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The Indian Budget 2018: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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It won’t be a hyperbole to call the preparation of the Indian Budget the world’s toughest tightrope balancing act. In a country of 1.3 billion Indians, a gazillion sects and a country where the dialect changes every 20 kilometers, the Indian Budget is a unique unifying factor. Sitting in a small office, a select group of individuals charts the course of the Indian economy, soon to be the world’s fifth largest. A multitude of Intelligence and Security agencies are tasked to ensure that the Budget remains a secret before it is presented and the markets wait with a bated breath to gauge the winds that will blow with the onset of the Indian Budget. These winds can help the markets move at roaring speeds or topple the very applecart of their existence.

The Narendra Modi led National Democratic Alliance presented it final full Budget on Feb. 1, 2018. With elections due in eight states and the coming of the all-India General Elections, this budget was a final attempt by Modi to deliver on his promise of “Ache Din” (Good Days). But did he? Large sections of India is now restless. Farmers are suffering from a lack of good prices and mounting agricultural loans. Youth is suffering for the want of jobs. Businesses are under stress due to a new tax regime that they are yet to understand and comprehend. The Indian Middle class, BJP’s strongest supporters and among the minuscule few who actually pay a direct tax is reeling under high taxes. This was the last grab attempt to placate these sections and retain power for another five years. But what did it deliver? Sure enough, the budget contains a slew of measures for the agriculture and rural sectors, a new health insurance scheme has been announced for the poor and a small relief in income tax for the salaried class and senior citizens.

Let’s take a closer look at the Indian budget and break out the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good

To placate the Farmers who have been protesting across the length and the breadth of the country, this budget promises to raise the minimum price offered to farmers for their crops. Stating that the focus of the government in the coming fiscal would be agriculture and rural India, the finance minister has announced that all Kharif crops will be paid a minimum support price (MSP) that is 50 percent more than the cost of production. It has also identified a need to invest heavily in the agricultural markets across India. It has also earmarked more money for rural areas, including that for irrigation projects and for aquaculture projects. The Kisan credit card will be extended to fisheries and animal husbandry farmers while Rs 2,000 crore provided for the development of agriculture market. The central budget directs state governments to purchase extra solar power generated by farmers using solar-powered pumps who have become cheaper after this budget.  The credit to agriculture would be raised to Rs 11 lakh crore in the coming fiscal from Rs 10 lakh crore. The budget provides for a 100 percent tax deduction for farm producer firms with Rs 100 crore turnover. There is a special impetus to promote “Operation Green”. In total, there has been a record allocation of Rs. 14.34 lakh crores for the agriculture sector.

In a bid to provide universal healthcare, the Budget announces a ‘National Health Protection scheme’ to provide health cover of up to Rs 5 lakh to each of the 10 crore poor families per year. Under the Aayushman Bharat programme, a total of 1.5 lakh centers will be set up to provide health facilities closer to the homes for which an outlay of Rs 1,200 crore to be allocated. A total of Rs 600 crore have been allocated for tuberculosis patients who will be provided with a grant at the rate Rs 500 per month during the course of their treatment. There are plans to set up 24 new medical colleges and hospitals by upgrading district level ones.  The budget lists that the PM JivanBimaYojana has benefited 5.22 crore families with more in the pipeline. And here we were really thinking that Obama-care was game changing?  Apart from all these announcements, the Budget contains a slew of announcements for the senior citizens of the nation like Incentives for Senior citizens like exemptions in income of Rs 10,000 from Banks FD and post offices and Rs 50,000 per annum exemption for medical insurance under Sec 80D.

With the finance minister promising a record infrastructure spending on roads and railways, construction and engineering firms, as well as train wagon-producers, could benefit. There is a plan to expand airport handling capacity by five times to handle 1 billion trips a year. It is estimated that Rs 50 lakh crore is needed for infrastructure building and the government will allocate Rs 7,140 crore for the textiles sector in next year.  National highways exceeding 9,000-km will be completed in 2018-19 and allocation of over Rs 1.48 lakh crore has been planned for railways. Regional air connectivity scheme shall connect 56 unserved airports and 31 unserved helipads for better connected and a closer India.

For the rural economy, the budget contains a slew of announcements. 8 crore poor women will get new LPG connections. Under the Prime Minister’s SaubhagyaYojana, it is estimated that 4 crore poor people will get power connection. A total spending estimate for this scheme is Rs 16,000 crore. Under the Swach Bharat Mission, the Government plans to construct 2 crore toilets in the next fiscal year. The government has set an ambitious target to provide a house for all by 2022. A total of 1 crore houses are to be built under Pradhan MantriAwasYojana in the rural areas. The Government will expand the PM Jan DhanYojana. All 16 crore accounts will be included under micro insurance and pension schemes for better returns and social outreach.

To formalize the economy, the Employees Provident Fund Act will be amended to reduce the contribution of women to 8 percent from 12 percent for first three years, with no change in employer’s contribution. The government will contribute 12 per cent of wages of new employees in EPF for all sectors for the next 3 years. The target for loan disbursement under Mudra scheme has been set at Rs 3 lakh crore for next fiscal.

The Bad

The government has extended Corporate Tax of 25% to companies with turnover up to Rs 250 cr in the financial year 2016-17. For a party always under a perception of being a corporate front, this will not go down well in the eyes of the media and the party will have a wild time dousing the flames. Also, 100% tax deduction is allowed to co-operative societies, the majority of whom have cooked books and shady members.

The long-term capital gains will now be taxed at a rate of 10% if exceeding Rs 1 lakh. The Education cess increased to 4% from 3% to collect additional Rs 11,000 crore but in turn, has put an additional burden on the tax paying middle class. The government’s decision to impose long-term capital gains tax on equity investments may dent investor sentiment for financial services companies, life insurers and providers of mutual fund products.

The Indian Defense Budget, while increased contains no clear roadmap to make India a manufacturing powerhouse and increase our armament production. Barely spending money is not good and while the outlays are increasing continuously, it is no secret that our outlay is minuscule in comparison to our GDP. Furthermore, most of the current budget is spent on personnel and maintenance costs, leaving very little for capital acquisition.  There is a serious need to quantify the defense budget and earmark separate funds for the capital acquisition.

The Ugly

Apart from a few scraps here and there like Rs 40,000 standard deduction, Mr. Modi has completely ignored the honest Indian Direct Taxpayer. A resentment is now brewing in this segment which has honestly been paying to tax and has time and again got pinched by every budget. In a nation where barely, 1.9% of the populations pays any tax, the honest Indian Taxpayer has become a minority of sorts, exploited and with no one to raise a voice for it. Hopefully, Modi can mollify this before the General Elections or all hell will break loose.

Conclusion

To conclude, the Indian Budget is prudent, not populist. The Indian Government deserves full credit for bringing out such a balanced budget so close to the General Elections. The fiscal prudence of this government has been lauded by international agencies and the recent budget is in line with the attempt of the government’s fiscal consolidation path. The Finance minister has set the fiscal deficit for 2019/19 (April-March) at 3.3 percent of the gross domestic product, slightly higher than expectations for 3.2 percent. Altogether, the budget has focused more “investments” than one-time hangouts. However, the devil lies in the details. There is a pertinent need for faster and smoother implementation.  The infrastructure projects will generate more jobs and ultimately, more usable projects on completion. R&D will generate more output for this nation. The government is ably trying to focus on both the “Ease of Doing Business” and the “Ease of Living”. Elections are upon the present dispensation and the Government must now focus on the implementation. If the 2014 election was about Ache Din, 2019 (or 2018) will be about the poor. The buildup initiated with the Jan Dhan and theUjwala Yojana, continued with the PAHAL andSaubhagyaYojana and now the AyushmanYojana and this Budget. The ingredients are all there. It now up to the chef Modi to cook his broth. But will his broth taste like sweet victory or a bitter-sweet defeat. This only time, and the Indian Rural Voter will tell.

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South Asia

Kashmir Bleeds, International Community Sleeps

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The most beautiful part of the World “Kashmir” bleeds while the International community sleeps. Snow-covered mountains, lush green pasters, blue skies, blue lakes, excellent climate, rich culture, best food, unique race – one of the most pretty races on this earth, makes Kashmir “Paradise, but India has turned it a living hell. Nine hundred thousand troops enforcing curfew since the 5th of August 2019 has turned Kashmir a prison, where 8 million people are under siege, for the most prolonged period of curfew in the known history of humankind. No food, no medicines, no fuel, no electricity, no basic neccessaties of life, yet, the brave people of Kashmir survived and kept their struggle for their legitimate right of self-determination.

Seventy-three years ago, Indian illegitimate occupation armed forces entered Jammu & Kashmir in a stab to subjugate the Kashmiri people. To this day, the brave people of Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (I.I.O.J.K.) have remained committed in their resolve to confront India and stand firm in their quest for the right to self-determination.

On the 5th of August 2019, India took further illegal and unilateral actions to change the internationally recognized disputed status of I.I.O.J.K. and alter the demographic configuration of the occupied territory.  Pakistan and the Kashmiris have unconditionally rejected this blatant travesty of law and justice. For over one year, the scale and impunity of the Indian Government’s human rights abuses have increased manifold. Through the deployment of additional troops and exceptional media and communication blackout, occupied Jammu & Kashmir has been turned into the largest open prison in the world. The world community is calling India out on its oppression, and its cover-up as one of the world’s so-called largest ‘democracies’ has been undeniably exposed.

Pakistan, along with all other nations and individuals, with human conscious, calls for the urgent lifting of the military siege and media blackout, immediate stop to the violations of human rights of Kashmiri people, release of Kashmiri leaders and youth, and an end to impunity allowed to Indian occupation forces under draconian laws.We urge the international community to play its role in exerting pressure on India to reverse its illegal course in I.I.O.J.K. and restore the Kashmiris’ fundamental human rights.

We express complete solidarity with the people of I.I.O.J.K. and assure our Kashmiri brothers and sisters that the Government and people of Pakistan remain shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Pakistan will not concede in its support until the Kashmiris realize their legitimate right to self-determination in harmony with the United Nations Security Council resolutions.

India has turned Kashmir into a volcano, which may burst any time, any moment, and may cause disaster not only to India and Pakistan but may engulf the entire region or the whole world. It is worth mentioning that India and Pakistan both are nuclear states and possess enough piles of lethal weapons to eradicate each other. Mostly, the Government in India has been hijacked by Hindu extremists, and one can expect any abnormal action from them. Or by mistake or accidentally eruption of war, might lead to nuclear war, or World War III.

India is already involved with China, and a war-like situation exists. India is holding parts of Nepal illegally and at odd with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Maldives, Sikkim, Bhutan, etc. The extremist Government in India may initiate any misadventure and endanger humanity.

The U.S. is backing India and supporting it to counter China. But, history tells, that when Americans are your friends , you do not need enemies. Former Securty Advisor in Trump Administration, Mr. John Bolten, who has worked with President Trump closely, understands him much better than anyone else. He is of the opinion that President Trump supports India, but if a war broke out between China and India, President Trump might no longer support India. Is India able to confront China???. Let the Indian think tanks and intellectuals decide it.

However, the region is highly populated, with 1.4 billion population of China, 1.2 billion population of India, 220 million population of Pakistan, and almost similar to Bangladesh, etc. The loss of humanity may cross all previous records.

The international community may awaken and take preventing measures to avert any possible disaster.

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October 27th: The Tyranny Continues in Kashmir

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October 27 marks the beginning of Indian Occupation of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. It is forever scarred in the collective minds of the Kashmiri people as the day they became occupied.

The Kashmir conflict began in 1846 with the illegal, immoral and inhumane sale of the historic state of Jammu and Kashmir to a non-Kashmiri Dogra family for services rendered to the British Raj. From that point, onwards, Kashmiri’s have long for self-determination. Yet, tragically, their legitimate aspirations were crushed with the grotesque, irregular and illegal ascension, by the brutal foreign ruler Maharaja Hari Singh who did not have the consent of the people.  With the arrival of Indian soldiers – the historic Black Day of Occupation begins its most recent and insidious manifestation.

The Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir obtained independence on August 15, 1947, when British paramountcy lapsed.  At that moment, under international law as understood by Indian National Congress, The Muslim League and Great Britain, sovereignty in Kashmir devolved on its peoples, not its autocratic Maharaja.  Indeed, Kashmir was beset by wholesale domestic revolt against the Maharaja when independence arrived, and widened in the initial months thereafter. To save his despotism from collapse, the Maharaja requested the assistance of the Indian military on October 27, 1947, after ostensibly signing an Instrument of Accession to that nation. British Scholar, Alistair Lamb has convincingly demonstrated that the Instrument of Accession was as bogus as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion or the Donation of Constantine.  An original has never been found, and there is no plausible explanation for a disappearance if an original had ever existed. 

The people of Kashmir are constantly reminded of the resolution # 47, adopted on April 21, 1948 that states that the future status of Kashmir must be ascertained in accordance with the wishes and aspirations of the people of the territory. This resolution was agreed upon by both India & Pakistan, negotiated by the United Nations and accepted by the Security Council.

Ambassador Warren Austin of the United States said it the best in the Security Council on January 24, 1948, “…When India accepted the accession of Kashmir, it made its act stand for a great principle by stating as a part of the acceptance, that it was conditional on fair plebiscite being held to determine the will of the people of Kashmir with respect to accession. I think an example was made in history at that point.”

India, however, was soon undeceived of its delusions over Kashmir’s political yearning. Recognizing that its people would never freely vote accession to India, it contrived excuse after excuse to frustrate a plebiscite. When the United Nations proposed arbitration, a reference to the World Court, or any other method of resolving minor demilitarization quarrels, India nixed them all. After a few years, it dropped all pretense of acceding to a referendum by unilaterally proclaiming its annexation of Kashmir. India’s proclamation has never been accepted by the United Nations, which continues to list Kashmir as a disputed territory who future status is yet to be determined by its people.

History proved the British Prime Minister Clement Richard Atlee wrong when he said on November 7, 1947, “…he (Pandit Nehru) undertook that the will of the people should be ascertained, and he proposed that this should be done under the authority and supervision of the United Nations…I can’t believe that Mr. Nehru’s pledges have the sinister implications.”

India’s creepy design was also confirmed by Bertrand Russell who said in 1964 “ The high idealism of the Indian government in international matters breaks down completely when confronted with the question of Kashmir.”

So, a false narrative was concocted by India, out of nothing more than thin air, in a vain attempt to intellectually subjugate a people. This challenge is most serious, since it resonates, even today with more vigour. How often do we hear outlandish statements like, ‘Kashmir is an integral part of India’? These statements do not exist in a vacuum. They are loaded and violent. This form of violence is more insidious, more difficult to confront, for it is attempting to indoctrinate Kashmiris about their past, their present and direct them to a future that does not belong to them.  They had become the objects of history rather than the masters of it.

Another serious challenge that people of Kashmir face, when attempts are made to confine the Kashmir dispute to a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan as if Kashmiris were inconsequential. This charade of sorts represents an outrageous attempt to restrict discussions of Kashmir, to India and Pakistan to the exclusion of the most important party to the conflict – the people of Kashmir.  Today, this strikingly ignorant political strategy has collapsed after the Abrogation of Article 370 & 35 A on August 5, 2019 and no longer is considered an honest initiative for resolving the Kashmir dispute. It has not achieved any of its desired objectives of bettering relations or resolving Kashmiri aspirations for self-determination. It is evident that this policy has proven a colossal failure. If, in more than 73 years, the ‘bilateral masquerade’ has produced nothing more than cheap photo opportunities, then it is better to once and for all, put this show to an end.

The world powers and the saner elements in both India and Pakistan need to realize that the bilateral talks between India and Pakistan have always remained barren. And trilateral dialogue between Governments of India, Pakistan and the leadership of Kashmir — without any precondition from any side — is the only way to resolve the issue of Kashmir once for all. Participation of Kashmiri leadership in the dialogue process is the sine qua non that will help to achieve the lasting peace and tranquility in the region of South Asia.

In fact, a ‘Kashmir Quartet’ should be established that includes Kashmir, Pakistan, China, and India. Moreover, outside intervention and mediation should include the United Nations. The chairmanship of the Kashmir Quartet mediation should be undertaken by a person of international stature, such as Kjell Bondevik former prime minister of Norway or President Mary Robinson of Ireland.

Today, the challenge before us is that a new generation in Kashmir has been raised with blood and tears for which death no longer poses a threat for what can death do that life has not done before: their suffering is freeing them from fear. Kashmiris’ fearlessness has led to the powerful protests and the largest demonstrations in recent years. The presence of hundreds of thousands of people on the streets of Srinagar, marching towards the office of the UNMOGIP, is a proof that the freedom struggle is not a terroristic movement but a movement that is indigenous, spontaneous, peaceful and popular. 

Now, is the time that Mr. Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the United Nations brings the situation in Kashmir to the attention of the Security Council under the provision of the Article 99 of the United Nations Charter. It is here in the region of South Asia that not two but three nuclear powers have been eyeball to eyeball for the last one-year? The Article 99 authorizes the Secretary General to ‘bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security’.  If not now, then when can Article 99 be invoked to bring peace and stability to the region of South Asia.

The UN Secretary General should listen to Mr. Gross, US Ambassador to the UN who said in the Security Council on December 5, 1952, we feel that it is the role of the Security Council to assist the parties in seeking to reach agreement.

So, now is no time for complacency or temporizing.  And the chilling suffering and misery of the Kashmiri people continues every day a peaceful resolution is deferred.

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Promoting Projects and Practices in Community Health in India

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Street scene in India, August 2020. © UNICEF/Vinay Panjwani

One of the most populated countries in the world, India has been facing problems with regard to well-being of its citizens while sustaining their developmental needs. The need for better health facilities, and developing antidotes for new kinds of pathogens and viruses have made the task more challenging. The respective governments, pharma companies, and testing labs are trying to develop safe trial mechanisms and developing safeguards for protecting the lives of vulnerable sections of society. Within India, the community health programme involves the non-governmental sector, healthcare professionals, economics aspects and social interaction through people and voluntary workers. While the health ecosystem exists, the problem has been finance, support and critical knowledge repository. India did well to address issues such as polio vaccination and creating community awareness for regular medication against tuberculosis. There is a mounting impact of chronic diseases in economic and social sectors, need for quality health services in the wake of changing demographics, and increasing life expectancy have made matters more complex.

In terms of understanding the requirements for building better resilient and health-conscious societies, it is important that the vaccines, lifesaving drugs, and medicines should be developed with certain generalised regulations which can improve the health of the society and address problems faced by people living across regions. While India is a subcontinent comprising of all geographical features, it is also a cauldron of different ethnic communities, and physical features which provides exceptional opportunities for testing and developing medicines which can cater to different physical and pathological profiles of people. Within India, one can find people with different levels of immunity. As the eating and food habits have been different, there is higher incidence of diabetes, hyper tension and cardio diseases in a cross-section of people. It has also been seen that people who are above 40-70 years of age have been more vulnerable to pandemics, and other communicable diseases. A sizeable mortality profile of people suggests that.

In this context it becomes very important that medicines which should be developed should have a better shelf life and give results which can be corroborated with testing facility, with a cross-section of people. The results have usually varied with regard to people with different eating habits and also nutrition factor. Pandemics such as COVID-19 have brought to the fore that India has better resistance mechanisms which has helped in relatively less mortality rate when these people have been infected with COVID-19. The duration of sickness because of COVID -19 has varied from five days to more than three weeks. In such certain times, it has been found that because of lack of any effective medicine or any sure shot diagnostic mechanisms the treatment has prolonged and the recovery has been slow. In terms of legal and other regulatory mechanisms, it has been found that most of the clinical trials which are done in India enroll the vulnerable  and poor people and human trials are conducted. There is a grey area of medical compensation and addressing post-tests complications from legal point of view.

For India it has become imperative to develop projects and conduct feasibility studies through government mechanisms rather than through medical companies. While projects have been undertaken to study different kind of diseases that school children and adults will be facing in the next two decades, it has been found that most of the complications will be related to teeth, eyesight, anxiety and mental well-being. However, in the case of pandemics and community health programmes it has been encouraging signs that initiatives such as creating awareness with regard to AIDS, mental well-being, depression and anxiety disorders have been fruitful and rewarding with institutionalising counselling and telephone helplines. Most of the programs have been done and supported by NGOs as well as a few voluntary organisations.

The projects and programmes which can be initiated in India should address core issues. Firstly, the incidence of non-curable diseases, depression, immunity disorders, other issues related to community transmission, and the development of proper safeguards and awareness with regard to pandemics and life-threatening diseases. Secondly, the COVID-19 has opened a Pandora’s box with regard to the incidence of diseases which impact community, and thereby also affect government health budget. Lastly, it is necessary that India will have to create medical soldiers and inform voluntary workers so that the community transmission and community health well-being should be addressed on a priority level.

As the COVID vaccine is in different trial stages, many countries are looking for testing facility in India and also conduct human trials, as legal structure in medicinal trials is still in infancy. India needs to address the issue of IPR on developing vaccines and medical history should be addressed jointly as it has been found that many western countries have been purchasing medical history of the patients living in developing Asia, providing vaccines through great testing mechanisms and subsequently using copyright laws to deny cheap medicines to the larger community.

 In this regard it is important that India should conduct research on immunity vectors of its population and develop generic drugs which can help in protecting communities from most transmissions. It is also pertinent to note that in terms of the temperature variance across India it provides unique testing opportunities in different conditions. However, there is a need for a holistic approach and therefore it is important that training and sensitisation of the personnel working in this field is of paramount importance. Initiatives related to preventive and therapeutic services is critical. Also, looking for quick alternatives would save the lives of personnel.

Just like any emergency, there is a need for rapid action medical force which can provide immediate assistance and better cognitive abilities track critical illnesses and the reasons thereof. It has been seen in the case of midwifery and associated postnatal diseases that it has worked wonders with a better equipped and knowledgeable person existing in each society for better assistance and awareness.

The critical importance of voluntary workers is that with sufficient technical assistance (which might come from government and state units) gives them confidence and also strengthens their application of knowledge for better informed public health practices and policies. Technical assistance and quick action through centralised control centre has to create the first line of defence in case of a pandemic. 

The institutes which have been working in this field are Public Health Foundation of India, Indian Institutes of Public Health and All India Institute of Hygiene & Public Health, which have been disseminating information through online workshops, seminars, and social media. They have created affiliates and sister agencies working in the field all across India. Networking of public health institutions in medical education need to address issues such as environmental health and countering new kind of diseases which are dominating.

This clearly highlights the fact there is a need for understanding pandemics, developing awareness among communities about public health, and stress on hygienic environment, conducting long term  research on emerging diseases and promoting research in tropical medicine.

India need to allocate separate fund for public health initiatives and promote exchange of medical workers with third world countries for better understanding the nuances of medical and health research. In fact, in most of the think tank meetings, public health and awareness is not listed as topics whenever Track II dialogues are held. There is also a need for better practices in public health, education, and developing health demonstration projects, barefoot nurses and doctors, strengthening an eco-system of education, training, and scholarship. Developing traditional medicine and making it easily accessible should be the bulwark against diseases. Restructuring Community Medicine/ Preventive and Social Medicine colleges which impart this kind of education in developing countries is required as the number is relatively less. Across developing world scholarship in community medicine and hospital administration is low and needs structural financial support. The data collection and diagnostics apparatus need micro management to create better response chain. COVID-19 has provided the reason for public health to be taken as a national initiative.

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