1. After the referendum: The challenges of a power grab in Tunisia
What led to the political turmoil in Tunisia? Why did President Kais Saied bring in the new Constitution and what are its prominent features?
The Arab Spring protests began in Tunisia in December 2010, leading to the fall of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power since 1987. Ben Ali had to flee the country in the face of the mass uprising.
In the democratic elections, the Islamist Ennahda party, which has ideological links to the pan-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, emerged as a main political force in the country, which upset the secular sections.
As unrest was spreading, President Kais Saied moved in, sacking the Ennahda-backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechich and suspending Parliament, plunging the country into a Constitutional crisis.
The story so far: Tunisian voters have approved a new Constitution that would turn the country back into a presidential system, institutionalising the one-man reign of President Kais Saied, who suspended the elected Parliament and awarded more powers to himself last year. According to preliminary results, 94.6% voters backed the new Constitution in the referendum, which saw only 30% turnout. Most opposition parties, who called Mr. Saied’s power grab a coup, had boycotted the vote. While Mr. Saied has welcomed the result, his critics have warned that the new Constitution would erase whatever democratic gains Tunisia has made since the 2011 Arab Spring (Jasmine) revolution and push the country back into an authoritarian slide.
What happened to the Arab Spring?
Among the countries that saw popular protests bringing down dictatorships in 2011, Tunisia was the only one that witnessed a successful transition to democracy. The Arab Spring protests began in Tunisia in December 2010, leading to the fall of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power since 1987. Ben Ali had to flee the country in the face of the mass uprising. Quickly, protests spread to other Arab countries such as Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. While protesters brought down the 30-year-long dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the revolution did not last long in that country.
In 2013, the military seized power toppling the elected government of President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. In Libya, the protests against Mohammar Gaddhafi slipped into a civil war, which saw a military intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The NATO intervention toppled the Gaddhafi regime (the Libyan leader was later assassinated), but the country fell into chaos and anarchy, which continue to haunt it even today.
In Bahrain, the Shia majority country ruled by a Sunni monarchy, neighbouring Saudi Arabia sent troops to crush protests in Manama’s Pearl Square. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh had to relinquish power, but the country fell into a civil war, leading to the rise of the Shia Houthi rebels, who now control capital Sanah, and the subsequent Saudi attack on the impoverished country. In Syria, protests turned into a proxy civil war, with President Bashar al-Assad’s rivals backing his enemies, and his allies, including Hezbollah, Iran and Russia, backing the regime. President Assad seems to have won the civil war, for now. Tunisia was the only country that saw a peaceful transition to democracy, and with the new Constitution, it is witnessing another transition.
What led to the political crisis in Tunisia?
The 2014 Constitution put in place a mixed parliamentary and presidential system. Both the President and Parliament were directly elected by the voters. The President was to oversee the military and foreign affairs, while the Prime Minister, elected with the support of a majority of lawmakers, was in charge of the day-to-day affairs of governance.
In the democratic elections, the Islamist Ennahda party, which has ideological links to the pan-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement, emerged as a main political force in the country, which upset the secular sections. The polity remained fractious. The country had nine governments between 2011 and 2021. Its economy was already in a bad shape, and the COVID-19 crisis made it worse. Tunisia has one of the highest per capita COVID death rates in the world. Amid the mounting economic and healthcare crisis, protests broke out against the government in July last year. Protesters stormed the offices of the Ennahda, the ruling party.
As unrest was spreading, Mr. Saied moved in, sacking the Ennahda-backed Prime Minister Hichem Mechich and suspending Parliament, plunging the country into a constitutional crisis. Under the 2014 Constitution, such crises should be settled by a constitutional court, but the court had not been formed yet. This allowed the President a free hand to rule the country by decrees. He declared a state of emergency, appointed a Prime Minister to run the government, dissolved the suspended Parliament earlier this year while simultaneously moving to rewrite the Constitution, awarding himself more powers.
What are the key changes in the new Constitution?
In March 2021, less than two years after he won the presidential election, Mr. Saied had expressed concerns over the country’s post-revolutionary parliamentary system. According to him, the new Constitution would protect the values of the 2011 revolution — bread, freedom and dignity. While it leaves most of the personal freedoms guaranteed by the 2014 Constitution intact, the new charter seeks to take the country back to the presidential system, undercutting the powers of Parliament. The President will have ultimate authority to form a government, name Ministers (without Parliament’s approval), appoint judges and present legislation directly to the legislature. It would also make it practically impossible for the lawmakers to remove the President from office.
Over the past year, President Saied has sacked many judges, tightening his control over the judiciary, and taken over the country’s election body, the Supreme Independent Elections Commission (ISIE). Previously, the nine members of the ISIE were appointed by Parliament. Now, the President can directly appoint the members. He has left no doubt on how he is planning to rule the country.
The International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based advocacy, has said the new Constitution lacks essential checks on presidential powers and “would return Tunisia to an autocratic constitutional order.”
Has the revolution been undone?
If in Egypt the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s sudden move to Islamise the country created a momentum for the counter-revolution, which the military seized to grab power, in Tunisia, the Parliamentary system’s failure to address the country’s enormous problems set the stage for the presidential power grab.
The referendum is clearly a victory for Mr. Saied who could now claim legitimacy for his one-man rule. But the low turnout despite the regime’s high decibel propaganda and the boycott of the vote by most political parties that have substantial influence among the public show that Mr. Saied is still on a slippery slope. In comparison with other countries hit by Arab Spring protests, Tunisia managed well in its transition. But the continued political turmoil suggests that the country is yet to recover from the post-revolutionary chaos. With a battered economy and a fractured polity, Mr. Saied could find it difficult to mobilise power even with a new Constitution.
2. Wildlife amendments to ‘save entrepreneurs from harassment’
The move may decrease the burden on the judicial system
The Centre’s proposed amendments to decriminalise certain provisions of the Environment Protection Act (EPA), were to “save law abiding citizens/entrepreneurs from undue harassment in case of minor non-compliances,” Minister of State (Environment), Ashwini Choubey, informed Rajya Sabha, on Thursday, in response to a question.
In the absence of such a provision, several court cases are filed, that “increase the burden on the judicial system,” he noted.
Replacing a clause
Earlier this month, the Environment Ministry issued a notification proposing amendments to the Environment Protection Act (EPA), by replacing a clause that provides for imprisoning violators with one that only requires them to pay a fine. This however, did not apply to violations that caused grave injury or loss of life. The proposed fines, in lieu of imprisonment, are also up to 500 times greater than those currently levied.
Punishment for violators
Currently, the Act says that violators could be punished with five years imprisonment or a fine of up to ₹1 lakh, or with both. Were violations to continue, an additional fine of up to ₹5,000 would be levied every day. There is also a provision for jail terms to extend to seven years. Historically, however, no corporate offender has actually been imprisoned under the provisions of the Act.
The Environment Ministry said that it had received “suggestions” to decriminalise existing provisions of the EPA to weed out “fear of imprisonment for simple violations.”
An analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment found that Indian courts took between nine to 33 years to clear a backlog of cases for environmental violations.
Beginning 2018, close to 45,000 cases were pending for trial, and another 35,000 cases were added in that year.
More than 90 per cent cases were pending for trial in five of the seven environment laws.
“The provisions are proposed to be decriminalised with heavier penalties in order to encourage self-regulation in law abiding citizens and entrepreneurs on the one hand, and imposition of heavier penalties, coupled with provisions of IPC, 1860, to act as deterrent for violators on the other hand,” Mr. Choubey noted.
Environment (Protection) Act,1986
The EPA, 1986 establishes the framework for studying, planning, and implementing long-term requirements of environmental safety and laying down a system of speedy and adequate response to situations threatening the environment.’
- The roots of the enactment of the EPA lies in the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held at Stockholm in June,1972 (Stockholm Conference), in which India participated, to take appropriate steps for the improvement of the human environment.
- The Act implements the decisions made at the Stockholm Conference.
- Constitutional Provisions:
- The EPA Act was enacted under Article 253 of the Indian Constitution which provides for the enactment of legislation for giving effect to international agreements.
- Article 48A of the Constitution specifies that the State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and to safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country.
- Article 51A further provides that every citizen shall protect the environment.
- Powers of the Central Government:
- EPA empowers the Central Government to establish authorities charged with the mandate of preventing environmental pollution in all its forms and to tackle specific environmental problems that are peculiar to different parts of the country.
- EPA also empower the Government to:
- Plan and execute a nation-wide programme for the prevention, control and abatement of environmental pollution.
- Lay down standards for the quality of the environment in its various aspects like emission or discharge of environmental pollutants from various sources.
- The Central government as per the Act has the power to direct:
- The closure, prohibition or regulation of any industry, operation or process.
- The stoppage or regulation of the supply of electricity or water or any other service.
Current Status of Offences and Penalties under EPA
- Non-compliance or Contravention to any of the provisions of the Act is considered as an offence.
- Cognizance of Offences:
- No Court shall take cognizance of any offence under this Act except on a complaint made by:
- The Central Government or any authority on behalf of the former.
- A person who has approached the Courts after a 60-day notice has been furnished to the Central Government or the authority on its behalf.
- No Court shall take cognizance of any offence under this Act except on a complaint made by:
- In case of any non-compliance or contravention of the current provisions of the EPA, or of the rules under this Act, the violator can be punished with imprisonment up to 5 years or with a fine up to Rs 1,00,000, or with both.
- In case of continuation of such violation, an additional fine of up to Rs 5,000 for every day during which such contravention continues after the conviction for the first such contravention can be levied.
- If the violation continues beyond a period of one year after the date of conviction, the offender can be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to seven years.
- In case of any non-compliance or contravention of the current provisions of the EPA, or of the rules under this Act, the violator can be punished with imprisonment up to 5 years or with a fine up to Rs 1,00,000, or with both.
Other Initiatives to Protect Environment
- National River Conservation Programme
- Green India Mission
- National Afforestation Programme
- National Coastal Management Programme
- National Mission on Himalayan Studies under Climate Change Program
- International Conventions to which India is a Signatory:
- The Montreal Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Substances that deplete the Ozone Layer, 1987.
- Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, 1989.
- Rotterdam Convention, 1998.
- Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).
- UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 1992.
- Convention on Biological Diversity, 1992
- UN Convention to Combat Desertification, 1994
3. Govt. worried about teen pregnancies
Health Ministry says men’s participation will be encouraged in family planning programme
High teenage fertility in some areas remains a cause of concern in India even as the fertility rate has stabilised across the country, the Health Ministry said in its Family Planning Vision-2030 document released earlier this week.
It added that participation of men will be encouraged in the family planning programme and that lack of access to contraceptives had been identified as a priority challenge area.
“While multiple factors have been identified that explain low contraceptive use among married adolescents and young women, two most important factors are child marriage and teenage pregnancy. Over 118 districts reported high percentage of teenage pregnancies and are mostly concentrated in Bihar (19), West Bengal (15), Assam (13), Maharashtra (13), Jharkhand (10), Andhra Pradesh (7), and Tripura (4),’’ said the document.
Additionally, over 44% of the districts in India reported high percentage of women marrying before they reach the age of 18. These districts were in Bihar (17), West Bengal (8), Jharkhand (7), Assam (4), two each in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Coincidentally, these districts also experience low rates of modern contraceptive use.
Population in India
India is the second highest population in the world. The country’s population is expected to continue to grow until mid-century (due to population momentum), however, the population growth will decline substantially, said the document. India’s population has reached 136.3 crore (1.36 billion) and is expected to reach 147.9 crore (1.47 billion) by 2031 and further 152.2 crore (1.52 billion) by 2036, it added.
Also the adolescent population will reach 22.9 crore (229 million) by 2031 and further 22 crore (220 million) by 2036.
“The youth population in the age-group of 15-24 increased from 23.3 crore (233 million) in 2011 to 25.2 crore (252 million) in 2021 and will now decline to reach at 23.4 crore (234 million) in 2031 and further reach 22.9 crore (229 million) in 2036,’’ said the document.
The government said male contraceptive methods were largely limited to condoms. Male sterilisation was at 0.3%. “The vision also included a plan to use the private sector for providing modern contraceptives. Private sector contributes 45% share of pills and 40% share of condoms. For other reversible contraceptives like injectables, the share is 30% and 24% for IUCD,” said the report.
A priority area
The document notes that although there has been a steady decline in teenage childbearing, from 7.9% in the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) to 6.8% (in the NFHS-5), it remains a priority area that requires to be addressed, especially since India will continue to have one of the youngest populations in the world until 2030. It added that modern contraceptive use among married adolescents and young women, although increasing over time, has been rather low.
National Family Health Survey (NFHS)
- The Total Fertility Rate (TFR), has further declined from 2 to 2.0 at the national level between NFHS-4 and NFHS-5.
- There are only five states in India which are above replacement level of fertility of 2.1. These states are Bihar, Meghalaya, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Manipur.
- Bihar and Meghalaya have the highest fertility rates in the country, while Sikkim and Andaman and Nicobar Islands have the lowest.
- In rural areas, TFR has declined from 7 children per woman in 1992-93 to 2.1 children in 2019-21.
- The corresponding decline among women in urban areas was from 7 children in 1992-93 to 1.6 children in 2019-21.
- Muslims’ fertility rate has seen the sharpest decline among all religious communities over the past two decades.
- 3% of women surveyed got married before attaining the legal age of 18 years, down from 26.8% reported in NFHS-4.
The figure for underage marriage among men is 17.7% (NFHS-5) from 20.3%in NFHS-4.
- 3% women who are employed use a modern contraceptive method, compared with 53.4% women who are not employed.
- NFHS-5 shows an overall improvement in Sustainable Development Goals indicators in all States/Union Territories (UTs).
Various schemes for Family Planning Programme:
- New Contraceptive Choices: The current basket of choice has been expanded to include the new contraceptives viz. Injectable contraceptive, Centchroman and Progesterone Only Pills (POP).
- Redesigned Contraceptive Packaging: The packaging for Condoms, OCPs and ECPs has now been improved and redesigned so as to influence the demand for these commodities.
- Enhanced Compensation Scheme for Sterilization– The sterilization compensation scheme has been enhanced in 11 high focus states including Assam, Gujarat, Haryana.
- Promotion of IUCDs as a short & long term spacing method for example:Introduction of Cu IUCD-375 (5 years effectiveness) under the Family Planning Programme.
- Scheme for ensuring drop back services to sterilization clients.
- Appointment of dedicated RMNCH+A counselors at high case load facilities.
- Scheme for Home delivery of contraceptives by ASHAs at the doorstep of beneficiaries has been expanded to the entire country.
- Increasing male participation and promotion of ‘Non Scalpel Vasectomy’’.
- Unveiling of a New Family Planning Media Campaign: A 360 degree media campaign has been launched to generate awareness about family planning thereby increasing the demand for contraceptives.
Mission Parivar Vikas:
- The mission is being implemented in 146 high focus districts that house 44% of the country’s population, with the highest total fertility rates of 3 and more in the country.
- The high focus districts are in the seven states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Assam.
- The main objective is to bring down the Total Fertility Rate (TFR) to 2.1, which is when the population starts stabilizing, by the year 2025.
- It will improve access to contraceptives through delivering assured services, dovetailing with new promotional schemes.
modern Contraceptive Prevalence Rate (mCPR):
- It is the percentage of women of reproductive age who use (or whose partners use) a contraceptive method at a given point in time.
- Women ‘of reproductive age’ is usually defined as women aged 15 to 49, but sexually active adolescents under 15 should be included.
- Increase modern contraceptive prevalence rate from 7% to 45% by 2026 and 52% by 2030.
- Increase male methods of contraception use from 8% to 15.1% by 2026 and 16.4% by 2030.
- PRACHAR project in Bihar
- Yaari Dosti programme in Mumbai
- GEMS project in Goa.
Contraceptive services under the National Family Welfare Programme:
- Oral Contraceptive Pills (OCPs)
- Intra-Uterine Contraceptive Devices (IUCD)
- Female Sterilization(Minilap,Laparoscopic)
- Male Sterilization(Conventional,Non- Scalpel Vasectomy)
- Emergency Contraceptive Pill (ECP)
4. Editorial-1: A growing disengagement with Gandhi’s ideas
The lionising of Savarkar and the diminution of the Mahatma endanger the essence of India’s future
The June 2022 issue of Antim Jan, a magazine published by the Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti (GSDS), stood out for a reason. The issue was dominated by Vinayak Savarkar, a central figure in Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination trial. Savarkar was let off for lack of adequate corroborative evidence, but the Jivanlal Kapur Commission set up in the 1960s concluded: “All these facts taken together were destructive of any theory other than the conspiracy to murder by Savarkar and his group”. No further inquiries about Savarkar’s role were made as he was dead by then.
In an article in Antim Jan, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Vijay Goel, the vice-chairman of GSDS, tries to place Savarkar on the same footing as Mahatma Gandhi — “Savarkar’s place in history and stature in freedom struggle is no less than that of Gandhi.” The chairman of the GSDS is Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Prime Ministers have always chaired the GSDS ever since it was set up in 1984.
The point is not to express outrage but to recognise that people (beyond those who call themselves Gandhian), need to be concerned about this odious undertaking, which clearly has top official sanction. The lionising of Savarkar and the diminution of Gandhiji have implications in terms of the essence of India’s future.
Continual appreciation of Gandhiji’s assassin Godse by public representatives espousing Hindutva ideology has grown much louder in the past four years; at least two Members of Parliament from the ruling party are examples of this. Popular hatemongers abuse Gandhiji and praise Godse in the media without any fear of the consequences. This recrafting of our past is one of a piece, with Hindutva’s attempts to reshape the narrative on the Gujarat riots in 2002. The recent arrests of civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad and former Gujarat Director-General of Police R.B. Sreekumar, along with a scrubbing of textbooks to eliminate references to the violence of 2002, are a part of this effort. The control over new networks of communication (social media and television channels) and the older more formal ones (school textbooks, the Archaeological Survey of India and a majority of newspapers) facilitate this tampering with memory and knowledge.
The non-violence of Gandhiji was a powerful idea and a weapon, and not cowardice as Savarkar and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) caricatured it. In a prayer meeting in September 1947, Gandhiji invoked the epic, the Mahabharata, in ways starkly different from an invocation as a battle cry. He said; “It is said that in the Mahabharata period the Pandavas used to stay in this Purana Qila.” Just like the Pandavas, said Gandhiji, the Muslims “are under your protection, and under my protection”. His invocation of the Shanti Parva — part of the Mahabharata that involves a deep rumination on the futility of conflict after the war — has Bhishma teaching Yudhishtra the raj dharm of nurturing people, holding them together and practising non-violence.
In March 1931, while moving the Resolution on Fundamental Rights at the open session of the Congress in Karachi, Gandhiji emphasised religious tolerance and religious neutrality of the state. Gandhiji’s message was not about Hindu reform but of an interpretation of high ideals as the soul of Hinduism itself, putting it on a higher pedestal — not as something bound by an adversarial relationship to any Abrahamic faith or hostage to hate.
This was directly at odds with how M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS or Savarkar interpreted Hinduism. Golwalkar was explicit in his appreciation of the way Germany of the 1930s handled the “minorities problem”: the need to get them to “either merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race”. Shruti Kapila in Violent Fraternity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age (2021) recounts that Savarkar’s idea of the virile and masculine and his desire to claim India’s history and space, saw the nation as a battleground which makes violence the only desirable means to meet supremacist goals.
A discourse which seeks to diminish Gandhiji will have grievous consequences on the diversity among Indians, and all those who share the Indian dream because it offers them rights, liberation and space. If the nation is now only about one faith and a permanent line between two identities that Hindutva politics obsesses about (Hindu and Muslim) then the entire larger India project would be in jeopardy, even if that is not visible just yet. This was a framing Gandhiji opposed vehemently and paid for, with his life. Now, to take down Gandhiji and to cut out vital parts of India’s plural past from its memory so everything can then be framed to cast the Hindu as victim and the Muslim as the oppressor, will have implications.
Real world consequences
India’s education system will be immediately impacted by this twisted alt-history. The Indian education system, with all its drawbacks, has led to Indian students being able to compete at the highest levels globally. But what will be the status in another few years if social science is about skipping empires in India between the 12th century and the 17th century? Or the learning of ancient India is without its many cultures, religions and contradictions, on rich debates that still leave a mark? It will be akin to the Islamisation of Pakistani textbooks, with social studies becoming ‘Islamic studies’, and where vast and rich aspects of the subcontinent were left untaught. With over 60% of India younger than 26 years of age, ideas drilled down now will stay for the lifespan of this now young population. In short, for a long time.
But the more serious consequences of trying to arrange India’s reality as a nation in the Golwalkar-Savarkar framework concern the very nature of India itself. The Golwalkar-Savarkar framework is, by self-admission, rooted in a now discredited and failed idea of states in the European imagination of the 1930s. This can only widen social distances. Communal incidents are on the rise. Even the pandemic year saw 857 communal incidents, which was a 96% leap in incidents from 2019. India was never incident-free, but top leaders explicitly called for harmony and peace. Today, what we hear loudly instead is a complete silence from the top leader. The estrangement between Hindus and non-Hindus is sought to be widened by everyday acts, and differential treatment accorded by those in power to the place of religion in public life, whether it is namaz, hijab or acts by groups aligned with the ruling ideology or by ruling party leaders when nationalism is equated to Hinduism.
The majority of Indians remain subjugated and in need of assistance in order to bridge and make up for inequities and injustices that are products of history and also of the recent past. Even a constitution could not wish away structural rigidities sanctioned by scriptures. The attempt is to use Savarkar and push Islamophobia such that there is only one understanding of the ‘majority’. The axis of this subjugated majority in India is not a function of faith. The majority, or Bahujan, including Hindus, minorities, tribals and Dalits, comprise millions of the poor, the marginalised, the deprived and who are evaluated by several metrics. The attempt in the Hindutva world to cement them in a permanent box by faith is to not allow India’s real oppressed majority to form solidarities.
Data on economic inequality (on the socially deprived and the Sachar Committee Report on Muslims), have clearly established the extent of backwardness and oppression suffered by a majority of our countrymen and women. A push towards a worldview promoting deeply divisive ideas from the days of the two-nation theory ensures that real issues — that modern politics deals with and answers — are not posed at all. This means that there is a setback for not just Muslims but also India as a whole.
Weakening social justice
Taking away the soul of Gandhiji and replacing it with Savarkar has implications on the future of the most downtrodden — Dalits. There can be no justice to India’s most grievous victims over millennia if the misdeeds of the millennia are not acknowledged and a move made to “annihilate” the system that fostered egregious social and economic oppression. The systematic bid to make it ‘Hindu versus Muslim’ has a sinister subproject of burying the call for social justice which via electoral politics, has resulted in significant social change especially in north and western India.
Gandhiji’s glasses have been extricated to prop the Swachhta Abhiyan, as a call to cleanliness. But without his empowering and revolutionary companion call to battle untouchability in Hinduism, this is about burying Gandhiji’s real message. Amputating Gandhiji’s symbols of their substance has been underway for a few years. But with Savarkar on the cover of Antim Jan, we may have entered a darker stage of disengagement with Gandhiji’s ideas even as stated ideals.
5. Editorial-2: What numbers do not reveal about tiger conservation
India must not lose sight of the fact that there are other factors critical to ensuring the survival of this big cat
Extinction. This ominous word has one meaning. The death of a species. And it is a word that we seem to hear so often these days, especially in the news. But the opposite is possible. Today (July 29), which is Global Tiger Day (also called International Tiger Day), the world and India can celebrate the recovery of at least one endangered species. India is now reporting increased tiger numbers, and a recent International Union for Conservation of Nature assessment suggests that tiger numbers have increased by 40% since 2005. This is cause for celebration. But is the rise in tiger numbers enough to prevent their extinction?
Genetics and connectivity
Decades of research in ecology and evolution suggest that numbers are critical to avoid extinction. Populations that are smaller than 100 breeding individuals have a high probability of extinction. At the same time, for populations to persist, they should be part of larger landscapes with other such populations that are connected. Small and isolated populations face a high probability of extinction. This is because small populations are subject to chance/random events. These chance events may cause them to lose advantageous genetic variants, while other, detrimental genetic variants might increase in frequency. This process is called genetic drift. Also, individuals in small populations are more likely to be related, leading to inbreeding. This exposes the many slightly disadvantageous genetic variants that are present in all genomes. When expressed together, these detrimental genetic variants cause inbreeding depression, and reduced survival and reproduction of inbred individuals.
A closer look at the distribution of tigers across their range shows that most tiger ‘populations’ are smaller than 100. On their own, most tiger populations do not have a high chance of survival. So why are we not seeing extinctions happening more often? Is this because tiger populations are connected to each other? We know that most tiger reserves in India are small and embedded in human-dominated landscapes. So, does the landscape between tiger reserves (agricultural fields, reserve forests, built-up areas and roads) allow tigers to move through them?
One way to answer this question is to use movement data sourced from radio-collared tigers, often difficult to come by for a rare and endangered species. Alternatively, tigers can be genetically sampled using their excreta/scat, hair and other biological samples from different tiger reserves and analysed in a laboratory. Genetic variants in tiger DNA can be identified and analysed and compared across tiger reserves. Sets of tiger reserves that show shared genetic variation are well connected — the inference is that the intervening landscapes facilitate connectivity or movement.
On the flip side, sets of tiger reserves that share less genetic variation must have barriers or landscapes that impede movement and connectivity. For example, in our research we analysed tiger genetic samples in the central Indian tiger landscape and investigated genetic sharing between populations. Our results were surprising. Most land-use types were not too bad for tiger connectivity, including agricultural fields. However, the presence of built-up areas and high traffic roads greatly impeded tiger movement. Using this understanding of connectivity, we were able to simulate scenarios for the future where we asked (given specific land-use change in the next 100 years), how our tiger populations might be affected? Would there be more extinction in the future? Or would they stay connected?
Our results showed that extinction could be avoided if corridors were safeguarded. What was striking was that fencing tiger reserves and isolating them resulted in high extinction. We used these models to also predict the impact of impending development projects in central India — widening of certain highways, for instance, would make them barriers, thereby increasing extinction substantially. These results along with other studies were used in court to petition for (and win a mitigation measure) — having an underpass to allow wildlife movement and connectivity. In summary, as long as we manage landscapes outside tiger reserves to allow tiger movement, and protect prey and tigers inside tiger reserves, tigers are sure to survive in landscapes such as central India.
In Similipal and Rajasthan
But what about tiger populations that are already isolated? People have always wondered why black tigers were found only in the Similipal tiger reserve in Odisha. Our recent work on pseudo-melanistic or black tigers found in Odisha has demonstrated the genetic effects of isolation. Genome sequences of a litter of zoo tigers that included pseudo-melanistic cubs revealed that a single spelling mistake (or mutation) in a specific gene causes these tigers to look this way.
After we found the causal genetic variant, we travelled through Similipal and collected tiger excreta/scat. We looked for this specific genetic variant in tiger DNA and found that it was common only in Similipal, where 60% of the tigers carried at least one copy. Other analyses have suggested that the tigers in Similipal form a small and isolated population. All our results pointed to genetic drift, or random events that have lead to this genetic variant that causes pseudomelanistic coat colour becoming common only in Similipal.
On the other side of India, in Rajasthan, genome sequences from wild tigers reveal that individuals in the Ranthambore tiger reserve show inbreeding. While we do not see adverse effects of inbreeding as yet, individuals are related and carry potentially disadvantageous genetic variants, which might affect the survival and the reproduction of tigers in Ranthambore in future. In short, we are seeing the genetic effects of isolation and small population size in wild tigers at some locations.
Strategies for the future
While we celebrate the recovery of tiger populations only by looking at numbers, we must not lose sight of other factors that are critical to their continued survival, such as connectivity. Special attention is needed for populations that are becoming isolated and facing the genetic consequences of such isolation. The future of such populations may depend on genetic rescue or even the introduction of novel genetic variants. We are fortunate that novel genome sequencing technology provides an opportunity to understand tigers much better in the context of their conservation. The future of tigers will require a ‘dialogue’ between such data and management strategies in order to ensure their survival. India is lucky to have so many wild tigers and we must work together to save them.
6. Editorial-3: Narrow view
SC verdict on PMLA fails to protect personal liberty from draconian provisions
The Supreme Court’s verdict upholding all the controversial provisions of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) falls short of judicial standards of reviewing legislative action. Undergirding every aspect of its analysis is a belief that India’s commitment to the international community on strengthening the domestic legal framework for combating money-laundering is so inviolable that possible violation of fundamental rights can be downplayed. The judgment repeatedly invokes the “international commitment” behind Parliament’s enactment of the law to curb the menace of laundering of proceeds of crime which, it underscores, has transnational consequences such as adversely impacting financial systems and even the sovereignty of countries. There is, no doubt, widespread international concern over the malefic effects of organised crime fuelling international narcotics trade and terrorism. Much of these activities are funded by illicit money generated from crime, laundered to look legitimate and funnelled into the financial bloodstream of global and domestic economies. A stringent framework, with apposite departures from the routine standards of criminal procedure, may be justified in some circumstances. However, experience suggests that money-laundering in the Indian context is linked or is seen as a byproduct of a host of both grave and routine offences that are appended to the Act as a schedule. These ‘scheduled’ or ‘predicate’ offences ought to be ideally limited to grave offences such as terrorism, narcotics smuggling, corruption and serious forms of evasion of taxes and duties. However, in practice, the list contains offences such as fraud, forgery, cheating, kidnapping and even copyright and trademark infringements. The Enforcement Directorate has also been manifestly selective in opening money-laundering probes, rendering any citizen vulnerable to search, seizure, and arrest at the whim of the executive.
It is disappointing that the Court did not find the provision for forcing one summoned by the ED to disclose and submit documents, and then sign it under pain of prosecution, as violating the constitutional bar on testimonial compulsion. Nor was it impressed by the argument that the search and seizure provisions lack judicial oversight and are exclusively driven by ED officers. Provisions that allow prosecution for money-laundering even without the scheduled offence being established and amendments deleting safeguards have passed muster with the Bench, solely on the ground that these were for removing lacunae pointed out by international evaluators of the efficacy of the law. Save for an odd comment that the Special Court could examine the documents to decide on continuing detention, there is nothing in the judgment that will attenuate the law’s rigours. It rejects the plea to treat ED officers who record statements as police officers, thus protecting their evidentiary admissibility. At a time when the ED is selectively targeting regime opponents, the verdict is bound to be remembered for its failure to protect personal liberty from executive excess.
7. Edtioral-4: Is the Environmental Performance Index really faulty?
While the methodology has issues, this is an opportunity for India to study where it stands
Last month, India protested against its ranking on the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) of 2022, prepared by researchers at the Yale and Columbia Universities in the U.S. The report measures 40 performance indicators across 11 categories to measure the “state of sustainability around the world.” India was ranked last (180) with low scores across a range of indicators. The Indian Government as well as environment experts have pointed to the faulty methodology of the index that skews the results in favour of the Global North. Chandra Bhushan, Sharad Lele and Anant Sudarshan discuss the report in a conversation moderated by Sonikka Loganathan. Edited excerpts:
What are the issues with the methodology?
Chandra Bhushan: Rating by its very nature is a subjective exercise. But a good rating is one that tries to reduce subjectivity, normalises all indicators, and then develops consensus around the subjective issues. The first step is to remove subjectivity as much as possible. Every rating will end up comparing apples with oranges, if you don’t normalise the indicators. So, the second step is to normalise indicators. Third, if there is subjectivity, you get experts to generate consensus around it. All three have not been done.
But this was a peer-reviewed study…
CB: I’m not sure what kind of peer review was done because, if you look at the indicators, even a person with basic knowledge of ratings would tell you that the indicators have not been normalised.
Can you give us an example of where this lack of normalisation has impacted India’s rank in a category?
CB: EPI has used tree cover loss as an indicator to rate deforestation in a country. Eritrea is the best country [as per the ranking]. The total dense forest cover in Eritrea is only about 50 hectares, which is similar to forest cover in one part of Lutyens’ Delhi. How do you compare absolute tree cover loss of a country with 50 ha dense forest with, say, India with millions of ha of dense forest and a tree cover loss of 1 lakh ha?
Is a rating the right way to be measuring environmental progress? What do you think of the government’s response?
Sharad Lele: There is a difference between an index and a ranking. Indices have very limited value, even if you make them absolute, because they collapse the hugely complex issue of environment into one number. But relative ranking is useless. For example, you could have all countries between seven and nine out of 10. Some country will still end up at 180 because it is at 7.0 whereas others are 7.1 and above. What does that tell you about environment performance? Nothing.
Now the government, instead of responding and quibbling about details, could have used this occasion to call for a meeting of people within the country who follow these issues, to ask questions about where we are, and put out maybe our own performance index in a much more nuanced manner that tells us something about where we are with respect to, say, five or 10 years ago.
Anant Sudarshan: The EPI has a large data set with a huge amount of information on a whole range of indicators. This is more than just an exercise of coming up with one number— it’s a data collection exercise on a whole range of indicators. Certainly, it would be nice if something similar were produced by our Government. Nevertheless, if you look at every single one of the indicators you’ll find that India does quite badly on most. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to most environmentalists. The point of a rating like this is that it puts together a lot of data and it reminds us that things are not going well on a wide range of environmental outcomes in India.
CB: I also want us to understand how this rating was released and what message it gave out. Its message was: if you are big, if you are middle income or a poor country, if you are in Asia or Africa, you are bad environmentally. But if you are a rich country, you consume a lot, but your local environment is clean, you are the best in the world. I don’t think that’s right. If you want to solve environmental problems, consumption is what you attack. While recognising that India has problems, I am not willing to accept that the West is the paragon of environmental performance.
SL: Ideally, in an EPI, you would look at outcomes. But in reality, you have very limited data on actual outcomes, so you start using proxies like actions taken towards those outcomes. The main indicator of climate change performance is whether the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is increasing or decreasing. We all know it is increasing. The world is doing terribly on climate change. How do you allocate this global performance index on climate change, or this outcome variable, to different countries? You would see who are the biggest polluters, and, on a per capita basis, it’s the Global North. Similarly, if biodiversity is construed to be a global common good and if a country has wiped out its biodiversity, why should it be getting higher marks because it then added one more protected area?
Speaking of biodiversity, how is Brazil ranked much higher than India, despite deforestation in the Amazon rainforest?
SL: If you want to measure biodiversity performance, you would see how the biodiversity was last year and whether it has changed this year. Then you would ask whether there are flagship species that you could use as an indicator. Instead, the entire focus of the EPI is on habitat. With some combination of percentage and absolute values, you have the West doing well and South Asia doing badly. There’s a problem because habitat is being measured in terms of what percentage of the country is under protection. Brazil could be doing well because it’s a big country with a relatively low population density where a significant percentage is under protected area. But in a densely populated country like India, you are not going to be able to put a high proportion of area under strict protection.
India puts out the State of Forest report. But the definition of a forest is ever-changing, which is why India has seen an increase in forest cover, as per those reports. Can you contextualise this issue?
SL: You used the word forest cover. The EPI uses the word tree cover. Therein lies the story of how India itself is playing around with this issue. We have not asked why we care about forest cover. There are different answers to this, but if you focus on the carbon sequestration benefits of forests, you wouldn’t care whether it is palm or eucalyptus or a natural species which is endemic to India, because it’s all carbon. On the other hand, if you care about biodiversity, you would want to look at forests as an association of species which are part of this landscape and not just a random species planted for the sake of making the place look green. So, why we care about forest cover determines what we measure. To take another angle, if you are a local person who is dependent on forest for livelihood, you would prefer an open canopy forest, and may be trimming the trees to get firewood without cutting down the whole tree. In that case, you would see very little tree crown cover, which is what the Forest Survey of India measures through satellites. So, when the EPI looks at tree cover, they are falling into the same trap. Should they look at tree cover or should they look at forest cover, which means natural forests? In the Indian context, this matters because natural forest cover has gone down, while plantations have increased, revealing the fault lines in this issue.
One solution we’ve seen grow in popularity is tree planting. Is this actually effective?
CB: Planting trees has become like atoning your environmental sin. This is a very dangerous solution to the kind of environmental problems we have, because we are forgetting the role of different ecosystems.
AS: One thing that is dangerous is letting only the government define the metrics it will use to measure success without independent scientific scrutiny. In India we’ve had this massive increase in what is called forest cover, which is all driven by plantations, while natural forests are dropping. In this indicator, EPI is using tree cover loss from satellite data, so India is doing better on this than it should by some metrics. But at least it’s a data point that’s being independently collected and that’s similar across countries. The criticism of Brazil for tree cover loss and thepraise of the Indian government for “forest gain” are really two different things. One is the rainforest disappearing there and one is plantations being added here. That’s a place where an independent index helps, because if we can agree on the indicators, we can get an objective basis of measurement.
SL: There is a funny contradiction here. When it came to biodiversity, because you couldn’t measure the outcome very well, you put a lot of emphasis on process and said protected areas is the way to get to biodiversity conservation. When it comes to ecosystem services it is also well acknowledged that local community involvement and people’s rights is actually a better way to achieve sustainable enhancement of ecosystem services of all these areas. So how come there is no measure on how much you have decentralised rights over trees or forests, in local communities? If you took that as an indicator, we would be a real laggard in spite of having the Forest Rights Act of 2006.
India ranked 179 in air quality. How do we solve this?
AS: We have failed to control air pollution so far. This is where these indices are useful. It’s not useful to compare India with London, but you could compare India with other countries at the same income level and the same population density, and there are many countries that are doing better. Once we notice this, we can ask, why are we doing worse? A large part of it is regulation. Ultimately air pollution is the sort of problem that gets solved through economy-wide regulation.
CB: I agree that there is a regulatory problem with air pollution, but there is also a fundamental problem with the economy. No country has been able to solve air pollution without getting rid of biomass or solid fuel. India combusts around 2.2 billion tonnes of material, of which 1.6 billion tonnes are coal and biomass. Biomass is a problem of poverty and coal is the problem of energy access. The way India will reduce its air pollution is also the way it will solve its climate challenge. The reason why India will not be able to resolve a lot of its air pollution challenge is because of its energy mix. For example, tomorrow, if all the vehicles move to electric vehicles, we will be able to reduce air pollution, cumulatively, by 20%, but 80% of the problem will not be solved.
In preparation for the upcoming COP 27, what should India be doing, especially since we’ve seen an increased coal production target?
CB: The Russia-Ukraine crisis could have been an opportunity for all of us to start investing massively in renewable energy. But fossil fuel companies have used this short-term deficit in energy supply as an opportunity to open new fossil fuel establishments. In India, fossil fuel consumption is going to increase in the short term. If we are smart, we will try and peak coal as quickly as possible. That would be our roadmap.