Gist of EPW July Week 4, 2019

The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) is an important source of study material for IAS, especially for the current affairs segment. In this section, we give you the gist of the EPW magazine every week. The important topics covered in the weekly are analysed and explained in a simple language, all from a UPSC perspective.

 

1. Amended RTI vs Participatory Democracy

Context

  • The Right to Information (Amendment) Bill passed by Parliament recently threatens to strike at the core of the right to information (RTI) and undermines the institution of the Central Information Commission (CIC).

Significace of RTI

  • The RTI Act, 2005 empowers the citizen to question the secrecy and abuse of power practised in governance.
  • It is through the information commissions at the central and state levels that access to such information is provided.
  • This information can be regarded as a public good, for it is relevant to the interests of citizens and is a crucial pillar for the functioning of a transparent and vibrant democracy.
  • The information obtained not only helps in making government accountable but alse useful for other purposes which would serve the overall interests of the society.
  • Every year, around six million applications are filed under the RTI Act, making it the most extensively used sunshine legislation globally.
  • These applications seek information on a range of issues, from holding the government accountable for delivery of basic rights and entitlements to questioning the highest offices of the country.
  • Using the RTI Act, people have sought information that governments would not like to reveal as it may expose corruption, human rights violations, and wrongdoings by the state.
  • The access to information about policies, decisions and actions of the government that affect the lives of citizens is an instrument to ensure accountability.
  • The Supreme Court has, in several judgments, held that the RTI is a fundamental right flowing from Articles 19 and 21 of the Constitution, which guarantee to citizens the freedom of speech and expression and the right to life, respectively.

Amendments proposed in the bill

  • The RTI (Amendment) Bill, 2019 amends Sections 13, 15 and 27 of the RTI Act, 2005
  • The first amends Section 15 of the RTI Act and replaces the statutorily fixed term of five years for the CIC with a term to be decided by the government through rules made under the law.
  • The same clause also removes the parity between the ICs and ECs by having salaries, allowances, and terms and conditions of service determined by rules framed to this effect by the union government.
  • The amendment will empower the central government to prescribe through rules the tenure, salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the chief and other information commissioners at the central and state levels.
  • This would undermine the autonomy and independence of the institution of the information commissions and hinder the effective implementation of the RTI as enshrined in the act.
  • There are two caveats in the proposed amendment:
    • first, the salaries, allowances, and terms and conditions of service cannot be varied to the disadvantage of ICs after appointment, and
    • second, ICs appointed before the bill becomes law will continue to be governed by the RTI Act as it stood before the amendment.

Government’s justification for amendment

  • Information commissions perform different functions compared to Election Commissions therefore same status cannot be granted
  • Executives will have much greater say in the terms and conditions of service of the ICs, but that cannot, by itself, lead to the conclusion that there will be no independence of the ICs.
  • The provision of the RTI Act governing the removal of ICs is not affected by this amendment and the rules cannot be changed to cut short the tenure of any one IC without falling afoul of the main RTI Act as also Article 14 of the Constitution

Critics about the amendment

  • The reason given for amendment was that ECs and ICs have different set of work. That is, no doubt, true, but in no way does it justify why ICs should not enjoy the same status as ECs.
  • It also fails to address the basic reason as to why this provision exists in the first place, that ICs, given the nature of their work, ought to enjoy the same status as ECs.
  • This was keeping in mind the constitutional status of the right to information, which enjoys the same constitutional recognition as the right to vote.
  • The amendment appears to be another manifestation of the form of “coercive federalism” seemingly practised by the central government by infringing upon the powers of the respective states, and is therefore undemocratic.
  • This would have serious implications for the credibility of the institution of the information commissioner in the future, as vital to making governance in a democracy accountable and transparent in its functioning.
  • The idea of democracy that the ruling party seems to be practising is hinged upon treating citizens as passive subjects.
  • The current government is trying to diminish the role of citizens to passive recipients of controlled, selective, and distorted information, thereby reducing citizens to subjects.
  • Subjects are not supposed to ask questions of their rulers and effectively blocking access to information reduces this possibility.
  • Another fallout is the adverse effect on investigative journalism, which has used RTI as a tool to unearth the truth.
  • Such dilution would further insulate the government—which is anyway keen on ensuring a pliable media that acts as its amplifier—from probing journalism.

Summary

  • The RTI emerged through mass movement, and its continuance and deepening would also hinge on its use as a form of collective action to ensure accountability.
  • Indeed, there have been several instances of the spontaneous use of the RTI by individual citizens (apart from social movements), which only goes to validate the spirit of the RTI.
  • Hundreds of RTI activists have been murdered, assaulted, harassed or threatened. Such sacrifices are difficult to sustain at the level of the individual in the face of relentless systemic assaults.
  • While the union government’s purported justification for the RTI Bill makes no sense whatsoever, some of the fears about the bill’s impact may also be exaggerated.
    • For one, the rules have not yet been framed, so it is not clear how this might actually affect the functioning of the Central Information Commission and state information commissions
    • For another, the clauses relating to removal have not been amended and the amendment still mandates that the salaries, allowances, and other terms and conditions of service cannot be varied to the ICs’ disadvantage.
  • That said, the real fear with the amendments have to do with the manner in which the union government has tried to push them through Parliament.
  • The absence of a real justification for this amendment, failure to address the real deficiencies in the RTI institutions, and the absence of any public participation in the process, all speak to a larger fear, that of a government which will do as it pleases.
  • The present appointments have been exempted from changes under the proposed amendments.
  • The process to roll back these amendments and restore the right to information cannot be achieved without mobilising the masses in defence of their hard-won rights

2. Draft Emigration Bill, 2019

Context

  • The evolution of the Indian Emigration Policy framework is traced since the inception of the Emigration Act, 1922, and the draft Emigration Bill, 2019 is examined.
  • For the draft Emigration Bill, 2019 to be truly effective, it needs a rights-based approach inclusive of all Indian migrants abroad.

History of migration in India

  • India has the largest number of migrants abroad in the world today. It is also the largest remittance receiving country in the world.
  • Different forms of emigration from India have been persistent since the 2nd century BCE, when Alexander the Great took many Indians back to Central Asia and Europe.
  • Systematic migration flows from India started during the colonial times in the 18th century.
  • After the abolition of slavery, the British required a cheap and flexible workforce in large numbers to work on their sugar and rubber plantations. To meet the demand for labour, they started an organised system of indentured temporary migration from India.
  • As the scale of this emigration flow increased, it led to low wages and exploitation of the labour force.
  • So in order to regulate indentured emigration and to provide a mechanism for emigration, the British Indian government enacted the Emigration Act in 1922
  • Although the purpose of the 1922 act was to ensure that labour is not exploited when away from the home country, it did not take into account the family members of emigrants who migrate later or along with the migrants.

Emigration post-independence

  • Independent India saw the emergence of two different types of migration patterns and destinations.
  1. First, the emigration of skilled workers and professionals to Western countries in the early 1950s, which accelerated post-economic reforms in the 1990s.
  2. Second, the emigration of semi-skilled or unskilled labour to West Asian countries with the boom in oil-driven migration into the Gulf region.
  • To safeguard the rights of Indian migrants, most of whom were semi-skilled and unskilled labourers, the Ministry of Labour enacted the Emigration Act, 1983.
  • The Emigration Act, 1983 only regulates the flow of emigrant workers leaving the country. It does so through stringent procedures that apply to recruitment agencies, foreign employers, and the migrants themselves.
  • The Indian government has, through a series of executive orders, further divided the type of migrants as per skill, educational qualifications and destination into Emigration Check Required (ECR) and Emigration Check Not Required (ECNR) categories.
  • Only those emigrants who are low skilled and travelling to 18 countries in the Gulf and South East Asia are required to go through emigration clearance
  • But, if the low-skilled worker has a qualification of Class 10 or higher or is travelling to any other country, they are exempted from the ECR category and thus, from the purview of the 1983 act.
  • The key operational assumption here is that those emigrants who are unskilled or low skilled need additional protection as they are more vulnerable than higher-skilled migrants or migrants moving to more developed countries.

Critics of the 1983 act

  • Such a regulatory mechanism has proved to be discriminative in practice and places unnecessary restrictions on migrants.
  • As in the case of the 1922 act, the 1983 act also excludes all dependents of the emigrant.
  • Even if the dependent accompanies the emigrant or departs later to visit the emigrant, they do not fall into the purview of the 1983 act.
  • Furthermore, any person who has been residing outside India after attaining the age of 18 for at least three years is also not considered an emigrant
  • The regulatory mechanism has proved to be discriminative in practice and places unnecessary restrictions on migrants.
  • This is particularly true for female emigrants because women under the age of 30 migrating to ECR countries are not given an emigration clearance, forcing them to look for alternative, often irregular channels
  • Those who do not migrate through the official eMigrate portal of the Ministry of External Affairs are seen as “irregular,” making it difficult for them to receive help when they need assistance in a foreign land.
  • The ECR procedures often act as barriers for migrants and encourage riskier pathways towards foreign employment

About 2019 draft bill

  • After a gap of 35 years, in 2019, a new draft policy framework for managing and protecting the world’s largest stock of international migrants was released for public comments
  • The 2019 draft bill aims to change the direction of policy from the regulation of emigration to its management.
  • Of the different stages of the migrant life cycle, the 2019 draft bill focuses mostly on pre-departure while ignoring the rights of migrants at their destination and their eventual return migration.
  • Positive Changes: The addition of students and the provision for recruitment agents to employ subagents.
  • The 2019 draft bill incorporates and reconciles many of the executive orders passed in the aftermath of the 1983 act.
  • These orders formed the backbone of the current regulatory framework for recruiting agents. It also includes subagents and student enrolment agencies into its regulatory purview.
  • In the past decade, emigration from India to the Gulf has decreased considerably. India recorded a decline of 34.6% in the number of registered workers immigrating to Gulf countries between 2014 and 2016
  • The Kerala Migration Survey 2018 also recorded a decline in the number of outmigration by one-tenth of the total number of emigrants in 2013
  • The government blames this on falling oil prices and slowing economic growth in the Gulf. But, emigration from Bangladesh to the Gulf increased in the same period.

Critics of the proposed bill

  • The 2019 draft bill prescribes the same set of regulations for student enrolment agencies as the recruiting agents.
  • This is extremely problematic as student enrolment agencies have a different business model and a completely different customer base, that is, of students applying overseas.
  • This further showcases the government’s limited understanding of the emigration process
  • This approach re-emphasises the fact that the Indian government’s approach to migration is focused less on welfare and is more geared towards managing the export of human capital from India.
  • To effectively ensure welfare, any emigration policy framework needs to consider the complete migration cycle: pre-departure preparations, journey, the destination and return.
  • While the 2019 draft bill addresses the first three parts of the cycle, it completely ignores return migration.
  • Globally, one in four migrants today is a return migrant. In fact, most Indian migrants to the Gulf return home.
  • Similarly, the 2019 draft bill also ignores the families left behind.

Way Forward

  • Many of the oversights in the 2019 draft bill reiterate the government’s restricted understanding of migration from India.
  • However, migration is a complex and highly dynamic process with constantly evolving profiles of migrants and their destinations.
  • Only a clearly articulated, ex ante migrant rights-based approach inclusive of all Indian migrants abroad can be considerate of this and provide Indian migrants abroad with adequate security and welfare.
  • An inclusive rights-based approach puts the onus on the Indian government to ensure that any subsequent executive order or scheme safeguards all emigrants abroad at every stage of the migrant’s life cycle.
  • It should also provide the necessary guidance for the updation of such order and schemes as the emigrant population inevitably evolves, thus making the emigration policy future-proof.
  • Migrant rights are implicitly or explicitly expressed in international human rights and public law instruments.
  • There are a whole host of multilateral migration-related treaties and conventions, which can provide the necessary guidance for a truly inclusive, visionary and future-proof Indian emigration policy framework.

3. Mirage of Zero Budget Farming

Context

  • The conferring of the Padma Shri on Marathi agriculturist Subhash Palekar had brought the concept of Zero Budget (Natural) Farming (ZBF) to public notice in 2016.

What is ZBNF

  • Zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) is a set of traditional Indian practices and methods which is chemical-free agriculture practices.

History of ZBNF

  • Padma Shri recipient Subhash Palekar, developed it in the mid-1990s as an alternative to the Green Revolution’s methods driven by chemical fertilizers and pesticides and intensive irrigation.
  • His arguments where that the external input intensive methods increased the external costs which is the root cause of indebtedness and suicide among farmers, while the impact of chemicals on the environment and on long-term fertility was devastating.

Methods used in ZBNF

Instead of commercially produced chemical inputs, the ZBNF promotes the application of

  • Jeevamrutha
    • A mixture of fresh desi cow dung and aged desi cow urine, jaggery, pulse flour, water and soil — on farmland.
    • This acts as a catalytic agent to promote the activity of microorganisms and earthworms in the soil.
  • Bijamrita
    • This is used to treat seeds, while concoctions using neem leaves and pulp, tobacco and green chillis are prepared for insect and pest management.
  • The ZBNF method also promotes soil aeration, minimal watering, intercropping, bunds and topsoil mulching and discourages intensive irrigation and deep ploughing.

Significance of ZBNF

  • According to National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data, almost 70% of agricultural households spend more than they earn and more than half of all farmers are in debt.
  • In States such as Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, levels of indebtedness are around 90%, where each household bears an average debt of ₹1 lakh.
  • In order to achieve the Central government’s promise to double farmers income by 2022, one aspect being considered is natural farming methods such as the ZBNF which reduce farmers’ dependence on loans to purchase inputs they cannot afford.

Critics

  • Reportedly, Palekar’s experimentation with ZBF was almost a decade old by the time he was felicitated in 2016.
  • Yet, apart from some media reports and case studies that were predominantly published and publicised around the time of the award, no independent, in-depth economic assessments of this farming model are available in the public domain.
  • A 2016 case study conducted by the La Via Campesina (LVC)—a coalition of 182 farmer organisations, the issue of the inclusiveness of this model remains open to contention, as do the aspects of scalability and sustainability.
    • The same report cites the marketability of the ZBF produce to be a major limitation
  • Some recent media reports have brought to the fore several instances where farmers using the ZBF methods have returned to the conventional input-intensive farming practices on the grounds of profitability.
  • Moreover, ZBF does not mean zero production costs to farmers. It rather means that production costs will be compensated by income from “intercrops,” thereby making farming close to a zero-budget activity.
  • Pushing a farming technology for intercrops without transforming an incentive structure that currently encourages monoculture does not bring about any change.

Conclusion

  • The idea of “going back to the basics” through ZBF may come in handy to a government interested in arousing nationalist sentiments among the commoners
  • This will also divert them from asking the hard questions on the government’s accountability towards the holistic development of a resilient farming system in the country.
  • For instance, if “going back to the basics” means developing a low-cost farming system, then why does Andhra Pradesh, one of the prime champions of ZBF, have to amass a huge amount of fund for ZBF?
  • Such huge investments—coming from global financial and agribusiness corporations and through climate bonds—call to attention the obvious contradiction of policy and practice.
  • More disconcertingly, it raises the apprehension that the ZBF is perhaps a new tool in the hands of the neo-liberal state to serve the dual purpose of incentivising its corporate benefactors and executing austerity in its spending on priority sectors.

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