Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Not entirely a picture of health

Narendra Modi must be feeling pleased with himself. In addition to being the Prime Minister of the country, he has now become the lead yoga practitioner of the nation. There is something corny about having the PM lead a mass exercise event, but Modi is not your average politician. Behind the move, no doubt, is some thought and calculation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi leads a mass yoga session on International Yoga Day at Rajpath, New Delhi on Sunday. Pic/PTI 

India is making no bones about taking ownership of the yoga brand. There is nothing wrong with that. If the French can doggedly insist that they “own” champagne, we can certainly do that for this ancient form of meditation and exercise. The Modi government is seeking to kill two birds with one stone on this. First, to use yoga as a vehicle for India’s soft power in the world, and second as a mobilisational platform within the country around an issue which seeks to transcend barriers of caste and creed. This is something that Modi has been doing as a politician, witness his call for Swachh Bharat or for building toilets across the country.

In all this, traditionalists may complain that yoga is losing its essence, since its meditative aspects are very personal and do not quite easily lend themselves to “soviet” kind of drills that we witnessed on the Rajpath on Sunday. But then, in the years that India did not claim any kind of ownership, yoga has already developed various strains building from the traditional ones like hatha yoga, ashtanga yoga, kundalini yoga and so on and leading to modern teachers like Iyengar, Bikram or Bharat yoga.
Modi’s move to take international ownership of yoga has been carefully thought through. It was articulated in his first speech to the UN General Assembly as Prime Minister in September 2014, calling for the UN to adopt an international yoga day. As part of this, India’s permanent representative at the UN introduced a draft resolution at the UN General Assembly in December. The draft was supported by 177 Member states, and 175 of them co-sponsored the resolution which was adopted and the UN declared June 21, the summer solstice, as the International Yoga Day.
So, not surprisingly, there were reports of yoga day observance from around the world. Millions of people participated, from places as diverse as the iconic Times Square in New York to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the Eiffel Tower in France. There were observances in Kazakhstan, China, South Korea, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, to name but a few of the cities. Yoga could well emerge as the focal point of an Indian effort to promote its culture through government-sponsored institutes much in the way the French, Americans or the Chinese seek to do so around the world.
All this said, there is also need for a reality check back home. Promoting yoga cannot be a substitute for action on the ground on issues that affect the health of the people. This is a country with many people who have really serious health issues and who are wracked by malnutrition. Yoga cannot help, and there is need for caution against inflated claims that it can cure this disease or that ailment.
A perspective on the real health challenges in the country is provided by the India Country Report on Millenium Development Goals brought out by the government of India. Its own assessment is that the country’s target in halving the proportion of people who suffer from hunger and in improving maternal health is in the “slow or off-track” category.
An uncomfortably high some 20 per cent of our billion plus population - come within the official count of poverty. The proportion of underweight children remains around 33 per cent and India has failed to meet the goal of reducing the proportion from 52 per cent to 25 percent between 1990 and 2015. Likewise infant mortality remains at a high figure of 39 deaths per 1000 live births, missing the 2015 target of 27. Associated with this is the maternal mortality ratio which should be 109 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015, but it is actually 140. Whether it is malaria or tuberculosis or other diseases, India’s figures continue to be uncomfortably high.
For good health, there is also need to look at some other issues as well. First, is the provision of safe drinking water. While the government claims that 87.88 per cent of households had access to “improved source” drinking water, this does not quite mean that this water is either safe or potable. There is, of course, another area and this has been a focus of Prime Minister Modi’s attention access to latrine facilities. Even today nearly half the households in the country do not have proper sanitation facilities.
So, it is important to look at Prime Minister Modi’s yoga initiative in the perspective of the massive challenge of eliminating hunger and poor health that afflicts large numbers of our citizens. Before we can have the luxury of taking the high road to good physical and mental health with yoga practice, we need to gird ourselves towards some basic issues that relate to good health. At the same time, of course, we should not decry efforts, such as the one that took place on Sunday to promote sound health practices and at the same time make Indians proud of their cultural heritage.
Mid Day June 23, 2015

India's lack of respect for liberty could pave the way to another Emergency

Allusions are not new in politics.In 1975 - the year of our own Emergency - Chairman Mao’s views of the Water Margin, a Song dynasty (960-1279 AD) novel, were used to corner Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. 
Compared to that, L.K. Advani’s interview criticising the Emergency - his lament that “forces that can crush democracy are stronger” today, and that he is not confident that it could not happen again - are more banal, if not obvious.

 The Emergency could recur again here in India because the ruling elite seems to lack any passion for protecting civil liberties 

Not different 
The India of today is not the India of 1975. But in some important ways, it is not all that different either. There are important gains, in that our polity has become more inclusive and representative. 
Institutions like the Election Commission have become stronger, as, to an extent, has the higher judiciary. The media is totally transformed, but, only the brave will say that it has become the bedrock of our democracy. 
Fewer still will argue that our political culture is more ethical and mature. 
Neither will anyone stand up for our bureaucracy and say that it has become more upright and competent. 
Significant civil society institutions have emerged, but they are dangerously dependent on foreign funding. 
Can the Emergency recur again? 
The matrix of the elements outlined above could possibly provide an answer. Take the media first. Advani’s most memorable quote: “You were asked only to bend, but you crawled” holds good today, as much as it did in 1975. Through the UPA regime, it was manifested in the absence of criticism of Sonia Gandhi, and now it is in the free ride that Narendra Modi gets. 
You are free to kick a Manmohan Singh or a Sushma Swaraj, but woe betide you should you take on the supremo - and the media knows this well. 
There is nothing in the media today to suggest that it has the depth or the resilience to face up to an authoritarian challenge.

Old IPC 
Governments continue to use the legal system to muzzle the media. 
The 155-year old Indian Penal Code is a convenient handle to ban books or get them pulped, as happened to Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus.
TV channels get taken off the air for allegedly screening obscene material or politically incorrect maps; a documentary on rape is prevented from airing on the bizzare grounds that it will promote violence against women. 
None of this has been done through judicial due process, but through the decisions of bureaucrats and ministers. 

The end of the Emergency only came because of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 'blunder' in calling for an election in January 1977. Here she is pictured with son Rajiv (left)
The end of the Emergency only came because of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s 'blunder' in calling for an election in January 1977. Here she is pictured with son Rajiv (left)

Modern laws can be, if anything, more draconian. 
Fortunately, this year the Supreme Court has struck down the obnoxious Section 66 A of the IT Act which sought jail terms of up to three years for posts and messages that were “grossly offensive or menacing” or causing “annoyance or inconvenience”. 
India regularly tops the list of countries that request the removal of allegedly contentious material in sites like Facebook.
Another aspect of this is the attack on NGOs and their foreign funding. 
Instead of prosecuting outfits that are breaking the law, the government is taking recourse to executive decisions to throttle these institutions which have played a significant role in evolving the Indian civil society.

The real danger to democracy in India comes from the fact that its ruling elite - especially its politicians and bureaucrats - lack any passion for civil rights and liberties. 
Indeed, their mind works in the opposite direction, seeking at all times to control and manipulate.
This is a result of the stunted intellectual culture of the country which has prevented India from achieving its true potential. 
Despite 68 years of freedom, our political parties and bureaucrats have not developed any special commitment to a governance regime that gives salience to the civil rights and liberties of the people. 
Arbitrary rule, injustice, torture and deprivation remains the lot of the majority of the country. 

No hesitation 
Were there to be circumstances in which a regime felt that it was under siege, it may not hesitate in taking to the authoritarian path because it will find a compliant bureaucracy and police force to assist it. 
This time around, the process could well be incremental, in the manner of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
The Emergency of 1975 does not give us any cheer here. 
There was little or no fight against the Emergency. Most leaders, with microscopic exceptions, went tamely to jail and stayed there.By 1976, opposition had been virtually reduced to zero. 
With the political Opposition in jail, the media, judiciary and bureaucracy fell in line. It was only the hubris of Sanjay Gandhi and his forced sterilisation campaign that allowed some opposition to the Emergency to coalesce. 
But its end came because of Mrs Gandhi’s “blunder” in calling for an election in January 1977. 

Love thy neighbour

There is something unique about Prime Minister Modi’s Bangladesh visit. Of all of India’s South Asian neighbours, Bangladesh is one which is almost completely “India-locked.” Of its 4,413-km land boundary, just 271 km is with Myanmar, the remaining 4,142 with India.  

Of course, Bangladesh was part of India till its partition in 1947 and the cultural connections between Bengalis on both sides of the border run deep, considering that they share the same language and celebrate the same literature. This was also the nation that India midwifed in 1971.

 Actually India and Bangladesh are locked into each other and this awareness is what is driving the positive trend in our ties today. The relations have had its ups and downs. Bangladesh, itself has had its ups and downs. Yet in 2015, we have a different country from the one that was once described as a “basket case”. In many social indicators today, Bangladesh is ahead of India and given its geographical location, it holds the key to the development of all of eastern India.
The immediate objective of Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Dhaka is to overcome legacy issues that still bedevil our relations as well as to lay the foundations for an era of closer economic integration between Bangladesh and India. First among these is the boundary agreement through which the two countries will iron out the minor enclaves that both sides hold across the border and which are a major source of problems between them. The second is to overcome the problems that have prevented a water sharing pact on the Teesta river. In 2011, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee torpedoed the Manmohan Singh government’s effort to strike a deal on the issue. This time she coincided her visit to Dhaka with Prime Minister Modi’s and was received as a VIP.
There was no outcome on Teesta, but the discussions and atmospherics will go a long way in getting a balanced settlement. By getting Mamata Banerjee to participate in the discussions, Modi has set an important and far reaching precedent to involve the states of the Union on foreign policy matters that have a direct connect with them. India is a huge and varied country, but our constitution ignores the importance of Indian states in foreign affairs. Thus Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur have little say in foreign affairs issues that affect them. While states like Tamil Nadu use domestic politics to skew Indian foreign policies.

Bangladesh, a country of 166 million people is hugely important to India. If India surrounds Bangladesh, the latter effectively splits eastern India and separates the north-east from the rest of the country. The Siliguri corridor, anywhere between 14-33 km at its narrower parts, that links West Bengal to Assam, is perhaps the strategically most important geographical vulnerability of India, since its northern part also contains the Chumbi Valley, which is a part of China. Given the nature of the India-Bangladesh border, it can never be completely sealed and hence the goodwill and cooperation of the Bangladesh government is vital in matters relating to India’s security. We know the value of this cooperation in the tenure of Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister, precisely because we also know how India was negatively affected in the tenures of Khaleda Zia between 1991-1996 and 2001-2006.
The advantages for India are many. As of now, north-eastern states have to go around the Siliguri corridor to reach the sea port of Kolkata. The distance between Agartala and Kolkata is over 1,600 km, whereas it is just 100 km from Chittagong in Bangladesh. Not only would Bangladesh gain from the better utilisation of its ports and transport facilities, but it could gain over $1 billion in transit fees were it to encourage the movement of goods on its riverine and rail networks to India, Nepal and Bhutan. Linking up to Chinese networks in Tibet, or through the proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor could give an even greater fillip to the region.
But all this requires careful diplomacy to deal with disputes such as the ones between India and Bangladesh, or India and China, or Bangladesh and Myanmar. It also requires an awareness among the states that they need to be sensitive to the security concerns of other states. Ignoring this usually leads to a blowback, as has happened in Pakistan, and to an extent in Bangladesh, where Islamists have been strengthened by Khaleda Zia’s tactic of using them to needle India.
Beyond resolving outstanding problems, Modi’s visit has led to the setting up of agreements, MoUs and protocols which will transform our relations in the future. The key issues here are connectivity and economic partnership. Bangladesh has held out against providing effective transit rights to India, but now many in the country realise that Bangladesh needs India as much as the latter needs the former. Hence the slew of MoUs to promote economic ties, transit and coastal trade, as well as bus services that will begin negating the malign consequences of partition.
Prime Minister Modi has once again returned a virtuoso performance, emphasizing the importance of Bangladesh to India, as well as emphasizing the win-win outcomes that are possible in the future.
Besides the economic and practical, he also made some important cultural gestures such as the visit to the Dhakeshwari temple and to the Ramkrishna Mission which underscored India’s concern over a problem that is largely ignored by Indians themselves and the world community the steady decline of the country’s Hindu population in the face of violence and persecution. These issues cannot and should not be ignored if we are to construct ties that are durable and mutually beneficial.
Mid Day June 9, 2015
There is something unique about Prime Minister Modi’s Bangladesh visit. Of all of India’s South Asian neighbours, Bangladesh is one which is almost completely “India-locked.” Of its 4,413-km land boundary, just 271 km is with Myanmar, the remaining 4,142 with India. Of course, Bangladesh was part of India till its partition in 1947 and the cultural connections between Bengalis on both sides of the border run deep, considering that they share the same language and celebrate the same literature. This was also the nation that India midwifed in 1971. - See more at: