Editorials - 27-01-2021

India’s quest of its goals at the UNSC must have a clear agenda and also reflect its material and geopolitical limitations

India deserves a permanent seat at the high table of the United Nations, the UN Security Council (UNSC), but is almost sure not to have it anytime soon. Therefore, its two-year non-permanent stint at the UNSC should be viewed as a once-in-a-decade opportunity to clearly identify and pursue its national interests regionally and globally, rather than chase chimerical goals such as a permanent membership or to issue please-all platitudes.

The UNSC, unfortunately, is where the leading powers of the international system dictate terms, show less powerful countries their ‘rightful’ place, fight among themselves even as they negotiate deals outside the horseshoe-tabled room. This is not where the lofty ideals of the human race come to fruition; nor are the members of the elite body persuaded by moral and ethical considerations. Seated at the table for the eighth time, New Delhi knows the game. And yet, sometimes it becomes a victim of its own past rhetoric and forgets to play the game to its advantage.

Timing of membership

New Delhi’s entry into the UNSC coincides with the emergence of a new world order, one marked by systemic uncertainty, little care for global commons, absence of global leadership, the steady division of the world into rival blocs, and an age marked by unabashed pursuit of narrow national interests, putting even the rhetoric about a value-based global order on the backburner. Efforts by the newly-inaugurated Biden administration in the United States, especially to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and, possibly, the Iran nuclear deal, may go on to ameliorate some of the harsh impact of this dog-eat-dog global (dis)order. However, the deep systemic malaise that has already set in will outlive the good ‘intentions’ of a democratic administration in Washington DC, delayed as they come.

The UNSC has also reached a point wherein its very relevance is in serious doubt, let alone serious expectations of it to live up to its primary objective: “the maintenance of international peace and security”.

India is different too. It is no longer an ardent believer in the fantastical claims about a perfect world at harmony with itself, nor is it a timid bystander in global geopolitics. Contemporary India is more self-confident, resolute and wants to be a shaper of geopolitics even though it lacks the material wherewithal, economic heft, and domestic consensus, to action its ambitions. But at least its mindset has changed, from being satisfied on the margins to desiring to be at the centre stage. On the downside, however, its hard realism is not just a foreign policy attribute but reflective of and stems from its domestic political dynamics, worrying as it were.

New Delhi’s pursuit of its interests at the UNSC should, therefore, reflect its material and geopolitical limitations, and its energies should be focused on a clearly identified agenda.

The China factor

New Delhi’s tenure at the UNSC comes in the wake of its growing military rivalry with Beijing, the impact of which has already started to be felt at the UNSC meetings in New York. China’s opposition to having India chair the Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) in 2022 was a precursor to the things to come on the high table. If the Biden administration were to continue with Donald Trump’s policy of pushing back Chinese aggression including at the UNSC, New Delhi might find itself some useful allies in checking Chinese aggression in the region.

Greater Indian alignment with the West at the UNSC, an unavoidable outcome, could, however, widen the growing gulf between Moscow and New Delhi given Russia’s increasing dependence on Beijing in more ways than one. However unfortunate that may be, it might not be possible for New Delhi to sit on the fence anymore; doing so would bring more harm than goodwill in an international system where battlelines are sharpening by the day.

India’s seat at the UNSC is also significantvis-à-visChina because the next two years will be key to ensure checking further Chinese incursions along theLineof Actual Control and building up enough infrastructure and mobilising sufficient forces in the forward areas. Our experience from Doklam to Ladakh to now Arunachal Pradesh points in one direction — that Chinese land grab attempts will continue unabated and in pushing Beijing back, we would need all the assistance we can get.

Focus on terror

Terror is likely to be a major focus for India at the UNSC. External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s statement at the UNSC Ministerial Meeting on the 20th Anniversary of Security Council Resolution 1373 and the establishment of the Counter Terrorism Committee has set the stage for New Delhi’s approach on the issue: “Terrorists are terrorists; there are no good and bad ones. Those who propagate this distinction have an agenda. And those who cover up for them are just as culpable”.

New Delhi recently assumed the chair of the Taliban sanctions committee (https://bit.ly/2Yt8STH) which assumes significance given the fast-moving developments in Afghanistan and India’s new-found desire to engage with the Taliban. The issue of terrorism has been a major theme in the country’s national security and foreign policy discourse for decades now, more so of this government. India must, however, formulate its policy towards terrorism with far more diplomatic finesse and political nuance especially given that it is chairing the Taliban sanctions committee while courting the very same Taliban. More so, a nuanced policy towards the Taliban would be difficult to sustain without a similar treatment of domestic insurgencies. Put differently, if New Delhi wishes to make its mark on the global discourse and policy formulation on terrorism, it would need to approach them with far more clarity and intellectual coherence.

Yet another area New Delhi would want to focus on while seated at the high table would be to use the forum and its engagement there to build coalitions among like-minded states and set out its priorities for the next decade — from climate change to non-proliferation. While these topics might only concern the UNSC in varying degrees, New Delhi should use its bargaining power at the UNSC to pursue its national interests in other forums and domains as well.

Perhaps more significantly, New Delhi’s UNSC strategy should involve shaping the narrative and global policy engagementvis-à-visperhaps one of the biggest grand strategic concepts of our time — the Indo-Pacific. Given India’s centrality in the Indo-Pacific region and the growing global interest in the concept, New Delhi would do well to take it upon itself to shape the narrative around it. In doing so, it should, through the UNSC and other means, court Moscow once again and assuage its concerns about the Indo-Pacific.

Think beyond reforms

New Delhi’s pursuit of its national interest at and through the UNSC must also be tempered by the sobering fact that the UNSC is unlikely to admit new members any time soon, if ever at all. India’s past global engagements and efforts have often been contingent on the hope that it would one day be admitted to the UNSC given its irrefutable claim. But a cursory glance at the recent debates on UNSC reforms and the state of the international system today should tell us that bending over backwards to please the big five to gain entry into the UNSC will not make a difference. So New Delhi must focus its energies on what it can achieve during the short period that it would be in the UNSC rather than what it wishes happened.

Happymon Jacob teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University and recently founded Council for Strategic and Defense Research, a New Delhi-based think tank

Fighting inequality must be at the heart of our economic rescue and recovery efforts

One of the most incisive and hard-hitting comments on the real import of the COVID-19 crisis came from none other than the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres. He said: “COVID-19 has been likened to an x-ray, revealing fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built. It is exposing fallacies and falsehoods everywhere: The lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all; the fiction that unpaid care work is not work; the delusion that we live in a post-racist world; the myth that we are all in the same boat. While we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some are in super yachts, while others are clinging to the drifting debris.”

Oxfam International’s annual report on inequality for 2021, aptly titled ‘The Inequality Virus’, puts the uncomfortable but imperative spotlight on the obscene inequality between the few in “super yachts” and the overwhelming majority “clinging to the drifting debris”. The report was published on the opening day of the World Economic Forum’s ‘Davos Dialogues’.

Over the decades, India has faced mammoth challenges including wars and hunger. But the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a migrant crisis, lockdowns, and serious contraction of the economy, and highlighted a crumbling health system, is an unprecedented test of the republic. This is the moment to use the ‘COVID x-ray’ to recognise the deep fissures caused by the growing inequality in the country; and for post-pandemic recovery, resolve to plan a fundamentally different economic model for ensuring an equal, just and sustainable future for all.

Uncomfortable truths

The Oxfam report highlights deeply uncomfortable truths of how the virus has exposed, fed off, and increased existing inequalities of wealth, gender and race. Over two million people have died, and hundreds of millions of people are being forced into poverty while many of the richest, both individuals and corporations, are thriving. Worldwide, billionaires saw their wealth increase by a staggering $3.9 trillion between March 18 and December 31, 2020. Within nine months, the top 1,000 billionaires, mainly white men, had recovered all the wealth they had lost, while recovery for the world’s poorest people according to most estimates could take over a decade.

The pandemic, which is the greatest economic shock since the Great Depression, saw hundreds of millions of people lose their jobs and face destitution and hunger. This shock is set to reverse the decline in global poverty we have witnessed over the past two decades. It is estimated that the total number of people living in poverty could have increased by between 200 million and 500 million in 2020.

Globally, women are over-represented in the sectors of the economy that are hardest hit by the pandemic. If women were represented at the same rate as men in those sectors, 112 million women would no longer be at high risk of losing their incomes or jobs. The unequal impact of the pandemic, in addition to this gender dimension, also has a race dimension. In Brazil, for example, people of Afro-descent have been 40% more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people. The virus has also led to an explosion in the amount of underpaid and unpaid care work, done predominantly by women, and in particular women from groups facing racial and ethnic marginalisation.

The rich and poor in India

Sadly, India is a case in point. The country introduced one of the earliest and most stringent lockdowns in the face of the pandemic, whose enforcement brought its economy to a standstill triggering unemployment, hunger, distress migration and untold hardship.

The rich have been able to escape the pandemic’s worst impact. White-collar workers have easily isolated themselves and have been working from home. The wealth of Indian billionaires increased by 35% during the lockdown and by 90% since 2009. This is despite the fact that most of India has faced a loss of livelihood and the economy has dipped into recession. The increase in the wealth of the top 11 billionaires during the pandemic can easily sustain the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme or the Health Ministry for the next 10 years. We have read astonishing stories of how Mukesh Ambani was making Rs. 90 crore per hour during the lockdown when 24% of the population was earning under Rs. 3,000 per month. According to the International Labour Organization, with almost 90% working in the informal economy in India, about 40 crore workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty.

The Oxfam report undertook a survey of 295 economists from 79 countries. They included leading global economists such as Jayati Ghosh, Jeffrey Sachs and Gabriel Zucman. Of the respondents, 87% expected that income inequality in their country was going to significantly increase as a result of the pandemic. These levels of inequality are not viable and will have a deeply harmful impact. This concern is shared by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The IMF Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, said, “The impact will be profound […] with increased inequality leading to economic and social upheaval.”

Fighting inequality

India just celebrated its 72nd Republic Day. We must recognise that a radical and sustained reduction in inequality is the indispensable foundation for a just India, as envisioned in the Constitution. The government must set concrete, time-bound targets to reduce inequality. We must move beyond the focus on GDP and start to value what really matters. Fighting inequality must be at the heart of economic rescue and recovery efforts. This must include gender and caste equality. Countries like South Korea, Sierra Leone and New Zealand have committed to reducing inequality as a national priority, showing what can be done.

Four things could be done on priority. One, invest in free universal healthcare, education, and other public services. Universal public services are the foundation of free and fair societies and have unparalleled power to reduce inequality, including gender and caste inequality. An immediate step could be delivering a free ‘people’s vaccine’ to all citizens to tackle the pandemic.

Two, the virus has shown us that guaranteed income security is essential. For this to happen we need not just living wages but also far greater job security, with labour rights, sick pay, paid parental leave and unemployment benefits if people lose their jobs.

Three, reintroduce wealth taxes and ensure financial transaction taxes while putting an end to tax dodging. Progressive taxation is the cornerstone of any equitable recovery, as it will enable investment in a green, equitable future. Argentina showed the way by adopting a temporary solidarity wealth tax on the extremely wealthy that could generate over $3 billion.

Four, we need to invest in a green economy that prevents further degradation of our planet and preserves it for our children. The fight against inequality and the fight for climate justice are the same fight.

Amitabh Behar is the CEO of Oxfam India

If capacity within government is lacking, it is necessary to leverage external expertise for better policy design and action

On January 15, 2021, the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) launched the Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY) 3.0. This is the third phase of the scheme which was launched in 2015 to give a boost to skilling in the country. In this third version, the government wants to focus on matching local skilling requirements with local job opportunities. The thrust of PMKVY 3.0 is on empowering States and districts to implement skilling schemes by making regional-level plans.

The scheme guidelines state that the scheme shall be implemented in two phases. The first is being implemented on a pilot basis during the 2020-21 fiscal year, while simultaneously initiating the creation of an implementation framework for the second phase (2021-2026).

Growing partnership

The foresight and planning evident in the scheme’s guidelines signal the MSDE’s thoughtful approach towards revamping the skilling ecosystem in the years ahead. However, any plan of this scale is seldom the work of a few individuals , a department or even a ministry. It requires multiple rounds of consultations and co-working with different entities, including collaboration between the government and external partners.

Over the last few years, there has been increasing evidence of the government and external partners working together on complex policy problems. At the more senior level, the government has formalised the induction of private individuals into the system by opening up lateral entry. Lower down the hierarchy, several central government ministries and entities, such as NITI Aayog, routinely recruit private individuals as consultants, officers on special duty or young professionals. Most of the lateral recruitment in government happens at this level. The role of this category of staff is primarily supporting the existing bureaucracy and providing them research and logistical support as and when the need arises. Given the staggering vacancies in the central government, such support is critical since civil servants are generally over-burdened and under-resourced.

Lack of capacity also often becomes evident in suboptimal policy decisions and poor implementation of those policies. For the stage of development India is at, it is as critical as it is difficult for the government to take a step back and reflect on how to deliver on its mandate across sectors in the most effective manner. If capacity within the government is lacking, it is necessary to leverage the domain knowledge and resources of private individuals and entities to forge thought partnerships.

A key difference

It is important here to emphasise that thought partnerships are different from the recruitment of consultants to provide government officials additional manpower to manage routine tasks. Thought partnerships are a structured mechanism for private entities to lend relevant strategic expertise to the government on policy design, evaluation and implementation.

Issue of funding

From the government perspective, a practical question to be resolved in any such exercise which involves external partners, is funding. Normally, the government would be rightly wary of accepting funding from agencies which come with caveats, associated obligations or other agendas, both implicit and explicit. It is also not always feasible for the government itself to fund projects involving private partners, more so when such projects are unconventional thought partnerships. It is not the quantum of money required to fund a thought partnership that becomes a roadblock (in most cases it would be a fraction of the department or Ministry’s budget), but the process of getting requisite approvals for funding external agencies.

Given this context, it is ideal if a committed external partner funds the thought partnership expeditiously without strings attached. The good news is that several domestic and international philanthropies and impact investing firms are already investing billions of dollars into critical sectors in developing countries including India. The not-so-good news is that much of this funding goes into supporting projects or interventions that work in limited, contextual settings rather than systemic or sectoral transformation programmes. This is the difference between trying to improve learning levels in a district through direct classroom interventions versus rethinking how the government school system works in a State or the country. It is here that philanthropies and impact investing firms can make a huge difference.

Earlier programmes

In the past, systemic thought partnerships have been attempted sporadically across ministries.

In 2005, the Ashok Lahiri Committee,constituted by the Ministry of Finance, came out with a report which stated that there was not enough knowledge about external capital flows and controls in India. The committee’s recommendation resulted in the establishment of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, Department of Economic Affairs research programme. The programme led to the creation of a rich body of world-class research on capital controls and flows in India, developed by Indian researchers, that was used to inform government policy on the matter.

In 2015, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs constituted a research secretariat headed by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, to support the Companies Law Committee to make “informed decisions…on the principles involved as well as international practices in the areas of insolvency, raising of capital, penalties, related party transactions and other areas”.

The National Institute of Financial Management is working with the Department of Economic Affairs to provide legal research and technical assistance on Indian and foreign financial markets, policy analysis, formulation as well as conduct of impact assessment studies on decisions taken by the Securities and Exchange Board of India.

In late-2018, the MSDE itself started engaging with multiple private firms such as Dalberg Global Development Advisors and Samagra-Transforming Governance to conceptualise and design its vision for 2025.

Pitfalls and solutions

These attempts at establishing thought partnerships between the government and private entities,while instructive, are largely disparate and episodic. They do not provide the definitive way forward on government-private collaboration. India faces a dearth of scholars and practitioners who are singularly focused on researching and solving India’s problems. As such, policy choices made in isolation from the rigorous debate, research and questioning which thought partnerships facilitate, can produce suboptimal results. It is therefore in the public interest that more such partnerships are forged and funded to channel external expertise and skills towards finding scalable solutions to the pressing policy challenges the country faces.

K.P. Krishnan, a former Secretary, Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Government of India, is currently the IEPF Chair Professor in Regulatory Economics at the National Council of Applied Economic Research. Roopa Kudva is Managing Director, Omidyar Network India. The views expressed are personal

Pseudoscientific claims are made by pliant researchers, supported by the state and believed by a section of society

The Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (RKA), constituted in February 2019, has always been in the news for the wrong reasons. The RKA’s website has posts with numerous pseudoscientific claims about cows. In October 2020, its chairperson, Dr. Vallabhbhai Kathiria, claimed that scientific experiments have proven that a “chip made of cow dung” will block harmful radiation from mobile phones. Recently, the RKA announced plans to hold a free online examination on “cow science”. It published a 54-page supposed syllabus/preparation notes for this exam. Through all this, RKA has firmly established its reputation as an organisation which has no connection to real science.

The blame for these foolhardy statements/decisions lies squarely at the leadership of the RKA. The RKA’s anti-science stance should have been apparent to any well-trained medical professional. The fact that the leadership still chooses to believe in these fantasies makes their positions untenable and problematic.

Strategic silence

In any other modern country, if a government commission consistently indulged in such nonsense, the government would be obliged to put that commission on notice. However, in this case, despite repeated pseudoscientific statements by RKA heads, the parent Ministry of this commission as well as higher functionaries of the government have been turning a blind eye to the RKA or egging it on with their strategic silence.

These two horsemen of the apocalypse are preponderant, but their existence is hardly surprising. It is an open secret that in our education system, one can score well in exams and obtain higher education degrees through rote learning, and all those graduates have no real understanding of the discipline they are supposed to be trained in. Similarly, each political dispensation has its own share of whims and fancies — sometimes based on twisted interpretations of religion, sometimes on unhealthy loyalty to the top leadership, and sometimes on extreme views of economic principles.

The third pallbearer, however, is more disconcerting. The pseudoscientific rhetoric of the RKA is trussed by shoddy research by pliant academics. Take the example of the “cow dung chip”. To prove its claim, the RKA has produced a letter from the Department of Physics of Saurashtra University which talks about an experiment conducted in its lab. This study is not published in any research journal, but on the RKA’s request, the head of the department has issued a letter detailing the experiment. According to the letter, radiation count from a radioactive source gets halved when you introduce a cow dung chip between the source and the Geiger-Muller counter. The experiment lacks comparisons with control. The researchers did not test if the same effect is seen if the cow dung is replaced by any other substance such as wet mud. Without such comparison, they are not in position to claim that cow dung possesses any special property; still they do. They have written that cow dung chips of different shapes and sizes have yielded nearly the same fall in the radiation count, yet they are keen to accord significance to minor variations they observe within the readings. This is a classic example of what happens when researchers decide the conclusions first and then start designing experiments to cherry-pick the data and justify the conclusions.

Bending intellectual honesty

This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you dig deeper, you will unearth many more of their ilk, including a few from the best Indian research institutes, who are happy to bend their intellectual honesty and produce carefully crafted research papers which are all but declarations of subjection to the ruling ideology. Why? It is true that some of these academics are ideologically driven and their religious bias clouds their scientific judgment. Unfortunately, some of them are truly unaware how cheesy their research appears to the wider scientific community. At the other end of the spectrum, there are also many who see publication of trashy but docile research as a short-cut to power and money. In our university sector, where all appointments are politicised and research grants are extremely hard to come by, this short-cut appears even more attractive.

Last, some blame must fall on those who believe such claims. If the majority of the educated class makes its displeasure towards anti-science rhetoric clear, there will be corrective measures from the government. Or have we descended to the level where the party matters more than truth? I hope not.

Aniket Sule is Associate Professor, Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai

Moscow’s crackdown on Alexei Navalny’s supporters has only galvanised opposition to Putin

The violent demonstrations last weekend in more than 100 cities across Russia in support of opposition politician Alexei Navalny were unlike any of the protests in the country under President Vladimir Putin’s rule, say commentators. The rallies, in which thousands have been detained, have been compared with several weekends of public demonstrations since August in neighbouring Belarus calling for the president to resign. There is also a growing sense that the unrest in Russia represents as much support for the 44-year-old anti-corruption crusader as it does opposition to the ruling regime, stemming from falling living standards, compounded by the pandemic. Mr. Navalny himself has been held in detention since his return from Germany on January 17 after recovering from a nerve agent attack that took place last August. If the charges against him are confirmed by the Kremlin-backed judiciary, he could be incarcerated for years.

Reactions from the West

Western governments, which are at pains to formulate a unified position under the new U.S. administration, something that had proved elusive during the Trump presidency, have called for tough measures against Moscow. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, is to probe the chemical weapon attack on Mr. Navalny. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has termed Moscow’s crackdown on Mr. Navalny and the protesters as “a violation of human rights”.

The European Union (EU)’s stance vis-à-vis Russia continues to reflect deep divisions that characterised its response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the subsequent conflict in Ukraine. Polish President Andrzej Duda deployed tough language as he called for sanctions against Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom. He even said that the visit of EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, to the country next month would be a “mistake”. Such a hard stance would be viewed in EU capitals as no more than echoing Warsaw’s historic animosity with Moscow. On the contrary, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach has reflected a concern for stability on the bloc’s eastern flanks arising from Russia’s regional ambitions, without jeopardising its energy dependence on Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is doing everything to appear not unduly concerned over the unrest. Moscow was unfazed when there was large-scale opposition to Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, and when opposition candidates were banned from the 2019 elections for the Moscow City Duma.

A stronger opposition

The crackdown on the opposition is likely to intensify at least until parliamentary elections later this year. President Putin’s ratings have steadily dipped in opinion polls, as has support for his United Russia party. This risks his present supermajority in the Duma. The regime has aptly picked another target, namely Mr. Navalny’s so-called ‘smart voting’ initiative, which encourages the electorate to exercise their right to vote strategically to favour the opposition. The method yielded impressive gains for the opposition in the 2019 municipal polls across Russia, and also in the local elections in Siberia in September where Mr. Navalny was campaigning before he was poisoned.

The government has expanded the designation of “foreign agents,” a label introduced in 2012 and aimed to stigmatise NGOs that received funding from overseas. The label now covers foreign-backed media houses, with stringent monitoring of their finances and other activities, and could include dissident contestants.

Irrespective of what happens to Mr. Navalny, his courage has galvanised opposition to the Kremlin, prompting a large band of activists to stake their lives to restore the rule of law and basic freedoms for all. Coinciding with his detention was another exposé linking Mr. Putin to an opulent £1 billion development on the Black Sea coast. An end to the uncertainty gripping Russia seems elusive.

Garimella Subramaniam is Director - Strategic Initiatives, AgnoShin Tecchnologies

Raising tax on older vehicles will help shift to cleaner ones, but some sections will need help

The Centre’s proposed policy to raise road tax on vehicles of a certain age from April 1 next year has the potential to renew a big part of India’s vehicular fleet, reducing air pollution, raising fuel efficiency, and improving safety standards. It has taken the government years to finalise a “tax on clunkers” proposal, under which commercial transport vehicles will have to pay 10%-25% extra on road tax after eight years when renewing the fitness certificate, and, similarly, personal vehicles after 15 years; public transport is given concessions, while hybrids, electrics and farm vehicles are exempt. A higher tax in the most polluted cities, and on diesel engines is also on the cards. States, which enforce motor vehicles law, now have to weigh in on the proposed changes. Unlike similar programmes, such as the post-2008 recession CARS rebate plan in the U.S., India’s scheme relies on penal taxation to persuade owners to scrap their old vehicles, with no cash-for-trade-in arrangement. For this approach to work efficiently, the additional tax proposed should exceed the resale value of the polluting motor, making its disposal more attractive, with enough safeguards to ensure that it is indeed scrapped and recycled under a monitored system. Equity features can be built into the scheme, offering a discount to income-vetted marginal operators such as autorickshaw drivers, on the lines of the 2009 stimulus given under the JNNURM scheme for buses. This should ideally be part of a green post-pandemic recovery plan, with an emphasis on electric vehicles.

When the scrappage policy was on the drawing board last year, Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari envisioned a reduction in automobile prices of 20% to 30%, driven by recovery of scrap steel, aluminium and plastic, all of which would be recycled. Now that he has a better-scoped plan, the focus must be on building capacities in the organised sector to manage the task of efficient materials recovery. Provisions will have to be built in to see that the sudden demand stimulus available to the auto industry does not disadvantage consumers, particularly those selling junk vehicles. The vehicle registration database for all States also requires updating, to reflect true numbers of old vehicles on the road, eliminating those scrapped; a significant number, more than 15 years old, still run. Such data will help target scrappage policy benefits better. Moreover, many transport vehicles are operated by small entrepreneurs who lack the resources to transition to newer ones and need help as loans and grants. India’s policy to eliminate polluting fuel guzzlers has had a long gestation, and States should see the value of operationalising it as planned. New vehicles and cleaner fuels should help clear the toxic air in cities and towns and make roads safer.

The robustness of blockchains inelectronic voting is, as yet, suspect

The much discussed and debated Electronic Voting Machine in India has survived intense scrutiny over its use largely because of one strong reason — the fact that this standalone single-chip device is not connected to any network. This is besides several technological and administrative safeguards to ensure that the machine is not tampered with. With the addition of the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) to the EVM, “audit-ability” was added to the process even as the machine has suffered glitches, which the Election Commission of India (ECI) has managed to tackle reasonably well. The ECI should definitely seek solutions to make the EVM more robust even as it must reject calls for a return to paper balloting — which experienced malpractices such as ballot stuffing and booth capturing. That being said, the announcement by Chief Election Commissioner Sunil Arora that the ECI is commencing trials of a “remote voting project” is sure to bring back scrutiny. ECI officials have not elaborated or released any detailed document, but have mentioned that the system, being developed by IIT-Madras, uses the blockchain method for “two-way remote voting” at designated centres.

Remote voting, as an option, has gained some priority during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to address social distancing. In the U.S., the mail-in ballot system, where registered voters received ballots and returned it via post or dropped it off at secure “drop boxes” or voting centers, was widely used, but this was entirely paper based. The blockchain method implements an online public bulletin board that allows for a linear ordering of data to which a user can only further append data. The board itself is public and available for anyone to read and verify. The technology has been put in use for cryptocurrencies — the Bitcoin blockchain records a list of transactions that can be read to find out who owns which bitcoins without any centralised authority. In the case of a blockchain-based voting system, the voting authority will have to authenticate this bulletin board in which users sign in using cryptographic signatures to register their votes in a ledger. While this system, with its cryptographic features, promises data security and verifiability, the fact that it will depend upon a network and devices could introduce vulnerabilities that are present in any Internet-based system. A draft paper by MIT and Harvard researchers, in November 2020, has raised concerns about the designs of a remote block-chain-based voting system and pointed to serious vulnerabilities in some instances where it was tried out. The paper also points out that beyond the vulnerabilities faced by any Internet-based system, blockchains also introduce issues related to complexity and their management. The ECI would do well to exercise caution before deploying this method in elections, besides subjecting it to a rigorous public appraisal.

A public meeting of the members of the combined parishes of San Thome and Good Shepherd was held yesterday evening in the Sullivan’s Garden School, Teynampet, under the presidency of Mr. M.D. Devadoss, Barrister-at-Law, to protest against the sale of the Sam Thome Tamil Church and the Parsonage. The meeting was numerously attended.

The Chairman in opening the meeting said that for some time past owing to the difficulty of raising money in the mother countries, the British and the American Missions had been cutting down their grants to the Indian Churches, as a result of which the Madras District Council had arrived at the decision to sell the Santhome Church and the Parsonage, which were in more or less dilapidated condition, and the Mission expressed inability to repair them. He knew that to sell away the Church was a most repugnant thing. He was also aware of the difficulty apart from sentiment they were asked to worship in the English Church. He then asked them to suggest means to tide over the difficulty.

United States Space Agency scientists reported yesterday [January 25, New York] that they have successfully tested in the laboratory a simple new space vehicle concept that astronauts might use to escape from the moon if their lunar module (LM) failed. The vehicle system is called “LES” (lunar escape-to-orbit system) on which two astronauts would ride from the surface of the moon to rendezvous with the command service module orbiting the moon. In one design concept the astronauts would sit atop the LES with no cabin around them, in open space, much like rising from the earth in an unshielded helicopter. The LES would be little more than a flying platform, like the LM. It would have one rocket. The concept has been shown to be successful using a laboratory simulator linked to a computer according to a report presented to the ninth aerospace sciences meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. The 300-pound escape vehicle would use fuel from a crippled LM. The LES could be stored behind a panel on the descent stage of the LM, within reach of an astronaut on the lunar surface.