Editorial Simplified : Push for the Better | GS – III


Relevance :  GS Paper III


Context

Recent, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved the strategic disinvestment of five public sector enterprises, namely, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd (BPCL), Container Corporation of India Ltd, Shipping Corporation of India, Tehri Hydro Power Development Corporation (THDC) and the North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO).


Reasons behind these disinvestments

  • The proceeds from these stake sales will help the Centre move closer to achieving its disinvestment target of Rs 1.05 lakh crore for this year.
  • So far this year, the government has been able to garner only Rs 17,364 crore or 16.5 per cent of its budgeted disinvestment target.
  • The Centre is facing huge shortfalls in both direct and indirect tax revenues, and its gross tax revenues have grown by a mere 1.5 per cent in the first half (April to September) of the current financial year.

The concern with the recent disinvestment

  • With only four months to go, it is not clear whether these stake sales can be wrapped up by the end of the financial year.
  • It should also not be another case of public sector firms stepping in to buy these entities in order to bail out the government.

Way forward

  • The government would benefit from drawing up a more ambitious, better laid out, medium-term plan for disinvestment, rather than approaching it as merely an arrangement for plugging its revenue gaps.
  • It should draw up a list of potential candidates and release an advance calendar, indicating the period of disinvestment. This would help draw in more buyers.
  • Further, the proceeds from disinvestment should be used only for the creation of new assets, not to meet its revenue expenditure.

Editorial Simplified : A Cut Above | GS – III


Relevance :  GS Paper III


Context

Consequent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement from the Red Fort, the proposed structure for the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has been deliberated upon. We should soon be seeing the first CDS take charge.


The debate

The proposed charter of the CDS, his powers and status, etc, has been debated intensely. One school of thought recommends an evolutionary, incremental expansion of the role, while some feel he should be given greater operational control ab initio.


What should be the answer to this dilemma?

  • Retention of existing warfighting structures, while the CDS takes control of newer organisations being set up for tackling future threats, has some merit.
  • Development of future technologies and means to face emerging threats in the cyber, space, missiles domain, nurturing of AI-based platforms, usage of drones for various roles and such modern conflict realities is indeed important. These advancements are extremely costly, and the CDS can facilitate optimal, cost-effective integrated development and deployment of such structures.
  • Modern war and warfighting has tremendous economic costs. Defence budgets are invariably inadequate to meet the “wishlists”, and intense prioritisation of capabilities is inevitable. The CDS can be the vital fulcrum to undertake such prioritisation and rationalisation, and, therefore, can play a stellar role in the perspective planning and development function.
  • Considering the high cost of future technology, the CDS can also contribute towards optimisation of existing structures. Such review of existing establishments and manpower should also be an assigned task for him.
  • Future conflict situations would possibly need integrated application of fighting formations and resources, with unitary operational control of deployed elements. The CDS would be better placed for integrated employment of war fighting potential, and therefore logically needs to be part of the operational control chain.

Way forward

  • The CDS should not become another interposed level between the Raksha Mantri and the service chiefs, whose access to the minister should remain as prevalent.
  • In effect, the CDS should be in charge of newer domains and organisations, and be well poised to optimise, cut costs and prioritise different service demands.
  • He could be an effective mentor for realising our military-industrial power potential, and for modernisation and capability enhancement.
  • His tri-service position makes him the most suited driver for the integrated application of warfighting resources and facilitates unitary control in integrated operations.
  • The CDS also has a primary advisory role, and therefore should not be boxed into administrative efficiency roles, but must be in the operational control chain.
  • In the interim, the CDS may not override the operational responsibility of the service chiefs, and in due course, his operational responsibility can expand and become more “hands-on”.

Conclusion

Thus, it is clear that the CDS would play a far more critical role in the national security apparatus, than the three service chiefs. Our higher defence organisation would finally mature, and be more in tune with our rising power ranking.


Editorial Simplified : Over to the States | GS – II


Relevance :  GS Paper II


Theme of the article

With the economic centre of gravity shifting to states, India’s growth hinges on cooperative federalism.


Introduction

In the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index released last month, India ranked 63, an impressive jump from its lowly rank of 142. Yet, there is anecdotal evidence of investors being frustrated by venality, indifference and corruption at the operating level.


The growing importance of states in India’s economic management.

  • In the early years of our republic, the Centre dominated across all domains — political, economic and administrative — and states, even those led by leaders with political heft, acquiesced to this unequal arrangement.
  • The reaction to central dominance came in the early 1980s when strong regional leaders started agitating against “the hegemony of the Centre”.
  • As a consequence, the Centre yielded to the states, but largely in the political space. Much of the economic policy control stayed with the Centre which decided not just public investment but even private investment through its industrial and import licensing policies, leaving the states on the margins of economic management.
  • That arrangement started to change with the onset of reforms from 1991. Three trends, in particular, have shifted the economic centre of gravity from the Centre to the states
    • The first is the change in the content of the reform agenda. The Centre could push through the reforms of the 1990s without even informing, much less consulting, the states. In contrast, the second-generation reforms on the agenda now shift the emphasis from product to factor markets like land, labour and taxation, which need, not just acquiescence, but often the consent of states.
    • The second factor driving the economic centre of gravity towards states is the changing dynamics of our fiscal federalism. Together, states collect 40 per cent of the combined revenue, but spend as much as 60 per cent of the combined expenditure. More important than the aggregates is the greater autonomy that states now enjoy in determining their expenditure. Thus, the states now not only get a larger quantum of central transfers but also get to decide on how to spend that larger quantum. And how states manage their public finances matters much more than before.
    • The third major trend behind the states’ growing importance in economic federalism is their critical role in creating a conducive investment climate in the country. Much of the responsibility for improving the ease of doing business rests not with Delhi but with the states. This highlights the need for coordinated action.

Conclusion

India’s prospects, including our aspiration for a $5 trillion economy, depend on the Centre and the states working together. If ever there was an opportune moment for a big push on cooperative federalism, it is now.


Editorial Simplified : Security Compromised | GS – III


Relevance :  GS Paper III


Theme of the article

India’s claims to being a legitimate power in cyberspace have come under doubt following the recent revelations.


Context

Recently , it was identified that a DTrack data dump linked with the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant — indicating that a system (or more) in the plant had been breached by malware. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) confirmed the breach. Separately, WhatsApp sued the Israel-based NSO Group for the use of its ‘Pegasus’ spyware on thousands of WhatsApp users in the lead-up to the general elections.


Doubts in India’s claims

These two incidents cast serious doubts on the India’s claims to being a legitimate power in cyberspace, both due to the vulnerability of its critical information infrastructure and blatant disregard for the fundamental rights of its citizens online.


The Pegasus attack

  • As for Pegasus, it appears that over a two-week period in May 2019, an as-yet unknown number of Indian journalists, academics and activists were among those targeted by a government agency using Israeli spyware bought off the shelf.
  • Following a lawsuit, the NSO Group, the Israeli company that created the spyware, released a statement claiming that it licenses its product “only to vetted and legitimate government agencies”.
  • There are but a handful of agencies that are authorised under the Information Technology Act, 2000 to intercept, monitor and decrypt data. Should the fingers point to the National Technical Research Organisation, the country’s foremost TECHINT gathering agency?

Important issues highlighted by these cases

  • There are three glaring issues highlighted by these cases.
  • First, contrary to what the NPCIL may claim, air-gapped systems are not invulnerable. Stuxnet crossed an air gap, crippled Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and even spread across the world to computers in India’s critical infrastructure facilities. It is also not enough to suggest that some systems are less important or critical than others — a distributed and closed network is only as strong as its weakest link.
  • Second, with the Indian military announcing that it will modernise its nuclear forces, which may include the incorporation of Artificial Intelligence and other cybercapabilities, the apparent absence of robust cybersecurity capability is a serious cause for concern. If it cannot secure even the outer layer of networks linking its nuclear plants, what hope does the government have of inducting advanced technologies into managing their security?
  • Third, the surveillance of Indian citizens through WhatsApp spyware in the lead-up to the general elections highlights once again the government’s disregard for cybersecurity.
  • Ironically, these instances point out to a weakening of India’s cybersovereignty: the government comes across as incapable of protecting its most critical installations and, by rendering digital platforms susceptible to spyware, limiting its own agency to prosecute and investigate cybercrime.
  • These incidents also fly in the face of the country’s claims to being a responsible power as a member of export control regimes such as the Wassenaar Arrangement.

Conclusion

If India plans to leverage offensive and defensive cybercapabilities, which are of course its right as a sovereign power, it needs to get serious about cybersecurity. The security of a billion hand-held devices are of equal strategic value to the country’s nuclear assets.


Editorial Simplified : Turning the Policy Focus to Child Undernutrition | GS – II


Relevance :  GS Paper II


Introduction

The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) report, brought out recently by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, assumes salience, especially against two important factors.

  • One, the latest Global Hunger Index (GHI), 2019 ranks India at the 102nd position out of 117 countries.
  • Two, India’s past performance in reducing child undernutrition has been rather mixed: there was a moderate decline in stunting but not in wasting..

Educated mothers

Stunting among children under four years came down from 46% to 19%, a whopping 27% points decline, when maternal education went up from illiteracy/no schooling to 12 years of schooling completed. This phenomenal decline was also true for the number of underweight children.


Decline in wasting

  • The extent of decline in wasting is larger than that of stunting: about 4% points within 22 months.
  • Uttarakhand, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana have reduced wasting by 10% points or more within just 30 months or less, the best performer being Uttarakhand that has reduced wasting by 14% points.
  • Surprisingly, these States have not performed equally well in reducing stunting, despite the fact that wasting and stunting share many common causes.

What can be done ?

  • Ending open defecation and enhancing access to safe water and sanitation are indeed appropriate policy goals, which need to be sustained. However, ending open defecation alone will not reduce stunting phenomenally, as is evident from the experience of Bangladesh.
  • One aspect, which is yet to be firmly embedded into nutrition policy, is dietary diversity. It is important to move away from the present focus on rice and wheat, which studies denounce as ‘staple grain fundamentalism,’ of Public Distribution System (PDS), to a more diversified food basket, with an emphasis on coarse grains.

Editorial Simplified : Quality on Tap | GS – III


Relevance :  GS Paper III


Theme of the article

Empowering consumers with rights is essential in improving quality of water supply.


Context

The Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution has released a report red-flagging tap water quality in major Indian cities.


Findings of the report

  • Delhi has abysmal water quality,
  • Chennai and Kolkata rank very low, and
  • Mumbai is the only city with acceptable results.

Factors responsible for poor water quality

  • City water systems are normatively required to comply with the national standard for drinking water, IS 10500:2012, but most obviously feel no compulsion to do so.
  • Their lack of initiative could be attributed partly to the expanding footprint of packaged drinking water, especially in populous cities, coupled with the high dependence on groundwater in fast-growing urban clusters where State provision of piped water systems does not exist.
  • On paper, the Indian standard has a plethora of quality requirements, including absence of viruses, parasites and microscopic organisms, and control over levels of toxic substances. But in practice, municipal water fails these tests due to the lack of accountability of the official agencies, and the absence of robust data in the public domain on quality testing.

Approach to deal with poor water quality

  • The Centre’s approach to the issue relies on naming and shaming through a system of ranking, but this is unlikely to yield results, going by similar attempts to benchmark other urban services. Making it legally binding on agencies to achieve standards and empowering consumers with rights is essential, because State governments would then take an integrated view of housing, water supply, sanitation and waste management.
  • A scientific approach to water management is vital, considering that 21 cities — including many of those found to have unclean tap water — could run out of groundwater as early as 2020, as per a NITI Aayog report.
  • On the issue of regular testing, there is a case to entrust a separate agency with the task in each State, rather than relying on the same agency that provides water to also perform this function.
  • If data on water are made public on the same lines as air quality, it would ratchet up pressure on governments to act.
  • For too long, the response of water departments to the challenge has been to chlorinate the supply, as this removes pathogens, ignoring such aspects as appearance, smell and taste. It is time to move beyond this and make tap water genuinely desirable.

Editorial Simplified : Still a Developing Country | GS – II


Relevance :  GS Paper II


Theme of the article

India’s publicity overdrive about development can come back to bite it at the WTO.


Introduction 

While on the one hand, the official narrative in India is that of a country making rapid developmental strides since 2014, on the other, when it comes to developmental status at the World Trade Organization (WTO), India is trying hard to prove that it is a poor country.


Why this dichotomy?

While the former assertion is made to please the domestic constituency, the latter proclamation is because of U.S. President Donald Trump’s threat that countries like India should be stripped off their ‘developing country’ status in the WTO.


‘Developing country’ status in WTO

  • Under the WTO system, generally, countries are designated as developed, developing, and least developed countries (LDCs).
  • Article IX.2 of the WTO agreement provides that the LDC status of a country in the WTO is based on such status being recognised by the UN.
  • But the agreement does not mention any criterion to determine a ‘developing country’ status.

Distinction between developed and developing in WTO

  • The uneven level of development between developed and developing countries in the WTO is a well-recognised fact.
  • Article XVIII of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) recognises that attaining the objectives of this agreement would require facilitating the progressive development of those countries that can only support low levels of development and are at the early stages of development.
  • Accordingly, countries self-designate themselves as ‘developing country’ to take advantage of provisions like Article XVIII of GATT and other special and differential treatment (S&DT) provisions in the WTO agreements.
  • These provisions are aimed at increasing trade opportunities for developing countries, ensuring longer transitional periods to comply with WTO obligations, and affording technical assistance to countries, among other things.

The US initiative 

  • In January 2019, the U.S. made a formal submission to the WTO that countries like India are no more ‘developing countries’ and thus should not enjoy the S&DT benefits.
  • It presented data such as the fact that India’s GDP has grown from $0.60 trillion in 1995 to $2.63 trillion in 2017.
  • The U.S. proposed that any country that meets one of the following criteria shall not be eligible for S&DT benefits: membership of, or seeking accession to OECD; membership of G20; share in world exports exceeding 0.5% or classified as high-income group by the World Bank.
  • India is a member of the G20 and its share in world exports is around 1.7% as of early 2019. So, as per these criteria, India will not qualify as a developing country.
  • While graduating to a ‘developed country’ status would have been a matter of joy, the ground reality is very different. India rightly countered the U.S.’s argument. India gave several numbers to show that it is still a poor country and thus requires S&DT provisions.

U.S. threat

  • The U.S., in July, declared that if substantial progress were not made in the WTO in reforming the determination of ‘developing country’ status, it would, within three months, unilaterally stop treating certain countries as ‘developing country’. Thus, the U.S. would stop giving trade benefits to such countries.
  • Despite the bonhomie displayed by President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in U.S. in September, the U.S. has renewed this threat recently to mount pressure.
  • A few days back, South Korea capitulated to this pressure, giving up its ‘developing country’ status. The heat is on India.

Conclusion

Any unilateral action by the U.S. would be a violation of international law and yet another onslaught on trade multilateralism. At the same time, the Indian political leadership also needs to refrain from being on a publicity overdrive about India’s development. At times, its own rhetoric can come back to bite India.


Editorial Simplified : Minding the gaps in India’s data Infrastructure | GS – III


Relevance :  GS Paper III


Context

Last week, demographers from around the world gathered in Delhi to mark 25 years of National Family Health Surveys (NFHS).


Can India’s existing data infrastructure support high quality data collection?

  • Indian statistical infrastructure is crumbling and is not able to fulfil even its traditional tasks, let alone meet the new demands.
  • If we are to move towards developing a more robust data infrastructure, subscribing to the following core principles may be a good start.
    • First, set realistic goals and use creative strategies. For example, obtaining local government data.
    • Second, adapt to changing institutional and technological environment for data collection. For example, concurrent monitoring using technologically-enabled procedures.
    • Third, establish research units exclusively focused on data collection and research design.

Conclusion

Unless we pay systematic attention to the data infrastructure, we are likely to have the national discourse hijacked by poor quality data as has happened in the past with a measurement of poverty or inconsistent data on GDP.


Editorial Simplified : Should Schools have Prayers? | GS – II


Relevance :  GS Paper II


Context

The headmaster of a government school in Uttar Pradesh was suspended for asking students to sing religious prayers in the morning assembly.


Do prayers in the morning assembly amount to giving religious instruction?

Yes:

  • According to Article 28(3) it is not required for a child to attend religious instructions of state-funded schools.
  • It contradicts the spirit of rationality and compromises on scientific temper.
  • Religion has contributed to ethics but have also led to bloodshed.

No:

  • There is no distinction between the aesthetics of a song and [of] a poem that has spiritual overtones.
  • Bhajans are very basic to the cultural and literary traditions of the entire Hindi belt.
  • Direct religious instruction has to be distinguished from traditions of religion which are part of a cultural ethos of the country.
  • Article 51A of the Constitution says citizens should cherish and follow the noble ideals of those who guided our freedom struggle. Therefore, bhajans such as those of Gandhi’s cannot be banned.

Conclusion

We need greater autonomy and a far greater intellectual space to engage with our heritage.


Editorial Simplified : In a Plastic World | GS – III


Relevance :  GS Paper III


Theme of the article

Single-use plastic is only part of what is truly a massive challenge, and that is the management of all kinds of plastic waste.


Context

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an announcement on August 15, 2019, that India would eliminate single-use plastics by 2022. This generated a lot of speculation on whether a ban on single-use plastics was in the offing. Then came another statement on October 2, Gandhi Jayanti, by the PM that single-use plastics (SUPs) will be phased out by 2022, and officials indicated that states will play a major role in ensuring this happens.


Introduction

  • Ever since plastic was invented by John W Hyatt in 1869, it has been an integral part of our lives, contributing much to the convenience of modern living because of the flexibility, durability and lightness of this material.
  • Plastics are used not only in airplanes, computers, cars, trucks and other vehicles, but also in our everyday-use items such as refrigerators, air-conditioners, furniture, and casings for electric wires, to name a few.
  • The problem is that plastic does not decompose naturally and sticks around in the environment for thousands of years. Safe disposal of plastic waste is, therefore, a huge challenge worldwide.

Single use plastics (SUPs)

  • SUPs refers to plastics which are used just once, as in disposable packaging and also in items such as plates, cutlery, straws etc.
  • A FICCI study estimates that 43 per cent of India’s plastics are used in packaging and much of it is single-use plastic.
  • We also have completely unnecessary single-use plastic entering our homes in the form of covers for invitation cards, magazines, bread wrappers and advertisements.

SUPs: Only a part of the challenge

  • Single-use plastic is only part of what is truly a massive challenge, and that is the management of all kinds of plastic waste. But it is good to begin with SUPs because its large and growing volume adds enormously to the total plastic waste.
  • The growing volume is, to a great extent, because of rising e-commerce in India with people buying from companies like Amazon and Flipkart that use single-use plastic for disposable packaging. Both companies have made commitments to phase out their use of single-use plastic, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

States banning plastic

  • Close to 20 states in India have imposed a partial or total ban on single-use plastics at one time or another.
  • Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Himachal Pradesh opted for complete bans, while others including Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha have tried partial bans.
  • The bans have, by and large, not been successful because of poor state capacity to enforce.

The menace of plastic carry bags

  • Plastic carry-bags pose a special problem. Although they are strong, lightweight and useful — and can be saved, cleaned and reused many times — this is mostly not done because they are available very cheap and are, therefore, not valued (often shops give plastic carry bags for free). They become, effectively, single-use plastics.
  • A compulsory charge by retail stores on carry-bags has proven most effective in reducing their use without a ban.
  • In India, the Plastics Waste Management Rules 2016 included a clause in Rule 15 which called for explicit pricing of carry-bags. This required vendors to register and pay an annual fee to the urban local bodies. But lobbying by the producers of plastics ensured that this clause was removed by an amendment in 2018 — and that was never put up for public debate, as is mandatory.
  • In India, plastic producers have been advocating thicker and thicker micron sizes for carry-bags. Also, when there is a ban on carry-bags, it leads to the use of non-woven polypropylene (PP) bags which feel like cloth and are now even being printed to look like cloth: These are actually more dangerous for the environment as their fine fibres rub off and enter global waters as micro-plastics.
  • Discarded plastic bags create the greatest problems in waste management. Blown by wind into drains, they cause flooding of urban areas.
  • Used as waste-bin liners to dispose of daily food scraps, they find their way into the stomachs of roaming livestock because the animals ingest them to get at the food inside, which ultimately causes their death.
  • All plastic waste is eventually carried by rain, streams and rivers into the oceans.

Way forward

  • We need to build awareness of the damage caused by SUPs and develop consumer consciousness to minimise their use. For example, at airports, we could replace meters of cling-film, used to wrap luggage, with a pretty cloth bag temporarily sealed by machine stitching that can later find alternative uses.
  • In our parties, we could use paper plates and bamboo straws.
  • In our pantries, we could use butter-paper, as in olden times, replacing the millions of bread wrappers needlessly used for a product with a shelf life of one to three days.
  • We should also write to those sending us magazines or invitations or advertising in plastic sleeves to switch to tear-proof paper instead.
  • Finally, plastic throw-aways at parties should be replaced with washable, reusable tableware.
  • SUPs can potentially be converted by thermo-mechanical recycling into plastic granules for blending into other plastic products, usually irrigation piping for agriculture.
  • The Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016 require creators of such packaging waste to take it back at their cost or pay cities for its management under Extended Manufacturer Responsibility. But there is little compliance.
  • Use of plastics more than doubles or triples road life — it has been approved by the Indian Road Congress and mandated by the National Highway Authority in November 2015 for upto 50 km around every city with a population of over 5,00,000. It t is only corruption in road contracts that restricts their wider use.
  • Another ingenious idea is to replace the use of thermocol with totally biodegradable pith from the shola/sola plant (Aeschynomene aspera) — this was used in huge quantities till the 1950s for making sola-topees or pith helmets for colonials and their armies. Today, it is used in Bengali weddings and for Durga Puja decorations.

Conclusion

We need many more such innovative ideas and a fundamental change in mindsets to minimise the use of single-use plastic. It is high time we also turn to the larger challenge of plastic waste management if we want to continue to avail of the many advantages offered by plastics in our modern lifestyle.