Patriarchy doesn’t harm women alone

 

 

Source: By Harish Sadani: Mint

 

 

At least five or six cases of various forms of violence against girls and women from different cities are being reported every day since reports of the New Year’s Eve incident in Bengaluru led to an outcry. Drawing attention to the seriousness of gender-based violence, there is a demand for stronger punishment for male offenders. But very little attention has been focused on what is being done to address the root cause of the issue.

 

If men and their attitudes are “part of the problem”, can we address the problem effectively without involving men as “part of the solution”? In our vision of a gender-just society where there is peaceful coexistence of men and women, does a person belonging to the “oppressor” gender have a role? If yes, what would be that role? Are the empowerment and assertion of the oppressed and the sensitization and transformation of the powerful, mutually exclusive agendas?

 

Gender issues, including gender-based violence, are seen largely as “women’s issues” by all concerned—a majority of policymakers, women’s groups, funding agencies and media. This approach insulates men from the process of transformation, reinforces masculine stereotypes and deepens the gender divide.

 

Patriarchy disadvantages women but it also brings a set of behavioural norms and responsibilities that hinders men from expressing their pressures to perform in adherence with traditional notions of masculinity. Masculinity, in its current form, harms not only women but also men in the long run. Men cannot cry or express emotions freely, they have to be always winners/achievers, bread-earners, caretakers, etc. They have to perform at various stages from bedroom to boardroom. They cannot do household chores without the fear of being labelled “sissies”.

 

If gender is a social construct, then men are not born violent and aggressive. It is faulty socialization and upbringing that promotes a macho image. Do we find alternatives to this model of masculinity? There may be umpteen examples of women as role models for girls who are growing up, but there is a woeful dearth of positive role models among men; role models who can embody a gender-sensitive society and engage adolescent boys and young men in the discourse. We have examples of sportsmen like Roger Federer who have expressed what “healthy relationships” mean to them personally, but when did we last hear sportsmen in India talking about gender?

 

We need to address how men analyse perceptions of masculinity and create appropriate alternatives. But to do this, men must first feel the need to do so. Men can introspect on the existing dominant model of masculinity when they are able to relate to the issue; when they know the “costs” of increasing violence on women to them individually and socially.

 

If men are involved in any intervention that seeks to stop or prevent violence against women, it may help in making the lives of women safer and healthier, but what’s in it for them? What are they going to get out of it? Unless this is answered seriously, we will not come up with any meaningful strategy of engaging men in the long term.

 

A paradigm shift in looking at women’s issues as gender issues, which are equally men’s issues, is not going to be easy. With all our social sub-systems—family, religion, governance and media—reinforcing patriarchal, male-dominated attitudes, it will definitely be a process that will face periodic threats, hiccups and setbacks.

 

Apart from addressing men as a group, it calls for simultaneous interventions with different groups of men. For instance, we need to address men in the police not just as law-enforcing agents but also as men. Similarly, we need to reach out to men in the corporate and healthcare sectors, in Parliament, male bureaucrats, male journalists, religious leaders, school and college teachers and administrators.

 

A couple of token gender-sensitization programmes for these men are not going to change the male mindset. What is required is focused, long-term intervention with a clear vision and purpose of “process-oriented” work by all stakeholders. There has to be a pool of male facilitators in all sectors who can engage men in a gradual process of transformation and humanization. It calls for investment, financial and otherwise.

 

The moot question is: Do we have a sizeable number of people who would like to invest their time and effort in engaging men towards addressing gender issues? Even if a handful of them do (like this writer, who has been working on the issue for 24 years), there is a dearth of people who would strengthen their efforts.

 

If men are engaged in the process of empowering women and towards a gender-equitable, violence-free world, it will benefit both. Men also would be liberated from the shackles of patriarchy. If they are liberated, their own lives would become humane, enriching and harmonious.

Gender-based crimes against girls and women will increase in this neo-liberal society of ours in the coming years. What will change is only the nature and forms of violence. There will certainly be more crimes by minor boys. It would then be, perhaps, too late for all concerned to seriously examine the root cause of the problem.

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Taxation: The enemy within

 

 

Source: By Surjit S Bhalla: The Financial Express

 

 

The economic experts, also known as glitterati at budget time, are at it again. Which means that not only do old myths get rehashed but also, new myths get created? One of the favourite all-time Indian myths is that one must increase tax rates to increase tax revenue and the tax rate on Indian corporates is too low. This year, there is a greater urgency to the myths. State elections for five major states are coming up, including UP, a 204-million population state. If it were a country, it would be the fifth most populous country in the world, just ahead of Brazil (201 million) and some 54 million behind Indonesia (258 million).

 

The stakes are high because of state elections and a people’s verdict on demonetisation. If the Modi-Jaitley combine were to bring about an economically popular budget (not populist), then the fear among the political opposition is that the Modi-led BJP will run away with all the prizes. Unlike previous budgets, where indirect tax changes were paramount (an excise duty cut for Tweedledum, an excise duty increase for Tweedledee), in the 2017-18 budget, direct tax changes should (will?) reign supreme.

 

Personal income tax rates were reduced to a three-tier structure (10-20-30 per cent) in 1997. The flat corporate tax rate was reduced to 35 per cent in 1997 and 30 per cent (where it now stands) in 2005. Perhaps not coincidentally, both these changes were brought about by P. Chidambaram. The finance ministry and budgets have come forth with additional taxes in the form of surcharges and cesses over the years, but the tax rate has been considered sacrosanct.

 

This year, there is good reason to hope that the government will change the structure (tax slabs and rates) in a major way. Previously (in joint work with Arvind Virmani, appearing in The Indian Express, titled “Towards an Income Tax Revolution”, January 10 and “Taxing Your Way to Popularity”, January 19), I have discussed the desirability of increasing tax revenues by reducing tax rates. Two options, both with a negative income tax component, were offered — either a flat tax rate of 12 per cent, or a two-tier tax schedule of 10 and 20 per cent.

 

This article is concerned with what needs to be done with our corporate tax rate structure. The existing reality is a tax rate of 30 per cent and an effective tax rate of 25 per cent — the 5 per cent gap between stated and effective tax is because of exemptions. How does this effective tax rate compare with other countries, especially our competitors? Very badly, The Indian corporate sector is one of the most heavily taxed in the world. Don’t believe me; do believe every major study done on this subject in the last decade.

 

In a 2012 study, published in National Tax Journal, a major academic publication, Douglas Markle and A. Shackelford, in “Cross Country Comparisons of Corporate Taxes”, find that for the two-decade 1988-2009 period, India had the fifth highest effective corporate tax (23 per cent) rate. In a 2015 study, Chen and Mintz, in “The 2014 Global Tax Competitiveness Report”, aggregate corporate income taxes for 95 countries for every year since 2005 to 2014. India had the 14th highest corporate tax rate for the manufacturing sector (29.5 per cent).

 

Every year, the Centre of Business Taxation, Oxford University, aggregates corporate income tax rates across 48 countries. They estimate two indicators of taxation — Effective Average Tax Rates (EATR) and Effective Marginal Tax Rate (EMTR). In 2016, India had the fourth highest EATR of 30.8 per cent. The top three are the United States, France and Argentina. India ranks 7th highest with an EMTR of 22.8 per cent.

 

One of the Modi government’s major goals has been to improve business conditions in India, also known as “Ease of Doing Business”. For the last two years, our rank stayed constant at 130.5 (131 and 130 in 2015 and 2016 respectively). The major reason for our rank not changing is the high rate of taxation of the corporate sector. The World Bank estimates that in 2016, Indian corporates paid a tax rate of 60.6 per cent of corporate profits — this is composed of 21 per cent corporate income tax, 4 per cent dividend distribution tax, 15 per cent social security contributions, 14 per cent central sales tax, etc.

 

How much do our East Asian competitors pay? An average of 35 per cent. Our South Asian neighbours pay 38 per cent; Bangladesh corporates pay 35 per cent. India’s rank on tax rates — 172 out of 190 countries.

 

So, stop wondering why the investment rate has been steadily going down and is now close to zero for the corporate sector. Stop blaming all as to why Indian manufacturing doesn’t grow and lags behind every major country in the world. Start blaming ourselves and our penchant (inherited from the socialist Congress) for taxing the rich in order not to have money to pay for the poor — “suit-boot ki sarkar” is what Modi inherited from the Congress.

 

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had announced he wanted to move to a 25 per cent corporate tax rate, to be comparable to our East Asian competitors. Let us say that Jaitley removes all exemptions and reduces the corporate tax rate to 25 per cent. If the cess and surcharge stay, then this policy will do nothing to improve India’s competitiveness; the 5 per cent reduction in tax rate will be exactly equal to the exemptions now removed.

 

If the corporate tax rate is reduced to 25 per cent, and no cess or surcharge or removal of exemptions, then India’s competitiveness will begin to improve and the “Make in India” slogan will start to have meaning. If exemptions are to be removed, which they should be, then the corporate tax rate should be reduced to 20 per cent. This is compatible with the maximum marginal personal income tax rate of 20 per cent.

 

If tax rates are brought down, wouldn’t tax revenues decline? No. They will increase because of increase in tax compliance. If the Modi government believed that reduction in tax rates did not increase tax compliance, then they were entirely wrong in their demonetisation policy. Demonetisation explicitly (and correctly) targeted tax evasion: A meaningful reduction in effective corporate tax rates is the correct follow-through to the logic, and pain, of demonetisation.

 

I have talked to several individuals about the possibility of significant, non-tinkerisation tax reforms in the 2017-18 budgets. As with much else since May 2014, opinion is divided not along caste lines but around whether you voted for Modi (not the BJP) in 2014. The people arguing for bad tax policy (that is, don’t change effective corporate tax rates) are the same who don’t want Modi to be an economic reformer. If, especially post-demonetisation, corporate tax rates are not reduced the economy will be hurt — and Modi’s popularity will begin to take a hit. Most importantly, the economy’s growth rate will begin to falter. This must be what the opponents of meaningful economic reform want.

 

For obvious reasons, these opponents of economic reform cloak their Trojan horse arguments in terms of helping Modi, that is, don’t cut tax rates for corporates because this will confirm in people’s minds that the Modi government is really “suit-boot ki sarkar”. What will truly damage Modi (and the BJP) is if economic growth does not accelerate, if job growth does not begin to happen, if demonetisation pain is not replaced by demonetisation gain.

A necessary political and economic strategy for India’s success is for Modi/Jaitley to do the opposite of what the Nehru-Gandhi Congress has done for the last 70 years — make a significant cut in the corporate tax rate.

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The consequences of crime against women

 

 

Source: By Mihira Sood: Mint

 

 

Addressing any crime requires intervention at three levels: incentive, opportunity and consequence. Much has already been said on the need for a change in our social attitudes that would reduce the incentive to commit such crimes, and on the impact that better transport systems and other facilities would have in reducing the opportunity aspect. It is the last aspect—of consequences—that I want to address, specifically, the limited consequences for perpetrators, and the very significant consequences for victims, both in choosing to stay away from the legal system as well as when they seek redress.

 

As a lawyer working on women’s rights, I have come across numerous cases of street harassment and molestation. The standard experience of women who approach the police in such cases is to either be blamed for it (through her dress, attitude, alcohol consumption, time and place of incident, or any other detail that might go against her) or to be thought of as lucky (for being only harassed and not raped), and thus treated with very little seriousness.

 

Pause to reflect on this a moment: We live in a country where a victim of molestation is called lucky, where groping is the new normal. How low have we sunk? Why is it so difficult for us to place a high value on a person’s life and sense of dignity? And it isn’t just the police; this belief is so deeply ingrained, that the victim’s own friends and family, and the victim herself feel relieved that it was “only” harassment or molestation.

 

Some of these complaints eventually reach the judiciary, and there begins a long, expensive, often abusive and very burdensome process, that wreaks havoc on a person’s psyche, self-esteem, personal life and financial resources, usually ending in low conviction rates with large dollops of judicial sermonizing. Most complainants who do approach the police are happy to have the perpetrator picked up and taught a lesson, but without the permanent record or the public scandal of a criminal case. The police encourage this, because it saves them having to pursue a case, and they are still able to intervene, satisfy the complainant and demonstrate their power. That leaves the bulk of cases that see neither the police nor the judiciary, festering only in the mind of the victim. These anecdotes are quite routinely dismissed for failing to approach the authorities.

 

These, then, are the consequences that require intervention: police practices, judicial processes and the familial and social discourse that take place in the aftermath of an incident. Harsher punishments are an easy and ineffective escape route to avoid doing the hard work of legal and police reform. We need instead a facilitative legal system that actively encourages and supports women, for police to take these offences seriously and act professionally and to turn up in court when the cases are being prosecuted—for all cases and not just the ones involving empowered upper-class women or cases with high media pressure.

 

As for the judiciary, cases must be dealt with in a reasonable amount of time. If we dispensed with archaic regulations and formalities that would allow a complainant to understand what was going on in the case, we would be able to cut down substantially on both the time and the legal expenses it takes to prosecute a case. The use of technology by police stations and the lower judiciary is still very low. Case information is only infrequently updated on the websites of both institutions. We have to work on protection for victims who are threatened by backlash.

 

And lastly, we need to change ourselves, we need to change the way we react to these incidents, of which I am highlighting three over here.

 

1. Not all men: Let’s be clear, nobody is saying all men are rapists or molesters. Why are these important conversations seen as personal attacks? When we talk of human devastation to the environment, nobody silences discussion by saying—not all humans. And what is the effect of this hypersensitivity? Shutting down women’s voices, and hijacking conversations to seek praise for not groping women—is that really the contribution you want to make?

 

2. Invoking parochial, regional pride to suggest that the problem is being overblown. When people in Mumbai or Bengaluru suggest that sexual violence is a Delhi problem, and Delhiites say it’s because of Haryanvis, and Haryana blames it on Western culture, all we are doing is deflecting responsibility and refusing yet another opportunity to reflect on our own sexist practices.

 

3. “Molestation is wrong but at the same time one must be careful” and other such “moderate” or “concerned” statements that are self-contradictory and make no sense. Would anyone suggest that people stay home to avoid terror attacks, and dismiss their trauma by suggesting they invited it?

This is not just drawing-room chatter or irrelevant social media musing—it has severe consequences, for it affects how the police and the judiciary (who are, after all, part of our society) see these issues. Second, at the heart of it is a question of confidence—who are we emboldening with this rhetoric, and who are we scaring off? Instead of giving courage to victims and warning perpetrators, our reactions do the reverse, making clear to us—all potential victims and perpetrators—what, if any, consequences we will face.

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Capitalisation on capital gains taxation

 

 

Source: By Mukesh Butani: The Financial Express

 

 

The principle of horizontal equity in taxation predicates that passive incomes (such as from capital gains on investments) and active incomes (such as from business profits or salaries/wages) should be dealt similar tax treatment. Similarly, returns on capital and returns from labour should be taxed on comparable terms.

 

However, in a globalised world where there is seamless movement of capital, capital-deficit economies seek to attract capital to their markets to provide liquidity and depth besides facilitating domestic listings. In such a scenario, tax on capital gains from transfer of listed shares becomes a matter of competitive choice given rates are one of the factors in investors’ ex ante calculations of post-tax returns while allocating capital to emerging markets like India. This is by no means the only factor, as other comparative factors like the real growth of the economy, expected performance of financial markets, regulatory environment, quality of corporate governance of domestic companies, rule of law, stable and predictable government policies, ease of operation, expected returns from other emerging markets and the cost of risk-free capital are equally important.

 

Given capital gains tax is a critical factor for investors; let’s look at the current Indian regime. Since 2004, all transactions for listed shares on exchanges are subject to a securities transaction tax (STT), which is essentially an indirect tax as it bears no relation to the capital gains from the transaction. Capital gains taxation is based on taxing gains held for longer periods (long-term gains) at a rate lower than those held for shorter periods (short-term gains). Following the introduction of STT, the Income-Tax Act was amended to exempt long-term capital gains (LTCG) arising from transfer of listed shares, since they are subject to STT. The holding period for the listed share-sale to qualify as a LTCG is 12 months (as compared to 24 months for unlisted shares and 36 months for other classes of assets).

 

The lion’s share of foreign investment in Indian capital markets is from foreign institutional investors (FIIs), many of which are large investment funds. Since 1993, the law outlined a separate taxation regime for FIIs and, after modifying it posts the introduction of STT, it is as follows:

 

 

*Short-term capital gains (STCG) on listed shares (held for 12 months or less) is taxed at 15% (and subject to STT);

 

*LTCG on listed shares (held for more than 12 months) exempt from tax (and subject to STT);

 

* STCG on unlisted shares (held for 24 months or less) taxed at 30%; and

 

*LTCG on unlisted shares (held for more than 24 months) taxed at 10%.

 

It is fair to conclude that India has tweaked its tax policy to attract capital. Now, except for LTCG on unlisted securities, the taxation regime is the same for FIIs and domestic investors. Unlike India, most countries with active stock markets don’t tax capital gains on listed shares in the case the transfer is an FII. Thus, there is a ‘no capital gains tax for portfolio investments in listed securities’ for non-resident investors (‘portfolio investments’ generally mean less that 10% shareholding in a listed company).

 

India, however, does tax such gains under its tax law (that applies to both resident and foreign investors) if such shares are held for 12 months or less (at 15%), besides garnering STT (which, in FY17, will be in excess of R7, 000 crore). While the taxation of capital gains on listed shares is lighter than that for unlisted shares and debt securities, these other asset classes are not subject to STT.

 

FIIs investing in India have adjusted to the STT regime alongside a nil rate for LTCG and a 15% rate for STCG due to the ease in terms of tax collection and administration. Over the years, a major concern of the Indian administration was FIIs (and other non-residents) investing via Mauritius, Singapore and Cyprus in Indian capital markets. In the bilateral tax treaties/protocols India signed with the three countries, it had given up the right to tax capital gains as such gains were taxed only in the country in which the FII was resident.

 

Since these countries were not taxing such capital gains under their domestic tax laws, such income remained untaxed in both jurisdictions except for the STT paid in India. This is the reason why a large part of India’s foreign investment (in listed and unlisted securities of Indian companies) emanates from these countries, as global investors preferred to set up legal structures in these locations to get the highest possible post-tax returns on their investments.

 

The Indian tax administration was also concerned about round-tripping of domestic capital through these jurisdictions, done to take advantage of the nil tax regimes on capital gains. In 2016, these three treaties/protocols have been renegotiated (with grandfathering and transition provisions) such that investors from these three jurisdictions will now be subject to India’s capital gains tax regime. Given that the ‘nil’ capital gains tax regime for non-resident investors in India’s capital markets has now been done away with, and there is level playing field as far as the capital gains tax regime is concerned, it would not be opportune to change the regime.

One important and persisting tax-evasion concern for policymakers is the circulation of unaccounted income by misusing capital gains exemption in case of LTCG on listed securities through the trading of ‘penny stocks’ (low cap, thinly traded shares), whose listed price can be manipulated. This can be addressed by excluding such penny stocks from the specified ‘listed shares’, which are eligible for exemption from LTCG tax.

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Lessons in education

 

 

Source: By Anurag Behar: Mint

 

 

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) is run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It is a one-of-a-kind, global survey of student achievement in schools, conducted every three years. It is this survey that is almost always referred to when you hear of Singapore or Finland being the best in school education in the world, the remarkable performance of Estonia, the lament of countries coming out low, and many such other points of cross-country comparison of schools.

 

Many in education have reservations about the methodology of Pisa, and even more about the way its results are used and touted, reducing the richness and complexity of education to the absurdity of sport-like league tables. Nevertheless, Pisa is a mine of useful data, and the only widely available, rigorously conducted, periodic cross-country survey of school education, however reductionist.

 

Pisa 2015 results are available now; the survey focused on science, along with the usual assessment of reading, mathematics and collaborative problem-solving. Seventy-two countries participated. I will not refer to country performance comparisons, but list some other important points that emerge from Pisa 2015. These points are more useful for anyone interested in education, but usually buried behind the league tables. Like I wrote in my last column, the important matters in school education are not waiting to be discovered, they are known. The results of Pisa 2015 merely reaffirm the validity and importance of these matters.

 

First, there is clear and unambiguous reaffirmation that private schools do not perform better than public (government) schools. The relevant quote, which doesn’t need any further explanation: “On average across OECD countries and in 32 education systems, students enrolled in public schools score lower in science than students in private schools.

 

However, after accounting for socio-economic status, in 22 education systems, students in public schools score higher than students in private schools, in eight systems they score lower than students in private schools, and on average across OECD countries, students in public schools score higher than students in private schools. This remarkable difference in results before and after accounting for socio-economic status has been consistently observed in previous rounds of Pisa.”

 

Second, streaming (separating) students into vocational and academic streams early and grade repetitions make schooling systems inequitable. Scores in science are poor for students streamed into pre-vocational or vocational courses. A relevant quote, “The later students are selected into different schools or education programs and the less prevalent the incidence of grade repetition, the more equitable the school system.”

 

Third, “school choice” mechanisms and structures foster inequity. “Adopting school-choice practices can lead to greater socio-economic segregation among schools, which, in turn, can result in differences in teacher quality and student achievement across schools, harming disadvantaged students the most”. Fourth, there is an emphatic reaffirmation that gender differences in performance are a result of external influences and are not innate, underlining the importance of gender-equity strategies in education.

 

Fifth, there is no evidence of information and communication technology (ICT) having a positive impact on learning independently. “The data show no consistent association between students’ familiarity with ICT and with performance shifts between 2012 and 2015 across countries… this (ICT) investment has not always produced obvious gains in student learning.” Sixth, teacher qualifications and professional development influence student performance. Peer learning and collaboration are most effective and improve job satisfaction. Seventh, autonomy of schools has positive correlation to performance, autonomy in areas ranging from admissions to curriculum.

 

Eighth, performance in science improves only with high-quality teaching-learning processes within the school—pointing directly to the importance of teachers and the time spent in school. After-school programmes do not yield commensurate results. “Learning science at school may be more effective than learning science after school. While changing how teachers teach is challenging, school leaders and governments should try to find ways to make teaching more effective.”

 

All the quotations above are from volume II of the Pisa report. There are more interesting points in it. The list of eight is enough to underline the most basic matter that education requires sustained work on the fundamentals, and that there are no short cuts. Let me end by going back to one such fundamental that Pisa 2015 emphasizes tellingly, and which we ignore in practice: socio-economic conditions of the child matter deeply.

We will have to do more and better in schools for the socio-economically disadvantaged, something extra than what is done for the advantaged. Quite simply, the school must become the social institution to compensate for disadvantage if we want to build a just and equitable world.

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Einstein should have stuck on as a patent examiner

 

 

Source: By Basab Dasgupta: The Statesman

 

 

I was reading a news report that 550 students gathered at a New Delhi science fair last month dressed as Albert Einstein in order to establish a Guinness record for the largest gathering of Einstein lookalikes at one place. It made me think about Einstein's work. While Einstein was certainly a genius and an ideal role model for any aspiring physics student it is interesting to look at his work from a totally different perspective.

 

Physics has always been considered to be a difficult subject to study because of the abstract concepts and underlying mathematics. However there are two distinct phases in the evolution of physics as far as this difficulty is concerned: the pre-Einstein period and the post-Einstein period.

 

During the pre-Einstein phase, which spans the period from the time of ancient philosophers to the beginning of the twentieth century, physics, though difficult, was a very practical science. Whether one wanted to study motion of a steam engine or craft lenses for an eye-glass or insulate one’s home from the extreme temperatures of the outside environment or simply wonder how an apple fell from the tree, physics provided a very logical and precise framework to analyse everything in a coherent way.

 

Even if you did not understand the underlying mathematics, predictions based on physics made sense; they agreed with our intuitive feeling. With Einstein coming into the picture with his special and general theories of relativity and explanation of photoelectric effect, physics was gradually elevated to a whole different level.

 

Explanation of Photoelectric effect got physicists starting to think in terms of quantisation of light and eventually led to the formulation of quantum mechanics. His famous, E = MC2 certainly revealed the enormous energy hidden in just a fraction of a microgram of matter and inspired scientists to device the atomic and nuclear bombs.

 

The mere conceptual difficulties, not to mention the complicated mathematics involved in understanding theories of relativity and quantum mechanics had two major consequences: i) they created a special elite group of scientists, mainly the theoretical physicists, who were amazed not only by the brilliance of these new concepts but also at their own abilities to comprehend them and expand upon them and ii) physicists as well as other scientists who were influenced by physics started to genuinely believe that science could do anything and certainly could explain everything. There was no need for an old foolish concept like “God”, which was merely a “crutch” for all those uneducated people who did not understand physics.

 

Relentless pursuit of the Unified Field Theory ensued. The elite physicists dazzled themselves as well as others by unfathomable concepts like “parallel universe”, “theory of everything”, “god particle”, "dark matter" which were only understood by them. Scientists like Stephen Hawking started to even explicitly declare that existence of God was not necessary in order to explain the origin of the universe and perhaps considered themselves to be at the same level as God, if not higher.

 

They were able to convince the governments of the developed countries to pour in zillions of dollars in fundamental research with the "carrot" that it would lead someday to the understanding of how the universe worked and how it was created, even though their very limited results were meaningless to more than 99.99 per cent of the population! I have no hesitation in confessing that even though I have a PhD in theoretical physics with more than 40 published papers, I do not understand any of these ideas either conceptually or mathematically.

 

This acceptance of an authority having a capability equal to or exceeding that of God is similar to embracing the “Empire” of Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” movies. This misguided authority then leads to destructive forces hiding behind an illusion that its activities are “beneficial” to society. It created “superpowers”, those having nuclear capabilities and these superpowers did not hesitate to use that implicit power to dictate how other nations should be run; this led to more conflicts and more exploitation of the poorer nations by the wealthier nations.

 

Even “peaceful” applications like nuclear reactors carry a risk of catastrophic consequences as evidenced by incidents at Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island to a lesser extent. The San Onofre nuclear power plant near my home was decommissioned several years ago but the experts still cannot decide what the best way to dispose of the spent fuel rods is.

 

I would like to argue that if Einstein continued his job as an examiner in the patent office and did not create the theory of relativity and introduce the concept of quantization of light, the world would be a better place today. Most of the useful materials and gadgets including automobiles, radios, televisions, refrigerators, semiconductors, transistors, computer chips, internet etc that made our lives more comfortable and convenient would have been invented anyway by engineers and experimental physicists because those inventions did not need theories of relativity and even quantum mechanics.

 

The knowledge of pre-Einsteinian physics could have been spread quickly throughout the world with many more useful applications instead of physics being hoarded as a mysterious esoteric subject beyond the reach of common people. Billions of dollars that have been poured into fundamental research in an attempt to solve all mysteries of the universe could have been used to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.

 

It is also significant that it was Einstein who started the quest for a unified field theory. Inability of Einstein and physicists as a whole, to formulate a unified field theory is the confirmation of the idea that physics was, after all, not above God. A reference to Indian philosophy is helpful in emphasizing this point. Search for a unified field theory is similar to search for Brahman, the omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal universal consciousness – the all-unifying answer to all questions.

Hindu philosophers have been saying for centuries that life and this materialistic world are just illusions. We will eventually merge into Brahman, but only when we would be able to realize this illusion and that would happen after hundreds, if not thousands of reincarnations!

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The secret of a good life

 

 

Source: By Ashok V Desai: The Telegraph

 

 

Socialism had its golden age after World War II. Taxes in the belligerent countries had gone sky high during the War; people had got used to paying high income taxes. Governments had no use for the revenue once the enemies were defeated; what better use for it but to improve the conditions of the poor? No country rewarded the poor for just being poor; they had to be young, or old, or unemployed — unfortunate in an additional dimension — to qualify for subsidies. India, for instance, invented a scheme and named it after its saint, Mahatma Gandhi: a poor man had to be prepared to do hard physical work in the open, however hot or cold it was, to get a paltry wage. No wonder middlemen found it easier to invent poor men and pocket the wage in their name.

 

But bad solutions do not get rid of the problem; the poor continue to suffer, and however incompetent or dishonest governments may be; the need for a solution remains. One of its lifelong pursuers was Sir Anthony Atkinson, an academic with a social conscience. His last book was about rising inequality in most of the capitalist world which is so widespread that people think it is global fate. He argued against this pessimism and suggested innovative policies to reduce inequality.

 

They include a proposal that every government should create a sovereign wealth fund. At present, it is normal for governments to run deficits and finance them by borrowing or printing money; Atkinson thought that governments should also run surpluses in good times, save and invest in companies and property. The profits from ownership, trade and industry should not go to capitalists alone; the government itself should buy into capitalist enterprises, and use the income for social purposes.

 

This is a shift from the beliefs of traditional socialists, who wanted to nationalize enterprises, thus converting private profits, the major source of economic inequality, into government revenue, which could then be used for progressive income redistribution. The postwar experience was that governments were not much good at managing enterprises.

 

Atkinson's solution was to let private entrepreneurs manage enterprises, but to buy into their rewards. And there is no reason for governments to confine themselves to investing in domestic enterprises; they might invest in the best enterprises internationally. Governments levy estate duties, which tax people after they are dead and cease to care.

 

In Atkinson's view, the government should also keep a record of inheritance and gifts inter vivo that rich kids receive, and levy a lifetime capital receipts tax on them; and it should collect a proportional or progressive property tax based on up- to- date property assessments. It should introduce an annual wealth tax, and a minimum tax on companies irrespective of deductions. Personal wealth tax was levied in some European countries, but did not work too well; rich people could easily shift their wealth to countries with lower taxes.

 

This is a general problem with redistributive policies; it is difficult to make them work beyond a point at the national level. Major countries have fixed the peak rate of personal tax between 30 and 45 per cent, and corporate income tax at a level close to the maximum rate of personal tax; they have given up on higher tax rates because of the risk of losing revenue to tax havens. The members of the Group of 20 fulminate at this and discuss action against tax havens from time to time. But apart from some instances of success against Panama and Switzerland, they have achieved little.

 

Many governments subsidize poor grown- ups. In Atkinson's view, poverty is no less of a curse for the young. They should get a generous child benefit. It should be included in the income of their parents and taxed as income, so that children of poor parents would get more generous subsidies. There is merit in this idea. Grown- ups, especially old people, are likely to consume any subsidies they get; the young may use them for education, travel, or just having fun. There are, of course, counterproductive ways of having fun, such as drinking and drugs; but they can be equally resorted to by the old as by the young. Nevertheless, it is difficult for governments that raise money by taxing people to give away money unconditionally; after all, they have to justify it to the taxpayers.

 

Hence, they are prone to give it to the deserving, such as the poor or incapable, or for laudable purposes such as education and health. The more conditions are attached, the greater the chance of misuse — just try and count the number of government schools in India in which incompetent or unwilling teachers waste their and children's time. Much innovation is directed towards raising productivity and reducing labour requirements; Atkinson wanted the government to encourage innovation that uses more workers, and to take account of income distribution in competition policy. Workers cost money, so economizing on workers — raising productivity — come naturally to enterprises.

 

There is no money in using more labour; so it is difficult to see why any enterprise would innovate to use more workers. The obvious thing to do is to subsidize workers; instead of giving dole to unemployed workers, the government should subsidize workers whether they are working or not. Atkinson wanted an annual tax on personal wealth; there is already an annual tax on personal income, and it would be easy to extend it into a subsidy to the poor. Pensions are normally paid irrespective of how well off the receiver is; Atkinson wanted pensions and pension contributions as well as saving schemes to be covered by progressive income taxation.

 

Governments have sometimes made a distinction between earned and unearned income, and taxed the latter more heavily. This is really a subsidy to paid work; there is no reason why it should be favoured against unpaid work or living without work. But progressive taxation should not distinguish between sources of income; in this sense, Atkinson was right.

 

Progressive income redistribution has gone out of fashion; mobility of wealth and income has made it risky at the national level. Progressivism requires international cooperation, which is unlikely to happen. One only needs a handful of rogue nations to defeat it. What is worth thinking about is progressivism as part of good living. Many rich countries have all kinds of schemes for the poor, unemployed, old, young and so on.

But only some have used them to create a desirable life for the young and the old. Scandinavian countries are amongst them; Germany also probably qualifies. These are the countries whose people are happy where they are and do not want to leave. It is this secret of a good life that a government should try to crack. It will involve a fair dose of redistribution, for it is only the rich that have the surplus to finance a good life. But a government should aim to create a good life for the rich as well as the poor. There are countries that the rich want to run out of, and countries where the rich flock. There is something the former are getting wrong and the latter right.

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Youth need to fight back

 

 

Source: By Annapoorna B: Deccan Herald

 

 

India has been in the news over the increasing number of sexual violence against women in the recent years. All these episodes make us ponder and raise alarming questions like, how are we rearing our male kids? What social and human values are being taught at home and in schools? Why do people lack sensitivity and turn into mute spectators? How shall we make our laws and system more capable?

 

These debates are more significant than the discussion on the length of fabric or the western values, and to find why women have become so vulnerable to social injustices and how effectively can we fight against these barbaric attacks.

 

The Indian tradition has accorded pre-eminence to woman and this is indubitable from the fact that she was eminently accomplished and venerated during the Rig Vedic period. As the years elapsed, women had to encounter the worst physical atrocities in the form of Sati, early marriage, widow humiliation and female infanticide especially during the medieval period.

 

The social order started transfiguring towards amelioration in the beginning of 19th century with the launching of reform movements by many leaders like Rajaram Mohan Roy, a pioneer in the cause of women; Swami Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswati, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and others. With the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi into our national struggle, a drift was palpable in women's emancipation as it was he who espoused the cause of Indian women.

 

In his work "Woman and Social Injustice", Mahatma Gandhi says "to call a woman weaker sex is a libel; it is men's injustice to women. If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is man's superior". Gandhi initiated the reform first in his own house by metamorphosing his predilection towards his wife and then extended this perception to the women at large that included all classes - be it literate or illiterate, rural or urban, rich or poor.

 

Treating a woman as a fellow human being must begin from the smallest unit of the society - the family. If all the kinsmen respect women by not treating her as an unmitigated domestic help and misemploy her as a tool for man's loathsome desires, revolutionary changes can be brought into the society. Permutation of ethos towards women must begin from a grass root level which dismally is not happening in our so-called neoteric liberal society.

 

The country has seen a lot of brutal attacks on women in the form of sexual assault, molestation, domestic violence etc. Even the little girl children are not an exception from the ghastly acts of a few debased men. Bengaluru has become prominent in witnessing a number of rape cases especially of school kids causing great panic and anxiety among the parents of female wards. This has raised profound questions and concerns about the safety of girls and also the government's inefficiency to take strong measures against the culprits.

 

Despite having top women leaders in all walks of life and a number of women's organisations working for their cause, the timid and docile women have become victim of man's brutality. There are endless debates by political leaders and resource persons aired on TV channels when such incidents occur, but at the end of the day, nothing tangible is brought into effect.

 

Those pinning the blame on western wear must be cognizant that no matter how exiguous it may be, it does not give authority to men to touch let alone molest a woman. Neither the government nor the lawmakers are able to find an amicable solution to this emergency problem and the blame game continues.

 

Lenient judiciary

 

One needs to give a formidable thought as to what could be the reason behind such devilish acts that are shaking the core fabric of our society. Is it a case of animal instinct or of uncontrolled libido? Is it a case of deriving sadistic pleasure or a case of male chauvinism? Is it lack of education or bad parenting? What is the solution to this problem?

 

The judiciary should stop being lenient towards the offenders by treating them with kid gloves. They should instead be handed down exemplary punishment. Secondly, imparting moral values particularly to the male children at formative stages may also be effective in reducing such horrific incidents.

India's splendid cultural legacies are deep-rooted in dharmic principles. Hence, we can go back to our roots by venerating women and build a healthy society free of crimes against them. A crusade against rapes must be persistent and a continuous process so that the insensitive government realizes the need of the hour. This is possible only with the undaunted support of the youth. Let the youth of India fight against this remorseless crime with a tireless and ceaseless effort to change the country and create a better India to live in where time, dress and place do not determine the safety of women.

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Why Indian democracy fails to make the grade

 

Source: By Debasish Bhattacharyya: The Statesman

 

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) presented the first ever Global Parliamentary Report (GPR) in 2012 and the next report - scheduled for 2016 - is expected any time soon. While GPR 2012 examined the changing nature of parliamentary representation, the soon-to-be-released GPR will reportedly look at how effective parliament is in carrying out its constitutional role to hold government to account. It’s highly unlikely that the forthcoming report will have any reflections on what had happened in the recently-concluded winter session of the Indian Parliament.

In any case, the record of legislative business of winter session is not worth mentioning; making it one of the least productive sessions in the last 15 years. On the demonetisation issue in the month-long session, according to PRS Legislative Research, less than 1 per cent of the 330 questions listed for Question Hour in the Rajya Sabha were answered orally. And, it was somehow better in Lok Sabha where 11 per cent of the questions could be answered orally. However, none of the 19 Bills listed at the beginning of the session for consideration and passage could be passed.

GPR 2012 with extensive inputs from 73 parliaments across the world and 663 randomly selected parliamentarians highlighted the ways in which parliaments around the world are responding to public expectations. The report noted “Parliaments in most parts of the world appear to appreciate the need to find ways of improving public perceptions of the institution and are implementing a range of initiatives designed to enhance the relationship between parliaments and voters. These tend to be characterized by a desire to make the institution open, transparent and inclusive of public opinion while simultaneously increasing popular understanding and appreciation of parliament’s role.”

Against this background, questions about our takeaways from the report emerge. Also how significant is India's unflinching commitment to democracy. While India with its enormous cultural diversity is recognized as the largest democracy of the world, the country fares poorly when it comes to accountability and responsiveness to public concerns and service and delivery to meet citizens’ needs. How then can our Parliament encourage those 190 countries that have some form of functioning parliamentary institution, accounting for over 46,000 representatives?

The question also arises as to whether power of democracy is only limited to holding elections without caring for legislative output and efficiency? These questions not only seem pertinent but also seek attention of a wider audience.

Chakshu Roy, heading the outreach team at PRS Legislative Research that tracks the functioning of the Indian parliament, displays profound understanding of legislative process as he writes, “Both houses of Parliament have a committee each to scrutinise rules made by the government under different laws. These general purpose committees neither have the bandwidth nor the technical expertise to examine different rules and regulations… Political parties will have to introspect about their roles in our parliamentary system. The institution of Parliament will have to rethink its legislative processes. In the absence of these, Parliament will become a mere rubber stamp for government laws.”

Let’s come back to currency demonetisation that dominated public discussion as also captured huge media space and prime time coverage. The particular issue came into focus at a time when the NDA government is half way through its tenure. While many hailed cancellation of high-denomination notes as a revolutionary step, scores of eminent economists, consultants and commentators denounced the sudden move as India erupted in cash chaos.

The severe criticism of demonitisation encompasses a whole range of issues that primarily centered on the approaches adopted by the government. These include the social and economic impact a majority of the country’s population; particularly those associated with agriculture, small industries and the informal sectors.

As of now, it’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi vs. the entire opposition barring a few. Interestingly, a few steadfast opponents of Modi’s policies praised the intent of the reform measure but faulted it for poor execution. Be that as it may, it’s too early to assume the step would lead to economic catastrophe, as it's made out to be by some.

Prior to the US presidential election, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman unequivocally insisted that a Trump victory would lead to a stock market collapse and investors who relied on his insights lost large amounts of money. People might well agree or disagree with the political standpoint on any given issue, but tend to agree that real changes take time and any change worth fighting for is worth a long-term commitment. Gone are the days when political leadership used to make the people live in a make-believe world. Now it’s the same people who prefer an informed debate on unsavoury truths over parliamentary disruption. It’s the same people who are painfully aware of the problems and acknowledge the difficulty arising out of bold reform measures. In today's time, as social networks and 24 x7 media have become a key part of the political landscape, people can easily identify those who are but deeply wedded to the idea of mere rhetorical bluster and political grandstanding.

As the fate of demonetisation drive is poised between failure and success, the opposition could have made full use of the parliamentary session with the focus on accelerating the pace of transparency. It could have helped the united opposition of national and regional parties sway public opinion to their side over time, especially because while Indians know that major opposition parties are accused of corruption, the BJP also is not without its share of blemishes.

As the Modi government failed to ‘walk the talk’ on multiple fronts to recover black money both from India and abroad, the opposition could have taken the government to task on several anti-corruption related issues like – delay in appointing Lokpal, operationalising a robust Whistleblowers Protection Act, generation of black money as also the deeper issue of tax evasion, and a stronger Prevention of Corruption Act (Amendment) Bill 2013. Transparency in political funding and minimising poll expenditure is also a major issue that the Election Commission had broached.

The opposition could also have punctured government’s heightened focus on boosting digital transactions when the country figures poorly in the global cyber stakes (96th in terms of download speed and 105th in terms of average bandwidth availability). The country is also vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

Instead, sadly, it was all about disrupting functioning of both the Houses. It was all about shying away from articulating national interests unambiguously and evolving appropriate strategies. Demonetisation may or may not be the effective mode of spreading the anti-corruption message, but what is important is building a narrative of success in anti-corruption reforms that enjoys cross-party support.

Our inability lies here. As the winter session ended in chaos we lost yet another opportunity to send a strong message through parliamentary intervention against corruption. We failed to rediscover the virtues that underpin democracy. The only exception was perhaps an MP from Biju Janata Dal (BJD) who returned part of his salary and daily allowance proportional to the time lost in the Lok Sabha due to disruptions.

As the country continues to face enormous challenges it can’t afford to lose scheduled hours for parliamentary business. It’s time our MLAs and MPs turned the searchlight inwards and examined their acts. If they do so, the country can expect Global Parliamentary Report 2020 to mention something good about the political culture and parliamentary standards of the world’s largest democracy.

 

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Less-cash agriculture

 

 

Source: By Vivian Fernandes: The Financial Express

 

 

In Madhya Pradesh’s tribal districts of Dewas and Khargone, the NGO, Samaj Pragati Sahayog, discourages cash transactions for agricultural inputs. The interest rates are usurious and vary according to commodities. For fertiliser, it is dheda—loan for the stuff has to be repaid 1.5 times over by the end of the harvest season. For pesticides it is sawa, or 1.25 times. Even barter can be extortionate. One quintal of seed has to be repaid duguna or twice the quantity. The grain given in repayment may not fetch the same price as seed, but could be 1.6 times the value, for a four-month period. Such transactions are more like wealth transfer operations.

 

The dozen youth from JNU and Delhi University, who forsook a career in academics for rural development work inspired by Muralidhar Devidas ‘Baba’ Amte about three decades ago, therefore, continue to advocate low-input, self-reliant and sustainable agriculture, where the emphasis is not so much on productivity as on incomes. PS Vijayshankar, or Viju, one of the founders of the NGO, lists markets as one of the “threats” faced by the mainly Korku and Bhilala tribals its works with, though it has done pioneering work in getting the erstwhile Forwards Markets Commission and capital market regulator SEBI, to get farmers onto commodity exchanges to hedge price-risks.

 

SPS discourages the use of hybrid seeds. Though high-yielding, the seeds have to be bought year after year, as saved seeds, if sown, lose hybrid vigour. They have to be nourished with chemical nutrients, and protected with pesticide sprays, so they can deliver high output. For smallholder, rain-dependent farmers, who have little insurance against weather and price risks, such agriculture can be a slide into deeper debt. So, farmers are encouraged to use save-and-sow seeds, which have been primed for the region’s soil and climatic conditions over many generations.

 

They are persuaded to produce own manure using vegetable shavings, crop waste and animal droppings, enhanced with bacterial cultures. Chemical pesticides are strictly prohibited, as even benign ones are believed to harm beneficial microbes and insects. Non-pesticide management (NPM) is a tenet of faith. Repellents made from neem oil and kernel, as well as the extracts of poisonous weeds are used. There are reservations also about Bt cotton, which is genetically-engineered to be naturally toxic to bollworms, and therefore low in pesticide use. Is this leftism, with its abhorrence of the private sector and western technology, dressed up as environmentalism? How different is the elevation of native wisdom different from the right-wing glorification of tradition?

 

“We do not agree with a single uniform mode of science,” says the CEO, a young graduate from the Indian Institute of Rural Management, who is four months into the job. “We focus on livelihoods and incomes and minimising environmental damage. We are not romanticising tradition.”

 

The farming practices which SPS advocates are prompted by experience. Soon after dropping anchor in Neemkheda in Dewas district’s Bagli tehsil, the pioneers focussed on watershed development, as this is a rain-dependent area, where rainy days (2.5 mm or more) are few and far between. Once the water table rose, the emphasis shifted to growing crops like soybean and maize that can do with little irrigation. To ensure that farmers retained a greater share of the output price, self-help groups were formed. The poor are unbankable because banks are not sure of their credit-worthiness. They also cannot provide collateral as security.

 

SHGs have intimate knowledge of their members—how much they can borrow and for what purpose. Peer pressure ensures there is low or no default. The banks were hesitant initially. They wanted the groups to be all-male, while those of SPS are all-female. But they have shed their reluctance now. Viju believes the SHG-bank linkage model is the answer to rural indebtedness. (Though, most members of SPS are in debt, and farming is entirely based on credit. But the loans are not of the kind that drives farmers to suicide.)

 

From the money they borrow, members repay moneylenders first. Banks used to lend only for productive purposes. But for the poor, the distinction between productive and consumption expenditure is blurred, says Viju. Shedding their dependence on traders for loans was a necessary condition for farmers to be able to aggregate their produce and sell directly in the local mandi. Earlier, they were compelled to sell to traders soon after harvest, when prices are low, to settle their dues.

 

Chintabai Trigram was a pioneer of the local self-help group movement, 11 years ago. We catch her gleaning soybean in a harvested field. She has picked about 10 kg, which she will sell. Trigram has no land. She rears goats. She started with one and now has 11. They are like family. She remembers their birth-dates. With income from that activity, she has brought up three children on her own. She has not only repaid a loan of R40, 000, but has savings of R20,000.

 

Trigram is unlettered, but not lacking in initiative. When a mithan (male-friend in the local lingo) came to her village to propagate the virtues of SHGs, she acted as a go-between for the female folk. They thought he was selling a ponzi scheme and would decamp with their savings. It took time to win trust. Now, there are six federations of SHGs. One of them with 162 groups has formed the RamRahim Pragati Producer Company, which aggregates soybean and maize and sells them directly in local mandis. The company also takes futures positions on the NCDEX commodity exchange. In some years, it has made profits, and lost in others. The emphasis now is to get farmer-members to produce marketable quality that can be sold in standardised lots. Trigram is a director of the company.

The SPS model is quite different from that of Gujarat’s Van Bandhu Kalyan Yojana for tribal upliftment. In that programme, Secretary Anand Mohan Tiwari, who initiated it and stayed on for the first six years, wanted to bring high-input, high-output Green Revolution agriculture to the state’s tribal belt. It started with promise but the gains were not sustained because the programme lacks an organisation like SPS to hand-hold the farmers in new agricultural practices, provide access to less expensive finance and do the marketing. Without such networks, motivated either by altruism or mutual profit, it is difficult to push poor farmers up the income ladder.

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Geopolitical flux in Asia

 

 

Source: By Harsh V Pant: Deccan Herald

 

 

Relations between Asia's two rising powers, China and India, are in trouble with Beijing refusing to take Indian security concerns seriously and New Delhi deciding to take the challenge posed by China head-on. Sino-Indian ties are presently passing through a turbulent phase with China extending its "technical hold" on India's move to get Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar listed as a terrorist by the United Nations in December last.

 

Since March 2016, China has been blocking India's move to put a ban on Azhar, under the sanctions committee of the UN Security Council, despite support from all other members of the 15-nation body. And in response to India testing its long range ballistic missiles - Agni IV and Agni V - in the last few weeks, China has indicated that it would be willing to help Pakistan increase the range of its nuclear missiles.

 

China's official mouthpiece, Global Times, contended in an editorial that "if the Western countries accept India as a nuclear country and are indifferent to the nuclear race between India and Pakistan, China will not stand out and stick rigidly to those nuclear rules as necessary. At this time, Pakistan should have those privileges in nuclear development that India has." China's $46 billion investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has also been troubling India as it creates a land corridor through the contested territory in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir which India claims as its own. India views CPEC as an insidious attempt by China to create new realities on the ground and a brazen breach of India's sovereignty and territory.

 

Chinese media has suggested that India should join CPEC to "boost its export and slash its trade deficit with China" and "the northern part of India bordering Pakistan and Jammu & Kashmir will gain more economic growth momentum." New Delhi has wondered if China would accept an identical situation in Tibet or Taiwan or if this is a new phase in Chinese policy when China is accepting Pakistan's claims on Kashmir as opposed to viewing it a disputed territory.

 

Faced with an intransigent China, India under the Narendra Modi-led government is busy re-evaluating its China policy. After his initial outreach to China soon after coming to office in May 2014 failed to produce any substantive outcome, he has decided to take a more hard-nosed approach. New Delhi has strengthened partnerships with like-minded countries like the US, Japan, Australia and Vietnam. It has bolstered its capability along the troubled border with China and the Indian military is now operationally gearing up for a two-front war. India is ramping up its nuclear and conventional deterrence against China by testing long range missiles, raising a mountain strike corps for the China border, enhancing submarine capability and basing its first squadron of Rafale fighter jets near its border with China.

 

More interesting perhaps is a significant shift in India's Tibet policy with the Modi government deciding to bring the Tibet issue back into the Sino-Indian bilateral equation. India will be openly welcoming the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader who has lived in exile in India since 1959, at an international conference on Buddhism to be held in Rajgir-Nalanda, Bihar, in March 2017. And ignoring Beijing's protests, the Dalai Lama will also be visiting Arunachal Pradesh which China claims as part of its own territory.

 

After initially ceding ground to Chinese sensitivities on Tibet and refusing to explicitly acknowledge official interactions with the Dalai Lama, a more public role for the Dalai Lama is now being seen as an essential part of Indian response. In his first meeting in decades between a serving Indian President and the Dalai Lama, President Pranab Mukherjee hosted the Dalai Lama at the inaugural session of the first "Laureates and Leaders for Children" summit held at the official residence of the President in New Delhi in December. China has not taken kindly to these Indian moves and vehemently opposes any move to rehabilitate the Dalai Lama.

 

There is growing disenchantment with Chinese behaviour in New Delhi. Appeasing China by sacrificing the interests of the Tibetan people has not yielded any benefits to India, nor has there been tranquillity in the Himalayas for the last several decades. This Sino-Indian geopolitical jostling is also being shaped by the broader shift in global and regional strategic equations.

 

Anti-West posturing

 

Much to India's discomfiture, Beijing has found a new ally in Russia which is keen to side with China, even as a junior partner, to scuttle western interests. Historically, sound Indo-Russian ties have become a casualty of this trend. In order to garner Chinese support for its anti-West posturing, Russia has refrained from supporting Indian positions, something New Delhi has long taken for granted.

 

And worried about India's growing proximity to the US, Russia is warming up to Pakistan. The two held their first ever joint military exercise in September 2016 and their first-ever bilateral consultation on regional issues in December. After officially lifting an arms embargo against Pakistan in 2014, Pakistan's military will be receiving four Russia-made Mi-35M attack helicopters in 2017. It is also likely that China-backed CPEC might be merged with Russia-backed Eurasian Economic Union.

Jettisoning its traditional antipathy to the Taliban, Russia is now indicating that it is ready to negotiate with the Taliban against the backdrop of the growing threat of the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. Towards that end, Russia is already working with China and Pakistan, thereby marginalising India in the regional process. As the Trump Administration takes office in Washington this month, it will be rushing into these headwinds generated by a growing Sino-Indian tensions and budding Sino-Russian entente. Trumps own pro-Russia and anti-China inclinations will further complicate geopolitical alignments in Asia. Interesting times indeed!

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Realpolitik in 2017

 

 

Source: By Amulya Ganguli: The Statesman

 

 

The New Year promises to usher in a time when pragmatism, which takes a cold, hard look at the relations among nations at the expense of soft sentimentalism, will be the driving force in many world capitals. While America under Donald Trump, the post-Brexit Britain and the European far right are likely to shun any humanitarian concern for the refugees fleeing Islamic terror and adopt a stern anti-immigration stance which mocks the Statue of Liberty’s call to the huddled masses, India, too, is reorienting its policies in the harsh light of the present-day realities.

 

If, in the process, it has to dispense with official positions which have lasted for years, so be it. The first example of the abandonment of the decades-old adherence to the so-called strategic restraint was in the matter of dealing with Pakistan.

 

It is not only the surgical strikes by the Indian army inside Pakistan following repeated attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists on Indian targets which showed how New Delhi has decided to adopt a more muscular approach towards its pesky neighbour, the new army chief, General Bipin Rawat’s observation about India’s preparedness for a war on two fronts ~ against Pakistan and China ~ also underlined an appreciation of the need to keep the powder dry.

 

The comment was of considerable significance since in March last year, the vice-chief of the Indian air force, BS  Dhanoa, had said just the opposite. According to Air Marshal Dhanoa, India was not ready for a “two-front scenario” because “our numbers are not adequate”. It is possible that in the intervening 8/9 months, the government and the army have reassessed their position and beefed up the armoury. Otherwise, General Rawal would not have been so categorical.

 

What the shift of emphasis shows is how the priorities have changed under the Narendra Modi government. The change does not relate to military affairs alone, but also to diplomacy. A significant development in this regard is the transformation in India-Israel relations from cool to fairly warm. As the Israeli ambassador in India Daniel Carmon, has said, “In the last couple of years, we have seen a shift in various votes (by India in the UN) which reflects the present improvement in relations”.

 

However, even under the earlier non-BJP governments, India’s ties with Israel were gradually changing for the better. But the pace was slow because of the unstated fear in political and official circles that overt proximity towards Tel-Aviv would antagonize what New Delhi considered its traditional friends in the Arab world and also the Indian Muslims.

 

Furthermore, there was the Palestine factor with both the Congress and the communists being displeased with what was seen as an Israeli undermining of the so-called two-state solution by the building of Jewish settlements in the “occupied” territories. The BJP has always been the odd man out in this respect from the Left-Liberals. And, now, under Modi, it has become far more active in moving close to Israel. The catalyst for this development is Pakistan. There is a feeling in India ~ and not only among Right-wingers ~ that in the matter of countering terrorism, India and Israel are natural allies.

 

Israel, too, shares this perception. As the Jewish Virtual Library says, both the countries are “isolated democracies threatened by neighbours that train, finance and encourage terrorism”. A cooperative relationship, therefore, is a “strategic imperative”. This “imperative” was in evidence when India under the Atal Behari Vajpayee government secured military hardware from Israel during the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan.

 

Since then, India has struck a deal with Israel for the supply of anti-tank guided missiles as well as missile launchers. But it is not weapons which interest India so much as Israel’s highly effective counter-insurgency measures. Lessons in this field can help India both against Pakistani terrorists and the home-grown Maoists. It will be wrong to believe, as the Left-Liberals do, that closeness to Israel will be resented by the Indian Muslims. It is a truism that the latter are as much patriotic as any other community in India and will welcome the strengthening of the country’s defences against Pakistan and China.

 

As for the Arab countries, India has long been unhappy with their tilt towards Pakistan. As the recent statements of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, said to be the largest inter-governmental organization after the UN, on Kashmir and the Indus waters treaty show, the OIC’s bias against India is obvious. It has denied observer status to India although the Muslims in India number 172 million. This ambiguity in the OIC’s stand was noted by the Khaleej Times, which asked why if Russia with its 25 million Muslims and the predominantly Buddhist Thailand can have observer status, why not India?

The reason is that many of the 57 countries which are the OIC’s members are monarchical and authoritarian, including Pakistan where the army has a greater say in governance, especially with regard to India, than the civilians. It is for this reason why the Jewish Virtual History called India an isolated democracy (like Israel) as it is surrounded by countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Myanmar where democracy is yet to establish firm roots. It is just as well, therefore, that the bonds of friendship between New Delhi and Tel-Aviv are being strengthened.

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Why the US cannot quit Afghanistan

 

Source: Vinod Saighal: The Statesman

 

To find an answer for the above proposition it is essential to go back a century when Britannia ruled the waves. The heartland hypothesis was enunciated by Sir Halford Mackinder in 1904. This theory regards political history as a continuous struggle between land and sea powers with the ultimate victory going to the continental power. He predicted: “Whoever rules East Europe, will rule Heartland; whoever rules the Heartland, will rule the World Island. Whoever rules the World Island, will rule the world.”

During World War II, Mackinder’s theory was put to the test. The Heartland (or pivot area) could have become the focus of power if either Russia had united with Germany or Russia had been overthrown according to some analysts of the period. Today the heartland is controlled by Russia and China, the latter gradually overtaking the predominance of the former. The US, NATO and the West have absolutely no role to play in the heartland as the world moves into 1917.

It is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) of which India and Pakistan have recently become members that holds sway over Central Asia. A fillip to the SCO was given by the US moving into Afghanistan with bases in the Central Asian Republics after the 9/11 attacks on the US mainland. China is now taking full advantage by pushing its most important OBOR (One Belt One Road) through the heartland at a cost that could ultimately go beyond one trillion dollars as per some estimates.

The Afghan war is well into its sixteenth year. Its end is still unpredictable. Washington will try to ensure that whoever it allows to come to power in Kabul is neither pro-Iranian nor pro-Russian. By having a military presence whose numbers remain flexible, Washington is able to ensure that no other major power in the region is able to station troops.

A clear divergence of interests exists, which continues to further aggravate the situation. While it cannot continue to fight the war indefinitely, leaving Afghanistan wide open to interests that are or could become inimical to the US is something that the U.S. might not be able to countenance. In a testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. John Campbell was reported to have said, “Afghanistan is at an inflection point” and it could easily explode into the worst possible scenario than the U.S. might have hitherto faced.

In a few days a new US administration will be faced with the Afghan imbroglio where numerous US lives have been lost and enormous sums have been expended. At this stage nobody can predict with any degree of certainty as to how Donald Trump and his team comprising old security hands who have been dealing with the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) region since long will proceed.

The Obama White House, while it may have appeared tenuous about its policy in West Asia did not pull out of Afghanistan as had been stated by the President at a famous speech at West Point where he set a time limit for the Afghan pullout – end 2014. Looking afresh at the situation in Central and West Asia the incoming president would not be unmindful of the fact that Russia, Turkey and Iran have sidelined the US in Syria and Iraq.

Having been ousted from Central Asia and marginalized in West Asia the new administration would take a very hard look at Afghanistan; and what they see would not seem reassuring. China, Russia and Pakistan have come together to engage with the Taliban for reaching an accommodation with Kabul. It is uncertain as to how it will play out. The US and UK that was earlier in the forefront for a dialogue with the Taliban has been left out. There is strong likelihood of Iran joining the three powers that are not only attempting to bring the Taliban into the fold, they would be looking ahead to shape the future of Afghanistan and bring it solidly into the SCO fold.

The US is not part of this process nor is India.  Mr. Trump might not like it one bit. It should be recalled that even while President Obama announced troop reductions and eventual pullout, the US actually added a few more bases on the ground. The Pentagon planners evidently had no doubt about the continued importance of remaining in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump in all likelihood would endorse that line.

It affords US the ability to keep an eye on China, Iran, Central Asian Republics and Pakistan. In the last case the US would be able to monitor the situation developing in Baluchistan, the Chinese build up in Gwadar and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) linking Kashgar to Gwadar; a 46 billion dollar project that is unlikely to sit well with USA. Neither is India comfortable with Chinese troops immersing themselves so deeply in the Northern Areas of J&K, territory claimed by India, presently under Pakistan occupation.

The new US administration would also look askance at large Chinese troop deployment for protecting CPEC in areas that are relatively close to the Afghan border. Further more in a recent pronouncement President-elect Trump is said to have stated that Pakistan was today the most dangerous and unstable country in the world. Pakistan television debated the implications of the statement that made several of the speakers shudder. 

Pakistan has been declared a bigger menace than Iran that does not yet have a nuclear capability. Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal has been a big worry for all US administrations. Many overlooked it. Not so Mr. Donald Trump. Neither North Korea nor Iran has the global reach of radicalized Sunni Islam to cause destruction and mayhem almost anywhere in the world. The most likely source of nuclear weapons for non-sate actors remains Pakistan. Among others it becomes the most important reason for the US remaining in Afghanistan till this strongest threat to the global equilibrium is neutralized.

 

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Gender justice

 

 

Source: By Madhavi Diwan: The Statesman

 

 

Justice Ruma Pal, former judge of the Supreme Court, was invited by a Delhi-based think-tank to deliver a public lecture on the contentious subject of the Uniform Civil Code. While opposing the idea of a common civil code for all communities and emphasising the importance of preserving plural cultures, Justice Pal said that practices prevalent within communities ought to be modified in a manner that achieves gender equality.

 

In other words, she rejected uniformity of laws across communities but made a pitch for intra-community reform to achieve equality of the genders. Therefore, in her view, if multiple marriages are permissible for Muslim men, that right ought to be extended to women as well, allowing them the right to take up to four husbands. Likewise, if men can divorce women by uttering talaq three times, so should women be permitted to divorce their husbands in the very same manner? This correction, Justice Pal felt, would make such practices compatible with the constitutional guarantee of equality.

 

While gender equality is an important constitutional goal, it is doubtful whether extending similar rights to women will solve the social challenge that the continued prevalence of practices likes triple talaq or polygamy present in contemporary society. The difficulty with these practices, which were given legitimacy centuries ago in a very different social milieu, is that not only are they grossly gender unjust, they are also inherently incompatible with contemporary constitutional morality. Merely introducing reform to give a woman the same rights against her husband does not address the problem. It only compounds the arbitrariness in ways that would deeply damage the institution of marriage.

 

The problem with triple talaq is that it is premised on the presumption that the man calls the shots in the relationship and can take a unilateral decision to opt out of the marriage without giving his wife the opportunity to approach a court, arbitrator or mediator. Extending the same right to a woman against her husband is of little help. Given her financial and social dependence on her husband, she is unlikely to be in a position to exercise that right. Even if she is, it is equally unfair that a husband should find himself divorced at the whim of his wife, without opportunity for reconciliation or recourse to a court of law. Such arbitrary methods of dissolving a marriage whether at the instance of a man or a woman if she were to be granted that right, are incompatible with the expectation of reasonableness and reconciliation inherent in the institution of marriage. Therefore, if gender justice is the goal, it would be better achieved by doing away with such practices altogether, rather than extending the same arbitrary rights to a woman.

 

Likewise the argument that if Muslim men are allowed to be polygamous so should women be permitted to be polyandrous is also deeply flawed for the same reason, this is not about gender equality for the sake of gender equality. Practically, a man is hardly likely to marry a woman who already has a husband. Besides, even equality for equality’s sake is hardly likely to be achieved unless a woman in a polygamous marriage also acquires multiple husbands.

 

What enormous social pandemonium would follow if all men and all women were to be in multiple marriages! Who would live with whom? Who would be parents to children born from multiple marriages? Which set of parents would be responsible for whose children? It would be the end of the institution of family as we understand it. This is a surer recipe for social anarchy rather than for gender equality. In his piece titled ‘Multiple Ways to Equality’, published on October 28, 2016 in The Indian Express, Faizan Mustafa advocates “treating marriage as a private limited company” where “equal say is to be given to all members, including wives, in entry or exit of any member with rights and liabilities clearly laid down.” He argues, somewhat astonishingly, that polygamy cannot be eradicated and therefore, restricted polygamy should be extended to all communities!

 

One difficulty with some of the most progressive views from the Muslim intelligentsia is that they oppose triple talaq on the ground that it is “unqoranic”, that is to say that the Quran never legitimised such a practice, not so much because it is so inherently unequal and unconstitutional. To determine the constitutionality of a practice with reference to a sacred text rather than on its compatibility with fundamental rights can be deeply problematic.

 

There are many cruel practices across religious affiliations that would acquire immediate immunity and legitimacy if we were to permit their continuance only because they find place in a religious document. Ancient Hindu texts recognise many such outdated patriarchal practices including wife-beating in certain circumstances: “If she (the wife) does not willingly yield her body to him (her husband), he should buy her with presents. If she is still unyielding, he should beat her with a stick or with his hand and overcome her.”

 

Polygamy is also sanctioned under some conditions. So for the very reason that the progressives reject triple talaq i.e. that it is “unqoranic” they will have to accept polygamy as legitimate. As also the right of a husband to beat a disobedient wife, in a secular country, if we are to allow religious texts, any or all of them, to override the fundamental right to equality and a life of dignity, then even the secular law which punishes domestic violence against women of all communities would fall foul of personal law. So should we cast away the Protection of Women against Domestic Violence Act 2005 or make it selectively applicable?

For India to thrive as a vibrant multicultural society, cultures must be preserved for that is the very essence of India. But patriarchy cannot be perpetuated in the name of multiculturalism. It is time we recognised that there exist age-old religious and cultural practices that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution that we the people of India gave ourselves and with the principle of contemporary constitutional morality.

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Nationalism over democracy

 

Source: By Noah Feldman: Mint

 

India’s constitutional democracy has always struggled to tame the country’s religious and caste divisions, especially during elections. The Supreme Court of India has now issued an important ruling that makes things worse, not better. On the surface, the court struck a blow for religious neutrality, holding that referring to religion or caste in a race for office will disqualify the results. In reality, the decision delivered a gift to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the expense of India’s minority faiths and castes. That’s especially worrisome in our present historical moment, when nationalist parties are challenging free democratic speech around the world.

The decision by the seven-member panel of the court was an interpretation of India’s Corrupt Practices and Electoral Offenses law, first enacted in 1951 and amended subsequently. Section 123(3) of the law makes it a corrupt practice for a candidate to make an appeal “to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his religion, race, caste, community or language.”

 

The central legal issue was whether the law only bans the candidate from appealing to his own religion or community, or whether it extends to cover references to the voters’ identities, too. At a technical level, this debate turned on the meaning of the word “his”: does it refer to the candidate or the voter?

In bottom-line political terms, the question was how extensive the ban should be. A narrow reading restricting the ban to the candidate’s own background would make it harder to overturn electoral results and allow greater range to candidates’ speech. That would allow politicians for example, to tell members of disadvantaged castes that they should vote for them because they would represent caste interests. So long as the candidate did not say that he or she was a member of the disadvantaged caste, the appeal would be lawful.

A broader reading, in contrast, would make it easier to overturn electoral results and would impose heavy restrictions on the speech of candidates. It would make it impossible for candidates to present themselves as serving the interests of religious minorities. In India, the biggest religious minority is Muslim, with 172 million adherents as of the last census in 2011. The broad reading would therefore affect them disproportionately.

The court split 4-3, with the majority adopting the broader reading and the dissenters the narrower one. The leading opinion of the majority emphasized that India’s founders “intended a secular democratic republic where differences should not be permitted to be exploited.” Treating this as the law’s purpose, the majority rejected the narrow reading of the word “his” as referring to the candidate’s identity as inappropriately literal.

The dissenters acknowledged India’s official secularism, but noted that the Indian constitution itself “recognizes the position of religion, caste, language and gender in the social life of the nation.” That’s accurate: The constitution prohibits discrimination based on caste but also permits affirmative action for the advancement of historically disadvantaged castes.

On the surface, the decision looks like a close legal case with a defensible conclusion. But the reality is otherwise— for a concrete legal reason. In 1995, a three-judge panel of the court issued a famous judgment colloquially known as the Hindutva or Hinduism decision. In it, the court said that because Hinduism didn’t subscribe to a single dogma or worship a single God, it did not satisfy the traditional definition of religion. It was therefore “a way of life and nothing more.”

Thus, according the 1995 precedent, Hinduism isn’t a religion for purposes of the election law. The result is that the broad reading of the statute doesn’t equally disadvantage all appeals to religion – it disadvantages only minority religions. Thus Muslim candidates can’t invoke their creed to win votes, but Hindu candidates can.

In effect, secularism and Hinduism are treated as identical. The Bharatiya Janata Party triumphantly put it in a manifesto issued more than 20 years ago and referring to the 1995 judgment. The Supreme Court “endorsed the true meaning and content of Hindutva as being consistent with the true meaning and definition of secularism.”

It would be one thing for India genuinely to insist on total secularism in elections. Although such a rule would be in some tension with the Indian Constitution’s commitment to free speech, it might nevertheless be justified because of the risk of distortion to the electoral process from communal violence. It’s another thing for India’s high court to insist on a restrictive “secularism” that allows appeals to the majority religion but not to minority religions. It’s as if the US Supreme Court held that Christianity isn’t a religion but a set of American cultural ideals, and that the establishment clause of the US Constitution therefore applied only to expressions of Judaism, Islam, or other minority faiths.

This is the second time that the Indian Supreme Court has issued a highly nationalist holding with negative impact on free speech. At a time when free speech is under attack globally from nationalist political parties, this is the wrong direction for the body charged with interpreting the constitution of the world’s largest democracy.

 

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