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INDIA-US RELATIONS IN FOCUS AFTER BIDEN GOVERNMENT’S OUTREACH

Pankaj Vohra

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It is evident that the India-US ties are going to probably witness emphasis on security issues concerning the two countries, a proof of which was provided when the Biden administration’s outreach to New Delhi entailed conversations between Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his counterpart, Llyod J. Austin, as well as the interaction that involved National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Jake Sullivan. The two top US functionaries apparently engaged with the Indian side to send a strong message regarding strategic importance that would be central to carry forward this relationship. Undoubtedly, the Biden government considers China to be its main adversary and this is where there can be a vital meeting ground between New Delhi and Washington.

By its incursions inside the Indian territory, China has caused widespread resentment within India, and for the common people, it is as big a threat as Pakistan is. This is where the Indian side has to deal with America’s overtures to Islamabad; many experts believe that to contain Islamist terrorism, Pakistan has always been an ally of the US, and Washington has many a times preferred to look the other way when that country has not only harboured extremists and fundamentalists, but allowed its territory to perpetrate unacceptable activity across its borders. In this context, it is significant that India would have its own autonomy to pursue its foreign policy and strategic objectives while honouring and respecting its relationship with Washington.

The Trump regime had not only an excellent rapport with New Delhi but also the personal chemistry between the former President and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was of a different level all together. So much so that the Indian Prime Minister participated in a mega even in Houston to solicit support for the Republican head of the government. There are several strategic specialists who hold the view that the proximity between the two leaders could come in the way of furthering the ties between Washington and New Delhi. This is an exaggerated opinion since countries forge friendships based on common objectives; personal bonds do help but then there are so many other factors that come into play.

The Biden administration has more people of Indian origin than any previous government in the United States. This itself is re-assuring though these select few functionaries have total allegiance to the US Constitution and what their country stands for. The ties between the two countries were never cordial during the long tenure of Indira Gandhi who had to deal with hostility from successive US Presidents. When the Nixon government sent the seventh fleet to the Indian Ocean at the peak of the India-Pakistan conflict of 1971, the Indian dispensation quickly signed a peace accord with the erstwhile Soviet Union. The relationship between the two countries improved during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and ever since has shown an upward movement. The most important link between the two countries is that they believe in self-rule and democracy. A new Chapter in India-US ties is set to commence. 

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Opinion

AVOIDABLE CONTROVERSY OVER THE MOTERA STADIUM RENAMING

Pankaj Vohra

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By renaming the newly-built Motera stadium after Narendra Modi, the Gujarat Cricket Association and the state administration have created a totally avoidable controversy which could cause acute embarrassment to the Prime Minister. Many of the BJP’s opponents have been most critical of the fact that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, whose name was synonymous with the venue, has been insulted. On its part, the BJP has been at pains to clarify that the stadium was going to be one amongst many that would be part of the Sardar Patel sports complex. The Prime Minister is an iconic figure from the state but there are many amongst his own party colleagues who believe that places should not be named after living persons. If that was happening in the past, it was wrong and should not be repeated. Two mistakes do not constitute a right.

The entire matter has snowballed into a political battle where the BJP is claiming that Wankhede Stadium is named after a politician and so is Chepauk in Chennai which is now known as the Chidambaram Stadium. The Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru and Rajiv Gandhi ground in Hyderabad are other examples. This may be so but renaming any place is like erasing history. In New Delhi, most of the roads that existed in Lutyens’ zone were given a new identity. The Curzon Road, for instance, is now Kasturba Gandhi Marg and the Willingdon Crescent is called the Mother Teresa Crescent. Similarly, Irwin Hospital was rechristened as Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital and the Willingdon Hospital became the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital. Very few people may be aware that many years ago, even the famous Eden Gardens was briefly renamed as Ranji Stadium but the old name was restored. In Delhi, there was a huge uproar when the historic Ferozeshah Kotla was named as the Arun Jaitley stadium, something which my university senior and friend himself would not have supported, had he been alive. Ferozeshah Kotla should always remain Ferozeshah Kotla and like cricket venues around the world, should have stands named after famous cricketers. The bust that needed to have been put there should have been of Lal Amarnath, independent India’s first cricket skipper who used to spend most of his time watching and guiding youngsters at this place.

There are cricket lovers who would have been pleased to have Vinoo Mankad’s name associated with the Motera stadium. The late Indian allrounder was perhaps the greatest cricketer who hailed from Gujarat. We must learn to honour our sportspersons. Milkha Singh became a legend in his lifetime but never got his due. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, along with Bishen Bedi, E.A.S. Prassana and B.S. Chandrashekar, have been ignored for too long. Ajit Pal Singh was the most gifted hockey centre half of his time who led India to a monumental World Cup victory in 1975. Ramanathan Krishnan, Prakash Padukone, P.T. Usha, Ashok Kumar, Rahul Dravid and Salim Durrani have inspired so many youngsters.

The main point is that if many wrongs were done during the Congress regime, the party is now bearing the consequences. Surely, the BJP does not want to emulate the Congress by replicating the mistakes. It would not like to land in a similar position ever. PM Modi is the most popular leader of the country. His contributions would be acknowledged by posterity and he would get due recognition in history.

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Opinion

Women and the case of Sabarimala pilgrimage

The Sabarimala temple in Kerala has often found itself in the eye of a storm because of the ‘ban’ on women of reproductive age from entering the temple. The tradition needs to be scrutinised in detail to address certain misconceptions about it.

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Sabarimala is a pilgrimage centre in mid-east Kerala, dedicated to the deity Ayyappan. Situated in the Periyar Tiger Reserve and surrounded by eighteen hills, it is among the major pilgrimage centres in south India, and even in the world, sometimes referred to as the ‘Kumbh Mela’ of the South on account of the large number of devotees it attracts, numbering anywhere between 17 million and 50 million pilgrims annually. Lord Ayyappan has many temples dedicated to him in Kerala; nonetheless, the Sabarimala temple is perhaps the best known among them (Vaidyanathan, 1978).

THE FOUNDING MYTHS

Ayyappan is said to be the product of the union of Vishnu and Shiva, the two major foci of devotional Hinduism. Both gods are typically represented as male, so his birth through them requires a word of explanation. Shiva possessed a demon devotee called Bhasmasura, who, through severe penance, won a boon from Shiva which gave him the power to reduce anything to ashes by pointing his finger at it. Once he received this boon, Bhasmasura attempted to test it on Shiva himself. Shiva thus found himself running across the cosmos with the demon in hot pursuit. Vishnu decided to intervene and save Shiva. He, therefore, metamorphosed into a beautiful damsel by the name of Mohini (or ‘the Enchantress’) whose sight distracted Bhasmasura from his pursuit. Bewitched by her beauty, Bhasmasura wanted to please her. Mohini, then, induced Bhasmasura to learn a bit of dancing to win her over. In the course of these movements, she made him point his finger at himself which instantly reduced him to ashes, thereby saving Shiva (Vaidyanathan 1978, 21–22). The legend maintains that Ayyappan was the son which arose from the union of Vishnu—in the form of Mohini—and Shiva. This story can be found in the Puranas (Bhagavata Purana).

Thereafter the child was abandoned in the forest where he was picked up by the King of Palan, who brought him up as his own. At this point, the depredations of another demon by the name of Mahisi enter the narrative. It just so happens that it was Ayyappan’s destiny to slay this demon and at the age of twelve, Ayyappan confronted Mahisi and defeated it (Vaidyanathan 1978, 27). Out of the vanquished demon arose a beautiful damsel by the name of Panchambika (also known as Malikappurathamma), who had been condemned by a curse to the state of demonhood (Vaidyanathan 1978, 19–21). This beauty, now released from her curse, asked for Ayyappan’s hand in marriage (Vaidyanathan 1978, 28, and 46). He initially resisted her offer but then accepted the proposal on one condition: He would marry her only after there were no more petitioners left for him to take care of. Panchambika accepted the condition and still awaits him in a separate temple north of his.

According to this narrative, there are two main reasons why women of reproductive age do not visit the shrine of Ayyappan. The first is that women do not wish to dishonour the resolve of the ‘bride-to-be’ who awaits her groom, and the second is that they do not wish to offer any temptation to Ayyappan, who had decided to remain celibate while taking care of his petitioners. These explanations are important as they indicate that the reasons underlying the practice of women of reproductive age refraining from visiting the shrine of Ayyappan have nothing to do with menstrual taboos, as has often been suggested rather rashly (Sridhar 2018). To emerge now from the midst of tradition into the hopefully clear light of history, the adoption of Ayyappan by the King of Palan is assigned by devotees to the period between 1105 and 1121 (Sridhar 2018, 47).

THE PILGRIMAGE

The people who undertake the Sabarimala pilgrimage may belong to any faith or caste and mingle unreservedly as pilgrims. In fact, they are all supposed to be in a state of Brahmanhood (Sridhar 2018, 50). Before embarking on the pilgrimage, there is a formal function at their residence where they put on a garland of tulsi or rudraksha, which will be worn for the full duration of the pilgrimage of at least 41 days. This ceremony is known as maladharam. During this period, the pilgrim leads an ascetic life which includes bathing regularly, eating sattvika food, abstaining from meat, drinks and drugs, and observing the life of a celibate. One also carries with oneself a holy bundle called irumudi which has two compartments: one reserved for the material needs for regular puja or offerings to be made to the deity, the other for holding personal items. As the pilgrimage starts, the pilgrim-to-be undergoes the ceremony called kettunira or ‘pali kettu’ (Sridhar 2018, 66). 

When the pilgrim arrives at the shrine, he has to climb the eighteen granite steps known as patinettampadi. It is said that “at no other temple is so much importance attached to the steps leading to the sanctum” (Sridhar 2018, 106). The devotees must fulfil two conditions in order to tread up the steps: (i) Observe the 41-day penance prescribed for the pilgrims, and (ii) carry the irumudi on their heads. These granite steps may be used only twice: Once when approaching the sanctum with their irumudi, and when leaving the temple once the pilgrimage is over. Separate steps are provided for use on other occasions.

HISTORY OF RESTRICTION OF WOMEN

The preceding sections were meant to prepare us to deal with the main issue this article addresses, mainly, whether the prohibition of women of reproductive age to participate in the Sabarimala pilgrimage is discriminatory.

The first thing to inquire into is the history of this restriction to discuss the question comprehensively, as there is considerable misunderstanding surrounding the issue. A respected Indian scholar Rajeev Bhargava recently asserted during the course of the Hindu Huddle of 2019 in Bengaluru that the restriction was first imposed in 1991 by the High Court of Kerala and that the restriction imposed by the judgement of the court could always be removed by the judgment of another (superior) court (The Hindu, 2019).

This creates the impression that the issue surrounding the restriction is merely a legal and recent matter. However, the material presented in this article indicates otherwise. Let us examine the antiquity of this restriction by moving backwards in history.

It was just noted that, according to Professor Rajeev Bharagava, this restriction goes no further than 1991. This was the year in which the High Court gave its decision on the public interest litigation (PIL) filled on 24 November 1990 by S. Mahendran, the secretary of the WMA Library in Buzhavathu, Changanassery and supported by the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Ayyappa Sewa Sangham (S. Mahendran vs The Secretary, Travancore, 1991). It is worth noting that he was prompted to make the application upon seeing a photograph in the Janmabhoomi Daily newspaper on 19 September 1990 in which the former Devaswom Commissioner Chandrika was seen conducting the rice-feeding ceremony of her granddaughter at the Sabarimala temple in the presence of her daughter, the mother of the child, who was apparently within the reproductive age bracket of 10 to 50 years of age (Nair, 2018). This clearly shows that the evidence of this restriction can be moved from 1991 to 1990 and even beyond it, as the petition was filed on the basis of the perception than an existing restriction being violated.

The Kerala High Court, in acting on the PIL examined the then Sabarimala temple thantri, or high priest, Sri Neelakandaru, on 5 April 1991. In the course of this examination, the thantri asserted before the Division Bench that “women belonging to the 10 to 50 age group were prohibited from entering the temple even before 1950” (Rajagopal, 2016). This means that the evidence for the existence of the tradition concerning the restriction can be moved backwards not only from 1991 to 1990 but further to 1950.

That the restriction was in place even earlier is suggested by the Memoir of the Survey of the Travancore and Cochin States carried out by Benjamin Swain Ward and Peter Eyre Conner, two lieutenants of the Madras Infantry, and published by the then Madras government in two volumes in 1893 and 1901. The survey was, however, completed earlier in 1820, after nearly five years of research and refers to the restriction as follows: “Old women and young girls may approach the temple, but those who have attained the age of puberty and to a certain time of life are forbidden to approach [it].” It is, therefore, clear that the restriction was already in place in the early years of the 19th century (Rajagopal, 2016).

According to historian M.G. Sasibhooshan, the ban was an “unwritten law for decades” (Press Trust of India, 2018). This seems to be a reasonable assumption, although we have no solid evidence as to how far back it can be traced. The High Court of Kerala eventually concluded that “the usage was prevalent from time immemorial” (The News Minute, 2018).

We take up next the questions of exceptions to this rule which have been cited to challenge the authenticity of the tradition. Five such exceptions have been discussed in the literature of the subject and pertain to cases involving (i) Devaswom Commissioner (Shrimati) Chandrika, (ii) Tamil actress Jayashree, (iii) Kannada actress Jayamala, (iv) T.K.A. Nair and (v) the Queen of Travancore. The first example relates to the former Devaswom Commissioner Chandrika, which initially prompted the litigation in 1990. She conducted the rice-feeding ceremony of her granddaughter at Sabarimala in the presence of her daughter. Although she and her granddaughter fell outside the reproductive age bracket, the same could not be said of her daughter. The next case to consider is the claim that a Tamil film-song called Nambinal Keduvathillai, which was shot at the temple in 1986, featured women of reproductive age on the famous ‘eighteen steps’ leading to the deity. Jayashree was one of the featured actresses at the temple (The News Minute, 2018). Then comes the case of the Kannada actress Jayamala, who has claimed to have touched the idol of Lord Ayyappan in the temple when she was 27 (Press Trust of India, 2018). The fourth case pertains to the putative restriction being broken in 1939, when, according to T.K.A. Nair, former advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, his choroonu (the first meal-eating ceremony for children) was performed at the Sabarimala temple when he was sitting on his mother’s lap, facing the deity. He repeated this claim several times on public television (The News Minute, 2018). Also, in 1939, the Maharaja(King) of Travancore visited the temple accompanied by his Maharani (Queen) in connection with the choroonu ceremonies. It is clear, however, that this could have been a case of royal privilege being exercised (Nair, 2018).

These five instances seem to represent special cases or exemptions. In the first case, the person involved was the very commissioner of the board which ran the Sabarimala temple. In the next two cases, film actresses are involved, who could perhaps claim special access on account of the exigencies of filming. One should keep in mind the Indian obsession with films and film heroes and heroines, and especially with their glamour. Similarly, the obviously high status enjoyed by Nair’s family perhaps explains the privilege enjoyed by him, and of course, the Queen represented royalty. Moreover, in relation to the last case, historian M.G. Shashibooshan claims to have photos of the Queen of Travancore’s visit to the temple taken by her son, indicating that she did, in fact, stop before the eighteen steps (The News Minute, 2018).

These cases suggest that the ban was not strictly observed in the latter half of the 20th century, rather than that it did not exist. One would require more evidence to conclude that the cases of the presence of women at Sabarimala, noted above, do not represent exceptions to the rule, but instead constitute proof of the very non-existence of the tradition placing a restriction on women.

This is part one of a two-part article.

The writer is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montréal, Canada. He is also associated with the Nalanda University in India. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

THE ‘CONGRESSISATION’ OF BHARATIYA JANATA PARTY

Priya Sahgal

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With the renaming of a cricket stadium (of course it had to be the world’s largest) after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP has completed its final step towards its ‘Congressisation’. Of course, various BJP spokespersons are arguing that the Congress has no right to criticise considering the number of buildings, schemes, airports and chowks that have been named after the Nehru-Gandhi family. And it is right when it makes that point but now has lost the moral right to lecture the Congress. The fact that the said stadium has an Ambani-end and an Adani-end of course gives a delicious twist to the Opposition, which has for long been claiming that the BJP is a party of “Hum Do, Hamare Do” (run by PM Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah for the benefit of Adani and Ambani). Rahul Gandhi was the first to tweet this.

It’s not just the naming and renaming game. There is much more to it. With PM Modi we are also seeing the centralisation of power in the BJP, of the same kind that exists (or is it existed?) in the Congress. The culture of High Command is not new to the Congress but certainly new to the BJP. Even during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership there were comparisons to Jawaharlal Nehru but they were related to the kind of secular brand of Hindutva he espoused than anything else. In fact, the Vajpayee-Advani era saw its fair share of revolts from state leaders, the most famous being when Uma Bharti stormed out of a party meeting in full camera glare. Today no one would have the nerve to contradict the Modi-Shah duo, let alone plot a revolt.

In fact, we see the opposite happening in the Congress where a group of 23 leaders got together and wrote a letter to the party high command complaining about the lack of leadership. This would never have happened to a Congress led by Indira Gandhi or even Sonia Gandhi in her earlier stint as Party President (recall what happened when Pawar & Co raised the banner of revolt). But sadly, today, it’s a very different Congress; and it’s also a very different BJP.

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Opinion

Chabahar Port, North-South Transport Corridor & Uzbek deal: A game-changing trio

India’s operations in Chabahar Port, development of the International North-South Transport Corridor and partnership with Uzbekistan will not only strengthen New Delhi’s influence over the region and improve connectivity with the larger Eurasian space, but will also counter China’s attempts at gaining ground in the region.

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We all love our great country India and we believe in our Bhartiyata. We are people with 20,000 years of grand history, culture and civilisational values with us, which we are proud of, cherish and are in love with. We had been contributing almost 25 percent of the global GDP just before the British came. Our clout was known around the world for centuries and has been responsible for shaping our history to a great extent.

But, change is a constant factor as time passes by, and we were no exception to it. We all know about recent occurrences in history and how we have been a part of it. Today, India has emerged as a global powerhouse, with an over 800 million youth population, the fastest growing economy in the world, the third most powerful military force, the fifth biggest economy by GDP and third by PPP, and the contributions of its 1.3 billion people, who make India the largest democracy in the world. Believe it or not, this has all happened in the last 70 years.

India’s influence is increasing by the day and we are seen as a global player and powerhouse. So, it is important for us to increase our sphere of influence within Asia and around the world. Let there be no mistake about this, as this is sacrosanct and not optional. The emergence of India on the world stage has been noted but some people are still reluctant to acknowledge and accept this fact. A wonderful thing is that time is on our side and we are progressing in leaps and bounds this time. Whether one acknowledges it or not, it makes no difference in the scale of our plans and ambitions.

Our imminent focus is Asia. When we talk of Asia, Central Asia takes centre stage as it is the gateway to Europe. Most often, in the noise created by our domestic politics, international issues and achievements get lost unfortunately. Just look at a few weeks back when, in the middle of the Covid crisis, we achieved a few breathtaking milestones and checkmated our arch rivals with our multifaceted, robust and aggressive diplomacy under PM Modi ji and Dr Jaishankar ji.

Chabahar is one of the biggest ports in the region which gives us our desired gateway to Central Asia, the Persian Gulf and its warm waters. Chabahar is no ordinary port – it has a handling capacity of 12 lakh tons of cargo and 82,000 containers. The Chabahar port is operational today and has been run by an Indian company since August last year.

We already have partners like Afghanistan who are going to use this port. It also cements our ties with Iran. At the peak of the Covid crisis, we have shipped more than 75,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan as humanitarian assistance and sent other help during the pandemic through this port. It might be worth it to mention that China has been trying hard, along with Pakistan, to stop our access to and influence on Central Asia, but has failed at it after we took over the operations of the Chabahar port successfully. We all recall how China tried to woo Iran and ruin our investments there, which we managed to overcome without too much noise and chest thumping.

Chabahar helps us to balance the influence of China on the Gwadar port which is just a few nautical miles away. China has been seen recently fortifying Gwadar, and, if the need arises, Chabahar will be a great balance of power and military paradigms and help to offset the relevance of the CPEC, which is anchored around Gwadar and has already hit serious roadblocks in the GB and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan. However, looking at the current state of things, I doubt if Gwadar will ever be a viable commercial option and how far it will pull down the OBOR.

India is also working on the INSTC, i.e., International North South Transport Corridor, which will be an MMTC, i.e., multimodal transport network or corridor with ship, rail and road links. It will start from Mumbai and pass through India, Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, Oman, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Europe. This route is 7,200 kms in length and will start from Mumbai and end in Baku, Russia and will have the potential to be extended to Europe. It will help reduce both freight time and costs. To give you an idea, it will cost USD 2,500 per 15 tons of cargo, which is quite an amount, looking at the quantity of cargo which can pass through this route in a year.

Recently, India signed a $440 million deal with Uzbekistan which was announced by the MEA on 11 December, immediately after PM Modi’s meeting with Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. This is a strategic win as this has been done for the first time in the history of India. Uzbekistan has agreed to use the Chabahar port and also be a part of the INSTC which makes it a more potent and viable option. We all know that Uzbekistan is land-locked and needs reliable port access. It is also a land full of petroleum, coal and uranium with some sizable reserves of mica and other minerals. I won’t be reluctant to say that we as a country need these resources. So, this deal gets us trade, minerals, and a partner for Chabahar and INSTC, which is a great achievement and also counter balances a few things.

We have countered the Iran-China petroleum deal worth $480 million with a better deal where we stand to gain as explained above. Moreover, the INSTC will only get stronger with more partners joining, ultimately strengthening the Chabahar port and increasing our influence in the region. Needless to say, we also managed to do it without China and Pakistan being involved.

Thus, PM Modi’s visit to the land of Timur and Babur was a phenomenal geopolitical milestone in terms of long-term strategic gains, and something to be proud of, especially if we consider the fact that it was achieved during the Covid-19 pandemic with the ongoing tensions on the LAC and LoC.

Chabahar helps us to balance the influence of China on the Gwadar port which is just a few nautical miles away. China has been seen recently fortifying Gwadar, and, if the need arises, Chabahar will be a great balance of power and military paradigms and help to offset the relevance of the CPEC, which is anchored around Gwadar and has already hit serious roadblocks in the GB and Balochistan provinces of Pakistan.

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Opinion

Transforming agriculture through village-level infrastructure

With agricultural reforms under the spotlight currently, the government needs to consider a massive village-level infrastructure project with measures like enhancing the storage of produce and establishing gram mandis or haats. Not only would this add value to the agricultural supply chain, it would also empower rural units and the farmer community, ultimately leading to a quicker post-Covid recovery for the Indian economy.

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The Government of India has set in motion reforms which will lead to the eventual development of a very large number of private markets near the agricultural produce growing regions. The village level agri-marketing infrastructure is the last remaining piece in this giant jigsaw puzzle which has remained unfixed in India for the last 70 years. This missing link at the bottom of the pyramid, which would be in the form of storage and transportation and other agriculture-related infrastructure at the panchayat level, has to be plugged in.

The Government of India needs to move away from schemes which dole out subsidies to individual rich farmers. It is time to make the intellectual and philosophical shift to building infrastructure on the post-production storage, logistics and marketing fronts and leave individual economic agents, including farmers, to function on the basis of the demand and supply of various commodities. A production mindset creates perverse incentives for the production of certain commodities including what is happening in the case of wheat, paddy, sugarcane and some other commodities which suffer the overhang of this mindset. Having said that, risk mitigation mechanisms like MSP procurement and PDS distribution systems would need to continue for a long time to accord protection to growers as well as consumers from a food and nutrition security perspective.

The Standing Committee on Agriculture (Chair: Hukumdev Narayan Yadav) submitted its report on ‘Agriculture Marketing and Role of Weekly Gramin Haats’ on January 3, 2019, and recommended that the Central Government (i) increase the number of haats being targeted under the scheme and ensure presence of a haat in each panchayat of the country, and (ii) make the scheme a fully funded central scheme. As against the 22,000 haats mentioned in the Committee report, other sources quote there being 47,000 haats across India with no or very rudimentary infrastructure with produce lying on the ground for sale, etc. The presence of such vast numbers of unregulated village cluster level markets establishes the need for panchayat-level infrastructure as also recommended by the Committee.

According to a National Centre for Cold-Chain Development (NCCD), GoI report, there is a very large gap in the case of pre-cooling/pack-houses (99% gap in demand – 70,080 vs supply – 249), reefer transport (85%) and ripening units (91%) at the level of villages/village clusters. Currently, the post-harvest losses in fruits and vegetables are huge, with a substantial chunk being contributed by potatoes, onions, tomatoes and mangoes which contribute to more than 60% of the overall losses. The lack of cold chain facilities in India is a major reason for losses besides a host of other factors. The percentage movement of fruits and vegetables through cold chain infrastructure in India is near zero, while in the US it is around 80-85% with countries like Thailand being of the order of 30-40%. The orientation of farmers in all states is geared towards production. Not enough attention and steps have been taken to mitigate post-harvest losses. Because of the low number of reefer transportation vehicles in India and the lack of backhaul loads, the cost of cold chain transportation is very high (about 2/3 times) than the normal transportation trucking infrastructure. We have negligible pre-cooling of fruits and vegetables at the village level since infrastructure is non-existent.

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?

Given both the recommendations and the ground level needs, the Government of India may consider a gigantic infrastructure project to ensure that there would be adequate infrastructure for storage and basic value addition. In larger villages, there would also be a need for auctioning platforms, weighing systems, quality assaying machines, training centres and transportation vehicles in the form of reefer vans as well as normal trucks for movement of agriculture produce. The core of this infrastructure which will also provide it with a self-sustainability revenue stream would be the pre-cooling, ripening, micro cold storage, dry storage and transportation infrastructure. This would be like an advanced version of a haat and more like a full-fledged mandi at the level of every Gram Panchayat in the country with infrastructure as required by fruits/vegetables (@315 million tons) which today exceed the production of grain/pulses/oilseeds (@280 million tons) in India. This requires an integrated pan-India cold chain infrastructure starting from the villages of India without which it makes no sense to have a cold chain infrastructure in just the towns and cities with no such facilities at the growing centres where most of the value destruction and wastage happens in case of fruits and vegetables. Starting a basic cold chain from the Gram Panchayats needs an analysis of the type of cold chain infrastructure that is viable and needed in the villages. There have been incentives and a bias in favour of larger cold storages in India with the trade and industry, which needs to be corrected in favour of micro cold storages at village or village cluster levels.

WHY ARE SMALL OR MICRO COLD STORAGES NEEDED?

It is not viable to store common fruits and vegetables in large cold storages, so small or micro cold storages are required at the farm level. There is a dire need for micro cold storages (MCS) despite the fact that they have a higher capital cost per ton of storage and have a higher running cost per ton of storage. This is because their usage is very different compared to a large cold storage.

The MCS can be used to aggregate and store fruits and vegetables for a few days until a financially viable transport quantity is available. Buyers typically need a truck load every few days. Demand keeps fluctuating according to which harvest of produce from given geographies in season is huge. There is a need for storage so that there are short time windows in which they can be stored during times of crashes in prices. The MCS also allows for longer term storage of two to three months, wherein prices can increase by five to ten times in cases of items like lemons and many other commodities.

MCS can also be used as ripening centres, whenever required. MCS can also become a spoke for large cold storages to ensure value preservation at the time of harvest. Since storage in MCS is normally in 20 kg crates which allow farmers to sell the produce at a higher rate in semi retail using his own or hired transportation. The MCS can also double up as village level pack house, which is nonexistent in Indian villages today, for sorting, cleaning, grading, packing and some basic value addition for vegetables and fruits.

SUGGESTED COMPONENTS OF GRAM MANDI/HAAT

The built area of each GMH unit may be a maximum of 5000 ft² which would make it one of the most imposing structures in each panchayat. There may be another thousand square feet which may be added in the form of training centres and rooms for other community activities. Part of the facility may also serve as a banquet hall for weddings and such functions at the village level. The concept of lawn marriages with the entire integrated package of services being provided by a third-party service provider has also taken root in the villages of India.

The GMH will serve as a one-stop shop for the farmers that cater to a range of relevant services and activities. They would be designed in a way so as to be equipped to locally deliver the immediate needs of the farmers. The promotion of best cultivation practices to enhance production and productivity of major field crops, vegetables, fruits and fodder crops of the region, including the introduction of new and useful plant species, can also be accessed at the GMH.

In addition to agri business units, the project can also initiate social development units including a Primary Health Centre, Women’s Skill Development Centre, Computer Education Centre and Children’s Recreation Centre.

These GMH would serve farmers through a range of services and facilities:

• Micro cold storage and dry storage for non-perishables

• Sorting, cleaning, grading, packing, and some basic value addition for fruits, vegetables and also non-perishable goods.

• Business/processing unit like seed processing units, a honey processing unit, daal mills, spice grinding units, etc.

• Provision of farm machinery on custom hiring (pay and use) basis

• Technical and expert support for cultivation of different crops

• Strengthening product value and its market integration through pulses milling facility, apiary processing and seed procurement

• Social development units such as Skill Development Centre, Computer Training Centre and Children’s play area, Primary Health Centre, etc.

• Every module within the GMH must be available on demand to the respective Gram Panchayat except for the core modules like cold storage, the dry storage, sorting/packaging/grading stations, processing unit and the training centre which should be compulsory with every GMH.

• One acre of land near the GMH should be dedicated to a technology demonstration unit which should have the latest technologies as well as the ICAR system demonstrating their technologies directly to the village. Start-ups as well as ICAR are struggling with the challenge of taking technologies from POC or subscale to mass scale implementation in the villages. The GMH could be a mechanism to facilitate this lab to land transfer system which has broken down today.

The micro cold storages could also function as bulk milk chillers at the village level which would add value to 180 odd million tons of milk which is produced all across India and whose supply chain also suffers from a lack of BMC infrastructure at the village level.

Assuming a production of 2500 tons per panchayat, storage may need to be built around 250 tons which would require a warehousing space of around 3000 sq ft.² for dry storage. Micro cold storage unit of the capacity of 30 tons rotated 12 times a year would provide storage for almost 360 tons of fruits and vegetables.

In order to fill this gap, market storage and logistic infrastructure should be built at every Gram Panchayat level in India which is at 250,000 odd locations with slightly bigger infrastructure at the block level which number around 6,600 in India.

The GMH should also provide physical space for village level workers in extension, livestock, healthcare (ANM), CSC, digital/physical training centre to ensure footfall and ensure that the facilities become a hub for all community activities in the village and the surrounding feeder villages.

Infrastructure under the SWAN Initiative of the GoI and the Common Service Centre Initiative of the GoI could also be converged for physical location within the same facilities.

FOLLOWING MODALITIES COULD BE FOLLOWED FOR ROLLING OUT GMH

Every Gram Panchayat would need to submit a proper DPR to the GoI for grant funding to set up a GMH in the respective village. The various criteria and the guidelines of the scheme would ensure the automatic self-selection of capable Gram Panchayats and would be the first off the blocks in rolling out the infrastructure first in the villages which would be capable of monetising the assets built under the project. This process would take time just like what has been envisaged for the Agriculture Infrastructure Fund scheme of Rs 100,000 crore from the GoI. GMH implementation would follow the same trajectory and may take three years to roll out to all the Gram Panchayats of India.

Gram Panchayats may need to give a written commitment to contribute two acres of land to this project and offer labour time to the project as a contribution of the villagers. This facility should include both dry storage and micro cold storage.

Gram Panchayats would also necessarily have to house the management (including the revenues and expenses) of these entities into a pre-existing village level primary agricultural cooperative society or create a new one with broad representation from the local communities for the purpose of the administration and management of these units. Some revenue rich Gram Panchayats may also opt for setting up a Farmer Producer Company with members drawn from the Gram Panchayat village as well as the feeder villages (two to every Gram Panchayat) which are in proximity to every Gram Panchayat. The entities (PACS or other COOPs) which would be engaged in management of the GMH infrastructure should be given the status of FPOs as being set up under a large programme by the GoI.

The Gram Sabha in each village would need to pass a resolution handing over a minimum of two acres of land for the GMH project. The Gram Sabha could upload all the details required directly onto a GoI portal along with the request for construction of the GMH complex in their village. These requests should be made by them directly to the Prime Minister of India.

This entire project needs to be tendered out all over India so good infrastructure companies take up the execution of creating great on-ground infrastructure. The nature and design may be customised depending on the geography. For example, the GMH in Ladakh and the GMH in Kerala would not be the same.

FUNDING FOR GMH

Presence in 250,000 Gram Panchayats and 6600 blocks would require funds to the order of 2.5 lakh crores (Rs1 crore per Gram Panchayat) for the GMH infrastructure at the panchayat level and @ 33,000 crores at the block level (@ Rs 5 crore per block). There could be direct financial support of INR 75 lakhs from the GoI coffers to every eligible Gram Panchayat in India with labour and land being contributed by the local communities under each Gram Panchayat. The GoI would raise another Rs 25 lakhs for each Gram Panchayat from CSR/grants/individual donations from domestic and international sources, making this a USD 40 billion project with the GoI funding it to the tune of USD 30 billion. The project could be implemented over three financial years from FY 21-22, 22-23 and 23-24.

The money for the scheme can be pulled in from schemes like MPLADS, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, National Mission on Horticulture, NFSM, Krishi Bhandaran Yojana and other such major/minor schemes under MoRD and MoFPI. MGNREGA may be used to partly fund the labour cost component of the project which will be rolled out in all Gram Panchayats of India.

The GoI could also appeal to PSUs and private companies with CSR budgets to help in building this infrastructure between 1 to 100 villages depending on the CSR budgets of each corporate. There are also large international donor organisations which could be approached to provide very substantial funds to a project of this scale. Non-resident Indians as well as persons of Indian origin can also contribute towards building this infrastructure in the villages of their ancestors. The GMH will provide a structured platform to ensure that any PIO/NRI with emotional connections to their villages would be able to donate for changing the lives of their brethren in the villages in a tangible way.

ECONOMIC OUTCOMES OF BUILDING VILLAGE LEVEL INFRASTRUCTURE

All the village level infrastructure needs to be connected institutionally with the new private markets coming up all over India which may be in the form of physical private markets or even electronic markets functioning on a regional or national basis.

The infrastructure on the ground could feed into these private markets where buyers from all over India could be attracted. Private markets could be run by the FPO or cooperative societies in partnership with organisations like NAFED, GCMMF or any such successful federation or public body with large-scale interfaces with farmers. This will revive the thousands of defunct or dormant Primary Agriculture Societies across India. It would give a fillip to the FPO movement if they have the status of being FPOs with the attendant benefits as available to FPOs through various State Government and GoI schemes and facilities.

Anything monetisable by the hands of the local communities through the mechanism of the bodies owned and controlled by them creates business models and economic opportunities for millions who would be engaged with the facilities built all over India. Many Indian companies including startups would be major beneficiaries of the GMH which would mean thousands of crores of rupees as revenue for these Indian-owned organizations.

Since the cold chain and sorting/packing/grading/cleaning would start from the villages, there would be huge savings in supply chain losses which may amount to billions of dollars on an annual basis. Since there would be a sudden boost in the number of reefer transportation assets all over India, the country would reach a tipping point in terms of their usage and also freight costs moving the country from zero to approaching the levels of Thailand at 40% percent of the output being transported in these types of vehicles. Since there would be a massive jump in the number of micro cold storages in India, their unit costs would go down from the current levels of Rs 10-15 lakhs for every 15-30 tons of storage to 1/3rd of that cost, furthering triggering their adoption by even large farmers.

The GMH can also be integrated with the ‘One District, One Product’ initiative of the Government of India with there being some level of value addition at the village level to the specialty produce from the village, which may be the processing of seed spices like cumin, coriander, fennel or other such items which are grown in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. There could be value addition to milk in the form of paneer, ghee and other products.

The project could also change the mindsets of the GoI and state governments from the current production focus to a market-driven approach. As a natural corollary of the One District One Product programme, the GoI could guide the country towards ‘One Village One Product’. There could be village wise commodity specialisation which could become the reason of renown for the village.

This will become a huge pump priming project for the economy which is suffering the effects of Covid and the turmoil in the global environment. The solution for the varied problems of the farm sector and the peasant community lies not in subsidies but in building a robust post-harvest infrastructure. It will help facilitate the journey to the doubling of farmers’ income in India.

The writer is founder and chairman, Indian Society of Agribusiness Professionals and Indigram Labs Foundation. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

THE SUCCESS STORY OF DADRA & NAGAR HAVELI AND DAMAN & DIU

Gopal Goswami

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The administrative services are said to be the permanent government in a democracy, while the elected ones are only for a certain period. In our country, region, religion, caste and many other social and cultural factors determine the outcome of election results. In such a scenario, sometimes non-qualified, undeserving and even criminal individuals get elected. The lack of an enlightened political class creates enough room for the bureaucracy to take undue advantage and rule the roost.

We inherited the bureaucratic system set up by the British rulers to rule its enslaved population. This has led the bureaucracy in free India to become a problem rather than being a solution. In the history of independent India, there have been very few examples of top political bosses who had the sagacity to handle the bureaucratic setup properly for the benefit of governance. Among the present generation of leadership, PM Narendra Modi has the apt understanding to handle this system. His level of knowledge of all strata of society, his journey from a chaiwala to Prime Minister which covered almost all walks and terrains of life, and his connection with ordinary people have empowered him with a proper understanding of the functioning of the system in totality. With such leadership at the helm of affairs, the bureaucracy works efficiently and effectively, not out of fear, but from the fact that the boss knows more and better ways to perform their tasks. As a result, the North and South Blocks of the Central Secretariat annexe are more vigilant and mobile today.

Prime Minister Modi has had the skill to deal with the bureaucracy right from the beginning of his stint as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Only a few of his fellow politicians in Gujarat could master it while they were in his proximity. One of them is Home Minister Amit Shah and the other Praful Patel, Administrator of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu and Lakshadweep. Patel was Home Minister in his cabinet after Amit Shah had been framed in fake encounter cases by the then Congress government at the Centre. 

Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu are union territories which were handed over by the Portuguese to India in the late 1960s. Since then, thousands of crores of rupees have been spent as special grants from the Centre each year as Dadra and Nagar Haveli is a tribal-dominated area and Daman is dominated by an OBC population.

Before Patel took over, the Administrator of these areas used to be a senior IAS officer of the UT cadre. Both UTs were under special financial packages and incentives set up for industries to generate employment for the tribal and OBC youth. Half a dozen IAS/IPS officers were put on deputation in each of the UTs and a separate secretariat was created, to run a territory smaller than a taluka, when compared with other states. A huge chunk of the funds was spent on the salaries of the administration. However, the funds were squandered without proper planning and used for personal gain by the bureaucracy and administration along with the elected public representatives. Meanwhile, the tribal and marginalised populations remained underprivileged, uneducated, and without proper road infrastructure and healthcare facilities. 

In the year 2016, Praful Patel was appointed as Administrator of Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. It has been almost five years since then. The UTs are now unified as one single union territory, with a centralised secretariat in Daman. The layers of the administration have been halved, leading to big savings on recurring expenditures. The whole UT is almost corruption-free today.

Huge development work is being done with the quality and utility of them ensured. The cost of capital-intensive projects has been brought down as there is no corruption and projects are sanctioned by an online tendering process. The best part is that the quality of work has improved, and the Silvassa-Bhilad road connecting to the national highway and roads in Daman is an example of that. Moreover, flyovers are being constructed wherever needed. The administration is working round-the-clock for the welfare of the tribal districts of the UTs. 

Silvassa and Daman, once infamous for its rampant corruption by bureaucrats and politicians, breathes easy today. The public is happy because the system is working for their welfare and their voice is heard. The Administrator visits the projects every month for progress reviews and quality checks. The Collector and his associate officers speak to locals to ensure whether they are getting the benefits of public health, better education, efficient teachers, water supply and roads on a regular basis. Some of the government schools in Daman and Silvassa are better than world-class private schools. The whole UT is open defecation-free, each house has a toilet and the «Har Ghar, Nal Se Jal” scheme is under implementation.

Another major development in these UTs have been the medical and engineering colleges. A state of the art 100-bed medical college was added to the existing Vinoba Bhave Hospital which has more than 5000 in the OPD each day. Given the tiny population of 2.5 lakhs, this shows the efficiency of the medical staff and the belief of the people in government facilities. The Silvassa medical college is also a huge gift for the tribal-dominated DNH, as people there can now see their kids become doctors two to three years from now. The first engineering college has also been sanctioned and will be operational in a few years.

Hundreds of other development projects are being implemented within the UTs. The underground electrical lines in Silvassa and Daman, the skywalk chowpati at Silvassa, and seafront development in Daman and Diu are a few worth mentioning here. The UTs are also a tourist destination and these projects will attract more tourists and add to the income of the locals as a result.

These are the same places where the bureaucracy was treated like gods. Now, under able political leadership, they are the servants of the people. The ring road project of Silvassa, which had been halted for sixteen years, was completed within a year. Illegal occupation of public properties by politicians was rampant, and action was taken against that. The administration removed encroachers, although a few of them were ruling party leaders and people used to think the bigwigs are untouchable.

Sheer willpower has changed the scenario of development and the level of governance in these UTs. Remember, this transformation has come with the same set of people, officers and bureaucracy. People are full of praise for them now whereas they thought that bureaucrats are superhuman and can’t be held responsible for their misdeeds and corruption. But the termination of many officials, the forced retirement of medically unfit officials and voluntary retirement of lazy officials have brought a sense of optimism among locals.

In a nutshell, the moral here is that able leadership can prove the theory of “bureaucrats always overweigh politicians” wrong in a big way. Patel has proved that if you know the core of your business, the bureaucracy will be your slave. Politicians are not one and the same; some people know the art of governance and how to implement it, and Patel is one of them, He is still in his late 50s and has a long political career ahead. He belongs to Gujarat and has served Gujarat as a politician except for these five years.

Today, Gujarat also needs such leaders, who can tame the bureaucracy and get the house in order, especially as Gujarat is seeing its crime rate increase with each passing day and corruption become a big area of concern. The Revenue and Police departments also need to be made to work for the welfare, safety and security of the people, not for indulging in the land-grabbing business.

The turnaround of the two UTs and three districts is evidence of good governance and corruption-free administration in all departments. All this has been possible due to the able leadership of the administrator of the UTs and his team of officers who are working tirelessly day and night. This is the Modi model of governance” which can administer good governance with the same set of officials and bureaucrats.

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