Gist of The Hindu: September 2014

Gist of The Hindu: September 2014

Scrapping GoMs

Signalling a break from the past, the Narendra Modi government announced the abolition of all Groups of Ministers (GoMs) and Empowered Groups of Ministers (EGoMs) for greater accountability and empowerment. Nine EGoMs and 21 GoMs were set up by the previous government to take decisions on various matters such as corruption, inter-State water disputes, administrative reforms and gas and telecom pricing, before bringing them for the Cabinet’s consideration.

While allocating portfolios to his Council of Ministers, the Prime Minister said “all important policy matters” would be their domain. The issues pending before the EGoMs and GoMs will now be processed by the Ministries and departments. This would expedite the process of decision-making and usher in greater accountability in the system. Wherever the Ministries face any difficulties, the Cabinet Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office will facilitate the decision making process.

The announcement came two days after Mr. Modi unveiled his 10-point agenda with a directive to the Ministers to prepare a list of issues that they will take up in the first 100 days in office, with focus on efficiency, delivery systems and implementation.

The President others want in Egypt

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general who was First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence in the junta which overthrew Egypt’s elected President Mohamed Morsy in July 2013, has won the country’s latest presidential election, gaining 95 per cent of the vote to defeat his sole rival, Hamdeen Sabahi. Approximately 47 per cent of the 54 million voters turned out, and intimidation as well as gross inequalities in resources and media coverage marred the process; European Union observers said the election did not meet the Egyptian constitutional principles of free association and expression. Public distrust and suspicion may well have found expression in a turnout so low on the two designated polling days that officials ordered a third day’s voting, which the NGO Democracy International (DI) concludes was only one of many unusual steps which damaged the credibility of the election. Members of the public said openly that their participation would make no difference, and official attitudes could not have helped; one judge who is also on the election commission has said in print that poverty and low levels of education among the population make democracy unsuitable for Egypt. In any case, the Muslim Brotherhood, which clearly showed that it has the strongest popular support by winning the Constituent Assembly elections in 2011-12 and then the June 2012 presidential election, remains under a ban; it is very likely that Brotherhood supporters boycotted the poll. Meanwhile, many of the organisation’s senior figures are in prison or in exile, and Mr. Morsy is under trial on charges which could lead to the death penalty.

In the sphere of policy change, there is hardly any expectation from new government. The blockade of the Gaza Strip will almost certainly continue, depriving Gazans of essential supplies. Secondly, the relevant global and regional powers can be expected not to criticise Cairo’s main policies or its domestic repression. Despite a current Senate freeze, the United States government wants to continue its $1.5 billion annual aid to Egypt, most of which goes on arms purchases from U.S. firms; for their part, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, all of which are very hostile to the Brotherhood, have donated over $12 billion in recent years. All the countries concerned, including Israel, value stability above democracy in Egypt, mainly because democracy would enable the Egyptian public to call for a fair and just Israel-Palestine settlement and could revive demands for democracy in West Asia. It appears that neither the world’s major powers nor the main regional ones are prepared to allow Egypt’s 84 million people the right to choose their own leaders freely.

An opportunity to seal a deal with Pakistan

Indian government invited leaders from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to PM’s swearing-in. In his meetings with them, however, going by what was reported, he toed the standard line, which, on issues new to him, was both understandable and prudent. As he moves forward, though, he should review received wisdom on our neighbours, above all on Pakistan. Though Nawaz Sharif has made clear that Pakistan wants a dialogue that is comprehensive, even if not “composite”. There is a huge irony in this, because in the sincerest form of flattery, Pakistan has embraced our traditional position and we have appropriated theirs. For over two decades after 1971, we urged Pakistan to discuss all issues with us, while it refused without satisfaction on Kashmir. We argued that it was absurd to reduce relations between neighbours to a single issue, and took it as a triumph when Pakistan eventually agreed to what we dubbed the “composite dialogue”.Now we have reduced ourselves to a single issue — terrorism — we give Pakistan the excuse to revert to its own one-child policy — Kashmir.

Settlement on Kashmir

For over a decade now, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has used terrorism against India for two entirely different purposes. The first is to derail any initiative that might lead to the peace that they dread; the attack on our Embassy in Kabul in 2008, on Mumbai later that year, on the Consulate in Herat before Mr. Sharif flew in for the inauguration, were all launched to make it hard for any Indian government to reach out to Pakistan. The second is to derail India’s growth by targeting the cities and centres that fuel it because an economically strong India would be militarily more powerful, increasing the asymmetry with Pakistan. Therefore, a settlement of Kashmir will not necessarily mean the end of terrorism. Nothing will boost its standing more than an honourable settlement on Kashmir. Such a settlement would bring the prolonged misery of the Kashmiris to an end, and is therefore as much in our interest. From later this year, as the U.S. abandons Afghanistan, the Pakistan Army will use all its energies to get its proxies into Kabul. Over the next two years, hordes of young Pakistanis will be sent off to fight a jihad there. It is unlikely that the regime in Kabul can hold out after the last U.S. troops leave in 2016. From 2016, battle-hardened Pakistani jihadis will be in surplus to requirements in Afghanistan, and will start returning home, where neither the government nor the Army will want them, fearing that they will be the next targets. Their ISI handlers will have every incentive to send them eastwards, as they did after the Taliban takeover in the 1990s. We should therefore try to resolve problems now, starting with Kashmir, on which there is nothing left to negotiate.

Both Prime Ministers have inherited a draft which their opponents cannot object to or undermine. In Pakistan, Mr. Sharif can point out that the draft was negotiated entirely under the supervision of General Musharraf; the Corps Commanders and General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, then DG (ISI), were briefed on the broad outlines and concurred. Since the Pakistan Army claims to be the custodian of Pakistan’s security, this cannot be an agreement that in any way harms its interests.

The Prime Minister will be counselled that it is best to move slowly, plucking the low-hanging fruit first. This is unwise. Gradualism does not work with Pakistan, because those who fear peace stymie it. Every tentative step will have a hurdle placed before it, usually of bodies killed by terrorists, and we will stop. The only way to defeat this easy subversion is to clear away the problems between us in one fell swoop. This means that we should settle Siachen and Sir Creek as well. In this day and age, there are enough means to monitor the large-scale movement of troops over difficult terrain which would be essential if Pakistan tried to reoccupy the glacier or the ridge.

Human, economic benefits

Sir Creek is even more easily settled, since we now have agreed maps, jointly drawn up. Political decisions are needed on the concessions each side is prepared to make on the final alignment, which will in turn determine the shape of the maritime boundary. Settling that would bring us two important benefits, one human, the other economic: firstly, our fishermen, all from Prime Minister Modi’s State, who stray over a notional boundary, would have a clear idea of what is off bounds; the numbers rotting away in Pakistani jails would plummet. The economic gain would be that with the maritime boundary settled, the claim we have lodged with the U.N. Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf would be much more easily accepted. Pakistan does not have the financial or technological means to explore the shelf and the seabed, but we do.

Finalising India’s offers on Siachen and Sir Creek should be part of the agenda for the first 100 days that Prime Minister Modi has asked for. On Kashmir, it is entirely his call. If these three issues are resolved, as they can easily be, Pakistan will have no excuse to drag its feet on any other bilateral issue. The Pakistan Army’s refuseniks will still oppose peace, but will find it increasingly hard to get its citizens to believe that India is an enemy, against which terror can be let loose.

Fighting for survival

India leads a group of high-burden countries with respect to one more health indicator — neonatal (0-27 days of age) deaths. Of the three million neonatal deaths globally in 2012, 779,000 were in India. Nigeria comes second with about one-third of India’s figure. Also, globally there were 2.6 million stillbirths in the same year, of which 600,000 were in India. The first 24 hours after birth represent the most critical period for the survival of a neonate. Of the one million newborns dying globally on the first day of birth, nearly one-third are in India. That 56 per cent of all under-five deaths in India happen during the neonatal period reveals how vulnerable the neonatal period is. Besides bearing the ignominy of being the highest neonatal burden country, for India what is worrying is its inability to achieve death toll reduction. The country, which had a neonatal mortality rate of 29 per 1,000 live births in 2012, recorded an average annual rate of reduction of just 2.6 per cent during 1990-2012. According to papers published recently in The Lancet, India, Nigeria and Pakistan registered the “slowest rates of progress” in reducing neonatal mortality.

According to a 2012 WHO report, India is one of the 10 countries with an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 preterm births, as in 2010. The high number of preterm births is one of the reasons for the very high numbers of newborn deaths in the country — preterm births cause about 50 per cent of neonatal mortality. Though very little is known about what causes preterm births, poverty, adolescent pregnancy, inadequate spacing of deliveries, and lack of medical care are some of the risk factors. Starting 2006, over 500 special-care newborn units have been set up in district hospitals, and about 600,000 admissions take place a year. Thanks to initiatives such as cash transfer, institutional deliveries have increased since 2006. Yet, a concomitant reduction in infant mortality has not been achieved; many deliveries still take place at home, especially in the States of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Hence, there is a dire need to increase the number of well-trained birth attendants. Also, the lack of well-trained healthcare workers and well-equipped healthcare centres has proved to be a “barrier” to improving newborn survival. There is, hence, an urgent need to improve the quality of care.

End labour informality

The World of Work Report 2014 catalogues the impressive strides developing countries are making to catch up with advanced nations. But the International Labour Organisation study also contains important caveats on the cost from continuing sharp inequalities. Per capita income has grown on average by 3.3 per cent per annum in 140 countries over the past three decades, as against 1.8 per cent in the advanced economies. But this process of global convergence has by no means been uniform, as some least developed countries have performed well below the advanced economies. Such sharp variations are accounted for in terms of the presence or absence of quality jobs, the report contends. Vulnerable employment presents a formidable challenge, as more than half the workforce in the developing world — numbering 1.45 billion — is either self-employed or undertakes unpaid economic activity. That is to say, such a large population goes without a guaranteed income, social protection or adequate investments in the health and education of families, putting in jeopardy the future of coming generations.

Senegal, Peru and Vietnam are instances cited in the report where there has been an increase in the proportion of wage and salaried workers over the past two decades, leading to significant reductions in working poverty and higher productivity. Better wages did not merely cushion these countries from the impact of the global meltdown. Working in tandem with other determinants, they in fact enabled these economies to grow one percentage point faster than other emerging economies since 2007. Instructive is the finding that a sizeable proportion of wage-earners in a society help to reduce income inequality and under-employment in the workforce. The obverse is also true. Widening inequalities also produce adverse effects on economic growth in terms of low consumption, not to mention the detrimental effects on social cohesion and stability. A significant increase in regular wage employment in both rural and urban India over the two-year period ending in 2012, as reported by the latest round of the National Sample Survey Organisation, is indeed encouraging. The findings also point to faster growth in employment in the manufacturing and services sectors. It is critical for State governments to consolidate on this momentum. Enforcement of statutory minimum wages across different economic sectors would be critical to strengthening the workforce as well as to raising overall productivity.

Smaller State, bigger problems

Andhra Pradesh is now smaller in size, but the challenges before its Chief Minister, N. Chandrababu Naidu, are much bigger than they were when he ruled the undivided State from 1995 to 2004. Building a new capital near Vijayawada, attracting big-ticket investments to cities dwarfed by Hyderabad, finding funds to fulfil electoral promises such as a loan waiver for farmers and others — these are only the foremost among the many difficulties that confront him. Mr. Naidu, who has staged a remarkable comeback after a decade of being out of power, knows he will need all the help he can get from the government at the Centre. This harsh reality is reflected in the political choices he has made after the general elections. In a departure from practice, the Telugu Desam Party joined the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre. During the previous two terms of the NDA government, the TDP accepted the Speakership of the Lok Sabha, but stayed out of government.

The distancing was deliberate: Mr. Naidu was keen to have the BJP as an ally to fight the Congress, but was at the same time wary of the political costs of aligning too closely with a party whose secular credentials were in question. Now, however, such considerations do not seem to matter. Mr. Naidu also inducted two Ministers from the BJP into his Cabinet, thus cementing relations with the national party further. The BJP at the Centre and the TDP in the State do not really need each other’s support, but both parties view the alliance as a long-term investment. When the TDP allied with the BJP before the election, there were many who thought that it had more to lose than gain by teaming up with a party that was seen as having supported the bifurcation of the State. But Mr. Naidu was looking well beyond the election while making his choices. And his political calculations paid off.

Unlike Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, who has no stakes beyond his State, Mr. Naidu hopes that at some point his party will be able to rule both States at the same time. The TDP lost heavily in the election in the Telangana region as the whole campaign turned on the bifurcation issue. However, as the leader of a party with a political base in both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Mr. Naidu will have to push for amicable settlements to inter-State disputes. Mr. Rao, who has been making belligerent remarks on several of the contentious issues, should realise that there is little to be gained by political posturing. The interests of the people of the two States will be better served if both Chief Ministers approach the difficult issues with a dispassionate mind. Mr. Naidu can take the lead, but Mr. Rao should follow.

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