The News Editorial Analysis 8th November 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 8th November 2021

The News Editorial Analysis 8th November 2021

Padma Shri honour for Bhopal’s gritty crusader

Abdul Jabbar, a gas victim, waged a lonely and seemingly never-ending battle for the welfare of the survivors of 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy. His relentless struggle for over three decades brought medical and economic rehabilitation to the scores of victims. He will be awarded Padma Shri posthumously on Monday at the Darbar Hall of the Rashtrapathi Bhavan.

Jabbarbhai, as he was widely referred to in Bhopal, lived in penury. With his wife and three young children, he stayed in a one-room asbestos shed where he and his younger brother’s family shared a toilet till the day of his untimely death on the evening of November 14, 2019. He turned down several offers of help from the governments, politicians and friends from corporate houses preferring to stay with the victims for whom he fought.

For over three decades since the deadly gas leak, agitating for medical and economic rehabilitation of the survivors, lodging complaints against corrupt officials and demanding a bed and medicine for a gas victim had become a daily routine for Jabbar.

Jabbar and his Bhopal Gas peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS) never took funds from corporate donors and foreign agencies.

Ban on Italian firm linked to Agusta scam lifted

Decision that follows Modi’s visit to Rome for G-20 meet signals relaunch of partnership between the two countries

In a major turnaround, the Government has decided to lift its ban on the Italian defence company involved in the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal, just days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with his Italian counterpart Mario Draghi, sources confirmed here.

Over the past few years, bilateral relations have been held up over the helicopter case as well as the case of the Italian marines accused of killing Kerala fishermen. Mr. Modi’s first visit to Rome has seen the formal burial of both issues.

The ban imposed on Italian defence firm Leonardo SpA has been lifted with certain conditions, a defence official confirmed to The Hindu. When asked, Italian Ambassador to India Vincenzo De Luca said that the matter had been discussed during Mr. Modi’s visit, where he was accompanied by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval. According to one Government source, the ban had impacted the Navy in particular, as it is in need of an alternative supplier for “heavyweight torpedoes”.

“We have still not received confirmation of the decision [to lift the ban] by the Indian Government,” Mr. Luca said in response to a question from The Hindu.

“However it is a signal of the relaunch of the partnership of the two countries, one that is based on reinforced multilateralism, cooperation against the pandemic, energy transition, and defence ties,” the Ambassador added.

The Prime Minister’s meeting in Rome also followed a few months after India formally dropped all charges against Italian marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, and the Supreme Court agreed to close criminal proceedings on the basis of a decision by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Italy also paid ₹10 crore in compensation for the fishermen mistakenly shot dead by the marines aboard the Enrica Lexie ship in 2012, and most of the money has been disbursed to their families in Kerala.

In an interview to The Hindu, Mr. Luca said that with all “pending issues resolved”, the two countries would intensify work on the “action plan” that had been agreed to during the India-Italy virtual summit in November 2020 between Mr. Modi and the then Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti that had clean energy transitions “at the centre of the conversation”.

“The leaders called for growing investments in the two countries. Italy and India enjoy a robust economic relation that has remained strong,” the Ambassador said, adding that Italian companies had agreed to at least 14 new investment projects in India during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic alone.

“The two leaders also agreed on the possibility to strengthen the cooperation in the defence sector and on the need to continue high-level visits between the two countries by planning to meet again soon,” he added, indicating that a visit by Mr. Draghi could be expected either in 2022 or in 2023, when India will host the G-20 summit.

When asked about the outcomes of the G-20 summit in Rome, concluded last week, the Italian envoy said that the economic outcomes, including the plan to achieve 40% vaccinations of the global population by the end of 2021 were significant and the agreement on a global minimum tax on corporations was “historic”. “Among other results, [the G-20] recognized the final political agreement to address the tax challenges arising from digitalization of the economy as a historic achievement to establish a more stable and fair international tax system. India contributed significantly to this particular aspect,” Mr. Luca added.

Rain batters Chennai, several areas flooded

More rain predicted for 48 hours; water released from brimming dams

 The News Editorial Analysis 8th November 2021

Heavy overnight rain led to flooding in several areas of Chennai on Sunday. Nungambakkam recorded 21.5 cm of rainfall, the highest recorded in a 24-hour period since 2015.

Tamil Nadu has received a 43% surplus rainfall and Chennai registered a 26% excess since October 1.

Following rain in the catchment areas leading to heavy inflows, the State Government gradually began releasing surplus water from reservoirs around Chennai including Poondi and Chembarambakkam. From an initial 500 cusecs, the discharge from Chembarambakkam was increased to 2,000 cusecs in the evening.

With more heavy rain forecast for the city over the next 48 hours, Chief Minister M.K. Stalin announced a two-day holiday for schools in Chennai, Tiruvallur, Chengalpet and Kancheepuram districts. He visited flooded areas in the city, and directed officials to ensure food supply for residents displaced and affected by the floods.

Four teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) will be deployed in Madurai and Chengalpet, the Chief Minister said, adding that the NDRF, fire and police personnel are also engaged in rescue and relief operations. He also advised those planning to return to the city after the Deepavali break to defer the trip by another two days.

Ten districts including Karur, Tiruvallur, Namakkal, Pudukottai, Sivaganga, Tiruchi, Virudhunagarreceived heavy rain, the Chief Minister said.

‘CSIR-CCMB’s dry swab RT PCR test more authentic’

Another study highlights ‘immense’ value of this type of method in corona virus detection

CSIR-CCMB’s novel ‘Dry Swab’, extraction-free direct RT-PCR testing method, which has reduced the time taken for the COVID test result to be declared, got further validation with another study highlighting the ‘immense’ value of the method in the detection of any kind of variant, better sensitivity and illuminating more ‘scientific dimensions’.

Published by the Indian Academy of Sciences, Journal of Biosciences, in the latest issue, the “Temporal Stability and Detection Sensitivity of Dry Swab Diagnosis” of SARS-CoV-2 by scientists C.G. Gokulan, Uday Kiran, Santosh Kumar K and Rakesh Mishra of CSIR-CCM, Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research (AcSIR), Ghaziabad and Buchmann Institute for Molecular Life Sciences, Goethe University, Frankfurt (Germany), discussed more advantages and scope for commercialisation as it can increase lab throughput by three-folds.

Challenges like reagent shortage, limited human resources and high transmission rate can be handled in a better manner to contain the infection and better allocation of medical resources, as it can quickly diagnose and control the spread. The study on temporal stability of two strains of SARS-CoV-2 at two different temperatures indicates that for shorter distance transportation, cold chain can be avoided and the dry swab samples with low viral load also is stable at RT for 24 hours.

In case of high sample surge, the swabs can be stored at 4°C for up to 3 days without compromising the detection sensitivity.

The method is expected to hold similar advantages in case of other emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2 as indicated by multiple sewage surveillance and sequencing studies, it said.

This suggests that while the virus variants could be different with respect to the rate of infection and eliciting immune response, they are generally stable for longer time in different conditions. Throughput of dry swab-based sample processing could be further increased by collection of samples directly into tubes containing the ‘TE-P buffer’ and since no transportation is required, it would increase the turnover time drastically when thousands of samples are being tested.

“There is no loss of detection seen upon storage at RT for up to 3 or 4 days of time and results indicated that a minimum final concentration of 0.5 mg/ml of proteinase K is enough to produce results comparable to that of 2 mg/ml,” they said. This suggests tests can be increased four times and corresponding costs reduced.

Data indicates that dry swab method correlates well with the conventional method. Lesser CT values of dry swab samples in comparison to that of the VTM-RNA samples suggest better sensitivity of the method within 48 hours of time. Dry swab samples are also found to be stable at RT for 24 hours and the detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA by RT-PCR do not show variance from VTM-RNA.

This extraction free, direct RT-PCR method holds phenomenal standing in the present life-threatening circumstances due to COVID. Thus, we propose dry swab method as a viable and economical alternative for the existing gold standard, they added.

State Archives in dire need of funds

Archival records here number approximately 43 million, and include records from 1406 CE

With the largest repository of historical records in terms of volume in the country, the Telangana State Archives and Research Institute (TSARI) was not allocated funds for projects and maintenance of the millions of records in its custody for the past five years, and while a small allocation was made this FY 2021-22, this has not been spent thus far.

The TSARI premises in Tarnaka was inaugurated by then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1965. Once known as the Daftar-e-Diwani, it houses documents from 14 departments of the Asaf Jahi Dynasty. Archival records here number approximately 43 million, and include records from 1406 CE. Other documents in its custody include lakhs of marriage certificates, the oldest of which dates back to the early 18th century.

According to an RTI response, while no funds were earmarked for projects and maintenance of records from FY 2016-2017 to 2020-2021, in 2021-2022 a paltry sum of ₹ 4.68 lakh was allocated. However, this has not been not used. The RTI response states that a total budget of ₹ 3 crore was sanctioned from FY 2012-13 to FY 2017-17 for digitisation of records; a total of 60 lakh folios have been digitised. However, this is only a fraction of a staggering 4.3 crore folios which exist.

The TSARI is also hit by staff shortage. The RTI response shows that the institution has a sanctioned post strength of 72. Of this, 33 permanent posts are vacant. TSARI Director Zareena Parveen, an expert of Persian language, has been discharging her duties on a contractual basis. According to sources, while digitisation of records is an important facet of preserving archival records, equally important is mending damaged folios, and preserving existing records. They said that there is a need for annual budgetary allocations for this.

“While several files have been digitised, a huge number including those from the Nizam’s Secretariat, Home Department, Army, Finance Department, Revenue Department, and Commerce and Industries Department, are untouched. The Archives needs permanent archivists and research assistants who are well versed with Urdu and Persian as a majority of documents here are in those languages,” the source said.

As was reported in these columns, portions of plaster of the roof and walls gave way. Workers pointed out that the building requires immediate attention. While a building proposal was submitted to a government agency in 2018, no concrete steps were taken to ameliorate the situation.

Fuel price optics

Levies must be cut further to offset the effect of the continuing surge in global oil prices

The Centre finally decided last week to relent and act on the advice of monetary policymakers by cutting the excise duty on petrol and diesel by ₹5 and ₹10 a litre, respectively. The duty reduction, announced on the eve of Deepavali, immediately helped lower the retail prices of the two fuels by at least about 5% and 11%, respectively. And on the Government’s urging, more than 20 States and Union Territories also reduced the VAT levied on the fuel products, thereby enhancing the relief provided to consumers from record pump prices. While the Centre asserted that the decision was to impart a fillip to the reviving economy, as well as easing inflationary pressure, the political significance of its timing was hard to overlook, coming a day after the ruling BJP suffered electoral reverses in some legislative and parliamentary bypolls. That the Government was keen to make political capital out of its belated reduction of levies was made obvious two days later, when it sought to call out the States — almost all ruled by Opposition parties — that were yet to make commensurate VAT reductions. With a clutch of crucial State elections, including to the prized U.P. Assembly, due early next year, the BJP is keen to regain control of the narrative, especially given the heightened public concern over inflation and the surge in fuel prices.

As far as the economy is concerned, the reduction in fuel bills is bound to have a salutary impact on inflation as diesel is the main fuel for freight carriage and impacts the cost of everything requiring to be transported. The softening in transportation costs ought to provide some cushion to the manufacturing sector, which has had to cope with surging input prices at a time when demand is still tenuous. The additional cash left in the wallets of consumers may also provide a small bump in consumption though the durability of this stimulus will hinge on how global oil prices behave in the coming weeks and months. Global oil prices have been on a boil this year and the World Bank group projected last month that average crude prices would end 2021 with a gain of about 70%. With the Indian crude basket having risen on average almost 62% in the 10 months through October and the historical trend suggesting a firming of prices towards the year-end when the northern hemisphere’s winter usually pushes up energy demand, there is a real risk that Indian refiners may be left with little option but to continue raising retail prices. The onus would then be again on the Centre to make further cuts to the duty it had raised last year. States run by other parties should take the cue from Tamil Nadu and Punjab and bring down the prices at the outlets, and not hold back for political or revenue reasons.

Rebels and rulers

The Ethiopian government and the militias must end the fighting and begin talking

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s year-long war on the rebels in the northern Tigray region threatens to pull the whole country into a deadly civil war between the federal troops and several ethnic militias. When the war began, Mr. Abiy, a Nobel peace laureate, wanted to oust the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), an ethnic paramilitary group-turned-political party, in Tigray and install a friendly regional government. Within a month, he met his objectives and declared that major combat operations were over. But retaining control over a rebellious region was harder than ousting the rebels. Moreover, Mr. Abiy seemed to have overlooked Tigray’s complex history. The mountainous region that shares a long border with Eritrea was the base of resistance against the military dictatorship in the 1970-80s. The TPLF, which fought the Derg, the military regime, for 16 years before ruling Ethiopia through a multiparty coalition for three decades, was not an easy pushover. It retreated to the mountains, regrouped and hit back, forcing the federal troops and their allies, including paramilitaries from Eritrea, to withdraw. Now, after taking Tigray and key towns in neighbouring regions, the TPLF, joined by other militias, has threatened to take Addis Ababa, the capital city that is home to five million people, “within weeks”.

In his attempt to shake up Ethiopia’s power structures and crush the former ruling elites, Mr. Abiy has unleashed a series of events that he is no longer in a position to control. When the country moved to a parliamentary system from military dictatorship in the early 1990s, it adopted a model called “ethnic federalism” in which the regions, largely divided on ethnic lines, enjoyed some autonomy, while the federal government, controlled by the TPLF, focused on national unity, economic growth and defence. This model worked, at least for a decade, as Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous country that was devastated by a famine in 1983-85, emerged as East Africa’s strongest economic powerhouse. But ethnic tensions started resurfacing late last decade, and Mr. Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, was chosen to put the country back on the trajectory of growth and stability. But his moves to sideline the TPLF triggered a bigger political crisis, which eventually led to the war in Tigray. Mr. Abiy is now on the defensive. The move to take control of Tigray has failed. If he stops the military operations now, it would be seen as weakness and the rebels, emboldened by their recent victories and political support they gained from opposition groups, could march southwards. An all-out civil war would be disastrous as it could open old ethnic wounds. To avoid such a calamity, there has to be a mutually agreed upon ceasefire. But neither side has shown any interest in talks. The international community, particularly the African Union, should press both the rulers and the rebels to immediately end the fighting and start talking.

A new jurisprudence for political prisoners

The Supreme Court’s judgment alters a terrible legal landscape that has seen the blatant misuse of the UAPA

A judgment of the Supreme Court of India on October 28, 2021 has immense potential to reclaim the idea of personal liberty and human dignity. In Thwaha Fasal vs Union of India, the Court has acted in its introspective jurisdiction and deconstructed the provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) with a great sense of legal realism. This paves the way for a formidable judicial authority against blatant misuse of this draconian law.

The background

In this case from Kerala, there are three accused. The third among them is absconding. The police registered the case and later the investigation was handed over to the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The accused were in their twenties when arrested on November 1, 2019. During the investigation, some materials containing radical literature were found, which included a book on caste issues in India and a translation of the dissent notes written by Rosa Luxemburg to Lenin. There were also leaflets that were allegedly related to Maoist organisations.

Thus, the provisions of the UAPA were invoked. Against the first accused, Allen Shuaib, offences under Sections 38 and 39 of the UAPA and 120B of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) were alleged. Section 38 deals with “offence relating to membership of a terrorist organisation” and Section 39 deals with “offence relating to support given to a terrorist organisation.” Section 120B of the IPC is the penal provision on criminal conspiracy. Against the second accused, Thwaha Fasal, over and above these charges, Section 13 of the UAPA was alleged — which is the provision about punishment for unlawful activities. Both the accused were students and there were no allegations of any overt act of violence. According to the accused, the charges were an attempt to label them as terrorists, based on the intellectual and ideological inclinations attributed to them.

Judicial trajectory

The case had a curious trajectory. After initial rejection of the pleas, the trial judge granted bail to both the accused in September 2020. By that time, the students had completed more than 10 months in prison. The High Court, in appeal, while confirming the bail of Allen, chose to set aside the bail granted to Thwaha. The matter then reached the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, after a comprehensive examination, upheld the trial judge’s finding that the materials, prima facie, do not show any “intention on the part of both the accused to further the activities of the terrorist organisation”. It found fault with the High Court for not venturing to record, prima facie, findings regarding charges against Thwaha, whose bail was set aside by the High Court. The top court confirmed the bail granted to both the students. Now, they have been set free.

The Supreme Court was emphatic and liberal when it said that mere association with a terrorist organisation is not sufficient to attract the offences alleged. Unless and until the association and the support were “with intention of furthering the activities of a terrorist organisation”, offence under Section 38 or Section 39 is not made out, said the Court. Mere possession of documents or books by the accused at a formative young age, or even their fascination for an ideology, does not ipso facto or ipso jure make out an offence, the Court ruled.

The judgment can act as an effective admonition against a suppressive regime. It also exposes the hypocrisy of the law, the UAPA. Section 43D(5) of the UAPA says that for many of the offences under the Act, bail should not be granted, if “on perusal of the case diary or the report (of the investigation)… there are reasonable grounds for believing that the accusation … is prima facie true”. Thus, the Act prompts the Court to consider the version of the prosecution alone while deciding the question of bail. Unlike the Criminal Procedure Code, the UAPA, by virtue of the proviso to Section 43D(2), permits keeping a person in prison for up to 180 days, without even filing a charge sheet. Thus, the statute prevents a comprehensive examination of the facts of the case on the one hand, and prolongs the trial indefinitely by keeping the accused in prison on the other.

Presumption of guilt

Instead of presumption of innocence, the UAPA holds presumption of guilt of the accused. Section 43E of the Act expressly says about “presumption as to the offences”. According to Section 43D(5), jail is the rule and bail is often not even an exception. The Court, in Thwaha Fasal, refused to construct this Section in a narrow and restrictive sense. This analysis has to some extent, liberalised an otherwise illiberal bail clause. In the process, the Court has also tried to mitigate the egregious error committed by a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in National Investigation Agency vs Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali (2019) that interpreted the same provision.

In Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali, the Court said that by virtue of Section 43D(5) of UAPA, the burden is on the accused to show that the prosecution case is not prima facie true. The proposition in Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali is that the bail court should not even investigate deeply into the materials and evidence and should consider the bail plea, primarily based on the nature of allegations, for, according to the Court, Section 43D(5) prohibits a thorough and deeper examination. As such, in several cases, bail pleas were rejected relying on Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali, despite the strong indications that the evidence itself was false or fabricated. Many intellectuals including Sudha Bharadwaj and Siddique Kappan were denied bail based on a narrow interpretation of the bail provision as done in Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali. Stan Swamy was another victim of this provision and its fallacious reading.

The top court has now altered this terrible legal landscape. For doing so, the Court also relied on a later three-judge Bench decision in Union of India vs K.A. Najeeb (2021). In K.A. Najeeb, the larger Bench said that even the stringent provisions under Section 43D(5) do not curtail the power of the constitutional court to grant bail on the ground of violation of fundamental rights.

The text of the draconian laws sometimes poses immense challenge to the courts by limiting the space for judicial discretion and adjudication. This is more evident in the context of bail. The courts usually adopt two mutually contradictory methods in dealing with such tough provisions. One is to read and apply the provision literally and mechanically which has the effect of curtailing the individual freedom as intended by the makers of the law. In contrast to this approach, there could be a constitutional reading of the statute, which perceives the issues in a human rights angle and tries to mitigate the rigour of the vicious content of the law. The former approach is reflected in Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali and the latter in Thwaha Fasal. In Thwaha Fasal, the Court has asserted the primacy of judicial process over the text of the enactment, by way of an interpretative exercise.

Delhi riots case

On June 15, 2021, the Delhi High Court granted bail to student activists Natasha Narwal, Devangana Kalita and Asif Iqbal Tanha who were charged under the UAPA for alleged connections with the Delhi riots. In an appeal by the Delhi police, unfortunately, the Supreme Court said that the well-reasoned judgment of the High Court shall not be treated as a precedent.

The Thwaha Fasal judgment has, by implication, legitimised the methodology in the Delhi High Court verdict that ventured to examine the content of the charge instead of swallowing the prosecution’s story. It is this judicial radicalism that builds an emancipatory legal tool. The judgment should be invoked to release other political prisoners in the country who have been denied bail either due to the harshness of the law or due to the follies in understanding the law or both.

Kaleeswaram Raj is a lawyer at the Supreme Court of India

AUKUS could rock China’s boat in the Indo-Pacific

While there is nothing surprising about AUKUS, a Pacific-centric orientation has advantages in the context of China

The trilateral security agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States (AUKUS) continues to be in the news. At the COP26 meeting at Glasgow, U.S. President Joe Biden tried to smoothen ruffled feathers when he candidly told his French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron, that the Australian submarine deal with France had been handled clumsily. An assuaged France is bound to come around eventually since the Trans-Atlantic partnership is important for both sides. In regard to Australia, however, the kerfuffle over the cancelled submarine deal continues to dog relations. A piqued France harbours resentment at the Australian action, going by Mr. Macron’s recent remarks at the G20 press conference on November 1.

The ASEAN factor

There is also the matter of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) disunity over the emergence of AUKUS. The South-east Asian nations have been unable to agree on other issues before, such as developments in Myanmar or the strategic threats posed by China. While AUKUS is clearly an attempt by the U.S. to bolster regional security, including securing Australia’s seaborne trade, any sudden accretion in Australia’s naval capabilities is bound to cause unease in the region. In a statement on September 20, Australia had unambiguously reassured the region of its commitment to ASEAN centrality and its continued support for the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone Treaty as well as the Treaty of Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone.

Even though Australia has denied that AUKUS is a defence alliance, this hardly prevents China from exploiting ASEAN’s concerns at having to face a Hobson’s choice amidst worsening U.S.-China regional rivalry. True to style, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman has criticised AUKUS as an “exclusive bloc” and “clique” that gravely undermines regional peace and security and reflects a Cold War mentality. AUKUS is based on a shared commitment of its three members to deepening diplomatic, security and defence cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Even though this has not been stated explicitly, the rise of China, particularly its rapid militarisation and aggressive behaviour, is undoubtedly the trigger.

Decades-old partnership

As such, there is nothing surprising about the U.S., the U.K. and Australia coming together. The U.S. and the U.K. have enjoyed a special defence partnership for decades. The U.S. and the U.K. have fought together as allies, together with Australia, in the Second World War. The U.S. shared nuclear weapons technology with the U.K. following the merging of the latter’s nuclear weapons programme with the American Manhattan Project as early as in 1943. The first U.K. test was conducted in 1952 in the Montebello Islands in Australia, a country that still regards the British monarch as the head of state, whose powers are exercised constitutionally through her representative, the Governor-General of Australia. To suggest that these three nations have come together to forge a new defence pact is stating the obvious. They have been alliance partners all along.

Engagement with China

For three nations, their relations with China have recently been marked by contretemps. Australia, especially, had for years subordinated its strategic assessment of China to transactional commercial interests. Much to China’s chagrin, its policy of deliberately targeting Australian exports has not yielded the desired results. Instead of kow-towing, the plucky Australian character has led Canberra to favour a fundamental overhaul of its China policy. The attempt to torment Australia has clearly backfired.

That China’s naval expansion and far-ranging forays in the oceanic space should have compelled Australia to revisit its defence and security policies should also not surprise anyone. As early as in 1942, during the Second World War, three Japanese midget submarines, launched from five large submarines that acted as launching platforms, had mounted a sneak attack in Sydney Harbour. Though the damage and casualties inflicted by the attack were limited, that brazen episode, combined by the bombing by Japanese warplanes of Darwin, also in 1942, drove home to Australia that its distant geographical location could not guarantee its security against a direct maritime threat.

In 2017 and 2019, the Talisman Sabre exercises (a biennial exercise that is led by either Australia or the U.S.), conducted by the Royal Australian Navy, were tagged by a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Dongdiao-class Type 815 auxiliary general intelligence (AGI) vessel. China also used the same type of vessel to monitor the multilateral Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in 2018.

These developments, no doubt a portent of things to come, have cast a long shadow on Australia’s trade and strategic interests.

‘To further’ is the key

The transfer of sensitive submarine technology by the U.S. to the U.K. is a sui generis arrangement based on their long-standing Mutual Defence Agreement of 1958. The AUKUS joint statement clearly acknowledges that trilateral defence ties are decades old, and that AUKUS aims to further joint capabilities and interoperability. The word “further” is key, since defence cooperation already exists. The other areas covered are cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies, apart from undersea capabilities. The latter is the most visible part of the agreement, and potentially, a game-changer.

Elements in the broader agenda provide opportunities to the U.S., the U.K. and Australia to engage the regional countries. There are clear indications that New Zealand is open to cooperation with AUKUS in such areas, especially cyber, its nuclear-averse record notwithstanding. All three nations will also play a major role in U.S.-led programmes such as Build Back Better World, Blue Dot Network and Clean Network, to meet the challenge of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

A comparison, the reach

The Quad and AUKUS are distinct, yet complementary. Neither diminishes the other. Whereas the Quad initiatives straddle the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, a Pacific-centric orientation for AUKUS has advantages. Such a strategy could potentially strengthen Japan’s security as well as that of Taiwan in the face of China’s mounting bellicosity. Shifting AUKUS’s fulcrum to the Pacific Ocean could reassure ASEAN nations. It could also inure AUKUS to any insidious insinuation that accretion in the number of nuclear submarines plying the Indo-Pacific might upset the balance of power in the Indian Ocean.

China’s potent military capacities must be taken seriously. China has a large and growing undersea fleet, including attack submarines, both nuclear-powered and diesel-electric. China’s naval power is enabling it to challenge U.S. dominance in the Pacific beyond the first island chain. A U.S. that still boasts the world’s most powerful military is perhaps tempted to look at effective means to militarily counter China. The Quad structure currently has neither the mandate nor the capability to achieve this. There are limited options in the economic arena with China already having emerged as a global economic powerhouse. AUKUS, though, provides an opportunity to the U.S. to place proxy submarine forces to limit China’s forays, especially in the Pacific Ocean.

Sujan R. Chinoy, a former Ambassador, is currently the Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views expressed are personal

The long road to timely MGNREGA payments

There remain delays in the stage where the Central government transfers wages to the workers’ accounts

There is a famous parable of the 13th century mystic Mullah Nasruddin. He was once spotted under a street light searching frantically for a key that he had lost. A passer-by noticed the frazzled Nasruddin and stopped to help him. After both of them spent a long time searching for the key, the exasperated passer-by asked Nasruddin if he was sure that he had dropped his key there. Pointing to his house far away, Nasruddin said that he had, in fact, lost the key near his house. Agitated, the passer-by shouted at Nasruddin: “If you lost the key near your house, why are you wasting time searching for your key here?” To which Nasruddin, with no sense of irony, responded, “There is no light near my house but there is light here, so I am searching for the lost key here.”

Delays in payments

This parable captures the essence of wage payment delays under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Eight crore MGNREGA wage transactions were pending on Diwali. The People’s Action for Employment Guarantee (PAEG) recently released a tracker with important metrics on MGNREGA implementation. It showed that funds allocation this financial year (FY) is 34% lower than the revised budget allocation of last year. And this year’s funds have been exhausted. The Ministry of Rural Development issued a press release in response to these stating, “Currently Rs.8921 crore funds are available which can meet the wage liability…” This statement is misleading as the Ministry has not accounted for pending arrears of ₹17,543 crore from previous years. In a welcome move since the media reports, the Chief Ministers of Odisha and Tamil Nadu wrote to the Prime Minister seeking additional funds for MGNREGA.

There is ample evidence by now, including an admission by the Ministry of Finance, that delays in wage payments are a consequence of insufficient funds. There are two stages in the wage payment process. In Stage 1, States must electronically send invoices, also called FTOs, to the Central government within eight days of completion of work at a worksite. These invoices contain essential worker details like their names and bank account numbers. The Central government then processes the invoices and transfers wages directly to the workers’ accounts. This is called Stage 2 and is the Central government’s responsibility that must be completed within seven days after Stage 1. Since Supreme Court orders in 2018, Stage 1 delays have reduced while Stage 2 delays continue. As per the Act, if Stage 1 plus Stage 2 exceeds 15 days, then workers are entitled to a delay compensation for each day’s delay. However, in violation of the Act and the Supreme Court’s orders, no delay compensation for Stage 2 is even being calculated. Instead of ensuring sufficient funds for timely payments, the Central government has repeatedly tinkered with the payment architecture as if payment delays are an artefact of technological hurdles. The Nasruddin parable appeared in a new avatar this year. Earlier, the invoices were not segregated by caste. On March 2, the Central government issued a circular to segregate invoices based on the caste of workers (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and ‘Others’).

In order to investigate Stage 2 delays and the impact of caste-based invoices, as part of LibTech India, we released a report called ‘Heavy Wait’. We analysed 18 lakh invoices across 10 States from April to September. In our sample, Stage 2 was completed only for 29% of the invoices within the mandated seven-day period. In fact, for nearly two-thirds of the transactions in Jharkhand and more than half the transactions in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, Stage 2 exceeded 15 days. There was also a steady increase in Stage 2 delays from July to September indicating depletion of funds. If the Central government’s recent claims of allocations being adequate are true, then what is the explanation for such massive delays in wage payments?

Caste-based segregation

There were significant variations in delays by caste. While 46% of payments to SC workers and 37% for ST workers were completed in the mandated seven-day period, it was a dismal 26% for non-SC/ST workers. The negative impact of caste-based segregation was felt acutely in poorer States such as Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal. For instance, Stage 2 was completed in seven days for only half the transactions for SC/ST workers in Madhya Pradesh. This was much worse for non-SC/ST workers in Madhya Pradesh for whom only 7% of transactions were completed in that period. In addition to such stark differences, in West Bengal, the Central government kept pending nearly 45% of the wages beyond 15 days as on October 13.

As this newspaper reported earlier, caste-based segregation has also resulted in tensions at worksites. It had also resulted in a threefold increase of workload for computer operators at blocks. Our Right to Information request to access the circular met with a hazy response. When questioned by the media earlier about this move, the Central government said that “For better accounting purposes, it has been decided, in consultation with the Department of Expenditure, to have a category-wise (SC, ST and others) wage payment system.” No doubt, knowing the earnings of SC/ST households is useful. But it could have been done after the wages were paid. Toying with the Act using the veil of better accounting is illegal. After critical media reportage, the Central government, in a welcome move, has revoked the caste-based segregation of wage payments. However, the Central government has not assumed any accountability by paying compensation for delays despite the evident damage caused by caste-based segregation of payments.

Additionally, in our large sample analysis, we found no difference in the time taken for payments through the Aadhaar Payment Bridge Systems (APBS) and traditional account-based payments. In fact, APBS has given rise to a litany of complicated problems like misdirected payments and payment failures due to erroneous Aadhaar mapping with the payment software. Misdirected payments happen when one person’s Aadhaar gets linked to somebody else’s bank account. These problems are difficult to resolve even for bank and block officials resulting in increased hardships for workers. These minimally warrant an impartial, independent assessment and audit of the payment systems.

Lost keys cannot be found where they were not lost in the first place. In the same vein, technical fixes cannot be substitutes for political will. Official data show that the work demand this year is similar to that of last year. As such, at least ₹50,000 crore needs to be allocated urgently and the Central government, in compliance with Supreme Court orders, must automatically calculate and pay the workers their entitled delay compensation.

Anuradha De is a researcher with LibTech India; Rajendran Narayanan teaches in Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, and is associated with LibTech India and PAEG

Haryana law on hiring causes concern

Move can trigger exodus of domestic and global firms from hubs such as Gurugram, say experts

The Haryana Government’s law to reserve 75% jobs for locals, notified on Saturday, could trigger an exodus of large domestic and multinational investors across sectors such as auto and information technology that rely on highly skilled manpower, Indian industry has warned.

The law that kicks in from January 15, 2022, requires firms with 10 or more employees to reserve 75% of all jobs offering a salary of less than ₹30,000 a month for eligible candidates of State domicile. The salary ceiling was earlier proposed to be ₹50,000 for the law that stems from an electoral promise by the BJP’s ally the Jannayak Janta Party in the 2019 Assembly election.


Influx of talent

The move to regulate hiring of those earning less than ₹30,000 a month, is aimed at disallowing the influx of talent from other parts of the country even in sectors such as IT and IT-enabled services (ITeS), which the State does not have enough captive supply of, pointed out Amitava Ghosh, co-founder & principal partner at SSA Compliance Services LLP.

PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Pradeep Multani said Indian industry needs the most efficient work force to stay competitive in a globalised word.

“We believe that any Indian should be allowed to work in any State of India without any restrictions,” he said. “We have already lost out to Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in textiles and MNCs moving out of China have not come to India but shifted to Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh,” he noted.

“The 75% reservation will result in moving out of tech and automotive companies, especially MNCs as these are highly skilled manpower-based companies,” Mr. Multani said, suggesting that instead of compelling firms to hire locals, the State can consider giving a 25% subsidy to firms as an incentive for hiring locals.


Tilting the scales

Mr. Ghosh said the law is already tilting the scales for large firms, particularly in e-commerce, IT & ITeS and new manufacturing sectors, who had chosen Gurugram as a hub for their businesses. Moreover, imposing the reservations on gig and platform companies could create a crippling talent crunch, he pointed out.

“Raising the son of the soil issue and preventing free movement of manpower resources in the State from other regions is sure to have a tremendously adverse effect on the existing industries in the State. This may force those tech giants and other industries to shift their base from Haryana to other States and drain out the State’s monetary resources to that extent,” Mr. Ghosh emphasised.

“If other States take Haryana’s cue and follow suit, there would surely be an extreme level of talent crunch across industries and across the country,” he said, stressing that such electoral promises for job reservations will affect the economy at this critical juncture.

In April, the PHD Chamber had urged the Haryana government to consider lowering the original salary ceiling of ₹50,000 a month to ₹15,000 a month on a ‘cost to company’ basis and raise it in tandem with efforts to improve skill sets in the State.

It had also suggested that the reservation, if any, should begin from 20%-25% as technical and specialised skill sets will take time to inculcate among the State’s youth.



The News Editorial Analysis 6th November 2021

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