1) Ticket to ride-
More than a month after the national lockdown was imposed, migrant labourers across the country are beginning to board the Shramik Special trains to return to their homes. The decision to allow special trains to ensure their safe passage home is indeed welcome.
But asking the migrants, many of whom have lost their jobs and don’t have the cushion(liberty) to stay on in the city, to bear the cost of their evacuation(return) during this period of acute(severe) financial distress is both unfair and short-sighted.
STATE GOVERNMENTS MUST BEAR THE COSTS:
Both the Centre and state governments have repeatedly stressed on the need to alleviate(reduce) the distress of the labourers. Yet they also vacillate(waver between different opinions or actions) over who will bear the cost.
This indecision could — and should — have been avoided. Fears that “free” rides might be taken advantage of are misplaced as only those who are desperate are travelling in these times and there is strict screening and vetting(make a careful and critical examination) of passenger lists. A ticket should neither be seen as a charity nor freebie, the state governments must bear the costs.
LURE OF HOME:
The migrant labourers’ decision to go back home was, in crucial senses, imposed on them by factors beyond their control. With revenue plummeting(going down) during the national lockdown, cash-strapped businesses, especially the small and medium enterprises in the informal sector, are unable to pay wages.
For daily wage earners with non-existent safety nets, a sudden drop in incomes can push them back into poverty. And this further prods(pushes) them to seek the security of their homes. There is also the pull factor. With India’s villages relatively spared the debilitating(worsening) effects of the coronavirus — the virus hotspots are largely concentrated in urban centres — there is an added safety in villages for this section of the labour force with limited access to health services.
Thus, in the absence of a social security architecture that provides relief for loss of incomes, and ensures access to health services, the lure(attraction) of home is entirely understandable and predictable.
QUESTION MARK OVER RE-ENTRY:
At the same time, it is also true that the unplanned and forced exit of the migrant workforce puts a question mark over its re-entry, so necessary for the wheels of the urban, industrial economy to keep turning.
Migrants are likely to re-enter the city only if their safe exit from it is assured, and in the absence of such guarantees, they may even fall off the labour map — they may be constrained(severely restricted in scope, extent, or activity) to opt out of the urban labour force. How this reverse migration plays out will be visible only when economic activity gathers momentum.
For now, there is a strong economic argument, therefore, for state governments to bear the costs of their exit — in order to facilitate their re-entry and help them reach a safer place. The costs incurred now are not only for alleviating(reducing) the humanitarian distress of those most vulnerable in a public health emergency, they are a crucial investment in a shared economic future.
2) Grim reminder-
The encounter in Kashmir in which five security personnel, including a colonel, a major, a J&K police officer, and two soldiers, were killed by militants, is a disturbing reminder in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic of the Valley’s unresolved crisis.
Last August, when the government stripped(taken away) J&K of its special status and bifurcated(divided) it into two Union Territories, an impression was created that all problems of Kashmir had been resolved, and the way cleared for J&K’s march towards peace and prosperity.
BRACING FOR MORE BLOOD:
In fact, in the nine months since August 2019, Kashmir has been under two kinds of lockdown.
The first one, imposed on August 3, in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370. The second, imposed to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. But militant groups in the Valley have not vanished(disappeared). Security forces killed 45 militants from August 2019 to March 2020.
More than 200 others remain active. In recent months, some of the spike(increase) in shelling across the Line of Control has been attributed to attempts at cross-border infiltration(act of invading). As the snow melts, there are likely to be more such attempts.
THE RESISTANCE FRONT:
A new group — The Resistance Front — has begun taking responsibility for attacks in the Valley. The incident in Keran, in which five elite commandos of Para 4 were killed in hand to hand combat, and Saturday’s incident in Handwara, have been claimed by this new group.
Security agencies believe it to be a front of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which has gained notoriety internationally and has also been under some pressure due to the monitoring of Pakistan-based terror groups by the Financial Action Task Force.
(The Financial Action Task Force is an intergovernmental organization founded in 1989 on the initiative of the G7 to develop policies to combat money laundering. In 2001, its mandate was expanded to include terrorism financing. FATF has issued global, binding standards to prevent the misuse of virtual assets for money laundering and terrorist financing. The standards ensure that virtual assets are treated fairly, applying the same safeguards as the financial sector)
TWO THINGS SHOULD WORRY SECURITY AGENCIES AND THE GOVERNMENT:
One, there are no rival claimants(one who claims) for such attacks as there would be in the past when a new group made a claim — it may indicate that groups are now co-operating with each other. Even those eager to announce themselves at every opportunity, al Qaeda-linked Ansar Ghazwat ul Hind, and the IS, are silent.
Two, in Handwara as in Keran, local youth were among the militants.
The double lockdown, and the complete absence of a political process, and the new definitions for who is eligible for domicile(residence) in J&K — seen as an attempt to change the demography of the Valley — have not won the government any friends among the people.
Even the new J&K Apni Party has retreated(withdraw) into silence. Handwara should be a wake-up call to the government that it cannot continue to muddle(mix up) through the Valley with the bureaucracy propping up the August 5, 2019 decisions on one side and the security forces on the other.
Handwara encounter is a wake-up call — there is no room for complacency(self-satisfaction), or let-up in addressing unresolved crisis in J&K.
3) Diplomacy in a virtual world-
Not many in Delhi’s political, bureaucratic, and chattering classes will be able to find a nation called Saint Vincent and Grenadines on a large world map.
Beyond cricket, island nations like Dominica, St Lucia, and Saint Vincent and Grenadines rarely feature on India’s diplomatic radar(reach). They are sovereign states and members of the UN. Some of them are part of institutions like the Commonwealth. All of them are in important regional organisations in the Caribbean and Latin America.
EAM Jaishankar was on line with all three small nation formed by many islands last week, as part of a comprehensive global outreach.
TURNING ADVERSITY INTO AN OPPORTUNITY:
When travel across borders came to a grinding halt a few weeks ago, it seemed the foreign offices would be out of business. For much of their work is about engaging other governments. Being in the same room with counterparts in different corners of the world was essential. At least until now.
The South Block is turning this adversity into an opportunity — to conduct a lot of routine diplomatic engagement online. The Foreign Office is merely following other professions that are adapting to restrictions on travel across borders and within them by the corona crisis.
Diplomacy is another profession that requires facetime for both formal and seemingly informal work.
Negotiations or consultations of any kind required sitting across a table. Diplomats also work in less formal settings — say signalling a nuance in a quiet corridor conversation. They also assess the political mood in the host capital over drinks and dinner with local leaders.
Remember the old quip(joke) about diplomacy being a mix of protocol and alcohol. Official meetings involve a lot of detailed agreements on form and structure. And it is easier to discuss complicated issues in a pleasant setting.
TAKING THE LEAD:
Delhi took the lead in getting the South Asian leaders to meet through video to explore cooperation in combating the corona crisis. Delhi also pressed for a G-20 video meeting. Since then the UNSC, EU and NATO have all conferred through video. And the NAM summit began on Monday.
Besides the conversations with foreign leaders, senior officials of the South Block are engaging foreign embassies in Delhi through video. Diplomatic missions in Delhi have long complained that they barely get access to the MEA.
The Indian missions abroad have the same problem — of the GoI’s silence on responding to queries from foreign governments. Delhi is trying to make amends(changes) with the new medium. The EAM has begun regular engagement with ambassadors in various regions and sub-regions in recent days.
RESISTANCE AGAINST VIRTUAL DIPLOMACY:
PM Modi had set the tone by reaching out to the heads of missions on the questions of safety and security of Indians abroad. Union Minister Piyush Goyal has followed through by interacting with commercial officers at the Indian embassies. Hopefully, other ministers and senior officials will make interaction with the embassies a regular affair.
To be sure, there is some resistance across the world’s foreign offices against virtual diplomacy. There are some real difficulties, technical and substantive, that will have to be overcome. When the first cable reached London in the mid 19th century, the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, was supposed to have moaned(low sound expressing physical or mental suffering) that telegrams will kill diplomacy.
VIRTUAL BILATERAL SUMMITS:
Foreign offices, however, have learnt to work with new technologies, whether it was the trans-oceanic cable or the internet. As COVID-19 changes the world of diplomacy, South Block is getting ahead of the curve. What about bilateral summits? Could they be done online?
(A submarine communications cable is a cable laid on the sea bed between land-based stations to carry telecommunication signals across stretches of ocean and sea)
India and Australia: There is speculation that PM Modi could conduct a virtual summit with Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The Australian leader had cancelled his visit to Delhi earlier this year because of forest fires at home. It should not be impossible for Modi and Morrison to sign a joint statement, finalised by officials, at the end of video conversation. We could have the two leaders take a few questions from the press. Morrison could address business leaders in Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai via Zoom.
What about the Australian first lady, Jennifer Morrison? It will be good to have Mrs Morrison, a former nurse, interact with Indian health workers on the frontline of the corona crisis.
Much of MEA’s energy goes into organising visits, but the follow-up has always been hard. Virtual diplomacy makes high-level engagement less burdensome. Involving the whole government should make the implementation of summit-level decisions a bit easier.
An India that reboots(restarts) after the lockdown could do with all the diplomatic efficiencies it can generate.