23 JANAURY 2016
Uncertainty in Jammu & Kashmir
Speculation continues to get free play about the next steps in government formation in Jammu and Kashmir. Since Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death on January 7 and the subsequent imposition of Governor’s Rule in the State, his daughter Mehbooba Mufti has studiedly refused to reveal her hand. Unsurprisingly, the air is thick with talk of various scenarios. The numbers in the effectively 87-member Assembly are such that the Peoples Democratic Party’s options are seen to be many. With 27 MLAs, it could ditch the BJP’s 25 and form a government with the Congress’s 12 and a handful of Independents. The PDP could assert its centrality to the BJP’s ambition to revive its first stint in government in the State by renegotiating terms. Or it could force elections and thereby hope to reverse the perceived loss of popular support over its embrace of the BJP. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, whose National Conference is the PDP’s competitor in what is practically a zero-sum game in the Valley, tried this week to reinforce the impression of a party out comparison-shopping in the sombre aftermath of its patriarch’s death, when he wrote an open letter to Ms. Mufti asking her to “rise to the occasion or step back” — in other words, form a government or let the Assembly be dissolved. Ms. Mufti appears to be holding all the cards, but her dilemmas too are obvious. These range from stemming dissent in the PDP’s ranks to consolidating its traditional political space as a party that professes allegiance to New Delhi while administering the “healing touch” to the widest possible cross-section of the State’s population, including separatist supporters.
In early 2015, it had taken all of Mufti Sayeed’s stature and goodwill from his 2002-05 stint as Chief Minister to pull off the most unexpected of coalitions, with the BJP. He had spoken of the need for the Valley to pull along with the Jammu region, where the BJP had done spectacularly well, and the PDP sought to embed the coalition in a forward-looking Agenda for the Alliance, seeking greater understanding from Delhi for the unique identity of Kashmir and enhanced funding for development. That conciliatory framework sustained pressure on many counts during the past year. One, the breakdown in the ceasefire along the border dimmed hopes of normalising ties and reviving commercial and people-to-people contacts with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Two, delivery of development funds, especially a rehabilitation package for the 2014 floods, was too long drawn out. And three, the creeping into Kashmiri public life of Hindutva issues like consumption of beef and J&K’s flag resulted in suspicion about the BJP’s political agenda, among the population and also within the PDP. These are the circumstances in which Ms. Mufti must revisit the mandate of 2014. Indeed, there is a need for her to step up, and to do so urgently. She needs to find her voice to articulate the vision that guides her in this extended moment of transition. J&K cannot afford this uncertainty to play out much longer.
The unmet health challenge
The first set of data from the National Family Health Survey-4 for 13 States and two Union Territories should be seen as a report card on how effectively India has used its newly created wealth to alter a dismal record of nutritional deprivation, ill-health and lost potential among its citizens, particularly women and children. Given the steady growth in real per capita GDP since the 1980s, and the progress made since Independence in overcoming severe undernourishment, enlightened policy approaches could have brought about a giant leap from 1992-93, when the first NFHS was conducted, ensuring that no child or woman was left behind in the quest for health for all. Evidently, the Indian state has not viewed the situation — even at the height of a prosperous phase of economic growth a decade ago — of 39 per cent of children under the age of five remaining underweight as constituting a national crisis. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that this failure to assume responsibility for child nutrition has left 34 per cent of children in that age group underweight today. There is also a lot of evidence to show that the deprived sections of India’s children have low weight even at birth due to the general neglect of women’s nutrition and well-being.
It is imperative that the data coming out of NFHS-4 lead to the charting of a new policy course that makes access to nutrition and health a right for all. Asserting this right would require the strengthening of the Integrated Child Development Services scheme in all States, particularly those with a higher proportion of underweight and stunted children. In the first set of data, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh bring up the rear on these crucial metrics of child development. It deserves mention that even within the ICDS, there is a clear deficit in caring for the needs of children under three. Nutrition in the first two or three years of a child’s life has a lasting impact on her development; care given in later years, including freshly cooked meals at school, cannot undo the setback caused by neglect during this foundational phase. Other key areas requiring intervention are access to antenatal care, reduction of high levels of anaemia among women, and immunisation; it is a cause for concern that a State such as Tamil Nadu with an active public health system recorded a reduced rate of full child immunisation compared with NFHS-3 data. Overall, there is a need to assess the health of citizens more frequently than the current NFHS cycle of seven to 10 years allows. Data gathered every two or three years would help make timely policy corrections. A fuller picture of the health of urban and rural Indians will emerge later in the year when data for all States become available. They should send out the message that sustained economic growth is not possible without state support to achieve the well-being of the population, especially women and children.