1. Russia-led troops deployed in Kazakhstan
Dozens killed in Central Asia Republic as protests over rising prices escalate
A Moscow-led military alliance dispatched troops to help quell mounting unrest in Kazakhstan on Thursday as the police said dozens were killed trying to storm government buildings.
Long seen as one the most stable of the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia, energy-rich Kazakhstan is facing its biggest crisis in decades after days of protests over rising fuel prices escalated into widespread unrest.
Under increasing pressure, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev appealed overnight to the Russia-domina- ted Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), which includes five other ex-Soviet states, to combat what he called “terrorist groups” that had “received extensive training abroad”.
Within hours, the alliance said the first troops had been sent — including Russian paratroopers and military units from the other CSTO members — in its first major joint action since its founding in 1999. “Peacekeeping forces… were sent to the Republic of Kazakhstan for a limited time to stabilise and normalise the situation,” the CSTO said in a statement, without specifying the number of troops involved.
The CSTO’s current Chairman, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, earlier announced that the alliance would agree to the request, saying Kazakhstan was facing “outside interference”.
Footage released by the Russian Defence Ministry showed military planes being loaded with troops and armoured trucks before taking off for Kazakhstan.
In the worst reported violence so far, the police said dozens of people were killed in overnight battles with security forces at government buildings in the country’s largest city Almaty. Videos on social media showed pillaged shops and burned buildings in Almaty, automatic gunfire on the streets and residents screaming in fear. Officials said more than 1,000 people had been wounded in the unrest, with nearly 400 hospitalised.
How spike in fuel prices led to crisis in Kazakhstan
A state of emergency has been declared in Kazakhstan and the government has officially stepped down following violent protests against a sharp and sudden increase in fuel prices. A look at how the
A sharp and sudden spike in fuel prices triggered a national crisis in Kazakhstan, with the government officially stepping down on Tuesday, following days of violent protests across the country.
Kazakh security forces on Thursday said that dozens of protestors and at least eight law enforcement officials were killed during an operation to restore order in the main city, Almaty, BBC reported. Russia has sent in troops to assist security personnel in their efforts to restore order in the country. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev requested the support of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance, comprising Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
On Tuesday, Tokayev declared a two-week state of emergency in Almaty as well as the western Mangistau province, where thousands of protesters have been seen storming government buildings and clashing with the police officials. Internet services were promptly shut off and messaging apps were banned.
Just hours later, Tokayev accepted the resignation of the government in a bid to quell the violent protests and ordered the acting cabinet to reinstate price controls on Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG). But the President’s bold move didn’t quite have the desired effect as ordinary Kazakhs continued to force their way into the offices of top government officials and capture police vehicles on Wednesday.
Notably, Tokayev was among the leaders of five Central Asian nations, who were invited to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations later this month.
So, why are Kazakhs protesting?
Angry Kazakhs first took to the streets on Sunday after fuel prices doubled in the oil-rich Central Asian nation when the government lifted price caps for LPG, commonly used in vehicles. The protests began in the oil city of Zhanaozen, where at least 16 oil workers protesting against poor working conditions were killed by the police in 2011.
Demonstrations broke out and quickly turned violent in cities and towns across the country, in what is being called the biggest wave of protests in Kazakhstan’s history. Protesters demanded the resignation of the government and lowering of LPG prices.
They have argued that the jump in prices would cause a steep increase in food prices and deepen the income inequality that has plagued the nation for decades. Just last year, inflation in the country was closing in on 9 percent year-on-year, the highest it has been in over five years, Reuters reported.
More than 200 people have been detained in the protests so far.
Demands for democracy
But cheaper fuel is only the tip of the iceberg. There has been a growing discontent among ordinary Kazakhs, both over rising income inequality, which has only worsened due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the lack of democracy.
While the country has been able to attract millions of dollars worth of foreign investments by appearing politically stable, its authoritarian government has been widely criticised over the years for violating fundamental freedoms. For instance, during the presidential elections of 2019, there were widespread reports of irregularities.
A damaged room inside the mayor’s office building after it was stormed by demonstrators in Almaty, Kazakhstan January 5, 2022. (Reuters Photo)
The election took place after the country’s long-time Soviet-era leader Nursultan Nazarbayev stepped down from his post. He was replaced by Tokayev, who is widely regarded as his hand-picked successor. Nazarbayev and his family, however, continued to enjoy a fair bit of power in the country.
Several protests broke out calling for a boycott of the elections — one of the first instances where citizens were openly criticising the government in a country where dissent is rarely tolerated.
Even today, most of the anger is directed towards Nazarbayev, who is widely still considered the country’s ultimate ruler. Given the growing anti-Nazarbayev sentiment, it is unsurprising that chants of ‘Old man, go away’ have been echoing across the country this week.
How did the government respond to the protests?
Hours after declaring a state of emergency in Almaty and Mangistau, Tokayev dismissed the country’s prime minister and his cabinet. He then appointed the country’s first deputy prime minister Alikhan Smailov as acting prime minister.
A burning police car during a protest against LPG cost rise following the Kazakh authorities’ decision to lift price caps on liquefied petroleum gas in Almaty, Kazakhstan January 5, 2022. (Reuters Photo: Pavel Mikheyev)
In a televised address, he announced that he will be replacing Nazarbayev as the leader of the country’s Security Council. He also dismissed the former president’s nephew, Samat Abish, from the position of first deputy head of the country’s national security service.
Late on Tuesday, he assured Kazakhs that authorities would soon being down LPG prices to “ensure stability in the country”. According to The Guardian, he said that the interim government would introduce a price cap of 50 tenge (about 8p) a litre on LPG, roughly half the current market price, in Mangistau province. He also urged the action cabinet ministers to extend price controls to gasoline, diesel and other “socially important” consumer goods. He condemned the protests, but said that the situation was steadily improving in cities and towns after he declared the emergency.
The recent crisis has caused considerable concern in neighbouring Russia and China, both of which are key strategic partners of Kazakhstan.
India-Kazakhstan bilateral relations
India was among the first countries to recognize the five Central Asian states. It established diplomatic relations with them after they gained independence in 1990s.
India now considers the Central Asian countries as part of its ‘extended and strategic neighbourhood’.
Trade: Kazakhstan is the most resource-rich country in Central Asia and is also India’s largest trade and investment partner. Total bilateral trade amounted to USD 1.2 bn between the two countries.
Kazakhstan has a civil nuclear deal with India to provide the highly demanded uranium
Defence Cooperation: According to the Ministry of Defence, on April 9, 2021, the two ministers met in New Delhi and the focus of the talks was on the bilateral defence cooperation, capacity building, training and military exercises.
And both agreed to explore the possibility of defence industrial collaboration.
Indian companies have been in talks with Kazakhstan defence industries for co-production and co-development in defence production.
Space Cooperation: Both countries are in discussion on the possibility of developing a space communication system (satellite) KazSat-2R. 0. Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and National Space Agency of Kazakhstan are in discussions to develop a satellite jointly and a possible launch through the agency later on. 1. Kazakhstan is host to the famous Baikonur Cosmodrome.
Military exercises: A joint military exercise between India and Kazakhstan on counterinsurgency operations in mountainous terrains called KAZIND took place in 2019.
India’s Connect Central Asia Policy also has a forward-looking orientation which at the same time promotes India’s geo-strategic as well as geo-economic interests in the region.
Ashgabat Agreement: India has acceded to the Ashgabat Agreement, an international transport and transit corridor facilitating transportation of goods between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf
India and Kazakhstan actively cooperate under the aegis of various multilateral fora including CICA, SCO and the UN organisations
2. First open rock museum inaugurated
Rocks from across India displayed on CSIR-NGRI campus
Union Minister of State for Science & Technology Jitendra Singh inaugurated India’s first open rock museum on the campus of the CSIR-National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) here on Thursday.
About 46 different types of rocks of ages ranging from 3.3 billion years to around 55 million years, have been displayed in a garden with descriptions giving their economic and scientific importance.
The rocks have been sourced from Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Jammu & Kashmir and others.
The Minister suggested that the museum be promoted among students and enthusiasts. “It should be one of the important places to visit in this city of composite culture as these are monuments of modern India.”
75 science museums
Pointing out that the country was celebrating 75 years of Independence and CSIR celebrating 80 years of its formation, he said it was the right time to integrate synergies to make the country self-reliant in many sectors. About 75 science museums would be set up in association with the Ministry of Culture, he said.
3. The politics of a Minimum Support Price
Facilitating a bargain between wealth accumulators and welfare seekers seems to have become the key function of politics
A new election season is around. Five States (Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Goa and Punjab) will elect new Assemblies and Chief Ministers in the coming weeks. Parties are wooing voters with dazzling new promises. The Aam Aadmi Party leader, Arvind Kejriwal, is offering ₹1,000 a month to all adult women (above age 18); the Shiromani Akali Dal’s offer is ₹2,000 for poor women, which is matched by the Congress, in Punjab. The Samajwadi Party is promising 300 units of free electricity in Uttar Pradesh, and the Centre has extended its free foodgrain programme (the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, or PMGKAY), across the country, until March 2022.
More such measures and promises can be expected as campaigning picks up. Campaigns are made of pageantry around big projects and enumeration of welfare schemes. This emphasis on redistribution corresponds with a de-emphasis on job creation in political rhetoric, the promises of which still exist but only as feeble addendums. There is a synchronous celebration of ‘job creators,’ often juxtaposed with ‘job seekers,’ by governments that subtly absolve themselves. If you cannot find a job, why not create a few?
A new constituency
In fact, the current wave of competitive welfarism disconnects Indian politics from the middle class that believed in, and cheerfully ushered in, a majoritarianism-market compact. A section of them may be frustrated over stunted material progress as they were during the last years of the United Progressive Alliance government. But politics is now being litigated lower down in the social and economic ladder by those who are desperate to get by. The slew of welfare schemes, which often includes a few hundred rupees in cash doles, creates a massive political constituency. Politics seems less about aspiration and more about desperation.
It is easy to blame individual leaders or natural disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic for this knot. The mismanagement and the incompetence of individual leaders may aggravate it, but the fundamental puzzle is the friction between the dictates of democratic politics and market-driven development. The divergence between the principles of market economy and imperatives of a democratic society is the core dilemma of liberalism. The entrenched liberal notion that market and democracy are integral to each other is being questioned by leaders of both.
For instance, in the United States, popular leader Bernie Sanders calls himself a ‘democratic socialist’, while Peter Thiel, one of its reigning capitalist moguls, fears that democracy will stall human progress and derail order. The trajectory of technological and economic progress is making this divergence increasingly stark.
A conflict arises
More than the question of inequality, the conflict between the political and economic orders arises out of the shrinking ability of the latter to fulfil the basic aspirations of the masses through market mechanisms. The interests of the consumer and the investor conflicts with those of the citizen and the labour, Robert Reich points out in Supercapitalism. A politician facing the electorate has to create and protect jobs and build public amenities; incentives for job creation, if at all, are indirect and distant for the investor, who is ever looking for reducing the workforce or moving work to cheaper places and workers. Politicians are trying to restrict the mobility of capital through measures such as global minimum tax, etc. Capitalism, meanwhile, is trying to escape the planet itself, and in the interim, to free itself from state authority through technological routes such as cryptocurrencies.
‘Jobless growth’ is accepted
As the composition of the economy shifts in favour of activities that require little labour, the same amount of growth creates fewer jobs. More than a decade ago, ‘jobless growth’ had become a talking point in Indian political debates. Nobody talks about it today — not because the problem has been resolved but because everyone has accepted it as the normal. The downward trickle has become feeble. Politicians respond to this reality. For instance, Mr. Kejriwal told a gathering in Uttarakhand on Monday that he would create lakhs of jobs once in power, but it could take time. “…in the interim, we will pay ₹5,000 to every unemployed person.” A universal basic income is an idea that is now being discussed globally. Barons such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates support a universal basic income for the entire population in the days to come.
This is turning the ‘there is no free lunch’ bombast (which politicians and business leaders mouthed in unison in the early 1990s) on its head. Subsidies were then rolled back, and people were asked to compete for sustenance and success. Pushed to the wall, they revolted and voted out government after government. Welfarism returned, and how. Not only that, the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Act — a rural employment scheme that provides 100 days of employment/jobs a year at a minimum wage to anyone who asks for it — survived, and grew by four times between 2014 and now. It was ridiculed as a monument to the failure of the predecessor regime but today, it is the lifeline of the current regime, alongside add-ons such as free cooking gas and cash incentives to farmers. Welfarism is secular — all parties, from the Bharatiya Janata Party to the CPI(M); and all leaders, from Pinarayi Vijayan (Kerala) to Mamata Banerjee (West Bengal) to Prime Minister Narendra Modi are looking for new opportunities for compassion signalling. In Kerala, the free ration kit, last Onam, came with a sweet and vermicelli among its items. In other places, free laptops, bicycles and smartphones seem to be a part of the welfare mix.
Redistribution has become critical for the survival of democratic politics everywhere — the United States or India. Smarter politicians know that men do not live by bread alone. So, several State governments in India now offer free pilgrimages! Far from outraging over the Haj subsidy, voters now have a catalogue of free pilgrimages to choose from, suitable for a range of beliefs and superstitions. A politician’s success is figuring out the minimum price to be paid to garner sufficient voter support to hold on to power, and the fundamentals of the social and the economic order intact. The threshold is not very high. Two-thirds of voters voted in India and the U.S. in their latest elections; 37% voted for the current regime in India; in the U.S., the regime has the support of more than half, which is more due to the country’s two-party system than its popularity. Political stability in democratic societies is contingent on the continuing confidence of the threshold population in the system.
More generosity now
Welfare schemes have created significant development outcomes in the long and short term, as experience from many Indian States over the decades shows. They were seen as the deepening of democracy. When welfare is weaponised to mute substantive political questions, its impact on democracy is less reassuring. The current generation of welfare schemes do not come as a right of citizens but as the generosity of the individual leader. Similarly, while promotion of entrepreneurship by the government is laudable, turning it into a call to the people to create jobs rather than seek them, redefines aspiration as an individual burden and responsibility.
Facilitating a bargain between wealth accumulators and welfare seekers appears to have become the primary function of politics. But it is unclear whether this will remain an infinitely sustainable lubricant that mitigates the fundamental friction, and whether the state might fall back on coercion. For now, there will be free lunches, and suppers for a song. Or a vote.
Minimum Support Price (MSP)
- Minimum support price (MSP) is a “minimum price” for any crop that the government considers as remunerative for farmers and hence deserving of “support”.
- It is also the price that government agencies pay whenever they procure the particular crop.
- Simply, the MSP is the rate at which the government buys grains from farmers.
- The Commission for Agricultural Costs & Prices (CACP) in the Ministry of Agriculture would recommend MSPs for 23 crops.
- The MSP is fixed by the Central government on the recommendations of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP).
- After receiving the feedback Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) of the Union government takes a final decision on the level of MSPs and other recommendations made by the CACP.
- The Food Corporation of India (FCI), the nodal agency, along with other State Agencies undertakes procurement of crops.
- The government is not legally bound to pay these even if open market rates for the said produce are ruling below their announcement floor prices
The Centre currently fixes MSPs for 23 farm commodities
- 7 cereals (paddy, wheat, maize, bajra, jowar, ragi and barley),
- 5 pulses (chana, arhar/tur, urad, moong and masur),
- 7 oilseeds (rapeseed-mustard, groundnut, soyabean, sunflower, sesamum, safflower and nigerseed) and
- 4 commercial crops (cotton, sugarcane, copra and raw jute).
About Commission for Agricultural Costs & Prices (CACP)
- The CACP is an attached office of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare.
- The CACP recommends the MSPs of the notified Kharif and Rabi crops to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA).
- It was formed in 1965.
- It is a statutory body.
- It also motivates cultivators and farmers to adopt the latest technology.
- Its suggestions are not binding on the Government.
4. Extinguishing the tobacco industry’s main narrative
Tax is not the core driver for the illicit trade in cigarettes, as the industry would like people to believe
Tobacco is a product that kills more than 13 lakh Indians every year. The annual economic burden from tobacco use is estimated to be ₹177,340 crore which is more than 1% of India’s GDP. About 27 crore people above the age of 15 years and 8.5% of school-going children in the age group 13-15 years use tobacco in some form in India. There is no doubt that tobacco use is highly detrimental to public health. We have to find the ways and the means to reduce the demand for tobacco among existing as well as aspiring users.
Impact of tax
A large body of literature shows price and tax measures to be one of the most cost-effective measures to reduce demand for tobacco products. When tobacco products become more expensive, people either quit using them or use them less, and it incentivises many to not initiate the habit. Because it hurts both revenue and profits, the tobacco industry, globally, is always devising tactics and narratives that will pre-empt any kind of tax increases on tobacco products. The narrative of “increasing illicit trade” is something the tobacco industry has historically used to pre-empt potential tax increases on tobacco products in most countries around the world. The story is no different in India. The tobacco industry, led by ITC Limited, has maintained that the illegal cigarette trade accounts for as much as 25% of the cigarette market in India. In a recent report by the Tobacco Institute of India, a representative body of the cigarette industry, it was said that the illicit cigarette volume in India has grown by 44% from 2011 to 2019 while adding that high and increasing tax rates provide a profitable opportunity for tax evasion and encourage growth in illegal trade.
Estimates by two studies
In the interest of regulating tobacco use and protecting public health, it is important to examine whether there is any truth in these industry claims. When one takes a deeper look, however, it is easy to see that neither the estimates nor the methods used to derive them are backed by any transparent studies. On the other hand, there are two studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals in recent years that estimate the percentage of illicit cigarettes in the Indian market using widely accepted best practice methodology to estimate the same. The first study (https://bit.ly/3G3mzwq) published in 2018 which used a survey of empty cigarette packs collected from retail outlets across different cities in India estimated that illicit cigarettes constitute 2.7% of the market. The second study (https://bit.ly/3ETV33i) published in 2020 used tax-gap analysis to estimate that the percentage of illicit cigarettes was 5.1% in 2009-10 and 6.6% in 2016-17. Both these studies used transparent and replicable methods and their estimates of the illicit market were nowhere near the 25% figure that the tobacco industry in India has been using to influence the public discourse on tobacco taxation.
The economic burden from tobacco use in India has increased by 22% in real terms over the period 2011 to 2017. There has been a 3% real decline in Goods and Services Tax (GST) revenues from tobacco products in the past two financial years. On the other hand, the annual reports of ITC show their profits after tax in real terms have increased, on average, 3% every year for the past 10 years. One must also note that despite all the business diversification ITC has undertaken over the years, close to 85% of its profits still come from the cigarette business alone.
Exaggerating both the scale and the extent of illicit trade has been a means the tobacco industry has used historically to advocate against tobacco tax increases. However, it is to be noted that taxes and prices are not the key determinants of illicit trade. There is sufficient evidence in the literature on illicit trade in cigarettes that shows tax increases only have a minimal impact, if at all, on illicit trade. There are several countries where tobacco taxes are quite high and yet have low levels of illicit trade, while there are also countries with high levels of illicit trade despite having relatively low tax rates. Several factors such as the quality of tax administration, the strength of the regulatory framework, government commitment to control illicit trade, the strength of governance, social acceptance, and the presence of informal distribution networks are known to play a larger role in determining the scale and the extent of an illicit market.
The estimated percentage of the illicit market for cigarettes in India is far lower than most countries out there and well below the world average at 11.2% as estimated in a recent study (https://bit.ly/32SGhwI) on the illicit cigarette market across 36 countries. Eliminating all forms of illicit trade in tobacco products through a package of measures is one of the major objectives of the Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products under the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The Protocol provides the tools and the measures to eliminate or minimise illicit trade which includes strong governance, establishing an international track and trace system, and securing supply chains. India has already ratified the World Health Organization Protocol and it should now show leadership in implementing these measures to effectively address even the relatively lower levels of illicit trade.
India had no significant tax increases on any of the tobacco products for the past four years since the introduction of GST in 2017 because of which tobacco products have become more affordable as shown in recent studies. There is no scientific or public health rationale not to increase tax on tobacco products for unfounded fear of increasing illicit trade.
5. Land in Gulmarg, Sonamarg notified as ‘strategic areas’
The Jammu and Kashmir government has declared around 1,358 kanals (169.75 acres) as “strategic areas” in the tourist hotspots of Gulmarg and Sonamarg in north and central Kashmir.
According to an order issued by the Tourism Department, 1,034 kanals and six marlas of land in Gulmarg and 354 kanals in Sonamarg have been notified as strategic areas by the authorities, while exercising powers under the Jammu and Kashmir Development Act.
It said the Corps Commander must ensure strict adherence to the environment laws.
“The Corps Commander shall ensure that no other applicable law in force in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is observed in breach,” said the order.
This is for the first time since the Control of Building Operations Act, 1988, and the J&K Development Act, 1970 were amended in 2020 that the government has issued such a notification.
As per the amendments, the government can notify “strategic areas” for use by the armed forces and regulating construction through a “special dispensation”.
The government said a special mechanism needed to be put in place for such strategic infrastructure needs.
The government noted that the notified “strategic areas” were within the existing armed forces land.
Peoples Democratic Party president Mehbooba Mufti tweeted, “Allocating thousands of kanals to armed forces, that too in tourist areas, confirms GOI’s intention to convert J&K into a military garrison. Under the ‘state land’ pretext, our land is up for grabs and, to add insult to injury, locals are being evicted from their homes.”
CPI(M) leader M.Y. Tarigami asked the government “to review its decision”.
This land will be utilised for “operational and training requirements” of the armed forces.
In July 2020, the administration had removed a 1971 circular that required a no-objection certificate (NOC) from J&K home department for requisition or acquisition of land in favour of the Army, CRPF, BSF, and other similar organisations.
Such acquisition is being covered under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, since July 2020.
Administration had also approved an amendment to Control of Building Operations Act, 1988, and J&K Development Act, 1970. The amendment provides for special dispensation to carrying out construction activities in “strategic areas” by armed forces.
Condition associated with order granting land
The order granting land in Gulmarg and Sonamarg to the armed forces provides a condition that “the corp commanders shall ensure strict commitment to environment-related laws in order to prevent any environmental hazard”.
furthermore, the armed forces must ensure that “no other applicable law in force in J&K is observed in breach”.
Which act empowers to notify strategic areas?
Authorities have notified these areas as strategic areas, by exercising powers under the Jammu and Kashmir Development Act. Government issued such notification for the first time since two acts “Control of Building Operations Act, 1988, and J&K Development Act, 1970” were amended in 2020. Amendment to these acts empowers government to notify “strategic areas” for use by armed forces and to regulate construction through special dispensation.
Jammu and Kashmir Development Act 1970
The 1970 Act deals with zonal development plans to determine land use for public buildings, housing recreation and roads. It also looks after development plans of industry, markets, business, schools, hospitals etc. An amendment to the act deleted the “permanent resident” provision in the act. Now, economically deprived people from across the country will be eligible to buy such housing sites.
6. Use drones more effectively: Civil Aviation Ministry
Several Ministries receive suggestions for a range of uses, from surveillance to disaster management
In a nationwide programme to take the third eye to the sky, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has called for more effective utilisation of drone applications and urged the Ministry of Home Affairs to deploy unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance, situational analysis, crime control, VVIP security, disaster management, etc.
In a note sent to at least a dozen Ministries, the Secretary, MoCA, Rajiv Bansal, said drones offered tremendous benefits to almost every sector of the economy, including but not limited to, national defence, agriculture, law enforcement, and mapping, among others.
As part of the initiatives to make India a global hub for drones under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan and in the backdrop of the Union government rolling out the liberalised Drone Rules 2021, he suggested the heads of various Ministries promote effective use of the technology.
The suggestions include deployment of drones for combat, communication in remote areas, counter-drone solutions, etc., by the Ministry of Defence; and delivery of medicines, collection of samples from remote or epidemic/pandemic-affected areas by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Acting on the recommendations that unmanned aerial vehicles could be used to undertake disaster management, incidence response, inspection/maintenance works and project monitoring, the Ministry of Railways wrote to General Managers across its network to implement the ideas, sources in the Railways said, adding that the Principal Chief Security Commissioner, Western Railway, had been nominated as the nodal officer to co-ordinate with the Aviation Ministry for guidance and support.
The Petroleum and Natural Gas, and Power Ministries, have been asked to fly drones for real-time surveillance of assets and transmission lines, theft prevention, visual inspection/maintenance, construction planning and management, etc. Drone operations suggested for the Environment, Forests and Climate Change Ministry include anti-poaching actions, monitoring of forests and wildlife, pollution assessment, and evidence gathering.
As a complete replacement to expensive helicopter-based videography, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting could use drones for high-quality videography of events and difficult-to-reach-places at a fraction of the cost and approvals required. This move would also facilitate low altitude shooting without noise, and prevent dust pollution.
7. The status of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
What have world powers pledged on nuclear weapons? Has the NPT been successful to stop the arms race between countries?
The primary goals of the NPT have been to work towards not just more peaceful uses of nuclear energy but also towards complete nuclear disarmament.
However, things on ground paint a bleak picture. The hegemonic rise of China has led other countries within its immediate sphere of geographical influence to wonder if they need to develop strategic capabilities to safeguard their sovereignty. The current situation with regard to Ukraine and Russia is also very tense. On the other end Australia, through AUKUS, seems to be on a path to acquire nuclear capabilities for its naval fleet, to counter China.
The P5’s joint statement, ‘Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races’, affirms to non-offensive uses of nuclear weapons and committing to the NPT agreement. The impetus is on the major powers to signal commitment through its actions towards putting an end to the nuclear arms race.
The story so far: On Monday (January 3), five global nuclear powers, China, Russia, U.S., U.K., and France, pledged to prevent atomic weapons from spreading and avoid nuclear conflict. The joint statement was issued after the latest review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which first came into force in 1970, was postponed from its scheduled date of January 4 to later in the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What has been the goal of the NPT?
Cessation of the nuclear arms race and working towards not just more peaceful uses of nuclear energy but also towards complete nuclear disarmament have been the primary goals of NPT. While this may seem easy on paper, it has been anything but. While the ‘what’ and ‘why’ are fairly straightforward aspects of the treaty, the ‘how’ is where the real challenge lies.
Nuclear competition among major powers could encourage states without nuclear weapons to acquire their own. An ideal way to solve this would be for all nuclear states to abandon their nuclear stockpile. This certainly hasn’t been the case. A more practical solution, which for the longest time did work, but now seems to be waning, is to go for nuclear deterrence among large powers and provide a nuclear umbrella to non-nuclear states.
The hegemonic rise of China and its debt trapping tactics in order to gain access to the other country’s key infrastructure projects has led other countries within China’s immediate sphere of geographical influence to wonder if they need to acquire or develop strategic capabilities to safeguard their security.
The current situation with regard to Ukraine and Russia doesn’t seem to paint a pretty picture either.
Australia, through AUKUS, seems to be on a path to acquire nuclear capabilities for its naval fleet, in a bid to counter China. While this may seem like an effective counter to China’s belligerence in the Indo-Pacific, the ramifications could be severe as it sets a terrible precedent.
What are the other treaties and agreements on nuclear bans?
The NPT is joined by the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), which had the Interim Agreement and Protocol on Limitation of Strategic Offensive Weapons Offensive Arms, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II), the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (I and II), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) among others. There’s clearly no dearth of treaties and agreements, and yet the situation hasn’t improved considerably. Outside of the P5 (China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.), India and Pakistan are known to possess nuclear weaponry, while Israel is strongly suspected of possessing it. North Korea has a nuclear weapons programme but its actual possession of nuclear weapons is debated. It has, in recent times, conducted multiple missile tests, to showcase its supposed capabilities. It has a total of seven major types of long-range missiles (Nodong, Pukguksong-3, Pukguksong-2, Musudan, the Hwasong-12, Hwasong-14, Hwasong-15) ranging from a limit of 1,500 km to 13,000 km.
What do the numbers tell us?
The optics within P5, while looking promising on paper, paint a different picture in reality. China’s current stockpile stands at around 350, France’s at around 290, Russia’s at around 6,257, the U.K.’s at around 225, the U.S.’s at around 5,600. While the difference between U.S.’s and Russia’s may look considerable, the operational stockpile of Russia is about 1,600 and for the U.S. it is about 1,650. Outside the P5, Pakistan possesses about 165, India possesses about 160, and Israel and North Korea either possess or have enough fissile material to build approximately 90 and approximately 45 weapons respectively. The world’s stockpile peaked during the 1980s and started to reduce considerably up until 2005. Since then, most of the reduction has come from the dismemberment of the retired stockpile. Development in technologies also means that the world keeps seeing new ways to deploy these nuclear weapons which is another worrying trend.
What lies ahead?
With Australia already on the road to acquire nuclear capabilities, it stands to reason that other nations would work towards developing or acquiring nuclear weapons. This could, in principle, also re-ignite another arms race. The P5’s joint statement, ‘Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races’, affirms to non-offensive uses of nuclear weapons and committing to the NPT agreement but the wording of this statement and previous statements on arms reduction could be understood in a different light as well—to use nuclear weapons against conventional weapons if the nation feels its security to be threatened so as to merit the use of nuclear weaponry. The chequered history of nuclear weapons gives the impression that the NPT has not been entirely successful—but it hasn’t been an abject failure either.
The impetus is on the major powers to stay on the path which the NPT has paved (even if a winding one) and signal commitment through its actions towards putting an end to the arms race and hopefully complete disarmament.
8. Sri Lanka’s looming economic crisis
Is Sri Lanka headed towards a sovereign default? How is India viewing the situation of its neighbour?
Sri Lanka’s external reserves dropped to $1.6 billion in November 2021, triggering alarm in different quarters. American credit rating agency Fitch downgraded the island nation to a ‘CC’ rating, which is the lowest rating prior to sovereign default.
Sri Lanka’s external debt is dominated by market borrowings, by way of international sovereign bonds, which amount to half of the country’s total foreign debt. Meeting the repayment deadlines this year would mean that Sri Lanka might be left with no dollars to import essentials —be it food, fuel, or medical supplies.
The best option for Sri Lanka would be to negotiate a programme with the IMF, restructure its external debt, and mobilise bridging finance for the interim.
The story so far: Sri Lanka’s external reserves dropped to $1.6 billion in November 2021, triggering alarm in different quarters. Foreign reserves draining so rapidly could only mean that a sovereign default is imminent, economists and thinktanks warned. American credit rating agency Fitch downgraded the island nation to a ‘CC’ rating, which is the lowest rating prior to default. Despite its mounting foreign debt over the years, Sri Lanka has never defaulted until now. The current economic meltdown – marked by a persisting dollar crisis, soaring living costs, and a possible food shortage this year – is threatening to dent that record.
What is the Government’s response?
Last week, the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka said the country’s foreign reserves stood at $3.1 billion at year-end, apparently including the $1.5 billion currency swap cleared by China earlier this year. On Wednesday [January 5, 2022], Governor Ajit Nivaard Cabraal said the Central Bank has earmarked $500 million to repay an international sovereign bond maturing on January 18. The Rajapaksa administration has expressed confidence about being able to meet its debt obligations this year, despite its Balance of Payments problem.
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa on January 4 announced a $1.2 billion package for “economic relief” that includes a special allowance for government employees. The Government almost entirely blames the pandemic for the current crisis. It is true that all major revenue earning sectors of Sri Lanka – exports [mainly garments, tea and spices], tourism and inward worker remittances – were severely impacted by the pandemic, but some commentators argue that the pandemic only exacerbated an older crisis, didn’t create one.
What are the immediate challenges?
Contrary to popular narratives, Sri Lanka’s external debt is dominated not by Chinese loans, but by market borrowings, by way of international sovereign bonds, which amount to nearly half of the country’s total foreign debt. Following the $500 million that the Government is preparing to repay later this month, another $1 billion is due for repayment in June. Meeting the repayment deadlines this year would mean that Sri Lanka might be left with no dollars to import essentials —be it food, fuel, or medical supplies. That too when the country may have to import more food this year, if agricultural production drops by half, as paddy farmers and tea growers widely predict, following the Government’s overnight switch to organic farming in May 2021. Already, there are frequent instances of consumers not finding milk powder – which is largely imported – and other essentials in the stores. A shortage of LPG cylinders persists, following a spate of explosions reportedly owing to a change in the chemical composition of the gas.
What are the options before Sri Lanka?
The main political opposition, think tanks and most mainstream economists are advocating that Sri Lanka negotiate a programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), restructure its external debt, and mobilise bridging finance for the interim. But the Government maintains it can tide the crisis without resorting to an IMF loan and is counting on other options.
IMF agreements usually come with specific conditions for the borrower, including greater transparency on how the money is spent. “Transparency has never been a strong point of a Rajapaksa regime,” Colombo-based business newspaper, the Daily Financial Times (FT), said in a recent editorial titled ‘Time for the IMF’. While acknowledging that IMF agreements of the past in fact “worsened Sri Lanka’s economic situation due to their strict conditions”, the editorial said it was hard to imagine that the conditions imposed by the IMF could be any worse than the predicament facing the Sri Lankan public at present. “As unpalatable as it may seem in some quarters, the IMF might just be the best way to achieving those goals,” the Daily FT said. Those opposing the IMF route, argue that such a deal invariably entails austerity measures that will target social services and welfare programmes, further aggravating poverty that is growing since the pandemic.
Can India help?
Sri Lanka has repeatedly sought financial assistance from India since the pandemic struck – by way of a debt freeze, a currency swap and more recently, emergency Lines of Credit for importing essentials, during Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s visit to New Delhi early December. Colombo is awaiting a positive update from New Delhi. Addressing the weekly press conference on Thursday, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said India “has always stood by” the Sri Lankan people, and Sri Lanka is an important part of India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. Referring to Mr. Basil’s recent visit he said discussions on deepening cooperation in areas of food and health security, energy security, balance of payment issues and Indian investments in Sri Lanka took place. “I understand that further consultations are ongoing,” he said. Mr. Basil is expected to attend the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summit next week, and possibly meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sri Lanka is also in talks with China, whose Foreign Minister is scheduled to visit Colombo this weekend.