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Why Corbett tiger reserve needs immediate attention

The current crisis of Corbett Reserve is not a new one but the speed and volume with which these surreptitious illegal construction and tree felling have been pushed with impunity have threatened environmentalists including wildlife conservationists as well.

Amita Singh

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What comes from Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve is not news for anyone. It is a true narrative of the ignorance and casualness with which MOEFCC has been looking at forest and wildlife crimes notwithstanding chest beating at COP26 which has just ended with revived understanding about how these forests can be a gold mine of trade in carbon credits. The tiger reserves (TR) of India are increasing in numbers from 9 in 1973 to 52 today as Ramgarh Vishdhari Tiger Reserve (RVTR) in Bundi district of Rajasthan joins the list this year. A rising number of reserves do not adequately reflect upon ‘business as usual’ attitude of Central or State administration towards conservation of wild life and their habitat. Those grave management concerns including wildlife crimes which were expected to be seriously addressed, continue to pose immense threat to forest ecosystems. A defensive Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has avoided taking a tough position against real culprits and the ground based forest officials remain unsupported as they always were. All mafias with dilettante operations within reserves continue to be insulated from legal action. Despite the Supreme Court and the High Court issuing directives for survey and investigation of illegalities taking place inside Corbett reserve, its implementation is bogged down in technicalities expressed by the State government including questioning the very legitimacy of appointment of Sanjiv Chaturvedi as the investigation officer by the PCCF.

India has come a long way from an era when wild life crimes were taking place with impunity at the heart of Delhi including a power packed Chanakyapuri that provoked PM Indira Gandhi to take up this issue with special concern. The credit of looking towards these mauled reserves unquestionably goes to Indira Gandhi, who immediately after becoming the Prime Minister in 1966 kickstarted activities for environmental and wildlife conservation. The IUCN (International Conservation Union) was hosted in India for the first time before setting up a Task Force to Draft the Wildlife (Protection) Act (WLA) and then getting Parliamentary clearance to the Act in 1972. With a base framework of management in place, nine Tiger reserves were constituted which were governed by Project Tiger Conservation Programme. The WLA was amended in 2006 to provide for the enforcement of Project Tiger through the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) which was established in December 2005 on recommendation of Tiger Task Force.

The National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) was constituted under section 38 L (1) of Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The NTCA is headed by the Environment Minister as its Chairperson and the Environment Minister of State (MoS) as Vice Chairperson under section 38 L(2). NTCA also has three members of Parliament, the Secretary of Environment Ministry and other members which are drawn from an expert professional domain and from departments of Law & Social Justice, Tribal Affairs, National Commission for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, Panchayati Raj, Forest and Wildlife Conservation Departments. The NTCA’s inclusive and transdisciplinary constitution in itself is a reflection of maturity and partnerships aimed at appropriate enforcement of Rules in tiger conservation and management of Reserves on India. The authority derives its power from section 38 O (1) of WLPA, 1972 and functions under the guidance of Chairperson, Vice-Chairperson and other members.

Powers and functions of the NTCA are prescribed under section 38 O (1) and (2) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, as amended in 2006 but section 38 O(7) and 38 O(2) hold value regarding this controversy. The former section ensures that the tiger reserves and areas linking protected areas and tiger reserve are not diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses and the latter suggests that, the NTCA may, in the exercise of its powers and performance issue directions in writing to any person, officer or authority for the protection of tiger or tiger reserves and such person, officer or authority shall be bound to comply with the directions.

Such controversies as earlier stated have marred most reserves. Last year in Tamil Nadu’s Srivilliputhur-Megamalai Tiger Reserve an illegal road building and subsequent construction in the Core area of the reserve was undertaken. Roads cut through the circulatory system of reserves and gradually lead to its extinction. The Srivilliputhur-Megamalai Tiger Reserve maintained a vital forest contiguity between the Periyar Tiger reserve in Kerala and the Kanyakumari forests down below to the other southern rim. Reserves have a sacrosanct Core area that prohibits even a cosmetic entry of even a benign activity in it. The manner in which Stalin’s government has been stuck before the NTCA for deciding to proscribe and issue an injunction against illegal sanctions granted by the previous AIADMK government has put the government’s political position to a litmus test. Government that sanctioned crores for metal roads inside the reserve had blatantly ignored a crucial fact in managing reserves which lies in sustaining its contiguity for a spill-over buffer of wild populations with neighbourhood reserves and forests. On receiving the petition from environmentalists the Forest Department directed the Wildlife Warden to inspect the area. It is blatant violation of the Forest (Conservation) Act 1980 in which NTCA and Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee approvals were required by law. This concern also goes beyond wildlife concerns alone, as the dense evergreen forests which are destroyed through illegal constructions have also been sources of water channels of Vaigai river in Tamil Nadu and the Mullayar river in Kerala.

A similar controversy arose in the Balangir Reserve Forest in Odisha. In Jan 2019, more than a thousand trees were chopped off to make helipad for Prime Minister’s prospective visit. The Khurd-Balangir railway line was to be flagged off. Little did the forest department think how this activity would permanently damage the Reserve ecosystem. Also, permission to cut down trees was again not taken as reported by the Balangir Divisional Forest officer Sameer Satpathy.

Drawing from the above cases, Corbett controversy is in line with the state of Reserves in India. The Uttarakhand Forest Minister Harak Singh Rawat’s rejection of Investigating Officer on grounds of his appointment by PCCF Rajiv Bhartari instead of Chief Wildlife Warden J.S.Suhag has derailed appropriate investigations demanded by the Court. The complaint filed by Gaurav Bansal before the National Tiger Conservation Authority demanded the NTCA and the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) to verify the felling of ten thousand trees when permission was given only for 163 trees by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) in its meeting held on 21st September 2020. (Seeking permission under Section 2 of Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for non-forestry use of forest land is a prior condition for any activity inside Reserves). The DIG of CZA and the Director Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) issued notices to the PCCF and to the Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) of the State on allegations of tree felling in the Kalagarh division of the CTR for the PM’s Gujjar Sot , Pakhrau Tiger Safari. The petitioners clearly established that the activities permitted inside the CTR was contempt of the Supreme Court order in a Writ Petition (Civil) No. 47 of 1998 of Navin M Raheja Vs. Union of India and Others wherein it was observed that ‘no tree whatsoever shall be felled in the Corbett Tiger Reserve by the State or anyone else’. Technically two major issues needed investigation, first; felling of ten thousand trees and second; illegal constructions inside the reserve. While it may appear to be a case of tiger conservation but it involves a host of questions to be raised in a forest ecosystem conservation.The NTCA had conducted a field visit of the Pakhro and Morghatti zones of Kalagarh forest division which falls in the buffer zone of the tiger reserve and found in its Report of 22nd Oct. that illegal construction of buildings, bridges and water bodies had been carried out there without the prior sanction of authorities or financial sanctions and many “illegal” construction of buildings without statutory approvals or sanctions were found on Kandi road, Morghatti road, Pakhrau forest rest house and also near water body near Pakhrau forest rest house. The Survey also referred to the possibility that forest officers may have forged government records to allow such illegal constructions and therefore recommended immediate demolition of illegal constructions followed by ascertaining an accurate number of trees felled through remote sensing at the National Remote Sensing Centre.

In February this year even the Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde and Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian had come heavily on the State authorities and issued notices to the MOEFCC, State Ministry of Environment, NTCA, National Board of Wildlife (NBW) and officials of CTR for their violations of Section 38 (O) of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, which provides that Tiger Reserves shall not be diverted for ecologically unsustainable uses, and in case it is required, than it is mandatory for the State to take prior approval from NBW and NTCA. The Uttarakhand High Court ordered the MoEFCC and also the state’s top forest and wildlife officials to inspect the Corbett Tiger Reserve (CTR) and submit its action-taken report by November 9 on complaints about illegal constructions and felling of trees in the tiger reserve. The order found that these works were in violation of Indian Forest Act 1927, Wildlife (Protection) Act 1971, and Forest (Conservation) Act 1980.

Now looking into the controversy which erupts on Sanjiv Chaturvedi’s appointment by the PCCF and not Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) as the latter being legally authorized to appoint Investigation Officer. Chaturvedi is the Chief Conservator of Forest (research) based in Haldwani, a Magsaysay awardee with a spotless reputation of honesty and impartiality but that doesn’t seem to be of much importance before Rawat who suggests that the IO should be selected by the CWW. Lets do a status check on whois authorized by law?

In State government the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) is the Head of Forest Force in the Apex Scale of Pay Level 17.There is another PCCF who is not the Head of Forest Force and falls in the HAG+ Scale of Pay Level 16. The position of Chief Wildlife Warden (CWW) comes only below the Additional PCCF which is at HAG Pay level 15. So legally and administratively the PCCF is the right authority to appoint an IO for any forest area within the state. Mr. Rawat’s objection may appear obvious on segmented reading of the Wild Life Conservation Rules that, ‘The Chief Wildlife Warden (CWLW) is the statutory authority, under the Wildlife Protection Act, who heads the Wildlife Wing of the department and exercises complete administrative control over Protected Areas (PAs) within a state’ but prior to this the Rules clearly establish that, ‘The State Forest Department is vested with the task of administration and management of forests, including wildlife reserves. State Forest Departments are headed by Principal Chief Conservators of Forests (PCCF) who are officers of the Indian Forest Service (IFS)’. These Rules further say that, “The Forest Department is charged with the tasks of protection and law enforcement within forest areas through the prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of all forest and wildlife offences.  Officers over a certain rank are also vested with quasi-judicial powers to deal with cases of encroachment, seizures of illegal wildlife produce, and other notified forest offences.” This section should leave no one in doubt that there is no discrepancy in the appointment of IO by the PCCF as PCCF is the right authority with quasi-judicial powers to deal with investigations on encroachments, wildlife crimes or tree felling inside Reserves.

The current crisis of Corbett Reserve is not a new one but the speed and volume in which these surreptitious illegal construction and tree felling has been pushed with impunity has threatened environmentalists which includes wildlife conservationists as well. Forest is an ecosystem intertwined with varieties of identifiable and not so identifiable lives which inhabit the terrain. Depends who is seeing it. Judiciary is expected to take a firm stand on any illegality inside forest habitats and help change administrative attitudes of ‘business as usual’ so that the government could honestly progress on its commitment to COP26 made in Glasgow recently.

The author is president, NDRG, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

INDIA MUST KEEP ITS OPTIONS OPEN ON BRICS

Joyeeta Basu

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There is some speculation about the direction that the BRICS platform comprising Brazil, Russia, India and China, is taking. The “three pillars” of BRICS are “Political and Security”, “Economic and Financial” and “Cultural and People-to-people exchanges”. In reality, the thrust of BRICS has always been economic—specifically, encouraging commercial and developmental cooperation. A result of this has been the BRICS bank, now known as the New Development Bank, a multilateral development bank headquartered in Shanghai, whose motto is resource mobilization for setting up infrastructure and development projects, both in BRICS countries and in other emerging economies and developing countries, apart from complementing the efforts of multilateral and regional financial institutions for global growth and development. The “political and security pillar” has an apparent multilateral thrust, with its focus being the enhancement of “cooperation and dialogue on issues of global and regional security, developments in the global political space as well as the reform of the multilateral system to make it relevant for the 21st century”. This “pillar” also talks of countering terrorism and its financing. However, on the political and security front BRICS has nothing to show, except for the platform’s utility as a “tool” that can be used by India to make a rather aggressive China give the concession of lowering tensions along the LAC ahead of a BRICS summit. As for countering terrorism, China has a long history of blocking India from getting known Pakistan-backed terrorists designated as global terrorists by the United Nations Security Council. As a result of which, it took a decade of lobbying by India to get Masood Azhar of Jaish-e-Mohammed listed as a global terrorist. Even as recently as last month, China put a hold on the Indian—as well as American—proposal to sanction a Lashkar e Tayyaba terrorist, Abdul Rehman Makki under the Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee of the UNSC. Given such a track record, it’s no wonder that the “political and security pillar” of the BRICS is wobbly.

And now China is pushing for the expansion of the platform to include countries such as Iran and Argentina on board. Post the virtual BRICS summit hosted by Beijing in June 2022, Russia announced that these two countries were on track to become BRICS members. On the margins of the Beijing summit, China hosted a meeting of leaders from Algeria, Argentina, Cambodia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Fiji, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Senegal, Thailand and Uzbekistan to discuss developmental issues. Pakistan too, apparently, wanted to be part of this “BRICS-plus” meeting, but alleged that it could not, because of opposition from a BRICS member, presumably India. There is already speculation that all these countries are potential BRICS members, Pakistan included—countries that are considered to be part of China’s orbit of influence, with Pakistan being actually anti-India. Hence, the entry of these countries can only strengthen China’s hands to turn this forum into an anti-western, anti-American bloc. In this, Russia too will be with China, given the antipathy that Vladimir Putin already had against the West, with his dislike exacerbating with the sanctions that have been pouring down on him post the invasion of Ukraine. Analysts are speculating that Xi Jinping may now attempt to push his “Global Security Initiative” into the BRICS. In April 2022, Xi, while speaking at the “Boao Forum for Asia’s” annual meeting, proposed a new “Global Security Initiative” that would be against the “Cold War mentality” and superpower hegemony, which, according to him are endangering world peace. It is an obviously anti-US move, apart from being anti-Quad. China, anyway, has been railing against forums like the Quad and AUKUS, accusing them of being anti-China in their focus. Broadly, GSI is about shutting out the US from the Indo-Pacific and making the Indian Ocean Region Beijing’s—the new hegemon’s—playing field. There is speculation that China will but naturally want the expanded BRICS to be a part of his Initiative—in fact, it is being said that this is the reason why it wants to expand the BRICS platform. It is a different matter that while railing against “hegemony” and “unilateralism”, China is guilty of practising exactly what it accuses the US of, and much worse—its aggression against India and Taiwan and its belligerence in the South China Sea being cases in point. In such a scenario, what will India do? As China pushes to make BRICS an anti-US bloc—which it inevitably will—what future does India have in such a forum, given the depth of its own strategic partnership with the US, its close ties with the western hemisphere, and given the fact that it’s an important player in the Indo-Pacific as a member of the Quad? Even otherwise, such an anti-US forum will go against the grain of India’s foreign policy, which is multilateralism. India may be a founding member of the BRICS, but it needs to keep all options open, including leaving in case it becomes difficult for New Delhi to continue to be a part of such a platform.

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Harassment of ‘cannabis offenders’ calls for amendment of the Narcotics Act

One of the major concerns is how police treats the offenders caught under the NDPS Act. A big question arises: why don’t we legalise cannabis and tax it like tobacco and alcohol?

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India brought the Narcotics and Psychotropic Act (NDPS) legislation in 1985 under the Congress regime, succumbing to pressure by the Americans who spearheaded a worldwide campaign against drugs, resulting in adoption of single convention on Narcotics drugs in 1961. Before 1985, all the banned substances such as ganja, charas, hashish, opium were sold freely and used enthusiastically in India. India has had a rich tradition of cannabis consumption since the vedic ages. The earliest reference to cannabis is contained in the fourth book of the Vedas, the Atharveda, which refers to it as one of the “five kingdoms of herbs that release us from anxiety”. A reference in the Ashtadhyayi of Panini reinforces the view that cannabis was known to Indians even 2,300 years ago. Some call is as “food of god”, some as “amrit”, in various texts.

Weed and charas are popularly called in today’s context as the “intoxication of the poor”, and one in every 11 Indians is directly addicted to cannabis. There are a volley of questions as to whether the passed legislation has regulated the proliferation of consumption of cannabis or whether there has been no gain . Central government in 2021 filled an affidavit in the Delhi High court replying to a petition claiming that it has “adopted a balanced approach on cannabis” by empowering the state governments to “permit, control and regulate the cultivation of any cannabis plant, production, manufacture, possession, transport, import inter-state, export inter-state, sale, purchase, consumption or use of cannabis (excluding charas) for medical, scientific and industrial purposes”. A big question arises: why don’t we legalise cannabis and tax it like tobacco and alcohol? India earned a whopping Rs 1,75,000 crore and Rs 53,000 crore in 2019-2020 from taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

In 2019 alone, 72,000 people were arrested in the whole country under the NDPS Act with the vast majority criminalized for cannabis consumption and procurement. Many crimes and accidents are committed under the influence of alcohol and a 2015 study by Lachenmeie and Rehm found that alcohol and nicotine were far riskier in consumption than cannabis. This study prompted many US states and other countries to legalise cannabis for recreational use. So, a big argument is this, on whose pressure we brought the NDPS Act are themselves legislated, legalizing its recreational use, how are we justified with the present NDPS Act?

One of the major concerns is how police treats the offenders caught under the NDPS Act. On the condition of anonymity, a source revealed that he was caught with a very small amount of hash for recreational use and he smoked it once in a while. He was caught smoking and the police checked his purse wherein a very small amount of hash was found from his purse. Later, the police harassed him and extorted Rs 27,000 rupees on the pretext of not filing a case. The social stigma attached to it and the whole burden of criminal justice system and the ill-treatment meted out to a person caught under the NDPS Act can traumatize anyone which gives an undue advantage to the police to harass and extort money from the offender. A person is treated as a hardened criminal and is made to get mixed up with hardened criminals inside the jail if he is remanded to custody. People also get a hard time getting bail under the NDPS Act and even first time offenders are not shown much by the judges.

What we want is an amendment in the NDPS Act of 1985 and a popular debate on reason for uplifting the ban on cannabis. Any mature functioning democracy should have proper debate on issues such as this which is affecting the lives of millions of people. The only beneficiary in this whole ordeal are the policemen who can extort anything out of a person caught.

(Shitij Rao is a political commentator)

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Maharashtra thriller is not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last

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Maybe it’s a good time to remember the celebrated playwright George Bernard Shaw’s words: “Any man who is not a communist at the age of 20 is a fool. Any man who is still a communist at 30 is an even bigger fool. We should have had socialism already, but for the socialists.”

Often when asked why he miserably failed in making his political fortune despite his high intellect and people connect, Bernard Shaw’s response used to be that “possessing knowledge” and “pursuing politics as a career” are oxymorons. He said, “He knows nothing; he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career”.

Like Samuel Johnson once said: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He meant that every crime and every misbehavior was tolerated as long as the perpetrator screamed that he loved his country. On the other hand, if you questioned the behavior of the country or government, you were promptly dubbed a traitor, no matter how noble you were.”

In spirit of this discussion, Nation and State are to be treated interchangeably as a governance unit. Interesting to note the latest twist to the ongoing Maharashtra Political Thriller: Yes, you heard it right—Eknath Shinde becoming the Chief Minister of the state. While it almost came out of syllabus, in hindsight it looks politically not just expedient, even otherwise prudent given the political equation between major players active on the ground.

This move is expected to achieve more than just one objective and if some can be detailed: (i) BJP would go to the next election with an absolute clean slate; (ii) All issues internal to the Sena and BJP was not fishing in the troubled water; (iii) Aligned to the principle “eliminate the competition” is the best way to deal with the competition; (iv) Gels well with the critical factors relevant to so called caste politics—widely prevalent in the Indian context for all states.

But all said and done, as always, the country has been caught off guard when it comes to BJP’s strategic moves and hope those who underestimate the acumen of the political class in general would introspect.

The political drama is reminiscent of many past political events. Analysts would draw an analogy from the defection engineered in 1978 when Sharad Pawar pulled himself away from the ruling Congress legislative party to become chief minister. He was just 38 and had upstaged the incumbent, Vasantdada Patil. Of course, that was long before the anti-defection law kicked in in 1985 through the 52nd Amendment to the Constitution. It’s another matter that Indira Gandhi dismissed his government when he did not heed her call to merge with Congress (I).

Several such separation events have happened in different states as well. Nonetheless, the peculiarity embedded in the current instance is that the breakaway faction is in the majority, which puts it on a different footing in terms of legality in getting the party symbol. But such situations are likely to be eased out by the judiciary in supersonic speed and rightfully so to avoid a potential anarchy.

One other exciting aspect is the unfolding race to appropriate Bala Saheb’s name and legacy. This reminded me of 2000 when Naveen Patnaik formed the Biju Janata Dal carved out of the erstwhile Janata Dal, of which his father Biju Patnaik was part. The president of the state unit of Janata Dal then, Ashok Das, developed issues with Naveen Patnaik primarily around who has a higher right to Biju’s legacy apart from sharing party coffers. In fact, Ashok Das went to the election in 2000 by coining the below tag line with the hope of confusing the electorate that it’s he who represented Biju’s Bonafide political heir:

(Translation: We do not know who is from which party & whose symbol is what? The country knows we are the true heirs of Biju & our symbol is Chakra!) Of course, this emotive assertion did not cut ice with the electorate. Instead, Naveen Patnaik won in 2000 and has been in charge of governance since. That’s the power of inheritance and more significantly possessing the art of using it to one’s advantage to keep rivals away from the hot seat of power.

Recall what happened recently in the case of the LJP after the demise of its founder Ram Vilas Paswan. The brother and the son of the late leader, Chacha and Bhatija, split, and eventually, the majority group got the party symbol from the EC after a long-drawn process though. In short, the Maharashtra imbroglio is not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last. The fact is that every time such political drama unfolds, some new challenging aspects do emerge not just in terms of constitutionality, but even with political implications. In a way, this may signal some formidable message for the satraps of regional parties who often draw comfort of enjoying absolute control of the respective party.

The least that can be said is that Maharashtra, as the financial nerve center of India, deserves better, though the masala that emerges from such fiascos is entertaining in the short run.

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BJP HERE TO STAY

Priya Sahgal

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At the BJP National Executive in Hyderabad, Home Minister Amit Shah made an interesting comment—that the way he sees it the BJP is here to stay for the next three decades. There is no breaking news in this statement for the way the Congress is going it is clear that there is no stopping the BJP. But at the same time it would be interesting to see what kind of a governance model the BJP has in plan for the next three years. Will he be able to promote India as a vishwa-guru? Will the BJP be able to end the politics of jaatiwad and parivarwaad?

Well Maharashtra seems a step in the right direction if the limited goal is to strike at dynasty politics. For the short term, Chief Minister Eknath Shinde has shown that there can be a Sena without the Thackerays—though we have to see how this plays out in the courts which will take into account the strength of Shiv Sainiks outside the House as well. But if Eknath Shinde (aided and abetted by the BJP) is able to wrest the party symbol from the Thackerays then that sends a very strong message to other political dynasties.

Already Akhilesh Yadav is feeling the heat. In the recent bypolls, the Samajwadi Party lost two Muslim dominated strongholds Azamgarh and Rampur to the BJP. Akhilesh’s silence on the hijab controversy during the recent assembly polls was noticed by the minority community. And now during the national executive Prime Minister Modi pointed out that they need to woo backwards amongst the Muslim community as well. Already the party leadership is divided between Akhilesh and his Uncle Shivpal Yadav. The young SP chief has a tough task ahead and he made the right decision when he gave up his Lok Sabha seat for the MLA one. He has to show he is serious about state politics. Then comes the curious and curiouser case of Rahul Gandhi, the dynast who doesn’t know what to do with his silver spoon. Should he shake it or stir it or exchange it! Party sources claim that the Congress is still not sure as to whether it would be holding its inner party polls in September as planned. Which means that Rahul’s elevation could get further delayed. Which means the confusion will further continue over the leadership issue. Well, on one side, there is a party that has the next three decades chalked out and, on the other side, is a party that is to come up with a definite plan for the next three months!

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Team Modi should involve end stakeholders to push reforms

If PM Modi’s natural style is ‘just do it, and do it fast’, now the government needs to pay greater attention to change management to make the reforms more acceptable.

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In response to the Agnipath scheme, when people took to the streets, it seemed like a familiar sight. One more “good” reform scheme of the Narendra Modi government was being opposed vehemently by the masses. And this time, many noticed a trend in terms of repeat of protests against government schemes— demonetisation, CAA, farm laws and, now, the Agnipath scheme. Even genuine Modi supporters, in a way, felt the fatigue of “defeat” of one more Modi scheme in the durbar of the masses.

Interestingly, team Modi itself had not anticipated the kind of resistance that we have seen repeatedly. So why is it that Team Modi that seems to understand the voters’ mind fairly well when seeking votes fails to predict the pushback to their reforms from the masses? Why has this government failed in pushing through quite a few big reforms despite PM Modi’s popularity and his supposed positive intent? There are a few theories. The first theory is that PM Modi does not involve experts when forming policies. While this seemed true at the beginning of his tenure as PM, learning from the demonetisation “fiasco”, over a period of time, Modi has surely increased the level of consultation—at least the technical aspects, if not other aspects like change management required–with experts when designing big reform policies. GST was almost entirely designed and detailed by “experts”. The scrapping of Article 370 was thought through to the last level of details, including the push back and potential riots. The Agnipath scheme was evidently reviewed and detailed by the heads of Armed forces as mentioned by themselves in various forums.

The second theory is that the government isn’t communicating enough about their reform policies. This seems to be true to a fair extent. The government does make grand announcements and circulates information about the features and (supposed) benefits of their schemes on traditional and social media. But the problem is, people don’t get to hear what they want to hear in those communications. The communications aren’t convincingly conveying “what’s-in-it-for-me”, and, on the contrary, are giving rise to “why-it’s-not-for-me”, which the government has not been able to address. Generally, people of no country like sudden changes—more so Indian masses, a large section of whom are economically vulnerable and hovering around the poverty levels. In a zeal to announce “big transformative” changes, the government might actually be scaring the stakeholders who may not be prepared for reforms like open market competition (farmers, MSMEs) or short-term contractual arrangement (for army) rather than lifelong safe jobs. There are tactics on effective political messaging to push through reforms with relatively lesser resistance like those used in 1991 liberalization which the government might want to deploy.

The third theory is that the government is trying to do “too much too soon”. Team Modi seems to be in a hurry, which could arguably be a good thing, but the changes are probably appearing too suddenly and happening too fast for the people to keep pace with. If a relatively small reform like increasing FDI limit in the insurance sector took more than a decade, the present government aspires to push through big reforms like CAA and GST (from planning to launch to stabilisation) in 4-5 years. That also means that big reforms are not spaced out or phased adequately. The Agnipath scheme could have coexisted with regular recruitment for a few years before it completely replaced the regular recruitment to reduce the pain and fear among the young aspirants. Further, the government could have avoided launching the Agnipath scheme now when Army recruitment had been on hold for a few years due to Covid and lakhs of young aspirants were eagerly waiting for their dream jobs. Balancing speedy reforms with minimising pain of the stakeholders involves careful trade-offs which this government doesn’t seem to be making effectively.

The fourth theory is that this government isn’t seeking feedback from the beneficiaries. This, too, seems to be often true and probably the biggest of their shortcomings. If adequate inputs are taken from “beneficiaries” during the design stage and pilots are conducted, then policy related communications could be smarter and initiatives could be phased better. Be it GST, CAA or the farm laws, the government was caught off-guard for not knowing upfront what beneficiaries or stakeholders would actually want and how they would react.

The root cause of the above flaws in implementing big reforms could be PM Modi’s overconfidence or overenthusiasm or a combination both. Also, if PM Modi’s natural style is “Just do it, and do it fast”, he needs to learn from the experience of the last eight years and do more to alter his natural style with the goal to take the stakeholders along by being more empathetic and sensitive to their real and perceived needs. The government needs to pay greater attention to change management to make the reforms more acceptable. Nothing to take away the government’s efforts in pushing probably the maximum number of reforms and initiatives in India’s history within just eight years even in the challenging times of Covid pandemic and Ukraine conflict. The Modi government has initiated big reforms like Cooperative Banks Regulation Act, disbanding of Ordinance Board, privatisation of Air India, public listing of LIC, merger of PSU banks, Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, scrapping ofArticle 370 and implementing GST. History shows that it is relatively easier to push through reforms relating to businesses and corporates compared to those relating to citizens and it is no different for the Modi government. It has faced maximum opposition and failures in reforms relating to farmers, labour laws, land laws, army recruitment and citizenship status of people of India. The Modi government has eight years to look back at, reflect upon, draw lessons from and get better at pushing through reforms successfully. For this, Team Modi needs to ensure greater involvement of end stakeholders when designing reforms, pay greater attention to managing change, have a more palliative communication strategy and phase the reforms better. India needs more reforms from this government and a little more effort towards this will do the trick.

Alpesh Patel is a tech entrepreneur and has been a management consultant with Big4. He is the author of the book ‘Chalta Hai India’ by Bloomsbury, India.

Team Modi seems to be in a hurry, which could arguably be a good thing, but the changes are probably appearing too suddenly and happening too fast for the people to keep pace with. If a relatively small reform like increasing FDI limit in the insurance sector took more than a decade, the present government aspires to push through big reforms like CAA and GST (from planning to launch to stabilisation) in 4-5 years. That also means that big reforms are not spaced out or phased adequately. The Agnipath scheme could have coexisted with regular recruitment for a few years before it completely replaced the regular recruitment to reduce the pain and fear among the young aspirants.

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ALL LIVES MATTER, HINDU LIVES INCLUDED

Joyeeta Basu

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Just when one thought that western legacy media had already hit the nadir with its tendentious coverage of India and India’s majority community, in comes another report that is so mendacious in its interpretation of facts that it plumbs new depths of insensitivity and treads into the territory of religiophobia. We are talking about a new article from the famous—or infamous, seen from an Indian perspective—Time magazine, which has found the social media trend “Hindu Lives Matter” to be dangerous. The headline of the report written by a Kashmiri lady (according to her Twitter bio) blatantly says, “‘Hindu Lives Matter’ Emerges as Dangerous Slogan After Horrific Killing in India” (1 July 2022). It is as if the token use of “horrific” to describe the gruesome beheading of a Hindu tailor by two Islamist terrorists is enough lip service paid, and the main issue is the reaction to the incident on social media, inspired by the movement “Black Lives Matter”. Does one of the world’s best-known news weeklies realise that by publishing such a report it is essentially implying that the lives of people belonging to a particular religion—Hinduism—do not matter? That they could die like flies for all Time cared, as long as the mantle of victimhood stayed with a particular minority community in India. It is as if Hindu victimhood in the face of radical terrorism must be “cancelled”, as Time editors have pre-supposed that Hindus being in a majority in India are naturally oppressors. An Indian/Indian origin leftist commentator quoted in the article has this to say: “‘Hindu Lives Matter’ presumes those lives have been overlooked. Hindu lives have not been overlooked in a Hindu majoritarian state. This is a revisionist fabrication of history and the present.” This is a rather appalling and fabricated narrative where one community is the perpetual victim and another the oppressor, when in reality, India has had a history of conquest and subjugation of the majority community, and the resultant troubled inter-community relations. Even in the present, the situation is anything but black and white. There is nothing revisionist about a beheading on account of “blasphemy”. It is a reality. It happened, and no claims of victimhood by anyone can justify such an action. Instead of acknowledging this, the article normalises violence against Hindus. If this is not Hinduphobia, then what is? That one of the most well-known international news weeklies is providing a platform to such a phobia, and thus legitimising it, is extremely problematic.

In fact, it is the same Time that published another extremely problematic piece on the film, The Kashmir Files—The Kashmir Files: How a New Bollywood Film Marks India’s Further Descent Into Bigotry, 30 March 2022—where the Indian/Indian-origin author claimed the film to be a part of “Indian cinema’s revisionist trend, used to justify the brazen Hindu extremism of the present”. To say that a film on the suffering of Kashmiri Pandits is revisionist is itself a revisionist claim. Hence, one can argue that the trend is now for woke leftists to delegitimise all that India’s majority community has suffered as “revisionist history”.

In journalism, there is a practice of writing the headline before writing the story, where the story is tailored to fit the headline. The problem is that, in such cases, facts often get sacrificed at the altar of a pre-determined agenda or narrative. When it comes to western media’s coverage of India’s current government, and increasingly of the majority population—presumably because the western media sees them as supportive of the government—a template of bigotry and majoritarianism has been pre-decided. This confirmation bias has just to be fed by those who know how to do it, and are willing to do it. This antagonism of the western mainstream media could be because of actual ignorance or plain laziness to learn about the ground situation. It could be ideological, or may have elements of racism in it. It could also be inspired by forces inimical to India, who want to show this country as a cauldron of hatred and thus not a stable investment destination. It could be any of these reasons, or a combination of some or all of these, but the bottom line is that the demonisation of India sells with the western legacy media, resulting in a one-way street of negative coverage.

But the mistake these people make is not realising that India is too big a power to be felled by keyboard warriors. It may be dented, but not felled. It is just that it is sad to see institutions such as Time, instead of promoting “All Lives Matter”, should find “Hindu Lives Matter” to be a dangerous slogan. What a downfall.

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