1. The Thoothukudi firing inquiry report
Why was the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission of Inquiry formed? What happened at the Sterlite Copper plant in 2018? Who all have been held responsible by the report? Will the present government take the necessary measures to bring the perpetrators to justice?
On October 18, the Tamil Nadu government tabled the final report of the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in the Assembly. The CoI was formed to inquire into the police firing that resulted in the killing of 13 people in May 2018 in Thoothukudi during the protests against the Sterlite Copper plant.
Contrary to the assertions by the then Tamil Nadu government, particularly of the police that the firing was done inevitably to control the violence started by the protesters, the CoI squarely placed the blame on the police and revenue officials by terming the firing as disproportionate and largely unprovoked.
Terming the incident, a “big black mark” on the State’s history, Mr. Stalin, while speaking in the Assembly on the report, said that the compensation to the families of the deceased will be increased by another ₹5 lakh.
Pon Vasanth B. A
The story so far:
On October 18, the Tamil Nadu government tabled the final report of the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan Commission of Inquiry (CoI) in the Assembly. The CoI was formed to inquire into the police firing that resulted in the killing of 13 people in May 2018 in Thoothukudi during the protests against the Sterlite Copper plant. Faulting the then Tamil Nadu government for the mishandling of the protest, the CoI recommended criminal and departmental action against those responsible.
What happened in 2018?
The Sterlite Copper plant, a unit of Vedanta Limited, was India’s largest copper smelter until its closure in 2018. It started its operation in 1997 inside the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu complex in Thoothukudi, 25 kilometres away from the ecologically sensitive Gulf of Mannar. Over the years, the plant faced numerous protests from those residing in nearby villages, environmentalists, and a few political parties due to concerns regarding pollution, including the degrading air and water quality as well as the negative impact on fishing. The protests intensified in early 2018 and continued daily in various forms like sit-ins, hunger strikes, public meetings etc. On May 22, 2018, thousands of protesters marched towards the district collector’s office demanding the immediate closure of the plant. Claiming that the situation went out of control and that the protesters resorted to violence, the police opened fire resulting in the killing of 12 persons, including two women. Another man was killed the next day.
What were the key findings of CoI?
The then All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in Tamil Nadu formed the Justice Aruna Jagadeesan CoI the next day of the incident with a mandate to inquire into the “causes and circumstances leading to the opening of fire resulting in death and injuries to persons on 22.05.2018 and subsequent events at Thoothukudi..”. Four years after its constitution, it has finally submitted the report to present Chief Minister M.K. Stalin on May 18, 2022.
Contrary to the assertions by the then Tamil Nadu government, particularly of the police that the firing was done inevitably to control the violence started by the protesters, the CoI squarely placed the blame on the police and revenue officials by terming the firing as disproportionate and largely unprovoked. The final report was sharply critical of the then Thoothukudi collector N. Venkatesh for failing to properly engage with the protesters.
On the day of the incident, the CoI observed that the police showed a lack of efficiency and planning in adopting crowd control measures to dissuade the protesters from reaching the Collectorate. The CoI said that “the shooting was unprovoked in as much as the harm that was sought to be averted was not more than the harm that would have been inflicted by not resorting to shooting.” Apart from the 13 deaths, at least 33 more people sustained gunshot injuries. Going into detail of each death, the CoI observed that, in almost all the deaths due to firing, the gunshot injuries were on the faces of the victims, indicating that the police did not resort to the practice of aiming below the waist. Similarly, the firing was largely on protesters who did not pose any direct threat to the police or were retreating from the scene.
The then Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami came in for sharp criticism for commenting that he got to know about the incident through television reports. The CoI, however, observed that the CM was receiving minute-to-minute updates from then Chief Secretary Girija Vaidyanathan, Director General of Police T.K. Rajendran and Intelligence Chief K. N. Sathiyamurthy.
What has the CoI recommended?
The CoI named as many as 17 police officers and held them “jointly and severally accountable.”
It recommended departmental action against Mr. Venkatesh, for“his style of functioning reminiscent of abdication of his responsibility.” It has also recommended an increase in the financial compensation to the family of the deceased to ₹50 lakh and ₹10 lakh to the injured.
How has the present Tamil Nadu government responded?
Terming the incident, a “big black mark” on the State’s history, Mr. Stalin, while speaking in the Assembly on the report, said that the compensation to the families of the deceased will be increased by another ₹5 lakh from the ₹20 lakh already disbursed.
He assured that those responsible would be brought to book. He said that departmental action has been initiated against the collector and senior police officers. An officer in the rank of Deputy Superintendent of Police and three constables have already been suspended.
2. What is Turkey’s latest ‘disinformation’ law?
What have been the various criticisms against the recently passed media law by the Erdogan government? Should journalists and online news outlets be concerned?
On October 14, Turkey’s parliament adopted the much-critiqued ‘disinformation law’ that accords jail terms of up to three years to social media users and journalists for spreading ‘disinformation’.
Critics, including the Venice Commission which is the advisory body to the Council of Europe on constitutional matters, have pointed to the unclear interpretation of certain crucial terminologies, especially ‘disinformation’.
Turkey already has an unimpressive record pertaining to press freedom. It ranks 149 out of 180 in the Press Freedom Index (2022).
The story so far:
On October 14, Turkey’s parliament adopted the much-critiqued ‘disinformation law’ that accords jail terms of up to three years to social media users and journalists for spreading ‘disinformation’. President Recep Erdogan’s ruling AK Party along with its nationalist ally MHP voted for the bill that has drawn concerns about potential curtailment of social media and journalistic freedom in the country.
What does the law entail?
Cumulatively known as ‘the disinformation law’, it comprises about 40 articles that would amend about 23 different laws. Of the 40, the most contentious is Article 29. It designates it an offence to publicly disseminate misleading information about the country’s internal and external security, public order and general well-being for the purpose of causing fear or panic among the populace. The Turkish government has argued that the law would combat cases where the internet is used to share illegal content under false names and where anonymous accounts slander and defame individuals of differing political thought, religion or ethnicity. The article introduces a jail term between one and three years for any violation with the extension of an additional half of the initially stipulated term if the actions are done in anonymity. To implement this law, social media platforms could now be asked to hand over user data to Turkish courts.
What are the concerns?
Critics, including the Venice Commission which is the advisory body to the Council of Europe on constitutional matters, have pointed to the unclear interpretation of certain crucial terminologies, especially ‘disinformation’. The legislation accords the responsibility of determining the same to prosecutors. Critics here argue that Turkey being a heavily polarised country and the courts having previously turned against journalists and other social-scientists does not lend a confident picture. For example, Writing for Brookings, Asli Aydintasbas, Visiting Fellow at the Center on the U.S. and Europe points to how watchdogs challenged the official government statistic for September inflation (83.45%). An independent watchdog, ENAG pegged it at 186%. Ms. Aydintasbas says that with the latest set of legislations, content of this kind might qualify as ‘disinformation’. The Commission also highlighted concerns on assertions about what should constitute disturbance to ‘public peace’. “Following the meeting with the authorities, what seems to be the most alarming is that a public protest may be considered in itself a disturbance of public peace,” it stated in its report. This also triggers questions on ‘dissemination’ of the alleged ‘disinformation’ especially when the boundaries between physical and online spaces are blurred. Thus, the legislation lacks clarity on how the entity shall be deemed guilty, that is, for sharing or manufacturing the information (especially in an offline space). It is for the above-mentioned reasons that a jail term appears to be a stretched penal provision.
Why are journalists concerned?
The law would now recognise news websites as part of mainstream media and they would thus have to comply with the same regulations as those for newspapers. This includes taking down reports when flagged by a regulatory authority and publishing a refutation on the same hyperlink. Turkey already has an unimpressive record pertaining to press freedom. It ranks 149 out of 180 in the Press Freedom Index (2022). Additionally, as per a report of the Journalists’ Union of Turkey, more than 270 journalists were put on trial last year, while 57 others were physically assaulted and 54 news websites and 1,355 articles were blocked.
3. GM mustard will be ready for cultivation in 3 crop seasons: IARI director
Ashok Kumar Singh says the environmental nod will lead to finding a science-based solution to the challenge of importing edible oils, and allow the development of more high-yielding hybrids
Welcoming the decision of the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) to provide environmental clearance for genetically modified mustard, Ashok Kumar Singh, director, Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI), said it will lead to finding a science-based solution for a major challenge — the import of edible oil. Dr. Singh said the clearance would also allow the development of more high-yielding hybrids in the sector.
Talking to The Hindu, Dr. Singh said the environmental release of GM mustard would provide an opportunity for mustard breeders to develop diverse and high-yielding hybrids. He added that there was no need to go for the clearance of the Environment Ministry as the hybrid was environmentally released by the GEAC. “In BT cotton too, a similar process was followed. Now the responsibility is on the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) for testing the hybrid. Now, the hybrid can be commercially cultivated after producing large quantity of its seeds. In this season, as there are not much seeds available, the available male line and female line of the hybrid have to be multiplied. In the second season, we have to go for large quantity of hybrid seed production by crossing female with male. In the third season, it will be available for commercial cultivation,” Dr. Singh said.
The ICAR has an established system to coordinate research projects, known as the All India Coordinated Research Project, in which scientists test the hybrid and varieties developed by different institutions. “Now, the GEAC has given environmental clearance for Dhara Mustard Hybrid (DMH -11). Therefore, this hybrid can now be tested in the all-India coordinated trial of AICRP for its yield advantage. If it is found for higher yielding, then it will be released for commercial cultivation,” Dr. Singh said explaining the next process.
The most important aspect of the technology, Dr. Singh said, was that it had used barnase and bar genes system for creating diverse parent and the chances of yield enhancement was more. The Environment Ministry had earlier sought studies on the impact of the genes on soil microbes. “This data was there in the application and the GEAC accepted the data,” Dr. Singh said.
Regarding the effect of GM mustard on honey bees and other pollinators, Dr. Singh said,“Barnase and bar genes are protein and honey is basically sugar without any protein content. So the question of honey being affected by this does not arise. These genes are safe.”
4. Editorial-1: The old but relevant script of the Cuban Missile crisis
“Tell me how it ends,” is the common refrain of generals and leaders when in the middle of a war. The Ukraine war is no exception. Neither President Volodymyr Zelensky or his western partners, nor his Russian adversary, President Vladimir Putin, can predict how the war will end.
Earlier assumptions have been upended — Russia’s short ‘special military operation’ to ‘de-Nazify and de-militarise’ Ukraine is already a nine-month-war, and likely to extend into 2023; trans-Atlantic North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) unity under U.S. leadership despite visible internal differences has not collapsed; Mr. Zelensky’s emergence as a wartime leader is surprising; and, poor Russian military planning and performance, a shock. For the present, Russia is too strong to lose and Ukraine, despite NATO support, too weak to win; so, the war grinds on with no ceasefire in sight.
Yet, there is one outcome that must be prevented — a breakdown of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 and a global conscience has sustained the nuclear taboo for over 75 years. None of the three principals in Ukraine would want the taboo breached. However, escalation creates its own dynamic.
Lessons from Cuba
It is time to revisit the sobering lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis (October 1962) that brought the world to the edge of nuclear Armageddon, as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. On October 16, 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy was informed that the U.S.S.R. was preparing to deploy medium and intermediate range nuclear missiles in Cuba. After deliberating with his core group of advisers, he rejected the idea of an invasion or a nuclear strike against Moscow, and on October 22, declared a naval ‘quarantine’ of Cuba. Simultaneously, he authorised his brother Robert Kennedy to open a back-channel with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.
The crisis defused on October 28; based on assurances conveyed through the back-channel, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev announced that Soviet nuclear missiles and aircraft would be withdrawn in view of U.S. assurances to respect Cuba’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. What was kept a secret by both leaders was the fact that reciprocally, the U.S. also agreed to withdraw the Jupiter nuclear missiles from Turkey.
Yet, there were plenty of unforeseen events. On October 27, a U.S. surveillance flight strayed over Cuban airspace and was targeted by Soviet air defence forces. Major Rudolf Anderson was shot down, the only casualty. This happened despite Kennedy having counselled desisting from provocative surveillance and Khrushchev not having authorised the engagement. Both sides kept the news under wraps till the crisis defused when Major Anderson’s sacrifice was recognised and honoured.
A day earlier, a Soviet nuclear armed submarine B-59 found itself trapped by U.S. depth charges, off Cuban waters. The U.S. was unaware that the submarine was nuclear armed and Captain Valentin Savitsky did not know that a quarantine was in operation. He decided to go down fighting but his decision to launch a nuclear bomb was vetoed by Capt. Vasily Arkhipov. The Soviets followed a two-person-authorisation-rule and unknown to Kennedy and Khrushchev, a potential Armageddon was averted.
The most shocking revelation emerged decades later when the U.S. learnt that unbeknownst to them, over 150 warheads for the FKR-1 Meteor missile, short range FROG missile, and gravity bombs were already present in in Cuba. These were intended for defence in case the U.S. launched a repeat of the 1961 failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Despite Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s opposition, Premier Khrushchev insisted on withdrawing these too, conscious that these could provide the spark for a future escalation.
The key lesson learnt was that the two nuclear superpowers should steer clear of any direct confrontation even as their rivalry played out in other regions, thereby keeping it below the nuclear threshold. Deterrence theorists called it ‘the stability-instability-paradox’. With their assured-second-strike-capability guaranteeing mutually-assured-destruction, both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R were obliged to limit the instability to proxy wars. Nuclear war games over decades remained unable to address the challenge of keeping a nuclear war limited once a nuclear weapon was introduced in battle.
Russia’s nuclear signalling
The Ukraine war is testing the old lessons of nuclear deterrence. Russia sees itself at war, not with non-nuclear Ukraine, but with a nuclear armed NATO. Mr. Putin has therefore engaged in repeated nuclear signalling — from being personally present in mid-February at large-scale exercises involving ‘strategic forces’, to placing nuclear forces on ‘special combat alert’ on February 27.
He raised the stakes again on September 21 when he ordered a ‘partial mobilisation’, announced referendums in the four regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, accused the West of engaging in nuclear blackmail and warned that Russia has ‘more modern weapons’ and ‘will certainly make use of all weapon systems available; this is not a bluff’. He cited U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as a precedent.
In recent days, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has spoken to his counterparts in a number of countries including Defence Minister Rajnath Singh that Ukraine may be preparing to use a ‘dirty bomb’. India’s response was that any use of such weapons would be against “the basic tenets of humanity”.
However, Russian nuclear use makes little operational sense. In 1945, Japan was on the verge of surrender and only the U.S. possessed nuclear weapons. Use of a tactical nuclear weapon will only strengthen Ukrainian national resolve; NATO response is unlikely to be nuclear but will be sharp. International political backlash would be significant and Mr. Putin may find himself increasingly isolated. Many countries in East and Central Asia could reconsider nuclear weapons as a security necessity.
Role for global diplomacy
During the next few weeks, the fighting in Ukraine will intensify, before winter sets in and the weather freezes military operations till spring. This raises the risks for escalation and miscalculations. Right now, the goal of a ceasefire seems too distant, though eminently desirable. The United Nations appears paralysed given the involvement of permanent members of the Security Council. Therefore, it is for other global leaders who have access and influence, to convince Mr. Putin that nuclear escalation would be a disastrous move.
Indonesia is the G-20 chair and President Joko Widodo will be hosting the summit meeting next month. India is the incoming chair; Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be attending the summit. Both Indonesia and India have refrained from condemning Russia, keeping communication channels open. In a bilateral meeting with Mr. Putin in Samarkand last month, Mr. Modi emphasised that “now is not the era of war”. In the run-up to the G-20 summit, Mr. Widodo and Mr. Modi are well placed to take a diplomatic initiative to persuade Mr. Putin to step away from the nuclear rhetoric. This means emphasising the deterrent role of nuclear weapons and not expanding it; to reiterating Russia’s official declaratory position that restricts nuclear use for “an existential threat”.
Such a statement would help reduce growing fears of escalation and may also provide a channel for communication and open the door for a dialogue that can lead to a ceasefire. The lessons of the Cuban Missile crisis remain valid 60 years later.
5. Editorial-2: The dismal case of slashing schemes and cutting funds
Over the past three years, over 50% of existing central government-sponsored schemes have been discontinued, subsumed, revamped or rationalised into other schemes. The impact has been varied across Ministries. For example, for the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, there are just three schemes now out of 19 schemes, i.e., Mission Shakti, Mission Vatsalya, Saksham Anganwadi and Poshan 2.0. Mission Shakti itself replaced 14 schemes which included the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ scheme.
In the case of the Ministry of Animal Husbandry and Dairy, just two schemes remain out of 12. Additionally, the Ministry has ended three schemes which include Dairying through Cooperatives, National Dairy Plan-II, etc. For the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, there are now three out of 20 (Krishonnati Yojana, Integrated Scheme on Agricultural Cooperatives and the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana), while there is little information on the National Project on Organic Farming or the National Agroforestry Policy. There may be some who believe that a reduction in government schemes is a notable achievement. But does this lead to better governance, through less government? Are we reducing the state to the bare bones?
For schemes that exist, there are challenges such as funding cuts, disbursement and utilisation of funds. As of June 2022, ₹1.2 lakh crore of funds meant for central government-sponsored schemes are with banks which earn interest income for the Centre.
The Nirbhaya fund (2013) with its focus on funding projects to improve the public safety of women in public spaces and encourage their participation in economic and social activities is an interesting case; ₹1,000 crore was allocated to the fund annually (2013-16), and remained largely unspent. As of FY21-22, approximately ₹6,214 crore was allocated to the fund since its launch, but only ₹4,138 crore was disbursed. Of this, just ₹2,922 crore was utilised; ₹660 crore was disbursed to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, but only ₹181 crore was utilised as of July 2021. Yet, a variety of women-focused development schemes across States are being turned down or ended. Meanwhile, women continue to face significant risks while in public spaces.
Farmers have not been spared either with fertilizer subsidies having been in decline over the last few years; actual government spending on fertilizers in FY20-21 reached ₹1,27,921 crore. In the FY21-22 Budget, the allocation was ₹79,529 crore (later revised to ₹1,40,122 crore amidst the COVID-19 pandemic). In the FY22-23 Budget, the allocation was ₹1,05,222 crore. Allocation for NPK fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) was 35% lower than revised estimates in FY21-22. Such budgetary cuts, when fertilizer prices have risen sharply after the Ukraine war, have led to fertilizer shortages and farmer anguish. How will we incentivise farmers to continue agricultural operations?
It is the same story with the rural poor. The allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) went down by approximately 25% in the FY22-23 Budget earlier this year, with the allocated budget at ₹73,000 crore when compared to the FY21-22 revised estimates of ₹98,000 crore. The Economic Survey 2022-23 has highlighted that demand for the scheme was higher than pre-pandemic levels as rural distress continues. Anecdotal cases show that actual funding disbursal for MGNREGA has often been delayed, leading to a decline in confidence in the scheme. The Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan (June 2020, for a period of 125 days) sought to provide immediate employment and livelihood opportunities to the rural poor; approximately 50.78 crore person days of employment were provided at an expenditure of approximately ₹39,293 crore (against an announced budget of ₹50,000 crore, Ministry for Rural Development). One must also note that the scheme subsumed 15 other schemes. With between 60 million to 100 million migrant workers who seek informal jobs, such a scheme should have been expanded.
In health care too
Now to health-care workers. For Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), who are the first responders, there have been delays in salaries for up to six months. Regularisation of their jobs continues to be a struggle, with wages and honorariums stuck at minimum levels.
There is one more example. Biodiversity has also been ignored. Funding for wildlife habitat development under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has declined: from ₹165 crore ( FY18-19), to ₹124.5 crore (FY19-20), to ₹87.6 crore (FY20-21). Allocations for Project Tiger have been slashed — ₹323 crore ( FY18-19) to ₹194.5 crore ( FY20-21). A pertinent question is about meeting climate change obligations in the face of funding cuts.
Rather than downsizing government schemes and cutting funding, one should right size the government. After the Goods and Services Tax reform, the Centre-State relationship has been transformed, with fiscal firepower skewed towards the Centre. Our public services require more doctors, teachers, engineers and fewer data entry clerks. We need to build capacity for an efficient civil service to meet today’s challenges, i.e., providing a corruption-free welfare system, running a modern economy and providing better public goods. Rather than having a target of fewer government schemes, we should raise our aspirations towards better public service delivery.