On July 20, acting President Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected the President of Sri Lanka. The Government of India, which held an all-party meeting on the crisis in the island nation, said that “fiscal prudence and responsible governance” are the lessons to be learnt from the situation in Sri Lanka and that there should not be a “culture of freebies”. India promised to be supportive of Sri Lanka, which is struggling to deal with the devastation caused by the economic crisis. In such a scenario, what must the world, and India in particular, do to help Sri Lanka? Nirupama Rao and D. Subbarao discuss the question in a conversation moderated bySuhasini Haidar . Edited excerpts:
How predictable was the crisis that came to a head in April 2022 with the protests, and how much of the blame lies with the Rajapaksas who have now been pushed out of power?
Nirupama Rao:At the end of the civil war [with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] in 2009, Sri Lanka had to go to the IMF (International Monetary Fund) for support. Successive governments can be charged with economic mismanagement — fiscal and budgetary — but you can implicate the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency with a lot of missteps that led the country to where it is now, staring over the economic precipice. What you see now is a perfect storm — economic mismanagement over the years and political malfeasance, which you can lay at the door of the Rajapaksas.
D. Subbarao:The crisis is a consequence of the twin deficit problem: an unsustainable current account deficit and an unsustainable fiscal deficit, some of which they [the Rajapaksas] were not responsible for. Tourism collapsed starting with the Easter bombings, then the pandemic, and remittances from migrant workers declined, again because of the pandemic. The import bill rose because of the war on Ukraine and the spike in oil prices.
On the domestic front, however, the fiscal crisis is completely home-made. The Rajapaksa government gave in to unaffordable populism by cutting taxes. They cut the value added tax by half, eliminated capital gains tax, made expenditure commitments on subsidies that they couldn’t afford, and so debt ballooned. The Rajapaksa government was responsible for three specific things: one, unaffordable populism; two, erratic economic management — for example, the abrupt shift to organic farming; and three, it did not go to the IMF early enough. If it had approached the IMF, say, six months ago, the crisis would not have been as intense.
Do you think global powers could have moved in sooner to try and help at least with the debt repayment deferrals rather than wait for the crisis to have reached the level it has?
DS:Sri Lanka’s crisis was so deep that no country by itself could have averted it. And if a country had moved in by itself to solve the problem, it would have taken on more burden without actually solving the crisis. A crisis like this requires IMF assistance, and for other countries to come on board in support of the IMF programme. Take, for example, bilateral debt that Sri Lanka owes to countries such as Japan, China, India. For these countries to reduce or restructure their debt, they will require an IMF programme. So, what countries can do bilaterally is provide a bridge loan, which is what India has done, but the structured solution has to come through the IMF.
NR:What precipitated the crisis was the big tax holiday that Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa gave soon after he assumed office. The balance of payments suffered a great amount of pressure, especially on Sri Lanka’s currency, after COVID. They should have allowed the currency to depreciate, but they spent $5 billion to $6 billion of precious foreign exchange to keep the currency afloat. The advice by the governor of the central bank was a mix of hubris and incompetence and unwillingness to go to the IMF. The President knew nothing about the economy. They followed nationalist economic policies. They kept borrowing from the commercial market. They were not seeking any assistance from the IMF. In fact, they came to India at the end of last year, asking India to reschedule the debt repayment. We had a portfolio of debt of under $1 billion. We wondered why they were coming to us; it was a well-managed portfolio. But they said India is an important partner and that’s why they were coming here. India’s help has been unprecedented. No other country has really come to Sri Lanka’s rescue.
Do you think India’s assistance to Sri Lanka of about $3.8 billion was adequate and timely? How do you evaluate China’s role, which owns at least 10% of Sri Lankan debt?
DS:The Indian Government by itself cannot solve Sri Lanka’s problem. Sri Lanka needs everybody who it owes debt to — the IMF, the World Bank, the ADB (Asian Development Bank) and all other partners — to come together and give it some breathing space. That’s what India tried to provide. India could not have restructured all its loans or given all the money that Sri Lanka wanted. India gave aid on time and in sufficient quantity for Sri Lanka to get some breathing space in order to approach the IMF and reach an arrangement with the IMF.
On China’s involvement, Sri Lanka’s debt problem has two egregious sins. One is over-dependence on one country for a bilateral partner, China. The second is the sovereign borrowing in a foreign currency. Given that many of these loans went into infrastructure projects that have taken too long or have been underutilised, debt has piled up, but there are no revenues to repay for it. To that extent, China is responsible for loading on debt, irresponsible lending, and now responsible for not coming soon enough to Sri Lanka’s aid.
NR:India’s help has been unprecedented — other countries have come up with very small amounts of humanitarian assistance at the very most. You may argue that countries like Japan could do more. But if you see the record of the Rajapaksa government, it was very cavalier and churlish in its treatment of Japan over the last few years, by cancelling projects. Japan has every reason to be upset about the way the relationship with Sri Lanka has developed over the last few years.
You mentioned 10% of Sri Lanka’s debt being held by China, but that figure is understated. There’s much more hidden debt held by Chinese entities. Meanwhile, returns on Chinese projects have not added much value to the economy. The 99-year lease of the Hambantota Port was concluded without settling the loans owed to China, and now they are incurring recurring expenditure for running the port. So, that has been a white elephant. The Chinese want more control in Sri Lanka, they want an FTA (Free Trade Agreement), but Chinese goods already flood the market.
Are there other alternatives to the IMF that India should be tapping or helping Sri Lanka to tap? Should India now be looking to use its own resources in a regional fashion and can India even do that?
DS:Well, we’ve been struggling with this question for the last 25 years. Countries around the world have been trying to find an alternative to the IMF, because of the concern that IMF conditionality is too harsh and does not result in long-term structural adjustment. But nothing has proved to be an adequate substitute for the IMF — neither bilateral arrangements nor the regional ones. The fact is that if a country is under an IMF programme, external investors, external creditors become confident that they can go back into the country. And that’s why I keep saying that Sri Lanka should have gone to the IMF sooner so that that confidence levels would not have sunk.
NR:Sri Lanka has to go to the IMF, but even that has problems. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a strong case for Sri Lanka to be classified temporarily as a low-income country so that it can get assistance on a more emergency basis from the IMF and on the lines of what has been provided to Ukraine. But that has not happened. Sri Lanka has not been able to reach a staff-level agreement with the IMF. It has to legislate decisions on the taxation and revenue side, but it is not able to move in Parliament on that front, given the political crisis. Even the fundamental assessment of debt sustainability has not been reached with the IMF.
What is worrying is that [in this crisis], a fertile ground could be provided for extremist ideologies. The capacity of the country to ensure its maritime security will also suffer and there is a scenario of drugs and arms smuggling staring us in the face. India has to consider how far it can go to help Sri Lanka; I don’t know if the government has taken that decision yet. But we must remember that economic and security factors are interlinked. Maybe the thrust in India should be to look at more regionalising factors when it comes to trade and whether regionalisation of the Indian rupee can be of help to us and our neighbours.
To what extent is the situation in Sri Lanka comparable to that in Indian States, if not the entire economy? External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s presentation to parliamentarians seemed to indicate worry about a “spillover” effect.
DS:The fact is fiscal profligacy and fiscal irresponsibility will invariably end in tears. Some Indian States are borrowing money and using it on freebies, which do not add to productivity or future economic activity or production capacity, but add to current consumption. So, they do not support long-term growth. But beyond that, States in India cannot be compared to Sri Lanka because Sri Lanka is an independent economic entity whereas the States in India are part of a national economic entity. States in India do not have their own balance of payments, they do not have debt denominated in external currency like Sri Lanka. Second, Sri Lanka can deal with domestic debt by printing currency, as it did, but States in India cannot do that. So, it’s important for us, as the Prime Minister said, to get this into public conversation about whether States and even the Centre should continue to spend money like this on transfer payments and freebies instead of spending on infrastructure that supports long-term growth and employment generation. I don’t believe the Centre and the States should talk about these decisions in an adversarial manner, but agree on some norms. The Supreme Court has also said there must be some norms about how much can be spent on freebies. Politicians might take umbrage, but we must get it right.
Equally, the worries come from not just India but the rest of the neighbourhood. How can India prepare for crises in the rest of South Asia?
DS:A lot has been written about the economic crisis facing Pakistan and Nepal. We should be looking hard at Nepal because Nepal is tied to us in many ways. But one redeeming factor is that Nepal’s currency is pegged to ours and its trade being landlocked, it is completely dependent on India. The issue of regionalisation of the Indian rupee should be looked at more closely. If we apply the regionalisation of our rupee, make it possible for us to trade in rupees with Sri Lanka, it will help Sri Lanka save on hard currency. The digital interface payments that we have, like BHIM, can be used in countries in the neighbourhood such as Nepal and Bhutan. With Sri Lanka, those discussions have not been able to go forward.
Maybe the thrust in India should be to look at more regionalising factors when it comes to trade and whether regionalisation of the Indian rupee can be of help to us and our neighbours.
A year has passed since the disclosures about the Pegasus Project revealed the threat to India’s democracy. A leading digital news platform reported that the cellphones of at least 300 Indians had been hacked with Pegasus, the spyware from the Israel-based NSO Group; 10 of the cases were confirmed by Amnesty International’s Security Lab using forensic analysis. The victims, important members of India’s constitutional order, included cabinet Ministers, Opposition leaders, journalists, judges and human rights defenders.
India has been aware of the existence of Pegasus since October 30, 2019 when WhatsApp confirmed that the spyware has been used to exploit a vulnerability in its platform to target activists, academics, journalists and lawyers in India. Since then, NSO has been able to advance its technology, and Pegasus can now infect devices without any action on the user’s part. Considering the severity of the threat posed by these disclosures, and the credibility of the evidence which backs them, it is important to examine how each branch of the Indian state has responded, or failed to respond, in protecting the privacy of citizens.
Official apathy, opaqueness
The expectation is that the executive will provide the first response and that government agencies will respond with action given the serious nature of the disclosures. But on July 19, 2021, the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, Ashwini Vaishnaw, referring to “press reports of 18th July 2021”, refused to directly address the claims made by the Pegasus Project; he stated that the existing legal framework prevents unauthorised surveillance.
On November 28, 2019, the former Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, had responded similarly to allegations over the use of Pegasus. A report byThe New York Times of January 31, 2022 contradicted both their statements and stated that ‘India has bought Pegasus in 2017 as part of a $2-billion’ defence package. The apathy shown by cabinet Ministers has been mirrored by specialised agencies.
In response to disclosures by the Pegasus Project, CERT-IN, the nodal agency, the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team, that deals with cybersecurity threats, has remained silent. However, WhatsApp’s statement in 2019 did compel CERT-In to issue notices to NSO and WhatsApp on November 26, 2019. But the agency has not provided any updates on what has transpired.
Under India’s constitutional scheme, the legislature is responsible for holding the executive accountable. However, practice has failed to match principles. When on July 28, 2021, the IT Committee sought to question officials from the IT Ministry and the Home Ministry on Pegasus, members (primarily from the ruling party), according to news reports, abstained as a bloc and prevented a quorum. Previously, on November 19, 2019, those who had been targeted by Pegasus using a vulnerability in WhatsApp, wrote to the IT Committee which even discussed the issue. However, it has not provided any updates on its findings. Separately, in every parliamentary session since the revelations, the Opposition has sought a discussion and a probe. Both demands have been ignored.
When it became evident that no answers were forthcoming from the executive and the legislative branches, the victims turned towards the judiciary to seek redress. Thus, on August 5, 2021, the victims approached the Supreme Court of India where they demonstrated that forensic analysis had found their phones to have been infected.
On October 27, 2021, the Court constituted a technical committee to examine whether the spyware had been used on Indian citizens. Eight months have passed but the committee has yet to arrive at any findings. In this period, the committee has been examining the phones of the victims and seeking comments from the public on surveillance reform. On May 20, 2022, it placed an ‘interim report’ before the Court asking for time to place the final report; this was granted. The case is now listed for the end of July 2022. While the top court is waiting for the technical committee to submit its report, on December 16, 2021 it restrained a Commission of Inquiry (constituted by the Government of West Bengal) from investigating whether the spyware had been used on residents of West Bengal.
Perhaps commentators jumped the gun when they made the remark that Pegasus was India’s ‘Watergate Moment’. In the aftermath of Watergate, the institutional response in the United States held President Richard Nixon and others involved accountable, in which all branches of the state acted to check the abuse of power. But in India, the story continues to persist as one of official stonewalling with no accountability in sight.
Unlike the polity in India, other countries have responded to the Pegasus disclosures. Israel, for example, set up a senior inter-ministerial team to begin an investigation while the Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, said that the government would work to ensure that Pegasus did not fall into the wrong hands. France ordered a series of investigations within a day of the revelations; on September 25, 2021, its cybersecurity agency confirmed that the spyware had been used to target French citizens. On November 3, 2021, the United States added NSO to its ‘Entity List for Malicious Cyber Activities’, which restricted the ability of U.S. companies to export goods or services to NSO. In the United Kingdom, the spyware company implemented a change to ensure that Pegasus could no longer target U.K. numbers after revelations, in 2021, that Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, had used the spyware to hack the phones of his wife, Princess Haya, and her divorce lawyers, Baroness Fiona Shackleton and Nick Manners, amid an ongoing custody battle.
The lack of accountability has spurred further violations. While the Pegasus victims in India wait for answers, there are documented instances of the advanced spyware being used in India against human rights defenders. Reports by a digital forensics consulting company, Arsenal Consulting (dated February 8, March 27, and June 21, 2021) revealed that two of the 16 accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, Rona Wilson and Surendra Gadling, had been targeted by a commercially available spyware, ‘NetWire’, for almost two years. The spyware was used to surveil and plant incriminating documents on their devices — documents which now form the basis of the National Investigation Agency’s case against them.
The Indian ‘surveillance for hire’ industry is growing. These firms offer their services to anyone who can pay, following which they proceed to spy on indicated targets by hacking their devices. A Reuters report from June 30, 2022 termed these firms as “Indian cyber mercenaries” who were being used by litigants around the world to sway litigation battles. One such Indian company, BellTroX, was engaged in surveillance-for-hire activities and was one of the several entities Facebook investigated, identified, and removed from its platforms in December 2021. Much like what happened with the Pegasus Project, there has been no official response to both these reports.
Overhaul the laws
An overhaul of surveillance laws is necessary to prevent the indiscriminate monitoring of people and entities by the state and private actors. The Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Indian Telegraph Act 1885 which empower the Government to surveil, concentrate surveillance powers in the hands of the executive, and do not contain any independent oversight provisions, judicial or parliamentary. These legislations are from an era before spyware such as Pegasus were developed, and, thus, do not respond to the modern-day surveillance industry.
Unfortunately, legislative proposals by the Union Government for surveillance reform do not exist. The proposed data protection law does not address these concerns despite proposals from members of the Joint Parliamentary Committee. Instead, the proposed law provides wide exemptions to the Government relating to select agencies from the application of the law; one which might be used to exempt intelligence and other law enforcement agencies. This gap in the surveillance framework has led to severe harm being caused to India’s democratic ideals.
The past year has showcased why the need for comprehensive surveillance reform is so urgent. The Freedom House ‘Freedom in the World’ report — it tracks global trends in political rights and civil liberties — changed India’s status from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ in 2021. It has cited the alleged use of Pegasus on Indian citizens as one of the reasons for the downgrade. From targeting activists and journalists for civil and political purposes, to the targeting of litigants for commercial benefits, the surveillance industry is becoming increasingly accessible, and the nature of surveillance, exponentially intrusive. In the absence of immediate and far-reaching surveillance reform, and urgent redress to those who approach authorities against unlawful surveillance, the right to privacy may soon become obsolete.
Anushka Jain is the Associate Policy Counsel (Surveillance and Transparency) and Krishnesh Bapat is the Associate Litigation Counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation. Mr. Bapat is representing victims of Pegasus in proceedings before the Supreme Court of India
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s election as the President of Sri Lanka in a crucial Parliament vote on July 20, 2022, gives India an opportunity to take the lead in the foreign aid game in its neighbourhood. Sri Lanka has been facing economic turbulence since its pre-emptive default on its foreign debt obligations in mid-April this year — the mass protests in its wake eventually forcing the former President of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to flee the country on July 12.
Following the debt default and a shortage of dollars, the Sri Lankan economy is experiencing stagflation. Inflation has spiralled to over 50%, translating into higher food and fuel prices. Many families are surviving on one meal a day. The economy could contract by at least 6% in 2022. Some three-quarter of a million people are becoming the ‘new poor’. Sri Lanka’s worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 is due to a tepid recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine conflict shock and economic mismanagement under the administration of the Rajapaksas.
Sri Lanka is also facing challenges in getting foreign aid, as 60% of the world’s poorest countries are also experiencing debt distress; further, the prospect of a second global recession in three years could dampen enthusiasm to support Sri Lanka.
There are questions by some on why taxpayers in another country should bail out a failed economy such as Sri Lanka, when the perception is that Sri Lanka’s debt default is largely one of its own making — the result of mismanagement and corruption.
Opportunity for India
India was the first responder to Sri Lanka’s desperate calls for foreign aid to help tackle its crippling debt and economic crisis. India has been motivated by the unfolding humanitarian crisis affecting the Sri Lankan people and the political pressure from South India for Indian intervention. In the first six months of 2022, Indian aid worth $3.8 billion has flowed to Sri Lanka through loans, swaps and grants. This is India’s largest bilateral aid programme in recent times.
Supporting Sri Lanka could be in India’s best interests. Stabilising Sri Lanka’s economy could prove to be a major win for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘neighbourhood-first’ policy. Moreover, once the Sri Lankan economy stabilises, India can deepen its trade and investment linkages with Sri Lanka, transcending the current humanitarian aid relationship. This could spur regional integration and prosperity. On the other hand, an unstable Sri Lankan economy could pose security risks to India and lead to a flood of refugees across the Palk Strait. This is an opportunity for India to strengthen bilateral and regional partnerships.
Dimensions to Chinese aid
In recent years, China has emerged as a major partner for Sri Lanka, especially for infrastructure projects, many of which are under scrutiny now. This provides an opportunity for India to upscale its aid and cement its first mover advantage over China by leading an aid consortium for Sri Lanka, working closely with other friendly countries such as the United States, Japan and the European Union as well as the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Back of the envelope calculations suggest that Sri Lanka would require financing that falls between $20 billion to $25 billion over the next three years to ensure essential imports of food, medicine and fuel for its people and help in stabilising the economy.
Despite gaining benefits from commercial loans for Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Sri Lanka which has fuelled a ‘debt trap’ narrative, China faces a dilemma in bailing out Sri Lanka. China worries that unilaterally restructuring Sri Lanka’s debt or giving it moratoria would set a new precedent in its lending practices, leading to a queue of similarly distressed countries seeking debt relief from Beijing. Furthermore, China, which is a G2 economy, and wanting to challenge the U.S., does not want its reputation to be tarnished by bailing out a floundering economy.
Steps to take
There are five important items in the in-tray of the new administration under President Wickremesinghe.
The government must show that it is serious about stabilising the economy by concluding talks on an IMF programme which will increase taxes and utility prices to raise revenue and increase interest rates to control inflation while preserving social welfare expenditures to protect the poor.
It has to implement structural reforms to make the economy more open to trade and investment and allow market forces to determine resource allocation. This means reducing barriers to trade and investment, cutting red tape hampering business and privatising loss-making state-owned enterprises such as Sri Lankan Airlines and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.
It has to build national consensus on implementing the IMF programme and reforms by explaining that this is the only solution to the crisis.
It has to restore the rule of law and enforce strong anti-corruption policies (including asset declarations for all parliamentarians and a strong anti-corruption office supported by the United Nations). Later, the executive presidency should be abolished.
It has to reset foreign policy towards a more neutral direction and away from the pro-China stance of the Rajapaksas.
With political will and the right set of policies, Sri Lanka stands a sporting chance of achieving some economic normalcy within the next three years. India stands to gain by supporting Sri Lanka in its hour of need. A friend in need is a friend indeed.
Ganeshan Wignaraja is Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore, and former Director of Research of the Asian Development Bank Institute in Tokyo
On a starless summer night at Kozhikode beach in Kerala, Bhupinder Singh’s voice wafted across, as refreshing and soothing as the gentle breeze from the sea.
Ya Garmiyon Ki Raat Jo PurvaayiaanChale/ Thandi Safed Chaadaron Pe Jaage Der Tak/Taaron Ko Dekhte Te Rahe Chchat Par Pade Huye/ Dil Dhoondta Hai Phir Wohi Fursat Ke Raat Din (Or on those summer nights with the gentle breeze/ Staying up late on the cool white linens/ Gazing at the stars, lying on the terrace/ The heart searches yet again for those days and nights of leisure).
After playing that gem of a song from the 1975 filmMausam on my music system and phone frequently for years, it was quite an experience listening to Singh sing it live. Later that night, I wrote about the show for the city page of this newspaper.
There was a large crowd for the show, on the opening day of the Malabar Mahotsavam, a festival of music and dance that used to be the highlight of the cultural calendar of north Kerala. Singh had also rendered his other popular songs likeEk Akela Is Shaher Mein (Gharaonda ),Kisi Nazar Ko Tera Intazaar (Aitbaar ),Naam Gum Jaayega (Kinara ),Huzoor Is Kadar Bhi (Masoom ) andBeeti Na Bitai Raina (Parichay ).
Earlier that day, I had met him for an interview at his room at the Taj hotel, not far from the beach. With him was his wife and singer Mitali, who also sang at the show. Singh was very friendly. He was clearly happy to speak about all the timeless he songs he had sung. He spoke at length aboutDil Dhoondta Hai (Mausam ). It is not just his biggest hit but one of Indian cinema’s greatest songs of all time. Singh said it was the lyricist Gulzar who insisted that he singDil Dhoondta Hai . And it was composer Madan Mohan who had asked him to go to Mumbai from his home in Delhi. Singh was in South Africa whenMausam released; he knew the song had become a hit when a group of youngsters came up to him chantingDil Dhoondta Hai .
Madan Mohan, he said, composed as many as eight tunes for the song. One of those were used later for the songTere Liye (Veer-Zaara ) long after the composer’s death. Listening to Singh singingDil Dhoondta Hai in the tune ofTere Liye was a strange experience. He said he wished he had sung a song forVeer-Zaara . That was his only regret as a playback singer.
He also shared several anecdotes with me, which are still fresh in my memory some 10 years after that interview. He said once, while travelling with Madan Mohan to Ladakh, the composer was excited to hear the songAap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha (Anpadh ) being played on the radio somewhere in Kashmir. “Look they are playing my song!” he told Singh. That incident reminded me of the fact that Madan Mohan, the genius who gave Bollywood some of its sweetest melodies, most of them rendered by Lata Mangeshkar, did not receive the recognition he deserved during his lifetime.
Singh also talked about his other gift, as a guitarist. The music director Naushad had once called him the greatest guitarist of Indian cinema. Singh said he had focussed on playing the guitar because he wanted to stay on in Mumbai; there wasn’t enough work for him as a singer despite his debut song,Hoke Majboor , for the 1964 filmHaqeeqat , becoming a hit. He spoke of playing the guitar for big hits likeDum Maro Dum (Hare Rama Hare Krishna ),Chura Liya (Yaadon Ki Baraat ) andMehbooba (Sholay ), all composed by his friend R.D. Burman. For one of the songs he sang for Burman,Ek Hi Khwab (Kinara ), he had played the guitar too.
When I asked him about today’s composers and singers, he spoke highly of A.R. Rahman and Hariharan. The memories of talking to him and then listening to him sing on that summer night on the beach come back to me while writing this piece, a few days after his death at the age of 82.
There is a sense of relief among everyone who values personal liberty and free speech, following the grant of interim bail to Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News. Given that multiple cases were registered for the same alleged offence, most of them based on tweets, personal liberty and freedom of expression were both under threat. In the face of an assertive executive in times of majoritarian nationalism, it has become normal for magistrates to comply with any demand for the police to remand those brought before them to custody and to deny them bail regardless of the merit or lack of it in those cases. In the case of Mr. Zubair, it was quite palpable that he was being hounded by the police acting on complaints manifestly motivated by communal considerations. Apart from the first FIR in Delhi based on a 2018 tweet referencing a scene in a film from the early 1980s, he has been accused of receiving foreign donations without a licence to do so. Further, some obviously trivial and absurd cases of insulting religious feelings based on innocuous tweets have made it quite clear that the investigation is not so much about what he said as about how he could be harassed and hounded to the point of making him leave his vocation of fact-checking and silence his voice. Everyone must, therefore, welcome the judicial pushback from the Supreme Court in seeing through the game plan behind the registration of multiple FIRs at the instance of votaries of Hindutva.
The Bench did not proceed to quash the various cases against Mr. Zubair, but it has ordered the clubbing of all cases and transferring the investigation to the Delhi Police. As a consequence, the Special Investigation Team formed by the Uttar Pradesh Police to initiate a wide-ranging probe against him has been ordered to be disbanded. The virtues of the order are not limited to the grant of relief. In the process, the Bench has recognised that some FIRs are similar in content and that there is an effort to subject him to “endless rounds of proceedings before diverse courts”. It has also declined to bar him from tweeting further, noting that no one’s voice could be stifled like that when anything said in the public domain was open to scrutiny for possible transgressions of the law. This is a blow for free speech at a time when some courts impose gag orders as part of the conditions for grant of bail. That it needed the country’s highest court to grant such relief is a sad commentary on the state of affairs in the country. The overall atmosphere is so vitiated by state-backed majoritarianism that the Supreme Court has become the only forum for protecting personal liberty, while the lower judicial echelons do not seem to be up to the task.
The election of Droupadi Murmu as India’s 15th President is rich in symbolism. In the 75th year of the country’s Independence, Ms. Murmu becomes the second woman to occupy the Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the first member of a tribal community to do so. Her membership of the Santhal tribe is in focus. She has risen through the ranks in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and has shown a mind of her own during her stint as Governor of Jharkhand. Her election to the highest office of the country comes 101 years after two tribespeople were elected to legislative bodies in colonial India. Founding figures of the Republic were acutely cognisant of the disadvantageous position of the tribespeople and made special provisions such as the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution. Jaipal Singh Munda, sportsman and tribal leader, was a prominent member of the Constituent Assembly who forcefully articulated the fears and hopes of tribespeople. In 2000, two States, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, were formed to give more focused attention to the concentrated tribal population in these regions. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, was passed in 2006. Ms. Murmu’s election is a milestone in the journey of tribal empowerment, though she is by no means limited to her identity. It is a moment of pride for India.
For the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, this is a moment of political triumph over the Opposition. Paving the way for a tribal woman to succeed a Dalit in the highest office, Mr. Modi has shown yet again his capacity to constantly script invigorating politics by gauging the political aspirations of marginalised communities and enlisting them for Hindutva politics. Ms. Murmu’s elevation has elated tribespeople across the country, and this could convert into significant electoral gains for the BJP in the coming days. Her candidacy split the Opposition, as many members of the Shiv Sena and JMM supported her. Tribespeople have high expectations from Ms. Murmu’s rise to the top, but that could be realised only if the Modi government backs up its symbolism with substance. This is the right moment to pay attention to the concerns that many tribal activists have been raising — of a systematic erosion of protections accorded to tribals, harassment and suppression by the police, and a general intolerance of the state towards tribal autonomy. Ms. Murmu personally may have limited leeway in championing any political cause, but she has certainly become an inspiration for all disadvantaged sections of society — women, tribals and the poor in general. To make her election more meaningful, state policy too must bend towards justice and fairness to all. Ms. Murmu’s election should not be used as a convenient excuse for inaction on countering the wider disempowerment of tribespeople.
Bangalore, July 21: Decks have been cleared for renaming Mysore as Karnataka. The Chief Minister, Mr. Devaraj Urs, is now due to come forward with an official resolution to rename the State following to-day’s party mandate. The Congress Legislature Party, at its meeting here adopted, by show of hands, the proposition that the State be renamed “Karnataka”. According to party circles, 89 members of the 131 present (total membership is 190) raised their hands in support. Among the Ministers, Mr. N. Hutchmasty Gowda, Revenue Minister, is understood to have registered his vote against “Karnataka” and termed his dissent as a fulfilment of duty. His contention was that the name “Mysore” should have been retained in keeping with the understanding reached at the time of the birth of the new State in November 1956. Two other propositions, one seeking that the State be renamed “Mysore-Karnataka” and the other “Kannada Nadu” are understood to have fallen through with only 22 and nine votes, respectively, in their favour. Eleven reporters are reported to have remained neutral.The Chief Minister is understood to have lent his support for “Karnataka.” The controversial issue of renaming the State had been figuring in almost every session of the State Legislature since the State’s reorganisation in 1956. But because of the sentiment and passion it generated and the sharp division of views as between the advocates of the retention of the present name and those favouring “Karnataka” no decision could be taken so far.
Boris Johnson is no Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he managed to use the latter’s catchphrase with the same elan as he made his final address to parliament as the country’s prime minister. Like the Terminator’s iconic dialogue, Johnson’s “hasta la vista, baby” was a bit cheeky — less a final farewell than the hint of a sequel.
Johnson was at his cutting best. He defended his government’s performance in handling the pandemic, boasted about getting Brexit done and moralised about helping the people of Ukraine fend off the Russian invasion. Even though he received a standing ovation from the Conservative benches — many of the MPs were ministers who resigned and others who openly rebelled against Johnson — the prime minister did little to assuage rumours that Downing Street was running an “anyone but Rishi (Sunak)” campaign. When asked about the race for his successor, he replied, a bit sarcastically, “I’m not following this thing particularly closely”.
Johnson did not address the Partygate scandal or the furore over him allegedly ignoring reports of sexual harassment about former deputy whip Chris Pincher: And for all the controversy he courted and far-reaching consequences of his campaign for, and then stewardship of Brexit, Johnson was the most popular British PM in over 30 years. In the 2019 election, he led the Conservatives to a voteshare that no party in the UK had seen since 1979. In some ways, it is a testament to the Westminster system that his popularity was not enough of a shield against his repeated acts of impropriety. Johnson first became PM not through a general election but because of the crisis of leadership in his party. Now, through a crisis of his own making, he has been ousted by it. But, given that the only opinion poll that matters — an election — had endorsed him, there’s always the chance that he tries his luck at leadership again, “hasta la vista” notwithstanding.
The election of Droupadi Murmu as the 15th president is a moment for India to savour and celebrate. In the end, it was not just that the BJP-led NDA, which selected her as its candidate for the post, had the requisite numbers. It was, more, that Murmu’s candidature for the country’s highest constitutional office was so compelling. The idea of the first tribal president, only the second woman to be elevated to the high office, drew support not just from the NDA, but also from fence-sitters and, across the political lines, from several parties of the Opposition too. That the BJD supported Murmu, as did parties like the JMM, Shiv Sena and SAD, and that in a state like Andhra Pradesh where the BJP does not have a single MP or MLA, both the main parties, TDP and YSRCP, pledged their vote to her points not just to shifting political interests and alignments but also to the fundamental irrefutability of Murmu’s candidature. This is a rare moment when woman and nation partake of and complete each other’s story. President-elect Murmu’s journey against odds mirrors the trajectory of her country’s democracy and testifies to its uplifting possibilities.
The young girl who became the first to go to college in her village in district Mayurbhanj, in one of the poorest regions of the country; the school teacher who stepped tentatively into politics and began an arduous trek, from councillor in Rairangpur nagar panchayat to two-term MLA in the Odisha assembly and then minister in the BJD-BJP coalition government; the first woman governor of Jharkhand — President-elect Murmu has drawn an arc that is as vivid as it is inspiring. The office of president is circumscribed by its constitutional limits. As head of state, the president of India acts on the aid and advice of the elected council of ministers, and has been known to exercise discretionary powers only in extraordinary situations, as after an election in which no party has won a majority. And yet, at the same time, amid the swirl of political currents, and the tumult and polarisation in a large and diverse nation, the president can be a reassuring figure, embodying the essential stability, the continuous and unified core of the nation.
The presidential office will be burnished and enriched by President-elect Murmu’s story. Just by being there, she will bring the highest office of the land closer to the country’s most marginalised people. After she takes oath on July 25, it will be up to her to leave a legacy that does justice to the powerful promise of this moment of her elevation.a
Barely eight months after repealing its three agricultural reform laws, the Narendra Modi government has constituted a committee to examine how to make the minimum support prices (MSP) for crops more “effective”, “transparent” and “available” to farmers. The panel should ideally have been headed by a senior politician or agricultural economist, instead of a bureaucrat who was in charge both when the legislation was brought in and during negotiations with the farm unions demanding the rollback of the laws. The committee could also have had representation from the governments of Punjab and Haryana. That would have inspired trust, especially among farmers at the forefront of the agitation. The government has, as a concessions of sorts, invited the farm unions under the Samyukt Kisan Morcha to name three persons to be part of what is to be a 28-member committee. They have, predictably, rejected the offer.
That’s unfortunate. The unions basically want the MSP to be made a legal entitlement. Any law mandating the enforcement of MSP would require the private trade to pay this price irrespective of the market supply-and-demand dynamics. Alternatively, the government would have to physically procure the necessary quantities of the crops at their MSPs or simply pay farmers the difference over the prevailing market prices. The net result would be to either destroy the market (which is what forcing private players to buy at a state-dictated price will do) or government finances. The unions ought to be reasonable. The Modi government acceded to their primary demand of repealing the farm laws. By agreeing for a committee to look at ways to make the MSP “available” to farmers, it has also walked the extra mile.
As for the committee, nothing much should be expected. The reason is not just that it has too many members, but also the diffused terms of reference — from MSP to promotion of natural farming, crop diversification and micro irrigation. A more useful purpose would have been served by the committee undertaking a review of the farm laws themselves. While one can question the manner in which they were rammed through the Parliament, the laws weren’t flawed in intent or design. India’s agriculture can do with greater market orientation, value chain development and organised private player participation, along with a redirection of government spending from subsidies to investment. The laws, broadly, sought to bring about this much-needed transformation. Their tweaking, in the light of new developments and feedback gained from stakeholders, is well worth an exercise today.
Effective July 1, 2022, the Union government has banned identified single-use plastics (SUPs) as mandated by the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2021. The stated aim of this ban is to arrest plastic pollution by targeting low-utility high-littering SUPs.
Going by industry estimates, this ban would target only two-three per cent of the total plastic produced. In fact, the bulk of the problem can be traced to the plastic packaging of fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs), which include sachets and packaging of products like chips, biscuits, and soap which the ban conspicuously excludes.
The global movement, Break Free From Plastic, in its brand audit in India in 2021, found that 70 per cent of the 1,49,985 pieces of plastic audited were marked with a clear consumer brand. The audit found that much of the plastic pollution was caused by products from the top brands. Analysts at Kotak Institutional Equities, which has released a report on the ban, claim that the current ban will not affect the FMCGs, but the restrictions on sachets/pouches/wrappers/laminated tubes could impact their profitability.
In 2015, a report by FICCI and strategy consultants Strategy&, ‘Plastic Packaging – the sustainable and smarter choice: Why banning plastic packaging in Indian FMCG is not a viable option’, argued that banning FMCG packaging would affect the processed food industry to the tune of approximately Rs 90,000 crore per annum, amounting to 72 per cent of the industry.
The 2021 Rules treat SUPs generated by FMCG and non-FMCGs differently (except for the straws attached to packaged branded beverages). While there is a ban on non-FMCG SUPs, companies in the FMCG category have been allowed to go scot-free, since accountability measures like extended producer responsibility (EPR) are only introduced in a diluted form, allowing for the use of these toxic materials by paying a small fee and enabling a staggering transition over three years.
Plastic is a petrochemical. In India, it is produced from crude oil that is imported and then refined domestically. Therefore, the human, environment and climate costs are not limited to the disposal of plastics but extend to their life cycle. The FICCI report describes the backward linkage in plastic production which includes petroleum intermediate producers, resin and naphtha producers (both raw materials to plastic polymer), pre-packaging manufacturers, plant and machinery, mould and additive producers. A ban on FMCG packaging would have a significant impact on this entire chain. Perhaps this is where the untold story lies.
The limited ban on some SUPs will not impact the big players who will continue to produce for the non-FMCG category. Those significantly impacted would be some of the 30,000 MSME units that manufactured the plastic products on the banned list. This, of course, is no reason to not ban SUPs. But it is pertinent to note that there has been no government hand-holding of these MSMEs to enable them to transition into another industry. For example, 12 days into the ban, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee has issued closure notices to 14 units manufacturing the banned SUPs and within the first nine days, total penalties of Rs. 1.37 crore have been levied. The absence of alternative forms of livelihood and employment will undoubtedly contribute to the employment crisis in the country. Many of the identified SUPs which are banned are used by small eateries, other small enterprises and street vendors. This ban will, therefore, largely impact the MSME and informal sector, both on the production and use side, leading business to be taken away from the informal to the formal sector — a trend that was set in motion by demonetisation and the GST regime and got intensified as a result of the lockdowns during the pandemic.
If the government indeed wants to put its money where its mouth is, it should start by re-envisioning the retail system. The focus should be on moving away from the use-and-throw economy to one which is designed for reusable and sustainable packaging. Such a system should be geared towards the smaller players, the end user and, fundamentally, the environment and climate.
Datta is a research associate and Seshadri is the team lead, Oil and Gas Team at Centre for Financial Accountability
Every year around this time, when the results of different board examinations come, a disturbing question haunts me. Is it that in the process of becoming “toppers”, successful “exam warriors” have lost something truly valuable for leading a meaningful life? Or is it that we — over-ambitious parents reducing our children into some sort of “investment”, and coaching centres selling them as fancy “brands” — have heavily pampered them, and made it almost impossible for them to realise that there is something more in life than what this market-driven age regards as measurable “success”? And in the age of instantaneity, who could prevent television anchors from projecting these youngsters as some sort of “gurus” advising their contemporaries on how to be “focused” and “successful”?
As I reflect on the deeper meaning of studentship, I feel like demythologising these “success stories”. Yes, a student ought to have a sense of wonder in her eyes. It is only this wonder that can expand her horizon, activate her curiosity, and inspire her to enter the domain of science and poetry, history and geography, or music and carpentry. Likewise, with this wonder, a student ought to raise new questions — even disturbing questions that might unsettle the status quo.
However, the irony is the prevalent practice of education characterised by regimented schools and utilitarian coaching centres kills these two qualities quite early in the life of a student. How can there be wonder if right from nursery classes the children of the aspiring class are instructed to internalise that everything has already been decided for them — say, “A” means America, “I” is IIT, and “M” is MBA? Or, for that matter, how can they be encouraged to ask new questions relating to culture, ethics and modes of living, if they are continually pressurised to believe in the narrative of one-dimensional existence — to live is to be hyper-competitive; to live is to defeat others, and go ahead, and to live is to worship money? It is sad that the pattern of education we have normalised does not allow a flower to bloom; instead, it is only about “strategic learning” and “success formula”. No wonder, in a society that worships the visibility of “success”, these heavily pampered “toppers” often lose a sense of humility, the ability to realise that everybody, including those who have “failed”, has a story to tell.
Yes, in the process of becoming “successful”, the “toppers” — unless they are lucky to find immensely sensitive parents or some daring teachers — have already been defeated. Recently, I was watching a television interview with a “topper” from West Bengal. Apart from following the school routine, he goes to seven private tutors; he spends almost 10 to 12 hours every day for his study, and he does not have many friends because he does not “waste” his time. I felt like crying. The system has killed his childhood, his wonderful adolescent days, and his joy and wonder. In his mental landscape, there is no tree that whispers, no river that tells a story, and there is no sunrise, no sunset. Is it that our “toppers” are becoming like robotic performers — measuring the “utility” of every fragment of a second for solving a physics numerical, or enhancing the speed of ticking “correct” answers in the OMR sheet?
Not surprisingly, I see absolute homogenisation or standardisation in their life-pursuits. Trust me, I have been waiting for quite some time: possibly one day a “topper” would enchant me through her dream: “Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Satyajit Ray fascinate me, I too wish to become a filmmaker”; or “Medha Patkar and Sunderlal Bahuguna inspire me, and I want to work for sustainable development and ecological balance”; or “Professor C V Raman and Professor S N Bose are my role models, and I want to become a scientist.” No, it has not yet happened. Instead, almost like a parrot, a “topper”, it seems, would repeat the tales of the same standardised ambition: “I want to become a doctor or an engineer or an IAS officer.” This standardisation frightens me. It is really sad to see them without rebelliousness, without alternative imagination, and without the kind of madness that defies the pathology of normalcy.
What kind of society have we created! For us, religion is nothing but loud and demonstrative ritualism — a sort of identity marker; patriotism is a violent gesture towards the invented “enemies” of the nation; mainstream politics is devoid of the slightest trace of ethics, and gross inequality is normalised. As creative dissenters are sent to jail, everything is turned into its opposite: Vice into virtue, ugliness into beauty, or narcissism into humility. A society of this kind has to kill all emancipatory ideals and practices of education. No wonder, today Tagore’s Shantiniketan is just like any other noisy and turbulent university; or, for that matter, it is difficult to spread Jiddu Krishnamurti’s ideals of education and take it beyond the select elite centres of learning; and as Gandhi has been fossilised and museumised, none bothers to recall the pedagogic experiment he initiated in the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa.
The result is that Kota, the town in Rajasthan known for all that is ugly about our education system, is seen to be a site of salvation; Ed Tech companies with their magical “success manuals” hypnotise the middle class; and the assembly line of the “toppers” reveals the hollowness of this life-killing race.
Judges enjoy considerable flexibility in statutory interpretation. Traditional law and finance literature suggests that such flexibility enables judges to close the gap between the law and the market. Equally, however, such flexibility may end up widening those gaps. This latter phenomenon played an important role in the demise of the Sick Industrial Companies (Special Provisions) Act, 1985 (SICA), as Kristin van Zwieten has illustrated through her research. The same phenomenon may now come back to haunt the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC).
The Supreme Court recently passed an important judgment in Vidarbha Industries Power Ltd. v. Axis Bank. It held that the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) cannot admit an insolvency application filed by a financial creditor merely because a financial debt exists and the corporate debtor has defaulted in its repayment. Instead, the NCLT must consider any additional grounds that the corporate debtor may raise against such admission. This interpretation could fundamentally reshape a crucial innovation in the IBC framework.
A critical element for any corporate insolvency law is the point of trigger. The law must clearly provide the grounds on which an insolvency application against a corporate debtor should be admitted. If there is any confusion at this stage, precious time could be wasted in litigation. That would cause value destruction of the distressed business. All stakeholders collectively would suffer. On the other hand, if the law is clear and litigation can be minimised, the distressed business could be resolved faster. Its value could be preserved. And all stakeholders collectively would benefit. Evidently, objective legal criteria for admission are critical for an effective corporate insolvency law.
The balance-sheet test is one method for determining insolvency at the point of trigger. This test, however, is vulnerable to the quality of accounting standards. That’s why the Bankruptcy Law Reforms Committee did not favour this test in the Indian context. Instead, it recommended that a filing creditor must only provide a record of the liability (debt), and evidence of default on payments by the corporate debtor. This twin-test was expected to provide a clear and objective trigger for insolvency resolution. The hope was this would minimise litigation at admission stage, enabling quicker resolution of distressed businesses.
The Supreme Court’s latest ruling is likely to radically alter these expectations. Even if the NCLT is satisfied that a financial debt exists and that the corporate debtor has defaulted, it may not admit the case for resolution if the corporate debtor resists admission on any other grounds. Corporate debtors are likely to use this precedent to the fullest to resist admission into IBC. The likely outcome would be more litigation and delay at the admission stage, enhancing the risks of value destruction in the underlying distressed business. Unless the NCLT consciously constrains the use of its own discretion at the admission stage, the IBC may well end up like the SICA.
The SICA had established the Board for Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR) as a specialist tribunal to ensure speedy resolution of distressed industrial companies. Belying all expectations of the law “on the books”, the law “in action” soon acquired a notorious reputation for delays. The BIFR became a haven where companies could seek shelter from their creditors for years, with managers siphoning off assets in the interim.
To better understand why the SICA came to operate in this way, Van Zwieten compiled and analysed a dataset of 1,066 judgments. The study revealed a series of judicial innovations with the stated intention to facilitate rescue of distressed companies. An unintended consequence of this pro-revivalist judicial approach was to add significant delays in disposal of cases. It also resulted in improving the position of some stakeholders at the expense of others — particularly institutional creditors such as banks. The study concluded that the influence of courts appeared central to understanding how and why the SICA failed.
In all fairness, the Supreme Court has been extremely pragmatic in its interpretation and application of the IBC. Even in the recent ruling, the court has rightly cautioned that the NCLT should not exercise its discretionary power in an arbitrary or capricious manner. Yet, this decision may have opened a Pandora’s box. Policymakers would be well-advised to take note before history starts repeating itself.
The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, New Delhi. Views are personal
Written by Aditi Saxena and Sneha Mukherjee
Today, the Supreme Court allowed an unmarried woman to abort a 23-week pregnancy, subject to the report by a medical board at AIIMS. Earlier, the Delhi High Court had refused to let the woman undergo abortion on the grounds that the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Rules 2021, do not extend the 24-week limit to unmarried women.
The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act 1971 was amended in 2021. While it increased the permissible time limit for abortion from 20 weeks to 24 weeks, it did so for only certain categories of women. This classification of women finds mention in the Rules, currently under challenge in the Delhi High Court. The list is limited — minors, rape victims, women with change in marital status during pregnancy (widowhood and divorce), foetal anomalies, women with physical disabilities and women with mental illness including mental retardation — and excludes all other women.
The amendment is perhaps meant to be supportive of women, but it hardly does so. On the contrary, it is a half-hearted move towards greater abortion rights and a feeble attempt to codify the already-existing practice being followed by various high courts.
Even before the amendment and the new rules, the courts and particularly the Bombay High Court had led the jurisprudence on this issue. On several occasions, it upheld abortion to be an integral part of a woman’s personal liberty on various grounds. The most important of them remain — mental health and choice. The amendment fails to include much of the judicial progress made on this aspect.
In 2016, in a suo moto case where a female prisoner was denied an abortion after 20 weeks, a bench of Justices VK Tahilramani and Mridula Bhatkar allowed the prisoner to undergo the procedure and said, “abortion is always a difficult and careful decision and the woman alone should be the choice maker”.
In 2018, a division bench of Justices RM Borde and RG Ketkar held that if the continuation of pregnancy is harmful to the mental health of the woman, then it is a good and legal ground to allow termination of pregnancy in the case of a 27-week pregnant woman.
Coming closest in similarity to the case before the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court, in June 2020, a bench of Justice SJ Kathawalla and SP Tavade permitted a 23-year-old unmarried woman with 23-week pregnancy arising out of consensual sex to abort it, as a continuation of pregnancy for an unmarried, single, working woman could cause injury to her mental health.
When it comes to mental health and choice as grounds for abortion, there is very little that even the medical boards have to offer. Medical boards were never part of the law. They were introduced by the Supreme Court in a case in 2016. Since then, in the absence of any update in the law, high courts relied on the opinion of the medical boards to allow or refuse permission for abortion in any case beyond 20 weeks of pregnancy.
With the awareness and judicial progress, medical boards were met with questions of choice and mental health. In more than one instance, they refused to recommend abortion, yet high courts have upheld it as a matter of right.
In August 2021, a woman who suffered domestic violence but was still legally married approached the Bombay High Court for medical termination, for she made the decision later than the 20-week time limit. The medical board refused to recommend it. Superseding it, a bench of Justice Ujjal Bhuyan and Madhav Jamdar allowed her to abort anyway on the grounds, purely, of mental health, differentiating it from diagnosable mental illness.
In 2018, the bench of Justice AS Oka and Justice MS Sonak was met with an unusual situation. A woman who was 21 weeks pregnant, with foetal anomalies, was recommended by the medical board to undergo an abortion, but it asked her to take responsibility if the child was born alive. This made the process more burdensome for the woman, not to mention the impact on her mental health. The court, then, passed detailed directions in the matter and shifted the responsibility to the State, if a similar situation were to arise again.
In the same year, when a woman wanted to terminate her pregnancy on the grounds that the foetus suffered from chromosomal anomalies, the medical board initially refused to recommend it, as the prognosis of the child, after birth, would not have been poor. When it was pointed out to the bench that her mental health had to be considered in the process, the bench of Justice AS Oka and SK Shinde set up a fresh committee with experts in the field of mental health. Even the second committee failed to look at it from the aspect of mental health. Then the bench, for the third time, issued specific questions to the committee. This time around, the woman gave up and never appeared before the committee, and continued to carry the pregnancy.
This is the story across many states. In 2021, a medical board in Delhi delayed the medical opinion by over two weeks. After a delay of almost two weeks, the board submitted an inconclusive report requesting further time to conduct more tests. Regardless, Delhi High Court allowed abortion stating that disallowing it is likely to cause severe psychological harm to the woman.
In another case, in December 2021, Delhi High Court allowed abortion despite another rejection from the medical board on the ground that even though the foetus suffered from several abnormalities, there is an 80 per cent chance of it being viable, contingent upon multiple cardiac surgeries during infancy and adulthood. The Court observed that a plain reading of the provisions of the Act shows that mental health is a legal ground available to women seeking MTP and in considering the case it was necessary to also assess the actual and reasonable foreseeable environment.
In today’s case before the Supreme Court, it has allowed the unmarried woman to abort the pregnancy as a matter of choice. While it has referred the matter for expert opinion from AIIMS, this is only to ascertain that there is no danger to the life of the woman in the whole process. The Supreme Court has not relied on the medical board for any third-party authorisation.
It was only in 2009 that the Supreme Court held that a woman’s right to make reproductive choices is also a dimension of personal liberty. We have travelled a long way from access to safe abortion in cases of delayed pregnancy only to save the life of the woman to today, when mental health and choice are contributing factors to the process. But all is not yet well.
Abortion remains a social stigma, medical boards are codified for pregnancies after 24 weeks and the marital status of the woman remains a factor. There is limited awareness and implementation of the Act particularly in rural areas and the language of the law is still provider-centric. Additionally, women still have to undergo the judicial process in much-delayed pregnancies and courts sometimes take a regressive view of abortion rights. What the courts must do, however, is become torch bearers of abortion rights whenever they are called upon to do so.
Saxena is a practising lawyer at Bombay High Court and Mukherjee is a practising lawyer at Delhi High Court. The authors have represented the women in some of the cases mentioned
There is much to celebrate in the election of Droupadi Murmu as the 15th President of India in the Amrit Mahotsav year of independence. In Murmu, the country not only has a Santhal tribal woman as the head of the state but also a leader from one of the country’s poorest regions. Her rise from the tribal lands of western Odisha to become the first citizen is a glowing tribute to the success of Indian democracy.
Murmu brings with her rich experience in public life. She is a well-educated woman from the family of a village headman. As a teacher and, later, as a people’s representative — first as a councillor in the local municipal body and subsequently as a legislator and minister in the Odisha government — Murmu had brought development to a relatively backward region. She had also won the best performing legislator award.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s knack for spotting people with unique credentials helped Murmu become the first woman governor of Jharkhand in 2015. Her tenure as the governor of an Opposition-led state was non-controversial, earning her the goodwill and support of the ruling party in the state, the JMM, in the presidential election.
In India’s constitutional history of seven decades, there were a couple of occasions, mostly in the first couple of decades, when Presidents were elected unanimously. But if there was any other presidential contest that deserved consensus, it was Murmu’s election. In any case, the odds were very much against the Opposition candidate, Yashwant Sinha. Had the Opposition demonstrated maturity, and had Sinha withdrawn from the contest even at the last minute, especially after several of the Opposition parties including the JMM, Akali Dal and Shiv Sena extended support to Murmu’s candidature, it would have not only enhanced the prestige of the Opposition but also helped to improve the political climate in the country.
We are living in an era of extreme political rivalry. We ended social untouchability in the country but have invented a new form of political untouchability. The days when a Vajpayee and a Nehru would praise each other, or a Vajpayee and a Narasimha Rao shared a healthy banter are fond memories now. At a town hall event during the 2008 US presidential election, when a Republican supporter made objectionable comments about Barack Obama, claiming that he was a Muslim and hence America was not safe in his hands, the Republican nominee, John McCain interjected and categorically told him that Obama was a decent man and America would be absolutely safe in his hands. That kind of sagacity is missing in the political discourse globally now.
Unfortunately, the discourse during the run-up to the presidential election in India was vicious. Presidential elections were cordial and low-profile events in the past. In 1967, Zakir Husain was the presidential candidate from the ruling party. The Opposition had fielded Koka Subba Rao, a retired Chief Justice of India. There was no campaign from either side. In fact, Zakir Husain was at the Michigan University delivering the convocation address until three days before the election. When asked about the campaign, Zakir saab quipped: “We in India only stand, and do not run.”
But the presidential elections today are no less hectic and politically charged than the general elections. While Murmu maintained a dignified and low-profile campaign, the Opposition went ballistic from day one. Efforts were made to project the NDA candidate as someone who could not speak for herself — she was called a “murti” (statue) — and it was suggested that she would be a rubber-stamp. If anything, it displayed the innate classist temperament that continues to prevail in some sections of our society.
In his final address to the Constituent Assembly on November 26, 1949, the chairman, Rajendra Prasad, who later became the first President of India, called this mindset “sophisticated” when some members expressed doubts over the ability of Indian masses to use the right of franchise diligently. “Some people have doubted the wisdom of adult franchise… In my opinion, our village people possess intelligence and common sense. They also have a culture which the sophisticated people of today may not appreciate, but which is solid,” he said.
It is another matter that the President of India is not equal in powers to the President of America although the same nomenclature was adopted. Both B R Ambedkar and Rajendra Prasad have clarified that it was more on the lines of the British monarch. Although the President is elected through an electoral college, he or she is a “Constitutional President”, Rajendra Prasad had explained.
All the Presidents of India have understood the constitutional position and conducted themselves in office with great dignity and decorum. There were occasions when Presidents had acted as per their conscience but never violated the constitutional limits imposed on them. Rajendra Prasad’s famous correspondence with Nehru where he disagreed with several aspects of the Hindu Code Bill is reference material for students of constitutional studies. Sadly, in the Opposition’s criticism of Murmu, one finds the desire for a “confrontational” President rather than a constitutional one.
Murmu’s election will naturally make millions of tribals of India happy and truly empowered. But the real success of our democracy is when she is looked at as not merely a “tribal President” but the President of the 1.3 billion people-strong Republic of India. For her election to symbolise the bridging of the gap between the first and last citizens of our republic, people should celebrate the occasion by installing her picture in every public space.
The writer is member, board of governors, India Foundation
Droupadi Murmu may have scored an easy victory in the presidential elections but her long journey to Rashtrapati Bhavan is an inspirational story of overcoming adverse circumstances and personal setbacks. Just as her political career hit a high note after terms as legislator and Odisha minister, she faced personal tragedies: she lost both her sons and husband in quick succession. The stint as Jharkhand governor brought her to the limelight, especially when she returned two bills amending tenancy laws passed by the Raghubar Das government, which had raised fears of alienation of tribal lands.
India electing its first Adivasi president is also a tribute to how it is constantly democratising in terms of diversity in political representation. With scheduled tribes forming nearly 9% of the population, a president from the community should have emerged sooner. BJP deserves credit for recognising this lapse and rectifying it by nominating a strong, deserving woman for India’s top, though largely ceremonial, constitutional post. Murmu’s candidature has also helped BJP politically by sowing disarray in opposition ranks and endearing the party to tribal belts, pan-India.
The cross-spectrum political recognition accorded to Murmu should also progress towards a greater political acknowledgment of the Adivasi community’s developmental backwardness. Murmu’s village being electrified now despite her lengthy public life reflects the magnitude of this challenge. Inherent in this is a geographical challenge too, because Adivasi heartlands in every state are far from state capitals and located in forested, hilly or remote areas. Given the federal system, chief ministers with their proximate control over bureaucracy have a key role to play here, even as GoI conceives schemes like the Aspirational Districts Programme.
The NFHS-5 survey that divided the 27 lakh sampled households into five equal wealth categories (quintiles) found that 71% of Adivasi households fell in the lowest two wealth quintiles against 49% of Dalit and 36% OBC households. State governments UDISE+ data indicates secondary school level dropout rates of Adivasi children (21%) are double the general category’s. ST students comprise just 5.6% of total enrolment in higher education, much lower than their share in the population. Given unequal wealth distribution, education can be the great leveller for India’s poor. Let’s celebrate Murmu but giving Adivasi children a chance to succeed is one of India’s great unfinished tasks.
Amendments to rules governing digital intermediaries, first notified in February 2021, are likely to be formalised soon. These come in the backdrop of an ongoing case in the Supreme Court. GoI has challenged the interim orders passed by different high courts on specific provisions of the 2021 rules. Current amendments, however, are focussed on disciplining social media. India’s not an outlier in this. Protection from third party liability on account of content it hosts has fuelled social media’s growth. But appalling content that finds an outlet because of safe harbour status enjoyed by social media is now under global scrutiny.
However, any change to the rules should sharply and permanently distinguish social media platforms from news media content hosted online. News media is already regulated, and it has its own gatekeeping.
On social media posts, while tech majors running these platforms must be held accountable, what is deemed as objectionable content must be defined in the narrowest possible sense. Which is to say that removal of safe harbour provisions, which is a good thing, shouldn’t mean taking a hammer to anything governments of the day, whether in the Centre or states, don’t like, which would be a very bad thing. There’s a perfectly workable common sense approach to figuring out what content is truly objectionable. It bears pointing out that draft amendments, which were placed in the public domain in June, describe GoI as the guarantor of citizens’ constitutional rights. Surely, it’s SC that assumes that role under Article 32, which was described as the Constitution’s soul during constituent assembly debates. Social media can’t keep getting away with it. But constitutional rights can’t get whittled either.
The Supreme Court's ruling on the Aravalli forests case is a decisive gain for forest conservation, environmental well-being and sustainable development. The court made it clear that the protection accorded to forests by law cannot be limited to those notified under the Indian Forest Act, 1927.
The implications of the ruling are far wider than protection to Haryana's forests, some 30,000 hectares across the Aravallis and Shivaliks. This ruling comes at a time when biodiversity loss has emerged as a major challenge with substantial economic implications.
The court ruled that the Aravalli forests were legally required to be treated as that: forests. So, prior permission of GoI is required to allow any change of user of forest or deemed forest land. The case centres on the interpretation of the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900, and whether areas under special orders can be considered forests irrespective of being notified or not as such in government records.
This interpretation gives a new lease of life to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and extends protection to many biodiversity-rich areas. Forest areas across India, particularly those not notified under the 1927 Act, have been under increased stress. State governments have been diverting land for non-forest usage as evident from the draft Regional Plan 2041 of the National Capital Region Planning Board that did away with key regulations meant to protect the Aravallis ecosystem.
Natural forests are critical to slowing down global warming and protecting the ecosystem services necessary to sustaining life as we know it, such as water systems and absorbing carbon dioxide. Valuations systems of nature should be incorporated as part of development and economic policy making.
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The vastness of India's market has always been touted as its most alluring quality, both for domestic producers of goods and services, as well as for outsiders. However, it has been the quality of merchandise that has been underwhelming. This is largely because very few manufacturers - and, indeed, consumers - have given much thought to the aspect of quality.
In a globalised economy, where supply value chains are increasingly disrespecting borders, this has to change if India is to reap benefits. Products that are high quality, safe and environmentally friendly must become the forte of the Indian marketplace. Mandatory standards applicable to domestically manufactured as well as imported products can ensure this.
GoI wants manufacturing to be 'zero defect, zero effect' (ZED). The ZED certification scheme is geared to aiding MSMEs to reduce waste, raise standards and increase efficiency of production processes. The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) sets product standard certifications guaranteeing quality, safety and reliability of products. The ZED certification focuses more on competing abroad, while the BIS certification is voluntary, with the exception of products identified by GoI for mandatory compliance.
Reviewing the BIS certification to include environmental and design safety norms and making compliance mandatory for domestic and imported products will benefit consumers. Given the size of the Indian marketplace, scale can drive down costs while ensuring that items meet quality, safety and environmental norms. As these standards are based in science, the process of certification transparent, and applicable to all in a non-discriminatory manner, it would be in keeping with World Trade Organisation's (WTO) norms.
Mandatory standards will mean better products at competitive prices. They will improve the export potential of domestic manufacturing, especially as environmental considerations gain importance, and are a win for manufacturers, traders and consumers. And it's time the fetish for jugaad takes a back seat.
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India’s Supreme Court this week gave its first order enforcing an Indian citizen’s right to be forgotten when it directed the court registry to begin the process on how the details of a married couple, locked in litigation, can be removed from online search engines. The right was laid down by the top court in its landmark Puttaswamy judgment of 2017, when it held privacy as a fundamental right for Indian citizens. Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, who was part of the nine-judge bench that delivered the order, said such a right was crucial in today’s age, when information is widely available. “The impact of the digital age results in information on the internet being permanent. Humans forget, but the internet does not forget and does not let humans forget,” he wrote in a concurrent judgment.
The concept first reached global prominence when the European Court of Justice ruled in connection with a case in Spain, ordering Google to remove personal details as sought by a Spanish citizen. The right to privacy of the person — defined as the data subject — trumped the economic interest of the search service provider, the court held. This was later backed by a statute when the European Union (EU) enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — Article 17 codified the rights of EU citizens to ask an online search engine to remove references to their information under certain conditions. These conditions, however, outlined some exemptions. For instance, data of a journalistic nature involving a public figure is exempted from the GDPR’s right to erasure rule.
Naturally, the issue is nuanced as the balance between freedom of expression and the right to privacy is delicate. One yardstick is public interest. In the case on which the SC ruled this week, the information had no such implication. Instead, it was a source of harm for the couple, which sought the removal of details of their identities, their legal battle and references to a disease that was at the heart of their dispute. Moreover, enforcement of such a right is also a challenge for both, someone who requests a takedown, and a company that has to carry it out. Such issues are why India needs to quickly codify the right in law and lay down guidelines. Because the GDPR does so, the world’s largest search engine, Google, offers EU citizens a personal information removal request form. For Indians, it is not practical to knock on the court’s doors every time they want to exercise the same right, which they have been entitled to for more than five years now.
Am I an experimental animal,” asks Yogesh Pandita, a government employee posted in the Kashmir Valley, when I suggest that Pandits employed under the Prime Minister’s Development Package have not been transferred to other cities such as Jammu because it would be tantamount to a win for terrorists.
Pandita and others from his community — along with groups such as the Dogras — have been protesting since early May over the spate of targeted killings of religious minorities in Kashmir. The shocker is how their plight has faded from national headlines and politics.
It’s more than 70 days since the agitation began with the assassination of Rahul Bhat, a clerk who was shot inside the premises of his tehsil office in Budgam. It was a well-planned murder. Apart from Bhat, over the last few months, terrorists have killed a Pandit pharmacist, a Hindu banker from Rajasthan, a Hindu brick worker from Bihar, a Sikh school principal, and a Dalit school teacher.
The 36-year-old teacher, Rajni Bala, was killed on the last day of her posting at a school in Kulgam, south Kashmir. Bala had made multiple requests for a safe posting, citing threats from terrorists. The administration finally acceded to this plea by relocating her to a secure area within the Valley. But it proved too late. Raj Kumar Bala, her husband, also a teacher, was finally posted out of Kashmir after his wife’s assassination.
But the demands of more than 5,000 Pandits — and hundreds of other non-local Hindus — have been overlooked. The invisibilisation of their anger and fear is especially ironic, given the politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Despite the abrogation of Article 370 and Kashmir’s special status, the Pandits are caught in the space between what protesters describe as “lives and livelihoods.”
The rehabilitation scheme was first rolled out in 2008 during the Manmohan Singh years. Pandita argues that every government employee has now been forced to sign a bond — he has signed one too — which stipulates that this is a non-transferable posting. Agitators say this illiberal technicality is being held against them.
In March 2021, the Narendra Modi government announced that 520 migrants had returned to the Valley to take up jobs, another 2,000 were “likely to return under the same policy”. The government offered cash incentives of ₹7.5 lakh per family, along with transit accommodation. But if you speak to protesters, they will tell you that 80% of the community lives in rented accommodation, unsafe from a security perspective, with “four families having to share a single kitchen,” says Pandita.
Another Pandit employee, whose identity was withheld on request, said, “The entire Kashmiri Pandit community looks up to PM Modi. Why won’t he share our suffering and pain…Can the government guarantee our security in writing? Can they assure us that when we are teaching no one will shoot us from behind? We fear for our lives; we fear our families. We ask, what is our fault? An entire generation faded and withered away in camps in the 90s… we are witnessing the same cycle of violence today and the government is just sitting on it.. Address our single-point demand for the right to life.”
The government informed Parliament this week that of the 118 civilians killed since August 2019, 21 were targeted killings of Hindus, including Pandits, Sikhs, and other Hindus. “This is when there are hardly any Hindus left in the Valley,” the Pandit employee points out, the anguish breaking his voice. “The community witnessed massacres. We lost our only home. We need empathy now. Why is the government forcing us to work in the Valley against our will?”
The suffering of Kashmiri Hindus has long been at the heart of Right-wing politics. Unfortunately, it has sometimes been weaponised to win elections, troll journalists, and make political speeches and nationalist assertions. But today, as thousands of men and women protest peacefully, asking only that they not be coerced into working in an environment where they don’t feel secure, no one is prepared to heed their sentiments.
A rehabilitation scheme, by definition, should be aimed at delivering justice and compensation for the violent trauma of the past. Employment by diktat surely cannot be an illustration of compassion.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal
Of the 1.87 million candidates who registered for The National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (Undergraduate) or NEET, India’s largest entrance exam for medical schools, over half, or 1.06 million, were girls and young women. That this has happened in a post-Covid-19 era where digital gender gaps and other persisting gender biases have disproportionately impacted women and girls make the NEET numbers all the more remarkable.
If there was ever a measure for aspiration for young women, it is to be found in the surge in numbers seeking to better their lives through education. Women’s enrolment in higher education has increased twice as fast as male enrolment in the last four decades and today stands higher than that of male students, finds the All-India Survey on Higher Education for 2019-20. A comprehensive 2018 survey of 70,000 teenage girls’ aspirations by the Naandi Foundation and Project Nanhi Kali is a remarkable articulation of the dreams of 80 million girls. Its findings are a silver lining to India’s otherwise abysmal gender scenario: 70% wish to pursue higher education, 95.8% want to marry only after 21, and 74% want careers after marriage.
The girls’ dreams are founded on the bedrock of lived patriarchy, where they are burdened with housework in a way that their brothers are not; in the denial of basic freedoms such as mobile phones and leisure time in a way their brothers are not; and in the reality of watching their mothers beaten at home for minor transgressions such as a meal not cooked to standard. Added to the daily humiliations at home are the indignities heaped on them outside.
Two Dalit girls were forced to remove their uniforms and give them to two upper-caste girls for a class photograph in a Hapur primary school. A class 12 student died by suicide at a residential school in Tamil Nadu after leaving a note saying she was humiliated by her teachers for her academic performance. Girls in hijab were turned away from schools in Karnataka. And, the latest from Kerala, girls appearing for NEET asked to remove their bras for “security” reasons at the Mar Thoma Institute of Information Technology, 55 km from the state capital.
But the underlying issue remains. How do we encourage girls to continue to dream? Can there be systemic policy measures that address the humiliation of girls who wish to study? How do we sensitise systems and teachers to empower a generation of India’s most aspirational teenagers?
It’s been seven years since the prime minister’s flagship Beti Bachao mission to address the child sex ratio. But, without its corollary, Beti Padhao, reaching its potential, the scheme is incomplete. There is no shortage of studies confirming common sense knowledge: Investing in girls’ health, education, and livelihood creates a ripple effect that benefits society. How to nurture the seeds of something that can grow to full potential is our biggest challenge.
Namita Bhandare writes on genderThe views expressed are personal.
As thousands of school leavers navigate their pandemic-hit aspirations for higher education, the Common University Entrance Test (CUET) is being rolled out for the first time.
CUET is being offered as a potential game changer, a more equitous process for opening a wider canvas of access and choice to quality higher education. Its stated purpose is to provide students a single-window opportunity for admission, eliminating arbitrary bias. Those otherwise left out on account of unrealistic cut-offs and widely different marking schemes adopted by different school boards will now benefit from a more level-playing field.
With 149,000 registrations spread over 500 cities, CUET is being held in phases. A computer-generated test is based on the Class XII National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) syllabus with multiple choice questions (MCQs). The first cohort has navigated unprecedented uncertainties during Covid-19, such as a two-phase Class XII board exam, and being informed rather late in the term about the new test. A robust orientation for the stakeholder community still struggling to fully comprehend the implications of CUET well before its whistle-stop implementation could have reduced anxiety levels.
Inevitable teething problems such as scheduling glitches and multiple exams slotted on the same day have been largely assuaged. But concerns linger about normalisation of marks for students being examined on the same subject on different days, tiebreakers for identical marks, and possible formats for interdisciplinary courses and emerging disciplines, especially at the post-graduate level. A massive operation such as this needs a large secretariat, planning, expertise, ability to respond to contingencies and a huge security apparatus to check malpractice. It must, consequently, remain a work in progress.
CUET undoubtedly provides a much-needed corrective to the irrational and unsustainable system of cut-offs and frees students from the frenetic pressure and expense of taking multiple entrance exams. Yet questions remain. Will CUET indeed be an equaliser or be skewed against state boards and schools without NCERT textbooks? How will it do away with merit lists? Will it give a further fillip to a rapacious coaching industry? Will schools, anxious about being assessed on their students’ performance in CUET, alter the thrust of their pedagogy? Will CUET be yet another exam that sidesteps the real problem of few higher educational institutions (HEIs) of quality to meet the needs triggered by the “massification” of higher education? Will it provide qualitatively better outcomes? Above all, will it foreground the spirit of critical thinking that the National Education Policy (NEP) so categorically advocates?
Years ago, with the exponential increase in the numbers of admission seekers, consistent public pressure for simplified procedures and administrative convenience, large public universities, such as Delhi University (with over 77 colleges) and Mumbai University (with over 700), shifted to centralised registration processes. The standardisation of admission criteria in the interest of transparency came at the cost of pluralism and diversity. Several colleges (other than minority institutes) either lost or abdicated to their parent universities their crucial role in shaping the selection processes best suited to their own mission and vision. Today, universities seem set to similarly yield to the superstructures of the University Grants Commission and National Testing Agency.
The assumption that centralised processes are fairer remains largely unsubstantiated. A system that fetishises standardisation is inherently mechanistic-equipped to plot “output” and impervious to qualitative learning trajectories. Admissions solely on MCQs may paradoxically turn into an algorithm for weeding out, not selection. They subvert the very raison d’être of education reform by introducing a myopic managerialism into a space that, at its core, must reflect fecundity, diversity and pluralism. The NEP’s vision of multi-disciplinary and holistic education requires this.
The transition from school to college is not only a rite of passage. It involves a perspectival shift on how knowledge is disseminated, produced and assimilated. It involves thinking about the thinking-process, developing reasoning skills, appreciating nuance and arriving at innovative alternatives beyond the confines of a purely received curricula where the textbook is treated as canon.
As educationist Ramakant Agnihotri points out, a purely achievement-oriented test that focuses on what a student has mastered from textbooks may not be quite suited to draw out the learner’s imaginative and creative potential to engage “non-linearly” with alternatives or build fresh hypotheses, drawing on ‘higher levels of cognitive engagement”. Such a process demands the active involvement of teachers to nurture this potential. They are best positioned to assess applicants. Their role cannot be invisibilised or ceded completely to an anonymous system in the name of objectivity. Trusting their credibility is vital to making higher education work for students. Constructive proficiency-oriented assessment involves meticulous, hard work and cannot be compressed into two frenetic months. The best universities in the world take a year on an average to select and admit students. In addition to good grades, they include a positive attitude towards study, a passion for the chosen subject, the capacity to work and think independently, to complete tasks, an inquiring mind, good writing skills, an ability to work well with groups, co-curricular interests and so on. The applicant here is not merely a number. She represents potential!
CUET, therefore, must not end up as a technical fix to a moribund system of admission. It will best serve the more transformative exhortations of NEP if its scores set the minimum eligibility (not sole) requirement for admission, on the lines of SAT. These must be embellished by additional criteria that educators within HEIs craft and calibrate to reflect their distinctive aspirations. A monochromatic vision may indiscriminately flatten the much-needed heterogeneity of our diverse higher education ecosystem.
Let us heed Bertrand Russell’s exhortation in 1926 for universities to resist becoming merely “training schools for professions” and nurture the spirit of freedom and adventure of a quest. In reclaiming the transformative potential of the academy in sustaining an “educated democracy” by fostering the “voyage of discovery” (a la Russell) let our selection processes not miss the wood for the trees.
Meenakshi Gopinath is chair, Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and director, Women in Security Conflict Management and Peace (WISCOMP), New Delhi The views expressed are personal
A premature heat wave in March this year triggered a significant shortfall in India’s projected wheat output. While it is still early days, a shortfall of rains in the rice-growing eastern states has raised questions about the potential rice output this season.
Adequacy of food production and volatility in prices is hardly a question which is confined to one cropping season in India. Vegetable prices are the best example of this. Things are expected to get worse.
The climate crisis is drastically changing rainfall patterns and increasingly making it skewed, which means that even for unchanged rainfall figures, it might not rain when the farmers need it and rain a lot when it does more bad than good. To be sure, India is not the only country in the world which is battling the adverse effects of the climate crisis on agricultural production. The unprecedented heat wave in Europe is another example of what is in store.
The question to ask amidst all this is will the world be able to produce enough food to feed its people?
To be sure, this is not the first time humankind is asking itself this question. The original doomsday proclamation on this front was issued way back in 1798 by an English cleric called Thomas Robert Malthus.
In his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus warned that while food production could only grow in arithmetic proportion (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…), the population was growing in geometric proportion (1, 2, 4, 8, 16…) and therefore the world had a crisis on its hands. Malthus used this argument to oppose any kind of support to the poor because that would only worsen the overpopulation problem. In other words, he saw this balance as being maintained by the poor just perishing.
Malthus of course, has been proved wrong in hindsight. In fact, Malthus’s theory was called out even by his contemporaries.
Among the most influential and powerful critiques of his argument came from Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels who called out Malthus on mainly two points.
First was Malthus’s refusal to account for scientific progress in augmenting food production, which has played a huge role in making sure that it kept pace with the growing food requirements of the world. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that “total farm production nearly tripled between 1948 and 2017” and this feat was achieved “even as land and labour used in farming declined” as “innovations in animal and crop genetics, chemicals, equipment and farm organization have enabled continuing growth in farm output”.
The second point on which Marx and Engels criticised Malthus was what they described as confusing means of employment with means of subsistence.
“Too little is produced, that is the cause of the whole thing (disharmony between population growth and food production). But why is too little produced? Not because the limits of production – even today and with present-day means – are exhausted. No, but because the limits of production are determined not by the hungry bellies but by the number of purses able to buy and to pay”, Engels wrote in a letter to German philosopher Friedrich Albert Lange in 1865.
This is a principle which continues to remain relevant to date. For example, if India were to disband its food security programme overnight, both the demand for rice and wheat and therefore their production is likely to take a huge hit. The fact that the government was providing free food grain to more than 80 crore Indians during the pandemic only underlines the extent of economic vulnerability even when it comes to affording basic food.
While both these principles underlined by Marx and Engels have stood the test of history, there is good reason to believe that they could be re-entering a phase of conflict with the Malthusian principles in a slightly different way.
The growing use of chemical and energy inputs in agriculture has definitely increased production a great deal, but the side effects are beginning to show in terms of chemical contamination of natural ecosystems and rising carbon emissions contributing to global warming. In fact, the signs are already visible that modern farming as we know it might have to make changes to come to terms with these side effects. For example, farmers in the Netherlands have been protesting after the government has ordered the closure of farms to meet its emission reduction commitments.
Similarly, increasing incomes and purchasing powers have led to a huge increase in the demand for meat in food baskets. There is clear scientific evidence to show that the carbon footprint of meat-based food is significantly greater than what it would be if the same population were drawing its nutritional requirements from vegetarian diets — even though the meat-climate debate is still not as relevant in India as it for the rest of the world, as was argued by this author in an earlier piece.
To be sure, the future of food security could face greater jeopardy from humans than climate-induced events. This is due to the role speculators play in driving prices in commodity markets.
The Economist’s May 21-27 issue ran a cover story titled The coming food catastrophe. “Wheat prices, up 53% since the start of the year, jumped a further 6% on May 16th, after India said it would suspend exports because of an alarming heatwave…the high cost of staple foods has already raised the number of people who cannot be sure of getting enough to eat by 440 million to 1.6 billion…if, as is likely, the war drags on and supplies from Russia and Ukraine are limited, hundreds of millions more people could fall into poverty”, the lead editorial said.
However, there is reason to believe that change in food prices has got more to do with things than just demand-supply disruptions. A June 7 New York Times article drew attention to this point. “In a provocative new book, “Price Wars,” the anthropologist and filmmaker Rupert Russell traces the story through the commodity markets, noting, among other things, that at no point during those years was there anything like a real calorie shortfall — as Barrett says, in fact, global food production grew, year over year, every single year. But there were at several points food price crises — 2008, 2011 and now over the last several years — each the result, he suggests, of a rise in financial speculation in the commodity markets”, it said.
Other economists have argued that the power of speculative finance to add to volatilities in commodity markets has increased due to policy changes which have made such speculation easier and more deregulated.
“Speculators active on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and New York Mercantile Exchange have the Clinton administration to thank for the gift of the Commodities Futures Modernisation Act of 2000. That ‘odious’ legislation to deregulate commodity markets was based on a report co-authored by the “Subprime Three”: Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin. It was a consequence of their crushing defeat of Brooksley Born, then chairman of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission”, British economist Ann Pettifor wrote in her newsletter on July 17.
While Summers and Greenspan “persuaded lawmakers that financialisation of the commodities market would, in fact, make the market more ‘efficient’”, other economists do not agree with such views.
“People who believe that financial markets are perfect and efficient will readily say that price is determined by stories about the future, but the difference is that they think of these stories as rational and optimal forecasts of the future. The Efficient Market Hypothesis says that the stock market or other speculative markets represent a vote of all the smartest people in the world about what the future will be. The other view of speculative markets that I’ve been pushing is a narrative view. Yes, the markets do respond to stories, but it’s not the optimal forecast. It’s the popular story, the one that is tellable and contagious that gets invited into market prices . . . The strength of these narratives does not correspond to scientific reality. It represents feedback and contagion of stories”, Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Shiller has argued.
As is obvious, views on speculators’ role in driving commodity prices are formed in an environment which is far from benign. Commodity traders like all financial market players hold tremendous wealth (and the clout which comes with it). Every episode of sudden volatility in commodity markets, notwithstanding the suffering it causes to the common people, also creates a big income opportunity for the speculators who manage to get their bets right. Because policy deregulation facilitates such volatility and income generation, there is a massive advocacy effort towards such policies, which, as is expected, is promoted under the excuse of efficiency gains.
With the climate crisis expected to add to crop production uncertainties, speculation-induced price volatility is likely to increase further. This will only make the task of finding and disseminating economically viable technological fixes to the problem more difficult. A given technological mix for producing wheat can be viable at a given price but cease to be so if input prices rise to double the normal levels.
It is on this note that one cannot but remember John Maynard Keynes’s misplaced optimism about the ability of capitalism to fix to own vices. Keynes, arguably the most admired economist of the 20th century, was confident that the rentier-class in capitalism – modern-day commodity traders and other speculators can be put in this category – would eventually lose its clout.
“I see, therefore, the rentier aspect of capitalism as a transitional phase which will disappear when it has done its work. And with the disappearance of its rentier aspect much else in it besides will suffer a sea-change. It will be, moreover, a great advantage of the order of events which I am advocating, that the euthanasia of the rentier, of the functionless investor, will be nothing sudden, merely a gradual but prolonged continuance of what we have seen recently in Great Britain, and will need no revolution”, Keynes wrote in the concluding chapter of his 1935 classic The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.
While the world had a brief honeymoon with Keynesian-style demand management, finance capital had its revenge when neoliberalism gained prominence across the world from the 1970s onwards. The power of the rentier class has only increased since then.
For the world to have a food secure future, it will have to adopt a policy which has a mix of urgency inspired by Malthusian style pessimism, commitment to science and equity which draws from the Marxian criticism of Malthus, and a political economy approach which borrows from Keynes – arguably the greatest intellectual defendant of free capitalism as we know it – to disarm capitalism’s speculative beasts from creating more chaos than the commodity markets can handle.
Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.
The views expressed are personal
Six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe is a crafty political survivor who is now the choice of the members of the Sri Lankan Parliament as its executive President when the island nation is in the grip of its worst-ever economic crisis. Having twice been defeated when he ran for President with the people as the electorate, he finds himself in the hot seat. The beleaguered people who were opposed to him wanted him to resign as PM when he was appointed by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last May and they want him to resign now as President.
The old United National Party that he leads was decimated in the 2020 elections when it won a single seat and Ranil himself came into Parliament as a nominated member. It would be stretching things to say he can win the trust of the people. If the privation that the 22 million people of Sri Lanka have been experiencing in the wake of a collapse of foreign exchange payments system leading to a shortage of food, medicines and fuel gets any worse, the “aragalaya” (struggle) could turn against him.
The one thing that is in Ranil’s favour is his experience in government, which could come in handy as IMF negotiators may feel comfortable enough dealing with a seasoned administrator. His conciliatory tone in addressing those he defeated in the three-way presidential poll, including Dullas Alahapperuma, who broke away from Rajapaksas’ SLPP to stand as the united candidate of the Opposition parties and Sajith Premadasa, who aspires to be Prime Minister, comes as a ray of hope.
The President hardly needs to be reminded that the protesters turned on his home too, which was vandalised as a largely peaceful “aragalaya” descended into its worst forms of protest as arson and looting. How he tackles the ongoing resistance to his ascent to the presidency will shape the immediate future. His early diktats to the Army “to do whatever was necessary” to control the protesters was not seen as too promising even if it represented a normal enough course for an administration which must first restore law and order.
Armed as he is with presidential powers under the 20th Amendment, Ranil is the one in charge even if it will be of great interest as to who he backs to be his Prime Minister. A national government might be better off with a figure from the Opposition to become PM but what the SLPP, which gave Ranil a majority of his 134 votes of 219 members of parliament, will dictate as the price of backing him is to be seen. However, Ranil will always be suspect in the people’s eyes as a “caretaker” of the combined Rajapaksa interests.
As a pro-West figure who is expected to stay the farthest from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s disastrous pro-China policies, Ranil is a familiar figure to India whose aid of food, fuel and medicines will determine how quickly Sri Lanka can get nearer normality when it comes to meeting the everyday essentials of the people. Ranil might do well to remember he has been elected President by members of Parliament to steer the country out of a mess. The polemics and majoritarian politics of Sri Lanka can wait as the people need to be assured their basic necessities first.
Personal liberty is one of the most important rights the Indian Constitution guarantees its citizens but the nation has often found ingenious ways to circumvent the constitutional barrier and rob them of it.
This is true especially when it wants to muzzle the voices of people whom it suspects to be asking uncomfortable questions. What is strange is that the efforts look very legal, too, on the face of it.
The Supreme Court has just thwarted one such effort when it ordered the release of Mohammed Zubair, the co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News. He was booked in one case in Delhi and six others in Uttar Pradesh over a 2018 tweet which some people felt hurt their religious sentiments. The apex court did not just grant the journalist bail but exposed the “vicious circle” governments had created to make sure that the man will be subjected to “endless rounds of proceedings before diverse courts”.
The court found that the gravamen in all the FIRs is the same and that the State was “weaponising the criminal law,” as the journalist’s lawyer put it. The court did not lose sight of a state government setting up a special investigation team in order to investigate a case of religious sentiments being hurt and it ordered it be disbanded.
The apex court has of late been very vocal about the constitutional guarantee to liberty and has been insisting on the State and its agencies to go by the law when they want to curtail it.
It recently asked the government to consider introducing a bail act to streamline the process; and the Chief Justice himself was critical of keeping people under arrest without trial. In the latest order, the court has reminded the government that “the existence of the power to arrest must be distinguished from the exercise of the power of arrest… the exercise of the power of arrest must be pursued sparingly”.
It is now for the courts in the country to imbibe the grain of the order, weaponise the Constitution and stand between the citizen and a vindictive State machinery.