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Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Telegraph. Show all posts

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Will the vaccines protect us from new strains of the novel coronavirus? (The Telegraph)

Dipyaman Ganguly   

It was just a year ago, in December 2019 that we first got to know about this new guest to this planet, the novel coronovirus SARS-CoV-2. During the last 13 months scientists worldwide have accomplished an unbelievable feat. This is for the first time that not one but several vaccines have been approved for an infection which started just a year ago.


It’s true that scientists haven’t had enough time to fully characterise the nature of protection and especially the duration of protection offered by the vaccines, as the passing of time is the only way to derive that kind of data. Nevertheless, a number of these vaccines have been meticulously shown to induce an efficacious immune response against the virus and till the time they were followed up in the respective phase 3 trials they offered recipients considerable protection from natural infections. 


Most vaccines are designed to target the spike protein of the virus. For example the Oxford vaccine Chadox1 nCoV-19, or its Indian avatar Covishield, uses an adenovirus and introduces the SARS-CoV-2 spike gene into it. The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine BNT162b2 and the Moderna vaccine mRNA-1273 use modified RNA molecules encoding spike protein encapsulated in sub-microscopic bags made of lipid.


These vaccines are expected to train the recipients’ immune system to recognise this protein and to mount a response in the form of producing antibodies to it, which can block the spike protein of the virus during a natural infection and prevent the virus from infecting human cells. The vaccines are also expected to generate a potent T cell repertoire, another arm of the immune system, which can also recognise the virus and eliminate the infected human cells, to stop propagation of the virus within the body. 


Unfortunately at the same time, just a year from first encounter with the virus, on December 21, 2020, health authorities from United Kingdom published a technical briefing document that reported cases of infections in southern England by SARS-CoV-2. But there was an alarming change: this was a different strain of SARS-CoV-2, or the so-called ‘UK strain’.

A number of other strains have also been notified from different parts of the world. Mutations in viruses are very common. Replication of a virus inside human cells involves copying the genetic material with random accumulation of errors, which are largely corrected by inherent proofreading mechanisms. When these fail the errors stay back as mutations.


For RNA viruses, like SARS-CoV-2 (with its genetic code being written on a molecule called RNA), the proofreading mechanisms are characteristically weaker and the chances of such errors are greater. The only notable change in the UK strain was an increased transmission, causing the infection to spread more rapidly. This is also scary as a faster spread of infection means a rapid influx of patients that can potentially overwhelm healthcare facilities. But for India the rate of accumulation of new cases has declined considerably so this should not create much of a problem for some time now. 


Available data assert that the mutations in these new strains are not enough to make the virus change the way it affects the human body or cause disease. There’s no evidence yet to indicate a change in severity of the symptoms or outcomes.


But a number of mutations encountered in these new strains of SARS-CoV-2 affected the spike protein. And this has raised concerns about the efficacy of the available vaccines against the new strains. As I explained the vaccines primarily are expected to generate antibodies to spike, as it was in the original strain. Whether these antibodies may fail to recognise the mutated spike is the question. Let me explain a little bit why it may happen.


The spike protein, like any other protein, is made of a chain of molecules called amino acids. Imagine you have a necklace of coloured beads on your palm. You close your fist and the necklace folds onto itself in a complex structure. Now imagine that there are rules that ensure even in that apparent free-form complexity only specific coloured beads can only come close to each other, thus restricting shape options for the folded necklace. Proteins are similar necklace-like molecules with chemicals called amino acids as the beads. The immediate environment of the protein molecule (especially water present in the immediate environ) acts as the closed fist. Now if a few beads are removed or changed in colour, its shape also changes. 


Antibodies do not recognise the actual sequence of amino acids in a protein. They actually recognise the surface elements or topology, e.g. specific grooves, folds, loops or pockets on a protein. Any change in this surface topology of spike could result in the antibody not recognising the protein. Of note here, not only vaccines, the much used convalescent plasma therapy is also based on this recognition of viral proteins by antibodies that block its function and thus prevent the virus from infecting human cells.


Mutations reported in the new strains do change the sequence of amino acids in SARS-CoV-2 spike. More importantly some of these changes affect a part of the protein which is usually targeted by the neutralising antibodies, known as the receptor binding domain or RBD.


For example strains reported from UK and South Africa both have a mutation called N501Y (in simpler terms the 501st amino acid is changed, as per my allegory the bead in that position has changed colour) in that crucial part of spike protein. The South African variant has additional mutations E484K and K417N in the same region. A variant reported from Brazil was found to have mutations for both N501Y and E484K. Thus it raises the concern of substantially changing that crucial region of spike, so as to modify its structure and surface topology. Will the antibodies fail to recognise this changed face of spike? There are indeed chances this could happen.


A similar phenomenon has recently been reported in a study, where scientists found that in the case of another coronavirus (called 229E), neutralising antibodies present in convalescent plasma against earlier strains failed to show activity against later strains.


In the case of SARS-CoV-2 too, with the Brazilian E484K variant it has been shown that plasma from convalescent donors, who recovered from infection with the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, was less efficacious to neutralise LATER variantS. Fortunately for the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine we have relevant data available that shows the N501Y mutation cannot evade the immune response to this vaccine. Similar data generated with the other vaccines will be more reassuring and needs to be generated.


These mean that even if vaccines are there and we are really excited about that, we should be vigilant and keep on following the protective drill of social distancing and mask usage. On the other hand, major effort should go into sequencing a large fraction of new cases for detecting any new variants that may arise.


More importantly, independent research efforts should be taken up to monitor the recipients of all different vaccines, so that any case of vaccine failure (reinfection in a vaccine recipient) is notified. A comprehensive post-vaccination immune monitoring will also help us gather valuable insights on the nature of immune protection these different vaccines are capable of offering, especially in terms of duration of such protection and vulnerability of that protection to new variants, if any. 


Dipyaman Ganguly is a physician scientist and immunologist at the CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, Calcutta. He is actively engaged with research on patients with COVID-19.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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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.

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Friday, January 22, 2021

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.

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Thursday, January 21, 2021

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.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

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.

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Monday, January 18, 2021

Temporary grief (The Telegraph)

Sevanti Ninan  

Convenience is addictive. But after transforming our lives, internet-based technologies are getting to the stage where we have to mind the repercussions of using them. Over the past several months, we’ve seen a convergence of concerns over free speech and privacy on the one hand and the monopolistic practices of communication technology providers on the other.  The communication technology giants, meanwhile, are up against both governments and more rabid users of their platforms. The confrontation promises to persist.


Earlier this month, internet users in India were aflutter over what WhatsApp’s new privacy policy meant and what information it was seeking permission to share with Facebook.  It triggered a migration to other messaging services such as Signal and Telegram before people woke up to the realization that the messaging app had been sharing user information with Facebook since 2016.


Right-wing Americans who had gravitated to the Parler platform because they thought it was a secure place to share extreme views first found its app abruptly banned from their app stores by Google and Apple and, then, found that their identities would become known after all because its technology allowed data from it to be scraped. And that made them vulnerable to law enforcement action. The rioters who stormed the Capitol in Washington this month had posted some of their plans on this network.



In India, the Chinese fintech loan apps available on Google store were eagerly used by many loan seekers who were then driven to desperation and even death when the loan sharks behind them turned nasty. Last week, the Reserve Bank of India ordered Google to take them off the app store.


Equally, the tech giants are getting to the stage where they have to watch their backs.  For much of last year, they have been under scrutiny from governments in the United States of America, Europe and Australia. In July, US lawmakers conducted extensive anti-trust hearings on their practices. Then came an October House Judiciary Committee report on the hearings and Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon were found guilty of alleged anti-competitive behaviour. The Justice Department and 11 Republican attorney-generals sued Google for this.


On another front, governments in Australia, France and the United Kingdom have been considering ways to get search platforms to pay fair compensation for journalistic content siphoned off from news media.  In France, a competition regulator has ordered Google to pay a copyright fee to media groups. In December 2020, the Australian government introduced laws to force Facebook and Google to pay media companies for the content they use. 


Now other platforms have come under renewed scrutiny for their role in fomenting the attack on the Capitol.  The New York Times profiled some influencers on Facebook and showed that its algorithms coaxed many Americans into sharing more extreme views on the platform and rewarding them with likes and shares for their posts.  Whatever happened to Facebook’s much-vaunted oversight committee with names of a range of eminences  from around the world? We have been reading about it since 2018.


Facebook responded to the attack on the Capitol by banning the US president from its platform.  He was also banned by Twitter. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was disturbed enough by this to make a statement, saying lawmakers and not private technology companies should set the rules governing free speech.  


Twitter said it acted because of  evidence of new riots planned for January 17, while Facebook said it has, so far, taken down 600 militarized social groups and was banning posts from those saying they planned to take weapons to government buildings.


The less charitable ascribed the banning of Donald Trump to his being a head of government who is on his way out.  A statement from the American Civil Liberties Union expressing concern at his being banned from Facebook and Twitter suggested that both were wielding unchecked power “especially when political realities make those decisions easier”.


Stock market investors, too, are indignant enough to make their disapproval hurt: Twitter and Facebook paid the price for banning Trump: they ended up losing $51 billion in combined market cap in two days. Facebook saw $47.6 billion erased from its public valuation, while Twitter's market cap dropped by $3.5 billion.  The companies will doubtless rebound, but are discovering that their actions make them vulnerable.


India’s response to the practices of internet giants operating here has been mixed. In November last year, the Competition Commission of India ordered an investigation against Google for abusing its market position to unfairly promote its own mobile payments app in this country by showcasing Google Pay more prominently inside its app store on android phones in India.  In 2019, the CCI had also ordered a probe against Google in an anti-trust case for its alleged abuse of the Android phone’s  dominant position to block rivals.


Yet, on the issue of privacy practices of social media companies, the government seems sanguine. It was reported earlier this month that the labour ministry was planning to use social media such as WhatsApp for communicating details of salary remittances to workers once its new labour codes come into operation even as a more privileged class of WhatsApp users was creating a shindig about the app’s new privacy policy. Will this not put working class users at risk of data theft and financial profiling, critics are asking.


As contentious issues persist and clashes with governments and users grow over such concerns as privacy and data management, last year’s anti-trust actions are leading to talk about breaking up the big companies. This is easier said than done. A report  by the Council on Foreign Relations points out that anti-trust actions have had little success in the past in directly curbing technology companies.


Meanwhile, Google is reportedly seeking out new streams of revenue and its next big thing is likely to come from sectors such as cloud computing, transportation and healthcare. Each of these has a massive addressable market and plays well to the tech giant’s strength in AI, says a CBInsights report.


Whichever way you look at it, companies such as the ones under scrutiny are too big and too smart to suffer lasting grief.


The author is a media commentator and was the founder-editor of TheHoot.org

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Saturday, January 16, 2021

A troubled prognosis (The Telegraph)

T.C.A. Raghavan  

The drama at the Capitol in Washington obscured the resumption of the intra-Afghan dialogue with the second round between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan beginning last week. The first round extended for some three months and ended in December with an agreement on the ‘Rules of Procedure’ and an exchange of issues that each side wanted the talks to focus on.


How the first round is evaluated in terms of success or failure depends largely on where you stand on what is happening in Afghanistan today. For some, the intra-Afghan process is no more than a sideshow to the main event — what the United States of America will do in the coming months given that it has to have closure on its longest-ever military intervention. For others, that warring Afghan parties are discussing and negotiating ways forward is a huge plus and significant in itself.


The differences between the two sides are vast. The Taliban is committed to an ‘Emirate’ as the only legitimate government of the future. This puts in jeopardy the entire Afghanistan project as constituted following the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001. Thus, from the outside, the difference between the two sides appears insurmountable — how do you reconcile an ‘Islamic Republic’ with an ‘Islamic Emirate’? Yet, Afghanistan from the outside is not the same as Afghanistan from the inside. Merely securing an end to the conflict seems to be to many enough of a common ground to smoothen the interface between these two rival, competing, and conflicting ideas of Afghanistan.  


The road ahead in the second round of negotiations could, therefore, be even bumpier. The area where progress is the least is on the cessation of hostilities and violence. For the government of Afghanistan, a ceasefire is an obvious accompaniment to the negotiations. For the Taliban, this is putting the cart before the horse: the ceasefire can only be the outcome of a successful negotiation. Terrorist attacks in Afghanistan continue and, increasingly, the targets are soft ones — the very institutions and personalities that have emerged as a result of the construction of a new State in Afghanistan over the past two decades.  


The ‘Rules of Procedure’ on which agreement was reached between the two sides in the first round of negotiations include formal protocol arrangements. It was agreed that discussions must begin with a recitation from the holy Quran and that meetings must have periodic breaks for the five daily prayers. Provisions such as these possibly would not have been the cause of any dispute.  More difficult was the issue of the legal framework that would be used to resolve disagreements during the process of negotiations. The Taliban demand was that this framework had to be based on Sunni jurisprudence. This would exclude the Shia minorities and was an obvious point of contention for the government side. What is significant perhaps is that a way out was found: a joint committee comprising members from both sides would resolve differences that came up. 


In the protracted negotiations that led to the agreed ‘Rules of Procedure’, what was at stake was more than the positions that each side took with respect to Afghan religious and political traditions. For those concerned about the steady deterioration in Afghanistan’s security and the gloomy forecasts that now invariably accompany most sober analysis of its future, these negotiations are a diversion. The stark reality that confronts the country today is that the Taliban insurgency with Pakistan’s support has gained an upper hand and that this position will progressively strengthen.  


What will happen in the next round of discussions? It is reasonable to expect some kind of zeroing-in on the principal issues highlighted by both sides — a ceasefire for the Afghan government and an ‘Islamic’ government for the Taliban. Already, there are reports accumulating of the US and others pushing for an interim government to take charge in Kabul to enable a ceasefire to be put in place. It remains to be seen how this works out but clearly some changes in the present architecture in Kabul were to be expected from the time the US and the Taliban reached an agreement on ‘bringing peace to Afghanistan’ in February last year. Alongside this is the concomitant increase in Pakistan’s influence. This is in large part because of the traditional role that Pakistan has played with the Taliban but it also arises from its role in bringing the Taliban and the US on converging tracks. How much this influence will be and how it will play out given the problems Pakistan is facing domestically with the visible alienation of, and protests emanating from, Pakistani Pashtuns are real issues. But these will only surface over a longer time span.  


Afghanistan’s best-case scenario is that the Taliban is actually negotiating in good faith and will play its part in a future power-sharing arrangement in that spirit. This case rests on the premise that large sections amongst the Taliban are as weary of the constant violence as everyone else and are, therefore, agreeable to reasonable compromises. Mullah Barader, the deputy leader of the Taliban and head of its political office, is seen as a moderate and as someone long regarded as being open to a political settlement on the basis of compromising with the government of Afghanistan. The arguments against are powerful and, primarily, allege that the intra-Afghan negotiations are the outcome of war weariness and exhaustion not so much of the warring Afghans as of the US. Afghanistan’s history is replete with illustrations of the fragility of externally determined agendas.


With a new administration on the anvil in the US, how one future milestone is approached may provide some clues. The February 2020 agreement between the US and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban) specified the withdrawal of all US forces by May 2021. How the new US administration will work with this commitment of its predecessor is also going to be a matter of some weight for what happens next in Afghanistan.


Details apart, what stands out also are older continuities from Afghanistan’s recent history. In 1988, Pakistan and the then government of Afghanistan had signed the Geneva Accord — a face-saving arrangement to enable the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops. The agreement was co-signed as guarantors by the US and the USSR. The US premised its signature on this with the condition that the signature did not mean recognition of the government of Afghanistan — one of the signatories. The 2020 agreement with the Taliban is similarly premised on the stipulation that the agreement does not imply recognition. In diplomatic practice, such ambiguities of engagement without recognition are not unusual. Yet, in Afghanistan’s case, they put an additional burden on the already troubled future ahead.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Digest the irony (The Telegraph)

Anup Sinha  

With no end to the pandemic in sight, people have now begun to worry about the different kinds of economic and social effects of Covid-19 more than about the disease itself. An impending food crisis is one major consequence that is causing concern across the globe. The World Food Programme of the United Nations has warned that there could be famines of biblical proportions in some parts of the world. India, too, will be affected since South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are two regions that house the world’s largest number of undernourished and malnourished people. It is ironic that there is no aggregate shortage of food in the world. The distribution and access to food, however, cause severe distress. In a terribly unequal world, increasing levels of wastage have been accompanied by food scarcity and hunger.


Hunger is something more than starvation. It is characterized by multiple features among which the shortage in the quantity of food is one dimension. A shortage implies a deficit in the minimum calories intake required by an average person. There are other dimensions as well. Health experts emphasize the need for a balanced diet in which there are optimum amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrates along with minerals and vitamins. An absence of this balance causes malnutrition that can have adverse long-term consequences similar to undernutrition when there is a shortage in total availability. Experts also point to the importance of the human body to be able to absorb a food for proper nutrition of the body. Importance is placed on the micronutrients that the human body requires to absorb the food it ingests. Any of these inadequacies can cause long-term damage in terms of brain development, chronic diseases, stunting and wasting through poor bodily development like height and weight. These impacts persist throughout a person’s lifetime.


Hunger has remained familiar to the world despite the increased production of food, better agrarian technology, improvements in trade and communications, and a reduction in the number of people living in absolute poverty. There are growing concerns about the shortage of food induced by climate change given its effects on the productivity of land. Crop failures due to erratic weather like floods and droughts are another concern. There is wastage too. Rich countries of the world waste enormous amounts of food through large inventories in supermarkets and as a result of excessive purchase by consumers. The surplus food ends up in garbage dumps. In poor countries like India, there is also food wastage because the nation does not have enough storage facilities that can preserve perishable food like fruits and vegetables. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the global extent of food wastage annually is of the order of 1.3 billion tonnes, which is approximately 33 per cent of the total food produced for human consumption. This quantum is valued at USD 2.6 trillion, and is deemed sufficient to feed about 815 million hungry people. In India, the wastage, according to government sources, is estimated to be around 16-20 per cent of all produce, especially fruits and vegetables and oilseeds. Set against these kinds of wastage, there are parts of the world where many children go to sleep hungry because they get unbalanced or inadequate diets. This has been the crux of the story behind global hunger.


Then the pandemic arrived. Firstly, it seriously disrupted supply chains that reduced the flow of food from the farm and the dairy to the marketplace. Secondly, affluent people who could afford food started to buy in panic; this exacerbated shortages. Thirdly, all of a sudden, a large number of people found their jobs gone, or incomes slashed. This meant that their ability to access food was jeopardized. They had to cut back on quantity as well as quality. Finally, with supply-induced shortages, food prices have begun to rise across the globe. Food inflation is at abnormally high rates from China to the United States of America, from India to Brazil. Those who still have some income left started eating less; those with no income at all had to depend on private charity or on the government to provide food. As the pandemic gets prolonged, the ability of charities and governments to provide support will get weaker. International aid, already lower than last year, will begin to taper off rapidly. There might be a spike in hunger and starvation. According to some experts, the number of deaths from poverty and hunger could begin to surpass the deaths from Covid-19.


According to the World Bank, more than 100 million people have already slipped into extreme poverty since March 2020. The WFP estimates that half-a-billion people might slide back into poverty by the time the pandemic ends. International trade normally moves enough maize, wheat, rice and soybeans to feed 2.8 billion people every year. That supply chain is also broken. There is a shortage of migrant workers in certain geographies. The United Kingdom expects to throw out a third of its harvest because of the lack of workers during the harvesting season. The US, in spite of Donald Trump’s paranoia about immigration, has actually eased visa restrictions for temporary help during the harvesting season. Other countries have imposed export restrictions on food grains in an effort to ensure sufficient domestic availability. Out of the 20 worst-hit countries, 17 are in sub-Saharan Africa where the cost of a basic meal has increased to 186 per cent of an average worker’s daily wage. According to Oxfam, 55 million people in 7 countries are facing famine-like conditions. In India, there are now 38,000 relief camps where 16 million are fed on a daily basis. It is estimated that 196 million people in India suffer from food insecurity. In the US, for the first time since the Great Depression, there are food banks where many people are going for the first time in their lives. 2020 had been a remarkably bad year in many ways. The pandemic, the economic collapse, backtracking on climate-change policies, freak weather patterns, forest fires and pests like the locust swarm — all of these do not bode well for the near future. This year may turn out to be a slow-motion replay of 2020.


There is no aggregate shortage yet. It is all about reaching food to the right people at the right time and at the right price. However, policymakers across the world appear callous, turning more authoritarian and less democratic. They do not care too much about the weakest. Weakness is something to be abhorred and denounced. Yet hunger affects the weakest most severely. On the other side of food insecurity, one can see an added dose of food wastage by people who can afford food. There are new types of processed food being tried out. Additional food is stockpiled by online orders, new recipes are tried and exchanged, and many people in this economic class complain about putting on weight from eating too much during the pandemic-induced restrictions on physical movements. That is the story of roughly the top 10 per cent. The majority of the remaining 90 per cent remain on the edge of hunger. A few grow fat and rich even as millions of lives are wasted.


The author is former professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Different promises: New Year resolutions (The Telegraph)

Suhashini Sarkar 

People notoriously fail to stick to New Year’s resolutions, and this year it may be even harder. Common New Year’s resolutions each year include exercising more, losing weight, saving money, spending less time on social media, spending more time with family and so on. A job website analyzed Google trends and found that for 2021, the most common resolution across states in the United States of America was to seek therapy. The second common one was to lose weight. Therapy was the top goal in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York and Tennessee ( notice the lack of any West Coast states here). 


It is not surprising that therapy trended high this year considering the roller coaster ride that 2020 was. Many people experienced the same things: losing jobs, stressing over a presidential election and binge-watching Netflix. In Alaska, Kansas, Oregon and Washington, “better sleep” trended as a goal for 2021. Dating was a common trend in California, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada and Utah.


The new year was rung in without the usual crowds. The Times Square bash honoured the frontline workers who have risked their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. Las Vegas, New York City and Miami are usually the most popular destinations for New Year’s Eve, but this time celebrations were subdued or cancelled.



For the people


Martin Luther King, Jr Day is celebrated on the third Monday of every year. Most businesses are closed and the federal government is off as well on this day as people come together to honour and remember civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. The proposition to mark this day as a federal holiday was introduced in the late 1960s, but did not come into effect until decades later. It was finally nationally recognized in 2000. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, continued to fight for the approval of the holiday and testified before Congress multiple times. In fact, in Alabama and Mississippi, it coincides with Robert E. Lee Day, which celebrates the life of a Confederate general. 

 

MLK’s birthday is actually on January 15, but was designated to fall on the third Monday every year owing to the Uniform Monday Holiday Act that was signed into law in 1968, owing to which federal holidays, including Memorial Day and George Washington’s birthday, fall on a Monday to allow families to travel to visit each other. MLK is known both as a national hero of democracy and a civil rights activist. He fought for equality for the black American community through peaceful protests. He was assassinated at the age of 39. This year, several events have been cancelled owing to the pandemic, impending storms and predicted protests in all 50 states in the wake of the US Capitol riots. The 26th annual Greater Philadelphia Martin Luther King Day of Service will take place on January 18, the largest MLK Day event in the US. This year the theme is the Covid-19 health crisis.


Stop the hate


After the assault on the US Capitol building, the power and responsibility of social media companies have become contentious issues. There is little doubt that the president, Donald Trump, leveraged Twitter and Facebook to reach his supporters. During the attack, he even posted a now deleted Tweet calling the rioters ‘special people’. But now Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are pushing back. They suspended Trump’s accounts, first temporarily, then permanently, preventing him from tweeting even under other account names. This spurred a debate on free speech, with Conservatives slamming Twitter for obstructing First Amendment rights. However, the amendment does not apply to private businesses such as Twitter or Facebook. In the midst of this, a social media application called Parler, tailored for far-right conservatives, has emerged. Unlike Twitter, Parler allows speech with no monitoring. It became one of the most downloaded apps until the App Store, Google Play store and even Amazon Web Services kicked it off their platforms.


Peace over violence


 Every January, US cities organize and participate in the Women’s March. This year, not only are the marches cancelled owing to the pandemic, but it was prefaced by domestic terrorism at the US Capitol carried out by several members belonging to far-right groups. The Women’s March has been the largest single-day demonstration in the US. The march is completely peaceful with a goal to vent frustrations about inequality and advocate for basic human rights — not only for women but for every individual, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation. It is in sharp contrast to the events of January 6 in which people also came to protest, but with pipe bombs and zip ties.


 The fourth annual 2021 Womxn’s March on Raleigh will be a virtual march on January 23, live for 12 hours. The theme is ‘Onward Together’ with a focus on community organization. The Women’s March Foundation issued a statement saying it would be “irresponsible” to organize a march “in the face of these issues and it is imperative to keep our communities safe”. With Kamala Harris becoming the country’s first woman vice-president, there is more to celebrate this year.


Footnote


If you need some motivation to go get a Covid-19 test done, that motivation could be wine. The City Winery in New York has creatively adapted the new ‘no indoor dining’ policy by transforming its venue into a Covid test zone. The promotion, now expired, gave you a free Covid test with the purchase of a case of wine. It also added a $50 Covid rapid test for anyone who wanted to dine indoors. The promotion was in partnership with Accurex Diagnostic Services, which is overseeing and administering all of the 15-minute rapid tests.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Friday, January 15, 2021

The case of Afghanistan’s future (The Telegraph)

T.C.A. Raghavan  

The drama at the Capitol in Washington obscured the resumption of the intra-Afghan dialogue with the second round between the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan beginning last week. The first round extended for some three months and ended in December with an agreement on the ‘Rules of Procedure’ and an exchange of issues that each side wanted the talks to focus on.


How the first round is evaluated in terms of success or failure depends largely on where you stand on what is happening in Afghanistan today. For some, the intra-Afghan process is no more than a sideshow to the main event — what the United States of America will do in the coming months given that it has to have closure on its longest-ever military intervention. For others, that warring Afghan parties are discussing and negotiating ways forward is a huge plus and significant in itself.


The differences between the two sides are vast. The Taliban is committed to an ‘Emirate’ as the only legitimate government of the future. This puts in jeopardy the entire Afghanistan project as constituted following the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001. Thus, from the outside, the difference between the two sides appears insurmountable — how do you reconcile an ‘Islamic Republic’ with an ‘Islamic Emirate’? Yet, Afghanistan from the outside is not the same as Afghanistan from the inside. Merely securing an end to the conflict seems to be to many enough of a common ground to smoothen the interface between these two rival, competing, and conflicting ideas of Afghanistan.  


The road ahead in the second round of negotiations could, therefore, be even bumpier. The area where progress is the least is on the cessation of hostilities and violence. For the government of Afghanistan, a ceasefire is an obvious accompaniment to the negotiations. For the Taliban, this is putting the cart before the horse: the ceasefire can only be the outcome of a successful negotiation. Terrorist attacks in Afghanistan continue and, increasingly, the targets are soft ones — the very institutions and personalities that have emerged as a result of the construction of a new State in Afghanistan over the past two decades.  


The ‘Rules of Procedure’ on which agreement was reached between the two sides in the first round of negotiations include formal protocol arrangements. It was agreed that discussions must begin with a recitation from the holy Quran and that meetings must have periodic breaks for the five daily prayers. Provisions such as these possibly would not have been the cause of any dispute.  More difficult was the issue of the legal framework that would be used to resolve disagreements during the process of negotiations. The Taliban demand was that this framework had to be based on Sunni jurisprudence. This would exclude the Shia minorities and was an obvious point of contention for the government side. What is significant perhaps is that a way out was found: a joint committee comprising members from both sides would resolve differences that came up. 


In the protracted negotiations that led to the agreed ‘Rules of Procedure’, what was at stake was more than the positions that each side took with respect to Afghan religious and political traditions. For those concerned about the steady deterioration in Afghanistan’s security and the gloomy forecasts that now invariably accompany most sober analysis of its future, these negotiations are a diversion. The stark reality that confronts the country today is that the Taliban insurgency with Pakistan’s support has gained an upper hand and that this position will progressively strengthen.  


What will happen in the next round of discussions? It is reasonable to expect some kind of zeroing-in on the principal issues highlighted by both sides — a ceasefire for the Afghan government and an ‘Islamic’ government for the Taliban. Already, there are reports accumulating of the US and others pushing for an interim government to take charge in Kabul to enable a ceasefire to be put in place. It remains to be seen how this works out but clearly some changes in the present architecture in Kabul were to be expected from the time the US and the Taliban reached an agreement on ‘bringing peace to Afghanistan’ in February last year. Alongside this is the concomitant increase in Pakistan’s influence. This is in large part because of the traditional role that Pakistan has played with the Taliban but it also arises from its role in bringing the Taliban and the US on converging tracks. How much this influence will be and how it will play out given the problems Pakistan is facing domestically with the visible alienation of, and protests emanating from, Pakistani Pashtuns are real issues. But these will only surface over a longer time span.  


Afghanistan’s best-case scenario is that the Taliban is actually negotiating in good faith and will play its part in a future power-sharing arrangement in that spirit. This case rests on the premise that large sections amongst the Taliban are as weary of the constant violence as everyone else and are, therefore, agreeable to reasonable compromises. Mullah Barader, the deputy leader of the Taliban and head of its political office, is seen as a moderate and as someone long regarded as being open to a political settlement on the basis of compromising with the government of Afghanistan. The arguments against are powerful and, primarily, allege that the intra-Afghan negotiations are the outcome of war weariness and exhaustion not so much of the warring Afghans as of the US. Afghanistan’s history is replete with illustrations of the fragility of externally determined agendas.


With a new administration on the anvil in the US, how one future milestone is approached may provide some clues. The February 2020 agreement between the US and the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban) specified the withdrawal of all US forces by May 2021. How the new US administration will work with this commitment of its predecessor is also going to be a matter of some weight for what happens next in Afghanistan.


Details apart, what stands out also are older continuities from Afghanistan’s recent history. In 1988, Pakistan and the then government of Afghanistan had signed the Geneva Accord — a face-saving arrangement to enable the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops. The agreement was co-signed as guarantors by the US and the USSR. The US premised its signature on this with the condition that the signature did not mean recognition of the government of Afghanistan — one of the signatories. The 2020 agreement with the Taliban is similarly premised on the stipulation that the agreement does not imply recognition. In diplomatic practice, such ambiguities of engagement without recognition are not unusual. Yet, in Afghanistan’s case, they put an additional burden on the already troubled future ahead.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

Share:

Digest the irony (The Telegraph)

Anup Sinha  

With no end to the pandemic in sight, people have now begun to worry about the different kinds of economic and social effects of Covid-19 more than about the disease itself. An impending food crisis is one major consequence that is causing concern across the globe. The World Food Programme of the United Nations has warned that there could be famines of biblical proportions in some parts of the world. India, too, will be affected since South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are two regions that house the world’s largest number of undernourished and malnourished people. It is ironic that there is no aggregate shortage of food in the world. The distribution and access to food, however, cause severe distress. In a terribly unequal world, increasing levels of wastage have been accompanied by food scarcity and hunger.


Hunger is something more than starvation. It is characterized by multiple features among which the shortage in the quantity of food is one dimension. A shortage implies a deficit in the minimum calories intake required by an average person. There are other dimensions as well. Health experts emphasize the need for a balanced diet in which there are optimum amounts of protein, fat and carbohydrates along with minerals and vitamins. An absence of this balance causes malnutrition that can have adverse long-term consequences similar to undernutrition when there is a shortage in total availability. Experts also point to the importance of the human body to be able to absorb a food for proper nutrition of the body. Importance is placed on the micronutrients that the human body requires to absorb the food it ingests. Any of these inadequacies can cause long-term damage in terms of brain development, chronic diseases, stunting and wasting through poor bodily development like height and weight. These impacts persist throughout a person’s lifetime.


Hunger has remained familiar to the world despite the increased production of food, better agrarian technology, improvements in trade and communications, and a reduction in the number of people living in absolute poverty. There are growing concerns about the shortage of food induced by climate change given its effects on the productivity of land. Crop failures due to erratic weather like floods and droughts are another concern. There is wastage too. Rich countries of the world waste enormous amounts of food through large inventories in supermarkets and as a result of excessive purchase by consumers. The surplus food ends up in garbage dumps. In poor countries like India, there is also food wastage because the nation does not have enough storage facilities that can preserve perishable food like fruits and vegetables. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the global extent of food wastage annually is of the order of 1.3 billion tonnes, which is approximately 33 per cent of the total food produced for human consumption. This quantum is valued at USD 2.6 trillion, and is deemed sufficient to feed about 815 million hungry people. In India, the wastage, according to government sources, is estimated to be around 16-20 per cent of all produce, especially fruits and vegetables and oilseeds. Set against these kinds of wastage, there are parts of the world where many children go to sleep hungry because they get unbalanced or inadequate diets. This has been the crux of the story behind global hunger.



Then the pandemic arrived. Firstly, it seriously disrupted supply chains that reduced the flow of food from the farm and the dairy to the marketplace. Secondly, affluent people who could afford food started to buy in panic; this exacerbated shortages. Thirdly, all of a sudden, a large number of people found their jobs gone, or incomes slashed. This meant that their ability to access food was jeopardized. They had to cut back on quantity as well as quality. Finally, with supply-induced shortages, food prices have begun to rise across the globe. Food inflation is at abnormally high rates from China to the United States of America, from India to Brazil. Those who still have some income left started eating less; those with no income at all had to depend on private charity or on the government to provide food. As the pandemic gets prolonged, the ability of charities and governments to provide support will get weaker. International aid, already lower than last year, will begin to taper off rapidly. There might be a spike in hunger and starvation. According to some experts, the number of deaths from poverty and hunger could begin to surpass the deaths from Covid-19.


According to the World Bank, more than 100 million people have already slipped into extreme poverty since March 2020. The WFP estimates that half-a-billion people might slide back into poverty by the time the pandemic ends. International trade normally moves enough maize, wheat, rice and soybeans to feed 2.8 billion people every year. That supply chain is also broken. There is a shortage of migrant workers in certain geographies. The United Kingdom expects to throw out a third of its harvest because of the lack of workers during the harvesting season. The US, in spite of Donald Trump’s paranoia about immigration, has actually eased visa restrictions for temporary help during the harvesting season. Other countries have imposed export restrictions on food grains in an effort to ensure sufficient domestic availability. Out of the 20 worst-hit countries, 17 are in sub-Saharan Africa where the cost of a basic meal has increased to 186 per cent of an average worker’s daily wage. According to Oxfam, 55 million people in 7 countries are facing famine-like conditions. In India, there are now 38,000 relief camps where 16 million are fed on a daily basis. It is estimated that 196 million people in India suffer from food insecurity. In the US, for the first time since the Great Depression, there are food banks where many people are going for the first time in their lives. 2020 had been a remarkably bad year in many ways. The pandemic, the economic collapse, backtracking on climate-change policies, freak weather patterns, forest fires and pests like the locust swarm — all of these do not bode well for the near future. This year may turn out to be a slow-motion replay of 2020.


There is no aggregate shortage yet. It is all about reaching food to the right people at the right time and at the right price. However, policymakers across the world appear callous, turning more authoritarian and less democratic. They do not care too much about the weakest. Weakness is something to be abhorred and denounced. Yet hunger affects the weakest most severely. On the other side of food insecurity, one can see an added dose of food wastage by people who can afford food. There are new types of processed food being tried out. Additional food is stockpiled by online orders, new recipes are tried and exchanged, and many people in this economic class complain about putting on weight from eating too much during the pandemic-induced restrictions on physical movements. That is the story of roughly the top 10 per cent. The majority of the remaining 90 per cent remain on the edge of hunger. A few grow fat and rich even as millions of lives are wasted.


The author is former professor of Economics, IIM Calcutta.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The patriots (The Telegraph)

Prabhat Patnaik  

We are witnessing a bizarre situation. One comes across instances where consumers want growing of food crops for supplying to the public distribution system, while producers, lured by the apparent gains of shifting to cash crops, are reluctant to do so. The government has to mediate between these conflicting interests. But in India at present, the farmers have no desire to shift from food crops, even as consumers want food crops to be supplied through the public distribution system. There is no conflict of interest among them that the government has to mediate between. And, yet, it is imposing a shift on farmers from food to cash crops that would destroy the public distribution system.


Such a shift is precisely what the agricultural legislations aim to bring about. Government economists defending the laws have been emphasizing the benefits of such a shift. The government here is not mediating in a conflict of interests among the people; it has, apparently, its own interest, which it is imposing on the people, on farmers and consumers alike, against which the farmers are agitating in the bitter cold of Delhi. It is a bizarre case of government versus the people at large, not people versus people.


Likewise, the farmers are unanimous in rejecting contract farming; and, yet, the government is pushing contract farming through these bills, ostensibly in the farmers’ interest. Again, it is a case not of the government responding to the demand from any section of the people; it has apparently its own interest which it is imposing on the people.


But what could be its own interest? While it is obvious that its own interest coincides with the interest of corporates and international agribusiness, the government’s answer would be that it is upholding the ‘national interest’. Corporate interest is thus identified with ‘national interest’. This has been the hallmark of the Narendra Modi regime, and it is symptomatic of the Corporate-Hindutva alliance of which Modi is the architect and which keeps him in power.


The bizarreness of the situation is this: even right-wing governments justify their pro-corporate policies by claiming to defend the interest of some section of the people. Margaret Thatcher’s attack on trade unions was defended by her as a means of controlling inflation that trade unions allegedly caused and that hurt large masses of the people. But in India we are seeing the unilateral and gratuitous imposition of a set of measures that no segment of the people has ever demanded, measures that portend the dismantling of the public distribution system, which is opposed by people at large, and against which vast numbers are vehemently protesting; all this just to promote corporate interest. This is unprecedented in a democracy.


The government will claim that since it won the 2019 parliamentary elections, it has the mandate to bring in the ‘reforms’ it wants. But this is erroneous for several reasons. First, it is wrong in principle: winning an election does not give the government the mandate to do whatever it likes. Second, this is especially so because the 2019 elections were not fought on the issue of ‘agricultural reforms’. In fact, these reforms never figured in the ruling party’s electioneering, which focused on the Pulwama attack and the Balakot air-strikes. Third, there has been a commoditization of politics where even having a majority in the legislature has lost much significance. 


Fighting elections itself has become extraordinarily expensive. Causing defections from the opponents before elections has become common and is also expensive. And no matter who wins the election, defections are engineered from other parties for a price to get the required majority to form the government. For all these reasons, the party with the largest amount of money has a clear edge over the others; and since the corporates are the main source of such money, forging an alliance with them becomes essential for coming to power for which they have to be offered a quid pro quo. Hindutva forces, with their communal-polarizing agenda and corporate financial backing, can exercise hegemony in such a world of commoditized politics. The quid pro quo offered to them includes, inter alia, control over peasant agriculture.


While corporates as a whole gain from such ascendancy, one segment among them, an upstart segment, usually gains more than the other, more established, segments. Daniel Guérin (Fascism and Big Business) had shown that in Germany in the 1930s, a segment of monopoly capital, engaged in producing armaments and producer goods, had become special beneficiaries of the corporate alliance with the Nazis compared to the older segment engaged in textiles and consumer goods. In Japan, new houses, the shinko zaibatsu, benefited more than older houses like Mitsui from the fascistic regime that came to power in 1931, with which the corporates had close relations. While contemporary India is different from 1930s Germany or Japan, a similar privileging of a segment of new corporate houses can be detected here too. This is attracting the special ire of the farmers.


Modi prepared the ground for identifying corporate interest, especially the interest of this nouveau segment, with the national interest by calling the corporates “wealth creators”. He meant the ‘nation’s’ wealth. By this description alone, he raised amassing private wealth into a national service, and those who amassed such wealth into privileged members of the ‘nation’ whose interest deserved the highest priority. It followed that all segments of the population must be made to accede to the demands of these upstart corporates; it is in the interest of the population itself, as wealth-amassing by these corporates supposedly benefits all. 


The Modi government has thus inverted the concept of the ‘nation’, from an entity identified with the people to one identified with the corporates, especially the nouveau corporates. The agriculture bills give expression to this inversion.


This, however, constitutes a betrayal of our anti-colonial struggle. The concept of the ‘nation’ that had developed in Europe in the wake of the Westphalian Peace Treaties in the seventeenth century had been imperialist, non-inclusive (it had located an “internal enemy”), and, supposedly, deserving of apotheosis by the people who were only supposed to make sacrifices for it. By contrast, anti-colonial nationalism in countries like India was a very different sui generis, phenomenon. It saw the nation as being inclusive, of which secularism was an integral part; and it saw the raison d’être of the nation in improving the lives of the people. The concept of the nation implicit in the Modi government’s understanding is the very opposite of this and is closer to the aggrandizing concept of Europe whose logical culmination was fascism.


The peasants gathered around Delhi are opposing the Modi government’s world-view in every respect. They are upholding secularism, as is evident from the fact that Hindu, Sikh and Muslim peasants are standing shoulder to shoulder. They are, in their opposition to corporate encroachment on agriculture, denying the identification of the ‘nation’ with a bunch of corporate houses. By standing up for the public distribution system, they are seeing the raison d’être of the nation as consisting in serving the people. The peasant movement is reclaiming the concept of the nation from the Modi government that had hijacked it.


The author is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Economic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Troubled legacies (The Telegraph)

Ruchir Joshi    

In early 1979, the US-backed Pahlavi regime was overthrown in Iran, bringing Ayatollah Khomeini to power. In November '79, Americans in the US embassy in Tehran were taken hostage; a month later, Soviet troops brazenly rolled into Afghanistan. In America, these events were widely perceived as national humiliations, ensuring that Jimmy Carter — one of the most decent and thoughtful men to occupy the White House — became a one-term president.


Forty years ago this month, Ronald Reagan, a B-grade Hollywood actor, a know-nothing and clumsy blusterer, took oath as president of the United States of America. Over the next eight years, Reagan and his Republican Party minders normalized several things that were, till then, only latent in American politics. Chief among these was the acceptance in top Republican political circles that a US president had no need for any great intellectual ability, he could get away with being a TV-friendly ‘face’, a constructed icon and a delivery-vehicle for vote-winning rhetoric, while his shadowy manipulators executed the agenda of the rich and the powerful. 


Attached to this was the rebooting of naked American jingoism, the motto of ‘My country, right or wrong’, that had taken a much-deserved beating in the 1960s and 1970s. In this, Reagan and his cohorts were helped by the falling of historical dice. As the US government propped up all sorts of brutally murderous gangs — from the Contras in Nicaragua to the Apartheid fascists in South Africa to Zia in Pakistan and, via him, the Afghan mujahideen, which, later, mutated into al Qaida and the Taliban — the Soviet Union began to collapse under its own contradictions and deep-seated rot. By the end of the 1980s, the Soviet game was up and the Reaganites were quick to claim undeserved credit for the demise of the ‘Evil Empire’.


If American jingoism was projected shamelessly around the world, the Thatcher-Reagan economic mantra of selfishness and ‘me-first’ was disseminated equally forcefully at home, repeatedly convincing voters that the ‘trickle-down’ theory was not actually a monumental fraud perpetrated on a majority of Americans but a viable economic policy. The great public programmes stemming from the FDR years and the Kennedy-Johnson administrations were ruthlessly shrunk. The idea that civil rights, education, healthcare and economic opportunity should all be increasingly available to the underprivileged of the richest country in the world was relentlessly attacked and dismantled. Alongside this began a set of surreptitious programmes aiming to narrow the voting rights for African-Americans and other historically deprived minorities because the Republicans understood fully well that poor people of colour were unlikely to vote for a party that was aiming to keep them poor indefinitely.  


When Reagan came to power, the 15 richest Americans made on average 27 times more than that of the bottom 50 per cent. Today, the top 1 per cent makes 81 times more than that of the bottom half of the US population. Such is the absurd momentum of what Reagan and his minders set in motion and so hard has it been to reverse in the 16 years of Democratic presidencies since 1981 (presidencies not often blessed with a Democrat majority House or Senate) that in 2018 the top 400 Americans paid a lower effective tax rate (23 per cent) on their incomes than the bottom 50 per cent (which paid 24.2 per cent). 


The story, however, can’t be understood only through the lens of economic data. 


I was newly at my strongly left-leaning liberal arts college in Vermont when Reagan defeated Carter. My campus, often visited by the local activist, Bernie Sanders, went into mourning. I was flummoxed as to how a country could choose an obvious shyster like Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. When I got to America, I imagined I had arrived into one of the most advanced zones of knowledge in the history of humanity. In one sense, this was absolutely true: areas of the US were home to the most complex study of science in the world, the most advanced medical institutions, the most sophisticated and nuanced milieus of social sciences, arts and culture. Yet, it quickly became apparent that a frightening number of Americans across all classes were abysmally ignorant about the world, many of them steeped in archaic beliefs that would be right at home in the most backward village in India; with a shock, I realized that a huge surplus of money and comfort did not necessarily equal being educated or knowledgeable; this last I already knew from many people of my own class at home, I just did not expect to find the same disjunction in America.


Twenty years later, by the time the ‘hanging chads’ ‘swung’ the election in favour of George Dubya Bush, I had no reserves of surprise left; I felt only dismay and horror. Al Gore and George W. Bush were both from elite American colleges, but by then I knew that an Ivy League education didn’t matter in US politics. Gore might be the thinking and informed man that he was, but the cloddish Bush had the larger silver spoon and his daddy’s posse of devious back room politicos. The people who had voted Reagan into power and their ideological children had now voted in another ignorant, narrow-minded puppet of wealthy manipulators, even if it was by a questionable, hair-thin margin. Till another silver-spooner took the presidential oath four years ago, I thought Bush Junior was the worst person to have as American president when 9/11 happened. After a week or two of Trump’s presidency, I found myself being grateful Trump hadn’t been in charge in 2001.  


The sad tragedy is that the mix of the uneducated poor and the privileged cynics weren’t the only people who brought Dubya B and Donald T to power. Even after the devastations of the last four years, 74 million Americans still voted for Trump’s continuation. Among them, for instance, was Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state for Georgia and the administrative ‘hero’ of the Georgia elections, who, from all evidence, is neither uneducated nor ignorant. They voted for Trump despite the horrific separation of children from immigrant parents; despite Trump’s backing of neo-Nazis and murderously racist police; despite strong indications that Trump had treasonously conspired with Russians to cheat himself into the presidency.


 The mob that broke into the Capitol on January 6 was, arguably, a fringe of the crazed, stupid people that you find in any country, but it was also the tip of an iceberg that runs 40 million Americans deep, as in the number of Trump voters who believe — on no evidence whatsoever — that the election was stolen from them. Those people and their worldview are the throbbing legacies of Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Dubya Bush. Anyone who has studied recent American history should stay worried, very worried.

Courtesy - The Telegraph.

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