1. Myanmar hosts first regional meeting since coup
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and counterparts from Mekong Delta nations take part
Myanmar’s military government on Monday hosted the first high-level regional meeting since the Army took power last year with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and counterparts from Mekong Delta nations.
State broadcaster MRTV reported that Mr. Wang met with his colleagues from Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam at the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation group meeting held under the theme “Solidarity for Peace and Prosperity” in the central city of Bagan, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The TV report showed Mr. Wang and the other Foreign Ministers bumping elbows in a show of solidarity before the start of the meeting, but did not provide further details.
The grouping is a Chinese-led initiative that includes the countries of the Mekong Delta, a potential source of regional tensions due to an increasing number of hydroelectric projects that are altering the flow and raising concerns of ecological damage. China has built 10 dams along the upper stretch of the Mekong, the part it calls the Lancang.
China has been criticised for the dams upstream on the Mekong river which affect water levels and downstream fisheries that are important to several Southeast Asian nations’ economies.
Military government spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said last Friday that the Ministers were expected to sign several agreements. He said that the presence of the Foreign Ministers was a recognition of Myanmar’s sovereignty and its government.
China is Myanmar’s biggest trading partner and an old ally. Beijing has invested billions of dollars in Myanmar’s mines, oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure and is its major arms supplier, together like Russia. Many in Myanmar suspect China of supporting the military takeover.
Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC)
The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism is a multilateral initiative led by China for cooperation between the riparian states of the Mekong river. Lancang is that part of the Mekong that flows through China.
- The member countries of this mechanism are Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
- The LMC was founded by China in 2016 to basically lend itself a voice on the Mekong river issues.
- The objective of the LMC is to deepen good-neighborliness and pragmatic cooperation among the six member states.
- The other goals include:
- Make collective efforts to the socio-economic development of the LMC countries.
- Improve the well-being of the people and narrow the development gap among its members.
- Support the ASEAN community.
- Advance South-South cooperation
- Enhance the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- China also seeks to bolster its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) through this mechanism.
Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Origins
The LMC framework was created in 2015 to promote Mekong cooperation at a sub-regional level. The idea behind the mechanism was led by China with support from Thailand. The genesis of the LMC was Thailand’s proposal of the Conference on Sustainable Development in Lancang-Mekong sub-region, which aimed to organize the ways to address challenges faced by all 6 Mekong riparian countries, and explore possible cooperation for sustainable development.
The LMC was officially launched in March 2016, according to its official website.
As per the Sanya Declaration, the LMC is focused on enabling cooperation in three pillars:
- Politics and security
- Economic and sustainable development
- Social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges
It has also identified five priority areas which are:
- Regional connectivity
- Industrial cooperation
- Cross-border economic cooperation
- Water resources management
- Agriculture cooperation and poverty reduction
The above areas are together termed the ‘3+5’ Cooperation Mechanism.
The Mekong river originates from the glaciers of Tibet and flows through six countries before emptying into the South China Sea. The six countries are China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The river is 4909 km long and about half of its flows through China. Upper Mekong river, located in Chinese territory, is called in Mandarin as “Lancang Jiang”. The Lower Mekong Basin is rich in natural resources, commonly shared within Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam.
The Mekong river has been a very important lifeline for the people in South East Asia. It sustains a rich biodiversity and is the eight longest river in the world. It also marks the border line between Myanmar-Laos and Thailand-Laos.
China has built many dams in its part of the Mekong river. China uses the LMC to share the Lancang River’s hydrological data for the whole year with the Mekong countries. There have been criticisms that China’s dam building activities leave the other Mekong riparian states with problems of drought and less water.
2. Enforcing the single-use plastic ban
How will the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules be implemented? What has been the response to the move?
A ban on the use of single-use plastics that was notified by the Union Environment Ministry on August 2021 came into effect on July 1 this year. A single-use plastic is an object made of plastic that is intended to be used “only once” before being disposed off or recycled.
So far 32 States/UTs have reportedly constituted a dedicated Task Force to eliminate the use of single-use plastics.
The All India Plastic Manufacturers Association said that the ban would shutter 88,000 units in the plastic manufacturing business. These employ close to a million people and contribute to exports worth ₹25,000 crore.
The story so far: A ban on the use of single-use plastics that was notified by the Union Environment Ministry on August 2021 came into effect on July 1 this year. The notification said national and State-level control rooms would be set up to check illegal manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of banned single use plastic items. The Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, will also prohibit manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of plastic carry bags having thickness less than 120 microns with effect from December 31, 2022.
What is single-use plastic?
The Centre defines it as an object made of plastic that is intended to be used “only once” before being disposed off or recycled. For the purposes of the ban, there is a list of 21 items that come under the definition of single-use plastic including ear buds with plastic sticks, plastic sticks for balloons, plastic flags, candy sticks, ice-cream sticks, thermocol for decoration, plates, cups, glasses, cutlery such as forks, spoons, knives, straw, trays, wrapping or packing films around sweet boxes, invitation cards, and cigarette packets, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 microns, stirrers.
These objects were listed by the Environment Ministry in August when it notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021. Single-use plastic items such as these had “low utility and high littering potential,” it noted. Plastic packaging waste, a major contributor to the much larger problem of plastic waste pollution, isn’t yet covered under the phase-out of single-use plastic items. Mineral water bottles or plastic bottles of aerated drinks are unaffected by the ban, though, in popular imagination, they are representative of ‘plastic pollution.’
How will the ban be implemented?
So far 32 States/UTs have reportedly constituted a dedicated Task Force to eliminate the use of single-use plastics. Of these 14 states/UTs and 12 Central Ministries, as of March, had developed action plans describing how they would be enforcing this.
A few States, for example Maharashtra, already have legislation banning the manufacture and storage of such plastic. But implementing it wasn’t always successful as there was regular supply from States where such bans were not in force. An all-India ban, it’s hoped, would make enforcement more effective.
According to the Environment Protection (EP) Act, violating the ban could invite “punitive action”. Manufacturers and distributors of single-use plastic goods were directed to have zero inventory by June 30, according to officials in the Union Environment Ministry. The EP Act says that violating the ban could invite a five-year imprisonment and a fine of upto ₹1 lakh, or both. If the violations are repeated, it could mean additional fines up to ₹5000 for each day. There are different penalties for companies, organisations, and government departments under the EP Act.
What is the history of the single use plastic ban in India?
The Environment Ministry told the Rajya Sabha last July of its plan to phase out some categories of single use plastic by 2022. A draft outlining the manner in which the ban was to be implemented was issued in March and involved amending the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. Before the amendments came into force, the Plastic Waste Management Rules only prohibited the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of carry bags and plastic sheets less than 50 microns in thickness in the country. There is a ban on sachets using plastic material used for storing, packing or selling gutkha, tobacco and pan masala. Since October 2021, there is a ban on the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of carry bags made of virgin or recycled plastic less than 75 microns as opposed to 50 microns under the earlier version of the rules. At the 4th United Nations Environment Assembly in 2019, India piloted a resolution on addressing single-use plastic products pollution.
Is there popular support for the ban?
The All India Plastic Manufacturers Association has said that the ban would shutter 88,000 units in the plastic manufacturing business. These employ close to a million people and contribute to exports worth ₹25,000 crore. Fast Moving Consumer Goods companies (FMCG) would be severely affected by the the ban due to their dependence on plastic straws, plates. Their replacements, industry representatives say, are available but cost much more than their plastic alternatives. There is also limited capacity in India to provide biodegradable replacements. Average and prominent consumer goods companies have written to the government requesting a six-month extension before the ban takes effect and that companies that are likely to go out of business be compensated. The government has, however, signalled its firm commitment to the ban. Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav said the government had multiple consultations with the industry since 2018. Stakeholders had nearly a year to find alternatives to the use of such plastic and that industries should work to introduce new technologies and alternatives to preserve livelihoods of those who worked in plastic manufacturing industries, he added.
What is the environmental damage from single-use plastic?
Unlike thicker and denser plastic material, single-use plastic objects being light and flexible are less amenable to being recycled. While 99% of plastic is recycled, they constitute heavier plastics that are likely to be collected by ragpickers and plastic waste recyclers. Single use plastics do not provide an incentive enough for the effort needed to collect them and hence they lie around, leach their toxins into the soil and cause environmental damage in both land and sea.
3. The need for space sustainability
How does orbital crowding, space debris work against the sustainability of outer space? What is the U.K.’s Astro Carta model?
As the outer space is considered a shared natural resource, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2019 adopted a set of 21 voluntary, non-binding guidelines to ensure the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.
The U.K. Space Sustainability plan mentions four primary elements: to review the regulatory framework of the U.K.’s orbital activity; to emphasise international engagement on space sustainability; to try and develop safety and quality-related metrics that quantify the sustainability of activities; and, to induce additional funding for active debris removal.
The ISRO has initiated ‘Project NETRA’ to monitor space debris. The domestic surveillance system would provide first-hand information on the status of debris, which would aid further planning on protecting space assets.
The story so far: On June 23, the U.K. hosted the fourth summit for Space Sustainability in London in collaboration with the Secure World Foundation. In line with the ambitious U.K. National Space Strategy, George Freeman, the Minister of Science, announced a new ‘Plan for Space Sustainability.’ According to him, this plan aims to “set a global commercial framework for the insurability, the licensing and the regulation of commercial satellites.” It also aims to reduce the cost for those who comply with the best sustainability standards and thus encourages a thriving ecosystem for the industry.
What does sustainability in outer space mean?
The earth’s orbital environment has more than tripled in the past decade. As the cost of missions reduce and the number of players increase, the complexity of missions and slot allotment issues also increase. With the emergence of large constellations and complex satellites, there is a risk of collisions and interference with radio frequencies. As the outer space is considered a shared natural resource, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2019 adopted a set of 21 voluntary, non-binding guidelines to ensure the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.
One of the hot issues when it comes to space sustainability is orbital crowding. It poses a direct threat to the operations and safety of a mission and is likely to cause legal and insurance-related conflicts. Space debris is another prominent issue. After the completion of a mission, an ‘end-of-life protocol’ requires space objects to be moved to the graveyard orbit or to a low altitude. Neither of the options are sustainable in the long run. Other causes of concern are solar and magnetic storms which potentially damage communication systems. Such space weather threats need to be addressed along with the efforts to identify the terrestrial carbon footprint of outer space missions.
Long-term sustainability looks toward space research and development of technology to ensure the reuse and recycling of satellites at every stage. The U.K. plan proposes active debris removal and in-orbit servicing.
What does the U.K. plan for space sustainability entail?
The U.K. calls for an “Astro Carta” for space sustainability, based on the Artemis Accords model for sustainable space exploration. The U.K. Space Sustainability plan mentions four primary elements: to review the regulatory framework of the U.K.’s orbital activity; to work with organisations such as the G-7 and the UN to emphasise international engagement on space sustainability; to try and develop safety and quality-related metrics that quantify the sustainability of activities; and, to induce additional funding of $6.1 million on active debris removal. The U.K. also confirmed investments in its National Space Surveillance and Tracking Programme, which works on collision assessment services for U.K.-licenced satellite operators.
Post-Brexit, the U.K. space programme has been transformed. It now hopes to drive the sustainability factor internationally and provide an opportunity for the private sector to develop models that enhance operations’ safety and reduce debris footprint. The U.K. aims to draw investments not only from government investors but also from others.
Where does India stand on space sustainability?
The headquarters of the Indian National Space Promotion and Authorisation Centre (In-SPACe) was formally inaugurated last month. One can expect an increased role of the private sector in India’s space activities. India hosts promising start-ups like Agnikul and Skyroot, which are developing launch vehicles for small payloads and Dhruva Space, which works on high-tech solar panels for satellites and satellite deployers. India is well on its way to create a subsystem that addresses global sustainability questions.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has initiated ‘Project NETRA’ to monitor space debris. The domestic surveillance system would provide first-hand information on the status of debris, which would aid further planning on protecting space assets. In April 2022, India and the U.S. signed a new pact for monitoring space objects at the 2+2 dialogue. The controlled anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) tests and the risk of collisions must be collectively addressed.
To provide in-orbit servicing, ISRO is developing a docking experiment called ‘SPADEX’. It looks at docking a satellite on an existing satellite, offering support in re-fuelling and other in-orbit services while enhancing the capability of a satellite. According to Professor P. G. Diwakar at NIAS Bangalore, this would not only ensure the longevity of a mission but would also provide a futuristic option to combine missions/experiments.
Outer space in the 2020s can no longer be considered a ‘space race’ because of the cost, when compared to the beginning of this century. Today, any entity (government or private) with the necessary access to resources and technology can invest in outer space. Sustainable practices in outer space would directly help reduce orbital crowding and collision risk while nurturing future technologies. As the natural course of evolution, the Plan for Space Sustainability, which includes private industries, is a timely move. This would serve as a model for other space programmes.
However, the broad question of sustainability cannot be driven by one country/entity alone. While most National Space Programs set sustainability standards, a collective effort by all space players, with the active role of the UN COPUOS or the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), is needed to set equitable standards for the ease of activities. Many of the measures for sustainability are resource-consuming and expensive for medium-and-small space programs. In this case, private initiatives of sustainability standards would make accessibility more challenging, giving undue advantage to programs with stable investments.
The UK’s Astro Carta idea throws light on the need for addressing the principles and rules that guide the activities of entities in outer space. More clarity is required to know the exact framework and guiding principles of the Astro Carta to determine the path it intends to take. India has always emphasised cost-effective and efficient missions with problem-solving applications. Its debris footprint is minuscule; it has 114 debris among the 25,182 pieces, of sizes larger than 10 cm, in the lower earth orbits. The emerging private sector could be encouraged with a set of sustainability guidelines to ensure optimum utilisation of resources and increase the safety and productivity of missions.
4. UPI: the dawn of digital fintech nirvana
This virtual payment interface is an Indian technological success story, one which enables us to move around with an empty pocket barring a smartphone
The UPI was launched in 2016 and is operated by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI). It operates on top of the Immediate Payment Service (IMPS) which was created by the NPCI for immediate fund transfers.
The primary reason for the popularity of UPI is that it accepts transactions as small as one rupee and for merchants, the absence of MDR that they have to pay to their banks.
The ecosystem in which UPI thrives is not to be missed: the presence of high-speed internet in many parts of the country, technologies that power a smartphone, cloud computing and modern software engineering technologies that fulfil a transaction in a few seconds.
If you own a smartphone, you have most probably done UPI-based payments using BHIM or some other mobile application. The Unified Payments Interface or the UPI, processed ₹10,41,520 crore worth of transactions just in May of this year in India. More than 40% of all retail digital payments (non-cash and non-paper payments) in India happen through UPI now.
The functioning of UPI
The UPI was launched in 2016 and is operated by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI). The NPCI was formed in 2009 as an initiative of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) with the goal to create a robust payment and settlement infrastructure. UPI operates on top of the Immediate Payment Service (IMPS) which was created by the NPCI for immediate fund transfers.
UPI based payments function broadly through three steps. First, one’s bank account is mapped to a Virtual Payment Address (VPA). A VPA eliminates the risk of mentioning account details in every transaction. It can be created in a couple of minutes using a UPI app. The only prerequisite is that your bank account be linked to a mobile number. Secondly, a Payment Service Provider (typically a bank) takes care of the to-and-fro transactions to this VPA (and hence to the underlying bank account) and finally, the UPI software orchestrates the fund movement from a customer’s VPA to a target VPA and completes the transaction.
This transaction is different from paying with a debit card or credit card as it does not involve a Merchant Discount Rate (MDR). The MDR is a fee that the recipient bank collects from the merchant. For UPI transactions, there is no MDR (like in the case of the Indian government’s Rupay card which also does not have an MDR) and hence there is no price to be paid by the merchant.
A ubiquitous payment system
The popularity of UPI is evident — from tiny roadside shops to large brands, many merchants accept UPI-based payments. The primary reason for this penetration is that UPI accepts transactions as small as one rupee and for merchants, the absence of MDR that they have to pay to their banks is a significant incentive to accept UPI payments. Also, just your smartphone being the only device needed to complete a transaction makes the process as simple as it can get, instead of using devices like the Point-of-Sale card-swiping machines. If there is no extra price to be paid by customer or merchant, how does NPCI manage the cost of running the infrastructure for UPI? Is it sustainable in the long run to continue without MDR to fund the infrastructure? The answer can be that cost savings from the reduction in hassles and overheads for banks (by supporting UPI) will be used to bear the cost of operating UPI in the long run.
The ecosystem in which UPI thrives is not to be missed: the presence of high-speed internet in many parts of the country, technologies that power a smartphone, cloud computing and modern software engineering technologies that fulfil a transaction in a few seconds. The security of a UPI transaction is tied to the user’s authentication with the mobile phone — there is a mobile personal identification number (MPIN) for the UPI application and there is one more layer of security when the bank’s online transaction PIN is to be keyed in as part of every UPI transaction. If you block a mobile number due to theft, for example, then UPI transactions on that mobile number will also be halted.
The NPCI has come up with multiple new innovations over the past few years: recurring payments for monthly bills, international payments, linking UPI to credit cards, 123PAY that allows people without smartphones but with only ordinary mobile phones to use UPI using missed calls, allowing one-time payment by letting a merchant generate a QR (Quick Response) code that is valid for just that specific transaction and many more features. The dynamic QR code is a great boost to security and trust because there is no risk of someone having tampered with a static QR code (a static QR code is what is widely prevalent now and we see it on the wall in many shops). The merchant generates a QR code specific to that transaction amount and the customer pays through UPI by scanning the QR code.
The UPI is a phenomenal Indian technological success story. In 2019, Google requested the U.S. Federal Reserve to develop a solution similar to India’s UPI citing the thoughtful planning, design and implementation behind it.
UPI brings us one step closer to the age of digital fintech nirvana.
From the dawn of civilisation, man has always accumulated and hoarded; however, UPI enables one to move around with an empty pocket barring a smartphone; it makes us un-learn to carry a wallet but be assured that we can pay when we want to.
5. Editorial-1: A chaotic world, the perils of multilateralism
Instead, bilateral engagements may be much more productive at this point in history
Today at a Quad summit, tomorrow at a BRICS summit and the day after at a G-7 summit is a statesman’s dream come true. The exchange of ideas with world leaders, seeking common ground on burning issues and recalibrating our policy accordingly are at the heart of diplomacy. But at a time when the world is trying to grapple with the impact of unprecedented problems which arose in the first two decades of the 21st century, the various intergovernmental organisations and groupings, which are undergoing fundamental changes, may not be fertile places for building peace. The time is not opportune for collective bargaining when countries are holding their cards close to their chest and scheming for positions of advantage. The least common denominators are so shallow that joint statements read like a string of diverse statements without any political glue. Bilateral engagements may be much more productive at this point in history.
The 14th virtual BRICS summit hosted by China (June 23-24) was a clear attempt by China to hijack the grouping, going by a blueprint it has prepared for the new world order. Curiously, BRICS was not meant to be a political grouping when the acronym, BRIC, was coined by Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill in 2001 to categorise Brazil, Russia, India and China, which were expected to collectively dominate global growth by 2050. Seeing the possibility of developing a non-western global economic system, China welcomed the idea of BRICS as the nucleus of a new economic grouping and invested energy and resources in building it. The others, joined later by South Africa, were also attracted by the idea of creating a catalyst for an alternative to the Bretton Woods Institutions.
The composition of the group had its own contradictions right from the beginning. Two permanent members of the Security Council together with three aspirants to permanent membership appeared like two carnivores and three herbivores invited to the same meal with little possibility for a change in menu. But the grouping focused on possibilities of cooperation among them by developing institutions such as the New Development Bank, the BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement and cooperation in certain sectors. The fundamental question of support for the three countries to secure permanent membership was fossilised on China’s position that the role of the developing countries should be enhanced, implying that there shall be no expansion of the permanent membership of the Security Council. Russia’s support for India also got diluted as a result. Even at the best of times, the BRICS partnership did not result in support for its three partners.
There has been a sea change
The situation in BRICS had undergone a sea change by the time the BRICS summit was held virtually under the presidency of China towards the end of June. The entire fragile framework of limited cooperation was shattered with the bloodshed at Galwan, when China unilaterally sought to alter the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) and, even worse, halted the process of disengagement from certain sectors. The treaties, agreements and agreed procedures are required to be rewritten to form the basis of future cooperation. If Pakistan’s raising bilateral issues and the Kashmir issue on every occasion merited a boycott of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), India, attending a BRICS meeting under the chairmanship of China was a major concession. The only justification for India’s attendance was that it did not want to miss a conclave that could determine the dynamics of the future course in the Indo-Pacific. But both China and Russia do not favour even the change of nomenclature of the region from Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific.
The joint statement of BRICS was of 7,500 words, none of which seemed to indicate the beginning of a new relationship within BRICS. The change of Russia was even more dramatically different since February 2022. Neither the Soviet Union nor Russia had supported India against China since 1962, because of the “brother and the friend” syndrome. Russia showed some inclination to facilitate a discussion between India and China, but after February 2022, Russia is legally obliged to take the Chinese side in any future showdown between India and China. If Russia had agreed to end the war and begin negotiations with Ukraine and China had disengaged from areas occupied in 2020, it would have marked a change for the better. With Russia continuing its war in Ukraine and China continuing to occupy Indian territory in Ladakh, there was little credibility in many of the words they used in the Joint Communiqué. Words such as responsive, effective, transparent, democratic, objective, action oriented and credible sound hollow as they come from Russia and China, which have violated every one of them.
The way China brought in 13 like-minded countries through the back door for a high-level dialogue on global development smacked of unfair means to expand the group with their friends. China pushed for expansion at the summit itself even at a time when BRICS had no credible global agenda. China showed no enthusiasm to bring India into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) even after India met the criteria of a liberalised economy. Repeating sentences from old BRICS documents as though there was no change in the world has not contributed to the solidarity of BRICS. China seems to think that BRICS would be an extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which was designed to dominate the world by getting small and weak countries in a debt trap. The Sri Lankan experience has exposed the Chinese strategy; it has been India, not China, which has come to the rescue of Sri Lanka.
On the G7 meet
India’s presence at G7 meetings are not rare and Germany invited the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to attend the G7 summit in Bavaria (June 26-28) even when there were rumours that in the clamour about democracy and religious freedom and India’s neutrality in the Ukraine war, India might be excluded. The G7 made its own statement on the Ukraine war on expected lines and India was only involved in other issues such as environment, energy, climate, food security, health, gender equality and democracy. But the G7 was so preoccupied with its increasing involvement in the war through the supply of money, sophisticated weapons, etc., that other issues were cursorily treated. The imposition of sanctions has been difficult without the cooperation of all countries; the European nations were pressured to impose sanctions against Russia even if it was not in their own interest. Since it was a war summit, it did not produce any results on other major issues. Curtailing energy supplies from Russia would hurt Germany, France, Japan and others, but they could not get any exemption.
Mr. Modi’s presence at the G7 summit enabled him to pursue several vital projects with G7 countries, but they will have to be pursued away from the theatre of war — an issue that has fully occupied the G7 countries . India’s gain has been the opportunity it got to interact with world leaders, though it was tinged with the disappointment that India, as a Quad member, did not condemn Russia’s action in Ukraine.
At the UAE
The limited gains of India at the BRICS and G7 summits have been in contrast with the enthusiastic welcome Mr. Modi received in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which the Prime Minister visited for a few hours. Apart from paying his respects to the late President of the UAE, Mr. Modi must have smoothed the ruffled feathers of the UAE and other West Asian countries, which were hurt by the totally objectionable remarks made by two former spokespersons of the ruling party. The few hours of bilateral meetings in the UAE were more productive for Mr. Modi than the days he spent at the two summits.
Multilateral negotiations will be increasingly difficult in the present chaotic global situation. It is only by working bilaterally with potential allies that India can attain the status of a pole in the new world with steadfast friends and followers.
6. Editorial-2: India needs to scale up direct nutrition interventions
Preconception nutrition, maternal nutrition and child feeding practices in the first 1,000 days of life need priority
As India launches the celebrations of its 75th anniversary of Independence, there is much to be proud about; significant advances have been made in science, technology, and medicine, adding to the country’s ancient, traditional, and civilisational knowledge base, wisdom and wealth.
Still, it is disconcerting that even after seven decades of Independence, India is afflicted by public health issues such as child malnutrition (35.5% stunted, 67.1% anaemic) attributing to 68.2% of under-five child mortality. Poor nutrition not only adversely impacts health and survival but also leads to diminished learning capacity, and poor school performance. And in adulthood, it means reduced earnings and increased risks of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.
The good news is that the Government appears determined to set it right — with an aggressive push to the National Nutrition Mission (NNM), rebranding it the Prime Minister’s Overarching Scheme for Holistic Nutrition, or POSHAN Abhiyaan. It has the objective of reducing malnutrition in women, children and adolescent girls.
The Ministry of Women and Child (MWCD) continues to be the nodal Ministry implementing the NNM with a vision to align different ministries to work in tandem on the “window of opportunity” of the first 1,000 days in life (270 days of pregnancy and 730 days; 0-24 months). Global and Indian evidence fully supports this strategy, which prevents the largely irreversible stunting occurring by two years of age. POSHAN Abhiyaan (now referred as POSHAN 2.0) rightly places a special emphasis on selected high impact essential nutrition interventions, combined with nutrition-sensitive interventions, which indirectly impact mother, infant and young child nutrition, such as improving coverage of maternal-child health services, enhancing women empowerment, availability, and access to improved water, sanitation, and hygiene and enhancing homestead food production for a diversified diet.
NHFS data is a pointer
Data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-5 2019-21, as compared to NFHS-4 2015-16, reveals a substantial improvement in a period of four to five years in several proxy indicators of women’s empowerment, for which the Government deserves credit. There is a substantial increase in antenatal service attendance (58.6 to 70.0%); women having their own saving bank accounts (63.0 to78.6%); women owning mobile phones that they themselves use (45.9 % to 54.0%); women married before 18 years of age (26.8 % to 23.3 %); women with 10 or more years of schooling (35.7% to 41.0%), and access to clean fuel for cooking (43.8 % to 68.6%).
But, alarmingly, during this period, the country has not progressed well in terms of direct nutrition interventions. Preconception nutrition, maternal nutrition, and appropriate infant and child feeding remain to be effectively addressed. India has 20% to 30% undernutrition even in the first six months of life when exclusive breastfeeding is the only nourishment required. Neither maternal nutrition care interventions nor infant and young child feeding practices have shown the desired improvement. A maternal nutrition policy is still awaited.
Despite a policy on infant and young child feeding, and a ban on sale of commercial milk for infant feeding, there has only been a marginal improvement in the practice of exclusive breastfeeding (EBF). Child undernutrition in the first three months remains high. Creating awareness on EBF, promoting the technique of appropriate holding, latching and manually emptying the breast are crucial for the optimal transfer of breast milk to a baby. Recent evidence from the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas (CTARA), IIT Mumbai team indicates that well-planned breastfeeding counselling given to pregnant women during antenatal checkup prior to delivery and in follow up frequent home visits makes a significant difference. The daily weight gain of a baby was noted to average 30 to 35 grams per day and underweight prevalence rate reduced by almost two thirds.
Another key intervention
NFHS-5 also confirms a gap in another nutrition intervention — complementary feeding practices, i.e., complementing semi-solid feeding with continuation of breast milk from six months onwards. Poor complementary feeding is often due to a lack of awareness to start feeding at six to eight months, what and how to feed appropriately family food items, how frequently, and in what quantity. The fact that 20% of children in higher socio- economic groups are also stunted indicates poor knowledge in food selection and feeding practices and a child’s ability to swallow mashed feed. Where are we going wrong?
So, creating awareness at the right time with the right tools and techniques regarding special care in the first 1,000 days deserves very high priority. We must act now, and invest finances and energy in a mission mode. The Prime Minister can give a major boost to POSHAN 2.0, like he did to Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, using his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ programme.
There is a pressing need to revisit the system spearheading POSHAN 2.0 and overhaul it to remove any flaws in its implementation. We need to see if we are using opportunity of service delivery contacts with mother-child in the first 1,000 days to the optimum, There is a need to revisit the nodal system for nutrition programme existing since 1975, the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) under the Ministry of Women and Child and examine whether it is the right system for reaching mother-child in the first 1000 days of life. By depending on the ICDS, we are in fact missing the frequent contacts with pregnant mothers and children that the public health sector provides during antenatal care services and child immunisation services, There is also a need to explore whether there is an alternative way to distribute the ICDS supplied supplementary nutrition as Take- Home Ration packets through the Public Distribution (PDS) and free the anganwadi workers of the ICDS to undertake timely counselling on appropriate maternal and child feeding practices.
We need to systematically review the status, and develop and test a new system that would combine the human resource of ICDS and health from village to the district and State levels. This would address the mismatch that exists on focussing on delivery of services in the first 1000 days of life for preventing child undernutrition by having an effective accountable system.
It is time to think out of the box, and overcome systemic flaws and our dependence on the antiquated system of the 1970s that is slowing down the processes. Moreover, mass media or TV shows could organise discourses on care in the first 1,000 days to reach mothers outside the public health system.
7. Editorial-3: The problem with our university vision
Instead of taking local conditions and market demands into account, India tries to ape the West
It has now become an annual ritual in India to discuss the international rankings of higher education institutions (HEI) only when global ranking systems such as the coveted QS World University Rankings are announced. The QS World University Rankings rank HEIs on the following components: academic reputation (40%), employer reputation (10%), faculty student ratio (20%), citations per faculty (20%), international faculty ratio (5%) and international student ratio (5%). The international research network and employment outcomes were 0% for this edition.
While it is heartening to see that the number of Indian institutes among the top 1,000 globally has risen to 27 from 22 last year, and that the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, has moved up 31 places to emerge as the highest ranked Indian institute in the 2023 edition, there is no serious debate on the abysmal performance of Indian universities barring the Institutes of Eminence (IOE). IOEs occupy a special place as they are granted more academic and administrative autonomy, and public IOEs get additional funding. Therefore, their dominance in the top 500 in the QS World University Rankings comes as no surprise.
Among the other HEIs too, there is great inequality. As per the All-India Survey on Higher Education (2019-20), 184 of the 1,043 HEIs in the country are centrally funded institutions. The Indian government generously allocates financial resources to these institutions. However, the financial support provided by State governments to State HEIs is far from adequate even though the number of under-graduate students is largest in State public universities (13,97,527) followed by State open universities (9,22,944) of the total students’ enrollment. State-sponsored HEIs barely manage to pay salaries and pensions.
While the number of universities increased by almost 30.5% in 2019-20 compared to 2015-16, academic and administrative infrastructure has not been strengthened commensurate to this growth. The lackadaisical attitude we see in filling up faculty positions has further worsened the quality of teaching and research in HEIs. In fact, quality education and the world class research output that policymakers expect from State public universities remain elusive as these HEIs have never had financial and other resources to attain academic and professional growth.
On the other hand, the institutions that are generously funded by the Centre perform better than their State-sponsored counterparts on all academic performance indicators — faculty strength, modernised laboratories, building infrastructure, digitised libraries, sponsored research project grants, computing facilities, etc. Therefore, that the State-funded HEIs would not perform well in these rankings was a forgone conclusion. It is a consequence of the unequal and unfair system in the Indian higher education system, where State-sponsored HEIs are provided step-motherly treatment and positioned poorly vis-à-vis centrally funded institutions. No ranking system seems to rationally rank institutions after examining their administrative challenges, infrastructural constraints and financial predicaments; they only pay attention to performance metrics based on academic strengths and other achievements. For India to perform better on these rankings, we need to pay more attention to the State HEIs.
The NEP vision
The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has envisaged all HEIs to become multidisciplinary institutions by 2040. The aim is to increase the Gross Enrolment Ratio in higher education, including vocational education, from 26.3% in 2018 to 50% by 2035. The NEP also aims to ensure that by 2030, there is at least one large multidisciplinary HEI in or near every district. This means that single-stream specialised institutions will eventually be phased out.
However, the fact that prominent multidisciplinary universities such as Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi University, the University of Hyderabad, and Jamia Millia Islamia have slipped in the QS World University Rankings should compel national think tanks to revisit the NEP’s proposal in this regard. A close study of the QS World University Rankings reveals that single-stream specialised HEIs such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and IISc have performed better than their multidisciplinary counterparts. Eight IITs (Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Roorkee, Guwahati and Indore) are placed among the top 500 globally, in addition to IISc, Bangalore. IIT-Indore ranked highest among the second-generation IITs by securing the 396th position and IIT-BHU made its maiden presence in the 651-700 band.
A plan in the NEP for multidisciplinary education and research universities is also being contemplated in order to achieve the highest global standards in quality education. While everyone is demanding multidisciplinary education, the performance of the specialised HEIs in the QS World Rankings bears testimony to their superiority over multidisciplinary/multi-faculty institutions. The idea of converting a specialised institution into a multi-faculty university does not seem to augur well for an economy driven by specialist professionals. It would be perplexing if the IITs decided to offer courses in physical education and medicine or the National Law Universities ran undergraduate degree programmes in mechanical engineering.
It is crucial to emphasise here that nobody is averse to the idea of multidisciplinary/multi-faculty education if there is a 15% to 20% flexibility in the total academic strength. But converting all HEIs into multidisciplinary institutions is not an idea that holds water given the unique conditions and demands in India. No study or data support the idea of transforming specialised institutions into multidisciplinary/multi-faculty universities either. Such an idea may have worked in the West where HEIs invest substantial resources in multidisciplinary research through private and public research grants and funding. But a ‘one size fits all’ approach may not be of help to India. The need of the hour is to build and develop our higher education system while taking into account Indian conditions and market demands.
8. Editorial-4: Right intent, confusing content
The core changes proposed by the Draft E-waste Management Rules require careful deliberation
Last month marked a decade since the E-waste (Management and Handling) Rules came into effect in India. The Rules have been amended a few times since. The most recent amendment is the Draft E-waste Management Rules, 2022, released for public comments in May 2022 by the Environment Ministry. Despite retaining the underlying extended producer responsibility (EPR) framework, the new draft Rules depart significantly from the previous regulations.
One major change is the introduction of a market for e-waste recycling certificates. The draft rules state that producers of e-goods have to ensure that at least 60% of their produced e-waste is recycled by 2023. This shift from collection rate targets (which set targets for the collection of e-waste as a percentage of the quantity of products sold by weight in the market in the previous year) in the current Rules to recycling rate targets in the proposed Rules is another important change.
The proposed market for e-waste recycling appears unrealistic. First, large-scale recycling of e-waste is still in its infancy in India. Most of the recycling of valuable material is carried out within the informal sector using inefficient and unsafe technologies. At a time when the technical feasibility and commercial viability of different recycling technologies and approaches for e-waste components is being worked upon in India, a target to recycle 60% of the e-waste generated in 2022-23 appears too optimistic. Second, if the regulatory targets were to create a vibrant market for recycling, the existing formal and informal players would have to play a crucial role. In light of this, the complete silence on regulating registered collectors, dismantlers, and producer responsibility organisations is puzzling. Who will ensure that these entities are carrying out their responsibilities in an environmentally safe manner? Or are these entities no longer covered under the EPR framework?
In addition, the informal sector accounts for a vast majority of e-waste processed in India. Most e-waste policy debates have centred around the integration of the informal sector into the formal systems. The proposed regulations, however, place the responsibility of such integration on the State governments without specifying what the incentives are for them to do this.
Experience from European countries suggests that recycling targets would likely be much more difficult for the regulators to monitor and enforce compared to collection targets. Does the recycling target apply to every component of an e-product or does it apply to its aggregate weight? This is important because the technological complexity and cost could vary by component. If it is by aggregate weight, as the Rules indicate, it could incentivise recycling of materials that are easy and inexpensive (plastics, copper, glass) to recycle as opposed to materials that are costly and technologically more difficult to recycle but perhaps have greater environmental footprint (rare earth metals). If the Ministry and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) decide to go ahead with recycling targets, they should come up with guidelines on how the regulated entities must demonstrate compliance with the targets.
Steering Committee powers
The other major change is the introduction of a Steering Committee to oversee the “overall implementation, monitoring, and supervision” of the regulations. This Committee, for example, has the power to decide on the product-wise “conversion factor” that determines the value of the recycling certificate, specify how the environmental compensation fund could be utilised, resolve disputes, and “remove any difficulty in smooth implementation of these regulations.” While such an institutional mechanism could provide more certainty in implementation, there is lack of representation in the Committee. The Rules propose the Chairman of the CPCB as the Chairperson of the Committee, which would include representatives of the Environment Ministry, the Electronics and IT Ministry, and the associations of producers and recyclers. But it is surprising that representation from science/academia and civil society organisations is not deemed appropriate.
The draft e-waste Rules propose a few positive changes, including expanding the definition of e-waste, more clearly specifying the penalties for violation of rules, introducing an environmental compensation fund based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and recognising the informal waste workers. The core changes it proposes within the EPR framework, however, require careful deliberation with all the relevant stakeholders before the Rules are finalised.