Editorials - 04-02-2021

While it could be a curate’s egg for New Delhi, for the world, a return to Obama-era policies may prove inadequate

Dispelling very real concerns that existed about disruption of the Inauguration ceremony, Joseph R. Biden Jr was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on January 20. Memories of the unprecedented events a fortnight earlier, when unruly mobs ran amuck in the Capitol building, seemed to haunt not only those present at the ceremony but also the world at large; Washington had been turned into a fortress for the event. Ultimately, democracy triumphed.

Celebration of democracy

In his Inaugural Address, President Biden struck the right note, delivering a message of unity and hope, while not ignoring the enormous challenges the nation faced. His declaration that the nation was celebrating the triumph of a cause — the cause of democracy was most timely. Among Mr. Biden’s strengths are that he detests bigotry, and abhors identity politics. He tends to be idealistic, and is deeply committed to democratic values. He is a multilateralist, unlike his predecessor, Donald Trump.

As the ultimate Beltway insider, he knows better than most, that opposition to many of his ideas and views exist just beyond the horizon. Also, that in seeking to restore the prestige of America’s democracy and revive its economy, he would face many obstacles. He has, however, chosen to gamble on the throw of the dice by issuing a spate of Executive Orders, almost immediately intended to give expression to his initiatives, and also by announcing a series of initial measures which are, as likely as not, to provoke a great deal of opposition. Among these are his proposed $1.9 trillion relief plan to stem the novel coronavirus pandemic, his proposed expansive unemployment benefits package, and raising of the minimum wage, etc.

Policy reset and China

The new President would very soon come to realise that the global environment today is very different from the one that he knew as Vice-President. A return to erstwhile Obama-era policies may, hence, prove inadequate. The world has moved on and several policies will need a reset. The changed scenario, notwithstanding, under President Biden, one can expect the U.S. to rescind the ‘militarisation’ of foreign policy reverting to erstwhile traditional diplomacy. Opportunities for a fresh look at many contentious foreign policy issues could well open up as a result, incorporating elements of both competition and cooperation.

The acid test of this would be on how to deal with China. Rising China is not merely the single most serious challenge the U.S. faces at present, but it poses a diplomatic, economic and technological threat to U.S. pre-eminence. Persisting with old-time remedies such as devising an inclusive security architecture in Asia to check an expanding China threat in East Asia could prove counterproductive. Few countries in Asia are willing to line up against neighbouring China. This would, thereafter, beg the question as to whether the U.S. should persist with confrontation or attempt conciliation. If the latter, it would require the U.S. to soft-pedal its present antagonistic posture towards China. This could well have global implications.

Next, would be on how best to deal with Russia. The depth of antagonism between the two countries, the U.S. and Russia, remains unchanged, aggravated further by the growing strategic congruence between Russia and China. Initial reactions seem to point to U.S. relations with Russia continuing to remain cold, but as Russia flexes its muscles in Eurasia, the U.S. will need to come up with new policy directives, rather than surrender the initiative to the former.

Ties with Europe, West Asia

President Biden faces an uphill task when it comes to repairing America’s ties with Europe. The days when Europe and the U..S were tied literally to the same policy cart are over, and Europe is no longer likely to give in to U.S. diktats. Germany is possibly emerging as Europe’s new centre of gravity, dictating Europe’s relations with countries such as China and Russia. Germany, while being highly critical of Russia’s human rights record, including the most recent incident of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, is not hesitating to go ahead with Nord Stream 2, the Russia-led gas pipeline project, despite the U.S.’s objections. The EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, again despite the U.S.’s objections, is another indication of Europe’s new independent thinking. European leaders seem more inclined to heed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s warning to global leaders — at the virtual World Economic Forum at Davos, in late January — against ‘starting a new Cold War’, than listen to the U.S.’s Biden.

Problems abound for the new U.S. Administration in West Asia as well. With the civil wars in Syria and Yemen not having ended, the U.S.’s efforts to find a political settlement here will prove difficult. How to deal with a Saudi Arabia that is on a Biden ‘watch-list’, adds to the complexity of dealing with West Asia. The ‘Abraham Accords’, forged during the dying days of the Trump Administration, have further complicated the situation for the incoming Biden government. Dwarfing this would be finding ways and means to deal with the Iran problem, including Iran’s capacity and potential for nuclear mischief. Return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal framework, may not be a realistic option in the wake of the ‘Abraham Accords’, which have imparted a new dynamic and given a sharper edge to the existing Israel-Iran divide.

The outlook for India

India’s pious hope is that the Biden Administration will prove even more favourable to it than the preceding Republican Administration. This may, however, turn out to be like the proverbial curate’s egg — good in parts. Mr. Biden as Vice-President was well known to some of us, as having played a critical role as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in pushing through the iconic U.S.-India civil nuclear agreement, and also as a firm proponent of the India-U.S. strategic partnership. Hence, under a Biden Administration, defence and security cooperation between India and the U.S. are likely to be further stepped up. Regional security cooperation is also likely to be further enhanced, at least till such time as U.S.-China relations improve.

However, a Biden Administration will be far less supportive of India on several issues. India must brace itself to heed concerns being expressed about issues such as Kashmir, the so-called travails of the Muslim minority in India, treatment of non-governmental organisations and the like. This may take place behind closed doors, so as not to embarrass the Indian government, but Biden’s commitment to human rights is, by far, much stronger than that of many recent U.S. Presidents. He can be expected to satisfy his traditional constituency even at the risk of upsetting partners such as India.

What may, however, be far more disconcerting for India, if one were to analyse the statements and views of U.S. Secretary of State Antony John Blinken and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is that while the emphasis on a free and open Indo-Pacific region will continue, countries such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are likely to have a far more critical role to play than India in achieving security in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. could also be less forthcoming in its open support to India and in its ongoing confrontation with China in Eastern Ladakh.

The Afghan plan

Unsatisfactory again from an Indian standpoint are the implications of Mr. Biden’s Afghanistan policy. From positions taken by Mr. Sullivan, it would appear that while some rethinking from the positions taken by the Trump Administration is possible, there is little room for India in the latest plans on the table. Mr. Biden is an ardent advocate of ending the war in Afghanistan — dating back to his years as Vice-President — and he is likely to implement this with vigour, not excluding a deal with the Taliban, the possible exit of elected President Ashraf Ghani, and giving Pakistan an even bigger role in acting as the mid-wife of any new arrangement. Not only would this mean that India’s efforts of the past two decades to restore democracy in Afghanistan would come unstuck, but Pakistan would also gain a degree of legitimacy that had been denied to it by the Trump Administration, encouraging it to act with still greater impunity in carrying out terror strikes on India.

From a restricted standpoint, if India were to balance the positive with the negative, and compare the incoming Biden Administration with the previous Trump Administration, the balance sheet could be marginally negative.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal

The rise of the AIMIM chief as a prominent Muslim leader points to many political intricacies

Asaduddin Owaisi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), complicates political equations. He stirs the easy fit between mainstream secular parties and their hold over Muslim voters. In terms of the popularity index in India, he comes close to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) triumvirate of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath. Recently, the AIMIM’s electoral gains in Bihar and Mr. Owaisi’s visits to poll-bound West Bengal (2021) and Uttar Pradesh (in 2022) have revived the debate around his exact intention, emerging Muslim voting patterns and their implications for the BJP and its rivals.

Mr. Owaisi’s national avatar is a conjunction of the political dynamics that were induced by the Sachar Committee report and the Batla House encounter case, wherein while political Hindutva was on the decline, the interplay of the backwardness of Muslims and their insecurities exposed the failures of secular mainstream parties in catering to the community’s aspirations. This created a secular paradox, where, comforted with the decline of the BJP and the electoral ascendency of the Congress and other regional parties, many Muslim outfits and leaders blamed secular parties for failing Muslims. Thus began a new, although cluttered, phase of the community’s experiments with Muslim parties and a growing clamour for more representation. The Peace Party of India and the Rashtriya Ulama Council in U.P., the AIUDF in Assam, and the popular resonance of the Pasmanda movement led by Ali Anwar Ansari in Bihar, and, since 2012, that of the AIMIM in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar, U.P., and now in West Bengal, point to the churn within the Muslim community.

Here, it is important to note that initially, the AIMIM had its limitations. Firstly, it was just a city-based party. Secondly, until the 2004 Andhra Pradesh Assembly poll, the party’s electoral tally had plateaued at a maximum of just four seats. Thirdly, whenever the party tried to venture outside Hyderabad — like in the 1989 and 1994 Assembly elections, where it contested 35 and 20 seats respectively and forfeited its deposit on 28 and 15 seats — it fared poorly. Thus, Mr. Owaisi had the ardent task of strengthening the party’s foothold in its home turf before venturing outside. Hence, he chose the safe path of aligning with the UPA and defended the Congress in 2008 in the wake of the confidence vote sought by the Manmohan Singh-government after the Left Front withdrew support over the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal.

National ambitions

By 2009, two factors were helping Mr. Owaisi. His parliamentary interventions established him as an eloquent spokesperson for the Muslim question at the national level, and the delimitation exercise making more Assembly constituencies in Hyderabad, like Malakpet and Nampally (previously Asifnagar AC), Muslim-dominated seats, raised the electoral tally of the AIMIM, thereby empowering Mr. Owaisi at the regional level. This fuelled his national ambitions. By 2012, the party had set its eyes on two neighbouring States — Maharashtra and Karnataka — and particularly regions that were part of the Hyderabad State during the Nizam’s rule and had significant Muslim populations. A significant breakthrough for the party’s national ambitions came in October 2012, when the AIMIM won 11 of the 25 seats it contested in the Nanded municipal polls in eastern Maharashtra. Now, Mr. Owaisi followed the template of the secular paradox theory — accusing the Congress of favouring Hindu communal forces and acting against the interests of the Muslims, he withdrew support from the Congress government in Andhra Pradesh and at the Centre.

A closer look at Mr. Owaisi’s political moves reveals his calculations. In his quest to find an alternative to the BJP and political Hindutva in future, he is working towards the creation of a national third front, a non-Congress, non-BJP alliance, wherein AIMIM would be an indispensable part, acting as a magnetic pull for minority votes away from traditional claimants like the Congress and other parties. For instance, in 2018, Mr. Owaisi supported the JD(S) over the Congress in Karnataka; in Maharashtra in 2014 and 2019, he targeted the Congress and the NCP more than the BJP. The same template was repeated in 2015 and 2020 in Bihar and in 2017 in Uttar Pradesh. Now, in West Bengal, the ruling Trinamool Congress and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee are the prime targets, and predictably, the Samajwadi Party, the BSP and the Congress would be in Mr. Owaisi’s line of fire in the run-up to the 2022 U.P. Assembly election.

Political psychology

No wonder, parties that are at the receiving end of Mr. Owaisi’s politics label him as being hand-in-glove with the BJP. However, the underlying reason for Mr. Owaisi’s attack on mainstream secular parties is a necessary evil he must embrace. The seats AIMIM aims to win in every State happen to be minority-dominated constituencies mostly controlled by these parties. Wresting those seats leaves Mr. Owaisi with no other option but to train his guns at them rather than the BJP. However, navigating the Muslim electorates’ maze is also contingent on the community’s political psychology.

Let’s take three states: Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. In Uttar Pradesh alone, in the Meerut-Muzaffarnagar-Saharanpur region, one finds castes like Muley Jats, Tyagi Muslims, and Gujjar Muslims, besides the Sheikhs, Sayyids, Quraishis and others; in Rohilkhand region, the Turks, Pathans, Saifis, Ansaris, etc., maintain their caste identifications; in Braj, particularly in Aligarh town, the upper-caste Pathans, who have lost their political clout, are present in pockets; further, in the Poorvanchal region, both south and north of the Ghaghra river, the OBC Ansari Muslims constitute a majority but lack political representation. In Bihar, the OBC Ansari Muslims are politicised and dominate theBhojpuri- and Mithila-speaking districts; in the Seemanchal region, where the AIMIM recently made electoral gains, the rivalry among the upper-caste Surjapuris and OBC Kulhaiya and Shershahvadi Muslims is well-known. Further, in parts of north-Bengal like Coochbehar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, the Nashya Shaikh Muslims, who are also found in Dhubri, Kokrajhar and Goalpara districts of lower Assam, have a significant presence; similarly, in districts like Dinajpur and north Malda, the Muslim universe mirrors the composition of Seemanchal Bihar, ie., the Surjapuris and Shershahvadis; in south Bengal, while a majority of Muslims identify themselves as Sheikhs, they fall in the OBC category and are divided along sectarian and religious lines of being either the followers of Furfura Sharif or of the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind.

In this context, the Muslim psychology is about accentuating these internal differences when the fear of an aggressive Hindutva discourse is not the prime factor affecting their minds. However, when elections are polarised and the fear of the BJP’s imminent victory is paramount, Muslims close ranks and vote for mainstream secular parties. Hence, it can be expected that in the 2021 West Bengal election or the 2022 Uttar Pradesh election, the aggressive Hindutva push and the prospect of a BJP victory may ensure that Muslims would reject Mr. Owaisi and consolidate behind the traditional claimants. In the meantime, the AIMIM chief would keep analysts guessing.

Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst associated with People’s Pulse

India’s approach only reinforces the need for coordinated international efforts to bring COVID-19 under control

Since the worldwide inoculation process is going strong, vaccine diplomacy has become a hot topic. As this pandemic has spared no country and everyone needs access to vaccines, how is vaccine production and distribution being managed?

While the leading and advanced countries have been mindlessly selfish in amassing approved vaccines, it is the Global South countries, India and China, which have provided a ray of hope to most countries.

Advance purchase contracts

In their quest for ensuring vaccine security, a report byThe New York Times, based on the data on vaccine contracts compiled by Duke University (https://nyti.ms/3pKYm69), shows that the advance purchase contracts made by some advanced countries for potential vaccines would vaccinate their population many times: the European Union, two times, the United States and the United Kingdom, four times, and Canada, six times. And, 82% of Pfizer’s production in 2021 and 78% of Moderna’s have already been advance purchased by rich countries. The expectation that an early vaccination will bring back normalcy and a required push to economic growth fuelled many advanced countries to engage in vaccine battles. The arguments of public good and global cooperation have gone out of the window now.

While advanced countries have turned their back on the need of poor countries to access COVID-19 vaccines, India has displayed empathy to their needs. India has taken a position that a significant percentage of the approved doses will be permitted for exports. While its exports to neighbouring counties will be under grant mode, initial shipment of vaccines to least developed countries will be free of cost. And, shipments of vaccines from India have already started reaching different parts of the developing world.

Brazil has received 2 million doses of vaccine from India (as of January 23). While India is in its first phase of vaccination to cover health-care workers, exports from India are helping other countries also in initiating phase one of their vaccination programme — a gesture well-appreciated globally. In a democracy, one can expect the backlash of sending vaccines abroad without vaccinating its population.

Nevertheless, India’s approach only reinforces the need of having coordinated global efforts in bringing COVID-19 under control. This response manifests India’s unstinted commitment to global development and has consolidated its name as the world’s pharmacy. Although China has also been enthusiastic in promising vaccines and their delivery, the lukewarm response by countries such as Nepal has slowed down the ambition of China. The release of efficacy data in Brazil raises concerns about the effectiveness of the Sinovac vaccine.

Keep track of SDGs

The attitude of India towards vaccinating the populations in the poorer countries has generated discussion in the richer countries about the necessity for more proactive measures to roll out vaccines to the developing nations. The reversal of progress on many Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs (https://sdgs.un.org/goals), such as SDG 3 (“Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages) could affect the health of the world population, and global growth itself. Even before COVID-19, projections have shown that 6% of the global population would be in extreme poverty, which has gone up by 71 million, thereby causing enormous challenges to SDG 1 (“End poverty in all its forms everywhere”). According to estimates by the International Monetary Fund, over 50% of emerging markets and developing economies that were converging toward advanced economies per capita income over the last decade are expected to diverge over the 2020-22 period.

COVAX as a pathway

The COVAX project is a global risk-sharing mechanism for pooled procurement and fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, an ambitious programme based on funding from high and middle-income countries. Although the funding was not enough for the project, U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to join the project has now raised expectations significantly. However, since high and middle-income countries are buying up large amounts of the vaccine directly from suppliers, the promise by COVAX to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of 2021 (https://bit.ly/3cAGSp8) seems to face new challenges. COVAX is a unique case of global cooperation and a strategic shift to enhance global development outcomes.

Furthermore, since most of the vaccines are purchased from the global south for developing nations, the COVAX project can draw new pathways for global development.

Most of these vaccines are cost-effective and affordable to the global south. For instance, Covishield, the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine produced in India costs only $3 per dose; Covaxin is priced at $4.2. A recent study byThe Lancetbased on Covaxin’s Phase 1 data (https://bit.ly/3ty8wtc) shows tolerable safety outcomes like any other vaccine. The intranasal version of Covaxin, which has been approved for phase I could further facilitate vaccinating the global population. The lower price of the vaccines is what has attracted many commercial buyers globally, including emerging economies such Brazil and South Africa. The ability to produce large volumes of vaccine at an affordable cost underlines India’s importance to developing countries when it comes to drug access. The development of vaccines is a classic story of global cooperation between the North and the South. Unfortunately, the increasing nationalist tendencies of the democratic World during the pandemic have challenged the positive narrative on global cooperation.

Thankom Arun is a professor of Global Development and Accountability at the University of Essex, U.K. Reji Joseph is an Associate Professor, Institute for Studies in Industrial Development, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

The economic models of today must be reimagined to take into account biodiversity and natural ecosystems

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many lessons. It made us realise that we are a part of nature and emphasised the urgent need to protect the ecological functions of the biosphere we live in. It has unequivocally highlighted how vital the health of the planet is for our individual and collective well-being as well as the growth of our economies.

The pandemic has resulted in huge economic losses. Globally, the GDP is expected to contract 2.4% to 8% in 2020. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that the global cost of dealing with the pandemic could be from $8.1 trillion to $15.8 trillion. Preventing such pandemics will cost only a fraction of this amount, estimated at $22.2 billion to $30.7 billion a year, and this is without factoring in the human suffering.

We have to recognise that there would not be an economy without the natural environment. Global studies documenting human ecological footprint, the decline in wildlife populations, and the conversion rates of natural ecosystems for other uses, place India among countries experiencing the highest rates of negative change. This increases our vulnerability towards catastrophes, including pandemics. Additionally, there is a strong correlation between human density, richness of biodiversity, and the emergence of zoonotic pathogens of wild origin, which renders India particularly vulnerable. With high human densities — among the highest diversity of mammals in the world — and a saturated interface between humans and wildlife, India is considered to be among the hotspots for zoonotic emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases.

The WEF’s Global Risks report for 2021 states that environmental risks continue to threaten the global economy. The top five risks are extreme weather, climate action failure, human environmental damage, infectious diseases and biodiversity loss. In terms of impact, infectious diseases top the list, followed by climate action failure. The top two risk response blind spots are climate action failure and biodiversity loss.

Our models of development and our notions about them have to change. Destruction of environment should no longer be justified in the name of development. Like all pandemics, COVID-19’s emergence has been entirely driven by unchecked activities in the name of development. Rampant destruction of natural habitats, especially due to mining and infrastructure development, continued expansion and intensification of agriculture and animal husbandry as well as unrestrained consumption have disrupted nature, increased contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people, setting the stage for the pandemic to take hold of our lives. Pandemic risk can be significantly lowered by reducing human activities that drive the loss of biodiversity as it will help prevent the spillover of new diseases.

A study by Swiss Re Institute published in 2020 introduces a new biodiversity and ecosystem services index. It found that globally, 20% of countries, including India, have fragile ecosystems. It also states that 55% of the global GDP depends on high-functioning biodiversity and ecosystem services.

It is evident that policymakers should factor biodiversity and ecosystems into their economic decision-making. This will accelerate the transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to sustainable, equitable, inclusive and just development models.The Economics of Biodiversity: The Dasgupta Review, commissioned by HM Treasury and released on February 2, 2021, highlights the grave risks faced by the world because of the failure of economics to take into account the rapid degradation of nature. The review stresses the need to find new measures for growth and development to avoid a catastrophic breakdown. The world’s governments need to come up with a form of national accounting that is different from the GDP model, and the new system has to account for the depletion of nature and natural resources.

New models

The evidence is overwhelming. All budgets need to reduce investments, including subsidies, in activities that will further degrade our natural habitats. By orders of magnitude, we should enhance investment in research in sustainability science.

A National Mission on Biodiversity and Human Well-Being has been approved by the Prime Minister’s Science Technology and Innovation Advisory Council. The overarching objectives are to restore and enhance biodiversity, strengthen its sustainable use, generate thousands of green jobs and encourage the Indian public to appreciate the natural and associated cultural treasures that we have collectively inherited. This initiative has the potential to enable India to play a global leadership role in linking conservation with tangible human well-being outcomes.

Ravi Chellam is CEO, Metastring Foundation and is associated with Biodiversity Collaborative, Bengaluru

A virtual surveillance system may help India secure its boundaries even in difficult locations

United States President Joe Biden stopped the construction of the much-publicised “border wall” between the U.S. and Mexico as part of a series of executive actions, in a development that was long-awaited. It was confirmed, however, that an alternative has been offered — a ‘smart’ wall that replaces the physical and armed patrolling with advanced surveillance tech is the proposed future of border security now.

The ‘smart wall’ technology could solve border security issues without the need for a physical barrier. The wall would use sensors, radars, and surveillance technology to detect and track border break-ins, and technology capable of performing the most difficult tasks dedicated to border security.

Not a new concept

The concept is not new and the novelty of it cannot be directly associated with Mr. Biden. Interestingly, the U.S.-Mexico border wall proposed by Donald Trump envisaged this concept. A technology firm was sought to be hired by the Trump administration, and it was indicated that artificial intelligence shall be used at a novel scale to complement the steel barrier (border wall) project of Mr. Trump. It was stated that hundreds of mobile surveillance towers would be deployed, and along with them, the complete system of a virtual wall would consist of a radar satellite, computer-equipped border-control vehicles, control sensors and underground sensors. Along with surveillance towers and cameras, thermal imaging would be used, which would help in the detection of objects. The system would even be capable of distinguishing between animals, humans, and vehicles, and then sending updates to handheld mobile devices of the U.S. patrol agents.

A question that now arises is whether such a project can be undertaken to secure Indian borders. India has been struggling with the problem of terrorists and smugglers infiltrating into the country and efforts are ongoing to secure our borders and curb cross-border infiltration. Therefore, it is proposed that it is high time we start envisaging the use of technology to help India secure its borders.

Other benefits

A critical factor that must be considered to enable the usage of such a system along Indian borders is that the terrain in the region is rugged, and, furthermore, not even clearly defined. Hence, erecting fences, walls or any physical structures is extremely difficult. A “smart” wall, however, makes use of systems that would be designed in such a way that they can operate even in rugged areas. Imperatively, in the U.S., various other benefits, such as cost-effectiveness, less damage to the environment, fewer land seizures, and speedier deployment are being noted that give the “smart wall” concept an edge over traditional physical borders.

Notably, such a system, even if not feasible for our long boundaries, may still be deployed to enhance critical security establishments of the country and complement the already-existing physical fencing and walls. The attack on the Pathankot Air Force base highlighted that often, it may become difficult to secure establishments due to their vast size. Further, it is imperative for Indian armed forces to be well-equipped and simultaneously have the latest technological advantage over its enemies.

Experts must explore this idea to effectively counter the problem of cross-border infiltration. Is it unfathomable to deploy a security system that clubs technology with traditional set-ups due to terrain and other problematic factors? This is a question for Digital India to answer.

Sidharth Kapoor is an Associate at Sarvada Legal. Shreyashi is an Advocate at the Delhi High Court

Metro Rail and buses help with mobility, but sound urbanisation needs policy reform

With a clear focus on expansion of Metro Rail and bus services through Central funding, Budget 2021 has recognised a core component of urbanisation. Comfortable, safe and affordable commuting has well-recognised multiplier effects for the economy and more generally for public health, although COVID-19 has had the perverse effect of driving people away to the safety of personal car and two-wheeler bubbles. There is little doubt that when the pandemic is under control, more people will return to clean and green mass mobility. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement of Central funding of Rs. 1,957 crore, Rs. 63,246 crore and Rs. 14,788 crore for the Kochi, Chennai and Bengaluru Metro projects, respectively, gives these big cities greater certainty that they can meet targets. Less certain, however, is the impact of the proposed Rs. 18,000 crore plan to augment public bus transport using a PPP model that will enable private sector players to finance, acquire, operate and maintain over 20,000 buses. India’s ratio of buses to population is a low 1.2 per 1,000 people, compared to 8.6 in Thailand and 6.5 in South Africa, although some States like Karnataka are well ahead of the national average, as per NITI Aayog data. Licensed private urban bus services remain a politically sensitive topic in many States, where State monopolies coexist with unregulated paratransit, and it will take a major effort to convince them that a bus renaissance is a good post-pandemic recovery strategy. The amended Motor Vehicles Act has provisions for the Centre to take the lead here.

The challenge of urbanisation goes beyond standalone interventions such as Metro and bus system grants. State governments, which retain effective control over urban development rather than city administrations, have failed to operationalise the umbrella authorities to regulate transport. Common mobility cards that would help citizens use bus, train and feeder networks seamlessly were largely in pilot project mode even before the pandemic. There is valid criticism that the existing paradigm is one of “exclusionary urbanisation”, which makes Metro and bus services expensive for the majority, particularly for those forced to live in the suburbs due to housing costs, and sometimes making the per kilometre cost of using a two-wheeler more attractive. Moreover, Census 2011 showed that the number of Census Towns, which are urban for census purposes but not named urban local bodies, grew tremendously over a decade. They lack access to funding, infrastructure and capacity to meet the needs of large populations even now. Enhanced ambition, therefore, requires the Centre to work with State governments to integrate key areas with its transport vision, such as affordable inner-city housing, including rental projects, access to civic services and health care, and enhanced sustainability, greenery and walkability. All these are covered by Central budgetary schemes for cities. Only integration can bring about inclusive urbanisation.

India and England are fighting for a place in the final of the World Test Championship

A rivalry going back to 1932 will get a fresh chapter as India and England gear up to play the first Test at Chennai’s M.A. Chidambaram Stadium from Friday. The first game of a four-match series would eventually pave the way for the frenzied thrills of five Twenty20Is and three ODIs in a long tour that will conclude on March 28. Besides the angst caused by essential COVID-19 protocols, the bio-bubble and the need to play the first contest behind closed doors, there is a lot at stake for the teams. Australia’s postponement of its tour to South Africa, pitch-forked New Zealand to the World Test Championship final at Lord’s in June. India and England will now tussle for a berth in the summit-clash. India has to secure this series and win a minimum of two Tests and for England, Joe Root’s men have to triumph in three matches. Fresh from its stunning 2-1 Test series triumph in Australia, and bolstered with the return of regular skipper Virat Kohli and key players such as R. Ashwin, Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Hardik Pandya, India holds the edge. That a second-string outfit under the unflappable Ajinkya Rahane, upset the more fancied Aussies at Brisbane will hold the Indians in good stead especially in their backyard replete with the tales of spin and other turns.

History might suggest home dominance, but India would remember that over the last four decades, some of its strong outfits emerged second-best to the visitors from the Old Blighty. In the 1984-85 and 2012-13 seasons, England stunned India. For many of those at Chennai’s ground, Chepauk in 1985, the memory still rankles: seamer Neil Foster’s match-haul of 11 wickets and double tons by Mike Gatting and Graeme Fowler that ambushed Sunil Gavaskar’s men. India’s present coach Ravi Shastri featured in that match. Cut to the present, Root’s troops would step in with the extra confidence gleaned from the 2-0 verdict in the two Tests against Sri Lanka at Galle. The captain himself was in prime form — Root struck a 228 and 186 — and the bowling arsenal has the pace troika of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Jofra Archer while Ben Stokes lends the x-factor. Yet, it is India that would step out with a halo in the city on the Coromandel Coast. A strong batting unit and a Bumrah-headlined attack with Ashwin’s guiles could test England’s resolve. The last time the rivals clashed in Chennai (2016), Karun Nair’s triple ton and Ravindra Jadeja’s bowling exploits humbled the visitors. This time around, India would seek fresh heroes while the cricket caravan moves from Chennai to Ahmedabad and Pune.

If any doubts had existed anywhere about Pakistan’s active complicity in the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane and in the acts of sabotage and subversion witnessed now and again in Kashmir, Pakistan itself has cleared them. The government-controlled Pakistan Radio’s approbation of the hijacking, Islamabad granting asylum to the two air pirates and its allowing the plane to be blown up — and all this in flagrant violation of the U.N. General Assembly’s resolution, to which it had pledged unqualified support, condemning plane hijackings and calling on all governments not to encourage such crimes and to return the snatched plane and cargo to the owner-country — should convince even the most naïve among Pakistan’s apologists of what that country is upto and what one can expect from it in future. Now that all the wraps are off, it is upto the Indian authorities to take steps to prevent any further acts of air piracy and sabotage.It is obvious that both the Central and State Governments have so far not been vigilant enough. The loyalty of one of the hijackers, Qureshi, was obviously suspect for some time and yet nothing seems to have been done to checkmate him.