The HINDU Notes – 17th February 2018 - VISION

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Saturday, February 17, 2018

The HINDU Notes – 17th February 2018

📰 SC curtails T.N.’s share of Cauvery water

Court awards 14.75 tmc ft more to Karnataka, part of it for BengaluruKarnataka directed to release177.25 tmc ft at Biligundlu pointTamil Nadu advised to tap 10 tmc ftof groundwater available with it

•It only refers to the 2007 tribunal award which had vaguely dealt with the issue by saying that the allocated shares of water would be “proportionately reduced” among Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.

•The court gave the Centre six weeks’ time to frame a Cauvery water-sharing scheme under Section 6A of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act of 1956. The scheme has to be in consonance with the CWDT’s award and the changes introduced by the Supreme Court though this judgment.

•The Supreme Court on Friday gifted Karnataka 14.75 tmc (thousand million cubic feet) of Cauvery water from Tamil Nadu’s share, reasoning that Karnataka has historically suffered “limited access to and use” of the river water.

•A three-judge Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, said there is “confirmatory empirical data” that Tamil Nadu has 20 tmc groundwater available with it. The court asked Tamil Nadu to draw out at least 10 tmc groundwater instead of banking on Cauvery water from Karnataka. In fact, the judgment even cites Karnataka’s submission that groundwater, if not extracted regularly, would run waste.

•“We are not unmindful of the stand of Tamil Nadu and the aspect that over-extraction of groundwater in the absence of adequate replenishment and further in the areas proximate to the coastal zone is generally avoidable...” the Supreme Court said, but added that the step is necessary to balance interests involved.

•The remaining 4.75 tmc of the 14.75 tmc would be diverted to the people of Bengaluru for their domestic and drinking purposes. The judgment said the drinking water needs of Karnataka, especially the burgeoning and global Bengaluru city, was somehow “ignored” in the water-sharing agreement reached by the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT) in 2007. “Drinking water needs of human beings and animals should be the first charge on any available water,” said Chief Justice Misra, who authored the verdict.

Under drought

•Compared to Tamil Nadu, the court found that Karnataka, despite being the upper riparian State on the Cauvery basin, has 28 districts still reeling under drought.

•“This inability of the State of Karnataka to develop its land for irrigation in the background of its persistent cavil of being deprived of its legitimate share and use of the water of Cauvery cannot be ignored... We consider Karnataka to be more deserving amongst the competing States,” the three-judge Bench, also comprising Justices Amitava Roy and A.M. Khanwilkar, decided.

•The 14.75 tmc for Karnataka would be taken from the 192 tmc Cauvery water supplied by Karnataka from its Biligundlu site to Mettur dam in Tamil Nadu. This means that Karnataka would now supply 177.25 tmc. So, out of a total of 740 tmc available in the 802-km long Cauvery, the Supreme Court determined that Karnataka would now get 284.75 (270 + 14.75) tmc, Tamil Nadu’s share has been reduced from 419 tmc to 404.25, while Kerala and Puducherry would continue to be allocated 30 tmc and seven tmc, respectively.

•The court allowed Puducherry’s request to grow a second crop. However, cultivation should be limited to 43,000 acres. The judgment rejected Kerala’s request for a diversion of the Cauvery water for its hydro-power projects. The apex court also maintained the 10 tmc allocated for environmental protection and spared another four tmc for “inevitable escapages” of Cauvery water into the sea. The judgment however does not provide for distress years when water in Cauvery basin depletes from the 740 tmc available during a normal year.

📰 ‘Cauvery a national asset, no exclusive ownership’

Supreme Court says principle of equality among riparian States does not imply equal division of water; suggests just and reasonable use

•An inter-State river like Cauvery is a ‘national asset’, and being in a state of flow, no State can claim exclusive ownership of its waters or assert a prescriptive right so as to deprive other States of their equitable share, the Supreme Court held on Friday.

•Basing its judgment on the equitable utilisation of inter-State river waters, the court said the precious right should be equally and reasonably shared by all States concerned.

•“While it is common and equal to all through whose land it (river) runs and no one can obstruct or divert it, yet as one of the beneficial gifts of Nature, each beneficiary has a right to just and reasonable use of it,” Chief Justice Dipak Misra wrote in the judgment.

Fair share

•This principle of equitable apportionment, as is now intrinsically embedded generally in a pursuit for apportionment of water of an international drainage basin straddling over two or more States, predicates that every riparian State is entitled to a fair share of the water according to its need, and is imbued with the philosophy that a river has been provided by nature for the common benefit of the community as a whole through whose territory it flows even though those territories may be divided by frontiers as postulated in law.

•However, the court said the “principle of equality” among the riparian States does not imply equal division of water. The apex court said, equality here means “equal consideration and equal economic opportunity of the co-basin States.”

•“To conceive that equality rests on equal sharing of water within an arithmetical formula, would be fundamentally violative of the established conception of equitable apportionment,” the Supreme Court observed.

•The court compared the sharing of inter-State river waters in India to the practices of sharing of international rivers among nations.

Helsinki example

•The Supreme Court referred to the Helsinki Rules of 1966, which recognise equitable use of water by each basin State taking into consideration the geography and hydrology of the basin, the climate, past utilisation of waters, economic and social needs, dependent population and availability of resources.

•The judgment also refers to the Campione Rules in the context of the Cauvery dispute. These Rules hold that basin States would in their respective territories manage the waters of an international drainage basin in an equitable and reasonable manner.

•The court referred to the National Water Policy, which had reiterated time and again that water is a “scarce and precious national asset.”

📰 Supply of drinking water is every State’s first priority: SC

Drinking water should be first priority, says SC

•The Supreme Court decision on Friday to allow an additional supply of 14.75 tmc ft. water for Karnataka is a leaf borrowed from the government’s National Water Policy that drinking water requirements of a State should be placed at the highest pedestal. The Cauvery judgment authored by a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra based the supply of water to Bengaluru on the ground that both the National Water Policy and also courts of different countries hold that drinking water should be given “first priority.” “The States shall first allocate waters to satisfy vital human needs,” the Supreme Court observed, while referring to international law provisions on water.

📰 Water equity

States, Centre should accept the finality ofthe Supreme Court’s decision on the Cauvery

•By upholding the approach of the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal, while slightly modifying its award, the Supreme Court has boosted the prospects of a viable water-sharing arrangement among the riparian States. That it has reduced the Tribunal’s allocation for Tamil Nadu and raised Karnataka’s share does detract from the fairness of the decision. It has underscored that no single State has primacy in accessing water resources and that rivers are national assets. This is a significant recognition of the principle of equitable distribution of inter-State rivers. The Supreme Court’s message is that the Centre should get down to creating a legal and technical framework to implement the Tribunal’s award, as modified by the judgment. This is the strongest affirmation so far of a basin State’s right to its share of water on a regular basis without having to rush to the court for ad hoc orders to open the sluices of reservoirs during monsoon-deficit years. It may be possible for either side to cavil at the judgment, questioning the reduction in quantum or the obligation to adhere to specified monthly release targets, but these would be exercises in political partisanship rather than legitimate grievances warranting legal redress. Tamil Nadu, as a State that has seen agrarian distress in its delta districts, ought to be satisfied with any prescribed allocation being met as per a schedule. Karnataka can take heart from the reduction in its mandatory release target and the additional share for Bengaluru. Neither State, in any case, should be aggrieved by the stipulation that equity is at the heart of a water-sharing arrangement.

•Resolving an inter-State water dispute is mainly about balancing the competing genuine demands and interests of each State and coming up with a pragmatic sharing arrangement. Rather than looking at the court’s decision from the narrow prism of the quantum of allocation, the parties would do well to see this as the culmination of a fair and scientific adjudicative process. They should pose no further impediment to the smooth implementation of the order and be prepared, for the next 15 years, to share both the bounty and distress caused by nature. By dithering, the Centre has not covered itself in glory throughout this protracted dispute. It took six years to notify the award, and even in the final hearing argued it was not obliged to frame a scheme for implementation. The argument was deservedly rejected. It should comply with the court’s direction and set up the Cauvery Management Board and Water Regulation Committee as part of the scheme. It will be unfortunate if the States and the Centre are reluctant to accept this verdict and refuse to acknowledge its finality. There is ample judicial wisdom in the country to adjudicate complex and emotive inter-State disputes, but the question is whether there are enough conscientious and cooperative parties to make judgments work.

📰 ‘Show source of income to contest polls’

•In a landmark move in poll reforms, the SC on Friday ruled that politicians, their spouses and associates must declare their sources of income, along with their assets, in order to qualify for contesting elections.

•It further directed the government to set up a permanent mechanism to monitor the accrual of wealth of sitting MPs and MLAs, their spouses and associates.

•“Their assets and sources of income are required to be continuously monitored to maintain the purity of the electoral process and integrity of the democratic structure,” a Bench of Justices J. Chelameswar and S. Abdul Nazeer told the government.

Ground for disqualification

•The judgment, authored by Justice Chelameswar, observed that “manifold and undue accretion of assets” by legislators or their associates by itself becomes a good ground for disqualification. “Gold is their God! They [legislators] are deputed by the people to get grievances redressed. But they become the grievance,” Justice Chelameswar said.

📰 How did system allow PNB fraud, asks CVC

Summons RBI, Ministry, bank officials for review of regulatory mechanisms

•The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), India’s apex body for checking corruption in the government, has summoned senior officials from the Reserve Bank of India, the Finance Ministry, along with the Chief Vigilance Officer of Punjab National Bank (PNB), early next week to assess how the ₹11,500 crore fraud reported on Wednesday by the government-owned PNB, slipped past all the in-built checks and balances in the banking system.

•An official aware of the development said the CVC would like to ascertain if there is a systemic issue that needs to be corrected, as it isn’t convinced by the bank’s claims that junior employees colluded with the fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi and other banks were to blame for not carrying out due diligence on the LoUs.

Three-level audit

•“Banks are audited at three levels — apart from an internal audit, there is an external auditor and a statutory audit undertaken by the RBI. The CVC is keen to understand how none of these audits picked up a red flag on the letters of undertaking that seem to have been issued bypassing the system,” said the official. Even as the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate conducted searches on Mr. Modi’s firms and his associates across the country on Friday, the External Affairs Ministry suspended his passports along with that of his relative Mehul Choksi.

•The Ministry said it would revoke their passports if they failed to respond to the notice of suspension within one week.

•A fresh case has been registered by the CBI against three Gitanjali group companies of Mr. Choksi, Mr. Modi’s uncle, for causing an alleged ₹4,887 crore loss to the Punjab National Bank. Quoting the FIR, an agency official on Friday said the transactions currently under scrutiny took place in 2017-18.

•A highly placed government official said the Income Tax Department has also initiated action against Mr. Modi under the Black Money (Undisclosed Foreign Income and Assets) and Imposition of Income Tax Act of 2015. “The I-T department has invoked provisions that allow it to provisionally attach properties of the assessee and 29 properties belonging to Mr. Modi, his wife and their group companies,” the official said.

•Meanwhile, the RBI broke its silence on the fraud and blamed internal control failures for PNB’s woes in a statement on Friday, terming the incident as a ‘case of operational risk’ due to ‘delinquent behaviour’ by one or more employees.

•“Searches are being conducted at a total of 32 locations in cities across five States, including Mumbai, Pune, Surat, Jaipur, Hyderabad and Coimbatore. These locations include offices and residences of the accused, and our teams are seizing large amounts of documents pertaining to the offence,” a CBI officer said.

•Meanwhile, the ED on Friday conducted searches at 35 locations across 11 States as part of its investigations into the money laundering aspects of the earlier FIR registered by the CBI on January 31 this year.

📰 Not a prescription for the poor

With out-patient costs outside its purview, the National Health Protection Scheme is unlikely to help those it wants to

•The National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS) is being hailed as the biggest takeaway for the aam aadmi in this year’s Budget. Given the noise that is being made around it, one is led into believing that the government has brought the nation into the next generation of health security. Quite expectedly, the Opposition, led by the Congress, has dubbed it “as nothing but a pack of lies”. As there are a few elections this year before the big and major one, the battle lines are being drawn. So, given this impasse in public discourse, how will anyone be able to judge it accurately? The only real way to judge the potential of the NHPS is to review the empirical evidence pertaining to some of the existing publicly-funded health insurance schemes, particularly the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY).

Old scheme

•At the outset, it should be pointed out that the RSBY was rechristened the NHPS in 2016. The Budget promised to provide insurance coverage to an estimated 50 crore poor beneficiaries through the NHPS. There are two problems with this claim. First, the RSBY which was launched in 2008, was initially designed to target only the Below Poverty Line (BPL) households. However, even after nine years of its implementation, only half the BPL families have been covered, according to government data. Further, there is a huge discrepancy between the coverage figures in government data and estimates from surveys. In the 71st round of the National Sample Survey (NSS), 11.1% of the population was covered by the RSBY and State health insurance schemes in 2014 but according to the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority, the population coverage of these schemes was 16.4%.

•A key reason for this discrepancy is the creation of bogus beneficiaries by insurance companies to earn premium subsidies from the government. Another reason is that while insurance companies have been given the premium subsidy for covering all eligible households in the respective States, the insurer reached out to only a fraction of the eligible population. For example, in 2016, only 2.45% eligible families were enrolled under Maharashtra’s Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Jan Arogya Yojana (MJPJAY) in 2016. Enrolment was also found to be very low in the Chief Minister’s Comprehensive Health Insurance Scheme, in Tamil Nadu, as shown in the NSS data.

•The second problem is related to the identification of poor households. According to the NSS data for 2014, among the poorest quintile, 12.7% of households received RSBY coverage, which accounted for 25.9% of all the RSBY enrolled households. On the other hand, about 36.52% of households enrolled in the RSBY were actually drawn from the richest 40% of the sample households. Further, almost half the households enrolled in the RSBY actually belonged to the non-poor category. The targeting process in RSBY has been fraught with exclusion errors.

Access issues

•It is important to underscore the fact that insurance coverage does not automatically translate into utilisation. According to the programme data, the hospitalisation rate was found to be as low as 1% among RSBY-insured individuals, compared to a national average of 2.6% for the general population as of 2014. The RSBY is not an exception in this regard. The utilisation rate of other insurance schemes is also very low. For example, the MJPJAY recorded a utilisation rate (calculated as the proportion of eligible persons with at least one in-patient claim during the year) of just 0.12% in 2013-14 and 0.18% in 2014-15.

•There is no evidence that the RSBY/NHPS has caused a reduction in out-of-pocket expenditure. Two very recent impact evaluation studies have reported that the RSBY has hardly had any impact on financial protection. Proponents of the NHPS might argue that the insurance coverage was limited in the RSBY, leading to patients incurring payments for hospitalisations. So, in ‘Modicare’, the benefit package has increased coverage substantially. However, the increase in allocations is unlikely to effectively address the problem of out-of-pocket expenditure.

•There are two reasons. First, international experience in publicly funded health insurance in unregulated private health-care markets suggests that in countries where the benefit package was expanded by raising only the insurance limit, private hospital care providers responded by substantially increasing the price of services. So, this kind of increase would actually mean a larger transfer of public money into private hands. This was also evident in recent actions by many private hospitals which withdrew from the RSBY as they were apparently not happy with the package rates. Hence, it is just a matter of time before private hospitals empanelled under the NHPS ask for higher package rates as seen in Karnataka or Andhra Pradesh where private network hospitals have threatened to pull out if their demands for higher rates are not met.

•Second, given the fact that out-patient care, the single largest contributor to out-of-pocket spending, is not included in the benefit package of the NHPS, the increase in the insurance limit will not be of much help. Moreover, in the absence of strong and effective government regulations for insurers and providers, well-recognised market failures such as supplier-induced demand will ensure that eligible families exhaust full coverage with little improvement in their well-being.

📰 Case histories

Without reform of the public health system, insurance schemes are but a band-aid solution

•The government’s intention to launch the world’s largest health insurance programme, the National Health Protection Scheme, raises an important issue. Should the focus be on the demand side of health-care finance when the supply side, the public health infrastructure, is in a shambles? Experience with insurance schemes, such as the Centre’s Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana and Andhra Pradesh’s Rajiv Aarogyasri, show how demand side interventions can miss the mark. While the RSBY and Aarogyasri did improve access to health-care overall, they failed to reach the most vulnerable sections. At times they led to unnecessary medical procedures and increased out-of-pocket expenditure for poor people, both of which are undesirable outcomes. These showed that unless the public health system can compete with the private in utilising funds from such insurance schemes, medical care will remain elusive for those who need it most. Policymakers behind the NHPS, which will cost the government around Rs. 5,000 crore in its first year, must take heed.

•Both RSBY and Aarogyasri are cashless hospitalisation schemes. While both benefited people living below the poverty line, over-reliance on private hospitals and poor monitoring watered down their impact. According to one Gujarat-based study, a majority of RSBY insured patients ended up spending about 10% of their annual income during hospitalisation, because hospitals still charged them, unsure as they were when they would be compensated. A study in Andhra Pradesh found that beneficiaries spent more from their own pockets under Aarogyasri. They spent most of their money on outpatient care, and Aarogyasri didn’t tackle this adequately. Possibly the most problematic fallout was mass hysterectomies done in Andhra Pradesh. Between 2008 and 2010, private hospitals removed the uteri of thousands of women unnecessarily, to make a quick buck. Thus, perverse incentives can drive the private sector to sabotage schemes that are not well monitored. The second problem with over-reliance on the private sector is that it limits the reach of such programmes. Evidence from RSBY and Aarogyasri shows that as distance from empanelled hospitals grew in Andhra and Gujarat, fewer people benefited from them — most empanelled hospitals are private and urban. Scheduled Tribe and rural households typically missed out, while richer quintiles of the population benefited. There can be much gained from the NHPS if the government views it as the first step towards universal health care, rather than a panacea to all of India’s health-care woes. The second, and a long-awaited, step is to reform the public health system. Without this, an insurance scheme, no matter how ambitious, will be a band-aid.

📰 PNB fraud, a failure of internal control: RBI

Denies directing PNB to pay its peers

•The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) said the failure of internal controls was the main reason for the Rs. 11,500 crore fraud that occurred in Punjab National Bank (PNB).

‘Operational risk’

•The banking regulator, in its first reaction since the issue came to light on Wednesday, described the fraud as a case of operational risk arising out of delinquent behaviour by the bank’s employees.

•“The fraud in PNB is a case of operational risk arising on account of delinquent behaviour by one or more employees of the bank and failure of internal controls,” the central bank said.

•RBI said it was assessing the situation and would take appropriate supervisory action.

•“RBI has already undertaken a supervisory assessment of control systems in PNB and will take appropriate supervisory action,” it said. RBI denied directing PNB to pay other banks.

📰 Brewing higher profits and saving birds on the farm

Arabica coffee helps both farmers and wild birds in the Ghats

•Coffee lovers may be discerning about their sweet arabica brews and the bolder robusta ones, but both types help maintain the diversity of wild birds in the Western Ghats. One, a little more than the other.

•Arabica grows under the deep shade of native trees, with benefits for both farmers and birds. The surprise is that Robusta, also grown under native shade, is not far behind in the Ghats, unlike in other parts of the world.

•These insights from a group of researchers were published yesterday in the journal Scientific Reports .

•Native trees are cut down to grow robusta, in order to give it more sunlight, earning this coffee the tag of being inhospitable to wildlife. In Vietnam, for instance, full-sun coffee growth occurred at the expense of native trees. India too has leaned towards robusta: between 1950 and 2015, planted area under robusta grew by 840% while arabica grew by 327%.

•Scientists from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS-India) and USA’s Princeton University compared bird diversity in 61 arabica and robusta estates across Chikkamagaluru, Hassan and Kodagu districts in Karnataka.

Some surprises

•What they found is that the plantations supported 79 species of forest-dependent birds in all, but arabica estates hosted twice the number of endemic birds than robusta. They also supported more birds that depend on forests, and eat fruits, insects and other food. Interviews with 344 coffee-growers showed that arabica was more profitable, with returns of around Rs. 1 lakh per hectare.

•Yet, surprisingly, robusta plantations also hosted high bird diversity. “To our surprise, robusta agroforests had much higher diversity of birds that are specifically adapted to the habitat than we expected,” says scientist Krithi Karanth of WCS-India, who led the study.

•Since robusta farmers in the Western Ghats retain native trees, they have been able to preserve the complex canopy structure, setting them apart from others worldwide, says Ms. Karanth.

•“Though the current selling rate for robusta is only around Rs. 3,000 for a 50-kg-bag, it is easier to grow,” explains Suresh M. D., who owns a one-acre coffee plantation of both coffee types.

📰 Solar alliance biggest win since Paris accord, says PM

It aims to mobilise $1,000 billion in investments by 2030

•The biggest development on tackling climate change since the Paris Accord of 2015 has been the International Solar Alliance, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inaugural session of the World Sustainable Development Summit. “India and France initiated the International Solar Alliance.

•It already has 121 members [countries] and is perhaps the single most important global achievement since the Paris Agreement of 2015,” he told a crowd of students, Ministers and delegates from 40 countries.

•“While the world was discussing Inconvenient Truth [a reference to the 2006 documentary on global warming] we translated it into Convenient Action,” he added. The International Solar Alliance (ISA) that aims at increasing solar energy deployment in member countries, came into legal, independent existence in December and is the first treaty-based international intergovernmental organisation to be based out of India.

•The ISA aims to mobilise more than $1,000 billion in investments by 2030 for “massive deployment” of solar energy, pave the way for future technologies adapted to the needs of moving to a fossil-free future and keep global temperatures from rising above 2°C by the end of the century.

India’s target

•India has committed itself to having 175,000 MW of renewed energy in the grid by 2022.

•As part of the agreement, India will contribute $27 million (Rs. 175.5 crore approximately) to the ISA for creating corpus, building infrastructure and recurring expenditure over five years from 2016-17 to 2020-21.

•The ISA was launched on November 30, 2015 in Paris, on the sidelines of COP-21, the UN climate conference.

📰 Chandrayaan-II to be launched in April

Mission will cost about Rs. 800 crore

•India’s second moon mission, Chandrayaan-II, which would land a rover on the lunar surface is expected to be launched in April, Minister of State, Atomic Energy and Space Dr. Jitendra Singh said on Friday.

•“It is Chandrayaan-I which discovered water on the moon. This will be an extension of that,” Dr. Singh said.

•Chandrayaan-II would cost about Rs. 800 crore. It presented many technological challenges as it had three components: an orbiter, a lander and a moon rover.

•Dr. Sivan of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) said the launch window was April to October and they would attempt to launch it in April.

•The orbiter had a life of one year while the lander and the rover were designed to last a lunar day, which was 14 days, as they worked on solar power.

•A location had been identified at the Moon’s South Pole to drop the lander and rover.

•“This site had not been explored by anyone before,” Dr. Sivan added.

📰 Science should have the last word

As India continues to be hidebound with tradition and rituals, the need for ‘scientific temper’ is essential as never before

•A few years ago, I was at an international conference in Delhi which dealt with important issues arising from changes brought about by the rapid progress of science and technology. As the meeting progressed, with international experts highlighting the action needed in various fields, I began to feel uncomfortable, much like a diner at a sumptuous buffet searching desperately for that missing ingredient — a pinch of salt. The subject I wanted to hear about but which was being glossed over by the speakers was “scientific temper”. Ultimately, it was left to me to make a case for it, not only for the scientists but also for the common citizen, whatever his or her occupation.

•What is scientific temper? Let me cite a quote from Jawaharlal Nehru’s book, The Discovery of India : “The impact of science and the modern world have brought a greater appreciation of facts, a more critical faculty, a weighing of evidence, a refusal to accept tradition just because it is tradition…”

•He then went on to say: “But even today, it is strange, how we suddenly become overwhelmed by tradition, and the critical faculties of even intelligent men cease to function…” Nehru concludes with the hope that, “Only when we are politically and economically free, will the mind function normally and critically.”

No difference

•Alas, what has been the outcome? More than seven decades have elapsed since Nehru’s deadline of Indian independence but where are we vis-à-vis scientific temper? We continue to be hidebound with tradition and waste precious time and money in rituals which may have been relevant in earlier times but which have no relevance to modern living.

•An interesting sidelight on superstitions has been thrown by Jiří Grygar, a scientist and science communicator from the Czech Republic. He finds that during the Soviet-dominated era, no superstitious ideas were publicly aired as these were feared to be against the beliefs subscribed to by the state. In the ‘free’ thinking times that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, all pent-up superstitions have come up.

Superstitions thrive

•Further, there are new superstitions that have their origin in the age of space technology. Towards the end of the last century, I had visited the radio telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico forms one of the vertices of a rather notorious triangle whose other vertices are at Bermuda and Florida. Known as the Bermuda Triangle, it has generated considerable excitement because of a claim that it formed a region within which mysterious (and possibly malicious) forces were present. A book on the Bermuda Triangle by Charles Berlitz which describes disturbing and unfathomable events makes for fascinating reading. If those accounts were true then the Bermuda Triangle did encompass a sinister region. There have also been accounts of pilots losing their way and their lives, and watches stopping for an appreciable time, which, in short, were events that defied a rational scientific explanation.

•A few years later, scientific attempts were made to test the veracity of the Triangle events. Lawrence David Kusche did seminal work in debugging the Triangle stories. His investigations have shown that the stories were either inflated, or did not tell the whole truth, or tinkered with the vital part of the evidence. Thus, one can safely say that there is no tangible evidence to ascribe an alien character to the Bermuda Triangle. Nevertheless as a scientist, whenever I invite questions from an audience of school or college students, the question inevitably pops up: What is the mystery behind all that is going on in the Bermuda Triangle? The questioner is visibly disappointed to learn that there are no black holes or dark energy or powerful aliens hiding there. When I asked my host in Arecibo how the locals react to such questions, he laughed and said that the Bermuda Triangle had long ceased to be a matter of concern. It of course serves the purpose of attracting tourists.

•Harmful rays believed to be prevalent during a total solar eclipse keep many of our citizens behind closed doors. I once saw a total solar eclipse while in Zimbabwe. Recalling a previous eclipse in India, I was expecting to be greeted with the sight of empty roads and inhabitants behind closed doors in their houses, as is the case in India.

•Nothing happened. Perhaps Zimbabweans were blissfully unaware of the evil rays. But in India, we are good at coming up with antidotes. As a housewife from a well-educated family once explained to me, the food in the fridge is supposed to be destroyed after an eclipse as evil rays will have contaminated it. However, the local priest had a solution which would avoid the food being wasted. His solution, the woman proudly told me, was to smear the fridge with cow dung, which would protect the food.

•Here is another example. An executive of a firm had to catch a flight on a certain day but found out later that travelling on that particular day was inauspicious. He was told that the day prior to this was a “good” day. But he had other engagements that day. So what did he do? He stored his bag in his neighbour’s house on the earlier day and picked it up while on his way to the airport the following day. By leaving the bag in the neighbour’s house he was supposed to have begun his journey the previous “auspicious” day. This trick, known as “keeping prasthan”, is sufficient to deceive evil spirits.

From mythology

•All these are examples of pseudoscience that grow around superstitions. But there are apparently more serious aspects that have grown around our mythology. Did our Vedic forefathers possess a knowledge of science that was well beyond the level attained by modern science? While references in our Puranas to the Pushpak Viman, Vishwamitra’s counter heaven in mid air, and weapons such as the Brahmastra and Indra’s Shakti look persuasive, they do not have the details that would stand the test of scientific scrutiny. If such claims are to have standing, their supporters have to give us their technical details. For example, what was the basic mathematical principle that explains how a craft such as the Pushpak is lifted and which propelled it through air? And, if the Brahmastra was a nuclear device, which would indicate a knowledge of nuclear physics, why are there no references to the forces of electricity and magnetism, knowledge of which would be necessary to understanding nuclear physics? In today’s modern age, the facility of running tap water and electric lighting is considered the basic minimum for living and forms a part of the manifestos of all political parties. Yet, as the Mahabharata tells us, the Hastinapur palace of Duryodhana or the Indraprastha abode of the Pandavas did not possess this minimal facility.

•Recently, there was a claim made in India that the Darwinian theory of evolution is incorrect and should not be taught in schools. In the field of science, the sole criterion for the survival of a theory is that it must explain all observed phenomena in its domain. For the present, Darwin’s theory is the best such theory but it is not perfect and leaves many questions unanswered. This is because the origin of life on earth is still unexplained by science. However, till there is a breakthrough on this, or some alternative idea gets scientific support, the Darwinian theory is the only one that should continue to be taught in schools.

•In the final analysis, scientific evidence is what should have the last say.