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The Hindu Notes for 15th April 2019
  • Topic Discussed: The Hindu Notes of 15th April 2019
  • Necessary steps to ending poverty

    The provision of health, education and public services matters more than income support schemes

    It is by now close to 50 years since Indira Gandhi brought the idea of eradicating poverty into the electoral arena in India. ‘Garibi Hatao’ had been her slogan. She actually took the country some distance in the promised direction. Though it had not come close to being eradicated in her time, it was under her leadership that the reduction in poverty commenced, in the late 1960s. And it was under her leadership again that the reduction accelerated, in the early 1980s. This is not surprising for she was a pragmatic politician and took pride in being Indian. While the last attribute motivated her to improve the condition of her people, the first left her aware of the centrality of income generation in poverty eradication.

    The role that income generation actually played in lowering poverty in India may be gauged from the facts that economic growth had surged in the 1980s, and the late 1960s was when agricultural production quickened as the Green Revolution progressed.

    Words matter

    So, if there had been a focus on poverty even 50 years ago, why have we not seen it end? This is because the approach of public policy to the problem has been to initiate schemes which could serve as no more than a palliative, as suggested by the very term ‘poverty alleviation’ commonly used in the discourse of this time. These schemes failed to go to the root of poverty, which is capability deprivation that leaves an individual unable to earn sufficient income through work or entrepreneurship. Income poverty is a manifestation of the deprivation, and focussing exclusively on the income shortfall can address only the symptom.

    Parties and schemes

    In the run-up to the elections now, schemes guaranteeing income to the poor through budgetary transfers have been announced by both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress. Actually, the BJP’s Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-Kisan), paying farm households below a threshold ₹6,000 a year, is already in place. An income-support scheme for any one section of the population is grossly inequitable. We can think of agricultural labourers and urban pavement dwellers as equally deserving of support as poor farmers. While it is the case that at present agricultural subsidies go to farmers alone, these are intended as production subsidies and so channelled due to the criticality of food production to all.

    On the other hand, a welfare programme cannot, ethically speaking, exclude those equally placed. The BJP’s hurried introduction of its scheme also came with an overshooting of the fiscal deficit target, suggesting that it involves borrowing to consume, a fiscally imprudent practice. The PM-Kisan has, however, been dwarfed by the promise of the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) of the Congress, which envisages an annual transfer 12 times greater to the poorest 20% households. While this scheme is not discriminatory, it is severely challenged by the issue of beneficiary identification in real time.

    Both the schemes on display, but NYAY in particular, have been criticised as running into the absence of fiscal space. This is really neither the case nor of the essence, the latter being the role of income transfers in eradicating as opposed to alleviating poverty in India.

    Consider NYAY. It is estimated to cost ₹3.6 lakh crore per annum at current prices. This comes to approximately 13% of the central budgetary outlay for 2019-20. This expenditure can be incurred without any consequence for the fiscal deficit if all Centrally Sponsored Schemes are taken off and subsidies trimmed just a bit. But the point is that at 13% of outlay, NYAY would amount to more than twice the combined expenditure on health and education and more than capital expenditure in the same budget, they being the items of public expenditure that most impact poverty in the long run. There is an opportunity cost to be acknowledged of an income-support scheme of this magnitude being implemented while there exists a severe deficit of social and physical infrastructure in the country.

    We have already spoken of poverty as capability deprivation. Health, education and physical infrastructure are central to the capabilities of individuals, and the extent of their presence in a society determine whether the poor will remain so or exit poverty permanently. The scale at which these inputs would be required to endow all Indians with the requisite capabilities makes it more than likely that we would have to rely on public provision.

    What is needed

    In light of a pitch that has been made for the implementation in India of a publicly-funded universal basic income (UBI) scheme, we can say that from the perspective of eliminating poverty, universal basic services (UBS) from public sources are needed, though not necessarily financed through the budget. The original case for a UBI came from European economists. This is not entirely surprising. Europe is perhaps saturated with publicly provided UBS. Also the state in some of its countries is immensely wealthy. So if a part of the public revenues is paid out as basic income, the project of providing public services there will not be affected. This is not the case in India, where the task of creating the wherewithal for providing public services has not even been seriously initiated.

    There is indirect evidence that the provision of health, education and public services matters more for poverty than the Central government’s poverty alleviation schemes in place for almost half a century. Per capita income levels and poverty vary across India’s States. A discernible pattern is that the southern and western regions of India have lower poverty than the northern, central and eastern ones. This, very likely, is related to higher human development attainment in the former. This indicator is based on the health and education status of a population apart from per capita income, bringing us back to the relevance of income generation to poverty. As the Central government is common across regions, differences in the human development index must arise from policies implemented at the State level. This further implies that a nationwide income support scheme that channels funds from a common pool to households in the poorer States would be tantamount to rewarding lower effort by their governments.

    There is a crucial role for services, of both producer and consumer variety, in eliminating the capability deprivation that is poverty. As these services cannot always be purchased in the market, income support alone cannot be sufficient to eliminate poverty. It is in recognition of the role of services in enabling people to lead a productive and dignified life that the idea of multi-dimensionality has taken hold in the thinking on poverty globally. At a minimum these services would involve the supply of water, sanitation and housing apart from health and education. It has been estimated that if the absence of such services is accounted for, poverty in India would be found to be far higher than recorded at present. The budgetary implication of the scale at which public services would have to be provided if we are to eliminate multi-dimensional poverty may now be imagined. This allows us to appraise the challenge of ending effective poverty and to assess the potential of the income-support schemes proposed by the main political parties. There are no short cuts to ending poverty, but ending it soon is not insurmountable either.

    A tale of two manifestos

    The Congress has a deeper understanding of India’s security challenges than the BJP does

    National security has rarely been a poll issue. But, thanks to Masood Azhar, it has become one in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has made the Pulwama attack and Balakot retaliation central to its campaign. The BJP manifesto opens with national security, under the title ‘Nation First’, and many of the points made there overlap with those in the Congress manifesto. For example, speeding up defence acquisitions, modernising the forces, streamlining border and coastal security, rehabilitating veterans and combating left-wing extremism (a term used by the Manmohan Singh administration).

    Points of difference

    Yet the two documents have a markedly different approach towards security. The Congress’s does not open with national security, but deals with it in more detail and has an additional focus on the protection and welfare of security forces, an issue the BJP manifesto does not touch upon. The Congress commitment to ensure shorter stints of duty in high altitude areas is especially welcome. Shortening postings in insurgency-affected areas to conform with best practice would be even more welcome. That would reduce the frustrations that often lead to human rights abuse and high rates of suicide among paramilitary troops.

    The most significant markers of difference lie in the two manifestos’ approach towards terrorism and civil conflict. The BJP manifesto proclaims zero tolerance for terrorism, which, it says, means giving the security forces a free hand to counter it. This claim appears overstated. Ordinarily, giving the security forces a free hand would entail the Army preparing a blueprint for the government to approve. No such blueprint has been prepared, to my knowledge, though many from the past exist.

    Indeed, most indications are that the Army is following government instructions rather than formulating the government’s counter-insurgency or national security strategies. The Army knows that setting a population against security forces can only hinder their counter-insurgency tasks, not facilitate them, and has for decades favoured a combined political and military approach that distinguishes between local and foreign militants and incorporates a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy.

    These elements are missing from the policy that the Modi administration has followed over the past five years in our most severely insurgency-affected State, Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, repeated statements by BJP leaders make amply evident that the tactics deployed in the Kashmir Valley are the BJP’s own, not the Army’s. Yet it is the Army that is tarnished with the label ‘military rule’, not the BJP.

    Like the BJP, the Congress manifesto also talks of countering terrorism, but appears to have a far more professional approach, to streamline intelligence-operational coordination through a range of mechanisms, many of which had been set in place during the Singh administration but later discarded by the Modi administration. The failure to take intelligence warnings sufficiently on board when planning the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy’s movement was one factor that allowed the Pulwama attack to be successful, though this in no way detracts from the Jaish-e-Mohammad’s culpability.

    The BJP’s efforts to use Pulwama and Balakot for electoral gain has already attracted protest by former military officials. Shameful as the exploitation of the Pulwama heroes is, abandoning the Air Force to deal with media scepticism over Balakot was equally shameful. Since when does the Air Chief respond to a U.S. journal article? If a response was so important, why was it not made by quietly sharing critical evidence with the media, or by the Ministers who claim Balakot’s debatable successes as their own?

    Worrying as this politicisation of the security forces is, the most significant difference between the two manifestos is the BJP’s inclusion of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) as a security measure, along with revocation of Article 370, which defines J&K’s relation to the Union of India. Why should either of these be regarded as security measures? The former is, purportedly, a measure to deal with illegal immigration, and the latter a political status.

    The NRC has itself become an explosive issue in the Northeast as well as more widely in the rest of India, due to the announcement that Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain or Christian illegal immigrants would be given citizenship, but Muslim immigrants would not. It has added to fears of exacerbating communalism across our country and, in the Northeastern States, to fears that their demographic balance would be further affected. Far from being a security measure, it has already provoked conflict and, if imposed, would provoke more.

    Similarly, Article 370 poses no security threat, since it accepts defence as a Union, not State, portfolio and, on civil strife, puts Jammu and Kashmir on a par with other States, whose governments have to concur with the deployment of security forces for internal security duties. In effect, it codifies the Instrument of Accession that was signed by Kashmir’s Maharaja, and its revocation could open the Union to all sorts of undesirable legal challenges. That apart, the mere threat of revocation has added to conflict in the State and any attempt to follow through on the threat will certainly provoke greater conflict.

    Tackling AFSPA

    The Congress manifesto deals with the troubled States of both the North-West and North-East as issues of conflict resolution, not national security. Its promise to review the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act — again — may be unpopular with the security forces, but that is partly because the Singh administration did not work with them to identify amendments that would prevent human rights abuses while safeguarding operational requirements. That is a mistake one hopes the Congress has learned from.

    The popular belief may be that the BJP prioritises security while the Congress does not. But the two manifestos reveal that it is the Congress which has a more serious understanding of India’s security challenges, not the BJP.

    Highway hurdle

    The verdict on the Chennai-Salem corridor reveals the perils of fast-tracking projects

    The Madras High Court verdict quashing land acquisition proceedings for the proposed Chennai-Salem greenfield expressway is an indictment of the arbitrary decision-making process behind the project. This is a political setback to its leading proponent, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami, given the extent to which he went to aggressively stifle all criticism and protests against it. The court has referred to how “peaceful protests were stifled, unwritten gag orders were promulgated, [and] police force was used to handle the peaceful protesters who were making a request to spare them and their lands”. It was only after the court intervened that “these high-handed actions subsided”. It invalidated the notification for intent to acquire land for the project on the ground that the National Highways Authority of India cannot acquire land without complying with the requirement of preparing an environment impact assessment report. The decision is important for affirming the principle that environmental clearance ought to be obtained before any project is allowed to advance to a stage where measures become irreversible. It underscores that sufficient data on the possible harm to the environment is needed before resources are committed to a project. In this case, not only would land titles be transferred to the state; heavy compensation amounts would also have been paid by the time the environmental impact is known.

    The project was pushed by the Centre and the State even though it was set to pass through wetlands, fertile farmlands, reserve forests and waterbodies. Farmers who stood to lose their land and environmentalists had questioned the claim that by reducing the transit time, there would be saving of fuel, thereby cutting the carbon footprint. What has been exposed in the verdict is that the eight-lane corridor was never really cleared as a project under the Centre’s Bharatmala Pariyojana. It did not figure in the list of road projects approved under Bharatmala-I. The NHAI did not explain in its counter-affidavit how the Chennai-Madurai highway, an approved project, was dropped and the Chennai-Salem project included in its place. The court examined the record and found that there was nothing to show that it was approved by either the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs or the Public-Private Partnership Appraisal Committee; the Chennai-Tiruchi-Madurai corridor had much higher vehicular traffic to justify its inclusion in Bharatmala. The court’s conclusion that labelling its replacement by the Salem project as a ‘policy decision’ was not a sufficient explanation is unexceptionable. Having failed to convince the court that the procedures it followed were above board, the least that the Centre can now do is to make a comprehensive study of its impact on the environment and on farming and rural livelihoods before moving ahead.

    Secrets and agents

    The arrest of Julian Assange raises fears about suppression of the right to information

    The arrest of Julian Assange, the head of the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, has renewed a global debate on balancing freedom of expression (or the right to information) with considerations towards the national security of a country. After nearly seven years of eluding authorities in the U.S. and the U.K., facing charges related to theft of classified information from government computers, he was dragged out of the Ecuadorian Embassy in London on April 11 following Ecuador President Lenín Moreno’s withdrawal of his country’s grant of asylum to Mr. Assange, for “repeated violations to international conventions and daily-life protocols”. Ecuador had earlier limited Mr. Assange’s Internet access. As he sits in jail for up to a year on bail-jumping charges from 2012 in a now-closed case relating to sexual assault allegations by a complainant from Sweden, he will find out whether he will ultimately face the prospect of extradition to the U.S. There, Mr. Assange is looking at a single count of conspiring, with former U.S. Army intelligence officer Chelsea Manning, to break into a secret government computer network. Conspiracy charges, rather than those under the Espionage Act, are what he will likely face, given concerns in the U.K. that he should not be extradited to any country where the death penalty is applicable in his case.

    At the heart of the drama is the question whether Mr. Assange is a “journalist” in the traditional sense of the word and whether, following that line of reasoning, freedom of expression is endangered or constrained by the action taken in this case. There is some irony in this debate given that the voices of liberal America are clamouring the loudest for his interrogation for the alleged crime of conspiracy, not so much in the case of the U.S. diplomatic cables or the dissemination of related top-secret U.S. government information — but owing to WikiLeaks being linked to rogue actors in Russia who allegedly purloined Democratic Party documents and handed them over to Mr. Assange for use on his website, thereby tipping the scales in Donald Trump’s favour in the 2016 election. Nevertheless, can WikiLeaks be considered a mainstream media organisation? Perhaps not. However, the arrest highlights troubling facts, including that the indictment against Mr. Assange, revealed only this month, appears to be flimsy, for it relates to a conversation he is alleged to have had nine years ago with Ms. Manning on a computer break-in attempt that ultimately failed. At a time when strongmen-led governments and resurgent nationalism are at the forefront of domestic politics in many countries, the arrest of a prominent anti-secrecy advocate is likely to have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers everywhere. That could ultimately weaken democracy itself.

    A pathway to office with power

    As Ambedkar warned, share in power at the Centre has eluded the marginalised

    This year, B.R. Ambedkar’s birth anniversary coincides with India’s first hero worship-based election. In earlier elections too, ruling parties won overwhelming majorities, but there has been no election so far in which the campaign has been so exclusively devoted to a leader’s personality. Even during the 1971 election, the campaign was cleverly turned from Indira Gandhi to ‘garibi hatao’. This election, though, is all about Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

    On November 25, 1949, in his last speech in the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar warned us “to observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not ‘to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with power which enable him to subvert their institutions’... For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world... In politics, Bhakti... is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.”

    This speech was delivered nearly two years after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister but not yet in a position of unchallenged dominance. Sardar Patel was still alive. Yet, Ambedkar was prescient in his analysis of the Indian psyche. The history of India is often only a history of great men and women whose deeds were recorded. Everybody else seems to have merely existed, to lay their destinies at the feet of the leader of the day. In an earlier era, Ambedkar too may have met the same fate.

    Separate electorates

    Ambedkar had rarely been an electoral success. Intellectually, he was head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries, but politically he was seen as a leader of only the depressed classes. His demand for separate electorates had been conceded by British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, but had been wrested away by Gandhi’s fast unto death and the resultant Poona Pact. Ambedkar never forgave Gandhi for the effective negation of a separate voice for Dalits, chosen by the Dalits themselves. The result was that Ambedkar’s Scheduled Caste (SC) candidates won among a SC electorate, but lost in general elections.

    In a 1946 letter, addressed to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee, Ambedkar wrote: “The Primary election is an election in which only the Scheduled Castes voters are entitled to vote for the Scheduled Castes candidates contesting a seat reserved for them, while in the Final election the Hindu voters are also entitled to vote for Scheduled Castes. The Hindu voters being overwhelming, they are able to elect that Scheduled Castes candidate who is their tool. This explains how the Congress Scheduled Castes candidates, who all were at the bottom in the Primary election, came to the top in the final election.”

    Thus, through most of his life, Ambedkar was unelectable on his own strength. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly on a seat from Bengal, arranged for him by Jogendra Nath Mandal, who later became Pakistan’s first Law Minister. When that seat was lost to Pakistan because of Partition, Ambedkar was elected from Bombay with Congress support. In the 1951-52 parliamentary elections, he lost from Bombay. He lost another by-election for the Bhandara constituency. Meanwhile, he had been accommodated in the Rajya Sabha, but his desired success in a direct election eluded him.

    The electoral pattern set in Ambedkar’s time persisted for a long time thereafter. Dalit participation in politics remained dependent on approval from the Congress. As Ambedkar wrote to A.V. Alexander in 1946, “Realising that there is no escape from giving the Untouchables some safeguards, the Congress wants to find out some way by which it can make them of no effect. It is in the system of joint electorates that the Congress sees an instrument of making the safeguards of no effect. That is why the Congress is insisting upon joint electorates. For joint electorates means giving the Untouchables office without power.”

    Tradition of inequality

    Ambedkar’s analysis was not far off the mark. Office without power was dangled before Dalits when, at a public address in June 1947, Gandhi said, “If I have my way, the President of the Indian Republic will be a chaste and brave Bhangi girl... If such a girl of my dreams becomes President, I shall be her servant and I shall not expect from the Government even my upkeep. I shall make Jawaharlal, Sardar Patel and Rajendra Babu her ministers and therefore her servants.” However, this suggestion was turned down by the Congress.

    The pattern of a Congress-dependant Dalit leader saw Jagjivan Ram as a Minister in every Central Cabinet till 1979. It also produced occasional Chief Ministers. However, these instances were few and far between, often subject to the condescension and calculation of the Congress leadership. Office without power became the cage of the Dalit politician.

    It was only through reservations in government jobs that Dalits gained any long-term access to power. The grievances of employees in north India began to be voiced by an association called the Backward and Minority Communities Employee Federation (BAMCEF). Its leader was a Punjabi Dalit who had read Ambedkar’s works. He had also seen the gradual withering away in Maharashtra of the Ambedkarite movement and its radical successors, the Dalit Panthers.

    In 1984, BAMCEF leader Kanshi Ram created a Dalit-dominated party that few gave a serious chance of being independently elected. Yet, in less than a decade, the Bahujan Samaj Party was able to bargain for power on its own electoral strength. In 1995, when Kanshi Ram’s protégé, Mayawati, was sworn in for the first time as Chief Minister of U.P., then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao hailed it as “a miracle of democracy”. Ms. Mayawati has now established herself as an effective administrator, not significantly worse than her peers. She is being touted as a possible Prime Minister now — if luck goes her way. One cannot deny, however, that such a miracle of democracy is a far-fetched scenario. Yet, it is still a possibility not beyond the realm of contemplation.

    Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation could not ensure equal participation of the blacks in the U.S. Nearly a century later, it took the civil rights movement and the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court to reassure blacks that their voices would be heard. Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 presidential election finally set the seal on an equal shot at power.

    Indian society has had a much longer tradition of inequality than the U.S. Indian democrats must acknowledge that for far too long, an effective share in power at the Centre has eluded the marginalised. Office without power must soon give way to genuine empowerment of the hitherto powerless. It may be in this election, it may be in the next, but Ambedkar’s struggle to educate, organise and agitate against inequality will go on.

    Politics and the military

    Mixing the two arenas, as is common now, does not bode well for Indian democracy

    In a letter dated April 11, more than 150 senior military veterans, including several former service chiefs, wrote a letter to the President expressing their anguish over the ‘politicisation’ of the military. They requested him “to take all necessary steps to urgently direct all political parties that they must forthwith desist from using the military, military uniforms or symbols, and any actions by military formations or personnel, for political purposes or to further their political agendas”. Furthermore, they castigated political leaders for taking credit for military operations such as cross-border strikes, terming it a “totally unacceptable practice”. The senior veterans singled out Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s statement calling the military “Modi ki sena” for special condemnation.

    Using military achievements for electoral gains is dangerous. Even then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi desisted from going down this route after the 1971 war. She did not take excessive credit for that victory despite the fact that her and her advisers’ astute political and diplomatic strategies contributed profoundly in creating an international environment that made the victory possible.

    The current political atmosphere is already vitiated by the use of communally polarising tactics, including the juxtaposition by Mr. Adityanath of ‘Ali’ with ‘Bajrang Bali’. Exploiting India’s military, so far a remarkably politically neutral force, for partisan ends adds to the already morally degraded political environment in which the elections are taking place.

    The use of the armed forces as a political tool is just one side of the coin. Even more dangerous is the fact that it sends the signal to the top brass that there is nothing wrong in intermixing politics with the military. The eventual lesson they will learn is that they can interfere in the political process with impunity since the civilian leadership has already legitimised the military’s use in the political realm. In recent years, many senior serving officers have commented on important domestic and international issues, such as immigration and India-Pakistan relations, that until recently had been off limits for the military brass. This is an unprecedented development that needs to be reversed in order to preserve civilian supremacy over the armed forces and keep the political and military arenas distinct.

    These two trends — the use of the military for short-term political gains and the propensity of serving officers to make politically charged statements — augment each other. This nexus does not bode well for Indian democracy.