News & Events
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1.Can PM’s all-party meeting with J&K leaders move the ball in the direction of reconciliation?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with Kashmir parties has set hopes ringing of a political breakthrough to the 22-month-long impasse since Article 370 was nullified and Jammu and Kashmir was made a Union Territory. The willingness to talk on both sides is a good sign. As the highest level of talks since 2019, there is special significance attached to this meeting.
Restoration of full statehood should find takers on both sides but if NC or PDP insist on reviving Article 370 and Article 35A that would be a deal-breaker. Last year, PM Modi had signalled that elections could be held as soon as the process of delimitation was complete. The delimitation committee has been given time until March next year to complete its work. Interestingly, many states including neighbouring Punjab are going to polls at that time.
As expected, the District Development Council elections have helped both sides move forward. The Centre has realised the electoral clout of the NC and PDP hasnt waned and the two Valley parties recognise that speeding up the political process is in their interest. That a population of over one crore hasn’t had an elected government for over three years isn’t helpful. Can today’s talks set a fast tempo for restoring normalcy?
2.Let them eat … A diverse country will have diverse diets. Politics over food is bad for national health
Kerala high court’s order reversing Lakshadweep administration’s move to exclude chicken and meat from the mid-day meal menu points out that the decision contravenes the national mid-day meal (MDM) scheme approved for the islands. Petitioners claimed the scheme has for many years provided chicken and meat thrice a week in the menu. The administration didn’t contest this point. This politics over food is part of a larger confrontation between the administration and Lakshadweep residents, who allege a threat to their way of life.
Lakshadweep’s controversy is also a part of an intense decades-long contestation in politics over regulating dietary choices. Eggs have rolled off MDM menus or made a comeback in some states depending on who is in government. The simple point, of course, is don’t ideologise food. Children must be given the option of taking an egg or rejecting it, depending on their personal preferences. And the link between these menus and economic prosperity is very strong. Nearly a dozen Indian states serve eggs in MDMs today, and some even milk, unimaginable just two decades ago, even as NSO surveys show declining cereal consumption – the last is always a sign of increasing purchasing power.
Politics dictating food habits is untenable since the Constitution protects dietary choices by guaranteeing the right to free expression (Article 19) and right to life and personal liberty (Article 21). On cow slaughter, different states have always had different approaches. But, of late, some states are breaking a long-held consensus by seeking stringent punishments. Concurrently, there have been too many cases of lynching, jailing and assault, all centred around diets. What one eats should be no one else’s business. Once intrusion into personal spaces over some choices become frequent, collectivist sentiment gets prioritised over individual liberties.
As a democracy modernises, more and more interrogation of collective norms should happen. A case in Gujarat HC, where petitioners have challenged the state’s prohibition laws, is an excellent example. Right to privacy and ‘manifest arbitrariness’ have been cited as grounds by petitioners. However the case concludes, that courts are having to deal with interrogations of long-sanctified policies is an extremely healthy sign.
India is a multilingual, multicultural and multireligious country that is evolving rapidly. Dietary habits are changing and may change more radically as today’s very young grow up in a world very different from now. It is impossible to make such a society accept some notion of a ‘proper’ Indian diet. That’s the fact politicians have to digest.
3.Shed imaginary fears on population
Don’t let erroneous assumptions and a communal subtext drive State policy. Any law which discriminates against families with more than two children will disproportionately penalise the poor and less-educated. In case politicians pushing for such laws have any illusions about political gains, they should know that 83% of the families with more than two children are Hindus.
The Uttar Pradesh (UP) State Law Commission is working on a draft law, which will seek to limit the benefits of state government schem-es only to those with two children or less. Last week, Assam’s chief minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma, said that his government would implement a similar policy. Mr Sarma made a reference to mino-rities (read Muslims) while making this statement. And in 2016, 2019 and 2020, three separate bills by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Members of Parliament were introduced in Parliament, demanding the linking of welfare benefits to a two-child policy. To be sure, a 2020 affidavit by the central government has opposed the idea of forcing people to have only a certain number of children. Whether the recent posturing by BJP state governments materialises into a law remains to be seen. Any such law will also have to pass judicial scrutiny.
But the idea itself, of enforcing a two-child norm, is deeply flawed and based on erroneous assumptions. As a data-based analysis published in this newspaper on Wednesday showed, India’s population growth peaked a long time ago and it has been on a declining trajectory. Total Fertility Rate (TFR) has also been coming down signifi-cantly; from 3.4 in 1992-93 to 2.2 in 2015-16, as per data from the National Family and Health Survey. The declining trend in TFR holds for both Hindus and Muslims. While it is true that TFR is higher among Muslims, and this trend holds even after factoring in important drivers such as household wealth and education, the Hindu-Muslim differential in TFR has also been falling over time. In short, any paranoia over an overall or Muslim-specific population explosion, which appears to be the political subtext driving recent moves, is not based on facts.
Any law which discriminates against families with more than two children will disproportionately penalise the poor and less-educated. This will be regressive, as these are the sections that need State support the most. In case politicians pushing for such laws have any illusions about political gains, they should know that 83% of the families with more than two children are Hindus. India will do well to focus on other demographic challenges, such as providing the best possible education and training to our young population. The Government of India’s own projections show that more than half of the population is younger than 30. Whether or not we train them well is what will shape the country’s future, not imaginary fears.