Gist of The Hindu: April 2013

Gist of The Hindu: April 2013


Content

  • Iran Needs India’s Friendship
  • Watery Mars
  • Questions for Mr. Nilekani
  • Criticism from the top
  • Focus on India
  • A Lifeline under Siege
  • The Solar War Heats up
  • An Abomination Called AFSPA
  • Adverse Changes in Temperature
  • A Model for the Rest of India
  • Selecting the Next CAG
  • Antarctica Needs MPAs
  • PSLV-C20 puts SARAL, 6 other Satellites in Precise Orbits
  • The Risk Business Needs Better Cover
  • Will Rise in 2013: World Gold Council
  • Direct Cash Transfer Scheme
  • Tackling the Challenges of Implementation

IRAN NEEDS INDIA’S FRIENDSHIP

The Prime Minister paid an official visit to Iran last year
for the nonaligned summit, no doubt upsetting the Americans. The fact that he
was ‘granted an audience’ by the supreme leader should not flatter us. Iran
certainly needs friends like India. Would the supreme leader have ‘received’ the
Prime Minister if his country did not face sanctions? Iran surely knows that
India has not joined in the unilateral sanctions imposed by the West. If Iran,
in the face of these facts, has convinced itself that India’s ‘qibla’ is in the
direction of Washington, there is nothing we can do to disabuse it of its
thinking. The above analysis is not an argument for downgrading Iran’s
importance for us and for the region of which it is a part. Rather, it is meant
to keep in mind what Harish Khare, the respected columnist, recently observed:
Appeasement policy does not serve national interest, in domestic politics or in
international relations. His advice is aimed at the government but is equally
true at the nongovernmental level. International relations must be conducted on
the basis of reciprocity and mutuality of interests. We also have to keep in
mind that countries which at present have strained, even hostile relations with
Iran, can and will change their policy at a time of their choosing; we should
not be left surprised.

IN DEEP WATERS

South Asians share a common historical lineage, of revering
and desecrating their rivers with equal impunity at the same time. No wonder,
major rivers across the sub-continent are at various stages of neglect. Add
legacy of failed institutions to this neglect and you get an all-pervasive
picture of environmental callousness, of which polluted rivers are a sad
reflection. Though millions depend on them, water courses seem to be nobody’s
responsibility. Buriganga is one such river, lifeline for millions living along
the western and southern boundaries of Dhaka. While the river bank has slums and
high rises in equal number, it has any number of poor taking a dip with a lucky
few trapping contaminated fish too. At any given time of the day, one can notice
hundreds of boats ferrying men and materials along and across its length. One
amongst these is a small motorboat carrying a distinct identity as ‘Buriganga
Riverkeeper’.

It is no breaking news that the river is the final resting
ground for municipal waste. Some 10,000 cubic litres of partially treated sewage
flows into the river and an estimated 4,500 tons of solid waste get dumped on
its floodplains each day. Waterkeeper Alliance is an innovative initiative that
aims to reconnect people with their water courses. Founded in 1999 by Robert F.
Kennedy, it is a global movement of on-the-water advocates who patrol and
protect over 100,000 miles of rivers and coastlines across six continents. There
are 20 ‘waterkeepers’ in China, Nepal, Bangladesh and India. ‘Waterkeepers’ on
the Ganges and the Yamuna have yet to cut a new ground, though.

POLICY REFORMS

The main elements of the policy shift of 1991 were trade and
industrial policy reforms. Tariffs were lowered, quantitative restrictions
rescinded and industrial licensing eliminated altogether. The exchange rate was
left to float after the rupee had been devalued. In the minds of some, India was
finally free. Following this integration with the world economy, the products of
Indian firms were to become competitive internationally. There was a rationale
to these reforms. Indian industry had enjoyed protection for far too long. Also,
absurdly high tariffs on imported intermediate inputs made Indian manufacturing
firms uncompetitive. But there appears to have been a leap of faith involved in
the assumption that the exposure of Indian firms to global competition per se
would make for more efficient domestic production. As stated, we find that we
are faced with a current account deficit greater than that in 1991. It is indeed
that case that the greater part of the trade deficit itself is due to oil and
gold imports, and these goods have no domestic substitutes presently. The
investment account of the balance of payments shows that debits which had been a
mere one per cent of credits in 1991 have by now risen to close to 30 per cent.
This points to foreign investors leaving the country lock, stock and barrel,
taking their money with them. In a growing economy with a market for the goods
that foreign investors produce, this is unexpected. Very likely it points to the
difficulty of doing business in India. It is not possible to conclude from this
data whether this stems from inadequate infrastructure or bureaucratic
impediments, but we can see that government would be central to improving
either. It has perhaps been too easily assumed that mere removal of the legal
barriers would induce the foreign investment to flow in. The decision to locate
by firms, in this case foreign, is closely linked to the availability of
producer services and a result-oriented rather than rule-bound government
machinery. Unimaginative governance may be turning India into an uncompetitive
destination.

Much has been made of the allegedly negative signal conveyed
to foreign investors by the heated debates in Parliament over FDI in retail. The
Prime Minister himself has referred to this. But nothing could have damaged
India’s image globally than the brutal assault on a young woman by a gang of
feral youth in Delhi last month. Predictably, it was covered on television and
written about in editorials around the world. At Davos, Mecca for India’s
corporate leaders and younger politicians, Christine Lagarde, the head of the
International Monetary Fund, while grieving for “the daughter of India” gently
pointed out to Indian media that economies do better “when women do better”.
This profound observation should make us think seriously about the importance of
a social policy for the economy and assess how they may be made effective.

But it seems we cannot escape governance even here. In the
debate that had followed the rape in Delhi there has been an overdose of
reference to the need for changing mindsets. Then there has been much wringing
of hands over how long this would take to filter through our rigid school
system. Less has been said about the role of governance in dealing with the
situation. Surely we can make India safer for women immediately if the police
were given more freedom from written rules and held to far greater
accountability. If at all we needed a confirmation that this is the right way to
think, we now have it from Justice Verma and his colleagues that the lack of
safety for women in our public spaces has nothing to do with the statute book
and everything to do with governance. Inspired by the Bard of Avon, we might
even declaim “it is not in our laws but in ourselves that we are misgoverned”.
In a democracy the political class exerts itself precisely to the extent that we
expect of it. It is up to the citizen to raise the bar on governance.

WATERY MARS

Mars might have been cold and dry with a transient presence
of water at the surface some four billion years ago — the early Noachian period.
But it is becoming increasingly clear that the environment below the surface was
surely warmer and wetter, with liquid water present at varying depths during the
Noachian period. The presence of clay minerals on the floor of many craters
clearly indicates that they had formed as a result of long- erm interaction of
liquid water with the parent rock. Even the presence of massive ridges was
noticed earlier, but the likely cause that led to their formation was not known.
A paper published recently in Geophysical Research Letters , which studied the
over 4,000 ridges in the Nili Fossae and Nilosyrtis highlands, postulates a
likely cause: The ridges could be mineral deposits that filled the subsurface
fractures and faults caused by massive impacts on the surface. The ridges are
found in association with clay-containing bedrock. Hence it is postulated that
the hydrous clay present in the rock could have played an important role in
supplying fluids to cement the fractures. Another study in Nature Geoscience not
only supports the idea of subsurface water but suggests an alkaline nature for
the water. This is based on the presence of magnesium-iron bearing clay and
carbonates found in the McLaughlin Crater.

The Martian surface faces hostile conditions that are quite
inimical to life. However, there is a greater possibility of finding some signs
of life on Mars if we remain focussed on exploring the subsurface sedimentary
rocks that today lie exposed in many craters. Carbonates in particular are a
perfect medium not only to provide an ideal habitat for life, but also to
preserve fossil traces indicative of life. Moreover, carbonate minerals can
reveal the temperature and chemistry of the depositional environment. NASA’s
Mars rover Curiosity, which is all set to drill at four locations in the coming
days, may soon provide the answer to the most sought after question — did Mars
ever harbour life? For now, the rover has unequivocally proved that Mars had a
wet depositional environment in the past. It found the amount of water molecules
bound to sand grains in the soil sample was much “higher than anticipated.” If
the discovery of gypsum at several places in the past meant water on Mars, the
latest find of veins and sedimentary rocks — layered rocks and sandstone — by
Curiosity vastly strengthens the possibility of wet depositional environments in
the past. After all, Mars’s reduced gravity translates to “more subsurface
porosity to a greater depth.” This allows water to accumulate to a greater
thickness than seen in Earth.

Questions for Mr. Nilekani

The Aadhaar scheme of the Unique Identification Authority of
India (UIDAI) is to provide India’s billion-plus people with a unique
identification number. Enrolment is not mandatory, though it was mentioned that
it would be difficult for people to access public services if not done. The
scheme requires individuals to provide their photograph, fingerprints and iris
scan along with documentary personal information for data capture by outsourced
operators. It is meant to bypass the corrupt bureaucratic system and deliver
government subsidies and grants to the poor, and bring them into the banking
system. Sceptics argue that it is an effort to capture the funds of hundreds of
millions of micro- and nano-investors who are today outside the banking system,
to bring them into the credit economy. The scheme was introduced as a pilot
project in Karnataka’s Mysore district. The poor and those who survive on daily
wages were not enthusiastic about enrolment, because it meant losing four or
five days wages, to stand in queues, to fill up forms, to produce documents, to
provide biometrics, etc., and, later, to open bank accounts. The UIDAI overcame
the initial reluctance by wide advertisement of the benefits of enrolment. When
this too did not achieve the target set, the local administration informed the
public that PDS ration and LPG supply would not be available without the Aadhaar
number. This resulted in serpentine queues right through the day at enrolment
centres, at the end of which the UIDAI could claim that 95 per cent of Mysore
district’s population had enrolled itself into the scheme.

Media reports indicate that commencing January 1, 2013,
MGNREGA, the Rajiv Gandhi Awas Yojana (RGAY), the Ashraya housing scheme,
Bhagyalakshmi and the social security and pension scheme will be linked with
Aadhaar in Mysore district. This linking, with rights like salary and pension,
and important entitled benefits and services, has raised some hackles because
enrolment is not mandatory.

It has led to questions on whether salary and pension rights,
and benefits like PDS ration and LPG supply can be denied just because an
individual does not possess a unique Aadhaar number. Today, teachers in
Maharashtra and government employees in Jharkhand cannot draw their salaries.
Apart from pro-poor projects like MGNREGA and RGAY, even jobs, housing,
provident funds and registering a marriage now require enrolment. From being not
mandatory, the “poor-inclusive” Aadhaar scheme appears to have quietly
metamorphosed into becoming exclusionary and non-optional. The UIDAI’s own
Biometrics Standards Committee stated that retaining biometric efficiency for a
database of more than one billion people “has not been adequately analysed” and
the problem of fingerprint quality in India “has not been studied in depth.”
Thus the technological basis of the project remains doubtful.

Criticism from the top

However, the severest critic of the entire scheme has been
the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance (PSCF), which deliberated that
the Aadhaar scheme is “full of uncertainty in technology as the complex scheme
is built upon untested, unreliable technology and several assumptions.” It found
Aadhaar to be “directionless” and “conceptualized with no clarity.” But the
UIDAI shelters under the Prime Minister’s protective wing and continues to
stonewall not only public queries and criticism, but also the unequivocal
verdict of the PSCF. Possibly even more serious is data security, and the
consequent threat to privacy. The UIDAI claims that access to its database will
be secure from intelligence agencies. This claim is hollow, because the Aadhaar
project is contracted to receive technical support from L-1 Identity Solutions
(now MorphoTrust USA), a well-known defence contractor. Contracts are also
awarded to Accenture Services Pvt. Ltd., which works with the U.S. Homeland
Security, and Ernst & Young to install the UIDAI’s Central ID Data Repository.
It is impossible to ensure database security when technical providers are
American business corporations, and U.S. law requires them to provide
information demanded of them, to U.S. Homeland Security. But the UIDAI is in
denial.
If biometric data and other personal information fall into the hands of
unauthorised agencies, privacy is unequivocally compromised. Compromising an
individual’s personal data affects only that person, but when the personal data
of many millions of people is involved, there is potential for a national
disaster. The fact that the UIDAI is silent on or evasive about these security
concerns does not inspire confidence in the capability of the UIDAI or the
Aadhaar system to maintain the right to personal privacy.

Though the Aadhaar project is “not mandatory,” enrolment by
threat of exclusion from availing benefits and services, and threat of denial of
rights like salary or pension makes it non-optional. This kind of deviousness is
unbecoming of a democratically elected government. Coming on top of many huge
scams, the present government may suffer electorally if it persists in using
unethical, extra-legal coercion to impose the security-defective,
technologically unproven, very expensive UID Aadhaar scheme on the public.

For a Firmer Handshake with Latin America

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid began an official
visit to Chile and Argentina on Tuesday night. This is the first ever visit of
an Indian Foreign Minister to Santiago. The fact that Mr. Khurshid will be there
less than four months since taking charge is hopefully a sign of evolving
priorities towards the region.

On January 27-28, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, pro
tempore President of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States —
CELAC — hosted leaders from the region in Chile. This was preceded by the First
CELAC Summit — planned biennially — with the 27 nations of the European Union.
Mr. Piñera welcomed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain, struggling with 25
per cent unemployment, and a mountain of debt, “to a better world.” The irony,
accentuated by the self-confidence of the Latin American and Caribbean leaders,
was not lost on the former colonial power. The CELAC Summit, aiming to “unite
our continent as never before,” revealed the distance the region has come from
its troubled past.

Towards Regional Consensus

Communist Cuba was simultaneously hosting peace talks between
the conservative government of Colombia and the ultra-left guerrilla force, the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. Its President, Raúl Castro took
over the Presidency of CELAC for 2013 in Santiago. Cuba remains outside the
Organisation of American States, which includes all CELAC members, plus the
United States and Canada, since its expulsion in 1962. Bolivia, which does not
have diplomatic relations with host Chile on account of an ongoing territorial
claim by the former, was represented by its President. The commitment to
democracy was emphasised. Paraguay did not attend the summit, under pressure
from the five-nation MERCOSUR, and the 12-nation UNASUR (The Union for South
American Nations) — the sub-regional South American organisations from which it
was suspended after a “legislative coup” deposing former Paraguayan President
Lugo in June 2012.

The deliberations and ancillary events revealed fundamental
differences in political and economic orientation, principally between the
left-leaning regimes and the hosts and their supporters. The CELAC-EU
Declaration maintains a balance between the EU’s insistence on protection of
investment and the assertion of overriding sovereign policy by the left in Latin
America. Mr. Piñera admitted that “within CELAC we have learnt to live with our
differences.” The Santiago Declaration, adopted by the CELAC Summit,
orchestrates regional consensus on incandescent issues such as security, narco-trafficking,
multilateral negotiations on disarmament, sustainable development, etc. and
reveals the region’s collective determination to make up for lost time.

The stakes for India are high in this region five times its
territory, with a population of 600 million producing over $10,000 on average
annually per capita. Political relations are cordial, while bilateral trade
crossed $32 billion in 2011-12 (30 per cent compound growth over the past
decade). The Commerce Ministry has negotiated an amplification of a preferential
tariff agreement with Chile and is preparing to negotiate similar agreements
with other LAC countries. Indian enterprise is increasingly aware of, and
present across, the region.

Focus on India

August 2012 saw the most significant development in India’s
relations with LAC countries. The Chilean presidency, clearly with the tacit
approval of the entire region, identified India as its first port of call,
followed by China. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reciprocated the
initiative with alacrity. The Joint Declaration issued after the meeting of the
External Affairs Minister with his counterparts from Chile, Venezuela and Cuba
(the Troika of CELAC) signalled the start — or at least the definition — of a
new era.

Mr. Khurshid’s visit should largely fulfil the commitment to
annual meetings, even though Chile has handed over the presidency. The
identification of specific areas for collaboration — business, science and
technology, agriculture, energy, culture and education — on separate platforms,
provides a road map. Steps to implement these have been initiated by the MEA and
should find resonance among stakeholders on both sides. A worthwhile return on
diplomatic investment is guaranteed. In the 1990s, the MEA convinced the
Government of India of the need to “Look East,” after having virtually ignored
Asean and our relations with that vital part of the world. A similar exercise
was carried out the following decade with Africa. Both were focused programmes,
funded and executed with determination by the ministry in concert with other
stakeholders. The results and benefits are evident.

The time has now come to carry out a similar exercise with
the 33 nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. The complexity of the
diplomatic challenge cannot be underestimated. To the geographic distance and
magnitude, we must add the difficulties of communication, a lack of cultural
appreciation, historic proclivities to Europe and the U.S., and the deep inroads
already made by others, notably China. A CELAC-China Cooperation Forum finds
mention in the Santiago Declaration.

Mr. Khurshid’s visit comes at a crucial juncture. It must be
utilised to emphasise our determination to engage Latin America in all aspects
of the relationship. An important catalyst will be the business community, which
will require official patronage to elevate the economic relationship to the next
level. India needs to accelerate and upgrade its political and diplomatic
exchanges with the region. More frequent visits at all levels, including by the
Prime Minister, and a conscious effort to invite more leaders from Latin
America, will help convince our friends across the South Atlantic of our
sincerity.

Scotl and Plans for Independence

The people of Scotland were on Tuesday given a glimpse of
what the future would look like if they decide to vote for independence in a
referendum next year as the Scottish government unveiled a “transition” plan
which would see the country become formally independent in March 2016 — severing
its 300-year-old union with the United Kingdom (U.K.).

The “declaration of independence” would be followed by
elections to Parliament in May, and the new independent Parliament would draw up
a written constitution reflecting “the values of the people of Scotland”,
according to a 16-page document published by the ruling Scottish National Party
(SNP).

Alex Salmond, leader of the SNP and Scotland’s First
Minister, said the time-line for transition was in line with the experience of
other countries which gained independence. Critics, however, accused him of
putting the cart before the horse pointing out a new poll showing that only 32
per cent were in favour of independence.

Can’t ‘Disappear’ this Body

The senior official who reportedly asked whether the United
Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan, UNMOGIP existed, was not
serious, just a bit facetious. For, not very far from his office lie those of
the UNMOGIP. The Protocol Division of the Ministry of External Affairs annually
publishes the Diplomatic List. It lists “U.N. Offices; International
organisations and other Foreign Agencies.” UNMOGIP’s address is helpfully
mentioned — 1AB, Purana Qila Road; its phone numbers, and names of three
personnel besides the “Head of Mission/Chief Military Observer” are provided.
All enjoy diplomatic status. It has offices in Srinagar and Muzaffarabad also.

India knows that if the UNMOGIP is expelled, the U.N. Security Council would
be activated with predictable consequences. It chose, instead, in 1972, to
prevent it physically from undertaking probes into complaints on the Indian
side.

Torture for Torture’s Sake

In a damning report, the New York-based Open Society
Foundation’s document Globalizing Torture names 54 countries, more than a
quarter of the world’s states, as participants in the extraordinary rendition
programme the United States carried out for years after the attacks on the World
Trade Center on September 11, 2011. In a policy which could not have been
implemented without other governments’ help, the U.S. put its officials beyond
its own law by moving terror suspects, some of whom had been kidnapped, in
secret to third countries where they could be tortured. In Europe, 25 states
aided these violations of international and U.S. domestic law, as did 14 in Asia
and 13 in Africa, plus Canada and Australia. Neither the U.S. nor the bulk of
its partners has yet admitted the “significant and systemic” abuses of human
rights and due process which were integral to the programme. The countries named
even include Iran, which the then U.S. President George W. Bush called part of
the “axis of evil” but secretly collaborated with. Some countries, such as
Canada and Germany, even accepted the ‘rendition’ of their own citizens. The
report identifies 136 victims, a larger number than had been expected earlier;
the current whereabouts of some are still unknown.

As for any kind of justice, only Canada, Australia, Sweden,
and the United Kingdom have paid compensation to particular victims; avoiding
public hearings could be part of their motivation. In December 2012, however,
the European Court of Human Rights found Macedonia guilty of illegal
imprisonment and torture and awarded €60,000 to the German citizen Khalid al-Masri,
who was abducted, beaten, sodomised, and shackled by CIA and Macedonian
officials. Mr. al-Masri was also refused access to German consular help.
Washington’s ambassador in Berlin had told the then German Interior Minister
Oscar Schilly of the abduction, but Mr. Schilly did not even inform the German
cabinet; the CIA later said it had got the wrong person. The report says all the
governments involved must be held to account; the U.S. Supreme Court has refused
to take cases on the grounds that national security overrides harm to the
victims, but Italian courts have convicted 23 U.S. personnel of illegal
rendition, and legal challenges are in preparation or progress against nine of
the countries named in the report. A lasting tragedy here is that information
obtained by torture is well known to be unreliable; it was intelligence, rather
than torture, that led the U.S. to Osama bin Laden. Even more disturbingly,
little in the present international order can prevent more illegal rendition,
and governments are just as likely to create a new global axis of torture now as
they were in 2001.

A Lifeline under Siege

Though they play a vital role in sustaining the eco-system,
the country’s natural wetlands are falling prey to rising pollution and
urbanisation The World Wetlands Day (WWD) was observed sporadically across India
on February 2 and yet many of us are not aware about the richness and necessity
of wetlands in our lives. While wetlands are nature’s water storage and water
purification zones, they are also a paradise for wildlife, fishing, angling and
bird-watching, water sports, relaxation and rejuvenation. Scientists believe
that wetlands are the kidneys of nature. Unfortunately, wetlands today have
become mere dumping grounds for garbage, rapidly throttling the water bodies.

Over the centuries, India had a number of sustainable natural
wetlands and these were the lifeline of local communities who depended on these
water bodies for staple food, livestock grazing, fodder, fuel-wood transport and
irrigation. In addition to the natural wetlands were a number of man-made
traditional reservoirs constructed virtually in every town and village —
supplying water for everyday needs. However, with booming population and
burgeoning urbanisation, these self-sustaining water bodies have become
increasingly filthy and unfit for human utilisation. Even the beautiful lotus
and water lilies, which were part and parcel of wetlands, have disappeared in
many regions.

The country’s rivers have turned into giant gutters carrying
waste released by thousands of towns and cities. Although considerable money has
been spent to cleanse these waterways, the government’s indifference and
citizens’ ignorance have resulted in the continuation of debris being dumped
into the rivers. It is estimated that three billion litres of sewage flows into
the Ganga alone daily with industries also contributing their effluents.
Over the years, wetlands have been neglected and have not gained importance as
other areas of nature and wildlife conservation. It is imperative that wetlands
occupy the heart of conservation efforts as water management is at the core of
sustainable uses of wetlands. Water scarcity today is becoming an urgent problem
for mankind that needs effective remediation. For the WWD this year, the theme
set by UNESCO’s Hydrological Programme was ‘Wetlands Take Care of Water’. It
reflected the interdependence between water and wetlands. “Making the link
between wetlands and water is essential because without water there will be no
wetlands — and without wetlands there will be no water! Wetlands such as
mangroves, bogs, freshwater swamps are home to a wealth of biodiversity.
Wetlands fulfil vital roles in carbon storage, pollution control and protection
from natural hazards such as floods and storms. Millions of people around the
world relay on wetlands as it provide ecosystem services such as food, fresh
water and fuel,” says Mark Smith, director of IUCN’s Global Water Programme. By
the virtue of its geographical location, varied terrain and climatic zones,
India supports a rich diversity of inland and coastal wetlands; but they are in
distress currently. The Wular Lake in Kashmir or Kolleru Lake in Andhra Pradesh,
two of the largest lakes in the country, are depleting as they are losing their
vitality to regenerate. The story is similar for other lakes and rivers across
the subcontinent.

The National Wetland Atlas, prepared by Space Applications
Centre (SAC) of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), has classified
67,429 wetlands in India occupying 60 million hectares, including paddy
cultivation. The majority of these inland wetlands are dependent on major rivers
like the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Narmada, Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery. However,
with rising water pollution, drought and water battles between various States,
conservation of wetlands needs to be taken up on a war footing. Fortunately,
some of the wetlands are receiving their due importance for their contribution
to the natural wealth. For instance, the Chilika Lake in Odisha is about to
become the first lake from Asia to adopt the “Ecosystem Health Report Card” — an
effective means of tracking and reporting the health of a wetland. The Chilika
will join the elite club of iconic wetlands like Chesapeake Bay (U.S.A) and the
Great Barrier Reef (Australia).

“Increased human population around wetlands adds to
ecological degradation due to unsustainable practices like agriculture expansion
and over-exploitation. Due to this both wildlife and people suffer, particularly
water birds like the cormorants. The condition of the existing wetlands needs to
be conserved as our natural assets. With judicious use of numerous useful
aquatic bacteria, plants and animals associated with wetlands, harmful
impurities can be removed and water can be purified,” says Emeritus Professor
C.R. Babuin, in-charge of Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded
Ecosystems, University of Delhi.

Architect of ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ is Dead

One of China’s most famed Table Tennis champions, who played
a key role in the ‘Ping Pong diplomacy’ that paved the way for normalising
relations with the U.S., died here on Sunday. He was 72. Zhuang Zedong was a
sportsman famed in China in the 1960s for his unmatched skill on the Ping Pong
table. Yet, it was off the court where unexpected events ensured that Mr.
Zhuang’s legacy would extend far beyond the realm of sport.

Détente through Sport

Mr. Zhuang, a multiple world Table Tennis champion in the
1960s, had a chance meeting with American player Glenn Cowan at the World Table
Tennis championship in Nagoya, Japan in 1971 that would eventually pave the way
for taking ties between the countries out of the deep freeze.

When Cowan missed his team’s bus and ended up with the
Chinese players, Mr. Zhuang reportedly went against the advice of his team mates
by greeting the American at a time of hostility in ties. “Ten minutes passed,
but nobody dared pay any attention to him,” Mr. Zhuang recalled in a 2009
interview with China Radio International. “But I thought he was only an athlete,
he was not a politician. I should go and greet him.” News of their meeting made
headlines in China and went back to Mao Zedong, leading to an invitation for
nine American players to visit China that same year — the first official visit
in decades. The following year, President Richard Nixon visited China, with ties
eventually normalised in 1979. Once hailed by Mao and the Communist Party, Mr.
Zhuang fell out of favour after the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Mr. Zhuang’s
good relations with Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing, who was disgraced in 1976 for her
role in leading the Cultural Revolution, saw him being investigated and jailed
for four years.

The Solar War Heats up

The United States’ action of complaining against India in the
World Trade Organisation over the Indian government’s so-called ‘domestic
content requirement’ — for solar modules used in the projects awarded under the
Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission — has brought to the fore a major divide
in the Indian solar industry and the government’s predicament over it. In India,
the solar power industry is a 3-year-old baby. On the solar power generation
side, the total installed solar power capacity in India in 2010 was 18 MW.
Today, it is 1,200 MW, and at least another 500 MW will be added this year. On
the solar power equipment side, Indian manufacturers have capacity to produce
about 1,900 MW of modules that will generate electricity when the sun’s rays
fall on them. Both these segments need to be nurtured. But who first, given that
today the two happen to be on opposite sides?

Indian manufacturers want protection against the much cheaper
products from abroad, especially from the Chinese crystalline silicon
manufacturers and the American ‘thin film’ manufacturers, both of whom often
bring in cheap funding for their buyers. India has an ambitious target of 22,000
MW of solar capacity by 2022, and where is the sense, ask the module
manufacturers, in rolling out a $40 billion programme if the domestic producers
have no share of it. The project developers stress that it is only smart to let
them buy their equipment from the cheapest sources in the world, so that a
culture of setting up solar plants develops first. Force them to buy locally,
the costs will stunt the growth of the fledgling industry and neither the power
producers nor the module makers will be in business.

In trying to tread the fine line between these two positions,
the government of India has triggered off what some people are calling ‘solar
wars’. The National Solar Mission (NSM) is being rolled out in phases, and for
the first batch of the first phase, the government said that those project
developers who opt for the crystalline silicon modules, shall buy only those
made in India. For the second batch, it went a step down in the value chain and
said that even the cells will have to be made in India. This is what has got the
United States’ goat. This rule did not apply to thin film, simply because there
is no thin film module manufacturer in India to buy from. As a consequence of
this, most of the project developers went in for imported thin film modules.

This domestic content requirement was only for projects
awarded under the NSM and not for those set up under the various states’
programmes. Notably, of the 1,200 MW of capacity in India today, about 850 MW
has come under Gujarat’s programme. Most of those putting up projects under the
states’ programmes are therefore importing their modules. Thus, the NSM projects
are importing thin films (mainly from the U.S.), those under states’ programmes
are importing crystalline silicon modules (mainly from China) and nobody is
buying from Indian manufacturers.

Against this backdrop, India initiated anti-dumping
investigations in November last year against manufacturers in China, USA, Taiwan
and Malaysia, deferring to the pleas of the domestic manufacturing industry. The
solar power generators were promptly up in arms, pleading that the duty would
make their upcoming projects unviable, given that most of them were won under
thin-margin tariffs determined through competitive bidding processes. Now, the
U.S. has taken India to WTO over the ‘domestic content requirement’ (DCR) under
the NSM. India is likely to argue that the NSM is in the nature of government
procurement — because the power is bought by a government-owned company. India
is not a signatory to the Agreement on Government Procurement, hence, no
violation.

Secondly, India will argue that the DCR rules have truly caused no damage to
any overseas manufacturers, because it is applied on a very small portion of the
country’s goals, the rules do not cover states’ programmes.

A Mexican Standoff

And thus you have the solar war with the Indian government
initiating anti-dumping duty and US government taking India to WTO. This echoes
what is happening elsewhere in the world — China, USA and EU are all similarly
sword-crossed with each other.

Regardless of which way these moves go, the fundamental
question remains — how to balance the conflicting interests of manufacturers and
project developers? There are no quick and easy answers, but one way out could
be to encourage Indian companies to acquire technologies abroad — for technology
alone could be the answer to the advantage of scale that the American and
Chinese companies have. Such technologies are available and are being acquired.
For instance, a South Korean company, Hanwha, which took over the German major,
Q-Cells, last year, also bought Crystal Solar of the US for just $23 million.
Crystal Solar is developing cutting edge solar manufacturing technologies.
Hanergy, a Chinese company, took over the American company, Miasole, recently,
but it also acquired another division of Q-Cells, called Solibro. The Chinese
and the Koreans have an eye on emerging technologies. Why not Indian companies?

An Abomination Called AFSPA

At an institute that is virtually owned, funded and run by
the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram did the
unthinkable the other day. He virtually attacked the Army for refusing to review
and amend the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), if not repeal
it altogether.

Like a clever politician, he tossed the issue squarely into
the lap of the Army and the MoD, saying they were unambiguously opposed to any
change and that “you should ask the question to the armed forces and ask why are
they so opposed to even some amendment to AFSPA which will make [it] more
humanitarian. We have [the] Jeevan Reddy Committee report but yet if the Army
takes a very strong stand against any dilution or any amendment to AFSPA, it is
difficult for a civil government to move forward.”

This raises a startling issue about democracy, the rule of
law and of civilian control over the military. Now that the most powerful figure
in the Cabinet after the Prime Minister has spoken, perhaps someone will take
notice. But the problem is far more complex than it appears to be. After all,
the Minister did not say why the Government of India has refused to publish the
Reddy Committee’s report or even table it in Parliament eight years after it was
submitted. It remains accessible on The Hindu’s website [www.hindu.com/nic.afa],
the place where the report was first leaked and published verbatim in 2005. It
is not that the question is simple, stark and frightening: who runs the
north-east or Jammu & Kashmir or any area that is affected by insurgency? AFSPA
is put in place after the area has been declared “disturbed” under the Disturbed
Areas Act, the enabling provision of law, which facilitates the summoning of the
Army to the aid of civil authorities who are unable to control armed
insurrection. This is the call of the State government or the Centre.

No Prosecution in over 50 Years

Passed in 1958 when the Naga movement for independence had
just taken off, AFSPA is a bare law with just six sections. The most damning are
those in the fourth and sixth sections: the former enables security forces to
“fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death” where laws are
being violated. The latter says no criminal prosecution will lie against any
person who has taken action under this act. In 54 years, not a single army, or
paramilitary officer or soldier has been prosecuted for murder, rape,
destruction of property (including the burning of villages in the 1960s in
Nagaland and Mizoram). In the discussions over the past days, no one has even
mentioned the regrouping of villages in both places: villagers were forced to
leave their homes at gunpoint, throw their belongings onto the back of a truck
and move to a common site where they were herded together with strangers and
formed new villages. It is a shameful and horrific history, which India knows
little about and has cared even less for.

Impact of Verma Report

A year ago, two judges of the Supreme Court, intervening in a
case where the Central Bureau of Investigation was seeking to prosecute army
officers accused of murdering five villagers in Jammu & Kashmir, in what is
known as the Pathribal incident, declared clearly that AFSPA’s protection was
limited to acts conducted in the line of duty. “You go to a place in exercise of
AFSPA, you commit rape, you commit murder, then where is the question of
sanction? It is a normal crime which needs to be prosecuted, and that is our
stand,” declared the bench of Justices Swatanter Kumar and B.S. Chauhan. It’s
simple: you don’t rape or murder “in the line of duty.” These are aberrations to
the law of military conduct with civilians. And the Army is upset that the
Justice J.S. Verma Committee even suggested that military men accused of sexual
assault should be tried under normal law and not be protected by the law that
guarantees absolute protection: Immunity.

A retired general came on a TV programme the other day and
fumed that reviewing AFSPA was not the mandate of the Verma Committee. Sorry
sir, you’ve got it completely wrong. The question of life and death in a
“disturbed” area where, according to a case now before the Supreme Court 15,000
people (men, women and children) have disappeared from the killing fields of
Manipur is everyone’s concern.

Army circles are worried that soldiers and officers will be
dragged to civilian courts and that frivolous cases will be filed against them.
This is a real matter of concern but it cannot be the rationale for blocking
efforts to repeal or amend AFSPA. Come up with an alternative instead. But the
MoD has not or is perhaps unable to do so.

A former general even said publicly that 97 per cent of all
cases against army men were found to be false. The question I will put is
simple: how far back are you going? Do you forget those murdered, raped and
tortured, their homes and granaries burned and their places of worship
desecrated? Should these crimes go unpunished? Remember too that the Indian Air
Force, in March 1966, bombed Aizawl and civilian targets in the Lushai Hills
(now Mizoram) to repulse an insurgent attack that had almost overrun the
district headquarters.Many in Mizoram do not even talk about those days.

They are simply spoken of as “the troubles” and no discussion
takes place, such is the trauma that has been inflicted on people. And are we
merely supposed to forget all this, to sweep it under the carpet and “move on”?
Why should the victims continue to pay the price? Why not those who inflicted
the devastation, who gave the orders and who carried them out?

Display Statesmanship

The Centre has lost more than seven years in coming to no
decision on the recommendations. Yes, internal wrangling is difficult to resolve
but how long should anyone have to wait for a resolution? Today, the situation
has become much more complex because the window of opportunity provided by the
Reddy Committee has virtually closed. The Army has bolted it because it does not
want to be seen as the villain of the piece. It did not ask to go anywhere. It
was sent to Nagaland and Manipur. But now it must, in its own interests and that
of the country, get out of places where threats to national security simply do
not exist, and when the central government thinks it should leave. After all, if
required, the security forces can always be summoned again. The situation calls
for statesmanship of a very high order. Atal Bihari Vajpayee showed this in 2003
on his maiden visit to Kohima when he reflected, as Prime Minister, on the
suffering that both sides had faced and sought to reach out and seek
reconciliation: “Let us leave behind all the unfortunate things that happened in
the past. For too long this fair land has been scarred and seared by violence.
It has been bled by the orgy of the killings of human beings by human beings…
Each death diminishes us … The past cannot be rewritten. But we can write our
common future with our collective, cooperative efforts.”

The present situation demands measures no less significant
from the current Prime Minister, who decided that AFSPA must be reviewed. But he
did not follow this up because the opposition from the Defence Ministry was just
too strong. So, we must ask, as we rest and wrestle with this tortuous story:
how many more deaths, how many more naked protests, how many more hunger
strikes, how many more committees, how many more editorials and articles and
broadcasts before AFSPA goes?

Saving the House Sparrow

In the midst of much informed and universal concern about the
future of the house sparrow ( Passer domesticus ), one of man’s oldest living
commensals, there is a ray of hope yet. For, returning home on the first
sun-drenched mid-morning of January 2013, I experienced the heart-stopping
moment of seeing 23 house sparrows, basking in the warmth of the sun! Given a
conducive habitat, all other side effects of modern day life-styles
notwithstanding, the house sparrow should be the last of all to wander off the
living planet. The house sparrow is a sober-looking bird with a ubiquitous
spread — from Leh in the North to Cape Comorin in the South and from the Somnath
Temple in the West to the Camorta Island in the East. With that kind of a
presence, we should be able to spot them anywhere. Ornithologist Salim Ali had
labelled them as “man’s hanger-on” for they are known to enter homes
nonchalantly, chattering non-stop as they set about arranging their personal
living comfort by adding heaps of straw to any potential nest-site, quite
unmindful of the householder’s presence.

No Wrestling in 2020 Olympics

“It was a very close vote between wrestling and modern
pentathlon, maybe one or two votes separating them”. Wrestling, an Olympic sport
since the first Games in ancient Greece, looks set to be dropped, after the
International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Tuesday voted to remove it from the
programme for 2020. The decision, taken by the 15 members of the IOC executive
board in Lausanne, Switzerland, leaves the sport grappling against seven other
disciplines for inclusion at the Games, the location of which will be decided
later this year.

Adverse Changes in Temperature

The second threat comes from global warming and climate
change. It is now clear that the mean temperature may rise by at least 2 degrees
centigrade during the next few decades. Adverse changes in temperature,
precipitation and sea level are all causes for concern. Both anticipatory
research to checkmate the adverse consequences of climate change, and
participatory research with farming families for developing adaptation and
mitigation measures will be important. A third threat comes from the proposal to
provide cash instead of grain to those needing protection against hunger. Such a
shift may lead to a loss of interest in procurement and storage by public
agencies like the Food Corporation of India. Most of our farm families have
small holdings and have very little holding capacity. They want to sell as soon
as their crop is harvested. If procurement goes down, there will be distress
sales and production will go down. We should remember that the green revolution
has been sustained only by assured and remunerative marketing opportunities. The
Public Distribution System will suffer if procurement by public agencies goes
down. National and global price volatility will increase, adding to the misery
of the poor. The government, therefore, should always remain at the commanding
height of the food security system.

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Bengal Famine,
we should derive strength from the fact that we have so far proved the prophets
of doom wrong. At the same time, we need to redouble our efforts to help our
farmers to produce more and more food and other commodities under conditions of
diminishing per capita availability of arable land and irrigation water. This
will be possible if the production techniques of the evergreen revolution
approach are followed and farmers are assisted with appropriate public policies
to keep agriculture an economically viable occupation. This is also essential to
attract and retain youth in farming. If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else
will have a chance to go right.

It was the Largest Celestial Body to Hit Earth in 100 Years

The meteor which closely missed the Russian city of Chelyabinsk on Friday is
likely to go down in history as the largest celestial body to have hit the Earth
over the past hundred years.

NASA scientists said the object was a tiny asteroid that
released 300 to 500 kilotons of energy when it exploded, which is roughly
equivalent to 20 atomic bombs of the type dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This would make the Chelyabinsk meteor the largest since 1908 when a meteor hit
Tunguska in Siberia, levelling an estimated 80 million trees. The energy of the
Tunguska blast is estimated to have been up to 50 megatons. “It was something
like Tunguska — a 60-metre cosmic body, which fell into the Tunguska taiga in
1908,” said Dr. Oleg Malkov of the Russian Science Academy Institute of
Astronomy. Scientists believe the Chelyabinsk meteor was about 17 metres across
and weighed 10,000 tons. Shock waves from its explosion over Chelyabinsk wounded
1,200 people and shattered doors and windows in 3,724 apartment houses, 671
schools and 235 hospitals and outpatient clinics. What saved the city was that
the explosion occurred 30 to 50 km above the ground. Chelyabinsk governor
Mikhail Yurevich said it was a very close brush for the region with a population
of 3.5 million people. “I think yesterday was a second birthday for our region
and its residents,” he said on Saturday after inspecting the damage. “Had the
meteor been a little bigger, it would have caused a real catastrophe.”

Meanwhile scientists are excited at the prospects the
Chelyabinsk meteor offers for a deeper insight into the solar system. It was the
biggest celestial body ever observed on its flight through the atmosphere and
there was a good chance of finding its fragments before they get contaminated by
exposure to the elements. Divers on Saturday searched the bottom of frozen Lake
Chebarkul about 80 km from Chelyubinsk where a chunk of the meteor is believed
to have plunged, but found nothing.

Warning System Due

Scientists said the Chelyabinsk meteor close miss should
serve a wake-up call for the international community to set up a system for
monitoring meteors of similar size and providing advance warnings to the
population. “Today we can spot about 10 per cent of such objects as the
Chelyabinsk meteor in the solar system,” said Dr. Malkov. “Ninety percent go
undetected and some of them may crush on Earth any time.” Politicians backed
calls for greater international effort to combat cosmic threats. “Instead of
building a European missile defence system, the United States should join us and
China in creating the AADS — the Anti-Asteroid Defence System,” said Alexei
Pushkov, head of the International Committee of the State Dume, the lower house
of the Russian Parliament.

The Health of Nations

The United Nations has been drawing attention in recent years
to the growing burden of non-communicable diseases, which have been adding to
morbidity and premature deaths in most countries. In a declaration issued at a
high-level meeting in 2011, the U.N. argued that low and middle income countries
should actively pursue public health policies that will reduce the incidence of
NCDs arising from diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, and a high body mass
index. One of the countries that is at the epicentre of these health concerns is
India, due mainly to weak public health policies and changing lifestyles. As The
Lancet points out in recent commentary, much of the burden of non-communicable
diseases is linked to the consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed
food and drink (which are energy dense but nutrient poor). The public health
community now unanimously accepts the link between these and a higher burden of
NCDs. Neglect of chronic diseases by India has, according to the World Health
Organisation, cost the country $9 billion in 2005 due to premature deaths caused
by heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Over a 10-year period, the losses are
projected to rise to a colossal aggregate of $237 billion.

While tobacco and alcohol are receiving close scrutiny as key
factors influencing disease burdens, including cancer, the role of
ultra-processed packaged food is not getting the attention it deserves. The
makers of all forms of packaged food see India as a gigantic emerging market —
and source of profit growth. Moreover, advanced markets are saturated. It is
here that regulation of unhealthy food holds the key. The primary goal should be
to use taxation, labelling and awareness creation to make high-energy, low
nutrition foods unattractive to the consumer. There is a deplorable trend among
food manufacturers to push less harmful packaged food as being actually
‘healthy’. This travesty must be reversed through determined policy
intervention, and consumption of wholesome, fresh meals high in vegetable and
fruit content must be encouraged. It is relevant to point out here that the
biscuit industry has been lobbying in India to displace fresh-cooked food in the
school noon meal programme, with its own packaged products, drawing sharp
criticism from nutritionists and development experts. Packaged meals high in
calories, sugar and salt are no substitute for fresh food and actually cause
harm. They can only add to the risk of death by cardiovascular disease,
estimated to be about five million by 2020. By contrast, a dramatic decline in
death due to infectious diseases is projected. The agenda for social and
political action is clear.

A Model for the Rest of India

It comes as no surprise that Tamil Nadu has once again been
applauded for its “excellent” maternal and child-care services by the Common
Review Mission of the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM). Suffice it to say
that at a time when 99 per cent of global maternal mortality occurs in
developing regions of the world, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Maharashtra have become
pockets that have bucked the trend. Even as India has been reducing its maternal
mortality ratio — defined as the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live
births — the rate of reduction, from 380 in 1993 to 97 during 2007-2009, has
been rapid in the case of Tamil Nadu. So much so that Tamil Nadu, along with
Kerala (81) and Maharashtra (104), has already achieved the Millennium
Development Goal of 109 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births by 2015. Compare
this with the national average — an MMR of 212 for 2007-2009, which is more than
double the MDG target. The State has been able to accomplish this by taking up a
multi-pronged approach. First, it has equipped all health-care settings,
starting with the 1,612 primary health-care centres, with trained staff nurses
available round the clock and all essentials required for safe deliveries.
Second, it has through innovative and women-friendly initiatives ensured that
most deliveries take place in health-care settings. According to a recent survey
by the University of Delhi, institutional deliveries are as high as 99 per cent
in Tamil Nadu. The national average is about 73 per cent.
More than the very high percentage of institutional deliveries, what is more
significant is the percentage of deliveries taking place in government-run
institutions. Nearly 67 per cent of deliveries take place in government
institutions, compared to 33 per cent in the private sector. The PHCs alone
account for 27 per cent; it was about seven per cent in 2005. In fact, today,
PHCs face a demand-side pressure. Compare this with Kerala — where the private
sector accounts for roughly 60 per cent of deliveries. The primary reason why
women in Tamil Nadu are flocking to government facilities is the changed nature
of health-care services being provided. As many as 105 PHCs in the State have
the facilities to conduct C-sections and store blood, and their main focus is
maternal and child heath care. Women-friendly services like screening and
appropriate intervention for gestational diabetes, hypertension and anaemia have
had a magnetic effect. But the most critical contributor has been the strong and
continued importance accorded to health-care services by whichever political
party is in power.

India can Build Kishenganga Dam, but Battle is not over Yet

Though the Court of Arbitration at The Hague has upheld
Indian’s right under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty to divert waters from the Rs.
3,600-crore hydro-electric project in the Kishenganga, the battle is not yet
over. In its ‘partial award’ delivered on Monday in the dispute between India
and Pakistan over the 330 MW project, the Court ruled that India would have to
maintain a minimum flow in the river, known as Neelum in Pakistan. The rate will
be determined by the Court in its final award, which is likely to be delivered
by year-end. The ‘partial award’ has “no appeal” and is “binding” on both
countries.

Pakistan apprehends that the depletion of the
run-of-the-river reservoir under the “dead storage level” for removal of
sedimentation will allow India to regulate waters upstream. The former Water
Resources Secretary, Dhruv Vijay Singh, who led the Indian delegation through
the two year legal process, said there could be no appeal as the Court was not
an appellate authority. “However, Paragraph 27 of Annexure D of the Treaty says
that at the request of either party, within three months of the date of the
award, the Court shall re-assemble to clarify or interpret the Award. Pending
such clarification…..it can grant a stay in the execution of the award.”
Forbidding India from depletion below the “dead storage level,” the Court said
the ruling did not apply to Indian projects already in operation or under
construction, whose designs have been communicated to Pakistan by India and not
objected to by Islamabad. This is the first-ever Court of Arbitration set up to
settle a dispute between India and Pakistan on a hydro-electric project.
Pakistan took the matter to the Court after bi-lateral talks failed. The project
is designed to generate power by diverting water from a higher elevation damsite
in the Gurez valley to the Bonar Nallah, another tributary of the Jhelum,
through a tunnel system.

Pakistan argued that the diversion would adversely affect the
operation of its Neelam-Jhelum hydro-electric project downstream the Kishenganga
project. Furthermore, the lowering of the water level to the bare minimum for
flushing out the run-of-the- river reservoir would enable India to manage the
quantum of water allocated to Pakistan. India maintained that the design and
mode of operation of the project complied with the provisions of the treaty.
Sources said the ‘partial award’ removed the stay on India building
constructions of permanent nature as part of the project.

Fragments of Meteorite found in the Urals

Russian scientists have found fragments of the meteorite
which struck the Urals region on Friday. The space rock, estimated to measure 17
metres across, exploded over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, releasing 20 times
more energy than the U.S. nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Its shockwaves
injured 1,200 people and damaged thousands of homes. Geologists from the Urals
Federal University (UFU) discovered tiny fragments of the meteorite on the ice
of Chebarkul Lake near a six-metre hole presumably made by the meteorite,
Russian media reported on Monday. Chemical tests conducted on 53 collected
fragments — ranging in size from a few millimetres to one centimetre — confirmed
their extra-terrestrial origin, said Dr. Viktor Grokhovsky of UFU, who is also a
member of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ committee on meteorites. “This
meteorite is a common chondrite, a stony meteorite which contains some 10 per
cent of iron,” the scientist told reporters. He said the meteorite is likely to
be named after Chebarkul Lake, situated 80 km from Chelyabinsk.

Divers who searched the bottom of Chebarkul Lake on Saturday
failed to find any trace of the meteorite, which was not surprising considering
that the lake bed was covered by thick layers of silt and the visibility was
zero. Search teams identified three other sites in the Urals where meteorite
ragments are thought to have hit the ground. Meanwhile, residents of Chelyabinsk
are recovering from the shock of a close brush with what scientists said could
be the largest celestial body to have hit the Earth in a hundred years. About
24,000 emergency workers and volunteers are busy replacing smashed windows in
nearly 5,000 apartment houses and public buildings. Some people shaken by the
blinding flash and booming shockwaves from the meteor need the help of
psychologists. Residents of Chelyabinsk said that the sun was unusually bright
and strong three days after the meteor streaked through the sky. “After a few
hours in the open I felt like skiing in the mountains,” Fyodor Spiridonov was
quoted as saying. Animals at the local zoo grew agitated hours before the meteor
flew over the city, zoo caterers told the MK daily. Brown bears at the zoo woke
from winter hibernation and wolves in the woods surrounding the city kept
howling through the night after the incident.

The Way Forward

Drawing from the Sanya Declaration of the BRICS Leaders
Summit held in China in 2011, five reputed policy research organisations have
come together to form the Track 2 initiative called BRICS Trade and Economic
Research Network (TERN) which will work on a range of issues on South-South
cooperation. The five founding members Fundacao Getulio Vargas, Brazil,
Eco-Accord, Russia, CUTS International, India, Shanghai WTO Affairs Consultation
Centre, China and South African Institute of International Affairs are of the
view that BRICS cooperation should move from policy discussions to delivering
tangible benefits for the people of these five countries, in areas of sharing
technology, increase in bilateral investment and trade etc. This development
comes in the run up to the BRICS Leaders Summit which will be held in Durban,
South Africa in March 2013. Representing the civil society among the various
stakeholders, Pradeep S. Mehta, secretary general, CUTS International said BRICS
countries should answer critical questions like, “Are we, the BRICS group of
countries, becoming relatively rich nations with many poor people, or are we
poor countries with some rich people?’’

Selecting the Next CAG

In May this year, the present Comptroller and Auditor-General
will retire on completing 65 years of age. Given the Government of India’s
exasperation with him, it seems very probable that for the next CAG, it will
look for someone who is likely to be bland and ignorable, and quite possibly
someone who will actively weaken the rigours of accountability. That will be a
travesty of what the Constitution-makers had in mind. How is that deplorable
contingency to be avoided?

The answer is that the selection of the CAG must not be the
exclusive prerogative of the executive government but must be entrusted to a
high-level, broad-based Selection Committee. Such a course is clearly a very
obvious one to follow, but it appears that the government does not consider any
such change in the selection procedure necessary.

No Formal Criteria

The argument is that the existing system has been working
well; that the CAGs, by whichever ruling party chosen, have been able to
function independently; and that no change is called for. However, does a system
in fact exist? There is no carefully formulated job description, no formally
laid down criteria, no clear procedures for a long list and a short list, and no
Selection Committee. What then is the system? It is entirely an internal process
within the government; no one outside knows what that process is; from the
Finance Secretary, Cabinet Secretary and the Principal Secretary to the Prime
Minister, some names emerge and reach the Prime Minister; and a recommendation
is sent to the President. Suddenly one morning the newspapers announce that a
particular person has been selected as CAG. Parliament and the people of the
country have no idea at all as to how the principal instrument of accountability
is chosen. Is the ‘system’ working well? On what grounds can one say so? There
have been outstanding, good, and indifferent CAGs. One can hardly infer a
functioning system from these results, much less one that is working well.

The need for a high-level, broad-based Selection Committee
has already been accepted for the selection of the Central Vigilance
Commissioner and the National Human Rights Commissioners. On what possible
grounds can it be held that such a procedure is not appropriate for the
selection of the CAG? It is in fact particularly called for in this case,
considering the great and crucial importance of the institution of CAG of India.
The point is familiar and need not be laboured, but it may be useful to remind
ourselves very briefly that the Constitution-makers chose to include the
position in the Constitution; guaranteed his (her) independence by providing
protection against removal except by impeachment; and prescribed for the CAG an
oath of office that requires the functionary to “uphold the Constitution and the
laws” and not just act in accordance with them.
It may also be recalled that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar considered the CAG the most
important functionary in the Constitution, even more important than the
judiciary. The CAG performs the most crucial function of enforcing the financial
accountability of the Executive to Parliament, and through Parliament to the
people. It follows that the selection of the enforcer of accountability should
not be left to the discretion of those whose accountability he or she has to
enforce. What should be the composition of the proposed Selection Committee?
Having regard to the multiple dimensions of the position of CAG, the following
is a suggested composition:

  • Prime Minister (Chairman);
  • Finance Minister;
  • Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha;
  • Speaker of the Lok Sabha;
  • Chief Justice of India, if the CJI is willing to be included, and if
    not, a very distinguished legal luminary.

Antarctica Needs MPAs

The Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living
Resources (CCAMLR) in its meeting from October 23 to November 1, 2012, failed to
deliver any agreement on marine protected areas (MPAs) for Antarctica’s Southern
Ocean. CCAMLR, made up of 24 countries and the European Union, had been
considering proposals for turning two critical areas in Antarctica’s Southern
Ocean into MPAs at the meeting, including 1.6 million square kilometres of the
Ross Sea, the world’s most intact marine ecosystem, and 1.9 million square
kilometres of coastal area in the East Antarctic.

Initially there were two proposals for the Ross Sea, one
submitted by the US and one by New Zealand. This was problematic and an issue
for many CCAMLR nations. One of the positive outcomes of the meeting last year
was that New Zealand and the US negotiated an agreement on a joint proposal.
Hence there is only one Ross Sea proposal, a joint one. The meeting, which
required the concurrence of all the member nations for a decision on MPAs,
failed to reach any agreement and it was decided to hold a special extraordinary
meeting in July 2013 in Germany to address the issues involved. As such there
are now only two proposals — the joint one for the Ross Sea and the one for East
Antarctica by Australia and France. These will be discussed at the extraordinary
meeting in July in Bremerhaven, Germany.

At the 2012 meeting, Russia, China and the Ukraine blocked
efforts to put conservation in place. Previously, CCAMLR members committed to
beginning to establish a network of MPAs in the Southern Ocean in 2012. There
was no good scientific reason for not meeting that commitment. The CCAMLR
process requires the Science Committee to first review all proposals before
bringing them for discussion and approval by the Commission members who take the
policy decisions. In the case of the two recent marine protection proposals for
the Ross Sea and East Antarctica, the Science Committee had reviewed the science
and passed them to the Commission for decisions. However, the nations that
opposed the MPAs — China, Russia and the Ukraine, claimed that amendments in
those proposals meant that they should be resubmitted to the Science Committee.

The Chair of Science Committee stated that there was no new
science to be considered and that the next step in the process was for
consideration and decisions by the Commission. These proposals had been reviewed
by scientists in the CCAMLR process and were ready for discussion and agreement
in 2012, as a first step in establishing a network across the Southern Ocean.
Why did China, Russia and Ukraine oppose the proposals? Ms. Donna Mattfield,
European Coordinator, Antarctic Ocean Alliance, an environmental conservation
group made up of 30 international organisations, in an email to this
correspondent, notes: “We do not believe there is any good scientific reason not
to agree to the proposals. With no solid scientific reason to delay the process,
the motivations are likely political. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance would like
all CCAMLR country governments to put politics to one side and seize the
opportunity to conserve this unique wilderness for future generations.”

World’s Largest Camera Trap Study Gets Its Millionth Photo

The international Tropical Ecology Assessment and Monitoring
(TEAM) Network’s stunning scrap book of wild animals in their natural habitat,
widely regarded as a sort of facebook for wildlife, has just crossed a
milestone. TEAM scientists have taken the one millionth camera trap photo and
the honour has gone to the elusive jaguar in the Manu National Park, Peru, one
of the 16 study sites in 14 countries across Asia, Africa and Americas. Wildlife
conservationists the world over are rejoicing at the achievement as this
relatively new body of wildlife research — a repository of camera trap images —
would reveal more about the health of the Earth’s dwindling tropical forests.

The 16 sites include Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park
(Indonesia), Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (Uganda), Caxiuanã National Forest
(Brazil) and Pasoh Forest Reserve (Malaysia). The world’s largest camera trap
study “provides real-time information on how unseen animal populations are being
affected by changes in climate, habitat and land use; changes that often affect
the flow of goods and life-sustaining services to people as well as the health
of tropical forests,” says a note for the media from TEAM Network based in
Arlington, USA.

The wildlife photo treasure, a result of five-year global
partnership between Conservation International, Missouri Botanical Garden,
Smithsonian Institution, Wildlife Conservation Society and over 80 local
partnerships, is serving as an early warning system for nature, monitoring
changes in tropical ecosystems and reporting shifts in biomass, rainfall and
biodiversity density.

In India, in a sheer coincidence, camera trap photos of the
equally elusive and charismatic mammal, the red panda, have just been obtained
by WWF-India staff from the remote heights of Arunachal Pradesh. Two years ago,
similar images of an adult female tiger and cubs at the site of a cattle-kill in
Nagarjunasagar-Srisailam Tiger Reserve in Andhra Pradesh revived hopes of
recovery of the big cat population. “The one-millionth image is an amazing
representation of our camera trap work and it symbolises the success we have had
with this programme in collecting new data,” said Dr. Jorge Ahumada, TEAM’s
Technical Director in the note. This data, replicated over time and space, is
crucial to understand the effects of global and regional threats on forest
mammals and to anticipate extinctions before it is too late. Working through
local partner institutions in various countries, TEAM site managers and
technicians set up camera traps during the dry season. Cameras are placed in a
grid throughout the forest every two square kilometres and left in the forest
for thirty days. Each site collects between 10,000 and 30,000 photographs a
year.

Second Success in Ostrich Hatching at Vandalur Zoo

After a gap of nearly a year, two ostrich chicks were hatched
in an enclosure at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Vandalur. Officials said
the birth of the chicks, which were on display for the first time on Sunday, is
a milestone as it was only the second time that natural hatching occurred in the
zoo. Earlier attempts at hatching them in an artificial incubator had failed.
Zoo officials took adequate steps to ensure the mother ostrich was not disturbed
during hatching.

“Each egg weighs 1.3 kg. Worldwide, nearly 80% of the ostrich
eggs fail to hatch. Vandalur Zoo is among a few zoos in the country where
captive breeding has been successful.” A pair of ostriches (Stuthio camelus) was
brought to the zoo in September 2008 from the livestock research station of the
Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University in Kattupakkam at a cost of
Rs. 3 lakh. At that time, the mother was nine years old. It laid eight eggs in
early January, 2010. Three chicks were hatched in March that year, but died
within a few weeks due to weather conditions. In March 2012, six chicks were
hatched naturally. With the newborns, the zoo has a total of eight chicks born
to the same parents. Ostrich eggs, officials said, have an incubation period of
39 to 59 days. Inadequate ventilation, improper humidity and ill-fitting egg
racks are some of the challenges during the hatching period. Each newly hatched
chick is being fed a kg of pulses brought from Namakkal district.

Wings of Change

Climate change has altered the population and migratory
habits of water birds at Harike, according to a census finding. Global effects
of climate change coupled with local factors have had a serious bearing on the
population, migratory patterns and habits of water birds. In a recent census
conducted at Harike Wildlife Sanctuary, an international Ramsar wetland site
located on the confluence of River Satluj and Beas with surrounding wetland
areas in the state of Punjab, it was found that the total number of water birds
have decreased as compared to last year. However, at the same time, the
diversity in water bird species has increased, says TK Roy, ecologist and Delhi
State Coordinator for AWC.

In all, this winter, a total of 72,488 water birds of 76
species including 29 species of resident water birds and 47 species of winter
migratory water bird’s arrival has been recorded by the combined efforts of
Harike Bird Census 2013 and Asian Water bird Census (AWC).

Sharper Eye on Earth’s Waters

In October 2011, an Indo-French scientific satellite,
Megha-Tropiques, designed to measure rainfall over the tropical regions of the
world, took to the skies. A continuation of that collaborative effort has now
produced another scientific mission, this time to monitor the oceans. The
‘Satellite for ARgos and ALtiKa’ (Saral) is to be launched by India’s Polar
Satellite Launch Vehicle today. Ties between the Indian Space Research
Organisation (ISRO) and its French counterpart, Centre National d’Etudes
Spatiales (CNES), go back five decades to the early years of India’s space
programme. “We started to think about increasing and reinforcing the long-term
cooperation in the late 1990s by developing together … a scientific satellite,”
according to Sylvie Callari, head of International Relations at CNES. Finding
that they were pursuing similar scientific objectives in terms of earth
observation, the two space agencies joined hands to develop the Megha-Tropiques
satellite. “Very quickly we started to think about doing another one … and we
ended up with this altimetry programme for the study of oceans,” she told this
correspondent. A satellite altimeter works on the principle of the radar,
emitting microwave pulses and picking up signals that bounce back. The time
taken for the signal to return provides a measure of the distance between the
satellite and the surface of an ocean. By establishing the satellite’s position
in orbit very precisely, the sea surface height can then be determined. The
returning signals can also be used to estimate wave heights and winds over the
ocean. France flew its first altimeter on the Topex/Poseidon, a spacecraft built
jointly with the U.S, which was launched in 1992 and worked till 2006. French
altimeters also went on Jason-1 and Jason-2 spacecraft that the two countries
sent up in 2001 and 2008 respectively.

Advanced Instrument

The French ‘AltiKa’ altimeter on the Saral will operate in a
higher frequency band (known as Ka) than previous satellite altimeters. Use of a
higher frequency, along with correction for atmospheric delays, will allow this
altimeter to determine sea surface height with greater precision. In addition,
its higher spatial resolution confers the ability to gather data closer to the
seashore than before, and also supply more accurate information about inland
water bodies, like rivers and lakes. The suggestion for an altimeter-carrying
satellite came up at a meeting of the Indo-French Joint Working Group about a
decade back, according to persons who occupied senior positions in Indian space
programme at the time. For ISRO, which has not made an altimeter, the
collaboration offered a way to gain experience in operating and using such a
satellite.

Moreover, the proposal also fitted in with the space agency’s
own ideas for creating a small satellite weighing about 400 kg at launch.
Typically, instruments are embedded in various parts of a satellite during its
assembly. But a modular approach was evolved for the Saral. Its instruments came
from France as a single module. The Indian side developed the basic satellite
structure, known as the ‘bus’, which provides basic housekeeping functions. The
instrument module was attached to the bus with a few bolts and an electrical
connector. The same bus could be used again in future, reducing the time needed
to put together satellites carrying other instrument modules, observed a retired
ISRO scientist.

Saral’s altimeter will help scientists watch the world’s
oceans and its shrinking ice sheets. As the climate has warmed, global sea
levels have risen. “A significant fraction of the world population is settled
along coastlines, often in large cities with extensive infrastructure, making
sea-level rise potentially one of the most severe long-term impacts of climate
change,” pointed out a World-Bank-sponsored study last year.

National Security Perspective

“On a global scale, how the ocean takes up and distributes
heat affects the atmospheric temperature change we experience under warming,” he
pointed out. “Regionally, the availability of heat affects many weather and
climate phenomena, including the monsoon.”

At the Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services
(Incois) based in Hyderabad, Saral’s altimeter data would go into
high-resolution ocean state forecasting models that are being set up for the
Indian coast. Such predictions of sea conditions would help fishermen, the
shipping industry, oil and gas companies as well as the Coast Guard and Navy,
according to its director, Satheesh Shenoi.

Saral will also carry an Argos payload for relaying data from
transmitters that provide worldwide environmental monitoring and tracking.
Thousands of such transmitters have been deployed on ocean buoys as well as
various other platforms on land and sea. They have even been attached to birds
and animals to track migration over long distances.

The Oscars Surprises, but not with the Awards

(From left) Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, Best Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, Best Supporting Actress Anne Hathaway, and Best Supporting
Actor Christoph Waltz during the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood on Sunday.—
Photo: AFP

It had all the ingredients of good, old-fashioned soap opera.
Beautiful maidens tumbled in dramatic fashion. The wives of powerful political
leaders swooped in with surprise appearances. And viewers were treated to
profanity so tasteless that the Twitter-verse was ignited by sentiments ranging
from shock to angry recrimination. Welcome to Oscars night, 2013.

There were few surprises among the actual prize-winners at
the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Argo , director-actor Ben Affleck’s rather
one-sided version of the CIA rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran during the
1979 Iran hostage crisis, picked up the Best Picture Oscar.

Mr. Affleck was, however, denied the Best Director crown,
which went to Ang Lee for his adaptation of the India-related novel, Life of Pi
. On stage, Mr. Lee said: “My Indian crew, I love you… Namaste .” Viewers in
India faced disappointment when musician Bombay Jayashree, who performed
soundtrack for Mr. Lee’s film, lost out in the Best Original Score category,
albeit to a worthy rival, English singer Adele, for the title track of the
latest James Bond film, Skyfall .

Britain also scored big when Daniel Day-Lewis won the coveted
Best Actor prize for his towering performance in Lincoln . In doing so the
Hollywood veteran set a new record for most wins in this category — three.
Oscar-winning Director Kathryn Bigelow’s gritty portrayal of the CIA hunt for
Osama bin Laden, with particular focus on the role of torture, clearly failed to
impress the judges. The film only shared an Oscar for sound editing. The first
award was a surprise victory for Django Unchained star Christoph Waltz, who beat
out renowned names such as Alan Arkin, Robert De Niro, Philip Seymour Hoffman
and Tommy Lee Jones — all previous Oscar winners — in the Best Supporting Actor
category. Jennifer Lawrence slipped on her billowy white dress and fell on the
stairs as she went up to collect the Best Actress award for her role in Silver
Linings Playbook. But she recovered nicely, joking about her clumsiness, even
going on to praise her competitors.

Anne Hathaway, contrarily, appeared tearful after collecting her Best Actress
in a Supporting Role prize for Les Miserables .

While the old adage ‘The show must go on’ prevailed, it went
on to get worse. The host for the evening, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane,
drew groans of disapproval from the audience when he made a crass joke about
Lincoln’s assassination and others that bordered on anti-Semitism. A semblance
of dignity was restored when First Lady Michelle Obama appeared via video from
the White House to announce the nominees and winners for the Best Movie along
with Jack Nicholson. Her presence may have well reflected the Motion Picture
Academy’s hat-tip to movies centred on U.S. political-military triumphalism.

PSLV-C20 puts SARAL, 6 other Satellites in Precise Orbits

In a multiple launch mission, a Polar Satellite Launch
Vehicle (PSLV-C20) on Monday put India-French satellite SARAL and six others
into their precise orbits after its successful launch from the Sriharikota
spaceport. This was the 22nd consecutive successful PSLV mission by the Indian
Space Research organisation (ISRO). It was such a flawless mission that
President Pranab Mukherjee, who was present at the Mission Control Centre, said
he was “delighted to be present during this meticulously executed launch” and
that “the PSLV has become a household name in the country.”

The President was sure that the ISRO would scale greater
heights in the coming years. He mentioned in this context the ISRO’s plans to
launch the Geo-Synchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle with an indigenous cryogenic
engine and India’s mission to Mars, both scheduled this year.

ISRO Chairman K. Radhakrishnan responded, saying the President’s speech would
“really encourage, ignite and inspire the ISRO to execute what you want us to
do.”

Lift-off at 6.01 p.m

The lift-off of PSLV-C20 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre
took place at 6.01 p.m., after a delay of five minutes in the launch sequence
and to avoid possible collision of the rocket with space debris. As the rocket
roared up from the first launch pad, in the backdrop of a clear, blue sky, it
climbed steadily into the horizon, riding on top of white, brownish flames. At
the end of 108 seconds, the first stage, powered by solid propellants, peeled
away and fell into the Bay of Bengal. As the rocket climbed steadily further, it
went like a dot of light. Throughout the 18 minutes of its flight, when
PSLV-C20’s four stages ignited on time and jettisoned, the rocket’s actual path
never wavered. It hugged its pre-determined path. At the end of 18 minutes,
PSLVC-20’s fourth stage rifled the 407-kg SARAL into orbit at a height of 785
km.

The other satellites to go into orbit one after the other
were SAPPHIRE, NEOSSAT, AAUSAT, BRITE, UniBRITE and STRand, all from abroad.
SARAL stands for Satellite for Argos-3 and Altika. While these two payloads are
from French space agency CNES, a third payload, a solid state C-band
transponder, is from the ISRO. All the three payloads were integrated into a
satellite at the ISRO Satellite Centre in Bangalore.

Unique Satellite

SARAL is a unique satellite that will cater to the research
community and it has practical applications as well. It will help in
oceanographic studies. It will study the ocean currents and sea surface heights.
While ARGOS-2 will collect the data, the Altikameter will measure the height of
the sea surface. ARGOS provides scientists with a tool to increase their
understanding of environment and helps industry comply with environmental
protection regulations. SARAL will help researchers to study the development of
climate. It has practical applications in continental ice studies, coastal
erosion, protection of biodiversity, study of marine animals’ migration and so
on.

SARAL’s Mission Life is Five Tears

The 148-kg SAPPHIRE and the 82-kg NEOSSAT are both from
Canada. SAPPHIRE will look at space debris and other satellites in orbit.
NEOSSAT — Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite— has a telescope for
detecting and tracking asteroids, satellites and space debris. BRITE and
UniBRITE, both weighing 14 kg, are from Austria. The 3-kg AAUSAT has been built
by the students of Aalborg University, Denmark to receive automatic
identification system signals from ships in the Arctic region. STRand, weighing
6.5 kg, from the U.K., will evaluate the performance of mobile phone electronics
in space environment.

Deciding who Gets to Eat

International agencies are warning of high food prices on a
global scale in 2013 if urgent action is not taken. But our government shows
little concern. The President’s address to Parliament had only a cursory mention
of inflation. “Inflation is easing gradually, but is still a problem,” he said.
Still a problem? Surely the suffering of people from the relentless price rise
inflicted on them by the flawed policies of the United Progressive Alliance
deserves more recognition and redress. Perversely, the government is
intensifying the very policies which cause price rise.

Even the World Bank, whose neoliberal policy impositions are
responsible to a great extent for global food inflation, has warned that “high
and volatile food prices are becoming the new normal.” The FAO warns that
“despite decline in international food prices in the latter quarter of 2012,
they remain close to all time highs. Stocks of key cereals have tightened.”
Among the reasons are the diversion of land from food grains production,
speculative trade, low public investment in agriculture and depleted stocks.
This critique is as valid for India as it is for the more developed countries.

Food vs. Fuel

While the severe drought in the United States, Russia, the
Ukraine and elsewhere is also cited as a reason for a likely fall in the
production of wheat and a consequent increase in food prices, the FAO has warned
that the continuing diversion of land to produce crops for the bio-fuel industry
in the U.S., Europe and the growing trend of companies to buy land in developing
countries like Africa for growing such crops, will lead to “increasing hunger
worldwide.” By subsidising corn production for bio-fuels, the U.S. pulls out
corn from food supply, raising prices. Cars and fuel it would seem are more
important than people and food.

Food shortages are also ideal scenarios for rampant
speculation. Speculation in futures trade in food commodities was one of the
crucial causes for international prices skyrocketing in 2008. The impact was
disastrous for import dependent countries. In the aftermath of the ruination of
millions of families across the world, the G20 countries, including India, had
resolved to take remedial measures. In 2010 in the U.S., the “Wall Street Reform
and Consumer Protection Act” suggested a set of regulations to curb speculation.
To implement the law, the Commodities Futures Trade Commission in the U.S.
imposed “position limits” on the proportion of the market that could be held by
any one institution so as to curb the capacity to manipulate prices. Even though
the limit was as high as a quarter of the market, it was challenged in court by
financial market associations.

The speculators, in the meanwhile, have been back in
business. Barclays Bank has admitted that it made a profit of $548 million and
Goldman Sachs made up to $400 million in 2012 from speculation in food including
wheat and maize. Glencore, one of the biggest companies in the business, was
pretty clear of its priorities. “The U.S. drought is good for Glencore” said its
Trade Wing Chief, meaning thereby that its $2.5 billion pre-tax profit could be
further augmented by speculation on the shortages created by the drought. The
recent UNCTAD report linking speculative capital with the price rise in food
stated that “over $400 billion is traded in food commodities, that is 20-30
times the physical production of the actual commodity.” The crux of the issue is
that high speculation in futures markets pushes up spot prices of the commodity
being traded. That is why there is a rising global demand for prohibition of
futures trade in essential commodities.

Is it any different in India? The government often uses high
global prices of food to camouflage its own failure. In fact, the reasons for
price rise in India are entirely domestic and self-inflicted. A comparison of
the Consumer Price Index for BRICS countries shows that India has the dubious
distinction of the highest year on year inflation at 11.17 per cent, with China
at the lowest of 1.9 per cent, South Africa at 5.75 per cent, Brazil at 6.15 per
cent and Russia at 6.54 per cent. Data provided by the Ministry of Commerce and
Industry shows a rise in the wholesale price index of food between 2011-2012 and
January 2012-2013 of 11.88 per cent. Some striking examples are the rise in the
price of cereals by over 18 per cent, vegetables by 28.4 per cent, pulses by
nearly 19 per cent and sugar by 13 per cent. These are the wholesale prices. The
increase in retail prices would be even higher.

Sugar decontrol is imminent, which will be followed by a
further rise in sugar prices. The deregulation of petrol and now diesel prices
has a cascading impact on increasing inflation, including in food. Petrol prices
have been raised 19 times since 2009, registering an increase of 120 per cent.
The price of diesel is up by 67 per cent.

Land Use

Mimicking the U.S., India too is ignoring the lessons of the
global crisis. Large tracts of agricultural land are being handed over to the
private corporate sector, including for real estate. This is in addition to the
ongoing policy of incentivising production of export driven cash crops instead
of food grains. The last Economic Survey itself reports this fall in gross area
under food grains by roughly 5 million hectares if we compare the decade
preceding the neoliberal reforms in the 1980s to the two post-reform decades of
the 1990s and the 2000s. Self -reliance and self sufficiency in food grain
production — which require an alternative policy framework — are now discarded
policy pursuits for this government despite their crucial role in protecting
Indian consumers from the volatility of international prices.

Old Faithful does it again

It is almost nine years since India’s Polar Satellite Launch
Vehicle (PSLV) made its first successful flight. On Monday, this trusty rocket,
with a distinctive configuration involving solid and liquid propulsion in its
core stages, maintained its richly deserved reputation for rugged reliability.
In the course of an unbroken chain of 22 successful launches, it has carried 27
Indian spacecraft as well as 35 foreign ones to space. It has taken
earth-viewing satellites, which typically orbit the earth from pole to pole, as
well as those like the meteorological satellite, Kalpana-1, and the
communication satellite, GSAT-12, that need to linger thousands of kilometres
above the equator. It lofted India’s Chandrayaan-1 on the first leg of its
journey to the Moon. In its latest flight, the rocket’s fourth stage twisted and
turned very precisely to eject seven satellites, one after another, into just
the right orbits. The primary payload on this occasion was the Indo-French
‘Satellite with ARgos and ALtika’ (SARAL). It is equipped with an altimeter that
allows sea surface height to be measured from space with greater precision than
before. With sea levels rising as a result of a steadily warming climate, this
satellite will join other altimeter-bearing spacecraft in ensuring continuity of
observation over the oceans. A large number of Indian scientists are part of an
international team that will be carrying out projects utilising the satellite’s
data. With SARAL, the Indian Space Research Organisation has been able to
demonstrate the basic structure, known in technical parlance as a ‘bus,’ for a
400-kg-class satellite. The same ‘Indian Mini Satellite (IMS) Bus series-2’ will
go into ADITYA-1, the Indian space agency’s scientific mission to observe the
Sun’s corona, scheduled for launch in three to four years’ time.

There are some important missions coming up for ISRO this
year. The next launch is likely to be that of the Geosynchronous Satellite
Launch Vehicle (GSLV) equipped with an indigenous cryogenic stage. The first
flight with that indigenous stage three years ago had ended in failure and ISRO
needs to show that it has mastered this difficult technology. The first of seven
satellites for the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) is
scheduled to go up later this year, as also the country’s first mission to Mars.
A test of the more powerful GSLV Mark-III, with a dummy cryogenic stage, too is
on the cards. Many challenges lie ahead and the Indian space agency must, in the
words of President Pranab Mukherjee, who witnessed the latest launch, “raise the
bar of its performance, scale greater heights and explore newer frontiers.”

Raising the Bogey of Radiation

The cell phone industry has registered phenomenal growth in
India. Cell towers have mushroomed all over the country and led to growing
concerns about the health effects of radiofrequency radiation. Agents who
masqueraded as ‘experts’ and started selling radiation ‘protective’ screens,
fanned the fire. They told that cell tower radiation can cause “sleep
disturbances, headaches, fatigue, joint pains, memory loss, increased heart
rate.”

“…Prolonged exposure to cell tower radiation increases the
risk of neurological disorders and cancer,” they said, creating a phobia among
the public. They did not agree that since the energy of RF radiation from cell
phone towers is not enough to break chemical bonds in DNA molecules, it cannot
cause cancer. While most countries accepted the guidelines of the International
Commission on Non Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), India enforced one
tenth of the ICNIRP guidelines from Sept 1, 2012, based on the advice from an
Inter Ministerial Committee. India’s guidelines have a safety factor of 500. The
over conservative approach of the IMC also helped to fan the fire.

Though it argued that safety standards should be rational and
should avoid excessive safety margins, the IMC lowered the radiation levels on
highly speculative reasons. The committee did a great disservice by listing
selectively a number of reports which showed adverse effects while ignoring many
reports which did not show any adverse impact. IMC unwittingly gave a handle to
scare mongers who are now demanding lower levels as standard.

Setback in TB War

The efforts to win the war against tuberculosis using an
efficacious vaccine candidate (MVA85A) in infants aged 4-6 months have returned
a disappointing verdict despite showing great promise in pre-clinical trials.
Though it fulfilled the primary objective of safety and despite inducing modest
immune responses, the efficacy of the vaccine was just 17.3 per cent, and hence
considered insufficient to protect the infants against TB, notes a paper
published recently in The Lancet . This is the first vaccine trial to be
conducted after the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine was introduced in
1921. The vaccine was given to infants in South Africa who had already received
the BCG vaccine. The rationale was to prime the immune system with BCG and then
boost it with the candidate vaccine to enhance the protective efficacy of BCG.
It will take a while to know the reasons behind its failure. Meanwhile, there is
still some hope that the vaccine, which is being tested in HIV positive adults,
will be successful. An efficacious and safer vaccine that would replace BCG is
urgently required for HIV positive individuals; BCG being a live-attenuated
vaccine is “not recommended” for immune-compromised people. While only 5-10 per
cent people who are infected with TB develop active disease over their lifetime,
the conversion rate dramatically shoots up to 5-10 per cent per year in the case
of HIV positive people, notes a 2012 paper in PLoS Pathogens .

There is still optimism as a dozen vaccines are being tested
in clinical trials. But these are not designed to prevent infection or rid the
body of the bacteria; they are aimed at boosting protection against the disease.
There are several other challenges too. Unlike in the case of other pathogens,
protection against TB does not lie in neutralising antibodies; it is the
cell-mediated immunity that is important. We still do not know the protective
antigens that will stimulate protective immune responses. For instance, we know
that antigen 85A complex elicits strong immune response, but whether it will
translate to protective effect in humans is not known. The AVA85A vaccine is the
best example of this — it induced modest immune responses but the protective
effect was low. Hence, it will take a while to produce vaccines that are
effective. But meanwhile, across the world, every year, nearly 9 million people
will develop active TB and about 1.5 million will die. Worse, fighting the
killer disease is getting more complicated with the rapid emergence of
drug-resistant bacteria. It took WHO’s declaration of TB as a global emergency
for the world to shed its indifference and complacency. Now, it is a race
against time.

The Risk Business Needs Better Cover

Moreover, the entry of private competition has forced the
former public monopoly insurers to improve their performance and efficiency.
Yet, despite these benefits, the government has not yet — after 13 years — lived
up to its promise of fostering the growth of the industry by increasing the
Foreign direct investment (FDI) limit in insurance from 26 per cent to 49 per
cent. That unjustifiable delay now compromises the financial standing of many
insurance joint ventures (JV) and puts a question mark over the future of an
industry that is vital to the health of the financial system.

Let’s look closely at what has happened since 2000. The
insurance industry requires significant inputs of capital sustained over a long
period to build a viable business and meet growing policyholder commitments. It
takes eight to 10 years to reach break-even. The private industry in India has
lost a combined $4 billion in the last decade. In the non-life segment, 13
private sector insurers have reported losses in 2011. Many of the smaller
insurance companies have looked at options to introduce new domestic partners,
but there are no buyers. Most existing foreign promoters have a long-term view.
They are unfazed by medium-term losses which they regard as necessary
investments to generate future returns. They are looking to increase their
ownership stake while their domestic partners have neither the capital resources
nor the inclination to do so. A few foreign firms have grown impatient with the
slow pace of progress and exited.

Following a long period of inaction and delay, the Union
Finance Minister has taken the bull by the horns. He is committed to continuing
with liberalising and reviving the industry. He realises that urgently needed
infrastructure will require a far greater volume of investment by insurance
companies and pension funds. Yet, unanticipated complications have arisen.

Getting Sidetracked

The core issue of lifting the FDI cap to permit inflows of
capital from foreign partners, thus allowing the insurance industry to
strengthen its capital base and grow, has been sidetracked by a proposal to
permit new investment to come in only through Foreign Institutional Investors (FII)
rather than the FDI route. That is odd for an industry that requires a longer
term investment horizon than FIIs have. India’s insurance industry needs around
$12 billion in capital up to 2020. Life insurance penetration is only 4.4 per
cent of the country’s Gross domestic product (GDP) in terms of total premium
underwritten in a year. The sector needs huge and sustained infusion of funding
to build viable businesses for the long term.

The idea of increasing the capital base of the industry
through FII (instead of FDI) emanated from an understanding between the
government and the Opposition, which avoided lifting the FDI cap. That
opposition was bolstered by the strong position taken by the Joint Parliamentary
Standing Committee on Finance on grounds that remain arguable and contentious.
For a variety of reasons, the notion of allowing a capital increase only through
FII would be a non-starter. FIIs have a very limited role to play in insurance
companies, e.g. those listed in secondary markets, or a few profitable early
entrants about to launch initial public offerings (IPO). It has no useful role
to play in JVs requiring significant direct injection of capital.

The Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA) has
warned publicly against the entry of FIIs in insurance. Interestingly, the
government has always been more in favour of FDI rather than FII, regarding FII
as being “hot” and volatile.

A Compromise

From a practical perspective, the issue of new capital needed
to strengthen the industry can be resolved by allowing the market to work and
permitting an increase in the total foreign investment limit to 49 per cent,
regardless of whether that increase is through FDI or FII. Such a compromise
would not change the government’s original stance, but would accommodate the
desire to permit FII as well. The amended Insurance Bill should keep matters
simple by lifting the total foreign investment limit to 49 per cent.
Shareholders should be left to determine the best way to address a company’s
needs — whether through FDI or FII. It should, therefore, also allow company
boards to decide whether the investment should be in the form of entirely new
capital or through a change in the ownership structure of existing capital. The
amended Bill should leave it to the IRDA to approve such changes.

If a domestic shareholder in a JV wants to stand diluted or
sell his/her shares, why should the government wish to prevent his foreign
partner from buying that stake and increase its shareholding up to a limit of 49
per cent? That is for the company rather than the government to decide. In the
end, what the amended Insurance Bill needs to ensure is that India wins — i.e.
policyholders, employees, shareholders, companies, and even the government —
through an approach to increasing FDI in insurance that is transparent and
flexible. It is time for the argument to end and for an amended Bill that is
sufficiently foresighted and flexible to stand the test of time to be passed
without delay.

Water from the Cold Underworld

Water samples retrieved on January 28 from Lake Whillans, a
sub-glacial lake about 800 metres beneath the western edge of the Antarctic
ice-shelf, have shown possible signs of life. The announcement came from an
American expedition that gained access to the 3.1-sq kilometre water body after
boring through the shelf using a special hot-water drill.

The retrieved samples are significant because they come from
a lake that has been isolated from the rest of the world for thousands of years.
Moreover, due to the weight of the massive glacier above it, the lake exists
under immense pressure (which shifts the freezing point of its water to a lower
temperature).

As a first step in the hunt for life, a common dye was added
to some samples to illuminate the DNA of microscopic organisms. When an
affirmative bright green glow was observed in response, researchers knew that
the water indeed harboured life. Upcoming studies on the samples will throw
light on how these organisms exist in such extreme conditions. Dr. Ross Powell,
one of the lead scientists on the expedition noted, in an email to this
Correspondent, that the organisms “would most likely be chemolithotrophs because
of the setting under the ice sheet.”

Chemolithotrophs are microorganisms capable of getting their
energy from inorganic compounds, such as elemental sulphur, hydrogen sulphate,
thiosulphates, etc. This is in contrast to other life-forms, like humans, which
depend on organ ic compounds as food. Because of their unorthodox needs,
chemolithotrophs can survive harsh environments.

Describing Whillans

Lake Whillans was first described by Dr. Helen Fricker, a
glaciologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and principal investigator
of the Whillans team, in 2007. She and her colleagues studied satellite data of
the ice surface above the Whillans Ice Stream from 2003 to 2006 and noticed a
periodic rising and falling of the surface that hinted at the presence of a
lake. In order to get beneath the ice sheet, a custom-designed hot-water drill
was used to reduce chances of contamination by the equipment itself. The drill
works by blasting a jet of scalding water into the ice to bore a hole. The water
then freezes because of the low temperatures and is removed as ice before
another jet of water is blasted. Once the surface of the lake was breached, the
researchers inserted a probe to collect water samples from different points as
well as some sediment from the lakebed.

Wrestling with a Shocker

The Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee
(IOC) has come up with a shocker by voting to recommend that wrestling be pushed
off the Olympic mat in 2020. It is an unexpected, cruel blow to a sport that was
part of the ancient Olympics and figured in the inaugural modern Games in 1896
and every subsequent edition except 1900. If it finally goes out of the 2020
programme, it will be the biggest sport yet to be axed from the Games. The IOC
Board has expectedly drawn flak from around the globe for its decision but a
final picture will only emerge at its General Assembly meeting in September when
the venue for the 2020 Games will also be chosen. Wrestling will get another
chance in May when it will be clubbed with seven other previously-approved
disciplines for consideration of the IOC Board which may recommend more than one
sport to its Session, although just one will make it eventually. The IOC goes
through an elaborate assessment before deleting or including a sport in the
Olympic programme. That is precisely the reason why its latest decision is
looking downright absurd if not biased. In a majority of the 39 criteria that
the IOC programme commission applies to formulate its evaluation report after
every Olympics, wrestling should score over at least modern pentathlon, which
was widely tipped to get the axe. Several critics, besides the International
Wrestling Federation, have pointed out that a “clash of interests” among the IOC
board members voting to pick the 25 ‘core sports’ for the 2020 Games could have
contributed to the outcome. The question of excluding modern pentathlon, a sport
that combines fencing, swimming, horseback riding, shooting and running,
invented by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games,
might have touched an emotional chord among the members. But there is no denying
the more popular appeal of wrestling, a sport that is easy to follow, and,
alongside running, is an elemental discipline that embodies the spirit of the
Olympics. The fact that wrestling had medal winners from 29 countries, more than
the number of participating nations (26) in modern pentathlon at the last
Olympics, should clinch the argument about ‘universality,’ something the IOC
seriously advocates. The IOC Board does not have a member from any of the
dominant ‘wrestling powers’ including the U.S. and Russia. India, which won two
of its six medals in the London Olympics in wrestling — and has four in all from
the sport — is justifiably upset at a time when its National Olympic Committee
stands suspended. Subtle diplomacy, rather than strident criticism against the
IOC, may yet help the Sports Ministry contribute to the rescue of the sport.

Will Rise in 2013: World Gold Council

Despite sustained measures by the government and the Reserve
Bank of India (RBI) to curb gold consumption, the World Gold Council (WGC), the
UK-based outfit representing the global gold industry, expects gold demand to
rise in India this year. Talking to The Hindu from London, Marcus Grubb,
Managing Director, Investment, World Gold Council, said, “after a fall of 12 per
cent in 2012, we are cautiously optimistic and expect Indian demand to rise 11
per cent in 2013 to reach 965 tonnes. Obviously, there are issues like the
rising current account deficit, but in India, gold does have an important role
to play.”

On the report by the committee appointed by RBI to check gold
consumption, Mr. Grubb said, “The report is a sober assessment of the Indian
gold market. It has recognized gold as an essential asset in the Indian context
and the issue is of how to mobilize idle reserves and put it to use. There have
been three hikes in import duty and I do not foresee any more action.”

Winning the Battle but Losing the War

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), signed in 1960, took 10 years
to negotiate, primarily because of the thorny issue of balancing, on the one
hand, the reasonable expectation by India that it could use the hydroelectric
potential of “Pakistan’s rivers” (the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus) before these
rivers entered Pakistan and, on the other, the reasonable expectation by
Pakistan that this would neither decrease the flow to Pakistan nor change the
timing of the flow. This was dealt with in the IWT essentially by hardwiring
into the Treaty limitations on the amount of manipulable (or “live”) storage
which India could develop in its projects.

Stress Point

As has often been recounted, the IWT worked well for decades,
even through periods when India and Pakistan were at war. But the truth of the
matter is that the Treaty was not really under stress until India started (quite
appropriately, in my view) building hydropower plants across the Himalayas, and,
in particular, on its side of the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir.
The first case, where the Indian and Pakistani Indus Water Commissioners were
unable to resolve their differences, was the one of the Baglihar hydropower
project on the Chenab. At Pakistan’s request, the World Bank appointed a Neutral
Expert to evaluate the claims. After two years of work the Neutral Expert
returned his verdict. The essence of the verdict was that the Treaty allowed for
new knowledge to be taken into account, that new knowledge on sediment
management meant that modern dams should be able to flush sediments through
low-level gates and that this element of the design of the Baglihar dam was
therefore acceptable. What the Neutral Expert completely ignored was that this
change essentially meant eliminating the “limit live storage” provision of the
IWT, a provision that was at the very heart of Pakistan’s acceptance of the
Treaty in the first place. Since there are a large number of hydroprojects on
the drawing board in Indian-held Kashmir, and since the cumulative storage on
the Chenab alone has been estimated to be about 40 days, this essentially left
Pakistan with no protection against unintentional or intentional harm from
Indian manipulation of the live storage they were now allowed to build.

Which brings us to the Kishenganga case. The far-sighted
Indian and Pakistani engineers who drew up the IWT had foreseen the Kishenganga
case quite specifically and had dedicated a whole section to this specific case.
Annexure D para 15 states “where a Plant is located on a tributary of the Jhelum
on which Pakistan has any agricultural use or hydroelectric use, the water
released below the plant may be delivered, if necessary, into another tributary
but only to the extent that the then existing agricultural use or hydroelectric
use by Pakistan on the former tributary would not be adversely affected.” While
lawyers might, à la Bill Clinton, ponder the meaning of “has,” it is clear to
most that since there was no “then existing use” by Pakistan, India was well
within its rights to build Kishenganga.

In my opinion Pakistan should never have taken this case to
the International Court of Arbitration (ICA), because there was, in my view, no
chance that they would win the case. Another Pakistani loss after Baglihar would
have several consequences, all negative for Pakistan. First, they would have
wasted a lot of resources paying for high-priced lawyers. Second, they could be
spending their scarce human resources on more productive areas, like improving
the management of water in Pakistan. And third, as the press headlines in both
India and Pakistan trumpet “India wins, again,” this would reinforce the Indian
claim that “victories” over both Baglihar and Kishenganga showed that India was
playing by the rules while Pakistan just wanted to harass India on these
projects.

But, as the Christian Brothers told me when I was a boy
growing up in South Africa, the Lord works in mysterious ways. In this case
there is no doubt that India has won the battle, but I think that it has, in
fact, lost a far more important war.

Live Storage

What is my reasoning? The battle is about Kishenganga. The
decision of the International Court of Arbitration will, indeed, mean a loss of
somewhere between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the generation capacity at
Pakistan’s Neelum Jhelum project, an economic and electricity cost which
Pakistan can hardly afford. But this is a one-off case — the war is about the
large number of projects which India plans to build on the Chenab and Jhelum.
And here it is the finding of the ICA on allowable manipulable storage which is
the key issue. The Baglihar decision would appear to have provided India with a
green light to build these projects with as much live storage as they chose (as
long as they classified it as “for sediment flushing”). What is enormously
important is that the ICA has, according to early press accounts, addressed this
issue head-on and, de facto, concluded that the Baglihar finding in this regard
undercut the central compromise of the Indus Waters Treaty, was wrong and should
not be applied to future projects. The ICA has, apparently, specifically ruled
that the design and operation of Indian hydropower projects on the Indus, Chenab
and Jhelum cannot include more live storage than allowed under the IWT, even if
the justification for such storage is silt management.

This finding is of far greater significance than the one-off
(and correct, in my view) finding relating to Kishenganga. It restores the
central protection — put into question by the Baglihar finding — which Pakistan
had acquired when Nehru and Ayub Khan signed the IWT in 1960.

Joint Benefits

A final word. While it is good — in the view of this observer
— that the ICA has put humpty-dumpty back together again, this is not enough. It
restores the status quo ante Baglihar, but that is an uneasy and unproductive
status quo. Without a change, of course, Pakistan will continue to object to
every project on the Indus, Jhelum or Chenab in Indian-held Kashmir (and now,
armed with the ICA conclusion on dead storage, Pakistan is likely to win). This
will discourage investors from investing in these vital plants on the Indian
side, and will escalate the tit-for-tat response (already patent) of India
trying to impede needed international support for the construction of hydropower
plants in Gilgit Baltistan, which lies on the Pakistani side of the LoC. What is
needed is to use the resetting of the terms by the ICA for India and Pakistan to
start out in a new direction. This should be one in which there is a search for
joint benefits (such as hydropower plants built in the best possible sites, with
power sold both ways, and with operating rules which benefit both parties built
into the project). As a long-time student of this dynamic in the subcontinent it
remains my conviction that the first step in breaking the long-standing vicious
cycle must come from sustained, high-level, political leadership from India. I
am confident that Pakistan would respond positively to such an overture. And I
am equally sure that if this great strategic issue is left in the hands of
mid-level bureaucrats, the future is likely to be more of the bad-for-both-sides
past.

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