1. A CRUCIAL SEASON-
GS 2- Important aspects of governance, transparency and accountability
(i) Faced with a potential reversal of gains that India has made in slowing the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister has appealed against weakening the fight during the annual season of festivals.
(ii) Over the past six months, numerous individual events have enabled the infection to explode and spread.
Cautioning The Public
(i) These have ranged from the opening of wholesale markets and political gatherings to big funerals; many were infected when places of worship were allowed to be thronged(filled with people).
(ii) Mr. Modi’s appeal, which comes during the Navratri celebrations, and ahead of Dussehra, Deepavali and other festivals, is to be welcomed.
(iii) The opportunity to caution the public was not grasped early.
(iv) Also, in spite of the call to “mask up” on October 8, as part of a communication campaign he launched, its visibility has remained low.
(v) Moreover, virus estimations remain a mosaic(collection) of data, without a standardised system for testing, tracing and isolation across States.
(vi) Only broad-brush statistics are available, even as the economy has reopened.
(vii) The Union Health Ministry’s data point to a rising trend in daily cases in Bihar, Delhi, Maharashtra, Manipur, and West Bengal.
(viii) Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, with their high levels of incidence earlier, have started showing a decline in test positivity rates, a more reliable metric than absolute cases.
(ix) Kerala has experienced a wave blamed on lax(poor) behaviour during Onam.
Danger Of Another Wave
(i) Health messaging on the dangers of another wave of infections can be effective if it is not drowned(hidden) by repeated emphasis of massive recoveries.
(ii) States, anxious to present a picture of near-normality to boost economic activity, highlight recoveries over risk, and people are lowering their guard.
(iii) Mr. Modi has suggested that the fight must not weaken until there is a vaccine, and experts and WHO want countries to learn to live with an endemic virus.
(iv) In India, the reality is that even as of October 21, the official death toll in a day stood at 717, a not so inconsequential(important) number, and there were 7.4 lakh active cases.
(v) The emphasis(focus), therefore, has to be on preparing for the new normal, adopting acknowledged defences such as masking, distancing norms and hand hygiene.
(vi) In parallel, the Centre should launch policy reform to transform a predominantly commercialised health system into one providing universal coverage.
(i) COVID-19 has meant double jeopardy(risk) — a loss of income on the one hand and a steep rise in health insurance premiums on the other, after insurers were asked to provide cover for more conditions.
(ii) Under such circumstances, the cheapest protection against disease and financial loss is prevention, now and into the future.
(iii) The Centre says it has a communication strategy centred around the theme of safety until March next year.
(iv) Its efficacy will be tested immediately, by the festival season.
(v) Public health messaging must convince people that festivals can be celebrated safely.
2. IN WEST ASIA, IT’S A BLEAK FUTURE AMID AMERICA FADING-
GS 2- Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests, Indian diaspora
(i) When the UAE and Bahrain signed normalisation agreements with Israel in September, under the mediation of the United States, American President hailed it as a “new dawn in the Middle East”.
(ii) The so-called ‘Abraham Accords’, which saw the first normalisation between Israel and Arab countries in 26 years, was a rare diplomatic victory for Mr. Trump.
(iii) It was rare because most of the President’s other big foreign policy bets were either disastrous or inconclusive.
(iv) The U.S.-Taliban deal is largely seen as American capitulation to the Afghan insurgents;
(a) the outreach to North Korea failed to produce any result;
(b) the maximum pressure campaign on Iran seems to have backfired;
(c) the promise to fetch “the deal of the century” between the Israelis and the Palestinians was a non-starter;
(d) and the trade war with China failed to produce any structural shift in the way China does business while tensions between the two countries rocketed.
(v) Amid this policy chaos, Mr. Trump at least got something in the ‘Abraham Accords’ to present as a breakthrough. But does it bring peace to West Asia, as Mr. Trump has claimed?
(i) It was evident during the Barack Obama years that the U.S. had overstretched itself in West Asia and North Africa, a region America has deeply engaged with since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s time.
(ii) The U.S. had been stuck in an unwinnable war in Iraq. In Syria, it was checkmated by the Russians.
(iii) Its intervention in Libya turned out to be disastrous. Iran continued to be defiant despite threats and sanctions. Israel was uncontrollable. The Arab allies were upset.
(iv) Mr. Obama realised the historical necessity of resizing the U.S. presence in the region and pivoting(turning) to East Asia where China was steadily on the rise.
(v) But the U.S. has both allies and rivals in the region. It cannot just pack up and exit.
The Obama And Trump Years
(i) Mr. Obama, in his second term, adopted a realistic approach to address this problem.
(ii) He made peace with Iran, accepted the Russian lead role in Syria, left Libya burning, ignored Saudi and Israeli sulking(crying) over Iran.
(iii) But, to balance these, he overlooked Israel’s deepening occupation of Palestine and cooperated with the Saudi attack on Yemen.
(iv) The plan was to let the regional players establish what he called a “cold peace” among themselves.
(v) When Mr. Trump came to office, he wanted to undo Mr. Obama’s policy legacy.
(vi) He demolished the Iran deal, brought Israel back to the centre of America’s policy towards the region and prompted the Arab and Jewish allies of the U.S. to join hands.
(vii) The plan, as it emerges, was to remake the regional dynamics in favour of America’s allies and push rivals to a corner.
(viii) Mr. Trump succeeded in bringing the Gulf Arab countries and Israel together.
(a) But he failed to escape the historical reality which Mr. Obama faced — America’s dwindling(reducing) influence in shaping the present and future of West Asia.
(ix) A policy in which the historical reality is not factored in may not produce the desired outcome.
The Case Of Iran
(i) Take, for example, the case of Iran.
(ii) The acrimony(bitterness) towards Iran was one of the defining factors of Mr. Trump’s West Asia policy.
(iii) While pulling the U.S. out of the nuclear deal unilaterally and reimposing sanctions on Iran, Mr. Trump thought the Iranians would flinch(shrink) once again so that he could extract more concessions from them and cut their regional wings.
(iv) But the perils(risks) of that policy were the predictability of the policymaker’s objectives, and the Iranians were determined to defy him at any cost.
(v) Iran responded with multiple cuts on the U.S. and allied interests in the region — from targeting Saudi oil facilities and cargo ships in the Strait of Hormuz to launching rocket attacks at American troops in Iraq.
(vi) Mr. Trump’s response was the typical American-style response of the good old days when it was in a position to shape the geopolitical outcome in West Asia.
(vii) He had Qassem Soleimani, one of the top Iranian Generals, killed and declared that the U.S. had re-established deterrence(protection) vis-à-vis Iran.
(viii) But the use of force did not reflect the ground realities.
(ix) Less than a year after the assassination of Soleimani, the U.S., is contemplating(thinking) shutting down the American Embassy in Baghdad, besides withdrawing most troops from Iraq.
(x) Where is the deterrence?
OPEN EMBRACE OF ISRAEL
(i) In the case of Iran, misplaced adventurism(boldness) sabotaged(harmed) even the available policy options.
(ii) The Trump administration’s open embrace of Israel — the decision to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and the go-head to its annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank — sharpened the geopolitical contradictions in the region, instead of bringing peace.
(iii) The normalisation agreements between Sunni Arab countries and Israel, partly driven by their shared concern of an aggressive Iran in a West Asia sans America, could strengthen the pro-American pillar in the region.
(iv) But the withdrawal of Arab powers from the Palestinian question would not finish off the Palestinian question.
(v) It would rather leave a vacuum in regional politics which non-Arab Muslim countries would seek to fill.
(vi) This offers new avenues to Turkey, which under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, seeks to re-establish its influence in the region.
(vii) And Iran, which uses the Palestinian cause to drive public opinion in the Muslim world across the Shia-Sunni divide.
(viii) In other words, Mr. Trump brought together Gulf Arabs and the Jews, who had had backroom contacts for years, on a public platform.
(ix) But he also opened the way for the agitated Persians and the ambitious Turks to enhance their weight in the troubled regional politics.
(i) Historically, the withdrawal of empires had seen new conflicts arising in their peripheries(boundaries).
(ii) In 1911, Italy invaded the Turkish province of Libya, triggering a dangerous competition with the Ottomans in their decline years.
(iii) A year later, four Balkan states formed the Balkan League to take on the Ottomans in Europe.
(iv) The collapse of the British empire left ethnic, religious, geopolitical wounds open across the former colonies.
(v) Some of the conflicts in the Caucasus, including the ongoing fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, have their roots in the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
(vi) Given these examples, it is worth asking if the U.S. is prepared to face the geopolitical consequences of the decline of its influence in West Asia.
(vii) If the four years of the Trump presidency shows any indication, it is not.
(viii) The new beginning Mr. Trump promised in the region could very well be that of a more troublesome future.
3. THE MANACLES OF CASTE IN SANITATION WORK-
GS 2- Important aspects of governance, transparency and accountability
(i) Even in 2020, the Indian government and our civil society continue to grapple(suffer) with the inhuman nature of manual scavenging.
(ii) While civil society started a movement in the 1990s to abolish(end) dry latrines, the focus now is on manhole deaths and provision of safety equipment to sanitation workers.
(iii) The movement has been demanding the abolition of the dehumanising practice of the manual removal of human excreta and calls for the introduction of mechanisation for handling waste.
(iv) Various State governments and the previous Central governments have responded to these civil society demands by introducing different laws to stop manual scavenging and provide incentives to build toilets.
(v) If, on the one hand, the civil society has tended to approach this issue as a collective problem that needs to be addressed by the State.
(vi) On the other, the current ruling dispensation seems to be framing the issue as a spectacle in the form of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, and is addressing the problem in terms of an obstacle in the way of tourism promotion.
(i) In 1993, the then government promulgated an Act prohibiting the construction of unsanitary dry latrines and employing manual scavengers.
(ii) The Act defined ‘manual scavenger’ as a person engaged in or employed for manually carrying human excreta.
(iii) The government’s description of dry latrine was a problem, as it defined dry latrine as “latrine other than a water-seal latrine”.
(iv) Manual scavenging was not just a practice related to dry latrines, but also to insanitary latrines and open defecation.
(v) Until the introduction of the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act in 1993, State governments had a post called ‘scavengers’.
(vi) A scavenger’s job was to manually remove human excreta in households and designated places.
(vii) The local authorities levied scavenging tax on houses for availing this service.
(viii) But after the Act was introduced, State governments themselves became agencies that would enforce prohibition of the construction or usage of dry latrines.
(ix) Ten years later, the Safai Karamchari Andolan, a social movement that campaigned against manual scavenging, along with other organisations, filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court.
(x) The demand was to direct State governments and Union Territories to strictly enforce the law to stop the practice of manual removal of human excreta.
(xi) Mounting pressure from civil society, coupled with the intervention of the Supreme Court, forced the Central government to conduct a survey of manual scavengers in 2013.
(xii) The survey found that dry latrines and manual removal of human excreta still persisted.
(xiii) In the same year, the government introduced the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act.
(xiv) Though the construction of dry latrines has drastically reduced, the number of deaths in manholes, sewers and septic tanks continues to remain high.
(i) The present government had plans to amend the 2013 Act to completely mechanise the cleaning of sewers and manholes and build new sewers.
(ii) But neither the past nor the present amendment addresses the issue of labour safety.
(iii) Same is the case with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, which skirts the issue of labour rights and the stigma(bad identity) attached to sanitation.
(iv) As a matter of fact, in Tamil Nadu, all political parties have trade unions for government servants, except for sanitation workers.
(v) Bodily wastes are seen as unholy elements that need to be kept away from places of living, cooking, studying, or worshipping.
(vi) Not only toilets, but even cleaning work is seen as a lowly job in India.
(vii) Dalit movements have been found wanting in this regard — there have hardly been any organised movements to demand permanent job status for sanitation workers.
(viii) Most sanitation contracts are given to private contractors or self-help groups, and such staff hardly have ID cards, leave alone the protection of medical insurance policies.
(i) Workforce in sanitation departments is recruited via open competition.
(ii) The local administration usually approaches particular caste members during such hiring.
(iii) The situation is so dire(serious) that while we find volunteers to distribute food and undertake rescue operations during natural calamities, hardly any volunteer offers to do clean-up work or dispose of dead bodies.
(iv) During the last Chennai floods, sanitation workers from the Nilgiris district were made to travel in garbage trucks to Chennai.
(v) This situation has continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
(vi) In Tamil Nadu, sanitation workers are asked to work in newly formed COVID-19 wards.
(vii) For example, the Gudalur municipality in the State issued an order to six of its staff members to work in COVID-19 wards.
(viii) Similarly, in Kotagiri town panchayat, officials asked the sons of sanitation workers to work in COVID-19 wards.
Question Of Dignity
(i) Unlike other labour forces, sanitation workers do not have a separate rule-book that lays down guidelines for their work timings, holidays, a proper place for roll call, removal from duty, etc.
(ii) For example, in the Nilgiris district of Tamil Nadu, all the sanitation workers have to stand outside the office during the morning and afternoon roll calls.
(iii) If they reach early, they are seen sitting on roadside pavements.
(iv) Even though there are spaces within the office premises, the officers force them to stand outside.
(v) The officials claim that the practice is traditional and that for any change, new rules need to be formed.
(vi) There are no vehicles for sanitation workers to travel to their designated workspaces, and they have to either walk for kilometres or use garbage vehicles .
(vii) This is a forced choice and is connected to the dignity of a worker.
(viii) To put this in contrast, no supervisor would stand and travel with the sanitation workers.
(i) There are hardly any exclusive trade unions for sweepers, and unlike other sections in government or private workforce, their problems are voiced by only those who are not associated with sanitation work — often NGOs.
(ii) This, is because in India, sanitation work is caste-ridden and hence, there is an urgent need to dissociate caste from labour.