News & Events
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1.An assault on child And sexual rights
The Bombay High Court recently acquitted a man, accused of luring a 12-year-old into his house, groping her and trying to disrobe her, of the charge of sexual assault, on the ground that there was no skin-to-skin contact, and, instead, found him guilty of the lesser charge of outraging the modesty of a woman.
The case has many layers, like an onion, and removing each layer can make you cry. It is a crime against a child, it is a sexual crime against a child, it involves defining sexual assault, it calls into question the propriety of mandatory minimum sentencing, it calls for deliberation on the deterrent power of maximalist penalties on the very likelihood of someone being found guilty.
The government did well to challenge the high court ruling, and the Supreme Court, to stay it. The high court was of the view that the man’s actions did not meet the criteria of ‘sexual assault’ as defined in the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (Pocso) Act. Sexual offences against children are different from those against adults, and laws and the legal community must recognise this. The ramifications of the same act of violation against a child and an adult are different in magnitude.
Therefore, the decision by the high court not to prosecute the accused whose victim was a minor under a law geared specifically to sexual offences against children was unfortunate. Sexual offence goes beyond rape, penetration and fondling and extends to intent to abuse and solicitation, including online. The punishment should be proportionate to the crime, said the high court. This is where the instrument of mandatory minimums must be revisited. Studies show that judges are reluctant to convict under the laws with mandatory minimums, as with Pocso.
2.Use Market for Oversight of NBFCs
An RBI discussion paper on a revised regulatory framework for non-banking financial companies (NBFCs) has called for staggered, scale-based approach. The paper pitches for the principle of proportionality in regulatory oversight, commensurate with systemic risk perceptions, and taking into account interconnectedness, leverage levels, substitutability and the like, so as to make judicious use of ‘supervisory resources’.
It seems very much a work in progress. The information dissemination and processing ability of the market is something that has to be marshalled for oversight and self-correction, and an easy way to achieve this is by creation of a vibrant market for corporate debt. The suggested risk perception looks odd. The paper visualises a pyramidical regulatory framework.
NBFCs requiring the least regulatory intervention, characterised as non-systemically important, are placed, unexceptionably, at the base. However, NBFCs in housing finance or infrastructure finance are supposed to be placed in the Middle Layer, which may not be prudential or even efficient. The fact is that the failure of high-profile NBFCs like IL&FS, which quite spectacularly defaulted on its highly rated bonds a couple of years ago, does corroborate the need for an active and vibrant corporate bond market.
In the Upper Layer of the proposed regulatory pyramid structure, the 10 largest NBFCs are to be placed for supervisory purposes, as also the next 50. And the Top Layer is to be empty, reserved for entities that require prompt correction in their governance practices and operational parameters.
The central bank surely needs to boost its supervisory capacity across the board rather than mechanically follow an overtly rule-based approach that can, well, fail. After all, NBFCs perform a vital role in intermediation and provide credit to segments and niche markets unserviced by banks. Large-scale use of data analytics, to scan financial flows among banks and NBFCs for assorted patterns, must supplement normal audit and supervision. Fintech has a big role to play.
3.Good news on the Covid front
The new unlocking guidelines easing the 50% cap on movie halls and movement restrictions on senior citizens indicates that authorities are now confident that India is winning the war against the Covid pandemic. Fresh cases have been falling consistently since September and hospitals are now focussing again on routine surgeries and ailments that got brushed aside by Covid.
The evidence of high seropresence of antibodies in cities like Delhi also points to the possibility that many places are nearing herd immunity. Serosurveys should be done regularly to gain a better understanding of the disease. Understanding how the virus transmitted to so many individuals who were possibly asymptomatic is needed to understand how the Indian trajectory has been different from other countries.
The improving vaccination numbers indicate that India may be surmounting the initial glitches. Studies indicating that Covaxin is effective against some mutations like the UK strain come as a boost for the Indian vaccine programme. But there other, even more hazardous strains afoot. More trial data should be proactively released in the coming days to inform the public and tackle the pockets of resistance to vaccines. The best antidote to misinformation is authentic and substantive information.
Chances of a full opening up of the economy by summer have brightened. Yet, it is also important to remember that Indians took the hardest economic hit last year. The next big steps would be restoring train travel and schools. The forthcoming month should be used to scale up vaccination, which should include permitting vaccines in the private market, so that India can be among the first big countries to come out of this public health emergency.
4.Go for growth: The Budget must focus overwhelmingly on reviving economic growth
Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman will present her third Budget next week. It will be announced in the backdrop of unarguably the most challenging economic environment India has faced in three decades. The tax structure is lopsided as the government has piled on fuel taxes to offset revenue shortfalls. To compound problems, the economic recession has coincided with an immediate national threat in the form of China’s PLA, catalysing emergency defence acquisitions.
On direct taxation, we are in the early stages of big changes initiated in late 2019 to align India’s corporate tax rate to East Asian levels. These must continue, and there’s a case to enhance standard deduction to provide taxpayers some relief in a harsh environment. This won’t cost the government much in the larger scheme of things, but will ease the burden on individuals.
Another change needed is to use fiscal incentives to boost India’s pool of long-term savings that are essential to build infrastructure, the prerequisite for a competitive economy. Infrastructure bonds with long lock-in periods need tax incentives. Similarly, pension funds need a boost by providing a tax break on annuities, the regular payments received after retirement. Carefully designed tax breaks can significantly increase the pool of domestic long-term savings, which will also minimise the financial sector risks that exist today because of a mismatch in the duration of deposits and their subsequent investment. On the other hand, a tax change that’s avoidable is further increase in import tariffs. The government’s keen on tapping global value chains. A high tariff wall won’t allow Indian companies to tap these opportunities. It will also limit foreign investment in manufacturing as high tariffs restrict export opportunities.
Finally, on expenditure the government doesn’t have a serious problem. Following the pandemic, spending hasn’t gone out of control. It’s revenue that shrank because of the lockdown. Therefore, in the forthcoming year the government needs to spend more in selected areas to quicken economic growth. If it can cut back on unproductive subsidies to make room for such expenditure, all the better. It’s growth which provides the resources to solve many existing problems and creates opportunities for the millions entering the job market. More growth will organically generate more revenues for the government – which must, above all, resist the temptation of piling on more taxes on the hapless Indian taxpayer in the name of whatsoever worthy cause, thereby further reducing the scope for savings, investment and enterprise.
5. The politics of protest | HT Editorial
With the farm protests turning anarchic and violent on Republic Day, the debate has moved from the substance of the farm laws — which was the original point of discord between protesters and the government — to the nature of Indian democracy, the authority of the Indian State, and the possibilities and limits of the politics of protest. The dark episode — for which farm unions bear responsibility — has lessons for all sides and will have a far-reaching impact.
One, any group of citizens who plan protests needs to have a more viable framework in place. Yes, oppose the government and push demands. But if the protests get too prolonged, or if there is an internal tussle where some factions are engaged in the politics of competitive radicalism, or if the protest organisers can’t control their own support base, then they need to revise their methods. In this case, the farm unions had several opportunities to claim victory but refused to do so, swayed by radicalism, only to see the gains of the movement being possibly frittered away. What happened on Tuesday was not just a mere incident of violence — but the fraying of India’s social contract, for which citizens too need to take responsibility. And this can only be repaired with maturity and restraint.
Two, the State will have to relook at its approach to protests. The freedom to dissent or protest against the government, of course, is a fundamental right — and despite Tuesday’s provocation, the government must respect this right as a matter of principle. But the frequency and intensity of protests in recent years must prompt a revision in approach. The first objective should be to engage with citizens unhappy with a set of policies and legislations, allay apprehensions, and win them over. This requires a more democratic approach than the government has displayed so far. But if it does not work, and protests do go ahead, the State needs to have better mechanisms in place, including stronger intelligence gathering, to anticipate the mood on the street and prevent trouble. This is the tricky balance in a democracy, where citizen rights and civil liberties must be respected, decision-making should be participative and representative, but the authority of the State and law and order must also be preserved.