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October 16, 2017

Toxic farming

  • Reports of farmers dying from pesticide exposure in Maharashtra’s cotton belt in Yavatmal make it evident that the government’s efforts to regulate toxic chemicals used in agriculture have miserably failed. It is natural for cotton growers under pressure to protect their investments to rely on greater volumes of insecticides in the face of severe pest attacks. It appears many of them have suffered high levels of exposure to the poisons, leading to their death. The fact that they had to rely mainly on the advice of unscrupulous agents and commercial outlets for pesticides, rather than on agricultural extension officers, shows gross irresponsibility on the part of the government.
  • But the problem runs deeper. The system of regulation of insecticides in India is obsolete, and even the feeble efforts at reform initiated by the UPA government have fallen by the wayside. A new Pesticides Management Bill introduced in 2008 was studied by the Parliamentary Standing Committee, but it is still pending. At the same time, there is worrying evidence that a large quantum of pesticides sold to farmers today is spurious, and such fakes are enjoying a higher growth rate than the genuine products.
  • Clearly, there is a need for a high-level inquiry into the nature of pesticides used across the country, and the failure of the regulatory system. This should be similar to the 2003 Joint Parliamentary Committee that looked into harmful chemical residues in beverages and recommended the setting of tolerance limits.
  • It is incongruous that the Centre has failed to grasp the need for reform in the regulation of pesticides, when it is focussed on growth in both agricultural production and exports. Agricultural products from India, including fruits and vegetables, have been subjected to import restrictions internationally for failing to comply with safety norms.
  • It is imperative that a Central Pesticides Board be formed to advise on use and disposal of pesticides on sound lines, as envisaged under the law proposed in 2008. This will strengthen oversight of registration, distribution and sale of toxic chemicals.
  • There can be no delay in updating the outmoded Insecticides Act of 1968. A stronger law will eliminate the weaknesses in the current rules that govern enforcement and introduce penalties where there are none. Aligning the new pesticides regulatory framework with food safety laws and products used in health care will make it broad-based.
  • After the recent deaths, Maharashtra officials have hinted at the loss of efficacy of some hybrids of genetically modified cotton in warding off pests to explain the growth and intensity of pesticide use. The responsible course would be to make a proper assessment of the causes. It is also an irony that the Centre has failed to use its vast communication infrastructure, including DD Kisan, the satellite television channel from Doordarshan dedicated to agriculture, to address distressed farmers. A forward-looking farm policy would minimise the use of toxic chemicals, and encourage organic methods where they are efficacious. This will benefit both farmer and consumer.

On dangerous footing

  • By refusing to certify the Iran nuclear deal, which curbed its nuclear programme in return for lifting global sanctions, U.S. President Donald Trump has put the two-year-old pact on dangerous footing. Under American law, the administration has to certify that Iran is technically in compliance with the deal that was struck between Iran and six other world powers, including the U.S., every 90 days. All other signatories, as well as the UN, insist that Iran is fully complying. But Mr. Trump disavowed it days before the next certification was due. But even as he withdrew certification, he did not scrap the deal. Instead, he passed the buck to U.S. lawmakers. The Republican-controlled Congress now has 60 days to decide whether sanctions should be reimposed.Nonetheless, the damage Mr. Trump’s decision has done to the agreement and to American diplomacy in general is huge. He appears to be driven by political calculations rather than a realistic assessment of the agreement, which, by its own standards, is working.
  • With the withdrawal from the certification, Mr. Trump has put the final nail in the coffin of an Iran-U.S. reset that had appeared possible during the Obama days. Now the threat of sanctions will hang over the nuclear deal. This is a boon for hardliners in Iran, who have suffered a political setback in recent years. The deal became possible only because the reformists and moderates rallied behind President Hassan Rouhani’s agenda, despite strong opposition from the Iranian deep state. Even Mr. Rouhani, who promised a solution to the nuclear crisis, got the deal done and won re-election this year, will now find it difficult to mobilise public opinion behind the agreement in the light of continued U.S. hostility. The larger question is, what kind of example is the U.S. setting for the global non-proliferation regime? The Iran deal, despite its shortcomings, was a shining example of the capacity of world powers to come together and sort out a complex issue diplomatically. It assumed greater significance given the recent wars and chaos in West Asia. It should have set a model in addressing other nuclear crises. Instead, by going after Iran even though it complies with the agreement, the U.S. is damaging its own reputation.

The case for a public health cadre

  • The idea of having dedicated personnel for public health management goes back to 1959 when advocated by the Mudaliar Committee, which observed that “personnel dealing with problems of health and welfare should have a comprehensive and wide outlook and rich experience of administration at the state level”.
  • It was echoed too, in 1973, by the Kartar Singh Committee, which said that “doctors with no formal training in infectious disease control, surveillance systems, data management, community health related problems, and lacking in leadership and communication skills, with no exposure to rural environments and their social dynamics, nor having been trained to manage a facility or draw up budget estimates, were ill-equipped and misfits to work in public facilities”.
  • The 12th Five Year Plan and the National Health Policy, 2017 have also strongly advocated establishing a public health management cadre to improve the quality of health services by having dedicated, trained and exclusive personnel to run public health facilities.

Ground zero

  • Tamil Nadu took the lead in this and there has been a discernible difference in the way health delivery is done there vis-à-vis Uttar Pradesh. For example, in U.P., even in a tertiary hospital, according to media reports, simple record keeping of oxygen cylinders is not followed.
  • Recently, Odisha, with the support of the Public Health Foundation of India, has notified the establishment of a public health cadre in the hope of ensuring vast improvement in the delivery of health care. Despite the creation of a public health cadre finding mention in various reports and Plan documents, such a service at the all-India level has still to translate itself into reality any time soon due to a series of complex factors.
  • Why have such a cadre? The idea is on the lines of the civil service — of having dedicated, professionally trained personnel to address the specific and complex needs of the Indian health-care delivery system which is grappling with issues such as a lack of standardisation, financial management, appropriate health functionaries and competencies including technical expertise, logistics management, and social determinants of health and leadership. Doctors with clinical qualifications and even with vast experience are unable to address all these challenges, thereby hampering the quality of our public health-care system. Now, doctors recruited by the States and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (through the Union Public Service Commission) are to implement multiple, complex and large public health programmes besides applying fundamental management techniques. In most places, this is neither structured nor of any quality. In the absence of a public health cadre in most States, even an anaesthetist or an ophthalmologist with hardly any public health knowledge and its principles is required to implement reproductive and child health or a malaria control programme. Further, at the Ministry level, the highest post may be held by a person with no formal training in the principles of public health to guide and advise the country on public health issues.
  • With a public health cadre in place, we will have personnel who can apply the principles of public health management to avoid mistakes such as one that led to the tragedy in Uttar Pradesh as well as deliver quality services. This will definitely improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Indian health system. With quality and a scientific implementation of public health programmes, the poor will also stand to benefit as this will reduce their out-of-pocket expenditure and dependence on prohibitively expensive private health care. In the process, we will also be saving the precious resources of specialists from other branches by deploying them in areas where they are definitely needed.

The way forward

  • Such an exclusive department of public health at both the levels of the Ministry and the States will help in developing the recruitment, training, implementation and monitoring of public health management cadre. Doctors recruited under this cadre may be trained in public health management on the lines of the civil service with compulsory posting for two-three years at public health facilities. Filling the post of director general in the Health Ministry from this cadre with similar arrangements at the State level including the posts of mission directors will go a long way in improving planning and providing much-needed public health leadership. Financial support for establishing the cadre is also to be provisioned by the Central government under the Health Ministry’s budget.
  • Lastly, another benefit will be the freeing up of bureaucrats and their utilisation in other much needed places.

The right to read, and be read

  • Tributes continue to flow acclaiming the Supreme Court for its judgment delivered in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) v. Union of India , where it recognised the existence of a fundamental right to privacy. The judgment has been hailed for its erudition, for its analytic rigour, and, more than anything else, for placing civil liberties at the heart of our constitutional discourse. But just weeks later, we’re left grappling with the court’s proclivity for illiberalism in Poojaya Sri Jagadguru Maate Mahadevi v. Government of Karnataka . On September 20, the court upheld a ban on a book without so much as considering the implications that such sanctions have on free speech.
  • Maate Mahadevi’s book, Basava Vachana Deepthi , was banned in 1998, when the State of Karnataka invoked Section 95 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). This law allows the state to forfeit and suspend publications that it deems to be in violation of certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). In this case, the government found that the book’s contents appeared to infringe Section 295A of the IPC, which criminalises speech that hurts religious sentiments.
  • Needless to say, both Section 95 of the CrPC and Section 295A of the IPC are remnants of India’s colonial past, and ought to really have no place in a modern, liberal democracy.

Protecting the intolerant

  • Here, however, the law is only a part of the problem. The greater issue concerns its interpretation. In a just and tolerant society, one would imagine the courts would accord to rules of this kind the narrowest possible construal, allowing the greatest possible latitude to free expression. But, regrettably, the courts have distorted this vision. By refusing to interfere with the Karnataka High Court’s verdict which had upheld the ban, the Supreme Court has effectively understood Section 295A as a shield that legitimately protects the intolerant against the merest hint of inconvenient speech.
  • In this case, Mahadevi’s book was banned purportedly because she substituted the original words in Lord Basaveshwara’s Vachanas. According to the government, she ought not to have changed the pen name of Basaveshwara from “Kudalasangamadeva” to “Lingadeva,” as such a substitution would inevitably hurt the feelings and sentiments of the “Veerashaiva” community in the State. Her actions, the government claimed, militated against Section 295A, and, therefore, the ban on her book was entirely justified.
  • Now, the Karnataka High Court was certainly mindful of Section 295A’s language. For an offence to be committed under the provision, not only must the speech or expression in question insult or attempt to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of a class of citizens, but it must also have been made with the deliberate and malicious intention of outraging such religious feelings. Inexplicably, however, both these conditions, the court found, were met by the book.

Free speech and tolerance

  • It’s certainly plausible that the contents of Basava Vachana Deepthi run counter to Basaveshwara’s Vachanas. It’s also possible that in substituting Basaveshwara’s pen name Mahadevi had violated the original author’s intentions. But should not a meaningful right to free speech come with an attendant obligation for tolerance? For the Karnataka High Court, clearly not. In its belief, speech is valuable and deserving of protection only when it bears no consequences. Religion, and religious conviction, in its view, are somehow exempt from the regular mandates of democracy. To the court, there exists a right not to be ridiculed or offended, a right that it placed on a decorated pedestal.
  • What’s more, as the lawyer Gautam Bhatia has pointed out, in Offend, Shock, or Disturb: Free Speech under the Indian Constitution , in addition to the substantive concerns over Section 295A, problems also abound over the procedure contained in Section 95 of the CrPC, which allows governments to ban books on mere surmises. Under this law, as interpreted currently by the Supreme Court, the state doesn’t have to present any evidence to show that religious feelings have actually been hurt. It is sufficient if it “appears” to the government that such beliefs might be injured.
  • A ban on a book, howsoever pernicious its contents might be, should, under any circumstances, strike the court as a matter for serious consideration. Indeed, the court recognised this, in a short order delivered on October 13, when it dismissed a petition challenging the publication of Kancha Ilaiah’s book, Samajika Smugglurlu Komatollu . “Curtailment of an individual writer/author’s right to freedom of speech and expression should never be lightly viewed,” it wrote. While this order is certainly welcome, any reasonable analysis of the court’s judgments shows us that it invariably tends to sing a different tune when faced with active bans imposed by the state, thereby shading its jurisprudence with more than a trace of caprice.

Democracy’s animating force

  • As Ronald Dworkin said, the preservation of individual autonomy is an essential requirement of a legitimate government. Upholding bans on books strikes at this legitimacy, at the principles of justice that are meant to fortify the republic. The court must always recognise, as it has done in Ilaiah’s case, that the right to freedom of speech is really the animating force of democracy, that it’s a liberty central to achieving an equal society.
  • To hold otherwise, by upholding bans on books on plain conjecture, violates this vision. It allows the apparent intolerance of certain groups to trump an author’s right to free expression.

The problem with nudge

  • The problem with the nudge theorists who argue that people are incapable of making the right decisions to attain their goals lies with the policy conclusions that they derive from their findings. Human beings may well be irrational fools in many cases. But that’s hardly enough reason to arrive at the conclusion that governments can act as successful caretakers steering citizens down the right path.
  • For one, behavioural economists who ask governments to nudge citizens presuppose that governments have a clear picture of the true preferences of their citizens. Central planners in the past faced a similar problem when they tried to allocate resources in the absence of consumer preference expressed through market prices.
  • Two, the recommendations of behavioural economists could offer sanction to governments that want to engage in massive social engineering under the guise of nudging people to make better decisions. Three, behavioural economists assume that governments that nudge people will have the best intentions and only seek to do good for citizens. In reality, politicians/ bureaucrats care only about their own interests.
  • Further, behavioural economists ignore the fact that there are alternative ways in which the marketplace often naturally nudges people into making better decisions. Often enough, businesses that compete against each other have the incentive to present choices in a way that customers are able to opt easily for choices that are in harmony with their actual goals.
  • When it comes to personal finances, there is a widespread market for financial planning services that helps individuals make and stick to rational saving and spending decisions. Of course, many times people may not even be aware of their own cognitive biases, which stops them from taking ameliorative action. Even then, there exists a huge profit opportunity for businesses that can make people aware of their own biases and solve them. The world, despite its many imperfections, can live without a nudge.