The India Cable: First Quad Leaders’ Summit Today;  Why Farm Acts Won’t Deliver Sustainability

Plus: Mamata to campaign in wheelchair, big media wants exemption from new digital news rules, IIT Madras discovers Parkinson’s insight, Dandi March as never seen before, Bombay Begums gets notice

From the founding editors of The Wire—MK Venu, Siddharth Varadarajan and Sidharth Bhatia—and journalists-writers Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh and Tanweer Alam. Editor: Pratik Kanjilal

Snapshot of the day
March 12, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

X-ray plates aired by TV channels show that the Chief Minister of West Bengal has suffered a fracture near her heel and ligament damage, sustained at the end of her temple visit in Nandigram, where she filed nomination papers. Her party has alleged a security lapse following the transfer of efficient police officers by the Election Commission. In a video uploaded by her party, Banerjee urged calm and asserted that she would continue to campaign in a wheelchair

In response to allegations of bias, and that it is taking over the law and order apparatus of the state, the Election Commission has said that it had changed the top cop on the basis of reports received: “(West Bengal) DGP was not removed summarily and without any application of mind. It was an outcome of recommendations given by special observers Ajay Nayak and Vivek Dube.” They will visit the spot of the incident in Nandigram today. 

UP Chief Minister Adityanath used his Twitter handle to post a video of a man thanking the chief minister of UP for a job, but he deleted it double-quick when it was revealed that the man had got employment from his predecessor Akhilesh Yadav. The Samajwadi Party has shared an old video of the same man, causing deep embarrassment to Adityanath’s social media team.

The Press Council of India (PCI) has issued a bailable warrant against the editor of Kannada dailyVijaya Karnataka for not appearing in proceedings against the paper for an “incendiary editorial” published in March 2020. The complaint against the paper was among five made by the Campaign Against Hate Speech (Hate Speech Beda), concerning an article titled ‘ಸತ್ತವರೆಲ್ಲ ಒಂದೇ ಸಮುದಾಯದವರು ― ಈಗಲೂ ಪ್ರಾರ್ಥನೆ ಹೆಸರಲ್ಲಿ ಗುಂಪು ಸೇರುವುದೇಕೆ?’ (‘All those who have died (of coronavirus)  are from the same community ― why do they still come together in the name of prayers?’). It had directly targeted observing Muslims, and was part of a campaign to demonise the community as spreaders of Covid-19. 

India’s fuel consumption fell for the second month in succession in February, to its lowest since September last year, as record-breaking retail prices continued to prevent a demand-led recovery. Maharashtra reported over 14,000 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, the highest single-day spike this year. After incidents of death due to the formation of blood clots following vaccination, Denmark, Norway and Iceland have temporarily suspended use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is also preferred by recipients in India. The European regulator has said that benefits outweigh risks, and India’s national panel on adverse events following immunisation (AEFI) will look at the data here. This morning, Denmark’s health authority found no correlation between the vaccine and clotting. 

Using a computational model of the brain’s neurons developed by Vignayanandam Ravindernath Muddapu at IIT Madras, a paper in Nature Scientific Reports finds that cell loss associated with Parkinson’s disease may be triggered by a deficiency of energy (ATP), related to a lack of substrates like glucose and oxygen. Seeking ways to deliver more energy to cells may open the route to a cure.   

Dawn reports that Geeta’s search for her parents is over. The deaf girl who is also unable to speak, discovered at the Edhi Centre in Mithada, Pakistan in 2015 following the release of the hit Indian movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan, has finally been reunited with her mother in India. According to Bilquis Edhi, Geeta’s real name is Radha, and she was in touch with her over the weekend to give her the glad news.

Tomorrow, Ranchi begins its #ShanivarNoCar experiment, to urge commuters and short-distance travellers to use bicycles on the weekend. It could work if it remains voluntary.  


On Quad agenda today: China, aka strategic interests, climate change and vaccines

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will join US President Joseph Biden, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga for a virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Framework (Quad) later this evening. This will be the first meeting of leaders of the Indo-Pacific grouping. The meeting is also one of Biden’s first multilateral engagements, which the White House said denoted the importance which the US accorded to cooperation with “allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific”. India had been somewhat quiet on the Quad after its detente with China, and the negotiation of some sort of agreement following a difficult year on the LAC in Ladakh. China has termed this grouping as an “Indo-Pacific NATO” and things can get especially tricky for India, given that it is the only country amongst the four with a long (and unresolved) land border with China. This could well be the first time a joint statement is issued after any Quad meeting.

Another takeaway foreseen from the meet ― India will secure funding from Japan and the US to increase production capacity to manufacture US vaccines (Johnson & Johnson and Novavax have been spoken of unofficially), which will be distributed in the Indo-Pacific using Australian logistics. It is a strategic initiative to speed vaccine delivery and reduce the duration of the pandemic. 


‘Traditional’ media houses want new rules limited to digital-only media

Minister for Information and Broadcasting Prakash Javadekar said he had met representatives of  the Digital News Publishers’ Association to discuss the new and draconian rules for digital media. He claimed, “They welcomed the new rules and offered few suggestions which I have noted.” The association said they wanted the government to exclude the digital news sites/arms of traditional news media, essentially arguing that digital-only news media platforms should be brought under these draconian rules. The request is an odd one considering the websites of ‘traditional’ media houses publish considerably more than what they put out on newsprint or over the airwaves, and certainly a lot more than the digital-only media houses, which tend to be be much smaller in size and resources.

The DNPA includes the India Today Group, Dainik Bhaskar, NDTV, Hindustan Times, Indian Express, the Times of India, Amar Ujala, Dainik Jagran, Eenadu and Malayala Manorama.


In Assam, no BJP CM candidate

The ruling BJP’s hesitancy in clearly naming its chief ministerial candidate in Assam, the only state where it is defending a government in the current round of assembly elections, is contrary to its stated stance that it always contests under the incumbent CM in states where it is in power.  It also hints at prevailing tensions and undercurrents in the state leadership, an indication of which was visible on Wednesday when former deputy speaker Dilip Kumar Paul resigned from the party after he was denied a ticket. Stating that he would contest as an independent, Paul claimed the BJP in Assam “is being run by people involved in various syndicates and they did not want him because he refused to take part in it.”

Senior BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, who is also convenor of the North East Democratic Front, has been dropping hints that he is not interested in contesting Assembly elections and is sending signals to the central leadership that either he should be in charge of the state or be inducted into the central government. A campaign song, “Aahise aahise Himanta aahise…” (“Himanta is coming…”) projects him as the central figure of the election, but sources said that Sarma would never agree to be a minister in the state government if the BJP wins again. 


Netflix show gets cease and desist notice

The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights yesterday issued a notice to Netflix, asking it to stop the streaming of its new series ‘Bombay Begums’ within 24 hours. As per the child rights body, the series shows minor children engaging in casual sex, and the depiction could have an adverse impact on children. The notice issued to the OTT platform stated that the series can also lead to the exploitation of children at the hands of perpetrators. Reviews of the series had emphasised that it has a strong feminist perspective, but of course that has not deterred the authorities.


The Long Cable

Farm reform needed for sustainability, but government’s three acts won’t deliver it

Balsher Singh Sidhu

For the last few months, the three new farm acts have been a topic of active discussion in all social, economic, and political circles of India. Hundreds of TV debates, thousands of articles in print and online media and millions of tweets later, there is still no clarity on whether they will improve farmer livelihood as the central government claims, or if they will end up dismantling the government procurement system to further impoverish the already stressed farmer class in India. Within these discussions of the acts’ economic ramifications, some scholars have claimed that the new farm laws will also make Indian agriculture more sustainable, but there seems to be no evidence for these claims.

When India gained independence in 1947, the horrific memories of the 1943 Bengal famine that killed millions were fresh in her mind. The country was still importing foodgrain to feed its masses, which jeopardized national food security. The government sponsored the Green Revolution to increase national crop output through the use of high-yielding crop varieties and agrochemicals (fertilisers and pesticides), cheap loans for farm machinery, and improved irrigation. Within a few years, the country emerged as a net exporter of food due to rapid growth in crop yields. Yields of wheat and rice have increased 4.1-fold and 2.6-fold since 1961.

Along with subsidised inputs, the other enabling factor was the assured procurement of farmers’ produce at a minimum support price (MSP). For historical reasons, this procurement has been limited to mostly rice and wheat (with cotton, corn, pulses etc. to a lesser extent), which incentivised farmers to shift cropping patterns to make rice-wheat rotation the most popular choice in India today.

While the Green Revolution made India food secure, it has had disastrous environmental consequences. Today, the intensively-cultivated states of Punjab and Haryana, along with Uttarakhand, western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan to some extent, face an environmental crisis of huge proportions. This region is now a global hotspot of groundwater overexploitation, excessive use of agro-chemicals has deteriorated water and soil quality, and massive smoke chambers from stubble burning have become an annual phenomenon.

The new farm acts are essentially silent on the environmental front, so estimating their potential impact on the sustainability of Indian agriculture is not easy. But we can look at past examples where similar policies have already been enacted, to predict if these acts will bring any environmental benefits to Indian agriculture. Around four decades ago, President Ronald Reagan opened up US agriculture and brought in agro-businesses while reducing government price support mechanisms similar to India’s MSP. Earl Butz, agriculture secretary at the time, believed in “getting big or getting out”. Today, there is evidence that those policies may have actually reduced crop diversity, a cornerstone of sustainable agriculture. Crop diversification can not only make agriculture resilient to climatic shocks, but also promote efficient resource utilisation, strengthen national food security, and provide economic benefits to farmers

Regrettably, many US farmers who earlier grew corn, beans, hay, and oats besides raising cattle and hogs on their farms, have today shifted to exclusive corn-soy rotations to sell to corporate buyers as animal feed. Even more worryingly, erstwhile family farms have been taken over by corporations and small and medium-sized farms’ share of total agricultural production has reduced from 50% to 25% in the last three decades. 

While the three Indian farm acts clearly state that no agreement can be entered into to transfer land from farmers, there is no protection for farmers who may simply not be able to compete with big agriculture operations around them, and end up selling land when farming becomes economically unviable. At the extreme end, acquisition of land by foreign investors has been shown to threaten local food security by redirecting important dietary nutrients to international markets. This is extremely worrying for India, where the average citizen’s diet is already considered unhealthy and lacking essential nutrients, when compared to the EAT-Lancet reference diet.

The billion dollar question is, what should be done to solve Indian agriculture’s sustainability problems, because these new acts do not touch them even with the proverbial ten-foot pole. 

I was a part of a group of 77 researchers from 23 countries and 53 organisations that analysed pathways to a world without hunger and published our reports last year. One of the key findings of this massive exercise was that adoption of sustainable agricultural practices is heavily driven by short-term economic benefits to farmers. For India, that could mean incentivising shifting away from rice-wheat to coarse cereals and other less water-intensive crops through assured procurement at MSP that would not jeopardize the livelihood of farmers currently engaged in rice-wheat rotations. 

Simultaneously, procurement of rice from water-scarce regions should be curtailed while ensuring minimal impact on livelihood of farmers, especially those falling in the small and medium category. Chhattisgarh recently decided to procure millets at MSP, and adivasi farmers have already responded by switching over from rice to traditional millet varieties. Other incentives like allowing farmers to sell ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and increased biodiversity can also be used to encourage sustainable practices, but would need the establishment of a proper framework to quantify and monetise the environmental benefits of sustainable agriculture in India.

A key point that the current establishment seems to miss in all its policy implementations, not just those related to agriculture, is that massive reforms in any sector need time. Farmers who have been growing rice-wheat for decades cannot switch crops at the drop of a hat. Investments like farm machinery and groundwater wells have multi-year return on investment, and a farmer buying a high-horsepower tractor with rice cultivation in mind expects to grow and sell rice for the foreseeable future. 

The need of the hour is progressive plans with multi-year timeframes that include economic, educational and technical support for farmers during the transition period of changing agricultural practices. This could include farmer-friendly insurance schemes to reduce risk from low yields and crop failures in the first few years. There are enough agricultural economists who can be consulted to formulate such policies.

There is no denying that Indian agriculture needs massive reforms if it is to remain sustainable environmentally. But to expect farmers to handle this responsibility without institutional support, when 86 percent of them own less than 5 acres of land, is unfair, not only economically and logically, but more importantly, morally.

Sidhu is Vanier and Liu Scholar at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Canada


Reportedly

There are no permanent friends or foes in politics. That cliché has been given new life this poll season by actor Vijayakant’s DMDK in Tamil Nadu, which is holding talks with the DMK after pulling out of the AIADMK alliance on Tuesday night. The DMK, which finalised its poll pacts on Tuesday, has not shut the door on Vijayakant’s party. Both are ready with their list of candidates, but have not released them, lest the talks turn fruitful. The DMDK is aware that an alliance with TTV Dhinakaran’s Amma Makkal Munnettra Kazhagam (AMMK) or MNM might fetch them more seats, but neither was likely to form a government, so it only seeks “respect” and a few seats from the DMK.


Huawei to be blacklisted?

The government is likely to prevent mobile carriers from using telecom equipment made by China’s Huawei under procurement rules due to come into force in June. The telecom department said that after June 15, carriers can only buy certain types of equipment from government-approved “trusted sources” and said that New Delhi could also create a “no procurement” blacklist. Huawei is likely to feature on this embargo list.


Modi’s image removed from vaccination certificates

Days after the Election Commission asked the Union Health Ministry to remove Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s photo from Covid-19 vaccination certificates in poll-bound Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, the ministry decided to apply filters to exclude the photo from the certificates. Interestingly, in its directive to the ministry, the EC did not refer to the Prime Minister’s name but only asked the ministry to follow the provisions of the model code of conduct. Even more interestingly, while signing up for vaccination on cowin.gov.in, the biggest image that recipients still see is of Modi in the avatar of benevolent patriarch. The EC doesn’t seem to see a problem.


Deep Dive

Women and the land

How much land do women hold, by size and quality, and is it family or individual ownership? Is the type of land owned agricultural or other, what is the basis of ownership – documentary or perceived? What sort of tenure is involved? Without gender-specific data on these questions, estimates drawn up using different methodologies can be misleading, as women’s land rights scholar Bina Agarwal said in a recent paper.


Prime Number: 42%
An analysis of MLAs who switched parties and re-contested elections from 2016 to 2020 has found that the BJP was the biggest gainer. Of the 405 MLAs across the states who quit and switched parties, 42% were from the Congress. The Association for Democratic Reforms report released yesterday analysed election affidavits of 443 MLAs and MPs who switched parties and re-contested polls in the past five years. Re-contesting MLAs’ and MPs’ assets went up by 39%.

India’s paid vaccine can’t be cheaper than world’s free vaccine 

Is India providing the vaccine at the cheapest rate among all countries in the world? No. As Indians residing in those countries have pointed out, everyone there, including those who are not citizens, get it for free.  


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Julio Ribeiro writes that the penchant of the Modi government to ram laws through Parliament without adequate discussions or due process, the targeting of activists and journalists who disagree with government policies and the misuse of draconian laws like sedition and the UAPA to silence critics has attracted adverse attention at home and abroad. 

  • Time magazine looks at the new media rules being pushed out by the Indian government, and finds that they pave the way to “digital authoritarianism”. 


Listen Up

Tablighi target speaks

Tablighi Jamaat members, who had said they were not guilty of wilfully spreading Covid-19 and were harassed without any basis, were acquitted and have finally returned home. Ahmed Ali, a US national, was one of them. NPR spoke to him to get the story of his arrest and prosecution in his own words.


Watch Out

Vanishing videos

The World According to Modi: the Arte documentary, was available yesterday, but has now been taken down. 

Acclaimed screenwriter and director Alankrita Shrivastava talks about her life, her work and her fascination for women’s stories like Bombay Begums, the new serieswhich now faces a campaign to get it off the air. 


History sheets

An oral history project explores the rich tradition of South Asians at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT students can dig deep and encounter the trailblazers from South Asian countries who secured advantages that present students take for granted. 

And while on the question of history, recall the Dandi March against the imperial salt tax, which turned into a mass mobilisation that eventually toppled the British Empire.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you on Monday, on a device near you. If The India Cable was forwarded to you by a friend (perhaps a common friend!) book your own copy by SUBSCRIBING HERE.