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India’s fuel economy and the hard facts

Instead of politicising fuel price hikes and conveniently blaming the Modi government, critics must understand the global trends in oil demand and supply in the post-Covid era and take a close look at the percentage of state taxes in the country, which are added to final petrol and diesel prices, especially in Congress-ruled states like Rajasthan.

Sanju Verma

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Goldman Sachs recently predicted that the global oil benchmark, that is Brent Crude Oil, will be hitting $70 in the next couple of weeks. Those gains will be driven by long-dated prices and steep backwardation, which happens when futures prices are below spot prices. “We now forecast that oil prices will rally sooner and higher, driven by lower expected inventories and higher marginal costs, at least in the short run, to restart upstream activity,” said the team at Goldman Sachs, consisting of Damien Courvalin, Callum Bruce, Jeffrey Currie and Huan Wei. “We further believe that this additional rally will be supported by the current repositioning for a reflationary environment with investors turning to oil, buying a lagging real asset that benefits from a stimulus-driven recovery, and has demonstrated an unmatched ability to hedge against inflation shocks,” the team added.

Hopes of an economic recovery from the pandemic, driven by roll-outs of the Covid vaccines, have been pushing investors out of the perceived safe haven of bonds and into commodities and other assets. The yield on the ten-year US Treasury note reached 1.372% on February 22, 2021, after gaining 14.5 basis points in the last one week alone. As for the fundamental reasons supporting elevated global oil prices, a better-than-expected demand and still depressed supply, creating a much larger deficit than the deficit of 2.3 lakh barrels per day as seen in December 2020, are the key factors pushing up oil prices. Even the OPEC is now estimating global GDP growth at 4.8%, versus the earlier estimate of 4.4%. The oil deficit will likely widen as not even ramped up OPEC+ production (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other producers such as Russia) can keep up with the ongoing demand recovery. It will also take a while for a recovery in Iran’s exports. As vaccinations and the warm weather drive jet fuel demand, the overall global demand is expected to reach the pre-pandemic levels of 100 million barrels a day by late July 2021, as per Goldman Sachs, with the supply deficit rising to 900,000 barrels per day (bpd) during the first half of 2021. 

The recent bull rally in global oil prices, from a low of $18 a barrel in April 2020 to a high of over $65 in February 2021, effectively means that crude oil prices have risen by an unbelievable 261% in the last 11 months, with a good 25% of that rise coming in the last month alone and a solid 55% of that rise coming in the last three months. Since more than 80% of India’s oil demand is met via imports, any surge in global Brent Crude prices obviously has a sizable impact on India too as both petrol and diesel are now fully deregulated. 

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), India is currently ranked behind the United States and China as the world’s third-largest oil consumer. It consumed 206.2 million tonnes in 2017-18. Oil cartel OPEC projected India’s oil demand to rise by 5.8 million barrels per day by 2040, accounting for about 40% of the overall increase in global demand during the said period. As per the EIA, India is set to replace China as the 100 pound oil guzzling behemoth in the next few years. Since in the final analysis, the price of any commodity, including oil, is driven by demand and supply dynamics, each time petrol or diesel prices rise in India, we should ask ourselves, have we done enough to contribute to greener fuels? Maruti Suzuki, for instance, sells over 1.6 lakh units every month on an average, which means that it is selling about four cars every minute! Clearly, despite the brouhaha, oil demand continues to gallop ahead, outpacing supply.

Factors leading to the global bull rally in oil are the $1.9 trillion stimulus package proposed by President Joe Biden, Biden’s moratorium on federal land drilling, the revocation of the permit for Keystone XL and the moratorium on all oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A slow increase in non-OPEC supply, rising winter demand, a snowstorm in Texas, depleting global inventories and Covid-induced supply disruptions will further push up global oil prices.

Speaking specifically of the recent Brent Crude price rise, it has been in the making since May 2020, driven primarily by factors like output cuts to the tune of about 9.7 million bpd in May, June and July last year by Saudi Arabia-led OPEC, drilling by US shale oil wells falling to two-year lows of barely 7.63 million bpd, output cuts to the tune of 7.7 million bpd between August and December 2020 by OPEC and, of course, demand recovery in China. 

Theoretically, every $1/barrel fall or rise in Brent Crude prices leads to a 0.45/litre reduction or rise in product prices, assuming that “other things” are constant. However, other things like the rupee-dollar exchange rate, cess, refining cost, import duties, shipping charges, freight rates and dealer commissions and profit margins are never quite constant in the real world. India’s ignorant opposition has often alleged that under the inept Congress-led UPA-2, despite elevated Brent prices globally, local fuel prices were much lower. Well, that is because fuel prices were only partially decontrolled under the inefficient Congress-led UPA-2 government, with petrol prices being deregulated only in June 2010. It was the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government which took the unpopular but bold and long overdue decision of decontrolling diesel prices too in October 2014.

Hence, comparing fuel price movements under the Modi government with the erstwhile lethargic Congress regime is unfair and unacceptable. Also, don’t forget that the previous UPA government took loans by purchasing oil bonds of Rs 1.44 lakh crore, which the Narendra Modi-led NDA government inherited and paid for. Not only this, the Modi government also paid Rs 70,000 crore as interest alone, which means that, in total, the Modi government discharged the debt obligations of the earlier Congress regime by repaying over Rs 2 lakh crore. A father who leaves behind property for his next generations is seen with respect in society but what would one say about the father who takes loans and turns bankrupt and leaves the baggage for the next generations to come? An inept Congress played the role of such a reckless, prodigal father in this case.

To nail the misinformation surrounding domestic fuel pricing, it is best to look at this real time example. Petrol prices in Mumbai recently hit Rs 100 per litre. Of this Rs 100, the basic rate is Rs 32.97 per litre, the Central Government tax is Rs 21.58, the State Government VAT, surcharges and levies are Rs 41.67 per litre, and distributor margins work out to Rs 3.78 per litre. Clearly, it is not the Central Government taxes, but the State Government taxes that are the biggest component of petrol prices and also the biggest reason for the steep rise in domestic fuel prices. Effectively speaking, State Government taxes account for 41.67% of the final petrol price, whereas Central Government taxes account for only 21.58% of it. Hence, before pointing fingers at the Modi government, opposition leaders like the clueless Rahul Gandhi, whose party is a vital part of the ruling alliance in Maharashtra, would do well to do some number crunching. In fact, along with VAT, disaster management cess and highway liquor ban cess, the net share of State taxes in fuel prices in Maharashtra is almost 50% and the same is the case with Rajasthan, another Congress-ruled state with the highest VAT.

Also, let’s not forget that while, under an incompetent Congress-led UPA, oil prices had been deliberately kept low, it did more harm than good, because the subsidised fuel meant higher fiscal deficit, which in turn manifested itself in higher retail inflation. While retail inflation in January 2021 stood at 4.04%, with food inflation at just 1.89% and vegetable inflation at minus 15.84% under an incompetent Congress-led UPA, the overall retail inflation hit 12% in 2013, with food inflation in excess of 14.72%. So, seemingly low fuel prices under the erstwhile Congress dispensation were simply a chimera and a charade. People may have paid lower prices for fuel then, but they paid many times more for day-to-day food and grocery items in 2013. Again, it is nothing but sheer hypocrisy to talk of rising petrol and diesel prices but not give the Modi government credit for the fact that, compared to 2013, when LPG gas cylinder prices went as high as Rs 1,270 per cylinder, today an LPG gas cylinder costs Rs 769 and in January 2021, it was even lower, at Rs 694 per cylinder. Do note that globally, LPG prices in the last few months have risen from $455 per tonne to over $600 per tonne, which is a 32% increase. Locally, in India, compared to 2013, LPG prices in the last 6.5 years, under the Modi government, have actually fallen by anywhere between a good 40% to 83%!

To cut to the chase, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning to increase natural gas consumption by 2.5 times, as part of the energy mix, to 15.5% by 2030, from the current level of 6.2%. The ongoing transition from an “oil economy” to a “gas economy” under PM Modi’s visionary leadership is steadfastly underway. Over 70% of India’s population in over 400 districts will have city gas distribution (CGD) facilities soon. Only 25 lakh households in India had access to piped natural gas (PNG) in 2014 but thanks to the Modi government’s persistent efforts, that figure more than quadrupled by 2021. Again, India only had 947 CNG stations in 2014, and that number rose to 1470 stations in 2018, and is set to scale up to a massive 10,000 CNG stations in the next few years. Since CNG is anywhere between 45% to 60% cheaper than petrol and diesel, this will make India self-reliant in more ways than one.

India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has the enviable accomplishment and unique distinction of already vaccinating over 11 million people in what is clearly the world’s fastest and most ambitious vaccination drive, with India even exporting vaccines to over 21 countries. The Union Budget for 2021-22 set aside Rs 35,000 crore for the Covid vaccine. The allocation of Rs Rs 2.23 lakh crore for health is a 137% jump in 2021-22, over 2020-21. Rs 1.18 lakh crore for road infrastructure, Rs 1.10 lakh crore for railways, an outlay of Rs 3.6 lakh crore for the power sector and Rs 16.5 lakh crore towards agriculture credit outlay in the Union Budget showcase how the Modi government is spending money judiciously towards a healthier and better India. Defence allocation at Rs 4.78 lakh crore, which is up 19% in FY22, over FY21, is aimed at a safer and more secure India.

It is an unpopular opinion but let truth be told—taxes are crucial for resource mobilisation by the government to fast-track development. And yes, this is true for India and of course governments the world over too. But, don’t forget that, as per the 15th Finance Commission’s recommendations, 41% of the Central Government’s divisible pool of taxes goes to the states. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) has been touted as the most significant and bold indirect tax reform ever in independent India. The GST seeks to rationalise and remove the cascading effect of indirect taxes by subsuming a host of indirect taxes such as VAT, excise duty and entry tax. The GST Council has two-thirds representation from the states and only one-third from the Centre. Hence, rather than politicising fuel price hikes and conveniently blaming the Modi government, states like Rajasthan and Maharashtra, where fuel prices are amongst the highest and where the Congress is in power or in alliance, need to answer whether they are ready for fuel prices to be brought under the GST? Because, as they say, you cannot have your cake and eat it too!

The writer is an economist, national spokesperson of the BJP and the author of the bestseller ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

PM IS RIGHT, LOCKDOWN IS NOT THE ANSWER TO CORONA CRISIS

Joyeeta Basu

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Amid the current surge in Covid infections, there should be consensus on one issue—a lockdown is not the solution to the crisis. Instead, states need to follow the micro-containment strategy, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it clear in his speech on Tuesday evening. The human cost of a lockdown is too huge for this country to bear, as it became painfully obvious last year. Some have justified the lockdown last year as necessary, for it delayed the first wave and gave time to an unprepared health infrastructure to ready itself. However, the current move to impose lockdowns is not going to help because the second, more infectious, wave is already here. There is no scientific evidence to prove that a lockdown can prevent a surge in infections. Instead, a lockdown imposes a huge human and economic cost on a country.

Last year, the massive movement of migrants out of the “industrialised” states to the poorer states took catastrophic proportions, leading to untold misery among the underprivileged. The economy took such a hard knock that it required stimulus after stimulus and a “forward looking” budget by the Central government to give it a push towards a semblance of recovery. The economy is still nowhere near normal, especially sectors such as hospitality. With the economy being made to shut down once again, the lockdown is hitting hard different sectors, with the hospitality industry in particular crippled. According to the “Indian Hospitality: The Stats and Pulse Report” by Hotelivate, the hospitality sector may take four more years, until 2025, to go back to pre-Covid levels. Restaurant and movie hall owners say that even a six-day lockdown, as it has been announced in Delhi, is bad for their health, just when things were looking up; and any further extension will sound their death knell. From the sudden outflow of migrants taking place from Delhi and Maharashtra it is apparent that neither of the two governments has been able to instil confidence in them that the shutdowns will be short term. And now, chances are that these migrants are already carrying the virus from the hotspots to their respective states. The migrants are the hardest hit during such calamities and a safety net is sorely needed for them, including provisions for interim payments in case of contingencies. Also, as the Prime Minister said, a drive should be launched to vaccinate them. Supply chains too have started getting affected because of the current lockdown, with the National Capital Region in particular facing a shortage of essential goods because of their dependence on Delhi. And these are just a few examples.

Hence the Prime Minister is right when he speaks about the need for micro-containment zones instead of lockdowns. Even Delhi does not have an even spread of the virus, while in Maharashtra, which is a much bigger state, it’s primarily in the congested urban areas that the virus is spreading like wildfire. A huge caseload does not justify blanket restrictions. In fact, it is surprising that amid all the horror stories about the second wave, not much attention is being given to the fact that 85%-90% of the cases are very mild and do not require any hospitalisation, but just home quarantine and medication. It is doctors who are saying this, but this fact is not being highlighted enough. While following strict Covid appropriate behaviour is necessary, efforts should also be made to allay people’s fears. The need of the hour is increased testing, contact tracing and treatment, with focus being on the micro-containment zones. The hospital infrastructure needs a tremendous boost for the 10%-15% cases who may require hospitalisation. But this is a long-term process. In this context, it is hoped that the 137% increase in the Budgetary allocation this year for health—from Rs 94,452 crore to Rs 223,846 crore—will go a long way in creating an infrastructure that not only delivers healthcare to the poorest, but also insulates the system from any corona-like outbreaks.

In the meanwhile, the need is for responsible, Covid-appropriate behaviour. Also, will it be too much to ask our politicians to stop politicking over a matter of life and death and instead concentrate on alleviating this crisis? For this the states need to work in tandem with the Centre. Blame game is not helping anyone. Moreover, spreading misinformation and even disinformation about vaccines must stop. There are enough reports that vaccination is drastically reducing the risk of hospitalisation even if one contracts Covid, post taking the vaccine. Now that the vaccination process has been opened for those above the age of 18 years, governments need to ensure maximum coverage in as short a span of time as possible.

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Opinion

Forest fires: Not a priority for government

In 2019-20 alone, India lost nearly 38,500 hectares or 14% of its tropical forests. With about one-fifth of it going up in flames each year, Indian forests are no more carbon sinks but carbon emission areas. Why then is the Ministry of Environment turning a blind eye to the issue?

Amita Singh

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Since March, there have been more than a 1,000 major forest fires across the country. Last month, when the Jodibill Reserve Forest near the Similipal Biosphere Reserve in Odisha was ablaze, many other pristine forests and wildlife reserves in many other states in the country were also burning. Fire alerts have been continuously coming from Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, many Northeastern states and Uttarakhand. The peak forest fire season in the country began as usual in March with 3,308 incidents this year, as compared to 1,004 in the corresponding month in 2019. Two major causes which emerge are the failure of forest governance and of disaster governance. After every forest fire, debates are diverted towards assessment of the government’s capacity to douse forest fires but a demand for accountability from those who failed on preparedness gets muted. Only a few question the government’s intention as a causal factor for forest fires.

While I was writing this piece, I received a petition for support from the communities of the Sattal lakes and the forests in Kumaon. Despite the massive devastation that Uttaranchal has been facing due to vanishing forests and ongoing forest fires, it is bent upon invading the pristine biodiversity area and wreaking havoc through the construction of children’s parks, hotels, shops and parking spaces. Uttarakhand’s uncontrollable fire has already scarred more than 700 hectares and remains unstoppable. The government has admitted that in the current month alone a monetary loss of Rs 14,18,909 is estimated, but if the value of ecosystem services obtained from a rich forest biodiversity is also added to it, this loss may multiply manifold. Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the Minister of State for Environment revealed that in 2019 the area affected by forest fires was a massive 93,273 hectares, suggesting an equally baffling figure for damage and losses.

Interestingly, forest fires are not even recognized as a natural disaster in the framework of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). Initially, in the 2009 National Policy on Disaster Management, only earthquakes, floods, wind, cyclones and landslides were recognised as disasters. Later, glacial lake outbursts and heatwaves have been added to the list. But the much needed recognition of forest fires as a disaster is shockingly still missing.

The Forest Protection Division of the Ministry had formulated a National Action Plan on Forest Fires in April 2018 and a report ‘Strengthening Forest Fire Management in India’ was also published. The Ministry also launched a faster and more robust version of Fire Alert System in January 2019 through the Forest Survey of India (FSI) Dehradun. In the meantime, the National Green Tribunal, unsuccessfully, directed the Ministry to constitute a National Monitoring Committee to monitor the National Action Plan on Forest Fires. NDMA’s failure to recognise forest fires as a natural disaster has prevented a synchronized preparedness exercise in accordance with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. A previously constituted Standing Fire Advisory Committee of the NDMA had a highly deficient record of equipment, rescue vehicles and trained manpower which prevented any monitoring of funds allocated for fire prevention to state governments.

Forest fires have been the main reason for the loss of forest cover, and with no immediate afforestation, this land is occupied by encroachers making the rest of it still more vulnerable to fires. The Forest Survey of India in 2019 found more than 36% of forest cover in the country as severely vulnerable to fire.

Who could be behind forest fires? There is enough evidence in the history of forest fires about an unholy nexus of miners, the timber mafia, poachers and their representatives in the government who surreptitiously get forest land released for non-forest purposes. The arrest of two men behind the recent Jodibill incident confirms the presence of criminals behind forest fires. A 2002 Down to Earth report had said that the Terai region’s timber smuggling is linked to the poaching of tigers, panthers, elephants, Himalayan black bear and musk deer to such an extent that more than 20-30 trucks get past through most check posts illegally. The forest departments can do nothing before these well armed and well connected mafia agents. Many forest guards are killed every year trying to save animals or timber from criminals. Only last month while a forest guard was shot dead by mafia goons in Dewas, three other forest guards suffered critical injuries in Panna Forest Reserve of Madhya Pradesh after being attacked with axes, choppers and spades. A forest guard is a Group C, non-gazetted, non-ministerial post with a starting salary of Rs 5,200 and is given neither weapons nor life-saving boots, appropriate uniform and protective headgear. They are always overpowered and outnumbered once caught patrolling inside the criminal-occupied forest areas.

Fires push endemic species to extinction as they have location-based lives. While the administration gets busy dousing the fire, traffickers drive off with their wanted reptiles and exotic mammals. Tigers and elephants are dedicated sentinels who guard these forests against illegal human trespassing and lose their lives like the forest guards. Many species of wild cats such as panthers, leopards, tigers and cheetahs have already become extinct due to fires and the subsequent loss of habitat. Many historians and conservationists such as Mahesh Rangarajan have recorded how thousands of tigers had been shot down in the years prior to Independence to vacate forest land for saleable property by the royals. Documentaries on elephants by filmmakers like Mike Pandey and Sangita Iyer highlight cruelties perpetrated by human beings and the diminishing impact of the law on protecting forests. A recently published report by the Global Forest Watch (GFW) has brought out shocking facts about India’s forests. In just one year of 2019-20, India has lost nearly 38.5 thousand hectares or 14% of tropical forest. GFW is an initiative of the World Resources Institute with an open source web application to monitor global forests. It recorded the deadliest forest loss in Mizoram (47.2% loss) followed by Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya and Nagaland, which when put together lost more than 52% of all tree cover in India in 2019-20. Our ‘Look East Policy’ is becoming a ‘Fire East Policy’.

Diversion of forest lands for non-forest use was made difficult by the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 (FCA 1980). Subsequently, the rate of diversion of forest land within a decade came down from 1.43 lakh ha to around 15,000 ha per annum. Many subsequent amendments to this restraining Act and, in supersession of the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 1981, many changes were brought in between 2014 and 2017. Most of these changes were not even displayed on the MOEFCC website which is considered quite mandatory for modern governance. The Web Measurement Index (WMI) reflecting upon the government’s intention of what it wants to hide or wishes to display reveals how interested the government is in protecting forests.

The changes to the Act further diluted Environment Impact Assessment procedures and eliminated any scope for assessing wildlife before granting clearances to projects on forest lands. Many forest animals who guarded their sacrosanct forest entry points, like the nilgais and monkeys were declared vermin in 2014-15 by short-sighted policies of the MOEFCC and instead of giving them a green cover they were eliminated within weeks in a brutal bloodshed unleashed upon them and abetted by the Ministry. There is also suspected data fuzzing on forest diversions. The Union Minister of Environment Prakash Javadekar in his 20 March 2020 statement in the Parliament divulges a figure of 3,616 projects involving 69,414.32 ha of diversion of forest land since 2014. But the MoEFCC’s e-Green website mentions a much higher diversion, a total of 72,685 ha of forest land. This e-Green website is a product of a Supreme Court directive to the Ministry for effective monitoring of the compensatory afforestation in the country through an authority named “Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA)”. So if two figures with an error of almost 3000 ha are available simultaneously on two government websites, is there yet another figure to which citizens have limited or no access?

Huge forest lands which have sketchy forest cover and immense vulnerability to fire await afforestation through CAMPA. This Division within the MoEFCC was constituted in 2009 by the Supreme Court order after a writ petition involving TN Godavarman Thirumulpad vs. Union of India & Ors. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 further provided for the establishment of funds under the public accounts of India and of each state to credit the monies received from the user agencies towards compensatory afforestation recovered under the FCA1980. It’s laughable to accept that compensatory afforestation is actually possible despite the Court orders. Where is the land for it? If land was available then there wouldn’t have been any need for encroaching into forest land. Consequently, CAMPA became a dragging and rejected division as the minutes of its seven crucial meetings reveal. In fact the first four meetings between 2009 and 2012 were so casual that the minutes neither had the Chairman’s signature (who is the Union Minister for MoEF) nor his name. Later meetings had both but no decisions were ever taken on direct forest management. A simple demand of the DG of FSI for much needed High Resolution Satellite Imagery like the Cartosat-1 and Ikonos for multisectoral and panchromatic imagery which could have increased fire detection capacity of forest personnel was dragged from the 5th to the 7th CAMPA Advisory Gp. meetings of 2015, after which no record of these meetings are displayed on its website which was last updated in November 2019.

Another scuttling of fire prevention efforts occurred when the government rejected every move to consolidate community network, awareness and fire fighting training proposals such as that from the Barefoot College which were brought to its meetings for approval. India’s forest story is saddening with only 3.02% of real dense forest in a forest cover of merely 21.67%. Sustainable and healthy human life needs at least 30% of forest cover but most of the forests we are left with are moderately covered or open forests. Appallingly, it appears that the MoEFCC engages more in the diversion of forest land than in forest fire prevention.

Is there a possibility that we can still blame climate change for forest fires in the first place? India’s forests are no more carbon sinks but carbon emission areas as one fifth of the 70.82 mha of forest land goes up in flames every year. The carbon emission to the atmosphere from these fires would be much higher than the Californian fire estimation of 91 metric ton released from a forest fire area of only 1.4 mha. In this background, the tall claim of the Environment Minister made in 2017 that India’s 1.56 metric tonnes of emissions in 2010 could be attributed to a nature-friendly Indian lifestyle needs revision and introspection unless we wish to maintain a fake global image of a benign Indian.

The writer is former Professor of Law & Governance, JNU, and president of Asia-Pacific Disaster Research Group (NDRG). The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

RAM RAJYA: A MORAL SOVEREIGNTY

Both Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar were looking at the concept of Ram Rajya from their respective prisms—Gandhi from a more pragmatic prism and Ambedkar from a literal one. But both highlight the fact that a just system should be one where the weak are protected and their voices heard.

Ram Madhav

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“Hinduism is a movement, not a position; a process, not a result; a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation”, wrote eminent scholar-politician-statesman Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan in his seminal work The Hindu View of Life. He went on to say, “Precious as are the echoes of God’s voice in the souls of men of long ago, our regard for them must be tempered by the recognition of the truth that God has never finished the revelation of His wisdom and love. Besides, our interpretation of religious experience must be in conformity with the findings of science. As knowledge grows, our theology develops. Only those parts of the tradition which are logically coherent are to be accepted as superior to the evidence of the senses and not the whole tradition.”

Unlike the Semitic religions, Hinduism is not a religion of ‘believers’. “Unless you believe, you will not understand”, St Augustin of Hippo had exhorted early Christians of the Roman empire. But Hinduism allowed inquiry and wanted men to be seekers, rather than mere believers. Ram and the Ramayana are divine for many. Gandhi called Ram his personal deity. But Ambedkar did not agree much with Ram. He even challenged the Ramayana, going to the original by Valmiki, in his Riddles in Hinduism. However, there is a common aspect in Gandhi and Ambedkar’s stances: both argued from a logical perspective, not from blind faith or blind hatred.

Whether Ram was a historical person or not did not bother Gandhi much. What mattered to him was the concept of ‘Ram Rajya’. In his view, Ram Rajya essentially meant equal rights to “prince and pauper”. Even during his two visits to Ayodhya, the abode of his deity Ram, in 1921 and 1929, Gandhi’s rhetoric was about standing up for the weak and the meek. Addressing the saints of Ayodhya on the banks of the river Saryu during his visit in February 1921, he resorted to his favourite subject of Ram Rajya. He chose cow protection as the point of reference to tell saints, “Praying to God for our own protection is a sin as long as we do not protect the weak…We need to learn to love the way Ram loved Sita”. There is no way to achieve Ram Rajya or swaraj without observing this svadharma, he told them.

Meanwhile, Ambedkar’s criticism of the Ramayana was based on his perception of certain events. He believed, not necessarily correctly, that Ram upheld the Varnashrama system and had killed a Dalit saint called Shambuka. “Some people seem to blame Ram because he…without reason killed Shambuka. But to blame Ram for killing Shambuka is to misunderstand the whole situation. Ram Raj was…based on Chaturvarnya. As a king, Ram was bound to maintain Chaturvarnya. It was his duty therefore to kill Shambuka, the Shudra, who had transgressed his class and wanted to be a Brahmin. This is the reason why Rama killed Shambuka”, Ambedkar writes. Many scholars insist that the story of Shambuka’s killing was an interpolation. Ambedkar was also critical, probably on more valid grounds, of Ram’s treatment of Sita. He saw Ram Rajya as unjust and patriarchal and commented on Ram’s dismissal of Sita to forests the second time as “there are not wanting Hindus who use this as grounds to prove that Ram was a democratic king when others could equally well say that he was a weak and cowardly monarch.”

Both Gandhi and Ambedkar were looking at the concept of Ram Rajya from their respective prisms—Gandhi from a more pragmatic prism and Ambedkar from a literal one. But both highlight the fact that a just system should be one where the weak are protected and their voices heard. The search for such a just and equitable system where there is harmony between the ruler and the ruled has been carried on by political pundits for millennia. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, was asked to consume poison by the democratic assembly of 21,000 citizens of Athens. His sin was that he supported the oligarchy of the 30 ruling tyrants of Sparta, a neighbouring city state. Socrates believed that the rule by a select class of wise men, like the oligarchy in Sparta, is better than a democracy based on mass hysteria as that in Athens. Tyrants in ancient Greek regime were those who usurped the role of the monarch; not necessarily the way we understand its meaning today. Plato and Aristotle detested both systems—the cruel authoritarianism of Sparta and the mobocracy of Athens. 

Plato’s panacea was ‘philosopher kings’. As Bhishma tells Yudhisthira in the Shanti Parv of the Mahabharat, which was repeated by Chanakya in Arth Shastra:

प्रजासुखे सुखं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु हिते हितम् । नात्मप्रियं हितं राज्ञः प्रजानां तु प्रियं हितम् ॥

This means, ‘The happiness of the ruler lies in the happiness of his subjects. It is not what the ruler likes that matters, but only what people like.’

In the Yudh Kand of the Ramayana, sage Valmiki narrates certain characteristics of Ram Rajya or Ram’s kingdom:

-While Rama was ruling the kingdom, there were no widows to lament, nor was there any danger from wild animals, nor any fear born of diseases. Every creature felt pleased. 

-Everyone was intent on virtue. Turning their eyes towards Ram alone, creatures did not kill one another. 

-While Ram was ruling the kingdom, people survived for thousands of years, with thousands of their progeny, all free from illness and grief. 

-Trees there bore flowers and fruits regularly, without any injury by pests and insects. Clouds were raining on time and the wind was delightful to the touch.

-All the people were endowed with excellent characteristics. All were engaged in virtue.

Ram Rajya is envisioned as that state of governance where the ruler is wise enough to place the good of the people above the interest of his own. But then, who will determine what is good and bad? Nietzsche, the German philosopher, had interpreted ‘good’ as “whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man,” inadvertently becoming the darling of Hitler and the Nazis. Plato’s ‘philosopher kings’ also became authoritarians when the Romans invested divinity in them and philosophers like Nietzsche gave weird interpretations of power. Julius Caesar commissioned dozens of sculptors to make different sculptures of him, while Hitler revelled in his wisdom of a ‘superior race’. Such smugness and self-righteousness have produced cruel authoritarians throughout history.

Ram presented a different ideal. Valmiki used two phrases with profound meaning to describe Ram, whom he called ‘विग्रहवान धर्मः’ or the epitome of morality. Those phrases are: आराधनाय लोकस्य and राज्यम उपासित्वा. Ram ‘worshipped people’ and ‘worshipped the kingdom’. He did not believe in his infallibility nor was he overpowered by any superiority complex. When his mother, Kausalya, asked him after his return to Ayodhya whether he had killed Raavan, Ram’s reply was: “Mahagyani, Mahapratapi , Mahabalshali, Akhand Pandit, Mahan Shivbhakt, author of Shiv Tandav Stotra, the mighty Lankesh was killed by his own ego”.

That is why Gandhi summed up Ram Rajya as “the sovereignty of the people based on pure moral authority”.

The writer is member, National Executive, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, and member, Board of Governors, India Foundation. The views expressed are personal.

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THE POLITICS OF COVID-19

Priya Sahgal

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Finally, the Kumbh Mela has been called off and the politicians too (most of them) have decided to address virtual rallies instead of crowded ones, but the damage has been done. Were these measures too late? Both on the ground in terms of the spreading Covid surge, and I don’t believe the excuse that the rallies are in West Bengal, while the Kumbh Mela was in UP, so how will they impact Maharashtra and Delhi? We are living in a borderless world and even if Maharashtra and Punjab have been affected by visitors from the UK and the US, it is not to say that the rallies and the Kumbh Mela won’t take their toll on an already burdened healthcare system. The numbers will come in later, especially once the devotees and political leaders go back to wherever they came from. And we will once again see another spike before this one has been flattened out.

The politicians make these decisions, and it is the ordinary citizens that suffer. We are told that the lockdown could not have been avoided. But from all our actions, we have been heading straight into lockdown 2.0. This includes our rather nationalistic vaccination strategy that totally failed to ensure that there was enough to go around. Again, a decision has been made to rectify this situation. And again I ask, why couldn›t this decision have been taken earlier? 

In the end, we are once again seeing hordes of migrants heading to the bus stations and railway stations; while most middle class families are once again staring at their bank statements. The economic fall is a crisis waiting to happen. The government was able to inject some liquidity in the market in the last few months, but at some point it will have to tighten the interest rates due to inflationary pressure. What happens then? Again, it is clear that the states are broke and the only one with the money is the Centre. Where will the Centre raise the money from—by taxing the already overburdened salaried class? 

And what about our healthcare system? Was there any learning from last year? Our budget barely made provisions to handle an ongoing pandemic. Perhaps our policy makers were lulled into thinking that with the vaccination, the worst was over. But with the vaccinations barely able to handle the changing mutations, clearly this is not the case. Our doctors are nearing a breakdown point. They are doing tele-consultations, hospital visits and countering WhatsApp forwards.

We have all been so shaken by this second surge that is also affecting our kids, that we need a doctor›s okay for even the most basic medicines. And they just don›t have the time or the energy anymore. Over stressed laboratories now cannot even handle routine blood tests. Once again, as what happened last year, routine and in some cases life threatening ailments are being ignored to handle the Covid onslaught. Most laboratories have drive-in centres for Covid testing to take the pressure of house calls, but while the timing of these are from 10 am onwards, the slots are all filled up by 10.02 am. I have had Dr Harsh Mahajan, founder, Mahajan Imaging, on Roundtable (NewsX) making a plea to state governments to stop routine tests for those crossing state borders as it adds to the already burdened system and those who really need the test done in a hurry have to wait. He has a point. These are desperate times.

Apart from the healthcare system, shouldn’t our budget have looked at the economic drivers such as the hospitality, tourism and aviation sectors? It had barely begun to limp back when the second lockdown had thrown it back into a tailspin. Restaurants are once again reduced to take away counters and that is not where their revenue comes in. Malls are once again locked down as are gym and spas. Commercial real estate is at an all-time low, though residential real estate has taken off in these Covid times where work from home means you don›t have to live in an expensive apartment near your work place, but can actually invest in your own home in the suburbs.

These are not easy times. These are also times that need to see a strong leadership—by strong I don›t just mean a strong personality that can lead, but also one that takes the right policy decisions. During the last month, our Prime Minister has been too busy being a star campaigner. It is only in the last few days that we have seen him revert back to being PM. Hope he stays the course.

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BORIS JOHNSON NOT SERIOUS ABOUT INDIA-UK TIES

Joyeeta Basu

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did it again—cancelled his visit to India. The visit was scheduled for next week, but was cancelled because of the current surge in coronavirus infections in India. The first time he did it was for Republic Day, when he was invited to be the chief guest but cancelled the trip because of a surge in infections in UK. While a Prime Minister going abroad when coronavirus is sweeping across his/her country can be bad optics domestically, by cancelling next week’s visit Boris Johnson essentially expressed his lack of confidence in the Indian government’s ability to protect him from the virus. This is rather strange considering a state guest of the stature of Boris Johnson would have been accorded the same security protocol that this country’s Prime Minister is given. A sanitized bubble would have been created for him, just the way it is created for the Prime Minister of this country when he is travelling. Anyway, the visit was meant to be a short one and only to New Delhi, and not to other cities that he was initially supposed to go to. So where was the need to cancel it? The irony is, it was his own government which failed to create a bubble for Boris Johnson, because of which the British Prime Minister ended up contracting the virus a few months ago.

The visit to India was supposed to be PM Johnson’s first major overseas trip after being elected to office in December 2019. If he had continued with the visit, he would have been considered a true friend of India. Instead, by cancelling it he proved that he was not serious about UK’s ties with India. This has to be seen in the context of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s visit to New Delhi last week—in the middle of the pandemic—when he had a full-fledged meeting with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. Let’s also not forget that the corona pandemic did not stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi from visiting Bangladesh to participate in that country’s golden jubilee celebrations. Internationally too such visits are taking place, a case in point being Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s visit to Washington to meet US President Joe Biden at a time when the pandemic is raging in both countries. It is from actions like these that the depth of a relationship is proven—how much importance leaders and countries give to ties with other countries. And obviously, in spite of all those Indian origin ministers in Boris Johnson’s government, in spite of the presence of such a huge Indian diaspora in the UK, in spite of the apparent collaboration in different areas, UK’s relationship with India just does not have that kind of depth.

India is no longer the British colony it once was, while UK is yet to recover from its colonial hangover, so finds it difficult to accommodate India’s interests—a case in point being the trouble that India faces trying to get some crooks extradited from there. Also, it appalls Indians that the UK allows its parliamentarians to discuss India’s internal matters and cast aspersions on India’s democracy, or that India’s high commission in London is attacked by Pakistan-backed radicals but the British government doesn’t take any action, or that British soil is allowed to become a hotbed for anti-India activities. And all these things have been happening on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s watch. There exists a lot of scepticism about UK in India. Moreover, the British media’s blanket negative coverage about anything India and Indian is seen as problematic by a large section of policymakers in this country. Boris Johnson has not done anything “spectacular” about India ever since he has taken over as Prime Minister—first as a successor to Theresa May in July 2019, and then elected Prime Minister in December 2019—that should inspire India’s confidence in him. Even his current focus is primarily about having a trade agreement with India, now that Britain is out of the European Union. It’s not known how interested he is in paying heed to India’s concerns. UK also wants to focus on the Indo-Pacific perhaps because every European power has started sailing its vessels there. But then Britain’s presence in the Indo-Pacific can only strengthen the alliance of the free world and may help in containing China, so that is welcome.

There is a lot that India and UK can do together. A visit by Boris Johnson would have gone a long way in building trust. Instead, news is that soon after PM Johnson said that he was not travelling to India, Britain added this nation to its red list of countries from where most travel is banned. And this in spite of India being generous enough about continuing its flights to and from the UK at a time when the UK strain was sweeping through Britain—the strain that largely caused this second wave in India. But then India approached India-UK bilateral ties in the true spirit of partnership. But the way things are shaping up, UK under Boris Johnson is not a reliable partner for India. India has shown enough generosity towards UK. Not anymore. It’s time India sent out a message to UK by withdrawing its invitation to PM Boris Johnson.

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The difference between faith and fanaticism

A person of faith recognises the truth that God is, whoever it may be, for him and others, while a fanatic is certain that only s/he knows who or what God is and is blinded by her/his passion. That is where differences between the two arise.

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Fanaticism has been in evidence across the world. Even Europe has no respite from the scourge, as one saw during the summer of 2016—from the acts of terrorism in Brussels on 22 March to the machete attack in Belgium on 6 August. And the trend continues till date. This wave of fanaticism raises certain questions for all people of faith. They are proud of the strength of their religious convictions, but so is the fanatic. What then sets a person of faith apart from a fanatic?

This question becomes particularly relevant in the context of terrorism, as one could pose a similar question about terrorism. The state uses violent force to combat terrorism but the terrorist also uses violent force against the state. So what is the difference between the two? All of us feel uneasy with an equation of this kind but we need to think clearly about this issue in order to feel clearly about it. In a country, the state has a monopoly on the use of violent force, which is supervised by a democratically elected government. Such moral and legal supervision is lacking in the case of a fanatic and that is why the apparent equation is misleading.

The difference between faith and fanaticism runs along similar lines. Fanaticism results from being blinded by the intensity of the luminosity of one’s own religious tradition by standing too close to it, instead of seeing the whole world transfigured in its light. The person of faith also stands close to his or her tradition but lives in the light, not in darkness. Unlike the fanatic, the person of faith realizes that faith, almost by definition, is faith in things unseen, and that when we say we have faith in God, we also acknowledge that we cannot quite really know the whole of God. Some would even say we cannot know God at all, but we can relax that position and say that we can know God in some ways. But most will acknowledge, even the most faithful, that we can only know God as we can relate to God, not to God as God, not to God as God is by himself, herself, or itself. Right there we have a built-in check which prevents honest and profound faith from degenerating into fanaticism, because fanaticism presumes to know what God is. It is strange that sometimes religions tend to believe that they have a monopoly on God and that’s where fanaticism comes in. But if they examine the concepts of God in their own traditions, they will find that the traditions insist that one cannot know God fully.

Allow me to elaborate this point with an example from Islam, since some members of this tradition have been associated with many acts of terrorism in recent times. The fanatic member of this tradition is out to get the infidel, but in order to define someone as an infidel, we need to know who a true Muslim is. At this point a crucial distinction in Islam between the legal and theological identity of a Muslim becomes crucial. According to Islamic law, any person who recites the Islamic confession of faith in good faith in the presence of witnesses must be accepted as a Muslim and may not be denied access to a gathering of Muslims. He or she may not observe all the obligations of being a Muslim, such as performing the five prayers daily, but that only means that the person is not a good Muslim and cannot mean that she is not a Muslim. Thus, while the distinction between a Muslim and a non-believer is fairly clear in legal terms, the theological understanding of who is a Muslim is much more subtle. Whether one is a true believer or not is known only to God, and one and oneself only really know whether one is a true believer or not in the presence of God on the Day of Judgement. One can see how easy it is to fall in the gulf between these two understandings.

Perhaps a distinction needs to be drawn between truth and certainty. Often, when we think we are seeking truth, we are really seeking certainty. If such is the case then, yes, there is great potential for fanaticism in a faith, if we arrive at a conclusion and feel that it is absolutely certain. But the genuine seeker after truth realizes that we ourselves cannot know everything conclusively, except perhaps for the conclusion that ‘God is.’ Admittedly, there is a discomfort involved here. But if we can live with it—and all genuine faith recognises that we have to—then we have a built-in check against fanaticism, in faith itself.

Another distinction gains importance in this context. Whether one is a person of faith or a fanatic also depends on our attitude towards other people of faith. If we are certain that the people of other faiths are condemned, and abide by the ‘legal’ conception of one’s identity, then we have no purchase on our spirituality. If, however, we realise that only God can pronounce such a judgement and not mere human beings, then, as people of faith, it might be easier for us to understand that there are other people who are also people of faith like us. And that if we deny them their right to their faith, then in a sense we are questioning our own faith, or at least our humanity. Actually, when you become a fanatic, then in a sense, instead of worshiping God, you start playing God. Thus, like any other passion, even religious or moral passion can blind a person.

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

The difference between faith and fanaticism runs along similar lines. Fanaticism results from being blinded by the intensity of the luminosity of one’s own religious tradition by standing too close to it, instead of seeing the whole world transfigured in its light. The person of faith also stands close to his or her tradition but lives in the light, not in darkness. Unlike the fanatic, the person of faith realises that faith, almost by definition, is faith in things unseen, and that when we say we have faith in God, we also acknowledge that we cannot quite really know the whole of God. Some would even say we cannot know God at all, but we can relax that position and say that we can know God in some ways.

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