News Wrap


ASurvey was conducted in June 2016, in six of India’s poorest states, namely Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal, on the Public Distribution System (PDS). The survey in West Bengal was relatively small, involving house to house enquiries in six villages of two districts, viz Birbhum and Bankura. West Bengal used to have an atrocious PDS. The list of cardholders in the ‘‘Below Poverty Line’’ (BPL) list was arbitrary and unreliable. Entitlements were confusing and transparency was lacking at all levels. Some of the PDS dealers did not even maintain registers, and the dealers were wholly unaccountable. In collusion with political patrons, PDS dealers looted the PDS. Comparing National Sample Survey data on PDS purchases, with official data on PDS off take, estimated ‘‘leakages’’ in Bengal were high as 81% in 2004-05, with 65% in 2011-12. Villages in Bengal, had 85% of households having new Ration Cards under the National Food Security Act (NFSA). Till 2014, barely half of the same households had ration cards and poor households were often left out. The new list of PDS cardholders is derived from the socio-economic and caste census of 2011, using transparent and methodical criterion and is available on the internet. Improvements in the Public Distribution System contributed to the victory of the Trinamool Congress in the May 2016 assembly elections.

The entitlement system in Bengal has been drastically simplified. In the NFSA areas, most people knew their monthly entitlements of 35 kg per household for Antyodaya households and five kg per person for priority households (at Rs 2 per kg in both cases). A sharp decline in leakages has arisen from greater transparency, simpler entitlement and other PDS reforms. 95% of PDS entitlements are received during the month. The list of eligible households is not free of exclusion errors. PDS entitlements are proportional to family size. About 13% of all family members are left out of the list. The quality of PDS rations is the poorest in Bengal, among the six sample states. The flour packets are fed to cattle. Private dealers have been plundering the PDS for decades. PDS licenses in West Bengal are even considered hereditary. PDS dealers share the loot with local party leaders in exchange for protection. Private dealers in Chattisgarh have been replaced with collective institutions such as cooperatives, gram panchayats and self-help groups. In Kiasol village of Bankura district, the PDS is managed by a cooperative, where the PDS shop even has an information board. Food security in Bengal has become a lively political issue.

Rituals go Digital
On line ‘‘pind daan’’, a Hindu ritual to ensure peace for one’s departed ancestors, has become popular in Gaya (Bihar) for over two years. A priest in on-line ‘‘pind daan’’ makes the arrangement in Gaya, and recites the mantras. The client pepeats the mantras after him, sitting at home. Cash payments are made from the client, through on-line cash transfer to the account of the priest. The client despatches particulars of name, ‘‘gotra’’ and time of death via e-mail or social media message. A Brahmin priest represents the client and performs the procedures in Gaya. Photos and videos of the rituals are mailed to the client. The system of on-line ‘‘pind daan’’ is threatening the monopoly of Gayawal Panda priestly community.

Democracy Deficit
News of corruption of over $30 million was leaked out in March 2016, involving President Yameen of Maldives, along with ministers and members of parliament. A series of actions leading to human rights abuses and muzzling of the press and freedom of expression followed. President Yameen proposed a bill to criminalise ‘‘defamation’’. Journalists campaigned for ‘‘In defence of 27’’, referring to the provision in the Maldives constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech. In April 2016, the police conducted mass arrests from a ‘‘sit in protest’’, and on 26 July 2016 broke up a silent protest by journalists. Despite widespread public outrage against the proposed Bill, which would have a stifling effect on the right to freedom of expression, the Bill became law on 09 August 2016, when some 47 MPs out of the 78 present voted in favour. MPs of the ruling PPM Party defended the Bill on religious grounds, claiming that ‘‘protecting one’s good name was an Islamic tenet’’. The Bill imposes penalties of $130,000 for slander and criticism of the government, or a jail sentence of six months for those who are unable to pay the fine. Journalists are barred from reporting allegations, if the accused refuses to respond. On 11 August 2016, the government switched off the first private Dhi Television channel of Maldives, Phi FM, a radio station linked to the TV station, and a Dhivehi on-line website. Yameen’s own People’s Progressive Maldives (PPM) is headed by President Yameen’s half brother Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, who had been president for 30 years. Gayoom had criticised Yameen for the Bill, and refused to endorse Yameen as a presidential candidate in the forthcoming 2018 election, without a primary. The PPM Party has fractured into two. Recently a Bill was passed, authorising the government to award islands for sale, without the required bidding process.

In beginning September 2016, after an al-Jazeera documentary aired corruption allegations against president Abdulla Yameen, authorities in the Maldives have raided the office of newspaper Maldives Independent. The newspaper is accused of having links to former president Mohamed Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). Officials cancelled the passports of opposition figures and local journalists, who have fled abroad, in anticipation of a backlash, after the broadcast of the documentary on 07 September 2016, by the Qatari News Network.

Communists in Russia
As the Soviet Union crumbled, President Yeltsin banned the Communist Party in 1991. The party revived itself two years later. In spite of waning fortunes, it is still the major party in the ‘‘systematic opposition’’, which nominally competes with United Russia, the pro-Kremlin Party that supports president Putin, and dominates parliament. During polls, roughly 10% of voters cast their ballot for the communists, compared with 31% for United Russia, 9% for the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party, and 5% for Fair Russia. While the Communist Party continues to wage ‘‘an uncompromising struggle against the restoration of capitalism’’, in practice its deputies in the Duma vote with United Russia, for almost every substantial issue. The Progress Party, led by Alexei Navainy, an anti-corruption campaigner, had its registration revoked in 2015. During the past two decades, Russia has witnessed the rehabiliation of some Communist heavyweights, especially Stalin. In March 2016, a poll survey found that 40% of Russians, thought the dictator’s era was ‘‘more good than bad’’, compared with 18% in 1994. The Communist support often comes from pensioners, but the party is also attracting a more youthful following. At the 18 September 2016, parliamentary polls in Russia, president Putin’s United Party secured at least 343 seats, in the 450-member Russia State Duma parliament gliding victoriously to a fourth term. The Communists secured 13.5% of the votes.

Vol. 49, No.24, Dec 18 - 24, 2016