Sachidananda Murthy en Thu Oct 14 19:30:38 IST 2021 when-the-mea-stepped-in-to-douse-fires-lit-by-hockey-india-chief-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Sports administrators in the country are rarely known for their writing skills or for their understanding of the higher levels of foreign policy. Yet, a one-page letter from Gyanendro Ningombam, president of the Indian hockey federation, to the Indian Olympic Association in early October set alarm bells ringing in the corridors of the external affairs ministry and in the nearby British high commission.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ningombam bluntly said that he would not send the Indian hockey team for the once-in-four-years Commonwealth Games in the United Kingdom as the time gap to the Asian Games in China in September 2022 was too short. The Asian Games are scheduled to begin 23 days after the Commonwealth Games end. He said that the Asian Games performance was the qualification criterion for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While this concern was understandable, Ningombam sharply criticised the UK as the country worst affected by Covid-19. The federation pointed out how the UEFA Champions League final between two English clubs was shifted from Turkey to Portugal to allow English fans to attend (as travel to Turkey was not allowed), and the strict quarantine rules the Indian cricket team had to adhere to during the recent tour. This was compared with Japan, which had more relaxed rules for the Olympians.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hockey India expressed fears that if any of the Indian players were infected in Birmingham, they would miss the Asian Games in Hangzhou. The federation’s concerns were unique as other major hockey powers in the Commonwealth—like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the hosts, the UK—had no conflicting tournament schedules.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, diplomats in both the countries did not want the waters to become muddy with other federations also potentially issuing statements about their team’s participation or about the Covid situation in the UK, which had enforced stringent quarantine procedures on all Indian travellers. The external affairs ministry informed the sports ministry that the normal procedure for participation in international tournaments was for the entire contingent to be cleared and that political statements about host countries should be avoided by individual federations.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Furthermore, after New Delhi had announced reciprocal quarantine restrictions for British passport holders, London had quickly responded by recognising Covishield. The new sports minister Anurag Thakur, who has an ambitious game plan to streamline sports administration, commented that Hockey India surely had more than 18 players on its bench, even if the situation turned grim next year. Thakur made it clear that the final call on the country’s participation in multidisciplinary sports events like the Olympics, and the Asian and Commonwealth Games would always be taken by the government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, there was also a feeling that the government was not averse to some pressure being put on the British, so that country-specific restrictions were not enforced on Indian travellers, whether they were students, tourists or sportspersons.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Oct 14 19:31:05 IST 2021 why-ladakh-suddenly-became-a-hot-destination-for-mps-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Union government is pleased that its Operation Ladakh has received a good response from parliamentarians. In the last three months, around 350 MPs, including Union ministers, have visited the Union territory—to send a message not only to the local people but also to the Chinese troops menacingly sitting at the borders of eastern Ladakh for more than two years. Flights to Leh have been full of MPs travelling with their families, as Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla have given special permission to members of standing committees to take their dear ones to the northernmost point of the country.</p> <p>The region has been very much in the news since the division of the Jammu and Kashmir state into two Union territories, and later due to the Galwan skirmish and the military confrontation with China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, too, had asked his ministers—who joined the council of ministers in July—to travel to Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir as well as northeast states. For many MPs and their families, it was the first experience of the thin air of Ladakh and its stunning landscape. The Ladakhis rolled out the red carpet while doctors posted at civilian and military units attended to the cases of altitude sickness. The Indian Army opened its doors to the MPs to visit frontline stations, even as troops poured in as part of enhanced winter deployment.</p> <p>Senior Union ministers Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari went to inspect border roads and tunnels. The Border Roads Organisation has built roads even to remote villages in the region. Unlike the earlier strategy of treating Ladakh as closed territory, the new thinking is to attract more domestic tourists. The Ladakh administration has removed the inner line permit restriction for all Indian citizens to visit the notified protected areas of the territory.</p> <p>This would help the twin objectives of mainstreaming the Ladakhis and also boosting the local economy. The visit of ministers and MPs has also meant more visits by bureaucrats of various ministries and public sector undertakings before winter closes in.</p> <p>There are plans to market Ladakh as a destination for trekking, mountain climbing and motoring so that footfalls are there round the year. Ladakh is also becoming a military tourism destination. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, in 2019, had declared his intentions of opening the Siachen glacier—the world’s highest battlefield—for tourism, which was put on hold due to the pandemic. The new Tourism Minister G. Kishan Reddy, who had handled Ladakh as the minister of state for home affairs, is gung-ho about pushing hard for getting more UNESCO world heritage sites in the region. The information and broadcasting minister, too, is enthusiastic about expanding the radio and television network.</p> <p>But the government is cautious not to hurt Ladakhi sentiments. It wants to ensure that the tourist drive should not lead to non-Ladakhis coming in large numbers and settling in the cities and valleys of the region, and diluting the unique character of the Buddhist and Muslim populations in Leh and Kargil. Another plan is to upgrade tourist infrastructure to get more foreign tourists in the post-pandemic period. Thus, it would be “Ladakh ho!” for tourists for multiple reasons, in the confidence that the Chinese and Pakistanis are on their best behaviour across the not-fully defined borders.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Oct 07 17:39:03 IST 2021 how-governments-handpick-committee-heads-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As long as there are governments, there will be committees. And when the Central government sets up committees, it looks for chairmen who will deliver recommendations that do not rock official policy too much. Thus, when the education ministry decided to set up a committee to revamp school syllabus as per the recommendations of the new education policy, K. Kasturirangan, who headed the committee that framed the policy, was an obvious choice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kasturirangan has worn many hats—space scientist, secretary to government, member of the Planning Commission and a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha. He has worked with prime ministers and ministers of different ideologies without a complaint of political bias, always trying for the golden consensus. He is also the fire-fighter when “audacious” chairmen give “bold” reports.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When environmental scientist Madhav Gadgil recommended severe curtailment of human and industrial activity to safeguard the Western Ghats, there were protests from states with evergreen forests. The Manmohan Singh government constituted a second committee headed by Kasturirangan. Activists cried foul saying the new committee had watered down Gadgil’s tough prescriptions. But governments felt that Kasturirangan had balanced the ecology and development needs while ensuring the green cover stayed intact.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Similarly, the committee on education policy headed by former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian, known for his radical views to reform the bureaucracy, gave a strong interim report. The human resource development ministry (as it was called then), headed by Smriti Irani, was disturbed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The committee was reconstituted, and Kasturirangan named the new chairman. His supporters insisted that he had handled the subject of education in the Planning Commission and had wide experience of India’s science education as he was part of several universities when he headed the Indian Space Research Organisation. Again, Kasturirangan gave a report that satisfied the government and its ideological supporters in the RSS, even though the opposition said the report would further the right-wing agenda.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now he is handling another hot potato in devising school curriculum on which there are serious differences within and outside the academic community. But Kasturirangan, who does meticulous research and uses congenial language in his reports, is expected to keep to the middle path as much as possible.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another favourite candidate for heading committees and commissions is former IAS officer N.K. Singh, who had a similar career trajectory as Kasturirangan’s—secretary to government, member of Planning Commission and Rajya Sabha member. He was the chairman of the 15th Finance Commission, which decided on division of central taxes between Central and state governments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now he heads the committee to review the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, which had fixed deficit targets for Central and state governments (the targets could not be met in the last 13 years owing to the economic crisis followed by the pandemic). Earlier, he had headed a task force on deregulation of the telecom sector.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Another busy ex-bureaucrat till recently was former finance secretary Vijay Kelkar, who had headed the task force on indirect taxes reform that led to the Goods and Services Tax. He was chairman of the committee that recommended contours of public-private partnership for industries and was chairman of the 13th Finance Commission.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Before the current favourites, national security expert K. Subrahmanyam (father of External Affairs Minister K. Jaishankar), former cabinet secretary Naresh Chandra and former Jammu and Kashmir governor N.N. Vohra were considered both qualified and suitable to head committees dealing with complex issues for the government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 30 20:20:05 IST 2021 while-modi-shares-high-table-in-washington-imran-stays-at-home-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Imran Khan has put off a planned visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. The Pakistan prime minister wants to avoid the embarrassment of not getting an appointment with US President Joe Biden. Instead, he has gone on a verbal offensive in the international media, emphasising how important Pakistan will be for influencing the five-week-old Taliban government in Afghanistan and preventing the return of terrorism to the country just vacated by the Americans.</p> <p>He is also taking into account the changing relationships in the Muslim world. There was a time when it had given solid support to Pakistan, but now the ties are more carefully considered by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey’s strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan stands strongly with Khan, but Iran’s new government has its own problems with the eastern neighbour.</p> <p>Khan, who will be facing an election next year, is the first Pakistan prime minister with whom an American president has not spoken to—even on phone. He said Biden might be too “busy”, but his supporters and critics think it is a deliberate snub by the White House. Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump had made Khan wait for a year, and even suspended American aid to Islamabad, before inviting the former cricketer to Washington. Trump made a U-turn at the meeting in 2019, oozing charm and calling Khan a “good friend”. He even offered to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute, sending shockwaves in the Indian establishment which did not want third-party intervention in the valley. Khan also had made news, as he travelled by a small plane to Washington and saved hotel rent by staying with the Pakistan ambassador.</p> <p>Biden, however, has been unrelenting, refusing any contact with the nuclear power which will play a crucial role in the stability of Afghanistan. Khan blames the American obsession with a strategic relationship with India for keeping a distance from Pakistan. But Khan had ridden to power, defeating the Pakistan People’s Party and the Muslim League, on anti-American rhetoric, which he had continued in his first year in office. His party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, mined the anti-American sentiment among commoners upset by the massive drone attacks unleashed by the Barack Obama administration on terrorist camps inside Pakistan, which had killed many civilians as well. Khan said 80,000 Pakistanis were killed during the 20-year US occupation of Afghanistan and his country had lost more than $150 billion, while it got just $20 billion as aid.</p> <p>Biden, who was vice president for eight years under Obama, bluntly said that Pakistan played an opportunistic game by fostering terrorists like the Haqqani network and Osama bin Laden on its soil while helping the Americans transit and letting them use its bases. The mistrust now runs deep in Biden’s national security team. Pakistan’s proximity to China has also come at the expense of goodwill in the US.</p> <p>The tension between the old allies has been good for India, which has for long been telling Washington to dehyphenate the subcontinental relationship by putting the ties with India on a higher pedestal. Yet, New Delhi also knows that there is a strong lobby working for Pakistan in the US strategic community, which will be louder if there is de-escalation in the Indo-Pacific region. At the moment, Prime Minister Narendra Modi shares the high table in Washington, while the sulking Khan stays at home.</p> <p><b style="font-size: 0.8125rem;"></b></p> Thu Sep 23 17:55:25 IST 2021 sensitive-ministers-bureaucrats-needed-to-hear-job-hunters-woes-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Apart from his own scholarship, the long years in the United Nations, government of India and Parliament have made Shashi Tharoor well aware of the myriad schemes and acronyms of the Central ministries. The erudite parliamentarian has now taken up the cause of one crore unemployed graduates who applied for a few thousand clerical posts in the Railways, the country’s largest employer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Railway Recruitment Board started the process in early 2019 for the examination, but it has not yet declared the dates for the final test. Tharoor tweeted an appeal to Union Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw for removing the red signals so that the recruitment could roll on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even before the minister and the railways responded, the job seekers tweeted about other recruitments stuck in government pipelines. It was not just clerical jobs. The recruitment for electrical and civil engineers has been frozen on the tracks ever since the Lok Sabha elections got over, and then Covid-19 restrictions immobilised the recruitment process.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This pattern repeats across other large official employers like education, and in almost all states. However, the recruitment process kept moving in paramilitary forces, both due to security needs and the powerful presence of Amit Shah in the home ministry. Yet, the gap between vacancies and recruitments is considerable in the uniformed services.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The prime minister has been emphasising that the government alone cannot provide jobs, but that it will promote skill development. There are dozens of schemes to promote growth of start-ups and self-employment launched by successive governments, and, now, the national monetisation pipeline proposes privatisation of multiple government operations. Officials concede that privatisation of railways, road and air operations, which was being discussed in the corridors of power during the last two years, was also a reason for the slowdown in government recruitments in the infrastructure and services sectors.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The delay in states has been equally galling for the unemployed. Post the second Covid wave, some state governments have announced they would speed up recruitments for schools, hospitals and engineering departments. In Punjab, the dissident camp, led by PCC president Navjot Singh Sidhu, has questioned the commitment of Chief Minister Amarinder Singh on the job front. The Aam Aadmi Party, which is keen to make a big impact in Punjab, Uttarakhand, is dangling mega recruitment promises to job seekers. Karnataka Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai has announced a big recruitment drive, but there are no details.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the Centre, the job-generation function is scattered across ministries. While the Union Public Service Commission is focused on senior and middle level jobs for the All India Services as well as for other Central government jobs, the Public Enterprise Selection Board selects chief executives and senior functionaries for government-owned companies. Then, there are recruitment boards and departmental committees for the lower-grade jobs, which are in tens of thousands. The Army, Navy, Air Force and the Coast Guard have their own elaborate structure to recruit officers and jawans.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While the UPSC is under the prime minister as part of the Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT), the PSEB is under the Union industry minister. Each minister handles recruitment for his ministry, based on DOPT guidelines, though the defence ministry enjoys more latitude in recruiting combat-fit officers and soldiers. The government needs highly placed ministers and bureaucrats, with sensitive ears, to hear the despairs of job hunters as evidenced in responses to Tharoor’s appeal to Vaishnaw.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 16 14:57:27 IST 2021 sachidananda-murthy-on-the-debate-over-prayers-at-government-buildings <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Jharkhand government’s decision to designate a prayer room in the new assembly building for Muslim legislators, employees and visitors has drawn protests from BJP members who demand that either the order be withdrawn or a separate room be provided for believers of Hinduism and other faiths. The speaker has defended the decision saying it was a practice that existed even when the young state was part of Bihar. There is also demand that a temple be built on the premises, though there are many deities in the state, which has a mix of tribal and non-tribal population.</p> <p>Such protests and demands have been common in the country since pre-independence days as competitiveness has surged and ebbed. There have been heated debates on whether the concept of secularism means separation of state from religion, or that all religions must be given equal rights or that the specific rights of majority and minority religions should be enforced. Institutions of the government and different leaders have resolved these issues right from the national capital to small towns.</p> <p>Exemplarily, the Army has built multi-faith complexes in its units across the country. Military discipline also contributes to orderly prayers, but without such rigour, it could become more chaotic in civilian life. Administrators and police officials have, over the years, narrated how they have faced and resolved conflicting and potentially inflammatory demands to permit (or to deny) worship in public places. Even the courts are approached to either force or stop the government from taking decisions that would benefit one group or another.</p> <p>While prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru believed in keeping state and religion separate, he had to accommodate the believers in his government who felt religion was an integral part of national life. The practice of multi-faith prayers, especially when new government buildings were inaugurated, became more prevalent in the initial decades of independent India. But now the prevalent trend is for Hindu priests to conduct pujas, as was witnessed when the prime minister laid the foundation for the new Parliament building.</p> <p>In fact, the present circular building—it will soon become a museum after the new building starts functioning in 2023—has been a witness to the pulls and pressures of worship since it functioned as the Central legislative assembly under British rule. There were Christian prayers for the good of the king and empire which Indian members attended, depending on their loyalty and religiosity. There were no separate prayer rooms as places of worship for Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs were available around the complex.</p> <p>The building had dining halls for British and Indian members, as well as for Indian kings and nawabs who had a separate princes’ chamber—the present-day members’ reading room, where the original copy of the Constitution is kept. Depending on the dietary preferences and taboos, specific meats were allowed or disallowed on the menu. There were also bars, where members and officials could have a quick drink amid the hustle and bustle of the debates, similar to the parliament in London. After independence, the bars were closed and more dietary restrictions were imposed. There are demands that only vegetarian food be served in the new Parliament building and in BJP-ruled states. Politicians who shout the most are also good at reconciliations. In Jharkhand, the speaker and political leaders need to sit together in a fraternal spirit.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 09 20:00:42 IST 2021 social-media-originated-firs-are-rising-what-does-it-say-about-our-policing-system <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>If young Haryana IAS officer Ayush Sinha is in the dock over his order to “break the heads” of agitating farmers of Karnal, another IAS officer from the same state has made fun of the police rushing to write first information reports after getting tweets and WhatsApp messages from ruling party members.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Prabhjot Singh of the 2010 batch, who has a technology degree, has sarcastically said through a tweet that police stations should be set up on social media to handle these “broadcast” complaints. Coincidentally, the Ghaziabad police have ordered two FIRs against a priest, Narsinghanand Saraswati, supposedly based on a Twitter complaint from National Commission for Women chairperson Rekha Sharma.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The code of criminal procedure permits police to examine whether an offence is committed based either on a complaint or on the basis of information gathered by the policemen. But the tendency to treat social media messages of politically powerful persons—which are more for public consumption or publicity—as criminal complaints show the eagerness of policemen to please the rulers. Not just in Uttar Pradesh, but in other states, too, social media messaging is used to launch criminal cases. Police officers are eager to launch investigations even before they can check the truthfulness of the tweet.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some years ago, the Supreme Court had come down heavily on states over the practice of hiding complaints—where many complaints were not converted to FIRs. It was done either to help the powerful escape police cases or to keep the number of total cases down to highlight the excellence of policing. The apex court had said that every complaint made to the police should be registered.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But taking instant cognisance of complaints on social media, which are tagged to the police, is going to the other extreme. With political parties, foreign governments and even criminal gangs using social media to tarnish the reputation of persons and institutions they do not like, the police should not react to every alert on their smartphones but verify the complaint with good application of common sense.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A study of social media-originated FIRs done in large north Indian states shows maximum cases are related to hate remarks followed by what is considered defamatory posts against chief ministers and other persons of the ruling party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is zealousness in Uttar Pradesh; the maximum number of social media-related cases were registered for “defamatory comments” against Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath followed by such comments against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. UP Police squads have travelled to distant states like Tamil Nadu to arrest those who have let off steam on social media. But as social media is a double-edged sword, over-eagerness leads to more scathing comments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That is why Singh suggests, with his tongue firmly in cheek, that after setting up social media police stations in every district, the government should set up social media courts to try the accused.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Sep 02 16:42:35 IST 2021 jay-dubashis-agenda-is-getting-implemented-but-with-tweaks-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Jay Dubashi is not remembered publicly by the BJP in the 21st century. But, in the 1980s and 1990s, the right-wing economist would begin his day early in the party’s national headquarters, spending several hours poring over economic data and policies of the governments of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh and P.V. Narasimha Rao, and giving his own alternative policy options to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K Advani and other BJP leaders of the day.</p> <p>As convener of the party’s economic cell, the scholar from London School of Economics would hold sway on the need for righting the leftist policies of Congress governments. He had strong praise for the reforms of Rao and Manmohan Singh, and was thrilled that the throttled entrepreneurial spirit was being unleashed and controls were being dismantled.</p> <p>Dubashi was also a key member of the party’s manifesto committee, writing the alternative agenda of reducing government monopolies, eliminating bureaucratic controls and allowing more private sector participation.</p> <p>Many young office-bearers would attend the sessions of the “professor”, among whom were Arun Jaitley, M. Venkaiah Naidu, K.N. Govindacharya, and, importantly, Narendra Modi, who was secretary and later general secretary in-charge of the organisation.</p> <p>Dubashi, along with industrialist Viren Shah, who was party treasurer, would argue how self-reliance cannot be achieved by the government commanding the heights of the economy and how the country needed a people’s economy. Dubashi took on the phalanx of pro-socialist economists of the Congress and leftist persuasions in debates, even as he told BJP leaders to refrain from imitating the Congress in their quest for power.</p> <p>By the turn of the century, though Dubashi gave inputs to the national agenda of governance of the NDA, he was disillusioned that the coalition government was status quoist, where barring finance, commerce and industry, all other economic portfolios were given away to coalition partners who resisted reforms.</p> <p>But now the Dubashi agenda is getting implemented with significant modifications and caveats, since the economic crisis of 2019 and the pandemic which began last year. Dubashi, who was unimpressed by the land reforms of the Congress and the left parties, had argued that farm holdings need to be consolidated and corporatised, so that a number of people were weaned away from agriculture dependence.</p> <p>The three farm laws brought by the Central government last year in the teeth of opposition by farmers organisations in north India and by the opposition would be a beginning of what Dubashi had given in his blueprints. He had emphasised the need for huge investments in manufacturing and infrastructure through foreign sources and the private sector. Modi’s two Make in India programs, as well as the rush to sell or consolidate the sprawling public enterprises, including those in the strategic sectors like defence and space, had their origin in the thinking done under Dubashi’s charge decades ago.</p> <p>Two decades ago, in a media interview, Dubashi had asked where would the 06 lakh crore funds meant for manufacturing come from, as he felt disinvestment of government would not be enough. Coincidentally, the National Asset Monetisation Pipeline announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman would lease out “brownfield” assets of the government in multiple sectors to the private sector to realise exactly Rs6 lakh crore!</p> <p>The opposition is crying hoarse that the assets would go to crony capitalists. The BJP leaders are giving credit to Modi. But Dubashi, the original prophet of rightist change, will not get credit or discredit for this fundamental economic change.</p> Thu Aug 26 19:05:56 IST 2021 cji-ramana-suggestion-to-improve-lawmaking-is-debatable-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana is making more news through his public comments than his verdicts. In his latest expression of angst, Ramana said that the Parliament was producing poorly drafted laws because there were not enough intellectuals or even lawyers in the house.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He has obviously cast doubts on the rigour of intellectual debate among legislators. But, followers of parliamentary purity point out two other reasons. The government, whether the UPA or the NDA, laments that Parliament is forced to pass legislation without debate because of continuous disruption from opposition parties. In the last 20 years, the opposition has said that governments push bills through amid noise and do not even have the courtesy to refer them to the parliamentary standing committees.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Congress has accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “contempt for the committee system”, as less than 25 per cent of the bills during his seven-year regime have been referred to committees. During Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s six-year regime, 60 per cent of proposed legislation went to the committees. The chairmen of some of these committees like Jairam Ramesh, Shashi Tharoor or Bhartruhari Mahtab would be considered as belonging to the intellectual class. Furthermore, the current Parliament has many legal luminaries like Ravi Shankar Prasad, P. Chidambaram, K.T.S. Tulsi, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Kapil Sibal and Vivek Tankha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Legal heavyweights like Prasad, Sibal, Salman Khurshid, Arun Jaitley, Ram Jethmalani, Ashwani Kumar and Veerappa Moily have been law ministers. They oversaw the legislative affairs department, which reviews the government’s bills and rules. Yet, Ramana has found that the conceptualisation and drafting of the bills presented “a sorry state of affairs”, which has led to ambiguity and gaps. Ramana also found that much of the legislation passed by Parliament in recent years lacked clarity on the legislation’s purpose. His diagnosis may find many supporters among the critics of over legislation by successive governments. However, the cure prescribed by the CJI may be contentious. He wants more lawyers to come into Parliament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the first five Lok Sabhas, agriculturists dominated, followed by lawyers. But the composition changed with the emergence of Indira Gandhi and socialist parties. They brought in more “social workers” and “full time politicians”, even if they claimed to own land or possess a law degree. A study of the legal qualifications of Karnataka legislators in the 1990s found that several had acquired law degrees from evening colleges where attendance was optional. The professional mix in Parliament has also changed with doctors, engineers and management professionals competing with dynasts for a seat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The pathetic state of legislative drafting has to be addressed at two levels. The government needs to appoint bright officials, including lawyers, for drafting legislation. Secondly, bills should be thoroughly discussed in public fora.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When Lok Sabha speaker Shivraj Patil introduced the standing committee system in the 1990s, he envisioned the committees functioning both as a miniature Parliament and an open court. He wanted them to invite domain experts and public delegations to give feedback on the good or bad effects of the proposed legislation, and officials of the concerned ministry to justify every word in the bill. The proceedings were made secret so that there would be candour and cooperation among members. Forged in the heat of public opinion and frank debate, the bills would be sent back to the government for reconsideration.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Therefore, Ramana’s suggestion that more lawyers would result in better legislation is definitely debatable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Aug 19 15:07:19 IST 2021 indian-carmakers-unimpressed-with-musks-demand-to-lower-tariffs-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Elon Musk is known as a disruptor par excellence of the American automobile industry as well as the currency and stock markets in the US. The bold entrepreneur has sent shockwaves worldwide with his new generation cars, which are electric powered, and, some, self-driven.</p> <p>Six years after he took Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a tour of The Tesla Factory in California, the American tycoon seems to be winning the argument over lowering the steep customs duty for import of electric cars to make a significant penetration into the Indian market. Musk seems to have drilled the contradictory dictum that only imports would help in achieving import substitution. Officials of the Union industry and commerce ministry, who want to stick to Modi’s Make in India policy, want Tesla to set up a big factory in India, which could then import full kit for the assembly of electric cars here (a route followed by foreign manufacturers like Hyundai, when foreign investment was allowed in the automobile sector). Musk has preferred to import the full car, test the potential of the Indian car market and only then go for manufacturing. Musk’s only concession was to register his Indian subsidiary in Bengaluru as a research and development centre. But Musk indicated that he is capable of building a large assembly line, much faster than any automaker in the world.</p> <p>Modi, during the Tesla visit, was impressed with the clean energy option, as he had begun work on his dream of making India the largest producer of solar energy, cutting the dependence on petrol and diesel. The prime minister has remained very silent on the continuous criticism of opposition parties on the steady increase in prices of petroleum products, thereby giving an impression that he wants vehicle owners to realise the cost efficiency of shifting to green fuel options. Already a domestic disruptive start-up, Oyo, has claimed that it has got more than one lakh orders for its electric scooters, which will be delivered home from this month onwards.</p> <p>The Indian automobile manufacturers are not impressed with Musk’s demand to lower the tariff wall for imported vehicles, despite justification that Tesla cars (even in US) are at the high end of the market and would be highly priced, even if the import duty is reduced from 60 per cent to 40 per cent for cars priced below Rs40 lakh. Bulk of Indian cars sold in the country cost below Rs15 lakh.</p> <p>Disruption of the automobile market comes with huge costs, as is evident from the way the Union road transport ministry has been struggling with changes on fuel efficiency standards and forming a scrap policy, which encourages scrapping of lakhs of automobiles in short time. The steel industry has remained unconvinced on the usefulness of recycled steel, and add to that the attitude of car owners who baulk at the conversion charges of petrol-diesel cars to newer and costlier clean energy models.</p> <p>The last disruption of the automobile industry happened when the Supreme Court mandated that public transport vehicles, including buses, taxis and three-wheelers in several urban centres, shift to CNG, reducing the intake of diesel. But the limitations of CNG use meant the switch could not happen in the case of trucks, which haul heavy loads.</p> <p>If Musk really focuses on the Indian market, which is of low value due to the dollar-rupee exchange rate, then he would disturb the sleep of both competitors and policy makers.</p> <p><b></b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Aug 12 20:04:53 IST 2021 sachidananda-murthy-on-the-crescent-road-chief-ministers <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When H.D. Deve Gowda and S.R. Bommai occupied neighbouring ministerial bungalows on Bengaluru’s Crescent Road in the mid-1980s, both of them were aspiring to become Karnataka chief minister by displacing the firmly entrenched Ramakrishna Hegde. Their sons—H.D. Kumaraswamy and Basavaraj Bommai—were at that time busy in their professions after completing studies. Bommai Sr got lucky first. He became chief minister in 1988; Gowda followed in 1994. Both the families moved out of the Crescent Road bungalows.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, Basavaraj has become the fourth Crescent Road ex-resident to become chief minister. Kumaraswamy had earlier twice become CM, while another Crescent Road ‘boy’ H.D. Revanna, who is elder to Kumaraswamy, has made it only to the ministerial level.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, new ministers in Karnataka try hard to get one of the ‘lucky bungalows’ on Crescent Road, Gandhi Bhavan Road and Race Course Road. S. Bangarappa, N. Dharam Singh, S.M. Krishna, B.S. Yediyurappa and Siddaramaiah have all had addresses on these streets before becoming chief ministers.</p> <p>Basavaraj’s interest in politics grew after his father moved to Delhi—first as national president of the Janata Dal and, later, as human resource minister in the Gowda cabinet. Though an engineer who owned a manufacturing unit, Basavaraj helped his father fight a constitutional case that resulted in the landmark ‘Bommai judgement’, in which the Supreme Court declared that the majority enjoyed by a chief minister can only be tested in a legislative assembly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Basavaraj also launched a campaign with lawyer and Congress leader Brijesh Kalappa in Delhi, petitioning the heads of national and regional parties to retire veterans and promote young leaders. They wanted the president, prime minister and ministers to be young. Basavaraj’s petition, which did not yield immediate dividends, left his father amused.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bommai was influenced by the radical humanism of revolutionary ideologue M.N. Roy, and he spent considerable money to reprint and distribute Roy’s books. Bommai was also a rationalist who bravely moved to the Balabrooie, a historic bungalow occupied by dewans and chief ministers. It was considered inauspicious because its last occupant, Devaraj Urs, was toppled by defectors. When Bommai met the same fate within months, the family was shocked.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Basavaraj, too, is known for drafting manifestos and programmes with a strong welfarist bend. Remaining true to his personal manifesto, he announced several welfare measures on his first day as chief minister.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The failure of the Janata experiment in Karnataka made Basavaraj realise that only the BJP was a viable anti-Congress alternative. He joined the party in 2008. Years later, he took another critical decision: not to abandon the party after his mentor, Yediyurappa, revolted and floated his own party. Known as a governance man, he went on to serve under three temperamentally different chief ministers. Even though his recent elevation is credited to Yediyurappa’s desire to have his own man at the top, Basavaraj has access to the bridges he built to Delhi when Amit Shah was BJP president.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Crescent Road residents have mostly had short tenures as chief minister, but they do gain second wind. Gowda became prime minister, Bommai became Union minister, and Kumaraswamy got a second, but rather short, term as chief minister. Basavaraj has only two years left before elections, but it could be enough to implement several of his cherished ideas. His challenges, though, are more political than administrative—uniting a party deeply divided into loyalists and critics of Yediyurappa, and into old-timers and new defectors. His choice of ministers and portfolios would be the big test of how effectively he can deal with heavyweights in and outside the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Aug 05 16:12:57 IST 2021 railways-is-facing-a-dilemma--says-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The railway ministry is flooded with petitions from MPs and passenger associations as the unlock process gathers pace across the country. But the country’s largest transport network is beset with a dilemma: whether to choose lives over livelihood.</p> <p>The Union home ministry is not in a mood to allow full-fledged rail travel. Only around 8,000 of 13,000 passenger trains have been allowed to run—and that, too, with restricted capacity. The emphasis is on using reserved compartments where social distancing can be ensured; unreserved ones are accessible to everyone with a ticket.</p> <p>The ministry boasts that its freight services are going full steam ahead to keep the wheels of the economy moving. The wheel-less passengers, though, are feeling let down, because of curtailment of services and cancellation of season tickets. The poor among travellers, who depend on trains to get to work or classes, are the hardest hit. They cannot afford the steep fare for reserving seats in express trains and other modes of public transport. And steep fares aside, the railways also charge stiff service fees. Shortage of seats is another issue.</p> <p>Season tickets were available for one-way journeys up to 150 kilometres in passenger trains that had only unreserved compartments. According to railway rules, such tickets could also be issued for journeys beyond 150 kilometres, provided that the facility existed in, or prior to, 1950. Long-distance concessional travel is therefore possible in some British-era trains that still survive.</p> <p>It is urban links like Mumbai-Pune, Mumbai-Nashik, Delhi-Panipat, Kolkata-Kharagpur, Kochi-Palakkad and Bengaluru-Mysuru that attract a huge number of season-ticket holders. The suburban train network in Mumbai, which extends 100 kilometres on the Mumbai-Pune and Mumbai-Nashik stretches, now allows only those who are a part of emergency services, grounding the urban workforce that used to commute by train to factories and offices.</p> <p>The railways has allowed season ticket holders to travel in short-distance MEMU trains, though. But the current restrictions would otherwise continue, because experts in the health ministry insist that crowded trains could lead to a third wave of the pandemic. Also, the railways would not be able to prevent overcrowding if it issues lakhs of season tickets and allows commuters to use thousands of unreserved compartments. The Railway Board and the Railway Protection Force have also made it clear that they do not have an adequately strong workforce to ensure social distancing in unreserved compartments. Nor do railway stations have the facility to do health checks if there is a heavy influx of regular passengers.</p> <p>The railways had reintroduced seasonal passes in April this year, after suspending them during the first lockdown in March 2020. The second Covid wave, however, called for cancelling that decision.</p> <p>Small and medium enterprises, which employ lakhs of poor labourers, argue that the railways should start serving short-haul commuters as well. Only safe transportation facilities can improve productivity and save livelihood, they say. Road transport facilities, both public and private, have not been able to bear the load because of a number of reasons, including travel- and load-related restrictions, unviable routes and the low paying capacity of commuters.</p> <p>Railway officials, however, want employers to explore alternatives and provide subsidised modes of transport to employees until the public health situation improves. But, with the plan to reopen schools and colleges by September, the clamour for allowing more passengers in trains may only grow louder.</p> <p><b>sachi<a href=""></a></b></p> Thu Jul 29 19:57:51 IST 2021 pramanik-faces-birther-controversy-a-la-obama-says-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Barack Obama’s critics in the Republican Party used to repeatedly ask him whether he was actually born on American soil. As per the US constitution, only natural-born citizens could become president—a rule that has prevented distinguished Americans like Henry Kissinger and Arnold Schwarzenegger from nursing presidential hopes. When Obama ran for president in 2008, the birther controversy related to him was highlighted by Donald Trump, then a television host. Obama responded by insisting that he was born in Hawaii and teasing his critics to prove otherwise. The controversy died down after he released his birth certificate issued by the Hawaii administration, but conspiracy theorists still say Obama was born abroad.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nisit Pramanik, the new minister of state for home in the Narendra Modi government, now finds himself in a similar birther controversy. Pramanik’s critics in the Congress and the Trinamool Congress say he was born in Gaibandha district in Bangladesh in 1986. Relying on a Wikipedia entry and information from his constituency (which is part of West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district bordering Bangladesh), they say that Pramanik was young when he came to India with his parents, who were Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. But Pramanik, who won the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 and the assembly polls earlier this year, had filed affidavits with supporting documents saying he was an Indian citizen born at Dinhata in Cooch Behar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP and the RSS have for long been championing the cause of Hindu refugees from Bangladesh’s troubled border districts. The Modi government had also pushed through the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which enables the government to grant citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and other non-Muslims from south Asian countries. The earlier cut-off year for granting citizenship to Bangladeshi refugees was 1971—15 years before Pramanik was born.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>BJP leaders in West Bengal initially argued that even if Pramanik was born in Gaibandha and was brought to India as a toddler, he was still eligible for Indian citizenship under the CAA. Senior leaders later insisted there was no need for him to get fresh citizenship, as he had certificates from the local civic body and school proving that he was born in India. The party’s top leadership has told Pramanik—known to be an ebullient leader who actively takes part in street protests and has several criminal cases against him—to remain silent, as the issue is bound to go to court.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Interestingly, officials dealing with citizenship issues in the home ministry would be reporting to him. The Trinamool Congress, of which Pramanik was earlier a member, is nevertheless trying to dig up dirt. The party has questioned his educational qualification; Pramanik had said that he was a graduate in computer application, and that the course was conducted by a junior school.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1999 and 2004, the BJP had strongly objected to Sonia Gandhi becoming prime minister, saying she was born outside India. The Indian Constitution, however, does not bar Indian citizens born on foreign soil from becoming prime ministers. I.K. Gujral and Manmohan Singh had been born in undivided India; their families had moved to the new India during partition. During Modi’s first term, the home ministry had received a complaint saying Rahul Gandhi had claimed British citizenship during the incorporation of a company in London. The Congress had vehemently denied the allegation and the ministry did not take any action.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When candidates file election affidavits, lawyers specialising in electoral law sift through details related to date of birth, citizenship, educational qualifications, criminal cases and income, assets and liabilities. The scrutiny is more intense for ministers like Pramanik.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 22 16:48:39 IST 2021 did-penchant-for-virtual-meetings-cost-harsh-vardhan-his-job-asks-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A popular story of Indian mythology is about the ‘race around the world’ competition between Ganesha and Subramanya, sons of Lord Shiva. When they are asked to go round the world to determine who is the fastest, Subramanya sets off on his peacock to circumnavigate the world. The more ponderous Ganesha leisurely makes a pradakshina (circumambulation) of his divine parents, saying they are the world, and he has completed the race ahead of his brother. Some of the ministers who were dropped by Narendra Modi too thought doing the rounds in Delhi was enough rather than going around the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Former health minister Harsh Vardhan and former pharmaceuticals minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda had special patterns of travel. While Harsh Vardhan was confined largely to Delhi, despite being entrusted with overseeing the country’s health and science infrastructure and also responses to epidemics, Gowda’s travel was normally from Delhi to his Lok Sabha constituency in Bengaluru. Harsh Vardhan preferred to hold online reviews to making many field visits.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Among the cabinet ministers, it was Defence Minister Rajnath Singh who had travelled extensively within the country in the last two years. Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar touched multiple capitals in Asia, Europe, North America and Africa. But the travel diary of Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, unlike his globetrotting predecessors, has been more moderate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There are debates whether it is necessary now for ministers to physically travel to different places when technology allows for meeting people from multiple locations virtually. Ministers can also summon officials, technical experts and political personalities to Delhi for meetings. But there is a section of politicians and officials who feels a well-focused visit of a minister would better galvanise the government machinery and personnel outside Delhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When Narendra Modi first became prime minister in 2014, he wanted his ministers to travel. As a long-term national office-bearer of the BJP, he liked travelling to get first-hand information, including historical and political details. He told every minister that they must visit Jammu and Kashmir as well as the northeast region once every three months. He had directed ministers and MPs to adopt villages and go around monitoring implementation of his pet projects on hygiene, cooking gas and roads. And, the ministers were in a state of continuous motion. Modi himself was immersed in domestic and international travel.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But in the second term—which was overshadowed by the pandemic-induced restrictions—ministers have played safe by remaining in Delhi, contributing to the general savings in government expenditure. But if Harsh Vardhan, Gowda and Home Minister Amit Shah—who is in charge of disaster management—had travelled more to states to monitor the health and administrative actions to control Covid-19, the responses to the second wave might have been more effective. One explanation given was that they deferred to Modi, who played an active role in interacting with chief ministers and district level bureaucrats, and visited vaccine production facilities in Ahmedabad, Pune and Hyderabad to get first-hand information. Even when cyclones struck the coastal states, it was Modi who went for aerial surveys, though Shah did round-the-clock monitoring and mobilisation from Delhi. However, at the request of state BJP units, both Modi and Shah made many political sorties also into Bihar, West Bengal and other states in the last one year. It is to be seen how different Mansukh L. Mandaviya, the new minister in charge of both health and pharmaceuticals, will act in comparison with Harsh Vardhan and Gowda.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 15 16:44:55 IST 2021 the-vaccine-apartheid-knot <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Can those who are not vaccinated be forced to stay indoors? The Mizoram government thought it had the right to order them not to venture out. But, the Gauhati High Court said that the state has no such right to practise vaccine apartheid, especially when those who are vaccinated can also be infected or become spreaders. The debate in the north-eastern state has been settled for now in favour of equal status for all citizens.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The state government argued that its attempt was to contain the virus spread in the state, where 70 per cent of the population has had one round of vaccination. But the rule would have meant that more than a quarter of the population would have had to remain indoors. In Delhi and other cities, the local magistrates have asked residential complexes to submit a list of residents who have not got the first dose, leading to apprehensions about vaccine compulsion.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Mizoram government’s order is only symptomatic of how states, local bodies and even resident welfare associations have been practising their own methods of vaccine coercion as against the stated policies of the Union government. The government has repeatedly said that vaccination is voluntary, but has advised getting both doses. Ministry officials also point out that any attempt to ostracise those who have not taken the vaccine would have consequences.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, in many districts and states which were hit hard by the second wave, officials and ministers have argued that denial of ‘normal privileges’ like coming out of homes, going to markets or workplaces and interacting with neighbours, would encourage a higher percentage of the population to get vaccinated. They argue that the current restrictions on travel by air or rail without a negative RT-PCR test itself is a discriminatory practice, but is accepted as a public health measure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India has protested the vaccine passport rules of the European Union (only those who get vaccines approved by the EU’s medical unit are allowed entry). Both Covishield and Covaxin are not in the list. India has now persuaded 10 countries in the EU to approve the vaccines available in India, despite the common EU order. But, the big countries like Germany and France have not yet announced a relaxation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The government is worried that the order of the Mizoram government and other instances of vaccine compulsion in India would be picked up by the EU to justify its own vaccine passport scheme. US President Joe Biden has ruled out a vaccine passport for entry into his country, but, at present, Indians wishing to visit the US have to spend 14 days in a foreign country before landing at an American airport.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In India, mapping of the vaccine hesitant population would have to wait till early next year, by which time more than 70 per cent of the eligible population is likely to be covered. Till now, there were doubts on the efficacy of Covaxin and Covishield as the results of the third round of clinical trials were not available in detail. But, now, even politicians, like former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, who refused to take the “BJP vaccines”, have said they are ready for the jab.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><a href=""></a></p> Thu Jul 08 20:20:27 IST 2021 is-modis-myanmar-policy-pragmatism-or-kowtowing-asks-sachidananda-murthys <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as the western and northern borders are getting more attention, a sort of quiet has descended on the country’s eastern border—especially with Myanmar, which was rocked by a military coup earlier this year. An undeclared arrangement has been put into place regarding the refugees who fled to Mizoram after the military crackdown on the government of Aung San Suu Kyi, which put her and the entire government behind bars.</p> <p>The refugees, whose number varies between 6,000 and 10,000, would stay put in Mizoram and Manipur, but they would not indulge in any political activity. However, India would not immediately concede the demand of the military junta to hand over the local legislators, policemen and army deserters who crossed the border soon after the coup. While New Delhi will not allow formal refugee camps, it would not stand in the way of humanitarian aid coming from the state governments and local population, who share the same ethnicity with most refugees who are from the Chin State in western Myanmar.</p> <p>The United States and European countries have been putting pressure on the Narendra Modi government to be more forthright in condemning the coup and even impose sanctions. But the prime minister, who has refocused the Look East policy, has opted for continuity of his policy which defenders say is pragmatic and critics attack as kowtowing. The Indian stand of demanding an end to violence and release of political prisoners is the same as the stand of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) of which Myanmar is a member. India abstained from a vote in the United Nations which aimed at isolating the military junta, even though both the Indian military and intelligence agencies are more concerned about the larger Chinese involvement in the eastern neighbour with which India shares a 1,600km border. The cabinet committee of security has met several times to discuss the situation in Myanmar and its impact on the northeast.</p> <p>The military has deployed the Assam Rifles in a bigger way to prevent a large-scale influx of refugees. But both home and external affairs ministries are not in favour of allowing international refugee agencies to visit or make arrangements in the sensitive border states. Only a handful of Myanmarese activists—who got a court order—were permitted to visit the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Delhi, but they were quietly told to avoid making a political show.</p> <p>The Indian embassy in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw has conveyed the government’s concern over the violence and detentions, while adding New Delhi’s hopes for a return to the democratic traditions of a country that has had long spells of military rule since its independence. But during the six years of rule of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which ran parallel to the rule of Modi, India has dealt with both the civilian government and the military in a nuanced way. Like China, Russia and several East Asian countries, New Delhi, too, ensured that the two power partners were given necessary recognition, even as Myanmar came out of the crippling sanctions imposed earlier by the US and European Union.</p> <p>This also ensured the support of the Myanmar military in containing northeast separatist groups operating across the border. As earlier history has shown, democratic change is slow in Myanmar. So, India has always shown patience, except from 1988 to 1993. During this period, the country had four prime ministers and the foreign policy tilted more towards the pro-democracy movement. But the compulsions of internal security made the fourth one among these prime ministers—P.V. Narasimha Rao—adopt a more nuanced approach. This policy still perseveres.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jul 01 18:20:08 IST 2021 bjp-should-know-dividing-bengal-into-3-states-is-not-easy-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The demand raised by several BJP leaders for bifurcation (or trifurcation) of West Bengal is adding to the noise in a state where Mamata Banerjee trounced the saffron party in the assembly elections.</p> <p>There are discreet exercises being done by the Central government’s parliamentary managers on whether the two houses of Parliament can clear the division of West Bengal as smoothly as the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha were hastened to approve the conversion of the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories in August 2019.</p> <p>At that time, after a landslide victory in the Lok Sabha elections, an aggressive combination of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah pushed through the reorganisation of the militancy-hit northern state, by getting the endorsement of the state governor, who acted on behalf of a dissolved state assembly.</p> <p>The freshened mandate also meant there was ineffective resistance from political parties, and even the Supreme Court did not hear the petitions challenging the change of status for nearly two years.</p> <p>But, that was a golden honeymoon period for two reasons. The outrage over Pulwama attack and the pride over the surgical airstrikes on Pakistani targets had prepared the ground for drastic action to alter the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir. Plus, it was seen as a logical step based on the big affirmative vote for Modi and his policies. But things are not the same two years later—the government has been buffeted by political and administrative blows since the triumphant moment in 2019, when the president signed the law bifurcating J&amp;K.</p> <p>The BJP is already politically bruised on the issue of West Bengal. The opposition parties, both inside and outside Parliament, are much more belligerent. Article 3 of the Constitution says the government, through the president, has to ask the legislative assembly to give its opinion on the division of the state, before the law can be introduced for debate and decision in Parliament.</p> <p>Even though the opinion of the assembly is not binding on Parliament, there will be huge loss of political dividend. In 2014, the Manmohan Singh government’s proposal to divide Andhra Pradesh was opposed by the state assembly and legislative council, but Singh went ahead with the bill in Parliament amidst protests from residuary Andhra Pradesh MPs to carve out Telangana. One dissident MP used pepper spray in the Lok Sabha. Thereafter, the Congress has been decimated in two consecutive assembly elections in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.</p> <p>If the Centre pushes forward the move to create the states of north Bengal and Jangalmahal (both having seven Lok Sabha and 49 assembly segments each), there would be alienation in Gangetic West Bengal, which would be left with 28 Lok Sabha and 196 assembly constituencies.</p> <p>Jagdeep Dhankhar, the ambitious governor, has been sending reports on the constitutional breakdown in the state as a result of his long confrontation with Banerjee. But the TMC would not take it lying down. Like in Jammu and Kashmir, even if Dhankhar claims to be the state legislature and approves the proposal to divide the state, it would see both legal and street-level challenges.</p> <p>There is no guarantee that the courts would not intervene under such circumstances.</p> <p>Also, the reaction of even neutral parties like the Biju Janata Dal of Odisha, YSR Congress of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana Rashtra Samithi is unpredictable, thus making the passage through the Rajya Sabha tighter. The parliamentary and political managers of the BJP have to take a call on how to flex the muscles on West Bengal, without risking breakage of political bones.</p> Fri Jun 25 15:02:16 IST 2021 modi-wants-to-move-on-pending-reforms-to-make-up-for-lost-time-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Doctors insist that the phrase “the heart stopped”—to express shock and trauma—is unmedical because the heart never stops in a living person. Similarly, it would be imprecise to say the government has stopped in its tracks since governments continue to function through shocks and wars. Yet, the phase of multiple reforms envisaged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his second term has been affected by the triple whammy of the Covid-19 crisis, economic slowdown and Chinese aggression on the borders.</p> <p>The slackening pace is not for lack of trying. But the preoccupation of the government with health scares, shutdowns, agitations and electoral machinations in the last 15 months has cast its shadow on multiple reform efforts. As the country gradually recovers from the second Covid-19 wave, the prime minister has signalled to his ministers to pick up the threads with urgency. Though the dozens of hours he has spent with his top ministers, senior bureaucrats and top party functionaries in early June have been attributed to a possible cabinet reshuffle, the government insists there is also policy stocktaking as ministers like Ravi Shankar Prasad, Narendra Singh Tomar, Piyush Goyal and D.V. Sadananda Gowda are more involved in governance, compared with political heavyweights like Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari.</p> <p>The disruption of two academic years had derailed the plans to implement the new education policy, which was finalised after long labour by the K. Kasturirangan committee, which itself had taken over the draft report of the first committee headed by T.S.R. Subramanian. The government could not get the stakeholders ranging from state governments to private universities to get fully involved in the education reforms, as they were busy with the jerks of virtual and physical functioning of schools and universities. The education ministry had to pay heed to the requests that institutions and faculty need the system to stabilise before big changes could be made.</p> <p>Though the finance ministry insisted that the reforms detailed in the five stimulus packages of 2020 and the Union budget of 2021 were on course, the economic slowdown and the wild fluctuations in demand, supply and job generation have been telling on their implementation.</p> <p>The big hit has been in the reforms of the agriculture sector, where the three far-reaching amendments to agriculture and marketing laws have been stuck in limbo because of the farmers’ agitation. With no solution to end the agitation, its implementation in the agricultural states had been hit, as the government itself had told the Supreme Court that it was ready to defer the laws for 18 months. The big foreign and domestic investments expected in agri marketing and processing are yet to flow as investors want more certainty. Similarly, the disinvestment of two public sector banks, a general insurance company and two petroleum marketing companies has been going slow thanks to adverse market conditions, even though the stock market is riding high on foreign fund flows and a spurt in domestic retail investments.</p> <p>Modi has several deadlines to keep. He had set a deadline of August 2022 (which marks 75 years of Independence) to complete humongous schemes like housing and potable water for all. Despite warnings of a third wave, an uncertain economic and external situation, the prime minister wants his government to make up for the time lost since April 2020.</p> <p><b></b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 17 20:53:05 IST 2021 why-kamala-harris-is-unlike-other-us-vice-presidents-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When US Vice President Kamala Harris called Prime Minister Narendra Modi and leaders of Mexico, Guatemala and the Caribbean Community to tell them about the dispatch of US vaccines, some permanent critics sniggered that India had been downgraded—suggesting only President Joe Biden should have spoken to Modi. They asked why India was being grouped with less-developed countries despite being a strategic partner.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But Modi had a good conversation with Harris and invited her to the country where her mother hails from. The only counterpart to whom Biden himself conveyed the news was close ally and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Indian diplomats insisted that there was no breach of protocol as the Indian government understood the dynamics of the new Democratic government—the Biden-Harris administration. Biden was himself vice president for eight years with president Barack Obama.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like other countries, India knows how important Harris’s role is compared with that of Mike Pence, who was vice president to the more aggressive Donald Trump. Harris has specific roles, is always by Biden’s side at public events and is the last person to advice Biden before an important decision.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>American officials see Harris—an influential senator before she joined Biden in the presidential race—as equivalent to heads of state of most foreign countries. She has her own circle of key officials, including a national security adviser and chief of staff. When she travelled to Central American countries on the Air Force Two flight, she was accorded protocol given to a head of state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In India, the vice president is above the prime minister in terms of protocol, but both the president and his deputy do not have executive powers. Yet, the Indian government insists that visiting US president not only meet the Indian president, but also attend a special banquet at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Though some US officials grumble about wasting the time of the most powerful man on earth, Indian officials retort that meeting the Indian president is like calling on the Queen of England, who also has no executive powers. While several Indian presidents have been keen on making official visits to Washington, the US government has been lukewarm to the idea, unlike major powers like China, Russia, France and Japan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When Modi visits the US next, he would be Biden’s guest; Harris is expected to either meet him separately or join the president in the Oval Office. Whenever Harris visits Delhi, her host will be Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, but she would also have talks with Modi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But pushy Americans insist that even their ministers, known as secretaries, be given a meeting with the prime minister, and this demand is accepted. Thus, new American Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had a long meeting with Modi, which was more substantive than the session he had with his counterpart Rajnath Singh. But when External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was in Washington in May, he only met his counterpart Antony Blinken and other secretaries. There was no meeting offered with Biden or Harris.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, despite the protocol differences and power perceptions, the two governments have got on well, dispelling anxiety over whether Modi’s special equation with Trump would affect the relationship.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jun 10 15:44:02 IST 2021 mps-have-zero-funds-for-favourite-projects-during-covid-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The second Covid wave has made many parliamentarians feel helpless as they have to function for a second year without any money for their constituencies. While opposition MPs have been vocal in demanding the restoration of the annual grant of Rs5 crore, the silent sufferers have been the BJP MPs, especially those in opposition-ruled states.</p> <p>When coronavirus made its first appearance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had cut salaries and allowances of MPs and also announced suspension of MPLADS for two years, saving Rs400 crore a year. It was a bitter pill, but MPs were hopeful that after the pandemic was controlled, the fund would be restored this year. But, despite public demands by the opposition and BJP MPs privately telling senior ministers, the scheme remained suspended.</p> <p>The MPs’ feeling of neglect increases when the local area development fund is being released by several state governments. MPs are tired of their supporters grumbling that the legislator, and even corporators in some cities, are getting funds from the state government or corporations—while members of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have zero funds for their favourite projects.</p> <p>In Uttar Pradesh, which has the most BJP MPs, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has ordered the release of the first instalment of MLA/MLC area funds. The only Lok Sabha member in the state who has announced spending is Congress president Sonia Gandhi. She asked the district authorities in her constituency Rae Bareli to use Rs1.17 crore out of her fund (balance from previous years) for Covid relief. BJP-ruled Karnataka has also released the first tranche, even as the state’s 30 BJP MPs—including Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman—have no fresh allocation. Maharashtra which, again, has a huge BJP contingent in the Lok Sabha, enhanced the annual funds for its legislators, as did Telangana. Rajasthan has said that 60 per cent of MLA fund is for vaccinations, while MLAs can use the balance for health infrastructure and other development activities.</p> <p>The MPLADS scheme was introduced in 1993 by prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, whose government had survived thanks to defection. As every successive government up to 2014 was a coalition, the scheme was a compulsion and the size got bigger. But as Modi enjoyed absolute majority, the importance of MPs was somewhat reduced. Even last week, when BJP president J.P. Nadda asked party ministers and MPs to undertake Covid relief work to mark seven years of Modi’s prime ministership, several MPs were reluctant to do so knowing they had no funds in their kitty to meet the demands of their constituencies.</p> <p>In BJP-ruled states, MPs who have a good equation with the chief minister get extra support for their constituencies. The BJP has a double-engine arrangement of ruling state government and majority party MPs in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Assam, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The single-engine states for saffron MPs include Maharashtra, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Delhi, Punjab and Telangana. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the parliamentary presence of the BJP is nil. While the opposition’s clamour rises, the ruling party MPs can only pray and hope that Modi would loosen the purse strings for preferred programmes of parliamentarians.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jun 03 16:36:44 IST 2021 ec-has-enough-clout-as-the-biggest-customer-of-evms-writes-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as the Election Commission continues to be under lens for its omissions and commissions during the five state assembly elections, there is silence on one subject.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>No party has complained about manipulation of electronic voting machines (EVMs).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The opposition is silent, as the emphatic victory of Mamata Banerjee in Bengal has come in spite of fears that the BJP machinery would “manipulate” the voting machines. Several parties had complained of EVM manipulation when the National Democratic Alliance came from behind to edge past the grand alliance in Bihar last year and when the Modi wave swept the Lok Sabha election of 2019 except in West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Punjab.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even though the EC rejected demands for universal use of the paper trail, there is acceptance, reflecting the will of the electorate in all five states. The grievances were rather about a few malfunctioning machines and stray cases of negligence in transporting the machines after voting.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Trinamool Congress had accused the paramilitary forces of partisan functioning, as they reported to the hyper-political Home Minister Amit Shah, but the month-long vigilance of all political parties at EVM storage centres ensured that there were no charges of manipulation. But Banerjee alleged there was fraud in the counting process and that it caused her narrow defeat in Nandigram to the BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Most political parties have at one time or other questioned the machines. The BJP stalwart L.K. Advani was so shocked by the defeat to Manmohan Singh (whom he had called “invisible prime minister”) that he supported the extreme allegations of party spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao that EVMs were manipulated extensively to deny a victory to the saffron party. Rao has been quiet since 2014, and the party elevated him to the Rajya Sabha.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal had supported a “cyber hacker” who claimed that the machines could be e-programmed to show voting for one party. But the EC’s experts tore the claim apart.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The EC has refused to allow any outside audit, saying the Constitution empowers only it to do what is needed for a free and fair election. Though the election commissioners have been accused of tilting towards the prime ministers who appointed them, all of them in the last three decades have taken a consistent stand on EVMs. They have insisted that in-house tests have ensured that the millions of machines produced by two public sector companies are foolproof, especially as each is a standalone instrument without any interlinking. Besides, their allocation to constituencies is random, so that entry of names, photos and symbols cannot be pre-programmed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, the EC has to have alternate plans in case the two companies—Bangalore’s Bharat Electronics Ltd and Hyderabad’s Electronics Corporation of India Ltd—are privatised under Atmanirbhar Bharat, in which only four companies in each sensitive sector can remain under government ownership. And, what if one or both companies are privatised and go into the hands of foreign or Indian owners?</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The EC is confident it has enough clout as the biggest customer of EVMs to tell these companies to remain in the government fold. Even though political parties are quiet, conspiracy theories have a habit of resurfacing, providing again a whiff of controversy for the small devices that register democratic choice.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu May 27 15:29:19 IST 2021 what-about-equity-for-covid-victims-who-werent-govt-staff-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Death, for long, has been presumed to be the ultimate equaliser. But, the Uttar Pradesh government wants to distinguish between “sudden death” and “lingering death”.</p> <p>The government has issued an order fixing Rs30 lakh as compensation for school teachers who died of Covid during panchayat election duty or while returning home after the counting. Teachers who died some days later are ineligible for the compensation even if the infection had occurred during election duty. That is why teachers unions are insisting that all 1,700 teachers who contracted the virus as a result of election duty be automatically compensated.</p> <p>The government is also resisting the Allahabad High Court’s directive that the compensation be increased to Rs1 crore. There is also a demand that the compensation be extended to other deceased government employees who contracted Covid while on duty.</p> <p>The Central government and other state governments are keenly watching the compensation tussle in Uttar Pradesh. As the pandemic has felled thousands of government employees, as well as pensioners, across the country, officers in the department of personnel and training (DoPT) are advising ministers not to make any impromptu announcement of compensation.</p> <p>Confederations of employee unions, too, are looking for a clear policy. The unions point out that many classes of government employees have been directed to come to work, even though not all have been designated as frontline workers. While doctors and health workers have Covid insurance cover, other frontline employees do not. Lakhs of them serve in the railways, in civil aviation, in the departments of agriculture, customs, income tax, electricity, shipping and highways, and in investigative agencies. The armed forces and paramilitary forces, which are always at risk Covid or no Covid, have their own compensation schemes to take care of families of victims.</p> <p>The only Union minister who has spoken about Covid deaths in his department, and hailed the service of the deceased, is the junior finance minister Anurag Thakur. In early May, he tweeted that 119 income tax employees and 110 others working for customs and GST had died of Covid. Thakur acknowledged their sacrifice for the country. The bank employees union has estimated at least 1,000 on-duty Covid deaths. But neither the Reserve Bank nor individual banks have detailed the human toll.</p> <p>The DoPT, which is directly under the prime minister, is worried that wrong precedents would be set if different ministries and High Courts keep announcing compensation. The department does not like off-the-cuff announcements. The ministers have been advised that only the cabinet, based on inputs from the DoPT, the finance ministry and the department of pensions, can approve a compensation scheme.</p> <p>But, even if there is a compensation policy within the government, the bigger question is of equity for other victims who were not part of the government.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu May 20 18:51:14 IST 2021 pandemic-has-put-narrative-on-centre-state-ties-under-stress-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the focus has shifted to the state governments for managing the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the narrative on Centre-state relations developed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the last seven years is under stress. The aggressive centralisation drive which started with the ‘one nation, one tax’ slogan to adopt the Goods and Services Tax by co-opting the states was a remarkable effort at transforming India’s constitutional structure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The subsequent years saw more such efforts like the ‘one nation, one ration card’ scheme by which people below poverty line could avail their share of food grains in any part of the country. There were schemes for the supply of energy through national grids and pipelines as well. From the heights of the Himalayas to the plains of Tamil Nadu, standardisation was planned and partly implemented, which was backed by an aggressive data bank of Aadhaar cards, Jan Dhan accounts, schemes for farmers and workers, and apps like the Aarogya Setu. The NITI Aayog dreamed of a system in which a command centre in Delhi would throw the switch to let supplies, cash and benefits flow. In the process, swathes of state bureaucracy dealing with taxation, food distribution and social welfare were to become redundant. Each ministry at the Centre dreamed of its own ‘one nation, one system’ model. The icing on the unitary cake was to be the ‘one nation, one election’ plan under which elections would be held simultaneously to Parliament, state assemblies, city corporations and village panchayats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The entrustment of the Union home ministry to Amit Shah saw this power expand as he successfully piloted through Parliament the alteration of the status of Jammu and Kashmir without the sanction of the state assembly. It showed that a government which commands majority in both houses of Parliament could reduce a state with an uncooperative government into a Union territory. The Supreme Court, too, diluted the power of the states by insisting on common entrance examinations for professional courses like the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), which was vigorously opposed by all political parties in Tamil Nadu.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Centre tightly controlled the response to the first wave of Covid-19 by micromanaging lockdowns, medical treatment and the economic stimulus package. It used the pandemic period to push through the agricultural marketing reforms, which were in the domain of the states. These amendments resulted in massive protests, leading to a long and continuing agitation on the Delhi borders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the response to the second wave of the pandemic has seen the Centre leaving decisions to the state governments, especially on lockdowns. The vaccine supply controversy has raised questions about the effectiveness of the Union health ministry and Central experts. The big victory of Mamata Banerjee, M.K. Stalin and Pinarayi Vijayan in the recently concluded assembly elections has boosted the opposition’s morale. The National Democratic Alliance is in power only in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat among those states which send more than 20 members to the Lok Sabha. Of the seven megapolises in India, only Bengaluru and Ahmedabad are ruled by the BJP, while non-NDA parties control Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad. It will be interesting to see how the new realities affect Centre-state relations under Modi, who started in 2014 with an exhortation for cooperative federalism.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu May 13 14:58:58 IST 2021 disaster-management-in-india-is-often-lost-in-silos-says-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>After the 2004 tsunami, the governments at the Centre and states got busy preparing a disaster management policy, visualising different kinds of disasters and how to deal with them. Among the disasters were the health emergencies caused by nuclear attacks, reactor explosions, biochemical warfare and chemical accidents. Elaborate manuals were created on how to shelter the victims and treat those who were affected by radiation and chemical agents. The UPA government created a national agency under the home ministry, which has had good success in handling human suffering and physical damage during natural disasters like floods, cyclones and earthquakes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the agency, despite having a big headquarters in Delhi, lost its clout as it was perceived by the NDA government as having become a parking lot for retired bureaucrats. The agency is managed by just four “toothless” members. Under former home minister Rajnath Singh, the ministry’s disaster management division took operational charge of liaising with central ministries and agencies and state governments, as well as running the national disaster relief force, a specialised crisis team. The argument was that the ministry’s orders would get quick response as it dealt with intelligence, internal security, central paramilitary forces and Centre-state relations. Also, there was some heartburn over the head of the agency, a retired Army officer, being ranked higher than the home secretary, the second most powerful IAS officer after the cabinet secretary.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The limiting of the agency’s role also ensured there would not be duality of control. The agency has been more involved in organising international conferences and preparing manuals, than actually being on the ground. However, its guidelines on dealing with health emergencies are painstakingly prepared. If they had been comprehensively implemented since January 2020, when the coronavirus made its appearance in India, the second surge could have been contained. The state-level agencies are headed by the chief ministers and at the district level, it is mainly the collector who heads the local agency.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, the Centre insists that both the prime minister’s office and the cabinet secretary, who reports to the prime minister, are doing the management of the crisis, including dealing with ministries like health, industries, commerce, finance and pharmaceuticals. Yet, there have been gaps on the vaccine front in terms of approval of products for universal vaccination. The health ministry under Harsh Vardhan assesses the demand and places the order for vaccines, and the pharmaceutical ministry of D.V. Sadananda Gowda monitors the manufacturers. While the prime minister made a high-profile visit to vaccine facilities in Ahmedabad, Pune and Hyderabad last year to assess the preparedness to produce 2.6 billion doses, the ministers and their officials appear to have relied more on the confident assurances of Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The lack of rigorous cross verification led not only to the overenthusiastic push for global vaccine distribution by the external affairs ministry, but also to announcing the third phase of vaccination for the 18-44 age group without having enough doses either in stock or in the pipeline. It may be time for a cabinet committee of disaster management to ensure the government does not function in silos, but delivers quick responses for containing the pandemic.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu May 06 14:53:51 IST 2021 central-vista-project-is-urgently-needed-says-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The first wave of Covid-19 mainly hit cities. The second wave, described by the prime minister as a storm, has reached even tier-four towns and hundreds of villages across the country. But urban areas are bearing the brunt as both government and private hospitals, and even general medical practitioners, are mainly located in cities and towns. The Union government is directly administering Chandigarh and major parts of Delhi through three agencies—the Delhi Development Authority, the New Delhi Municipal Committee and the Delhi Cantonment Board, administered by the urban development, home and defence ministries, respectively.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The urban development ministry has launched huge programmers under both the UPA (Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission) and the NDA (smart cities) over the last two decades. But the pandemic has exposed the inadequacy of health infrastructure. Yet, the biggest noise from the urban development ministry is not about new hospitals, but for the ambitious Rs20,000 crore Central Vista project, which was conceptualised well before the Covid-19 crisis. Critics of the project, which will demolish a dozen well-known “Bhavans” of the government—Krishi, Rail, Udyog, Nirman, Sena, Vayu—that house key ministries, are demanding that it should be stopped and the money diverted for hospitals and health care.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Mumbai, there are demands that the ambitious Shivaji-statue-in-the-Arabian-Sea project, costing Rs3,500 crore, should be halted and the money used for the health sector. The Uttar Pradesh government is also pouring funds into the new Ayodhya city and a giant Lakshman statue in Lucknow. Earlier, the Gujarat government’s Statue of Unity project, too, had its share of critics.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, the Central Vista project—which includes sprawling official residences for the vice president and the prime minister, and a new parliament house and convention centre—is urgently needed for the 21st century governance of India, where the government has grown to 51 ministries and the number of MPs will go up. Urban development minister Hardeep Singh Puri, who is piloting the project, which is the central public work department’s biggest ever, has harshly criticised the existing Bhavans of the Nehru and Indira eras as “ugly and unfit for a modern nation”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Those in favour of the project do not agree that the money-guzzler is a vanity project and point out how it would repay the investment through energy savings and improved efficiency. There is also the argument that mega construction activity helps the wheels of the economy turn faster, generating jobs and profits for businesses, big and small.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the Covid situation, Puri’s ministry has refused to pause the project as it has a tight deadline to get the new parliament house functional (2022). Moreover, all Union ministries have to move into new buildings a year later. Reportedly, on April 16, the Central Public Works Department designated the project an essential service and informed the Delhi Police that work will continue “during all three shifts”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When the prime minister and his team face the 2024 elections, they would have the satisfaction of having remoulded much of the controversial Lutyens Delhi (which was completed in 1927 during the British rule). For the next three years, central Delhi will reverberate with the noise of construction, drowning out the noise of the project’s opponents.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Apr 29 15:12:09 IST 2021 time-to-re-evaluate-rigid-stands-of-centre-farmers-unions-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The end of election campaigning in Bengal could bring the long-running farmers’ agitation on Delhi’s borders back to the top of the Central government’s agenda. The crowds have dwindled though; the bulk of the agitators—mainly from Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana—had returned to their villages for the kharif season. The 11th and the last round of the negotiations between Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and the conglomeration of farmers’ unions was held on January 20 when the government stuck to its offer of suspending three new agricultural laws, while the unions wanted a total repeal. Tomar made it clear that another round of talks would be justified only if the farmers were flexible. The violence that followed the meeting—including the storming of the Red Fort six days later, on Republic Day—queered the pitch as the Delhi Police targeted union leaders for instigating violence.</p> <p>Though Parliament met for lengthy sessions in February and March, the government remained firm, refusing to heed the opposition’s demands for repealing the laws. Soon, the government and the major political parties got busy with the assembly elections in five states in March and April. Even the Supreme Court could not make any headway. Though it appointed an experts’ committee, it was not acceptable to the unions. The court did thunder about the need to clear highways, but it did not order an eviction. The Centre and the Uttar Pradesh and Haryana governments, too, refrained from using force to remove the agitators. The Haryana home minister, however, wants to vaccinate the agitating farmers against Covid-19.</p> <p>The end of the agricultural season and the election season in early May would see the return of the agitators, who have announced a foot march to Delhi. Tomar and Food Minister Piyush Goyal have been in regular touch with them since the negotiations failed, but they are yet to get any direction from Prime Minister Narendra Modi to offer any further concessions. There have been informal discussions among BJP leaders from Punjab and Uttar Pradesh on solving the issue soon, as both states will have assembly elections next year, along with Uttarakhand.</p> <p>In Punjab, the Akali Dal, a BJP ally from its Jana Sangh days, had left the NDA opposing the three “black” laws. Both parties have suffered after this separation. There are suggestions that Modi himself should reach out to Parkash Singh Badal, the Akali patriarch, for a solution. If they go separate ways, it would be a big advantage for the Congress and Chief Minister Amarinder Singh.</p> <p>Similarly, in western Uttar Pradesh, the restlessness among farmers would affect the BJP’s mass vote base, which immensely helped it in two Lok Sabha polls and one assembly election between 2014 and 2019. But, the rigid stands of the Central government and the farmers’ unions need to be re-evaluated if there is to be a cool solution in Delhi’s searing summer heat.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Apr 22 17:32:35 IST 2021 will-outsider-parties-bring-votes-for-mamata-asks-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>She wears a red cap, but she is not a communist. Her political outfit, the Samajwadi Party, has not fielded a single candidate in the assembly elections in West Bengal. Yet, Jaya Bachchan gets a huge crowd response in the state, as her roadshows and meetings are organised by the Trinamool Congress.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The veteran Bollywood actor, whose family hails from Bengal, makes it clear that her party president Akhilesh Yadav has asked her to help Mamata Banerjee in her campaign. Jaya avoids strong language as she pitches for Trinamool Congress candidates against the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Jaya, who is married to superstar Amitabh Bachchan, has been more vocal than her husband when it comes to politics. Amitabh, who had a brief fling as an MP from Allahabad in the 1980s, has stayed away from electoral politics since then. But he has been close to political leaders from Narendra Modi to Mulayam Singh Yadav. Jaya has been elected thrice to Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh, on a Samajwadi Party ticket.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mamata wanted regional parties to support her as she had faced the onslaught of the BJP, led by Modi and Amit Shah. Both have continuously conducted personalised campaigns against Mamata, her nephew and the Trinamool Congress.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Rashtriya Janata Dal of Bihar is lending a helping hand to Mamata. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has been supportive, but he did not make an appearance in the election campaigns. The Shiv Sena also offered its support to Mamata, but the party has no base in West Bengal for its supremo Uddhav Thackeray to campaign in the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The West Bengal BJP relied more on the star power of dancing star Mithun Chakraborty. A chopper has been allocated to him by the party to attend the rallies. Apart from Jaya, Mamata relied a lot on stars from Bengali cinema and television, to match the BJP in terms of glamour. The left-Congress front, which is struggling to be an alternative between the bruising giants, has had less stardust to claim.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the other hand, the regional parties of other states did not take much interest in the election campaigns in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, unless they had state units in the two southern states. Even though the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has shared power with regional parties in the National Front, United Front, National Democratic Alliance and United Progressive Alliance governments in the last three decades, it could not attract the support of dominant parties of other states, because the DMK-led front includes the Congress and the communist parties. Unlike Mamata, who had sent out what sounded like an anxious appeal for support against the BJP, the DMK remained circumspect in soliciting support from outside forces. Even though Tamil Nadu has several Telugu-speaking pockets, the leaders of the YSR Congress, Telangana Rashtra Samithi or Telugu Desam Party from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana were conspicuous by their absence.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Similarly, the contesting fronts in Tamil Nadu did not bring any Bollywood stars, as they had enough of their own from Tamil cinema. Even the BJP relied more on campaigning for women votes by fielding Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, rather than yesteryear heroine Hema Malini—who is from Tamil Nadu—though she is a Lok Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, in Kerala and Assam, too, the firepower for the campaign came more from political leaders, though there was a sprinkling of actors in the contest.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For Jaya, the success of the Trinamool Congress in the constituencies where she had campaigned would not only boost her image but also make her one of the most in-demand campaigners for the SP in the 2022 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Apr 15 15:27:14 IST 2021 sachidananda-murthy-writes-about-how-politics-influenced-some-top-film-awards <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On April 6, people of Tamil Nadu, including many film stars, voted to choose between the political fronts led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). Just two days before the end of campaigning, the Union government made a crucial announcement of conferring the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India’s top honour in cinema, to superstar Rajinikanth.</p> <p>The choice of the icon came at a time when there was much debate on Tamil identity and whether an aggressive BJP government at the Centre was threatening it through its electoral ally, AIADMK. The Rajinikanth fans association did not go into a frenzy to thank the BJP leadership for the selection. The BJP’s rivals, DMK president M.K. Stalin and actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan, gave a strong positive reaction to the award. There seems to be an unspoken consensus to treat the award above politics, as the superstar himself had finally chosen to be out of the cesspool of politics.</p> <p>This was not the first time a superstar had been chosen for a top honour by the Centre at a politically crucial moment in Tamil Nadu. There was much criticism in 1988 when the Congress prime minister Rajiv Gandhi decided to confer the nation’s highest honour, Bharat Ratna, posthumously on M.G. Ramachandran—the film star-turned chief minister who had died in office in 1987. The opposition had described the award as an opportunistic attempt to catch votes for the Congress-AIADMK combine. But the Central government said MGR had fought separatist tendencies and worked for national unity. Gandhi, however, could not reap any benefits as the AIADMK was split between the loyalists of MGR’s widow Janaki and party leader J. Jayalalithaa, and the DMK came back to power. There was another award controversy earlier when MGR, who was the treasurer of the undivided DMK, broke with the party. The Indira Gandhi government conferred the national award for the best actor to MGR’s emotional drama <i>Rickshawkaran</i> (1971)—it was seen as a reward for jettisoning the DMK and forming the AIADMK in 1972.</p> <p>The Dadasaheb Phalke Awards have rarely attracted criticism as the choice has been made by a respected jury, though sometimes there would be a nudge from the information and broadcasting minister or the prime minister. The juries have resisted the temptation to pick only box-office stars and have also chosen filmmakers, playback singers, music directors and cinematographers. In 1996, the jury was divided between two south Indian thespians—legendary Tamil actor Sivaji Ganesan and Kannada superstar and playback singer Rajkumar. C.M. Ibrahim, the then information and broadcasting minister, picked Rajkumar. However, Ibrahim had noted that Sivaji Ganesan should be given the award for 1997. Incidentally, Ibrahim lost the I&amp;B ministry portfolio a week before Sivaji Ganesan received the award.</p> <p>Similarly, Arun Jaitley as the I&amp;B minister in 2014 was confronted by a strong demand that the government should honour Hindi actor-writer-director Manoj Kumar, who is known for his right-leaning patriotic films. But Jaitley was also a huge fan of thespian Shashi Kapoor. The happy compromise was that Kapoor received the award in 2014 and Manoj Kumar in 2015.</p> <p>In 1990, I&amp;B minister P. Upendra, from the Telugu Desam Party headed by Telugu superstar-turned-politician N.T. Rama Rao, was keen that another Telugu superstar, Akkineni Nageswara Rao—known for his social dramas—should be considered for the Phalke Award. Though Upendra lost his I&amp;B portfolio, and prime minister Chandra Shekhar took over it, Nageswara Rao received the 1990 award.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Apr 08 21:19:34 IST 2021 army-continues-fight-to-retain-control-over-equestrian-sports-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Some may dismiss it as horseplay. But the fact that four Indians participated in an international equestrian event as representatives of Nepal has left the fraternity and the Army, which controls the sport in India, red-faced. The protests about the imposters came from the Olympic Association of Nepal, which said it had not sent its national team to the qualifiers of the international tent pegging tournament scheduled to be held in 2023. Further inquiries revealed that the Equestrian Federation of India (EFI), which has a serving lieutenant general as president and a colonel as secretary, had admitted the team in consultation with the International Tent Pegging Federation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The controversy has once again resurrected the demand that the Army should give up its control of equestrian events and allow a democratic set up to come up. But the Army is in no mood to relent. The EFI has asked the government for five years to adopt the new sports code. The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) has stripped the EFI of its voting rights, but has allowed it to continue as a member.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a country where the horse and pony population has declined from 15 lakh in 1951 to three lakh in 2019, very few horses are used for sporting activities. In the civilian sector, they are used mostly as draught animals or for wedding processions, while the Army and the police forces maintain cavalry and mounted units. The most famous such unit is the President’s Bodyguard (PBG), which escorts the president on ceremonial occasions. A few thousand horses are used for commercial racing in racecourses across the country. Although it is very expensive to maintain those horses and courses, betting makes the enterprise lucrative.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Among the various organisations in the country, the Army has the maximum number of horses in its stables, and it encourages select officers and men to specialise in riding. The three services have more than a million soldiers, sailors and aviators, and they are encouraged to participate in sports as part of physical fitness training and for all-round excellence. Their vast campuses and long training courses offer space and time for sports like racing, shooting, golf, yachting, canoeing and paragliding, as well as for field games like hockey.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When there was not much of a civilian initiative in these sports, it was the military which produced top-notch performers. At the national level, the Services team, with the cream of sportsmen from defence units, was a tough one to beat. Subsequently, national and regional federations of such sports came to be promoted and controlled by the armed forces and it became a prestige issue for senior officers. But the march of the civilian enterprise has meant that many of these sports bodies are no longer dominated by men in uniform.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Officers and men are upset over calls for inquiry about why so many Army units are affiliated as members of the EFI despite IOC rules stipulating that there should only be one association representing one state or entity. The Army, however, has clarified that the working of the EFI is not an Army activity; it has only loaned out its facilities for events and training. Similarly, the Army has said that it does not own any competitive golf course, and all golf courses on its property are part of training facilities for officers and soldiers. Yet, notwithstanding the stink caused by the Nepal fiasco, the Army is unlikely to give up the reins of equestrian sports easily.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Apr 01 18:49:58 IST 2021 sitharamans-new-law-will-protect-bankers-from-probe-agencies-sachidananda-murthy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Nirmala Sitharaman has partially redeemed a promise she made 15 months ago to bankers. In December 2019, before the pandemic hit India, the finance minister had told chairmen of public sector banks that she would ensure that they would not be unduly harassed by Central investigative agencies, provided they followed proper procedures in sanctioning loans. She was referring to the fear of the three Cs in the banking sector. While the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) can book cases against anyone, from chairman to clerks, the other two Cs—Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), which can block promotions and appointments, and the Comptroller &amp; Auditor General (CAG), whose critical reports spoil retirement plans—affect senior management members. It was Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had made the original promise to bankers in 2014, followed by Sitharaman’s predecessor Arun Jaitley. When Sitharaman made the promise in Delhi, CBI director R.K. Shukla was also present.</p> <p>Now, the government bill on the establishment of a new development finance institution (DFI) to boost infrastructure projects has a provision—no Central agency, including the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the National Investigation Agency (NIA), can initiate a probe against a senior official, until they convince the finance ministry that a prima facie case exists. There was widespread relief in banking circles. Once this ring-fencing is accepted, the government intends to amend other acts of Parliament that govern the State Bank of India, nationalised banks, Life Insurance Corporation of India, General Insurance Corporation, National Housing Bank and rural banks. That way it can provide a similar protection to the chairmen, directors and senior employees of these banks, too.</p> <p>However, the government has been silent as to whether it would still depend on the vetting of senior bankers when they are appointed either as chairman or managing director or executive director of the DFI. The CVC goes through the career files, including anonymous complaints, to check whether there is any lapse of probity or misconduct by the official. Though the government has the final say on appointments, an adverse CVC report makes the official’s chances more difficult. Similarly, the CAG, which reports directly to Parliament, has the right to audit the accounts of ministries and government-owned companies, pointing out irregularities as well as acts of omission and commission.</p> <p>Supporters of the change argue that government employees, including the prime minister and ministers, are already protected as prior government permission is required before investigation under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The lokpal, which can conduct investigations against every employee, remains moribund eight years after the law was passed by Parliament. The first lokpal has not completed an investigation so far.</p> <p>Critics say that prior permission for investigation would mean that bad elements in the banking system would have a field day as successive governments delay giving approval, effectively killing the chances of successful prosecution. Since bankers report directly to the finance ministry, there are chances of conflict of interest if the ministry has to sit in judgment over its appointees.</p> <p>Yet, on the brighter side, it is evident that the government has partially walked the talk on its promise to protect bankers from being harassed, intimidated, shamed and prosecuted for genuine commercial decisions. The investigative agencies that report to the prime minister (CBI), finance minister (ED) and home minister (NIA) would only hope that approvals will come in quick time for them to crack down on offences in the banking sector.</p> Thu Mar 25 18:00:31 IST 2021 sachidananda-murthy-why-the-bjp-will-keep-wooing-ganguly <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Sourav Ganguly has made it clear that he is not in the electoral or even the political arena. Despite this, leaders such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and BJP president J.P. Nadda have brought up the BCCI president quite often in their campaign speeches in West Bengal. Singh, whose main interest is agriculture and party organisation, apart from his administrative experience in the home and defence ministries, has waxed lyrical about Ganguly’s shot-making. He has said that his party’s performance against the Trinamool Congress would be like Ganguly hitting bowlers to all parts of the ground. In another rally, he said the BJP would hit sixes like Ganguly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The former India captain is the second biggest star the BJP has failed to woo in these assembly elections. At least the bigger star—actor Rajinikanth in Tamil Nadu—kept the BJP on tenterhooks. He announced the launch of a party, praised Modi and held long talks with an RSS interlocutor. But&nbsp;he withdrew citing health reasons, dashing the BJP’s hopes of hitching its wagon to Rajini’s party for an electoral stunner in the south. With yesteryear star Vijayakanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam exiting the National Democratic Alliance, the BJP has lost its last cinematic glitter in Tamil Nadu.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ever since Modi and Shah identified Bengal as their big target, Ganguly was among the top names the party wanted. The former captain, who had maintained equable relations with Left Front chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and then with Mamata Banerjee, was seen by the BJP as the ideal leader; he would appeal to the youth and the women of Bengal. He had a heroic reputation as player and captain, and his handsomeness would appeal to both the young and the middle-aged.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, like his illustrious ODI opening partner Sachin Tendulkar, Ganguly was friendly with all parties, but would not pad up for anyone. The other two members of India’s famed ‘fab four’—Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman—have remained politically aloof.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP has roped in many film stars like Mithun Chakraborty and lesser cricket stars like Ashok Dinda, but no one matches the glamour of Ganguly, who effortlessly took control of the Cricket Association of Bengal before moving on to the BCCI. When Shah’s son, Jay, became BCCI secretary, there was speculation that Ganguly would join the ruling party at the Centre. But Ganguly kept smiling and refused to commit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both Rajinikanth and Ganguly had bouts of illness ahead of the elections. And leaders of major parties, including Mamata, made a beeline for the hospital to wish Ganguly well.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if he keeps his lips sealed till the eighth phase of polling in Bengal, BJP campaigners like Singh would invoke his name. If nothing else, this would garner applause from those who admire the cricketer and<br> the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Fri Mar 19 14:07:28 IST 2021 a-burning-concern <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Fires spew a lot of sparks. A fire that raged for a fortnight in Odisha’s Simlipal Tiger Reserve has sparked a controversy that has local activists and the forest department engaged in a fiery exchange of words. The 2,900sqkm sanctuary in the mountains of Mayurbhanj district is home to 100 tigers, most of which are in a core area of 845sqkm. The Odisha government insists that it brought the fire under control within a fortnight, and that the core area was untouched by flames.</p> <p>The fire was caused by local people gathering mahua flowers to make an intoxicating drink. As is their practice, they set the forest floor on fire to burn dry leaves on the ground and collect the flowers that are not burnt. The forest department says it had long tried to discourage the practice by supplying the villagers with green nets for gathering flowers and other forest produce.</p> <p>But the fire in Simlipal has apparently been so destructive that activists are now questioning the department’s firefighting abilities. Even as embers cooled in Simlipal, reports of a devastating fire in neighbouring Kuldiha sanctuary poured in. The activists are demanding an independent assessment of the loss of the flora and fauna in Simlipal, saying the fire in Asia’s second largest biosphere has destroyed a huge number of reptiles, amphibians, birds, orchids and mushrooms.</p> <p>Forest officials, however, say activists are making a volcano out of a molehill. They say such medium-intensity fires are common in the extremely dry months of March and April. According to the Forest Research Institute and state forest departments, India has around seven lakh square kilometres of declared forests, and it reports 30,000 forest fires a year on an overage. But loss of forest area has never been higher that 1,000sqkm a year.</p> <p>According to government data, there were 886 large fires (ones that encompass 10 or more hectares) in the last week of February alone. Of these, 233 were in Odisha, and 126 and 107 were in Telangana and Madhya Pradesh, respectively. The fires are mainly caused by human activity―ranging from controlled fires set off by forest managers to the burning of dry leaves by tribals and mischief by miners and poachers.</p> <p>According to the last biennial State of Forest Report released in 2019―a new report is due this year, but Covid-related restrictions on field work may delay it―one in every 11sqkm of forest in India was “extremely” or “highly” fire-prone for a variety of reasons. A big chunk of forests in northeast states are in this category, while more than 10 forests in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra are in the highly to moderately fire-prone category.</p> <p>Interestingly, these states account for 25 of 50 tiger reserves in the country. They also have national parks for large mammals. But veteran foresters say large-scale wildfires, like the one that happened in Australia last year, remain rare in India. Three years ago, major fires destroyed large tracts of forests in Bandipur in Karnataka and Theni in Tamil Nadu. Now that the fire in Simlipal has been doused, a fair survey can reveal how much damage has been done. India’s forest fire-fighting strategy, meanwhile, could use more resources to tackle rampant fires caused by extreme climate change.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Mar 11 10:56:23 IST 2021 congress-faithful-and-faithless <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>A little over a century ago, the Congress began debating the role of religion in politics, especially within the party. It has been a debate that has been conducted by Congressmen, but has been joined by parties both on the right and the left.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Once again, the debate has reached a high pitch as everything the grand old party does is being argued about, with fingers from the political spectrum being pointed especially at the Gandhi family. If the BJP has been pitching hard on the old bogey of minority appeasement, there are figures from the left who accuse the Gandhi siblings’ temple hopping as proof of soft hindutva. Now, some members of the Group of 23, who began a debate on internal democracy in the Congress six months ago, have started questioning the secular credentials, the alliances and half-alliances in the three states going to polls, and the contribution of some Congress leaders for construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. There is once again a demand on deciding what exactly is the ideological core of the Congress, confronted with the twin-challenges of the aggression of the BJP’s hindutva and weakening organisation.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While a century ago the arguing groups were labelled as moderates and extremists arguing over the separation of politics from religion, now there are no such easy labels available. A Rajya Sabha member was heard joking in Parliament’s corridors that the best would be to describe the two sides as “faithful and faithless”, where faith is not in ideology, but the Gandhi family’s control of the Congress. Thus, the Group of 23 led by Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma and Kapil Sibal were once completely faithful, but now their faith is shaken. They were all supporters of the high command’s nomination culture that had begun during Indira Gandhi’s time and was institutionalised by Sonia Gandhi. Apart from religion and the two-nation theory which rocked the Congress during the freedom struggle, the party has also seen sharp divisions over economic policy, public sector domination, foreign policy, affirmative action for scheduled and backward classes, and desirability of a cadre-based party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The recent defeats and setbacks have also forced the Congress to reluctantly or enthusiastically embrace many political and social forces which were considered untouchables in the party’s heyday. The party shares power with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra which is strident in its hindutva, while the party is now in alliance with parties like All India United Democratic Front in Assam whose politics is antithetic to that of the Shiv Sena. Anand Sharma and Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury—West Bengal unit chief of the Congress—recently had a verbal spat over the party’s tie-up with Muslim cleric Abbas Siddiqui’s Indian Secular Front. Leaders like Shashi Tharoor, who was aghast at the admission of admirers of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse by the Madhya Pradesh unit, have warned against the Congress becoming a lightweight version of the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>An earlier generation of leaders led by Jawaharlal Nehru allowed fierce debate on the political and economic direction of the party. The last time the party did such a soul-searching on its attitude to religious issues was in the Faridabad session of 1993, held after the demolition of Babri Masjid. The role of religion in government and politics was discussed along with the organisational issues. The arguments were won overwhelmingly by the party establishment, but led to a minor split in the party. Now that similar issues have come up, the high command has to decide on the right approach to the questions raised from within and outside the party.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Mar 04 14:05:24 IST 2021 old-horses-new-courses <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>At one level, there was nothing unusual about the importance given to former Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh when the BJP’s national office-bearers met physically after a year. Singh, who had ruled Chhattisgarh for 15 years before losing elections to the Congress in 2018, is the first in the BJP’s list of 12 vice presidents. He was thus the primary speaker on a resolution applauding Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership during the Covid-19 and economic crises. He enumerated the “historic” and “visionary” decisions taken by the government—developing personal protective equipment, drugs and vaccines; passing three agricultural reform laws; amalgamating public-sector banks; and bolstering Atmanirbhar Bharat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Chhattisgarh, there is cheer among Singh’s supporters that he could be on the comeback trail, as far as his favourability in the party is concerned. Singh and fellow chief ministers Vasundhara Raje Scindia of Rajasthan and Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh had lost their states to the Congress in the 2018 assembly elections, denting the formidable electoral juggernaut built by Modi and Amit Shah. While Chouhan’s loss was narrow, both Singh and Vasundhara had lost by big margins. Singh lost even his own assembly seat.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The trio, apparently, had lost the knack for winning—a big offence in the party’s new success code. Though Chouhan and Vasundhara had won their assembly seats, they were not made leader of the opposition in their states. And, in a ‘surgical strike’, all 10 party MPs in Chhattisgarh, including Singh’s son Abhishek, were denied tickets to contest the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the erstwhile first family of Chhattisgarh went into political eclipse, there was talk of a new leadership being groomed—as Modi had done in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Haryana. But Singh stayed below the radar, without getting provoked by either his party rivals or taunts from the Congress. He allowed those who took the reins of the party, both within and outside the assembly, to reveal their limitations.Meanwhile, as the faction-ridden Congress in Madhya Pradesh imploded, Chouhan’s stock rose as the most experienced leader who could manage not only the restive BJP factions, but also the large group of incoming defectors from the Congress who were loyal to Jyotiraditya Scindia.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The elevation of J.P. Nadda as the BJP’s national president has given confidence to the party’s veteran warhorses to get back into the reckoning. But in Rajasthan, though, the rift between Vasundhara and her detractors has been deepening. The MLAs supporting her recently alleged that the denial of tickets to her supporters in Kota had benefited the Congress in the local body elections. Earlier, when the Congress was rocked by Sachin Pilot’s rebellion, the anti- Vasundhara faction in the BJP had kept hinting that she was not keen on toppling Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>She is the most senior vice president of the BJP after Raman Singh, followed by Raghubir Das of Jharkhand, another former chief minister who lost the elections. It will be interesting to see whether Singh and Vasundhara would be considered when Nadda fills the three seats that have long been vacant in the party’s powerful parliamentary board. Many leaders in the party, young and old, are in contention. Chief Ministers B.S. Yediyurappa of Karnataka and Yogi Adityanath of UP have not made it to the board, even though Chouhan is a member.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Wed Feb 24 18:33:17 IST 2021 state-vs-commissioner <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Andhra Pradesh Panchayat Raj Minister P. Ramachandra Reddy has escaped “house arrest” thanks to an urgent intervention by the High Court. But, the big-talking minister has been told not to address the media till the panchayat elections are over on February 21. State Election Commissioner N. Ramesh Kumar, who had directed the police to confine Reddy to his home till the elections were over, is fuming.</p> <p>The ruling YSR Congress Party calls Kumar a puppet of the Telugu Desam Party. Kumar has had major run-ins with the government after Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy became chief minister in 2019. Kumar charged Ramachandra Reddy, who is the nodal minister for the elections, with threatening district collectors and returning officers. The minister had accused Kumar of favouring the TDP and said he was preparing a list of bureaucrats to be punished after the elections. The skirmish between the government and the autonomous commissioner has enlivened politics as the two political parties vie to control the state’s 22 district panchayats and 21,807 panchayats.</p> <p>A close aide of the chief minister had lamented that the ruling party lacked the two-thirds strength in the legislative council to impeach and remove Kumar. Hence, the government had sought to conduct the elections in the summer, as Kumar is due to retire on March 31. The government said that disaster response norms were in place because of Covid-19. But, Kumar responded that states like Kerala and Karnataka and the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir had held local body elections during the pandemic. He has accused the government of trying to curb his powers as a constitutional authority because he did not dance to its tunes.</p> <p>Like the Election Commission of India, the state election bodies, too, are a creation of the Constitution. Hence, they have similar protection. The chief election commissioner of India cannot be removed without an impeachment motion passed by both houses of Parliament with two-thirds of members present. Article 324 gives the election commission powers of superintendence, direction and control. The state election commissioners get these powers under Article 243. The state bodies are not under the Central commission. The Central election commission can summon staff from both the Central and state governments, while the state election commission can ask the respective states for staff and other facilities.</p> <p>The skirmish in Andhra Pradesh is not the first of its kind after the Constitution was amended in 1992 to give protection to rural and urban local bodies. In 2008, the Maharashtra state election commissioner, Nand Lal, was sent to prison for two days because he refused to appear before the privileges committee of the legislative assembly, insisting he enjoyed the same immunity of a High Court judge. In 2013, in West Bengal, newly elected chief minister Mamata Banerjee had railed against commissioner Mira Pande. One of her ministers vehemently criticised the commissioner. Often, opposition parties, too, make serious allegations against commissioners who are the appointees of the ruling party.</p> <p>Kumar reminds many people of T.N. Seshan, who as chief election commissioner had ordered the removal of a governor who had gone to his son’s electoral constituency. Jagan Mohan Reddy will install his own election commissioner on April 1. But, by then, Kumar would have completed the election process.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Feb 11 18:04:40 IST 2021 gentlemen-for-gender-parity <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Biju Janata Dal is a party that avoids controversies, furrowing its own middle path in national politics. Led by the charismatic Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, the party strongly opposes both the Congress and the BJP at the state level. At the national level, it has had a more constructive approach towards both the United Progressive Alliance and the National Democratic Alliance governments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After being part of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA for 11 years, Patnaik left the rightist coalition ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls when the BJP was led by L.K. Advani. The BJD, which has won five consecutive assembly elections, sends a sizeable contingent of members to both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. Its members avoid noisy tactics like disruption of the houses, doing dharna in the well of the house or staging walkouts, preferring to make their points in debates, even if the main opposition is absent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the last two decades, its leading members like Bhartruhari Mahtab, Pinaki Misra, Tathagata Satpathy (now out of electoral politics), Baijayant Panda (now in the BJP) and Kalikesh Singh Deo have made constructive contributions in Parliament and its committees. There is more reason and less passion in their speeches as the party takes debates very seriously, emulating the serious demeanour of the party supremo himself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from vigorously pursuing higher monetary allocations for Odisha and demanding its entitlements of mineral royalties and interstate river waters, the BJD has been vocal about the passage of the women’s reservation bill. The bill proposes to amend the Constitution to reserve 33 per cent seats for women in the Lok Sabha and legislative assemblies. This affirmative action has been an ideological badge for the party, where its leaders invariably ask the government of the day to take steps to complete the process. Its MPs also lobby their counterparts in other parties to support the move. Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who had pushed hard for the legislation when the UPA was in power, regularly responds to their calls. But the response from the BJP and most regional parties has been lukewarm.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJD itself has been unable to implement one-third quota for women in its tickets for national and state elections, as other parties put up stronger male candidates in most constituencies. Hence, its critics say there is a mismatch between rhetoric and action when it comes to women’s representation in the state.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The women’s reservation bill had seen angry reactions when the Manmohan Singh government sought its passage in the Rajya Sabha; seven members were suspended for unruly behaviour. But a near consensus involving the Congress, the BJP, the left and several regional parties saw the bill being passed by a big majority.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even so, there were strong misgivings among MPs of both the major parties, and though Singh was in power for four more years after the success in the Rajya Sabha, his government could not get it passed in the Lok Sabha. Among the strong opponents of the bill were Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, a crucial ally of the BJP, and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a rival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite the NDA’s majority in the Lok Sabha since 2014, the government has not considered the women’s reservation bill a legislative priority. The BJP has argued that Modi has given ministerial positions to the highest number of women in any Central government, entrusting some with crucial portfolios like finance, defence, external affairs, human resource development, and commerce and industry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even if there is less enthusiasm in the government, the BJD will continue to press for better gender parity through legislative representation in its own gentlemanly ways!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Feb 04 15:56:48 IST 2021 bridging-the-gaps <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Though Union Culture Minister Prahlad Singh Patel has not yet accepted the demand to declare the Ram Setu a national heritage site, he recently authorised a scientific study by organisations under his colleague, Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, to determine the origin of the 40km-long shoals connecting India and Sri Lanka.</p> <p>Patel has moved cautiously on an issue that has divided political parties in Tamil Nadu for 16 years. He has approved a proposal from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the National Institute of Oceanography to send an exploration ship to the Palk Strait to determine when the shoals, believed to be built by Ram’s army, actually originated. Many marine geologists believe this long formation is a natural one and not man-made. Proponents of the Ram Setu, however, have argued that Valmiki’s Ramayan had given detailed information on how the raging sea was bridged for a huge army to cross into Lanka to free Sita.</p> <p>Shipping experts have said that the rocks were making it impossible for bigger ships to use the strait, forcing them to go around Sri Lanka, thereby increasing cost and time. A number of studies had been initiated for dredging the sea, thereby removing the shoals to develop a deep sea channel.</p> <p>When the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam joined the Manmohan Singh ministry in 2004, there was high drama over the shipping ministry. Singh, while allotting portfolios to allies, bifurcated the shipping and transport ministry, giving transport to the DMK and shipping to current Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. DMK supremo M. Karunanidhi asked three of his ministers not to take charge until his party got shipping. After hurried consultations, Rao was requested to take the portfolio of labour, while shipping and transport was given to the DMK’s T.R. Baalu.</p> <p>The new minister’s first priority was to launch the Sethusamudram project for dredging the Palk Strait, which led to protests by then Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, the RSS and Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy. The DMK ministers pushed hard for the project, but the opponents went to court, questioning the decision on environmental and heritage grounds. The project was stalled because of the protests and was shelved later, even though a huge amount was spent on the first phase of dredging.</p> <p>The BJP had declared that the Ram Setu, which also had the British name of Adam’s Bridge, would be preserved as part of heritage. Swamy has been pursuing the cause of declaring it a national monument, even asking Prime Minister Narendra Modi why the decision was being delayed.</p> <p>The Union government had not moved on the issue till the Supreme Court gave its verdict on the Ayodhya land dispute in 2019. Interestingly, the Archaeological Survey of India, which has given the CSIR-NIO permission to study the shoals, had itself done marine studies to locate Dwaraka, Krishna’s lost city on the Gujarat coast. Now, the scientists would have to not only determine the age of the shoals, but also determine when the incidents in the Ramayan happened, to see whether the dates match. Meanwhile, it is election time in Tamil Nadu and the new decision will surely cause a political debate.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 28 16:31:00 IST 2021 age-of-marriage <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Sealed envelopes, whether given to the Supreme Court or to the government, often cause much expectation and speculation. The report of a 10-member task force on raising the age of marriage for women submitted to the prime minister’s office, however, seems to point in one direction—a move upwards from the current limit of 18 years. But the committee headed by activist and handicraft curator Jaya Jaitly has been silent about its recommendations, as per the advice of the government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The committee was tasked to decide whether the age of legal consent for marriage for women should go up to 21, like in the case of men. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had spoken last year on the urgency to revisit the age limit, which was raised in 1978 from 15 to 18 for women and 18 to 21 for men.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The increasing educational and career opportunities, the need to further reduce maternal mortality rates, improvements in nutritional values for mother and child, and the end of discrimination between genders have been the main reasons mentioned in petitions before courts on the issue. But activists and rights groups worry that raising the age limit could be used as a “coercive” weapon to prevent love marriages.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Status quoists point out that love affairs are more common among teenagers, which culminate in marriage once the boy and girl reach the eligible age. They say the 2006 law against child marriage has largely been used by parents who are opposed to love marriages to file police complaints and court cases, arguing that their ward was underage. The law is also used to annul failed marriages, with ‘family honour’ being saved by a decree of annulment, rather than a divorce. The young women who were brought to police stations and courts suffered more trauma, it was argued.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Some have voiced suspicions that the new proposal is a subtle attempt to control population growth, as women tend to produce less number of children if the first conception does not happen before they turn 20. India has recorded a drop in maternal mortality rates in urban areas, but it is three times higher in rural areas, although teenage pregnancies are more prevalent in urban areas.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Three years ago, the Law Commission of India had noted that gender-based discrepancy in the lower age for marriage was against Articles 14 and 21 of the Constitution, which guaranteed equality and liberty to all. Even now the Indian society—across faiths and regions—expects wives to be younger than husbands. The wife being older than her spouse is still frowned upon, although society accepts elderly men marrying young women. The government feels that women’s right to equality, which is one of the Sustainable Development Goals, can be realised only when there is parity in the age of consent for marriages under personal laws as well as civil laws.</p> <p>The Jaitly committee report will soon be made available for public feedback, as the government wants to reconcile its proposals with religious, familial and tribal viewpoints, and also with modernistic demands of education and health. When the British colonial government raised the age of marriage in India in the early 20th century from 10 to 12 years, freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak argued that only Indians could decide on their religious practices. Yet, he added that he would support a far more revolutionary step of raising the age of consent to 16. A century later, the Modi government hopes to create a consensus on the issue, which affects not just women, but families and communities across the country.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 21 14:58:18 IST 2021 marine-malice <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The owners of the Indian cargo ship MV Jag Anand and the 23 Indian sailors on board had no intention of making headlines when they set sail from Australia early last year. They had been operating at the height of the pandemic, to keep earning their livelihoods at a difficult time when international shipments had come down and crews were stranded.</p> <p>The Jag Anand was carrying coal from Australia to the Chinese port of Jingtang. By June, relations between China and Australia had become an ugly contest of abuses and sanctions over trade and human rights. The Chinese simply kept dozens of ships flying different flags anchored at the sea, denying them permission to dock.Coal is non-perishable, but the sailors wilted. After a delay of weeks, most ambassadors managed to get berths for ships flagged in their countries. But the Jag Anand remained moored, even as India’s Ambassador to China, Vikram Misri, got kind assurances from China. Even permission to change the crew was denied. The face-off in Ladakh had made the Chinese government frosty. The sailors had become unwitting pawns in an international spat.</p> <p>On September 20, another Indian ship, MV Anastasia, with 16 sailors on board, was told to anchor off Caofeidian port in China. Anastasia, too, was carrying Australian coal.</p> <p>Three months later, Australian naval ships sailed in to the Bay of Bengal to join the navies of India, Japan and the US for the Malabar exercise held as part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). All countries indicated that the grouping would contain Chinese adventurism in the Indo-Pacific. Even though the navies dispersed in November, it took another six weeks for China to relent to Indian pleas.</p> <p>The Jag Anand has now moved to a Japanese port with the Australian coal still in its belly. The crew will get an air ride to India. Shipping Minister Mansukh Mandaviya and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, who negotiated with their Chinese counterparts for freeing Jag Anand, are now focusing on the Anastasia.</p> <p>Though the number of cargo vessels flying the Indian flag is few, Indians constitute the fifth largest nationality among seafarers. They prefer the glamorous name of merchant navy to describe their profession. There are at least two lakh seafarers in India who spend months away from home facing various dangers. In the past two decades, more than 2,000 Indian seafarers have been abducted by pirates and released after undergoing terrible hardships. Shipping companies pay ransom to get their crew back, even though international efforts have increased to combat piracy. The Indian Navy operates its ships and surveillance aircraft along the dangerous coasts off Somalia and Yemen, as well as in the narrow Malacca Strait, where large cargo vessels are slow-moving targets for raiders in fishing boats.The notorious Somalian coast has been free of pirates for the past two years. The most dangerous place now is the Gulf of Guinea in west Africa, which comprises 13 countries. Two months ago, four Indians were among 10 seafarers abducted from a ship off Nigeria.</p> <p>Despite the dangers, the seafaring profession continues to promise adventure and good income. Hence the admission rush to 130 maritime colleges in India, which teach students everything from engineering to laundry work―all in demand on the high seas. A fresh lesson, perhaps, can be had from the experience of sailors aboard the Jag Anand and the Anastasia: there is a new Cold War gripping the Indian and Pacific Oceans.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Jan 14 14:34:45 IST 2021 the-stinking-truth <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The National Human Rights Commission used to be a noisy organisation, making up with strong words its lack of teeth to punish delinquent governments and individuals. But the commission has been rather subdued of late, leaving the job to more specific bodies like the National Commission for Women and the National Commission for Minorities. But an NHRC team led by Justice P.C. Pant recently returned to its earlier style of functioning after a workshop on manual scavenging exposed the claims of many state governments that they had put an end to the inhuman work.&nbsp;</p> <p>A horrified commission issued a stinging circular, taking note of the situation. Although it did not use the word “lie”, it said what the states were saying were “far from truth”. The commission asked the definition of manual scavenging to be expanded to include other types of equally hazardous work undertaken in sewers across the country and called for total accountability from officials concerned. It called upon the Union home and finance ministries and the social justice department to prepare comprehensive schemes for the rehabilitation of scavengers, who face the worst forms of caste discrimination among the dispossessed groups in the country and demanded strong action against municipalities and panchayats that continue to employ manual scavengers.</p> <p>Although manual scavengers constitute a major vote bank in many states, their concerns were not addressed properly for a long time. It was prime minister Manmohan Singh who appointed a separate minister of state to handle the challenges of sanitation. Prime Minister Modi has appointed a cabinet minister to deal with the issue under the omnibus Jal Shakti portfolio. He has also set up the Swachh Bharat Mission. Some of his colleagues did not like being addressed “minister of toilet”, but the department grew in stature after Modi made sanitation one of his signature initiatives and set the target of building ten million new toilets to make India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2, 2019, the 150th birthday of Mahatma Gandhi. On that day, Modi declared that every Indian household had a toilet.</p> <p>When Modi took over in 2014, only 40 per cent of the households had toilets. And his government achieved the impressive feat of covering the remaining 60 per cent in five years. Modi’s next target is to make India&nbsp;ODF+ by 2025. The government has allocated Rs1.5 lakh crore for the initiative, which is aimed at sustaining the ODF programme, and will also take up solid and liquid waste management.</p> <p>Critics say many state governments have given themselves ODF certificates without actually meeting the target. It is alleged that some panchayats, districts and states claimed to have achieved a large percentage of their target during the fortnight before the national deadline. But the Central government is satisfied with the progress, which it says is being monitored by official and informal sources. Officials say ODF+ will address the more serious issue of lack of running water, which drives people back to open defecation. The initiative will also subsidise panchayats to build sanitation complexes for the homeless and the hutment dwellers. As hygiene is an issue involving exploitation, there are allegations that casteism is behind the denial of wet toilets to dispossessed groups in rural areas.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi is happy that the ODF project has helped rural women, whom he calls his “invisible voters”. Along with the Ujjwala scheme which provides cooking gas to rural households, the Swachh Bharat Mission, too, has a gender specific target. But it is important that the Central and the state governments act urgently on the timely alert given by the NHRC on the terrible tragedy that manual scavengers continue to face on a daily basis.</p> Thu Jan 07 17:47:15 IST 2021 digital-loan-sharks <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as there is good news of the arrival of vaccines against coronavirus, there is another virus from India’s northern neighbour that may need a legislative antidote when Parliament convenes for the budget session.</p> <p>The digital loan apps that have been ravaging lives are not exclusively from China, but the Telangana Police have identified a large number of such apps developed by the Chinese. Following cyber-bullying of defaulters and a spate of suicides by those who had borrowed at exorbitant interest rates, there have been crackdowns in various states. In late December, the Reserve Bank of India cautioned people against sharing their personal details with such apps and against borrowing what seemed to be easy money from unverified sources.</p> <p>The harsh methods loan sharks use to recover money digitally have caused widespread misery, and have not been widely reported. A Mumbai Police officer describes it as cyber blackmail; the borrower’s family and friends receive calls and messages abusing the defaulter. Just as only a small portion of blackmail cases is reported to the police, many fail to report that they were lured by offers of easy money. Parents have shivered seeing messages telling them they had given birth to cheats, while friends of defaulters have inquired whether they are in need of help.</p> <p>Usury is as ancient as barter. It is a sin in many religions and, even recently, research has been published describing the practice of lending at exceptionally high interest rates in ancient India.</p> <p>But, despite the government’s tall claims on protection of personal data, the racketeers have easily mined borrowers’ information. In some cases, they have accessed bank account details of the defaulters, including details of deposits and borrowings from regular banks and employers.</p> <p>While banking laws insist on rigorous procedure for granting licences to lend to general customers or to accept deposits (look at the travails of Sahara India Pariwar, which is accused of operating as a non-banking financial company without licence), the micro-lending apps escape legal regulation as their operations are treated as loans from individual to individual. There is also the argument that there are good app-based lenders who go through the Reserve Bank’s Know Your Customer (KYC) norms. But, the KYC itself has been more of a formality than a rigorous norm, even to some banks.</p> <p>There are also arguments that the current laws are enough to handle the shadowy operators. However, even though Indira Gandhi had initiated a crackdown on unauthorised money lenders during the Emergency, the business has endured into the 21st century.</p> <p>While the usurious moneylenders in rural and urban areas have had a good time during the economic slowdown, so have big companies with fancy attributes engaged in the same business. They offer loans without physical security, knowing that digital data and familial links can be used by what are known as “recovery agents”. Auto-financing companies usually hire these recovery agents to stop cars on roads, eject the defaulter from the driver’s seat and take away the vehicle.</p> <p>The hyperactive Enforcement Directorate, which has courted controversy over raids on political persons, may perhaps swing into action against the app operators, some of whom seem to have dubious sources of money, including from money laundering and even proceeds of heinous crimes like drug-running. The ministries of home, finance, information technology and law need to sit with the Reserve Bank to handle these digital lending apps, just as some of these institutions had got together ten years ago to handle the suicides caused by micro-finance companies that operated physically outside the legal boundaries.</p> Thu Dec 31 16:16:56 IST 2020 carry-forward-effect <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The multiple packages of economic stimulus introduced by the Central government and the Reserve Bank of India to battle the twin disasters of Covid-19 and the economic slowdown have shown mixed results.</p> <p>The monetary side of the rescue plan has shown improvement in the economic figures since September as several indicators have moved up. As the prime minister has told businessmen and industrialists, the huge flow of foreign investment is a sign of robust confidence, though the break-up showed one telecom giant garnering a big chunk of these investments. Though the cash dole outs to farmers and other sections does not match the help given by advanced economies, it increased money circulation. This included targeting government employees with incentives to spend more during the festive season. But small businesses did not get&nbsp;much direct sustenance, though those who depended on banks got some relief.</p> <p>The non-monetary parts of the stimulus have been more problematic with protests spilling into the streets. The Central and state governments pushed far-reaching changes in agriculture and labour laws, and made drastic openings for private and foreign investors in core resource areas like coal, mining and defence.</p> <p>The farmer protests have shown that approval by a tame Parliament driven by an inexorably determined executive will not impress the affected sections of the population. Ministers emphasise that Narendra Modi’s credo is consultation before decision, not surrender after a decision is taken. But less determined BJP chief ministers as well as Congress-ruled Rajasthan withdrew the orders increasing working hours in factories. But other labour reforms have been implemented in the name of promoting Atmanirbhar Bharat and this has seen protests spilling into the streets in Karnataka in relation to two foreign investment projects.</p> <p>But the thinking in government is that the perception damage is more because of the farmers camping on Delhi borders, though the BJP is confident that the protests would not be pan-India. The central intelligence and investigative agencies are also trying hard to find the soft pressure spots through which the farmers’ leaders can be approached. It is a tussle between a determined group and an aggressive establishment.</p> <p>The farmers are taking in their stride both the allegations of opposition support and innuendos about anti-national elements and foreign funding. The government treats the street protests more as local law and order incidents to be handled by the police. The government and the party are working hard to fight negative perceptions like the government being against Sikhs or of bulldozing farmers.</p> <p>There is confidence that these perceptions can be neutralised as in the case of the criticism of the way the government handled the massive migrant crisis during the lockdown. The seventh year of all multi-term prime ministers from Indira Gandhi onwards have been more turbulent, though the pandemic is a new factor compared to what Indira and Manmohan Singh faced during a similar period.</p> <p>Economics and health experts project a better normal, if not the old normal, in 2021. There is optimism that the severely hobbled sections of the economy like education, exports and travel would revive more vigorously. The multiple vaccines for Covid-19 is expected to galvanise confidence levels. Modi is also looking at the aggressive campaign for snatching the elusive Bengal crown from Mamata Banerjee, while plotting the complete rout of the Congress in five assembly elections. Yet, the deep impact of the events and decisions of 2020 will have to be managed with determination and flexibility in the new year.</p> Thu Dec 24 19:02:44 IST 2020 the-cleft-stick-of-emergency <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The Supreme Court’s decision to issue notice to the Central government on a writ petition challenging the legality of the internal emergency imposed 45 years ago has drawn interesting comments on social media. The court was sceptical if it should revisit the distant past, but constitutional lawyer Harish Salve persuaded the bench, headed by Justice Sanjay Kaul, to decide after getting the response of the Narendra Modi government. The response of the government, at one level, can be straightforward, as the BJP had opposed the Emergency, its leaders had been imprisoned and Modi as a young man had gone underground. But at another level, the Centre has to decide if it is ready to face the consequences if the petition succeeds.</p> <p>The petitioner, 94-year-old Veera Sarin, has narrated the traumatic experience she and her husband, H.K. Sarin, a jewel merchant, suffered for three generations due to customs raids and cases of violation of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act. Their businesses and residences were raided, properties confiscated and valuables seized. Even after the Emergency was lifted in 1977 and the order to detain Sarin under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Activities Act was withdrawn, they had to live abroad, as prosecution continued under the Janata, Congress, United Front, NDA and UPA governments, until the courts dismissed the cases and the Delhi High Court ordered restitution of the family properties. Now Veera Sarin wants a closure by getting her two demands upheld.</p> <p>As expected, she has relied extensively on the reports of the omnibus commission of inquiry into the Emergency by J.C. Shah, former chief justice of India, which put former prime minister Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay, some of her ministers and scores of officials in the dock. Shah held that the declaration of the Emergency itself was illegal as the cabinet did not meet to decide whether the Constitution had broken down. It was a decision of Indira, Sanjay, West Bengal chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray and law minister H.R. Gokhale. The cabinet was kept in the dark and president Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signed the order at midnight.</p> <p>Sarin says the merchants of Delhi’s Karol Bagh, where her husband had a shop, were targeted because they supported a party opposed to Indira (the implication is the Bharatiya Jana Sangh). In a tightly written petition Sarin has asked for two reliefs—declaration of the Emergency as unconstitutional and a compensation of Rs25 crore from the “concerned authorities as having actively participated in the unconstitutional acts”.</p> <p>All the leaders indicted by the Shah Commission are no more, the last of them being Pranab Mukherjee, who was minister of state in charge of customs and income tax during the Emergency.</p> <p>If the Modi government asks the Supreme Court to declare the Emergency as unconstitutional, then there would be a flood of demands for justice by many of the lakhs of activists detained under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act or their families, those who lost their businesses and properties in the beautification drive carried out in Delhi and other cities, and the victims of enforced family planning. Even if the government is politically passionate about denouncing the Emergency, it may suggest a closure to the petition short of accepting liability for the sins of the distant predecessor. Yet the court would have to decide how Veera Sarin can be compensated for her losses of all these years.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Dec 17 23:03:21 IST 2020 the-yes-or-no-trap <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Battling the perception war on the farmers’ agitation, which has become a challenge to its authority, the Narendra Modi government resembles a mighty warrior forced to fight with his hands tied. After initial attempts by some BJP office-bearers to dub the protesters as having an anti-national agenda, the party realised that the strategy was counterproductive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the prime minister himself justified the three farm laws, the government and the party instead trained their guns at opposition parties, especially the Congress. The BJP knows that if the agitation succeeds, the opposition will reap the political benefit, just like the BJP benefitted from the anti-corruption agitations against the Manmohan Singh government.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Senior ministers have a lot of ammunition against the Congress as it had championed the very reforms which Rahul Gandhi is opposing now. While Agriculture Minister Narendra Singh Tomar adopted a farmer-friendly approach without actually yielding to their demands, his senior colleagues Ravi Shankar Prasad and Prakash Javadekar blamed the Congress for its double standards. They have noted how the Manmohan-era Planning Commission had got a report done by a committee of chief ministers led by Haryana Congress leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda to abolish the mandi system. They quote the most recent Congress manifesto to show that when Rahul was Congress president, the party had demanded agricultural marketing reforms, which is exactly what Modi has implemented.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Planning Commission, which Modi remade into NITI Aayog, had prepared several reports to bolster the economy, offering solutions ranging from far right to far left. In 2017, it suggested that rich farmers should pay income tax, forcing finance minister Arun Jaitley to douse the flames by quickly clarifying that the government had no such plans.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Former president Pranab Mukherjee, who was deputy chairman of the Planning Commission during the reforms era of P.V. Narasimha Rao, used to say that the huge cupboards of the Yojana Bhavan had reports which would suit different political lobbies. Among the heads of the Planning Commission were reformers like Manmohan, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Arvind Panagariya and socialists like Mohan Dharia and Madhu Dandavate. Centrists like Mukherjee, Ramakrishna Hegde, N.D. Tiwari and K.C. Pant, too, had headed the Commission. Its archives would contain reports justifying the continuation of the public procurement system, which the agitators fear would be undermined by the new laws enacted by Modi. But policies change not only under different political parties, but also under the same prime minister so that today’s report could become irrelevant tomorrow. For instance, while negotiating a new global trade agreement under the World Trade Organisation, leaders of the Indian delegation like Murasoli Maran of the DMK and Mukherjee had to navigate contradictory positions and even mutually antagonistic laws. That is why Modi said 21st century India could not be built with 20th century laws.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the counter argument is that when they were in the opposition, Modi and the BJP objected to laws like GST, but adapted and adopted them after coming to power. Modi and his ministers have the benefit of a strong research facility as the BJP has backgrounders on every subject and an impressive collection of clippings, television speeches and documents of the Congress. The CPI(M), too, is backed by a research department which is thorough in its documentation. In comparison, the intrinsic belief in “Congress culture” makes its members less rigorous in research, even though there are many talented leaders who have mastery over specific subjects. But the farmers’ agitation has avoided divisive debates by demanding a brutally simple ‘yes or no’ answer to their demands, which has baffled the verbose politicians!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Dec 10 14:45:21 IST 2020 keeping-and-spilling-secrets <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Journalist Rashid Kidwai, who has written books on the Congress, has revealed that Ahmed Patel spurned the suggestion of writing a tell-all memoir on his role as one of the most powerful men in the country. Patel, who died last month, said he would instead take all the secrets to his grave. Interestingly, the memoirs of another Congress giant, Pranab Mukherjee, who passed away this year, will be published soon. It will be the fourth and final volume of his autobiographical series. But, knowing the caution exhibited in the first three volumes, this one may not reveal any scandalous details.</p> <p>Like Patel, Mukherjee knew too much, but took much of it with him. Yet the book will be a revelation of Mukherjee’s assessments of Narendra Modi, who called the former president his guide. Mukherjee, despite being from the Congress, treated Modi fairly and squarely.</p> <p>While Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi left bundles of letters and files, which have been a treasure trove for researchers, the archives of other prime ministers are not readily available. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who had an eventful tenure, chose to write a thinly disguised novel, <i>The Insider,</i> which symbolised the man of many silences and ambiguities. Manmohan Singh, who had the third longest tenure as prime minister, is in demand by publishers for a revealing account of his decade in power.</p> <p>Interestingly H.D. Deve Gowda, who had a short tenure, asked Prof K.E. Radhakrishna to write his biography of six decades in politics, but after several sessions with the busy leader, Radhakrishna joined the Congress and wrote a book on Nehru! The most revealing book by a president so far has been <i>My Presidential Years,</i> by R. Venkataraman, who conducted two general elections and had four prime ministers during his five years on Raisina Hill. It is a guidebook on the presidency and the Constitution. Venkataraman’s successor, Shankar Dayal Sharma, who dealt with three prime ministers and had a sweet tooth, would ply a publisher with sweets, but refused to reveal secrets. K.R. Narayanan, again, refused to write a memoir, saying his detailed press notes issued in real time on the multiple constitutional issues he handled were the best reference for those interested in his presidency.</p> <p>Though A.P.J. Abdul Kalam wrote many inspiring books, he said he was trained as a defence scientist to keep secrets and not blurt them out. But, his secretary P.M. Nair wrote <i>The Kalam Effect: My Years with the President</i>, detailing how Kalam handled constitutional issues like dismissing a state government and that there was no evidence to show Kalam had raised a question on the foreign birth of Sonia Gandhi in 2004.</p> <p>Inside stories by people who worked very closely with leaders—like Natwar Singh on Sonia Gandhi, and Sanjaya Baru on Manmohan Singh—have given glimpses into what takes place beyond the corridors of power.</p> <p>The latest insider story is by bureaucrat Wajahat Habibullah, who served in the PMO during the Indira and Rajiv era. He was a schoolmate of Rajiv. The revelations in the book on how a junior defence minister, Arun Singh (yet another classmate of Rajiv), and a maverick Army general, K.S. Sundarji, kept the prime minister largely ignorant of Operation Brasstacks, which almost sparked a war with Pakistan, is being discussed in military circles. The compassionate and friendly account of Habibullah reveals the games played by another trusted minister Arun Nehru (a relative of Rajiv) on the Babri Masjid issue. There are those in the higher circles of power in all parties who like Patel are privy to multiple secrets. How many of them will reveal how much, is grist for the growing demand for political books in the country.</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Dec 03 19:20:01 IST 2020 tweak-in-the-tale <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even though the Narendra Modi government has insisted that the bipartisan nature of the Indian-American relationship is immune from any negative fallout of leadership change in either country, there is great interest in New Delhi in the foreign policy priorities of the Joe Biden administration.</p> <p>The rapport between Modi and Donald Trump, who staged stunning joint shows in Houston and Ahmedabad, resulted in many convergences, especially against China. Trump was supportive of Modi’s decisions on Kashmir, and Modi lent support to Trump’s economic sanctions on Iran. The four-nation strategic alliance of India, the US, Japan and Australia has led to military and intelligence cooperation. If there was no pandemic, leaders of the four countries would have had a summit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New Delhi also benefited from Trump’s rapport with his ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster, who helped smoothen American belligerence on trade issues. Now Juster will be leaving and there is no indication about Biden’s preference for the crucial Delhi assignment. But India has an accomplished team of diplomats in the US led by Ambassador T.S. Sandhu, who has strong contacts in the Democratic policy group as well as in the Congress. But some of the progressive members of the house, including the Indian American representatives, have a perception that the BJP and the Republicans were far too thick friends.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While bilateral relations are expected to be smooth—the foreign policy team of secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken has emphasised the importance of India—the focus would be on how different the Afghanistan-Pakistan policy would be under the new administration. Trump’s treaty with the Taliban had made India feel that America would give the advantage to Pakistan in the long run, after withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan. Trump’s special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, had persuaded India to shed its touch-not-Taliban attitude that had been adopted after the hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight IC 814 in December 1999. Unlike the Obama administration, Trump’s foreign policy team had given more importance to Pakistan because of Islamabad-Rawalpindi’s strong ties with the Taliban. Now India is waiting to see what changes Biden will bring.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Similarly, Biden’s commitment to engage with Iran on its nuclear programme, which would restart the Obama policy abandoned violently by Trump, would be of relevance for India. The Modi government has moved closer to Iran’s regional opponents like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, although it has not joined in the rhetoric against Tehran. If Biden focuses more on Europe, Russia and the Middle East, there is great curiosity on whether he will be as bellicose towards China as Trump has been.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On economic issues, Biden has indicated that he would like to rebuild the bridges of international trade, which were damaged by Trump’s aggressive America First policy. But India is keen to know how committed Biden is towards rebuilding the World Trade Organisation and reviving other multilateral agreements.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is one area where Trump and Modi sharply differed. Modi believes that climate change is a genuine global threat and has committed India to mitigating its bad effects by word and deed. Trump thought the whole hubbub on climate was a hoax to sabotage the American energy sector and pulled the US out of the Paris agreement. Now Biden has named the old India friend John Kerry as his special envoy for climate and this would be a fruitful partnership.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Overall, it is time for a different tango between the two big democracies.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Nov 26 16:38:07 IST 2020 banking-on-rivers <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Except during some monsoons, the Sarayu is a gentle tributary of the Ganga. But, for the next two years, the river known for its most-famous town, Ayodhya, will be the focus of hectic construction activity. It is not just the grand Ram Temple which will be the jewel of the river, but Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has also claimed the river to be his own for dazzling development.</p> <p>If the Sabarmati in Ahmedabad and the Ganga in Varanasi are developed as big riverfronts because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative, Adityanath is focusing on the Sarayu to leave his imprint. It is not just the lakhs of lamps lit during Diwali that would make the Sarayu sparkle, but the plans include a 500-acre theme park, the world’s tallest statue of Ram and green walkways. Each year, Adityanath is increasing the number of lamps as the length of the riverfront grows. The government has committed over 01,000 crore for the riverfront land reclamation and beautification.</p> <p>Urban river landscapes have caught the imagination of not just town planners but politicians as well. Adityanath found that the Gomti riverfront in Lucknow had been lavished attention by both Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav as chief ministers, with the latter developing new green lungs on a 17km stretch on either bank of the Gomti. Yadav’s government spent 01,500 crore on the development.</p> <p>Even the less flamboyant Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has invested in the development of a 6km stretch of the Ganga, which is the lifeline of Patna, with 16 embankment ghats already built and more planned. According to the plan, thousands of visitors would be able to have fun on the riverfront and watch dolphins in the mighty river every day. Already 0150 crore has been spent and more is intended. In Assam, BJP Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal has even bigger dreams for the wider Brahmaputra that flows through Guwahati.</p> <p>It is not just state governments that are taking up waterfront projects. The Nanded municipal corporation in Maharashtra has finalised a Godavari waterfront scheme for the famous Sikh pilgrim centre. Downstream, MNS leader Raj Thackeray had big dreams of developing the Godavari riverfront in the Kumbh Mela city of Nashik when his party controlled the corporation. But the project is embroiled in controversies and the BJP now controls the civic body.</p> <p>The biggest dreamboat of all has been the 22km Yamuna riverfront in Delhi, which has thousands of acres of vacant floodplains. As an urban development minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, jurist Ram Jethmalani had drawn plans for modelling it after the Thames in London or the Seine in Paris. Then, in 2009, chief minister Sheila Dikshit had a plan to develop recreational and ecological parks along it. Now, the Delhi development authority under Modi wants to replicate the Sabarmati model. But the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court have remained vigilant guardians of the open spaces lining the filthiest river in the country, which has ironically become greener on its banks owing to non-development.</p> <p>Environmental activists are crying that the spate of riverfront projects would mean putting millions of cubic feet of concrete into the rivers and their embankments, affecting water flow and handing over floodplains for real estate and recreation. But waterfront enthusiasts are jogging on, arguing that planned development actually rejuvenates the river. And in case of chief ministers like Adityanath, it could mean a spike in popularity, too!</p> <p><b></b><br> </p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Nov 19 19:21:11 IST 2020 how-to-vaccinate-a-nation <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Even as laboratories and pharma companies are announcing varying stages of success in developing a Covid-19 vaccine, an inter-ministerial group in Delhi has carved out a universal vaccination plan. The health ministry and the state governments were the nodal agencies for mega vaccination campaigns in the past. This&nbsp;time in view of&nbsp;the size, scale and timeline of the programme, the government has also brought in other ministries—home, finance, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, railways, agriculture, consumer affairs, education, civil aviation and even defence—for consultations and input on their expertise.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;As the government has promised free vaccination for all, the operation would be much bigger than other countrywide operations like the annual polio vaccination, the census or the general elections.&nbsp;The government wants to get the vaccine administered within 12 to 18 months from the date&nbsp;the drugs controller general of India certifies a Covid-19 candidate vaccine as viable. There is hope that India can be declared free of Covid-19 when the nation celebrates its 75th Independence Day in August 2022. The task becomes even more gigantic in the light of the prime minister’s promise to the international community—that India would not only take care of its citizens, but also help humanity by exporting huge quantities of vaccine produced in India.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has assured that there will be no dearth of funds for the programme. The official task force is, however, not in favour of recommending vaccines developed in the west, which could be priced at&nbsp;&nbsp;300 to&nbsp;&nbsp;500 per dose. The health and pharmaceuticals ministries are checking whether there are enough drug companies in the country which could conform to the World Health Organisation’s good manufacturing practice&nbsp;code—a prerequisite for being permitted to manufacture the highly sensitive drug.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;There are also suggestions on capacity augmentation for RNA-based vaccines for which the manufacturing base is insufficient. The challenge of supplying enough syringes is also being addressed, as the present thinking is that the vaccine has to be administered twice, with a gap of at least three weeks.&nbsp;The temperature at which the vaccine has to be made, transported and stored is also a big challenge as most of the vaccine candidates require cold-storage facilities.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;The agriculture ministry has been sounded out on the capacity of&nbsp;cold storages in the country. The transport ministries are being asked whether it would be easier to shepherd the recipients to a single urban centre and administer the vaccine, rather than take the whole operation to every village. There is also hope for availability of a vaccine that would not require refrigeration and can remain effective in normal temperature.&nbsp;</p> <p>&nbsp;The inter-ministerial group has also worked out the sequence of the population segments that would get vaccinated first. These include health workers, associated Covid-19 warriors in police, sanitation, transportation and connected areas, and all high officials like ministers, judges, MPs, MLAs and bureaucrats. Next in priority would be senior citizens and those having specific health&nbsp;conditions. The group feels the more widespread and penetrative the design of the programme, the faster the entire population would be covered. But the plans would remain on paper, until the specifications of the approved vaccine are known.</p> Mon Nov 16 19:22:45 IST 2020 lone-republican-ranger <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India (A) has attained the unusual distinction of being the only non-BJP minister in the Modi ministry. Representation of other allies has ended either because of desertion (by the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal) or death (of Ram Vilas Paswan of the Lok Janshakti Party). A dalit activist, Athawale has been a lone wolf in the Maharashtra assembly and in Parliament, as he has not been able to get any other member of his party elected in the last three decades. But he is visually and verbally colourful. His wardrobe is full of coats and waistcoats of multiple colours and designs. He has vowed not to repeat a jacket in Parliament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Athawale has been a junior minister in the social justice and empowerment ministry. The BJP has granted him a second term in the Rajya Sabha. He had won three Lok Sabha elections in alliance with the Congress, and was also a Maharashtra cabinet minister. But he resisted offers to merge his outfit with national parties, and has enjoyed being in demand during elections.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the joint rallies of the coalition, Athawale is invited for his oratory and his popularity among dalits. At these rallies, he ensures his party’s blue flags and scarves outnumber those of his allies. In 2009, at a rally in Pune for Congress candidate Suresh Kalmadi, which was to be addressed by Sonia Gandhi, managers of the Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party were aghast at the sea of blue flags. They scrambled to get more of their party flags, but the police would not let them in, citing tight SPG security for Sonia. In Delhi, Athawale insisted that blue tiles, normally used in the kitchen, should be plastered onto the outer walls of his ministerial bungalow, though his desire for designer tiles with the party symbol was not granted by the Central government officials.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He has party units in all states and grandiosely announces that the RPI(A) would contest all assembly seats. He has refused invitations to contest on the Congress, BJP or NCP symbol, though it might have better helped his ambition to be a cabinet minister with a weighty portfolio. He symbolises many dalit leaders who prefer to be lions in their small regional dens. Athawale has also been lukewarm to suggestions of bringing together the factions of the Republican Party of India, including the one headed by Prakash Ambedkar.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Bihar assembly elections would determine the fortunes of some dalit parties like the 20-year-old LJP, founded by Paswan and now headed by his son Chirag, who has cocked a snook at Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Also in the fray is the Hindustani Awam Morcha founded by former chief minister Jitan Ram Manjhi, who is trying his luck as part of the NDA. In Tamil Nadu, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi of Thol Thirumavalavan has remained a steady member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam-led front. The VCK is hoping that if the alliance unseats the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in next summer’s assembly elections, it could have a minister for the first time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Modi is likely to expand his council of ministers after the Bihar assembly elections. His party has to decide whether it should offer ministerships to other remaining NDA partners such as the Janata Dal (United) and the AIADMK. And whether the LJP deserves a return to the ministry, after causing confusion in Bihar NDA by fielding candidates only against the JD(U) and avoiding contests against the BJP.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The BJP, on its own, has comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha, but needs regional parties in the Rajya Sabha as well as in the coming state elections. If the expansion is limited to only new ministers from the BJP, or if the exercise itself is delayed, Athawale will continue to bask in his unique distinction.</p> Fri Nov 06 16:23:06 IST 2020 ministry-of-utmost-friendliness <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>S. Jaishankar has been a very cerebral foreign minister, concentrating more on high policy of international power and relationships than his predecessor Sushma Swaraj, who was seen more as a people’s foreign minister. Sushma endeared herself as the Twitter minister, who responded to every message to her on social media. Jaishankar, on the other hand, has preferred that his profile is of a foreign policy leader connecting with the countries round the world to further relationships and to deal with shifting power balances. While his use of social media is very restricted, he has carried forward Sushma’s people-friendly approach by making the ministry equally responsive, especially when Covid-19 has upset the travel and other plans of so many people in India and abroad.</p> <p>Sushma built up hugely on the people-friendly initiatives of S.M. Krishna, who was external affairs minister under prime minister Manmohan Singh from 2009 to 2012. Krishna had revolutionised the approach of the foreign ministry towards ordinary citizens by starting a network of passport seva kendras, which used technology to issue passports and other travel documents in quick time. Even though there was another minister exclusively for overseas Indian affairs, Krishna made the Indian consulates and embassies round the world more responsive to citizens’ needs. His team would respond round the clock to emails and SMSes (Twitter and WhatsApp became popular after Krishna’s tenure) of distressed people from different parts of the world.</p> <p>The UPA’s objective of launching the Overseas Indian Affairs ministry—manned by IAS officers—was to look into the multiple woes of the Indians living abroad. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in accordance with his minimum government policy, made Sushma in charge for both the MEA and OIA. Subsequently, in 2016, the OIA ministry was merged into the MEA, to be run by diplomats.</p> <p>Sushma’s people-first approach also changed the attitudes of the foreign service, which had always held that its only brief was to deal with foreign governments and multilateral issues. She was the ultimate agony aunt for the Indian diaspora around the world. She even received requests to save troubled marriages or help those facing prosecution. With tact and humour, she declined such unviable demands on her powers.</p> <p>Jaishankar merged the people-focused divisions—passport and visa services as well as overseas Indian affairs—under one senior secretary of the ministry, and chose Sanjay Bhattacharyya, a people-friendly diplomat, to spearhead its functioning. Bhattacharyya had the heft to deal with not only Indian missions but also foreign governments on diaspora issues. The personal approach under Sushma was institutionalised by Jaishankar and Bhattacharyya, as the new system worked round the clock.</p> <p>Then Covid-19 happened, impacting millions of non-resident Indians and PIOs across the globe, with air, land and sea links snapped. The home ministry, in consultation with the foreign office, cancelled visas of not only foreigners but also of PIOs with foreign passports. The limited resumption of travel through the Vande Bharat Mission has been the MEA’s joint effort with the civil aviation ministry, which is headed by a former ambassador, Hardeep Singh Puri. More than five lakh Indians stranded around the world were brought back to two dozen cities through special flights, which involved delicate negotiations with 100 countries. Then came the air corridor bubbles with countries to which Indians travel maximum for work, by allowing reciprocal flights from airlines of those countries. And, all this managed without much tweeting!</p> <p><b></b></p> Thu Oct 29 15:57:07 IST 2020