Biofuel Push Will Benefit Farmers, Curb Pollution

How could around 50 million sugarcane growers and another 500,000 workers engaged in cane crushing factories across the country could come to the aid of curbing air pollution in principal Indian cities! Like we are experiencing now, pollution hits alarming proportions every winter when hospitals and nursing homes in Delhi, Kolkata and many other places are overwhelmed by visits of patients with severe breathing difficulties. City doctors have not stopped giving warnings to the government at the Centre and in states that the air pollution status is nothing less than health emergency.

Their concern is confirmed by a new study by New Delhi based Public Health Foundation of India along with collaborating institutions that has found 1.67 million premature deaths attributable to unacceptable air quality constituting approximately 18 per cent of India’s total mortality in 2019. No less alarmingly, the study also points out, the economic loss due to air pollution related diseases and deaths equalled 1.4 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) or Rs260,000 crore, which is nearly three times the Union Budget’s provision for health. The air pollution linked deaths are caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart failure, respiratory infections and neonatal disorders.

One does not have to be an expert to know that exhaust from cars and heavy goods vehicles and suspended dust on roads due to continuous vehicular movement are among the major cause of city air pollution. The problem is exacerbated by the government holding back on enactment of a scrappage policy that is to create an ecosystem for voluntary and environment friendly phasing out of vehicles operating for over 15 years.

A cabinet note on the subject of great import for curbing environmental pollution and promotion of circular economy as all the steel and aluminium to be recovered by scientifically dismantling of vehicles are to be recycled for further use is ready. But while the BJP-led government had hurriedly enacted the controversial three laws relating to farming, a policy for scrapping of polluting vehicles has for reasons wrapped in mystery is once again held back for consultation.

In this grave situation, what is urgently required is for the government to require of vehicle makers to go on reducing emission of air pollutants from internal combustion engine. It’s not that progress has not been made in the direction as the migration to Bharat Stage VI emission norms by car makers straight from BS IV skipping the one in between from April 2020 and petrol stations selling only sulphur in fuel complying with BS VI standard. Concerns about keeping the earth clean and human beings in good health will perforce lead the government to have increasingly stricter fuel burning norms for vehicles approximating increasingly exacting standards found in European Union, Japan and the US.

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At the same time, India, which is the world’s second largest producer of sugar and growing a lot more sugarcane than is needed to take care of the domestic demand for the sweetener, is uniquely placed to produce large volumes of ethanol either directly from cane juice or as a derivative from different grades of molasses, a sugar by-product. This renewable bio resource should be sustainably available here on a large scale, provided adequate capital investment is made in processing sugarcane, rice or corn. When ethanol is used as a fuel in a blend with gasoline, it has the potential to lower the pollution caused by vehicles. Ethanol-gasoline mixture burns cleaner and the mix has higher octane levels than pure gasoline.

As it would happen, India, which is the world’s second largest producer of rice after China, is likely to have an output of 120 million tonnes during 2020-21 (July to June) leaving a considerable surplus after meeting domestic demand and exports. Over the last many years, the country has faced issues in managing rice inventory that at times would be in excess of 20 million tonnes. Besides the cost involved in managing such a big reserve, India stands out as an example of enormous quantities of rice and other agricultural produce going waste due to issues relating to maintaining reserves.

Incidentally, Transport and MSME minister Nitin Gadkari is holding consultation with the PMO and concerned secretaries for also using rice along with sugarcane juice for producing ethanol. As Gadkari says, the three driving objectives are: (i) Go on raising the percentage of ethanol in mixed fuel as a way to curb air poisoning; (ii) improve the income of farmers by way of channelling the surpluses into productive use; and (iii) spare the government of difficulties in undertaking the rising subsidy burden.

What other farm products, including rice, will be used for making ethanol remains a subject of conjecture. For the time being therefore, the focus will remain on processing sugarcane, either directly from cane or from B heavy and C heavy molasses, to make ethanol. The push for committing a growing portion of sugarcane for making the renewable biofuel is now coming from New Delhi, which has under its umbrella three major oil marketing companies (OMCs), namely, Indian Oil, BPCL and HPCL.

The other day, Railways Minister Piyus Goyal, who also holds the commerce and food portfolios, didn’t mince words when he told the members of Indian Sugar Mills Association (ISMA) that the only way the industry could avoid periodic crisis situation was to go on producing more and more ethanol and also at the same time broaden its product portfolio based on sugar by-products such as molasses and bagasse.

ALSO READ: Govt Doublespeak On Renewable Energy

“Why should your target be to blend 10 per cent ethanol? Ethanol blending in the mixed fuel can go up to 20 per cent and further to 30 per cent. You will find in Brazil the share of ethanol in fuel being up to 80 per cent,” said Goyal. There is commitment from the government that to the extent sugar factories will be making ethanol, they will find buyers in OMCs at remunerative prices. Because of improvement in farm productivity on introduction of a number of high-yielding and early maturing strains of cane, sugar factories are producing sugar in a good crop year a lot more sweetener than is consumed in the country.

For instance, in the current sugar season, the country is heading for production of 31 million tonnes in the current 2020-21 season to which is added 10.7 million tonnes from the past year. While our requirement is around 26 million tonnes, attempts will be made to export 6 million tonnes. That again will leave the country to contend with large unsold stocks.  Such high production keeps the market price below production cost badly impacting factory capacity to clear bills of farmers in stipulated two weeks. Sugarcane happens to be the only crop which factories are required by law to buy to the last stick in their respective command areas.

Circumstances force the government from time to time to create a sizeable buffer stock picking up the bill for its maintenance. Surplus is the reason why the industry has to undertake exports for which again New Delhi has to provide subsidy. But countries such as Brazil, Guatemala and Thailand who all manage to make sugar at lower cost than India have complained that this country’s exports with subsidy are in breach of WTO rules.

In any case, subsidised sugar exports will be no go beyond 2023. That’s when ethanol production at growing levels will become absolutely necessary to protect the sugar industry and also to ensure that cane growers are not kept waiting unconscionably long for cane payments.

The country’s use of ethanol in blended fuel is around 5 per cent which the current capacity of approximately 3.5 billion litres can easily meet. But at 10 per cent blending, the capacity required will be around 4.5 billion litres. According to Vivek M Pittie, immediate past president of ISMA, the government has already fixed standards for 20 per cent ethanol blending assured as it is of availability of feedstock. Automobile makers will have to be taken on board for the transition in fuel composition, which call for some changes in engine. What will be urgently needed for the ambitious blending plan to materialise is for the banks to sanction loans for applications pending for creation of new ethanol making capacity.

Has SC Blurred Separation Of Powers?

The doctrine of the separation of powers requires that the three principal organs of State – that is the executive, the legislature and the judiciary – should be clearly divided in order to safeguard citizens’ liberties and to guard against governmental tyranny.

One of the earliest and clearest statements of the separation of powers was given by the infamous social commentator and political thinker Montesquieu at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1748:
‘When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty… there is no liberty if the powers of the judging is not separated from the legislative and executive… there would be an end to everything, if the same man or the same body… were to exercise those three powers.’

Therefore, according to the strict interpretation of the separation of powers, none of the three branches may exercise or interfere with the power of the other, nor should any person be a member of any two of the branches. For instance, only by creating three separate institutions is it possible to have a robust system of democratic checks and balances between them.

The Constitution of India does not expressly provide for the separation of powers. Unlike the Constitutions of the US and Australia. However, it still recognises and incorporates the doctrine of the separation of powers between the three principal organs of State. Therefore, whilst no formal or codified lines have been drawn between them, it is widely recognised and accepted that the doctrine of the separation of powers ‘runs through’ the Constitution of India.

Furthermore, there is often an overlap in the scope of the functions of the three branches. Primarily, owing to the parliamentary form of colonial Government in India. In other words, the dividing line between the executive and the legislature is naturally rather a fine one. Nevertheless, under India’s Constitution, the executive can legislate using:

The ordinance making powers of the President and the governors; and delegate executive legislation.

The legislature also exercises some form of control over the judiciary in that it can legislate on the Constitution itself, the jurisdiction and powers of the criminal and civil courts and it can also impeach judges when they are found to be acting or to have acted ultra vires (outside of their jurisdiction).

The judiciary has wide powers to review and strike down unconstitutional executive and legislative decisions and actions. However, the legislature can make such rulings ineffective by amending the law while staying within the constitutional limits. This concept is known as ‘legislative overruling’ and is a prime example of the inherent checks and balances under the Constitution which further strengthen the separation of powers in India.

Moreover and despite the fact that the three branches interconnect and have functional overlaps, the Indian judiciary has recognised the doctrine of the separation of powers as a fundamental feature of the Indian Constitution and an essential principle underpinning the rule of law.

During the course of a recent hearing relating to the Three Farm Laws, the Indian Supreme Court reportedly observed that it has the jurisdiction to stay the implementation of parliamentary legislation and did in fact go on to direct an interim order to that effect. In other words, a judicial order that prevents the executive or the legislature from implementing the Three Farm Laws into India’s domestic legislation.

However, this decision was taken despite the Supreme Courts own reasoning or judicial guidance laid down in the landmark case of Divisional Manager Aravali Golf Course v Chander Haas 2007. In which it was stated:
‘Before parting with this case we would like to make some observations about the limits of the powers of the judiciary. We are compelled to make these observations because we are repeatedly coming across cases where Judges are unjustifiably trying to perform executive or legislative functions. In our opinion this is clearly unconstitutional. In the name of judicial activism Judges cannot cross their limits and try to take over functions which belong to another organ of the State.

Therefore, the Supreme Court has specifically stated that judges must exercise judicial restraint and must not encroach on the jurisdictional capabilities or legislative actions of the legislature or the executive. In other words, the Supreme Court has previously declared that there is a broad separation of powers in India’s Constitution and that each primary organ of the State must remain within its limits and not intrude on the domain or jurisdiction of another.

Therefore, it follows that when the Indian Parliament enacted the Three Farm Laws in September 2020 Parliament was and remains the only organ of State who could repeal the laws or suspend their operation by enacting alternative legislative provisions. However and as previously mentioned, the Supreme Court can declare parliamentary legislation ultra vires if it finds it to be unconstitutional, but it has no jurisdiction to temporarily stay its enforcement without recording a judicial finding that it is on prima facie examination (at first glance) unconstitutional . Therefore, as no such finding has been made in the case in hand, this action cannot be said to amount to anything less than either a monumental demonstration of support on behalf of the judiciary for the plight of India’s small farmers, or a wholly unconstitutional and undemocratic judicial act which in turn should be immediately redressed.

Nevertheless, another fault line that could emerge from the Supreme Court’s intervention stems from the appointment of a four member committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge ‘for the purpose of listening to the grievances of the farmers and the views of the government and to make recommendations’. However, the Supreme Court has previously set up similar committees, delegating some of its powers to committee members to implement or oversee specific laws or an order of the court. For instance, in 2017 the Supreme Court directed the establishment of family welfare committees whose mandate would be to assess complaints of domestic violence before they were investigated by the police. However, this decision attracted widespread criticism and was eventually rolled back. Nevertheless, a committee working to alleviate the pressures and restraints on India’s police force is one thing but a committee recommending whether three pieces of primary legislation must be stayed or repealed is another thing entirely and caution must be paid to the unconstitutionality of it all.

ALSO READ: International Implications Of India’s Farm Laws

For instance, whilst the Supreme Court’s decision clearly reflects the legitimacy of the ongoing farmer protests – the Supreme Court would not have issued an interim order if it considered the farmers legal case against the Government to be wholly without merit. If appropriate caution is not exercised by the Supreme Court Judges this judicial decision could have far reaching negative implications for India’s future democratic governance and the rule of law. In other words, public confidence in the judiciary and in the Government is inevitably going to be affected as India’s population begins to lose faith in the sanctity of Parliaments legislative authority.

Perhaps the Supreme Courts objective was to break the ongoing deadlock between the farmers and the Government. For instance, do not forget that prior to the week commencing the 01 December 2020 PM Narendra Modi and his majority government had failed or refused to consult or to negotiate with the farmers and the farmer leaders – a decision which in itself amounts to a clear violation of Articles 2, 10, 11 and 15 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas 73/165 (UNDROP) (of which India is signatory) and various other primary instruments of international law. For more information on this point please see Sikh Human Rights Group working paper entitled Applicable International Treaties, Conventions and Regulations Re: India’s Agricultural Crisis.

Nevertheless, Sikh Human Rights Group respectfully submits that the Supreme Court judges must quickly come to the realisation that the judiciary cannot single headedly resolve the issues surrounding the Three Farm Law and must concurrently declare the Three Farm Laws unconstitutional whilst refraining from trespassing on the inherent jurisdiction of the legislature and the executive. 

For instance, according the Articles 253 and 254 of the Constitution, the power to ratify international Treaties and Conventions is vested with the Government (executive) and there is no need to place the Treaty or Convention before Parliament (legislature) even if the Treaty or Convention has monetary obligations. Therefore, international intergovernmental agreements to uphold the provisions of specific international Treaties and Conventions, such as the UNDROP, are actionable or the provisions are actionable in India’s domestic courts without express Parliamentary legislation to that effect.

Therefore, as Article 9(3) of the UNDROP provides that:
‘States shall take appropriate measures to encourage the establishment of organizations of peasants and other people working in rural areas, including unions, cooperatives or other organizations, particularly with a view to eliminating obstacles to their establishment, growth and pursuit of lawful activities, including any legislative or administrative discrimination against such organizations and their members, and provide them with support to strengthen their position when negotiating contractual arrangements in order to ensure that conditions and prices are fair and stable and do not violate their rights to dignity and to a decent life’.

In SHRG opinion this provision clearly provides the Supreme Court with legitimate grounds to declare the Three Farm Laws ‘unconstitutional’ as Article 21 of the Constitution specifically states that ‘no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty’.Which in turn has previously been held by the Supreme Court to encompass a constitutional right to earn a livelihood or a decent standard of living. For example, in the case of Olga Tellis v Bombay Municipal Corporation (1986) it was stated by the presiding Supreme Court judges that:
‘The question which we have to consider is whether the [constitutional] right to life includes the right to livelihood. We see only one answer to that question, namely, that it does. The sweep of the right to life conferred by Article 21 [of the Constitution] is wide and far-reaching. It does not mean, merely that life cannot be extinguished or taken away as, for example, by the imposition and execution of the death sentence… That is but one aspect of the right to life an equally important facet of that right is the right to livelihood because, no person can live without the means of living, that is, the means of livelihood’.

(The writer is a Master of Laws in international human rights and Human Rights Officer with the Sikh Human Rights Group. Views expressed are personal)

Hindutva Propaganda Machinery At Work

As young journalists we learnt our basic lesson that when a dog bites a man it is not news, when a man bites a dog, it is. We also learnt that if a lie is told a thousand times, repeatedly and incessantly, as practiced by the Guderian Nazi propaganda machinery, it might indeed become an absolute truth. A lie becomes a truth. An organized web of lies, hence, turns into a grand bouquet of established legitimacy.

In contemporary India, this could truly be called the phenomena of post-truth of the new normal, though it might look like a theatre of the absurd at times. Or how fake news, pure propaganda, camouflaged as breaking news, or news repeated many times as partisan opinion, in a shrill, one-dimensional repeat-narrative on TV, sometimes with doctored videos, becomes the chronicle of a media prophecy foretold. Witness the demonization of JNU, its inherited intellectual, academic and progressive tradition, and the character assassination of its scholars and student leaders. (Ironically, this does not stop the huge rush of new students to the beautiful campus every new admission year.)

There is no dark irony here. This is exactly like in the Nazi times. That is the original template. It’s just that this entire mainline and fringe media apparatus, often operating as rabble-rousers, actually operate 24×7 to legitimize and reinforce the current power structure, its policies and programmes, its corporate lobbies and vested interests.

In the process, it reinforces the politics of a polarizing ideology and entrenched xenophobia, sectarian, anti-secular and hate rhetoric, and the hounding of dissenters, intellectuals, scholars, writers and journalists. So much so, the police version is most often the most sacrosanct and absolute version and status quo journalism is the only form they know and practice.

ALSO READ: JNU Will Not Crawl, Nor Bend

Witness the demonization and hounding of the Tablighis, finally proved null and void by a court. So much so, it was viciously circulated that Muslims actually spread Corona in India. Thus, a large mass of people in India can be quickly condemned as anti-nationals, urban Naxals, Maoists, Pakistani agents, and tukde-tukde gang, often even before the Indian State led by the BJP, has just about given an ambiguous signal.

This is the role the Rightwing and assorted media plays in India these days. Thereby, it unabashedly backs the State apparatus, benefits from the economic and profit linkages, is backed by the corporates who are backing the BJP openly, and thereby legitimizes the dominant discourse of the ruling regime.

This was the standard tactic used against the mothers and sisters of Shaheen Bagh not only in Jamia but all over the country before and during the nation-wide anti-NRC-CAA protests. It became integral to the repeated branding of a huge mass of unidentified people as “termites” in Northeast India and in Bengal, once again, with no evidence or documentation. Like the Jews in Europe reduced to third class citizens with no rights by the Nazis, one community was yet again targeted in India.

However, once the final data came out of the official NRC survey, it was found that lakhs of Hindus were missing too, and other indigenous communities, from the final register of Indian citizens. That put the termite theory to rest for the time being, though, let us not forget that Jews too were branded as pests, cockroaches, termites, dirty, diabolical, anti-Christ, so that the denial of citizenship, or the Holocaust, was accepted by the ‘pure races’ for ‘national purification’. This was also the American propaganda during the Vietnam War against the ‘unwashed masses and peasants’ who were fighting a protracted and victorious guerilla war against the most powerful militarized nation in the world.

In India, it all seems to be following a predictable pattern. The Rightwing media and other media propaganda outfits working openly or tacitly for the cult glorification of Narendra Modi as a messiah, prophet and demi-god, propagates the ideology of hard Hindutva (which is different from Hinduism), and thereby debunks or demonizes individuals and ideologies which are in opposition, which stand for the values of the Indian freedom struggle, or, the pluralist, secular Indian Constitution.

The Shahen Bagh movement wanted the reassertion of the Indian Constitution. Its symbols enshrined on their public platforms were icons of the freedom movement and secular India: Ambedkar, Gandhi, Maulana Azad, Sardar Patel, Subhash Chandra Bose, Khan Abdul Gaffer Khan, Sarojini Naidu, Bhagat Singh, Ashfaqullah Khan, Chandrashekhar Azad, Rabindranath Tagore, among others. However, they were constantly reduced to hate objects, implying that they are pro-Pakistan, jihadis, anti-nationals, and ‘gaddaars’, as a Union minister openly declared, asking them to be shot. This did not, however, help the BJP to win the Delhi state polls.

ALSO READ: When The Farmer Fights Back

This is the pattern they have again chosen, and abysmally failed, in handling the farmers’ protests. The sheer resilience of the farmers’ movement right now in lakhs from across several states in north and western India (and not only from Punjab and Haryana) on the various borders of Delhi, preparing for a Republic Day showdown, has debunked the BJP propaganda machinery. Even while one Union minister joined in the branding of farmers as Khalistanis, Maoists, Leftists and Urban (Turban!) Naxals, it just did not work.

The theory that the Sangh Parivar operates in multiple synthesis in a smooth orchestra like a hydra-headed octopus of a joint family, is true. Though, it sometimes gets jarring.

At one time, it was the symphony between the moderate and hard line of Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani. Journalists would then claim that the Hindutva fringe is different from mainstream, political BJP — so let’s not blur the lines. However, clearly, this theory has all but collapsed in the current one-dimensional scenario with Modi as the one and only supremo commanding over the entire Hindutva machinery, and the power structure of the partisan State apparatus, with Amit Shah as his trouble-shooter, and the RSS as his ally.

So much so, the line between the fringe and mainstream in the party and Sangh Parivar has totally merged. This has been witnessed by the rise of an extreme hardliner like Yogi Adityanath, who is now being followed as a role model by ‘moderates’ like Shivraj Singh Chauhan in Madhya Pradesh.

This paradigm shift in power has been lucidly translated between the fringe and mainstream media backing Modi like an eternal and only monarch of all that he surveys. One of these portals actually calls itself liberal and right of center. Others post stories which are like regular stories in a mainline English daily. However, it is the content, or the opinion between the lines, which is often insidious and tells us who is actually biting — the man or the dog!

For instance, one of them dug out other critical tweets of the former Group Captain of the Indian Air Force flying Go Air lines, who has been suspended for calling an anonymous PM ‘an idiot’. The portal is tacitly saying, look, this man has a bad record, etc!

In a spoofy irony, these pro-BJP portals are now going full blast against what they call the ‘Big Tech’ conspiracy, especially in America. They claim that these global, big money conglomerates are basically Left flunkeys. Why – because Donald Trump has been banned by Twitter and Facebook! This is censorship, not acceptable!

Their lament is heartbreaking. Suddenly, it seems that the Hindutva media has now opened yet another front against Big Tech American Capitalism, even while Modi has been called as the best buddy of two big Gujarati capitalists in India by the protesting farmers. Trump, surely, has his Proud Boys, even in India.

Is End Of Qatar Blockade End Of Saudi Era?

On January 5, during a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain announced that they were ending the air, land and sea boycott of the state of Qatar. The summit issued a solidarity statement in which all sides vowed not to interfere in each other’s affairs while retaining the freedom to follow their own foreign policy.

This was presented to the world as some sort of victory for the GCC, which had been practically paralysed because of the rift, and for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), but in reality, it was a big victory for the tiny state of Qatar and one more failure of the misguided policies of MBS.

It should be mentioned that the declaration of conflict with Qatar in June 2017 was one of the first actions of Mohammed Bin Salman, who became the Saudi Crown Prince in the same month. The three countries together with Egypt accused Qatar of supporting Islamist groups in the region and of having close ties with Iran.

Moreover, they presented a list of 13 demands for the lifting of sanctions, which included limiting relations with Iran, ending support for the Muslim Brotherhood and closing down Al Jazeera, which exposed the corruption prevailing in Arab states. Qatar flatly refused to comply with these demands.

Throughout this period, the tiny but oil-rich Qatar stood its ground and managed to overcome the difficulties it was facing, used the Iranian airspace for the flights of its airline and forged closer relations with Turkey and Iran, with which it shares a giant gas field. It also built factories to manufacture consumer goods and increased its national investment fund with more than USD 320 billion.

It is reported that the only concession Qatar made for the lifting of sanctions was to withdraw claims for USD 5 billion in compensation for damages caused due to the boycott. For its part, Saudi Arabia withdrew its demand to close Al Jazeera.

In the past decades Saudi Arabia, as home to Islam’s holiest sites and as a country having the second-largest oil reserves in the world, had a lot of religious and economic power among the Arab and the Islamic countries. In 1978 in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the following year, the Saudi regime became a most valuable ally of the United States.

The end of this state of affairs started with the death of King Abdullah and the leadership of King Salman and his son Mohammed, who became Defence Minister and afterwards Crown Prince. Soon MBS embarked on an anti-corruption campaign and arrested dozens of rich Saudis, including princes and government officials, forcing them to pay billions of dollars into government coffers. He tried to turn Qatar into a vassal state and make the Gulf Cooperation Council impose sanctions on Qatar. Only UAE, Bahrain and Egypt- which is not a GCC state- followed him and boycotted Qatar.

Mohammed bin Salmanguided the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen against the Houthi rebels, who in 2015 had seized Sana’a and ousted the Saudi-backed Hadi government. Saudi airstrikes during the intervention have resulted in thousands of civilians killed or injured, prompting accusations of war crimes in the intervention. Despite hundreds of billions of Saudi arms purchases, the five-year war continues with no one emerging victorious, while one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world has been created there. Meanwhile, Yemeni Youthis are escalating their missile attacks on Saudi Arabia.

In October 2018, a Saudi journalist and a critic of the crown prince named Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials say Khashoggi was first tortured and then murdered by a 15-man Saudi team. Prince Mohammed has denied any involvement in the murder and blamed the assassination on rogue operators. However, Western countries are not convinced and believe this couldn’t have happened without the knowledge or approval of the prince. US President Donald Trump described the Saudi response to the killing as “one of the worst in the history of cover-ups.

Although MBS appeared prepared to take some liberalisation measures, e.g. significantly restricting the powers of the religious police, allowing Saudi women to open their own business without a male’s permission, opening the first public cinema in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia and lifting the ban on women driving, he has consistently suppressed human rights activists, some of whom were murdered by death squads.

As Marwan Bishara, a senior political analyst at Al Jazeera points out: “The initial optimism and excitement about greater social mobility and empowerment of women soon gave way to pessimism and despair, as Saudi economic reform and multibillion-dollar megaprojects stalled, while youth unemployment remains at a high 29 per cent. The Saudi kingdom is in disarray, its regime utterly disoriented and disrespected throughout the region and beyond.”

Omer Ozkizilcik, an analyst for the SETA Foundation, says: “A withdrawing Saudi Arabia, an increasingly influential UAE that focused on Turkey and Qatar, and the continuing Russian-Iranian cooperation made Saudi Arabia the primary loser of the geopolitical chess game in the Middle East. From Syria to Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s role was relegated to a footnote.”

(The views expressed in this column are strictly those of the author – ANI)

Will Covid Crisis Create A Better World?

It is sad that when India is poised to fight back Covid-19 pandemic with the help of a vaccine it has produced in collaboration with the British, it will not be hosting Prime Minister Boris Johnson for this year’s Republic Day celebrations.

The visit was not intended by either nation as a ceremonial, goodwill-good talk event. The media in both countries had painted a bright collaborative picture despite the pandemic and the economic woes that it has accelerated and despite criticism of their respective leaderships in their respective homes and elsewhere.

To the British media, Sean O’Grady of The Independent for one, India was (and remains) an ideal British destination as an economic powerhouse that could help Britain post-Brexit to reach out globally. This has also been the trend in much of the Indian thinking, although Brexit itself is considered a disastrous move.

Much cooperation was in store, on several fronts, and this should continue, visit or no visit.

Going beyond bilateral issues, and the limited impact they would have in both South Asia and in Europe, it is worth stressing on the oodles of hope that the New Year has brought, but without enough effort to apply the correctives that made last year disastrous worldwide.

The New Year has ushered in or reinforced some supreme ironies that are not likely to go away. One of the biggest, if not the biggest, is that of the United States, the most powerful nation with the best of doctors, medicines, hospitals with the support of science and technology –and money to buy anything from anywhere – having the highest number of Corona-casualties.

And Johnson, who could have acknowledged the role of the British-found vaccine in India, had to cancel his visit because of the grim turn Corona has taken at home. The Doctor has failed to heal himself.

Many leaders across the world feel that Donald Trump might have won the US presidential polls but for the Covid-19 devastation. But is the man who threatens to “fight like hell” till his last day in office at all sorry or repentant for his deliberate and conscious neglect, and repeated misdirections in fighting the pandemic? Are other leaders across the world, too, who find scapegoats to justify their omissions and commissions on the Corona front ready to mend their ways?

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Trump will go, but Trump-ism survives. The storming of the Capitol by his supporters on his exhortations was an unprecedented, almost unthinkable, challenge to American democracy. It exposed the depths of the divisions that have coursed through the US during Trumps four years in office. This is how democracy dies.

The incident rang alarm bells worldwide for other leaders. It is gratifying that Johnson and India’s Narendra Modi joined other serving and retired heads of government in condemning the storming of the Capitol, pleading that democratic processes be allowed violence-free.

Having talked of the leaders of the ‘greatest’ and the ‘oldest’ democracies with regard to the pandemic, some observations on the performance of the ‘largest’ are essential because India is also the world’s third-highest for Corona deaths. The shock lockdown ordered on March 24 last year gave barely three hours to prepare to 1.3 billion people. Over 40 million migrant labour were displaced and walked hundreds of miles to seek work or deprived of it, to their impoverished homes.

A bulk of them were from Bihar. After a subsequent election victory in the state, Modi cited them as “endorsement of our policy” to fight Corona. Other chief ministers have also hastened to take credit, while glossing over the failures and miseries they have caused. 

A year hence, the government is to begin a study to examine the impact of this world’s largest mass movement caused by job-loss. If not avoidable, it could have at least been managed better.

India was in an economic mess long before Corona exacerbated it. But the blame continues to be placed at the door of the past government that went out of office over six years ago.

The story is similar to Brazil’s Jared Bolsonaro, the Indian Republic Day’s Chief Guest last year, and quite a few others who have used their electoral mandates to ride the rough shod on political critics and non-government bodies among others, and suppressing popular protests. Sadly, sections of bureaucracy, judiciary and media have played the ball with the politicians in power.

It may sound anti-democratic, but give them large majorities in legislatures, and they run berserk. Does the problem lie with leaders and their parties winning popular mandates with massive majority in legislatures? What tempts them to impose personal/ political agenda with potential to divide people?

The largest functioning democracy, India currently has examples of a chief minister building a 900 million palace (Telangana), another razing an entire city and battling courts that question his decisions (Andhra Pradesh) and at least three chief ministers issuing ordinances that penalize marriages among consenting adults, if they are by a Muslim man and a Hindu woman.

They take their cue from New Delhi that has enacted three federal laws on farming, virtually snatching away a subject that is with the states as per the Constitution. How can there be a single federal law in a country of India’s size with its differing weather conditions, water resources, crop patterns and marketing systems?

ALSO READ: ‘World Is Taking Note Of Farmers Protest’

With millions affected, over a hundred thousand farmers have blocked entries to the national capital for the past several weeks. Three scores have died in freezing cold. Talks are dragging on. Notably, the farmer is the only one to produce record quantities of food when India’s industrial output, the service sector and the commercial activity suffered thanks to Covid-19.

In saying all these things, one cannot be ignoring the strong support base such leaders and their governments enjoy. One is the middle class and the other, the corporate sector – both suckers for a ‘strong’ leadership and the political stability that supposedly comes with a popular mandate. All other things do not seem to matter. Modi, at least, continues to enjoy this support, and his party continues to win elections in one state after the other.

India’s middle class embraced the lockdown dutifully and enthusiastically, lighting lamps and clanging food plates. The fleeing migrant worker was a good riddance till his absence was felt. But to its credit, the middle class also organised relief. The lead was taken, not so much by governments overwhelmed by the crisis, but by the NGOs and charities.

Vaccines, both British-found and Indian, may – and must – raise hopes, although Corona is still not going to go away soon. The larger question is: Will this create a semblance of churning, among the leaders and those who place their faith in them by voting them to power, to work for a better world and may be, leave a few good examples for the future generations to emulate?

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

International Implications of India’s Farm Laws

This is a death warrant for small and marginalised farmers. This is aimed at destroying them by handing over agriculture and market to the big corporates. They want to snatch away our land. But we will not let them do this.
– Sukhdev Singh Kokri, a farmer

The Indian Farms Reforms of 2020 that refer to the Agricultural Bills passed September 2020 will have major long term international implications. The three new laws aim to deregulate Indian agriculture, by encouraging farmers to sell directly to companies. The current Indian Government which is keen to increase FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) is encouraging the corporate sector through these laws to enter the farming sector that will drive small farmers out of their ancestral occupation. The laws are worded in favour of big money and corporate farming. The Indian government has a slogan of ‘Make in India’.

These laws are likely to be an experiment in India and result in multinational corporations seeking similar legal frameworks and policies in other countries, pushing most small farmers out of small family holdings, which currently make 80% of farming in the world.

In the Indian farming sector, the government has long been a middleman, guaranteeing minimum prices or MSPs for some 22 main crops. The Government also provides accessible small markets called ‘mandis’. The new laws say farmers will still have price assurances, but the language is vague and open to interpretation. The farmers are nervous about losing government support. The laws favour the corporate sector, denying farmers right of access to independent courts in case of contractual disputes. The local markets are being forced out of the sector through free market forces. There was no consultation with farmers prior to them being introduced.

The reforms taken together will loosen rules around sale, pricing and storage of farm produce – rules that have protected India’s farmers from the free market for decades. They also allow private buyers to hoard essential commodities for future sales, which only government-authorised agents could do earlier; and they outline rules for contract farming, where farmers tailor their production to suit a specific buyer’s demand. The protests have been the strongest in Punjab and neighbouring Haryana state, where the mandi system is strong and the productivity is high – so only the government has been able to buy that volume of produce at a set price.

Due to the lack of global media coverage and weak response from international leaders, the Indian farmer’s protests against the new reforms are not receiving the coverage they warrant, and the rest of the world is oblivious to the wider implications these reforms carry. The impacts of the reforms stretch further than the Indian farmers, who will face mass poverty due to joblessness and not receiving the financial security the Indian government currently provides through MSP. These impacts will be felt globally, through the economic devastation it will have on millions of Indians, the irreversible environmental damage that comes with large-scale farming, and the unmatched competitions these companies in India will bring to small farmers all over the globe, inevitably putting them out of business.

When one country’s citizens are anguishing in a pandemic of poverty, no other country should benefit from their suffering, but rather should provide financial aid to help them survive. While the Indian farmers soon to be at the mercy of the large-scale industrial farming will suffer as they will earn less or worse, nothing at all, others will also be impacted. India has the largest population of illiterate adults in the world, totalling an estimate of 287million in 2015 which unavoidably makes it harder for them to get work in other vocations. These new reforms are helping the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer, this is the point where the rest of the world must stand up and put a stop to it.

The environmental impact of large-scale farming is no new news, the devastation has been witnessed by all in the Amazon and been felt worldwide. The major difference between small farming and large-scale farming is the increase in use of pesticides, fertilizers and other toxic farm chemicals. These can poison fresh water, marine ecosystems, air and soil, remaining in the environment for generations. Many pesticides are suspected of disrupting the hormonal systems of people and wildlife, while fertilizer excess pollutes waterways and coral reefs.

The planet is already at breaking-point and as citizens of the world we need to start putting the planet before profit, hence fore, saying no to large-scale industrial farming despite the income it will bring to a government, and saying yes to supporting small farming. 

Large scale industrial farming in India will create more competitions for the small farmers around the world and the big companies will be able to offer cheaper prices and lager volumes that small farms cannot compete with.

ALSO READ: When The Farmer Fights Back

Across Europe small farms are disappearing as they struggle to compete with large multinational agro-businesses. They are under pressure from land grabbing, and they face serious challenges to secure public support, as they are often considered unviable and outdated. This will only get worse when India is taken over by large-scale farming producing more food at a cheaper price. Small farms in Europe and other areas of the globe, will not be able to compete and eventually will have to sell their land to survive.

You might be asking yourself why small farming is so much better for the world, both environmentally and sociologically. While the reasons are endless, the primary five would be: it promotes communities; creates jobs; improves health of the land; improves health of the people and; provides a foundation for a more resilient food system.

The worry is that India is an experiment and that the corporate farming businesses around the world are looking at how it will play out. If the Indian government succeeds in deregulating farming in India and letting corporate sector to drive out small farmers in large numbers, other countries will follow suit. What is happening in India today, will happen around the world tomorrow. It is a threat to around half a billion small farmers globally. It will affect some of the world’s poorest people and destroy the planet.  Please take action now and support petitions in support of small farmers.

Are India’s Probing Agencies Becoming Political Puppets?

Last month the Jammu & Kashmir People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president and former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti said the Centre was “weaponising” central investigating agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), National Investigation Agency (NIA), and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) by using them to probe and harass her, her friends and family, and her party leaders. She scathingly remarked that the ruling regime, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was using these agencies as its “mistresses” to target her and her party.

Jammu and Kashmir is now administered as a Union Territory under the terms of Article 239A (which was initially applied to Puducherry is now also applicable to the Union Territory as per The Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019) of the Constitution of India. Before that Act was passed, J&K was administered by a coalition government that was formed by an alliance of the PDP and the BJP. That alliance was ill-fated and in June 2018, it broke down, leading J&K back to Governor’s Rule.

Ms Mufti’s remarks alleging that the Centre is using the government’s investigation agencies to target the ruling regime’s political opponents is not an isolated one. This is not the first time that CBI, NIA, ED, and other central investigative agencies have been accused of being used politically by ruling regimes in India. The CBI is India’s premier investigating agency and functions as a national investigating and security organisation as well as an intelligence agency; the NIA acts as the Central Counter Terrorism Law Enforcement Agency; and the ED is a law enforcement agency and economic intelligence agency that is responsible for enforcing economic laws and fighting economic crime in India.

Targeting political rivals or opposition leaders by using the services of such agencies is not new in India. Successive ruling regimes have been observed to have done it. However, the rising concerns are about the alleged spread of the practice since 2014 when the incumbent BJP-led coalition came to power at the Centre and, subsequently, was re-elected in 2019. The BJP’s clearly-stated objective is not only to make India emerge as a country “freed of the Congress” (Congress mukt Bharat, in Hindi) but also to wrest control in as many of the Indian states as it can. So, its political rivals include, not only a national party such as the Congress, but also several regional parties that hold sway in the states.

ALSO READ: Press Freedom Is A Myth In India

The first of the apparently politically-motivated actions by investigating agencies during the BJP-ruled regime began early. Soon after the BJP-led coalition came to power in 2014, investigative agencies swung into action. There were raids at the Delhi chief minister (and vocal opponent of the BJP) Arvind Kejriwal’s office; and old cases against Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party leader Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samaj Party president Mayawati were revived. In 2019, just before the general elections, the CBI raided the Kolkata police commissioner’s office without a warrant in what was an action quite clearly directed at undermining the Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee who is the chief minister of West Bengal and also a huge critic of the ruling regime at the Centre.

The list of such political targeting by investigative agencies is long. In 2019, former Haryana chief minister, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, faced raids in connection to old cases of alleged corruption in land deals; Congress MP and political secretary to Sonia Gandhi, Ahmed Patel (who passed away in 2020) was linked to a money-laundering scheme in Gujarat; and the homes of leaders close to the Biju Janata Dal leader and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik were raided before panchayat elections in that state. These are only a few examples of what Indian political parties, particularly those who oppose the BJP, call “political vendetta” against them. Last month, when the ED summoned a Shiv Sena leader’s wife in Mumbai for questioning in connection with a bank fraud, the party’s workers put up a banner in front of the city’s ED office, which proclaimed that it was a BJP office.

ALSO READ: Is Maharashtra A Wake Up Call For BJP?

It should not be anybody’s case the charges that are levelled by the investigating agencies against opposition politicians are rigged or false. Some (or perhaps, even all) of them may have some basis for investigation. But it is the concerted manner in which the agencies are used that is of concern because it smacks of government interference in the role of the agencies that are supposed to be autonomous and apolitical.

One of the most high-profile cases was the one involving former finance minister P Chidambaram in 2019. He was accused of being involved in the INX Media scandal. Chidambaram was charged with allowing an irregular transfer of overseas funds to the media company. Chidambaram was arrested and the CBI tried to extend his custody many times. But that case has now gone nowhere.

That is the other thing. Many of the cases on which investigative agencies have based their actions against opposition political leaders have either died down, reached a dead-end, or not been pursued after the initial raids, arrests, and so on. While that could reinforce the opposition parties’ allegations that the ruling regime is using the agencies for political vendetta, the more serious issue is about what such a practice could do to the reputation and autonomy of India’s central investigating agencies, which are, by law, meant to be non-partisan, apolitical, unbiased, and independent. If these institutions and their functioning are prone to political interference, not only will their functioning be eroded but Indians will lose their faith in the establishment and its ability to function without fear and favour.

Covid-19 And Asian Economies In 2021

We just left 2020, a year many wished was a bad dream. With a once-in-a-century health crisis sweeping across the world, it was one of the worst years in recent memories in more ways than one. The crisis tested each economy’s resilience of the countries and forced political and business leaders to lead from the front.

Governments introduced an unprecedented raft of fiscal measures to help avert further economic damage and implemented various support measures to reduce suffering by its populations. Business trends were accelerated, especially those that facilitated safe distancing, and this necessitated agility and creativity from businesses. It made champions of those that succeeded and unfortunately resulted in the collapse of those that were unable to adapt.

Vaccines for the Covid-19 pandemic were rushed out in record time but their long-term efficacy is unknown as their urgent need limited the ability to conduct lengthier trials and tests. Experts caution that even if the vaccines prove effective, it will take a while, perhaps until the end of 2021, before the virus comes under control globally. It will just be one tool in the effort to fight the pandemic. Cases in each country across the world needs to be very much lower before life can go back to something resembling normalcy.

To a certain degree, how each country’s economy performed in 2020 and is expected to do in 2021 is a reflection of how they handled the pandemic. Without effective control of the virus, normal business activities cannot resume. Consumers will not feel safe to visit shops and restaurants as they had done in the past. Some businesses will also have to continue to accommodate health precautions as they operate, hindering productivity.

It is, therefore, no surprise that Vietnam, which was able to control the virus at a relatively low human and economic cost, appears to be the shining economy among Southeast Asian countries. Based on World Bank data, its GDP is expected to grow 2.8 per cent in 2020 and projected expand another 6.8 per cent in 2021 for a net growth of over 9.6 per cent in the period from 2020 to 2021.

In contrast, all other major economies in Southeast Asia are expected to post negative GDP growth in 2020.

Based on World Bank data published in October, India’s economy is expected to contract 9.6 per cent in the 2020-21 fiscal year which starts in March 2020. As such, the full economic impact caused by COVID-19 is reflected in the numbers and hence not a fair direct comparison with the economies of Southeast Asia. It is expected to recover to post a growth of 5.4 per cent in FY 2021-22.

However, due to positive news on the COVID-19 containment front and the possible resultant easing of movement restrictions, Moody’s Investors Service in November raised its forecast for India’s growth to negative 8.9 per cent for the calendar year 2020 from negative 9.6 per cent. The rating agency forecasts a growth of 8.6 per cent in 2021.

The tourism-dependent economy of Thailand appears to be most impacted by COVID-19 economically. The Thai government estimated in 2019 that tourism accounts for 20 per cent of its GDP and is a major creator of jobs. This together with high private-sector debt and political uncertainty has resulted in a slower recovery than most other countries.

The World Bank projects that Thailand will have a net GDP growth of negative 3.4 per cent for 2020 and 2021. It is not likely to be able to restore its economic activity to 2019 levels till 2022. Singapore is in a similar situation with its economy expected to contract 6 per cent in 2020 and expand 4 per cent in 2021.

Singapore is the only one with what is considered a mature and developed economy among those countries mentioned in this article. It was already growing at a slower rate plus its economy is very much reliant on external trade with local economic activity unable to sustain its usual growth trajectory.

Pakistan’s GDP is estimated to have declined 1.5 per cent in the fiscal year ending June 2020 and forecasted to grow 0.5 per cent in 2020-21 for net GDP loss of one per cent although this has many dependencies. In normal times, Pakistan enjoys of long-term economic expansion of four per cent.

The other Southeast Asian nation which will emerge from 2020 economically battered and not able to recover till 2022 is the Philippines. Based on World Bank’s forecast published in October, its economy will shrink by 6.9 per cent in 2020, grow 5.3 per cent in 2021 for a net loss of 1.6 per cent. In November, World Bank revised this estimate downwards to negative 8.1 per cent in 2020 and 5.9 per cent growth in 2021 for a net negative figure of 2.2 per cent. They attributed this to “multiple shocks” that has buffeted the country from the Covid-19 health crisis, typhoons, and the global recession.

It is commonly believed that the stock market is a window into the future. Therefore, it is not a surprise that for 2020, the best performing market in Southeast Asia is Vietnam whose economy is also expected to expand the fastest. This is based on the Vietnam Ho Chi Minh Stock Index which tracks the performance of over 300 equities listed on the Ho Chi Min and Hanoi Stock Exchange in Vietnam.

The index ended the year about 14.3 per cent higher than when it started. Most of the other major Southeast Asian indices closed the year down except Malaysia’s KLCI which was up about one per cent. Singapore’s Straits Times Index was the worst performing closing the year down almost 12.2 per cent.

The Indian financial market was surprising resilient with the SENSEX posting a gain of over 15 per cent in 2020 which is even higher than Vietnam’s. With events of 2021 still up in the air, and with India’s economic activity as well as the course and duration of the pandemic hard to predict, could the market be betting that the economy will outperform economists’ expectations in 2021? (ANI)

My Years In Parliament House

I have never been a lawmaker, but am seized by nostalgia now that India’s Parliament Complex is set to go, replaced by another. A parliamentary correspondent for long, I am aware I am not breaching any rules, traditions or Privileges that govern the temple of the world’s largest democracy. I only exercise my right as a citizen, and a voter.

One assumed that members and ministers, parties and governments, come and go, but parliament’s surroundings and its ethos that have evolved over decades will continue forever. But that is not to be.

Designed by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, begun a century back and completed in 1927, it is set for retro-fitting, whatever it eventually means, to accommodate offices and other facilities, allowing more functional space.

There seems little consulting and debate on why it is necessary to demolish what is existing. It is expected to come up, rather hastily, by 2022, to mark 75 years of Independence.

Something is absent. Bhoomi Pujan or ground-breaking was performed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Neither the President who constitutes the Parliament nor the Vice President who is Chairman of the Rajya Sabha were part of the ceremony.

Times are a-changing in India. The plea that the existing structure is very Indian has fallen on deaf ears. It is based on Chausath Yogini Temple in Morena, Madhya Pradesh that Lutyens visited in early 1900s.

But old is gold in some other democracies. The United States Congress premises like the Senate Hall, are over 250 years old. The British Parliament building, over 400 years old, is under repairs and will reopened after five years. These structures were never replaced; only refurbished. 

There are other, equally modern, ways to accommodate more members and offices. An expansion rather than a hugely expensive (Rs 971 crore or $131 million) demolish-and-rebuild course would have sufficed.

ALSO READ: Foundation Laid For New Parliament

The new complex will be bigger, and more modern, we are told. Compared to the present 545-odd, it will have 888 seats in the Lok Sabha, with an option to increase it to 1,224. When is delimitation due? Granting that India’s is the biggest, which other democracy has such large number of lawmakers?

As plans unfold and get concrete shape, literally, the present round structure supported on imposing Gothic pillars will probably go. Incidentally, their number used to be a ‘difficult’ general knowledge (GK) quiz for students and those appearing for competitive examinations. Why, just walking past them has helped lawmakers and officials in frail health keep fit!

A model of new Parliament building

One is not sure if the new 21st century structure will keep the numerous statues and portraits that abound, from Chandragupta Maurya (321-296 BC) to the sages, saints and social reformers down the ages, to contemporary freedom fighters and pioneer parliamentarians. One can only hope they will be stored away safely, and restored with respect due to them.

For the uninitiated, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, the two Houses are where the real action occurs. Issues are debated and legislations are discussed and passed. Before what media report as ‘pandemonium’ became a rule more than exception, attending it was educating. Opposition extracted information during Question Hour despite ministers’ efforts to hold it back.

I am lucky to have reported some of the most memorable speeches. Like Bikaner Maharajah Karni Singh opposing, and Jammu and Kashmir Maharajah Karan Singh supporting the abolition of the privy purses of erstwhile princely states. N K P Salve attacking incumbent premier Morarji Desai for alleged favours to latter’s son. George Fernandes defending the Desai Government, only to switch sides within hours.

Representing a thoroughly depleted opposition, Madhu Dandavate paid a moving tribute to an assassinated Indira Gandhi, mourning that while country had a new premier, Rajiv will never get another mother.

There was no glory, but certainly grace, in defeat the way V P Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee went down after defending their doomed governments.

There were orators like Hiren Mukherjee and Nath Pai who excelled in English and Vajpayee, in Hindi. Sadly, the era of oratory and orators who spoke without malice is long over.

Equally sadly, Parliament’s new plan does not provide for the Central Hall. It is tantamount to kicking off the ladder on which parliamentary democracy has climbed. There seems no place for such sentiments, anyway.

ALSO READ: Modi Govt’s Contempt For Parliament

Jawaharlal Nehru made his “Tryst With Destiny” speech here at the midnight hour heralding the birth of independent India. The Constitution was debated here. After each Lok Sabha election, Leaders of winning party or parties in alliance were elected here.

If exceptions are to be remembered, Acharya Kripalani and Jayaprakash Narayan chose Morarji over others in1977. Initially chosen, Devi Lal, to everyone’s surprise, put his turban on V P Singh’s head in 1989. And in 2004, Sonia Gandhi received applause and rosebuds, but eventually listened to her “inner voice” and passed on the premiership to Manmohan Singh.

Central Hall was where foreign dignitaries, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama among them, addressed Indian parliamentarians. There is no other place where the President of the Republic opens the Budget session each February.

Central Hall has been the veritable gallery of greats of Indian democracy. Where and how 25 portraits from Mahatma Gandhi to Tagore and Netaji Bose to six of the former prime ministers and many opposition stalwarts will find their places? Will the 21st century Parliament leave behind those hallowed traditions of the twentieth? Is the ‘restoration’ going to be selective, as those opposing the new complex fear, with ample justification?

Beyond these ‘formalities’, Central Hall displaced parliament’s “human face”. Sad, again, that this must be talked in the past tense. Ministers and Members would meet here informally and sort out many things that they would be otherwise rigid about; where delicate issues and even stalled business were resolved.

Dubbed India’s most privileged coffee house – also the cheapest – Central Hall was where the media was allowed to join the lawmakers’ adda, to talk informally, gain perspectives, and gather political gossip.

There was mutual respect, even bonhomie. One could see Mamata Banerjee standing respectfully before Somnath Chatterjee who she had defeated in an earlier election. You could discuss with Sharad Pawar a no-no issue like farmers’ suicide in Maharashtra, or cinema with Sushma Swaraj or cricket with Arun Jaitley – even watch an ongoing cricket match on the two TV sets installed, over coffee and toast-butter.

What transpired there could be reported, but without attributing it to the place, unless one wanted to flaunt access to the high and mighty – and boast, as some scribes do, “Oh, I told so-and-so…”

Perhaps, it is just as well that Central Hall will be a thing of the past. Old world charm and some grace are bound to go with it. Like my witnessing opposition stalwart Chandra Shekhar fondly asking Chaudhary Randhir Singh, his erstwhile Congress colleague, “Aap ko Governor banva dein?” Three days later came the announcement: Chaudhary was Governor of Sikkim.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Pakistan And Killing Of Karima Baloch

The international outrage at the suspicious death of Baloch activist Karima Baloch in Toronto, Canada on December 20, 2020, is growing. Protests have been held all over Balochistan, in Canada, the US and even in Bangladesh. Her death refocused light on the death of another Baloch activist and journalist Sajid Hussain in Sweden in May 2020.

Notably, both were Baloch, both had sought refuge in the west after having escaped persecution and threats in Balochistan from the ubiquitous Pak security agencies, both continued to expose the gross violations of human rights in Balochistan and both died due to drowning. The similarities can hardly be called coincidences.

In Sajid Hussain’s case, the police did not find conclusive evidence of foul play and in KarimaBaloch’s case, the initial finding is about the same, though a final report has not been made public at the time of writing. The Baloch Diaspora and many others are convinced that the deaths of Karima Baloch and Sajid Hussain were carried out by Pak agencies because their activities, statements and writings were hurting the ‘interests’ of Pakistan as defined by the army.

Apart from these two, there are other Pakistanis dissidents who have also sought refuge abroad after fleeing Pakistan where their lives were threatened and some were even kidnapped and physically abused. One example is of Ahmed Waqas Goraya who was attacked in 2020 and threatened outside his Rotterdam house. Another example is of journalist Taha Siddiqui. Having sought refuge in Paris he received multiple warnings about threats to his life.

The moot question is how has Pakistan managed to get away with such activities and how does it continue to do so?

The answer lies in the culture of impunity that has developed and even nurtured in Pakistan over the decades. If not earlier, it certainly began after the 1971 Indo-Pak war that led to the creation of Bangladesh. 195 Pakistani officers and soldiers had been identified as ‘war criminals’ for their role in the genocide carried out in the then East Pakistan. However, as a result of the ‘Delhi Agreement’ signed between India, Bangladesh and Pakistan these men and the 93,000 other POWs were repatriated to Pakistan. Whatever may have been the larger motives and objectives of the agreement, the one lesson that Pakistan and especially the army drew was that they could indulge in the most heinous of crimes, massacre millions of civilians and rape hundreds of thousands of women, but they would not be held accountable.

Reinforcing this was the fact that many of the 195 war criminals prospered on return, including making it to high positions in politics and the armed forces. The Pak army has since then institutionalized the lesson and made it part of their culture that there would be no accountability for their crimes.

This was amply demonstrated during the Baloch uprising of 1974-77 when mass killings of Baloch, including of women and children, using helicopter gunships took place under the watch of a civilian government headed by Z A Bhutto.

Fast forward to the early part of this century. Since at least 2004, the army has been carrying out a series of operations against the Baloch with the same brutality that it did in the then East Pakistan and with the same impunity. Despite Pakistan’s best efforts to keep its brutality in Balochistan under wraps, it has failed to do so due to the determination of the human rights organizations and the Baloch to bring to light what the army is doing to the people. As a result, the egregious violations of human rights have been well documented.

A report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) titled ‘Conflict in Balochistan, HRCP fact-finding missions, December 2005 – January 2006’ noted : (i) there were widespread instances of disappearances, of torture inflicted on people held in custody and on those fleeing from their house and hearth in fear. (ii) The security forces and decision-makers were completely unaccountable for the gross human rights violations in the province. (iii) There was a sharp rise in disappearances of those suspected of nationalist sympathies or links with the militants. Baloch dissidents have been the main victims of what the HRCP secretary-general described as a “barbaric and inhuman practice”. (v) There were alarming accounts of summary executions, some allegedly carried out by paramilitary forces. HRCP received credible evidence that showed such killings had indeed taken place. (vi) Despite constraints in the documentation, there was a consistent pattern of abuse of human rights in the province.

In its 2008 report, ‘Denying the Undeniable’ the Amnesty International (AI) noted that hundreds of people alleged to be linked to terrorist activities were arbitrarily detained ‘…denied access to lawyers, families and courts and held in undeclared places of detention run by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies with the government concealing their fate or whereabouts.’

The July 2011 Human Rights Watch report “We Can Torture, Kill, or Keep You for Years – Enforced Disappearances by Pakistan Security Forces in Balochistan” starts with an account of a person who had witnessed an enforced disappearance and was told: “Even if the president or chief justice tells us to release you, we won’t. We can torture you, or kill you, or keep you for years at our will. It is only the Army chief and the [intelligence] chief that we obey.”

Not a single perpetrator of these outrages has been arrested or prosecuted; in fact, police investigators openly admit they are not even looking for anyone. As Declan Walsh put it in a March 2011 article in The Guardian titled ‘Pakistan’s Secret Dirty War’: ‘The stunning lack of interest in Pakistan’s greatest murder mystery in decades becomes more understandable, however, when it emerges that the prime suspect is not some shady gang of sadistic serial killers, but the country’s powerful military and its unaccountable intelligence men.’ By this, the state has sent an unambiguous signal that the intelligence agencies not only have impunity to commit grave human rights violations but that it condones such egregious human rights violations.

The impact of the systematic human rights abuses carried out with impunity had made a vast number of Baloch people desperate. As the HRCP put it: In such a situation ‘a large section the Baloch youth has been driven into repudiating their allegiance to the state. When the people’s will is being broken, their voice ruthlessly stifled and their bodies charred in torture cells; where mothers are dying to hear any news of their disappeared children the state cannot expect any other reaction but one of rebellion.

Even elected chief ministers of Balochistan have publicly accused the security forces of abductions and extrajudicial killings; lawyers have told the Supreme Court that the agencies were “lifting people at will”, to little avail.

Noted Baloch watcher Selig Harrison has called these violations ‘slow-motion genocide’, which unlike the humanitarian crises in Darfur and Chechnya, have not troubled the conscience of the world yet. But, he notes “as casualty figures mount, it will be harder to ignore the human costs of the Baloch independence struggle and its political repercussions in other restive minority regions of multi-ethnic Pakistan.”

The de-humanising nature of the violence is evidenced not just in the ways people are tortured — with holes drilled in the head and bodies mutilated beyond recognition — but also in the way their bodies are discarded. One note accompanying a decomposed corpse said, “Eid gift for the Baloch”. The similarity with the threat that KarimaBaloch received is indeed chilling. One such threat warned her that someone would send her a “Christmas gift” and “teach her a lesson”.

Given what the Pakistan army has been able to get away within the country, one view is that it has now decided to expand its operations abroad. Sajid Hussain’s suspicious death was perhaps to test the waters to judge the international reaction. The silence of the investigating agencies in Sweden obviously emboldened Pakistan and so Karima Baloch became the second victim.

If true, this should start alarm bells ringing because like these two there are many Pak dissidents who have sought refuge in the west with the hope of living out their lives in safety and without fear. If the west, as a bastion of safety, fails in its primary responsibility of bringing to book the perpetrators of these crimes, it will only encourage Pakistan to carry out even more attacks on its dissidents based abroad.

If Karima Baloch and Sajid Hussain’s killings are not be in vain then the world needs to recognize what Pakistan has been doing in Balochistan for decades and how it has been flagrantly killing Baloch youth and professionals in a desperate effort to secure its occupation of the province. Pakistan would do well to heed the warning of noted human rights activist I A Rehman who said ‘if we keep treating them [the Baloch] like we treated Bengalis, the consequences won’t be any different either.’

(Tilak Devasher is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India and the author of three acclaimed books on Pakistan. Views are personal – ANI)