18 APRIL 2016
Country without a pause
At a closed-door meeting with BJP office-bearers recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a case for holding elections to Parliament, State legislatures and local bodies simultaneously. Last week, a group of ministers initiated a discussion with Election Commission officials on the proposal. Certainly the proposal is far from new, having been made earlier by top BJP leaders. L.K. Advani has advocated it on occasion, and the BJP’s manifestos for the 2009 and 2014 general elections promised to “evolve a method of holding Assembly and Lok Sabha elections simultaneously”. The reasons cited are to check election expenditure and to impart stability to State governments. As a general idea, simultaneity can hardly be faulted as it would check election expenditure, free the Central government from a populism that is forced on it by a constantly ticking election cycle, and end the repeated pause on decision-making because of the model code of conduct. It is a necessary debate that the Prime Minister has begun. But it must be evaluated with a clear focus on the problems it seeks to solve, as well as its practicability.
Yes, the early years of the Republic saw simultaneous elections to national and State legislatures. That this link was firmly broken by the early 1970s provides an inkling of the difficulties in mandating it for India’s Westminster-inspired parliamentary democracy. For instance, how do fixed-term legislatures square up with other constitutional and democratic processes, such as the requirement that the government command the confidence of the Lower House? This operates at many levels. In the event of a government losing its majority and no other party being able to mop up the numbers, it would be untenable to hold off elections for too long. In addition, fixed terms would militate against the freedom that a government has to go back to the people any time to refresh its mandate. Given that partisan stand-offs are inhibiting cooperation across the aisles, to dispense with the option of returning to the people for a refreshed mandate would be self-defeating. In fixed-term legislatures, as in the U.S., there is a clear separation between the legislature and the head of government. Such a system is far removed from that envisaged by the founders of our Constitution, who settled for a Cabinet system of government that comprises a constitutional head and the exercise of power through a Council of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. The solution to excessive campaign expenditure and a much too focussed eye on the electoral cycle is better found in persuading political leaderships to develop self-discipline and to explain to the people the need for unpopular, but necessary, decisions. The sporadic advocacy of simultaneous elections by the BJP is informed by self-interest as well. An overlapping campaign would rejig the federal terms in its favour by allowing it to project its prime ministerial candidate against regional parties’ chief ministerial aspirants.
Chew on this: the risks of smokeless tobacco
In a much-needed measure to keep the consumption of chewing tobacco under check, the Delhi government has extended by a year the ban on the sale, purchase and storage of all forms of chewable tobacco — scented, flavoured and mixed — sold in forms such as gutka, pan masala, khaini and zarda. The extension of the ban has come after the previous notification expired recently. In 2012, a few States, beginning with Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, Bihar, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, banned gutka just months after the notification of the Food Safety and Standards (Prohibition and Restriction on Sales) Regulations, 2011 came into effect. The FSS Act clearly states that “tobacco and nicotine shall not be used as ingredients in any food products”. By the end of 2012, all of 14 States had banned gutka, and in 2013, following the Supreme Court’s direction, gutka was banned in all the States. Besides gutka, 11 States including Delhi have over a period of time banned flavoured chewing tobacco, and three States — Maharashtra, Bihar and Himachal Pradesh — have banned flavoured areca nut too. There is a strong case for all States to ban pan masala as manufacturers have effectively sidestepped the FSS Act by selling chewing tobacco and pan masala in separate sachets. Also, the rampant surrogate advertisement of pan masala products has made a mockery of the ban on gutka. The biggest blow for tobacco control in India, which has banned the advertisement of all tobacco products, came through the amendment of the Cable Television Networks Amendment Rules 2009; in contravention of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the amended Rules allow for the use of the brand name or logo of tobacco products for marketing non-tobacco products.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, functioning under the WHO, had stated in a 2008 monograph that “areca nut is carcinogenic to humans (Group I).” In India, areca nut is the “second most consumed” carcinogen after tobacco. Also, many of the flavouring agents used in pan masala, a cunning mix of natural products and chemicals, are dangerous substances. So what is preventing the Central government from extending the scope of the amended FSS Act to include areca nut and thereby ban the sale of pan masala in India? After all, the number of smokeless tobacco users in India is alarmingly high at 206 million, as estimated in an August 2012 paper in The Lancet. Unlike in the case of smokers — where less than 10 per cent of cigarette-users are women and a little over the same percentage consumed bidis — about 50 per cent of consumers of smokeless tobacco are women, according to the 2009-2010 Global Adult Tobacco Survey. The number of oral cancer deaths caused by chewing tobacco is alarmingly high. According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, about 100,000 new oral cancer cases are diagnosed every year and nearly 50 per cent of these lead to death within one year of diagnosis. It’s time the government came down heavily on chewing tobacco.