The HINDU Notes – 15th January 2020 - VISION

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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The HINDU Notes – 15th January 2020

šŸ“° After Modi’s call, Trump likely to visit Delhi in late February

President keen on trip but impeachment process could influence the dates

•Security and logistics teams from Washington are expected in Delhi this week to prepare for a possible visit by U.S. President Donald Trump, multiple sources have confirmed to The Hindu .

•The visit, which has not yet been announced, would bring Mr. Trump to India a year after he declined an invitation to be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations, and will go ahead at the end of February as long as dates don’t need to be changed to accommodate the impeachment process in the Senate.

•The sources said the decision to visit India, at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation, was discussed during a telephone call between the leaders on January 7. According to the sources, Mr. Trump is “keen” to visit early in the year, ahead of elections in November, and both sides are working towards a visit in the last week of February. India’s Ambassador to Washington, who is now the Foreign Secretary-designate, Harsh Shringla met Mr. Trump before returning to Delhi, and will begin preparations for the visit.

•With just weeks to go to the proposed visit, New Delhi is understood to have intimated its choice of Mr. Shringla’s replacement and Washington is expected to expedite its ‘agreement’ for his appointment.

Trade deal

•Among the agreements the leaders hope to wrap up is a trade deal that has been pending since November 2018, when talks went into a standstill.

•In June 2019, the U.S. cancelled India’s preferential export ‘GSP’ status, and the government hopes Mr. Trump will announce a revocation of that decision during the visit.

•India is also expected to announce further investments in the U.S., and a substantial increase in American oil imports. In particular, a major deal on civil aviation is being discussed, officials said.

šŸ“° CRZ rules eased for ‘Blue Flag’ beaches

States can construct infrastructure to enable international recognition, says Environment Ministry

•The Environment Ministry has relaxed Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) rules that restrict construction near beaches to help States construct infrastructure and enable them to receive ‘Blue Flag’ certification.

•Last year, the Ministry selected 13 beaches in India to vie for the certificate. This is an international recognition conferred on beaches that meet certain criteria of cleanliness and environmental propriety.

•The earmarked beaches are — Ghoghala beach (Diu), Shivrajpur beach (Gujarat), Bhogave beach (Maharashtra), Padubidri and Kasarkod beaches (Karnataka), Kappad beach (Kerala), Kovalam beach (Tamil Nadu), Eden beach (Puducherry), Rushikonda beach (Andhra Pradesh), Miramar beach (Goa), Golden beach (Odisha), Radhanagar beach (Andaman & Nicobar Islands) and Bangaram beach (Lakshadweep).

Gazette notification

•The Blue Flag certification, however, requires beaches to create certain infrastructure — portable toilet blocks, grey water treatment plants, a solar power plant, seating facilities, CCTV surveillance and the like. However, India’s CRZ laws don’t allow the construction of such infrastructure on beaches and islands. Via an order on January 9, the Environment Ministry eased these restrictions for the “purposes of Blue Flag certification”.

•“...Central Government hereby declares that for the purpose of Blue Flag Certification in such identified beaches, the following activities and facilities shall be permitted in the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), including Islands, subject to maintaining a minimum distance of 10 meters from HTL (High Tide Line),” the gazette notification notes.

•The certification is accorded by the Denmark-based Foundation for Environment Education, with 33 stringent criteria under four major heads for the beaches, that is, (i) Environmental Education and Information (ii) Bathing Water Quality (iii) Environment Management and Conservation and (iv) Safety and Services.


•The ‘Blue Flag’ beach is an ‘eco-tourism model’ and marks out beaches as providing tourists and beachgoers clean and hygienic bathing water, facilities/amenities, a safe and healthy environment, and sustainable development of the area.

•The Blue Flag Programme started in France in 1985 and has been implemented in Europe since 1987, and in areas outside Europe since 2001, when South Africa joined.

šŸ“° Kerala govt. challenges CAA in SC

Suit has been filed under Article 131 that deals with Centre-State conflicts

•Kerala became the first State to join citizens across the country to challenge in the Supreme Court the constitutionality of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, which fast-tracks grant of citizenship on the basis of religion.

•The State has approached the SC nearly 15 days after its Legislative Assembly unanimously requested the Centre to abrogate the law. on December 31, 2019.

•And it comes just three days after the CAA came into effect on January 10.

•The original suit has been filed under Article 131 of the Constitution.

•The SC has “original” jurisdiction in disputes between States or the Centre and State(s). The Article allows it to directly take cognisance of such a dispute.

State’s contention

•Kerala said in its suit that it would be compelled under Article 256 to comply with the CAA, which was “manifestly arbitrary, unreasonable, irrational and violative of fundamental rights”.

•The suit, represented by senior advocate Jaideep Gupta and G. Prakash, submitted, “Thus, there exists a dispute, involving questions of law and fact, between the State of Kerala and the Union of India, regarding the enforcement of legal rights as a State and as well for the enforcement of the fundamental, statutory constitutional and other legal rights of the inhabitants of the State of Kerala.” However, there has been two conflicting judgments from the Supreme Court by coordinate Benches on whether a State can file an original suit under Article 131 to challenge the constitutionality of a central law.’

First judgment

•The first judgment reported in 2012 — State of Madhya Pradesh vs Union of India — held that States cannot challenge a Central law under Article 131.

•The second judgment — State of Jharkhand vs State of Bihar — took the opposite view in 2015 and referred the question of law to a larger Bench of the Supreme Court for final determination.

•The Centre may object to the maintainability of the Kerala suit when it comes up for hearing. Besides the CAA, the suit also challenges other laws that affect citizenships, including Passport Rules and Foreign Order Amendments as “class legislations which harp on the religious identity of an individual, thereby contravening the principles of secularism”.

Country of origin

•Linking Indian citizenship with the country of origin and religion of an illegal migrants was manifestly discriminatory and unequal.

•“It is trite and settled law that a legislation discriminating on the basis of an intrinsic and core trait of an individual cannot form a reasonable classification based on an intelligible differentia,” the suit argued.

šŸ“° The long wait for empowered mayors

Mayors in many global cities go on to lead their country; in India it is the opposite story, with politics to be blamed

•As he attempts to repeat the overwhelming 2015 victory of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Delhi Assembly election, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is challenging political Goliaths on just one plank: his government’s performance.

The face of changes

•The iconoclast who overran Delhi’s established political trenches with an anti-corruption campaign is pinning his hopes on the unprecedented fiscal measures he has taken to change the paradigm of education, health and urban development in the National Capital. In office, he has pressed on even in the face of non-cooperation from the Central Government, which controls important departments providing civic services mainly through the Urban Development and Home Ministries.

•The AAP’s annual budget five years ago raised the outlay for education by 106% over the previous year’s plan of Rs. 2,219 crore, and focused on building 20,000 additional classrooms. It sent government teacher-mentors abroad for training to modernise the system. Shiny classrooms, new teaching tools and eager students changed the public view of government schools as decrepit dungeons.

•Delhi’s ambitious budgets for development stand apart from those of other cities, and built the Chief Minister’s reputation more as a super Mayor in a city-State. The 2015 education outlay was no flash in the pan. Four years later, it was 27.8%, says an analysis by PRS Legislative Research, and continues to tower over the States that average 15.8%. For health, the allocation of 13.8% dwarfs the 5.2% that others spend on average, and Delhi’s Mohalla Clinics — to provide coverage to all within a range of 1 km — are seen by public health researchers as a good model for a national universal health coverage programme. In budget 2019-20, the highest increase was for transport, at 38%, raising hopes of reduced pollution partly through support for electric vehicles. Municipal budgets for 2014-15 analysed by Open Budgets India reflect a similar trend for urban education expenditure vis-Ć -vis Delhi. On the income side, cities collect far less property tax than they should due to undervaluation and lack of scientific assessment.

•Although he is criticised for his style of functioning, the AAP leader does not have his back to the wall and is pushing to extend his authority, fighting the Central Government’s attempts to clip his wings. This is not the situation in other big metropolitan cities, which cannot aspire to have strong leadership due to the prevailing system.

Hardly empowered; a ‘threat’

•Metros have been deprived of empowered Mayors who can raise efficiency, productivity and liveability. Mayors in many global cities go on to lead their country, which possibly explains why they have been reduced to obscure, ceremonial figures by national parties in India.

•The Economic Survey of 2017-18 notes that a third of the population now lives in urban areas which produce three-fifths of the GDP. But India’s overflowing cities lack capacity, infrastructure and leadership. The Survey acknowledges this, attributing it to the absence of a single city government in charge, and low spending on infrastructure. State governments amass the large economic output from urban agglomerations, but are averse to a strong Mayoral system.

•Chief Ministers see a potential threat from a charismatic and empowered Mayor with progressive policies. Some of them have used the excuse of poor performance of urban local bodies as a justification to replace direct election of Mayors with an indirect system. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam government in Tamil Nadu issued an ordinance last year to amend the law, and remove any possibility of prominent Opposition politicians becoming the face of any big city. The memory of M.K. Stalin, son of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam leader M. Karunanidhi as a high-profile Mayor in Chennai even after a quarter century is obviously still fresh. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi refreshingly promised ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha poll that he would support directly-elected Mayors, since smart cities depend on good leaders.

Weakening governance

•In some States, elections to urban local bodies have not been held for years, defeating the lofty goal of decentralised governance. Tamil Nadu is a prominent example. The idea of giving more authority to the third tier of governance has suffered serious stunting, in spite of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act of 1992 identifying 18 local level functions to be devolved, including planning for economic and social development, regulation of land, construction of buildings, urban planning and public health. The average of subjects devolved in all these years is nine, and does not include the major municipal services which continue to be run by parastatal authorities that answer to State governments. Newer devices used to bypass local bodies and priorities are styled as special schemes, such as urban renewal and smart cities, directly supervised by the Central government and partnered by State governments.

•Several States are averse to directly-elected Mayors even for their biggest cities, in spite of the Mayor being deprived of any significant powers. The appointment of the executive in-charge, the Municipal Commissioner is a good example. Empowered Mayors, such as those in New York, Paris, London or even Shanghai, could steal the limelight through spectacular successes, leaving Chief Ministers and legislators with little direct connect with urban voters.

•Even on a salient issue such as climate change, Mayors are much in demand. The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, assumed the leadership of the climate movement in iconic ways, with a move to prescribe green roofs in the vast French capital capturing the public imagination worldwide. Mr. Kejriwal is alert to the global traction that climate change is getting, and addressed Mayors gathered in Copenhagen via video link last year, because the Central government refused him permission to attend. The AAP Health Minister was similarly denied permission to go to Australia to explain the working of Mohalla Clinics.

•The present system, of course, does not help directly-elected Mayors. They have not been able to raise service delivery standards, regardless of long or short tenure, and the poor outcomes are quite evident, as the Economic Survey points out. Ironically, because powerless Mayors have running battles with municipal councillors, States such as Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, to name just two, abandoned direct elections to the post.

•The Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS) 2017 covering 23 cities across 20 States published by Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy found 33% of medium and large cities with a provision for directly-elected Mayors, but none in the mega cities. A tenure of five years for Mayors is available only in a fifth of the biggest cities, and half of urban Indians live in cities where Mayors can be in office for just two-and-a-half years, ASICS found.

•Unified governance and empowerment through elected municipal systems is a distant prospect, but the Central government glibly claimed at the UN Habitat Conference in Quito, Ecuador, in 2016, that the 74th Amendment had made Indian cities self-governing entities with adequate powers and financial autonomy. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, but then the statement was made by the Secretary to the Union Ministry of Housing. At the conference plenary, the Indian statement did not contain any reference to Mayors.

Hampering development

•Much hard work must be done, before cities can progress beyond John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous description of India as a “functioning anarchy”. Government departments will feel accountable for urban services and infrastructure only under the watch of an empowered leader, who enjoys the mandate of the city’s residents.

•A lot of time has been lost, as recalcitrant State leaders, who often have remote rural bases of support, stymie the pace of orderly urban development. Lack of coherence in government is hindering better productivity, and causing losses through pollution, congestion and poor outcomes on infrastructure investments. The priorities are flawed, the administration is fragmented and the capacity of city governments is low.

•In the coming decade, progress on Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the UN Habitat New Urban Agenda will come under close international scrutiny. India’s cities need a new deal, one that is focused on development. Only elected, empowered and accountable Mayors can deliver on that.

šŸ“° ASER flags poor learning outcomes in rural schools

‘Cognitive skills can help students with basic literacy’

•Only 16% of children in Class 1 in 26 surveyed rural districts can read text at the prescribed level, while almost 40% cannot even recognise letters, according to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2019, released by NGO Pratham on Tuesday.

•Only 41% of these children could recognise two digit numbers.

•However, ASER found that the solution is not to spend longer hours teaching children the 3Rs. Counter-intuitively, the report argues that a focus on cognitive skills rather than subject learning in the early years can make a big difference to basic literacy and numeracy abilities.

•ASER surveyors visited almost 37,000 children between 4 and 8 years in 26 rural districts across 24 States. They asked each child to do a variety of tasks, testing cognitive skills as well as simple literacy and numeracy tests.

•The survey shows that among Class 1 children who could correctly do none or only one of the tasks requiring cognitive skills, about 14% could read words, while 19% could do single digit addition. However, among children who could correctly do all three cognitive tasks, 52% could read words, and 63% could solve the math problem.

Underage children

•The report says that “permitting underage children into primary grades puts them at a learning disadvantage which is difficult to overcome.” The ASER surveyors found that a primary classroom could include students from a range of age-groups, skewing towards younger children in government schools. More than a quarter of Class 1 students in government schools are only 4 or 5 years old, younger than the recommended age. The ASER data shows that these children struggle more than others in all skills.

•Global research shows that 90% of brain growth occurs by age 5, meaning that the quality of early childhood education has a crucial impact on the development and schooling of a child.

•The ASER report shows that a large number of factors determine the quality of education received at this stage, including the child’s home background, especially the mother’s education level; the type of school, and the child’s age in Class 1.

•Based on a series of tests administered to the children, the report says, “ASER data shows that children’s performance on tasks requiring cognitive skills is strongly related to their ability to do early language and numeracy tasks.”

šŸ“° Iran nuclear deal: EU launches dispute mechanism

Britain, France and Germany charge Tehran over ‘transgressions’ that could ultimately lead to reimposition of UN sanctions

•Britain, France and Germany ratcheted up pressure on Iran on Tuesday to cease its violations of a landmark nuclear deal, stressing that they want to resolve differences through talks while starting the clock on a process that could result in a so-called “snapback” of United Nations sanctions.

•The three countries, which signed the international agreement in 2015 along with the U.S., Russia and China, said in a letter to the European Union’s foreign policy chief that they had no choice but to trigger the deal’s “dispute mechanism,” given Iran’s ongoing transgressions.

Limited options

•The three said they rejected Tehran’s argument that Iran was justified in violating the deal because the U.S. broke the agreement by pulling out unilaterally in 2018.

•“We have therefore been left with no choice, given Iran’s actions, but to register today our concerns that Iran is not meeting its commitments,” the countries said in a joint statement.

•EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who coordinates the agreement, said the pressure on Iran from Europe does not mean sanctions will automatically be slapped on the Islamic Republic.

‘Maximum pressure’

•The Europeans stressed that they want to “resolve the impasse through constructive diplomatic dialogue” and made no threat of sanctions in their statement. They also specifically distanced themselves from sanctions imposed by the U.S., which Washington has said is part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.

•“Our three countries are not joining a campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran,” they said. “Our hope is to bring Iran back into full compliance with its commitments.”

•The 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, seeks to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon — something Iran insists it does not want to do — by putting curbs on its atomic programme in exchange for economic incentives.

•Under its dispute resolution mechanism, countries have 30 days to resolve their problem, though that can be extended. If it cannot be solved, the matter could be brought before the U.N. Security Council and could then result in the snapback of sanctions that had been lifted under the deal.

•Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi dismissed the “completely passive action” of the three countries and said Iran would support any act of “goodwill and constructive effort” to save the deal.

šŸ“° China stands by Sri Lanka, says Wang Yi

Foreign Minister’s visit marks Beijing’s first high-level engagement with the new govt.

•Visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has pledged not to allow “any outside influences” to interfere with Sri Lanka’s internal matters, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s office said on Tuesday.

•“As Sri Lanka’s strategic partner China will continue to standby Sri Lanka’s interests. China stands for the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence. We will not allow any outside influences to interfere with matters that are essentially internal concerns of Sri Lanka,” Mr. Wang pledged, according to a press statement issued by Mr. Rajapaksa’s media division. The meeting marks Beijing’s first high-level engagement with the new government in Sri Lanka.

Debt concerns

•The visit bears significance in the wake of prevalent concern over Colombo’s outstanding debt to China over several largescale infrastructure projects, including the port in the southern town of Hambantota, for which China holds a 99-year lease.

•Commenting on the apparent concern, including from India, on Chinese involvement in the region, Mr. Rajapaksa told foreign media last month that countries such as India, Singapore, Japan, Australia, and ASEAN countries could invest in Sri Lanka. “That is how you can counter, just complaining won’t do,” Mr. Rajapaksa had said.

•President Rajapaksa is scheduled to visit Beijing next month, following his first state visit abroad to India late November.

•In his meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, the President said Sri Lanka is a small country that is strategically located. “As a result, the country has to face many political challenges. The only way to overcome them is to be economically strong. The economic independence will ensure political independence,” his office quoted him as telling the top Chinese official.

•Mr. Wang, according to President Rajapaksa’s office, assured him saying: “Sri Lanka may have less landmass, but will soon be strong economically. China will be with Sri Lanka in its striving to reach this goal”.

•Further, conveying President Xi Jinping’s greetings, Mr. Wang congratulated “China’s old friend” Mr. Rajapaksa for his poll victory.

šŸ“° Oldest material on Earth found inside meteorite that hit Australia

The oldest of 40 tiny dust grains trapped inside the meteorite fragments dated from about 7 billion years ago, about 2.5 billion years before the sun, Earth and rest of our solar system formed

•A meteorite that crashed into rural southeastern Australia in a fireball in 1969 contained the oldest material ever found on Earth, stardust that predated the formation of our solar system by billions of years, scientists said on January 13.

•The oldest of 40 tiny dust grains trapped inside the meteorite fragments retrieved around the town of Murchison in Victoria state dated from about 7 billion years ago, about 2.5 billion years before the sun, Earth and rest of our solar system formed, the researchers said.

•In fact, all of the dust specks analyzed in the research came from before the solar system's formation - thus known as “presolar grains” - with 60% of them between 4.6 and 4.9 billion years old and the oldest 10% dating to more than 5.6 billion years ago.

•The stardust represented time capsules dating to before the solar system. The age distribution of the dust - many of the grains were concentrated at particular time intervals - provided clues about the rate of star formation in the Milky Way galaxy, the researchers said, hinting at bursts of stellar births rather than a constant rate.

•“I find this extremely exciting,” said Philipp Heck, an associate curator at the Field Museum in Chicago who led the research published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

•“Despite having worked on the Murchison meteorite and presolar grains for almost 20 years, I still am fascinated that we can study the history of our galaxy with a rock,” Mr. Heck added.

•The grains are small, measuring from 2 to 30 micrometers in size. A micrometer is a one-thousandth of a millimeter or about 0.000039 of an inch.

•Stardust forms in the material ejected from stars and carried by stellar winds, getting blown into interstellar space. During the solar system's birth, this dust was incorporated into everything that formed including the planets and the sun but survived intact until now only in asteroids and comets.

•The researchers detected the tiny grains inside the meteorite by crushing fragments of the rock and then segregating the component parts in a paste they described as smelling like rotten peanut butter.

•Scientists have developed a method to determine stardust's age. Dust grains floating through space get bombarded by high-energy particles called cosmic rays. These rays break down atoms in the grain into fragments, such as carbon into helium.

•These fragments accumulate over time and their production rate is rather constant. The longer the exposure time to cosmic rays, the more fragments accumulate. The researchers counted these fragments in the laboratory, enabling them to calculate the stardust's age.

•Scientists previously had found a presolar grain in the Murchison meteorite that was about 5.5 billion years old, until now the oldest-known solid material on Earth. The oldest-known minerals that formed on Earth are found in rock from Australia's Jack Hills that formed 4.4 billion years ago, 100 million years after the planet formed.

šŸ“° Inflation shocker

With growth sagging and prices rising,the economy is entering a difficult phase

•The inflation devil is back and at the wrong time. The 7.35% rise in consumer price inflation in December is a shocker even to those who were prepared for an elevated level of inflation in the backdrop of the rise in prices of food commodities in general, and the astronomical rise in the price of onions, in particular. The disturbing December print has set off fears over whether India is entering a period of slow growth accompanied by high inflation, in other words, stagflation. Such fears have to be weighed against a few facts. First, the headline inflation number is driven mainly by food inflation at 14.12% — it was 10.01% in November and -2.65% in December 2018. While onion was the prime villain pushing up price inflation in vegetables to a huge 60.50% compared to December 2018, prices of other food items such as meat and fish (up 9.57%), milk (up 4.22%), eggs (up 8.79%) and some pulses were also on the upswing. These are a largely seasonal rise in prices and are driven mainly by supply-side factors and the prices will reverse once the supply shortfall is addressed. An analysis by State Bank of India’s research team shows that minus the increase in prices of onion, potato and ginger, headline CPI inflation would be just 4.48%. Second, core inflation, which is the one that should be of concern, has only inched up marginally from 3.5% in November to 3.7% in December. That said, it would be worrisome indeed if core inflation were to shoot up or if food inflation does not cool down in the next couple of months. Also, the effects of the increase in telecom tariffs, rail tickets and in fuel prices need to be closely watched.

•The sharp jump in the CPI has queered the pitch for the Reserve Bank of India’s monetary policy review in February. The central bank stood pat on rates in the December policy precisely due to fears of inflation and had even revised upwards its inflation projection for the second half of the fiscal to 4.7-5.1%. The December print is way above the monetary policy committee’s (MPC) mandated limit of 6% (4% plus 2%) which means that a rate cut is pretty much off the table for now. Yet, with growth sagging, there is pressure on the central bank to cut rates at least one more time to stimulate growth. It would be interesting to watch the deliberations of the MPC in February. While the market may be prepared to accept a standstill policy for now, any change in the RBI’s stance from accommodative to neutral may not go down well. A lot would also depend on the fiscal arithmetic that would emerge from the budget to be presented on February 1. Meanwhile, the government should engage all levers to address the supply-side issues that are behind the rise in food inflation. A calming down of food prices will help the bank do what the government and markets want — lower rates.

šŸ“° Chalk and cheese in private vs. government schools

The Annual Status of Education Report findings make a clear case for strengthening early childhood education centres

•One of the big debates in early childhood education is on children’s “school readiness” and whether early childhood education provides them with the requisite skills to cope with the school curriculum. A vast literature exists on the importance of certain cognitive abilities that are supposed to be developed during the years children spend in pre-school, so that they are “ready” when they enter school in grade one.

Home and other factors

•In terms of what children learn in school, one of the big debates is whether children in private schools perform better than those in government schools. In the Indian context, the consensus seems to be that a large proportion of the differences in the learning levels of children enrolled in private and government schools can be attributed to “home factors”. And, while the private school effect remains positive, even after taking into account the child’s home environment, learning outcomes in private schools are nowhere near grade competency. But, when do these differences start to manifest themselves? Do children who start grade one in private schools have a learning advantage? Let us look at the case of language. According to the grade 1 curriculum, children are supposed to be able to identify and read words and simple sentences. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2019, 21% children in grade one of government schools could read words compared to 46.7% in private schools — an advantage of 122%. How is this possible? Is this a fair comparison? Are we comparing apples with apples? The answer is clearly no.

•First, the age distribution in grade one of government schools is very different from that in private schools. The Right to Education and national policy mandates that children enter grade one at age six. However, 26.1% children in grade one of government schools are four or five years old compared to 15.7% in private schools. At the other end of the spectrum, 30.4% children in grade one of government schools are seven-eight years old compared to 45.4% in private schools. Therefore, comparing learning levels in grade one between government and private schools becomes problematic. The higher learning levels in grade one, in private schools, may be partly due to the fact that grade one in those schools has a higher proportion of older children.

•Second, it is well known that children who go to private schools come from relatively affluent backgrounds. They also tend to have more educated parents. This affords them certain advantages which are not available to children who are from less advantaged families and are more likely to attend government schools. For instance, 30% of government school grade one children, in the ASER 2019 sample, had mothers who had never been to school compared to only 12% of grade one private school children. Further, 27.3% of grade one children in private schools had private tutors compared to 19.5% in government schools.

•Third, early childhood education is supposed to prepare children for school. Children are supposed to be exposed to activities that build their cognitive abilities and early literacy and numeracy skills. For instance, the National Early Childhood Care and Education curriculum framework talks about developing skills related to sequential thinking, predicting patterns, observing, reasoning and problem solving in the pre-school stage. These cognitive and early language skills are highly correlated with the child’s ability to acquire further language skills. Therefore, children who enter grade one better prepared with these skills are likely to perform better. For instance, among the cognitive tasks administered in ASER 2019 (seriation, pattern recognition and puzzle) only 23.8% children of grade one in government schools could do all three tasks compared to 43.1% in private schools.

•Once we take into account all these factors — age distribution in grade one, home factors such as affluence, mother’s education, home learning environment, and some baseline abilities that children enter grade one with, private schools still have a learning advantage. Where is this coming from? Since we are talking about grade one, this difference cannot be attributed to an accumulated effect of better teaching practices in private schools.

Pre-school learning

•What private pre-schools are doing is to start children on the school-based curriculum in pre-school itself. In other words, the private sector keeps children longer in pre-school and exposes them to school-like curricula even before they have entered school. For instance, 14% children in anganwadis could recognise letters or more compared to 52.9% in private pre-schools; and 12.9% children in these private pre-schools were already reading words (something they are supposed to learn in grade one) compared to 2.9% in anganwadis. It is not surprising, therefore, that children from private pre-schools perform better in school.

•Finally, children in anganwadis do worse than private pre-school children on cognitive as well as early language tasks such as picture description. For instance, while 23.4% of private pre-school children could do all three cognitive tasks, only about half (12%) of the children in anganwadis could do them.

•India has a huge investment in its early childhood programme, administered through 1.2 million anganwadis under the Integrated Child Development Services Scheme. The findings of ASER 2019 make a clear case for strengthening these early childhood education centres so that they implement appropriate “school-readiness” activities. A case can also be made for streamlining the curriculum at the pre-school stage so that all pre-schools focus on activities that build cognitive and early literacy and numeracy skills. These will aid further learning.

šŸ“° A regime that chooses its critics

Why invoking the FCRA to curb the work of NGOs is troubling

•On November 16, 2019, the Central Bureau of Investigation raided Amnesty International’s offices in Bengaluru and Delhi based on allegations that the NGO had violated provisions of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, and of the Indian Penal Code. Amnesty has been vocal about human rights abuses, notably in Jammu and Kashmir and Assam.

•The raid is not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of harassment of NGOs in India. In early 2019, Greenpeace had to shut two offices in India and reduce its staff. Since 2015, Greenpeace India has been barred from receiving foreign donations. In July 2019, there were raids in the offices of the Lawyers Collective. In 2019 alone, more than 1,800 NGOs lost their licence to receive foreign funding.

•This is worrying given that international funding is crucial for NGOs to function. The contribution of NGOs to human rights and public awareness is significant in India. The recognition of the rights of homosexuals and transgender people, for instance, would have been unimaginable without the sustained effort of civil society organisations. Likewise, developments in the public provision of health and education are unlikely to come about without pressure by NGOs.

•Most NGOs are neither politically powerful nor have great financial capacity. For example, small environmental or tribal rights groups protesting against environmental violations by multinational companies cannot fight back against companies that use their resources — profits from elsewhere — for public relations, campaigning, and advertisement to resist the protests. Thus there is a power imbalance in this struggle, exacerbated by financial restraints on organisations.

What is ‘public interest’?

•The FCRA regulates the receipt of funding from sources outside of India to NGOs working in India. It prohibits receipt of foreign contribution “for any activities detrimental to the national interest”. The Act specifies that NGOs require the government’s permission to receive funding from abroad. The government can refuse permission if it believes that the donation to the NGO will adversely affect “public interest” or the “economic interest of the state”. This condition is manifestly overbroad. There is no clear guidance on what constitutes “public interest”. Consequently, a government could construe any disagreement with, or criticism of, any of its policies as being against public interest.

•The current government has already done this. For example, in 2014, several groups including Greenpeace were accused by the Intelligence Bureau of stalling India’s economic development. In the government’s narrow view, public interest is interpreted as being equivalent to its priorities. That is simply not the case. Thus, an environmental or human rights organisation criticising the government can be accused of “acting against public interest”.

Consequences on rights

•The restrictions also have serious consequences on both the rights to free speech and freedom of association under Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(c) of the Constitution. The freedom is based on the idea that individuals can form voluntary groups and pursue various interests. It is a form of collective expression and thought. The Supreme Court has held that this right includes the right to continued sustenance of the association, without unreasonable restraint (Damyanti Naranga v. Union of India , 1971).

•The foreign funding prohibition also negates the significance of voluntary, non-profit associations in a democracy. Free speech is valuable not because everyone agrees, but because it enables a culture of dissent, deliberation, and debate. The right to free speech is affected in two ways. One, by allowing only some political groups to receive foreign donations and disallowing some others, the government can ensure a biased political debate. It can reduce critical voices by declaring them to be against public interest. Two, this chilling effect on free speech can lead to self-censorship. Speech that is protected by the Constitution can be construed as “against public interest”. Thus, the standard regulates speech in a manner that is incompatible with the Constitution. In Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2015), the Supreme Court was similarly faced with overbroad classifications in the Information Technology Act. Striking down Section 66A, the Court held that the Act could be used in a manner that has a chilling effect on free speech. This has already happened in the case of the FCRA. NGOs need to tread carefully when they criticise the regime, knowing that too much criticism could cost their survival.

•Democracy requires critics and civil society. This is why invoking the FCRA to curb the work of NGOs is deeply troubling. In a democracy, criticism should be welcomed, not repressed. No government should ever be able to choose its own critics.

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