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Opinion

US STATE DEPARTMENT MUST ADDRESS IRRITANTS IN INDO-AMERICAN RELATIONS

Aditya Satsangi

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Joe Biden, the 46th POTUS, has the rare distinction of scoring either a century or a hat-trick, in cricket parlance. Biden has seen India-US relations from a close perspective two times under Barack Obama and now this third term provides him a chance to add his own touch to India-US relations. He also has the rare distinction of working with Prime Minister Narendra Modi for two years during the second term of the Obama administration. During the Obama administration, India embarked on an ambitious foreign policy of proactively engaging with the American administration. Obama was the second US President who received the rare opportunity to address the joint session of the Indian Parliament. President Obama announced publicly to support India’s claim to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. China hasn’t allowed that to happen because of its own insecurities vis-à-vis democratic nations.

Successive US administrations post the Clinton era have continued friendly foreign policies towards India. Most American policies towards India have been geared towards winning more defense deals from India. In that regard, successive US administrations have done fantastic work. India today operates the largest fleet of C-17 globe masters, in addition to Apaches AH64, C130 Hercules, M777 guns, Boeing Poseidon 8i and the upcoming Black Hawk R60 helicopters. The focus of successive US administrations in building a closer defense relationship with India has been a huge success for American defense contractors too.

The civilian relationship between India and the US has also been on an upswing. A large tax-paying Indian American community has contributed significantly to the growth of the American economy. Today, India stands as the ninth largest trading partner of the US. Indian American doctors today serve every seventh American today. Their contribution to space exploration is second to none. Almost 14% of billion-dollar firms were started by Indian Americans in the last ten years alone.

The Indian contribution to the yoga industry of the US stands second to none with India being the home of yoga therapy. By rough estimates, almost 40 million Americans have experienced the advantages of yoga. Americans have experienced the warmth and positive contributions of the culturally vibrant Indian American community. The people-to-people connections between Indians and Americans have significantly multiplied within the last decade. India today exercises considerable soft power over Americans. India has also emerged as a leader in the global fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, being the second largest vaccine producer today after the US. India’s vaccine diplomacy has also helped more than 57 countries globally.

However, there have been some major irritants in the India-US relations which have dampened relations from time to time. The proactive USCIRF, a commission of USAID (under US State Department), has repeatedly engaged in promoting anti-India fake narratives against some internal law changes in India without any fact checks. The lack of Indian American representation in USCIRF has destroyed the credibility of the State Department to a large extent. The propaganda-based American media organisations have also repeatedly voiced the views of anti-India forces to the chagrin of the growing Indian American community. Major private social media corporations such as Twitter and Facebook have been used to create internal disturbances in India, which have the potential to become a major diplomatic irritant between the two countries in the near future. There have been reports of Amazon circumventing Indian laws to challenge small traders in India, which also hasn’t been received well in India. Indian foreign policymakers would expect the American State Department to become more aware of these challenges and proactively address some of them which significantly define public opinion against American interests.

Given the aspirations of young Indians, Indian foreign policy also has kept up with them. State Secretary Antony Blinken has been a fantastic choice made by the Biden administration. It remains to be seen if he would be able to take India-US relations further than where Mike Pompeo left them. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will be closely watched by Indian defence planners on the issue of the recent purchase of S-400 purchase by India. POTUS Biden and VPOTUS Kamala Harris’ leadership on these burning challenges will define the future of India-US relations in coming times to come. Given Biden’s prior experience with India, it is noteworthy that he has always taken care of the best interests of both countries.

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Opinion

Transforming agriculture through village-level infrastructure

With agricultural reforms under the spotlight currently, the government needs to consider a massive village-level infrastructure project with measures like enhancing the storage of produce and establishing gram mandis or haats. Not only would this add value to the agricultural supply chain, it would also empower rural units and the farmer community, ultimately leading to a quicker post-Covid recovery for the Indian economy.

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The Government of India has set in motion reforms which will lead to the eventual development of a very large number of private markets near the agricultural produce growing regions. The village level agri-marketing infrastructure is the last remaining piece in this giant jigsaw puzzle which has remained unfixed in India for the last 70 years. This missing link at the bottom of the pyramid, which would be in the form of storage and transportation and other agriculture-related infrastructure at the panchayat level, has to be plugged in.

The Government of India needs to move away from schemes which dole out subsidies to individual rich farmers. It is time to make the intellectual and philosophical shift to building infrastructure on the post-production storage, logistics and marketing fronts and leave individual economic agents, including farmers, to function on the basis of the demand and supply of various commodities. A production mindset creates perverse incentives for the production of certain commodities including what is happening in the case of wheat, paddy, sugarcane and some other commodities which suffer the overhang of this mindset. Having said that, risk mitigation mechanisms like MSP procurement and PDS distribution systems would need to continue for a long time to accord protection to growers as well as consumers from a food and nutrition security perspective.

The Standing Committee on Agriculture (Chair: Hukumdev Narayan Yadav) submitted its report on ‘Agriculture Marketing and Role of Weekly Gramin Haats’ on January 3, 2019, and recommended that the Central Government (i) increase the number of haats being targeted under the scheme and ensure presence of a haat in each panchayat of the country, and (ii) make the scheme a fully funded central scheme. As against the 22,000 haats mentioned in the Committee report, other sources quote there being 47,000 haats across India with no or very rudimentary infrastructure with produce lying on the ground for sale, etc. The presence of such vast numbers of unregulated village cluster level markets establishes the need for panchayat-level infrastructure as also recommended by the Committee.

According to a National Centre for Cold-Chain Development (NCCD), GoI report, there is a very large gap in the case of pre-cooling/pack-houses (99% gap in demand – 70,080 vs supply – 249), reefer transport (85%) and ripening units (91%) at the level of villages/village clusters. Currently, the post-harvest losses in fruits and vegetables are huge, with a substantial chunk being contributed by potatoes, onions, tomatoes and mangoes which contribute to more than 60% of the overall losses. The lack of cold chain facilities in India is a major reason for losses besides a host of other factors. The percentage movement of fruits and vegetables through cold chain infrastructure in India is near zero, while in the US it is around 80-85% with countries like Thailand being of the order of 30-40%. The orientation of farmers in all states is geared towards production. Not enough attention and steps have been taken to mitigate post-harvest losses. Because of the low number of reefer transportation vehicles in India and the lack of backhaul loads, the cost of cold chain transportation is very high (about 2/3 times) than the normal transportation trucking infrastructure. We have negligible pre-cooling of fruits and vegetables at the village level since infrastructure is non-existent.

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?

Given both the recommendations and the ground level needs, the Government of India may consider a gigantic infrastructure project to ensure that there would be adequate infrastructure for storage and basic value addition. In larger villages, there would also be a need for auctioning platforms, weighing systems, quality assaying machines, training centres and transportation vehicles in the form of reefer vans as well as normal trucks for movement of agriculture produce. The core of this infrastructure which will also provide it with a self-sustainability revenue stream would be the pre-cooling, ripening, micro cold storage, dry storage and transportation infrastructure. This would be like an advanced version of a haat and more like a full-fledged mandi at the level of every Gram Panchayat in the country with infrastructure as required by fruits/vegetables (@315 million tons) which today exceed the production of grain/pulses/oilseeds (@280 million tons) in India. This requires an integrated pan-India cold chain infrastructure starting from the villages of India without which it makes no sense to have a cold chain infrastructure in just the towns and cities with no such facilities at the growing centres where most of the value destruction and wastage happens in case of fruits and vegetables. Starting a basic cold chain from the Gram Panchayats needs an analysis of the type of cold chain infrastructure that is viable and needed in the villages. There have been incentives and a bias in favour of larger cold storages in India with the trade and industry, which needs to be corrected in favour of micro cold storages at village or village cluster levels.

WHY ARE SMALL OR MICRO COLD STORAGES NEEDED?

It is not viable to store common fruits and vegetables in large cold storages, so small or micro cold storages are required at the farm level. There is a dire need for micro cold storages (MCS) despite the fact that they have a higher capital cost per ton of storage and have a higher running cost per ton of storage. This is because their usage is very different compared to a large cold storage.

The MCS can be used to aggregate and store fruits and vegetables for a few days until a financially viable transport quantity is available. Buyers typically need a truck load every few days. Demand keeps fluctuating according to which harvest of produce from given geographies in season is huge. There is a need for storage so that there are short time windows in which they can be stored during times of crashes in prices. The MCS also allows for longer term storage of two to three months, wherein prices can increase by five to ten times in cases of items like lemons and many other commodities.

MCS can also be used as ripening centres, whenever required. MCS can also become a spoke for large cold storages to ensure value preservation at the time of harvest. Since storage in MCS is normally in 20 kg crates which allow farmers to sell the produce at a higher rate in semi retail using his own or hired transportation. The MCS can also double up as village level pack house, which is nonexistent in Indian villages today, for sorting, cleaning, grading, packing and some basic value addition for vegetables and fruits.

SUGGESTED COMPONENTS OF GRAM MANDI/HAAT

The built area of each GMH unit may be a maximum of 5000 ft² which would make it one of the most imposing structures in each panchayat. There may be another thousand square feet which may be added in the form of training centres and rooms for other community activities. Part of the facility may also serve as a banquet hall for weddings and such functions at the village level. The concept of lawn marriages with the entire integrated package of services being provided by a third-party service provider has also taken root in the villages of India.

The GMH will serve as a one-stop shop for the farmers that cater to a range of relevant services and activities. They would be designed in a way so as to be equipped to locally deliver the immediate needs of the farmers. The promotion of best cultivation practices to enhance production and productivity of major field crops, vegetables, fruits and fodder crops of the region, including the introduction of new and useful plant species, can also be accessed at the GMH.

In addition to agri business units, the project can also initiate social development units including a Primary Health Centre, Women’s Skill Development Centre, Computer Education Centre and Children’s Recreation Centre.

These GMH would serve farmers through a range of services and facilities:

• Micro cold storage and dry storage for non-perishables

• Sorting, cleaning, grading, packing, and some basic value addition for fruits, vegetables and also non-perishable goods.

• Business/processing unit like seed processing units, a honey processing unit, daal mills, spice grinding units, etc.

• Provision of farm machinery on custom hiring (pay and use) basis

• Technical and expert support for cultivation of different crops

• Strengthening product value and its market integration through pulses milling facility, apiary processing and seed procurement

• Social development units such as Skill Development Centre, Computer Training Centre and Children’s play area, Primary Health Centre, etc.

• Every module within the GMH must be available on demand to the respective Gram Panchayat except for the core modules like cold storage, the dry storage, sorting/packaging/grading stations, processing unit and the training centre which should be compulsory with every GMH.

• One acre of land near the GMH should be dedicated to a technology demonstration unit which should have the latest technologies as well as the ICAR system demonstrating their technologies directly to the village. Start-ups as well as ICAR are struggling with the challenge of taking technologies from POC or subscale to mass scale implementation in the villages. The GMH could be a mechanism to facilitate this lab to land transfer system which has broken down today.

The micro cold storages could also function as bulk milk chillers at the village level which would add value to 180 odd million tons of milk which is produced all across India and whose supply chain also suffers from a lack of BMC infrastructure at the village level.

Assuming a production of 2500 tons per panchayat, storage may need to be built around 250 tons which would require a warehousing space of around 3000 sq ft.² for dry storage. Micro cold storage unit of the capacity of 30 tons rotated 12 times a year would provide storage for almost 360 tons of fruits and vegetables.

In order to fill this gap, market storage and logistic infrastructure should be built at every Gram Panchayat level in India which is at 250,000 odd locations with slightly bigger infrastructure at the block level which number around 6,600 in India.

The GMH should also provide physical space for village level workers in extension, livestock, healthcare (ANM), CSC, digital/physical training centre to ensure footfall and ensure that the facilities become a hub for all community activities in the village and the surrounding feeder villages.

Infrastructure under the SWAN Initiative of the GoI and the Common Service Centre Initiative of the GoI could also be converged for physical location within the same facilities.

FOLLOWING MODALITIES COULD BE FOLLOWED FOR ROLLING OUT GMH

Every Gram Panchayat would need to submit a proper DPR to the GoI for grant funding to set up a GMH in the respective village. The various criteria and the guidelines of the scheme would ensure the automatic self-selection of capable Gram Panchayats and would be the first off the blocks in rolling out the infrastructure first in the villages which would be capable of monetising the assets built under the project. This process would take time just like what has been envisaged for the Agriculture Infrastructure Fund scheme of Rs 100,000 crore from the GoI. GMH implementation would follow the same trajectory and may take three years to roll out to all the Gram Panchayats of India.

Gram Panchayats may need to give a written commitment to contribute two acres of land to this project and offer labour time to the project as a contribution of the villagers. This facility should include both dry storage and micro cold storage.

Gram Panchayats would also necessarily have to house the management (including the revenues and expenses) of these entities into a pre-existing village level primary agricultural cooperative society or create a new one with broad representation from the local communities for the purpose of the administration and management of these units. Some revenue rich Gram Panchayats may also opt for setting up a Farmer Producer Company with members drawn from the Gram Panchayat village as well as the feeder villages (two to every Gram Panchayat) which are in proximity to every Gram Panchayat. The entities (PACS or other COOPs) which would be engaged in management of the GMH infrastructure should be given the status of FPOs as being set up under a large programme by the GoI.

The Gram Sabha in each village would need to pass a resolution handing over a minimum of two acres of land for the GMH project. The Gram Sabha could upload all the details required directly onto a GoI portal along with the request for construction of the GMH complex in their village. These requests should be made by them directly to the Prime Minister of India.

This entire project needs to be tendered out all over India so good infrastructure companies take up the execution of creating great on-ground infrastructure. The nature and design may be customised depending on the geography. For example, the GMH in Ladakh and the GMH in Kerala would not be the same.

FUNDING FOR GMH

Presence in 250,000 Gram Panchayats and 6600 blocks would require funds to the order of 2.5 lakh crores (Rs1 crore per Gram Panchayat) for the GMH infrastructure at the panchayat level and @ 33,000 crores at the block level (@ Rs 5 crore per block). There could be direct financial support of INR 75 lakhs from the GoI coffers to every eligible Gram Panchayat in India with labour and land being contributed by the local communities under each Gram Panchayat. The GoI would raise another Rs 25 lakhs for each Gram Panchayat from CSR/grants/individual donations from domestic and international sources, making this a USD 40 billion project with the GoI funding it to the tune of USD 30 billion. The project could be implemented over three financial years from FY 21-22, 22-23 and 23-24.

The money for the scheme can be pulled in from schemes like MPLADS, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, National Mission on Horticulture, NFSM, Krishi Bhandaran Yojana and other such major/minor schemes under MoRD and MoFPI. MGNREGA may be used to partly fund the labour cost component of the project which will be rolled out in all Gram Panchayats of India.

The GoI could also appeal to PSUs and private companies with CSR budgets to help in building this infrastructure between 1 to 100 villages depending on the CSR budgets of each corporate. There are also large international donor organisations which could be approached to provide very substantial funds to a project of this scale. Non-resident Indians as well as persons of Indian origin can also contribute towards building this infrastructure in the villages of their ancestors. The GMH will provide a structured platform to ensure that any PIO/NRI with emotional connections to their villages would be able to donate for changing the lives of their brethren in the villages in a tangible way.

ECONOMIC OUTCOMES OF BUILDING VILLAGE LEVEL INFRASTRUCTURE

All the village level infrastructure needs to be connected institutionally with the new private markets coming up all over India which may be in the form of physical private markets or even electronic markets functioning on a regional or national basis.

The infrastructure on the ground could feed into these private markets where buyers from all over India could be attracted. Private markets could be run by the FPO or cooperative societies in partnership with organisations like NAFED, GCMMF or any such successful federation or public body with large-scale interfaces with farmers. This will revive the thousands of defunct or dormant Primary Agriculture Societies across India. It would give a fillip to the FPO movement if they have the status of being FPOs with the attendant benefits as available to FPOs through various State Government and GoI schemes and facilities.

Anything monetisable by the hands of the local communities through the mechanism of the bodies owned and controlled by them creates business models and economic opportunities for millions who would be engaged with the facilities built all over India. Many Indian companies including startups would be major beneficiaries of the GMH which would mean thousands of crores of rupees as revenue for these Indian-owned organizations.

Since the cold chain and sorting/packing/grading/cleaning would start from the villages, there would be huge savings in supply chain losses which may amount to billions of dollars on an annual basis. Since there would be a sudden boost in the number of reefer transportation assets all over India, the country would reach a tipping point in terms of their usage and also freight costs moving the country from zero to approaching the levels of Thailand at 40% percent of the output being transported in these types of vehicles. Since there would be a massive jump in the number of micro cold storages in India, their unit costs would go down from the current levels of Rs 10-15 lakhs for every 15-30 tons of storage to 1/3rd of that cost, furthering triggering their adoption by even large farmers.

The GMH can also be integrated with the ‘One District, One Product’ initiative of the Government of India with there being some level of value addition at the village level to the specialty produce from the village, which may be the processing of seed spices like cumin, coriander, fennel or other such items which are grown in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. There could be value addition to milk in the form of paneer, ghee and other products.

The project could also change the mindsets of the GoI and state governments from the current production focus to a market-driven approach. As a natural corollary of the One District One Product programme, the GoI could guide the country towards ‘One Village One Product’. There could be village wise commodity specialisation which could become the reason of renown for the village.

This will become a huge pump priming project for the economy which is suffering the effects of Covid and the turmoil in the global environment. The solution for the varied problems of the farm sector and the peasant community lies not in subsidies but in building a robust post-harvest infrastructure. It will help facilitate the journey to the doubling of farmers’ income in India.

The writer is founder and chairman, Indian Society of Agribusiness Professionals and Indigram Labs Foundation. The views expressed are personal.

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Opinion

THE SUCCESS STORY OF DADRA & NAGAR HAVELI AND DAMAN & DIU

Gopal Goswami

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The administrative services are said to be the permanent government in a democracy, while the elected ones are only for a certain period. In our country, region, religion, caste and many other social and cultural factors determine the outcome of election results. In such a scenario, sometimes non-qualified, undeserving and even criminal individuals get elected. The lack of an enlightened political class creates enough room for the bureaucracy to take undue advantage and rule the roost.

We inherited the bureaucratic system set up by the British rulers to rule its enslaved population. This has led the bureaucracy in free India to become a problem rather than being a solution. In the history of independent India, there have been very few examples of top political bosses who had the sagacity to handle the bureaucratic setup properly for the benefit of governance. Among the present generation of leadership, PM Narendra Modi has the apt understanding to handle this system. His level of knowledge of all strata of society, his journey from a chaiwala to Prime Minister which covered almost all walks and terrains of life, and his connection with ordinary people have empowered him with a proper understanding of the functioning of the system in totality. With such leadership at the helm of affairs, the bureaucracy works efficiently and effectively, not out of fear, but from the fact that the boss knows more and better ways to perform their tasks. As a result, the North and South Blocks of the Central Secretariat annexe are more vigilant and mobile today.

Prime Minister Modi has had the skill to deal with the bureaucracy right from the beginning of his stint as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. Only a few of his fellow politicians in Gujarat could master it while they were in his proximity. One of them is Home Minister Amit Shah and the other Praful Patel, Administrator of Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu and Lakshadweep. Patel was Home Minister in his cabinet after Amit Shah had been framed in fake encounter cases by the then Congress government at the Centre. 

Dadra and Nagar Haveli and Daman and Diu are union territories which were handed over by the Portuguese to India in the late 1960s. Since then, thousands of crores of rupees have been spent as special grants from the Centre each year as Dadra and Nagar Haveli is a tribal-dominated area and Daman is dominated by an OBC population.

Before Patel took over, the Administrator of these areas used to be a senior IAS officer of the UT cadre. Both UTs were under special financial packages and incentives set up for industries to generate employment for the tribal and OBC youth. Half a dozen IAS/IPS officers were put on deputation in each of the UTs and a separate secretariat was created, to run a territory smaller than a taluka, when compared with other states. A huge chunk of the funds was spent on the salaries of the administration. However, the funds were squandered without proper planning and used for personal gain by the bureaucracy and administration along with the elected public representatives. Meanwhile, the tribal and marginalised populations remained underprivileged, uneducated, and without proper road infrastructure and healthcare facilities. 

In the year 2016, Praful Patel was appointed as Administrator of Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. It has been almost five years since then. The UTs are now unified as one single union territory, with a centralised secretariat in Daman. The layers of the administration have been halved, leading to big savings on recurring expenditures. The whole UT is almost corruption-free today.

Huge development work is being done with the quality and utility of them ensured. The cost of capital-intensive projects has been brought down as there is no corruption and projects are sanctioned by an online tendering process. The best part is that the quality of work has improved, and the Silvassa-Bhilad road connecting to the national highway and roads in Daman is an example of that. Moreover, flyovers are being constructed wherever needed. The administration is working round-the-clock for the welfare of the tribal districts of the UTs. 

Silvassa and Daman, once infamous for its rampant corruption by bureaucrats and politicians, breathes easy today. The public is happy because the system is working for their welfare and their voice is heard. The Administrator visits the projects every month for progress reviews and quality checks. The Collector and his associate officers speak to locals to ensure whether they are getting the benefits of public health, better education, efficient teachers, water supply and roads on a regular basis. Some of the government schools in Daman and Silvassa are better than world-class private schools. The whole UT is open defecation-free, each house has a toilet and the «Har Ghar, Nal Se Jal” scheme is under implementation.

Another major development in these UTs have been the medical and engineering colleges. A state of the art 100-bed medical college was added to the existing Vinoba Bhave Hospital which has more than 5000 in the OPD each day. Given the tiny population of 2.5 lakhs, this shows the efficiency of the medical staff and the belief of the people in government facilities. The Silvassa medical college is also a huge gift for the tribal-dominated DNH, as people there can now see their kids become doctors two to three years from now. The first engineering college has also been sanctioned and will be operational in a few years.

Hundreds of other development projects are being implemented within the UTs. The underground electrical lines in Silvassa and Daman, the skywalk chowpati at Silvassa, and seafront development in Daman and Diu are a few worth mentioning here. The UTs are also a tourist destination and these projects will attract more tourists and add to the income of the locals as a result.

These are the same places where the bureaucracy was treated like gods. Now, under able political leadership, they are the servants of the people. The ring road project of Silvassa, which had been halted for sixteen years, was completed within a year. Illegal occupation of public properties by politicians was rampant, and action was taken against that. The administration removed encroachers, although a few of them were ruling party leaders and people used to think the bigwigs are untouchable.

Sheer willpower has changed the scenario of development and the level of governance in these UTs. Remember, this transformation has come with the same set of people, officers and bureaucracy. People are full of praise for them now whereas they thought that bureaucrats are superhuman and can’t be held responsible for their misdeeds and corruption. But the termination of many officials, the forced retirement of medically unfit officials and voluntary retirement of lazy officials have brought a sense of optimism among locals.

In a nutshell, the moral here is that able leadership can prove the theory of “bureaucrats always overweigh politicians” wrong in a big way. Patel has proved that if you know the core of your business, the bureaucracy will be your slave. Politicians are not one and the same; some people know the art of governance and how to implement it, and Patel is one of them, He is still in his late 50s and has a long political career ahead. He belongs to Gujarat and has served Gujarat as a politician except for these five years.

Today, Gujarat also needs such leaders, who can tame the bureaucracy and get the house in order, especially as Gujarat is seeing its crime rate increase with each passing day and corruption become a big area of concern. The Revenue and Police departments also need to be made to work for the welfare, safety and security of the people, not for indulging in the land-grabbing business.

The turnaround of the two UTs and three districts is evidence of good governance and corruption-free administration in all departments. All this has been possible due to the able leadership of the administrator of the UTs and his team of officers who are working tirelessly day and night. This is the Modi model of governance” which can administer good governance with the same set of officials and bureaucrats.

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Opinion

Government needs to be an active participant in disaster research

In the wake of the recent Uttarakhand floods, the government needs to hold the hands of researchers and local communities, and encourage open and honest fieldwork and research.

Amita Singh

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The Uttarakhand disaster has once again driven our attention towards the disaster management capacity, understanding and adeptness of the National Disaster Management Authority which is the apex institution one looks up to during such times. The Disaster Management Act 2005 says that NDMA “shall have the responsibility of laying down the policies, plans and guidelines for ensuring timely and effective response to disaster”.It is also responsible for “laying down guidelines to be followed by state authorities in drawing up their plans”. Under Section 6 of the Disaster Management Act 2005, NDMA coordinates the enforcement and implementation of disaster mitigation plans, recommends provision of funds and lays down broad policies and guidelines for the National Institute of Disaster Management which is the apex training body for capacity building in handling disasters in the country. 

However, a legitimate disaster management initiative in India lies in Sec 6 (i) of the Act which says that the NDMA should “take such measures for the prevention of disasters, or mitigation or preparedness and capacity building for dealing with a threatening disaster situation or disaster as it may consider necessary”. The NDMA ought to take this section with greater seriousness and commitment notwithstanding the many challenges it ought to encounter such as an understanding of local environmental and ecological resilience, alertness to law and effective agency coordination from the Centre to the State and local levels. It has been 16 years now since the Disaster Management Act (DMA 2005) was formulated. It has been quite successful in giving visibility to its institutional domain but has repeatedly failed in delivering substantive mitigation.

One would like to seek answers to the manifest deficits of an institution which is headed by none other than the Prime Minister himself and currently by a personality that has not only proved to be an able leader with a large fanbase across the world but who also has exceptional communication skills and makes overt emotional appeals to entice citizens into his policy theatrics like a Pied Piper. At a cursory look, these deficits seem not so much in the intentions or a lack of resources but in institutional failings to match with the spirit of the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA 2005) in the first place, and as a consequence of it, deviating from the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR, 2015-30). The former was brought in immediately after the devastating 2004 tsunami and therefore waded through many philosophical arguments related to man’s existence and the value of progress. It was debated and accepted in the United Nations with a shared concern for human progress and the developmental goals pursued by countries. The HFA demanded that nations focus on preparedness rather than the erstwhile rescue and relief operations. It had a visionary insistence on the fact that an investment in preparedness was an investment in development, as every disaster drains out a substantial percentage of developmental gains in terms of a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is the market value of all the goods and services produced by a country, over and above the lives lost and delays in bouncing back to normal. This loss is roughly estimated at more than 2% of the GDP but can be much higher if the continuous externalities of environmental impact related losses are added to it, such as pollution, water loss, climate change related phenomena or a reduction in flora and fauna. The HFA clarified that preparedness builds resilience and incorporates sustainability into developmental policies and plans. If a country’s disaster management authorities and institutions do not value preparedness then they trap the country’s progress into an irretrievable retreat or fait accompli to accepting ruin as an ‘Act of God’.

The spirit of this trendsetting global meeting on disaster management was expressed as the potentially powerful location of DRR (disaster risk reduction) in a nation’s ability “to promote a strategic and systematic approach to reducing vulnerabilities and risks to hazards.” “Reducing vulnerabilities” indicates that communities should not be habiting fragile ecological zones and have good health, education and livelihood to become more resilient to the economic downturns that a disaster brings. Secondly, “reducing risks to hazards” indicates that developmental plans of construction, electricity generation, tourism, mining, oil drilling and port building should not be undertaken at locations which have a well-established scientific and geo-physical finding about a hazard. So, two facts become obviously clear: first, that it is impossible to work against nature, and second, any such policy obduracy may lead to the destruction of development. For implementing this spirit, governments should have focused on ‘communities’, (local governments, local institutions and local culture) and on annual plans based on the identification of ‘red zones’ or hazards which prohibit human trespassing in a particular location. Nonetheless, research is needed continuously for meaningful and cost-effective disaster management and achieving the Hyogo spirit.

SFDRR recognised this immense need for research by indicating it as “understanding disaster risk”, the first of four priority areas. The other three, i.e., strengthening disaster risk governance, investing in disaster risk reduction and enhancing disaster preparedness, are all located in governance and law. The need for research was passionately recognised as a starting point for DRR by former Minister of State for Disaster Management at the Ministry of Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju who encouraged disaster research as a starting point to divert policies from their dependence on western literature. By locating this research at the country’s premier multi-disciplinary research institution, Jawaharlal Nehru University, he could confidently vouch for capacity building percolation effect upon its own training institute as well. As research took off, reputed international publishers lined up to document its findings. The vibrant energy-filled environment with the young, the seniors, the uniformed forces and the local communities could not hide its inductive inclusivity in the country’s pessimistic periphery. As research teams marched to the fragile eco zones of the Sundarbans bordering Bangladesh or to Manipur’s Churachandpur, Chandel and Thaubal and further to the Teesta catchments of Kalimpong in West Bengal, Munnar hills in Kerala or waded through the flood waters of Alappuzha, local communities continued to join them, learn what they could have done and share what they needed. One evening, as researchers were explaining their day’s field work in the Sundarbans to the team leader, a former Chief Secretary, the West Bengal State Minister of Environment walked into the room to participate and share his knowledge on the subject. He was surprised to see that the State Disaster Secretary was absent. The next day, as news of this spread, not only the Secretary but other Secretaries heading other State Disaster Management Authorities were on high alert. Such was the participatory pull of this research.

While the field-based files were turning pages, parallel documentation was done by young, energetic research teams from universities and government training institutes across the country, which was later published as five continuous international volumes in a famous Palgrave-Macmillan series by Springer Nature. This unmatched information, available at one place for all prospective policymakers not just in India but the whole of South Asia, is indeed a lighthouse with the potential to crack through JNU’s academic council and establish the first trans-disciplinary centre for disaster research and make India a hub for training prospective Asian disaster managers. So strong was the Minister’s commitment to disaster management that he once publicly surprised many by asking the NDMA why they have not asked JNU experts to be part of the committee working to amend the DMA 2005. The young faculty and students still cannot forget their deep thought-provoking discussion with this minister on the DMA 2005 in the lawns of JNU one cold evening. It is worth recollecting that despite a show of willingness by the Secretary and the NDMA members in public, the official invite never came. But a day before the submission of their report, the NIDM-ED did call for expert inputs from the JNU experts, which was regretted. This community spirit displayed by MoS-DM was the key to mutual learning. Alas, both the Minister and the JNU team of researchers were soon replaced and the much-needed continuity in DRR work was lost to black letter office orders.

Wherever there is a lack of understanding of policy, the incapable ones in decision making compensate through a media display of traits other than disciplinary competence, such as charity, ideology, tears, religion and overtime work. It then becomes indispensable for their survival to steer clear of those who question. Therefore, the recent judgement of a Delhi Court in Disha Ravi’s case clarifies the perspective that the government needs to adopt. It says that “citizens are the conscience keepers of the government in any democratic nation” and further opens up the spirit of the Constitution when it uses the words, “…wounded vanity of governments”. Only an incompetent person is wounded, as the competent brightens up every department they touch. It is high time that the government looks at the norms of openness and research, rather than dubbing it as suspicious activity in preparation of overthrowing the government. By relying on such abysmal thinking, the government and academic institutions would only be piled up with incompetent opportunists making the government the biggest obstruction in its own policies. Disaster management needs openness and, more than anything else, to be liberated from the fortress of the NDMA and hold the hands of communities and researchers.

The writer is president, NAPSIPAG Disaster Research Group and a former Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The views expressed are personal.

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ASSEMBLY POLL BUGLE DROWNS OUT FARMERS’ PROTESTS, CHINA AND COVID-19

Priya Sahgal

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Although the dates are still to be announced, preparations for the next round of Assembly polls are well and truly underway. The Prime Minister is getting into campaign mode and is expected to hit West Bengal with a blitzkrieg of rallies from next month. Since Mamata Banerjee’s stronghold is the BJP’s next target, expect to see him concentrate here the most, as well as Assam, a state the BJP hopes to retain despite the anti-CAA and NRC protests

In fact, most analysts agree that the CAA and NRC could backfire against the BJP in the Assam polls (hence the delay in framing the rules), but the Congress still has to get its act together post-Tarun Gogoi’s demise. And therein lies political salvation for the BJP. However, unlike West Bengal, the BJP has an able general leading the campaign in the resourceful Hemanta Biswa Sarma and a tried and tested CM face in Sarbanda Sonowal, hence that state is not high on the PM’s in-tray. West Bengal however is.

Which is why we see the Home Minister literally camping in the state, managing the campaign (along with the many defections from the TMC). And the PM is expected to bring the final push with his spate of rallies. However, from all accounts CM Mamata Banerjee is fighting hard and this would not be an easy state to wrest away. The anti-TMC vote too is divided with the Congress and the Left fighting against her. If—and this is a very big ask—the BJP does manage to wrest the state away from her, it won’t be because of a walk over from Didi. A fifteen-year anti-incumbency may however tilt the balance against her.

In Kerala—another state going to the polls, the BJP has a leader but lacks a campaign. With the “Metro Man” joining the BJP and more or less offering himself as the party’s CM face, the saffron party is back in the reckoning, even if it’s only for the benefit of political pundits. Puducherry has already seen an upset for the Congress even before the elections and there is talk that the Modi-led government at the Centre may impose Governor’s rule and delay the elections by another six months. 

Which leaves us with Tamil Nadu, a state where the BJP has little presence except as a junior partner to whoever rules the AIADMK. Right now, it is a seesaw between OPS and EPS but with Sasikala’s release and return that dynamics may change but perhaps not in time for the state polls. And with the DMK in the driver’s seat, the fate of the AIADMK may or may not matter in the coming Assembly elections. 

So, in the end, amidst all this poll talk—where are the issues that dominated the narrative for all of 2020. I am, of course, referring to Covid, China and the farmers’ protests. The Tikait brothers have said that they will campaign in West Bengal but will it be a poll issue there? Probably not. 

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India’s fuel economy and the hard facts

Instead of politicising fuel price hikes and conveniently blaming the Modi government, critics must understand the global trends in oil demand and supply in the post-Covid era and take a close look at the percentage of state taxes in the country, which are added to final petrol and diesel prices, especially in Congress-ruled states like Rajasthan.

Sanju Verma

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Goldman Sachs recently predicted that the global oil benchmark, that is Brent Crude Oil, will be hitting $70 in the next couple of weeks. Those gains will be driven by long-dated prices and steep backwardation, which happens when futures prices are below spot prices. “We now forecast that oil prices will rally sooner and higher, driven by lower expected inventories and higher marginal costs, at least in the short run, to restart upstream activity,” said the team at Goldman Sachs, consisting of Damien Courvalin, Callum Bruce, Jeffrey Currie and Huan Wei. “We further believe that this additional rally will be supported by the current repositioning for a reflationary environment with investors turning to oil, buying a lagging real asset that benefits from a stimulus-driven recovery, and has demonstrated an unmatched ability to hedge against inflation shocks,” the team added.

Hopes of an economic recovery from the pandemic, driven by roll-outs of the Covid vaccines, have been pushing investors out of the perceived safe haven of bonds and into commodities and other assets. The yield on the ten-year US Treasury note reached 1.372% on February 22, 2021, after gaining 14.5 basis points in the last one week alone. As for the fundamental reasons supporting elevated global oil prices, a better-than-expected demand and still depressed supply, creating a much larger deficit than the deficit of 2.3 lakh barrels per day as seen in December 2020, are the key factors pushing up oil prices. Even the OPEC is now estimating global GDP growth at 4.8%, versus the earlier estimate of 4.4%. The oil deficit will likely widen as not even ramped up OPEC+ production (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other producers such as Russia) can keep up with the ongoing demand recovery. It will also take a while for a recovery in Iran’s exports. As vaccinations and the warm weather drive jet fuel demand, the overall global demand is expected to reach the pre-pandemic levels of 100 million barrels a day by late July 2021, as per Goldman Sachs, with the supply deficit rising to 900,000 barrels per day (bpd) during the first half of 2021. 

The recent bull rally in global oil prices, from a low of $18 a barrel in April 2020 to a high of over $65 in February 2021, effectively means that crude oil prices have risen by an unbelievable 261% in the last 11 months, with a good 25% of that rise coming in the last month alone and a solid 55% of that rise coming in the last three months. Since more than 80% of India’s oil demand is met via imports, any surge in global Brent Crude prices obviously has a sizable impact on India too as both petrol and diesel are now fully deregulated. 

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), India is currently ranked behind the United States and China as the world’s third-largest oil consumer. It consumed 206.2 million tonnes in 2017-18. Oil cartel OPEC projected India’s oil demand to rise by 5.8 million barrels per day by 2040, accounting for about 40% of the overall increase in global demand during the said period. As per the EIA, India is set to replace China as the 100 pound oil guzzling behemoth in the next few years. Since in the final analysis, the price of any commodity, including oil, is driven by demand and supply dynamics, each time petrol or diesel prices rise in India, we should ask ourselves, have we done enough to contribute to greener fuels? Maruti Suzuki, for instance, sells over 1.6 lakh units every month on an average, which means that it is selling about four cars every minute! Clearly, despite the brouhaha, oil demand continues to gallop ahead, outpacing supply.

Factors leading to the global bull rally in oil are the $1.9 trillion stimulus package proposed by President Joe Biden, Biden’s moratorium on federal land drilling, the revocation of the permit for Keystone XL and the moratorium on all oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. A slow increase in non-OPEC supply, rising winter demand, a snowstorm in Texas, depleting global inventories and Covid-induced supply disruptions will further push up global oil prices.

Speaking specifically of the recent Brent Crude price rise, it has been in the making since May 2020, driven primarily by factors like output cuts to the tune of about 9.7 million bpd in May, June and July last year by Saudi Arabia-led OPEC, drilling by US shale oil wells falling to two-year lows of barely 7.63 million bpd, output cuts to the tune of 7.7 million bpd between August and December 2020 by OPEC and, of course, demand recovery in China. 

Theoretically, every $1/barrel fall or rise in Brent Crude prices leads to a 0.45/litre reduction or rise in product prices, assuming that “other things” are constant. However, other things like the rupee-dollar exchange rate, cess, refining cost, import duties, shipping charges, freight rates and dealer commissions and profit margins are never quite constant in the real world. India’s ignorant opposition has often alleged that under the inept Congress-led UPA-2, despite elevated Brent prices globally, local fuel prices were much lower. Well, that is because fuel prices were only partially decontrolled under the inefficient Congress-led UPA-2 government, with petrol prices being deregulated only in June 2010. It was the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led NDA government which took the unpopular but bold and long overdue decision of decontrolling diesel prices too in October 2014.

Hence, comparing fuel price movements under the Modi government with the erstwhile lethargic Congress regime is unfair and unacceptable. Also, don’t forget that the previous UPA government took loans by purchasing oil bonds of Rs 1.44 lakh crore, which the Narendra Modi-led NDA government inherited and paid for. Not only this, the Modi government also paid Rs 70,000 crore as interest alone, which means that, in total, the Modi government discharged the debt obligations of the earlier Congress regime by repaying over Rs 2 lakh crore. A father who leaves behind property for his next generations is seen with respect in society but what would one say about the father who takes loans and turns bankrupt and leaves the baggage for the next generations to come? An inept Congress played the role of such a reckless, prodigal father in this case.

To nail the misinformation surrounding domestic fuel pricing, it is best to look at this real time example. Petrol prices in Mumbai recently hit Rs 100 per litre. Of this Rs 100, the basic rate is Rs 32.97 per litre, the Central Government tax is Rs 21.58, the State Government VAT, surcharges and levies are Rs 41.67 per litre, and distributor margins work out to Rs 3.78 per litre. Clearly, it is not the Central Government taxes, but the State Government taxes that are the biggest component of petrol prices and also the biggest reason for the steep rise in domestic fuel prices. Effectively speaking, State Government taxes account for 41.67% of the final petrol price, whereas Central Government taxes account for only 21.58% of it. Hence, before pointing fingers at the Modi government, opposition leaders like the clueless Rahul Gandhi, whose party is a vital part of the ruling alliance in Maharashtra, would do well to do some number crunching. In fact, along with VAT, disaster management cess and highway liquor ban cess, the net share of State taxes in fuel prices in Maharashtra is almost 50% and the same is the case with Rajasthan, another Congress-ruled state with the highest VAT.

Also, let’s not forget that while, under an incompetent Congress-led UPA, oil prices had been deliberately kept low, it did more harm than good, because the subsidised fuel meant higher fiscal deficit, which in turn manifested itself in higher retail inflation. While retail inflation in January 2021 stood at 4.04%, with food inflation at just 1.89% and vegetable inflation at minus 15.84% under an incompetent Congress-led UPA, the overall retail inflation hit 12% in 2013, with food inflation in excess of 14.72%. So, seemingly low fuel prices under the erstwhile Congress dispensation were simply a chimera and a charade. People may have paid lower prices for fuel then, but they paid many times more for day-to-day food and grocery items in 2013. Again, it is nothing but sheer hypocrisy to talk of rising petrol and diesel prices but not give the Modi government credit for the fact that, compared to 2013, when LPG gas cylinder prices went as high as Rs 1,270 per cylinder, today an LPG gas cylinder costs Rs 769 and in January 2021, it was even lower, at Rs 694 per cylinder. Do note that globally, LPG prices in the last few months have risen from $455 per tonne to over $600 per tonne, which is a 32% increase. Locally, in India, compared to 2013, LPG prices in the last 6.5 years, under the Modi government, have actually fallen by anywhere between a good 40% to 83%!

To cut to the chase, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is planning to increase natural gas consumption by 2.5 times, as part of the energy mix, to 15.5% by 2030, from the current level of 6.2%. The ongoing transition from an “oil economy” to a “gas economy” under PM Modi’s visionary leadership is steadfastly underway. Over 70% of India’s population in over 400 districts will have city gas distribution (CGD) facilities soon. Only 25 lakh households in India had access to piped natural gas (PNG) in 2014 but thanks to the Modi government’s persistent efforts, that figure more than quadrupled by 2021. Again, India only had 947 CNG stations in 2014, and that number rose to 1470 stations in 2018, and is set to scale up to a massive 10,000 CNG stations in the next few years. Since CNG is anywhere between 45% to 60% cheaper than petrol and diesel, this will make India self-reliant in more ways than one.

India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has the enviable accomplishment and unique distinction of already vaccinating over 11 million people in what is clearly the world’s fastest and most ambitious vaccination drive, with India even exporting vaccines to over 21 countries. The Union Budget for 2021-22 set aside Rs 35,000 crore for the Covid vaccine. The allocation of Rs Rs 2.23 lakh crore for health is a 137% jump in 2021-22, over 2020-21. Rs 1.18 lakh crore for road infrastructure, Rs 1.10 lakh crore for railways, an outlay of Rs 3.6 lakh crore for the power sector and Rs 16.5 lakh crore towards agriculture credit outlay in the Union Budget showcase how the Modi government is spending money judiciously towards a healthier and better India. Defence allocation at Rs 4.78 lakh crore, which is up 19% in FY22, over FY21, is aimed at a safer and more secure India.

It is an unpopular opinion but let truth be told—taxes are crucial for resource mobilisation by the government to fast-track development. And yes, this is true for India and of course governments the world over too. But, don’t forget that, as per the 15th Finance Commission’s recommendations, 41% of the Central Government’s divisible pool of taxes goes to the states. The Goods and Services Tax (GST) has been touted as the most significant and bold indirect tax reform ever in independent India. The GST seeks to rationalise and remove the cascading effect of indirect taxes by subsuming a host of indirect taxes such as VAT, excise duty and entry tax. The GST Council has two-thirds representation from the states and only one-third from the Centre. Hence, rather than politicising fuel price hikes and conveniently blaming the Modi government, states like Rajasthan and Maharashtra, where fuel prices are amongst the highest and where the Congress is in power or in alliance, need to answer whether they are ready for fuel prices to be brought under the GST? Because, as they say, you cannot have your cake and eat it too!

The writer is an economist, national spokesperson of the BJP and the author of the bestseller ‘Truth & Dare: The Modi Dynamic’. The views expressed are personal.

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WHY INDIA HAS BECOME WORLD’S SUICIDE CAPITAL

According to WHO, the suicide mortality rate per 100,000 population in 2016 was 16.5 in India, while the global average was 10.5 per 100,000.

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Suicide is a serious and emerging public health concern in India. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the suicide mortality rate per 100,000 population in 2016 was 16.5 in India, while the global average was 10.5 per 100,000. The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reported that in 2019 there were 381 suicidal deaths on a daily basis, totalling 1.36 deaths due to suicide in that year.

One of the pressing issues adding to the rising number of suicide cases in the country is the lack of attention towards mental health issues. The stigma surrounding anxiety, depression, and other issues prevent people from seeking help or opening up. When the situation goes out of hand, they may consider suicide as an option. Unless awareness and conversations around mental health surge, the situation will be hard to change.

SORRY STATE OF MENTAL HEALTH IN INDIA

According to the National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, common mental disorders (CMDs), including anxiety disorders, depression and substance use disorders, are a huge burden affecting nearly 10.0% of the population. For all Indians with mental health problems, the treatment gap is staggering. Anxiety and depression affect 38 million and 56 million people respectively in the country. These figures translate to around 150 million Indians who are in need of mental healthcare but, unfortunately, just ten percent of those in need of mental healthcare in India can avail it.

Also, the WHO reports that in the country there are less than 4,000 mental health professionals, i.e., 1 mental health professional for 400,000 people. Due to fear of being judged, medical students seldom opt for psychiatry.

Also, often the families of suicide victims do not want post-mortems because of the fear of body mutilation of the deceased, the time-consuming nature of the process as well as the stigma attached. They prefer to stay away from police investigations. As a result, death by suicide is often reported as being due to an accident or illness. The low report rate of suicide is a big hindrance to research.

Despite the implementation of the Mental Healthcare Act 2017 by the government, India lacks suicide prevention strategies to combat the concern of the rising number of suicides every year.

PREVENTION STRATEGIES THAT CAN BE ADOPTED

First, governance and leadership for suicide prevention need to be strengthened in our country. The government needs to focus on the development and implementation of national policies or strategies for suicide prevention. Apart from appropriate budget allocations, such measures would also require legal, institutional, and service arrangements to be adjusted appropriately.

The Health Ministry should shift the focus of care towards comprehensive, community-based health and social care services to help people who are at risk of suicide. Such services should be integrated with primary and hospital care to ensure continuity of care between different providers. Greater collaboration is required between informal healthcare providers, schoolteachers, and religious leaders among other community members.

Also, research capacity and academic collaboration need improvement to focus on various aspects of suicide and suicide prevention. Sex and age-disaggregated data requires to be collected and measured, while the direct and indirect costs of suicide and attempted suicide should be collected.

Apart from all these strategies, campaigns to reduce stigma, guidelines for the mass media, and increasing public awareness are some of the essential steps that can be taken to address the issue of the rising incidence of suicides from mental health disorders.

CONCLUSION

It is quite clear that more needs to be done in India to promote mental well-being. The government must take note of the current scenario surrounding mental illness in the country and consider what essential steps need to be taken in the near future—with consideration of suicide prevention and awareness imperative.

The writer is Global Head for Mental Health at Round Glass, Managing Trustee Poddar Foundation. The views expressed are personal.

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