Editorials - 20-03-2021

The Quad partnership could mount a counter-challenge to China, but India’s steps will be more nuanced

A week after the first Leaders’ Summit of the Quadrilateral Framework, held on March 12, the message of the virtual meeting between leaders of Australia-India-Japan-the United States was delivered directly to Beijing, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Yang Jiechi, Chinese Communist Party Politburo member and Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office, accompanied by U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, and Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councillor Wang Yi, met in Anchorage, Alaska.

Quad in focus

The message was broadly a three-pronged one: that under the new U.S. President, “America is back” in terms of its desire to play a leading role in other regions, that it views China as its primary challenger for that leadership, and that the Quad partnership is ready to mount a counter-challenge, albeit in “soft-power” terms at present, in order to do so. In the Quad’s joint statement (https://bit.ly/3cS1sjk) — its first — and in the joint editorial (https://wapo.st/3tBiOI1) by U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Ministers Narendra Modi (India), Scott Morrison (Australia) and Yoshihide Suga (Japan), direct mentions of China may have been absent, but senior officials have made it clear that they were not overlooked in the conversation.

Briefing the media about the Quad Summit, Mr. Sullivan said that Quad partners had raised their issues with China, including: “[China’s] coercion of Australia, their harassment around the Senkaku Islands, their aggression on the border with India”, which were then taken up during the talks with Mr. Wang and Mr. Yang.

The fact that the talks in Alaska were prefaced by the Quad summit, as well as visits to Tokyo and Seoul (by Mr. Blinken and U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin; Mr. Austin will visit Delhi this weekend), and also a visit to Canberra by U.S. Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell, is no coincidence, and part of the concerted messaging from Washington to Beijing. For both Japan and Australia, that are military allies of the U.S., and completely aligned on Indo-Pacific policy, the outcomes of the summit, both in terms of the “3C’s”working groups (established on COVID-19 vaccines, Climate Change and Critical Technology), and in terms of this messaging to the “4th C” (China) are very welcome.

Vaccine diplomacy

For India, however, the outcomes of the Quad Summit need more nuanced analysis. On the “3C’s Working groups”, it is clear that New Delhi is on board, but with some riders. The vaccine initiative, for example, is a major boost for India’s pharmaceutical prowess, which has already been proven during the current pandemic.

India is not only the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines (by number of doses produced and sold globally), it has already exported 58 million doses to nearly 71 countries worldwide as commercial shipments, grants and those funded by the Gavi COVAX initiative. Manufacturing a billion doses for South East Asia (under the Quad), over and above its current international commitments, as well domestic goals to vaccinate 300 million people as originally planned by September (900 million adults in total, i.e. 1.8 billion doses) will require a major ramp up in capacity and funding, and will bear testimony to the power of Quad cooperation, if realised.

However, the effort could have been made much easier had India’s Quad partners also announced dropping their opposition to India’s plea at the World Trade Organization, which it filed along with South Africa in October 2020 (https://bit.ly/3c1dtE5), seeking waiver from certain provisions of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights for the prevention, containment and treatment of COVID-19 . It is surprising that the summit did not seek to bridge differences over this issue (it has seen eight fractious rounds of talks in Geneva, with the next round expected in June 2021) when the leaders discussed how to increase India’s production capabilities.

Climate change, technologies

On climate change, India has welcomed the return of the U.S. to the Paris accord, after former U.S. President Donald Trump decided to walk out of American climate change commitments. However, while Mr. Biden has promised to restart the U.S.’s funding of the global Green Climate Fund, which Mr. Trump ended, India still awaits a large part of the $1.4 billion commitment by the U.S. to finance solar technology in 2016, which Mr. Trump subsequently slowed down on. Mr. Biden might also consider joining the International Solar Alliance, founded by India and France, which the other Quad members are a part of (https://bit.ly/3tyTthW), but the U.S., which promised to do so in 2016, has resisted.

Meanwhile, on the Quad working group set up to cooperate on critical technologies, India will welcome any assistance in reducing its dependence on Chinese telecommunication equipment and in finding new sources of rare-earth minerals, but would oppose any move by the other Quad partners to weigh in on international rule-making on digital economy, or data localisation which had led New Delhi to walk out of the Japan-led “Osaka track declaration” at the G-20 in 2019.

Handling China

It is on the “4th C”, however, where it is still unclear how far the Narendra Modi government can go on the Quad’s intended outcomes, especially on “collaboration, including in maritime security, to meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China Seas,” as the joint statement reads.

While India shares the deep concerns and the tough messaging set out by the Quad on China, especially after the year-long stand-off at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and the killings at Galwan that India has faced, it has demurred from any non-bilateral statement on it. India is the only Quad member not a part of the military alliance that binds the others, the only Quad country with a land boundary with China, and the only Quad country which lives in a neighbourhood where China has made deep inroads. Indian officials are still engaged in LAC disengagement talks that have thus far yielded only a phase-1 disengagement at Pangong Lake; they have a long way to go to de-escalation orstatus quo ante.

The violence at the LAC has also left three long-term impacts on Indian strategic planning: First, the government must now expend more resources, troops, infrastructure funds to the LAC than ever before, in order to leave no part of the once peaceful LAC unmanned and ensure no recurrence of the People's Liberation Army April 2020 incursions.

Second, that India’s most potent territorial threat will not be from either China or Pakistan, but from both, or what the Indian Army Chief Manoj Mukund Naravane called a “two-front situation”. Third, that India’s continental threat perception will need to be prioritised against any maritime commitments the Quad may claim, especially further afield in the Pacific Ocean.

Direction for India

The Modi government has said that it sees the Quad formation as it does its other multilateral commitments including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Central Asia, BRICS (or Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) in the emerging economies, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation/Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation in the neighbourhood, etc and seeks to broaden the space for its principle of Strategic Autonomy; not narrow its bilateral choices.

In that sense, the Quad’s ideology of a “diamond of democracies” can only succeed if it does not insist on exclusivity in India’s strategic calculations. Those who speak of Robert Kaplan’s book,Monsoon, which proposed a greater role for the U.S. in the Indian Ocean as the inspiration for America’s current Quad strategy, would do well to also read Mr. Kaplan’s sequel,The Revenge of Geography, in which he makes the case that the world “continues to evolve according to the dictates of physical terrain, frustrating the proponents of human agency”. The truth is, despite last week’s Quad Summit, India’s choices for its Quad strategy will continue to be guided as much by its location on land as it is by its close friendships with fellow democracies, the U.S., Japan and Australia, across the seas.


The country is making good progress in its COVID-19 vaccination efforts, but there are still many gaps to cover

More than a third of all vaccinations done in the world each day are in India (https://bit.ly/3r6PJT3). With over 40,000 sites, it is heartening to see how India is shaping the COVID-19 vaccination programme. Yet, these are baby steps, and there is a long way ahead in covering the vulnerable. Here is why (https://bit.ly/3lxRN5m).

So far, India has vaccinated only 3.2% of the adult population (https://bit.ly/3c6kFyV). Although the country covered 2.6 million doses per day on March 15, the seven-day rolling average hovers only around 0.11 per 100 people (https://bit.ly/3eWHQNN). This slow pace, which is also cause for concern, does not constitute an appropriate response when compared to India’s true potential in scaling up vaccination.

Steps to scale up

India has identified a target of 300 million vulnerable population (https://bit.ly/3eVtlK5), but there is neither a definitive time frame attached to it nor any specifics on the process. With COVID-19 cases on the rise again in different parts of the country, time is running out. If India can vaccinate 10 million people per day, the vulnerable can be protected over the next two to three months. However, this requires speeding up the pace by five times. Given that India has 300,000 trained vaccinators (217780 auxiliary nurse midwives and over one lakh nurses;https://bit.ly/3s77q6Cand https://bit.ly/30UR19k), nearly three million people can be covered each day by the public health workforce. They are trained in vaccinating millions of children routinely through outreach sessions. Thus, they can easily cover two million doses per day routinely. By expanding participation by private health facilities, it would be possible to cover more than seven to 10 million doses per day.

India-Russia template

To have a sustained campaign of 10 million doses per day, India will need to have a reasonable stockpile and production line of vaccines. Several other vaccines are available internationally with established efficacy and safety, and can be approved under emergency use authorisation (EUA). The bridging study can be done while vaccines are rolled out under the EUA before access to the market. The government may proactively seek supplies from other manufacturers while rapid studies can assess safety and immunogenicity in the Indian context. The ongoing arrangement with Russia for the local production of Sputnik while the vaccine is already undergoing clinical trials in India is an excellent template of using Indian companies to roll out other vaccines. India has to balance compassion to supply vaccines to other countries with the compulsion to save the lives of millions of Indians, who are at risk of death due to serial waves hitting different parts of the country. Regulated sales in the private market should be used as a careful option to accelerate the vaccination campaign. The government should act as the assurer of quality and regulate the prices of all the vaccines in the country. Any person who is 18 years should be permitted to get any vaccine approved by India, at any designated place, and at a fixed price regulated by the government. This will scale up vaccination in the workplace settings across the country and for all others who can afford them. While this happens, the inequities in the health system, which systematically neglect the poor and the marginalised, should be looked into on priority. This can be done with the government as the sole provider of free vaccines and care for all Indians below the poverty line or who cannot afford to buy vaccines. Vaccinating people in impoverished communities is a mandatory social responsibility.

Make it simple

Public health programmes should be as simple as possible to ensure scalability. Simple age-based criteria should be used to expand vaccination without restrictive criteria such as insisting on a medical certification of comorbidities. The preregistration and over-reliance on the CoWIN app through the entire process needs immediate remedy. Simple, offline, walk-in vaccination should be done with paper-based collection of details. This can be followed by uploading the details onto CoWIN. In addition to this, the authorities should use the opportunity to identify people with comorbidities. More than half the people in India with comorbidities are unaware of their condition. By opportunistic screening using simple digital measuring devices for blood pressure and blood glucose, the otherwise ‘missed persons’ from routine health-care provision can receive treatment for their non-communicable diseases, or NCDs. This is a non-negotiable service element that no government can afford to neglect.

A ‘3M’ road map

Microplanning is a process that is followed in India’s vaccination programmes, that captures the population details by identifying and mapping them. It has details for workforce and logistic arrangement, and tags for people to clearly identify vaccination sites. The micro plans are the blueprints of the vaccination programme, which connect houses, migrant population and institutions such as old age homes and dementia care centres with vaccination teams. This is not just the fixed sites; the micro plans also provide details of mobile teams and outreach sessions to cover a population. The central government can work with the States in strengthening micro plans so that the vaccination pace picks up and is sustained.

Mobilising identified persons can be done by the accredited social health activists (ASHAs) in rural areas and other volunteers in urban areas. There is one ASHA for 1,000 population in rural areas (https://bit.ly/2ONOprk). Based on the micro planning done, people should be mobilised to designated vaccination sites on a designated day. The strategy for mobilisation in urban areas can include innovative technological solutions. Role models can influence many peers to get vaccinated as well.

Monitoring and mentoring of each step of the process are essential. The activities that need structured support include preparing micro plans, ensuring that all the necessary inter-sectoral coordination is done, and that the necessary logistical and transport supplies are provided. Task forces can coordinate these at the district and sub-district levels.

By coordinating with the World Health Organization, India has an irrefutable track record of designing and updating micro plans, which have been used as templates in the global polio eradication programme. India’s reputation as a world leader in vaccination programmes needs to be strengthened further by addressing these issues swiftly. We are making good progress in COVID-19 vaccination efforts, but it is not sufficient to achieve what is necessary. Doing the best that we are capable of is the only option. And, we can do it.

Giridhara R. Babu is Professor and Head, Lifecourse Epidemiology at the Indian Institute of Public Health, Public Health Foundation of India, Bengaluru

Bill to amend GNCTD Act is a rollback ofthe notion of representative government

The Centre’s Bill seeking to amend the law relating to the running of the National Capital Territory of Delhi claims that it is aimed at giving effect to the interpretation given by the Supreme Court judgments on Delhi’s governance structure. The proposed changes are the very antithesis of what the Court has said. The Bill, if it becomes law, will wholly undermine the Court’s efforts to strengthen the elected governmentvis-à-visthe appointed Lieutenant Governor. The Constitution Bench verdict of July 4, 2018, said: “The Lieutenant Governor has not been entrusted with any independent decision-making power. He has to either act on the ‘aid and advice’ of the Council of Ministers, or he is bound to implement the decision taken by the President on a reference being made by him.” The ‘aid and advice’ clause pertains only to matters on which the elected Assembly has powers under the State and Concurrent Lists, but with the exception of public order, police and land, and, wherever there are differences between the L-G and the elected government, the former should refer the question to the President. The Court was at pains to clarify that the power to refer “any matter” to the President did not mean that “every matter” should be referred thus. The guiding principle was that the elected government should not be undermined by the unelected administrator. The Bill introduced in the Lok Sabha does violence to this interpretation.

The Bill seeks to declare that in the context of legislation passed by the Delhi Assembly, all references to the ‘government’ would mean the “Lieutenant Governor”. Indeed, Delhi is a Union Territory; but it is somewhat incongruous for a territory with an elected House to be declared the sole domain of the L-G. The apex court had rightly concluded that the scheme set out in the Constitution and the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991, envisages a collaborative structure that can be worked only through constitutional trust. The proviso to Article 239AA, which empowers the L-G to refer a difference of opinion with the Council of Ministers to the President, does not mean that the administrator is given an opportunity to come up with a different opinion on every decision made by the Ministry. Yet, it is precisely what the Bill proposes to do. And it is quite incongruous that instead of Parliament identifying the matters on which the L-G’s opinion should be sought, the Bill proposes that the L-G himself would specify such matters. The clause that declares void any rule that empowers the Assembly or its Committees to discuss any matter of day-to-day administration or conduct enquiries amounts to a rollback of representative government. The ‘Union Territory’ concept is one of the many ways in which India regulates relations between the Centre and its units. It should not be used to subvert the basis of electoral democracy.

The Taliban should not be allowed to have its way in talks on sharing power in Afghanistan

The peace conference hosted by Russia in Moscow between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives is the latest example of growing international concern about the future of Afghanistan as the May 1 deadline for the proposed U.S. troops pullout nears. No breakthrough was expected from a single-day conference between the parties that have been fighting each other for nearly 20 years. The Russian plan was to bring together the Taliban and the government, whose Doha peace talks have stalled for months, to jump start the peace process. The U.S. has also called for a UN-led multilateral peace conference. The Afghanistan conflict is a multifaceted one, with its primary actors being the government, the Taliban and the U.S. Others such as Russia, China and India are worried about the conflict’s spillover effects. There is a consensus among all these countries that Afghanistan needs to be stabilised now. U.S. President Joe Biden, who is reviewing the administration’s Afghan strategy, said this week that it would be “tough” to withdraw all U.S. troops by the May 1 deadline as the Trump administration agreed in an accord with the Taliban. On the other side, the Taliban have threatened to launch a new offensive if the U.S. does not leave according to the schedule. It is a stalemate.

Mr. Biden’s dilemma is that he cannot commit troops endlessly to a war that the U.S. is certainly not winning. But if he pulls back without a peace agreement, the civil war could intensify, and the Taliban, already in control of much of rural Afghanistan, could make rapid gains. And if he decides to keep the troops even for a short term, it could trigger a tough response from the Taliban. So, the U.S. administration is trying to put together a new peace process, with other regional actors, which would not just buy time for the Americans but also seek to find a lasting settlement. It seems Russia, China and India are on board. Pakistan, which hosts the Taliban leadership, will also participate in the peace process. The flip side of this diplomatic push is that all the main stakeholders agree that the Taliban would play a critical role in shaping Afghanistan’s future. The U.S. already wants the Afghan government to share power with the Taliban. Russia has asked the Afghan government and the Taliban to make “necessary compromises”. The jihadist group, whose reign of Afghanistan during 1996-2001 was notorious for extremism, violence and suppression of basic rights, is on the cusp of power again. The international actors pushing for peace with the Taliban should at least extract compromises from them. After the Moscow meet, Russia, China, the U.S. and Pakistan said that a peace agreement should “include protections for the rights of all Afghans”. They should make it their top priority in the coming talks.