The HINDU Notes – 25th July 2019 - VISION

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Thursday, July 25, 2019

The HINDU Notes – 25th July 2019

📰 Having the last word on ‘population control’

There should be a clear understanding that offering choices and services rather than outright state control works best

•On July 11, World Population Day, a Union Minister expressed alarm, in a Tweet, over what he called the “population explosion” in the country, wanting all political parties to enact population control laws and annulling the voting rights of those having more than two children. Just a month earlier, a prominent businessman-yoga guru wanted the government to enact a law where “the third child should not be allowed to vote and enjoy facilities provided by the government”. This, according to him, would ensure that people would not give birth to more children.

•Both these demands are wayward and represent a warped thinking which has been rebutted rather well in the Economic Survey 2018-19. The Survey notes that India is set to witness a “sharp slowdown in population growth in the next two decades”. The fact is that by the 2030s, some States will start transitioning to an ageing society as part of a well-studied process of “demographic transition” which sees nations slowly move toward a stable population as fertility rates fall with an improvement in social and economic development indices over time.

Dangerous imagery

•The demand for state controls on the number of children a couple can have is not a new one. It feeds on the perception that a large and growing population is at the root of a nation’s problems as more and more people chase fewer and fewer resources. This image is so ingrained in the minds of people that it does not take much to whip up public sentiment which in turn can quickly degenerate into a deep class or religious conflict that pits the poor, the weak, the downtrodden and the minorities against the more privileged sections. From this point to naming, targeting and attacking is a dangerous and short slide. The implications of such an approach are deep and wide but not easily understood because the argument is couched in sterile numbers and a rule that, it would seem, applies to all sections equally. On the contrary, what is suggested is the ugliest kind of discrimination, worse than physical attacks or social prejudice because it breaks the poor and the weak bit by bit, and in a very insidious way.

Policy of choice

•The fig leaf of population control allows for the outrageous argument to be made that a family will be virtually ostracised and a citizen will be denied his or her basic rights if he or she is born as the third child. This has of course never been public policy in India.

•In fact, a far-sighted and forward-looking National Population Policy (NPP) was introduced in 2000 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. The essence of the policy was the government’s commitment to “voluntary and informed choice and consent of citizens while availing of reproductive health care services” along with a “target free approach in administering family planning services”. This is a position reiterated by various governments, including the present government on the floor of both Houses of Parliament. For example, in March 2017, the then Minister of State (Health and Family Welfare), Anupriya Patel, in a written reply in the Lok Sabha noted that the “family Planning programme in India is target free and voluntary in nature and it is the prerogative of the clients to choose a family planning method best suited to them as per their reproductive right”.

•The then Health Minister, J.P. Nadda, has said pretty much the same thing. About a year ago, he articulated the “lifecycle framework” which looks to the health and nutrition needs of mother and child not merely during pregnancy and child birth but “right from the time of conception till the child grows… carrying on till the adolescent stage and further”. This argument is not about denying services but about offering choices and a range of services to mother and child on the clear understanding that the demographic dividend can work to support growth and drive opportunity for ordinary people only when the population is healthy.

Crucial connections

•Thus, family health, child survival and the number of children a woman has are closely tied to the levels of health and education of the parents, and in particular the woman; so the poorer the couple, the more the children they tend to have. This is a relation that has little to do with religion and everything to do with opportunities, choices and services that are available to the people. The poor tend to have more children because child survival is low, son preference remains high, children lend a helping hand in economic activity for poorer households and so support the economic as well as emotional needs of the family. This is well known, well understood and well established.

•As the National Family Health Survey-4 (2015-16) notes, women in the lowest wealth quintile have an average of 1.6 more children than women in the highest wealth quintile, translating to a total fertility rate of 3.2 children versus 1.5 children moving from the wealthiest to the poorest. Similarly, the number of children per woman declines with a woman’s level of schooling. Women with no schooling have an average 3.1 children, compared with 1.7 children for women with 12 or more years of schooling. This reveals the depth of the connections between health, education and inequality, with those having little access to health and education being caught in a cycle of poverty, leading to more and more children, and the burden that state control on number of children could impose on the weakest. As the latest Economic Survey points out, States with high population growth are also the ones with the lowest per capita availability of hospital beds.

•In fact, demographers are careful not to use the word “population control” or “excess population”. The NPP 2000 uses the world “control” just thrice: in references to the National AIDS Control Organisation; to prevent and control communicable diseases, and control of childhood diarrhoea. This is the spirit in which India has looked at population so that it truly becomes a thriving resource; the life blood of a growing economy. Turning this into a problem that needs to be controlled is exactly the kind of phraseology, mindset and possibly action that will spell doom for the nation. It will undo all the good work that has been done and set the stage for a weaker and poorer health delivery system — exactly the opposite of what a scheme such as Ayushman Bharat seeks to achieve. Today, as many as 23 States and Union Territories, including all the States in the south region, already have fertility below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. So, support rather than control works.

Scars of the past

•The damage done when mishandling issues of population growth is long lasting. Let us not forget that the scars of the Emergency are still with us. Men used to be part of the family planning initiatives then but after the excesses of forced sterilisations, they continue to remain completely out of family planning programmes even today. The government now mostly works with woman and child health programmes. Mistakes of the Emergency-kind are not what a new government with a robust electoral mandate might like to repeat. So it is time to ask some of the prejudiced voices within the government and ruling party not to venture into terrain they may not fully understand.

📰 Opposition wants select panel scrutiny of key Bills

•In a show of strength, Opposition parties in the Rajya Sabha told the government that they wanted seven key legislation, including the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill, 2019, the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill. 2019, and the DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2019, to be sent to a Select Committee of Parliament for further scrutiny.

•All three Bills have been cleared by the Lok Sabha in the current session of Parliament.

•The decision to insist on scrutiny of the Bills came at a meeting of floor leaders of Opposition parties in the Upper House on Wednesday. Sources said Opposition leaders were also working on a joint letter that would oppose the way the two Houses of Parliament were being run and the stifling of their voices. “A draft has been prepared and we are in the process of getting signatures from everyone,” a senior Opposition leader said.

•In disarray after the results of the general election in May, the Opposition parties have regrouped in the last few days of the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha. On Tuesday, they held two meetings. Sources said Opposition MPs would meet again on Thursday to formulate a coordinated strategy for the Rajya Sabha, where they have the numbers to counter the government.

•On Wednesday, a first round of meetings was called by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. It was attended by MPs from the DMK, the NCP, the BSP and the two Left parties among others.

•Ms. Gandhi, it is learnt, urged the opposition to ensure better floor coordination. She also said the opposition should have a joint strategy for both Houses.

•The seven Bills that the opposition has demanded be sent to a standing committee are the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights of Marriage) Bill, 2019; Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019; Code Wages Bill, 2019; Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code Bill, 2019; Inter State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019; DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2019 and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Bill 2019.

•Pointing out that not a single Bill has gone to a select or a standing committee in this session, which has had highest productivity so far, clearing 15 Bills, Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad said, “In every session more or less, Bills go to the standing committee but this is the first session where not a single legislation has gone for scrutiny.”

•Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’ Brien said the Opposition is not necessarily opposed to all the Bills but wants to improve the process.

•He said, “As Opposition parties, we have informally made a list of seven such Bills; not all, but of seven such Bills, which have had no parliamentary scrutiny either through a Select Committee or the Parliamentary Standing Committee.”

Change of strategy

•The Opposition that united on the issue of seeking a response from Prime Minister Narendra Modi on U.S. President Donald Trump’s statement on Kashmir on Tuesday, and walked out of both Houses of Parliament, decided to tweak its strategy on Wednesday.

•“We weighed both the issues, the Trump statement and the lack of Parliamentary scrutiny. It was felt that the latter is of greater consequence so for now we are keeping our demand for clarification from PM aside,” a senior Opposition leader said.

📰 Centre notifies pension scheme for small traders

Formal launch of portal by PM likely at later date

•The Centre’s pension scheme for small traders has been notified and is being introduced on a trial basis this week, with the formal launch of the scheme likely to be done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon, according to Union Labour and Employment Ministry officials.

•On Wednesday, the ministry posted the Gazette Notification dated July 22 for the Pradhan Mantri Laghu Vyapari Maan-dhan, Yojana 2019 on its website. The scheme, which was among the campaign promises of the BJP, was one of the proposals cleared by the Cabinet at its first meeting.

•While the scheme would be applicable from Monday, the online portal for applicants would be rolled out “in a day or two,” a senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday. Applicants could, however, apply through the 3.5 lakh common service centres, which were set up for the government’s other pension schemes including the one for unorganised workers.

•The ministry would use the time before the scheme’s formal unveiling to address any glitches that may come up following the ‘soft launch’, the official added. Another ministry official, who declined to be identified, said the launch could be on August 15, on the occasion of Independence Day.

•Under the scheme, those who are self-employed and working as shop-owners, retail traders, rice mill owners, oil mill owners, workshop owners, commission agents, real estate brokers, small hotel owners, restaurant owners and other small traders will be eligible for pension.

•“The operations of such small traders are generally characterised by family-owned establishments, small scale of operations, labour intensive, inadequate financial aid, seasonal in nature and extensive unpaid family labour,” the ministry said in its notification.

•Small traders between 18 and 40 years of age, having an annual turnover of less than ₹1.5 crore would qualify to apply for the scheme. To be eligible, the applicants should not be covered under the National Pension Scheme, Employees’ State Insurance Scheme and the Employees’ Provident Fund or be an Income Tax assessee.

•The scheme gives the subscribers ₹3,000 a month after they turn 60, once they have contributed to the scheme every month from the time of enrolment and till that age. The government would match the monthly contribution, an amount that would depend on the age at which the applicant enters the scheme. For example, an 18-year-old would have to pay ₹55 a month, while a 40-year-old would need to pay ₹200 a month.

📰 Lok Sabha clears changes to UAPA, nod to term persons as terrorists

Home Minister Amit Shah says strict laws needed to end terror; Opposition walks out.

•“We are bringing in laws that will end terrorism in the country and we promise that the government will never misuse it. Terrorism has to be dealt with, with strict laws,” Home Minister Amit Shah said in Lok Sabha on Wednesday. He was speaking during the debate on amendments to the Unlawful Activities Prevention (Amendment) Bill,2019.

•The Bill was later passed in the Lower House with 284 votes in favour and eight against after the Opposition walked out in protest, terming it draconian and demanding that it be referred to a standing committee for scrutiny. The provisions of the Bill allow the government to designate individuals suspected to have terror links as “terrorists”.

•While this was vehemently opposed by Opposition leaders, Mr Shah said: “There’s a need for a provision to declare an individual as a terrorist. The UN has a procedure for it, the U.S. has it, even Pakistan has it, China, Israel, European Union... Everyone has done it.”

•He pointed out that if a terror organisation was banned, a terrorist could easily set up another.

•Several opposition leaders, including Trinamool Congress’s Mahua Moitra objected to the changes saying the law could be misused to target individuals

•“If the Centre wants to target someone, they will get them somehow with the help of some law. Opposition leaders, minorities, right activists and others, if they disagree with the homogenous idea of India that this government is trying to thrust upon us, the opposition runs the risk of being labelled as anti-national,” Ms. Moitra said.

•“Why is the Opposition called anti-national every time we disagree with the government on issues of national security, policing,” she asked.

‘Urban Maoists’

•Replying to the Opposition’s allegations that anyone who questioned the government is termed as anti-national, Mr. Shah said no one would harass genuine social activists.

•“There are in fact many social activists who are doing good work... But we will smash the Urban maoists. Let me make it very clear — the government has zero tolerance towards them and we need tough laws to prevent this,” the Home Minister asserted.

•“The amendments that we have brought in will help us take four steps ahead of terrorists and their dubious plans and that is what our country needs now,” he added.

•The Home Minister also accused the Congress of double-speak, pointing out that they had in brought in the law to control terrorism and then followed it up with amendments in 2004, 2008 and 2013.

•Through the discussion, several Opposition leaders strongly opposed the Bill. N.K. Premachandran (RSP) said innocent people would be harassed by the law which would allow the Centre to interfere into matters dealt with by the States.

•“We can’t give up individual rights. Many of us in this House started our life as activists. The right to dissent must be protected,” said Karti Chidambaram of the Congress.

•“When you (Opposition) question us, you don’t see who brought the law and amendments, who made it stringent” It was brought when you were in power, what you did then was right and what I’m doing now is also right,” Mr. Shah said.

•“A government fights terrorism; it shouldn’t matter which party is in power,” he added.

📰 ‘Centre won’t take Central Information Commission’s orders seriously’

Panel members express apprehension, former members urge RTI (Amendment) Bill’s withdrawal.

•With the RTI (Amendment) Bill having been passed by the Lok Sabha and now pending introduction in the Rajya Sabha, several Central Information Commission (CIC) members — past and present — have warned that the changes would have a chilling impact on the implementation of the RTI Act as originally envisioned.

•“There is definitely a concern that our directives will not be taken as seriously by the government’s officials [if the amendments are approved as law],” a current CIC member said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Today, we issue orders even to Secretaries of the Government of India. There is some kind of implicit fear. But if the status of the Commission is brought down, why would they bother?” The Bill proposes to allow the Centre to set the tenure and salaries of both State and Central Information Commissioners, leading to concerns that the autonomy and authority of the Commissions could be weakened. Currently, Central Information Commissioners hold a status equal to Election Commissioners and Supreme Court judges. The Centre has argued that this is an anomaly needing correction, as the CIC is a statutory body, while the Central Election Commission is a constitutional body. Current CIC members said the Centre had not formally asked them for their views on the Amendment Bill, and most were reluctant to express any opinion.

•“You know what our worry is, but I cannot say anything,” said another member, who did not wish to be identified.

•Former CIC members were more outspoken in their criticism.

‘Under obligation’

•“If an Information Commissioner is beholden to the government for salary and tenure, then surely he is under obligation,” asserted Wajahat Habibullah, who was the first Chief Information Commissioner.

•“Of course, he will have second thoughts even if he is a person of integrity. It gives the government leverage... and greatly compromises the authority of the law,” added Mr. Habibullah, who has joined six other former Commissioners in urging the Centre to withdraw the amendments.

•“Everybody in power dislikes transparency,” said RTI activist and former Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi. “Even the UPA tried to amend the law, but it ultimately listened to people’s protests. This government does not seem to be listening to the people’s voices,” he asserted.

•“The government is trying to suppress people seeking information, which is a suppression of the democratic process,” said former Commissioner M.M. Ansari, adding that Janane ka Haq (the right to know), a Doordarshan programme on the RTI Act, had been discontinued recently.

•Sridhar Acharyulu, a law professor who recently retired as a Commissioner, noted that under the federal structure, the Centre could not decide salaries of State Commissioners, who were paid by States. Former Commissioner Annapurna Dixit pointed to the fact that other statutory bodies had had their status upgraded and alleged discrimination against the RTI Act.

📰 China says it wants security & stability along India border

Paper signals ties with India improving

•China’s military on Wednesday signalled that ties with India were improving, but warned the U.S. that it should not test Beijing’s one-China policy over Taiwan.

•A white paper titled ‘China’s National Defence in the New Era’, released by the Chinese Defence Ministry, said Beijing was striving to promote security and stability along the India-China border. It has also created “favourable conditions” to peacefully resolve the Doklam military standoff — a reference to the military tensions between the two countries in the summer of 2017.

•China has “taken effective measures to create favourable conditions for the peaceful resolution of the Donglang (Doklam) standoff”, the paper said.

•But on the U.S., with which China is already engaged in a trade war, the white paper has gone ballistic, specially regarding the status of Taiwan, over which Beijing asserts its de jure sovereignty.

•Beijing has called Taiwan “the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations”.

‘We will fight’

•Addressing a press conference after the paper’s release, Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said the threat of Taiwan separatism is growing. He warned that attempts by those seeking Taiwan’s independence were futile. “If anyone dares to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese military will certainly fight, resolutely defending the country’s sovereign unity and territorial integrity.”

•Tensions between China and the U.S. heightened earlier this month, after the State Department cleared $2.2 billion worth weapons sales, including 108 General Dynamics Corp. M1A2T Abrams tanks and 250 Stinger missiles, apart from other weapons.

•In turn, China has threatened to impose sanctions on U.S. companies engaged in arms trade with Taiwan.

•The paper pointed out that the U.S. deployment of a missile defence system in South Korea had severely undermined the regional strategic balance.

•China also stressed its resolve to counter supporters of separatism in Tibet as well as the Xinjiang region.

•The paper accused the U.S. of adopting “unilateral policies”, adding that Washington “has provoked and intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defence expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence, and undermined global strategic stability”.

📰 Undermining RTI

Amendments should not downgrade the status of information panels

•Any amendment to a law is bound to be viewed with suspicion if no fundamental need is seen for the changes it proposes. Amendments passed by the Lok Sabha to the Right to Information Act are so obviously unnecessary that naturally many see an ulterior motive. It is difficult not to concur with activists who contend that the amendments pose a threat to the freedom and autonomy of Information Commissions at the Central and State levels. The Central Information Commissioner, the corresponding authorities in the States (State Information Commissioners) and other Information Commissioners at both levels are statutory functionaries vested with the power to review the decisions of public information officers in government departments, institutions and bodies. The amendments propose to modify the status, tenure and conditions of appointment of these Commissioners and empower the Union government to set their tenure and remuneration. While the original law assured incumbents of a fixed five-year term, with 65 as the retirement age, the amendments say the Centre would decide their tenure. In one stroke, the security of tenure of an adjudicating authority, whose mandate is to intervene in favour of information-seekers against powerful regimes and bureaucrats, has been undermined. The original legislation says the salary and terms and conditions of service of the CIC are the same as those of the Chief Election Commissioner, equal in status to a Supreme Court judge. Similarly, the other Information Commissioners at the Central level have the same conditions of service as Election Commissioners. At the State level, the SIC has the same terms and conditions of service as Election Commissioners, while other Information Commissioners are equated with the Chief Secretary of a State.

•The government claims its aim is to ‘rationalise’ the status of the authorities. It argues that while the Chief Election Commissioner is a constitutional functionary, the CIC is only a statutory authority. And while the CEC is equal in status to a Supreme Court judge, it would be incongruous for the CIC to enjoy the same status as the CIC’s orders are subject to judicial review by the high courts. This is a fallacious argument as even the Election Commission’s decisions can be reviewed by high courts. Protecting citizens’ right to information is a cause important enough for adjudicating authorities to be vested with high status and security of tenure. Given the extent to which the RTI Act has empowered citizens and helped break the hold of vested interests over the administration, the law has always faced a threat from many in power. The RTI Act was a consensus law and a product of public consultation. The present amendments have not been put to any debate. The government would do well to drop the Bill or at least send it to a parliamentary select committee for deeper scrutiny.

📰 India's shifting strategic concerns

What India needs to do as the U.S. and China get busier in the subcontinent

•The U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest gaffe has introduced another thorn in what is now clearly an unsettled India-U.S. relationship. His claim, on Monday, that India sought U.S. mediation in Kashmir will pinch the Narendra Modi government more because it strikes at a vital interest: India’s territorial integrity. But if we had been more attuned to international shifts, we would have noticed that structural trends in South Asia have been changing over the past several years. While India’s hand is not as strong as we sometimes believe it to be, there might be opportunities to leverage the international situation further down the road.

Perceived advantage

•If we step back and evaluate the India-Pakistan equation over the past five years, what stands out is that both sides proceeded from a perception that each holds an advantageous position. India’s confidence emanated from Mr. Modi’s electoral victory in 2014 that yielded a strong Central government and expectations of stable ties with all the major powers. Mostly overlooked in India, Pakistani leaders too have displayed confidence that the international environment was moving in a direction that opened options for Pakistan that were unavailable in the previous decade. This included the renewed patterns of Pakistan’s ties with the U.S. and China, with the latter reassuring Pakistan and, most importantly, the Army on their respective strategic commitments and bilateral partnerships. In the U.S.’s case, this appears to have been undertaken discreetly to avoid ruffling India’s feathers, with the result that the enduring aspects of U.S.-Pakistan ties remained obscure, but still very real. In the past few days, the resilience of that relationship has come out into the open. Let us not ever forget that this is a military alliance forged in the 1950s. Historically, U.S. policymakers have always sought to restore the alliance with Pakistan whenever Islamabad’s ties with China became stronger. India has borne the brunt of this recurring geopolitical dynamic.

•Much of Pakistan’s contemporary leverage can of course also be traced to the ongoing phase of the Afghan conflict. It fended off the most dangerous phase when U.S. policy might have shifted in an adversarial direction, or instability in the tribal frontier areas might have completely exploded. Thus, the Pakistan Army perceives itself in a position of strength where Washington, Beijing, and even Moscow have recognised Pakistan’s role in a future settlement on the conflict in Afghanistan. So, both India and Pakistan perceive themselves to be in a comfortable strategic position. At any rate, the evolving roles and interests of third parties are becoming significant again, and how Delhi leverages the international environment will determine the success of its overall policy.

Pakistan’s benefactors

•Both the U.S. and China have overlapping interests in regional stability and avoidance of a major subcontinental conflict. While each maintains deep ties with Pakistan for different reasons, it is unclear to what extent their longer term interests coincide with India, which seeks a structural transformation in Pakistan’s domestic politics and external behaviour. The U.S. and China appear content with, or probably prefer, a Pakistan with a strong Rawalpindi, along with competent civilian governance structures and an elite with a wider world view. A Pakistan that looks beyond South Asia could be a useful potential partner in burden sharing, ironically for both the U.S. and China. For Washington, the Pakistan Army is an insurance card for persisting security challenges such as regime survival for U.S. client states in West Asia as well as for the containment of Iran. For China, a stable Pakistan can be a partner in the Belt and Road initiative and future continental industrial and energy corridors. As the writer Andrew Small underlines, Beijing’s large economic investments “come with some clear expectations about the choices that Pakistan’s political and military leadership make about their country’s future”.

•In sum, both the U.S. and China seek a strong, stable and secure Pakistan that controls its destabilising behaviour because that undermines their wider regional interests. For the U.S., a revisionist Pakistan pulls India inward and away from potential India-U.S. cooperation on Asian geopolitics. For China, it undermines its industrial and connectivity projects in Pakistan, while negatively impacting India-China ties. Hence, evolving interests of the great powers in South Asia might not necessarily portend an adverse geopolitical setting for India in the medium term. This is even more plausible if the widening comprehensive national power gap between a rising India and an unstable Pakistan make the latter’s traditional role as a balancer or spoiler unattractive in the eyes of the great powers. As Pakistani scholar Hussain Haqqani predicts, “You can try to leverage your strategic location as much as you like, but there will come a time... when strategic concerns change.”

•So, while it is reasonable to forecast that both the U.S. and China benefit from a more normalised Pakistan, India’s policymakers should also remain clear-eyed that neither country would be willing to expend much strategic capital in an ambitious policy to reorder the domestic scene or civil-military relations in Pakistan. In any case, Indian statecraft is essential to reorient perceptions of the great powers. Maintaining that India has the right and the capacity to adopt an active defence posture — that is, blocking the flow of cross-border terror by proactive operations on the Line of Control (LoC) along with reserving the option for more ambitious punitive strikes in response to major terrorist attacks on Indian military targets — would play an important part in shaping how third parties view Indian interests and thereby assume constructive roles in managing Pakistani behaviour.

•If India ever asks third parties to assist in the region, it should be for a cessation of Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir, and, once an atmosphere of peace has been established, to persuade Pakistan to accept the LoC as part of a final territorial settlement similar to the offer by Indira Gandhi in the 1972 Shimla negotiations.

📰 Draft New Education Policy offers contentious remedies for a structural malady in medical studies

The NEP’s proposals will not ensure equity in health care

•The primary objective of medical education should be to provide a cadre of personnel to take care of the health needs of the country. In addition, any education policy in the modern world has to take into consideration social objectives, for example equity and justice in enrolment and access. That apart, certain fundamental questions need answering too. For instance, how many years of training are required for a medical professional? What should be the purpose of a basic degree in medicine? Is specialisation required? If so, how much and how is it to be done?

•The draft New Education Policy (NEP) speaks about equity, inclusiveness and sustainable development at many points, starting from the preamble. However, it is by no means clear that its recommendations will fulfil these objectives, especially in the field of medical education. For example, on page 300, it states that fees in medical colleges, both public and private, will be left to be decided by the institutions themselves. However, just a few pages later, it asserts that the cost of education should be lowered.

•At another point, the policy document states that all private institutions should be not-for-profit. It appears that the committee that drafted the report hoped that this recommendation, as well as the regulatory apparatus suggested by it, by itself will take care of the problem of profiteering. However, what gives it such confidence is hard to understand given that the present policy too is to consider higher education a not-for-profit enterprise but has become a very large driver of the black economy, according to several reports. Though the document states at several points that no student should be deprived of education due to lack of finances, the solution it suggests is scholarships.

Confused thinking

•The fact that on the one hand, the cost of education is sought to be lowered and on the other, fees are allowed to remain unregulated, betrays confused thinking. With the National Medical Commission Bill regulating fees only for 50% of seats in medical colleges, it looks like the commitment to equity is merely a pious homily.

•At several points in the policy document, the need for a flexible education system has been stressed. One part of this flexibility is in the possibility of multiple entry and exit points. One can understand having a National Entrance Examination for admission to undergraduate courses. However, it is absolutely clear that having a National Exit Examination for MBBS as the mode of entry to postgraduate courses is neither flexible nor fair. Can a student be expected to take the exit examination multiple times if the initial score is not good enough? Are all medical colleges across the country of the same standard to ensure a level-playing field? Sealing the student’s fate once and for all through an exit examination is certainly not just.

High level of centralisation

•The objectives of autonomy and adaptation to local needs are contradicted by the high level of centralisation in medical education by the National Medical Commission. The document considers separation of the functions of regulation, funding, accreditation and standard setting as absolutely necessary. However, the National Medical Commission has sought to arrogate to itself many of these functions. Further, the recommendation that diploma courses should be expanded in order to provide “intermediate specialists” lacks focus. What are these intermediate specialists supposed to do?

•Multiple postgraduate courses have been started without any clear rationale. The MBBS degree has been debased to such an extent that it is considered merely a necessary requirement for postgraduation. One of the main drivers of the thirst for a postgraduate degree is the lack of adequate respectable employment opportunities for an MBBS graduate. The overwhelming privatisation of health-care delivery in India has led to the concentration of personnel in those parts where the public has the capacity to pay. Having a postgraduate degree has a multiplier effect on employability, income and respectability for the doctor. How useful it is for the society is questionable.

•The policy document does not recognise that the main driver of inequity in health care is the presence of a large, poorly-regulated, for-profit sector. Private interests have ensured regulatory capture in health-care policymaking. It appears that the National Education Policy has not escaped this capture, hence the clear disconnect between the repeated exhortations to ensure equity and quality and the recommendations which will achieve neither.

📰 Milky Way’s violent birth decoded

The merger of the Milky Way progenitor galaxy and the dwarf galaxy Gaia-Enceladus roughly 10 billion years ago, left, and the current appearance of the Milky Way galaxy, right.
It was shaped as a result of collision with another smaller galaxy 10 bn years ago

•The Milky Way, home to our sun and billions of other stars, merged with another smaller galaxy in a colossal cosmic collision roughly 10 billion years ago, scientists said on Monday based on data from the Gaia space observatory.

•The union of the Milky Way and the so-called dwarf galaxy Gaia-Enceladus increased our galaxy’s mass by about a quarter and triggered a period of accelerated star formation lasting about 2 to 4 billion years, the scientists said. “Yes, indeed it was a pivotal moment,” said astronomer Carme Gallart of Instituto de Astrofţsica de Canarias in Spain, lead author of the research published in Nature Astronomy.

•Galaxies of all types, including the Milky Way, began to form relatively soon after the Big Bang explosion that marked the beginning of the universe some 13.8 billion years ago, but were generally smaller than those seen today and were forming stars at a rapid rate. Subsequent galactic mergers were instrumental in configuring galaxies existing now.

•High-precision measurements of the position, brightness and distance of around a million stars within 6,500 light years of the sun, obtained by the Gaia space telescope, helped pinpoint stars present before the merger and those that formed afterward.

•Certain stars with higher content of elements other than hydrogen or helium arose in the Milky Way, they found, and others with lower such content originated in Gaia-Enceladus, owing to its smaller mass. While the merger was dramatic and helped shape the Milky Way, it was not a star-destroying calamity. “This crash was big in cosmic terms, but if it was happening now, we could probably not even notice at a human or solar system level,” she said.

•“The distances between stars in a galaxy are so huge — a galaxy is basically empty space — that the two galaxies intermix, change their global shape, more star formation may happen in one, and maybe the small one stops forming stars.

📰 India rises in global innovation ranking

Jumps five places to rank 52 in the Global Innovation Index 2019

•India has jumped five places to rank 52 in the Global Innovation Index 2019, up from the 57 it had in last year’s rankings.

•India’s rise in the rankings has been a consistent trend over the last few years. It had ranked 81 in 2015, which rose to 66 in 2016, 60 in 2017 and 57 in 2018.

•“The performance improvement of India is particularly noteworthy,” the report, brought out by the UN World Intellectual Property Organisation, INSEAD and CII, said.

Most innovative

•“India continues to be the most innovative economy in central and southern Asia — a distinction held since 2011 — improving its global rank to 52 in 2019.

•“India is consistently among the top in the world in innovation drivers such as ICT services exports, graduates in science and engineering, the quality of universities, gross capital formation — a measure of economy-wide investments — and creative goods exports,” the report added.

•The report also highlighted that India stands out in the world’s top science and technology clusters, with Bengaluru, Mumbai, and New Delhi featuring among the top 100 global clusters.

•“Given its size — and if progress is upheld — India will make a true impact on global innovation in the years to come,” the report said. Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, who released the report, said that India’s hope of increasing the size of the economy to $5 trillion cannot happen without significant innovation.

•“Invention comes naturally to India,” Mr. Goyal said.

•“Aryabhata invented the zero, which probably is the mother of all inventions involving science and mathematics and astronomy.

•“We are happy that India has made significant progress to the 52nd rank in the Global Innovation Index 2019. We are happy that our culture of innovation is coming to the centre stage,” he added.

•Mr. Goyal also said that India must be a responsive country and work in mission mode by engaging with academia, the private sector and government agencies to improve the quality of citizens’ lives even in the remotest parts of the country.

📰 Making Chennai a water-wise city

There is a compelling need for a paradigm shift in the way the ongoing water crisis is being viewed

•The public discourse on Chennai’s ongoing water crisis has been along predictable lines. Source augmentation, deepening of waterbodies and giving rainwater harvesting a renewed emphasis are among the suggestions being made, apart from demand-side management. But these ideas, however well-meaning they may be, have their limitations. There is a compelling need for a paradigm shift in the way the water crisis is being viewed.

•When it comes to source augmentation, in the last 40 years, a couple of major projects were taken up for Chennai to tap both fresh water and sea water.

•The Krishna Water Supply Scheme or Telugu Ganga Project (1996) and the New Veeranam Project (2004) were implemented using two important inter-State rivers — the Krishna and the Cauvery, both of which depend on the southwest monsoon (June-September).

•Though the Krishna Water Supply Scheme, if realised fully, can take care of at least half of the Chennai Metropolitan Area (CMA)’s projected water demand of 1,721 million litres a day (MLD) for 2020, Tamil Nadu has not received the assured quantum from Andhra Pradesh even once in the last 20+ years. As regards the Cauvery project, the ‘upper-riparian attitude’ of Karnataka determines the flow to Tamil Nadu. In effect, realisation of water by Chennai hinges on nature and inter-State ties, both of which are, more often than not, unpredictable.

Tapping stone quarries

•Another source since 2017 for the city has been the abandoned stone quarries located on the outskirts, from where water is drawn for public water supply after treatment.

•Further, two desalination plants of 100 MLD each were commissioned in 2010 and 2013. Work has begun on another desalination plant of 150 MLD while steps are on to set up another 400 MLD unit. However, given the costs and environmental concerns, it is unlikely that Chennai can afford to stretch this option beyond a point.

•Deepening of tanks and lakes, a popular option, is easier said than done. Issues such as the costs involved in removing and transporting the silt and inadequate disposal arrangements have bothered the authorities to such an extent that nothing much has been done.

•As regards rainwater harvesting (RWH), it cannot be a panacea and site-specific requirements will have to be kept in mind while putting up RWH structures. The model of storing rainwater and reusing it may demonstrate the efficacy of RWH.

•Many of the options being suggested to overcome the distress situation faced by Chennai have been tried out in the past. Yet, just one bad monsoon has pushed the city to yet another water crisis. This scenario may get repeated in the future too.

•Even if there are bountiful monsoon years, the prospects of Chennai becoming a water-surplus city are remote. An official document prepared a few years ago estimated that the CMA, which covers not only Chennai Corporation but also nearby municipalities, town panchayats and village panchayats, will have a shortfall of 1,089 MLD in 2020. Even assuming that the southern peninsula experiences good southwest and northeast monsoons this year, the gap can come down only by a maximum of 400 MLD.

•A note available on the website of The Energy and Resources Institute states, quoting the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation, that the average water supply in urban local bodies of the country is 69.25 litres per capita per day (LPCD) against the service level benchmark of 135 LPCD. For a metropolitan city like Chennai, the benchmark goes up to 150 LPCD. If one were to go by the admission of Chennai Metrowater, the service level achieved in March 2018 was 112 LPCD. This is why the need for a paradigm shift becomes all the more important.

Waste-water recycling

•Just as in many other Indian cities, the concept of waste-water recycling and re-use has not yet caught the imagination of either the authorities or the public in a big way. The demand-supply gap will be a permanent feature of urban India unless society realises the critical importance of recycling and re-use of water. It needs to be noted here that on an average, 85 litres of water goes waste for every 100 litres utilised.

•There is also another reason why the concept ought to be popularised. According to information furnished by the Centre, while urban areas of the country generate 61,948 MLD of sewage on a daily basis, the installed capacity of sewage treatment plants (STPs) is just 23,277 MLD. This means that only 37.5% of sewage generated can be treated. As per a conservative estimate, Chennai generates about 930 MLD of sewage, whereas its STPs can handle 727 MLD. With rapid urbanisation, the space for new plants is hardly available in peri-urban areas of Chennai, a scenario applicable to any other city in India. As a result, the city’s rivers and canals have been reduced to carriers of raw sewage. Over and above these reasons, one of the targets set under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by UN member-countries in 2015, is to halve the proportion of untreated waste water.

Non-consumptive use

•There are numerous ways through which waste water can be treated at the point of generation. Several Information Technology companies, located outside the city limits, have adopted the concept as they have their own STPs and use the treated water for non-consumptive purposes such as gardening and flushing toilets. Some high-end residential apartments too have begun implementing the idea.

•Realising the potential benefits, Chennai Metrowater has at last launched work on establishing two tertiary treated reverse osmosis plants of 45 MLD each. The process will involve sewage treatment in three stages and will use reverse osmosis system through which most of the dissolved solids and bacteria will be removed from the treated sewage.

•Besides, projects are on to experiment with the idea of conjunctive use of fresh water and treated sewage — mixing treated sewage with fresh water by letting it into the lakes of Porur and Perungudi. These are only some modes of water treatment, the scope for which is enormous and still untapped.

•All said, a wise society cannot allow itself to become complacent once the rainy season starts. The present debate needs to be taken forward so that waste water is reused and recycled in an imaginative and optimal way. This way, Chennai can take pride in being a water-wise society.