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COVER STORY

27-10-2017

Crisis of governance

Modi government on the backfoot

Briefing

Cover Story

In damage control mode

“The invincibility mode in which Narendra Modi and his team were cruising is over. It has become imperative to take course-correction steps and implement them effectively.” This was the dominant refrain in an informal gathering of a group of Varanasi-based Sangh Parivar activists, mainly belonging to the parent outfit, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), and the Akhil Bhartiya Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh, the associate organisation of teachers, as they analysed the Vijayadasami speech of the RSS sarsangchalak Mohan Bhagwat. According to many of them, the tone and tenor of his speech was a clear extension of the warning notes that had been sounded at a coordination meeting of 40-odd Sangh Parivar outfits held at Mathura in early September. The RSS leadership reportedly warned the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to be wary of a repeat of the kind of electoral defeat suffered by the BJP-National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004. While the Mathura meet, held inside closed doors, repeatedly flagged the experience the Vajpayee-led government went through in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections when its “India Shining” campaign collapsed into a shock electoral defeat, Bhagwat’s speech openly raised some specific issues where the RSS found the government’s performance wanting.

Bhagwat said that though the Modi government had taken some bold decisions to curb corruption and enhance speedy development, there was a much-felt need for an integrated and holistic policy which would take into consideration the diversity and various requirements of the nation. He pointed out that this holistic policy should address the needs of industry, trade, agriculture and the environment together and, at the same time, safeguard the interests of everyone, from big, medium and small industries to small retailers, farmers and landless labour. “The compulsion to move on with the currently accepted global policies and standards, even if they are faulty, artificial, create a mirage of prosperity and cause erosion of morality, the environment, employment and self-reliance, can be understood to a certain extent. However, it is also universally being recognised that all these policies and standards need a rethinking, and nation-specific unique models of development should evolve. Our NITI Aayog and economic advisers of the States will have to come out of the same old economic ‘isms’, and will have to integrate the most up-to-date economic experiences with the ground reality of our nation.”

Activists from other parts of the country too share the opinion of the Sangh Parivar activists of Varanasi that this direct reference to government policy and institutions such as NITI Aayog is exceptional. Traditionally, the Navaratri festivals have had great importance in the organisational scheme of things of the Sangh Parivar, especially in the RSS. The rituals and ceremonies, spread over nine days and nights at the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, also mark a period of annual stocktaking for the organisation, with the proclamations of the sarsangchalak on the 10th—Vijayadasami— day charting pointers to the future course of action. The organisational evaluation covers diverse aspects of the functioning of Sangh Parivar outfits, including the performance of the governments run by the BJP, the outfit that involves directly in electoral politics. Similar assessments had taken place in the past three years of the Modi government too, but the kind of plain-speaking that Bhagwat did this year was not witnessed on earlier occasions.

The prevailing sense in the Sangh Parivar in the context of the speech and developments relating to it is that while the Modi-Amit Shah duo and the team led by them have done considerably well in terms of pushing the sociopolitical agenda of the Hindutva combine, especially at the level of polarising society on communal lines and marginalising minority communities, especially Muslims, its economic track record is not satisfactory, particularly in addressing the agrarian crisis, the plight of small and medium industries and the welfare of poor people generally. Sangh Parivar insiders also say that feedback received before the Mathura coordination meet had pointed to widespread popular resentment against the Modi government over its track record in economic affairs. The agrarian crisis was triggering rural unrest in almost all the States, and the BJP governments of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Haryana had received intelligence agencies’ warnings about this turning into a major law-and-order problem. These reports also indicated that the implementation of programmes such as Goods and Services Tax (GST) was alienating the traditional support bases of the BJP, including the Bania community of traders. The alienation, it was reported, was most intense among small and medium traders. This section had started stating openly that Modi and his associates were only interested in promoting the interests of big corporates owned by the Ambanis and the Adanis.

Alarming signals

While these reports for the coordination meet were sourced from across the country, the RSS top brass had apparently received specific inputs in the latter half of September from the three States—Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan— that will go to the polls in 2018. According to a Varanasi-based academic who works closely with the RSS, the reports from Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan were nothing short of alarming. “Both the States had witnessed massive and aggressive farmer agitations that pressured the BJP State governments led by Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje respectively to concede many of their demands. Still, the farmers’ anger over policy issues persists.” He added that even in Gujarat, the situation was getting increasingly problematic though the “Gujarat Gaurav” (Gujarat pride) slogan, built around the personality of Modi and the prominence his rise in national politics had given to the people of Gujarat, was working to a large extent. Overall, the conviction of the BJP and Sangh Parivar leadership about getting an unbroken stint across all the States currently ruled by the BJP was getting undermined in a big way. It was in this context that Bhagwat’s speech pointed to the need for policy course correction. It was in the same context that the discussions on the speech within the Sangh Parivar acquired the “end of invincibility mode” slant.

Other insiders also pointed out that earlier too the RSS had issued warnings, but they were issued internally in the organisation and were not made public. A case in point of this sort of warning, said a Delhi-based RSS activist, was witnessed in April 2015, when a joint meeting of the top leadership of the RSS and the BJP was convened at the house of Union Minister Nitin Gadkari to give the message to the Cabinet leadership to initiate steps to dispel the impression among the public that Modi and his Cabinet were anti-farmer and anti-poor. “But now, the RSS’ assessment is that these initiatives and the course correction suggested then have not reflected in government programmes and policy.”

Interestingly, Bhagwat’s Vijayadasami speech was preceded by the criticism of two senior BJP leaders—former Union Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha and former Minister of Commerce and Industry Subramanian Swamy—who also focussed primarily on the economic situation. Subramanian Swamy did not mince words when he said that the Indian economy was heading for a “major depression” and it could “crash” soon if efforts were not initiated to revive it. “Today, the economy is in a tailspin. Yes, it can crash. We need to do a lot of good things to revive the economy. Even a tailspin can be made to steady. If nothing is done, we are heading for a major depression. There will be mass scale… banks might collapse, factories might start closing,” he said in an interview to a television channel recently.

He also said that India’s growth rate was much lower than what was being presented. “It is lower than what is being told to you, and it is going to decline, according to what I call Samuelson-Swamy theory of index numbers, which tells you how to calculate the correct index numbers.” Swamy went on to add that last May he had written a 16-page letter to the Prime Minister “with stats from his own departments to show that there are five storm signals”.

Yashwant Sinha’s views, expressed in an article in The Indian Express, had closer resonances with the points raised in Bhagwat’s speech, which came three days after the publication of the article. Sinha addressed diverse issues, including the crisis in the agricultural sector and in the small and medium enterprises (SME) and the virtual collapse of the manufacturing and construction sectors. In a focussed analysis of three key economic policy issues such as demonetisation, implementation of GST and the constantly escalating non-performing assets (NPAs) of banks, Sinha pointed out that it exposed the government’s lack of planning and faulty implementation, leading to “unmitigated economic disasters”.

There is a stream of opinion among observers and in sections of the political class, belonging to the BJP and non-BJP parties, that all these expressions of unease and the call for course correction will ultimately end in the removal of Arun Jaitley as Union Finance Minister. This stream of opinion holds that Jaitley will be made a scapegoat, with the blame for all the economic policy foibles foisted on him, and that Modi will be given a clean chit so that he can lead the party in the Assembly elections to be held in 2018 and the general elections in 2019 with a refurbished image. While this could well be true, the initial responses from the BJP to the criticisms of Sinha and Swamy have vociferously defended Jaitley’s and the government’s economic policy track record.

In many ways, this counter attack also marked a departure from the contemptuous nonchalance with which the Cabinet had treated criticism of government policy by the opposition and experts in different fields. This counter attack was mounted by initially fielding an array of BJP leaders, including senior Ministers like Rajnath Singh, Ravi Shankar Prasad and Piyush Goyal. Yashwant Sinha’s son and Union Minister Jayant Sinha was also pushed into service. He sought to give point-by-point rebuttal to his father. Later, Jaitley himself launched a virulent personal attack on Yashwant Sinha, saying that he did not enjoy the privilege of being an ex-Finance Minister and accusing Sinha of harbouring a desire to replace him. Modi too joined the counter attack, saying that “some pessimists can get sleep at night only if they spread despair”. He claimed that the economy was on track and that the slump was only temporary.

Notwithstanding this collective defence, indications from the BJP are that systematic efforts to placate Bhagwat and other top brass of the Sangh Parivar are under way. One manifestation of such attempts is in the move initiated by BJP president Amit Shah to translate and publish Bhagwat’s speech as a booklet in various Indian languages. The booklet, apparently, would be distributed across all BJP units and studied as some kind of a primer.

At the political level, Shah has apparently contended before the Sangh Parivar top brass that the reverses caused by the economic policy issues can be overcome by weaning away more regional parties to the NDA fold, just as it was done with the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United) in Bihar, and Narayan Rane in Maharashtra. Yet another contention from Shah was that noone in the opposition could still match Modi in terms of communication with the masses and that at the level of leadership too there was no alternative to Modi. The response of the RSS top brass to these arguments and proposals, say a number of Sangh Parivar insiders, have been positive, but the top brass has continued to insist on concrete course correction initiatives. Whether it would happen or not is a moot question. What form it would take even if it is done is also to be seen. Beyond all this rumination on the possible course of the BJP, the entire sequence of events has thrown up one discernible and unambiguous fact: that both the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar are displaying a sense of being rattled by the popular response to the economic crisis.

Economic policy

Compounding a crisis

V. SRIDHAR cover-story

A DESPERATE NATION, reeling under the impact of an economic slowdown, was agog on October 6 as it waited for news from the meeting of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Council. In particular, there were expectations that some sops would be on offer to soften the impact of the disastrous implementation of the new and “revolutionary” tax that was launched on July 1.

The three months of the new tax regime were a nightmare for most businesses, particularly small units, which have a presence in most parts of the national economy. Although a rollback was out of the question, the nation awaited some tangible relief from the massive burden that followed the already crushing burden that demonetisation was. Within Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own State of Gujarat, in places like Surat, traders and manufacturers, especially of textiles, have been on the warpath, even if their protests have been blacked out in most mainstream media (see “A looming crisis”, Frontline, September 15, 2017).

Across the country, from poultry farmers and those in the pharmaceuticals trade in West Bengal to textile entrepreneurs in Tirupur, weavers in Varanasi, Modi’s constituency, to chikan makers in Lucknow, and powerloom operators in Bhiwandi to traders in Kanpur and Ghaziabad, people in business have been restive.

There was high drama as Modi summoned Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah from his Kerala mission and went into a huddle with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley the previous day. Naturally, expectations of a “big bang” announcement were heightened; many, chastened by the sudden announcement of demonetisation last November, were also nervous because of the “anything-is-possible” fear associated with policymaking in the Modi era.

What actually came out of the council’s nine-hour-long deliberation could not have been more underwhelming. The council, nominally the apex body that governs the new tax regime (where it is the Finance Minister who actually calls the shots), offered some more elements aimed at fine-tuning what was heralded as a “revolutionary” tax.

The key elements of the changes—the latest being only the most recent in a long list of changes of tax rates on commodities and services and the rules for filing returns—indicated that the burden of GST on businesses was only going to get worse. The changes in rates were trivial because they were either wrongly aligned in the first place, or, like in the case of khakra, a Gujarati snack, were seen as pandering to an electorate that the BJP will be facing soon.

More importantly, the constant tinkering with rates right from the start of the GST regime does not reflect well on a tax administration. Businesses and consumers expect a stable tax regime, not one in an uncertain world in which anything can happen anytime. Moreover, by constantly tinkering with rates and rules, the tax administration appears to signal its amenability to lobbying by pressure groups and lobbies.

For instance, among the changes announced was the elimination of the need to present a proof of identity during purchases of gold or jewellery valued at up to Rs.50,000. Why would a government that swore to fight the black money menace, and which unleashed demonetisation in its name, want to pander to the powerful lobby of gold and jewellery merchants?

Exporters have been gravely hit by the GST crisis. Most of them, operating on wafer-thin margins, have been unable to recover the taxes they have already paid, and which need to be set off under various incentive schemes. It is estimated that about Rs.60,000 crore is stuck in the GST’s clogged pipeline since July. Jaitley has announced an e-wallet scheme, a system of “notional” tax credits against which exporters could offset their liabilities. But this merely amounts to applying band-aid to a gunshot wound because it is only an interim solution whose revenue implications are entirely unclear now.

Burden as relief

The other elements of the grand package unveiled by Jaitley after the meeting of the council, ostensibly aimed at offering relief to distressed small and medium enterprises, also reveal either an unwillingness to comprehend the plight of these units or, worse, a determination to proceed with a model that is designed to hurt them. Two elements in particular stood out as an indication of tokenism. The first was the decision to lift the threshold for the compounding scheme from Rs.75 lakh per annum to Rs.1 crore. Compounding essentially allows small business units with turnovers below the threshold to opt to pay a flat rate of tax ranging from 1 to 5 per cent depending on their activity (1 per cent for traders, 2 per cent for manufacturers and suppliers and 5 per cent for restaurants). About 1.5 million business units in the country out of 8.9 million assessees, or 17 per cent of the tax assessment base, had opted for the scheme. The increase in the threshold implies that at least one-fifth of the GST tax assessee base would fall under the compounding scheme.

The fact that these units face a less onerous burden in terms of filing returns—just one return every quarter and an annual return at the end of the financial year—may appear to make this an attractive option, but this is deceptive. Although compounding may imply a lower compliance cost, these businesses forfeit their right to claim input credits, which was tom-tommed as a highlight of GST. Business units can offset taxes (GST) paid down the line against their own tax liability. What this means is that those opting for the “convenience” of easier compliance are actually trading away their competitiveness, especially against larger companies that are fully integrated into the GST system. This is because smaller units’ costs would be higher, not simply because of lower scale but also because they suffer a higher incidence of tax. In effect, by increasing the compounding threshold, these units are actually in danger of bartering away their existence for immediate convenience.

That this is being touted as relief can only arise from a staggering suspension of reason. Moreover, the compounding scheme would not work for inter-State sales/supplies, which implies that small units would not have the option of accessing the wider national market via the so-called “one nation one tax regime”.

In line with this reasoning of offering relief, Jaitley also announced that business units with a turnover of less than Rs.1.5 crore per annum would only need to file quarterly returns, instead of the multiple monthly returns since GST came into effect. Again, this is hardly a relief, as millions of GST-compliant would testify, based on their experience with filing returns. The GST network has been erratic and has demonstrated its inability to cope with the concentrated rush of taxpayers close to deadlines for filing returns; so much so that Jaitley has had to extend deadlines for filing returns multiple times in the short span that the new tax regime has been in existence.

The relief that Jaitley has offered actually implies an additional burden to beleaguered business units. These units will now have to wait for a quarter before they can claim input tax credits. In order to comprehend this impact, it is necessary to appreciate that working capital is critical for these units and the shortage of this kind of capital, to pay for wages, inputs and raw materials, has always been a problem for these units.

Moreover, the inordinately delayed payments made by large companies for supplies received by them can only be described as a parasitic relationship between large and small units in the country. The small units’ limited access to banks for their working capital needs worsens this situation. In fact, this is a primary reason why cash played a central role in the fortunes of these small units, until demonetisation hit them. Lakhs of business units across the country, across industries from textiles, leather and paper products to plastics and others, were hit hard by demonetisation because cash was their medium of doing business.

What GST has done is to add another layer of working capital expenses to these companies. If units have to wait for payments to come in, or for tax credits to flow back as offsets to their tax liabilities, they will need more working capital to tide over the interim period. The fact that many of these units operate on wafer-thin margins makes this a tight stretch.

A recent study by India Ratings and Research, part of the Fitch Group, a global rating agency, shows that the burden of GST in sectors such as textiles, steel, consumer durables and construction is falling disproportionately on smaller units. In fact, it notes that the wave of discounts offered before the GST rollout was to reduce the uncertainty that was expected to pose problems by way of locked-up input tax credits. It observed that in sectors such as construction, consumer durables and metals, the interest cover available to tide over delayed receipts of input taxes are “a cause of concern”, especially for smaller units.

In the case of steel, India Ratings expects that under the impact of GST, the playing field would be tilted in favour of larger companies as the pricing gap, currently at 5-7 per cent, “is likely to fade”. The market share of unorganised steel producers is likely to fall sharply because of their higher compliance costs and higher cost of working capital. The case of textiles is particularly striking because the double whammy of demonetisation and GST has rocked the entire supply chain.

“GST has knocked the stuffing out of us, not just me but all along the chain I am part of,” a textile retailer in Bengaluru said. Before GST, he stocked according to what he reckoned was likely to sell, based on his reading of what was fashionable. The business ran on the understanding that unsold stocks would be returned to the wholesaler and payments in subsequent time periods would be netted out against fresh supplies. This logic worked backwards right through the chain, from the retailer to the wholesaler and to the manufacturer.

Flawed design

The GST regime straitjackets the entire process by insisting on the matching of every single invoice down the chain. Such a system of invoice-level matching is unheard of in any GST regime anywhere in the world. Apart from introducing an additional burden of compliance, it also adds to the uncertainty. The owner of a small business who bought a car for his company in August said that he had to ensure that the car dealer actually entered the details of the invoice for him to be able to claim tax credit. “Why should I be burdened by somebody else’s tax filings even though I have paid all my taxes?” he asked.

The textile retailer in Bengaluru said that in his case, the requirement of matching individual tax invoices with counterparties resulted in reduced flexibility and higher risk. “Since I am unable to sell a portion of what I ordered from the wholesaler, and since he is unwilling to take it back, I now avoid risk by stocking less,” he said. “This is happening not just with textiles but in every other trade. Everybody wants to avoid risk, especially because they are already reeling under a severe working capital shortage. Why does it surprise you that the economy is slowing down?”

GST apologists say that invoice-level matching is necessary because it eliminates the possibility of tax avoidance or tax theft by entities. They point to China as an example where this is the norm, but do not mention that the Chinese system requires all entities to use the same software, which ensures simultaneous and instantaneous resolution of tax payments and claims. In most countries, the norm is to use an intelligently determined small sample to check the veracity of claims instead of clogging the entire system by demanding that every single invoice be matched with a counterparty’s entry.

This is a serious design flaw that the Indian GST suffers from. More worryingly, there is no indication that either the Finance Ministry or the tax administration is even addressing it.

The other major aspect of the GST crisis, again a design flaw arising from the Modi government’s failure to pursue GST as a long-term reform, pertains to the multiplicity of tax rates. The constant tinkering with rates reflects two aspects of the mindset of those implementing GST. At one level it arises from the GST design, which simply puts different commodities and services into tax rate buckets closest to rates prevailing before GST came into effect. In the process, GST as a reform took a backseat, ceding ground to a perspective that demanded revenue “neutrality”—that is, there ought to be no loss of revenue from the new tax regime.

Instead, a more sagacious approach by the Centre would have helped. Such an approach would have required the Centre to focus less on revenue mobilisation in the short and immediate terms on the understanding that it was undertaking genuine tax reform. Of course, such sagacity would have also required it to protect the States from revenue losses because, after all, they were ceding their tax-raising powers.

Uprooted supply chains

Apologists of GST in general, and Modi’s ardent followers in particular, have been gloating that demonetisation and GST, by “formalising” business, has done the economy a great deal of good. The reality is very different. Among the datasets that have come to light recently is one showing how imports have surged in recent months; in particular, non-oil imports have increased significantly. These apologists see this as an indication that a recovery is in progress.

Instead, the surge indicates that imports have quickly occupied the supply chains, whose constituent units were devastated by the twin burdens of demonetisation and GST. This is not because the units were necessarily “inefficient” but simply because demonetisation destroyed the very fuel on which their businesses ran. Even before they could recover from the effects of demonetisation, GST hit them because they were desperately scrounging for their working capital needs. It appears that the GST regime, by severely disrupting their supply chains, allowed for imports to fill in this gap.

Modi apologists, in the aftermath of demonetisation, claimed that the move was a great one but that it was badly implemented. If only more currency notes had been printed, if only the ATMs had been calibrated sooner, if only banks had worked more efficiently… so went the line of reasoning. A similar tune is now being sung by those supporting GST.

While much is wrong with the functioning of the GST network, which collapsed at crucial times in the returns filing cycle, the real problem with GST lies in its conceptual design.

This is most striking in the way it treats economic entities without any regard to their size. It appears to be scale-neutral but it actually tilts the balance against smaller entities of all kinds and in all sectors of economic activity by imposing costs on them. Seen from this angle, GST is not just not neutral, it is positively biased in favour of big business and thus promotes concentration of economic power.

The recent remark by Piyush Goyal, who, instead of being more worried about the responsibilities of the Railway Ministry, especially after being welcomed recently into office by a spate of derailments, said that rising unemployment among youth was a “good sign” because it reflected the aspiration of youth to become entrepreneurs instead of just looking for a job, is shocking for two reasons at least.

First, the Indian economy could not have been worse for entrepreneurs. It is not just small manufacturing units, textile and garment units or factories or hotels that have faced the brunt of the twin shocks: there have been fewer software start-ups this year compared with last year and reports indicate that funding has dried up. Second, the kind of jobs Goyal was referring to—3D manufacturing and artificial intelligence—are hardly jobs that the average Indian can access on demand. Goyal’s comments reveal the extraordinary distance that has emerged between the political elite and the ordinary citizen, where wishful “aspirations” masquerade as policy, the Bullet Train being just one example.

Well before the current political crisis, triggered by the scathing comments made by former National Democratic Alliance Ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, Jaitley suggested that GST-like reforms were continuous in nature. Implied in this was the suggestion that it would be fine-tuned along the way. This is a far cry from how Modi unveiled GST, invoking India’s second “tryst with destiny” at a midnight session of Parliament. In Modi’s original promise made a few months ago, GST was a revolutionary step. In reality, this so-called tax reform is reform, drip by drip. The only thing that is certain about this fatally flawed and badly designed tax is that it will hurt more.

Jan Dhan Yojana

Dry accounts

AKSHAY DESHMANE cover-story

IN late 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi officially launched the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY), which was among the select flagship schemes he announced in his first Independence Day address from the Red Fort. At its official launch some days after the announcement, 1.5 crore bank accounts were opened for people living below poverty line.

The Prime Minister said about the first welfare programme of his government: “The one and half crore families and individuals who have joined [opened their bank accounts] are keeping their first steps into the mainstream economy. This is, in itself, a significant victory which will provide momentum to the country’s economic system. Economy is the most important unit in the battle against poverty. If [the poor] remain untouched from it [economy] then, I don’t like using this expression, but I feel I should say that this is financial untouchability. Forty per cent of the people, who can’t become stakeholders in the country’s economy, cannot benefit from it, then how can we be successful in our work of removing poverty?”

He even compared it with Mahatma Gandhi’s battle against social untouchability. He said, “So, it is our goal that if Mahatma Gandhi tried to eradicate social untouchability we have to [strive to] achieve freedom from financial untouchability. Every person will have to be connected with the financial system and, keeping this in mind, we have put all our strength into this campaign.”

Subsequent to the scheme’s launch, the government started a “national mission on financial inclusion”. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, writing in a “mission document” on Jan Dhan Yojana, said the intended goal was “to provide all households in the country, both rural and urban, with access to the financial services, like bank account with RuPay debit card, access to credit, remittance, insurance and pension. Thus, the mission not only brings the excluded sections into the financial mainstream but makes the transfer of benefits of various subsidy schemes of the government more efficient.” Eventually, this effort was to serve as the enabler for the government’s Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile (JAM) policy, which seeks to use technology to deliver welfare and cut down leakages.

Much of the initial attention of the government system seemed to be focussed on opening a large number of bank accounts, a focus that earned it a place in the Guinness Book of World Records at the time of the scheme’s official launch in August 2014.

The world record was registered under the title, “Most Bank Accounts Opened in one week in a financial inclusion campaign”. The company’s website states: “[T]he bank accounts were opened under the PMJDY by 36 banks across India. During the week of 23-29 August 2014, 18,096,130 bank accounts were opened, being the highest number of bank accounts in seven consecutive days between 16-29 August 2014. The evidence for the number of bank accounts opened is based on the data obtained from the core banking system (CBS) of various banks.”

Speaking with journalists in early 2015, Arun Jaitley described the efforts taken at enumeration and reaching out to 21 crore of the total 25 crore households in the country by bank employees. The remaining 4 crore-odd households could not be reached since they were located in left-wing and other kind of extremism-affected areas, he said. But, by and large, these efforts yielded good results, he said and claimed, “Most of India today is included in the banking system.” However, he conceded that only 28 per cent of these accounts were “operational” and had some money. To ensure that the remaining accounts were active, the government planned to transfer money to beneficiaries of various welfare schemes in their bank accounts.

Many efforts to reflect a higher number of active accounts have been made since then. By December 2016, government data show, only around 24 per cent of the accounts were of zero balance. But there is no official data made available after this on the scheme’s website.

In fact, in the past three years of the scheme’s existence, available evidence suggests that its performance has been, at best, mixed and certainly far from realising the lofty ambition of comprehensive financial inclusion that it set out to achieve. This measure started as an initiative of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI)— Basic Savings Bank Deposit Account—in 2005 under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. It involved opening a “no frills” bank account with an ATM card for account holders, most of whom were poor. Jan Dhan added “incentives” such as accident insurance cover of Rs.1 lakh, overdraft facility of up to Rs.5,000 after six months and life insurance cover of Rs.30,000.

Duplicate accounts

Even these incentives did not end the controversial practices banks followed to overcome the two significant problems in the scheme: dormant accounts and duplicate accounts. Dormant implied accounts without any activity and with zero balance. Duplicate implied that the Jan Dhan account holder had a second bank account in his name. Former Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, in an interview with The Hindu Business Line last year, claimed that 40 per cent of Jan Dhan accounts were “second accounts”. The suggestion was that accounts were opened just to show high numbers in official records. The biggest controversy of Jan Dhan centred on the “1 rupee trick” followed by several banks. First exposed in a journalistic investigation by The Indian Express in September 2016, it showed that in order to cut the number of “zero balance” accounts and show some activity in them, bank officials themselves deposited Re.1 in these accounts. At least two public sector banks reportedly acknowledged the existence of the practice. The scale of this practice was also significant. The newspaper’s investigation, conducted through the Right to Information applications, showed that 1.05 crore accounts in 18 public sector banks had Re.1 deposits.

Several recent academic research papers have also been less than enthusiastic about the scheme for the above described reasons. One of the most recent and original research papers is by a group of four researchers affiliated with the RBI, Reserve Bank Staff College, and Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. It was published in the Economic & Political Weekly in September. The study was done in 25 slum locations spread across nine districts of the national capital and had a sample of 600 slum dwellers. The researchers sought to understand the constraints that caused “involuntary exclusion” of the poor from banking services and estimate what could be the “incremental increase” if these constraints were addressed.

They observed: “Much ground has been covered with regard to calibrating the supply-side of the financial inclusion drive, especially in the form of the RBI’s financial inclusion plan and Government of India’s Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana. Given its relevance, however, there is a need to assess the use of banking services among the people, especially at the bottom of the pyramid, to be able to understand the constraints that prevent them from using the formal banking/financial services on offer.”

The researchers found “econometric evidence that there are constraints—in terms of income and occupation—that are holding Delhi slum dwellers back from using banking services. In order to enable effective financial inclusion, we recommend the removal of constraints on demand for financial services by enabling the lower strata of society to earn more. We also recommend customising financial products for identified occupations, improving financial literacy and being agnostic about gender.”

While the poor in Delhi appeared less eager to adopt robust use of the formal financial institutions, the top leadership of the government seemed to take refuge in data to celebrate the policy’s “success”. In a blog written on the third anniversary of the PMJDY, Arun Jaitley announced the arrival of a veritable revolution in financial inclusion. He wrote, “…as it turned out, PMJDY and the other schemes were only the first step because in turn they have unleashed the ‘JAM’ revolution. JAM, a term coined, and a vision conceptualised, by our Chief Economic Adviser, is nothing short of a social revolution because it has brought together financial inclusion (PMJDY), biometric identification (Aadhaar) and mobile telecommunications. Today, about 52.4 crore unique Aadhaar numbers are linked to 73.62 crore accounts in India. As a result, the poor are able to make payments electronically. Every month now, about 7 crore successful payments are made by the poor using their Aadhaar identification.”

Further to his description of the “JAM Revolution”, Jaitley wrote, “The JAM social revolution offers substantial benefits for government, the economy and especially the poor. The poor will have access to financial services and be cushioned against life’s major shocks. Government finances will be improved because of the reduced subsidy burden; at the same time, government will also be legitimised and strengthened because it can transfer resources to citizens faster and more reliably and with less leakage. Within reach of the country is what might be called the 1 billion-1 billion-1 billion vision. That is 1 billion unique Aadhaar numbers linked to 1 billion bank accounts and 1 billion mobile phones. Once that is done, all of India can become part of the financial and digital mainstream. Just as GST [Goods and Services Tax] created one tax, one market, one India, the PMJDY and the JAM revolution can link all Indians into one common financial, economic, and digital space. No Indian will be outside the mainstream. This is nothing short of a social revolution.”

The disconnect from ground reality could not perhaps get starker than this.

Rural electrification scheme

Unrealistic initiative

AKSHAY DESHMANE cover-story

On September 25, the birth anniversary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh icon Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, there was anticipation and curiosity in equal measure among Delhi’s political circles as word spread about an impending announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mark the occasion. Social media platforms were abuzz with speculation about the content of the announcement. By evening, when Modi mounted the dais at the Deendayal Urja Bhavan—a multi-storeyed building with a glass facade that serves as the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) corporate office in New Delhi—it became clear that the announcement would not be on the lines of the shock-and-awe demonetisation decision in November 2016. As it turned out, Modi’s announcement was about ensuring round-the-clock electricity access to the poor.

Since people’s curiosity had already been whetted, the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana, or Saubhagya scheme, which he announced was more widely discussed than any of his recent speeches.

Modi was at his evocative best: “Even after 70 years of Independence, there are more than four crore households which do not have an electricity connection. There are 25 crore households in India and four crore of this would mean nearly 20 per cent. Now imagine the life of people living in these four crore households. They are living in the 18th century. Imagine how your life would be if electricity is snatched away from your life; how you will survive? More than 125 years have passed since the great scientist Thomas Alva Edison invented the bulb. While exhibiting his invention, Edison had said, ‘We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.’ Which means that electricity will be made so inexpensive that only the rich will burn candles. This is an extremely sad and regrettable fact that four crore households do not even have electricity, let alone having a bulb. In those households, even today candles are burning. Dhibri and lalten [kerosene lamps] are burning. In these poor households, even today children face problems when they study in the evenings. They study in the light of the kerosene lamp.”

Modi went on to recall his own childhood experiences. “When I was young, I too studied this way. Elders would advise against studying under the light of the oil lamps as this hurts the eyes, breath may stop, too. I said, ‘What should I do?’ They said use castor oil to light the lamp. I have studied under castor oil lamps to get ahead in life. So I wonder how those four crore families will be able to manage. Forget comforts, women in the household have to cook in darkness and so most of them feel the pressure to cook before the sun goes down.”

Having set the tone of his rhetoric, Modi sketched out a few, even if limited, details of the scheme. Under the Saubhagya scheme, the government will provide free electricity connections to all poor rural and urban households across the country irrespective of whether the household is in a slum or in some inaccessible area. The Prime Minister said that the poor households without electricity would be exempted from paying installation charges for electricity connections and that government officials would themselves visit these households to provide the connection. The government would incur an expenditure of around Rs.16,000 crore in implementing the scheme, he said.

Explaining the progress made in the implementation of the scheme to provide free electricity connections to around 18,500 villages in 1,000 days, which he had announced in August 2015, the Prime Minister said less than 3,000 villages were left to be connected under the initiative and that they would get electricity connections within the stipulated time frame.

In the days following Modi’s speech, as the Ministry for Power released more precise details about the Saubhagya Yojana, commentators and power sector watchers gave a more realistic assessment. It has emerged that the latest scheme is a slightly reworked version of the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DUGJY), launched in July 2015, which itself was an upgraded version of the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana, launched by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2005.

Under these two schemes, targets were set for villages while the Saubhagya scheme focusses on covering all households. As per law, even if 10 per cent of the households in a village have electricity connections, the village is considered to be electrified. So, technically, even if all the villages are electrified, it may not imply that all the households have power connections.

Modi said in his September 25 speech: “Brothers and sisters, in New India, not only will electricity reach every village but also every household will get power.” A subsequent statement from the Power Ministry said that States and Union Territories “are required to complete the works of household electrification” by December 31, 2018. It also said that the beneficiaries of free connection would be identified using data from the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC), 2011. Un-electrified households, not listed in the SECC data, would be provided electricity connections under the Saubhagya scheme, but each beneficiary would have to pay Rs.500 to the power distribution companies in 10 instalments. All households would be obliged to pay power usage charges.

The deadline for the goal of electrifying each one of the estimated 25 crore households appears to be unrealistically ambitious for two reasons: a) official data give conflicting information about the number of households in India and those without electricity; and b) the government has been giving multiple deadlines for existing electrification schemes/initiatives, all of which have not been met. For instance, while Modi said that about 20 per cent or 4 crore households out of a total of 25 crore did not have an electricity connection, NITI Aayog’s data tabulated in April show that of the more than 17 crore households, more than 13 crore are electrified. In other words, nearly 25 per cent of the households are not electrified. Similarly, the electrification status sheet given under the GARV dashboard in the Power Ministry website is different from what Modi claimed or what the NITI Aayog recorded.

Several commentators have pointed out that former Power Minister Piyush Goyal had mentioned May 2018 as the deadline for providing power to all households and May 2017 for all villages. Both deadlines are now redundant as the Power Ministry, within days of the Prime Minister’s speech, announced December 2018 as the new deadline for provision of electricity to all households. The government’s performance record so far in implementing such an ambitious promise has also been, at best, mixed. Problems of implementation in remote areas, for instance, have not been overcome. Modi mentioned in his speech that government officials had raised these concerns with him. However, he asserted that he would ensure the implementation of the scheme in right earnest and on time.

“I once again congratulate the country about this measure taken to transform the lives of the poor, remove darkness from their lives and for the creation of a new India,” Modi said. Hectic work in changing the narrative and popular perception of the government has been evident since then.

Ayurvedic cancer treatment

Battle for recognition

“MINIMUM government, maximum governance.” Vaidya Balendu Prakash was completely taken by the phrase when he first heard Prime Minister Narendra Modi utter it, claiming it would be his government’s motto. That was more than three years ago, in May 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was sworn in. Hundreds of thousands of Indians across the world expressed similar enthusiasm for Modi’s governance mantra, but there were special reasons for Prakash’s fascination for and optimism about it. This Dehradun-based Ayurvedic physician, who heads the Vaidya Chandra Prakash Cancer Research Foundation (VCPCRF), has made proposals to successive governments to advance research aimed at evolving and enhancing the scientific parameters, through clinical and other trials, for certain unique and indigenous herbo-mineral Ayurvedic medicines and therapeutic practices for the treatment of acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APML). No decision has come from those governments for nearly two decades. Hearing the enunciation of Modi’s new minimum governance dictum, Prakash felt that he “would finally see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel with the help of the proactive Modi government”. Every government over the past two decades as well as scientists and officials who headed the Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences (CCRAS), now an autonomous body under the Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy), in this period had, in principle and on paper, endorsed and upheld the relevance and veracity of the proposals put up by Prakash. But when it came to actually following it up with composite trials and laboratory tests or sanctioning resources for them, the political and administrative establishment was consistently seen to be backtracking. Prakash believed that the self-professedly action-oriented Modi government would break this stalemate.

In terms of specifics, Prakash told Frontline, hope was founded on three factors. First, Modi’s own loud claims that he had adeptly run the Gujarat State government during his three terms as Chief Minister following the “Minimum government, maximum governance” motto and assertions about the commitment to replicate it at the Centre. Second, the widespread corroborations these claims evoked, including from sections of the political class, bureaucracy and academic community. Third, the BJP’s oft-repeated proclamations about the party’s and the larger Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-led (RSS) Sangh Parivar’s abiding commitment to support and promote indigenous and alternative forms of Indian medical practices. Three years down the line, however, Prakash is utterly disillusioned as there is no marked difference from the past in the style and content of governance of the present regime.

“It is business as usual in almost all spheres of governance and especially at the level of advancing scientific research and innovations in Ayurveda and other indigenous disciplines of medicine. In fact, the sense of letdown is much more agonising now because the bombast is so high that people get carried away and start nurturing great expectations which ultimately get dashed. I can say from personal experience that the approach of the Prime Minister’s Office [PMO] itself is blatantly casual when dealing with matters relating to research in indigenous medical systems,” he said. (See interview.)

Prakash’s hopes soared in August 2015 when a group of senior officials and researchers associated with the CCRAS, led by its Director General Professor Kartar Singh Dhiman, visited the VCPCRF. The visit led to discussions to revive Prakash’s long-pending proposal for evolving and enhancing scientific parameters for the VCPCRF’s treatment of APML.

Speaking to Frontline in July 2017 about the 2015 visit, Dhiman said that the CCRAS team did know that there was a VCPCRF proposal pending for many years. Dhiman added that during the visit the CCRAS team inspected, and was satisfied with, the systems, facilities and upkeep of the VCPCRF. On that basis, it was decided to revive and advance a collaborative project titled “Development of Metal Based Ayurvedic Formulation (MBAF) for the treatment of acute promyelocytic leukaemia”.

The primary pilot clinical trials were conducted in the 1997-2000 period under the joint auspices and monitoring of the CCRAS and the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), with the VCPCRF administering its unique, indigenous treatment.

These took place after a 10-year-long wait and became a reality on account of a variety of chance factors, including politics. Prakash’s indigenous Ayurvedic treatment had resulted in several cases of remission for many APML patients since the early 1980s. In 1987 he had requested that trials be conducted under the observation of the CCRAS and the AIIMS so that scientific research could begin as per the official guidelines of the Union government.

Things dragged on until 1996 with no concrete progress on the application. Then, the Lok Sabha elections of 1996 threw up a hung Parliament and the Congress, which had ruled between 1991 and 1996, was compelled to support the United Front comprising non-Congress, non-BJP, centrist, secular parties to form the government. Salim Iqbal Shervani from Uttar Pradesh became the Minister of State for Health. Shervani had personal knowledge of Prakash’s record in treating APML. A two-and-a-half-year-old child in his family was suffering from cancer that was diagnosed as terminal in 1987 by many major hospitals and specialists. With no other option, the Shervani family approached Prakash. The child was treated and it recorded remission in a year. (Shervani told Frontline recently that the patient is now leading a healthy life overseas.) Shervani’s stint as Minister of State for Health led to the retrieval of Prakash’s application for monitored clinical trial from the Ministry’s “cold storage” and its favourable processing.

As many as 15 patients suffering from APML were enrolled for the pilot clinical study, out of whom eight were relapse cases and seven de novo, who had not taken any anti-cancer therapy based on modern allopathic medicine. Of these 15, 11 completed 90 days’ treatment as decided in the treatment protocol. Four patients died on the third, 16th, 21st and 32nd day of treatment.

Bone marrow, peripheral blood smear, liver and kidney function tests of these patients were done at the Institute Rotary Cancer Hospital (IRCH), AIIMS, both before and after the 90-day treatment protocol. All the 11 patients who were treated exclusively by Herbo-Mineral Ayurvedic Formulations (HMAF) achieved complete remission after 90 days of treatment. Following this, all of them were kept under a periodic observation regime for the next three years. They were subjected to varied tests including liver and kidney functions as also for Hb, TLC, and DLC platelets, once again under the monitoring of IRCH at the AIIMS. The report of the clinical trials recorded that the results of these tests were found within normal limits and that patients had achieved complete remission. It was also recorded that no adverse effect or abnormalities were found in any of the patients.

These findings were discussed during the meeting of a cancer research subcommittee of the CCRAS held on November 8, 2001, at New Delhi under the chairmanship of Professor Dinesh Chandra. The committee observed that “there is prima facie evidence of its [VCPCRF treatment protocol] efficacy and safety, which needs to be developed systematically on scientific parameters”.

It also added that “there is always scope for variation among batches in absence of objective quality control parameters” and that “the chemistry of intermediates and finished material remains unknown”. It went on to add: “In the absence of the above, HMAF could not be established as medicine of choice for a large number of APML patients.”

Prakash was of the view that the “unknowns” and the “chemistry of the intermediates” could be unravelled through further pharmacological (including reverse pharmacology) and toxicity studies under the guidance and monitoring of dependable and credible government and autonomous institutions, including the AIIMS and the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR).

Consequently, the VCPCRF offered to open its APML treatment protocol as well as the HMAF produced and employed as part of this for these concerted studies and inspections. The aim, as delineated by the VCPCRF and Prakash, was to evolve objective quality control as well as standard operating procedures (SOPs) for each step of the preparation of the HMAF and its administration.

It was also suggested that once these studies were carried out, and if and when they cleared the “unknowns” and the “chemistry of the intermediates”, the CCRAS and the Ministry of AYUSH should get patents and move towards the development of a novel, HMAF-based standardised formulation for the treatment of APML.

“It was my constant refrain that a completion of such a process under the aegis of the government or autonomous public sector institutions would benefit thousands of people suffering from APML. I had also pointed out that with the initiation and completion of such exhaustive research and investigation, Ayurveda would be able to expand its horizons in terms of allying and integrating, wherever possible, with modern medicine,” Prakash told Frontline.

However, there was no concrete movement towards further research and investigation. Governments came and went, new Ministers controlled AYUSH and new managements periodically ran the CCRAS. But the proposal to pursue and advance the significantly successful pilot clinical trials of 1997-2000 was not addressed substantially by any of them. Of course, throughout this period there were many academics, sections of the bureaucracy and political leaders who supported Prakash’s proposal and his efforts from time to time. While many of them had compelling personal experiences to recognise and propagate the value of Prakash’s indigenous medicine as well as his concepts on modernising Ayurveda, some others found merit in his treatment regime and medical precepts primarily on the basis of a theoretical understanding.

These included Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and environmental activist championing the concept of sustainable development; Dr G.S. Toteja, scientist associated with the ICMR; Rajiv Gulati, former president of Ranbaxy; Dr Y.K. Gupta, Professor and Head of the Department of Pharmacology, AIIMS; and Dr Y.P. Singh, scientist at the Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun.

Among political leaders, apart from Shervani, there were Harish Rawat, former Congress Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, and M.A. Baby, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who saw much merit in Prakash’s work.

Former President K.R. Narayanan stated in several public forums that Prakash’s work had path-breaking scientific potential. Over the past 15 years, persons with considerable standing in society and in different specialised fields sought to highlight, individually and at times collectively, Prakash’s quest in the realm of indigenous medicine and the stonewalling he faced from the system.

It is believed that the visit of the CCRAS team in August 2015 was itself a byproduct of the sustained pressure and persuasion kept up by this group of well-meaning and influential people. Whatever the reason, it was agreed in principle during the visit of the CCRAS team that the advanced studies and inspection of HMAF for APML pending since 2001 should be revived at the earliest.

Consequently, the VCPCRF presented yet another application for scientific research with listed aims that included collection of scientific evidence on SOPs leading to defining and implementing parameters of standards for metal-based Ayurvedic formulations for APML, which would be patented jointly by the CCRAS and the VCPCRF. The proposal also stated that the development of SOPs as well as their standardisation and characterisation would cover each step of preparation of the HMAF, right from the quality of raw ingredient, the shodhana/marana procedures, intermediary products and preparation of finished products. The project was to run for 30 months at a total cost of Rs.1,23,03,610. The milestones and deliverables for periods starting from the third month were also listed. The application was presented on December 11, 2015.

At that time, Prakash was of the firm belief that the votaries of “Minimum government, maximum governance” would process and take the proposal forward quickly. However, almost two years later, Prakash and his team are still waiting for a formal and substantive revival of the long-pending project. Scores of meetings of various bodies associated with research in the CCRAS, including that of the Scientific Advisory Council (SAC), have taken place since December 2015, and the relevance of the VCPCRF proposal was endorsed in many of them. Yet, these endorsements remain only on paper.

Speaking to Frontline, Dr Chandra Kant Katiyar, member of the SAC and CEO, Health Care (Technical), at the Emami group, a leading producer of health-care and skincare products based on Ayurvedic formulations, said that the VCPCRF proposal had been upheld by the SAC without any modifications. The SAC comprises specialists in various fields, including Ayurveda, pharmacology and modern medicine. Katiyar himself represents a unique combination of Ayurveda and modern medicine, having an M.D. in Ayurveda and a PhD in pharmacology.

Dhiman, CCRAS director general, said that the development of evidence-based Ayurvedic interventions for cure as well as improvement in quality of life for persons suffering from different types of cancers was a priority of the department and that it was part of the Vision Document 2030 prepared by AYUSH. According to Professor Harimohan Chandola, Chairperson of the SAC and former Dean of Gujarat Ayurved University, although the SAC approval marks the final technical clearance of a project, funds can be allocated only after obtaining sanctions from the Standing Committee on Finance of the AYUSH Ministry. Unless this committee decides to release funds, Prakash’s proposal will continue to remain where it has been over the past two decades.

It was owing to the sustained absence of any concrete follow-up on scientific and technical clearances that Prakash started appealing directly to the Prime Minister and the PMO. The fate of these appeals made it clear that it was business as usual in the so-called “Minimum government, maximum governance” regime, he said. (See box.)

A large number of senior specialists associated with the CCRAS and AYUSH said that for decades researchers in indigenous fields of medicine in India had suffered on account of the manoeuvres of technocrats and bureaucrats with vested interests. Prakash’s experience, they added, was a stark case in point. At another level, it is also the record of a long-drawn struggle against the system in the interests of scientific quest. But Vaidya Balendu Prakash asserts that he will soldier on for another two decades on this path, if need be.

Of rousing times & tunes

books

“IF one tries to imagine some of the things happening in the world today, it seems to me that, mostly, prose is inadequate. Because the vocabulary of prose has become so discredited, it is inadequate for describing what people are living across the world today. But by contrast, I think what people are living across the world today is very translatable and expressible and sharable in song. Maybe we live in a time when truth is most easily told in song.” These are the words of John Berger, art critic and historian, in the documentary The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (by Tilda Swinton and Colin MacCabe).

Who can forget songs such as “ Jaane waale sipahi se pooch”, “Hoi hoi japan hoi hoi”, “Basti basti maut ka dera”, “Pachapananthathe”, “Jaaga desh hamara”, “Bazi e jane ispe lagana”, “Aapni baanche to baaper naam eelaashe boyaan”, and “Varika varika sahajare sahanasamara samayamayi” that once resounded across India? These tunes and rhythms still reverberate in the marching songs and slogans of contemporary struggles, though their lineages are often forgotten or are fast slipping into oblivion.

The Radical Impulse by Sumangala Damodaran is an attempt to record, redeem and reclaim that history of a major stream of protest music in India, that of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA).

It is a journey through the first two decades of the IPTA (1940s and 1950s), which were the most vibrant years in the history of the Left movement in India that “pulsated with possibilities” triggered by “a leftward turn in politics and culture” and was characterised by a conceptualisation of “an alternative nationalism and a unique and unprecedented internationalism”.

Several national and international, political and cultural developments and undercurrents mark the period: anti-colonial struggle, growth of Left movements in different parts of the country on the political front, the search for indigenous forms of creative expression and their intense engagements with similar artistic upsurges across the world on the cultural front. It was a radical impulse that involved a “combination of considerations, both purely aesthetic and political, that aimed to respond to and represent the times”, in the process, bringing out multiple interpretations of the idea of the “radical” (page 15).

Genealogy of protest music

The book makes forays into various crucial and often ignored aspects such as the genealogy of protest music, its claims as music per se, music as a social text, the tense yet vibrant relationship between aesthetics and politics, and the interesting negotiations of protest music with popular culture in the context of early 20th century modernity and in the formative years of the Indian nation. The author elaborates upon the major engagements that characterised the radical impulse in cultural terms: the idea of “the people” as legitimate subjects and agents of art, the terrain of the “nation”, the urgency of the project for freedom, emancipation and social transformation.

From the outset, any study on such a music tradition of protest and popular mobilisation that depends on oral, aural and non-written modes of expression and transmission is beset with hurdles relating to sources. There have not been many systematic attempts to archive and record these songs, tunes, lyrics and, more importantly, their contexts. They are scattered in private collections or personal memories of those who participated in those movements, from which it has to be pieced together. Some of the songs persisted in their later film avatars, while many others are lost forever.

IPTA’s repertoire

The book itself forms part of an archiving-cum-documentation project of the IPTA music tradition, and, as a result, an exciting strand of the book is journeys to gather material evidences in the form of songs, song books, pamphlets, etc., involving encounters with some of the towering figures and stalwarts of a bygone era.

The large and rich repertoire of the IPTA is excavated from the memories of artists and activists from different parts of the country such as Sova Sen, Priti Banerjee, Khaled Chowdhury, Montu Ghosh, Medini, Anasuya, Swathanthra Prakash, A.K. Hangal, Subodh More and Reba Roychowdhury. Their memories about the times, anecdotes and remembrances about the songs and lyrics give the book a charming human quality, without ever turning it into a nostalgic trip.

The book includes brief but sharp observations about the theoretical interventions of visionaries such as P.C. Joshi, and musical contributions of musicians such as Salil Chawdhury, Hemanga Biswas, Bhupen Hazarika, Jyotiprasad Agarwala, Medini, Ponkunnam Damodaran, Hemanta Mukherjee, Prem Dhawan, Jyotinindra Moitra, Annabhau Sathe and Amar Sheikh. One hopes it will provoke and inspire young researchers to fill the gaps and weave the larger narrative of protest music in India in further detail, depth and complexity. The book also carries some rare photographs from the IPTA archives apart from lyrics, translations and notations of some of the landmark songs.

The book gives a synoptic but cogent account of the formation of the IPTA and the various debates about art and culture, the popular and political, realism and modernism, folk and modern, indigenous and foreign, that animated it. The challenges it faced were complex and multifold—that of fighting reactionary forces within, negotiating the various regional strands that were to be mobilised organisationally and conceptually envisioned as a “national” culture, engagement with commercial tendencies and deviations, and about innovating and experimenting within the medium without compromising its radical energies. Another strand is the polemics about the political and the aesthetic in music within the IPTA movement and the Communist party.

There were also regional variations with regard to repertoire, approach and functional autonomy of IPTA-inspired organisations in various parts of the country. They carried certain pan-Indian characteristics and ethos, while experimenting with regional music traditions and grappling with local issues. For instance, the music developed and performed by the Bombay Central Squad, the Gana Natya Sangeet of Bengal or the Kerala People’s Arts Club drew from different traditions and addressed different challenges. If there was an earnest search for “roots” and indigenous music in the Bengal tradition, the singers in Kerala worked closely with theatre creating easily reproducible local melodies blended with political lyrics.

In Assam, one finds an intense engagement with indigenous forms of dance, folk performance, theatre and music traditions, and also with emerging technologies such as films. Peoples’ music in the Andhra, Telangana and Rayalaseema regions of the undivided Andhra Pradesh emerged out of composite performances melding music, dance and theatre of the Praja Natya Mandali and its numerous units all over the region.

In Maharashtra and Andhra, the indigenous forms constituted the bulk of the music; in Bengal, Assam and Bombay there was a significant influence of Hindustani classical music, while in Hindi and Bengali songs the influence of the Western musical idiom was very strong. In the words of the author, “peoples’ music” was created out of processes of excavation, preservation, transformation and creation of forms that, in the perceptions of those involved, represented the “people” (page 147).

Although the IPTA gradually receded from the scene, the musical impulse that it triggered and the multitude of idioms and forms it experimented with left its indelible traces in popular forms of music in cinema, commercial theatre and musical entertainment across the country.

While discussing questions about “authentic” and “indigenous” aesthetic forms, how far and deep one can and should draw from the folk, classical and popular traditions, what will be its level of engagement with traditions from foreign countries, among other things, the book draws insights from protest music traditions of other countries: the Proletkult and Socialist Realist interventions in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the Peoples’ Music in China that urged musicians to “be a phonograph” to the Cultural Revolution, the “Reds, Blues and Songs of Protest”, the Composers Collective from the United States that defined its musical style as “national in form, proletarian in content”, and the creative insights of revolutionary artists such as Bertolt Brecht and the Gestic music from Germany.

In the last chapter, the author examines how questions about authenticity, which is central to movements such as the IPTA, link up with contemporary debates on nation, nationalism and nationalities and their cultural representations. Here, she brings into focus notions such as the “pristine folk”, the dynamics of time, history, technology and politics that impinge upon music, and the ever-present interface of specific local histories with nationalist and internationalist imaginations. In her words, “what is interesting is that it was precisely the dynamic created by these complex ideas, often contradictory to each other, that made musicians attempt to stretch the boundaries of their craft, even as they were strongly located within their specific social and cultural locations and traditions of training” (page 211).

The book assumes importance today as a reminder of the rousing tunes and scintillating lyrics that are fast receding from public memory, especially that of the youth, whose musical horizons are being inundated with lilting tones and thunderous rhythms of the commercial-popular. The book and the songs it refers to bring back to our critical notice a certain tradition that needs to be excavated from the past, elaborated in the present and reinvented for the future.

In these post-truth times, when both the idea of the radical and the leftist imagination are under siege, the book is an alarm call to retrieve and connect with this heritage in order to explore its contemporary potentials.

For, the IPTA times and that of Left imagination today have striking similarities. The political, economic and cultural forces they confront at the global and national levels, the resources they can draw from in terms of the plural energies of the local, and the urgent need to develop an oppositional aesthetic against the monolithic imagination propagated at the national level, all seem to follow the same trajectories. In that context, the experiences and lessons from the past that the book recounts resonate with profound contemporary relevance.

Bin Laden, the inside story

HISTORY has seen a fair share of injustice and suffering. As Eduardo Galeano says: “We make the history that makes us.” Two wars and the rise of fascism scarring the deep-seated liberal philosophy prevailing in Europe has brought us to the juncture of a violent beginning of the 21st century. The bleak past cannot be treated as dead weight and must alert us to the scourge of military intervention in the era of nationalism and the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or I.S.).

Jehadist terrorism is here to stay and the Al Qaeda central leadership consisting of Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden’s son and heir, Hamza bin Laden, is relentless in its design of destroying the West. Although bin Laden is dead, the resurgence of Al Qaeda has been rapid. From Al Qaeda’s founding in 1988 to bin Laden’s death in May 2011, Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy focus on the life and times of bin Laden in The Exile, marshalling facts about the history of the jehadi movement as a fallout of the Iraq invasion with a sharp insight into the unyielding results of U.S. torture and the working of Iranian and Pakistani intelligence in offering refuge to Al Qaeda militants. Theirs is a history written from below, questioning the elitist accounts of Western analysts and their biased ideology.

How far this account is “true” can only be conjectured as scepticism remains the underlying response to historical writings, an exercise that cannot be exempt from the ideological postures of the writer.

Nevertheless, the authors tell the inside story with a gripping account of their meetings with bin Laden’s wives, sons, his friends and security chiefs, and religious and media advisers during their travels across West Asia. The stories are retold here by men and women who had “nothing to lose but lots to prove”. Their narration is corroborated by evidence obtained through emails, videos and photo albums. Out of this evidence comes the narratives of the experience of bin Laden’s followers, al Qaeda’s concealments and ducking strategies, drone assaults and, finally, the dramatic raid on the Abbottabad hideout.

What was released to the world, the authors allege, was an untruthful picture of the fall of bin Laden. In a powerful piece entitled “Osama bin Laden, a Lion in Winter” that appeared in The Washington Post, David Ignatius spoke of the fragmentation of Al Qaeda, the greying of bin Laden watching his TV and gradually “becoming delusional and impotent and his organisation getting defunct”. Added to this was the release of the film Zero Dark Thirty, a collaboration between Washington and Hollywood that succeeded in driving home the message of U.S. heroism depicted in the courage of the Seals. The film apparently is an attempt to establish the legitimacy of the use of torture to extract information.

Torture, filmed in the movie, seems to be the reason behind the discovery of the Abbottabad location, thereby establishing the legitimacy of U.S.’ use of pain to extract information. However, what led to the success was not torture but “the dogged detective work” and the quest of the White House and the Pentagon to “aggressively pursue those who broke the real stories”. And more than anything, it was Barack Obama’s re-election to the White House for a second term that compelled him to go for bin Laden.

The book, therefore, candidly and with relentless research, brings the details that uncovered a bloody period of history that has changed the very culture of the world. Being in exile was not really what bin Laden and his family had opted for.

Flushed out of the Tora Bora caves, part of the White Mountains (Safed Koh) of eastern Afghanistan, they were on the run with the U.S. war machinery in hot pursuit: “The women pinned up woollen rugs as insulation and plumped thin foam mattresses with old clothes, inspecting the bedding for scorpions and snakes. Narrow alleys that connected the apartments to a tin toilet outhouse were swilled out, and in the rudimentary kitchen area someone fixed the water pump and got an old generator running.... At night they huddled under a blanket with a Kalashnikov and a stash of grenades, wondering what would befall those friends and family left behind in the cities.” And the children entertained themselves by brandishing guns or listening to Madonna on their father’s transistor while the wives “improvised spaghetti Bolognese—tomato puree mixed with a packet of Maggi noodles”.

Osama bin Laden, interestingly, faced a schism among his family members and followers: “There were many missing faces; the ones bin Laden had hoped would share this moment with him. But most of Al Qaeda’s leadership had rejected the Planes Operation as an off-the-books project, planned and executed almost entirely by brothers who were not in the outfit.”

One of his wives along with his eldest son departed, desiring a more peaceful life. Many of his soldiers and advisers stood up against the attack on the Twin Towers. But he had succeeded in carrying out the attack and was now on the run, with the U.S. forces hounding him. George Bush delayed bin Laden’s capture owing to the political designs of the U.S. foreign policy that envisioned a continued involvement in West Asia. And Obama successfully won his second term in the White House with his success at Abbottabad while the world continues in the throes of fierce upheavals and the appalling rise of the I.S. The long history of genocide from the arrival of Columbus on American soil five centuries ago to the massacre at the Twin Towers cannot be ignored. It cannot be disregarded because history repeats itself in extreme human responses and the barbarism of the state remains no different from the savagery of fundamentalists.

A new epoch began with the 9/11 massacre. As bin Laden joyfully remarked to his family members up in the mountains on that historic day: “We are not writing our history. But America will and many times over. What it will say—regardless—is that we all did this. Everyone associated with this… will be condemned… but a time will come when we will write our own version.” His dream of rewriting history, of detailing triumphs and tragedies, ended in Abbottabad, but a new chapter in human history had already been written.

America’s crime

IT is not fair to exonerate either the state or the country, the United States, or its people from culpability in the crime of attacking, invading and occupying Iraq in 2013 and for staging the murder of its President Saddam Hussein. The people consciously re-elected George W. Bush as President, the man who committed this sordid crime with premeditation, in cold blood. George W. Bush is a man of little knowledge of world affairs, with a feeble temper and dim intelligence. In contrast to Britain, there is little sign or word of indignation or remorse for it. The New York Times blithely called it a “unilateral invasion”; as if invasions are consensual. The expression in vogue is “war of choice”. The result? The birth and rise of the ISIS (Islamic State).

Iraq lies ruined. Its treasures were stolen. Its people were treated virtually as serfs in their own land. Its President, Saddam Hussein, was executed after a farcical trial. Few believed in the stated object of this adventure in international crime; namely, Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD). One of the ablest British diplomats in recent years, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, dedicated his book The Cost of War to his wife, Anne, “Who suspected, long before I did that Saddam had no WMD.”

It is an authoritative, meticulous record in pages of the diplomacy preceding and following the crime by a man of rectitude and solid competence. He was Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Special Envoy for Iraq.

John Nixon’s book belongs to a different genre. He was a senior leadership analyst with the Central Intelligence Agency from 1998 to 2011; did several tours in Iraq and regularly wrote for, and briefed, the most senior levels of the U.S. government, including President Bush; twice. He is honest to the core. Revulsion at Saddam’s murder and his savage cruelty does not blind him to the truth; nor does it rob him of the compassion due to a head of state imprisoned by a foreign power after the invasion of his country on utterly dishonest pretexts. The book was twice reviewed by the CIA’s Publication Review Board. Black bars indicate where its redactions were applied recklessly.

Bush simply used 9/11 to invade Iraq, as the memoirs of Richard Clarke revealed. “The issue of Saddam and what to do about him went into hyperdrive after the 9/11 attacks. The very next day, according to White House adviser Richard Clarke, Bush asked Clarke to find the links between Saddam and the attacks. Undersecretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz wanted to know how many times Saddam had threatened the United States in speeches or comments made to the media. The CIA was asked to look through its files and find any connections to terrorism. Everything the Iraqi dictator had ever done was now given renewed scrutiny. It was clear in Langley that the White House would look with favour on interpretations that supported its desire to solve the Iraq problem once and for all.”

Exiles are a notoriously unreliable source of information. By the way, where have the Research and Analysis Wing and Ajit Doval’s Baloch friends in exile disappeared? Bush relied on Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which was notorious for supplying self-serving information. The CIA rejected it. Others gladly lapped it up, especially Donald Rumsfeld’s Defence Department; anything to justify the invasion.

In the very first paragraph of the book, the author sums up the consequences which plague the world still. “The rise of Islamic extremism in Iraq, chiefly under the rubric of ISIS (or Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham), is a catastrophe that the United States needn’t have faced had it been willing to live with an aging and disengaged Saddam Hussein. I do not wish to imply that Saddam was innocent of the charges that were thrown at him over the years. He was a ruthless dictator who, at times, made decisions that plunged his region into chaos and bloodshed. However, in hindsight, the thought of having Saddam Hussein in power seems almost comforting in comparison with the awful events and wasted effort of America’s brave young men and women in uniform, not to mention the $3 trillion and still counting we have spent to build a new Iraq.”

Garnishing a deliberate crime

It was not criminal folly; it was a case of folly garnishing a deliberate crime. The U.S. demonised Saddam and misunderstood him completely. In December 2003 and January 2004, the author was the first American to conduct a prolonged interrogation of Saddam after his capture by U.S. forces. He was a senior CIA leadership analyst who had spent the previous five years studying Iraq and Iran. In the ensuing weeks, he learned that the U.S. had vastly misunderstood both him and his role as a determined foe of radical currents in the Islamic world, including extremism.

“Ironically, while American neocons tried their best to link Saddam to 9/11 and al-Qaeda, Saddam thought that the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon would move the United States closer to his Ba’athist regime. In Saddam’s mind, the two countries were natural allies in the fight against extremism and, as he said many times during his interrogation, he couldn’t understand why the United States did not see eye to eye with him. Saddam was a Sunni himself, his Ba’ath Party stood for Arab nationalism and socialism, and he saw Sunni extremism as a threat to his power base. Saddam portrayed himself as utterly fearless, but to my surprise, he told me he feared the rise of extremism in his country. He knew how difficult it would be to use his mostly Sunni apparatus of repression to fight an enemy whose galvanising principle was Sunni fundamentalism.” He was secular.

Saddam the writer

After thorough preparation over the years, the author held extensive interviews with Saddam and learned that before the war he had disengaged himself from the chores of governance. He was writing a novel and prided himself on being a writer. “I asked Saddam what he liked to read. He said he liked to read history and Arabic stories. I asked him his favourite book and he said The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. ‘Think about it,’ he said. ‘A man, a boat, and a fishing line. These are the only ingredients to the book, but they tell us so much about man’s condition. A marvellous story.’ ”

A constant refrain in those debriefings was Saddam’s complaints about his imprisonment and his requests for luxury items. He often railed about his lack of writing materials. “You must understand, I am a writer. And what you are doing by depriving me of pen and paper amounts to human rights abuse!” Saddam would also constantly request reading material to pass the time. “He told us one of the guards had given him the Cliffs Notes for the Arabic version of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. ‘This man Dostoyevsky has a remarkable insight into the human condition,’ Saddam said. He was also a big fan of the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz and requested that we purchase for him the Arabic text of his Cairo Trilogy.

“For years at the CIA, I was told over and over again that he was a student of Stalin and Hitler, who were supposedly his role models. But Saddam had expressed admiration for de Gaulle, Lenin, Mao, and George Washington. Now he added Tito and Nehru. He was careful to note that he respected Lenin as a thinker. ‘Stalin does not interest me. He was not a thinker. For me, if a person is not a thinker, I lose interest. There were many stories about Stalin: his application on agricultural development and his dealings with owners and kulaks of large pieces of land, and Beria, his intelligence chief. It made him unfavourable, and his style was revolting.’

“Not once during our time together did Saddam say he admired Hitler or Stalin. The idea that Saddam was enthralled by Nazi and Soviet leaders gave many academics a template through which they could explain him to the layman. It was also an easy way to demonise the Iraqi strongman.”

It is dangerous to demonise leaders of countries with which one’s country is locked in dispute. It serves only to impair one’s judgment. It is a favourite sport in which Indian politicians, journalists—especially TV anchors—indulge freely.

The author repeatedly emphasises Saddam’s disengaged style of governance. “In his final years, Saddam had begun to disengage from ruling the country and was mainly occupied with non-governmental pursuits, his writing chief among them. There was reporting suggesting this was happening, but it was never relayed to policymakers and emerged only after the war. We subsequently found out, as the U.S. military prepared to invade Iraq, that Saddam was sending the latest draft of a novel he was writing to Tariq Aziz to critique. This was not a man bracing for a pulverising military attack.

“Frankly, if we’d had this information in real time and conveyed it to the White House, it would not have prevented the hostilities. The Bush administration was set on war and determined to remove Saddam. But as intelligence professionals, we had a responsibility to pass along this information to policymakers. If nothing else, it might have raised the threshold for going to war. It ranked as a failure almost as great as claims that Iraq had stores of WMD.”

Neocon fantasies

The neocons were enveloped in fantasy: alter the shape of the region and introduce democracy. Why do they do not, even now, try to introduce democracy in the most eligible candidate for it—Saudi Arabia? The reason is that Saudi Arabia has ever been willing to act as an American stooge. “We were there because of neocon fantasies about bringing the region under American suzerainty and because of President Bush’s misguided belief that Saddam had tried to kill his father. Was Saddam worth removing from power? I can speak only for myself when I say that the answer must be no. Saddam was busy writing novels in 2003. He was no longer running the government. Would his sons have been able to succeed him? Possibly, but they might not have lasted for long. More likely, someone from the Sunni military-security axis would have grabbed power through a coup. It wouldn’t have been pretty, but at least it would have been an Iraqi solution to the question of ‘Who leads Iraq?’ The United States then could have re-engaged with the new regime.”

Bush was fed stories of a Saddam double, his plans “to murder Bush’s daughters”, his links to Al Qaeda, complicity in 9/11 and the like. Saddam had nothing to do with religious extremists. The U.S. had no humint in Iraq—human intelligence based on reliable spies. The author had no illusions about this “murderous Horatio Alger”.

The CIA was not only inept but morally corrupt. It was eager to please Bush & Co. “The initial assessment of Saddam suggested that he was a chronic liar. But not everything Saddam said was a lie—far from it, in fact—and I believe his profiler was mistaken about him. There was a predisposition on the part of almost everyone handling the Iraqi dictator to blow off everything he said, unless he miraculously admitted to having WMD or ordering genocidal attacks.

“Saddam could be quite candid when he chose to be. However, our preconceived ideas about him sometimes got the better of us. We would at times hammer away at an issue, feeling as if we were making no progress when in fact we were. One time, we asked about his relations with neighbouring leaders, and Saddam began to give his unvarnished opinions, mostly negative, about King Abdullah of Jordan and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. The next day, when we continued our discussion, Saddam said, ‘I think I said too much yesterday. So now I will say nothing.’ I sometimes wondered if Saddam knew how well he concealed things, or if he consciously exploited the Western depiction of him as the devil incarnate.”

Great charisma

Nixon describes his first encounter with Saddam. “Whatever his atrocities, there was no denying that Saddam had great charisma. He was a big man, six-feet-one and thickly built. I am six-feet-five but Saddam seemed oblivious to the difference. He was a man who had an outsize presence. Even as a prisoner who was certain to be executed, he exuded an air of importance.”

He admired de Gaulle, Lenin, Mao, George Washington, Tito and Nehru. The author confirms The New York Times’ report that Saddam had sent feelers to the U.S. “Saddam was ready to negotiate. During the Clinton and George W. Bush years, Saddam said he was ready to talk to the United States at any time. He said so on many occasions, both before and after his capture.”

He had no plans for escape. Nor had the U.S. any plans for Iraq after its occupation. Secretary of State Colin Powell was opposed to the war and raised questions which every leader must answer before he plunges his country into war. “Is a vital national security interest at stake? Have the risks and costs been fully assessed? Have non-military policies been exhausted? Do we have an exit strategy? Is military action supported at home and abroad?” Powell was shunned and humiliated.

Nixon’s account of his encounters with Bush are breathtaking. The intelligence community debased itself to please him by dumbing down information so that he could understand. The CIA chief George Tenet complied. Bush was ignorant of basic facts. He could not even distinguish between Shias and Sunnis.

The book should be read particularly by those who believe in the professional values of intelligence gathering and assessment. In India they have been debased since Independence. We now have intelligence chiefs making policy and even serving as diplomats. In the U.S., “By 1999, analysts were asked more and more to tell policymakers what options they had—which, in my view, skirted closer to the edge of prescribing policy. As Tenet’s protégé and my former boss Phil told us, ‘They are too busy to know what is going on. Therefore we have to help them come up with the solution.’ This was important to Phil because he intended to drive the point home to his superiors on the seventh floor that he was providing valuable answers for policymakers, namely what to do about Saddam. The seventh floor at Langley wanted to show their relevance to the new crowd. When I came to the Agency, three years before the Bush administration took office, it was drummed into me that we should not be making policy. But now we were told that we needed to be part of the mix downtown, and that the survival of the Agency depended on it.” How many RAW and Intelligence Bureau chiefs have been policymakers?

Ill-treatment

The Iraqi opposition and the U.S. disgraced themselves by their ill-treatment of a captive. Let Nixon describe the final scene. “On a cell phone video, Saddam was seen ascending a makeshift scaffold and facing down his persecutors. We saw an angry lynch mob of Shiites shouting revenge against their one-time Sunni overlord. This was not what the United States was supposed to be fighting for. This was not what our young men and women were dying for. This was not what President Bush had promised a new Iraq would be.

“Watching the grainy cell phone images being taped by Maliki’s national security adviser, Muaffaq al-Rubai, I was struck that Saddam looked like the most dignified person in the room. He handled the occasion as I expected he would—defiant and unafraid to the end. It was a rushed execution in a dark basement in Baghdad. For me, the final pillar justifying Operation Iraqi Freedom had collapsed. Saddam was not a likable guy. The more you got to know him, the less you liked him. He had committed horrible crimes against humanity. But we had come to Iraq saying that we would make things better. We would bring democracy and the rule of law. No longer would people be awakened by a threatening knock on the door. And here we were, allowing Saddam to be hanged in the middle of the night.”

It reflects a discreditable record—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria—from 2002 to 2011. All helpless Third World countries.

Letters

Letters to the editor

letters

Bullet train

fl13 cover bullet train

THE bullet train project is no doubt a laudable one (Cover Story, October 13). However, given the current state of the economy, this project does not seem viable. What is apparent is that the BJP is desperate for a smokescreen to hide its failures. It needs to come down from its ivory tower and see the ground realities.

The three train accidents that occurred within a short span of time put the spotlight on the areas in the Railways that need immediate attention. A change of guard in the Ministry will not be reassuring for the public. The urgent priorities of replacing worn-out components and ensuring regular appointments in place of contractual employment are the need of the hour.

C. Chandrasekaran, Madurai, Tamil Nadu

Health care

THE article "Blueprint for privatisation" (October13) revealed the obvious limitations and hidden infirmities of the NITI Aayog’s project proposal and draft model concessionaire agreement for health care. This proposal dilutes the essential responsibility of the government with regard to the health of the people. As public health centres are already found wanting when it comes to treating epidemics and endemic diseases, it is ludicrous to expect them to be able to coordinate with private players for the management of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Even with the participation of the government, it would be difficult for India to cope with heart disease, just one of many NCDs, so leaving it to private players is an abdication of the government’s responsibility.

B. Rajasekaran, Bengaluru

Godmen

INDIA has a great tradition of spiritual thinkers such as Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Vivekananda and Ramana Maharshi who shunned wealth ("Politics of divine intervention", October 13). The present-day gurus are business savvy and have spiritual empires. They are surrounded by doting devotees who have implicit faith in their gurus and are not fazed by their weird behaviour. The high and the mighty of the land are their followers.

They wield enormous social and political power. It is amazing to see the affluent lifestyles of many of our godmen and swamis who are supposed to have walked away from the temptations of the world to take to the path of vairagya. Except for the saffron that some of them wear and the fact that the product they sell is spirituality, they are no different from any other entrepreneur.

H.N. Ramakrishna, Bengaluru

ONE still remembers with reverence spiritual gurus such as Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi and Shirdi Sai Baba, who led simple lives and never sought power or wealth. They served humanity. Now there are many self-styled godmen who flaunt their wealth, intimidate gullible devotees and exploit women sexually. Their nexus with political leaders and bureaucrats is well known. There is another set of godmen at the moment actively specialising in spiritual marketing. It is embarrassing that many godmen have political patronage, especially under BJP rule.

N.C. Sreedharan, Kannur, Kerala

THE article was timely and put things in the right perspective. We live in a state of fear and few dare to write the truth about our guru gods. Someone said that gurus destroy their followers and followers destroy their gurus. What a truth that is.

S. Dinni, Bengaluru

THE article "Paradox in Tamil Nadu" (October 13) gave complete details of godmen in the State but seemed to have written only about the negative aspects of the issue. Religious faith is a dynamic and constructive force in our lives. People with faith have achieved incredible things and helped those in need, and so have been called godmen. A true godman does not divide but unites and always wants people to do away with their selfishness and to be ready to work for the benefit of the country and humanity. But jealous people often spread stories about godmen, spoiling their names.

A.J. Rangarajan, Chennai

Gauri Lankesh

THE assassination of Gauri Lankesh is a terrible blow to the freedom of the press ("A dissenter silenced", September 29). Her voice of dissent spared no one. A few days before her death, she had in tweets made scathing comments about the Yogi Adityanath government in relation to the deaths of a large number of children at a government hospital in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. She did not even spare the Prime Minister.

It is not right to name any organisation as being behind the assassination before the investigation is completed. However, there is a similarity between the modus operandi used in the murder of M.M. Kalburgi and that of Gauri Lankesh. The intelligence agencies of both the Central and State governments must conduct a proper investigation to solve the mystery behind both murders.

Buddhadev Nandi, Bishnupur, West Bengal

THE Cover Story on Gauri Lankesh’s murder explained the situation in the country and brought out the real causes of the murders of the journalist and three rationalists.

Muhammed Adil Edayannur, Kannur, Kerala

Demonetisation

IT is unfortunate that the Prime Minister is trying to defend demonetisation, which caused people to lose confidence in the promises of the RBI and the Central government with regard to currency notes ("Spinning a web", September 29). Saying that similar conditions existed in the past cannot be a good argument because this plan was forced on the masses, depriving many of them of their jobs and causing some deaths.

S.R. Devaprakash, Tumakuru, Karnataka

Privacy

I THANK Frontline for the excellent Cover Story on the right to privacy (September 15), which were well researched and educative. Will this judgment bring relief to people who are being forced by banks and telecom companies to link their Aadhaar numbers to their bank accounts and their phones? Banks and telecom companies are purely commercial entities and have no business getting access to Aadhaar-based data. Will there be a specific court directive in this regard for the benefit of the common man?

V. Venkataramanan, Chennai

IN one of the most remarkable judgments in recent years, the Supreme Court has upheld the sanctity of privacy. The concept of equality also needs to be well defined. The interpretation of equality differs from judge to judge qualitatively. It is high time the factors constituting equality were clearly spelt out.

The principle of equality in the NEET case is, in my opinion, flawed for it has not taken into account the socio-economic and cultural factors that have brought out inequality in education.

S.S. Rajagopalan, Chennai

Triple talaq

FL27SUPREMECOURTOFINDIA

THE verdict of the five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court that set aside “triple talaq” as a “manifestly arbitrary” practice is historic because such an archaic and unjust practice has no place in a civilised and secular society (“Instant talaq illegal”, September 15). As the judgment brings huge relief to Muslim women, the Central and State governments must ensure its effective implementation.

K.R. Srinivasan, Secunderabad, Telangana

IT was indeed a watershed moment in the history of Indian jurisprudence when the apex court struck down the morally reprehensible practice of triple talaq. How can anyone propound that such an ancient practice be implemented in the enlightened 21st century? As an adherent of secularism and liberty, one must uphold this verdict and denounce triple talaq in all its forms and manifestations.

Mohit Jacob, Ahmedabad, Gujarat

Prasar Bharati

THE article "Sarkar vs Sarkar" (September 15) clearly indicated that except for the Prime Minister no other person, no matter how powerful he is, can be allowed to speak his "mann ki baat" through Prasar Bharati. One wonders whether Prasar Bharati expected the Chief Minister to make a speech praising the Modi government.

Bidyut Kumar Chatterjee, Faridabad, Haryana

Pakistan

IT is really sad that Nawaz Sharif had to resign as Prime Minister of Pakistan over the Panama Papers leak ("The deep state strikes back", September 15). Without strong leaders, countries cannot grow. Nawaz Sharif has been in politics for a long time and contributed to the growth of Pakistan. Neighbouring countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka should come forward to help Pakistan out of the crisis. It is understandable that the court had to take the action it did, but the growth of the country and the well-being of its people should be taken into consideration.

P. Senthil Saravana Durai, Mumbai

70 years of freedom

THE Special Issue commemorating 70 years of Independence ("How free are Indians?", September 1) covered all aspects of free India and is a valuable treasure. The photographs of the Prime Ministers from Nehru to Modi were thought-provoking.

India has experienced many ups and downs in its seven decades of Independence. Right from the start, it strove for socio-economic equality. Besides science and technology, it made progress in other sectors. India has achieved a lot and rooted out a lot of evils but failed to achieve freedom from corruption and the criminalisation of politics. The Jammu and Kashmir issue is unresolved as is the boundary dispute between India and China, which dares to trespass into Indian territory. Poverty reduction should not be a numbers game. India’s strength lies in its plurality, not in extreme nationalism and aggressive patriotism. The idea of India should never be shattered.

Y. Abhimanya, Nakrekal, Telangana

THE clamour to replace the Constitution with Manusmriti and declare India a theocratic state is coming from the forces whose ideology is inimical to the idea of pluralism and interfaith amity ("Composite culture and its discontents", September 1). While Indians of all religious communities were waging an epic struggle for freedom from foreign domination, these forces were busy sowing the seeds of communal hatred and thus helping the colonial masters. Soon after Independence, they held important positions in government. Their sympathisers in the ruling dispensation ensured that they too enjoyed power.

They keep contradicting themselves now and then. On the one hand, they identify themselves as nationalists, and on the other, they oppose the Constitution. The opponents of the Constitution are indeed fake patriots who detest the equality it guarantees minorities, Dalits and women.

Samiul Hassan Quadri, Bikaner, Rajasthan

Where is the mind without fear?

Sashi_Kumar

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

These eleven inspiring lines of Tagore, conjuring a freshly minted idea of a free India, are of course utopian and aspirational, as the best of poetry is wont to be. They could never really come together, except on the page they were written on, as future-perfect imagination. But the words nurture within them, and the lines between them, an ideal and a hope of our destiny as a sovereign people making up a new nation.

Well over a century after those lines were written and 70 years after Independence, we are now at that conjunction of history and politics where those ideas, ideals and hopes are being systematically ripped away from the text, where what is left are the dead letters, and what remains for us to do is to silently, resignedly, follow that body of verse laid out on its hearse to its unknown resting place.

Because the freewheeling, fearless, vibrant, disputatious essence of being Indian is being hammered on a daily basis, wholesale and retail, and flattened into a supine mental conditioning. The culture of difference, of diversity, of religious pluralism, of multiple traditions, of myriad lifestyles, is being steamrolled by a zealous cult of majoritarianism.

That majoritarianism goes by the callous, aggressive name tag of Hindutva, which has nothing to do with, and is, if anything, antithetical to, the profoundly spiritual, philosophically liberating, aesthetically compelling, syncretic, inclusive, polysemic nature of Hinduism, as religion and way of life. Hindutva is obnoxiously offensive not only for what it is doing to what it sees as rival, minority faiths, but equally for what it is doing to the best traditions and best practices of Hinduism itself. Hindutva is, from what one can make of it in its coarse practice, a narrow political construct of a broad-based religion.

When Hindutva is done with it, if it is allowed to complete the project, Hinduism will hardly be a creed to be revered or loved or lived in its multifariousness, but a draconian law to be feared, much like the fundamentalist sectarian versions of Islam or Christianity are to the average Muslim or Christian. The Hindutva project is to straitjacket Hinduism into a mindless fundamentalist faith, by inventing a text and sanctioning only that one version of it, a rule book which must be adhered to, word for word; by turning away from inclusiveness and becoming exclusive; by self-contradictorily at once demonising and imitating other text-bound Semitic religions.

The Hindutva project resuscitates the execrable elements that lie dormant in the religion like the codes of Manu. It mongers rituals and sells myths by muscle power, intimidation and bullying. It breeds godmen who turn out to be, one after the other, crooks raping women, grabbing land (and vice versa), rapidly setting up humongous business empires by their dilettantist religious pontification aided by some readymade yoga; they are brand ambassadors of corporate Hindutva. It twists and narrowcasts sanatana dharma into a code of defiant behaviour, a kind of religious personal law that runs counter to the law of the land, making a mockery of that concept which perhaps antedates organised religion. The Hindutva project goes against the grain of Hinduism and seeks to make it an etiolated apology of its real self.

The project demands not minds without fear and heads held high, but minds and heads cowed down by fear and a forced regime of compliance. The spectre of Hindutva can flourish only in a state of constant turbulence and flux; hence it becomes imperative to polarise, to keep communal tension on the boil. It needs to keep crying wolf, it needs a bogey standing by to provoke alarm, so that it can take on the role of, or pretend to act for, the victim, and proceed to victimise. It is the tried and tested fascist method. Things must be unsettled before they are reconfigured, stacked and settled in its favour. Break it to fix it, and fix everyone and everything you need to with it. (Arguably it is not even necessary to have method to the madness, as the unsolved puzzle of demonetisation and the yet unfolding mess of the GST regime suggest.) One of the most apt, most epigrammatic, descriptions of Hitler was, and this would apply to any modern Tughlaq, “in normalcy a nothing, in chaos a titan”.

The majoritarian Hindutva project identifies with and promotes a resurgent “nationalism” which goes beyond love of and devotion to motherland to an aggressively assertive one-upmanship with strong implications of superiority of race and religion and homogenisation of culture and language (as in Hindi). Such nationalism (more akin to cultural nationalism) is in opposition and contrast to the more democratic-critical concept of “patriotism” which owes loyalty to the defining principles that constitute the nation and will in a pinch oppose a national course that runs counter to those principles. It is the patriot’s bounden cause and duty to save the nation from the errant nationalist.

In their exploration of the two concepts, nationalism and patriotism, in the context of the unification of Germany (East and West), Thomas Blank and Peter Schmidt (“National Identity in a United Germany: Nationalism or Patriotism? An Empirical Test with Representative Data” in the June 2003 issue of Political Psychology) underscore the salient differences between them. Whereas “nationalism supports the nation in areas where there are authoritarian structures between the nation and its citizens…. Patriotism … supports those national aspects that contribute to the dispersion of such authoritarian relations”. Again, “nationalism strives to idealise the group’s history, whereas patriotism backs its constructive-critical analysis”. Also, “nationalism tends to support authoritarian-totalitarian structures, whereas patriotism is linked with support of democratic principles”. And significantly for the minorities and those outside the main group, “in its endeavour towards intrasocietal homogeneity, nationalism supports the degradation of outgroups, whereas patriotism supports tolerance toward outgroups and minorities in accepting intrasocietal variety”.

It is apparent from the performance of the relatively new right-wing AfD (Alternative for Deutschland) party in the recent elections to the federal parliament in Germany, garnering 13.3 per cent of the vote (as against 5 per cent the last time) and emerging as the third largest party, that the nationalistic strain is becoming stronger despite Nazism and Hitler being anathema in the post-World War II political narrative of the country. The “narrow domestic walls” the poet worried about do seem to be fragmenting the world.

Hindutva, as a political falsification of Hinduism, must resort to alternative facts and post-truths, lies in short, to weave a make-believe ecology of representation that has nothing to do with lived reality. It commandeers the media for this purpose. And thus we have a situation where, as the German thinker and journalist Karl Kraus, alluding to the period of the ascendance of Nazis in Germany when the media manipulated reality, put it, “shadows now throw bodies”. The iteration of untruth ad nauseam makes the lie the norm, and truth look strange and outrageous. This is a sub-real situation where the misrepresentation acquires, as Guy Debord observes in his Society of the Spectacle, an autonomous life of its own, where “the liar has lied to himself” and convinced himself to believe and live the lie.

Words, then, do not come out from the “depth of truth”, but sub-serve the project. There is “tireless striving” not towards perfection, but to perfect the lie. As for the “clear stream of reason”, it runs right into “the dreary desert sand of dead habit” and evaporates. Reason or rationalism which questions the project is a life-threatening exercise, as what happened to Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi, and now Gauri Lankesh, starkly reminds us. You can, of course, as much as you distort the majority faith, with equal or more impunity insult and ridicule the minority faiths because that is par for the course for Hindutva as mass political mobilisation in the name of religion.

This blinkered unidirectional religious mediation of political and social life, which not only skews civilisational values of modernity and humanness and scientific temper, but also corrupts the core purpose of religion as a means of self-enlightenment, liberation and salvation, has a stultifying effect on the spiritual and intellectual life of entire generations which have to suffer it. The mind is led not forward, not within, but backward, to revive “dead habits”. A process of cultural renascence masquerades as cultural renaissance. Regression is confused with some kind of going back to the roots. Myths are rubber-stamped as historical. A strange blind and blighting nostalgia retrieves discredited notions and disused practices from the dustbins of history and restitutes them as so many anachronisms to be celebrated.

The here and the now are casualties in the process. In his evocative “Tryst with Destiny” speech delivered on the occasion of India’s Independence on August 14/15, 1947, Nehru promised that “at the stroke of the midnight hour India will awake to life and freedom”. “Life” and “freedom” are the crucial operative words there, both guaranteed to us as our fundamental rights by our Constitution, the one in Article 21 which assures us the right to life and personal liberty, and the other by virtue of Article 19(1) which stipulates and safeguards our freedoms of expression, movement, to practice any profession and so on. But today these rights, though constitutionally assured, cannot be, will not be, practically ensured. To put it sardonically, the exercise of one right, that of freedom of expression, can lead to abrogation of the other, the right to life. The difference between exercising and not exercising our fundamental right is that between life and death.

This is where the tidal wave of Hindutva leaves us, stranded and helpless, divorced from our true heritage and past and uncertain of our future. And thus it is that we find ourselves shuffling after the cortege of the poet’s words, in silence. It is like the poem of silence Karl Kraus lapsed into when he foresaw what National Socialism in the 1930s was going to do to Germany:

Let no one ask what I’ve been doing since I spoke

I have nothing to say

and won’t say why.

And there’s stillness since the earth broke.

No word was right;

a man speaks only from his sleep at night.

And dreams of a sun that joked.

It passes; and later

it didn’t matter.

The Word went under when that world awoke.

The Judiciary

Targeting judges

V. VENKATESAN the-nation

IT requires a controversy to usher in significant reforms. The Supreme Court vindicated this aphorism on October 6 when it decided, for the first time after the collegium came into existence in 1993, to make the reasons for its decisions public on its website.

The immediate provocation for this reform was the controversy that erupted following the collegium’s decision to transfer Justice Jayant Manganlal Patel of the Karnataka High Court to the Allahabad High Court, leading to his resignation. Lawyers at the Gujarat High Court, from where Justice Patel was first transferred to the Karnataka High Court in 2016, and Karnataka struck work for a day in protest against the collegium’s decision. Besides, the protesting lawyers were planning legal action by way of filing writ petitions in the Supreme Court. Senior advocates of the Supreme Court questioned the collegium’s decision in public. These multiple pressures apparently forced the hands of the collegium, some of whose members did not want to be on the wrong side of history.

Transfer of a judge from one High Court to another on the recommendation of the Supreme Court’s collegium, ostensibly to facilitate better administration, is nothing new. But the proposed transfer of Justice Patel brought the collegium’s functioning under scrutiny, amidst renewed calls for an immediate reform of the system.

Justice Patel resigned on September 25, making his displeasure public. The President subsequently accepted his resignation. Indeed, the recommendation to transfer him was only a proposal, as it was not submitted to the government.

The collegium, comprising the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra, and the four senior-most judges, namely, Justices J. Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B. Lokur and Kurian Joseph, first discussed the possibility of transferring Justice Patel to the Bombay High Court but later decided to recommend his transfer to the Allahabad High Court. On September 22, Justice Dipak Misra elicited Justice Patel’s response to the collegium’s proposal over phone, triggering Justice Patel’s resignation.

Justice Patel was to retire on August 3, 2018, on reaching the superannuation age of 62. He was the senior-most judge after the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court. He was transferred from the Gujarat High Court, where he was serving as Acting Chief Justice, to the Karnataka High Court on February 13, 2016.

As per the existing Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) of appointments of High Court judges, a puisne judge in a High Court who has one year or less to retire may be considered for appointment as the Chief Justice in his own High Court if a vacancy occurs when his turn for being considered for elevation as Chief Justice arrives. With the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court, Justice S.K. Mukherjee, reaching his superannuation on October 9, Justice Jayant Patel was eligible for elevation as the next Chief Justice.

Therefore, it was inexplicable why he was not considered for the post of the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court as per the MoP. Instead, the collegium first considered a transfer to the Bombay High Court, where he would have been fourth in seniority with no opportunity to be elevated as Chief Justice before his retirement. When this fact dawned on the collegium, it decided to transfer him to the Allahabad High Court, where he would have been second in seniority but still unable to make it as the Chief Justice before his retirement as the present Chief Justice, Justice D.B. Bhosale, will retire only on October 23 next year, well after Justice Patel would have retired had he not resigned. Therefore, it made sense for Justice Patel to quit rather than accept transfer to a different High Court for the purpose of completing his remaining 10 months in office.

As per the MoP, the initiation of a proposal for the transfer of a judge should be made by the CJI, whose opinion in this regard is determinative. Consent of a judge for his first or subsequent transfer is not required; all transfers are to be made in the public interest, that is, to promote better administration of justice throughout the country.

The MoP has safeguards against an arbitrary exercise of this discretion by the CJI. The views on the proposed transfer of a judge should be expressed in writing and should be considered by the CJI and the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court after taking into account the personal factors relating to the judge concerned and his response, including his preference of the places where he would like to be transferred.

Another safeguard is that the CJI is expected to take into account the views of the Chief Justice of the High Court from which a judge is to be transferred and the views of the Chief Justice of the High Court to which the transfer is to be effected. The CJI should also take into account the views of one or more Supreme Court judges who are in a position to offer their views, which would assist in the process of deciding whether or not a proposed transfer should take place.

It is not clear whether the decision of the collegium to recommend Justice Patel’s transfer to the Allahabad High Court was taken after considering all these requirements. The Supreme Court later clarified that the decision was taken “unanimously” by the collegium, after considering all the inputs that it had received. But why the collegium did not consider Justice Patel for elevation as the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court went unanswered.

Obvious reasons

In the public’s perception, however, there were obvious reasons for Justice Patel’s non-elevation as Chief Justice. On December 1, 2011, Justice Patel, as a judge of the Gujarat High Court, transferred the investigation of the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case from the Gujarat Police to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Justice Patel held that the Gujarat Police could not be trusted to conduct a fair probe in the case. He found a CBI probe preferable to an investigation by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), which too held that the encounter was a fake one.

Ishrat Jahan, a 19-year-old college girl in Mumbai, was killed along with three others in a fake encounter by the Ahmedabad Crime Branch in June 2004. Justice Patel described the case as an “exceptional one which has national ramifications”. The Gujarat Police alleged that Ishrat Jahan and the other three were Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists who were on a mission to kill Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat and the current Prime Minister. In a subsequent probe, the CBI too concluded that the encounter was a fake one.

Although Justice Patel himself did not answer the question posed by reporters whether his transfer and the denial of the post of Chief Justice could be linked to his order in the Ishrat Jahan case, to many observers it is not a coincidence that the Narendra Modi government has been vindictive against those who ensured justice was done to the victims of the 2002 Gujarat carnage or the subsequent instances of abuse of power by the Gujarat Police.

Similar instances

In 2014, senior advocate Gopal Subramanium was denied a judgeship of the Supreme Court by the government even after the collegium had recommended his name. The collegium could have reiterated its recommendation, making it binding on the government. But it did not do so on the grounds that Subramanium himself did not favour it following reports that the government had reservations about the collegium’s recommendations. Subramanium, as the amicus curiae during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, had persuaded the Supreme Court to entrust the probe into the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case to the CBI.

The Modi government, apparently, “returned the favour” by denying the judgeship to Subramanium.

Last year, Justice Abhay Mahadeo Thipsay of the Bombay High Court accepted a transfer to the Allahabad High Court although he had less than one year to retire and had twice expressed his reluctance to accept it to the collegium. It was widely believed that Justice Thipsay paid the price for imposing life sentences on nine of the 21 accused in the Best Bakery riot case during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom when he decided the case as a judge of the Mumbai Sessions Court. The case was transferred out of Gujarat by the Supreme Court in 2006.

Justice Rajiv Shakdher was transferred from the Delhi High Court to the Madras High Court as a “punitive” measure for his judgment in the Priya Pillai case. He had set aside the Central government’s unjustified restrictions on her right to travel abroad in order to prevent her from airing her views to a group of British parliamentarians on the alleged violations of human rights of forest dwellers in Madhya Pradesh. Justice Shakdher had contemplated resignation before accepting the transfer. His transfer too, like Justice Patel’s transfer, elicited wide criticism, showing the collegium in a poor light. Curiously, the present collegium has reportedly recommended Justice Shakdher’s transfer back to the Delhi High Court.

Seen in this context, Justice Patel’s transfer and his subsequent resignation infuriated the community of lawyers. The Gujarat High Court Advocates Association wrote to the Registrar Generals of the Supreme Court, the Allahabad High Court and the Karnataka High Court seeking notes of recommendation (with reasons if any) with regard to Justice Patel’s transfer. The association has made public its intention to legally challenge Justice Patel’s transfer.

The Bar Council of India (BCI) and the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) have both expressed dismay over the transfer, which, they said, smacked of lack of transparency. But the SCBA office-bearers and the BCI disapprove of public criticism of the CJI and the collegium in the best interests of the institution. Both were critical of senior advocate Dushyant Dave for attributing motives to the CJI and for criticising the decision of the collegium during a discussion on a television channel. The BCI has issued a notice to Dave to explain his conduct. The executive committee of the SCBA, however, has declared its support to Dave and has sought greater transparency in the collegium’s functioning.

On October 6, the Supreme Court’s website gave details about the merits of three candidates being recommended for appointment as judges in the Kerala High Court and six in the Madras High Court.

Although the Supreme Court’s website is silent on the proposal to transfer Justice Patel as it did not materialise because of his resignation, it has had a positive impact on the collegium’s functioning.

FRDI Bill

Dangers in a Bill

THE Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill, 2017, which the Union Cabinet cleared on June 14, 2017, is to be introduced in the coming session of Parliament. The Bill seeks to create a Resolution Corporation which will exercise control over banks, insurance companies, regional rural banks (RRBs), cooperative banks and other financial institutions. The Bill is under the consideration of a parliamentary committee.

The general direction and management of the affairs and business of the Resolution Corporation will vest in a board, which will consist of a chairperson; one member each representing the Finance Ministry, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDAI), and the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority (PFRDA); three whole-time members; and two independent members to be appointed by the Central government.

The board will have the power to order amalgamation, merger, liquidation and acquisition of any bank, including State Bank of India (SBI) and other nationalised banks, RRBs, cooperative banks and payment banks, and any insurance company, including Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) and other general insurance companies, if, in its judgment, the institution concerned (bank or insurance company) has got “imminent” or “critical” risk to its viability. The corporation, which will be under the Finance Ministry, will be empowered to hand over any such institution to another entity, public or private. It will be authorised to order discontinuation of service of employees or transfer of their employment or reduction of their remuneration upon such “resolution”.

The FRDI Bill also envisages closure of the “Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation” (DICGC) established in 1961, which has been an insurance cover for the savings of depositors.

According to banking sector representatives, the creation of the Resolution Corporation goes against the spirit of nationalisation of banks in 1969 when it was decided that public sector financial institutions should serve the masses, besides the marginalised and underprivileged sections of society, and not be concerned with earning huge profits at the cost of the ordinary masses.

According to C.P. Krishnan, general secretary of the Bank Employees Federation of India’s Tamil Nadu chapter, the Financial Stability Report of the RBI states that out of the total non-performing assets (NPAs), 88.4 per cent is the creation of large borrowers with loan exposure of Rs.5 crore and more. “On top of it, 12 large borrowers constitute 25 per cent of the NPAs, as admitted by the RBI itself,” he said.

He claimed that 56 RRBs spread over 600 districts, with around 23,000 branches, rendered excellent service to the rural people by lending almost 80 per cent of their total advances to the poor and the marginalised. Besides, cooperative institutions, including 370 Central Cooperative Banks with around 14,000 branches and 93,000 primary agriculture cooperative societies, extended real service to the common man.

Similarly, despite stiff competition from private insurers, the LIC ranked number one in terms of market share and service in the life insurance sector. The LIC contributed Rs.14,23,055 crore to the 12th Five-Year Plan, which was double the Rs.7,04,151 crore it contributed to the 11th Plan, he said and added that there was no need for such an overarching mechanism as the Resolution Corporation.

Overriding powers

In fact, the Bill seeks to place the entire financial structure of the country at the mercy of the government. The Resolution Corporation has been given powers that override those vested in the RBI, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and even the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Besides, the measures taken by the corporation cannot be challenged in court, including the Supreme Court. The Bill categorically states that an order for the winding up of a bank or an order sanctioning a scheme of compromise or arrangement or of amalgamation, or an order for the supersession of the committee of management or other managing body of a bank and the appointment of an administrator thereof made with the previous sanction in writing or on the requisition of the RBI or the corporation, as the case may be, shall not be liable to be called into question in any manner.

Besides, the Bill also proposes to amend the SBI Act in order to insert a clause for its liquidation. This has given rise to apprehensions that in due course the government might even take recourse to privatisation of the SBI. The clause says:

“After Section 45, the following section shall be inserted, namely:

“45A. Notwithstanding anything in this Act, the Resolution Corporation established under… the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Act, 2017, shall have the powers to carry out resolution of the State Bank under that Act.”

As explained, the term resolution could mean amalgamation, merger, acquisition, or liquidation and the resolution process could be initiated if in the opinion of the board the bank is under “critical” or “imminent” danger for its viability.

The fears about the SBI have arisen because a few weeks before the Union Cabinet cleared the Bill, the SBI was designated as a “systemically important financial institution (SIFI)”. The designation has its implications. In the Bill, the criteria for designating an institution as a SIFI could depend upon its size, complexity, nature and volume of transactions with other financial service providers, interconnectedness with other financial service providers, nature of services provided by the financial service providers and whether they are difficult to substitute, and such other matters as may be prescribed.

Once an institution has been designated as a SIFI, it comes under constant scrutiny of the corporation. The Bill proposes that every institution so designated shall, within a period of 90 days from the publication of the order of designation under Section 25, submit a restoration plan to the appropriate regulator and a resolution plan to the corporation, in accordance with the provisions of Section 38.

Also, every such financial institution shall provide such information to the corporation at such intervals and in such manner as may be specified by regulations made by the corporation in order to monitor the safety, soundness and solvency of the institution.

The Bill specifies that the corporation and the appropriate regulator may, on the basis of the information received from any SIFI or otherwise and for reasons to be recorded in writing, jointly inspect the institution in such manner as may be specified by regulations made by the corporation in consultation with the appropriate regulator. Subject to the provisions of this Act, the regulation and supervision of SIFIs shall continue to be governed by the appropriate regulator with which the SIFI is registered.

What this means is that a SIFI continues to be under close scrutiny by the Resolution Corporation, which may initiate action against it at any given time—order its acquisition or amalgamation or liquidation. Liquidation may be ruled out in the case of the SBI, but handing it over to another entity is a real fear.

Bankers protest

According to a note circulated by the All India Bank Officers’ Confederation (AIBOC), which is spearheading the agitation against this Bill, the FRDI Bill vests tremendous powers in the corporation, even undermining those that vest in the RBI, the CVC and the CBI. According to this note, the bankers have taken exception to the Bill because it seeks to undermine the spirit of bank nationalisation.

Besides, the SBI, which has a huge reach into the nooks and crannies of India, will come under the mercy of the government and will always be under threat of privatisation, whereas the present SBI Act says the bank can never be liquidated/privatised. Besides, if such an eventuality arises, no court can question this action. Since the SBI has already been notified as a SIFI, it is only natural that a sense of insecurity has been set in. Besides the SBI, ICICI Bank and HDFC Bank have also been designated as SIFIs.

Similarly, the Resolution Corporation can transfer an insurance company to another service provider, decide the performance incentive for the chairman and executives of an insurance corporation, become a receiver, and remove managerial and other persons from office. The corporation will also have the power to supersede the board of directors of an insurance corporation. The corporation can also become a liquidator.

According to Thomas D. Franco, general secretary of the AIBOC, the Bill gives draconian powers to an authority, which will be under the Finance Ministry, and also dilutes the powers of the RBI. Banks and insurance companies will be at the mercy of this corporation’s board, which in turn will be subservient to the Finance Ministry.

In the name of deposit insurance also, the Bill is discriminatory in nature: it goes against the interest of small depositors through its provision of “bail-in”. The depositor whose money is given as loan to the borrower is likely to lose his share of deposit in case of a “bail-in”, whereas the borrower who availed himself of the loan is likely to get off scot-free. According to Franco, the “bail-in” concept is a double whammy.

In Cyprus, depositors lost almost 50 per cent of their savings when a “bail-in” was implemented by the resolution corporation, which is similar to what the FRDI has proposed in this Bill.

The Bill takes away the rights of depositors to get back what they deposited in full trust that their money was safe in a public sector bank as it was backed by the sovereign guarantee of the country. This provision, says Franco, goes against the fundamental right to equality, hence the Bill should be withdrawn immediately.

Banking and insurance sector employees observed a day’s strike on August 22 and held a march to Parliament House against the Bill. They have also circulated notes to Members of Parliament urging them to oppose the Bill when it comes up for debate.

According to Franco, Krishnan and other financial experts, the Bill is fundamentally flawed because it has been blindly copied and pasted from the Western model, whereas the situation in India is totally different. “In our country, there is already a resolution mechanism for all financial service providers, which is available with the Reserve Bank of India. In addition, we have also brought in an insolvency and bankruptcy code. We have also created a National Company Law Tribunal. Hence there is no need for a new resolution mechanism,” they say.

Similarly, they say, there is IRDAI for the insurance sector, and RRBs and cooperative banks have their own mechanism. In addition, the DICGC, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the RBI, is functioning effectively.

In fact, since its inception, the DICGC had to pay only Rs.50.3 billion, whereas it had Rs.701.5 billion as deposit insurance fund as on March 2017. It also has Rs.7,16,322 million as investments. As on March 2017, the balance in the Deposit Insurance Fund is Rs.6,45,578.48 million and the balance in the Credit Guarantee Fund is Rs.7,30,027.64 million.

Except cooperative banks, no other banks have had to make claims from the DICGC. “This clearly shows that the depositors are safe in our country and there is no need for another resolution mechanism to provide deposit insurance to consumers,” they say.

But with the majority that the government enjoys in both Houses of Parliament now, it is anybody’s guess which way the Bill will go. Unless of course, the government pauses and takes stock of the situation.

Perspective

Strangulating the informal economy

cover-story

The fact that there has been a slowdown of late in the rate of growth of the Indian economy is accepted by all, including even Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his all-over-the-place diatribe against critics on October 4. The government, however, sees it as remediable since the economy, it believes, “is on the right track”.

The first question to ask, however, is: why should it matter if the year-on-year quarterly GDP growth rate has been slowing down for the last six consecutive quarters and is now down to 5.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2017-18 (which is the lowest for any quarter in the last three years)? In advanced countries the growth rate in the level of activity is considered important because, above all, of its impact on employment, a slow growth rate entailing a lower or even a negative rate of job creation (negative because of labour productivity growth). In India, too, if the jejune thrill of outdoing China’s growth rate did not bedevil economic discourse, then some concern over employment should have figured in the discussion of economic slowdown.

Steep drop in employment

Such, alas, has not been the case. The fact that according to Labour Bureau data, the “usual principal status” employment, in the age group 15 years and above, has declined by 37.4 lakh in absolute terms between 2013-14 and 2015-16, i.e. even before the GDP slowdown began 1, which could only have become worse because of this slowdown, has scarcely figured in the discussion. And when Modi says that the slowdown of Q1 of 2017-18 will be reversed, he does not at all mean a reversal of the employment drop, which therefore raises the question: what does the economy’s being “on the right track” mean?

Nonetheless, while an impressive growth, far from entailing faster employment growth, can even entail an absolute drop in employment, as it has done, a slowing down of growth does mean a further drop in employment, and is undoubtedly a cause for concern. One factor behind this slowing down which is obvious and has affected both China and India is the persistent world economic crisis, whose impact these countries appeared initially to have escaped, but which has finally caught up with them, especially after the counteracting effects of their own local asset price “bubbles” have collapsed. This slowing down began in India during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)-II itself and, after a brief interlude (whose veracity too is questionable since the changes in the method of GDP estimation play a considerable role in boosting the growth rate figures for this period 2), has resumed its course, which explains the steady decline in quarterly growth rates for the last six quarters.

The Modi government, however, instead of taking steps to counteract this process, has done the very opposite, in at least two ways. First, in a situation where export growth has been constrained by the world crisis, and imports have risen on account of competition from other countries also hit by the crisis, an increase in the size of the domestic market should have been effected through larger government expenditure (the government in fact is now talking about a fiscal stimulus); instead what we find is a drop in Central government expenditure relative to GDP. It was 15.8 per cent in 2009-10, was reduced to 13.9 per cent in 2013-14 by UPA-II, and has since been further reduced by the Modi government to 12.7 per cent (Budget Estimate) for 2017-18. The government, in other words, has gone in for a demand compression at a time of declining growth, when it should have been doing the very opposite.

The second measure is even more drastic, namely a complete strangulation of the “informal” sector consisting of petty production and small capitalist production. Both demonetisation and the imposition of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) are measures directed against this sector. The objective of these measures is to bring about from above, through the direct intervention of the state, a combination of two processes which had been highlighted by Marx: a process of “primitive accumulation of capital” (the destruction of petty production) and a process of “centralisation of capital” (the destruction of small capitalist production).

Formalisation of the economy

I am not making an arbitrary ascription here. Spokespersons of the government have explicitly said that their objective is to “formalise” the economy. Now, when this “formalisation” is pushed through by state coercion, and is not allowed to occur on its own, at its own pace (if at all), through a prolonged process of self-conversion on the part of the “informal” economy, then it necessarily means that a part of the informal economy will get destroyed by such coercion, which seems to have been the goal of official policy.

But while the contribution of demonetisation towards this end, through the sudden withdrawal of the circulating medium used in the “informal sector”, is obvious, it may be asked: how does the GST serve such a purpose? It is only a substitution of one tax regime by another, of a supposedly more cumbersome regime by one presumed to be more simple and “rational”; why should it have the effect of destroying the “informal sector”? Even those who recognise this destructive effect have seen it only as a transitory one, a part of the “teething trouble” associated with the birth of a new regime. This, however, is erroneous.

Since the administrative costs of economic units under a GST regime are largely in the nature of a fixed cost (each unit, no matter what its size, has to submit its returns with the same frequency, using accountants and consultants whose charges vary less than the firm size), the cost per unit of turnover is greater for smaller economic units than for larger ones, which undermines their viability.

A second factor that also contributes towards this end is the fact that small firms tend to be less vertically integrated on average than larger firms (notwithstanding the latter’s tendency towards “outsourcing”), so that input tax credit that has to be claimed by the former, which gets “locked up” until it has been obtained, is higher as a proportion of turnover for the former than for the latter. Since such “locking up” is analogous to capital being advanced, it increases relatively the unit costs for the smaller businesses.

Taxing the informal sector

These issues have been discussed. But in addition to these, there is a more basic and obvious reason why the GST undermines the viability of small businesses. And this is because the GST has simply raised the average tax rate on the “informal” sector, a fact that tends to get obscured by the preoccupation with the structure of rates across commodities. A whole range of activities in the “informal” sector that earlier paid no taxes at all or, at best, meagre taxes, are now required to register themselves and pay taxes. The GST is not just a substitution of one tax regime by another that is supposed to remain “revenue neutral”; it is an extension of the tax net to cover a whole range of businesses in the “informal sector”, or an increase in tax rates upon them, which, if revenue neutrality is actually achieved, would mean a lower tax burden on the “formal” sector. In conditions of revenue neutrality in other words, it amounts a redistribution of the tax burden from the “formal” to the “informal” sector, i.e. to a process of primitive accumulation-cum-centralisation of capital.

A reduction in the level of activity in the “informal” sector under these conditions is to be expected. But why should it cause a reduction in the level of activity generally? And here we come to the crux of the problem.

If the process of primitive accumulation-cum-centralisation in the “informal” sector occurs as a consequence of the expansion of the “formal” sector, i.e. as an accompaniment of a process of accumulation of capital in the latter, then the destruction of the “informal” sector, though tragic in itself, provides nonetheless a buoyancy to the “formal” sector. In such a case the reduction of activity in the “informal” sector is accompanied by an increase in activity in the “formal” sector.

But if the reduction in the “informal” sector is not part of such a process but is an ex cathedra action imposed by the state from above, then this reduction, far from stimulating any accompanying expansion in the “formal” sector, reduces, on the contrary, the level of activity in the latter through its multiplier effects 3. The activity in the “formal” sector, after all, is sustained in part by demand from the “informal” sector itself, and if the latter shrinks for independent reasons, having nothing to do with the former’s expansion, then the former too cannot escape some reduction. The entire economy consequently gets caught in a downturn in activity. And this is what the Indian economy is currently facing.

It follows that the claim that the current slowdown is only transitory, that the problems caused by the GST are only “teething troubles”, is unfounded. The setback to activity caused by the GST is not just because of the procedural complications of the current scheme which businesses would “soon get used to”, or which could just be simplified at the next meeting of the GST Council. They have to do with the very structure of the GST itself, with its being used as a coercive instrument by the state to “formalise” the “informal” economy.

There has been some talk of the government providing a fiscal stimulus to boost the economy’s growth rate, though the Reserve Bank of India has pooh-poohed the idea. Any fiscal stimulus however, to be an authentic stimulus, must satisfy two conditions: first, it must entail an increase in government expenditure that raises domestic demand (i.e. is not of the “Bullet Train” variety that would raise demand in Japan), rather than a mere transfer to the capitalists for boosting their “animal spirits”. Such transfers simply get pocketed by them without causing any additional investment in a situation of slowdown in economic activity.

Second, any such increase in government expenditure must be financed through either a fiscal deficit, or a tax, whether on the profits or on the wealth, of the propertied classes. This is because a tax on the working people, who have a high propensity to consume out of their incomes, for financing larger government expenditure merely implies a reduction of one kind of demand for stimulating another, but no increase in aggregate demand.

With the Modi government being committed to the fiscal deficit target of 3.2 per cent of GDP, and having already exhausted 96 per cent of the deficit target in absolute terms, and also being reluctant to tax capitalists on whom it depends for realising its “Make in India” slogan, the scope for any authentic fiscal stimulus is limited. It may, of course, force public sector companies to spend more by borrowing, but this would only make these companies, and their creditors, more vulnerable in the coming months, compounding the problem of non-performing assets (NPA) which already afflicts the economy.

There is a further point to note here, namely the opposition of global finance capital to any authentic fiscal stimulus. Even the mere talk of a fiscal stimulus recently caused a fall in the rupee. Such a fall may be considered beneficial for the country’s trade balance, but it can trigger an avalanche of capital outflow (as in East and South-East Asia two decades ago), with extremely damaging consequences for the economy.

Indeed, even in the absence of any fiscal stimulus, if the Federal Reserve Board in the United States decides to raise its interest rates, then that fact alone can trigger such an outflow. Even the current $400 billion foreign exchange reserves, themselves built on the basis of financial inflows, would be unable to prevent it. And in such a case, which is not unlikely, the current slowdown will actually become a recession within the neoliberal regime, as the government will have to adopt “austerity” measures (apart from measures of “denationalisation”, i.e. letting foreigners take over domestic assets at throwaway prices) to re-establish “creditors’ confidence”. The past financial inflows which the government has been proclaiming as an achievement could thus turn out to be a curse: they could play the opposite role of worsening the slowdown and bringing the economy to its knees.

A fiscal stimulus financed by taxes on the rich and used for enlarging government welfare expenditure, in sectors like education and health, could revive the economy; but it would require a willingness on the part of the government to put restrictions on capital outflows if necessary. The Modi government, however, hell-bent on inflicting additional wilful damage on an economy that is already afflicted by the world economic crisis under a neoliberal regime, has neither the courage, nor the imagination, nor the humaneness, to adopt such a course.

Notes

1.Vinoj Abraham, “Stagnant Employment Growth: Last Three Years May Have Been the Worst”, Economic & Political Weekly, September 23, 2017.

2. To give one example, the growth in gross value added in manufacturing in 2015-16 by the new estimates was 10.8 per cent, while the growth in the new index of industrial production was 2.8 per cent. With such enormous differences what is true becomes difficult to discern.

3. Professor Sukhamoy Chakravarty in his book Marx, Marshall and Schumpeter had argued that primitive accumulation of capital in Europe had the effect of stimulating capitalism because it occurred in response to a set of innovations that were occurring simultaneously.

Vocational training

Chasing a mirage

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI cover-story

On June 6, a Press Information Bureau release, highlighting the achievements of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) and “marking three years of inclusive growth and development under the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government”, informed the country that more than 1.07 crore persons had been trained in skills through various programmes and schemes of the Ministry. Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the Minister of State with Independent Charge said that “Skill India” was a “silent revolution and a joint investment” that the government and its private partners were making for the “future growth of the country”.

The Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY), launched on July 15, 2015, had got 26.5 lakh people, half of them women, trained in skills of their choice. The approach was to move away from a supply-driven skill development scenario to a demand-driven one so that young people with skills would not lack employment. Rudy added that “more and more corporates were partnering with the Ministry at various levels, whether on engaging with apprentices, extending infrastructure support, contribution through CSR [corporate social responsibility] funds and hiring of resources”.

The optimism did not last even three months. In the third Cabinet reshuffle on September 3, Rudy was divested of his Ministry as reports appeared of the very low percentages of people who had been trained and received placements. The PMKVY was launched just a year after the Ministry was created. The programme was allocated a hefty Rs.1,500 crore in the year of its launch, and a staggering Rs.12,000 crore in 2016. The report of the Committee for Rationalisation and Optimisation of the Functioning of Sector Skill Councils, submitted in December 2016, came up with a sharp censure, saying that the PMKVY had neither been able to provide employment at decent wages nor had met the needs of industry. The Ministry had set up the committee, headed by Sharda Prasad, former Directorate General of Employment & Training, to suggest reforms in the Vocational Education and Training System. It observed at the outset that efforts at training were “half-hearted” and said that the MSDE and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) should work together. It said that the focus should be on quality training and there was “no need to chase numbers”.

The government enhanced the stipends of graduates, technicians and technician (vocation) apprentices from September 2014 through a gazette notification. Yet a total of only 0.83 lakh apprentices were found engaged under the vocational education scheme of the Ministry of HRD. This, despite the government amending the Apprentices Act, 1961, and the Rules which enhanced the ratio of apprentices who could be engaged within organisations, including in trades that did not insist on any entry-level qualification. The amendments extended the scope of apprenticeship training to non-engineering occupations, and establishments could also outsource training in institutes of their choice. In a dilution of earlier rules, companies could now also pay the penalty for violations of apprenticeship rules in the form of fines. Apprenticeship was seen as the key driver for creating skilled manpower, and this was underscored in the national policy on skill development and entrepreneurship launched in July 2015. The policy also envisaged a close compatibility with the Medium and Small Manufacturing Enterprise sector. The National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme (NAPS) was launched in August 2016 with the objective of covering all categories of apprentices barring those who were under the HRD Ministry’s vocational education scheme. It was another matter that like Rudy, Kalraj Mishra, the Minister for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, was dropped in the Cabinet reshuffle and replaced by Giriraj Singh. The NAPS set a target of training 5 lakh apprentices in 2016-17 against the earlier goal of 2.5 lakhs; 10 lakhs for 2017-18, 15 lakhs for 2018-19, and 20 lakhs for 2019-20.

There was no shortage of pre-existing schemes, including the ones launched under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The Skill Development Initiative Scheme, which did not require a huge investment, was aimed at early school leavers and was meant to fulfil the demands of the services sector. The idea was to provide skilled manpower at a faster rate, though the scheme was not meant as a substitute to the Industrial Training Institutes (ITI), which conducted long-term craftsmen-training schemes. A total of 29.2 lakh youths were trained under this scheme during the Twelfth Five Year Plan period. In addition to all this, the Narendra Modi government started a scheme to train instructors in techniques of transferring hands-on skills and training semi-skilled and skilled manpower for industry. The initiative was not novel. The first craft training institute was set up in 1948, and five more were set up subsequently. The Sharda Prasad Committee report noted that while the requirement of such instructor-trainers was 20,000 a year, only 8,000 were being produced.

In 2013, the UPA government launched a National Skill Certification and Monetary Reward Scheme with a budget of Rs.1,000 crore, which was targeted at covering a limited number of high-market-demand job roles in specified sectors. The report found that under the scheme, 14.5 lakh persons had been trained and 8.7 lakh were certified. But only 1.2 lakh persons received placement, a mere 8.5 per cent of the number of people trained, at an average training cost of Rs.7,067 per person. It was badly implemented with poor employment outcomes, the committee observed, adding that the “real ground reality would emerge after a detailed survey of the trainees trained and placed”.

The PMKVY was aimed at training 24 lakh persons. It was to be implemented through the National Skill Development Corporation, set up in 2008. The Skill and Certification Reward Scheme targeted school dropouts and first-time entrants in the labour market and provided them with an incentive between Rs.5,000 and Rs.12,500. A total of 18.03 lakh persons were trained; 12.9 lakh were certified and only 2.23 lakh were placed. The average training cost was a little higher than the 2013 scheme, at Rs.8,319 per trainee. The placement percentage was low at 12.4 per cent, though marginally better than under the UPA. The employment scenario was as bleak as ever. Was it because there were not any jobs, or was it that the trainees did not have the required skills?

The report noted that no assessment was made of the STAR (Standard Training Assessment and Reward) scheme, its failures, industry requirements and low employment outcomes before allocating the PMKVY, a similar scheme, with an outlay of Rs.1,500 crore. The much-increased allocation in the second year came with an ambitious plan to train one crore persons between 2016 and 2020, again without any evaluation of the previous year’s performance. In fact, at the press briefing of June 2017, Rudy did not share employment and placement figures. All the stakeholders consulted by the committee members expressed the view that the targets had been set very high “without any regard to sectoral requirement”. Everybody, the report observed, “was chasing numbers without providing employment to the youth or meeting sectoral industry needs. Many participants very eloquently said it benefited VTPs [vocational training providers], ABs [assessment bodies] and SSCs [sector skill councils] only.” Those who did get jobs were paid Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 a month, which was lower than the minimum wages for skilled or even semi-skilled work in many States. The report said that skills needed to be “aspirational” so that young people could draw anywhere between Rs.40,000 and Rs.50,000. The expenditure on the PMKVY was a “wastage of public resources”, it said.

Lacking correlation with needs

While the MSDE had achieved 58 per cent of the total physical targets, the 17 other Ministries that also provided vocational training together achieved 42 per cent of their targets. The training by some Ministries, the report found, was substandard, supply-driven and lacked a correlation with specific needs of employers. Many of these Ministries had not been allocated the work of skill development under the Allocation of Business Rules, 1961, while some had been allocated the role of “employment generation”.

In the scheme of vocational education in secondary and higher secondary schools run by the HRD Ministry in 2014-15, only 873 students were placed in various trades against, just 0.19 per cent of the 4,47,350 who had enrolled. The committee observed that it was not vocational education or vocational education and training that was being imparted but vocational guidance. The standards had not been developed by the National Skills Qualification Committee, there were no regular trainers, there was no involvement of industry, no market linkage or interaction with employers, and no proper infrastructure in schools. Trainers were given a paltry remuneration with no opportunities for career progression or promotion. Further, the Ministry aimed at providing skilled manpower to services, but only 17 courses had been offered.

The apprenticeship training in 30,165 establishments spread over 265 designated trades under the MSDE had been able to attract only 2.3 lakh apprentices, the committee noted. Similarly, the HRD Ministry’s apprentice training scheme of graduate engineers and technicians (vocational and otherwise) had attracted only 0.83 lakh apprentices. “The reason for the poor response was that neither employers, nor trainees see any benefit from the Apprenticeship Training Scheme.”

The report emphasised that “skills ipso facto did not create jobs”. Jobs were a function of the growth of the economy in terms of an increase in the gross domestic product (GDP), creation of new industrial enterprises, expansion of the services sector, development of infrastructure, and good labour market policies. According to the Skill India report, 2017, a joint effort of the Confederation of Indian Industry, the United Nations Development Programme, the All India Council for Technical Education, and Wheebox, the engagement by employers of apprentices despite the amendments to the Act and rules was low. Of all the students entering the job market across the country, hardly two out of five met the criteria of employment set by employers. The severity of the situation, noted the report, was accentuated at many levels when the economy was doing well and new jobs were getting generated in e-commerce, energy, retail, telecom, hospitality and financial industry but there were not enough skilled people available. The report also noted with some concern that there was a significant drop in the participation of women in the labour force in the 21-50 age group.

An industry insider who was formerly with the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises told Frontline that employment figures regarding placements were often fudged and there was no system to find out where previous trainees were located or whether they were in regular jobs or not. “The largest employer today is the informal sector. And much of the work is hands-on training. How can a fruit juice vendor be taught to extract fruit juice if not by actual practice? Today educated people are not getting jobs. Even skilled persons find it difficult to get employment with small and medium enterprises as all the work is in a ‘hands-on’ form. We have to de-train them first. Big industry has its own training institutes. In general, there are not many good trainers. Earlier there used to be the raj mistri, the master trainer in the traditional set-up, under whose tutelage the skill would be imparted to apprentices under him. The government used to incentivise these mistris. But now it is a challenge to find qualified trainers to do the training,” he said.

Despite the hype generated around skill development and job generation, it has turned out that neither of the two outcomes was achieved in the last three years. Rather, as the Sharda Prasad Committee report pointed out, there was no evaluation of previous skill development schemes before launching the PMKVY and no evaluation of its first phase. To be fair to Rudy, he had the candour to admit at the June 16 press briefing that “a handful of organisations claiming to be PMKVY agencies promising jobs to unemployed youths were taking money and duping the public in the name of the MSDE”. Such advertisements, he said, were found more in the vernacular dailies. “We condemn such practices and have filed FIRs [first information reports] against them,” he said, and cautioned the public to be wary of such frauds and check for the right affiliated centres before enrolling.

The frauds were symptomatic of the larger flaws in the skill development and vocational training scheme which the Sharda Committee report pointed out. Needless to add, frauds committed on the public have to be addressed by the government, not the public. The truth is that merely the replacement of Rudy by Dharmendra Pradhan will not result in any drastic increase either of skilled youth or their absorption in employment.

De-digitisation of India

Jayati_Ghosh

SO it is official: cash use is back in almost full force in the Indian economy. Cash withdrawals from ATMs, a reasonable if incomplete proxy for the use of cash in the economy, are nearly back to the level of just before the demonetisation shock of November 8, 2016. Reserve Bank of India (RBI) data on the use of debit and credit cards to withdraw money from ATMs show that such withdrawals, which had collapsed to Rs.850 billion in December 2016 largely because of the sheer unavailability of cash in the machines, amounted to Rs.2.27 trillion in July 2017, only slightly below the Rs.2.55 trillion withdrawals recorded for October 2016.

It is worth noting that this reliance on cash is back despite the fact that the RBI is yet to remonetise the economy fully: currency with the public on September 15, 2017, was still 11 per cent below the level of a year earlier. It cannot simply be assumed (as was done in Economic Survey 2016-17 Volume II) that this reflects a lower demand for currency from the public since there is no evidence that it is not supply-constrained. Rather, the aggressive return to the use of cash suggests that it is only the lack of supply that has constrained people from using it in payments and exchange settlement.

Indeed, it is likely that if the RBI does fully remonetise, then cash use will increase further since the economy is still growing, and therefore the volume and value of total transactions must increase. What is surprising is that digital payments have not increased more along with economic growth. In fact, digital payments, which peaked dramatically in December 2016, are also back to the levels broadly seen in September-October 2016 despite the many incentives provided for such payments through official policy. This makes it apparent that demonetisation failed on this front as well in addition to its spectacular failure to flush out “black money” from the system as banks got back almost all the banned notes. Digitisation of the economy by forcing a comprehensive shift to a cashless, electronic means of payment was declared to be one of the primary goals of that expensive and economically damaging exercise. Now such a coercive process seems untenable: the shift to cashlessness cannot be forced upon people, especially in the absence of other enabling and supporting conditions.

Of course, some digital payments, such as debit card use at point of sale, are increasing, albeit relatively slowly and probably at the same rate that they were increasing before demonetisation. The total amount involved in mobile wallet transactions has also increased, from Rs.33 billion in October 2016 to Rs.69 billion in July 2017, but this is still lower than the Rs.84 billion recorded in January 2017. This suggests that the convenience of mobile wallets may have been overplayed, especially in relation to the costs imposed upon transactors to ensure some returns to e-wallet providers.

So what is it that makes cash use so central to economic activity in India and makes even the enforced digitisation of transactions so difficult and so transient? One obvious answer is the sheer inadequacy of the infrastructure and connectivity required for electronic payments. The basic banking infrastructure is far from providing universal access despite the claims of the Jan Dhan Yojana; the cyber infrastructure for adequate point-of-sale (POS) machines is still massively below requirement; and the most basic issues of lack of connectivity and frequent breakdowns of Internet communications and mobile telephony services continue to plague would-be users. These problems are greater in underserved and far-flung rural areas with difficult geographies, but they are also very much present in urban areas, including the largest metros.

All this should have been apparent to anyone when the move was announced and indeed when they were pointed out repeatedly by several observers. But the enthusiasm with which various officials rushed to prove their loyalty to the cause, such that villages and sometimes entire districts and even States were declared “cashless” in a few weeks, served to obscure that reality. As it happens, most of those “cashless” localities were never anything near that, and most of them have reverted to almost complete cash use for daily transactions. For example, Dhasai was proudly declared to be the first cashless village in Maharashtra, but within a few months it was apparent that lack of continuous electricity supply (with frequent and extended power cuts) and poor mobile and landline connectivity, with networks unavailable for as long as a week at times, meant that the few POS machines in the village were effectively dysfunctional. Similarly, the government of Goa had declared that the State would become fully cashless by December 31, 2016, but nine months later, the use of cash is not only extensive across the State, but in many situations it is the only option.

There are, of course, other concerns with digital transactions: the lack of privacy and enhanced possibilities of surveillance; the risks of being exposed to identity theft and other cybercrime; the possible compromising of personal data leading to financial loss because of very poor cybersecurity laws and systems in India; and so on. But it is also likely that the biggest factors holding back digitisation are the lack of infrastructure and connectivity, and these are issues that can only be dealt with slowly and systematically, not through grandiose announcements and threats.

GST troubles

Many in the government appeared to believe that the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) would be one more force pushing people towards digital transactions. The trail of transactions required to claim refunds on the GST would, they felt, make producers, suppliers, traders and other business people opt for electronic transactions as they were easier to monitor and calculate and for filing returns. But the GST itself is plagued with massive design flaws and shoddy implementation, which has even acted as an incentive for people to rely more on cash transactions. The multiplicity of rates, the complexity of the system, the confusion about different categories, the costs and sheer difficulties in filing online returns have all meant that small businesses in particular have in some cases reverted to cash. Even in megacities such as New Delhi, consumers can testify to the fact that the “ kaccha bill” of items written on a piece of paper has made a comeback in a big way.

The failure of this attempt at digitisation is the result of what now appears to be a basic flaw in the approach of the Central government to policy: a cart-before-horse attitude that does not take into account the wider context, underlying factors and supportive and enabling conditions that must be met for any policy measure to succeed. That is why there is a Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in which people are rushing around building basic toilets to fulfil targets without first addressing the problem of water supply for these toilets or taking into consideration the implications for workers who must be the backbone of any proper sanitation system. The “Make in India” programme is floundering with no significant increase in private investment because the essential requirements such as good transport infrastructure and amenities were not first taken care of. Most declared “Smart Cities” are turning out to be anything but that because the planning and painstaking effort required to create properly functioning urban models are simply absent.

As long as the government is focussed on optics and flamboyant announcements rather than on actual delivery and meeting its own promises, such a state of affairs will continue. It remains to be seen whether the government’s admittedly expert media management and public relations wizardry will continue to be as effective in that future context.

West Bengal

Uneasy calm in Darjeeling

politics

THE bandh called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in the Darjeeling hills was finally lifted on September 27 after 101 days of total shutdown in support of its demand for a separate State of Gorkhaland. The GJM’s decision came at the intervention of the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who announced a meeting to look into the Darjeeling matter. “In a democracy, dialogue is the only way out to resolve any problem. Solutions can be found through restraint, mutual dialogue and within the legal ambit. I have asked the Home Secretary to convene an official-level meeting in the Home Ministry within a fortnight to discuss all related issues,” Rajnath Singh said in a statement issued on September 26.

This much-awaited intervention from the Centre gave GJM supremo Bimal Gurung what he desperately needed, a reason to present before the people for withdrawing the strike that began on June 15. Pressure had been mounting on the GJM leadership as the long-drawn bandh had affected life and the economy in the region and there was no face-saving excuse for it. With both the State government and the Centre refusing to concede the demand for a separate State, the GJM was hard put to keep the agitation alive. Moreover, cracks had begun to show within the GJM, which had emerged as the single most powerful political force in the hills since overthrowing the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in 2008.

With Gurung and several top leaders of the GJM having gone into hiding, and arrest warrants pending against them (including charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), the agitation was fast slipping out of the grasp of the GJM. The State government, in an attempt to split the party, appointed Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa, once trusted aides of Gurung, as Chairman and Vice-chairman of the reconstituted board of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). On June 23, just two weeks after the agitation for Gorkhaland had begun, all 43 elected members of the GTA, including Chief Executive Gurung, had submitted their resignations from the autonomous body which was constituted in 2011 for administering the hills. Both Tamang and Thapa had already been expelled from the party by Gurung for wanting to call off the bandh.

Not only has this been the longest continuous strike in the history of the Gorkhaland movement (the earlier record was 40 days under Subhas Ghising of the GNLF in the mid 1980s), it has also been one of the most intense and violent mass-based agitations in recent times. Though shops have opened and normalcy has returned to the “Queen of the Hill Stations”, with even a few tourists beginning to trickle in, one cannot help but feel that this peace may be just a temporary lull before another storm breaks out.

The veteran hill leader and former MLA from Kalimpong, Harka Bahadur Chhetri of the Jan Andolan Party, said: “Things appear normal on the surface, but there are rumblings underneath. There is huge disillusionment and anger among the people, but it is not yet being articulated or channelled. The people feel humiliated because of the manner in which their demand and sacrifice have been ignored, and they are disappointed with the leaders who failed to give direction to the energy that the movement had generated this time.”

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

Translation

Infidel (Kafir, 1938)

literature

GET away from here, you with your scary Mahadev face! Someone could get a fever just by looking at your face at night, I said, glaring at Pushkar.

“And what about you, with your Mastan Shah and his scoundrels who arrive every Friday to offer you blessings, doesn’t he look like a thug? He terrifies me when I see him,” said Pushkar, waving his fingers in the air.

“You’re a kafir, Pushkar,” I said sanctimoniously. “You’ll go straight to hell, angels will brand your body with hot iron rods, they’ll torture you with whips of fire, you’ll get blood and pus to drink.”

“Eh, you dirty girl, what kind of disgusting talk is this! I’ll throw the pus and blood right back at your angel’s face. If I’m a kafir, you’re a kafirni—you told Babuji the other day that you’d marry me. So, you’ll get a good beating in hell, too.”

“Be quiet. I’m Muslim and you’re Hindu. My dear, all the Muslims will go to Paradise and I’ll go there as well. You’ll be the only one left behind, wait and see.”

“I’ll be left behind? Hunh! I’ll go to a better place than you. You’re a Musalmanti, you’ll be burning in narak.”

“You pig, you’re calling me Musalmanti? You’re a horrible boy, a kafir, an idiot.”

“Then you’re a horrible girl and a kafirni.”

I gave him a tight slap but he wouldn’t back down. Gave me two wallops and also twisted my wrist. I then dug my nails into his arm, tearing his skin. Chachi heard the ruckus, came running out and pulled us apart.

“Pushkar, just wait until Babuji gets home, you’ll get a good thrashing,” said Chachi, threatening him with a raised fist. He just sat astride the wall, making faces at me.

“I’m not going to marry this pig, Chachi,” I said, crying.

“And I’m not about to marry you, you blackie. Ma, she’s telling me I’ll be fed blood and pus. Ugh!” Pushkar made a retching sound.

“Hai Ram, you wicked boy, be quiet.”

“It’s true, Ma, she says all the Hindus will go to hell and she thinks she’s special, she’ll go to Paradise.”

“No, Chachi won’t go to hell, nor Bhaiya and Babuji, but this stupid boy will definitely go,” I said with conviction.

“If I go, I’ll pull you by the leg and drag you with me.”

“I’ll see how you do that! I’ll bite you so hard you’ll die.”

Chachi laughed till she was red in the face. “Arre, will you be hitting each other in narak as well? Munni, Pushkar will be able to leave narak only after you’ve killed him.”

“He’ll still go to narak, you’ll see Chachi, he’s very wicked.”

“Look, Ma, I’ll chuck this lump of dirt at her if she doesn’t stop.”

“What’s going on,” Babuji asked, folding his umbrella as he came in.

“Hindu-Muslim riots,” Chachi said, laughing. “Pushkar was hitting Munni.”

Pushkar, being the coward he was, ran off. Chachi lovingly took me in with her and gave me delicious daal-moth to eat. Chachi is Muslim, it’s only this Pushkar who’s a kafir.

Diwali came. Pushkar’s house glittered with oil lamps. I immediately made up with him, rolled wicks all day and ate puffed rice and crystallised sugar.

Chachi kept scolding me. “Oh Munni, you’re ruining all the wicks.” But I wasn’t about to listen.

In the evening Pushkar made an appearance, all dressed up. Foamy white dhoti, red malina kurta, hair oiled and combed, his forehead dotted with a red bindi. Chachi was also decked out in a Banarasi sari, her anklets jingling as she moved around with the oil lamps. Pushkar acted as though he was in charge of everything in the house, a full Hindu today, and treating me as if I was impure. The same Pushkar who often finished my half-eaten berry was handing me a kachori from a distance today. My heart smouldered.

“Pushkar, please put some sandalwood paste on me, too,” I said, after reminding him of favours I had done for him.

“No,” he said arrogantly. “You’re not a Hindu.”

“Pushkar, I’m a Hindu now. But don’t tell Amma.”

Perhaps he felt sorry for me, and proceeded to dab the sandalwood paste with much ceremony.

I made up for all this at Eid. After calling him a kafir, I fought with him. But when my hands and feet were red with henna, I waited eagerly for him to come. He arrived, I sat down, my hands placed nonchalantly in my lap.

“Ahha, Munni’s palms are so red. Let me see, Munni.”

I pushed his hand away roughly and said, “Don’t pester me, it’s our Eid, not yours, you don’t fast, my dear. Only after Muslims have fasted, can they celebrate Eid.”

“And when have you ever fasted?”

“Wah, I keep the short fast.”

“Hunh! That’s some fast. You eat mutton all day long. I can also keep a short fast like that.”

“Ah, but you’re a Hindu,” I said, using my trump card.

“So what difference does that make?” he said sheepishly.

“Tomorrow I’ll wear new clothes,” I said haughtily.

“I’ll also put on my new coat.”

“’Why, you’re Hindu, why would you wear a new coat? I won’t let you eat any sewaiyyan, either.”

“You stuffed yourself with puffed corn at our Diwali, made me put sandalwood paste on you, took the crystallised sugar from Babuji, and now you’re talking like this? You’re a real meanie!”

I immediately fought with Pushkar and forced him to leave.

But the moment I changed, dressed up in fancy clothes, all puffed up, I had to go to him to impress him. He instantly shed his resentment and actually began to sweet-talk me. But I kept telling him that he was a Hindu, he had no right to be happy on our Eid.

Dejected, he said, “All right, then I’ll become a Muslim. Don’t tell anyone.”

But he was so fickle that he became a kafir again at Holi. Put on such airs that despite my following him around and cajoling him, he flatly refused to let me play Holi.

“You’re a Musalmanti,” he said.

“All right, Pushkar, try coming to our Eid, I’ll give you a thrashing you’ll never forget,” I said, shaking my head.

“Then why don’t you become a Hindu?” said Panditji, turning his face away indifferently.

“Okay, give me the red gulal mixed with sprinkles.”

“But you just said the other day that any part of the body

touched by Holi colours will end up in hell. Why do you want the gulal now?”

“Because now I’ve become a Hindu,” I said, convinced.

“Ah, you faithless one, you become a Hindu each time and then go back to being a Muslim again. First promise me that this time you won’t become Muslim.”

“All right.”

“And promise you’ll marry me. Okay?”

I agreed to this last condition too. But Eid was just Eid. I became a true Muslim during Muharram, and called Pushkar a child of Yazid because he was a kafir and a future dweller of hell.

Pandits are such a naive caste and a Kashmiri Pandit, especially, is an angel. I could beat Pushkar up and he would make up with me in no time. He was so soft-hearted that the moment he saw a goat being slaughtered he would burst into tears.

“Arre, why does your father kill so many goats?’ he asked, his eyes wide in astonishment.

“Arre, stupid, this is for a heavenly reward,” I replied wisely, making fun of his crying.

“Heavenly reward? Slaughtering a goat is a virtuous act?”

“Yes, of course. When we go to Paradise, we’ll climb onto these goats and cross a bridge, the Pul Sirat. We’ll cross very quickly, Pushkar, and you’ll be left behind.”

“I’ll go across on my bicycle.”

I became angry. “Wah! Pul Sirat is finer than a hair and sharper than a sword’s blade. You’ll tumble below into hell and we, seated on the goats, will move across like this— tik, tik.”

“I’ll sit with you on your goat.”

“What do you think? I’ll push you down.”

“I’ll pull you down with me.”

“And how will you do that?” I asked, giving him a smack.

In a trice he threw me down, walloped me twice and made off in a flash.

My bangles broke, I was miserable, and I howled so loudly that Babuji took me to the bazaar that very minute and got me a new set of bangles.

Who knows how many Eids and Holis came and went. Our ideas altered with changing times. We had both come to believe that we understood the philosophy of religion perfectly. On Holi, Pushkar would come, drench me in colour, and rub lots of gulal on my face.

On Krishna’s birthday he gave me a small marble statuette of Krishna, at whose feet lay a tiny frame with Pushkar’s photo in it. The picture and the statuette remained on my table and often became the focus of my attention.

Pushkar went to Banaras and I left for Aligarh. Our vacations didn’t coincide and now we didn’t even meet on Holi or at Eid. God bless December, it provides entertainment for everyone. I was on the veranda reading something, when a cry of “Musalmanti!” alerted me to Pushkar’s presence. I welcomed him by calling him a kafir. He rubbed gulal on my face.

“Arre, Holi in December?” I said, pushing him away.

“Yes, I saved this gulal for you at Holi. Won’t you give me some sewaiyyan?”

“No, you’re a kafir.”

“And you a kafirni. Do you remember our childhood days of Holi?”

“Which ones?” I asked narrowing my eyes.

“Stop putting on airs. Didn’t you promise to marry me?”

“Stop, you ill-mannered fool.”

“Why are you pretending?”

We both burst out laughing.

“I hear Mussolini is treating you harshly.”

Pushkar always used to make fun of my dark (all right, black) complexion.

“You English mouse, watch out for yourself. I’ve heard they’re rewarding people with one anna for every mouse turned in.” I attacked his fair colouring.

At the mention of Hindu-Muslim riots I said to him, “You’d better run from here, you’re a Hindu. You don’t want to be assaulted with a knife.”

“You’re a butcher, I’m just a cowardly fellow. You’re the one who has consumed a hundred goats.”

“But, Pushkar, you’re not a goat, you’re a buffalo.”

He bit me so hard on my arm that I squealed in pain.

“If you hadn’t been so dark, I would definitely have married you.”

“Well, Pushkar, I’m not exactly black like a tava.”

“So you mean I should marry you, hunh?” he said, his eyes shining.

“Be quiet, kafir!”

“Do you know who the poets call a kafir?”

“That’s another kafir. You’re a mule, a Hindu!”

“Are Hindu and Muslim mules different from each other? And what are Jewish mules like?”

Laughing, we discussed the varieties of mules in relation to various religions.

Time passed. Pushkar rose to the position of deputy collector and was posted in our neighbouring district. On Sundays his car suffered from overuse. He reminded me several times of what we had said to each other when we celebrated Holi together as children. But I said it was an absurd idea and forbade him from even mentioning it.

“How long will you keep putting me off like this? I will talk to Ma today, regardless of whether a mutiny follows or not. You’re such a weakling.”

“Pushkar, we’ll be persecuted. Just remember, Abba will slit open your stomach.”

“Look, I’m not afraid of all this. How long will we continue to hope that the heavens will come to our aid?”

“Pushkar, please see how inappropriate this conversation is. There’s a chasm separating us. Religion.”

“To hell with this religion! Religion is for our good, we’re not there to sacrifice ourselves for it.”

“Look at the longstanding affection between Abbajaan and Chacha. Think about the respect they receive in this town. They will be disgraced by our marriage. The papers, which have no real subjects to write about, will drag our pictures, our romance, and our modern education through the dirt in such a way that it will become difficult to live. It’s not just a crime to marry outside the faith, it’s a catastrophe! In our society boys are allowed to marry a Hindu or Christian girl, or anyone they wish, but girls cannot. To this day it’s claimed with great pride that a Muslim girl can never marry a Christian boy. I don’t know to what extent this pride is justified.”

“But I’m ready to become a Muslim.”

“What difference does that make? I don’t accept your condition, because it won’t make any difference even if you become a Muslim. You will remain as stupid as you are now! Liking someone and one’s religion have no relationship with each other.”

“Then you become a Hindu.”

“Think carefully before you say this. If I announce that you’re trying to turn me into an apostate, all the butchers in our neighbourhood will hack you to pieces. And secondly, if I become a Hindu, the family’s honour will be dirt. Naak kat jayegi, even a rubber nose doesn’t stand a chance. We’re slaves. Pushkar, we can call nothing our own. We belong to society, it can do what it wants with us. We can’t do anything even if we want to.”

“All this is nonsense! I don’t care. Your brother brought in a white woman as a second wife, she’s Christian. I’ve seen her attending church regularly, your brother, too.”

“Pushkar, she’s a white woman. You’re a Pandit and I, according to you, am a Musalmanti. So draw your own conclusions.”

Pushkar started pacing restlessly.

“I’ll smash this society to pieces, do you hear? We’ll have a civil marriage today.”

“What’s the use of talking nonsense? You know how deeply unhappy Abba will be, and your family will excommunicate you.”

“Then tell me what we should do. Tell me honestly, you’re not planning to marry that stupid Hameed and saying all this just to fool me? Remember, I’ll have Khan Sahib beaten up, he’ll regret it always, and I’ll also make it impossible for him to live here. Look, if we continue to be frightened like this, we won’t have a chance to live our own lives.”

“You’re completely mad. Let me think, perhaps God will show us a way.”

“Well, God has done what He could. I’m telling you what we’ll do. Walk alongside the police station and make a right turn. From there we will find a straight road ahead...”

“... and Abba’s punishment waiting for us on our return.”

“Why return? We’ll go on a tour directly from there!”

“Then the news will spread that I eloped with you.”

“No, the news will be that I eloped with you. Come on, hurry up now. You might need some mehr, etc. I’ll do a registry.”

”I’ll give you the mehr, my salary is only slightly less than yours.”

“All right, get up then, give me the mehr.”

“But we’ll grant each other a divorce whenever we wish.”

“Not so! You’re always fighting, you’ll give me seven divorces in an instant! Hurry up now, change your sari.”

“And the rubber nose?”

“It’s all right, I’ll get you a large, aquiline one. This one is completely flat anyway.”

“I don’t think I’ll go with you.”

“Of course, you will,” he said, pulling me along.

In a short while we were walking on the wide road that turned right from the police station.

“We can still go back,” I whispered in Pushkar’s ear.

“Really?” he said seriously.

I moved my head, but God knows whether it was a yes or a no. Pushkar placed his hand on my neck and pulled me towards him.

“Kafir,” I said, digging my nails into his wrist.

“The one the poets talk about?”

I moved my head, but this time in assent.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan.

Meat traders in U.P.

Licence to harass

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI the-nation

ON September 22, the Gurugram administration in Haryana had to confront a peculiar situation. It was the onset of the nine-day fasting period, the beginning of Navratri, which culminates in Dasara. The local Shiv Sena unit had decided to forcibly shut down as many as 500 meat shops. (The organisation had tried to do something similar during Ram Navami in March-April.) The Sena had submitted a memorandum to the Gurugram Deputy Commissioner demanding that shops selling raw meat should stay shut and even issued notices to non-vegetarian food outlets.

The administration did not take any step to comply with the demand, and it would have been illegal anyway. But the Shiv Sena proceeded to enforce its diktat. Its members forced meat shops to shut down in at least 12 locations, causing widespread consternation. The spokesperson and general secretary of the Shiv Sena told mediapersons that all meat shops, including chicken stalls, had been told to shut down or face the consequences.

A vegetarian diet is followed by Hindus in parts of north India during Navratri, but such a forced shutdown of meat shops and restaurants selling non-vegetarian food was never attempted before in Gurugram or in the rest of Haryana. Navratri comes with restrictions on what can be eaten even as part of a vegetarian diet. But it was always a personal choice that people made voluntarily.

The commercialisation of the Navratri festival has over the years opened up livelihood opportunities for many people. But the abstention from non-vegetarian food leads to low sales of even eggs, affecting the livelihoods of one section.

It was no coincidence that this enforced vegetarianism took place in States with high rates of cow vigilantism. In parts of Gurugram and adjoining Mewat district, several violent instances of cow vigilantism have been reported.

Meat sellers’ plight

When Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath declared the closure of all unlicensed slaughterhouses soon after taking charge in March 2017, he perhaps did not anticipate the livelihood crisis that would hit all communities, including sections of the majority community. The district administrations in the State went on an overdrive shutting down shops selling raw meat and even restaurants. When the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court intervened and passed an interim order in May directing that abattoirs should be issued licences and no-objection certificates, there was all-round relief.

In April, the Allahabad High Court held that the “choice of food and trade in foodstuff were part of the right to life” while hearing a petition challenging the State government’s order. The court also directed the government to work out a feasible strategy and take into account the “competing rights of trade, profession, health, safety as well as consumption and the obligation of the state to make facilities available. To provide an immediate check on unlawful activity should be simultaneous with facilitating the carrying out of lawful activity, particularly that relating to food, food habits and vending thereof that is undisputedly connected with the right to life and livelihood.”

Despite the court order, however, in parts of Ghaziabad most chicken and mutton shops disappeared after Yogi Adityanath’s government took over. Even eggs were not sold by vendors. Egg sellers began to resurface only towards the end of the nine-day festival. “We do not want to take a chance,” said a roadside egg seller, requesting anonymity. His main clients are young men looking to eat boiled eggs after a gym workout.

What Frontline witnessed as actually happening on the ground shows scant respect for what the High Court observed. In at least two areas of western Uttar Pradesh, Loni in Ghaziabad and in areas falling under the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (Noida), small meat sellers have faced harassment and sometimes been forced to shut down business ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party government assumed power in the State. It is the poorer section that is affected, and most of the meat sellers who find themselves out of business operated from rented space. A few kilometres from the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, chicken, fish and meat shops operate unhindered in Ghazipur, which is under the jurisdiction of the Delhi government.

Threat of closure in Loni

Loni, a township in Ghaziabad with a population of five lakh people, is not among one of the more developed regions of western Uttar Pradesh falling in the National Capital Region. Most people here are self-employed. For the minority population and sections of the Dalit community in Loni, selling meat is a traditional occupation which now faces a threat.

Earlier, the municipality issued licences to shopkeepers; now, the Food Safety Department issues them. Shop owners are required to procure no-objection certificates (NOCs) from the municipality in order to apply for and obtain a licence from the Food Safety Department. (In rural areas, meat sellers are required to get NOCs from the gram panchayat, the circle officer and the Food Safety and Drug Administration.) When the new regime came in, the majority of the meat sellers in Loni had valid and registered certificates issued by the Food Safety and Drug Administration under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. These certificates are renewed annually. However, Baby, president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association’s Loni unit, said that even those who had licences, issued by the Food Safety Department and valid until 2018, were not allowed to ply their trade.

For instance, Mohammad Alfaiz, who had been selling meat and meat products, including poultry, for the last 30 years, had a stamped certificate from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) which was valid until December 2017. Yet, he was not allowed to run his business. He also showed this correspondent a sworn affidavit stating, along with a “rendering company”, a commitment to follow good hygiene and sanitation in disposing of meat waste.

Mohammad Jabir Qureshi is the convener of the Meat Traders’ Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation that has been leading a campaign in Loni for the last six months to get meat shops reopened. He said: “They told us to repair our shops, install water tanks, put in tiles and glass windows for food hygiene and safety purposes. We did all that, and yet we are not being issued the NOCs by the municipal authorities. This is harassment and nothing else.”

The Ghaziabad district administration and municipal authorities took recourse to Section 9 of the Indian Aircraft Rule, 1937, that prohibits the slaughter, flaying of animals, depositing of rubbish or other polluted or obnoxious matter and the running of meat shops in the vicinity of airports.

There is an Air Force station at Hindan in Ghaziabad. On May 30, a letter sent by the Aerospace Safety Section to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Ghaziabad, said that “hotels, meat shops, fish shops and bone processing mills may be permitted if DGCA [Directorate General of Civil Aviation]/Air Force Authority is satisfied that proper and adequate arrangements have been made by owners of hotel, meat shops, or fish shops so as to prevent attraction of vultures, black kites or other birds and animals. However experience shows that owners of these enterprises do not meet the above standard and flout the rules. This results in throwing the garbage/rubbish in the open and attraction of birds near the Air Force Hindan airfield. Bird activity hampers the operations of aircraft at this base. At times, important operations are called off due to such bird activity at this base. Even a single bird hit to aircraft may result in loss of crores of rupees.”

The letter strongly recommended that the SDM should not “give permission for opening meat shops, fish shops, slaughterhouse or bone processing within ten kilometre of radius of the AF Station Hindan” under his jurisdiction. In the last six months, nearly 500 meat shop owners have been left in dire straits as they wait for the validation of their licences by the district administration. The Allahabad High Court, in its interim order, had directed the State government to regulate the slaughterhouses but also asked it to start issuing licences and NOCs.

‘Batons in biriyani’

Qureshi said that as there was no government abattoir in Ghaziabad, all meat sellers bought the raw material from the Ghazipur government-run abattoir in Delhi. “As soon as we open our shops, the police appear and shut them down. They say ‘ upar se aadesh hai’ [we have orders from the top],” Qureshi told Frontline.

Restaurants serving cooked non-vegetarian food were also shut down on the grounds that they were within 10 km of the Air Force station. “There are several eateries close to the Hindan airbase, why haven’t they been shut down?” one of the meat traders asked. They said that the BJP legislator from Loni, Nand Kishore Gujjar, was taking an active interest in shutting down meat shops and restaurants in the area.

Even biriyani sellers are not spared. Ansari, a biriyani seller, said: “The police shove their batons inside the vessels to check for beef even if there are soya or chicken pieces in the rice. That leaves the food unfit for consumption. This is nothing but organised harassment. Are people expected to eat food after taking permission from the government? Yeh hai hamaari jamhooriyat? [Is this our great democracy?] Instead of providing employment opportunities, the government is snatching them from us.” He added that the police could swoop down any time, topple utensils with cooked biriyani, or bust up egg stalls, all under the name of the administration and the government.

“Should we start stealing to fill our stomach?” said Nazeer, small-time restaurant owner with six children. His children dropped out of school after the closure of his restaurant.

Ismail inherited his meat shop from his father and had obtained a licence in 1993. He was in tears as he spoke to Frontline: “I asked the daroga [constable] to give me some employment. He said, Yogi will give you.”

But it is not just the minorities who are affected. Meat sellers from the majority community, too, are now part of the Sangharsh Samiti constituted by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Repeated representations to the Ghaziabad administration and protests by the meat traders have yielded little result, but the harassment reduced somewhat after the formation of the Samiti. One member of the Samiti, Rakesh, said: “For 18 years, I have been selling chicken at the Loni railway station. Now it has been shut down. What do we do? It is the main source of livelihood. I don’t know anything else. They are using the Hindan airbase as an excuse to shut us down. They want to make Loni meat-free. Small restaurant owners have started selling cooked vegetables now.”

Amir Hussain, who used to sell fish, has not been able to set up shop for the last seven months because of the new rules. The bulk of the clientele of meat sellers is from the majority community. All the meat supplies are now from Delhi abattoirs and meat markets like the one in Ghazipur. “We are grateful to Delhi that we can buy raw meat from them. They sell it to us at slightly higher rates as we are not locals, but at least they do not discriminate against us,” said Jabir Qureshi.

The story is similar in Noida. Here meat shops in quasi-slum areas were told to shut down and shift to “authorised” areas. Mohammad Raees said: “Our homes and our shops are in the same locality. We have therefore a vested interest in keeping the area clean. We have been plying this trade for years together and there has been no problem. All the waste material is put to use; nothing is thrown on the streets. All of us have Aadhaar and PAN cards as well.”

All the meat shop owners had licences. Mohammad Raees said the shops had deep freezers, tiled walls and washbasins. Gangeshwar Sharma, district secretary of the CPI(M), said: “The Noida Authority is not giving an NOC, and so the food department is not issuing the licence.” He said that he had raised the issue with the district magistrate on at least two dozen occasions, but in vain.

Aley Nabi said: “On March 19, Yogiji took oath as Chief Minister. Two days later, on March 22, our shops were shut down. And meat prices have gone up across the board by at least Rs.50-100 [a kg]. Our customers ask us in hushed tones as if we are doing something illegal.” He said new licences were being given only for selling, not slaughtering animals. “Chickens have to be freshly cut, they cannot be stored. It is not like frozen food. We have to get all the raw materials from Ghazipur in Delhi. There is a poultry market there, none in Ghaziabad or Noida. As it is we have to spend a lot on transport. I used to get boneless chicken pieces from Ghazipur which then would be sold to the ‘Chinese food vans’ which are hugely popular in this area,” he said. After the new shutdown orders came, the “Chinese meals on wheels” outlets, which mainly sold chicken noodles and soup, vanished from the scene. “ Kuch n otebandi mein chale gaye; kuch goshtbandi mein chale gaye [some of the van owners lost their livelihoods during demonetisation; the rest to the ban on meat sales],” said Nabi.

People who made a living around the meat trade got affected by the drop in sales—rickshaw pullers, polythene suppliers and even ragpickers who picked up some of the waste generated by the trade.

Dalits involved in the trade are as affected as members of the minority community. The pork sellers Deepak and Vikky stood side by side with Raees, Aley Nabi and others in opposing the restrictions on licences. They said what was happening was “a huge crisis for all of us”.

A list of as many as 17 dos and don’ts was issued by the State government. These included the transport of meat in insulated freezer vans, health certificates for all workers and a ban on meat shops near religious places and vegetable markets. No animal or poultry can be slaughtered inside a shop; shop owners are required to put curtains or tinted glass so that the meat is not visible to the public.

The regulations seem to be choking the trade. At present, a tug of war between the Chairman of the Noida Authority and the Health Department over the issue of NOCs and licences has left hundreds of families that depended on the meat trade without an income. The meat shops that have been closed down are those owned by people of low-income groups. The areas where they live are potholed and congested and generally lack civic amenities. Rather than make the environment liveable for them and their families, the State government has only pushed hundreds of families to the brink, following an agenda that is certainly not in the public interest.

The Rohingya

In a sea of hate

DIVYA TRIVEDI social-issues

INDIA has a choice to make. It can either deport the Rohingya to Myanmar and participate in a genocide or accept them as refugees and show some moral fortitude as Bangladesh has done. If it chooses the first option, the risks of international condemnation and loss of face are real. The second option will be consistent with India’s policies on refugees from Sri Lanka, Tibet and other countries. While India does not have a law on refugees, it has issued long-term visas to the Rohingya fleeing violence in Myanmar. Around 16,500 Rohingya have also been issued United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees identity cards, recognising them as refugees after proper verification.

Already, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has criticised the Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju for his comment on deportation of the Rohingya. In his opening statement at the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Al Hussein said: “I deplore current measures in India to deport Rohingyas at a time of such violence against them in their country. The Minister of State for Home Affairs has reportedly said that because India is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, the country can dispense with international law on the matter, together with basic human compassion. However, by virtue of customary law, its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the obligations of due process and the universal principle of non-refoulement, India cannot carry out collective expulsions or return people to a place where they risk torture or other serious violations.”

Given the severity of the situation, providing shelter to the Rohingya would not only be good in law but also cement India’s image as a morally upright nation. However, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems to be moving away from well-established procedures and practices of international diplomacy.

Modi’s visit to Myanmar during the thick of the genocide left nobody in doubt about the government’s stand on the issue. He joined the de facto leader of that country, Aung San Suu Kyi, in condemning the “terrorists” and did not mention the violence faced by thousands of the Rohingya fleeing the crackdown in Rakhine State. Back home, his government argued in the Supreme Court that the Rohingya were a security threat with links to Pakistan-based terror groups and the Islamic State (I.S.). This claim has been rubbished by lawyers, and the Jammu and Kashmir government and the State police. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti announced in the State Assembly that while 17 first information reports (FIRs) were registered against 38 Rohingya, none of them was found to have engaged in any anti-national or subversive activity. Her People’s Democratic Party (PDP) is in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in that State.

Colin Gonsalves, senior advocate in the Supreme Court who is representing 7,000 Rohingya sheltered in 23 camps in Jammu, conducted a verification drive in collaboration with the Jammu police and reportedly said that no case of terrorism was found against any of them. But some media outlets repeatedly claimed the Rohingya were security threats. “Media reports may be fake and baseless. But they are dangerous. We are scared that in order to prove these claims some Rohingya could be arrested under false pretexts and deliberately linked with terrorism. Such fabrications are not unheard of, especially against Muslim youths,” said an activist.

The activist failed to understand what Modi gained by joining hands with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was criticised internationally for overseeing what the U.N. described as “ethnic cleansing”. With calls for the revocation of her Nobel Peace Prize getting louder, St. Hugh’s College of Oxford University, London, from where Aung San Suu Kyi graduated in 1967, removed her portrait from the entrance to the college building since 1999. All the goodwill she earned for being subjected to political house arrest under the junta was slowly eroding. It was not unusual that Modi was joining hands with her at this juncture. The stand taken by the BJP on Muslims and Aung San Suu Kyi’s stand on the Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslims, seemed to be converging. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) thinks the Rohingya are no less than terrorists. At the RSS’ annual Dasara rally in Nagpur, its chief Mohan Bhagwat said the Rohingya were being driven out of Myanmar mainly because of their continuous violent and criminal separatist activities and linkages with terrorist groups. “We have been facing the problem of illegal Bangladeshi migrants and now the Rohingya have infiltrated into our country. Any decision regarding the Rohingya should be taken by keeping in mind the threat to national security,” he said.

Atmosphere of hatred

Union Minister Nitin Gadkari and senior BJP leader L.K. Advani were present on the occasion. The government’s stand on the Rohingya was in line with the current atmosphere of hatred towards the Muslim minority in the country, some of whom had been lynched by Hindu mobs publicly on various pretexts. In most of the cases, the police stood by and watched. In many cases, the perpetrators received bail and were roaming freely.

Despite the political climate of branding Muslims as terrorists, BJP politicians have started speaking up against the government’s policy. Feroze Varun Gandhi, Member of Parliament from Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh, in an editorial in Navbharat Times went against his party’s stated position and advocated asylum for the Rohingya. He called for treating them humanely rather than deporting them. He immediately came under fire and was trolled on Twitter. (His mother, Maneka Gandhi, is a Union Minister.) Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Gangaram Ahir termed Varun Gandhi’s comments as “against the national interest”.

Varun Gandhi was forced to clarify his comments. He said his comments “focussed primarily on defining India’s asylum policy, with clear demarcations on how we would accept refugees. As for Rohingyas, I’ve called for empathy, leading potentially to asylum, while vetting each applicant for national security concerns.”

In 2016, Varun Gandhi had explained his views on the refugee issue in general in an article in The Hindu. “It remains the duty of a state, especially one with a democratic ethos like India’s, to keep its doors open for people in distress. Any refugee, whose grant of asylum has been approved, should be given a formal recognition of his/her asylum status along with an identity document and a travel document. They should be able to apply for residence permits, and be able to choose their place of residence across India. Their documents must also enable them to seek employment in the private sector. Primary education, a powerful enabler, should be offered on no-charge basis in government schools, while primary healthcare services available to Indian citizens should be offered as well.” He called for upgrading policy instruments and putting in place a well-defined asylum law.

He displayed a deep understanding of the Rohingya issue when he said: “The Rohingya, an ethnic group from Rakhine State in Myanmar, are one of the most persecuted groups in the world. Over 13,000 Rohingya refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in India, with about 600-700 living in Kalindi Kunj, JJ Colony and Shaheen Bagh in Delhi. They live in thatched huts with plastic tarps and straw roofs in Nangli camp in Mewat district, Haryana. They have no access to safe water or sanitation, while any waste is simply thrown away into the streets. Open defecation is rife as sanitation is found lacking, while their children cannot get admitted in schools due to lack of requisite documentation. Most men serve as daily wage labourers.”

He was joined by Shashi Tharoor, the Congress MP from Thiruvananthapuram, in criticising the government’s stand on the issue. Tharoor said: “The Centre’s portrayal of the Rohingya as illegal immigrants and not refugees is based on a flawed assessment. It could undermine India’s status on the global stage.” He added that the Rohingya issue should not be seen as a communal issue but one with a bearing on the nation’s future. Pointing out that India had provided asylum to refugees from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, he accused the government of adopting a hostile approach to the Rohingya because they were Muslims. There was no justification in the argument that a nation of 1,200 million people could not accommodate 40,000 Rohingya, he said.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, the Army said it discovered a mass grave with bodies of 28 Hindus, suspected to be killed by a Rohingya armed group in Rakhine State. James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for South-East Asia and the Pacific, called the reports deeply disturbing and asked for immediate and independent investigation into it. “They underscore the need for independent investigators to access the area. To this end, the Myanmar government should allow the U.N. Fact Finding Mission full access into and within the country. The people of Myanmar—and international community as a whole—deserve to know the truth about what is happening in Rakhine State,” he said.

The Myanmar government has blocked all international access to Rakhine State. It allowed the U.N. to visit Maungdaw, the site of violence against the Rohingya, for a day after tremendous international pressure. But the Rohingya dismiss the efficacy of such a state-controlled visit. “I doubt the team would have been able to talk freely to people there. How can a victim express his or her suffering in front of the perpetrators, knowing fully well that they might face violence the moment the U.N. team leaves? There have been precedents where people were killed for speaking to such teams,” said Ali Johar.

According to reports quoting Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.H. Mahmood Ali, Myanmar proposed to take back 500,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh following the military crackdown. Both the countries reportedly agreed to a “joint working group” to start the process. But the Rohingya remain sceptical. “It could be more dangerous if people are sent without proper monitoring systems or international teams such as the U.N. and without long-term solutions in place. Earlier too, when they took back people, the people faced the same atrocities and had to leave without an option,” said Ali Johar. It could also be a plan to stall international pressure, he said. Maung Abdul Khan of the Rohingya Human Rights Initiative (RHRI) said they would not be able to protest if India decided to deport the Rohingya. But, the deportation should happen only with certain securities and guarantees in place. “Burma [Myanmar] should first give us full-fledged citizenship rights and then we can go back. In fact, we would be happy to go back,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Rohingya continued to flee Myanmar and enter Bangladesh. According to some sources, the number of Rohingya fleeing Myanmar had reached 600,000. The RHRI urged the international community to undertake concerted efforts to prevent any further escalation and seek a holistic solution to the issue. Sabber of the RHRI, whose family is trapped in Myanmar, spelt out the demands of the Rohingya: “Urgently stop continuous killing, slaughtering and burning; immediately send aid to those Rohingya who are trapped in the mountains and are dying without shelter, food, and emergency medical care; send ration for those villages that are not yet burnt down; and stop the propaganda by the Myanmar government.”

Appealing to the international community, Ali Johar said: “Do you even know how it feels to live far away from your homeland? Without basic needs, friends, family and happiness? No one flees their beloved home and homeland unless home is the mouth of a shark, and no one puts their children in an unequipped boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

Swachh Bharat Mission

Narrow vision

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI cover-story

One of the prime development agendas of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under the stewardship of Narendra Modi was to launch a major sanitation and cleanliness drive. The Prime Minister sounded the bugle for behavioural change on August 15, 2014, and launched the Swachh Bharat Mission on October 2 that year. Striking an emotional chord with the women of India, he lamented that “sisters and mothers” were forced to defecate in the open and said the country had a “responsibility” towards them. The Modi government has a grandiose plan to make the country free from open defecation by October 2, 2019, which will be the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Quoting Gandhi’s thoughts that sanitation was more important than independence, the government reduced the Father of the Nation to a symbol of sanitation, forgetting everything else that he had believed in.

The idea with an emotive content metamorphosed into a mission as the government went on an advertising-cum-awareness blitz to convince people about the merits of toilet use, the demerits of open defecation and the need to keep the environment “swachh”, or hygienic. The public health component got added to it gradually so much so that stunting and wasting among children was attributed to good or bad sanitation practices. The government report card, three years later, states that individual household toilet coverage rose from 42 per cent in 2014 to 64 per cent in 2017 and 1.5 lakh villages, 137 districts, and three States declared themselves open defecation free. According to the Minister for Drinking Water and Sanitation, India will be free of open defecation by 2019.

A cleanliness drive fortnight was launched before October 2, 2017. Young men in uniform, all contract employees of Sanitation Departments of various States, were seen sweeping roads in cities into the wee hours.

The concept of fortnightly cleanliness campaigns, or Swachhta Pakhwada, was launched in April 2016. This involved government departments and Ministries who had to undertake cleanliness drives and prepare reports as well. It was another matter that garbage disposal and garbage collection mechanisms were still in the rudimentary level and hardly adequate. Solid waste management and disposal, which was made a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission, was not accorded as much importance as cleanliness. Of the 1,27,486 tonnes of municipal waste generated, 70 per cent was collected but only 12.45 per cent was processed or treated. House-to-house collection of waste and its hygienic transportation was a major challenge, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) observed in its status report on solid waste management.

Solid waste management

A paper on “Municipal Solid Waste Management in India: Current state and future challenges, a review” by Rajendra Kumar Kaushal, George K. Varghese and Mayuri Chabukdhara of the Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, found that municipal solid waste management, one of the major environmental challenges in Indian megacities, was going through a critical phase in view of the unavailability of suitable facilities to treat and dispose of the waste. Urbanisation and changing lifestyles had resulted in Indian cities generating eight times more solid waste today than they did in 1947, the study published in 2012 in the International Journal of Engineering Science and Technology said. It said the municipal solid waste quantities were expected to increase from 34 million tonnes in 2000 and 83.8 million tonnes in 2015 to 221 million tonnes by 2030. There was also a correlation between the gross domestic product (GDP) and the amount of waste generated; the higher the GDP, the more the waste generation. Municipal solid waste disposal in low-income cites was haphazard compared with that in high-income cities, where it was likely to be more organised. The study also found a change in the composition of solid waste, with a decline in the compostible and inert matter components and an increase in components such as paper, plastic and glass.

The study found that most urban areas lacked solid waste storage facilities; common bins were used for both decomposable and non-decomposable waste; and the average efficiency of municipal solid waste collection was 72 per cent in the States although all the cities did not have waste collection services. Waste collection and disposal was very poor in low-income States with people unable or unwilling to pay for services. Waste was often thrown near or around homes making collection and transportation difficult. The CPCB findings, quoted in the IIT study, indicated that manual collection accounted for 50 per cent and garbage collection trucks accounted for 49 per cent of all waste collection in 299 Tier-1 cities surveyed in India. The study found that 60-90 per cent of solid waste in cities was disposed of on land, and measures were not in tune with the principles of sanitary land filling. The collapse of the 50-metre landfill in Ghazipur on the outskirts of Delhi in September 2017 resulting in the death of two young men was a lesson on the dangers of faulty disposal of solid waste. The dump was 30 m above the stipulated height. Such was the force of the garbage slide that when huge chunks fell into an adjoining canal of the Hindan river, the waves that they generated dragged cars and bicycles into a second canal. There are other landfill sites in Delhi, little mountains of garbage with gases smouldering inside. Ironically, the bulk of the municipal budget allocated for solid waste management was spent on collection and transportation.

Waste dumping was done in low-lying areas that had the attendant risks of flooding and contamination of the surface water during the rainy season. In sum, the study found that in India, there was “no organised and scientifically planned source segregation except for industrial waste…. Sorting was mostly done by the unorganised sector (scavengers and rag pickers) and rarely done by waste generators.” The hazardous conditions of such segregation were well known, the study observed. The efficiency of waste collection even in high-income cities such as Delhi was low.

The focus of the Swachh Bharat Mission and the Namami Gange campaign (making villages near the Ganga free of open defecation) continues to be on toilets and on discouraging people from defecating in the open. Rural sewage systems and the availability of water for sanitation have not received the kind of importance they should have been accorded.

According to the government, since 2014, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Haryana have achieved 100 per cent toilet coverage for households, while Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha, Puducherry and Uttar Pradesh reported the lowest toilet coverage for households. Less than 40 per cent of the households in Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir had toilets, while the corresponding figure for Odisha was 43.2 per cent, Puducherry 49.2 per cent and Uttar Pradesh 51.1 per cent. Six States and 220 districts were now “open defecation free”. Data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and the Quality Council of India showed that nearly 90 per cent of those who owned toilets were using them.

Hounding people to use toilets

In their zeal to declare themselves open defecation free, some States embarked on an obnoxious idea that involved public shaming of individuals caught defecating in the open. On October 2, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis declared that all the 384 municipalities in the State would be open defecation free. In what he thought was a truly novel approach, he announced that his government would soon launch a programme to shame those who defecated in the open. Under a mechanism called “ODF watch”, government officials, including teachers, would be literally asked to “blow the whistle” on people caught defecating in the open so as to shame them. As toilets had been installed in many cities of the State, the idea was to first “encourage” and then to force them to use “toilets”, he said. It was odd that while the Prime Minister waxed eloquent on preserving the dignity of women and their right to have toilets, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) State governments were not particularly bothered about right to privacy and issues of individual dignity. In Pratapgarh district in Rajasthan, a man was beaten to death as he protested against zealous government officials wanting to photograph women from his family “defecating” in the open in order to expose such citizens. Cancelling ration cards, photographing defecators without their permission, and denying government benefits are other undemocratic methods deployed by some State governments to force people to use toilets. The BJP governments in Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have made toilet provision in their households mandatory for candidates aspiring to contest panchayat elections. In August 2016, Bihar passed a similar law. There are no such conditions imposed for contesting State Assembly or Lok Sabha elections. In a sense, democracy was challenged at the grass-roots level, denying people a chance to contest local body elections and depriving the voter a chance to elect a candidate of his or her choice. The irony is that courts have upheld the passage of such laws.

The bigger irony is that despite the high-decibel campaign, linking toilets to the right of people to contest elections, toilet usage, according to NSSO data, is as low as 20 per cent in Jharkhand, another BJP-ruled State.

Deaths in sewers

The focus on “clean” India does not include hundreds of young men who enter storm water drains without any safety gear to unclog them. Sewage systems in cities and towns are rudimentary, resulting in frequent clogging and overflow during heavy rains. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, prohibits engaging sanitation workers without safety equipment. The use of machinery in sewerage systems continues to be negligible, and coupled with the absence of safety equipment, the rate of death of workers in sewers has been going up steadily despite the Act and despite the multitude of campaigns around the issue. On October 1, a day before Gandhi Jayanti, three housekeeping workers of an auto spare parts company was asphyxiated to death while trying to save one of their colleagues who had fallen into a septic tank in Gurgaon. The 25-year-old worker had climbed down into the septic tank to clean it without any safety equipment. While he began to choke, his colleagues stepped in to save him, losing their lives in the process. Six States have reported sewage-related deaths to the government and have given compensation. Among them, Tamil Nadu reported 144 deaths, the highest number so far since the enactment of the legislation. In a period of one month, 10 persons died while cleaning sewers. A Delhi High Court bench took cognisance of these deaths and directed the government to pay compensation of Rs.10 lakh each to families of the victims and directed all the civic bodies to explain themselves to the court.

The clean India mission is, therefore, narrow in vision. It cannot be limited to toilet use alone while leaving out a huge spectrum of areas that require urgent and immediate intervention. Debarring people who do not own a toilet from contesting local body and panchayat elections is as abominable as the wanton deaths of young men in sewers. Neither should it be acceptable in a democracy such as ours. The obsession with toilet construction is bad enough, to project it as a hallmark of emancipation or development is a travesty of facts.

Vocational training

Chasing a mirage

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI cover-story

On June 6, a Press Information Bureau release, highlighting the achievements of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) and “marking three years of inclusive growth and development under the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government”, informed the country that more than 1.07 crore persons had been trained in skills through various programmes and schemes of the Ministry. Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the Minister of State with Independent Charge said that “Skill India” was a “silent revolution and a joint investment” that the government and its private partners were making for the “future growth of the country”.

The Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY), launched on July 15, 2015, had got 26.5 lakh people, half of them women, trained in skills of their choice. The approach was to move away from a supply-driven skill development scenario to a demand-driven one so that young people with skills would not lack employment. Rudy added that “more and more corporates were partnering with the Ministry at various levels, whether on engaging with apprentices, extending infrastructure support, contribution through CSR [corporate social responsibility] funds and hiring of resources”.

The optimism did not last even three months. In the third Cabinet reshuffle on September 3, Rudy was divested of his Ministry as reports appeared of the very low percentages of people who had been trained and received placements. The PMKVY was launched just a year after the Ministry was created. The programme was allocated a hefty Rs.1,500 crore in the year of its launch, and a staggering Rs.12,000 crore in 2016. The report of the Committee for Rationalisation and Optimisation of the Functioning of Sector Skill Councils, submitted in December 2016, came up with a sharp censure, saying that the PMKVY had neither been able to provide employment at decent wages nor had met the needs of industry. The Ministry had set up the committee, headed by Sharda Prasad, former Directorate General of Employment & Training, to suggest reforms in the Vocational Education and Training System. It observed at the outset that efforts at training were “half-hearted” and said that the MSDE and the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) should work together. It said that the focus should be on quality training and there was “no need to chase numbers”.

The government enhanced the stipends of graduates, technicians and technician (vocation) apprentices from September 2014 through a gazette notification. Yet a total of only 0.83 lakh apprentices were found engaged under the vocational education scheme of the Ministry of HRD. This, despite the government amending the Apprentices Act, 1961, and the Rules which enhanced the ratio of apprentices who could be engaged within organisations, including in trades that did not insist on any entry-level qualification. The amendments extended the scope of apprenticeship training to non-engineering occupations, and establishments could also outsource training in institutes of their choice. In a dilution of earlier rules, companies could now also pay the penalty for violations of apprenticeship rules in the form of fines. Apprenticeship was seen as the key driver for creating skilled manpower, and this was underscored in the national policy on skill development and entrepreneurship launched in July 2015. The policy also envisaged a close compatibility with the Medium and Small Manufacturing Enterprise sector. The National Apprenticeship Promotion Scheme (NAPS) was launched in August 2016 with the objective of covering all categories of apprentices barring those who were under the HRD Ministry’s vocational education scheme. It was another matter that like Rudy, Kalraj Mishra, the Minister for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises, was dropped in the Cabinet reshuffle and replaced by Giriraj Singh. The NAPS set a target of training 5 lakh apprentices in 2016-17 against the earlier goal of 2.5 lakhs; 10 lakhs for 2017-18, 15 lakhs for 2018-19, and 20 lakhs for 2019-20.

There was no shortage of pre-existing schemes, including the ones launched under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The Skill Development Initiative Scheme, which did not require a huge investment, was aimed at early school leavers and was meant to fulfil the demands of the services sector. The idea was to provide skilled manpower at a faster rate, though the scheme was not meant as a substitute to the Industrial Training Institutes (ITI), which conducted long-term craftsmen-training schemes. A total of 29.2 lakh youths were trained under this scheme during the Twelfth Five Year Plan period. In addition to all this, the Narendra Modi government started a scheme to train instructors in techniques of transferring hands-on skills and training semi-skilled and skilled manpower for industry. The initiative was not novel. The first craft training institute was set up in 1948, and five more were set up subsequently. The Sharda Prasad Committee report noted that while the requirement of such instructor-trainers was 20,000 a year, only 8,000 were being produced.

In 2013, the UPA government launched a National Skill Certification and Monetary Reward Scheme with a budget of Rs.1,000 crore, which was targeted at covering a limited number of high-market-demand job roles in specified sectors. The report found that under the scheme, 14.5 lakh persons had been trained and 8.7 lakh were certified. But only 1.2 lakh persons received placement, a mere 8.5 per cent of the number of people trained, at an average training cost of Rs.7,067 per person. It was badly implemented with poor employment outcomes, the committee observed, adding that the “real ground reality would emerge after a detailed survey of the trainees trained and placed”.

The PMKVY was aimed at training 24 lakh persons. It was to be implemented through the National Skill Development Corporation, set up in 2008. The Skill and Certification Reward Scheme targeted school dropouts and first-time entrants in the labour market and provided them with an incentive between Rs.5,000 and Rs.12,500. A total of 18.03 lakh persons were trained; 12.9 lakh were certified and only 2.23 lakh were placed. The average training cost was a little higher than the 2013 scheme, at Rs.8,319 per trainee. The placement percentage was low at 12.4 per cent, though marginally better than under the UPA. The employment scenario was as bleak as ever. Was it because there were not any jobs, or was it that the trainees did not have the required skills?

The report noted that no assessment was made of the STAR (Standard Training Assessment and Reward) scheme, its failures, industry requirements and low employment outcomes before allocating the PMKVY, a similar scheme, with an outlay of Rs.1,500 crore. The much-increased allocation in the second year came with an ambitious plan to train one crore persons between 2016 and 2020, again without any evaluation of the previous year’s performance. In fact, at the press briefing of June 2017, Rudy did not share employment and placement figures. All the stakeholders consulted by the committee members expressed the view that the targets had been set very high “without any regard to sectoral requirement”. Everybody, the report observed, “was chasing numbers without providing employment to the youth or meeting sectoral industry needs. Many participants very eloquently said it benefited VTPs [vocational training providers], ABs [assessment bodies] and SSCs [sector skill councils] only.” Those who did get jobs were paid Rs.5,000 to Rs.10,000 a month, which was lower than the minimum wages for skilled or even semi-skilled work in many States. The report said that skills needed to be “aspirational” so that young people could draw anywhere between Rs.40,000 and Rs.50,000. The expenditure on the PMKVY was a “wastage of public resources”, it said.

Lacking correlation with needs

While the MSDE had achieved 58 per cent of the total physical targets, the 17 other Ministries that also provided vocational training together achieved 42 per cent of their targets. The training by some Ministries, the report found, was substandard, supply-driven and lacked a correlation with specific needs of employers. Many of these Ministries had not been allocated the work of skill development under the Allocation of Business Rules, 1961, while some had been allocated the role of “employment generation”.

In the scheme of vocational education in secondary and higher secondary schools run by the HRD Ministry in 2014-15, only 873 students were placed in various trades against, just 0.19 per cent of the 4,47,350 who had enrolled. The committee observed that it was not vocational education or vocational education and training that was being imparted but vocational guidance. The standards had not been developed by the National Skills Qualification Committee, there were no regular trainers, there was no involvement of industry, no market linkage or interaction with employers, and no proper infrastructure in schools. Trainers were given a paltry remuneration with no opportunities for career progression or promotion. Further, the Ministry aimed at providing skilled manpower to services, but only 17 courses had been offered.

The apprenticeship training in 30,165 establishments spread over 265 designated trades under the MSDE had been able to attract only 2.3 lakh apprentices, the committee noted. Similarly, the HRD Ministry’s apprentice training scheme of graduate engineers and technicians (vocational and otherwise) had attracted only 0.83 lakh apprentices. “The reason for the poor response was that neither employers, nor trainees see any benefit from the Apprenticeship Training Scheme.”

The report emphasised that “skills ipso facto did not create jobs”. Jobs were a function of the growth of the economy in terms of an increase in the gross domestic product (GDP), creation of new industrial enterprises, expansion of the services sector, development of infrastructure, and good labour market policies. According to the Skill India report, 2017, a joint effort of the Confederation of Indian Industry, the United Nations Development Programme, the All India Council for Technical Education, and Wheebox, the engagement by employers of apprentices despite the amendments to the Act and rules was low. Of all the students entering the job market across the country, hardly two out of five met the criteria of employment set by employers. The severity of the situation, noted the report, was accentuated at many levels when the economy was doing well and new jobs were getting generated in e-commerce, energy, retail, telecom, hospitality and financial industry but there were not enough skilled people available. The report also noted with some concern that there was a significant drop in the participation of women in the labour force in the 21-50 age group.

An industry insider who was formerly with the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises told Frontline that employment figures regarding placements were often fudged and there was no system to find out where previous trainees were located or whether they were in regular jobs or not. “The largest employer today is the informal sector. And much of the work is hands-on training. How can a fruit juice vendor be taught to extract fruit juice if not by actual practice? Today educated people are not getting jobs. Even skilled persons find it difficult to get employment with small and medium enterprises as all the work is in a ‘hands-on’ form. We have to de-train them first. Big industry has its own training institutes. In general, there are not many good trainers. Earlier there used to be the raj mistri, the master trainer in the traditional set-up, under whose tutelage the skill would be imparted to apprentices under him. The government used to incentivise these mistris. But now it is a challenge to find qualified trainers to do the training,” he said.

Despite the hype generated around skill development and job generation, it has turned out that neither of the two outcomes was achieved in the last three years. Rather, as the Sharda Prasad Committee report pointed out, there was no evaluation of previous skill development schemes before launching the PMKVY and no evaluation of its first phase. To be fair to Rudy, he had the candour to admit at the June 16 press briefing that “a handful of organisations claiming to be PMKVY agencies promising jobs to unemployed youths were taking money and duping the public in the name of the MSDE”. Such advertisements, he said, were found more in the vernacular dailies. “We condemn such practices and have filed FIRs [first information reports] against them,” he said, and cautioned the public to be wary of such frauds and check for the right affiliated centres before enrolling.

The frauds were symptomatic of the larger flaws in the skill development and vocational training scheme which the Sharda Committee report pointed out. Needless to add, frauds committed on the public have to be addressed by the government, not the public. The truth is that merely the replacement of Rudy by Dharmendra Pradhan will not result in any drastic increase either of skilled youth or their absorption in employment.

Swachh Bharat Mission

Narrow vision

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI cover-story

One of the prime development agendas of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under the stewardship of Narendra Modi was to launch a major sanitation and cleanliness drive. The Prime Minister sounded the bugle for behavioural change on August 15, 2014, and launched the Swachh Bharat Mission on October 2 that year. Striking an emotional chord with the women of India, he lamented that “sisters and mothers” were forced to defecate in the open and said the country had a “responsibility” towards them. The Modi government has a grandiose plan to make the country free from open defecation by October 2, 2019, which will be the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. Quoting Gandhi’s thoughts that sanitation was more important than independence, the government reduced the Father of the Nation to a symbol of sanitation, forgetting everything else that he had believed in.

The idea with an emotive content metamorphosed into a mission as the government went on an advertising-cum-awareness blitz to convince people about the merits of toilet use, the demerits of open defecation and the need to keep the environment “swachh”, or hygienic. The public health component got added to it gradually so much so that stunting and wasting among children was attributed to good or bad sanitation practices. The government report card, three years later, states that individual household toilet coverage rose from 42 per cent in 2014 to 64 per cent in 2017 and 1.5 lakh villages, 137 districts, and three States declared themselves open defecation free. According to the Minister for Drinking Water and Sanitation, India will be free of open defecation by 2019.

A cleanliness drive fortnight was launched before October 2, 2017. Young men in uniform, all contract employees of Sanitation Departments of various States, were seen sweeping roads in cities into the wee hours.

The concept of fortnightly cleanliness campaigns, or Swachhta Pakhwada, was launched in April 2016. This involved government departments and Ministries who had to undertake cleanliness drives and prepare reports as well. It was another matter that garbage disposal and garbage collection mechanisms were still in the rudimentary level and hardly adequate. Solid waste management and disposal, which was made a part of the Swachh Bharat Mission, was not accorded as much importance as cleanliness. Of the 1,27,486 tonnes of municipal waste generated, 70 per cent was collected but only 12.45 per cent was processed or treated. House-to-house collection of waste and its hygienic transportation was a major challenge, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) observed in its status report on solid waste management.

Solid waste management

A paper on “Municipal Solid Waste Management in India: Current state and future challenges, a review” by Rajendra Kumar Kaushal, George K. Varghese and Mayuri Chabukdhara of the Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, found that municipal solid waste management, one of the major environmental challenges in Indian megacities, was going through a critical phase in view of the unavailability of suitable facilities to treat and dispose of the waste. Urbanisation and changing lifestyles had resulted in Indian cities generating eight times more solid waste today than they did in 1947, the study published in 2012 in the International Journal of Engineering Science and Technology said. It said the municipal solid waste quantities were expected to increase from 34 million tonnes in 2000 and 83.8 million tonnes in 2015 to 221 million tonnes by 2030. There was also a correlation between the gross domestic product (GDP) and the amount of waste generated; the higher the GDP, the more the waste generation. Municipal solid waste disposal in low-income cites was haphazard compared with that in high-income cities, where it was likely to be more organised. The study also found a change in the composition of solid waste, with a decline in the compostible and inert matter components and an increase in components such as paper, plastic and glass.

The study found that most urban areas lacked solid waste storage facilities; common bins were used for both decomposable and non-decomposable waste; and the average efficiency of municipal solid waste collection was 72 per cent in the States although all the cities did not have waste collection services. Waste collection and disposal was very poor in low-income States with people unable or unwilling to pay for services. Waste was often thrown near or around homes making collection and transportation difficult. The CPCB findings, quoted in the IIT study, indicated that manual collection accounted for 50 per cent and garbage collection trucks accounted for 49 per cent of all waste collection in 299 Tier-1 cities surveyed in India. The study found that 60-90 per cent of solid waste in cities was disposed of on land, and measures were not in tune with the principles of sanitary land filling. The collapse of the 50-metre landfill in Ghazipur on the outskirts of Delhi in September 2017 resulting in the death of two young men was a lesson on the dangers of faulty disposal of solid waste. The dump was 30 m above the stipulated height. Such was the force of the garbage slide that when huge chunks fell into an adjoining canal of the Hindan river, the waves that they generated dragged cars and bicycles into a second canal. There are other landfill sites in Delhi, little mountains of garbage with gases smouldering inside. Ironically, the bulk of the municipal budget allocated for solid waste management was spent on collection and transportation.

Waste dumping was done in low-lying areas that had the attendant risks of flooding and contamination of the surface water during the rainy season. In sum, the study found that in India, there was “no organised and scientifically planned source segregation except for industrial waste…. Sorting was mostly done by the unorganised sector (scavengers and rag pickers) and rarely done by waste generators.” The hazardous conditions of such segregation were well known, the study observed. The efficiency of waste collection even in high-income cities such as Delhi was low.

The focus of the Swachh Bharat Mission and the Namami Gange campaign (making villages near the Ganga free of open defecation) continues to be on toilets and on discouraging people from defecating in the open. Rural sewage systems and the availability of water for sanitation have not received the kind of importance they should have been accorded.

According to the government, since 2014, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Kerala and Haryana have achieved 100 per cent toilet coverage for households, while Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Odisha, Puducherry and Uttar Pradesh reported the lowest toilet coverage for households. Less than 40 per cent of the households in Bihar and Jammu and Kashmir had toilets, while the corresponding figure for Odisha was 43.2 per cent, Puducherry 49.2 per cent and Uttar Pradesh 51.1 per cent. Six States and 220 districts were now “open defecation free”. Data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) and the Quality Council of India showed that nearly 90 per cent of those who owned toilets were using them.

Hounding people to use toilets

In their zeal to declare themselves open defecation free, some States embarked on an obnoxious idea that involved public shaming of individuals caught defecating in the open. On October 2, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis declared that all the 384 municipalities in the State would be open defecation free. In what he thought was a truly novel approach, he announced that his government would soon launch a programme to shame those who defecated in the open. Under a mechanism called “ODF watch”, government officials, including teachers, would be literally asked to “blow the whistle” on people caught defecating in the open so as to shame them. As toilets had been installed in many cities of the State, the idea was to first “encourage” and then to force them to use “toilets”, he said. It was odd that while the Prime Minister waxed eloquent on preserving the dignity of women and their right to have toilets, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) State governments were not particularly bothered about right to privacy and issues of individual dignity. In Pratapgarh district in Rajasthan, a man was beaten to death as he protested against zealous government officials wanting to photograph women from his family “defecating” in the open in order to expose such citizens. Cancelling ration cards, photographing defecators without their permission, and denying government benefits are other undemocratic methods deployed by some State governments to force people to use toilets. The BJP governments in Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have made toilet provision in their households mandatory for candidates aspiring to contest panchayat elections. In August 2016, Bihar passed a similar law. There are no such conditions imposed for contesting State Assembly or Lok Sabha elections. In a sense, democracy was challenged at the grass-roots level, denying people a chance to contest local body elections and depriving the voter a chance to elect a candidate of his or her choice. The irony is that courts have upheld the passage of such laws.

The bigger irony is that despite the high-decibel campaign, linking toilets to the right of people to contest elections, toilet usage, according to NSSO data, is as low as 20 per cent in Jharkhand, another BJP-ruled State.

Deaths in sewers

The focus on “clean” India does not include hundreds of young men who enter storm water drains without any safety gear to unclog them. Sewage systems in cities and towns are rudimentary, resulting in frequent clogging and overflow during heavy rains. The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, prohibits engaging sanitation workers without safety equipment. The use of machinery in sewerage systems continues to be negligible, and coupled with the absence of safety equipment, the rate of death of workers in sewers has been going up steadily despite the Act and despite the multitude of campaigns around the issue. On October 1, a day before Gandhi Jayanti, three housekeeping workers of an auto spare parts company was asphyxiated to death while trying to save one of their colleagues who had fallen into a septic tank in Gurgaon. The 25-year-old worker had climbed down into the septic tank to clean it without any safety equipment. While he began to choke, his colleagues stepped in to save him, losing their lives in the process. Six States have reported sewage-related deaths to the government and have given compensation. Among them, Tamil Nadu reported 144 deaths, the highest number so far since the enactment of the legislation. In a period of one month, 10 persons died while cleaning sewers. A Delhi High Court bench took cognisance of these deaths and directed the government to pay compensation of Rs.10 lakh each to families of the victims and directed all the civic bodies to explain themselves to the court.

The clean India mission is, therefore, narrow in vision. It cannot be limited to toilet use alone while leaving out a huge spectrum of areas that require urgent and immediate intervention. Debarring people who do not own a toilet from contesting local body and panchayat elections is as abominable as the wanton deaths of young men in sewers. Neither should it be acceptable in a democracy such as ours. The obsession with toilet construction is bad enough, to project it as a hallmark of emancipation or development is a travesty of facts.

Rural electrification scheme

Unrealistic initiative

AKSHAY DESHMANE cover-story

On September 25, the birth anniversary of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh icon Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya, there was anticipation and curiosity in equal measure among Delhi’s political circles as word spread about an impending announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mark the occasion. Social media platforms were abuzz with speculation about the content of the announcement. By evening, when Modi mounted the dais at the Deendayal Urja Bhavan—a multi-storeyed building with a glass facade that serves as the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation’s (ONGC) corporate office in New Delhi—it became clear that the announcement would not be on the lines of the shock-and-awe demonetisation decision in November 2016. As it turned out, Modi’s announcement was about ensuring round-the-clock electricity access to the poor.

Since people’s curiosity had already been whetted, the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana, or Saubhagya scheme, which he announced was more widely discussed than any of his recent speeches.

Modi was at his evocative best: “Even after 70 years of Independence, there are more than four crore households which do not have an electricity connection. There are 25 crore households in India and four crore of this would mean nearly 20 per cent. Now imagine the life of people living in these four crore households. They are living in the 18th century. Imagine how your life would be if electricity is snatched away from your life; how you will survive? More than 125 years have passed since the great scientist Thomas Alva Edison invented the bulb. While exhibiting his invention, Edison had said, ‘We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.’ Which means that electricity will be made so inexpensive that only the rich will burn candles. This is an extremely sad and regrettable fact that four crore households do not even have electricity, let alone having a bulb. In those households, even today candles are burning. Dhibri and lalten [kerosene lamps] are burning. In these poor households, even today children face problems when they study in the evenings. They study in the light of the kerosene lamp.”

Modi went on to recall his own childhood experiences. “When I was young, I too studied this way. Elders would advise against studying under the light of the oil lamps as this hurts the eyes, breath may stop, too. I said, ‘What should I do?’ They said use castor oil to light the lamp. I have studied under castor oil lamps to get ahead in life. So I wonder how those four crore families will be able to manage. Forget comforts, women in the household have to cook in darkness and so most of them feel the pressure to cook before the sun goes down.”

Having set the tone of his rhetoric, Modi sketched out a few, even if limited, details of the scheme. Under the Saubhagya scheme, the government will provide free electricity connections to all poor rural and urban households across the country irrespective of whether the household is in a slum or in some inaccessible area. The Prime Minister said that the poor households without electricity would be exempted from paying installation charges for electricity connections and that government officials would themselves visit these households to provide the connection. The government would incur an expenditure of around Rs.16,000 crore in implementing the scheme, he said.

Explaining the progress made in the implementation of the scheme to provide free electricity connections to around 18,500 villages in 1,000 days, which he had announced in August 2015, the Prime Minister said less than 3,000 villages were left to be connected under the initiative and that they would get electricity connections within the stipulated time frame.

In the days following Modi’s speech, as the Ministry for Power released more precise details about the Saubhagya Yojana, commentators and power sector watchers gave a more realistic assessment. It has emerged that the latest scheme is a slightly reworked version of the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana (DUGJY), launched in July 2015, which itself was an upgraded version of the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana, launched by the United Progressive Alliance government in 2005.

Under these two schemes, targets were set for villages while the Saubhagya scheme focusses on covering all households. As per law, even if 10 per cent of the households in a village have electricity connections, the village is considered to be electrified. So, technically, even if all the villages are electrified, it may not imply that all the households have power connections.

Modi said in his September 25 speech: “Brothers and sisters, in New India, not only will electricity reach every village but also every household will get power.” A subsequent statement from the Power Ministry said that States and Union Territories “are required to complete the works of household electrification” by December 31, 2018. It also said that the beneficiaries of free connection would be identified using data from the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC), 2011. Un-electrified households, not listed in the SECC data, would be provided electricity connections under the Saubhagya scheme, but each beneficiary would have to pay Rs.500 to the power distribution companies in 10 instalments. All households would be obliged to pay power usage charges.

The deadline for the goal of electrifying each one of the estimated 25 crore households appears to be unrealistically ambitious for two reasons: a) official data give conflicting information about the number of households in India and those without electricity; and b) the government has been giving multiple deadlines for existing electrification schemes/initiatives, all of which have not been met. For instance, while Modi said that about 20 per cent or 4 crore households out of a total of 25 crore did not have an electricity connection, NITI Aayog’s data tabulated in April show that of the more than 17 crore households, more than 13 crore are electrified. In other words, nearly 25 per cent of the households are not electrified. Similarly, the electrification status sheet given under the GARV dashboard in the Power Ministry website is different from what Modi claimed or what the NITI Aayog recorded.

Several commentators have pointed out that former Power Minister Piyush Goyal had mentioned May 2018 as the deadline for providing power to all households and May 2017 for all villages. Both deadlines are now redundant as the Power Ministry, within days of the Prime Minister’s speech, announced December 2018 as the new deadline for provision of electricity to all households. The government’s performance record so far in implementing such an ambitious promise has also been, at best, mixed. Problems of implementation in remote areas, for instance, have not been overcome. Modi mentioned in his speech that government officials had raised these concerns with him. However, he asserted that he would ensure the implementation of the scheme in right earnest and on time.

“I once again congratulate the country about this measure taken to transform the lives of the poor, remove darkness from their lives and for the creation of a new India,” Modi said. Hectic work in changing the narrative and popular perception of the government has been evident since then.

Electrification

Waiting for light

WITH the launch, in September, of the Saubhagya scheme, a Rs.16,320-crore project aimed at providing electricity to all willing households, the Narendra Modi regime has once again brought into focus the enormity of the task of bringing power to every household in the country and the progress the government has made so far.

Statistics from the Rural Electrification Corporation show that the targeted number of households is around 4.04 crore, with Uttar Pradesh alone accounting for more than 1.46 crore (nearly 40 per cent). Other States with a high number of households without power are Rajasthan (above 20 lakh), Assam (above 24 lakh), Jharkhand (above 30 lakh), Odisha (above 32 lakh), Madhya Pradesh (nearly 45 lakh) and Bihar (above 64 lakh). As per latest data available, only about 23 per cent of the target (25.87 lakh households) has been met.

However, the website also says that the rural electrification target aims to bring power to 18,452 villages and that the government has already achieved 79 per cent of the target (14,564).

The disparity in the percentages stems from the official definition of an electrified village: as per law, the government can declare a village as electrified if just 10 per cent of the households have been given electrical connections.

According to Central Electricity Authority data, the power supply position in the country has been improving over the past eight years, with the gap between requirement and availability steadily coming down from 10.1 per cent in 2009-10 to 0.7 per cent in 2016-17.

Gender Issues

A new beginning

ON the morning of October 3, a day after Gandhi Jayanthi and extended Dasara holidays, classes resumed at the Benares Hindu University (BHU). The university, credited as Asia’s largest residential university, is 101 years old and has witnessed hundreds of holiday recesses and reopenings. Yet, this year, for the trickle of students and its teaching and non-teaching staff, the reopening was special and signified a new beginning.

There were many outward signs of change, such as the clutch of new closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and LED streetlights across the campus and the sizable contingent of women security personnel specially deployed from the district administration’s team of home guards. Palpable changes were evident at the administrative level too. During the holidays, BHU appointed Royana Singh as Chief Proctor, the first time a woman has been appointed to the position in the university’s history. Royana Singh announced that she was committed to enhancing dialogue with students and promised that every complaint would be handled properly and addressed promptly. She also promised to visit all the hostels and meet students to understand their problems. She further indicated that the university would remove the feudal restrictions on the movement of girl students and what they can wear.

The grapevine on the campus on that day was that the controversial and retiring vice chancellor, G.C. Tripathi, might be replaced by a woman. All of these came up in an emerging new context at BHU: a context that marked an unprecedented expression of student power and struggle for gender and human rights.

Summing up the context in an article that has gone viral on social media and has evoked significant resonances in other public platforms, including conventional media, the post-graduate science student Neha Yadav said that the students’ ferment was a culmination of decades of festering resentment over a number of administrative issues as well as intense social, cultural and value-oriented concerns. This contention has widespread acceptance in the BHU community comprising not just current students and teachers but former students, academic faculty and associate staff.

An excerpt from an English translation of Neha Yadav’s article published in Indian Express reads as follows: “The disproportionate response by the university authorities also shows why the outrage on the BHU campus goes much beyond the purported incident of sexual harassment. The authorities recognise that students are out on the streets to undo decades of attempts to stifle new, different, modern ideas. The energy on the streets bears witness to how long these ideas have been held captive at BHU, through intimidation and coercion. Students have been reminded to maintain order and discipline in times of interviews and threatened with summary expulsion.... Discriminatory practices on gendered lines are routine in BHU. Women students are not allowed to eat non-vegetarian food in their mess. They are not allowed to use mobile phones after 10 p.m. Access to the Internet in hostels has been strictly prohibited. They are told short dresses are against university customs. But do such customs apply to the male students on the campus? Of course not. There are curfews on the main campus which apply only to female students. Women students are told that the campus is unsafe for them after 10 p.m. —are these looming threats on campus uninterested in male students?”

There are also pointers to larger social and political issues: “The aakrosh (anger) goes wider. Only days before the incident, news began to trickle in that officials were exercising their discretion—a short-hand for their caste prejudices—in making appointments to the new vacancies that had come up on campus. No due diligence was followed in making such appointments, and when students belonging to the depressed classes decided to voice their anguish at such practices, they were slapped with threats of expulsion. Students remained undeterred by such intimidation and continued their protests for two months and not only questioned the unconstitutional methods deployed for campus appointments but also []demanded] longer opening hours for the university library..... Governments came and went in the past, but the dominant ideology of ‘manuvaad’ was never challenged on a campus where free thought and women’s rights were trampled upon. It was anger against this continued culture of suppression that was transformed into a massive march on the streets of Varanasi..... Students’ unions on campuses are supposed to voice our concerns, be our representatives to ensure an environment of mutual cooperation. But what is to be expected from a VC who is more concerned with being noticed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi than with the students whose lives he has been entrusted with? A VC who has no time for a vibrant students’ union for fear of inviting the ire of the powers that be.”

This resentment found an opening on the night of September 23-24 when a peaceful students’ agitation that had been going on for three days was attacked mercilessly by the police. The agitation began when a girl student of the Arts Faculty alleged that she was molested by three men on motorbikes inside the campus as she was returning to her hostel. The three men reportedly abused the student and fled when she resisted their attempt. The student also said that security guards who were just 100 metres from where the incident happened did nothing to stop the attackers. When she reached her hostel, the warden, instead of trying to understand what had happened, rebuked her for returning late.

The agitation was essentially about what happened to the girl and how she was treated by the security guards and the warden. It was in the form of a dharna before the Vice Chancellor’s office. The police action of September 23-24 started initially as an effort to dismantle the dharna, but the students refused to give in and gathered in large numbers on the campus, raising their demands.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Governor Ram Naik, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and several Central and State Ministers were visiting Varanasi at the time and the district administration had to change the route of the Prime Minister’s entourage away from the BHU crossing owing to the huge number of protesting students. By all indications, this is what pressured the police authorities and led them to unleash brutality. In a matter of hours, a conglomeration of personnel from 18 nearby police stationsstarted a joint operation that began with a lathicharge and progressed to lobbing of tear-gas shells. Many students alleged that the police fired when the students retaliated with brickbats.

In the mindless police action, scores of girl students were thrashed and dragged by the hair by policemen. Journalists covering the happenings and even teachers were not spared despite them telling the police that they were from the faculty. The ordeal suffered by Pratima Gond, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the Mahila Maha Vidyalaya, was highlighted as a striking case in point. Literally invalidating the police contention that teachers were not harmed during the action, Pratima Gond appeared before the media with manifest injuries and explained how she was assaulted even as she was trying to save a girl from the police brutality.

“A girl student fell to the ground while police were lathicharging students. I also got trapped in the police gauntlet when I went to help the girl. I pleaded them not to beat me, shouting aloud that I am a teacher at the university, but they didn’t listen and kept beating,” she said.

G.C. Tripathi, known to be close to the top brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP), added his own inconsiderate indiscretions to the police assault when he ordered students to vacate their hostels by 5 p.m. on September 24 or face action.

“It was a heartless administrative order completely out of sync with the traumatic phase that the students and teachers were going through and one that grossly violated the honoured and time-tested tenets of character that a teacher is to follow when his or her wards are facing extreme challenges. A teacher is supposed to be considerate and express kindness and affection in times like this. Unfortunately, what this action marked was a total absence of these noble characteristics,” said a senior faculty member who did not wish to be named.

Tripathi went on to describe the incidents of September 23-24 as a result of a political conspiracy and decided to advance the Dasara holidays. Amidst all this, the students continued their struggle with the girl students leading from the front through peaceful and massive demonstrations. Students and academic faculty across the country, including their unions and associations, rallied for the BHU students. Several social and political organisations, including prominent parties such as the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, also joined in solidarity.

A number of students told Frontline that the struggle and the solidarity it evoked from a large number of teachers, current and former, helped in concretising and consolidating the new progressive sensibility that took on not only administrative high-handedness but also the feudal cultural, social and political systems that dominated the university.

One of the developments that facilitated this, apart from Pratima Gond’s public appearance exposing the police assault, was the resignation of Professor O.N. Singh as Chief Proctor. These developments made the position of Tripathi increasingly untenable and he was asked to go on leave by the Union Human Resources Development Ministry. The students who attended classes on October 3 seemed happy with this development.

“There is no doubt we are satisfied with the VC being asked to go on leave. The very act of women students getting lathicharged would have led to the ouster of any other VC in any other university. But this VC was to remit office in two months in any case. That is why he has been asked to go on leave. In practical terms it is a small but a significant victory for the student community: significant because this marks a validation of a new participatory value system, which has underscored that our voice also needs to be heard and given due weightage,” a student told Frontline.

The emphasis on the qualitative aspects of this victory, small but significant, is something that was repeated in informal discourses at BHU in early October. However, the sensibility reflected in the students’ struggle and in the developments relating to it continued to have further expression. Barely two days after classes resumed there was another attempt to molest a girl student by a fellow student, but this time the authorities, including security forces, acted promptly to curb it.

Paraphrased versions of Neha Yadav’'s warning and observation in the article are also part of the refrain: “Let us not hope unduly that the malpractices in BHU would come to an end with just this small yet significant gain. At the same time, let us also not underestimate the force of the rage that it takes for students to come out and protest in the face of such repression.”

Evidently, whether the tangible gains sustain or not, a new and progressive sensibility is gaining strength among the students of the century-old institution.

FRDI Bill

Dangers in a Bill

THE Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill, 2017, which the Union Cabinet cleared on June 14, 2017, is to be introduced in the coming session of Parliament. The Bill seeks to create a Resolution Corporation which will exercise control over banks, insurance companies, regional rural banks (RRBs), cooperative banks and other financial institutions. The Bill is under the consideration of a parliamentary committee.

The general direction and management of the affairs and business of the Resolution Corporation will vest in a board, which will consist of a chairperson; one member each representing the Finance Ministry, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDAI), and the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority (PFRDA); three whole-time members; and two independent members to be appointed by the Central government.

The board will have the power to order amalgamation, merger, liquidation and acquisition of any bank, including State Bank of India (SBI) and other nationalised banks, RRBs, cooperative banks and payment banks, and any insurance company, including Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) and other general insurance companies, if, in its judgment, the institution concerned (bank or insurance company) has got “imminent” or “critical” risk to its viability. The corporation, which will be under the Finance Ministry, will be empowered to hand over any such institution to another entity, public or private. It will be authorised to order discontinuation of service of employees or transfer of their employment or reduction of their remuneration upon such “resolution”.

The FRDI Bill also envisages closure of the “Deposit Insurance and Credit Guarantee Corporation” (DICGC) established in 1961, which has been an insurance cover for the savings of depositors.

According to banking sector representatives, the creation of the Resolution Corporation goes against the spirit of nationalisation of banks in 1969 when it was decided that public sector financial institutions should serve the masses, besides the marginalised and underprivileged sections of society, and not be concerned with earning huge profits at the cost of the ordinary masses.

According to C.P. Krishnan, general secretary of the Bank Employees Federation of India’s Tamil Nadu chapter, the Financial Stability Report of the RBI states that out of the total non-performing assets (NPAs), 88.4 per cent is the creation of large borrowers with loan exposure of Rs.5 crore and more. “On top of it, 12 large borrowers constitute 25 per cent of the NPAs, as admitted by the RBI itself,” he said.

He claimed that 56 RRBs spread over 600 districts, with around 23,000 branches, rendered excellent service to the rural people by lending almost 80 per cent of their total advances to the poor and the marginalised. Besides, cooperative institutions, including 370 Central Cooperative Banks with around 14,000 branches and 93,000 primary agriculture cooperative societies, extended real service to the common man.

Similarly, despite stiff competition from private insurers, the LIC ranked number one in terms of market share and service in the life insurance sector. The LIC contributed Rs.14,23,055 crore to the 12th Five-Year Plan, which was double the Rs.7,04,151 crore it contributed to the 11th Plan, he said and added that there was no need for such an overarching mechanism as the Resolution Corporation.

Overriding powers

In fact, the Bill seeks to place the entire financial structure of the country at the mercy of the government. The Resolution Corporation has been given powers that override those vested in the RBI, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and even the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Besides, the measures taken by the corporation cannot be challenged in court, including the Supreme Court. The Bill categorically states that an order for the winding up of a bank or an order sanctioning a scheme of compromise or arrangement or of amalgamation, or an order for the supersession of the committee of management or other managing body of a bank and the appointment of an administrator thereof made with the previous sanction in writing or on the requisition of the RBI or the corporation, as the case may be, shall not be liable to be called into question in any manner.

Besides, the Bill also proposes to amend the SBI Act in order to insert a clause for its liquidation. This has given rise to apprehensions that in due course the government might even take recourse to privatisation of the SBI. The clause says:

“After Section 45, the following section shall be inserted, namely:

“45A. Notwithstanding anything in this Act, the Resolution Corporation established under… the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Act, 2017, shall have the powers to carry out resolution of the State Bank under that Act.”

As explained, the term resolution could mean amalgamation, merger, acquisition, or liquidation and the resolution process could be initiated if in the opinion of the board the bank is under “critical” or “imminent” danger for its viability.

The fears about the SBI have arisen because a few weeks before the Union Cabinet cleared the Bill, the SBI was designated as a “systemically important financial institution (SIFI)”. The designation has its implications. In the Bill, the criteria for designating an institution as a SIFI could depend upon its size, complexity, nature and volume of transactions with other financial service providers, interconnectedness with other financial service providers, nature of services provided by the financial service providers and whether they are difficult to substitute, and such other matters as may be prescribed.

Once an institution has been designated as a SIFI, it comes under constant scrutiny of the corporation. The Bill proposes that every institution so designated shall, within a period of 90 days from the publication of the order of designation under Section 25, submit a restoration plan to the appropriate regulator and a resolution plan to the corporation, in accordance with the provisions of Section 38.

Also, every such financial institution shall provide such information to the corporation at such intervals and in such manner as may be specified by regulations made by the corporation in order to monitor the safety, soundness and solvency of the institution.

The Bill specifies that the corporation and the appropriate regulator may, on the basis of the information received from any SIFI or otherwise and for reasons to be recorded in writing, jointly inspect the institution in such manner as may be specified by regulations made by the corporation in consultation with the appropriate regulator. Subject to the provisions of this Act, the regulation and supervision of SIFIs shall continue to be governed by the appropriate regulator with which the SIFI is registered.

What this means is that a SIFI continues to be under close scrutiny by the Resolution Corporation, which may initiate action against it at any given time—order its acquisition or amalgamation or liquidation. Liquidation may be ruled out in the case of the SBI, but handing it over to another entity is a real fear.

Bankers protest

According to a note circulated by the All India Bank Officers’ Confederation (AIBOC), which is spearheading the agitation against this Bill, the FRDI Bill vests tremendous powers in the corporation, even undermining those that vest in the RBI, the CVC and the CBI. According to this note, the bankers have taken exception to the Bill because it seeks to undermine the spirit of bank nationalisation.

Besides, the SBI, which has a huge reach into the nooks and crannies of India, will come under the mercy of the government and will always be under threat of privatisation, whereas the present SBI Act says the bank can never be liquidated/privatised. Besides, if such an eventuality arises, no court can question this action. Since the SBI has already been notified as a SIFI, it is only natural that a sense of insecurity has been set in. Besides the SBI, ICICI Bank and HDFC Bank have also been designated as SIFIs.

Similarly, the Resolution Corporation can transfer an insurance company to another service provider, decide the performance incentive for the chairman and executives of an insurance corporation, become a receiver, and remove managerial and other persons from office. The corporation will also have the power to supersede the board of directors of an insurance corporation. The corporation can also become a liquidator.

According to Thomas D. Franco, general secretary of the AIBOC, the Bill gives draconian powers to an authority, which will be under the Finance Ministry, and also dilutes the powers of the RBI. Banks and insurance companies will be at the mercy of this corporation’s board, which in turn will be subservient to the Finance Ministry.

In the name of deposit insurance also, the Bill is discriminatory in nature: it goes against the interest of small depositors through its provision of “bail-in”. The depositor whose money is given as loan to the borrower is likely to lose his share of deposit in case of a “bail-in”, whereas the borrower who availed himself of the loan is likely to get off scot-free. According to Franco, the “bail-in” concept is a double whammy.

In Cyprus, depositors lost almost 50 per cent of their savings when a “bail-in” was implemented by the resolution corporation, which is similar to what the FRDI has proposed in this Bill.

The Bill takes away the rights of depositors to get back what they deposited in full trust that their money was safe in a public sector bank as it was backed by the sovereign guarantee of the country. This provision, says Franco, goes against the fundamental right to equality, hence the Bill should be withdrawn immediately.

Banking and insurance sector employees observed a day’s strike on August 22 and held a march to Parliament House against the Bill. They have also circulated notes to Members of Parliament urging them to oppose the Bill when it comes up for debate.

According to Franco, Krishnan and other financial experts, the Bill is fundamentally flawed because it has been blindly copied and pasted from the Western model, whereas the situation in India is totally different. “In our country, there is already a resolution mechanism for all financial service providers, which is available with the Reserve Bank of India. In addition, we have also brought in an insolvency and bankruptcy code. We have also created a National Company Law Tribunal. Hence there is no need for a new resolution mechanism,” they say.

Similarly, they say, there is IRDAI for the insurance sector, and RRBs and cooperative banks have their own mechanism. In addition, the DICGC, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the RBI, is functioning effectively.

In fact, since its inception, the DICGC had to pay only Rs.50.3 billion, whereas it had Rs.701.5 billion as deposit insurance fund as on March 2017. It also has Rs.7,16,322 million as investments. As on March 2017, the balance in the Deposit Insurance Fund is Rs.6,45,578.48 million and the balance in the Credit Guarantee Fund is Rs.7,30,027.64 million.

Except cooperative banks, no other banks have had to make claims from the DICGC. “This clearly shows that the depositors are safe in our country and there is no need for another resolution mechanism to provide deposit insurance to consumers,” they say.

But with the majority that the government enjoys in both Houses of Parliament now, it is anybody’s guess which way the Bill will go. Unless of course, the government pauses and takes stock of the situation.

West Bengal

Uneasy calm in Darjeeling

politics

THE bandh called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in the Darjeeling hills was finally lifted on September 27 after 101 days of total shutdown in support of its demand for a separate State of Gorkhaland. The GJM’s decision came at the intervention of the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who announced a meeting to look into the Darjeeling matter. “In a democracy, dialogue is the only way out to resolve any problem. Solutions can be found through restraint, mutual dialogue and within the legal ambit. I have asked the Home Secretary to convene an official-level meeting in the Home Ministry within a fortnight to discuss all related issues,” Rajnath Singh said in a statement issued on September 26.

This much-awaited intervention from the Centre gave GJM supremo Bimal Gurung what he desperately needed, a reason to present before the people for withdrawing the strike that began on June 15. Pressure had been mounting on the GJM leadership as the long-drawn bandh had affected life and the economy in the region and there was no face-saving excuse for it. With both the State government and the Centre refusing to concede the demand for a separate State, the GJM was hard put to keep the agitation alive. Moreover, cracks had begun to show within the GJM, which had emerged as the single most powerful political force in the hills since overthrowing the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) in 2008.

With Gurung and several top leaders of the GJM having gone into hiding, and arrest warrants pending against them (including charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act), the agitation was fast slipping out of the grasp of the GJM. The State government, in an attempt to split the party, appointed Binay Tamang and Anit Thapa, once trusted aides of Gurung, as Chairman and Vice-chairman of the reconstituted board of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA). On June 23, just two weeks after the agitation for Gorkhaland had begun, all 43 elected members of the GTA, including Chief Executive Gurung, had submitted their resignations from the autonomous body which was constituted in 2011 for administering the hills. Both Tamang and Thapa had already been expelled from the party by Gurung for wanting to call off the bandh.

Not only has this been the longest continuous strike in the history of the Gorkhaland movement (the earlier record was 40 days under Subhas Ghising of the GNLF in the mid 1980s), it has also been one of the most intense and violent mass-based agitations in recent times. Though shops have opened and normalcy has returned to the “Queen of the Hill Stations”, with even a few tourists beginning to trickle in, one cannot help but feel that this peace may be just a temporary lull before another storm breaks out.

The veteran hill leader and former MLA from Kalimpong, Harka Bahadur Chhetri of the Jan Andolan Party, said: “Things appear normal on the surface, but there are rumblings underneath. There is huge disillusionment and anger among the people, but it is not yet being articulated or channelled. The people feel humiliated because of the manner in which their demand and sacrifice have been ignored, and they are disappointed with the leaders who failed to give direction to the energy that the movement had generated this time.”

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

Meat traders in U.P.

Licence to harass

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI the-nation

ON September 22, the Gurugram administration in Haryana had to confront a peculiar situation. It was the onset of the nine-day fasting period, the beginning of Navratri, which culminates in Dasara. The local Shiv Sena unit had decided to forcibly shut down as many as 500 meat shops. (The organisation had tried to do something similar during Ram Navami in March-April.) The Sena had submitted a memorandum to the Gurugram Deputy Commissioner demanding that shops selling raw meat should stay shut and even issued notices to non-vegetarian food outlets.

The administration did not take any step to comply with the demand, and it would have been illegal anyway. But the Shiv Sena proceeded to enforce its diktat. Its members forced meat shops to shut down in at least 12 locations, causing widespread consternation. The spokesperson and general secretary of the Shiv Sena told mediapersons that all meat shops, including chicken stalls, had been told to shut down or face the consequences.

A vegetarian diet is followed by Hindus in parts of north India during Navratri, but such a forced shutdown of meat shops and restaurants selling non-vegetarian food was never attempted before in Gurugram or in the rest of Haryana. Navratri comes with restrictions on what can be eaten even as part of a vegetarian diet. But it was always a personal choice that people made voluntarily.

The commercialisation of the Navratri festival has over the years opened up livelihood opportunities for many people. But the abstention from non-vegetarian food leads to low sales of even eggs, affecting the livelihoods of one section.

It was no coincidence that this enforced vegetarianism took place in States with high rates of cow vigilantism. In parts of Gurugram and adjoining Mewat district, several violent instances of cow vigilantism have been reported.

Meat sellers’ plight

When Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath declared the closure of all unlicensed slaughterhouses soon after taking charge in March 2017, he perhaps did not anticipate the livelihood crisis that would hit all communities, including sections of the majority community. The district administrations in the State went on an overdrive shutting down shops selling raw meat and even restaurants. When the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court intervened and passed an interim order in May directing that abattoirs should be issued licences and no-objection certificates, there was all-round relief.

In April, the Allahabad High Court held that the “choice of food and trade in foodstuff were part of the right to life” while hearing a petition challenging the State government’s order. The court also directed the government to work out a feasible strategy and take into account the “competing rights of trade, profession, health, safety as well as consumption and the obligation of the state to make facilities available. To provide an immediate check on unlawful activity should be simultaneous with facilitating the carrying out of lawful activity, particularly that relating to food, food habits and vending thereof that is undisputedly connected with the right to life and livelihood.”

Despite the court order, however, in parts of Ghaziabad most chicken and mutton shops disappeared after Yogi Adityanath’s government took over. Even eggs were not sold by vendors. Egg sellers began to resurface only towards the end of the nine-day festival. “We do not want to take a chance,” said a roadside egg seller, requesting anonymity. His main clients are young men looking to eat boiled eggs after a gym workout.

What Frontline witnessed as actually happening on the ground shows scant respect for what the High Court observed. In at least two areas of western Uttar Pradesh, Loni in Ghaziabad and in areas falling under the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (Noida), small meat sellers have faced harassment and sometimes been forced to shut down business ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party government assumed power in the State. It is the poorer section that is affected, and most of the meat sellers who find themselves out of business operated from rented space. A few kilometres from the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, chicken, fish and meat shops operate unhindered in Ghazipur, which is under the jurisdiction of the Delhi government.

Threat of closure in Loni

Loni, a township in Ghaziabad with a population of five lakh people, is not among one of the more developed regions of western Uttar Pradesh falling in the National Capital Region. Most people here are self-employed. For the minority population and sections of the Dalit community in Loni, selling meat is a traditional occupation which now faces a threat.

Earlier, the municipality issued licences to shopkeepers; now, the Food Safety Department issues them. Shop owners are required to procure no-objection certificates (NOCs) from the municipality in order to apply for and obtain a licence from the Food Safety Department. (In rural areas, meat sellers are required to get NOCs from the gram panchayat, the circle officer and the Food Safety and Drug Administration.) When the new regime came in, the majority of the meat sellers in Loni had valid and registered certificates issued by the Food Safety and Drug Administration under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. These certificates are renewed annually. However, Baby, president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association’s Loni unit, said that even those who had licences, issued by the Food Safety Department and valid until 2018, were not allowed to ply their trade.

For instance, Mohammad Alfaiz, who had been selling meat and meat products, including poultry, for the last 30 years, had a stamped certificate from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) which was valid until December 2017. Yet, he was not allowed to run his business. He also showed this correspondent a sworn affidavit stating, along with a “rendering company”, a commitment to follow good hygiene and sanitation in disposing of meat waste.

Mohammad Jabir Qureshi is the convener of the Meat Traders’ Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation that has been leading a campaign in Loni for the last six months to get meat shops reopened. He said: “They told us to repair our shops, install water tanks, put in tiles and glass windows for food hygiene and safety purposes. We did all that, and yet we are not being issued the NOCs by the municipal authorities. This is harassment and nothing else.”

The Ghaziabad district administration and municipal authorities took recourse to Section 9 of the Indian Aircraft Rule, 1937, that prohibits the slaughter, flaying of animals, depositing of rubbish or other polluted or obnoxious matter and the running of meat shops in the vicinity of airports.

There is an Air Force station at Hindan in Ghaziabad. On May 30, a letter sent by the Aerospace Safety Section to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Ghaziabad, said that “hotels, meat shops, fish shops and bone processing mills may be permitted if DGCA [Directorate General of Civil Aviation]/Air Force Authority is satisfied that proper and adequate arrangements have been made by owners of hotel, meat shops, or fish shops so as to prevent attraction of vultures, black kites or other birds and animals. However experience shows that owners of these enterprises do not meet the above standard and flout the rules. This results in throwing the garbage/rubbish in the open and attraction of birds near the Air Force Hindan airfield. Bird activity hampers the operations of aircraft at this base. At times, important operations are called off due to such bird activity at this base. Even a single bird hit to aircraft may result in loss of crores of rupees.”

The letter strongly recommended that the SDM should not “give permission for opening meat shops, fish shops, slaughterhouse or bone processing within ten kilometre of radius of the AF Station Hindan” under his jurisdiction. In the last six months, nearly 500 meat shop owners have been left in dire straits as they wait for the validation of their licences by the district administration. The Allahabad High Court, in its interim order, had directed the State government to regulate the slaughterhouses but also asked it to start issuing licences and NOCs.

‘Batons in biriyani’

Qureshi said that as there was no government abattoir in Ghaziabad, all meat sellers bought the raw material from the Ghazipur government-run abattoir in Delhi. “As soon as we open our shops, the police appear and shut them down. They say ‘ upar se aadesh hai’ [we have orders from the top],” Qureshi told Frontline.

Restaurants serving cooked non-vegetarian food were also shut down on the grounds that they were within 10 km of the Air Force station. “There are several eateries close to the Hindan airbase, why haven’t they been shut down?” one of the meat traders asked. They said that the BJP legislator from Loni, Nand Kishore Gujjar, was taking an active interest in shutting down meat shops and restaurants in the area.

Even biriyani sellers are not spared. Ansari, a biriyani seller, said: “The police shove their batons inside the vessels to check for beef even if there are soya or chicken pieces in the rice. That leaves the food unfit for consumption. This is nothing but organised harassment. Are people expected to eat food after taking permission from the government? Yeh hai hamaari jamhooriyat? [Is this our great democracy?] Instead of providing employment opportunities, the government is snatching them from us.” He added that the police could swoop down any time, topple utensils with cooked biriyani, or bust up egg stalls, all under the name of the administration and the government.

“Should we start stealing to fill our stomach?” said Nazeer, small-time restaurant owner with six children. His children dropped out of school after the closure of his restaurant.

Ismail inherited his meat shop from his father and had obtained a licence in 1993. He was in tears as he spoke to Frontline: “I asked the daroga [constable] to give me some employment. He said, Yogi will give you.”

But it is not just the minorities who are affected. Meat sellers from the majority community, too, are now part of the Sangharsh Samiti constituted by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Repeated representations to the Ghaziabad administration and protests by the meat traders have yielded little result, but the harassment reduced somewhat after the formation of the Samiti. One member of the Samiti, Rakesh, said: “For 18 years, I have been selling chicken at the Loni railway station. Now it has been shut down. What do we do? It is the main source of livelihood. I don’t know anything else. They are using the Hindan airbase as an excuse to shut us down. They want to make Loni meat-free. Small restaurant owners have started selling cooked vegetables now.”

Amir Hussain, who used to sell fish, has not been able to set up shop for the last seven months because of the new rules. The bulk of the clientele of meat sellers is from the majority community. All the meat supplies are now from Delhi abattoirs and meat markets like the one in Ghazipur. “We are grateful to Delhi that we can buy raw meat from them. They sell it to us at slightly higher rates as we are not locals, but at least they do not discriminate against us,” said Jabir Qureshi.

The story is similar in Noida. Here meat shops in quasi-slum areas were told to shut down and shift to “authorised” areas. Mohammad Raees said: “Our homes and our shops are in the same locality. We have therefore a vested interest in keeping the area clean. We have been plying this trade for years together and there has been no problem. All the waste material is put to use; nothing is thrown on the streets. All of us have Aadhaar and PAN cards as well.”

All the meat shop owners had licences. Mohammad Raees said the shops had deep freezers, tiled walls and washbasins. Gangeshwar Sharma, district secretary of the CPI(M), said: “The Noida Authority is not giving an NOC, and so the food department is not issuing the licence.” He said that he had raised the issue with the district magistrate on at least two dozen occasions, but in vain.

Aley Nabi said: “On March 19, Yogiji took oath as Chief Minister. Two days later, on March 22, our shops were shut down. And meat prices have gone up across the board by at least Rs.50-100 [a kg]. Our customers ask us in hushed tones as if we are doing something illegal.” He said new licences were being given only for selling, not slaughtering animals. “Chickens have to be freshly cut, they cannot be stored. It is not like frozen food. We have to get all the raw materials from Ghazipur in Delhi. There is a poultry market there, none in Ghaziabad or Noida. As it is we have to spend a lot on transport. I used to get boneless chicken pieces from Ghazipur which then would be sold to the ‘Chinese food vans’ which are hugely popular in this area,” he said. After the new shutdown orders came, the “Chinese meals on wheels” outlets, which mainly sold chicken noodles and soup, vanished from the scene. “ Kuch n otebandi mein chale gaye; kuch goshtbandi mein chale gaye [some of the van owners lost their livelihoods during demonetisation; the rest to the ban on meat sales],” said Nabi.

People who made a living around the meat trade got affected by the drop in sales—rickshaw pullers, polythene suppliers and even ragpickers who picked up some of the waste generated by the trade.

Dalits involved in the trade are as affected as members of the minority community. The pork sellers Deepak and Vikky stood side by side with Raees, Aley Nabi and others in opposing the restrictions on licences. They said what was happening was “a huge crisis for all of us”.

A list of as many as 17 dos and don’ts was issued by the State government. These included the transport of meat in insulated freezer vans, health certificates for all workers and a ban on meat shops near religious places and vegetable markets. No animal or poultry can be slaughtered inside a shop; shop owners are required to put curtains or tinted glass so that the meat is not visible to the public.

The regulations seem to be choking the trade. At present, a tug of war between the Chairman of the Noida Authority and the Health Department over the issue of NOCs and licences has left hundreds of families that depended on the meat trade without an income. The meat shops that have been closed down are those owned by people of low-income groups. The areas where they live are potholed and congested and generally lack civic amenities. Rather than make the environment liveable for them and their families, the State government has only pushed hundreds of families to the brink, following an agenda that is certainly not in the public interest.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

‘Maybe they wanted it to be a mob lynching’

KUNAL SHANKAR the-nation

THE noted writer and political observer Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, who is also the Director of the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Maulana Azad National Urdu University in Hyderabad, is the latest to receive death threats for his critical writings against Hindutva. He is also targeted for his theory of capital accumulation in India, which he calls “social smuggling” undertaken predominantly by Vaishyas and Brahmins—the country’s traditional trading and scholastic communities. This comes soon after the latest reprint of the Telugu translation of his English book Post Hindu India, published by Sage Publications in 2009, in the form of chapter-wise booklets. The threats began on September 10 from little-known leaders from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh who belonged to an outfit called the “Arya Vysya Organisation”. More powerful voices soon lent support to the threats. The Rajya Sabha member T.G. Venkatesh of the Telugu Desam Party from Telangana issued a “fatwa” against Ilaiah and sought a recall of his books. On September 18, he called for Ilaiah’s public hanging, though later he made light of his comments. On September 23, Ilaiah was returning from a public meeting in the newly created Bhupalpalli district of Telangana when his car was chased at two crossroads on the highway by two separate mobs. According to Ilaiah, his driver’s swift manoeuvres and the police escort from Parakal to Hyderabad saved the day. Ilaiah’s effigies were burnt in different parts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Speaking to Frontline, Ilaiah said singling out Hindutva’s critics and killing or silencing them had become the norm under the current regime at the Centre. Excerpts:

What is the book about? What is the point that you have tried to make?

These are booklets that have been made controversial by the Arya Vysya Organisation. It is a reprint of the Telugu book published in 2011, which was again a translation of my original English book titled Post Hindu India. Hindi and Marathi versions are available.

The book was written in the context of our failure to get reservation in the private sector. I debunk the myth of “merit” used by the Banya and the Brahmin communities to avoid setting aside a certain percentage of jobs in the private sector. I make the point that tribal people, Dalits and the Sudra castes contribute the overwhelming bulk of wealth in our caste-based economic structure. I include in this category Other Backward Class groups like Gujjars, Jats and Patels. The control and accumulation of wealth in any kingdom that has ruled India from the Gupta period onward has been with the Vaishyas, that is to say, the Banya community. Contemporary capitalists like the Ambanis, the Adanis, Lakshmi Mittal, the Kirloskars and Birlas are from this community. They have gained the biggest control of Independent India’s wealth. And with their Brahmin nexus, a lot of it has gone to temples. Take for example the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple in Kerala.

I have theoretically explained this process of wealth accumulation as “social smuggling”, that is to say, the accumulation takes place through the mechanism of business deals with other communities as India functions largely within a feudal framework. Take, for example, the village markets, the main area of operation for the rural trading community, the Vaishyas. There are several deceptive mechanisms such as a planned decision to undercut the price of produce. Several other tactics could be used, like saying the quality is bad or there is over supply and the use of faulty weighing machines. Finally, for the producer, there is no transparency in the sale of his goods. Therefore exploitation begins right at the village or in the grain market. There is no humanitarian relationship between the seller and the buyer, and the buyer keeps the whole wealth within his caste cabal. He does not invest it in any philanthropic work, for any nationalistic capitalist must have a positive philanthropic relationship with the producers. Take the farmers: they are committing suicide. The Banya sakhas in the village would not even visit the family of the person who committed suicide because of his inability to pay back his loan. This is what I mean social smuggling. The wealth accumulation is not because of the traders’ hard work or ethical business acumen, but because of the caste he belongs to.

My point, therefore, is today the state has privatised many things, and there are hardly any jobs in the public sector. Whether due to demonetisation, or GST [Goods and Services Tax], the companies that benefited the most are the Kirloskars, Vedanta, the Adanis, Ambani, and other Brahmin industrialists.

There is this debate about nationalism that has been raging after the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] came to power. We have been seeing that soldiers are projected as the most nationalist forces in the country. If soldiers are nationalists, have we looked at the castes they belong to? Which are the castes on the borders with Pakistan, or Bangladesh, or China today? What is their economic status? Are there any Banya or Brahmin soldiers on the front lines, the men defending various places in Kashmir?

They are the Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Classes. The overwhelming [majority of the] police forces in the country today come from these castes. They do so for the money and because the educational qualification required at the entry level is low—mostly class 10 for constables, even in the CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force].

The second thing is, historically there was a Mehar regiment—[B.R.] Ambedkar’s father himself was a soldier. There were Jat regiments, Yadava regiments, Gorkha regiments and Sikh regiments, but at no point was there a Brahmin or Banya regiment.

But was that not because of the communities’ physical attributes as well?

Yes, vegetarianism could have been a factor. Southern or western India, you look at any nationalist leader. Most of them were never soldiers.

The question is today political leaders, whether [Narendra] Modi or [Amit] Shah, say yoga is our national sport. But for Army selection yoga is not the main criterion; it is running, endurance and athletics—these are Sudra practices of hard work. So how does yoga help in our national defence? Can Baba Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravishankar or Sadguru, any of them, be posted on the Himalayan borders to fight Pakistani soldiers, or protect Indian borders?

There is now this debate about not eating beef—but then you say that if you are vegetarian you are not preferred in the Army. Therefore, you are humiliating the food habits of the people who are protecting your borders, and those you need to fight your enemies. Therefore, yoga and vegetarianism, predominantly Banya and Brahmin traits, are unfit to defend India.

The question is, what is the responsibility of the Banya or the Brahmin capitalists towards India’s national security and defence?

Can they not give one job to one family of the soldier who is on the front lines, if he has a qualified brother or sister, back in civil society, in cities or towns? Indian capitalists have so much wealth today, they fly from one country to another for a business meal. Do they not have a responsibility towards the soldiers’ families? Therefore, defending the nation requires merit. Why is it only looked at as something required for jobs in the private sector? So in a way, the Banyas and the Brahmins are deciding the soldier’s merit now. You insult the farmer’s merit, insult the artisan’s merit, insult the tribal person’s merit, but you say only these two non-productive communities are meritorious.

The argument for merit in the private sector is, therefore, according to me, an anti-national argument because it is confined to the well-being of two minuscule communities who have no contribution to the basic production of wealth in the nation nor participate in its defence.

Corporate capital is talking about CSR [corporate social responsibility], but it has never shown empathy or philanthropic gesture towards farmers’ suicides. So I want industries to create a farmers’ protection fund as a social responsibility. A fund of at least 1 per cent of your total annual profit, which comes to about Rs.3,00,000 crore in my assessment. This should be a farmers’ protection fund because farmers are the wealth creators in this country.

Another point I make is for preferential treatment to Adivasis, Dalits, dhobis and barbers—provide them 5 per cent of the jobs in the private sector.

Why has this book become so controversial now?

It was reviewed extensively and it sold well. The right wing also read it quite seriously, but why this controversy now? I think the atmosphere of creating controversies around those who have been critical of Hindutva, keeping a watch on them, with an intention either to stop them from writing or to kill them, has become the norm in India today.

How and when did these protests begin?

The first to protest was one Ramakrishna. He threatened physical attack, hunting me down, etc. Then came another statement on September 10 by one Ramana, that he would cut off my tongue. That’s when I lodged a case at the Osmania police station, on September 12.

On September 17, there was a fatwa issued by T.G. Venkatesh that I should be killed or hanged. This is the first time a Vaishyas, in fact, a Hindu person, issued a fatwa to another citizen of India. I filed a case against him on September 19.

Protests such as the burning of effigies have been ongoing since. I was at Bhupalpali on September 23. As we were returning from there, 10 to 15 people followed the car. They were Arya Vysyas. They came and rammed into my car from behind at a crossroads. My driver had the presence of mind to pick up speed. At Parakal, there was a mob of 30-40 people with stones and other weapons.

Bheenaveni Ramaiah, a lecturer in the sociology department of Osmania University, was with me. My driver took a quick turn to the right. We noticed a police station on the left, we went straight in. The constable closed the gate. Meanwhile, some Dalits and [people of] OBC communities noticed my car and came to my rescue. So the Arya Vysyas ran away. We filed a case, and with a Circle Inspector [CI] and a protection convoy we returned to Hyderabad. At Ghanpur, a business town in Warangal Urban district, there was another mob. The Ghanpur CI noticed that and rushed to our convoy on the way and shifted me from my car into his car and took a circuitous route to avoid the mob. There have been counter protests, meetings and seminars against the Arya Vysyas.

The September 23 attack seems well planned. It does not sound like a sudden act of rage.

Absolutely. From K. Rosaiah [former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh and former Governor of Tamil Nadu] to the man on the street, many people have asked me to apologise and withdraw the book. It [the protest against Ilaiah] was very well coordinated across two States, with leaders organising meetings in Hyderabad and Vijayawada.

The attack on you does not fit the pattern of the killings of critics of Hindutva or rationalist writers/academics. Why do you think this is so?

Maybe they wanted it to be a mob lynching in my case. The organisation [the Arya Vysyas] is not known to be violent, it is usually very peaceful. So a lynching would not be attributed to it. It seems to be something that appears to have sanction from high political bosses.

This is not the first time you are courting controversy. From your student days at Osmania University, you have taken a public stand against caste discrimination and have written several articles, and even a book—“Why I Am Not A Hindu”. Where you ever threatened this way?

This kind of a situation never arose. Even the last time that the BJP was in power, there was an attempt to thwart my writing, by some academic authorities—in 2002 when I wrote an article in Deccan Chronicle titled “Spiritual Fascim and Civil Society”. The academic community forced the Registrar of Osmania University to withdraw the letter directing me to stop writing. Last year, when I gave a speech in Vijayawada, when I said Brahmins never participated in productive activities since the Vedic ages—my effigies were burnt, protests broke out. That’s when they derogatorily referred to me as an Iligadu—a reference to someone who is a ruffian. That’s when I decided to add my caste title to my name. I am an ardent supporter of English education in government schools, and hence the caste title is in English as well.

Censorship

Fear of ideas

ZIYA US SALAM the-nation

OVER the past few weeks, walls in New Delhi have suddenly started sprouting slogans about a revolution that is around the corner. Usually the slogans are in Hindi, occasionally in English, and seldom in Punjabi. The words “ Sub tun khatarnaak hunda hai” (Everything is dangerous) strike a chord in many at a time of unmitigated suffering for the common man. At the bottom of every slogan is the word “Paash”.

Paash is the pen name of Avtar Singh Sandhu, the Punjabi poet who could rouse people with his words just as efficiently as he could draw peaceful rural imagery. He died at the hands of Khalistani extremists in 1988, aged 38. His crime? He confronted the terrorists with the written word. His bold imagery set him apart from others, and the early influence of Naxalites on him seeps through his works. He rejected popular notions of nationalism in a poem following misbehaviour with Sikhs on the roads of Punjab during the 1982 Asian Games. The poem, titled “A Petition for Disinheritance”, created a stir. He was called the most vicious of names and even branded a radical. Sushma Swaraj had, as an opposition leader, dubbed Paash “a Naxalite poet”.

His was a voice of protest, the engine of dreams. He spoke up against state terrorism and the terrorism of extremists. Little wonder he had to shift to the United States at the height of the insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s following threats from Khalistanis. He was visiting his native village in Ludhiana when Khalistani terrorists killed him. Ironically, that was to be the last day of his visit.

A collection of nearly 200 poems was published after his death. A prose collection, titled Talwandi Salem Nun Jandi Sadak (The Road to Talwandi), was published a few years later.

Paash is back in the public consciousness today, thanks to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) ideologue Dinanath Batra, who continues tirelessly to get non-Hindutva voices out of academia and textbooks. First, Batra focussed on removing the legendary Urdu poet Ghalib’s couplets from textbooks. Then he turned his attention to Rabindranath Tagore. Now, he has reserved his ire for Paash, the only Punjabi poet to be translated into Hindi for schoolgoing students. Paash’s voice against fundamentalism is sought to be muzzled. Incidentally, a little more than a decade ago, the Hindi translation of Paash’s popular poem “Sabh Tun Khatarnak” (The Most Dangerous) was included in a textbook for Class XI students. The poem, with its rich philosophical overtones, speaks against oppression in society, an oppression that threatens to take away the power to dream.

Batra has demanded the removal of the poem from National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks as it could “pollute” young minds. Well, if obfuscation was on his mind, he has not succeeded, as Paash now occupies prime space at public squares not just in Delhi but also in places like Jaipur and Chandigarh. And students of Delhi University are planning to join hands with their counterparts from Panjab University and Jamia Millia Islamia to stage a series of programmes in a three-day Mahotsav towards the end of the year. Meanwhile, the Haryana government has quietly closed the Paash library in Karnal.

The controversy around one of his poems would have amused Paash. Throughout his brief life, he was seldom away from controversy. His intrepid ways and his revolutionary words were never ignored. Born in Jalandhar in 1950, he penned Loh Katha (Tale of Iron, 1970), which had a strident anti-establishment tone, enough for the government to charge him with murder. He was acquitted a couple of years later. The time spent in jail did nothing to douse the fire. Paash soon joined Punjab’s Maoist struggle. A little later, he became part of the Anti-47 Front in the U.S. and opposed Khalistani violence. None of these acts would have gone down well with conformists or even the advocates of Khalistan then.

Nearly 30 years after his death, Paash continues to get attention for what he stood for. Says Prof. Chaman Lal, who has been associated with Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre of Indian Languages: “Paash was a progressive Punjabi poet, a product of the 1970s Left radical period. He became instantly popular with his first collection, Loh Katha, [which he wrote] at the age of 20. The freshness of rural imagery in his poetry gave him a distinctive look.”

What is surprising is that nearly three decades after he breathed his last, Paash continues to be anathema to the RSS. “Paash is anathema to the RSS as any progressive writer with artistic depth is. The RSS, or any other religious fundamentalists like the Khalistanis, have no sense of either literary merit or any other aesthetics. Any progressive writer or idea in literature or other arts becomes anathema to them, just as M.F. Husain was targeted by these people. As Paash’s poetry is a voice against oppression and religious fundamentalism of all hues, the RSS wants to keep him away from young minds,” says Lal, who translated Paash’s complete poetry into Hindi and was awarded the Translation Prize by the Sahitya Akademi. Incidentally, he returned the award, along with other authors and poets, in protest against the climate of intolerance in the country a couple of years ago.

Lal believes the RSS’ objection to Paash in textbooks stems from ignorance. Paash is taught in many universities. His works have been translated into most Indian languages, including Malayalam, Telugu, Marathi, Bengali and Gujarati. Incidentally, the University Grants Commission, too, had recommended Paash for its model course as one of the important Indian voices in the world of poetry, when A.B. Vajpayee was the Prime Minister.

If Batra does succeed in getting the NCERT to remove Paash’s poem, a voice against oppression will fall silent. And, as Lal sums it up: “The younger generation in schools will be deprived of a humanist orientation of mind.” Batra’s five-page note recommending the omission of Paash should not be taken lightly. In the past, he, along with the RSS-afiliated Shiksha Sanskriti Utthan Niyas, had succeeded in getting A.K. Ramanujan’s book Three Hundred Ramayanas removed from the syllabus of Delhi University. The book questioned the popular notion of the Ramayana being a singular monolithic epic of Hinduism. Batra was also instrumental in the withdrawal of the American Indologist Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History from the market.

If Paash’s poem meets a similar fate though, perhaps he himself would not have complained. After all, he has been put in the company of M.F. Husain, Rabindranath Tagore and Ghalib.

West Bengal

Mukul Roy quits Trinamool

politics

IN a development that may have far-reaching consequences for the politics of West Bengal, Mukul Roy, one of the most powerful leaders in the ruling Trinamool Congress, quit the party on September 25 after years of acrimony with party supremo Mamata Banerjee. Announcing his resignation from the party’s working committee just ahead of the Durga Puja season, Mukul Roy, a founder-member of the Trinamool Congress, said he would resign from the party’s primary membership and give up his Rajya Sabha membership once the festive season ended.

“I was one of the first signatories to the Trinamool Congress when the party began its journey on December 17, 1997. At present I hold no party post except that of member of the working committee and a Trinamool Rajya Sabha member. It is with a heavy heart that I am telling you that I have emailed my resignation from the working committee. I will also tender my resignation from primary membership of the party and Rajya Sabha after the Puja,” Mukul Roy announced at a press conference.

The Trinamool Congress did not wait for the festivities to end, and suspended him for six years. “We are told that he has decided to quit the party after the Puja. Why wait?” said Trinamool secretary general Partha Chatterjee. “He (Mukul Roy) acted under pressure from Central agencies for his own self-interest and tried to harm the party. The party was keeping a close watch on him, and we decided to take action the moment he crossed the line,” said Chatterjee. Mukul Roy's son, Subhrangshu Roy, the Trinamool MLA from Bijpur, said he had no plan to quit the party.

Mukul Roy’s fall from grace within the Trinamool began when he deposed before the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in January 2015 in connection with the multi-crore Saradha scam. Several top Trinamool leaders, including party heavyweight and the then Cabinet Minister Madan Mitra and Rajya Sabha member Kunal Ghosh, were arrested in connection with the fund collection scam which ruined lakhs of investors, most of whom were from the poorer sections of society. It was from this period onwards that Mukul Roy’s perceived closeness to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) further alienated him from the Trinamool leadership. He was soon removed from all party posts but remained a Rajya Sabha member. He was also conspicuous by his absence in practically all important public functions of the Trinamool.

Moreover, according to Trinamool insiders, Mukul Roy’s importance in the party was on the wane with the concurrent rise of Abhishek Banerjee, Mamata Banerjee’s nephew who is now the second in command in the party. “It was difficult for a person of Mukul Roy’s stature to find himself unceremoniously removed from his position [of importance] and replaced by a greenhorn; after all, his contribution to the party has been immense,” said a Trinamool insider close to Mukul Roy.

Mukul Roy’s departure, though not unexpected, has nevertheless left the rank and file of the party shaken. He was known to be a master strategist, whose unparalleled organisational skills brought electoral success to his party time and again. Apart from being a member of the Rajya Sabha, he held a number of key posts, including general secretary of the Trinamool and national vice president of the party. For a brief period (March 20 to September 21, 2012), he was the Railway Minister as well.

Though never a mass leader, Mukul Roy always enjoyed a strong following within the party even during his sidelined days, and now there are concerns among certain sections of the Trinamool that his action may inspire other disgruntled members to follow suit. Sending out a clear signal to those who may be tempted to side with Mukul, Partha Chatterjee said: “Those who insult the party by forging ties with the BJP and other political parties, keeping their own party leadership in darkness, those who try to weaken the party… I appeal to them to mend their ways. The party has severed all its ties with Mukul Roy.”

As of October 2, Mukul Roy had not yet officially stated his next course of action, although the political buzz is that he is very likely to join the BJP. “He would not have left the Trinamool without an assurance from the highest level in the BJP. We would not be interested if he were to form another party and support us,” a top BJP source told Frontline.

The BJP hopes that once Mukul Roy joins the party, other leaders—and not just from the Trinamool—will also cross over to the BJP camp. “What the West Bengal BJP lacks today is leadership. Mukul Roy’s presence, particularly during elections, will no doubt make a big difference. Moreover, for the BJP to succeed, it has to first defeat the Trinamool, and who knows the Trinamool and its weaknesses better than Mukul?” said a State-level BJP leader.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

The Judiciary

Targeting judges

V. VENKATESAN the-nation

IT requires a controversy to usher in significant reforms. The Supreme Court vindicated this aphorism on October 6 when it decided, for the first time after the collegium came into existence in 1993, to make the reasons for its decisions public on its website.

The immediate provocation for this reform was the controversy that erupted following the collegium’s decision to transfer Justice Jayant Manganlal Patel of the Karnataka High Court to the Allahabad High Court, leading to his resignation. Lawyers at the Gujarat High Court, from where Justice Patel was first transferred to the Karnataka High Court in 2016, and Karnataka struck work for a day in protest against the collegium’s decision. Besides, the protesting lawyers were planning legal action by way of filing writ petitions in the Supreme Court. Senior advocates of the Supreme Court questioned the collegium’s decision in public. These multiple pressures apparently forced the hands of the collegium, some of whose members did not want to be on the wrong side of history.

Transfer of a judge from one High Court to another on the recommendation of the Supreme Court’s collegium, ostensibly to facilitate better administration, is nothing new. But the proposed transfer of Justice Patel brought the collegium’s functioning under scrutiny, amidst renewed calls for an immediate reform of the system.

Justice Patel resigned on September 25, making his displeasure public. The President subsequently accepted his resignation. Indeed, the recommendation to transfer him was only a proposal, as it was not submitted to the government.

The collegium, comprising the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra, and the four senior-most judges, namely, Justices J. Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B. Lokur and Kurian Joseph, first discussed the possibility of transferring Justice Patel to the Bombay High Court but later decided to recommend his transfer to the Allahabad High Court. On September 22, Justice Dipak Misra elicited Justice Patel’s response to the collegium’s proposal over phone, triggering Justice Patel’s resignation.

Justice Patel was to retire on August 3, 2018, on reaching the superannuation age of 62. He was the senior-most judge after the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court. He was transferred from the Gujarat High Court, where he was serving as Acting Chief Justice, to the Karnataka High Court on February 13, 2016.

As per the existing Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) of appointments of High Court judges, a puisne judge in a High Court who has one year or less to retire may be considered for appointment as the Chief Justice in his own High Court if a vacancy occurs when his turn for being considered for elevation as Chief Justice arrives. With the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court, Justice S.K. Mukherjee, reaching his superannuation on October 9, Justice Jayant Patel was eligible for elevation as the next Chief Justice.

Therefore, it was inexplicable why he was not considered for the post of the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court as per the MoP. Instead, the collegium first considered a transfer to the Bombay High Court, where he would have been fourth in seniority with no opportunity to be elevated as Chief Justice before his retirement. When this fact dawned on the collegium, it decided to transfer him to the Allahabad High Court, where he would have been second in seniority but still unable to make it as the Chief Justice before his retirement as the present Chief Justice, Justice D.B. Bhosale, will retire only on October 23 next year, well after Justice Patel would have retired had he not resigned. Therefore, it made sense for Justice Patel to quit rather than accept transfer to a different High Court for the purpose of completing his remaining 10 months in office.

As per the MoP, the initiation of a proposal for the transfer of a judge should be made by the CJI, whose opinion in this regard is determinative. Consent of a judge for his first or subsequent transfer is not required; all transfers are to be made in the public interest, that is, to promote better administration of justice throughout the country.

The MoP has safeguards against an arbitrary exercise of this discretion by the CJI. The views on the proposed transfer of a judge should be expressed in writing and should be considered by the CJI and the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court after taking into account the personal factors relating to the judge concerned and his response, including his preference of the places where he would like to be transferred.

Another safeguard is that the CJI is expected to take into account the views of the Chief Justice of the High Court from which a judge is to be transferred and the views of the Chief Justice of the High Court to which the transfer is to be effected. The CJI should also take into account the views of one or more Supreme Court judges who are in a position to offer their views, which would assist in the process of deciding whether or not a proposed transfer should take place.

It is not clear whether the decision of the collegium to recommend Justice Patel’s transfer to the Allahabad High Court was taken after considering all these requirements. The Supreme Court later clarified that the decision was taken “unanimously” by the collegium, after considering all the inputs that it had received. But why the collegium did not consider Justice Patel for elevation as the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court went unanswered.

Obvious reasons

In the public’s perception, however, there were obvious reasons for Justice Patel’s non-elevation as Chief Justice. On December 1, 2011, Justice Patel, as a judge of the Gujarat High Court, transferred the investigation of the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case from the Gujarat Police to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). Justice Patel held that the Gujarat Police could not be trusted to conduct a fair probe in the case. He found a CBI probe preferable to an investigation by the Special Investigation Team (SIT), which too held that the encounter was a fake one.

Ishrat Jahan, a 19-year-old college girl in Mumbai, was killed along with three others in a fake encounter by the Ahmedabad Crime Branch in June 2004. Justice Patel described the case as an “exceptional one which has national ramifications”. The Gujarat Police alleged that Ishrat Jahan and the other three were Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists who were on a mission to kill Narendra Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat and the current Prime Minister. In a subsequent probe, the CBI too concluded that the encounter was a fake one.

Although Justice Patel himself did not answer the question posed by reporters whether his transfer and the denial of the post of Chief Justice could be linked to his order in the Ishrat Jahan case, to many observers it is not a coincidence that the Narendra Modi government has been vindictive against those who ensured justice was done to the victims of the 2002 Gujarat carnage or the subsequent instances of abuse of power by the Gujarat Police.

Similar instances

In 2014, senior advocate Gopal Subramanium was denied a judgeship of the Supreme Court by the government even after the collegium had recommended his name. The collegium could have reiterated its recommendation, making it binding on the government. But it did not do so on the grounds that Subramanium himself did not favour it following reports that the government had reservations about the collegium’s recommendations. Subramanium, as the amicus curiae during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, had persuaded the Supreme Court to entrust the probe into the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case to the CBI.

The Modi government, apparently, “returned the favour” by denying the judgeship to Subramanium.

Last year, Justice Abhay Mahadeo Thipsay of the Bombay High Court accepted a transfer to the Allahabad High Court although he had less than one year to retire and had twice expressed his reluctance to accept it to the collegium. It was widely believed that Justice Thipsay paid the price for imposing life sentences on nine of the 21 accused in the Best Bakery riot case during the 2002 Gujarat pogrom when he decided the case as a judge of the Mumbai Sessions Court. The case was transferred out of Gujarat by the Supreme Court in 2006.

Justice Rajiv Shakdher was transferred from the Delhi High Court to the Madras High Court as a “punitive” measure for his judgment in the Priya Pillai case. He had set aside the Central government’s unjustified restrictions on her right to travel abroad in order to prevent her from airing her views to a group of British parliamentarians on the alleged violations of human rights of forest dwellers in Madhya Pradesh. Justice Shakdher had contemplated resignation before accepting the transfer. His transfer too, like Justice Patel’s transfer, elicited wide criticism, showing the collegium in a poor light. Curiously, the present collegium has reportedly recommended Justice Shakdher’s transfer back to the Delhi High Court.

Seen in this context, Justice Patel’s transfer and his subsequent resignation infuriated the community of lawyers. The Gujarat High Court Advocates Association wrote to the Registrar Generals of the Supreme Court, the Allahabad High Court and the Karnataka High Court seeking notes of recommendation (with reasons if any) with regard to Justice Patel’s transfer. The association has made public its intention to legally challenge Justice Patel’s transfer.

The Bar Council of India (BCI) and the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) have both expressed dismay over the transfer, which, they said, smacked of lack of transparency. But the SCBA office-bearers and the BCI disapprove of public criticism of the CJI and the collegium in the best interests of the institution. Both were critical of senior advocate Dushyant Dave for attributing motives to the CJI and for criticising the decision of the collegium during a discussion on a television channel. The BCI has issued a notice to Dave to explain his conduct. The executive committee of the SCBA, however, has declared its support to Dave and has sought greater transparency in the collegium’s functioning.

On October 6, the Supreme Court’s website gave details about the merits of three candidates being recommended for appointment as judges in the Kerala High Court and six in the Madras High Court.

Although the Supreme Court’s website is silent on the proposal to transfer Justice Patel as it did not materialise because of his resignation, it has had a positive impact on the collegium’s functioning.

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Oct 9,2020