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Daily Current Affairs 15.09.2022 (Understanding Ukraine’s counter-offensive, The lowdown on the essential medicines list, Wholesale inflation slowed to an 11-month low at 12.4% in Aug, The future of old times in India, India’s growing water crisis, the seen and the unseen, Engage with caution, Tax on the poor, Imagining an alternative scenario in Ayodhya)

Daily Current Affairs 15.09.2022 (Understanding Ukraine’s counter-offensive, The lowdown on the essential medicines list, Wholesale inflation slowed to an 11-month low at 12.4% in Aug, The future of old times in India, India’s growing water crisis, the seen and the unseen, Engage with caution, Tax on the poor, Imagining an alternative scenario in Ayodhya)

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1. Understanding Ukraine’s counter-offensive

What are the territorial gains made by the Ukrainian forces? How has Kremlin reacted?

Ukrainian forces have pushed back Russian soldiers from most of Kharkiv Oblast, retaking thousands of square kilometres of territory. Russia has confirmed the retreat, saying it withdrew troops for “regrouping”.

Ukraine says it has retaken some 3,500 square miles of territories, including Izium and Kupiansk, two strategically important towns in the northeast that served as logistical hubs for the Russian forces. This is the first time, since the war began, that Ukrainian troops have pushed back the Russians through combat.

American and British intelligence officials were directly involved in planning the Ukrainian counter-offensive, according to a report in the NYT.

Stanly Johny

The story so far: Ukraine has launched a lightning counter-offensive in the country’s northeast that saw surprising territorial gains. Its forces have pushed back Russian soldiers from most of Kharkiv Oblast, retaking thousands of square kilometres of territory. Russia has confirmed the retreat, saying it withdrew troops for “regrouping”. Ukraine’s fresh momentum has triggered debates on whether the country, which has lost swathes of territories in the north, east and south since the Russian invasion began on February 24, is finally turning around the war. It has also raised questions on Russia’s battlefield tactics.

How significant are Ukraine’s gains?

Ukraine says it has retaken some 3,500 square milesof territories since its counter-offensive began earlier this year, including Izium and Kupiansk, two strategically important towns in the northeast that served as logistical hubs for the Russian forces. This is a significant battlefield gain for Ukraine because this is the first time, since the war began, that Ukrainian troops have pushed back the Russians through combat. In March, Russia had voluntarily announced withdrawal from the Kyiv area and around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, after the Istanbul talks between the two sides. But this week’s withdrawal was different. It looked like the Russians were caught off guard when Ukraine launched the blitz. This provides a much needed morale booster for the Ukrainian troops that suffered a series of defeats in recent months — in Mariupol, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Ukraine has now said the fighting would continue till the “liberation” of all lost territories (including Donbas and Crimea), practically ruling out any negotiated settlement. The Russians have also ruled out talks.

How did Ukraine manage to beat the Russians back in Kharkiv Oblast?

Ukraine has been planning for this counter-offensive for months. After capturing Lysychansk in July, which saw the whole of Luhansk province coming under its control, Russia’s battlefield combat came to a halt. By that time, Russia was controlling almost 25% of Ukraine, Europe’s largest country. Russia, which also took huge losses in the battle for Donbas, seemed to have decided to halt the ground offensive as its troops were regrouping and recovering. This opened a window opportunity for Ukraine to move ahead with its counter-offensive plans. This was also the time when Ukraine started receiving advanced mid-range rocket systems such as High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) from the U.S. The Biden administration, which has committed military assistance worth more than $14.5 billion to Ukraine, and British and other European governments made sure that Ukraine is replenished despite the military setbacks it suffered. On the other side, the sanctions-hit Russia found it difficult to make sure their supply is intact and had to turn to Iran and North Korea, according to western intelligence, for drones and shells.

American and British intelligence officials were directly involved in planning the Ukrainian counter-offensive, according to a report in the NYT. U.S. intelligence agencies also provided information to Ukraine on the weak links of the Russian defence. Ukraine started attacks in southern Ukraine —including a ground offensive in Kherson, one of Russia’s early gains in the war, and sabotage hits in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. But as it appears now, Ukraine’s main target was not the southern region, but Kharkiv. As Russia, faced with the Ukrainian attacks in the south, bolstered the defences of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine broke into the relatively weaker defence lines in the northeast, pushing the Russians back. Russia had two options — resist the Ukrainian attack with the limited number of soldiers deployed in Kharkiv or retreat and regroup elsewhere. The Russian Generals seem to have opted for the latter.

What is Russia’s response?

Russia has stepped up air and missile attacks in Kharkiv and elsewhere in Ukraine. That’s understandable as Russia still possesses the capability to strike anywhere in Ukraine. But the question is whether such attacks would have any meaningful effect on the battlefield. Several defence analysts, including those at the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War and the London-based Royal United Services Institute, have pointed out that Russia faces several challenges on the battlefield such as manpower crunch and supply disruptions. This explains why the Russian battlefield advances came to a halt after the capture of Luhansk. Russian President Vladimir Putin still hasn’t declared war on Ukraine. His original plan was to meet his military objective with a limited deployment of Russian troops (what he calls “the special military operation”). But the Ukrainian resistance and the current counter-offensive have made it difficult for Mr. Putin to maintain the momentum with the limited deployment.

So unless he changes the current plan of the war and deploys more soldiers, the Russian focus is likely to be on holding the line in the south and east — Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk — until the winter (say, November). Once the winter sets in and the conflict gets frozen, Mr. Putin will have more time to prepare his forces for future battles. He can also use the energy card, which he is more than willing to do, to wreak havoc in European economies, which are already battered by high inflation, during winter. On the other side, Ukraine knows that it has a small window of opportunity to make maximum territorial gains before winter sets in, and that’s what Ukraine is trying to achieve. So the coming weeks would be crucial for both sides. While it’s too early to say whether Ukraine has turned around the war, it has clearly pushed Russia to the defensive.

How is it going to affect Mr. Putin?

Russia’s retreat from Kharkiv has triggered rare public criticism inside the country of the way the war is conducted. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu is particularly targeted. Even Ramzan Kadyrov, the strongman of Chechnya and a Putin ally, has said the Defence Ministry has made mistakes. Russian forces’ inability to take a quick, decisive victory in Ukraine had already raised questions about Mr. Putin’s decision to invade the country. But the dominant Russian narrative was that its troops were making incremental advances in Ukraine (which they were) and Russian officials and Generals have made it clear several times that they want to take the whole of Ukraine’s east and south, stretching from Kharkiv to Odesa. But Ukraine has drilled holes in this narrative with its gains in Kharkiv. That leaves Mr. Putin in a spot.

As Walter Russel Mead wrote, “the Kremlin is no place for the weak”. Historically, bad wars have cost Russian rulers dearly. Tsar Nicholas II never recovered from Russia’s humiliating defeat to the Japanese in 1904-05. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 turned out to be politically costly for Mikhail Gorbachev. Russia’s situation in Ukraine is far from an outright defeat or forced withdrawal. But the prolonged battle has already affected Russia’s power projections and if Ukraine continues its small but significant battlefield advances, Mr. Putin would face more questions from his own allies. He can’t afford to lose this war.

2. The lowdown on the essential medicines list

What are the new drugs on the National List of Essential Medicines, 2022? Why have some medicines been dropped? 

On September 13, the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM), 2022, was released, with 384 drugs in it across 27 categories. While 34 new drugs are on the list, 26 drugs from the earlier NLEM were dropped.

For inclusion in NLEM, the drugs have to be useful in treating diseases which are a public health problem in India. They have to be licensed by the DCGI, have proven efficacy, a safety profile based on scientific evidence and cost effective.

The primary purpose of the NLEM is to promote rational use of medicines considering three important aspects which are cost, safety and efficacy. 

Bindu Shajan Perappadan

The story so far: On September 13, the National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM), 2022, was released, with 384 drugs in it across 27 categories. While 34 new drugs are on the list, 26 drugs from NLEM, 2015, including common gastrointestinal medicines Ranitidine and Sucralfate, have been dropped. In a tweet, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya said, “several antibiotics, vaccines, anti-cancer drugs and many other important drugs would become more affordable, and the ‘out-of-pocket’ expenditure on health care would come down.” Prices of essential medicines are regulated by the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority.

What is in and what is out?

Four major anti-cancer drugs, hydrochloride, HCI trihydrate, lenalidomide and leuprolide acetate as well as psychotherapeutic drugs, nicotine replacement therapy and anti-parasitic drugs like ivermectin, mupirocin (topical antibiotic), and meropenem (antibiotic) are on the list. It also includes four drugs that are still under patent — bedaquiline and delamanid, used in the treatment of multiple drug-resistant tuberculosis, dolutegravir used to treat human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection, and daclatasavir used in treating viral infections such as Hepatitis C. Endocrine medicines and contraceptives like fludrocortisone, ormeloxifene, insulin glargine and teneligliptin (for diabetes control) have also been added to the list. Montelukast, acting on the respiratory tract, the ophthalmological drug latanoprost and cardiovascular medicines dabigatran and tenecteplase are on the list too.

Omissions include commonly used gastrointestinal drugs ranitidine, sucralfate, white petrolatum (for treating skin conditions), atenolol and methyldopa (for high blood pressure). Vivek Sehgal, director general, Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India, said for the industry to be able to continue to make and supply the medicines from NLEM, the government should ensure that inflation is taken into account while fixing the ceiling price. “This will enable the pharmaceutical industry to continue on its growth trajectory. Further, this NLEM includes four patented medicines for which companies have had robust access mechanism in place for India. The Organisation of Pharmaceutical Producers of India (OPPI) is concerned with this inclusion of the four patented drugs and the implication it has on value for innovation,” he said.

How are drugs eliminated and added to the list?

For inclusion in NLEM, the drugs have to be useful in treating diseases which are a public health problem in India. They have to be licensed/approved by the Drugs Controller General (DCGI), have proven efficacy, a safety profile based on scientific evidence, comparatively cost effective, and aligned with the current treatment guidelines. They have to be recommended under the National Health Programs of India (for instance, ivermectin is part of the Accelerated Plan for Elimination of Lymphatic Filariasis, 2018). When more than one medicine is available from the same therapeutic class, a prototype that is the best suited medicine of that class is included. Besides this, the price of the total treatment is considered and not the unit price of a medicine. Fixed dose combinations are usually not included.

A medicine is deleted from the list if it is banned in India; if there are reports of concerns on the safety profile and if a medicine with better efficacy and is cheaper is available. If the disease, for which a particular medicine is recommended, is no longer a national health concern, the drug is taken off the list. Additionally, in case of antimicrobials — if the resistance pattern has rendered an antimicrobial ineffective, it is removed from the NLEM.

What is the purpose of having a list?

The primary purpose of the NLEM is to promote rational use of medicines considering three important aspects which are cost, safety and efficacy. It also helps in optimum utilisation of healthcare resources and budget, drug procurement policies, health insurance, improving prescribing habits, medical education and training and drafting pharmaceutical policies. In NLEM, the medicines are categorised based on the level of the healthcare system as primary, secondary and tertiary.

The NLEM is a dynamic document and is revised on a regular basis considering the changing public health priorities as well as advancement in pharmaceutical knowledge.

The National List of Essential Medicines was first formulated in 1996 and was revised thrice in 2003, 2011 and 2015, before 2022. The NLEM independent Standing National Committee on Medicines (SNCM) was constituted by the Union Health Ministry in 2018. After detailed consultation with experts and stakeholders, the committee revised the NLEM, 2015 and submitted its report on NLEM, 2022 to the Health Ministry. The government accepted the recommendations of the committee and adopted the list.

3. Wholesale inflation slowed to an 11-month low at 12.4% in Aug.

Primary food article prices harden, other segments report milder inflation

Inflation based on the Wholesale Price Index (WPI) eased in August to the slowest pace since last September at 12.4%, from 13.9% in July, with food being the sole segment to report faster price gains at 9.93% as it rebounded from July’s three-month low of 9.41%.

August’s reading, however, marks the 17th straight month when wholesale inflation has exceeded 10%. Among the WPI constituents, manufactured products inflation eased to 7.5%, while fuel and power inflation corrected from 43.8% in July to 33.7%. Primary articles inflation slowed slightly to 14.9%, from July’s 15%.

Within food items, primary food inflation quickened to 12.4%, from 10.8% in July, led by a broad-based sequential uptick across cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits, condiments and spices and other food articles, rating agency ICRA said in a note.

Price rise in vegetables sped to 22.3%, from 18.3% in July, and higher wheat and rice prices pushed cereals inflation to 11.8%, from 9.8%. Fruits saw inflation of 31.7%.

“Wholesale inflation eased for a third straight month… with an increase in food inflation offset by easing of other commodity prices including crude oil,” said Rajani Sinha, chief economist of CARE Ratings.

The Office of the Economic Advisor, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, revised June’s WPI inflation to 16.2%, from 15.2% estimated earlier.

“It remains to be seen if firms will pass on the benefit to final consumers. If not, bringing retail inflation within the target range could take even longer,” Ms. Sinha said.

4. Editrorial-1: The future of old times in India

Near-universal social security pensions would be a good start to a radical expansion of public support for the elderly

Life expectancy in India has more than doubled since Independence — from around 32 years in the late 1940s to 70 years or so today. Many countries have done even better, but this is still a historical achievement. Over the same period, the fertility rate has crashed from about six children per woman to just two, liberating women from the shackles of repeated child-bearing and child care. All this is good news, but it also creates a new challenge — the ageing of the population.

The share of the elderly (persons aged 60 years and above) in India’s population, close to 9% in 2011, is growing fast and may reach 18% by 2036 according to the National Commission on Population. If India is to ensure a decent quality of life for the elderly in the near future, planning and providing for it must begin today.

Pensions help

Recent work on mental health among the elderly in India sheds new light on their dire predicament. Evidence on depression from a collaborative survey of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) and the Government of Tamil Nadu is particularly telling. Among persons aged 60 and above, 30% to 50% (depending on gender and age group) had symptoms that make them likely to be depressed. The proportion with depression symptoms is much higher for women than men, and rises sharply with age. In most cases, depression remains undiagnosed and untreated.

As one might expect, depression is strongly correlated with poverty and poor health, but also with loneliness. Among the elderly living alone, in the Tamil Nadu sample, 74% had symptoms that would classify them as likely to be mildly depressed or worse on the short-form Geriatric Depression Scale. A large majority of elderly persons living alone are women, mainly widows.

The hardships of old age are not related to poverty alone, but some cash often helps. Cash can certainly help to cope with many health issues, and sometimes to avoid loneliness as well. The first step towards a dignified life for the elderly is to protect them from destitution and all the deprivations that may come with it. That is why old-age pensions are a vital part of social security systems around the world.

India has important schemes of non-contributory pensions for the elderly, widowed women and disabled persons under the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP), administered by the Ministry of Rural Development. Alas, eligibility for NSAP is restricted to “below poverty line” (BPL) families, based on outdated and unreliable BPL lists, some of them are 20 years old. Further, the central contribution to old-age pensions under NSAP has stagnated at a tiny ₹200 per month since 2006, with a slightly higher but still paltry amount (₹300 per month) for widows.

Many States have enhanced the coverage and/or amount of social-security pensions beyond NSAP norms using their own funds and schemes. Some have even achieved “near-universal” (say 75%-80%) coverage of widows and elderly persons. That is now the norm, for instance, in all the southern States except Tamil Nadu — an odd exception since Tamil Nadu has been a pioneer in the field of social security.

Beyond targets

“Targeting” social benefits is always difficult. Restricting them to BPL families has not worked well: there are huge exclusion errors in the BPL lists. When it comes to old-age pensions, targeting is not a good idea in any case. For one thing, targeting tends to be based on household rather than individual indicators. A widow or elderly person, however, may experience major deprivations even in a relatively well-off household. A pension can help them to avoid extreme dependence on relatives who may or may not take good care of them, and it may even lead relatives to be more considerate.

For another, targeting tends to involve complicated formalities such as the submission of BPL certificates and other documents. That has certainly been the experience with NSAP pensions. The formalities can be particularly forbidding for elderly persons with low incomes or little education, who are in greatest need of a pension. In the Tamil Nadu sample, eligible persons who had been left out of pension schemes were found to be much poorer than the pension recipients (by more than just the pension). Moreover, even when lists of left-out, likely-eligible persons were submitted to the local administration, very few were approved for a pension, confirming that they face resilient barriers in the current scheme of things.

The problem is generally not a lack of effort or goodwill on the part of the government officials. Rather, many have absorbed the idea that their job is to save the government money by making sure that no ineligible person qualifies by mistake. In Tamil Nadu this often means, for example, that if the applicant has an able-bodied son in the city, they may be disqualified, regardless of whether they get any support from their son. In their quest to avoid inclusion errors, many officials are less concerned about exclusion errors.

A better approach is to consider all widows and elderly or disabled persons as eligible, subject to simple and transparent “exclusion criteria”. Eligibility can even be self-declared, with the burden of time-bound verification being placed on the local administration or gram panchayat. Some cheating may happen, but it is unlikely that many privileged households will risk trouble for the sake of a small monthly pension. And it is much preferable to accommodate some inclusion errors than to perpetuate the massive exclusion errors we are seeing today in targeted pension schemes.

Widening the net

The proposed move from targeted to near-universal pensions is not particularly new. As mentioned earlier, it has already happened in several States. Of course, it requires larger pension budgets, but additional expenditure is easy to justify. India’s social assistance schemes have low budgets and make a big difference to large numbers of people (about 40 million under NSAP). They are well worth expanding.

An example may help. In Tamil Nadu, social security pensions (typically ₹1,000 per month) are targeted and cover about a third of all elderly persons and widowed women, at a cost of around ₹4,000 crore per year. If, instead, 20% were to be excluded and the rest eligible by default, the cost would rise to ₹10,000 crore per year. That would be a modest price to pay to ensure a modicum of economic security in old age to everyone. It would be a fraction of the ₹40,000 crore Tamil Nadu is expected to spend this year on pensions and retirement benefits for government employees – barely 1% of the population. If the transition cannot be made in one go, there is a strong case for starting with women (the widowed or the elderly), who often face special disadvantages. This would also be a step towards the fulfilment of the Tamil Nadu government’s promise of a “home grant” of ₹1,000 per month for women.

The southern States are relatively well-off, but even some of India’s poorer States (such as Odisha and Rajasthan) have near-universal social security pensions. It would be much easier for all States to do the same if the central government were to revamp the NSAP. The NSAP budget this year is just ₹9,652 crore — more or less the same as 10 years ago in money terms, and much lower in real terms. This is not even 0.05% of India’s GDP!

Social security pensions, of course, are just the first step towards a dignified life for the elderly. They also need other support and facilities such as health care, disability aids, assistance with daily tasks, recreation opportunities and a good social life. This is a critical area of research, policy and action for the near future.

5. Editorial-2: India’s growing water crisis, the seen and the unseen

Rural-urban water disputes are very likely to occur as scarcity grows, exacerbated by climate change

The UNESCO United Nations World Water Development Report of 2022 has encapsulated global concern over the sharp rise in freshwater withdrawal from streams, lakes, aquifers and human-made reservoirs, impending water stress and also water scarcity being experienced in different parts of the world. In 2007, ‘Coping with water scarcity’ was the theme of World Water Day (observed on March 22). The new Water Report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) sounded a note of caution about this silent crisis of a global dimension, with millions of people being deprived of water to live and to sustain their livelihood.

Growing water stress

Further, the Water Scarcity Clock, an interactive webtool, shows that over two billion people live in countries now experiencing high water stress; the numbers will continue to increase. The Global Drought Risk and Water Stress map (2019) shows that major parts of India, particularly west, central and parts of peninsular India are highly water stressed and experience water scarcity. A NITI Aayog report, ‘Composite Water Management Index’ (2018) has sounded a note of caution about the worst water crisis in the country, with more than 600 million people facing acute water shortages. The typical response of the areas where water shortage or scarcity is high includes transfer of water from the hinterlands/upper catchments or drawing it from stored surface water bodies or aquifers. This triggers sectoral and regional competition; rural-urban transfer of water is one such issue of global concern.

Increasing trans-boundary transfer of water between rural and urban areas has been noted in many countries since the early 20th century. A review paper published in 2019 reported that, globally, urban water infrastructure imports an estimated 500 billion litres of water per day across a combined distance of 27,000km. At least 12% of large cities in the world rely on inter-basin transfers. A UN report on ‘Transboundary Waters Systems – Status and Trend’ (2016) linked this issue of water transfer with various Sustainable Development Goals proposed to be achieved during 2015 to 2030. The report identified risks associated with water transfer in three categories of biophysical, socio-economic and governance. South Asia, including India, falls in the category of high biophysical and the highest socio-economic risks.

Urban water use

According to Census 2011, the urban population in India accounted for 34% of total population distributed in 7,935 towns of all classes. It is estimated that the urban population component in India will cross the 40% mark by 2030 and the 50% mark by 2050 (World Urbanization Prospects, 2018). The urban population accounted for 50% of the total world population by the end of the last century. Although the pace of India’s urbanisation is relatively slow, it is now urbanising at a rapid pace — the size of the urban population is substantial. Water use in the urban sector has increased as more and more people shift to urban areas, and per capita use of water in these centres rises, which will continue to grow with improved standards of living.

Examining the urban water management trajectory, it is evident that in the initial stages when a city is small, it is concerned only with water supply; in a majority of cases, water is sourced locally, with groundwater meeting the bulk of the supply. As the city grows and water management infrastructures develop, dependence shifts to surface water.

With a further growth of cities, water sources shift further up in the hinterlands, or the allocation of urban water is enhanced at the expense of irrigation water. Almost all cities in India that depend on surface water experience this trend. City water supply is now a subject of inter-basin and inter-State transfers of water.

The case of Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad is an interesting case in this context. More than 80% of water supply in this city used to be met from groundwater sources till the mid-1980s. The depth to groundwater level reached 67 metres in confined aquifers. The city now depends on the Narmada canal for the bulk of its water supply. The shift is from local groundwater to canal water receiving supply from an inter-State and inter-basin transfer of surface water.

Dependence on groundwater continues particularly in the peri-urban areas in almost all large cities that have switched to surface water sources. While surface water transfer from rural to urban areas is visible and can be computed, the recharge areas of groundwater aquifers are spread over well beyond the city boundary or its periphery.

Whatever be the source, surface or groundwater, cities largely depend on rural areas for raw water supply, which has the potential to ignite the rural-urban dispute. Available studies covering Nagpur and Chennai indicate the imminent problem of rural-urban water disputes that the country is going to face in the not-so-distant future as water scarcity grows, which will be further exacerbated by climate change.

At present, the rural-urban transfer of water is a lose-lose situation in India as water is transported at the expense of rural areas and the agricultural sector; in cities, most of this water is in the form of grey water with little recovery or reuse, eventually contributing to water pollution. Rural and urban areas use water from the same stock, i.e., the water resources of the country. Therefore, it is important to strive for a win-win situation.

Such a situation is possible through a host of activities in the rural and urban areas, which is primarily a governance challenge. A system perspective and catchment scale-based approach are necessary to link reallocation of water with wider discussions on development, infrastructure investment, fostering an rural-urban partnership and adopting an integrated approach in water management.

Institutional strengthening can offer entry points and provide opportunities to build flexibility into water resource allocation at a regional level, enabling adjustments in rapidly urbanising regions. In India’s 75th anniversary of Independence, it is time to examine the state of its water resources and ensure that the development process is not in jeopardy.

6. Editorial-3: Engage with caution

The latest disengagement along the LAC is a welcome step, but the border crisis is not over 

India and China on September 13 confirmed the disengagement of their troops from a fifth friction point in Eastern Ladakh along the LAC. With the latest withdrawal of troops from Patrolling Point (PP) 15 in the Gogra-Hot Springs area, buffer zones have now been established by the two sides in five locations, including in Galwan Valley, north and south of Pangong Lake, and at PP17A in Gogra. The arrangements in the four earlier established buffer zones have so far helped keep the peace over the past two years. No patrolling is to be undertaken by either side in the buffer zones, which have been established on territory claimed by both India and China. The latest disengagement came just three days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping are to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Uzbekistan.

Reflecting the current state of relations, the two leaders have not directly spoken in more than two-and-a-half-years, an extraordinary situation for the world’s two most populous countries. Whether they meet at the SCO Summit — as of September 14, neither side had confirmed or ruled out a meeting — or at the G20 in Indonesia later this year, India will need to proceed with caution as it inevitably resumes high-level engagement with China. While the buffer zones may serve as a temporary measure to prevent a recurrence of clashes, the reality is that this is an arrangement that has been forced on India. The Indian military, by holding the line and showing its capacity to match China’s deployments, has been able to reverse China’s multiple territorial ingresses of April 2020 in the five areas. That has, however, come at the cost of India’s ability to access patrolling points that it was reaching previously, which, in the view of some military observers, might have been China’s game-plan all along, given the favourable logistics and terrain on the Chinese side that enable faster deployments. Moreover, China has neither agreed to resolve stand-offs in Demchok and Depsang, suggesting they pre-dated the current tensions, nor shown any intent to de-escalate, instead continuing to build forward infrastructure aimed at permanently housing a large number of troops closer to the LAC. Indeed, signs are that both sides are in for a prolonged period of uncertainty on the borders thanks to China’s decision to mobilise tens of thousands of troops in April 2020, in contravention of past border agreements. Unless Beijing reverses its recent, and still unexplained, moves to militarise the LAC and in the process undo the carefully constructed arrangements that helped keep the peace for 40 years, India will have little incentive to consider a return to relations as they were prior to 2020. The latest disengagement, while certainly a welcome step, by no means implies an end to the crisis on the border.

7. Editorial-4: Tax on the poor

Inflation disproportionately affects the economically weaker sections

The latest retail inflation data from the National Statistical Office is a sobering reminder that accelerating price gains still remain the single biggest challenge to policymakers as they try to steer Asia’s third-largest economy to a more durable recovery from the pandemic-induced slump. Inflation based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) quickened in August to a provisional 7%, from 6.7% in July, as the pace of gains in food prices as measured by the Consumer Food Price Index accelerated by a sizeable 93 basis points to 7.62%, from July’s 6.69%. And rural consumers bore a disproportionately higher burden: with month-on-month changes in both food prices and overall inflation appreciably greater at 0.88% and 0.57% respectively, compared with the 0.50% and 0.46% rates of urban inflation. Of particular concern is that inflation in the prices of cereals — staple grains in every household — surged to 9.57% from the preceding month’s 6.9% rate. Month-on-month the pace was a disconcerting 2.4%. With kharif sowing of rice this year undershooting last year’s acreage and uneven distribution of rainfall further roiling the crop’s production picture, the outlook for inflation in this ‘heavyweight’ food category remains far from reassuring, the Centre’s recent imposition of tariff and other curbs on export of non-Basmati rice notwithstanding. In fact, eight of the 12 food items that combine to constitute the food and beverages category of the CPI saw sequential price upticks, with vegetables (13.2% year-on-year and 2.5% month-on-month) and dairy (6.39% and 0.9%, respectively) being two other vital foods that contributed to the faster inflation.

The Finance Ministry was quick to assert that the increase in headline inflation was “moderate”, even as it sought to downplay the significance of food price pressures by terming food and fuel prices as “transient components”. It also pointed to the steps by the Government to cool prices, that could help tame inflation in the ‘coming weeks’. And it cited oils and fats and pulses as two items where prices had begun to ease in response to the Centre’s steps. However, the prices of pulses and products quickened by 1.7% month-on-month, with the pace trailing only that of sequential inflation in spices, cereals and vegetables. Services categories including housing, health, education, recreation and personal care too witnessed sequential increases in price gains as these services saw demand gradually revive. The challenge going forward would be for providers to tread carefully so as not to yet again depress consumption by raising prices too quickly. Policymakers would do well to heed the dictum of a former RBI Governor, who never tired of reiterating that ‘containing the build up of price pressures is the best anti-poverty programme’ as the poor ‘have no hedge against inflation’.

8. Editorial-5: Imagining an alternative scenario in Ayodhya

An amicable solution could have been reached through social, rather than judicial, intervention

In its final judgment on the Ayodhya dispute, delivered on November 9, 2019, the Supreme Court accepted the argument of several historians that no temple, much less a Ram temple, had been demolished to construct the Babri Masjid. It held the demolition of the mosque illegal and sought the prosecution of leaders responsible for it.

A brief history of the dispute

However, it is also a fact that at least since the 19th century, there has been a popular local tradition associating the site with Lord Ram in different ways, and disputes arising from it have led to incidents of violence as well as compromises. On the cold night of December 22-23, 1949, small clay idols of Ram Lalla were stealthily placed inside the mosque with the complicity of the District Magistrate, K.K. Nayyar. These stayed there with the connivance of the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, G.B. Pant, a Congress strongman, despite Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s instructions to remove them. The mosque was then locked up for nearly 50 years and there was relative quiet on that front.

Things began heating up in the late 1980s, partly when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi allowed the opening of the gate of the mosque up to the site in a corner where a Ram chabutra (plinth) lay, in order to balance his disastrous handling of the Shah Bano case. Later in the decade, the Bharatiya Janata Party took up the challenge thrown to it by Prime Minister V.P. Singh’s sudden announcement of the implementation of Mandal Commission’s recommendation of reservation of 27% seats in Central government services and educational institutions for the Other Backward Classes by raking up the Ram Janmabhoomi issue; it picturesquely came to be known as the ‘Mandal-Kamandal’ contest. The BJP put all its energies into mobilising people for the cause of the Ram temple.

There was no violence on the scene. Several attempts were made to resolve the dispute over the land on which the Babri Masjid stood, without violence. However, by then, the dispute had shed its colour of a political tussle between the BJP and the V.P. Singh government and had become a Hindu-Muslim imbroglio. The Hindu side offered to have the mosque, with its structure and foundation intact, respectfully moved to another site. The shifting of the whole structure was technologically feasible and had been accomplished in Egypt some years earlier when an old monument was similarly moved on rails to a neighbouring site in order to widen the Suez Canal; the shifting could only be done within a short distance of one or two kilometres. But the offer was spurned, for God’s site was not open to bargaining.

Things moved fast after that. The Muslim side relied on the historical evidence that favoured them and the impartiality of the judiciary; the Hindu side relied on mass mobilisation through L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra and violence in its wake. The judiciary tried out some sort of compromise with the Allahabad High Court dividing the disputed piece of land between the two sides, if unequally — a solution that pleased neither.

Opening a Pandora’s Box

In the end, the Supreme Court determined that no evidence of temple demolition existed. It should logically have restored the site to the Muslims, for this was entirely a property dispute. But by a queer inversion of its own logic, it gave away the site to the Hindus. The judgment has lent huge power to the Hindu side, represented by its various arms — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP as a party and its various governments, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, etc. — to seek ‘justice’ in innumerable instances by filing cases about just any mosque having been constructed over the debris of an old temple. It would also have the advantage of seeking the ‘righting’ of past wrongs through peaceful, judicial means, putting opponents on the defensive for not demonstrating respect for the judiciary.

A Pandora’s Box is now wide open. This also consolidates the hold of Hindutva over the body politic for the next several years by placing centre stage the urgency of recovering old temples from the ravages wreaked on them by medieval Muslim rulers, the responsibility for which must be borne by present-day Muslim inhabitants; issues of the economy, education, health, freedoms, etc. can wait. Above all, the history of the dispute and the resort to judicial verdict has turned the two sides into two implacable adversaries in which the emboldened Hindu side finds the solution in more heightened aggression.

Let us now imagine an alternative scenario back in the 1980s. As the dispute grew in dimensions, peaceful solutions were still being sought. What if the Muslim side had firmly articulated the historical veracity of their claim that no temple was demolished to erect the Babri Masjid, but had also taken cognisance of the widespread belief among the Hindus of the Awadh region of the existence of a Ram Janmasthan (the Ram chabutra) within the complex and a Sita rasoi (kitchen) within a few yards of it and thus, having asserted their property rights over the 2.7 acres, ‘offered to donate’ it in honour of Ram? Ideally, this could have been done by accepting the proposal to move the mosque within the vicinity of the new grand Ram temple. But even otherwise, this ‘donation’ had the potential to avert the pitching of the Hindus and Muslims as implacable adversaries. Muslims might have earned goodwill among the Hindus and the old slogan of Hindu-Muslim ‘bhai-bhai’ was likely to have received an energising shot in society. This would have made it extremely hard for the Hindutva rabble-rousers to succeed in their endeavour or for the BJP to rise to such heights. Above all, this solution could not have been seen as a victory or defeat but an amicable solution through social, rather than judicial, intervention. If anything, it had the potential of being seen as a great moral victory for the Muslims; after all, it is the sense of victory after the Ayodhya judgment that has made the votaries of Hindutva so aggressive. This would also have been in tune with the legacy of India’s composite culture.

Making space for one another

So much has changed now that the future holds little promise for the demonstration of bonhomie between both communities by joining each other’s festivals. Ways have to be found, even invented, of sharing substantial spaces between and indeed among communities. The primary requisite for this is to look beyond our own exclusivist straitjackets and make space for the inclusion of others along with their religious sentiments. Participation, rather than exclusion, is the way out.

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