The Hindu Important Articles 01 December 2018

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The Hindu Important Articles 01 December 2018

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Coalgate: former Coal Secretary convicted

In a corruption case relating to allotment of coal blocks in West Bengal during UPA rule
A Delhi court on Friday convicted former Coal Secretary H.C. Gupta in a corruption case relating to allotment of coal blocks in West Bengal during the previous UPA regime at the Centre.

Five others, including one retired and another serving public servant — K.S. Kropha and K.C. Samria — were held guilty for various offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act and Indian Penal Code, including sections 420 (cheating) and 120B (criminal conspiracy).

Gupta, who was the Coal Secretary from December 31, 2005 to November 2008, has already been convicted before this in two other cases of coal block allocation in which he has been sentenced to jail for two and three years respectively. He is out on bail in both the cases.

Kropha, who was then the Joint Secretary, Ministry of coal, retired in December 2017 as the Chief Secretary of Meghalaya. He has also been convicted and sentenced to two years in another coal block allocation scam and is out on bail.

Samria then held the rank of Director in the Ministry of Coal and is now working as a Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Minority Affairs. He has been convicted and sentenced to two years’ jail term in another case and is out on bail.

All the convicted persons were taken into custody and sent to judicial custody till December 3 when Special CBI Judge Bharat Parashar will hear the arguments on the sentence, which entails maximum punishment of seven years in jail.

Blocks in Bengal

The case pertains to alleged irregularities in allocation of Moira and Madhujore (North and South) coal blocks in West Bengal to Vikash Metals and Power Limited. An FIR was lodged by the CBI in September 2012.

VMPL, its managing director Vikash Patni and authorised signatory Anand Mallick were also convicted.

Prosecutors said Gupta has been accused in 12 cases of alleged irregularities in the allocation scam.

The CBI has filed chargesheets in connection with alleged irregularities in 40 cases of coal block allocations during the UPA-1 and UPA-2 regime.

Till now the special court has decided six such cases.

‘Fake news affects voting behaviour in a big way’

Outgoing CEC says the Commission is working on a robust mechanism for conduct on social media platforms and has interacted with Google and WhatsApp
Outgoing Chief Election Commissioner O.P. Rawat says the panel has created a constituency for the EVMs, with elections in Tripura and other States setting at rest doubts.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during your tenure as the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). Has it been resolved?

The biggest challenge as CEC was back-to-back elections throughout the year and it is almost getting resolved. I took over in the midst of Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland polls. All those elections were very sensitive, because of issues like the terrain and underground cadres. But, that went off very well. In fact, in Tripura, one major issue was the doubt on electronic voting machines raised by a political party. They felt that for the past five elections, the same machines were used and the CPI(M) got a majority and therefore, they should be changed. The Commission turned down the demand. The machines were changed in Meghalaya and Nagaland, but not in Tripura. When the result came, they realised that there was no problem with EVMs, as this time they won the polls. Then in Karnataka, one major party was demanding ballot papers. Then, we launched a massive public awareness campaign on EVM and VVPATs [Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail]. We created a constituency for EVMs. That has been followed by the elections in five States.

Any regrets?

I wanted to focus on putting up a revised legal framework, involving social media, abuse of money and other emerging threats. Such threats didn’t exist when our laws were framed. Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act [which bars election related publicity in the last 48 hours leading to voting] only talks about television or cinematograph. Now television and cinematograph is on your mobile, there are also social media platforms. I wanted that to be reviewed and realigned to the emerging and futuristic needs. We constituted a committee which submitted recommendations.

As this year has been full of elections, we have not been able to devote time to go through them and finalise our suggestions to the Union Law Ministry. It seems my successor CEC may also not find time due to the Lok Sabha elections.

The EC has recommended a series of measures for electoral reforms. What are the most important ones that need urgent implementation?

One important electoral reform relates to money in which if a ceiling on political party expenditure is brought in, it will improve the expenditure and campaign finance regime. It should be more transparent with a level-playing field. As being reported in the media, only the ruling party is getting everything… almost 90%.

For democracy to survive and thrive, not only a very effective ruling party is required, but an equally effective Opposition. So we should have something in place which regulates these things in a manner that is more conducive to democratic processes.

The second important reforms pertain to the media, including social media. Fake news affects voting behaviour in a big way and right now, the only mechanism is Section 126 and EC instructions on paid news. We have to bring in a robust mechanism for conduct on social media platforms, which we are working on. We have already interacted with organisations like Google and WhatsApp. The EC will take a call on all those discussions.

As regards paid/fake news, since the matter is sub judice in the Supreme Court, I won’t be able to tell much on that.

However, that is also an area where a lot of improvement is needed.

Campaign financing has been a major issue

Campaign finance should be available through transparent means. The ruling party will of course always have an edge, because everyone feels that the ruling party can help them in some way and so, they contribute.

It can also be for personal reasons, if they subscribe to the same philosophy and thinking.

An honourable court of the U.S.A. has already said that corporates express themselves through political donations; it is covered under the fundamental right to freedom of expression. So, with that view, they can express themselves by giving anything to anyone.

You stressed on the need for use of technology to address issues related to data security and counter electoral-malpractice measures. Going ahead, in what ways will technology impact electoral process?

The Commission, from the very beginning, started adopting technology, such as the ARO Net, through which all the 4,120 assistant returning officers across the country are connected. Then there is use of EVMs and VVPATs and one-way electronic voting. The R&D project for two-way electronic voting is under way. cVigil [mobile application launched recently by the EC for public to share audio-visual proof of election-related malpractice when the Model Code of Conduct is in place], is a very potent initiative in terms of empowering voters. We received about 4,000 in Madhya Pradesh itself. About 60% of the total complaints were verified to be correct and action taken.

In Chhattisgarh, we got about 1,400 complaints and it was close to 2,800 in Telangana. The response has been good.

What lies ahead for the EC?

My worthy successors are bright and hands-on and they have been exposed to the working which is required of them to enhance the image of the Commission.

The challenges will get tougher and tougher by the day, because of the emerging technological developments, social media, money and other factors. However, they are well-equipped to handle those most effectively.

The ruling party will always have an edge [in getting funds], because everyone feels that the party can help them

Paris Agreement can’t be renegotiated: India

We won’t create obstacles. But we want CoP-24 to be balanced, inclusive: Environment Secretary Mishra
India will resist attempts by countries to renegotiate the Paris Agreement, said one of India’s key negotiators at climate talks set to begin next week in Katowice, Poland.

“India won’t create obstacles…however, we want that the Conference of Parties-24 (discussions) be balanced, inclusive and consistent with the Paris Agreement,” said C.K. Mishra, Secretary, Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change. “Some countries are trying to reopen the Paris Agreement.”

While he didn’t name them, meetings in the run-up to the COP have seen several, particularly Australia, and the U.S. prominently, raise concerns about clauses in the deal.

The landmark deal agreed to in 2015 exhorts countries to take steps to avoid temperatures from rising beyond 2C of pre-industrial levels, and even 1.5 C as far as possible, by the end of the century.

Currently global emissions are poised to warm the world by 3C by the end of the century.

The United States opted out of the deal last year but continues to be part of discussions as a complete withdrawal — as per terms of the UN convention — takes up to four years.

Arduous negotiations

A 17-member delegation, consisting of officials from several Ministries as well as Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan, will be representing India over two weeks in what is likely to be arduous negotiations on how to agree to implement the Paris Agreement.

A key point, said Mr. Mishra, would be transparency and accountability. Developing and developed countries have disputes on whether there should be a common set of standards that all countries must adhere to when reporting what steps each has taken to contain carbon emissions.

India and China, which have committed to ensuring that their emission intensities will not cross a threshold, also argue that all countries cannot be held to the same data-monitoring-and-reporting standards.

Modi meets Trump, Putin ahead of G20 summit

Holds bilaterals with President Xi, Saudi Crown Prince
Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday interacted with U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Theresa May ahead of the G-20 summit .

The brief exchange of views took place before the first trilateral meeting between Mr. Modi, Mr. Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe scheduled for later in the day.

Earlier, Mr. Modi held separate bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi discussed joint efforts to further enhance mutual trust and friendship. Asserting that the Wuhan meet was a milestone in India-China ties, Mr. Modi told Mr. Xi that he was looking forward to host him for an informal summit next year.

Mr. Modi assured Mr. Guterres, that India will play its “due and responsible” role at the crucial climate change negotiations in Poland next week.

During Mr. Modi’s meeting with Crown Prince Salman, the two leaders decided to set up a mechanism to scale up the oil-rich kingdom’s investments in energy, infrastructure and defence sectors in India.

Crown Prince Salman said Saudi Arabia will be finalising an initial investment in the National Infrastructure Fund.

Trump defends Russia deal efforts

Says seeking a business project in Russia while pursuing campaign in 2016 was ‘very legal & very cool’
U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday defended his decision to seek a business deal in Russia in 2016 even as he pursued the Republican presidential nomination, calling it “very legal” and “very cool” to keep running his business while campaigning.

In a series of tweets from Buenos Aires, where he is attending the G20 summit, Mr. Trump also said he had only “lightly looked” at a real estate project “somewhere in Russia”, but that nothing had come of the effort.

A second guilty plea on Thursday by Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, has raised new questions about his dealings with Russia while he was also establishing Republican foreign policy during his run for the presidency.

Mr. Trump repeatedly has said he had no ties to Russia. The U.S. Special Counsel’s Office is investigating Moscow for alleged interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Mr. Trump’s campaign.

Russia has denied U.S. intelligence conclusions that it meddled and Mr. Trump has frequently decried the investigation as a “witch hunt”. Both have denied any collusion.

Russia probe
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team has brought charges or secured convictions against more than two dozen Russian nationals and entities, as well as a number of Mr. Trump’s associates, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who faced a hearing on Friday morning to schedule his sentencing. Mr. Mueller this week said Mr. Manafort had been lying to federal prosecutors despite his plea deal.

Mr. Cohen, who had already pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations and other financial crimes in a separate case brought by federal prosecutors in New York, on Thursday said he had lied to Congress about a proposed Trump Organization skyscraper project in Moscow.

His plea agreement with Mr. Mueller’s team showed the Trump Organization pursued the scheme further into the 2016 campaign than previously disclosed. Mr. Cohen also told Mr. Mueller’s prosecutors he briefed Mr. Trump on the project more than three times. He also briefed members of Mr. Trump’s family and had direct contact with Kremlin representatives.

Mr. Trump lashed out at Mr. Cohen after the plea deal was announced, calling him “a weak person” and a liar. As he departed for Buenos Aires, Mr. Trump acknowledged his business dealings with Russia, telling reporters on Thursday: “It doesn’t matter because I was allowed to do whatever I wanted during the campaign.”

Strong denial
On Twitter on Friday, he said that during his campaign, he continued to run “my business-very legal & very cool”. Mr. Trump still owns his private company but had said he would hand over day-to-day dealings to his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump when he took office in January 2017.

His meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki earlier this year drew criticism after Mr. Trump appeared to cast doubt on U.S. intelligence findings of Russian meddling in the campaign and said Mr. Putin had been extremely strong in his denials.

After Mr. Cohen’s plea, Mr. Trump cancelled his planned meeting with Mr. Putin at the G20, citing the Ukraine crisis. Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Friday said it believed the meeting was cancelled over “the U.S. domestic political situation”.

Destruction in the delta

As Tamil Nadu struggles to restore normalcy in the districts affected by Cyclone Gaja, Jayant Sriram and B. Kolappan report on the devastation visited upon the region’s coconut cultivators, and how farming in this predominantly agrarian belt could be made more disaster-proof
When T. Govindarajan, 51, began growing coconut saplings alongside the groundnut crop on his 1.5 acre plot in Orathanadu, Tamil Nadu, nearly two decades ago, he thought he was making a safe bet on his future. A decade later, as the tall trees completely replaced the groundnut crop, his portion of land, though not large, began to provide a stable income that allowed him to dream of better things for his family. “I have two sons. One in class 11, and the other in class 6. Both go to a private school. Every other investment I have been able to make is thanks to this coconut plantation.”

Standing under a cloudy sky that now casts a forbidding pall over the Orathanadu region near Thanjavur district, Govindarajan can only look on helplessly as his coconut farm lies flattened. It was just another casualty of Cyclone Gaja which ripped through the delta districts of the State about 10 days ago.

As farm hands work to clear away fallen leaves and tree trunks, he trades stories with other farmers whose plots adjoin his. They talk about B. Sunderraj, a farmer, who is said to have committed suicide over the loss of his coconut trees. And of the plight of N. Karunanidhi, also from their village, who was planning to sell an acre of his coconut farm in order to conduct a grand wedding for his daughter but can no longer do so. They speak with an anxiety about the future, and about the possibility of planting hybrid varieties of coconut saplings that would provide yields quicker. As they talk, they cannot help but acknowledge a grim reality — that they too are not safe from the agrarian distress that has affected paddy farmers in the region.

Blown away

In the deluge of reports about the destruction wreaked by Cyclone Gaja, there is one statistic that stands out, and is also viscerally evident — that it felled 60-80% of all coconut trees in the region. Initial estimates by the State government show that around 75 lakh coconut trees were damaged either fully or partially in the gale winds.

Initially, Gaja was forecast to affect the area around Chennai and Puducherry, but made landfall further south on Tamil Nadu’s east coast, covering the districts along the State’s famous East Coast Road. The districts affected most severely include Pudukottai, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam. The last three make up what is known as Tamil Nadu’s delta region, encompassing the lower reaches of the Cauvery river. Of these, Nagapattinam, the worst affected, falls on the coast line, with Gaja making a direct line inward over Tiruvarur and Thanjavur. Famous for rice farming, these areas have also begun contributing up to a quarter of India’s total coconut production, with the highest yield per hectare.

In field after field of coconut trees across these districts, which have been either uprooted or stand tilting dangerously, the same story repeats itself: of marginal and small farmers affected by changes in climate and weather patterns. It has been difficult for them. When the frequent failure of the monsoons forced them to diversify their crop patterns, recurring cyclones could threaten to blow all their work away.

About 30 years ago, farmers from various towns in the region, including Pattukkottai, Thambikottai, Peravurani and Orathanur began the switch to coconut plantations. The move was prompted by uncertainty over the release of water from the Mettur dam following the dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the sharing of Cauvery river water. In subsequent years, as rainfall patterns became more erratic, farmers with smaller holdings also wanted an alternative. Says V. Narayanaswamy, a schoolteacher who also started growing coconuts on his two acre plot some years ago, “For many of us, apart from the water issue, paddy farming was just too labour intensive. Regardless of how much we made on the paddy, we could still end up with a loss after paying for the labour.” Farmers in the region also took a collective decision: first to grow trees such as jackfruit and coconut along with the regular crop, and then to move into coconut farming wholesale.

The State’s granary

This region, famous for its fertile soil, has always been known as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. But the character of its landscape is changing as fields of green paddy now share space with an expanding number of groves and orchards. To go with the burgeoning coconut plantations, farmers in towns like Vedaranyam, Katipulam, Chembodai and Pushpavanam in Nagapattinam district were also expanding farms with fruit trees such as mango, cashew nut and tamarind. However, it was coconut that made the most economic sense. Unlike paddy crop, which provides a yield every six months and is water intensive, coconut trees, which are a perennial crop, provided fruit every two months. “A raw coconut would fetch anything between Rs. 12 and Rs. 18,” explains Narayanaswamy, with the husk being sold at Rs. 1 a piece and the shell also being sold separately. Though the soil in this region is a bit saline and despite being away from the coastal region, the coconuts thrived. “Even for a farmer with about 1.5-2 acres of land, the trees would provide upward of 3,000 coconuts every two months,” Narayanaswamy says.

Despite the growing supply, there was never a shortage in demand. Quite the opposite, in fact. Earlier this year, it was reported that while the demand for copra (dried coconut kernels from which oil is obtained) was growing at nearly 8% per annum, the supply of copra had been growing at just 2%. All the farmers in Thanjavur district cite the company, Marico, which makes oil under the ‘Parachute’ brand, as a regular buyer. A news report from earlier this year says that the company even stepped in to help farmers, bringing in agricultural experts to advise those whose trees were not yielding enough fruit either due to pest infestation or unscientific crop management.

In contrast, the fortunes of paddy farmers have continued to fluctuate. Last year , for instance, was one of relative drought, with the Southwest and Northeast monsoons failing. There were crop failures in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts, and sporadic reports of farmers ending their lives. It is not hard to see why coconut farming is more attractive and appealing as a sustainable and profitable enterprise — a virtual failsafe. On the issue of cyclones, several farmers in the region say the idea of insuring their crop did not occur to them as they had never even imagined that a cyclone could cause so much damage.

Those who still have vivid memories of the past recall the last major cyclone in the region, and one of a comparable magnitude — in 1952. Yet, the frequency is worrying. A report in the Down to Earth magazine says that Gaja has been the 10th major cyclone to affect Tamil Nadu in the past 16 years. The number of cyclones that hit the State between 1891 and 2002 was 54, which works out to 0.49 cyclones per year. Between 2003 and 2018, this went up to 0.63 per year, a rise of 30%.

The State’s action plan for climate change identifies cyclones as a major concern. In the past two years alone, it has seen the effects of three devastating cyclones that have caused major losses to life, property and tree cover. These are Ockhi, which struck in Kanyakumari in June last year, Vardah, which hit Chennai in late 2016, and now Gaja. This is quite apart from the fact that the Tamil Nadu coast has always been one of the most cyclone-prone regions in the country. Back in 1968, in the Tamil blockbuster, “Thillana Mohanambal”, the heroine’s mother mentions the place name Nagapattinam. In response, Nagesh, the comedian, quips: “Is a cyclone coming?”

Waiting for relief

Despite the region being cyclone-prone, the State government has hardly taken note of the fact that most houses in the villages of Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and Tiruvarur are thatched roof structures. Landless labourers make up about 31% of the population of these districts, and are the worst hit in times of both drought and cyclones. This is one of the few regions in Tamil Nadu which has remained predominantly agrarian. It has not seen the expansion of industry or the trend of land being sold for real estate. Those old enough to remember the cyclone of 1952 recall similar destruction, but not much seems to have changed since then.

In the immediate aftermath of Gaja, officials admit that the extent of damage has been beyond their comprehension. This despite their having taken active measures to establish emergency control centres in six coastal districts. Gagandeep Singh Bedi, an official in charge of rehabilitation in Thanjavur district, says the damage to property and infrastructure is 10 times more than what was caused by Cyclone Thane, which had hit the eastern coast along Puducherry and Cuddalore in 2011. At that time, Thane had become a reference point for disaster management officials, who had to contend with the loss of tree cover and destruction of numerous electrical posts and transmitters. If the overall damage to property in the delta districts is significantly worse, a big element of this is the destruction of virtually every thatched roof structure in these villages.

Two weeks after Gaja hit, people are still camped out in temporary shelters, all along the main roads in Nagapattinam, Tiruvarur and Thanjavur, waiting for relief materials to be handed out. These camps, each comprising 20 to 30 people, display signs that announce their having been affected by Cyclone Gaja and in need of assistance.

Many of them use the relief rations to cook food for people in the village. They are able to manage just one meal a day. The damage caused to the power supply means that there is no drinking water in many of these villages.

In several villages, for example, Rayanallur Katakam near Tiruvarur, most residents have had to sleep in some of the concrete structures that have escaped damage. In most of the houses, the roofs have either collapsed or the floors are too damp with heavy rains continuing in the area. In almost every camp, villagers say that relief workers travel along the main roads, refusing to move inside the villages and judge the extent of damage to the smaller houses.

In its report to the Centre detailing the damage caused by Gaja, the Tamil Nadu government has estimated the number of people rendered homeless to be 3.7 lakh, and houses destroyed at 3.4 lakh. The State has submitted a memorandum to the Centre seeking about Rs. 15,000 crore for restoration, rehabilitation and mitigation, and another Rs. 1,431 crore for immediate relief work. These funds are imperative in order to re-establish a basic framework of normality — getting people back to their homes and restoring the supply of drinking water and electricity.

Across the cyclone-affected areas, perhaps the only sight as common as fallen coconut trees are damaged electrical transformers. According to figures available with the State government, the cyclone has damaged 201 power substations, upended 886 transformers, and snapped 53,21,506 electricity connections.

The Central government has sanctioned Rs. 200 crore to overhaul power networks in the region. Nearly 25,000 workers of the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation (TANGEDCO) are on the job. Trucks with teams of electrical workers are a common sight now across districts in the delta region. They are often accompanied by large truckloads of concrete pillars (to reconnect the wires) that have come in from neighbouring Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Cyclone Gaja has so far claimed over 40 lives, but the toll could have been much worse had it not been for the early evacuation of 2.5 lakh people. Given the extent of damage to property, it is clear that the State needs to come up with a more comprehensive disaster preparedness plan. This should start, first of all, with the rebuilding of houses to make them more weather-resistant. A step in this direction was taken when Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami announced on November 29 his government’s decision to build one lakh concrete houses for those who had lost their huts in the cyclone. This is a start, but much more needs to be done.

He also announced that relief materials such as rice, oil and clothing would reach those would have been affected within the next five days. So far, however, the distribution of relief materials has been sporadic at best, with some in the camps claiming that they get daily rations of rice, while others in the interior areas saying that they have to wait for hours just to receive even a couple of biscuit packets.

Question of compensation

There is also the larger question of damage to farm property and how the region will move forward. While paddy crop remains a huge risk, given the erratic monsoons, they can nonetheless be sown again the next year if affected by unseasonal weather. Coconut saplings, on the other hand, will need about seven or eight years to take full root and start providing a harvest. Most farmers in the region are still unclear about the level of compensation that the State government will offer for their crop.

The coconut producers union in Thanjavur says that it has asked the Coconut Development Board to raise the issue with the Union Agriculture Ministry and seek compensation to the fullest possible. The union says that the damage to coconut trees as estimated by the State government is about Rs. 3,000 crore. While farmers want between relief of Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 25,000 per coconut tree, petitions are being filed in district courts that seek an amount of up to Rs. 50,000 per tree. In neighbouring Nagapattinam, mango farmers, who claim that each tree used to yield a tonne of mangos in a year, are likely to demand more.

Going forward, crop insurance is likely to be a key factor in encouraging farmers to rebuild all that they have lost. Unfortunately, there is very little awareness about this except among paddy farmers who are more accustomed to the process of filing for insurance.

According to the Pudukkottai MLA, N. Rangarajan, who is also a farmer, the issue is being studied. “There are loan schemes for coconut crops from the Coconut Development Board and under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (crop insurance scheme), which has a coconut palm insurance scheme.” Both offer very low amounts as compensation, he says and farmers in the region are looking at alternatives.

Rangarajan adds that he plans to encourage farmers to go in for cashewnut crop instead of coconut as they have low-lying branches and less likely to be affected by strong winds. “For the regions near the coast, however, there is no choice but to opt for coconut again despite the risk of another cyclone,” he says, “as the soil type is best suited for coconut farming.”

Institutes such as the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, which had initially advised and helped many of the farmers to switch to coconut farming, can also play a role in offering help and advice, he adds.

For the regions near the coast, there is no choice but to opt for coconut again despite the risk of another cyclone.”

N. Rangarajan,

Pudukkottai MLA and farmer

Neighbourhood first?

In a calibrated move, the Modi government is dialling down aggressive postures in bilateral ties
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched down in the Maldives in mid-November to attend the swearing-in of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as the country’s President ( picture ), it was easy to count the “firsts” in his visit. Among them: this was Mr. Modi’s first visit to the Maldives, the only country in South Asia he had not yet visited in his tenure, and the first by an Indian Prime Minister in seven years. The only time a visit by Mr. Modi had been planned, in 2015, he cancelled his travel plan abruptly, to register a strong protest at the treatment of opposition leaders, who are now in government. The one “first” that was not as prominent, however, was that despite inviting all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders to his own swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, the Maldives visit marked the first time Mr. Modi attended the swearing-in ceremony of any other leader. The fact that he did, and chose to be one among the audience rather than on stage, may be a more visible sign of a new, softer neighbourhood policy than the one Mr. Modi’s government has pursued in previous years.

All in 2018

The current year, 2018, has marked a year of reaching out in the region by the Modi government in general, with a view to dialling down disagreements that otherwise marked ties with major powers such as Russia and China. But while Mr. Modi’s “Wuhan summit” with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the “Sochi retreat” with Russian President Vladimir Putin merited much attention, it is important to take stock of attempts at rapprochement in the immediate neighbourhood.

With Nepal, the government’s moves were a clear turn-around from the ‘tough love’ policy since the 2015 blockade. Then, the government seemed to want nothing more than to usher Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli out of power. In 2018, however, when Mr. Oli was re-elected, despite his anti-India campaign, the Modi government wasted no time in reaching out and, in a highly unconventional move, despatched External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu even before Mr. Oli had been invited to form the government. Since then, Mr. Oli has been invited to Delhi and Mr. Modi has made two visits to Nepal, with a third one planned in December to be part of the “Vivaha Panchami” festival. The frequency of visits in 2018 is in stark contrast to the three preceding years, when Mr. Modi did not visit Nepal at all.

Similar comparisons abound with India’s reaction to major developments in the neighbourhood. In the Maldives, when emergency was declared by the previous regime of Abdulla Yameen, New Delhi made no attempt to threaten him militarily despite expectations of domestic commentators and Western diplomats. When Mr. Yameen went further, denying visas to thousands of Indian job seekers and naval and military personnel stationed there, New Delhi’s response was to say that every country has a right to decide its visa policy.

With elections in Bhutan (completed) and Bangladesh (to be held in December), as well as the ongoing political crisis in Sri Lanka, India has chosen to make no public political statement that could be construed as interference or preference for one side over the other. Earlier this year, the government even allowed a delegation of the Bangladesh opposition to visit Delhi and speak at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-affiliated think tanks, although it later deported a British QC lawyer for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Perhaps the biggest policy shift this year was carried out as a concession to the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul. After a policy of more than two decades of refusing to engage with the Taliban, or even sit at the table with them, in November India sent envoys to the Moscow conference on Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s representatives were present. The U.S. chose to send a diplomat based in Moscow as an “observer”, but the Indian delegation of former Ambassadors to the region represented non-official “participation” at the event. The shift was palpable. Earlier, the government had stayed aloof from the process, explaining that any meeting outside Afghanistan crossed the redline on an “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led solution”. While the change in position was eventually achieved by a high-level outreach by the Russian government, which has projected the conference as a big diplomatic success, India’s participation had been nudged by President Ghani himself. He had made a strong pitch for backing talks with the Taliban during a visit to Delhi in mid-September. Both in his meeting with Mr. Modi and in a public speech, Mr. Ghani had stressed that the Islamic State and “foreign terrorists” were the problem in Afghanistan, as opposed to the Afghan Taliban itself, and talks with them had the support of the Afghan people. Whatever India’s reservations may have been about the Taliban, the Modi government eventually decided to extend its participation to the Moscow event.

The Kartarpur link

Given the context, it may be possible to see the government’s latest shift, in sending two Union Ministers to Pakistan this week to join Prime Minister Imran Khan for the ground-breaking ceremony for the Kartarpur corridor, as part of the larger pattern of softening towards the neighbourhood. No Indian Minister has visited Pakistan since the Uri attack in September 2016, and after the cancellation of Foreign Minister talks at the UN this year, it was assumed that the government would not pursue conciliatory proposals with the new government in Islamabad. It is also significant that the BJP and the Prime Minister have chosen not to make Pakistan an electoral issue in the current round of State elections, as they did during last year’s Assembly polls. While it seems unlikely that the larger shift required for a Prime Ministerial visit to Pakistan for the SAARC summit is possible before elections next year, it is not inconceivable that people-to-people ties, of the kind Mr. Modi spoke of in his speech comparing the transformative potential of the Kartarpur corridor to the falling of the Berlin wall, will be allowed to grow.

All these moves lead to the question, why has the government decided to make the change from playing big brother in the neighbourhood to a more genial and avuncular version of its previous self? One reason is certainly the backlash it received from some of its smallest neighbours like Nepal and the Maldives, that didn’t take kindly to being strong-armed, even if New Delhi projected its advice to be in their best interests. Another could be the conscious rolling back of India’s previous policy of dissuading neighbours from Chinese engagement to now standing back as they learn the risks of debt-traps and over-construction of infrastructure on their own. India’s own rapprochement with China post-Wuhan in the spirit of channelling both “cooperation and competition together” has also led to this outcome.

Temporary or durable

It must be stressed, however, that retreating from an aggressive position must not give the impression that India is retrenching within the region, opening space for the U.S.-China rivalry to play out in its own backyard. The most obvious reason for the government’s neighbourhood policy shift of 2018, that resounds closer to the “neighbourhood first” articulation of 2014, is that general elections are around the corner. This leads to the question, is the new policy simply a temporary move or a more permanent course correction: Neighbourhood 2.0 or merely Neighbourhood 1.2.0?

Together in an uncertain world

The EU’s road map for strengthening ties with India must be acted upon by both
Last week saw the European Union releasing its strategy on India after 14 years. Launching the strategy document, the European Union (EU) Ambassador to India, Tomasz Kozlowski, underlined that “India is on the top of the agenda of the EU in the field of external relations… this strategy paper reflects that EU has taken India’s priorities very seriously. We are ready for a joint leap.” The 2004 EU-India declaration on building bilateral strategic partnership, which this road map replaces, has not had much of a success in reconfiguring the relationship as was expected.

Transformative shift

The new document is sweeping in its scope and lays out a road map for strengthening the EU-India partnership, which has been adrift for a while in the absence of a clearly articulated strategy. The new strategy underscores a transformative shift in Brussels vis-à-vis India and talks of key focus areas such as the need to conclude a broader Strategic Partnership Agreement, intensifying dialogue on Afghanistan and Central Asia, strengthening technical cooperation on fighting terrorism, and countering radicalisation, violent extremism and terrorist financing. More significant from the perspective of the EU, which has been traditionally shy of using its hard power tools, is a recognition of the need to develop defence and security cooperation with India.

Despite sharing a congruence of values and democratic ideals, India and the EU have both struggled to build a partnership that can be instrumental in shaping the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the 21st century. Each complain of the other’s ignorance, and often arrogance, and both have their own litany of grievances.

But where India’s relations with individual EU nations have progressed dramatically over the last few years and the EU’s focus on India has grown, it has become imperative for the two to give each other a serious look. In this age when U.S. President Donald Trump is upending the global liberal order so dear to the Europeans, and China’s rise is challenging the very values which Brussels likes to showcase as the ones underpinning global stability, a substantive engagement with India is a natural corollary.

Delhi’s overture

The Narendra Modi government too has shed India’s diffidence of the past in engaging with the West. New Delhi has found the bureaucratic maze of Brussels rather difficult to navigate and in the process ignored the EU as a collective. At times, India also objected to the high moralistic tone emanating from Brussels. Where individual nations of the EU started becoming more pragmatic in their engagement with India, Brussels continued to be big-brotherly in its attitude on political issues and ignorant of the geostrategic imperatives of Indian foreign and security policies.

The result was a limited partnership which largely remained confined to economics and trade. Even as the EU emerged as India’s largest trading partner and biggest foreign investor, the relationship remained devoid of any strategic content. Though the Modi government did initially make a push for reviving the talks on EU-India bilateral trade and investment agreement, nothing much of substance has happened on the bilateral front.

But as the wider EU political landscape evolves after Brexit, and India seeks to manage the turbulent geopolitics in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific, both recognise the importance of engaging each other. There is a new push in Brussels to emerge as a geopolitical actor of some significance and India is a natural partner in many respects. There is widespread disappointment with the trajectory of China’s evolution and the Trump administration’s disdain for its Western allies is highly disruptive. At a time when India’s horizons are widening beyond South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, Brussels is also being forced to look beyond its periphery. The EU will be part of the International Solar Alliance, and has invited India to escort World Food Programme vessels to transport food to Somalia. The two have been coordinating closely on regional issues.

Taking it forward

The new India strategy document unveiled by the EU, therefore, comes at an appropriate time when both have to seriously recalibrate their partnership. Merely reiterating that India and the EU are “natural partners” is not enough, and the areas outlined in the document, from security sector cooperation to countering terrorism and regional security, need to be focussed on. India needs resources and expertise from the EU for its various priority areas, such as cybersecurity, urbanisation, environmental regeneration, and skill development.

As the EU shifts its focus to India, New Delhi should heartily reciprocate this outreach. In the past, India had complained that Brussels does not take India seriously and that despite the two not having any ideological affinity, the EU-China relations carried greater traction. Now all that might change.

Harsh V. Pant is Director, Studies and Head of Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and Professor of International Relations at King’s College London

The death debate

Justice Joseph’s views on abolishing capital punishment require serious consideration
In questioning the merits of retaining the death penalty, Justice Kurian Joseph has re-ignited a debate that is important and requires serious thought. What he said cannot be ignored, though the law laid down in Bachan Singh (1980), upholding the validity of the death penalty and laying down guidelines for awarding death in ‘the rarest of rare’ cases’, still holds the field. Even the other two judges on the Bench have disagreed with Justice Joseph’s view that the time has come to review the death penalty, its purpose and practice. But it is impossible to ignore the ethical and practical dimensions of the debate in a world that is increasingly questioning the wisdom of capital punishment. Justice Joseph has underscored the arbitrary manner in which it is awarded by different judges and the way public discourse influences such decisions. Concerns over judge-centric variations have been raised in the past. The Supreme Court itself spoke of the “extremely uneven application” of the norms laid down in Bachan Singh . The Law Commission, in its Report in 2015, said the constitutional regulation of capital punishment attempted in that case has failed to prevent death sentences from being “arbitrarily and freakishly imposed”. Justice Joseph seems to endorse the Commission’s assertion that “there exists no principled method to remove such arbitrariness from capital sentencing”.

In individual cases, much of the conversation about the maximum sentence that may be imposed usually revolves around the nature of the crime, its gravity and cruelty, and the number of fatalities. In recent times, public outrage, the need for deterrence, and the clamour for a befitting punishment to render substantial justice have dominated the discourse. Theories of punishment on whether it ought to be punitive, retributive, reformative or restorative are less relevant to the public imagination and the law enforcers when the crime is grave and heinous. There is a conflict between those who sense the danger of inconsistent application and those who believe in condign justice. This conflict can be resolved only if the debate is taken to a higher plane: a moral position that there shall be no death penalty in law, regardless of the nature, circumstances and consequences of an offence. The Supreme Court has covered considerable ground in limiting the scope, to the ‘rarest of rare cases’. Post-appeal reviews and curative petitions are routinely admitted. Review petitions are now heard in open court. The treatment of death row prisoners has been humanised, and there is scope for judicial review even against a sovereign decision denying clemency. If there still prevails a perception of arbitrariness in the way death sentences are awarded, the only lasting solution is their abolition. The views of the Law Commission and Justice Joseph should not be ignored.

Wage drag

The ILO’s report underlines the need for wage expansion that is robust and also equitable
The International Labour Organisation’s Global Wage Report has put into sharp relief one of the biggest drags on global economic momentum: slowing wage growth. Global wage growth, adjusted for inflation, slowed to 1.8% in 2017, from 2.4% in 2016, it shows. Worryingly, this is the lowest rate since 2008. Excluding China (given its high population and rapid wage growth it tends to skew the mean), the average was even lower (1.1% in 2017 against 1.8% in 2016). Across a majority of geographies and economic groupings, wage expansions were noticeably tepid last year. In the advanced G20 countries the pace eased to 0.4%, with the U.S. posting an unchanged 0.7% growth and Europe (excluding Eastern Europe) stalling at about zero. The emerging and developing economies in the G20 were not spared a deceleration, with the growth in wages slowing to 4.3%, from 4.9% in 2016. In the Asia and Pacific nations, where workers had enjoyed the biggest real wage growth worldwide between 2006 and 2017, it slid to 3.5% from the previous year’s 4.8%. The obvious impact of this low pace has been on global economic growth with consumption demand hurt by restrained spending by wage-earners. Slow wage growth prompted U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to observe in June that “in a world where we’re hearing lots and lots about labour shortages — everywhere we go now, we hear about labour shortages — but where is the wage reaction? So it’s a bit of a puzzle.”

The ILO report observes that the acceleration of economic growth in high-income countries in 2017 was led mainly by higher investment spending rather than by private consumption. Extending the time horizon, it reveals that real wages almost tripled in the developing and emerging countries of the G20 between 1999 and 2017, while in the advanced economies the increase over the same period aggregated to a far lower 9%. And yet, in many low- and middle-income economies the average wage, in absolute terms, was so low it was still inadequate to cover the bare needs of workers. The intensification of competition in the wake of globalisation, accompanied by a worldwide decline in the bargaining power of workers has resulted in a decoupling between wages and labour productivity. The fallout has been the weakening share of labour compensation in GDP across many countries that the ILO notes “remain substantially below those of the early 1990s”. The Washington-based Economic Policy Institute uses the U.S. example to buttress the argument that widening inequality is slowing demand and growth by shifting larger shares of income “to rich households that save rather than spend”. For India’s policymakers, the message is clear: to reap the demographic dividend we need not only jobs, but wage expansion that is robust and equitable.

What’s with the back series GDP data?

Method to calculate data and manner in which it was released led to criticism from various quarters
The government on Wednesday released the GDP growth estimates for previous years based on the new method of calculation and base year it had adopted in 2015. The new data and the manner in which it was released led to criticism from various quarters, including Opposition political parties and economists alike.

What happened?

In 2015, the government adopted a new method for the calculation of the gross domestic product of the country, and also adopted the Gross Value Added measure to better estimate economic activity. Further, the change involved a bringing forward of the base year used for calculations to 2011-12 from the previous 2004-05. However, this had led to the problem of not being able to compare recent data with the years preceding 2011-12. The back series data released on Wednesday provided the earlier years’ data using the new calculations.

What does the new data say?

The new data release shows that GDP growth during the UPA years averaged 6.7% during both UPA-I and UPA-II, compared with the 8.1% and 7.46%, respectively, estimated using the older method. In comparison, the current government has witnessed an average GDP growth rate of 7.35% during the first four years of its term, based on the new method.

The new data shows that, contrary to the earlier perception, the Indian economy never graduated to a ‘high growth’ phase of more than 9% in the last decade or so. Former Chief Statistician of India TCA Anant also pointed out that the newer data, especially for the mining and manufacturing sectors, shows that India did not recover from the global financial crisis as quickly as initially thought.

What were the changes made?

The first and most basic change made in the data calculations was changing the base year. While using 2011-12 as the base year is simpler for calculations for subsequent years, it was a tougher exercise calculating backwards using the new base.

According to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, the method for preparing the back series is largely the same as what is used to calculate the data using the new base, which is how all national accounts calculations will be made going forward.

While doing the exercise, the government adopted the recommendations of the United Nations System of National Accounts, which included measuring the GVA, Net Value Added (NVA), and the use of new data sources wherever available. One of these data sources is the Ministry of Corporate Affairs MCA-21 database, which became available since 2011-12.

One problem encountered was in finding matching data for the older series as what the MCA-21 database provided. The key difference between the two was that the old method measured volumes — actual physical output in the manufacturing sector, crop production, and employment for the services sector. The MCA-21 database allows for a more granular approach, looking at the balance sheet data of each company and aggregating the performance of the sector from that, after adjusting for inflation.

For most sectors, simply changing the price vectors from a 2004-05 to a 2011-12 base was enough, but others required a splicing of new and old data in the relevant proportions to arrive at the closest approximation.

The new method is also statistically more robust as it tries to relate the estimates to more indicators such as consumption, employment, and the performance of enterprises, and also incorporates factors that are more responsive to current changes, unlike the old series that usually took 2-3 years to register an underlying change.

What are the problems with the new data?

As even the government concedes, there are a number of ways to calculate the back series data. To arrive at the ‘best’ one, it held numerous consultations with leading economists and statisticians and even delayed the data release once to address all the questions the experts posed.

However, the number of options available and the manner in which the data was released also led to criticism and doubt over the method that was finally chosen. Former Chief Statistician of India Pronab Sen pointed out that the fact that the data was released by Niti Aayog led to questions over the credibility of the method chosen. While it was being handled exclusively by the Central Statistics Office, the assumption was that the statistically strongest method would be chosen. Adding Niti Aayog to the equation puts this in doubt, Mr. Sen said, since it brought political considerations into the fray.

The Opposition also termed the data release a “gimmickry, jugglery, trickery and chicanery”, a claim disputed by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Are these numbers different from previous estimates?

The new back series data diverges quite sharply significantly from the estimates made in a draft report released by the National Statistical Commission earlier this year, which showed that growth during the UPA years crossed 9% on at least four occasions, and even hit 10.78% in 2010-11. This report pegged the average GDP growth during UPA-I at about 8.4% and UPA-II at 7.7%. The government, however, was quick to clarify that this was just a draft report that used only one of the many methods on offer to estimate the back series, and that it was not the final number.

India’s first indigenous film festival in Feb.

India’s first international indigenous film festival will take place in February next year in Odisha. An initiative of activist film collective Video Republic, that has been campaigning for indigenous communities in the State, the three-stop event will kick off in Bhubaneswar on February 19, move on to Puri from February 21 before culminating in an interaction with the adivasi communities at Niyamgiri.

It will showcase films made by indigenous people or by non-indigenous filmmakers in collaboration with the indigenous communities.

The festival aims to be a platform for indigenous communities from the world over to share, have a dialogue, collaborate and to use cinema as a mode of united assertion, resistance and activism against exploitative forces.

“Odisha is known for its large indigenous population, diverse indigenous culture and widespread indigenous resistance against mining companies,” says activist-filmmaker Surya Shankar of Video Republic.

They have been organising “Unexpurgated”, a festival for independent, alternative cinema, in Bhubaneswar since 2016 and the thought of looking exclusively at indigenous cinema had long been brewing in their minds. The idea got a boost when Mr. Shankar attended the first Indigenous Film Festival in Bali in January this year.

Mr. Shankar was accompanied by Dinja Jakasika, leader of Niyamgiri’s Dongria Kondh community. “It made me realise that there was a great scope of bringing together indigenous filmmakers, artistes, activists, and organisations for a dignified dialoguem,” he said.

Six new antibodies to combat Zika

Researchers, including one of Indian origin, have developed six Zika virus antibodies which may help diagnose as well as treat the mosquito-borne disease that has infected over 1.5 million people worldwide.

The antibodies “may have the dual utility as diagnostics capable of recognising Zika virus subtypes and may be further developed to treat Zika virus infection,” said Ravi Durvasula from Loyola University in the U.S.

Zika is spread mainly by mosquitos. Most infected people experience no symptoms or mild symptoms such as a rash, mild fever and red eyes.

“The recent Zika virus outbreak is a health crisis with global repercussions,” said Mr. Durvasula.

Antibodies could be key to diagnosing and treating Zika virus.

An antibody is a Y-shaped protein made by the immune system. When a virus invades the body, antibodies bind to antigens associated with the bug, marking it for the immune system to destroy.

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