Archive for the ‘public policy’ Category

Cutting to the chase

ये दाग़ दाग़ उजाला, ये शब-गज़ीदा सहर

वो इन्तज़ार था जिस का, ये वो सहर तो नहीं  “

This feeble blemished light, this dawn mangled by night,

This is not the morning we had all so longed for” (Faiz Ahmed Faiz)

 

Three incontrovertible facts emerge from the latest bovine related lynching in India’s lynch district of Alwar:

  • Rakbar Khan was in the dairy profession
  • Rakbar Khan was murdered on the night of 20/21 July 2018 within the boundaries of Alwar district
  • Rakbar Khan leaves behind a large family with no visible means of support.

I find it necessary to state the above facts because I am never sure nowadays when fiction will rear its Hydra-like head, especially with Twitter trolls on the prowl. There is a numbing sensation of déjà vu, as yet another bovine-related lynching enters the statistics. Notwithstanding the Supreme Court admonitions, the pious statements of union government ministers and the incessant analysis on TV and in print media, we, as a people, seem to be asserting that lynching is our birthright.

Why am I less than sanguine that things will change for the better? Six reasons inform my pessimism:

  • The role of the police is getting more and more questionable, especially in states like Rajasthan. One Gagandeep Singh in Uttarakhand does not a summer make. Sometime before the latest lynching, we were informed that the Rajasthan police have found no evidence against six of the alleged perpetrators of the Pehlu Khan lynching, although they were named by him before his death. It is also puzzling why the statement of the dying person was not recorded before a Magistrate under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code. If no evidence of actual commission of the offence is made out against the accused, there is every likelihood that they may be acquitted. Final result: one murder, zero conviction.
  • Apologists for the accused, in states from Rajasthan to Jharkhand, claim that those accused/convicted were not actually part of the lynch mob but were innocent bystanders. If the police discount both dying statements of the deceased and video evidence, there is no way anyone can be convicted. Even where the local police, as in the Kathua (Jammu) and Ramgarh (Jharkhand) cases, carries out a thorough investigation, justice is sought to be delayed by the demand for the investigation to be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
  • A mindset has been encouraged in the general public that any apprehension in their minds about the commission of an unlawful act, especially related to cattle, justifies lynching. This has been exacerbated by the mindless enactment of laws in state after state outlawing the sale of beef. Regulations on cattle trade were also sought to be stupidly enforced but withdrawn once there was public outcry and judicial intervention. My friend Harsh Mander has pointed out that the Meo Muslim community in the Mewat region of Haryana have traditionally been in the dairy trade. The virtual pogrom against members of this community when they seek to acquire and transport cattle would seem to be a vicious campaign to deny them their livelihood. Add a potent mixture of love jihad to this and murderous mobs can acquire nationwide licence to kill.
  • Any effort to painstakingly put together data on lynching incidents, relating to causes, community background of the victims and actual convictions, is immediately dismissed by apologists of the ruling establishment as partisan. The latest to face this ire has been the IndiaSpend site for its documentation of the frequency of lynchings since 2010.
  • Well-meaning advice to the government on tackling this menace suffers from the same attribution of motives. Former civil servants are allegedly supporters of the previous ruling dispensation (never mind that they suffered under them) or are peeved because they were denied the loaves and fishes of office after retirement (never mind that no evidence of any such link is given in even one individual case). The feeling is that a lie, if repeated often enough, will be deemed to be the truth by the public.
  • Finally, the actions and statements of prominent members of the ruling party over the past four years have emboldened those who feel their actions are beyond the pale of law. Bland statements by the Prime Minister and Union Ministers on the law taking its course have cut no ice with the rank and file, who continue to issue irresponsible statements without being reined in by their leaders. The latest culprits are a Minister in the Jharkhand government and a senior ruling party functionary in the same state (in the Swami Agnivesh assault case) and a Union Minister (after the latest Alwar lynching).

I am not (as yet) a subscriber to conspiracy theories or to deep, hidden motives behind the actions of politicians who are not thinking beyond the next elections. But, as a citizen of the great Indian experiment in democracy and as an active participant in public service for over three decades, I feel I must stand up for the basic values and ideals that motivated me and my colleagues in the civil services to give of our best to the people of India during our careers. After seeing how things have evolved over the recent past and how justice has more often than not been denied to those at the receiving end of violence and injustice, I am firmly of the view that we must now come to the point. Justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. With this objective, I offer my own two bits on what needs to be done to restore faith of the families of lynch victims in the rule of law:

  • Lynching, that is mob violence directed against a person or persons, needs to be codified in the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The issue is too grave and urgent to leave it to states to pass their own legislations. It needs to be specified that all persons comprising the crowd at a lynching site will be deemed to have acted with a common intention (as defined in Section 34 of the IPC) and will, as abettors, be liable for the same punishment as the actual perpetrators (presuming that culpability of the latter can be established in a mob situation). All such persons should be liable for the same punishment as prescribed in the IPC for causing death, grievous hurt, etc.
  • Sections 217 to 223 of the IPC must be rigorously invoked against police personnel who try to save perpetrators of lynching offences by doctoring/falsifying First Information Reports, deliberately destroying evidence, etc. Needless to say, police personnel who are present at the site of a lynching and do not use all the resources at their disposal for prevention of the lynching (which they are authorised to by law) should, in addition to the punishment for public servants mentioned above, also be culpable for the offence committed and punished accordingly. Removal of such elements from the police force would also send out a very strong message.
  • Section 51 of the Bombay Police Act, 1951 empowers the District Magistrate to fix compensation payable to affected parties in cases where unlawful assemblies result in death/serious injuries to persons. The compensation amount can be recovered from all inhabitants in a particular area or from specific classes of persons. Forcible recovery methods, as in case of land revenue arrears, can be employed to realise this compensation amount. Such a measure will not only discourage public participation in such offences but may also help in advance intimation being given to the police by parties who do not wish to be held liable. In the present case in Alwar, such compensation would provide much needed succour to a poor family which has lost its breadwinner.
  • Administrative responsibility must be fixed for such acts, especially where they recur in a particular area. In the present case, there are good grounds for seeking the resignation of the Rajasthan Home Minister under whose watch a series of incidents, which have shocked the conscience of all right-thinking citizens, have taken place over the past couple of years and whose police have not been able to convincingly bring to a final conclusion even one case of lynching thus far. More than just administrative responsibility, a case is also made out for the ruling party to take action against its Union Minister who has tried to draw a parallel between the spate of lynchings and attempts to defame the Prime Minister. The utterances of the Jharkhand Minister, who sought to deflect the seriousness of the assault on Swami Agnivesh by commenting on his character and antecedents, are equally reprehensible. Such statements by responsible state functionaries, who have sworn to function in accordance with the Constitution of India, reduce the sanctity of the rule of law.

Democracy is always a tender plant that needs to be nurtured carefully. The responsibility for its nurture falls most on those entrusted by the people of this country with ensuring their safety and security. The time is past for delivering homilies. Justice, in accordance with the rule of law, has to be delivered speedily and efficiently. Let not the present ruling dispensation go down in history as one which destroyed the people’s faith in democracy and the rule of law.

 

Promote Unity, Not Divisiveness

India, the world’s largest democracy, is fast imitating the century-old experience of the world’s oldest democracy, the USA, where lynchings are concerned. The spokesmen and apologists of the political party which is in power at the centre and in most of the states (‘the ruling party’) where these reprehensible, horrifying incidents have taken place in the past few years, will no doubt insist that this phenomenon predates their accession to power, notwithstanding the growing frequency of these incidents since the accession to power of the ruling party, as clearly brought out in the IndiaSpend Report. They will blame social media for the spreading of rumours and disown responsibility of any group patronised by them. What gives the lie to such protestations of innocence are the statements made by members of the ruling party in the electronic and social media when such incidents take place. The most recent case of vigilante extralegal violence involves the assault on Swami Agnivesh, the social crusader, at Pakur in Jharkhand, a state known for its peaceable residents but now bidding for top place in Lynchistan’s Hall of Shame. Who can foretell what unfortunate consequences could have arisen from one or two more ill-directed blows at a man in his eighth decade of life? And yet, two members of the ruling party had the gall to openly comment on how the Swami had it coming to him, apart from trotting out false reasons for his visit to Jharkhand. But then, consistency in speech and action has never been the forte of the ruling party.

Nor have the ruling party spokespersons distinguished themselves in panel discussions on national television programmes. After fifty former civil servants (including yours truly) issued a public statement condemning the felicitation by a Union Minister of convicts out on bail in a lynching-murder case, his party apologist (an advocate to boot) sought to justify the act by harping on the need to honour public sentiments, however vile they might be. After the Swami Agnivesh episode, another advocate-apologist for the ruling party sought to highlight “provocation” as an extenuating circumstance. Even in the surreal atmosphere we exist in today, their arguments strain the bounds of one’s credulity. As a law graduate and a former civil servant who has decided innumerable quasi-judicial cases, I have to take recourse to the self-defence provisions in the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to rebut their fatuous contentions.

Since they are not claiming (hopefully) that the lynchers are under twelve years of age, of unsound mind or have been intoxicated against their will, the only protection from punishment for causing death or serious injury under the IPC arises where the right of self-defence is exercised against offences aimed at causing harm to body (one’s own or others) or property. Even here, Section 100 of the IPC qualifies the use of force in self-defence, restricting it to instances where death, grievous hurt, rape, kidnapping, etc. are reasonably apprehended by the one who exercises the right of self-defence. In no case of lynching reported over the past four years have any of these provisions of the IPC been satisfied. Even if there has been any violation of any other law of the land, no legal provision allows one human to cause death/injury to another, except in the very limited instances mentioned above.

Which is why the Supreme Court came down heavily on the union and state governments for their failure to curb the growing incidents of lynching, ironically on the very day Swami Agnivesh was attacked. But the problem is that, in this case, it requires three (not two) hands to clap. The Supreme Court has clapped, but there are two more hands which must join in if any sound is to be heard. Parliament has to find time, aside from its internecine wranglings, to pass legislation that effectively tackles the menace of lynching, whether by adding sections to the IPC or by enacting a separate Act. But it is the third hand that will determine if the clap is heard loud and clear. This is the thoroughgoing implementation of anti-lynching provisions by the criminal justice system in the various states of India. Notwithstanding the confidence being exuded by our Union Law Minister, only one lynch case seems to have concluded so far (in Jharkhand) but other cases like the Dadri and Alwar cases are still going on. That cases have been lodged against the victims is testimony to the perversity of state action and to its lack of will in checking murderous mobs. Given shoddy police investigations, interminable trial processes and innumerable appeals, there is every reason to apprehend that future lynchers are unlikely to be deterred, more so when they see the support they are likely to get from the state and political formations.

The saddest consequence of state apathy, if not connivance, in condoning lynching incidents is the licence it gives to any group to resort to assault and murder. The recipients of this vigilante “justice” are innocent persons, often from minority and disadvantaged groups. The mob has been brainwashed to see their victims as the dreaded “other”, fed by the poison of irresponsible media reporting and cynical political manipulation. It started with alleged beef-eaters/cow-smugglers (Dadri, Alwar, etc.), moved on to alleged child-lifters (Dhule, Bidar, etc.) and now extends to critics of the present dispensation (Pakur). That there exists a poisonous streak in Indian society is borne out by the reports of the Karwan-e-Mohabbat, spearheaded by that tireless crusader, Harsh Mander. This poison has been fanned and spread by the intemperate, deliberate use of language to deepen public insecurity. When politics ceases to be a mission (as it was for the first generation of independent India’s politicians) and becomes an amoral business, power and pelf dictate all actions and the devil take the hindmost.

Drawing on American experience of nearly a century ago, three responses are crucial if India is to stop its descent down the slippery path of private vengeance. Firstly, the moral authority of the state (which has suffered grievously in recent decades) needs to be reasserted. As a former district magistrate, I can safely assert that where the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police (or Commissioner of Police in metropolitan areas) were determined not to let anyone take the law into their hands and where they enjoyed public respect because of their honest, impartial conduct, riots rarely happened, or, if they did, were promptly nipped in the bud. I have personally observed how the no-nonsense conduct of a Chief Minister like Vasantdada Patil in Maharashtra ensured almost no violence against the sizeable population of Sikhs in Maharashtra in the aftermath of the Indira Gandhi assassination, even while Delhi burnt. The pogroms in 1984 (Delhi), 1993 (Mumbai) and 2002 (Ahmedabad) are illustrative of what happens when the state is complicit, covertly or overtly, in the commission of violence by one section of society against another. Firm administrative actions, followed by quick convictions of the guilty, reassure the victims that justice has been done while sending a message to hate-filled groups that extralegal violence will not be tolerated.

The second effort has to focus on the expression of revulsion at such acts in a way that discourages those who encourage, silently or openly, their commission, while pontificating on their commitment to the rule of law. The mass media has an important role to play, by highlighting the violation of law by lynch mobs rather than indulging in whataboutery or “victim fault finding”. Opinion makers and, indeed, civil society has a role to play as well. Channels and publications that seek to justify or whitewash such horrendous incidents should be exposed and patronage to them should be withdrawn. Society should clearly indicate to certain of its influential members that their condonation of such illegitimate violence will lead to their exclusion from public fora and social gatherings. Election campaigns should highlight the track record of prospective candidates with regard to their encouragement of criminality in sections of society.

But the final, and most important, step lies in the change in attitudes in those who govern. The phrase यथा राजा तथा प्रजा has never had a greater resonance than today. Unless those chosen to govern model their thoughts, words and actions on the Constitution they have sworn by, they will never be able to set an example to society. Let us not forget that the Preamble to the Constitution seeks to secure justice, liberty, equality and fraternity for all citizens aimed at assuring individual dignity and the unity and integrity of the nation. At every step, those in power must measure their actions against the touchstone of the values enshrined in the Preamble. They must take their cue from the Vedas and Upanishads which stress the oneness of the universe and the priceless verse of Sant Kabir:

 

कस्तूरी कुंडल बसे, मृग ढूँढत बन माहि |

ज्यो घट घट राम है, दुनिया देखे नाही |

(The musk is in the deer, but it seeks it not within itself; it runs through the forest in its quest. Similarly, God (humanity) is everywhere but the world is not able to see this)

The Emperor’s New Clothes

“But he hasn’t got anything on” a little child said (Hans Christian Andersen)

 Three measures taken by the central government in recent years do not seem to be yielding dividends, at least in the short term. Demonetisation started off with the promise of unearthing black money, moved on to promising a cashless nirvana and has finally only succeeded in damaging growth prospects. The Goods and Services Tax (GST), after so many years in the making, was rushed through in a matter of months with inadequate software readiness and with poor education of the masses of small retailers and traders who, willy nilly, had to move overnight to online systems for which they were totally unprepared. The informal sector has been particularly hard hit by the speed of GST imposition. Implementation of Aadhaar was pushed through as a money bill. It is still facing civil society resistance in the Supreme Court, especially because of the stubborn bureaucratic insistence on treating it as a panacea for all of India’s ills, including tax leakages and terrorism, instead of first focusing on streamlining the process of beneficiary entitlements.

What has marked all these three “initiatives” has been the attempt by the political executive to display its so-called dynamism, consequences be damned. What has been even more noteworthy is the failure of the civil service, especially at the highest levels, to caution its political masters in rushing through with measures that affect the lives of large masses of people. Like the courtiers in Andersen’s fable, they are effusive in rushing to extol these policies, without sparing a thought for harsh realities. The same could be said for the inordinate haste of BJP state governments in pushing through legislation banning the sale and consumption of beef, which has jeopardised the livelihoods of large numbers, especially from the Muslim and Dalit communities, apart from rendering them vulnerable to vicious attacks by vigilante groups.

And now, the government has dropped a bombshell — it seems to want to tinker in a major way with the manner in which senior civil servants are allotted services after selection and the states to be allotted to those selected for the All-India Services. The only document available in the public domain is a letter from a Joint Secretary in the central government’s Department of Personnel to the Deputy Director General in the Department of Telecommunications. Ordinarily, such a letter would not even be deemed worthy of notice. What has set the cat among the pigeons is the mention in the letter that the measure is sought to be implemented from later this year, which means that the batch just selected (2019 batch) will serve as the guinea pigs. As a member of the 1980 civil service batch which served as guinea pigs for the last effort at civil service recruitment process reform, courtesy the Kothari Committee report, I am bemused that views of departments are being sought without any background paper or report serving as the basis for the thought process. It almost seems as though (à la demonetisation) the decision has already been taken and a perfunctory consultation process is being gone through before orders are issued.

Many of my colleagues in the civil services (all retired) have expressed themselves forcefully on this issue. While we are almost unanimous in our view that the civil service recruitment system is in need of reform, our apprehensions stem from the rather flimsy methodology suggested for the service/state cadre allocation, which would strike at the very roots of the concept of a competent, impartial civil service. The faculty at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie and at other institutes, where foundation courses are conducted, are hardly equipped to critically assess the capabilities of officers for deciding their suitability for different services. There are likely to be three deleterious implications if the proposed course of action is gone through in haste, without addressing fundamental issues of evolving a sound selection process.

Cronyism is the probable first evil that has to be factored in. India is still a country where regional, language and caste factors exercise a strong pull. Without disparaging my erstwhile colleagues from the northern states, it is a fact that, barring the Rajiv Gandhi era, there was a predominance of three or four states, especially Uttar Pradesh, in the senior echelons of administrative decision making at the centre, in the first fifty years after independence. While this phenomenon may be partly attributed to the reluctance of officers from the southern and western states to go on central deputation, it is also a fact that positions in key economic ministries were occupied by officers from the northern states or those who kept in close touch with the levers of power in Delhi. That the fulcrum has now moved to Gujarat is no cause for comfort: it only proves that bureaucrats most in sync with the political dispensation of the day at the centre rule the roost. But, at least, central deputation has finite time limits, till repatriation or retirement ends the bureaucrat’s tenure. The mind boggles, however, at the thought that a protégé can be given a lifetime job guarantee by a favourably disposed godparent at the time of service selection.

Corruption will inevitably follow any such non-transparent process, following Lord Acton’s dictum that “…absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In an ocean of corrupt State Public Service Commissions, the Union Public Service Commission maintained its reputation for integrity in the selection process for over six decades. While one may quibble over the manner of selection — bookish, elitist, etc. — there has never been a question of individuals (or coaching classes) using the lure of lucre to manipulate the selection process. I shudder at the prospect of the future of the country’s administration being subject to the possibility of temptations being dangled before faculty in training academies, who are called on to adjudicate between the relative merits of different candidates who qualify for the civil services, especially when one witnesses the debasement of so many institutions by the pernicious influence of money power.

Politicisation of the civil services will be the obvious corollary of any post-selection evaluation mechanism. The candidate who is smart enough to qualify for the foundation course will also be smart enough to realise that s(he) can use political strings to swing the desired service/state in his/her direction. The reign of different political dispensations every five years will only add masala to the selection process. And, heavens forbid, if the same party continues to rule at the centre for two or three decades, nothing stops it from packing the civil services with officers loyal to its ideology, fulfilling the Emergency dream of a “committed bureaucracy”. In a federal set up, where parties opposed to each other may be in power at the centre and in the states, nothing short of anarchy will reign when civil servants of the All-India Services assigned to different states are looked at with suspicion by state governments. We have already had a foretaste of this in Delhi because of no love lost between the Delhi government and the central government.

Merit is likely to be a casualty of the proposed changes. But the issue of choice also rises. Young Indians spend the best part of their productive years attempting to seize the holy grail of the civil services. Now, when the grail seems to be within reach, it could be snatched away by the whims of a few instructors or the machinations of colleagues, aided and abetted by unscrupulous elements. When certain services continue to exercise an allurement for prospective civil servants similar to that of the songs of the Sirens for sailors in Greek mythology, introducing an element of uncertainty for a further period of six months to one year after selection could lead to one of two consequences: (a) it could discourage bright young women and men from seeking to join the civil services, or (b) more damagingly, it could encourage the entry of elements who seek to obtain their desired service/state through any means, mostly foul. If you doubt me, just see the type of candidates who are standing for elections to legislatures and Parliament. Gresham’s law of the civil services will then operate with a vengeance.

Let me hasten to add that I, and most of my retired friends in the civil services, are strongly in favour of reforms in the processes of selection to the civil services as well as subsequent career advancement. We recognise that there has been considerable heartburning over the fact that a single examination decides the future life trajectory of an individual. You could argue that so does an IIT or IIM selection process, but then these are not lifetime guarantees. The IIT/IIM graduate still has to compete with others for entry into a particular line of employment. At the same time, given that there is so much hype to get a “prestigious” civil service job, the selection process has to be insulated from pressures and influences. In an earlier blog (Reshaping India’s bureaucracy – a blueprint for action), I had proposed wide ranging changes in the structure of the civil services, including the abolition of the All-India Services and making all appointments contractual, to meet the administrative challenges of the coming decades. While I am sure that there will be plenty of views on (and criticism of) my suggestions, I strongly feel that cosmetic changes are no solution to a bureaucratic system that is perceived by the mass of the people of India as unresponsive, lethargic and tyrannical. It is possible that some variant of what I have proposed could be devised, with implementation in stages. But unless the issue is addressed at all levels of government — central, state and local — and efficiency and accountability are introduced in governance, the Indian public will continue to be shortchanged in service delivery and India’s long-term growth and development prospects will be affected.

The need of the hour is a close, hard look at what is wrong with our governance systems and how to improve these. Merely toying with service allotment or state allocation is no solution: if anything, these will worsen the situation and lay the government of the day open to the charge of changing the system to suit its political requirements. It would indeed be ironical if a government that swears by Sardar Patel were to demolish the edifice of the civil services built up by him, without developing a viable long-term alternative. Were this to occur, we can only take refuge in the words of the late Jayaprakash Narayan “विनाशकालेविपरीतबुद्धि”(when one’s doom approaches, one’s intelligence works perversely).

No Shades Of Grey for India

I am not, as you might think, advocating the banning of the erotic book and film which have titles similar to the headline of this blog. But I am getting increasingly convinced that operating in grey areas is something Indians revel in. The new millennium has offered adequate proof that Indians abhor convention and thrive on discretion. While departing from the former allows for abominable behaviour even in the temples of Indian democracy, adhering like blood-sucking leeches to the latter enables the growth of the rent-seeking economy and polity. Where laws exist, bend them to suit oneself and one’s clan (even if discreetly) and, where they are silent, may the devil take the hindmost, decencies be damned.

Let us start with the legislatures, the roots of democracy in India. Over the last decade, we have seen the top two legislative organs of the country, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, apart from a number of state assemblies, being held hostage by elected representatives. Rushing to the well of the House, disrupting legislative business, indulging in fisticuffs and even grabbing the Speaker’s mace have been par for the course. A very far cry from the conventions in the British Houses of Parliament, where the Speaker’s word is law and where, once the Speaker has risen from her chair, all members on their feet must resume their seats. Of course, the farce commences even before the assembly commences its first sitting. Karnataka 2018 is its latest and most dramatic example. After a rather dubious decision by the Governor, the Supreme Court (SC) stepped in to order an immediate trust vote on the floor of the House. Flouting established convention, the Governor departed from the established procedure of appointing as pro tem Speaker the senior most elected member, generally from the opposition, to conduct the proceedings prior to election of the regular Speaker. This was obviously done to smoothen somewhat the winning of the trust vote by the newly sworn in Chief Minister (CM). Unfortunately, for the BJP, the SC fettered the discretion of the pro tem Speaker such that the CM had to resign within thirty-six hours of being sworn in.

But conventions have died a painful death in India over the years, assisted by constitutional functionaries. At the behest of whichever party is ruling at the centre, Governors of states have twisted the provisions of the Constitution of India, notably Article 356A, to help dismiss elected governments of a political hue different from the centre. As India steps squarely into the era of hung Parliaments/Assemblies and coalition governments, Karnataka and, before it, Goa, Manipur and many other instances represent the जिसकी लाठी उसकी भैंस (he who holds the stick controls the buffalo) mentality that dominates the Indian psyche. “Show me the Governor and I’ll show you the government” seems to be the prevailing motto. This blog does not have the space to go into the Sarkaria Commission recommendations on government formation in the states or the SC rulings in the SR Bommai and Rameshwar Prasad cases. But common sense would dictate that, after a tiring, costly election process, that government is sworn in which has the best chance of lasting the next five years. When the largest party falls well short of a majority and there are not enough independents and members of other small parties to help it cross the half-way mark, the logical course of action would be to invite post-poll coalitions of other parties, which have affirmed their joint intention of government formation, and give them a chance to prove their majority on the floor of the House. The Governor does have discretion but, as a functionary who has sworn to uphold the Constitution, (s)he is duty bound to act in a manner which does not reek of political partisanship.

Governments of all political persuasions have never been respecters of conventions. Recently, the Income Tax (IT) department raided the Badami (Karnataka) resort owned by an MLA-hopeful of the Congress during the election process. Nothing wrong in this, except the timing! Did the raids by the IT department and the subsequent attention supposedly lavished on him by the Enforcement Directorate have anything to do with his recent switch of loyalties from the BJP to the Congress? This worthy, after many twists and turns in the saga, appears to be as yet with the Congress, but who knows what the morrow brings? There were also disquieting media reports that loyalty of some MLAs was sought to be bought by promising leniency in investigation of economic offences in which they were allegedly involved. With the reputation of central investigative agencies already at an all-time low, efforts at their subornation are a cause for worry.

In the prevailing gloom over the functioning of the legislature and the executive, the performances of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the SC give cause for cheer. In what was a bruising election, the ECI ensured the free exercise of franchise, though the role of muscle and money power in influencing voters is still a disease that requires remedy. The SC moved swiftly to check efforts to influence legislators and its eagle eye ensured that no attempts were made to monkey around with the trust vote process.

In the final analysis, however, it is the moral fibre of individuals that will determine the development of healthy practices in a democracy. We had the newly sworn in BJP CM of Karnataka announcing a farm loan waiver, transferring key police officials and seeking to augment his party’s strength in the trial of strength by nominating a legislator from the Anglo-Indian community (until restrained by the SC). We had the top legal functionary of the Central Government, the Attorney-General, foregoing his beauty sleep to appear in the predawn SC hearing and advancing ludicrous arguments that effectively encouraged horse-trading (man-trading??). We had the newly-elected MLAs apparently so vulnerable to inducements and threats that they had to be shepherded like preschool children, with no guarantee that they will not play truant in the coming months. To this date, government formation by the JD(S)-Congress combine has been bedeviled by the chase after lucrative portfolios. We had electronic media representatives treating this entire episode as a chess game and speculating on who will bring money and muscle to bear on government formation. And, finally, there is the ordinary citizen, inured to the reality that, to get ahead in life, you need to jump the red signal, help your wards cheat in examinations and part with mamool to grease your way through government. Where is the sense of shame and probity in all these individuals, and countless others? One senses no sadness or weariness in witnessing the repeated drama, just another Roman circus for the masses.

At least for the near future, we seem to be in a situation where it may be necessary to codify important conventions to get over the Indian aversion to following commonly accepted norms. There is already a code of conduct for elections. Similar codes need to be evolved for, among other things, procedures of government formation at the centre and in the states, conduct of legislative business, appointment of governors, powers of investigative agencies once elections have been announced and conduct of private activities of legislators that conflict with their public roles. These codes need to be implemented rigorously with salutary penalties for their infringement which could range from public shaming to loss of office.

However, nothing will really change until the educated thinking classes assume the responsibility for setting our derailed democracy back on the rails. Let us not forget that a diverse group of thinking Indians, seventy years ago, drafted one of the most glorious modern-day Constitutions. Keeping it alive, and enriching it further, is, alas, a task our present generation has failed in miserably. Karnataka is the latest manifestation of the terminal disease afflicting our democracy, which needs skilful doctors, not butchers. We ignore this at our own peril.

 

Reducing Child Malnutrition – Action Backed By Data

After many stops and starts, the National Nutrition Mission (NNM) is being launched by the Prime Minister on 8 March (International Women’s Day) at Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan. I have heard some rumblings about the NNM’s excessive focus on data monitoring and the lack of a specific programmatic focus. This is but to be expected from the Indian intelligentsia, which always looks upwards for policy and programme inspiration. In the last fifteen years, we have been snowed under with programmes designed to improve access to healthcare, employment and food. Most of these programmes have not fitted in with the lumbering public service delivery mechanisms that are a characteristic of most Indian state governments. Additionally, their implementation has been bedeviled by inadequate budgetary provisions. It is time that we move from policy obsession to action focus, as admirably enunciated by my friend Sanjeev Ahluwalia in his recent article (Junk Policy for Action). Hence, my two bits on what needs to be done in the sphere of reducing child malnutrition.

For a start, with the Fourteenth Finance Commission mandating an increased devolution of central financial resources to the states from 32% to 42%, the time has come for state governments to stop crying that they are being deprived of “mother’s milk” by the centre. Along with such budgetary provisions as accrue to them from the centre, state governments need to responsibly start making significant budget provisions for the nutrition, health and education sectors, which will contribute most to reducing the incidence of child malnutrition and mortality. States also need to take a hard look at their policies for supplementary nutrition provision to mothers and children under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme. This area that has seen phenomenal corruption enriching contractors, politicians and bureaucrats and has drawn the ire of even the Supreme Court but has not altered politico-bureaucratic behaviour in the least, except the search for more ingenious methods to pull wool over the eyes of the Court. Schemes like the Karnataka Mathru Poorna programme, which provides a hot midday meal to pregnant and nursing mothers, need to be replicated, with close social monitoring to minimise leakages. Supplementary nutrition to children in anganwadis (and, where they are under-3, at home) needs to rely on local food preparation by mothers’ and self-help groups.

At the same time, the central government can help matters by acting as a funnel for data dissemination and technical advice. A huge volume of data relating to maternal and child health and nutrition process and outcome indicators flows into the central government data servers every month. The ICDS monthly progress report is supposed to be sent online every month by all state governments to the Ministry of Women & Child Development, Government of India (MWCD). Even if it is sent (itself a matter for investigation), no one looks at it, let alone sends analysed data back to the state government for remedial action. The Mother and Child Tracking System (MCTS) was introduced by the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, Government of India (MOHFW) with much fanfare in 2011 to track the health and nutrition status of mothers and children from conception through delivery to the time the child reaches the age of 5 years. Not a byte of this voluminous data collected over the past seven years has been made available to, or has been used by, state government health and nutrition machineries to improve their capabilities to better serve mothers and children. If the NITI Aayog, MWCD and MOHFW work together to make all this extremely useful field-level data available to state government formations right down to the anganwadi and health sub-centre levels, they will have contributed more to reducing child malnutrition and mortality than all the central government efforts over the past forty years.

But having all the data is not enough; using it judiciously is even more crucial to successful outcomes. Since the Prime Minister is launching the NNM in Rajasthan, an example from that state will highlight what I mean. May I refer you to a report in the Hindustan Times of 27 February 2018 (Programme to address all malnutrition causes). This piece details the programme to tackle severe wasting or severe acute malnutrition (SAM) through community involvement, known in nutrition circles as Community Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM). The first phase of the CMAM initiative was undertaken in 2015-16 in 41 blocks in 13 districts of Rajasthan. That over 2.25 lakh under-5 children were screened and nearly 10,000 children were enrolled in the programme, of whom over 90% are reported to have recovered from SAM is good news. At the same time, this is still touching only the tip of the iceberg. These 13 districts are home to over 24.50 lakh under-5 children, of whom, if one goes by the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) figures, over 2.50 lakh children fall in the SAM category. Even if one takes just a cross-section of blocks in these 13 districts, the CMAM screening of 2015-16 ought to have uncovered a far greater number of SAM children than 10,000. Screening of entire child populations in selected areas was probably the reason for the lower number of SAM children identified, since the ICDS-health machinery would have been able to reach only a limited number of children with the resources available. Since the ICDS is supposed to record weights of all under-5 children monthly, it would have been a far more effective strategy to identify severely underweight (SUW) children (those with weights less than three standard deviations below normal) and then record the heights of these SUW children to arrive at an accurate assessment of the number of severely wasted children.

The news report states that the Mission Director of the National Health Mission, Rajasthan claims success for the CMAM exercise. Apart from the low numbers of SAM children reached, there is no supporting evidence to show the extent of non-relapse into SAM of the over 9000 children who are supposed to have moved out of SAM. I would be rather sceptical of a CMAM programme which does not give specific data on the same children one year after their release from the facility where they underwent treatment. The Rajasthan government now plans to expand the programme of Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition (IMAM) to 50 blocks in 20 districts (which include the original 13 districts) of the state. IMAM is a programme developed in geographical contexts where civil strife and ethnic unrest lead to worsening of children’s nutrition status. It has to be applied cautiously in settings where child malnutrition is a chronic condition rather than an emergency situation. Rather than getting caught up in acronyms, it is desirable to focus on the fundamentals. The 20 chosen districts have an under-5 child population of over 45 lakhs, with a reasonable estimate (based on NFHS-4 data) of about 5 lakh SAM children. To avoid spreading resources (financial and manpower) too thin and to get the maximum mileage for the money spent, it would be advisable to track the weight of every child in every anganwadi in these districts and to identify the anganwadis with the maximum burden of SAM children. The heights of children falling in the SUW category could be recorded by a health functionary, who would also assess any prevalence of disease in the child requiring treatment. These SAM children could then be treated under the prescribed SAM protocols, with the highest-incidence anganwadis being taken up first, and other lesser-incidence anganwadis being taken up subsequently, depending on the financial and organisational capacity to treat the children. The condition of these children should be followed up for a year subsequently by the three As, the Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM), the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) and the Anganwadi Worker (AWW).

I am not discounting the importance of an integrated approach to treating child malnutrition, covering behavioural changes in families and communities and the need to focus on policy interventions in nutrition-sensitive sectors like drinking water, sanitation, hygiene and livelihoods. What I am worried about is that in the enthusiasm to do too many things, the central issue of tackling the immediate problem of SAM will be lost sight of. This is the reason why the Rajmata Jijau Mother-Child Health and Nutrition Mission of Maharashtra, the first of its kind in the country, focused on specific action areas in a sequential order, with fairly gratifying outcomes. Unless we adopt the same talisman that Gandhiji adopted, substituting the “most malnourished child” for the “poorest and weakest man”, we are unlikely to remove what has been, and continues to be, a blot on India’s development story.

Child malnutrition: Using data more effectively

The National Nutrition Strategy (NNS), released by the NITI Aayog in September 2017, is an important milestone in India’s long fight against child malnutrition. And not just because it points to a welcome focus on child malnutrition at the highest levels of the Central government. It is in the wake of the release of this strategy that, perhaps for the first time, we are seeing a clear focus on data related to child nutrition.

Soon after the NNS was released, the Ministry of Women & Child Development (MWCD) held a national-level workshop with top policy makers, health and nutrition experts, and district collectors from over a hundred districts in the country. It was here that the spotlight was turned on child nutrition data, with the MWCD highlighting the performance of states in improving child nutrition indicators between the 2005 and 2015 National Family Health Surveys (NFHS-3 and NFHS-4, respectively).

It went on to commend three states—Chhattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh and Gujarat, in that order—for performing the best in reducing under-5 child stunting over the 10-year period. However, the selection of these three states seems incongruent with NFHS-3 and -4 data, which shows Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura and Himachal Pradesh as having the greatest percentage declines in stunting between 2005 and 2015. Chhattisgarh and Gujarat, in contrast, came in only sixth and eleventh, respectively, in the state rankings (highlighted in the table below).

Ramani table

Why the discrepancy when the data was available?

The criterion for selecting states was based on the absolute percentage reduction in stunting between 2005 and 2015. This method was flawed (and embarrassing) on two counts.
First, it failed to follow an accepted statistical principle: when computing reductions in any variable, the percentage fall relates to the reduction in value in relation to the previous base value. Second, it disregarded the NNS data, which had already highlighted reductions in stunting rates across different states over the 10-year period, rightly based on percentage reductions over the NFHS-3 percentages.

Further, departing from the NNS figures and rewarding states for good performance unnecessarily raises questions as to whether the Central government wished to name certain states because their political affiliations coincided with those of the party ruling at the Centre.

What the numbers don’t tell us

It is significant to note that the largest decreases have been recorded in the less populated states (under 25 million people). Larger states, with their high population densities (often in congested urban sprawls), their geographical diversity and greater administrative challenges, are often likely to find the issue of stunting reduction more difficult to tackle.

Also important to recognise is that states like Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu—already well ahead in indicators like stunting rates—would never win any national prize for reducing child stunting. This is because their base is already low and the scope for further improvement is, therefore, circumscribed. This may well demotivate the ICDS machinery in such states.

Since the NITI Aayog and the MWCD are going to use a new Nutrition Monitoring System (NMS) to identify states/districts/blocks that are performing well and those that are lagging, it is even more critical to employ a rational methodology in order to get a true picture of the progress registered in any area.

What we can do to get the numbers right

There are a few steps that can help present a more accurate picture for policy making.

Categorisation of states
A three-tier state structure could be developed to assess performance between successive surveys of malnutrition, whether of stunting, underweight or wasting. For instance, in the case of stunting rates, states could be classified into three categories, as detailed in the tables below.

Ramani table 2

Increase frequency of district-level surveys
With NFHS-4 releasing district surveys along with the state surveys, for the first time we have a picture of the districts’ performance in different states and the worst indicators in respect of the three parameters of stunting, under weight and wasting. We need national surveys to be carried out more often so our attention remains focused on the problem.

Regular monitoring and use of critical data
We need greater commitment from the state and Central governments to develop systems for regular collection, monitoring and use of data on child growth. For instance, child growth monitoring has been highlighted as an important component of the ICDS for many years, but has largely been ignored in practice.

While all states are required to send monthly weight data of all children in all ICDS projects to the centre, the MWCD and the states have paid no attention to this data till date. States (barring Maharashtra) do not publish this data on their websites either, although the Right to Information Act mandates placing all such information in the public domain. The result is the extremely dubious quality of data.

Specific focus on indicators and districts with poor progress
NFHS-4 lists the top 100 districts with the highest underweight rates as well as the top 100 with the highest stunting rates. While as many as 55 districts overlap across both these lists, 32 belong to just three states: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

Interestingly, the NFHS-4 data shows a prevalence of high wasting rates in most states, including those that have performed better in reducing child and infant mortality rates in the past decade.
In general, while reduction in stunting percentage rates has been reasonable to very good in many states, reduction in percentages of underweight children has not been so encouraging.

With wasting remaining alarmingly high in many districts, taking up programmes to reduce severe or moderate acute malnutrition through state and community efforts will have to be one of the major focus areas of governments in different states.

Going forward, the MWCD and NITI Aayog will be faced with the onerous job of working with different states, especially Category A states, in devising practical, workable plans and programmes to make a significant impact on child malnutrition.

The first steps have been taken, with the NNS publication and the decision to set up the National Nutrition Mission. However, unless these are backed up by enlightened leadership at the Central and state levels, with a dedicated resolve to reduce the incidence of child malnutrition in all three aspects, India will continue to be an underperformer in an area that is key to the future of its population.

This article was originally published on India Development Review (IDR), the country’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. You can access the article here

The commercialisation of nutrition – Maharashtra comes full circle

The flip-flops in India’s child nutrition policies are nowhere better exemplified than in the recent decision of the Maharashtra government to issue a tender for the supply of fortified ready-to-cook pre-mixes for feeding children, aged three to six years, in rural anganwadis.

Maharashtra has, for many years now, outsourced the supply of take home rations (THR) for mothers and children below the age of three years to so-called Mahila Sansthas that in turn have subcontracted this work to private manufacturers in the state and outside.

With the tendering for ready to cook pre-mixes, Maharashtra is turning the clock back on the important Supreme Court (SC) decision of 2004 that mandated state governments to serve hot cooked meals prepared by women self-help groups, or similar locally based women’s organisations, to children attending anganwadis.

What does this imply for the ICDS* supplementary nutrition programme and what are its likely ramifications?

Quality of food supply is the first and most important concern.
It is difficult to take at face value the tender stipulations that quality checks will be carried out by the supplier organisation at in-house laboratories. Nor can one take comfort from the provision for quality checks at independent laboratories ordered by the ICDS Commissioner. Public laboratories in India are notorious for delays in furnishing reports, enabling defaulters to get away.

The 2012 report of the SC Right to Food Commissioners to the SC highlighted the poor quality of THR supplies in Maharashtra. However, despite complaints about poor THR quality, no action has ever been taken in the past against politically powerful suppliers, either in Maharashtra or other states. In any case, public laboratories in India are notorious for delays in furnishing reports, enabling defaulters to get away.

There is also the issue of whether pre-mixes supplied to children will be as nutritious as hot cooked meals, apart from the question of palatability. Even adults who use pre-mixes to quickly rustle up upmaor sheera at home will testify that the pre-mixes’ taste is nowhere close to that of items prepared from fresh natural ingredients.

With a provision of only INR 6 per child per day, there is also the very real apprehension that the suppliers will be tempted to compromise on quality to maintain their profit margins.

Quantities of pre-mixes supplied to anganwadis, and used for meal preparation, will be the next issue.
At one time, probably about four decades ago, states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat set the standard for efficient, responsive administration. Unfortunately, these states too have degenerated in administrative efficiency and probity to the levels of their counterparts in northern and eastern India. The travesty that represents ICDS nutrition supplies in Uttar Pradesh has been well documented.

When the then Minister for Women & Child Development, Government of India pushed for commercial supply of food items in the ICDS in 2008, it did not meet with the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (because it would open the doors to large-scale corruption).

The apprehensions of poor programme delivery are amplified by the top-down approach adopted in this tendering system. There is no mention anywhere in the tender document of social accountability through monitoring of supplies and service delivery by village level institutions like the gram panchayats, their health and nutrition committees and mothers’ groups, let alone their involvement in the process of meal preparation.

As one who was involved with the ICDS in Maharashtra through the first decade of this millennium, I can vouchsafe for the beneficial multiplier effects of involving local bodies from the Zilla Parishad to the Gram Panchayat, as well as local communities, in the management of child nutrition. In the present scenario, the pre-mix will be distributed from the project to the anganwadi, with no check on whether the right quantities are reaching the anganwadi.

Stipulations within the tender raise questions around corruption and the concentration of production among a handful of large players.
What is disturbing about the tender are the numerous conditions which straight away disqualify smaller groups from participating in the supply of nutrition to children. Although the tender document specifies that only women self-help groups, Mahila Mandals, Mahila Sansthas and village communities are eligible to bid, the requirements to be fulfilled by the successful bidder rule out the possibility of the tender being awarded to any small group.

There are onerous conditions regarding the high annual turnover needed to qualify, the need for a functional and operative licensed manufacturing unit and an in-house testing facility to test the quality of the premix. The three Mahila Sansthas that were awarded the THR contract had leased facilities for THR production from private agro-companies; ownership and operational control of the Sansthas as well as the companies were vested in the same family.

With the present tender also permitting the participation of Mahila Sansthas, there is ample scope for the same stratagem being employed to circumvent the SC rulings on contractors and private suppliers.

From an equity viewpoint too, the concentration of production in a few organisations denies economic benefits to a very large number of rural women’s groups, which earn their daily bread through the preparation of meals for children.

Ultimately, the issue boils down to whether government programme funds of about INR 2,500 crores should be channelled to a few organisations with, if previous experience is any guide, links to private producers.

Other states are adopting more equitable and empowering solutions
The move of Maharashtra to premix supplies comes at a time when other states are innovatively experimenting with public systems to improve nutrition supplies to mothers and children.

Karnataka has introduced eggs and milk in the daily diet for 3-6 years children, Orissa is promoting the cultivation of local millets and Chhattisgarh has improved its public distribution system to ensure regular food grain supplies to families.

As the foregoing discussion brings out, this policy serves neither the ends of efficiency (given the scope for possible quality and quantity aberrations), nor those of equity (concentration of supply in a few hands) or empowerment (with no role for participation of local governments and communities). Whether such a policy behoves a land that is the karmabhumi of Shahu Maharaj, Jyotiba Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar is the question that ought to concern us today.

*ICDS (Integrated Child Development Services) is the largest programme in the world devoted to the care of pregnant and nursing mothers and children under six years of age.

This article was originally published on India Development Review (IDR), the country’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. You can access the article here