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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India’s education sector needs a quantum shift

Source: By Priyanka Parashar: Mint

The quality of education has a direct bearing on any economy. With some 240 million students or nearly 20% of the Indian population in school, their quality of learning or lack of it assumes significance for the competitiveness of the country. Quality of education has been a prickly issue in India for several years as it has an impact on the quality of life, efficiency at the workplace, and labour productivity issues.

The latest Annual Status Of Education Report 2018 (Rural) or ASER 2018 holds a mirror to a country that is aspiring to be a knowledge power. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said on 26 September 2014 that there is no dearth of talent in India and “Mars success should be made an opportunity to make the world aware of Indian talent”, the ASER report shows Indian children have a huge learning deficit.

The highly respected annual report, which collected data from 596 districts in India, shows that one in two students (50.3%) in Indian schools lack basic reading ability not just of their own grade but also of those of three levels below. This is a 2.2 percentage point increase compared with the situation in 2014 and a dip of 3.1 percentage points compared with 2010. The situation with regard to arithmetic is equally abysmal—just 44.1% of class VIII students can do simple division. This strike rate is almost same as in 2014 and 4 percentage points less when compared with 2012.

This poor learning outcome in India is despite the Right to Education (RTE) Act having been in force since April 2010 making eight years of education compulsory for children and the Centre floating schemes such as “Padhe Bharat Badhe Bharat”, apart from states’ efforts. Access to elementary (classes I-VIII) schooling is almost universal and the number of children out of schools is below 4%, but a quality deficit, that too for more than a decade, raises questions about the priorities of governments at the central and state levels.

The situation is bad at the secondary level too. In the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) report of 2011,India is placed only ahead of Kyrgyzstan in learning standards in a survey of students from 74 countries. Last year, the World Bank said Indians born today are likely to be just 44% productive as workers, way below their Asian peers.

Some may argue that the ASER data or the other surveys are only reiterating a problem without offering solutions, but experts and academicians feel that highlighting the problem over the last 14 years has only brought in awareness among all stakeholders, including the political class both at the centre and in states. As Yamini Aiyar, president of the Centre for Policy Research, points out, it is a long time to have only awareness, and a quantum jump in the education sector is the need of the hour.

As the problem has now been diagnosed and public advocacy has got the momentum, the governments and civil society need to focus on three aspects—a bigger spending on education, maybe 6% of gross domestic product instead of the present 2.7%, political willingness to improve education, and a drastic change in the quality of teacher education. Nine years after RTE, more than 600,000 teachers are untrained and the quality of training schools is worse. Teachers’ efficiency will improve only with administrative incentives, better pay and a systematic change in the professional development of this cohort.

 

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Agreeable Hunger

Source: By Jaydev Jana: The Statesman

My religion teaches me that, whenever there is distress which one cannot removeone must fast and pray ~ Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, 25 September 1924.

To go on fast is a very old system of protest, practised for a variety of purposes at different stages of civilization. In its traditional sense, fasting crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free. Indeed, what is bread to a hungry stomach, fasting is to a soul struggling for self-realization. The logical outcome should be the control of impulses, passions and temptations. It is a prayer to clean the body, mind and soul.

Hindus believe that by going on fast a person will go to the heaven of that God in whose name the fast is observed. The Hebrews associated fasting with divine revelation. A fast is not a hunger strike but a method to abide by God’s commands. A hunger-strike makes God concede our demands. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed went on fast to see God face to face. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Fasting, unless it is the result of God’s grace, is useless starvation, if not much worse.’

Gandhi’s experiment with fasts was integral to his search for truth. He took over the traditional Hindu practice of fasting as a protest, combined with it the Judaic concept of representative leadership and the Christian concepts of vicarious atonement and suffering love, interpreted and reinterpreted each in the light of the others, and developed the amazing notion of a ‘voluntary crucifixion of the flesh.’

It involved fasts undertaken by an acknowledged leader of the community to atone for the evil deeds of his followers. Gandhi was on fast because he believed that there is some goodness in every human being and every human being is capable of showing qualities such as compassion, brotherhood, tolerance, generosity and love. No matter how cruel or inhumane a person might appear to be, deep down he too has a heart. He didn’t decide to go on fast in haste. Nor was he unaware of its consequences in terms of his health.

Mahatma Gandhi went on fast on several occasions between 1913 and 1948. He first undertook penitential fast at Phoenix (South Africa) on 13 July 1913 and on 13 January 1948, he was on fast at the age of 78 for restoring communal harmony at Birla House. This was the last fast of his life. His fasts stretched from three days to three weeks. He fasted in different places: in South Africa, in cities across India, in prisons and at home. His fasts were never devoid of spiritual significance. A variety of factors influenced him to go on fast ~ against violent protest during the freedom struggle, in support of the ‘untouchables’ and in opposition to the British constitutional proposal based on separate castes, for Hindu-Muslim unity, and against communal riots.

In the words of his grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi: ‘Gandhi resorted to some 30 fasts, of which one-third were directed at himself for ‘atonement’, of self-purification, one-third were directed against the Raj and one-third at India’s social mores. A more honest trinity cannot be imagined. The latter two fasts were meant to make an impact on the ‘other side’; they were part-fasts and part-hunger strikes, part anashan and part bhukh-hartal, though he derived from each a sense of spiritual self-renewal.’

John Connolly, an Irish writer, once commented, ‘for in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lies the adult that will be.’ While Mahatma Gandhi had many influences in his life, none was greater in his spiritual development than his mother, Putlibai. He wrote in his Autobiography, ‘She was deeply religious. She would not think of taking her meal without her daily prayers… Two or three consecutive fasts were nothing to her. Living on one meal a day during Chatumas was a habit.” Gandhi’s fasts achieved mixed results. At times, he was able to secure concrete action, such as the withdrawal of the British proposal on separation of castes. On occasion, he had to end his fasts without any immediate, tangible achievement. In his reckoning, fasting was an act of standing for Truth, the truth of the cause of self-rule. It was a potent means of communication.

A fast is a non-violent form of action, an overarching philosophy of ascetic discipline by which one becomes a master of oneself. Fasting, through the imposition of suffering upon the self, is essentially a ‘soul-force’, a spiritual practice of self-sacrifice, a patient education of the ‘other’ away from error and also to convert others by love. Gandhi prescribed two models of fasting based on the objective and the target.

There was a tone of challenge, but not of threat. Gopalkrishna Gandhi has written, “The purity of the motive, the lack of animosity towards the targets of his fasts and, above all, the readiness during the fast to engage with the other side raised his fast to moral heights.” Gandhi also added a unique dimension to his fast ~ elevating it to a powerful, though peaceful, means of shaming into submission the oppressive violent and sectarian forces that tattered the social fabric. His fast added an edge to his efforts towards redemption, even if his ultimate aim was political.

Gandhi went on fast for the people, and never with an intention to turn it into a political weapon. Nor for that matter did this agitprop seek to destabilise the British government or challenge its policies. The only exception was Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s communal award, against which Gandhi sat on a ‘fast unto death’ in 1932 in his cell at Yeravada Jail in Poona. Gandhi achieved extraordinary outcomes with ordinary tools ~ he fought stubbornness with shrewdness, hate with love, fear with courage and lust with the moral weapon. It would be useful to quote his word of caution ~ “The weapon of fasting, I know, cannot be lightly wielded, it can easily degenerate to violence unless it is used by one skilled in the art. I claim to be such an artist in this subject.’

 

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Health of a nation

Source: By K Srinath Reddy: The Indian Express

The World Health Organisation (WHO) sought to highlight the importance and urgency of achieving Universal Health Coverage (UHC) when choosing this year’s theme for the World Health Day. It called for “UHC — for everyone everywhere”. This echoes the target set by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that all countries must achieve UHC by 2030. India, too, accepted that target date while signing up to the SDGs.

How countries will be measured for success in reaching that target depends on how UHC is defined and monitored. The WHO states that UHC “means that all individuals and communities receive the health services they need without suffering financial hardship. It includes the full spectrum of essential, quality health services from health promotion to prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care.”

Interpretation, however, has varied on what services are to be universally provided to begin with and what level of financial protection is considered acceptable. Should UHC commence by offering the same set of services to the entire population and progressively expand the service package to all as more resources accrue? Or, should UHC first prioritise certain services to the poor and vulnerable sections, to ensure both access and affordability, while leaving the rest of the population for coverage at a later stage?

Another option is to provide a basic package of services to all, with full financial protection, along with an additional set of publicly funded services to the poor and vulnerable sections. These are all possible beginnings in the path of progressive universalisation that ultimately leads to UHC for everyone, with levels of service and cost coverage that meet the health needs of all persons without financial hardship to any.

To meet the standard set by the WHO and the SDGs, UHC has to include all persons in a population, even if the service package is modest to begin with. In terms of financial protection, the WHO recommends that out of pocket expenditure (OOPE) on health should not exceed 15-20 per cent. This requires a high level of public financing. Even countries which follow an insurance model have a high level of public funding to support several health services. Mandated contributory insurance model will not work in India which has over 90 per cent of the workforce in the informal sector.

How does India measure up presently and how can we achieve the 2030 target? OOPE is still around 63 per cent, despite several government health insurance and benefit schemes. Impoverishment due to unaffordable healthcare expenditure affects 7 per cent of our population, as noted even in recent national surveys. Healthcare induced financial distress is a leading cause of suicide among farmers. Access to health services varies widely among states and between rural and urban populations. Qualified healthcare providers are in short supply nationally and those available are maldistributed, with marked density differences across regions. It’s a long way before we reach the base camp of UHC, even as the ascent to the 2030 summit seems very steep.

What do we need to do? Public financing is the lifeline of UHC. So, we should raise public spending on health to at least 2.5 per cent by 2022 and 3 per cent by 2024. Both these are within the term of the government we elect in 2019. Will it deliver? This electoral season has seen UHC being promised in one form or another by most political parties, either in published manifestos or proclaimed promises. Not only the national parties but the state-level contestants in Andhra Pradesh, too, are competing in promises of good and affordable healthcare. Post-June, the electorate will see if health remains a priority.

Even the governments which earnestly wish to implement UHC will face the challenge of exercising choices within the limited budgets. First, they need to get the priorities right within the funding available. Primary health care has to be recognised as the foundational basis of an efficient and equitable healthcare system. It has the highest number of beneficiaries (the whole population), provides a wide range of services and can prevent a large spillover into hospitals for advanced care through effective prevention and timely care. While establishing seamless bidirectional linkages with advanced care facilities, primary care needs to be the fulcrum of UHC.Emergency health services are also a high priority, to provide the link between these services and also lifesaving care on location and during transport. All such services have to be provided free of cost.

What about people who need advanced care? Even at the start, UHC has to cover several services like commonly needed surgeries and treatments that can protect life. The component of advanced care expands as more resources accrue, but not at the expense of primary care. Government funded programmes should ensure that financial barriers should not stop access to needed advanced care. As UHC evolves, the poor and near-poor must get full cost coverage while others may seek protection through employer funded schemes or privately purchased insurance. Even for them, OOPE must remain low.

UHC has to be cashless at the point of care and health benefits under the programme have to be available for access anywhere in the country. The health work force has to be expanded to make available multi-layered, multi-skilled teams which can deliver the needed services. Basic and specialist doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists and an array of allied health professionals need to be developed in large numbers and deployed across the country.

This calls for expediting reforms in health professional education, cadre planning and incentives for rural postings. Strengthening of primary care infrastructure and district hospitals has to be a government priority. Free provision of essential drugs and diagnostics at public healthcare facilities will have an immediate impact on OOPE.

We have just a decade to go before we are measured for success in reaching the SDG target of UHC. More important, and even more immediate, is the need for elected governments to redeem the promises to the electorate. That account has to be presented to the people in 2024. Will UHC appear well on the way by then?

 

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A human-centric approach to unlock growth

Source: By Debjani Ghosh: Mint

Industry 4.0 is a double-edged sword. On one side, we have an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven $15.7 trillion game-changer that is unfolding. Of this, India can claim a $957 billion boost to its gross domestic product in the next 12-15 years. On the other side, it’s this (cutting-edge technologies such as AI) that will disrupt 70% of market leaders across industries in the next 10 years.

The availability of relevant talent (or the lack of it) will decide which way industries (and nations) will go. Re-skilling/upskilling is the only way out and will have to be undertaken by every stakeholder. Even from a mid-term standpoint, the opportunities are simply massive—the global digital transformation market is expected to grow from $ 445.4 billion in 2017 to $ 2,279.4 billion by 2025. The cost of not changing is frightening. By 2022, about 54% employees will need significant re-skilling/ upskilling.

The race for talent acquisition is intense. Countries have started to put in place national digital skills strategies, including in Asia. The magnitude of the challenge is massive and, in our case, nothing short of a collaborative Indian effort will suffice. Moreover, it’s about time we put to rest the fear-mongering narrative of job losses and underpinned the real issue—the global skill crisis. Smart machines will replace millions of jobs worldwide, but, newer jobs will be created in greater numbers.

The World Economic Forum estimates 75 million jobs may be displaced, but 133 million new roles may emerge globally in a few years. These new jobs will be different and will require higher application of cognitive skills alongside working with deep technologies. McKinsey says pretty much the same thing with more alarming statistics over a broader time horizon. Globally, 400 to 800 million jobs may be displaced by 2030, requiring as many as 375 million people to switch job categories entirely. Numerous studies have been carried out (including by Nasscom) and it’s clear why re-skilling is an imperative. Most of these figures are futuristic, but even now the skill gap is being acutely felt across industries. It’s a significant gap.

Is Indian IT doing enough towards re-skilling? Many companies have their own learning platforms that are being used extensively. Others are tapping into their partner networks and massive open online courses. Workforce participants realise that re-skilling is a hygiene factor. Historically, learning has happened in silos where learners have been pitted against one other. This has to morph into a collaborative mindset to create an environment of shared learning. Also, as an industry, we need to have deeper engagements with academia, CoEs and research labs to reach our optimum potential. Indian IT is taking convincing strides to sustain its position as the preferred transformational partner for global clients. Towards this, investments of about 10,000 crore of have been earmarked for re-skilling.

Besides our traditional geographies (the US & the UK) even other nations, such as Singapore, China, France, Canada, and Egypt, have begun to invest significantly towards creating digital talent. As many as 20 countries across the globe have adopted AI National Strategy. Governments worldwide recognise the inevitable shift and are adopting AI, analytics, and allied technologies to deliver citizen-centric services, including real-time response.

The government doubled its Digital India budget to $480 million in 2018-19, which will be used for research and training in deep tech. In the interim budget this year, the announcement of the National AI Centre, AI portal, and the identification of nine areas to be driven by technology are positive steps towards evangelisation. On this, I’d like to also add that the Karnataka government along with Nasscom has launched a CoE for data science and AI.

Universities will have to re-train to ensure students are employable in the digital era. We produce 2.6 million STEM graduates annually, but their employability is considerably low. We have to bear in mind that deep tech is evolving rapidly, so Standards & Quality Packs are still in the WIP stage, putting additional strain on quality. Investment in research is another area where we lag. Sponsored research in our top institutions is between $120-140 million annually, while comparable estimates in the American colleges are between $1-1.5 billion. Increasingly, universities will require great access to patient capital.

This industry has never been constrained by demand. We have to ensure that we get the supply side of the equation right in real quick time, and policies and strategies must translate into immediate action. The choice is no more about being the bigger fish —but being the faster one.

 

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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.

 

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Agreeable Hunger

Source: By Jaydev Jana: The Statesman

My religion teaches me that, whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray ~ Mahatma Gandhi, Young India, 25 September 1924.

To go on fast is a very old system of protest, practised for a variety of purposes at different stages of civilization. In its traditional sense, fasting crucifies the flesh and to that extent sets the soul free. Indeed, what is bread to a hungry stomach, fasting is to a soul struggling for self-realization. The logical outcome should be the control of impulses, passions and temptations. It is a prayer to clean the body, mind and soul.

Hindus believe that by going on fast a person will go to the heaven of that God in whose name the fast is observed. The Hebrews associated fasting with divine revelation. A fast is not a hunger strikebut a method to abide by God’s commands. A hunger-strike makes God concede our demands. Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed went on fast to see God face to face. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Fasting, unless it is the result of God’s grace, is useless starvation, if not much worse.’

Gandhi’s experiment with fasts was integral to his search for truth. He took over the traditional Hindu practice of fasting as a protest, combined with it the Judaic concept of representative leadership and the Christian concepts of vicarious atonement and suffering love, interpreted and reinterpreted each in the light of the others, and developed the amazing notion of a ‘voluntary crucifixion of the flesh.’

It involved fasts undertaken by an acknowledged leader of the community to atone for the evil deeds of his followers. Gandhi was on fast because he believed that there is some goodness in every human being and every human being is capable of showing qualities such as compassion, brotherhood, tolerance, generosity and love. No matter how cruel or inhumane a person might appear to be, deep down he too has a heart. He didn’t decide to go on fast in haste. Nor was he unaware of its consequences in terms of his health.

Mahatma Gandhi went on fast on several occasions between 1913 and 1948. He first undertook penitential fast at Phoenix (South Africa) on 13 July 1913 and on 13 January 1948, he was on fast at the age of 78 for restoring communal harmony at Birla House. This was the last fast of his life. His fasts stretched from three days to three weeks. He fasted in different places: in South Africa, in cities across India, in prisons and at home. His fasts were never devoid of spiritual significance. A variety of factors influenced him to go on fast ~ against violent protest during the freedom struggle, in support of the ‘untouchables’ and in opposition to the British constitutional proposal based on separate castes, for Hindu-Muslim unity, and against communal riots.

In the words of his grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi: ‘Gandhi resorted to some 30 fasts, of which one-third were directed at himself for ‘atonement’, of self-purification, one-third were directed against the Raj and one-third at India’s social mores. A more honest trinity cannot be imagined. The latter two fasts were meant to make an impact on the ‘other side’; they were part-fasts and part-hunger strikes, part anashan and part bhukh-hartal, though he derived from each a sense of spiritual self-renewal.’

John Connolly, an Irish writer, once commented, ‘for in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lies the adult that will be.’ While Mahatma Gandhi had many influences in his life, none was greater in his spiritual development than his mother, Putlibai. He wrote in his Autobiography, ‘She was deeply religious. She would not think of taking her meal without her daily prayers… Two or three consecutive fasts were nothing to her. Living on one meal a day during Chatumas was a habit.” Gandhi’s fasts achieved mixed results. At times, he was able to secure concrete action, such as the withdrawal of the British proposal on separation of castes. On occasion, he had to end his fasts without any immediate, tangible achievement. In his reckoning, fasting was an act of standing for Truth, the truth of the cause of self-rule. It was a potent means of communication.

A fast is a non-violent form of action, an overarching philosophy of ascetic discipline by which one becomes a master of oneself. Fasting, through the imposition of suffering upon the self, is essentially a ‘soul-force’, a spiritual practice of self-sacrifice, a patient education of the ‘other’ away from error and also to convert others by love. Gandhi prescribed two models of fasting based on the objective and the target.

There was a tone of challenge, but not of threat. Gopalkrishna Gandhi has written, “The purity of the motive, the lack of animosity towards the targets of his fasts and, above all, the readiness during the fast to engage with the other side raised his fast to moral heights.” Gandhi also added a unique dimension to his fast ~ elevating it to a powerful, though peaceful, means of shaming into submission the oppressive violent and sectarian forces that tattered the social fabric. His fast added an edge to his efforts towards redemption, even if his ultimate aim was political.

Gandhi went on fast for the people, and never with an intention to turn it into a political weapon. Nor for that matter did this agitprop seek to destabilise the British government or challenge its policies. The only exception was Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s communal award, against which Gandhi sat on a ‘fast unto death’ in 1932 in his cell at Yeravada Jail in Poona. Gandhi achieved extraordinary outcomes with ordinary tools ~ he fought stubbornness with shrewdness, hate with love, fear with courage and lust with the moral weapon. It would be useful to quote his word of caution ~ “The weapon of fasting, I know, cannot be lightly wielded, it can easily degenerate to violence unless it is used by one skilled in the art. I claim to be such an artist in this subject.’

 

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Singing an ARIA

Source: By Ishan Joshi: The Statesman

It’s not easy being a foreign office mandarin or geostrategic affairs policy wonk in New Delhi, nowadays. For, looking at the emerging Indo-US relationship from the Indian perspective, this breed is as cagey as those in power whom they advise on issues of such pith and moment about what precisely the Donald Trump Administration is up to. And the statements of intent and policy pronouncements by Washington over the first week of 2019 have only ratcheted up the uncertainty.

First, President Trump iterated that the US will no longer be the world’s policeman and cop abuse for it in the bargain. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria… a substantial US withdrawal from these engagements is now a fait accompli. While that can be explained away as an articulation of the Trump Administration’s utilitarian approach to geopolitics, and the US President’s sarcastic pot-shot at India showcasing its non-military nation-building efforts in Afghanistan — “Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps telling me the Indians have built a library (actually the national parliament building) in Kabul” – is par for the course, as it were. There is, counter-intuitively, a simultaneous initiative by Washington to engage more deeply with the Asia-Pacific region by headlining India’s role while seeking to rein in China.

President Trump signed an Act designed to counter the encroaching influence and growing threat allegedly emanating from Beijing which seemed to underline an Indo-US leadership for the region. The Asia Reassurance Initiative Act or ARIA, allocates a five-year budget of $1.5 billion to enhance cooperation with the US’ strategic regional allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Calling for strengthening of diplomatic, economic, and security ties with India, the new legislation cites “China’s illegal construction and militarization of artificial features in the South China Sea and coercive economic practices”, and authorises appropriate action to “counter China’s influence to undermine the international system”.

The Act notes “the increased presence throughout Southeast Asia of the Islamic State and other international terrorist organizations that threaten the United States”. The law states that the US “recognizes the vital role of the strategic partnership between the United States and India in promoting peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region” and “calls for strengthening and broadening of diplomatic, economic, and security ties between the United States and India”. It also reiterates US commitment to all “bilateral and security agreements and arrangements” between the two countries, including the New Framework for the United States-India Defense Relationship, and the United States-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative.

Emphasising the “designation of India as a major defense partner, which is unique to India,” the new law also refers to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between the US, Australia, India, and Japan, calling it “vital to address pressing security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region in order to promote a rules-based order; respect for international law; and a free and open Indo-Pacific.” It, however, clarifies that such a dialogue is intended to augment, rather than to replace, current mechanisms.

The ARIA Act, in light of the details above, ought to have sent the Indian strategic establishment into raptures as it attempts to build an effective security-economic architecture within which to fully unleash the country’s potential as a regional powerhouse. Additionally, struggling as New Delhi is with working out a viable stand vis-à-vis its more powerful northern neighbour, especially given its concerns over China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative which India believes has the potential to chip away at its sovereignty, Trump singing the ARIA would have in any other context been excellent leverage. Yet, the mood in New Delhi is far from sanguine.

While the argument has been made that the Trump Administration’s shift in strategic emphasis and security-foreign policy aims away from Russia, West Asia and Europe and to the Asia-Pacific is a natural corollary to the rise of China, there is no unanimity on whether this represents a corresponding shift in the priorities of the American deep state as well. What is giving the US’ interlocuters such as India sleepless nights is whether to buy into the narrative of the largely Democrat-leaning, liberal think-tanks and institutions that portray the Trump Administration as a rogue element in the continuum of American policies on the global stage. Showing too much enthusiasm for what could possibly be an aberration in the US’ strategic thinking would naturally be construed as a disaster when normal service resumes.

The flip side, though, is that while Donald Trump’s abrasive style and shoot-from-the-lip articulation of Washington’s priorities may not have endeared him to most Republicans, the influential conservative establishment and institutional America, they are in the main simpatico to the geostrategic paradigm shift his administration has undertaken and are working behind-the-scenes to soften the transactional edge that comes through in the US President’s policy pronouncements. If this assessment is correct, then New Delhi would be loath to have missed out on the first-mover advantage on offer if it responds more keenly to Washington’s very clear signals that India is the key player in its strategic scheme of things not only in South Asia but also the larger Asia-Pacific region.

Indian foreign policy over the past decade has essentially been a tightrope walk, balancing its way between the changing priorities of the only superpower in the world, staying engaged with a Russia that harbours ambitions of restoring itself to its former glory and dealing with the exponential growth in economic and military heft of the dominant regional power which is China; all of it premised on its own security concerns and economic interests, naturally.

Now, the advent of Trump singing the ARIA means that its diplomats’ safety-first approach could well be subject to the law of diminishing returns. But to take a call on which way to go in too decisive a manner is fraught with dangers in foreign policy terms. Before doing so, therefore, a deeper understanding of the motivations and seriousness of Washington’s definition of a rules-based Asia-Pacific order is vital. Donald J Trump’s presidency, unfortunately, is hindering rather than aiding that process in global capitals including New Delhi.

 

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Article 324 and role of Election Commission

Source: By Faizan Mustafa: The Indian Express

The Election Commission of India passed an unprecedented order, ending the campaign in West Bengal at 10 pm the following day instead of 5 pm on May 17 as was notified earlier, and is the norm. It also removed the state’s Home Secretary, and a senior police officer. The decisions were taken under Article 324 of the Constitution, in response to street violence in Kolkata between cadres of the BJP and Trinamool Congress.

Just a month earlier, on April 15, the ECI had told the Supreme Court that its powers to discipline politicians who sought votes in the name of caste or religion were “very limited” — only to turn around and crack the whip on Yogi Adityanath, Maneka Gandhi, Mayawati, and Azam Khan after being scolded by the court, which also said it would examine the ambit of the Commission’s powers.

There are just five Articles in Part XV (Elections) of the Constitution. The Constituent Assembly was concerned mainly with ensuring the independence of the Election Commission. Babasaheb Ambedkar introduced this Article on June 15, 1949, saying “the whole election machinery should be in the hands of a Central Election Commission, which alone would be entitled to issue directives to returning officers, polling officers and others”.

Article 324 vests “in an Election Commission” the “superintendence, direction and control of elections”. Parliament enacted The Representation of the People Act, 1950 and The Representation of the People Act, 1951 to define and enlarge the powers of the Commission.

The Supreme Court in Mohinder Singh Gill & Anr vs The Chief Election Commissioner, New Delhi and Ors (1977) held that Article 324 “operates in areas left unoccupied by legislation and the words ‘superintendence, direction and control’ as well as ‘conduct of all elections’ are the broadest terms”. The Constitution has not defined these terms.

Article 324, the court said, “is a plenary provision vesting the whole responsibility for national and State elections” in the ECI “and, therefore, the necessary powers to discharge that function”. The framers of the Constitution, the court said, had left “scope for exercise of residuary power by the Commission, in its own right, as a creature of the Constitution, in the infinite variety of situations that may emerge from time to time…”

Importantly, however, the court, while observing that “legislators are not prophets but pragmatists”, and that the “comprehensive provision in Art. 324 (is) to take care of surprise situations”, underlined that “that power itself has to be exercised, not mindlessly nor mala fide, nor arbitrarily nor with partiality but in keeping with the guidelines of the rule of law and not stultifying the Presidential notification nor existing legislation.”

The court observed: “No one is an imperium in imperio in our constitutional order. It is reasonable to hold that the Commissioner cannot defy the law armed by Art. 324. Likewise, his functions are subject to the norms of fairness and he cannot act arbitrarily. Unchecked power is alien to our system.”

ECI’s role in West Bengal

The Representation of the People (Amendment) Act, 1988 (Act 1 of 1989) introduced Section 28A in the RP Act of 1951, which said that all officers deployed for the conduct of an election “shall be deemed to be on deputation to the Election Commission” from the notification of the election to the declaration of the results, and “such officers shall, during that period, be subject to the control, superintendence and discipline of the Election Commission”.

The situation in West Bengal — of some violence and vandalism, which was neither new nor alarming and critical — is covered by existing laws, and there was no need to invoke the residuary power granted to the ECI by Article 324. The ECI took action against officers for failing in their duties — nothing more was required, except the ordering of a probe. It does seem that the ECI did not take adequate precautions in West Bengal in spite of violence in the first six phases.

In N P Ponnuswami (1952), the Supreme Court held that even courts do not have the power to interfere with the electoral process, a view that it reiterated in Special Reference No. 1 (2002). Last week, the court rejected a plea seeking a direction to the ECI to advance the timing of voting to 5.30 am for the last phase of the election in view of the heat and the fasting of Muslims during the month of Ramzan, saying “We cannot get into poll times. It is the Election Commission’s call.” The ECI’s credibility has suffered during these elections.

It had no convincing logic for a seven-phase election in West Bengal or a three-phase vote in a single constituency in Jammu and Kashmir, and gave no reason for not holding simultaneous Assembly elections in J&K and by-elections in Tamil Nadu. In taking action on complaints of violations of the Model Code of Conduct, it has been selective.

As the Supreme Court has underlined, absolute power is the antithesis of constitutionalism. Article 324 protects the ECI, but does not allow it to become a law unto itself.

 

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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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Vote-bank politics is not always bad for democracy

Source: By Martand Jha: Mint

In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections this year, the term “vote-bank politics" has been used many times by politicians, journalists, election analysts and others, mostly with a negative connotation. The term “vote bank" was coined by M. N. Srinivas, a sociologist who first used it in his 1955 paper, The Social System Of A Mysore Village, in the context of political influence exerted by a patron over a client.

Vote-bank politics denotes political appeals made to voters on the lines of caste, language, religion, and sect. Over the years, this has become a phenomenon and political parties across the spectrum have used it to their advantage to nurture groups of dedicated voters who align with their agenda and support them during elections. Many scholars point to this as a drawback of vote-bank politics, as it has a tendency to widen identity fault lines.

As a result, almost no political party wants to be seen as one that indulges in such politics. Last year in Rajasthan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the Congress of practising vote-bank politics and dividing people to get into power. He stated, “[Congress] allocates the budget as per vote-bank politics and therefore overall development does not happen." This statement suggests that vote-bank politics is low-level politics, which political parties should refrain from.

The larger question, however, is whether vote-bank politics is bad in itself or whether its interpretation by parties is wrong. It is considered dangerous because political parties try to woo particular caste groups and communities by making promises that are specific to those groups. The “vote banks" in turn see this as an opportunity to get their demands fulfilled, if their choice of party comes to power. Critics argue that in such a scenario, parties start favouring only certain groups that form the core of their support, thereby hampering overall societal development

Yet, if every group and community is catered to by some party or the other, is it still a bad phenomenon? India’s electoral history has shown that balanced vote-bank politics has provided both stable coalition governments and strong oppositions, where the interests of every section of society are represented. Conversely, when people have voted across caste lines and vote banks in support of a single party, it has resulted in wave elections, such as in 1984 and 2014, which subsequently led to majoritarian tendencies within the government.

It is the pressure of vote banks that keeps a check on parties once they are elected to power. How then did the term “vote-bank politics" acquire such a negative ring? Is such politics really synonymous with divisiveness? The answer lies in how one understands the term. If a political party or a politician appeals to one section of society in the name of a caste or religion, it may not necessarily be bad unless the act of appealing to that single section of society extends to polarizing that group against others or the rest of society.

It is only when the second step is taken of pitting one community—be it defined by caste, sub-caste or religion—against the other, that a problem arises. So, vote-bank politics is not a bad thing in itself, but it’s the misuse of it that is problematic. Therefore, when media houses, political parties and politicians cry foul over vote-bank politics, they need to be questioned by citizens who may themselves be part of a vote-bank.

Over the years, a perception has been created among the masses that being called a “vote bank" is an insult to them as citizens. This is again questionable. Being part of a vote bank could make voters more aware of both their individual strength as citizens and collective strength as hailing from a particular strata of society. It doesn’t always reduce one’s identity, as is often claimed. Rather, it enhances one’s bargaining power within the democratic system. It also makes for heterogeneity in popular representation.

Those who fear heterogeneity and diversity often make the most strident arguments against the concept, for they know that vote-banks are symbolic of the demands of different sections of society. There is a jingoistic culture being propagated in India that seeks to homogenize voices and reduce diversity, but its proponents should recognize that in a country like India—which is founded as a nation-state on the principle of celebrating diversity—it is but natural for different sections of society to speak in different voices, make different demands and have different opinions that may be mutually opposed.

The duty of political parties, civil society and media is then to bridge the divergences that arise from this process of conflicting interests of various sections vying for power. Sadly, however, this basic duty is not being fulfilled. Indian jingoists want everyone to speak in one voice, even as their actions in the political domain have the effect of pitting one faith against the other, one caste against another, and so on.

If a political party makes promises to a single section of society that it is going to fulfil their specific demands, it is within the party’s rights to do so. However, some caution would be in order, if the demands of a particular section of society could overwhelm or harm the interests of other sections of society in the process of getting their demands fulfilled, creating unrest and violence. Vote-bank politics in itself is not a dirty word. It is the misuse of it that makes it bad.

 

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Key to data storage

Source: By Siddharth Pai: Mint

Albert Einstein is thought to have said, “Make things simple, but never simpler." For a columnist writing about technology and science and their intersection with business and with humans, this is a tall order. Today’s technology has, in some areas, moved into the realm of fantasy, and deconstructing the powerful concepts underlying some of the advances is never easy, especially for someone like me who is at best a bystanding witness.

One of the main contributors to making Artificial Intelligence a powerful tool today is the advanced level of computing we have arrived at. Most of us hold smartphones in our hands that have more computing capability than it took to land Neil Armstrong on the moon 50 years ago. Efforts are on to keep increasing this capability, and the advances researchers are seeking to make in quantum computing are one of these.

The other axis is the inexorable rise in data that we cough up, some of it voluntarily and a lot of it involuntarily, for the benefit of the Big Tech companies that now controls our world. This data gets produced by our ever-increasing use of the internet. This has caused a phenomenon called “data inundation", where firms are collecting large amounts of data on their customers and operations, but don’t quite yet know what to do with it. Meanwhile, according to the advisory Ark Invest, such data is predicted to grow to 44 zettabytes by the end of next year, and the deficit of computer storage space that can contain all this data will grow to 500%, meaning that most of it can’t be stored and will become useless.

Molecular biology may come to the rescue. It turns out that Mother Nature’s DNA is the data storage mechanism to beat all computers. According to New Scientist, 1 gram of DNA can hold up to 455 exabytes of data (there are 1,000 exabytes in 1 zettabyte). This means all 44 zettabytes of data produced by the end of next year can actually be stored on just 97 grams of DNA.

There are 4 types of molecules that make up DNA, which form pairs. To encode information on DNA scientists program the pairs into 1s and 0s—the same binary language that encodes digital data. This concept is not new; scientists at Harvard University encoded a book onto DNA in 2012, but up to now, it has been difficult to retrieve the information stored in DNA.

Now, researchers from Microsoft Corp. and the University of Washington claim to have demonstrated the first fully automated system to store and retrieve data in manufactured “synthetic" DNA—a key step in moving the technology out of the research lab and into commercial data centres. Under helpful conditions, DNA can last much longer than current computer storage technologies that can degrade in a few years. As we know, some DNA has managed to persist in less than ideal storage conditions for tens of thousands of years in the bones of early humans such as the one found recently in deep freeze in the Alps.

In a simple proof-of-concept test, described in a news paper published in the journal Nature’s “Scientific Reports", the team successfully encoded the word “HELLO" in snippets of fabricated DNA and converted it back to digital data using a fully automated end-to-end system. Using this prototype system, the team stored and later retrieved the 5-byte “HELLO" (01001000, 01000101, 01001100, 01001100 and 01001111 in bits). This took approximately 21 hours to accomplish.

Information is stored in synthetic DNA molecules created in a lab, not DNA taken from living beings, and can be encrypted before it is sent to the system. While sophisticated machines such as synthesizers and sequencers already perform key parts of the process, many of the intermediate steps until now have required manual labour in the research lab. This would not be viable in a commercial setting, but work is being done to automate this.

The automated DNA data storage system uses software developed by the Microsoft and University of Washington team to convert the 1s and 0s of digital data into the 4 molecular building blocks of DNA. Before a file can be written to DNA, its data must first be translated from 1s and 0s into what are known as the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs of DNA.

The team claims that it then used inexpensive, largely off-the-shelf lab equipment to flow the necessary liquids and chemicals into a synthesizer that builds manufactured snippets of DNA to push them into a storage vessel. When the system needed to retrieve the information, it added other chemicals to accurately prepare the DNA and used microfluidic pumps to push the liquids into other parts of the system that “read" the DNA sequences and converted it back to information that a computer can understand.

The goal of the above project was not to prove how fast or inexpensively the system could work, according to the researchers, but simply to demonstrate that automation is possible. While a paltry 5 bytes in 21 hours is not commercially viable, the researchers say there exists a precedent for many orders of magnitude improvement in such data storage. Also, unlike silicon-based computing systems, DNA-based storage and computing systems have to use liquids to move molecules around. And fluids are inherently different than silicon’s electrons and require entirely new engineering solutions. Nonetheless, this research opens up a fascinating new flank at the intersection of biology and computing.

 

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The dilemma of trying out new cures for malaria

Source: By Rahul Matthan: Mint

In 2015, the World Health Report stated that there had been 214 million cases of malaria worldwide with 438,000 deaths from it. This represents an 18% decrease in cases and a 48% decrease in mortality compared to 2000. However, what these figures hide is that over the past decade, there has been an alarming rise in reported cases of drug-resistant malaria all over South-East Asia—from Vietnam to Myanmar — and in Pakistan. Given this geographical spread, it is inevitable that drug-resistant malaria will come to India sooner rather than later. There is, therefore, an urgent need for us to develop new treatment regimes for this disease.

The trouble with using therapies developed in the West on Indian populations, particularly in the case of vector-borne diseases such as malaria, is that the host-pathogen relationships in those countries could vary significantly when compared with India. Given our genetics, history of infections, co-infections, immune status and even environmental factors, it is more than likely that treatments that work well on European populations will be somewhat less effective in Asia. What we need to do is to find ways to effectively test new therapies on the Indian population to identify remedies that best address the risk drug-resistant malaria poses to us.

Controlled human infection model (CHIM) studies offer a means by which this can be done. A CHIM study calls for the infection of perfectly healthy adult volunteers with a carefully selected strain of a disease. This allows researchers to observe the progress of the infection, its response to treatment and the efficacy of both naturally acquired as well as vaccine-induced immune responses. Everything, from the strain of the pathogen to the timing, route and dose of infection, is carefully controlled to avoid causing harm to the volunteers and to allow researchers to make accurate observations of the disease that they would otherwise have been unable to do.

The benefit of this method is that it makes results available in far shorter time frames than would have been possible with traditional clinical trials, resulting in considerable reductions in the cost of drug discovery. As far fewer participants are exposed to experimental therapies, it puts a much smaller proportion of the population at risk.

That said CHIM studies throw up several ethical issues that need to be addressed before we proceed. In the first place, the basic premise of a CHIM study requires doctors to intentionally infect previously healthy human beings with a disease. This approach bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the experiments that Nazis conducted on prisoners in concentration camps, making it impossible to even consider without dealing with the revulsion that such images invoke. In addition, the doctors and medical researchers who conduct these studies will have to consider for themselves how the act of intentionally making a healthy person ill sits with their Hippocratic obligation to do no harm.

Though all CHIM studies obtain, as a pre-condition, the informed consent of volunteers before proceeding, there is understandable scepticism as to whether, in the Indian context, those who participate in these studies will actually understand the many known, unknown, and potential risks of these experiments. This is further exacerbated by the poor reputation of the Indian research community with clinical trials in general—particularly following the death of seven girls who participated in Human Papillomavirus Vaccine trials in 2009.

If we are to take advantage of the many benefits that CHIM studies offer, we must first establish an appropriately robust ethical framework within which these studies will be conducted. Crucial to this is ensuring that the consent that we obtain from participants is truly informed. I would argue that, given that the participants in these studies will actually be infected with a disease, the bar to evaluate their appreciation of the consequences should be set exceptionally high. As even well-educated laypersons will most likely be unable to appreciate all the potential complications that could arise from participation, I would argue that only persons with an appropriately high level of scientific training should be allowed to take part in these studies.

Most trials offer volunteers a stipend to participate. Among poorer sections of society, financial incentives have the effect of being coercive, impairing the consent they provide. One way to address this could be to stipulate that CHIM studies in India should not offer any financial incentives whatsoever, other than covering the cost of treatment during the study and beyond in case of complications. This will ensure that anyone who takes part only does so altruistically with no interest other than to further the scientific understanding of the disease.

Above all, the government needs to quickly establish a robust regulatory framework within which any such study should proceed, with strict punishments prescribed for anyone attempting to conduct rogue trials. Only research institutions with impeccable credentials should be granted a licence to conduct CHIM studies and should, throughout the process, be subject to the supervision of an independent ethics board. CHIM studies offer many benefits. However, before we take advantage of them, we need to address the many ethical challenges they pose.

 

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Counter China

Source: By Anurag Viswanath: The Financial Express

China’s recently concluded Belt and Road Forum (BRF)—the second (2019) following the first (2017)—has hogged limelight and stoked debate on its virtue and vice alike. The din surrounding the BRF has been so loud that it glosses key strategic moves in Asia. On April 24, a day before the BRF, China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning conducted a combat drill in the East China Sea with ‘anti-aircraft and anti-submarine warfare training’. In tandem, the US announced that it will unveil a new Indo-Pacific strategy at the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue (May 31-June 2, in Singapore). China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) optimism has not detracted US policy pragmatism about China nor dented China’s global ambitions—including that on the high seas. Despite the best intents of China’s economic diplomacy, is the US steadily upping the game to counter China?

At the BRI Summit, China came clean unveiling the old BRI in a new avatar, repackaged as Green BRI (green investments, green projects) and Clean BRI (corruption free, transparent and level-playing field where Chinese and non-Chinese companies can compete). This honed China’s ‘peaceful rise’ as a conscientious global player whose trillions of forex surplus would be used for greater common good.

The BRI also received copious press devoted to the recent rethinking by American researchers that China may not be a loan shark (given that several of its loans have sunk, with no or little payback). Yet the BRF sounded out the political fracture—between those who attended (5,000 participants from 150 countries and leaders from 36 countries) and those who didn’t (among others, US, India, Australia, Japan, South Korea and North Korea).

US actions can be explained in the context that China is not helping its own case. China’s live drills in the East China Sea and China’s actions in the 3.5 million square km South China Sea have been controversial, to say the least.

Historically, China was not a great naval power in the manner of the La Royale (French Navy, 17th century) or the Royal Navy (UK Navy, 16th century). To be fair, the 15th century Ming dynasty explorer—the Muslim eunuch Zheng He’s seven voyages reaching the Horn of Africa and Persian Gulf are famed. But rather than naval ships, China’s merchant ships, junks and dhows traced their footprint on the economy, demography and culture in South East Asia with migration, trade and exchange.

But in the last decades as China has become richer, there has been a resurgence of nationalism that is drifting China back to history citing historical not legal claims in the seas—the reefs, atolls, islets and islands of the East China Sea and South China Sea. The Chinese want to escape being a continental power and the First Island Chain (East Asian Coastline) with the Second Island Chain and Third Island Chain under the US umbrella.

But it’s how China is going about it that has become contentious. In the East China Sea, the dispute is between China and Japan, but in the South China Sea, there are other claimants including the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and Brunei.

China’s drills in the East China Sea are one thing between Japan and China, but in the South China Sea with several claimants, China’s actions are being perceived as belligerent. China’s reclamation efforts and land acquisition have resulted in artificial islands. Reports and satellite images suggest military fortification and military installations, surveillance aircraft, guided missile destroyers and airport runways. China-watchers say China is consolidating a ‘strategic triangle’ in the seas. In fact, the US Naval Institute has characterised China’s actions as ‘maritime grey zone operations’ that ride the thin line between war and peace. In other words, China may be narrowly engaging in war without war.

The case of the Philippines vacillating between ally US and aid-giver China illustrates the stakes in the high seas. The issue of Scarborough Shoal (disputed between China and the Philippines, seized by China in 2012) is alive. In 2016, the Philippines took China to The Hague, which ruled that China’s claims had no legal basis. But China’s commitment to invest in President Rodrigo Duterte’s proposed 75 infrastructure projects under the rubric of ‘Build, Build, Build’ managed to let the sleeping dogs lie.

But in early April, President Duterte protested China’s fishing vessels swarming in on the disputed Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, warning that Philippine troops would resort to ‘suicide missions’ if China touched it. The US said that it would come to the aid of the Philippines in case of any attack, which the Philippines did not refute.

The US has claimed that China’s coast guard and fishing boats are not harmless, benign entities, but de facto maritime militia expanding China’s presence in the seas. The new US position is that hostile behaviour from the coast guard and fishing boats will no longer be treated benign, but on a par with the Chinese navy.

The Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs, Randall Schriver, has indicated that the US would back the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for a code of conduct (COC) ‘consistent with existing international laws and norms’ applicable to one and all.

It is no accident, too, that the US has stepped up Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) with two warships sailing through the Taiwan Strait, bringing the total number of transits to 92 (since 2007). In 2018, British navy warship conducted a FONOP and in 2019 a French warship made a transit through the Taiwan Strait. The British and French actions are turning points that indicate a growing consensus on the strategic implications of China’s rise.

China’s BRF party has ended on a high, what with cooperation agreements worth $64 billion signed, a nod to greater multilateralism and participation, but the ground seems shifting. Platitudes of trade and cooperation aside, the storm is brewing in the seas. What’s more, in the polarised political spectrum of the US, President Donald Trump has bipartisan support on this. It’s obviously the issue.

 

 

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Poverty patterns can sharpen

Source: By Varsha S. Kulkarni: Mint

The Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY), an election battle cry of the Congress, has evoked mixed responses, many hostile but some cautiously optimistic. What is common to most, however, is that they are broad-brush and involve leaps of faith.

Many have defended the NYAY scheme from the Rawlsian perspective of justice. One of the two main principles of justice is that “...Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are... to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged". Amartya Sen rejects this on the ground that such an allocation of primary goods (including “rights, liberties, opportunities, income and wealth") is not synonymous with just outcomes (capabilities to do this or that, which include freedom from hunger, for example). While acknowledging this formidable critique, we believe that the transfer of 6,000 per month to the poorest 20% families envisaged under the NYAY scheme is a step in the right direction.

Our analysis is limited to three issues. First the income shares of the poorest and its variation. Two, how mobile are the poorest across income ranges? And three, what are the factors associated with the persistence of extreme poverty and whether the insights yielded can help target NYAY better. We address these issues with a unique all-India panel survey of income distribution for 2005 and 2012, reported in the India Human Development Survey 2015, conducted jointly by the University of Maryland and National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER). Three per capita income categories are considered: (i) ≤20%, (ii) 21-50%, and (iii) above 50%.

In 2005, category (i) accounted for 3.7% of total income, category (ii) for 13.6%, and category (iii) for 82.7% of total income. These shares changed with slight reductions in the shares of (i) the poorest and (ii) moderately better-off, and a rise in the share of (iii) the more affluent.

We have identified states with the highest and lowest income shares of poorest households in state income in 2005 and 2012. The states with highest shares were Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand and Delhi in 2005 and those with lowest shares were Assam, Jammu and Kashmir and Karnataka. Those with highest shares in 2012 included Odisha, Uttarakhand and Tamil Nadu, and those with the lowest included Gujarat, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh.

The four poorest states in terms of share of the poorest in India in 2005 were Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha, and they accounted for about 47% of the poorest households. Their share, however, fell to 44% in 2012.

All (median) per capita incomes rose more than moderately from 2005 to 2012: of the poorest by 2.9 times; of the moderately better-off by 1.5 times; and of the more affluent by 1.06 times. So, if the median income of the poorest continues to rise, the lump sum transfers required to meet the minimum income threshold are likely to be substantially lower over time.

Of the poorest in 2005, more than one-third remained poorest, a slightly larger share moved up into the moderately better-off and a little over a quarter became more affluent in 2012. Glimpses into downward mobility are offered by the facts that a little over a quarter of the moderately better-off became the poorest while a much lower share of the more affluent descended to this lowest income status. The important point here is that income mobility ought not to be overlooked. Unfortunately, it is as if projections of the fiscal burden are being made on the basis of a fixed, or, more likely, notional income distribution. Such projections are not just misleading but also deeply flawed.

Our statistical analysis examines the factors underlying this income mobility pattern. Our focus here though is confined to factors associated with the poorest remaining poorest over 2005 to 2012. Our principal findings are that Scheduled Tribes were likely to be in this category, as also those with no education; among occupations of the household’s head, cultivators were highly likely to remain poorest; as also the poorest themselves in 2005, an indication of state dependence.

Perhaps equally important is the state environment: state affluence measured in terms of net state domestic product per capita, and inequality measured as the share of the top 1% in the state’s income distribution a la Thomas Piketty. The greater the state affluence, the lower is the probability of the poorest remaining so in that state. In the absence of state-wise wealth distribution data, we approximate the Piketty measure of inequality by share of the top 1% in the state income distribution. The association is positive, suggesting that greater income inequality is associated with a greater probability of remaining poorest.

While extrapolation is often risky, it is riskier to conjecture without firm evidence. Moreover, the insights gained not just in terms of household characteristics but also the state environment may contribute to a better design and implementation of NYAY, a landmark scheme. Specifically, even with limited income distribution data, better targeting is feasible and benefits to the poorest could be enhanced through growth acceleration and reduction in overall income inequality. In conclusion, the denial of a modicum of justice through the NYAY scheme would be an injustice, an anyaay.

 

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