* Editorial 1

Mobs and rulers masquerading as leaders cannot be allowed to dismantle a marvellously democratic experiment

Harish Khare

It can be safely presumed that an American President was invited to our shores because we wanted him to see for himself our ‘new India’. And, it can also be asserted with confidence that the India the visitor from Washington ended up seeing was an old India, drenched in medieval animosities and passions. And, if it is to be assumed, as is being suggested by the ruling party’s apologists, that a ‘conspiracy’ was afoot to mar the Donald Trump visit then we are staring at a terrible failure of all our institutional arrangements and of our rulers’ pretentious assertions. This failure has been in the making for some time now, and can get only aggravated because our cunning political saviours remain indifferent to their obligation to strive for healing and harmony in society.

De-legitimising a movement

The rough and ready violence, witnessed in Delhi these last few days, had almost become a certainty because with each passing day it was becoming imperative to de-legitimise Shaheen Bagh and the resistance it came to symbolise against a flawed and discriminatory law like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, 2019. For over two months, the entire nation has seen images of Muslim women, old and young, staying put, peacefully, braving Delhi’s winter, refusing to get provoked by threats or temptations.

Shaheen Bagh also saw Muslims innovatively using ‘national’ symbols — the Constitution, the Flag and the Anthem — to assert their rights as citizens and as a religious minority. Soon ‘Shaheen Bagh’ became a secular project, even though the ‘boots’ were provided mostly by the Muslim community. A new civic imagination was at work, and, what was more, ‘Shaheen Bagh’ also acquired a moral sheen and attracted global media attention. And, before the managers of ‘new India’ could catch their breath, Muslim women across the land were replicating ‘Shaheen Baghs’ in towns and cities. A new defiance was crawling its way to the centre of our political landscape. This was deeply galling to those who thought they had the dominant control over the street, the media and the national imagination.

The Shaheen Bagh experiment and its peacefulness became deeply frustrating for those who had conceptualised the new citizenship law as a clever project in political polarisation. Even more exasperating for these self-styled chankayas was a failure to cast Shaheen Bagh as a case of “Muslim uprising”. Shaheen Bagh became a perplexing affront to our new rulers who have come to believe that state repression can overcome any political dissent and democratic resistance. Shaheen Bagh, with all its imaginative invocation of republican values and secular chants, had become an ideological eye-sore to the impresarios of a ‘New India.’ Something had to give.

After the election rebuff

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership, overloaded with self-belief, saw an opportunity in the Delhi Assembly election. From the Union Home Minister downward, the BJP leaders, from all over India, were commandeered for election duty in Delhi where they worked themselves into frenzy, inciting violence and invoking ‘deshbhakti’. The voters were invited to send out a message to the Shaheen Bagh protesters. The BJP strategy was to convert the Delhi Assembly polls into a referendum on its politics of religious polarisation and the presumed popularity of its leaders. The Delhi voters denied, firmly and clearly, the BJP this endorsement. Undaunted by the humiliating defeat, the BJP leadership and its cheer-leaders refused to acknowledge the rebuff, and, instead, chose to take comfort from the party’s vote-share and applied itself once again to provoking the Shaheen Bagh constituency. What followed was BJP leader Kapil Mishra’s ultimatum to the Delhi Police to clear the roads of anti-CAA protesters in Jaffrabad.

Perhaps the BJP leadership had also shrewdly gauged the unhappiness in the traditional Muslim leadership with the Shaheen Bagh model — the women were in the forefront whereas the mullahs, the imams and maulvis had been pushed into the background. The Shaheen Bagh model is as much a challenge to familiar ‘community leaders’ as it was to the saffron extremists. The traditional Muslim leaders were losing control over their women and the ‘kaum’. The traditionalists were deeply disconcerted that the Supreme Court-appointed interlocutors were engaging with the women at Shaheen Bagh, and not with them.

Nor could the BJP leadership have been unaware that just a few miles across Shaheen Bagh in Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh the police force had been let loose on anti-CAA dissenters. Tales of excesses by the U.P. police against the Muslim community floated across the Yamuna, inducing doubts about the efficacy of a peaceful, silent Shaheen Bagh; but worse was the total absence of any institutional restraint on a vindictive regime in Lucknow. Neither the judiciary nor the political parties nor the media nor civil society was able to intervene effectively against a biased, rogue police force. There was anger — and, helplessness — in the Muslim ‘street’. The traditional hotheads knew that Muslim lumpens and under-classes were on a short fuse.

Two extremist factional impulses had a convergence: the coherence and solidarity of the Shaheen Bagh model and its secular promise had to be undermined; the Constitution-waving crowd had to be dissolved into a mob. This convergence finally produced the explosion in Delhi over the weekend. The veterans of the 2002 Gujarat riots perhaps thought that they had a mastery over the art of choreographing street violence. The sly manipulators can take some comfort that finally the capital has witnessed a full-scale communal riot, first since the 1984 carnage against Sikhs; there must be considerable satisfaction in some quarters that we are back on the familiar Hindu-Muslim divide terrain, with an enticing prospect of a rich electoral dividend.

Defeating sectarianism

But this is also precisely the moment to remind ourselves that this ugly denouement was inevitable, given the Modi regime’s barely concealed commitment to dismantling the inclusive and pluralistic elements of the Nehruvian consensus. And, that is the challenge: are our constitutional institutions and instruments robust enough to roll back a ‘this-land-belongs-to-the Hindus-only’ politics? A deeply divided society may reward a few practitioners of conspicuous bigotry but it becomes the sacred duty of all our democratic arrangements to defeat a sectarian regime and its perverse policies and priorities.

The other day, a judge of the Supreme Court of India, Justice Deepak Gupta, came very close to identifying the crux of our — and our rulers’ — dilemma. “Rule of majority is an integral part of democracy but majoritarianism is an anti-thesis of democracy,” argued Justice Gupta. The judge reiterated the basic principle: a political party could possibly come to power, winning 51% of the popular vote, but that did not mean that the remaining 49% were to remain dis-empowered for the next five years. This simple truism should be obvious to one and all, yet it took a Justice Gupta to remind us that the Constitution of India imposes an inescapable obligation on every single office — from the President of India to the Prime Minister down to the lowly police constable — to work for the welfare of all citizens.

It is this kind of clear-headedness that the Shaheen Bagh imagination had sought to re-kindle. The Shaheen Bagh protest is anchored in a hope and a belief that a democratic arrangement can find peaceful ways of addressing the grievances and anxieties of a minority. And, it would be an unmitigated tragedy for Indian democracy if the violence instigated in Delhi is used to delegitimise Shaheen Bagh’s democratic potential and promise. Inshallah (National Security Adviser Ajit Doval permitting).

Harish Khare is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Aadhaar-based biometric authentication did not reduce PDS leakages, finds Jharkhand-based empirical study

FILE PHOTO/APManish Swarup

“Aadhaar has curtailed leakages of government subsidies... Through Aadhaar, savings worth ₹90,000 crore have accrued to the government,” said Ajay Bhushan Pandey, then CEO of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) and current Revenue Secretary, in their 2017-18 annual report.

But not so fast, say Professors Karthik Muralidharan, Paul Niehaus and Sandip Sukthankar. They have just published a new working paper (https://bit.ly/2T2wSe8) in the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research, which details findings from an extensive empirical study of the impact of Aadhaar in reducing leakages and accruing fiscal savings.

When Aadhaar was conceived a decade ago, the rationale postulated was: India spends nearly three trillion rupees a year across several core welfare programmes such as Public Distribution System (PDS), LPG, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act etc; roughly 30-40% of this is lost in leakages; leakages are largely due to ‘ghost’ and ‘duplicate’ beneficiaries using fake identities to avail these benefits; a unique identity biometric scheme can eliminate these leakages and vastly improve efficiency in welfare delivery. In fact, the former Union Minister, Arun Jaitley, even renamed the Aadhaar Bill to ‘Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services’ Bill, making it amply clear that Aadhaar’s primary, if not sole purpose, was to improve welfare delivery efficiency. The Bill’s renaming was also a clever by half attempt to legislate it as a money bill, thereby avoiding debate and scrutiny in the Upper House.

This new research paper, the first comprehensive field study of Aadhaar, offers a sobering counter to all of us, “Aadhaarphiles”, who truly believed that Aadhaar was the panacea for India’s leaky welfare regime.

The findings

Professor Muralidharan and the rest of the team tell us that Aadhaar by itself has no impact in reducing leakages significantly. They conducted a scientifically designed study of the PDS system in Jharkhand covering 15 million beneficiaries using the technique of randomised control trials (RCT). The study was set up in a manner where one set of beneficiaries went through the Aadhaar-based biometric authentication while the other group used the old system of procuring their ration. The results were then compared to see if Aadhaar-based biometric authentication had any impact in reducing leakages.

The study concluded that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication had no measurable benefit. Aadhaar-based biometric authentication did not reduce leakages due to elimination of ghosts and duplicates, as widely perceived. On the other hand, they found that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication increased transaction costs for beneficiaries. That is, to claim ration worth ₹40, beneficiaries in the Aadhaar system incurred an additional ₹7 of costs than those in the old system, because of multiple trips to authenticate themselves and the opportunity cost of time spent. This is a whopping 17% extra cost burden of the value of the benefit they were entitled to receive.

To make matters worse, Aadhaar-based biometric authentication also introduced what empirical scientists call Type I error of exclusion. In simple terms, Aadhaar authentication falsely rejected genuine PDS beneficiaries who were then denied their ration supplies. The study finds that nearly 10% of legitimate beneficiaries were denied their ration either because they did not have their Aadhaar linked to their ration card or due to an exclusion error.

In summary, the study states that there was no direct impact of Aadhaar in reducing leakages but it denied ration to 10% of genuine beneficiaries and increased costs by 17% to those that were forced to get their ration using Aadhaar. They conclude that Aadhaar authentication for PDS in Jharkhand caused “some pain with no gain”. Put simply, Mr. Pandey’s boast of ₹90,000 crore savings solely due to Aadhaar is hollow.

These findings are sure to shock many who genuinely believed Aadhaar could be the ‘game changer’ in welfare delivery. The study was undertaken by eminent scholars using scientific techniques and published in a respected academic journal. So, there is no need to doubt its veracity or intent. The findings of Professor Muralidharan and the rest of the team also expose many larger fault lines in India’s approach to policy making.

No testing

There was widespread belief among the policy elite that ghosts and duplicates were the scourge of India’s welfare delivery and that Aadhaar would eliminate this. But this belief was never empirically tested. It was deemed to be true simply because the intellectual elite said so. Based on this belief, an entire story was concocted about improving welfare efficiency through eliminating ghosts and duplicates with Aadhaar and a whole new law was enacted to this effect.

Many studies now establish that ghosts and duplicates are not the significant cause of leakages. Would it not have been better to have undertaken a robust pilot project of scale to test the belief about ghosts and duplicates, before embarking on it nationwide?

GST parallel

This is much like the boisterous claim of policy economists for over a decade that a multitude of State taxes are a drag on inter-State commerce and hence a nationwide Goods and Services Tax (GST) by stripping States of their fiscal autonomy is badly needed. There was no empirical evidence to back this claim. Three years after GST, the promise of vastly improved inter-State trade and a two percentage point boost to GDP seem distant while States are hurting badly with sole dependence on the Centre for their taxes.

The other fault line in policy making that this new study exposes is the engineer’s way of measuring policy outcomes only through the prism of numerical efficiency. In an engineer’s world, if say, nine people are denied welfare due to a system error while nine million are benefited through greater efficiency, then it is considered a net benefit for society and the policy is given a thumbs up. But in a sociologist’s world and in a liberal society, a policy that could run the risk of denying welfare to just a few people, putting their lives at risk, is not worth implementing regardless of how many millions it benefits. Aadhaar was held hostage to the engineer’s worldview of policy efficacy.

Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and a senior office bearer of the Indian National Congress party. He was a member of Aadhaar in 2010

The rapid spread of COVID-19 outside China is cause for concern

Even as the number of laboratory confirmed cases in Wuhan and other parts of mainland China has come down in the last few days (78,497 cases and 2,744 deaths as on February 27), the spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19 disease remains unchecked in a few countries. The number of countries/regions that have so far reported at least one confirmed case has also gone up in the past week — 3,346 cases from 49 countries as on February 27. This does not include the 705 confirmed cases on a cruise ship in Japanese waters. Till some time back, the cases on board the vessel were the highest outside China. But that changed on February 24 when the total number of cases reported from South Korea stood at 763, overshooting the number of cases on the ship. With 1,766 cases and 13 deaths, South Korea has the most number of infections outside China as on February 27. Beyond the high number of cases reported from South Korea, what is indeed alarming is the rate of viral spread. From just 51 cases and no deaths on February 20, the number of cases has grown rapidly each day during the last seven days. Many of the cases in the country are linked to a religious cult group. At their services in the south-eastern city of Daegu, the virus spread to many in the group, who in turn fanned out around the country, aiding viral transmission. As on February 23, the number of cases traced to the Daegu church is more than half the nation’s total of infected people. What has made it arduous for South Korea in containing the spread is the difficulty in tracing the contacts of cult members as they prefer not to disclose their affiliation to the church.

The spread has been equally alarming in Iran though the numbers are far fewer compared with South Korea. From just two cases on February 20, the numbers in Iran increased to 245 on February 27; there have been 26 deaths too, the highest outside China. And from three countries in the WHO East Mediterranean region on February 21, it has increased to nine now. For the first time, one case each has been reported from South America (Brazil) and WHO African Region (Algeria). With 528 confirmed cases on Thursday, the number of those infected in Italy is more than double that of Iran; there have been 14 deaths as well. In contrast, cases have been increasing only slowly in Hong Kong; Singapore has almost cut the transmission cycle. Be it the over 500 cases in about half-a-dozen jails in China, to the large number of cases on the cruise ship and large clusters seen in churches in South Korea and Singapore, it becomes apparent that mass gatherings in enclosed spaces are an ideal ground for the virus to spread. This raises the question whether shutting down Wuhan and other cities in China, thus locking both healthy and infected people together, had provided a fertile ground for the virus to spread.

Climate change impact warnings for Eastern Ghats underscore need for forest protection

If the Western Ghats are the crown jewels of India’s natural heritage, the Eastern Ghats spread across some 75,000 sq. km. from Odisha to southern Tamil Nadu, play an important dual role: fostering biodiversity and storing energy in trees. In these mountains exist a reservoir of about 3,000 flowering plant species, nearly 100 of them endemic, occurring in the dry deciduous, moist deciduous and semi-evergreen landscapes. Many animals, including tigers and elephants, and some 400 bird species are found in these discontinuous forests that receive an annual average rainfall of 1,200 mm to 1,500 mm. Crucially, many parts, primarily in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, provide forest produce and ecosystem services to millions. Given the key functions that the lands perform, in modulating climate, fostering biodiversity and providing sustenance, new research findings arguing that the Ghats face a serious threat from climate change, and temperature variations are a cause for worry. It is noteworthy that a disruption of the annual average temperature and diminished rainfall would rob the productivity of these forests, in terms of their ability to store carbon, and provide subsistence material. Existing data point to the impoverishment of areas experiencing rainfall reduction in the driest quarter of the year and a rise in seasonal temperature, through reduced plant species diversity and a dominant role for herbs over trees.

Protecting the Eastern Ghats, which are separated by powerful rivers — the Godavari and Krishna, to name just two — is an ecological imperative. India is committed, under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes through enhanced forest and tree cover. Yet, forest protection policies have often failed dismally. By some estimates, the Ghats have shrunk by 16% over the past century, and just one region, Papikonda National Park, lost about 650 sq. km. in two decades from 1991. Relieving the pressure on forests can be done through policies that reduce extraction of scarce resources and incentivise settled agriculture. Schemes for restoration of forest peripheries through indigenous plant and tree species, matching national commitments, could qualify for international climate finance, and must be pursued. At a broader level, the response to the warnings issued by researchers from IIT Kharagpur, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics and the University of Hyderabad in a recent publication on changes to temperature and rainfall calls for decisive steps to mitigate carbon emissions. Improving tree cover nationally is certain to confer multiple benefits, including modulation of the monsoon, improved air quality and wider spaces for biodiversity to persist.

Delhi’s shame

Citizen’s welfare is the raison d’etre of a democratically elected government. But the Central government seems to be unaware of this. It has bluntly ignored basic issues such as employment, education, health care. These issues are neither discussed nor worked upon. The only thing the government is interested in is to create and step up the communal divide in the country.

The situation in Delhi is very condemnable but what is even more disgraceful and upsetting is the government’s inaction. We elect representatives and rather than have the judiciary appointing mediators, it is necessary that our elected representatives themselves “come down” to the ground and negotiate the terms with the anti-CAA protesters. It is insane to let citizens die due to an issue on citizenship. Democracy is all about involving all stakeholders in decision-making processes. Representatives of the world’s largest democracy have failed in meeting certain basic expectations (Page 1, “Death toll rises to 27 in Delhi violence”, February 27).

Kirti Sharma,

Mohali, Punjab

If the National Security Adviser can try and facilitiate peace, why policemen with guns and lathis could not manage to control the crowd violence is a bit puzzling. Top leaders in the Central government went out in Delhi to explain the CAA in a door-to-door campaign. Soon after elections were announced in Delhi, the entire team again went door to door to seek support and votes. Several road shows were also organised in many parts of Delhi.

But why is there no show now by either ruling party members or the Indian National Congress and the AAP when two communities were allowed to attack each other in the name of pro- and anti-CAA protests? All this shows that the leaders find the means to light fires of hate but look for someone else to douse the destructive flames.

N. Nagarajan,

Secunderabad

India shortchanged?

Though the opinion is that the high octane visit of the President of the United States to India has succeeded in boosting ties between the two acclaimed democracies, the fact is that the short trip has only proved to be more advantageous and beneficial to America (Editorial, “Signs and substance”, and “Trouble lurks behind the bilateral bonhomie”, both February 27). While heaping praise on India as an “economic giant”, POTUS has clinched great business deals on weapons and energy for his country. But, in return India is still stuck with the tag of a “developed country” making it a candidate for trade subsidy investigations. Even the expectations of putting back India on the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) programme, the removal of which has denied India duty-free entry for up to $5.6-billion worth of annual exports to U.S., have been belied. The Comprehensive Strategic Global Partnership that has been announced sounds exciting but is amorphous, especially in the absence of any progress in the Indo-Pacific partnership or a more substantial trade deal.

Kosaraju Chandramouli,

Hyderabad

Sharapova retires

It is her spirit and sheer grit and determination that have sustained Maria Sharapova, a graceful and elegant player, in her tennis journey. One wonders where she intends to compete now “on a different kind of terrain”. She will certainly be missed.

N. Visveswaran,

Chennai

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