Opinion: Food Insecurity- The Story That Won’t Make Prime Time News

Here’s a story that won’t make the 9 pm news. As per reports in a few regional language newspapers (yes, they still have The Spine), the Union is proposing an increase in the prices of rice, wheat and cereals sold through the National Food Security Act (NFSA) by Rs.7 per kg for Priority Households (PHH).

Apparently, NITI Aayog has even recommended that the Food Ministry increases the price for sale to the poorest of the poor through Antyodaya Anna Yojana by ₹ 1 per kg. The Ministry is said to have put this up for consideration by the Union Cabinet.

That brings me to the subject of the column this week: Food Insecurity.

2022 marks the second year since the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), to provide additional food subsidies to the poor, was introduced. The scheme comes in six-month cycles and was extended for the sixth time in March with its term ending this month.

Access to adequate food has not improved since then, and the scheme should be extended. Let’s begin with inflation. The retail inflation rate continues to remain at 7 per cent, far above the RBI’s warning threshold. Consumers are paying more for food products. Rural inflation remains higher than in urban areas even last month. Alongside this, industrial output has fallen, hinting at a lack of consumer demand and a fall in employment. And let’s not forget the rupee is in the doldrums vis-a-vis the dollar.

We all heard that India slipped to the 101st position out of 116 countries in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2021 from its 2020 position of 94th. We also heard the Women and Child Development Ministry’s ostrich-in-the-sand response that the ranking had “serious methodological issues” and the FAO’s methodology was unscientific.

However, other reports too show similar numbers. The ‘State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ report, published by 5 UN agencies this year, said that 4 in 10 people in India suffered from food insecurity in 2019-2021. India alone accounts for more than one third of the world’s total severely food-insecure population.

This year’s global events have not helped the hungry in any way. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused a global food security crisis with the disruption of wheat exports from these two countries. India’s Prime Minister had claimed then that we would feed the world. However, the wheat crop this year has been decimated by a heat wave, made worse by human-induced climate change. Public wheat procurement in India fell 56 per cent, from 43 million tonnes in 2021-22 to 19 million tonnes in 2022-23. India also banned wheat exports earlier this year to protect itself from falling domestic wheat stocks.

The drought-induced wheat production crisis has already forced the public distribution system to rely more on rice distribution. We are presently in the Kharif season, when 80 per cent of India’s rice is grown. This month, the Union government’s Food Secretary disclosed that a fall in the paddy-sowing area due to shortage of rains has raised fears that India’s rice production will fall short by 10-12 million tonnes. Paddy prices have risen by 8 per cent, and the government has banned the export of broken rice and imposed a 20% duty on the export of some rice varieties.

Climate-related changes cannot be controlled in the short term, but the Union must ensure that the food security of citizens is safeguarded. The numbers show that the government is eminently capable of doing this. The Union has a stock of 4.7 crore tonnes of foodgrains (as on July 1), whereas a six-month extension of PMGKY would require only 2.44 crore tonnes of stock (based on the last extension). The last extension of the PMGKY scheme cost the exchequer Rs.88,000 crore, which is less than the ₹ 1 lakh crore revenue foregone due to the slash in corporate tax in 2019-20.

There are some states like Bengal that provide free rations and doorstep delivery of these under the Khadya Sathi and Duare Ration schemes. But a Union government move to increase prices of grains under NFSA will have a catastrophic impact on our poorest citizens. The Union government has made no effort to control inflation and price rise. Now we hear the Union Cabinet won’t clear the note and , in fact, extend the scheme. Go ahead, win the ‘scripted brownie points’. We won’t grudge you that. After all Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav cannot be celebrated on the back of hunger.

Postscript: The Union Government had decided to export 3 million tonnes of wheat in April. The next month, in May, a new notification was issued prohibiting export of wheat. Confused? Incompetent? You decide.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Saturday, September 24, 2022]

Money advice on Social Media – Who protects us?

Parliament is not in session but there’s so much to be said. So let’s pull out the laptop and share a few thoughts on an issue that has always interested me: content creation. The Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) Chief Commissioner recently announced that the government is set to introduce guidelines to regulate social media influencers (including penal provisions to the tune of ₹ 50 lakh) for non-disclosure of financial ties with brands.

Content creation on social media has become a legitimate industry with a growth estimate of 25% per year and is slated to be worth ₹ 2,200 crore by 2025. As of January 2022, YouTube has more than 26 crore monthly active users in India; 1,200 of its creators have crossed the one million subscriber milestone. Instagram had a total of 23 crore users in India in January 2022, the largest Instagram audience in the world. Nearly two-thirds of the Indian population follow an influencer.

As an avid social media user myself, I was intrigued by the revenue model of this industry. I found that content creators get a share of the platform’s revenue. But more than 70%-80% of a creator’s revenue comes from branded content. This revenue is determined by the number of followers, type of content, genre, engagement rate and demographics. A micro-influencer (one who has 10,000 to 1 lakh followers) can earn anywhere between ₹ 10,000 to ₹ 30,000 per Instagram post. This number increases to more than 4 lakh rupees for mega influencers (more than 10 lakh followers).

The area becomes murky when financial influencers, daily vloggers (people who record their daily chores) and people generally not qualified to tender financial advice promote financial products without full disclosure of a brand collaboration.

Many first-time investors turn to the internet for financial advice to make easy money with a single swipe. Influencers have filled the void created by unemployment and lack of access to credit by promoting a variety of financial products on specific trading platforms, attracting very high returns. Nearly 70% of the new acquisition on stock trading platforms is under 30 years of age.

There exist significant concerns around influencer content: the fitness and qualification of the person providing advice, the veracity of the information provided, the risk of potential scams and the risk appetite of consumers of such content.

In July 2022, a crypto-trading platform which was heavily promoted by influencers suspended all its operations including withdrawals and deposits, leaving 8 lakh patrons at a point of no return. In August 2022, India’s top two crypto platforms had all their assets frozen by the ED due to non-compliance. These platforms had been talked up by various influencers in the garb of giving financial advice in good faith.

A 2021 study from the Digital Marketing Institute reports that 70 percent of teens trust influencers more than traditional celebrities. 40 per cent of Twitter users reported making a purchase at the recommendation of a tweet alone.

In 2021, China held a consultation laying out detailed regulatory requirements for online promotion of financial products. It included procedures to curb illegal financial product marketing, misleading advertisements and unfair competition. The norms dictate that influencers, at least, must have used the product first-hand and have documentation to prove it. The Financial Market Authority (FMA) of New Zealand issued a Guide to Talking About Money Online in January 2021. In March 2022, Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) issued an information sheet (INFO 269) for social media influencers, explaining potential violations of the law and discouraging unlicensed finfluencers from creating finance-focused posts.

In May 2021, the Advertising Standards Council of India (“ASCI”), a self-regulatory body, released the “Guidelines for Influencer Advertising in Digital Media” to enable consumers to identify when influencers are deriving some benefit for promoting a product. The said guidelines do not have the force of law and are not binding on companies or influencers.

With specific reference to advertisements of financial products and services, the ASCI Code bars advertisements for financial products from containing misleading statements about the security offered, rates of return. etc. But finfluencers continue to use such dynamic information to attract viewership.

In February 2022, ASCI released guidelines for the promotion and advertisement of visual digital assets (VDAs) including cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). However, more than 400 advertisements pertaining to cryptocurrencies by digital influencers on different social media platforms had violated their guidelines in the first five months of 2022. Consumers defrauded by financial products can seek recourse under the Consumer Protection Act, 2019 but influencers promoting high-risk, complex financial products essentially face no consequences under the law for non-disclosure of brand collaboration.

While there is a need for more transparency in the influencer-verse, this is not a call for over-regulation but for better enforcement. This space requires a deeper understanding and not a myopic one-size-fits-all penal provision.

The government should be proactive in at least releasing preliminary Do’s and Don’ts for promoting financial products online in consultation with SEBI to protect naive investors. There should be gradation in penal provisions in accordance with the platform reach of the influencer and the monetary value of the brand collaboration. Penalties should be imposed on both the advertising company and the influencer in question, and the amount accumulated via such penalties should go towards the creation of a social media literacy fund.

I say the government, for once, should put its money where its teleprompter is!

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on NDTV.com | Monday, September 12, 2022]

A Dangerous Precedent

By holding the Budget before the Assembly polls, the BJP government has shown scant regard for Parliament

COVID-19 notwithstanding, the Budget session of Parliament will begin on January 31 with the President’s Address and the Union Budget on February 1.

Traditionally, the Union Budget was presented every year on the last working day of February. However, in 2017, the then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley changed the tradition. He brought the day forward by four weeks, to February 1. The Railway Budget, too, was subjected to similar unwarranted changes under the Modi government. Until 2016, it was presented a few days before the Union Budget. In 2017, the BJP (with only muted objections from the Congress) subsumed the Railway Budget under the Union Budget and ended a 92-year-old practice. Since then, the Railway Budget has bypassed the scrutiny of Parliament. This is just one of the many examples of the Modi government mocking the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. It was a precursor of parliamentary oversight, which peaked with the draconian farm laws of September 2020.

Budget as a political instrument

It is common knowledge that the Union Budget announces new schemes, welfare programmes, tax and fiscal benefits, and the Railway Budget was centric to one Ministry. In the last five years, on more than one occasion, the BJP has used the combined entities before elections to pitch poll promises that it never intends to fulfil. In 2017, the Union Budget was used as an instrument of the BJP’s poll agenda. The Budget was presented three days prior to the elections in Punjab and Goa, and 10 days before the Uttar Pradesh elections. Assembly elections for Uttarakhand and Manipur were also due. The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) had already been announced by the Election Commission (EC). The MCC ensures free and fair elections and specifies that no government can take any action to influence voters in favour of an individual political party.

In 2017, unsurprisingly, the Modi government showed no regard for the MCC. Tax cuts, giveaways, and subsidies were expected in that Budget because of the crippling impact of demonetisation. Critics of the government were suspicious that the Budget would be used for narrow electoral gains. As many as 16 political parties objected to the presentation of the Budget on February 1. Their view did not count. The BJP went ahead with the Budget, arguing that it covered the entire country and that the advancement would ensure all budgetary allocation to different sectors from April 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year. Similarly, in 2019, the BJP presented an Interim Budget, weeks before the general election. Its ‘Vision 2030’ was a pipe dream with no fiscal foundation and a brazen, shameless tactic to dupe voters with hollow promises and no deliverables. Months before the Bengal elections of 2021, the Finance Minister announced an allocation of ₹25,000 crore in the Union Budget for the upgradation of roads and highways in the State. Similar measures were announced for Kerala and Tamil Nadu, also going to the polls in a few months then. It is another story that the voters in these States called out the BJP’s bluff.

A cue from 2012

There have been earlier occasions when elections and the presentation of the Union Budget have coincided. For instance, in 2012, there was a chance of the UPA government benefiting through the Budget, with a set of State elections taking place during the same period. At the instance of the then Leader of the Opposition, Arun Jaitley, the UPA government postponed the presentation of the General Budget to March 16. In May 2006, the EC reprimanded then Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh for announcing a 27% quota for Other Backward Classes in Central government-funded educational institutions. This was when the MCC was in force in five States. (Those were different times. In the last few years, I have often described the EC as Extremely Compromised.)

On January 8, 2022, the EC announced the schedule for Assembly elections in five States. The MCC has come into place in these States. The BJP government will go ahead with the Union Budget on February 1. There is no reason why it will not use the same formula in these States. Previous Railway Ministers have often been criticised for mollycoddling the States they represented. The BJP insisted that once the Railway Budget got subsumed under the Union Budget, the ‘doing politics with the Railways Ministry’ would end. This has not happened. Allocations made in the Railway Budget in the last few years show how BJP-ruled States have got more than non-BJP ruled States (as a percentage for ongoing projects).

Taking a cue from 2012, the Modi government could have held the Budget after the State election results were declared. But the BJP has scant regard for the institution of Parliament and its conventions and traditions.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on The Hindu | Wednesday, January 19, 2022]

Data Protection Bill: How the government gives itself unbridled power

Despite heavy opposition, the report adopted by the Standing Committee on Monday retains problematic causes.

The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Personal Data Protection on Monday adopted its report, on which it had been deliberating since 2019. But the committee chose to retain some highly controversial clauses, which provide the government with unbridled and sweeping powers.

As many as seven of the 30 members of the panel, including All India Trinamool Congress Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra and I, expressed formal dissent for the overreaching nature of the provisions contained in the Bill. But more than the provisions themselves, it’s the functioning of the Committee that’s concerning. The Committee steamrolled through the provisions, holding consultations during a pandemic year, making it difficult for those outside Delhi to attend panel meetings.

Only 11% Of Bills Referred to House Panels Under BJP

Should this be surprising anymore? The ruling dispensation’s sheer disregard for Parliamentary democracy is concerning. The BJP government has made a mockery of the House panels’ functioning, with their roles increasingly being undermined since the party came to power in 2014. Each year, the share of legislation being referred to Parliamentary committees has steadily declined. Under the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-2009) with the UPA government at its helm, 60% of the Bills were referred to Parliamentary committees. This practice was further enhanced in the UPA’s second term – as many as 71 per cent of the Bills were scrutinised by Parliament.

In contrast, the NDA government has, in its last two terms, heavily diluted the role of committees. While only 25% of Bills were referred to Standing Committees in its first term, this number dropped further in its ongoing second term. Barely 11% of Bills were scrutinised by Parliament till December 2020. The trends are worrying.

The Data Protection Bill provides overboard exemptions to the Union government without proper safeguards. Clause 35 of the Bill allows any agency under the Union Government exemption from all or any provisions of the law, in the name of “sovereignty”, “friendly relations with foreign states” and “security of the state”.

National Security Over Individual Privacy?

We moved an amendment to the Clause to prevent its misuse, but the Joint Parliamentary committee chose to retain it in its final report on Monday, stating that there is precedent for such exemptions since the fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution are also subject to reasonable restrictions. Further, some NDA members contended that national security ought to be given more importance than individual privacy.

The Clause is broadly worded and goes against the tenets of the Puttuswamy judgment, which had called for adequate checks and balances and a three-fold test of legality, “legitimate State interest”, and “proportionality” when it comes to state access to personal data.

But that’s just subverting the argument. The committee, far from introducing any safeguards against Clause 35, in fact further seeks to empower the government with unqualified powers.

For example, Clause 42 of the Bill enables the Central government to become the decision-maker in the selection of the Chairperson and members of the Data Protection Authority (DPA). The panel has recommended that the DPA should be bound by directions of the Central government under all cases – not just policy matters.

In fact, the Draft Data Protection Bill 2018 enabled the constitution of a Selection Committee, which should be restored.

Clause 12 of the Bill again provides sweeping powers to the government. It allows the state to access personal data without an individual’s consent on a number of grounds. The clause should be deleted altogether.

The committee has also made several recommendations to include non-personal data protection under the Bill’s ambit. This can be a risky exercise. Non-personal data needs a separate, detailed framework for regulation.

Importantly, in the Preamble, the focus should be on data protection, not economic interests.

Though since 22 July, under the Chairmanship of PP Chaudhary, the Committee has worked in a more inclusive manner, the final report adopted on Monday lacks the clear consensus of committee members. The problematic sections listed above are an assault on individual privacy and a classic case of state overreach. The Bill supports a framework that fails to protect the digital rights of the people of this country.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on The Quint | Wednesday, November 24, 2021]

Government rewrote rules of democracy, so Opposition had to rewrite rules of protest

Young India, this is your democracy. This is your parliament. These are your farmers. This is your future.

I know life may be hectic. Zoom classes off campus. Rushing to office. IPL evenings or whatever else. That’s why some of you may not have tracked in detail what happened in parliament over the last 10 days. Yet another deadly blow by the BJP to our democracy. Let me tell you what happened in parliament on Sunday, September 20. Only the facts. And the rules.

Discussions on two critical agricultural bills started in the Rajya Sabha at 9.30, for the first time ever on a Sunday. Three and a half hours were allotted for the discussion, scheduled to end at 1 pm. After the speeches are over and before a bill is passed, any MP has the right to propose to send the bill to a parliamentary (select) committee. To do this, an MP has to notify, in writing, in advance. Two other MPs in the opposition, like me, had demanded that these bills be sent to a Select Committee. Bills are sent to Select Committees for more detailed scrutiny and improvement.

These bills, related to farmers, were first issued as ordinances. An ordinance is a temporary law issued on an emergency basis. Later, it must be passed by parliament to be made permanent, i.e. to become law. Since these ordinances too were issued on an ’emergency basis’, all the aspects of the ordinances had not been scrutinised. That is why we proposed to send these two crucial agriculture bills to a Select Committee. That proposal was rejected in the most undemocratic manner.

The government broke four parliamentary rules in the Rajya Sabha that day:

Rule 37 that insists on getting a ‘sense of the house’ – in other words, the views of the leaders of parties or groups if the Chair decides to extend the proceedings of the Rajya Sabha. Video footage of the official proceedings presents irrefutable evidence that this rule was broken at 1 pm.

Rule 125 says any MP can ask for a bill to be sent to a Select Committee.

Rule 252 says that even if a single MP challenges the voice vote, the Chair must do a counting of votes. Video footage of the official proceedings presents irrefutable evidence that this rule was broken. This was the most disgraceful of all the offences.

Rule 257 says if the house is in grave disorder, the Chair must suspend the sitting. This is usually done for a short period of time and then extended. Video footage of the official proceedings presents irrefutable evidence that this rule was broken.

Three MPs, Tiruchi Siva (DMK), KK Ragesh (CPI-M) and I had submitted motions in writing and on Sunday afternoon demanded ‘a division’ (voting, not just a voice vote). Again, video footage of the official proceedings presents irrefutable evidence that this rule was broken. This was an extremely serious violation of a parliamentary rule, precedent and custom. After this ‘triple murder’ happened, I decided to go into the well of the house with my rule book and ‘show it’ to the Chair. It was not the time for dainty gestures. When the government perverts the rules of democracy, we have to rewrite the rules of protest and opposition.

Why was the government so hell bent on only a voice vote? Why was the division (actual voting) denied, not once, but three times? Were parliamentary rules shown even the slightest of respect? Did the stance (they also wanted these bills to go to a Select Committee) taken by the TRS, the BJD and the Shiromani Akali Dal rattle the BJP? Young India, I will leave that to your judgement.

That was parliament. The focus now is on six words. Save farmers. Save workers. Save democracy. The government, with its many pliant media houses, will try hard to distract you.

Young India, stay sharp. Stay vigilant.

P.S: The BJP even tried to spread fake news that I tore the rule book. I challenged them. Prove it and I would have resigned my MPship. It’s been a whole week. Empty vessels…

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on NDTV.com| Sunday, September 27, 2020]

The ordinance raj of the Bharatiya Janata Party

By increasingly resorting to ordinances, the Centre has flouted democratic norms and undermined the spirit of parliamentary democracy

An ordinance is a temporary law made by the President of India (on the advice of the central government) when Parliament is not in session. An ordinance becomes a permanent Act (the law of the land) on being approved by Parliament within six weeks of reassembly.

As Parliament convenes amid the Covid-19 pandemic from Monday, it will need to consider and approve ordinances promulgated over the past six months. Since March 24, when the lockdown was imposed, 11 ordinances have been signed by the President.

With every session, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is brazenly rewriting the rules of Parliament. Cancel Question Hour, so the Opposition isn’t given a chance to hold the government accountable. Slash Zero Hour time by half, from 60 minutes to 30 minutes, to deprive the Opposition of raising issues of importance. Misuse a constitutional tool such as an ordinance to mock Parliament, in a way it hasn’t been done in 70 years.

Five of the 11 ordinances are broadly related to the outcome of Covid-19, coupled with two in the health sector. All the other ordinances are unrelated to the pandemic, including the Banking Regulation (Amendment) Ordinance, and the three ordinances related to agriculture.These are the 11 ordinances that Parliament will be required to approve in the coming fortnight.

Many previous Presidents have raised questions about individual ordinances. The current President, in his wisdom, prefers to go ahead without asking questions. Unchecked, the BJP government has embraced an unfortunate culture of ordinances. Some statistics are revealing. In the first 30 years of our parliamentary democracy, there was one ordinance promulgated for every 10 Bills introduced in Parliament. In the following 30 years, the ratio was two ordinances for every 10 Bills. In the 16th Lok Sabha (2014-19), the number jumped to 3.5 ordinances for every 10 Bills. In the current Lok Sabha it is, so far, 3.3 ordinances to every 10 Bills.

Look at it another way. Between 1998 and 2004, when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was in office, the government promulgated 9.6 ordinances a year. Between 2004-09 (United Progressive Alliance-I), 7.2 ordinances were issued a year and for UPA-II, it was down to five a year. Between 2014 and 2019, in the first term of the Narendra Modi government, the number shot up to 10 ordinances a year. About 10 ordinances were issued on the eve of the 2019 general election. Clearly, the BJP has a preference for short-circuiting democracy.

Ordinances have to be approved by Parliament within six weeks of reassembly. So, is there really a problem, or are we in the Opposition only being sticklers? No, there is a problem. In fact, two problems. One, the BJP government thinks nothing of re-promulgating ordinances that have lapsed. This is a breach of convention and extremely undemocratic. But the Modi government has done it more than once. Two, a bill that seeks post-facto approval for an ordinance is often rushed through the House. The deliberation and fine-tuning, the pre-legislative stakeholder consultations and the committee scrutiny, are important stages in the passage of a law. Ordinances that hurriedly become Bills and then Acts bypass this process.

Is the BJP government guilty of pushing laws that it wants in place without adequate parliamentary discussion or scrutiny by Parliament committees? Or while the country is distracted by a pandemic? Consider a few of the recent ordinances.

The Banking Regulation (Amendment) Ordinance is a response to the Punjab and Maharashtra Cooperative Bank scandal. There have been two parliamentary sessions since the scandal became public knowledge, and no draft bill was introduced.

Similarly, permitting corporate farming, and liberalising agricultural trade regimes as well as produce movement to benefit big retailers, should have been preceded by adequate parliamentary debate.

These are significant and controversial decisions. Has care been taken to address the information asymmetry between farmers who sell and big traders and corporations that buy? This could have been scrutinised by a parliamentary committee. The ordinance glosses over it — passing itself off as either pandemic relief to farmers or an economic reform. It is neither. The timing of such ordinances is very odd and no coronavirus-related gap is being filled.

This problematic ordinance culture has extended to BJP-run states as well. During the lockdown, BJP governments in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat issued ordinances diluting labour laws, without consulting worker unions and civil rights groups.

Even the International Labour Organisation advised caution. On March 15, just before the lockdown, the Uttar Pradesh Recovery of Damages to Public and Private Property Ordinance was promulgated.

It sought to impose punitive fines on those who damaged public and private properties during protests. This is a law reminiscent of the colonial era.

To support and enable the implementation of the Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, the central government is pushing states to amend their Agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Acts. This will minimise the role of state market committees and risk creating agricultural cartels of big food businesses and retailers. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Karnataka have acted as per command and promptly promulgated ordinances.

Where will this stop?

Post Script: There are only three parliamentary democracies in the world that permit the ordinance route — India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The practice in India was adopted from the Government of India Act, 1935, where the viceroy could do as he pleased. In every other country, Parliament has to be convened in order to get a law passed.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared in the Hindustan Times| Friday, September 11, 2020]

Modi Sarkar’s new record in delaying a big Parliament decision

Young India, see what is happening.

Scrapping of the Question Hour in parliament for the upcoming monsoon session  is not the only parliamentary convention that  the BJP-led government at the centre  is subverting. They have set yet another dubious record. We are 450 days into the 17th Lok Sabha and the post for the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha is still vacant. This is the longest by far ever taken by a union government  to fill up the post. What makes it all the more curious is that the BJP and the NDA have a comfortable majority in the Lower House.

The Deputy Speaker is a key office. When the speaker of the Lok Sabha is not present, the Deputy Speaker is supposed to preside. The post of the Deputy Speaker is not just a parliamentary procedure but a constitutional obligation. Article 93 of the constitution clearly states that the House of the People or the Lok Sabha must “choose two members of the House” to be Speaker and Deputy Speaker, stressing the need to do it “as soon as may be”.

As per practice, the post of the Deputy Speaker usually is given to the principal opposition party in the Lok Sabha. This trend started in the 6th Lok Sabha of 1977 when the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai of the Janata Party offered the post to the Opposition, making Godey Murahari of the Congress the Deputy Speaker.  The post has also been given out to allies in the 7th Lok Sabha of 1980 and the 8th Lok Sabha of 1984.

In the 12th Lok Sabha, it took the government 270 days to fill the post of Deputy Speaker. The year was 1998, and the BJP-led coalition government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee wanted to field its own candidate, Rita Verma, to the post of Deputy Speaker. But the principal Opposition party, the Congress, wanted PM Sayeed, the MP from Lakshadweep,   to hold the post. Amidst all this political to and fro, it is believed that a member of parliament  from Bengal, now a Chief Minister, played an important role in resolving the impasse. She requested that the election for the post of Deputy Speaker be postponed to the following session with the promise that a name would be finalised. The solution worked, the government  gave way and made PM Sayeed the Deputy Speaker.

Maybe there is a lesson here for the government. The BJP’s aversion to letting the Opposition create any space for itself in parliament  is well-known. It gets worse with every passing session. Question Hour has been cancelled with sloppy excuses being made. Zero Hour in the forthcoming monsoon session has now been reduced from 60 to 30 minutes (might as well rename it Zero Half Hour!). Many other parliamentary practices and precedents have been set aside by an arrogant government  which is  slowly weakening  every great institution.

What does one say when a government  with a comfortable majority has  managed to do something which hasn’t been done since 1952 – take 450 days to elect a Deputy Speaker?  That is six months more than what has ever been taken.

This is a constitutional post. But then when did the two gentlemen, who relocated from Ahmedabad to Delhi, last read a book called ‘The Constitution of India’.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on NDTV.com| Wednesday, September 9, 2020]

Zooming in on Covidiots and doomscrolling

How Covid-19 pandemic has changed our lives and brought a slew of words and expressions that have quickly made their way into our dictionaries.

Now is different than before. How long will now last? Is now here to stay? Till Puja? Or Diwali? Or Christmas and beyond? Did we think now would be like this? A world in which we would have to learn a whole new range of skill sets. A whole new way of living. An unfamiliar now. That’s taught us new ways to do things. New ways to work. New ways to communicate. New ways to even grieve. New techniques to master. New words to learn.

How many of these seven terms were you familiar with before March 2020?

1. N95 mask: N95 face masks are used to protect the wearer from airborne particles. The ‘N’ stands for ‘not resistant to oil’ and the mask is used for oil-free atmospheres. It has a high filtration efficiency of 95 per cent or more.

On a casual stroll down Park Street two days in a row, earlier this week, here is what anecdotal evidence suggested: 65 per cent of people were wearing masks properly, about 25 per cent were wearing masks the wrong way, and 10 per cent were not even wearing masks. So, let’s all mask up.

2. Zoom: There are a few instances where the brand name comes to define the brand category. Today Google is synonymous with searching online, Xerox is more commonly used than the actual word, which is photocopy, and Velcro has come to mean any adhering or fastening product.

Zoom, a video conferencing application, is the latest brand to become a verb. From classroom teaching to presentations, job interviews to birthday parties, it’s all happening over a zoom call.

3. Covidiot: Know someone who does not wear a mask in public? Who hoards food during the lockdown? Who does not maintain six feet distance in public?

That’s the description of a covidiot  _ someone who goes against public health and safety advice amid the pandemic.

4. Migrant workers: I’ve always preferred to call them guest workers. They were given a raw deal when the Prime Minister called the 21-day lockdown at four-hour notice. Remember the tragic Aurangabad incident, earlier this year, that saw a goods train mow down 16 guest workers? They, like millions of others on highways, were walking to their villages and had collapsed on the railway tracks — too exhausted to hear the train coming. Visuals like these, of millions making the painful and horrific journey back to their homes thousands of kilometres away, have been the most haunting images of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. Many of us in the cities took their existence for granted. This crisis has woken us up to their importance and vulnerabilities. (So proud of how the migrant workers were handled in my home state.)

In the early days of the pandemic, I had the pleasure of speaking with economist Chinmay Tumbe, the author of ‘India Moving: A History of Migration’. His historical account of migration from, to and within India is an important read for anyone interested in understanding our country’s present demographic layout.

5. Social or physical distancing: In public health, social distancing means keeping at least 6 feet distance between yourself and others, to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. Many prefer using the phrase ‘physical distancing’. WHO and leading public health experts feel that ‘social distancing’ implies a sense of disconnection from friends and family. They instead use the phrase ‘physical distancing’ since the pandemic calls only for physical isolation, not social.

6. Infodemic: The COVID-19 virus has led not only to a pandemic but also to an infodemic – the spread of an excessive amount of information which is mostly incorrect. From fake cures like Bhabhiji papad to the ‘hold-your –breath-for-10-seconds challenge’, “WhatsApp university” floods the social media with misinformation about the virus.

7. Doomscrolling: This word, included by publishing house Merriam-Webster in their dictionary, refers to the tendency to continue to surf or scroll through bad news, even though the said news is saddening, disheartening, or depressing.

These are just seven of the many terms we have encountered in the new now. We were living our lives on a treadmill that never stopped. Till now came along and asked each one of us to pause. To think. To reflect.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared in The Telegraph| Sunday, August 30, 2020]

BJP attempts to turn Parliament into M&S private limited

As parliament is set to meet after a 6-month COVID-induced break, the session is likely to have many firsts. We have seen media reports citing government sources that say there will be large display screens, audio consoles, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation, and working weekends. Judging by the feelers being sent out by senior ministers, one suspects that the government will use this pandemic to muzzle voices of the opposition in parliament. 

But before we get to that, let’s understand what a usual five-day week in parliament looks like. Five days a week into six hours a day makes it a 30-hour working week. This can be broadly divided into two parts: government business (passing bills) and time allotted for the opposition to raise their concerns. Every day, one hour is reserved for Question Hour and 60 minutes for Zero Hour. This makes it 10 hours a week. Add to this, a ‘Short Duration Discussion’ and a ‘Calling Attention Motion’ that allow members of parliament to discuss urgent issues at length where the concerned minister has to give some sort of a response on the floor of the House. In normal times, this would add up to roughly 15 hours a week, with the other 15 hours left for government business. Simply put, about 50 per cent of parliament’s time is reserved for the government and the other 50 per cent for the opposition.

This time around, the circumstances are exceptional. We are holding a parliament session in the middle of a pandemic. Are we, as an opposition party, okay with a 4-hour daily session for each House? Yes. Are we okay with working 7 days a week? Of course. Are we okay with doing away with the Question Hour? Not at all. Are we okay with the government doing away with the Zero Hour? Not at all. Are we okay with dispensing Short Duration Discussion? No. Are we okay with doing away with the fortnightly Calling Attention Motion? No. The centre cannot use COVID as an excuse to murder parliamentary democracy yet again.

As I write this, MPs have received no official bulletins and are having to rely on news reports citing government sources. These reports say each House will sit for 4 hours every day, including on weekends. This means the total weekly parliament time will be 28 hours each for Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha. Significantly, this is roughly the same as the usual 30 hour-week in parliament. With this logic, there is no reason why Zero Hour and Question Hour should be curtailed. If two hours are allotted for Private Members Bills, they may be dispensed with.

 The government cannot be throwing crumbs at the opposition. This is what citizens, and the Trinamool Congress, as the second-largest opposition party expect

• 60 minutes must be spent conducting the Question Hour each weekday

• Zero Hour must continue to be an hour-long each weekday, followed by government  business every day

• This must be accompanied by one short duration discussion and Calling Alternating Motion alternating every week.

In this way the government gets about 14 hours, close to what they would in a usual parliament, and the opposition too gets 14 hours. Given that MPs from the treasury benches also actively participate in Zero Hour and Question Hour, even the second 14 hours must not be construed as strictly ‘opposition time’. For now, the government  seems focused only on passing ordinances but that must not eat into the time meant for raising matters and questions of public importance.

Another lame excuse being floated is that if there’s a Question Hour, many ministry officials would need to brief the ministry and subsequently visit parliament. Our simple contention is:  why can’t the ministers be briefed virtually?

The BJP wants to turn the parliament of the people into M&S Private Limited (figure out the abbreviation!). Under the best traditions of the Westminster Model, ‘the Parliament belongs to Opposition’. An appropriate amount of time must be reserved for the opposition to hold the government  accountable. These checks and balances are essential. Every party, even those with a lone MP in parliament, must stand up and be counted to keep the great tradition of parliamentary democracy alive.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on NDTV.com| Sunday, August 30, 2020]

Remembering Mother Teresa on her 110th Birthday

Mother Teresa (now St Teresa of Calcutta) and I had two things in common – both of us lived in Kolkata and both of us were Catholic. Yet, I wasn’t drawn to her because of my Christian faith. Growing up in a household where going to church was as important as being part of the neighbourhood Durga Puja committee or visiting one of my father’s closest friends, a Muslim, for Eid, I took God seriously – but not religious identities. Like others in the city – and the world – I admired Mother’s work and the selfless service of her order of nuns.

It was 1991. Mother Teresa and service to humanity were far from my mind. I was at an inflection point in my life and had just taken a major decision – I had decided to quit Ogilvy & Mather. For the preceding three years, while I worked as its Creative Head, I had spent most of my weekends conducting quizzes. Somehow, I felt there was scope for a company that would leverage this quizzing expertise and build a business around the pursuit of knowledge…making knowledge interesting to help people and brands grow.

My parents and friends were not so sure. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to give up a steady job and couldn’t fathom this crazy entrepreneurial bug that had bitten me. Nevertheless, I was determined to give it a shot, to make my hobby my profession. I took three months off between Ogilvy & Mather and Big Ideas – the new company that I was setting up – and decided to spend it doing something meaningful. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but somewhere deep inside, I wanted time for contemplation and to pay back my dues.

One day, the photographer Sunil K. Dutt came to see me. I had known him for several years. He was older than me and renowned as a chronicler of Kolkata and its many moods. He had a set of black-and-white pictures of Kolkata that he wanted to sell to a publisher for a book. Could I help him? Sunil left the photographs with me and asked me to choose the best ones for a book. He trusted my judgment and was insistent only on the fee: ₹ 1,50,000.

I went through the photographs and while Sunil’s work was remarkable, the pictures didn’t convey anything new. Kolkata is a well-chronicled city. There have been several books and pictorial works dedicated to it. Sunil’s photographs did little to contribute a new angle or give the city a new look.

When Sunil and I met again, I was frank with him. He looked crestfallen. “I need the money,” he said. “Why, Sunil-Da?’ I asked him, “that’s a lot of money, why do you need it?” The answer was a punch straight to my solar plexus: “Derek, I need the money to pay for my daughter’s wedding.” Here was a man, an artiste, who had spent a lifetime worshipping his camera and his subject and not caring for currency notes. Now he needed those notes for his beloved daughter’s wedding and had nothing, no assets, other than the photographs he had taken over the years.

I was looking for something meaningful to do, an act that would make a difference. I had found it. “Sunil-Da,”I said, “the book will be done and the wedding will go through, don’t worry.” I told him the Kolkata book wasn’t a good idea, however. Then I had a brainwave and asked him to show me pictures of a woman he had been chasing, stalking, following for decades: Mother Teresa. Was there a book there?

Sunil brought his collection of Mother Teresa’s photographs – black-and-white works, some ordinary, some stunning and some absolute masterpieces. There was Mother praying, Mother helping a stricken child, even Mother coming out of a police station, having secured the release of poor folk who had been detained unfairly. Instinctively, I knew we had a book.

The first thing I did was to take out ₹ 1,50,000 from the provident fund I had withdrawn from Ogilvy & Mather and give it to Sunil. Next, I needed to make the book stand out, for there was no dearth of books on Mother Teresa. Discussing it with Sunil one day, I thought loudly: “We need good captions for the photographs… Why not get Mother to write the captions?”:So, on a whim and a prayer, I asked for an appointment with Mother Teresa.

It was my first visit to Mother House. On the main door outside was a nameplate saying ‘Mother Teresa’, with an option: ‘IN’ or ‘OUT’. If she was at home, the ‘OUT’ was covered by a small shutter, or the other way round. Incidentally, after Mother’s death in September 1997, the entrance to Mother House (where she is now buried) always has the sign saying: ‘Mother Teresa … IN’.

I broached the subject of the book to Mother Teresa. She was dismissive. Why another book? “It will help spread the word of your work to people,” I offered. She smiled back, compassionate and clinical at the same time. “Son, God has been good. People already know about our work.” I told her I was planning to get the book sponsored and have the sponsor donate ₹ 5,00,000 to the Missionaries of Charity. All we needed were her blessings, and her text for the captions.

Mother looked in the direction of one her colleagues, Sister Priscilla. Then she nodded, but said she had no time to write the captions. “I have said so much over the years,’ she pointed out, ‘why don’t you use those in the book.” It was a green signal for the project, but it meant more work for me. I would have to pore over hundreds of articles and books and speeches to find appropriate quotes and lines she had uttered. As I was leaving, Sister Priscilla told me what had won Mother’s heart. “So many books have been written about Mother,” she said, “but this is the first time somebody has offered something to the Missionaries of Charity.”

I had to find a sponsor – somebody who would underwrite a book that had Mother Teresa’s photographs described in Mother Teresa’s words. Eventually, Citibank agreed. It would give ₹ 5,00,000 to the Missionaries of Charity and pay for the printing and production of the book. Jaithirth ‘Jerry’ Rao, then the India head of Citibank, agreed to write the introduction.

I worked on picking the captions and matching them with the photographs we had chosen. Then, as the book was set to go to print, Citibank phoned us. Jerry Rao would no longer be writing the introduction; the Citibank Asia head, based in Hong Kong, would be doing so. A few days later, there was another change. The Citibank international chief, based in New York, would be writing the introduction. Clearly, Mother Teresa’s appeal ran across continents.

Finally, the big day came. The book was to be released by Mother Teresa in the presence of the Citibank top brass, including the India head from Bombay, and the Asia head from Hong Kong. They had come with the cheque; they had also come as pilgrims to the shrine of Mother Teresa, Kolkata’s living saint. Sunil K. Dutt arrived. Tennis player Naresh Kumar and his wife Sunita, among Mother’s closest confidantes, were there. All of us reached Mother House and waited for Mother to come out.

She didn’t.

Word was sent. Sister Priscilla went in and then I walked up to Mother’s room, nervous and sweating, and requested her to come to the book release. Her response took me aback. “What book?” she asked. I mumbled and stammered, and reminded her about our previous meeting. “The Citibank officials are here, Mother,” I said, almost beseeching her. “They would like you to bless them and accept that cheque.” Mother smiled. It was a naughty, childlike smile: “I’m sure we can ask them for an ambulance, can’t we? After all, it’s all God’s work.”

So the great lady walked out, greeted those gathered, unpacked the first copy of the book, accepted the cheque and thanked all of us, particularly the Citibank visitors. Then she added, almost as a parting shot, “I’m sure our friends can help us with an ambulance too, for the service of the sick.”The Citibank executive from Hong Kong agreed at once. She had no choice!

It all ended well. The book was released to critical acclaim. The Citibank officials went home walking on air. Sunil-Da’s daughter got married. The Missionaries of Charity got ₹ 5,00,000 and a spanking new ambulance. As for me, I was happy that my three-month interlude had resulted in something useful – in a project that had proved beneficial to a variety of people in a variety of ways. I’m not much of a believer but I did feel touched by Mother’s presence. I continued to call on her and attributed at least some of my professional luck thereafter to her warm wishes.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament from Bengal
Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party Leader (Rajya Sabha) & Chief National Spokesperson

[This article appeared on NDTV.com| Wednesday, August 26, 2020]