Daily Current Affairs 14.09.2021 (In Manipur, a case for asymmetric federalism)

Daily Current Affairs 14.09.2021 (In Manipur, a case for asymmetric federalism)


1.In Manipur, a case for asymmetric federalism

Institutionally accommodating tribal distinctiveness as an enduring good will promote the State’s integrity

As a normative idea and an institutional arrangement which supports the recognition and provision of an expansive ‘self-rule’ for territorially concentrated minority groups, asymmetric federalism has recently received bad press in India. The dissolution of Article 370 in 2019 which gave Jammu and Kashmir a special constitutional status, and intermittent attempts to dilute and dissolve the omnibus Article 371 which, among others, gives expansive constitutional powers to Nagas over land and resources (Article 371A), and to Manipur’s Hill Areas Committee (Article 371C) over tribal identity, culture, development and local administration, are exemplars.

Driven by the argument that giving distinctive constitutional status to territorially concentrated minorities fosters centrifugal tendencies which over time inhibit national/State integration, development, and peace, antagonists of asymmetric federalism increasingly rallied around the majoritarian idea of a monolith, homogenous nation.

On close scrutiny, however, this argument is neither novel nor new. Charles Tarlton, the American political scientist who developed the idea of asymmetric federalism in the mid-1960s, was mindful about its destabilising potential, if not properly harnessed. In fact, the unsuccessful experience of east European communist states to ‘hold together’ in the 1990s spawned deep suspicion about asymmetric federalism.

An integrationist approach

Indeed, the argument that asymmetric federalism fosters subversive institutions, political instability and breakup of States had also informed the minds of some of the founding fathers of the nation, when they participated in India’s Constituent Assembly debates. For some, the question of envisioning distinctive rights and asymmetric constitutional provisions is considered inconsequential given that India has become a ‘homogenous Hindu nation’ after Partition. Such a majoritarian standpoint sits uneasy with the idea of ‘autonomous’ district councils proposed by the Gopinath Bordoloi Committee, a sub-committee of the Constituent Assembly which sought to accommodate the distinctive identity, culture and way of life of tribal groups in the Northeast by envisioning ‘self-rule’.

While members like Jaipal Singh and B.R. Ambedkar recognised tribal distinctiveness and underscored the need for separate institutional accommodation, Kuladhar Chaliha, a prominent member from Assam, for example, broached an integrationist approach when he openly advocated assimilation of tribal groups. This approach is also informed by a deep suspicion over the ability of tribal groups to self-govern and institute a semblance of ‘law and order’ given — to wit Chaliha — their practice of “summary justice”. Chaliha reinforced his integrationist push by contending that tribal “self-rule” would leverage “tribalstan” or “communistan” and would be inimical to India’s territorial integrity and security.

This integrationist approach has been conveniently invoked to delegitimise continuing demand for constitutional asymmetry in Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh and in various other places in Northeast India. This integrationist approach resonates powerfully in two recent attempts by Manipur’s government to (i) stall the introduction and passage of the Manipur (Hill Areas) Autonomous District Council (Amendment) Bill, 2021, and (ii) induct nine Assembly members from the valley areas into the Hill Areas Committee.

While the Manipur government’s standpoint that the Bill is a “sensitive” matter requiring legal vetting by the Department of Law and Advocate General of the State is plausible and can hardly be contested, the Speaker’s order of September 1 to induct nine Assembly members from the valley areas is seen by Lorho S. Pfoze, the lone MP representing Outer Manipur constituency, as a “malicious” and “direct assault” on the Hill Areas Committee and the constitutional protection accorded to the Hill Areas of Manipur under Article 371C. Clearly, in his overenthusiastic drive to cave in to the growing pressure from powerful valley-based civil society organisations (CSOs), which actively mobilised to ramp up majoritarian support for dissolution of long-standing constitutional asymmetry enjoyed by the hill people, the Speaker was too clever by half in applying his mind as it amounts to transgression of a domain exclusively reserved for the President of India under the Manipur Legislative Assembly (Hill Areas Committee) Order, 1972. The Speaker dragged his feet until he was compelled to rescind the order on September 8 after Chief Minister Biren Singh was greeted with black flags and widespread call for boycott of his pet political project, ‘Go to the hills’, by various tribal CSOs during his tour to Churachandpur.

Interestingly, this project is increasingly seen by these CSOs as a camouflage of the majoritarian state’s attempt to transgress and snatch away tribal lands by stealth through legal manipulation and sacralisation projects. The recent attempts to declare areas around Chivu in the Indo-Myanmar border as a protected site and sacralise it by replacing one of the three controversial monoliths with that of Thangjing (a Meitei goddess), invoke the Forest Reserve Act, sacralise Koubru hills as a lai-pham (deity-place) and encourage ching-kaba (hill-climbing) to effectuate this are clear pointers.

A double-edged sword

Although the timing chosen by the Hill Areas Committee to recommend, introduce and pass the Bill is questionable, it marks a calculated move to use this as a double-edged sword to simultaneously set apace electoral agenda for the upcoming Assembly elections in early 2022 and reclaim its agency to fortify state-level constitutional asymmetry. The attempt to increase membership of the six district councils to 31 members each and secure more powers to the councils by giving more developmental mandate are welcome. Yet, the reservation of one-fourth of the seats to socio-economically backward communities may complicate delimitation of constituencies. Earmarking merely three nominated members for unrepresented tribes/women is also simply not enough.

If history is any guide, the task of reclaiming the Hill Areas Committee’s agency is not going to be easy as its 20-odd members often leverage tribe/party loyalty over commitment to protect constitutional asymmetry and common tribals’ cause. How the Hill Areas Committee and various tribal groups strategically navigate their politics to offset the majoritarian impulse to manipulate the legal and political process to dilute/dissolve extant constitutional asymmetry remains to be seen. A recent revelation by a tribal MLA in the Assembly that the hill areas attracted barely ₹419 crore (1.91%) out of the ₹21,900 crore budgetary expenditure of Manipur from 2017-18 to 2020-21 has unmasked Mr. Singh’s sincerity to ‘Go to the hills’. The lack of sincere commitment to promote tribal development, identity and culture that Article 371C seeks to bridge could not have come out starker. Recognising and institutionally accommodating tribal distinctiveness not just as a matter of political convenience, but as a valuable and enduring good will be key to promote the State’s integrity, stability and peace in the long run.

2.Govt. curbs funding for 10 climate change, child labour NGOs

RBI note says U.S., Australian, and European entities would be placed on PRC list for foreign contributions as per the Union Home Ministry

Five years after it cancelled the registration of international non-governmental organisation (NGO) Greenpeace to receive foreign funds, the government has moved to restrict the funding for a group of 10 American, Australian and European NGOs dealing with environmental, climate change and child labour issues.

An internal Reserve Bank of India note, dated July 1, 2021, which was sent to all banks, said the government had specified a number of foreign entities to be placed on the “Prior Reference Category” (PRC list) using the stringent Foreign Contribution Regulation Act 2010, which was tightened in September 2020, making both banks and chartered accountants accountable for any unauthorised funds that come through.

The NGOs are the European Climate Foundation; the U.S.-based Omidyar Network International, Humanity United and Stardust Foundation; the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation and Minderoo Foundation; the U.K.-based Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, Freedom Fund and Laudes Foundation, and the U.K./ UAE-based Legatum Fund.

They add to the more than 80 international voluntary agencies now on the PRC list of the government.

“The RBI has instructed that any fund flow from the (specified) donor agencies to any NGO/Voluntary organisation/ persons in India should be brought to the Ministry of Home Affairs so that the funds are allowed to be credited to the recipients only after clearance/ prior permission from the MHA’s Foreigners Division of the FCRA wing,” the notice sent out recently by a private bank to its branches, which The Hindu obtained a copy of, said. The RBI did not respond to a request for a comment, but officials confirmed informally that the note had been sent out, in line with previous such circulars sent to banks warning them of NGOs banned or suspended from acquiring or disbursing foreign funds.

Significantly all the NGOs on the latest list work on climate change and environmental projects and/or child rights and slavery projects, subjects where the government has been sensitive to international criticism.

Focus on coal

When asked why so many environmental NGOs are on the list, given the government’s stated international commitments on fighting climate change, an official said that despite India’s record in complying with the Paris agreement, “global pressures are intensifying on India to raise the Nationally Determined Contributions”.

“In order to create noise in the media, several pro-climate NGOs are focusing on advocacy against coal, which is considered a violation of FCRA provisions,” the official added.

In 2017, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) had also objected strongly to the International Labour Organisation’s Global Slavery Index, “questioning the credibility of data” which had ranked India 53rd of 167 countries where “modern slavery” was prevalent, and as the country with highest number of people in forced labour, according to a reply in Parliament.

The index is part of the Australian Walk Free Foundation’s annual survey that is used by other NGOs working in the field. Both the Walk Free Foundation, and its founding agency Minderoo Foundation did not respond to emails from The Hindu requesting a response.

The MHA too declined to comment on the PCR listing, which is not made public, although the government has released numbers of NGOs under the scanner of security agencies.

According to the MHA responses in Parliament, between 2016 a and 2020, the government cancelled the FCRA licences of more than 6,600 NGOs and suspended those of about 264.

A U.K.-based NGO Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has now taken the government to court for suspending its FCRA licence, and won temporary relief in the Delhi High Court in allowing it to access 25% of its funds. A final order is expected in October.

Role of NGOs in Indian Democracy

India has nearly 3.4 million non-governmental organisations (NGOs), working in a variety of fields ranging from disaster relief to advocacy for marginalised and disadvantaged communities. There the role and responsibilities are immense in developing country like India, which can listed as follows:

  • Bridging The Gap: NGOs endeavour to plug gaps in the government’s programmes and reach out to sections of people often left untouched by state projects. For example, providing aid to migrant workers in Covid-19 crisis.
    • Also, they are engaged in diverse activities, relating to human and labour rights, gender issues, healthcare, environment, education, legal aid, and even research.
  • Role of an Enabler: Community-level outfits and self-help groups are critical for bringing any change in the ground.
    • In the past, such grass roots organisations have been enabled by collaborations with bigger NGOs and research agencies that have access to foreign funding.
  • Acting as a Pressure Group: There are political NGOs that mobilise public opinion against government’s policies and actions.
    • To the extent such NGOs are able to educate the public and put pressure on public policy, they act as important pressure groups in a democracy.
    • They also mobilize and organize the poor to demand quality service and impose a community system to accountability on the performance of grassroots government functionaries.
  • Role in Participative Governance: Many civil society initiatives have contributed to some of the path-breaking laws in the country, including the Environmental Protection Act-1986, Right to Education Act-2009Forests Rights Act-2006 and Right to Information Act-2005.
  • Acting as a Social Mediator: The social inter-mediation is an intervention of different levels of society by various agents to change social and behavioural attitudes within the prevailing social environment for achieving desired results of change in society.
    • In Indian context wherein people are still steeped in superstition, faith, belief and custom, NGOs act as catalysts and create awareness among people.

Issues Emanating From NGOs

  • Lack of Credibility: During the last few years, numerous organisations have mushroomed which claim to work for the cause of helping the poor.
    • Under the garb of being an NGO, these NGOs often mint money from donors and are also involved in money laundering activities.
    • There is nearly one NGO for every 400 people in India. However, not every NGO out there is engaged in serious social welfare work. Many are fraudulent and many are there without much serious intent.
  • Lack of Transparency: India’s disproportionate number of NGOs and the sector’s lack of transparency and accountability is clearly an issue that needs reforms.
    • Further the allegations of corruption against NGOs be ignored. In the past many NGOs were blacklisted after being found to have indulged in misappropriation of funds.
  • Undermining Development Activities: A report by India’s Intelligence Bureau accused NGOs such as Greenpeace, Cordaid, Amnesty, and Action Aid for reducing India’s GDP by 2-3% per year.

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