October 26, 2018 @ 2:00 am

26 OCTOBER 2018

Trial by voters

With the disqualification of 18 rebels upheld, CM Palaniswami needs a fresh endorsement

It is not often that byelections acquire the significance and importance of a general election, opening up the possibility of bringing down a government. But with the Madras High Court upholding the disqualification of 18 legislators for defection, Tamil Nadu appears set to witness elections to 20 seats, including two rendered vacant by the death of the members. With the government of Edappadi K. Palaniswami hanging on for dear life, the result could be the difference between his continuance and an ignominious exit. The AIADMK, which now has 116 members in the Assembly including the Speaker, will need to win at least two seats to retain its majority. But with four of its sitting members nursing grievances against the party leadership, it may need to win six of the 20 seats to remain in power. Of course, if the disqualified MLAs decide to appeal against the High Court ruling, and obtain a stay against the holding of a re-poll in their constituencies, then the government might get a longer lease without having to face voters. But if Mr. Palaniswami, who became Chief Minister in the political upheaval in the AIADMK following the death of Jayalalithaa, is to retain his political legitimacy, he will need to win a vote of confidence from the people, and not just a group of MLAs artificially held together by the fear of election, and the comfort of being associated with a party in power. Indeed, the arithmetic of the numbers in the Assembly aside, the AIADMK would need to win a majority of the seats at stake in the byelections in order to keep its flock of MLAs together and fight off erosion in the wider support base.

If the byelections could mean moving from a position of power to political wilderness for Mr. Palaniswami, they also pose a serious political test for M.K. Stalin, the new president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. So far he has managed to keep the party together under his leadership, but the ultimate test will be at the polling booths. Together with the DMK’s allies he has the support of 97 MLAs, but he needs to win all 20 to get a majority. Else, he will need the support of the breakaway AIADMK group led by T.T.V. Dhinakaran, who enjoys the support of the disqualified 18, to form a government. The byelections, when they happen, will be akin to a mid-term election. It is not clear now when they will be held, but if they are held in the next few months, the party that performs best will have a distinct edge in next year’s Lok Sabha election. With film stars Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth already preparing the ground to mount a challenge in the Assembly election, every additional share of the electoral pie will mean a lot for both Mr. Palaniswami and Mr. Stalin. And these byelections will represent a big slice.


Think small

Decentralised sludge management systems are vital to achieve clean water goals

Bad sanitation is India’s worst-kept secret, but recent data from Uttar Pradesh show that in spite of working in mission mode to expand sanitation, 87% of faecal sludge expelled from toilets in urban areas is untreated. Viewed against the 2030 goal to achieve clean water and sanitation for all under the UN Sustainable Development Agenda, this depressing statistic shows how much work remains to be done. State support for improved housing and planned development has never been strong, and the National Urban Sanitation Policy of 2008 has not changed that significantly. At the national scale, a United Nations report of 2015 estimates that 65,000 tonnes of untreated faeces is introduced into the environment in India annually. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan promised a major shift, but it has focussed more on the basic requirement of household and community toilets in rural and urban areas. The study in U.P. conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment has now exposed broken links, of faecal sludge and septage being collected from household tanks and simply discharged into drains, open land and wetlands. The problem of the waste not being contained, collected without manual labour, transported and treated safely is becoming graver. It is now time for a new approach. This has to be decentralised and different from the strategy being used to clean the Ganga, for which the NDA government announced an outlay of ?20,000 crore in 2015. That strategy relies on large sewage treatment plants for riverside cities and towns.

Immediate investments in decentralised sludge management systems would bring twin benefits: of improving the environment and reducing the disease burden imposed by insanitary conditions. It is welcome that the CSE study is being followed up with a mapping exercise on the flow of faecal waste streams in individual cities. The results for Varanasi, Allahabad and Aligarh in particular should be revealing, since the collection efficiency for sludge in these cities ranges from just 10% to 30%. One immediate intervention needed is the creation of an inter-departmental task force to identify land to build small treatment systems for sludge, and to provide easily accessible solutions to houses that are currently discharging waste into open drains. The business of emptying faecal material using tanker trucks needs to be professionalised and de-stigmatised. It is untenable that manual scavengers continue to be employed in violation of the law to clean septic tanks in some places, and caste factors play out in the recruitment of workers even in the mechanised operations. All aspects of the business of sanitation need reform if India is to meet Goal Number 6 of the Sustainable Development Goals with egalitarian policies. A large State such as Uttar Pradesh provides the opportunity to demonstrate commitment to policy. Success here can transform lives.

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