9 July 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis
1) A case for extension: On rural jobs scheme-
GS 2- Welfare schemes for vulnerable sections of the population by the Centre and States and the performance of these schemes
- The finding that 8.4 lakh poor households have completed at least 80 days of the 100-day limit for work under the MGNREGS and 1.4 lakh among those have completed the full quota, should come as no surprise.
- These numbers are a fraction of the 4.6 crore households which have benefited from MGNREGS this year.
- The fact that many poor households have nearly completed their full quota of employment under the scheme in just the last two months (May-June 2020) is a reflection of the distress that has driven them to take recourse to it.
- With the COVID-19 pandemic and migrant labourers losing jobs in urban areas and returning to their rural homes to avoid destitution, the scheme has come as a huge relief to poor families.
- The government’s decision to extend it into the monsoon season has also benefited households.
- Data from this year show that in nearly two-thirds of the States, demand for MGNREGS work has doubled or even tripled in a number of districts compared to the previous year.
- Only in States where kharif crop was sown, the demand was relatively lower.
- But with some States resorting to their own shutdowns to curtail the spread of COVID-19, the prospects of a robust economic recovery that would benefit those engaged in casual labour and daily wage-labour remain dim(weak).
- The fairly good monsoon this season should help with providing for more agricultural jobs beyond the MGNREGS works as well.
- The surging rate of demand for work under the scheme suggests that it is time the government thought about extending the limit, at least on a State-by-State basis.
- The swell in agrarian employment in the monsoon season notwithstanding, the excess supply of labour owing to reverse migration from the cities could depress wages.
- This makes an extension of the limit of work days under the MGNREGS even more imperative(needful).
- Since its implementation over a decade ago, the scheme has acted as insurance for rural dwellers during crop failures and agrarian crises.
- But the Centre’s outlook towards it continues to limit it only as a “fall-back” option for the poor.
- Even before the COVID-19-induced crisis, a lack of demand and falling consumption among the poor were constraining the economy.
- The MGNREGS, if utilised as more than just an insurance scheme and as a vehicle for rural development, could potentially address that problem.
- The lessons from its successes and failures could be used for a more comprehensive job guarantee plan that covers urban India too.
- Besides alleviating(reducing) distress, this could also boost consumption and aid economic recovery.
An extension of the 100-day limit and comprehensive implementation of the scheme in rural areas can be the first step.
2) The pandemic is about eyes shut-
- The contagion spreads rapidly and all those affected by the epidemic are quarantined in an asylum.
- Lack of equitable delivery of food, inhospitable and unhygienic living conditions, police brutality and apathy(lack of care) of power structures lead to panic among the blind.
- They are on the brink of starvation(hunger).
DATA AND WORKER ANONYMITY:
- Consider for example, the case of blindness regarding the number of migrant workers.
- The government’s own data sources are inconsistent and are a massive underestimate.
- The office of the Chief Labour Commissioner stated that there are 26 lakh migrants while various estimates, including the Economic Survey, put this number above 8 crore people.
- The anonymity(unknown) of the workers has been reinforced as governments have not kept records of who they are and where they are working.
- This lack of accountability has given a free rein(contract) to the complex web of contractors and sub-contractors to exert various forms of exploitation.
- The migrant workers, like the characters in Blindness, have been rendered nameless in this unequal power gambit.
HUNGER AND DEATHS:
- Then, there is the blindness about hunger and deaths. On June 30, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced free food grains for National Food Security Act (NFSA) beneficiaries till November.
- While it is a welcome move, it yet again excludes those without ration cards.
- As per estimates of Meghana Mungikar, Jean Drèze, and Reetika Khera, roughly 10 crore eligible beneficiaries continue to be excluded under the NFSA .
- This is because the central government is still using 2011 Census data and hence underestimates NFSA coverage.
- Moreover, migrants and many self-employed workers do not have ration cards.
- At a time when the warehouses of the Food Corporation of India have 2.5 times the buffer stock norms, not universalising rations is inexplicable.
GRAVITY OF CRISIS:
- Two petitions concerning food and income support for migrants were summarily dismissed by the Supreme Court of India during lockdown.
- The Court finally took suo motu cognisance(by self) of the crisis after 20 senior lawyers wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India to intervene.
- The Solicitor General, Tushar Mehta, representing the Union of India, has submitted that there has been no death in the Shramik trains because of lack of water and food, and all deaths took place due to “earlier illnesses”.
- On May 15, Union Minister of Railways Piyush Goyal at Bennett University said, “We have gone through the entire three months without a single person starving.”
- In reality, there have been at least 850 non-COVID deaths due to an unplanned lockdown.
- Indian Railway Protection Force Service data show that there have been 80 deaths in Shramik trains alone between May 9 and May 27; most of these are due to starvation and financial distress.
- Numerous ground reports indicated the extent of hunger.
- As in Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) reports covering more than 34,000 workers, 50% had just one day of rations left and 64% had less than ₹100 when they reached out during the lockdown.
- In such light, the combination of falsehoods and measured silence by the governing institutions and the judiciary indicate that they have refused to see the gravity of the crisis.
MUSEUM OF MISERY:
- As rising cases of COVID-19 suggest, the lockdown did not curb(restrict) the spread of the virus. It was a unilateral decision taken, apparently, to buy time to create health-care facilities.
- However, the government’s hubris(excessive pride) backfired.
- The resilience and the perseverance of the migrants exerting their fundamental right to return pushed the government to respond this time.
- The SWAN report says: ‘While a part of the government’s slow response is due to the lack of empathy towards workers, a part is also the result of inefficiencies resulting from unilateral decision-making.
- Consequently, the government has created an archive of distress and a museum of misery.’
- The maze(uncertainity) of obfuscating(hiding) travel orders and the opacity surrounding train schedules was as if the migrants were made to play a cruel game of snakes and ladders.
- Even among them, most have had to pay for travel forms, pay bribes and face police brutality.
- The unlucky ones stayed back, some evicted from their rented spaces, waiting anxiously for their illusory chance to come.
- After continued hostility that workers were forced to endure(face), it is difficult to pin down the precise analytical reasons for the diverse expressions from migrants.
- Some have been resolute about returning immediately while some are unable to return home without earnings.
- Surveys cannot do full justice to understanding these amalgam(collection) of expressions and would at best create reductive categories.
- We definitely do not need piecemeal platitudes coming from the central government.
- We need many corrections such as stronger adherence to constitutional values, transparency and accountability from the government and the judiciary.
3) Green-lighting ecological decimation amidst a pandemic-
GS 3- Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment
- Few countries are witnessing such severe direct and indirect devastation on account of the COVID-19 pandemic as India.
- Yet, there is little attention on the roots of our vulnerability(weakness).
- Our challenge is hardly limited to escaping a virus with lockdowns and masks in the short term, and vaccination in the long term.
- It would be a mistake to approach the pandemic as a bolt from the blue(sudden event), or an aberration(exception) that will eventually pass for ‘normalcy’ to return.
- Our vulnerabilities lie in the absence of equitable access to food, healthcare and housing.
- Heart of global development models that sacrifice environmental resilience for limitless economic growth and wealth accumulation is indeed a huge concern.
VULNERABLE TO PANDEMIC OUTBREAKS:
- The 21st century has seen multiple lethal epidemics.
- Two were serious enough for the World Health Organization to designate as pandemics.
- The accelerating destruction of wild habitats, forests and diversified food systems for urbanisation, mining, and industry is a matter of concern.
- The pathogens which were once largely confined to animals and plants in the wild are now better positioned to infect humans.
- The expansion of monoculture cropping and livestock farming systems, coupled with dense human settlements dependent on narrow diets of global commodity crops and meat, are eliminating the biodiversity and distance barriers that lent resilience to the human species and domesticated plants and animals.
- A virulent pathogen can then trigger an epidemic that much more easily.
- As long as we do not address this march to unsustainability, we will remain vulnerable to pandemic outbreaks.
DRAWING THE WRONG LESSON:
- It is troubling then that our governments are drawing the opposite lesson from the COVID-19 challenge.
- Through the lockdown, ‘expert’ bodies of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) have considered, and in many cases cleared, multiple industrial, mining and infrastructure proposals in critical wildlife habitats, and life and livelihood-sustaining forests.
- These include the
A) Etalin Hydropower Project in the biodiversity-rich Dibang valley of Arunachal Pradesh;
B) a coal mine in Assam’s Dehing Patkai Elephant Reserve;
C) diamond mining in the Panna forested belt;
D) a coal mine to be operated by Adani Enterprises with a coal-fired power plant in Odisha’s Talabira forests;
E) a limestone mine in the Gir National Park;
F) and a geo-technical investigation in the Sharavathi Lion-Tailed Macaque Sanctuary in Karnataka.
- As the environment site Mongabay reported in May, authorities considered these projects via video-conferencing in contravention of environmental laws, and without all necessary documents or site inspections, in many cases spending just 10 minutes on a proposal.
DRAFT ENVIRONMENT IMPACT ASSESSMENT:
- No meaningful public consultation can take place amidst a pandemic and repeated lockdowns.
- Yet, ignoring petitions ranging from environmentalists to students groups, the MoEFCC pressed ahead with a June 30 deadline for feedback on its draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification.
- It took a Delhi High Court ruling to extend the deadline to August 11.
- As several groups have pointed out to the government, its draft will undermine environmental protection.
- As per the draft, starting a project before obtaining environmental approvals will no longer be a violation, and it can be regularised post-facto.
- Public hearings are riddled with problems and their content routinely ignored while awarding clearances, but they remain the only opportunity of voice for project-affected peoples and environmental and social experts.
- Instead of strengthening them, the notification proposes to exempt a wider range of projects from hearings, including those which authorities can arbitrarily designate as ‘strategic’.
- The draft even allows for a class of projects to secure clearance without putting out any information in the public domain.
VIOLATING ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS:
- Despite demands from environmentalists, the draft notification says virtually nothing on improving monitoring, and compliance with clearance conditions and safeguards.
- This when the lockdown period itself has seen a horrific gas leak in Visakhapatnam, and a blowout of an oil well in Baghjan.
- In both instances, incalculable damage was caused to human and non-human lives by violating environmental laws.
- Safeguarding the environment and front-line communities seems nowhere on the government’s agenda.
- Rather, its priorities are “unleashing coal”, as tweeted by the Coal Minister, and green clearances for “seamless economic growth”, as tweeted by the Environment Ministry in the lockdown weeks.
- The sum effect of all the above moves will be further environmental degradation.
- India already has an abysmal(poor) record of environmental destruction and development-induced displacement.
- The effects of these are overwhelmingly borne by Adivasi and other marginalised groups.
- Jharkhand’s Chief Minister, who has moved the Supreme Court against the auctions amidst a pandemic, is a rare political leader flagging some environmental and equity questions.
- More typical is the Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, whose retort to anyone raising environmental concerns over the past years is a sanguine ‘All is well’.
- It takes a steadfast(consistent) commitment to ecological illiteracy to argue that wanton(deliberate) environmental destruction will deliver never-ending, seamless growth.
- These giant leaps backward will not make us atmanirbhar (self-reliant).
- Rather, they will further endanger habitats and lives, and intensify our vulnerability to infectious diseases and related socio-economic shocks.