Politics Now

A Reversal of Fortunes

The fact that China has been a vociferous exporter and a tame importer of global goods may not come as much of a surprise. What hits hard, however, are the numbers behind the game. That ratio, disproportionately behemoth, was pegged at 127.16 (December 2018): which is to say, Chinese exports was a mind-boggling 127 times higher than its net import! All through these years, as an almost direct consequence, China has had an current account surplus. The time for merry-making may soon be running out; as China today faces the threat of racking up a current-account deficit for the first time in decades.

Analysts at global agency Morgan Stanley predicts China may face an imminent deficit in 2019, the first time since the last such deficit arose in 1993. This metamorphosis from a state of surplus, to that of a deficit, will bear an immediate cascading effect on both the Chinese economy, as well as State-run institutions. The Chinese model under Xi Jinping has become increasingly closed-door, with several accusations of skewed policy priorities for local competitors and expropriation of foreign-based technology. This shift might represent a rare willingness to jump over onto an era of economic liberalization, a perennially sore point between the interests of the United States and its Chinese counterpart.

Looking at the roots

Historical economic data makes it clear that China has saved way more than it invested. However, the working progeny of the yesteryear generation has almost an imbued tendency to splurge more. This is made clear by exponential increase in the consumption of smartphones, cars, and other luxuries. A report published by CEIC Data highlighted how Chinese tourists were the largest spenders abroad. In 2018 alone, China ran a $240 billion deficit in its tourism industry- its highest yet. This problem is only set to aggravate, as an ageing population draws down its savings, thereby further complicating matters.

A deficit in the year ahead will be negligibly small with respect to the Chinese GDP. Moreover, China has a sizeably good buffer of $3 trillion worth of foreign exchanges that could be used to head down immediate triggers of worries. This should give China time. What remains to be seen is what China does to revive its flailing mast. In April 2019, China is set to enter the Bloomberg Barclays bond index, which would help accelerate foreign funding into Chinese bonds to the tune of approximately a hundred billion dollars, all within two years. It has also eased quotas for foreigners who buy bonds, apart from luring pension and mutual funds who would now think about increasing their exposure to China.

Yet, on the reform front, moves remain limited. Restrictions for Chinese citizens were enforced in late 2017 on monetary withdrawal from Chinese banks overseas- and was capped at $15,000. While the official statement read that it was aimed at curtailing terrorism financing, money laundering and tax evasion, the fine print is not difficult to read this time around. China clearly has a sense of the upcoming perplexity. Such hardline State control may ultimately deter external investors from pumping their money into China, as it is uncertain if money once pushed in, can be taken out with ease. A system which treats locals on a higher ground than foreigners is not only conceptually flawed, but also smacks of corruption and instability.

Economists Douglas North, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have in a paper shown that the development of an open political system, aided by strong state institutions, help foster long run growth. While the West would inevitably want China to return to normalcy and develop institutions of global credibility, any such turn under Xi’s rule was out of question. In January, China reported that its economic growth cooled down to its lowest in twenty-eight years. This development is in line with the steep fall in exports, which fell an unexpected 4.4% in December 2018, along with a contraction in manufacturing activities.

Figure 2: A Graphical Representation of North, Robinson and Acemoglu’s work
of a linear relationship between openness of institutions and long run growth.

Acute Debt Problem

On top of that, exists China’s humongous debt problem. China’s pile of $34 trillion dollar worth of public and private debt is akin to a ticking “debt bomb” to several economists. Among the forefront of such vocal critics is Arvind Subramanian, who brought out two pivotal pieces in Project Syndicate last year. Subramanian argues that China’s tactic of cooling down financial crises through increased State investment in domestic infrastructure projects only help embroils, or rather disguise, the mess that the debt represents. A near-normal economy that runs with a whopping 270% debt-to-GDP ratio is unarguably beyond the laws of economics. To put a benchmark reference, the Greek economy collapsed when debts reached 188% of the GDP. Stein’s law holds that if something cannot go on forever, it must stop. Yet, Chinese debts are on the roll. It has repeatedly tried to finance its domestic debt through external investment that reaps bountiful profits for China. The Belt and Road (BRI) initiative, that spans 68 countries and involves 40% of the world’s GDP, is one such attempt. Countries, however, are only growing aware of the increasingly compounded terms of such Chinese projects: even workers for those projects are of Chinese origin. Several countries have already cancelled Chinese projects due to high fiscal stress. The newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mathir Mohammed cancelled $22 billion worth of Chinese projects, which were passed by his predecessor Najib Razak, as such projects would be an added burden for Malaysia’s promising economic future. China’s loaning system is inherently biased, and to the extent that Harvard University’s Ricardo Hausmann recently termed it usurious.

The Road Ahead

On an overall front, the current fiscal year should be the year for undertaking structural reforms to the Chinese economy, to help it become more resilient against internal volatility and the threat possessed by an ageing workforce. This must be backed by political willpower, as such changes will help ensure benefits in the long run. The US-China trade war is only the fruit of a myopic vision on both ends: while China seems to resist liberalization on the front that it would seem pliable to western ascendancy, America’s continued persistence on the importance of a stable yuan over far greater concerns of a global slowdown as a result of the under-performance of the Chinese economy is upsetting.

It would be wise to recall Rüdiger Dornbusch’s law, which cautions that “[t]he crisis takes a much longer time coming than you think, and then it happens much faster than you would have thought.”

Populism over Prudence

The Interim Budget prima facie looks like a blunt attempt to appease important sections and classes in India that could reap rich electoral dividends: with the limelight on the farmer, the salaried taxpayers, and the demographically strong unorganised sector. Departing from the convention that interim budgets must do no macroeconomic harm, it was an instrument to drive votes for the meeting of narrow political ends. This is thus, a textbook case of populism over prudence.

The Union Budget allocation for 2019-20 is about 10% higher than that of its predecessor, with an outlay of ₹27.8 lakh crores. While most sectors witnessed a rise in allocation of funds in absolute terms, their share as a percentage of the total funds demarcated has fallen. Interest payments on debt accounted for the lion’s share in the 2020 budget: 24% (₹575,795 crores). Defence sector spending came a close second (₹284,733 cr), and was followed by subsidies (food, fuel and fertiliser subsidies), which totalled an expenditure of ₹264,336 crores (10-11% each).

Above: Comparison of Funds Alloted to Different Ministries

The budget was expected to primarily focus on a resolution to the agrarian distress, but the government went out of its way to ensure that the middle class and the informal sector workers did not harbour any feeling of being left out. Hence, the budget was mostly an appeasement budget; one laced with doles and sops- and hardly any revenue-generating schemes. Under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) scheme, farmers who have holdings less than 2 acres will be entitled to an annual sum of ₹6,000 per family. The agricultural distress is a resultant of traditionally low rates of productivity, coupled with drastic price falls and low size of farm holdings. In an op-ed, C. Rangarajan writes how the average farm size declined from 2.3 hectares in 1970-71 to 1.08 hectares in 2015-16. This is a barrier to efficient use of modern agricultural methods, including mechanisation and other novel technologies like precision farming, which can push current production capacities to a new horizon. Thus, a price support mechanism must be put in place urgently. The government’s hastily announced PM-KISAN, while harbouring good intent, has several fault lines. A permanent solution can only be implemented once long-run considerations are taken into account. Telangana’s Rythu Bandhu scheme which offers ₹10,000 per acre, per year, is more inclusive and is a better choice overall. Odisha’s newly introduced KALIA scheme is also a step in the positive direction.

The Modi government has come up with sufficient relief for the middle class, targeting especially the salaried group, and workers lodged in the informal sector. The Income Tax exemption limit has been raised to ₹500,000 from ₹250,000. This is a direct blow to the already frailty tax collections in India. Income Tax departmental data for the year 2017-18 showed that 66% of the return filers fell under the ₹5-lakh bracket. Hence, the move will wipe out almost 66% of all previously eligible taxpayers from the tax net, and is sure to dent any immediate prospects of tax-fuelled growth. The standard deduction limit has been raised from ₹40,000 to ₹50,000. The Pradhan Mantri Sharam Yogi Maandhan Scheme has been developed as a mega-pension scheme for the unorganised sector, which will pay ₹3,000/- a month to registered beneficiaries. The recent CMIE Report has highlighted how 11 million jobs were lost in 2017-2018 alone, out of which 8.8 million were women.

Union Finance Minister Piyush Goyal announced that in a bid to fund the newly introduced schemes, the government would miss its fiscal deficit target not only for the upcoming year, but also for 2020. Governmental fiscal deficit for 2018-19 and 2019-20 would be 3.4%. In fact, funding the PM-KISAN scheme alone would entail a DBT burden of ₹75,000 crore to the exchequer. The NK Singh Committee on the FRBM Act, had proposed that the fiscal deficit was to be contained within 3.0% of GDP in FY18-20, 2.8% in FY21, 2.6% in FY22, and finally 2.5% in FY23. The government has thus, in the act of fiscal profligacy, sent fiscal prudence for a toss. Furthermore, while the government is overly enthusiastic about a sharp spike in GST collections, the fact remains that receipts from the GST is ₹1 trillion less than the budgetary estimates. Fiscal marksmanship analysis must be implemented rigorously and should try to close the gap between actual and predicted values.Arvind Subramanian mentions that while new schemes are constantly introduced, old schemes that are no longer relevant are hardly taken off the funding radars. This glaring error costs the government by causing fiscal leakage. For example, there is a ninety-six year old scheme, called the ‘Livestock Health and Disease Control’ (under the Department of Animal Husbandry), and it was alloted ₹251 crores in the Union Budget 2015-16. Moreover, pile up of new, expansive schemes pushes the government into higher debt levels. Celebrated Harvard economist Kenneth Rogeff, had predicted that countries with a debt/GDP ratio greater than 90% experience negative growth rates. This was evident through breakdown of Greece’s financial environment. Greece had a staggering debt/GDP ratio of 188% when the economy collapsed. India’s debt/GDP in 2017 touched 71.18% in 2017, and came marginally down to 69.55% in 2018. Thus, consistent and serious efforts must be made to bring down the debt levels.

Global rating agency Moody’s has marked India’s interim budget as “credit-negative”, underscoring the fact that it has only give-aways and little to recover from. Business tycoon Anand Mahindra remarked that the budget was a “pump-priming” exercise for the government, as higher incomes would lead to greater consumption and drive growth. In my opinion, several schemes that have little rational base can be wiped off and their funds can be relocated to more efficient schemes. For example, farmer support which has been pegged at ₹6,000 can be increased if fertiliser subsidies are decreased, as excessive use of fertilisers and soil enhancers takes a toll on the long term farm productivity (we are over-discounting fertilisers in any case). Disregard for fiscal discipline, especially in times when the chilly winds of protectionism are blowing all over the global economy, is a dangerous trend. As Paul Krugman puts it aptly, it is prudent to maintain “profligacy in depression, and austerity in good times”. Well said!

10 ka Dum: On the Quota for the Forward Class

India’s remarkable demographic diversity has often been a subject of awe; and its track record as a pluralistic State enshrined on the focal principles of mutual harmony and respect serves as a fantastic example to the world. Quantitatively, more than two thousand ethnic groups lie within the political territory of India. Appreciable variation in social indices, such as income distribution and education levels also lends a great degree of heterogeneity amongst the population. However, over the due course of time, certain groups of the populace were found to be left out of the bandwagon of national progress– or socially backward, with causes ranging from historical subjugation to exploitation and vulnerability post-Independence. Reservations by means of providing quotas in higher educational institutions and in public jobs have been adopted to provide an equitable platform to the societal castaways. On 8th of January, 2019, the Lok Sabha passed unilaterally the bill to introduce a 10% reservation quota among the forward classes, on top of the existing fifty-percent reservation limit demarcated for the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes.

Historical Context

The idea of preferential treatment for the socially disadvantaged is very old in India. India was the pioneer of affirmative action, or ‘positive discrimination’ for the backward classes, holding the belief that bringing the handicapped masses to the forefront would require State effort via reservations. In medieval India, the caste system was conceptualized so as to segregate people on the basis of their occupation. The Brahmins were delegated the responsibility of administration and worship, the Kshatriyas that of warship, and the Vaishyas generally looked after business affairs. The sudras were the supposed ‘untouchables’. As time passed and orthodox sentiments took predominance, the walls constricted enough to make the system divide the people with narrow barriers. In 1949, Article 17 of the Constitution was thereby introduced as a measure to counter the practice of untouchability. The British Raj had also used reservation as a policy measure to counter social evils widely prevalent in the time through the Government of India Act, 1909. In 1921, the Madras Presidency introduced the Communal GO, which brought into force a reservation of 44% for non-Brahmins, while 16% was for earmarked for the Muslims, Anglo- Indians & Christians, and 8% for Scheduled Castes to combat Brahminical preponderance.

Legal Background

The 124th Constitutional Amendment bill will certainly run into legal hurdles, and more so because the Supreme Court had already capped the maximum ceiling for reservation limits at 50% vide the 1992 Indra Sawnhey judgement

From the section, On the Road Ahead

There have been several cases in the legal world wherein the idea of reservation, and associated procedures, was put to test. I will restrict our scope of discussion to four important judgements, each delivered by the Supreme Court of India, yet highly relevant in shaping the public policy as regards reservation in India. It was through the judicial route that the Constitutional void on the distinction between caste and class was evaluated closely. All of the judgements refer to Articles 14, 15 and 16 of the Constitution, which deals with the equality before law, prohibition of discriminatory practices on the basis of race, caste, religion, sex, or place of birth; and equality of opportunity in matters relating to public employment, respectively. 

  1. The very first of these was in the form of State of Madras v. Smt. Champakan Dorairajan (1951). As already discussed earlier, under the Communal GO, seats in State run Medical and Engineering colleges were reserved for the backward classes. The plaintiff pointed out that the State’s policy to refuse her admission despite the higher marks, in favour of some other person from a notified backward class, was violative of her rights under Article 15(1) and 29(2) of the Constitution. While clause 1 from Article 15 provided that a State could not discriminate between any two or more person(s) on the grounds of race, religion, caste or gender, Article 29(2) spelt out that a person could not be denied admission into any State sponsored educational institute on aforementioned grounds of race, caste, and the like. A seven-Bench jury ruled the verdict in the plaintiff’s favour, pointing out that while Article 16(4) permitted reservations for depressed communities in employment opportunities, no such Constitutional provision existed in Article 15. Pursuant to the judgement, the Parliament soon amended the Constitution with a clause 4 in Article 15, which made it clear that exceptions could be made in order to facilitate the upliftment of socially and educationally backward communities.
  2. The second case, M.R. Balaji and Ors. v. State of Mysore came up in 1963. In Karnataka, reservations were in force even before the adoption of the Constitution, which continued thereafter. The State of Mysore considered that all non-Brahmin communities were socially and educationally backward, and introduced quotas upto 75% in educational institutions for the SEBCs, SCs and STs. The SEBCs were further categorised into backward classes and more backward classes. In a particular order, reservation for 68% of the seats in the State’s technical education institutions was put into effect, which was challenged in the Court under Article 32 of the Constitution. The court unilaterally declared that for the consideration of Article 15(4), backwardness must be both social and educational. The court further held that reservation for such classes cannot continue in perpetuity, and the government should consider periodic tests to ascertain whether such reservation would be justified. It also recommended a reasonable rate of reservation (around 50%) so as to ensure the fair access for the forward castes. The court also made it clear that further clarification of the SEBCs into two categories was redundant, and had to be done away with.
  3. The Indra Sawhney v. Union of India (1992) had a considerable impact on the general idea on policymaking for reservations. The apex court proclaimed after considerable analysis that economic status could not be the sole parameter to judge the backwardness of a particular group. It also made note of the fact that there was a Constitutional vacuum on the definition of ‘backward class’ of citizens. It clarified that by backward classes, the Constitution meant the class of people who served the forward castes. The top court also recommended the setting up of a commission to examine the requests for inclusion of communities into the OBC lists and also for timely exclusion of any pseudo OBC communities that might have crept into the list. The Mandal Commission undertook the task to define other backward classes by objectively assessing each new inclusion under social, educational and economic parameters. Under the new definition, the OBCs included people for whom either per-capita income was 25% less than the State average (economic), or the percentage of those who have never attended, or dropped out, is twenty-five percent above State average (educational), and those whose main source of livelihood is manual labour, and whose females engaged in active work is 25% more than the corresponding State figures (social).
  4. Ashok Kumar Thakur v/s Union of India (2008) was a unique legal battle. It was a PIL that challenged the Constitution (Ninety-third Amendment) Act, which legitimized 27% reservation for OBCs- thereby reducing the seats for a general candidate to 50% only. The Court found that the Ninety-third amendment Act did not violate the “basic structure” of the Constitution in cases relating to State run institutions. The Court did not allow the “creamy layer” concept to be applied to the SCs and STs, while it was applicable to the OBCs. This was perhaps, with all due respect, an anomaly; a case wherein reservation could continue unchecked despite social advancement of the already-benefited.

The Road Ahead

The Government’s bid to introduce a 10% quota cut for the poor amongst forward classes is a fallacious idea to start with. Reservations are meant for the socially downtrodden and historically neglected, and should never be based on the economic status. Demarcating a portion of the quota-pie for the poor is nothing but an anathema to social justice. The move on part of the Government to introduce the upper cast quota bill has the potential to unearth new faultlines; and can single-handedly re-define the very purpose for which the policy instrument of reservations are used.

The 124th Constitutional Amendment bill will certainly run into legal hurdles, and more so because the Supreme Court had already capped the maximum ceiling for reservation limits at 50% vide the 1992 Indra Sawnhey judgement (see point 3, legal background). What is even more worrying is, despite widespread acceptance of the fact that such an introduction of quota goes against the very spirit of social justice, not a single national party has opposed the passage of the bill- a no-brainer for populistic legislature. In a nation where 11 million people lost their jobs in 2018 (CMIE) and unemployment figures are at a twenty-seven month high, squeezing existing, stagnant jobs through a ten percent quota cut makes no sense. Poverty eradication must be achieved through economic reforms, in which case the engine of national growth pulls out the impoverished from their state of misery. Bypassing the question of introducing much needed reforms through the use of the reservation short-cut may seem like a clever ploy for the time being; but has fundamental ramifications in the long run.

The present dispensation has a smorgasbord of choices if it genuinely intends to go hard on alleviating poverty. It could, for one, take the route of subsidy through low educational loan rates. It should also revert its focus back on generating jobs and wealth creation so as to strike at the heart of the disease of unemployment. In theory, capital-starved states can be witnesses to an exponential influx of capital provided local policies are supportive and political alignment is favourable. However, last-mile bureaucratic red-tape and grassroot level hindrances deter high investments. The Government must, therefore, redress these concerns before setting out on a mission to crack down on poverty, Rambo-style.

Thoughts on the RBI’s Independence

The country’s apex bank, the Reserve Bank of India, is back in the news again, and with concerns that have been aired earlier as well: on the autonomy and independence of the central bank. However, what makes it different this time around is the severity of the friction that currently dominates the atmosphere between the RBI and the government. In a recent lecture, the deputy governor of the RBI, Viral Acharya lashed out at the government for encroaching on the independence of the RBI and warned of disastrous repercussions if the role of the RBI was allowed to be undermined on purpose.

The disparaging remark triggered an avalanche of questions from commentators of diverse backgrounds. How much of autonomy should be granted to the Reserve Bank? Can the apex bank have a free run? More importantly, how much should the government ideally intervene in the day-to-day functioning of the RBI? The Reserve Bank as we know it today, was first institutionalised by the RBI Act (1934) under the British Raj. Originally, the role of the RBI was “to regulate the issue of Bank notes and the keeping of reserves with a view to securing monetary stability in India and generally to operate the currency any credit system of the country to its advantage.” In a world today which is highly interlinked and of which India aims to be an integral player, sour relations between the prime banking institution and the government can prove to be a major hurdle to a growing economy.

Exploring the RBI’s Claims

In this power tussle, both parties involved demand a fair share of their rights. The RBI has put up certain preconditions that it believes are essential for the healthy run of the Indian economy.

  • For one, it wants to exercise greater control over the Public Sector Banks. A volley of accusations were fired at the RBI after the humongous 13,000 crore fraud at Punjab National Bank. Urjit Patel, the present governor of the RBI, promptly responded by making it crystal clear that the RBI had far lesser control over the Public Sector Banks than it enjoyed over the private lending institutions. A quick fact-finding session revealed that RBI’s legal powers to supervise and regulate PSBs are very limited. It does not hold the authority to remove the PSB directors or the management, who are appointed by the government of India, and neither can it force a merger or trigger the liquidation of an ailing public bank. Its position in regard to any public bank is limited to that of a mere watchdog. Thus, in effect, the governor rightly rolled the ball back into the hands of the government by calling for effective legal reform that would grant the RBI supervisory powers over the Public Sector Banks, permitting it to do the needful at the right moment of time.
  • Certain opinions resonate that the Public Sector Banks could be recapitalized entirely if only the RBI paid a larger dividend to the government. The Reserve Bank feels that the Government should not mandate the quantum of dividends to be paid to it. The RBI generates surplus profits in a number of ways. It does so by issuing deposits to commercial banks, which are its liabilities, and on which it pays no interest whatsoever. It also buys financial assets from the market, typically domestic and foreign governmental bonds, which pay handsome interests. So, a large part of the income is generated simply because the RBI has not the need to pay the interest on its liabilities. This surplus profit is more than all of the public sector banks put together. This belongs entirely to the citizens. Thus, after setting aside what is needed to be retained to retain the creditworthiness of the RBI, the Board pays out the remaining surplus to the government. In 2016, the amount was 65,876 crores, in 2017 it lowered to 30,659 crores, and in the current financial year it was pegged at 50,000 crores.On delving into former governor Rajan’s thoughts on the question of payable dividends, he is of the opinion that a special dividend would not help the government with its budgetary constraints. In reality, much of the surplus that the RBI generates comes from interest on government assets, or monetary gains it makes off other market participants. When this money is paid back to the government, the RBI in essence puts it back into the system- thus entailing no additional reserve creation.
  • Third, the RBI is unsatisfied with recent government proposals to set up an independent payments regulator outside the purview of the RBI. An inter-ministerial panel established to finalise the Payment and Settlement Systems Act, 2007, had recommended that the payments regulator should be an independent regulator with the chairperson appointed by the government in consultation with the RBI. In a dissent note submitted by the RBI, the RBI noted that there was no need for such an independent regulator. It cited the report by the Ratan Watal committee on digital payments, which recommended setting up of the Payments Regulatory Board (PRB) within the overall structure of the RBI.

Why is the Government miffed?

The government, however, has other reasons to wage a high-pitched war against the RBI. It seems to have developed a prima-facie dislike for the RBI, which is understandable: the RBI has railed against most of the government plans which disregarded economic sense. It complained that the RBI had kept it in the dark as far as the reforms in the approach to NPA handling was concerned. The Centre views the Prompt Corrective Action (PCA) framework by the RBI, which restricts weak banks from lending, as a key factor behind the ongoing liquidity crisis. The Reserve Bank’s circular on February 12, 2018 highlighted the importance of assets recognition as a step to mop up public banks from the bad loan mess. It scrapped all previously existing mechanisms and declared that even if the default was for a day, the defaulter must be dragged to an insolvency court and the asset must be declared as an NPA- thus ending the practice of forbearance. All these measures were taken in the public interest and in the hope for long-run gains. While the government is looking at growth, the RBI aims for stability. As was already discussed, the government also wanted the RBI to pay it higher dividends to gap its fiscal deficit, but RBI had expectedly negated the request. The government was also considerably miffed when the Reserve Bank declined the request to relax norms for lending to micro and small enterprises. This was subsequently a topic of discussion when Rajan in a note to the Parliamentary Estimates Committee pointed out that schemes like MUDRA and Kisan Credit Cards, despite being popular, could serve as potential sources of credit risks.

A supreme example of the consequence of subverting the RBI’s advice was the demonetisation debacle. On November 8th, 2016, the government announced out of the blue the scrapping of high-value currency notes in use; effectively wiping out currency worth 15.41 lakh crore from circulation. The government ignored several appeals from the-then governor of the RBI, Raghuram Rajan, to not tread on this experimental path for an economy so large in scale. This gave rise to a massive cash crunch which subsequently knocked out many small to medium scale industries which were primarily dependent on cash as a form of business. More so, this was a slap in the face for the government, too- which had claimed that the demonetisation exercise was carried out with an intent to dissolve the black money in existence, worth around 3 lakh crores. The RBI, after undertaking the tedious process to oversee the counting of uncountable number of returned notes, reported that 99.3% of the demonetised notes had found its way into the bank’s vaults, despite stringent restrictions in play. Furthermore, the government’s back-up claim of demonetisation having boosted the digital economy could not be verified in the absence of any reliable sources of data. While the benefits of demonetisation may require some pondering, its adverse impacts are clear: it hurt the economy growth rate by a staggering 1.5%.

The Way Forward

Unlike armchair politicians and commentators, the RBI cannot afford the luxury of economic inconsistency. It is often the scapegoat for under-performance, and is blamed rather unjustly for every other economic fluctuation that arises. In this environment, where the central bank has to occasionally stand firm against the highest echelons of central and state governments, its decisions to not waver from the targets of economic stability and prudence must be commended. At the same time, while the ability of the RBI to say ‘no’ in the face of adversities must be protected, it also cannot be free of all constraints and should work under a framework set by the government. In this context, certain suggestions come to my mind.

First, the responsibilities of the RBI must be clearly defined. When the responsibilities of the RBI are fuzzy, its actions can be subject to continuous questioning. Instead, if the competent authorities outline a framework within which the RBI can operate, it can steer its course consistent with those responsibilities and can be held accountable for outcomes in those fields. Inflation targets set by the government serve as a good example. Second, the freedom of the RBI to take key operational decisions from time to time is important. The RBI is tasked with the job of maintaining macroeconomic stability, and this requires the RBI to often turn down attractive proposals for the short run. With passing days, government entities are increasingly seeking oversight over various sectors of the RBI’s work. Such oversight by non-technical personnel only leads to delay in the decision making process and is not desirable. Third, and perhaps the most important of them all, the RBI must continue to fill its vacancies through clearances approved by the RBI Board and not put in place government officials who may have very little knowledge of the technicalities involved. Formulation of the Monetary Policy of India is a brilliant example of the benefits that accrue if an independent entity is allowed to deliberate on the most crucial economic policy in India.  RBI, through an effective monetary policy has been able to meet the indicator targets that it had set for itself- and it is running the show by itself, through independent analysis.

Democracies thrive on the independence of regulators, but today India finds itself ruing its absence. This contrariety is at the heart of the fault line between the two parallel institutions. Truly, institutional independence lies at the heart of any liberal democracy. If we cannot protect the RBI’s independence, and other institutions of similar importance that hold the national rudders, we cannot sustain national growth for long. One can only hope for sense to prevail, and an end to the the rather unsavoury tensions that exist at present.

Of Dissent and Dissenters

Representational image of the Supreme Court.

Dissent, in any form, is a wonderful way to practise democracy. A differing view in popular context is often assumed to be fallacious, and this has been the case over centuries. However, dissent has perhaps never assumed a more important role than now; it is the backbone of any democratic revolution. Dissent in the legal structure over specific judgements are particularly noteworthy, for it is them that keeps open the scope for future review and undoing of any potential injustice that might have been served earlier. India is one such fantastic example, as the apex court here plays a crucial part determining the validity of a wide variety of questions and issues. The success of a pluralist nation lies in its ability to celebrate difference- and thus the top court being truly reflective of India’s gigantic diversity, would naturally foster difference of opinion in most cases of judicial importance.

In the last week of September, which incidentally coincided with the remnant days of former Chief Justice Dipak Misra’s tenure, the Supreme Court was noticeably pro-active, delivering a voluminous amount of judgement over matters of national momentousness. We will restrict ourselves to three such monumental verdicts, each of which has a strikingly common feature- that of a dissenting judge. What is heartwarming in such majority verdicts is that instead of railing on the practice of majoritarianism stifling minority viewpoints, the Supreme Court has shown that divergent views can, and should be, appreciated. Such dissent often helps better, and in the process enrich, public discourse.

Examining the Cases

The verdict on the constitutional validity of Aadhaar would be a fine specimen of legal difference of opinion in the top court. Aadhaar, which was the brainchild of the erstwhile UPA regime, and crafted under Nandan Nilekani, was pushed forward as an Unique Identification Scheme for the teeming population of India. In subsequent years, what was touted as an identification scheme to expedite the delivery of welfare services to the needy soon became an all-pervasive tool that effectively armed the government with the sensitive biometric data of all Indians. The present NDA government had made Aadhaar mandatory in every possible sector, from banking to subsidy collections, from entrance registrations to issuance of certificates, the list went beyond the obscure. The concern was not only about the security of the biometric data in the hands of the government- but manifested itself into a case of breach of personal privacy by the State, which by all means is a serious accusation. Thus, the Supreme Court had to determine the Constitutional validity of the scheme.

On September 26, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of Aadhaar, but it came with considerable riders- which included the court declaring the provision of mandatorily linking Aadhaar with organisations (whether public or private) as unconstitutional, and thus void. This view was held by CJI Misra, who presided over the case, and three other judges of the Bench. However, it was Justice DY Chandrachud who strongly differed from the view held by the rest. He was of the belief that the Aadhaar project suffered from “constitutional infirmities and violations of fundamental rights”, that “constitutional guarantees could not be subject to vicissitudes of technology”, and noted that the Aadhaar Act was unquestionably unconstitutional as it failed to meet the basic criteria to have been certified as a Money Bill. In what could be regarded as a brilliant reflection, he observed that the “dignity and rights of individuals cannot be made to depend on algorithms or probabilities”. Chandrachud, thus, has through his dissent and obiter dicta kept alive a scope for an increased focus on the issue of State Surveillance in India- which the majority verdict does not explicitly mention.

The following day, on the 27th of September, the Supreme Court decided in a 2:1 judgement against referring to a larger bench a plea to review its 1994 ruling on the Ayodhya dispute, in which it had ruled that the mosque was not essential to the practice of Islam, and that namaz could be offered anywhere by the Muslims, even in the open. While Justice Misra and Justice Bhusan rejected the plea for a review by a larger Bench, the third judge, Justice S. Abdul Nazeer, gave a contrary judgement. He opined that it was not possible for the Court to rule on such a subject matter unless there was a “detailed examination of the beliefs, tenets and practices” of the faith in question. He raised the crucial question whether Article 25, which dealt with the right to free practise of religion, only protected the beliefs and practices of particular significance from a faith or all practices that were deemed essential by the concerned faith. To further acknowledge his stand, he cited that the Supreme Court had referred to a larger bench a range of similar issues- such as the permission to hold the Ram Leela and Puja in public parks, or the issue of polygamy which was inherent to Islam.

Furthermore, on September 28, the Apex Court declared what could possibly be one of the most controversial verdicts till date- permitting women in their menstrual phase to enter the Sabarimala temple. The petitioners claimed that Lord Ayappa was a celibate and hence menstruating women could not be granted access inside the temple premises. However, the judges believed that constitutional equality was of paramount importance and that the practice of barring women between the ages of ten to fifty was nothing but a form of untouchability, which is not Constitutionally permissible. In this case too, it was a 4:1 verdict. Ironically, the lone dissenting judge was a woman- Justice Indu Malhotra- but she had solid reasoning behind her dissent. While Justices Misra, Nariman, Chandrachud and Khanwilkar refused to buy into the argument that the ban on menstruating women was an essential part of the faith, Justice Malhotra argued that what constituted an essential religious belief must be left on the religious community to decide. She emphatically noted that ideas and notions of rationality should not be invoked into matters of religion by the courts, as religion cannot be substantiated by rational defence alone. As history records, more often than not, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to take decision as far as religious matters are concerned. She concluded that unless a religious practice was “pernicious, oppressive, or a social evil, like Sati”, there would be no need for the Court to intervene.

The Way Forward

In all the above cases, the dissenting ideas presented were also equally pivotal for further deliberation. The Aadhar case raised the question of validity of the law itself (which was unduly passed as a Money Bill), the Ayodhya verdict intitated a new debate on the meaning of Article 25 as provided for by the Constitution, and the Sabarimala verdict opened a scope for people to question whether the Supreme Court should exercise self-restrain in verdicts requiring rationalisation of religion. Unless such contradictory opinions are thrust forward in the Court of Law, the vibrancy of a democracy loses its charm. The trend of appreciating dissent in the Supreme Court is indeed commendable. If it were looked down upon, today India might not have transgressed into a nation with such kind of enviable constitutional melange. More importantly, dissent goes on to show that the judiciary is not a singular entity working as one- a jury has minds of unquestionable legal acumen each working independently on a case. Thus, it would reduce the chance for any kind of inadvertent bias or possible error to creep into the judgement. In fact, even the top court has regarded dissent as the “safety valve” of democracy- perhaps only a subtle recognition of the indispensable nature that dissent plays.

As long as we have differing ideas, we have dissent, and as long as we can constructively debate on ideas while also taking into consideration the dissenting propositions, we evolve as a nation.



A Step Towards Equality: On the Decriminalization of Section 377 IPC

The rights of the LGBTQ+ group is an issue of contention in most parts of the world today. India, being a socially sensitive and a culturally diverse land consisting of different creed of people, has not been that open as far as recognising the LGBT rights are concerned. An archaic law from the colonial times was scrapped only recently, when in Navjot Singh V/S Union of India the Apex Court decided that Section 377 held no constitutional validity and consequentially decriminalised consensual homosexuality, triggering almost immediate Pride Marches across the nation and setting off a mood that the judicial neglect in Suresh Kumar Koushal v/s NAZ Foundation had been corrected at last. In this regard, a detailed study on the facts and obiter dicta for both the cases Koushal v/s NAZ, 2013 and Navjot Singh Johar v/s Union of India 2018 would prove insightful without doubt.

Need for Justice: Why the re-decriminalisation?

The basis for the 2013 judgement by the Supreme Court, which drew much flak from all quarters, was the Delhi High Court’s order in 2009 pertaining to the decriminalisation of homosexuality. In Naz Foundation v/s Govt of NCT, Delhi, the Delhi High Court had taken the view that Article 15 of the Constitution prohibits discrimination on several enumerated grounds including sex. Discrimination, as per the High Court’s observations, were grounded in stereotypical judgements and generalisation about the conduct of either sex. The Delhi High Court judgement was challenged in the Suresh Koushal case, wherein the top court opined that acts which fell within the ambit of Section 377 IPC could only be determined with reference to the act itself and to circumstances in which it is executed. The Court believed that Section 377 IPC would apply irrespective of age and consent, for section 377 does not criminalize a particular set of people with a definite orientation, but only identifies certain acts which when committed naturally results in an offense under the law. The Court further observed that those who indulge in carnal intercourse in ordinary course and those who indulge in carnal intercourse against the order of nature constituted different classes of people, and that people in the latter category cannot claim that Section 377 suffered from the follies of arbitrariness. In what could be considered the final nail on the coffin moment for the LGBT movement in 2013, while reading down the 377 IPC, the Court mooted that it could not be overlooked that only a miniscule fraction of the country’s populace constituted the LGBT and the fact that in the last 150 years, less than 200 people had been prosecuted- hence rallying against the minority itself, the safeguard of whose rights formed the pillars of a democracy. While passing the order, it remarked that in its (Delhi High Court’s) anxiety to protect “so-called” rights of LGBT persons and to declare that Section 377 violates the right to privacy, autonomy and dignity, the High Court had extensively relied upon judgements of other jurisdictions- which as expected did not cut much ice with legal luminaries and the champions of the LGBT rights.

The 2018 verdict pronounced by the Supreme Court in the Navjot Singh Johar v/s Union of India is a much welcome relief. There were quite a number of interesting observations made by the Bench during deliberation and debate over the case. The Court noted that in the Suresh Koushal case, it had earlier erroneously upheld the constitutional validity of Section 377, stating that the LGBT population constituted only a miniscule fraction of the total population and that the fact that the Section was prone to being misused was not a ground to scrap it. The Bench felt that this was constitutionally impermissible, as the rights of even one individual is sacred and it was the duty of the Court to protect it. It also clearly brought out the fact that the Constitution was a “living, organic document” that was capable of evolving with the newfangled demands of the society. The role of the Courts, according to the bench, grows more important when the rights of a special class or minority group has been violated since the dawn of time. Therefore, it felt that it was their duty to robe the judiciary with the “armoury of progressive and pragmatic interpretation” to combat the evils of the society. Furthermore, it emphasized that transformative constitutionalism not only included within its purview the rights and the dignity of the people, but also to develop a supportive atmosphere wherein every person is bestowed with the opportunity to grow socially, economically and politically. Persons belonging to the LGBT segment of the society were denied such opportunities and oppressed at all possible junctions, resulting in a scenario of distasteful discrimination that struck at the very heart of a democratic society. Subsequently, it remarked that constitutional morality overrules social morality; and that nothing but constitutional morality can be allowed to permeate in the Rule of Law. The KS Puttaswamy v/s Union of India case elevated privacy to the stand of a fundamental right. The reasoning in Koushal case, wherein homosexuality was criminalised again as because the LGBT population was a minority, was found out of tune with constitutional mandates. The Court opined that the said reasoning was fallacious, as the makers of the Constitution could have never implied that the fundamental rights would only be extended to the majority, and not the minority.

The Way Forward

The takeaway is clear: The Supreme Court has now once again reaffirmed the fact that a citizen’s rights are inalienable, whosoever it be. To term the decision historic would be in more ways than one, an understatement. By one single masterstroke, the verdict restores the equality before the law of all sexual orientations and identities, which cover a diverse set of traits and people. More importantly, the decision brings to the forefront the apex court’s willingness to make the Constitution truly transformative- adapting and evolving with the ever shifting dunes of time. While India does have one of the largest constitutions of the world, legal perfection would arise only when the Constitution becomes flexible enough to leave behind social prejudices and civic ills of the past. Gender equality in India has always attracted the attention of the nation as a whole- and there, at last, seems to be hope that the most humiliated, damned and condemned would rise again to the pedestals of social success and acceptance.

In retrospect, the decriminalisation of section 377 IPC is indeed an appreciable verdict and a positive step. Now that the impetus has been provided, it is time that the subtler details are looked on carefully: the need to promote inclusivity in society. Those who have been ostracized and deprived of their legal, personal and political rights for long must be welcomed back into the society. However, this seems to be a difficult challenge. It is very easy to be an armchair commentator and paint flowery pictures of the reality that seems apparent. Social stigma is a dreaded disease in India; to eradicate it would require awareness drives from the grassroot levels. The 2014 NALSA judgement declared the transgenders as the third gender, and ruled that all private and public sector organisations must ensure workplace equality. MNCs have led the charge, which is a wonderful thing to observe. Bringing in sectorial reservation for the transgenders would ensure their livelihood and bring in economic security for their families, hence implementing the policy directives of the Constitution along with promoting the ultimate target of gender equality. This judgement is probably a move towards the New India we all want to see- a India apolitically united in its stand to secure the rights of the unrecognised, a India that celebrates, as it always had in the past its diversity; and a India that cherishes and celebrates variants from the perceived order of nature and accepts them as our own.

On the NRC, and beyond

Representational image: People at an NRC enrollment center.

The ongoing hullabaloo over the Government of India’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam is very much understandable. The final NRC draft, published very recently on 30th July, 2018,  left out a staggering 40,07,707 people from a pool of thirty two million plus claimants to the prized status of Indian citizenship. To completely comprehend the behemoth scale of this one of a kind exercise undertaken by the government, it is imperative to know why and how the NRC is being implemented with such vigour today.

Assam, one of the leading states from the seven sisters of the North East, has had an almost perennial problem of illegal immigration. Ever since colonial times, administrators from the British Raj maintained a lax perspective towards unrecorded influx of people. People from Bengal travelled all the way to Assam in search of fertile lands. This influx gathered momentum after the treaty of Yandabo was enforced by the colonialists. Post partition, this problem was magnified on panoramic proportions. Official estimates from 1948  pegged the number of illegal immigrants at around 150,000 people, although unofficial estimates claim as high as 500,000. The government of India, under pressure, decided to enact Immigrants (Expulsion from Assam) Act, 1950. Henceforth, the NRC was conceptualized and implemented for the very first time in 1951- coupled together with the official census for the year.

However, there existed several challenges in the implementation of the NRC. Bureaucratic red tape, along with political factors at play delayed the act of detection and expulsion of these illegal residents- until the Students Agitation of 1979 forced the sleeping  government to wake up and take notice, finally culminating in the signing of the Assam Accord in 1985 by the-then Prime Minister, Shri. Rajiv Gandhi. It formulated a three point Standard Operating Procedure to drive out these illegal entrants. As expected, however, the plan remained caged to the papers and never saw the light of the day in its totality.

After a span of several  decades, the issue of preparation of an exhaustive NRC was reinvigorated in 2014, when the apex court directed the Union Government and the Govt. of Assam to immediately formulate such a list in accordance with the Citizenship Act of 1955 and the Citizenship Rules, 2003.  This gargantuan task was  undertaken with full gusto by a 55,000 strong workforce. Now that their results are out in the open, it is probably worth introspecting if indeed the NRC  is a practicable idea, and if so, the reasons behind it.

Reading the fine print

As had been discussed earlier, the final draft list of the NRC left out a sizeable chunk of the population, creating an  uncomfortable ambience of anxiety and worry. The process was conducted in extreme haste, owing to the  tight deadlines by the Supreme Court bench. While the popular reception in Assam has been very positive, its implementation has clearly not been  celebrated. The BJP came to  power in the State with the focal agenda of driving out the Bangladeshi  immigrants- and so far, they seem successful.

The National Register of Citizens brings with it obvious benefits. It reduces the strain on the  economy by a great extent, ensuring only natural citizens of India are entitled to the privileges of a permanent  national identity and economic independence. Secondly, it would help prevent a wide-scale demographic and cultural transcend– retaining the native traditions and lifestyle as they are supposed to be. Third, and most importantly perhaps for the political parties, it would impede any attempt to undermine the political map of the region– thus ensuring a more open and fair legislature in the true sense of the term. Taking into consideration all of the above factors, there have been several proposals, especially by  other North Eastern bodies, to have NRC registers in their respective states. The big question is, will it be worth the hassle?

The  implementation of the NRC  in Assam offers several takeaways. Even  after two revisions to the draft list, there have been  notable omissions- including those of a serving and former legislator. This only  goes on to highlight the inherent flaws of the NRC, and the scale of subjective bias in the entire process. More importantly, it (the  NRC) is a very potent tool to foment communal trouble.  The State government has boasted in open light that the NRC once implemented, would help segregate and ostracize the illegal Mohammedan populace from their rightful Hindu counterparts. This is a near-perfect alibi for playing the religious card- and it has the potential to wreak much havoc if toyed around with. The change of objective from creating a State of legal residents from a mix has now lamentably degraded itself into a division between the Hindu and the Muslim community- transpiring the clear idea of divisiveness between the lines of a wide-scale implementation. India suffers from a problem of loopholes everywhere, and any proposal that apparently seems infallible and outrageously correct would always have a grey side to it. In addition, the NRC exercise is never a cheap option to digest- the entire implementation in Assam costed the government an approximate of a twelve hundred crores- a significant financial burden. It is thereby probably safe to conclude that extending the idea of NRC to other states would only be an assignment in vain, and undoubtedly open the much loathed metaphorical can of worms.

The Last Say

At  present, the State of Assam owes a patient hearing to the plight of the four million people excluded from the drafts of the NRC. People who have lived here for a long time, or those who know no home, must not be left stranded in any eventuality. How India addresses the fate of those left out, will ascertain whether its democracy can lay claim to being humane or not. My opinion, as far as the proposals to  extend the NRC to other states is concerned, is to adopt a policy of wait and watch. If the Assam model indeed works out, it would probably be  worth it to replicate, and if it fails, it would be wise to abstain and abort from any more hurried execution of such expansive citizenship enrollment schemes.

Reflections on the Rohingya Crisis

A boat with Rohingya migrants.
A boat with Rohingya migrants.

When we were born, we were automatically granted Indian citizenship by the principle of jus sanguinis, as is derived from Act 57 of the Constitution of India. The issue of citizenship is so quotidian to us that we hardly think of it. Being an Indian citizen entitles us to a lot of privileges and rights, apart from State duties (that we fail to observe, mostly). But for the time being, let us keep that out of our scope here. Imagine being denied citizenship status by the State where you breathed your first, imagine being shunned by local ethnic communities and sects, imagine being rejected by neighbouring South Asian nations, imagine being homeless in the post-modern twenty-first-century world: and you call yourself a Rohingya.

The Rohingyas are essentially people of Indo-Aryan descent who are denied recognition under the Myanmar Nationality Law. Mostly concentrated in the North Western Province of Rakhine, the Rohingya population has always faced systematic discrimination at the hands of the government and the Burmese people at large, over the decades. However, to fully comprehend the real nature behind their statelessness, a look at the history pages is indispensable.

British Colonialism and Post-Independence Politics

The British began their conquest in Burma as early as 1824, starting with a series of conflicts and wars against the established. As was the practice in India, Colonial interests encouraged migrant labour in order to increase rice cultivation and profits. As part of requirements and policies, many Rohingya entered Burma during this phase of the seventeenth century. Between 1871 and 1911, the Muslim population tripled, as per available statistics from the Census Records. The British also promised the Rohingya separate land – a “Muslim National Area” – in exchange for support. During the Second World War, the Rohingyas supported the British, while the nationalists sided with the Japanese intruders. Customary to tradition, the Rohingyas were rewarded well with prestigious governmental posts. However, the promise of a free state was denied to them.

Right after independence in 1948, the Rohingya population started clamouring for the autonomous province they were promised, but officials rarely showed interest. Branding them foreigners, they were denied citizenship- and thus started the decades-long denial and oppression of the Rohingyas in present-day Myanmar. Other groups and nationalists had only hatred and contempt for the Rohingyas as the latter had enjoyed the patronage of the outgoing colonialists. Such built-up anger only contributed to growing fiery sentiments that were evidently anti-Rohingya. In 1950, some Rohingyas staged a protest against the government, demanding rights of citizenship and recognition, apart from their promised land- the Muslim National Area. The Army took over and in essence crushed all opposition from the Rohingyas- thus, silencing them for the upcoming decades. In 1977, when the Army launched a drive to register citizens, the Rohingyas were deemed as illegal immigrants.

Present Day Crisis and Mass Exodus

The first series of violence against Rohingyas were noted in early 2012. The immediate trigger was the gang rape and killing of a Burmese woman by some Rohingyas, as well as killing of ten Burmese women by the Rakhines. Since then, riots and bloodbath have become common sights, the ground zero being volatile for most of the time. Countless number of pictures have shown how Rohingya villages were burnt and their property being destroyed. At present count, more than 500,000 Rohingyas have fled Myanmarese territory into safe lands- primarily Bangladesh, which has taken in approximately 480,000 refugees until August 2017. This figure shows only the refugee input in the latest series of clashes. Coupled with earlier numbers, Bangladesh is brimming with Rohingya population, struggling to balance its economy and handicapped by humanitarian concerns- it harbours 700,000 plus refugees by a rough estimate.

A Rohingya makeshift camp in Bangladesh.
A Rohingya makeshift camp in Bangladesh. (Credits: The Guardian)

When the present crisis exploded beyond proportions, all major news outlets carried photos reminiscent of the Syrian migrant crisis that plagued the world last year. It is probably imbued in the governmental system to not take notice of and/or apprehend crises in the foreseeable future. It was clear that the Myanmarese Army had intentions poles apart from what the civilised world would expect, yet no one bothered to engage diplomatic measures to take stock of the growing tensions. When the riots finally began, so did the exodus, and it remains a terrible sight till day- people of all ages cramped in a boat, huddling for an uncertain future amidst the roaring waves of fate. For the Rohingyas, the blue sky isn’t blue anymore- it must have assumed a greyish character beyond compare.

In Bangladesh, Rohingya refugees opened up to International Human Rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the army had beheaded men, raped their women, carried out armed attacks and facilitated a state of ‘controllable chaos’- if I can put it that way. When the United Nations defined the Rohingyas as the most persecuted ethnic group in the world, they were right- being butchered in their own soil and having an identity crisis in the foreign lands. In May 2017, the Myanmar Army rejected and vehemently denied allegations of human rights abuses in the Rakhine state during a crackdown on Rohingya Muslims. On paper, the crackdown was initiated so as to ensure that Rohingya insurgents who attacked border guard posts were flushed. In practice, and this is my firm conviction, the Army wanted to cleanse the region of the taint of a single Rohingya Muslim.

How India Gets Involved

As already discussed, Bangladesh is beyond the point of recovery: the refugee influx being so heavy that it is an actual threat to the Bangladeshi economy. As such, it is inevitable that the Government of Bangladesh, under Sheikh Hasina, will take steps to send back a significant chunk of refugees. Such a drastic step will meet with ramifications that can, and will, affect the Indian Union. Pushing refugees out of Bangladesh compulsively would only result in the refugees trying to enter India. It is a known fact that at several points, due to geographical and contour inaccessibility, the borders remain open and porous. At present count, India is already hosting forty thousand (40,000) Rohingya refugees. The Central Government has taken a stand to figuratively deny each of the registered Rohingya refugees dwelling in India any further leniency. In an affidavit submitted before the apex court, the Government said that it had sufficient inputs from Intelligence Agencies to ascertain that there were security threats among the Rohingya population in India. Many of such threats were spread across metropolitans.

As a regional power, it is only fair to expect New Delhi to shoulder its quota of responsibility, which it has done in a lot many ways. It has agreed to provide sufficient remuneration and aid to Bangladesh which would then forward it on to the refugee camps. Moreover, it has also upped the ante against Myanmar on diplomatic levels to immediately stop further persecution (although it has had little effect). However, to say that hosting refugees would be the ultimate test of governmental morality is a myth in itself and to be crude, utter rubbish.

On further research, Politics Now has found concrete evidence that the premier Pakistani Intelligence agency, the ISI- is involved in training and recruiting young Rohingyas and subsequently radicalising them with anti-India propaganda apart from the jihadi doctrines. In 2012, two terrorists (Noor-ul-Amin and Ali Ahmed aka Abu Jibral) were arrested in Bangladesh, who confirmed ISI’s support in training and financial assistance to Rohingyas. Furthermore, Indian and Bangladeshi intelligence intercepted three long duration calls between Hafiz Tohar, leader of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the Inter-Services Agency (ISI)- before ARSA attacked the Myanmar army posts at the border. Currently, twenty percent of the Rohingya population is concentrated in Jammu. Any further shift could escalate dramatic tensions and give rise to sectarian confrontations in the already volatile state. As such, it is understandable that the government wants to take a no-risk policy: a direct deportation would end any chance of a further headache in the future.

The Way Forward

The Rohingya crisis is a perfect example of an ethnic cleansing, a humanitarian crisis that has spiralled beyond all presumptions and has evolved into a mess that cannot be downplayed at any platform. Keeping terse South Asian geopolitics in mind is essential in order to carve out a possible solution, but then again this cannot be implemented without wholehearted acceptance of the masses.

  • (a)  Protecting and Promoting Freedom of Religion: State restrictions on practising religion can turn to violent extremism after a point. An initiative to promote freedom of religion and free practice of it, therefore, can lead to an equitable situation which has the potential to restore normalcy. This should be a policy priority as the status quo otherwise threatens global security. All the more, enhanced religious freedom would also help to contain or minimize the spread of violent extremism, and in some cases, radical ideology. The President, including high dignitaries like the State Councillor, should take the lead in promoting the concept of religious tolerance and non-discrimination of the Rohingya sect.
  • (b) Granting citizenship status to the Rohingyas: A permanent solution to the Rohingya crisis would be to grant citizenship rights to Rohingyas. Decades of injustice can hence be reversed with a single master move. While promotion of free practice of religion would be a most welcome initiative, it is temporal in nature. The Rohingyas should be integrated into the society with full and equal access to basic, fundamental rights that include education, safety, property, and employment, among others.

Thus, if Myanmar can adopt such progressive moves at the earliest, it would only help facilitate a bright future for itself. The Government, along with the Army control, must understand that facilitating a smooth transition to democracy instead of a roller-coaster ride to a state of partial democracy is of utmost importance. Transition to democracy must be smooth,  or otherwise armed transitions can destabilize the entire region. And as Desmond Tutu, the famous anti-Apartheid activist recently observed in the context of Myanmar,

“You don’t have to contend with sanctions, you don’t have to spend resources keeping people under lock and key, you can participate in international business and sport, you can attract tourists. And the most important thing … is that this is a moral universe. Right and wrong matter.”

Thorn in the Rose: Tackling the Kashmiri Crisis

A young student involves in stone-pelting activities (REUTERS File photo)

Kashmir has for long been the prickly point of Indo-Pakistani relations. Both parties want the heavenly paradise of Kashmir; this has been the contentious issue for decades. Situations have only volleyed towards the worse- tumultuous relations and widening cracks being projected on the upfront by separatist activities. What is more concerning is the fact that Islami propaganda that features the demand of an Azad Kashmir is gaining momentum; it has clearly secured vital traction with the youth masses. This is a perennial conflict, and no amount of international intervention can resolve the matter, at least for the next few decades to come.

Welcome to Kashmir 2.0, the Land of Revolution and Violence.

On July 8th, 2016, the “Che Guevara” of the Kashmir revolution- Burhan Wani- was shot dead by the Indian Armed Forces. Within minutes, social media was abuzz with the news of his death, spreading like wildfire in a forest of dry leaves. The youth of Kashmir seemed to overflow with emotions of contempt over such an action by the forces, and separatist parties called for an unparalleled showdown in the Valley. And since then, the revolution has taken a course of its own: Over the last couple of years, a lot has been said on the national media about Kashmir and its multifarious flaws. The mess is a precarious mix of frustration, coupled with a loss of identity and dishonour of the Kashmiri pride. The more one tries to play the escapist card, the deeper they fall in the trenches of an ever-broadening political conundrum.

As the April 2017 elections approached, separatist organisations, including the umbrella organisation, the All Party Hurriyat Conference, called for a unilateral boycott. This was nothing new, and on previous occasions, most Kashmiris ignored the instructions and turned out to the polls in substantial numbers. This time, however, even the capital city, Srinagar, saw a precipitous decline in voter turnout. A mere 7.14 percent of the eligible electorate turned up to the polls during the first week of April—the worst showing in three decades. Violence was so widespread in the other constituency, Anantnag, that one of the candidates asked the election commission to postpone the election until late May, which it did. As a part of the research work that precedes any article, I came across a quote from an IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt:

Why is there such a furore, such an uprising? Why are the Kashmiri people incensed, and why are pseudo-nationalists digging so deep into matters they have only a superficial idea of? Is Kashmir a lost case, or is Kashmir the paradise that always belonged to India? While answers to all the questions are relative (as is everything in the world of political science), they are all inter-linked. The root of the conflict between the Kashmiri insurgents and the Indian Government is tied to a dispute over local autonomy. Politics Now will break down the labyrinthine situation in Kashmir for you to digest and understand.

Armed Forces and Human Rights

Protests that erupt periodically in Kashmir have often overwhelmed Indian police for decades. So much so, that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF)- a special unit designed to undertake counterterrorism operations- has to be involved in law enforcement duties. The involvement of the CRPF marks a definite failure of the Jammu and Kashmir Police to maintain adept law and order in the State, and more importantly, reflects a lack of will on part of the State leadership to provide necessary training to bring the State cadre to a bare minimum level of institutional credibility. The CRPF is known for using crowd-control methods that are at best controversial, including pepper sprays, pellet guns, and even live ammunition.

International human rights groups have condemned such ruthless use of brute force on ordinary civilians on the mere basis of suspicion. Concrete evidence is not required in the valley to sanction the use of such force; ground situations vary and the magnitude of repressive measure deployed depends on the decision made there. These unorthodox weapons of crowd-control have caused serious injuries and have deprived hundreds of proper vision. Moreover, manufacturing standards themselves state that accuracy in such guns cannot be cent per cent: in all, such blatant statements clearly give us an imprint of the number of casualties caused due to such misfired ammunition. Several litigations were filed in the State High Court to review the use of such non-powder ballistic guns. In a landmark ruling in mid-September, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court denied an explicit ban on the use of pellet guns, but made it clear that it must be employed only in “rarest of rare cases”. The trouble is, “rarest of rare” in Constitutional terms is ambiguous.

Many Kashmiri men have endured routine harassment, been subjected to degrading interrogation, and been detained without trial for indefinite periods of time – Sumit Ganguly, Foreign Affairs

Such incidents as stray bullets killing civilians are bound to have chain reaction effects. The ramifications are perilous: families of victims would perceive the death of civilians as an attempt by the Government to suppress their voices of dissent. Perhaps, they too wish and dream of a Kashmir wherein the State is just another part of the country. Perhaps, they too wish to serve in Government offices. Perhaps, they too have academic ambitions as high as any other societal cream would. However, their aspirations are crushed by the reality of the gory present- and hence the cycle of depression, destruction and death continues.

The Pakistani Factor

Islamabad’s glee is evidently visible as the violence in mainstream Kashmir worsens. Pakistan has always viewed Kashmir as a land to be annexed. Right after partition, it had sent in Pashtun tribesmen from the North-Western Frontier Provinces (NWFP) to destabilise the State under the then Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh. The last public attempt at annexing Kashmir was made back in late 1998. The Inter-Services Intelligence Agency was covertly training insurgent groups to infiltrate the LOC and cross over to Indian-Occupied Kashmir. As reports followed, Pakistan denied any involvement, but subsequent confirmations from operating chiefs and substantial evidence found from operatives captured alive showed direct involvement of the Pakistani establishment. On international pressure from diplomatic circles, Pakistan finally had to withdraw in mid-1999, and with that, the Kargil War was declared over.

However, the taste of humiliation has not gone down well enough for Pakistan- and it is burning to take revenge on its border rival, India. The problem with Pakistan is that it maintains an observable reluctance in prosecuting terrorists operating from its own soil. Of course, in politics, the word “terrorist” has no meaning- Masood Azhar to Pakistan is a hero, while in India we castigate and lambaste the person as a perpetrator of consequential attacks. Pakistan seeks Kashmir for more reasons than religious demographics- the control of water resources is a powerful option that it would like to keep in its hands.

Such covert support in fanning extremist propaganda to the other side of the border seems to be working well for Pakistan. Kashmir, already boiling with the domestic turmoil due to perceived oppression from the Armed Forces, has received a catalyst in the form of separatist leaders who have no other agenda but to spread their own prejudiced ideas. Let us all take a moment and speak the language the common man speaks: If all they want is azadi, why on earth are they staying here? A close look at the resume of the sons and daughters of these reveals the narrow-mindedness of their goal. Their families stay in safe havens across the globe. Hypocrisy gets a brand new definition when these people incite incensed Kashmiris to take up the gun against the State.

Hands tied up

The Kashmir dispute is nothing new, it has existed since the dawn of independence. As such, drastic actions cannot be quickly contemplated and enforced due to a stringent set of guidelines that govern the functioning of the State machinery in Jammu and Kashmir.

Upon independence, princely states within the Dominion of India had to voice their assent to be integrated into the Indian Union. To be a part of the Indian Union, the precondition was that the Indian Constitution had to adopted in the State over the Constitution of the Princely State. If Kashmir was yet another princely state in India, why did the Government enact the Article 370, which provided the State with incredulous amounts of autonomy? The answer lies in the history textbooks: On ascension to the Indian Union, Jammu and Kashmir refused to enact the Constitution of India. Such an obstinate move left New Delhi manoeuvring new tactics to keep the State integrated. Dr BR Ambedkar, the principal drafter of the Indian Constitution, had outrightly rejected such an attempt to assign Jammu and Kashmir a special status. However, the task was taken up by Gopalaswami Ayyangar, on the insistence of Nehru. It was meant to be a temporal measure, an act which would help facilitate the smooth transfer of the State from an autocracy to a democracy under New Delhi’s control.

Article 370, coupled with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that has for long been enforced in the State, make a draconian duo. While Article 370 restricts the Parliament from altering demographical characteristics and redrawing of border lines, AFSPA permits the army to have a free run in the State. The army can search and arrest any person without issuing a warrant and can open fire without major consequences. This deadly combination of repressive acts have for long been the source of discontentment in the State circles. However, the political brass defers any reference made and/or call to abdicate AFSPA from Kashmir, since it is a delicate issue and the Army would best know how to deal with it (or so do they believe).

The Way Forward

After the heinous Pulwama attack recently on a convoy of the CRPF that left 40  of its jawans dead, the entire nation has united in mourn and grief for the aggrieved families. Contributions have poured in from every level of the society. But the problem is long from solved: While the Army has successfully eliminated the top brass of the JeM from the State, a lot many militants will expectedly spring up soon. How do we deal with the militancy problem?

At present, the ground reality looks grim. I doubt how far such a strategy of repression might work out. The government has been staunch on its stand to use brute force in case of any objection to using of any of the aforementioned methods of combating terrorism by cross-border elements.  The third world countries in the postmodern world cannot afford any such dramatic climax that leads to a standoff between two nuclear-capable countries. Before writing the article, I went through a treacherous number of videos posted by Kashmiri militants, in order to gauge the perspectives on both sides. The fact remains thus that the militants have increased, which is in keeping with the proportion of sentiments of avenging deaths of close ones. As an independent researcher, I have found facts contrary to what the national media airs: the police force has also crossed limits on a good number of occasions. Disappointment and public exasperation due to such instances of the police mercilessly beating up innocent civilians have also contributed largely to the spark in violence.

The government must, therefore, devise a different strategy. The primary step to advancement is to outlaw the Hurriyat. Till date, every government has tolerated the Hurriyat so as to show that India values the fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression and speech. However, these nefarious agents are the ones who are involved in anti-India activities. In one of my previous articles on illusory nationalism, I had regretted the fact that the volley of sedition cases being slapped indiscriminately was hardly justifiable- if calling for pelting stones at the Army to stop the government is not sedition, I do not know what the government considers as sedition. The Kashmir Valley is reeling from a brutal onslaught of terrorism and suspension of democratic logistics. Curfews have curbed all freedoms, and every person of Kashmiri origin has been compelled to shame and suspicion. The State also has to ensure that educational institutions are not affected as a part of Valley shutdowns- because closing the gates of such institutions would only exacerbate the situation for the worse. A week before the article was written, schools had shut down due to fear of clashes between the police and the civilians. Such acts would create doubts in the minds of children who would question the intentions of the State and would feel insecure being a part of India. Thus, places of educational interest must be kept open under any circumstances, a fact that the Jammu and Kashmir High Court has repeatedly argued for. Also, although difficult, constant efforts must be made to provide reasonable employment opportunities- a Directive Principle of the State policy- to all citizens residing within its territorial lines. Employment would reduce the problem of militancy as it would cut off active support bases from being harnessed again for illicit purposes.

I keep my fingers crossed in the hope that one day, high-running tensions of today would return to the normalcy of yore. Some day, Kashmir would be trouble-free, a heaven for tourists, an asset for India. Some day, when Kashmiris would no longer be discriminated upon and Kashmiri arts such as carpets and blankets would flourish again. I keep my fingers crossed, to realise Amir Khusrau’s words again, someday:

Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.

(If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, it is this, it is this)

Digital India and Indian Railways

Representative image.

One of the flagship projects of the Narendra Modi-led NDA government has been a marked shift onto the route of digitalisation. The Indian Railways is the single-largest State-owned commercial entity in the entire world, and adaptability is pivotal to its survival in contemporary times. Over the past couple of years, a number of schemes have been initiated, all of which take a step forward to riding the Digital Wave. It is indeed commendable to witness the progress that the Indian Railways has made over the course of the yesteryears, mutating from issuing manual tickets to being a pioneer in the era of paperless tickets, from having the quintessential pantry cars in the long-haul trains to e-catering services seeing the light of the day, a plethora of such success stories have cropped up. An effective analysis of how Indian Railways has transfigured itself as per the changing demands of the passing years is surprisingly remarkable.

To fully comprehend the present, knowing the past is of vital significance. The stride to the journey towards modernisation of the Railways transpired in the early eighties, when in 1982, the railways set up a central organisation named COFOIS (Central Organisation for Freight Operations Information System), to look after the increasing volume of freight operations. Till 1985, all tickets were issued manually. This led to the process being cumbersome and time-consuming, leaving behind a probable scope for errors to creep in. Stand Alone Computerized Ticketing and Reservation System was then rolled out, albeit phase-wise, starting in 1985 as a pilot project in New Delhi and concluding in 1989 with computerized ticketing system being initiated in Secunderabad. Fast forward to today, and there be no more manual tickets in sight.

The Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), a subsidiary arm of the Indian Railways, has under the present government taken on itself the primary responsibility of ensuring the process of digitalisation of the Railways- a far cry ahead from the days of mere computerization of reservation systems. Today, one can sit back in the comfort of his home and yet reserve tickets from the IRCTC portal. While travelling in train and en-route to some destination, a passenger may opt to purchase meals from the next station halt, via the process of e-catering that has been recently facilitated by the IRCTC. From its inception in 2002, the IRCTC has come a long way ahead: from twenty nine tickets booked in a day to thirteen lakh tickets booked in a single day. In 2016, tickets worth rupees 24,022 crores were purchased via the online platform. All these amenities have been made possible due to the untiring efforts of the Railway Board and the Ministry of Railways, which has continually strived to provide the best-in-class service to the passengers that, in all respects, remain unparalleled.

This razzmatazz around the keyword of digitalisation has proven useful on many counts. Industry major Google, in a bid to tap into the millions who commute by the Railways on a daily basis, had partnered with RailTel to provide free Wi-Fi services at a targeted four hundred stations. Such collaborations have given the Digital India campaign a solid momentum and have been a model example to further the Public-Private partnerships that are equitable for both parties involved. At present, this partnership has materialised brilliantly, with over a hundred stations being connected to the network. This joint effort has been christened the title “Project Nilgiri”. As per latest statistics made available by Google, over ten million Indians now have access to high-speed internet, with an average estimate of around fifteen thousand people connecting to the free networks for the first time every day. Internet penetration in India has thus been effectively catalysed by the Indian Railways, providing the platform for private ventures to provide internet access to millions of Indians.

One significant domain where the Railways have latched onto, is harnessing the power of social media. The Railways have developed an in-house analytics tool that processes complaints and suggestions on a real-time basis. The Indian Railways receives seven thousand tweets on a daily basis, out of which around a thousand are actionable. Through Facebook, it is said to receive around two hundred complaints per day. Former Railway Minister, Shri Suresh Prabhu, had highlighted the fact that the response time to complaints of actionable nature had been reduced to thirty minutes. Such prompt responses to suggestions, and/or feedback by the passengers, have ensured a substantial and appreciable increase in passenger satisfaction. In a recent survey that was launched by the government to let the people rate the services rendered by the government, the results of quick response and follow-up on individual complaints was understandably evident: the Railways had secured the highest possible five-star rating from 74% (seventy-four percent) of the people who participated in the survey.

To build on the noble initiative of Digital India, the Railways have not left any chord untouched. Continuous innovations and development, fuelled by imagination and an acute understanding of the demands of the day, have propelled the Indian Railways into bringing out several applications and services that can be accessed by having a phone. At the forefront comes the Railway’s autonomous IT cell, popularly christened ‘CRIS’- Centre for Railway Information Services. This is the organisation that has made possible the launch of the widely popular PNR Status enquiry online, or the National Train Enquiry System (NTES) that can be used to track the live running status of a train. The launch of the UTS App- Unreserved Ticketing System has been a formidable success. On 10th of February, 2016, Shri Suresh Prabhu launched hand-held terminals for Travelling Ticket Examiners (TTEs), which relays information from a running train to the next immediate station. A facility for online booking of disposable linens on trains has also been established.

This expedition towards digitalisation has an inherent positive effect on the finances and economy of the Indian Railways. Digitalisation of essential services would reduce manual operational costs, and thus help to bring down the total expenses. Moreover, facilities such as online booking of tickets and related services have convenience surcharges attached to them that helps bring in additional revenue. Revenue earned through service charges doubled from Rs. 256.34 crore to Rs. 551.49 crore in fiscal 2016. This forms one-third of the entire revenue generated by the IRCTC, as per reports published by the Economic Times. Another matchless example of the unending benefits of digitalisation for the Railways was made clear during the e-auction of scrap materials. More than fifteen thousand wagons, twelve hundred coaches, and around a hundred locomotives are auctioned by the Railway every year. The mandatory e-auction helped to generate around Rs. 3000 crores in 2014-2015. In more ways than one, liberalisation of the Railway finances to accommodate online services will eventually help the Railway resuscitate from its financial woes at present.

This paradigm shift in adopting the digital and cashless as the preferred mode of transactions and services has improved transparency and accountability on the part of the Railways. This has, in turn, has had a chain effect on the common man’s image of the Railways. If passenger satisfaction is ensured, it would immediately convert into rising revenues and better service reviews, with fewer complaints and Grievance Redressal Workload.
As the largest commercial organisation in India, the Railways shoulder colossal social responsibilities. It is indeed heartening to learn that under the able guidance of the Minister of Railways, Shri Suresh Prabhu and the Railway Board, the gargantuan organisation is striving to its last breath to ensure the common man takes the jump towards digitalisation. The Railways is one of the pioneers of change; it wonderfully metamorphoses itself to acclimatise to the dynamic requirements. In this era of globalisation and technological advancement, the Digital Indian campaign has only reinforced the roots of this sesquicentennial organisation: making it better, secure, and ready for the leap towards greater heights of success in the upcoming years.