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Issue 11

Bombay Begums

What made me watch Alankrita Shrivastava’s six-episode Netflix series Bombay Begums was its title itself – laden with royalty. Watching the trailer, one could possibly ask, why call the lives of five women located in the city of dreams ‘begums?’ Each episode delves into the anxieties of these women’s private yet socially relevant lives. Their engagement with the ‘social’ reveals concealed realities of their ‘personal.’ Rani Irani, Fatima Warsi, Lakshmi Gondhali, Ayesha and Shai, with all their vulnerabilities in a man’s world “mend the pieces and move on, until it happens again.”  

“We are all part of the problem, Fatima …” aptly puts across our attitude towards preserving power while discrediting the powerless. The characters depict complexities accompanying the notions of power, freedom, dignity, sexuality, and integrity within a queen’s realm. It leaves one with thoughts that the world is too hesitant to express. The dialogues, narration, and the plot does not miss out on any opportunity to critique ways in which the patriarchal world fails each time it tries to understand women’s language of desire, power and respect. The series is flawed in its own ways, and that’s exactly how the lives of these women play out. Flawed. Yet unapologetic. 

These women are artists – with art fading at every possible turn of their lives, but their firm determination towards striking their brush once more, on that empty canvas, speaks for itself.  Their strength to assert their power in an oppressive world is what makes them the begums.

Another interesting aspect of the series – five out of the six episodes are named after books by eminent women writers who have aspired to live through all the lows and highs in their own, independent journeys. The plot of these episodes stays inseparable from their names, depicting relevant connections between women’s stories from a foreign land in a city closer to home.

“Our wounds can heal, and our souls blossom. And the jagged and sparkling dreams of women can find both earth and sky,” summarises the series at its best. With all the critiques and applauds that the series has received a month into its release, Bombay Begums is a must-watch for all.

Picture Credits: Tribune India

Ariba is a student of English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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Issue 11

bestdressed

Film student, feminist and fashion enthusiast Ashley creates intricate and artistic portraits of her life as a young adult, trying to make it in a big city. 

Some of her most popular videos are her style guides, apartment makeovers and thrift shopping hauls + thrift flips. Thrift flips involve altering or ‘flipping’ clothing items bought from a secondhand or thrift store. The concept has become increasingly popular in the DIY and fashion circles of youtube, as vintage clothing (that can only be bought cheaply in thrift stores) became a huge trend. 

Her film background and editing prowess (she worked as a freelance video editor before creating her own channel) shines through, making every video uniquely memorable. Bestdressed also has the occasional video discussing politics, sexuality and mental health with refreshing candour, based on research and her own experiences. 

All in all, this is a great channel to watch for relaxation, upliftment, life advice, or all of the above. 

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Issue 11

Issue XI: Editors’ Note

The past year saw COVID-19 and lockdowns as the only issues one extensively engaged with, both in their personal and professional lives. The question, “how has the pandemic been treating you?” slipped into every catch-up conversation with peers, friends, family and colleagues. With the current surge of cases in India once again, it is safe to say that even with the vaccine, the pandemic still continues to dominate a major part of our lives. We are constantly reminded of it every time we have to step outside our homes or log in to an online meeting or a Zoom birthday call. 

With this issue, we aim to provide our readers with a ‘pandemic-break’ and delve into stories that are equally important but may have been sidelined with constant COVID updates from newsrooms. 

To begin with, Madhulika Agarwal addresses an essential question revolving around what makes an event ‘newsworthy’ in the first place? And who has the authority on prioritising which news is worth the consumers’ attention? With Amazon’s Twitter antics having grabbed the attention of the media, Samyukta Prabhu and Rohan Pai use this opportunity to highlight the gig workers’ rights that have been sidelined by tech giants such as Amazon, specifically during the course of the pandemic. 

Akanksha Mishra covers the consequences of the Afghanistan peace deal on the country’s population, revealing a critical understanding of the negotiations between three stakeholders – the Taliban, the Afghan government and the United States. Speaking of the United States, Karantaj Singh analyses 100 days of Biden administration by critiquing as well as applauding his contribution towards restoring America’s identity in the global community. With New Zealand’s recently passed miscarriages bereavement leave law, Advaita Singh captures the reader’s attention by examining the relationship between workplaces, the economy and personal grief.

Closer to home, Saaransh Mishra confronts the structure of quasi-federalism in India and its exploitation by the ruling central government in implementing controversial laws such as the recent GNCTD Bill. Furthermore, Muskaan Kanodia explores the vote-bank anxieties behind the intense dedication of political parties towards temple beautification, which appears to complement the rise of religious politics in the country. Ridhima Manocha analyses the ruling government’s contradictory campaign attitudes towards CAA-NRC when contesting the current Assam Assembly elections. Meanwhile, Vaibhav Parik questions India’s Election Commission’s decision to hold the ongoing Assembly elections in multiple phases in the state of West Bengal.

Aarohi Sharma brings back the essential climate change debate and delves into why individuals continue to deny its existence and widespread impact. For our sports enthusiasts, Kavya Satish explores the possible reasons for the increasing loss of viewership and sponsorship in F1 and what it means for the future of the sport. 

To emphasise the immense strain that Coivd-19 has placed on our global healthcare systems, Saman Fatima explores how this has resulted in the marginalisation of treatments of other prevalent diseases among several populations. 

While other stories may continue to struggle to win the fight for our attention with the intensity of the pandemic, we hope our readers are able to take a step back and keep themselves updated with events beyond rising Covid-19 cases and vaccinations. 

-Ariba, Ashana Mathur, Harshita Bedi, Rujuta Singh

Picture Credits: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

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Issue 11

Exploring Crevices in Global Healthcare Systems: An Analysis of Health Beyond COVID-19

An article published in the New England Medicine Journal in April 2020 describes the plight of a nurse whose husband died of cardiac arrest when New York hospitals were met with one of the worst public health emergencies in recent times. While the nurse, a medical professional would have ideally rushed her husband to the hospital, she struggled to take a decision for fear of exposing her spouse to the Covid virus. This incident makes one consider the story of the ‘untold toll,’ which the pandemic is forcing on non-covid patients and medical resources across the world. 

When the pandemic hit, the first response of national governments was to impose lockdowns, fund research for the study of the virus and increase hospital intakes for rising coronavirus cases. But most institutions, both governmental and medical, within this rush to curb the coronavirus spread, overlooked other illnesses that had already been affecting people. As a result, all public health funds, research, hospitals and professionals only focused on the potentially deadly virus, while special hospital wards for other diseases were either completely shut down, converted to Covid-19 isolation centres or restricted patients from entering their premises. 

news report published by Al Jazeera in April 2020 covered the impact that Covid-19 had on non-covid cancer patients in the past year, describing how a breast cancer patient was unable to continue treatment and struggled to get her check-ups for fear of getting the virus. Another report from India highlights how cancer patients within the national capital struggled because of postponement of surgery dates owing to pandemic lockdowns. And as one tries to study the scope of this ‘untold toll’ in covid times, one is introduced to articles not just of cancer patients but patients wanting to get a dialysis treatment, women struggling to get abortions and a myriad other such cases.    

 In April 2020, a  report by the Wire analysed how Covid-19 had affected the already struggling public health system in India. As a projective report, the article analysed how patients suffering from cardiac issues, kidney diseases, mental health concerns and other non-covid medical health concerns would be affected by the lockdown. The article further explored how already existing high tuberculosis cases within the country were going to be left untreated in a pandemic world, owing to bad medical health infrastructures within the subcontinent. While there is not enough data available to prove the validity of these reports and the extent to which these predictions were proven correct last year, news reports quoted above give us a glimpse of the situation being close to what this report had predicted. With shutting down of  emergency wards, closure of special wards and the conversion of medical centres into quarantine facilities, it is no surprise that the overall health and well-being of non-covid patients underwent a significant blow. 

While it is no surprise that these ‘temporary pauses’ in healthcare impacted non-covid patients significantly and put the larger health of the public at risk, this situation also brought to the fore the crevices in public health systems the world over. It was not just Indian cancer patients who struggled to get treated, the situation in the UK and the US were similar. The question that this situation raises is that if the healthcare system could not absorb non-covid patients along with new covid patients in the past, will it be able to do it this time? A year after the previous covid scare, the cases have significantly spiked again, with a much stronger, mutated strain of the virus resurfacing in the world. 

The response to this second wave of the virus is yet again lockdown impositions, curfews, shutting down of hospitals, conversion of these spaces into temporary covid wards, thereby imposing a halt on other medical services. while the question remains – can we sustain our healthcare systems in periods of crisis? And can we afford to interrupt other ‘essential’ medical services in times of a pandemic like Coronavirus?

Places like Pune’s Yashwantrao Chavan Memorial Hospital has already become a dedicated covid hospital. The emergency wards in several Uttar Pradesh hospitals have already started shutting down, owing to a spike in Covid-19 cases. Similar reports are expected to be coming from different parts of the country. 

Given the data and policy analysis from last year, one is forced to ask whether the response to the current rise in covid-19 cases will result in the same medical conundrum the country and world witnessed in 2020? Or will our past experiences fill the fissures that were made visible by a global health emergency?

Saman Fatima is a third-year History Major at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

To Have Loved and Lost

Trigger Warning: mentions of death, mental health issues

“Grief is a most peculiar thing; we’re so helpless in the face of it. It’s like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.”  

Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

Death is inevitable. Ultimate. Irreversible. As the fundamental truth of life, we are bound to encounter death. Unfortunately, to grieve is a matter of privilege; to allow yourself the time to break down and build back up again is a luxury not many can afford. In the past, people have returned to the workplace after demises, pushing against the inner storm of despair. Barring the few designated days of mourning, grief never became a strong reason for seeking paid leave, thereby, forcing employees to resume work within days of such life-altering tragedies. 

New Zealand recently became the second country to implement miscarriage bereavement laws — granting women and men the right to paid leave after miscarriages and stillbirths. India already had a similar legislation in place that entitled women to a six-week paid leave under the Maternity Benefit Act, 1961, in such cases. These governments have recognised the soul-crushing pain experienced by parents by passing such legislation. Hence, these acts are symbols of our humanity; our understanding of life and loss. 

While they are certainly socially evolved and humane, given their intrinsic link to the labour market, these laws provoke questions about their economic impacts. The impact of grief on productivity and employment raises some important questions: What are the economic consequences of paid leaves? Is grief a good enough reason for granting days off work? 

Productivity Pause

Grief is more than just a fleeting emotional state — it is the source of psychological and physical stress that can range from depression to anxiety and hopelessness. In fact, a medical side effect of bereavement is an impaired immune system. Since mental and physical health are integral parts of human capital, when emotions and grief run wild, productivity takes a severe hit. 

Despite realising their inability to work, workers feel the pressures of presenteeism.  If you have ever been to work even though you did not feel up to it, you understand presenteeism. A recently studied phenomenon, it refers to employees still habitually working long hours/attending work even though they are not fully functioning well (mostly due to medical reasons and even other concerns) ultimately leading to lower productivity. Workers who are insecure about their jobs often display presenteeism.

Presenteeism is harming businesses as the illusion of efficiency prevents managers from planning better. When six  workers are on the job but two are working at reduced capacity, information asymmetry prevents the manager/owner from efficiently allocating the workload because presenteeism is not apparent. Hence, the quality of output suffers and average efficiency is dragged down. In contrast, if the unproductive workers were on leave, the reduction in team size and efficiency would be glaringly visible and the managers would be able to better plan the tasks knowing fully well that they are working with a smaller, but productive team. 

Given that long bereavement breaks are not normalised, and their medical impacts are not understood, many workers feel insecure about their job status while considering taking time off work. Hence, employees are ultimately faced with the unfair choice of either resuming work with a diminished ability to perform or quitting the labour force. 

Workers deciding to quit the labour force would imply forgoing a source of income. The absence of financial stability can further reinforce any depression or anxiety felt by the employees. They might also lose out on new skills by being out of work for long periods which, in turn, would reduce their human capital relative to the rest of the workforce. With lower human capital, their employment prospects would further decrease. These consequences for workers translate into bigger problems for the economy as unemployment leads to wastage of resources and lower economic output. 

In this lose-lose situation, data estimates the economic cost of bereavement in the UK workplaces to be nearly £23bn a year. This renders a loss in tax revenue estimated to be around £8bn a year. Behind these massive figures, the study indicates that “the majority of the economic cost arises from lost productivity in the workplace (presenteeism), rather than from time away from work.”

A viable solution? 

Neither declining productivity nor workers’ exits from the labour force are optimal cases for the economy. Therefore, a solution would include retaining workers or preventing productivity dips. By providing paid bereavement leaves, firms ensure that workers have the option of staying employed. In a way, paid leave lifts the pressure of ‘showing up’ at work and allows workers to recuperate emotionally without worrying about economic welfare and finances. Once workers do finally return to work, they are relatively more emotionally stable and will be able to perform better, preventing any problems caused by presenteeism. Paid leaves also foster a stronger attachment to the labour force with workers more committed to working and staying in employment. With a more dedicated and stronger labour force, the national output  is expected to increase. 

Understanding the merits of paid leaves, the miscarriage bereavement laws passed by the New Zealand government are a giant leap forward. They recognise the significant emotional implications of stillbirths and miscarriages — losing a child has been ‘classified as one of the most extreme stressors a human can face’ which causes the parents’ productivity to reduce to a quarter of what it was before. Most importantly, these laws standardise access to paid-leave and propagate equality. Given that all workers do not have the financial background to quit their jobs, the legislation ensures that despite varied working conditions, workers have the ability to avail the option of paid leaves. Hence, it fosters an environment of equality while prioritising workers’ welfare. 

At its core, such laws recognise that workers’ welfare need not be at odds with the economic well-being of the country. Workers are 13% more productive when they are happy. Hence, it is difficult to isolate economic growth from the emotional welfare of the workforce. By providing adequate time and opportunity for employees to process their loss, these paid leaves act as a safeguard for the interests of the workforce against the tragedies of miscarriages and stillbirths. 

Picture Perfect? 

Despite their merits, these laws come with strings attached. Paid leave is a controversial issue amongst employers since they are paying the employees for essentially no work. Some firms might prefer workers showing up at offices despite the recent deaths of loved ones. By availing paid leaves, a worker’s contribution to output is zero. By using the logic of ‘something is better than nothing,’ employers would still prefer to enforce their older methods. 

Paid leaves for parents after stillbirths or miscarriages are certainly a social issue. However, the effects of grief on productivity make it an economic issue in tandem. This gives the opportunity for inclusive legislation that can improve economic conditions and boost economic growth. The unpredictability of death makes it all the more important to recognise the various losses humankind shares and subsequently address them in legislation. Because let’s face it, for someone still reeling from the shocks of the death of their loved ones; for someone still braving that gush of grief blowing through the window in that frigid room; even a few days off work mean everything. 

Advaita Singh is a second-year student of Economics at Ashoka University. She is also the President of the Economics Society at Ashoka. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

Has Mercedes Slowed Down F1 Revenue Growth?


If you are unfamiliar with F1, here is a primer with all the full forms you need that will help you! Note that all $ values are in USD. (Cover Image Credits: Mercedes-AMG)

The FIA Formula One World Championship has been a temple to technology, speed, and most importantly, money, since its inception in 1950. It has been badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic with the turnover from the WCC falling from $2.02 billion in 2019 to $1.14 billion in 2020 However, the sport’s problems with money cannot be attributed solely to the pandemic. F1 has lost 129 million viewers since 2008, resulting in sponsors losing their incentive to use F1 as a way to advertise. What is it about the sport that has led to this loss – and what implications does it hold for its future?

Sponsorships are one of the primary sources of revenue teams and the FOG, which makes viewership incredibly important. Constructors like Mercedes rarely realise a profit, instead using the sport to advertise their road cars. Due to the public nature of the sport, F1 has a very high level of technological transparency and it is difficult to hide and patent innovation in the field. The cars tend to co-evolve according to specifications described by the FIA (English: International Automobile Federation) as the diffusion of knowledge occurs through observation. To prevent the stagnation of the sport in old technology, the FIA signs the Concorde Agreement with the FOG and the constructors every 6 years or so to lay the foundation for technical development. The agreement creates a cycle in which some teams are able to develop better technologies in years subsequent to signing the agreement while other teams catch up before the next agreement. However, a crucial flaw was exposed in 2013 which (re)introduced the era of the 1.6-litre V6 turbocharged hybrid engines put in place in an effort to be sustainable (Motor racing! Sustainable! Ha!). Mercedes developed a ‘monster’ of an engine that was so powerful that it left the other cars unable to offer any competition. 

Many fans have emphasized that one of the worst problems F1 faces is the lack of competitiveness on the track. The uncertainty of outcome (UoO) theory was put forth by Rottenberg in 1956, and it propounds that, ceteris paribus, the demand to watch a sport is directly proportional to the uncertainty of the outcome of the sport. Other academics have related this principle to F1 citing that a balance between the level of performance or a ‘competitive balance’ must be maintained between teams to maintain the uncertainty of outcome. 

Several empirical studies have concluded the significance of technical specifications of each car, funding from sponsors and investors, the drivers, the crews, and the suppliers as some factors that contribute to the outcome of the championship. When these factors interact to create a balance in the performance of cars across the grid, a competitive balance is achieved. A lack of competitive balance tends to make races boring and predictable and discourages viewers from buying tickets, watching races, or doing anything that generates revenue for F1. The teams earn revenue from sponsors, investors, and Formula One Management (FOM) payments, and the FOM in turn, earns from GP ticket sales, hosting fees, broadcasting fees and more sponsors. Consequently, Budzinski and Feddersen outline three kinds of competitive balance that I find relevant to these revenue streams. 

The first of these is the competition within each GP as it is important for the sale of tickets and track sponsorships. As fan surveys show, tracks like Sochi are unpopular with audiences due to the high predictability of the races. As per UoO, this negatively affects the sale of tickets and per race viewership. The second involves competition within a season, which can affect the average viewership and cause sponsors to drop out due to reasons cited before. This impacts sponsorship payments to the FOM and subsequently, the payout teams receive from the FOM at the end of the season. The third kind of competition, that which exists over seasons, largely influences the number of viewers of the sport, as a new viewer is only enticed to begin watching a sport when it is entertaining, and it is entertaining only when there is an uncertainty of outcome. For example, a viewer that has seen or heard of Mercedes dominate F1 for six years is unlikely to expect something different to happen in the seventh, discouraging them from watching the season at all. 

The question remains, what exactly is causing the gap in performance? Many attribute it to the gap in budgets as some teams receive bonuses from the FOM that are not directly related to their performance in the championship, making their funding considerably bigger. To address the same, budget caps of $175 million and $145 million have been placed on the development of technology in 2021 and 2022 respectively.

Considering the budget cap and assuming a utopian clean slate, we can say that the factors influencing the championship would be driver ability and any differences caused by technological innovation. However, a clean slate is an assumption one cannot afford to make. In 2013, Mercedes started with the best car on the grid, a good crew, good drivers, and good suppliers, which gave them good results. Before the next season started, they were able to build on their already dominant car while other teams struggled to catch up. Their good results attracted sponsors and investors who funded R&D and allowed them to hire better crew and better suppliers who were more willing to associate with a successful team. This propelled them forward and helped them produce even better results.

Conversely Williams Racing and Haas F1 had a string of bad seasons due to poor cost management and developmental barriers, which caused a struggle to find good drivers and sponsors. This is clear with Haas making a bizarre move by employing Nikita Mazepin, an arguably average F2 driver. The struggle to find a good sponsor is evident when one learns that Uralkali, Haas’ new title sponsor, just happens to be owned by parent company Uralchem in which Dmitry Mazepin, Nikita’s father, has a majority stake. 

Positive feedback loops keep old and rich teams dominant while causing poorer and newer teams to toe the line of bankruptcy as the benefits of good results and the damage of bad results accrue over time. So the task at hand for the FIA is not to ensure the equal distribution of opportunities to develop new technologies – regulations and policy already do that – but to ensure that the gap between the teams does not get wider.  

The Mercedes dominance has revealed shortcomings of F1 regulations that threaten to topple the sports’ promise of being the frontline of innovation as well as the financial foundation that it is built on. As the competitive balance between teams reduces and the uncertainty of outcome decreases, F1 stands to lose its major sources of revenue and audience, which is already steadily decreasing. By placing budget caps and testing restrictions (see picture) on teams, measures have been undertaken to ensure that this does not happen, but only the upcoming seasons will tell whether or not it has been effective.

Kavya Satish is a second-year Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

The Curious Case of the Electoral Calendar

When the Election Commission of India first announced dates for elections to four major state assemblies in February 2021, the announcement caused quite the stir. While every other state went for a single-phase polling, West Bengal’s electoral contest was staggered into 8 phases, spanning 23 days. Moreover, several districts have been split into blocks, with voting occurring over multiple phases in the same district. 

Several political leaders decried this decision. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee immediately came out to say that the ECI is trying to convert the state of West Bengal into a football ground, and it is a deliberate attempt to “upset communal harmony” and polarise the electorate. 

Yet sidestepping the allegations of overt politicisation, there lies the question of what this means from the perspective of organising elections. For many years, the ECI has been heralded for its adeptness in the swift conduct of arguably the largest democratic exercise in the world. They have definitely come a long way – from the several months it took to conduct the first general election in 1951-52, to wrapping them up in a month. The 2019 general elections with more than 900 million voters, for instance, were held in 7 phases and took roughly close to a month. Moreover, even the 2017 state elections in much larger Uttar Pradesh were wrapped up in 7 phases. 

What is also interesting is not just that larger and equally sensitive states wrapped up elections quicker, but also that the previous election in West Bengal itself needed only 6 phases. Therefore, the fact that the state of West Bengal requires 8 phases in the ongoing election begs the question: did the ECI not have the capability to complete the West Bengal elections in a shorter time frame? 

Organisational Capabilities and Ambition

Several efforts are required to be undertaken to ensure the smooth conduct of the democratic process. From security deployments to requiring officers for managing booths in remote areas, the task is quite uphill. As Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora pointed out in his press conference, they had to accommodate not just for adequate force deployments, but also had to take into account the festival season and the COVID-19 pandemic, while scheduling the electoral calendar. 

While these extra efforts do highlight the ECI’s commitment to peaceful and stable polls, there are questions to be raised. For one, as Indian Express points out, several districts, especially in South Bengal, have been split across phases – something that has never happened before. This implies that the sealing of inter-district borders (to prevent miscreants from other districts to disturb poll-bound districts) will be tough to execute. Even the fact that the polling dates in several Muslim-dominated districts coincide with Ramzan will prove to be a challenge for voters and polling officials in these areas. Moreover, parties are effectively required to campaign for longer because of the electoral schedule. Given the en-masse flouting of any sense of social distancing in political rallies, the increasing exposure of such a large congregation can be a genuine health hazard for the entire populace. 

Even beyond the larger logistical challenges of this election alone, there is a larger principled challenge – that of the current government’s ambition to realise a vision of simultaneous elections in states and the centre (titled “one-nation, one-election”). Fundamentally, if the aim of the one-nation, one-election, as Prime Minister Modi says, is to reduce the amount of monetary and human resources spent on holding several elections, then such a prolonged contest goes precisely against the idea. Moreover, if one agrees to the logic that such a large election would need security force deployment to shift regions quickly with phases, then the staggered nature of the electoral contest as demonstrated by West Bengal (with the same district split across phases in some cases) is incompatible with realising this vision.  

It is paradoxical to, therefore, try and advocate for “one-nation, one-election,” but at the same time consider the constraints of resource deployment as an explanation for prolonging elections. The fact that the ECI has conducted swifter elections in much larger states with equally (if not more) complicated situations, should refute any claims that they are not capable enough or do not possess the required resources. The fundamental question then is not that of the ECI’s capability, but of its prerogative.

Ultimately, it is the political parties, who are the main players spending their energy on the campaign trail. For some, this issue of electoral dates may just be parties crying foul when they are disadvantaged. There are, for instance, certain democracies such as the United Kingdom that formally gave the Prime Minister some form of power over calling for elections, until the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was passed in 2011. On the other end of the spectrum is the United States, where general election dates are constitutionally pre-determined. India however, has always sought a balance by reposing its faith in its Election Commission to conduct elections in consultation with all key political players. 

It is in this light that accountability becomes necessary, and it is worth asking that despite its capability to conduct these elections swiftly, why would the Election Commission choose to have a prolonged election in West Bengal? Even if the answer is ensuring security and stability, the fact that several major parties, especially Trinamool, decried the ECI’s decisions so vociferously, makes one wonder whether a neutral body such as the ECI perceives a tradeoff between achieving security and stability and having a multi-party consensus? One wonders what that would mean for democracy.

Picture Credits: scroll.in

Vaibhav Parik is a fourth-year student at Ashoka University, majoring in Political Science and minoring in Economics. His interests range from electoral politics and foreign affairs to tennis and aviation. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

E-commerce Platforms and The Continued Mistreatment of Delivery Personnel

With tech giant Amazon being involved in a slew of Twitter battles over the past week, it has unravelled multiple issues which demand immediate attention. In a bitter response to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s tweet that accused Amazon of using “armies of lawyers and lobbyists” to evade taxes, the Amazon News account was quick to respond with jabs at the senator. 

Dave Clark, CEO of Amazon’s consumer operations, responded in a similar fashion to Bernie Sanders’ visit to Bessemer to support the workers’ union drive. Sanders didn’t reply to the tweets directed at him, but Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, responded by charging Amazon with union-busting and worker mistreatment. Pocan pointed out reports that workers had to pee in bottles to keep up with their workloads.

While the battle ended in an apology from Amazon, the fashion in which the corporation took digs at these politicians was “uncharacteristically spiteful and petty”. This raises questions about how powerful these big corporations are, and their ability to openly suppress looming complications surrounding workers’ mistreatment and tax evasion.

However, workers and unions across the world are protesting relentlessly for their rights, leaving Amazon no choice but to shift priorities from winning Twitter battles to taking serious action on the ground. Whether it is workers in the USA, Italy, Germany or India, they have all demanded better working conditions, which they claimed have worsened over the course of the pandemic.

Indian Federation of App-based Transport (IFAT) workers said in a press note released on Wednesday that delivery staff of Amazon were making around INR 20,000 a month before the national lockdown last year, but that earning has now dropped to INR 10,000 following updated payment structures, which pay them INR 15 per delivery as opposed to the previous commission of INR 35.

In Bengaluru, a few delivery partners reported that they were not given protective equipment like masks, during the pandemic. Balaji (name changed), a 26-year-old delivery partner for Amazon, says “Amazon has not given me a single mask or sanitiser this year. I had to buy the mask myself. Doing work for them is very risky.” Meanwhile, Amazon continued to express how they “prioritise the health and safety of [their] delivery partners.”

However, these issues regarding workers’ mistreatment are affecting delivery personnel across firms. As acknowledged by Amazon in their recent blog post which was a response to Rep. Pocan, they mentioned how poor working conditions are “a long-standing, industry-wide issue” which are “not specific to Amazon”.

“Before the lockdown, I would earn around Rs 900 a day, by delivering about 60 parcels. During the lockdown, I earned nothing,” said Ramesh (name changed), a 40-year-old ‘delivery partner’ for Myntra. Unfortunately, Ramesh reflects the story of several delivery workers across India, who have faced severe income losses after the COVID-19 lockdown in March of 2020.

Since most of these delivery workers are ‘independent contractors’ who work for digital platforms like Amazon, Myntra and Swiggy, they are legally not considered as employees of the firms. They are not entitled to minimum wages and other benefits like insurance and pension which are offered to workers within the firms. Over these stated concerns, delivery workers like Ramesh have to pay for fuel and bike repair costs out of their own pockets, pulling down their actual incomes below minimum wage. According to a recent study by the National Law School of India University, this figure stands at Rs 65.80 per hour in Karnataka.

Bhavani Seetharaman, a policy researcher studying labour and technology, explains how the protests by Zomato workers in Bengaluru, in September 2019, successfully brought this issue to the state’s notice. “These protests specifically led to the labour department in Karnataka attempting to create legislation for gig workers in the state.” The issues covered under the legislation include health insurance in the event of accidents and fair wages. 

Seetharaman continues, “While this was the start of a much-needed legislation, post the pandemic these dialogues have stopped.” 

Needless to say, post the pandemic is when this legislation was needed the most. 

Ajit (name changed), a 36-year-old delivery partner for Swiggy, points out how Swiggy has reduced the per-delivery rate since March. “Earlier, I used to get Rs 15 per delivery, and now I get paid Rs 12.” He explains how this change has immensely impacted his finances. “I can’t afford to pay for my children’s school fees this year. It doesn’t make sense to pay Rs 3000 for 4 hours of online class a month, when we need that money for food and rent.”

When workers try and speak up about such issues, they face harsh consequences from their employers. Ramesh explains, “Myntra has cut the per-delivery rate from Rs 15 to Rs 11 this year. When some workers tried to complain about this [to their managers], they were assigned fewer deliveries in a day. Few others were even fired.” This points towards a larger issue of lack of agency, that most gig workers are subjected to. 

While the platforms tout delivery work as ‘flexible’, implying that their ‘delivery partners’ can choose the number of hours they work, this is often not the case. Ramesh continues, “The per-delivery rates are so low, we are forced to accept any and all orders that we are assigned, at any time of the day.” Despite this, Ramesh still falls short of the income needed to pay rent and other utilities. This has led him to take up a second job as a delivery partner for Amazon.

The platforms also deny their delivery partners other benefits like health insurance and pension. While Swiggy has promised insurance to its workers in case they test positive for COVID-19, Ramesh seems sceptical. “We did not sign any contract for this, nor were we told about how much money we would get [in the event of testing positive for COVID-19.]” 

To address these issues, Seetharaman says that the way forward is “To define gig workers as workers of the formal economy.” This would give them the same protections as workers in other sectors, such as minimum wages and health insurance.

She points out that the recent Code on Social Security is a starting point for such legislation. This is because it has at least begun to define gig workers, and discuss their need for social securities. However, the Code does not make it compulsory for platforms to provide these social securities to their workers.

As the size of the gig economy (delivery services) continues to increase during the pandemic, and cases of wage slashing continue, there is an imminent need for stronger labour legislation. As Ramesh puts it, “Without us [delivery workers], these companies cannot continue to function. How is it fair that they get richer this year, while we struggle to survive?”

Image credits: Forbes

Samyukta is a student of Economics, Finance and Media Studies at Ashoka University. In her free time, she enjoys discovering interesting long-form reads and exploring new board games.

Rohan Pai is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In his free time, you’ll find him singing for a band, producing music and video content.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

Categories
Issue 11

The New Abnormal by The Strokes

The latest album by New York-based rock band The Strokes generated a lot of buzz and excitement, both among fans and critics. After a gap of almost seven years, The New Abnormal was released on April 10, 2020, through Cult and RCA Records. Critical appreciation for the album peaked when it won the 2021 Grammy Award for the Best Rock Album of the Year. Like most of The Strokes’ discography, the album falls in an indie rock or alternative rock genre. Singer-songwriter Julius Casablancas received a lot of critical appreciation for the development of his lyrics, as well as his singing style, with a special improvement in his falsetto as we see in a number of songs in the album. The reason The New Abnormal should be on your list is because it is both a classic form of The Strokes’ music as well as packed with new elements that make it stand out amongst other indie rock albums. The singles “The Adults Are Talking” and “Eternal Summer” received praise for the mature lyrics addressing issues such as the generation gap in American society, and forest fires in light of global warming. The music is quintessential to the band, with duelling guitar riffs and an 80s-rock vibe throughout the album. Through the seven-year hiatus, fans witnessed Casablancas and other band members pursue individual projects that they seemed more invested in. However, the band finally got together for The New Abnormal and were even credited for sounding “more in cohesion”. With last year’s unprecedented turn of events due to the global pandemic, The New Abnormal is apt for listening not just because of the relevance of its name but also because of its ability to capture the uncertainty of our times. 

Picture Credits: Twitter

Akanksha Mishra is a student of political science and international relations at Ashoka University. 

Categories
Issue 11

Examining India’s Falling Rank on the World Happiness Index

Sydney J. Harris rightly said, “Happiness is a direction, not a place” and today all economies in the world are struggling to walk in this direction. A step to achieve this was taken in the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network in 2012 when they adopted resolution 65/309: Happiness: Towards a Holistic Definition of Development. This was done to invite the 149 member countries to measure the level of happiness among their population and use these numbers to guide public policy. Although the World Happiness Reports have been based on a wide variety of data, the most important source has always been the Gallup World Poll, which is unique in the range and comparability of its global series of annual surveys.

Finland has been ranked number 1, being the happiest country in the world for the past few years. India has always been very low on the happiness index, averaging around 125th. In fact, in 2021, India was ranked 139 out of 149 countries. The results of the happiness index are correlated with a lot of factors including GDP, social security, personal freedom, life expectancy and opinions of residents among others. 

As former President, Dr Pranab Mukherjee commented, “Despite our country’s economic progress, India is constantly going downwards in the happiness index. This indicates a lack of a holistic approach towards development.” According to him, the best step that the policymakers of the country should take is to adopt the ‘triple bottom line’ accounting framework. It focuses on all essential aspects of holistic development of individuals including social, ecological and financial development. This also implies that happiness is weakly correlated with wealth and the economic growth of a country. 

According to the economist and author Jayshree Sengupta, India has been ranked poorly on the happiness index due to various reasons. Some of these are rapid urbanization and congestion in cities, concerns about food security and water safety, rising costs of healthcare, women’s safety, and environmental pollution, which itself is linked to poor mental wellbeing. These conditions have worsened over time and were amplified due to the Covid-19 crisis. 

The ever-growing inequality between the rich and poor of the country is another crucial reason for the chronic unhappiness. During the Covid crisis,  India reportedly added 40 new billionaires to the global list while about 57% of the working class in the country were on the verge of losing their jobs. This growing pay gap in the population has worsened the mental wellbeing and hence the happiness of the population. 

A statistical exercise using variables like GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, perceptions of corruption and dystopia was done to understand the relationship of these indices with the happiness index. It found that all these variables are statistically significant and thus have  significant explanatory power. They  illustrate that on average richer countries fare better on subjective evaluations of life circumstances, as do nations with more social support, lower levels of corruption etc. 

Why India, despite its high level of economic growth ranks so low is because it ranks very low on some of these indices. For social support, India is ranked 142nd out of 149 countries. However, if we consider Pakistan’s ranking on all of these individual indicators, it is very similar to India and worse in some cases. According to this, India should be ranked one spot above Pakistan but that is not the case. Pakistan is ranked 105 while India is ranked at 139. This points out to predictive anomalies that this model has. 

One reasonable explanation for this could be that people in India have higher expectations and thus also have greater disappointment. This is one of the very crucial reasons for the low happiness ranking in India in addition to the increasing income inequality and feelings of injustice and unfairness because of the structure of the society and its history. Thus, better political leadership and public policy framework in India are essential for improving the happiness index of people in India. 

Picture Credits: Visual Capitalist

Aanya Poddar is a third year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She is pursuing a BSc. (Honors) in Economics and Finance. She is the President of the Ashoka Economics Society.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).