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-Rajeev Kumar (Editor-in-chief)

Showing posts with label English Editorial. Show all posts
Showing posts with label English Editorial. Show all posts

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Resistance map (The Telegraph)

Pradip Sanyal

Asim Ali 

As the last year winded towards its end, two sets of events defined the state of the country. One was the series of attacks on mosques in Madhya Pradesh, where Hindutva mobs set out to terrorize Muslim communities encouraged by a tame police force. The second was the ‘love jihad’ law passed by the Uttar Pradesh government that was followed by scores of arrests of young Muslim men on flimsy charges. At their base, both are products of the pervasive Islamophobia that has reached epidemic proportions in our country.

The reason the Bharatiya Janata Party finds it politically beneficial to ramp up its anti-Muslim campaign and Opposition parties are meek to challenge it is that Islamophobia has gained popular acceptability. The constant drib of Islamophobia injected in our societal bloodstream since, at least, the Ramjanmabhoomi movement has now become an ever-accelerating spurt, spread by a formidable apparatus composed of the dominant political party, the mainstream media, social media, and millions of sangh parivar karyakartas. To counter it, the moment requires us to go beyond op-eds and social media posts and build an anti-Islamophobic movement. In the absence of any serious countervailing force to check it, rising Islamophobia will not only lead to the further brutalization of Muslim citizens but also serve as the fuel to eat away at the remains of our democratic freedoms.

Yet, unlike an anti-caste movement, we have never had an anti-Islamophobic movement. The Ambedkarite movement has transformed our political culture over many decades to the extent that every political party is pushed to swear by Ambedkar and take rhetorical positions against the oppression of Dalits. But there has never been a similar programme to reverse anti-Muslim prejudice, with its own tools, vocabulary and iconography. This partly explains why even the anti-CAA movement, although it did take some hesitant steps to address Islamophobia, often fell back on Ambedkarite and nationalist symbols — with resistance articulated through cries of ‘Jai Bhim’ and the ubiquitous portraits of Ambedkar on the one hand and the national flag and the Constitution on the other.

Even the concept of Islamophobia has rarely made an appearance in our public discourse, couched under the broader rubric of communalism. The stated answer to communalism has historically been a staid secularism, guarding the encroachment of strident religion into the public sphere, while largely leaving society alone to its prejudices. To the extent society is addressed, it is in the form of glib bromides about being ‘Indian first’ and Indians being ‘brothers and sisters’. This passive, anodyne, largely elitist concern for secularism has been shown to be impotent to halt the steady march of Hindutva and anti-Muslim prejudice. In the same way an orientation of caste agnosticism can never be the answer to casteism, which requires an active stance of anti-casteism, an inert secularism cannot be an answer to the all-pervasive Islamophobia. Hence, an anti-Islamophobic movement becomes necessary.

What will such an anti-Islamophobic movement look like? For one, the article calls for a movement more of the civil society than of political parties. Opposition political parties will always be constrained by the logic of votes until anti-Muslim prejudice starts to wane in society. Fundamentally, Islamophobia is based on a bundle of stereotypes and prejudices against Muslims that have established deep roots in our culture. To reverse this, one would require concerted participation of prominent members of the Hindu civil society that shapes culture — journalists, academics, lawyers, writers, intellectuals, and artists. There are six steps secular civil society actors can take to build the foundation of an anti-Islamophobic movement. 

First, recognize the extent of India’s Islamophobia problem, its deep roots, and discard the myth of a uniquely tolerant Hinduism. In her book, My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Blood Justice and Lynchings in India, the historian, Aparna Vaidik, argues that many Indians (including liberals) are indifferent to Hindutva violence against Muslims and Dalits because their privilege prevents them from seeing it. “This violence is invisibilised because it comes secretly embedded in our myths, folklore, poetry, literature, and language. Moreover, what keeps us from seeing the violence, especially caste violence and the abuse of minorities, is our privilege,” Vaidik pointed in a recent interview. In place of the narrative of minority appeasement, which even many secular intellectuals have lent credibility to, civil society actors need to bring ‘Hindu privilege’ and the issue of intolerance in the Hindu community to the front and centre of the public discourse along with a belated recognition that Hindutva is not a fringe movement and that it is now the mainstream Hindu political philosophy. 

Second, since Islamophobia is a problem of image, its antidote lies in Muslim visibility. In order to present a real image of Muslims, the country requires more Muslims in leadership positions in civil society organizations. In academia, media, NGOs, publishing, art houses, there needs to be an active effort, including affirmative action, to diversify these spaces by including more Muslims. In place of words eulogizing secular India, there needs to be concrete actions to ensure that Muslims get a seat at these tables proportionate to their numbers and have a voice in how they are run. A preference can be given to backward class and caste Muslims to ensure that these benefits are not monopolized by elite Muslims. 

Third, the representation of Muslims in art needs to undergo a fundamental transformation. Movies and literature need to junk hackneyed tropes like the ‘good Muslim/bad Muslim’, ‘nationalist/traitor Muslim’, ‘skullcap wearing Muslim fundamentalist/terrorist’. These tropes serve to underscore the insidious tension between the Indian nation and Muslim identity. Along with it, the tokenistic and stereotypical portrayal of the ‘Muslim shayar’, the ‘hot-headed Muslim friend’ and the ‘Muslim criminal’ need to be replaced by a realistic portrayal of ordinary Muslims. In the America of the 1990s, particularly with films of black directors such as Spike Lee, a realistic picture of the Black experience was provided to a mainstream audience of millions of Americans who had, heretofore, only seen them through the prism of crime, drugs and violence. Similarly, literature around the everyday experiences and challenges of Indian Muslims needs to be encouraged and translated into local languages. If Premchand’s “Idgah” is all that most Hindi-speaking Indians are acquainted with in terms of Muslim characters, it’s a problem. 

Fourth, the much-diminished liberal end of journalism needs to adopt an anti-Islamophobic stance in presenting news of crimes against Muslims. In the case of ‘love jihad’, the media-fuelled the myth by not explicitly presenting it as a concoction of the right-wing. In beef-lynchings, even the supposedly liberal media harp on the alleged crime of Muslims — whether or not they ate/transported beef, rather than presenting it as an unequivocally shameful act of terror. 

Fifth, secular Hindus must not merely proclaim the virtues of secularism in their echo chambers; they can start working on their families, and then maybe their neighbourhoods. Hindutva is not a Hindu-Muslim problem; it is a Hindu problem that needs to be fought in Hindu spaces. Starting points can be the family and neighbourhood WhatsApp groups that are rife with Islamophobia. Even decent people baulk at contesting Islamophobic messages on message groups to avoid ‘pointless’ confrontations. One of the reasons Islamophobic prejudice has skyrocketed in the public sphere is because it has broken free of the shame associated with it. This shame can be reconstructed, one courageous intervention — digital or face-to-face — at a time. 

Sixth, a new Muslim intelligentsia must emerge, and must be encouraged to emerge, which can define the vocabulary and iconography of resistance to Islamophobia. We saw the seeds of this younger, more assertive, intelligentsia during the anti-CAA movement where young students and activists faced down the apparatus of State repression to organize an unprecedented nation-wide movement. Now, many of these students and activists find themselves in jail. We don’t find civil society clamouring for their release in the way it has got behind the ‘safer’ movement of farmers. If we are serious about fighting Islamophobia, the first order of action would be to tirelessly work for their release. 

The reversal of Islamophobia is not just in the interest of Muslims; it is in the interest of all Hindus who are invested in the democratic freedoms of this country. However, merely participating in conclaves about secularism in elite spaces and harkening back to an imagined secular India won’t reverse Islamophobia. It would require concrete actions. The aforementioned steps can be a start.

The author is a political columnist and research associate with the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Biden on the Local And the Global (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

US President Joseph Biden’s inauguration speech was about unity, renewal and hope. Entrenched belief in sections of the population that they are being cheated of their destiny as the master race, on account of weakness and the machinations of a deep State, did not start with the Trump presidency, but those who uphold such beliefs felt free to act out their belief system, leading to the eruption of tensions that had simmered below the surface since the Civil War.

Quite apart from taking on the pandemic and its economic fallout, the new president has to bring some functional cohesion to the divided nation. In a speech that touched upon the challenges that the United States faces, on its own and as member of the global community, President Biden addressed themes that resonate around the world, wherever democracies strain to prove themselves a little better than the worst form of government, except for all the rest.

Unity, renewal and hope were the leitmotif of President Biden’s speech, but he did not deny differences or past failings. The critical message the 46th US President had was that democracy is hard work, and a nation is more than just its institutions, it is its people.

Therefore, a nation is never a finished project but a constant endeavour. It requires the full measure of the devotion of each citizen towards the project of national renewal towards greater collective coherence. Biden stressed the need for all parts of the political spectrum to come together on a common cause.

Differences exist, in some ways, differences are a critical component of a democracy. But differences should not metamorphose into unbridgeable divides that prevent people from working together to address common challenges.

Nor should differences be harvested, for partisan goals, with hatred and rage, to make it impossible to work together. Biden’s call for unity underlines the special responsibility that those in public office, elected officials and representatives have to ensure that differences do not define a people. That holds true everywhere.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Sustainable Progress In Nuclear Energy (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

The recent grid synchronisation of the third unit at Kakrapar Atomic Power Project (KAPP), near Surat in Gujarat, is notable indeed. The 700 MW unit is now our largest-capacity nuclear reactor, and the first of at least 16 units planned to balance the grid as we duly rev up green renewable power generation, intermittent and variable in nature.

The nuclear route provides clean, stable, baseload power, and is an important element of our energy policy and climate strategy. The latest unit incorporates the indigenously developed pressurised heavy-water reactor (PHWR) technology, designed for use of natural uranium and avoid fuel enrichment.

Note that KAPP has two smaller PHWRs, each of 220 MW capacity. Domestic resource endowments — rather small uranium reserves and bountiful availability of nuclear-fertile material thorium — have prompted India to adopt its well-known three-stage nuclear programme.

The stated target is to achieve 63 GW of nuclear power capacity by 2032; uranium imports are no longer a constraint, thanks to the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement, agreed upon in circa 2005 and concluded in 2008. The ongoing development of a chain of nuclear reactors here appears to have avoided costly time and cost overruns, reportedly due to modular design, standardisation and proven buildup of expertise over the years.

The country embarked on its second-stage nuclear programme with the successful operation of a research reactor labelled Fast Breeder Test Reactor. Fastbreeder reactors produce more fissile material than they consume. And the 500-MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) is slated to be commissioned later this year. The advanced reactors would enable conversion of thorium into fissile uranium in the third stage.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Friday, January 22, 2021

Beating the Chinese fait accompli trap (The Indian Express)

Written by Ameya Pratap Singh

One of the more perplexing but underdiscussed aspects of the on-going Sino-Indian border stand-off relates to the gains of territorial expansion: Why has China used fait accompli strategies on the Sino-Indian border? Recently, there have been reports of Chinese construction of three villages in Arunachal Pradesh 5 kilometres from the Bum La pass. In total, China is said to have illegally occupied at least 38,000 sq. km. of Indian land over the years. To some observers the question posed here may seem odd as increases in territorial holdings have been part of the raison d’etre of the modern nation-state for centuries, and motives often range from intangible gains such as reputation for resolve, domestic legitimacy, or status to more tangible one’s such as control over natural resources.

But, since World War II, the territorial integrity norm and self-determination have caused territorial conquest to decline sharply. If local populations cannot be convinced of the legitimacy of foreign rule, then their occupation becomes expensive and a risky as well as morally dubious enterprise. Moreover, “size of territory” has declined in importance as a vital indicator of state power, being replaced with nuclear weapons, military modernisation, technology, industrial production etc. In fact—as India knows all too well—the inability to defend vast territories can restrict a state’s rise. Especially in Ladakh, large parts are still largely inhospitable mountainous terrain with scarce human population or vegetation and lack any key natural resources. The territorial sovereignty of each state is often held to be a sacred and inviolable feature, but this still does not explain the rationale behind China’s choice of fait accompli strategies for territorial conquest across the Sino-Indian border.

Well, China does so because faits accompli is the preferred mode of modern territorial conquest. American political scientist Dan Altman has argued that while territorial wars and invading armies indeed became exceedingly rare after 1945, modern conquest has evolved to encourage a different type of territorial conquest. Expansionist states now purposefully target the seizure of smaller pieces of unpopulated and ungarrisoned territories that keep the risk of conflict within manageable proportions. Instead of “brute force” they use “fait accompli”. The goal is to gamble on the military occupation of a small piece of territory that is unlikely to provoke large-scale war. In this case for example, China presents India with a difficult choice — if India chooses to evict PLA forces and escalate, it could risk war. But it would be unlikely to risk such a war over 1000 sq km of territory. Altman argues that this logic also undergirded Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands in 1974.

This means the credibility of India’s red line against China’s use of force across the LAC is in peril. What can India do? Can it ensure China does not profit from its aggression meant to induce fait accompli? India certainly needs to improve its deterrence by denial posture and expedite its road infrastructure plans, modernise its military, and make appropriate changes to bring operational efficiency to the Army’s Northern command for rapid mobilisation (C4I2 capability). India will also need to improve its radar surveillance systems, long range fire power, air power and missile capability in border areas along with electronic warfare and cyber capabilities. Loopholes exposed by the Chinese ingress in Ladakh in the analytic framework for intelligence processing need addressing too. In essence, India should be able to better pre-empt and quickly respond to Chinese fait accompli strategies to prevent them in the future. While financial and administrative limitations have prevented fuller realisation, this has arguably been the intended strategy of the Indian government so far.

However, this may not be enough. India also needs deterrence by punishment options. New Delhi needs to invest in its 17 Mountain Strike Corps (MSC), which is intended to act as a counter-offensive force against China along the LAC. There have already been reports that the Indian Army has mobilised two strike corps for the mountains facing China. But their use should not be limited to counter-offense in response to Chinese fait accompli strategies (especially when delayed), since this makes for a predictable script. Instead, the MSC should also focus on the possibility of India offering faits accomplis of its own across the LAC during situations of low-threat expectation and exposed vulnerabilities on the Chinese side. If faits accomplis are attractive to Beijing because they are perceived to be low-risk, their use can only be discouraged by awakening the Chinese to the grave escalatory risks and debilitating costs of a constant threat of a limited but difficult to reverse territorial ingress along a 2100-mile long border from the Indian side. In world politics, norms restraining competition often emerge from the fear of inadvertence and escalation rather than the goodwill of rivals.


Such force projection may not be possible in the short term—considering India was unable to raise a second division of the MSC in Pathankot in 2017-18 due to paucity of funds—but is nonetheless necessary in the long run to raise costs for Chinese “salami slicing”. One must also remember that such a strategy went horribly wrong for Jawaharlal Nehru before the 1962 War and therefore adequate funding and capacity-building are essential before this option can be fully explored and deployed successfully. But if this strategy is indeed implemented dexterously—although it will play out over a longer timeline—India’s crisis bargaining position and demand for the restoration of the status quo as of April 2020 may finally have some teeth to it.

An equally pertinent policy solution for the Chinese challenge on the border is the economic development of India’s border populations and regions. Beyond building roads to gain access to vital strategic points, allowing border areas to flourish as population centres has been part of the Indian government’s agenda at least since the Himmatsinghji Committee Report of 1951. While there is a strong case to be made for such measures from the perspective of public welfare, there is also a defence imperative, both for internal (against insurgencies and armed separatist factions) as well as external security. First, as border regions become denser population wise, the potential for cross-border encroachment diminishes. This approach may have limits in certain inhospitable parts, but to prevent Chinese settlements in lower-lying areas local populations may be nearly as important for border security as the Indian Army. Second, not only will this improve India’s own administrative control and acceptance in these border regions, it will also offer Tibetans on the other side a glimpse into what state-led economic development can look like in a democratic society.

According to Altman, faits accomplis are part of an “advancing without attacking” strategy and notoriously difficult to deter and draw red lines against. Considering this, India’s security interests simply cannot afford an ill-managed economy, bureaucratic inefficiency, and delays in plans for military modernisation. To finance this increased defence burden, India’s economic growth and need for domestic stability will assume salience like never before. Due to the successful staging of its “peaceful rise” policy, China under Deng Xiaoping could bide its time and rise without the overhang of geopolitical competition. But India under Modi faces Xi’s revanchist China on the border along with an increasingly hostile regional security environment. There is no margin for error.

Singh is reading for a DPhil in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford.

Courtesy - The Indian Express.


Privacy and surveillance: On WhatsApp user policy change (The Hindu)

Following an exodus of its users from its messaging service, WhatsApp, to apps such as Signal and Telegram, which promise more privacy options, the Facebook-owned service might have been forced to postpone the date for users to accept its new privacy policy terms to May 15. In just days after the earlier announcement by WhatsApp, Signal has emerged as the leading app on “app-stores” as Indian users signalled their discomfort with the former’s data sharing policies. WhatsApp, with 459 million users, had emerged as the leading communications application for most Indians. What has caused patrons discomfort is WhatsApp’s ability to seamlessly share user metadata and mobile information with its parent company and social media behemoth, Facebook. Facebook Inc., which also owns Instagram, has sought to integrate the offerings from WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook, with the former acting also as a tool that secures payments for services and ads posted on the latter two applications, beyond its primary use as a messaging service.

This integration of three large consumption products is a means to monetise their everyday use by consumers and considering the fact that Facebook’s revenue model uses data on its platform to allow advertisers to target ads towards users, the algorithms would benefit from the WhatsApp data as well. Such data transfer from WhatsApp to Facebook is not possible in regions such as the EU, where data protection laws have stringent restrictions on storage and transfer of user data. This regionally differential treatment has attracted the attention of the Ministry of Electronics and IT, which has sent WhatsApp a series of queries, including on why Indian users would be sharing information with Facebook, unlike in Europe. The onus is also on the Indian government to quickly take up the legislation for robust data protection, that aligns with the recommendations of the Srikrishna Committee, which tried to address concerns about online data privacy in line with the 2018 Puttaswamy judgment. The draft Bill proposed by the government in 2019 diluted some of the provisos, for example, by limiting data localisation in proposing that only sensitive personal data needed to be mirrored in the country, and not all personal data as mandated by the committee. But data localisation as proposed by the committee may not necessarily lead to better data privacy, as it carries the possibility of domestic surveillance over Indian citizens. Privacy is better addressed by stronger contractual conditions on data sharing and better security tools being adopted by the applications that secure user data. The proposed Bill has some of these features, similar to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, but it also requires stronger checks on state surveillance before it is passed.

Courtesy - The Hindu.


American healing: On Joe Biden inauguration (The Hindu)

After one of the most contentious elections and presidential transitions in recent history, it was a relatively scaled-back inauguration ceremony that finally placed 46th President of the U.S. Joe Biden in the Oval Office. The devastating human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with deep partisan rancour and the bitter aftertaste of the Capitol building attack earlier this month, meant that Inauguration Day was less a flamboyant extravaganza than a quiet celebration of multicultural America reasserting itself. There could have been no greater symbol of that assertion than the swearing-in of Kamala Harris, his running mate of Indian and African descent, as Vice-President — the first woman ever to hold that position. Mr. Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, chose to not attend the event, making him only the fourth President to do so. Nevertheless, bipartisan goodwill was present on the dais before the Capitol building, as Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office to Mr. Biden, including former Vice-President Mike Pence, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and former President George W. Bush. It was bipartisanship and societal healing that appeared to be the theme of Mr. Biden’s speech, as he vowed to unite all Americans to fight the foes they faced, of “Anger, resentment, hatred. Extremism, lawlessness, violence. Disease, joblessness, hopelessness”. To the world, he committed to lead “by the power of our example”.

It was a demonstration of not only power but political intent when, on his first day in office, Mr. Biden expediently reversed a range of Trump-era actions by issuing 17 executive orders and directives to cancel the U.S.’s exit from the Paris Climate Agreement and WHO, include non-citizens in the census count, protect immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme from heightened risk of deportation, revoke the “Remain in Mexico” policy, halt construction of the infamous southern border wall and end the egregious “Muslim ban”. While these decisive actions may have felt like a balm to Democrats, he would do well to remember, as he goes about dismantling the Trump legacy, that 74 million people voted for his opponent, and Mr. Trump has encouraged them to believe that the election was stolen. If the Capitol building attack was an indication of the unhinged rage seething below the ostensibly peaceful transfer of power, it may not be long before the America of economically disenchanted white privilege again rears its head in a manner that today’s political victors find unsavoury. The fact that the White House, Senate and House of Representatives are now firmly in the grip of Democrats should not be cause for giving up on bipartisan moderation. Or else Mr. Biden’s search for a more perfect Union may take longer.

Courtesy - The Hindu.


Nehru and Bose: not quite parallel lives (The Telegraph)

Praveen Davar 

Subhas Chandra Bose was born on January 23, 1897. Netaji was one of the most charismatic leaders of the Independence movement who, before the saga of the Indian National Army, was twice the president of the Indian National Congress. Bose, who started his political career as a protégé of Deshbandu Chittaranjan Das, became, along with Jawaharlal Nehru, the most popular leader of the country’s youth. In 1928, the Nehru Report, prepared by Motilal Nehru — he headed a committee of an all-party conference to prepare a draft for the Constitution of free India — was made public. It was presented on the assumption that the new Constitution will be based on Dominion Status. This was opposed by the young radical group of the Congress headed by Nehru and Bose who were propagating full independence. 

However, when it came to the choice of the president of the Congress session at Calcutta, Bose not only supported Motilal Nehru but also went to the extent of saying nobody else would be acceptable. He wrote to the elder Nehru on July 28, 1928: “I cannot tell you how disappointed the whole of Bengal will feel if for any reason you decline the Congress Presidentship… we can think of nobody else who can rise to the occasion.” Jawaharlal Nehru was elected president of the next session at Lahore where the resolution of ‘complete independence’ was passed and January 26 (later Republic Day) declared as Independence Day. The decade of 1930-40 saw four stalwarts of the Congress as presidents of the party: Sardar Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru, Netaji and Maulana Azad. Of all these leaders of the Congress after M.K. Gandhi, no two leaders were as close to each other than Nehru and Bose till the latter fell out with Gandhi in 1939 which also adversely affected his relations with Nehru. Both Nehru and Bose had their vision of India lit up by the idea of socialism. Both laid emphasis on centralized planning, heavy industries and State ownership of key industries. The deep ideological affinity they shared turned into a strong personal bond. When Kamala Nehru died in Lausanne in February 1936, Bose, already in Europe, reached there before she breathed her last and helped Jawaharlal make the funeral arrangements. 

Before Kamala died, the presidentship of the 1936 Congress session at Lucknow had been offered to Jawaharlal. Within a few days of her death, Bose wrote to Nehru on March 6, 1936 from Austria: “Among the front rank leaders of today, you are the only one to whom we can look up to for leading the Congress in a progressive direction. Moreover your position is unique and I think even Mahatma Gandhi will be more accommodating towards you than towards anybody else.” 

After Bose was elected president of the Congress in 1938 for its 51st session in Haripura, Nehru, after a strenuous election campaign tour of the country, left for Europe where he propagated India’s case and got the opportunity to acquaint himself with the situation that was leading towards the Second World War. On October 19, 1938, Bose wrote to him: “You cannot imagine how I have missed you all these months… you have been able to do such valuable work during your stay in Europe... several problems will await solution till you are back.” The newly-elected Congress president, who had offered Nehru the chairmanship of the proposed National Planning Committee, repeated the offer: “Hope you will accept the Chairmanship of the National Committee. You must if it is to be a success.” 

The relations between Nehru and Bose continued to be cordial even after the latter was re-elected as the Congress president in 1939. When differences arose between the Mahatma and Bose on the constitution of the CWC, the latter sought Jawaharlal’s advice and wrote to him on April 15, 1939: “Will it be possible for you to run up here for a few hours? We could then have a talk and I could have your advice as to how to proceed next?” Jawaharlal not only travelled from Allahabad to Manbhum in Bihar to meet Bose, who was bedridden, but also wrote to Gandhi on April 17: “I think now, as I thought in Delhi, that you should accept Subhas as President. To try and push him out seems to be an exceedingly wrong step.” But despite Jawaharlal’s best efforts, the differences between the Mahatma and Bose could not be resolved. It had become extremely difficult for Gandhi to reject the advice of his colleagues in the right-wing, led by Patel, who were determined not to compromise with Bose. Ultimately, Bose resigned from the Congress, formed his own party — the Forward Bloc — and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Lest it be forgotten. Netaji named one of the brigades of his INA ‘Nehru Brigade’. After he died in an air crash in 1945, Nehru ensured that his widow, Emilie, was given life-long financial assistance by the Congress. With West Bengal elections around the corner, there will be attempts to distort history and exaggerate the differences between Bose and Nehru. Yes, there were differences, but only 1939 onwards. The differences were restricted to views on fascism and the relationship with Gandhi. Nobody could have put it better than Rudrangshu Mukherjee who, in his book, Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives, writes: “Subhas believed that he and Jawaharlal could make history together. But Jawaharlal could not see his destiny without Gandhi. This was the limiting point of their relationship.”

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Farmers Besotted By Protestations (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

The immovable object and the unstoppable force shifted and paused. But while the government offered the agitating farmers that it would hold the new farm laws in abeyance for 18 months — as a committee thrashes out differences between the farmers and government on the substance of the laws — the farmers have rejected this compromise.

Even the tractor rally the farmers have planned for Republic Day, a symbolic act that should have been withdrawn after GoI’s temporary ‘rollback’, remains rather inexplicably on schedule. We urge GoI to take independent action to realise profitable crop diversification on the ground in the major grain-growing regions of Punjab and Haryana, while the committee is at work.

And we urge protesting farmers to not get besotted by their own protestations. It would have been ideal if consensus could have been reached on the substance of the new farm laws, as they chart a path out of the status quo that has become unviable on both economic and environmental grounds.

India today produces far more grain than it consumes, spends far too much on that excess production and damages the environment, by depleting groundwater and turning the soil toxic. It must move out of open-ended procurement of rice and wheat at ever-rising support prices. Farmers are told that the laws seek to enrich large companies at their expense.

It is desirable, therefore, that reform is implemented on the ground, even as negotiations proceed in a committee. India imports edible oil, fruit and pulses even today. The point is to move out of grain to these crops and others such as flowers, for which the market only grows. The farmers had been unwilling to negotiate on anything other than outright repeal of the new laws, and the government had refused to postpone implementation of the laws. Such rigidity on either side had thwarted a solution. We hope better sense will prevail now, and the farmers lift their siege of Delhi.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


What goes up might stay up, for now (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

India’s major stock market indices, Sensex and Nifty, yesterday crossed, respectively, 50,000 and 14,700. Some will pop bottles of champagne, some worry where they will find themselves when the bubble eventually bursts. The price-to-earnings ratio for the Sensex is 34.42, meaning that to gain command over Re1 of earnings, you need to buy stock worth Rs 34.42.

That is steep. And the price-to-book ratio is 3.39. It is not unnatural for companies to be valued in excess of their book value. But this valuation, too, seems indulgent. Should investors stay put and celebrate or sober up and exit? It depends on their appetite for risk. Greed and panic drive the markets, it used to be said. Add central bank liquidity as a new driver of capital markets around the world.

In response to the pandemic and the economic downturn it brought on, governments around the world offered their citizens support worth $12 trillion, says the IMF. A portion of that leaches into the pool of capital scouring the world for profitable deployment. The monetary creation was accompanied by lowering interest rates to record lows. Ten-year US treasuries yield 1.08%.

Policy rates are negative in Europe and Japan. Diversifying portfolios across asset classes is the way to optimise risk and reward. So, a good part of the footloose capital comes to emerging markets. India got $23 billion of portfolio flows into equity in 2020, even after the panic outflows in March and September. In January, more than $3 billion has come in.

Domestic investors, too, have been investing in stocks in unprecedented numbers, given the low returns on traditional savings instruments such as fixed deposits. The US Fed wants to keep money easy till inflation stays put above 2% for some time. So, markets could keep their heady levels and even grow. The ideal way off the rollercoaster is for the real economy to grow to justify the valuations. Growth should be the focus of policy.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Thursday, January 21, 2021

DISCOM as data custodian (The Indian Express)

Written by Narendra Pai, Aditya Chunekar

The Ministry of Power (MoP) is planning to replace 250 million conventional electricity meters in Indian homes with smart meters by 2022 under the Smart Meter National Programme. Smart meters can potentially improve distribution companies (DISCOM) finances by automatically generating bills and ensuring timely payment by providing deterrence through remote disconnections of defaulters. This is one of the many initiatives by MoP to address the multiple long-standing issues of the sector, exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.

About 2.1 million smart meters have already been installed and are operational across the country, while another 9.1 million are under deployment, creating an urgent need to transparently document and thoroughly analyse the experience of deploying such a large number of smart meters. This article highlights one such aspect — the issue of data privacy. Beyond automated billing and remote disconnections, smart meters can also collect granular electricity consumption data of consumers every half an hour, or even less. This data, if used effectively, can help DISCOMs plan distribution infrastructure, power purchase, and offer value added services to the consumers, further improving DISCOM finances.

However, such high frequency consumption data collected by smart meters also has the potential to reveal private details of consumers like household occupancy patterns, appliance ownership and usage patterns, and even entertainment habits and preferences through analysis and inference.

The Supreme Court has already upheld the right to privacy as a fundamental right, therefore using and sharing such personal consumption data without adequate safeguards and appropriate consent would be tantamount to violation of the same. Furthermore, less secure data management and sharing systems can also expose this data to unlawful activities like burglary, stalking, surveillance, among other things. In other parts of the world, these privacy and security concerns are being addressed through a smart meter specific data protection framework that complements the general data protection framework.

This raises two questions in the Indian context: How effective are the current mechanisms to ensure data security and privacy of existing meters; and how prepared are the DISCOMs to comply with the rules and regulations of the upcoming Personal Data Protection Act. The answers to these questions are largely negative.

The Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act) along with the 2011 rules on “reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information” by definition, apply to both smart meter data and consumer billing data from ordinary meters. But there is no public information on the DISCOMs’ compliance with the IT Act. For instance, one provision requires publication of the privacy policy regarding handling all electronically stored data, but most of the DISCOMs have narrowly interpreted it to be applicable only to that collected through their websites.

Furthermore, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), a statutory body that advises the government on technical and policy matters related to electricity, has issued detailed functional requirements of an Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI). These guidelines, which have been adopted verbatim in some of the smart meter implementation contracts by the DISCOMs, have no requirements related to consumer privacy.

On the positive side, the standard bidding documents released by MoP, for hiring AMI service providers, do include privacy related provisions. However, we are yet to find its adoption by DISCOMs. Finally, even though the current smart meter data protection mechanisms may be lax, it can change significantly once the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill 2019 is enacted.

In order to strike a balance between utilising the economic value of personal data and upholding an individual’s Right to Privacy, the government tabled the PDP Bill 2019. This crucial bill is currently before the Joint Parliamentary Committee and only a few steps away from becoming the law. In fact, provisions akin to those in the PDP bill have already started applying to other sectors such as public health through the National Health Data Management Policy.


The PDP bill, once enacted, will replace the aforementioned provisions of IT Act and bring all consumer data with the DISCOMs, including monthly billing and high frequency smart meter data, under its ambit. DISCOMs, with or without smart meters, would then have the onerous task of ensuring that internal handling of such data as well as all its third party engagements do not violate individual privacy. Moreover, under the new law, a Data Protection Authority (DPA) would be appointed as the data regulator and DISCOMs would be bound by its regulations. The penalties under the law in case of non-compliance are significantly high, running up to 4 per cent of the annual global turnover. The proposed DPA will also possibly develop sector specific regulations in consultation with the sector regulators.

The electricity sector specific regulations need to be based on a comprehensive data protection framework, developed specifically for smart meter data. Such a framework should clearly identify the type of data that can be collected through smart meters, duration of storage and specific uses of the data as mandated or permitted under the Electricity Act 2003. It should delineate an appropriate consumer consent framework in accordance with the type of data collected and the specific uses. The framework should allow consumers to have full access to the data and summary insights, to change consent preferences, and to also have access to the privacy policy in clear and simple terms. In addition, data sharing protocols and accountability mechanisms like audit requirements and public reports should be a part of this framework.

Given the rapid pace of smart meter installation, MoP should urgently develop such a framework in consultation with CEA, central and state regulators, DISCOMs, smart meter manufacturers, civil society organisations and other stakeholders and publish it in the form of a white paper. MoP should also solicit for wider public comments on the same. This framework can be a good starting point for the proposed DPA to deliberate with electricity regulators to evolve specific regulations. Meanwhile, it will be prudent on DISCOMs’ part to understand their role as data custodians and start building the internal capacity to safeguard consumer privacy in both consumer as well as DISCOM’s mutual interest.

The writers are with Prayas (Energy Group), Pune

Courtesy - The Indian Express.


The WhatsApp nation (The Telegraph)

Arghya Sengupta  

In an era of relentless privatization, nationalization has become a bad word. It is synonymous with populism — Indira Gandhi’s bank nationalization drive — economic failure — the continuing misery of Air India — and the spectre of totalitarianism — the impending takeover of Alibaba by the Chinese State. But instances of nationalizing successful private companies for extraneous, often political, ends have meant that the original logic of nationalization has been lost. Certain companies performing critical public functions must work for the benefit of the public — if they don’t, then governments must step in to the breach. However, as I argue in this piece, this need not necessarily be by taking over ownership and control of the company. 

In India, WhatsApp is a public utility. Messaging friends, calling family, reviewing work documents, buying milk and vegetables — everything takes place on this single app downloaded by over 400 million Indians. Moreover, it’s free. This has meant that Indians consider the app an intrinsic part of their daily lives. This is why WhatsApp’s change in its privacy policy that states that all users would have to accept certain terms and conditions or would have to stop using the service came as a rude shock to many. It highlighted in one fell swoop salient facts that every user knew but often preferred to overlook — that WhatsApp was a private corporation and was owned by Facebook, a company whose recent record of safeguarding user data is questionable. 

The changes to the privacy policy themselves are of three kinds. First, WhatsApp will collect greater amounts of data, including time, frequency and duration of interactions. Second, chats with business accounts can be read by third parties to provide targeted advertisements. Third, data collected by WhatsApp will be shared with Facebook and other Facebook companies to design their products and improve services. Earlier users could opt out of such sharing, an option which appears to have been taken away. None of these changes affect end-to-end encryption on all personal messages, which continues as before. 

WhatsApp has now confirmed that these changes have been deferred by three months. This deferral is on account of misinformation that has spread in the wake of the changes. In the company’s view, the changes solely pertain to communicating with business accounts. It will use the three months to better communicate their meaning and implication for users. In May, however, once the three months are up, the new policy will still remain a take-it-or-leave-it for users. 

As far as the changes themselves are concerned, they appear to be pretty mundane and, ordinarily, should not have set alarm bells ringing. Communications with businesses online, typically all online purchases, involve personal data of the user being shared with the company. A cursory look at an Amazon account, for example, will not only show previous orders but also suggestions made by Amazon on the basis of user search history. Saving searches to improve targeting is no different in substance from processing messages sent by individuals to WhatsApp business accounts.

But to say that this is all that the privacy policy update is about, as WhatsApp has done, is misleading. There are significant changes to the information that WhatsApp will collect, how it will share such information, and what these changes signify. It’s another matter that the information that is collected by WhatsApp in terms of metadata, such as frequency of calls, or group names and profile photos, is no more or less than the industry norm. The Faustian bargain that everyone enters into while transacting on the internet and paying through one’s data is not unique to WhatsApp. This is a larger question on whether a supposedly ‘free’ internet, where payment is disguised as harvesting of personal data, is a business model that works for the benefit of the user. WhatsApp is merely following this norm and it cannot be singled out for this. Neither can it be singled out for its intention of sharing information with other Facebook companies. The very purpose of Facebook acquiring WhatsApp for a whopping $19 billion was to ensure greater integration with its suite of products. It can hardly be faulted for seeking user permission for data sharing that will make such integration successful. 

Despite the mundane nature of the changes, that they have created such a storm can only be explained by the fact that WhatsApp is perceived as performing a public function, even though it is a private corporation. And when such a corporation privileges commercial gain, a combination of dismay and shock is understandable. At its core, WhatsApp provides a service that has become essential to life as we know it. Typically, such services have come to be regulated as public utilities over time. This entails rules that ensure that the corporation works in the interest of its real stakeholders, the people, and not just its shareholders. For a long time, it was thought that the optimal way of ensuring this was by nationalizing it — the State taking over ownership and control of the corporation. But State ownership of WhatsApp is neither necessary nor sufficient to tether the corporation to public benefit. In fact, this would be a remedy that is worse than the disease. 

However, the undesirability of State control should not detract from the need for State regulation. In fact, in the context of private corporations that perform essential public functions, nationalization must be redefined to mean three fundamental tenets of regulation. First, WhatsApp must be subject to a statutorily prescribed privacy policy. This privacy policy should prevent harvesting of data for any purpose other than the purpose for which the individual is signing up. So when an individual provides his/her personal data to WhatsApp, he/she does it for being able to send and receive messages and phone calls, not for Facebook to provide recommendations on what she should watch. Data processing should be limited to this purpose. Second, WhatsApp should be subject to a principle of non-discrimination — it should not provide premium and non-premium versions based on the users’ ability to pay, failing which they are compelled to allow greater harvesting of data. The service must be equally available to all, without conditions. Third, all data of Indians, whether metadata or otherwise, must remain in India. This will ensure a basis for jurisdiction of Indian law enforcement and courts were things to go wrong. This list isn’t necessarily exhaustive but only the starting point of a wider conversation on nationalizing WhatsApp in the modern era of privatization. 

The noise around WhatsApp’s privacy policy is not only about what it means for user privacy — most users will be happy to accept the changes, whether willingly or otherwise, as they do with a range of other applications. It is primarily a testament to the centrality of WhatsApp in our lives and a call for a democratically elected State to respond wisely. To not do so would signal the rise of the nations of Silicon Valley supplanting the nation states of today.

The author is Research Director, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


President Biden: Hope And Responsibility (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

Joseph Biden, Jr has been sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. The absence of the outgoing president at the inauguration for first time underlines the deep fractures within the US polity.

Despite legal challenges, a vociferous campaign of lies and incitement of an insurrection by the disgraced loser in the presidential race, there was no stopping the transition of power. President Biden has not just to repair the rift but to move forward as well, fighting the pandemic, rebuilding the economy and regaining America’s position in the world, repairing alliances and partnerships across the world.

President Biden begins with a flurry of more than a dozen executive orders — some reversing measures taken by his predecessor and others reorienting the administration’s strategy. Ending the ban on travel from Muslim countries, accelerating the pace of vaccination against Covid and a pathway to citizenship for America’s nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants are the easy bits.

Getting the kind of stimulus the President wants through Congress will be more complex. Biden acknowledges that these have been dark times for the US, but reminds people that there is always light and that not only can things change but that they do. He will need to work on all fronts, not just to heal the US but to restore its place in the world.

A first step will be reaffirming faith in multilateralism — rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate and the World Health Organisation, and reversing the undermining of the World Trade Organisation. The US-India relationship will deepen, moving away from the transactional. The point is to build a partnership in a world that has altered, with new challenges in technology and strategic rivalry from China.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Get on with our data protection law (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

Facebook is accountable for many sins of omission and commission, and whether buying WhatsApp to pre-empt competition is one of them is being determined by a judicial process in the US. Compared to these, WhatsApp’s decision to change its user agreement to make it clear that it will share some data with Facebook properties is a minor infraction.

Only the innocent fail to appreciate that when you get a service for free, you pay for it with your data. Google, for example, knows not only who you correspond with over mail and chat, but what your browsing habits are, where all you go, what your engagements are, as well. It targets its ads better, using this information, and makes more money.

Instead of crying about unilateral changes in the terms of service, what India needs to do is to put in place a reasonable law on protecting data. The European Union has the General Data Protection Regulation, which lays down clear-cut rules for protecting EU citizens’ data by any service provider.

So, if WhatsApp’s user terms in Europe are less invasive of privacy than these are in India, the fault is in our failure, so far, to put in place a legal framework for data protection. If the rules that have to be followed are clear enough, it will be up to WhatsApp to decide whether to offer its services in India or not, instead of asking Indian users to either accept its new terms of use or sign out.

In fact, WhatsApp is more rattled by mass defection of its users to rival Signal and Telegram messaging services than by legally unenforceable demands from the government. WhatsApp user groups are major sites of ideological indoctrination and this user base is confused whether to stay on or migrate, creating the uproar in social media.

As the recent publication of detailed WhatsApp messages of a celebrity journalist shows, data leaks happen not so much at the level of the messaging service as at the level of those that lay their hands on it. Yes, a data protection law is vital, but so is its rigorous enforcement beyond the realm of technology providers,

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Solving the child malnutrition puzzle (The Indian Express)

Written by Himanshu

The recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 5 data raise serious concerns about India’s growth story. Behind the glitter of the stock market touching new heights, lies the gloomy reality of India’s ballooning childhood malnutrition. In India, 37.8 per cent of children under 5 years of age are stunted. This is 16 per cent higher than the average for Asia (22 per cent). The situation of wasting is no better, with 20.8 per cent of children under 5 years of age affected, which is higher than average for Asia (9 per cent). The Global Nutrition Report, 2020, highlights that 68 per cent of under-5 mortality in India is due to malnutrition. As per the latest NFHS 5 report, over 35 per cent of children under 5 are stunted and over 20 per cent are wasted in 18 out of the 22 states for which data is released. That amounts to 47 million children, the largest in any part of the world. Out of the two, stunting, also known as growth retardation, has serious long-term health and economic consequences.

As countries move up the income ladder, the rates of stunting and wasting declines, a phenomenon observed globally. However, India is an outlier and breaks this causality. States with relatively high per capita incomes have stunting rates comparable to the poorest African countries. In many Indian states, the situation is worse than that of poor sub-Saharan African countries. For instance, Bihar, Manipur and West Bengal have similar per capita income ($) as sub-Saharan African countries — Liberia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe — but, the average stunting rates in Bihar (43 per cent), Assam (35 per cent) and West Bengal (34 per cent) are 10-12 per cent higher than that of Liberia (33 per cent), Tanzania (32 per cent) and Zimbabwe (3 per cent) respectively. The situation is worse when it comes to middle-income states like Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka with similar per capita income ($) as Peru, Egypt and Morocco. The average stunting rates in Goa (26 per cent) Maharashtra (35 per cent), Gujarat (39 per cent), Telangana (33 per cent) and Karnataka (35 per cent) are almost 10-15 per cent higher than that of Peru (12 per cent), Egypt (22 per cent) and Morocco (15 per cent). Understanding this paradox among Indian states, which has an unusually high level of stunting relative to their economic development, merits investigation.

Despite this high prevalence, India has rarely undertaken a comprehensive study to understand the pathogenesis of stunting. Therefore, what we have is a lopsided understanding of the problem. As per WHO, stunting can be attributable to medical and socio-economic factors. The medical factors include genetics (parents’ height), access to nutrition and mother’s health (anaemia, BMI). Besides, there are economic factors — income, poverty, access to healthcare, mother’s education and labour force participation — and social factors — caste, race, women status and place of residence etc. Of these, which ones are proximate and which one the distant factors, we simply don’t know.

Based on this conceptualisation, economic factors like average per capita income and prevalence of multi-dimensional poverty are loosely correlated with the prevalence of high stunting in states of AP, Telangana, Gujarat, Maharashtra & Karnataka. Similarly, maternity care characteristics (ante-natal care during pregnancy, post-natal care and consumption of folic acid during pregnancy), although extremely important, but, are weakly associated with high stunting rates in these states. Despite relatively modest economic growth and favourable maternity characteristics, high prevalence of stunting in these states defies logic. After all, these states have been the flagbearers of India’s growth story since 1991.

In popular parlance, poverty is synonymous with stunting. Poor households and poor states are expected to have stunted children. But what could explain significantly higher stunting rates in middle-income states?

First, women’s educational status, especially secondary and above, along with female labour force participation partly resonates with high stunting rates. Maternal literacy is an important determinant of a child’s nutritional status. Literate mothers are expected to be aware of their health, nutrition and breastfeeding practices. This finding, however, reflects the tragic reality of women bearing the undue burden of childcare. Second, the mother’s health, the prevalence of anaemia in women of reproductive age. India is one of the most anaemia-prone countries in the world. Children under age 5 and women of productive age are particularly vulnerable. Several studies have explored the strong association between stunting and the presence of anaemia in women of childbearing age. For instance, women of low BMI had greater odds of developing anaemia and the children of anaemic mothers are at greater risk of being stunted. The implication, a vicious circle of anaemia and stunting — stunted children of anaemic mothers are at greater risk of developing anaemia. The NFHS 5 data corroborate this finding — all women in reproductive age who are anaemic stands at 59 per cent in Andhra Pradesh, 40 per cent in Goa, 63 per cent in Gujarat, 48 per cent in Karnataka, 55 per cent in Maharashtra and 58 per cent in Telangana.

Third, urban slums and lack of sanitation is a potential contributor to stunting. Despite claims, India still lags behind sub-Saharan African countries in terms of safely managed sanitation services. States like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka have a significant population living in urban slums who do not have access to improved sanitation facilities. The difference in sanitation practices between Indian states and their African counterparts explains the difference in stunting rates.

The other, atypical factor that has an impact on the prevalence of stunting is genetics (mother’s height). As per WHO, the golden rule of measuring stunting in children is the height for age Z score (HAZ). A child is considered stunted if the HAZ score is two standard deviations below the median of WHO child growth standard. The height of children is closely associated with the height of mothers. For instance, the average female height in South Asia, including India, is approx. 150-156 cm, whereas, the average female height in Europe and Africa is 164-168 cm and 160-165 cm respectively. Genetic differences can explain the differences in the stock of stunted children in two regions, but it can’t be the dominant factor in explaining the flow of stunted children. The analysis, then, boils down to the real culprits — anaemia and low BMI among women, social and gender inequalities, which together manifest in the problem of malnutrition among children.

(The writer is an economist with Swaniti Initiative, previously worked with Prime Minister Economic Advisory Council, Government of India & FAO of United Nations. Views are personal)

Courtesy - The Indian Express.


Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Poison and prison: On political importance of Navalny (The Hindu)

Russian authorities have repeatedly tried to play down the political importance of Alexei Navalny, the opposition politician who was poisoned in Siberia five months ago, saying he is unpopular. President Vladimir Putin, while answering questions from reporters in December on the poison attack, said, ‘who needs him anyway’. But the arrest of the 44-year-old Kremlin critic upon his return to Moscow on Sunday — he left the country in a coma from the near-fatal chemical attack — only belies such claims. The authorities diverted his plane to a different airport on the outskirts and detained him before he could get past the passport control, while riot police were deployed to stop his supporters from entering the arrival zone of another airport. Russian authorities had warned that he would be arrested if he returned from Germany, where he was recovering from the poison attack, as he had been wanted since late December for violations of his suspended sentence from an embezzlement case. But Mr. Navalny, who has accused Mr. Putin of ordering the poison attack, still chose to travel to Russia, in an open defiance of Mr. Putin’s power, and courted arrest. On Monday, a judge remanded him in custody for 30 days.

In Mr. Navalny, Mr. Putin has found his strongest political opponent in his two-decade-long rule. Once known for his extreme nationalist and anti-immigrant views, Mr. Navalny has turned himself into the embodiment of the anti-Kremlin politics in Russia, which remains tightly controlled by Mr. Putin. And it is no secret that the Kremlin has tried its best to suppress his political movement. He has been detained several times and criminal cases launched against him. He was barred from contesting the 2018 Presidential election. And in August, he collapsed while on a domestic flight from Siberia. German doctors who treated him later confirmed that he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent. Western media investigations had implicated Russian agents, an allegation the government has denied. Even if Russian agents were not involved, Mr. Putin cannot escape questions about his most prominent political opponent being poisoned within Russia. His government has the responsibility to investigate what happened in Siberia and bring the perpetrators to justice. That is what any government that believes in the rule of law should be doing. But instead of finding and punishing those who attacked him, Mr. Putin’s government, like any dictatorial regime, is going after the victim. It is ironic that Mr. Putin, who recently got the Constitution amended so that he could stay in power beyond two consecutive terms, is still perturbed by the presence of a leader who he says nobody wants. If the long years of attempts to suppress Mr. Navalny’s political activism have achieved anything, it is that he is now a stronger opposition figure with international standing.

Courtesy - The Hindu.


Whatever it takes: On govt. powers to combat vaccine hesitancy (The Hindu)

Faith in entities is often an act of personal commitment not amenable to falsification, but trust in a scientific process can be established with confidence-building measures and full disclosure of all relevant data. Any mass campaign that involves voluntary effort on the part of the public can succeed only when transparency and open communication channels are the tools of choice. If the poor rate of uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine in most of the States in the country is any indication, the government has not taken the people of the country along, in what is a purely voluntary exercise, but one vested with great power to retard the pace of the epidemic. For instance, Tamil Nadu, a State perceived to be largely health literate, and relatively well-equipped with health infrastructure, achieved only over 16% of its targeted coverage on the launch day. On the second day of vaccination, the compliance further dropped; in some States, vaccination was suspended. A marked favouring of the Covishield vaccine over Covaxin was also noticed in multiple States.

But none of this is a surprise. The signs, verily, were out there for everyone to see, for a long time indeed. Studies measured high levels of vaccine hesitancy among the general population, and among health-care workers, the first in the line list of people to receive free vaccination. Clearly, vaccine hesitancy was not addressed sufficiently, or not taken seriously enough. With the sequence of events that followed the clearance of Emergency Use Authorisation (in Covaxin, it is emergency use authorisation in ‘clinical trial mode’) — a high-handed announcement with little attempt to put out compelling evidence in the public domain, or answer multiple queries in press conferences — vaccine hesitancy merely dug its heels in deeper. The inability of the government and agencies involved to amicably resolve controversies surrounding the clearance for Covaxin, even before it was able to produce interim data on efficacy from phase-3 trials, has had a direct consequence, as witnessed by poor numbers in its uptake so far. A vaccine, unequivocally, is public good, but the lack of transparency surrounding the roll-out of the COVID vaccines has done little to enhance trust in this experiential principle. This uncommon haste in trying to lunge towards the tape while still some distance from the finish line might have been justified if the state had taken the people along. Vaccinating the nation, however, is less a race than a slow and steady process. Building confidence in the process is crucial to achieving the task at hand. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s oft-repeated mantra, ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’, is very relevant here. And the Health Ministry must do whatever it takes to make a success of the vaccination drive.

Courtesy - The Hindu.


Positive signs (The Telegraph)

Renu Kohli 

The year 2021 brings positivity and optimism. There is a lot to look forward to even though the battle against the virus is not yet over. Countries are still challenged by recurrent infections. But effective vaccines discovered late last year have transformed into advancing inoculations in 2021. This heralds the end of the pandemic and a corresponding restoration of economic lives ahead. Backing this are bouncebacks that have mostly surprised by their speed and strength everywhere. These are solid reasons for the positive turn expected in 2021 in spite of the risks and occasional setbacks that may arise. 

Positive developments in recent months impart a cheerful start. Dominating are the vaccination drives that commenced last December in many countries and in India last week. Inoculating large populations is overwhelming, especially for a big country like ours. The assurance is that the task, once begun, will expand and improve with time in spite of hurdles. The majority population in advanced countries, for example, the United States of America, is expected to be covered by the second half of 2021, and possibly by the third quarter in India. The prospective release of people from their safe barricades to streets, movies, restaurants, travel places and so on has charged the environment. Business and governments can now see suppressed consumer demand un-bottling and revenues restoring ahead.

The enthusiasm is layered over mostly good economic news. Post-lockdown recoveries have proved better than expected; growth forecasts have mostly been upgraded with few exceptions. China grew 2.3 per cent in 2020, giving a strong global boost. Then, the US election outcome signalled smoother governance last November. Vaccine and second-round US stimulus hopes are driving up investor sentiments, rallying markets to dizzying heights since, and have spilled over into the new year. With the US now intending to inject more fuel with a $1.9 billion fiscal push, and the growth forecast for China being 7.9 per cent in 2021, the two nations may provide a significant global thrust with their economic heft. 

The upbeat global factors have been mirrored in Indian markets and asset prices as well. The sentiments are reinforced by genuine economic improvement and a satisfying decline in infections. 2021 begins with a backdrop of a steady upward trend in lead economic and mobility indicators; a much lesser contraction in aggregate output, -7.7 per cent, is now foreseen in FY20 than the double-digit expected before. In synchronization with the rest of the world, India’s return to normalcy is also expected to be continuously spurred on by increasing inoculation coverage, which could free a critical mass of consumers from virus fears. Of special import here is the positive thrust this will give to the services economy, a large portion of which has been pressured by Covid-19, depressing consumption and employment. 

For all these positives, it is not as if all is hunky-dory. This year does come with risks, pressures and challenges. For example, new Covid-19 variants could resist the currently workable vaccines, require modification and delay progress; present inoculations could stumble; while containing severe, current outbreaks, for example, in the US and Europe, could be tough. Economic risks, too, are several and complex. Rebounding economies could falter, for example, in a double-dip recession, as is feared for the Eurozone this month itself. A major macroeconomic risk has surfaced in the fear of a surprise inflation outburst in response to pent-up demand pressures, triggering 2013 taper tantrum repeat fears in case the inflation forces a monetary retreat by the US Federal Reserve. For emerging economies such as India, this risks a sudden reversal of foreign capital flows with feedbacks to stocks, bonds and the exchange rate. 

Policies could go wrong; for instance, support can be withdrawn too soon. The pressures are intense because of the risk that the nascent post-pandemic upturns could falter, slow down or even reverse. An oft-observed pattern in usual recessions is that the V-shaped recovery does not immediately return to the former peak; or growth fails to lift further from the peak, either flattening or falling below the former trend. The policy challenges exist, therefore, not only for 2021 but beyond, for the world as whole. This is also the stage when deeper wounds surface, such as permanent damages to the supply side with business closures, job losses and lowered individual incomes from the resulting backward spiral. 

For India, the policy challenge and pressures are similar but compounded for two reasons. One, unlike most other countries, an adverse public financial position and rating agencies’ fears limited fiscal policy aid at the outset. The post-pandemic recovery context is nebulous at present: real economic betterment is yet to be backed by a matching pick-up on the financial side; the post-pandemic state of bad assets is still to be recognized and exactly known; economic conditions in the large informal economy, which has not been accurately represented in national accounts for a long time, are unidentified; while clear evidence that employments have recovered is to the contrary — unemployed numbers were estimated at 15 million more last December than one year ago.

Two, the economy was poor and deteriorating on the eve of Covid-19 last year. The gross domestic product growth then dropped to 4.2 per cent in FY20, the third year in a row. The causes and nature of that prolonged slowdown, if structural or cyclical, remain undiagnosed. Covid-19 overshadowed that decline and discourse. But the problem has not gone away, and has to be dealt with in addition to the challenge posed by the post-pandemic recovery. This is a very demanding task, for it requires abundant policy room that India simply does not have on the fiscal front; the monetary policy side could also encounter constraints from the acceleration of the global rise ahead. These complex objectives will have to be confronted, to start with, by the imminent budget that, hopefully, has them on the drawing board to draft fiscal responses for the next two years at the least.

The pressures apart, the positive portents that the new year brings with it are a big cause for optimism and celebration. Let us hope that the two — inoculations against the coronavirus and the emergence from its devastation in 2020 — jointly move only in one direction, which is upwards, this year. It is a lot worth looking forward to.

The author is a macroeconomist

Courtesy - The Telegraph.


Adverse Effects of Vaccine: Be Rational (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

At the end of day two of India’s vaccination drive against Covid-19, more than 224,300 people have been inoculated. Of these, 447 reported adverse effects, of whom three required hospitalisation. The number of adverse reactions should not cause worry, they account for 0.19% of the persons vaccinated. This is a good start.

Some adverse effects are par for the course for any vaccine, let alone the cohort of vaccines developed at the pace at which Covid-19 vaccines have been. As of now, the share of adverse reactions should not give rise to questions about any vaccine in particular and the use of vaccines for building immunity against Covid-19 in general. It is important to collect data on the nature of adverse reactions and characteristics of people experiencing them: it might reveal patterns or new information that can help improve vaccine delivery and effectiveness. In Norway, 29 persons above the age of 75 died after receiving the first shot of the Pfizer vaccine, prompting the Norwegian authorities to adjust their advisory for frail patients, who may not be able to withstand the nausea engendered by the vaccine. The Indian Council of Medical Research and the Drugs Controller General of India must keep processing and evaluating the information on adverse reactions and effects, and relay necessary information to the medical community and the public at large. The government must ensure that the information is widely disseminated, to counter rumour and worse.

India’s vaccination programme has begun well. Given the population size, it is essential to maintain the momentum. The health ministry has done well to be forthcoming with FAQs on the vaccines, including possible after-effects, and with information of actual experience.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Defence Orders to Boost Local Capacity (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

The government has cleared an order for 83 light combat aircraft (LCA) on Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). The order is worth nearly ₹48,000 crore. The indigenous content is supposed to be 50% at the beginning and is supposed to go up to 60% by the time all the aircraft are delivered. Defence production is a way to encourage advanced manufacturing in the country. The present order is, in this respect, a boost for self-reliant (atmanirbhar) production.

If only things were that simple. How much of the total value that is added to produce the LCA Tejas Mk1A is accomplished in India is anybody’s guess. It is an old public sector trick to count as local production anything that is purchased from an Indian company, regardless of the import content of that purchase. Suppose an Indian company buys sophisticated electronic sub-assemblies from Israel, France or the US and puts them together to supply HAL with an assembly that purports to be made in India for the Tejas fighter, what is the real gain for domestic industry? The point is not to create an autarkic defence sector. India must procure from the rest of the world what is best and most cost-effective for its defence equipment. But there must be clarity on the extent of foreign content in the so-called indigenous output, so that improvement on this score can be achieved and measured. India still has the largest national contingent of young people of college-going age and, even after taking into account the damage done to their potential by terrible schooling, has the largest potential pool of engineers, scientists, designers and dreamers who can produce breakthrough technologies and convert them into useful products. Provided this capacity is marshalled.

That is why India needs to step up efforts on the lines of America’s Darpa — Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funds moonshot projects — and nourish a startup ecosystem that innovates, drawing upon the best of R&D from around the world. The LCA order just scratches the surface. The point is to dig deep and rake it in.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.


Monday, January 18, 2021

The needle as the sword & the shield (The Economic Times)

Quick takes, analyses and macro-level views on all contemporary economic, financial and political events.

Roll-out of mass vaccination against Covid-19 marks the beginning of the end of the pandemic and, therefore, of the economic distress caused by it. For every inhabitant of the land to acquire protection, immunisation has to be universal. For the population to acquire herd immunity, which would suffice to halt the spread of the disease within the community, but does not guarantee that everyone would be immune, even if exposed, say, to an infected visitor, an estimated 60-70% of the population would need to be inoculated. Not surprisingly, along with China’s, India’s would be the world’s largest Covid vaccination drive, by far.

The development, testing and approval of multiple vaccines against Sars-Cov-2, the virus causing Covid-19, within one year of its genetic sequence being put out by Chinese scientists, has been a remarkable achievement of technology and global cooperation. Administering the vaccine to billions of people around the world would be a gigantic task of planning, organisation, cooperation, logistics management, record-keeping and database management. The initial experience in India demonstrates our capacity to manage this task reasonably well. Sure, there have been some cases of allergic reactions, but these are relatively few and none has been fatal. While India has prioritised healthcare and frontline workers, other places are following different strategies: Indonesia wants to inoculate working people first, since they are the ones most likely to contract the disease and spread it. New Jersey wants smokers to get the jab before, say, teachers. The results of these different strategies should constantly be monitored.

A word of caution on Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, still in phase 3 clinical trials. The emergent nature of the vaccination task, in the face of new strains that spread faster, has led the authorities to clear its use as a backup in clinical trial mode. No one should be forced to take it. Commercially vital reputations are at stake: India’s drug regulation’s and Bharat Biotech’s. These should not be damaged.

Courtesy - The Economic Times.

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