The India Cable: Small Savings Cuts Hastily Withdrawn; India's Sordid Refugee Policy

Plus: Injustice in Ishrat Jahan case, India plummets in gender index, core sectors contract, UK says it isn't institutionally racist, Adani baulks at US sanctions, it could be raining hilsa this year

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
April 1, 2021

Pratik Kanjilal

India has fallen 28 places to rank 140th among 156 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index. Last year, India ranked 112th among 153 countries. Most depressing are the Political Empowerment sub-index, in which India fell 13.5 percentage points, and a reduction in women’s participation in the labour force. The estimated income earned by women in India was one-fifth that of men, putting India among the bottom 10 countries globally on that indicator.

The BBC reports that anger over Modi’s visit to Bangladesh is a clear warning to Delhi ― if the sensitivities of its neighbour are not addressed, India may remain friends only with the government in Dhaka, and not with the people of Bangladesh. At least 12 people died in the protests against the policies of the Modi government. Meanwhile, Chinese telecom giant Huawei has denied claims that the company may be blocked by the Indian government.

India is deporting a Rohingya child, a 14-yr old girl, to Myanmar. She asked to be sent to her parents, who are in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. India ignored her request.

Pakistan’s private sector has been given permission to import 0.5 million tonnes of white sugar from India, Pakistan Finance Minister Hammad Azhar said. He added that the country will also import cotton from India from end-June this year.

The Bombay High Court has asked former Mumbai Police chief Param Bir Singh why he did not lodge a police complaint against Maharashtra Home Minister Anil Deshmukh if he was aware of wrongdoing by him. “You were duty-bound to register a complaint against any wrongdoing. Despite knowing that an offence is being committed by your boss, you remained silent,” Chief Justice Datta said. 

A Karnataka BJP minister has submitted a formal complaint against Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa to Governor Vajubhai Vala, accusing him of “serious lapses” and of running the administration in an “authoritarian way”. In a five-page letter, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj Minister KS Eshwarappa also accused the CM of making allocations of Rs 774 crore from his department, bypassing him. The National Investigation Agency has conducted raids at the homes of writers, activists and others suspected of Maoist links, and has seized digital devices and papers. The PUCL alleges that “more than 25 senior activists who mostly belong to human rights, civil liberties, women’s and writers’ organisations, and are academics, writers, feminists and lawyers” have been raided.

On the last day for linking Aadhaar with PAN, the Income Tax Department announced last evening that the deadline is being extended to June 30 due to the ongoing pandemic. Linking PAN with Aadhaar has been hugely controversial. The Reserve Bank of India has extended the timeline by six months to comply with guidelines for recurring online transactions with Additional Factor of Authentication via SMS, but warned all banks including RRBs, NBFCs and payment gateways, that non-compliance is a “serious concern”.

India’s coronavirus situation shows no sign of letting up. India reported its biggest one-day spike since October ― 72,330 newcases, 40,382 discharges, and 459 deaths in the last 24 hours. Experts believe that India is facing a “severe and intense” second wave, fuelled by people being less cautious ― and mixed messaging by the government. A more aggressive vaccination plan before infections spread again was required. The government must explain its sluggishness. 

A survey conducted on 8,000 workers who were forced to migrate after the sudden announcement of lockdowns last year has revealed that 75% of them have been left without any source of income, 45 per cent face food shortages and 31 per cent have no access to the healthcare system. In other news on incomes, the Adani Group rules in the post-pandemic rally in FY21, adding Rs 5.34 trillion to its market cap. 

A UK government-commissioned review of racism has concluded that it is not an institutionally racist country, prompting a backlash from critics who described the findings as an “utter whitewash”. In a much-anticipated report published yesterday, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities said the UK was not yet a “post-racial country” but should be regarded as a “model for other white-majority countries”, citing achievements towards equality. This has been met with derision, given the wide disparities that the pandemic brought out starkly.

Jammu, the city of temples, will soon get another one, as the Centrally-run administration in Jammu and Kashmir has agreed to lease a large plot of land to the Tirumala Tiruoati Devasthanam for the construction of a new temple complex in the Union Territory’s summer capital.

PDP chief and former J&K chief minister Mehbooba Mufti asks a question that other Indians are raising, too. 


Small savings order rescinded under pressure

Another deadly blow was dealt to small savers ( blows have been delivered continuously, ever since this government took charge), where the Finance Ministry announced a cut in the small savings deposit rate from 4% to 3.5% for the first quarter of the financial year starting today. One-year time deposit rates were cut to 4.4% from 5.5%, and rates for recurring deposits of two to five years were also slashed. No one was spared in these unprecedented cuts. 

The interest rate for senior citizens’ savings schemes was also to be reduced to 6.5% from 7.4%, while interest rates on PPF would have hit a 46 year low of 6.4%. It is purely coincidental that at the last low, 46 years ago, an Emergency was officially declared in India. But taken aback by the massive pushback, the Finance Minister declared an “oversight” and withdrew the order in the early hours of the morning! Maybe it has been postponed until after the West Bengal and Tamil Nadu polls ― these states’ contribution to small savings is among the highest in India. Someone must have told the BJP.


Farmers to march to Parliament, Supreme Court gets sealed cover report

As agitating farmers press on with their demand for withdrawal of the three farm laws instituted by an obstinate government, a three-member panel appointed by the Supreme Court has submitted its report in a sealed cover, detailing measures to end the deadlock. A bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde – which had on January 12 stayed the implementation of the three laws till further orders and appointed a panel to suggest measures to end the stalemate – is expected to take up the matter on April 5.

Meanwhile, the farmers have announced their plans for the next two months, which includes a march to Parliament on foot in May. The date is yet to be decided, but women, the unemployed and labourers who have been supporting the movement will join in. Farmers said that the march would be carried out in a “peaceful” manner, and special care would be taken to see that “what happened on January 26 is not repeated”.


No one killed Ishrat Jahan 

A special CBI court in Ahmedabad yesterday discharged three policemen including Inspector General of Police GL Singhal, accused in the 2004 Ishrat Jahan encounter case, after the CBI did not contest the Gujarat government’s denial of sanction to prosecute these cops. Jahan of Mumbra was 19 when she was killed with three others in an encounter near Ahmedabad on June 15, 2004 that the CBI says was staged. The CBI had named seven police officers ― PP Pandey, DG Vanzara, NK Amin, Singhal, Barot, Parmar and Chaudhary ― as accused in its first chargesheet filed in 2013. 

In 2019, the CBI court dropped proceedings against former police officers Vanzara and Amin, after the state government refused sanction to prosecute them. Earlier, in 2018, former Director General of Police PP Pandey was discharged from the case. “We haven’t got justice and the killers are being set free. This is nothing new. These are their people, their law and their verdict. What else can be expected?” said Jahan’s mother, Shamim Kausar.


Jammu to deport Rohingyas

The process of deporting over 150 Rohingya Muslims detained in Jammu in a special drive against illegal immigrants on March 8 has been initiated in the Union Territory. These people, who escaped massive violence in Myanmar a few years back, are presently lodged at a ‘holding centre’ in Kathua district. Meanwhile, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, has issued a pointed call to Myanmar’s neighbours and said it “is appalled by the escalating violence in Myanmar and the resulting human suffering and displacement this is causing. We are shocked by the indiscriminate violence against civilians across the country… We urgently call on countries across the region to offer refuge and protection to all those fleeing for safety. It is vital that anyone crossing the border, seeking asylum in another country, is able to access it.”

Spooked by the criticism and anxious about possible sanctions, the Adani Group said it would consult authorities and stakeholders on its port project in Myanmar, after human rights groups reported its subsidiary had agreed to pay millions of dollars in rent to a military-controlled firm. AFP reported, citing the UNHRC Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Database, that public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited was a major supplier to the Myanmar military between 2017 and 2019, a charge denied by the Bangalore-based defence PSU.  


The Long Cable

India’s rulers accept refugees only when it is politically expedient to do so

Siddharth Varadarajan

Burma was administratively a part of British India from 1824 to 1937, when London decided the two colonies were best ruled separately. I mention this because historical and cultural affinity was cited as the reason for singling out refugees from three of India’s neighbours – Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan – for special treatment under the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act that the Narendra Modi government passed in 2019. Myanmar was deliberately left out despite being a part of undivided India for more than a century for the simple reason that refugees from there are unlikely to form a reliable vote bank for the Bharatiya Janata Party and their plight cannot be used to promote religious polarisation in India.

Until 2019, India may not have a refugee law and may not have signed up to the UN Refugee Convention but successive governments did at least respect the customary international law norm of non-refoulement – under which refugees who enter a country with or without valid documentation cannot be sent back if their return would pose a threat to their life and liberty. Under this very Indian system of jugaad, lakhs of refugees from Tibet, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and other countries had made India their home over the past few decades, enriching Indian society, culture – and the economy – in the process.

The CAA upturned India’s traditional refugee policy on three grounds: (1) it arbitrarily excluded refugees from all countries except three, (2) it arbitrarily excluded refugees from the three listed countries if they were Muslims and (3) it imposed a cut-off of December 2014, meaning even non-Muslim refugees who entered India after that date from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan would be considered ‘illegal’ and liable to forcible repatriation.

The CAA offered a pathway for not just permanent, legal residence in India for the listed beneficiaries but also Indian citizenship. However, this also meant that all other refugees – regardless of the degree to which they have faced persecution at home or the threats to their life and liberty if repatriated – would perpetually remain ‘illegal’ and under the shadow of deportation.

Over the past few years, fuelled largely by the Islamophobic politics of the BJP, the Modi government has been trying to deport Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar. This despite the international consensus that the military regime there is implementing a genocidal policy towards the ethnic group. There is an active genocide case against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and the ICJ has issued provisional orders which the generals in Naypyidaw are obliged to implement.

The irony is that at the international level, the same Modi government accepts that the Rohingya are not migrants or ‘infiltrators’ – the atrocious term used in India to describe undocumented migrants – but ‘forcibly displaced”. Yet, when it comes to domestic action, these “forcibly displaced” persons are described in official affidavits as illegal migrants who must be sent back home. Sadly, even the Supreme Court of India appears unwilling to uphold India’s non-refoulement obligations.

India’s sordid refugee policy stands even more discredited today in the aftermath of the military coup in Myanmar, which has led to a slow but steady trickle of refugees – mostly non-Rohingya – across the border to the states of Manipur and Mizoram. The Union Home Ministry does not want any refugees allowed in and those who manage to enter are either pushed back, into the repressive arms of the Myanmar military, or subject to harsh official treatment. The Manipur government issued orders to this effect only to rescind them when outrage followed. On the ground, however, nothing has changed. Most unconscionable of all is the deportation of minors, with or without their parents.

The BJP takes pride in India having served as a home for persecuted people and even ascribes India’s openness to the virtues of the Hindu religion. But its official policy while in government is testimony to the party’s utter contempt for Indian traditions, not to speak of international law.


Reportedly

The West Bengal Legislative Assembly election began on March 27 and will continue in eight phases until April 29. In the last week of March, the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) members and supporters shared an image each. The images claim that rival political parties have faced unfavourable results. Not surprising, because once this trend had been started by the BJP after 2014, other parties ― especially those hiring Prashant Kishor ― have also upped their game with similar antics.

In Assam, the Election Commission has sent a notice to Himanta Biswa Sarma of the BJP for threatening Hagrama Mohilary of Congress ally Bodo People’s Front with arrest by the misuse of central agencies. 


Deep Dive

India’s employment guarantee scheme

The Right to Work or MGNREGA, now in its 15th year, has turned around lives and sustainably, mainly through natural resource management projects including a large number of water harvesting structures and soil moisture conservation works.


Core sectors contract, economic health poor

India’s core sectors contracted again after two months, and at -4.6%, the shrinking is at the sharpest pace since August 2020. All of the eight core industries contracted in February. A ‘D-shaped’ rate of growth, or de-growth, is in play. 

Against its worst instincts, the government has decided to count. It has launched two national surveys ― one to track migrants, their socioeconomic conditions and shifting preference for jobs, and the other to gather primary job creation numbers from 150,000 companies. Its track record of sharing data it collects is dreadful, but let us hope that changes.

The World Bank calculates that per capita income will decline over two years in India. “Given that the very rich are doing better, this is real bad news for the less well-off”, quipped Prof Kaushik Basu.


Prime Number: Rs 20
The price of beer is down by Rs 20 in Uttar Pradesh from today. There is no change in the excise duty and license fee of beer, but its prices are being reduced to promote its consumption in the state. Simultaneously, there will be an increase in the price of Indian liquor and IMFL by 15-20%. 

‘Saviour of steel’ collapsing

UK-based India-born metals tycoon Sanjeev Gupta’s group has been hit with winding-up orders from investors, and legal action that threatens to bring down the empire of the “saviour of steel”. The UK was rocked by news of Gupta acquiring public money and buying a mansion with it. Now, the Financial Times reports that US investment bank Citigroup has filed a flurry of applications in London’s insolvency court against some of Gupta’s commodities and industrial businesses. Gupta’s Greensill Capital collapsed this month. It packaged up debts from Gupta’s businesses into products, which were then sold to investors. Gupta had asked the government for £170 million and was turned down. He now says he is “not waiting for anybody to come to the rescue.” 


Facebook on unfamiliar ground, grapples hate

In somewhat hilarious comments, Facebook has said it is taking steps to combat hate speech and misinformation in India as elections proceed in five states. “We recognise that there are certain types of content, such as hate speech, that could lead to imminent, offline harm,” the social networking giant said in a blog post the day before. Facebook had been in the eye of a storm globally for encouraging polarisation and in India, for being partial to the ruling party, the BJP. Its controversial public policy head Ankhi Das stepped down last year.

Facebook claims that it is taking several measures, including reducing distribution of content deemed to be hate speech, as part of its efforts to curb the spread of misinformation during Assembly elections.


Op-Eds you don’t want to miss

  • Pratinav Anil writes in Himal that Congress socialism is a myth as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi were never really on the left to begin with.

  • Many countries have succumbed to religious fundamentalism, with disastrous consequences for their economies. Bangladesh is notable for having withstood this danger and also provides many other lessons on economic success, writes Kaushik Basu.

  • The BJP’s high-pitched divisive Hindutva ecampaign may not have gone down too well with the privileged Assamese who, like the Bengali bhadralok, refuse to be seen as communal, writes Kishalay Bhattacharjee.


Listen Up

Checking up on democracy

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who is in the news nowadays, examines the vital signs of India’s democracy. This is an episode of The President’s Inbox, a special series on the future of democracy.


Watch Out

India’s second spike

Professor Ashish Jha of Brown University tells Karan Thapar that the second coronavirus spike in India could be worse than the first, “This is a concerning situation. The speed at which infections are rising suggests exponential growth, particularly in Maharashtra.” He says this year’s growth data compared to that of the first spike last year shows “the speed of growth is faster”. In the US and Europe, second spikes were uniformly worse than the first and India seems to be following suit.


Over and Out

It’ll be raining hilsa this year

In 1928, Dhan Gopal Mukerji won the American Library Association’s Newbery Medal for his children’s book Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon. He was the first writer of colour and the only Indian to win the prize. The book’s protagonist is the eponymous Gay Neck, who, along with its companion Hira, serves as a messenger pigeon during World War I. Through the pigeon’s adventures, Mukerji obliquely speaks of the futility of war. 

Hilsa, the darling of fish lovers across West Bengal and Bangladesh, could be breeding upstream in the Ganges later this year, after almost four decades in which it was locked out by the Farakka Barrage. A new navigation lock in the barrage, which was built to save Bihar and West Bengal from flooding and to generate hydel power, will enable hilsa breeding in the next few months. Fish connoisseurs along the Ganga up to Allahabad may be able to savour fresh hilsa, which can now swim upstream beyond Farakka.

The 51st Dadasaheb Phalke Award is to be conferred upon actor Rajinikanth. This is not a Rajini ‘fact’. Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar said it.  And it has nothing to do with the Tamil Nadu assembly elections.


That’s it for today. We’ll be back with you tomorrow, 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.