The HINDU Notes – 12th October 2021 - VISION

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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The HINDU Notes – 12th October 2021


📰 Nobel for research on wages, jobs

U.S. based economist showed that higher minimum wages do not hurt hiring

•The Nobel prize for economics was awarded on Monday to U.S.-based economist David Card for pioneering research that showed an increase in minimum wage does not lead to less hiring and that immigrants do not lower pay for native-born workers, challenging commonly held ideas.

•The prize was shared with two others for creating a way to study these types of societal issues.

•Canadian-born Dr. Card of the University of California, Berkeley, was awarded one half of the prize for his research on how minimum wage, immigration and education affect the labour market, while the other half was shared by Joshua Angrist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dutch-born Guido Imbens from Stanford University for their framework for studying issues that can’t rely on traditional scientific methods.

‘Reshaped research’

•The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the three have “completely reshaped empirical work in the economic sciences.”

•Together, the three helped rapidly expand the use of “natural experiments”, or studies based on the observation of real-world data. Such research made economics more applicable to everyday life, provided policymakers with actual evidence on the outcomes of policies, and in time spawned a more popular approach to economics, epitomised by the bestseller Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt.

•In a study published in 1993, Dr. Card looked at what happened to jobs at fast-food restaurants Burger King, KFC, Wendy’s and Roy Rogers when New Jersey raised its minimum wage from $4.25 to $5.05, using restaurants in bordering eastern Pennsylvania as the control — or comparison — group.

•Contrary to previous studies, he and his research partner Alan Krueger, who died in 2019, found that an increase in the minimum wage had no effect on the number of employees.

•Dr. Card’s minimum wage research fundamentally altered economists’ views of such policies.

📰 Over 2 lakh RTI pleas pending

Information Commissions lack staff: study

•A complaint filed under the Right to Information Act (RTI) in Odisha this summer would not be disposed of by the State’s Information Commission until 2028 at the current rate of operations. Twelve State Information Commissions plus the Central Information Commission would need at least a year to dispose of their appeals, and the nationwide backlog has crossed 2.55 lakh cases, according to an analysis by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS).

•Sixteen years after the RTI Act came into force on October 12, 2005, it is a tool for citizens to demand accountability in governance, with an estimated 40 lakh to 60 lakh RTI requests being filed every year. When a request for information is denied by a government body, however, appeals are filed in the Central and State Information Commissions, which act as transparency watchdogs under the law.

•The SNS report documented the performance of these commissions, highlighting the delays in disposing of cases due to both shortage of personnel and inefficient operations. A complaint filed in Odisha on July 1, 2021 would take six years and eight months to be disposed of, the longest among States.

•The Central Information Commission itself would take a year and 11 months to dispose an appeal, although it has reduced its backlog to 33,742 since filling four of its vacancies almost a year ago. However, the CIC still has three vacancies left and has not functioned at its full strength of 10 Commissioners and one chief for almost five years.

•“An assessment of the functioning of the transparency watchdogs revealed that 21 out of 29 commissions in the country did not hold a single hearing during the first three stages of the national lockdown imposed in 2020,” said the SNS report.

📰 U.K. asks India to update climate goals

Johnson calls Modi; they speak about vaccine certifications and Afghanistan situation

•British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday, urging India to announce a “more ambitious” Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) ahead of a United Nations climate change summit in the U.K. in a few weeks. The two leaders also spoke about the issue of vaccine certifications and the Afghanistan situation.

•“Prime Minister conveyed India’s commitment to Climate Action, as seen in its ambitious target for expansion of renewable energy and the recently announced National Hydrogen Mission,” a Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) statement said.

•As president of the coming climate change conference, the U.K. is asking all countries to update their NDCs to reflect climate targets for the next few decades. “Prime Minister [Johnson] underlined the importance of making concrete progress on climate change ahead of and at the upcoming COP26 Summit. He noted that India already lead(s) the world in renewable technology and expressed his hope that they will commit to a more ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution and to achieving Net Zero emissions,” said an official release from the U.K. government on the conversation.

•One hundred and ninety three countries filed their first NDCs, but only 19 have so far updated them. India filed its first NDC in 2016, committing at the time to cut emissions by 33% by 2030 (from 2005 levels) and to ensure that about 40% of its installed power capacity comes from renewable energy, targets that the government says it is on track to reach. However, the U.K. and the U.S. have been asking India to do more in terms of declaring its second NDC, which includes India’s promise of installing 450 GW of renewable energy by 2030, and to declare firm deadlines for achieving “Net Zero” carbon emissions and ending the use of coal for generating electricity, so as to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Mr. Modi has been invited to the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12, but has not confirmed his attendance yet. He had been due to attend the G-7 summit as a special invitee in the U.K. in June last, but had to cancel the visit due to the second wave of the pandemic. Mr. Johnson is also expected to reschedule his proposed visits to India in January and April this year, which had to be put off due to the pandemic as well.

Foreign Secretary visit

•However, high-level visits by two Ministers, including the new British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are expected shortly, and could coincide with India-U.K. naval exercises involving the U.K. Carrier Strike Group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth. Ms. Truss spoke to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar over the telephone last week about the vaccine issue as well as the U.K. India “Roadmap” for ties till 2030 and an enhanced trade partnership.

•According to the U.K. statement, Mr. Modi and Mr. Johnson discussed the importance of “cautiously opening up international travel”, and the issue of vaccine certification.

Covishield recognition

•Last week, the U.K. agreed to recognise Indian-administered Covishield and waived the need for nationals from India and 36 other countries to undertake home quarantines as long as they are vaccinated. However, the U.K. does not yet recogniseCovaxin, which is awaiting clearances from the World Health Organization. “They agreed the U.K.’s recognition of Indian vaccine certification is a welcome development to that end,” the British statement said.

•The leaders also talked about Afghanistan, both sides said. “In this context, they agreed on the need to develop a common international perspective on issues regarding extremism and terrorism, as well as Human Rights and rights of women and minorities,” the MEA statement added.

📰 Tackling the climate crisis

The pressure to speed up mitigation and adaptation is at an all-time high

•The recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report from Working Group I makes a clarion call for climate action. According to the report, the past decade (2011-2020) was warmer by 1.09°C than the period from 1850 to 1900, and the 1.5°C global warming threshold is likely to be breached soon. The IPCC report warns India against more intense heat waves, heavy monsoons and rise in weather extremes in the future. The Global Climate Risk Index (2021) ranked India the seventh-most affected country by weather extremes. Responses to climate change vary from place to place as there are differences in production systems, agro-climatic and socio-economic conditions across the country.

Adopt adaptation strategies

•The pressure to speed up mitigation and adaptation is at an all-time high. India is doing well in achieving its mitigation commitments of reducing emission intensity and enhancing renewable capacity. India is targeting 450 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030 and it has launched mega solar and green hydrogen missions. The Shoonya programme by NITI Aayog, which aims to accelerate adoption of electric vehicles, is yet another effort towards adoption of clean technologies.

•With escalating climatic risks, there is an urgency to adopt adaptation strategies. India has some dedicated initiatives towards adaptation, such as the National Action Plan on Climate Change and the National Adaptation Fund. However, a breakthrough on adaptation and resilience actions is needed to save hard-earned developmental gains and adjust to new climate conditions. Adaptation planning needs to go beyond a business-as-usual approach. A development-centric approach that aligns climate change, food security, and livelihood perspectives and takes into consideration regional specificities is crucial for reducing poverty and distress migrations. Moreover, adaptation planning requires governance at different levels to understand, plan, coordinate, integrate and act to reduce vulnerability and exposure.

•To strengthen adaptation and resilience, India can do the following. First, it can be more prepared for climate change with high-quality meteorological data. With improved early warning systems and forecasting, we can tackle the crisis better. Premier research institutes can be roped in to develop regional climate projections for robust risk assessments.

•Second, for sustainable production systems, it is necessary to develop well-functioning markets for environmentally friendly products and disseminate them for the desired behavioural change.

•Third, it is important to encourage private sector participation for investment in adaptation technologies and for designing and implementing innovative climate services and solutions in areas such as agriculture, health, infrastructure, insurance and risk management.

•Fourth, we need to protect mangroves and forests to address climate-related risks by blending traditional knowledge with scientific evidence and encourage local and non-state actors to actively participate.

•Fifth, major social protection schemes must be climate-proofed. We have an opportunity to create resilient infrastructural assets, diversify the economy and enhance the adaptive capacity of rural households. Sixth, for continuous monitoring and evaluation, effective feedback mechanisms must be developed for mid-course correction. Periodic fine-tuning of State Action Plans on Climate Change is crucial to systematically understand micro-level sensitivities, plan resource allocation, and design responses to serve at different levels of intensities of climate hazards.

•Proactive and timely need-based adaptation is important. Without it, there will be a huge fiscal burden in the future. A more collaborative approach towards climate change adaptation is crucial. Next-generation reforms will promote new business and climate service opportunities across several sectors and thus create a sustainable economy.

📰 Protecting India’s natural laboratories

Preserving geological heritage is as important as preserving biodiversity and cultural heritage

•Like social diversity, India’s geodiversity, or variety of the geological and physical elements of nature, is unique. India has tall mountains, deep valleys, sculpted landforms, long-winding coastlines, hot mineral springs, active volcanoes, diverse soil types, mineralised areas, and globally important fossil-bearing sites. It is long known as the world’s ‘natural laboratory’ for geo-scientific learning.

Lack of geological literacy

•Broken loose from a supercontinent 150 million years ago, the Indian landmass, with all its strange-looking plants and animals, drifted northwards all by itself for 100 million years until it settled under the southern margin of the Asian continent. It got entwined with the world’s youngest plate boundary. The geological features and landscapes that evolved over billions of years through numerous cycles of tectonic and climate upheavals are recorded in India’s rock formations and terrains, and are part of the country’s heritage. For example, the Kutch region in Gujarat has dinosaur fossils and is our version of a Jurassic Park. The Tiruchirappalli region of Tamil Nadu, originally a Mesozoic Ocean, is a store house of Cretaceous (60 million years ago) marine fossils. To know how physical geography gets transformed into a cultural entity, we need to study the environmental history of the Indus River Valley, one of the cradles of human civilisation. India offers plenty of such examples.

•Geo-heritage sites are educational spaces where people find themselves acquiring badly needed geological literacy, especially at a time when India’s collective regard for this legacy is abysmal. Indian classrooms view disciplines like environmental science and geology with disdain compared to how they view other ‘pure’ subjects like physics, biology, and chemistry. This lack of interest in the government and our academic circles towards geological literacy is unfortunate at a time when we face a crisis like global warming. As the climate of the future is uncertain, decision-making is difficult. Learning from the geological past, like the warmer intervals during the Miocene Epoch (23 to 5 million years ago), whose climate can be reconstructed using proxies and simulations, may serve as an analogue for future climate. The awareness accrued through educational activities in geo-heritage parks will make it easy for us to memorialise past events of climate change and appreciate the adaptive measures to be followed for survival.

•The importance of the shared geological heritage of our planet was first recognised in 1991 at an UNESCO-sponsored event, ‘First International Symposium on the Conservation of our Geological Heritage’. The delegates assembled in Digne, France, and endorsed the concept of a shared legacy: “Man and the Earth share a common heritage, of which we and our governments are but the custodians.” This declaration foresaw the establishment of geo-parks as sites that commemorate unique geological features and landscapes within their assigned territories; and as spaces that educate the public on geological importance. These sites thus promote geo-tourism that generates revenue and employment.

•In the late 1990s, in what may be considered as a continuation of the Digne resolution, UNESCO facilitated efforts to create a formal programme promoting a global network of geoheritage sites. These were intended to complement the World Heritage Convention and the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere programme. UNESCO provided guidelines for developing national geo-parks so that they become part of the Global Geoparks Network. Today, there are 169 Global Geoparks across 44 countries.

•Countries like Vietnam and Thailand have also implemented laws to conserve their geological and natural heritage. Unfortunately, India does not have any such legislation and policy for conservation. Though the Geological Survey of India (GSI) has identified 32 sites as National Geological Monuments, there is not a single geo-park in India which is recognised by the UNESCO. This is despite the fact that India is a signatory to the establishment of UNESCO Global Geoparks. The GSI had submitted a draft legislation for geo-heritage conservation to the Ministry of Mines in 2014, but it did not make any impact.

The development juggernaut

•Despite international progress in this field, the concept of geo-conservation has not found much traction in India. Many fossil-bearing sites have been destroyed in the name of development. This indifference — strange as it may seem given the current dispensation’s penchant for crying itself hoarse about India’s heritage — is going to take a toll on our heritage. The development juggernaut will soon overwhelm almost all our sites of geo-heritage. For example, the high concentration of iridium in the geological section at Anjar, Kutch district, provides evidence for a massive meteoritic impact that caused the extinction of dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. This site was destroyed due to the laying of a new rail track in the area. Similarly, a national geological monument exhibiting a unique rock called Nepheline Syenite in Ajmer district of Rajasthan was destroyed in a road-widening project. The Lonar impact crater in Buldhana district of Maharashtra is an important geo-heritage site of international significance. It is under threat of destruction, although conservation work is now in progress under the High Court’s supervision.

•We are inching towards the disappearance of most of our geological heritage sites. Thanks to unplanned and booming real estate business, many such features have been destroyed. Unregulated stone mining activities have also contributed to this destruction. This situation calls for immediate implementation of sustainable conservation measures such as those formulated for protecting biodiversity. Natural assets, once destroyed, can never be recreated. And if they are uprooted, they lose much of their scientific value.

Geo-conservation legislation

•The protection of geo-heritage sites requires legislation. The Biological Diversity Act was implemented in 2002 and now there are 18 notified biosphere reserves in India. Geo-conservation should be a major guiding factor in land-use planning. A progressive legal framework is needed to support such strategies. In 2009, there was a half-hearted attempt to constitute a National Commission for Heritage Sites through a bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha. Though it was eventually referred to the Standing Committee, for some unstated reasons the government backtracked and the bill was withdrawn. In 2019, a group of geologists under the auspices of the Society of Earth Scientists petitioned the Prime Minister and the Ministries concerned about the need for a national conservation policy under the direct supervision of a national body committed to the protection of geo-heritage sites. But the government’s apathy continues.

📰 The ‘yes or a no’ the Court must ask about Pegasus

A record of the hearings indicates that the judiciary has allowed the Government to get away with much of its evasion

•In July this year, a global coalition of media organisations revealed that a mobile phone spyware — Pegasus — was being used in a number of countries to surveil journalists, activists, dissidents, and political leaders. Manufactured by an Israeli cyber-arms firm called the NSO Group, Pegasus is a highly invasive malware that once installed on an individual’s phone, can collect and transmit data, track activities such as browsing history, and control functionalities such as the phone camera. The NSO Group claims that its only clients are vetted governments. The Pegasus revelations thus indicated the possibility of serious governmental abuse.

Yet another episode

•The revelations further showed that around 50,000 mobile phone numbers had been potentially infected by the spyware. Many of these numbers were Indian, and belonged to journalists, activists, and politicians. This was not the first time that such a thing had come to light. India featured on a list of Pegasus-using countries as early as in 2018. In 2019, it was found that a number of activists including some of the accused in the infamous Bhima Koregaon case had been potentially spied upon, and their mobile phones compromised. Later the same year, WhatsApp notified the Indian government of a Pegasus-related security breach, with as many as 121 Indian citizens being targeted. The July 2021 revelations, thus, were not new, but only the most recent and most extensive accounts of military-grade surveillance being carried out upon Indians.

A track of stonewalling

•In the aftermath of the Pegasus revelations, certain countries such as France and Morocco ordered immediate investigations. In India, however, the story has been one of continuous official stonewalling. In October 2019, Right to Information requests about whether the Indian government had purchased the Pegasus software were met with a “no information available” response. Parliamentarians put questions to the Government in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, where, once again, no response on the purchase or use of Pegasus was forthcoming. The Government continued to maintain this stance in response to various Parliamentary questions put to it through 2020 and 2021, and even after the 2021 revelations, including the effective quashing of a Parliamentary Committee inquiry into the issue, with ruling party politicians disabling it from functioning by denying it a quorum.

•This history clearly indicates that attempts in Parliament to hold the executive accountable for possible abuse of governmental surveillance powers has been entirely frustrated for more than two years. Under our constitutional scheme, however, there is a third wing of state that exists precisely to address situations where executive abuse and violations of fundamental rights are not being checked by the available mechanisms: the court. Consequently, at the end of July, multiple petitions were filed before the Supreme Court of India, alleging breaches of fundamental rights, and of India’s legislative framework dealing with lawful interception of communications.

•However, it has now been almost two-and-a-half months since the petitions came to court, without meaningful action. Between August 5 and September 13, 2021, the Court held six hearings on the case.

The issues are simple

•The issues before the Court were simple: did the Government of India authorise the use of Pegasus upon the individuals whose names had appeared in the list? If it did, was there any justification for the use of such intrusive surveillance upon individuals who, admittedly, were not accused of any wrongdoing? And if it did not, was it not a breach of the Government’s constitutional obligations to protect its citizens from the use of military-grade surveillance by rogue actors? It is important to note that the petitions were not some fishing expedition asking the Government to reveal details about its general interceptions techniques: rather, they were brought to court by individuals who had themselves been affected by Pegasus, and were focused upon accountability: in essence, does the Indian Constitution allow for rampant and unchecked surveillance upon individuals — surveillance that goes far beyond simple interception of communication, and effectively hijacks and individual’s mobile phone — with complete impunity?

•Nonetheless, throughout the hearings, the Government continued upon its track of evasion: it repeatedly refused to file an affidavit setting out its stance in writing, until nudged by the Court to do so. The final affidavit that it did file was nothing more than a recapitulation of its evasive stance in Parliament. Furthermore, it continued to resist answering the core questions put to it, on the basis that doing so would undermine “national security”. This has, however, been a recent, unfortunate trend: whenever the question of widespread and serious rights violations arises, the Government recites the words “national security” like a mantra, not simply to avoid providing answers, but to hint that even asking the question is somehow illegitimate. In this way, “national security” becomes a cloak for impunity.

On the court’s conduct

•Nowhere was this more evident during the course of the Pegasus hearings. If a person whose mobile phone has been hijacked by a military-grade spyware that is only sold to governments, and if the Constitution means anything at all, it means that that person has the right to know why this has been done to him, and at whose behest. And — with the inability of Parliament to hold the executive to account — the only place where the individual can seek answers is the court. This has nothing to do with “national security”, and everything to do with whether we are a country governed by the rule of law — where the rule of law applies to both individuals and to the state — or whether we are living under a regime of executive impunity.

•Unfortunately, however, a record of the hearings so far indicates that the Court has allowed the Government to get away with much of its evasion. Despite the passage of two and a half months, the Court is yet to pass any consequential orders including, for example, orders directing the Government to provide the information that it has refused to provide Parliament and to citizens. Furthermore, the Court’s conduct has not been limited to inaction. When the State of West Bengal set up a committee to investigate Pegasus, the Court entertained a plea against it — despite having no ground to do so — and by orally expressing its disapproval (without any clear grounds to do so), effectively compelled the State government to halt the investigation. At no point was any legal justification provided for why the Court decided to hear such an irregular plea, or why the State of West Bengal was required to stop investigating breaches of fundamental rights.

Need for direction

•On the last date of hearing, September 13, the Court indicated that it would establish a Committee to look into the matter. However, this puts the cart before the horse: it is unclear why the Court has not yet drawn an adverse inference against the Government for its repeated refusal to answer straightforward questions about potentially abusive surveillance; the setting up of a Committee would make sense after such a finding had been returned. Moreover, the substantial amount of time that has passed since the last order is worrying. In India, we have a long experience of “death by Committee”: issues that require urgent attention linger for many months in a Committee, and once public memory has dulled, are given a quiet burial. It is vital that this should not happen in the present case. Thus, a direction by the Court to the Government to answer whether it has been spying on citizens not accused of any offence — a direct yes/no question — and, if the answer is yes, to require it to explain why or face legal consequences — would be a good start.

📰 The next step is a constitutional right to health

Presently, any investment in health care has failed to translate into a sense of security and sanctuary for many Indians

•The brevity of human memory is often a blessing and even necessary for our collective healing from suffering. But the lessons we learn from suffering are possibly even more crucial. As our people continue to face individual and collective grief as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it is the moral responsibility of our leaders to look ahead and learn the necessary lessons.

A place for this ‘right’

•The lesson here is the need for the constitutional ‘Right to Health for all’. The pandemic has exposed and aggravated the cracks in our health-care systems, and this is a lesson we cannot afford to ignore and not learn.

•In June this year, I called on the Parliament of India to take immediate measures to make necessary amendments to the Constitution to declare health care a Fundamental Right. I was reassured with positive responses from parliamentarians across party lines who have supported this call. Now, the time has come to make this a reality for India so our people never have to undergo the suffering that they did.

Through the eyes of citizens

•The primary question raised is: what will a constitutional ‘Right to Health’ mean for a citizen of India? I will try and explain this through the lens of three categories of citizens: farmers and unorganised workers, women and children.

•Farmers are the primary protectors of our fundamental right to life. Yet, the majority remain at a loose end when it comes to their own rights and well-being, and that of their families. Without an anchor during times of severe illness or disease, generations of children of small and landless farmers, and unorganised, migrant and seasonal workers are thrown into bondage and debt by having to pay for medical costs from their limited earnings. Employment benefit schemes do not reach them, and the ones that do are mostly on paper. The implementation of the right to health can provide simple, transparent and quality health care to those who are most in need of such care.

•Women bear a disproportionate burden of the gaps in our health-care system. The taboos and patriarchal expectations surrounding their health lead to immense avoidable suffering. In addition, social and economic challenges prevent them from freely and openly accessing the little care that is available. A ‘Right to Health’ would mean that services reach the woman where and when she needs them.

•A large number of children who belong to the poorest and most marginalised communities of our country grow up working in hazardous situations be it fields, mines, brick kilns or factories. They are either not enrolled in schools or are not able to attend it due to the pressing financial needs of the family — often because of unexpected out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Making it safer for children

•My organisation has rescued over 1,00,000 such children from child labour, bonded labour, and trafficking. When rescued, these children are ridden with complex health impacts of working — primarily tuberculosis, skin diseases, eyesight impairment, and malnutrition, besides the substantial mental health impact. These children have been denied a safety net of early childhood care and protection, the consequences of which are felt for a lifetime. The ‘Right to Health’ will help transition the children in exploitative conditions into a safer future.

•A constitutional ‘Right to Health’ will transform not only the health and well-being of our people but will act as a leap for the economic and developmental progress of the nation. Presently, any investment in health care fails to translate into a sense of security and sanctuary for the people of India. Instead, the complex and often corrupt means of accessing even existing health care only adds to the suffering instead of alleviating it. The vision for Ayushman Bharat will be strengthened with a constitutional ‘Right to Health’. The immediate financial security that will come with the constitutional ‘Right to Health’ will be seen as a measurable impact on family savings, greater investment, and jobs creation on the one hand, and in the long-term emotional, psychological and social security of people.

As a legacy

•The world is taking steps, both big and small, in recovering from the pandemic through foresight in policy and investment. India must not lag behind. The right to free and compulsory education was arguably one of the most valuable legacies of the earlier Government. The true testament of bold leadership lies in its timely, compassionate and courageous decisions for the greater good. A constitutional amendment to introduce the ‘Right to Health for India’ can be the legacy of this Government.