A case for language rights

Source: By N Kalyan Raman: Deccan Herald

The storm created by the draft National Educational Policy seems to have subsided for the moment, with the government backtracking on the mandatory requirement of Hindi as one of the three languages to be studied at the school level in non-Hindi speaking states. The backtracking was a result of vociferous protest from several states, chiefly from Tamil Nadu, against this attempt at “imposition” of Hindi by the government at the Centre.

The peremptory move was typical of the Modi dispensation, whose idea of governance is to enforce submission to its authority, treating citizens as little more than subjects. And this time around, it meant to pave the way for the establishment of Hindi as the national language or, in other words, the language of the “nation”.

Apart from the emotive aspect of nationhood, the move would also privilege Hindi as the exclusive language of governance, displacing English altogether, and thereby as the central language of knowledge and intellectual discourse. Eventually, the much-despised Anglophone elite, implacable enemies of Hindutva, would be literally crowded out by a Hindi-educated intellectual elite from across the country.

In such a scenario, hundreds of millions of people from the non-Hindi states would be disadvantaged and downgraded to second-class citizens. It is precisely to forestall this prospect that Tamil Nadu has insisted that it would stick to its two-language formula of Tamil and English at the school level.

The two-language policy has been in force in Tamil Nadu since the late 1960s, when the DMK came to power in the wake of the anti-Hindi agitation of 1965. So long as Tamil Nadu, and other states in a similar situation, stick to their guns and hold fast against the forces of Hindutva on the political front, the BJP’s vision of Hindi as the national language is unlikely to become reality in the foreseeable future.

However, it is possible to see this contest more as a fight for supremacy between Hindi and English, both hegemonic languages in their own way, than as a battle for the basic language rights of ordinary citizens. And what might these basic rights be?

To receive accessible and affordable education up to the tertiary level in their mother tongue, or in a language close to it and to live in a society that will honour and reward such education with opportunities and incentives in any field of endeavour. There are longstanding reasons why such a scenario, so important to the future well-being of most of our population, is a distant dream.

Postcolonial laissez faire

Since our education system during the colonial era was the creation of the British, the primacy of English as the language of education and administration was unavoidable. After Independence, the privilege accorded to English continued unchecked. The reasons were partly cultural. As an inherently hierarchical, context-sensitive society, we adapted to English in our own way, as described by AK Ramanujan in his essay, ‘Is There an Indian Way of Thinking?’

When English is borrowed into (or imposed on) Indian contexts, it fits into the Sanskrit slot; it acquires many of the characteristics of Sanskrit, the older native Father-Tongue, its pan-Indian elite character—as a medium of laws, science and administration, and its formulaic patterns; it becomes a part of Indian multiple diglossia (a characteristic of context-sensitive societies).

What we should have done was to reinvent and develop the capacities of our education system in Indian languages, an onerous task by any reckoning. We were taking the right steps during the 1950s and early 60s, but as English-driven, white-collar employment began to expand in the following two decades, the efforts necessary to provide quality education in Indian languages at the college level were given up.

The increasing competition at the school level, combined with progressive privatisation of education, put paid to quality instruction in Indian languages at the school level as well. The result is large-scale disenfranchisement of the rural and economically weaker sections of society. That such a situation has come about in a state like Tamil Nadu, a crusader against Hindi imposition, speaks volumes about the state of language rights in our country. As for English, it is spoken of as a route to better opportunities and a privileged life. This is true for only a tiny fraction of the population.

If, at 24 million jobs (2013-14 Economic Census), employment in the organised sector is about 5% of the labour force of 479 million (World Bank figures for 2014), and jobs for which English is an absolute requirement amount to only a small fraction of that number, it is hard to see how education in English can be ‘aspirational’ for all our children, given such a narrow base of opportunities. Moreover, we simply lack the resources required to provide quality English education on such a wide scale. We are plunging the bulk of our children into a contest that they can never win.

Going beyond the knee-jerk attempt at imposition of Hindi and the equally knee-jerk opposition to it favouring the primacy of English, we need a languages policy with a social vision, policy as if people mattered. This is a programme for the long haul, one that requires the participation, contribution and support of all those committed to our future as a healthy, functioning democracy. It’s time we gave serious and rigorous thought to the role of languages in the development of our society in a fair and equitable way.


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Recognized in terms of ‘power’

Source: By Martand Jha: Mint

The international system recognizes and divides nation states in terms of their respective “powers”. Some are called great powers; some are identified as middle powers; some as emerging powers; and others, rising powers. Each of these terminologies has a specific meaning attached with them because different kinds of powers have different attributes, roles and functions in international relations.

For instance, a great power is defined as a state that plays a major role in international politics with respect to security-related issues. The great powers can be differentiated from other states on the basis of their military power, their interests, their behaviour in general, their interactions with other powers and other powers’ perception of them. This definition of great powers was given by Jack S. Levy in his book, War In The Modern Great Power System, 1495-1975.

All the superpowers therefore are great powers but the reverse is not true. This is precisely because one has to be a great power first in order to become a superpower. For instance, both the US and the Soviet Union were great powers even before World War II, but they were not recognized as superpowers then. It was only after the end of World War II that the world recognized them as superpowers because of their military strength, their destructive potential (especially with the advent of nuclear bombs) and their capabilities to affect international politics at a much wider and deeper scale than before.

Then, there are rising powers, which are primarily those powers whose rise in terms of their socio-economic indicators as well as their military strength is recognized by other nation states in the international system. Sometimes, their rise is so sharp and fast that it starts throwing a challenge to existing superpowers. For instance, many scholars argue that China is a classic case of a rising power which is at the cusp of becoming a superpower and take the place of Soviet Union whose collapse in 1991 left a vacuum in the international politics as it was balancing the US for nearly half a century.

While China is recognized as a rising power, India has often been termed as an emerging power since the last decade, especially after the LPG or liberalisation, privatisation and globalization reforms after 1991 that accelerated its economic growth and it became a nuclear power in 1998. It secured India’s national interests to a considerable extent. The term emerging power denotes that a nation state has just started to emerge as a power which is recognized as such by other existing powers in the international system.

The “self-image” of an emerging power changes rapidly, as it starts to broaden both its intentions as well as capabilities to make a broader mark outside the region in which it is regionally situated. For instance, India has always been a regional powerhouse of South Asia, so much so that the very idea of South Asia can’t be imagined without India in the picture. However, India was not considered as a major global power till the turn of the last millennium, after which India’s interests, especially economic interests, were broadened.

Today, the situation is very different. Not only has India’s overall power increased manifold, the country is seen as one of the major powers in the world whose influence is not just confined to its immediate neighbourhood in South Asia. Ironically, over the last few years, India’s relations with most of its immediate neighbours have deteriorated but outside the region, India is enjoying amicable and strong trade, economic and security relations with most of the major powers.

Many scholars of international relations call India a middle power as well. The term itself suggests that a middle power is often a sovereign nation-state that comes in the middle of the power spectrum of all nation-states. These states are relatively less powerful compared with great powers but possess the capability to shape international events. During the Cold War, states like Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden played the role of middle powers. Today, scholars and academics put India and Australia, along with Brazil and South Africa, in that position.

That brings the question of what kind of power India actually is. Is it an emerging power, is it a middle power and is it at the cusp of becoming a rising power? The answer to this question is debatable but the most agreeable answer is that India is one of the major economic powers with nuclear power capability today.

However, one should also examine why these terminologies are important in themselves. The most likely reason seems to be that these terminologies are coined to assess the power of nation-states by the international community so that they calculate their strategy of behaving with a particular state in a particular way. Second, these terminologies often act as catalysts to boost the “self-image” of a nation-state.

However, many diplomats and scholars of international relations caution, that leaders and ruling dispensations in respective nation-states shouldn’t take these terms neither too seriously nor too lightly. The concept of power of nation-states has changed with time. To sum up, power manifests itself in many ways and therefore to be recognized as a major power, nation-states aspire to possess both the hard and soft power to influence the international system at large.


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SDGs and grim global realities

Source: By Bharat Dogra: The Statesman

In recent times the development discourse all over the world has been heavily influenced by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set up by the United Nations in 2015 for the year 2030. These goals are in the form of specific targets set up for key areas of development, protection of environment and various forms of life etc.

If these goals are achieved, then these 15 years will be the most successful years of human history in terms of reducing distress. Hunger is sought to be almost eliminated while poverty will be reduced greatly. If SDGs help to establish the right priorities in terms of such objectives, then this is a very good initiative.

However we cannot ignore some disturbing aspects. The most ambitious goals of reducing distress have been set for a time period (2015-2030) about which other available evidence indicates that this may be a period of some very adverse trends. For example, if we look at the previous 15 to 30 years, then it is clear that the world has been passing through times of very high and perhaps unprecedented inequalities. The SDGs also talk about reducing inequalities, but not specifically about how exactly these trends will be checked and how actually the forces which are responsible for these trends will be checked.

Similarly it is clear that these are times of very heavy spending on arms and ammunition, as well as increasing overall military budgets. The world is not only over-loaded with destructive weapons (including weapons of mass destruction) but in addition this high risk load is spreading and increasing rapidly. The statistics of high arms spending are generally presented mainly in the context of the spending of various governments but in addition there is also the heavy spending on arms and ammunition, legal and illegal, by individuals, criminals and private militias. All this has been increasing.

The sum total of government and private expenditure on arms and ammunition is truly massive. This is also very expensive in terms of snatching away resources from meeting the needs of people. There are deeply entrenched reasons why weapons go on proliferating despite everyone knowing how destructive and expensive these are. There are also very powerful forces which want this to continue. But SDG documents do not tell us exactly how this trend can be checked or resolved, or what big, new and different initiatives will be taken on this important issue.

Thirdly, the period of SDGs is also a highly sensitive one when lives threatening environmental changes like climate change are likely to increase and cause a lot of destruction and distress. This has been well recognised for about three decades, yet the world has badly lagged behind in terms of the steps necessary for checking this. There are powerful forces which are responsible for this and there are also important weaknesses in the efforts. The SDG documents do not tell us how these forces will be challenged, and how these weaknesses will be removed.

As there are no details of any specific initiatives which are significantly different from the earlier efforts that failed, there is no assurance at all that the inequalities (and the huge wasteful consumption which inevitably accompanies big inequalities) will be curbed, and there is even less assurance that the destructive arms proliferation will be checked. Again there is no assurance that climate change will be checked before it is too late and tipping points are reached.

In such a situation it is not at all clear how highly ambitious goals of meeting basic needs of all human beings and particularly all other forms of life as will be achieved. Thus while the SDGs are laudable objectives and can be helpful in improving priorities to some extent, several questions arise when these are examined with reference to the grim realities of several important existing trends.

What are the structural problems due to which the performance of the earlier few decades has been so disappointing? What are the weaknesses at the level of global governance due to which the most serious global problems (WMDs, climate change, ocean pollution, currency and trade reforms etc.) could not be tackled effectively so far?

We need to find frank and truthful answers to these tough questions and we need to take the necessary remedial action on the basis of these truthful answers for correcting structural problems and injustices as well as for significantly improving global governance and its capacity to solve the most pressing problems. It is not adequate merely to set up good targets for priority areas, we should face the grim reality of the very tough conditions within which these targets have to be reached and take adequate steps to improve the overall conditions.


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New method to compute GDP

Source: By Sandipan Deb: Mint

The gross domestic product (GDP) of a country is often seen as the one statistic to end them all. Gigantic amounts of mindspace are devoted to this one number. But does the GDP give a fair monetary measure of the market value of all the final goods and services produced in a period of time in a country? This question has become extremely relevant as the world has grown more and more digitized.

The concept of GDP was invented in 1937 by US economist Simon Kuznets, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1971. In 1944, following the Bretton Woods conference that established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, GDP became the standard tool for sizing up a country’s economy. However, the world economy has changed spectacularly since then and that change is accelerating. In April last year, British bank Barclays in its annual economic report said that, quantifying the contribution of digital goods and services (which are often consumed for free) poses a challenge of “unprecedented scope and scale". After all, the economic indicators used to measure GDP are still stuck in the manufacturing age.

Basic economic theory sets the price of a good in demand at the marginal cost to produce it. Digital goods have a fixed cost at the start, but often there is zero or near-zero marginal costs. Digital products also don’t suffer from scarcity issues and are cheap or free to transport across large distances. The difficulty of pricing digital goods properly probably leads to an underestimation of GDP, Barclays says. What is the scale of the potential miscalculation?Hard to judge but the gap will keep getting bigger as the digital economy expands.

But there are some ideas being floated about new computational methods for GDP. One of them is “GDP-B", developed by MIT economist Erik Brynjolfsson. It aims to capture the financial value of the things we don’t pay for but still have plenty of value, such as social media, online maps, Wikipedia and so on. In an interview with qz.com, Brynjolfsson explained: “The problem is that, which relationship of more GDP leading to more welfare is not true for digital goods in the way it is for physical goods. And that’s because digital goods have zero price. So if there are twice as many people reading Wikipedia, it doesn’t really change GDP at all… According to the (US) Bureau of Economic Analysis, there’s a category of all information goods that was about 4.6% of the economy back in the early 1980s. Today, it is (still) 4.6%."

In the meantime, with the rise of zero-price online services such as YouTube, Spotify and Wikipedia, priced industries like music, media (CD, DVD) and encyclopedias—and their contribution to GDP—have shrunk dramatically. This is while consumers have access to better quality and much greater choice.

[GDP is] measuring what we spend," says Brynjolfsson. “[But] production and spending aren’t everything…You need a dashboard with different metrics. What we’re measuring are the benefits you get even when you spend nothing on the good. When you get a smartphone today, most of the value comes from all of the software and the apps that are on it. GDP is measuring [only] the hardware costs…If we don’t measure [the software value]; we’re going to completely misunderstand what we’re dealing with."

The key, obviously, is putting a price to these services—how much a person would be willing to be paid to give up a service. Brynjolfsson started his pricing quest with Facebook with a two-year study in the US. In fact, he has recently posited that welfare gains from Facebook would have added between 0.05 and 0.11 percentage points per year to US GDP since 2004.

Brynjolfsson and his team have now conducted a lab experiment in the Netherlands, mostly using students. They found that WhatsApp, Facebook and digital maps on phones were highly valued, requiring a median compensation for losing one month of access of $602, $109, and $66 respectively. The researchers admitted that the sample size was small and non-representative. However, as the study team put it, “Our overall analyses reveal that digital goods have created large gains in well-being that are not reflected in conventional measures of GDP. By periodically querying a large, representative sample of goods and services, including those which are not priced, changes in consumer surplus and other new measures of well-being derived from these online choice experiments have the potential for providing cost-effective supplements to the existing national income and product accounts." Clearly, lots more work needs to be done.

Brynjolfsson believes that using GDP-B alongside GDP will give a much more realistic idea of what creates value and what doesn’t. If the world finally accepts some form of GDP-B, it may change the ways governments invest. Says Brynjolfsson: “There will be an opportunity to be much more realistic about…how we are allocating our resources to benefit as many people as possible". GDP has been called one of the greatest ideas of the 20th century. For the 21st, we need a GDP 2.0.


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Striking a balance for language battle

Source: By Anurag Behar: Mint

Common sense and straight talk seems to be the current Karnataka chief minister’s forte. This has been visible in ample measure in his stand and statements on the matter of using English as the medium of instruction (MoI) in public (government) schools.

The gist of what he has said is that everyone wants their child to learn English in this country as it is important for social and economic mobility. When public schools do not respond to this acute need, people send their children to private schools. Poor families do not have this option. Thus, by not offering good education in English in public schools, it is the most disadvantaged who are suffering and being discriminated against. Implicit in his message also is that teaching English as one of many subjects is insufficient. It doesn’t lead to fluency in the language, as the linguistic milieu for the child is that of Kannada (or other local languages).

Most people would acknowledge the truth in what he has said. Our recent research study, School Choice In Low Information Environments (Field Studies, Azim Premji University), merely reaffirms the veracity of his statements, like other similar studies. It is quite clear that across the country parents want their children to study in English-medium schools. Also most private schools that claim to be English-medium are anything but that in reality.

The surprise in all this is that the Karnataka chief minister has made these statements publicly and continues to do so in the face of attack from an influential section of the intelligentsia in Karnataka. His attackers contend that switching to English as the MoI will weaken the Kannada language and its vibrant culture. While there is a faint element of truth in these claims, their overall assessment of this matter is too alarmist.

Such overreaction gives the appearance that the stakes are unimaginably high. In fact, when students are driven towards bad private schools by the present policy, the damage to Kannada could be just as bad. Instead, a balanced policy may address both matters. Also, the state has many other tools to promote Kannada. School education is not and cannot be the only, or even the primary, tool to maintain a vibrant linguistic culture. The situation has become more fraught, because the chief minister has gone ahead with his plain speaking, calling out the “duplicity” of most of those who are attacking him, by pointing that most of them have sent their children to English-medium schools.

We do not know how this episode will conclude, but as it unfolds it makes for a riveting example of how education has to satisfy conflicting demands, each with some reasonable justification. How do people making education policies decide between such contesting claims? Starting with two basic educational questions focused on the child is useful. How do children learn? What should children learn?

In the context of learning of languages, the answers to these questions are not difficult. Young children learning reading and writing for the first time learn most effectively when their home language is used. This age maps to classes I-III. During the same period, and extending up to class VIII, children also have the innate capacity to learn multiple languages, with relative ease. Languages of their sociocultural milieu are learnt easiest, those which are not of this milieu require more effort and avenues, but even then are easier to learn at this age if taught systematically.

As to what languages should children learn, again the answer is not hard. They should learn as many as possible. The practical usefulness of knowing multiple languages (especially English) in our country and the ever integrating world is obvious. In addition, over the last few decades, there is research evidence of other kinds of positive effects of multilingual ability on development of cognitive and social capacities.

The implication of all this is the need to change the rigid notion of MoI and to adopt a more flexible approach. In classes’ I-III, the curriculum should be designed and the teacher supported to use the home languages of the children to develop basic reading and writing capacities in multiple languages. As, in India, the dominant regional language (for example, Kannada or Hindi) is often not the home language of the child (say, Tulu and Urdu or Bhili and Mewari), this would require re-imagining the curricular approach and leveraging what many teachers already practise. In higher classes, multiple languages can continue as subjects, while making MoI flexible even at that stage. For example, history could be learnt in one language and geography in another, which would work in tandem with these languages being studied as subjects in them.

Adopting this approach in Karnataka will respond to the widespread social need to learn English, without reducing the importance of Kannada. The Karnataka government does seem to be considering an imaginative approach. In fact the “three-language-formula” of the National Policy on Education, 1968, could be made effective with this flexible MoI approach across the country.

It is possible to resolve the most contentious of educational matters if education is dealt with for what it is, as education for the child, and not as a political or sociological project or theatre.


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Illusion and Reality

Source: By Devendra Saksena: The Statesman

‘Interesting’ would be an understatement, if used for the direction that our economy has taken of late. From a basket case till the 1970s, we are now the world’s third largest economy. Yet umpteen anomalies mar our growth story. Our per capita GDP rank is a lowly 139. Despite the ‘socialist’ tag in our Constitution, according to the Global Wealth Report, India is now the world’s second most unequal country.

Till the liberalisation of 1991, we followed the Keynesian path of an agricultural economy slowly acquiring manufacturing capabilities. However, the 1990s saw us skipping the secondary stage; leapfrogging straightaway into the tertiary stage of development. Riding high on the tide of the digital revolution, we graduated to a soft power; providing manpower and backend services to the giants of the computer world. Our growth trajectory could not be arrested even by the meltdown of 2007-08 because the digital services we provided were essential for all the economies of the world.

The present decade has witnessed a different story. The momentum acquired in the preceding decade could not be sustained; credit-led growth has limits that were thoughtlessly breached. A mix of naiveté, which made banks and their clients assume that things would be always as rosy, combined with lack of scruples, which prompted businessmen to scoot after things went wrong, resulted in failure of businesses, which at one time had looked as secure and as well-entrenched as the State Bank of India.

Debt-ridden failing businesses, with banks holding nonperforming assets of Rs 12 lakh crore saw the pendulum swing to the other extreme. The watershed moment came with the issue of the infamous circular of 12 February 2018 by the Reserve Bank of India, which enjoined banks to take note of a single day’s default and to send the borrower into bankruptcy if the lending banks were not able to resolve the loan within 180 days. Now, with the Supreme Court striking down the circular all decisions and consequent actions taken by banks and investors under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC), stand nullified.

These policy flip-flops have had a very deleterious effect on investments. Ever rising share prices indicate that there is sufficient liquidity in the market, but long-term investments are hard to come by. Unsure of the way the wind is blowing, new capital is staying away. Instead of taking decisive steps to treat the malaise in the economy, the Government is resorting to shortcuts ~ only to keep alive the illusion of a well-performing economy.

Even before the end of Financial Year 2018-19, the Government grandly announced that its disinvestment target of Rs 80,000 crore had been surpassed. Looking into the minutiae, one finds that the Government had simply offloaded the liabilities of one PSU onto another. Thus, the Government’s stake in Rural Electrification Corporation had been taken over by the Power Finance Corporation; Life Insurance Corporation had taken over Industrial Development Bank of India and so on.

In fact, the government has been unsuccessful in privatising a single state-run firm during its entire tenure. Rather, the Government’s disinvestment drive has resulted in the creation of a host of paradoxical situations like a life insurance company managing an infrastructure bank. With elections around the corner, more anomalous financial decisions were taken. At the Government’s behest, State Bank of India is now the majority shareholder in Jet Airways. Can a bank run an airline which is on a downward spiral? Again, at the instance of the Government, State Bank of India has taken over NPAs of Rs 45,000 crore from the much-lamented IL&FS which are in addition to its own NPAs of Rs 2.23 lakh crore. Surprisingly, the RBI and Finance Ministry, which position them as watchdogs of banks’ finances, had nothing to say in these matters.

Consider the fiscal deficit for the financial year gone by. Optimistically projected at 3.3 per cent in the Union Budget, the shortfall in both direct tax and GST collections has resulted in the fiscal deficit going through the roof. Understandably but uncharacteristically, the revenue collection figures have not been officially released so far. The shortfall in revenue collection targets is estimated anywhere between Rs 1 lakh crore and Rs 2 lakh crore. The shortfall is surprising because this was the time when the evaders identified during demonetisation were to be taken to the cleaners.

A proper analysis of the economy is not possible because the real picture has been obfuscated by the suspect statistics being bandied about. GDP figures, even for earlier years, have been revised repeatedly leading to the unbelievable conclusion that our growth rate was highest in the financial year 2016-17 ~ the year of demonetisation. Official unemployment statistics have not been released; a set of statisticians are vehemently contending that we are faced with the highest unemployment in recent times while a set of reputed Chartered Accountants have taken a contrary view and branded the statisticians as putative deshdrohis and completely off the mark so far as their conclusions are concerned.

The public and serious students of economics are feeling confused by these developments. The new Government that will take charge after the elections will have a lot to do on the economic policy front. Keeping food prices affordable while ensuring that the agricultural sector does not slide into permanent distress would be a formidable challenge, another daunting task would be to finetune taxation policies so that the unchecked growth of Indirect Taxes, which make poverty more painful, is arrested and the ratio of Income-tax to GDP rises to acceptable levels. Then, the Government will have to reimpose taxes on wealth and inheritance so that inequality in our society is reduced. Imaginative solutions would have to be found to address the spectre of unemployment.

The NYAY Scheme of the Congress, which appears to have been first mooted in this column, would require a complete recast of the budget. A lot of thinking would be needed to identify the subsidies and schemes which could be subsumed in NYAY. Incidentally, the idea of filling vacant Government posts to kickstart employment generation is also part of the Congress manifesto.

The task before our planners can be well summarised in President Clinton’s words: “It turns out that advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us.”

The time for rhetoric and anodyne solutions is over. The challenges facing our economy have to be clearly identified, debated and addressed. Politics and good economics are almost always at odds. For our welfare, we have to ensure that good economics trumps politics.


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Science and faith

Source: By Manu Joseph: Mint       

I used to think that no one really believes in God because if people did, as they claimed, wouldn’t they be in a perpetual stupor, stunned by the existence of such a magical force? However, I don’t hold that view anymore after observing how people have responded to recent claims of extraordinary scientific discoveries that are almost as mystical as God and more photogenic. People marvel at the announcement for a few minutes, believe it completely and then they go back to hating or loving Kanhaiya Kumar.

Why don’t people faint and the traffic stop when scientists announce that they have proof that gravity alters time, that they now know where mass comes from, or that they have conclusive evidence of the existence of black holes—objects so dense that a whole star is compressed into a blob just a few hundred metres across and where the gravitational force is so strong nothing will ever escape it, not even light?

The last pronouncement, about visual evidence of the black hole phenomenon, occurred on 10 April 2019. A black hole is now a scientific truth because of three main reasons:One, people with great authority, who have monopoly over a narrow field of study, have said so after an arcane process that is widely believed to be very rigorous; two, other people like them have endorsed it; three, most people in the world, including scientists in other fields, do not have enough information to challenge the assertion. Also, the kind of people, such as journalists, writers and politicians, who usually seed doubt in the minds of people even in areas like genetics and climate do not believe they can challenge scientists on theoretical physics.

Theoretical physics thus also demonstrates qualities of medieval religion. In a world where everything has become political and every claim is questioned, many branches of science have not survived. But theoretical physics leaps from claim to claim with the ease of an ancient religion at its peak.

What I enjoy the most about science as a lay person is that it is a simulation of religion for me. I have no choice but to accept what is told to me by an authority that has the right halo. In every other sphere of knowledge, my reading is punctuated by constant arguments with ideas. But in the presence of scientific knowledge, even when I find it hard to believe in black holes, I cannot help but quieten my mind.

The black hole has a familiar arc in the recent history of knowledge. First, an entertaining idea emerges from a mathematical equation; a purely theoretical structure is created when the variables in the equation are pushed to the extreme. Then a group of influential scientists believe it really exists in the physical world. They popularise its exotic properties by dumbing down language. The world is fascinated, including a whole generation of children. Artists then “render" stunning images. Some people then make films that feature the exotic phenomenon. Funds pour into the search for proof of the phenomenon. Eventually scientists find it, and it is remarkably almost exactly what they had hoped to find; it is very close to artistic renderings, too. And “a scientific truth" is born. Then it becomes religion, more powerful than conventional religion because it has the halo of knowledge, information, rationality and proof. Theoretical physics is probably one of the best funded religions.

Twenty-four hours after the news broke about the black hole in the heart of the Messier 87 (M87) galaxy, it was already blasphemous to ask, “But do black holes really exist?" The idea of the black hole emerges from Albert Einstein’s equations that define his general theory of relativity. He never liked the idea. Even though his concepts led to much of today’s exotic science, he himself was suspicious of esoteric things. But in time scientists began to take black holes seriously.

Regular people, when they were not watching “sci-fi", did not care much about black holes. Even on 11 April 2019 what contributed to the transmission of the news was not the power of science but of politics—of feminism.

In 2016, the computer scientist Katie Bouman, who is a key member of the team that photographed the M87 black hole, delivered a TED talk on a technique she developed to take the image. But that technique was eventually not used in the mission. Yet, hours after the image of the black hole was revealed, she emerged as the face of the project. As The New York Times reported, “In their eagerness to celebrate her…many non-scientists on social media overstated her role in what was a group effort by hundreds of people, creating an exaggerated impression…"

It is not surprising that people can argue about the exact role of a young woman in a scientific breakthrough, but not the scientific phenomenon itself. The image was created by a technology that used an array of radio telescopes located in various parts of the Earth to form a virtual telescope that could, “read a newspaper in New York from a sidewalk café in Paris", according to an official release. The process is too complicated for lay people to challenge. Theoretical physics today is where most spheres of human intellect were just a few years ago: what a group of experts said was the truth.

It will be fascinating to watch what happens when one day theoretical physics, too, ceases to be a religion, and the amateur heretics are able to transmit their ideas widely. It would be hilarious if in the end cow urine turns out to be good for health, and there are no black holes.



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Saudi Pivot to Asia

Source: By Harsh V Pant: Deccan Herald

While Indian discussions pertaining to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) recent visit have exclusively focused on his balancing act vis-a-vis India and Pakistan as it came soon after the Pulwama attack and New Delhi’s hardening of attitude towards Islamabad, it is equally pertinent to underline the larger geostrategic significance of this visit.

Against the backdrop of Saudi Arabia’s deteriorating relations with the US and European nations, MBS was trying to signal his intent to align his country more closely with Asian powers, including China and India, as well as making a point that he may not be as isolated as many would like to believe. This is a strategic pivot for Saudi foreign policy, which is a marker for MBS detractors that he remains a potent enough global figure, able to assert his influence in key centres of global power.

With Pakistan, of course, an old relationship was resurrected with a new push. This has been a partnership which has revolved around Riyadh, sustaining an inefficient Pakistani economic infrastructure in return for Pakistani army providing security to Saudi Arabia and its royal family. As Imran Khan recently underlined again, “We have always said that if the holy cities of Islam are threatened, Pakistan would go all out to defend the holy cities.” And Saudi Arabia’s $6 billion loan has been critical for Pakistan in recent months to allow it to negotiate with the IMF.

During his visit, MBS signed deals worth $10 billion for a refinery and petrochemical complex at Gwadar, which lies at the heart of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and is central to the broader Sino-Pak engagement on the Belt and Road Initiative.

This project will not only give Saudi firm foothold in the restive Baluchistan province of Pakistan, from where Iran can be potentially targeted but it will also allow Riyadh to build its partnership with China. It is not surprising; therefore, that Beijing was effusive in its praise for Saudi Arabia’s entry into the CPEC, a project that has been facing challenges from multiple fronts in recent months.

With a bilateral trade figure of around $63.3 billion, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner. During Saudi King Salman’s visit to China in 2017, the two sides had signed deals worth around $65 billion with a focus on energy and technology. MBS’ visit was laden with symbolism that he remains the key factor in the Kingdom despite growing concerns in the West about the suitability to the role and that China is now the new priority for Riyadh.

As part of China’s BRI, Riyadh had proposed the development of the economic zone along the Red Sea coast in 2017, which is expected to receive around $500 billion in investments from Riyadh upon completion. Saudi Arabia agreed to include the Chinese language in curriculum at all stages of education in schools and universities across the Kingdom.

The most significant aspect of the visit, however, was MBS’ defence of China on the use of concentration camps for Muslims, arguing that China “has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremization work for its national security.” Earlier this month, the Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had called the detentions “a great shame for humanity” and decried the alleged “torture and political brainwashing” in the camps.

Beijing, meanwhile, has also been doing its own balancing between the two regional rivals in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Iran, as MBS’ visit came soon after that of Mohammad Javad Zarif, the foreign minister of Iran. Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi praised Zarif’s speech at the Munich Security Conference, remarking, “I saw on television how you defended the rights of Iran loud and clear at the Munich Security Conference. I think an audience of hundreds of millions of Chinese also watched what you said and you are a famous person now.” China’s growing importance in the geopolitical calculus of both Saudi Arabia and Iran is reflected in their eloquent silence on the issue of Muslims in Xinjiang.


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In India, too, the focus for MBS was on economic and trade matters, with the announcement of up to $100 billion worth of investments over the next few years. Aramco and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) are investing $44 billion to set up the Ratnagiri oil refinery in Maharashtra, and SABIC is on the verge of acquiring a major share in a petrochemicals plant in India. The two nations are also looking to work on solar power and satellite technology. While around 20% of Indian oil imports are of Saudi origin, there are also around 2.7 million expatriates who live and work in Saudi Arabia. But it was the joint statement which became the highlight of MBS’ India visit as New Delhi managed to secure the support of Riyadh on the issue of terrorism.

This tour of MBS is an important one as it goes beyond bilateral ties and, at a time when anti-Saudi sentiment is at an all-time high in Washington, it has sent an important signal that Riyadh is intent on diversifying its partners.

While the Trump administration remains keen on Riyadh, the wider political establishment in Washington is looking at MBS warily in the wake of the gruesome killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year as well as due to the Yemen situation. So, while the Trump administration is reportedly looking to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis, the US Senate is making sure that it would be the deciding voice on the matter. Tensions on the Yemen situation have been evident for quite some time now.

So, the Saudi pivot to Asia is an idea whose time has indeed come. What role India will have in this evolving dynamic still remains to be seen however.

In India, an elusive dream

Source: By N Veeresha: Deccan Herald

Every February 20 since 2009, the United Nations observes ‘World Day of Social Justice’ (WDSJ). The purpose is to take stock of the plight of injustice across the globe and to push for tenable solutions in mitigating the same. It recognises the need to alleviate the levels of poverty, social exclusion, reducing unemployment, addressing gender inequality, promoting effective participation in decision-making and access to opportunities and justice for all. Set in this context, it is pertinent to look into the aspects of justice in general and social justice in particular in India. The preamble to the Constitution promulgated justice broadly in terms social, economic and political aspects.

In ‘A Theory of Justice’, John Rawls identifies two “principles of justice”. First, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all”; second, “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity”.

To what extent our democracy has ensured justice to the historically socio-economic and politically alienated communities, in particular, and to its citizens, in general, needs to be understood. An attempt has been made to explore the nuances of social justice with specific reference to Adivasis (STs), Dalits (SCs) and Muslims. However, there are other communities that are continually denied justice, such as Other Backward Classes (OBCs), women, senior citizens, transgender people and youth.

The India Exclusion Report (IER) 2016 finds that the Adivasis, Dalits and Muslims are severely affected communities by way of exclusion from access to public goods. The first principle of Rawls’ justice is more of a theoretical stance or institutional arrangements that are necessary; the second is the practice of these rights and liberties. A decade ago, former vice president of India Hamid Ansari said that “for the 85 million Scheduled Tribes in India, the struggle to retain their identities and seek empowerment through our Constitutional framework has not yielded commensurate outcomes” and described the plight of adivasis as “unpalatable”.

Alienation of land from adivasis to non-adivasis through development projects, especially mining, in Scheduled Areas is causing displacement, migration and unrest among adivasi communities. Post-Independence, some 40-50% of displaced persons are adivasis.

Dalits are suffering the worst forms of social discrimination both within and outside government. As per the IER report, the extent of landlessness was highest among Dalits, at 57.3%, than among other social groups. This pushes them to work as daily wage labourers, mostly in agriculture, with inadequate and unequal pay. Due to the low wages, the condition of Dalit households is deplorable, which is a visible manifestation of the severity of the marginalisation. With regard to Dalits, ‘Caste, Discrimination and Exclusion in Modern India’ by Vani K Barooah et al (2015), has inferred, with irrefutable statistics, that “underpinning all forms of disadvantage is the practice of untouchability”.

Despite a rich history of shared living with mutual understanding and respect, the politics of religion and identity, especially between Hindus (majority) and Muslims (minority), has widened the social divisions in the country in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and Gujarat riots in 2002. Mob and lynching attacks by extremist Hindu groups against minority communities, especially Muslims, has increased at an alarming rate since 2014.

The foregoing analysis and discussion clearly indicates the various forms of injustices in the form of land alienation of adivasis, social discrimination against Dalits and State-led violence and biased practices towards Muslims. What has been the role of the judiciary in protecting them from human rights violations?

The way the legal and criminal justice system operates has actually perpetuated and deepened existing practices. This observation can be corroborated from the fact of huge over-representation of Adivasis, Dalits and Muslims in Indian prisons. The glaring reality lies in the number of under-trial prisoners, most of them belonging to these excluded communities are forced to live in jails without any legal recourse.

Systemic ‘alienation’

The social exclusionary practice of the state and union governments towards the disadvantaged communities brings forth the concept of ‘alienated citizenship’ in India. The alienation is an undercurrent in the formulation of public policies and related institutional arrangements, producing structural inequalities and violence, defective implementation of the existing programmes/schemes, inadequate budgetary allocations for social welfare and most importantly weak state and administrative capacities that are unable to deal sternly with the injustices and discriminatory practices.

Going back to Rawls’ principles of justice, what we can see in India is that despite progressive constitutional provisions, there is a constant denial of the rights of the historically marginalised sections. Right to justice in all aspects of life is indispensable to building a just society. The practices of structural violence embedded in institutions of governance require an inward look by the Indian State which provides the critical inputs for inclusive policies. The question is whether the State lends an ear in order to strengthen democratic practices in day to day life?

The functional experience of a ‘modern nation-state’ was shows that the Indian State is weak when it comes to resolving its own structural constraints and institutional deficits to restore the order. In the context of the persuasive power of neo-liberal policies through capital, the State’s role needs a radical transformation from an unjust to an ethical entity, as envisioned by Hegel. Without social justice, political democracy cannot sustain.


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India’s muddled view

Source: By Vivek Mishra: Deccan Herald

Discourse around the ‘Indo-Pacific’ has dominated the geopolitics of Asia in the past two years. Debates surrounding its semantics, the region’s composition, expanse, nature of presence/role of stakeholders and, above all, the gradually unfolding ‘Great Game’ in the region have intensified. Yet, there is a substantive degree of uncertainty, even opacity, around this geopolitical construct: the Indo-Pacific.

The two most obvious reasons for this are: the region finds itself at the crossroads of a potential power transition between a reigning superpower and a future one; and, a rapid change in the economic and politico-security imperatives of most countries in this region has led to great regional flux.

The Indo-Pacific remains the region where the countries involved are still configuring, recalibrating, re-adjusting and re-orienting their strategies, politically as well as strategically. Even as the US’ traditional regional commitment in Asia is shrinking to accommodate China’s growing leverage with other countries of the region, there is navigable space being created for middle powers, particularly Australia, France, Japan, India, the Philippines and the UK in the Indo-Pacific. This scramble between middle and great powers in the region with fast, adaptive power transitions, as also the closing of their comparative power gaps, has marked the Indo-Pacific as a competitive domain with two emerging power axes.

On the one hand, there is a re-oriented Washington along with other interests-aligned countries like Australia, Japan and India — essentially forming the Quadrilateral Security Initiative or the Quad. On the other, is China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to weave countries into a Euro-Asia infrastructure and aid architecture across the Indo-Pacific? However, the two axes, even though contrary to each other, have substantive overlaps, thereby diluting any hostility due to stark, opposing binaries.

The BRI, with some 65 other countries that account collectively for over 30% of global GDP, 62% of the world’s population, and 75% of known energy reserves, and Italy as the first G-7 country to endorse the plan, is way past the critical mass of consensus needed for its success. The Quad countries are struggling to find a common purpose, amidst economic and strategic overlaps with China as well as due to their individual regional interests. This has led to the debate about the need for re-purposing the Quad.

India has been seen, at least in the western discourse on the Indo-Pacific, as the ‘weakest link’ in the Quad. Although India’s understanding of the Indo-Pacific seems conceptually inadequate to serve its desired interests and broader regional goals, there is a larger complexity involved to this reductionist understanding of India’s position in the Indo-Pacific.

India has carved out a distinctive space, with its emphasis on the principle of freedom of navigation and respect for the Law of the Sea, finding resonance with the central ideas of the Quad. However, India’s increasingly tangible cooperation with the Quad nations, its reservations about a more formalised security structure in the region, while still balancing at home, and its desire to avoid being identified with any particular group with regional security implications on the international stage, is compounding complications in India’s vision of the Indo-Pacific and its vision of the Quad.

While India has engaged with the Quad states actively in the past couple of years, since the organisation’s resurrection in 2017, it has also subtly emphasised on decoupling of the purpose of the Quad with its vision of the Indo-Pacific. New Delhi has drawn conceptual and structural policy demarcations between the Quad and the Indo-Pacific through its actions, inhibitors and statements. In the aftermath of two important informal summits at Wuhan and Sochi with China and Russia respectively, India’s enthusiasm towards the Quad appeared to have faded.

As such, New Delhi seeks to place the Quad as one of the many multilateral frameworks operating in the Indo-Pacific region, not as the regionally consequential one. Enumerating its Indo-Pacific strategy in largely ‘plurilateral formats’, India seeks to avoid restricting its Indo-Pacific strategy to the Quad at its helm, but also seeks to maintain its long-cherished principle of strategic autonomy by keeping its options open to engage with Russia in the region, as also by making conscious decisions not to provoke China.

The Quad, comprising Australia, Japan, India and the US, was invoked with intentions of a collective security group in the Indo-Pacific, among whose purposes was to provide alternative models of regional growth and prevent China from violating regional rules with the same disregard that it practices in the South China Sea. As such, India’s own position in the Quad and its intended interests in the Indo-Pacific appear contradictory to each other.

New Delhi should visualise the Indo-Pacific as a springboard to connect the ends of the two oceans across the maritime expanse of the Indo-Pacific. As New Delhi gradually seeks to bolster its presence in the region and take up the role of a net-security provider, it needs to shed its reluctance to move up to the Strait of Hormuz and beyond the Strait of Malacca. While the Quad can be converted into a vehicle to provide much-needed security architecture in the region, its effectiveness would depend on how much clarity India adds vis-a-vis its own regional mini-lateral engagements in the Indo-Pacific.

New Delhi looks for the right balance in the Indo-Pacific between alignment and autonomy. While it demarcates the Quad from the Indo-Pacific, it risks losing a chance to create a strategic continuum, in favour of a fractured regional vision. A positive rationale to India’s purpose in the Quad is the need to view the Indo-Pacific as a strategic continuum rather than an assemblage of sub-regionally divided goals, partnerships and alignments.

The Quad provides India the opportunity to use its geographic centrality in the region to connect with the strategic ends on either side of the peninsula to enhance its security vision in the Indo-Pacific region, extending from the Gulf to the other side of the Strait of Malacca.


Global constitution

Source: By Kaushik Basu: Mint

In my book The Republic Of Beliefs: A New Approach To Law And Economics, I was eager to demonstrate how the methods that have emerged from the long and fruitful dialogue between these fields could, with a little help from game theory, be applied to multilateral disputes and multi-jurisdictional conflicts. So, I included a section on the challenge of creating a global constitution. This is an idea with quite a long history.

In the fourteenth century, for example, Italy’s semi-autonomous city-states developed the “statutist doctrine" for resolving the problems that arose with trade and commerce across multiple legal jurisdictions. Or, consider the Dutch East India Company’s seizure of a Portuguese merchant vessel, the Santa Catarina, in the Strait of Singapore in 1603. That episode gave rise to such fraught multi-jurisdictional questions that the Dutch jurist Huig de Groot (Grotius) had to be brought in to mediate, leading to one of the earliest attempts to codify international law.

Despite this long history, attempts at establishing international law have met with only limited success. Creating a system that is sensitive to the well-being of all individuals quickly runs into the problem of nation-state sovereignty. As the sole enforcer of the law and guarantor of citizens’ rights within its jurisdiction, the nation-state has the prerogative to ignore or overrule laws or rights recognized by third parties.

Still, we cannot simply wait around for academic debates on such matters to reach a conclusion. The world is mired in disputes that cut across jurisdictions, not least the United Kingdom’s Brexit debacle. How will the flow of goods and people between the European Union and Britain, and between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, are managed? Neither British Prime Minister Theresa May nor anyone else has a decisive answer. The outcome of Brexit remains uncertain, even as the likelihood of May’s own exit becomes a foregone conclusion.

Meanwhile, in another domain, there is a growing realization that current antitrust laws may be insufficient for managing the issues raised by the digital economy. Though the United States is home to 12 of the world’s 20 largest tech companies, it has failed to curb their worst practices. In the absence of an international framework, national and regional governments such as the EU have begun to pursue unilateral regulatory action, at the risk of stoking tensions with US President Donald Trump’s dithering administration.

Likewise, from the Mediterranean Sea to the US-Mexico border, the flow of people with different customs and beliefs, from countries with different legal frameworks, is stretching existing immigration systems to the limit. Some of these differences can be comical. A pest-control technician treating my house in Delhi once assured me that my home would be termite-free because he was using strong chemicals, and added, for further reassurance, “Ones that are totally banned in the US." But there are also more serious conflicts of beliefs and customs, not least those involving clashes of religions. Unabated sectarian conflict in an age of sophisticated weapons and cyber warfare could be catastrophic.

While the details of international law will continue to be debated indefinitely, we can—and urgently must—adopt a global constitution in the here and now. At a minimum, such a compact would outline basic rules of behaviour that all can agree to follow, and authorize enforcement by a third party that is actually empowered to carry this out.

We often appeal to individual morality and basic human decency when trying to resolve political and cultural conflicts. The assumption is that if everyone would just respect everyone else’s right to practice their own religion, many of our problems would disappear. In fact, such conflicts are often intractable, for there are some customs and practices that are fundamentally incompatible with one another.

Imagine two societies. In one, the dominant religion requires everyone to drive on the left; in the other, everyone must drive on the right. Were they forever to exist on separate islands, there would be peace. But with globalization and the movement of people between the two islands, seeds of conflict will have been sown.

Societies can either perpetuate such conflict through war and domination, or they can agree to a common code. Some parties may need to be compensated for their sacrifices; or each party may need to offer concessions on some issues in exchange for favourable terms on others. That is the point of negotiation and compromise, for which there is no alternative other than enduring conflict.

Compromise is rarely easy, especially where interest and identity overlap. But given the extent to which globalization has already progressed; we cannot simply stay in our lane and hope for the best. The US, long a leader in establishing global norms, is retreating behind a psychological wall. We will need ordinary citizens, members of civil society, and, indeed, religious leaders to recognize the need for global collaboration and demand that policymakers take the initiative.

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Qatar Rafale, Pak hands

Source: By M Matheswaran: Deccan Herald

Much has been written about the controversy emanating from the possibility of Pakistan Air Force pilots having trained and flown the Rafale aircraft in France. One needs to examine the possibilities of PAF pilots being engaged by Qatar. Is Qatar in dire need of external pilots to fly its military aircraft? To answer that, we must examine various factors, particularly Qatar-Pakistan relations.

Rafale is a 4.5-generation aircraft. Its design, in terms of its clean aerodynamics and an optimal design to create minimal radar signature, would make it clear to any professional that this is an aircraft capable of, with good thrust-to-weight ratio, exceptional manoeuvring. It is also an established fact that amongst all 4.5-generation aircraft, there would be very little to choose in terms of performance.

The most critical elements that differentiate one from the other consist of sensors, avionics and systems, radar and weapons. Both India and Qatar have contracted for similar version of the aircraft, the F3R variant. The systems and weapons have some similarities, but also major differences.

Features that are common to both Qatar and the Indian Rafale fighters are primarily the RBE 2-AA AESA radar, SPECTRA self-protection suite, the IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe) system, Elbit’s TARGO-II Helmet Mounted Display System, and weapons such as the Meteor BVRAAM, Mica air-to-air missile, and SCALP air-to-ground long-range cruise missile. Anyone who flies the aircraft will obviously become familiar with its performance and operational envelope of systems and weapons.

Most critical would be the operational knowledge of the AESA radar. However, deeper technical knowledge of systems like the radar would not be available to Qatar. Given the nature of the long-standing relationship between France and Qatar, any high-level systems programming and integration role would be retained by the French. Additionally, AESA radar configurations and source codes are highly secure and it would be virtually impossible for anyone to break into it.

Training on systems like the electronic warfare system SPECTRA, while providing its functional knowledge, would not impact much. The crux of SPECTRA lies in its threat library programming, which is exclusive to the host nation.

The Indian Rafale, however, will have critical differences. These lie in completely different, secure communication and datalink systems. These would be uniquely Indian network-centric warfare (NCW) systems as against the Qatar Rafale, which is equipped with Link-16 architecture. In terms of EO (electro-optical sensor) designation and Recce (reconnaissance) pods, the Qatar Rafale has Lockheed Martin’s Sniper pod, while we use the well-proven and advanced Litening-4 EO pod.

So what should we make of the news of Pakistani pilots flying the Rafale, since denied by the French ambassador to India? As for Pakistani pilots sizing up the Rafale against the F-16, it is a non-issue as the two are just not comparable. The upgraded F-16s of the PAF is of Block-50 standard at best, and are clearly one generation behind the Rafale.

One must take into account various geopolitical issues on the matter. Qatar is a small country of just 2.8 million inhabitants, with nearly 80% of the population located in the capital city of Doha. With the highest per capita GDP in the world, Qatar focuses on rapid modernisation and plays a significant geopolitical role, punching well above its weight, much like Singapore.

Qatar has made itself a major diplomatic player, a generous donor of foreign aid, and a leader in modernising education in the region. It has maintained strong relations with Iran and Turkey as much as with other Islamic states. It has sought to balance different groups and organisations with a moderating influence. This aspect has riled countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, and UAE into sanctioning Qatar and curtailing diplomatic relations.

Pakistan, which has strong relationships with all Arab countries, has maintained a neutral stance in the Qatar-Saudi Arabian dispute. Pakistan’s military presence in these countries, in terms of training as well as to augment local defences, has been a long-standing practice. Pakistan Air Force pilots have regularly flown for the air forces of these nations. Hence, access to military resources in terms of operational flying experience on these aircraft has been a huge advantage to PAF.

While Qatar-India relations have been excellent, Doha has also maintained close relations with Islamabad. Qatar addresses Pakistan’s energy security, and both nations have cultivated their relationship carefully. Qatar has allowed the Taliban to set up an office on its territory and has worked to encourage dialogue with all parties involved in the Afghan conflict.

Qatar is on track to building significant air power capability. After an initial contract for 24 Rafale jets with Dassault in 2015, Qatar placed orders for 12 more. This was preceded by an order for Boeing’s 36 Qatar advanced-variant F-15 Eagles for $12 billion. In another major deal with BAe, it is buying 24 Eurofighter Typhoons and nine Hawk advanced jet trainers, worth over $6.6 billion.

For an air force whose strength was just 2,100 personnel in 2010 and just 13 Mirage 2000-5 fighters in the early 2000s, this build up with three 4.5-generation aircraft types and a substantial increase in numbers is unprecedented. Qatar’s decision to go in for a seven-fold increase in its air power capability is curious and there are questions as to how this tiny air force will absorb the massive capabilities in which it is investing. More importantly, it is inevitable that it would need pilots on hire to fly these aircraft. This is where the Pakistani relationship comes into focus. That PAF pilots fly for the Qatar Air Force is well established.

It is quite obvious that Pakistani pilots will fly all these aircraft being procured by Qatar. It is irrelevant whether they have been trained in France on the Rafale. In all likelihood, they would have. We must factor this in our calculations.


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Judicial reforms

Source: By Faizan Mustafa: The Indian Express

The world’s first constitutional courts were set up in Europe — in Austria in 1920 and in Germany after World War II. Today, 55 countries have constitutional courts, including most European or civil law jurisdictions.

In the early decades of the Republic, the Supreme Court of India, too, functioned largely as a constitutional court, with some 70-80 judgments being delivered every year by Constitution Benches of five or more judges who ruled, as per Article 145(3), on matters “involving a substantial question of law as to the interpretation of [the] Constitution”.

This number has now come down to 10-12. Due to their heavy workload, judges mostly sit in two- or three-judge Benches to dispose of all kinds of cases — including a demand for a ban on sardar jokes, bans or lifting of bans on films, PILs asking that Muslims be sent out of the country, and allegations that a commissioner of police is misusing his powers.

This is because India’s Supreme Court is perhaps the world’s most powerful court, with a very wide jurisdiction. It hears matters between the Centre and states and between two or more states, rules on civil and criminal appeals, and advises the President on questions of law and fact. On the question of violation of fundamental rights, anyone can approach the Supreme Court directly.

The result: more than 65,000 cases are pending in the Supreme Court, and disposal of appeals takes many years. Several cases involving the interpretation of the Constitution by five or seven judges have been pending for years. The Supreme Court will hear, apart from constitutional matters, “other cases of legal significance or national importance”. This is a vague expression, and can open the floodgates to a wide variety of cases.

Back in March 1984, the Tenth Law Commission of India (95th Report) under Justice K K Mathew recommended that “the Supreme Court of India should consist of two Divisions, namely (a) Constitutional Division, and (b) Legal Division”, and that “only matters of Constitutional law may be assigned to the proposed Constitutional Division”. The Eleventh Law Commission under the chairmanship of Justice D A Desai (125th Report, 1988) “reiterate (d) that the recommendation for splitting the (Supreme) Court into two halves deserves to be implemented”.

The Eighteenth Law Commission under Justice A R Lakshmanan (229th Report, 2009) recommended that “a Constitution Bench be set up at Delhi to deal with constitutional and other allied issues”, and “four Cassation Benches be set up in the Northern region/zone at Delhi, the Southern region/zone at Chennai/Hyderabad, the Eastern region/zone at Kolkata and the Western region/zone at Mumbai to deal with all appellate work arising out of the orders/judgments of the High Courts of the particular region”.

Indeed, many countries around the world have Courts of Cassation that decide cases involving non-Constitutional disputes and appeals from the lower level of courts. These are courts of last resort that have the power to reverse decisions of lower courts. (Cassation: annulment, cancellation, reversal)

Prior to the establishment of the Supreme Court, appeals against decisions of Indian High Courts could be filed only with the Privy Council in London. The Federal Court of India established in 1937 under the provisions of the Government of India Act, 1935, had jurisdiction only in constitutional matters. When the jurisdiction of the Privy Council was abolished in 1949, appeals pending with it were transferred to the Federal Court, which was subsequently named Supreme Court.

Court of Appeal

Article 39A says that “the state shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity, and shall… ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities”.

Indeed, travelling to New Delhi or engaging expensive Supreme Court counsel to pursue a case is beyond the means of most litigants. Standing Committees of Parliament recommended in 2004, 2005, and 2006 that benches of the court be set up elsewhere. In 2008, the Committee suggested that at least one Bench be set up on a trial basis in Chennai. But the Supreme Court has not agreed with the proposal, which in its opinion would dilute the prestige of the court.

Article 130 says that “the Supreme Court shall sit in Delhi or in such other place or places, as the Chief Justice of India may, with the approval of the President, from time to time, appoint.” Supreme Court Rules give the Chief Justice of India the power to constitute Benches and he can, for instance, have a Constitution Bench of seven judges in New Delhi and set up smaller Benches in four or six places across the country.

Judicial accountability

A National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) was set up by the Narendra Modi government in 2014. In 2016, the Supreme Court struck down the 121st Amendment and the NJAC Act as being violative of the basic structure of the Constitution with regard to the independence of the judiciary and primacy of the opinion of the CJI in judicial appointments.

Currently, there is no mechanism to ensure accountability of Supreme Court and High Court judges short of impeaching them under Articles 124(4) and 217(1)(b) for “proved misbehaviour or incapacity”. The procedure is so cumbersome that no judge has been impeached and removed from office so far. A controversial move last year to impeach CJI Dipak Misra was thwarted by the Chairman of Rajya Sabha.

Impeachment proceedings are currently conducted under The Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968. The Judges (Inquiry) Bill, 2006, which was introduced in Lok Sabha in December 2006, was based on the 195th Report of the Law Commission. In December 2010, the UPA-2 government introduced The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010, in Lok Sabha. The Bill, which Lok Sabha passed in 2012, sought to set up a Judicial Oversight Committee, a Complaints Scrutiny Committee, and an Investigation Committee to examine complaints of misbehaviour against judges, and required judges to declare the details of their and their family members’ assets and liabilities.

The Bill was criticised on the grounds that the Constitution does not permit Parliament to assign the task of examining proved misbehaviour of judges to an outside agency or committee. The definition of ‘misconduct’ was considered problematic, as even the delayed filing of assets statements could be considered ‘misconduct’. Due to opposition by judges and the lack of political consensus, the Bill was not passed by Rajya Sabha, and lapsed on the dissolution of Lok Sabha in 2014.

Diversity in judiciary

It is true that the diversity of India is not reflected in its judiciary, especially in the High Courts and the Supreme Court. The nation is yet to have its first woman CJI. The first woman judge of the Supreme Court, Justice M Fathima Beevi, was appointed only in 1989. After the retirement of Justice Ruma Pal in June 2006, the Supreme Court had no woman judge until 2010 when Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra was elevated. Thereafter, Justice Ranjana Prakash Desai was appointed in 2011. Justices R Banumathi, Indu Malhotra, and Indira Banerjee were appointed in 2014, April 2018, and August 2018 respectively.

President K R Narayanan had raised the issue of poor representation of Dalits in the higher judiciary. Justice K G Balakrishnan has been India’s only Dalit CJI so far. Justice S Abdul Nazeer is the only Muslim judge in the Supreme Court at present, even though there were four Muslims on the Bench in 2013.


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A True cost of Alcohol prohibition

Source: By Shagun Khurana: The Financial Express

According to a 2018 report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the per capita alcohol consumption in India has increased from 2.4 litres in 2005, to 4.3 litres in 2010, and to 5.7 litres in 2016, mainly driven by changes in demographics and spending patterns. The demand for alcoholic beverages has been rising and it has become an important parameter for tourists as well. The tourist-friendly liquor ban policy prevalent in Gujarat clearly shows that the government takes cognisance of the relationship between the availability of alcoholic beverages and tourist influx.

The state of Gujarat continues to practice complete prohibition of production, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages since the 1950s. In early 2000s, with the changing business environment in the state and increased acceptance of alcohol around the country, prohibition policies started proving detrimental to the tourism industry. The state tourism department had to intervene to persuade the government to relax prohibition norms for tourists. In the contemporary setting, the tourism sector has multiple interlinkages with other industries such as food services, hospitality, retail and real estate. Therefore, to prevent spillovers on other sectors, over the years Gujarat has evolved its prohibition policy to allow consumption of alcohol under certain circumstances, with the provision of health permits, tourist permits and group permits for holding business meetings.

Gujarat introduced tourist permits on arrival at airports and hotels and individual and group permits through its online portal in 2014. According to the Bombay Prohibition (Gujarat Amendment) Act, 1963, a hotel that has “ordinarily a sufficient number of boarders eligible to hold permits” can obtain a hotel licence for selling alcoholic beverages to tourists on premises. In 2012, there were 29 such hotels, and by 2016, the state government granted licences to 23 more.

The state also has authorised retail shops that are allowed to sell liquor to permit holders directly; in 2014-15, the total number of retail outlets were 26, which has more than doubled to 58 in 2018-19. The effect of this favourable approach towards the tourism sector is reflected in the high inflow of tourists, both domestic and international, despite it being a prohibition state. Gujarat serves as a classic example, where the government has been successful in bringing forth policies to contain the adverse effect of liquor prohibition on the allied sectors.

Taking cues from the Gujarat prohibition story, the Kerala government also introduced a near-complete ban on alcohol. In 2014, the per capita consumption of alcohol in Kerala was 8.3 litres per year, well above the national per capita average of 5.7 litres per year, which compelled the state government to take such an extreme measure. Nevertheless, the move led to a decline in the growth rate of tourism in Kerala, from 8.1% in 2013 to 7.6% in 2014 and 5.9% in 2015.

The total estimated loss of revenue from tourism was to the tune of `700 billion. The total revenue generated from MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) tourism alone, which grew at 9.1% in 2013, and 4.8% in 2014, actually plummeted by 0.6% in 2015. Due to such a substantial impact on the economy and employment, the Kerala government had to repeal its decision of alcohol ban in June 2017.

Prohibition has its pros and cons and its implementation has proved to be a challenging task, to the point of becoming impractical. Despite heavy monitoring and regulation, the illegal manufacture, sale and consumption of liquor continues to cripple the prohibition efforts of the Gujarat government. Data from various sources indicate that the number of deaths caused by the consumption of illicit alcohol is one of the highest in Gujarat. Between 2012 and 2016, spurious liquor claimed 177 lives in Gujarat.

A more recent example is from Bihar, where bootlegging, illegal trade and consumption of alcohol are rampant since the government brought in prohibition in 2016. The unrecorded consumption of alcohol in India is around 50%, as shown by another WHO report in 2014. Prohibition tends to push the regulated market underground as well; the result is a parallel economy for alcohol in Bihar. There was a steep increase in substance abuse and bootlegging activities in Kerala as well during the year following the liquor ban.

The immediate effect of prohibition is a dent on states’ revenues. Post the introduction of GST, revenue from excise has become one of the major taxes collected by states on their own. When the Bihar government announced the liquor ban in September 2016, it cost the state heavily, as the receipts from state excise fell sharply from `3,141 crore for 2015-16 to `29 crore for 2016-17. Because of fiscal constraints, the government has been forced to withdraw all capital incentives including subsidy for industries investing in Bihar, as per its new industrial policy. Moreover, there has been an adverse impact on economic activity as well. MICE tourism in the state has taken a huge blow; with most big events, conferences, product launches, etc, been shifted to other states, occupancy rates in hotels have come down to 40-45%.

State governments need to reflect on their perspective about prohibition of alcohol, especially because it is a significant loss to the interlinked industries, and is a complete wasteful exercise if the ban is repealed later (like in Kerala). One policy does not fit all. In 2016-17, the per capita income of Bihar was `28,485 at 2011-12 prices, while Gujarat’s was 4.5 times. A state like Bihar cannot afford a loss of revenue and a blow to the economic activity of that magnitude. In turn, enforcement of prohibition laws poses a big challenge for state governments and is a financial burden. The question remains: Is it worth it to “ban” alcohol, rather than focusing on encouraging responsible practices in production and consumption?


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Magnetic field and mass extinction

Source: By the New York Times

Some 565 million years ago, life on Earth dodged a bullet. The magnetosphere — the magnetic field that surrounds our planet like a protective shield — had degraded to its lowest intensity ever, according to a study published recently in Nature Geoscience. Stripped of this shielding, Earth could have been blasted by atmosphere-eroding outbursts from the sun, gradually losing most of its air and water until it became as dry and desolate as the present-day Mars.

Instead, deep in the planet’s interior, an event was taking place that would help the magnetosphere rebound, according to the study’s authors. Earth’s liquid-iron inner core crystallised, a process geophysicists call “nucleation.” Once solid, the rotating core acted as a whirling dynamo, strengthening the protective electromagnetic bubble that wrapped around Earth, staving off planet-wide devastation. That, in turn, could have set the stage for the Cambrian explosion, an event approximately 541 million years ago in which the biosphere suddenly experienced the greatest evolutionary expansion in the planet’s history.

To measure Earth’s magnetic field as it was more than a half billion years ago, University of Rochester geophysicist John Tarduno and colleagues looked at magnetic particles from ancient silicate crystals within a band of igneous rocks called the Sept-Îles Intrusive Suite in Quebec. The igneous band formed from upwelling of magma that cooled before reaching the surface. As the magma cooled, evidence of the paleointensity, or strength of the Earth’s magnetic field at the time, was locked into the crystals.

The geophysicists were able to determine what that paleointensity was by heating single crystals to demagnetise them, and then reheating the samples in the presence of a magnetic field to impart magnetisation. Averaging the results over the estimated 75,000-year period in which the crystals cooled, the researchers determined the paleointensity circa 565 million years ago was about 10 times weaker than Earth’s modern magnetosphere — a finding that comports with independent studies charting the magnetosphere’s slow, steady strengthening over geologic time.

Tarduno and his colleagues surmise Earth’s growing core caused this upswing: iron and other heavy elements fell towards its centre as the inner core crystallised, leaving a liquid layer of lighter elements in the core’s outer regions, sparking the long-lived convection that drives Earth’s dynamo.

According to scientists outside of the study, insights about Earth’s ancient magnetic field are as uncertain as they are rare. “Getting any paleomagnetic samples from earlier time periods is so important because we have so little data,” says Sabine Stanley, a geophysicist at Johns Hopkins University. “At the moment it’s one data point at a particular time interval.” More data points are needed, she says, although she also notes the magnetosphere’s apparent increase in strength across a half billion years does support the researchers’ analysis.

Elisa Piispa, a geophysicist at Yachay Tech University in Ecuador, cautions that the single-crystal method Tarduno’s group used is not yet universally accepted. “Some of the leading researchers in the paleomagnetic community are very sceptical on it,” she says. Then again, the team’s results are consistent with several other models of the core’s thermal evolution and a wealth of other paleomagnetic observations, says Krista Soderlund, a researcher at The University of Texas at Austin.

Shields down

The weakened magnetic field Tarduno and his colleagues discovered roughly coincided with the end-Ediacaran extinction around 542 million years ago — a mass die-off of primitive, sessile, sea-dwelling organisms that preceded the Cambrian explosion. In 2016, Carlo Doglioni, a geologist at the Sapienza University of Rome, proposed the Cambrian’s profusion of new life-forms took place in part because of the magnetosphere’s growing strength. “The magnetic dipole was increasing after the Ediacaran,” Doglioni says. “We have a good, thick atmosphere that is protecting us from ionising radiation because we have a good, strong magnetic field.”

Fossil evidence suggests the organisms that endured the end-Ediacaran extinction survived by burrowing into the seafloor — a trait not shared by the immobile Ediacaran period biota that died out. As for the actual culprits in the killings, a 2016 study from Joseph Meert, a geologist at the University of Florida, blames harmful ultraviolet light and cosmic radiation that bathed the surface after passing through ancient Earth’s weakened magnetic field and thinning atmosphere. “When the shields went down, the Ediacaran organisms went extinct, clearing the ecological space for the later Cambrian explosion,” he says.

Tarduno urges caution. “The problem with this (hypothesis) is that the evidence of it in the geological record is pretty scarce,” he says. “If we look at other times of profound magnetic weakness, that would be at the very depth of a magnetic reversal. So that’s a very short time period, maybe a few hundred to a few thousands of years.”

Meert acknowledges other periods of magnetic instability are not obviously tied to extinction events. “But it’s the fact that the Earth’s magnetic field was weaker overall for a long period of time which drove that extinction,” he says. “The way I look at it is, we have this weak magnetic field from the Ediacaran into the early Cambrian, so it was an extended period of time of a weak magnetic field.”

Tarduno says despite the loss of magnetic protection, Earth’s atmosphere and the fact that Ediacaran creatures lived in the sea provided sufficient shielding from harmful radiation. But Meert notes the Ediacaran predates the existence of land-based plants that cloud modern-day waters with organic material; it may be the waters of the Ediacaran oceans were exceptionally clear, allowing ultraviolet radiation to reach greater depths. “Water does attenuate UV rays, but it’s not a cure-all,” he says. “UV rays can penetrate to significant depths, on the order of 10 metres or so. A lot of these Ediacarans were probably in even shallower waters than that.”

Courtney Sprain, a geoscientist at the University of Liverpool in England who was not involved in either study, says more data are needed to pin down the drivers of the Ediacaran extinction. “I do think there are avenues forward into understanding this at a higher level in the future,” she says. One avenue is determining whether the magnetic field was diminished everywhere in the world at this time or if the phenomenon was localised around the Sept-Îles Intrusive Suite, she notes. Another location would be to better constrain the timing of the magnetosphere’s vicissitudes.

Ultimately, Sprain says, determining the cause of the Ediacaran extinction is essential to understanding the evolution of life since then. “This has important implications for what’s going on with Earth today, for the modern changes that we’re seeing in Earth’s climate and for helping us understand what processes humans are potentially contributing to (that) may lead to these large-scale ecological collapses,” she adds. “It helps us infer something about our own future.”


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