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- Institutions under the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission will continue to remain outside the purview of the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) even as the Central government took a decision two years back to extend social security benefits to workers in all such charitable and religious trusts.
- The EPFO took a decision in May this year allowing institutions run by two trusts — Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission — to remain outside its purview.
- The education institutions and hospitals run under Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission have been exempted from the EPFO’s coverage since 1982.
- All religious trusts and places — maths , temples, gurudwara, and churches — employing at least 20 workers were required to extend provident fund benefits to their staff.
- Operation Muskan, a month-long drive to rescue Odisha’s missing children, was launched by the State police on Saturday.
- This is the third edition launched by the Crime Branch in association with the Women and Child Development Department.
- A joint team of the Crime Branch and Commissionerate of Police rescued the children, who were working as child labourers.
Why was the Israel visit historic?
- When Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Israel this month, it was hailed as the first visit by an Indian Prime Minister there since the creation of Israel and India’s independence in 1947.
- It was also notable as he became the first senior Indian leader not to visit Palestinian areas or meet with Palestinian officials during the visit, or even mention Palestine publicly, overturning the primacy their cause has received from India over the past seven decades.
Why drop the trip to Palestine?
- For the Israeli side, the visit from the Indian Prime Minister was in itself a major diplomatic victory as India was one of the first countries to recognise the state of Palestine in 1988.
- Given India’s consistent support to the recognition of Palestine, Mr. Modi’s visit signified even more than the visit of a close ally, like the U.S., and its importance was underscored in the way Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped all plans for the three days Mr. Modi was in Israel.
- The significance of dropping Palestine from the visit wasn’t lost on the Israeli media either, which pointed out that even U.S. President Trump had visited Palestinian territory during his visit in May.
What will be the fallout?
- India has many areas of cooperation with Israel, which could grow much further if India drops its “political baggage” of the past, even if that involves losing some leverage on the Palestinian side.
- Palestinian officials have been muted, with President Mahmoud Abbas’s diplomatic adviser Majdi Elkhaldi saying they hope the visit wouldn’t come “at the expense” of the relations with Palestine.
What is the message?
- Many foreign policy analysts also see Mr. Modi’s visit as the ending of India’s ‘non-aligned movement (NAM)’ stance that the NDA government has made a decided shift from, underlined by his decision not to attend the NAM summit in Venezuela last year.
- The decision to drop Palestine from his itinerary may have historical underpinnings for the BJP-led government as well, as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) has long proposed closer links between Israel and India.
- Hindu Mahasabha president Veer Savarkar broke with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru by supporting the right of “Jews to their homeland” in Israel, as did the then RSS chief Golwalkar.
What are the ties now?
- In modern times, and especially since India established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1992, the links between the two countries have run a steadily increasing course of engagement, and Israel is now one of India’s top most defence suppliers, while India is Israel’s tenth biggest trading partner.
- Young Indian students increasingly seek ties with Israel on technology, start-ups and innovations.
- The U.S. National Defence Authorisation Act (NDAA) 2018 passed by the House of Representatives has mandated the Secretaries of Defense and State to come up with a strategy for advancing defence cooperation between India and the U.S. in six months.
- Indian-American Representative Ami Bera, Vice-Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, moved the amendment on U.S.-India defence cooperation.
- Last year’s NDAA had designated India as a “major defence partner”, and also had a similar provision for preparing a strategy, but the findings of the review has not been published yet.
- The term, ‘major defence partner’ remains undefined, but senior officials have explained that after the designation, India’s request for arms and technology is treated with a presumption of approval now, as opposed to a presumption of denial that existed earlier.
- The United States is the world’s oldest democracy and India is the world’s largest democracy.
- Here we go again. One argument made by the apologists of the current regime in New Delhi is that those who criticise the Prime Minister, the RSS-BJP and the Sangh Parivar are elitists out of touch with the mainstream of Indian society. There is nothing wrong, say the chaddi chamcha s, with a ‘robust Hindu self-affirmation’, with the much-awaited reawakening of a sense of pride in the majority religion and an assumed ‘Hindu nation’.
- One of the many problems with this formulation is that it cherry-picks what is included and excluded in the definition of ‘mainstream’. So, the fact that a majority of Indians are now non-vegetarian is not mainstream, but a supposed ‘social sanction’ against the eating of beef is deemed to be so.
The fact that the reality for a majority of Indians is the struggle for a decent livelihood, proper food, shelter and health care is not mainstream, but the idea of a burgeoning superpower spending obscene amounts of its annual budget on armaments is to be accepted without question.
- In the same category of self-serving hypocrisy falls this business of prosecuting and hounding people who are deemed to have ‘insulted’ such and such political leader or institution or national symbol.
Right to be irreverent
- Down the ages, the one weapon the poor and downtrodden have always had is their ribald irreverence for the powers that be. Whether in poetry or song, whether in dance, folk theatre or traditional procession, this is manifested in so many different Indian languages and cultures; the raja , the nawab , the daroga , the mullah , the pandit , the jotedar , the collector, and more recently the MLA or MP have always been the butt of extremely sharp jokes, spoofs and caricatures. This is the mainstream Indian culture that the prissy, prudish, power-greedy middle and upper classes find so disgusting and threatening. Clearly this irreverence is to be denied and punished as the powers that be develop an ever thinner skin, an ever more insecure idea of their own pomp and supposedly unassailable importance.
- All India Bakchod (AIB) and other spoof-makers and stand-up comics may take a lot from the Western notions of television comedy and satire but they are also part of the very Indian tradition of making fun of the rich and powerful. The brouhaha around their recent post where they pasted elements of a dog’s face on to Narendra Modi’s face is worth examining.
The Modi dog face wasn’t even particularly witty or funny, it was childish, like a student drawing a moustache or horns on a photograph of some teacher or historical figure. A far funnier example of this kind of thing was when someone put a Mohawk wig on the bald pate of Winston Churchill’s statue in Whitehall — there was supposedly ‘the greatest Briton ever’ suddenly transformed into a racist street thug or at least into a punk rocker. Mr. Modi himself is an absurd enough figure, one who gives us rich opportunities for laughter and derision, so one wonders why the normally quite funny bunch at AIB couldn’t come up with anything better.
- Next, the outrage and the police FIR, etc. are in themselves outrageous: the people protesting on Shri Modi’s behalf love it when the opponents of the regime are ridiculed on the Web in the worst, most obscene terms; and the police surely have better things to do than chase someone who’s made a jejune photo-joke.
- Then there is the question as to why AIB deleted their post. Their answer was, we always play cat and mouse with the powerful, we make little forays into satire and pull back when we think it strategically wise, that’s how we roll and will continue to roll. Their defence was, we spend a lot of money on court cases, we have several FIRs against us, so, thank you but shut up, we know best how to defend our work, how to survive to fight another day.
- In any case, the post with the two photographs including the dog-face has now gone viral. Despite them deleting it, the police have decided to act, so the fun and games may only just be starting. Guardians of the law across the country and under all sorts of different political parties all need to be given workshops on freedom of speech.
- One of the things they need to understand is this: the first deal any public figures make in a democracy is that in return for their public stature and visibility, they can be questioned, ridiculed and caricatured. If they go against this unwritten deal, then they do not believe in the tenets of democracy.
Even as the cops prosecute the AIB crew, even as their top lawyers defend them, what the politicians of this country need to remember is this: in the small towns and villages, in the backstreets of the cities, around the tea stalls and paan shops, millions of people are making fun of them right now, and laughing and cursing them in the most extreme, bitter and bitterly funny terms. That is mainstream India and it is not going away anytime soon.
One of the perks of travelling alone in a foreign country is the happy obscurity it affords. There is neither the tug of a family nor the social pressures of friends and rivals to influence one’s immediate thoughts.
On the flip side, such solitudinal travels reveal, in moments of weariness, the loneliness that modern societies can easily thrust on individuals, despite the grope and throb of megacities. More fundamentally, travelling can reveal to an individual how dependent we are on our immediate relations to discern the structure of social reality.
The world — the traveller realises — perpetually presents itself as a garden of forking paths and to choose wisely, without the benefit of experience and tradition, is perilous. To get away from one’s fold is dangerous, not just for one’s bodily safety but also for one’s mind, trapped as it can get in a wilderness of foreign mirrors. However, in this very danger also lies hidden the possibility of self-discovery.
Rise of the solitary traveller
For much of human history, travelling alone was rare and, more importantly, tantamount to subversion of the established order. Right from the times of the Sramanas in India, the desert fathers of Palestine and the early-medieval knights of Europe, to be on one’s own was almost the exception. It was an act of abnegation in service of radical truth-seeking or in search of adventure to accrue prestige. By the mid-1700s, as rural societies began to undergo a churn, either through legislative fiat as in England, or through the effects of slavery, genocide and forced migration across swathes of Asia, Africa, Australia, and North America, the solitary straggler became a more common figure. The adventurer, the traveller, the runaway slave, the aborigine wasting away — archetypes that belonged to the peripheries now muscled their way into the core.
Eventually, when modernity cranked up its production of the disaffected and disconnected, there arose an effort to valorise the individual itself.
Be it in the heroic biographies of Napoleon or Nelson, or in the novels of Dickens or Thackeray, or in Thoreau’s experiments with self — the possibility of breaking social and psychological chains, the conceit of being born anew into the world thanks, in parts, to spanning and conquering geographies entered popular Eurocentric imagination. Man, to this day, waddles afloat between the deep waters of nostalgia below and the sun drenched future above.
In fact, a particular kind of travel — difficult, life-threatening, and emancipatory — inspired the creation of new genres of fiction itself. The ‘naval novels’ or, as the French called it le roman maritime , was born thanks to James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pilot . It borrowed motifs from extant historical fiction and set it into a world at the precipice of the ‘first Wave of Globalisation’. Since then, the literary descendants of Cooper’s novel — from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Ibis trilogy’ — have relied on travel as a narrative technique to critique public institutions and private vanities.
Historically, much like in fiction, the traveller performed many roles for himself and for others: those of an educator, a historian, a storyteller, a sociologist, and even an apologist. A well-travelled person meant living up to travel’s semantic origins: ‘travail’, or to labour.
However, closer to our times, travel has lost its frisson. Much of the world has become safer and many of travel’s historic roles have been usurped by specialisations.
Commodification of experience
In the mid-19th century, there began a transformation: travel transformed into sightseeing and the traveller was substituted by the ‘tourist’. No one nudged us more in this direction than Karl Baedeker, a German publisher, who dreamed up the idea of a travel guide (“Baedeker’s”). The result was the privileging of the seemingly eternal, the visual: monument-seeing became the ritual. The labour of travel — the anxiety and reality of foreignness — began to be carefully replaced by the bland simulacra of the familiar.
Today, so excellently packaged are travel routines that it is possible to visit entire countries or regions without even once talking to a native. In every major city, it is now easy to find tour groups, armed with cameras and maps, suntans and water bottles, bravely venturing to explore the cordon sanitaire approved by the tourism ministries. All this while the tourist and the local walk past each other, like warring relatives at a funeral, shamed by the occasion to maintain peace. Inevitably, such disembodied travel birth other ennuis.
Author Alain de Botton tells us of a 19th century novel by the British author J.K. Huysmans called À Rebours , wherein the protagonist concludes that the dream of London is better than the soot-filled reality. Much of modern travel industry is devised around eroding this precise suspicion that has gained ground. Tourism may not be what it is made out to be: an escape from one’s life. For many Americans, the experience of Europe is less attractive than the Europe of their minds — which perhaps explains why only 138 million Americans (total population: 332 million) have bothered to avail of a passport as of 2016.
Faced with the homogenisation of experiences on one end and recognition of truth in that Sartrean quip (“hell is other people”) on the other, what is the goal of travel today, especially for the young? One possible answer is that travel is a way to learn how to avoid mistaking ‘looking’ for ‘seeing’.
- Yesterday (July 15), which also happened to be World Youth Skills Day, the Skill India Mission celebrated its second anniversary.
- The Manmohan Singh government had first floated the National Skill Development Council, headed by former TCS honcho S. Ramadorai.
- It had even given him the rank of a Cabinet Minister.
- Under the council, the National Skill Development Corporation was set up as a public-private partnership (another first).
- The corporation came up with a target — for itself and some 22 Central Ministries which already had some form of skill development or training programme running. With an objective of skilling 500 million people by 2022, this would have made India’s initiative the biggest such exercise in human history.
- That number, arrived at from very poor data and deeply flawed assumptions, was soon quietly dropped. During the UPA years itself, the NSDC scaled back the target to a humble 10 million by 2020, even as the Centre upped the project to the status of a ‘mission’.
- Post 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of whose poll promises was to create one crore jobs, stepped up the ante. First, the skill development portfolio was upped to the status of a full-fledged Ministry, with its own Minister, Secretary et al. A year later, he revamped the National Skills Mission.
- A special scheme, with the PM’s own imprimatur on it — the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) — was launched, with the status of a ‘flagship scheme’, which meant adequate budgetary support.
- Unfortunately, such tectonic shifts in a short period of time, particularly when involving staggeringly large numbers of people, have been managed by only one country in the world — and that’s not India, but China. Two years on, India’s ambitious plan of becoming the world’s supplier of skilled workers lies in tatters. Now, the Ministry does not give a number even if asked.
- With many of the initial loans doled out by the NSDC turning into NPAs, the franchisee model (remember public-private partnership) appears to have been quietly buried.
With more skeletons tumbling out of the skilling closet every day, the PMKVY scheme’s expansion has been put on a ‘temporary’ hold, while the Ministry struggles to separate the genuine from the fake. Originally started with a corpus of Rs. 1,600 crore, which was quickly upped to Rs. 6,000 crore, the PMKVY, as per the Skill Development Ministry’s own investigations, appears to have turned into a gigantic racket for milking state funds. This is what the Ministry said, while stopping any further allocation to any franchisee: “On a further scrutiny of franchise arrangements in these centres it has been found that the core function of training itself including entire infrastructure has been outsourced in majority of places with a rent-seeking attitude of key training provider who tends to charge up to 40% of revenue, just for providing the access to PMKVY system through this arrangement. This is obviously having a deleterious impact on the quality of training in many of these institutes.” In fact, a sample survey showed that nearly half the franchise skilling centres did not meet the basic criteria. A Ministry internal audit showed racketeers had gone a step further, creating ‘ghost’ centres which existed only on paper. This is a huge tragedy, particularly for the millions of job seekers joining the workforce every year. The official website of the PM itself paints this stark picture:
“Just 4.69% of India’s total workforce has undergone formal skill training, compared with 52% in the U.S., 75% in Germany, 80% in Japan and 96% in South Korea.”
Spectre of jobless growth
Of course, with the spectre of ‘jobless growth’ haunting the economy, even those who are being skilled (or reskilled) are finding it difficult to get jobs. Numbers are hard to come by, but estimates range from a low of 5% placement under PMKVY to under-50% in some of the older schemes, where funding is linked to outcomes. Now the PMKVY is also being modified to a partially outcome-based funding model. But all this is a case of too little, too late. India has clearly dropped the ball on skill development. And with the youthful population (India’s median age is just 29) nursing ever-growing aspirations, finding jobs — well-paid, aspiration-fulfilling jobs — for this population has to become the government’s main priority.
- Merely creating a Ministry, and coming out with vision and mission documents is not enough — it has to be at the very centre of everything the government plans and does for the economy. Otherwise, we are in trouble.