News & Events
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1.Politics and safety: Nothing is more important than ensuring that poll campaigns don’t become super spreaders
Five states including heavyweight UP, are now set for tense political showdowns – but the surging Covid third wave demands responsible electioneering by parties. Electoral mobilisations can spread infections even faster, and in places where healthcare access is patchy. Therefore, Election Commission’s one-week moratorium on physical rallies and roadshows is a smart idea. An indefinite ban risked parties flouting the order but waiting till January 15 means all stakeholders will have a better idea of where the surge is headed. EC should be open to the option of extending the no-rallies rule if the situation so demands.
Parties should in fact rewrite their campaign playbook and concentrate more on online campaigning methods and doorstep visits in groups of five or less, which EC has allowed. Star campaigners can immediately switch to virtual rallies and thanks to growing smartphone penetration, grassroots workers can take their message even further than physical rallies do.
As for issues, these elections will be a good measure of how ordinary voters are assessing the economy, which is in good health by some macro measures but also has worry spots in terms of unemployment and not-yet-recovered consumption. Also on test will be whether farmers’ groups have real electoral power in Punjab and parts of UP.
Politically, this round is crucial for BJP – incumbent in four of the five states – as well as Congress, facing grave questions about its national relevance and taking on BJP in three states. Regional parties like SP in UP, AAP in Punjab and Goa, and TMC in Goa and Manipur, are also potential gainers if they can upset BJP and Congress apple carts.
In most-watched UP, BJP is also up against history. The state mostly throws out incumbents. But as poll campaigns heat up, it is fair to say BJP, helmed by the PM, starts with many advantages. But crowds at Akhilesh Yadav’s rallies, uncertainty over Dalit votes given Mayawati’s non-campaign, and SP’s outreach towards BJP’s OBC phalanx signal that the race is very much open. In Punjab, CM Charanjit Singh Channi’s worst enemy is fellow Congressman Navjot Sidhu. And with an energetic AAP in the fray, retaining Punjab has perhaps become more difficult for Congress, even with Akalis and BJP in a tough spot.
Coming back to Covid, EC must hold party leaders responsible for cadres’ violations. That’s the only punishment that will work because India’s netas are not used to being upbraided very often – and they will therefore have a strong incentive to ask rank and file to behave.
2.Pay for news: CCI’s Google probe must lead to rules on tech sharing much more revenue with news publishers
Finally, Indian authorities have moved – the Competition Commission of India has ordered a probe against Google for its ‘alleged’ abuse of dominant position in news aggregation. This follows, much later than it should have, in the footsteps of actions in Australia, which last year passed a law that required tech platforms like Google and Facebook to fairly pay local media outlets for linking their content in news feeds or search results. France has implemented the EU’s updated copyright rules that require digital platforms to compensate news publishers for previews of news content. This forced Facebook last October to sign a deal with a French lobby group that represents 300 French publishers.
The world’s second-largest online market and biggest democracy needs equally strong action against tech giants. The health of Indian democracy depends on a financially viable, independent news media. As online news consumption increases, the current system becomes more and more unfair to news publishers. Google and Facebook dominate internet traffic, and they take away as much as 70-80% of advertising revenue that comes from digital consumption of news. This, in turn, makes mainstream news publishing, which involves gatekeeping and fact-checking and therefore has to employ trained professionals, increasingly financially unviable.
As this newspaper has always argued, without responsibly produced news, we are left with the social media jungle of half-truths, lies, fake content, superstition, manipulation and hate-mongering. The world has already seen the chaos this can wreak. Tech giants falsely argue that they bring substantial traffic to news publishers. It works both ways. Around 40% of trending queries on Google are news-related, bringing considerable traffic to it. So, tech giants basically get a near free ride. It is logical and fair that online platforms equitably share online ad revenues with news publishers. Hopefully, CCI’s action will lead quickly to necessary rules that ensure this.
3. Unchanged: On EWS quota income norm
After much loss of time, SC allows EWS quota income norm to stay for this year
It is a matter of considerable relief that the Supreme Court has allowed the commencement of counselling for post-graduate medical admissions under the all-India quota at a time when the long delay has caused a shortage of junior residents in the midst of an ongoing public health crisis. The Court’s decision to uphold the 27% quota for OBCs, with reasons to be adduced later, has also helped the cause of giving a push to the admission process, which was put on hold months ago. It is somewhat disappointing that despite several hearings and the deployment of an expert committee, the controversial criteria for the 10% Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) remain unchanged for admission for 2021-22. As early as October 25, the Union government offered to put on hold the admission process during the pendency of the challenge to the introduction of the OBC and EWS quotas by a July 29, 2021 notification. A month later, it informed the Court that it wanted to revisit the criteria for EWS. It was in response to the Court’s questions about the rationale of keeping the annual income criterion for the EWS quota at ₹8 lakh, the same income ceiling for those belonging to the OBC category to be eligible for reservation benefits. The time taken by the committee to reconsider the criteria and submit a report seems to have been in vain, as it has returned a recommendation that the existing norms be retained for the current year’s admissions.
The Bench, taking into account the fact that the admission process cannot be further delayed, has chosen to allow the admission to proceed based on the norms spelt out in the July notification. However, the validity of the expert panel’s recommendations will be decided when the Court takes up the matter in March. It makes one wonder why the Government postponed the counselling and took more than a month to get a panel to revisit the criteria, if it was ultimately going to press for the current year’s admission to be allowed without any change. The Court, on its part, felt compelled to defer to the Government on this point, considering the urgency of the situation, as the alternative was staying the EWS quota for this year’s admission. Its original point — that there cannot be a common income limit for those coming from a background of social and educational backwardness and those who are members of privileged classes, but with inadequate economic means — still stands. The outcome is that this year’s batch may suffer from ‘over-inclusion’ if the norms are revised downwards from next year onwards. While the norms for EWS quota may get tweaked over time, the question whether there ought to be any reservation for the advanced classes solely on the ground that they have insufficient means is still before the Constitution Bench. An early decision will be most welcome.
4.Growth concerns: On economic forecasts amid Omicron surge
NSO forecast has not factored in the impact of the ongoing Omicron-induced surge in cases
The National Statistical Office’s first advance estimates for economic output in the current financial year is an optimistic forecast that flags some positive trends as well as areas of concern that have the potential to derail the growth momentum. The NSO has projected real GDP for the 12 months ending March 2022 at ₹147.54 lakh-crore, a 9.2% expansion from the provisional estimate of ₹135.13 lakh-crore for the last fiscal year, when the full fury of the COVID-19 pandemic had caused output to contract by 7.3%. At that pace, India’s economy would regain its pre-eminence as the world’s fastest growing major economy. A key pillar of this growth assumption is the upbeat outlook for net tax receipts on products, which the NSO sees expanding by a robust 16.2%, after shrinking by 18.4% in the preceding period. Gross Value Added, which aggregates output in the various sectors of the economy, is projected to grow by 8.6% year-on-year on the back of a continued healthy showing by the farm sector and a heartening double digit (12.5%) rebound in manufacturing. However, when compared with the pre-pandemic FY2020’s GVA, the projected output of ₹135.2 lakh-crore is barely ₹2.5 lakh-crore, or 1.9%, higher, clearly pointing to the fact that the economy has a fair distance to travel before it can regain the growth momentum that is crucially required to create more jobs and help narrow the widening income inequality.
Tellingly, the NSO’s forecast, which relies on varied data spanning the first six to eight months of the current fiscal, has not factored in the impact of the ongoing Omicron-induced surge in COVID-19 cases. After all, it is anyone’s guess as to how much of a blow the current wave may deal to already fragile supply chains, consumption demand and contact-intensive services. In fact, private final consumption expenditure, which two years ago accounted for close to 60% of GDP, is still struggling to recover from the crushing compression it suffered in the first full year of the pandemic, when it shrank 9.1%. While the NSO posits consumer spending to grow by 6.9% this fiscal, the assumed figure is still a sizeable 2.9% shy of the FY2020 level. Equally significantly, the omnibus services category that spans trade, hotels, transport, communication and broadcasting and makes up a fifth of the GVA is estimated to post a mere 11.9% expansion after shrinking by 18.2% last fiscal. As a result, even without factoring in the impact of a third wave, this vital services sector would still be lagging behind its pre-pandemic output by 8.5%. With the Union Budget barely a few weeks away, policymakers have a clear choice to make: introduce consumption and investment supportive measures, even if it means loosening the fiscal purse strings, or risk seeing the growth momentum faltering for want of a fair wind.