News & Events
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1.Quotas solve little: Reservations have morphed into a populist exercise to deal with a jobs crisis. This will not help
The Lok Sabha was adjourned sine die on Wednesday, the outcome of an unproductive monsoon session. Well, not quite. On August 10, in an extraordinary show of unanimity, the Constitution (127th Amendment) Bill was passed. Everyone was in favour of it. That’s because if there is one subject that can persuade all the political parties to make common cause, it’s reservations. The bill’s aim is to negate the outcome of a Supreme Court judgment in May which said that only GoI can identify OBC groups to benefit from reservation. All political parties agree that states too should have the right to pick beneficiaries.
Debates swirling around reservations, particularly for OBCs, are the focal point of the failures of Indian politics. What started off as affirmative action to level the playing field has morphed into a populist exercise that no political party can resist. Consequences may be grave as the contemporary push to expand reservations are misguided attempts to solve India’s problem of a jobs crisis. Consider the data. Even as the drive for expanding the reserved share of jobs – be it on the basis of caste, economic vulnerability or domicile – grows, the number of jobs are shrinking. GoI data shows that in 2012, 79 ministries collectively employed 3 million people. By 2020, the number had shrunk to 1.8 million. As a consequence, the absolute number of jobs held by every category declined.
The story is no different in the private sector. India’s youth population increased by about 72 million between 2004-05 and 2018-19. During the same period, young Indians in active work declined by about 25 million to an aggregate 138 million. As the young left agriculture, the other sectors were unable to create enough jobs. This is the backdrop to which the political response has been to find economic answers through the prism of identity.
The outcome of this populism is a weakening of the idea of common citizenship. Opportunities will be determined by identity and individual rights will be relegated. A related problem is this is a route without an end in sight. Relegating individual effort to group identity spawns narrower and narrower ways of looking at the world. Thus, the political backing for sub-categorisation of OBCs and SCs – since there will always be a group that believes it’s been unfairly treated. A nation is greater than the sum of its parts. India’s political class is forgetting it.
2.Monsoon Session Washout: With Lok Sabha adjourned sine die, country’s crises fail to get policy attention and remedies
It is extremely unfortunate that the Lok Sabha has been adjourned sine die two days ahead of the end of the Monsoon session. While government is citing the ruckus created by opposition MPs as the reason for cutting the session short, non-NDA parties have been accusing the government of avoiding proper discussion on issues such as the three farm bills, rising fuel prices and the Pegasus snooping revelations. On Tuesday, unruly scenes were witnessed in the Rajya Sabha when opposition MPs even climbed atop the table where officers and reporters of the house are seated. This compelled Rajya Sabha chair Venkaiah Naidu to express anguish over the denigration of the sanctity of the house.
That said, it is the responsibility of both the government and opposition to run Parliament. While opposition MPs are certainly to blame for disrupting proceedings, it is also true that the government made little effort to properly discuss farm reforms, Pegasus or the economy. The net result is that the country has lost an opportunity to focus policy attention on critical matters. At a time when the economy has been ravaged by Covid and the society has been devastated by the pandemic’s second wave — with fears of a third wave around the corner — the country’s lawmakers have wasted taxpayers’ money in scoring political brownie points and showboating.
In fact, the opposition missed a trick by choosing to disrupt Parliament rather than put the government on the mat through probing discussions on Covid and economy. The government of course was more than happy to escape scrutiny. But if Parliament is to degenerate into sessions of competitive disruptions — BJP would most likely take the same course should it come to sit in opposition in future — then there are dark days ahead for Indian democracy. All parties must realise that their competitive populism is eroding the country’s institutions. The Parliament can’t become a wrestling akhada.
3. A new Afghan war
The war will persist and there will be instability. Whether this instability remains confined within Afghanistan’s border or spills over to Iran or Central Asia or Pakistan itself or Kashmir, or all of the above, is to be seen. India has a limited role, but must continue to support the Afghan government in this war while engaging with all relevant actors to secure its interests.
Afghanistan’s civil war is having a tangible impact on India. After drawing down its diplomatic presence from consulates in Herat, Jalalabad and Kandahar, India evacuated personnel from its consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif on Wednesday. It also issued an advisory to all Indian citizens to return home, and Indian companies to withdraw their employees from project sites. India’s move comes in the wake of the Taliban’s capture of key provincial capitals and border posts. The Afghan government is putting up a resistance and has no intention of letting Kabul fall — but is constrained by depleted international support and a sham of a United States (US)-engineered peace process, which legitimised the Taliban without the group giving up violence.
There are many moving parts to the fluid situation in Afghanistan. While there is little domestic appetite in the US to stay on militarily, the Taliban’s relative success has generated criticism against US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, for appeasing the militant group. A forcible Taliban takeover will force the US to make some hard choices. Iran is talking to the Taliban but is uncomfortable with its aggression in the north, and has more in common with India than publicly perceived. There are voices in Pakistan which point to how the obsession with the idea of gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan through the Taliban could well lead to further instability. But despite this, with Pakistan, China and Russia broadly on board, and the US in exit mode, the Taliban believes that it can change the facts on the ground enough to be able to exercise political dominance.
4.Safe at school: On getting students back on campus
Students should be able to return to campus without fear if protocols are strict
Almost every child got left behind for more than a year in India, as COVID-19 shuttered schools and forced pupils to study online at home, if they could. This long period of learning loss is a major setback in itself, affecting the physical and mental health of many students and depriving them of a year of vital skill development. It is understandable, therefore, that at least 14 States and Union Territories have tempered caution with calculated risk and opted to reopen campuses, mostly for secondary and higher secondary students. These governments are not alone in looking for the golden mean to manage the pandemic. In several countries, leaders are exploring ways to reduce the risk of coronavirus infection among pupils who are not yet eligible for vaccination, while getting them back on campus. At the end of the second wave, in July, Haryana and Nagaland went back to in-person teaching for higher classes, while Punjab, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Puducherry and Lakshadweep are doing so this month. Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha are to follow. As schools reopen, there are positive indicators available from countries experimenting with back-to-school decisions, and red flags, in the wake of the Delta variant’s wildfire spread.
One study of a million students and staff members who returned to school this year in the United States, where children must be 12 years old to get a vaccine, showed that in spite of the resultant exposure to 7,000 COVID-19-positive children and adults, only 363 other children and adults acquired the infection. This is attributed to a universal mask mandate. In India, with a school student population of over 250 million, resumption of in-person schooling is advocated by some public health professionals based on the understanding that younger children are less at risk, as they do not have well-developed ACE-2 receptors in the lungs that enable the virus to enter. This must, of course, be considered along with the impact of the Delta variant on children who do get infected, sometimes severely, even though their numbers may be small. In Ludhiana, 20 students in two schools tested positive eight days after reopening on August 2, underscoring the need for strict protocols, testing and quarantining. Maharashtra has followed the textbook in setting up committees headed by Collectors and civic officials to decide on reopening, with optional student attendance. Such a decentralised effort is welcome, as it enables closures only in areas with high incidence. It is important to note that after 18 months of the pandemic, there is consensus on ventilation and distancing norms as low-cost interventions with efficacy next only to vaccination. In the Indian context, this should favour outdoor classes under natural or built shade, wherever possible. It is disappointing that teachers and staff have not been universally vaccinated yet, a lacuna that must be urgently filled.
5.Building consent: On PG Medical Education Regulations 2021
A consensus on the Postgraduate Medical Education Regulations 2021 is a must
The Indian Medical Association (IMA), the largest organisation of doctors in India, has demanded that the National Medical Commission (NMC) withdraw the draft Postgraduate Medical Education Regulations 2021. In its current form, it notes that there shall be common counselling for admission in all medical educational institutions to all Post-graduate ‘Broad-Specialty’ courses (Diploma/MD/MS) on the basis of the merit list of the National Exit Test. Currently, admissions to such programmes are based on the post-graduate NEET. Half the seats to the various courses are based on the all-India quota and the rest are admitted by the State governments, which comply with reservation norms. The IMA contends that the draft regulations leave States with no power or discretion to manage admissions to State medical colleges, which rely on State funds. If States did not have the freedom to decide on student intake, they would find it hard to provide quality medical services to the local population. The proposed regulations follow from the provisions of the National Medical Commission Act, 2019, that itself replaced the Medical Council Act of India and was a subject of extreme friction between medical professionals and the Centre. In both instances, the heart of the objection is States’ discomfort with ceding powers to the Centre. The familiar argument of the States is that health care is a State subject. Through the decades, while the Centre plays the critical role of funding and conceiving targeted programmes to ameliorate disease and improve overall health-care standards, the matter of implementation has always been left to the States.
The Centre has an important role in setting standards and amplifying best practices so that minimum — but ever improving — standards of health care are delivered across all States. Much like cadres of the IAS are deputed to States based on centralised examinations, there is, in principle, no reason for such a system not to be effective, but the Centre needs to be extremely responsive to States’ views on the same. The very real problem, laid bare during the pandemic, is the shortage and extremely uneven availability of quality health care. Through the years, attempts are being made to improve this by trying to bridge alternative systems of medicines with modern medicine, but these have always been marred by political and religious overtones, and a convergence seems unlikely in the near future. The import of the proposals should not be made hostage to a Centre-States power struggle. Efforts must be made to build more consensus involving stakeholders, such as the IMA, State medical councils and representatives of health-care groups.