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TODAY’S TALK ON EDITORIALS CIVILS360

AUGUST 8, 2017

A gathering crisis

  • The water crisis India faces is of such a magnitude that urgent measures are necessary to address it.
  • The primary source of domestic water and irrigation is groundwater but the media and policymakers still and often focus on surface water. This needs to change as water tables have been falling rapidly in many parts of the country, indicating that use generally exceeds replenishment.
  • One of the underlying reasons for excessive use of groundwater is the legal framework governing access to the resource.
  • Access to a source of groundwater has progressively become a source of power and economic gain. The latter has become increasingly visible in recent decades with the propagation of mechanical pumps, which allows big landowners to sell water to others.

An inadequate framework

  • The States that now have groundwater legislation based on the model Bill conceptualised in 1970 have on the whole failed to manage to address the problem of falling water tables due to increasing use. In addition, there is no provision in the existing legal regime to protect and conserve groundwater at the aquifer level.
  • The quality of the water pumped is increasingly becoming cause for concern; thus the worry is about accessing a sufficient amount of groundwater that is not harmful to health.
  • Groundwater (Sustainable Management) Bill, 2017, which is based on current understandings of groundwater and its links with surface water and on the legal framework as it has evolved since the 19th century.

Based on decentralisation

  • The Groundwater Bill, 2017 consequently proposes a different regulatory framework from the century-old, outdated, inequitable and environmentally unfriendly legal regime in place.
    • It is based on the recognition of the unitary nature of water, the need for decentralised control over groundwater and the necessity to protect it at aquifer level.
    • The Bill is also based on legal developments that have taken place in the past few decades.
    • This includes the recognition that water is a public trust (in line with the oft-quoted statement that groundwater is a common pool resource), the recognition of the fundamental right to water and the introduction of protection principles, including the precautionary principle, that are currently absent from water legislation.
    • The Bill also builds on the decentralisation mandate that is already enshrined in general legislation but has not been implemented effectively as far as groundwater is concerned and seeks to give regulatory control over groundwater to local users.
  • A new regulatory regime for the source of water that provides domestic water to around four-fifths of the population and the overwhelming majority of irrigation is urgently needed.
    • The proposed new regime will benefit the resource, for instance through the introduction of groundwater security plans, and will benefit the overwhelming majority of people through local decision-making.
  • Overall, the increasing crisis of groundwater and the failure of the existing legal regime make it imperative to entrust people directly dependent on the source of water the mandate to use it wisely and to protect it for their own benefit, as well as for future generations.

 

Raging rupee

  • The Indian rupee has turned out to be one of the best-performing currencies in the world with a gain of well over 6% against the U.S. dollar this year to date.
  • In fact, the currency hit a two-year high of 63.60 last Wednesday, supported by strong inflows of foreign capital.
  • According to the Reserve Bank of India, foreign portfolio investors invested $15.2 billion in India’s equity and debt markets this year until the end of July.
  • In addition, foreign direct investment in April-May doubled compared to last year. Such generous inflow of capital, of course, is in sharp contrast to 2013 when the tightening of policy by the U.S. Federal Reserve had rattled the rupee.
  • Another major contributor to the rupee’s strength is the RBI’s hawkish stance, which has pushed down domestic retail inflation to a record low of just around 2%. This has spilled over to influence the external value of the rupee as well.
  • Oil prices remaining stable at around the $50 mark too has helped as Indians have had to shell out fewer rupees on oil imports. This is reflected in the improved current account deficit, which stood at 0.7% of GDP in 2016-17 compared to almost 4.8% in 2012-13.
  • Notably, worries about the impact of a strong rupee on exports have risen in tandem — particularly in sectors such as pharma and information technology. There is little doubt that an appreciating rupee will affect the competitiveness of Indian exporters.
  • In fact, it is estimated by UBS that each 1% appreciation in the external value of the rupee causes earnings of Nifty companies to drop by 0.6%.
  • The rupee’s improving external value should be seen, at least in part, as a reflection of the improving quality of the currency. The central bank has thus clearly done well for now by not fiddling with the value of the rupee.
  • Going forward, tighter monetary policy in the West will invariably exert more pressure on the rupee. The RBI would then have to muster greater will to let the rupee find its natural value.

Pursued by danger

  • The issue of women’s safety comes under the national limelight with shameful regularity.
  • The recent incident of a woman being pursued at night by men in a car in Chandigarh is a reminder that neither law nor public odium is a sufficient deterrent to such crimes. They have been released on bail; Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code, which pertains to stalking, is a bailable offence.
  • This has attracted the criticism that the police did not invoke more stringent provisions.
  • The victim’s presence of mind to call the police in time foiled her pursuers’ designs, but not every woman may survive such an ordeal in the same manner. This is one reason why the police, as well as family and friends of the victim, ought to take complaints of stalking seriously, and act at an early stage.
  • As crimes against women go, stalking is far too often dismissed as harmless. However, it is important to understand how traumatic and inhibiting it is for a woman to be pursued with unsolicited interest, and for such stalking to be considered ‘normal’.
  • The hope that expanding the rigour and scope of penal laws would bring down crimes against women has, unfortunately, been belied often since then.
  • The Chandigarh incident reveals that a sense of privilege, flowing as much from gender as political influence, permeates the offenders’ actions.
  • One can only hope that society has advanced sufficiently to call out such victim-shaming. Stalking tends to dominate the public discourse only when it relates to well-known people or results in violence — this episode should compel a deeper understanding of how widespread this offence is, and how rarely offenders are brought to justice.

Privacy in the digital age

  • The current focus on the right to privacy is based on some new realities of the digital age. Personal spaces and safeties that were previously granted simply by physical separation are no longer protected.
  • The digital network enters the most proximate spaces and challenges the normally accepted notions of the private.
  • It brings into focus new means of exercising social, economic, and political power, and reducing of autonomies.

A positive right

  • A right is a substantive right only if it works in all situations, and for everyone.
  • A right to free expression for an individual about her exploitation, for instance, is meaningless without actual availability of security that guarantees that private force cannot be used to thwart this right.
  • The role of the state therefore is not just to abstain from preventing rightful free expression but also to actively ensure that private parties are not able to block it.
  • The state must retain an important part in the organisation of new social and economic structures, which requires it to play a significant role in the data ecosystem.
  • The public sector will, for instance, need to manage some infrastructural social and economic databases above which the private sector can run a competitive economy. Some of these will be in the form of “data commons”, which will require a properly institutionalised stewardship of the state.
  • Citizens will also require the assistance of a public interest agency to enable management of their personal data in a manner that they can obtain the best benefit of a data economy/society and its personalised services.

The role of the state

  • Framing of a right to privacy must not curtail the state’s due role in our collective digital futures. This will only ensure that global digital corporations become all-powerful economic, social and political actors. They already provide most of the digital services that appear to be of a public good nature, and in turn control and shape entire sectors.
  • The state must be directed by the Supreme Court to ensure that people’s right to privacy is actually available against these corporations as well. In most contexts, there is nothing voluntary in checking an online box giving away one’s privacy.
  • A citizen must have options to undertake basic digital functions like emailing, information search, social networking, etc. without sacrificing her privacy rights. This too is the state’s responsibility.