The News Editorial Analysis 23rd Jan 2022

The News Editorial Analysis 23rd Jan 2022

The News Editorial Analysis 23rd Jan 2022

Kerala gets its first ever scientific bird atlas

KBA is arguably Asia’s largest bird atlas in terms of geographical extent

The Kerala Bird Atlas (KBA), the first-of-its-kind State-level bird atlas in India, has created solid baseline data about the distribution and abundance of bird species across all major habitats, giving an impetus to futuristic studies.Conducted as a citizen science-driven exercise with the participation of over 1,000 volunteers of the birdwatching community, the KBA has been prepared based on systematic surveys held twice over 60 days a year during the wet (July to September) and dry (January to March) seasons between 2015 and 2020.The KBA accounts for nearly three lakh records of 361 species, including 94 very rare species, 103 rare species, 110 common species, 44 very common species, and 10 most abundant species. “The KBA offers authentic, consistent and comparable data through random sampling from the geographical terrain split into nearly 4,000 grids. We are in the process of bringing out papers on interesting trends based on a scientific analysis of solid data besides making futuristic predictions. It will be exciting to undertake a similar exercise between 2025 and 2030, giving an insight into the changes in the decade since the first KBA,” says P.O. Nameer, one of the State-level coordinators of the KBA.It is arguably Asia’s largest bird atlas in terms of geographical extent, sampling effort and species coverage derived from the aggregation of 25,000 checklists. It was found that the species count was higher during the dry season than in the wet season while species richness and evenness were higher in the northern and central districts than in the southern districts.Most of the endemics were concentrated in the Western Ghats while the threatened species were mostly along the coast. The KBA is considered to be a valuable resource for testing various ecological hypotheses and suggesting science-backed conservation measures.Volunteers were divided into survey teams of two to five members. They were deployed across all 14 districts armed with technological tools such as Locus Free, an Android GPS application, and eBird platform for seamless conduct of the survey and documentation.

More evidence of excess deaths in India during pandemic

A recent paper in Science concluded India’s cumulative COVID-19 deaths were six to seven times higher than reported official mortalityIn the State-wise data compiled by the Union Government, represented by the Additional Solicitor General Aishwarya Bhati in the Supreme Court, it was shown based on media reports that 6,14,211 claims of compensation for deaths due to COVID-19 were filed in 20 States against the reported death toll of 4,29,872 in those States. The numbers were stark for some States. Telangana reported only 3,993 deaths but received 28,969 compensation claims and sanctioned compensation for 15,720 deaths (nearly four times the reported death toll). Gujarat reported only 10,094 deaths but there were 89,633 compensation claims, and 68,370 of them were sanctioned – a multiple of nearly seven times the reported death toll. In contrast, Kerala which reported 49,300 deaths has received 27,274 compensation claims and has processed 23,652 of them.

Reflect undercounting

Now, compensation claims are not a reliable measure of what the actual death toll due to COVID-19 could have been – in States, where there is greater State responsiveness and general public awareness, claims of compensation could be more, and this could be lower in States with limited capacities. Yet, the fact that some States have gone to process a high number of compensation claims, several multiples over and above their reported death tolls suggest that their governments have acknowledged that these tolls reflect an undercounting of the actual death tally.

Excess deaths

This is not surprising. Excess deaths analyses based on deaths registered in the Civil Registration System (CRS) have shown that they have been as high as six times the official death toll for just 11 States and Union Territories (Maharashtra, Punjab, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh) for which such data was available. Studies have found the CRS method to analyse death tolls to be a robust way to measure mortality across States. The more complete the CRS registration in States, “the better the opportunities to understand population health and its determinants,” a paper by Aashish Gupta and others recently found.A recent peer-reviewed paper in Science by Prabhat Jha and others used a national survey of 1.4 lakh adults and estimated that COVID-19 constituted 29% of deaths from June 2020 to July 2021. This corresponds to 32 lakh deaths, of which 27 lakh occurred in April–July 2021. This number was corroborated with two government data sources – one of which was the CRS and which showed all-cause mortality increased by 27% and 26% respectively, leading them to conclude that “India’s cumulative COVID-19 deaths were six-seven times higher than reported official mortality with COVID and non-COVID deaths peaking similarly”.There could have been a possible overreporting of deaths in the national survey conducted by CVOTER. The authors went on to address this by reaching out to approximately 57,000 people in 13,500 households, and this showed “similar temporal increases in mortality with COVID and non-COVID deaths peaking similarly”.

Worldwide phenomenon

Is this an Indian phenomenon alone? A recent news feature published in Nature journal based on the World Mortality Dataset maintained by researcher Ariel Karlinsky, besides other models, found that across countries the pandemic’s true death toll was millions more than the official tolls. For example, the WMD dataset revealed that excess deaths in Russia numbered more than one million by the end of 2021, while only 3,00,000 COVID-19 deaths were recorded in the same period. The WMD dataset does not contain figures for India as excess deaths are available only for “subnational” units (States) and not for the whole country or for countries such as China. But extrapolating from subnational data, it could be shown, as the Science paper did for India, that excess deaths were several multiples over the official death toll and revealed undercounting.A data story in The Hindu published in September 2021 compared excess deaths for the countries with the highest reported death toll and found that the estimated multiple over the reported toll (using the same method) for India was the highest (5.8 times) and only Chile (5.7 times) came close.

Varied reasons

What explains this substantive undercounting of deaths? In the case of India, the reasons are varied. In States like Kerala which have tallied a high number of deaths after reviewing its COVID-19 mortality reporting over time, initially, some deaths of infected people who died after testing negative or left hospitals and then died were not tallied under COVID-19 deaths. This has since been corrected, and Kerala’s case fatality rate has risen to 0.9 (closer to the national average).But in others such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, where excess deaths multiples were quite high, the reasons for the undercounting have also got to do with the States seeking to report less of the mortality as COVID-related. There are States such as Uttar Pradesh, for example, where public health systems remain weak and were overwhelmed by the sudden increase in the spurt of infections and mortality during the second wave, in particular. This also contributed to the significant underreporting of COVID-19 deaths. Many cases were not detected through adequate testing in several States. Also, the absence of proper health care institutions resulted in several deaths occurring outside institutional care and were undocumented.States with a robust CRS (Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala for example) in which deaths are quickly registered after occurrence have tended to show lower excess deaths multiples or have addressed these deaths as COVID-19 related after audits – Maharashtra, for example.But as the Gujarat example shows, even if undercounting of deaths was done for political expediency, such States have had to acknowledge compensation claims even if they are much higher than the reported COVID-19 tolls for the same reason.Estimating the actual death toll due to COVID-19 is an important step in acknowledging the challenges faced by public health institutions and the state in India. This should help epidemiologists and public health specialists devise clear steps to take when faced with a pandemic-like situation and also to prepare institutions to respond to it.

Dinosaur evolution

A new study of dinosaurs led by University of Bristol made a reconstruction of the limb muscles of a small-to-medium sized dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus, which roamed the earth 205 million years ago. The study reveals how massive, 50-tonne quadruped dinosaurs like Diplodocus evolved from this biped species.

Doomed exoplanets

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission has spotted three huge Jupiter-like extrasolar planets that are orbiting dangerously close to their giant or sub-giant stars. One of them, TOI-2337b, is likely to get absorbed by its star in less than a million years, the shortest for any known exoplanet. The study helps in understanding the past, present and future of planets.

Two species of fungi associated with basal stem rot found

Future studies can use the public database entry for early detection of the pathogen

Researchers from Kerala have identified two new species of fungi from the genus Ganoderma that are associated with coconut stem rot. They have also genotyped the two fungi species, named Ganoderma keralense and G. pseudoapplanatum and identified genetic biomarkers. The DNA barcodes have been made publicly available in DNA sequence repositories so that future studies can use it for early detection of the pathogen. The research was published in the journal Mycologia.

Basal stem rot

The butt rot or basal stem rot of coconut is known by several names in different parts of India: Ganoderma wilt (Andhra Pradesh), Anaberoga (Karnataka) and Thanjavur wilt (Tamil Nadu), to mention a few.The infection begins at the roots, but symptoms include discolouration and rotting of stem and leaves. In the later stages, flowering and nut set decreases and finally the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) dies.A reddish brown oozing is

seen. This oozing has been reported only in India. Once infected, recovery of the plants is not likely. Not surprising then, that this causes a huge loss: By some estimates made in 2017, in India, around 12 million people are said to depend on coconut farming.

Late signsAnother sign of infection is presence of shelf-like “basidiomata,” which are the fruiting or reproductive structures of the fungus, on the tree trunks. “Although microscopic, many fungi… produce macroscopic fruiting structures on the substrates where they grow [for example, Ganoderma],” says T.K. Arun Kumar of Zamorin’s Guruvayurappan College, Kohikode, who led this research, in an email. He further explains that the basidiomata of Ganoderma bear reproductive propagules (called spores) which are dispersed through wind and sometimes with the help of insects. “That is how the pathogen spreads from one host to the other,” he adds.Since the fungus is microscopic, it is only detected after the symptoms start manifesting or when the reproductive structures are borne, which can be too late.

Lack of taxonomy

Surprisingly, before this study, the disease was commonly attributed to the genus Ganoderma and the specific species involved were not identified correctly. One reason for this could be the lack of studies focusing on taxonomy. “Plant pathologists may be very good at identifying diseases based on disease symptoms, devising strategies to prevent disease occurrence and even in developing disease resistant plants. However, there is a dearth of fungal taxonomists among plant pathologists who are able to identify fungal pathogens with accuracy,” says Dr Arun Kumar.

The two-member team collected the material for their research during the years 2015 to 2019. “There was a large-scale outbreak of the disease in Kozhikode district, Kerala, a few years back and our examination of the collected fungal specimens along with collections [over many years] from plantations throughout Kerala revealed that the identity of pathogenic species was hitherto unrecognised,” says Dr Arun Kumar. This led him and PhD student N. Vinjusha to study the specimens further, first morphologically and then through genome sequencing. The two species seemed to be new to science. “This discovery was based on morphological characters, DNA sequences of the Kerala collections and phylogenetic analyses by comparing DNA of all Ganoderma species known worldwide,” says Dr Arun Kumar. The research has revealed the identity of the pathogenic species associated with butt rot. Hence, species-specific disease prevention strategies can now be developed.As Dr Arun Kumar says: “So far, scientists and farmers had to solely rely on the visible symptoms of the disease [which appear only at a later stage, after complete colonization], but now they can easily detect the presence of the pathogen much earlier by analysing plant extracts which can be easily obtained at any stage of growth.”

Adding radioactive substances in wearables unjustified

The guidance issued by IAEA follows the usage of products exceeding safe radiation levels

Over a year ago, alert press reporters found a device hanging around Congress M.P. Shashi Tharoor’s neck. Was it a GPS device, Translator or a small dictionary? He tweeted that it was “An air purifier (negative ioniser).” Its sellers claim that the device emits two million healthy negative ions per sec from the black brush on its top. These ions may impinge on pollutants, make them negatively charged and get them collected on surfaces of tables, windows, bed etc. Whether it helps to reduce pollution in real life, or not needs scientific validation. Is copious emission of negative ions from it a red flag?

On December 16, 2021, the Authority for Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection (ANVS), Netherland issued a statement identifying ten products such as (Magnetix Magnetic necklace, Magnetix Sport boost bracelet, Smiley Kids bracelet, Athletic necklace among others) as containing more radioactivity than legally permitted. The agency cautioned the public against using “Quantum Pendant,” “anti-5G pendant” or “negative ion” jewellery items or sleep mask. Often, “negative ion products” may contain radioactive substances. The ANVS clarified that their warning does not apply to ionic air purifiers, “as they are known not to contain radioactive materials.” Obviously, Dr Tharoor need not worry over any red flag!

Radioactive products

Sellers of “negative ion” consumer products and “scalar energy products” claim that these products improve the user’s health. They may state that they are composed of volcanic ash, minerals etc. These can contain radioactive substances, which emit ionising radiation, which can cause tissue damage and are bad for the user’s health.

Popular online platforms have been offering such products, often in the form of pendants, necklaces, bracelets, sleep masks etc. for many years now. Manufacturing and selling products containing radioactive substances is not a justified practice. The ANVS found that the level of radiation in these products is low and the risk of health problems is also low. The agency informed all known vendors of these products in the Netherlands that it has prohibited their sale and that they must stop trading in these products immediately.

Wearing such products for a long period (a year, 24 hours a day) could expose the wearer to a dose of radiation that exceeds the limit for skin exposure prescribed in the Netherlands.

Above dose limit

Malaysian researchers led by H.L. Hassan, Department of Physics, UniversitiTeknologi Malaysia found that eight out of the 20 pendants, they evaluated, by using state-of-the-art methods were capable of exposing the wearers to an annual effective dose above the dose limit of one mSv for public (PLOS ONE June 1, 2021). The dose from the most radioactive pendant was 2.8 mSv/year.(When the physical energy absorbed by tissues from x-rays, gamma rays or electrons is one Joule per kg, the biologically effective dose is considered to be one Sv. Since Sv is a huge unit, specialists use milliSv – one thousandth of a Sv – as a unit; skin dose in a chest x-ray exam is about 0.1 mSv).

Undergarment samples

In another IAEA supported project, Hassan and others from Malaysia, the U.K. and Spain found that the undergarment industry in Malaysia and elsewhere advertised that their “negative ion undergarments” contain tourmaline, monazite and zircon, all known to contain uranium and thorium. Among the 13 samples of undergarments they assessed, three were capable of exposing their wearers to annual effective doses above one mSV, the IAEA reference level (Applied Sciences, June 10, 2021).

Realising the safety significance of Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM), IAEA and member countries provided guidance on the matter.

In “Radiation Protection and Safety of radiation Sources: International Basic Safety Standards” (2014), the IAEA considers that the frivolous use of radiation or radioactive substances in toys and personal jewellery or adornments, which result in an increase in activity, is unjustified.

The IAEA also published a specific safety guide titled “Radiation Safety for Consumer Products (2016).” The Atomic Energy (Radiation Protection) Rules, 2004 contains provisions consistent with those of the IAEA.

Be aware of the facts before using consumer products containing radioactive substances or presenting them to anyone!

Cadre rules plan

Why have States raised questions about the Centre’s proposed changes on civil servants’ deputation?

The story so far: The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) sent a communication to all States on January 12 seeking their opinion on the proposal to amend Rule 6 (deputation of cadre officers) of the Indian Administrative Service (Cadre) Rules 1954. Similar letters were also sent proposing changes in cadre rules of the other two All India Services (AIS): the Indian Police Service (IPS) and the Indian Forest Service (IFoS). Through the amendments, the Union government plans to acquire powers to depute IAS/IPS and IFoS officers to the Central Government and Ministries without necessarily taking the State government’s nod. After the All India Services Act, 1951 came into existence, the IAS cadre rules were framed in 1954.

What are the changes proposed?

Four amendments including two new insertions are proposed. First, the States should make available the names of such officers, part of a central deputation reserve (CDR), who can be deputed to the Centre. “The actual number of officers to be deputed to the Central government shall be decided by the Central government in consultation with the State government concerned,” the proposed amendment says. The CDR cannot be more than 40% of the actual strength at any point.

According to existing norms, States have to depute AIS officers to the Union government offices.The second change is in case of any disagreement between the Centre and the State, the matter shall be decided by the Central government and the State shall give effect to the decision of the Centre “within a specified time.” The “specified time” clause is a new insertion.The third and one of the major changes proposed is if the State government delays posting a State cadre officer to the Centre and does not give effect to the Central government’s decision within the specified time, “the officer shall stand relieved from cadre from the date as may be specified by the Central government.” Presently, officers have to get a no-objection clearance from the State government.

The fourth change is that in a specific situation where services of cadre officers are required by the Central government in “public interest” the State shall give effect to its decisions, within a specified time.

What triggered the move?

In its January 12 letter, DoPT said in spite of existing provisions, States are not sponsoring adequate numbers of officers for Central deputation and the available officers are not sufficient to meet requirements. The letter was preceded by similar communications sent on December 20, December 27 and January 6 where DoPT sought comments from the States. Half-a-dozen States opposed the move and the rest did not respond; it revised the proposal and States have been given time till January 25 to reply. In 2021 and 2020, DoPT sent letters cautioning States that not sending enough officers may affect the future cadre review proposals and that it was unable to fill vacancies at director and joint secretary levels in various Central ministries.

Is the problem acute?

According to 2021 data, of the total 6,709 IAS officers in the country, 445 were posted with the Union —only 6.6%. In 2014, of the 4,605 officers, 651 were posted with the Union (14 %).In 2021, only 10% mid-level IAS officers (deputy secretary/director, 9-14 years experience) were posted with the Centre in 2021, a sharp fall from 19% in 2014, even though the total pool of such officers at this rank expanded from 621 in 2014 to 1130 in 2021, an increase of around 80%.

Why are States opposed to the changes?

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has written two letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi saying it was against the “spirit of cooperative federalism”. The Chief Ministers of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Jharkhand— Bhupesh Baghel, Ashok Gehlot and Hemant Soren have also written to Mr. Modi. Before any AIS officer is called for Central deputation, his or her concurrence is required. The Establishment Officer in DoPT invites nominations from State governments. Once the nomination is received, their eligibility is scrutinised by a panel and then an offer list is prepared, usually done with the State government on board. Central ministries and offices can then choose from the list of officers on offer. AIS officers are recruited by the Union and they are lent to States.

The publication of the offer list on DoPT’s website was discontinued by the Government in 2018 amid reports that not many State government officers were willing to move to the Centre.

Is suspension of MLAs up for judicial review?

Can members of legislative assemblies be barred beyond one session? Does a one-year ban violate the Constitution? 

The story so far: Twelve BJP legislators were suspended for one year by the Maharashtra Assembly last July for alleged disorderly conduct. The unusually long period of suspension has been questioned by the Supreme Court, which is hearing a challenge to the Assembly’s action. The court has reserved its judgment after hearing elaborate arguments. The main question before the court is whether suspension for a whole year is valid. 

What happened on July 5, 2021?

 There was a ruckus in the Assembly when the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) government introduced a resolution seeking empirical data on OBCs (other backward classes) from the Union government. The House was adjourned for a few times before the resolution was passed, as BJP members rushed to the well of the House and were accused of damaging the presiding officer’s microphone and grabbing the mace. Later, Bhaskar Jadhav, a Shiv Sena MLA who was in the Chair during the incidents, said when he was in the Deputy Speaker’s chamber, some members rushed inside and abused him.

A resolution moved by the Parliamentary Affairs Minister was subsequently adopted by the House suspending 12 MLAs —Dr. Sanjay Kute, Ashish Shelar, Abhimanyu Pawar, Girish Mahajan, Atul Bhatkhalkar, Harish Pimple, Jaykumar Rawal, Yogesh Sagar, Narayan Kuche, Bunty Bhangdiya, Parag Alavani and Ram Satpute.They were barred from entering the legislative premises for 12 months. 

What questions has the Supreme Court raised?

 In the course of the hearing, a Bench, comprising Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, Justice Dinesh Maheshwari and Justice C.T. Ravikumar, questioned the rationality of suspending members beyond an ongoing session. The Bench also cited Article 190(4) of the Constitution, which stipulates that the House may declare vacant the seat of a member who is absent for 60 days without permission, to wonder whether any suspension could traverse beyond this 60-day limit. Also, the Representation of the People Act, 1951, says any vacancy in the House has to be filled up through a by-election within six months of its occurrence, the Bench pointed out, and wondered if a constituency can be unrepresented in the Assembly for a whole year in the light of this six-month limit. 

Further, suspension seemed to have worse consequences than outright expulsion from the legislature, as a by-election will be held within six months; whereas, a one-year suspension does not entail mandatory filling up of the vacancy. The Bench also wondered about the likely consequences of an unlimited power of suspension for democracy, as it could be misused to alter the composition of a House in which a Government has only a slender majority. 

What does the State government say?

 Counsel for the State government has argued that there is no limitation on the power of the legislature to punish for breach of privilege or disorderly conduct in the course of its proceedings. Once the power to punish a member for disorderly conduct is recognised, there can be no judicial review of the manner in which it is exercised. Under Rule 53 of the Maharashtra Assembly Rules, the Speaker could direct a Member to withdraw from the Assembly for disorderly conduct for the day, or the remainder of the Session. However, there is no such limitation when the whole House decides to impose suspension. In this context, counsel contended that when the power to expel a member is available, the power to suspend, being a lesser punishment, is also available to the House at all times. On the provision for declaring a seat vacant if the member is absent for 60 days, the Government has argued that it is the House that declares the seat vacant, and it is not a necessary consequence of a member’s absence for 60 days on which the House met. Further, during suspension, a member continues to hold office, but only loses their voice in the legislature. 

What can cause an aircraft to fly into terrain?

How frequent are such mishaps? What type of technology and pilot training are required to avert these accidents?

The story so far: Earlier this month, the Indian Air Force announced that the preliminary findings of a tri-services inquiry into the Mi-17 V5 helicopter crash that killed Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Bipin Rawat and 13 others in December had established that an “unexpected change” in weather conditions had led to the spatial disorientation of the aircraft’s pilot resulting in Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT).

What is Controlled Flight into Terrain?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the airline industry’s trade association that supports aviation with global standards including for airline safety and security, defines a Controlled Flight into Terrain incident as an accident in which there is a collision with terrain, water, or obstacle during the course of a flight, without indication of loss of control. IATA stresses that the critical distinction in these incidents versus other types of aviation accidents is the fact that the aircraft remains under the control of the flight crew till the occurrence of the incident.

How does a CFIT incident occur?

An IATA analysis of CFIT accidents involving commercial flights between 2008-2017 established several factors that could contribute including: ‘Latent Conditions or conditions present in the system before the accident and triggered by various possible factors; Environmental Threats where an event or error occurs outside the influence of the flight crew, but which requires crew attention and management if safety margins are to be maintained; Flight Crew Errors where an observed flight crew deviation from organisational expectations or crew intentions occurs; and Undesired Aircraft States where a flight-crew-induced aircraft state clearly compromises safety of the aircraft. The study also found that the approach-cum-landing phase of an aircraft’s flight accounted for two-thirds of all CFIT accidents and contributed to 62% of fatal CFIT incidents.

What exactly happened in the case of Gen. Rawat’s flight?

Specifically, in the case of the military helicopter that crashed while flying over the Nilgiris to its destination at the Defence Services Staff College’s helipad in Wellington, the court of inquiry found that an unexpected change in weather conditions in the valley resulted in the aircraft flying into clouds that in turn caused the helicopter’s pilot to experience sudden spatial disorientation —a condition where the pilot loses the ability to correctly interpret aircraft attitude, altitude or airspeed in relation to the Earth or other points of reference— and made him fly into terrain.

How often do CFIT accidents occur?

While the breakdown of such incidents concerning military aircraft is hard to find in the public domain, the IATA ‘Accident Analysis Report’ for the 2008-2017 period found that while CFIT incidents accounted for 6% of 837 commercial aviation accidents recorded in the IATA Accident Database, disproportionately CFIT was the second most frequent category of fatal accidents, representing 42 fatal accidents or almost 28% of total fatal accidents.The only category of accidents with a higher level of fatalities was Loss of Control In-flight (LOC-I). Also, CFIT accidents tend to be severe in terms of the number of fatalities and the extent of damage to the airframe. Forty six out of the 47 CFIT accidents in the IATA study resulted in a hull loss —in other words the aircraft was a complete write-off.For the majority of CFIT incidents relating to commercial flights, 70% involved turboprop aircraft, with planes with jet engines only accounting for 30% of such accidents. 

How can such incidents be avoided?

A combination of the use of technology and appropriate and adequate pilot training, including in simulators, can help minimise/avoid CFIT incidents. Particularly, installation of Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) / Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) in aircraft help generate the requisite alerts to the flight crew and if the pilots are adequately trained to respond to these alerts, maintain situational awareness and make the right interventions, CFIT accidents can be mostly avoided. 

Republic@73: Time to redesign the Constitution

The News Editorial Analysis 23rd Jan 2022

India is celebrating the 75th year of Independence. The framework on which Independence has been anchored is the Constitution which came into effect on January 26, 1950. As the nation celebrates the occasion, the question is whether the Republic of India lived up to the promise of the ‘tryst with destiny’.There is a lot to celebrate – the preservation of democracy in a nation that began its journey with eight of ten persons poor and unlettered is a glorious achievement. The front end of Brand India sports technological smarts to install the world’s largest biometric identity system and launches a Mars mission at a cost less than what costs Hollywood to make the movie, Martian.There is much to bemoan.  A nation that struggles to deliver the most basic of public services – water, healthcare, education – to its people must do better. The cause of the inadequacies India is wrestling with is largely the consequence of the constitutional architecture the Republic rests on.  Political rhetoric is riveted on two words in the Preamble.  Arguably, the republic was deemed ‘secular’ before the word was inserted during the Emergency. Articles 25 and three attendant articles guarantee freedom of faith. And while India may not be ‘socialist’ as defined by the lexicon, the fact is property rights can be constrained. The Directive Principles of State Policy assure state intervention, the government is the largest industrial house and it bears mention that India hosts the world’s largest food security and health insurance programmes.

The angst and attention must move beyond the Preamble. The fundamental issue India must debate as it rises to be the sixth-largest economy hosting over 1.4 billion people, is how to redesign the constitutional framework to address the deficits in governance. The basic design of the current structure was inherited from the colonial regime. The construct of the division of responsibilities in Schedule 7 stems from the Government of India Act 1919 and artifacts from the Government of India Act 1935. The confusion about who is responsible for what was worsened by the amendments made during the Emergency.Last month, MPs asked the government about the high level of anaemia in the populace. The reply: “The primary responsibility for strengthening health care services including implementation of national programs lies with the respective state/UT government”. A fifth of police posts, 5.32 lakh, are vacant in the states. The union government says public order is a state subject. In another query, MPs asked about teacher posts lying vacant in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The reply: “Education is in the Concurrent list of Constitution and most of the schools come under the jurisdiction of states and UTs concerned.’’The accumulated losses of all state discoms add up to Rs 5.07 lakh crore. Discoms owe generating companies over Rs 1.56 lakh crore. The union government wants the states to induct efficiency by opening the last mile of power distribution to competition but they are not in agreement. The issue is being “deliberated upon’’ and reforms depend on “consultations’’. Electricity is in the Concurrent List.The legislative landscape is punctuated with gaps bridged by innovative circumventions. Consider the management of the pandemic. The Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897 addresses transmission across borders. Health is a state subject. Ergo the pandemic is managed by the Centre under the National Disaster Management Act which as the inimitable Bibek Debroy pointed out recently, rests on the presence of the phrase ‘social security’ in the Union List in Schedule 7.

Justice is delayed and denied by systemic apathy. Across India, over 45 million cases are pending. The delivery of justice is delayed and detained by structural dysfunction and the contentious debate between the political class and the judiciary on appointments. The administration of justice is split across Union, State and Concurrent Lists. As of December 2021, 403 posts for judges in High Courts and 5,193 in subordinate courts are lying vacant.Efficiency in the delivery of governance is about the structure and it is also about scale. The contours of states have been determined by history, by colonial legacy and by language politics. India’s states are of varying size and scale, in population between Goa and Uttar Pradesh with over 220 million and in size between Sikkim and Rajasthan with over 3.4 lakh sq km. This begs the question as to what is the optimum size, and calls for a study and a complete reorganisation of states.This divorce in the design and delivery of services, of authority and accountability is the central cause of chaos in governance.  This calls for a review to realign intent and outcomes across Union, state and local governments. It is true that the review is deterred by the Supreme Court judgments and the basic structure doctrine. Equally, it can be argued that the percept of a ‘living constitution’ articulated by courts affords room for a review.As India celebrates its successes this week, it would do well to interrogate the inadequacies and address them. How about a Commission to review and redesign a template ready for adoption when the republic turns 75.



The News Editorial Analysis 22nd Jan 2022

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