18 OCTOBER 2018
The poor turnout in the Valley for local polls is a wake-up call for the Centre
In elections held in Jammu and Kashmir, the turnout itself is a kind of verdict. The fact that just over a third of the electorate (35.1% provisionally) turned out to vote in the four-phase urban local body elections is a wake-up call to the Union government. The extremely low turnout in the Kashmir region — only 6.7% of those eligible voted in the first three phases, and 4.2% in the fourth phase — reflects the level of disconnect in the Valley. The turnout was not expected to be high, given the boycott by the two main regional parties, the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party. Their immediate protest was over the legal challenge in the Supreme Court to Article 35(A) of the Constitution that accords special powers to the Jammu and Kashmir legislature to decide who are the “permanent residents” of the State and on whom special rights and privileges can be conferred. Given the boycott by these two parties and others, there was little political mobilisation in the Valley. In Jammu, where both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress have a strong base and where issues such as Article 35(A) don’t have as much resonance, there was greater participation. The absence of any viable political competition in the local body polls in the Valley will only undermine the institutions and the victors. This dismal turnout comes against a particularly fraught timeline in Kashmir. With the collapse of the PDP-BJP coalition government in June this year, the absence of Kashmiri parties from the fray could heighten alienation at the street level.
The reversal is discouraging as voter turnouts had increased significantly in this decade, growing ever since the mid-1990s. Even between periods of intense protests, Assembly and parliamentary elections saw increased turnouts despite boycott calls by separatist groups. This indicated a willing acceptance of the need to engage in electoral democracy to address civic concerns even if there were substantive differences and anger with the State and Central governments over issues such as security, human rights violations and the status of J&K. The inability of the PDP-BJP government to come up with a coherent response to the unrest and protests that raged in 2016-17, and the subsequent imposition of Governor’s Rule have only exacerbated matters. The work of the Centre’s interlocutor, Dineshwar Sharma, to carry forward a dialogue with various groups and individuals in the State has also not been enough to arrest misgivings in the Valley. The Centre must see the lack of participation in the polls in the Valley as a serious sign of alienation among the people and double down on ways to forge greater engagement. Misguided steps taken to reverse the special status of J&K might appeal to the BJP’s core constituency, but are bound to have a serious fallout in the Valley.
A proper awareness campaign is vital to contain the Zika outbreak in Jaipur
With 80 laboratory-confirmed cases of the Zika virus already in Jaipur, including 22 pregnant women, the latest outbreak is India’s most severe so far. In January 2017, three confirmed cases of Zika were reported from Ahmedabad, including a pregnant woman, and in July the same year a single case was reported from Tamil Nadu’s Krishnagiri district. Unlike in the case of the Ahmedabad outbreak that was kept under wraps by the Health Ministry (even the World Health Organization was informed only in May), there has been more transparency in the last two instances. About 4.5 lakh people at the outbreak site in Rajasthan have been brought under surveillance. While steps to halt mosquito breeding have been initiated, it is to be noted that controlling the breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the Zika virus, is very challenging. Controlling the spread becomes even harder as the mosquito is widely prevalent in India, and the infection remains asymptomatic in about 80% of cases, allowing the virus to silently spread from one person to another. It can also spread from a pregnant mother to the foetus. Even when the infection manifests itself, the symptoms are very mild and non-specific, making it difficult to correctly and easily diagnose it. A study published in the journal Neurology India found 14 of 90 patients with the Guillain–Barré syndrome (a neurological complication seen in Zika-infected adults) in the Puducherry-based Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research tested positive for Zika virus antibodies. Four of the 14 patients also tested positive for an anti-dengue antibody. There is a remote possibility that the virus is circulating in some parts of India and could cause an epidemic at some point.
It is not clear if the first person (index case) or others who had contracted the infection had travelled to any country where there is a Zika infection risk. The absence of travel history outside India in the recent past by any of the infected individuals indicates the virus is prevalent in the mosquito population. Spread through sex, without multiple instances of infection by mosquitoes is unlikely, given the spurt in the number of cases within a narrow time window in a small community. Since Zika infection during pregnancy can cause severe birth defects, particularly microcephaly (small size of the head), all the 22 pregnant women infected must be monitored. Also, as there is no cure for microcephaly at birth, there should be campaigns to educate people living in the outbreak area to avoid sex, particularly with the intent of getting pregnant, till the outbreak is under control. The long winter ahead in north India and the imminent onset of the northeast monsoon in the eastern coast of India is conducive for the mosquito to multiply and spread. This calls for a high level of alert.