The HINDU Notes – 22nd Febuary 2021 - VISION

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Monday, February 22, 2021

The HINDU Notes – 22nd Febuary 2021


📰 Why does India need conclusive land titling?

Does India need to change the land ownership process, and what are the hurdles in implementing it?

•The story so far: The Centre wants to reform the country’s land markets through a fundamental legal and procedural shift in how land titles are awarded. In 2020, even as laws for farm reform and labour code reform were being enacted, the government’s think tank, NITI Aayog, took steps to initiate land reforms. A Model Bill on Conclusive Land Titling was sent to States and Union Territories last June seeking their comments. In September, after many States failed to send in their feedback, the Centre warned that their agreement would be presumed.

How does the current system work and what will change in the new system?

•India currently follows a system of presumptive land titling. This means that land records are maintained, with information on possession, which is determined through details of past transactions. Ownership, then, is established on the basis of current possession. Registration of land is actually a registration of transactions, such as sale deeds, records of inheritance, mortgage and lease. Holding registration papers does not actually involve the government or the legal framework guaranteeing the ownership title of the land.

•On the other hand, under a conclusive land titling system, land records designate actual ownership. The title is granted by the government, which takes the responsibility for accuracy. Once a title is granted, any other claimant will have to settle disputes with the government, not the title holder. Further, under conclusive land titling, the government may provide compensation to claimants in case of disputes, but the title holder is not in any danger of losing ownership, says agricultural economist T. Haque, who chaired the Special Cell on Land Policy at NITI Aayog which recommended a shift to conclusive titling in a 2017 report.

Why is conclusive land titling needed?

•The main advantage is that a conclusive system will drastically lower litigation related to land. According to a 2007 World Bank study on ‘Land Policies for growth and poverty reduction’, land-related disputes accounted for two-thirds of all pending court cases in India. A NITI Aayog study on strengthening arbitration estimated that disputes on land or real estate take an average time of 20 years in the courts to be resolved.

•“Right now, because land titles are based on transactions, people have to keep the entire chain of transaction records, and a dispute on any link in that chain causes ambiguity in ownership,” says Dr. Haque.

•He says the potential impact is extensive. “Once conclusive titling is in place, investors who want to purchase land for business activities will be able to do so without facing the constant risk that their ownership may be questioned and their entire investment may go to waste,” he says, noting that the spectre of long-running court cases currently stifles the appetite for investment in many sectors of the economy. “The idea is to promote an active land market,” he adds.

•Land disputes and unclear titling also create hurdles for infrastructure development and housing construction, leading to costly delays and inefficiency. In cities, urban local bodies depend on property taxes that can be levied properly only if there is clear ownership data available. Ambiguity in ownership also results in a black market for land transactions, which deprives the government of taxes.

•In rural areas, the need is even more acute. Access to agricultural credit is dependent on the ability to use land as collateral. Without being able to prove their ownership of land and access formal credit from banks, small and marginal farmers are often left at the mercy of unscrupulous moneylenders, entrenching themselves in a mountain of debt.

What does the model Bill propose?

•The Bill circulated by the NITI Aayog in 2020 calls for Land Authorities to be set up by each State government, which will appoint a Title Registration Officer (TRO) to prepare and publish a draft list of land titles based on existing records and documents. This will be considered a valid notice to all potential claimants interested in the property, who will have to file their claims or objections within a set period of time.

•If disputing claims are received, the TRO will verify all the relevant documents and refer the case to a Land Dispute Resolution Officer (LDRO) for resolution. However, disputes which are already pending in courts cannot be resolved in this way.

•Having considered and resolved all the disputed claims, the Land Authority will publish a Record of Titles. Over a three-year period, these titles and the decisions of the TRO and the LDRO can be challenged before Land Titling Appellate Tribunals, which will be set up under the law. After a three-year period, entries in the Record of Titles will be considered conclusive proof of ownership. Further appeals can only be taken up in High Courts.

What are the difficulties?

•“The biggest challenge is that land records have not been updated for decades, especially in rural and semi-urban areas. Land records are often in the name of the grandparents of the current owner, with no proof of inheritance. Unless they are based on updated records, conclusive land titles could create even more problems,” says Dr. Haque. He says comprehensive village-level surveys with community involvement are a necessary precursor to the land titling process. Relying on current records or even satellite imagery will not provide the same accuracy as actual, on-the-ground, local surveys. However, local governments have not been provided with the resources or manpower to conduct such surveys, says Dr. Haque. If surveys are not conducted, the onus falls on village claimants, many of whom have no access to documentation, to proactively challenge the titling during the three-year period.

📰 Wettest place on Earth sees decreasing trend in rainfall

Researchers noted that the changes in the Indian Ocean temperature have a huge effect on the rainfall in the region

•The quiet, sleepy, yet mesmerising village of Mawsynram trounced Cherrapunji to become the wettest place in the world. Mawsynram receives over 10,000 millimetres of rain in a year.

Decreasing trend

•A recent study that looked at the rainfall pattern in the past 119 years found a decreasing trend at Cherrapunji and nearby areas. The team analysed daily rain gauge measurements during 1901–2019, and noted that the changes in the Indian Ocean temperature have a huge effect on the rainfall in the region. They also analysed satellite data and add that there was a reduction in the vegetation area in northeast India in the past two decades, implying that human influence also plays an important role in the changing rainfall patterns.

•“The traditional way of cultivation known as Jhum cultivation or shifting cultivation is now decreased and being replaced by other methods. Also, previous studies have noted there is sizable deforestation in the region. Our study also saw the decrease in vegetation cover and increase in the areas of cropland mainly from the year 2006 onwards,” says Jayanarayanan Kuttippurath from Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. He is the lead author of the paper published last month in Environmental Research Letters.

Increase in cropland

•The analysis showed reductions in vegetation with 104.5 sqkm lost per year. On the other hand, there were significant increases in crop-land (182.1 sqkm per year) and urban and built-up lands (0.3 sqkm per year) during the period 2001–2018.

•The team noted that the annual mean rainfall for the period 1973–2019 showed decreasing trends of about 0.42 mm per decade. It was statistically significant along seven stations (Agartala, Cherrapunji, Guwahati, Kailashahar, Pasighat, Shillong and Silchar).

•But why study the northeast region? The team writes that since northeast India is mostly hilly and is an extension of the Indo-Gangetic Plains, the region is highly sensitive to changes in regional and global climate. “It has to be noted that the first signs of the effect of climate change will be evident for the extreme cases such as the rainfall at Cherrapunji,” adds the paper. “Northeast India has the highest vegetation cover in India and includes 18 biodiversity hotspots of the world, indicating the importance of the region in terms of its greenery and climate-change sensitivity.”

Rainfall patterns

•The team is currently looking at the changes in rainfall patterns across India. “We need to conserve the vegetation or forest area, biodiversity parks, the hills and valleys in the northeast. Also, solid water management strategies are inevitable to combat climate-induced changes of water bodies and ground water. Long-term plans are necessary,” adds Prof. Kuttippurath.

📰 An estimate of WASH across healthcare facilities in India

The issue of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is related to infection prevention and control.

•The status of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) in healthcare facilities is an important issue in development. In an article published recently in BMJ Global Health, researchers from Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP), Maryland, US, have estimated the cost of ensuring WASH and taking related steps for infection prevention and control for one year in healthcare facilities in all of India.

•They estimate that improving WASH across the pubic healthcare facilities in India and maintaining this for a year would cost $354 million (Rs 2567,00,00,000 approximately) in capital costs and $289 million (Rs 2095,00,00,000 approximately) in recurrent expenses.

•The study further finds that the most costly interventions were providing clean water, linen reprocessing and sanitation while the least expensive were hand hygiene, medical device reprocessing and environmental surface cleaning. A 2019 joint global baseline report by WHO and UNICEF had pointed out that globally, one in four healthcare facilities lacked basic water servicing and one in five had no sanitation service and 42% had no hygiene facilities at point of care.

Impact of WASH

•A WHO document on WASH in healthcare facilities points out that 8,27,000 people in low- and middle-income countries die as a result of inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene each year. Also, death of 2,97,000 children under five years can be prevented each year if better WASH could be provided.

•On a positive note, a 2012 WHO report had calculated that for every dollar invested in sanitation, there was $5.50 to be gained in lower health costs, more productivity and fewer premature deaths.

Worthy goal

•It is noteworthy that ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation to all is one of the 2030 sustainable development goals of the WHO.

•Given this context, the India study by CDDEP comes as a welcome first-level estimate.

•“The goal of our study was to gather estimates of unit costs for each intervention service unit from which we extrapolated facility wide costs,” says Katie K. Tseng of CDDEP, the first author of the study, in an email to The Hindu. “In our calculation of national cost estimates, the proportion of healthcare facilities requiring intervention were estimated primarily from literature and not from surveyed healthcare facilities,” she says.

•Inadequacies in proving WASH and also lack of infection prevention and control can lead to healthcare associated infections. Some of the pathogens to look out for are Acinetobacter baumannii, Enterococcus faecalis, Escherichia coli, Salmonella typhi, Streptococcus pneumoniae and many more. “These pathogens are commonly implicated as causative agents of healthcare associated infections because of their ability to develop resistance to antibiotics. Common healthcare associated infections include central-line-associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, surgical site infections and ventilator-associated pneumonia,” says Dr. Tseng.

Antimicrobial resistance

•In the fight against the spread of antimicrobial resistance too, the importance of prevention of infections cannot be overemphasised. “This study was a part of a larger project to determine the cost-effectiveness of WASH interventions to reduce healthcare-associated infections among mother and neonates across the Indian healthcare system,” says Jyoti Joshi of CDDEP, another author of the paper.

•According to her, while this study forms the starting point for larger costing estimates, it also highlights the need for a concerted effort from local bodies, State and Central governments to sustainably address quality and inequality issues in WASH provision.

•“We believe our findings show that addressing gaps in WASH across the Indian healthcare system is not only within the realm of possibility in terms of affordability – when compared to other national health campaigns – but can also be combined with other national efforts to address health priorities such as antimicrobial resistance,” she says.

•“The intersection between WASH, infection prevention and control and antimicrobial resistance is unique in that it offers policy makers an opportunity to address multiple overlapping problems through interventions on WASH in healthcare facilities,” she adds.

📰 State achieves 100% tap water supply to schools, anganwadis

Centre urged to release assistance for projects like Mission Bhagiratha liberally

•Adding another feather in its cap, Telangana has joined the group of States which ensured tap water connections to all schools and anganwadi centres (AWCs) spread across the State.

•The State was the first in the country to provide tap water connections to 100% households and the achievement was acknowledged by the Centre a few days ago. Works on providing tap water connection to schools, anganwadi centres and ashramshalas was taken up under the 100-day special campaign of the Ministry of Jal Shakti under the Jal Jeevan Mission.

•The programme was launched by the Union Government acknowledging the need of potable piped water to children as they were more susceptible to water borne diseases as also the need for repeated hand washing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. Telangana was among the group of States including Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Goa, Haryana and Tamil Nadu which reported provision of tap water in all schools and AWCs while Punjab reported provision of piped water supply in all schools.

•According to an official release, concerted efforts had been made to make provision of potable drinking water supply to schools, AWCs and ashramshalas under the campaign. So far, 1.82 lakh grey water management structures and 1.42 lakh rain water harvesting structures have been constructed in schools and AWCs. In all, 5.21 lakh schools and 4.71 lakh AWCs had been provided with piped water supply and around 8.24 lakh assets in these institutions have been geo-tagged.

•Panchayat Raj and Rural Development Minister E. Dayakar Rao expressed happiness over the recognition given to the State and said the credit for the achievement would go to Mission Bhagiratha, a brainchild of Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao. The State had already achieved the significant milestone of providing fluoride free water through piped water connections in the vulnerable areas.

•The Minister, at the same time, wanted the Centre to release assistance for projects like Mission Bhagiratha liberally in addition to the recognition being given to the State’s efforts.

📰 Time and perseverance: On NASA’s rover on Mars

The Mars mission will test out technologies to help sustain the presence of humans there

•The possibility of life on Mars has excited the imagination. Among the scientific community, the current thinking is that life may have existed on the earth’s ruddy planetary neighbour a long time ago. Understanding this will enrich our studies of evolution and nurture of life outside the earth. The recent NASA mission, Mars 2020, that was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on July 30, 2020, landed on the Jezero Crater in Mars on February 18, to much celebration. Of special magnificence was the entry, descent and landing of the mission’s Perseverance rover, described as the ‘shortest and most intense part’. Entering the Martian atmosphere at about 20,000 km per hour, the mission had to bring the Perseverance rover to a halt on the surface in just seven minutes. Also, since it takes 11 minutes for a radio signal to reach the earth from Mars, the mission control could not really guide the landing, and the rover had to complete this process by itself. During the complicated landing process, using a camera eye, the rover checked the ground below to avoid hazardous terrain, all in a few breathtaking minutes.

•NASA’s exploration of Mars has focused on finding traces and trails of water that may have existed, and relate it to finding evidence of ancient life. Its earlier Mars expedition which carried the Curiosity rover, landed on August 5, 2012. It identified regions that could have hosted life. Expected to last at least the duration of one Mars year, or about 687 earth days, the science goals this time are to look for signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples. Perseverance will take the inquiry made by Curiosity to the next level and search for signs of past life by studying the Jezero Crater. The crater was chosen for study as based on an earlier aerial survey, it was found to be home to an ancient delta. Clay minerals and carbonates were seen, making the crater a good place to search for life’s existence. Further, the rover will study the geology here and store samples in a place that can be accessed by a future mission which would return them to the earth. The rover will test out technologies that could help sustain the presence of humans there in the future. This includes an instrument to extract oxygen from the atmospheric carbon dioxide. The rover also carries a helicopter named Ingenuity that is specially designed to fly in Mars’s thin atmosphere; its sole purpose would be to demonstrate flight on Mars. Finally, to the question whether little green microbes did inhabit Mars in the distant past — only time and Perseverance can answer that.

📰 Navigating the storm: On the Fifteenth Finance Commission

The Fifteenth Finance Commission has adapted well to swiftly shifting sands

•A pair of balanced scales representing the Union of India and the States, the cover visual of the Fifteenth Finance Commission’s report for the period 2021-22 to 2025-26, seeks to highlight the Commission’s endeavour to maintain an equitable approach at a time when the Centre and States are facing unprecedented revenue stress and fiscal demands. The Centre has accepted much of the Commission’s broad recommendations, including giving States a 41% share of the divisible pool of taxes and revenue deficit grants of nearly ₹2.95-lakh crore for 17 States over the next five years. It has also acceded to the Commission’s suggestion to make grants towards urban and rural local bodies conditional upon States setting up their own finance commissions and publishing online the accounts of local bodies. And 60% of these grants will be further linked to these bodies’ providing sanitation and water services. There is an ‘in-principle’ nod to the panel’s suggestion to set up a non-lapsable dedicated fund to support defence and internal security modernisation — a response to the Centre’s belated request to examine if such a fund can be considered for funding defence capex beyond normal Budget allocations. While the panel has suggested moving ₹1.53-lakh crore out of the Consolidated Fund of India over five years to partly finance this, the Centre has said the funding nitty-gritties will be examined later. States would monitor how the modalities here evolve, even as they have reason to fret about the Centre’s non-committal response to the Commission’s recommendations of sector-specific and other grants for them adding up to about ₹1.8-lakh crore.

•It is up to the Centre now to ensure that States do not feel short-changed from the new fiscal framework, given their frayed ties over GST compensation dues. States have also been steadily losing out, given the Centre’s penchant to raise more cesses and surcharges that do not have to be shared. This Budget has seen an encore with the agriculture infrastructure development cess. One wishes the Commission had at least noted its displeasure on this practice, like its predecessors did. Unlike them, however, the N.K. Singh-led panel had to cope with a tumultuous shift in the domestic and global macro-economic landscape. At home, the Planning Commission was dissolved and GST introduced. The panel’s tenure was extended by a year, requiring it to give an interim report first, with its work culminating in a virtual zero-visibility zone as the COVID-19 pandemic broke out months before its deadline. Given these pressures and the difficulties in projecting the economy’s path, the Commission has done well. It has resisted the Centre’s nudge to review what it felt was a too-generous 42% share granted to States by the previous Commission, and deftly dealt with most of the unusual terms of reference foisted on it. As N.T. Rama Rao said, India lives in the States. If the Centre takes them along, it might help attain the balance envisaged by the Commission, which is needed to drive the country onto a double-engine growth trajectory from the current nadir.

📰 Voice vote as constitutional subterfuge

Even laws that are unquestionably desirable and necessary cannot be enacted using dubious legislative mechanisms

•The Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill was passed by the State’s Legislative Council on Monday, February 8. The Bill had already been passed by the Legislative Assembly where the State government enjoys a majority. But the prospect of the Bill passing the Upper House was doubtful as the Opposition parties — the Congress and the Janata Dal (S) — have a majority in the Council; and both were opposed to the Bill. But the law was passed by the Council despite the lack of a majority. Instead of having a division vote based on actual voting as is usual and as the Opposition members had demanded, the presiding officer just declared the Bill passed by voice vote without any division.

New legislative template

•If this sounds rather familiar, it is because an uncannily similar process was followed to pass the controversial farm laws (by the Rajya Sabha) in September 2020. Here too, the government seemed to lack a majority to pass the bills in the Upper House. And instead of a division vote, a voice vote was deemed to be adequate by the Deputy Speaker of the House. In both cases, the pandemonium in the House caused by heated interventions by the Opposition was used as a pretext to resort to a voice vote. In the last few months, while there has been extensive discussion of the farm laws, they have largely been about the merits of the laws and the need for reforms in the agrarian sector. But the fact that the legislative process followed for these laws did away with actual voting in the Upper House has not been given the prominence it deserves. The government has repeatedly invoked the multiple consultations around these laws over the years to justify them, but the fact that the pieces of legislation were passed without an actual legislative majority voting for them does not seem pivotal. These two sets of laws passed with a voice vote seem like a new template for bypassing the constitutionally envisaged legislative process. Indeed, both were first passed as ordinances; such was the urgency felt for enacting them. And once they were tabled in the legislature, the governments insisted on the Bills not being referred to the legislative committees in either case, even though the Opposition repeatedly raised the demand.

The Money Bill ruse

•The voice vote subterfuge supplements the other technique repeatedly deployed over the last few years to bypass the Upper House of Parliament — the Money Bill route, utilised increasingly in instances even where the laws concerned would not easily fit within that definition. Most notoriously, the Aadhaar Bill was passed in this manner. But other controversial laws such as those pertaining to electoral bonds, retrospective validation of foreign political contributions and the overhaul of the legal regime relating to tribunals have also been carried out through the Money Bill ruse. A majority of the Supreme Court in the Aadhaar case upheld such use, though the dissenting judge called such use of the Money Bill as nothing less than “a fraud on the constitution”. A later constitutional Bench of the Court has since noted the problem with the majority position and has referred the issue of interpreting the Money Bill provision to a larger Bench.

The Rajya Sabha’s role

•The fact remains that even if all these laws were actually unquestionably desirable and necessary, the dubious mechanisms followed for their enactment would surely mean they are unjustifiable. That is precisely why the justification for such subterfuge to pass these laws is so revealing. The increasing use of the Money Bill route was defended by the then Leader of the Rajya Sabha when he deplored the repeated questioning by the indirectly elected Rajya Sabha of the wisdom of the directly elected Lok Sabha. Underlying this common sentiment is a tendency to devalue bicameralism itself. The Lok Sabha is seen as directly representing the will of the people, and the Rajya Sabha as standing in its way. And since democracy itself is seen purely in terms of parliamentary majority in the Lower House, the countervailing function of the Upper House is rarely seen as legitimate.

•The Rajya Sabha has historically stopped the ruling party from carrying out even more significant legal changes. The notorious Emergency-era 42nd Constitutional Amendment could not be repealed in toto by the post-Emergency Janata regime because the Congress continued to have a strong presence in the Rajya Sabha. The Rajiv Gandhi government’s proposed 64th Constitutional Amendment Bill on Panchayati Raj was narrowly defeated in the Rajya Sabha, even though it enjoyed the highest ever majority in Lok Sabha. But neither of these governments resorted to constitutional subterfuge or attacked the Rajya Sabha’s raison d’être. Indeed, the Rajya Sabha is undoubtedly imperfect, partly because of constitutional design. And partly because obviously undesirable practices, such as members representing States they have no affiliation to, have been allowed to flourish. But forms of constitutional fraud that reduce it to a cipher cannot be condoned, and it is important to understand the crucial constitutional role that such a body plays.

The value of bicameralism

•Legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron has explained the virtues of bicameralism, especially when the two Houses are chosen by different processes of representation and elected on a different schedule. The very questioning of the monopoly of the Lower House to represent the ‘people’ makes bicameralism desirable, he argues. In India, the fact that the Rajya Sabha membership is determined by elections to State Assemblies leads to a different principle of representation, often allowing different factors to prevail than those in the Lok Sabha elections. John Stuart Mill had warned in his classic treatise on representative democracy that “a majority in a single assembly, when it has assumed a permanent character—when composed of the same persons habitually acting together, and always assured of victory in their own House — easily becomes despotic and overweening, if released from the necessity of considering whether its acts will be concurred in by another constituted authority.” Now that judicial review is hardly prac
tised in India, the second chamber’s performance of such a role becomes particularly important as it offers the opportunity for a second legislative scrutiny. The other merit of bicameralism for Waldron is especially significant in a Westminster system like India, where the Lower House is dominated by the executive. The Rajya Sabha holds the potential of a somewhat different legislative relation to the executive, making a robust separation of powers possible.

Taking legislature seriously

•Arguably though, the malaise that allows such legislative humiliation to be tolerated in India runs even deeper, evident in the contempt for the legislature that has been shown by the executive in this country since the mid-1970s. Never though has it been more apparent than during the pandemic. While the British Prime Minister was being taken to task on ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ every Wednesday in the House of Commons even during the pandemic, Parliament in India was not even convened until it became necessary, and that too after suspending Question Hour. The legislature’s role here is seen as only to pass legislation — the faster the better. But in a country where judicial procedure is perceived as an obstacle to justice by judges themselves, it should not surprise us that legislators view legislative procedure as dispensable so that laws can be enacted by hook or by crook.

📰 The blank pages in India’s online learning experience

The attempts at initiating a rapid transition to synchronised digital learning following the pandemic have many lessons

•The world is presently grappling with the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the social, economic and political spheres. India can be counted among those nations that have been impacted severely.

•COVID-19 has affected all sectors. However, there are areas where countries such as India should be more worried about. One of them is education, especially education of the girl child. Around 300 million children across all age groups are reported to be out of school in India now (the number is of the period when all schools were closed) . And as and when schools finally reopen in the country, the number of children returning to class has to be closely scrutinised. The education sector faces the challenges of delivery, especially of pedagogical processes, classroom assessment frameworks, students’ support and teacher-student engagement.

Realistic assessment is key

•More than just the numbers, the authorities have to realistically assess the level of understanding of students who have returned to schools after ‘digital learning’ at home. This is crucial as studies conducted on government-run schools in various States indicate poor performance — a majority of children, especially girl students, have missed out much on the various e-mail platforms offered. Apart from poor access to digital data, the children were burdened with household/farm work; girl students in particular were apprehensive of being given away in marriage. There is credible evidence that students, parents and teachers were unprepared for the pedagogic shift.

A challenge and the response

•School closures have had a significant impact on both students and their families, more in the case of the vulnerable and underprivileged sections. The lockdown happened during the last quarter of the academic year which led to the postponement of examinations and the curtailment of the prescribed syllabi. On their part, governments tried to put in place measures to address the situation. The basic strategy was to give a push to the digital distance learning method. The focus was on the use of text/video/audio content through SMS, WhatsApp, radio and TV programmes to reach out to students and engage them.

•The Union Ministry of Human Resource Development in March 2020 started sharing free e-learning platforms. They included the Diksha portal which has e-learning content aligned to the curriculum, and e-Pathshala, an app by the National Council of Educational Research and Training for Classes 1 to 12 in multiple languages. SWAYAM hosts 1,900 complete courses including teaching videos, computer weekly assignments, examinations and credit transfers, aimed both at school (Classes 1 to 12) and higher education. SWAYAM Prabha is a group of 32 direct to home channels devoted to the telecasting of educational programmes. While this looks fairly impressive, there are many pitfalls.

•Studies indicate that the rapid transition to digital learning has been very challenging. The initiative failed to take into account existing divides — spatial, digital, gender and class. A recent UNICEF report points out that the massive school closures exposed the uneven distribution of technology that is needed to facilitate remote learning. The chances for an education-enabled social and economic mobility appear to be grim in the country.

The impact is multi-fold

•Following closure of schools, boys became inattentive to studies while girls, with lesser opportunities, were more involved in household chores. With their educational routine having been disrupted, children, in many cases, have also forgotten what they learnt earlier. Again, the decision to postpone the board examinations and to allow automatic promotion to the higher classes is bound to affect the quality.

•A survey promoted by the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, in July 2020, of 3,176 households of Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Telangana and Delhi, found that in families which faced cash and food shortages, only 50% of the boys and girls were confident of returning to school. The abilities of the families and communities concerned to support the educational journeys of the children have been found to be affected.

•One should remember that attending schools is not about learning alone. The long closure of schools has also meant the disruption of a range of activities such as the mid-day meal scheme, the school health programme and pre-metric scholarships to girl children. These activities in the past have had a lot to do with the enrolment as well as regular attendance. As for the digital initiative, it was taken up in a haphazard manner. Many States lacked adequate digital infrastructure and even teachers were poorly equipped to teach. Also, they were not consulted before the initiative. Now, the biggest complaint of the authorities concerned seems to be that teachers have been drawing their salaries doing precious little.

The case of Rajasthan

•In States such as Rajasthan, the education of girl children is still a challenge. The State is positioned precariously — the second worst in overall literacy rates in India and the lowest literacy rate among the females (NSS,2017-18); 20% of girls in the age group 15-16 were out of school against the national average of 13.5 (Annual Status of Education Report 2018). Despite pioneering initiatives in education such as the Lok Jumbish and Shiksha Karmi projects, Rajasthan continues to flounder in systemic issues of education that relate to quality, equity and gender.

•A study by the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur and Development Solutions, Delhi in September-October, found that most girls in Rajasthan (between 13-16 years) were keen to return to school. That as many as 97% of them in the districts surveyed — Tonk, Dausa, Karauli and Udaipur — had been enrolled in schools before the COVID-19 lockdown itself was a positive finding.

•However, the much touted online education plan of the State government did not work. In Rajasthan, the access of girls to education during the COVID-19 period was limited to 11%. Girls who had online access reported links through WhatsApp (92%) and YouTube (12%). The reasons for the inability of students to access online education were: lack of devices, poor or no Internet connectivity, and also girls’ preoccupation with household activity.

NGO activities as a contrast

•Interestingly, schools run by the non-governmental organisation sector did fairly well during the interregnum. Catering mostly to the poor and backward segments, these schools did not go online. Instead, teachers visited individual students at home. They also taught children in small groups.

•There seems to be consensus that online classes are not comparable to actual classroom education. The attempts at digital learning have only exposed the wide digital divide between the rich and the poor and the urban and rural areas. Education planning has to be context specific, gender responsive and inclusive. Enabling measures should include access to online education, removal of barriers in pre-metric scholarships and ensuring the provision of mid-day meals, iron and folic acid tablets and provision of personal hygiene products to girl students even when schools are closed.

•Once schools reopen finally, the authorities should establish the re-enrolment of children as mandated by the National Education Policy 2020. Mass outreach programmes should be developed with civil society to encourage re-enrolment. Remedial tuitions and counselling are advisable, along with scholarships, targeted cash transfers and other entitlements to retain the poorest at school. It is also apt to consider making secondary education for girls free. Given the seriousness of the situation, one expects the governments to keep the budgetary share of education to 6% of GDP, as emphasised by the President of India.

📰 Clean energy post COVID-19

Renewable energy presents opportunities for an inclusive recovery after the pandemic

•The year 2020 was one that only a few of us will forget. While the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have played out unevenly across Asia and the Pacific, the region has been spared many of the worse effects seen in other parts of the world. The pandemic has reminded us that a reliable and uninterrupted energy supply is critical to manage this crisis.

•Beyond ensuring that hospitals and healthcare facilities continue to function, energy supports the systems and coping mechanisms we rely on to work remotely, undertake distance learning and communicate essential health information. Importantly, energy will also support cold chain systems and logistics to ensure that billions of vaccine doses make their way to the people who need them the most.

Healthy progress

•The good news is that our region’s energy systems have continued to function throughout the pandemic. A new report, titled Shaping a Sustainable Energy Future in Asia and the Pacific: A greener, more resilient and inclusive energy system, released on Monday by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) shows that energy demand reductions have mainly impacted fossil fuels and depressed oil and gas prices. Renewable energy development in countries across the region, such as China and India, continued at a healthy pace throughout 2020.

•As the Asia-Pacific region moves towards clean, efficient and low-carbon technologies, the emergence of the pandemic raises some fundamental questions. How can a transformed energy system help ensure our resilience to future crises such as COVID-19? Can we launch a ‘green recovery’ post COVID-19 that simultaneously rebuilds our economies and puts us on track to meet global climate and sustainability goals?

•By emphasising the importance of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a guiding framework for recovering better together, we must focus on two critical aspects. First, by making meaningful progress on SDGs, we can address many of the systemic issues that made societies more vulnerable to COVID-19 in the first place — health, decent work, poverty and socioeconomic inequalities, to name a few.

•Second, by directing stimulus funding to investments that support the achievement of SDGs, we can build back better. If countries focus their stimulus efforts on industries of the past, such as fossil fuels, we risk not creating the jobs we need, or deflecting from the right direction for achieving the global goals that are critical for future generations. The energy sector offers multiple opportunities to align stimuli with clean industries of the future.

Added resilience

•Evidence shows that renewable energy and energy efficiency projects create more jobs for the same investment in fossil fuel projects. By increasing expenditure on clean cooking and electricity access, we can enhance economic activity in rural areas and support modern infrastructure that can make these communities more resilient and inclusive, particularly for the well-being of women and children.

•Additionally, investing in low-carbon infrastructure and technologies can create a basis for the ambitious climate pledges we need to fulfil to reach the Paris Agreement target of a 2-degree global warming limit. On this note, several countries have announced carbon neutrality. Phasing out the use of coal from power generation portfolios and substituting it with renewables, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and implementing carbon pricing are some steps we can take.

•The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to change many aspects of our lives. It has shown that we are more adaptive and resilient than we may have believed. But we should not waste the opportunities this crisis presents. It should not deflect us from the urgent task of making modern energy available to all and decarbonising the region’s energy system through a transition to sustainable energy. Instead, it should provide us with a renewed sense of urgency.