News & Events
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1.The system works, sort of, for Disha
It is welcome that the court has granted Disha Ravi bail. It is even more welcome that the judge called the administration’s bluff in the open, and defended citizens’ freedom of speech, including to a global audience. Additional sessions judge Dharmender Rana, showing commitment to the core values of democracy that seem to have eluded many members of the higher judiciary while hearing bail petitions of people facing gratuitous charges of sedition, made some telling observations. The offence of sedition can’t be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of governments, said the judge. Citizens are conscience-keepers of the government. They cannot be jailed simply because they choose to disagree with State policies.
Creation of a WhatsApp group, or being editor of an innocuous ‘toolkit’ — essentially, a guide to gain traction — is no offence, the judge observed. What is remarkable is the judge’s debunking of the illogical link sought to be established, without any evidence, by Delhi Police between the toolkit on the farmers’ cause and the violent actions of some protesters should strike normal people as a rare act of judicial deliverance. So accustomed have they become to all organs of the State marching to the same tune, and moving in the self-same direction set by the executive, that even a single act of independent reasoning, no matter however innocuous, comes across as a brave exception, rather than as routine exercise of reason.
The fact remains that Ravi spent six days in jail for no fault of hers. Youngsters — and, indeed, ‘oldsters’ — should be more careful of the digital company they keep, lest they be used as pawns by both the genuinely nefarious lot as well as those purportedly protecting the State against them.
2.Cut those levies on Petro-fuels
Retail prices of petrol and diesel have flared up to record levels nationally, driven by heavy taxation of fuels, even as global crude prices harden. Central and state levies on petro-fuels must be rationalised, and stem further buildup of cost-push inflationary pressures. The price of petrol in the National Capital Territory (NCT) is now well over Rs 90 per litre, with central and state taxes amounting to over 60% of the price. Similarly, the price of diesel, the most-used petroleum product by far, in NCT is over Rs 80 per litre, with levies adding up to nearly 55% of the price. In some states, petrol now costs more than Rs 100 a litre. This is not sustainable.
Such high levels of indirect taxes are regressive. RBI’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), in its latest minutes, has called for ‘calibrated unwinding’ of high retail taxes in the main oil products. True, higher retail taxation of automotive fuels in the backdrop of collapsing global crude prices, in the early stages of the pandemic last year, did make perfect sense, and has, in fact, gainfully shored up revenue amidst the lockdown and subsequent reopening. But central taxes in the retail price of petrol in NCT, which includes basic excise, surcharge, road cess and agri-infra cess, have gone up some 300% from Rs 10.38 per litre in March 2014, to Rs 32.98 per litre in September 2020. Central levies on diesel have gone up some 600% during the like period, from Rs 4.58 per litre to Rs 31.83 per litre. The duties are levied at a specific rate, in terms of rupees per kilolitre, but do need to be pruned going forward.
Further, state retail tax on petrol is about Rs 20 per litre and that on diesel about half that, but both the taxes are ad valorem, linked to product price. It amounts to cascading inefficient tax-on-tax across the value chain. Hence the need to modernise taxation of the main oil products and bring natural gas, petrol and diesel under GST, of course, with a component not eligible for input tax credit. Till then, state-level levies should also take the form of specific duties.
3.Beyond bail for Disha Ravi: The much misused sedition law must be scrapped
In a stinging censure of the Delhi Police case against Disha Ravi, additional sessions judge Dharmender Rana said that not even an iota of evidence had been brought to his notice connecting the perpetrators of the violence on January 26 with the accused or with the Poetic Justice Foundation.
The court noted both the “blemish free” antecedents of the 22-year-old young woman and that PJF was not a banned organisation, nor was any criminal action pending against its founders. In short, Ravi had been accused of sedition and arrested without it actually being established that her actions had fomented violence. And in court the prosecution was seeking to further restrict her liberty “on the basis of propitious anticipations”.
While Ravi has now got bail, the larger picture is that citizens will continue to be accused of sedition on flimsy grounds and deprived of their liberty. The only solution is to scrap the sedition law. That’s the only way to stop different governments from exploiting it at the expense of citizens. Governments must also remember, even if this needs reminding again and again, that the right to dissent is firmly enshrined under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. Further, as the court said, freedom of speech and expression includes the right to seek a global audience.
4. Keep it simple: With capacity going unutilised, allow walk-in vaccination. End the Covid scourge
With India on the cusp of a major change in vaccination strategy, government must heed public health experts, including members of its Covid-19 task force, calling for walk-in enrolments instead of pre-registration on the Co-WIN app. The glitches dogging the app weeks after rollout, even contributing to delays in vaccination and inconvenience to those arriving at vaccination sites for their shots, are likely to get worse amid plans for a fivefold scale up to 50,000 daily sessions. Instead, experts are suggesting a simpler walk-in process using Aadhaar to authenticate identity and age, take the jab, followed by a 30-minute wait at the site before leaving.
With less resources expended in real time data reconciliation and tech troubles, the more crucial task of vaccination can be speeded up. Sites must mandatorily share vaccination data with health authorities on a daily basis by aggregating the in-situ data collected, which hardly requires a centralised app with an onerous pre-registration requirement. As India progresses towards building a universal National Digital Health Mission database, apps like Co-WIN might work better in future. Meanwhile, the exigencies of the pandemic require more decentralised models and micro-planning of the sort used in child immunisation.
In the same vein, Centre must ensure that its plans to rope in the private sector to handle up to 50% of vaccinations in the third phase for the 50-plus age group aren’t excessively restrictive. This could defeat the purpose of scaling up the number of sessions and spawn the same problem sites face today of low capacity utilisation. A twin-track system where government offers free vaccination to priority groups while the private sector focusses on speed and scale with freedom in pricing and walk-in enrolment for all adult age groups will yield optimum results. India is the world’s top vaccine producer and has a vibrant private sector in healthcare. Rather than copying foreign models, it’s time to fully leverage these assets to end the Covid scourge.
It’s worth recalling the pandemic’s early months when mass testing was severely curtailed by excessive regulation that mandated only symptomatic testing and even doctor’s prescriptions for testing. If recent capacity utilisation of 26% doesn’t show improvement even after allowing walk-in enrolment for the 50-plus age group, the unused capacity can simultaneously vaccinate the general population too. After all, young people are the most potent spreaders. Given that sites are opened on the basis of assured vaccine doses, the goal must be 100% capacity utilisation and zero wastage. Tailor regulations accordingly.
5. On China, the trade dilemma
On Tuesday, Bloomberg, based on provisional figures from the commerce ministry, reported that trade between India and China in 2020 was worth $77.7 billion. This was, do remember, a year marked by the pandemic as well as the border standoff, which had seen India consciously attempt to cut down its economic linkages with China. Yet, as the report said, China, despite a dip in trade volume compared to 2019, was India’s top trading partner and Indian imports from China, at $58.7 billion, were higher than imports from the United States and the United Arab Emirates put together. The silver lining is that India’s exports to China grew 11% to a little over $19 billion.
The figures reveal four key features of India’s political economy, which will shape India’s geopolitical posture. First, for all the talk of self-reliance as a goal, India is inextricably linked to not just friendly countries but even potential adversaries in a complex economic web. The dependence on China for a range of goods means that Indian firms will find it hard to develop alternative supply sources in quick time. Neither will Indian consumers find it easy to shift away from cheap Chinese consumer goods they have got used to. Two, the composition of the trade remains a matter of deep concern — while the growth in Indian exports is positive, the trade relationship is skewed in China’s favour. This is both because of China’s unfair tariff practices and India’s own inability to compete effectively.
Three, as the border stand-off eases, especially in Pangong Tso, it is unclear whether India will continue to take a strong stance on economically delinking itself from China — or whether it will go back to business-as-usual. There are indications that progress at the border will result in a gradual, perhaps even linked, resumption of the economic relationship. But both military and economic imperatives dictate that there shouldn’t be return to the economic status quo — and the future economic relationship must be more equal. And finally, these figures show how far India has to go in being able to develop a geopolitically autonomous posture. One key reason the US has struggled to deal with an aggressive China is precisely its economic web of interdependence with China. India must continue to do business with China, but on better terms, without compromising its interests.