The HINDU Notes – 23rd January 2020 - VISION

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Thursday, January 23, 2020

The HINDU Notes – 23rd January 2020

πŸ“° Meet Vyom Mitra, first Indian ‘woman’ to ride to space

The half-humanoid will simulate human functions before real astronauts take off.

•In the end, a “young woman” named Vyom Mitra will ride to space in the first test flight of the human space mission, Gaganyaan.

•ISRO unveiled its first ‘woman’ astronaut to an international gathering here on Wednesday. Seated at a desk in a uniform and sporting her name on a custom-made ISRO identity badge, Vyom Mitra created a sensation as she introduced herself to ISRO Chairman K. Sivan and Principal Scientific Adviser K. VijayRaghavan at the symposium on human space flight.

•“I am Vyom Mitra,” the half-humanoid tells her visitors. Her body stops at the torso and has no legs. Detailing her functions, she says, “I can do switch panel operations, ECLSS [environment control and life support systems] functions, be a companion, converse with the astronauts, recognise them and also respond to their queries.”

•Dr. Sivan said the humanoid will simulate the human functions required for space before real astronauts take off before August 2022. Two trial flights without crew will take place with a humanoid — the first around December 2020 and the second around July 2021.

•Vyom Mitra is the result of a year-long toil of the ISRO Inertial Systems Unit, Thiruvananthapuram, according to IISU Director D. Sam Dayala Dev. ISRO will send the human-resembling model in a space capsule around the end of 2020 or early 2021 to study how she — and later real astronauts — respond to living outside earth in controlled zero-gravity conditions.

•She can detect and give out warnings if environmental changes within the cabin get uncomfortable to astronauts and change the air condition, Dr. Dayala Dev said. She can take up postures suited for launch and tasks and take commands.

πŸ“° SC refuses to stay citizenship law without hearing the govt.

CJI indicates the issue may be eventually referred to Constitution Bench

•The Supreme Court on Wednesday said the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, is “uppermost in everybody’s minds”, but refused to stay the law without hearing the government first.

•A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Sharad A. Bobde did not heed pleas to even postpone the process of collecting population data to identify illegal migrants or “doubtful citizens” on the basis of their religion.

•The CJI indicated that the CAA challenge may eventually be referred to a Constitution Bench for a decision on merits.

•The Bench issued notice on at least 80 more fresh petitions filed for and against the CAA. It gave the government four weeks to file its response. The government urged the court to “freeze” the number of petitions filed in the case.

144 petitions

•A total of 144 petitions were listed before the Bench that also comprised Justices S. Abdul Nazeer and Sanjiv Khanna.

•The court said it would list the case in February to pass interim orders. It asked the senior lawyers involved in the case to categorise the petitions and work out a schedule for hearing them.

•“I don’t think anything [any law like the CAA] is irreversible. There will have to be a date for hearing this interim prayer [for a stay of the CAA)... This case is uppermost in everybody’s minds,” the CJI said, reacting to the concerns.

•Lawyers argued that the National Population Register (NPR) exercise is commencing in April. Data collected through it would be used for preparing a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC).

•The NPR-NRC is considered a harbinger of facilitator for the operation of the CAA, which fast-tracks the citizenship-by-naturalisation process for “illegal migrants” from six religious communities, other than Muslims, who have fled persecution from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

•Senior advocate K.V. Vishwanathan, addressing the court, said: “The most immediate concern now is the sweeping powers given to executive authorities to brand people as ‘doubtful citizens’. Once this is done, there are no guidelines to help these people. This is sinister. It will lead to gerrymandering of electoral rolls. The concern is spread across both the majority Hindus and the minorities as well. You have to address this fear... Otherwise fear and insecurity will pervade the country.”

•Senior advocate A.M. Singhvi submitted that the Uttar Pradesh government had “marked” people as doubtful citizens two weeks ago. “The process of granting citizenship under CAA is already under way,” he said.

•Senior advocate Kapil Sibal urged the court to postpone the NPR and the citizenship process for at least two months to avoid chaos.

•Attorney General K.K. Venugopal said “a postponement of the CAA and its stay were one and the same”.

•Senior advocate Shyam Divan contended that the final certificate of citizenship by naturalisation to illegal migrants should be stayed during the pendency of the case. Indian citizenship once granted cannot be revoked if the challenge to the CAA succeeded in court, he said.

•Mr. Venugopal countered that there were provisions in the law that allowed the revocation of citizenship.

Importance to N-E pleas

•The CJI indicated that the court would give due importance to petitions concerning the impact of CAA in border States such as Assam and Tripura. These cases may be segregated and heard. He, however, said all the petitions on CAA would be subject to a common final decision.

πŸ“° U.S. President warns of trade war with EU nations

Trump threatens auto tariffs if agreement is not finalised

•U.S. President Donald Trump relaunched a major trade offensive against Europe on Wednesday, threatening to hit the EU with damaging auto tariffs if Europeans failed to agree a long-delayed trade deal.

•With observers warning that global harmony on trade was crucial to the health of the world economy, Mr. Trump warned Europe that the U.S. would protect its interests, on the second day of his stay at the Davos economic forum.

•“The EU is tougher to deal with than anybody. They’ve taken advantage of our country for many years,” Mr. Trump said. “Ultimately, it will be very easy because if we can't make a deal, we'll have to put 25% tariffs on their cars,” he added.

•Mr. Trump said that his attention would now to turn to Europe, after he sealed a trade truce with China after a bitter trade war that destabilised the world economy.

•“... I wanted to wait till I finished China. I didn't want to go with China and Europe at the same time.”

•EU-U.S. trade ties deteriorated after Mr. Trump came to power three years ago, who imposed tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, notably from the EU, which responded by taxing iconic U.S. products. Both sides agreed to pursue a trade deal in July 2017 as a tentative truce, but negotiations have stalled over farming.

πŸ“° Myanmar’s growing dependence on China

It doesn’t have many friendly nations to help it balance ties with Beijing

•Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Myanmar last week is a vivid indicator of the region’s changing geopolitics, reflecting adversely on the West and its allies. Its real significance transcends the 33 agreements signed, although it is an impressive number in itself for a short sojourn of a day and a half.

•President Xi took his own time in coming to the southern neighbour which had to be content with largely one-way VVIP traffic, as Myanmar’s top leaders travelled to Beijing with noticeable regularity. As the Vice-President, he had visited Myanmar in 2009. The last visit by a Chinese President took place in 2001. The 70th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations was judged to be the ideal occasion to launch a major renewal and strengthen the process of the bilateral relationship.

•U. Nu, the first prime minister of Burma (Myanmar’s previous name), famously depicted his country’s position in the region as “hemmed in like a tender gourd amongst the cacti.” Then, it chose the policy of independence and non-alignment. Does the red-carpet treatment extended to the President of China show that today’s Myanmar, jointly led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the military, has taken sides?

•The optics may probably indicate this, considering how things have changed since 2012 when Barack Obama became the first sitting American President to visit Myanmar and initiate a historic rapprochement. The previous leader, President Thein Sein, played the U.S.-China game with dexterity, but the present leadership, hobbled by the Rohingya crisis and its own internal vulnerabilities, feels compelled to keep moving closer to Beijing.

The outcome

•The joint statement, issued on January 18, claims that “a new chapter” has been opened “in the ever-lasting friendship” between the two countries, stemming from the broad understanding to promote “comprehensive strategic cooperation.” It refers to building the “Myanmar-China Community with a Shared Future.” Exchanges of “experience in governance” will be deepened and strategic communication will be enhanced. Besides, the two governments plan to make good use of the 2+2 high-level consultations, comprising the two Foreign Ministers and Defence Ministers.

•A close reading of what the Chinese stated before and during the visit confirms that the traditional “pauk-phaw” (fraternal) ties between China and Myanmar are in full bloom now. An explicit stipulation is that the relationship should encompass not only the governments but also the two peoples. Mr. Xi emphasised that the goal was to craft “a new blueprint for bilateral ties.”

•A major focus undoubtedly has been on the economic dimension of the relationship that goes beyond trade and investment, as China has been Myanmar’s top partner for years. In the domain of infrastructure, a sustained push is being given to turn into reality the proposed China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), a vital component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Through the agreements signed and discussions held about their follow-up during the visit, CMEC’s three pillars seem to have been consolidated. These are: the Kyaukphyu special economic zone; the China-Myanmar border economic zone; and the new urban development of Yangon City. The basic approach, as Mr. Xi explained, is to deepen cooperation in diverse areas like “connectivity, electricity, energy, transportation, agriculture, finance and livelihood to deliver more benefits to both peoples.”

•The Chinese also made it clear that the Myanmar government, currently under intense international pressure due to its rigid position on the Rohingya issue, will continue to receive China’s full support. Beijing has positioned itself as the great defender of Myanmar’s legitimate rights, interests and national dignity at a time when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is about to pronounce on the charges of genocide against the Myanmar military. As regards the Myanmar people, their grievances against some of the Chinese projects are getting addressed, with an unspoken agreement reached not to push the controversial Myitsone Dam project just yet.

Other implications

•Mr. Xi’s conscious choice to spend ample time on discussions with Myanmar’s top three leaders — President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing — conveyed a significant message. Despite past endeavours, the leadership has failed to deliver on ethnic reconciliation or constitutional reform and transition to full democracy. The Chinese side seemed comfortable with the status quo and may have advised its continuation, given the external challenges. This may well suit the NLD government and its military partners, as the nation heads to the elections later in the year. As long as Ms. Suu Kyi does not excessively exert herself to bring full-fledged democracy, her return to power, albeit with a reduced majority, may be on the cards. Her brave defence of the military before the ICJ last December turned her into a national hero, even as she further lost her international following.

•As to what happens to Myanmar’s traditional inclination towards neutrality and independent foreign policy, the government is apparently running out of friendly nations that could help it to balance China. The U.S., the European Union (EU) and Japan are unable or unwilling (or both) to play that role any longer. Kyaw Zaw Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy , asserts that the “pauk-phaw” relationship “doesn’t exist beyond political jargon.” Nevertheless, it is certain that Myanmar’s dependence on China will rise dramatically. The country should be getting ready to receive more Chinese tourists, projects, companies, products and “Chinese diplomats across the country”, as he put it.

Impact on India

•The situation around India has taken an adverse turn in the recent months. Against the general backdrop of consolidation of China-Pakistan relations, Mr. Xi’s visit to Nepal, his strategic gains in Myanmar, and forthcoming visit of the Sri Lankan President to Beijing form part of a pattern. It is one of the setbacks and challenges to India’s diplomacy in South Asia. It calls for deep reflection and comprehensive consultations with the finest minds in the country.

πŸ“° The flawed spin to India’s cotton story

The country’s hybrid seed model for cotton favours seed companies over farmers

•Genetically Modified (GM) pest resistant Bt cotton hybrids have captured the Indian market since their introduction in 2002. These now cover over 95% of the area under cotton, with the seeds produced entirely by the private sector. India’s cotton production in 2019 is projected as the highest ever: 354 lakh bales. Bt cotton’s role in increasing India’s cotton production, which GM proponents have highlighted as being instrumental, has also been used to argue for extending GM technology to increase food crop yield. However, critics say that Bt cotton hybrids have negatively impacted livelihoods and contributed to agrarian distress, particularly among resource-poor farmers.

The Indian experience

•This year, India is expected to be the world’s largest cotton producer, surpassing China in output. However, India’s productivity (yield per unit area), is much lower than other major cotton-producing countries, meaning a much larger area is used for cotton production. Indeed, India’s productivity has been only a third of these countries for over four decades. Why is this so? It cannot be explained by agronomic or socio-economic differences because these countries include both developed and developing countries, and different geographies. Which feature of cotton cultivation in India differs from other countries and might account for this large anomaly?

•India is the only country that grows cotton as hybrids and the first to develop hybrid cotton back in 1970. Hybrids are made by crossing two parent strains having different genetic characters. These plants have more biomass than both parents, and capacity for greater yields. They also require more inputs, including fertilizer and water. Though hybrid cotton seed production is expensive, requiring manual crossing, India’s low cost of manual labour make it economically viable. All other cotton-producing countries grow cotton not as hybrids but varieties for which seeds are produced by self-fertilization.

•A key difference between hybrids and varieties is that varieties can be propagated over successive generations by collecting seeds from one planting and using them for the next planting; hybrid seeds have to be remade for each planting by crossing the parents. So for hybrids, farmers must purchase seed for each planting, but not for varieties. Using hybrids gives pricing control to the seed company and also ensures a continuous market. Increased yield from a hybrid is supposed to justify the high cost of hybrid seeds. However, for cotton, a different strategy using high density planting (HDP) of compact varieties has been found to outperform hybrids at the field level.

Cotton planting strategies

•For over three decades, most countries have been growing cotton varieties that are compact and short duration. These varieties are planted at high density (5 kg seeds/acre), whereas hybrids in India are bushy, long duration and planted at ten-fold lower density (0.5 kg seeds/acre). The lower boll production by compact varieties (5-10 bolls per plant) compared to hybrids (20-100 bolls/plant) is more than compensated by the ten-fold greater planting density. The steep increase in productivity for Brazil, from 400 to 1,000 kg/hectare lint between 1994 and 2000 coincides with the large-scale shift to a non-GM compact variety. Cotton is a dryland crop and 65% of area under cotton in India is rain-fed. Farmers with insufficient access to groundwater in these areas are entirely dependent on rain. Here, the shorter duration variety has a major advantage as it reduces dependence on irrigation and risk, particularly late in the growing season when soil moisture drops following the monsoon’s withdrawal. This period is when bolls develop and water requirement is the highest. The advantages of compact varieties over hybrids are considerable: more than twice the productivity, half the fertilizer (200 kg/ha for hybrids versus 100 kg/ha for varieties), reduced water requirement, and less vulnerability to damage from insect pests due to a shorter field duration. Yet, India has persisted with long-duration hybrids, many years after benefits of compact varieties became clear from global experience.

Impact of policy

•If one grants that India would have benefited greatly from deployment of compact cotton varieties as supported by the evidence, then the question arises: why was this not done? Two phases of policy have contributed to this situation. The first is before GM cotton, when India persisted with hybrids from 1980-2002, while other countries shifted to HDP. Why was such a significant innovation in cotton breeding ignored for so long and what kept public sector institutions and cotton research centres from developing and releasing such varieties? The answers lie with the agricultural research establishment. The second phase where the question of hybrids versus compact varieties could have been considered, was at the stage of GM regulation when Bt cotton was being evaluated for introduction into India. It would not have been out of place to have evaluated the international experience, including the context of introduction of this new technology. Information should have been considered on the form in which it would be deployed (hybrids versus varieties). Importantly, agro-economic conditions where it would be used should have been a guiding factor. However, the scope of evaluation by the GM regulatory process in India was narrow, and did not take this into account. Consequently, commercial Bt hybrids have completely taken over the market, accompanied by withdrawal of public sector cotton seed production. The Indian cotton farmer today is left with little choice but to use Bt hybrid seed produced by private seed companies.

Farmer distress

•The current annual value of cotton seed used for planting is about Rs. 2,500 crore, and that of lint cotton produced is Rs. 68,000 crore. Therefore, it appears that the interests of the cotton seed industry have constrained the very much larger value of cotton production and the overall cotton industry. It is likely that production levels could have been much higher, with considerably lower risk and input costs, had compact varieties been developed and used in India. Agricultural distress is extremely high among cotton farmers and the combination of high input and high risk has likely been a contributing factor. Compact varieties would have significantly reduced distress as well as increased yield. Therefore, the hybrid seed model for cotton that India, and India alone, has followed for over three decades, is inferior to the HDP model being used in other countries on three important counts: much lower productivity; higher input costs; and increased risk particularly for low resource farmers in rain-fed areas.

•There are several takeaways from the experience of Bt cotton worldwide, and in the context of hybrids in India. First, we must be clear that the outcome of using a technology such as Bt is determined by the context in which it is deployed, and not just by the technology itself. If the context is suboptimal and does not prioritise the needs of the principal stakeholders (farmers), it can have significant negative fallouts, especially in India with a high proportion being marginal and subsistence farmers. Second, there is a need for better consultation in policy, be it agriculture as a whole or crop-wise. Notably, India is a signatory to international treaties on GMO regulation (the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety), which specifically provide for inclusion of socioeconomic considerations in GMO risk assessment. However, socioeconomic and need-based considerations have not been a part of GMO regulatory process in India.

•It is important to recognise that adoption of any new technology such as Bt is a choice and not an imperative. For example, some of the major cotton-producing countries such as Brazil (until 2012) and Turkey (up to the present) have achieved high productivity without the use of GM cotton by using alternative pest-management approaches. The purpose of risk assessment in GMO regulation is to enable exercising of this choice by careful and comprehensive evaluation of costs and benefits. In the case of Bt cotton hybrids, the benefits were limited and costs may well have been too high, particularly for resource-poor farmers.

πŸ“° Think climate change action, act glocal

The growing global stalemate gives India the chance to focus on the State and sub-State levels

•Almost everyone agrees that the recent global climate summit, the annual Conference of the Parties (COP25), held in Madrid in December 2019, was a failure and that the multilateral process to address the climate crisis is broken. At several discussions on finance, ambition, transparency of support and pre-2020 action, wealthy countries were recalcitrant. Although responsible for using the bulk of the carbon space in the atmosphere, they now disavow their obligations, with some even denying anthropogenic climate change. At this stage, there is a complete severance of climate science from the negotiations and agreements at the global level. The question is, what can we do now?

•The next COP will be held at Glasgow, U.K. (in late 2020) and there may be little change in the outcomes, as the global political order may not alter much. The fact that we live in an unequal and unjust world is not going to change either.

•But the right political leaders could nudge action in a new direction. For example, younger members could be elected to the U.S. Congress and the Green New Deal could pass sometime in 2021. In the meantime, climate activism is increasing awareness and having some success in removing insurance and financial support for fossil fuel companies. But these kinds of changes will occur slowly.

•At least one expert has called for a parallel action COP at future summits where sub-state actors, civil society groups, non-governmental organisations and academics can share ideas and nudge action. How such an alternate meeting will be integrated with policy processes is unclear, but it is an idea whose time has come.

State action plans

•The stalemate at the global level offers India the opportunity to focus earnestly on developing its climate change action at State and sub-State levels, where the environment and climate continue to be relegated to peripheral status. Over decades, this has led to the destruction of ecosystems, forests, waterbodies and biodiversity. Numerous studies have shown the high economic and ecological costs and loss of lives due to extreme events. We do not need more data to stimulate action. As is also well recognised, India is extremely vulnerable to the effects of warming.

•With support from bilateral agencies, States initially took different approaches in the first round of State Action Plans on Climate Change (SAPCCs). Some of them set up separate climate change cells while some collaborated with academic institutions. A few produced detailed action plans while others developed strategy documents. Still others integrated improvements in energy efficiency (contributing to reducing emissions), while almost all focused on adaptation.

•Attention to climate change offers co-benefits to India for development. For instance: improving energy efficiency in industry reduces costs and local pollution; improving public transport reduces congestion, pollution and improves access; and using natural farming methods reduces fossil fuel-based fertilizers, improves soil health and biodiversity. These show that there are synergies in the steps to be taken for good development and climate change.

•As the next round of the SAPCCs are being drawn up, under recommendations from the Centre, the focus ought to be on integrating the response to climate change with the development plan in different departments. Since the States together are to deliver the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that India has promised, it means that they require guidance from the Centre. Unfortunately, taking the lead from the Centre, most State government departments are handling climate change as a fringe issue and do not seem to recognise its urgency.

On integration

•Line departments for government schemes and programmes in key development sectors, such as agriculture, transport and water, should be identified for carefully integrating actions that respond to climate change. This integration should also take place at district and sub-district levels. But only a demonstration of its success in some departments would show how this can be done. But first and foremost, States need to get the signal that climate is an urgent issue.

•How funds for implementing SAPCCs will be obtained is not clear. There will not be enough from the Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund and bilateral agencies to support all States unless new sources are found. The coal cess in India is a good initiative, and as others have pointed out, could be used for environment and climate-related expenses. Similar alternative sources from high emissions’ industries and practices would be an option, but still probably insufficient.

•There also needs to be a clear analysis of how the first round of action plans fared. What were the challenges and how did they perform? Which approaches and projects were successful and ought to be scaled up and what lessons do the failures offer? Finally, what institutional structure works best?

•If States are to develop SAPCCs that would ultimately add up to India’s NDCs, then the country needs reliable greenhouse gas inventories. Individual research groups and the civil society initiative, GHG Platform India, have been producing such inventories and would be useful in synchronising and co-ordinating State and Central mitigation programmes.

•States must also develop their programmes with longer timelines, with mid-course correction based on lessons and successes that can be integrated into the next stage of the plan. If the second round of SAPCCs were treated as an entry point to long-term development strategy, the States and the country would be better prepared for climate change. Ultimately, climate should be part and parcel of all thinking on development.