The HINDU Notes – 26th June 2020 - VISION

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Friday, June 26, 2020

The HINDU Notes – 26th June 2020

📰 Student unions seek recall of EIA draft

Pan-India groups petition Environment Minister

•Student unions from several universities and colleges from across India have petitioned Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar to put the draft of the proposed Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2020 on hold.

•The notification, which is open to public comments until June 30, is a proposed update to the existing EIA, 2006 that prescribes the procedure for industries to assess the ecological and environmental impact of their proposed activity and the mechanism whereby these would be assessed by expert committees appointed by the Ministry.

•The new notification was officially made available online on March 23 and opened to public feedback until May 23.

•However, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of government presses and e-mails from individuals and organisations requesting more time, the deadline for comments was extended to June 30, a Press Information Bureau note said.

Haste questioned

•On the basis of this, several activists, researchers and former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh too wrote to Mr. Javadekar, questioning the haste with which the draft EIA was being processed.

•A Right to Information (RTI) request by environmentalist Vikram Tongad, relevant portions of which were viewed by The Hindu , showed that senior officials in the Environment Ministry had themselves mooted extending the date for public feedback until August.

•However, the documents show that Mr. Javadekar finally decided to accept public feedback only until June 30, and take expert reviews and consider the draft EIA for finalisation in August.

•R.P. Gupta, the incumbent Environment Secretary, refused to comment or clarify on requests from The Hindu .

‘In midst of pandemic’

•“It is appalling that the Ministry has put out a draft notification for public comments in the midst of a global economic and public health emergency when there is restricted public movement, social distancing and challenges to everyday life activities,” says the representation led by the Tarang group of the Sonepat-based Ashoka University.

•The signatories include the Aligarh Muslim University Students Union, Ambedkar University Delhi Students Union, Environmental and Social Initiative Council, IISER (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research)-Bhopal, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, Jindal Global Law School, Student Council, and Nature Committee of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences.

Key points of dispute

•The key points of dispute with the proposed draft are that it shortens the period of public consultation hearings to a maximum of 40 days, and reduces from 30 to 20 days the time provided for the public to submit their responses during a public hearing for any application seeking environmental clearance.

•This would, in the petitioners view, hinder public access in places where information was not easily accessible or areas in which people weren’t familiar with the process.

•Crucially, the draft also institutionalises “violation” projects.

•Under a provision issued in 2017, it allows projects that have come up flouting environmental norms to be reviewed by a committee of experts and, if they so decreed, legalise the project after paying a fine. This, several environmentalists have argued, is seriously contrarian to several established principles of environment law.

📰 Why China is being aggressive along the LAC

Its moves are influenced by a host of factors — from the fractures in the global order to the decline of India’s smart power

•The ongoing tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) pose the biggest national security challenge to New Delhi in at least 20 years. The clashes in Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh have claimed 20 Indian lives, the first incident of fatalities on the India-China border in 45 years. China has revived its claim on the entire Galwan Valley and has asked India to pull back from the areas. Satellite images in the public domain suggest that China has set up defence positions in the valley as well as the disputed “Fingers” of Pangong Tso. Both sides are engaged in a face-off at Hot Springs. Despite multiple rounds of military-level talks, tensions are unlikely to ease given the complexity of the ground situation.

•What led to the current situation? In 2017, India and China agreed to amicably resolve the Doklam standoff that lasted for more than two months. No blood was spilt then, and no shots fired. The National Democratic Alliance government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been very careful not to upset China’s domestic and geopolitical sensitivities. Barring occasional joint statements issued with leaders from the U.S. and Asia-Pacific countries, reasserting India’s commitment to “freedom of navigation” (a veiled criticism of China’s claims over the South China Sea), India has stayed away from criticising China on controversial topics, whether its “de-radicalisation” camps in Xinjiang, crackdown on protests in Hong Kong, or disputes with Taiwan. Yet China chose to increase tensions along the LAC. Why?

Salami slice strategy

•One popular argument is that China’s move, driven by local factors such as India’s infrastructure upgrade and its decision to change the status of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, was reckless. For some square kilometres of land, this argument goes, China has lost India strategically, to the West. Several experts have claimed that the tensions on the border are driving India deeper into a strategic embrace with the U.S. But it’s not as easy as it seems. There is a clear shift in Chinese foreign policy post the COVID-19 outbreak. This is seen in China’s rising tensions with the U.S., its threats against Taiwan, repeated naval incidents in the South China Sea, and a new security law for Hong Kong. The tensions along the LAC are part of this shift. To understand this shift, one has to get a sense of the sources of China’s conduct.

•Today’s China is an ambitious rising power which wants to reorient the global order. Unlike the Soviet Union of the 1940s (in the early stages of the Cold War), China is not an ideological state that intends to export communism to other countries. But like the Soviet Union of the post-war world, China is the new superpower on the block. When it was rising, China had adopted different tactical positions — “hide your capacity and bide your time”, “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development”. That era is over. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese think they have arrived. With the global economy in the doldrums, globalisation in an irrecoverable crisis accentuated by the COVID-19 outbreak, and the U.S. under an isolationist President taking the most aggressive position towards China since Richard Nixon, Beijing believes the global order is at a breaking point. It is fighting back through what game theorists call “salami tactics” — where a dominant power attempts to establish its hegemony piece by piece. India is one slice in this salami slice strategy.

Perception of decline

•China doesn’t see India as a ‘swing state’ any more. It sees India as an ally-in-progress of the U.S. Its actions were not reckless, taken at the risk of losing India strategically. Its actions are a result of the strategic loss that has already happened. If India is what many in the West call the “counterweight” to China’s rise, Beijing’s definite message is that it is not deterred by the counterweight. This is a message not just to India, but to a host of China’s rivals that are teaming up and eager to recruit India to the club.

•Within this broader framework there could be a host of factors — local, regional and global — that influenced China’s moves. When most of the world’s big powers are grappling with the pandemic, revisionist powers such as China have more room for geopolitical manoeuvring. Europe has been devastated by the virus. The U.S. is battling in an election year the COVID-19 outbreak as well as the deepest economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Its global leadership is unravelling fast. The Indian economy was in trouble even before COVID-19 struck the country, slowing down its rise. Social upheaval over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019, and the National Register of Citizens had weakened the Indian polity. India’s traditional clout in its neighbourhood was slipping: tensions with Pakistan have been high keeping the troops occupied in the border areas; Nepal raised boundary issues with India; Sri Lanka is diversifying its foreign policy and China is making deep inroads into that region; and Bangladesh was deeply miffed with the CAA. Even in Afghanistan, where Pakistan, China, Russia and the U.S. are involved in the transition process, India is out. More important, last year’s Balakot airstrike was strategically disastrous. It may have helped Prime Minister Modi win a re-election, but there was no evidence that proved that Indian strikes hit the militants. India lost a jet to the neighbour and its pilot was captured and later released by Pakistan. The whole operation exposed the chinks in our armour, eroding India’s deterrence. A confluence of all these factors, which point to a decline in the country’s smart power, allowed China to make aggressive moves on the LAC.

•This is a strategic trap. India has reached here partly because of the lack of depth in its strategic thinking. A deep embrace of a declining U.S. is not a solution as many argue; rather, it’s part of the problem. Pakistan embraced a far steadier U.S. during the Cold War to check India. What happened to Pakistan thereafter should be a lesson for India. What India needs is a national security strategy that’s decoupled from the compulsions of domestic politics and anchored in neighbourhood realism. It should stand up to China’s bullying on the border now, with a long-term focus on enhancing capacities and winning back its friendly neighbours. There are no quick fixes this time.

📰 The myopia of 20/20 hindsight

Judging history through the prism of the present can be very damaging to foreign policy formulation

•As Indians we have the indefatigable propensity to use a contemporary and often biased prism to judge past actors and their actions affecting the nation’s interests. There is an unstated assumption that in taking certain decisions or in pursuing certain policies, these actors had the perfect astrological capacity to weigh the consequences and divine the changing context in which those actions would play out. We all have to make intelligent assessments of future trends and developments but these are mostly educated guesses at best. But we expect perfect powers of prediction in our leaders and decision-makers. When things work out differently, as they often do, because the circumstances have changed, we proceed to flay them for having let the country down. We profess perfect 20/20 vision by hindsight but are truly myopic in our perspective.

Disengagement in Siachen

•Recently, I have been at the receiving end of this wisdom by hindsight. India’s relations with Pakistan are at an all time low. So everything remotely positive that may have occurred in the past becomes suspect. Those given the task of implementing the more hopeful policies during a certain phase in India’s relations with Pakistan then are turned into villains. In the specific case involving me personally, viral messages on social media accuse me of being an instrument of the Manmohan Singh government to hand over Siachen Glacier to Pakistan during negotiations with Pakistan when I was Foreign Secretary. There are selective quotes from my book and mischievous interpretations being circulated to promote this utterly false narrative.

•The disengagement of Indian and Pakistan forces from Siachen had been on the agenda of India-Pakistan talks for several years under several governments. The sticking point had been Pakistan’s refusal to agree upon an Actual Ground Position Line from which forces of the two sides would withdraw to new positions, negotiated between the two sides. Pakistan finally conceded this. The disengagement would be done in phases with less risky areas in the first phase and others in subsequent phases. There would be arrangements for continuous verification and monitoring of the zone of disengagement.

•Disengagement is not surrender just as I presume current disengagement between Indian and Chinese forces does not imply surrender of our territory. This proposed agreement could not be pursued because the Cabinet Committee on Security failed to approve it. It was not formulated by me alone but the government system as a whole. It was also put aside by the same system. That was the end of the matter. Whether the idea itself was wise given the unfortunate and hostile trajectory India-Pakistan relations have taken since is another matter. In the context of the then state of relations this was an initiative deemed worthwhile.

•The torrent of criticism that we now witness should then apply to several other instances. Should former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee have undertaken the bus ride to Lahore in 1999, in the light of what we now know of Pakistani coincidental plans to capture the heights over Kargil? Was his “hand of friendship” speech in Srinagar in 2003 based on romantic idealism now that we are convinced of Pakistan’s perfidy? Does Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unscheduled visit to Lahore in 2015 and the image of his walking hand in hand with then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif count as unmitigated folly or as a well-considered political gamble to turn relations around? Do the Pathankot and Uri terrorist incidents thereafter show naivete on his part? Worse, should we accuse him of endangering India’s security because we were lulled into trusting Pakistani’s goodwill? How should we judge his highly publicised summits with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the light of what we have just gone through in Galwan? These decisions may still be commended even if they may have turned sour because at the time they were taken, they promised to re-orient India-Pakistan and India-China relations in a positive direction.

A historical perspective

•I am pointing this out because this tendency to be wise after the event can be very damaging to foreign policy formulation. The fear of being proved wrong may paralyse diplomacy. One should always have a historical perspective when formulating policy so that we learn from what turned out to be correct decisions and what turned out to be errors of judgement. But such success or failure can only be properly assessed in the light of then historical circumstances and the then regional and international environment. We cannot judge history through the prism of the present. For example, given western support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue and China’s hostility, was the Indo-Soviet partnership between 1960 and 1990 a good strategic move or a bad one? Does the importance of the India-U.S. partnership today negate the earlier partnership with the Soviet Union? To my mind it does not because during the Cold War, and particularly after China and the U.S. became virtual allies after Henry Kissinger’s visit to Beijing in 1971, Indo-Soviet partnership acquired great significance and played a role in the birth of Bangladesh that year. Just as the India-U.S. partnership today makes sense for India, so did the Indo-Soviet partnership earlier.

•The great strength behind India’s foreign policy has been the broad national consensus it has enjoyed, according it a certain continuity and coherence. Despite holding various leaders to account for this or that error of judgement, there has been general acknowledgement that irrespective of their ideological or political persuasion, successive governments have upheld India’s interests firmly and judiciously.

Limiting room for manoeuvre

•It is sad to see that now foreign policy, too, has fallen victim to very narrow and cynical jousting in domestic politics. This can be very damaging to intelligent and careful foreign policy-making. If policymakers constantly have their eye on how something will play out domestically then we will not be able to uphold the nation’s larger interests. For example, Pakistan has become a domestic political issue which prevents any kind of sober and well-considered posture towards that neighbouring country. We thus limit our room for manoeuvre.

•One is proud to have had the privilege of serving this great country as its representative and I do not take to heart the barbs being thrown at me. Let me also say that in my long years of service I have admired each of the Prime Ministers I have served under. Not for a moment did I ever feel that any one of them did not uphold the country’s interests with firmness and, importantly, with passion. And Dr. Manmohan Singh is no exception.

📰 Can online learning replace the school classroom?

E-learning is out of reach for many students coming from the disadvantaged sections

•The COVID-19 outbreak has disrupted the academic year, cancelled classes and examinations across the country. To ensure that students do not miss out on their studies, schools moved classes online, forcing students to attend lectures via their gadgets. However, this has also sparked a debate on whether the increased amount of screen time helps students learn or if it impedes their progress. While Maharashtra has banned online classes from pre-primary to Class II, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh have extended the ban till Class V. In a discussion moderated by Puja Pednekar, Kiran Bhatty and Reeta Sonawat look at the pros and cons of online learning. Edited excerpts:

Has screen time for students increased because of online classes?

•Reeta Sonawat: No, I do not think that online classes have increased screen time. Children are anyways hooked to screens whether it is in the form of television, mobile or computer. Children have been addicted to screens even before the COVID-19 pandemic began. They have been using the screen for eight to nine hours daily. When it comes to online lessons, most schools are not depending only on screens. They are giving students a blended approach by including various activities in their lessons. At pre-school level, children are asked to do painting or craft. Some schools conduct yoga sessions; ask students to experiment in the kitchen, make a salad at home. Children only have to watch their screens during storytelling sessions. But those too are designed creatively to engage students. So, there is a bit of screen time, but it is interspersed with hands-on activities.

•What we need to understand is that if we do not hold these classes, we will be hampering the child’s brain development. In early childhood, the child’s brain develops every day. So, we cannot afford to miss even a single day. And for brain development, children need to receive the right kind of stimulation, which only teachers can provide. They have been trained to provide age-appropriate stimulation.

•Kiran Bhatty: Looking at the screen for long periods of time can be harmful. And since schools have shifted to online instruction, it does imply long hours of screen time for the child. And that doesn’t seem to be a healthy way of learning. In addition to the impact on their health, online learning from home can also be very isolating and lonely for the child. They don’t have their peers around them and are sort of learning by themselves. Even the teachers’ role becomes limited. Children do not get the kind of supervision that they would in a classroom. Parents might be too busy with their own work to supervise online learning. These factors impact learning.

•Also, many children, especially those attending government schools, are being deprived of education during the pandemic as they do not have access to online facilities. They are actually missing out on their lessons. Though some families may have access to digital technology, there might not be enough devices for the personal use of all the family members. The parents may be working from home and need to use their computers. So, each household needs to have several gadgets that they can distribute among all of them so that that is really not possible for a large section of the population.

Many schools are holding online lessons for children in kindergarten as well. What are the dangers of exposing children to screens at such a young age?

•Reeta Sonawat: Exposing children to screens from a young age is not right. It can hamper their overall development. The light emitted from the screen can strain children’s eyes and could lead to vision problems throughout their lives. Watching a screen is also a passive activity that can make children lethargic and affect their thinking skills. Often, parents expose children to screens right from a young age — using videos to get toddlers to eat without a fuss is a common parenting method. This can lead to several behavioural problems.Schools should also keep this in mind while creating online content for younger kids. The lessons should be designed in such a way that the child only spends a few minutes looking at a screen. This can be done by integrating different activities into the lessons.

The Karnataka High Court has asked for guidelines on online learning. What do you think some of these guidelines should include?

•Kiran Bhatty: So, I think there are multiple issues surrounding online learning, which haven’t been thought through. There has been a rush to switch to online classes almost overnight. That’s why, some courts have asked the government to come up with guidelines on online instruction. They want to know what online classes entail, what it means, how is it going to happen and what will be its impact.

•Reeta Sonawat: The Early Childhood Association (a think tank on pre-primary education) has prepared detailed guidelines to be followed in online learning. Schools should be opened only if they are able to follow these guidelines.

•Unfortunately, many of the balwadis and anganwadis (government-run creches and daycare facilities) might be located in congested areas, which may be hotspots.

Many countries have started re-opening their schools. But in India, where metro cities — Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi — are reporting an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, is it viable to open schools?

•Kiran Bhatty: What’s worrying is the fact that the entire conversation has shifted to the use of technology. It is not just about computers and smartphones, even watching Doordarshan amounts to screen time. Nobody (in India) is really talking about turning schools into safe places, where education can resume. Education is not just about information or content delivered to students via screens. It is about a lot more. And most of it takes place through the social interactions in a school, with peers, with the teachers. Since online classes have begun, all that has been cut out. And I think that would have other kinds of developmental and cognitive impact on the child and their development. It is high time that we started to talk about how the school actually can be made a space that is safe again, for children to come back to, rather than make a complete switch to online learning.

•Reeta Sonawat: Schools may be reopening abroad, but we cannot compare that to the situation in India. The schools that have opened in these countries are taking utmost precautions. For instance, they are using tissue boxes for every class. Students can dump their used tissues in these boxes. But the waste generated is so huge, and it will also require to be discarded safely. Do Indian schools have that kind of infrastructure? Also, it is difficult to make children sit in the classroom wearing masks, without touching it. Or for them not to touch other children and their masks.

What will education look like once schools reopen post COVID-19? Will online lessons continue and what will be the learning level of the students?

•Kiran Bhatty: There is a large section of the population that is unable to access technology and that’s a huge concern. Children belonging to migrant families might have moved far away from their schools. I know government school teachers in Delhi were trying to reach some of the students whose mobile numbers they have, but they are not able to reach them, they have disappeared. And these are kids who are going to be out of school soon. We don’t know whether their families will return to the cities and what’s going to happen to them. Teachers are doing enough to develop better online modules, based on activities, but how many children are benefiting from it? The problem is that our policy has always neglected the marginalised child. That is why we still have so many children who are not in school. All our policies tend to focus on those who already have access to certain facilities. We just forget the invisible — the poor and the marginalised.

•Reeta Sonawat: If we stop online education, even the children who have access to technology will lose out. So, stopping online classes is not the solution. Instead, we need to work on providing technology to these [disadvantaged] children. Some non-government organisations are already working on these issues. They are providing smartphones, electronic tablets and teaching children to make use of technology. We need more such initiatives.

So what are the alternatives that can ensure that students don’t fall back academically because of this or any other pandemic that might arise in the future?

•Kiran Bhatty: During this pandemic, many of the policy fault lines — across all sectors — have come to the fore. Most of all in public health. The fact that our public health system is not geared towards such situations has become evident and obvious to everyone. Even within the education sector, it has become clear that we have not invested in our education system in a way that it can take care of a situation like this. Going forward, we have to start thinking on these lines. We need to improve our education system in such a way that we do not have to keep schools closed in such situations. We need to make it possible for the students to have a safe environment in schools even during a pandemic. We need to ensure that there is no shortage of teachers. Itis not just about online instruction, but also about preparing action plans to deal with students who have lost out on education because of the pandemic. A majority of the students who were unable to access technology in this pandemic may become drop-outs. This goes against their fundamental right to education.

•Reeta Sonawat: We (Early Childhood Association) have suggested that during pandemics, schools can be opened in a staggered manner, with 50% students attending every alternate day. This will help avoid crowded classrooms and give schools time to clean up their premises. Temperature checks of teachers, students and non-teaching staff should become mandatory. Teachers should not give students any books to carry home. Social distancing should be followed strictly by teachers and students. Second, it will be better to give priority to opening schools for marginalised and migrant children, as they might not have access to technology. We can create separate safe spaces for these children.