Understanding The Indus Water Treaty

Parenting Indian Juveniles Can Involve Repeating Bullshit Sentences.

That’s a mnemonic for you to remember the rivers in the Indus water system. Under the Indus Water Treaty, the water of the western rivers— Indus, Jhelum & Chenab— are allocated to Pakistan. That is P for Pakistan & I_J_C. On the other hand, India has unrestricted access to the three eastern rivers— Ravi, Beas & Satluj. That is I for India & R_B_S.

Those are the bare bones of what may someday lead to a “water war” between two nuclear-armed nations. And it’s important for all of us to understand why.

When Radcliffe divided erstwhile British India into two, the rivers of the Indus water system decided not to give a fuck. “The government officers, clerks with chairs, pens and inkpots were distributed” & so were people with mental illness including Manto’s fictional character Toba Tek Singh. But the Indus & its sidekicks had been flowing the way they did since eternity & they were not going to be perturbed by this newfangled concept called a nation-state.

The six rivers of the Indus basin variously originate in Tibet & Northern India as the hills lie to the northeast of the Indus basin. Pakistan lies downstream & hence by the sheer virtue of geography, India found itself with a dangerous level of control over most of these streams.

In May 1948, the Karachi Dawn, one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers, wrote:

As a blazing sun poured itself over the dry and parched lands of Montgomery and Lahore, anxious and overwrought people of the province asked, “When will the canal water come?”

In April, India had stopped water flows from the Ferozpur headworks to some canals in the Punjabi areas in Pakistan. About a million acres of land in Pakistan faced drought. India later restored the water flow but only after Pakistan paid compensation for the water. With this incident, Pakistan realized its folly. It hadn’t insisted on canal water distribution at the time of the Radcliffe award.

Two Opposing Conception of Territorial Sovereignty

Let’s say you have 20 people packed permanently in a large room. There are 20 water taps installed on an equal distance on the four walls. While everyone can access the water tap whenever they want, the main switch to all the water taps is located on a particular corner of the room. Sixteen of them are fans of John Green & four of them love Rushdie.

The sixteen people thought of the four as intellectual snobs while the Rushdie fans considered the remaining sixteen as lacking in literary taste. They fought a lot over what one should read & sometimes they got into fist fights too. One day, an outsider arrived to “solve” their problems. He built a wall divided the room. About one-fifth of the room was allocated to the four Rushdie fans. They got one-fifth of everything— books, pens, food supplies, etc. They had one water tap for each person too. But soon they realized the main switch to all the water taps was on the side of John Green fans.

Now, what do you think we should do to arrive at a fair arrangement?

The John Green fans could say that they have the right to do whatever they want with the things in their territory & that involves turning the switch on or off whenever they want. This view is called absolute territorial sovereignty or the Harmon Doctrine. According to it, Rushdians have no right to question if the Greenies switch off the water taps forever & leave them the Rushdians to die. In 1895, When the government of Mexico protested against the US diversion of water from the Rio Grande river, the US justified its action by Harmon Doctrine. This is a very uncivilized way of looking at things & It is no longer in use in the International law.

The Rushdians can say that water did not belong to the land but to the people. So, they were entitled to the same amount of water they had enjoyed historically. The party in control of the switches could not do whatever they wanted. There are some internationally accepted rules & the two parties must abide by it. This view is called Limited Territorial Sovereignty or the theory of territorial integrity.

Under the theory of territorial integrity, every lower riparian is entitled to the natural flow of streams entering its territory.


The right to exploit a river to a greater extent than in the past must be denied an upper riparian since it would affect the amount of water, or its quality, flowing downstream.

This is how Pakistan has viewed the Indus problem from its inception. This theory too isn’t applied anywhere in practice yet. These are the two extreme views. The Indus Water Treaty is based on a middle way— the theory of reasonable & equitable utilization.

It follows from (these principles) that the rights of the several units concerned in this dispute must be determined by applying neither the doctrine of sovereignty, nor the doctrine of riparian rights, but the rule of equitable apportionment, each unit being entitled to a fair share of the waters of the Indus and its tributaries.

After 1948, when India stopped the flow of water to Pakistan, the two countries with the World Bank as a broker tried to negotiate a more civilized arrangement. At the beginning of the negotiations, India just asked for the water of the river Beas for exclusive Indian use. But till the end, India got unrestricted access two three eastern rivers— Ravi, Beas & Satluj. This was commensurate with India’s needs. About 20% of the watershed of the Indus water system is in Indian territory & India got unrestricted access to about a similar percentage of water. In addition to that, India was also allowed to small storage on the western rivers for cultivation & to generate electricity. This was the Indus Water Treaty signed between the three parties— India, Pakistan & the World Bank— in 1960.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

Old Acquaintances: India And The OIC

This year, India had been invited for the 46th session as a “guest of honour” as OIC completed its 50th year in 2019. But our relations with OIC are quite old.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) calls itself “the collective voice of the Muslim world” & its stated objective is this:

To safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world.

India has the third largest Muslim population in the world. India is home to about 10% of the world’s Muslims. Any organization genuinely interested in protecting the interests of the world’s Muslims should obviously have India as one of the most important players. All the member countries of the OIC have a majority Muslim population. Russia & Thailand, with a significant Muslim minority, are the observer members of the organization. But, in my opinion, to really “protect the Muslims of the world”, you first need to have countries with significant Muslim minority populations as the members because those are the Muslims who may not have an adequate voice in their country.

So, if India isn’t a member of OIC & it has been invited for the first time in 50 years, we should rather ask, “Why the hell India isn’t a part of OIC yet? Doesn’t this miss the whole point of having an organization to protects the Muslims of the world?”

The preparatory committee that decided the composition of OIC in 1969 led down the following criteria for the countries to be invited for the meeting:

  1. countries having a Muslim majority population; or
  2. those having a Muslim head of state.

Pakistan wanted to paint India as a Hindu country rather than a secular country where Muslims have no place. India’s inclusion in OIC has always been opposed by Pakistan. If India is included in OIC, it means that the government of India actually represents a sizeable number of the world’s Muslims.

Mohammad Ali Jinnah

This is against the very idea of Pakistan. The two nation theory assumes that the Hindus & Muslims are two nations and Pakistan is the only true guardian of Muslims in the territory of Indian Subcontinent once ruled by the British. India’s inclusion in OIC would have created an identity crisis for Pakistan.

India was actually invited to the first OIC conference & in effect, India is one of the founding members of OIC. While Pakistan felt uneasy with India’s inclusion, it couldn’t muster a valid reason why India shouldn’t be included.

Around the same time, communal violence in Gujarat broke out. It was the first major Hindu-Muslim riot after partition. With this, Pakistan had now found a reason to refuse India’s entry into OIC.

This is what Gurbachan Singh, India’s then ambassador to Morocco, has to say about what happened:

The following day, on the 24th morning, Laraki asked me to see him before the conference was to reconvene. He said that news of the Ahmedabad riots was beginning to cause some disquiet amongst the delegations and suggested, on a personal and friendly basis, that I should not participate in the morning session. I readily agreed and asked the other members of the delegation to attend the conference.


During this time members of all the delegations had waited in the conference hall. Rumours were floating around. It transpired that the president of Pakistan was refusing to leave his villa until he received an assurance that the official Indian delegation would not be permitted to participate in the meeting. Many leaders of delegations attempted to telephone him but reportedly he would not even answer the telephone.

Pakistan didn’t want India to be part of OIC. India was asked if it could accept an observer status. The Indian delegation wasn’t happy with the suggestion. The Moroccan delegation asked India if it would voluntarily withdraw from the conference to ensure the success of the first conference of OIC. India was initially “unanimously” invited to OIC & it was not going to give up the membership due to Pakistan’s antics. India refused to withdraw.

Pakistan’s volte-face, it is evident, was not because of the Ahmedabad riots or a governmental delegation or a Sikh acting leader of the Indian delegation, though all, in turn, were presented as reasons. It is also on record that Pakistan was part of the consensus when an invitation had been extended to the Government of India. The real reason was that, when word got back to Pakistan of the invitation to India, there was a spate of protests in the country including, significantly, by many political opponents of the regime such as Asghar Khan, Bhutto, Mumtaz Daultana and others.

The Indian delegation at OIC was labelled as the “the Muslim community of India” instead of “the government of India” in the final declaration.

India could not accept anything lesser than the member status because it was “unanimously” invited as so. Pakistan, on the other hand, ensured that India wasn’t invited to any subsequent conferences. Pakistan has used OIC to garner support for its Kashmir cause. In the 1990s, it doubled down on the particular issue. So, India wanted to be part of the OIC to present its side of the story. But Pakistan thwarted all such efforts.

Now, that the major countries like Saudi Arabia & UAE want to be on India’s good books due to India’s economic rise, they have been trying to rethink India’s position in the OIC.

That’s why we had this “guest of honour” invitation. The anti-India days of OIC are gone & we shouldn’t be worried too much about our inclusion. So, if we are to participate in OIC, it should only be as a member, nothing less than that.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

Should India Engage With Taliban?

In 1999, the Indian Airline IC 814 was hijacked in Kathmandu by Hurkat-Al-Mujahideen & flown to Kandahar in Afghanistan. The hijackers demanded the release of three terrorists.

One was Maulana Masood Azhar who was also involved in the attacks on the Indian Parliament in 2001. The second terrorist to be released was Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the subject of the movie ‘Omerta’ by Hansal Mehta who achieved notoriety for the abduction & murder of an American Journalist named Daniel Pearl.

Rajkumar Rao as Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in Hansal Mehta’s Omerta

The third was Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar who fomented insurgency in Kashmir & trained terrorists in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

Ajit Doval, who was the chief negotiator then says:

If these people (the hijackers) were not getting active ISI support in Kandahar, we could have got the hijacking vacated. The ISI had removed all the pressure we were trying to put on the hijackers. Even their safe exit was guaranteed, so they had no need to negotiate an escape route.

Apart from this, according to an Indian Army official, at the peak of Taliban rule in Afghanistan:

about 22 per cent of terrorists operating in Jammu and Kashmir were either of Afghan origin or had been trained there.

This ISI-Taliban Yaarana has been a real pain-in-the-arse for India. Why, then, should India engage in dialogue with the Taliban & give this terrorist organization the legitimacy it yearns for?

IC-814 in Kandahar

It’s better to choose to engage with the Taliban now than being forced to talk to them later.

It’s just a matter of time that the US will withdraw a majority of its troops from Afghanistan. What happens next? The Afghan government controls just about half the Afghan territory. The rest is either controlled by the Taliban or it is still a contested area. The Taliban is just getting stronger by the day & if the military conflict goes on, it will just end up occupying more territory.

An International consensus is emerging that a peace process is the only way forward. Any outcome of the peace process will definitely involve the Taliban governing the country or at least sharing the power. The Taliban knows that it is in control & It is supporting the peace only on its own terms. It is inevitable that we will have to engage with the Taliban sooner or later.

Some Contra Points

Firstly, Pakistan uses the Afghan Taliban as a hedge against India.

This should be enough of a reason for India to be reluctant to engage in any dialogue with the Taliban. But even Pakistan doesn’t want a stable government in Afghanistan even if it is ruled by the Taliban. It loves to keep Afghanistan in eternal chaos.

A strengthened Taliban, backed by the ISI, can spread its influence in the neighbouring Pakistan & Kashmir. This too is a big problem for India. Ideally, India would have loved to have a world without the Taliban. But if the Taliban’s ascendance is inevitable, we better extend a hand of friendship or even dialogue to the Taliban. That’s the only way our interest can be secured. An antagonistic Taliban will only make matter worse at the border.

We can hope that a Taliban which will have a country to run will be less subordinate to the wishes of Pakistan. India has gained some goodwill in Afghanistan through its developmental work & any anti-India activity will be an unpopular move by the government. We can also hope that it stops exporting terrorism.

Our Afghanistan policy is mainly determined by two factors— the desire to limit Pakistan’s influence & to gain access to energy markets in Central Asia. Our investments in Chabahar will only bear fruits if the routes through Afghanistan are stable. Central Asian countries like Uzbekistan too have started the dialogue with the Taliban. If the Taliban remains hostile to India, the routes through Afghanistan are not any better than those through Pakistan. Isn’t that something we were trying to avoid through Chabahar?

Taliban’s one-time foe Russia in on the table. Iran & the US are on the table. We don’t have a lot of options. In diplomacy, they say,

If you are Not at the table, you are on the menu.

If India isn’t part of the peace process in Afghanistan, we can expect that our interests will be ignored. There is a need to have a stable government in Afghanistan that doesn’t resort to exporting terrorism. For that, we’ll need to neutralize Afghanistan & not let the Taliban remain the proxy of Pakistan.

In 1992, India’s ally President Mohammad Najibullah was overthrown & a Pakistan-backed Mujaheddin government took power. India duly recognised & engaged with the government.

Why did it do so? The International community backed by the UN supported this transition & the Indian diplomats were able to reach an accommodative policy with the Mujahideen. The new peace process with the Taliban will also have a large number of countries at the table & India should try to secure its interest through diplomacy.

So, yeah. India should engage with the Taliban.

India & Russia: End Of A Bromance

Alexa, Play “Dost dost na raha.”

India & Russia are like two friends who had been together since childhood. Russia was there when India got into a fight with its neighbour. India tried Russia’s way of handling the finances— the “five-year plans”, giving credence to USSR’s economic system. Like they say in Pakistan, this relationship too was “higher than mountains, deeper than the ocean and sweeter than honey.”

But then, College happened. I mean, the Cold War ended.

Now, Russia doesn’t like India’s new friends. India doesn’t like Russia’s new friends. Both of them know that it will never be like the “good old days” when India imported most of its weapons from Russia & the latter vetoed anything that was against India’s interest at UN Security Council.

So, what changed?

Improved Sino-Russian Relations

Despite being two communist regimes, USSR & PRC split due to doctrinal differences after the death of Stalin. USSR’s Krushchev wanted a “peaceful coexistence” with the capitalist West but Mao didn’t. The relation got bitter with China calling Russia “the revisionist traitors”. In 1972, Nixon flew to China & joined hands with them. This was one of the reasons behind USSR’s fall as a large communist country like China wasn’t in the Soviet camp.

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the Western countries imposed severe sanctions on it. Since then, Russia has been trying to woo China. In the Cold War, China was the junior partner. But today, Russia needs China more. Russia is the biggest supplier of Oil to China. Russia, which was reluctant to transfer defense technology to China in the 2000s, is selling its top defense equipment to China. Russia sold China the S-400 missile defense system. Both the countries are against the US-led world order. The US is also involved in a Trade War with China. This is causing Russia & China to come together in a kind of “alliance of autocrats”. Their trade is burgeoning & it crossed $100 Billion last year. In September, China & Russia conducted the largest joint military exercise since the Cold War— Vostok 18. Russia has been urging India to join China’s Belt & Road initiative which India opposes due to the fact that CPEC, a part of BRI, passes through POK & this is a violation of India’s sovereignty.

Henry Kissinger has apparently counseled Trump to pursue “a reverse Nixon China Strategy”. In Cold War, the US joined hands with China, the junior partner & isolated USSR. Now, Trump should seek to befriend Putin & isolate China.

Improved Russo-Pakistan Relations

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s foreign minister from 1990 to 1996, declared that it would not discriminate between India & Pakistan. In recent years, Russia has also tilted towards Pakistan for currying favours from China.

Russia has always supported India on the Kashmir issue & vetoed any resolution on Kashmir issue in the UN Security Council. Recently, there has been a slight change in Russia’s stance on the Kashmir issue due to its increasing closeness to Pakistan. In December 2017, Russia supported Pakistan’s line on Kashmir in a first-ever six-nation Speaker’s Conference in Islamabad. It asked for a peaceful resolution of Kashmir issue through UNSC.

The pace of exchanges between Russia & Pakistan has increased drastically. In 2014, Russia sold four Mi-35 assault helicopters to Pakistan. In 2015, Russia & Pakistan carried out the joint anti-narcotic naval exercise called “Arabian Monsoon”. In 2016, the commandos of two countries carried out a joint exercise called “Friendship 2017”. In 2017, a Russian military delegation visited Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal district, which was once known to be a Taliban emirate. In April, this year, the two countries signed a historic agreement allowing officers of Pakistan’s armed forces to receive training in Russia. As US’s relations with Pakistan weaken, we may see Russia occupying that place. But this is going to be interesting as any arms export to Pakistan by Russia will eat into China’s share of arms export.

India’s diversification of its arms purchases

India’s fear of putting all its eggs in one basket is not new. In the 1970s, India bought the Jaguar Bomber from a European Consortium to move away from an arms dependence on the USSR. India represents 12% of global arms purchases as its defense manufacturing capacity are not that great.

Just a few years back, India imported about 70% of its defense equipment from Russia. As the US is trying to boost India’s military power as a hedge against China in Asia, it has been more willing to provide high-end defense equipment to India which it did not provide before. Moreover, arms exports to India is great for the US from a commercial point of view too. This has led India to import most of its defense needs from the US in recent years. It has also signed foundational agreements like LEMOA & COMCASA which will ensure that India will buy more arms from the US to keep its military interoperable. As the US’s share increases, Russia’s declines. Israel too has always been willing to provide high-end defense equipment to India. Although its share is quite low compared to the US & Russia, Israel, too, has contributed to reducing India’s arms dependency on Russia. The drastic reduction in India’s arms imports from Russia has affected Russian revenue from the defense. A partnership solely based on defense purchases is going to suffer in the long term & that is what happened in the last few years.

India’s embrace of the United States

Post-1991, In the unipolar world led by the United States, India, as well as Russia, tried improving their relations with the sole Superpower. The 1998 sanctions on India after the nuclear tests were a small bump in the road for India but the relationship has travelled unimaginable distance since the 1998’s low.

India used to import about 2% of its arms from the US about a decade ago & that figure has gone to about 15% now. India’s trade with the US has increased & it is going to increase a lot in years to come. But Russia’s story has been a bit different. After Russian annexation of Crimea, the West imposed harsh sanctions on Russia. The allegations of Russian meddling in the US elections acted as a fuel to the fire. Russia is in an indirect war with the US in Syria where the two sides are funding two antagonistic groups.

So, India’s embrace of the US isn’t seen to be a great thing by Russia especially when the US is eating Russia’s share of defense revenues. The US law CAATSA is also a new roadblock in India’s defense acquisition from Russia. In spite of the threats of sanctions, India went forward and signed the deal to buy the S-400 Missile defense system. This, in a way, showed that India is strategic autonomous & it would not kowtow to any sanctions except those imposed by the UN.

India is also not too happy with Russian support to the Taliban. On this issue, India’s interests are more aligned with the US.

I think if India wants to be one of the powers in the multipolar world that China & Russia are trying to build, we should try not antagonizing anyone nation— Russia, the US, or China. While India’s defense imports are a testimony to India’s inability to manufacture arms domestically, they also provide us with a leverage over other nations. India should try diversifying its arms imports as much as possible.

But what about the time when India will have a world-class domestic arms industry? Isn’t that what the government is trying to achieve?

See that line representing Indian exports to Russia? The growth is almost non-existent. India-US relations, although heavily dependent on arms purchases aren’t entirely dependent on them. This is hardly a case with Russia. India needs to boost its trade ties with Russia. On the recent visit by Putin to India, India signed some agreements to open Indian markets for Russia. Russia too should work on liberalizing its restrictive visa regime so that Indian professionals can go work in Russia.

The other factors like Russia’s bonhomie with China & Pakistan will take care of itself.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

Ease Of Doing Business Rankings: A Critique

Reports that assess the business environment by speaking to experts or government officials capture the de jure processes of compliances and regulations. But there can be differences between de jure processes and de facto reality due to issues of implementation and understanding of systems by user enterprises. Hallward-Driermeier and Pritchett find that for comparable questions such as time taken to start a business or time taken to get construction permits, the results of the Doing Business reports of the World Bank and the Enterprise Survey globally are poorly correlated.

The above excerpt is not from the Wire, Scroll, Quint or NDTV. It is from NITI Aayog’s report on Ease of Doing Business published in 2016 which the Government of India later disowned. India jumped 23 places to occupy 77th position in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business Rankings’. I hate to be a party pooper, but we should first understand what the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings really mean before we pop the cork.

World Bank’s Doing Business rankings are based on responses from experts, chartered accountants & lawyers. They are not based on how the entrepreneurs & businessmen look at the regulatory environment. Why should this matter at all?

Take the example of the Single Window System that the government brought to facilitate ease of doing business. This allows the companies to submit all their regulatory documents to a single entity or at a single place. This is a great move because it brings down the time businesses spend on paperwork. It also cuts down the corruption associated with multiple entities. So, if you ask experts, they will tell you that India has improved a lot in ease of doing business with this single move. But the NITI Aayog Report I discussed above suggests that businesses are not even aware of the Single Window System.

Only 20% of enterprises that started operations during or after 2014 said that they had used a single window system to set-up their business.

So, this rank shows you what reforms the government has taken but it doesn’t tell you if businesses are actually benefiting from them. There is a vast gap between what the enterprises know and what the government officials say they have done to improve procedures relating to various permits and clearances.

Another big flaw in World Bank’s EODB ranking is that its data source is limited to just two cities— Mumbai and Delhi.

One can argue that examples set by these two cities will be replicated in other cities. While a large proportion of India’s business takes place in these two cities, this cannot be representative of the entire country.

The Rankings take into account 10 parameters and rate countries based on it. India’s ranking improved mainly due to two factors:

  1. Improvement in dealing with construction permits (from a rank of 181 to 52) due to the new online building permit approval system in Mumbai that helped streamline and centralize the construction-permitting process.
  2. Improvement in “trading across borders” (from a rank of 146 to 80) as the government let the exporters seal their containers electronically at their own facilities, limiting physical inspections to 5% of shipments helped in trade facilitation.

This looks like a very thin thread to base the whole of India’s ease of doing business rank. India’s “paying taxes” ranking declined due to glitches in GST filing system and the associated time loss. The Insolvency & Bankruptcy code has been taken into account for resolving insolvency but It had no effect on the ranking.

So, what are the ground realities?

  1. Labour laws are still one of the biggest impediments to ease of doing business in India. Companies in labour-intensive sectors find the labour laws in India quite onerous. If India wants to avoid jobless growth, the government needs to reform the labour laws.
  2. Most States have made it easier to obtain land for business but ensuring clear property rights can make the land market more transparent & efficient. In many states like Rajasthan, obtaining land for commercial purposes is quite difficult. Registering property is a time-consuming process with registration fees that can go as high as 1% of property value.
  3. India got a score of 8.75 out of 35 in a global intellectual property index. This is published by the US Chamber of Commerce. The reason cited for the poor score is a “fundamental weakness” in India’s Intellectual Property laws. India ranks 44 out of 50 nations.
  4. There is a vast difference in the ease of doing business across various states. In poorer states, the compliance burden is large while in richer states, it is easy to do business.
  5. Similarly, companies with a low number of workers (upto 10 employees) face less difficulty in doing business while companies with a larger number of employees are burdened with regulatory burden. This prevents India from coming up with larger companies.
  6. Enterprises are not aware of the improvements in ease of doing business. Hence, they cannot leverage the steps taken by the government to smoothen the regulatory processes.
  7. In low-growth states, power shortage is still a problem. Addressing this will enhance the productivity & efficiency of the businesses.
  8. The GST filing system hasn’t stabilized yet. There are glitches in the filing process that can lead to huge time losses.

And finally, do the Ease of Doing Business ranking actually translate into foreign direct investment & GDP growth?

A research has shown a negative correlation between EODB rankings and GDP growth rates. It argues that a country with a bad economic ranking can perform better economically than a country that has a better EODB ranking. I am skeptical about this research and I do believe that EODB ranking matter when a company decides to invest in a country. But just the ranking cannot tell you if the business environment in the country has really improved. There are miles to go before we sleep.

And if we are flaunting this report, we should equally embrace all International reports about India, even the ones that show us in a bad light. When the same World Bank published its human capital index, the government cited “major methodological weakness” & rejected it. Similar “methodological weaknesses” are applicable to EODB rankings as well.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

The Myth Of RBI’s Autonomy

The autonomy of the Reserve Bank of India has been more of a fiction than a reality. The RBI was born on the All Fools Day in 1935 & its autonomy, for most of its history, has been a joke.

The issue of RBI’s autonomy had been in news about some months ago when the government used the Section 7 of the RBI Act for the first time in its history. For the uninitiated, Section 7 of the RBI Act gives the Government of India powers to issue directives to the RBI to carry out certain policies in the public interest. This undermines the autonomy of the RBI as the veto power is always with the government. It had been reported that section 7 had been used to issue certain directives to RBI regarding several issues of contentions like a separate regulator for payment systems, a liquidity crunch in NBFCs, transfer of RBI profits to government coffers & RBI’s PCA framework.

In 1956, T.T. Krishnamachari was India’s Finance Minister & who, in the words of T.C.A. Srinivas Raghavan, “thought that he knew everything but also that no one else knew anything.” Then, the governor of RBI was Sir Benegal Rama Rau. He complained thrice to the Prime Minister about TTK’s ‘rudeness’, ‘rude language’ & ‘rude behavior’.

Once Krishnamachari announced the monetary policy in the presence of the RBI governor, which was very different from what the RBI was going to announce.

Who needs section 7 when the finance minister could practically decide the monetary policy? According to B.K. Nehru, “TT. Krishnamachari let fly in no uncertain terms and in the loudest of voices that RBI was a ‘department’ or ‘section’ of the finance ministry.”

Image: T.T. Krishnamachari & Jawaharlal Nehru | Image Source: OPEN Magazine

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru too sided with the finance minister & wrote to Rama Rau that the RBI was ‘obviously a part of activities of the government and has to be kept in line’. When Rama Rau threatened to resign, Nehru said, “If you wish, you can send your formal resignation to the Finance Ministry”. Talk about autonomy. The entire thing sounds funnier when I tell you that just a little earlier, Nehru had written to Vaikunth Lal Mehta, the cooperative leader that the RBI had to have its autonomy.

After Rama Rau, Sir H.V.R. Iyengar took the position of the governor of RBI. This is what TCA Srinivas Raghavan writes about the subsequent terms in his book “Dialogue of the Deaf: The Government & the RBI”.

Under him and his successors, the RBI didn’t make any fuss about deficit financing or, indeed, about anything. Even when fourteen banks were nationalized, virtually overnight, by Indira Gandhi in 1969 the RBI merely sighed and accepted that the new department of banking would be the real boss. It has its differences of opinion which were expressed in long and lugubriously polite letters. But in the end, it did what it was told— just as it has always done since the time that Osborne Smith was sacked.

Sir Osborne Smith was the first Governor of the RBI & he was sacked for his disagreements with the Secretary of State in London. In 1936, he wrote in a letter that he was ‘sick to death’ of the government’s attempt to dominate the RBI. In the second half of the 1950s, RBI was asked to simply print notes to make up for the difference between the government’s revenue and expenditure. This deficit financing would give rise to inflation for which the RBI was responsible but It was left with no choices in this matter. B.K. Nehru would just phone RBI governor and order him to issue a certain amount of ad hoc treasury bills. In years to come, in spite of a dominant finance ministry, the RBI performed exceptionally well.

Unlike the independence of Judiciary, the autonomy of RBI isn’t something written down in our Constitution or the Law. The RBI Act itself gives powers to the government to issue directives to RBI under Section 7. The wide autonomy given to RBI by the Finance Ministry is a recent phenomenon. D. Subbarao started acting independently maybe from 2011. Raghuram Rajan got a fair amount of autonomy. And for Urjit Patel, we were back to square one.

Section 7 wasn’t invoked in RBI’s history because there was no need to do that. Governors implicitly accepted that RBI was created by a law passed by the parliament & they are only as autonomous as the government wants them to be. The Deputy Governor Viral Acharya in a speech warned that:

Governments that do not respect central bank independence will sooner or later incur the wrath of financial markets, ignite the economic fire, and come to rue the day they undermined an important regulatory institution.

Those are some powerful words. It isn’t a surprise that the Government & RBI has disagreements. It is sad that they let the spat go public. The RBI didn’t want to play the part of a “wife in a Hindu joint family” anymore. And it was putting it out in the open that the government cannot infringe its autonomy.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

The Great Indian Porn Panic

This essay was written as a submission to International Journal of Law Management and Humanities’s essay competition on ‘Porn Ban in India’ in March 2019. It has been published in the Volume 6 of the book titled “Scholar’s Paradise” having ISBN number 978-10999-68808.

“How can someone do this to another person?”, asks a police officer repulsed by the brutality of the “Nirbhaya” gang rape. His senior has an answer. After detailing how income inequality has propelled strife in the country, he says, “Add to that the explosion of uneducated youth here. They have no sex education but get free porn online, which affects their adolescent brains. They don’t know how to interpret it. They objectify women and wish they could have that in their lives. If they don’t get it, they take it, with no regard for the consequences.” This dialogue from the Netflix series “Delhi Crime” captures the thought behind Uttarakhand High Court’s directive to ban pornographic websites in India. The jury is still out on whether an access to porn leads to sexual violence. However, it can be argued that a ban on 827 pornographic websites is so meaningless that it amounts to mere policy escapism.

The reasons for censoring pornography may vary. Some claim that pornography leads to sexual violence. This rationale, also employed by the Uttarakhand High Court, is problematic. For every study claiming that porn triggers sexual violence, you’ll find another one claiming exactly the opposite. In a paper titled “Sexual violence in India: Is it influenced by pornography?”, the authors concluded that easy access to pornography does not have any impact on crime rates against women. Such studies too need to be interpreted with a pinch of salt because it is almost impossible to carry out a meaningful study on this question. For example, the aforementioned study uses the data from the National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, India. This data becomes inconsequential in light of the fact that 99% of cases of sexual assaults go unreported. An increase in the number of cases reported by NCRB may also suggest that more people are reporting sexual crimes than ever before. This is something to be celebrated. Secondly, even if a correlation is found between sexual violence & access to pornography, it is difficult to determine causation. An experiment to prove the same will require unprecedented invasiveness in the lives of people.

The average internet speed in India has increased from about 800 KBps in 2012 to more than 6,500 KBps in 2017. With the entry of Reliance Jio in the telecom sector in late 2016, all the internet providers have been forced to charge rock-bottom data prices. These two factors have resulted in a massive upsurge in the Internet use in India in the last half a decade, a large portion of which is pornography (more than 30% according to some estimates). According to Pornhub, the most popular porn website, India accounted for the largest increase in its mobile traffic share. It jumped 121% from 2013 to 2017.

While internet & personal computers had a presence in many Indian households for more than a decade now, they couldn’t provide the privacy needed to watch porn as generally one computer would be used by the entire family much like a television. As smartphones have become affordable to a large population, they have, for the first time, allowed Indians to enjoy porn privately. This has fuelled a porn boom in India & consequently given rise to a “moral panic” around Pornography.

I use the term “moral panic” popularized by Stanley Cohen to describe “an episode of exaggerated concern about a supposedly threatening condition”. In such times, the concern expressed by a sector of the public, the media or the political institutions (judiciary in our case) is substantially much greater than what actual evidence suggests is the threat. Writing about moral panics, Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda observe:

“Folk devils are designated as the—or at least an—enemy of decent, respectable society. The deviant’s behaviour is seen as objectively harmful, threatening to the values, the core beliefs, the interests of the society.”

The internet boom has democratized access to porn & expanded it beyond the previously digitally connected ones. It has allowed people to bypass their immediate world in order to pursue sexual pleasure. According to Pornhub, 30 percent of Indian visitors to its website in 2017 were women. This revelation is in stark contrast to the views espoused by some of the prime anti-porn activists. Kamlesh Vaswani, an Indore-based lawyer who pushed for Porn ban in 2015 says, “To say Indian women watch porn is an insult to their dignity.” Women’s chastity & virtue has always been used as a marker of national cultural worth. In her book Cyber Sexy, Richa Kaul Padte writes:

“The sexless, clothed bhartiya nari is seen as the epitome of morality and therefore cultural purity. She signifies the possibility of a monolithic cultural history, devoid of ‘Western influences’, or in fact of any influence at all.”

It’s no surprise that the war against pornography is being fought in the name of women’s safety. The recent ban was triggered by an unfortunate gang-rape of a girl studying in Class 10th in Haryana. The police found that the alleged rapists watched pornography before they committed the crime. No effort was made to find the root cause of the problem. After the court directive, the government refined the old list of porn sites that had been banned & implemented it again.

In a study titled “The problem of rape in India: a multidimensional analysis”, Sharma et al. (2014) came out with various factors responsible for rapes & similar violence against women in India. Among the factors found responsible included social factors like India’s patriarchal society which predisposes men to view women as their personal property. Another relevant social factor is the taboo of sex in India. A fundamental change was brought in the Indian mindset with the introduction of Victorian values in colonial India. Sex wasn’t a taboo in ancient India but today it has become one. Our concept of masculinity makes men believe that they are in charge of women’s sexuality and their honour depends on the premise that this control is seen as legitimate by society.

The popular media especially the Indian cinema glorify stalking & harassment. The concept of consent is asked to take a walk when the supposed hero tells you “Uski Naa Me Bhi Haa Hai” (Her ‘No’ also means ‘Yes’) & the women are regularly objectified as most children in the country grow up listening to “Tu cheez badi hai mast mast” (Girl, you are a fantastic “thing”).

A Still from the Bollywood movie “Toilet: Ek Prem Katha”

There are legislative 10 challenges like the difficulty of registering complaints, low conviction rates & embarrassing investigation procedures. Educational factors like the inability to incorporate meaningful sex education in school curriculum & the resulting lack of knowledge & curiosity to indulge in sexual acts may lead to sexual violence. Environmental factors like migration & individual factors like psychological reasons and other motivations can play a role too.

Most of these factors have political implications because they involve society to change from bottom-up. Such a process of change is difficult, gradual & most likely to be resisted by the society. The only resistance that may come is from those who view the ban as an affront to the freedom of expression. Otherwise, a ban on pornography doesn’t call for resistance from any organised group as those who wish to watch porn will watch it anyway. The ban is pointless because if porn really affects sexual violence, a ban on just 800-odd websites out tens of thousands of such website is nothing more than a fig leaf that can’t even cover the private parts of these apparently “impure perversions from the west”. Moreover, the ban is incredibly easy to get around by using Virtual Private Networks & proxy sites. What the ban actually does it that it assuages the “moral panic” & makes a false appearance that something is being done to tackle the “rape epidemic”.

The ban may end up making things even worse. The 827 websites have been banned on the basis of their popularity.

Most of these sites, like Pornhub, have strict parental controls, a non-consensual takedown page & a strict policy against all illegal content like revenge porn, rape porn & child pornography. With these websites being banned, a lot of people would be driven towards less safe websites that do not have such controls.

They are likely to have more extreme & even illegal pornographic content. So, the porn ban may end up exposing people to more of the porn that the government should be trying to shield people from.

Corey Price, the Vice President of Pornhub, has offered to work with the Indian government & hinted that a Russian-style authentication can be set up in India where viewers can log in through their social media accounts. This may assuage the fear that pornography is corrupting the children. As for the people over 18 years of age, the saner choice is to let the adults be.

In the book “Porn: Philosophy for Everyone”, J.K. Miles argues why a free speech argument for pornography fails. He argues that while other forms of expression like religious expression or political expression involve persuasion, sexual expression is coercive in nature. Religious speakers cannot make you pray by praying in front of you but the exhibition of porn itself causes you to engage in the act of expression i.e. the consumption of porn. However, if pornography cannot be protected by freedom of expression, it can be protected by our right to privacy. In the light of Puttaswamy Judgement, it will be difficult for the judiciary to take away our right to do whatever we want inside our home if the action doesn’t harm anybody else.

In contrast to the view that pornography results in sexual violence, many scholars believe that pornography acts as a “safety valve”. People can express their violent sexual desires by fantasizing to all kinds of porn. The debate around pornography in India today is much like the Great masturbation panic in the late nineteenth & early twentieth century in Britain. The Porn boom has brought in a new chaos but this too shall pass. However, with such an approach towards the problem of sexual violence, we have missed yet another opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about underlying reasons behind it.

It’s about time.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav