Charting our artificial intelligence future
Source: By Luciano Floridi: Mint
Galileo viewed nature as a book written in the language of mathematics and decipherable through physics. His metaphor may have been a stretch for his milieu, but not for ours. Ours is a world of digits that must be read through computer science. It is a world in which artificial-intelligence (AI) applications perform many tasks better than we can. Like fish in water, digital technologies are our infosphere’s true natives, while we analogue organisms try to adapt to a new habitat, one that has come to include a mix of analogue and digital components.
We are sharing the infosphere with artificial agents that are increasingly smart, autonomous, and even social. Some of these agents are already right in front of us, and others are discernible on the horizon, while later generations are unforeseeable. And the most profound implication of this epochal change may be that we are most likely only at the beginning of it.
The AI agents that have already arrived come in soft forms, such as apps, Web bots, algorithms, and software of all kinds; and hard forms, such as robots, driverless cars, smartwatches, and other gadgets. They are replacing even white-collar workers, and performing functions that, just a few years ago, were considered off-limits for technological disruption: cataloguing images, translating documents, interpreting radiographs, flying drones, extracting new information from huge data sets, and so forth.
Digital technologies and automation have been replacing workers in agriculture and manufacturing for decades; now they are coming to the services sector. More old jobs will continue to disappear, and while we can only guess at the scale of the coming disruption, we should assume that it will be profound. Any job in which people serve as an interface—between, say, a GPS and a car, ingredients and a finished dish, or symptoms and a corresponding disease—is now at risk. But, at the same time, new jobs will appear, because we will need new interfaces between automated services, websites, AI applications, and so forth. Someone will need to ensure that the AI service’s translations are accurate and reliable.
What’s more, many tasks will not be cost-effective for AI applications. For example, Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program claims to give its customers “access to more than 500,000 workers from 190 countries”, and is marketed as a form of “artificial artificial intelligence” But as the repetition indicates, the human “Turks” are performing brainless tasks, and being paid pennies.
These workers are in no position to turn down a job. The risk is that AI will only continue to polarize our societies if we do not manage its effects. It is not hard to imagine a future social hierarchy that places a few patricians above both the machines and a massive new underclass of plebs. Meanwhile, as jobs go, so will tax revenue; and it is unlikely that the companies profiting from AI will willingly step in to support adequate social-welfare programmes for their former employees.
Instead, we will have to do something to make companies pay more, perhaps with a “robo-tax” on AI applications. We should also consider legislation and regulations to keep certain jobs “human.” Indeed, such measures are also why driverless trains are still rare, despite being more manageable than driverless taxis or buses. Still, not all of AI’s implications for the future are so obvious. Some old jobs will survive, even when a machine is doing most of the work: A gardener who delegates cutting the grass to a “smart” lawnmower will simply have more time to focus on other things, such as landscape design.
Another source of uncertainty concerns the point at which AI is no longer controlled by a guild of technicians and managers. What will happen when AI becomes “democratized” and is available to billions of people on their smartphones or some other device?
For starters, AI applications’ smart behaviour will challenge our behaviour, because they will be more adaptable to the future infosphere. A world where autonomous AI systems can manipulate our choices will force us to rethink the meaning of freedom. And we will have to rethink sociability as well, as artificial companions, 3D servants, or life-like sexbots provide attractive and possibly indistinguishable alternatives to human interaction.
It is unclear how all this will play out, but we can rest assured that new artificial agents will not confirm the scaremongers’ warnings, or usher in a dystopian science-fiction scenario. Brave New World is not coming to life, and the “Terminator” is not lurking just beyond the horizon either. We should remember that AI is almost an oxymoron: Future smart technologies will be as stupid as your old car. In fact, delegating sensitive tasks to such “stupid” agents is one of the future risks.
All these profound transformations oblige us to reflect seriously on who we are, could be, and would like to become. AI will challenge the exalted status we have conferred on our species. While I do not think that we are wrong to consider ourselves exceptional, I suspect that AI will help us identify the irreproducible, strictly human elements of our existence, and make us realize that we are exceptional only in so far as we are successfully dysfunctional. In the great software of the universe, we will remain a beautiful bug, and AI will increasingly become a normal feature.
New world order in flux
Source: By Gurmeet Kanwal: Deccan Herald
The polycentric new world order, which was gradually emerging after the end of the Cold War, has begun to fray at the edges. The primary causes are the growing friction among the major powers, the triumphant rise of the ultra-right wing political parties, and dilution in the forces of globalisation and free market economies, and the world's inability to comprehensively defeat the Islamic State (IS) group.
While the progress made in liberating Mosul and Aleppo has forced IS to retreat somewhat, its virulent ideology continues to flourish unabated. In fact, a "cyber caliphate" is emerging gradually. It is more dangerous than its geographical counterpart due to the ability to radicalize vulnerable youth using the Internet.
The unstable security environment in Afghanistan and along the Af-Pak border is the greatest cause of instability in southern Asia. The strategic stalemate between the Afghan government and the remnants of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) forces on the one side and the Taliban and Pakistan-sponsored terrorist organisations like the Haqqani network on the other, is likely to endure.
At the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar in December, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani snubbed Pakistan's offer to invest $500 million for the reconstruction of his war-torn country. Indicting Pakistan in severe terms, he said the Taliban insurgency would not survive even a month if the outfit did not get sanctuary and support from Islamabad. China's growing nexus with Pakistan and the two countries' unresolved territorial disputes with India pose a formidable national security threat to India. In 2016, the intensity of this threat did not diminish - as has been the case since the Kargil conflict of 1999.
Despite misgivings in both countries, the China-Pakistan economic corridor (CPEC) has begun to take shape. Passing through Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), the CPEC will link Xingjian province of China with Gwadar on the Makran coast west of Karachi. Though Pakistan is raising a division of approximately 12,000 personnel to provide security for the CPEC against terrorist attacks, eventually Chinese soldiers are bound to be inducted for this purpose like in Gilgit-Baltistan. Large-scale presence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in Pakistan will further vitiate the security environment.
Surprisingly from India's point of view, New Delhi's long-time strategic partner Russia has expressed its support for CPEC, though denied later in a Facebook post. Russia also held a low-level military exercise with Pakistan and has offered to sell arms to the country. These developments are detrimental to India's interests and could, to some extent, be attributed to the Obama administration's policies that have driven Russia closer to China. The nuclear deal that Iran signed with the US has held for over a year despite strong opposition from several regional neighbours like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Arguably, getting Iran to give up its ambition to acquire nuclear weapons was the most significant foreign policy achievement of the US since the Camp David accords of 1978.
It is not yet clear whether the nuclear deal will survive the advent of the Trump administration. If it is abrogated by either signatory, the world is likely to soon witness the arrival of another nuclear power - with attendant consequences. Iran's nuclear weapons are unlikely to be acceptable to the Trump administration or Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or to the Saudis.
Forgotten in the shadow of the conflict in Syria and Iraq is the civil war in Yemen. The Houthis and their allies, who seized Sanaa in September 2014, are locked in a bitter fight with a Saudi-led coalition comprising mainly Arab nations from the Gulf. It has been reported that former Pakistan army chief Gen Raheel Sharif, who retired in November, has been approached to head the Saudi-led 34-nation coalition being assembled to fight Islamist terrorist groups.
Closer home, India's red lines were repeatedly crossed by Pakistani terrorists in 2016. India conducted surgical strikes over a broad front across the Line of Control in September and also launched targeted fire assaults. India must continue to inflict punishment on the Pakistan Army for every act of terrorism planned and directed by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). India should adopt a policy of tactical assertiveness under the umbrella of strategic restraint as war with Pakistan is not in New Delhi's interest.
Internal instability continues to haunt the government of Pakistan and its army. Two years and three summers after it was launched, Operation Zarb-e-Azb in Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa is yet to be concluded successfully. A low-grade insurgency in Balochistan, unrest in Sind and Gilgit-Baltistan, creeping Talibanisation, ethnic tensions and a weak economy are a potent mix that could lead to an implosion.
Varying degrees of turmoil in other countries around India, including Bangladesh, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka, also contributes to regional instability. Narco-terrorism, the proliferation of small arms, the circulation of fake currency, trans-border money laundering and the availability of sanctuaries for insurgents - often aided and abetted by neighbouring states - enable non-state entities to challenge duly elected governments. The insurgent movements in India's Northeastern states are an example of this phenomenon.
The prevalence of volatility in the region leads to the inevitable conclusion that southern Asia will continue to remain unstable for some more time to come. The countries of the region must come together in their own interest and agree to systematically plug the loopholes that enable cross-border insurgent movements to flourish. Sadly, there is too much mistrust among the neighbours. With the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) virtually defunct, no viable umbrella is available to enable the conduct of long and hard negotiations that would be required.
Playing second fiddle
Source: By Anup Sinha: The Telegraph
One of the most powerful and important institutions in any modern economy is its central bank or the monetary authority (as it is often referred to). In India, the central bank is the Reserve Bank of India. The central bank of an economy creates liabilities in the form of money, which the rest of the economy holds as assets.
It controls the supply of money, and regulates a large part of the financial sector, particularly the commercial banks. Amongst its many functions the two most important ones are price stability, and influencing the cost of funds. It does this through what is called monetary policy. It attempts to control the rate of inflation and interest rates. In doing so it obviously affects macroeconomic variables like the level of prices, aggregate investments, gross domestic product growth, foreign exchange rates and the flow of international capital. In its functioning, the central bank is not accountable to the polity of the nation.
For instance, the RBI can announce monetary policy measures without getting approval of Parliament. All things that are to do with the supply of money in the economy are the exclusive domain of the RBI. This is quite unlike the fiscal policy of the government, where taxes and expenditures need the approval of Parliament. Indeed, this is one area of economic policy that is delinked from the political process. It is important that the central bank retains its independence from the political agenda of any government.
In India, the RBI has been one of the most respected institutions that have carried out their tasks with competence and generally a fair degree of success over the years. However, over the past two or three years, the RBI has been under pressure to reduce interest rates and stimulate the economy even when inflation rates were reasonably high.
The RBI, in asserting its independence, made it clear that controlling inflation in the current context of the economy's health was more important than rate cuts. The finance ministry on the other hand, had been suggesting that since the management of the fiscal deficit was important, there was no room for expansion of government expenditures, which is often the alternative way of stimulating demand and growth in the economy.
Therefore, an expectation was being built up that it was the duty of the RBI to stimulate the economy. The RBI had held on to its independence quite firmly. Perhaps not happy with this situation, the government made changes in the making of monetary policy where a committee would take the decision and people appointed by the finance ministry would occupy three positions in a group of six. The RBI governor would have the casting vote if it came to a tie. With this change, and a new governor at the helm, a rate cut came immediately. Then the big shock of demonetization of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes arrived.
Since this would directly affect the money supply, the announcement ought to have come from the RBI. It could have been later backed up by the government, justifying the decision. In November, the announcement came from the prime minister himself in an open address to the nation. This, in less than a minute, devalued the position of the RBI as an independent institution. The RBI officials did go through the motions of a press meet a little later, but it appeared that the officials were not very confident of what was happening and what the economic implications would be. The bulk of the talking was done by a senior civil servant, who was not an RBI official.
It may be noted that the first time when the prime minister announced that the two types of currency notes would cease to be legal tender from midnight of November 8, 2016, he mentioned three reasons for the action — unearthing of black money, stopping fake notes from being printed, and snapping the link between the first two kinds of money and terrorism. The control of none of these three objectives is the duty of the RBI. There are specialized institutions and policy mechanisms that can control the problems. It was a failure of governance if these had been unsuccessful in the past. Overnight, the RBI and the commercial banks became crime- control machines made to work on the assumption that every citizen was guilty until proven innocent.
To make matters worse, the benchmark of innocence kept changing every few days as announced by the government. It even came down for a day to the level of having Rs 5,000 in old currency notes. The complete subservience to the government and the continuous but random changes in the procedures of replacing old notes have made the RBI a virtual department of the government, where RBI senior officials behave like mid- level minions in the civil service whose vocabulary seemed to have become limited to exactly three words: Yes, prime minister. This erosion of the independence of the RBI will have longterm effects on the economy; especially how the rest of the world perceives policymaking in India.
Confidence in the financial sector and in how it is regulated has taken a serious beating. The economic literature on public policymaking has contributed to the emergence of a conventional wisdom that claims discretionary policies are unambiguously worse than those based on transparent rules known to all. What one is witnessing today is discretionary randomness at its worst being touted as responsive governance.
There is another technical aspect of the sanctity of the monetary liabilities created by the RBI. If even 100 rupees of the older notes do not come back to the banking system, then the monetary liabilities of the RBI would go down to that extent. Adjustments would have to be made on the asset side of the balance sheet. Hence, there was speculation that these ' extra' assets could be used to recapitalize banks, or given to government for budgetary use.
The RBI governor, in one of his very infrequent statements, claimed that he would not change the balance sheet after the swapping timewindow closed. Currency notes that did not come back to the banking system would continue to be the liability of the RBI. Hence, as far as one can understand, it would have to stick to the promise made on the note "I promise to pay the bearer the sum of ...". Yet the notes have ceased to be legal tender. This means that one cannot settle debts with such notes, but the RBI retains its promise to give one the sum of 500 rupees or 1,000 rupees as the case may be.
The narrative of demonetization has shifted far away from black wealth and terror. It changed to ushering in a cashless India with electronic payments only. Now it is about a less cash India, going by the advertisements being recently put up. We are far away from coming even close to a developed market economy in terms of IT infrastructure.
Forcing the issue would undermine not only confidence but create major disruptions in production and demand. Who knows what the next shift in the prime minister's narrative might be? It is, however, evident that the RBI in playing second fiddle to the government has for the first time in its illustrious career actually hurt the economy by its policies.
It is often being heard that the prime minister may have had long- term political objectives in mind, which he himself has more than once indicated. Pains are therefore an essential part of this transition to the long term. Very few Indians understand the importance of the central bank and the role it is supposed to play. Most have not even heard of the RBI. Hence any political gamble can safely rely on this assumption and give the signal that all disruptions are for the greatest common good for the greatest number.
The prime minister might be correct in his gamble. The poor may not be affected much. After all, how much more can one hurt a person living below the poverty line. The point, however, is that even if many have not heard of the RBI or do not understand its important functions, the fact will remain that one more important institution succumbed to the pressures of government and surrendered its independence.
It is about reinforcing big government and poor governance, contrary to the electoral promise of the prime minister. Above all, it signifies the arrival of big government and even bigger whimsy conducted by one individual with a large and growing fan following.
The unfortunate legacy
Source: By Bibek Debroy: The Financial Express
History has a way of leaving unfortunate legacies. “If the Local Government has reason to believe that any tribe, gang or class of persons is addicted to the systematic commission of non-bailable offences, it may report the case to the Governor General in Council, and may request his permission to declare such tribe, gang or class to be a criminal tribe.”
Hence a register for Criminal Tribes, not to forget eunuchs. I quoted from the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) of 1871, though there was a consolidated Criminal Tribes Act of 1924. From 1924, “The Local Government may establish industrial, agricultural or reformatory schools for children, and may order to be separated and removed from their parents or guardians and to be placed in any such school or schools the children of members of any criminal tribe or part of a criminal tribe, in respect of which a notification has been issued.” Subsequently, there were some Enquiry/Inquiry Committees that were region specific—Bombay (1939), United Provinces (Agra and Oudh, 1947). More comprehensive the report of the Ananthsayanam Ayyangar Committee (1949-50), which looked at the way CTA had worked throughout India. This had a list of 116 criminal tribes in British territories and more than 200 in Princely States. (For British territories, a number of 163 float around. I don’t know where that comes from. Unless I made a mistake, I could count only 116.)
The Ayyangar Committee’s recommendations led to repeal of CTA in August 1952. In 2008, National Commission for Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes (NCDNT) produced a report. In continuation of a discussion on CTA repeal, it added, “But, to keep effective control over the so-called hardened criminals, Habitual Offenders Act was placed in the statute book.”
The Ayyangar Committee did recommend, “The Criminal Tribes Act, 1924, should be replaced by a Central legislation applicable to all habitual offenders without any distinction based on caste, creed or birth…” Thus, the provisions were meant to be similar to CTA, but identification shifted to the individual, rather than the collective category. In March 2007, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination did a report on India and stated, “The Committee is concerned that the so-called denotified and nomadic tribes, which were listed for their alleged “criminal tendencies” under the former Criminal Tribes Act (1871), continue to be stigmatised under the Habitual Offenders Act (1952). (art. 2 (1) (c)).
The Committee recommends that the State party repeal the Habitual Offenders Act and effectively rehabilitate the denotified and nomadic tribes concerned.” Because this is a UN body, this has been picked up by a lot of people and has been quoted almost ubiquitously in papers and articles. Everyone seems to suggest there was a 1952 “Central” statute, though the UN report didn’t quite say that explicitly.
Entry 15 in the Concurrent List (Seventh Schedule) mentions “vagrancy nomadic and migratory tribes”. Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly state-level statutes on habitual offenders. The earliest is Punjab/ Haryana (1918), followed by Madras/ Tamil Nadu (1948). Others followed in 1950s/1960s.
Some States didn’t bother. A few enacted a law, but didn’t enforce it. UP is one of those that enacted such a statute, but repealed it later. Unless I have got it completely wrong, contrary to popular perception, there never was a Union-level statute. After CTA repeal, Union government had a model Bill. States used this as a template and for “habitual offenders”, there were principles of registration, restrictions on movement and provisions for corrective training. These principles followed CTA, but the emphasis was on the individual, not the collective. But let’s leave aside the habitual offender issue and return to the unfortunate legacy.
A quote from a 2016 Report of NCDNT sums it up. “After Independence, the erstwhile aborigines were classified as scheduled tribes, the untouchables were classified as scheduled castes and others included in the backward classes. Although, many of the denotified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes are spread among SC/ST/OBC, many are still not classified anywhere and have no access to socioeconomic benefits, whether education, health, housing or otherwise. … Except a few states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, etc, some of these communities figure in various classifications in the states such as Backward Tribe (Puducherry), Most Backward Classes (Tamil Nadu), Extremely Backward Classes (Bihar), ‘Original settlers’ in Arunachal Pradesh, Primitive Tribes (Jharkhand/Odisha), Hill Tribes (Assam), etc.
In some states, they are called ‘Tribal Settlers’. In some states they are called ‘Hidden Tribes’, etc … There are many anomalies in terms of identification of these communities, from state to state. Many people also do not know what Denotified tribe is and which authority is looking after their grievances. Recently, this Commission made a recommendation to the Government of India to write to all state governments to form district level Grievances Redressal Committee under the District Collector to hear the grievances of these communities/groups/tribes.”
“These communities/tribes account for nearly 10% of community’s population as has been mentioned in some writings and there are nearly 820 communities and tribes in India, although some of the community leaders assess that their number would be more with 198 denotified tribes and nearly 1500 nomadic tribes and their population may be even more than 10%.” This is partly a positive affirmation/reservation issue. But you go through the annexures in the 2016 NCDNT report; some communities want to be recognised as SCs, STs or OBCs. But there are also those who want recognition as DNTs/NTs.
Rewriting the rules of political engagement
Source: By Jayachandran: Mint
The Supreme Court’s seven-judge bench decision that candidates can’t seek votes on grounds of religion, caste, creed, community or language seems, on the face of it, like a progressive step that could potentially rewrite the rules of engagement in Indian politics. India is a secular state and, the court argues, it is only in the fitness of things that religion and the like are kept out of the electoral process. But the reality of politics and the political economy is more nuanced than the judgement might indicate—evidenced by the fact that three of the seven judges dissented with the majority opinion.
Technically, the relevant statute—Section 123 (3) of the Representation of People’s Act, 1951 (RP Act)—has been on the books for decades. It forbids “the appeal by a candidate...to vote or refrain from voting for any person on the ground of his (emphasis added) religion, race, caste, community or language...for the furtherance of the prospects of the election of that candidate”. The “his” in this clause was understood thus far as a reference to the candidate.
The judgement has now expanded the interpretation to include the affiliations of the voter as well. It has read sub-section 3 with two other clauses: sub-section 3(A) under Section 123 of the RP Act and Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, both of which deal with the promotion of feelings of enmity or hatred between different classes of citizens of India on grounds of religion, etc. The judges also traced legislative history to support their broad interpretation.
Justice Madan Lokur, who authored the majority opinion and wrote on behalf of Justice L. Nageswara Rao, opined that this broad interpretation was necessary to maintain “the purity of the electoral process” and ensure that it was not vitiated by “communalism, separatist and fissiparous tendencies”. Justice S.A. Bobde in his concurring but separate judgement made clear that since Parliament never intended for an appeal for votes on the grounds of religion, etc., to be permissible, it is immaterial whether “the appeal is made on the ground of the religion of the candidate, etc., or of the voter”.
Chief Justice T.S. Thakur tilted the scales in favour of the “purposive interpretation” with a similar judgement, saying “an interpretation that will have the effect of removing the religion or religious considerations from the secular character of the State or state activity ought to be preferred over an interpretation which may allow such considerations to enter, effect or influence such activities”.
On the other side, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, writing the dissenting opinion on behalf of himself, Justices U.U. Lalit and A.K. Goel, also marshalled historical and legislative evidence to prop up their view that Parliament did not intend the clause to extend to the voter—as such a blanket ban would prevent candidates from raising issues related to religion, etc.
These contesting viewpoints must be seen in the correct historical and political context. Religion-based politics has two major drawbacks. First, it often defaults to an oppositional narrative. And second, from an economic and governance standpoint, it is a powerful enough motivator to enable blanket community appeals that cut across economic fault lines. Such broadcasting can sometimes lead to blocs voting against their rational interests. Against the backdrop of Partition, and given the first drawback, the extant constitutional safeguards—such as the original interpretation of the RP Act’s relevant clause as well as the other clauses pertaining to promotion of enmity—are understandable.
But the majority opinion moves into trickier territory. Religion is an essential component of culture, and culture and economic growth do not exist independent of each other. Max Weber’s seminal The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism is perhaps the first comprehensive work exploring this. It has been roundly criticized since, and with reason—it is simplistic and indulges in various leaps of logic. But its core thesis remains. Sociologist Peter Berger has pointed to the link between religion and economic development in Latin America. And Harvard researchers Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary have examined data from 59 countries spread over decades and found a correlation between economic growth and religious belief in developing economies.
Correlation is not causation, of course. None of the research provides definitive answers. But what it does do is point to the reality that religion, culture and development can often be intertwined. In an Indian context, there are socioeconomic issues specific to particular communities. For example, will campaigning for Dalit empowerment count as caste-based canvassing?
This may have to be decided on a case-by-case basis but who will decide where to draw the line? Either way, the interpretation could potentially censor all mention of religion, etc. This, the dissenting judges warn, would “reduce democracy to an abstraction”. The dissenting judges also highlight that not only does the Constitution engage with the injustices suffered by various groups, it has allowed for these groups to rally around their religion, etc., to fight back against centuries of social oppression. How the ruling addresses these issues remains to be seen, based on how it is implemented. The debate on the limits of free speech in politics is, patently, a messy one.
Respecting the rights of homeless people
Source: By Bharat Dogra: The Statesman
When working hard at our workplace or travelling in difficult conditions, we comfort ourselves with the thought of resting after reaching home, but what if there is no home to go to? This is the cruel reality for millions of homeless people in our country. The precise number is difficult to provide as homeless people are most likely to be left out in census counts. Indications are that their number is well in excess of 3 million. This number is likely to go up significantly if those on the verge of homelessness or very precariously housed people are also included.
Homeless people are most exposed to all weather extremes, cold waves as well as torrential rains, and this is just one of the reasons which expose them more to illness and disease. Most homeless people also suffer from varying levels of hunger and malnutrition as assured or adequate income to meet basic minimum needs is not available to the overwhelming majority of them. While suffering the most from hunger they are the ones who are least likely to get subsidised food from ration shops due to lack of residence proof.
Another reason is the denial of essential sanitation facilities and sometimes even cleans drinking water. Vulnerability to mental health problems is also very high. The homeless are also most exposed to road accident injuries as well as workplace accidents. They are also the ones who are least likely to be able to access proper medical treatment—many of them do not have the basic identity papers for obtaining care in government hospitals.
The homeless face high levels of insecurity. This insecurity comes on the one hand from goons and criminals who exploit and terrorise them in various ways. On the other hand, some insecurity also comes ironically from policemen who often beat them indiscriminately or pick them up to send them forcibly to beggars’ homes.
These problems are particularly acute for homeless women and children. Given the increasing insecurity generally of women in many cities, one shudders to think of what homeless women have to endure. They as well as homeless children are very vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Children are vulnerable also to substance abuse. The problems of homeless people have been generally discussed in the context of big cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, while the problems of homeless people living in smaller urban agglomerations have been almost completely neglected.
However, as I found during a recent visit to Sumerpur town of Pali district (Rajasthan), migrant tribal workers from remote villages were spending their night in a most inhabitable part of the town, plunged in darkness, denied any facilities, exposed not just to mosquitos but even scorpions and snakes. With the accentuation of the livelihood crisis as well as increasing social disintegration, the number of homeless people in India is increasing.
In some places the slum dwellers pushed to the outskirts of cities and far away from previous livelihoods as a part of slum demolition drives have been forced to start living as homeless people near their employment places. To give an example, a community engaged in the highly creative work of collecting used clothes in exchange for new utensils and then selling clothes after mending and cleaning them was based in Raghubir Nagar area of West Delhi where they had their huts as well as work sheds. Their huts were demolished creating a livelihoods crisis as they were sent far away. Finally, to save their work several of them had to stay back at night in the open as homeless people.
Government efforts to help homeless people are confined mainly to providing those shelters at night, and even these efforts pick up mainly during the winter months. But when other government policies, sharp inequalities and social disintegration are causing an increase in the number of homeless people these efforts can have only a limited impact.
Despite this limitation, however, a shelter-based approach can also give some good results if these shelters become a hub for integrating several needs of homeless people, combining safety, nutrition, health and information with shelter. Good results can be realised if volunteers from within the homeless people can be given important responsibilities and their close involvement is assured. They will need some training and motivational support, and with such modest help they can play a very important role in taking forward the programmes for helping the homeless.
Giving such responsibility to carefully selected representatives of the homeless along with adequate budgetary support is possible once there is recognition of and respect for their rights. Most homeless work in very adverse conditions to not only support themselves but also to send badly needed economic support to elderly people, children and women in remote villages. These include villages affected by various disasters. Initiatives that help homeless people in cities also help their dependents in villages. Hence the needs of homeless people should get high priority in urban planning and governance.
A year of strategic shifts
Source: By Harsh V Pant Jan: Deccan Herald
The year 2016 will be long remembered in India for the strategic decision by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to nullify all Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. This demonetisation is perhaps one of the most far-reaching policy decisions taken by any Indian government in recent times. The nation is still struggling to come to terms with it and it will have significant long-term implications for India’s economic growth trajectory.
In 2016, the Modi government managed to pass the landmark Goods and Services Tax bill. By levying one indirect tax for the whole nation, it will make India one unified common market. It is the biggest reform in India’s indirect tax structure since the economy started opening up 25 years ago and is likely to be implemented in 2017.
India remained one of the few fast growing major economies in the world in 2016, thereby managing to make its presence felt on the international platform. Modi remained rather unpredictable and unconventional in his outreach to the world. In more ways than one, the Modi government is gradually altering the foundations of Indian foreign policy.
In a move of great symbolism, Modi did not attend the 17th non-alignment summit despite host Venezuela’s repeated attempts to woo him. Instead, he dispatched Vice-President Hamid Ansari. Modi’s shift away from India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s legacy is a significant departure from the traditional foreign policy approach of New Delhi. Indian policymakers’ fixation with non-alignment has remained a central component of Indian identity in global politics.
Although India has had to accept help of the two global powers throughout the Cold War – notably from the US in 1962 against China and from the Soviet Union in 1971 against Pakistan – the country has preserved a façade of non-alignment, at least in rhetoric. But New Delhi faces a new set of challenges, in particular the rise of China. Indian policymakers confront a conundrum in calculating the benefits and risks of an increasingly assertive neighbour and a network of alliances with likeminded countries.
While sections of the Indian intellectual establishment still retain reflexive anti-Americanism, Modi has used his decisive mandate to carve a new partnership with the United States to harness its capital and technology for his domestic development agenda. He is not ambivalent about positioning India as a challenger to China’s growing regional might and assertiveness.
With this in mind, he signed the bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with the United States in 2016 for facilitating logistical support, supplies and services between the US and Indian militaries on a reimbursable basis and providing a framework to govern such exchanges.
India is also busy pursuing strong partnerships with US allies in the region including Japan, Australia and Vietnam. It has taken a strong position on the South China Sea dispute in favour of states such as Vietnam and the Philippines as well as expanded the US-India bilateral naval exercises to include Japan.
It also recognises the domestic challenges as Modi pivots India closer to the US. So he continues to invest in non-Western platforms such as the BRICS grouping – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Economically, the grouping is less attractive, given economic troubles in Russia, Brazil and South Africa.
The other dramatic change in South Asia came when the Indian Army’s Special Forces took out several suspected terror camps across the volatile Line of Control in response to an attack on an Indian army post in Kashmir by Pakistan-based terrorists that killed 20 soldiers on September 18. The Indian response came almost 11 days after the initial attack and reflected an attempt by the government to pressurise Pakistan on multiple fronts, thereby gaining leverage over an adversary that had long used terrorism and proxies to challenge India.
At the regional level, moreover, the government succeeded in the ensuring the postponement of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit after several member states took India’s lead and decided to boycott the Islamabad meeting in November. This was one of the rare occasions when regional states spoke in one voice against Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of state policy.
Even as Pakistan was reeling from these pressures, the NDA government decided to use the instrumentality of military power — a tool which New Delhi had avoided for long. What was new about the incident was not that cross-border raids took place, but that India decided to publicise them to the extent it did. The government’s Pakistan policy has not been predictable and keeping Pakistan on tenterhooks is part of the larger strategy.
While New Delhi sought to isolate Pakistan in 2016, it proactively reached out to other neighbours. India’s ties with Bangladesh and Afghanistan, in particular, deepened with New Delhi deciding to step up military cooperation with Kabul and resolve the boundary dispute with Dhaka. But Pakistan continues to be strongly backed by China. Sino-Pak relationship is blossoming with China poised to deploy its naval ships along with Pakistan navy to safeguard the strategic Gwadar port and trade routes under the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
If this move goes ahead as planned, it will be the logical culmination of a long drawn Chinese involvement in Pakistan, giving the Chinese Navy a foothold in the first overseas location – the Indian Ocean and the Arabia Sea. This should not be surprising given China’s growing interest in the region and Pakistan’s eagerness to counterbalance India’s naval might.
Other equations in South Asia are also changing with the US getting more impatient with Pakistan and Russia moving closer to Pakistan, changing its decades-old policy of being consistently pro-India. The South Asian strategic milieu is in flux and old rules no longer apply. The year 2016 has been a year of dramatic changes which are only likely to gain further momentum in the coming years.
Demonetisation and welfare
Source: By Shruti Rajagopalan: Mint
In their recent defence of the Narendra Modi government’s demonetisation and subsequent remonetisation programme, Jagdish Bhagwati, Vivek Dehejia, and Pravin Krishna (hereafter BDK) rebut many of the smaller criticisms levelled against the programme. We agree with BDK that demonetisation by itself cannot be expected to remedy counterfeiting, corruption, and future flows of black money. Other reforms will be needed. Disappointingly, however, BDK disregard the short-term and long-terms costs of the programme. A more balanced evaluation is called for.
BDK regard demonetisation as “a policy designed, in effect, as a one-time tax on black money” and propose that it’s “success has to be measured by the sum of tax revenue generated and black money destroyed”. They arrive at a back-of-the-envelope calculation of “the net gain” to the government as “Rs1 trillion of black money destroyed” which will generate government revenue to the extent that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) issues replacement currency, plus “Rs1 trillion in tax revenue” from the 50% tax on black-money deposits. They add: “The government could reasonably claim this (Rs2 trillion in revenue) as a successful outcome.”
We have no objection to the arithmetic of the BDK revenue guesstimate, only to its economic interpretation. Revenue gained is a very peculiar criterion for “success”. The standard economic approach is to evaluate the economic success of a programme not just by summing up its estimated benefits, but by summing up its benefits and then subtracting its costs. This is well known to BDK, who have written admirably on the benefits and costs of trade policies.
The efficiency of a tax is evaluated by comparing its revenue to its “deadweight cost” or “excess burden”, the sum of economic activity discouraged by the tax plus the costs of tax collection. The most successful or “efficient” tax is one with the least cost per rupee of revenue raised. BDK, however, judge the success of demonetisation as a government revenue programme without accounting for any associated economic losses to the public (we put aside any tally of its injustices).
BDK reject an accounting of the costs of demonetisation as “premature” and “without evidence”. But the facts are on the ground. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), an independent think tank, has estimated the total costs accumulated during the 50-day transition from old to new notes at Rs1.28 trillion. This figure represents a 64% deadweight cost of collecting the Rs2 trillion revenue estimated by BDK, making demonetisation a very high-cost tax.
The CMIE estimate includes the Rs168 billion spent in printing, transporting, and circulating the new currency. About Rs150 billion in wages were foregone by households waiting in queues to get new notes. An estimated Rs351 billion in costs has been incurred by banks, putting other business aside to exchange notes. The greatest losses fell on business enterprises hit by the sharp curtailment of currency transactions, estimated at Rs615 billion. The widely cited CMIE report offers a conservative cost estimate, limited to the 50-day window that ended on 30 December.
Various other non-partisan forecasters have estimated that demonetisation will cost the economy between 0.4 and 3.3 percentage points of growth. On an estimated gross domestic product of Rs145 trillion, one percentage point of lost growth equals Rs1.45 trillion. BDK may want to quibble with the various cost estimates, but assigning zero to the costs will not do.
These estimates don’t include the cost of auditing, collecting, and enforcing taxes on unaccounted money that has entered the formal system via banks. These costs may be substantial, given India’s complex tax code and the Prime Minister’s promise to prosecute every single tax evader.
BDK treat the matter of whether the “economic impact post 8 November will be contractionary” as a hypothetical question. They point out that a demonetizing government might prevent a currency shortage by immediately issuing new currency to replace the old. It might, undeniably, but it has not.
The government did not have the new currency ready to prevent a currency shortage. Even economists in the government, like Arvind Panagariya, vice-chairman of NITI Aayog, have acknowledged this: “In the short run, you have a liquidity crunch. It is going to impact economic activity and it is also happening.” Although the shortage is easing, the stock of currency may not be fully replenished before May 2017. The next two quarters may continue to experience a slowdown. The effects of the disruption in cash-dependent sectors like construction and informal manufacturing may last still longer.
Finally, challenging the claim that the botched remonetisation “has damaged trust in the monetary system,” BDK reassure us that the situation is not as bad as a hyperinflation. While trust in the rupee has indeed not been completely destroyed, it has eroded. The rupee has become less attractive as a currency in which to invest or hold wealth. Perhaps the worst casualty is the loss in the credibility of the Reserve Bank of India, which has tweaked rules more than once a day (roughly 60 notifications in 50 days) to deal with the currency shortage.
We need to count both costs and benefits to evaluate intelligently whether this was the best available method of taxing black money, or if the goal could have been pursued by less costly means.
Reading street lights
Source: By Ashok V. Desai: The Telegraph
Has India's economic development led to convergence or divergence? One answer can be obtained from inequality. The Gini coefficient of per capita expenditure was 0.35 in 1951 and 0.34 in 2010 — hardly any change in inequality. We have no personal income statistics, so we have to make do with these figures.
Atkinson and Morelli give the share of the richest 1 per cent in income — presumably, taxed income, which is a fraction of total personal income.
From 12.7 per cent in 1922, it rose to 17.8 per cent in 1938. High taxes in the War led it to fall to 10.3 per cent in 1942; then it rose to reach 14.4 per cent in 1955. It fell to 4.4 per cent in 1981; then it rose again till it reached 8.9 per cent in 1999. Distribution of wealth is more unequal in India than in, say, the United States of America, Brazil and China.
Recently, however, I came across a novel attempt to assess inequality, from the intensity of lighting of cities at night, in a paper published by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. If one looks at the earth at night from a satellite, most of it appears dark; but there are patches of light where there are cities. A satellite picture taken in 1992 showed most of India dark except for faint patches of light on the southern tip, in Gujarat and western Maharashtra, Andhra, Punjab, Haryana and West Bengal. A 2013 map shows the same lighted locations, but the lighted areas are much larger, and the degree of lighting more intense.
Meenu Tiwari and her colleagues did something more. They identified four types of districts: initially better lighted districts that regressed, poorly lighted districts that got lighted up, well lighted districts that continued to improve lighting, and poorly lighted districts that stayed behind. They called them slowdowns, catchups, leaders and laggards respectively. Only 13.5 per cent of the districts were leaders; they were mostly in or next to the old metros of Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Laggards were even fewer — 11.6 per cent. Slowdowns were 38 per cent and catchups were 37 per cent. In other words, three quarters of the cities were either doing better or worse than average.
There was considerable redistribution of lights. Catchups were mostly in two corridors: one ran from Karnataka through Andhra, Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar and Bengal to Assam and the Northeast; the other covered most of Rajasthan, Himachal, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir. Laggards were strung in the middle between these two corridors. The predominance of catchups and slowdowns implies more even distribution of lights as time passes. This pattern is common across countries. But the pace of equalization is slower in India than in the US or China.
Growth in lights could be in previously lighted areas, in areas newly added to cities, or in new cities; 48 per cent of the growth was in old areas, 44 per cent in newly added ones, and 8 per cent in areas unconnected to old cities. Thus, most of the electrification was through better lighting or geographical expansion of existing cities. This is not surprising, for new cities emerge only exceptionally.
A city is essentially a piece of land served by infrastructure services such as power, water and transport; and in a densely populated country like India, it is unusual for a large rural piece of land to urbanize. The prominent examples are New Delhi, Chandigarh, Gandhinagar and Amaravati. All four are capitals; all were created by governments by requisitioning land. This is a common pattern across the world. It goes back millennia to the Greeks at least; the Romans were experts and were planning cities with straight roads and round- the- clock water supply.
Many modern European cities have an inner city that was planned by a king many centuries ago. The coming of the motor vehicle and the metro changed the scale of ambition; lately created cities like Brasilia are much larger in area. But few of them have succeeded in the sense of having a vibrant social and economic life; Islamabad is a good instance of failure.
Meenu Tiwari and her colleagues also estimated the time it took in 1996 and 2011 to travel between major cities, and found that it had come down by 20- 30 per cent. Beginning with Atal Bihari Vajpayee's east- west and north- south corridors, many roads were built; they reduced travel time, and implicitly, the fuel cost of inter- city travel. Better road connections must also reduce the time and cost of goods travelling to markets. Tiwari and associates calculated an index of market access — distances between cities weighted by their size. Then they regressed this index on the growth of those cities; they found that a 10 per cent improvement in market access was associated with a 2- 5 per cent increase in a city's growth.
The correlation between the intensity of nocturnal electric lights and prosperity is only approximate; and as time goes, it will weaken. It would be zero in richer countries where everyone has electricity. So Meenu Tiwari's method must cease to be relevant at some point in the future. The government claims to have delivered electricity to all villages bar a handful; so her method may no longer apply even to villages except insofar as power supply is erratic.
But meanwhile, it has dealt with the geography of economic development, a largely neglected subject in India. It shows that development, which a quarter century ago was confined to areas around the ports ( except Punjab and Haryana, homes of the green revolution), has now spread all along the periphery, leaving only the northern peninsula and the Gangetic plain relatively less developed. It also shows the close correlation between development and the road network. Vajpayee's initiative on major cross- country highways has worked.
But more can be done. The next step should be to upgrade the quality of roads — improve the surface, standardize width, and create paved parking space along them so that there is no obstruction from vehicles parked on the road. Accommodation along the roads should be improved, so that drivers get adequate sleep and rest and are fitter to drive. It may not be possible to build highways in India like those in North America; there may not be enough land. But we can certainly aspire to European standards.
Driving today is such a lowly profession; that is because longdistance driving is a terrible drudge. It was a lot better even in my youth; the long- distance highways were well surfaced, traffic was light, and there were dak bungalows where one could eat and stay overnight. We should think in terms of a new generation of facilities on highways that would make driving a pleasure. That is when the millions of middle- class drivers who are confined today to the cities will begin to travel across the country and get to know its architectural and cultural riches.
I have no regrets that the new government abolished the planning commission; it was just a venue for interminable meetings. But it cannot abolish the need for planning; the transport network is one instance. And it should plan it intelligently.
A Middle East peace agenda for 2017
Source: By Abdullah Gul: Mint
In 2016, conflicts in the Middle East continued to proliferate far beyond the Israel-Palestine issue that had dominated regional politics for so long. Heading into 2017, four key countries—Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen—are tearing themselves apart in civil wars.
These conflicts are directly or indirectly affecting the rest of the world, by exporting terrorism and refugees—products that are contributing to resurgent populism and authoritarianism in the West, from which almost no country has been spared. In the coming year, the world will find itself under more pressure than ever to start resolving the Middle East’s conflicts and their dangerous spillover effects.
For starters, reviving the Israel-Palestine peace process must be a top priority. Though the conflict has not drawn as much attention in recent years as it once did, it is no less important to bring the occupation of Palestinian territories—and the attendant humanitarian crisis—to an end.
An agreed settlement—based on clear terms, and backed by the United Nations, the European Union, and the rest of the international community—would ensure Israel’s security and normalize its relations within the region, particularly with its Arab neighbours. This would create opportunities for regional and global cooperation while restoring much-needed credibility to the international system itself.
We can only hope that President-elect Donald Trump will resume the United States’ peacemaking efforts, and that his campaign rhetoric about Palestine and the status of Jerusalem were not policy proposals. France, to its credit, has shown an interest in reviving the peace process, even as it endures Islamic State-sponsored terrorist attacks. Russia, too, recently attempted to bring Israeli and Palestinian leaders to the table in Moscow, even as it aids Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war.
These countries’ recent overtures imply that the international community is impatient to resolve the Middle East’s oldest ongoing conflict, in order to help stem the tide of terrorism and other global problems emanating from the region. To advance the peacemaking process in 2017, the international community should embrace the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia presented in 2002. The API has already been well received by all parties in the conflict, and has been endorsed by the Arab League.
With respect to Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the international community must continue to coordinate joint military campaigns against terrorist strongholds in each country. But resolving these conflicts will require political solutions. And while proposals to partition these states have already been made, they cannot be implemented until all parties have agreed to them. In fact, it is not obvious that the formation of new states would be any easier than trying to hold together the existing ones.
Foreign interlocutors and irresponsible former Middle Eastern leaders opened a Pandora’s Box in the region, starting with the war in Iraq. One thing the world should have learned from that debacle is that splitting countries up can have far-reaching, unpredictable geopolitical consequences. Certain factions in Iraq and Syria are still capitalizing on power vacuums in those countries, and are pursuing maximalist goals that will only incite further revanchism and irredentism in the region. Any settlement that forced people to hand over territories or resources that they consider to be part of their national patrimony would only make a bad situation worse.
The ongoing proxy wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are often described as sectarian conflicts between Shia and Sunni Muslims. But a major factor underpinning sectarian fighting is the distrust between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Settling these two regional powers’ differences would have positive downstream effects on many of the region’s local feuds.
Sectarian conflicts should thus be resolved through high-level political efforts that embrace conciliatory models such as the “Islamic Proximity Initiative” put forward in April by Turkey and Kazakhstan at the 13th Organization of Islamic Cooperation Summit in Istanbul. To be sure, the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia is tense; but the two countries have agreed on many issues in the past, and there is no shortage of historical examples of peaceful Shia-Sunni coexistence.
Without an ambitious effort at rapprochement, civil wars and terrorism will continue to inflict immense destruction on the Middle East. Trade, industry, and transportation have come to a standstill in much of Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, hurting the wider regional economy. A recent International Monetary Fund report describes how armed conflicts are hindering growth and driving up inflation across the region, and warns that, while these costs can be contained with certain policy interventions, there is no “silver bullet” solution, short of ending the violence.
The Middle East’s conflicts are not only destroying economic infrastructure and industrial plants; they are also laying waste to health-care systems, education services, cultural heritage sites, and many other social institutions. According to an alarming UNICEF report, millions of displaced children and youths have been left uneducated and idle, which could render them unemployable, implying untold economic and social costs in the future.
Any successful effort in the coming year to end the Middle East’s conflicts will have to be accompanied by a large-scale reconstruction project—based on the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II—to prevent countries from backsliding into war. And political reformers in the region must place principles such as human rights, the rule of law, transparency, and good governance at the top of the regional agenda. In 2017, it will be incumbent upon those countries that have managed to avoid armed conflict to preserve their relative stability, so that they can help restore stability to the entire region.
Source: By Nirmalendu Bikash Rakshit: The Statesman
The Constitution has, under Article 326, adopted universal adult suffrage. Since Independence, the governments, both at the Centre and in the states, have been formed through the secret ballots of the adult populace. The electorate has, voted for liberty, unity, peace and security. But, though the election per se is a political phenomenon, some extraneous factors have unfortunately dominated the people’s electoral behaviour. Therefore, any study of matters electoral calls for an analysis of the various aspects of the lives and mindset of the electorate.
Indeed, Indians are deeply committed to political democracy based on the British system. But they are largely motivated by various sentiments and the political leaders clearly utilise their emotions for their own electoral benefits. Thus, elections have witnessed the ugly activities of the politicians seeking votes on grounds of religion, caste, regionalism, money and so on.
It is necessary to discuss the role of these factors. First, religion is a dominating factor in elections. The country, since the ancient era, has been home to people of various religious beliefs. As often as not, communal frenzy and riots have resulted in bloodshed. Though we have expressly adopted the secular principle, the people, by and large, have nurtured a feeling of religious separatism. It is a feeling that is manifest in the election of the candidates. So, no political party can ignore the religious sentiments and prejudices. Often, the people of a particular religion go to the polling booths after carefully considering the religious structure of the particular constituency. SL Sikri has observed ‘taking advantage of this communal thinking, the political parties operate on the basis of religion’.
Thus, religion and politics have been unethically blended and this peculiar “compound” is now playing havoc. Second, caste is also an ugly aspect of our electoral politics. However, in the big cities casteism is not much effective; but in rural areas, it plays a dominant role in choosing the candidates. As G. Roson has pointed out, it is naive to expect that casteism will not play a more significant part in the elections to come. In fact, the majority of voters choose the candidate of a certain caste even if his opponents are candidates of better calibre. As WH Morris Jones puts it, “politics is more important to caste and castes are more important in politics than ever before”. In the same way, VM Sirsikar has observed that ‘it assumes a new role of regulating political behaviour’ (Caste and Politics).
Third, regionalism is another determinant in electoral politics. As M Brecher has pointed out, there are some problems which are regional in nature and most of the voters feel that none but the local candidates can deal with them effectively. Localism has thus gained ground in our elections. So, a candidate of a distant locality is often rejected as an ‘outsider’ in the local polls. This sentiment is so touchy that it has even led to the break-up of some provinces on linguistic lines.
Fourth, the economic class has also determined election results in different areas. In Mumbai, Kanpur, Ahmedabad and other industrial regions, the results have largely been settled by the Marxist voters. Similarly, in the rich and capitalist areas, the votes of the upper class have helped the rightist parties. Clearly, class politics in India has come to assume a critical role in elections.
Fifth, language also plays an important part in the electoral choice. This is such a strong sentiment that people of the same language seek to live in the same locality and, as a stark reality; some provinces have been split on the linguistic issue. So, most of the voters pick the candidates who speak the same language. Thus, often the election largely becomes a linguistic issue.
Money is no less a factor that determines dividend at the hustings. Crores are spent by the political parties in their frantic attempt to secure votes and assume power. The major parties are often funded by industrialists who, in turn, are eager to seek advantage in their own economic activity.
There is thus an unholy nexus on the basis of a give-and-take policy. It has been pointed out by ND Palmer that these profit-earners had provided a fair amount of money to the Congress during the early years of Independence. The party was able to capture power in the whole country. But, with the break-up of the Congress monolith, a multy-party system has eventually come up and, hence, some other big parties have similarly become financial beneficiaries of the electoral system. In a sense, votes are purchased by the enriched parties.
Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan, for instance, had largely influenced the voters to stand behind their parties and a large number of people were almost mesmerised by their charm. They were hardly bothered with the ideology of such leaders ~ they voted for them only with a feeling of hero-worship. Even now, Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh Yadav and some others similarly play a charismatic role in the elections in their respective states. Thus, by dint of their popularity, some leaders often rule the roost.
Gender also plays an important role in electoral politics. This had helped Indira Gandhi and Jayalalitha. Similarly, the male voters generally choose their brethren in the polls, ignoring the female aspirants. Family tradition is also a dominant factor. In fact, many families are traditionally devoted to a particular party and the elders are so influential, even overbearing, that the younger generation can scarcely think independently on matters political, still less alter the family’s political preference and prejudice. Clearly, various non-political factors actually determine electoral politics in different ways. In fact, there has been no election in which such factors as religion, caste, language, sex etc. have not played a significant role.
The waters of our discontent
Source: By Rohit Prasad: Mint
Let the last word, then, belong to the river. Recall the names that ribbon out like a litany of discontent—Cauvery, Indus, Sutlej, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, Teesta. Every name a mantra, and every mantra vitiated, its potency hijacked by the din of fratricidal war.
Imagine a pastoral idyll comprised of two farmers. Reflect that the word “rival” comes from the Latin rivalis, which means those who share the waters of a river, and be prepared for trouble in paradise. There are only two units of water to be distributed. The total surplus is maximized when the upstream farmer uses one unit, watering the most fertile portion of his land, and the downstream farmer uses the remaining one unit on her most fertile acreage. However, the upstream farmer may well use his positional advantage to grab both units of water. From the point of view of efficiency, this is not ideal. If the second farmer is relatively poor, then there is a further issue of inequity.
Governmental intervention to settle “riparian rights” (the rights of those owning land on the borders of a river) often involves laying down rules on the quantity of water that can be used by each user. On occasion, the adjudication involves not merely private parties but different governmental jurisdictions.
For instance, the Cauvery agreement prescribes the quantity of water that accrues to Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and Kerala. Such agreements are susceptible to delays and opacity in decision making, and the challenges of monitoring. To reduce problems, some agreements divide the rivers in a basin between upstream and downstream users instead of dividing the water of a single river. The Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan is an example where India gets the waters of the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas, and Pakistan gets the waters of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab with limited rights for India on the upstream portion.
An important factor affecting the agreements reached is the relative power of the negotiating parties. The Cauvery agreement was struck in 1924 between a powerful Madras Presidency under British rule and the Mysore state under the Wodeyars. As a result, it is believed, the terms were skewed in favour of Madras. The agreement has been revisited frequently after a tribunal was constituted in 1990 but implementation in a situation when the Central government, and the two main state governments involved, are governed by different parties becomes difficult.
The sharing of waters between Haryana and Punjab was decided at the time of the formation of Haryana in 1966, when the Central government and both the state governments were under Congress rule. Construction of the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal was officially started in 1982 to operationalize the agreement under the same configuration of governments. Today even though one party is involved at the Centre as well as in the state governments, it is not in a position to openly support the transfer of water from Punjab to Haryana.
Indeed, the sabre rattling of the Prime Minister on the Indus Waters Treaty in the run-up to the Punjab election can partly be construed as a cover-up for the fact that the Central government cannot openly oppose the Sutlej-Yamuna link canal. This is a reflection not just of political and legal realities, but also of the far greater stress on water resources after close to 50 years of over-exploitation.
The utilization of common property resources is subject to the “tragedy of the commons” a concept popularized by the ecologist Garrett Hardin. Each user of the resource fails to take into account the effect of his usage on the depletion of the common property resource for other users. As a result, the resource is overused.
The problem of the commons becomes amplified when the total stock of the resource is depleting every year. In the alluvial aquifers of northern Gujarat, the reserves, and therefore the tube wells, are evenly spread out. This allowed the cohesive Patidar community to cleverly use the groundwater for a time. However, in the hard rock aquifers of the Deccan plateau, tube wells are often situated in close proximity due to the spatial concentration of suitable reserves. As a result, each user is quite cognizant that their access to water becomes reduced by the water extraction activities of their neighbour. A race to the bottom ensues as each user aims to maximize the cash per drop. The cultivation of high water intensity crops like sugar cane, paddy, mulberry and vanilla abounds in areas of maximum water scarcity, precisely where it is most unsustainable.
The depletion of groundwater reduces the flow in rivers in two ways: It reduces the recharge of rivers from groundwater, and it occasions the demand for dams and canals from communities that have become powerful in the groundwater economy—for instance, the demand for the Sardar Sarovar dam by the Patidars. This further reduces the flow and quality of surface water and puts river agreements at risk.
When the exploitation of groundwater becomes unviable due to receding levels, when dams are delayed, and when exit options in the form of government jobs or migration to other countries dry out, there is unrest as powerful agricultural communities hit the streets. The Patidar, Maratha and Jat agitations are symptoms of agricultural distress that can be traced back to the drying up of water resources and the lack of viable alternatives. The clear and present danger of a water emergency stares us in the face. A radical revision of our relationship with natural resources is urgently needed lest the rumblings of disaster turn into a full-blown catastrophe.
Go for revision
Source: By Kuldip Nayar: Deccan Herald
Islamabad has asked the World Bank to honour the Indus Water Treaty executed between India and Pakistan in 1960. This is in response to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's remark that India is free to use the water which flows into the sea. This is not correct because according to the treaty, India cannot use more than 20% of the Indus water.
The World Bank spent many years to persuade New Delhi and Islamabad to reach an agreement. I recall that after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Martial Law Administrator General Mohammad Ayub travelled in the same car, Mian Iftakharuddin of Muslim League suggested if they could sign an agreement on Kashmir in the same spirit. Both the leaders remained silent.
According to the treaty, India could draw water from the Ravi, the Beas and the Sutlej while Pakistan from the Indus, the Chenab and Jehlum. Even though both counties felt that they could utilise the water which was flowing through their country, they refrained from doing so because of the treaty. In fact, the Indus Water Treaty is an example before the world that it held the ground even when the two countries went to war.
Modi's off-the-cuff remark has created consternation in Pakistan, forcing it to appeal to the World Bank to "fulfil its obligation" relating to the treaty. In a letter to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Pakistan Finance Minister Ishaq Dar has said the treaty did not provide for a situation wherein a party can 'pause' performance of its obligations and this attitude of the World Bank would prejudice Pakistan's interests and rights under the treaty.
The fear of Pakistan is exaggerated. The country does not want any alteration in the treaty. In its reaction, the World Bank has said that it has paused its arbitration in the water dispute between India and Pakistan, saying it is doing so to protect the Indus Water Treaty. India would take no unilateral step to stop the water going unused into the Arabian Sea.
However, there is a case where the two countries should sit and hammer out another treaty because the old one is outdated. Then it was thought that the water given to Rajasthan would be utilised by the rest of the country because the state, part of the desert, would not be able to do so. But this has turned out to be wrong. The state has utilised the water allotted to it and wants more.
When Modi wants to have good relations with Pakistan and has wished his counterpart Nawaz Sharif on this birthday last week, the former would not take any step which would harm Pakistan. There were enough of provocations from Islamabad like the attacks on Pathankot and Uri that killed many civilians to act unilaterally. Even otherwise, it is in the interest of both countries that peace should prevail in the region. Both would benefit.
Kashmir is the problem which divides the two countries. Representatives of both countries should sit across the table sort it out. Sharif unnecessarily harangued Kashmir on the Pakistan television networks that Kashmir belonged to Pakistan and there would be no peace in the region until it became part of his country.
This irresponsible statement, coming as it does from a country's prime minister, has affected the tourist season in the valley. So much so that even Syed Shah Geelani, the pro-Pakistan Hurriyat leader, joined a procession to appeal to the tourists to return to the valley. Both he and Yasin Malik, who wants the valley to be independent, were part of the procession. They were particular that the message should reach New Delhi so that it takes steps to see that the tourists return to Kashmir.
The separatists in the valley do not realise that the tourists flock to the valley as if they were visiting any part of India. The demand of independence or the threat of disturbance has scared them. It is in the interest of Kashmiris not to disturb the status quo until they can have something better. This is possible if the three parties, India, Pakistan and the people in Kashmir, come together for a dialogue. New Delhi is not prepared for that because Islamabad has gone back on its promise not to allow its territory to be used by terrorists.
Aborted Agra pact
This was also agreed upon when Pakistan was under General Musharraf's rule. He went to Agra and almost signed an agreement with then prime minster A B Vajpayee, until news had leaked that India's then I&B minister Sushma Swaraj changed the draft agreement omitting Kashmir from the text. Since then, the two countries have stayed distant. Musharraf's misadventure in Kargil only aggravated the matter further.
It must be said to the credit of Vajpayee that he took a bus to Lahore. I was sitting behind him when he showed me New Delhi's telegram which said that several Hindus had been killed near Jammu. He said he did not know how the country would react about his trip to Lahore but he was determined to pick up the thread with Nawaz Sharif. The rest is history.
The Indus Water Treaty can be replaced with another treaty but the consent of Pakistan is necessary. When it has not been willing to allow getting electricity from the run of the river it is difficult to imagine that it would agree to the use of rivers in the Indus system even though water from them is pouring into the Arabian Sea without being used for either irrigation or hydroelectric projects.
There is a tendency in Pakistan to link everything with Kashmir, which is a complicated problem and it would take many years to solve. The revision of Indus Water Treaty, which can satisfy both the countries, would add to the peace prospects. Let the treaty be discussed separately. The rest can follow. The only point to be taken into account is how the two countries can come closer to each other.
Source: By Salman Haidar: The Statesman
It has been announced that a three-country meeting on Afghanistan is to be held shortly in Moscow, to bring together Russia, China and Pakistan in order to confer on matters of regional peace and stability. Continued turmoil and civil strife in Afghanistan lie behind this initiative, with the three invited participants believing they are among those at risk from the spillover of the Afghan troubles and hence must collectively do something to try to contain the problem.
The consultation in Moscow is to be at the level of senior officials, and Islamabad has made it known that its Foreign Secretary will be deployed for the meeting. Presumably the other participants will be represented at similar level. This is apparently the third such meeting though the earlier ones were not conducted with comparable publicity, and thus the forthcoming event looks as if it will be breaking fresh ground.
Afghanistan has been through an unending series of internal conflicts magnified by external interference ever since the overthrow of the former King some half-century ago. It is only recently that the Afghans have themselves been able to take steps to put matters to rights and establish a stable system of rule. President Ghani, following in succession President Karzai through a democratic transition, has done much to continue and strengthen the process of restoration that was started in the time of his predecessor. Having in this manner successfully taken charge of their own affairs, Afghans are understandably surprised and questioning of the fact that the tripartite meeting about their country is to take place without their participation.
This omission has been highlighted by spokespeople in Kabul, and while the invited participants have tried to gloss over the issue, questions remain about the selection and the nature of the conference. Only a few weeks ago the 'Heart of Asia' conference on Afghanistan, the latest in a series, was convened in Amritsar with a large number of participants who set out to address issues of peace and development in Afghanistan.
It is to be seen how the three participants shortly to assemble in Moscow can relate their own deliberations to the process shaped in Amritsar. As yet not very much has been made known about the structure of the tripartite meeting though a Russian spokesperson has said that his country has been holding discussions within the region, including China, Iran, India, and also Pakistan. Not much more is known at this stage of what to expect from the Moscow event.
Among those who are to take part, China has recently assumed a bigger role in regional and security affairs in its neighbourhood. China's Xinjiang province adjacent to Pakistan is often restive and faces the risk of infiltration by fundamentalist elements that could stir up sentiment in the local Muslim population. Afghanistan has not been directly drawn in, but the region as a whole has experienced a number of incidents in past years and China has every reason to heighten watchfulness in its borderlands.
At the same time, in newly prominent Baluchistan local sensitivity has been stirred by the enlarged Chinese presence and there have been a number of violent incidents. Thus China has a number of concerns to bring to the regional consultation in Moscow. Even so, it remains strongly supportive of Pakistan, as seen in its commitment to the China-Pak Economic Corridor (CPEC)) that could have a profound effect on the region as a whole. China's commitment to the project was reiterated by its official spokesperson who also advised India not to hold aloof but to join in this important initiative.
Chinese regional policy remains what it was but that is not the case with Russia which in recent months has been engaged in building bridges with Pakistan and has taken important steps to restore relations with that country. There are many aspects: economic ties are advancing, so too is cooperation in political and security matters, and most striking is Russian willingness to sell a limited amount of military equipment to Pakistan.
Earlier, the dividing lines were quite clear and there was little expectation that military sales could take place. It is also noteworthy that this current warming of relations is not part of a general improvement in Pakistan's ties within its neighbourhood, for regional countries like Iran and Afghanistan have kept their distance... not to mention India, whose relations with its neighbour are at a nadir. One can speculate that military sales were undertaken by Russia both for commercial reasons and also to develop relations with the all-important Pak army establishment, as part of it’s more active policy in the region. Whatever the reasons, Russia has broadened its options and assumed fresh regional responsibilities.
The forthcoming tripartite meeting has brought considerable relief to Pakistan for it seems to have reduced some of the pressures on that country. Only days before the announcement, there was a statement from the Pentagon accusing Pakistan of providing freedom of action for terror groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani group, which are under the scanner and are frequently accused of enjoying sanctuary in Pakistan.
Against this background, the opportunity of coming together with Russia and China on a 'new regional project' to restore peace and stability in Afghanistan comes as an unlooked for opportunity. Little wonder that this has been described as a 'watershed moment' by the Pak official spokesperson. One may well wonder why this should be so for there is nothing to suggest any Pak change of heart that would encourage positive revaluation of its policy. Making the most of the opportunity, Pakistan has made the offer to Russia to provide it with access to newly developed Gwadar, which has the potential of serving as the warm water port Russia has always coveted.
As an indicator of the many transformations currently in train in Asia, US Secretary of State Kerry urged regional countries to take a bigger role in peacemaking. Coming when it did, this could be regarded as an implicit US gesture of support for the tripartite initiative, even though both Beijing and Moscow presently have their differences with the USA on broader issues of grand strategy.
It is possible that when the new President takes charge there will be changes of priority and emphasis in US policy towards this region. For the moment, however, what is to be seen is a fluid interregnum between two Administrations, a time of change that affects all the major players in Asia. At this juncture, when so much transformation is in the air, India needs to be alert and prepared to make the policy adjustments that may be needed to promote its interests and strengthen its voice in the region.
A daunting task
Source: By Ashok Kamath: Deccan Herald
Well-known economist Amartya Sen recently said at the London School of Economics (LSE), "India is the only country in the world which is trying to become a global economic power with an uneducated and unhealthy labour force. Despite having a mammoth government-funded education system in place, we have an 'uneducated' populace. As per the Census of India 2011, our literacy rate is at 74%.
But according to Aspiring Minds National Employability Report, which is based on a study of more than 1, 50,000 engineering students who graduated in 2015 from over 650 colleges, 80% of them are unemployable. The reason for this situation can be attributed to lack of quality of education imparted throughout our public education system, which the majority of our population relies on. To illustrate this, according to India Spend, Rs 1, 15,625 crore has been spent on Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) for universalising elementary education over the last five years. Over the years, we have also built the infrastructure required to service the rural population.
We have also allocated both monetary and human resources. State schools, in reality, have better qualified teachers than low-budget private schools. The government school teachers get some amount of annual training, and there is a well-defined system in place. Despite this, the outcomes in terms of quality of learning, particularly in the case of math and reading are not very discernible.
As per the ASER-2014 Report, the All India (rural) figures for basic arithmetic reveal that in 2012, only 26.3% of children in grade 3 could do two-digit subtraction. This number fell to 25.3% in 2014. The percentage of children in grade 2 who still cannot recognise numbers up to 9 has increased from 11.3% in 2009 to 19.5% in 2014. And this trend persists in all competencies throughout the primary school system.
The reasons for this are not difficult to identify. A large section of our population resides in rural areas and relies on the government school system for its education needs. And it is in principally rural areas where we have failed with regard to education. For example, in the city of Bengaluru, for every child that goes to the public school system, four children go to the private school system which means there are market force solutions to address needs. In rural communities that is reversed.
As per the latest District Information System for Education (DISE) data, nearly 51.3 million children in India study in grades 4 and 5 in government primary schools. That's about 10 times the number of all children living in Australia. Addressing just the education needs of children in grades four and five in any mid-sized state like Karnataka, is akin to addressing the needs of an entire country like Kenya or Ghana. The task is evidently huge. Where do the gaps lie? The oft-quoted response is that it is in the execution and the lack of accountability that the system fails. But is that the full story?
A traditional African proverb says, "It takes a village to raise a child." What does this mean in the context of rural early education in our country? For starters, it means that parents and teachers have to work together in the interests of the child. Too often we hear parents say that the schools are not performing while teachers complain that parents don't do their bit for the children.
We need to change this equation. The course of discussion around education has just started to change from enrolment to quality of schooling. School Development and Monitoring Committees (SDMCs) that have two-thirds participation from parents. We need to engage and bring awareness to these committee members about enabling quality. And this cannot be closed-room discussions. It needs to become a movement and everyone needs to get involved in the process.
Quality of education is far too important for anyone to be left out from the process, be it elected representatives from gram panchayats, members of Parliament, and officials from the Education Department or other influencers. Most importantly, parents and community members, and teachers and children themselves should be integral to the process. There has to be a vibrant demand for quality to be infused into the school system.
This takes investment and political will and greater collaboration. Increased demand and the cumulative energy of all stakeholders can bring quality into education, and children will get to learn. What else can be done? The media and policy makers alike need to have quality of education on their agenda. We need to constantly talk quality, now that we have achieved desired levels of enrolment.
Today, we can consider that the whole "village" is sleeping and unless we wake up and work together, there is very little chance for change. Our task is huge, our numbers are daunting. But we are a nation on the move and as Amartya Sen has rightly said, it is only an educated and healthy populace that can get us to real development. It begins with public education and public health, with quality being the lodestone on which both are based. We have to get our act together and enable a movement. It begins with each of us.