New on my other blogs

KERALA LETTER
A Dalit poet writing in English, based in Kerala
Foreword to Media Tides on Kerala Coast
Teacher seeks V.S. Achuthanandan's intervention to end harassment by partymen
Change of heart? Or stooping to conquer?
Some thoughts on the historic Battle of Colachel

വായന

20 June, 2017

Privacy concerns over ID card

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Over the past eight years the Indian government has gone ahead with a scheme to issue a unique identity card to all citizens, brushing aside widespread concerns over their right to privacy. On more than one occasion the Supreme Court said it cannot be made mandatory but the authorities are pushing ahead with it.

The United Progressive Alliance government created the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in 2009 and charged it with the task of issuing unique identification numbers, to be known as Aadhaar, to all residents of India. It said Aadhaar would help check leakage in various welfare measures resulting from the prevalence of fake ID cards.

Several civil society organisations objected to the scheme, fearing it would lead to surveillance of citizens. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which was then in the opposition, shared their concern. It called the scheme a fraud and blocked the passage of a law to give the UIDAI statutory backing.

Nevertheless, the UPA government went ahead with the scheme. Not many people applied for Aadhaar. The government got over the problem by deciding to issue Aadhaar to all those who had provided personal particulars and biometric data for preparation of the National Population Register under the Citizenship Act of 1955.

The process was going on when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power. Reversing the position his party had taken earlier, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to go ahead with the Aadhaar scheme.

He gave the UIDAI statutory status by pushing through Parliament a measure styled as Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act. To overcome the disability resulting from the NDA’s lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, the measure was labelled as a money bill. The upper house has no power to make changes in a money bill.

As the government linked Aadhaar with various welfare schemes, citizens sought intervention by the courts. So far there has been no conclusive court ruling.

On several occasions the Supreme Court said Aadhaar should not be made mandatory. Once it asked the government to advertise widely that it is not mandatory to obtain an Aadhaar card. At the same time it let the government link various schemes with Aadhaar.

In 2015, the apex court said the Aadhaar scheme is purely voluntary and “cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or another”. It has set up a constitution bench to take that final decision but it is yet to hear the matter.

Early this month the government issued a notification making linking of Aadhaar with bank accounts and the permanent account number cards issued by the Income Tax department mandatory. It also made Aadhaar mandatory for making bank deposits of more than Rs 50,000.

The government claimed these steps would help weed out fake and fraudulent transactions.

The Supreme Court let the notification stand but ruled that it would not be applicable to those who do not have an Aadhaar card or have not applied for one until the constitution bench decides the privacy question.

The Aadhaar Act prohibits sharing, publishing, displaying or public posting of the core biometric information collected under the project except in the interest of “national security”, which remains undefined. However, some recent reports have raised doubts about the way the government handles the information in its possession.

The Centre for Internet and Society, a non-profit interdisciplinary research organisation, recently revealed a few instances in which agencies under the Centre and the Andhra Pradesh government published on their websites data which could potentially compromise the interest of more than 130 million Aadhaar cardholders and 100 million bank account holders.

According to media reports, the Jharkhand government has made public personal details of 1.4 million persons who have linked their Aadhaar numbers with bank accounts to facilitate direct transfer of their monthly pensions. A private and two firms are currently facing charges of cyber crime for hacking and breaching the privacy of Aadhaar data.

Aadhaar may not spell the end of fake identities. India’s population, which stood at 1,210 million at the time of the 2011 census, is currently estimated at close to 1,342 million. UIDAI has issued more than 1,155 million Aadhaar cards so far. By March 2015 as many as 13 states and union territories had already issued cards in excess of the 2011 population. - Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 20, 2017

13 June, 2017

A chilling message to media

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

On May 3, World Press Freedom Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “a day to reiterate our unwavering support towards a free and vibrant press.” The weeks that followed revealed the wide gulf between this pious wish and his administration’s practice.

A few days before that tweet, the Central Bureau of Investigation had received a complaint alleging fraud in a transaction between NDTV, a leading media organisation, and the ICICI Bank, both private companies. The complainant, Sanjay Dutt, was a shareholder of both the companies and had been pursuing allegations against the media company and its promoters, Prannoy Roy and his wife, Radhika, in various forums for four years with little success.

On June 2 the CBI registered an 88-page first information report on the basis of Dutt’s complaint and two days later it conducted searches at four places belonging to the Roys. It was not the first time that an investigating agency had acted against media owners but the attendant circumstances suggested that this one was intended to send a chilling message to the entire media.

NDTV is one of the earliest private news television companies and played a major role in bringing to national attention the enormity of the anti-Muslim riots that swept Gujarat in 2002 soon after Modi became the state chief minister. Just a few days ago, one of its anchors, Nidhi Razdan, had asked Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Sambit Patra to apologise or leave her show as he alleged the channel had an agenda.

Two central government agencies, the Enforcement Directorate and the Income Tax department, had started looking into NDTV’s finances soon after Modi became the Prime Minister. They served notices on the Roys in connection with certain transactions, and they moved the courts with regard to some of them.

Last November the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered the group’s Hindi channel, NDTV India, to go off the air for a day for revealing sensitive information in its coverage of the attack on the Pathankot airbase in violation of the rules regarding reporting of terror incidents. Media organisations had protested against singling out the channel for action sparing others who, too, had shown similar visuals.

Last week, at a largely attended meeting of journalists in New Delhi to demonstrate solidarity with the Roys, eminent jurist Fali S Nariman pointed to infirmities in the CBI conduct. It had acted not on the basis of any crime-related discovery but on a lone private complaint. The criminal conspiracy and cheating alleged in the complaint had taken place during 2008-09 and it did not say why the matter was not brought to the agency’s attention earlier.

Instead of instituting a criminal inquiry and conducting raids, the CBI should have asked Dutt to file a complaint in a criminal court, Nariman said.

Veteran journalists who spoke at the meeting likened the current situation to what prevailed during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime and called upon the media fraternity to stand together to safeguard press freedom. Prannoy Roy asserted he and his wife had done no wrong, and the action against them was a signal to the media that the government could get them even if they had done nothing.

A majority of the media has been uncritical of the government and there is in the electronic media a group of fawning fans ready to fight Modi’s and his party’s battles as if they were their own. But Modi remains distrustful of the media and avoids press conferences.

The CBI’s uncalled-for action on a private complaint with regard to transactions involving private companies has once again turned the focus on the functioning of that agency.

Set up by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in 1963, the CBI established an early reputation as a competent investigative agency. That reputation now lies in ruins. After reviewing the way it handled a scandal of the United Progressive Alliance government, a Supreme Court judge had dubbed it a caged parrot repeating its master’s voice.

Ranjit Sinha who headed the CBI at that time said the court’s assessment was correct. The agency later appealed to the court to free it from governmental interference but nothing came of it.

The BJP, then in the opposition, had lambasted the UPA government using the judge’s remarks about the CBI. Last month leading lawyer and former Congress minister, Kapil Sibal said the CBI was now the long arm of the Modi government and it was holding out threats to people to secure favourable statements. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 13, 2017. 

11 June, 2017

Former civil servants decry hyper-nationalism and religious intolerance

A group of retired civil servants has questioned the idea that “those in authority should not be questioned”, and expressed concern over “growing hyper-nationalism that reduces any critique to a binary: if you are not with the government, you are anti-national”.
The following is the text of an open letter bearing signatures of more than 50 of them:
We are a group of retired officers of All India and Central Services of different batches, who have worked with the Central and State Governments in the course of our careers. We should make it clear that as a group, we have no affiliation with any political party but believe in the credo of impartiality, neutrality and commitment to the Indian Constitution. A sense of deep disquiet at what has been happening in India has prompted uFormer s to write this open letter to chronicle our reservations and misgivings about recent developments in the body politic. What has gone wrong?
It appears as if there is a growing climate of religious intolerance that is aimed primarily at Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh, in the run-up to the elections, an odious and frankly communal comparison was made between the relative number of burial grounds and cremation grounds. The question was also asked as to whether electricity was being supplied equally to different communities during their religious festivals. All this without any basis in fact or evidence. The banning of slaughter-houses targets the minorities and affects their livelihoods as well. Such intolerance breeds violence in a communally charged atmosphere - even to the extent of a local leader in UP provoking an attack upon the residence of a Superintendent of Police, whose family was terrorized.
Vigilantism has become widespread. An Aklaq is killed on the basis of a suspicion that the meat he has is beef and a Pehlu Khan is lynched while transporting to his place two cows he had bought and for which he had the necessary papers. Nomadic shepherds are attacked in J and K on some suspicion as they practice their age-old occupation of moving from one place to another along with their cattle and belongings. Gaurakshaks function with impunity and seem to be doing so with the tacit complicity or active encouragement of State machinery. Punitive action against the perpetrators of violence does not take place promptly but cruelly, the victims have FIRs registered against them. The behaviour of vigilantes – who act as if they are prosecutor, judge and executioner rolled into one – flies in the face of law and jurisprudence. These actions undermine the rule of law and the Indian Constitution since only the State – through its various organs and institutions - has the power to enforce the law.
Vigilantism has become popular as ‘anti-Romeo’ squads threaten young couples who go out together, hold hands and are perhaps in love with each other. A thinly-veiled effort to prevent a Hindu-Muslim relationship or marriage, there is no justification in law to harass these couples, particularly when there is no complaint from the woman of being ill-treated.
Student groups and faculty members on campuses like Hyderabad and JNU, who raise troubling questions about equality, social justice and freedom are subject to attack by the administration, with a supportive government to back them. In Jodhpur, a planned lecture by a renowned academic was cancelled under pressure and the faculty that organized the event subjected to disciplinary action. What happened in Jodhpur has happened at other institutions as well.
Argumentation and discussion about different perspectives – the life-blood not only of institutions of learning but of democracy itself – are being throttled. Disagreement and dissent are considered seditious and anti-national. Such attitudes have a chilling impact on free speech and thought.
Several reputed NGOs and civil society organisations are being charged with violating the provisions of the FCRA and the Income Tax Act. While we agree that genuine violators should be identified and penalised, we note with dismay that several of the targeted groups are those who have taken stands against government policies, expressed dissent or supported communities in cases against the state.
We are also seeing an ugly trend of trolling, threats and online intimidation of activists, journalists, writers and intellectuals who disagree with the dominant ideology. How does this square with free speech?
There is a growing hyper-nationalism that reduces any critique to a binary: if you are not with the government, you are anti-national. Those in authority should not be questioned – that is the clear message.
In the face of a rising authoritarianism and majoritarianism, which do not allow for reasoned debate, discussion and dissent, we appeal to all public authorities, public institutions and Constitutional bodies to take heed of these disturbing trends and take corrective action. We have to reclaim and defend the spirit of the Constitution of India, as envisaged by the founding fathers.
Signatories:
1) Dr.N.C.Saxena, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Planning Commission, Government of India (GoI)
2) Ardhendu Sen, IAS (Retd.), former Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
3) KeshavDesiraju, IAS (Retd.), former Health Secretary, GoI
4) J.Hari Narayan, IAS (Retd.), former Chairman, Insurance Regulatory Authority, GoI
5) G.Balagopal, IAS (Retd.), former Resident Representative, UNICEF, North Korea
6) AnupMukerji, IAS (Retd.), former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Bihar
7) Sundar Burra, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
8) VibhaPuri Das, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Tribal Affairs, GoI
9) AmitabhaPande, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Inter-State Council, GoI
10) K.K. Jaswal, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Department of Information Technology, GoI
11) Aruna Roy, IAS (Resigned)
12) Niranjan Pant, IA&AS (Retd.), former Deputy Comptroller and Accountant General of India
13) UmraoSalodia, IAS (Retd.), former Chairman, Rajasthan State Roadways Transport Corporation, Govt. of Rajasthan
14) E.A.S. Sarma, IAS, (Retd.), former Secretary, Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, GoI
15) Arun Kumar, IAS (Retd.), former Chairman, National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority, GoI
16) Brijesh Kumar, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Department of Information Technology, GoI
17) WajahatHabibullah, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, GoI, and Chief Information Commissioner
18) LalitMathur, IAS (Retd.), former Director General, National Institute of Rural Development, GoI
19) Surjit K. Das, IAS (Retd.), former Chief Secretary, Govt. of Uttarakhand
20) S.N.Kakar, IAS (Retd.), former Additional Secretary, Ministry of Surface Transport, GoI
21) Sayeed Rizvi, IAS (Retd.), former Joint Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, GoI
22) R.Chandramohan, IAS (Retd.), former Principal Secretary, Urban Development and Transport, Govt. of NCT of Delhi
23) PranabMukhopadhyay, IAS (Retd.), former Director, Institute of Port Management, GoI
24) K.P.Fabian, IFS (Retd.), former Ambassador, GoI
25) Kalyani Chaudhuri, IAS (Retd.), former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
26) Meena Gupta, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Environment and Forests, GoI
27) M.G. Devasahayam, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary to Govt. of Haryana
28) SonaliniMirchandani, IFS (Resigned)
29) Deepak Sanan, IAS (Retd.), former Principal Adviser (AR) to the Chief Minister of the Govt. of Himachal Pradesh
30) Harsh Mander, IAS (Retd.), Govt. of Madhya Pradesh
31) Dhirendra Krishna, IA&AS (Retd.), former Financial Controller, Irrigation Department, Govt. of Uttar Pradesh
32) SudershanK.Sudhakar, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Govt. of Punjab
33) RuchiraMukerjee, P&T Finance Accounts Service (Retd.), former Adviser, Telecom Commission, GoI
34) K. John Koshy, IAS (Retd.), former State Chief Information Commissioner, West Bengal
35) Sunil Mitra, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Finance, GoI
36) C.Babu Rajeev, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, GoI
37) JawaharSircar, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Culture, GoI, and CEO, PrasarBharati
38) VivekAgnihotri, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary General, Rajya Sabha
39) BhaskarGhose, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, GoI
40) Dr.K.R.Punia, IAS (Retd.), former Principal Secretary, Govt. of Haryana
41) Lalit Mehta, IAS (Retd.), former Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Poverty Alleviation, GoI
42) Ishrat Aziz, IFS (Retd.), former Ambassador to Brazil, GoI
43) Manab Roy, IAS (Retd.), former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal
44) S.K.Guha, IAS (Retd.), Chief, Institutional Development and Planning and Programme Guidance, UN Women
45) V.Ramani, IAS (Retd.), former Director General, YASHADA, Govt. of Maharashtra
46) Anna Dani, IAS (Retd.), former Additional Chief Secretary, Govt. of Maharashtra
47) Dr. Raju Sharma, IAS (Retd.), former Member, Board of Revenue, Govt. of Uttar Pradesh
48) HarMander Singh, IAS (Retd.), former Director General, ESI Corporation, GoI
49) Ajai Kumar, Indian Forest Service (Resigned), former Director, Ministry of Agriculture, GoI
50) GeethaThoopal, IRAS (Retd.), former General Manager, Metro Railway, Kolkata
51) N.Balachandran, IPS (Retd.),former Director General of Police and Chairman, Tamil Nadu Police Housing Corporation
52) Deepa Hari, IRS (Resigned)
53) Hirak Ghosh, IAS (Retd.), former Principal Secretary to the Govt. of West Bengal.

06 June, 2017

A tale of judicial misadventures

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Eighteenth century Swiss political theorist Jean-Louis de Lolme said Britain’s Parliament “can do everything except make a woman a man and a man a woman”. If any limb of the Indian state can be attributed such wide powers it is the Judiciary.

The Constitution provides for a system of mutual checks and balances, but over the years the Judiciary, exercising its exclusive right to interpret the provisions of the statute, has enlarged its powers to a point where virtually it is answerable only to itself.

Under the Constitution, a judge of the superior courts can be removed for misbehaviour or incapacity, but only through a cumbersome process of impeachment in which one house of Parliament acts as prosecutor and the other as judge. Neither the Judiciary nor the Legislature has devised a scheme to deal with infractions that may not amount to misbehaviour.

In 1991, the Bombay High Court Bar Association dubbed four judges as corrupt and its members refused to appear before them. Parliament and the Supreme Court did nothing, and the judges stayed put until retirement without hearing any case.

Since early this year the Supreme Court has been seized of an unusual problem: a serving high court judge, a Dalit, was accusing some of his colleagues of being corrupt and casteist.

The constitutional provisions which permit reservation for the Scheduled Castes (Dalits), the Scheduled Tribes (Adivasis) and other backward classes have never been extended to superior court appointments. As a result, they are grossly under-represented in the judiciary.

KG Balakrishnan, a Dalit from the educationally advanced state of Kerala, became the Chief Justice of India (CJI) in 2007. That was an exceptional case. Neither the Supreme Court nor the Department of Justice keeps a count of persons belonging to the socially and educationally backward classes inducted into the judiciary. At present there is no Dalit in the apex court, and it is believed not more than five per cent of the high court judges, numbering about 650, are Dalits. The community has 15 per cent reservation in the Central services.

CS Karnan, who was appointed a judge of the Madras high court in 2009, became a thorn in the flesh of the establishment when he started complaining that some fellow judges are discriminating against him since he is a Dalit. In 2011, he took his complaint to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. There was no action.

Stung by the bee of caste prejudice he encountered, Karnan has been on a judicially incorrect path since 2015. He initiated contempt proceedings against the chief justice of the Madras high court for allegedly belittling him since was a Dalit. When the Supreme Court decided to shift him to the Calcutta high court he stayed the order for his transfer. However, he later apologised for his conduct and took up the new assignment.

The apex court was infuriated when Karnan sent to the Prime Minister last January an “initial list of corrupt judges” which contained 20 names. It initiated contempt proceedings against him, found him guilty and gave him a six-month jail term, the maximum prescribed under the law.

The court ordered the West Bengal police to arrest Karnan forthwith. But he had moved to his home state of Tamil Nadu by then. After a brief meeting with media persons in Chennai he vanished.

A Bengal police party is camping in Chennai to implement the court order but Karan remains untraceable. According to a media report, he is under the protection of a Dalit politician.

Karnan is due to retire on June 12. Retirement will make no difference to his status as a convict. By staying out of sight until then he can spare the nation, which has already witnessed some judicial misadventures, the unedifying spectacle of a serving judge being hauled to jail.

The directives by the Supreme Court and the rebel judge cancelling each other’s orders could have been dismissed as a comic interlude but for the grave damage they have caused to the Judiciary’s image. That Karnan acted without regard for judicial propriety is evident. But, then, so did the seven-judge bench which tried him.

Both were acting as complainant, prosecutor and judge at the same time. While native crudity exposed Karnan’s infirmities, cultivated sophistry effectively hid the other side’s.

Alok Prasanna Kumar, a Fellow of the think-tank Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, described the court order in the contempt case as an “unconscionable disgrace”. The court had caused much more damage to its dignity and reputation than Karnan could ever manage, he wrote. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, June 6, 2017.

30 May, 2017

Stage set for more social strife

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The Narendra Modi government’s attempt to regulate cattle markets across the country appears to be a thinly disguised project to promote the Hindutva agenda of cow slaughter ban through the back door.

Last week the Environment Ministry, which oversees animal welfare, issued a notification imposing stringent conditions on the sale of cattle. While it does not prohibit cow slaughter, it forbids sale of cows, bulls, steers, heifers, buffaloes and camels at animal markets for slaughter.

India had edged past Brazil two years ago to become the world’s largest meat exporter. Last year meat production exceeded Rs 1,300 billion, and beef exports totalled Rs 263 billion.

Since the meat industry gets 90 per cent of its requirements from animal markets the regulations are bound to hit the farmers as well as the meat sellers.

Orthodox Hindus of the Vedic school profess to vegetarianism but the Vedas and other early texts testify that their ancestors ate different kinds of meat, including beef.

Hindus constitute 79.80 per cent of India’s population. However, according to the findings of a recent official survey, only 28 per cent of Indians are vegetarians.

Since some sections venerate the animal, cow slaughter became an issue of contention in the closing stages of the colonial period. In a concession to them, a provision was included in the Directive Principles of the Constitution permitting the state governments to take steps to prohibit the slaughter of milch and draught cattle.

Most states have already enacted legislation to prohibit slaughter of milch cows. However, Kerala, West Bengal and the north-eastern states have not done so.

Since Modi became the Prime Minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party started picking hard-core Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh activists as chief ministers, cow vigilantes have gone on the rampage in several states, attacking and killing Muslims and Dalits.

Mohammad Akhlaq of Dadri in Uttar Pradesh and Pahlu Khan, a dairy farmer of Alwar in Rajasthan were lynched to death. Dalit youths were thrashed at Una in Gujarat while skinning a dead cow. In all these instances, the BJP protected the criminals and pressured the police into instituting false cases against the victims and their families.

Under the newly notified rules, which are to be enforced within three months, only farmland owners can buy or sell cattle at animal markets. Both the seller and the buyer have to prove their identities and establish their status as farm owners. The seller has to obtain an understanding from the buyer that the animals are not for slaughter.

The rules have laid down cumbersome procedures which farmland owners with little education cannot easily cope with.

The government claimed that the rules had been prepared in compliance with a directive the Supreme Court had given in a recent judgement to improve the condition of animals in the markets. Political observers believe it used the opportunity to extend the Hindutva’s cow agenda and fear it may lead to more attacks on Muslims and Dalits.

While most opposition parties and state governments under their control were muted in their response to the Centre’s action, Kerala Chief Minister and Communist Party of India-Marxist Politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan roundly condemned it as an attempt to implement the RSS agenda. In a letter to the Prime Minister he said the rules were impractical.

Youth wings of the CPI-M and the Congress conducted beef festivals at many places in the state to demonstrate their resolve to resist interference in the people’s food habits.

The constitutional validity of the new Central rules is bound to be challenged in the courts. Many legal experts are of the view that the courts are liable to strike them down as they go beyond the purview of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act under which they have been issued.

The economic and social consequences of the rules may be more disastrous than the political fallout. Inability to sell cattle which have outlived their utility will upset the fragile economy of farming families which is already driving them to suicide in large numbers.

Some critics feel the government’s real objective is to put an end to the traditional cattle markets and clear the path for big business interests to enter the trade.

The new rules may embolden Hindutva elements to intensify attacks on the minorities and the Dalits, leading to increased social strife. The emergence of the Bhim Army at Saharanpur in UP is a sign of growing Dalit resistance to Hindutva violence. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 30, 2017.

23 May, 2017

Modi’s three-year balance sheet

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes his third year in office on Friday, going by official statistics, the economy is doing well and the stock market is at an all-time high.

Preparations to publicise the government’s achievements began last month with Information and Broadcasting Minister M Venkaiah Naidu writing to each ministerial colleagues to furnish data about five major achievements of his or her department to be included in a booklet to be published this week.

Earlier Naidu had asked ministers and top Bharatiya Janata Party leaders to communicate to the people the positive changes brought about by the Modi government. Be ready with facts and figures to propagate the government’s achievements in a big way, he told them.

Three party men with experience in mainstream journalism were assigned specific tasks. Minister of State for External Affairs MJ Akbar was asked to prepare a note on the outcome of Modi’s foreign tours. Swapan Dasgupta and Chandan Mitra, both nominated members of the Rajya Sabha, were urged to collect material to counter criticism of the government on such grounds as poor record in employment generation and threats to freedom of expression.

Typical of the claims resulting from the planned publicity drive is Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitaraman’s assertion that the government took about 7,000 measures – big, small, medium and nano – to promote ease of doing business. She said the measures included fixing timeline for clearance of applications, de-licensing manufacture of many defence products and introducing e-biz project.

The changing global scenario had made India an attractive destination for foreign investors even before Modi came on the scene. He went all out to create an investor-friendly atmosphere and can claim credit for the rise of foreign direct investment to a record level. But India still hovers around the 130th place among 190 countries in the World Bank’s 2017 Ease of Doing Business report.

The other issues proposed to he highlighted include control of inflation, reduction in corruption and initiatives in areas such as road building, rural electrification and cooking gas distribution which, the government believes, have helped improve the quality of life of people. But critics have raised questions about some of the claims.

In an open letter to Modi, Sadhavi Khosla, a social activist, who identified herself as one among the 31 per cent who had voted for the BJP believing in his promise of achhe din (good days), pointed out that food inflation remains unchecked.

Experts have voiced doubts about the methods employed by the government to project an optimistic picture of the economy. Some of them have accused it of fudging figures and tinkering with the methodology of calculating the gross domestic product and the inflation rate.

Six months after Modi demonetised high-value currency notes, the government and the central bank are unable or unwilling to state clearly the motives behind the step and the actual achievements. Claims that demonetisation put an end to cross-border terrorism and unrest in Kashmir valley stand exposed as hogwash.

Detractors have dug out Modi’s old tweets and video clips of his campaign speeches to prove he has not lived up to his promises. But there is nothing to indicate that his personal popularity has been dented. At the moment no opposition party, including the Congress, has a leader who can be an effective foil to him.

But the Hindutva brigade on whose shoulders Modi rode to victory is turning out to be a liability. With hard-core Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leaders in power in states like Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, the rank and file felt emboldened to take the law into their hands and let loose a reign of terror on minorities and Dalits raising specious issues. At least 15 persons have been lynched in the name of cow protection or meat eating.

There are signs of a backlash, which Modi cannot afford to ignore. Dalits from different states converged on Delhi last week to protest against the atrocities on the members of the community at Saharanpur in UP. There are also threats of mass conversion to Islam.

A section of Modi’s supporters who style themselves as the ‘liberal right’ are peeved that he is unable to get the BJP governments in the states to rein in the fringe elements. If he is not able to retain the loyalty of this section, he may lose his image as a Man of Development and stand exposed as the chief of rustic elements who want to drag the country back to the feudal past. 

16 May, 2017

Waiting for a new president

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s next President will be Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal choice, unless the Bharatiya Janata Party or, more importantly, its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, bungles badly.

Pranab Mukherjee’s five-year term as President ends on July 24. The Election Commission will soon set in motion the process of choosing his successor shortly.

As constitutional head of state, the President is required to act on the advice of the council of ministers at all times. But at some critical junctures, as, for instance, when a new Prime Minister has to be inducted, the President has to act on his own.

The President is elected by an electoral college comprising elected members of the two houses of Parliament and of the Assemblies of the states and Union Territories.

The 776 MPs and 4,120 MLAs each command half of the electoral college votes. The value of an MP’s vote is 708 but that of MLAs varies from seven in Sikkim to 208 in Uttar Pradesh, as it is pegged to the state’s population.

In the early years of Independence, the Congress could get its nominee elected as President with a comfortable margin as it dominated Parliament and the State Assemblies. As it declined, and a fragmented national polity emerged, the Congress has to choose its candidate after wide consultations to ensure smooth election.

When the Janata Party, which was cobbled together to take on Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime, held sway at the Centre and in the northern states, it was able to get its nominee, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, elected as President. Eight years earlier Mrs Gandhi had blocked his election as the Congress candidate by switching her support to VV Giri who was contesting as an independent.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance which was in power at the Centre at the time of the 2002 election was in a hopeless minority in the electoral college. The BJP and the Congress both backed retired missile scientist APJ Abdul Kalam, and he became the President. 

The Congress and its United Progressive Alliance partners commanded only 33 per cent of the electoral college votes when it picked Pranab Mukherjee as its candidate in 2012. The NDA, which was close behind with a vote share of 28 per cent, fielded former Congressman and Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma. Mukherjee collected almost twice as many electoral college votes as Sangma, thanks to the support of a host of smaller parties.

Having won 282 seats in the 542-member Lok Sabha in the 2014 poll and 312 seats in the 403-member UP Assembly in this year’s elections, the BJP is now way ahead of the Congress. With its NDA partners it commands about 47.5 per cent of the electoral votes valued at about 1.1 million.

But the non-BJP parties are in no mood to give up without a fight. Congress President Sonia Gandhi has been in talks with other opposition parties to pick a consensus candidate. Those under consideration include former Bengal Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, former Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar, Janata Dal (United) President Sharad Yadav and National Congress Party leader Sharad Pawar.

Even if Shiv Sena, an NDA partner which revels in giving Modi occasional pinpricks refuses to back its nominee, as in the last two presidential elections, the BJP is in a position to cover the small shortfall in its electoral college majority with the help of regional parties.

Three southern parties, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (vote share about 5.5 per cent), YSR Congress (vote share about two per cent) and Telangana Rashtra Samithi (vote share 1.5 per cent) and Odisha’s Biju Janata Dal (vote share 3.5 per cent) are believed to be ready to go with Modi.

Some of them may want to know who the BJP’s candidate for the office is before committing themselves. Few expect Modi to favour party veterans Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi whom he has sidelined. Other names doing the rounds include those of three women, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, Union Minister Uma Bharti and Jharkhand Governor Draupadi Murmu, who is an Adivasi.

In the last three years the RSS has tightened its grip on the BJP and placed its hard core leaders in constitutional positions in several states. It is, therefore, time to ask if the next President will be an organisation man from that outfit.

RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat’s name was proposed by Shiv Sena for the office of President. Oddly enough it was endorsed by a Muslim Congress leader from the south. Bhagwat said he was not interested in the post. That only means he prefers to be king-maker rather than the king.

One hopes Modi and Bhagwat do not lose sight of the fact that the President, who symbolises the majesty of the republic, needs to be a unifying figure. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 16, 2017.

09 May, 2017

A noble legal tradition in jeopardy

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

In an age of liberal thought a few enlightened judges charted out a new course which enabled India’s poor and marginalised people to surmount the obstacles that limited their access to the Judiciary. That age has passed and the noble tradition of public interest litigation which enhanced the quality of justice is in trouble.

The Constitution, proclaimed two and a half years after the country gained Independence, promised justice – social, economic and political – to all. It also guaranteed equality and equal opportunities, regardless of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Of what practical use was all that to the millions who had been denied basic human rights for centuries and lived in squalor?

On the face of it, the transition which took place on August 15, 1947, the day British colonial rule ended, and on January 26, 1950, the day India proclaimed itself a secular, democratic republic, was of a superficial nature. The new dispensation worked with the same bureaucrats, same policemen, same soldiers, the same judges who ran the colonial administration.

The judiciary was the institution farthest removed from the masses. While it enjoyed a reputation for fairness among the educated elite and the rising middle class, it was beyond the reach of the poor. The lower courts treated them with the same disdain as during the colonial-feudal period, and the higher courts were beyond their reach as the legal process was too costly and time-consuming. The juridical practice inherited from the colonial period allowed only persons with a sense of injury or personal hurt to seek remedy from the court.

In the 1970’s, a couple of judges of the apex court broke down the barrier and allowed concerned citizens or groups to raise issues on behalf of suffering citizens. Thus began a phase of access to justice through class action, public interest litigation (PIL) and representative proceedings.

Supreme Court judge VR Krishna Iyer, a pioneer of PIL jurisprudence, outlined the philosophy behind the innovation in these words: “Little Indians in large numbers seeking remedies in courts through collective proceedings, instead of being driven to an expensive plurality of litigation, is an affirmation of participative justice in our democracy.”

When the apex court took up a PIL by Bandhua Mukti Morcha on behalf of bonded labourers, the government objected on the ground that it was an unregistered association. The court dismissed the argument and declared any person with no direct interest in the matter can champion the case of the downtrodden.

The court’s repeated intervention, coupled with legislative measures taken by the government, freed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly belonging to the Dalit and Adivasi communities, from generations of bondage. PIL was the instrument which made this possible.

By the 1980’s, the Supreme Court expanded the scope of PIL beyond the original intent of helping the poor to include broader issues of social concern like protection of the environment. Responding to pleas by environmental groups, it stepped in to prohibit mining operations and check pollution of waters by industries and of air by motor vehicles.

The 1990’s witnessed further expansion of PIL with judges allowing individuals or groups actuated by considerations of social good to raise issues of governance including corruption. Following the apex court’s example, high courts too began to entertain PILs.

Many foreign observers found the Indian judicial innovations praiseworthy. Zachary Holladay of the Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, who studied the working of PIL, said the Indian system could serve as a model for other developing countries in addressing the problems of marginalised and disadvantaged communities.

There were at all times conservative elements in the Indian judiciary who did not look upon PIL with favour, viewing it as judicial activism. From time to time they sounded notes of caution. Public interest litigants who approached courts without adequate preparations played into the hands of those who were looking for opportunities to discredit the system.

In the last few years both the Supreme Court and the high courts have come down heavily on several petitioners for misuse of PIL. In some cases they have fined petitioners and barred them from raising PIL in future.

Last week the apex court fined a trust and its chairman Rs2.5 million and barred them permanently from filing PIL. Over the past few years the trust had filed 64 PILs, all of which had failed.

Such punitive action can have a chilling effect on public interest litigants and throw the system into jeopardy. PIL has contributed most to the high reputation the Judiciary today enjoys as the people’s last resort. The court’s desire to free itself from the burden of frivolous petitions is understandable, but it should guard against throwing the baby with the bathwater.

02 May, 2017

Hindutva’s divisive preoccupations

BRP Bhaskar

As the Narendra Modi government heads for the fourth of its term of five years, its popularity is largely intact. However, the methods it employs to gain and retain electoral support remain problematical in view of the use of highly divisive tactics.

For a quarter century the Bharatiya Janata Party has been contesting parliamentary elections under the banner of National Democratic Alliance. Most of the NDA constituents share its Hindutva agenda but it also includes some which are committed to broader ideals but find it beneficial to be a BJP ally.

In the 2014 elections, the BJP secured an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha on its own, with only 31 per cent of the total votes polled. Thanks to the fragmented polity and the ‘first past the post’ principle that governs the electoral system, political parties have often secured a majority in the house with a minority of votes but never before did a party win enough seats to form the government with so small a vote share.

The credit for the BJP’s unprecedented electoral performance belongs to Modi, who vigorously campaigned all over the country and to the cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the prime mover of the Hindutva ideology, who were deployed extensively at the booth level in several states.

Although the BJP had majority, Modi and the party decided to keep the NDA intact and continue to work under its banner. One partner, Shiv Sena, which was Hindutva’s chief instrument in the western state of Maharashtra for decades, has been needling the BJP from time to time but Modi and party president Amit Shah have ignored the pinpricks.

The RSS has brought the Central and state administrations under its influence since Modi took office. The central universities which enjoyed a reputation as centres of excellence and liberal thought were among the first to come under its radar. The RSS-affiliated student organisation queered the pitch for central intervention by provoking conflicts with the leaders of the elected students unions and progressive elements like Ambedkarite groups.

When the attempt invited strong criticism, Modi gave Smriti Irani, who was presiding over the Ministry of Human Resources, to a less important charge. However, efforts to effect changes have continued in a less obtrusive manner.

In states like Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP gained power after 2014, breaking with the tradition the party followed in the past, hard core RSS leaders were chosen to head the government. This indicated that the RSS was no longer content to remain in the background.

Emboldened by the emergence of the RSS as a major power centre, shadowy Hindutva outfits resorted to violent activities in many states, including those under non-BJP governments, during the last three years. People were lynched to death in the name of eating beef or killing cows. The police have not been able to restrain the unruly elements or pursue the cases against them vigorously.

In a situation like the one in which the BJP is now placed, a leadership with qualities of statesmanship would have striven to strengthen its credentials as the ruling party in a democracy by reaching out to people outside its fold, especially the minorities and the marginalised sections, and enhance its appeal to them. But the Hindutva mindset is too narrow to permit the party to move in that direction.

Instead, it appears, the RSS-BJP combine is working on a strategy which aims at enhancing its vote share by mobilising more support from the Hindu fold. There is, of course, room for the BJP to raise its share of Hindu votes as the Hindus constitute close to 80 per cent of the population. But this will require intensification of communal polarisation, which can have disastrous consequences.

Reports indicate that the Central government has plans to push the use of Hindi in the south as part of an attempt at promoting national integration. The move will strengthen the BJP’s position in the Hindi-speaking states but it may produce a backlash elsewhere, particularly in the Tamil Nadu state.

The Dravidian movement of Tamil Nadu has a history of defeating attempts to impose Hindi. In the 1930s its followers foiled the move by a pre-Independence government to promote Hindi by invoking the spirit of nationalism fostered by the freedom movement. They rose against the imposition of Hindi again in the 1960s and the 1980s and are sure to do so again, if necessary.

Modi needs to recognise that Hindutva’s divisive preoccupations pose a threat to his development agenda.  -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 2, 2017

25 April, 2017

India-China ties in a trough

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

A year after President Pranab Mukherjee spoke of India-China relations as the defining partnership of this century and called upon governments of the two countries to jointly impart momentum to bilateral ties, there is no sign of a forward movement. On the contrary, mutual distrust is threatening to destroy the good work done after the 1961 hostilities over the disputed border.

Ahead of a visit to the border state of Arunachal Pradesh by Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama, who has been living in exile in India since 1959, this month the Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that it could damage bilateral relations.

Arunachal Pradesh, which was administered by the British under the name of North East Frontier Agency, is now a full-fledged state with an area of about 84,000 square kilometres and a population of 1.38 million. China claims it is South Tibet. After India ignored the warning and the Dalai Lama went ahead with the visit, Beijing announced Chinese names for six Arunachal towns to reinforce its claim.

This was the Dalai Lama’s seventh visit since 1983 to Arunachal Pradesh, where the 17th century Tawang monastery, headquarters of the Kama-Kargyu sect of Tibetan Buddhists, is located. While China routinely objected to his visits, this is the first time it has followed up the protest with any step at all. P. Stobdan, a former diplomat, believes China only wants to discourage India from thinking it can use the Dalai Lama as leverage in the dealings between the two countries.

India-China relations are now in a trough now. Each side feels that the other is not sufficiently sensitive to its interests.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose neighbourhood policy is conditioned by the Hindutva perspective on Pakistan and terrorism, is peeved with China for blocking India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group and its attempt to get the UN to brand Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist.

China is suspicious of India’s evolving strategic relationship with the United States. Also, it is unhappy about India’s indifference to President Xi Jinping’s pet One Belt One Road project.

OBOR is a global network of roads, railways, pipelines and utility grids that will link China with South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia and through them to Europe. When completed, it will be the world’s largest platform for economic, social and cultural cooperation.

India’s reservations about OBOR stem primarily from its opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which will run through Azad Jammu and Kashmir. CPEC is one of several corridors envisaged as part of OBOR. The corridors are expected to be dotted with energy and industrial clusters.

The Indian government initially cited lack of details about the elements of the project as a reason for its holding back. Last month an official spokesman spelt out its objection: “CPEC passes through Indian territory.”

The argument is, no doubt, valid but the objection comes too late. The 1,300-km Karakoram highway, which runs from Kashgar in the Xinjiang region of China to Abbotabad in Pakistan and will become part of CPEC, has been operational for about four decades already. India learnt of that road project only after work on it began in 1959.

India is yet to respond to China’s invitation to attend a meeting on OBOR which it has scheduled for May. The government must take an early decision in the matter, after weighing carefully the advantages that may accrue to the country from the project and the disadvantages that may result if it keeps out of it.

India’s absence will, no doubt, diminish OBOR’s worth as it is now the world’s fastest growing economy and one of the largest markets. But India needs to note that more than 60 countries with a combined GDP of $21 trillion have evinced interest in the project and it thus bids fair to be a success even without India. In fact, the chances are that circumstances may eventually compel India to join it so as to benefit from it.

An early positive decision may confer two advantages. It may lift India-China relations from the trough into which it has fallen. Many details of OBOR are still to be worked out. By joining the group before the details are filled in India may be able to play a role in shaping its course in a way beneficial to it.

India must not lose sight of the fact that it cannot secure its legitimate place in a reformed UN except with the concurrence of China, which is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council. --Gulf Today, April 25, 2017.

18 April, 2017

Farmers need more than relief

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India’s farmers who have lived precariously for ages are paying a heavy price for the rapid growth of the national economy in the era of globalisation. More than 300,000 of them are believed to have taken their lives in distressing circumstances.

Factors that contributed to the worsening of farmers’ condition include credit constraints, cut in agricultural subsidies, rise in input costs and fall in the prices of produce. Many farmers switched from food grains to cash crops expecting higher returns but their hopes did not materialise.

The first steps towards economic liberalisation were taken by Manmohan Singh as finance minister in PV Narasimha Rao’s government in 1991. According to a study report, during 1996-2003, on an average 15,000 farmers committed suicide each year. During 2004-2012, the figure rose to 16,000.

Agriculture is a state subject and the markets are regulated by state laws. Many states adopted a model law drafted by the Centre in 2003 to ensure fair prices to farmers. Middlemen who are able to exert influence on the supply chain defeated its purpose.

The Centre is now in talks with the states to draw up a new model Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act which will provide for a single licence and single-point levy of market fee at the state level. It envisages this as the first step towards a single licence and single-point levy of market fee at the national level.

While procedural reform can take its time, steps to provide relief for farmers in distress cannot wait. Appeals to the Centre by Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, who has toured affected regions in several states, have so far fallen on deaf ears. Betraying total lack of compassion for the suffering farmers, a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party dubbed Rahul Gandhi a ‘distress’ tourist.

The last time the Centre intervened directly in the issue was when Manmohan Singh’s first government announced a loan waiver and debt relief programme. It is believed to have benefited 42.8 million farmers and cost the exchequer Rs 700 billion. It probably helped the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance to win a second successive term.

Earlier this month, the new BJP government of Uttar Pradesh, the largest state, announced waiver of crop loans of up to Rs 100,000 of small and marginal farmers in fulfilment of the party’s electoral promise. About 21 million people, constituting 92.5 per cent of the state’s farming community, are expected to benefit. The state government also decided to write off bad loans of about 700,000 farmers totaling Rs 56.30 billion.

While these steps will go a long way in relieving the distress of farmers, there is concern over the way they will impact the state’s finances, which were already facing a deficit of about Rs 500 billion.

The Centre allows the states to float bonds to cover the cost of debt relief programmes. However, lately the experience is that they do not attract investors. It thus becomes necessary for the Centre to bear a good part of the burden.

Loan waiver is only a palliative measure. It does not improve the farm economy. A World Bank study has shown that banks tend to move away from areas with high bailout percentages to those with lower percentages. They fear that waivers increase the tendency to default on loans as the borrowers believe a new government will bail them out.

The UP bailout has prompted farmers in other states to press their governments for similar relief measures.

Maharashtra’s BJP government has said it will study the UP scheme to see if the state can adopt it. Opposition parties in the state have been agitating for debt relief measures for some time.

In Tamil Nadu, which has been in the grip of drought for more than a year, the government decided last August to write off the loans that small and marginal farmers had taken from cooperative banks. It cost the state about Rs 58 billion. The big farmers who were left out moved the high court and won a favourable verdict.

The bailout did not end the misery of the state’s farmers. They are now staging demonstrations in New Delhi demanding water for their parched lands.

A large section of the farming community still depends on private money-lenders for their credit needs and the government’s debt relief measures do not benefit them.

Indian agriculture is plagued by chronic problems which call for more than palliative measures. The Centre needs to draw up a comprehensive programme, in consultation with the states, to make farming remunerative and sustainable. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 18, 2017.

11 April, 2017

Banking sector problems remain

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

With the State Bank of India absorbing six smaller public sector units on the first of this month, the country now has a banking institution with enough assets to figure in the list of the top 50 in the world.

The merger is part of a plan for consolidation in the banking sector. While consolidation is probably  a necessity at this stage, it is not a complete solution to the banking industry’s problems. 

The SBI’s roots go back to the colonial period. After the East India Company took control of the subcontinent with the help of three largely mercenary armies headquartered in Kolkata (Calcutta), Mumbai (Bombay) and Chennai (Madras), Britain permitted setting up of presidency banks in these cities. In 1921 they were merged to form the privately owned Imperial Bank of India.

A few years after gaining freedom, the government nationalised it and renamed it as the State Bank of India. Banks established by the former princely states were made its associates. All the associate banks and a niche bank for women launched in 2013 have now lost their identity in the SBI.

In 2015 the SBI was at the 52nd place in Bloomberg’s listing of the world’s banks. With the merger pushing up its assets to Rs 550 billion, it moves up to the 45th place.

The SBI now has about 24,000 branches, 270,000 employees and 370 million account holders. Its deposit base is about Rs 26 trillion and advances total Rs18.5 trillion. 

However, it is way behind the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which, with assets of $3.6 trillion, is the world’s largest bank. There are three more Chinese banks among the top 10.

The idea of merger of the associate banks in the SBI to create a mega bank capable of playing a significant role in the global economy was mooted by the Manmohan Singh government.  It moved slowly as the Left-led employees’ unions were against it. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave it high priority as part of a banking reform plan.  Last year the government provided Rs 25 billion to infuse fresh capital in the public sector banks and made a commitment to provide Rs70 billion more in the next five years.

Basel III (the Third Basel Accord), the voluntary global regulatory mechanism, stipulated that banks must achieve a capital adequacy ratio (ratio of capital to risk-weighted assets) of 10.25 per cent by March 2017 and 11.5 per cent by March 2019. Fresh capital was needed to meet this requirement.

The government and the SBI management have claimed that the merger would result in reduced costs and increased efficiency, leading to recurring savings estimated at more than Rs10 billion in the first year.

Ironically, its immediate impact was increased costs to account holders as the bank raised the minimum balance requirements and fixed fees for transactions above a prescribed minimum. As a mark of protest, a citizens’ group called for observance of April 6 as “no transaction” day. A few thousand customers of the associate banks are reported to have moved their accounts elsewhere.

All that happened on April 1, the day of the merger, was the replacement of the name-boards and stationery of the associate banks with those of the SBI. The databases of the banks are likely to be merged only by the end of May. 

Since the associate banks, like the SBI, had worked on a national basis, there is a need to undertake rationalisation of branches and redeploy staff.  A category of employees of the associate banks, numbering more than 12,000, were given the option to take voluntary retirement, but only about 3,000 used the opportunity.

The government’s plan reportedly also envisages consolidation of the other 20 public sector banks into 10 large units.  Moody’s, the global credit ratings and research agency, has warned that the proposal involves risks that may offset potential long-term benefits. A prudent course will be for the government to study the SBI merger experience over a period of a year or so and recast its plan on a realistic basis.

The banking industry’s major problem is not the small size of the units but warped policy as also faulty implementation. The gross non-performing assets of 49 commercial banks stood at Rs 6 trillion in June 2016. Of this, the 20 public sector banks’ share was Rs 1.54 trillion. While banks are generally harsh on farmers who default on loan repayments when crops fail, they declare hefty loans of business magnates as non-performing assets and allow them to get away. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 11, 2017.

04 April, 2017

Unending wait for justice

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The vast majority of India’s population suffers from various kinds of disabilities on account of birth. In extreme cases, disabilities take the form of condemnation to eke out a measly living doing the dirtiest of jobs.

The Constitution that India adopted on emerging as a free nation proclaimed that no citizen shall be subjected to any disability, restriction or condition with regard to access to basic amenities and other facilities on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. It also empowered the state to make special provisions considered necessary to enable the disadvantaged sections to overcome their disabilities and become full and equal citizens.

Accordingly, the Centre and the states have enacted a plethora of laws. However, justice eludes hapless citizens as the authorities are often lax in implementing them.

In 1993, in the fifth decade of Independence, the Centre passed a law prohibiting construction of dry latrines and employment of manual scavengers. It prescribed a year’s imprisonment or a fine of Rs 2,000 or both for breach of its provisions. But no one was convicted under this law in any state.

The Comptroller and Auditor-General in a report in 2003 said Rs6 billion had been spent on the scheme for rehabilitation of scavengers under the law but it had failed to achieve its objectives. Later in the year Safai Karmachari Andolan, an organisation of the community, moved the Supreme Court for a declaration that continuance of manual scavenging was a violation of constitutional rights and a directive to the Central and state governments to implement the law.

While the matter was before the court, the Centre superseded the 2003 law with another one which spelt out measures for rehabilitation of manual scavengers. The Supreme Court closed the case after issuing certain directives to the Centre and the states in the light of the new law.

On October 2, 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched with fanfare an ambitious Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) with the objective of making India clean in five years as a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary. It envisages large-scale construction of community toilets, grant of financial aid to build household toilets and making towns and villages free of open defaecation. 

Successful completion of the mission would eliminate manual scavenging. The Urban Development Ministry, which recently undertook a sample survey in three selected districts each in the large states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, found that all three had failed miserably in achieving the targets for building household latrines in the first two years.

Karnataka had achieved a paltry 2.1 per cent, UP four per cent and Maharashtra 14.4 per cent. In many instances the state governments had not even transferred the funds allotted by the Centre to the urban local bodies. The Ministry concluded that the mission was unlikely to achieve the goal of Clean India by 2019.

The SBM websites claim that more than 38 million household toilets have been built in the villages and more than 3 million in urban areas. The Urban Development Ministry’s survey yielded information that casts doubts on these claims. 

For instance, it pointed out that at Akola town in Maharashtra only 85 households sought assistance to build toilets but the website displayed photographs of 2,978 completed units. It also put up photographs of more than 600 toilets said to have been constructed at Bhadohi, Jahanabad and Mathura in UP although not even one application from these towns was verified and approved.

The Socio-Economic Caste Census data released in 2015 put the number of families engaged in manual scavenging at 180,657. The Centre is supposed to provide funds to the states for their rehabilitation. In the 2015-16 budget it made an allocation of Rs 4.7 billion for the purpose but not a rupee was spent.

One reason for the failure of the rehabilitation scheme is the systematic falsification of data by the states. Most of them deliberately fudge the number of manual scavengers to convey the false impression that they had complied with the legal ban. Sometimes this is done in a very crude manner. For instance, the government of Telangana state, which had more than 150,000 dry latrines at the end of 2015/ claimed there were no manual scavengers in the state.

The Central and state governments owe it to themselves and to the people to address the problem of manual scavenging boldly and honestly and put an end to the misery of those who have been waiting endlessly for justice. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, April 4, 2017.