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Right to Internet: Why it matters

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Devika Balakrishnan, a 14-year-old daughter of a daily wage labourer in Kerala committed suicide on 1st June of this year since she was unable to attend online classes because she did not have access to the internet or television. In another incident, 14-year-old boy from Chennai also committed suicide for same reason.

These disgraceful incidents were seen as a product of failure of government to ensure means of internet connectivity to masses. It was also surmised from these incidents that ‘Digital Divide’ and ‘Digital Inequality’ have negative impact on people belonging to downtrodden section of society.

Covid-19 pandemic brought unprecedented compulsions to stay indoors due to inherent contagiousness and pervasive nature of the disease. In order to keep continuing daily chores as before, it was utmost important to replace physical connectivity with virtual connectivity. Internet connectivity played a crucial role in achieving such objectives which were constrained by physical connectivity due to impending pandemic.

PENETRATION OF INTERNET

At global level, more than 60 percent of the total world population have access to internet. But this percentage varies from country to country as developed countries like USA and Scandinavian countries more than 80 percent people have access to internet when compared with least developed countries where only around 20 percent population can access internet.

India is the second largest internet using country after China with around 700 million internet users. However, penetration rate in India is only about 40% compared to 80% in case of USA. In a reply to a question in Rajya Sabha, Sanjay Dhotre, Minister of State for Communications, Education, and Electronics & Information Technology, said Broadband penetration in rural India is limited to a mere 29.2 per cent, as on 31 March 2020.

‘The Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators’ report of TRAI dated 30 June 2020 cited that Bihar (21.69), Uttar Pradesh (21.64), Jammu & Kashmir (16.58), Madhya Pradesh (23.88), and West Bengal (25) are the states that have the least number of internet subscribers per 100 persons.

A CASE FOR RIGHT TO INTERNET

Like any other infrastructural connectivity, internet connectivity is of vital importance for development of human being in the age of information and technology. The necessity of internet and its access to all populace in judicial manner cannot be ensured until and unless it is guaranteed by state itself. State plays pivotal role in granting equal access to communication technology and can ensure equal opportunities of development to all citizens.

Citing all these reasons, in 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council General Assembly articulated access to the Internet an essential human right by releasing a non-binding resolution condemning intentional disruption of internet access by governments. The same resolution reaffirmed that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online” in particular the freedom of expression covered under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Several countries like Costa Rica, Finland, France, Estonia, Greece and Spain have adopted laws that require the state to work to ensure the internet access is broadly available or preventing the state from unreasonably restricting an individual’s access to information and internet.

INDIAN CONSTITUTION AND RIGHT TO INTERNET

Constitution of India is the sovereign law of land and part three of the it enumerated various justiciable rights which are of indispensable nature in the sense that they are most essential for the all-round development (material, intellectual, moral and spiritual) of the individual. Although, right to internet has not explicitly been mentioned in constitution, it has been construed under ambit of various rights incidental to freedom, equality and right to dignified life.

Indian constitution is a profound blend of virtuous principles enshrined in various constitutions across the world. It tries to strike harmonious balance of rigidity offered by US constitution and flexibility offered by British constitution. This envisaged flexibility in constitution meant to incorporate changes owing to prevailing need of time.

Right to internet incorporated in the Constitution and it evolved as a product of various judicial pronouncements from time to time which are in nature equal force of statutory provisions. The Constitution called Supreme Court of India as a ‘Custodian’ and ‘Guardian’ of constitution. Higher Judiciary (High courts and Supreme Courts) entrusted to oversee execution laws in consistent with constitutional values in the country.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION THROUGH INTERNET

Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech and expression which inherently include right to access and distribution of information. K.M. Munshi while drafting the Constitution held that “freedom of speech and expression constitute the essence of democracy”. In People’s Union of Civil Liberties v. Union of India case, Supreme Court held that, ‘Freedom here means the right to express one’s opinions freely by word of mouth, writing, printing, picture, or in any other manner’. In Shreya Singhal v. Union of India, the Supreme Court recognised the internet as an essential medium to further the constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression.

This issue came again on forefront on 5th August, 2019 when the special status of Jammu and Kashmir granted under Article 370 of the Constitution of India was revoked by a Presidential Order. Due to possibility of exacerbating law and order problem in the valley, internet services were suspended prior to promulgation of the Presidential Order. Several writ petitions were filed before Supreme Court including one by Anuradha Bhasin, the then editor of daily Kashmir Times demanding restoration of internet access inter alia calling for judicial review of the internet shutdown order in Jammu and Kashmir.

In Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India case, the Supreme Court held that expression of one’s views and practicing any profession through the internet is a protected right under Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g).The Court also went on to elucidate that such online speech can only be impeded under the recognized restrictions under Article 19(2) and Article 19(6) and that the proper standard of review would be the test of proportionality.

In judgement Supreme Court observed that,

Law and technology seldom mix like oil and water. There is a consistent criticism that the development of technology is not met by equivalent movement in the law. In this context, we need to note that the law should imbibe the technological development and accordingly mould its rules so as to cater to the needs of society. Non recognition of technology within the sphere of law is only a disservice to the inevitable. In this light, the importance of internet cannot be underestimated, as from morning to night we are encapsulated within the cyberspace and our most basic activities are enabled by the use of internet.

Freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) can only be restricted with reasonable restrictions only on eight grounds mentioned in Article 19(2) viz. in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India or the security of the State, friendly relations with Foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of Court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

In S. Rangarajan Etc v. P. Jagjivan Ram case, Supreme Court observed that exercise of conditions in article 19(2) for curbing freedom of speech and expression should not be based on convenience but on necessity. Further court concluded this list of grounds is exhaustive one so that state must not encroach over freedom of speech and expression of citizens beyond these eight grounds.

Therefore, the Supreme Court extended the proportionality test which was earlier applicable to judging legality of curbing freedom of speech and expression laid down in Justice K.S.Puttaswamy(Retd) v. Union Of India to internet disruptions. This four-pronged proportionality test include firstly, the restriction should serve a legitimate goal, Secondly. it must be a suitable means of furthering this goal, Thirdly, there must not be any less restrictive but equally effective alternative and Fourthly the measure must not have a disproportionate impact on the right-holder. Court further held that ‘…Proportionality is an essential facet of the guarantee against arbitrary State action because it ensures that the nature and quality of the encroachment on the right is not disproportionate to the purpose of the law.’

FREEDOM OF OCCUPATION, TRADE AND BUSINESS WITH INTERNET

Since last few years e-commerce offering viable option of trading to people having limited capital and resources at their disposal. E-commerce industry becoming more and more popular in recent years. In the latest rankings of the world’s top websites illustrate the dramatic rise of Asia’s ecommerce platforms. In its latest list, Alexa ranked China’s Tmall in third place in the global website rankings – that’s ahead of both Facebook and Baidu.

Article 19(1)(g) guarantees freedom of occupation trade and business subject to restrictions laid down under article 19(6) of the constitution. In Chintaman Rao v. State of Madhya Pradesh Supreme Court held that, the phrase “reasonable restriction” under Article 19(6) connotes that the limitation imposed on a person in the enjoyment of the right should not be arbitrary or of an excessive nature, beyond what is required in the interests of the public. This restricts power of state from doing any unreasonable activity which directly or indirectly circumvent freedom of occupation, trade and business with internet.

In Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India and Others. The Supreme Court held that freedom to practice any profession or carry on any trade, business or occupation over the medium of internet enjoys Constitutional protection and therefore is requisite to Article 19 of the Constitution subject to reasonable restrictions. Suspending Internet service not only obstruct conducting online businesses but also deprive individual from their source of livelihood.

RIGHT TO LIFE WITH DIGNITY AND INTERNET

Article 21 of the Indian Constitution reads as “No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to a procedure established by law”. This right is so sacrosanct that can not be infringed even in the state of emergency. According to Justice P. N. Bhagwati, Article 21 “embodies a constitutional value of supreme importance in a democratic society.” Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer has characterized Article 21 as “the procedural magna carta protective of life and liberty”.

Over the years, arena of Article 21 substantially expanded through interpretational judgements of Supreme court and various High courts to accommodate various aspects of life that needs to protected for ensuring dignified life of individual. It incorporated Right to livelihood, right to health, right to pollution free air, right to live a quality life, right to go abroad, right to privacy, right against solitary confinement, right against delayed execution, right to shelter and right against custodial death after enactment of constitution.

Right to internet can be construed as an inherent part of Article 21 from various judgements. In Kharak Singh v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the Supreme Court quoted and held that, By the term “life” as here used something more is meant than mere animal existence. The inhibition against its deprivation extends to all those limbs and faculties by which life is enjoyed. The provision equally prohibits the mutilation of the body by amputation of an armoured leg or the pulling out of an eye, or the destruction of any other organ of the body through which the soul communicates with the outer world.

Right to access internet came again in limelight when petitioner, Faheema Shirin, a female student at Sree Narayaguru College who was residing at the Women’s Hostel run by the college. She was expelled from hostel on a ground that she was using internet beyond permissible hours mandated by college authorities.

In this Faheema Shirin v. State of Kerala case, Single judge bench led by Justice P. V. Asha held that right to internet is part of right to life with dignity which emanates from right to privacy and right to education in the light of development of students and their learning process. Hon’ble justice observed that, “the enforcement of discipline shall not be by blocking the ways and means of the students to acquire knowledge. They should be left to choose the time for using mobile phones. The only restriction that can be imposed should not cause any disturbance to other students.”

Court came to these conclusions by referring to international conventions and directive principles. Here relying on Vishaka & Others v. State of Rajasthan & Others court held that,

“the international conventions and norms are to be read into the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution of India in the absence of enacted domestic law occupying the fields when there is no inconsistency between them” in the light of Articles 51(c) and 253 of the Constitution of India. Accordingly, the Court concluded that “the right to have access to Internet becomes the part of right to education as well as right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.”

Another landmark judgement of Supreme Court came in the case of Foundation for Media Professionals v. Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir popularly known as 4G case which sought restoration of 4G internet services in Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Here court concluded that there should have been balance between national interest and human rights and every move of restoration such human right should be qualified with national interest.

HOW RIGHT TO INTERNET CAN MAKE CHANGE

Internet has opened a new world for many people around the world since it is a manifestation of never-ending innovation and creativity. It brought world much closer and integrated multiple cultures through fusion of information and made territorial boundaries almost oblivious.

According to International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Measuring digital development: Facts and figures 2019 report, more than 4.1 billion people were using internet in 2019 with 5.1% growth from previous year. There are more than 3 billion social media users worldwide. With right to internet, state can ensure bridging ‘Digital Divide’ gap between those who have access to internet and those who don’t have such access.

Recognition of right to internet would facilitate state to promote Digital literacy and get rid of digital inequality which is evident from the fact that more than 70 percent of rural population do not have broadband internet access. In a difficult time like global pandemic, the internet is not just a medium of expression but a key element of access to healthcare, public information, education policy, and an offshoot of the right to life. So, it can contribute affirmatively in efficient implementation of policies in critical times.

Internet access can significantly contribute in accelerating all social development objectives and targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. Digital India Programme, which aims to transform India into digitally empowered society and knowledge economy has nine pillars, of which six are directly related to internet access.

THE OTHER SIDE

Despite numerous positive aspects of granting right to internet, there are some issues that needs to be addressed before effectuating any step further in this direction. Right to access internet is a freedom at its core and no freedom can be absolute one. It should be subject to rules and regulations framed in good faith.

There are also some legal complications of incorporation of right to internet since there is no consensus where to compartmentalise this right. Such complexity can burden judiciary with litigations and have potential to hamper its implementation in good faith. State can resort to technical tactics of “Bandwidth throttling” to vitiate purpose of granting this right.

WAY FORWARD

In recent times, many countries have attracted opprobrium for the sheer number of internet clampdowns imposed. For protecting any such move by any authority, it is necessary that such right to be recognised at global level and encapsulated in constitution of each country.

Internet has been so embedded in the lives of people, acting as the main way for information exchange, that to deny access to everyone in the world is a breach of human rights. It is in fact the undiscovered ocean of information and in present the greatest supplier of knowledge. Right to internet access and digital literacy will alleviate situation and allow citizen to avail better opportunity and lifestyle.

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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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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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