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October 13, 2017

Saving child brides

  • By ruling that marriage cannot be a licence to have sex with a minor girl, the Supreme Court has corrected an anomaly in the country’s criminal law.
  • Under the Indian Penal Code, it is an offence to have sex with a girl below 18 years of age, regardless of consent. However, it made an exception if the girl was the man’s wife, provided she was not below 15. In other words, what was statutory rape is treated as permissible within a marriage.
  • By reading down the exception to limit it to girls aged 18 and older, the court has sought to harmonise the various laws in which any person under 18 is a minor. Overall, the judgment is in keeping with the reformist, and indisputably correct, view that early marriage is a serious infringement of child rights.
  • The judges draw extensively on studies that demonstrate child marriage is a social evil that adversely affects the physical and mental health of children, denies them opportunities for education and self-advancement, infringes on their bodily autonomy and deprives them of any role in deciding on many aspects of their lives.
  • As a move to strengthen the fight against child marriage and help stricter enforcement of the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act, 2006, the judgment cannot be faulted.
  • But the practical implications of the judgment are worrying. Are all men married to girls between the ages of 15 and 18 to be condemned to face criminal cases as rapists? Given the prevalence of child marriage in this country, it is doubtful whether it is possible — or even desirable — to implement the statutory rape law uniformly in the context of marriages.
  • What, for instance, does this mean for those married under Muslim personal law, which permits girls below 18 to be married?
  • The age of consent under the IPC was raised in 2013 from 16 to 18 to bring it in line with the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012. However, the age above which marriage is an exception to rape was retained at 15, as fixed in 1940.
  • POCSO criminalises even consensual teenage sexual activity and the latest ruling has brought this into the domain of marriage. A teenager could be prosecuted for a sexual offence under POCSO even if he was just a little above 18. In the same way, a teenage husband may now be threatened with prosecution for rape.
  • Significantly, if boys under 18 but over 16 are charged with penetrative sexual assault under POCSO or rape under the IPC, which can be termed ‘heinous offences’, they could face the prospect of being tried as adults, according to the juvenile law as it stands now. Treating all below 18 as children may be good for their care and protection, but whether 18 is the right age for consent in this day and age remains a moot question.
  • The state’s argument that given the widespread prevalence of child marriage it is not possible to remove the exception may be flawed from a formal standpoint, but its concerns about the implications of the verdict must not be underestimated.

Regulatory upgrade

Addressing the deficiencies in the Insecticides Act, 1968

  • Pesticides play an important role in sustaining agricultural production, and in controlling vectors responsible for diseases. However, on the flip side, they can be toxic. Therefore, what is needed is a top-notch mechanism to regulate the import, manufacture, sale, transport, distribution and use of insecticides with a view to preventing risk to human beings and animals. The Insecticides Act, 1968 was enacted to ensure this, until deficiencies in the statute caught the eye of several Parliamentary Committees and stakeholders.
  • The government said these loopholes include a lack of clarity on qualification for manufactures, sellers, stockists and commercial pest-control operators, larger representation of experts in the Central Pesticides Board and the Registration Committee, fixing tolerance limits of pesticides as a pre-condition of their registration, etc.
  • The Pesticides Management Bill of 2008, which is pending in Parliament, aims to cover this ground.
  • The statement of objects and reasons of the draft says that the proposed legislation, among others, intends to provide for an elaborate definition of pesticides to cover any substance of chemical or biological origin intended for preventing, destroying, repelling, mitigating or controlling any pest, including unwanted species of plants or animals, which will enable regulation of existing pesticides as well as new discoveries.
  • The statement says that the Bill proposes to address all aspects of development, regulation and quality monitoring, production, management, packaging, labelling, distribution, handling, application, use and control, including post-registration activities and disposal of all types of pesticides.
  • It would also define household pesticides, in order to prohibit their field applications and to enable delicensing of their retail sale for easy availability to the consumer. The Bill would provide for the effective and efficient working of the Central Pesticides Board and Registration Committee, fix tolerance limits of pesticides, detail the minimum qualification of licensees and accredit private laboratories to carry out any or all functions of the Central pesticides laboratory.
  • The Bill proposes stringent punishments to check production and sale of misbranded, sub-standard and spurious pesticides, besides, and most importantly, providing for the disposal of expired, sub-standard and spurious pesticides in an environment friendly and safe manner.

Averting disaster

  • In recent times, Category 5 hurricanes in the Caribbean and in the American mainland; record floods across Bangladesh, India and Nepal; and drought emergencies in 20 countries in Africa have damaged these regions, killed hundreds, and ruined the lives of millions. For those countries that are least developed, the impact of disasters can strip away livelihoods; for developed and middle-income countries, the economic losses from infrastructure alone can be massive; for both, these events reiterate the need to act on a changing climate, the effects of which have been revelatory.
  • While 4.2 million people dying prematurely each year from ambient pollution gets relatively little media attention, the effect of heat-trapping greenhouse gases on extreme weather events is coming into sharper focus. It could not be otherwise when the impacts of these weather events are so profound. During the last two years, over 40 million people, mainly in countries which contribute least to global warming, have been forced from their homes by disasters. There is clear consensus: rising temperatures are increasing the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere, leading to more intense rainfall and flooding in some places, and drought in others. Some areas experience both. TOPEX/Poseidon, the first satellite to precisely measure rising sea levels, was launched 25 years ago. Those measurements have observed a global increase of 3.4 millimeters per year since then; that’s a total of 85 millimeters over 25 years. Rising and warming seas are contributing to the intensity of tropical storms worldwide.

Tackle climate change

  • While the Paris Agreement has set the world on a long-term path towards a low-carbon future, it is a windy path that reflects pragmatism and realities in each individual country. Thus, while carbon emissions are expected to drop as countries meet their targets, the impacts of climate change may be felt for some time, leaving the world with little choice but to invest, simultaneously, in efforts to adapt to climate change and reduce disaster risk. This will require international cooperation. Restoring the ecological balance between emissions and the natural absorptive capacity of the planet is the long-term goal. It is critical to remember that the long-term reduction of emissions is the most important risk reduction tactic we have, and we must deliver on that ambition. The November UN Climate Conference in Bonn provides an opportunity to not only accelerate emission reductions but to also boost the work of ensuring that the management of climate risk is integrated into disaster risk management as a whole. Poverty, rapid urbanisation, poor land use, ecosystems decline and other risk factors will amplify the impacts of climate change. Today, on International Day for Disaster Reduction, we call for them to be addressed in a holistic way.

Will India get over its obsession with godmen?

  • The recent revelations about the ‘divine preoccupations’ of godmen in the sacred precincts of their ashrams have been appalling, not because they were bereft of such qualities in the past. From the time of the Maharaj libel case (1862) through the intrigues of Chandraswami and Dhirendra Brahmachari, to the contemporary saga of Dera Sacha Sauda and Asaram Bapu, the list is unending. But this time the incidents of sex, murder and mayhem, which were reportedly enacted in their ashrams, are lurid and startling. That the godmen were able to pursue their interests for years without attracting the attention of the state is perhaps not surprising, given the nexus between political power and religious establishments, but it is reprehensible.
  • The unflinching faith of the followers in the divinity of godmen is the latter’s main capital, which is assiduously constructed over time. Under coercion or consent, the devotees appear to submit to the extortion or exploitation of godmen. Contemporary India looks like a modern country with scientific establishments, and high-speed trains and expansive highways, but set in a social situation reeking of medievalism, caste discrimination, religious obscurantism, gender inequality and superstitions.

Modernity and irrationality

  • The coexistence of modernity with irrationality and obscurantism, which has often been dismissed as a passing phase of a society in transition, has been the hallmark of independent India. The ruling elite pinned their hopes on economic development to overcome this impediment, but economic development has not been all-embracing. Facing the crisis thus generated by the apparently elite character of development, it was not surprising that a large segment of the population succumbed to the temptations of an unreal world which godmen proffered.
  • Yet another constituency of the godmen were the members of the burgeoning middle class of the post-Independence era. The hallmark of this class was the intense cultural and social crisis for which they sought a solution in other-worldliness advocated by the godmen. They were led to an island of liberation where all social inhibitions could be shed, and peace and salvation promised, through the medium of the godmen. The mindless support godmen thus elicit from their unsuspecting followers is used to garner social, political and economic power.
  • In recent times, the increasing number of godmen (and women) are spotted in State governments and corporate board meetings, educational institutions, and all other important places. They are not spiritual men but ambitious con artists who purvey deception, falsehood and religiosity in the name of god.

Education not enough

  • Rationalists and liberals looked upon education which promoted scientific temper and rational thinking as the antidote to what they conceived as a result of cultural and social backwardness. But education has not adequately fulfilled this role. After all, the substantial following that godmen command is not from the illiterate masses, but from the pretty well-educated middle class that tends to celebrate the irrational in the name of culture.
  • Popular media, either consciously or unconsciously, promotes and reinforces irrationality and superstition. The reading material available in almost all Indian languages is replete with accounts of the charismatic personae and spiritual qualities of godmen. Not only religious channels, but some secular channels too telecast programmes eulogising their qualities and achievements. From these popular representations, and patronage they seem to enjoy from the state, they derive considerable legitimacy.
  • The godmen are here to stay, until social consciousness undergoes a qualitative change.