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Detailed News Articles: 18 June 2019

1.  India to host UN meet on land degradation in September

India is set to host the 14th session of the Conference of Parties (COP-14) of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) for the first time.

United Nations Conventions:

The United Nations has three major Conventions:

  1. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)
  2. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)
  3. United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

UNCCD:

  • United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification is a Convention to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought through national action programs incorporating long-term strategies with the support of international cooperation and partnership arrangements.
  • UNCCD stems from a direct recommendation of agenda 21 one of the five documents of Rio Conference of 1992.
  • 196 countries are members to the convention.
  • The Secretariat of UNCCD is located in Bonn in Germany.
  • It is the first and only internationally legally binding framework set up to address the problem of desertification and other land issues.
  • The convention addresses desertification and land issues, to be specific, arid areas, semi-arid areas and dry sub-humid areas, known as dry lands where some of the most vulnerable ecosystems and peoples can be found.
  • The convention aims at linking environment and development to sustainable land management. Bottom-up approach is followed, i.e, local people’s participation in combating land degradation and desertification is encouraged.
  • As the dynamics of climate, biodiversity and land are intimately connected, the UNCCD collaborates closely with two other Rio Conventions; United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to meet these complex challenges with an integrated approach and the optimum use of the available natural resources.
  • India became a signatory to UNCCD on October 14, 1994 and ratified it on December 17, 1996.
  • Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) is the nodal Ministry for the Convention.

Issues:

  • India faces a severe problem of land degradation.
  • A 2016 report by the ISRO states, 29% of India’s land (in 2011-13) was degraded.

Details:

  • The session will see participation from at least 5,000 delegates from nearly 197 countries.
  • Ahead of the COP-14, the Union Environment Minister launched a flagship project, part of a larger international initiative called the Bonn Challenge, to enhance India’s capacity for forest landscape restoration (FLR).
  • It will be implemented in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Nagaland and Karnataka, during a pilot phase of three-and-a-half years and will eventually be scaled across the country.
  • The Bonn Challenge is a global effort to bring 150 million hectares of the world’s deforested and degraded land under restoration by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030.
  • The project will aim to develop and adapt the best practices and monitoring protocols for the country, and build capacity within the five pilot States.
  • India will take over the COP presidency from China for two years until the next COP in 2021.

2. Serious concerns over Bt brinjal

Analysis:

  • A month ago, Bt brinjal genetically modified (GM) to resist the brinjal fruit and shoot borer (an insect), was found growing illegally in Haryana.
  • This was a different Bt brinjal from the one developed by the Indian company, Mahyco, in which Monsanto has a 26% stake.
  • It is important to note that Mahyco’s Bt brinjal has been under a moratorium since 2010.
  • Even as the government clamped down on the illegal GM crop, some farmer groups have demanded the release of Mahyco’s Bt brinjal and other GM crops in the regulatory pipeline.
  • It is true that the moratorium was imposed by the then Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, despite being cleared by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC), the apex regulatory body for GM crops.
  • However, an important question arises: Is Bt brinjal actually ready for release?

A Look at the impacts:

  • Before imposing the moratorium, Mr. Ramesh had sought comments from a range of experts and concerned groups on environmental impacts and implications for consumers and farmers. Despite demands from activists and social scientists, the Ministry of Agriculture has not offered evidence that Bt brinjal will benefit farmers.
  • Ironically, the National Institute of Agricultural Economics and Policy Research anticipates that if Bt brinjal performs as Mahyco proposes, brinjal output will increase and retail prices will fall, benefiting consumers far more than farmers.
  • It is important to note that the report ignores the scenario that companies might charge premium prices for Bt brinjal seeds, in which case farmers may not benefit at all.

(a)    Divided opinions on issues of biosafety:

  • On biosafety issues, scientific opinion is divided down the middle.
  • While some scientists such as Deepak Pental of Delhi University were in favour of releasing Bt brinjal, others such as the late Pushpa Bhargava, entomologist David Andow of the U.S., and the then Vice-Chancellors of the Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University and the Dr. Y.S.R. Horticultural University highlighted crucial deficiencies in the characterisation of Bt brinjal, and in the environmental impacts assessment.
  • The ecologist, Madhav Gadgil, warned of contamination of India’s diverse brinjal varieties. It is important to note that biodiversity is critical for nutrition and sustainability, and the government’s own task force on biotechnology (2004) had recommended that no GM crop be allowed in biodiversity-rich areas.
  • Further, a majority of the technical expert committee appointed by the Supreme Court (in the public interest litigations over GM crops), recommended a ban on genetically modifying those crops for which India is a centre of origin or diversity.
  • Brinjal happens to be such a crop.

(b)   A Perspective on Nutrition issues:

  • In terms of nutrition, there seem to be some significant differences between Bt and ordinary brinjal.
  • Many health researchers and professionals, and scientists such as immunologist David Schubert of the Salk Institute, U.S. and Suman Sahai of Gene Campaign have argued that Bt brinjal poses risks to human health.
  • Furthermore, M.S. Swaminathan and V.M. Katoch, then the Director General of the Indian Council of Medical Research, asked for long-term (chronic) toxicity studies, before taking any decision on Bt brinjal.
  • As a matter of fact, they asked that these be conducted independently, instead of relying exclusively on Mahyco for data.

(c)    Finding no support from State governments:

  • Bt brinjal found no support from State governments.
  • Kerala and Uttarakhand asked for a ban on GM crops.
  • States with substantial brinjal cultivation, i.e. West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar opposed the release pending rigorous, extensive testing.
  • As did Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and undivided Andhra Pradesh. These States were ruled by parties across the political spectrum.

(d)   Findings of key committees:

  • Furthermore, in 2012 and 2017, respectively, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on Science & Technology, Environment and Forests assessed the GM controversy. Both committees expressed grave concerns about lapses in the regulatory system.
  • In fact, the Committee on Agriculture was so alarmed by the irregularities in the assessment of Bt brinjal, that it recommended “a thorough probe by a team of eminent independent scientists and environmentalists”.
  • Unfortunately, this thorough probe never happened.
  • Further, both committees endorsed labelling GM foods to protect a consumer’s right to know.
  • However, since retailing is largely unorganised, enforcing truthful labelling is a logistical nightmare, and the Ministry of Agriculture believes it is impractical.
  • The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has only recently begun putting labelling rules into place.

(e)    An absence of a scientific consensus:

  • In sum, there is a moratorium on Bt brinjal because there is no scientific consensus on its safety and efficacy, and because the States and Parliament have profound misgivings about the regulatory system.
  • Further, in recent years, pests have developed resistance to Bt cotton, forcing farmers to spray lethal pesticides.
  • This led to over 50 deaths by pesticide-poisoning in Vidarbha in 2017.
  • It is important to note that a GM-based strategy of pest control is unsustainable, all the more so since farmers, already pressed for land, ignore the government’s recommendation to plant refuge crops.

Concluding Remarks:

  • Experts opine that we as a society cannot wish all these concerns away simply because some farmers want to try Bt brinjal, or farmers in Bangladesh have been cultivating Bt brinjal since 2013.
  • Farmers do not and cannot assess long-term impacts on ecology and health, which needs more rigorous and sensitive studies than those conducted so far.
  • Yet, in the nine years since the moratorium, there has hardly been any progress toward addressing these issues.
  • If anything, the problem of sustainable, remunerative farming has become more acute, and alternative strategies such as organic and zero budget natural farming, which do not allow GM seeds, are gaining ground.
  • Experts point out that at the very least, the government must detail the steps it has taken since 2010 to address the scientific lacunae, clarify precisely how Bt brinjal will benefit farmers, put the infrastructure to ensure labelling into place, and demonstrate how Bt brinjal fits in with sustainable farming and biodiversity conservation.
  • In conclusion, as things stand, Bt brinjal runs counter to the framework for agricultural development and farmers’ well-being devised by parliamentary panels and the government’s own task forces and expert committees.

3. Gloves off on trade

Analysis:

  • As a matter of fact, what clearly emerges is the fact that the trigger for the move was the U.S. withdrawal of duty-free access to Indian exporters under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) from June 5th, 2019.

The Position taken by the Trump Administration:

  • It is important to note that Mr. Trump chose to go ahead and proclaim on May 31st, 2019 that he was terminating India’s designation as a beneficiary developing country over Delhi’s failure to assure the U.S. of “equitable and reasonable access to its markets”, notwithstanding the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his new Council of Ministers had just been sworn in the previous day.
  • Experts opine that this reflects an unwillingness to meet India halfway on trade.
  • Not that there had been no warning lights flashing. As a matter of fact, on a visit to New Delhi in early May, 2019, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross had made no bones about the administration’s perception of India being a “tariff king” that adopted “overly restrictive market access barriers”.
  • As a matter of fact, Mr. Ross had also threatened India with “consequences” were it to impose the retaliatory tariffs.
  • Now, the government led by Mr. Modi and his key interlocutors on trade, including the new External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal, have sent a strong message that India is not going to be compelled to negotiate under duress.

Understanding the position taken by India:

  • The change in tack on India’s part also indicates that it is done, at least for now, with a more conciliatory stance after it had kept delaying the imposition of retaliatory tariffs over the past 12 months.
  • Furthermore, during that period India had not only to contend with the withdrawal of GSP status but also had to, under a U.S. ultimatum, terminate its imports of vital crude oil from Iran, with which it has had a long-standing and strategic relationship.
  • As a matter of fact, to be sure, India has much at stake in ensuring that economic ties with its largest trading partner do not end up foundering on the rocky shoals of the current U.S. administration’s approach to trade and tariffs, one that China has referred to as “naked economic terrorism”.

Concluding Remarks:

  • An important point to be kept in mind is the fact that trade is not, and must not be viewed as, a zero-sum game.
  • To that end, the government ought to review with flexibility some of its decisions such as the data localisation requirements and the new e-commerce regulations that have become a sore point with the U.S. side, including business investors.
  • Lastly, Indian trade negotiators also need to impress upon their American counterparts the importance of ensuring that market access for Indian services exporters remains free of new, restrictive visa curbs.
  • In conclusion, the counter-tariffs have now lent the Indian side a bargaining chip that the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, will have to grapple with during his visit later during the month of June, 2019.

4.  The litchi link?

Analysis:

  • This two-member team that was invited by the State government six years ago, found that undernourished children who ate the fruit during the day and went to bed on an empty stomach presented with serious illness early the next morning.

(a)    What did this two-member team do?

  • As a matter of fact, in 2014, the team saved 74% of sick children through a simple intervention. This simple intervention involved infusing 10% dextrose within four hours of the onset of illness.
  • The recommended prevention strategy — making sure that no child goes to bed without eating a meal — adopted from 2015 ensured a sharp drop in the number of children falling sick.

(b)   Blame that can be apportioned on the state government:

  • Experts opine that it is appalling that this year (2019) the government failed to raise awareness on this strategy.
  • Worse, some doctors came up with alternative explanations for the illness and even pointed to the heat wave.

(c)    The problems that litchi can cause:

  • It is important to note that while the most common causes of acute encephalitis syndrome are traced to a bacteria or a virus and it takes at least a few days before presenting serious symptoms and deaths, the toxin in litchi causes serious problems overnight.
  • Next, it is also important to note that while well-nourished children who eat the fruit remain unaffected even if they go to bed on an empty stomach, the under-nourished ones are at grave risk.
  • Blood glucose falls sharply causing severe brain malfunction (encephalopathy), leading to seizures and coma, and death in many cases.

Why do under-nourished children suffer?

  • Under-nourished children lack sufficient glucose reserve in the form of glycogen and the production of glucose from non-carbohydrate source is blocked midway leading to low blood sugar level.
  • This causes serious brain function derangement and seizures.
  • While 5% dextrose infusion serves the purpose in cases of general low blood sugar, children suffering from acute hypoglycaemic encephalopathy can be saved only by infusing 10% dextrose within four hours of illness onset.
  • Recovery is rapid and complete if 10% dextrose is infused within the golden hours.
  • Infusing a higher concentration of dextrose is necessary to completely stop the attempt by the body to produce glucose from non-carbohydrate source.

Concluding Remarks:  

  • It is important to note that if encephalopathy was indeed the cause of death, this simple medical intervention could have saved many lives.
  • Experts point out that dextrose infusion could have been done even as children were being transported to hospitals in ambulances.
  • The failures were at the stages of both prevention and care.

5. Unleashing the potential of urban India

Analysis:

  • It is important to note that the Global Metro Monitor 2018 reports that 36% of employment growth and 67% of GDP growth were contributed by the 300 largest global metros, with those in emerging economies outperforming those in advanced economies.
  • Further, metropolitan areas concentrate and accelerate wealth as these are agglomerations of scale that concentrate higher-level economic functions.
  • Nine Indian metros feature in the top 150 ranks of the economic performance index.
  • By 2030, India will have 71 metropolitan cities, of which seven would have a population of more than 10 million.
  • Experts opine that what emerges very clearly is that metropolises are going to be a key feature of India’s urbanisation and will play a crucial role in fuelling growth.

A Perspective from the Constitution of India:

  • Article 243P(c) of the Constitution of India defines ‘metropolitan areas’ as those having “population of ten lakhs [a million] or more, comprised in one or more districts and consisting of two or more municipalities/panchayats/ other contiguous areas, specified by the governor through public notification to be a metropolitan area”.
  • It recognises metropolitan areas as multi-municipal and multi-district entities.
  • It mandates the formation of a Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) for preparing draft development plans, considering common interests between local authorities, objectives and priorities set by Central and State governments, and investments likely to be made in the area by various agencies.
  • It is important to note that to ensure the democratic character of the MPC, it is mandated that at least two-thirds of the members of the committee must be elected by and from among the elected members of the municipalities and chairpersons of the panchayats in the metropolitan area, proportionate to the ratio of their respective populations.
  • Importantly, the size and manner of filling such seats are left to the State’s discretion.

Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC)’s: Lack of Implementation

  • MPCs were expected to lay frameworks for metropolitan governance, but on the ground they do not exist in most cases.
  • Janaagraha’s Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems (ASICS) 2018 found that only nine out of 18 cities mandated to form MPCs have constituted them.
  • Where constituted, their functionality is questionable, with the limited role of local elected representatives raising further questions on democratic decentralisation.
  • Thus, the provision for an MPC has not introduced robust governance of metropolises, as the metropolises continue to be a collection of local bodies in an entirely fragmented architecture.

International Perspectives: U.K., Australia and China

  • The U.K. has rolled out ‘City Deals’, an agreement between the Union government and a city economic region, modelled on a ‘competition policy style’ approach.
  • The city economic region is represented by a ‘combined authority’.
  • This is a statutory body set up through national legislation that enables a group of two or more councils to collaborate decisions, and which is steered by a directly elected Mayor.
  • This is to further democratise and incentivise local authorities to collaborate and reduce fragmented governance, drive economic prosperity, job growth, etc. ‘City Deals’ move from budget silos and promote ‘economic growth budget’ across regions.
  • The U.K. has established nine such combined authorities.
  • Australia adopted a regional governance model along these lines in 2016 and has signed four City Deals till date.
  • Meanwhile, China is envisioning 19 seamlessly connected super city clusters.
  • India, however, is yet to begin the discourse on a governance framework for the future of its metropolises.
  • It is yet to recognise that disaster management, mobility, housing, climate change, etc. transcend municipal boundaries and require regional-level solutions.
  • The World Bank notes that despite the emergence of smaller towns, the underlying character of India’s urbanisation is “metropolitan”, with towns emerging within the proximity of existing cities.

Concluding Remarks: The Way forward

  • It is time that India envisions the opportunities and challenges from a ‘city’ level to ‘city-region’ level.
  • The Central government must create a platform to build consensus among State governments. Perhaps, the Greater Bengaluru Governance Bill, 2018, drafted by the Expert Committee for Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike Restructuring, could offer direction.
  • As a matter of fact, it proposes for a Greater Bengaluru Authority headed by a directly elected Mayor, responsible for the overall planning of Greater Bengaluru with powers for inter-agency coordination and administration of major infrastructural projects across the urban local bodies within the area.
  • However, this Bill is yet to see the light of day.

Thank you!

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