Categories
Issue 12

An extract from India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present

Chapter 1: page 16-18

“The postmodernists would like us to believe that Indian history is what we make it or are the narratives that we choose to tell ourselves and believe. I beg to differ. History is like a map, an imperfect reflection of a larger objective reality that, over time and with improvements in the historian’s art, becomes clearer and more representative of an objective reality that did exist and certainly seemed to exist to earlier generations in history. That map is important to us in looking at India’s foreign and security policies because we choose, decide, and act on the basis of the map of our own experience, or the history, that we carry in our heads. Perception matters. And when perception does not match objective reality, policy errs or fails.

The problem is that several generations in India have been taught a version of history that ignores that India has for much of its past been well connected to the world and its prosperity and security have waxed and waned in direct proportion to that link. That may be because the regions that undertook these contacts with the rest of the world, what historians call coherent core areas, that is, areas characterized by stable, long-term political and cultural institutions, such as Bengal and Gujarat and the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, have been ignored or downplayed in these historical narratives in favor of the relatively insular Indo-Gangetic plain and the region around Delhi, partly because a version of Indian history written by those loyal to the British empire dominated the field. It is only in the last few years that younger scholars have begun to study these less recognized regions seriously.

The simplistic history written by historians loyal to the British empire legitimized British rule by making Indian history a continuous sequence of alien empires and conquerors. This saga of empires was periodized by religion, and caste was emphasized, disregarding the fact that the ruling elite was always of mixed religious persuasion and origins, and that assimilation and social mobility were both possible and practiced.

It amazes me that some Indians—despite having been shown alternative and more cogent lines of enquiry—persist in this religious characterization and accept the simplified history foisted on us. Certain historians and writers in India still contribute to the misrepresentation of India in history as an autonomous world apart, driven by religion and its own logic, and different from the rest of the world. One has only to look at the practice and the linkages with the world of the Mauryas, Kushanas, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, and Moghuls to see how misleading this representation is. And these entities were carrying on a tradition of engagement stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, the Roman empire and the Mediterranean Sea, central Asia, China, and southeast Asia inherited from the Indus valley civilization in the third and second millennium BCE. India was not “a world apart,” but a complex civilization involved in myriad exchanges—of goods, ideas, and peoples—with the surrounding world.

But this is only one part of India’s true geopolitical inheritance. Kalidasa described the ideal rulers of the Raghukula as asamudra kshitiesanam, or those whose territories extended to the sea shore. The Satavahanas used the title Trisamudrapati, or Lords of the Three Seas. Including the history of the other regions in our consideration gives us a very different historical legacy that forms an increasingly important element of our strategic culture and driver of our policy choices. If you see Indian history as Delhi-centered, you will make the mistake that many of us make, of believing, as K. M. Panikkar said, that “India has, throughout history, had trouble arousing much interest in the world beyond its borders,” which he contrasted to British attentiveness to developments around the Raj. The coastal tradition in India, on the other hand, has seen outward projections of power, influence, and culture throughout its history.

Once you include southern and western India and Bengal and Orissa, the strength of India’s links with the rest of the world, going back to 2600 BCE, become clear. Ptolemy attests to this in the second century CE, while Pliny in mid-first century CE grumbles about gold and silver draining away to India from the Roman empire for luxury goods, a problem that the British also had in the early days of trading with India, until they discovered the uses of opium.

The reach and extent of the soft and hard power of non-Gangetic regions of India in both mainland and archipelagic southeast Asia are visible to this day in the great ruins of Angkor Wat and Borobudur, on the walls of the Vaikuntha Perumal temple in Kanchipuram and in Hampi, and in the living culture of our countries. The Cholas’ activist external policies and willing militarism enabled them to last from the third century BCE to the thirteenth century CE, longer than any dynasty in the Gangetic valley. Their example was actively followed by the Pandyan (sixth century BCE to twelfth century CE) and Pallava (third to ninth century CE) dynasties. The same is also true of the reach and influence of some Gangetic or Indus valley-based political entities like the Mauryas or Kushanas as the spread of Buddhism overland to the Pacific and the Mediterranean attests. Vijayanagara flourished and grew prosperous on its trade with central, west, and southeast Asia. The Mughals, for their part, played an active role in central Asian politics, too. This is a strong, continuous, and abiding legacy of engagement beyond the subcontinent. As long as the Indian Ocean was an open, competitive space, peninsular India was relatively secure. The Mughals punished the Portuguese for piracy by limiting their activity on land, advantaging their competitors, the English, French, Dutch, and Danes. When Britain managed a relative monopoly on trade in the Indian Ocean following the Carnatic Wars with the French, it became possible for Britain to translate maritime control into predominance on land.”

Shivshankar Menon is an Indian diplomat, who has served as the National Security Advisor to the Indian Prime Minister from January 2010 to May 2014. He has previously served as the Foreign Secretary of India (2006-09), High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka (1997-2000), and Pakistan (2003-06) as well as Ambassador of India to Israel (1995-97), and China (2000-2003). He is the author of “Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy” (2016), and “India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present” (2021). He is currently a Visiting Professor 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).

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).

Categories
Issue 3

Putting Civil Society In Its Place

Much has already been said on the most recent amendments to India’s Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). Op-ed writers have opined. Editors have pontificated. Civil society leaders have cried themselves hoarse, warning of the threat the amendments pose to both development and democracy.

Graphic from an article by Forbes India.

They all agree that the amendments are ill-conceived, ill-timed and probably ill-intentioned. It’s clear that the new provisions will deter international donors, cut smaller organisations’ access to overseas support, render nonprofit work in research, policy analysis, advocacy and capacity building more difficult and add considerable friction to transactions involving international funds. Few NGOs would survive the 360 days the law now afford enforcement agencies to freeze their finances and operations while they mount a prosecution, even if they are eventually proven entirely innocent of the charges. Many have pointed out the stark contrast between the ostentatious welcome provided to Foreign Direct Investment in the private sector and the minefield which international funding to civil society must traverse. Others have remarked on the relative opacity permitted to funds contributed to political parties via electoral bonds compared with the stringent scrutiny required of nonprofit incomes. For those seeking ease of doing philanthropy, one channel remains – the PM CARES Fund.

Graphic from The Hindustan Times

Less has been heard on the intent of the additional constraints the amendments impose. The government claims that international contributions to NGOs in India have been misused and that compliance with the onerous reporting required for such funds has been lacking. It has not, however, provided any evidence that the pre-amendment 2010 law was inadequate to the task of remedying such malfeasance. The cancelling of over 23,000 FCRA registrations since 2010 suggests otherwise. 

Coming on the heels of the praise lavished on NGOs by senior government functionaries for their outstanding humanitarian response to both, the COVID-19 pandemic and the nationwide distress caused by the summary measures taken to control its spread, the creation of new impediments to civil society work is nothing short of mystifying. As recently as October 17, 2020, the Prime Minister has sought to include civil society as a key partner in the plans to deliver coronavirus vaccines to all Indians.

What might one infer from these contradictions? Some clues might be discerned in the arguments put forth by senior government functionaries. They posit a ‘pure’ form of voluntary civil society action unsullied by formal organisational structures, partnerships with government or the addition of policy advocacy to the civil society repertoire. The government’s warmth towards this form of civil society action is manifest in its outreach to ‘service delivery’ NGOs for both, input to policy and to fill in the vast gaps in last mile public services from healthcare to education, skill development, sanitation and the like. It is also visible in the boundaries defined for the deployment of corporate philanthropy in the form of mandatory CSR. On the other hand, its intolerance for civil society work that focuses on human rights, environmental justice, amplifying muted voices, holding government or business to account, and defending democratic freedoms is equally evident in the kind of NGOs that have been singled out for punitive action, a list that includes Amnesty, Greenpeace, INSAF, Lawyer’s Collective and the like. 

The message is crystal clear. Comforting the afflicted is good, afflicting the comfortable is absolutely not. Silent, unquestioning delivery of services by nonprofits, and the philanthropy that supports such work, is fine, even praiseworthy. Any challenge to policy, in design or implementation, is unacceptable. Most Indian donors have proven themselves amenable to these restrictions, either because their own goals are in sync, or to protect themselves, their assets and their interests. International donors focused on augmenting government plans and programmes too will face no significant barriers. It is only the ‘black sheep’ who must be deterred, closely monitored, and made vulnerable to intimidation and harassment through a maze of regulatory hurdles.  

It is precisely for these reasons that the International Commission of Jurists has roundly condemned the new amendments to the FCRA as unconstitutional and in violation of international law on freedom of association. They echo the 2016 criticism by the first UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association who described the 2010 version of the FCRA as failing the test for allowable restrictions on the right to association developed by international human rights bodies.

It completes a vision of state, and executive, supremacy with every institution designed to counteract such untrammelled concentration of power reduced to cheerleader status at best, subservience at worst. At another time and place this vision was embodied in a slogan that has since come to signify some of humanity’s darkest deeds: ‘Ein Volk. Ein Reich. Ein Führer.’

Parliament, the media and, arguably, the judiciary have all been corralled to varying degrees. Women, Dalits, Muslims and other minorities are regularly reminded of their ‘aukat’. Civil society too, is being shown its place.

Ingrid Srinath is Director of the Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy at Ashoka University. The views expressed here are entirely personal.

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
Uncategorized

Should India’s environment laws give the State so much power?

By Mansi Ranka

The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) rolled out the draft Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification in March 2020 and introduced changes to environmental governance for the country. These changes focus on making environmental clearance a swift and easy process while giving public consultation a backseat.

The draft has led to widespread public concern. About 100 environmental groups and individuals have opposed draft EIA 2020, calling it anti-environment and anti-people. One of the main causes for distress in the new draft is an exemption from prior environmental clearance to about 40 different industries like clay and sand extraction, solar thermal power plants and common effluent treatment plants. This ex post facto environmental clearance puts aside the primary goal of environmental protection to focus on achieving ease of business. In April, the Supreme Court held that such practice would be detrimental to the environment and that development must be approached through an “ecologically rational outlook”.

The other main cause of concern is the dilution of public consultation. The new draft exempts projects from the public hearing, an important opportunity for local communities to learn about the project and demand social obligations from them. This gives the corporations power to officially evade local development needs, which were anyway rarely met. environmentalists have accused the government of using EIA to expand their own political control by favouring corporations by legitimising environmentally degrading projects.

The new EIA draft incorporates systemic weakness into the law, making environmental violations the norm for corporations. The Ministry does not even pretend to see EIA as anything more than a bureaucratic instrument to make environmental clearance (EC) easier. 

Environmentalists have been arguing for the need to strengthen environmental law more than ever, as we are already experiencing climate change in the havoc wreaked by floods nationwide. The letter sent to the MOEFCC also proposes that we go back to the EIA 2006 notification. But in reality, that is not all that better either.

The MOEFCC is currently reviewing the public comments that they have received on the draft. Right now, it is important to think about what it is that will really help strengthen the environmental law in our country. How can the law ensure that big corporate profit does not override people’s welfare and environmental protection?

The state controls the distribution of state-owned natural resources. What is the safeguard against the exploitation of this power? What if the government allocates natural resources in a way that contradicts public welfare?

A similar question was brought up before the Supreme Court, in the 2011 public interest litigation after the 2G scam. The PIL raised questions about the State’s ownership of natural resources and their fair distribution. The judgement clarified the Supreme Court’s position on who distributes natural resources by saying, “Natural resources belong to the people but the State legally owns them on behalf of its people and …  is empowered to distribute natural resources.” So, the State has the power to decide what happens to natural resources. But on what basis does the state decide? The judgement goes on to say, “while distributing natural resources, the State is bound to act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust and ensure that no action is taken which may be detrimental to the public interest.”

Thus, as long as we trust the Indian State to “act in consonance with the principles of equality and public trust”, we can be certain that it will distribute natural resources for the “common good”. The judgement concludes that the State should be the trustee or guardian of the people in general, and hence be responsible for natural assets.

Trusteeship is a Gandhian socio-economic idea, which holds that wealthy people should be the trustees and ensure the general welfare of the poor people. The theory relies on Gandhi’s conviction that capitalists aren’t beyond redemption and the wealthy could be persuaded to help the poor by becoming more egalitarian.

Now, the Indian State is supposed to act as this trustee and ensure common good. How does the state define this ‘common good’? Historically, the state has not acted in ways that can foster this kind of trust. The state has often wished to ascertain huge profits through corporations by allowing them to monopolise. This is obvious in the draft EIA 2020. The “common” good then becomes economic development by few big players. This is excluding the very people it was supposed to act as trustee for. And yet, the State can claim to handover natural resources for exploitation to a few players in the name of common good and public trust.

Furthermore, the draft EIA is pushing for people to be excluded from participating in this process, making the idea of common good paternalistic. The tilting of the scale to give the trustee unchecked power is possible under this idea of trusteeship. This is because in Gandhi’s theory it heavily relies on subjective goodness in the capitalist, the trustee, to act for general welfare. It is necessary to question this of trusteeship. Can the state function as a true trustee without mechanisms to ensure accountability and transparency?

Mansi is a student of philosophy and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include performing arts, politics and octopuses.

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
Uncategorized

National Education Policy 2020: Implications for Students with Disabilities

By Monika Bhalvani

Since its inception, the Indian education system has been primarily built on an ableist framework. A multiplicity of factors, including inaccessible infrastructure, lack of inclusive teaching and learning practises, rigid academic curriculum, have played a contributing role in systematically leaving out a majority of students with disabilities from the education system early on. The detrimental effects of these are shown through a steep decline in the enrolment and retention rate of students with disabilities after completing their primary school. Because of this, about 45% of people with disabilities are uneducated and  62.9% of them between the ages of 3 and 35 have never attended regular schools.

While this form of an education system structurally denies students with disabilities their basic right to education, the recently drafted National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) provides a ray of hope. The draft states, “Children with disabilities will be enabled to fully participate in the regular schooling process from the Foundational Stage to higher education.” This focus on creating a thorough support system right from an early age opens up multiple avenues for students with various forms of disabilities to be integrated into the regular schooling system. The new NEP is built on the foundational pillars of access, equity, quality, affordability, and accountability, that promises a learning environment that is conducive to the learning needs of students with various disabilities. 

The NEP 2020 endorses the recommendations from the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (RPWD) Act 2016, and states, “Barrier free access for all children with disabilities will be enabled as per the RPWD Act 2016”. This recognition of the RPWD act and its provision to enable an inclusive system that is adapted to meet the learning needs of students with various forms of disabilities is in itself a major form of victory for the disabled community. Along with this, the draft explicitly talks about how the inclusion of students with learning disabilities will also be ensured, and teachers would be helped to identify such learning conditions early on. The emphasis laid on the need for developing an inclusive education system that caters to the needs of students with both visible and invisible disabilities prompts that we have indeed come a long way in our fight to promote inclusion in the education system.

Picture Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons ( changes made)

While laying this foundation stone for inclusion, the NEP 2020  brings forth certain points that would be taken into consideration during the planning and implementation process. Some of the important recommendations include recruitment of teachers with cross-disability training, usage of assistive devices and appropriate technology-based tools to integrate students with disabilities into classrooms, providing flexibility for all students with different disabilities to learn and grow at their own pace with appropriate assessment and certification. While enabling this, it also gives due importance to training teachers on inclusive pedagogies that cater to the varied needs of students. Focusing on the need for implementation of peer sensitization programmes, it says, “The school curriculum will include, early on, material on human values such as respect for all persons, empathy, tolerance, human rights, gender equality, non-violence, global citizenship, inclusion, and equity.” Implementation of all these points could create a stimulatory environment for students with disabilities to integrate and grow in a regular classroom setting. 

While we have come this far in terms of policy documentation and it’s surely a welcome step, there is still a long way for us to go. Given the complex nature of how different disabilities manifest, we need to take into account multiple factors at both the planning and implementation stages in this process. In doing so, we need to take into consideration a lot of issues that the NEP 2020 misses out on, and discuss how it can be tackled and developed further. 

Firstly, the NEP emphasizes on how teachers will be trained and students will be sensitized. However, what is majorly lacking here is the involvement of students with disabilities themselves in the process of devising policies. Time and again, the disability rights campaign, “Nothing about us, without us”, has emphasized the need to allow full and active participation of people with disabilities while developing or implementing any policies for them. Thus, it is extremely crucial to actively involve students with various disabilities in understanding the specific areas of concerns and plan strategies to tackle that during the planning phase. 

Secondly, we need to pay utmost attention to the way the changes in NEP 2020 pertaining to students with disabilities will be implemented. Our existing education structure, built on an ableist framework, provides very limited scope for students with various disabilities to engage and fully participate in any classroom setting. There needs to be due thought and consideration given to how the proposed changes in the new NEP will be integrated into the existing education structure that we have in place. 

Thirdly, and most importantly, the NEP 2020 completely misses out on the various intersections that exist in the disabled community itself in terms of gender, caste, class, and socio-economic backgrounds. While making a comprehensive policy for students with disabilities, it is important to ask questions that cut across all these aspects. For instance, given that gender is one of the big determinants of increase in drop-out rates from school, we need to consider the provisions that will be made for female students with disabilities to retain them in the education system. Therefore, using an intersectional lens to rethink the existing education policies and the NEP 2020 would help in bringing about desired outcomes in the education system. 

It can be said that the quest for developing an inclusive education system has just started, but there is a lot more that needs to be achieved moving forward. After all, it is the inclusive mindsets and increasing focus on grassroots-level research in this area that would determine if we are moving in the right direction in building an inclusive education system– a system that embraces the differences that each student brings and fosters positive growth right from the beginning.

Monika Bhalvani is the assistant manager of the Office of Learning Support 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).