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The Hindu Notes for 22 August 2018

High science with low development

Promising the moon with tech dreams while ignoring human development leaves India at the mercy of the mob

On our 72nd Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that by 2022 we may expect the Tricolour to be unfurled in space. Even as he was announcing this from the ramparts of Red Fort in New Delhi, parts of the country were faced with flooding, due partly to water released from dams following exceptional rain. Previously we had witnessed lynchings, mostly over a wide swathe of north India from Uttar Pradesh to Jharkhand but not entirely absent in the south. Mobs had attacked persons either on their own or in small groups, with the victims in every case having been unarmed and acting without any provocation. The victims have been Dalits and Muslims engaged in the cattle trade, middle-aged single women accused of witchcraft, and migrant labourers allegedly trafficking in children. It is not difficult to see a majoritarianism in this as the victims are from the most marginalised sections of the country, left without protection by the state.

These incidents are incongruous with the claim of India being a long-lived civilisation, but it is the incongruity of such outcomes with democracy that holds out some hope for ending them. For while civilisational norms may place restrictions on individual action, democratic norms singularly protect the individual’s inalienable right to life and liberty and place upon the state the responsibility of advancing it. Coercion in any form may be allowed only of the state, and the Indian state must now be called upon to discharge its bounden duty. The governance imperative in a democracy does not end with promoting the ease of doing business.

The democratic agenda

Emphasising a space programme as an objective while failing to highlight the multiple failings of public policy in India makes a mockery of the democratic project, the principal object of which is the creation of enabling conditions for a valuable life. These conditions result from protecting natural capital, building public goods in the form of physical infrastructure, providing a public education and health service, and creating institutions that support individual aspirations. This is the democratic agenda. It is not obvious from their actions that the majority of India’s political class is even aware of its centrality to their legitimacy. That in a democracy we elect a government to implement this agenda is not negotiable. When political parties pursue projects that evoke national prestige in the form of space missions, they mask the principal task for which they have been elected in the first place, which, it bears repeating, is to enable people to lead flourishing lives.

The pursuit of high science by the Government of India had started quite early after 1947 when it embarked on a programme of harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The Atomic Energy Commission was formed and treated with reverence. The difference this has made to the power situation in the country is not clear. Independent experts at the Indian Statistical Institute point out that nuclear power is costly. But we also know that the alternative — of burning coal — is not just polluting but contributes to global warming and climate change, with catastrophic consequences. However, we need to rely neither on nuclear power or fossil fuel, for we have abundant sunlight in India and some wind power. And the cost of generating solar power is reducing rapidly due to advances in storage technology. The only question is whether we have a science policy that is focussed enough to monitor and exploit these trends and a government machinery that is both motivated and adept at facilitating a mass transition to cleaner fuel. Such transitions are not easily made and require the guiding hand of our elected representatives. Private agencies just do not possess the incentive or legitimacy needed.

The enchantment with high science, as opposed to a science and technology that serves our needs, that had imbued public policy in the early days of the republic is not hard to understand. India was then emerging from colonial rule, which had involved not only economic exploitation but also a disdain for the Indian way of life. The imperialist’s trope had been to point to the superiority of the metropolis by way of its scientific accomplishments. While this may have been a historical reality, it is worth reflecting upon whether the public policy of post-colonial India should have been guided by a knee-jerk nationalism. A space mission when India faces more urgent challenges is just that. Today, after 71 years we have the hindsight to see this, and we should take advantage of it. India’s science and technology policy should now be re-oriented to improve the lives of Indians.

Tethered to the farm

An example of such a role for science was the launching of the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s. In a matter of less than a decade a precarious economy the size of a subcontinent was transformed into one self-sufficient in food. While the role of global knowledge in the form of bio-tech and American philanthropy in the form of funding was significant, there was also a national movement of sorts. The Green Revolution was achieved through a rare combination of scientific leadership in the agricultural sector, administrative ability and political acumen, but above all by the genius of India’s farmers.

We have not seen national will on a similar scale since. This when we urgently need an agricultural initiative comparable in its transformative capacity today. Indian agriculture has performed more erratically than usual in the past decade. Given the scale of the public science and technology apparatus in India, especially of agricultural research institutions, there is a visible lack of response to this situation, if not crisis. Development economists recognise that the ‘food problem’ does not cease once a country is able to produce food in sufficient quantity. It is necessary to produce food at a cost that is affordable to the mass of the population. It may be emphasised that this is fully compatible with a prosperous farming population. What is needed is an increase in the productivity of land. Despite the Prime Minister’s claims in his speech of his government having delivered on farm price support, a rise in farm productivity requires more than the price mechanism; technology and extension services would matter.

A direct connection

It may appear odd to start out speaking of mob lynching and end by flagging the importance of agriculture. The connection, however, is not as tenuous as may be imagined as the former has mostly taken place in rural India. Bharat has benefited relatively less from a public policy with a penchant for high science. In the 1970s it had been fashionable to counter the charge of an ‘urban bias’ in Indian economic policy by pointing out that the Indian state was, after all, rewarding the agricultural sector with high and rising procurement prices. It was overlooked that the proportion of surplus farmers in rural India was very small in relation to its population. Today we are paying the price for a policy that generally neglected the majority of the rural Indians who more than anything else needed public services. Equipped with capability — through good health and awareness — the once marginalised would be vulnerable no more. Promising the moon by courting high science while ignoring human development leaves some Indians at the mercy of the mob and India’s democracy diminished in our own estimation.

Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor at Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana


Strengthening the federal link

There must be recognition of the potential of State Finance Commissions in building regional equity

The State Finance Commission (SFC) is a unique institution created by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments (CAs) to rationalise and systematise State/sub-State-level fiscal relations in India. It has few parallels in other federal systems. Its primary task is to rectify growing horizontal imbalances in the delivery of essential public services to citizens. But there has been inadequate appreciation of the significance of this institution by the Union, States as well as the professional community.

Article 243I of the Constitution mandated the State Governor to constitute a Finance Commission within one year of the CAs (before April 24, 1994) and thereafter every five years. This means fifth generation SFCs ought to have submitted reports by now, with around 140 reports available in the public domain. Till date, only Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala have submitted their fifth SFC reports. Many States are yet to cross the third SFC stage. The large majority has violated the mandate of the Constitution with impunity. The moot question is this: Is honouring the Constitution a matter of convenience? The seriousness, regularity, acceptance of recommendations and their implementation which characterise the Union Finance Commissions (UFCs) are conspicuously absent when it comes to SFCs. The UFC has been widely acknowledged as a professional and quasi-judicial body when compared to the SFC.

A cursory survey of the composition of SFCs would reveal the overwhelming presence of serving and/or retired bureaucrats rather than academics. The States have to bear their share of the blame for this.

In order to properly compare UFCs and SFCs, certain facts have to be put in perspective. One, for historical reasons, UFCs, particularly from the third, have chosen a restrictive role of staying away from plan and investment allocations. SFCs normally could not do this although some have chosen the UFC path. Now that the Planning Commission has been dismantled, the 15th UFC has to spell out its decision-making domain. Two, it is important to disabuse the notion among several politicians, policy makers and even experts that SFCs and the local governments they deal with have an inferior constitutional status when compared to the UFC. This is wrong. The SFC is undoubtedly modelled on the UFC created under Article 280 and exemplified in Articles 243I and 243Y. While the UFC is tasked with rectifying vertical and horizontal imbalances at the Union-State level, the SFC has to perform the same with reference to State/sub-State-level institutions. The Constitution treats a local government on a par with a State government, especially when it comes to sharing of financial resources.

A link role

Three, what is not adequately appreciated is that the task of the SFC to correct horizontal imbalances is extremely onerous when compared with the UFC as SFCs have to consider nearly 2.5 lakh local governments to promote minimum essential services in rural and urban areas. By implication, an SFC is the institutional agency to implement the golden rule of cooperative federalism that every citizen should be assured minimum public goods irrespective of her choice of residence. Four, Article 280(3) has been amended to add clauses (bb) and (c) in order to take measures to augment the resources of panchayats and municipalities on the basis of the recommendations “made by the finance commission of the state”. These sub-clauses affirm the organic link between local governments and SFCs to fiscal federalism. It is only when inter-State disparities are reduced by the UFCs through their inter-se distribution criteria and intra-State disparities are reduced by SFCs through the horizontal distribution criteria, that the Indian federation becomes a sustainable and inclusive nation-state.

Five, UFCs had no data problem in reviewing the finances of the Union and States. The financial reporting system of the Union and States is well laid down. On the other hand, local governments with no proper budgetary system are in deep disarray and, because of that, SFCs face a crucial problem of reliable data. In short, several sufficient conditions remain unfulfilled in the case of SFCs. Six, the federalist development state of India can grow only through a process of evolutionary policy making which works towards cherished goals. The CAs left the task of adequately empowering local governments to discharge constitutional obligations to the States. Unlike the UFC, no SFC can easily ignore Articles 243G and 243W (which speak of planning “for economic development and social justice”) and Article 243ZD (which mandates that every State constitute a district planning committee for spatial panning and environmental conservation at the sub-State level).

Moreover, UFCs have failed to play a hand-holding role in placing decentralised governance properly in the cooperative federal map of India. The hard truth is that no UFC has done its homework in reading and analysing SFC reports. Without presenting a consolidated account of the reality at the sub-State level or highlighting which report went wrong, where and how, no UFC can legitimately guide States or contribute to improving the goals of constitutional amendments.

All the terms of reference of UFCs (since the 11th)iterate the need for suggesting measures to augment the resources of panchayats and municipalities as a core task. But barring the 13th, have they made any concrete approach to redeem the situation and work towards a good local governance system? Their well-designed grant scheme to incentivise States was not given a fair trial.

In sum, SFCs have not been provided with the necessary environment to play their rightful role in Indian fiscal federalism. A great opportunity to build regional equity in India has been undermined.

M.A. Oommen is an Honorary Fellow, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram


‘It’s time for India to talk about the instant runoff voting method’

The American political sociologist on electoral reforms, and the rising threats to democracy and the rules-based international order

Larry Diamond is a scholar in the field of democracy studies. A Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University, U.S., he has published extensively. In a new book, to be published next year, he inquires into the global crisis of democracy. In this interview, Professor Diamond speaks of modernising the rules-based order, strong leaders, and why India must reconsider its electoral system. Excerpts:

There is a rising tide of populism and nationalism across the world. Is the global liberal democratic system in a free fall?

It is not in a free fall, but we should not take anything for granted. Samuel P. Huntington, in The Third Wave, talked of waves of democracy expanding. The two previous waves of democratic expansion ended tragically with reverse waves of democratic implosions and what seemed like the march of authoritarianism — in the 1920s and ’30s. That led to horrible crimes against humanity and the Second World War, and then the wave of post-colonial democracies in the late 1950s, ’60s, and the early ’70s, all the military coups in Latin America, and so on. So, we are trying to avoid the third reverse wave of democratic breakdown. That’s what free fall would look like. You would have loss of confidence in democracy, and what would seem like uninterrupted ascendance of major authoritarian regimes. We are not there yet, but there are signs that we are beginning to approach that abyss.

I think democracy is secure in India, but it is not in a number of other countries. There are countries that could be said to be democracies, but are increasingly illiberal democracies at risk of no longer being democracies. Look at the Philippines. I don’t think Hungary can be called a democracy any more.

You have some elected democracies that are descending into what we call competitive authoritarian regimes. Some like Uganda and Cambodia are no longer the slightest bit competitive. They are now really despotisms with a meaningless fa├žade of electoral competition. And deeply authoritarian regimes are becoming even more deeply authoritarian — for instance, Russia. And China, where you now have the social credit system. All the data that social media collects is being mashed up into one comprehensive score of citizen loyalty. And we are creeping towards a situation where anyone who expresses criticism of President Xi Jinping or the Chinese Communist Party might find, not that they will be thrown in jail, they just won’t be able to buy a train ticket or have their kids go to college.

The rules-based order of the West is under threat. How do you see its future?

We need to decompose the concept of rules-based order into several components. There was a kind of rules-based order of the Treaty of Versailles in Europe. Whoever managed to get power in a country could do whatever the hell they wanted as long as they did not cross the border and violate the sovereignty of other people or oppress or conquer other people. That cannot be allowed to fly in the post-World War II period. Sovereignty is — and must continue to be — an important principle but it’s not an absolute principle. The rules-based order is heavily rooted in the rules and institutions that were set up after World War II, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. India was an important voice from the political South in supporting and affirming them. Those rules are a part of what’s under assault, as well as the basic norm against aggression and conquest.

Look at how many countries in Southeast Asia have conflicting claims in the South China Sea, if you extend their land borders by a reasonable amount under international law into the South China Sea. Why should China, just because it has military power and the most powerful dredging ships in the world, be able to pull sand from beneath hundreds of feet and pile it up in new islands and say these are our islands? Why should China be able to defy a ruling of the International Court of Arbitration in favour of the Philippines? No one is doing anything to defend it.

The international rules-based order is not just a matter of defending human rights, it is a matter of defending basic principles of sovereignty and respect for the rights of other nations, and willingness to arbitrate disputes.

This does not mean that the rules and institutions that were set up as part of the “liberal international order” after World War II don’t need some adjustment. I believe that India should be given a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. I think we certainly could modernise the World Bank. Why should the president of the World Bank always be an American? I would be fine if the next president of the World Bank is from India. There is a lot we can do to modernise the rules-based order, but it’s important that for the future of freedom and peace that it be defended.

There is a rise of strong leaders in traditionally strong democracies. Why is this happening and to what extent is social media aiding this?

Certainly there is a broad anxiety in the world about economic conditions, social pluralism and identity, how people are going to fare in a world of diversity. Of course, it’s always possible for this to be rubbed raw by loud social media voices. But we need to be cautious about the role of technology because we’ve had strong men before in the history of democracy. There were violent conflicts between ethnic groups, not only before social media, but before radio, television or newspapers. So, part of what’s happening is speed. One of the things that social media does is enable people to descend into filter bubbles that reinforce opinion. It also enables a ruler to have a direct relationship with his followers and to mobilise them instantly at his command.

We need to keep in mind that many of the leaders who are using these tools and mobilising a lot of anxieties are perceived to be, or aspire to be, strong men who do not have strong majorities. U.S. President Donald Trump lost the popular vote. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan keeps winning elections with less than 50% of the popular vote. The system is rigged in [their] favour and the population is divided. Of course, I will let Indians decide how to classify their Prime Minister. I think Narendra Modi’s followers regard him as a strong leader. Whether he falls into the category of the strongman ruler is a different story.

I think it’s hard for a system as pluralistic as India’s to yield to authoritarian temptations. There is so much diversity in India and decentralisation of government.All Indians hopefully look back on the experience of the Emergency and draw appropriate lessons from it.

Over the last few years, democratic institutions and the media have been under pressure in India. What is your assessment on that?

It is for Indians to judge whether they think this is a problem in India. The general point that stands all around the world is, if you erode checks and balances, you may purchase some temporary ability to make decisions. But you are buying a lot of negative side-effects in terms of the decline in protections for individual rights, in the rule of law and the deliberative aspects of democracy that are very important.

It’s a matter of widely accepted analysis of the Indian political situation that the Opposition has been in disarray. It’s hard to have an effective counterweight to a ruling party if you don’t have a party that leads that. The problem with the first-past-the-post system in India is that it really requires two principal parties. And if one of those semi-disintegrates, it creates instability. I think India really ought to reconsider its electoral system. One possibility would be proportional representation, though that could fragment the system even more. But the reform that’s gaining the most interest now is something called the instant runoff. The beauty of it is you keep all the existing single-member electoral districts. The difference is that instead of having whoever gets the most votes win, you give people a ballot where they can rank their choices. And if no candidate gets the majority of the vote, and if their candidate — the one whom they voted first — gets the least number of first-place votes, that candidate is eliminated, and the votes for him or her, including your vote, are distributed to the second preferences of the voters. And a just redistribution of the votes keeps happening until a candidate gets a majority of the vote, sometimes in a final round between two candidates.

Think about what that would do in a lot of electoral districts. First, it wouldn’t matter if parties formed coalitions or not. But they would certainly have to form tacit alliances because they would have to compete for the second and third preference votes of other parties and this might induce greater moderation. It usually makes for greater civility in electoral campaigns because if you thrash your opponents, you know you might need some of those second preference votes in order to win. It would ensure that in districts across India, whoever was elected in a district was at least minimally acceptable to a majority of the voters. It’s an experiment, but I think it’s time for India to at least talk about it.

Economic growth is increasingly concentrated in a small percentage of the population. Can we say that India is in a gilded phase of growth like the one the U.S. went through in the past?

It’s wonderful to have high rates of economic growth and it’s also absolutely necessary to lift people out of poverty. It’s a necessary but not sufficient condition. We need to worry about the distribution of growth as well. That means on the one hand we have to provide incentives, an enabling environment that unleashes entrepreneurial energy, innovation and risk-taking. Here, I think, one of the great insights of Prime Minister Modi is that he understood that unless you left some of the regulatory burden of what was the called the administrative raj, the state just seemed to be intervening everywhere and requiring licenses and permits for everything. So streamlining of regulatory burdens and facilitation of entrepreneurship and capital formation are extremely important to generate more rapid economic growth in India. But it’s really important for the future of India that India avoids paying two horrible prices for achieving that. One would be inequality, which is entirely avoidable. If you have proper policies of taxation and an effective and reasonably non-corrupt state, we can redistribute some of that growth into education, health and social services. Second is that the world just cannot have this growth come at the expense of a massive increase in carbon emissions or other forms of pollution.


Defining the Holocene

Why the controversy over the newly designated geological ages of the Holocene Epoch is likely to continue

Last month, India received the happy news that that one of the three newly designated geological ages of the Holocene Epoch was named after Meghalaya. The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), a body of geological timekeepers, had divided the Holocene Epoch, which began 11,700 years ago, at the 8,200-year and 4,200-year points, thereby creating the Greenlandian, the Northgrippian and the Meghalayan Ages.

Even though the ICS decision took over a decade, it wasn’t without its critics. Primary among them were geologists for whom the new Holocene subdivisions had undercut a proposal for a more important geological stratification: the Anthropocene Epoch. The idea that human influence on earth has heralded the beginning of the new geological epoch, bringing the Holocene to a close, was first proposed in the late 20th century. Later, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen argued that the “Anthropocene Epoch” ought to begin at the start of the industrial revolution (1800 AD). This point in time could be marked, as geological epochs often are, by rising carbon dioxide levels in polar ice. But although the idea of an Anthropocene was widely accepted, their proposed start date was not.

Other researchers said that 8,000 years ago was a better starting point, when agriculture first began in Eurasia. Yet another group suggested 1610 AD, when the European colonisation of the Americas led to an unprecedented mixing of new-world and old-world species. A third contender was the mid-20th century, known as the Great Acceleration, when concrete, aluminium and plastic were disseminated across the planet. Given these disagreements over the Anthropocene start date, the epoch hasn’t been formalised yet.

In the meantime, another set of researchers was working to stratify the Holocene Epoch. The reason was convenience: the Holocene was already being divided by researchers, informally, into the early, middle and late Holocene, but the lack of a formal definition was leading to confusion. Ultimately, they settled on a division based on two climatic events. The first, 8,200 years ago, was a catastrophic melting of glacial lakes resulting in a global drop in temperatures. The second, 4,200 years ago, was a massive drought around the planet’s mid-latitudes, which is thought to have triggered the decline of civilisations such as the Akkadian and the Indus Valley.

Why the controversy, then? First, the 8,200-years-ago start date of the Northgrippian now coincides broadly with one of the Anthropocene start dates. Second, some researchers argue that the drought 4,200 years ago wasn’t global. This has riled researchers who were awaiting clarity on the Anthropocene debate. Why chop up the Holocene along arbitrary lines when it isn’t even clear if we are living in the Holocene now, they ask. Even though the ICS’s stratification is now official, this debate is likely to continue for a while.

The writer is with The Hindu in Bengaluru