1. ‘Regulator’s proposal on Rajasthan power lines flouts SC orders, threatens bustard’
The population of the critically endangered species has dipped to less than 150.
In a move that helps solar power projects in Rajasthan but may hinder efforts to make the region safe for the endangered Great Indian Bustard, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) has proposed that only power lines below 33kV need to go underground and the rest be fitted with bird-diverters.
Conservationists have objected to the move as they say it could lead to the “extinction” of the bird.
The proposal was part of draft regulations issued on February 1 and open to public comment until March 3. It came against the background of an ongoing case involving the threat to the bustard and other birds from power lines. High-tension power lines in Rajasthan and Gujarat from solar plants often lie on the flight path of the birds. The matter is of particular concern to the future of the bustard as fewer than 150 of them remain, and existing conservation methods fall short of replenishing their numbers.
In 2019, environmentalists approached the Supreme Court, which in 2021 directed all ‘low-voltage’ power lines, in areas demarcated as “priority and potential habitats of the Great Indian Bustard” in Thar and Kutch deserts, be pushed underground.
A majority of the power lines from Rajasthan’s solar projects have a rating above 33kV and several such proposed ones are expected to pass through the ‘priority’ areas. The court order would have required several existing and proposed lines to move underground, hiking the cost of supplying solar power.
“These draft regulations appear to be a way to circumvent the orders of the Supreme Court,” said M.K. Ranjitsingh, lead petitioner and conservationist.
“The 11kV lines are relatively low [in height] and have already been exempted. It was the high-tension lines that were the problem and with these regulations, virtually all high-power lines get the pass-through,” he said.
“If the regulations come into effect, this would lead to the extinction of a critically endangered species, which is the State Bird of Rajasthan. If this happens, it would be the second major species after the [Asiatic] cheetah to go extinct in post-Independent India,” the petitioners noted.
2. Kochi chokes as fire at waste dump still rages; govt. asks people to stay indoors
Firemen, on Sunday, try to put out the fire that broke out at the Brahmapuram waste treatment plant in Kochi three days ago.
Hospitals asked to prepare for emergency admission of patients with respiratory distress and to stock up on medical oxygen. High-level meeting attended by Union government officials discusses long-term solutions, including bio-mining and using micro-organisms to break down the waste
A crisis meeting chaired by Chief Secretary V.P. Joy has urged Kochi residents to stay indoors and ordered hospitals to prepare for emergency admission of patients with respiratory distress as the three-day-old fire at the expansive garbage storage yard of the Brahmapuram solid waste treatment plant in the city fuelled public anxiety about the severe air pollution and its worrying public health fallout.
The meeting, attended by Central government officials and chemical fire experts late on Saturday, also attempted to quantify the public health implications of the large-scale release of dioxins from the burning plastic into the atmosphere.
The government has advised non-essential establishments in Kochi, including shopping malls, to close for the day to keep people indoors.
The administration is closely monitoring hospital admissions, especially those with respiratory trouble. It has asked hospitals to stock up on medical oxygen and ensure sufficient beds in intensive care units.
Long-term solutions suggested at the meeting reportedly included bio-mining, using micro-organisms to break down the largely unsegregated waste.
Meanwhile, residents’ associations have blamed the municipal authorities for ignoring cautionary reports that the garbage mound is a ticking toxic time bomb. In a related development, the State police are investigating whether sabotage caused the fire.
3. Away from the spotlight,
India holds conference of global intelligence chiefs
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni during the inauguration of the Raisina Dialogue, in New Delhi on Thursday. The Security Dialogue was held a day before.
Counterterrorism, radicalisation, drugs trafficking discussed at the Raisina Security Dialogue on March 1 which saw participation of officials from 26 countries, including U.K., France and Japan
Amid the G-20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and ahead of the Raisina Dialogue, India quietly held the second conference of intelligence and security chiefs and top officials from around the world, called the Raisina Security Dialogue, on March 1 which saw participation from over 26 countries, confirmed multiple sources.
“India is trying to make its presence felt in bringing together global intelligence agencies for exchanges on issues of common concern. The focus of the discussions was largely on global security which encompassed counterterrorism, radicalisation, drugs trafficking, and illegal arms smuggling, among others,” an official source with knowledge of the matter said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval addressed the conference, which is modelled on the lines of the Munich Security Conference, the 59th edition of which took place from February 17 to 19, and Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue.
It was a broad-based discussion and shows the global confidence in India, said an official from one of the participating countries.
While the U.S. was absent, intelligence chiefs from the U.K., France, Japan and Bahrain were among those present, the source stated.
Sources said Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director William Burns was in India two weeks earlier, from February 16 to 17. He also travelled to Sri Lanka recently, they added.
Mr. Burns, who had missed the conference in April 2022 as well, last visited New Delhi in September 2021 to discuss the challenges arising from the Taliban takeover of Kabul, which also coincided with the visit of Russian Security Council chief General Nikolai Patrushev.
Conducted by R&AW
The security conference is organised by the country’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) and the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) that reports to Mr. Doval.
The conference was held for the first time in April 2022, a day before the start of Raisina Dialogue,India’s flagship conference on “geopolitics and geo-strategy” organised by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in collaboration with Observer Research Foundation (ORF). The eighth edition this year was held from March 2-4.
The conference comes a year after the war in Ukraine that is still ongoing and the global attention fixed on it,while India has been flagging other global issuesincluding Afghanistan.
Deep differences over Ukrainebetween the U.S.-led Western countries and the Russia-China combine thwarted India’s attempts to bring out a joint statement at the G-20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting last week with New Delhi issuing a Chair’s Summary and Outcome Document.
4. Attack on knowledge
The non-governmental sector should not be dragged into legal quagmire
The decision of the Government of India to suspend the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) licence of the country’s premier think tank, the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) is bad in optics and substance. The reasons that are being cited by the authorities include lapses in the income-tax paperwork of CPR’s staff, lack of due process in the accounting process, and diversion of funds to publication of books, which the authorities allege is not part of the CPR’s objectives. An eagerness to drag the prestigious institution into a quagmire of legal processes is writ large over this entire exercise. The CPR has been working on improving governance and enhancing state capacity among other things, in collaboration with governments, and the public and private sectors. There are many advocacy and campaign groups that have been facing the wrath of the government in the recent past, but the action against the CPR lowers the bar of tolerance for the political establishment to an abysmal level. This betrays an inexplicable hostility towards knowledge creation of all kinds. The FCRA is a regulatory mechanism to ensure that foreign vested interests are not unduly influencing the domestic politics of India, but sweeping application of the law in a manner that clearly disables the non-governmental sector suggests a thoughtless approach bordering on vindictiveness.
India’s New Education Policy envisages academic exchanges and cooperation between Indian and global institutions to raise the standard of higher education and research in the country. India also wants to emerge as a centre of technological excellence and manufacturing. Recently, two Australian universities announced their plans to have campuses in India. However, India’s global ambitions are clashing with the insecure and reactionary state actions such as the restrictions on the CPR. Collaboration with the world requires the flow of information, personnel and funds in both directions. Restrictions on all these for national security reasons are part of the rule everywhere, and are acceptable. But these are to be exercised sparingly. To assume that Indian thinking should be insulated from foreign ones, while seeking international technology and capital inflow at the same time is a paradox. At any rate, for a country growing as fast as India, a massive expansion in capacity for research is the need of the hour. Along with public funding, private and philanthropic funding are essential for India to continuously expand its knowledge horizons in all fields. The government should not merely tolerate, but facilitate the emergence of several more institutions such as the CPR.
5. Utilising India’s moment under the diplomatic sun
New Delhi is on a geopolitical high. It hosted the G-20 Foreign Ministers meeting (March 1-2, 2023), the G-20 Finance Ministers meeting (February 22-25) and the Quad Foreign Ministers meeting (March 3), and national capital has been teeming with global leaders and thinkers attending the Ministry of External Affairs-supported Raisina dialogue (March 2-4). A few weeks ago, India also organised the ‘Voice of Global South Summit’ (January 12–13).
For a country that has for far too long inhabited the sidelines of world politics, criticising and complaining, too powerless to assert itself, and often seen as an irritant by great powers for even having an opinion, India’s pivotal position at the G-20, the Quad (the United States, India, Australia and Japan), the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Global South today has given it a sudden surge in stature and reputation. And yet, one year is too short in geopolitics, and geopolitics is not always a function of happy coincidences.
For New Delhi, this is its moment under the sun, the near realisation of a long-awaited pivotal power moment. From the pre-Independence days, through the 75 years of its independent existence, Indian leaders, from Jawaharlal Nehru to A.B. Vajpayee to Narendra Modi have often spoken of India’s role in the world — that its culture, history, demography and economic strength provide the country with a strong foundation for such a role. For most part of its history though, New Delhi was too weak to assert itself, or too unimportant, but the solid foundations laid through the decades are starting to make a difference. Contemporary India’s pivotal position in world politics is thanks to a fortunate confluence of deliberate and unforeseen factors which appear to be working in New Delhi’s favour. A far stronger economic and military power, courted by great powers, New Delhi has cleverly used the failure of the post-war world order today to its advantage. The worry about an aggressively rising China has further prompted global leaders to look for geopolitical alternatives in the Indo-Pacific region.
Treading the fault-lines
Contemporary Indian foreign policy is a textbook example of treading the fault-lines of world politics and, as External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar writes in his book, The India Way, “advancing national interests by identifying and exploiting opportunities created by global contradictions”. To use pedestrian language, New Delhi has become adept at playing both sides (though not without its costs). Consider this. India is the chair of both the United States/West-led G-20, and the China-centered SCO at the same time. It is seeking to be at the global high table while staking a serious claim to be the leader of the Global South. On the Ukraine war, New Delhi has not alienated, directly or indirectly, any of the parties involved in the war in a big way. While the looming threat of China has brought it closer to the U.S. and the West than ever before in its history, New Delhi is also an active member of multilateral forums which has China in it — BRICS and the SCO. Contemporary India speaks the language of revisionism and status quoism in the same breath, and with ease.
What does India want?
New Delhi’s objective is not difficult to understand; it has long wanted a seat at the global high table. But it has realised that it has little chance of getting one currently, particularly with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) out of reach. It has, therefore, been hinting at the dysfunctionality of the UNSC, and the utility of more inclusive and flexible forums such as the G-20. Mr. Modi’s argument at the G-20 Foreign Ministers meeting that “global governance has failed” is to drive home precisely that point. After taking a dig at the current global governance structures, Mr. Modi went on to say, “We are meeting at a time of deep global divisions. We have a responsibility to those not in this room”, underscoring the importance of the G-20 and India’s role in it. Even though the meeting ended without a joint statement thanks to the Ukraine war, it was a success for at least two reasons: one, it created the environment for the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to have a meeting for the first time since the war began a year ago, and two, when most other forums are unable to bring together the warring parties in one room, the G-20 has been able to do it.
So, in New Delhi’s pursuit of actively seeking a seat at a restructured global high table, the G-20 has its utility as does the Global South. New Delhi’s heart may or may not be with the Global South, but it has understood the instrumental utility of the Global South argument in its pursuit of power and status. If China can use the Global South argument for its geopolitical ends, India can definitely do so too.
In its pursuit for a seat at the high table, New Delhi also knows only too well that falling in line with the U.S./the West (on the Ukraine war for instance) reduces India’s instrumentality (even for them).
‘Fall in line, and you will be forgotten’ appears to be the lesson that it has learnt about realpolitik over the past several decades. New Delhi has realised that it is its ability to carefully balance the global fault lines that increases its utility. So those seeking to enlist India’s support for bringing more stability and order into the international system might want to consider what New Delhi is really after: a seat at the high table of international politics. Indeed, New Delhi’s revisionist language is rooted in its desire to be part of a restructured status quo.
New Delhi’s moment in the sun is not without its inherent challenges. For one, the sun will set, and the moment shall pass. Indian chairpersonship of the G-20 and the SCO ends this year, and Beijing will not let New Delhi take over the leadership of the Global South so easily. So, is New Delhi using this crucial year to strengthen strategic partnerships, seek geopolitical concessions, and create structures that enhance India’s national security? In geopolitics, national glory is not necessarily an enduring outcome.
The second important challenge pertains to optics and framing. Is New Delhi making friends during this diplomatic high or is it offending more than befriending? Some of the language that emanates from New Delhi in response to western or the U.S.’s statements/criticisms could be construed as needlessly offensive. While riding high on diplomatic successes, being subtle in one’s assertions has far more utility, notwithstanding the domestic political uses of harsh foreign policy assertions. Indian diplomacy needs to adopt the language of finesse and authority rather than that of aggression. Confident nations need not talk like reactionaries.
Third, balancing opposites has its limits. If you play all sides, you might not end up making strong strategic partnerships that should come to your aid if and when something major goes wrong such as a future conflict with China. While bridging the divide in world politics is a noble task, indecisiveness might not yield lasting partnerships.
Finally, there is always a danger of governments using diplomatic highs such as this towards domestic political ends rather than for geopolitical objectives. So, will New Delhi utilise 2023 to prepare for ‘2024’ or to strengthen the country’s place in the comity of nations?
Whether India will utilise the highs of 2023 to prepare for 2024 or use them to strengthen the country’s place in the comity of nations remains to be seen