The HINDU Notes – 23rd March 2020 - VISION

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Monday, March 23, 2020

The HINDU Notes – 23rd March 2020

📰 Picking up the quantum technology baton

With the Budget announcement providing direction, the stakeholders need to roll-out the national mission quickly

•In the Budget 2020 speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a welcome announcement for Indian science — over the next five years she proposed spending Rs. 8,000 crore (~ $1.2 billion) on a National Mission on Quantum Technologies and Applications. This promises to catapult India into the midst of the second quantum revolution, a major scientific effort that is being pursued by the United States, Europe, China and others. In this article we describe the scientific seeds of this mission, the promise of quantum technology and some critical constraints on its success that can be lifted with some imagination on the part of Indian scientific institutions and, crucially, some strategic support from Indian industry and philanthropy.

A timeline

•Quantum mechanics was developed in the early 20th century to describe nature in the small — at the scale of atoms and elementary particles. For over a century it has provided the foundations of our understanding of the physical world, including the interaction of light and matter, and led to ubiquitous inventions such as lasers and semiconductor transistors. Despite a century of research, the quantum world still remains mysterious and far removed from our experiences based on everyday life. A second revolution is currently under way with the goal of putting our growing understanding of these mysteries to use by actually controlling nature and harnessing the benefits of the weird and wondrous properties of quantum mechanics. One of the most striking of these is the tremendous computing power of quantum computers, whose actual experimental realisation is one of the great challenges of our times. The announcement by Google, in October 2019, where they claimed to have demonstrated the so-called “quantum supremacy”, is one of the first steps towards this goal.

Promising future

•Besides computing, exploring the quantum world promises other dramatic applications including the creation of novel materials, enhanced metrology, secure communication, to name just a few. Some of these are already around the corner. For example, China recently demonstrated secure quantum communication links between terrestrial stations and satellites. And computer scientists are working towards deploying schemes for post-quantum cryptography — clever schemes by which existing computers can keep communication secure even against quantum computers of the future. Beyond these applications, some of the deepest foundational questions in physics and computer science are being driven by quantum information science. This includes subjects such as quantum gravity and black holes.

•Pursuing these challenges will require an unprecedented collaboration between physicists (both experimentalists and theorists), computer scientists, material scientists and engineers. On the experimental front, the challenge lies in harnessing the weird and wonderful properties of quantum superposition and entanglement in a highly controlled manner by building a system composed of carefully designed building blocks called quantum bits or qubits. These qubits tend to be very fragile and lose their “quantumness” if not controlled properly, and a careful choice of materials, design and engineering is required to get them to work. On the theoretical front lies the challenge of creating the algorithms and applications for quantum computers. These projects will also place new demands on classical control hardware as well as software platforms.

Where India stands

•Globally, research in this area is about two decades old, but in India, serious experimental work has been under way for only about five years, and in a handful of locations. What are the constraints on Indian progress in this field? So far we have been plagued by a lack of sufficient resources, high quality manpower, timeliness and flexibility. The new announcement in the Budget would greatly help fix the resource problem but high quality manpower is in global demand. In a fast moving field like this, timeliness is everything — delayed funding by even one year is an enormous hit.

•A previous programme called Quantum Enabled Science and Technology has just been fully rolled out, more than two years after the call for proposals. Nevertheless, one has to laud the government’s announcement of this new mission on a massive scale and on a par with similar programmes announced recently by the United States and Europe. This is indeed unprecedented, and for the most part it is now up to the government, its partner institutions and the scientific community to work out details of the mission and roll it out quickly.

•But there are some limits that come from how the government must do business with public funds. Here, private funding, both via industry and philanthropy, can play an outsized role even with much smaller amounts. For example, unrestricted funds that can be used to attract and retain high quality manpower and to build international networks — all at short notice — can and will make an enormous difference to the success of this enterprise. This is the most effective way (as China and Singapore discovered) to catch up scientifically with the international community, while quickly creating a vibrant intellectual environment to help attract top researchers.

•Further, connections with Indian industry from the start would also help quantum technologies become commercialised successfully, allowing Indian industry to benefit from the quantum revolution. We must encourage industrial houses and strategic philanthropists to take an interest and reach out to Indian institutions with an existing presence in this emerging field. As two of us can personally attest, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), home to India’s first superconducting quantum computing lab, would be delighted to engage.

•R. Vijayaraghavan is Associate Professor of Physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and leads its experimental quantum computing effort; Shivaji Sondhi is Professor of Physics at Princeton University and has briefed the PM-STIAC on the challenges of quantum science and technology development; Sandip Trivedi, a Theoretical Physicist, is Distinguished Professor and Director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research; Umesh Vazirani is Professor of Computer Science and Director, Berkeley Quantum Information and Computation Center and has briefed the PM-STIAC on the challenges of quantum science and technology development

📰 Not an unfettered right

Sovereignty is subject to constraints

•The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, filed an application seeking to intervene as amicus curiae in the pending litigation in the Supreme Court against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. That the case has attracted the attention of the international human rights agency is a matter of concern for the Indian government. On the other hand, the intervention may enable the Supreme Court to read in public international law principles in determining the constitutionality of CAA. Ultimately, this would assist in laying down the law on concepts of sovereignty in addition to determining the obligations of a nation-state to the international community at large.

A precedent?

•The application is based on the belief that the High Commissioner’s intervention will provide the Court “with an overview of the international human rights norms and standards with respect to the state’s obligations to provide international protection to persons at risk of persecution in their countries of origin”. This application stands out for a number of reasons. First, this is a voluntary application rather than at the invitation of the Supreme Court. Second, she accepts that India is a state party and signatory to various international conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Culture Rights which contain important non-discrimination clauses, including on the ground of religion. India is obliged, under international law, to ensure that migrants in its territory or under its jurisdiction receive equal and non-discriminatory treatment regardless of their legal status or the documentations they possess.

•In response, the External Affairs Ministry argued that “no foreign party has any locus standi on issues pertaining to India’s sovereignty”. The High Commissioner has filed similar amicus curiae briefs on issues of pubic importance before a range of international and national judicial fora. However, this intervention, if permitted, would serve as a precedent for a number of future applications. It would also provide an opportunity for the Supreme Court to lay down the law on whether such applications interfere with national sovereignty.

Sovereignty as responsibility

•International Court of Justice judge James Crawford defines sovereignty as, among other things, the “capacity to exercise, to the exclusion of other states, state functions on or related to that territory, and includes the capacity to make binding commitments under international law” and states that “such sovereignty is exercisable by the governmental institutions established within the state”. The Preamble to the Constitution lays out the position, wherein the people of India have resolved to constitute Indian Republic into a sovereign and not just any one authority. As such, the courts (judiciary), the government (executive) and elected legislatures (legislature) are equally sovereign authorities. No one can claim exclusivity over sovereignty. Furthermore, Article 51 (c) of the Constitution directs the state to “foster respect for international law”.

•According to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, “national political authorities are responsible to the citizens internally and to the international community through the UN”. Therefore, it is trite to say that an authority’s right to sovereignty is not unfettered. It is subject to constraints including the responsibility to protect its citizenry and the larger international community. Furthermore, Article 14 extends the right to equality to all persons, which is wider than the definition of citizens. Even illegal immigrants shall, consequently, be treated by the government in a manner that ensures equal protection of Indian laws. It is hoped that the Supreme Court will conclude that the intervention is necessary as the Court would benefit from the High Commissioner’s expertise in public international law principles.

•Manuraj Shunmugasundaram is an advocate (Madras High Court) and DMK spokesperson & Muthupandi Ganesan is Barrister-at-Law, U.K.

📰 The perils of an all-out lockdown

If the poor must stay at home, they need income support and essential services

•As the novel coronavirus spreads, a double crisis looms over India: a health crisis and an economic crisis. In terms of casualties, the health crisis is still very confined (seven deaths in a country where eight million people die every year), but the numbers are growing fast. Meanwhile, the economic crisis is hitting with full force, throwing millions out of work by the day. Unlike the health crisis, it is not class-neutral, but hurts poor people the most.

India slows down

•Migrant workers, street vendors, contract workers, almost everyone in the informal sector — the bulk of the workforce — is being hit by this economic tsunami. In Maharashtra, mass lay-offs have forced migrant workers to rush home, some without being paid. Many of them are now stranded between Maharashtra and their homes as trains have been cancelled. The economic standstill in Maharashtra is spreading fast to other States as factories, shops, offices and worksites close with little hope of an early return to normalcy. With transport routes dislocated, even the coming wheat harvest, a critical source of survival for millions of labouring families in north India, may not bring much relief. And all this is just a trailer.

•This economic crisis calls for urgent, massive relief measures. Lockdowns may be needed to slow down the epidemic, but poor people cannot afford to stay idle at home. If they are asked to stay home, they will need help. There is a critical difference, in this respect, between India and affluent countries with a good social security system. The average household in, say, Canada or Italy can take a lockdown in its stride (for some time at least), but the staying power of the Indian poor is virtually nil.

Tap social schemes

•Since time is of the essence, the first step is to make good use of existing social-security schemes to support poor people — pensions, the Public Distribution System (PDS), midday meals, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), among others. Initial measures could include advance payment of pensions, enhanced PDS rations, immediate payment of MGNREGA wage arrears, and expanded distribution of take-home rations at schools and anganwadis. Some States have already taken useful steps of this sort, but the scale of relief measures needs radical expansion. That, in turn, requires big money from the Central government. It also requires the government to avoid squandering its resources on corporate bailouts: most crisis-affected sectors of the economy will soon be lobbying for rescue packages.

•Meanwhile, there is a danger of people’s hardships being aggravated by a tendency to shut down essential services. Public transport, administrative offices, court hearings, MGNREGA projects and even immunisation drives have already been suspended to varying degrees in many States. Some of these interruptions are certainly justified, but others are likely to be counter-productive. Remember, we are dealing not only with a health crisis but also with an economic crisis. Even if discontinuing public services helps to contain the health crisis, the economic consequences need to be considered.

•To assess the case for various precautionary measures, we must bear in mind the dual motive for taking precautions. When you decide to stay at home, there are two possible motives for it: a self-protection motive and a public-purpose motive. In the first case, you act out of fear of being infected. In the second, you participate in collective efforts to stop the spread of the virus.

•Some people think about precautions as a matter of self-protection. What they may not realise is that the individual risk of getting infected is still tiny — so small that it is hardly worth any self-protection efforts (except for special groups such as health workers and the elderly). Four hundred thousand people die of tuberculosis in India every year, yet we take no special precautions against it. So why do we take precautions when seven people have died of COVID-19? The enlightened reason is not to protect ourselves, but to contribute to collective efforts to halt the epidemic.

Display creativity

•A similar reasoning applies to the case for shutting down public services as a precautionary measure. Self-protection of public employees is not a major issue (for the time being), the main consideration is public purpose. Further, public purpose must include the possible economic consequences of a shutdown. If a service creates a major health hazard, public purpose may certainly call for it to be discontinued (this is the reason for closing schools and colleges). On the other hand, services that help poor people in their hour of need without creating a major health hazard should continue to function as far as possible. That would apply not only to health services or the Public Distribution System, but also to many other public services including administrative offices at the district and local levels. Poor people depend on these services in multiple ways, closing them across the board at this time would worsen the economic crisis without doing much to stem the health crisis.

•Keeping public services going in this situation is likely to require some initiative and creativity. An explicit list of essential services (already available in some States) and official guidelines on coronavirus readiness at the workplace would be a good start. Many public premises are crying for better distancing arrangements. Some services can even be reinvented for now. For instance, anganwadis could play a vital role of public-health outreach at this time, even if children have to be kept away. Many public spaces could also be used, with due safeguards, to disseminate information or to impart good habits such as distancing and washing hands.

•The urgent need for effective social security measures makes it all the more important to avoid a loss of nerve. The way things are going today, it will soon be very difficult for some State governments to run the Public Distribution System or take good care of drinking water. That would push even more people to the wall, worsening not only the economic crisis but possibly the health crisis as well. This is not the time to let India’s frail safety net unravel.

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