Daily Current Affairs 08.10.2022 (‘India can lead G20 on education, climate and debt sustainability’, Respect and guarantee human rights to Uighurs of Xinjiang, says MEA, The growth and limitations of Dravidian urbanism, The atrophy of the neo-Buddhist movement in India, Slow lane driving, Where the stars must not twinkle)

Daily Current Affairs 08.10.2022 (‘India can lead G20 on education, climate and debt sustainability’, Respect and guarantee human rights to Uighurs of Xinjiang, says MEA, The growth and limitations of Dravidian urbanism, The atrophy of the neo-Buddhist movement in India, Slow lane driving, Where the stars must not twinkle)


1. ‘India can lead G20 on education, climate and debt sustainability’

World Bank President David Malpass points to India’s involvement in restructuring debts in Sri Lanka and it being a major creditor to African nations, calls the country a leader in education

Debt sustainability, education and climate action are three areas of potential for India when it takes on the presidency of the Group of Twenty (G20) in December this year, according to World Bank President David Malpass.

“There’s a potential focus on debt,” Mr. Malpass told reporters on a Friday morning briefing call ahead of the World Bank IMF Annual Meetings here in Washington.

“I think the world is at a point where there can be progress made for a more effective common framework,” he said, highlighting the fact that India is a creditor for Sri Lanka and also some of the “heavily indebted countries of Africa”.  India has provided some $4 billion in assistance to Sri Lanka this year and is involved with restructuring its debt.

“So as G20 Chair [sic] India has an opportunity there,” Mr Malpass said. His comments on debt sustainability being a priority echo remarks made by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar during his United Nations and U.S. visit that concluded last week.

“I’ve spoken with Prime Minister Modi about that and …he… and India is aware of there being debt distress in countries near it as well, so it’s very relevant to India,” Mr. Malpass said.

The World Bank’s president said there had been a very concerning increase in education poverty – with 70% of children in developing countries unable to read the basic texts – and that India could play a leadership role in education. He went on to describe the backsliding in education caused by COVID-19 school closures, including children losing interest because they could not keep up with their grade/class, and decline in educational spending.

“For India’s G20, this is a big opportunity. India’s been a leader in education,” Mr Malpass said, adding that climate too would be a major focus, as advanced and developing countries work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate issues

You’ll see the importance of [ climate change] adaptation for many of the countries in terms of saving lives on the ground. That’ll be a focus of [ the November 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in ] Sharm el Sheikh and it’s also incredibly important for India and for the G 20 as a whole,” Mr Malpass said.

In terms of his assessment of the Indian economy Mr Malpass said India had suffered from rising interest rates and inflation, globally, as well as climate events . However, expansion of the social safety net during the COVID pandemic was a mitigating factor as was digitization (which increases the effectiveness of the net) , Mr Malpass said.

The World Bank, on Thursday, had downgraded India’s growth estimate for FY22-23 by 1 percentage point to 6.5%.


  • The G20 is an informal group of 19 countries and the European Union, with representatives of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
  • The G20 membership comprises a mix of the world’s largest advanced and emerging economies, Together, the G20 members represent more than 80% of world GDP, 75% of international trade and 60% of the world population.

How did G20 come into Existence?

  • 1997-1999 ASIAN Financial Crisis: This was a ministerial-level forum which emerged after G7 invited both developed and developing economies. The finance ministers and central bank governors began meeting in 1999.
  • Amid 2008 Financial Crisis the world saw the need for a new consensus building at the highest political level. It was decided that the G20 leaders would begin meeting once annually.
  • To help prepare these summits, the G20 finance ministers and central bank governors continue to meet on their own twice a year. They meet at the same time as the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank.

G20 Works

  • The work of G20 is divided into two tracks:
    • The finance track comprises all meetings with G20 finance ministers and central bank governors and their deputies. Meeting several times throughout the year they focus on monetary and fiscal issues, financial regulations, etc.
    • The Sherpa track focuses on broader issues such as political engagement, anti-corruption, development, energy, etc.
      • Each G20 country is represented by its Sherpa; who plans, guides, implements, etc. on behalf of the leader of their respective country. (Indian Sherpa, at the G20 in Argentina, 2018 was Shri Shaktikanta Das)

Members of G20

  • The members of the G20 are Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union.
  • Spain as a permanent, non-member invitee, also attends leader summits.

Structure and Functioning of G20

  • The G20 Presidency rotates annually according to a system that ensures a regional balance over time.
  • For the selection of presidency, the 19 countries are divided into 5 groups, each having no more than 4 countries. The presidency rotates between each group. Every year the G20 selects a country from another group to be president.
    India is in Group 2 which also has Russia, South Africa, and Turkey.
  • The G20 does not have a permanent secretariat or Headquarters. Instead, the G20 president is responsible for bringing together the G20 agenda in consultation with other members and in response to developments in the global economy.
  • TROIKA: Every year when a new country takes on the presidency, it works hand in hand with the previous presidency and the next presidency and this is collectively known as TROIKA. This ensures continuity and consistency of the group’s agenda.

Cooperation with and within G20

  • In Toronto in 2010, leaders declared it to be the premier forum for global economic co-operation.
  • The work of G20 members is supported by several international organisations that provide policy advice. These organisations include:
    • The Financial Stability Board (FSB). The FSB, which was established by G20 leaders following the onset of the global financial crisis,
    • The International Labour Organization (ILO).
    • The International Monetary Fund (IMF).
    • The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)
    • United Nations (UN)
    • World Bank
    • The World Trade Organization (WTO)
  • The G20 also regularly engages with non-government sectors. Engagement groups from business (B20), civil society (C20), labour (L20), think tanks (T20) and youth (Y20) are holding major events during the year, the outcomes of which will contribute to the deliberations of G20 leaders.

Type of Issues are Addressed by G20

  • The G20 focuses on a broad agenda of issues of global importance, although, issues pertaining to the global economy dominate the agenda, additional items have become more important in recent years, like:
    • Financial markets
    • Tax and fiscal policy
    • Trade
    • Agriculture
    • Employment
    • Energy
    • Fight against corruption
    • Advancement of women in job market
    • 2030 agenda for Sustainable development
    • Climate Change
    • Global Health
    • Anti-terrorism
    • Inclusive entrepreneurship

India’s Priorities in G20 Summits

  • Checking tax evasion to fight corruption
  • Choking terror funds
  • Cutting the cost of remittances
  • Market access for key drugs
  • Reforms in the World Trade Organisation to improve its functioning
  • “Full implementation” of the Paris Agreement

Strengths/Achievements of G20

  • Flexible: With only 20 members, the G20 is agile enough to make prompt decisions and to adapt to new challenges.
  • Inclusive: The inclusion every year of invited countries, international organizations and civil society organization through engagement groups allow for a broader and more comprehensive perspective when assessing global challenges and building consensus to address them.
  • Coordinated action: The G-20 has also played a crucial role in strengthening the international financial regulatory system, including better coordination across countries.
  • Facilitated an increase in lending from multilateral development banks of US$235 billion at a time when private sector sources of finance were diminished.
  • Major achievements of the G20 include quick deployment of emergency funding during the 2008 global financial crisis.
  • It also works for reforms in international financial institutions by improving oversight of national financial institutions. Such as G20 driven reforms to the international tax system, through the G20/OECD Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) project and implementation of tax transparency standards.
  • G20 played a critical role in the ratification of the Trade Facilitation Agreement, with the WTO estimating it could contribute up to somewhere between 5.4 and 8.7% to global GDP by 2030 if the agreement were fully implemented.
  • Better Communication: G20 bring World’s top developed and developing countries together to bring consensus and reasoning into decision making through discussion.
  • In the 2021 (November) G20 summit, the leaders made a commitment to reach carbon neutrality by or around mid-century.
    • They have adopted the Rome Declaration.
    • Earlier, the G20 Climate Risk Atlas was released which provides climate scenarios, information, data and future changes in climate across the G20 countries

Challenges Faced by G20

  • No Enforcement mechanism: The G20’s toolkit ranges from simple exchanges of information and best practices to agreeing common, measurable targets, to coordinated action. None of this is achieved without consensus, nor is it enforceable, except for the incentive of peer review and public accountability.
  • Not legally binding: the decisions are based on discussions and consensus which culminates in the form of declarations. These declarations are not legally binding. It’s just an advisory or consultative group of 20 members.
  • Polarisation of Interests:
    • Russian and Ukrainian Presidents are invited to the G20 Summit to be held in November, 2022.
      • The U.S. has already demanded to not invite Russian President, or U.S. and European countries would boycott his address.
    • China’s strategic rise, NATO’s expansion and Russia’s territorial aggression in Georgia and Crimea and now Russia Ukraine Conflict in 2022 changed global priorities.
    • Globalisation is no longer a cool word, and multilateral organisations have a credibility crisis as countries around the world pick being ‘G-zero’ (a term coined by political commentator Ian Bremmer to denote ‘Every Nation for Itself’) over the G-7, G-20, BRICS, P-5 (UNSC Permanent Members) and others.

2. Respect and guarantee human rights to Uighurs of Xinjiang, says MEA

Statement comes a day after India abstained on voting on a draft resolution at the 51st Regular Session at the United Nations Human Rights Council to hold a debate on the subject

India on Friday addressed the issue of the Uighurs of Xinjiang directly for the first time saying that the community’s human rights should be “respected”.

Official spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs Arindam Bagchi said that the government of India had taken “note” of the human rights “assessment” of Xinjiang that was earlier presented by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) in a 46-page report. “The human rights of the people of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region should be respected and guaranteed. We hope that the relevant party will address the situation objectively and properly,” he said. India has generally avoided commenting on the reported crackdown on the Uighurs in Xinjiang.

This policy was evident in 2016, when India issued a visa for leading Uighur activist Dolkun Isa but cancelled it at the last moment preventing him from traveling to Delhi.

The statement from the MEA came a day after India abstained on voting on a draft resolution at the 51st Regular Session at the United Nations Human Rights Council to hold a debate on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. The resolution was sponsored by the U.S., Finland, and other members of the western group at the HRC but at the end only 17 of the 47 members voted in favour, 19 voted against and 11, including India, abstained.

Explaining India’s decision to abstain at the HRC, Mr. Bagchi said, “India remains committed to upholding all human rights. India’s vote is in line with its long-held position that country-specific resolutions are never helpful. India favours a dialogue to deal with such issues.”

In a rare gesture, Mr. Bagchi also recognised the importance of the OHCHR’s report on Xinjiang that had drawn China’s strong opposition earlier.

“We have taken note of the OHCHR Assessment of human rights concerns in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China,” said Mr. Bagchi.

The delay to release the OHCHR’s report which contains details of atrocities against the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang was criticised by Amnesty International that had sought international investigation into the findings.

“Now that the OHCHR has finally made its findings public, it is time for the UN Human Rights Council to set up an independent international mechanism to investigate these crimes under international law and other serious human rights violations in Xinjiang,” Amnesty said in a statement earlier.

China’s Xinjiang Conflict

Xinjiang is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China. It is the largest Chinese administrative division and spans over 1.6 million km2, bordering countries such as Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The name “Xinjiang”, which literally means“New Frontier” or “New Border”, was given during the Qing Dynasty. It is home to a number of different ethnic groups including the Uyghur, Han, Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz and Mongol.

Among these ethnic groups, the Hans and the Uyghurs (Turkish and Muslim population) are the two major ethnic groups. Xinjiang is home to more than 8 million people and much of the tension in the region is sourced in the claims of some Uyghur separatist groups for greater political and religious autonomy and also in resentment at the growing presence of Han Chinese domination— China’s largest ethnic group —that they claim limits their economic opportunities. For a millennium Xinjiang’s large Muslim and Turkic population has viewed itself as religiously and ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese society. The Uyghurs themselves comprise just under half of Xinjiang’s population, but with the addition of Kazaks and Kyrgyz the number of Turkic Muslims rises to over half of the total. The Uyghurs have not, until the past few generations, shared a strong sense of common destiny. Increasingly, however, they have come to adopt a consolidated identity as “Uyghurs.” These Uyghurs today feel that Chinese policy has ignored them or, worse, consciously worked against them and feel deeply threatened.

  • Uighur Muslims:
    • The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim minority Turkic ethnic group, whose origins can be traced to Central and East Asia.
      • The Uighurs speak their own language, similar to Turkish, and see themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.
    • The Uighurs are considered to be one of the 55 officially recognized ethnic minority communities in China.
      • However, China recognises the community only as a regional minority and rejects that they are an indigenous group.
    • Currently, the largest population of the Uighur ethnic community lives in Xinjiang region of China.
      • A significant population of Uighurs also lives in the neighbouring Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
      • Xinjiang is technically an autonomous region within China — its largest region, rich in minerals, and sharing borders with eight countries, including India, Pakistan, Russia and Afghanistan.
  • Persecution of Uighurs:
    • Over the past few decades, as economic prosperity has come to Xinjiang, it has brought with it in large numbers the majority Han Chinese, who have cornered the better jobs, and left the Uighurs feeling their livelihoods and identity were under threat.
      • This led to sporadic violence, in 2009 culminating in a riot that killed 200 people, mostly Han Chinese, in the region’s capital Urumqi.
    • Uighur Muslims for decades, under the false accusation by the Chinese government of terrorism and separatism, have suffered from abuses including persecution, forced detention, intense scrutiny, surveillance and even slavery.
      • However, China claims its camps to be ‘educational centres’ where the Uighurs are being cured of “extremist thoughts” and radicalisation, and learning vocational skills.
    • China claims that Uighur groups want to establish an independent state and, because of the Uighurs’ cultural ties to their neighbours, leaders fear that elements in places like Pakistan may back a separatist movement in Xinjiang.
  • China’s Extradition Treaty:
    • In December 2020, China approved an extradition treaty with Turkey aimed at strengthened judicial cooperation to facilitate a crackdown on transnational criminals including terrorists.
      • Extradition is the formal process of one state surrendering an individual to another state for prosecution or punishment for crimes committed in the requesting country’s jurisdiction.
    • The extradition agreement comes amidst deepening economic and financial ties between Turkey and China.
      • China is also Turkey’s leading supplier of Covid-19 vaccines.
    • Since 1990, the Uighur diaspora in Turkey has become more vibrant and has attracted widespread attention globally through demonstrations, conferences, meetings and briefings.
    • Concerns of Uighur Muslims:
      • If Turkey ratifies the treaty, this will be the last nail in the coffin of Uighur culture as China will silence the biggest Uighur diaspora outside Xinjiang.
      • The treaty will become another instrument in the hands of China for the prosecution of its enslaved Uighur minority.
  • India’s Stand:
    • The Indian government has maintained near silence on the Uighur crisis.

3. Editorial-1: The growth and limitations of Dravidian urbanism

Accounts of Dravidian mobilisation in Tamil Nadu have focused largely on their achievement of economic growth and welfare outcomes. Less recognised is the centrality of urbanisation in distributing the benefits of growth and development relatively more inclusively. T.N.’s urban trajectory has been distinct from most other parts of India on two accounts. One, T.N. has continuously attempted the breakdown of traditional caste-based hierarchies to enable the upward mobility of ordinary people, transforming them into agents of urban transformation. Two, urbanisation in T.N. is more broad-based, being driven by multiple urban centres rather than a few metropolitan cities, as in the case of Maharashtra or Gujarat.

Over the last 70 years, Dravidian parties have capitalised on historical conditions to adopt what appears to be a multi-pronged strategy to transform ordinary people into agents of urban transformation. This includes the provision of physical and social infrastructure to speed up urbanisation; redistributive policies such as affirmative action, particularly in education; and the diffusion of a productivist ethos. These measures are at least partly responsible for the fact that 48.4% of T.N.’s population lives in urban areas compared to the all-India average of 34% (2011 Census). Seven out of eight households rely on the non-farm sector. T.N.’s urban character does not rely on a couple of big metropolitan cities as is the case in Maharashtra or Gujarat; there are multiple urban centres undergirded by a network of small towns and a strong rural-urban linkage. It is important to understand how this was enabled.

Historical conditions, Dravidian policy

As an important colonial city, Madras possessed some industrial strength and physical infrastructure. Later, during K. Kamaraj’s regime, T.N. benefited significantly from efforts to build infrastructure for industrial clusters and mass education. The DMK, which came to power in 1967, further expanded the industrial base of T.N.

Agricultural modernisation was spurred by access to irrigation and motorised electrical technology, among other things. Different parts of the State have historically specialised in particular strategic forms of irrigation such as canals and wells. This has led to diversified cropping patterns with distinct crop specialisations emerging in different regions. This made possible the emergence of ‘agro-towns’ linked to a crop, for processing, marketing, and selling — or entrepreneurship from below.

The interventions of Dravidian parties through physical and social infrastructure further facilitated this transition, while the absence of a dominant trading community — a Vaishya vacuum — allowed for entrepreneurship from lower castes and a ‘democratisation of capital’. Investments in infrastructure enabled even artisans to enter industry. Anthropologist Yann Philippe Tastevin shows that carpenters and blacksmiths have become ‘self-made engineers’, setting up several makeshift repair shops of transport services which have morphed into a truck body-building industry, and further into mobile drilling rig assembly. This has changed the industrial landscapes of Namakkal and Salem districts, illustrating how urbanisation in T.N. has evolved from small towns with each region having a specific industrial cluster. The State has among the highest proportion of Dalit and Backward Caste entrepreneurs, many of them from small towns.

Dravidian discourse saw the village as the site of oppression and the urban as liberating, as opposed to M.K. Gandhi’s vision of village reconstruction. Dravidian mobilisation worked on two planks. The first was the diffusion of a productivist ethos that broke down existing social hierarchies and helped imagine new social relations. The second was public investments in infrastructure which allowed the entry of diverse actors into the domain of capital accumulation.

The development of amenities — transport connectivity, access to electricity and medical and educational facilities — has been relatively impressive and widely spread across T.N. Some significant illustrations include the increase in the percentage of minor roads from 47% in 1961 to 80% in 1991. Thanks to policy interventions to build broad-based road transport infrastructure, including a network of minibuses, T.N. has linked rural and urban areas and expanded the scope for non-farm livelihood options for rural households. Similarly, connecting villages to towns helped people access employment outside, loosening caste ties to an extent.

While the postcolonial Indian state relied on planning apparatuses to spur development, it couldn’t alter the pathways of outcomes. The Congress in T.N. worked with inherited colonial and elite-controlled bureaucratic structures and procedures. After the DMK came to power, policy agendas began to be driven by what were thought to be the needs and demands of the people. Over the next few decades, there was increased recruitment from backward and Dalit castes, and from small towns and rural areas, in government services. This increased the administration’s responsiveness to the needs and aspirations of the marginalised. The conservative financial management of the State was overhauled to accommodate welfare distribution by the State.

While this urban transformation was in line with the Dravidian vision of moving the subaltern out of caste-bound occupations, those unable to make the transition had to be provided with a degree of social protection. The State was indeed a pioneer in the creation of a vibrant public distribution system and welfare boards which provide informal workers a host of protections.

The road forward

Liberalisation provided a shot in the arm to existing manufacturing industries, such as textile and leather, and also spurred service industries such as IT. All of this led to further urbanisation. The gains that had been made over decades in the growth of technical education, reservations for middle and lower castes in higher education and public health, to name a few, paved the way for more people to benefit from liberalisation in economic, social and geographical terms.

However, poverty has now been urbanised, with new, precarious jobs created largely in the informal sector. This indicates that the rate of dispossession from traditional and farm-based occupations has been higher than that of creation of decent jobs in urban areas, pointing to the urgency in the need for urban employment guarantees. While caste hierarchies have weakened to an extent, caste segregation continues, including in urban T.N. The DMK regime has come under rightful criticism for allowing eviction of the urban poor from Chennai, while simultaneously touting the successes of the Dravidian model.

Dravidian leaders have perhaps over-emphasised urbanisation as an ideal outcome, while not paying sufficient attention to urban processes themselves. The absence of adequate participatory governance, such as in the form of the implementation of the 74th Amendment, has only increased dependence on the bureaucracy and political actors, rather than empowering people. Dravidian urbanisation now has to contend with these structural problems, as well as rampant rent seeking, especially in natural resources, to repair the chinks in the face of T.N.’s relatively better development outcomes.

4. Editorial-2: The atrophy of the neo-Buddhist movement in India

Every year in October, thousands of people assemble at Nagpur’s Deekshabhoomi to pay homage to B.R. Ambedkar and remember the historic day of October 14, 1956, when he and half a million of his followers embraced Buddhism. Ambedkar chose Buddhism after examining various religions to understand the suitability of each to liberate socially marginalised communities from the exploitative caste order. He found that Buddhism is rooted in India’s civilization, supplements modern ethical values and is averse to social hierarchies and patriarchal domination. Neo-Buddhism was proposed as a mass movement that would elevate former ‘Untouchables’ and help them achieve self-respect. He hoped that Buddhist principles would mobilise them into a robust community to battle the ruling Brahmanical elites.

Struggles of neo-Buddhism

Neo-Buddhism emerged as a maverick phenomenon that offered strong psychological solace to the struggling Dalit masses. However, Ambedkar’s grand hopes remain unfulfilled. Today, the Buddhist population in India is one of the smallest minorities, its ideological challenge against the Hindu social order has not been taken seriously, and even within the Dalit community, conversion to Buddhism is not perceived as a suitable path to achieve social emancipation. Instead, it is the BJP that often fashions itself as the new torchbearer of Buddhist identity.

A large majority (close to 80%) of Indian Buddhists resides in Maharashtra. The neo-Buddhists have established social and educational institutions, initiated cultural movements, and organised popular public festivals to make Buddhism a visible force in Maharashtra’s public sphere. However, it is mainly the Mahar caste and recently, smaller sections within the Matang and the Maratha castes which have identified themselves as neo-Buddhists. Other socially marginalised groups are still defined by Hindu caste nomenclatures and traditional occupations.

The Dalit sociopolitical movements in States including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have also not promoted conversion to Buddhism. In U.P., during the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)’s regime, cultural symbols related to Buddhism, such as the Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal and Green Garden, were erected in public spaces, but there was still hesitation in suggesting religious conversion as an alternative to fight the battle for social justice. Even in States where the Scheduled Caste population is relatively high, such as in Punjab, West Bengal and Odisha, Dalits have shown restraint in adopting Buddhism to challenge their social location.

Importantly, India’s neighbouring Buddhist countries also have not identified neo-Buddhists as significant partners in their theological engagements. Several Buddhist countries have built their own pagodas and temples in Bodh Gaya and are more concerned with adding new sites in India’s Buddhist Circuit. Certain individuals and Buddhist associations from Japan, Thailand and the U.K. have established some close links with the neo-Buddhists of Maharashtra, but this is small support.

Appropriation by the right wing

Interestingly, it is the Narendra Modi-led government at the Centre that has often presented itself as the promoter of Buddhist cultural heritage at the national and international levels. In overseas diplomatic gatherings, Mr. Modi has frequently invoked India’s ancient Buddhist identity, especially in China, Nepal, Myanmar and Japan. Mr. Modi has made a conscious effort to emphasise shared Buddhist heritage with these countries. He also visited Deekshabhoomi in 2017, paid rich tributes to Ambedkar and announced multiple developmental projects. It is his government that proposed a Buddhist Circuit.

Theoretically, the neo-Buddhist movement is seen as an ideological and intellectual challenge to the dominant social and political ideas of the ruling elites. Interestingly, within the Hindutva discourse, Buddhism has been appropriated as an integral part of greater ‘Indic Civilization’ and the Buddhist conversion movement has not been seen as antithetical to the Hindu cultural pantheon. Further, Hindutva forces, using assertive cultural strategies, overtly appropriate crucial Dalit-Bahujan icons and underplay the fierce ideological antagonism that the early Dalit movement had against the Hindu social order.

When right-wing forces are asserting their Hindu identity to build a monolithic majoritarian community, a popular deliberation on Ambedkar’s logic of conversion to Buddhism would have helped the Opposition, including the popular Dalit political class, to challenge such hegemonic appropriation. Independent cultural and religious strategies are crucial in building a challenge to the dominant narrative of Hindutva.

However, the current Opposition lacks effective cultural strategies to challenge right-wing assertion. Instead, it still uses the same old formal electoral strategies, as we are seeing in Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s current Bharat Jodo Yatra. In this context, revisiting the ideals of Ambedkar’s neo-Buddhist movement can be helpful in building fierce ideological challenges to Hindutva’s understanding of history and culture.

5. Editorial-3: Slow lane driving

The World Bank has warned India’s uneven recovery could soon falter

At the onset of 2022-23, the Indian economy was expected to grow anywhere between 7.2%, as per Reserve Bank of India projections, and 8.2%, as per the International Monetary Fund forecast, with major rating agencies and financial institutions pegging their projections in the middle. Having bounced back 8.7% last year from a COVID-triggered nadir, the moderation in economic growth was not a big deal even as the ripple effects of the war in Europe had begun and inflation had been high since January. By early September, the range of most forecasts shifted to 6.7%-7.7%. The RBI, Asian Development Bank, and Fitch Ratings have lowered their estimate to 7%. S&P Global Ratings retained its forecast at 7.3% and Moody’s Investors Service pared it to 7.6%, but both believe the emerging global slowdown will not derail the post-COVID recovery. The outlook is not so benign any more, the World Bank has suggested, based on inputs as recent as the last week of September. From its initial expectation of 8% growth this year, which it cut to 7.5% in June, the Bank has laid out a gloomier outlook with growth of just 6.5%, citing the worsening external environment.

After the 13.5% expansion in the April-June quarter, high-frequency economic indicators point to a healthy uptick through August. But growth appears to have stumbled a bit in September with goods exports contracting for the first time since February 2021 and imports growth also slowing sharply, signalling lower domestic demand. The Bank’s latest forecast suggests a relative slowdown starting in the October-December quarter, with tighter global liquidity, higher inflation (oil prices are surging again after the OPEC meet) and rising interest rates denting domestic demand. At the same time, the demand for exports will shrink further and private investment will likely prefer to sit out this period of heightened uncertainty. Private consumption, in particular, will be affected this year and next, the Bank has reckoned, especially as the pandemic’s scars on income and employment levels persist for rural and low-income households. As many as 56 million Indians may have slipped below the poverty line in 2020, it estimated. The government has been gung-ho about “entering an era of robust growth”, but its decision to extend the pandemic-driven free foodgrains programme suggests it realises that not all actors of the economy have managed to get out of the woods yet. This realism should be reflected in other policy choices it makes too, tempering optimism with caution.

6. Editorial-4: A synthetic click

The chemistry awards show that it pays to rethink the fundamentals

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry has been awarded to Carolyn Bertozzi, Morten Meldal and Barry Sharpless, the last of whom features in a group of only five to have won the Prize twice. The three chemists have been awarded for pioneering ‘click chemistry’ or getting molecules that wouldn’t normally bond together to do so in an efficient and uncomplicated manner. The ‘click’ comes from an analogy Sharpless drew of molecules snapping together, like airline seatbelts fitting into their buckles. Historically, chemistry has sought to imitate nature. From medicine to fertilizer, the chemist has sought to make synthetic products that mimic natural molecules. The artificial synthesis of indigo, instead of extraction from plants, had disastrous consequences for colonial India’s economy. On the other hand, several molecules have been synthesised in ingenious ways to create drugs and medicines to kill bacteria and relieve pain. The flip side is that these processes are likely laborious, can create unwanted by-products, many toxic. Often, the number of intermediary steps is so great and complicated that the desired result is usually too expensive to be useful.

Sharpless began the conversation, almost immediately after winning his first Nobel Prize, of creating molecular building blocks — like Lego blocks — that could snap together quickly and efficiently. The first breakthrough came when Meldal and Sharpless, independently of each other, discovered what has become the foundational stone of click chemistry, namely the copper catalysed azide-alkyne cycloaddition. Two kinds of chemicals — azides and alkynes — react very efficiently when copper ions are added, Meldal discovered in his Copenhagen laboratory, and form a very stable structure called a triazole. Previous attempts to join azides and alkynes were cumbersome, but the trick this time was copper. From then on, if chemists wanted to link two different molecules, all that was required was to introduce an azide in one molecule and an alkyne in the other. They then snapped the molecules together with the help of some copper ions. This has now become an industry standard. However, Bertozzi took click chemistry to a new dimension and showed that it could be used in living organisms. Copper is toxic to living cells, but she figured out a way to produce a copper-free click reaction, called the strain-promoted azide-alkyne cycloaddition, and showed it could be used to treat tumours. The awards demonstrate that it pays to rethink the fundamentals of a field and persevere at it for long enough to spark a revolution.

7. Editorial-5: Where the stars must not twinkle

Clean skies, high altitude and complete darkness are vital for India’s cutting-edge astronomical observatory in Ladakh’s Hanle village. Jacob Koshy reports on the challenges in having it declared an International Dark Sky Reserve, and the efforts to make residents stakeholders in the process

Srinivasa Ramanujan was ‘discovered’ twice in the 20th century. The first was when English mathematician G.H. Hardy ‘discovered’ the genius mathematician in 1914; and the second was when Indian astronomers in India, led by R. Rajamohan, discovered an asteroid that was later named 4130 Ramanujan. It was the first time in 104 years that asteroids were discovered from India. Their instrument, the 45-cm Schmidt telescope, was housed on the Javadi hills in Kavalur, Tamil Nadu.

This spot is today the Vainu Bappu Observatory and is run by the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bengaluru, and is among India’s foremost observatories. It was chosen in the 1960s because it was an impressive 750 metres above sea level, located amid a forest and offered fairly unobstructed vistas of the night sky.

But this wasn’t ideal. Kavalur’s geography put it in the path of both monsoonal clouds, during June-September and the returning, or northeast, monsoon in November, forcing the observatory to often shut down for months. Rainclouds absorb starlight and radiation from cosmic objects, preventing them from being caught on the telescopes of cameras. So IIA scientists began their search in the early 1980s for a place least affected by the monsoon.

To be able to detect stars or traces of cosmic phenomena, such as supernovae or nebulae from light years away, astronomers must be able to catch the faintest slivers of their radiation that often lie outside the range of visible light. Such radiation is, however, easily absorbed by water vapour and so it helps to have a telescope high above ground where the atmosphere is drier. “A dry, high-altitude desert is in many ways the ideal location,” says Annapurni Subramaniam, Director of the IIA. “Such terrain is difficult and quite inaccessible. We commissioned several expeditions and teams to different parts of the Himalayas and finally Hanle, Ladakh was chosen.”

In the high ranges of Ladakh

A largely smooth double-lane highway from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, to Hanle cuts through a valley scooped out of the mountains of the Ladakh range and the teal-coloured Indus. Army units and border check-posts punctuate the landscape that opens out into the Changthang Wildlife Sanctuary, where you can spot the occasional herd of the Tibetan wild ass and swarms of leaf warblers. As the road ascends, a smattering of hamlets, surrounded by pasture land, comes into view with herds of Changthangi sheep, the source of pashmina wool.

Situated at 14,000 ft above sea level and a little over 250 km southeast of Leh, Hanle is a village of about 320 houses and a population of about 1,500, according to Paljor Therchin, the sarpanch of Hanle.

Against the backdrop of a blue sky flecked with cottony clouds, two huge metallic capsules — one higher than the other — incongruously rise out of the hills. Next to them, satellite dishes, like ushers, point to the sky. From here, a tarred road spirals down about 900 ft to flat land where makeshift cabins and a small building serve as ancillaries to a giant, parabolic dish that is a complex of a thousand mirrors bathed white in sunlight, resting on criss-crossing steel frames of red and blue. Men, some perched, some dangling on the beams, weave out of the meshes of this honeycomb structure.

Facing this are what look like seven concrete cannons, one in the centre and six surrounding it. Each has seven mirrors that together resemble a robot-contingent of photographers training their apertures at some uncertain blink-and-you-will-miss cosmic event.

This entire set-up, laid out on the mountain called Digpa-Ratsa Ri, aka Mt Saraswati, comprises the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO). The multicoloured dish is the Major Atmospheric Cherenkov Experiment Telescope (MACE) built by a consortium of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Electronics Corporation of India Ltd. and the IIA. The dish, with a diameter of 21 m, is the second largest of its kind in the world and the only one at such an elevation. Its goal is to detect Cherenkov radiation from space.

This is a special kind of light from gamma rays, or the most energetic sources of radiation, that can result from dying stars or several galactic events. The seven-telescope contingent, called HAGAR (High Altitude Gamma Ray), also looks at Cherenkov radiation, although at a lower range of energies. The metallic capsule, the highest of the observatories, is the Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT), the oldest and active since 2000. An optical-infrared telescope with a 2-metre lens is designed to detect light from the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum as well as that just below it, or the infra-red spectrum. The second capsule, situated slightly lower than the HCT, is the GROWTH-India telescope, a 70-cm telescope made by IIA and the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai that is equipped to track cosmic events that unfurl over time, such as afterglows of a gamma ray burst or tracking the path of asteroids. Because of the wide span of frequencies covered collectively, the IAO provides multiple vantage points to observe a range of cosmic phenomena and investigate the mysteries of the universe. Telescopes with small diameters generally can track a greater swath of sky but those with larger diameters can peer deeper when trained towards desired locations.

The flip-side of Hanle’s seclusion, making it ideal for astronomy, is the weather and climate. The altitude means that atmospheric oxygen is low, making one prone to mountain sickness.

Among the recommended paraphernalia on a trip to Hanle are cans of oxygen cylinders. The desiccated air that helps the telescope catch ephemeral interstellar light translates to sub-zero winters for at least six months of the year. The summer months from April to September have cold, windy nights, and with no access to the electric grid, the eager stargazer must brave runny noses and chills.

The IAO telescopes, however, can be controlled remotely via a satellite link. Whatever the weather, astronomers at the IIA’s Centre for Research and Education in Science and Technology (CREST), about 35 km from Bengaluru, can manoeuvre the HCT to face their desired spot of sky. The other instruments too are equipped to be remotely controlled. While the HCT is manned 24/7, those on site are required only for maintenance and not for using the telescopes. Researchers who want a shot at using the instruments must apply, in fact compete, for observation time made available in quarterly slots; the applications are scrutinised by scientific committees.

“The available time is over-subscribed three times. Every astronomer, even when they have their own telescopes, applies to use these because of the quality of sky and the large number of viewable nights that the telescopes offer. It is their bread and butter,” says Subramaniam.

In recent years, these telescopes have helped gain a better understanding of a system of Earth-sized planets orbiting the TRAPPIST-1 star, about 40 light years away from Earth, as well as gravitational waves that resulted from the collision of neutron stars from a billion years ago, she adds.

The play of light and dark 

While these sophisticated instruments and their images are manipulated by scientists, all that novice visitors have to do to realise they are in a special place is look up at the night sky. At least 300 nights a year, the clouds would have been swept away, and the vista looks as if some invisible, giant being had kicked up a sandstorm of stars. Contrary to the thumb rule that ‘the lights that twinkle are stars, those that don’t are planets’, the sky is studded with unblinking lights.

Twinkling stars imply starlight is being bounced around by atmospheric gases, dust and water vapour, and therefore obscuring to us on land its origins. At Hanle, the thinner air and the elevation means starlight is relatively unimpeded until it descends into the lower, more polluted stretches below.

“You don’t need your phone’s flashlight to navigate here. Close your eyes, clear out the artificial light, absorb the darkness, and open them. You’ll see everything,” says Dorje Angchuk. As chief engineer at IIA, Angchuk, a native of Leh and the person in-charge of the HCT systems, has made countless trips to Hanle in the last quarter century and been closely involved in the installation of IAO telescopes.

In the last couple of years, he has curated an avidly-followed Twitter stream of night-sky photographs of Hanle. Over the last several months, particularly since Ladakh was marked out as a distinct Union Territory from Jammu and Kashmir, he has been in the thick of a project that will shape the future of Hanle.

Dark Sky Reserve 

“Light is the enemy,” says Pawan Kotwal, Principal Secretary in the Ladakh Administration, referring to the phenomenon of light pollution in which artificial light from cities and home electrification have obscured the natural night sky. Recent studies show that clouds, the biggest reflectors of sunlight, scatter artificial light from ground-based sources, amplifying light pollution.

For astronomy, a discipline that hinges on the wisps of light, artificial sources of light are contaminants. Thubstan Rinchen, the officer in charge of MACE, said in an IIA-commissioned documentary that light from, say, the high beam of a vehicle at night would flood the sensors of the telescope. Separating this light from that collected as part of experiments is a cumbersome process and results in loss of scientific data.

Hanle, as it currently stands, is largely shrouded in darkness. Disconnected from the electric grid, solar panels and a diesel generator are the only sources of electricity. Hanle only gets electricity from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. The freezing months, says Padma Lazo, who runs a homestay here, can see temperatures dip to minus 40°C, though cookstoves and dung provide heat. “We don’t need electricity all the time but better jobs and schools for our children would be welcome.”

Ladakh’s recent Union Territory status, a government eager to expand economic opportunities via tourism and the Indian Army expanding its infrastructure development, lighting to bolster its defence at the India-China border which is not far away — all these are challenges in keeping light from seeping into Hanle.

To strike a balance, the Ladakh government along with the IIA and India’s Scientific Ministries is laying the groundwork to have Hanle declared as an International Dark Sky Reserve by the International Dark-Sky Association. Since 1988, the U.S.-based non-profit has been advocating the cause of minimising light pollution and certifies places where night skies are least polluted as International Dark Sky Reserves or sanctuaries.

“The average tourist visits for high roads, exotic landscape, and the Pangong Lake. Hanle is already in a wildlife sanctuary and developing it as such a reserve would encourage a newer kind of tourism, or astro-tourism,” says Kotwal. “The most important condition, however, is that it must have the support of the local community.”

In the weeks ahead, amateur and professional astronomers have been roped in by the IIA and the local government to give talks on constellations to villagers. As many as 18 telescopes will be set up in village clusters, and homestay owners trained in elementary astronomy to guide astro-tourists. Villagers will also be given dark curtains to minimise outgoing light from residences. The roads will be installed with light delineators.

Having been promised electrification in two years and funds from the government to improve their homes to homestays, residents of the village say they would be happy to comply with light restrictions. “That’s not a problem for us. However, more than residential lights, it’s the light from Army bases that are actually stronger. That should be managed too,” says Therchin, who is also a religious head at a nearby monastery.

Kotwal and Angchuk say Commanding Officers of the units have “readily agreed to comply”.

“We have a long-standing relationship with the community and they were involved in construction of the existing facilities,” says Subramaniam.

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