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Daily Current Affairs 16.06.2022 (Cabinet approves mega 5G auction, 5G will drive ‘significant’ advancements: analysts, Schneider Electric unveils plans to equip data centres for ‘net-zero’ operations, A ground plan for India’s COVID-19 response, A poverty trend in search of an explanation, The fragile state of nuclear disarmament, The controversy around the Northern Ireland Protocol, Brain networks and nicotine addiction)

Daily Current Affairs 16.06.2022 (Cabinet approves mega 5G auction, 5G will drive ‘significant’ advancements: analysts, Schneider Electric unveils plans to equip data centres for ‘net-zero’ operations, A ground plan for India’s COVID-19 response, A poverty trend in search of an explanation, The fragile state of nuclear disarmament, The controversy around the Northern Ireland Protocol, Brain networks and nicotine addiction)

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1. Cabinet approves mega 5G auction

Tech firms can set up captive networks

The Union Cabinet has approved the auction of airwaves capable of offering fifth generation, or 5G, telecom services, including ultra high-speed Internet, and gave its nod for setting up of captive 5G networks by big tech firms.

The auction of over 72 GHz of the spectrum will be held by July-end, said an official statement detailing the decision taken by the Union Cabinet headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at its meeting held on Tuesday.

The spectrum auction will start on July 26, 2022.

Sources said that the Cabinet has approved 5G auctions at reserve prices recommended by the sector regulator, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).

TRAI had earlier recommended about a 39% reduction in the reserve or floor price for the sale of 5G spectrum for mobile services.

While the 5G spectrum in nine frequency bands will be auctioned to telecom operators such as Bharti Airtel and Reliance Jio, the Notice Inviting Applications — bid-related document issued by the Department of Telecom (DoT) — said big tech firms for the time being will be allowed to take the 5G spectrum for their captive non-public network, on lease from the telecom companies.

The notice inviting offer said direct allocation to the big tech companies will follow a demand study and sector regulator TRAI’s recommendation on aspects such as pricing and modalities of such allocation.

Big tech companies like Google have been seeking direct allocation of spectrum for applications such as machine-to-machine communications, IoT and AI, while telecom companies have been opposing direct allocation of 5G spectrum to them saying it will distort the level playing field and rob the government of revenues. According to the document, the auction is slated to start on July 26, 2022. Among other key dates to watch out for is the pre-bid conference scheduled for June 20, 2022, submission of applications with a deadline of July 8, and pre-qualification of bidders on July 18. Mock auctions will be held on July 22 and 23, 2022. Overall, the payment terms have been eased for bidders in the coming auction.

5G Technology

  • 5G is the 5th generation mobile network. It is a new global wireless standard after 1G, 2G, 3G, and 4G networks.
  • It enables a new kind of network that is designed to connect virtually everyone and everything together including machines, objects, and devices.
  • Internet speeds in the high-band spectrum of 5G has been tested to be as high as 20 Gbps (gigabits per second), while, in most cases, the maximum internet data speed in 4G has been recorded at 1 Gbps.

Evolution from First Generation to Fifth Generation

  • 1G was launched in the 1980s and worked on analog radio signals and supported only voice calls.
  • 2G was launched in the 1990s which uses digital radio signals and supports both voice and data transmission with a bandwidth of 64 Kbps.
  • 3G was launched in the 2000s with a speed of 1 Mbps to 2 Mbps and it has the ability to transmit telephone signals including digitised voice, video calls and conferencing.
  • 4G was launched in 2009 with a peak speed of 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps and it also enables 3D virtual reality.

Different Bands of 5G:

5G mainly works in 3 bands, namely low, mid and high frequency spectrum — all of which have their own uses as well as limitations.

Low Band Spectrum:

  • In terms of coverage and speed of Internet and data exchange, the maximum speed is limited to 100 Mbps (Megabits per second).
  • This means that telecom companies can use and install it for commercial cell phone users who may not have specific demands for very high speed Internet.
  • However, the low band spectrum may not be optimal for specialised needs of the industry.

Mid Band Spectrum

  • It offers higher speeds compared to the low band, but has limitations in terms of coverage area and penetration of signals.
  • This band may be used by industries and specialised factory units for building captive networks that can be moulded into the needs of that particular industry.

High Band Spectrum

  • It offers the highest speed of all the three bands, but has extremely limited coverage and signal penetration strength.
  • This band greatly enhances futuristic 5G technology applications like Internet of Things (IoT) and smart technology but will require considerable infrastructure.

Uses of 5G:

  • Broadly speaking, 5G is used across three main types of connected services, including enhanced mobile broadband, mission-critical communications, and the massive IoT.
  • Enhanced Mobile Broadband: In addition to making our smartphones better, 5G mobile technology can usher in new immersive experiences such as Virtual reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) with faster, more uniform data rates, lower latency, and lower cost-per-bit.
  • Mission-Critical Communications: 5G can enable new services that can transform industries with ultra-reliable, available, low-latency links like remote control of critical infrastructure, vehicles, and medical procedures.
  • Massive Internet of Things : 5G is meant to seamlessly connect a massive number of embedded sensors in virtually everything through the ability to scale down in data rates, power, and mobility—providing extremely lean and low-cost connectivity solutions.
  • Combined with IoT, cloud, big data, Artificial Intelligence, and edge computing, 5G could be a critical enabler of the fourth industrial revolution.

India’s National Digital Communications Policy 2018 highlights the importance of 5G when it states that the convergence of a cluster of revolutionary technologies including 5G, the cloud, Internet of Things (IoT) and data analytics, along with a growing start-up community, promise to accelerate and deepen its digital engagement, opening up a new horizon of opportunities.

Challenges for 5G Rollout in India:

Low Fiberization Footprint: 

  • There is a need to upgrade fibre connectivity across India, which at present connects only 30% of India’s telecom towers.
  • For an efficient 5G India launch and adoption, this number has to double.

‘Make in India’ Hardware Challenge: 

  • The ban on certain foreign telecom OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) upon which most of the 5G technology development depends, presents a hurdle in itself.

High Spectrum Pricing:

  • India’s 5G spectrum pricing is several times costlier than the global average.
  • This will be of detriment to India’s cash-strapped telcos.

Choosing the Optimal 5G Technology Standard: 

  • The tussle between the home-grown 5Gi standard and the global 3GPP standard needs to be concluded in order to hasten 5G technology implementation.
  • While 5Gi brings obvious benefits, it also increases 5G India launch costs and interoperability issues for telcos.

2. 5G will drive ‘significant’ advancements: analysts

‘Spectrum base price remains an issue’

The much-awaited 5G spectrum auction will bring significant advancements for the industry and consumers, according to market watchers. However, some said the base price for spectrum remained an issue for bidders who were expecting much lower rates.

The auction and steps outlined for bidding would open up newer avenues for deeper penetration, access and rich user experience, said Peeyush Vaish, partner and Telecom Sector Leader, Deloitte India.

He noted that the Centre had also announced an auction of the millimetre-waveband, which would not only help unlock the ‘true’ potential of 5G but would also help strategically manage costs for the operators.

‘Much-awaited auction’

“The roads are now clear for 5G auctions. This is probably one of the most awaited spectrum auctions, which will bring significant advancements for the industry and the consumers,” Mr. Vaish said, adding that the good part was that spectrum across bands would go under the hammer shortly.

Another aspect which would spur ‘a good auction’ was that operators would have the flexibility to surrender the spectrum after 10 years without any liabilities, he pointed out.

Jaideep Ghosh, chief operating officer of Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas, said the wide availability of spectrum across all bands was encouraging, as potential bidders could opt for spectrum bands and quantum as per their strategy.

“Having said that, the base prices for spectrum remain an issue for the bidders who were expecting a much lower price,” Mr. Ghosh added.

In its meeting on June 14, the Union Cabinet had approved the auction of airwaves capable of offering fifth-generation, or 5G, telecom services, including ultra-high-speed Internet, and gave its nod to the setting up of captive 5G networks.

The auction will commence on July 26. The Cabinet has approved 5G auctions at reserve prices recommended by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), which had in April recommended an about 39% cut in the reserve, or floor, price for the sale of 5G spectrum for mobile services.

‘Economic benefits’

Separately, the Broadband India Forum (BIF), which had batted for private 5G networks by enterprises, on Wednesday said the Cabinet’s decision to enable captive networks was a forward-looking step that would drive digital transformation, augment industry efficiencies and lead to greater economic benefits.

BIF — whose members include Google, Amazon, Meta and Tata Consultancy Services — had pitched for direct allocation of spectrum for private 5G networks to enterprises at a nominal administrative fee, countering telcos’ stand on the vexed issue.

3. Schneider Electric unveils plans to equip data centres for ‘net-zero’ operations

‘Demand for data centres insatiable; energy use must be measured, managed’

Schneider Electric has unveiled solutions to equip the IT infrastructure and data centre industry with the ability to ensure net-zero operations and sustainability.

“There is an insatiable demand for data centres,” said Pankaj Sharma, executive vice-president, Secure Power Division, Schneider Electric, at a media conference in Paris recently. Though decarbonisation at data centres had accelerated in the recent past, data centres of the future needed to be more sustainable, efficient, adaptive, and resilient, he stressed.

Based on a Schneider Electric projection, total energy consumption by the IT sector would be 2,700 terrawatt-hours (TWh) by 2040, with 60% coming from distributed sites and 40% from data centres.

In the backdrop of the International Energy Agency’s ‘net zero emissions” roadmap (Net Zero 2050), Schneider has unveiled plans to prepare the information technology and data centre industry for sustainability and ‘net-zero’ operations.

‘Modular, compact UPS’

The company has introduced a modular, compact UPS (3 KW and 5 KW), which will hit the U.S. market initially and is expected in India next year. With lithium-ion technology, the single-phase UPS is scalable, occupies very little space, and is Green Premium certified.

Alexandra Thin, VP, Transactional and Edge Line of Business, said data centres were not located only in remote places but were becoming more distributed, located close to consumer points. So there was a need for compact technology, she pointed out.

According to Kevin Brown, senior VP of EcoStruxure Solutions, Secure Power, as IT infrastructure spreads, continuity of business depends on factors starting from the smallest end-point to the large data centre.

Software tools with enhanced capabilities were needed to maintain the resilience and security of the infrastructure, he said. The energy consumption and carbon footprint of data centres would need to be measured and managed.

4. Editorial-1: A ground plan for India’s COVID-19 response

The population-wide application of the pandemic response can be transitioned to be focused on individual protection

India’s daily new COVID-19 cases have crossed the 8,000-mark for the first time after more than 100 days. However, the cases (moderate to severe) and COVID-19 related hospital admissions continue to be low. The spike in infections has raised some worries about the start of the fourth national COVID-19 wave in India. Epidemiologically speaking, an immediate major national wave in India is improbable. Part of the reason is that the Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant is the only globally circulating variant of concern, as of now. The Omicron sub-lineage BA.2, which caused the third national wave in India, continues to be the dominant variant in the country. Though two new Omicron sub-lineages, BA.4 and BA.5, have been detected globally and reported from India as well, their share is minuscule. Finally, there is no evidence that the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-lineages can cause a major nationwide surge in settings already exposed to BA.2 sub-lineage. Clearly, while the concerns about another national wave are unfounded, the ongoing surge demands for a fresh approach to the COVID-19 pandemic response in India.

Epidemiological triad

Then, a key question is if there is no new variant of concern, why this spike in COVID-19 cases? The answer lies in an age-old concept of epidemiology which explains ‘why’ and ‘how’ a disease spreads in any setting: the ‘epidemiological triad’ of agent, host and environment. Spread of a disease is an outcome of a complex interaction of the agent (or pathogen, in this case SARS-CoV-2 and its variants), host (humans and their immune-biological characteristics) and environment (social and behavioral factors).

In the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic in India, since the third wave in January 2022, with minor variations in sub-lineage, the agent (Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2) has remained largely unchanged. As far as host factors are concerned, immunologically speaking, though antibody levels wane with time and susceptibility to infection increases, declining immunity alone cannot be attributed to rising infection as neither a past infection nor COVID-19 vaccination protect from subsequent infection.

Rather, in spite of an increase in the daily new COVID-19 infections, the low rate of severe disease and hospitalisation shows that our immunity against SARS-CoV-2 is holding up. This brings the third component of the triad, i.e., environment or external factors, at the centre stage. Here, SARS-CoV-2 is very much around, in all settings, as it was for the last many months; and, it is unlikely to go away. However, there is increased travel now, economic activities are back to or even higher than their pre-pandemic level, there are regular social gatherings, and also noticeable lower adherence to face masks wearing in crowded places. Clearly, more than the agent and the host, environmental factors are driving the spike.

However, as SARS-CoV-2 is likely to be around, and as infectious diseases experts and especially those who have studied respiratory viruses would argue, localised COVID-19 case spikes are going to be a reality in many settings and for many months (and possibly years) to follow.

From an epidemiological point of view, the COVID-19 infections in India are not a public health concern any more. The reason is that June 2022 is completely different from March 2020. Back then, SARS-CoV-2 was a new virus; no one had immunity against this virus, and everyone was equally susceptible. There was no vaccine available and the risk of adverse outcomes after SARS-CoV-2 infection by age and other attributes, was unknown and unpredictable. It was clearly a public health challenge.

Nearly 27 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, most people have developed immunity either after natural infection (during three national waves) or through vaccination (nearly 97% of the adult population has received at least one shot while 88% has had two shots of COVID-19 vaccines). There is better scientific understanding of who is at higher risk of severe outcomes (everyone in the 60 years plus group and any age group with co-morbidities or weakened immunity), and the risks are known and largely predictable. Arguably, COVID-19 is less of a public health issue and more of an individual health issue.

A dynamic response strategy

Yet, a rise in daily new cases should not be ignored. However, continuing the five-pronged ‘test, track, treat, vaccinate and COVID-appropriate behaviour’ approach is not the best strategy for India any more and needs to be thoroughly revisited.

First, urgently revise the indicators to monitor and track the COVID-19 situation. The daily COVID-19 infections and test positivity rate may continue to be recorded but have limited utility for decision making. The two operational monitoring indicators which should be used now can be daily new symptomatic COVID-19 cases and new hospitalisations.

Second, any setting which reports a spike in COVID-19 cases should be prioritised for enhanced and expanded genomic sequencing, including the sequencing of all hospitalised COVID-19 cases and a subset of asymptomatic and the mild symptomatic cases, to track the emergence of any variant. A stronger linkage between health departments and the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics (INSACOG) Consortium network conducting genomic surveillance is needed to correlate the variants and the clinical outcomes.

Third, from now onwards the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection in India (or any setting across the world) is unlikely to be zero. Face masks and physical distancing have proven benefits in reducing transmission, but the benefit, at least in settings such as India, now is far greater at the individual level than at the population level. All social and economic activities (including schools) should continue to function to their full capacity. The face-mask recommendations should be calibrated, targeted, context-specific and evidence-guided and not uniform for the entire population. Science communication and public education should be used to nudge high-risk population groups to adopt such behaviour. The mandatory face-masks requirement for school-going children (implicit or explicit), is unscientific and without evidence. Mask guidelines for school children should be voluntary, without indirect coercion as is the case for some Indian States.

Booster shots

Fourth, there is a known benefit of third shots of COVID-19 vaccines in select, specifically high-risk population groups; however, the benefits of fourth and fifth shots are marginal and short lasting, as studies have pointed out. Essentially, just one additional COVID-19 vaccine shot to get some enhancement in the level of antibodies and possible protection make some sense. Because of hybrid immunity in India with two shots of vaccines and three national COVID-19 waves which are unlikely to have spared anyone, even with only two vaccine shots in India, the protective immunity might be equal to even greater than three vaccine shots in countries with low infection rates.

Therefore, Indian health policymakers need to be very strategic and pragmatic in the use of a third COVID-19 vaccine shot. Every surge should not result in a renewed demand and a push for booster dose uptake for adults in all age groups. After all, if you have to take just one precaution shot, there is merit in delaying it and spacing it out as long as feasible and also getting a heterologous vaccine shot. Similarly, there is no scientific rationale to rush to vaccinate children younger than 12 years.

Fifth, a disproportionately high attention on COVID-19 is not completely innocuous and rather, it diverts attention from other equally and even more pressing health needs such as tuberculosis, diabetes and hypertension, which affects a far greater proportion of India’s population. It is undoubtedly time, Indian States bring the attention back on long-standing health challenges and on strengthening primary health-care services.

What must be done

After the 1918-20 flu pandemic, the influenza virus continued to be in circulation and present even today. In the last 100 years, with regular mutations in influenza viruses, there has been a seasonal rise in cases, outbreaks, and epidemics and two more influenza pandemics (1957-58 and 1968). Since then, there are annual flu seasons across the world. Being another respiratory virus and an RNA virus with a propensity for regular mutations, SARS-CoV-2 appears to be on the influenza trajectory. Factoring in country-specific SARS CoV-2 epidemiology, the population-wide application of the pandemic response in India can be transitioned to be focused on individual protection. India’s COVID-19 response strategy, in the days and the months ahead, should focus on protecting the vulnerable; promoting voluntary face-mask use; strengthening COVID-19 surveillance, and using local COVID-19 data for decision making. We are on the path of learning to live with COVID-19.

5. Editorial-2: A poverty trend in search of an explanation

The delay in household consumption expenditure survey leaves us unsure of the studies

A noticeable absence in the blitzkrieg of information on the economy periodically unleashed by the Union government over the past few years has been estimates of poverty. A measure of the progress made with respect to the reduction of poverty in India is crucial to an assessment of the state of the economy of India, known to harbour the world’s largest number of poor people. The last official estimate of poverty that is comparable over time, undertaken by the Planning Commission, is for the year 2011-12. The reason behind this state of affairs is that we have not had a household consumption expenditure survey for a subsequent year, such a survey being the ideal basis for poverty estimation.

Real consumption expenditure

A consumption expenditure survey was conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) for 2017-18, but was rejected by the government as defective. Whether this decision was taken upon the advice of independent experts is not known, but a leaked version of the report showed that real consumption expenditure had fallen since 2011-12. At the time, a leading commentator on the economy had poured cold water on this possibility, stating that a decline in consumption is not possible when income (GDP) has grown.

In a prior article, I had at that time pointed out that a decline in consumption cannot be ruled out even in the presence of growth, for the income distribution could shift in a way that leaves those at the lower end of the distribution with less real income. The Union government’s rejection of the report for 2017-18 has meant that we have not been able to say anything about the trend in poverty over a whole decade.

Now two recent studies have made up for this lacuna, emerging as they do, separately, from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (henceforth Fund-Bank). The first is a working paper by Bhalla, Bhasin and Virmani and the other is by Roy and van der Weide. Both are in the public domain. It may be noted that as they are not based directly on a household expenditure survey, they arrive at estimates of consumption spending, and thereby poverty, by making somewhat strong assumptions, but I shall here accept their estimates at face value.

In the absence of official estimates of poverty in India for the past decade, these studies have naturally gathered attention. They give us an estimate of the poverty rate for five data points after 2011-12, poverty identified as per capita consumption of less than $1.90 per day, being the World Bank’s definition of “extreme poverty”. While the level of poverty estimated by these two studies varies considerably, with the one by Roy and van der Weide showing twice the poverty level estimated by Bhalla et al., they share a common feature, which is an accelerated decline in poverty since 2011-12, with the acceleration commencing in 2014-15 in the Bhalla et al study and in 2016-17 in the former.

Now, though growth in the economy has slowed progressively from 2017-18, accelerated decline in poverty as overall economic growth slows is neither implausible nor unprecedented. We know that the first significant dent in poverty in India occurred in the late 1960s, while growth had begun to slow from the mid-sixties. Indeed, the poverty decline had continued even as growth spluttered for a whole decade. This co-movement can be quite easily explained by the feature that as the economy-wide growth rate had slowed, growth in India’s agricultural sector permanently shifted to a higher gear following the Green Revolution i.e., we have seen a higher average annual agricultural growth ever since. With the workforce concentrated overwhelmingly in agriculture, it would be expected that wages and consumption of rural workers grew. Rural poverty declined steadily. A decline in urban poverty was to take longer, pointing to the historic role of agriculture in India.

Effects of demonetisation

It is difficult to see a surge in any one sector of the economy since 2016-17 that is comparable to the increase in the rate of growth of agriculture in the second half of the 1960s. Of course, theoretically there remains the income distribution shift to be considered, but it is difficult to imagine that the income distribution has shifted towards the lower income groups in this period, when the long-term trend is known to be the opposite.

Moreover, the demonetisation of 2016 is likely to have affected majority of workers adversely. While this is only a surmise, data from the Periodic Labour Force Survey show the unemployment rate rising sharply after demonetisation remaining higher than in most years of the decade, going all the way back to 2011-12. It is difficult to imagine an accelerated decline in poverty during such a phase.

At a webinar organised by the National Council for Applied Economic Research on June 9, I had asked the most widely known of the authors of the Fund-Bank studies his understanding of what drove the decline in poverty during the period under observation. His answer was that since inflation has been lower since 2014, real wage growth would have been faster, enabling greater consumption and thus an accelerated decline in poverty.

As a quick check, if not a test, on the plausibility of this hypothesis, I computed real wage growth starting 2015-16, the mid-point of the year from which the acceleration commences in each of the two Fund-Bank studies. The annual all-India real wage growth is computed for two groups of rural men, namely non-agricultural labourers and construction workers. The economy-wide inflation rate was adopted. All data were drawn from the RBI’s website. The resulting estimates show that for non-agricultural labourers, annual real wage rate growth was either negligible or negative in four out of the five years during the period 2015-16 to 2019-20, the end point for both the studies. For construction workers, annual real wage growth was negative in three years, barely positive in one year and slightly over 1% in only one year. There appears to have taken place little real wage growth since 2015-16.

This finding, that there has been very little real wage growth since 2015-2016, cannot be taken as a rejection of the Fund-Bank estimates of poverty. It does, however, underline the need for an explanation of the accelerated decline in poverty that they report.

We need to understand the drivers of poverty to undertake any kind of remedial action. But above all, we need reliable data provided by independent public bodies ring-fenced from potential political interference. That we once had this in India is seen from the Planning Commission estimates in 1997 that showed a slowing of the rate of poverty reduction soon after the reforms, resulting in a rise in the number of poor in 1993-94 for the first time in 15 years. The then government could have squashed the study, but to its credit it did not. Decades later, we seem to be backsliding.

In particular, the delay in this government’s undertaking of a household consumption expenditure survey leaves us unsure of the trend in poverty in India in recent years.

6. The fragile state of nuclear disarmament

How has India fared in SIPRI’s annual report? Is the world becoming increasingly more militarised?

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its yearbook a few days back highlighting some trends of the past year in international security. Russia leads the charge in absolute numbers of nuclear inventory.

India is the top weapons importer during the 2017-2021 period. Other countries to feature in the top five arms importers list include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, and Australia. According to SIPRI, these five nation states account for 38% of total global arms import. 

Recent geopolitical events transpiring around the world in practically all regions have made the global security climate more unstable. Military modernisation is seen to be a global trend. All nuclear weapon owning states have, over the years, stated and worked upon their intention to modernise multiple facets of their armed forces.

Rishabh Kachroo

The story so far: The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its yearbook a few days back highlighting some worrying trends of the past year in international security. The expected rise of the global nuclear arsenal was the chief cause of concern among SIPRI experts. The comprehensive report claims that while absolute numbers of nuclear arsenal have reduced, they are expected to grow over the next decade.

What have been the trends in military spending?

During 2012-2021, military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has largely been stable. If anything, the average worldwide trend has been slightly downward. Russia leads the charge in absolute numbers of nuclear inventory (5977 against the U.S.’s 5428), however it is the U.S. that has the largest number of deployed warheads (1744 against Russia’s 1588). The U.K. has 225 nuclear weapons in its inventory, while France has 290, China has 350, India has 160, Pakistan has 165. Israel is estimated to have 90 and North Korea 20.

It is concerning, to say the least, to see how global discourse has created a sense of fear around China’s military modernisation and their upward trend in nuclear weapons development while the thousands of nuclear weapons held by the U.S. don’t seem to attract a similar level of attention.

What about global arms imports?

Military modernisation is seen to be a global trend. All nuclear weapon owning states have, over the years, stated and worked upon their intention to modernise multiple facets of their armed forces—ranging from the development of newer and more efficient nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, fighter jets, manned and unmanned aerial vehicles to the growing spread of the use of missile defence systems which may result in aggravating security concerns for other countries.

The yearbook has highlighted India as being the top weapons importer during the 2017-2021 period. Other countries to feature in the top five arms importers list include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, China, and Australia. According to SIPRI, these five nation states account for 38% of total global arms import. 

What are the key developments/concerns flagged by the yearbook?

The yearbook mentions low level border clashes between India and Pakistan, the civil war in Afghanistan, and the armed conflict in Myanmar as some of the worrying indicators of an unstable system. It also highlighted three cause of concern trends: Chinese-American rivalry, involvement of state and non-state actors in multiple conflicts, and the challenge that climatic and weather hazards pose. It is important to note here that the threat posed by climate change seems to feature in the report only nominally.

The marginal downsizing observed in the nuclear arsenal has come mostly from the U.S. and Russia dismantling retired warheads. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised some serious eyebrows because of the continuous rhetoric from the Kremlin over them not shying away from the use of nuclear weapons. China’s recent activities surrounding construction of 300 new nuclear missile silos have also been turning heads. Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Chinese Defence Minister, Wei Fenghe, claimed that while they have made “impressive progress” vis-à-vis their nuclear arsenal, the primary purpose of said arsenal continues to be self-defence. Over in the subcontinent, India and Pakistan seem to be making gains over their nuclear arsenal (in absolute numbers) while also looking at the development and procurement of newer and more efficient forms of delivery systems.

Has Iran inflated its military expenditure?

The SIPRI yearbook claims that while there were some advances over the rollout of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran increased its enrichment of Uranium-235 to 60% in 2021. It also reported that Iran’s military budget grew to $24.6 billion, growing for the first time in four years. However, some analysts believe that SIPRI has, over the years, overstated Iran’s military expenditure. This is based on there not being a single Iranian exchange rate, resulting in a hyperinflated estimation of expenditure by SIPRI analysts.

It is claimed that SIPRI is aware of this ‘accusation’ and will investigate the ‘exchange rate issue’.

What is the general attitude among countries about existing nuclear and arms related treaties?

Earlier this year, the leaders of the P5 countries (China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.) issued a joint statement affirming the belief that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. The joint statement also highlighted their seemingly collective belief that bilateral and multilateral arms control agreements and commitments were indeed important. The dichotomy of this sentiment against the upward trend in absolute numbers of arms and nuclear arsenals is rather unsettling. One could however claim that even with these upward trends, the nation states are making sure to remain well within the ambit of what the treaties and agreements ask for. The tactic here seems to be to milk the treaties and agreements to the hilt. The states are aware of the value of the rhetoric and the security dilemma that their actions present. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent NATO bids by Finland and Sweden seem to be telling events. While the Ukrainian invasion saw Russian military and political establishments hype-up its nuclear attack rhetoric against Ukraine, its primary leadership (both civil and military) had been rather diplomatic and ‘relatively’ cordial in its treatment of the Finnish and Swedish NATO bids.

Clear and constant communication between the countries involved was instrumental in making sure no unintended meanings were construed by the parties involved. The Russians seem to protract this invasion and hope to win it by exhausting Ukraine’s defence capabilities.

The year 2021 also saw the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, 2017 coming into effect. The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Missile Technology Control Regimes (MTCR) held their annual meetings despite decision making being limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What lies ahead?

The recent geopolitical events transpiring around the world in practically all regions have made the global security climate more unstable. A sense of precariousness lulls the air. It is further aided by actions of authoritarian leaders of not just non-democratic systems but also of strongmen leaders of democratic systems. The muscular military policies of these nations coupled with the continuous use of rhetoric that fuel public sentiment over the state’s use of military assets make ripe conditions for the situation to further deteriorate. A strong political opposition would be needed to help keep the ruling dispensation in check. Furthermore, the two largest nuclear weapons holding states need to take on a more engaging role in the international arena. SIPRI’s yearbook, while not being devoid of some challenges, forces us to look critically at how the global disarmament project seems to be going.

7. The controversy around the Northern Ireland Protocol

Why is the European Union threatening legal action against the U.K.? How is the Johnson administration justifying the breach of international obligations?

The Boris Johnson administration has come up with a new legislation, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would enable the U.K. to override provisions of the Brexit deal that concern trading arrangements outlined in the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP)

The main irritant for the U.K. in the current version of the NIP was the creation of ‘unacceptable barriers’ to trade within the internal market, between Britain and Northern Ireland. 

The Johnson administration has sought to justify its breach of obligations by invoking the “doctrine of necessity” as the NIP according to them, posits a “grave and imminent peril” to the Good Friday Agreement.

G. Sampath

The story so far: The Boris Johnson administration has come up with a new legislation, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would enable the U.K. to override provisions of the Brexit deal that concern trading arrangements in Northern Ireland — the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). The European Union (EU) has said that the proposed law violates international law and has threatened to take legal action against the U.K. if it goes ahead with the legislation.

What exactly is the NIP?

Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. that shares a land border with the EU, as the Republic of Ireland (or Ireland) is an EU member-state. As long as the U.K. was part of the EU, things were fine. But with Brexit, the U.K. exited the EU’s customs union. This created a problem whose solution needed two seemingly contradictory outcomes: preserving the sanctity of the EU’s single market, as well as that of the U.K.’s domestic market. The NIP’s solution was to avoid a customs check at the actual customs border — on the island of Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — as this would have violated the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and risked instability in a region with a volatile past. It instead shifted the customs border to that between Northern Ireland and Britain, effectively at the former’s ports. As per the NIP, goods flowing into Northern Ireland would be checked at this ‘sea border’ before entering the island, and Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU rules in product standards.

Why did the U.K. come up with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill?

The Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) has been a lingering issue for the U.K. almost from the day Brexit was signed. In fact, back in July 2021, the Boris Johnson administration announced its intent to renegotiate the NIP. But with efforts at negotiations not producing the results it wanted, it decided to proceed with a unilateral revamp of the NIP via domestic legislation. The main irritant for the U.K. in the current version of the NIP was the creation of “unacceptable barriers” to trade within the U.K. internal market — between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It has sparked complaints from businesses about the enormous paperwork needed for supply of goods and services to Northern Ireland despite it being within the sovereign territory of the U.K. Also, the Unionists of Northern Ireland (the section loyal to the U.K.) are unhappy with the NIP, and resent having to put up with a provision that effectively puts them at one remove from the U.K., when compared with citizens in other parts of the U.K. Northern Ireland’s main unionist party is, in fact, blocking the formation of a new power-sharing government in Belfast, saying it won’t take part until the NIP rules are scrapped. It is in this context that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill seeks to empower the U.K. government to override key provisions of the NIP.

How does the proposed Bill undermine the NIP?

Instead of subjecting all goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland to customs checks, the new Bills proposes two categories of goods and checks: goods meant only for Northern Ireland would go in a ‘green lane’ and will be exempt from any checks, while goods headed for Ireland and the EU would go into a ‘red lane’ where they will be subjected to all the checks and customs controls. Secondly, the Bill would remove EU oversight on state subsidies and value-added taxes in Northern Ireland. Third, the Bill proposes settlement of trade disputes and the enforcement of the NIP by an independent body rather than the European Court of Justice. Lastly, the Bill wants to give businesses the choice of selling their goods in Northern Ireland either according to the U.K. rules or the EU rules, in effect, proposing a dual regulatory regime instead of the single (EU) one as per the NIP.

What has been the reaction to the proposed Bill?

The Bill has triggered strong pushback from MPs belonging to Mr. Johnson’s own party, from Irish legislators, and from EU officials. All of them have pointed out that the legislation would violate international law, damage the U.K.’s reputation as a trade partner, and spark a trade war with the EU. The EU’s executive branch announced on June 15 that it would be taking legal action against the U.K. for violating international law.

How has the Johnson administration justified the Bill?

The Johnson administration has sought to justify its breach of its obligations under the Brexit agreement by invoking a principle of international law known as the “doctrine of necessity”. The UN’s International Law Commission allows a state to invoke this doctrine when its “essential interests” are facing a “grave and imminent peril”. The Johnson administration believes that this emergency loophole will enable it to defeat any legal challenge to its proposed Bill. The “grave peril” in this context, according to the British government, is the threat posed by the NIP to the Good Friday Agreement. “The maintenance of stable social and political conditions in Northern Ireland, the protection of the 1998 Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement…and the preservation and fostering of social and economic ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, are essential interests of the United Kingdom,” says a statement from the U.K. Foreign Secretary.

8. Brain networks and nicotine addiction

A study of patients who quit smoking spontaneously reveals brain networks that are associated with alcohol and other forms of addiction

Substance use is a term in common parlance that includes use of a range of products, including psychoactive drugs. While not all of these are addictive, substance use disorders are a major health hazard.

A study published in Nature Medicine tries to identify the network of regions in the brain that are involved in substance addiction. The study finds that brain lesions that lead to spontaneous remission of tobacco addiction in people affect a part of a common brain network.

Additionally they found this network was reproducible in the case of other substances of abuse, in independent groups of people with lesions.

Shubashree Desikan

Joutsa, J., Moussawi, K., Siddiqi, S.H. et al. Brain lesions disrupting addiction map to a common human brain circuit. Nat Med (2022).

By studying brain scans of human patients who incurred lesions in their brains after an accident, and then spontaneously quit smoking, researchers map out the brain networks associated with addiction. The study published in Nature Medicine sheds light on areas of the brain that can be used as target for modulation and therapy for addiction to nicotine or alcohol. The authors of the paper caution that more larger studies need to be done to ascertain what side effects such modulation and therapy will produce.

The harms of substance abuse

Substance use is a term in common parlance that includes the use of a range of products, including psychoactive drugs. Psychoactive drugs are substances which when taken or administered into the system cause an alteration in mental processes, such as perception, consciousness, cognition and mood or emotions. Psychoactive drugs include alcohol and nicotine. While not all of these are addictive, substance use disorders are a major health hazard. They affect 8-10% of adult population and are a leading cause of death. Hence there is an interest in understanding how to treat addictions and substance use disorders.

Among these, tobacco alone is a major factor, and the data on tobacco use is grim. India is the second largest consumer of tobacco. According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (2016-17) nearly 267 million adults (15 years and above) in India, which is about 29% of India’s adult population, use tobacco in some form or the other. To add one more datapoint to this, about 8 million people annually die because of tobacco use — that is nearly half the people who use it — and of this, over 7 million are primary users and around 1.2 million are non-smokers exposed to tobacco in a passive manner.

Treatment for substance use disorders are inadequate and do not show promise in the long term. New methods of treatment try modulating specific parts of the brain which are believed to be implicated in addiction. Now, a study published in Nature Medicine tries to identify the network of regions in the brain that are involved in substance addiction. The study finds that brain lesions that lead to spontaneous remission of tobacco addiction in people affect a part of a common brain network. Further, they find evidence of commonality of this network across different substance addictions and this seems to suggest new targets for neuromodulation therapies.

Brain circuits, not regions

The researchers studied the brain scans of 129 patients addicted to smoking at the time they suffered localised brain damage. Of these, 60% were male and their average age was 56 years. Of the 129, 34 patients experienced spontaneous addiction remission following the injury. That is, they were able to quit smoking without experiencing craving or relapse. They also show that though the lesions associated with remission occurred in many different places in the brain, these can be mapped to a specific brain network. Additionally they found this network was reproducible in the case of other substances of abuse, in independent groups of people with lesions. These included people with reduced risk of alcohol addiction and case reports of lesions that disrupted addiction to substances other than nicotine.

Broadly speaking, the authors found that brain circuits rather than specific brain regions may be involved in causing addiction, and damage to these circuits — whatever the reason —may result in remission. Common areas were found for alcohol and tobacco addiction. “These results did not correlate with psychological tests which indicates that anatomical rather than behavioural factors may be involved,” says Dr. Smita Deshpande who is a professor of psychiatry at St. John’s Research Institute, St. John’s National Academy of Health Sciences, in Bengaluru.

Dr. Deshpande also points out that the authors have measured alcohol dependence by a questionnaire which did not actually mean that those people were alcohol dependent. “They also did not look at issues such as degree of recovery, ability to function in daily life, family support, occupational factors and psychological factors other than those described in the paper,” she says. It is also not specified for how long the patients studied had quit smoking (remained free of nicotine), “as relapses are common in all addictions.”

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