[UPSC Newspaper Clips] June 03, 2020

UPSC Newspaper Clips


Proactively Minimise Flood Damage

ET Editorials

The Indian Meteorological Department expects monsoon rainfall to be normal this year, as per its first Long Range Forecast. This is good news for the Covid-19-embattled economy. But there is cause for concern, too. Reservoir levels are higher than normal for reasons that include reduced power demand between March and May due to lockdown. This along with the forecast of a normal monsoon will require government and its agencies to take proactive steps to avoid floods.

The first major test of the state governments, Central Water Commission and other agencies will be in Kerala. This is the state where the monsoon makes landfall on the mainland. For the past few years, the monsoon season has been marked by floods in the state, the most devastating of these was in 2018. The Kerala state authorities need to keep a close watch on the Idukki reservoir, already at levels (713.37 metres) that are much higher than the levels during the floods in 2018 (707.88m) and in 2019 (706.35m). The Kerala authorities need to have a plan in place to release water from the dam in small tranches in order to avoid flooding. While Kerala is the state that needs to undertake this exercise immediately, other states too need to start putting together a plan to deal with high reservoir levels and normal monsoon, while factoring in possible increase in demand for electricity with the country now more or less completely exiting lockdown.

Floods are an annual occurrence in many parts of the country, routinely claiming up to 1,500 or so lives, and climate change increases the risk. Floods can and must be managed better, with both structural and engineering approaches and better forecasting and coordination among the relevant agencies. Avoiding needless deaths is an imperative.


I Can’t Breathe

Death of George Floyd may or may not be a turning point for America. But protests show wound has cut deeper and wider.


It is 28 years since four white police officers were acquitted of beating Rodney King to death in Los Angeles, triggering race riots in several cities across the United States. In these nearly three decades, the US has changed in many ways, particularly for the outside world. In a post-Cold War world order, it rose as the only global super power. As a victim of one of the worst acts of terrorism, it fought wars on foreign shores to protect itself from those who threatened the “American way of life”, and declared it would reconstruct those countries that bore the brunt in its own image, by taking to them its own “democratic values”. It policed the world, pronouncing judgement on the lack of freedoms in countries it did not see eye to eye with, threatening them with sanctions or worse. Through it all, however, there was, and there is, much to admire about America, its founding ideals, its freedoms and its wealth. It made new friends, and nations across the world were flattered when it bestowed on them the title of ally. But as it changed, its deepest internal fault line remained unhealed, and erupted repeatedly — Cincinnati, 2001; Ferguson, 2014; Baltimore, 2015; Charlotte, 2016 and countless times in between.

Each racist incident, with its attendant impunity, was a warning that there would be a George Floyd who would come up against a policeman named Derek Chauvin. The election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the United States served both to hide the ugly persistence of racism as well as to aggravate it to the point where a “white backlash” handed over the keys of the White House to Donald Trump. Now bidding for a second term, President Trump, whose popularity may be at a low point for his botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has thought nothing of using a white supremacist trope — not the first time he has done this — to portray the violence sweeping through the country as black lawlessness in order to polarise Americans, and play to his own voter base.

The manner in which American racism has endured, subverting the country’s deepest democratic institutions in the process, it may be too optimistic to view the present moment as a turning point. But it is not without a glimmer of hope. Not all the anger erupting across American today at the horrific manner in which Floyd died, helplessly pleading to be allowed to breathe, is just black anger. The participation in the protests shows that the wound has cut deeper and wider this time, across racial lines. Perhaps even on Trump’s side of the fence, it may turn out to be the proverbial straw on the camel’s back that can force America to confront the reality of the distance it has still to cover — to fulfil the possibilities of its own admirable democratic ideals.


The slowdown

[Rating downgrade by Moody’s underlines sombre economic outlook, the pressing challenge ahead.]


In November 2017, Moody’s Investors Service had upgraded India’s rating to Baa2 on expectations that the then progress on reforms would, over time, enhance India’s growth potential. It had believed that the “implementation of key reforms would strengthen the sovereign’s credit profile through a gradual but persistent improvement in economic, institutional and fiscal strength”. However, as the country’s economic data indicates, these expectations have since been belied, as the implementation of the reforms has been “relatively weak”. Acknowledging this, on Monday, the rating agency downgraded India’s foreign-currency and local-currency long-term issuer ratings to Baa3 from Baa2. While the markets may well have factored in this move — Moody’s rating is now in line with that of both Standard & Poor’s and Fitch — the downgrade, nonetheless, underlines the grim economic reality.

The rating agency cited multiple reasons to justify its action: Challenges in the implementation of policies to help offset the risks of low growth, deterioration in the general government fiscal position, and stress in the financial sector. It also emphasised that the decision to downgrade India was not driven by the impact of the COVID pandemic. Rather, the pandemic, and the national lockdown to contain its spread, have exacerbated the economy’s vulnerabilities, which had been building up prior to the virus shock. This view is in line with what the recent economic data indicates. Economic activity in India has been on a steady decline over the past few years — slowing down from 7.1 per cent in the first quarter of 2018-19 to 3.1 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2019-20. These headline numbers mask the underlying weakness as growth is currently being driven only by agriculture and government spending. The situation is likely to have worsened in the first quarter of the current financial year when the full effects of the national lockdown played out.

As is evident, the lockdown is also going to take a toll on government finances. Moody’s expects the general government (Centre and states) debt to rise from 72 per cent of GDP in 2019 to around 84 per cent in 2020. What is especially worrying is that the rating agency believes that the economy will struggle to recover, and that depressed nominal growth will in turn affect the government’s ability to lower its debt burden — it notes that India’s debt burden could rise well beyond 85 per cent of GDP. This is a worrying prognosis. The decision to retain the negative outlook does leave the door open for further rating action down the line. It is also conceivable that other rating agencies will follow suit.


A New Frontier

[Space tech start-ups need more government nurturing, resources]

Raghunath Mashelkar , [ The writer is former DG, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research.]

On May 16, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a ground-breaking initiative by opening up space and atomic energy to private players, referring to them as “fellow travellers”. And, on May 30, history was created by SpaceX when NASA astronauts were launched into orbit by the first-ever commercially-built rocket and spacecraft. “NewSpace” is a rapidly growing market that will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade. Can India take advantage?

The welcome reforms announced by the FM include the levelling of the playing field for private companies in satellites, launches and space-based services by introducing a predictable policy and regulatory environment to private players and providing access to geospatial data and facilities of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Many doors of opportunity are opening in this sector. Reportedly, more than 17,000 small satellites will be launched in Low Earth Orbit by 2030. Exciting Indian space-tech startups are emerging in this area.

For instance, Prixxels, founded by two BITS Pilani graduates, is building a constellation of nano-satellites to provide global, real-time and affordable satellite imagery services. Bengaluru-based startup, Bellatrix Aerospace offers novel “electric propulsion” systems, which have applications in the field of nano and micro-satellite propulsion. And Mumbai-based startup Manastu Space has developed a “green propulsion” system using hydrogen peroxide as fuel. So, what can we do to help such young “co-travellers”?

First, the crucial issue of funding. We must trust and support early-stage innovations through “adventure” capital, not just risk-averse venture capital. We also need “patient” capital, as the lead times are long in this sector.

The government can be the provider of such adventure and patient capital. It did so in 2000, when we at CSIR launched the New Millennium Indian Technology Leadership Initiative. CSIR gave very low-interest soft loans to early-stage startups, who explored radical ideas. After proof of concept, other financial instruments, including venture capital, became available. So, the public-private partnership that the FM is referring to should be in financing too, not just in development.

Second, startups need a head start in the market and the current public procurement system is heavily loaded against them. The lowest-cost-selection approach must change to lower total cost of ownership. Path Ahead: Transformative Ideas for India, edited by Amitabh Kant, carries my chapter on creating an innovative public procurement policy for startups. Perhaps, it is worth revisiting.

Third, we need to create a robust space tech-startup national innovation ecosystem comprising incubators, accelerators, scalerators and mentors. ISRO has a pivotal role in anchoring this initiative. Just as important will be the synergy with the government’s flagship programmes such as Digital India, Startup India, Make in India, Smart Cities Mission, etc.

Fourth, we urgently need a law that allows private players to participate across the space value chain, not just bits of it, as is the case today. The draft Space Activities Bill, introduced in 2017, has lapsed. This is an opportunity to rewrite it with a bold perspective. Fifth, the nation needs a new mantra. On May 26, in an interview about actioning the recent initiatives announced by the finance minister, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, offered it. Referring to the principal idea from my recent book on the subject, he said that we must move our aspirations from leapfrogging to pole vaulting. Can India pole vault to a 10 per cent share of the global space economy within a decade?

Yes, we can. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given us an inspiring agenda of Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. To achieve this, we need “aatmavishwas” — self-belief, and trust. If we build this atmavishwas with bold policies coupled with determined actions, then we can certainly pole vault to a great new future, and sooner rather than later.


Multilateralism in the new cold war

[India can set the world response, also using the opportunity to recover its global thought leadership]

Mukul Sanwal is a former UN diplomat

In the new cold war, defined by technology and trade not territory, non-alignment is an uncertain option; India should craft a global triumvirate.

To benefit from global change, countries must have a bold vision and make the right strategic choice. Britain quickly built the largest military in the Subcontinent using the land revenue of Bengal, and over time conquered India. The United States fixated on splitting the Communist bloc ended up with China challenging its dominance.

As chair of the Executive Board of the World Health Assembly (it is the decision-making body of the World Health Organization), India can set the global response in terms of multilateralism, not just medical issues. In September, the United Nations General Assembly will discuss the theme, “The Future We Want”; in 2021, India joins the UN Security Council (non-permanent seat) and chairs the BRICS Summit, and in 2022, hosts the G-20, a rare alignment of stars for agenda-setting.

At the online summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, in May, Prime Minister Modi called for new principles for the international system. His new globalisation model based on humanity, fairness and equality has wide support in a more equal world as, for the first time since 1950, everyone is experiencing the same (virus) threat.

It is in this changed context that India should look upon its own reemergence, China losing influence and the dynamics in its relations with the United States as Asia again becomes central to global prosperity, with global governance, economy, scientific research and society in need of being re-invented.

We should use this opportunity to recover our global thought leadership, think Nalanda, astronomical computation, the zero, Ayurveda, Buddhism, yoga and Ahimsa as well as clothing the world for millennia.

Clash of values

The clash between China and the U.S. at the just concluded World Health Assembly in May marks the end of the multilateralism of the past 70 years. The donor-recipient relationship between developed and developing countries has ended with China’s pledge of $2-billion. The agenda-setting role of the G7 over UN institutions and global rules has also been effectively challenged by WHO ignoring the reform diktat of the U.S. leading to its withdrawal, and characterisation of the G7 as “outdated”. The U.S. has also implicitly rejected the G20 and UN Security Council, for an expanded G7 “to discuss the future of China”. China’s Global Times characterised the exchanges as “two different visions”; The Washington Post carried the headline, “The post-American world is now on full display” and The Wall Street Journal argued, “India Is a Natural U.S. Ally in the New Cold War”.

The clash marks another seismic shift within the UN. After World War II, the newly independent states were not consulted when the U.S. imposed global institutions fostering trade, capital and technology dependence, ignoring socio-economic development. Social and economic rights have emerged to be as important as political and procedural rights and China’s President Xi Jinping deftly endorsed the UN Resolution on equitable access to any new vaccine.

The U.S. faces an uphill task in seeking to lead a new multidimensional institution as China’s re-emergence is based on technology, innovation and trade balancing U.S. military superiority at a time of declining global trust in free-market liberalism, central to western civilisation. With the West experiencing a shock comparable to the one experienced by Asia 200 years ago, the superiority of western civilisation is also under question.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the shift of global wealth to Asia suggesting an inclusive global order based on principles drawn from ancient Asian civilisations. Colonised Asia played no role in shaping the Industrial Revolution; the Digital Revolution will be shaped by different values. It is really this clash that multilateralism has now to resolve.

Non-coercive form

For India, the strategic issue is neither adjustment to China’s power nor deference to U.S. leadership. China has come out with alternative governance mechanisms to the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization with its all-encompassing Belt and Road Initiative. The U.S., European Union and Japan are re-evaluating globalisation as it pertains to China and the U.S. is unabashedly “America First”. The world is questioning both U.S. and China’s exceptionalism.

The global vacuum, shift in relative power and its own potential, provides India the capacity to articulate a benign multilateralism as a NAM-Plus that resonates with large parts of the world and brings both BRICS and the G7 into the tent. This new multilateralism should rely on outcomes, not rules, ‘security’ downplayed for ‘comparable levels of wellbeing’ and a new P-5 that is not based on the G7.

China, through an opinion piece by its Ambassador in India, has suggested writing “together a new chapter” with “a shared future for mankind”. The U.S. wants a security partnership to contain China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations trade bloc — with the U.S. walking out of the negotiations — is keen India joins to balance China. With a new template. India does not have to choose.

First, the Asian Century should be defined in terms of peaceful co-existence, freezing post-colonial sovereignty. Non-interference in the internal affairs of others is a key lesson from the decline of the U.S. and the rise of China. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter rightly observed that while the U.S. spent $3 trillion on military spending, “China has not wasted a single penny on war”.

National security now relies on technological superiority in artificial intelligence (AI), cyber and space, and not expensive capital equipment, as India’s military has acknowledged. Instead of massive arms imports we should use the savings to enhance endogenous capacity and mould the global digital economy between state-centric (China), firm-centric (the U.S.) and public-centric (India) systems.

Second, a global community at comparable levels of well-being requires new principles for trade, for example, rejecting the 25-year-old trade rule creating intellectual property monopolies. Global public goods should include public health, crop research, renewable energy and batteries, even AI as its value comes from shared data. We have the scientific capacity to support these platforms as part of foreign policy.

Third, ancient civilisational values provide the conceptual underpinning, restructuring both the economic order and societal behaviour for equitable sustainable development, which a climate change-impacted world, especially Africa, is seeking.