Gist of The Hindu: September 2015


Gist of The Hindu: September 2015


The OROP struggle

Thousands of ex-servicemen converged on the national capital over the past weekend to protest against the delay on the part of the government in announcing a firm timeline for the implementation of the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme. Others have gone on a relay-hunger strike across the country, saying they would do so till their demand is met. In the run-up to the 2014 elections and after, the Bharatiya Janata Party held out several assurances on OROP, raising expectations among the community of veterans. OROP is meant to bring parity among retired military personnel based only on rank and tenure and irrespective of the date of retirement. As Prime Minister Narendra Modi accepted in his “Mann Ki Baat” broadcast, the government had underestimated the complexity of the process. One of the major concerns of the government as it works out the details relates to similar demands that could potentially come from the Central police and paramilitary forces. The logic of OROP stems from the fact that unlike in other government services where the retirement age is 55, 58 or 60, in the military services a soldier retires around 35. So extending the scheme to non-military cadres will nullify its very rationale. In order to pre-empt any legal issues in the future, the government is working to call it military pension, making it a provision that applies only to the armed forces. Another issue relates to allocating finances for the immediate rollout phase and making the necessary provision for enhancements in future. Wary of any bid by the government to redefine OROP, veterans are demanding that it stick to the accepted definition.

The scheme, once implemented, is expected to benefit two and a half million ex-servicemen and women immediately. While the veterans’ anguish over the delay is understandable, they should appreciate the complexity of the process. Also, with OROP being one of the BJP’s top election promises, commitment for its implementation had been reiterated at the highest level by Mr. Modi. The issue, pending for four decades, has seen more progress in the last one year than over the last few decades. So while keeping up pressure on the government, it would be wise to give it room to work out the details. The government, on its part, should realise that these veterans fought for this country while in service, and it is indeed their legitimate right. In addition, they represent a strong voter base, as the last Lok Sabha elections proved. This is pertinent as protesting organisations have announced they would agitate in Bihar, where Assembly elections are due this year. The government should come out with a clear road map in the interests of the nation as well as its own. The existing mismatch between expectations and delivery could prove problematic in more ways than one.

The makings of a game-changer

The final report of the Bibek Debroy Committee on restructuring the Indian Railways has suggested a process of gradual reforms, involving the introduction of commercial accounting practices and greater decentralisation of powers, allowing the entry of the private sector, and the setting up of an independent regulator. The committee has indicated a five-year time frame to implement the measures. One of the most transformative suggestions made is allowing private sector players to run trains. It has suggested exposing railway production units to competition, and the creation of an environment conducive to private investment by giving confidence to private players through transparent accounting processes. This has to be seen in the context of the failure of the public-private partnership route so far in both the road and railway sectors. There have been different reports in the past that have pointed to what ails the Indian Railways. For instance, in 2012 a committee headed by Sam Pitroda, then Adviser to the Prime Minister, submitted plans for the modernisation of the Railways at a cost of Rs.5.6 lakh crore over a 10-year period. The Debroy Committee report stands out in having identified definitive measures to effect a transformation, and setting a timeline.

But it will be a challenging task, especially the recommendations relating to opening up to the private sector and setting up an independent regulator. The committee has acknowledged that restructuring would be a humongous task, and quite cautiously used the term ‘liberalisation’ for the entry of private players — rather than privatisation or deregulation. The railway employee unions are already up in arms over the references to the private sector. This would be a difficult equation to manage. The suggestion to set up an independent regulator will equally pose a challenge. This will essentially mean setting up a body outside of the powerful and centralised Railway Board, which might resist such a move. The setting up of an independent super-regulator has been spoken about in the financial services space, but not much has happened on that front. However, all these suggestions merit immediate consideration. The Railways has suffered huge under-investment in capacities and today its very viability is a question mark. Now the onus is on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who initiated the setting up of this Committee, and Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, known for his dynamic approach, to take the railway unions into confidence and implement the measures. Both have declared the Railways is not going to be privatised, but the unions do not appear pleased. Winning their trust would be key to the implementation of the measures. That would determine if this will remain just another report or a game-changer.

The tortuous road to Naga peace

Since the leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (Isaac-Muivah) (NSCN), Thuingaleng Muivah and Issac Chisi Swu, signed the ceasefire with the H.D. Deve Gowda government in 1997 and started negotiations, the peace talks have gone on and on, with round after round of inconclusive negotiations. There were suggestions recently that a final solution might be in sight and that may have provoked those left out of the process into striking back. But the secrecy shrouding the Naga peace process only complicates it further and makes it difficult to speculate on when there will be an end to India’s longest running ethnic insurrection. The sheer duration of these negotiations does point to the complexities involved in trying to settle the Naga insurgency, but many critics of the Indian decision-making process have also suggested that New Delhi is trying to wear down the rebel leaders in a battle of attrition since the limited tactical advantages of keeping the Naga rebels off the battlefield have been achieved by the ceasefire. Some have also said that the ceasefire and the political dialogue have helped India further divide the Naga rebels, pointing to the talks with the Muivah faction and the refusal to talk with the Khaplang faction despite a ceasefire with his group. That, many would say, is what finally provoked Khaplang, a warlord, to renege on the ceasefire and form the rebel coalition, the United National Liberation Front of West South East Asia (UNLFWSEA), with motley rebel factions like the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) (Independent), the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) (Songjibit) and the KLA (Jibon).

Like Khaplang’s faction, these other groups are splinters of the original movements. Their factional rivals are already talking to India and New Delhi treats them as principals. These rebel chieftains who are holed up in the remote jungles of Myanmar’s Sagaing division are treated as marginals. Khaplang was under pressure for the last few years from New Delhi for providing shelter to these other Northeast Indian rebel groups. Home Ministry mandarins insist that this was a breach of trust on the part of Khaplang. But in the 1990s, former Home Minister L.K. Advani had clearly said that Khaplang is a Myanmarese national and that India cannot negotiate with him. Khaplang on the warpath again is partly dictated by his urge to end his isolation in the jungles of Myanmar, if only to remind New Delhi that he cannot be ignored — a point he seeks to make by getting together all those in the Northeast who still intend to fight India. His one-time comrades, Wangting and Thikhak, blame Paresh Barua, an activist with ULFA, for “manipulating” Khaplang into reneging on the ceasefire. Barua has steadfastly remained on a separatist course even after the ULFA was decimated in Bangladesh after a crackdown by the Sheikh Hasina government and by periodic desertions. So, though the ULFA of today is not much of a fighting force, its leader emerges as the glue for a rebel coalition in Myanmar’s jungles because of his track record of leading an armed struggle through unending adversity. The other factions which have joined up with Khaplang in UNLFWSEA are also motley groups capable of occasional hits here and there.

So, the real failure of Indian intelligence was not in predicting the possible spot of the ambush but in anticipating the emergence of a rebel coalition in the jungles of Myanmar. The first step in that direction was taken by Khaplang when he signed a truce with Myanmar’s Thein Sein government, one of the 14 rebel groups in Myanmar to strike a ceasefire deal with it. Having secured that ceasefire, Khaplang has ensured that his bases in Sagaing will be protected from the occasional raids by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army). Even after the attacks on Indian forces by Khaplang’s fighters in the last two months, the Myanmar government has not broken off the truce with his faction. For the Myanmarese Army which has to battle half-a-dozen powerful home-grown insurgencies at any given point of time, tackling the Kachin or the Kokang guerrillas is a bigger priority, not Khaplang. The Indian reply after the rebel violence has also been hasty and ill-conceived. The Indian Army was under pressure from top decision makers to hit back immediately, to make a political point of a “strong India which will not tolerate terrorism”. The Indian Army chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag, was keen on striking back, but after careful planning. Under pressure, all that he could do was to plan two hits on rebel bases on the border or slightly inside it. These locations were chosen not because they had a lot of rebel fighters but because these were rebel bases and could be hit with smaller forces to make a political point that India will go after its enemies. The raids have made much less of an actual impact than was initially suggested by an gung-ho media, joined by a battery of retired soldiers and security officials baying for rebel blood.

A looming refugee crisis

A new report by Amnesty International on the global refugee crisis should prove a wake-up call for the international community. ‘The Global Refugee Crisis: A Conspiracy of Neglect’ says the world is facing the worst situation on this front since the Second World War, with the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes exceeding 50 million. It’s not really a surprise given the serial collapse of states in West Asia and Africa, and reports of persecution of vulnerable communities in several countries. What is more appalling is the apathy of the world’s powerful leaders towards this humanitarian problem. The Amnesty report rightly says that the international community’s response to the refugee crisis has been “a shameful failure”. Syria is a case in point. More than half of its population has been displaced by a civil war, and some four million people have fled the country. The burden is almost entirely on Syria’s neighbours such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, while richer nations across the Mediterranean have turned a blind eye to it. The European Union’s decision to limit rescue operations in the Mediterranean has led to a dramatic rise this year in the number of people who have drowned during boat journeys. The U.S., a country proud of its tradition of welcoming people from foreign lands, has accepted fewer than 1,000 Syrian refugees in the past four years. The schemes of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that is meant to address the problem remain under-funded.

People flee their homes to escape desperate situations. If Syrians and Libyans are fleeing deadly wars, those from Myanmar and Eritrea are trying to escape long-standing persecution. Resettling such vulnerable people is a global humanitarian obligation. But sadly, in the current world order this responsibility is not evenly distributed. Powerful nations, which often send bombers to poorer countries to “solve” their domestic problems, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation did in Libya in 2011, are not as forthcoming when they face refugee crises and poverty. At present, almost 86 per cent of all refugees are in the developing countries, which lack the infrastructure and resources to tackle the challenge. A more coordinated approach is needed to address the problem. Richer countries in the West and the Asia Pacific should find more room for refugees from stricken lands, in order to share the burden more equitably. And, agencies such as the UNHCR that deal with millions of refugees should be sufficiently funded to fulfil their missions. More important, there have to be more meaningful efforts, driven not merely by geopolitical calculations but by moral, humanitarian conviction, to solve the world’s crises. That could be the first step towards addressing the causes of the problem.

Living on the city’s sidelines

The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014 came into force on May 1, 2014. It was one of the last pieces of legislation passed by the United Progressive Alliance-II government. In its intent, it is similar to the other pro-people laws passed in the UPA years, such as the Right to Education, Right to Information and the Food Security Acts. In the spirit of these progressive pieces of legislation, this law (henceforth the Street Vendors Act) seeks to bring in greater transparency and functional democracy in urban governance. But as is often the case in India, passing a law is one thing, and enforcing it is another. With this particular law, the biggest hurdle to implementation, it appears, is the implementers themselves.

Street vendors, or hawkers as they’re more widely known, have been around for as long as civilisation. There has never been a city — ancient or modern — that did not have traders vending their wares informally in public spaces. Indian cities are no exception, as the tradition of natural markets or mandis testifies. With the onset of colonial modernity, however, India acquired a set of municipal laws that overnight criminalised the vast majority of street vendors. They instituted a system of licensing. But the licences issued were few and far between. Even the Supreme Court, while pointing out that street vendors have a fundamental right to their occupation as per Article 19 (1) (g) of the Constitution, has acknowledged the exploitation of hawkers by state authorities. In its landmark judgement of September 9, 2013 in the Maharashtra Ekta Hawkers Union vs. Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai case, the apex court stated, “street vendors … are a harassed lot and constantly victimised by the officials of the local authorities, the police, etc, who regularly target them for extra income and treat them with extreme contempt.” The Streets Vendors Act, largely drawn from the 2009 policy, was finally passed in 2014.

The Street Vendors Act, 2014 is a truly innovative solution to the problem of balancing the livelihood rights of hawkers and the right to free movement of pedestrians and traffic. The legislation lays down four fundamental provisions: one, there will be a survey of all existing hawkers; two, instead of licences, certificates of vending will be issued to all existing hawkers identified in the survey; three, vending and non-vending zones will be demarcated and all hawkers accommodated in the vending zones; and four, no hawker will be evicted from his/her spot unless and until the survey has been done and certificates of vending issued. The centrepiece of the Act is the Town Vending Committee (TVC), which will have representation from street vendors, traffic police, police, Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs), market associations, and the planning authority, among others, and be headed by the municipal commissioner. It is the TVC which is mandated to organise the survey, decide on vending/non-vending zones, issue certificates, decide on vending fees that the hawkers should pay the municipality, publish the street vendor’s charter, and so on. Additionally, in what ought to give major relief to the hawkers, Section 27 of the Act, titled ‘Prevention of harassment of street vendors’, states explicitly that this law must override any other law that has a bearing on hawking rights, and that no street vendor shall be harassed “under any other law for the time being in force”.

The Street Vendors Act is not a model law — the State governments don’t have to pass similar laws in order for it to come into effect. It is a national law and it is already in force. And yet, the harassment of hawkers by the cops and local bodies continues. In Delhi, it continues despite explicit orders issued by the Delhi government to both the police commissioner and the heads of all the municipal bodies. The design of the Street Vendors Act is such that it requires municipalities to come up with ‘schemes’ for the implementation of the law. Most municipalities are yet to frame these schemes. But those that have a draft scheme ready seem determined to dilute the Act back to status quo.

Also, whereas the Act specifies that a survey of existing vendors should be carried out, the schemes mandate issuing of public advertisements about the survey. A more fundamental problem with the schemes is that many of the issues which, as per the Act, are to be decided by the TVC, are being usurped by the municipality. For instance, it is the TVC which is supposed to make recommendations on matters such as the vending fees, conduct of the survey, issue of certificates, and charter of self-regulation for vendors. The municipality is only supposed to ratify them — the TVC, after all, is headed by the municipal commissioner. But in the NDMC scheme, the municipality becomes the key decision-maker, and the TVC, a glorified consultant.

The street vendors’ enormous contribution to the economy rarely gets acknowledged. On the one hand, they subsidise the urban poor, who cannot afford to shop from malls or supermarkets for their necessities. On the other, they are a cheap distribution network for small and micro-enterprises in the informal sector that make toys, clothes, utensils, and other household goods from moulded plastic at a low cost. These small industries cannot afford to sell their goods via conventional retail outlets. But they employ a large number of workers. If we take the number of people employed in these micro-industries, and add them to the total number of street vendors, it becomes clear that hawking sustains a great deal of employment.

And in a country with a decade of jobless growth behind it, hawkers are asking for neither jobs nor handouts — only to be left alone. Only economic stupidity or epic callousness would want to keep destroying the livelihoods of street vendors, who are, at the end of the day, a valuable class of entrepreneurs. Yet, the mindset of sections of the middle class, not to mention the municipal bureaucracy and the police who have their own reasons, remains largely hostile to hawkers. In its very name, this legislation speaks of “protection of livelihood” of street vendors. The abiding irony is that the entities from whom protection is sought, are the ones mandated to provide the protection. The future of this law may ultimately be determined by our civic imagination — how we envisage our cities, and our public spaces.

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