Gist of The Hindu: July 2013

Gist of The Hindu: July 2013


  • Hindu-Muslim Relations during National Movement & Gandhi

  • Serbian Government Approves Kosovo Deal 

  • Green Energy and Beyond

  • Russia launches bio-satellite

  • Why Novartis case will help Innovation

  • Internet Speed

  • BRIC by Brick

  • ASER Report

  • The Tibetan Plateau and the Indian Monsoon

  • Vivekananda’s Legacy of Universalism

  • Keep the Green tax

  • 2014 Uber and Thomas Cup Finals in India

  • Time to Revisit the Vienna Convention

  • U.N. Passes Historic Arms Trade Treaty

  • Gene Mutation Linked to Leprosy in Indians

  • Doublespeak on Electoral Reforms

  • H7N9 Silently Spreads in Humans and Birds

  • Pass to Better Relations with China

  • Disability as a Human Rights Issue: India’s‘Invisible Minority’ in the Policy Realm

Hindu-Muslim Relations during National Movement & Gandhi

The Hindu-Muslim relations during the freedom struggle were not ordered by individuals only. They were sadly built into the making and unmaking of our nationalist idioms as, for example, the Hindi-Urdu controversy had shown. Although language and religion do not necessarily converge, the image conjured up was that they do. The Mahatma’s misfortune was that when the communal passions could be whipped up, his Ram-Rahim recipe turned distasteful to all but the sanest. As the author points out, “The Christians disapproved his stand on conversion; the Sikhs did not think of him as their friend; the RSS brigade addressed him as ‘Mahmud Gandhi; some others said that his reading of the Quran defiled a temple.”

If the story of our freedom struggle show-cases phases and examples in which Gandhian moral power seemed to gain exceptional ascendancy, there were no fewer instances or indications of it losing appeal or having impact on the course of things. After the Non-cooperation-Khilafat phase of the movement the Gandhian mystique was less evident among the Muslim masses, and arguments, parleys or bargains with the Muslim League were not the best ways to achieve integrative nationalism. When the League and the Congress were driven by political interests, Gandhi’s moral recipe was politely brushed aside. “They placed him on a high pedestal, listened to him respectfully, but bypassed him on serious policy matters. On Partition, he was told to retire to the Himalayas.”

Faith and Freedom offers a fine intellectual menu on Indian freedom movement as well as Gandhi’s place in it. Mushirul Hasan draws extensively from the archival sources, from the best of the primary and secondary accounts on the subject, and he sensitively prises out historical wisdom from the poetry and literature of the period. Akbar Ilahabadi, Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai and others illumine the themes and times. He is aware that while historical reality cannot be ‘objectively’ presented, nor its value determined by a victory in a plebiscite, its complexities can be honestly confronted and explained. Freedom struggle was not all about driving the British out of the country. It was about constituting the nation in the context of the colonial rule in which the various stake-holders struggled to be heard and adopted ideologies and strategies that did not necessarily conform to those of the Congress or of the Mahatma. Colonial modernity provided the site for nationalist definition and use of both faith and freedom, with its concomitant clashes, truces and violence.

Faith and Freedom is a scholarly book which brings out the richness and complexities of India’s struggle for freedom and of Gandhian leadership, without quite equating the two. Instead, it raises the issues that they grappled over and the people who were drawn into them, which both enlarges and enriches the canvas of our understanding.

Crowdsourcing Science

Agroup of Russian space enthusiasts has shown the world how citizen science can contribute to scientific advancement. They have spotted in an image four objects that supposedly belong to the defunct Russian Mars 3 spacecraft that landed on the Red Planet on December 2, 1971. The four objects — parachute, heat shield, terminal retrorocket and lander — that resemble the Mars 3 mission were identified in an image taken by the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. They are seen in a follow-up image as well. Thanks to the amateurs, the Mars 3 lander, which transmitted signals for 14.5 seconds before falling silent, has come alive in a different way. Since nearly 2,500 computers were required for viewing the high resolution image, crowdsourcing was resorted to. This is not the first time that crowdsourcing has been used for solving complex scientific problems. The concept was popularised way back in 1999 by the SETI@home project at the University of California, Berkeley; the project was to search for alien signals from radio telescope data. The August 2010 discovery of a rare pulsar (PSR J2007+2722), the first astronomical object to be found through volunteer computing, attracted worldwide attention. Today, hundreds of citizen science projects have been completed and many more are in different stages of completion. In the past few years, citizen science has evolved tremendously; current projects require active participation in the form of collecting data from the field, in much the same way scientists do. The concept has become acceptable and popular among scientists of late. In fact, researchers are using citizen science to justify and improve the possibility of getting funding. That hundreds of papers based on citizen science data have been published in reputed journals, including Science , is proof of how traditional science has come to accept the model.

Serbian Government Approves Kosovo Deal

The Serbian government approved a landmark agreement to normalise relations with breakaway Kosovo, but thousands of Kosovo Serb demonstrators, chanting “Treason, Treason”, rejected the deal.

Up to 10,000 flag-waving protesters gathered in the divided northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica, demanding that the EU-brokered agreement be annulled and branding the Serbian officials who endorsed it “traitors”.
The Serbian government approved the deal unanimously at an extraordinary session and ordered ministries to implement it, said government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovic. The agreement could end years of tensions and put the Balkan rivals on a path to EU membership The Prime Ministers of Serbia and Kosovo reached a tentative EU-mediated deal in Brussels on Friday that would give Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership authority over rebel Kosovo Serbs. In return, the minority Serbs would get wide autonomy within Kosovo.

Kosovo, which is considered by nationalists to be the medieval cradle of the Serbian state and religion, declared independence in 2008. Serbia has vowed never to recognise it, and Serbian officials insist that the latest agreement does not mean Belgrade has de-facto recognised Kosovo’s statehood.

It is not clear how the deal will be implemented on the ground in northern Kosovo where hardline Serb leaders vehemently reject any authority coming from Pristina’s ethnic Albanians and consider the region a part of Serbia. In Mitrovica, hardline Kosovo Serbs said they will prevent the implementation of the agreement and form a self-ruled region in the north.

Kosovo’s Parliament voted in favour of a resolution to support the initial agreement. The Serbian Parliament is expected to do the same later this week.

Ending the partition of Kosovo between the Albanian majority and the Serb-controlled north —about a fifth of the country — is a key condition of Serbia’s further progress toward EU membership.

Protecting India’s Migrants

Human trafficking for labour exploitation is a global concern. In West Asia and the Gulf Cooperation Council region, it is a particular worry given the scale of labour migration and the prevalence of opaque and exploitative regulatory systems. A new report on forced labour and human trafficking in the Middle East, based on research sponsored by the International Labour Organisation, attempts to quantify the scale of the problem. Not surprisingly, it makes for some disturbing reading. The report puts the estimated number of victims of forced labour in the region at 6,00,000. These numbers have a huge resonance for India, which accounts for a significant chunk of the labour force there. What emerges is the close relationship between human trafficking and labour migration, and how failures in labour migration governance systems are allowing trafficking to persist. In the region’s capital-rich economies, the rapid development of infrastructure has relied on the use of short-term labour immigration. An estimated 14 million migrant workers, originating mostly in Asia and Africa, were in the GCC states between 1975 and 2010.

In order to manage the influx, many countries in the region rely on kafala , or the sponsorship system, that creates an unequal power dynamic between employer and worker as it determines the latter’s terms of residence and employment. Today, this system governs the lives of most of the migrant workers, who cannot leave their employers. Thus, loopholes and deficits in labour law coverage reinforce underlying vulnerabilities. Even where legal redress is provided for under national law, and human trafficking is criminalised and punishable, there have been few prosecutions. In such a context, there is first of all a clear case to regulate and control the role of recruiting agencies that very often overlook the interests of migrants while pursuing their own agendas. The Gulf states need to get more serious about implementing labour protection measures, and giving all expatriate workers a better deal in wages, housing, and health. The 2008 Abu Dhabi Declaration was an acknowledgment of the issues that had piled up. It outlined a collaborative action plan to give a fair deal to workers. However, the recommendations that emerged, including that effective actions be initiated to root out illegal recruitment, and that more transparent policies and practices of recruitment and employment be promoted, remain largely a mirage. India should weave in these concerns while firming up the provisions of its new emigration bill and signing any new bilateral agreements with countries of the region.

Green Energy and Beyond

India has aggressive renewable energy targets and industry energy efficiency policies, but faces significant infrastructure challenges which may derail the otherwise good policy, according to a new report by Climate Policy Initiative (CPI), a U.S.-based global policy effectiveness analysis and advisory organisation.

The report titled ‘The Policy Climate’, which was released recently, says that despite growing rapidly, India represented eight per cent of the increase in global energy-related CO2 emissions between 2000 and 2010, while China’s percentage in the same period stands at 68 per cent.

The report finds that in China, closure of inefficient coal-fired power plants saved the equivalent of more than 100 million tonnes of coal, while renewable electricity grew 661 per cent between 2000 and 2010. Still, renewable electricity sources in China only produced the equivalent of 0.68 per cent of the electricity from conventional sources by the end of 2010.

In India, as with China, most new energy generation since 2000 came from conventional sources (particularly coal), though the past decade saw exponential growth in renewable energy generation (especially wind, which grew 1,250 per cent from 2000-2010). The report says that implementation of policy relevant to climate change and its impact accelerated markedly over the last decade, despite the slow pace of international climate negotiations. The study presented three decades of evidence from five key economies — India, China, Brazil, the European Union (EU) and the U.S. which together contain slightly more than half of the world’s population and account for nearly two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions.

In the U.S. and India, renewable energy targets have been given to the States, even as the national governments develop policies to incentivise it while China experiments with special economic zones, incentives, and regulation for its low carbon cities and low carbon provinces, according to the report. In India, both emissions and power generation have increased dramatically, more than doubling in 15 years, the report points out.
From 2005-2010, Indian States phased in Renewable Portfolio Obligations for their electricity markets. As of 2010, these State-wide targets translated to an approximate 5.5 per cent nationwide target for renewable energy.

Since the early 1990s, industrial productivity has tripled, but emissions have gone up by about 70 per cent and while the Indian industry largely improved its efficiency, performance at a sectoral level was mixed. The steel industry emissions intensity increased due to an increase in primary steel production v/s scrap, the report notes.

The good news is that in 2012, India was the world’s fourth-largest market for new wind power projects, it has ambitious solar energy targets, and it has significant government programmes focused on energy efficiency (Global Wind Energy Council 2012). On the flip side, the report says that because it is also about improving energy security, reducing energy imports, improving the nation’s balance of payments, creating new and profitable industries, India also pursues the largest build-out of coal-fired power plants, coal mining, and related infrastructure anywhere outside of China.

Russia launches bio-satellite

Russia launched an ‘orbital Noah’s Ark’ to space — a bio-satellite packed with an array of mice and other small creatures to study the effects of long flights on living organisms. Russia’s latest BION-M1 biological research capsule carrying 45 mice, eight Mongolian gerbils, 15 geckos, snails, fish eggs, micro-organisms and plants blasted off aboard the modernised Soyuz 2 rocket from the Baikonur launch pad in Kazakhstan.

An Invitation from Myanmar

A message coming out from our neighbour Myanmar that is transforming itself after 50 years of military rule is ‘we are open for business.’ Are our commercial establishments listening and are they ready?

Our bilateral relations with Myanmar have gathered momentum in recent times. We have agreed on a wide-ranging development cooperation agenda. India has made substantial commitments to assist Myanmar in the areas of capacity building, connectivity, infrastructure and border region development. Our trade and economic ties have however not kept pace. India figures at only the seventh place in Myanmar’s total imports and ranks, even lower at the13th place in terms of foreign investments into Myanmar. Being a large and contiguous neighbour, a closer overall engagement would call for a more robust trade and investment share that seems definitely possible at a time when rapid changes are unfolding.

Inclusive Politics

To what extent has Myanmar transformed itself? President Thein Sein has, in the last two years, taken the country towards a democratic path that has made political life more inclusive; it has also enabled Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy to enter Parliament, albeit in a small way. The government has released a great majority of political prisoners and launched an ethnic reconciliation process to build peace with the various minority groups that have been out of the national mainstream from before independence.

Some problems have no doubt arisen in taking forward this process. Hostilities broke out with the Kachin rebels but the atmosphere has improved since late January. Tensions have also been building between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. Deadly riots erupted last year in Rakhine state in two spells between the Rohingayas and the Rakhine Buddhist community, leading to casualties and displacement of people. Last month there were attacks against the Muslim community in certain areas in Central Myanmar.

President Thein Sein has acknowledged that rioters have harmed the image of the country but he has also talked about adoption of a different approach to build trust. In a recent meeting with Muslim leaders, Ms Suu Kyi told them that the law has to be just for all and she would want everyone to feel proud of being a citizen of the country. Building trust and peace to pave the way for an inclusive society is a delicate and painstaking process. It is hoped that the troublemakers are firmly and effectively dealt with and the supremacy of the rule of law is maintained.

One can expect that responsible leaders of Myanmar would not want adverse domestic developments to affect its hosting of international events in the coming months — for the first time, the World Economic Forum East Asia Summit in June and the South East Asian Games in December 2013. It will also chair the ASEAN from January 2014.

Why Novartis case will help Innovation

On April 1, 2013, the Supreme Court upheld the Intellectual Property Appellate Board’s decision to deny patent protection to Novartis’s application covering a beta crystalline form of imatinib —the medicine Novartis brands as Glivec, and which is very effective against the form of cancer known as chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML). The judgment marked a crucial conclusion to a saga that has been several decades in the making. The story could start in 1972, if you like, when the Indian Patents Act of 1970 — grounded in the findings of the Bakshi Tek Chand and Ayyangar Committee Reports — came into force, enabling the explosive growth of the Indian generics industry into the world’s largest exporter of bulk medicines. Or, it could start in 2005, when India amended its patent law to comply with the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), a trade rule at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that established a new global regime of intellectual property.

LPG Direct Cash Transfer Scheme Likely from July 1

The government is gearing up for the next big leap under the Direct Cash Transfer (DCT) scheme to bring a huge number of nearly 14 crore LPG consumers under its ambit.The scheme, which is likely to be launched from July 1, is aimed at directly putting the subsidy component of the domestic cylinder into the bank account of the consumers to eliminate the leakages in the system and address the problem of diversion of domestic cylinders for commercial market.

The scheme will be introduced around the middle of next month in 20 districts and later will be extended to a bigger chunk of consumers and practically cover over 14 crore consumers by the year end.“The banks and the oil marketing companies [OMCs] have already been sounded out by the Finance Ministry and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry to gear up for rollout of the scheme in a big way,” a senior Petroleum Ministry official said.

The consumers are likely to get around Rs.4,000 per annum from the government, and they will have to then buy LPG at the market price of Rs. 901.50 per 14.2-kg cylinder.

Currently, each consumer is entitled to 9 cylinders of 14.2-kg each at the subsidised price of Rs.410.50. The government bears a subsidy Rs.435 per cylinder. The Planning Commission is already gearing up for meetings with 78 District Collectors to give momentum to the scheme.Under the scheme, subsidies and other benefits will be transferred directly into the Aadhaar-linked bank account of beneficiary. The Finance Ministry is of the view that keeping in mind the huge number of consumers under the LPG scheme, the beneficiaries (consumers) would have to directly approach the banks for seeding of Aadhaar numbers to their bank accounts. Seeding of Aadhaar number to the bank account is essential for the government to identify beneficiaries.

On the other hand, the OMCs have been asked to provide data and details of the consumers to ensure that the benefits of the scheme percolate to the beneficiaries. A series of meetings between the Finance and Petroleum Ministries is planned for the next fortnight to give a final touch to the details for the initial launch of the scheme next month.

Internet Speed

Over the next few days, if not weeks, you can expect to spend more time staring at your download dialog box, waiting for videos to buffer, or clicking away impatiently as you wait for your web pages to reload.
And no, it’s not the service provider to blame; at least not entirely. For, communication services across the country, and many parts of the world, have taken a hit owing to outages in three submarine cables that are part of the undersea cable network that connects India to the global communications system. A majority of voice and data signals are transmitted through these cables; in fact, most communications services companies are entirely dependent on them.

The current outages that affect three of the eight communications cables that connect India to the rest of the world — SMW-4, IMEWE and EIG — are likely to impact services provided by Bharti Airtel, Tata Telecommunications, Reliance Communications and public sector service providers BSNL/MTNL. These cables, which connect land-based transmission terminal stations across continents, are laid for tens of thousands of kilometres along the seabed. These thick optic fibre cables are sometimes disrupted due to natural phenomena, such as earthquakes and extreme turbidity current, or by coming in contact with fishing trawlers or shark bites. Fixing this is a complex procedure that uses advanced reflectometry techniques and may take weeks.

BRIC by Brick

Long reviled as an artificial grouping of countries with little in common other than a sense of exclusion from the command structures of the international system, the BRICS forum has finally come up with a decision that has the potential to be a global game changer: the establishment of a “New Development Bank.” The absence of specific details in the eThekwini Declaration issued at the end of the fifth summit meeting of the forum in Durban has led western sceptics to conclude that the bank idea is a non-starter. They are mistaken. Even though Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa differ with one another on many aspects of the project, they do agree that a new bank is needed to take care of the special aspirations of the group and perhaps of all developing countries as well. The BRICS five account for roughly a fourth of the global GDP and 40 per cent of the world’s population. The proposed bank is optimistically projected to be an alternative to the seven-decade-old financial system dominated by the Bretton Woods twins, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. A shift away from the trans-Atlantic focus that the two global institutions are rightly criticised for ought to be welcomed. The global economy and the financial system are not exactly in the pink of health. Much of the drag on recent economic growth is due to the unsatisfactory performance of the advanced economies, which is itself a result of western financial mismanagement. And with the Doha round of trade talks still stuck, the BRICS forum’s call for the new head of the World Trade Organisation to be from the developing world, and for the revitalisation of UNCTAD, assume great significance.

Apart from doing the best on the growth rate front, China is the only BRICS country with a huge current account surplus and has accumulated a massive amount of foreign exchange reserves. In the prelude to the creation of the new bank, this divergence matters and should not be glossed over. The key determinants for success will be the design and leadership of the new bank, as well as its lending policy. In terms of sheer clout, China is likely to dominate, especially if a system of quotas reflecting the economic size and contribution of each country is adopted. These and other cautionary words should not, however, detract from the merits of the BRICS bank, especially its development orientation and stress on infrastructure financing. Channelling regional savings for infrastructure through a dedicated bank is a great idea. There is also great merit in growing step by step, as another related decision to set up a contingency reserve fund of $100 billion shows.

Mukundara Hills is Rajasthan’s Third Tiger Reserve

After Ranthambhore and Sariska, Rajasthan will now be home another big cat habitat. The the Mukundara Hills Tiger Reserve (MHTR), located in Hadoti region, was notified by the State government.

The MHTR will be spread across four districts — Kota, Bundi, Chittorgarh and Jhalawar — covering an area of 759 sq km. It will boast of a core area of 417 sq km and a buffer zone covering 342.82 sq km.
The reserve, expected to ease the big cat population pressure in Ranthambhore, will cover the existing Darrah, Jawahar Sagar and Chambal wildlife sanctuaries.

Ranthambhore is home to 50 tigers while Sariska has nine big cats. The State governments are authorised, on the recommendations of the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), to notify an area as a tiger reserve under Section 38 V of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

ASER Report

First we had the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) which showed — yet again — that learning outcomes in government schools are not just unacceptably low, but declining, that too in the time since the RTE Act was passed. Then came the budget and allocations to the education sector which did not budge from 3.5 per cent of GDP despite the 6 per cent recommended by the Kothari Commission more than five decades ago and reiterated in the Common Minimum Programme nine years ago. In fact, the actual State-wise requirements to fully implement the RTE are still to be estimated! And finally the RTE deadline itself was accompanied by reports of how scores of schools across the country had failed to meet the mandatory norms. And not just private schools, or unrecognised schools, but regular government schools under the purview of the very government that amended the Constitution making elementary education a Fundamental Right and passed an Act that stipulated a basic set of norms that all schools must abide by.

And yet, these failures appear to have made little difference as far as policy, planning or even political posturing are concerned.

The ASER findings were unveiled by the Minister of Human Resource Development himself; a scheme of 2500 “model” schools to be implemented under a Public Private Partnership format in defiance of RTE was announced and the Central Advisory Board of Education committee decided to “not extend the RTE deadline” — two days after the deadline passed.

While, on the one hand, this brazen defiance of the law seems completely inexplicable, on the other, it is completely compatible with the way basic education has been treated by successive governments since the very beginning.

Despite the lip service paid to education in recent years, the ground reality has rarely gone beyond the rhetoric. Even the legal stipulations do not seem to have propelled the government to act with greater responsibility. The passage of the RTE Act was meant to reinforce the government’s primary obligation towards provision of elementary education. But neither the political class nor the bureaucracy appears to be mindful of its responsibilities or legal obligations.

In a recent PIL, the Supreme Court, taking cognisance of the deplorable state of basic facilities in schools, directed all State governments to ensure that the situation was rectified in accordance with RTE norms by end-March 2013. Eighteen State governments filed affidavits claiming they had already met the norms six months ago! Even a casual visit to government schools in any of these States will reveal the falsehood of these claims. Now these States, along with all others who have not even filed the affidavits, stand in contempt of court — in addition to a violation of the RTE Act. It puts a huge question mark on the much-acclaimed, rights-based approach being adopted.

Quantum Biology Mimicked in Lab

For the first time scientists have engineered a series of molecules that show quantum effects similar to that observed in the light-harvesting complexes. Greg Engel’s group in University of Chicago have been able to both understand as well as mimic the efficient mechanism of light transfer happening in plants.

Aside from other benefits, this would lead to the production of artificial energy-transfer devices which could use the mechanism efficiently.  Photosynthetic antennae are arrays of proteins and chlorophyll which transfer absorbed light energy to the reaction centres where light energy is converted to chemical energy. This enhances the efficiency of light transfer compared to the process when light is absorbed directly by the reaction centres themselves. The secret of the efficiency of the transfer process lies in quantum electronic coherence that stretches over some femtoseconds (a femtosecond  is a millionth of a billionth of a second). When there is coherence, energy from the incoming photon can simultaneously explore every possible cholorophyll route from the protein’s surface to the reaction centre at its core and then settle for the shortest route. Compare this with the time and energy wasted if the photon had to sequentially try out every path before reaching the reaction centre. Thus the efficiency of the process is increased manifold.

The researchers have engineered a series of molecules that show quantum effects similar to that observed in the light-harvesting complexes. Biological light-harvesting systems are so complex that they obscure the design principles involved. However, the model systems engineered by the group are simpler yet manage to capture the physics involved, according to the report published on April 18 in Science Express.  

The main actor in this is a dye-like material called fluorescein. The researchers modified fluorescein and linked parts of these together rigidly to form a series of compounds. The resulting molecules were able to mimic the behaviour of light-harvesting centres in plants that use photosynthesis, especially the coherences which persists for over tens of femtoseconds.  They infer the presence of this coherence using two-dimensional spectroscopy.
 To observe the quantum coherence in the system, the team shone laser light into the system and recorded the emitted light by means of a camera and recorded it in movies.

Every frame of the movie was a two-dimensional spectrum. The movie showed quantum beats, or oscillations, in a particular region, which is evidence of quantum coherence. It is an exciting thought for the future that discovery of this molecule series and the mechanism of energy transfer may initiate the development of synthetic light harvesters which could lead to highly efficient and green energy manufacturing units.

The Tibetan Plateau and the Indian Monsoon

To what extent does the Tibetan plateau influence the south-west monsoon?

Some 130 years ago, Sir H.F. Blanford, Chief Reporter of the newly-established India Meteorological Department (IMD), noticed that more Himalayan snow cover during the preceding winter presaged a poor monsoon. On that basis, IMD began issuing the first monsoon forecasts from 1882. But monsoon prediction was not so easily done and remains a difficult problem to this day.Years later, the established view came to be that the Himalayas acted on the monsoon in two ways. The Tibetan plateau, heated up during summer and thereby established an atmospheric circulation that was conducive for the monsoon.

The vast mountain range also acted as a tall barrier, preventing cold, dry air in the northern latitudes from entering the subcontinent and subduing the warm, moisture-laden winds from the oceans that drive the monsoon. In a paper published in the journal Nature in 2010, William Boos and Zhiming Kuang of Harvard University in the U.S argued that the Himalayas’ role as a barrier was the crucial factor for the monsoon.

Using a general circulation model that simulated what happened in the atmosphere, they found that even if the Tibetan plateau did not exist, the monsoon would be unaffected provided the Himalayas and adjacent mountain ranges were there to prevent intrusion of northern air.

As the vast Tibetan plateau, high up in the mountains, warmed during the summer months, it heated the air above, which then rose and created an area of low pressure, explained Dr. Rajagopalan. That belt of low pressure sucked in moisture from the oceans, thus initiating the monsoon.

The heating of the Tibetan plateau correlated well with rainfall over India from May 20 to June 15 when the monsoon was setting in. But then the correlation disappeared only to reappear again for rainfall between September 1 and October 15 when the monsoon was tailing off. “We don’t have a very good answer yet” about how the Tibetan plateau could be influencing the late stage of the monsoon, he said. In an earlier paper, he and Dr. Molnar had noted that swings in the temperature of the tropical Pacific Ocean’s surface waters near the international dateline, known as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), also strongly influenced rainfall over central India and its west coast during the early and late phases of the monsoon. With the Tibetan heating and ENSO acting independently of each other, the two factors taken together could have predictive value for rainfall in the monsoon’s early and late phases.

Preliminary results looked promising, Dr. Rajagopalan told this correspondent. Those two phases of the monsoon accounted for over one-third of the total rainfall during the entire season and was “nothing to be sneezed at.”

Last Domino in the Balkans

The April 19 agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, reached under the auspices of the European Union, could be a historic political development for both the Balkans and the EU. Baroness Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, brokered the talks through 10 rounds starting in March 2011, and saw the deal through to its signing by Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Daèiæ and Hashim Thaçi, the Kosovan Prime Minister. The process was fraught, and as recently as April 8 Serbia rejected the draft, saying it did not give ethnic Serbs in Kosovo enough autonomy. The signed deal means Belgrade cedes legal authority over Kosovo, but it still does not recognise Kosovan independence. Pristina’s side of the agreement involves giving the 50,000 or so ethnic Serbs who live in northern Kosovo their own police and justice representatives within the Kosovan system; about another 90,000 Serbs live elsewhere among Kosovo’s 1.8 million people. There is no doubt that the agreement opens the way for Serbia to start talks on EU membership. Belgrade has already met several conditions for accession, such as arresting and handing over the former general Ratko Mladic and former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, both of whom are now being held by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The deal will stand or fall on whether or not Kosovo upholds the Kosovan Serbs’ new rights. The genocidal wars of the 1990s have left terrible wounds among all the region’s peoples, and few of the governments and movements involved — including the erstwhile Kosovo Liberation Army — have clean hands. Secondly, both Serbia and Kosovo will find EU requirements for probity in public institutions difficult to achieve. Though the aim of some European powers is clear, the agreement does not address Kosovan sovereignty. Five EU countries are among dozens, including India, which have not recognised Kosovo, for a range of valid reasons; 99 countries, however, have recognised the autonomous region, which unilaterally declared its independence on February 17, 2008, to the fury of the then Serbian government. The underlying and too often unstated problem is that the carrot of EU membership may itself be part of a wider western strategy to force the eventual de jure secession of Kosovo. The dismemberment of the former Yugoslavia — once one of the world’s most vibrant multi-ethnic states — is proof that the pursuit of ethnic chauvinism invariably rebounds on the chauvinists.

Expert Group Calls for Monitoring China’s Run-of-the-River Projects

The Inter-Ministerial Expert Group (IMEG) on the Brahmaputra has said China is carrying out a series of cascading Run-of-the-River (ROR) projects in the middle reaches of the river and the same may be replicated in the Great Bend Area as a viable alternative to a single mega project, and called for further monitoring.

The IMEG is of the opinion that Jiacha could be the next power project on the mainstream of the Brahmaputra. It may be followed by projects at Lengda, Zhongda, Langzhen, where dam-related peripheral infrastructural activity, including four new bridges, has gathered speed.

The ninth report of the IMEG, submitted to the Committee of Secretaries (COS) in February, expressed apprehension that Dagu and Jiexu, which are also in the main course of the Brahmaputra, may see considerable development activity in future. It said such activity was discerned at Nangxian, as well as upgrade of the Bome-Medog Road that passes through the Great Bend Area.

The report noted that the Five-Year Plan mentions the establishment of hydro-power bases in the middle stream of the river to “strengthen exploration and development of domestic resources.” However, it said there was no information about any change in China’s position vis-à-vis the Brahmaputra over the proposed South-North Water Diversion Project. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had raised the dams construction issue, during his first meeting with the new President Xi Jinping in Durban last month on the sidelines of the BRICS summit.

The three dams — Jiexu, Zangmu and Jiacha — are within 25 km of each other and are 550 km from the Indian border. The one at Jiexu has been independently confirmed to be an ROR project, which will not impound water in a large reservoir.

The IMEG said the activities at Jiexu, Dagu, Lengda, Zhongda, Langzhen and Nangxian may be taken up with China at the appropriate level. As decided in the earlier IMEG report, the area on the other side of the basin, including Tongia, Changxu, Qilong, Xierga and Renda, would be monitored once the Chinese side finished the work on the middle route of the South-North Diversion Project, it said.

The report took note of the view of the Water Resources Ministry, which said that it was necessary to explore and study options to resort to the provisions of the existing environmental treaties and conventions.

It said Indian agencies have identified and reported a total of 39 projects/sites on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries for construction of reservoirs/power projects, showing an increase of three sites over 36 sites reported in the previous IMEG report. However, these projects are mainly ROR projects, catering to electricity or irrigational requirement.

Vivekananda’s Legacy of Universalism

A variety of activities is in the offing to commemorate Swami Vivekananda’s immense contribution to the making of India as a nation. The occasion: the 150th birth anniversary of Swamiji. Seminars, workshops, publications and such other means to perpetuate his memory and assess the significance of his contribution form part of the celebrations. Strangely, at the forefront of this celebration are the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its front organisations. Strange because Vivekananda hardly had anything in common with the sangh parivar, except being Hindu by birth.

Devoted Hindu, not Communal

The ideology of the sangh parivar is rooted in religious hatred and Swamiji stood for social harmony and inter-faith dialogue. There can be no meeting point between these two. Yet, the Hindu fundamentalists trace their lineage to the neo-Hindu movement of which Vivekananda was the central figure. None of his observations on Hinduism, unless taken out of context, seems to give credence to the proposition that he had a communal outlook. He was a devoted Hindu, passionately involved in bringing about cultural and spiritual welfare of the people. He indeed realised that changes were necessary but he was unhappy about the course the reform movements had followed. He decried the primacy ascribed to caste in concepts and practices of social reform movement. Any attempt to find a solution, he believed, “was a difficult task, because religion had become rigid and inflexible,” on the one hand, and obscurantist and superstitious, on the other.

It is only in the light of early reform movements — their success, failures and limitations — that Vivekananda’s quest for a resurgent India could be assessed. By the end of the century, almost all early movements had lost much of their vigour and following. The decline in the reform atmosphere paved the way for the emergence of a powerful spiritual leader. This void was filled by Swamiji, by initiating a movement, based on individual worship in place of collective –congregational worship which Ram Mohan Roy and his contemporaries had favoured. The organised religious reform movement was an anathema to him, although he himself started one, though of a different order, which was based on compassion, social service and humanitarianism.

Vivekananda’s plan of action was not limited to the religious realm. He was equally sensitive to social and economic issues. In other words, Hindus should strive towards a total transformation and inclusive growth. Caste is omnipotent in Indian society but he discarded it without any hesitation. He had observed the working of the Brahmo Samaj and that experience seems to have coloured his general attitude to all reform movements. By the time Vivekananda came on the scene, except in a few pockets like Kerala and Punjab, reformation had lost its vitality. He believed that reform had already run its course. By the last quarter of the 19th century, the religious movements had almost vanished, even if popular religion was on the ascendant. To the Indian middle class which formed the social base of these movements, he had choicest epithets: “cursed by the wheels of divisions, superstitious, without an iota of charity, hypocritical, atheistic cowards,” etc.

This is not to argue that Vivekananda did not recognise the importance of the contributions of the middle class in creating an atmosphere of reform. Instead, he took great pride in what the Brahmo Samaj had already accomplished in the social and religious life of people. Spirituality alone was not the only concern of Vivekananda. He spent a major part of his life travelling, which undoubtedly influenced his world view. He was particularly sensitive about poverty and the inhuman caste practices. He prophesied that, one day, the Shudra would rule. The stark reality of caste oppression in Kerala made a lasting impression on his mind.
The process of Indian reformation had three facets. The first was a liberal modernising phase in which reformers like Ram Mohan Roy attempted to change some of the traditional practices. The second was a rejection of all that was alien to society, and an attempt at indigenous mode of modernisation. The third was to build an alternative model of modernity which would embrace the traditional and the modern. The path chosen by Vivekananda was the third. The first group was that of the reformers for whom he had undisguised contempt, dismissing them as babu reformers. The conservatives and traditionalists formed the second group. The members of this group were mired in superstitions and ritualism. Swamiji’s method of reform was not merely advocacy of reform, but also through constructive social work.

The central idea in the life and teaching of Vivekananda was religious universalism. In the eyes of those who believed in universalism, there was no difference between the followers of different religions. All religions are universal — equal and true. Vivekananda, however, argued that in Hinduism, universalism found ideal articulation. And was hence a leader in spiritual matters. Equally important was his notion of social service for which he set up the Ramakrishna Mission. The mission gave an entirely new ambience to reform.

The popular and academic perceptions of Vivekananda’s role are highly influenced by his famous speech at the World Congress of Religions and the religious discourses he delivered during the extensive tours he undertook in India. In his highly applauded speech at the Congress, he tried to highlight the universalism inherent in all religions and then to demonstrate that it was best exemplified in Hinduism. Such a position was derived from his belief in Vedanta which, he argued, transcended the limits of any particular religion or cultural tradition. “Truth, alone is my god; the entire world is my country,” maintained Vivekananda. Thus he tried to reconcile his understanding of universalism with the Hindu philosophical system. His perhaps was the most creative understanding of universalism. Because he argued that all religions were universal and that there was no superiority of one over the other. He said “every religion is an expression, a language to express the same truth, and we must speak to each other in his own language.”

Keep the Green tax

The Centre would be sending out a message totally incongruous with national development objectives, if it buckles under lobbying pressure and withdraws the three per cent excise duty hike on Sports Utility Vehicles introduced in the Union budget. SUVs are not the common man’s utilitarian cars and the increase in duty covers only the more luxurious vehicles that are, at least in the Indian context, mere Veblen goods. The world over, SUVs do not win plaudits for fuel efficiency, and a muscular ‘bigger is better’ cult has grown around these vehicles.

These large and heavy space-hogs have a bad accident profile when it comes to pedestrians. Pleading the case of wealthy SUV buyers who want to avoid paying a small extra premium that will fund social sector investments is plainly indefensible. In a populous country with scarce resources, even the choice of an SUV for mobility is unsocial, as Minister Jairam Ramesh observed a couple of years ago, when he was in charge of the Environment Ministry. Moreover, allowing SUVs to access unlimited subsidised diesel when public buses are asked to pay bulk prices adds to the iniquity prevailing in transport. Given all this, it is surprising that Minister for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises Praful Patel has sought withdrawal of the hike in subsidy on these vehicles using the fig leaf of falling automotive sales.

The emergence of motor car and motorised two-wheeler sales as prime drivers of growth in the automotive sector is incompatible with the need for sustainable mobility. If people must be able to travel quickly in urban centres and in rural areas, the backbone must be mass transport. Acknowledging the falling share of public transport and non-motorised modes in cities, the Planning Commission’s Expert Group on Low Carbon Strategies for Inclusive Growth headed by Kirit Parikh said in its interim report that fuel efficiency must be promoted through labelling of vehicles, defining minimum efficiency standards and incentivising bus operations in cities through capital subsidy and fuel duty reimbursements.

This is the obvious way to go, but none of this seems to be on the priority list of policymakers. Extraordinarily, they are targeting the SUV duty hike on the ground that there is no separate classification for such vehicles under the Motor Vehicles Act, ignoring the rules on vehicle length and engine capacity already available. If Mr. Patel and others like him indeed want to help villagers who need better mobility, he should be asking for concessions for the bus industry. That can lead to robust, low cost vehicles to serve thousands. After all, the commercial vehicle industry is in an even more difficult situation than the passenger car sector.

Fencing in the RBI

The final report of the Financial Sector Legislative Reforms Commission (FSLRC), which was given a wide mandate to draw a blueprint for new financial regulatory architecture, has evoked strong responses. While some have called it a potential game changer, others find its recommendations out of touch with Indian reality. The FSLRC had to grapple with several dissenting views even among its members.

Besides, any radical overhaul of existing regulatory infrastructure will naturally take time. The most discussed proposal is the one to set up a new regulatory entity, the Unified Financial Regulatory Agency (UFRA), to be solely responsible for the oversight of the securities market, insurance, pensions and commodities, in effect taking over the functions of existing regulators including the Securities and Exchange Board of India, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority and the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority.

That would result in the financial sector having just two main regulators, the Reserve Bank of India and the proposed UFRA. Both are expected to coordinate their activities, preferably through an MOU. If that is not new — after all, regulators have to work in unison for better results — the recommendation that the principal regulators should be board driven and not follow the “top down” approach that they are used to has caused some consternation.

A key recommendation to set up a monetary policy committee which, rather than the RBI Governor, will decide on policy rates is arguably the most controversial proposal. This is seen as a not so subtle attempt to clip the wings of the RBI, also because of the related move to confer powers on the government to appoint members of the committee. However, the RBI Governor will have veto powers on interest rates under certain circumstances and after making out a case in writing. The bias towards government is even more obvious in the recommendation to appoint the Finance Minister as head of the Financial Stability and Development Council. The RBI has for long resisted encroachment on what it rightly considers to be its jurisdiction. There is no denying that the FSLRC would like to vest greater accountability with the government than with regulators. In its opinion, a major overhaul of India’s regulatory system for the financial sector is due and best done on the lines suggested by it. But there is bound to be serious disagreement over the validity of a key assumption the report makes on India’s financial sector. Surely systemic failures are due more to excessive financialisation of markets than to failures of regulation, as assumed by the Commission.

2014 Uber and Thomas Cup Finals in India

In a historic first, the World team badminton championship, for the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup, will be held here from May 18 to 25, 2014.

The Badminton World Federation (BWF) formally entrusted the hosting of the prestigious championship to the Badminton Association of India (BAI), following the signing of an agreement between the two bodies on Friday. Siri Fort Indoor Complex will be the venue for the event, to contested every two years, to decide the world’s strongest men’s and women’s teams.

India hosted the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup preliminary stage matches in 1988, 2000 and 2006. It will be a big opportunity for BAI to showcase its organising skills following the successful hosting of the 2009 World championship in Hyderabad and the annual India Open, a Super Series event on the BWF calendar, since 2011.

Following the signing of the agreement, BWF deputy president Paisan Rangsikitpoh was confident of India’s capability to host the event.

Heaviest Rocket Launch in 2014: ISRO

India’s heaviest rocket ever is expected to take to the sky next January on an experimental flight whose later versions could be used to send humans on space missions. The mainstay of the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle —Mark III (GSLV-Mk III) would be to put in orbit communication satellites weighing between four and five tonnes, thus packing more transponders per launch.

“We are targeting an experimental flight of GSLV-Mk III in January 2014,” Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) Chairman K. Radhakrishnan told reporters after a public lecture at the Indian National Science Academy (INSA) here.

This will also be a first time that ISRO scientists would undertake an experimental flight of a launch vehicle which would fall into the sea after reaching a height of 120 km. “We have been simulating the flight using computers. But there are certain tests that cannot be carried out on the ground. We will test the rocket in a cost effective manner,” GSLV-Mk III’s project director S. Somnath said.

He said ISRO engineers have planned to take some 2,000 measurements during the experimental flight of the GSLV-Mk III, which would weigh 640 tonnes at lift-off, making it the heaviest rocket built in the country.
“All the 2000 measurements during the flight would be telemetred down to the ground station. We will analyse them. This will enable us to have full knowledge of the flight,” Somnath said. The new rocket, which can put a four tonne satellite in orbit, will help Antrix Corporation, ISRO’s commercial arm, to offer cheapest space launches in the niche market.

The R&D myth

The night before the apex court verdict, Novartis threatened to stop investing in research and development in India, if the verdict went against it. How serious is the threat and how realistic the scenario? In India’s drug production of over Rs. 100,000 crore, Novartis’ turnover is a little over Rs. 1,000 crore, constituting around one per cent. Out of the total expenditure of over Rs. 800 crores incurred by Novartis India in 2012, a paltry Rs. 29 lakhs was for R&D, constituting roughly 0.03 per cent of its entire expenditure in India. Can such low spending can be considered R&D investment? In fact, Novartis R&D expenditure in India for the past five years has been in a similar range. On the other hand, Novartis consistently posted a profitability ratio (Profit After Tax as percentage of Total Income) of over 15 per cent in the last five years, something to envy for other sectors.
Big Pharma argues that if global R&D of innovator companies were to be considered, transnational drug corporations spend over US $ one billion to come up with a new drug. This includes cost of R&D incurred on failed drugs as well, as pharmaceutical companies take, on an average, roughly 12-13 years to get patents on new drugs. The magic one billion dollar figure is a gross overestimate. Even by conservative calculations, this figure would be one-fifth or one-fourth of the billion dollar estimate. But Big Pharma is quick to recoup its R&D spending from blockbuster drugs. Take the case of Gleevec (Imatinib Mesylate), sold in the US. Novartis raked in a total turnover of US $ 1.69 billion from the US alone in 2012 from the drug. The global turnover on Gleevec is anybody’s guess. It is also widely known that the cost of manufacturing drugs is only a fraction of the turnover.

Novartis currently sells Glivec (Gleevec) for Rs. 4,115 per tablet, while Resonance, an Indian generic drug company dispenses it at Rs. 30 per tablet. The annual cost of treatment per patient on Glivec would be in the range of Rs. 15 lakhs while Indian generic companies are offering it at Rs. 10,000. If Novartis were to get its patent on Glivec, Indian generic companies would have to stop their production, and therefore an unaffordable scenario would have prevailed for the common man in not only India but in other developing countries. Thankfully, the court ruled in favour of Section 3 (d) of the Patent Act.

Novartis claims that 95 per cent of cancer patients in India were provided the medicine free. This is patent untruth. Retail market sales in India for Glivec, sold by Indian generics producers are currently worth Rs. 20 crores. Novartis sells Glivec directly to patients and not through the usual retail chain, a system that is designed to make people believe that they offer the drug free.

Time to Revisit the Vienna Convention

The Italian Ambassador’s matter before the Supreme Court is over but problems with the Vienna Convention will not go away. This is because the past three decades have witnessed an increasing effort on the part of western countries to unilaterally introduce changes in the application of the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations to the detriment of diplomats of developing countries. They say that this aggressive approach is in keeping with new standards of humanitarian and labour laws. However, its selective, self-serving and at times unscrupulous application belies these tall claims. These countries are also taking care to ensure that the functioning or personal situations of diplomats working in their embassies are not impaired while considerable difficulties are experienced by those of developing countries.

Some years ago the domestic help who had accompanied a senior Indian diplomat to his post in a Western country sued him for maltreatment in a local court. Along with the diplomat, the Indian government was also sued. The country concerned took the position that its courts had jurisdiction as it was a civil law matter.

As the case was going on, authentic documentary evidence emerged that established the involvement of the officials of the host country in a virtual conspiracy to instigate the domestic help to leave his employer. They had also created circumstances that had enabled him to take legal action. Under sustained pressure from South Block, the country cleared up the matter within its own system, including its courts, but requested the Indian authorities that the issue be kept confidential. That request was accepted for diplomats prefer to deal with all matters relating to privileges, immunities and protocol discreetly, outside the public gaze. They especially try to avoid entanglements with the courts. That is one reason why the Italian Ambassador’s affidavit to the Supreme Court was, per se, so extraordinary.

Centre Decontrols Sugar Industry

In a major decision, the Centre on Thursday unshackled the Rs. 80,000 crore sugar industry by abolishing the monthly release mechanism and abolishing the obligation on mills to supply levy sugar for subsidised distribution under the Public Distribution System, allowing market forces to come into play.

The decision, in line with the suggestions of a panel headed by C. Rangarajan, the chairman of Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, was cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Minister of State for Food K.V. Thomas told journalists.

Claiming that the decision to decontrol the industry will not impact sugar prices, Mr. Thomas said there was enough sugar in the country. The production last year was 26.5 million tonnes. This year, about more than 24.5 million tonnes is expected as against a requirement of 22.2 million tonnes. “There was a huge burden on the government to see that farmers and consumers’ interests are protected and we have managed to balance that,” Mr. Thomas said. The Centre will continue to provide sugar to the poor under the Public Distribution System (PDS) at the current issue price of Rs. 13.50 per kg. For this, the States will be free to purchase through a transparent system at the current ex-factory price of Rs. 32 per kg which has been capped for two years. The difference between the purchase price and the issue price will be borne by the government.

The subsidy on this score – which will double from the current level of Rs. 2,600 crore to Rs. 5,300 crore – will be borne by the Centre, Mr. Thomas said. India’s internal requirement per year is estimated at 220 lakh tonnes. Of this, the PDS requirement at the rate of 400 to 800 grams per person, is estimated between 17 to 20 lakh tonnes per annum.

The regulated release mechanism, wherein the government fixed the sale quota for each mill every month, will be dispensed with immediately.

U.N. Passes Historic Arms Trade Treaty

The U.N. made history on Tuesday when it passed an unprecedented arms trade treaty (ATT) to better regulate the international sale in weapons.

It was passed in the General Assembly with 154 members voting ‘Yes’; three — Iran, Syria and North Korea — voting no; and 23, including India, abstaining. The treaty’s passage came after negotiations failed last July when the U.S. pulled out abruptly.Its adoption implies a major step forward in controlling the $70-billion flow of arms across borders, particularly restricting its movement to and from areas where groups are suspected of violation of human rights.

In addition to India, the nations that abstained included China, Egypt, Myanmar, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka. Pakistan voted in favour of the treaty though its representative expressed concerns over the imbalance in obligations between arms exporters and importers.

Expatriate Worries

Saudi Arabia’s decision to enforce the provisions of its Nitaqat labour law has raised concerns not only in India, but also in the rest of the subcontinent. The law specifies that one out of 10 employees in every business establishment should be a Saudi national. The fallout in terms of displacement could affect many among an estimated three lakh low- and semi-skilled workers from India. More specifically, almost a fourth of all Keralites who work in the Gulf countries are in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s drive to expand job avenues for its own nationals by means of the localisation initiative — that had actually come into effect in November 2012 — is unexceptionable in itself. It is also clear that those expatriate workers who are in Saudi Arabia through legally compliant processes have nothing much to fear from the latest crackdown. The issue then boils down to the need to curb the activities of unscrupulous recruiting agents who prey on the anxieties of unskilled or semi-skilled emigrants who somehow want to get to the Gulf region in search of work. In spite of awareness drives initiated by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, illegal and irregular migration continues. This has to end. Kerala has now sought diplomatic intervention to obtain assurances from Saudi Arabia of a six-month amnesty for the affected expatriates. It has also requested that those who are returned are not sent through the deportation route, that would result in an entry ban being imposed on them by other Gulf countries. These appear to be reasonable suggestions. The State government claims to have extracted a promise from the Central government to bear the cost of travel of migrants returning from Saudi Arabia.

Any impression that the Saudi Arabian move is meant to target Indian workers specifically may be off the mark and unfair. Among the countries of the region, Saudi Arabia is the biggest employer of foreign workers in terms of absolute numbers. These numbers are accounted for by the big three labour exporters of South Asia: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. For the latter two, Saudi Arabia is the biggest market. Sri Lanka is also a player. Reports that the enforcement of Nitaqat is part of a larger Saudi strategy of tightening the screws on the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh for its secular policies are certainly far-fetched. If Saudi Arabia has set its mind to cleaning up the emigration scene and achieving a better balance in the profile of its labour force, that is not a bad thing for the expatriate labour market in the Gulf region as a whole. But Riyadh should soften the blow now.

Is H. Pylori a Friend or Foe?

The bacterium Helicobacter pylori that colonises the human stomach is now usually seen as a disease-causing organism. Pioneering research carried out by Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren established infections by this bacterium as the most common cause of peptic ulcers. Till their path-breaking work, for which they received the Nobel Prize in 2005, it had been believed that stress and lifestyle were responsible for producing such ulcers. Once the role played by H. pyloriwas recognised, eradicating it became the standard of care for ulcers where it was implicated. The bacterium was also found to be a major cause of stomach cancer.
However, H. pylori may not simply be a pathogen that is out to harm its human host.

“ Helicobacter species may have been part of the indigenous gastric biota of humans and our prehuman ancestors from our earliest times,” remarked Martin Blaser of the New York University Langone Medical Center in the U.S. Such a long-standing relationship “suggests that benefits of H. pyloricolonisation exist,” he noted in a journal paper published in 1998.

The Benefits

Large-scale studies had found that people without the bacterium were more likely to develop asthma, hay fever or skin allergies in childhood, he pointed out in a commentary, titled “Stop the killing of beneficial bacteria,” published in the journal Nature in 2011.

“And as H. pylori has disappeared from people’s stomachs, there has been an increase in gastroesophageal reflux, and its attendant problems such as Barrett’s oesophagus and oesophageal cancer. Could the trends be linked?”

Moreover, the bacterium does not always produce disease. Seven out of 10 Indians will have H. pyloriinfections, observed B.S. Ramakrishna, a gastroenterologist at the the SRM Institute of Medical Sciences in Chennai. But the vast majority do not have any symptoms of disease and only a small proportion develop ulcers. A study carried out on mice suggests that other microbes present in the stomach could play a significant part in the inflammation set off by H. pylori .

Mice Study

The research, published in the journal Infection and Immunity , was motivated by the observation that identical mouse strains procured from different vendors responded differently when infected with the bacterium. Exploring further what caused this difference, Annah S. Rolig of the University of California at Santa Cruz and her colleagues found that mice with high levels of Clostridia bacteria in their stomach displayed low inflammation when infected with H. pylori .

Clostridia were known to prevent inflammation in the intestine and thus maybe key to dampening H. pylori pathology, although that remained to be determined, said Karen Ottemann, the principal investigator of the study, in a press release.

Variations in the microbes of the stomach could have “a dramatic effect on H. pylori -associated disease, and suggest new avenues for curbing H. pylori inflammation-related diseases such as ulcers and gastric cancer,” the scientists observed in their paper. However, “studies still need to be done in humans — right now, we do not know whether the findings apply to humans,” said Dr. Ottemann in an email.

New Light on ‘Dark Matter’

An international experiment aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today reported the observation of an excess of positrons in the cosmic ray flux, the source of which could be the elusive dark matter.

This forms the most important part of the first results from the experiment, called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), which were reported by the experiment’s spokesperson, Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at the meeting of the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) at Boston, Massachusetts. The mysterious dark matter, which is believed to account for a quarter of the universe’s mass-energy balance and is distributed isotropically — invariant with respect to direction — in the space, can be observed indirectly through its gravitational interaction with visible matter but is yet to be directly detected.

The search for dark matter is one of the objectives of this space-borne AMS even as it is being actively searched for in ground-based experiments such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and other experiments in deep underground experiments.

The instrument is basically a giant magnet and an antimatter detector attached to the outside of the ISS. It is the most powerful and sensitive particle spectrometer ever deployed in space. It is designed to study the cosmic ray particles, which are charged high-energy particles that permeate space, before they have a chance to interact with the Earth’s atmosphere.

The first AMS results are based on the analysis of about 25 billion recorded primary cosmic ray events. The events were recorded between May 19, 2011 and December 10, 2012. Of these, an unprecedented 6.8 million were unambiguously identified as electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons, observed in the energy range 0.5 Giga electron-Volt (GeV) to 350 GeV. Of these 6.8 million particles, more than 400,000 were positrons.

This is the largest number of energetic…

Gene Mutation Linked to Leprosy in Indians

In a new finding, a mutation in TAP1 gene has been associated with susceptibility to leprosy in Indians.

TAP1 gene is one of the several genes that regulate the immune response and its variations were earlier implicated in tuberculosis and auto-immune diseases.

While many people get exposed to Mycobacterium leprae , not all develop symptoms for leprosy. Since variations in some genes were reported to increase the risk, researchers from India and Germany looked at the role of TAP1 (Transporter associated with antigen processing) gene for susceptibility to leprosy.

As many as 222 leprosy patients, who were carriers of few and multiple bacteria of the same strain were enrolled for the study. The DNA data bank from CCMB was utilised for another group of 223 ethnically matched control individuals from the same socio-economic and geographical region.

In the paper published recently in Human Immunology , the authors of the study noted: “Our results provide genetic evidence that polymorphism in the TAP1 gene influences susceptibility to leprosy in Indian population.” According to a scientist involved in the study, TAP1 gene mutations were found to be associated in certain other populations earlier and this was the first time that its variations were linked to Indian leprosy patients.
He said that screening would help in cases with family history of leprosy. Precautionary measures could be taken if anybody was found with this mutation. Explaining how the mutation affects immunity, the lead author of the study, Dr. Vijaya Lakshmi Valluri, Group Leader, Immunology & Molecular Biology Division, Blue Peter Public Health and Research Centre, Hyderabad, pointed out that the body’s immune system responds whenever a foreign protein, bacteria or virus enters the system.

The Silent War over Education Reforms

Two major reports with overlapping concerns were submitted to the central government during the last decade. They were drafted by committees appointed by two different offices of the same government. One was chaired by Yash Pal, and the other by Sam Pitroda. The titles of the two committees indicated both the contours of their deliberation as well as areas of potential overlap. The first committee, chaired by Yash Pal, was appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2008, and was called the “committee to advise on rejuvenation and renovation of higher education.” The second, chaired by Sam Pitroda, was appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office in 2005 and carried the more compact title, the “National Knowledge Commission (NKC).”

Both reports talk about expanding the provision of higher education without sacrificing quality, and as such, a cursory reading would suggest that there is not much difference between the views articulated by the two groups. In the specific sphere of knowledge, both panels favour imaginative interface between areas and disciplines as a means of promoting creativity.

They evince equal amounts of anxiety over the problems of accreditation and licensing faced by institutions that impart professional education. And, on the matter of institutional fragmentation at the apex level, both recommend establishment of an umbrella body capable of subsuming the overlapping functions of existing structures. With so many apparent similarities, it is not surprising that the Yash Pal report and Sam Pitroda’s NKC are routinely invoked in the same breath whenever a new policy or decision comes up for discussion. A careful decoding, however, reveals that the two reports are based on contrasting perspectives on the relationship between knowledge and education, and between these and social needs. From the point of view of the political economy embedded in the two reports, the visions of reform they endorse are incompatible.

Skill Deficit

Both reports recognise a crisis in higher education, but their diagnosis of the nature of that crisis is quite different. While NKC views the narrow growth of higher education in the context of skills, it is not quite clear how it relates the current parlance of “skill deficit” to higher education. The idea comes across as an obvious issue or as an assumption: “While higher education enrolment has to increase markedly, the skill requirement of the growing economy means that a large proportion of our labour force needs to be provided vocational education and be trained in skills.

This skill element has to be integrated with the higher education system to ensure maximum mobility.” Confusing as these words are, they convey the shape of things to come if NKC’s vision becomes reality.

The report discusses the paucity of skills in the vast unorganised sector, but shows little interest in the context in which this paucity has grown. After all, the economy must be in a position or evolve towards one which provides employment prospects attractive to skilled personnel.

Knowledge and Skills

The fact that Indian manufacturing has provided slow employment growth — called “jobless growth” during the 1990s — or that the IT-enabled sector provides less than 0.5 per cent of total employment, indicates that at least two sectors commonly linked with skills and the so-called knowledge economy, respectively, are not in a position to provide massive additional employment, or at least not immediately. No doubt the economy might evolve, and these or other sectors change in ways that provide additional employment, but the push for vocational skills, whether or not at the cost of higher education, cannot ignore a detailed plan of how industry-training linkages will also be simultaneously developed. This is precisely what NKC ignores, harnessing the rhetoric of knowledge with a variety of suffixes while refraining from relating it to the actual needs of the economy or higher education.

A relevant analysis of this kind, i.e. focusing on working conditions, livelihoods, and economic opportunities, was presented by a commission chaired by the late Dr. Arjun Sengupta, which dealt with the crisis of skill deficit in the larger context of poverty and working conditions. Ignoring Sengupta’s recommendations for comprehensive measures, the NKC opts for merely rebranding vocational education and training “to increase its value and ability to command higher incomes.” This unusual phraseology denotes rather transparently what must happen to the higher education system. NKC is worried about its size and enrolment capacity because it wants to use it for skilling. Vocational education will get rebranded by the transformation of the bulk of higher education into a skill-imparting apparatus, all unfortunately in the name of the knowledge economy.

Houston, we have a Litter Problem

The change in the orientation and orbit of the 17-cm glass-sphere Russian nano-satellite BLITS that was noticed in early February was caused by a January 22 collision with a piece of China’s Feng Yun 1C weather satellite; Feng Yun 1C was intentionally blown up in the 2007 anti-satellite weapon test by China. That irresponsible act led to an overnight increase in the amount of space debris: pieces larger than one centimetre went up by 40,000, and the number of fragments larger than one millimetre by about two million. The number of trackable objects shot up by 25 per cent. Worse, the break-up happened at an altitude of about 860 km, which is heavily populated by satellites. Due to the “low density” of the atmosphere at this altitude, the junk generated will pose a threat to satellites for a long time.

The 2008 American experiment when the USA-193 satellite was destroyed by a missile did not create much long-lasting debris. Due to the low altitude (250 km) of break-up, most of the fragments were subjected to air drag and eventually burnt up when they re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere. Aside from these two adventures, the majority of man-made litter larger than 10 cm is from in-orbit explosions. Objects of this size can generate catastrophic events — even a centimetre-long fragment can disable a spacecraft. There are about 600,000 objects in space larger than one centimetre and about 300 million larger than one millimetre. Nearly 5,000 launches have taken place till date, and nearly half of the catalogued fragments in space are from man-made objects. According to the European Space Agency, doubling the number of objects in space will result in a four-fold increase in collision risk. As the number of launches keeps rising, the possibility of collisions — between two satellites, and between satellites and fragments — producing more debris is increasing. In 2009, the collision of Cosmos 2251, a defunct Russian military satellite, and the American satellite Iridium resulted in 1,700 pieces. As the Kessler syndrome postulates, crashes would first be seen between fragments and larger objects like satellites and would eventually be between two fragments. Crashes will continue till the debris becomes very small. This does not augur well for space science. Expensive manoeuvring of satellites is currently the only way to avoid crashes. But this is possible only in the case of catalogued pieces. Hence it is imperative for space-faring nations to undertake debris-mitigation measures. One of them is to reduce the orbital altitude of dying spacecraft and allow the Earth’s atmospheric drag to pull them into the atmosphere. Objects that re-enter the atmosphere break up at 84-72 km altitude and most of them get burnt up.

The Silent War over Education Reforms

Two major reports with overlapping concerns were submitted to the central government during the last decade. They were drafted by committees appointed by two different offices of the same government. One was chaired by Yash Pal, and the other by Sam Pitroda. The titles of the two committees indicated both the contours of their deliberation as well as areas of potential overlap. The first committee, chaired by Yash Pal, was appointed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2008, and was called the “committee to advise on rejuvenation and renovation of higher education.” The second, chaired by Sam Pitroda, was appointed by the Prime Minister’s Office in 2005 and carried the more compact title, the “National Knowledge Commission (NKC).”

Both reports talk about expanding the provision of higher education without sacrificing quality, and as such, a cursory reading would suggest that there is not much difference between the views articulated by the two groups. In the specific sphere of knowledge, both panels favour imaginative interface between areas and disciplines as a means of promoting creativity.

They evince equal amounts of anxiety over the problems of accreditation and licensing faced by institutions that impart professional education. And, on the matter of institutional fragmentation at the apex level, both recommend establishment of an umbrella body capable of subsuming the overlapping functions of existing structures. With so many apparent similarities, it is not surprising that the Yash Pal report and Sam Pitroda’s NKC are routinely invoked in the same breath whenever a new policy or decision comes up for discussion. A careful decoding, however, reveals that the two reports are based on contrasting perspectives on the relationship between knowledge and education, and between these and social needs. From the point of view of the political economy embedded in the two reports, the visions of reform they endorse are incompatible.

Skill Deficit

Both reports recognise a crisis in higher education, but their diagnosis of the nature of that crisis is quite different. While NKC views the narrow growth of higher education in the context of skills, it is not quite clear how it relates the current parlance of “skill deficit” to higher education. The idea comes across as an obvious issue or as an assumption: “While higher education enrolment has to increase markedly, the skill requirement of the growing economy means that a large proportion of our labour force needs to be provided vocational education and be trained in skills.

This skill element has to be integrated with the higher education system to ensure maximum mobility.” Confusing as these words are, they convey the shape of things to come if NKC’s vision becomes reality. The report discusses the paucity of skills in the vast unorganised sector, but shows little interest in the context in which this paucity has grown. After all, the economy must be in a position or evolve towards one which provides employment prospects attractive to skilled personnel.

Knowledge and Skills

The fact that Indian manufacturing has provided slow employment growth — called “jobless growth” during the 1990s — or that the IT-enabled sector provides less than 0.5 per cent of total employment, indicates that at least two sectors commonly linked with skills and the so-called knowledge economy, respectively, are not in a position to provide massive additional employment, or at least not immediately. No doubt the economy might evolve, and these or other sectors change in ways that provide additional employment, but the push for vocational skills, whether or not at the cost of higher education, cannot ignore a detailed plan of how industry-training linkages will also be simultaneously developed. This is precisely what NKC ignores, harnessing the rhetoric of knowledge with a variety of suffixes while refraining from relating it to the actual needs of the economy or higher education.

A relevant analysis of this kind, i.e. focusing on working conditions, livelihoods, and economic opportunities, was presented by a commission chaired by the late Dr. Arjun Sengupta, which dealt with the crisis of skill deficit in the larger context of poverty and working conditions. Ignoring Sengupta’s recommendations for comprehensive measures, the NKC opts for merely rebranding vocational education and training “to increase its value and ability to command higher incomes.” This unusual phraseology denotes rather transparently what must happen to the higher education system. NKC is worried about its size and enrolment capacity because it wants to use it for skilling. Vocational education will get rebranded by the transformation of the bulk of higher education into a skill-imparting apparatus, all unfortunately in the name of the knowledge economy.

One River, Two Countries, too Many Dams

By raising the Brahmaputra dams construction issue during his first meeting with the new Chinese President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was following a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Dr. Singh wanted to bring India’s unease with Chinese construction on Brahmaputra’s main channel to the world’s notice. On the other, by saying publicly that most Chinese projects might not store water, he was trying to ensure that any ensuing debate in the country does not snowball into one more round of panic-stricken news reports.

The Chinese government has been reticent about dams being constructed on transborder rivers. India is not alone in seeking these details. Many lower riparian South East Asian countries and even Kazakhstan in Central Asia want China to be more forthcoming about plans to build dams or divert water from transborder rivers.

Even though some of the dams India is concerned about have recently figured in the Chinese government’s plan documents, for a long time open source literature, satellite reconnaissance and source reports were unable to confirm their actual impact on river flows, thus raising anxiety levels here.

During a press conference on his way back from Durban where he met the Chinese President and sought a joint mechanism, Dr. Singh was careful to add a caveat. While confirming that he had asked for greater transparency from China, the Prime Minister added that the projects on the main channel of the Brahmaputra appeared to be run-of-the-river, that is, they would not have significant storage.

Perhaps he was keen to avoid the alarm of media reports on China’s plans to divert 40 billion cubic metres of water from the Brahmaputra (known as Yarlong Tsangpo in China) in 2003. The Chinese have put the brakes on the project or perhaps shelved it, but India’s apprehensions found another outlet when, a few years later, a massive landslip blocked portions of the river at an area known as the Great Bend. The misgivings were quelled after water cut a course through the blockade and flows returned to normal.

In both cases, the Chinese shared little information about the developments. India kept hoping that its diplomatic notes and media exposure of Beijing’s aversion to sharing details would make the problem go away. It was only a couple of years back that China agreed with the Indian request (and separately to that of some Asean states) to share hydrological data. But another concern had arisen by then. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh first raised it with then Chinese President Hu Jintao in March, 2012. The Chinese were already aware of India’s concerns as then Foreign Ministers S.M. Krishna and Yang Jiechi had discussed it in their preparatory meeting before Mr. Hu’s visit.

When Dr. Singh and Mr. Krishna spoke about dams on the main channel of the Brahmaputra, only one was at the active-construction stage and information was still coming in about the others. Since then, India has got a firmer fix on a series of three dams on the main channel of the Brahmaputra.

The three dams — Jiexu, Zangmu and Jiacha — are within 25 km of each other. More ominously for strategic experts fixated on the China threat, they are 550 km from the Indian border. But the first one, Jiexu, has been independently confirmed to be a run-of-the-river project which will not impound water in a large reservoir. Construction on the second in the series, Zangmu, began in 2010 and Indian authorities are not sure if this will be a pure RoR variety. The third, a 320 MW dam, will be built at Jiacha, about a dozen km downstream of Zangmu, and even this is more or less confirmed to be run-of-the-river. These are not the only ones about which India has not been adequately informed. A dam near Zhongda and another near Phudo Zong, as well as 30 other projects were planned and executed with Beijing disclosing little to India.

India’s fears about diversion of waters of the Brahmaputra have not been completely assuaged. It deploys high-end technology and spends considerable money on keeping a keen eye on water conductor systems and basins adjacent to Brahmaputra for clues on constructions of canals to take the water away to China’s north-western provinces.

Making Space for the Tiger a Reality

The contentious issue of notifying buffer areas around tiger reserves came under sharp debate when the Supreme Court issued interim directions to stop tourism in core or Critical Tiger Habitats (CTHs) and notify buffer areas. However, after the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) filed comprehensive guidelines on tiger conservation and tourism on October 15, 2012, the Supreme Court permitted the reopening of tourism strictly in accordance with the guidelines. Visitation is now permissible in existing tourism zones subject to a maximum of 20 per cent of core areas being used. But the important issue of creating viable buffers around a core area lost focus even though the NTCA guidelines harp on its importance to sustain tiger populations.

In most tiger reserves, core areas comprise notified sanctuaries and/or national parks, which are to be managed as areas free of incompatible human activity. Reserved forests, deemed forests and other unencumbered government land with some vegetation immediately abutting the CTHs are to be notified as buffer areas, which can act as “shock absorbers” for core areas.

Viable Buffers

While notifying such contiguous forests as buffer areas may be relatively easy, the real challenge is in creating viable buffers wherever private agricultural lands abut core areas. Merely notifying such areas as buffer or peripheral areas without any viable habitat, as is being done now, may not only fail to deliver the imagined benefits for tiger conservation but also lead to hostility and loss of support from the local community.

Yet, acquiring large extent of private land abutting tiger reserves, to insulate the entire core area with a complete “ wrap around ” buffer that can support wildlife might be impractical. So is there a way forward to resolve this important issue?

An innovative mechanism can be created within the current legal framework with some very minor modifications to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 Guidelines.

This could greatly contribute to creating additional areas as viable forested buffers around tiger reserves. Presently, most development project promoters seeking diversion of forest land for a non-forestry purpose have to identify an equivalent area of non-forest land. This has to be transferred and mutated in favour of the forest department for declaration as reserved forest/Protected Forest (PF). The project must also deposit funds for taking up compensatory afforestation in such lands. Stage II clearance under the Forest Act is to be granted only after compliance of this important condition. As far as possible, such areas should be contiguous with reserved forests for effective management. This is mandated under Chapter 3 of the Act’s guidelines.

Legal loophole

Unfortunately, in most cases, this important condition is relaxed based on certification by the State that sufficient/appropriate non-forest land is not available. In such cases a simpler condition of compensatory afforestation in degraded forest land twice the area diverted is insisted upon. This legal loophole has meant the loss of an excellent opportunity to create viable buffer areas as State governments routinely provide this exemption to most projects.

To facilitate the creation of viable forested buffers, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) must first revise the current guidelines appropriately to plug this loophole. A new mechanism must then be created whereby the Tiger Reserve Authority in each tiger reserve State identifies private (non-forest) land immediately abutting a reserve, based on scientific and objective criteria, to be developed as ecologically viable buffers.
Private enclosures within contiguous reserve forests can also be identified. This data must be shared with development project promoters to explore the possibility of them privately acquiring the lands to comply with the Forest Act guidelines.

There could be two possible scenarios under which this idea could be enabled:

1. The owner(s) of such identified farm land may be willing to sell the land at prevailing market prices (which the project proponent /owner mutually agree upon as in any private land transaction). The project promoter has to then transfer and mutate the land in favour of the Forest Department for notification as a reserve forest/PF, as mandated by existing guidelines or even as a conservation reserve under Section 36-A of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 under the proposed new mechanism or;
2. The owner(s) may not be willing to sell but may be agreeable — with suitable benefits — to develop it as a private/community reserve based on an appropriate management plan. There are enabling provisions in the Wildlife Act, which allow for any individual/group of individuals or community volunteering to conserve wildlife and its habitat to approach the government for a notification. While the land will continue to be owned by the individual/community, the land use will be agreed upon jointly with the Forest Department based on a management plan.

Participatory Plan

This will enable appropriate development of the private/community reserve or the land mutated in favour of the Forest Department, by creating suitable vegetation with mixed plantation/bamboo/grassy patches/salt licks, etc to attract wildlife. The funding for this can come from money deposited by the project promoter for compensatory afforestation. The individual or community could then be encouraged and assisted to develop a participatory community-based tourism plan with benefit sharing as envisaged in the new NTCA guidelines. The tourism pressure on core areas can thus be reduced progressively.

All that is required are some minor modifications in the Forest Act Guidelines to include the terms “Core or Critical Tiger Habitat,” “Protected Area” and “Community Reserve” to enable identification and transfer of lands adjacent to these areas to the Forest Department by the project promoter. But for this idea to work, the MoEF must issue a proper clarification to States that, henceforth, transfer of non-forest land will not ordinarily be condoned.

This innovative mechanism, which is within the framework of existing laws, could open up tremendous opportunities for increasing viable buffers and creating additional habitats for wildlife where it is most needed — around tiger reserves/protected areas. It will not only help in achieving the true objective of compensatory afforestation, but also deliver benefits to local communities from the increasing economic opportunities of non-consumptive tourism outside core areas.The competitive populism in Tamil Nadu over the situation of Tamils in Sri Lanka has generated a great deal of alarm in New Delhi over the manner in which political issues relating to a State have begun impinging on India’s foreign and security policies. Though somewhat over the top, the Dravidian parties have a point, but a general one rather than the specific case they are advocating.

The general point is that in any country, the people have a right to advocate and push for a particular foreign and security policy. Given our linguistic, ethnic, religious and ideological divisions, these views often come across as those belonging to this or that section.

That, too, is legitimate. But at the end of the day, this diverse country must have a single policy and its execution must be the responsibility of its federal government.

Doublespeak on Electoral Reforms

Politicians everywhere are known to indulge in doublespeak and our politicians are no exception. But some recent pronouncements of our Law Minister only show that our politicians may have very few serious rivals in this sport. Not long ago, the Minister was all praise for the Election Commission of India’s real time and effective monitoring of election expenses.

Now the same Minister has told the Supreme Court that the Election Commission is not concerned with the correctness or otherwise of the account of election expenses submitted by a candidate. In other words, the government wants the Commission to do an outstanding non-job!

Sound ‘investment’

That the candidates in our Assembly and Parliament elections spend huge amounts, many times over the prescribed ceiling, on election expenditure is no secret. They seem to have come to realise that this is an investment capable of giving phenomenal returns which no other enterprise could rival and, so, the best way of getting rich quicker. No wonder, therefore, that even panchayat elections boast of huge expenditures incurred by the contestants. That some unscrupulous sections of the media found innovative ways to help themselves to some part of this huge expenditure during election time is too well documented by now.

It is also common knowledge that the effort has been raised to a fine art, prescribing different rates, a base rate for coverage to a paying candidate and none for his non-paying rival, and a premium rate for high and sustained praise for the payer, and hell and damnation for his rival.

The Press Council of India (PCI) gave the first opening to the Election Commission to take deterrent action in this new game christened ‘paid news,’ when the ECI followed up a PCI finding in respect of a candidate in the 2007 elections to the Uttar Pradesh Assembly, and disqualified her by using its powers under Section 10 A of the Representation Of The People Act, 1951.

But when the Election Commission was approached to exercise that very power in the case of the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, who, contesting the 2009 election to the Maharashtra Assembly, was alleged to have indulged in ‘paid news’ in a big way as found by an intrepid journalist after meticulous investigation, the Law Ministry seems to have woken up to the danger of a determined ECI exercising its power. Wanting to stop the Election Commission in its tracks, it has filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court seeking a ‘plain reading’ of that section of the law that was examined and interpreted beyond a shade of doubt by a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court in the R. Shivarama Gowda Vs P.M. Chandrasekhar case (AIR 1999 SC 252).

The Election Commission seems to have unwittingly fallen into a trap in answering, through an interim order, the jurisdictional issue — apparently a red herring — raised by Mr. Chavan in the proceedings initiated before it. In the light of the unambiguous decision of the three-judge bench of the Supreme Court — which leaves little scope for any speculation on the issue of the powers of the ECI under Section 10A of the Act — the Election Commission could have gone ahead without harbouring any doubt. Nor should it have let anybody cast doubt and much less allowed him to get away with it.

But that was not to be. The order of the Election Commission on the issue of jurisdiction, rejecting the objection raised by Mr. Chavan, the respondent, was challenged before the High Court in Delhi. Having lost the case there, Mr. Chavan has gone to the Supreme Court in an LPA (Letters Patent Appeal). Precious time has been lost in the process and the case initiated in November 2009 has yet to cross the first hurdle — three years down the line. The government has joined Mr. Chavan in challenging the Election Commission’s power to disqualify a candidate under Section 10A of the Act for his failure to submit a correct and true rendering of his election expenditure.

The three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court lucidly brought out the scheme of the Act and the issues that have to be agitated in an election petition under Section 100 of the Act before the High Court where the remedy sought will be the unseating of the winner on the ground of corrupt practices, one of which is exceeding the limit on expenditure. No such election petition lies against any candidate except the winner.

In contrast, Section 10 A can be invoked against any candidate on the ground of submitting a false or incorrect rendering of his election expenses. If proved, it will result in the disqualification for a maximum of three years even if he were the winning candidate.


But knowing the denominator is the biggest challenge. This is because, the presence of asymptomatic and mild cases raises the real possibility that the virus may be more widespread than believed and difficult to find. Though people with mild/asymptomatic infection may not be dying, such cases are, in fact, “very worrying,” notes Nature .

According to WHO, there is no way of knowing whether the number of cases identified represents “some or all of the cases actually occurring.” The occurrence of some “relatively mild cases” raises the possibility that there are “other such cases that have not been identified and reported.”

Reduced virulence may be facilitating “further genetic adaptation of the virus to infection of human beings — and thus greater potential to spread.”

According to a paper published on April 11 in The New England Journal of Medicine, genome sequencing of the first three cases of H7N9 infected people who died revealed that it is “better adapted” than other bird flu viruses to “infecting mammals.”

But the peculiar feature of the virus is that it causes only asymptomatic or mild disease even in birds. This allows the virus to silently spread among birds. The reason for this is now clear: the NEJM study indicated that the haemmagglutinin sequence data is associated with “low” pathogenicity in birds.

In the case of H5N1, birds falling sick after infection were clearly seen, and this helped in knowing the spread of the infection.

Exacerbating this enigma is not knowing which animals act as viral hosts. This is despite intense surveillance of animals to find out the reservoirs. “We can’t be 100 per cent sure how anyone has contracted H7N9. Many patients had contact with poultry, but not all. So [it is] still a puzzle,” Hartl of WHO tweeted on April 13.

According to reports, about 40 per cent of infected people have had no contact with poultry.

The routes of transmission from animals to humans are not fully known either. But the NEJM paper provides certain clues. An amino acid substitution in H7N9 may facilitate transmission through respiratory droplets, just the way the highly pathogenic H5N1 bird flu spread from birds to humans. Genome sequence of the first three cases showed that there have been “at least two introductions” from animals to humans.

Another peculiar aspect is that the number of people infected with H7N9 shot up from 24 to 63 within a short span of seven days. A reported increase of 14 infected cases on April 16 was the biggest ever for a single day.
Though sustained human-to-human transmission has not been found, two such “suspicious” cases have been found.

“We are not near a H7N9 pandemic yet but we need to understand better how the virus works in order to control the outbreak,” Hartl tweeted. “It is premature to dismiss the possibility of an H7N9 pandemic or to say the outbreak is under control.”

Resources below, Turmoil above

Last month’s coup d’état in the Central African Republic (CAR), in which the northern-based group Séléka fought its way into the capital Bangui and overthrew President François Bozizé, is yet another destabilising development in a country which has had a troubled and violent modern history. The coup resulted from the collapse of a January 11 agreement, which was itself meant to end fighting that had broken out late in 2012 over the alleged failure of a 2007 peace deal.

Mr. Bozizé, who had seized power in a coup in 2003 but won elections in 2005 and 2011, has reportedly escaped to neighbouring Congo. The five-faction Séléka, which means “alliance” in Songo, is led by Michel Djotodia, who has suspended the constitution and announced rule by decree. Though he has promised that the 2016 elections will occur as planned, he also says he will review existing deals with foreign mining firms.
In response, the African Union has suspended the CAR and imposed travel restrictions on Séléka leaders. Unsurprisingly, the country faces a humanitarian crisis. Some 40,000 people have fled to Congo, Chad, and Cameroon; even a fortnight before the coup, the fighting had displaced 175,000 people internally, and violent looting continues apparently unchecked.

Things do not bode well for the country’s 4.5 million people. Though Mr. Djotodia, who heads the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) faction within Séléka, claims to be a secularist, some among the majority Christian population are nervous because he is a Muslim. However, his earlier record in getting himself appointed to replace a sheikh as the CAR’s consul in Nyala, capital of the Sudanese state of Darfur, suggests that he puts his own ends first. A more serious problem, however, is Séléka’s use of child soldiers.

Members of a South African force which tried to defend the Bozizé government say they were sickened to find children among those they had killed; they themselves lost 13 troops in a serious foreign policy disaster for President Jacob Zuma’s ANC government. A further complication is that the CAR’s Muslim minority, which mainly lives in the northeast, considers that it has long been neglected by successive governments in Bangui. As if that were not enough, Joseph Kony, the leader of the Uganda-based Lord’s Resistance Army, who is wanted for war crimes, has disappeared, with some of his forces, somewhere in the CAR, and U.S. troops assisting the Bozizé government in searching for him have abandoned the hunt since the coup. Although rich in resources, the CAR is one of the world’s poorest countries. But it seems the AU will get little international help while it tries to create stability and legitimate authority there.

H7N9 Silently Spreads in Humans and Birds

The novel H7N9 avian flu virus that is currently circulating in certain regions in China has bewildered public health officials within and outside the country. To start with, H7N9 is a product of reassortment of three avian influenza virus strains that “infect only birds.” Reassortment happens when gene swapping takes place between two or more viruses present at the same time in a host.

The influenza, which was initially restricted to Shanghai and neighbouring regions, has now reached Beijing — two people have so far been infected with the virus. Till date, 77 people have been infected and 16 have died. But this number may be a gross underestimation of the actual spread of the infection. Therein begin the many puzzling and worrying characteristics of the bird flu.

Unlike the initial cases where the infection proved to be deadly, cases now being detected have wide ranging virulence. A 4-year-old boy has been tested positive for the virus on April 15, but shows no symptoms of infection. This is the first time that an asymptomatic case has been found. Unlike other avian flu infections and initial H7N9 infection cases, people appear to exhibit the entire range of infection — critical, mild and completely asymptomatic.

According to Gregory Hartl, Head of Media for WHO, the current H7N9 case fatality rate is “approximately 20 per cent,” and may end up even lower if the actual number of infected people is known.

Ponzi Schemes: Centre gets into Action Mode

In a bid to project the affirmative action taken over the last few years and in recent days against “illegal raising of deposits” through collective investment schemes (CIS), the government on Saturday listed the proactive steps taken by various financial investigative agencies to convey the sense of seriousness with which such economic offences are viewed by the authorities.

A Finance Ministry statement on the issue has come in the wake of media reports in the past few days highlighting concerns regarding such “alleged” illegal raising of deposits, especially in rural and semi-urban areas, in Eastern India and duping of the gullible public.

“Promoters of such companies are allegedly siphoning the monies collected and are using a sales network comprising local persons who are offered hefty commissions, in a manner similar to Ponzi schemes,” the statement said. In financial parlance, Ponzi schemes pertain to activities involving collection of money from a large number of gullible public investors who are lured by a promise of huge returns.

Listing the action taken in the specific case of Saradha Realty India Ltd., the statement said that SEBI passed an order on April 23 “directing them to wind-up their existing collective investment schemes and refund the money collected under the schemes with returns which are due to the investors as per the terms of offer, within a period of three months from the date of the order, failing which prosecution proceedings would be pursued”.
Detailing the steps put in place since last year to guard against such fraudulent investment practices, the statement said that SEBI initiated prosecution cases in CIS-related matters in various courts in over 59 cases in the eastern region.

As for the MCA, it has ordered inspection of the books of accounts and other records under the provisions of Sec.209A of the Companies Act, 1956, in respect of 31 companies. In some matters, investigation under Section 235 of the Act to be taken up by Serious Fraud Investigation Office (SFIO), has already been ordered.In the case of 42 companies, Registrar of Companies, West Bengal, has issued notices under Section 234 of the Act calling for information and explanations, the statement said.

A Monster Called Drug-resistant Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is a disease caused by the bacteria, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in 2011, 87 lakhs people fell ill with TB and 14 lakh died. India constitutes a major burden country with 20% of all TB cases in the world. The government has been implementing the National TB control Programme since 1962. It was revamped and made the Revised National Tuberculosis Control Programme (RNTCP) in 1993. Under this new scheme, the DOTS (directly observed treatment, short course) strategy was adapted.

Covering the whole of the country, diagnosis is primarily done by collecting sputum from the patient and examining it under microscope after making a smear. This facility is being provided by specially trained laboratory technicians posted in peripheral hospitals at the 20-30,000 population level. If a patient diagnosed with TB, drugs are made available on the doorstep by a DOTS provider who keeps track of the patient.

The DOTS provider is a minimally trained person, who can be either a health staff member or a responsible villager. This treatment is thus under direct supervision. Four drugs are commonly used, Rifampicin, Isoniazid, Ethambutol and Pyrazinamide, in different combinations for six months. In some cases, injectible drug Streptomycin is used. The patient is followed up with sputum examination periodically to trace the progression of the disease.

All these services, including the drugs, are provided free of cost. Multidrug resistant TB (MDR TB) is caused by bacteria that do not respond to at least Isoniazid and Rifampicin, the most powerful, first line anti-TB drugs. Drug-resistant TB occurs when drugs are not properly taken, like incomplete treatment, wrong dosage, wrong length of treatment, wrong combination, unavailability of drugs or poor quality drugs.

MDR TB diagnosis and treatment is difficult. First of all, the diagnosis needs culture and drug susceptibility testing entailing extensive laboratory work. There are only a few laboratories where this test can be done in India. Once the problem is diagnosed as MDR TB, the second line drugs, which are 300 times costlier than the first line drugs, are prescribed. These are ofloxacin/levofloxacin, ethionamide, cycloserine, pyrazinamide, ethambutol and kanamycin.

These drugs are used for 24 months in different combinations and have severe adverse events. The government of India started DOTS Plus services (for diagnosis and treatment of MDR TB) in 2007 from Gujarat. Till date these services have been extended to 10 States. There is an underlying fear that if these second line drugs also develop resistance then we will be left nowhere. It is difficult to diagnose and treat MDR TB. So we must make all efforts to prevent the emergence of resistant TB.

Wrong Route

The Survey of India (SOI) complaint against Google’s ‘Mapathon 2013,’ a collaborative and community mapping exercise, on the ground that it jeopardises national security represents unwarranted paranoia. In February, Google announced a nation-wide competition inviting those interested to use its online tools, add neighbourhood data and create better maps.

Towards the end of March, when the competition ended, the SOI, following a shrill BJP campaign, filed a complaint with the Delhi police. It objected that this Google venture violated the National Map Policy and could pose a security risk. In an age when GPS devices are freely available for navigation, geographical information flows unhindered across borderless digital space and satellite images of every square inch of the earth are in the public domain, the SOI’s notion of restricted areas and insistence on monopoly over spatial data appear irrational.

Instead of dismissing this knee-jerk reaction as untenable, the police have scaled up the complaint to a CBI level investigation. The irony is that it is not Google, but the SOI which has failed the National Map Policy. Foreseeing the challenges of digital practices, the policy urged the SOI in 2005 to take up a leadership role in democratising spatial information through partnerships. But the SOI, despite an early start and the weight of the state behind it, has till date offered no people-friendly facilities worth mentioning.

Pass to Better Relations with China

The Karakoram Pass played a significant role in the flourishing trade on the Silk Route between India-China and Central Asia. The pass was shut down and trade stopped in 1949 when Xinjiang became a part of People’s Republic of China. Leh was a busy cosmopolitan commercial town, with traders from Central Asia, Kashgarh, Yarkand, Kabul, Tibet, Kashmir, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh who stayed on for one or two months after their exhausting journey.

The trade, through the Karakoram, influenced the dress, food and dance forms of Ladakh. On the other side of the Pass, “Chini Bagh” at Kashgarh (the residence of the British Joint Commissioner of Trade), “Gurdial Sarai” and “Kashmiri Kucha” (street) at Yarkand, where Indian traders used to stay, still remind us of the magnitude of commerce that took place. The Bactrian camel (double hump) of Nubra valley is a relic from Xinjiang. A generation of people in Nubra still speaks the Uyghur dialect. Food served in some of old streets of Leh has a distinctly Central Asian flavour.

Central and Popular

At 18,250 feet, Karakoram was one of the highest trade routes. Now, a motorable road exists through Khardungla (18,680 feet) and Turumputila up to the base of Saser Kangri. Thereafter, a track moves over to camp sites of Murgo (in Yarkandi, also known as the gateway of death), Burtsa, Kazilangar, Deptsang la, Daulat Beg Oldi (the Indo-Tibetan Border Police post named after a Xinjiang caravan leader who was buried here) and finally to the Karakoram Pass. Notably, the India-China boundary at the pass is not disputed; it is indicated by two heaps of stones at a distance of 50 feet, one Indian, and the other Chinese. It is an eight day-trek from the picturesque Nubra Valley to the Karakoram Pass. It is not possible to get lost there — the trail of bones and skeletons of men and animals constantly remind the weary traveller of the ruggedness of terrain and weather.
But in spite of those drawbacks, the Karakoram Pass remained popular due to its centrality and affinity with Ladakhis.

The Silk Route, through which passed Chinese merchandise, notably silk to Rome, is a primary axis of transportation through the heart of Asia. A number of auxiliary axes feed into the Silk Route. An important feeder route from the lower Himalayas was from Hunza via Sarikol into Xinjiang via the Mintaka Pass. This route is now a part of the Northern Areas of Pakistan. Another more important route was via Karakoram from the Leh-Nubra valley or Leh-Changla pass-Shyok Valley.

Modern Link

Pakistan has always enhanced its strategic power much more than its economic and scientific potential by making full use of its geostrategic location. It was at the 1955 Bandung Non-Aligned nations conference that President Ayub Khan and Premier Chou en Lai met for the first time and later concluded, in 1963, the historic Sino-Pakistan Boundary Agreement. Earlier, Pakistan Army engineers had built a Indus Valley road to Gilgit. Later, Pakistan concluded an agreement with China to transform this road into an all-weather dual carriageway all the way up to the Mintaka Pass. Completed in 1969, the Karakoram Highway pushes north through Islamabad, Gilgit and crosses the Karakoram range through the 16,000ft Khunjerab Pass.

Cultural bridges

India should negotiate with China to open the ancient trade route for mutual gain. India enjoys historic popularity with the people of Central Asia and Xinjiang. Most of the merchandise sold by Pakistani traders across the border in China is of Indian origin.

The economy of Ladakh, which has traditionally depended on trade, would thrive with the opening of the Karakoram Pass. Ever suspicious of links between militant Uyghurs and terrorist outfits in Pakistan, China would have no such fears regarding Ladakh. There are immense possibilities for the revival of an ancient Buddhist connection and for two-way tourism to ancient Buddhist sites in Central Asia and India. Ladakh Buddhists long to visit the “Thousand Buddhist caves” at Dunhuang in Xinjiang. The Karakoram Pass has also been a traditional Haj route from Xinjiang. Pilgrims can take advantage of direct Haj flights from Srinagar. As strong cultural bridges already exist, we have to revive them by resuming trade through the pass.

Energy Gateway

Karakoram can also act as a gateway for hydrocarbon pipelines from Central Asia. The planned Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline (TAPI) from the city of Shymkent must pass through disturbed and insecure areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another pipeline from Kazakhstan, which would also pass through the same territory, is being conceived. The security of the pipeline would always be in doubt despite local government guarantees. The route from the Central Asian countries via Xinjiang and the Karakoram Pass would be more secure. There is another advantage, most of the hydrocarbon pipelines in Central Asia are on an east-west axis. A pipeline through Karakoram, at least up to the pass, would have an east-west line. It would be economical and technologically easier. China is already planning an oil pipeline connecting Gwadar Port with Xinjiang along with the Karakoram Highway.

India can make a beginning by proposing a comparatively secure pipeline through Xinjiang and Karakoram. It would be a good confidence-building step by both countries. It may be argued that the economic viability of the Pass is not great, especially through the all-weather motorable roads over the Khunjerab Pass; through here, a truck from Kashgarh can get to Karachi in five days for seven months in a year, compared to 12 through the Karakoram Pass.

The author would argue that the opening of the Karakoram Pass would hugely benefit the people of Ladakh and Xinjiang. Tibet, as a source of merchandise, has not been successful as Chinese goods are available from Nepal.The commercial potential of central Asian carpets, silk, leather goods, dry fruits in India and the direct export of Indian goods to Xinjiang would be very high. The popularity of Indian and Xinjiang goods and the revival of ancient cultural links make a good case for opening the Karakoram Pass for trade. Once done, development of infrastructure for traffic and energy pipelines, and other benefits will follow.

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