Last Week in India: 09-15 August 2021
Independence Anniversary Amidst Threats to Freedom
Among last week’s developments most significant for India, three stood at several removes of space and time. Afghanistan is collapsing before a startlingly victorious Taliban offensive, the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was released in Geneva and India observed the 75th anniversary of Independence, on the eve of which Prime Minister Modi declared that August 14th would now be observed as the Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. It is, of course, sheer coincidence that August 14 happens to be Pakistan’s National Day, when it celebrates its founding and independence from colonial rule.
Over the last week, India administered 37 million doses of Covid vaccines, bringing the total number of doses delivered to 543.8 million. The active caseload came down from 406,822 to 385,336. The number of daily new infections declined over the week from 39,070 to 36,083.
The July rise in the consumer price index dipped below 6%, the upper bound of the central bank’s target range, after several months. The Sensex continued its heady rise, less attached to terra firma than a geostationary satellite that the Indian Space Research Organisation tried but failed to launch.
Parliament continued to be stalled, with the Opposition refusing to give up its demand for a discussion on snooping, using Israeli spyware Pegasus, on at least a few hundred individuals, ranging from Supreme Court judges, Union government ministers and Opposition leaders to journalists, and the government refusing to budge. However, the Opposition cooperated in amending a law that created the Other Backward Castes Commission that had taken away from the states their power to determine whether a caste was backward or not. Wooing the backward castes is seen to be vital, both for the ruling BJP and the Opposition, in the run-up to the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh.
In his Independence Day address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Prime Minister Modi took credit for extending the 27% Other Backward Caste reservations to the 15% of seats in state-government-run medical colleges that are set aside for students from anywhere in India, and not reserved for students from the state where the college is located. There is an additional 10% quota for economically weaker sections of the non-backward. The PM did not mention the fact that the Centre did not have much of a choice in the matter, after a Madras High Court order asking it to institute the quota for backward caste students and a judicial threat to initiate contempt of court proceedings against the Centre for its failure to act on that order for nearly a year. Perhaps, he forgot to say this. After all, he had a long list of things to tell the people.
This August 15, India completes 74 years of Independence, making this Independence Day the 75th — the first is the one that marked freedom at midnight, the first anniversary is observed on the second Independence Day, the second anniversary on the third, and so on. The PM wants the next 25 years to be observed as Amrut Kaal, or the Auspicious Phase, during which he has exhorted Indians to strive to make India a developed country that blurs the distinction between rural and urban, erases the divide between the genders and makes all sections of India partake of the fruits of development. Startups are mushrooming in tier 2 and tier 3 towns, he said, and promised a new e-commerce platform that would allow rural businesses to reach consumers in towns and in export markets. Perhaps, he has not noticed that Amazon and Flipkart (Wal-Mart’s Indian avatar, after acquiring a successful Indian e-commerce startup) already let a whole lot of small businesses access markets far away from their home locations.
Borrowing from Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital, the government has announced a scheme of firm, clear titles to land parcels in rural India, which would allow landowners to leverage their holdings into productive capital. Of course, several states have already sorted out and digitized their land records. But in several others, where land ceiling laws have been circumvented by registering land in assorted names of people who have no control over what they technically own, it remains to be seen how drones that map landholdings can overcome the class and caste dominance of landlords. But it does have a nice ring to it, as had ending black money through demonetisation of large denomination notes and finishing off Covid with one three-week lockdown in March 2020, when these announcements were made.
The PM also announced an integrated transport and logistics project, spanning fast trains, waterways, new airports, expressways and sophisticated governance. This would be welcome. He touted the Production-Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme as a great booster of domestic manufacture and gave the example of how India has moved from importing $8 billion worth of mobile phones to exporting $3 billion worth of phones. Being the PM, he saw the big picture, not the nitty-gritty of how much of phone components, including the CPU or SOC, the radio bits, memory, RAM and ROM, the touch screen and other bits of advanced electronics that make a phone work, got imported, so that Indian manufacturers could snap them into locally vocal plastic covers screwed together with locally produced screws turned by locally skilled workers for a make-believe success of ‘Make in India for the World’.
Standing apart from this subsidy for manufacturing charade, the Tatas have announced major plans to make advanced microelectronics in the country, starting with semiconductors and the ecosystem of machines needed to make semiconductors. Can India aspire to strategic autonomy in a world where the chips that go into its missiles and missile silos and submarines are manufactured and potentially remote-controlled by foreign powers, however well-disposed to India these are for the time being? China is being forced, by US denial of advanced microelectronics to Chinese firms, to develop indigenous capability. The US, Russia, China and India have their own geopositioning satellites because reliance on foreign ones could end up in a devastating loss of navigation, if those foreign satellites are shut down by their foreign owners at crucial moments. If India needs a PLI, it is for advanced manufacturing with a bearing on its strategic capacity, not for making phones and toys.
In his Independence Day address, the PM made much of strengthening marginal farmers, who own less than 2 hectares of land (one hectare is almost 2.5 acres) and account for 80% of all farmers. Now, in some parts of the country, where the soil is fertile and water, plentiful, 2 ha is enough to sustain a family. In most parts of India, 2 ha is too small to eke out a living. The PM spoke of bringing new technology and cooperatives to strengthen these tiny farms. Perhaps, a happier solution lies in shifting a whole lot of marginal farmers into more productive occupations in towns, while their tiny patches of land are consolidated into more economic holdings. The output per worker in agriculture is one-seventh the output per worker in non-farm activity. The more people shift out of farming into organized services and industry, the better off the population would be. In no prosperous part of the world do people who work on farms account for more than single-digit proportions of the population. In India, nearly half the workforce toil on land.
In his speech, the PM also reiterated his announcement of the previous evening, that August 14 would henceforth be observed as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. Indeed, the Partition of India is one of the bloodiest episodes of human history, replete with tales of savagery and tragedy whose raw edge even Sadat Hasan Manto’s unsentimental telling blunts. Why do we need a day to remember them three-quarters of a century later? Those who define Hindutva as cultural nationalism in learned seminars, while not quaffing cups of cappuccino or popping edamame into their mouths, have a ready answer: for reasons similar to why we remember the Holocaust or the bombing of Hiroshima: lest we forget, to prevent recurrence. But, in places where love jihad and population explosion are shrill parts of the public discourse, is that remembrance of Partition horrors meant to argue against schism or to prise open healed wounds and fill them with squirmy maggots?
If the state of Independent India was born out of Partition on the basis of religion, a proto-state is about to be killed in Afghanistan, in the name of religion. The Taliban have captured all major towns, save Kabul. Afghan women and girls prepare to time-travel to medieval mores. Symbols of modernity evaporate like the morning frost. Islamabad celebrates. America and Europe shrug and remain steadfast in their determination to let the Afghans do what they want to other Afghans, without further sacrifice of life and treasure on their part. India’s chairmanship of the UN Security Council has helped Modi preside over a conference on maritime security but not to mobilise support in favour of the Afghan people or in India’s own interest in preventing Afghanistan from turning into a breeding ground for non-state actors controlled by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
Last week, the Supreme Court lost one of its more competent judges, as Justice Rohinton Nariman retired. Opposition politics got a little stronger, nourished with the good food Congress leader Kapil Sibal served to a range of Opposition worthies at a dinner he hosted.
Meanwhile, the Sixth Report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made it clear that an emergency is afoot. More on that at http://bit.do/TK-federal-climatechange .