All Newspaper editorials in one place – February 03, 2024





February 3, 2024

Population priorities

No survey can substitute the Census, yet to be conducted for this decade


In what was an intriguing statement in her Interim Budget speech, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that a high-powered committee will be constituted to consider the challenges arising from “fast population growth and demographic changes”. With the Union government repeatedly postponing the decennial Census — it has not been conducted for the first time in a decade since 1881 — there is no direct evidence to support this statement. It is evident that India is now the most populous country, but the Sample Registration System statistical report in 2020 and the National Family Health Survey-5 (2019-21) have shown that the total fertility rate (TFR) in India has fallen to 2 overall, with only a few States — Bihar (2.98), Meghalaya (2.91), Uttar Pradesh (2.35), Jharkhand (2.26) and Manipur (2.17) — having a TFR above 2.1. Clearly, the high population growth of the kind seen in the 20th century has been largely arrested — the TFR fell from 5.7 in 1950 to 2 in 2020, albeit differentially across regions. The population share of the southern States, reduced to 21% in 2011 from 26% in 1951, largely a consequence of a rapid reduction in TFR due to better socio-economic outcomes and education, and despite higher migration to these States. While the surveys mentioned are robust and necessary, they are no substitute for the comprehensive Census; the continued delay in its implementation reflects poorly on the Union Home Ministry that is motivated by other priorities rather than executing a vital programme of Indian governance.


The demographic shift in India and rising life expectancy have resulted in challenges and opportunities. The much touted demographic dividend — the relatively high proportion of the working age population in the developing world — is meaningful only if there are sufficient jobs and if they enjoy some degree of social security that will help them when they age. With high unemployment and the creation of non-farm jobs, which will increase productivity and cater to skilled employment, relatively slack in the last few years, there is the possibility of the country squandering this dividend. The “high-powered” committee will be performing a crucial role if it engages meaningfully in addressing questions related to jobs and social security and the challenges citizens face due to rapid urbanisation and mechanisation of work. However, if the committee focuses on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s pet bogies of looking at population issues through the lens of religion and immigration, it will only distract governance from making use of the fast eroding democratic dividend in the country.






February 3, 2024

Two states

Britain has the historical responsibility to recognise a Palestine state


British Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s remarks that the United Kingdom is considering recognising the Palestine state signals a change in the thinking of at least a section of the British government towards the Palestine question after the Israel-Hamas war of October 7. The comment triggered criticism within Conservative Party circles, with Downing Street stating later that the British government’s policy towards the issue had not changed. Yet, the debate, which included reports in the American media that the State Department is reviewing options for possible recognition of the Palestine state, suggests that the Palestine question is back at the centre of the political parleys of the major powers. Before October 7, Israel, its Arab partners and western allies thought they could ignore the Palestine question and go ahead building a new West Asia. Hamas attacks and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza show that finding a solution to the Palestine question is an imperative for peace and stability in a strife-stricken West Asia. And, one of the globally recognised and practical pathways to peace is a two-state solution — a viable, independent, sovereign Palestine state created with international recognition.


Britain has a historical responsibility to push for a solution. The British government was the first major power that recognised the Zionists’ claim to the land of Ottoman Palestine. In 1917, during the First World War, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, supporting the creation of “a homeland” for the Jewish people “in Palestine”. The declaration gave a major boost to the Zionist movement, promoting Jewish migration from Europe and the building of settlement communities in historical Palestine (Ottoman and British), culminating in the creation of Israel in 1948. At least from the Oslo process of the early 1990s, there were multiple diplomatic attempts in finding a mutually acceptable two-state solution, but which were futile as Palestine remained under occupation. Today, there are roughly 7,00,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and Gaza is being destroyed by Israel. Israeli leaders, including Benjamin Netanyahu, have repeatedly rejected the two-state solution, while the far-right settlers are pushing for the control of the whole of Palestinian territories. This is an unsustainable scenario, producing cycles of violence and instability. The two-state proposal is already on its deathbed, given the mushrooming of settlements, growing violence, and the rise of far-right extremists in Israel and Islamist militants in Palestinian territories. If the British government realises its historical responsibility, does a reality check of its current policy and becomes ready to offer a political horizon to the Palestinians, it would be a welcome step.






February 3, 2024

In the dock

Mark Zuckerberg has apologised to parents of children victimised on Meta platforms. It is not enough


IN HIS EIGHTH appearance before the US Congress, Mark Zuckerberg — CEO of Meta, the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — finally said sorry. Turning to the gallery filled with parents of children who had faced abuse on and through social media — some even committed suicide — Zuckerberg said: “No-one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.” An apology is never wasted. In this case, though, it is far from enough. Earlier this week, the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, Snapchat and Discord appeared before a bipartisan committee of the US Senate to answer for how these platforms are used by predators against children. The issue, however, does not concern the US alone but parents, policy-makers and society, including and especially in India.


Between 2021 and 2023, at least two whistleblowers — Frances Haugen and Arturo Bejar — revealed that Meta has long been aware of the fact that its products cause harm to children and young people. An investigation by The Guardian in 2023 found in Meta’s internal documents that 1 lakh minors, a majority of them female, face some form of harassment on its platforms every day. Platforms and apps are used by predators to “groom” minors and as a tool for human trafficking. Two companion Amnesty International reports published in 2023 highlighted “the abuses experienced by children and young people using TikTok, and how these abuses are caused by TikTok’s recommender system and the underlying business model”. Time and again, studies, reports and leaked documents have shown that social media platforms, reliant as they are on “engagement” and “attention”, have not done enough to address the harms caused by their amoral algorithms.


India has over 600 million smartphone users, and teenagers are among the fastest-growing segments within this category. These figures, along with data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), present a chilling picture of the potential scale of minor abuse. According to the NCRB, about 28 percent of the entire minor population has faced some form of sexual abuse, but many victims do not come forward to register a complaint. Despite this, in 2022 alone, 38,911 child rape and nearly 3,500 cases of sexual exploitation online were reported. Given these figures, it would be naive at best and negligent at worst for social media platforms not to hold themselves to account. India, despite being the largest market for Meta, has fewer content moderators – both proportionally and in absolute numbers — than the US or Europe. This must be addressed. It is also important to have mass awareness and education campaigns on safe and responsible smartphone use for parents and children, in schools and beyond, especially in non-metro towns and villages. Law enforcement too needs the requisite resources and training to deal with crimes online — even as the police finds its feet on social media misuse, Al-created deepfakes are becoming increasingly common. The Big Tech bosses in Silicon Valley have often used the excuse that their products are “platforms, not publishers” to escape accountability for their misuse. That argument is increasingly wearing thin.





February 3, 2024

Language & learning

CBSE’s new plan has possibilities for improving skill acquisition. But it must ensure that old faultlines are not reopened


According to a report in this newspaper, the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) has proposed a major overhaul in the academic framework for secondary and higher secondary education. Students will be required to study three languages — instead of two — till Class X, at least two of which must be native Indian languages. At the higher secondary level, students will have to study two languages instead of one, at least one of which must be a native Indian language. Secondary-level students will now have to clear 10 subjects, as opposed to the current requirement of five. Graduating from high school will require clearing six subjects, instead of five. The shift is in accordance with NEP 2020’s objective of doing away with the rigid separation between academic and extracurricular streams. A credit bank system will ensure that the student is rewarded for skills obtained outside the classroom. The CBSE’s plan gives the learner the space to combine academic training with vocational education. It is, therefore, a welcome departure from pedagogic strategies that have contributed to the country’s skill deficit by devaluing hands-on training. The examination authority must, however, make sure that the new system does not impose an extra burden on already stretched students.


A wealth of scholarship has underlined that knowledge of multiple languages improves learning outcomes and helps skill acquisition. At the same time, the three-language formula remains a politically fraught issue, especially in South India, which has a long history of language-based sub-nationalism. The Tamil Nadu government, for instance, has opposed the NEP even though the policy does not require non-Hindi-speaking states to include the language in school curricula. Linguistic activists in the state fear the implementation of the three-language formula could push schools to teach Hindi because of the scarcity of teachers in other languages. When it was first framed in 1968, the formula envisaged teaching a modern Indian language, apart from Hindi and English till Class VIII in schools in North India. But Hindi-speaking states have never had more than a handful of schools with teachers who can teach Malayalam, Kannada or Tamil — or, for that matter, Bengali, Marathi or Gujarati. The CBSE’s proposal should occasion conversations on finding a greater play for the country’s linguistic diversity in school curricula.


The CBSE has not specified a time-frame for rolling out the new system. The agency must hold wide consultations before finalising its plan. It must ensure that all sensitivities are respected and old faultlines are not reopened.






February 3, 2024

Art of reaching out

Fairs dispel the notion of art as an elitist pursuit. It is enough to be curious


Activists may throw soup at the Mona Lisa or mashed potato at Les Meules, and ask if art is more important in the time of climate change, but the truth remains that the two need not be at odds with each other. Indeed, an appreciation of art might make one aware that it is more than an elitist pursuit. Taken out of the museum space, where it can often be intimidating for the uninitiated, it can be liberating; a marketplace, but also with room for new ways of seeing.


Take, for instance, the ongoing India Art Fair (IAF), where Goa-based new media artist Afrah Shafiq has a surprise waiting for her audience. She invites them to play a game — The Bride Who Could Not Stop Crying — that builds on her years of research on children’s books from the erstwhile Soviet Union and their vibrant images of bridal attires and South Asia’s history of dowry deaths. In Shafiq’s game, the wedding day is one of mourning, and how much the bride will cry will depend on the choices the audience makes.


In another booth, a 320 x 1320 cm Ai Weiwei in Woma blocks holds centrestage, a rare opportunity to see the dissident Chinese artist’s work up close. A third has a set of works by Gulammohammed Sheikh on the politics of language. In between, there are art tours for children and interactions with buyers. It is a world of expansive imagination, both evocative and provocative.


Every two years, the Kochi biennale draws in the city as a participant, converting streets and warehouses into venues to showcase a range of art. The IAF is more niche, with its emphasis on business, but its basic tenet is similar: At its core, art is democratic and one need not be a buyer or a connoisseur to appreciate it. It is simply enough to be curious.





February 3, 2024

Trust Is Key

Paytm bank’s repeated compliance issues pose big questions


Banking’s slow spread in India forced RBI to look for solutions. One approach was to create a class of banks with limited functions as potential applicants for it had a vast reach among the unbanked. Payments banks were one such class of banks.


Banking’s unique | But whatever the model, banking stands apart from other businesses. It functions on public deposits. Consequently, banks are tightly regulated because a problem in one bank can quickly undermine confidence in the entire system.


Paytm’s repeat issues | RBI on Jan 31 asked Paytm Payments Bank to stop fresh business. It’s the outcome of compliance problems. It was not the first time the bank has had problems. It faced a similar situation at the hands of RBI in 2022. Repeat issues on compliance point to a systemic problem in a financial entity.


‘Fit and proper’ | A test applied by RBI to potential banks is to see if they meet the fit and proper criterion. It’s another term for measuring credibility and integrity. This is not a one-time test. Banks need to always measure up.


Linkages in finance | Financial intermediaries tend to branch out to related businesses because of commonalities. Usually they carry on their businesses under a common brand name. Therefore, poor compliance in one business and consequent regulatory action will impact other businesses under the brand. Paytm is not just a payments bank. The brand is also a player in digital payments. RBI’s action is limited to the bank, but the uncertainty it triggers will affect related businesses.


Banking’s a business that will always be tightly regulated because of its sensitivity to the entire economy. Paytm’s record shows that’s a good thing. Whatever the business model, the criterion of fit and proper is non-negotiable.






February 3, 2024

Song Of Snow

It has returned to the hills, don’t drown it out


Things seem wrong when wintry cold embraces you in the plains but not in the mountains. When Delhi feels freezing and Shimla warm. Thankfully, weather gods are setting things right again. Northern hill states are finally seeing their first major snowfall of 2024.


Manali | Winter snowfall plays a crucial role in hill ecology. It nourishes the glaciers. This is why January’s freakishly dry spell that saw most of Himachal Pradesh register a 100% rain deficit, threatens cascading effects. From hurting apple harvests to helping forest fires. But the most widely discussed impact is on tourism. Because empty hotels and cancelled holidays grab the lion’s share of social media oxygen.


Gulmarg | It follows that when snow begins falling SM posts start snowballing. It takes no time for one couple’s grinning selfie to multiply into car-to-car choked roads, music blasting all the way. Gulmarg’s slopes packed ski-to-ski. One day the brownness of its winterland feels hurtful. Next day, the pristine snow enveloping it feels divine. But soon enough, fluorescent nylon costumes, tents and snack stalls leave nature back in the dust.


Elsewhere | Escape to hills is all about a serenity missing from our rickety-rackety cities. As a poet said, “White and weightless, snowfall makes no noise, falls as forgetting falls.” Our islands of peace are magical. Only sustainable tourism, hotels and highways will pass on this gift to future generations.





February 3, 2024

Eastern Mysticism to Eastern Materialism

Facilitate a winner in this bloc as a poster state


FM Nirmala Sitharaman has, in the interim budget, prioritised eastern India as a driver for economic growth. The region deserves special policy intervention. Per-capita income in the four states — Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal — are lower than the national average by 15-60%. The growth rate of per-capita income in Bihar is less than half that of Karnataka, India’s fastest-growing state. Odisha, the fastest-growing state in eastern India, is the only one growing significantly faster than the national average. These states house over a fifth of India’s population and constitute the tail in human development rankings. If India hopes to repeat the previous decade’s feat of doubling per-capita income, it will have to devote special attention to the region. Sitharaman’s announcement would indicate GoI is preparing to bridge the physical and social infrastructure deficit in this part of the country.


The region is strategically located for India to act as a bridge for trade between Asia and Europe. These states have to be better integrated logistically to keep production and transport costs low for India to emerge as a manufacturing export hub. Of course, eastern India is not a homogenous area. Policy will have to be tailored to specific states. Resource-rich Odisha and Jharkhand offer themselves to a manufacturing push. West Bengal has advantages in services. Bihar would benefit by stabilising its population growth faster and through higher social sector spending.


Reforms in welfare delivery and stepped-up capex offer GoI increased leverage to accelerate development of eastern India. Its growth record, however, acts as a serious impediment to weaning the region off its political compulsions to prioritise redistribution. New Delhi’s emphasis on growth has more than its share of sceptics here. The demonstration effect would be more powerful if the Centre could facilitate a winner in this bloc. Factors that led to the deindustrialisation of the region need to be addressed, alongside higher resource devolution.






February 3, 2024

Make PubTrans Cool, Even for Car People


India is getting wise on energy transition. Finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman signalled an increased focus on deploying electric buses in the public transport system in the interim budget. This is a step in the right direction towards a net-zero economy by 2070. This shift will be reflected in the third iteration of the subsidy scheme, Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric Vehicles (FAME III). Till now, public transport buses have been a small part of FAME — 7,000 buses in FAME II, which is about 3% of annual demand. For real impact, deployment of e-buses must be a spoke in the larger wheel transitioning towards low-carbon mobility.


Part of the plan is to reduce emissions of GHG and pollutants from road transport, improve energy efficiency, reduce congestion, create better urban centres and promote environmentally sustainable lifestyles. The resulting economies of scale will reduce costs, leading to faster adoption. This makes a broader mobility plan critical. GoI must nudge state governments to ask city authorities to develop mass public transport plans with buses at the core. A time-bound plan is needed to map cities for rationalising routes and create requisite infrastructure, organising manpower and systems to run an accessible, predictable, reliable public system. A transition plan for the existing fleet will help work out demand for manufacturing and life-cycle maintenance capacity.


The push for public transport buses must dovetail into LiFE (Lifestyle for the Environment) to make the financial outlay worthwhile. A plan to encourage people — including those who can well afford cars — to favour public transport must be developed. More public buses must become part of a plan to MPTG: Make Public Transport Great.





February 3, 2024

Yields benefits

Sharp cutback in fiscal deficit targets is timely


Apart from absence of populist announcements, the recent interim Budget also had another rare feature for an election year. It effected a sharp reduction in the Centre’s fiscal deficit target for FY25 to 5.1 per cent (of nominal GDP) from 5.8 per cent in revised estimates for FY24. This was well below market expectations of 5.3 per cent. Should this target be met, India’s fiscal gap will decline in absolute terms from ₹17.34-lakh crore in FY24 to ₹16.85-lakh crore in FY25.


This will allow a reduction in the Centre’s gross market borrowings from ₹15.43-lakh crore in FY24 to ₹14.13-lakh crore in FY25. These estimates took the bond markets by surprise and sent the benchmark 10-year government security rallying, its yield declining by a material 10 basis points, to 7.04 per cent. The decision to opt for quicker-than-expected fiscal consolidation seems wise on many counts. Despite the fiscal deficit moderating as a percentage of GDP from 9.2 per cent during Covid to 5.8 per cent in FY24, it has galloped in absolute terms. The fiscal gap used to be of the order of ₹7-lakh crore pre-Covid in FY20, but shot up to ₹17.34-lakh crore by FY24. This meant a sharp increase in the Centre’s recourse to market borrowings from ₹4.5-lakh crore in FY20 to ₹11.8-lakh crore in FY24.


Government borrowings of this order put upward pressure on market yields and escalated cost of capital for private borrowers. As the much-awaited take-off in private capex hinges on ability of banks and corporates to borrow at reasonable rates, it was prudent for the government to cut back on borrowings to cede some headroom to others. Ballooning borrowings have bloated interest payouts to ₹11.9-lakh crore, nearly a fourth of all Budget spending in FY24. With Indian government bonds set to be included in the JP Morgan GBI-EM Index from June this year and other index providers looking to follow suit, the government’s finances is likely to attract closer global scrutiny. Given the whimsicality of global investors, volatile flows can set off uncontrolled movements in domestic yields, not to speak of the rupee.


It was therefore prudent for the Centre to get its house in order before this event. Tighter-than-expected fiscal consolidation will also stand the government in good stead as it parleys with global rating agencies for a long-overdue sovereign upgrade. It is imperative for the Centre to adhere to its fiscal deficit and borrowing targets this year. While the nominal GDP growth (10.5 per cent) and tax buoyancy (1.1) assumptions in the Budget appear reasonable, the disinvestment target (₹50,000 crore) and cutbacks in subsidies, bear watching. It is to the credit of this regime that it has not treated Budget estimates as an exercise in wishful thinking.





February 3, 2024

No Editorials




February 3, 2024

Global headwinds

The subsidy numbers in the interim Budget do not fully reflect this difficult context


The interim Budget for FY25 has no doubt been crafted in a difficult international context. But the tone and tenor of the speech as well the official review of the Indian economy are upbeat on the resilience of the Indian economy to navigate through these challenging global developments, including ongoing wars and conflicts. There are escalating geopolitical tensions in West Asia, which can potentially make India’s oil imports costlier. The Red Sea disruption has raised concerns over reliance on global supply chains, further aggravating the slower growth in global trade. Exporting one’s way to growth thus will not be easy. The government of course is mindful that the elevated risk of geopolitical conflicts is an area of concern for the growth story.


The potential risk factors for the economy pertain to higher fuel prices as the country imports 85% of its requirements. Elevated oil prices raise the current account deficit and also hit growth. So far, a fortunate circumstance is that despite the raging war between Hamas forces and Israel’s army since October 7, global oil prices have not flared up. Though, in the initial weeks, Brent crude spot prices remained elevated at $90-plus a barrel, they have now settled down to lower levels of around $79-80 a barrel. The attacks on shipping in the Red Sea by Yemeni Houthi forces continue unabated. And as the conflict spills over from Israel to Lebanon and Syria and ultimately involves Iran, the outlook on global oil prices cannot be assumed to remain benign. Taken together with the fragmentation and disruption of supply chains, competition for critical minerals and technologies, the difficult global environment does pose serious risks to an important growth engine for the economy, notably exports. The interim Budget and the Indian economy review, however, appear bullish on the country’s prospects of dealing with them and growing at a rapid clip of 7%-plus in the future.


It is surprising that the subsidy numbers of the interim Budget do not fully reflect this challenging global conjuncture. Of course, it can be argued that this interim Budget is only meant to provide funding for essential expenditures for the first four months of the financial year before a new government takes over; that these numbers are not cast in stone and can be changed when the full Budget is presented. Yet, the under-provisioning of fertiliser, food and fuel subsidies does raise concerns.


Possibly, the government’s confidence is because it has dealt with the post-pandemic crises in sky-rocketing fertiliser and fuel prices and, hence, the overall subsidy burden has been estimated to decline from 1.4% of GDP in FY24 to 1.2% of GDP in FY25, led by a 13% decline in fertiliser subsidies, 3% in food and 2.6% in petroleum. It is quite possible that increasing domestic production of fertilisers is contributing to the expected lower subsidy bill. For example, import of urea, the most commonly used fertiliser in India, is at 4-5 million tonnes this fiscal, lower than the 7.5 mt imported in the previous year. Even then, the question still lingers: While there has been an upward revision in the revised estimates of fertiliser subsidies in FY24 to protect farmers from the negative effects of an increase in global fertiliser prices, why then should there be an actual fall in the interim Budget numbers for FY25?


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