1. Understanding ethanol blending
How is ethanol extracted? What are the environmental concerns with respect to this process?
Blending ethanol with petrol to burn less fossil fuel while running vehicles is called ethanol blending. Ethanol is an agricultural by-product. It’s mainly obtained in the processing of sugar from sugarcane, but also from other sources such as rice husk or maize.
The auto industry has committed to make all vehicles E20 (20% ethanol in petrol) material compliant by 2023. This means that the petrol points, plastics, rubber, steel and other components in vehicles would need to be compliant to hold/store fuel that is 20% ethanol.
While ethanol blending can reduce CO2 emissions, inefficient land and water use for ethanol extraction as well as food security concerns still remain.
K. Bharat Kumar
The story so far: Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India has achieved its target of blending 10% sugarcane-extracted ethanol in petrol, ahead of schedule. Addressing the nation from the Red Fort on the 76th Independence Day, he rooted for energy independence stating that, “we need to be Aatmanirbhar (self-sufficient) in our energy sector”. India is one of the world’s biggest oil importing nations.
What is ethanol blending?
Blending ethanol with petrol to burn less fossil fuel while running vehicles is called ethanol blending. Ethanol is an agricultural by-product which is mainly obtained from the processing of sugar from sugarcane, but also from other sources such as rice husk or maize. Currently, 10% of the petrol that powers your vehicle is ethanol. Though we have had an E10 — or 10% ethanol as policy for a while, it is only this year that we have achieved that proportion. India’s aim is to increase this ratio to 20% originally by 2030 but in 2021, when NITI Aayog put out the ethanol roadmap, that deadline was advanced to 2025.
Ethanol blending will help bring down our share of oil imports (almost 85%) on which we spend a considerable amount of our precious foreign exchange. Secondly, more ethanol output would help increase farmers’ incomes.
The NITI Aayog report of June 2021 says, “India’s net import of petroleum was 185 million tonnes at a cost of $55 billion in 2020-21,” and that a successful ethanol blending programme can save the country $4 billion per annum.
What are first generation and second generation ethanols?
With an aim to augment ethanol supplies, the government has allowed procurement of ethanol produced from other sources besides molasses — which is first generation ethanol or 1G. Other than molasses, ethanol can be extracted from materials such as rice straw, wheat straw, corn cobs, corn stover, bagasse, bamboo and woody biomass, which are second generation ethanol sources or 2G.
While inaugurating the Indian Oil Corporation’s (IOC) 2G ethanol plant last week, Mr. Modi referred to not only the prospect of higher farmer income but also dwelt upon the advantages of farmers selling the residual stubble — left behind after rice is harvested — to help make biofuels. This means lesser stubble burning and therefore, lesser air pollution.
How have other countries fared?
Though the U.S., China, Canada and Brazil all have ethanol blending programmes, as a developing country, Brazil stands out. It had legislated that the ethanol content in petrol should be in the 18-27.5% range, and it finally touched the 27% target in 2021.
How does it impact the auto industry?
At the time of the NITI Aayog report in June last year, the industry had committed to the government to make all vehicles E20 material compliant by 2023. This meant that the petrol points, plastics, rubber, steel and other components in vehicles would need to be compliant to hold/store fuel that is 20% ethanol. Without such a change, rusting is an obvious impediment.
Rajesh Menon, director-general of the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers says that the industry has committed to becoming E20 engine compliant by 2025, which means that engines would need to be tweaked so as to process petrol which has been blended with 20% ethanol.
Are there other alternatives?
Sources in the auto industry state that they prefer the use of biofuels as the next step, compared to other options such as electric vehicles (EV), hydrogen power and compressed natural gas. This is mainly because biofuels demand the least incremental investment for manufacturers.
Even though the industry is recovering from the economic losses bought on by the pandemic, it is bound to make some change to comply with India’s promise for net-zero emissions by 2070.
What are the challenges before the industry when it comes to 20% ethanol blended fuel?
The Niti Aayog report points out that the challenges before the industry are: “optimisation of engine for higher ethanol blends and the conduct of durability studies on engines and field trials before introducing E20 compliant vehicles.”
Sources say that the auto industry is in talks with the government to plan this transition. There are multiple issues at stake for this endeavour. Storage is going to be the main concern, for if E10 supply has to continue in tandem with E20 supply, storage would have to be separate which then raises costs.
What have been the objections against this transition?
Ethanol burns completely emitting nil carbon dioxide. By using the left-over residue from rice harvests to make ethanol, stubble burning will also reduce. The 2G ethanol project inaugurated last week will reduce greenhouse gases equivalent to about three lakh tonnes of CO2 emissions per annum, which is the same as replacing almost 63,000 cars annually on our roads. However, it does not reduce the emission of another key pollutant — nitrous oxide.
The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in a report in March talks about the inefficient land use in ethanol production. The report’s author Charles Worringham said that we can use land far more efficiently by generating renewable power for EV batteries. For example, to match the annual travel distance of EVs recharged from one hectare generating solar energy, 187 hectares of maize-derived ethanol are required, even when one accounts for the losses from electricity transmission, battery charging and grid storage.
The water needed to grow crops for ethanol is another debating point. An explainer in The Hindu in May states that for India, sugarcane is the cheapest source of ethanol. On average, a tonne of sugarcane can produce 100 kg of sugar and 70 litres of ethanol — meaning, a litre of ethanol from sugar requires 2,860 litres of water.
There has been, therefore, a move toward waste-based extraction, such as through coarse grains. But supply may still be a problem, though the Niti Aayog report sounds sanguine on this count — “the roadmap estimates ethanol production from domestic grains will increase a whopping fourfold by 2025.” The abnormally wet monsoon seasons may have helped in recent years to raise grain output, but in its August 2021 analysis The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) is sceptical that those production increases can be sustained.
Mr. Worringham states that sugar cane would likely continue to be the primary source for ethanol even with the 12 planned farm waste — or 2G ethanol — distilleries. The first, inaugurated last week, has a capacity to produce 100 kilo litres a day, or 3.65 crore litres a year. The 2021 Ethanol Roadmap forecasts that an additional 800 crore litres of ethanol is needed annually to meet the target. He points out that “assuming the other 11 planned farm waste distilleries have similar rates of production, their combined input would barely produce 5% of the additional annual ethanol requirement.”
What about food security concerns?
Mr. Worringham also flags the impact on crop output meant for food and fodder. “There are already indications that more sugarcane is being grown and that the Government of India encouraged more corn production at the India Maize Summit in May, with its use for ethanol production cited as a reason for this push. Sugar and cane production that end up in the petrol tank cannot also appear on the dinner plate, in animal fodder, be stored in warehouses, or be exported. As was evident in India’s wheat harvest earlier this year, climate change-induced heatwaves are a worrying factor and can lead to lower-than-expected harvests with little notice,” he says.
Global corn, or maize, production is down, and this adds an incentive for India to try and export more. In France, the corn harvest has dipped 19%, and reductions in forecast production have been seen for at least seven other countries in Europe. U.S. production expectations have also been revised slightly downward.
“Given the uncertainty about future production, India may not find it easy to simultaneously strengthen domestic food supply systems, set aside adequate stocks for lean years, maintain an export market for grains, and divert grain to ethanol at the expected rate in coming years, and this is an issue that warrants continued monitoring,” he warns.
2. The literary trail of independence
Capturing the essence of Indianness through books
The road to independence was an incongruous juxtaposing of sacrifices and aspirations, struggles and autonomy, sufferings and jubilation that characterised the complexities of a long freedom movement. Even as we celebrate Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav to commemorate 75 years of freedom to resonate with the pulse of contemporary India, it is imperative to remember the country’s rich history, culture, people and diversity.
Thankfully, there are no dearth of writers who have documented India’s freedom struggle and poignantly captured the essence of Indianness. While highlighting different perspectives, the narratives on the dawn of August 15, 1947, have a powerful and lingering impact and also help to imagine and revisit moments in the long journey of colonisation.
If Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India traces the history from the Indus Valley civilisation to the establishment of the British Empire and tracks the rich cultural heritage of the country, Anandamath by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, set in the sanyasi rebellion of the late 18th century, offers the synonym of Indian integrity in the form of Vande Mataram.
Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins details the last year of the British Raj, with the appointment of Lord Mountbatten as the last viceroy of British India. Filled with interesting stories, it is an evocative piece of historical literature that brings out the reactions of the princely states’ to independence, the pain of the Partition and travails of people who were divided into territories on the basis of religion, and the despondency following the death and funeral of Mahatma Gandhi.
Another non-fiction tome, The Last Mughal: The Fall of A Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrympyle, looks at India’s independence movement by going back to when it all began. It highlights the first war against the British, the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, the aftermath of it and how it revolutionised the march to freedom and the political landscape.
In 2018, Kishwar Desai wrote Jallianwala Bagh, 1919, on the scars the massacre left when General Dyer’s order turned into a death warrant for peaceful protestors who had gathered against British rule. In 1956, Khushwant Singh wrote Train to Pakistan, a fictional account set in a town on the India-Pakistan border. Though the Partition was a political fall-out, Singh talks about several horrific local situations that increased the hostility between the Sikh and the Muslim. He gives a human dimension to the incidents for a sense of reality and believability. Aanchal Malhotra delivers a poignant story about the refugees of Partition through the objects they carried with them across the border in Remnants of a Separation. The belongings tell the fascinating stories of their owners and what they experienced during their darkest days.
Salman Rushdie’s 1981 novel Midnight’s Children is a classic post-colonial literature that deals with the transition from British colonialism to independence with the Partition at the core of historical events. He narrates the story of Saleem Sinai, born at that magical midnight moment when India became independent, and is gifted with a special power of telepathy which he uses to connect with other children born in that hour between 12 and 1 am. Their conference is a reflection of India’s post-independence issues pertaining to culture, language, religion and politics. Gyanesh Kudaisya in A Republic in the Making: India in the 1950s looks at the momentous decade marked by dramatic events and challenges; the uncertain trajectories that gave hope and anxiety to political leaders and the people in those times and how India transformed significantly and anchored itself as a resilient, democratic polity.
A bend in the river
A God In Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie is an unusual story about a young Englishwoman Vivian Rose Spencer, an archaeologist who travels to Peshawar, Pakistan, after a brutal betrayal and Qayyum Gul, a soldier in the British Indian army and his younger brother Najeeb who becomes Vivian’s pupil. Through the three characters, the story traverses from the First World War to India’s independence bridging the gulf of several decades and connecting the dots of changing history. Describing the socio-political unrest and violence that changed the nation forever, Manohar Malgonkar documents events in A Bend in the Ganges that led to the civil disobedience movement in the 1930s and eventually to the Partition riots in Punjab.
The Partition of India by Haimanti Roy puts together contextual histories with a comprehensive account of the causes, experiences and consequences of the Partition. She reflects upon the multiplicity of meanings of 1947 that led to violence, migration and rehabilitation in Bengal and Punjab. Unless we understand those experiences, we cannot understand the challenges faced in South Asia today, is the underlying point.
Even after 75 years, contemporary society grapples with India’s history, memories and legacies as much of it remains locked with families and individuals who lived through the trauma of loss of home, life and work, uprooting and survival. When we talk about independence, there are also many books on the heroes of the independence struggle. The recently published, Her Name Was Freedom, by Anu Kumar, is about 35 women, many of whom have never met each other, but defended their country against tyranny. Their fight for freedom was not only about ending British rule but also about reforming the old ways and changing it for the better.
3. July wholesale inflation slows to 13.9%
WPI-based inflation eases below 14% for the first time since February; diesel inflation zooms to 72.4%
Wholesale price inflation moderated to a five-month low of 13.93% in July from 15.18% in June, driven by a lower pace of price gains in primary products, food items and manufactured products, even though fuel and power inflation resurged to 43.75% last month, from June’s 40.38%.
While this was the 16th month in a row that wholesale inflation was above 10%, the reading marked the first dip below 14%-plus levels since February. The Commerce and Industry Ministry also revised May’s inflation upwards to a fresh high of 16.63%, from the earlier estimated record of 15.88%.
Despite the paring of the headline inflation rate, the Wholesale Price Index (WPI) dropped only 0.13% on a month-on-month basis between June and July, as fuel and power inflation jumped 6.56% sequentially, offsetting the moderation in other categories. Within fuel and power, diesel inflation soared again to hit 72.4%, from a four-month low of 54.9% in June. Petrol moderated marginally from 57.8% to 55.3%. The pace of price rise in LPG eased to 32% from 53.2% in June.
“Inflation in July, 2022 is primarily contributed by rise in prices of mineral oils, food articles, crude petroleum & natural gas, basic metals, electricity, chemicals & chemical products, food products etc. as compared to the corresponding month of the previous year,” noted the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade in the Commerce Ministry.
Pace slows for food items
The pace of wholesale price rise in food items dropped from 12.41% in June to 9.41% in July. This was led by a sharp drop in vegetable inflation to 18.25%, the lowest rate in at least six months, and less than a third of the 56.75% recorded in June.
Inflation in milk dropped to a four-month low of 5.45%, while eggs, meat and fish prices rose at the slowest pace in three months at 5.55%. However, cereals (9.76%), potato (53.5%), fruits (29.44%) and paddy (3.1%) hit their highest level of inflation in at least six months. Wheat inflation hit a four-month high of 13.61%, from 10.34% in June. Manufactured products saw a broad-based dip in price rise to 8.16%, from 9.19% in July.
“The easing of wholesale inflation is primarily led by lower food, metals and chemical prices,” said CARE Ratings chief economist Rajani Sinha. “If not for a sharp sequential rise in mineral oil prices and hike in electricity tariff, the fall would have been sharper,” she added.
“We see a likelihood of the first single-digit WPI inflation print by October 2022, after a gap of 18 months, if the downtrend in commodity prices sustains,” credit ratings firm ICRA said in a note.
4. Editorial-1: Stepping back from an ecological abyss
There is a need to balance India’s developmental needs with the sustenance of its ecological foundations
Chipko. Silent Valley. Narmada. Koel-Karo. Growing up in the 1970s and the early 1980s, many of us who were passionate about environmental issues were inspired by these and other movements. As the government too responded with a series of forest, wildlife, environment-related laws and policies, there was hope that India would be able to balance its development needs with the sustenance of its ecological foundations. As India celebrates 75 years of Independence, has that hope been sustained?
An earth under stress
The prospects today seem far gloomier than they did in the 1980s. Four hundred and eighty million Indians face the world’s most extreme air pollution levels. According to NITI Aayog, “600 million people in India face high to extreme water stress… with nearly 70% of water being contaminated; India is placed at 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index”. Land degradation and desertification are taking place over 30% of our land, according to the Indian Space Research Organisation. Average levels of land productivity are one-fourth or one-fifth of what they could be; pumping in artificial fertilizers restores a bit, but at the cost of pushing the soil further towards death. Food items in most cities have pesticide residues well above human safety levels. The World Bank — itself partly responsible for pushing India into unsustainable pathways — reported in 2013 that India was losing 5.7% of GDP due to environmental damage. The latest global environmental ranking by Yale and Columbia Universities puts India at the bottom among 180 countries; while flawed in many respects, including how it lets rich countries off the hook, it is nevertheless reflective of what is happening on the ground.
Favouring corporate access
All this evidence has still not penetrated the minds of politicians and economists setting development priorities. The obsession with economic growth — despite growing evidence of GDP being a very poor indicator of human well-being — treats the natural environment (and related livelihoods) as fodder for exploitation. Despite public posturing about the Sustainable Development Goals, the natural elements without which we would all be dead — land, water, biodiversity, air — continue to be ignored or mauled.
In fact, the Government is dismantling environmental and social security policies to favour corporate access to land and natural resources, such as the latest proposals to amend forest and environment laws, and the Environment Impact Assessment notification. Its priority programmes include building massive physical infrastructure that only disrupts the natural infrastructure we desperately need to protect. For instance, the 2022-23 Budget has an allocation for highways that alone is 40 times greater than the Budget of the Ministry for Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Of what use is faster and faster mobility, if at the end of the journey we still have air and water and food that are killing us?
Given the hopeful signs of the 1970s and the 1980s, how did we come to this pass? In our book Churning the Earth, Aseem Shrivastava and I analysed in detail a significant turning point — the economic ‘reforms’ beginning in 1991. With greater integration into the global economy, the entry of multinational (and big Indian) corporations into every sector, and increasing exports of natural materials and imports of toxic waste, the issue of environmental sustainability was relegated to the background. Mining projects crept into previously safe areas including wildlife protected areas and Adivasi territories, the oceans became a target for major commercial extraction (and will be even more so with the new Deep Ocean Mission), and big infrastructure became a holy mantra.
While wildlife and biodiversity have been major sufferers, there are also severe socio-cultural costs. Over 60 million people have been physically displaced by ‘development’ projects in the last few decades with very poor (if any) rehabilitation, and according to the former Planning Commission, a disproportionately high percentage of these are Adivasis and Dalits. Ironically, a component of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) is new coal mining in central India, displacing already self-reliant Adivasi communities and rendering them dependent on government and corporations.
The climate crisis severely compounds all this. This year’s super-hot summer should be a warning, even if we have not yet learnt from earlier events of extreme temperatures, erratic rainfall, cloudbursts and cyclones. In recent trips to Ladakh, I learnt that many villages (e.g. in Zanskar) are being abandoned due to water shortages caused by receding glaciers. A Lancet Planetary Health journal article says that extreme temperatures in India are responsible for 7,40,000 excess deaths annually. The majority of these are likely to be labourers, farmers, and other vulnerable sections who have to work, live, and commute in these temperatures without access to air-conditioning, appropriate clothing, etc. And we are not at all prepared, with abysmally low budgets for adaptation measures. The Climate Action Plan got a meagre ₹30 crore in the 2022-23 Budget.
So, India’s biggest challenge: can ecological sustainability be ensured while generating livelihood security and dignity for more than a billion people? Answers do exist, in thousands of initiatives across the country, as documented in the Vikalp Sangam process. Five thousand Dalit women farmers of the Deccan Development Society have demonstrated how organic, rainfed farming with traditional seed diversity can provide full food security and sovereignty.
Several hundred handloom weavers in Kachchh (Gujarat) have shown how dignified, creative livelihoods can be revived based on organic Kala cotton and a mix of traditional and new skills. Indeed, India’s crafts have sustained several hundred million people in the past, and can do so again if the incredible traditional and new skills in textiles, footwear, cleaning agents, vessels, pottery, furniture, architecture and construction, water-related technologies, and a range of household items are given priority. Community-led ecotourism, such as homestays in Uttarakhand and Ladakh and Sikkim, has combined increased earnings with ecologically sensitive visitation. Community conserved areas have shown a democratic approach to wildlife protection very different from the top-down ‘protected area’ model. As advocated by the United Nations Environment Programme, public transportation, organic farming, land and water regeneration, renewable energy, community health, eco-friendly construction, ecotourism, and small-scale manufacturing can significantly enhance job creation. Linking programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act with such activities, as happening in some States, also has huge potential.
Needed, a mobilisation
Such an orientation entails fundamental restructuring of economy and governance. It will mean a shift away from large infrastructure and industrialisation, replacing mega-corporations with producer cooperatives, ensuring community rights over the ‘commons’ (land, water, forest, coasts, knowledge), and direct decision-making powers to gram sabhas and urban area sabhas while tackling gender and caste inequities. It will entail respect for both human rights and the rights of nature. But since this will inevitably (and desirably) cut into the profits and consumerism of India’s ultra-rich, and reduce the centralised power of the state, it will not happen through government action alone. It needs the collective mobilisation of industrial workers, farmers, fishers, craftspersons, pastoralists, urban and rural youth, women in all sectors, the ‘disabled’ and LGBTQ, and those speaking on behalf of wildlife, all of whom are marginalised by dominant elites. Then only will India finish its century of Independence as a nation that has achieved genuine well-being — a real ‘amrit kaal’ and not the seductive but poisoned chimera promised by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in the Budget 2022-23 address.
5. Editorial-2: High points in science, technology and innovation
The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research has undertaken its mission effectively since Independence
Reflecting on 75 years of Independence makes one proud of the socio-economic developments of our country. The long period of colonial rule had robbed India of most of its wealth, and, more importantly, the skills required to sustain economic growth. Starting off as a poor country in 1947, with its GDP a mere ₹2.7 lakh crore, and food grain production a meagre 50 million tonnes, the challenges of educating the people, feeding the population, implementing democracy, promoting industry and trade, and ensuring the country’s security remained daunting. It is against this backdrop that the responsibility of developing the science, technology and innovation ecosystem fell upon the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which had been founded in 1942.
The immediate priority of the CSIR was to establish a number of national laboratories under its umbrella, and also promote similar organisations independently. The CSIR started five of its own laboratories with support from the government and industry and raising resources through crowdsourcing. Similarly, in collaboration with the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and the Government of Bombay, the Government of India (through the CSIR) started the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, with the CSIR providing substantial financial support in the initial years.
Among the first examples of finding science and technology-based solutions was the harmonisation of existing varied calendar systems. A committee under the Chairmanship of Meghnad Saha was formed to address this issue. The committee’s report was published by the CSIR in 1955, which then led to its acceptance as the national calendar, now one of the national identity elements. Another example in the early years of Independence was to address the challenges in conducting democratic elections — preventing frauds, including double voting by the same person. The CSIR’s National Physical Laboratory developed the indelible ink made up of silver nitrate to address this concern. The indelible ink is used even today and exported to many countries, undoubtedly remaining one of the prized gifts of the CSIR to the nation.
The leather story
At the time of Independence, India did not have well-established industries in many sectors. The informal work sector was also highly unorganised without their skills being developed for any particular industrial segment. A key mandate of the CSIR was, therefore, to help develop local industries by making contemporary technologies available and training requisite manpower. A prominent example of the CSIR’s contributions in this context has been in developing the leather industry. The making of finished leather products had remained elusive in the absence of a well-established leather industry and relevant technologies. Consequently, the leather industry employed less than 25,000 people at the time of Independence. In the 1970s, the Government took the decision of banning the export of raw hides and skins, and also imposing 25% export duty on semi-finished leather products. These decisions were a major turning point as far as the development of the leather industry in India was concerned.
In more than 50 years since then, the leather industry now has a workforce of more than 4.5 million, a large percentage of them being women, and a thriving market for Indian leather products around the world. Indian exports in this sector are close to $6 billion. The CSIR’s footprint in this sector has been transformative. First, when the CSIR-Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) was established in 1948, it developed technologies for finished leather products, such as the first ever indigenous manufacture of leather chemicals, making the transition from semi-finished to finished leather possible. Further, the CSIR-CLRI routinely trained the next generation manpower for the leather industry. As a result, more than 40% personnel employed in the leather industry have been trained directly or indirectly in the CSIR-CLRI. Human resource development across all sectors, dominantly that in science, technology and innovation, has been the hallmark of CSIR.
Successes in technologies
The Green Revolution has been one of the crowning glories of science, technology and innovation. Similarly, the emergence of the generic pharmaceutical industry in India also has a fascinating history.
During the Green Revolution, the CSIR’s footprint could be seen in the development of agrochemicals and the mechanisation of agriculture. The chemicals industry needed the necessary thrust for its maturation although the Bengal Chemicals and Pharmaceuticals Ltd. had been formed by Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray long before Independence. Two public sector companies were founded, post-Independence, based on technologies developed in the CSIR’s laboratories — the Hindustan Insecticides Ltd. and Hindustan Organic Chemicals Ltd., the former to make agrochemicals. Similarly, production of anti-HIV drugs by processes developed in CSIR laboratories provided the necessary impetus to the growth of generic pharmaceutical companies. These indeed represent fine examples of academia-industry interactions from the early days of Independence.
The mechanisation of agriculture was achieved through the indigenous development of the Swaraj tractor at the CSIR-Central Mechanical Engineering Research Institute (CMERI), leading to the formation of Punjab Tractors Ltd. in 1970. Notably, the technical team of CSIR-CMERI shifted to this company, presenting one of the first successful models of a spin-off company from academia in the country.
Path to self-reliance
A significant impact of the CSIR is also seen in the food and nutrition industry, in the aerospace sector, in the health and biotechnology industry, in protecting India’s traditional knowledge systems, and in promoting crops for enhancing farmers’ incomes. For example, in the 1950s, when solving the infant food problem appeared impossible, the CSIR successfully developed technologies to convert buffalo milk into powder and commercialised it with the help of Amul Industries. The Aroma Mission of the CSIR in recent times has been transforming the lives of thousands of farmers across the country. The cultivation of lavender in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir has been attracting attention worldwide as India’s ‘Purple Revolution’. Thus, there are many examples of science, technology and innovation, which have allowed India to take definitive steps towards becoming an Atmanirbhar country. True Atmanirbharta will however emerge only if we remain at the forefront of futuristic technology development — a task clearly cut out for the CSIR.
Even as we attribute the growing affluence of Indian society to science, technology and innovation-led developments, the challenges for the future remain intimidating. Reducing dependence on natural resources, making all industrial processes circular so that no footprint of human activity is left, making technologies environmentally friendly, providing sufficient opportunities to all for living either in cities or in villages will remain priorities of science and technology. Moreover, the ancient wisdom of integrating science and spirituality by enhancing our understanding of nature in association with that of the human mind and spirit will be the fond hope of the science and technology community of India.
6. Editorial-3: A probe into the Nehruvian pledge
The inequality of opportunities which Nehru wanted to eradicate has only systematically widened
Bliss was the night when I, along with the hostel students of St. Berchmans College, Kerala, proudly donning Gandhi caps and carrying crackers, waited to ring in August 15, 1947. With no radio around, we missed the historic speech of Jawaharlal Nehru, who said: “Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge… of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity… The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.”
Seventy-five years on, it is instructive to ask how far we have redeemed the pledge. Economists in general have not examined this question. But three books by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, written over 18 years, comprehensively examined the transformative process within their freedom-capability perspective keeping in mind the larger context of the demands of democracy and social justice. This article reviews the pledge of ending inequality of opportunity made at the time of Independence under three broad heads: gender inequality, social inequality and the practice of democracy. Let me hasten to add, I do not berate India’s achievements as an economic power, its progress in literature, science, technology, knowledge diffusion, innovation achievements, distinctions in music, films, market sophistication, and so on. But the compulsions of our history and public reason demand clarity regarding objectives and instruments, ends and means.
Men, women and equality
At midnight, we shouted the slogan, ‘Bolo Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, blissfully unaware of the unfreedoms of women in those days. Today, one will be shocked to find that the maternal mortality ratio (MMR) in 456 out of 640 districts is above 140 per lakh live births; in Assam, it is 215. That it is eminently better in the southern States shows not only the vast disparities in the health systems of States, but also the loss of freedom of millions to live long. Considering the global Sustainable Development Goals target, all countries are expected to have a MMR that is below 70.
Reducing the inequality between men and women in their access to resources and opportunity is an important metric of civilisation. The Global Gender Gap Index, produced by the World Economic Forum, with a stable methodology using four sub-indices — economic participation, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment — based on 14 indicators, provides a snapshot of where men and women in India stand globally. In 2006, India’s rank was 98 as against 13 for Sri Lanka and 91 for Bangladesh. India’s position fell to 135 in 2022, whereas Bangladesh improved its position to 71. Comparisons with Pakistan’s 145 or Afghanistan’s 146 can offer only cold comfort. In the sub-indice of economic participation, India fell from 110 in 2006 to 151 in 2021. Worse, in health and survival, it slipped from 103 in 2006 to 155 in 2021. That the reported Indian Penal Code (IPC) crimes against women as a proportion of total IPC crimes increased steadily between 1990 and 2019 is an ominous portend. It does not speak highly of our democracy that this happened despite 20 States reserving 50%, and others one-third, of local government seats for women.
Unless serious public interventions are made, inequality of opportunity will only widen where social disparities in gender, caste and class coexist. There are constitutional guarantees of reservation in employment and education for historically marginalised communities to expand their opportunities, but because these groups have had to contend with powerful groups with great initial endowments and an early start, these guarantees have proved to be largely ineffective. Moreover, India has failed to seriously implement land reforms. The resounding slogan ‘land to the tiller’ of the pre-Independence struggle has quietly vanished. While the property-owning class have been winners, the landless Dalits, Adivasis and the poor have not been able to go forward.
In a 2019 paper, Thomas Piketty and Lucas Chancel trace India’s journey ‘From British Raj to Billionaire Raj’ and show that the egalitarian achievements up to the early 1980s have been lost following the liberalisation turnaround. They estimate that the top 1% earners captured less than 21% of the total income in the late 1930s, 6% in the early 1980s and 22% in recent times. On the other hand, the share of the bottom 50% remained below 14%. This is but inevitable because the share of the bottom 50% income group grew 90% in the 1980-2015 period, while that of the top 10% grew 435% (Review of Income and Wealth, Series 65, Number S1, 2019). We cannot forget that the number of billionaires in India grew from 102 in 2020 to 142 in 2021, while the share of the bottom 50% in national wealth shrank to a low 6% in the worst pandemic times (Oxfam).
These striking numbers clearly prove that the sustained gains of economic growth have not been channeled to widen the access to education, health care, social security and so on. This could have substantially expanded India’s opportunities and freedom. The country that once chose a socialist pattern of society is not even a good social democratic variant now.
The practice of democracy
With growing social and economic inequality, Indian democracy is emerging into what Shankkar Aiyar calls the “Gated Republic”. His book under this phrase narrates why the privileged classes do not demand key public goods such as drinking water, electricity, and law and order; it is because they have bottled water, storage tanks, water purifiers, inverters, private security and the like. Many of the avoidable deaths, and disease, that happen in India are due to the public failure in providing water, public hygiene, education and the rule of law. It is paradoxical that India, which successfully launched the Mars Orbiter and Chandrayaan missions, could not eradicate mass poverty, especially of the Adivasis, fisherfolk and Dalits. The Economic Survey 2021 (Chapter 4) asserts that economic growth and inequality will converge in terms of their effects on socioeconomic outcomes. The trickle-down thesis is an insult to the poor. Only the rich who finance the political parties can have their quid pro quo, while social rights get drowned. Look at the promotion of electoral bonds on the grounds of ‘donor’s anonymity’ while the Election Commission and other democratic institutions get throttled? Corruption is pervasive and undermines democratic practice. The moral turpitude of the Opposition makes adversarial politics toothless and timid. The local democracy, heralded 30 years ago with great hopes to build India on a plank of economic development and social justice from the grass-roots level, faces utter neglect. The Mission Antyodaya project to eradicate mass poverty is in the back-burner.
After 75 years of Independence, the inequality of opportunities, which Nehru wanted to eradicate, has only systematically widened. When will the “soul of a nation, long suppressed” find “utterance”?