Finally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reshuffled his Cabinet. The exercise has set up in place an edifice of maximum government. But will this revamped entity now deliver maximum governance? Are the critics right when they claim that the expansion focused more on politics than administrations?
In what is seen as an unusual move, an unofficial press note was circulated on the day of the reshuffle that highlighted the fact that as many as 20 SC/ST leaders were being sworn in, along with 27 OBC ministers. The note also went on to list the sub-castes of the OBC ministers. This is probably the first time that such a listing has been done for a council of ministers, said Dr Sanjaya Baru, former media advisor to Dr Manmohan Singh. What also surprised Baru (and many others) is that the BJP has always prided itself as a party that appeals to the Hindus as a monolithic bloc rather than dividing them into castes. In fact, the BJP has been critical of the SP, RJD, BSP and other parties for doing the same.
Clearly, the target here is the Uttar Pradesh elections but is there also a move away from the Brahmin-Bania image of the Advani-Vajpayee BJP of old? Certainly, with the exit of Ravi Shankar Prasad, there are very few faces left from the Vajpayee Cabinet apart from Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari. And even the latter’s portfolio has been downsized.
There is a great deal of dependence on bureaucrats in the new ministry—from Ashwini Vaishnaw, Hardeep Puri, R.K. Singh to S. Jaishankar. This is also PM Modi’s preferred style of working and for the most part the bureaucrats have been efficient executors, performing better than some of their political counterparts.
But despite the mammoth exercise and the breathless reporting, has the PM addressed the key problem areas? These are the economy, health and national security. With China looming large at our borders and now the situation in Afghanistan, the neighbourhood is going to keep the External Affairs Minister extremely busy. This leads to the obvious question here: Has he done a good enough job so far with even an ally like Nepal estranged from us? Ditto for the economy. As for health, there has been a change of guard but the Opposition is asking (quite rightly) as to whether the former health minister was just a convenient scapegoat. Was he the only one fronting the Covid management? Was not the MDMA involved as well as other senior babus from Niti Aayog to ICMR?
Important questions that need to be answered, and not deflected, as we face a possible third wave. The PM has shown that under him the government is great at politics and has an enviable track record of winning elections. Now let’s see the governance track record. He has nearly three years to make good on that.
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MASKS, VACCINATIONS WILL TACKLE SPREAD OF THE NEW COVID-19 VARIANT
Even if the new variant of the Covid-19 virus is yet to spread in India at the scale it has spread in Europe and South Africa, all the trappings that accompany a new variant are there on the ground at Delhi’s T3— the fear, panic, and the chaos. With international flights ready to resume from December 15, the airport had groomed itself to resume activities and the focus was on flights taking off. But once Omicron was detected and global alert bells rang, India too put in its new norms which included testing of those passengers arriving from the list of ‘At-Risk’ countries. These include the United Kingdom, all 44 countries in Europe, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Israel. The testing centers which were earlier there at the airport during the Delta variant had since reduced their staff. Now suddenly in the blink of an eye, they were told to begin screening the arrivals yet again. Almost overnight, they had to not just ramp up the testing but also set up the supporting infrastructure.
Those passengers who were landing from other countries were not at risk of getting caught up in the rush and simply added to the already crowded airport. The site of the tests is between the aerobridge and the immigration counters. But here is the catch: the said corridor is not designed to be a holding area but a transit one. Now suddenly with as many as three to four flights landing at the same time you had passengers crowding this confined space waiting for the test results that took anything from two to eight hours. If you signed online for the RT-PCR test before boarding the flight the fee is Rs 500 and you have to wait eight hours. Most passengers (at least those who could afford it) on landing opted for the Rapid PCR test that cost Rs 3900 and took two hours for the result. In the meanwhile, the only option for the passengers was to wait and have coffee from the vending machine that was installed as recently as December 2nd, the very next day after the new rules came into being.
Crossing immigration is another nightmare with long queues even at the counters earmarked for those needing special assistance or those with a diplomatic passport. This takes anything from two hours to beyond. And don’t think you are in the clear yet because the baggage belt brings its own chaos. Because so many passengers are still stranded at the testing sites, their luggage has been taken off the belt and is lying around. So, all the best for identifying your bag amidst all those that have been offloaded from the belt. The civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia has been monitoring the situation and has held several high-level meetings to figure out a solution to ease this mess, so let’s watch this space.
So far India has recorded 21 cases of Omicron in Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Delhi. The testing at the airport will only tell you if you have Covid or not. But to figure out which variant, one will have to send the results for genome sequencing, a process that takes anything from five to seven days. In the meantime, there has been enough exposure at the airport testing center to spread the virus if a passenger tests positive. And the one thing we know about Omicron is that it is highly contagious.
The other thing that we suspect— though it will take further two weeks to establish this as a certainty— is that the virus is not as lethal as the Delta variant. As we have learnt from the Delta variant, closing our borders does not stop the spread of the virus. What stops it is masks and vaccinations. While vaccine hesitancy still looms large in our villages, most of those who have taken the two doses are now ready for their third. Especially the health care workers and the elderly. The government is mulling a third dose but does it have the requisite funds for it? In the meantime, unused vaccinations are lying with private hospitals as most are opting for the government centers offering a free dose, especially now that the rush has eased. The government needs to find a solution to balance the two.
And in the end, if indeed the new variant isn’t as lethal as the Delta one (even if it’s more contagious) we may be moving towards the scenario where covid gets flu-like status. Which honestly is the best-case scenario that everyone is hoping for.
Reset of India-Russia relationship a necessity
The changed world order and their alliances with each other’s rivals have necessitated a reset of the Indo-Russia relationship.
Russian President Vladimir Putin was in India for the 21st India-Russia Annual Summit. This was the first in-person meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Putin since their meeting in November 2019 on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in Brazil. The visit was short but significant as this was only the second time that thae Russian President travelled abroad during the pandemic, after his trip to Geneva this summer for a meeting with US President Joe Biden.
This year marks 50 years of the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation between India and the Soviet Union, a treaty that sent a strong signal both to Washington and Beijing back in 1971. The shifted sands of geopolitics have put India and Russia on different trajectories in the 21st Century that has brought them to a situation quite opposite to the one in 1971—the US has inched towards India, while Russia has taken to China and some extent to Pakistan. The Indo-US or the Sino-Russia ties are not time-tested like the Indo-Russian ties but have evolved due to convergence of interest between the partner nations against a common threat—China, in the case of India and the US, and the US in the case of Russia and China. The changed world order and their alliances with each other’s rivals have necessitated a reset of the Indo-Russia relationship. By choosing to visit India, that too at a time when India-China tensions are running high, Putin is giving a clear message that Kremlin’s foreign policy will not be dictated by Beijing, and that New Delhi remains an important partner of Moscow. India, on its part, is signalling its strategic autonomy by holding the inaugural “2+2” foreign and defence ministers’ dialogue with Russia, like the arrangement that India has with the Quad group countries—the US, Japan, and Australia. India has also gone ahead with the arms deal with Russia even when it comes with a risk of potential sanctions by the US.
Defence trade forms the bedrock of India-Russia relations. Although the arms procurement from Russia has witnessed a steady decline under the Narendra Modi government, Russia remains the biggest defence supplier to India amounting to 58% of India’s imports in the period of 2014-18. A large base of Russian equipment, weapons and platforms are currently in military use in India—missiles, aircraft carrier and nuclear submarine included. India is and will remain dependent on Russia for the maintenance and upgrades of the systems already in use and for the ones in the pipeline. India’s diversification of defence purchase, and its ambition to create a robust domestic defence manufacturing base, means the imports from Russia will continue to drop. However, Russia will remain a critical partner given its willingness to transfer sensitive defence technologies and joint developments.
India aims to expand its non-defence trade with Russia, especially in the energy sector, but the set target is far less than the current Russia-China trade. As of now, defence is the sector where New Delhi is more valuable to Moscow not only because it is the biggest buyer of the Russian military-industrial complex but also because, unlike China, India does not indulge in intellectual property thefts or reverse engineering and does not pose a threat to the Russian arms market with own exports. India is the second-largest defence importer in the world and Russia’s top defence trade partner. It can use its position to negotiate best deals with defence suppliers (Russia and others) as well as to ensure that Kremlin pays heed to Indian sensitivities regarding weapons deals and military alliances with China and Pakistan.
India needs a dependable P5 nation that would stand by India’s national interests, especially as the veto-wielding China turns increasingly hostile and as Pakistan turns into a Chinese colony. Russia may speak the harsh language at times or turn an occasional blind eye to Chinese attempts against India, but it has never voted against Indian interests at the UNSC. Irrespective of Russia’s uneasiness over the Quad grouping and the Russian foreign minister referring to Indo-Pacific as Asia-Pacific, Russia is supplying advanced systems like S-400 to India despite Chinese objections. Its ties with the “iron brothers” notwithstanding, Russia was the first P5 nation to formally state that abrogation of Article 370 is an internal matter for India. India and Russia also have no bilateral disputes or rivalries and have adopted silence over, if not supported, each other’s sensitive issues, be it Kashmir or Crimea.
Russia is a key player in Afghanistan with access to every other player, including the Taliban. Indian and Russian interests align over drug trafficking and Islamist terrorism that is certain to emanate from Taliban-led Afghanistan. Russia has snubbed India by excluding it from the extended Troika and has sided with China and Pakistan concerning the Taliban, but it also created a permanent consultation channel for talks on Afghanistan between President Putin and PM Modi. Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council, has been to New Delhi twice after the fall of Kabul. Russia is concerned that the Taliban, or for that matter Pakistan, cannot be trusted to stop the flow of terrorism or drugs into Central Asia. The situation in Afghanistan is very fluid and it is hard to predict what may happen, but a Russia-India, and possibly Iran, overt or covert cooperation to safeguard individual interests and influence cannot be ruled out.
While the risk to reward ratio works for Russia with respect to its ties with China, it is an asymmetric relationship between a former superpower and the next superpower. Russia is worried not just about being relegated as the junior partner of Beijing but also losing out in its historical sphere of influence in Central Asia. Russia has been doing its counterbalancing act vis-à-vis China and India, which, not surprisingly, is vital to that act—seeking investments from India (and Japan) in its Far East, the Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor that passes through the South China Sea, supplying sensitive defence systems to India, an impetus to the negotiations on a free trade agreement between India and the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), cooperation in the Arctic and the joint venture on BrahMos missiles that will be exported to third countries including to some Southeast Asian nations. India will not be able to pull Russia away from China or become the third side of the dream triangle as envisaged by Russia, but from Indian, as well as the Western perspective, it makes no sense to let Russia-China embrace get any tighter by leaving Moscow with no other option.
A strong relationship with the superpower US based on mutual respect and benefit is a desirable prospect for India. However, a neighbourhood driven by hostility from/towards the US is India’s current reality, which makes continued close ties with Russia particularly important. The fact that Russia enjoys good relations with China and India, and India enjoys good relations with both Russia and the US, put the two old partners in a unique position to leverage the ties. If the communication channels are open, if the expectations are realistic, if the focus is on the convergence of interests rather than divergence, and if the red lines are marked clearly, the “special and privileged strategic partnership” shared by the two nations will not only withstand the pressures of geopolitics but will thrive and may even bring some stability to the region.
Defence trade forms the bedrock of India-Russia relations. Although the arms procurement from Russia has witnessed a steady decline under the Narendra Modi government, Russia remains the biggest defence supplier to India amounting to 58% of India’s imports in the period of 2014-18.
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.
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