The HINDU Notes – 18th March 2020 - VISION

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The HINDU Notes – 18th March 2020

📰 A revival of multilateralism, steered by India

A leadership role by India in mobilising world collaboration would be in keeping with its traditional activism globally

•The COVID-19 pandemic has brought out in sharp relief the compelling reality that has been staring us in the face for the past several years. This reality has two aspects. One, that most challenges confronting the world and likely to confront it in the future, are cross-national in character. They respect no national boundaries and are not amenable to national solutions. Two, these challenges are cross-domain in nature, with strong feedback loops. A disruption in one domain often cascades into parallel disruptions in other domains.

•Thus the use of chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides may promote food security but have injurious health effects, undermining health security. Whether at the domestic or the international level, these inter-domain linkages need to be understood and inform policy interventions. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflect this awareness.

Rise of nationalism

•The intersection of cross-national and cross-domain challenges demand multilateral approaches. They require empowered international institutions of governance. Underlying these must be a spirit of internationalism and solidarity, a sense of belonging to a common humanity. But over the past decade and more, the world has been moving in the reverse direction. There has been an upsurge in narrow nationalism, an assertion of parochial interests over pursuit of shared interests and a fostering of competition among states rather than embracing collaboration. COVID-19 has brought these deepening contradictions into very sharp relief. This is a global challenge which recognises no political boundaries. It is intimately linked to the whole pattern of large-scale and high-density food production and distribution. It is a health crisis but is also spawning an economic crisis through disrupting global value chains and creating a simultaneous demand shock. It is a classic cross-national and cross-domain challenge.

The direction now

•But interventions to deal with the COVID-19 crisis are so far almost entirely at the national level, relying on quarantine and social distancing. There is virtually no coordination at the international level. We are also seeing a blame game erupt between China and the United States which does not augur well for international cooperation and leadership. While this is the present state of play, the long-term impact could follow alternative pathways. One, the more hopeful outcome would be for countries to finally realise that there is no option but to move away from nationalistic urges and embrace the logic of international cooperation through revived and strengthened multilateral institutions and processes.

•The other more depressing consequence may be that nationalist trends become more intense, countries begin to build walls around themselves and even existing multilateralism is further weakened. Institutions such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization which are already marginalised may become increasingly irrelevant. There could be a return to autarkic economic and trade policies and an even deeper and more pervasive anti-globalisation sentiment. Unless there is a conscious effort to stem this through a reaffirmation of multilateralism, we are looking at a very depressing decade ahead. This is when the world needs leadership and statesmanship, both in short supply. This is in contrast to the U.S.-led response to the global financial and economic crisis of 2008 when the G-20 summit was born and a coordinated response prevented catastrophic damage to the global economy. Is there a role here for India which is a key G-20 country, the world’s fifth largest economy and with a long tradition of international activism and promotion of rule-based multilateralism?

•In this context, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks at the recent The Economic Times Global Business Summit are to be welcomed. While speaking of the COVID-19 crisis, he said, “Like today, the world is facing a huge challenge in the form of Corona Virus. Financial institutions have also considered it a big challenge for the financial world. Today, we all have to face this challenge together. We have to be victorious with the power of our resolution of ‘Collaborate to Create’.”

•He went on to observe that while the world today is “inter-connected, inter-related and also interdependent”, it has “not been able to come on a single platform or frame a Global Agenda, a global goal of how to overcome world poverty, how to end terrorism, how to handle Climate Change issues.”

•Mr. Modi lauded his government’s policy of seeking friendship with all countries as contrasted from the earlier policy of non-alignment. He seemed to suggest that non-alignment was a defensive policy which advocated “equal distance from every country”. Now, he claimed, India was still “neutral” — presumably meaning non-alignment — “but not on the basis of distance but on the basis of friendship”.

•He cited India’s friendship with Iran and Saudi Arabia, and with the U.S. as well as Russia. Elaborating on this, he added, “There was a time when people were neutral by creating equal distance, but we are now neutral by creating equal friendship. Today we are being friends and trying to walk together. This is the very essence of India’s foreign policy and the economic policy of India today.”

India’s foreign policy

•Mr. Modi may wish to distinguish his foreign policy from that of his predecessors, but what he describes as its “essence” is hardly distinguishable from the basic principles of Indian foreign policy since Nehru. India’s non-alignment was anything but defensive. The international peace-keeping contribution that the Prime Minister referred to has its origins in Nehru’s sense of international responsibility.

•India has always professed its desire to have friendly relations with all countries but has been equally firm in safeguarding its interests when these are threatened. India’s non-alignment did not prevent it from forging strong and mutually beneficial partnerships with major countries. The India-Soviet partnership from 1960-1990 is an example just as the current strategic partnership with the U.S. is. The foreign policy of his predecessors had been rooted in India’s civilisational sense, its evolving place in the international system and its own changing capabilities. Their seminal contributions should be acknowledged and built upon rather than proclaim a significant departure. The Prime Minister’s plea for global collaboration to deal with a densely inter-connected world is in line with India’s traditional foreign policy. A leadership role in mobilising global collaboration, more specifically in fighting COVID-19 would be in keeping with India’s traditional activism on the international stage. The Prime Minister has shown commendable initiative in convening leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation nations for a regional collaborative effort on COVID-19. This should be followed by an international initiative, either through the G-20 or through the U.N.

Pandemic as opportunity

•The Prime Minister made no reference to the role of the U.N., the premier multilateral institution, as a global platform for collaborative initiatives. There may have been irritation over remarks by the UN Secretary General on India’s domestic affairs and the activism displayed by the UN Commissioner for Human Rights on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act controversy. This should not influence India’s long-standing commitment to the U.N. as the only truly inclusive global platform enjoying international legitimacy despite its failings. If one has to look for a “single platform” where a Global Voice could be created, as the Prime Minister suggested, surely a reformed and strengthened U.N. should be on India’s agenda.

•The COVID-19 pandemic presents India with an opportunity to revive multilateralism, become a strong and credible champion of internationalism and assume a leadership role in a world that is adrift. The inspiration for this should come from reaffirming the well springs of India’s foreign policy since its Independence rather than seeking to break free.

📰 We need more policewomen

Increasing the number of women recruits alone will not be enough; institutional changes are as important

•At least since 2009, when the Home Ministry set 33% as the target for women’s representation in the police, increasing women’s recruitment in the police force has been the goal of the Central and State governments. Yet, India persists with a male-dominated police force. In 2019, women comprised less than 10% of police personnel. Only seven States (Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Gujarat and Sikkim) had more than 10% policewomen. In fact, there has been only a 5% increase in the number of policewomen in a decade (3.65% in 2009 to 8.98% in 2019).

•Reservation has been the primary tool to increase women’s representation. Yet, no government has developed an action plan with clear timelines to meet the quota within a specified time period. Thus, it is not surprising that the annual change in the share of women in the police force from 2012 to 2016 was found to be less than 1% across States, according to the India Justice Report, 2019. At this rate, most States will take over 50 years to achieve the 33% target.

Selective implementation

•While States adopt the reservation policy, they are very selective about its implementation. Very few States apply reservation for women at all the entry points (constable, sub-inspector, and deputy superintendent of police levels) or to all posts at each level. Some States (Kerala and Karnataka) have reservation for women only at the constable rank. Some (Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu) extend it to the constable and sub-inspector ranks. But here too there are restrictions: reservation is limited to specific cadre posts within each rank.

•This has resulted in huge disparity in the representation of women across ranks. There are far fewer women at the gazetted ranks at the State level (assistant sub-inspector to deputy superintendent of police) than those at the constabulary level. This means that women are most prominent in the most junior ranks. While this is not a negative in itself, in the absence of institutional support, women remain in large numbers at the bottom of the ladder without moving up.

•Restricting women’s quotas to entry levels or select posts not only shrinks the potential pool of women recruits in a given year but also reduces the proportion of women likely to get promoted to leadership and supervisory positions. As a consequence, there are not enough women personnel to perform exclusive functions when gender-based crimes are reported. For instance, in 2013, the Home Ministry said that at least three women sub-inspectors should be available in a police station as investigating officers. Tamil Nadu, which has the highest percentage of women personnel (17.46%), requires 6,057 women sub-inspectors to meet this standard across its 2,019 police stations. At present, it has barely one-fourth of that requirement.

•Also worrying are signs that States with relatively high proportions of policewomen appear to hit a plateau. The figure for policewomen in Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh has stayed at around 12% for the past four years. Some places like Chandigarh have even recorded a decline.


•It is time to look beyond numbers to institutional barriers that hinder women’s growth within the service. Frequent inter-district transfers and disallowing postings in home districts for specified periods of time coupled with poor childcare support systems and lack of adequate facilities and infrastructure present distinct difficulties for women. Taken together, these and other barriers limit the avenues for women’s promotion. Sexual harassment at the workplace that policewomen suffer is not adequately acknowledged. There is even less recognition of the impact that the policing sub-culture, with its association with “masculinity” and coercive force, has on the participation of women. No wonder it is common to hear the police being described as policemen — as if women in the police don’t exist at all.

•The underlying assumption seems to be that an increase in numbers will automatically make the organisational culture more egalitarian. This is far from the truth. Women are typecast — for example, they are asked to deal with crimes against women, while they are kept outside the mainstream of varied experiences. As a result, new recruits will become increasingly ghettoised in the absence of a framework to guide their career path. Increasing the number of recruits alone will not be enough; institutional changes embedded in principles of diversity, inclusion and equality of opportunities are as important. Otherwise, discrimination and exclusion will continue to persist even as the numbers of women increase.

📰 Coming to terms with biometrics in policing

Modern technology has dangers, but there should be hope that care and sophistication would transform investigation

•Ever since the police became a formal organisation nearly 150 years ago, there is global consensus that the police charter ought not to be restricted to a mere maintenance of peace in public places. It should focus equally on crime prevention and detection. Speaking of police handling of crime, the traditional argument of criminologists is that while preventing a crime is arduous and usually beyond human capacity (because of the dimensions and complexities of modern society), solving a crime is relatively easy.

•Police history has shown up fault lines in law enforcement strategy in discharging the twin tasks. It is in the area of crime detection that the police in most nations have lost public confidence. Even police forces which have huge manpower and can afford to buy the latest technology have not exactly distinguished themselves in their efforts to boost success rates in solving crime — it is now between 30% and 40%. Except in sensational cases which have attracted public and media attention, the Indian police have also been guilty of underperformance.

•Crime using knives continue to worry London’s Metropolitan Police, while the frequency of gun violence is high in U.S. cities. All this despite robust and aggressive policing. While cases of grave sexual assault as in the Nirbhaya case have damaged the police’s reputation as far as ensuring the safety of Indian women is concerned, . even allowing for substantial non-reporting of assaults on women, I believe there is a degree of enhanced sense of security among Indian women, attributable to some extent to greater police sensitivity and also to increased precautions being taken by women.

The two sides

•However, there is a dismaying paradox here. Citizens no doubt demand newer crime control measures which will keep them safe. At the same time they resent productive and smarter police innovations in the field because of perceived danger to individual rights and privacy. Surprisingly, the campaign against police experiments has been spearheaded by some women activist groups. Their stand is that the end cannot and should not justify the means used by state agencies. This explains the sharp adverse responses, albeit only by a few groups, to a counter-crime facial recognition technology. This is the technology that seeks to make inroads into the underworld’s ability to be elusive and their machinations in order to escape detection by the police radar.

•Taking into account how criminals merge with the community to escape identification, the police in several countries have sought the help of expert security agencies to scan faces seen in public spaces. This is with a view, whenever necessary, to run them against available databases of faces used in crime fighting.

•The resistance especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, against facial recognition software, has been baffling. Its modest use in India explains the lack of public discourse on the pros and cons of facial identification software.

Gauging the opposition

•Opposition to facial recognition technology has come mainly from two groups. The first are those who believe that the software discriminates against minorities and ethnic groups, especially blacks and other non-whites. The suggestion is that there is a disproportionate number of black and non-white faces captured by this software if one considers their large numbers in a community. This charge applies mainly to the police in the U.S. It mirrors the movement until recently in New York City against the use of ‘stop and frisk’ practice to combat crime. Several studies conducted in reaction to sharp protests by African-American groups revealed that more black and brown people were stopped and frisked than was warranted. The same charge of bias has now been brought against face recognition technology. This is, however, not comprehensible because the cameras are meant to take pictures at random rather than of specific segments of the population. The police in such cases are on a roving mission hunting for faces that have already come to adverse notice.

•Next are rights activists who focus on privacy violation. Criticism is mainly on the ground that technology, despite the tall claim of infallibility by those producing it, has many a time been found guilty of errors. Therefore, harassment of innocent citizens is not uncommon.

•Perhaps the stoutest defender of facial recognition technology is Cressida Dick, Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Addressing the Royal United Services Institute recently, she dismissed the charge that the practice of capturing faces — “policing without consent” — harms individuals, either physically or in terms of reputation. She pointed out how the moment there is no match of a face with existing records, it is deleted. She commented on how citizens have no qualms in handing over their data to private companies, especially while unlocking phones using one’s fingerprint. She added that data, even when there are matches with the existing Met database, are deleted within 31 days of capture if there is no requirement for further investigation. The Commissioner also referred to the solving of at least eight crimes in recent months with the help of facial recognition. There is no reason to believe that this is a specious claim.

U.S. study

•In contrast to this one has the study of 2019 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NISDT) in the U.S. which found that many of the current facial recognition algorithms were likely to misidentify members of some groups 100 times more frequently than they do of the other groups. In its study, the NISDT took up 189 algorithms from 99 organisations and its findings raise doubts about the wisdom of employing facial recognition software indiscriminately. The study surmised that error rates could perhaps be brought down by using a diverse set of training data. Whether the misidentification is due to bias built into the software is not clear. However the danger of misidentification cannot be brushed aside.

•The point that critics of facial recognition technology who raise privacy concerns should remember is that our faces are already online in a number of places. Increased use of CCTV cameras in a number of public places is in a sense a threat to anonymity. When this is the reality, how can we object to the police scanning us for the laudable objective of solving a case under investigation?

•In the ultimate analysis, any modern technology is fraught with hidden dangers. There is no claim of infallibility either by the software maker or by the person selling it or who advocates its deployment. Grave errors from its use are however few and far between. Just as DNA testing establishes either the guilt or the innocence of a person arraigned for crime, facial recognition performs an equally vital role in criminal justice administration. Over the years I have seen a marked improvement in the way policemen, even at the bottom of the pyramid, handle digital evidence. The hope is that similar care and sophistication will soon mark criminal investigation by police forces across the globe.

📰 Revisiting scientific temper

In the wake of COVID-19, Indians have made some progress towards inculcating a scientific temper

•An unexpected outcome of COVID-19 is the growing awareness of how disease is transmitted and what might be done to prevent this. Virtually every TV channel has insisted on washing hands with soap or alcohol-based sanitizer, sneezing into the crook of one’s elbow or coughing into a handkerchief, besides keeping a safe distance from one another. These precautions presuppose an elementary understanding that COVID-19 spreads through the inhalation of droplets released by the infected person’s cough or sneeze and by contact with infected surfaces. The existence of bacteria and viruses that invade our bodies and cause the infection is also part of this presupposition. In short, this indicates a tacit acceptance of elements of the empirical-causal world view. It was heartening to see even babas and yogis concede that if symptoms include respiratory disorder and high fever, then contacting doctors trained in evidence-based medical systems is necessary. Baba Ramdev even admitted on TV that no evidence exists that by drinking cow urine, one could cure COVID-19, even though, he claimed, it could help in preventing it.

Towards fact-based reasoning

•It does not follow from this that our society has imbibed this outlook on the world, for many astrologers were seen claiming that SARS-CoV-19 was caused by the conjunction of Rahu and Ketu. Some swamis are convinced that the cure lies in propitiating the virus by performing rituals, accompanied by a cocktail of cow urine, dung and ghee. Even so, it is heartening that when push comes to shove, many Indians might be more willing to rely on evidence-based reasoning than on ineffective, false speculations or brazen misinformation. When what is at stake is life itself, people choose whatever they find is effective. Should we not assume that they do so because at least some of them are convinced that performing rituals is unlikely to produce the desired outcome, but regular washing of hands might? That the Rahu-Ketu story is less plausible than the virus-infection story? This switch from speculative stories involving malignant spirits to stories involving non-subjective, material, observable entities occurs when people themselves experience what works and what does not.

•Two generations or so earlier, curative pill-popping became part of the wider public culture. Although its misuse, dangers and excesses are well-documented, it can’t be denied that careful intake of pills, under expert supervision, and in correct dosage, can help cure infectious disease. With our rather enlightened response to COVID-19, we appear to have reached a similar stage in the public culture of disease prevention. Equally important is scrupulous data gathering. Indian TV channels continually gave figures on how many people are infected by SARS-CoV-19; the countries where the incidence of disease was high; what percentage was cured and what percentage died; of those who succumbed, how many already suffered from other fatal ailments; and whether or not a correlation exists between age, propensity to infection and fatality. There is greater public awareness about the role of data in disease management and prevention. These are small steps towards the wider acceptance of evidence-based reasoning, a tiny victory for the empirical-causal explanatory story of the world. Since these are crucial ingredients of the scientific outlook, one can even say that we have made some progress towards inculcating a scientific temper.

•Observing, classifying, recognising patterns of regularity, and identifying causes are all integral features of science. Yet, not all of us do science. Nor do we need to. What has become increasingly vital for our survival today is that everyone grasps the broad features and uses of science, that we imbibe scientific temper. Science is important because science works; scientific temper, because in its absence, the benefits of science won’t reach everyone.

The role of science in life

•Bringing a rather outdated term ‘scientific temper’ back into circulation might raise some hackles, however. How can modern science be valourised after an awareness of the devastation it has caused? Nuclear destruction, industrial pollution, climate change and a technologically induced sedentary lifestyle are all undeniable facts. But science continues to play a limited but critical role in human life. In one sense, it always has. This is to do with our inescapable interaction with the natural world and our need to harness its powers. Pre-language science in which knowledge embodied in skills, neither consciously nor symbolically available but generated in practical interaction with the world, has been around for two million years. And scientifically oriented stories, with an explicit, language-dependent understanding of nature, developed some 40,000-50,000 years ago when, to explain, predict and control nature, we began telling each other how and why things happen. An idea then took hold that performing a particular ritual to appease spirits delivers us from disease and death and could provide all the goods we need (magic, astrology, shamanism.) Our pre-modern stories attempted many things, including to explain, predict and control. Modern science is a radically improved version of this limited aspect of earlier stories. Besides, it has originated from and built upon them. Scientists readily acknowledge that myths, legends and stories continue to be the source of current scientific insights. In this sense, a science independent of myth and religion is woefully inadequate for living. The other big limitation of modern science is that it plays virtually no role in mutual or inter-cultural understanding or in our indispensable ethical projects of self-exploration, self-understanding or self-realisation. That role in providing collective and individual self-knowledge and ethical guidance is played by the humanities, interpretative social science and religions.

•With these qualifications, we must readily acknowledge that scientific temper is useful in certain contexts and necessary for specific purposes. If so, what are the other preconditions for building it? First, a disposition to not accept any opinion or claim at face value, or to reject in haste anything that conflicts with one’s own settled views. For instance, to not immediately accept when told that eating a clove of garlic will reduce high BP, or that the rate of economic growth in India is 7%. A healthy scepticism towards these figures is crucial. Moreover, no claim or data can be accepted merely because it is supplied by those in majority, political power, or religious authority. Evidence-based claims are the enemy of prejudice and dogma. Second, good science recognises that truth is always elusive, that all human endeavour, including scientific enquiry, is imperfect, corrigible, in constant need of critical scrutiny and revision. Third, in principle, science is anti-authoritarian. No matter how hierarchical in practice scientific institutions are, or how powerful its leaders, the fact remains that if a research assistant comes up with a result that challenges established scientific claims, then it must be addressed, examined and if confirmed, displace the view held by established authority. So, if scientific temper is important, what kind of public culture is needed to advance it? Who must be responsible to take it forward? And how can we nudge people into evidence-based reasoning not from self-interest alone but from commitment to the common good?

📰 A prediction model for COVID-19

The SEIR model was helpful in making estimations in the case of Ebola and SARS

•While it is impossible to estimate the eventual number of cases for the novel coronavirus, there was an exercise carried out earlier this year, aimed at projecting the numbers for Wuhan in China. In a recent article on Cell Discovery in Nature, a group of Chinese scientists attempted to estimate the eventual number of infections and deaths due to the disease (COVID-19) in Wuhan. An infectious disease dynamics model called SEIR (Susceptible-Exposed-Infectious-Resistant) was used to model and predict the number of COVID-19 cases. The SEIR model proved to be predictive for a variety of acute infectious diseases like Ebola and SARS.

•The model classifies the population into four mutually exclusive groups: susceptible (at risk of contracting the disease), exposed (infected but not yet infectious), infectious (capable of transmitting the disease), and removed (those who recover or die from the disease). A susceptible individual can become exposed only through contact with some infectious person. Susceptible individuals first enter the exposed stage, during which they may have a low level of infectivity; they become infectious thereafter. The infection rate represents the probability of transmission from an infectious person to a susceptible one. The incubation rate (the reciprocal of the average duration of incubation) is the rate at which latent individuals become infectious; and the removal rate is the reciprocal of the average duration of infection. The basic reproduction number (BRN) is the expected number of cases directly generated by one case. A BRN greater than one indicates that the outbreak is self-sustaining, while a BRN less than one indicates that the number of new cases decreases over time and eventually the outbreak will stop. Ideally, the BRN should be reduced in order to slow down an epidemic.

The numbers for Wuhan

•Using Wuhan’s data, more than a dozen published studies provide the estimates of parameters. The mean incubation period is around 5.2 days in most of the studies. Also, the average hospitalisation period is calculated to be 12.39 ± 4.77 days.

•The prediction for Wuhan was done in four phases: a) December 1-January 23; b) January 24-February 2; c) February 3-15; d) thereafter. On January 23, airplanes, trains, and other public transportation within the city were restricted and other prevention and control measures such as quarantine and isolation were gradually established in Wuhan. Phase II continued up to the extended spring festival holiday. More medical resources were provided from February 3. It is assumed that the prevention and control measures were sufficient and effective from February 16.

The decreasing BRN rates

•In Wuhan, home to 11 million people, the initial number of cases was 40, estimated by a group of researchers led by Natsuko Imai of Imperial College. The number of exposed was assumed to be 20 times this number. The BRN in the first three phases was estimated to be 3.1, 2.6, and 1.9, respectively. In the Cell Discovery article, the BRN is assumed to have decreased to 0.9 or 0.5 in phase IV, based on previous experience in SARS. According to an article in Science in 2003, the BRN of SARS decreased from 2.7 to 0.25 after the patients were isolated and the infection started being controlled.

•Following the model, the number of cases in Wuhan reached 17,656-25,875 in phase I, to 32,061-46,905 in phase II, and to 53,070-77,390 in phase III. The epidemic peaked on February 23rd or February 19th with 58,077-84,520 or 55,869-81,393 infections, according to the BRN value of 0.9 and 0.5, respectively. In reality, the number of daily cases in Wuhan has been reducing remarkably since February 16.

•The BRN value for India is unknown due to inadequate data so far. However, it can be kept small by isolating patients and controlling infection by extensive checking at airports and other important places. With 110 ‘active’ cases as on March 16, a BRN value of 0.5 might not be alarming. Let’s hope that it will remain so.