1. More than a story
False narratives and propaganda should be countered, but not through a ban.
The demand for a ban on The Kerala Story, a film apparently based on the instances of a few women joining the Islamic State, is ill-conceived. It is to the credit of the Supreme Court and the High Courts of Kerala and Madras that they did not yield to the clamour for proscribing the movie. It garnered adverse publicity because of a teaser that made an exaggerated claim that 32,000 girls have gone missing in Kerala, presumably to join the terrorist group. However, the film-makers have agreed to withdraw the teaser and carry a disclaimer that the film’s content is fictional. The film’s more notable feature is that it has been denounced as undisguised propaganda. Those seeking the ban accuse its makers of trying to stoke communal passions and the projecting of a fake narrative against Muslims. However, even if that is true, any ban on the film will be counter-productive. Bans can be overturned by courts, and they tend to evoke curiosity about the film and often end up making more people form opinions on its content. In effect, it enhances the propaganda value, and furthers the ulterior motive, if any. It is now legally settled that once a film has been certified by the statutory authority, there is really no case to ban one. Laws pertaining to public order indeed empower the police and local authorities to stop a film’s screening, but it will be perilous to do so every time a group demands a ban.
Reports from Tamil Nadu and Kerala suggest that threats of protests have resulted in multiplexes and some cinema owners choosing not to screen the film. It is normally the local authorities who have a duty to provide adequate security, as ruled by the Supreme Court. However, rather than the law, it is prudent assessment of the ground situation that helps them make a decision. What is also condemnable is the attempt to make political and electoral capital out of The Kerala Story. The Prime Minister himself has alleged that only those who support terrorism will criticise such a movie. It does not behove high constitutional functionaries to communalise the debate over the film. Protests against an allegedly false narrative about a State or a community will not amount to backing terrorism. The fear that the film purportedly grapples with — that young people may be targeted for radicalisation — should be addressed by isolating extremist elements and fostering better understanding among communities. The mischief wrought by a false projection of reality is best undone through exposing the falsehood and the underlying motive, and not through hasty bans.
2. Will the greenback still be green?
Parag Waknis is Dean, International Affairs, and Associate Professor of Economics, Dr. B R Ambedkar University Delhi.
The run of the U.S. dollar as an international reserve currency is far from over.
As China, India, and Russia dabble in trade using partner currencies for payment instead of the U.S. dollar, various media are rife with speculation about the demise of the dollar as world reserve currency. How much truth is there to this claim? Not much.
The rise of the dollar
The status of the U.S. dollar as a preferred currency for international trade and as a reserve currency has not been a result of any purposeful policy or an international agreement. The rise of the dollar as the world currency closely aligns with the rise of the U.S. as one of the world’s strongest economies with a deep financial system and a stable government. This is not to say there were no competitors. Starting with the Great Britain Pound to the emergence of the euro as the currency of the European Union, the position of the dollar has been challenged from time to time. However, the dollar seems to continue its dominance uninterrupted.
According to reports from the International Monetary Fund, the dollar’s share of foreign exchange reserves has fallen over time from 80% in the 1970s to about 60% in 2022. The euro has made up for about 20% of the remaining 40% room created by this fall. Smaller currencies such as the Australian and Canadian dollars, Swedish krona, and South Korean won have claimed their share in the portfolios of various countries’ foreign exchange reserves making up most of the remaining gap of 20%, with Chinese currency taking up the rest.
China runs a closed capital account, which explains why it still does not feature as a prominent choice in which to maintain reserves. Most of the Renminbi reserves that are held outside China are by Russia. In fact, both these countries accumulate the currency of the other as foreign exchange reserves. From that point of view, a trading arrangement between China and Russia makes more sense. However, even though India’s biggest supplier of oil is Russia followed by Saudi Arabia and Iraq, its biggest trading partner is still the U.S., according to recent data. Moreover, Russia’s importance as an oil supplier is a result of the deep discounts offered by its oil suppliers to Indian refiners. Such discounts will not be sustainable over the long run. This further casts some doubt on the long-term viability of a common currency or a reciprocal trading arrangement between China, India, and Russia as geopolitical compulsions push India closer to the U.S.
Along with general acceptability as a medium of exchange for international trade, the U.S. dollar is also in demand because of demand for dollar-denominated assets worldwide. The debt issued by the U.S. government is bought by many countries across the world as a hedge against currency fluctuations affecting valuation of reserves. U.S. government debt and other dollar-denominated assets also serve as a quality collateral in international transactions. Additionally, many currencies are pegged to the U.S. dollar and a few countries use the dollar as their own currency. This has meant that a huge proportion of U.S. dollars reside outside the U.S. China itself has substantial U.S. dollar reserves earned from its trade with the U.S. over the past three decades, which in turn has fuelled its economic might across the globe. It has used these dollar reserves to fund its strategic investments abroad. All this feeds into the demand for the dollar and strengthens its importance in the international financial system. Any currency competing for the position of the U.S. dollar as international reserve currency will have to provide these additional services as well. That is not a trivial task that can be achieved over a shorter time period.
The fight of countries to substitute the U.S. dollar with their own currency as a world currency is understandable. Being a supplier of international reserve currency confers a distinct advantage on the government issuing it — the ability to borrow at a low interest rate. As U.S. government debt is in high demand worldwide, it gets issued at the lowest interest rate. This relaxes the fiscal constraint substantially, boosting the debt-issuing government’s capacity to borrow more without having to deal with the negative effects of such borrowing on the domestic economy. This phenomenon is often referred to as the dollar premium and is something that many other governments would like to have access to, including that of China and Russia.
Thus, the run of the U.S. dollar as an international reserve currency is far from over. The only serious contender at this point is the euro, which stands second but at quite a distance. The possibility where the Chinese currency or any other common currency could become a serious contender is thin and distant at this point. This not to say that the current system is optimal and should not be improved on. However, to expect that from a common currency between China, India, and Russia or any such reciprocal trading arrangement would be an exaggeration.
3. India’s first national water-body census
Monitoring waters: A fisherman casts his net at Madhure Kere lake on the outskirts of Bengaluru on April 1.
What is the importance of a water-body census? How has the census thrown light on rainfall patterns? What are some of the shortcomings with respect to the data collected? Does the data give insight into natural ecosystems and how water bodies sustain them?
The story so far:
The findings of the first-ever water body census, conducted by the Ministry of Jal Shakti, was published recently.
Why is a water body census necessary?
India is facing a water crisis with groundwater decline, biodiversity loss, and climate change increasing the frequency of floods and droughts. In this context, water bodies are important. They buffer against climate variability, holding flood waters for use in dry periods. They contribute to food and water security as well as livelihoods by recharging groundwater and providing water for irrigation and livestock. They also have cultural and ecological significance. However, water bodies are increasingly under threat from pollution, encroachment, urbanisation, and drying. If they are to be conserved and managed effectively, we need action plans which require baseline data. As water bodies are managed by different agencies from State to local to private entities, the data must be uniform and easily accessible. To actually manage water bodies, we need contextual and traditional knowledge of communities which are to be integrated with formal data. While data on reservoirs and rivers has been available on the India Water Resources Information System (WRIS) for the last few years, there has been no data on smaller water bodies that are the lifeline of rural India and critical cultural, flood-control and recreational spaces in cities.
How was the census conducted?
The massive effort expended in the first-ever water body census was much needed. The census’s objective was to develop a national database with information on the size, purpose, ownership, status, and conditions of water bodies. It covered all natural and human-made units bounded on all sides for storing water, irrespective of condition or use.
A software for data entry and a mobile app for capturing the location and visual of the water bodies were developed, and data-processing workshops were conducted to train the surveyors in all States and Union territories.
The census was built on existing and publicly available satellite-derived datasets. These datasets are extremely rich, allowing citizens to hone in on a specific village and download the historical time series data on each water body. However, they only include attributes that can be observed from space. The water body census thus, extends this to social characteristics including ownership, use and condition.
What does the data show?
Such a large national effort allows us to compare spatial and temporal trends of water bodies across the country. These are some of the observations based on the data:-
(a) Most water bodies in the country are very small — the vast majority of India’s water bodies are less than one hectare (ha) large. This means locating and keeping track of them is likely to remain a challenge. The traditional way to map these water bodies, using satellites, may not work, which is why the mammoth effort expended in ground-based tracking is very welcome.
(b) The water bodies show regional patterns that correlate with rainfall — in general, in drier States like Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan, water bodies tend to be larger and publicly held. In the wetter parts of the country, like Kerala, West Bengal, and States in the northeast, more than three-quarters of the water bodies are privately owned.In drier States, the water bodies are primarily used for irrigation and groundwater recharge while in wetter States, domestic use and pisciculture dominate. Mid-sized water bodies are largely panchayat-owned.
(c) Most water bodies have never been repaired or rejuvenated — several water bodies were classified “not in use”, meaning despite the recent interest in rejuvenating water bodies, most of them have never been repaired or revived.
How can the census improve?
While the census was a clearly Herculean effort, we must take care when interpreting the data.
First, there are some clear gaps. Water bodies have an important role in supporting biodiversity. They harbour fish that birds feed on and provide roosting and breeding spaces for resident and migratory birds. These ecological functions are related to the size and location of the water bodies. But the latest water body census does not address any questions about this. The report itself noted in its preamble that water bodies “support healthy ecosystems”, yet the focus was exclusively on human use, which means only pisciculture or fish farming, which is seeded and does not reflect natural biodiversity.
In classifying water bodies in terms of reasons of abandonment or disuse, “others” emerged as a significant reason, on par with “drying up” in a few States, but far ahead of other specific categories such as industrial pollution, construction, and salinity. One possibility is that the census questionnaire may have left out the most common reasons like eutrophication, sewage pollution, and solid waste dumping.
Secondly, there are inconsistencies in the census. The census groups water bodies into five types: ponds, tanks, lakes, reservoirs, and water conservation schemes. Its glossary defines a pond as a smaller water body than a tank, while “water conservation structures” might include check dams and percolation tanks. However, these categories are not mutually exclusive — many tanks that were traditionally used directly for irrigation serve primarily as recharge structures today. Based on the data, it appears that in Karnataka, these were classified as ponds and tanks serving the purpose of irrigation, whereas in Maharashtra these were classified as water conservation structures, primarily serving the purpose of groundwater recharge. The sources of irrigation statistics for the two States suggest neither State has much tank irrigation.
Third, the data was not standardised across States. Some States like Gujarat do not show any water bodies not being in use, whereas Karnataka reports almost 80% of its water bodies as being in a state of disuse. This suggests differences in interpretation by the enumerators.
There are some other concerns as well. For example, the map for north Karnataka seems suspiciously empty. Since the original geotagged data does not seem to have been made available yet, it is unclear if some districts were skipped or if they genuinely had a lower water-body density.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, it is crucial that the government continue such nationwide censuses of a vital resource, with modifications. This first edition itself provides high-level indications on the way forward by detailing ownership, state of use, and the costs of construction and repair. It points to how and why water bodies must be restored, which agency’s capacities need to be strengthened, where and how much funds are needed, and who will benefit from such efforts. If such censuses are conducted every five or 10 years, over time, they will accurately represent emerging trends and the state of water in the country as a whole.
India is facing a water crisis with groundwater decline, biodiversity loss, and climate change increasing the frequency of floods and droughts. In this context, water bodies are important.
The first water-body census’s objective was to develop a national database with information on the size, purpose, ownership, status, and conditions of water bodies. It covered all natural and human-made units bounded on all sides for storing water, irrespective of condition or use.
The first edition itself provides high-level indications on the ways forward by detailing ownership, state of use, and the costs of construction and repair.
4. ISRO to start online training programme for college students
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has announced a new introductory-level online training programme called space science and technology awareness training (START).
START is aimed at postgraduate and final-year undergraduate students of physical sciences and technology.
Academic institutions can submit applications for the programme through the Jigyasa portal by May 20.
The programme will cover various domains of space science, including astronomy and astrophysics, heliophysics and sun-earth interaction, instrumentation and aeronomy. It will be delivered by scientists from Indian academia and ISRO centres.
“The START programme is part of the ISRO’s efforts to enable Indian students to become professionals in space science and technology, as the organisation’s space science exploration programme continues to expand into new domains,” the ISRO said.
The programme is intended to give them an overview of the different facets of the field, research opportunities and career options, it said.
Remote sensing courses
The ISRO’s National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) has also announced two short courses — remote sensing data acquisition and remote sensing data processing.
The courses are scheduled to be held from August 21 to September 1 and October 9 to 20 respectively, at NRSC’s Earth Station at Shadnagar near Hyderabad.