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Daily Current Affairs 20.08.2022 (Indian team deliberating on ocean diversity pact, Resolution confuses more than it clarifies: MPC’s Varma argued, From darkness to solar-powered light, The injustice of exceptionalism, End this asymmetrical conflict over ‘freebies’)

Daily Current Affairs 20.08.2022 (Indian team deliberating on ocean diversity pact, Resolution confuses more than it clarifies: MPC’s Varma argued, From darkness to solar-powered light, The injustice of exceptionalism, End this asymmetrical conflict over ‘freebies’)

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1. Indian team deliberating on ocean diversity pact

A key aspect of the agreement is deciding on the rights of companies that undertake exploration for marine resources

A delegation from India and other member countries of the United Nations are in New York to deliberate on a one-of-its-kind agreement to conserve marine biodiversity in the high seas, namely the oceans that extend beyond countries’ territorial waters.

The agreement follows a resolution by the UN General Assembly in May and is expected to be the final in a series set in motion since 2018 to draft an international legally binding instrument under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The high seas comprise nearly 45% of the Earth’s surface.

The Indian delegation comprises officials from the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Centre for Marine Fisheries and Research Institute and the Ministry of External Affairs.

A key aspect of the agreement is deciding on the rights of companies that undertake exploration for biological resources in the high seas. Do companies have absolute rights on any discovery or extraction in these regions or should they share their gains, in terms of intellectual property and royalties with a UN-prescribed body, said M. Ravichandran, Secretary, MoES.

Typically, the focus of mining activity in the sea has been for gas hydrates, precious metals and other fossil fuel resources. However, with advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering, several companies see potential in exotic microbes and other organisms — several of them undiscovered — that abide in the deep ocean and could be used for drugs and vaccines.

Last June, the Union Cabinet approved a ‘Blue Economy’ policy for India, a nearly ₹4,000-crore programme spread over five years. This among other things will develop a manned submersible vessel as well as work on “bio-prospecting of deep-sea flora and fauna including microbes”.

Studies on sustainable utilisation of deep sea bio-resources will be the main focus.

Mr. Ravichandran said that there were already companies carrying out such exploratory activities though little was known about them. “Hence, an international agreement that spells out obligations and permissible activities is important,” he told The Hindu.

K.M. Gopakumar, legal advisor and an expert on intellectual property matter with the Third World Network, said that there was a “race” among international corporations for biological resources from the sea, making it critical to have an agreement on benefit-sharing. “These resources are the common heritage of mankind and we can’t allow it to be monopolised by a few entities,” he told The Hindu.

2. Resolution confuses more than it clarifies: MPC’s Varma argued

‘Withdrawal of accommodation should have been dropped given other factors’

The Monetary Policy Committee’s August 5 resolution accompanying the RBI’s interest rate increase, which stressed that the MPC would “remain focused on withdrawal of accommodation to ensure that inflation remains within the target going forward, while supporting growth” ideally ought to have been dropped as it would only provide ‘confusing guidance’, MPC member Jayanth R. Varma said at the panel’s meeting, the minutes released on Friday show.

“This statement confuses more than it clarifies,” Mr. Varma observed. “Because the rate hike in this meeting takes the policy rate above the pre-pandemic level, “withdrawal of accommodation” … can only mean withdrawal of the pre-pandemic accommodation that began with the rate cut from 6.50% to 6.25% in February 2019. A plain reading… would then be that the MPC is focused on taking the repo rate back to 6.50%,” he said.

Such an indication of a terminal repo rate of 6.50% was totally unwarranted in the current situation given that the Ukraine war and monetary tightening in the advanced economies posed a very serious risk of recession in the world economy, he stressed.

However, given that inflation was at unacceptably high levels, and the projected trajectory was also above target during the entire forecast horizon, he noted that “further withdrawal of accommodation is warranted”.

“The resolution should… be interpreted only as stating that there is a high likelihood of further front-loaded tightening,” he emphasised.

3. Editorial-1: From darkness to solar-powered light

Life has changed in Sarkhipara after a micro-grid solar plant was installed a year ago. Rahul Karmakar talks to villagers in the hamlet in Tripura’s Khowai district to chronicle how electricity finally came, and how it has affected their prospects and their daily rhythm

While others screamed with joy when the sun, condensed into eight-watt LED bulbs strung at irregular intervals from one end of Sarkhipara to the other, shone past dusk on September 10, 2021, Lebirung Reang just smiled. She recalled what Natuharia Reang had said before they got married six years ago — that he could bring the moon and the stars home for her. He had probably meant the sun, the nearest star, she thought.

There was another reason why Lebirung was less exuberant than the 85 other inhabitants of Sarkhipara, which means ‘hilltop hamlet’ in the local dialect. She was the only one who had had the experience of living with electricity at Ompi-Salkhapara, her native village, about 50 km west of Sarkhipara.

Natuharia, a school dropout like his wife and a jhum cultivator, fell for Lebirung after spotting her at her village’s periodic market in 2016. It wasn’t easy for him to change two public vehicles to meet her at Ompi-Salkhapara regularly. He did the next best thing: travel frequently to Chakmaghat 30 km away to charge his mobile battery for ₹10 until it was full, to be able to speak to Lebirung. He did not tell Lebirung that Sarkhipara went to sleep after sunset or used kerosene lamps for emergencies at night. Neither did she ask him if his village had electricity; she just presumed it did.

“Felt like the home I was born in,” Lebirung says, recounting the day the control room of the 2 kWp (kilowatt peak power output) micro-grid solar power plant at Sarkhipara was switched on.

For Natuharia, September 10 wasn’t just the day that power reached his home in the village; it was the day his wife stopped teasing him for bringing her from light to darkness.

A request for light

Sarkhipara, in Tripura’s Khowai district, is about 90 km east of Agartala. Its residents are all Reangs, one of the 19 Scheduled Tribes in the State but the only one recognised as a PTG (primitive tribal group) although the nomenclature today is ‘particularly vulnerable tribal group’. According to a 2016 survey by the Tribal Welfare (Tribal Rehabilitation Programme and Primitive Tribal Group) Department, commonly known as TW (TRP and PTG), the population of Reangs in Tripura is 1,85,308. The department was formed in 1985-86 for the rehabilitation of PTGs through the Forest Department in three tribal divisions.

Sarkhipara might probably have been off the State government’s radar had Dilajoy Reang, the most educated among its residents, not written to Jeebonjoy Reang, the district-level chairman of the TW (TRP and PTG) Department, to bail his village out of darkness. His application in 2019 was transferred to the Tripura Renewable Energy Development Agency (TREDA), the State nodal agency for implementing new and renewable energy projects in Tripura.

“I came to know that the PTG Department was pursuing a solar lighting project in remote villages and hamlets where conventional power was not economically viable. The officials would probably not have taken almost two years to work on my application had COVID-19 not struck,” says Dilajoy, who teaches Bengali at a private school at Gandacherra in the adjoining Dhalai district. Dilajoy studied up to Class 12 in Gandacherra, about 30 km from Sarkhipara. His father had sent him to live with relatives so that he would not end up as a ‘nirakkhar’ (illiterate) like him in Sarkhipara during his formative years.

Hardship-driven migration

Sarkhipara is a cluster of spaced-out hamlets comprising about 300 families. The cluster boasting of the micro-grid solar power plant has 17 families. It is perched on a ridge about 150 metres long and is the nearest to a road constructed in 2018 under the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana. One has to ascend a steep slope for about 20 metres from the edge of the road to reach Sarkhipara.

Much of this road has peeled off, which explains why the villagers prefer to walk miles through the jungles for their needs. Chakmaghat is the nearest market for the residents of Sarkhipara. The nearest public health centre is at Teliamura, about 38 km away, while the nearest police station is Mungiakami, about 40 km away on NH8. The nearest school for Sarkhipara’s children is at Nabajoypara, about 4 km away.

“There used to be many families around when I was young. Half of them relocated to Nabajoypara so that their children could reach school faster. Many moved out to Gandacherra and other areas of Dhalai district in search of greener pastures,” says Kharanjoy Reang, Sarkhipara’s ‘Choudhury’, or headman.

But the scenario is changing. Two families returned to Sarkhipara a few months after the micro-grid solar plant was installed. About half a dozen families also moved back to the other hamlets of Sarkhipara hoping to be beneficiaries of a similar solar power project soon.

“A 2 kWp solar plant can provide 7-8 hours of power for the basic needs of 15 families. Sarkhipara had exactly 15 families for us to set up the first such plant in Khowai district,” says Swaraj Debbarma, the TREDA project director for Khowai and Dhalai districts.

Sarkhipara falls in Krishnapur Assembly constituency, one of the 20 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes in Tripura. Hopes of electrification in the hamlet were raised after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Atul Debbarma upset Communist Party of India (Marxist) heavyweight Khagendra Jamatia in the 2018 State polls. Tripura’s Power Department, of which TREDA is a wing, had calculated that erecting poles and stringing power cables for 14 km from Nonacherra to Sarkhipara would cost more than ₹50 lakh. Nonacherra is the nearest electrified, albeit partly, village from Sarkhipara. The investment for a few scattered settlements which were unlikely to afford the monthly energy bill was deemed unviable. The vote went to a solar plant worth ₹8.5 lakh, inclusive of the photovoltaic panels and storage batteries. “Apart from 15 streetlights and a television set placed at the control room for community viewing, the solar plant generates sufficient power to let each family use three lights, a fan and a socket primarily to charge mobile phones,” Debbarma says.

A stand fan has made a world of difference for Kantirong Reang. She can now choose when to work on the loin loom to weave the ‘rignwai’, a traditional wraparound, and the ‘risa’, a piece that covers the upper part of the body. “Working is cooler now, but more importantly, the fan keeps mosquitoes and other insects away,” she says.

When the intensity of the lights increases, insects sting less, says Abhijit Acharya, a service engineer employed by the Kolkata-based Agni Green Power Limited, the vendor that executes the solar micro-grid project for TREDA. His job is to periodically check how the solar plant performs and troubleshoot any problem.

The only issue that cropped up in almost a year was when two new families — of Tamanjoy Reang and Jabanti Reang — moved in. “Their new huts were not in the initial scheme of things, but the villagers agreed to let them use a solitary bulb. The plant is now servicing 17 families instead of 15,” Acharya says.

The extra load made the villagers regulate the use of the solar power switched on from the control room at 5 p.m. every day. All the streetlights save three – one each at the extreme ends of the longish Sarkhipara and one in the middle – are switched off at 10 p.m. and residents are advised not to stretch their “waking hours” beyond 11 p.m.

The control room “manager” is Sekharjoy Reang. He was a natural choice: the control room and the photovoltaic panel are on his plot adjoining his hut. He locks the control room during the day, lets in villagers around twilight to watch television for an hour or two, and handles some minor maintenance work he had been taught to. He has a couple of young deputies to look after the control room whenever jhum cultivation or any other work takes him away from Sarkhipara. “It took a long time for us to get power. We don’t want to lose it because of lack of proper maintenance,” he says.

Growing demand

Few would visit Sarkhipara a year ago. The solar plant has made it a local attraction, particularly at night when the hamlet is bathed in the glow of energy-saver bulbs. “No sooner did we install the micro-grid plant at Sarkhipara than people from other villages demanded solar plants, but many did not have the requisite number of families. We surveyed the area and established micro-grid solar plants at 11 other villages or hamlets,” says Debabrata Sukla Das, TREDA’s joint director who oversees the project. The other villages include Nabajoypara, Karnarampara, Poltonjoy, Battapara, Annarampara, Ranghajari Christianpara and Jenaraipara. “We are in the process of establishing micro-grid solar plants in 50 more remote villages that don’t have electricity. Some 500 other geographically disadvantaged villages across Tripura are also on our radar for solar power connectivity,” he says.

Although Tripura’s Deputy Chief Minister Jishnu Dev Varma and Tribal Welfare Minister Mevar Kumar Jamatia unveiled the Sarkhipara project in September 2021, it was inaugurated a second time virtually by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 30 this year. The local authorities nominated the hamlet’s Kalaiha Reang, a jhum cultivator, to speak with the Prime Minister. “The Prime Minister told me Sarkhipara’s children should now study harder under lights,” Kalaiha says.

But most of Sarkhipara’s children lost touch with their books after the COVID-19 lockdowns. Until a few months ago, the hamlet had only 2G mobile phone connectivity that did not allow online studies. It made more sense for students to sleep than study in the light of kerosene lamps at night.

Subrata Reang, who dropped out of Class 6 about a decade ago, understands that Sarkhipara’s children will have to resist new distractions such as entertainment programmes on the solitary television and their mobile phones as they resume their studies.

“The children will get over the initial enthusiasm. But I had no intention to wait so long and had Merunjoy, my younger brother, admitted to a government-run boarding school at Khumulwng,” Subrata says.

Khumulwng is the headquarters of the Tripura Tribal Areas Autonomous District Council (TTAADC) near Agartala. Many of TREDA’s solar projects are in areas under the TTAADC. This is because the remote, unconnected villages and hamlets are within the map of the tribal council.

“The microgrids are one of three solar-powered projects we have been undertaking for more than a year now. The other two are the Grameen Bazaar Alok Jyoti Scheme and the pioneering solar irrigation project dovetailed with the PM-KUSUM scheme,” Mahananda Debbarma, TREDA’s director-general and chief executive officer, says. PM-KUSUM, or the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan, focuses on the energy security of farmers. The Grameen Bazaar Alok Jyoti scheme entails providing solar-powered lights at ‘haats’ or periodic rural markets, and is partially funded by the Central government. TREDA has installed 2,390 solar street lights in 239 rural markets across 12 aspirational blocks. A total of 1,291 rural and interior markets are targeted to be covered under the project by December 2022.

“The rural economy has been suffering because the rural markets that operate once or twice a week could not do business beyond the daylight hours. Unsold perishables would invariably be wasted because of a lack of storage facility and proper connectivity to bigger markets. The business has improved in the sunlit rural markets,” Das says.

Irrigation boost

The biggest game-changer in the rural areas has perhaps been the solar irrigation project that is expected to reduce the dependence of farmers in Tripura on monsoon rains. Neighbours Bokul Debbarma and Paul Debbarma of Baramaidan hamlet vouch for it.

Baramaidan is a part of the Ramdayalbari Autonomous District Council village under the Padmabil Rural Development Block in Khowai district. Two decades ago, the villages under this block used to be controlled by extremist groups seeking secession from India.

The scheme had no takers when it was announced post-lockdown in 2020. Dhananjoy Debbarma of Gungaraicherra Multipurpose Cooperative Society, which has been facilitating the solar irrigation projects for the local farmers, remembers going about Ramdayalbari and other villages with a traditional drum to draw the people’s attention.

“The Tripura government took up the installation of 3,000 standalone solar pumps for a total project cost of ₹80.24 crore. According to the Central guidelines, 50% of the cost was to be borne by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, 30% by the State government and 20% by the beneficiary. But considering the economic conditions of the rural and tribal farmers, the Tripura government is providing 48% of the cost of the solar pump and 100% of the boring cost for a submersible pump with funding from NABARD,” Das says.

Paul and Bokul were among the first to give it a try on their combined 8 kanis (10.5 acres) of farmland a few months ago. “By paying only ₹5,000 for a project worth ₹2.75 lakh, I had nothing much to lose,” Paul says.

The two-horsepower solar pump he invested in has been providing him 70,000 litres per horsepower a day to irrigate his field. All it takes is a movable solar panel of 1,800 watts and a controller to activate a submersible pump 210-230 ft underground for the water to start flowing into his paddy field. Today, Paul is a multi-cropper, which was unthinkable a few years ago.

In less than a year, TREDA has installed 35 solar pumps for farmers in the Ramdayalbari region. Thirty of these are submersible and five are surface pumps, set up in farmlands close to a mountain stream. A surface pump comes cheaper as it does not involve the cost of boring.

Baramaidan has seven solar pumps – three submersible and two surface – on about 45 acres of farmland straddling a small valley. Paul and Bokul are two of the seven farmers who share this stretch. Like their neighbours, they recovered their investment in the solar pump within a month of installation.

“What scores for this solar pump is that the solar panel has a 25-year warranty and our contract with TREDA says we have to handle the maintenance of the installations for five years,” says Vinod S., service engineer of the Chennai-based Ishaan Solar Power Private Limited, the vendor for the solar pump project. Other than setting up new solar pumps, the firm has been solarising old pumps in Tripura.

“We have already installed 961 solar pumps of 2HP capacity each for as many beneficiaries. More people are showing interest in this project, particularly in the remote, hilly areas. Off-grid solar set-ups are changing lives in parts of Tripura,” Dev Varma says.

The success of the microgrid solar plants and the solar water pumps made TREDA think of extending a hybrid project that marries the two schemes to Sarkhipara and other remote hamlets where gastrointestinal diseases claim more lives than malaria does. This is primarily because residents in these areas depend on streams, often murky during the monsoon months, for drinking water. TREDA has already installed nine cost-effective solar-powered water treatment plants in areas facing a crisis of portable water.

The daily routine of Sarkhipara’s women includes trekking 120 metres to the nearest stream for the water they need. “We do get water from a 5,000-litre tanker of the Drinking Water and Sanitation Department that stops by from time to time. But our share of water is barely 500 litres,” Khumunjoy Reang, a Sarkhipara elder, says.

“We are working on a solar-powered water purification project that can be used alongside the microgrid plant for providing clean, drinking water to the locals. This can be done after analysing the availability of water, from a stream nearby or underground,” Das says.

Of late, the Sarkhipara residents have been asking officials to increase the ‘aagun’ for using electrical appliances such as a refrigerator. The ‘aagun’, meaning fire in Bengali, refers to the wattage or surge of power.

The water beneath or from the surface may soon fan the solar fire for Sarkhipara.

4. Editorial-2: The injustice of exceptionalism

It is the exceptionalism in granting the release of 11 individuals that lies at the core of injustice in the Bilkis Bano case

Eleven men who were sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano (she was pregnant then) and the murder of her family members in 2002 were released this week from a jail in Gujarat. A Special Central Bureau of Investigation Court had sentenced the men to life imprisonment in 2008. Their release seems unjust and the subsequent celebration of their release by some is revolting. While the applicable law in this case, on the face of it, seems to give the power to the Gujarat government to release these men, serious questions about the legality of the decision have emerged. However, the injustice, in this case, goes beyond questions of legality or illegality. It runs deeper. Therefore, it is crucial to locate the source of this injustice.

Remission policy

As in most States, Gujarat’s current remission policy (it adopted a new and revised remission policy for prisoners in 2014), makes those convicted of rape ineligible for premature release. However, the Supreme Court of India had earlier ruled that the remission question in this case would be governed by the remission policy of 1992 that was in force at the time of conviction which did not exclude those convicted of rape from executive remission. Is the injustice in this case to be located in the fact that the 1992 policy allowed remission to this category of offenders? Does justice demand that certain categories of offenders be ineligible for remission? Before we get to these questions, a brief explanation on remission and premature release is called for.

State governments have laid down behaviour/activities that can earn prisoners a certain amount of days as remission, that is then deducted from their sentence. For example, if a prisoner earns two years in remission and a court has sentenced them to 10 years, they can leave prison effectively after eight years. This system is enshrined in the Prisons Act, 1894, and also rules developed by different States (prison is a state subject). However, the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) is clear that life convicts have to undergo a minimum of 14 years of actual imprisonment before they can be considered for remission/premature release. Each State has its own procedure to consider each application for release. There is very little transparency on how these decisions are made.

Besides this, State governments have also developed premature release rules that include the power to give effect to the Governor’s powers of remission under Article 161 of the Constitution. Those powers are not governed by the CrPC and are often used to bypass the minimum 14 years of actual imprisonment requirement in the CrPC. But in this case, the term of imprisonment of all 11 men was more than 15 years and therefore, the calculation of 14 years is irrelevant.

A right

While, undoubtedly, questions of punishment and reformation need to be individualised, a meaningful criminal justice policy should never adopt offence-based exclusions when considering remission or premature release with respect to individual persons. Remission is borne out of the central objective of prisons to operate as reformative and rehabilitative spaces. The Supreme Court has recognised remission as an inherent part of a prisoner’s right to life. Contrary to popular conception, remission is a right and not a privilege extended to the convict by the state.

However, that broader position on remission cannot settle the questions of justice in this case. It is the extraordinary treatment bestowed on these 11 men when it is now denied to an entire class of offenders across the country that carries the stink of injustice. While the policy of 1992 provided no disqualification for their release, it is unclear why the Gujarat government found these men fit for release when it has excluded the very same category of prisoners from any consideration whatsoever under the policy of 2014. A cardinal rule of justice stands broken — one set of considerations for everyone else convicted for the same offence but, somehow, a different set of governance considerations for these 11 individuals.

Survivors and challenges

While there is much to worry about the legislature, the executive and the judiciary moving towards harsher sentences for those convicted for sexual offences, the impunity for sexual violence remains a grave concern. There is significant research demonstrating the challenges that rape survivors face in filing criminal complaints and navigating the justice system.

These difficulties are particularly pronounced and qualitatively different for survivors from caste and religious minorities against whom rape is used as a weapon of social oppression. One such aspect is the intimidation and pressure from perpetrators, the majority community, and often the police to drop criminal charges. The lack of witness protection measures results in many complainants turning hostile to protect themselves from more harm.

For the Bilkis Bano case too, not only was it an uphill struggle to initiate criminal proceedings but it was also accompanied by several death threats throughout the course of her case. She relocated constantly for her safety. In pursuing justice, survivors from caste and religious minorities have to bear the brunt of a casteist and Islamophobic society, apart from facing greater challenges in negotiating the criminal justice system than other survivors do.

Given this lived reality of survivors, the exceptionalism in granting the release of these 11 individuals in the Bilkis Bano case becomes even starker. When the executive has otherwise made the choice to exclude this category of offenders from the benefit of remission/premature release, releasing these men from the majority community who gang raped Bilkis Bano and murdered her family members during a communal riot is an act of exceptionalism. It is this exceptionalism that lies at the core of injustice in this case.

However, our rage at the grave injustice, in this case, must not be accompanied by a corresponding legitimisation of overly-punitive approaches to sexual violence. The insurmountable difficulties endured by Bilkis Bano to pursue justice and our collective fear for her safety now may make 15 years of imprisonment seem insufficient. But our dissatisfaction with a broken and discriminatory system cannot be fixed by harsher sentences and practices which is, unfortunately, the only form of justice that a punitive system can offer.

5. Editorial-3: End this asymmetrical conflict over ‘freebies’

The judiciary’s move to study the issue could impact the economic freedom of States and the ‘Idea of India’

The issue of ‘freebies’ has bounced back, when the Supreme Court of India on August 3, 2022, recommended constituting an expert committee comprising representatives of the beneficiaries, Union and State governments, the Finance Commission, NITI Aayog and the Reserve Bank of India to study the issue of ‘freebies’.

The Court seems to toe the line of critics that ‘freebies’ stress States exchequers, drawing them in debt traps. On the other hand, those in favour of freebies argue that in a stratified society where capital in different forms (intellect, wealth, caste) gets accumulated in the hands of a select few, the poor and the marginalised become victimised. Here, ‘social welfare measures’ that are otherwise ridiculed as ‘freebies’ act as a shock absorber.

On ‘Trickle down economics’

In the famous Reagan tax cuts, or Reaganomics, associated with ‘Trickle down economics’ there was a maximum cut given to higher income earners and corporations in the expectation that any benefit provided at the top would trickle down to the poor in the form of job creation, higher output, and infrastructure development. While ‘trickle down’ yielded some positive results, it also widened inequality, diminished inclusive growth, and was criticised by economists such as Nobel Laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz.

In India, neo-liberal schemes of the post-1990s such as the Special Economic Zones (SEZs), Software Technology Parks of India (STPI), and Bio Technology Parks (BTP), (where there were incentives in the form of tax holidays, subsidised power, and waiver of stamp duty), were seen as a result of ‘trickle down economics’, including the recent cut in corporate tax from 30% to 18%.

However, the World Inequality Report 2022 says that the top 1% of India held 22% of the total national income as of 2021, and the top 10% owned 57% of the income. In another instance, a research paper, ‘Wealth Inequality, Class and Caste in India, 1961-2012’, states that India’s upper caste households earned nearly 47% more than the national average annual household income, thus making India one of the most economically and socially stratified countries in the world. Further, 93% of the top corporate board members and 61.8% of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) are owned by upper castes (MSME data March 31, 2022) — so, freebies in the form of incentives benefit the upper caste elites.

Differential tax burden

The Union government seems to rely more on indirect taxes than direct taxes. While direct taxes such as corporate taxes were slashed from 30% to 18%, indirect taxes have gone up manifold between 2014-21 — these include taxes on fuel and food (rice, milk, cereal) on which the poor spend a major portion of their income, imposing a financial burden on the poor, in turn leading to high inflation and resulting in inequality and lower growth.

States such as Tamil Nadu address this inequality through social welfare measures (derided as freebies). For example, the Tamil Nadu government’s free bus pass for women has not only saved families fuel cost but has also encouraged more women to join the workforce, in turn leading to economically stable families and women’s empowerment. Free mid-day meals (now extended to free breakfast) have encouraged socially backward parents to send their wards to school at least for the meals, resulting in keeping the evil of child labour under control and, more importantly, imparting education. These measures have resulted in a higher graduate enrolment ratio for T.N. (at 52%) which is double the national average at 27% and also higher than that of the United States at 41%.

A paper published in Oxford University Press’ The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2009) has lauded the introduction of free colour television in villages as it has resulted in a decrease in domestic violence and also enabled women’s empowerment (women, who are largely indoors due to customary practices/household duties, have been able to connect with the outside world through visual media). It has ensured self respect, as women and children are able to watch TV in their houses rather than visit the homes of those who are rich and own TV sets. Further, elitist corporate tax reduction (30% to 18%) has resulted in a revenue loss of ₹1.84 lakh crore to the Union government for 2019-20 and 2020-21; there is an expected loss of ₹1 lakh in 2021-22, surpassing the cost of some of the major freebies put together (free colour TV — ₹750 crore; free bus pass for women — ₹1,250 crore; mid-day meals for children — ₹1,823 crore).

A fiscal federal setup

India adopts ‘cooperative federalism’ where the Union and State cooperate to legislate and frame policies in their respective domain. Constitution Benches of the Supreme Court have been consistent in their cautioning courts not to embark on policy matters. In R.K. Garg vs Union of India (1981-4SCC 675), and BALCO employees Union vs Union of India (2002 2 SCC 333), the Court held that laws relating to economic policies should be viewed with greater latitude and deference, and that the wisdom of economic policies is not subject to judicial review. In S. Subramaniam Balaji vs State of Tamilnadu (2013 9 SCC 659) while dismissing the challenge to the much discussed free gifts schemes (colour television, mixer grinder, laptops) of the T.N. government, the Court observed that the distribution of gifts relates to implementation of directive principles of state policy.

The abolition of the Planning Commission in 2014 led to the politicised Finance Commission to become the sole institution for fiscal devolution. This only increased the dependence of States on the Union when it came to fiscal matters, Thus, the committee recommended by the Supreme Court will further accelerate the existing mistrust States have with the Union.

Region-specific steps

Moreover, in a fiscal federal set up, States or the regions are expected to have autonomy. Social welfare measures (freebies) may differ from State to State or region to region. For example, in the desert regions of Rajasthan it could be free drinking water, in Kerala, it could be fiscal incentives to encourage corporates/entrepreneurs to boost industrial growth, and in T.N., educational/marriage assistance and a free bus pass to help girl empowerment. Thus, it is for the respective legislature/executive to formulate the social welfare measures for that region. By recommending a central committee, the Supreme Court seems to have considered India to be a single administrative unit facing the same set of issues without due consideration of socio-economic diversity. This step would not only be counter productive to the economic freedom of the States but also to the ‘Idea of India’ as a ‘Union of States’ — as highlighted in Article 1 of the Constitution of India.

Therefore, unless the notion that ‘incentives’ provided to the elites are ‘affirmative economic measures’ while the same when provided to the poor are ‘freebies’ is corrected in the minds of policymakers, adjudicators and elites (both are economic/social welfare interventions in different forms), this asymmetrical conflict will continue to exist.

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