The HINDU Notes – 09th November 2019 - VISION

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Saturday, November 09, 2019

The HINDU Notes – 09th November 2019

πŸ“° Maternal death rate declining: report

2,000 deaths averted per year, says SRS bulletin

•India’s Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) has seen a decline from 130 per 1 lakh live births in 2014-2016 to 122 per 1 lakh live births in 2015-2017.

•A decline of 8 points (6.2%) was observed during this period, according to the latest Sample Registration System (SRS) 2015-2017 bulletin for MMR released on Thursday.

•This is good news for India as nearly 2,000 maternal deaths have been averted per year, according to the bulletin. The figure has declined from 167 in 2011-2013 to 130 in 2014-2016 and to 122 in 2015-17, registering a 6.15 per cent reduction since the last survey figures of 2014-2016.

•While Karnataka has shown the highest percentage decline in MMR, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have shown an increase by 15 points each in MMR.

•To understand the maternal mortality situation in the country better and to map the changes, especially at the regional level, the government has categorised States into three groups: empowered action group (EAG), southern States and other States.

•Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh/Uttarakhand and Assam fall under the EAG and Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are in the southern States group. “Others” comprise the remaining States and Union Territories.

•The decline has been most significant in EAG States from 188 to 175. The ratio has reduced considerably from 77 to 72 per 1,00,000 live births among southern States and in the other States from 93 to 90.

•Independent MMR data of Jharkhand (76), Chhattisgarh (141) and Uttarakhand (89) has been released for the first time in the SRS 2015-2017 bulletin.

•While Rajasthan’s MMR has shown the highest decrease by 13 points, followed by Odisha (12 points) and Karnataka (11 points), the States of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Punjab have not shown any change in the ratio. Retaining its first position, Kerala has reduced its MMR from 46 in 2014-2016 to 42 in 2015-2017. Likewise, Maharashtra retained its second position with 55 (down from 61) and Tamil Nadu its third position with 63 (down from 66).

Development goal

•Union Joint Commissioner (Maternal Health) Dinesh Baswal told The Hinduthat the decline is important for India as 11 States have achieved the National Health Policy target of MMR 100 per lakh live births well ahead of 2020. “This has been possible in view of the gains made in institutional deliveries and focused approach towards aspirational districts and inter-sectoral action to reach the most marginalised and vulnerable mothers,” he said.

•Focus on quality and coverage of health services through public health initiatives under the National Health Mission such as LaQshya, Poshan Abhiyan, Pradhan Mantri Surakshit Matritva Abhiyan, Janani Shishu Suraksha Karyakram, Janani Suraksha Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Matru Vandana Yojana have contributed to this decline, he said.

•“India is now committed to ensuring that not a single mother or newborn dies due to a preventable cause and move towards zero preventable maternal and newborn deaths through the recently launched Surakshit Matritva Aashwasan Initiative (SUMAN),” he added.

•The WHO had last year lauded India’s progress in reducing the MMR, saying the progress puts the country on track towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of an MMR below 70 by 2030.

πŸ“° Goyal lays out nuts and bolts of RCEP decision

At a briefing for Union Cabinet, he denied that India tried to scuttle the pact

•Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal has briefed the Union Council of Ministers on the country’s decision not to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

•On Wednesday, while he did go into the political aspects of the decision, it was also to make his colleagues aware of the minute technical issues behind the action.

Long-standing reasons

•Mr. Goyal has emphatically denied that India had put in any last minute deal breakers to scuttle the pact. Instead, the reasons were said to be of long-standing and had been consistently on the negotiating table. Among the reasons are some that are already in the public domain – like the threat of circumvention of Rules of Origin due to tariff differentials, where countries take advantage of tariff differentials given to another country, and not offered to it. Also, a long-standing request of India that the base rate of customs duty be changed from 2014 to 2019, as the RCEP, even if signed in 2019, would be ratified only by 2022, which means that the 2014 base rate would be hugely outdated even for the take-off point of the agreement.

•A request was also made for tariff lines to be on an auto-trigger safeguard mechanism along with a review clause at a periodicity of three, as India’s experience with free trade agreements (FTAs) has been that it often leads to huge import surges that impair the domestic industry due to dumping.

MFN issue

•Most significantly, an exclusion of Most Favoured Nation (MFN) obligations was sought in the investment chapter, i.e., India has given MFN status looking at its strategic interests.

•“It cannot be anyone’s case that what India gives to its strategic allies or for geopolitical reasons will be handed out to all RCEP countries, including those with whom India has border disputes,” said a government source. Plainly what this means is that without adequate safeguards, the RCEP could end up being an FTA with China through the back door with a huge trade deficit on the Indian side.

•The effort was, say government sources, to ask the RCEP to consider the Indian position, and when that was not on, with other member-countries going ahead with signing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi felt there was no option but to keep out of the agreement.

•The government will go ahead with individual FTA negotiations with the U.S. and the European Union, but, clearly, these efforts would be informed by the RCEP experience.

πŸ“° The China factor in India’s RCEP move

New Delhi seems to be signalling that Bejing’s rise in the Indo-Pacific has to be tackled politically and economically

•Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ASEAN sojourn this year will be remembered for India finally rejecting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade deal. Apart from the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the mega deal was to include the bloc’s six free trade partners — China, India, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. In his speech at the RCEP summit in Bangkok, Mr. Modi argued that while “India has been proactively, constructively and meaningfully engaged in the RCEP negotiations since inception,” the draft RCEP agreement did “not fully reflect the basic spirit and the agreed guiding principles of RCEP” even as it did “not address satisfactorily India’s outstanding issues and concerns.”

•The RCEP negotiations were launched in 2012 and, this year, there was a big push to get it finalised. After India’s rejection, the remaining 15 members decided to go ahead and underlined their intent to sign a trade deal sometime next year, keeping the door open for India to join at a later date.

•At a time of escalating Sino-U.S. trade tensions, China was particularly keen to see a successful conclusion of the RCEP summit and had been vigorously pushing for that. But that’s precisely where the problem for India lay as well. India’s demands at the RCEP negotiations included shifting the base year for tariff cuts from 2014 to 2019; avoiding a sudden surge in imports from China by including a large number of items in an auto-trigger mechanism; calling for stricter rules of origin to prevent dumping from China; and a better deal in services. The China factor, therefore, was key to New Delhi’s assessment of costs and benefits.

Large trade deficits

•While India runs large trade deficits with at least 11 of the 15 RCEP members, China alone accounts for $53 billion of India’s $105 billion trade deficit with these. Given China’s needs for greater access to Indian market to sustain its manufacturing industries, India was keen to protect its industry and farmers from a surge in Chinese imports.

•India’s experience with Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) has been underwhelming, with the Niti Aayog suggesting that FTA utilisation, which is in the 5%-25% range, was measly. Domestically, the RCEP generated considerable opposition with major stakeholders coming out against it, be it farmers, dairy industry or the corporate sector. The Opposition Congress Party, which joined the RCEP negotiations seven years ago, too decided that it was politically expedient to oppose the pact. Difficulties in the Indian economic landscape further compounded the problems. If global negotiations are a “two level” game, both the levels were facing severe challenges, making this rejection a veritable necessity.

•Comprising half of the world population and accounting for nearly 40% of the global commerce and 35% of the GDP, the RCEP would have become the world’s largest free trade area after finalisation, with India being the third-biggest economy in it. Without India, however, the RCEP does not look as attractive a trade pact as it had seemed during negotiations. Not surprising, therefore, that there are divisions within the ASEAN on moving ahead without India.

•ASEAN has always been keen on a diversified portfolio of partners so that its member states can leverage their centrality in their dealings with major powers and maintain their strategic autonomy. While China’s clout has been growing in the region, ASEAN member states have tried to keep the U.S. engaged in the region as well. But with the Trump administration giving mixed signals about Washington’s commitment towards the region, ASEAN has been looking at New Delhi with a renewed sense of anticipation.

•The Modi government’s proactive outreach to the region in the form of its ‘Act East’ policy has been well received. Anxious about China’s increasingly overweening economic and security presence in the region, ASEAN member states have been keen on a substantive Indian involvement in the region. India’s decision to keep away from the RCEP will, hence, certainly cause concerns about its larger game plan vis-a-vis the region. New Delhi’s entire Indo-Pacific strategy might be open to question if steps are not taken to restore India’s profile in the region. For China, this looks like a win at a time when the Trump administration is pushing Asia into making a choice in its favour by jettisoning Chinese largesse on infrastructure and technology.

Beijing’s dominance

•Both geopolitically and geo-economically, China now looks set to dominate the Indo-Pacific, which may not be good news for the region and India. This is the reason why Japan is now suggesting that it would work towards a deal which includes India. Even as China is pushing for an early conclusion of RCEP among the remaining 15 members, Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama made it clear that Tokyo “wants to play a leading role toward reaching an early agreement between all 16 countries, including India, with the aim of signing it in 2020.”

•Economic isolation is not an option for India and so there are reports that New Delhi will be moving towards bilateral trade pacts. India will have to prepare itself more fully to take advantage of such pacts. Domestic reforms will be the need of the hour. This is an age when the whole raison d’etre of economic globalisation is being challenged. India needs a strategy that brings together the economic and political aspects of its strategic thinking. In rejecting the RCEP, New Delhi seems to be signalling that despite the costs, China’s rise has to be tackled both politically and economically. How the rest of East and Southeast Asia responds to India’s move will determine the future balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

πŸ“° Moody’s lowers India outlook to ‘negative’

•Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded its outlook on India to ‘negative’ from ‘stable’ on Friday.

•The downgrade in the sovereign outlook was followed by a downgrade in the outlook for a number of public sector and private sector Indian companies. The company has, however, left India’s current rating (Baa2) unchanged, implying that the slowing economy has not yet affected India’s current rating, but could in the future.

•Soon after, the government issued a statement, defending the economy as one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world. In its rebuttal, the government said India remains one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world, something reaffirmed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Moody’s decision represents a downgrade in its expectations of the future performance of the economy.

•“Moody’s decision to change the outlook reflects increasing risks that economic growth will remain materially lower, partly reflecting lower government and policy effectiveness at addressing long-standing economic and institutional weaknesses , leading to a gradual rise in the debt burden from already high levels,” a statement from Moody’s Investors Service said.

•It further said while the government’s steps to support the economy should help reduce the depth and duration of the growth slowdown, a prolonged financial stress among rural households, weak job creation, and a credit crunch among non-banking financial institutions, had increased the probability of a more entrenched slowdown.

πŸ“° Thumbs down: On Moody’s negative rating

Moody’s has flagged known risks, and the Centre has to push harder for reforms

•Ratings agency Moody’s has reacted predictably to the turbulence in the economy by revising the outlook on its sovereign rating for India from stable to negative. Moody’s India rating is a notch higher than that of Standard & Poor’s and the outlook revision now may well be to compensate for its past optimism on India. Yet, the outlook revision has to be seen for what it is: a warning that if the economy fails to bounce back soon enough, the sovereign rating could be up for an unfavourable review. With due respect to Moody’s, none of the issues that it has highlighted is unknown. The growth slowdown and its effects on the fiscal deficit and borrowings are the main worries. On the one hand, tax revenue growth is nowhere near budgeted levels and with the slowdown extending into the third quarter, it is clear that tax revenues will undershoot by a wide margin. On the other, the government has been forced to spend more to give a leg up to the economy. Apart from pushing expenditure on capital projects, the government last month gave away corporate tax concessions amounting to a whopping ₹1.45 lakh crore. Even with the boost from the ₹1.76 lakh crore dividend payout from the Reserve Bank of India, the budget arithmetic is optimistic and it now appears certain that the government will miss the fiscal deficit target of 3.3% of GDP. The only question is: by how much? Moody’s has projected that the deficit will slip to 3.7% of GDP this fiscal. Ratings agencies are ultra-sensitive to fiscal deficit overruns but the positive factor here is that India’s borrowings are almost wholly domestic. External debt to GDP is just 20% but the ratings do have an impact on investor sentiment.

•But the Moody’s outlook revision comes when there are faint signs of a revival in the economy. To be sure, it may be another quarter or two before growth picks up — the second quarter numbers due later this month may show GDP growing at less than 5%. But the festive season uptick in sales of automobiles and white goods does point to the return of the consumer to the market. Of course, the possibility that it was an artificial boost driven by the big discounts that were on offer cannot be ruled out. But there are other positive signals such as the increase in bank credit offtake reported by the RBI for the second successive fortnight. The government needs to press the pedal harder on reforms and in debugging GST. It may also have little option than to go big on disinvestment in the remaining four months of this fiscal. The target of ₹1.05 lakh crore that it set for itself in the budget has to be bested by a wide margin if the fiscal deficit slippage is to be contained. The supportive measures announced in the last two months should be closely monitored for implementation.

πŸ“° At the altar of national security

Human development and ecology have always been given the short shrift in India. But now, they are not even discussed

•If there is one feature that unites regimes based on right-wing ideology across the world, it is their relentless and near-daily focus on emotive issues like nationalism, religious identity, terrorism, national security, and so on. While the effect of this in terms of heightened hate and violence against “anti-national” minorities is by now well-documented, what is less commented upon is how this discourse of nationalism and national security catastrophically pushes under the carpet the most vital issues of development: health, education and the environment.

•The 2019 general elections were the most apt illustration of this. According to the ruling party, Pulwama, Balakot and Pakistan (and not unemployment, farmers’ distress, or economic slowdown) were to be the election priorities of the world’s largest democracy, and its supporters and large sections of the media duly propagated the same.

•Contrast this with the federal elections in Australia and Canada in 2019. According to a survey of 1.4 million voters in each country, the top election issue was climate change, and the second was the economy. The other top issues were inequality, pensions, health care, taxes and employment. Immigration, which could be a potentially divisive issue, and a hot topic for the far right in both the nations, was not in the top five.

•Even after the Lok Sabha elections, the discourse on national security has only hardened with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), Kashmir (note: not the plight of Kashmiris), Article 370, and Pakistan (still) dominating the news space. Otherwise, how can one explain the fact that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s campaign in Haryana, a State with among the highest unemployment rates in the country, and Maharashtra, a State that is facing severe farmers’ distress, was on issues like Kashmir and Bharat Ratna for Savarkar?

The Pakistan obsession

•An analysis done by political satirist Ramit Verma showed that of the 202 popular prime-time news debates across four major Hindi channels till October 19, at least 79 were about attacking Pakistan; 66 about attacking the Opposition; 36 about praising the Prime Minister and the ruling party; and 14 about Ram Mandir. There was not a single debate on economy, unemployment, education, health, gender, farmers or the environment. This is simply staggering by any measure.

•Therefore, unsurprisingly, the annual Global Hunger Index (GHI) reports come and go without any debate or outrage. But for a ruling establishment obsessed with Pakistan, the latest report should have rung the bells. If in 2015, India was ranked 80th (out of 104 countries) and well ahead of Pakistan, every year since then, the gap has closed, with Pakistan finally overtaking India in 2019, and being eight ranks ahead.

•The costs of obsessing with and competing with Pakistan, an economy eight-and-half times smaller than India, are also that you begin to mimic its politics and Human Development Indicators. The GHI 2019 notes that India’s child wasting rate is at 20.8%, “the highest wasting rate of any country” for which data is available. Its child stunting rate, at 37.9%, is also categorised as “very high”. The government, rather than taking up these issues on a war footing, dismissed the GHI as an inadequate representation of India’s data in 2017. True, hunger, and its manifold dimensions, are not a creation of the present regime. But the brazen and wilful negation, or deflection of human development issues by national security is its unique contribution. The contrast within the neighbouring nations is itself telling. The GHI report talks about the “significant advances” in nutrition and “remarkable reduction” in child stunting made by Bangladesh and Nepal. Unsurprisingly, they are 14 and 29 ranks ahead of India respectively.

Misplaced emphasis on terror

•But the national security paradigm will persist, with prime-time television news almost every day warning us of the impending setting up of base by the Islamic State in India. This is not atypical — the U.S. under President Donald Trump is a classic example of scaremongering and blanket travel bans on entire (Muslim) nations to eliminate terror threats.

•Such vastly disproportionate response to terrorism has been exposed by research as misplaced. Between 1970 and 2007, the chances of being killed by a terrorist in the U.S. were 1 in 3.5 million (that is including on 9/11). During the 2008-2015 period, the risk of being killed by a foreign-born terrorist on U.S. soil was one in 104 million. Compare this with the chances of dying from choking on food: 1 in 4,404, or in a car accident, 1 in 272.

•Against the conventional wisdom that it is because of the huge amount of resources spent on counterterrorism that the risk is so minimal, scholars John Mueller and Mark Stewart argued earlier in this decade that cumbersome security protocols in airports had led to more people travelling by road, leading to around 500 extra road fatalities every year. They also contended that if the money spent on saving people from terrorism attacks had been diverted to countering other dangers with extremely high risks, that could have “saved 1,000 times more lives.”

•Despite the severe challenges that India faces in terms of terrorism, the numbers have to be similarly seen with perspective. In 2018, terrorism/militancy killed 400 civilians and security personnel. Compare this to the fact that 1,02,677 children (under five) died from easily preventable diarrhoeal diseases in 2017, or that 8,75,659 children (under five) were killed by communicable, neonatal and nutritional diseases. Or consider that while the number of terrorism/militancy-related deaths have come down substantially to around 500 from 2011 onwards, the burden of deaths from diseases like cardiovascular ones has drastically increased from about 13 lakh in 1990 to 26.32 lakh in 2017.

•An IndiaSpend report based on a global study showed that Indians work for just six-and-a-half years at peak productivity. This compared poorly to the corresponding figures for the Chinese and the Brazilians — 20 hours and 16 hours. The report also said that India has the unhealthiest work force in South Asia, and its human capital rank was 158th out of 195 countries (with only a marginal improvement from 162 in 1990). India’s public spending on health and education has been abysmal (despite superficial programmes with meagre actual funding ke Ayushman Bharat and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao), the prime cause for its poor human capital. While the national security paradigm will talk about economics in terms of GDP or ease of doing business, it curiously refuses to see the link between human capital and economic productivity.

•The current dystopian visions emanating from New Delhi’s unprecedented climate emergency are the singular example of the apathy fostered, ironically, by the ruling party’s brute, hyper-nationalist parliamentary majority. This is when latest studies indicate that life expectancy in North India will likely reduce by seven years because of air pollution. Even if prime-time nationalist television is forced to come out of its perpetual “state of high alert” on terror and acknowledge “mundane” issues like air pollution, it will be back to normal soon.

•Human development and ecology have always been given the short shrift in India. But what has changed under the nationalist conjuncture is that these issues are not even talked about. A nation that is in a state of suspended animation looking out for both external and internal enemies cannot afford to talk about the state of its citizens.

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