Category Archives: The Hindu Editorial Articles

Ready to take flight?

Maharashtra’s move, this week, in becoming the first State to embrace the Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) ticks a few boxes for the Centre’s ambitious plan to use civil aviation to boost tourism, jobs and balanced regional growth across the country. It also lends a fillip to India’s aim of emerging as the third largest aviation market by 2020. The concept itself, though, is not new. Under the UPA government, a Ministry of Civil Aviation report noted that States were becoming more receptive to the idea of promoting regional air connectivity. It also observed that the only way to get airlines to fly these “thin routes” would be by reducing operational costs. The report highlighted two points: the immense potential that lay in activating the nearly 450 dormant airports and airfields, and the need for a subsidy fund, which is a global norm, in keeping such routes going. A key point in that document was its optimism about India having 300-odd operational airports by 2030, from about 80 now, by tapping into the potential of regional routes. When linked to a concept such as a ‘hub and spoke’ — of route flexibility and also feeding into larger airline operators and major aviation hubs — the sky was indeed the limit.

Some of this is mirrored in the latest policy. At its heart lies the importance of Centre-State cooperation, in the form of viability gap funding, subsidised aviation fuel and a ‘controversial’ fare cap, pivotal to enabling the scheme’s success. But there could be some air pockets ahead. Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju’s remark that States would have to be prepared to “take some haircuts” by providing free land and operational infrastructure, and that the Centre would have to agree to forego excise on aviation fuel and service tax on tickets signals that the scheme may end up testing the actual commitment of governments both at the Union and State levels. With private airlines having evinced interest but not having expressly committed themselves so far to the RCS, there is also the issue, going by experience, of whether the burden of operating such routes could end up ultimately falling on Air India. The episodes of the ‘now-on, now-off’ air services to Mysuru and Puducherry, for instance, are illustrative and instructive. These operations had the backing of the respective governments but never reached ‘cruise altitude’. Given the scale of the scheme, there is also the issue of providing air traffic control services. With mounting worries over air safety and the alarming rise in ‘near-miss’ incidents, there can be no room for compromise on this vital component of the aviation industry.

Investigating the Scorpene leak

How much our security has been compromised by the leak of thousands of pages of confidential documents related to the Scorpene submarines, under production in Mazagon Dock Ltd., must be seriously investigated. This must be done in a manner that is free from bureaucratic compromise or turf-protective tactics. The leak came to light when The Australian newspaper claimed it had accessed 22,400 pages of documents detailing technical specifications of the 1,500-tonne conventional diesel-electric submarine. The documents contain details of combat and stealth capabilities, such as the frequencies at which they would gather intelligence and their noise levels at various speeds. Information on diving depths, range and endurance are also in the documents, suspected to have been taken out of DCNS, the French company that designed the submarines. According to The Australian, the documents contain magnetic, electromagnetic and infrared data as also specifications of the submarine’s torpedo launch system and combat system. Till the investigation is complete, it would be foolhardy to hazard the magnitude of the setback. But it may calm anxieties if there is a joint parliamentary probe, informed by a bipartisan spirit, to supplement an expert inquiry.

The leaked data pertain to the six Scorpene submarines that India bought from the French under a deal signed in 2005. Worth more than $3.75 billion at the time, it was India’s biggest military purchase, to provide a powerful, secretive underwater capability. The Scorpenes are to be the mainstay of India’s conventional sub-surface fleet in the next couple of decades. A submarine, by nature, is the most silent and potent weapon platform that a military has, the foremost being the SSBN, or a submarine that can launch ballistic nuclear missiles. It is in such SSBNs that countries place their second-strike capability — to fire a nuclear missile when under nuclear attack. In a battlefield with intrusive surveillance capabilities, conventional submarines can stay underwater for weeks, sneak close to the enemy shoreline, keep a quiet watch on ship movement, and carry out surprise attacks. Besides visual sighting, there are challenging and complex ways to look for a submarine, and to identify it as friend or foe. Most of these characteristics of Scorpene submarines seem to be part of the leaked documents. On the face of it, this would be documentation worth years of difficult and complex intelligence-gathering for adversaries. The initial response of the Ministry of Defence and the naval headquarters has been far too defensive. They must expedite the inquiry to also determine the source of the leak, and whether there has been a breach at the original equipment manufacturer’s end — and if so, fix liability.

Peace on the horizon in Colombia

The promise of peace at the end of a protracted conflict in Colombia may evoke a degree of scepticism if not undue pessimism. Peace is still contingent upon approval in a popular plebiscite. Pitted against President Juan Manuel Santos, who seeks to sell the agreement with the rebel militia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is his predecessor Álvaro Uribe, credited with forcing the guerrillas to the negotiating table. The former President now opposes a proposed amnesty to FARC leaders and the prospect of running for political office as a compromise in the extreme. Official pardons and reduced sentences for confessions to crimes were part of a transitional arrangement. Mr. Uribe’s political pitch could well resonate with a populace disillusioned with decades of mass disappearances and massacre of civilians that resulted in the loss of over 200,000 lives, besides the millions who went missing. Conversely, the chances of genuine and lasting reconciliation between the government and the rebels will depend on the establishment of effective mechanisms to bring the latter back to mainstream society. A particularly formidable challenge would be the demobilisation of guerrillas, thousands of whom were kidnapped as children and pushed into drug trafficking and fighting. Many of them have been victims of sexual abuse. Their rehabilitation is vital.

About a quarter million Colombian children were displaced in the last three years of peace negotiations, the United Nations said in March, an estimate corroborated by Unicef. That is some indication of how formidable the situation on the ground has become since the beginnings of the conflict half a century ago. Bogota’s final agreement with the insurgents comes as the culmination of four years of hard negotiations mediated by Havana since 2012. Sustaining the momentum for peace and channelling it into a credible and lasting settlement would call for huge investment by way of political capital and constructive economic incentives. Given that the State Department continues to regard FARC as a terrorist organisation, the rapprochement between Washington and Havana could serve as a crucial force to contain the rhetoric between Colombia and the U.S. Washington, in fact, could do much to facilitate the consolidation of democratic institutions in its long-troubled neighbourhood. Meanwhile, the readiness to engage the government in a dialogue by a smaller extremist organisation, the National Liberation Army, will boost the credibility of President Santos’s efforts. Latin America’s last significant armed insurgency seems well within sight of abating, at long last. The latest agreement may be just the beginning on that difficult road, but it is an important one nonetheless.

Surrogacy regulation is long overdue

A comprehensive law to regulate surrogacy has been long overdue. Over the years, India has become a global hub for the practice of women being contracted to carry others’ babies, usually for a payment. While estimates of the size of the surrogacy market vary wildly, it is one in which the woman carrying an embryo has been in a grey zone, with uncertain legal and compensatory protection. The Union Cabinet has taken the first step towards regulation by approving the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016, but it has many problematic provisions. The proposed law, in line with the practice in several other countries, says commercial surrogacy will be prohibited. However, in order that “altruistic surrogacy” is available for the benefit of infertile couples who are presumably desperate for a child that is genetically theirs, the Bill allows Indian couples, who must have been married for five years without a child, to take the help of surrogates, but without any payment. Only close relatives can be ‘surrogate mothers’, and once in a lifetime. Yet, it bars foreigners, homosexual couples, unmarried couples and single people from taking the help of an altruistic surrogate — leaving it open to questions about discrimination and inequality.

It is far from evident that the ban on commercial surrogacy has been thought through for its practical and ethical dimensions. In fact, it is not clear if the ban and the allowance for altruistic surrogacy are meant to make an ideological point or to actually confront the ground situation. While surrogacy has been legal since 2002, enumerating the surrogate mother’s rights and protecting her bodily integrity has been a challenge as the fertility industry mostly remains unregulated. The rights of children born thus too have remained unclear, highlighted dramatically in the case of Baby Manji Yamada, whose Japanese ‘parents’ divorced in the course of the surrogate pregnancy. Such a dilemma of statelessness has been sought to be prevented with the bar on foreigners. But given India’s failure to administer the ban on organ donations and sex determination tests, it is anybody’s guess how effective the ban on commercial surrogacy will be. The sex determination ban is a principled one, for it underlines intolerance for gender discrimination. The question is whether surrogacy is as big an evil as female foeticide. If it indeed is — and the jury is still out on this — why not ban surrogacy altogether? How does it suddenly become acceptable if the surrogate mother is a relative and uncompensated, besides probably being coerced, as women often are in intra-family decision-making? These are questions that will remain even if the Bill is passed.

Uncertain times in London

Two months since the seemingly irreversible referendum outcome in Britain, there are more questions than answers about the shape of the country’s future in Europe. Had the electorate even remotely sensed the sheer complexity of the now-impending divorce from the European Union, it may have allowed reason to prevail over apprehensions. In the event, practically every single element of the case for Britain staying in the EU, which the Leave camp dismissed as scaremongering, has emerged as a very real concern. Conversely, the Brexit mantra of ‘take control’ rings more hollow with each passing day. Prime Minister Theresa May insists that “Brexit means Brexit”, emphasising at the same time that London would not, until 2017, trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty on leaving the bloc. Even then it is unlikely that the exit procedure will kick in before the French presidential polls next summer and the general elections in Germany a few months later. So, late-2017 is the earliest point that most commentators who believe in the eventuality of Brexit would hazard for the start of exit negotiations. Indeed, there are many who question even the necessity of carrying the outcome of the referendum to its logical end, since Parliament is not bound by the advisory nature of the popular verdict.

Meanwhile, in view of the preference shown in the June vote by a majority of Scots to stay in the EU, the mood in Edinburgh clearly favours a second referendum on Scottish independence. Yet, it is becoming apparent that Brexit will raise the economic burden of an independent Scotland since the bulk of its export revenues accrue from the rest of Britain and not from the bigger bloc of 27 states. Similarly, Northern Ireland is faced with a dilemma over whether the majority regional sentiment to remain should take precedence over the wider British decision to leave. There is palpable disquiet in Belfast and Dublin over the fact that the border-free movement between the north and south of Ireland that followed the historic 1998 Good Friday agreement may be in jeopardy following the verdict. Once London is outside the bloc, the restoration of customs and immigration controls at Newry between Northern Ireland and the Republic would become an inevitable reality, with enormous economic and psychological costs. This sense of uncertainty has gripped the rest of the Union — while central European states are positive about forging a common identity with the rest of the continent, there is anxiety about the future. The only reassuring thought amid this all-round chaos is that the EU is not unused to balancing such emotions.

Reinventing the wheel in Kashmir

A fter 50 days of curfew in the Kashmir Valley, the Central and State governments finally appear to be coming together on how to engage with the conflict and all the stakeholders involved. Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s visits to Srinagar appear to have, at least temporarily, calmed the air. A panel set up by the government is now looking at alternatives to the pellet guns used by the security forces: they have proved to be unacceptably lethal, and should have been abandoned already. An all-party delegation is expected to visit Srinagar in an attempt to reach out to people and kick-start a political dialogue. The process of normalcy can only begin once the restrictive curfew is lifted — but the government cannot sit back and wait for calm; it needs to foster it. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi underlined the gravity of the situation and sought to reach out by saying that each person who dies in the Valley is “one of our people”, there needs to be an actionable checklist to demonstrate the sincerity of the outreach. It is perhaps for all these reasons that after her meeting with Mr. Modi, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti called for the next step, a three-pronged action plan that would include talks with Pakistan and with the separatist leaders, many of whom are currently in prison.

While all of these steps are welcome and necessary, the government must recognise that they only address the violence, and not the deeper problem of alienation in Kashmir. They are but leaves out of the playbook used in 2008 and 2010, to bring the Valley back from the edge after street protests: visits to Srinagar by senior national leaders and all-party delegations, words of restraint for security forces, and words of empathy to Kashmiris. In the current round of violence, Mr. Modi must do better than ‘reinvent the wheel’. To chart a new course, he and Ms. Mufti must work on a sustained plan for dialogue in the State, even as he builds a consensus on how to deal with Pakistan. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s grand diplomatic plans to internationalise the Kashmir issue may be unlikely to meet with much success on the international stage, and will probably be countered at the UN with India’s new pitch for Pakistan to vacate “all of Kashmir”. But such grandstanding hardly addresses the real issues at hand. The bilateral stand-off should not blunt the internal dialogue. What is important right now is not what India does outside its borders, but inside them, in a carefully considered, positive and sustained manner. For, the absence of violence is not peace; it is merely an enabling condition for the pursuit of lasting peace.

ISRO’s scramjet on course

The Indian Space Research Organisation joined an elite club when, on Sunday, it successfully launched a rocket using a scramjet engine that was developed indigenously. This is ISRO’s first major step towards developing an air breathing propulsion system. The scramjet engine functioned for around six seconds. There are many reasons why the use of a scramjet engine is so attractive. A scramjet engine uses oxygen present in the atmospheric air to burn the hydrogen fuel. As a result, the amount of oxygen required to be carried on board would be reduced considerably as atmospheric oxygen is utilised to burn the fuel in the first stage. In general, propellant accounts for nearly 85 per cent of the weight of a rocket, and oxygen accounts for nearly 60 per cent of the weight of the propellant. Scramjet-powered rockets also have several times greater thrust compared with rockets powered by liquid fuel or even cryogenic fuel. Since about half of the propellant is required for the first stage to achieve the required velocity, a rocket using a scramjet engine would be significantly lighter and smaller and, therefore, cheaper. Alternatively, rockets fired by scramjet engines will be able to carry more payload.

Sunday’s test flight, which attained six times the speed of sound (Mach 6) and was able to achieve ignition and maintain stable combustion even at such high velocity for about six seconds, is a big technological achievement. This is akin to “lighting a matchstick in a hurricane condition and sustaining the flame” for six seconds. The air intake mechanism and fuel injection systems were also successfully demonstrated during the maiden test flight. Since it relies on oxygen present in the atmosphere, the trajectories of scramjet engine-powered rockets are vastly different from conventional ones — rockets with scramjet engines should remain in the atmosphere for a longer period than normal rockets. Typically, scramjet rockets climb to a certain altitude and remain in the atmosphere for as long as possible to achieve the required velocity. It will take many years before a commercial rocket powered by a scramjet engine takes to the sky as there are several challenges to be overcome. One challenge will be to test the engine at higher Mach speeds and prolong the period of combustion. Since the scramjet comes into play only when the rocket goes beyond Mach 5, an engine that initially works at subsonic speed (as a ramjet) and later as a scramjet has to be developed. But as in the case of the successful test flight of a reusable vehicle, the first experimental flight using a scramjet engine is a technological demonstration of ISRO’s capability and will go a long way in redefining its position as one of the leading space agencies in the world.

Preparing for the Fed rate hike

Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has made clear that the U.S. central bank is preparing for its next interest rate increase amid signs that a consumption-led expansion in the world’s largest economy is gaining traction, albeit at a moderate pace. While stopping short of indicating a time frame for the move, Ms. Yellen referred to the steady improvement in the domestic labour market, with expectations of both further job gains and moderate growth in real GDP, as bolstering the case for the Fed to raise borrowing costs for the first time since December last. With U.S. benchmark interest rates having hovered close to zero for almost a decade, some economists and central bankers, including the Reserve Bank of India’s Raghuram Rajan, have openly questioned the efficacy and long-term impact of “ultra-low rates” adopted widely across developed economies as part of the response to the 2008 financial crisis. Among the consequences of the easy money policies in the U.S. and the European Union, which were accompanied by a stimulus in several emerging markets, was the sharp upsurge in liquidity and the resultant second-order effects on asset prices and inflation, and currencies and the terms of trade in the emerging economies. It is in this context that the Fed’s decision last year to embark on a policy normalisation was seen as central to a gradual and welcome restoration of global monetary normalcy. Ms. Yellen herself acknowledged that monetary authorities may need to consider adopting additional tools in dealing with recessions and economic shocks in future as average global economic growth and interest rates move into a lower orbit than in the past.

The Fed chair’s comments also highlighted some of the risks that lie ahead for the U.S. economy. In particular, she flagged the fact that business investment remains soft, and subdued global demand combined with the dollar’s recent gains continues to constrain the country’s exports. U.S. economic data, including figures for consumer confidence and payrolls, due later in the week may help bring more clarity on the likely timing of the next increase in the Fed funds rate — September, as a minority of economists predict, or December, as investors anticipate. With the Federal Open Market Committee set to make its next statement on September 21 after a two-day meeting, policymakers at the RBI will have about two weeks to factor in the interest rate stance in the U.S. while deciding on domestic borrowing costs. A rate hike by the Fed will have implications for the Indian currency and interest rates that the RBI must take cognisance of.

The LEMOA embrace

The signing of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA)during Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s visit to Washington is a significant step forward for India and the U.S. The agreement, which comes after more than a decade of negotiations, puts an automatic approvals process in place for the two militaries to share each other’s bases for various operations. These include port visits, joint exercises, joint training, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts; other uses are to be discussed on a case-by-case basis. The agreement will aid the sort of operations India has undertaken to rescue stranded Indians in conflict zones. Further, as the Indian military continues to expand its role to aid in disaster relief, as it did during the 2004 tsunami, it will benefit from easier access to America’s network of military bases around the world. The pact will also enhance the military’s capability to be an expeditionary force, at a time when Indian interests are distributed around the world with major investments planned both onshore and offshore in oilfields. The U.S., too, has required the help of India, as it did when emergency planes were refuelled in Delhi during the Nepal earthquake relief operation. As India and the U.S. explore plans for maritime cooperation in the Asia-Pacific as a part of the joint vision statement, LEMOA is going to add value.

LEMOA is not without its drawbacks, however, as is evident from the fact that it took so many years to agree upon. Even after the Centre had cleared the “foundational agreement”, as it is known, it took several months and at least four high-level meetings to finalise the text. A major reason for this was that although India embarked on closer defence ties with the U.S. years ago, there was no consensus or support within the establishment for an alliance of any kind, which the LEMOA had come to symbolise. As Mr. Parrikar pointed out during his joint appearance with U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, the finally negotiated text has nothing to do with setting up U.S. bases in India, and there is no “obligation” on either side to carry out any joint activity. Mr. Parrikar also mentioned a need to explain to the people the import of the agreement by bringing it into the public domain before the government considers discussions on the other foundational agreements the U.S. is keen to draw India into. The caution from Mr. Parrikar shows a nuanced understanding of the benefits and reservations about the Centre’s latest move, which is a welcome trend.

The ill health of the nation

The National Health Accounts data for 2013-14 present fresh evidence that India continues to have a non-serious approach to the provision of universal health coverage to all its citizens. India’s health system is one of the most privatised in the world, poorly regulated and accessible only to those with income levels well above the average. All these attributes are, once again, strongly borne out by the NHA data, which lay bare the extremely low government spending on health which, at 1.15 per cent of GDP, compares poorly with even Sub-Saharan Africa. There, World Development Indicators say, the corresponding figure was 2.9 per cent six years ago. The share of State governments, which are largely responsible for provision of health care, in government health expenditure is estimated at 0.75 per cent of GDP. Evidently, a health policy that fails to pool the financial risk of illness at the population level results in impoverishing payments made out of personal funds — and the NHA figures confirm that despite rising government revenues, the bulk of Indian health spending, a staggering 64.2 per cent of health expenditure, is met by households out-of-pocket. That such OOP expenses declined by five percentage points over a decade is encouraging, but this is insignificant in comparison with the achievement in, say, Thailand, where 75 per cent of the population was brought under UHC in just one year.

If the NDA government intends to pursue its promise of universal health assurance in earnest, and wants to make up for two lost decades of reform, it has to act decisively. Raising government expenditure on health, in conjunction with the States, should form the basis of policy change; the road map for this was proposed by the Planning Commission’s High Level Expert Group in 2011. Remedial policies in two key areas can quickly scale up to reduce the OOP burden on households. One is to put in place a centralised system for procurement of essential drugs, relying mainly on quality generics and distributing them through the State government system. The other is to arrive at the cost of all medical procedures for different classes of hospitals, laying down standards and forming regulatory authorities at the State and district levels under law to enforce the rules. It was estimated by the Planning Commission group, for instance, that spending 0.5 per cent of GDP (compared to 0.1 per cent spent by the public health system) could ensure the availability of essential medicines free of cost to all Indians. Regulatory controls would automatically lead to a reduction in costs, and curbing of unethical and corrupt practices by hospitals and diagnostics centres. It should then be easier to quickly extend free health insurance to more classes of people, such as senior citizens, children and the disabled, and achieve universal coverage early.