News Wrap


The Union government of India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown little interest in social policy during the last five years. There were deep cuts in allocations for many social programmes, in the 2015-16 union budget. Of course, the states were receiving a higher share of the indivisible pool of taxes. The cuts fell heavily on children, with initial cuts of around 36% and 50% for midday meals and the Integrated Child Development Services respectively. The cuts were made at the last moment, without paying much attention to the details. Maternity entitlements, a legal right of all Indian women (except those already covered in the formal sector) under the National Food Security Act 2015, were ignored for years, and are brazenly violated till date. The rights of workers employed under the National Rural Employment Gurantee Act have also been undermined by budget crunches, erratic wage payments, and the vagaries of technocracy. The central government's contribution to social security pensions for the elderly has been frozen at Rs 200 per month, despite repeated appeals for more from 60 eminent economists, among others.  In the last five years, with the partial exception of the Swatch Bharat Abhiyan, there has been no major initiatives in the social sector. Rather than protecting people's entitlements, most of the union government's efforts have gone into promoting Aadhaar  and saving money. However, as a starter, the central government has announced a grand health insurance scheme Pradhan Mantri Jana Arogya Yojana, which claims to cover up to Rs 5 lac of health expenditure every year for 10 crore families. This is actually a hospitalisam scheme for insurance, with a tiny budget.

Recently, the union finance ministry announced a mega scheme for contributory pensions in the informal sector. Again the claims and promises are out of gear with actual commitments, which is just Rs 500 crore for now. Meanwhile, the budget for non-contributory pensions for widows and the elderly, has been reduced by more than Rs 600 crore. Rs 75,000 crore has been allocated for a new scheme of direct cash transfers to farmers. Quite likely, many well-off farmers (or business owners, who also happen to have a little land), will take advantage of the scheme. Many vulnerable groups, starting with landless labourers could be left out. The opposition parties, led by the Congress, are committed to "minimum income gurantee" scheme. The idea is if you earn less than the minimum income, the government will pay the difference. It is impractical, as there are no methods by which the government is supposed to estimate this income gap, house-hold wise. Anyone who earns less than the minimum income might give up working, since the government is supposed to fill the gap anyway. With economic and social inequalities, India required universal healthcare and universal quality education.

Reprisals and Fears
An Indian army Major and three Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorists were among the nine persons killed in an 18-hour gun battle in Pulwama's (J and K) Pinglena area, on 18 February 2019, just four days after over 45 CRPF jawans lost their lives in a suicide car-bomb attack in the region. The dead included three other army personnel, a policeman and a civilian. A Brigadier, and Deputy Inspector General were among nine injured. Among the three slain JeM terrorists was Kamran, a Pakistani, who took over as operational commander of Jaish, after the killing of Mufti Waqas in 2018. Four weapons and ammunition were recovered from the site. Four houses, including one in which the terrorists were holed up, caught fire in the operation and were damaged.

Over 300 Kashmiri students have arrived in Jammu and Delhi since 18 February 2019, from colleges in Uttarakhand. They have alleged large scale eviction from the campuses and hostels. Since 14 February 2019, social media groups run by right-wing political parties in Dehradun, state capital of Uttarakhand, warned college authorities and local hostel owners of dire consequences, if Kashmiri students were not evicted within 24 hours. Muslim landlords were harassed too. Many of the Kashmiri students had opted for the Prime Minister's Special Scholarship Scheme (PMSSS) to help students of conflict-ridden Kashmir. The students first contacted Uttarakhand transport authorities for buses or light vehicles. They were told that there is a social boycott of Kashmiris and no vehicle was provided. Transporters of Paonta, Himachal Pradesh obliged. The students have now taken shelter inside the Kakkah Masjid in the curfew bound Barthindi area of Jammu.

Turmoil in Venezuela
The stand-off between Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro and Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old leader of Venezuela's National Assembly continues. End January 2019, Guaido declared himself interim president. Guaido has accused Maduro of rigging his re-election, and is demanding a new vote. On the eve of the face-off, Guaido defied a government ban on leaving Venezuela, and attended the "Venezuela Live Aid" concert organised by British billionaire Richard Branson, just over the border in Colombia. Guaido sensationally claimed that the Venezuelan military, whose high command has repeatedly declared absolute loyalty to Maduro, assisted him to get him into Colombia. Later Caracas declared that Venezuela had closed much of the Colombian border, citing threats to Venezuela's security, Maduro's rival concert, decidedly smaller and featuring Cuban and local artists, began hours later nearby on the Venezuelan side of the border in Urena.

A humanitarian crisis has gripped Venezuela, which has seen poverty soar during years of recession. Over 300,000 Venezuelans are in dire need of food and medicne, after years of shortage and malnutrition. First shipments of humanitarian aid has reached Venezuela, defying a border blockade by president Nicolas Maduro. A stand-off over the entry of food and medical aid turned violent. Guaido formally launched the aid distribution operation at a warehose at the Tienditas border burdge in Cucuta, Colombia. He was joined for the launch by the presidents of Colombia, Chile and Paraguay. Large aid trucks, from Boa Vista in Brazil, are driven by Venezuelans and escorted by Brazilian police, enroute to the Venezuelan border. National Guard troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators, waiting for aid in Urena, or the Venezuelan side of the Colombian border, and nearby San Antonia del Tacchira. A flood of volunteers plan to drive the aid from Colombia into Venezuela, accompained by Catholic priests, in an attempt to avoid arrests. Socialist leader Maduro, has rejected the aid, which he has dismissed as a show and pretext for a US invasion.

Vol. 51, No. 41, Apr 14 - 20, 2019