What has the Modi government done for the well-being of India’s farm community? This is a question that is often asked. Well, for starters, the government has been transferring cash directly to farmers. Over Rs 1.35 lakh crore has been paid (via PM-KISAN, since its inception, in December 2018) to over 12 crore farmers. From just 255 million tonnes in 2012-13, under an inept Congress regime, to 297.5 million tonnes in 2019-20 and 303.34 million tonnes of foodgrain production in 2020-21, is a vindication of how India’s self-sufficiency, with an exportable surplus in the foodgrain space, has added to India’s economic heft. The latest data available with the Food Corporation of India (FCI) shows wheat procurement crossed 418 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) till May 29, 2021, in the ongoing rabi marketing season (RMS), higher than 390 LMT in RMS 2019-20. The current year’s wheat procurement figure is the highest ever in post-independent India. This is also the first time that wheat procurement has crossed the 400 LMT mark. The record wheat procurement comes just after the all-time high procurement of paddy. In the 2020-21 Kharif marketing season (KMS), paddy procurement crossed 789 LMT, compared to 773 LMT in KMS 2019-20, according to FCI data.
Given the hue and cry over Minimum Support Price (MSP), it is only apt to ask, what has been the track record of the Modi government? Without an iota of doubt, the track record on MSP has been exemplary. Minimum Support Price (MSP) is a form of market intervention by the Central government, to insure agricultural producers against any sharp fall in farm prices. For the 2021-22 crop year, the Modi government raised the MSP of paddy (common variety) by Rs. 72, to Rs 1940 per quintal from Rs 1868 per quintal in the year-ago period. The MSP of Grade A variety of paddy has also been increased by Rs. 72 to Rs. 1960 per quintal this year from Rs. 1888 per quintal last year. Among coarse cereals, the government increased the MSP of jowar (hybrid) by Rs 118 to Rs 2738 per quintal from Rs 2620 per quintal last year.
A similar increase has been made in support price of jowar (Maldani) to Rs 2,758 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year. The government increased the support price of bajra by Rs 100 to Rs 2,250 per quintal from Rs 2,150 per quintal last year, while ragi support price has been increased by Rs 82 to Rs 3,377 per quintal from Rs 3,295 per quintal last year. The support price of maize has been increased marginally by Rs 20 to Rs 1,870 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year from Rs 1,850 per quintal last year. The government has made concerted efforts over the last few years to realign the MSPs in favour of oilseeds, pulses, and coarse cereals to encourage farmers to shift to the larger area under these crops and adopt the best technologies and farm practices, to correct the demand-supply imbalance. The added focus on Nutri-rich, Nutri-cereals is to incentivise their production in the areas, where rice-wheat cannot be grown without long-term adverse implications for groundwater table.
To boost pulses and oilseeds’ production and reduce the country’s dependence on imports, the government increased the support price of tur and urad dal by Rs 300 to Rs 6,300 per quintal each. Moong support price has been increased by Rs 79 to Rs 7,275 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year.
Among Kharif-grown oilseeds, the government increased the support price in the case of sesamum by Rs 452, to Rs 7,307 per quintal and that of groundnut by Rs 275 to Rs 5,550 per quintal for the 2021-22 crop year. Sunflower seed MSP has been increased by Rs 130 to Rs 6,015 per quintal from Rs 5,885 per quintal. For oilseeds, the government has approved an ambitious plan for the free distribution of high-yielding varieties of seeds to the farmers for the Kharif season 2021 in the form of mini-kits.
The special Kharif programme will bring an additional 6.37 lakh hectare area under oilseeds and is likely to produce 120.26 lakh quintals of oilseeds and edible oil amounting to 24.36 lakh quintals. On fertilisers, retail prices of di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) recently rose in line with global markets, but the government increased the subsidy portion to ensure farmers continue to get the key soil nutrient at Rs 1,200 per bag. In effect, subsidy on DAP was raised by a massive 140% from Rs 500 to Rs 1,200 per bag.
Coming to the Modi government’s track record, the numbers speak for themselves. MSP payment to farmers for paddy rose by 2.4 times to Rs 4.95 lakh crore between 2014 and 2019 under the Modi government, as against only Rs 2.06 lakh crore, under the previous, Congress-led regime, between 2009 and 2014. MSP to farmers for wheat increased by 1.77 times during 2014-19, to Rs 2.97 lakh crore, compared to Rs 1.68 lakh crore in the 2009-14 period. MSP payment for pulses surged by a whopping 75 times under the Modi government to Rs 49,000 crore from 2014-19, compared to a measly Rs 645 crore, under the Congress-led UPA-2. Payment to farmers for Oilseeds and Copra also surged 10 times under the Modi government, to Rs 25,000 crore, during the last five years, in comparison to MSP payment of just Rs 2,460 crore, in the period from 2009 to 2014, under the Congress-led, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) establishment.
Has the Modi government been fair to farmers in Punjab? Well, the straight answer to that is a loud and clear, ‘yes’. In April and May 2021, a little over Rs 21,000 was paid to wheat-growing farmers as MSP, of which a solid Rs 8,200 crore was paid to farmers in Punjab alone. Do the farm bills dismantle the existing ‘APMC-Anaj Mandi’ structure? No, they do not. Going forward, farmers will have the choice and freedom to sell their produce either at APMC designated wholesale Mandis or in ‘Trade Areas’. There will be no taxes or levies of either State or Central government, on trade conducted in these ‘Trade Areas’, thereby reducing the cost of transaction in the entire food chain, from farm to fork. Hence, the whole narrative that ‘Trade Areas’ are anti-farmer is false.
Talking of farm infrastructure, the Modi government launched a new Agriculture Infrastructure Fund worth Rs/ 1 lakh crore, meant for setting up storage and processing facilities, which will help farmers get higher prices for their crops. The government launched the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana – a flagship scheme for focused development of the fisheries sector in the country, with an estimated investment of Rs. 20,050 crore during a period of the next five years. The Modi government also launched a Rs. 15,000 crore Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Development Fund with an interest subsidy scheme to promote investment by private players and MSMEs in dairy, meat processing, and animal feed plants, a move which is expected to create 35 lakh jobs. So the government has been working at strengthening farm infrastructure. This, along with the new Farm Laws (in abeyance temporarily), will boost the productivity of the agrarian sector to areas beyond just growing traditional crops like paddy or wheat.
The Farm Laws also allow for contract farming, whereby farmers can enter into contracts, at a predetermined price, even before the crop has been harvested, with private companies, aggregators, food processors, and exporters. This is an unprecedented reform, as it allows farmers to lock in a good price for their harvest and insulates them from any post-harvest, product-related, or price volatility. The formation of 10,000 Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) is on track. These FPOs are largely clusters or groups of farmers who are brought together so that credit and other assistance can be extended to them. There are already about 5000 FPOs in India, of which only a handful are private. More than 3900 FPOs are affiliated to NABARD or small farmers’ agri-business consortium (SFAC). Hence allegations of corporatisation and blanket privatisation of Indian agriculture are baseless.
Huge growth has been seen in the export of cereals with the export of non-basmati rice growing by 136.04% to $4794.54 million, wheat by 774.17% to $549.16 million, and other cereals (millets, maize, and other coarse gains) by 238.28% to $694.14 million in FY21. India’s agriculture exports (including marine and plantation products) have beaten the pandemic, registering a growth of 17.34% to $41.25 billion in 2020-21. In Rupee terms, the increase in agri exports is 22.62%, with exports during 2020-21 amounting to Rs 3.05 lakh crore as compared to Rs 2.49 lakh crore during 2019-20.
India’s agricultural and allied imports during 2019-20 were USD 20.64 billion and the corresponding figures for 2020-21 are $20.67 billion. Despite Covid, the balance of trade in agriculture has improved by 42.16% from $14.51 billion to $20.58 billion.
For agriculture products (excluding marine and plantation products), the growth is 28.36% with exports of $29.81 billion in 2020-21 as compared to $23.23 billion in 2019-20. India has been able to take advantage of the increased demand for staples during the Covid period. Huge growth has been seen in the export of cereals with the export of non-basmati rice growing by 136.04% to $4794.54 million; wheat by 774.17% to $549.16 million; and other cereals (millets, maize, and other coarse gains) by 238.28% to usd 694.14 million.
The organic exports during 2020-21 were $1,040 million as against $689 million in 2019-20, registering a growth of 50.94%. Organic exports include oil cake/meals, oilseeds, cereals and millets, spices and condiments, tea, medicinal plant products, dry fruits, sugar, pulses, coffee, etc. Exports have also taken place from several clusters for the first time. For instance, the export of fresh vegetables and mangoes from Varanasi and black rice from Chandauli has taken place for the first time, directly benefiting farmers of the area. Exports have also taken place from other clusters viz. oranges from Nagpur, bananas from Theni and Ananthpur, mangoes from Lucknow, etc. Despite the pandemic, export of fresh horticulture produce took place by multimodal mode, and consignments were shipped by air and sea to Dubai, London, and other destinations from these areas. Hand holding by the Modi government, to build market linkages, post-harvest value chains, and an institutional structure such as FPOs, enabled North East farmers to send their value-added products beyond the Indian borders. Cereal exports have done well during 2020-21. The country has been able to export to several countries for the first time. For example, rice has been exported to countries like Timor-Leste, Puerto Rico, Brazil, for the first time. Similarly, wheat has been exported to countries like Yemen, Indonesia, Bhutan, and other cereals have been exported to Sudan, Poland, Bolivia.
Sugarcane-growing farmers too have benefitted in a big way, via an export subsidy of Rs. 3500 crore that was announced last year. The FRP of sugarcane at Rs 285 is 175% if the cost of production. The decision to increase ethanol blending to 20% by 2025 and increase procurement and capacity build-up of ethanol from 38 crore litres in 2014 to 195 crore litres, are big moves. In-principle approval was given last year to 185 sugar mills and standalone distilleries to avail Rs. 12,500 crore of loans for capacity addition of about 468 crore litres of ethanol per annum, as part of Modi government’s efforts to achieve 20% blending with petrol. In the last two years alone, 70 ethanol projects were sanctioned loans of Rs 3600 crore. Under the ethanol interest subvention scheme for molasses-based distilleries, the government in September 2020 also opened a window for 30 days to invite more applications from sugar mills and distilleries. In the normal sugar season, about 320 lakh tonnes of sugar is produced against domestic consumption of 260 lakh tonnes.
This 60 lakh tonnes of surplus sugar which remains unsold, blocks funds of sugar mills to the tune of about Rs 19,000 crore every year, thereby affecting liquidity positions of sugar mills resulting in accumulation of cane price arrears of farmers, the ministry said.
To deal with surplus sugar stocks, the government is providing financial assistance to mills for the export of sweeteners.
However, India being a developing country can export sugar by extending financial assistance for marketing and transport only up to 2023 as per WTO arrangements. For long-term solution to deal with surplus sugar, the government has therefore been encouraging diversion of excess sugarcane and sugar to ethanol for supplying to Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs) for blending with petrol. The move would not only reduce import dependency on crude oil but will also enhance the income of sugarcane farmers.
Financial assistance is being extended by way of interest subvention for 5 years at a 6% rate of interest against the loans availed by sugar mills and distilleries from banks, for setting up their projects. The existing installed capacity of molasses-based distilleries has reached a massive, 426 crore litres. In 2020-21, the target has been to supply 325 crore litres of ethanol to OMCs for achieving 8.5% blending. In the next few years, with 20% ethanol blending with petrol, the Modi government will be able to reduce the import of crude oil, a step towards being Aatmanirbhar in the petroleum sector and this will also help in increasing the income of farmers and creating additional employment in distilleries.
To cut to the chase, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, famously said, “Mind is never a problem; Mindset is”. Well, it is time for India’s hapless opposition and pressure groups to wake up, smell the coffee and change their mindset, because the agri-reforms by the Modi government are pro farmers and the Farm Bills are indeed India’s “Glasnost” moment, as these reforms will usher in greater transparency, in India’s farm economy. For the Modi government, ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, is not a mere slogan. The journey of the “Bharatiya Kisan” from being the “Annadata”, to also becoming the ‘Urjaadata’, is at the core of Modinomics.
The writer is an economist, national spokesperson of the BJP, and the bestselling author of ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. Views expressed are her personal.
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ANDHRA’S FINANCIAL STATUS QUO IS RINGING DANGER BELLS
Nowadays, the State of Andhra Pradesh has become a peculiar State, performing outside the purview of the accounting practices and even it adheres the Constitutional violations by diverting VAT on Liquor to Government incorporated Corporation instead of transfer to the Consolidated Fund by a special GO for raising additional Loans outside the FRBM limits— it is nothing but a mere window dressing of accounting practices and systems as a bad precedent for future of the country and most particularly the state itself. After careful examination of Financial Statements for the second quarter of the current financial year 2021-22, several key indicators of Andhra Pradesh financial adversity have been exposed with danger bells.
Estimated revenue collections and revenue expenditure in the budget and actuals thereof is very much vital in any Government since revenue surplus or deficit plays the crucial role for serving the capital expenditure for the future revenue-generating assets for the country or state; then it serves the interest on debts which impacts primary deficit and thereafter very much important component Fiscal Deficit arrives out of the impact of the all together above. Hence, Revenue Deficit is the root cause of all the other liking heads in the FINANCIAL Statements. Generally, revenue surplus for any State indicates a positive performance, and at least those states, which minimize the gap between revenue collections and revenue expenditure to register the shorter revenue deficit are also reasonably good.
As far as Andhra Pradesh is concerned, first indicator, Total Revenue Collections, estimated in the Budget for the Financial Year 2021-22 was Rs. 1,77,196.48 Crores and Estimated Total Revenue Expenditure was 1,82,196.54 Crores, Hence Estimated Revenue Deficit for the whole year was Rs. 5000.06 Crores. Total Revenues had registered for Rs. 64,871.99 Crores by September where the whole year estimated revenue was, it means, only 36.61% of the current financial year total revenue achieved after the lapse of 50% period in the year. But, the actual revenue deficit for the first two quarters of the current financial year has registered as Rs. 39,933.22 Crores, which means nearly 800% of the actual revenue deficit has emerged in the first six months itself when compared with the whole financial year’s revenue deficit. In these circumstances, we can predict that how worse the situation of Andhra Pradesh in the next 6 months.
Second indicator i.e the Capital Expenditure Targets are concerned, Andhra Pradesh had not achieved the target of 45% of the total Capital Expenditure estimated in the Budget for the financial year 2021-22 of Rs. 31,119.38 Crores in the second quarter of the current financial year to avail the additional loan as an incentive allowed by the Union Government based on the performance of creating future revenue-generating assets by incurring the targeted Capital Expenditure. Although, first-quarter target to incurring 15% of the Capital expenditure was achieved, it had not attained in the second quarter due to the lenient approach of the State Government in the exercise of Financial factors.
Apart from this, the State government had utilized the insurance premium, which was paid by the Women in the Self Help Groups for Rs. 2,100 Crores and LIC had openly declared in the newspaper advertisement that they were withdrawing the Agreement with Andhra Pradesh Government to pay future obligations to the beneficiaries since the State Government of Andhra Pradesh violated the terms and conditions and declared that the future obligations will be cleared by the nodal agency of the State Government Department SERP. Further, Recently the State government of Andhra Pradesh had incorporated Andhra Pradesh State Financial Services Corporation as an NBFC. Unfortunately, the State government had issued a direction to divert their bank deposits from every State Government Corporations, Departments, Boards etc., which are maintained in the Scheduled Banks to AP Financial Services Corporation forcibly— it causes the damage of independence of the respective Corporations, Departments, Boards as those funds have been diverting for unproductive expenditure which may hurt the actual system of the activity. And many experts have been questioned that Whether AP Financial Services Corporation is the reserve bank of Andhra Pradesh. There is an agitation of NTR Health University employees is going on against to transfer of Rs. 400 Crores of University-Corpus fund to the AP Financial Services Corporation from the Scheduled Bank. Ironically, State Government is expressing that Deposits in the Scheduled Banks are unsafe, whereas the people of Andhra Pradesh are in a feeling that the present approach of the State Government is not safe.
The financial destructive methods implemented by the State under the leadership of YS Jagan Mohan Reddy had cautioned by the CAG in their Report. The series of illegitimate and unconstitutional practices since the inception of YSRCP led State Government leads to Economic Nuclear explosion now. The State needs to repay 1.10 lack crores in the next seven years but the condition of the State is: it requires to raise debts even to repay the interest. As per the past expectation, the Revenue Deficit of the State should have reached zero by 2021, but the actual Revenue Deficit was registered for Rs. 36,000 Crores due to huge unproductive expenditure had been incurred. Further, the State Government was eligible to provide a guarantee on loans for Rs. 5,600 Crores only, But the same has crossed for Rs. 1.00 lack crores and the Government is trying to give guarantee for additional 1.00 lack crores where the gap in State Government Guarantees is eligible up to 90% as per norms, but State government has amended it up to 180%.
At present financial precarious condition has been emerged as Total Revenues and Debts are not serving the Budgetary Allocations other than the unproductive and illegitimate expenditure with corrupt practices. On the one hand, Total Debts had been registered for Rs. 39,914 18 by September where the whole year estimated debt was 37,029.79 Crores, it means more than 100% estimated debts for the financial year 2021-22 had crossed in the first two quarters itself without future revenue-generating productive assets through Capital expenditure and on the other hand, We can notice the Unconstitutional methods in the financial practices harm the state Brand Image, such as recent Order by the State Government to transfer the VAT on Liquor revenue to Beverage Corporation to raise debts. After analyzing the facts in the September month CAG report, danger bells of the AP State Financial Health have been ringing in all parameters and it needs remedial measures with immediate effect to put the things in order, otherwise, future financial damage to the state is unimaginable.
Controlling, addictive AI needs immediate attention
At the core of the concerns are the nature and design of algorithms that influence our choices. Online consumption, for instance, is not a free choice. Algorithms prod, poke and drive the consumer into a narrow set of choices which they may not have selected otherwise.
Can we govern the ungovernable? Should we even try to contain the advance of algorithms? These difficult questions don’t have a simple answer. However, what is clear is that the world needs a strong governance structure to shape the impact of algorithms and AI on our lives.
At the core of the concerns are the nature and design of algorithms that influence our choices. Online consumptions for instance is not a free choice. Algorithms prod, poke and drive the consumer into a narrow set of choices which they may not have selected otherwise.
“It is important to have ways to oversee the operations of these systems to ensure they are helping, not harming, humanity. The flurry of governance frameworks over the past two years has been crucial in helping leaders to better understand the issues surrounding AI, including potential for fairness and discrimination, disparate impact, and the associated issues of transparency and accountability,” says a recent report by World Economic Forum (WEF). “But much more innovation in the realm of AI governance is needed if we are to keep pace with both the advancement and application of AI-based systems,” says the report titled The AI Governance Journey published in November.
Until recently unfair market practice in the retail sector largely revolved around predatory pricing. In some cases, it involved using market muscle to prevent rivals from expanding their consumer base.
Today, unfair market practices are often baked into the business model using tech-based platforms of e-commerce companies. Anti-trust authorities in most free-market economies including India are trying to peek under the hood of the engines that run e-commerce sales.
Parts of the unfair play in digital markets are easier to see. Some e-commerce companies own a big chunk of a seller and therefore find it in their interest to promote that particular seller.
Other parts of unfair trade practice involve using algorithms that allow collusion between seemingly independent companies or manage reactive pricing which can hurt smaller sellers. The e-commerce may say that algorithms don’t choose for the consumer; consumers choose for themselves. However, the facts say otherwise.
The question now is not whether consumers choose or not. The question is what is their choice? Are the options available to the consumers open and fair? More importantly, do the sellers have equal access to the consumers in the market. Today this paradigm is often decided by the software robots who run the digital markets.
“It will be important to monitor developments in the application of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence to ensure they do not lead to anti-competitive behavior or consumer detriment, particularly in relation to vulnerable consumers,” says the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) of the UK. There are examples where an e-commerce site has shown different prices to different customers depending on their location. A CMA paper notes, “It has been alleged that Staples’ website displayed different prices to people, depending on how close they were to a rival brick-and-mortar store belonging to OfficeMax or Office Depot.” Similar investigations are required in India and other emerging economies to ensure that algorithm-triggered personalized pricing does not become harmful.
Another type of antitrust activity takes place when online rivals decide to use the same pricing algorithm to align the prices of different products. When questioned by regulators or anti-trust authorities, e-commerce companies like to say that the decision taken by an algorithm is not their responsibility. However, authorities including the Competition Commission of India are challenging this.
At their root, anti-trust or anti-monopoly laws aim to ensure that consumers and sellers have the freedom to choose and compete on fair terms. A few sellers should not be allowed to dominate any market to the extent that other sellers are destroyed and therefore consumer choice is undermined.
Most regulators struggle to find proof of such activity as the level of sophistication is increasing constantly. Some are already unleashing their own algorithms to track and understand the pricing software of e-commerce companies. While companies collude on pricing, governments are collaborating on curbing online malpractices. The legal liability of an algorithmic decision will be interpreted as the legal liability of an entity of an individual. Anti-trust activities of algorithms should not go unchallenged in any economy.
Similar governance rules are needed for the algorithms used by social media giants. Privacy and data protection are often the key issues when debating the regulation around social media giants. However, an important dimension that needs more attention is the algorithms that decide, define, and drive online user behavior.
Even as various countries across the world battle social media giants for lack of transparency and accountability, some governments have begun to question the algorithms too.
The US Senate Judiciary Committee recently held hearings on “Algorithms and Amplification: How Social Media Platforms’ Design Choices Shape our Discourse and Our Minds.”
Like many countries, the US is concerned about the algorithms which are designed to addict. “… This advanced technology is harnessed into algorithms designed to attract our time and attention on social media, and the results can be harmful to our kids’ attention spans, to the quality of our public discourse, to our public health, and even to our democracy itself,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), chair of the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on privacy and tech
In the same way that India has the social media intermediary rules and laws, US has the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which offers some immunity for website platforms from third-party content.
The Senate hearings could lead to amendments in Section 230. Another Senator at the hearing said that the business model of “these companies is addiction.”
A legislation called ‘Don’t Push My Buttons Act’ has been introduced in the Senate with Tulsi Gabbard as the bill’s lead co-sponsor. The law would require that platforms with more than 10 million users should get user permissions before offering them content based on past behavior.
Basically, this means that companies can’t access our behavior and drive us further into similar content. This behavior is believed to be particularly harmful during Brexit conversations. Rather than allowing people to explore and stumble upon new content and alternate views on a subject, the algorithms drove users into more of the same. Effectively, it created online echo chambers and prevented people from absorbing other ideas.
The same principle can apply to consumer products or services. Algorithms can drive consumers to certain brands, categories while reducing choice and therefore hurting competition.
The laws will seek changes in Section 230 and remove the protection offered to the giants if they persist with addictive algorithms. Companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter have testified at the Senate hearings on addictive algorithms.
While the hearings are focused on US citizens, governments in other countries should also be alert about the consequence of addictive algorithms. As the government of India is establishing the rules of play for social media giants, it will be important to scrutinize and question addictive algorithms. With an addressable market of over a billion users, the tech giants will invest a lot of resources to increase their users. The variety of languages and users in the country lend themselves to using algorithms that use personal data for greater effect.
India has to put in place legislation and rules which seek more clarity and transparency from technology companies. Domestic and global companies that use consumer behavior data to enhance addictive behavior must be scrutinized and controlled.
Currently, the intermediary guidelines focus mostly on content management and grievance redressal. However, the underlying software engines that influence online consumer behavior need oversight too.
The WEF report has made some suggestions for the future. The world needs, “Standards providing a framework for responsible AI. Standards for measuring bias, fairness and related technical details – Processes and tools for assessing AI systems.” The regulation of algorithms that define AI and thus our choices will have to be made at several levels. From Multilateral to national to local, depending on the sector, geography, and usage.
The writer is the author of ‘India Automated: How the Fourth Industrial Revolution is Transforming India’. Views expressed are the writer’s personal.
Democratic deficits and disaster management
Disaster management may turn into a bigger disaster if complaint handling
mechanisms fail to resonate in the Parliament. In our emerging concern for
Parliament’s democratic deficits, one need not be complacent to phenomenal challenges
that besiege disaster management in the country’s larger governance.
Substantive democracy led by ethics and the spirit of the Constitution is a flywheel of governance. After the suspension of 12 Rajya Sabha Members on the first day of Parliament’s winter session for the rest of its session, it is more than obvious that institutions of governance suffer from a culture of democratic deficits. That, Parliament is becoming a platform for reprimanding opposition, bowdlerising debates, pecking into question hour and using available disciplinary authority in a repressive manner hounds the Constitutional spirit. In sharp contrast to Subramaniam Swamy’s expulsion on the basis of a detailed report on his alleged anti-national activities produced before the House in 1976, the current expulsion with short liner allegations and that too from a previous session appears monkey business. A right to speak, be heard and debate within Parliament represents the strength of this apex national institution as a repository of freedom and aspirations of people. Anything other than this can prove to be suicidal to policy formulation especially in the management of disasters which is currently the highest priority besides being indispensable to achieve Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030. Crisis incidentally, overlooks procedures for the demand of speed and efficiency but this cannot escape the hawkish eyes of a belligerent or cantankerous opposition in the Parliament. Any disproportionate use of disciplinary authority will provide a cover to all illegalities, diversion of funds, human insecurity and rise of surreptitious developmental mafias in disaster-affected zones where it would not be easy for the country to escape its catastrophic impact for a long time to come.
Democracy and disaster management are Siamese twins and this relationship rests on five pillars of disaster management, that is, (i) participatory decision making; (ii) transparency of aid flows; (iii) financial safeguards; (vi) transparent procurement and contracting; (v) Project monitoring, evaluation and feedback. Disaster management may turn into a bigger disaster if complaint handling mechanisms fail to resonate in the Parliament. In our emerging concern for Parliament’s democratic deficits, one need not be complacent to phenomenal challenges that besiege disaster management in the country’s larger governance. In a 2015 report of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, it was found that a 10% increase in the per capita amount of disbursed funds leads to a 12.2 % increase in corruption. However, the disaster led fund transfers are much larger and therefore, offer a wider scope for corruption. This aspect is of particular interest in the kind of governance that weaker democracies suffer in non-tax transfers such as relief from national and international organisations.
The real source of democracy comes from community-based organisations such as the Panchayats in rural areas or Municipal Corporation in urban areas. At this level, tolerance to undemocratic measures is the least, reactions are mostly direct and confrontation more united and lasting against the government. From the tribal protest against three controversial bills in Manipur that lasted 600 days from 2015 to 2017 with eight bodies of their young boys kept in the morgue to the farmers’ protest against three contentious land laws lasting 466 days, one can see that these results of a united agitation are impossible from those areas distanced from communities. There was intensive research that went behind a transformative governance framework suggested by the post-Tsunami Hyogo Declaration of 2005 for a community-based action in disaster management. Hyogo Framework for Action, as it is referred to, directed governments to focus on community resilience-building as a priority. It stated, ‘communities and local authorities should be empowered to manage and reduce disaster risk by having access to the necessary information, resources and authority to implement actions for disaster risk reduction.’ It is sad that grassroots slippages of disaster management policies have weakened action against disasters. During the 2018 Kerala floods most of the Panchayat members from Kottayam to Idukki and Munnar shared that even though some alerts in the form of red, yellow and green were being sent to them, they were unable to make any sense of it as no one had ever spoken to them or trained them to understand it. This deficit of mutuality and participation runs through the system up to the Parliament yet no government ever pays any heed to priority action needed at the ground.
How democracy replenishes community resilience building is to be understood by our various research visits to regions marooned in hopeless islands of corrupt governance. Around 2009, tea plantation workers of 14 tea gardens of Dooars in West Bengal lost their livelihood and were pushed into starvation and death. The estate owners had fled bag and baggage without anyone’s knowledge to escape huge payments to workers under the Tea Board Act 1949, Plantation Labour Act 1951 and Industrial Disputes Act 1947 leaving behind ageing and unproductive tea gardens. Since these workers had known no other skill but plucking tea leaves they did not know how to cope up with the sudden closure and absentee government. Our visit to their broken homes raised hopes that someone is reaching out to them, they started coming out in numbers during our evening discussion groups arranged in their villages. These meetings also brought out a subtle presence of mafias which helped garden owners to flee without notice after which they illegitimately started collecting relief funds, indulging in trafficking across borders and also becoming their despotic masters. Our meetings which had nothing to give them except sharing information, inadvertently enlightened them on the Constitutional framework and the laws to strengthen their conviction during depressive times. Their awakening helped to revive the inactive Tea Board, receive a more meaningful restoration plan within the Panchayat Act and receive livelihood guarantee under MNREGA.
During 2015-17 our team visited Sundarbans in West Bengal and some districts of Manipur. Despite much segregation and high vulnerability due to its geographical location, Sundarbans could display a vibrant community action. We could talk to people waiting in queue for seeking the benefits of the public distribution system and also those who were repairing their homes to prevent snakes and tigers from entering. The place was vulnerable to many forms of disasters but people despite poverty were prepared with their indigenous techniques and plans using the most basic equipment for early warning, human and cattle rescue besides grain storage for emergency use. On the other hand in Manipur, as we travelled through Churchanpur, Thoubal, Senapati and Tamenglong people flocked around us as they felt that the government officials were finally visiting them for a change. Even their Ward Councilors had no knowledge of their responsibilities and availability of developmental funds for their Ward. The communities over there had not seen any government official visiting them. There was a big dent between the Meitei led government and Kuki, Paite and Nagas outside Imphal. No one had ever spoken to them and they felt that probably a change of government at the Centre has sent this JNU fact-finding team to their villages. It was a coincidence but in the election that followed this silent suffering tribal abode kicked out a non-participatory government in their silent revenge. If some of these examples could be a lighthouse on the power of democracy, Hyogo Declaration would become a serious enterprise.
A participatory framework provides a unique opportunity to promote a strategic and systematic approach to reducing vulnerabilities and risks to hazards besides identifying ways of building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters. Now that the community of world nations has been taking Hyogo spirit through Sendai Framework (2015-30) on the adoption of measures which address the three dimensions of disaster risk (exposure to hazards, vulnerability and capacity) a need for an increased resilience-building rests on nation’s ability to protect democracy at every Constitutional layer of governance. No technology, internet-based information or e-governance can replace physical meetings and face to face discussions and learning. Yet, how could this be possible if representatives of these people are not able to air concerns in the State Assembly of the Parliament? There are Rules as strict as Rule 256 and Rule 259 of the General Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Rajya Sabha, but the Constitutional spirit behind the rules combined with the ethics of enforcement defines the manner in which these Rules are to be used against representatives of people.
Parliament is not a confidential Committee Room of the Intelligence Bureau or the Pentagon Boardroom but a microcosm of society where the government’s democratic personality and tolerance to Constitutional norms are most needed. If this tolerance is lost, there would be no time for multihazard disasters to inflict our country stretching beyond the government’s capacity to prevent or manage them. It is hoped that the government in its true wisdom realises that the genie may not be released from the corked bottle.
The writer is president of Network Asia-Pacific Disaster Research Group, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.
PARLIAMENT MUST BE ALLOWED TO FUNCTION
Vice President Venkaiah Naidu should be commended for refusing to back down on his decision to suspend 12 MPs from the Rajya Sabha for the whole of the winter session for unruly conduct during the monsoon session. Public memory may be short, but it’s not that short that the bedlam Parliament witnessed in the monsoon session would be forgotten by now. In that session, MPs jumped up on tables, tore up documents, threw paper, misbehaved with the security staff, while at the same time playing victim and claiming that outsiders were brought in to manhandle them. Unprecedented scenes were witnessed in Parliament and the MPs who indulged in such mayhem deserved to be suspended. The parties that alleged that outsiders were brought in should have provided the evidence to back up such a charge, barring which the nation will be forced to consider only the video evidence that is available in the public domain and those clips show the most appalling behaviour by certain MPs.
That the Vice President, as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, feels strongly about the disruption of Parliament has been clear for some time. In September, while delivering a lecture on the topic of “if disrupting Parliament was an MP’s privilege or could be regarded as a facet of Parliamentary democracy”, he had said that disruption was “a certain negation of the spirit and the intention behind the rules of the House, the code of conduct and the parliamentary etiquette and the scheme of parliamentary privileges, all aimed at enabling effective performance of individual members and the House collectively. Given the consequences, disruption of proceedings clearly amounts to contempt of the House…” Even otherwise he has been unhappy that disruptions were leading to the loss of productivity of both Houses. The monsoon session this year was among the least productive in the Narendra Modi government’s second tenure. According to available statistics, out of 96 hours, the Lok Sabha functioned for just 21 hours and 14 minutes, which is 22% productivity, and Rajya Sabha for only 28 of the total 97.5 hours, with 28% productivity. Important bills were passed without any debate and the government too adjourned Parliament early. All this signify a complete breakdown of Parliamentary proceedings.
Unless due process is followed and every bill debated and amendments suggested and incorporated, the sanctity of a Parliamentary democracy cannot be upheld. Parliament is a place for debates, discussions and repartees, with the jousting limited to verbal rapier thrusts. Indian Parliament has a long tradition of that. A good Parliamentary debate can be fascinating and intellectually stimulating, especially when both the treasury and the opposition benches are peopled with great orators. It is a shame when their voices get lost in the din and the nation is deprived of their views. For that matter, even a limited amount of din is acceptable, but not physical aggression. And as VP Naidu correctly pointed out on Wednesday, “the members who have committed this sacrilege…have not expressed any remorse”. Forget about remorse, some of them think that it’s a matter of pride that they have been suspended for “raising their voices on behalf of the farmers”. It is not known how rushing to the well of the House, throwing paper planes, tearing up files, jostling and pushing are part of the exercise of raising one’s voice on any issue. Street politics should be left outside when entering Parliament. In this context, mention must be made of the unparliamentary language being used by certain Parliamentarians, outside Parliament. One of these worthies implicitly compared the president of a rival political party with a barking dog. It is incumbent on every party leadership to rein in these foul-mouthed entities, instead of trying to portray them as fire-brand people’s politicians.
As for the disruptions that have started once again, it is hoped that saner heads among the Opposition will prevail and the two Houses will be allowed to function. Every government needs to be held accountable for its actions and inactions on the floor of the House, every bill needs to be debated and discussed before they are made into law. Not allowing that to happen amounts to “sacrilege”.
ANALYSING FEAR AND SPECULATION OVER THE OMICRON VARIANT
Are we ready for another lockdown? The fear of Omicron, the new coronavirus mutation hitting our shores has raised a high level of anxiety amongst Indians. The predominant fear of course is a repeat of the horrors of the second wave. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has already asked the Prime Minister to stop all international flights from the affected countries. Kejriwal points out that a South African returnee has already landed in Chandigarh and tested positive for Covid-19. He has also infected his domestic and a family member. The genome sequencing is being done to figure out which strain of Covid-19 this is, and for now, the Union Health Minister has stated that there is no case of Omicron in India as yet.
Kejriwal, being Kejriwal, has taken to the social media amplifying the efforts his government is putting in to counter a fresh wave. The PM too we are told is holding several high-level meetings to ascertain the threat perception and our response to it. Testing has been ramped up at airports and there is talk about speeding up the booster shot and this is essential as the elderly and the health care workers have already had a gap of over six months since their last dose.
At stake are also the series of weddings and Christmas get-togethers planned as the post-Diwali surge showed an increase in cases but very few of them requiring hospitalisation. Instead, doctors claimed that it was dengue that was occupying the hospital beds. But dengue is an old familiar case study even though the cases were severe and the pollution was helping any. However, it is the fear of the unknown that has a more potent impact and the mere suggestion of another coronavirus mutation was enough to dispel any goodwill cheer.
However, the stock market is already mirroring the gloom felt in the industry. Businesses that had started are now again facing a road bump, especially the travel industry that was all set to reopen all international flights. Suddenly travel agents are getting cancellation requests on planned Christmas vacations. Offices that were opening up for offline work are also now rethinking this decision —and while there are inherent advantages to working from home and holding digital meetings, these do not match the productivity level of face to face meetings, especially in industries that require you to brainstorm.
However, we are being told by global health experts that the symptoms shown by patients infected with Omicron are mild and are mostly being treated at home. But until more data is known, one will have to live in the uncertainty that is fast becoming a regular feature in this Covid continuous world.
Why do Indians achieve more success in Western world than India?
On experiencing systems of the Western world, we come to realise what freedom and independence are. We get to see the true face of democracy in such nations. One finds no cause to hold ones’ opinions and is able to express them without any fear. In our country, even if one is right, still he can find himself in trouble if his expressions are to the dislike of the people in power.
We Indians are fundamentally noble and articulate people but this primary trait of ours had lost its significance as we had been ruled for centuries by invaders who exploited us to the maximum and unleashed a reign of misrule which went up to the extent that we almost forgot our identity and values. We had turned ourselves almost as slaves of our oppressors and this was not only confined to our body but our inner self too.
Islamic conquests made inroads into this subcontinent as early as the 8th century followed by the invasions of Mahmud Ghazni. The Delhi Sultanate was founded in the 13th century by the Central Asian Turks, who ruled major parts of the northern Indian subcontinent. This was followed by the Mughal Empire and their decline in the early 18th century that led to the rise of East India Company and consequent British Rule that lasted for over 200 years till 1947 when India was finally freed from the chains of slavery. However, it was not without a permanent scar on our motherland as it was not without the partition of this country.
We hoped to come out of this mindset that had deeply entrenched our hearts and minds during this long period of domination by invaders, but sadly we still continue to be under the shadow of the tendencies grown out of this long misrule and even after the passage of more than 70 years since we got independence, the misrule we faced earlier has not ended and we continue to watch it in one form or the other. Unfortunately, we continue to live under the same sort of oppression though in a different disguise. This takes us to believe that though the foreign rule ended, the legacy of misrule of that time is becoming more and more evident instead of being totally erased and wiped out from the face of this country.
Going by the above, one is led to believe that we Indians are not even now truly free and independent in real terms of the word. Freedom and independence connote freedom of thoughts and actions but without infringing such rights of others. What it further implies is that we are hesitant and scared in expressing our thoughts due to some dark fear of retribution from the powers that be. As a corollary, we have to accept the fact that after suffering foreign domination for a long period, we are and continue to be a suppressed society and also suppressed people. Our psyche always fears the unknown and we are totally shaken if we hear an unfamiliar knock at our doors. This has made us almost robotic and we only express the rehearsed lines as we are always controlled by the thought that if we express anything which is not found palatable, we would be made to suffer on one pretext or the other. So to find safety, we enter into our cocoon and seal our mouth.
We Indians are well aware of the rampant corruption around us. We are fully aware that some powerful people in our society are the most corrupt and there are anti-social elements but we see day in and day out such people ruling the roost and they use the powers at their command to serve their personal interests at the cost of this great nation. We have watched since independence such elements taking control of our destinies, but we have chosen to give a blind eye to this, just to ensure our personal well-being. It is there for everyone to see that barring a few, our political class is not entirely clean and the pity is that we stand helplessly and allow such things to continue.
But the contrast becomes crystal clear when we move to the Western world. On experiencing their systems, we come to realise what freedom and independence are. We get to see the true face of democracy in such nations. One finds no cause to hold ones’ opinions and is able to express them without any fear. In our country, even if one is right, still he can find himself in trouble if his expressions are to the dislike of the people in power. This has made us vulnerable before the political class and we don’t find ourselves safe even if we are following our normal routines. Things have come to such a pass that one is not safe while walking on the road. This has made our womenfolk and children more vulnerable.
It leads us to the question as to how Indians become important, rich, and leading lights when they are settled in some foreign land. We see everyday Indians achieving newer heights in the US, Europe, and many Asian countries. Most of these Indians enjoy ultra-high net worth and high status in these countries. The question arises of how such a thing is possible outside of our country. The answer lies in the fact that Indians are peace-loving people. When we are in our country, we are moulded by the prevailing environment that evidently is not clean and we feel helpless and sometimes make us choose the wrong options to achieve the right end. A further fact is that generally we Indians are intelligent and believe in toiling hard. But the predicament is that only a few attach values to such traits. However, the same people, when they go abroad, find that these values are given great importance and values. Indians achieve a higher success rate than the local people since they sacrifice their comforts and involve themselves with heart and soul in their endeavour but in comparison, a local wouldn’t make a similar sacrifice at the cost of his lifestyle and comforts. This endears the Indians to the local people and provides them with a priority. A similar approach can be noted as far as the academic field goes. Indians believe in achieving academic excellence and ignore extra-curricular activities when pursuing their education. Their effort is always to top in their career. Comparatively, people in such developed countries devote time to other activities such as games. This naturally makes Indians more suitable for various specialised fields and it is there for all to see that they hold important positions in foreign countries in such positions.
The need is to open eyes and call a spade a spade for the welfare of our teeming millions and this will help us to achieve the Eldorado we always dream of and then we will see no difference whether we are in India or abroad.
Jagdip Singh is Chairman, SIGMA GROUP of Industries and Hony. Consul General of South Korea. The views expressed are personal.
When we are in our country, we are moulded by the prevailing environment that evidently is not clean and we feel helpless and sometimes making us choose the wrong options to achieve the right end. A further fact is that generally we Indians are intelligent and believe in toiling hard. But the predicament is that only a few attach values to such traits. However, the same people, when they go abroad, find that these values are given great importance and values. Indians achieve a higher success rate than the local people since they sacrifice their comforts and involve themselves with heart and soul in their endeavour but in comparison, a local wouldn’t make a similar sacrifice at the cost of his lifestyle and comforts.
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