The outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic has sincerely challenged the golden triangle of the Constitution of India, viz, Article 14, Article 19, and Article 21 respectively at a varied number of events. The Covid-19 pandemic has been marked with the amusing spectacle of the persistent dichotomy between the State actions and the violation of fundamental rights of the citizens by and large. The principles of proportionality and reasonableness, which have been recognized by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India as essential elements of valid State actions, have been blatantly ignored midst the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic. The administrative action should at all times bear a reasonable relationship to the general purposes for which the power has been conferred by the people. It is imperative to note that the government – at both the federal and the state levels – has insulated itself from legislative accountability, which is an essential feature of the checks and balances envisioned under our democracy.
The Government authorities have relied upon the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, and the National Disaster Management Act, 2005, to support the legitimacy of the actions being taken by them to ensure public health at large, however, the enormous question of law that outlines the issue herein, reflects that the Rule of law has been violated by improper implementation of the policy decision by the Government. The intended purpose and the stated purpose of the Government policies are fairly demarcated, even the execution is not based on a sound reason that has hence delivered results that perspicuously depicts the colorable exercise of power. Under article 14 of the Constitution of India, arbitrary and capricious acts of the State are annulled. The jurisdiction of Article 14 of the Constitution of India extends to the prevention of arbitrary and unreasonable actions of the State, which are “antithetical” to the rule of equality. It must be noted that the essence of court judgments in the lane of legislative accountability is limpid to the fact that with the development of the common law the exercise of discretion should be coupled with equity and shall be grounded in sound reason, even in the times of emergencies to ensure that the constitutional fabric remains unshaded.
The Right to Privacy is the right to be left alone. Amongst the series of events followed by the global pandemic that has been substantially challenging to uphold the fundamental rights of the citizens, the protection of the fundamental right to privacy in these times, is imperative for the purposes of constitutional sanctity. Data is the new oil and is an important game-changer to economic development in the 21st century. As judiciously quoted by William Edwards Deming, “In God we trust; all others must bring data”. Data is pivotal to capitalism, however, the user’s entitlement to privacy must not be disregarded in the due process. The Hon’ble Supreme Court has spelled out the individual’s Right to Privacy from Article 21 and Article 19(1) (d). This in consonance with Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. Although the Constitution of India did not specifically refer to the Right of Privacy in an express manner, it can still be traced from the right to ‘life’ in Article 21. As decided under the case, Naz Foundation v. Government of NCT of Delhi (2010), “A citizen has the right to safeguard the privacy of his own, his family, marriage, procreation, motherhood, childbearing, and education among many other matters”.
In the case of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India (1978), the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has held that the expression “personal liberty” under Article 21 of the Constitution of India is of the widest amplitude and it covers a variety of rights. It is imperative to note herein, as held by the Supreme Court, in the judgment KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017), the term Privacy is a concomitant of the right of the individual to exercise control over his or her personality. It finds an origin in the notion that certain rights are natural to or inherent in a human being. Natural rights are inalienable because they are inseparable from the human personality. The human element in life is impossible to conceive without the existence of natural rights. This article presents an orchestrated sycophancy with the widespread criticism towards State inaction to protect the fundamental rights of its citizens.
The incongruity between the Contract Tracing Methodologies To Curb The Spread Of Covid-19 and the Right to Privacy:
According to the landmark decision of the Supreme Court of India in, KS Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017), the court held that the right to privacy is a part of the right to life and personal liberty and is a fundamental right under the Constitution of India. The pandemic is a public health emergency and individual rights may be restricted in the interest of the greater good. However, the fact that the Indian government tends to view citizen’s data as a natural resource to be exploited and monetized could not be disregarded. The Economic Survey of India 2018-19 mentions that citizens’ data should be treated as a public good and a few sections thereto are ought to be adapted by offering admittance to privately owned businesses to ease the pressure on government finances. There are all sorts of indispensable formalities to be observed before offering admittance to privately owned businesses, a normal adjunct to it being the very notion that it is unequivocally important to assure that the ministries and government agencies do not use this data as a way to underwrite.
In the fitness of the practice to generate a neutrally balanced opinion, the author places a due recognition to the fact that the Supreme Court of India has also observed that the right to privacy is not absolute and allows room for reasonable restrictions to be so placed in the interest of public order, however, any restriction is required to be reasonable i.e. within the legal framework of the land. As held under, V.K. Javali v. State of Mysore (1966), the expression ‘In the interest of ‘gives a greater leeway to the legislature to curtail freedom of speech and expression, for a law penalizing activities having a tendency to cause, and not actually causing public disorder, maybe valid as being ‘in the interest of’ public order. The restrictions imposed must have a reasonable and rational relation with the public order, security of the state, etc. If the nexus between the restriction and the public order etc. is farfetched, then the restriction cannot be sustained as being in the ‘interest’ of public order, etc.
The rationale behind contact tracing measures taken through mobile applications such as the Aarogya Setu Application (App) and other applications being, public health preservation and protection of larger public interest midst the fight against the faceless i.e. Covid-19, legitimizes the State action regards the data collection, however, the trepidation pursuant to the legal usage of the data collected through these methods still persists. The term reasonableness has been used in a biased manner which is contradicting the Rule of Reason. Whereto the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic is concerned the authorities have presented poor administration. Hence the colorable exercise of the power of administration can’t be overlooked to protect the constitutional sanctity and upheld the democratic principles in the largest democracy of the world.
On 1 May 2020, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY”) made it mandatory for government and private sector employees to install Aarogya Setu on their phones and said it was the duty of the head of the organization restoring to the new normal, to “ensure 100% coverage of the app among its employees.” Installing the app had also become mandatory for travel through railways and flights, but the revised guidelines did relaxed these norms and let individual states decide the protocols. The Aarogya Setu app is similar to the contact tracing app developed by Google and Apple and relies on Bluetooth technology. However, unlike Apple and Google, it also collects GPS location data. Apart from the GPS location data, ‘Response data’ collected from people using the Aarogya Setu app has the following data points-
Demographic data, which includes the name, mobile number, age, gender, profession, and travel history of the person; Contact data i.e. data about another person that a given person has come in close proximity with, including the duration of the contact, the proximate distance between the individuals, and the geographical location at which the contact occurred;
Self-assessment data i.e. the responses provided by the person to the self-assessment test on the Aarogya Setu app, and Location data i.e. data about the geographical position of an individual in latitude and longitude.
On Monday, 11 May, the ‘Aarogya Setu Data Access and Knowledge Sharing Protocol 2020’ was released by the government, to ensure secure collection of data by the app, and regulate how such data can be shared to achieve its purpose of assisting the fight against Covid-19.
Under the Protocol, the response data (whether containing personal data or de-identified data) can be shared with the health ministry of the central government, health departments of state governments, central and state disaster management authorities, or public health institutions like the ICMR. The data is to be shared only when it becomes ineluctable to come up with a health response. Data collected using the app is not ordinarily to be shared with third parties, whether other government agencies or private parties, but this can be done if it is “strictly necessary to directly formulate or implement appropriate health responses.” These third parties will not be allowed to re-use the data for any other purpose or share the data with anyone else. The Protocol calls out data that has undergone ‘hard anonymization’ – i.e. where an individual cannot be identified using any means to trace their identity from the data – to be shared with third parties, being, universities or other research institutions registered in India, subject to approval from a special committee.
The protocol is not a binding legal regulation, neither does it draws any authority from any law passed by the Parliament of India. While the lack of an underlying law in this behalf does mean it cannot be made mandatory for people to download and use the app, this does not invalidate the safeguards that the Protocol imposes on data-sharing. The Supreme Court held in the case, Gobind v. State of M.P. (1975), that “Privacy, or the right to be let alone, is an interest that man should be able to assert directly and not derivatively from his efforts to protect other interests. A useful rule of thumb is that data privacy must be safeguarded even in times of emergency.
While the central government has residuary powers under Section 6 of the Disaster Management Act, 2005, and the state authorities claim to derive their powers from Section 2(1) of the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, it becomes onerous to advocate the fact that such laws do in fact grant powers to the authorities to collate, organize and disseminate information of the citizens in the manner in which it has been done. For the actions to be proportional and not manifestly arbitrary, states may collect minimum data, but it is to be primarily ensured that such data is anonymized being, used for the limited purpose of handling the public health situation, and not store or transfer the data to any third parties not authorized to access such data. Data anonymization may seem a solution, but it is to be noted that, technical and legal literature over the last decade has depicted limitations of data anonymization; with the advancements in data sciences and machine computing it has become easy to identify and reconstitute personal information from ‘anonymized’ data.” In the light of unidentified and unregulated data anonymization standards, the very essence of Article 14 of the Constitution of India is constantly challenged, through States’ whimsical approach in surveillance policy implementation.
It is pertinent to note at in the larger public interest, Section 12 of the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, does allow the processing of personal data without consent during medical emergencies and pandemics. However, the Bill has not been passed till date. Measures such as the publishing of lists of affected individuals, along with their personal details are definitely unconstitutional, which is eventually perpetuating unnecessary stigma and aspersions.
The pertinent question that orbits the discussion is whether, the government policies midst the outbreak of the pandemic purports to Health surveillance or State surveillance?
Privacy is the constitutional core of human dignity. It is the duty of the State not only to protect the human dignity but to facilitate it by taking positive steps in that direction. Public health interest must have to be neatly collaborated with sound State actions that cherish the sanctity of the constitutional values.
In the fitness of the practice to generate a neutrally-balanced opinion, the author places due recognition to the fact that the Supreme Court of India has also observed that the right to privacy is not absolute and allows room for reasonable restrictions to be so placed in the interest of public order; however, any restriction is required to be reasonable, i.e. within the legal framework of the land.
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ANDHRA’S FINANCIAL STATUS QUO IS RINGING DANGER BELLS
Nowadays, the State of Andhra Pradesh has become a peculiar State, performing outside the purview of the accounting practices and even it adheres the Constitutional violations by diverting VAT on Liquor to Government incorporated Corporation instead of transfer to the Consolidated Fund by a special GO for raising additional Loans outside the FRBM limits— it is nothing but a mere window dressing of accounting practices and systems as a bad precedent for future of the country and most particularly the state itself. After careful examination of Financial Statements for the second quarter of the current financial year 2021-22, several key indicators of Andhra Pradesh financial adversity have been exposed with danger bells.
Estimated revenue collections and revenue expenditure in the budget and actuals thereof is very much vital in any Government since revenue surplus or deficit plays the crucial role for serving the capital expenditure for the future revenue-generating assets for the country or state; then it serves the interest on debts which impacts primary deficit and thereafter very much important component Fiscal Deficit arrives out of the impact of the all together above. Hence, Revenue Deficit is the root cause of all the other liking heads in the FINANCIAL Statements. Generally, revenue surplus for any State indicates a positive performance, and at least those states, which minimize the gap between revenue collections and revenue expenditure to register the shorter revenue deficit are also reasonably good.
As far as Andhra Pradesh is concerned, first indicator, Total Revenue Collections, estimated in the Budget for the Financial Year 2021-22 was Rs. 1,77,196.48 Crores and Estimated Total Revenue Expenditure was 1,82,196.54 Crores, Hence Estimated Revenue Deficit for the whole year was Rs. 5000.06 Crores. Total Revenues had registered for Rs. 64,871.99 Crores by September where the whole year estimated revenue was, it means, only 36.61% of the current financial year total revenue achieved after the lapse of 50% period in the year. But, the actual revenue deficit for the first two quarters of the current financial year has registered as Rs. 39,933.22 Crores, which means nearly 800% of the actual revenue deficit has emerged in the first six months itself when compared with the whole financial year’s revenue deficit. In these circumstances, we can predict that how worse the situation of Andhra Pradesh in the next 6 months.
Second indicator i.e the Capital Expenditure Targets are concerned, Andhra Pradesh had not achieved the target of 45% of the total Capital Expenditure estimated in the Budget for the financial year 2021-22 of Rs. 31,119.38 Crores in the second quarter of the current financial year to avail the additional loan as an incentive allowed by the Union Government based on the performance of creating future revenue-generating assets by incurring the targeted Capital Expenditure. Although, first-quarter target to incurring 15% of the Capital expenditure was achieved, it had not attained in the second quarter due to the lenient approach of the State Government in the exercise of Financial factors.
Apart from this, the State government had utilized the insurance premium, which was paid by the Women in the Self Help Groups for Rs. 2,100 Crores and LIC had openly declared in the newspaper advertisement that they were withdrawing the Agreement with Andhra Pradesh Government to pay future obligations to the beneficiaries since the State Government of Andhra Pradesh violated the terms and conditions and declared that the future obligations will be cleared by the nodal agency of the State Government Department SERP. Further, Recently the State government of Andhra Pradesh had incorporated Andhra Pradesh State Financial Services Corporation as an NBFC. Unfortunately, the State government had issued a direction to divert their bank deposits from every State Government Corporations, Departments, Boards etc., which are maintained in the Scheduled Banks to AP Financial Services Corporation forcibly— it causes the damage of independence of the respective Corporations, Departments, Boards as those funds have been diverting for unproductive expenditure which may hurt the actual system of the activity. And many experts have been questioned that Whether AP Financial Services Corporation is the reserve bank of Andhra Pradesh. There is an agitation of NTR Health University employees is going on against to transfer of Rs. 400 Crores of University-Corpus fund to the AP Financial Services Corporation from the Scheduled Bank. Ironically, State Government is expressing that Deposits in the Scheduled Banks are unsafe, whereas the people of Andhra Pradesh are in a feeling that the present approach of the State Government is not safe.
The financial destructive methods implemented by the State under the leadership of YS Jagan Mohan Reddy had cautioned by the CAG in their Report. The series of illegitimate and unconstitutional practices since the inception of YSRCP led State Government leads to Economic Nuclear explosion now. The State needs to repay 1.10 lack crores in the next seven years but the condition of the State is: it requires to raise debts even to repay the interest. As per the past expectation, the Revenue Deficit of the State should have reached zero by 2021, but the actual Revenue Deficit was registered for Rs. 36,000 Crores due to huge unproductive expenditure had been incurred. Further, the State Government was eligible to provide a guarantee on loans for Rs. 5,600 Crores only, But the same has crossed for Rs. 1.00 lack crores and the Government is trying to give guarantee for additional 1.00 lack crores where the gap in State Government Guarantees is eligible up to 90% as per norms, but State government has amended it up to 180%.
At present financial precarious condition has been emerged as Total Revenues and Debts are not serving the Budgetary Allocations other than the unproductive and illegitimate expenditure with corrupt practices. On the one hand, Total Debts had been registered for Rs. 39,914 18 by September where the whole year estimated debt was 37,029.79 Crores, it means more than 100% estimated debts for the financial year 2021-22 had crossed in the first two quarters itself without future revenue-generating productive assets through Capital expenditure and on the other hand, We can notice the Unconstitutional methods in the financial practices harm the state Brand Image, such as recent Order by the State Government to transfer the VAT on Liquor revenue to Beverage Corporation to raise debts. After analyzing the facts in the September month CAG report, danger bells of the AP State Financial Health have been ringing in all parameters and it needs remedial measures with immediate effect to put the things in order, otherwise, future financial damage to the state is unimaginable.
Controlling, addictive AI needs immediate attention
At the core of the concerns are the nature and design of algorithms that influence our choices. Online consumption, for instance, is not a free choice. Algorithms prod, poke and drive the consumer into a narrow set of choices which they may not have selected otherwise.
Can we govern the ungovernable? Should we even try to contain the advance of algorithms? These difficult questions don’t have a simple answer. However, what is clear is that the world needs a strong governance structure to shape the impact of algorithms and AI on our lives.
At the core of the concerns are the nature and design of algorithms that influence our choices. Online consumptions for instance is not a free choice. Algorithms prod, poke and drive the consumer into a narrow set of choices which they may not have selected otherwise.
“It is important to have ways to oversee the operations of these systems to ensure they are helping, not harming, humanity. The flurry of governance frameworks over the past two years has been crucial in helping leaders to better understand the issues surrounding AI, including potential for fairness and discrimination, disparate impact, and the associated issues of transparency and accountability,” says a recent report by World Economic Forum (WEF). “But much more innovation in the realm of AI governance is needed if we are to keep pace with both the advancement and application of AI-based systems,” says the report titled The AI Governance Journey published in November.
Until recently unfair market practice in the retail sector largely revolved around predatory pricing. In some cases, it involved using market muscle to prevent rivals from expanding their consumer base.
Today, unfair market practices are often baked into the business model using tech-based platforms of e-commerce companies. Anti-trust authorities in most free-market economies including India are trying to peek under the hood of the engines that run e-commerce sales.
Parts of the unfair play in digital markets are easier to see. Some e-commerce companies own a big chunk of a seller and therefore find it in their interest to promote that particular seller.
Other parts of unfair trade practice involve using algorithms that allow collusion between seemingly independent companies or manage reactive pricing which can hurt smaller sellers. The e-commerce may say that algorithms don’t choose for the consumer; consumers choose for themselves. However, the facts say otherwise.
The question now is not whether consumers choose or not. The question is what is their choice? Are the options available to the consumers open and fair? More importantly, do the sellers have equal access to the consumers in the market. Today this paradigm is often decided by the software robots who run the digital markets.
“It will be important to monitor developments in the application of machine learning and Artificial Intelligence to ensure they do not lead to anti-competitive behavior or consumer detriment, particularly in relation to vulnerable consumers,” says the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) of the UK. There are examples where an e-commerce site has shown different prices to different customers depending on their location. A CMA paper notes, “It has been alleged that Staples’ website displayed different prices to people, depending on how close they were to a rival brick-and-mortar store belonging to OfficeMax or Office Depot.” Similar investigations are required in India and other emerging economies to ensure that algorithm-triggered personalized pricing does not become harmful.
Another type of antitrust activity takes place when online rivals decide to use the same pricing algorithm to align the prices of different products. When questioned by regulators or anti-trust authorities, e-commerce companies like to say that the decision taken by an algorithm is not their responsibility. However, authorities including the Competition Commission of India are challenging this.
At their root, anti-trust or anti-monopoly laws aim to ensure that consumers and sellers have the freedom to choose and compete on fair terms. A few sellers should not be allowed to dominate any market to the extent that other sellers are destroyed and therefore consumer choice is undermined.
Most regulators struggle to find proof of such activity as the level of sophistication is increasing constantly. Some are already unleashing their own algorithms to track and understand the pricing software of e-commerce companies. While companies collude on pricing, governments are collaborating on curbing online malpractices. The legal liability of an algorithmic decision will be interpreted as the legal liability of an entity of an individual. Anti-trust activities of algorithms should not go unchallenged in any economy.
Similar governance rules are needed for the algorithms used by social media giants. Privacy and data protection are often the key issues when debating the regulation around social media giants. However, an important dimension that needs more attention is the algorithms that decide, define, and drive online user behavior.
Even as various countries across the world battle social media giants for lack of transparency and accountability, some governments have begun to question the algorithms too.
The US Senate Judiciary Committee recently held hearings on “Algorithms and Amplification: How Social Media Platforms’ Design Choices Shape our Discourse and Our Minds.”
Like many countries, the US is concerned about the algorithms which are designed to addict. “… This advanced technology is harnessed into algorithms designed to attract our time and attention on social media, and the results can be harmful to our kids’ attention spans, to the quality of our public discourse, to our public health, and even to our democracy itself,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), chair of the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on privacy and tech
In the same way that India has the social media intermediary rules and laws, US has the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which offers some immunity for website platforms from third-party content.
The Senate hearings could lead to amendments in Section 230. Another Senator at the hearing said that the business model of “these companies is addiction.”
A legislation called ‘Don’t Push My Buttons Act’ has been introduced in the Senate with Tulsi Gabbard as the bill’s lead co-sponsor. The law would require that platforms with more than 10 million users should get user permissions before offering them content based on past behavior.
Basically, this means that companies can’t access our behavior and drive us further into similar content. This behavior is believed to be particularly harmful during Brexit conversations. Rather than allowing people to explore and stumble upon new content and alternate views on a subject, the algorithms drove users into more of the same. Effectively, it created online echo chambers and prevented people from absorbing other ideas.
The same principle can apply to consumer products or services. Algorithms can drive consumers to certain brands, categories while reducing choice and therefore hurting competition.
The laws will seek changes in Section 230 and remove the protection offered to the giants if they persist with addictive algorithms. Companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter have testified at the Senate hearings on addictive algorithms.
While the hearings are focused on US citizens, governments in other countries should also be alert about the consequence of addictive algorithms. As the government of India is establishing the rules of play for social media giants, it will be important to scrutinize and question addictive algorithms. With an addressable market of over a billion users, the tech giants will invest a lot of resources to increase their users. The variety of languages and users in the country lend themselves to using algorithms that use personal data for greater effect.
India has to put in place legislation and rules which seek more clarity and transparency from technology companies. Domestic and global companies that use consumer behavior data to enhance addictive behavior must be scrutinized and controlled.
Currently, the intermediary guidelines focus mostly on content management and grievance redressal. However, the underlying software engines that influence online consumer behavior need oversight too.
The WEF report has made some suggestions for the future. The world needs, “Standards providing a framework for responsible AI. Standards for measuring bias, fairness and related technical details – Processes and tools for assessing AI systems.” The regulation of algorithms that define AI and thus our choices will have to be made at several levels. From Multilateral to national to local, depending on the sector, geography, and usage.
The writer is the author of ‘India Automated: How the Fourth Industrial Revolution is Transforming India’. Views expressed are the writer’s personal.
Democratic deficits and disaster management
Disaster management may turn into a bigger disaster if complaint handling
mechanisms fail to resonate in the Parliament. In our emerging concern for
Parliament’s democratic deficits, one need not be complacent to phenomenal challenges
that besiege disaster management in the country’s larger governance.
Substantive democracy led by ethics and the spirit of the Constitution is a flywheel of governance. After the suspension of 12 Rajya Sabha Members on the first day of Parliament’s winter session for the rest of its session, it is more than obvious that institutions of governance suffer from a culture of democratic deficits. That, Parliament is becoming a platform for reprimanding opposition, bowdlerising debates, pecking into question hour and using available disciplinary authority in a repressive manner hounds the Constitutional spirit. In sharp contrast to Subramaniam Swamy’s expulsion on the basis of a detailed report on his alleged anti-national activities produced before the House in 1976, the current expulsion with short liner allegations and that too from a previous session appears monkey business. A right to speak, be heard and debate within Parliament represents the strength of this apex national institution as a repository of freedom and aspirations of people. Anything other than this can prove to be suicidal to policy formulation especially in the management of disasters which is currently the highest priority besides being indispensable to achieve Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030. Crisis incidentally, overlooks procedures for the demand of speed and efficiency but this cannot escape the hawkish eyes of a belligerent or cantankerous opposition in the Parliament. Any disproportionate use of disciplinary authority will provide a cover to all illegalities, diversion of funds, human insecurity and rise of surreptitious developmental mafias in disaster-affected zones where it would not be easy for the country to escape its catastrophic impact for a long time to come.
Democracy and disaster management are Siamese twins and this relationship rests on five pillars of disaster management, that is, (i) participatory decision making; (ii) transparency of aid flows; (iii) financial safeguards; (vi) transparent procurement and contracting; (v) Project monitoring, evaluation and feedback. Disaster management may turn into a bigger disaster if complaint handling mechanisms fail to resonate in the Parliament. In our emerging concern for Parliament’s democratic deficits, one need not be complacent to phenomenal challenges that besiege disaster management in the country’s larger governance. In a 2015 report of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, it was found that a 10% increase in the per capita amount of disbursed funds leads to a 12.2 % increase in corruption. However, the disaster led fund transfers are much larger and therefore, offer a wider scope for corruption. This aspect is of particular interest in the kind of governance that weaker democracies suffer in non-tax transfers such as relief from national and international organisations.
The real source of democracy comes from community-based organisations such as the Panchayats in rural areas or Municipal Corporation in urban areas. At this level, tolerance to undemocratic measures is the least, reactions are mostly direct and confrontation more united and lasting against the government. From the tribal protest against three controversial bills in Manipur that lasted 600 days from 2015 to 2017 with eight bodies of their young boys kept in the morgue to the farmers’ protest against three contentious land laws lasting 466 days, one can see that these results of a united agitation are impossible from those areas distanced from communities. There was intensive research that went behind a transformative governance framework suggested by the post-Tsunami Hyogo Declaration of 2005 for a community-based action in disaster management. Hyogo Framework for Action, as it is referred to, directed governments to focus on community resilience-building as a priority. It stated, ‘communities and local authorities should be empowered to manage and reduce disaster risk by having access to the necessary information, resources and authority to implement actions for disaster risk reduction.’ It is sad that grassroots slippages of disaster management policies have weakened action against disasters. During the 2018 Kerala floods most of the Panchayat members from Kottayam to Idukki and Munnar shared that even though some alerts in the form of red, yellow and green were being sent to them, they were unable to make any sense of it as no one had ever spoken to them or trained them to understand it. This deficit of mutuality and participation runs through the system up to the Parliament yet no government ever pays any heed to priority action needed at the ground.
How democracy replenishes community resilience building is to be understood by our various research visits to regions marooned in hopeless islands of corrupt governance. Around 2009, tea plantation workers of 14 tea gardens of Dooars in West Bengal lost their livelihood and were pushed into starvation and death. The estate owners had fled bag and baggage without anyone’s knowledge to escape huge payments to workers under the Tea Board Act 1949, Plantation Labour Act 1951 and Industrial Disputes Act 1947 leaving behind ageing and unproductive tea gardens. Since these workers had known no other skill but plucking tea leaves they did not know how to cope up with the sudden closure and absentee government. Our visit to their broken homes raised hopes that someone is reaching out to them, they started coming out in numbers during our evening discussion groups arranged in their villages. These meetings also brought out a subtle presence of mafias which helped garden owners to flee without notice after which they illegitimately started collecting relief funds, indulging in trafficking across borders and also becoming their despotic masters. Our meetings which had nothing to give them except sharing information, inadvertently enlightened them on the Constitutional framework and the laws to strengthen their conviction during depressive times. Their awakening helped to revive the inactive Tea Board, receive a more meaningful restoration plan within the Panchayat Act and receive livelihood guarantee under MNREGA.
During 2015-17 our team visited Sundarbans in West Bengal and some districts of Manipur. Despite much segregation and high vulnerability due to its geographical location, Sundarbans could display a vibrant community action. We could talk to people waiting in queue for seeking the benefits of the public distribution system and also those who were repairing their homes to prevent snakes and tigers from entering. The place was vulnerable to many forms of disasters but people despite poverty were prepared with their indigenous techniques and plans using the most basic equipment for early warning, human and cattle rescue besides grain storage for emergency use. On the other hand in Manipur, as we travelled through Churchanpur, Thoubal, Senapati and Tamenglong people flocked around us as they felt that the government officials were finally visiting them for a change. Even their Ward Councilors had no knowledge of their responsibilities and availability of developmental funds for their Ward. The communities over there had not seen any government official visiting them. There was a big dent between the Meitei led government and Kuki, Paite and Nagas outside Imphal. No one had ever spoken to them and they felt that probably a change of government at the Centre has sent this JNU fact-finding team to their villages. It was a coincidence but in the election that followed this silent suffering tribal abode kicked out a non-participatory government in their silent revenge. If some of these examples could be a lighthouse on the power of democracy, Hyogo Declaration would become a serious enterprise.
A participatory framework provides a unique opportunity to promote a strategic and systematic approach to reducing vulnerabilities and risks to hazards besides identifying ways of building the resilience of nations and communities to disasters. Now that the community of world nations has been taking Hyogo spirit through Sendai Framework (2015-30) on the adoption of measures which address the three dimensions of disaster risk (exposure to hazards, vulnerability and capacity) a need for an increased resilience-building rests on nation’s ability to protect democracy at every Constitutional layer of governance. No technology, internet-based information or e-governance can replace physical meetings and face to face discussions and learning. Yet, how could this be possible if representatives of these people are not able to air concerns in the State Assembly of the Parliament? There are Rules as strict as Rule 256 and Rule 259 of the General Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Rajya Sabha, but the Constitutional spirit behind the rules combined with the ethics of enforcement defines the manner in which these Rules are to be used against representatives of people.
Parliament is not a confidential Committee Room of the Intelligence Bureau or the Pentagon Boardroom but a microcosm of society where the government’s democratic personality and tolerance to Constitutional norms are most needed. If this tolerance is lost, there would be no time for multihazard disasters to inflict our country stretching beyond the government’s capacity to prevent or manage them. It is hoped that the government in its true wisdom realises that the genie may not be released from the corked bottle.
The writer is president of Network Asia-Pacific Disaster Research Group, Senior Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, and former Professor of Administrative Reforms and Emergency Governance at JNU. The views expressed are personal.
PARLIAMENT MUST BE ALLOWED TO FUNCTION
Vice President Venkaiah Naidu should be commended for refusing to back down on his decision to suspend 12 MPs from the Rajya Sabha for the whole of the winter session for unruly conduct during the monsoon session. Public memory may be short, but it’s not that short that the bedlam Parliament witnessed in the monsoon session would be forgotten by now. In that session, MPs jumped up on tables, tore up documents, threw paper, misbehaved with the security staff, while at the same time playing victim and claiming that outsiders were brought in to manhandle them. Unprecedented scenes were witnessed in Parliament and the MPs who indulged in such mayhem deserved to be suspended. The parties that alleged that outsiders were brought in should have provided the evidence to back up such a charge, barring which the nation will be forced to consider only the video evidence that is available in the public domain and those clips show the most appalling behaviour by certain MPs.
That the Vice President, as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, feels strongly about the disruption of Parliament has been clear for some time. In September, while delivering a lecture on the topic of “if disrupting Parliament was an MP’s privilege or could be regarded as a facet of Parliamentary democracy”, he had said that disruption was “a certain negation of the spirit and the intention behind the rules of the House, the code of conduct and the parliamentary etiquette and the scheme of parliamentary privileges, all aimed at enabling effective performance of individual members and the House collectively. Given the consequences, disruption of proceedings clearly amounts to contempt of the House…” Even otherwise he has been unhappy that disruptions were leading to the loss of productivity of both Houses. The monsoon session this year was among the least productive in the Narendra Modi government’s second tenure. According to available statistics, out of 96 hours, the Lok Sabha functioned for just 21 hours and 14 minutes, which is 22% productivity, and Rajya Sabha for only 28 of the total 97.5 hours, with 28% productivity. Important bills were passed without any debate and the government too adjourned Parliament early. All this signify a complete breakdown of Parliamentary proceedings.
Unless due process is followed and every bill debated and amendments suggested and incorporated, the sanctity of a Parliamentary democracy cannot be upheld. Parliament is a place for debates, discussions and repartees, with the jousting limited to verbal rapier thrusts. Indian Parliament has a long tradition of that. A good Parliamentary debate can be fascinating and intellectually stimulating, especially when both the treasury and the opposition benches are peopled with great orators. It is a shame when their voices get lost in the din and the nation is deprived of their views. For that matter, even a limited amount of din is acceptable, but not physical aggression. And as VP Naidu correctly pointed out on Wednesday, “the members who have committed this sacrilege…have not expressed any remorse”. Forget about remorse, some of them think that it’s a matter of pride that they have been suspended for “raising their voices on behalf of the farmers”. It is not known how rushing to the well of the House, throwing paper planes, tearing up files, jostling and pushing are part of the exercise of raising one’s voice on any issue. Street politics should be left outside when entering Parliament. In this context, mention must be made of the unparliamentary language being used by certain Parliamentarians, outside Parliament. One of these worthies implicitly compared the president of a rival political party with a barking dog. It is incumbent on every party leadership to rein in these foul-mouthed entities, instead of trying to portray them as fire-brand people’s politicians.
As for the disruptions that have started once again, it is hoped that saner heads among the Opposition will prevail and the two Houses will be allowed to function. Every government needs to be held accountable for its actions and inactions on the floor of the House, every bill needs to be debated and discussed before they are made into law. Not allowing that to happen amounts to “sacrilege”.
ANALYSING FEAR AND SPECULATION OVER THE OMICRON VARIANT
Are we ready for another lockdown? The fear of Omicron, the new coronavirus mutation hitting our shores has raised a high level of anxiety amongst Indians. The predominant fear of course is a repeat of the horrors of the second wave. Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has already asked the Prime Minister to stop all international flights from the affected countries. Kejriwal points out that a South African returnee has already landed in Chandigarh and tested positive for Covid-19. He has also infected his domestic and a family member. The genome sequencing is being done to figure out which strain of Covid-19 this is, and for now, the Union Health Minister has stated that there is no case of Omicron in India as yet.
Kejriwal, being Kejriwal, has taken to the social media amplifying the efforts his government is putting in to counter a fresh wave. The PM too we are told is holding several high-level meetings to ascertain the threat perception and our response to it. Testing has been ramped up at airports and there is talk about speeding up the booster shot and this is essential as the elderly and the health care workers have already had a gap of over six months since their last dose.
At stake are also the series of weddings and Christmas get-togethers planned as the post-Diwali surge showed an increase in cases but very few of them requiring hospitalisation. Instead, doctors claimed that it was dengue that was occupying the hospital beds. But dengue is an old familiar case study even though the cases were severe and the pollution was helping any. However, it is the fear of the unknown that has a more potent impact and the mere suggestion of another coronavirus mutation was enough to dispel any goodwill cheer.
However, the stock market is already mirroring the gloom felt in the industry. Businesses that had started are now again facing a road bump, especially the travel industry that was all set to reopen all international flights. Suddenly travel agents are getting cancellation requests on planned Christmas vacations. Offices that were opening up for offline work are also now rethinking this decision —and while there are inherent advantages to working from home and holding digital meetings, these do not match the productivity level of face to face meetings, especially in industries that require you to brainstorm.
However, we are being told by global health experts that the symptoms shown by patients infected with Omicron are mild and are mostly being treated at home. But until more data is known, one will have to live in the uncertainty that is fast becoming a regular feature in this Covid continuous world.
Why do Indians achieve more success in Western world than India?
On experiencing systems of the Western world, we come to realise what freedom and independence are. We get to see the true face of democracy in such nations. One finds no cause to hold ones’ opinions and is able to express them without any fear. In our country, even if one is right, still he can find himself in trouble if his expressions are to the dislike of the people in power.
We Indians are fundamentally noble and articulate people but this primary trait of ours had lost its significance as we had been ruled for centuries by invaders who exploited us to the maximum and unleashed a reign of misrule which went up to the extent that we almost forgot our identity and values. We had turned ourselves almost as slaves of our oppressors and this was not only confined to our body but our inner self too.
Islamic conquests made inroads into this subcontinent as early as the 8th century followed by the invasions of Mahmud Ghazni. The Delhi Sultanate was founded in the 13th century by the Central Asian Turks, who ruled major parts of the northern Indian subcontinent. This was followed by the Mughal Empire and their decline in the early 18th century that led to the rise of East India Company and consequent British Rule that lasted for over 200 years till 1947 when India was finally freed from the chains of slavery. However, it was not without a permanent scar on our motherland as it was not without the partition of this country.
We hoped to come out of this mindset that had deeply entrenched our hearts and minds during this long period of domination by invaders, but sadly we still continue to be under the shadow of the tendencies grown out of this long misrule and even after the passage of more than 70 years since we got independence, the misrule we faced earlier has not ended and we continue to watch it in one form or the other. Unfortunately, we continue to live under the same sort of oppression though in a different disguise. This takes us to believe that though the foreign rule ended, the legacy of misrule of that time is becoming more and more evident instead of being totally erased and wiped out from the face of this country.
Going by the above, one is led to believe that we Indians are not even now truly free and independent in real terms of the word. Freedom and independence connote freedom of thoughts and actions but without infringing such rights of others. What it further implies is that we are hesitant and scared in expressing our thoughts due to some dark fear of retribution from the powers that be. As a corollary, we have to accept the fact that after suffering foreign domination for a long period, we are and continue to be a suppressed society and also suppressed people. Our psyche always fears the unknown and we are totally shaken if we hear an unfamiliar knock at our doors. This has made us almost robotic and we only express the rehearsed lines as we are always controlled by the thought that if we express anything which is not found palatable, we would be made to suffer on one pretext or the other. So to find safety, we enter into our cocoon and seal our mouth.
We Indians are well aware of the rampant corruption around us. We are fully aware that some powerful people in our society are the most corrupt and there are anti-social elements but we see day in and day out such people ruling the roost and they use the powers at their command to serve their personal interests at the cost of this great nation. We have watched since independence such elements taking control of our destinies, but we have chosen to give a blind eye to this, just to ensure our personal well-being. It is there for everyone to see that barring a few, our political class is not entirely clean and the pity is that we stand helplessly and allow such things to continue.
But the contrast becomes crystal clear when we move to the Western world. On experiencing their systems, we come to realise what freedom and independence are. We get to see the true face of democracy in such nations. One finds no cause to hold ones’ opinions and is able to express them without any fear. In our country, even if one is right, still he can find himself in trouble if his expressions are to the dislike of the people in power. This has made us vulnerable before the political class and we don’t find ourselves safe even if we are following our normal routines. Things have come to such a pass that one is not safe while walking on the road. This has made our womenfolk and children more vulnerable.
It leads us to the question as to how Indians become important, rich, and leading lights when they are settled in some foreign land. We see everyday Indians achieving newer heights in the US, Europe, and many Asian countries. Most of these Indians enjoy ultra-high net worth and high status in these countries. The question arises of how such a thing is possible outside of our country. The answer lies in the fact that Indians are peace-loving people. When we are in our country, we are moulded by the prevailing environment that evidently is not clean and we feel helpless and sometimes make us choose the wrong options to achieve the right end. A further fact is that generally we Indians are intelligent and believe in toiling hard. But the predicament is that only a few attach values to such traits. However, the same people, when they go abroad, find that these values are given great importance and values. Indians achieve a higher success rate than the local people since they sacrifice their comforts and involve themselves with heart and soul in their endeavour but in comparison, a local wouldn’t make a similar sacrifice at the cost of his lifestyle and comforts. This endears the Indians to the local people and provides them with a priority. A similar approach can be noted as far as the academic field goes. Indians believe in achieving academic excellence and ignore extra-curricular activities when pursuing their education. Their effort is always to top in their career. Comparatively, people in such developed countries devote time to other activities such as games. This naturally makes Indians more suitable for various specialised fields and it is there for all to see that they hold important positions in foreign countries in such positions.
The need is to open eyes and call a spade a spade for the welfare of our teeming millions and this will help us to achieve the Eldorado we always dream of and then we will see no difference whether we are in India or abroad.
Jagdip Singh is Chairman, SIGMA GROUP of Industries and Hony. Consul General of South Korea. The views expressed are personal.
When we are in our country, we are moulded by the prevailing environment that evidently is not clean and we feel helpless and sometimes making us choose the wrong options to achieve the right end. A further fact is that generally we Indians are intelligent and believe in toiling hard. But the predicament is that only a few attach values to such traits. However, the same people, when they go abroad, find that these values are given great importance and values. Indians achieve a higher success rate than the local people since they sacrifice their comforts and involve themselves with heart and soul in their endeavour but in comparison, a local wouldn’t make a similar sacrifice at the cost of his lifestyle and comforts.
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