1. The search for dark matter
What are distance scales? How do they help in proving the existence of dark matter?
Dark matter is made up of particles that do not have a charge. So, these particles are “dark”, namely because they do not emit light, which is an electromagnetic phenomenon, and “matter” because they possess mass like normal matter and interact through gravity.
There is strong indirect evidence for dark matter, and this evidence is reflected at various levels (or distance scales, as physicists would explain).
As of today, the most sensitive dark matter detector experiment in the world is LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) in South Dakota in the U.S.
The story so far: Many physicists strongly believe that the entire visible part of the universe forms only 5% of all matter in it. They believe the rest is made up of dark matter and dark energy. Once this was convincingly demonstrated through various indirect observations and calculations, experiments started being set up to hunt for these elusive particles. The latest to hit the news in the field of dark matter is a dark matter detector experiment named LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ) in South Dakota in the U.S. As of today this is the most sensitive dark matter detector in the world. To give an idea of the degree of difficulty in measuring evidence of a dark particle, it is said that the chamber of this LZ detector, can contain only one gram of dust if it is to detect a dark matter particle. This is the extent to which researchers have to go to rule out unwanted signals coming from other entities.
What is dark matter and why is it so elusive?
All interactions in the universe are a result of four fundamental forces acting on particles — strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force and gravitation. Dark matter is made up of particles that do not have a charge — which means they do not interact through electromagnetic interactions. So, these are particles that are “dark”, namely because they do not emit light, which is an electromagnetic phenomenon, and “matter” because they possess mass like normal matter and hence interact through gravity.
Gravitational force, besides not being fully integrated and understood by particle physicists, is extremely weak. For one thing, a particle that interacts so weakly becomes rather elusive to detect. This is because interactions from other known particles could drown out signals of dark matter particles.
If we cannot see it and have not detected it yet, why do physicists believe strongly that dark matter exists?
There is strong indirect evidence for dark matter, and this evidence is reflected at various levels (or distance scales, as physicists would explain). At the shortest distance scale, consider the rotation of galaxies. If you look at stars all the way from the centre of any galaxy to its rim, the way the velocities of the observed stars change may be plotted. In the lab this same function may be plotted on a graph by assuming the visible matter is all that exists. There is a marked difference between the observed plot of star speeds and the calculated value as you move from the inner part of the galaxy towards its rim. Now if you assume there is a certain fraction of matter which exerts a gravitational pull on the rest of the stars in the galaxy, for it cannot be seen in any other way, and recalculate the plot, it fits in with the observed value. This means that there is a definite amount of dark matter in the galaxy.
One may argue that it is the model that is at fault and there is some other way to reconcile this discrepancy between the calculated and observed value of velocities in rotating galaxies. This is where evidence from other distance scales comes up.
What are the evidences from other distance scales?
The universe can be observed at various levels — at the level of electrons and nuclei or atoms, or galaxies, or galaxy clusters, or even larger distances where the entire universe can be mapped and studied. Cosmologists, people who study the physics of the universe, typically work in the last mentioned three scales, and particle physicists study the lowest and even smaller scales.
In this context, the second evidence came from observations of the so-called Bullet cluster of galaxies. The Bullet cluster is formed through the merging of two galaxy clusters. Physicists found from their calculations that the way these mergers took place could not be fully explained if we believed that the visible universe were all that existed. Therefore, there should be something like dark matter as well as an estimate of how much dark matter there should be in the universe.
Similar arguments exist from mappings of the universe such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and studies of the filamentous nature of the universe at a closer look. While fixing the model could help explain away one of these discrepancies, not all of them can be explained in the same manner. Hence physicists now take the concept of dark matter very seriously.
What are the candidates for dark matter particles?
“The neutrino would have been an excellent candidate if it had been more massive,” says Shrihari Gopalakrishna of The Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, who has worked on the theory of dark matter. However, being too light, it doesn’t fit the bill. Other postulated entities include the supersymmetric partner of the Z boson, a particle that mediates the electro-weak interaction. Yet other explanations talk about “hidden sector particles” and Axions, a boson and a condensate of dark matter. There are many other theories.
The search is on to find one of these candidates, for the story is one that spins together gravity, supersymmetry, hidden worlds and is the stuff of which science fiction is made.
2. The new guidelines to prevent unfair trade practices
Why has the Central Consumer Protection Authority issued new guidelines? How do they protect consumer interests?
On July 4, the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) announced five key guidelines to prevent unfair trade practices regarding the levy of service charges in hotels and restaurants.
Service charge is a fee collected to pay for services associated with the purchase of a primary product or service. It is collected by hospitality sectors and food and beverage industries as a fee for serving customers.
If any consumer finds that a hotel or restaurant is levying a service charge in violation of these guidelines, they may lodge a complaint on the NCH by calling 1915 or through the NCH mobile app. A complaint may also be filed through edaakhil.nic.in. for effective redressal.
G.S. Bajpai Mehak Bajpai Sangeeta Tak
The story so far: On July 4, the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) announced five guidelines to prevent unfair trade practices and to protect consumer interests regarding the levy of service charges in hotels and restaurants. The guidelines are in addition to the Centre’s 2017 guidelines which prohibit the levy of service charges on consumers by hotels and restaurants, and terms the charging for anything other than “the prices displayed on the menu card along with the applicable taxes” without “express consent” of the customer as “unfair trade practices”.
What are the powers of the CCPA?
The CCPA has been established to regulate matters related to the violation of the rights of consumers. Under the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), 2019, the authority was established to regulate violations of consumer rights, unfair trade practices, and false or misleading advertisements that are prejudicial to the interest of the public.
The CCPA has authority under section 18 of the CPA, 2019 to protect, promote and most importantly enforce the rights of the consumers and prevent violation of their rights under the Act. It also seeks to ensure that no person engages in unfair trade practices. It is also empowered to issue guidelines to enforce the rights of the consumers laid down in the Act. The authority has issued a letter to the Chief Secretaries of the States on service charge imposition, asking them to ensure compliance with the new guidelines on service charges. It has also been said that the State should instruct all the district magistrates to take appropriate action against violations of the guideline.
What is a service charge?
A service charge is a tip or a direct transaction between the customer and the restaurant staff, specifically the wait staff. It is a fee collected to pay for services associated with the purchase of a primary product or service. It is collected by hospitality sectors and food and beverage industries as a fee for serving customers.
What do the new guidelines specify?
As per the new guidelines, hotels or restaurants are prohibited from levying extra charges automatically or by default in the bill or by any other name. Also, they are not allowed to force service charges, and must clearly inform the consumers that service charges are voluntary, optional, and at their discretion. Most importantly, hotels and restaurants are no longer allowed to restrict entry or services based on the collection of service charges. Furthermore, hotels cannot add service charges to their bills and charge GST on the total.
The point here is that any tip, donation, token, gratuity, etc., is no longer permitted to be charged and shall be considered as a separate transaction between the consumer and the staff of the hotel and restaurant. It is entirely up to the consumer to decide whether or not to tip. If a consumer enters a restaurant or orders something, the restaurant policy cannot require them to tip. Therefore, consumers cannot be forced to pay a service charge without having the choice to decide whether they want to do so.
Why were new guidelines issued?
The CCPA has taken cognisance of various grievances that were registered on the National Consumer Helpline (NCH) related to the unnecessary levying of service charges in the bill. Usually, this charge is levied in addition to the total price of the food items mentioned on the menu and applicable taxes, often in the guise of some other fee. The said guidelines now consider charging a customer other than the price of food items displayed on the menu along with applicable taxes, as an ‘unfair trade practice’ under the CPA.
In general, the price of any product covers both the cost of the product and the cost of the service. This implies that the price of food and beverages served in the hotels and restaurants includes the price of the ‘service’. There is no restriction on hotels or restaurants to set the prices at which they want to offer food or beverages to consumers. Placing an order involves consent to pay only the prices of food items displayed on the menu along with applicable taxes. Charging anything other than the said amount would amount to ‘unfair trade practice’ under the Act.
What are the redressal mechanisms?
If any consumer finds that a hotel or restaurant is levying a service charge in violation of these guidelines, they may request the concerned hotel or restaurant to remove the service charge from the bill or may lodge a complaint on the NCH, which works as an alternate dispute redressal mechanism at the pre-litigation level by calling 1915 or through the NCH mobile app. A complaint may also be filed against unfair trade practice with the Consumer Commission electronically through edaakhil.nic.in. for its speedy and effective redressal.
As a result of these new guidelines, consumers will no longer be subject to involuntary payments under the heading of ‘service tax’. However, it will be interesting to observe the effective compliance of these guidelines by restaurants since levying a service charge has become an ‘accepted trade practice’ in India.
3. Failing the forest
Both human and wildlife rights groups have not used the Forest Rights Act as a conservation tool
There is a sharp binary between the human rights and wildlife rights-based groups. The wildlife groups argue that implementation of the FRA could lead to ‘encroachments’ and fresh clearance of forestland for human dwellings. The human rights groups have argued that the FRA was passed by Parliament and is aimed at correcting historical injustices to traditional forest dwellers.
The first myth that needs to be busted for the wildlife lobby is that when a right is recognised of a forest dweller/Adivasi on a piece of land, it doesn’t mean that he/she will cut down all the trees in that area. Recognising rights on forestland is not the same as clear-felling that forest.
Both groups have been so locked in ideological debates that they have failed to protect the forest. The FRA was meant for forest dwellers, but it could have also been a powerful tool for conservation.
On June 28, the Environment Ministry notified the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022 under the Forest (Conservation) Act to replace the earlier rules. Rajya Sabha member and Congress politician Jairam Ramesh lashed out against the Centre stating that the government is trying to dilute the Forest Rights Act, 2006 with the new conservation rules. Union Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav clarified that the new rules “do not dilute or infringe on” the provisions of the FRA. But has the FRA ever been a tool for forest conservation? In this article dated March 4, 2019, Bahar Dutt explains how the FRA has mostly been used as a weapon by NGO lobbyists to evict/retain forest dwellers.
On February 13, the Supreme Court ordered the eviction of more than 10 lakh Adivasis and other forest dwellers from forestland across 17 States. The petitioners, mainly wildlife NGOs, had demanded that State governments evict those forest dwellers whose claims over traditional forestland under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, known simply as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), had been rejected. On February 28, the court stayed its controversial order and asked the States to submit details on how the claims of the dwellers were decided and the authorities competent to pass final rejection orders.
While the Supreme Court has now made it clear that there will be no forcible eviction, what the order has succeeded in doing is resuscitating a sharp binary between the human rights- and wildlife rights-based groups that have for decades tried to swing public opinion in their favour.
The wildlife groups who went to court argue that implementation of the FRA could lead to ‘encroachments’ and fresh clearance of forestland for human dwellings.
The human rights groups have argued that the FRA was passed by Parliament and is aimed at correcting historical injustices to traditional forest dwellers who, since colonial times, have been subject to a cycle of evictions.
Since colonial times, as governments asserted their control over forests, India’s forest history has become a cycle of evictions from forestland and rebellions by forest dwellers.
A fundamental difference
Now, here’s the problem. Both groups have been so locked in ideological debates — whether in the courtroom or on social media — that they have failed to protect what could potentially have been beneficial to their respective interest groups: the forest. The FRA was meant for forest dwellers, but it could have also been a powerful tool for conservation. Sadly, both sides have propagated misinformation to garner support for themselves.
The first myth that needs to be busted for the wildlife lobby is that when a right is recognised of a forest dweller/Adivasi on a piece of land, it doesn’t mean that he/she will cut down all the trees in that area. This is often the strongest note of dissonance between the two groups — the implication that recognising rights on forestland is the same as clear-felling that forest. Therefore, to argue that the rights of millions of forest dwellers have been recognised through the Act does not mean that the forest is a pie to be divided. On the other hand, when forestland is ‘diverted’ for big development projects, like mining or highways or roads, it is actually clear felled or submerged. If this fundamental difference between ‘recognition of rights’ and ‘diversion’ were accepted, the groups at loggerheads would in fact find grounds for commonality.
It is in fact the Supreme Court that paved the way for this commonality in 2013 when it asked the gram sabhas to take a decision on whether the Vedanta group’s $1.7 billion bauxite mining project in Odisha’s Niyamgiri Hills could go forward or not. It thus affirmed the decision-making power of the village councils of Rayagada and Kalahandi under the FRA. All 12 gram sabhas unanimously rejected mining in the hills.
Again, in 2016, it was the FRA that was invoked by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) when the people of Lippa in Himachal Pradesh were given the powers to decide whether or not they wanted a hydel power project in this area. The project would have led to submergence of forestland and also caused heavy siltation in the river.
When wildlife groups point towards the thousands of ‘bogus claims’ that are being filed and that should be rejected, what should not go unnoticed is that the state in fact is not always keen to recognise the rights of people in forest areas (even if it may get them votes) as it becomes tough to ‘divert’ land for big projects. A case in point is the Mapithel Dam that is under construction in Manipur. Once commissioned, it will submerge 1,215 hectares (ha) of land, 595 ha of which are under forest cover. In 2015, the NGT had asked for the state to seek forest clearance for the project. To obtain forest clearance, the State government would have to prove that the rights of the tribal people and forest dwellers would not be affected. However, the State government refused to recognise the rights of the people living there since it was keen to construct the dam.
There have been hundreds of cases that offered both these divergent groups the opportunity to come together for the cause of the environment and communities. Can the two groups put down their metaphoric swords and use their powers to fight the battle that needs to be fought?
Correcting historical injustice
Likewise, could not the same wildlife NGOs which filed this petition in the Supreme Court have joined hands with the local communities and used the FRA to challenge big development projects coming up on forestland instead? Human rights groups too cannot be absolved of blame. Most of them have been quick to respond when the judiciary steps in, but have been missing when it comes to the tedious groundwork of working with the gram sabhas and ensuring that genuine claims are filed. The same human rights groups did not come forward to fight cases that could have helped conservation as well as the people who live in those areas. Both groups have failed the forest. There is a chance to correct the historical injustice has been inflicted on the people and to India’s forests. And it is through the FRA that India can achieve that aim.
4. Editorial-1: The scam faultline is damaging Indian banking
More steps to prevent frauds are needed which include tightening the internal and external audit systems of banks
The biggest banking scam in India has come to the forefront in the midst of celebrations of ‘Aazadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’; in this case, Dewan Housing Finance Corporation Limited (DHFL) has hoodwinked a consortium of banks driven by the Union Bank of India to the tune of ₹35,000 crore through financial misrepresentation. The DHFL case was not an isolated case. In February this year, ABG Shipyard Limited of Surat had already taken a loan of about ₹23,000 crore in a fake manner.
Taking a hit
On February 1, 2019, a consortium of banks had held a meeting to take cognisance of the serious allegations of loan repayment default against the DHFL. Subsequently, a core committee of seven of the largest banks — the State Bank of India (SBI), the Bank of Baroda (BoB), the Bank of India, Canara Bank, the Central Bank of India, Syndicate Bank and the Union Bank of India (UBI) — was formed. KPMG (a ‘global network of professional firms providing audit, tax and advisory services’) was roped in as the evaluator to lead a unique survey review of the DHFL for the period April 1, 2015-March 31, 2019.
The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), in its first information report, has shown that the State Bank of India was the most badly hit with a non-performing asset (NPA) base of ₹9,898 crore the very sum the DHFL acquired from it. Essentially, the Bank of India and Canara Bank have been plundered to the tune of more than ₹4,000 crore each by the DHFL. Also, more than ₹3,000 crore each has been supposedly cleaned up by the DHFL from the Union Bank of India and the Punjab National Bank.
The banking system of any country is the backbone of its economy. Excessive losses to banks affect every person in the country because the amounts deposited in banks belong to the citizens of the country. The NPAs that banks incur are mainly due to bad loans and scams.
Data by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) show that around 34% of scams in the banking industry are on account of inside work and due to poor lending practices by and the involvement of the junior and mid-level management. The data by the RBI also show that one of the fundamental problems in the way of the development of banking in India is on account of rising bank scams and the costs consequently forced on the framework. Strangely, as in a Global Banking Fraud survey (KPMG), the issue is not just for India alone; it is a worldwide issue.
An NPA projection, a list
In a Financial Stability Report released by the RBI in December 2021, there is a projection of the gross NPAs of banks rising from 6.9% in September 2021 to 8.1% of total assets by September 2022 (under a baseline scenario) and to 9.5% under a severe stress scenario. Frauds in the banking industry can be grouped under four classifications: ‘Management’, ‘Outsider’, ‘Insider’ and ‘Insider and Outsider’ (jointly). All scams, whether interior or outside, are results of operational failures. Research by Deloitte has shown that limited asset monitoring after disbursement (38%) was the foremost reason behind stressed assets and insufficient due diligence before disbursement (21%) was among the major factors for these NPAs.
There are news reports every few weeks of some fresh/new bank scam or the other which is breaking the trust of the common man in the banking system. There are many examples of bank scams: the Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi scam involving the Punjab National Bank (₹11,400 crore), the case of businessman Vijay Mallya (₹9,000 crore) involving nearly 13 banks, the Andhra Bank fraud (₹8,100 crore), the PMC scam (₹4,355 crore), the Rotomac Pen scam (₹3,695 crore), the Videocon case (₹3,250 crore), the Allahabad Bank fraud (₹1,775 crore), the Syndicate Bank scam (₹1,000 crore), the Bank of Maharashtra scam (₹836 crore), the Kanishk Gold Bank fraud (₹824 crore), the IDBI Bank fraud (₹600 crore), and the R.P. Info Systems Bank scam (₹515 crore) to name just a few.
A high NPA also reduces the net interest margin of banks besides increasing their operating cost; these banks meet this cost by increasing the convenience fee from their small customers on a day-to-day basis.
According to the RBI data, corporate loans account for nearly 70% of these bad loans, while retail loans, which include car loans, home loans and personal loans, account for only 4%. A study by the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore has shown that poor bank corporate governance is the cause behind rising bank scams and NPAs.
Steps that need consideration
Over time, bad loans lead to higher NPAs. So, banks have to exercise due diligence and caution while offering funds. The regulation and the control of chartered accountants is a very important step to reduce non-performing assets of banks. Banks should be cautious while lending to Indian companies that have taken huge loans abroad. There is also an urgent need to tighten the internal and external audit systems of banks.
The fast rotation of employees of a bank’s loan department is very important. Public sector banks should set up an internal rating agency for rigorous evaluation of large projects before sanctioning loans. Further, there is a need to implement an effective Management Information System (MIS) to monitor early warning signals about business projects. The CIBIL score of the borrower (formerly the Credit Information Bureau (India) Limited) should be evaluated by the bank concerned and RBI officials. This must also include the classification and responsibilities of the lending and recovery departments.
Financial fraud can be reduced to a great extent by the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor financial transactions. However, the adoption of digitisation beyond a point may have limits as AI provides quantitative information but does not take into account the qualitative aspects.
While the Government of India and the RBI have taken several measures to try and resolve the issue of scams in the banking industry, the fact is that there is still a long way to go. Rather than having to continuously write off the bad loans of large corporates, India has to improve its loan recovery processes and establish an early warning system in the post-disbursement phase. Banks need to carry out fraud risk assessments every quarter.
Only establishment of National Asset Reconstruction Company Ltd. (NARCL) or the ‘bad bank’ is not a real solution. These measures can help only after a loan is bad but not the process of a loan going bad.
5. Editorial-2: Safety in the sky
The DGCA should have no tolerance for laxity among airlines seeking to cut corners
Bird hits, cracked windshields, component failures, engine compressor surges and blade failures, flight deck indicator and system-related warnings, flight diversions, mid-air engine shutdowns, pressurisation problems, and a case of severe turbulence in the monsoon — these aviation-related occurrences in Indian skies in recent months, reaching a crest over the last 30 days, with most of them affecting one airline, have raised concerns about air passenger safety. In its ‘show cause notice’ issued recently to SpiceJet, the carrier in focus, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has highlighted some of the reported events. In its tersely worded observations on the low-cost airline’s operations — a fleet of narrowbody jets and turboprops — the aviation regulator has pointed to a ‘degradation of safety margins’, and touched on ‘poor internal oversight’ and ‘inadequate maintenance actions’. Further, the DGCA has added, a financial assessment (September 2021) could point to a shortage of spares and, therefore, the ‘invocation’ of flying with a minimum equipment list. In its initial response, the airline management has put forward a defence of being an IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) air carrier. And, second, given the scale of flight operations in India — according to Ministry of Civil Aviation data, there were 5,268 aircraft movements in the domestic sector, on July 10 — such incidents are not an aberration. It has even cited an average of 30 such episodes a day, which some official sources have backed, though feebly.
The metric is problematic — even aviation experts concur on this. There is no comparison with a global standard, or even a category breakup. Even worse, and dangerous, is not having the acknowledged root causes addressed. In the DGCA’s Annual Safety Review 2020, edition V, for example, under ‘Deficient maintenance’ (the objective is to improve the maintenance of Indian registered aircraft), for a target of 2.16 for incidents involving component/system failure per 10,000 flight hours, the achieved performance is 2.39. Similarly, under the number of maintenance errors per 10,000 flight hours, for a target of 1.43, the performance is 1.46. Repeated snags are a red flag, pointing to faults in the safety oversight system. In an ideal ecosystem, issues with safety would be analysed in terms of the rate of occurrence using tiered categorisation, with the goal of reduction to the minimum level. Troublesome too is how an airline continues its operations despite a ‘show-cause notice’ and during the monsoon. With passenger numbers climbing back to pre-COVID-19 levels, the entry of new airlines, the existing players indicating aggressive fleet expansion plans, and an international safety audit that is happening once too often for India, the regulator needs to be nimble and more vigilant. The industry watchword — safety — cannot be glossed over.
6. Editorial-3: Far apart
China seems to want to test India’s resolve to sustain its forward deployments
The July 7 meeting between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the G20 Foreign Ministers’ meet in Bali, served as a reminder of the curious state of affairs in India’s relations with China. That the two Ministers had their second meeting in four months — Mr. Wang was in New Delhi in March — indicates both sides see value in continued engagement and remain dissatisfied with the current low level of relations. The problem, however, is that the commonalities appear to end there. Mr. Jaishankar reiterated India’s stand, conveyed to China on numerous occasions since the start of the LAC tensions in 2020, that normalcy would not be possible without a resolution of the boundary crisis and full disengagement from all friction areas. The MEA said the External Affairs Minister called for an early resolution of all outstanding issues, and reiterated the need to sustain the momentum to complete disengagement from all the remaining areas.
It is, however, clear that Beijing does not appear to share that view. On the contrary, recent actions suggest Beijing has no desire to resolve the row immediately, which India reasonably sees as a prerequisite for restoring normalcy in relations. Indeed, the official Chinese readout of the Bali talks failed to make a single mention of the LAC crisis, suggesting it is not a priority for Beijing. Instead, it emphasised Beijing’s current interest in engaging with India on multilateral groupings such as BRICS and the SCO, which China and Russia see as valuable platforms to counter the West, and to promote, as Mr. Wang put it, “a fairer international order”. The Chinese military, meanwhile, has dragged its feet in responding with dates for the 16th round of military talks, marking the longest pause since the talks began. At the last round, that was held as long as four months ago on March 11, both sides failed to achieve a breakthrough to disengage at Patrolling Point 15 in Hot Springs. Depsang and Demchok also remain unresolved. There is little expectation in New Delhi for an imminent breakthrough, particularly with domestic politics in China on edge before the Party Congress this fall when Xi Jinping will begin a third term and the military leadership will also see sweeping changes. The Chinese Foreign Minister, in Bali, said both countries “should push for the early return of bilateral relations to the right track”. That aspiration, however, contrasts sharply with Beijing’s continued unwillingness to restore the status quo of April 2020. The apparent goal appears to be aimed at testing India’s resolve to sustain its forward deployments and to force New Delhi to accept a new normal at the LAC. Until that changes, the stalemate along the borders, and in the relationship, is likely to endure.
7. Editorial-4: Why the world needs peace in Ukraine
The world cannot afford the continuation of this war, and India is in a unique position to help
As the war in Ukraine rages on, an end to the destruction and suffering seems increasingly elusive, as neither side seems prepared to yield — not least because both seem to believe they can “win”. For Russia, its revised strategic objectives appear to include the capture of the rich industrial, manufacturing and agricultural area known as the Donbas in eastern Ukraine, extending its reach southwards to create a land link to Crimea, which it has already held since 2014. Some analysts think Russia intends to go further, capturing the entire southern Ukrainian coast, including the major port of Odessa and linking that territory to the Russian separatist republic of Transnistria in eastern Moldova.
As for the Ukrainians, they seem to be prepared for nothing short of expelling the Russians from all of Ukrainian territory, including, in some tellings, even Crimea.
There are no serious peace efforts underway at the moment. The Israelis and Turks seem to have given up their efforts, and the visit of the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, helped improve humanitarian relief but did not deal with a military truce. India is well placed to try, enjoying as it does the trust of both sides, but our government seems to be hobbled by a curious reticence to address the issue — perhaps because it is deeply pessimistic about the chances of peace.
‘War against Russia’
But if someone were somehow to persuade both sides to come to the negotiating table, what would a possible peace look like? Between the maximalist positions of both sides, one possible formula was offered, somewhat controversially, by the veteran statesman Henry Kissinger at Davos last month. He suggested that it was impossible for Ukraine and the West to expel the Russians fully, and equally impossible for Russians to achieve what they are attempting to do currently, given the extent of NATO countries’ military and financial support to Kyiv. Instead, 99-year-old Mr. Kissinger argued that a compromise should be to return the dividing line between Russia and Ukraine to the status quo ante bellum — the positions of the two forces before Russia’s invasion began on February 24. For Ukraine and its supporters in the West, that would be a victory, Mr. Kissinger argued, whereas pursuing the war to expel Russians even from the Ukrainian territory they held before February “could turn it into a war not about the freedom of Ukraine but into a war against Russia itself.”
Questioned by TheSpectator recently, Mr. Kissinger explained, “If the war ends as I sketched at Davos, I think it will be a substantial achievement for the allies. NATO will have been strengthened by the addition of Finland and Sweden, creating the possibility of defence of the Baltic countries. Ukraine will have the largest conventional ground force in Europe linked to NATO… Russia will have been shown that the fear that has hung over Europe since World War II, of a Russian army descending… can be prevented by the NATO conventional action. For the first time in recent history, Russia would have to face a need for coexistence with Europe as an entity, rather than America being the chief element in defending Europe with its nuclear forces.”
There is one flaw in Mr. Kissinger’s analysis, though — and that is that there is no real reason why Russia should accept such a formula. After its initial failure to capture Kyiv, its severe loss of military personnel (including seven generals) and refocus on narrower targets, Russia has made significant progress, capturing every major town in the Donbas and the key southern port city of Mariupol. Given the hefty price it has paid for its invasion so far, it makes no sense for Russia to agree to a peace that obliges it to surrender every one of these gains. The only way that Russia could be persuaded to do so is if the price of the world’s opprobrium and international sanctions become unbearable, but there is no sign of that being the case, at least not yet.
The pandemic effect
Meanwhile, the collateral damage of the war is being borne by the rest of the world. We are all reeling under the “double whammy” of the economic consequences of COVID-19, especially the associated lockdowns and disruptions of supply chains. Even the massive stimulus packages post the COVID-19 pandemic have, as Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times, “ignited an inflationary fire” across the world. Meanwhile, the punitive Western sanctions on Russia have led to a major increase in energy prices, hurting countries like India that have nothing to do with the conflict. The war has taken two-thirds of the world’s wheat exports off the markets, sending food prices soaring. India used to import 75% of its sunflower seeds and oil from Ukraine; that is now down to zero. Commodity prices are shooting up everywhere, and inflation shows no sign of slowing down.
And then there is the persistence of the pandemic itself, as various forms of the Omicron virus have kept popping up around the world, causing so far only minor alarms but always carrying the potential of a new healthcare crisis. China, with its zero-COVID policy, reacted to the reappearance of COVID (in the form of Omicron) with comprehensive lockdowns, including in the major commercial capital of Shanghai. With China still the world’s principal manufacturing engine, shutting down factories and plants in that country has seriously disrupted the flow of essential supplies, again contributing to global inflation. The crisis next door in Sri Lanka, as the country simply found itself unable to pay its bills, is merely the most extreme manifestation of a problem that, in one form or the other, stares much of the developing world in the face.
Continuing the war is to make a mockery of human suffering. It will destroy world trade, ravage poor countries, and set global economic growth back by years. The World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said, “The war in Ukraine has created immense human suffering, but it has also damaged the global economy at a critical juncture. Its impact will be felt around the world, particularly in low-income countries, where food accounts for a large fraction of household spending… Smaller supplies and higher prices for food mean that the world’s poor could be forced to do without.”
The Russians and Ukrainians may not be interested in peace, but the rest of the world surely is. We cannot afford the indefinite continuation of this war. Western countries may take longer to realise this — no doubt the prospect of a freezing winter without Russian oil and gas might help concentrate European minds on this realisation — but the developing world already knows that the situation is unbearable, and if the war continues, further disaster looms. Someone must take the initiative and call for peace. If no one else is willing, I hope that call will come from the land of Mahatma Gandhi — before it is too late for all of us.