1. 11 dead after inhaling toxic gas in Ludhiana
On alert: A National Disaster Response Force team at the site of the gas leak in the Giaspura area of Ludhiana on Sunday.
NDRF’s air quality sensors detected high levels of hydrogen sulphide, but the source of the gas is yet to be identified; victims were from three families, all hailing from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar
Eleven people — three of them children from a family — died and four were taken ill on inhaling toxic gas at Giaspura in Ludhiana on Sunday, officials said. Though the gas has been identified as hydrogen sulphide, its source is yet to be identified, they said.
Panic spread as people who came to a grocery store in the morning fainted. Soon, the area was cordoned off, and National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) and National Disaster Management Authority teams and State government officials were deployed. The residents were evacuated, and drones deployed to look for possible victims who could have been lying unconscious.
“In the air quality sensors used by the NDRF team, high levels of hydrogen sulphide gas have been detected and it is ascertained that this gas might have led to the tragic incident. The team of Ludhiana Municipal Corporation is also working to ensure that there is no further chemical contamination,” Deputy Commissioner Surabhi Malik told the media.
A magisterial inquiry has been ordered. The city police have registered an FIR against unknown persons, she said. “Those who died in the incident did not show any symptoms of respiratory problems,” Ms. Malik said. She appealed to people not to fall prey to rumour-mongering.
Health Minister Balbir Singh, who reached the spot, said the four persons admitted to the civil hospitals were out of danger.
The State government announced a compensation of ₹2 lakh each for the kin of the dead. An amount of ₹50,000 and free medical care will be given to those who became critically ill and are undergoing treatment, he added.
The casualties were members of three families, all of whom hailed from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, though they had settled in Punjab for over two decades.
They include five members of one family: Kalpana, 16, and her brothers Abhay, 13, and Aryan, 10, and their parents, Kavilash and Varsha, who ran a clinic in the area.
Saurav Goyal, 35, the owner of the grocery store where the victims collapsed, died along with his wife, Preety, 31, and mother Kamlesh, 60. His elder brother Gaurav has been admitted to hospital. An accountant, Navneet Kumar, 39, and his wife, Neetu Devi, 37, also died. His brother Nitin is in hospital. One of the dead, a young man, is still unidentified.
2. Focus on the borders
India and China must end the lingering unpredictability across the LAC
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s message to his visiting Chinese counterpart General Li Shangfu, that Beijing’s violation of border agreements had “eroded the entire basis of bilateral relations”, has once again served as a reminder of how the two neighbours remain far apart in their assessments of what ails their relationship, and how to fix it. Thursday’s talks, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Defence Ministers Meeting in New Delhi, saw both sides reiterate their respective stands on the border issue but no meeting of minds. The Defence Minister underlined India’s position that the development of ties is premised on peace on the borders. While India has continued to convey a sense of urgency to resolve the Line of Actual Control (LAC) crisis, the Chinese Defence Minister, on the other hand, called on India to “take a long-term view” and “place the border issue in an appropriate position in bilateral relations”, a divergence from India’s stand that the rest of relations is predicated on peace along the LAC. Rajnath Singh conveyed to Beijing that if normalcy is to be restored in ties, disengagement in the two remaining friction points will need to be followed by de-escalation. This includes the eventual de-induction of the estimated one lakh troops from both sides that have remained deployed in forward areas for close to three years — a situation not seen along the India-China border in more than three decades.
The disengagement process has itself been long and tortuous. Over the past three years, buffer zones have been established in some of the five friction areas where the two sides disengaged. In two other areas, Demchok and Depsang, Beijing has dragged its feet, slowing down the initial momentum of the Corps Commander meetings. The 18th round, held days before the Chinese Defence Minister’s arrival and after an unexplained four month-delay following the previous round, did not yield a joint statement, suggesting stark divergences remain on how to move forward. De-escalation, meanwhile, remains a far-off prospect. This new normal along the LAC, with large deployments in close proximity as well as an on-going race to build more forward infrastructure, appears here to stay, leaving the borders in what the Indian Army Chief has described as a “stable but unpredictable” state. Regardless of Beijing’s wishes to downplay the seriousness of the border situation and relegate it to an “appropriate” position, managing the LAC should certainly remain the priority for both sides to prevent the recurrence of the clashes of 2020. India and China cannot restore normalcy in relations under the shadow of lingering unpredictability on the borders.
3. India, its SDG pledge goal, and the strategy to apply
S.V. Subramanianis a Professor of Population Health and Geography at Harvard University. He is the Principal Investigator of the India Policy Insights initiative at the Geographic Insights Lab at Harvard
The country needs to replicate its COVID-19 response plan to succeed in meeting its SDG targets — one that is also pioneering and a nation-wide effort
The Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, while addressing the first meeting of Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors under India’s G20 Presidency, held on February 24-25, 2023, expressed concern that “progress on Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) seems to be slowing down”. Regardless of the global progress that has been made to date, the sheer population size of India means that realising Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at a global scale is intrinsically tied to the success of India. There is considerable confidence in India becoming the third largest economy in the world over the next decade. However, translating this growth into progress on social and human development must be equally valued. Seen from this perspective, the Prime Minister’s concern deserves immediate attention.
India’s progress is mixed
The SDGs framework sets targets for 231 unique indicators across 17 SDG goals related to economic development, social welfare and environmental sustainability, to be met by 2030. Roughly halfway to the deadline, where does India currently stand with regards to progress on these indicators? Are there lessons from India’s recent mobilisation for COVID-19 (a comprehensive response that demonstrated India’s ability to deliver at scale for its population) that could be adapted for the SDGs?
A recent study (https://bit.ly/3LJtAYR) assesses India’s progress on 33 welfare indicators, covering nine SDGs and providing a mixed picture of positive and concerning trends.
The good news is that India is ‘On-Target’ to meeting 14 of the 33 SDGs, including indicators for neonatal and under-five mortality, full vaccination, improved sanitation, and electricity access, all of which have substantially improved in the last five years. Unfortunately, the national ‘On-Target’ designation does not apply equally across all districts. While neonatal and under-five mortality are currently both ‘On-Target’ for the country, 286 and 208 districts (out of 707 districts), respectively, are not. Similarly, significant progress on access to improved sanitation excludes 129 districts that are not on course to meet this SDG indicator.
Indicators such as eliminating adolescent pregnancy, reducing multidimensional poverty, and women having bank accounts have improved across a vast majority of the districts between the years 2016 and 2021.
Of concern, for 19 of the 33 SDG indicators, the current pace of improvement is not enough to meet SDG targets. Despite a national policy push for clean fuel for cooking, more than two-thirds (479) of districts remain ‘Off-Target’. Similarly, some 415 and 278 districts are ‘Off-Target’ for improved water and handwashing facilities, respectively.
Of heightened concern are SDG indicators for women’s well-being and gender inequality. No district in India has yet succeeded in eliminating the practice of girl child marriage before the legal age of 18 years. At the current pace, more than three-fourths (539) of districts will not be able to reduce the prevalence of girl child marriage to the SDG target of 0.5% by 2030. Unsurprisingly, other critical and related indicators such as teenage pregnancy (15-19 years) and partner violence (physical and sexual) that may be tracked back to child marriage are issues that India needs to escalate as priorities. Despite the overall expansion of mobile phone access in India (93% of households), only 56% women report owning a mobile phone, with 567 districts remaining ‘Off-Target’. More detailed geographical exploration of the SDG indicators is available at: https://bit.ly/3oTyjhz.
Lessons from the COVID-19 approach
Designing and implementing a policy response to a pressing issue is best viewed as an “optimisation problem” relying on political will, responsive administration, adequate resources, and sound data. India adopted an “optimisation” approach to the COVID-19 pandemic and thus, it was given the focus and resources necessary to succeed. There are lessons from this strategy that can inform and optimise India’s approach to its SDG targets.
First, strong and sustained political leadership supported by a responsive administrative structure at all levels, from national to the district level, was critical to the success both of India’s COVID-19 vaccination programme and its efficient rollout of a comprehensive relief package. This rare, nimble political-administrative synergy was willing to learn and undertake course corrections in real-time. Creating a similar mission-oriented ethos that is assessment-oriented and which provides adequate support for accomplishing India’s district-level SDGs is now urgently needed.
Second, India’s success with COVID-19 was largely possible both because of the existing digital infrastructure, as well as new, indigenous initiatives such as the Co-WIN data platform, and the Aarogya Setu application. Following these examples, India must put in place a coordinated, public data platform for population health management, by consolidating its many siloed platforms into an integrated digital resource for district administrators, as well as State and national policy makers.
Finally, a targeted SDG strategy delivered at scale must be executed with the same timeliness of India’s COVID-19 relief package. As early as March 2020, the Government of India had put in place the ₹1.70 lakh crore Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, later augmented to nearly ₹6.29 lakh crore, which included the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (₹3.91 lakh crore until December 2022) covering 800 million people. Key to this relief programme was a mix of spending to provide direct in-kind and economic support, as well as measures aimed at revitalising the economy, small businesses, and agriculture. This was critical in blunting the adverse effects of COVID-19, especially for vulnerable and the socio-economically disadvantaged groups. It also measurably demonstrated the value of a proactive, government-supported programme specifically aimed at improving people’s well-being.
A decadal plan
India needs to innovate a new policy path in order to meet the aspirations of its people in the decade ahead — there is no historical precedence for a democratic and economically open nation on how to deliver development to a billion-plus people in a manner that is healthy and sustainable. In successfully delivering a real-time response to the COVID-19 pandemic, India has proved that it is possible to deliver at scale in such an ambitious and comprehensive manner. To succeed in meeting its SDG targets, especially those related to population health and well-being, basic quality infrastructure, and gender equality, a similar concerted, pioneering, nation-wide effort would be the need of the hour.
4. Tread a new path, one that prioritises social justice
Gilbert F. Houngbo is Director-General of the International Labour Organization
May 1 is widely known as Labour Day, a day when we celebrate the contribution of workers worldwide. It is a moment for pride, celebration and hope.
Three years after the COVID-19 crisis, followed by inflation, conflict, and food and fuel supply shocks, we badly need this. But the promises of renewal made during the pandemic, of ‘building back better’, have so far not been delivered for the great majority of workers worldwide.
Reverse the hard reality, mistrust
Globally, real wages have fallen, poverty is rising, and inequality seems more entrenched than ever. Enterprises have been hard hit. Many could not cope with the cumulative effects of recent unexpected events. Small and micro-enterprises were particularly affected, and many have ceased operations.
People feel that the sacrifices they made to get through COVID-19 have not been recognised, let alone rewarded. Their voices are not being heard clearly enough. This, combined with a perceived lack of opportunities, has created a disturbing level of mistrust.
It does not have to be like this. We are still the masters of our fate. But if we are to shape a new, more stable, and equitable world, we must choose a different path. One that prioritises social justice.
I believe this is not only do-able but also essential for a sustainable and stable future. So, how do we get there?
First and foremost, our policies and actions must be human-centred, to allow people to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, economic security and equal opportunity. This approach is not new, it was set out and agreed in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the International Labour Organization’s international membership signed the Declaration of Philadelphia, in 1944.
Focusing on ‘decent work’
This visionary document set out guiding principles for our economic and social systems, that they should not be turned exclusively to hitting specific growth rates or other statistical targets, but to address human needs and aspirations. This means focusing on inequality, poverty alleviation and core social protection. The most effective way to do this is by providing quality jobs so that people can support themselves and build their own futures — ‘Decent Work for All’, as Sustainable Development Goal 8 terms it.
It means realistically addressing the long-term structural transformations of our time; ensuring that new technology creates and supports employment; pro-actively facing the challenges of climate change and ensuring we offer the jobs, skills training and transition support necessary for workers and businesses to benefit from the new low-carbon era; treating demographic changes as a ‘dividend’ rather than a problem, with supporting action on skills, migration and social protection, to create more cohesive and resilient societies. We also need to reassess and refashion the architecture of our social and economic systems, so that they support this change of course towards social justice, rather than continuing to channel us into a policy ‘doom loop’ of inequality and instability. We must reinvigorate labour institutions and organisations so that social dialogue is effective and vigorous. We must review laws and regulations affecting the world of work, so that they are relevant and up-to-date and able to protect workers and support sustainable businesses.
Create a global platform
To make all this happen, we need to recommit to international cooperation and solidarity. We must enhance our efforts and create greater policy coherence, particularly within the multilateral system, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, calls it.
This is why we need a Global Coalition for Social Justice. This coalition will create a platform to bring together a broad range of international bodies and stakeholders. It will position social justice as the keystone of the global recovery, so that it is prioritised in national, regional and global policies and actions. In sum, it will ensure that our future is human-centred.
We have the chance to reshape the world we live in — economically, socially and environmentally. Let us take this opportunity and move forward to build the equitable and resilient societies that can underpin lasting peace and social justice.
The promises of renewal made after the COVID-19 pandemic — of ‘building back better’ — have not materialised or even touched the lives of a majority of workers across the world
5. The erosion of hard-won labour rights
K.R. Shyam Sundar is a Visiting Professor, XLRI, Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur
On May 1, 1886, Chicago in the United States became the major site of a demonstration by labour unions in support of an eight-hour workday. Police brutality and the victimisation of protesting workers by employees did not subdue the spirit of the protesters. To condemn anti-worker actions, labour anarchists called for a meeting on May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square. The peaceful meeting turned violent when a bomb exploded in the police ranks, and the police fired in response. The violent confrontation between the workers and the police became a symbol of the international struggle for workers’ rights.
In 1889, the International Socialist Conference declared that, in commemoration of the Haymarket Square affair, May 1 would be an international holiday for labour, or May Day. In 1919, the International Labour Organization adopted the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, which limited the number of working hours to eight a day and 48 hours a week. British India ratified the Convention on July 14, 1921. In the subsequent decades, the working class in various countries held several agitations to secure the right to an eight-hour working day.
Today, affluent countries in Europe such as Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands have reduced the hours of work.
Regulating working hours
The theory of economic development anticipated that due largely to technological inventions and innovations, and with economic prosperity, people will have more leisure time to engage in sociocultural activities and that social welfare will improve. However, the itch to regulate or rather increase the number of working hours continues to persist. When COVID-19 hit India, several States amended the Factories Act, 1948, using the ordinance route. Recently, the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments also increased the number of working hours a day. Following opposition, the Tamil Nadu government put a hold on the amendment to the Factories Act on work hours.
Employers, especially in the garment and electronic industries, have clamoured for a flexible worktime regime so that they can manage export orders. In India, mainstream economists give the green signal to any initiative as long as it increases exports, even if it is at the cost of labour rights and human rights. They recommend emulating countries like Bangladesh (for garments) and Vietnam (for electronics). In 2022, according to the Global Right Index, launched by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Bangladesh ranked among the 10 worst countries where labour rights are not guaranteed. On a scale of 1 (best) to 5+ (worst) on the degree of respect for workers’ rights, the ITUC rated Vietnam 4, which indicates systematic violation of labour rights. The comparator countries that neoliberals refer to are known for their poor record of labour rights.
Under the pretext of ‘ease of doing business’, regional governments offer many subsidies and exemptions to attract global and domestic capital. Apart from quantitative subsides, these global companies press for qualitative subsidies. Employers prefer no unions or weak ones in an industrially peaceful context where cheap and skilled workers are available. While India bears the cost of skilling the workers, multi-national corporations reap the benefits. This low road to development employed by most capitalistic companies leads to a race to the bottom.We see one State after another amending labour laws despite the fact that these companies do not help significantly reduce unemployment rates; they mostly provide high-skilled jobs, which leads to jobless growth.
The typical demand is to increase the number of hours of work a day while adhering to the eight-hour-day rule. For instance, Karnataka has increased the number of working hours a day, including rest periods, to 12, while complying with the weekly threshold of 48 hours. We are also moving from the three shifts regime to the two shifts regime. What is the economic reason for this demand? The worker spends about nine hours in the factory. The companies believe they can enhance production by maximising the workers’ time at the factory. This would help them cut travelling allowance and transaction costs.
As far as the workers are concerned, they are likely to be away from home for at least 14 hours since some of them spend two hours travelling to work. On four successive days, workers may work for 12 hours and travel for two hours each day, which is daunting, even for younger workers. Eventually there is bound to be diminishing marginal productivity and employers may not benefit. As workers age, they become less efficient, highly fatigued and prone to industrial accidents.
By extending the hours of work and ensuring job insecurity,we are setting the clock backto the 19th centuryin the name of ease of doing business.Due to lack of political unity as well as trade union cooperation, save a few instances, States are able to change labour laws without much opposition. The move of the Karnataka government close to May Day was disappointing. Companies employ Human Resources professionals who preach about a work-life balance, but don’t say anything when workers are treated shabbily. The delay in the implementation of the new labour codes is hardly a concern for the Union government.Trade unions have a lot to be concerned about this May Day.
By extending the hours of work and ensuring job insecurity, we are setting the clock back in the name of ease of doing business
6. Stray dogs and poor waste management
Solution needed: Stray dogs eating from the garbage in a polluted river in New Delhi in 2020.
Is there a connection between an increasing urban stray dog population and how waste is generated, collected and managed? Has there also been a rise in urban solid waste? What role can equitable housing and sanitation policies play? How is India managing the stray dog problem?
The story so far:
In April, a 65-year-old woman in Srinagar was attacked by street dogs outside her home. A garbage collection point, a mound of food and poultry waste that becomes food for free-roaming dogs in the area, was situated in front of her house. Frequent reports of dogs attacking people to death have made the management of stray dogs an administrative and legal issue.
What do dog bites have to do with poor waste management?
The “carrying capacity” — the ability of a city to support a species — is determined by the availability of food and shelter. Free-ranging dogs, in the absence of these facilities, are scavengers that forage around for food, eventually gravitating towards exposed garbage dumping sites. Dogs thus congregate around urban dumps, such as landfills, due to feeding opportunities.
A population boom in Indian cities has contributed to a staggering rise in solid waste. Indian cities generate more than 1,50,000 metric tonnes of urban solid waste every day. According to a United Nations Environment Program 2021 report, an estimated 931 million tonnes of food available to consumers ended up in households, restaurants, vendors and other food service retailers’ bins in 2019. Indian homes on average generated 50 kg of food waste per person, the report said. This waste often serves as a source of food for hunger-stricken, free-roaming dogs that move towards densely-populated areas in cities, such as urban slums which are usually located next to garbage dumping sites and landfills.
Urban dogs are believed to have a distinct set of traits as compared to rural dogs, as they have “learnt to develop survival techniques in fast-paced, often hostile motorised urban environments”, a 2014 study argues. It also says “…dogs do not usually pose a threat to human well-being, and proper management of refuse and a tolerant, if not friendly attitude towards dogs can ensure their peaceful co-existence with us.”
What role does urbanisation play?
Cities have witnessed a sharp increase in the stray dog population, which as per the official 2019 livestock census stood at 1.5 crore. However, independent estimates peg the number to be around 6.2 crore. The number of dog bites has simultaneously doubled between 2012 and 2020. India also shoulders the highest rabies burden in the world, accounting for a third of global deaths caused due to the disease. In 2015, a study conducted in 10 Indian metro cities found a strong link between human population, the amount of municipal and food waste generated, and the number of stray dogs in the cities. It argued, “in effect, the present mode of urbanisation and paradigm of development innately promotes urban sprawls, slums, disparity… With the development of cities, managing solid waste has become a daunting challenge,” and the “unconfined and unmanaged leftovers” end up aiding the proliferation of stray dogs.
While there is no evidence to show that a rising population and municipal waste directly led to an increase in dog bites, experts agree there may be a correlation between urbanisation and solid waste production, made visible due to the mismanagement of waste disposal. Tepid animal birth control programmes and insufficient rescue centres, in conjunction with poor waste management, result in a proliferation of street animals in India.
Additionally, most landfills and dumping sites are located on the peripheries of cities, next to slums and settlement colonies. Thus, the disproportionate burden of dog bites may also fall on people in urban slums. In 2021, 300 people living in Pune’s Shivneri Nagar slum complained of stray dog bites in the area, as per reports. In 2020, 17 people, including young children, who lived in Ramabai Nagar, a slum spread over an area of 120 acres in Ghatkopar East, were bitten by stray dogs.
A study published in 2016 found that the prevalence of dog bites was higher in urban slums — usually located in close proximity to dumping sites — than rural slums. The proximity of residential areas to dumping sites and the rise in dog attacks speak to “core issues of unplanned and unregulated urban development, the lack of serviced affordable urban housing for all, lack of safe livelihood options and improper solid waste management”, researchers at the World Resource Institute wrote in a blog.
How has India managed the problem?
India’s response to the “stray dog menace” has relied upon the Animal Birth Control (ABC) programme, through which municipal bodies trap, sterilise and release dogs to slow down the dog population. The second anchor was rabies control measures, including vaccination drives. But implementation suffers from low awareness around the health implications of dog bites, irregular supply of vaccines, delay in seeking treatments, and a lack of national policy, experts say.
A population boom in Indian cities has contributed to a staggering rise in solid waste. Indian cities generate more than 1,50,000 metric tonnes of urban solid waste every day.
Cities have also witnessed a sharp increase in the stray dog population, which as per the official 2019 livestock census stood at 1.5 crore. However, independent estimates peg the number to be around 6.2 crore. The number of dog bites has simultaneously doubled between 2012 and 2020.
While there is no evidence to show that a rising population and municipal waste directly led to an increase in dog bites, experts agree there may be a correlation between urbanisation and solid waste production, made visible due to the mismanagement of waste disposal.