Recently a news article published somewhere in obscure corners of newspapers read, “With no computer or smartphone, 16-yearold student commits suicide after failing to attend online classes.” The only smartphone available in this home was apparently broken and could not be repaired in the lockdown situation. On the other hand, many kids have the privilege of learning using tablets, customised to their needs and abilities, being provided by online learning platform companies.
This is quite ironic given that there is a wide belief that the Internet has bridged the information gap and created an even society enabling information symmetry. The disturbing aspect is that this might only be the beginning of discrimination for such kids. This also uncovers a major flaw in the methods through which modern technologies are being implemented indiscriminately without sparing a thought about likely collateral damages. In her book, Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil, an American mathematician, explains how the algorithms used for shortlisting of applicants for admissions to the US universities are being manipulated by the thriving industry of tutors and coaches to tailor the applications to suit these algorithms. At the receiving end are deserving students who cannot afford coaching or tailor-made applications.
The latest survey on the Household Social Consumption on Education in India during 2017-18, released by the National Statistical Organisation (NSO) in July 2020, conveys that the average expenditure per student at secondary level in a government school is Rs 4,078 as compared to Rs 20,804 in private unaided schools. In all, 77% of the students studying in the government institutions are receiving free education, while only 2% in rural areas and 1% in urban areas, studying in private unaided schools, are receiving free education. As per the numbers, most of the students studying in government schools are coming from the lower strata of society with limited capacity to spend on education. The issue of affordability of education is more important for urban poor. As per the NSO report, in rural areas the major reason for neverenrolment for persons of age between 3 and 35 years was “not interested in education” while in urban areas, the reason was “financial constraints”. Further, nearly 4% of rural households and 23% of urban households possessed a personal computer. Nearly 24%of the households in the country had Internet access in the survey year. The proportions were 15% among rural households and 42% among urban households. Remember, Internet access doesn’t mean Internet affordability. Households in the vicinity of a five-star hotel might have easy access to it but not necessarily the affordability to enjoy a dinner in its up-class restaurant. So, in case of technology implementation on a wider scale, accessibility is not the only constraint but affordability is equally important. This also not to be ignored that, in order to make the education affordable in an off-line mode, various supports in the form of free books, school bags etc, are given to the students.
Now, in case, all these students are subjected to online education, which requires at least one smart terminal device and an Internet connection of decent quality, then this will become a typical case of having a hammer and treating everything as a nail head. The complication in this entire affair is that this will no more remain a case of students at government schools versus private schools. It has potential to create layers within a school where some students can afford a laptop or phone while others cannot. Please spare a thought about the students from Economically Weaker Sections who got admitted in private schools under the Right to Education.
Through the document ‘Pragyata’, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has issued guidelines for digital education. The ministry recommends use of both synchronous and asynchronous modes of digital students based on the availability of end user devices with different segments. Synchronous mode is real-time Internet-based online classes, while asynchronous modes are defined as radio, TV, emails, SMS, MMS, podcasts. Now, the question which arises is: As the availability of user devices depends on the financial capabilities of the households, can the students of the same class be segregated between synchronous and asynchronous modes?
This issue of the Internet being the perpetuator of disparity, which is coming into light in the domain of education due to this forced lockdown during this pandemic, is just a fig leaf. The bigger issue is related to the way new technologies are being implemented seemingly without enough thought, resulting in more exclusions than inclusions. Social media is a glaring example of the same. People on social media platforms tend to interact with others who have the same belief systems. They form groups to troll and abuse people who have different views or beliefs. Society is more divided on such platforms than in real sense. The gender bias of the Internet is captured by Jarett Kobek in his book, I Hate the Internet. He mentions, “Women must develop their own Internet! They must group together and engineer a new, gynocentric Internet and they must exclude all the stupid assumptions of men in its implementation and design.” So, the bigger issue is the loss of human angle in the implementation of new technologies.
Now compare this with the other technological developments which have taken place in earlier centuries. One of them happened in the transportation sector. Right from the days of ‘ferries’ in ancient times to 17th century ‘Omni Bus’ of Paris founded by Blaise Pascal, and 19th century ‘Horse Drawn Railways’ to the latest development of ‘electric buses’, the development in public transport marched shoulder-to-shoulder with developments in the area of private transport. Multiple options are available in the last miles for connecting nodes to hubs. In case of the classic example of urban metro rail systems in India, multiple last-mile options are available based on affordability. Right from the cheapest option of walking to the station to cycle rickshaw, electrical rickshaw and the option of parking one’s own car in the parking area, anyone and everyone has options of their own affordability capacity and choice. And in case the Metro itself is not affordable, the option of taking a bus or auto-rickshaw is always available. The same people-centric approach led to the establishment of Public Call Offices (PCOs) and made telecom services accessible to the commoners and resulted in the telecom boom in the country.
So, what is the difference? The difference is the people-centric approach and planning, keeping in view the entire potential user base, which is not guided solely by profit motives forcing only limited options on the people. It is worthwhile to highlight that solutions coming out of the people-centric planning do not become an end in themselves but become a catalyst to create many dependent and semi-dependent ecosystems. For example, better transportation facilities enabled creation of sub-cities providing affordable housing to the masses having means of earnings in metro cities. PCOs became enablers of a self-sustained ecosystem of entrepreneurs who later diversified into other ventures.
What then is the solution? At a broader level, the solution comes from Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft. In his book, Tools & Weapons, he recommends that the creator of future technologies should not only come from disciplines such as computers and data sciences but also from social and natural sciences and humanities. He mentions that the technology sector has not been an even place for women and minorities to build a career. An exclusive group of techies cannot generate inclusive ideas.
Coming back to the present issue of discriminatory nature of online education, the approach of one size fits all, shall have to be dumped. We cannot wait till Internet and end user terminals become available to all. Based on the parameter of accessibility and affordability, proper segmentation at micro level may be done. This can result in identification of clusters of schools, villages, blocks or districts having the same level of affordability and accessibility of technology. Based on this, various synchronous and asynchronous modes of instructions enlisted in ‘Pragyata’ and other available solutions can be applied for target segments. In remote rural and semi-urban areas, Community Radios can be used for parting classroom sessions. Local schools can collaborate to schedule combined sessions for all students of the same class. Philanthropy can also play a big role. Like books, refurbished smartphones and laptops with limited functionalities and bundled Internet can be given to the students. A user, on an average, changes smartphone every 18 to 24 months. Our homes are full of unused smartphones of previous versions and generations. Many NGOs take old clothes and household articles for distribution to the needy. These unused smartphones can be made part of those articles.
At the end, the solutions will come from the place where India is most ripe with innovative ideas, the grassroots. As was the case in another interesting news item recently. It was about a teacher in Dumka of Jharkhand using loudspeakers to teach his 200 students who did not have access to Internet and smartphones but had a willingness to attend classes during the lockdown.
The author is a former Indian Telecom Service officer, currently with Government e-Marketplace. The views expressed are personal.
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DON’T LET RUSSIA IMPACT INDIA’S RISE
The near-complete lack of media interest in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India should be indicative of the loss in importance of India’s Russia ties. Compared to a US President’s visit to India, or the Chinese President’s visit, there were hardly any ripples over Putin’s visit, except in diplomatic and related circles. As for the people of this country, it was just another routine visit by a foreign head of state. And all this in the 50th year of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. But then in a post Cold War world, it is but natural that a has-been power, a rump of the former Soviet Russia—which not only lost the Cold War but also faced the humiliation of dismemberment—would not evoke much interest. Whatever be the history of so-called people-to-people relations with Russia, the common Indian has always chosen the capitalist West over a socialist and now an oligarchic Russia—a brief study of migration trends will make this even more apparent. In spite of this, it is Russia that our policymakers have chosen over the West, while sending their own children to the United States and other such countries to build a life. Worse, many of these policymakers continue to be in “love” with Russia, more often than not impacting policy. The Russian lobby in New Delhi is among the most entrenched, but losing some sheen lately, courtesy the warming up of ties between India and US and India’s forays into the Indo-Pacific through the Quad.
India-Russia relations have always hinged on defence, where historically we have put nearly all our eggs in the Russian basket. One argument offered to justify this closeness is “transfer of technology”. That the West did not give us technology, which Russia did; that the West has always been suspicious of India that it will pass on technology to either Russia or China. There is logic in such an argument, but also a refusal to see the reality. Why would the West transfer technology to a country that for decades stayed firmly aligned with Soviet Russia—the West’s bugbear—in the name of nonalignment? In fact, in spite of the current bonhomie with the US, a degree of suspicion about India persists among a section of US policymakers, as became apparent in a piece written by John Bolton in the Hill last month on India’s purchase of the S-400 and the possibility of sanctioning India under CAATSA (India’s S-400 missile system problem, 10 November 2021). Bolton, President Donald Trump’s one-time NSA, complained of India “sending contradictory signals” and wondered if India was “playing” Washington. As this writer has been arguing for a long time, what may appear as “strategic autonomy” to India, may appear as “strategic confusion” or sitting on the fence to the rest of the world at best, and devious game-playing at its worst.
With the rise of a malign force such as China the whole geopolitical terrain has changed. While we agree that it’s now a multilateral world, but there is no denying, that multilateralism functions within the broader contours of a bilateral world, where it is US vs China. And Russia is firmly aligned with China because of its own compulsions, including because it is battered by sanctions imposed by the West. Will hanging on to Russia’s coattails for the sake of the past help India against China? A simple question in this context is: In case of an India-China kinetic conflict, which side will Russia support? If the answer is Russia will “stay neutral”, then of what value are “time-tested” India-Russia relations?
There is no place for emotions in geopolitics. What matters is a country’s self-interest. Any loyalty to the past, if it is not serving the present, is a misplaced sense of loyalty. Also, it is time to diversify our sourcing of materiel at a faster pace, either through purchases or through making them at home. Even now 60-70% of our materiel is Russian. This component must be brought down. While non-strategic purchases like assault rifles are fine, the problem arises with systems such as the S-400 that directly impact US interests and have also been sold to China. As analysts have been pointing out, even if India somehow manages to evade sanctions in the S-400 deal by arguing that it was signed before CAATSA came into existence, what happens if Vladimir Putin now tries to sell the S-500 to India? In fact, as one analyst told this writer that there is a strong possibility that the reason why Putin is here is not to sell a few rifles but to try and convince the Indian government to buy the next generation S-500. How will India evade US sanctions if it decides to go for that deal? India will be playing straight into China’s hands as that will throttle India’s economy and big power ambitions.
Also, what is the world’s largest democracy’s opinion about Putin flexing muscles on Ukraine’s borders, threatening to invade that country? Turning a blind eye is not good enough. Replace Ukraine with India and Russia with China, and you will know why.
In short, talk Afghanistan, terrorism, drug trafficking, organised crime, vaccines, investments, space technology, dance, music, films, literature, friendship, buy rifles, but lessen dependence on Russia in the military and tactical spheres; don’t try to bring Russia out of China’s clutches, for that is not in Russia’s interest; don’t try to make Russia understand the value of Quad, for that is not in the interest of either Russia or China. Most importantly, don’t let Russia impact India’s policies in a way that it impacts India’s rise.
Mamata Banerjee cannot beat PM Modi in a New India
The biggest challenge to any party or alliance today is to get the support of people. You can get leaders but not masses and unless you get people to back your efforts, these leaders would be paper tigers only.
Mamata Banerjee’s desperate attempt to form an anti-Modi front is likely to be damp squib like many other efforts made before her by various other leaders. Her assertion that there is no UPA (United Progressive Alliance) is correct but to assume that this would mean a readymade ground for the formation of an alternative front reflects the fallacy of her political understanding.
Her meeting with Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar in Mumbai is good optics in search of her political relevance at the national level after she has managed some good sound-bites in Goa and Meghalaya and also at the national level by making some eminent leaders join her party. But to make others accept her as a leader need many factors. A mere glue of anti-Modi-ism won’t work.
The Trinamul Congress (TMC) is trying to play a prominent role at the national level to increase Mamata Banerjee’s acceptability as a leader among various other political parties which are currently with the Congress namely the NCP and the Shiv Sena—this is true that the Congress does not have many allies. But for both the NCP and the Shiv Sena, the TMC does not add any might to their political existence. No one does charity in politics and what she would bring to the table would decide her fate.
There are two options left for her. One is to make every other splinter group of the Congress join the parent body and get the Gandhi family to order a democratic election and Mamata Banerjee wins the election to the party president. This is fraught with difficulties since the Gandhi family would not oblige so easily. They can trust a loyalist but not a rival.
The second option is to set up an all-India-based parallel organisation of her party- something that was done by the Janata Dal or other such parties. But this needs a lot of resources and a steely determination. And what would be the ideology guiding this party? Anti-Modi-ism won’t do. She is incapable to devise an ideology of her own.
The biggest challenge to any party or alliance today is to get the support of people. You can get leaders but not masses and unless you get people to back your efforts, these leaders would be paper tigers only. Many leaders in the BJP got intoxicated by public support and they decided to chart out a separate course. But they failed desperately and had to suffer the ignominy of rejoining the parent party and accepting a lesser status.
One caste-based party or issue-based regional parties have limitations. They cannot play a larger role at the national level. For that, the party’s ideology and its leaders will have to have a comprehensive vision for the country that would be acceptable to one and all. People must trust that you would be able to steer the country as per their expectations.
This is here where Prime Minister Narendra Modi fits the bill. He understands the aspirations of the country that has 65 per cent youths. This section of the population has often demonstrated the capabilities to rise above narrow considerations of caste and religion and to vote for development and faster development. The youths want transparency and accountability and a system that would guarantee them the dignity of being a citizen of this country.
Narendra Modi has earned this image through long and arduous struggle. When he was the chief minister of Gujarat, he worked hard to change the face of the State. Over a period of time, he became the choice of the country for the post of Prime Minister. It is not that the BJP wanted to project him. The party was forced to act as per the aspirations of the country to see Modi as the Prime Minister.
Without being jealous of Modi, Mamata Banerjee can work towards becoming a role model. Can she use the opportunity people have given to her to transform West Bengal on the developmental roadmap? Can she come out of minority appeasement politics and deliver justice to every section of society? Can she work to strengthen the nation’s security since West Bengal’s boundary has issues of illegal infiltration that are changing the population dynamics of the state? Once she had spoken so loudly in parliament on infiltration from Bangladesh.
The image of Mamata Banerjee is still of a rabble-rouser and a street fighter. She has failed to acquire the image of a matured leader who understands the issues the country is facing. Or, maybe she understands the issues but her politics does not allow her to publicly articulate these. When you are on the hot seat every move of yours is being watched.
If tomorrow, she begins a no-nonsense approach and implements good governance at every level of administration, she might acquire national prominence. It needs just flipping through pages of success stories of the Gujarat model which other States have tried to implement but in piecemeal. She would fit well into the development vision of Modi and would get faster development for her State.
Mamata Banerjee also must be acutely aware that nobody is permanent in politics and the position cannot be taken for granted. The BJP has emerged as a formidable force and is in main opposition in West Bengal and would do everything to unseat her from power next time. Her time is ticking. A magical formula has to be evolved or she would fade out like many others before her.
Mamata Banerjee and other leaders who dream to challenge Narendra Modi must understand that he has redefined the country’s politics. The issues of caste, religion, etc are there but these have been overpowered by the larger vision of a strong and developed country. Members of all social or religious groups need opportunities for better lifestyles and they find Modi to be their best bet.
The eyes of poor people glitter with hope at the mention of Modi. They get assurance their lives would change for the better. Opposition parties think that by taking away this hope they can defeat Modi, they are living in La-La land. It takes years of measured responses to be taken seriously as an opposition party. If a party decides to oppose whatever the Government is doing this would not go well with people.
Defence indigenisation has saved precious Dollars that used to be spent on buying crucial arms and ammunition. This has also put a check on corruption in defence deals. The purchase of crucial fighter aircrafts has secured the borders at a time when the country is facing a stand-off with China on the Eastern borders. How many of these opposition parties have lauded the efforts of the Prime Minister? They have on the contrary done everything to undermine the efforts of the government.
In such a situation who is going to support these parties? The youths of the country are today more empowered than ever before due to proliferation of the social media. Traditional media is forced to follow the agenda in social media unless they are not bothered about their image.
Across the globe, there has been an assertion of nationalist forces. What is good for the country and what is not is being openly debated on various platforms? The forces of radicalisation are facing stiff challenges everywhere. Leaders and parties are forced to take a stand on issues of terrorism and national security. No party leader in any country can dare to call its army chief “gali ka goonda” and still survive politically.
At a time when the country is bleeding and losing the lives of its army personnel and civilians from cross-border terrorism, no party would dare to be soft with Pakistan. If India gets beaten by Sri Lanka in cricket and there is clapping for a better display of skills, people would not mind. But if crackers are burnt on Pakistan’s victory over India in cricket by a section of the minority community, this would not be appreciated. Whatever rationalisation one may give reminding of the Tebbit test of the United Kingdom, the fact remains that the nationalist sentiment gets hurt at such naked celebration over defeat.
Mamata Banerjee has to decide which side of the fence she would like to stand. Whether she wants the support of some sections of society or all sections based on the interests she represents? The country needs many people aligned to the vision of bringing back the past glory of India – a country that preached love and brotherhood and had achieved prosperity few could imagine. Neither Islamic invaders nor the British came to India to do charity. They came to exploit the rich resources and those who settled here did so in search of better lives. India is rediscovering its energy to reclaim its glory and rightful place in the comity of nations.
The writer is the author of ‘Narendra Modi: the GameChanger’. A former journalist, he is a member of BJP’s media relations department and represents the party as spokesperson while participating in television debates. The views expressed are personal.
GHULAM NABI AZAD SENDS A STRONG SIGNAL TO CONGRESS HIGH COMMAND
Intense speculation has begun in political circles on whether veteran Congress leader, Ghulam Nabi Azad, is preparing to part company with the grand old party, to float his own regional outfit, in what was once the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. The conjecture is that like Captain Amarinder Singh before him, Azad, may similarly chalk out his future, which with the Congress, does not appear to be very bright, with Rahul Gandhi calling the shots. While Azad has denied any such move, the support he has received from virtually every top leader of Jammu and Kashmir indicates that he was weighing in the options before him. The astute and perceptive politician in him is at work, and he realizes that it was important to flex his muscles to send a strong message to the central leadership of the party, which is not seemingly receptive to the grassroots situation. Azad, is without any doubt, the senior-most organization man in the party; he has occupied almost all positions in the Congress from heading its youth wing to being general secretary in-charge of most of the states. Besides, he has served in the Union government has worked closely with all the Congress Prime Ministers from Indira Gandhi onwards.
Azad was handpicked by the late Sanjay Gandhi to head the Youth Congress and was given a Lok Sabha ticket from Washim in Maharashtra in 1980 to enable him to make his parliamentary debut. His proximity to Sanjay was such that when Azad got married in March, 1980, Sanjay not only attended the ceremony in Srinagar, but stayed there for three days. Indira Gandhi was very fond of him and later, even Rajiv became dependent on him for several things. P.V.Narasimha Rao trusted his abilities and Sitaram Kesri, who succeeded him as the party president, would always like to have him by his side. Sonia Gandhi was also conscious of his political prowess and would hold consultations with him, as and when she required. However, of late, Azad was finding himself on the political periphery of Congress politics with Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka being wary of the G-23 group within the party. This is why he has in recent interviews expressed his disappointment with the leadership which considered “suggestions made to them as a challenge’’ and that because “they were unaware of the Congress history and tradition’’.
He took everyone by surprise by stating that he did not see Congress getting 300 seats in the 2024 Parliamentary polls thus implying that the BJP was going to easily retain power. His thesis is that the weakness of the Congress was the reason why the BJP was strong and unfortunately, there was no one to pay heed to any kind of counsel from senior leaders, who were being viewed with suspicion. Azad has seen the best times with Congress and understands political machinations as much as the best in the business. He has been saying what he has to keep his relevance intact. There are many of his critics, who believe that he could be drifting towards the BJP as Captain Amarinder Singh is doing right now. The insinuation is that the BJP could make him the Vice-Presidential candidate next year or give him an important berth in the Union Cabinet to exploit his tag of former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister. However, Azad is no greenhorn and would play the game according to what suits his interests. The G-23 is itself disintegrating and many of those who stood by Azad, are gravitating towards the Congress High Command after being snubbed by Sonia Gandhi at the Congress Working Committee meeting some time ago. The point that needs to be understood is that Azad and others like Kapil Sibal and Manish Tewari are not opposed to the Congress High Command but like most party supporters, concerned over how the party is being run. They are simply demanding wider consultations in devising the strategy and the future blueprint. Having been in the core team, things are simply not going the way they perceive them and hence there is both disappointment and frustration. The onus of utilizing the services of experienced leaders such as Azad and others lies with the central leadership. If it still chooses to ignore them, the consequences would be serious. Therefore, in the best traditions of the party, the decision-making process should be more inclusive from every angle. Otherwise, Congress would continue to struggle in its fight against the BJP.
Eventually, Parliament passes the Dam Safety Bill
The Dam Safety Bill was passed by Parliament on Friday. Although the bill was passed by the Lok Sabha in August 2019, it was cleared by Rajya Sabha last week.
As principal draftsman of the Standing Committee of Parliament on Water Resources on the Dam Safety Bill, 2010, it’s a matter of immense satisfaction that the dam safety legislation has been eventually enacted. The Dam Safety Bill, 2021 was passed by the Rajya Sabha after extensive debate on 2nd December 2021. The Lok Sabha had passed it on 2nd August 2019. Many opposition members in both the Houses demanded that the Bill be referred to the Standing Committee but the Government rejected the demand. The stand of the Jal Shakti Minister, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, was that the Bill of 2021 was based on the report of the Standing Committee on the Bill of 2010, which formed ‘the backbone’ of the new Bill. The Dam Safety Bill, 2019 piloted by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat during the very first session of the current Lok Sabha incorporated majority of the recommendations of the Committee contained in their 7th Report (15th LS). The Dam Safety Bill, first introduced in the 15th Lok Sabha on 30th August 2010, was referred to the Committee for examination and report. The Committee undertook study visits to some Dam sites, invited public memoranda, heard domain experts, examined official witnesses, stakeholders and finally presented a comprehensive report to Parliament in August 2011.
Dams are critical infrastructure constructed with large investment for multi-purpose uses such as irrigation, power generation, flood moderation and supply of water for drinking and industrial purposes. An unsafe dam constitutes a hazard to human life, ecology and public and private assets including crops, houses, buildings, canals and roads. Therefore, the safety of dams is a matter of great concern to the general public and becomes a national responsibility to take necessary steps to ensure the safety of dams. The Committee found many serious flaws in the Bill. Most glaring of it all, the Bill lacked penal provision, deficient definitional clauses, omission of upstream devastation caused by a Dam, structure of Dam Safety Organisation, the damage likely to be caused by the Dams including landslide or moraine located outside the national territory, etc. All these recommendations and observations have been incorporated in the new legislation and the Minister assured the Parliament that many of the observations of the members would form part of the Rules, exercising the power of delegated legislation under the Dam Safety Act.
It would be worthwhile to recall briefly the history of this much-awaited legislation. The Government of India, keeping in view the importance of the safety of dams and want of a legislative framework regulating dam safety, constituted a Committee in the year 1982 under the Chairmanship of Chairman, Central Water Commission to review the existing practices and to evolve unified procedure for the safety of dams in India. The Committee in its report dated the 10th July 1986 recommended for unified dam safety procedure for all dams in India underlining the necessity of legislation on dam safety. Initial efforts for dam safety legislation were directed towards the enactment of appropriate legislation by some State Governments. The State of Bihar enacted the Dam Safety Act, 2006. Kerala amended its Irrigation Act incorporating a dam safety provision. However, some of the States favoured a uniform dam safety central legislation. The undivided State of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal adopted a resolution in their Assemblies for an Act of Parliament. Accordingly, the Dam Safety Bill, 2010 was introduced in Lok Sabha on the 30th of August, 2010. The Bill was referred to the parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources for examination and report. The Committee submitted its Report on the Dam Safety Bill, 2010, recommending wholesale amendments to the Bill. The Ministry of Water Resources, rechristened Water Power, withdrew the Bill and introduced a new Dam Safety Bill during the 16th Lok Sabha. But with the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha, the Dam Safety Bill, 2018 lapsed. The Government introduced the Dam Safety Bill, 2019 in the very first session of the 17th Lok Sabha which has since been passed by the Rajya Sabha also.
The Dam Safety Act, 2021, inter alia, provides for (a) constitution of the National Committee on Dam Safety to discharge functions to prevent dam failure related disasters and to maintain standards of dam safety and to evolve dam safety policies and recommend necessary regulations as may be required for the purpose; (b) establishment of the National Dam Safety Authority as a regulatory body to implement the policy, guidelines and standards for proper surveillance, inspection and maintenance of specified dams and address unresolved points of issues between the State Dam Safety Organisation of two States, or between the State Dam Safety Organisation of a State and the owner of a dam in that State, and in certain cases, such as dams extending in two or more States or dams of one State falling under the territory of another State; (c) constitution of the State Committee on Dam Safety by the State Governments to ensure proper surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of all specified dams in that State and ensure their safe functioning; and (d) establishment of the State Dam Safety Organisation in States having specified dams which will be manned by officers with adequate experience in the field of safety of dams. The Act makes it mandatory for every owner of a specified dam to establish operational and maintenance set up to ensure the continued safety of such dams, to earmark sufficient and specific funds for maintenance and repairs of the dams, for undertaking pre-monsoon and post-monsoon inspections and special inspections during and after floods, earthquakes, etc., to carry out risk assessment studies at such intervals as specified by the National Committee on Dam Safety. The law casts an obligation upon the concerned State Dam Safety Organisation to keep perpetual surveillance, carry out inspections and monitor the operation and maintenance of specified dams under its jurisdiction to ensure their safety; and to classify each dam under their jurisdiction as per the vulnerability and hazard classification following the regulations. The National Dam Safety Authority is required to table its Annual Report in Parliament and the State Dam Safety Organisation to submit its Annual Reports on the safety status of dams to the concerned State Legislative and State Disaster Management Authority.
The Bill witnessed lively debates in both the Houses. Some Members questioned the legislative competence of the Union Government to enact a law on ‘water’ which is a State subject under the 7th Schedule to the Constitution and also sought clarification for not incorporating a part of the Preamble of the 2010 Bill in the Bill of 2019 which read: “And whereas Parliament has no power to make laws for the States concerning any of the matters aforesaid except as provided in Articles 249 and 250 of the Constitution”. Also the reference to Resolutions passed by the Legislative Assemblies of (undivided) Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal that Dam Safety should be regulated by law made by Parliament. The Minister referred to the recommendation of the Standing Committee on Water Resources to modify the Preamble suitably, dam safety being an inter-state matter. This view was fortified by some lawyer members invoking the doctrine of pith and substance and justified the legislative competence of Parliament to enact the legislation in accord with the recommendation of the Water Resources Committee of Parliament. The Minister allayed the fear of erosion of legislative powers of the States by stating that the legislation purely deals with dam safety and matters allied and incidental without impinging upon the ownership of Dams, the water impounded, its use, or the hydropower generated by them. He also made it categorically clear that there was no question of the Union Government taking over the control, maintenance and ownership of Dams. Anyone refusing to comply with the directions issued under the Dam Safety Act will be punishable with imprisonment of up to one year, or a fine, or both. If the offence leads to the loss of lives, the imprisonment will raise to two years. Every dam owner has to provide a dam safety unit to inspect the dam before and after the monsoon session, during and after every earthquake, flood, or any other calamity or sign of distress.
India has currently 5,745 large dams, of which 393 are over 100 years old and more than 25 percent of dams are 50 years old. Aging dams and dam failures can cause colossal damage to life and property not only downstream but also upstream if sluice gates are not opened timely to prevent water impounding upstream and consequential damage. A dam may be constructed in a particular location of a State but it has consequences and safety implications for the upstream and downstream States, apart from environmental hazards. In exercise of its legislative power under Article 246 read with Entry 56 and Entry 97 of the Constitution and the dire long felt need for dam safety, Parliament has filled a long-felt void by enacting the Dam Safety legislation.
The writer is the ex-Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha, and serviced the Standing Committee on Water Resources under the Chairmanship of Dip Gogoi, 15th Lok Sabha which examined the Dam Safety Bill, 2010. Views expressed are the writer’s personal.
GOVERNMENT MUST ENSURE THAT PARLIAMENT FUNCTIONS
It is an accepted fact that it is the responsibility of the government and the treasury benches to ensure that Parliament functions smoothly. For this to happen, the ruling dispensation has to take into account the concerns of the Opposition and accommodate their views as far as possible. It has been the practice that before the commencement of any session, the government in consultation with the opposition lists out an agenda so that important matters are sorted out and the necessary Bills are passed. In the latest instance, a confrontation has built up from day one after 12 Rajya Sabha MPs were suspended for their alleged unruly conduct on the last day of the previous session. The 2 members have claimed that they were not provided any opportunity to defend themselves and explain their position and the suo-moto action against them was against all principles of natural justice. There is no doubt that the House in Parliament is supreme and can take any decision. Similarly, the presiding officers also have immense power to implement rules in the event of disruptions and unbecoming behaviour.
But equally important is that to have smooth functioning, excessive punishment is not the only answer. The charge against the government is that it was the one which was causing disruptions so that there can be no meaningful discussions on vital issues and this was a step aimed at diverting the country’s attention from burning matters like price rise, unemployment, and poor state of the economy. The Opposition has been complaining constantly that there have been procedural lapses while enacting legislative business. For instance, when the Farm Laws were passed in Rajya Sabha by voice vote, the objective was to deny the Opposition a division which was demanded to ascertain who all were for the motion and who all were against it. This right cannot be taken away under any Parliamentary procedure, especially when such an important matter is being sought to be passed. The Farm laws, therefore, lacked the legitimacy which would have been there if there had been threadbare discussion on this matter. Similarly, when the Farm Laws were annulled, again the decision was taken by a voice vote in the upper House without any discussion taking place.
The central point was that the enactment of the laws had resulted in country-wide protests and over 700 farmers lost their lives during this long agitation. Somebody had to be held accountable for the loss of these valuable lives. The official stand has been that when the Cabinet had given its concurrence to repeal the earlier legislation, where was the need for any discussion. It has also been stated that no compensation is to be given to the families of those who died and there was no record of these deaths. The issue has resulted in a deadlock and both inside Parliament and outside, many do not subscribe to the government’s stand.
The entire subject has been clumsily handled and therefore it is contributing to continuous social unrest in some states. The presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha has maintained that the suspension of 12 MPs would be revoked if they express regret which they are unwilling to. Questions are also being raised why no action was taken against Congress member Pratap Singh Bajwa, who was also seen in video clips standing on the table and hurling papers at the Chair. Was Bajwa ignored because there are elections in Punjab? There is also a technical aspect of the suspensions which were recommended by a committee set up by the House. Therefore, the action can only be rescinded by the House and not the presiding officer. There have been instances in the past when suspension or expulsion has taken place even though, Parliament is not normally the place where punishment can be handed out and it is done only in exceptional cases. During Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure, Sonia Gandhi was suspended following a Privilege issue and her suspension was revoked with retrospective effect when the UPA came to power. In the Janata Party era in the late 1970s, Indira Gandhi was expelled from the Lok Sabha soon after getting elected from Chickmaglur in a by-election defeating Veerendra Patil. She was charged with having scant regard for the constitution and suppressing democracy during the emergency. The latest matter needs to be resolved as early as possible since there is very little time left in this session, and if things continue the way they are, it is democracy that would bear the brunt.
GDP growth: Making of a V-shaped recovery
Recent economic indicators show that India has recovered completely from the Covid induced jolt, and this speaks volumes about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative, that has withstood the ravages of the pandemic, without buckling in.
India’s economy continued to expand in the July-September 2021 quarter, marking the fourth consecutive quarter of growth. India’s GDP grew 8.4%, year on year (YoY) in September quarter, against a contraction of 7.4% during the same period last year. Effectively speaking, GDP at Constant (2011-12) Prices in Q2 of 2021-22 (2QFY22) is estimated at Rs 35.73 lakh crore, as against Rs 32.97 lakh crore in Q2 of 2020-21 (2QFY21) and Rs 32.38 lakh crore in the previous quarter (1QFY22). 2QFY22 real GDP growth at 8.4% was in fact, slightly ahead of consensus expectations. The higher growth among other things can be attributed to nine consecutive quarters of over 3% agriculture growth, which has had a multiplier effect on consumer spending.
A large part of the growth upside was also driven by spending on public administration, education, health, etc. Overall, the sharp turnaround from the COVID second wave was visible across all segments, making the growth broad based in the September quarter. Investment growth remained strong even when compared to 2QFY20 (pre-Covid) levels. Growth will be well supported in 3QFY22 too, on account of festive season and better performance from the Services’ sector. Momentum remains well on track for a full year GDP growth of 9.5% in 2021-22 (FY22), which is what RBI and global rating giant, S&P are projecting too.
With a new COVID variant (Omicron),starting to spread globally, uncertainty on its impact on the global economic scenario may weigh upon things a tad bit, but on the flip side this would essentially imply that rate increases globally, and will be more calibrated and not happen any time soon, assuming they happen at all to start with. No Central Bank would want to nip the greenshoots that have taken root,by raising interest rates wantonly at this stage, despite the temptations, given that headline inflation and bond yields globally have been on the rise of late. India, in fact, has done far better than global peers on the inflation front. Annualised inflation in the UK is 5 6% and 6.2% in the U.S.A— with inflation in USA the highest ever since 1990. In India, retail inflation in October 2021 was 4.48% and food inflation 0.85%,after a reading of 4.35% and 0.68% respectively, in September 2021. While the RBI would continue with an accomodative stance, it will possibly wait for some more clarity before moving decisively on rates, though a reverse repo rate hike in February 2022 cannot be completely ruled out. RBI’s excellent job in reining in bond yields at around the 6.35% levels and thereby keeping a lid on government’s borrowing costs needs a special mention. In USA, yields have gyrated wildly from a low of less than 0.5% in 2020,to a high of over 1.74% in 2021.
The Q2 GDP growth data at a healthy 8.4% apart, the nominal GDP in September quarter stood at 17.5%. While worldwide, the US is possibly into the 6th Covid wave as per experts, and Europe in last few weeks has also seen a big surge in COVID numbers. India, on the other hand, has done a commendable job on this front, with over 125 crore vaccines administered. Both daily and weekly positivity rates are less than 1% and over 64 crore COVID tests have been conducted already. Multiple levers in the economy like Infra spend, low-interest rates, rising demand in the real estate sector and growing consumer demand are going to aid the GDP growth in the coming quarters. From the GVA perspective, farm, construction and public administration & defense services (PADS) grew faster than expected. The sharp increase of 17.4% in PADS was a big surprise in the 2QFY22 numbers. Farm economy continues to display remarkable consistency, with agri growth of 4.5% in September 2021 quarter, after an equally strong 4.5% growth in the June 2021 quarter too. Importantly, the broad story remains intact. While capacity utilization levels have improved, private investment is also on the mend, as corporates and banks are gradually shedding risk aversion, despite some nagging headwinds. High commodity prices and global supply bottlenecks posed a challenge for the Manufacturing sector worldwide. Tax collections aid government finances and it is here that the Modi government has seen big support from buoyant tax realisations. Fiscal deficit was contained at 36.3% of budget estimate (BE) in first half of this financial year, even while expenditure picked up. The multi-year low, fiscal deficit ratio can be attributed to robust revenue growth, outpacing expenditure rise, during first half of the fiscal. Capital expenditure at 45.7% of the target,also showed encouraging trend in line with the government’s focus on asset creation.
The economic activity in Q2 FY22 received favorable support from recovery in Manufacturing and Construction. The gradual removal of lockdown, good monsoon year and the rapid pace of vaccinations helped boost consumer confidence. The risk arising due to the Omicron variant are unlikely to be an obstacle to growth, going forward. Continued low interest and easy liquidity policy will help sustain the tempo.
Mining, Construction and Real Estate showed considerable growth in 2QFY22,at 15.4%, 7.5% and 7.8% respectively. A good monsoon year reflected well with high agricultural output. Private consumption is likely to pick up traction, as we complete normalization. The private capex will likely catch up with government spending and aid growth even further. Gross fixed capital formation (GFCF) grew by a solid 11% in 2QFY22, after a massive 55.3% growth in 1QFY22. The data will have a positive bearing on the RBI’s MPC meeting next week. The low interest, excess liquidity policy has been paying good dividends, across most major economies. Going forward, the way countries across the globe handle rising inflation and movement of crude oil prices, will have an impact on the growth rate across the globe. India— with a bumper crop, with food production in excess of 303 million tonnes in FY2021, the highest food output ever in the last seven decades— enjoys some inherent natural advantages which most large economies don’t.
During the July-September 2021 quarter, Trade, Hotels, Transport, Communication & Services related to Broadcasting sector,grew at 8.2%.Public Administration, Defence & Other Services grew at 17.4% during the July-September quarter, against 5.8% during the previous quarter. Government Final Consumption Expenditure (GFCE) came in at Rs 3.61 lakh crore in the second quarter of the fiscal year (2QFY22), against Rs 4.21 lakh crore in the previous quarter. GDP at current prices grew 17.5%.GDP at Current Prices in Q2 2021-22 is estimated at Rs 55.54 lakh crore, as against Rs 47.26 lakh crore in Q2 2020-21, showing a growth of 17.5%, as compared to 4.4% contraction in Q2 2020-21 (2QFY21). Private final consumption expenditure grew to Rs 19.48 lakh crore in the July-September 2021 quarter, up from Rs 17.83 lakh crore in the previous quarter. Manufacturing sector grew by 5.5% in the September quarter while the Construction sector grew by 7.5%. Both the sectors posted a healthy growth, which bodes well for the economic trajectory going forward.
India’s GDP at Constant (2011-12) Prices in Q2 2021-22 (2QFY22) is estimated at Rs 35.73 lakh crore, which is higher than the Rs 35.66 lakh crore seen in the first quarter of 2019-20 (1QFY20), signalling that India has recovered completely from the COVID induced jolt, which speaks volumes about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat initiative,that has withstood the ravages of the pandemic,without buckling in.
A robust Construction sector, recovery in Contact-intensive services and pickup in government spending are supporting the Services’ sector, adding to the overall momentum. India’s Eight Core Sector data recorded 7.5% growth during the month of October 2021. Eight Core Sector data came in at 15.1% during the April-October period, which is again a good news.
After lagging the recovery during the initial phases, Q2 of this fiscal year, saw Services’ activity playing catch up. Relative control over new infections and a phenomenal increase in vaccination drive, helped improve Services’ activity. Indeed, while few supply shortages weighed on Manufacturing, the Services’ recovery scaled greater heights. Consumer and business optimism are improving sharply, leading to an uptick in job creation across sectors. Revenue Receipts up to October 2021 stand at 12.59 lakh crore against the budget estimate (BE) of Rs 17.88 lakh crore,which is 70.5% of BE. The fiscal Deficit for the April-October period stands at 36.3% of the budget estimate of Rs 15.07 lakh crore. Fiscal deficit during the same period last year stood at 119% of the budget estimates.
The gross value added (GVA) in Q2FY22 has grown by 8.5%, as compared to a decline of 7.3% in the same quarter last year. In Q1 of FY22, the GVA had sharply surged by 18.8%.
Private Final Consumption Expenditure (PFCE) in the July-September 2021 quarter rose by 8.61%,year on year,after a solid rise of 19.35% Q1FY22. The gap between GDP and GVA was driven by higher tax revenue collection and lower subsidy pay-outs.
The sharp 10.1% growth in Services, in 2QFY22, the biggest sector in India’s economy, is reflective of overall momentum.
In fact, Services’ PMI accelerated to a 10.5 year high in October 2021. This came about even as local companies increased prices of their final products due to costly raw materials, driven by rising input and commodity prices globally. Interestingly, unlike their Manufacturing counterparts, Services’ companies hired more hands, resulting in job generation reaching the highest level after the pre-Covid period of February 2020.
Services’ PMI index rose to 58.4 in October 2021,from 55.2 in September 2021, which clearly signals that the third quarter of the current fiscal year of 2021-22,may witness even higher GDP growth. PMI numbers, both for Manufacturing and Services, for October 2021,endorse the fast-paced,V shaped economic recovery that is underway.
GST collections of over Rs 1.3 lakh crore each, in October and November,bode well. In fact,the GST revenue in November 2021 is the 2nd highest monthly collection,ever since GST came into effect in July 2017.
According to respondents of the PMI Services’ survey, ongoing improvements in demand boosted growth in sales and subsequently in output. New work intakes increased at an accelerated rate, the strongest since July 2011.Companies linked sales growth to better underlying demand and successful marketing. Firms were able to secure a healthy intake of new work, despite charging more for their services. Output prices rose at a solid rate, again, the strongest since July 2017. Anecdotal evidence suggests that additional cost burdens were passed on to clients, reflecting the fact that purchasing power is back. Composite PMI reading in October 2021 came in at 58.7, the highest since January 2012, compared to 55.3 in September 2021.
Data by the Controller General of Accounts showed that the Central government spent 52.4% of its total expenditure target by October 2021, against 54.6% during the same period a year ago. However, the government exhausted only 36.3% of the year’s fiscal deficit target due to robust growth in revenue receipts. In effect, the Modi government has managed the growth versus inflation conundrum very effectively, without indulging in unwanted fiscal profligacy. The Dun & Bradstreet, Composite, Business Optimism Index (BOI) for ongoing quarter, stands at 94.6, up 27.4% compared to the September quarter. Data shows five out of six Optimism indices have registered an increase in ongoing quarter, as compared to September quarter. Arun Singh, Global Chief Economist at Dun & Bradstreet says, the GDP growth during the October-December quarter of 2021 (3QFY22) is likely to be much stronger, as the BOI has surged to an almost eight-year high.
The survey shows that around 79% of the respondents expect the volume of sales to increase in the December 2021 quarter, compared to 67%,in the quarter before. 62% of the respondents expect an increase in net profits in December 2021 quarter, compared to 48% in the September 2021 quarter. In fact, the business optimism levels in the ongoing quarter are at their highest ever levels since second quarter of 2014, as per Dun & Bradstreet, based on vital parameters like rate of hiring of new employees, output prices, and inventory levels. Clearly, if the 20.1% GDP growth in the June 2021 quarter was the harbinger of renewed economic momentum, the continued traction across all sectors and user segments in the September quarter cements the belief that the making of a V-shaped recovery in India, is now a full-blown one, for more reasons than one. The mega vaccination drive under the astute leadership of Prime Minister Modi, has been one of the key drivers of this “feel good” factor, that is now translating into hard numbers.
The writer is an Economist, National Spokesperson of the BJP and the Bestselling Author of ‘Truth & Dare-The Modi Dynamic’. Views expressed are the writer’s personal.
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