News & Events
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1.Rare and lost opportunity: Is it Covid alone that’s responsible for the Indian women’s football team exiting the Asian Cup?
In a heartbreaking development on Sunday, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) confirmed that the Indian team was considered withdrawn from the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup. With a dozen players testing positive for Covid-19, the Indians were unable to field a team against Chinese Taipei that day. And the tight programme leaves no room for rescheduling. To understand what a big blow this is to the women’s team, one should factor in not just that they had been preparing for this moment for two years, but also that this was their biggest tournament so far. That India is actually hosting this continental championship made this an even more unusual opportunity.
After the Indian women’s hockey team reached their first-ever Olympic semi-final last year, by defeating pre-tournament favorites Australia 1-0, there was a broad acknowledgement of how the country can really improve in women’s team sports by bringing them out of the shadows of men’s teams. A key ask here is more opportunities to play international faceoffs, besides more domestic women’s leagues.
So, the lost opportunity here being so significant, questions are understandably being raised about whether there was laxity in managing the biobubble for the Indian football team. One such question is whether the team was kept training in hotspot Kerala for too long, traveling to Mumbai only in mid-January. Yesterday the India coach took the blame game in a new direction by pointing the finger at AFC’s management of Covid protocols. But this sits quite oddly with the special rules applicable to AFC competitions during the Covid-19 pandemic, which put the responsibility for maintaining the biobubble and testing squarely on the host organization – which in this case is the All India Football Federation.
Brushing these questions under the carpet would be great disservice to our women’s team. They are the hosts, yet they are stuck in quarantined isolation while 11 visiting nations play on. In addition to a proper inquiry into the matter, they also deserve to know what international tourneys will be made available to them to make up for the one that they have so painfully lost here.
2.Targeting 75%: With migration on the rise, EC must evolve strategies so that migrants don’t lose out on voting day
Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking citizens and party workers to achieve 75% voter turnout in upcoming elections is a target that can build on the already stupendous work done by Election Commission to expand voting rights. On National Voting Day, Chief Election Commissioner Sushil Chandra said India now has over 95 crore voters, a figure that trumps voter count in the second largest democracy, the US, several times over.
Much credit should go here to the framers of the Constitution who weighed in favour of a central, independent constitutional body to oversee elections. This works better than the US model of decentralised electoral processes that is sowing chaos and blatantly undemocratic practices like voter suppression. Far from disenfranchising voters, India has moved in the direction of easier enrolment and improved access to voting for citizens at the margins, thanks to EC getting institutional support to largely deliver on its mandate. The commission’s ability to self-correct, like the crackdown on large election rallies held earlier in blatant disregard for the pandemic, is just as praiseworthy.
An equally impressive achievement for EC, which paid special attention to regions with low women enrolment, is that new female voters have grown at a faster rate (5.1%) than male voters (3.6%). Their enthusiasm to enrol is also reflecting in increased female participation in elections. Bihar in 2020 witnessed 60% of eligible women turning out to vote against 54% of men. Not surprisingly, women voters are being aggressively wooed now by political parties.
However, urban voters aren’t pulling their weight enough despite India’s rapidly urbanising population – from 28% in 2001 to 37% in 2011 and projected to be 60% by 2050. Voting percentages in 2017 Mumbai’s BMC and Delhi’s MCD elections were low at 52% and 54%, respectively. In 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Chennai’s turnout was 61% against TN’s 73%, Bengaluru’s was 48% against Karnataka’s 58% and Hyderabad’s 52% against undivided AP’s 72%. Consequently, politicians tend to sometimes neglect big urban concerns: public transport, air pollution, waste management and vector-borne diseases. And the perversity is that cities are major revenue spinners. A 2017 EPW paper by CSDS’s Sanjay Kumar and Souradeep Banerjee argues, via survey data from Delhi elections, that it is recent migrants to cities who aren’t turning out to vote. With internal migration increasing and turnout data from Bihar (males) and Delhi indicating that migrants are losing their votes at both source and destination, this then is the next frontier for EC.
3.Keeping faith: On people-to-people initiatives and India-Pakistan ties
People-to-people initiatives can help build goodwill between India and Pakistan
At a time when most other India-Pakistan exchanges are suspended, even a simple proposal by the Pakistan Hindu Council, forwarded by Pakistan to India, to allow pilgrims of both countries to travel by air to avoid cumbersome journeys seems a leap. Islamabad-Delhi ties now are possibly at their worst ever in peace times, with no political dialogue at a bilateral or multilateral level for over five years. After many terror attacks, India has stopped normal communications and cultural exchanges, and after the Government’s moves on Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan stopped all trade ties. Both sides have downsized their diplomatic missions. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has ensured that the borders have been virtually sealed for two years, with few direct routes operating between them. Even the movement of pilgrims may have been cancelled but for the conscious attempt by the two governments to make an exception for faith-based travel — as was done for the Kartarpur corridor that came up in 2019, the same year the two countries nearly went to war over the Pulwama attack. Religious exchanges, of mainly Muslim pilgrims from Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs from India, are governed by a protocol signed in 1974, and allowed to continue.
While the routes for Sikh pilgrims, from Indian Punjab to the Pakistani Punjab province, are relatively easy, hundreds of Indian and Pakistani pilgrims crossing over at the Wagah/Atari border to travel further to the Hinglaj Mata Mandir in Balochistan, the Paramhans Mandir in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Ajmer Sharif dargah in Rajasthan, the Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi and other such shrines, face more circuitous routes. To avoid the extra time in travel, the Pakistan Hindu Council, which has now signed an MoU with Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) to facilitate faith-based tour groups, has asked that PIA charters from Karachi and Lahore be allowed to fly direct to Indian cities this week, with a view to also allowing reciprocal air charters from India. This would be the first time such air travel has taken place in years, and the first time ever that pilgrimages would be accorded this facility. As pilgrim groups on both sides are vetted before being allowed to travel, the precedent is unlikely to pose any additional security threat. In an atmosphere fraught with tensions, such people-to-people initiatives can only help build some modicum of goodwill. No evident harm to national interests has come from other such recent moves embarked on by the two governments, such as the LoC ceasefire announcement in February, or the decision to reopen the Kartarpur corridor in November, or the Government’s nod for cricket under the T20 World Cup as well as other sporting events. While the Government’s reflex position may be to deny the request, it may prove wiser to give the proposal some deliberate consideration.
4.Taxing drama: On retroactive tax disputes
The Centre must conclude the retroactive tax disputes and ensure policy predictability
In what should be the last act of a long and winding tax dispute drama, British firm Cairn Energy has said it has concluded all steps prescribed by the Indian government in order to be eligible for the refund of a contentious retroactive tax levy. The firm, now rechristened as Capricorn Energy, expects to get back ₹7,900 crore. Cairn Energy was the second major firm pursued by the I-T Department for taxes it believed had accrued in the past, using retro-active legislative changes introduced in the 2012 Budget by then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee. The original target for this move, that has sharply dented India’s credibility, was Vodafone, which had secured a Supreme Court verdict against the tax department’s demands for past transactions. Empowered to dig up similar transactions, involving the indirect transfer of assets situated in India, the I-T Department had, since 2014, pursued Cairn over a group restructuring undertaken in 2006, culminating in a tax demand of as much as ₹24,500 crore. Cairn and Vodafone had initiated arbitration proceedings against the Indian tax authorities’ actions, and won in late 2020. But in Cairn’s case, the taxman had recovered part of its ‘dues’ by forcibly selling its shares even as arbitration proceedings were pending — an action that led to The Hague awarding it penal damages of $1.2 billion.
As part of the Government’s compromise formula worked out belatedly last August through amendments in the tax law, Cairn had to drop all legal proceedings seeking to enforce the arbitration award against India, forgo the damages and indemnify the Government against all future claims or liabilities. Last month, Vodafone also availed these provisions. The Government should, on its part, work swiftly to process their paperwork and preferably remit their dues before the financial year concludes. While this will be a necessary first step towards restoring some of the damage caused to Brand India, it may not be immediately sufficient — from labelling it as tax terrorism while in the Opposition, this government dithered on corrective action till its eighth year in office. Even in the eight months following the loss of the Cairn arbitration, it shuffled its feet, from denial and obfuscation to working out legal amendments to fix the mess. The only ostensible trigger for the change was global courts approving seizure of Indian assets as Cairn sought to enforce the arbitration award. Whether this was an outcome of bureaucratic bravado, official obstinacy, political paralysis or a combination of all three, India needs to abandon such fickleness and demonstrate greater certainty and predictability across economic policy, be it about GST or global trade engagement, in order to bolster its credentials as an ideal investment destination.