Officials in New Delhi are busy preparing to welcome representatives of the United Nations these days. People from various parts of the world will converge here on June 5 for the World Environment Day. This year’s theme is Beat Plastic Pollution. As the host, it is India’s responsibility to take a meaningful initiative on this issue. Though, plastic, in India, is only a part of the massive problem of pollution.
cological ruin is on a gallop across South Asia, with life and livelihood of nearly a quarter of the world’s population affected. Yet, our polities are able to neither fathom nor address the degradation. The distress is paramount in the northern half of the subcontinent, roping in the swathe from the Brahmaputra basin to the Indus-Ganga plain.
he spark for the week-long incidents of violence in downtown Shillong was a lie spread through WhatsApp, the ubiquitous messaging platform that has increasingly become an unfiltered medium for hate and rumour-mongering. A of the Mazhabi Sikh community, long-time settlers in the Punjabi Lane area of the city, and a Khasi youth and his associates over a local matter was amicably settled between representatives of the communities. But a fabricated story that the youth had succumbed to injuries sustained in the scuffle led to large numbers of Khasi protesters laying siege to Punjabi Lane, demanding that the Sikh residents move from the area. That the “settlers” have been in Shillong for more than a century and a half, having been originally brought there by the British colonials to work as manual scavengers, and have since integrated themselves within Shillong, has not insulated them from being described as outsiders. The administration did well to protect the dwellers of Punjabi Lane from physical harm, but mob violence persisted until and the Army put on stand-by. Spokespersons of the Khasi Students’ Union, whose members were part of the agitation, continue to insist that the Punjabi Lane residents be moved from Shillong’s commercial heart to its outskirts. Picturesque Shillong is no longer just an idyllic hill station; it is a bustling city that has grown in an unplanned manner and requires reforms such as zoning regulation. But the agitators’ demand to shift the Sikh residents is unreasonable and must be resisted. In fact, the Meghalaya High Court had stayed an order by the District Commissioner to evict the residents from Punjabi Lane (also known as Sweepers’ Colony) in 1986.
The board of ICICI Bank has finally acted on the allegations of misconduct against its CEO and managing director, . It had earlier maintained that she was on annual personal leave; now, she will stay away from the office till the completion of an inquiry into the charges levelled against her by a whistle-blower. Rather than allow the controversy to fester, the board of ICICI Bank, an institution that often sought to hold a mirror up to the inefficiencies of public sector banks, should have acted earlier. Till the inquiry is complete the bank will be steered by a new chief operating officer, Sandeep Bakhshi. The official version is that he will report to Ms. Kochhar, who herself took the decision to go on leave till the end of the inquiry — but this is at best a face-saving cover for a board that was reluctant to act since the controversy broke. Meanwhile, the tenure of M.K. Sharma, the chairman of the bank’s board, is set to end this month and there is still no clarity on his successor. This extended uncertainty in a crisis situation is unwarranted. ICICI Bank’s troubles are rooted in a 2016 complaint by an investor alleging a quid pro quo deal between Ms. Kochhar’s immediate family members and the Videocon group, which got a ₹3,250-crore loan from it. When this ‘conflict of interest’ complaint resurfaced in the public domain this year, Mr. Sharma said he had personally inquired into it two years earlier and found nothing amiss.
The Centre has announced the constitution of a committee to revisit several provisions of the Companies Act, 2013 that impose stiff penalties and, in some cases, prison terms as well, for directors and key management personnel. The 2013 law entailed the first massive overhaul of India’s legal regime to govern businesses that had been in place since 1956 and was borne of a long-drawn consultative process. Now, this 10-member committee appointed by the Corporate Affairs Ministry has been tasked with checking if certain offences can be ‘de-criminalised’. The panel, which includes top banker Uday Kotak, has been given 30 days to work out whether some of the violations that can attract imprisonment (such as a clerical failure by directors to make adequate disclosures about their interests) may instead be punished with monetary fines. It will also examine if offences punishable with a fine or imprisonment may be re-categorised as ‘acts’ that attract civil liabilities. Importantly, the committee has also been asked to suggest the broad contours for an adjudicatory mechanism that allows penalties to be levied for minor violations, perhaps in an automated manner, with minimal discretion available to officials. In fact, some of the provisions in the law are so tough that even a spelling mistake or typographical error could be construed as a fraud and lead to harsh strictures.
The decision by the Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Policy Committee to raise benchmark interest rates again by 25 basis points is a prudent one. This is the second successive rate increase in as many months, a response to mounting uncertainties on the inflation front. Continuing volatility in crude oil prices, the recent softening notwithstanding, and its vulnerability to geopolitical tensions and supply disruptions is one of the main risks to the inflation outlook. Among the RBI’s other concerns are volatile global financial markets, possibilities of fiscal slippage at the Central and State levels, the likely impact of the increase in the minimum support price for kharif crops, and the staggered impact of upward revisions to house rent allowance paid by State governments. Rainfall has so far been 6% below the long-period average and deficient over a wider area than last year — more than a fifth of the country’s 36 sub-divisions have reported shortfalls. This has resulted in a drop in the total sown area under kharif. The monetary authority has flagged the need to keep a close watch on rain over the remainder of the season, given the risks regional imbalances may pose to paddy output and CPI inflation. The June round of the RBI’s own survey of household inflation expectations reveals that families see prices hardening even further over both the three- and 12-month horizons. Domestic economic activity having strengthened to a point where the output gap has ‘virtually closed’, manufacturers polled by the central bank have reported higher input costs and selling prices over the April-June quarter.
The portents could not be clearer. With retail inflation having accelerated to 5% in June, the RBI has revised its projection for CPI inflation in the second half of the current fiscal year to 4.8%, from the June forecast of 4.7%, and now sees price gains accelerating to 5% in the April-June quarter of 2019. Policymakers on the MPC have understandably spotlighted the risks to the domestic economic rebound from global developments. While rising trade protectionism threatens to impact investment flows, disrupt global supply chains and hurt all-round productivity, depreciations in the value of most currencies against the strengthening dollar have rippled through many major advanced and emerging economies, spurring inflation across these markets. The MPC’s primary remit is to ensure that retail inflation stays firmly within a band of 2-6%, and preferably anchored at 4% over the medium term. So there is no room to quibble over the committee’s majority decision to raise borrowing costs while retaining a ‘neutral’ policy stance. With inflation widely accepted as a hidden tax on the poor, the containment of price gains justifiably ought to be the raison d’etre of monetary policy
The Constitution protects religious freedom in two ways. It protects an individual’s right to profess, practise and propagate a religion, and it also assures similar protection to every religious denomination to manage its own affairs. The legal challenge to the exclusion of women in the 10-50 age group from the Sabarimala temple in represented a conflict between the group rights of the temple authorities in enforcing the presiding deity’s strict celibate status and the individual rights of women to offer worship there. The Supreme Court’s ruling, by a 4:1 majority, that the exclusionary practice violates the rights of women devotees establishes the legal principle that individual freedom prevails over purported group rights, even in matters of religion. The three concurring opinions that form the majority have demolished the principal defences of the practice — that Sabarimala devotees have constitutionally protected denominational rights, that they are entitled to prevent the entry of women to preserve the strict celibate nature of the deity, and that allowing women would interfere with an essential religious practice. The majority held that devotees of Lord Ayyappa do not constitute a separate religious denomination and that the prohibition on women is not an essential part of Hindu religion. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Indu Malhotra chose not to review the religious practice on the touchstone of gender equality or individual freedom. Her view that the court “cannot impose its morality or rationality with respect to the form of worship of a deity” accorded greater importance to the idea of religious freedom as being mainly the preserve of an institution rather than an individual’s right.
Air pollution is choking several cities in the northern States once again, as changes in temperature and slowing winds trap soot, dust and fine particulate matter. The National Capital Region is badly hit, as the burning of agricultural residue in Punjab and Haryana is releasing large volumes of smoke containing, among other pollutants, highly damaging fine particulates, or PM2.5. The problem is aggravated by the burning of urban waste, diesel soot, vehicular exhaust, road and construction dust, and power generation. Although India has nine of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, it has not taken consistent action on pollution. Tens of millions live with ambient air quality that is well short of even the relaxed parameters the country has set for fine particulates, compared with those of the World Health Organisation. India should at least now give high importance to the WHO warning about air pollution being the new tobacco. This year’s ‘severe’ air quality rating for Delhi and poor conditions prevailing in other cities in the Indo-Gangetic Plain should compel a decisive shift in policy. The Centre and the State governments need to get into crisis mode to dramatically reduce emissions. They must address the burning of carbon, which is a direct source, and emissions with oxides of nitrogen and sulphur from vehicles that turn into fine particulates through atmospheric reactions. Failure to take sustainable and urgent measures will inflict long-term harm on public health, affecting children even more by putting them at higher risk for diseases.