The reason India jobs data is not credible

Source: By R. Jagannathan: Mint

Thanks to the politicisation of unemployment figures ahead of the general elections, we now have numbers being flung at us from all directions. We have household survey data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE); we have the Azim Premji University’s State Of Working India 2018 report; we have monthly data on subscriber additions to the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) and we have more enterprise data coming from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). We also have “leaked" data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) for 2017-18.

In the long run, perhaps all the jobs data will converge to give us meaningful results, but right now, it is only adding to the confusion as all the studies have serious drawbacks. It’s a case of the blind men and the elephant.

The CII employment survey is based on a sample of 105,347 micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). It suggests that employment is growing at a compounded rate of 3.3% annually. The net additions over the last four years amounted to 332,394 jobs. When extrapolated over the Labour Bureau’s entire macro database, this number apparently translates to 13.5-14.9 million jobs created annually. If this were to be true, the Narendra Modi government can clearly declare the jobs problem solved, but such huge extrapolations are unwarranted when we cannot be sure that the CII sample is representative of the entire Labour Bureau database.

At the other end of the spectrum is the CMIE’s four-monthly unemployment survey, which has pegged job losses at around 10 million between September and December 2016 (which includes the demonetisation quarter) and the same months in 2018. CMIE computes the current unemployment rate at 6.68%, which is not significantly different from the leaked NSSO report, which put it at 6.1%. The 2015-16 Labour Bureau’s Employment Unemployment Survey put the unemployment rate at 5%. The Azim Premji University’s State of Working India 2018 simply says that unemployment is now over 5%, with youth unemployment more than three times the overall rate.

This figure is compatible with the Labour Bureau’s survey of 2015-16, which indicated unemployment rates of 13-20% for those in the 15-17 age group, and 10-13% for the 18-29 age groups. Above 30 years, the unemployment rate falls to under 2%. The political brouhaha is about the leaked NSSO data reported by Business Standard suggesting that unemployment is at a “45-year high". The NSSO samples the population for employment information once in five years, and since there is no saying whether the year chosen is a particularly bad one for the economy or not, it is pointless trying to claim some figure is the highest or lowest in 45 years. Maybe the best years for employment came somewhere in between its two surveys.

In fact, let me throw another number to prove a point—a number that comes straight from Census 2011. The unemployment rate reported in the Census is as high as 11.18%. Yes, you read that right. The Census reported an employment figure of 482.88 million “main" and “marginal" workers, with the unemployed (those seeking jobs) placed at 60.7 million. This gives us an unemployment rate of 11.18%, since unemployment rate is the total number of the unemployed seeking jobs divided by the labour force participation rate. So much for unemployment hitting a 45-year peak. There is no data as comprehensive as the Census, where surveyors literally knock on each household door to get information, as opposed to the numbers provided by the NSSO and CMIE, which extrapolate from thin samples. Several conclusions are worth drawing from these flawed, incomparable and stand-alone sources of data.

First, India’s problem is clearly one of youth unemployment, and this is where the efforts must focus. The Modi government has eased employment under the Apprentices Act, and also allowed all sectors to offer fixed-term labour contracts. But thus far, employers do not seem to have taken the bait, possibly because many of them are still deleveraging and recovering from the double disruptions of demonetization and goods and services tax (GST).

Second, while enterprise data is improving (EPFO, CII, etc.), household jobs data is still dependent on the private sector CMIE and the NSSO, whose 2017-18 report is still to see the light of day. The main reason for the government’s reluctance to release the report seems to be the choice of year (2017-18), which is when the combined effects of demonetization and GST would have played out.

Third, both CMIE and NSSO suffer from one major drawback: they are compiled over months, and this means they do not capture data at a particular point of time. So, if someone is unemployed in January and finds a job in March, they will still show up in the data as unemployed. The only real way to report accurate data is to get the survey completed in one day—or within a week at best. This means putting more feet on the ground, and only the government can afford to do this. The CMIE and other sources of data are essential to keep government data honest, but their usefulness is limited.

Good jobs, not Universal Basic Income

Source: By Arun Maira: Mint

The idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has ignited great interest among economists. It has also pushed both left- and right-leaning political parties into a competitive rush to prove who can provide more cash to people faster. Before they all fall over the economic edge like proverbial lemmings, policymakers should pause to consider why the need for a UBI has arisen.

The shapes of the economies of all countries have been changed by global economic and technological forces whereby people in the lower halves of the economy are not earning adequate incomes. The fear is that unless fundamental economic structures are changed, further advances of technologies into the realms of “Industry 4.0" will deprive even larger numbers of people of opportunities for work from which they can earn adequate and steady incomes.

UBI and its many variants—quasi-UBI and income supplements for targeted groups—treat only the symptoms of the disease. The root cause of the disease is that many people do not have work that provides adequate incomes. Therefore, policymakers must focus on the reforms required in the economy to produce good jobs to provide good incomes by doing good work.

Jobs cannot be sprinkled into an economy by the government, except the jobs created within the government for people paid by tax-payers’ money. Jobs—opportunities to work and earn incomes—spring out of the growth of economies. The “gig" economy is creating many opportunities for earning incomes. However, the incomes are insecure and often insufficient. Moreover, the conditions in which people have to work to earn their incomes are not always satisfactory.

Delivery boys on motorcycles, rushing around to deliver pizzas to customers who want them in a few minutes, must work long to earn little. They do not have an employer who cares about their health and customers do not treat them with dignity. Moreover, their jobs do not provide them any opportunities to learn and develop themselves. When Indian government officials tout the numbers of these precarious “jobs" to claim that the Indian economy is generating adequate employment for Indian youth, they display their lack of understanding of what constitutes a good job.

A good job implies a contract between the worker and society. The worker provides the economy with the services it needs. In return, society and government must create conditions whereby workers are treated with dignity and can earn adequate incomes. Good jobs require good contracts between workers and their “employers". Employers are those who benefit from the services workers provide the enterprise, even if they are not legally classified as “employers". Therefore, the government, to discharge its responsibility to create a good society for all citizens, not only for investors, must regulate contracts between those who engage people to work for the enterprise and those who do the work, even in the gig economy.

An appeal to the government and employers to care for citizens and workers sounds like a call for “socialism". It is a call for a “good society" in which people have opportunities to stand on their own feet, by earning adequate incomes by doing good work. A good society does not require mindlessly more regulation. However, it needs firm regulation of good contracts between workers and employers.

Edmund S. Phelps, a Nobel laureate in economics, has been a consistent critic of UBI. He says, “What matters to people is not just their total receipts; it is the self-support from earning their own way. The solution is not to endow workers with a UBI—that way leads to dependency, unfulfilment, depression and marginalization". Phelps proposes a solution that sounds “socialist", which is to institute a low wage employment subsidy. He wants employers to employ more numbers of less-skilled workers and pay them well. If they are provided good working conditions and opportunities to learn and grow, they will lead more satisfying lives.

Dani Rodrik, another eminent economist, also advocates reforms that will induce firms to employ more numbers of less-skilled workers. He says, “To increase productivity of firms, too often governments subsidize labour-replacing, capital-intensive technologies, rather than pushing innovation in socially more beneficial directions to augment rather than replace less skilled workers."

India’s political leaders are challenged to provide more good jobs for the country’s huge number of young jobseekers. Panic solutions are quotas for everyone in the limited numbers of government jobs and raining down cash to farmers and workers in informal sectors in the garb of “universal basic income". Neither is a solution for the Indian economy’s failure to create more good jobs at the bottom of the pyramid.

Economists and policymakers must go back to the drawing board, to fundamental principles: one, “fairness" for workers must be a stronger principle than “flexibility" for employers. Reduce the number of labour regulations but be very firm about the essential regulations to ensure good incomes and good working conditions.

Two, tax incentives should be directed towards hiring of less-skilled workers, rather than attracting more capital investments that displace workers, so that people at the bottom of the pyramid can step on to the formal escalator for upward mobility in society.

Arsenic in groundwater

Source: By Marwah Malhotra: Deccan Herald

Over the last three to four decades, the dependence on groundwater as a source of irrigation burgeoned and consequently the problems of groundwater over-exploitation have been a focus area for policymakers.

As per the latest assessment of groundwater resource availability and utilisation by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), the net annual groundwater availability is 411 billion cubic metres (bcm), annual groundwater draft is 253 bcm, amounting to a stage of groundwater development of 62%. Based on an assessment of the stage of groundwater development at the level of blocks/ mandals/taluks/firka, the CGWB has categorised 1,034 assessment units as ‘over- exploited’, 253 as ‘critical’ and 681 as ‘semi- critical’ out of a total of 6,584 such units.

Exploiting the energy-groundwater nexus through energy pricing, enhancing water use efficiency through incentivising use of technological innovations (drip and sprinkler irrigation) and non-technological measures (controlling the timing of paddy transplantation) have been some of the important policy instruments to tackle the receding water table.

Issues related to consumption of poor or contaminated water are also increasingly being recognised and actions are being taken to ensure safe drinking water to affected populations. Arsenic, for instance, which had been found in well water in West Bengal during the early 1980s, has been taken up as a serious public health issue. Although grassroots-level reach of government measures in creating awareness and ensuring safe drinking water for the affected population remains questionable, there seems to be some concrete action in the right direction. However, the aspect that has not received due attention is the implications of contaminated irrigation water on agriculture.

Arsenic is now known to be widely prevalent in the floodplains of rivers with their origin in the Himalayas and has its coverage across the states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and Chhattisgarh. Numerous research studies based on scientific experiments have confirmed deterioration in fertility of soil and decline in yield of crops when arsenic-concentrated water is applied for irrigation. The impact on yield varies across crops, variety of crop grown, soil type and soil conditions. Moreover, another well-known fact is that extraction of groundwater in contaminated zones increases the mobilisation of arsenic from rocks into the aquifer.

The cause for concern stems from the fact that having utilised the yield potential as well as the irrigation potential in north-western states, the government has directed attention towards the relatively water-abundant eastern states to bring about a second Green Revolution in order to meet India’s growing food requirements. Such a shift became explicitly visible with the introduction of the ‘Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India’ scheme launched in 2011 under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana.

Continuing with this UPA government plan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on several occasions reiterated the need for a second Green Revolution. In an address at Burnpur, West Bengal, in May 2015, Modi remarked, “East India needs to be strengthened…I clearly see the second Green Revolution happening here…East India has abundance of water, land and people. It can usher in the revolution.”

The question that needs to be asked is, is this the right step forward if, on the one hand, we talk of ‘sustainable groundwater management’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’ and, on the other, we push for increased groundwater usage in areas where its extraction and usage would be detrimental to the resource itself as well as diminish the possibilities for agriculture in the long run.

Without doubt, the resource is a crucial component of the country’s agriculture sector, with nearly 80% of irrigated agriculture being supported by groundwater, and hence it is a significant contributor to achieving the goal of food security. At the national level, particularly, we observe a lack of due attention towards the status of groundwater quality, its larger implications, and so towards initiatives in the right direction. In fact, significant increase in groundwater use in so-called ‘groundwater-abundant’ areas without proper appraisal of the available resource in terms of quantity, quality and other environmental conditions is noted.

Groundwater protection zones

Although the latest Model Bill for the Conservation, Protection, Regulation and Management of Groundwater, 2016, laid out by the central Ministry of Water Resources, to be appropriately modified and implemented by each state government has provided a good set of guidelines, it will be beneficial only if those provisions are implemented with the right force and spirit. It suggests the demarcation of areas affected by arsenic, fluoride and salinity ingress under ‘groundwater protection zones’. This is in line with its mandate of protecting groundwater from depletion, deterioration, biological and chemical pollution.

The Model Bill further includes a section on the need for undertaking environmental impact assessment, specifically on the short-term and long-term impacts on quantity and quality of groundwater, impacts on agricultural production and so on. Similar such bills have been presented previously in 1992, 1996, 2005 and 2011. However, to date, only 14 states have enacted legislation for groundwater resource management.

Sustainable use of groundwater needs to be encompassed and imbibed in an all-pervasive sense by managing both quantity and quality deterioration of the resource. It further calls for understanding the long-term implications of extracting contaminated groundwater on the groundwater quality itself, on human health as well as on agricultural production. For instance, arsenic concentration in aquifer may increase with groundwater pumping and its usage over long periods can render agriculture unsustainable. Rainwater harvesting, tapping deeper arsenic-free aquifer or finding alternative irrigation sources are some of the possible solutions whose feasibility may be assessed and accordingly implemented.

A parallel chessboard

Source: By Bhaskar Chakravorti: The Indian Express

The latest conflagration across the India-Pakistan border, triggered by the February 14 suicide bombing attack in Pulwama, has set a new watermark for the two nuclear-armed neighbours. I have heard experts describe the recent exercise in brinkmanship as the closest the world has come to the Cuban missile crisis. I have also heard the opposite, that this may be the safest that both countries have been in their history of mutual animosity. The classic deterrence logic from nuclear game theory would suggest that the present state is the best solution to a region in a state of perpetual conflict: Either side has the ability to annihilate the other — or that awareness deters any meaningful escalation of hostility and flips both sides back to a peaceful equilibrium.

What is more, the impeccable logic can even rationalise why it is natural for each side to periodically poke each other in the eye. In the nuclear deterrence community, there is an idea called the stability-instability paradox: The overhanging threat of nuclear retaliation offers an insurance policy, which gives rise to moral hazard, a common problem in the insurance business. The safety net of insurance creates incentives for low-level risky behaviour. This helps explain a tendency towards proxy wars on the ground or dogfights in the air of the kind we witnessed recently.

But let’s not get too comfortable. All these arguments are pre-digital age theorising. The logic assumes that there are rational protagonists who are moving chess pieces on a chessboard and have a clear line of sight across the whole board. Digital media creates an alternative chessboard, out of sight of the main political protagonists. The players on this other board are non-state micro-actors — who are not in the command-and-control chain leading to the nuclear buttons. Technology permits them to broadcast messages, and push the pieces on the parallel board and at some point their configuration of pieces infiltrates action on the main chessboard, because the protagonists being political entities must respond to the moods of their constituencies, the micro-actors.

The magic of digital media is that it often introduces change through imperceptible moves, which then gather force over powerful transmission mechanisms and hop across different media, from television to Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook. Before long, there is a configuration of pieces on a board, an alternative narrative that has become so dominant that it is beyond the control of the protagonists.

False and fiery narratives, in particular, have a way of being buoyed by the logic of digital transmission. They get elevated and travel further, partly because people are motivated to send more extreme messages and the digital media companies profit from more eyeballs — and more advertising exposure — on these messages. Consider the aftermath of the Pulwama attack. From Pakistan came the video of an injured Indian pilot that was carried to millions across Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.

This wasn’t the video of the real pilot who was captured but a clip of a different pilot taken from an old air show. On the Indian side, old video clips and even video games were put to re-use, accompanied by bellicose hashtags such as #SurgicalStrike2, #IndiaStrikesBack #TerroristanPakistan, #IndiasRevenge. The Pakistani digital warriors, of course, had their own arsenal of hashtags: #PakistanStrikesBack, #PakistanZindabad and #PakistanAirForceOurPride. Each of these seemingly simple objects becomes a rallying cry that can bring millions together.

To be sure, the digital medium is a powerful force not just as a transmitter of narratives or as an organiser of hashtag tribes; it is also a force to be reckoned with as a cyber weapon. Pulwama, unsurprisingly, also led to a spike in cyber-attacks. The official website of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was hacked and defaced as was the website of Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. This follows a rather long tradition of cyber tit-for-tat between India and Pakistan that pre-dates WhatsApp. As far back as 1998, Pakistani hackers had made their way into India’s Atomic Research Centre. Since then the attacks have only grown in volume and frequency.

For example, in October 2016, more than 7,000 Indian websites were hacked by the “Pakistan Haxors Crew.” In February 2018, over 250 websites in Pakistan were attacked, including the presidential website and the country’s railway ministry, by “Mallu Cyber Soldiers.” Over the years, targets have ranged from embassies to government ministries to a myriad others, including military sites, universities, airports and e-banking systems. The tools have included a mix of website defacement, spear phishing and malware. Such malware can activate webcams, steal data and take screenshots of victims’ computers. They are not just annoyances; they can compromise national security assets and even prevent essential systems from operating.

Things can get even worse. Digital attacks can be sophisticated enough to directly interfere with nuclear systems. Consider the case of Stuxnet, a highly sophisticated worm that infects computers and targets centrifuges for producing enriched uranium for nuclear reactors. Developed by the US and Israel, it was used to derail Iran’s nuclear weapons development programme. It is well understood that cyber-attacks will increasingly get more sophisticated and can potentially disrupt the command-and-control systems of a country’s nuclear arsenal or shut down energy grids or other essential components of the infrastructure. Many such attacks are conducted by hacktivist groups; some are agents of the protagonists, but not all. Many are independent actors — and that is the most worrisome part.

In other words, there are many ways to disrupt the clean calculus of nuclear deterrence in the digital age. Inadvertent nuclear launches could be triggered by reliance on false information and corrupted data or the failure of a major piece of infrastructure. Any of these could trigger a sense of impending attack and provoke a pre-emptive strike.

I have been trained in game theory am a fan and am sold on the logic of nuclear deterrence involving “rational” actors. Ordinarily, I would recommend tucking that game theory textbook under the pillow and sleeping soundly. But the fact that there are close to 550 million Internet users between two nuclear-armed neighbours in the sub-continent would, I admit, give me reason to stay awake at night. To make matters even worse, governments do not quite understand how the digital platforms work and the social media companies have repeatedly failed to monitor, assert control and weed out false narratives or malware from being transmitted.

It is time that the players on the main chessboard, the policymakers on both sides of the Indo-Pak border, and the digital platform companies, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google and Twitter, that are enabling that other chessboard, wake up to a new crisis around the corner. This one could have implications even more serious than the ones about election misinformation or privacy breaches that dominated the headlines in the last year. It is hard enough playing chess on a single chessboard.

Family law and household finance

Source: By Tarun Ramadorai: Mint

Indian households’ financial arrangements are unique in the international context. As the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) committee on household finance report highlights, many aspects of these financial arrangements can be altered in a manner that is beneficial to households.

For example, Indian households have substantial investments in real estate85% of total assets, on average, which barely declines even as households become wealthier. Most Indian households do little apparent saving for retirement and investment in insurance is woefully low relative to their counterparts in advanced economies. These issues significantly affect household well-being. The report notes that Indian households potentially stand to increase their annual real income growth by up to 10% by making a set of sensible changes to their financial arrangements.

Some of these changes can be difficult for households to implement as a result of legal and regulatory impediments. Moreover, these impediments are often more detrimental for women than for men, leading to important gender imbalances in financial well-being. In this context, we highlight a perhaps surprising connection—between recent changes mooted in family law and their beneficial consequences for unblocking impediments that currently affect Indian household finance.

The Law Commission of India released a consultation paper on 31 August 2018, recommending a set of reforms to family law. The key recommendations include (i) a woman should, regardless of whether she contributes financially or monetarily to the family income, be entitled to an equal share in marriage property; (ii) abolition of the notion of coparcenary at the central level, thus extinguishing the right to property by sheer circumstance of birth; and (iii) abolition of the Hindu Undivided Family (HUF) structure.

To unpack these changes and their implications for household finance, a little further explanation is warranted. Under Hindu law, there is currently the notion of a coparcenary. Coparceners to an ancestral property acquire rights in it upon birth. The share of a coparcener is affected by births in the family, which reduce the available share to each coparcener, and deaths, which increase coparceners’ share. Coparcenary comes into effect immediately upon the birth of anyone with such claims, meaning that the property acquires the nature of an ancestral property (Rohit Chauhan vs Surinder Singh and Ors).

Turning back to implications for household finance, consider the fact that coparceners have the right to demand partition of an ancestral property (B. Chandrakala vs A. Anuradha and Ors). However, in practice, there are often long delays arising from the need to secure agreement between coparceners to dispose of ancestral property. There may also be significant judicial delays in the case that conflicts between them require court resolution.

This is a major friction preventing households from reducing exposure to real estate—the potential for prolonged disputes arising from the coparcenary structure weakens household incentives to liquidate unproductive investments in ancestral property. Indeed, in areas where ancestral real estate holdings are widespread, this issue has aggregate implications—reducing housing market liquidity as disputed properties are unsold for long periods of time. Within the HUF structure, there is a strong role for the karta, who is entrusted with the management of family wealth, as well as given the responsibility of the “general welfare of the family’’ (Gurpreet Singh vs Ram Saran and Ors).

Such centralized effective control of jointly owned ancestral assets makes problems more likely to occur. For instance, there may well be changes to the financial needs of individual HUF members over time. Moreover, disputes can arise from undemocratic decision-making if there are differences of opinion over the optimal arrangement of the HUF’s financial matters. However, there is often little flexibility for adjustment, given that the karta embodies strong centralized control over the management of the HUF’s affairs (Subhodkumar vs Bhagwant Namdeorao Mehetre and Ors). This can make streamlining financial arrangements in the face of reasonable variation in individuals’ circumstances or opinions very difficult.

It is imperative to do more to financially empower women. The proposed changes in the Law Commission’s consultation paper also promise positive change in this context, especially in the sense of remedying asymmetries in inheritance rules between males and females.

Why is this important? The life chances of individuals in a society are very different depending on their level of wealth, as the Harvard Equality of Opportunity project documents in the US. In India, where formal social security is inadequate, having claims to inherited wealth, however small, can sometimes mean the difference between financial security and destitution. If men’s claims to ancestral wealth supersede those of women, society consigns women to an inherently inferior financial position.

As the Law Commission’s consultation paper points out, both Hindu and Muslim law need reform to make inheritance truly gender-neutral. One particular area of concern is that numerous issues with the current legal framework make the financial position of widows and unmarried daughters especially fragile. Reforms in this area have thus far been piecemeal and more work is needed until the financial treatment of men and women is truly equal in law.

Reforming laws is not, of course, the only avenue towards better household financial arrangements, but it is an important one. In addition to the other concerns potentially addressed by adopting the reforms proposed in the Law Commission’s report, it is likely that we will see significant improvement in household finance.


Ruse of Gender Justice

Source: By Sushmita Dev: The Indian Express

All government policies must be judged keeping two things in mind: The circumstances at the time of introducing legislation and the actual impact of a law. The Supreme Court (SC) judgment of 1985 that allowed Shah Bano to claim maintenance under the Code of Criminal Procedure was applauded as a progressive judgment. I cannot disagree with the merits of that judgment but the controversial law — subsequently the Muslim Women (Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986 that was drafted by the Rajiv Gandhi government — came under severe attack at the time. It was seen as an act to appease the conservative Muslim and against the empowerment of Muslim women.

Be that as it may, what critics of the 1986 Act must in all humility realise now is how this law actually impacted women over the last three decades. The 1986 Act actually defines the rights of a Muslim woman on divorce. Section 3 says that she will be entitled to a fair and reasonable amount for maintenance. She will also be entitled to the property she receives from her relatives and the relatives of her husband. If her husband fails to pay her, she can claim her maintenance from the people who stand to inherit from her, if they fail, she can claim maintenance from her family and if they fail as well, she can claim maintenance from the state’s wakf board. The most empowering provision is that she must be paid within the iddat period — three months.

Danial Latifi, Shah Bano’s lawyer, amongst others, challenged the 1986 Act in the SC as unconstitutional. In 2001, Court upheld the Act and went on to state that it captured the spirit of the 1985 judgment. The 2001 verdict further clarified that she will get her settlement for her entire life as a lump sum within the iddat period. Lawyer and activist Flavia Agnes has noted that this law has given Muslim women maintenance to the extent of making men in the community unhappy. Courts have been flooded with appeals by husbands challenging orders of maintenance under the Act. Compare the Rs 179 received by Shah Bano to the women who got lakhs under the 1986 Act.

In 2017, the SC deemed instant triple talaq to be void in the Shayara Bano case. The government’s ordinance, however, criminalises it and the justification is it will deter Muslim men. No where does the judgment mention a need for criminalisation. The ordinance assumes that it will invoke fear in the husband’s mind. But is there anything that stops him from deserting her? Anyone who has dealt with matrimonial litigation or faced matrimonial disharmony will vouch for the fact that it is economic disempowerment that puts a woman in an unequal position. The government could have levied a fine for practising instant triple talaq.

There is no law that can force a married couple to stay married, all that lawmakers can do is codifying the rights and liabilities of the parties on separation. The ordinance keeps the couple married and gives the woman nothing but a right to prosecute her husband. In comparison to the fair and reasonable amount sanctioned by the 1986 Act, the triple talaq bill said she must be given a subsistence allowance — the ordinance does not define this.

The Act of 1986 struck a balance between the rights of a community and of its women. Those who today applaud Narendra Modi’s ordinance as a tool of empowerment of Muslim women must not forget the context. Shayara Bano has the advantage of nullifying her talaq, so the woman remains legally married to her husband (who she did not want to return to). But she has no financial support. The ordinance empowers her to file a criminal case with no real relief and makes things more acrimonious. Maybe that’s why under all other personal laws, the remedy for desertion lies in the restitution of conjugal rights which gives the couple the time to reconcile, not criminalisation. Therefore, we see no justification for criminalising triple talaq.

Magnetic field and mass extinction

Source: By the New York Times

Some 565 million years ago, life on Earth dodged a bullet. The magnetosphere — the magnetic field that surrounds our planet like a protective shield — had degraded to its lowest intensity ever, according to a study published recently in Nature Geoscience. Stripped of this shielding, Earth could have been blasted by atmosphere-eroding outbursts from the sun, gradually losing most of its air and water until it became as dry and desolate as the present-day Mars.

Instead, deep in the planet’s interior, an event was taking place that would help the magnetosphere rebound, according to the study’s authors. Earth’s liquid-iron inner core crystallised, a process geophysicists call “nucleation.” Once solid, the rotating core acted as a whirling dynamo, strengthening the protective electromagnetic bubble that wrapped around Earth, staving off planet-wide devastation. That, in turn, could have set the stage for the Cambrian explosion, an event approximately 541 million years ago in which the biosphere suddenly experienced the greatest evolutionary expansion in the planet’s history.

To measure Earth’s magnetic field as it was more than a half billion years ago, University of Rochester geophysicist John Tarduno and colleagues looked at magnetic particles from ancient silicate crystals within a band of igneous rocks called the Sept-Îles Intrusive Suite in Quebec. The igneous band formed from upwelling of magma that cooled before reaching the surface. As the magma cooled, evidence of the paleointensity, or strength of the Earth’s magnetic field at the time, was locked into the crystals.

The geophysicists were able to determine what that paleointensity was by heating single crystals to demagnetise them, and then reheating the samples in the presence of a magnetic field to impart magnetisation. Averaging the results over the estimated 75,000-year period in which the crystals cooled, the researchers determined the paleointensity circa 565 million years ago was about 10 times weaker than Earth’s modern magnetosphere — a finding that comports with independent studies charting the magnetosphere’s slow, steady strengthening over geologic time.

Tarduno and his colleagues surmise Earth’s growing core caused this upswing: iron and other heavy elements fell towards its centre as the inner core crystallised, leaving a liquid layer of lighter elements in the core’s outer regions, sparking the long-lived convection that drives Earth’s dynamo.

According to scientists outside of the study, insights about Earth’s ancient magnetic field are as uncertain as they are rare. “Getting any paleomagnetic samples from earlier time periods is so important because we have so little data,” says Sabine Stanley, a geophysicist at Johns Hopkins University. “At the moment it’s one data point at a particular time interval.” More data points are needed, she says, although she also notes the magnetosphere’s apparent increase in strength across a half billion years does support the researchers’ analysis.

Elisa Piispa, a geophysicist at Yachay Tech University in Ecuador, cautions that the single-crystal method Tarduno’s group used is not yet universally accepted. “Some of the leading researchers in the paleomagnetic community are very sceptical on it,” she says. Then again, the team’s results are consistent with several other models of the core’s thermal evolution and a wealth of other paleomagnetic observations, says Krista Soderlund, a researcher at The University of Texas at Austin.

Shields down

The weakened magnetic field Tarduno and his colleagues discovered roughly coincided with the end-Ediacaran extinction around 542 million years ago — a mass die-off of primitive, sessile, sea-dwelling organisms that preceded the Cambrian explosion. In 2016, Carlo Doglioni, a geologist at the Sapienza University of Rome, proposed the Cambrian’s profusion of new life-forms took place in part because of the magnetosphere’s growing strength. “The magnetic dipole was increasing after the Ediacaran,” Doglioni says. “We have a good, thick atmosphere that is protecting us from ionising radiation because we have a good, strong magnetic field.”

Fossil evidence suggests the organisms that endured the end-Ediacaran extinction survived by burrowing into the seafloor — a trait not shared by the immobile Ediacaran period biota that died out. As for the actual culprits in the killings, a 2016 study from Joseph Meert, a geologist at the University of Florida, blames harmful ultraviolet light and cosmic radiation that bathed the surface after passing through ancient Earth’s weakened magnetic field and thinning atmosphere. “When the shields went down, the Ediacaran organisms went extinct, clearing the ecological space for the later Cambrian explosion,” he says.

Tarduno urges caution. “The problem with this (hypothesis) is that the evidence of it in the geological record is pretty scarce,” he says. “If we look at other times of profound magnetic weakness, that would be at the very depth of a magnetic reversal. So that’s a very short time period, maybe a few hundred to a few thousands of years.”

Meert acknowledges other periods of magnetic instability are not obviously tied to extinction events. “But it’s the fact that the Earth’s magnetic field was weaker overall for a long period of time which drove that extinction,” he says. “The way I look at it is, we have this weak magnetic field from the Ediacaran into the early Cambrian, so it was an extended period of time of a weak magnetic field.”

Tarduno says despite the loss of magnetic protection, Earth’s atmosphere and the fact that Ediacaran creatures lived in the sea provided sufficient shielding from harmful radiation. But Meert notes the Ediacaran predates the existence of land-based plants that cloud modern-day waters with organic material; it may be the waters of the Ediacaran oceans were exceptionally clear, allowing ultraviolet radiation to reach greater depths. “Water does attenuate UV rays, but it’s not a cure-all,” he says. “UV rays can penetrate to significant depths, on the order of 10 metres or so. A lot of these Ediacarans were probably in even shallower waters than that.”

Courtney Sprain, a geoscientist at the University of Liverpool in England who was not involved in either study, says more data are needed to pin down the drivers of the Ediacaran extinction. “I do think there are avenues forward into understanding this at a higher level in the future,” she says. One avenue is determining whether the magnetic field was diminished everywhere in the world at this time or if the phenomenon was localised around the Sept-Îles Intrusive Suite, she notes. Another location would be to better constrain the timing of the magnetosphere’s vicissitudes.

Ultimately, Sprain says, determining the cause of the Ediacaran extinction is essential to understanding the evolution of life since then. “This has important implications for what’s going on with Earth today, for the modern changes that we’re seeing in Earth’s climate and for helping us understand what processes humans are potentially contributing to (that) may lead to these large-scale ecological collapses,” she adds. “It helps us infer something about our own future.”

The urgent need for electoral reforms in India

Source: By Ajit Ranade: Mint

So, the ball is set rolling for India’s 17th Lok Sabha elections. The Election Commission (EC) has urged voters to vote freely, fearlessly, and make an informed and ethical choice. The numbers are staggering: 900 million eligible voters, a million voting booths, 10 million election officials (not counting security personnel), an expected 10,000 candidates for 545 seats, and more than 500 political parties in the fray.

No wonder it’s called a festival

But as we go into campaign season, the atmosphere is less festive and more feisty, even nasty and fractious. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system seems to encourage polarization, since in a multi-corner contest, even a low vote share is enough to get you elected and this often involves an extreme ideological focus on a core voter base.

One consequence of FPTP is the trend of constituents being micro-targeted with customized messages. Another result is the non-linear relationship between vote share and seat share. Even a 1% vote swing can increase a party’s seat share by 10-15%. The particularly stark case was that of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which in 2014 got 20% of Uttar Pradesh’s vote but no single Lok Sabha seat. Electoral reforms are overdue. A comprehensive agenda was laid out by the EC itself in a letter to the prime minister back in July 2004.

Most of it lies unfulfilled, since parliament has not found time in the past 15 years to deliberate on such reforms. The gist of them is to make the process more transparent, disqualify criminal elements, mandate greater disclosure of money power, forge inner-party democracy and raise voter participation. Elections are now vulnerable to the adverse influence of three ‘M’s: money, muscle and media (including the social kind). The EC’s job is to minimize this influence and ensure voting free from fear and coercion, plus a level playing field.

As we look at electoral outcomes, we need to introspect: Just how representative of Indians are our Members of Parliament? The trend over past several Lok Sabhas has been of a widening gap between the people and their representatives. This is a matter of grave concern. Of course, it is nobody’s case that only a poor candidate can represent the poor. Or only a highly educated person can understand the challenge of education in India. Be it MPs or MLAs, elected representatives are agents of the people. In economics lingo, this is a principal-agent problem, where people are the “principal". Whoever they appoint (i.e. elect) has to do their bidding, or at least act in their best interest. In the absence of any other signal of “credibility" or “trustworthiness" from candidates, voters often make choices based on caste, muscle power (to “get things done") or charisma.

To assess representativeness, consider the gaps between electors and the elected on such parameters as age, gender, wealth, criminality, education, dynasty and size of constituency. The average age of the 13th Lok Sabha was 55.5 years, which went down to 52.7 in the 14th, but then went up again to 53 in the 15th, and 56 in the outgoing one. It was only 46.5 years in 1952.India’s median age, however, is just 26. Two-thirds of the population is below 35. Yet our MPs are getting older. In contrast, the so-called ageing countries like the UK, Italy, France and Canada are electing much younger leaders.

On gender, women account for only 12% of the Lok Sabha. At least three states have zero female MPs. Less than 10% of candidates are women. Not so long ago, more than two-thirds of constituencies had no single female candidate. The Women’s Reservation Bill, meanwhile, has been pending in Parliament for over four decades.

On wealth, 82% of all Lok Sabha members are crorepatis, i.e. have declared wealth of more than ₹1 crore. Their numbers have gone up from 156 to 315 to 449 in the last three Lok Sabhas. Their average wealth (declared via self-sworn affidavits) is around ₹14 crore. (In the Rajya Sabha, the average is ₹55 crore). The average income is around ₹31 lakh, which is 20 times India’s present per capita income.

On criminality, the proportion of MPs with criminal cases has been going up steadily, from 12% to 15% to 21%, since 2004. These are cases for which if they were convicted, they would not have been allowed to contest. Many cases are for heinous crimes like rape, murder, kidnapping and extortion. But the law does not bar them from contesting elections, even from prison. Surely, voters cannot accept lawmakers who are themselves lawbreakers. But, only parliament can pass a law to disqualify those with serious criminal charges against them.

On dynasty, it is well known (and documented by Patrick French) that an increasing number of elected representatives have a close relative (parent, spouse, sibling or cousin) who was an incumbent or a senior politician. There are also other measures of representativeness based on identity markers like religion, caste and community that we won’t dwell on here.

Finally, since the size of India’s parliament is frozen, we have a curious anomaly of constituency sizes ranging from a few thousand to over 3 million. As discussed in this column a year ago, India will soon have to grapple the issue of delimitation of constituencies and increase the number of MPs if it wants to retain the representativeness of parliament that’s essential to democracy.

Why is India refusing to join WTO e-commerce talks?

Source: By Amitendu Palit: The Financial Express

More than seventy-five countries agreed to commence informal talks on fixing global e-commerce rules on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum meet at Davos in January 2019. The talks—as reflected in the joint statement issued by the proposing WTO members—would be in conformity with existing WTO rules and would pay special attention to the interests and circumstances of LDCs and SMEs while aiming for high-standard outcomes. The talks would take place outside the WTO with a negotiating agenda likely to take shape during the course of the year. However, with nearly half of WTO members agreeing to join the talks, the negotiations might formally shift to the global trade body in the foreseeable future. At this point in time, however, several WTO members, including India, remain outside the ambit of the talks.

The last WTO Ministerial at Buenos Aires held during December 10-13, 2017, had decided to ‘reinvigorate’ work under the WTO’s e-commerce work programme launched in 1998. Notwithstanding the Ministerial decision, several countries simultaneously agreed to initiate work on identifying the directions of a tentative negotiating framework on e-commerce. It was evident that these WTO members were not willing to wait for the WTO to formally launch e-commerce talks within its fold. The all-too-familiar history of slow progress at WTO on various issues and the difficulties of proceeding on new generation trade subjects would have influenced these members in taking precipitate action. Since the Ministerial, the WTO has received a large number of proposals from various members but has not yet been able to formalise a centralised negotiating agenda. The Davos meeting provided the occasion for members demanding talks to move forward in signalling their intent to begin them soon outside the WTO.

China’s presence in the group of members moving on informal talks significantly enhances the global pressure in proceeding on them. By joining the US, EU and Japan in the chorus for global e-commerce rules, China signals its intent of ‘playing’ by the rules of global digital trade. This could be a game-changer for digital trade talks. It is also important to note that Russia is a party to the demand, as much as Brazil. The presence of these three countries, which have, on various global trade issues in the past, either jointly or individually, been opposed to the traditional ‘north’, makes the credibility and global reach of the group of countries looking to launch the talks sufficiently high.

Many countries are still unwilling to endorse global e-commerce talks. Foremost amongst these is India. India remains opposed to the opening of e-commerce talks at WTO on the larger ground that such talks can obliterate progress on many pending issues on the Doha Development Agenda (DDA) and on the more specific ground of e-commerce talks, if taking place, to be embedded in the WTO’s original digital trade agenda of 1998. It is not known whether similar views are shared by other countries from South Asia. But, along with India, the rest of the South Asian countries—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—have also stayed away from demands for informal talks, displaying rare solidarity in a region fraught with differences. Amongst other large Asian economies, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam are also absent, as are most countries from Africa, with the exception of Nigeria.

The division amongst WTO members over their willingness to join talks on global digital trade rules reflects the hesitations prominent amongst many till now. As the world rapidly transitions to embrace digital trade and commerce, many countries are suffering from a lack of preparedness in accepting the change. A country like India, in addition, is grappling with the intimidating prospect of letting its enormous domestic market be dominated by foreign e-commerce and digital service providers. India’s new e-commerce investment rules, as well as its emphasis on data localisation, underscore this fear. While the fears might be justified, India and those other large economies those are yet to support global e-commerce talks face two major problems that might complicate their future prospects in global trade.

There is little doubt that more and more countries will join the demand for global e-commerce talks. As major world powers and large economies push for these talks, the scope for alternative, politically non-aligned views is likely to shrink fast in a world where digitalisation of cross-border transactions are no longer an option, but rather the fait accompli. Views like those of India’s, therefore, would find it increasingly hard to gather support. The other major problem for countries like India is the fact that several influential stakeholders at the WTO, including the EU and China, find global e-commerce talks a precious lifeline for revitalisation of the WTO in a world where the global trade body’s relevance is being increasingly threatened by unilateral trade actions. There is no denying that the push for talks is coming largely from countries that have global comparative advantages in providing e-commerce services. But this is unavoidable and inevitable. Waiting for a level-playing field to emerge in e-commerce capacities across the world, and then commencing talks on global rules, is an irrational expectation.

The WTO is desperately seeking a new lease of life and the e-commerce talks might just be what it is looking for. For that it might well be willing to work with most, if not all—a point to be noted by India and the unwilling others.

SDGs and grim global realities

Source: By Bharat Dogra: The Statesman

In recent times the development discourse all over the world has been heavily influenced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set up by the United Nations in 2015 for the year 2030. These goals are in the form of specific targets set up for key areas of development, protection of environment and various forms of life etc.

If these goals are achieved, then these 15 years will be the most successful years of human history in terms of reducing distress. Hunger is sought to be almost eliminated while poverty will be reduced greatly. If SDGs help to establish the right priorities in terms of such objectives, then this is a very good initiative.

However we cannot ignore some disturbing aspects. The most ambitious goals of reducing distress have been set for a time period (2015-2030) about which other available evidence indicates that this may be a period of some very adverse trends. For example, if we look at the previous 15 to 30 years, then it is clear that the world has been passing through times of very high and perhaps unprecedented inequalities. The SDGs also talk about reducing inequalities, but not specifically about how exactly these trends will be checked and how actually the forces which are responsible for these trends will be checked.

Similarly it is clear that these are times of very heavy spending on arms and ammunition, as well as increasing overall military budgets. The world is not only over-loaded with destructive weapons (including weapons of mass destruction) but in addition this high risk load is spreading and increasing rapidly. The statistics of high arms spending are generally presented mainly in the context of the spending of various governments but in addition there is also the heavy spending on arms and ammunition, legal and illegal, by individuals, criminals and private militias. All this has been increasing.

The sum total of government and private expenditure on arms and ammunition is truly massive. This is also very expensive in terms of snatching away resources from meeting the needs of people. There are deeply entrenched reasons why weapons go on proliferating despite everyone knowing how destructive and expensive these are. There are also very powerful forces which want this to continue. But SDG documents do not tell us exactly how this trend can be checked or resolved, or what big, new and different initiatives will be taken on this important issue.

Thirdly, the period of SDGs is also a highly sensitive one when lives threatening environmental changes like climate change are likely to increase and cause a lot of destruction and distress. This has been well recognised for about three decades, yet the world has badly lagged behind in terms of the steps necessary for checking this. There are powerful forces which are responsible for this and there are also important weaknesses in the efforts. The SDG documents do not tell us how these forces will be challenged, and how these weaknesses will be removed.

As there are no details of any specific initiatives which are significantly different from the earlier efforts that failed, there is no assurance at all that the inequalities (and the huge wasteful consumption which inevitably accompanies big inequalities) will be curbed, and there is even less assurance that the destructive arms proliferation will be checked. Again there is no assurance that climate change will be checked before it is too late and tipping points are reached.

In such a situation it is not at all clear how highly ambitious goals of meeting basic needs of all human beings and particularly all other forms of life as will be achieved. Thus while the SDGs are laudable objectives and can be helpful in improving priorities to some extent, several questions arise when these are examined with reference to the grim realities of several important existing trends.

What are the structural problems due to which the performance of the earlier few decades has been so disappointing? What are the weaknesses at the level of global governance due to which the most serious global problems (WMDs, climate change, ocean pollution, currency and trade reforms etc.) could not be tackled effectively so far?

We need to find frank and truthful answers to these tough questions and we need to take the necessary remedial action on the basis of these truthful answers for correcting structural problems and injustices as well as for significantly improving global governance and its capacity to solve the most pressing problems. It is not adequate merely to set up good targets for priority areas, we should face the grim reality of the very tough conditions within which these targets have to be reached and take adequate steps to improve the overall conditions.

Agreeable Hunger

Source: By Jaydev Jana: The Statesman

My religion teaches me that, whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray ~ Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, 25 September 1924.

To go on fast is a very old system of protest, practised for a variety of purposes at different stages of civilization. In its traditional sense, fasting crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free. Indeed, what is bread to a hungry stomach, fasting is to a soul struggling for self-realization. The logical outcome should be the control of impulses, passions and temptations. It is a prayer to clean the body, mind and soul.

Hindus believe that by going on fast a person will go to the heaven of that God in whose name the fast is observed. The Hebrews associated fasting with divine revelation. A fast is not a hunger strikebut a method to abide by God’s commands. A hunger-strike makes God concede our demands. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed went on fast to see God face to face. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Fasting, unless it is the result of God’s grace, is useless starvation, if not much worse.’

Gandhi’s experiment with fasts was integral to his search for truth. He took over the traditional Hindu practice of fasting as a protest, combined with it the Judaic concept of representative leadership and the Christian concepts of vicarious atonement and suffering love, interpreted and reinterpreted each in the light of the others, and developed the amazing notion of a ‘voluntary crucifixion of the flesh.’

It involved fasts undertaken by an acknowledged leader of the community to atone for the evil deeds of his followers. Gandhi was on fast because he believed that there is some goodness in every human being and every human being is capable of showing qualities such as compassion, brotherhood, tolerance, generosity and love. No matter how cruel or inhumane a person might appear to be, deep down he too has a heart. He didn’t decide to go on fast in haste. Nor was he unaware of its consequences in terms of his health.

Mahatma Gandhi went on fast on several occasions between 1913 and 1948. He first undertook penitential fast at Phoenix (South Africa) on 13 July 1913 and on 13 January 1948, he was on fast at the age of 78 for restoring communal harmony at Birla House. This was the last fast of his life. His fasts stretched from three days to three weeks. He fasted in different places: in South Africa, in cities across India, in prisons and at home. His fasts were never devoid of spiritual significance. A variety of factors influenced him to go on fast ~ against violent protest during the freedom struggle, in support of the ‘untouchables’ and in opposition to the British constitutional proposal based on separate castes, for Hindu-Muslim unity, and against communal riots.

In the words of his grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi: ‘Gandhi resorted to some 30 fasts, of which one-third were directed at himself for ‘atonement’, of self-purification, one-third were directed against the Raj and one-third at India’s social mores. A more honest trinity cannot be imagined. The latter two fasts were meant to make an impact on the ‘other side’; they were part-fasts and part-hunger strikes, part anashan and part bhukh-hartal, though he derived from each a sense of spiritual self-renewal.’

John Connolly, an Irish writer, once commented, ‘for in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lies the adult that will be.’ While Mahatma Gandhi had many influences in his life, none was greater in his spiritual development than his mother, Putlibai. He wrote in his Autobiography, ‘She was deeply religious. She would not think of taking her meal without her daily prayers… Two or three consecutive fasts were nothing to her. Living on one meal a day during Chatumas was a habit.” Gandhi’s fasts achieved mixed results. At times, he was able to secure concrete action, such as the withdrawal of the British proposal on separation of castes. On occasion, he had to end his fasts without any immediate, tangible achievement. In his reckoning, fasting was an act of standing for Truth, the truth of the cause of self-rule. It was a potent means of communication.

A fast is a non-violent form of action, an overarching philosophy of ascetic discipline by which one becomes a master of oneself. Fasting, through the imposition of suffering upon the self, is essentially a ‘soul-force’, a spiritual practice of self-sacrifice, a patient education of the ‘other’ away from error and also to convert others by love. Gandhi prescribed two models of fasting based on the objective and the target.

There was a tone of challenge, but not of threat. Gopalkrishna Gandhi has written, “The purity of the motive, the lack of animosity towards the targets of his fasts and, above all, the readiness during the fast to engage with the other side raised his fast to moral heights.” Gandhi also added a unique dimension to his fast ~ elevating it to a powerful, though peaceful, means of shaming into submission the oppressive violent and sectarian forces that tattered the social fabric. His fast added an edge to his efforts towards redemption, even if his ultimate aim was political.

Gandhi went on fast for the people, and never with an intention to turn it into a political weapon. Nor for that matter did this agitprop seek to destabilise the British government or challenge its policies. The only exception was Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s communal award, against which Gandhi sat on a ‘fast unto death’ in 1932 in his cell at Yeravada Jail in Poona. Gandhi achieved extraordinary outcomes with ordinary tools ~ he fought stubbornness with shrewdness, hate with love, fear with courage and lust with the moral weapon. It would be useful to quote his word of caution ~ “The weapon of fasting, I know, cannot be lightly wielded, it can easily degenerate to violence unless it is used by one skilled in the art. I claim to be such an artist in this subject.’

Secular, democratic India

Source: By J K Arora: Deccan Herald

The recent Supreme Court judgement on allowing women of all age groups into the Sabarimala temple has brought out extremely sharp reactions from the two opposite camps, the modern liberal groups and the orthodox Hindu traditionalists.

The judgement has raised the question whether a religious belief that does not violate the provisions of Article 25 can be adjudicated by the courts. Justice Indu Malhotra, who wrote the dissenting judgement in the Sabarimala case, said that “the notions of rationality cannot be brought into matters of religion.” She added that the shrine and deity are protected under Article 25 of the Constitution and that it was not up to the court to decide which religious practices should be struck down, except in issues of social evil like ‘Sati’.

India is a ‘Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic’ as mentioned in the preamble to its Constitution. But are we actually a secular and democratic republic? During the Constituent Assembly debates on the question of including the word ‘secular’ in the preamble to the Constitution, B R Ambedkar said, “what should be the policy of the State, how the society should be organised in its social and economic side are matters which must be decided by the people themselves according to time and circumstances. It cannot be laid down in the Constitution itself because that is destroying democracy altogether.”

“It is an ideal to be aimed at and every one of us whether we are Hindus or Muslims, Sikhs or Christians, whatever we are, none of us can say in his heart of hearts that he has no prejudice and no taint of communalism in his mind or heart,” said Nehru. Yet, when it came to including the word ‘secular’ in the preamble, both were wary of its usage. The term ‘secular’ was incorporated in the preamble by the 42nd Amendment in 1976, without any debate in parliament as most opposition leaders were in jail during the Emergency.

How have we been practising secularism in India? Political parties are registered by the Election Commission as per rules laid down in the Representation of Peoples Act. The rules do not prescribe that no political party can be registered if it carries a name which can be easily associated with a particular caste, community or religion. How have we omitted such an important condition? When seeking votes in the name of religion, caste or community amounts to corrupt practice and election of a candidate who indulged in it can be set aside, how can political parties that identify themselves with a particular caste, community or religion be allowed to participate in the electoral process? Yet, we have quite a few such parties.

The other issue currently being debated is whether the State should regulate and legislate on aspects that lie in the domain of religious practices and beliefs. The State can, of course, legislate and regulate the other aspects of places of worship as provided in Article 25.Article 26 of the Constitution gives the right to every religious denomination or any section thereof to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes and to manage its own affairs in matters of religion.

The Supreme Court has also laid down, in the case of the famous Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, that the temple will be managed by the priests and not the state government. It further observed that “even if the management of the temple is taken over to remedy the evil, the management must be handed over to the person concerned immediately after the evil stands remedied. Continuation thereafter would tantamount to usurpation of their proprietary rights or fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution in favour of the persons deprived.” How is any State justified in running the affairs of almost all important Hindu temples on a perpetual basis? Should a secular State not treat all religions equally and refrain from interfering with matters of religion as guaranteed by Article 26?

How are we practising democracy in our country? Indian democracy is being practised through political parties. The main question then is whether the political parties themselves are being run on democratic basis or not. Barring a few, most parties in India is being run as private entities wholly controlled by a particular family or an individual? The control of the party is also handed over to successive generations as if it is private property. Besides, the government and the Election Commission seem totally helpless in regulating the functioning of political parties.

The Central Information Commission has held that national parties are public authorities as they get substantial State funding by way of getting land at highly subsidised rates, tax benefits and free primetime on State-owned TV channels during elections, etc. Yet, the functioning of these parties is not regulated. The same government imposes numerous conditions on various other institutions, like the autonomous sports bodies or other charitable institutions and NGOs, while granting them any benefits. And look at the damage these political parties are doing to national integration, communal harmony and decency in public life, particularly during election campaigns!

Has the time not come to regulate the internal functioning of political parties, like conducting their internal elections by an independent Election Commission-like body? Should their office-bearers be not subject to a maximum tenure? Should there not be provision to deregister parties that violate such conditions? How can they be trusted to run the affairs of the State on democratic principles when they don’t run their own affairs so?

It is time that some public-spirited persons sought judicial intervention through a PIL or otherwise and saw to it that these political parties first start running their own affairs democratically before they are allowed to contest elections. The SC could even suggest the composition of a regulator, perhaps a constitutional body, for political parties. Until then, we must wonder if we are truly a secular and democratic State.

A human-centric approach to unlock growth

Source: By Debjani Ghosh: Mint

Industry 4.0 is a double-edged sword. On one side, we have an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven $15.7 trillion game-changer that is unfolding. Of this, India can claim a $957 billion boost to its gross domestic product in the next 12-15 years. On the other side, it’s this (cutting-edge technologies such as AI) that will disrupt 70% of market leaders across industries in the next 10 years.

The availability of relevant talent (or the lack of it) will decide which way industries (and nations) will go. Re-skilling/upskilling is the only way out and will have to be undertaken by every stakeholder. Even from a mid-term standpoint, the opportunities are simply massive—the global digital transformation market is expected to grow from $ 445.4 billion in 2017 to $ 2,279.4 billion by 2025. The cost of not changing is frightening. By 2022, about 54% employees will need significant re-skilling/ upskilling.

The race for talent acquisition is intense. Countries have started to put in place national digital skills strategies, including in Asia. The magnitude of the challenge is massive and, in our case, nothing short of a collaborative Indian effort will suffice. Moreover, it’s about time we put to rest the fear-mongering narrative of job losses and underpinned the real issue—the global skill crisis. Smart machines will replace millions of jobs worldwide, but, newer jobs will be created in greater numbers.

The World Economic Forum estimates 75 million jobs may be displaced, but 133 million new roles may emerge globally in a few years. These new jobs will be different and will require higher application of cognitive skills alongside working with deep technologies. McKinsey says pretty much the same thing with more alarming statistics over a broader time horizon. Globally, 400 to 800 million jobs may be displaced by 2030, requiring as many as 375 million people to switch job categories entirely. Numerous studies have been carried out (including by Nasscom) and it’s clear why re-skilling is an imperative. Most of these figures are futuristic, but even now the skill gap is being acutely felt across industries. It’s a significant gap.

Is Indian IT doing enough towards re-skilling? Many companies have their own learning platforms that are being used extensively. Others are tapping into their partner networks and massive open online courses. Workforce participants realise that re-skilling is a hygiene factor. Historically, learning has happened in silos where learners have been pitted against one other. This has to morph into a collaborative mindset to create an environment of shared learning. Also, as an industry, we need to have deeper engagements with academia, CoEs and research labs to reach our optimum potential. Indian IT is taking convincing strides to sustain its position as the preferred transformational partner for global clients. Towards this, investments of about 10,000 crore of have been earmarked for re-skilling.

Besides our traditional geographies (the US & the UK) even other nations, such as Singapore, China, France, Canada, and Egypt, have begun to invest significantly towards creating digital talent. As many as 20 countries across the globe have adopted AI National Strategy. Governments worldwide recognise the inevitable shift and are adopting AI, analytics, and allied technologies to deliver citizen-centric services, including real-time response.

The government doubled its Digital India budget to $480 million in 2018-19, which will be used for research and training in deep tech. In the interim budget this year, the announcement of the National AI Centre, AI portal, and the identification of nine areas to be driven by technology are positive steps towards evangelisation. On this, I’d like to also add that the Karnataka government along with Nasscom has launched a CoE for data science and AI.

Universities will have to re-train to ensure students are employable in the digital era. We produce 2.6 million STEM graduates annually, but their employability is considerably low. We have to bear in mind that deep tech is evolving rapidly, so Standards & Quality Packs are still in the WIP stage, putting additional strain on quality. Investment in research is another area where we lag. Sponsored research in our top institutions is between $120-140 million annually, while comparable estimates in the American colleges are between $1-1.5 billion. Increasingly, universities will require great access to patient capital.

This industry has never been constrained by demand. We have to ensure that we get the supply side of the equation right in real quick time, and policies and strategies must translate into immediate action. The choice is no more about being the bigger fish —but being the faster one.

SC, decide as per law

Source: By Sudhanshu Ranjan: Deccan Herald

A five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, in its first major order, referred the Ayodhya matter to a mediation committee of three members headed by former SC judge Justice FMI Kalifulla, spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravishankar and senior advocate and mediation expert Sriram Panchu. Mediation is always commendable and, as far as possible, litigation should be avoided. But the recourse to mediation is taken at the initial stage, not at the last stage when it has already caused bloodbaths in the past. Besides, the apex court has done a somersault. Former Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra had said the court would deal with it only a case of land dispute, nothing else. But now, the court is of the view that it is much more than that; it is an issue of faith. The volte face is inscrutable. Views change with the change of judge!

There have been attempts at mediation in the past, but they came a cropper. Further, the committee is lopsided, with all the three members being from South India; in fact, all three were born in one state, Tamil Nadu. It may not inspire confidence. Some Muslim leaders have already taken exception to the inclusion of Ravishankar, who had asked Muslims to forgo their claims on the mosque as a “goodwill gesture”, in the committee. He has reportedly also questioned the Supreme Court’s competence to adjudicate on the issue.

Many Hindu organisations have opposed the mediation in unequivocal words. They referred to the judgement of the apex court in Afcons Infrastructure and Others vs Cherian Verkay Construction and Others, in which it held that there would be no reference to mediation in representative suits under Order 1 Rule 8 of the CPC which involve public interest of numerous persons who are not parties before the court. Mediation is possible if both sides are ready for give and take. But most of the stakeholders in this case have taken recalcitrant positions.

It is very clear that the Supreme Court does not want to adjudicate this sensitive issue. It was clear when, in 1994, it returned the reference sent by the President under Article 143 of the Constitution with respect to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute as to whether a temple had once existed at the site in Ayodhya where the Babri Masjid stood later on.

A majority of three judges held that the reference could not be taken as an effective ‘alternate dispute settlement mechanism’. So, it could not be permitted to substitute for the pending suits and legal proceedings. The court felt that the reference had become ‘superfluous and unnecessary’. The two judges (in minority) opined that the court was entitled to decline to answer a reference but then it must give reasons for doing so.

The grounds given by the court for declining to answer the reference were that (a) it favoured one religious community over another, (b) the Union government did not propose to resolve the dispute according to the court’s opinion, rather it just wanted to use it as a springboard for negotiations, (c) the main protagonists on both sides of the dispute had not appeared before the court to lead evidence or for cross-examination, and finally, (d) the process would invite criticism from either or both sides.

The reasoning adduced by the court for returning the reference is baffling as it did so after obtaining an undertaking from the Centre that it would abide by the opinion of the court though the opinion given under Presidential reference is not binding per se. Furthermore, why should the apex court fight shy of giving an opinion just because it may favour one religious community or may be subject to criticism? The same argument has been bandied about now.

An analysis of the litigation over whether or not it was a Ram Mandir or the Babri Masjid that had existed anterior in time at the disputed site in Ayodhya conclusively demonstrates that some suits do remain inconclusive, perhaps forever. In 1949, some primitive images of Hindu gods and goddesses mysteriously appeared in one section of the unused mosque. It triggered a huge controversy, leading to communal frenzy.

The issue went to the district court for the first time on January 13, 1950, when Gopal Singh Visharad filed a suit in the Faizabad court. Many other cases were filed subsequently. All suits were clubbed together and called before the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court in the representative capacity. The litigation kept hanging and after spawning many political convulsions, the disputed structure was pulled down by obscurantist Hindu activists on December 6, 1992, triggering large-scale communal riots and making a huge impact on the politics of the country.

Ultimately, after a long wait, a three-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court pronounced its verdict on September 30, 2010. It ruled that the 2.77 acres of land be divided into three parts, with one-third going to Ram Lalla (infant Lord Ram) represented by the Hindu Mahasabha for the construction of the Ram temple, one-third going to the Islamic Sunni Waqf Board and the remaining one-third going to the Hindu religious denomination, Nirmohi Akhara.

While the bench was sharply divided over the issue whether the disputed structure had been erected after demolishing a temple, it was unanimous that a temple or a temple structure predated the mosque at the same site. The court relied upon reports of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), which carried out excavations, that the predating structure was a massive Hindu religious building.

The question is, what will the apex court do if the mediation fails? The court must show courage and close this chapter forever. There is a possibility that its judgement may not be obeyed, as happened in Sabarimala, but then it will be the responsibility of the government to enforce it.

A True cost of Alcohol prohibition

Source: By Shagun Khurana: The Financial Express

According to a 2018 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the per capita alcohol consumption in India has increased from 2.4 litres in 2005, to 4.3 litres in 2010, and to 5.7 litres in 2016, mainly driven by changes in demographics and spending patterns. The demand for alcoholic beverages has been rising and it has become an important parameter for tourists as well. The tourist-friendly liquor ban policy prevalent in Gujarat clearly shows that the government takes cognisance of the relationship between the availability of alcoholic beverages and tourist influx.

The state of Gujarat continues to practice complete prohibition of production, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages since the 1950s. In early 2000s, with the changing business environment in the state and increased acceptance of alcohol around the country, prohibition policies started proving detrimental to the tourism industry. The state tourism department had to intervene to persuade the government to relax prohibition norms for tourists. In the contemporary setting, the tourism sector has multiple interlinkages with other industries such as food services, hospitality, retail and real estate. Therefore, to prevent spillovers on other sectors, over the years Gujarat has evolved its prohibition policy to allow consumption of alcohol under certain circumstances, with the provision of health permits, tourist permits and group permits for holding business meetings.

Gujarat introduced tourist permits on arrival at airports and hotels and individual and group permits through its online portal in 2014. According to the Bombay Prohibition (Gujarat Amendment) Act, 1963, a hotel that has “ordinarily a sufficient number of boarders eligible to hold permits” can obtain a hotel licence for selling alcoholic beverages to tourists on premises. In 2012, there were 29 such hotels, and by 2016, the state government granted licences to 23 more.

The state also has authorised retail shops that are allowed to sell liquor to permit holders directly; in 2014-15, the total number of retail outlets were 26, which has more than doubled to 58 in 2018-19. The effect of this favourable approach towards the tourism sector is reflected in the high inflow of tourists, both domestic and international, despite it being a prohibition state. Gujarat serves as a classic example, where the government has been successful in bringing forth policies to contain the adverse effect of liquor prohibition on the allied sectors.

Taking cues from the Gujarat prohibition story, the Kerala government also introduced a near-complete ban on alcohol. In 2014, the per capita consumption of alcohol in Kerala was 8.3 litres per year, well above the national per capita average of 5.7 litres per year, which compelled the state government to take such an extreme measure. Nevertheless, the move led to a decline in the growth rate of tourism in Kerala, from 8.1% in 2013 to 7.6% in 2014 and 5.9% in 2015.

The total estimated loss of revenue from tourism was to the tune of `700 billion. The total revenue generated from MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) tourism alone, which grew at 9.1% in 2013, and 4.8% in 2014, actually plummeted by 0.6% in 2015. Due to such a substantial impact on the economy and employment, the Kerala government had to repeal its decision of alcohol ban in June 2017.

Prohibition has its pros and cons and its implementation has proved to be a challenging task, to the point of becoming impractical. Despite heavy monitoring and regulation, the illegal manufacture, sale and consumption of liquor continues to cripple the prohibition efforts of the Gujarat government. Data from various sources indicate that the number of deaths caused by the consumption of illicit alcohol is one of the highest in Gujarat. Between 2012 and 2016, spurious liquor claimed 177 lives in Gujarat.

A more recent example is from Bihar, where bootlegging, illegal trade and consumption of alcohol are rampant since the government brought in prohibition in 2016. The unrecorded consumption of alcohol in India is around 50%, as shown by another WHO report in 2014. Prohibition tends to push the regulated market underground as well; the result is a parallel economy for alcohol in Bihar. There was a steep increase in substance abuse and bootlegging activities in Kerala as well during the year following the liquor ban.

The immediate effect of prohibition is a dent on states’ revenues. Post the introduction of GST, revenue from excise has become one of the major taxes collected by states on their own. When the Bihar government announced the liquor ban in September 2016, it cost the state heavily, as the receipts from state excise fell sharply from `3,141 crore for 2015-16 to `29 crore for 2016-17. Because of fiscal constraints, the government has been forced to withdraw all capital incentives including subsidy for industries investing in Bihar, as per its new industrial policy. Moreover, there has been an adverse impact on economic activity as well. MICE tourism in the state has taken a huge blow; with most big events, conferences, product launches, etc, been shifted to other states, occupancy rates in hotels have come down to 40-45%.

State governments need to reflect on their perspective about prohibition of alcohol, especially because it is a significant loss to the interlinked industries, and is a complete wasteful exercise if the ban is repealed later (like in Kerala). One policy does not fit all. In 2016-17, the per capita income of Bihar was `28,485 at 2011-12 prices, while Gujarat’s was 4.5 times. A state like Bihar cannot afford a loss of revenue and a blow to the economic activity of that magnitude. In turn, enforcement of prohibition laws poses a big challenge for state governments and is a financial burden. The question remains: Is it worth it to “ban” alcohol, rather than focusing on encouraging responsible practices in production and consumption?


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