisis. This, along with the efficient use of good storage facilities, can act as a cushion against both falling and rising inflation.
What all of this tells us is that inflation targeting as a framework, which focuses exclusively on demand-pull inflation, can be quite limiting in controlling inflation.
At a time when wholesale inflation is the highest in almost three decades and retail inflation, despite softening, remains above the central bank’s comfort level, what is required is a fiscal response of using indirect taxes to absorb rising prices in the case of manufactured commodities, and increased public investment in the case of agricultural commodities.
Rohit Azad teaches economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal
Will the World Trade Organization (WTO) end up as what some call an “institutional zombie” given the rise of mega plurilateral trading arrangements? Or will it be able to resurrect itself in the face of the risk of irrelevance? A lot will depend on the outcome of the WTO ministerial meeting in Geneva. Several contentious issues are on the table and the jury is still out on whether just and equitable tangible outcomes will be achieved.
First, developing countries such as India have been demanding a review of the 1998 WTO decision to adopt a temporary moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions for quite some time. What was agreed upon as a temporary measure in 1998 has been made quasi-permanent with the developed world leading the campaign for the last 24 years to periodically increase the moratorium.
However, the world has changed considerably since 1998. The exponential growth of digital markets and the arrival of additive manufacturing made possible by 3D printing is upending traditional global trade characterised by the movement of goods across borders. Several products can be digitised and delivered through electronic transmissions than through physical trade. This, in turn, is eroding the policy space of countries such as India, and is resulting in a huge revenue loss. Further, the products of big-tech companies remain outside the purview of customs authorities. Therefore, a review of the extant moratorium on customs duties on electronic transmissions is called for. But, the news trickling in from Geneva is that this temporary moratorium may get a fresh lease of life of another two years.
Second, WTO has left the issue of finding a permanent solution to the public stockholding for food security, which has been hanging for a long time. This is of paramount concern for India, which uses minimum support price (MSP)-backed mechanisms to procure food grain. According to the extant WTO rules, if food procurement is done at an administered price such as MSP, which is higher than the external reference price (bizarrely fixed at the rate of 1986-88 prices), then the budgetary support provided shall be considered trade-distorting and subject to an overall cap.
With rising prices and the need for higher procurements to support farmers and provide food to the poor at subsidised prices, India’s subsidy bill will breach the cap. Although countries have agreed that legal suits will not be brought if countries breach the cap, a permanent solution such as not counting MSP-provided budgetary support as trade distorting continues to evade WTO. The ministerial needs to deliver on this front.
Third, one of the biggest letdowns in the current WTO negotiations has been the manner in which the negotiations for waiving the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement for Covid-19-related medical products (the TRIPS waiver) have progressed. The high hopes of a comprehensive TRIPS waiver where all IP rights should have been waived for all Covid-19 medical products have been dashed. What we now have on the table is a proposal that is restricted to waiving patent rights (not all IP rights) and only on Covid-19 vaccines (not therapeutics and diagnostics). This limited waiver is a classic case of too little, too late.
Fourth, countries have been negotiating a deal on regulating irrational subsidies provided for fishing that has led to the overexploitation of marine resources. However, this agreement should balance the conservation of ocean resources with the livelihood concerns of millions of small and marginal fishermen.
Thus, an effective special and differential treatment (S&DT) provision that accords adequate policy space is imperative. In this regard, India has been demanding that it be exempted from overfishing subsidy prohibitions for 25 years. However, the proposal is to limit the transition period to seven years, which does not meet the S&DT requirement.
WTO is an important multilateral organisation and an ideal antidote to mounting unilateralism and economic nationalism. It has played a critical role in the last 27 years, including in depoliticising and settling trade disputes amicably. Therefore, its foundational principles need to be preserved. Also, WTO needs an inclusive global trade agenda that responds to the systemic imbalances of extant globalisation where big businesses seem to earn supernormal profits at the cost of ordinary people. If WTO negotiators fail in Geneva, it will not only be a blow to the institution itself but also to trade multilateralism.
Prabhash Ranjan is professor and vice-dean, Jindal Global Law School, OP Jindal Global University
The views expressed are personal
In a stupendous jump in bidding that defies global economic projections, broadcasters and streaming sites will be paying a stupendous Rs.48,390 crores ($6.2 billion) over five years, close to Rs.10,000 crores a season, and take rights revenues to stratospheric heights for IPL cricket.
The cricket ecosystem, which offers a kind of cathartic cushioning against what is happening to the rest of the world such as a pandemic, a war in Europe and economic meltdown everywhere, has proved triumphant against all the odds.
As a nation that is known to “consume” cricket, India is mighty proudly placed to beat its chest about its club cricket having overtaken all but American football in terms of raising a buck out of sports lovers for professional leagues. A combination of television and today’s web streaming that renders entertainment “mobile” has seen to the supremacy of IPL as an irresistible “product” of mass consumption.
There were times when the IPL behaved as if in a cocoon and was going ahead playing matches with reckless abandon in the course of the pandemic. Money may make the world go around but greater social responsibility was called for. And now that the BCCI has oodles of money, it can channel some to larger causes too, after having generously upped the retirement money to those who have served the game like players and umpires.
The IPL has built up momentum over 15 years, defying all negatives, including the fan fatigue factor. That its players were not always honest was a conclusion readily drawn from the spot and match-fixing scandals that bobbed up periodically and once so notoriously as to threaten to disrupt the league with the suspension of two teams.
Even so, some things haven’t changed. The cricket board continues to be opaque about its accounts even as its chief honchos stay in office on sufferance and well beyond their term as the top court is yet to rule firmly on all the restrictions that it placed on the sport’s administrators.
No one begrudges the current 10 franchises, which may earn upwards of Rs.450 crores a season from now on from the common pool comprising 50 per cent of revenues. A greater commitment to transparency is, however, called for from the admin that handles these mind-boggling inflows of dollars and rupees, all of which is tax-exempt in BCCI hands.