Q1. Protests underline the divisive character of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Comment
The visit of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 to the Northeast last week has left the region, particularly Assam, divided. Protests have been held across the region for and against the Bill, which proposes that “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan… shall not be treated as illegal migrants”.
This Bill seeks to change a fundamental character of the country’s citizenship act, which does not discriminate or privillege any person seeking Indian citizenship on the basis of her religion. The repercussions will not be limited to Assam, which seems most tense about the Bill, but extend even to neighbouring countries.
The Bill has raised the prospect of old faultlines reappearing in Assam. The privileging of non-Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan is, of course, expected to feed into the existing debate over citizenship claims in Assam. The Assam Movement, from the 1970s, framed the citizenship debate in secular terms as “natives” versus “outsiders”, or Assamese versus others.
In recent decades, with the rise of Hindutva groups, this debate has acquired a religious edge with the tag of outsider limited to Muslims of perceived Bangladeshi origin. Ironically, the proposed amendment has also revived an old divide between the Brahmaputra and the Barak river valleys. This division is not merely regional, but also linguistic.
The large Bengali Hindu population of the Barak Valley, many of them refugees from districts which are now part of Bangladesh, have supported the amendment whereas the residents of the Brahmaputra Valley see it as an instrument that may change the ethnic demography of the region.
These debates portend a return to the intensely polarising politics of the 1980s in Assam, which turned the diverse people of the state not just against “outsiders” but also each other. It extracted a price from the polity — Assam’s social and economic development was stunted for years as violence gripped the state. Assam can’t afford a return to those bloody years.
India’s citizenship provisions are derived from the perception of the country as a secular republic. In fact, it is a refutation of the two-nation theory that proposed a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. Independent India adopted a Constitution that rejected discrimination on the basis of religion and the birth of Bangladesh undermined the idea that religion could be the basis of a national community.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016 imagines India as a Hindu homeland, which is a refutation of the constitutional idea of the republic. The JPC must call for shelving it.
Q2. How India get impacted by US-Iran tussle?
India’s trade with Iran stands at around $12 billion, and deficit with Iran stands at around $8 billion (5% of India’s total merchandise deficit). In 2017-18, India imported around 256 million tonnes of crude oil and its derived products worth $101 billion.
Imports from Iran made up around 10% of this ($10 billion)—it is India’s third largest oil supplier after Saudi Arabia and Iraq. India and China are the largest importers of Iranian oil—accounting for 1.4mbpd of imports from Iran, which is about a third of the country’s total production.
Other major imports from Iran include fertilisers and organic & inorganic chemicals—India imported around $4.5 billion of fertilisers during 2017-18, and Iran ($0.5 billion) ranks amongst top three in India’s supplier of imported fertilisers.
India’s exports to Iran mainly comprise of food items, organic chemicals and iron & steel. India may now resort to looking for waivers from the US or going back to using a mix of barter, rupee and gold to settle payments. Imposition of US sanctions might also adversely affect the development of Chabahar Port, which provides access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan.
Trade between India and Iran is unlikely to suffer on account of re-imposition of US sanctions—these have been in place for long and India has maintained good trade relations with Iran. In fact, trade in the years following the implementation of the JCPOA in January 2016 has been lower than in the sanction years. Re-imposition of the sanctions might actually give India better bargaining power when trading with Iran.
The most critical impact in India will be via oil prices—which rose in response to the US withdrawing from the JCPOA. There are fears that the sanctions will further tighten the already squeezed oil market. Saudi Arabia has said that it will alone not seek to increase its oil output to make up for Iran’s loss, but will consult all the other OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) members and Russia.
According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates, Iran’s crude oil output stood at 3.8mbpd in 2017—making up around 4% of global crude production. Estimates suggest that 500kbpd to 1mbpd of oil supply from Iran could be impacted because of the sanctions.
Further risk to oil price stems from the falling Venezuelan oil output, tension between Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels in Yemen, and slow recovery in US shale. Some downside to oil prices is possible in case Iran pulls out of the OPEC output deal and increases its output.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) estimates that every $10 rise in global crude oil price adversely affects inflation by 30bps and growth by 10bps. Brent crude oil price is up almost 16% since the start of 2018.
While oil prices are a supply-side factor, RBI will need to pay attention to it due to the second round impact of oil prices on overall inflation. The impact of higher global oil prices is hard to bypass unless India refuses to align the retail prices of fuels in line with global oil prices. The same, however, is not advisable since the consumers will fail to adjust their consumption to higher prices and will contribute to the ballooning trade deficit.
India’s oil trade deficit stood at $66 billion in 2017-18. This accounted for almost 40% of India’s merchandise trade deficit. Higher trade deficit will have an adverse impact on currency and will contribute to higher imported inflation. At the same time, RBI might have to drawdown on its reserves to support the currency and stabilise the market.
Higher global oil prices will lead to higher inflation across countries. Higher inflation might prompt central banks of developed economies, particularly the US, to follow a monetary policy tighter than expected before. This can have a negative spillover on capital flows into emerging markets, including India. While the India-Iran trade is likely to remain unaffected, India must keep a close watch on the recent geopolitical developments and conduct its diplomacy accordingly.
Oil and fertilisers are key strategic import items, and India should try to diversify its trading partners to shield itself from any adverse consequences.
Situations in India’s key oil partners—Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran—remain fragile. China accounts for almost 20% of our urea imports and 30% for overall fertiliser imports. Relationship with China, too, is always under a doubt. Things are moving fast on North Korea’s front—trade with North Korea was only $132 million during 2016-17 and fell further in 2017-18. This could be a threat as well as an opportunity.
While the India-Iran trade is likely to remain unaffected, India must keep a close watch on the recent geopolitical developments and conduct its diplomacy accordingly
Q3 The challenge before a global accord on ocean conservation will be to get countries to make ambitious commitments
The “high seas”, or international waters, account for two-thirds of Earth’s oceans and provide 90% of the habitat for life. They also are the bedrock of up to $16 billion worth of fishing every year. And yet, when it comes to their conservation, surprisingly little is in the realm of the formal.
To be sure, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regulates activity in international waters, including sea-bed mining and cable laying while 20-odd organisations regulate shipping as also fishing, whaling and local conservation.
This year, in September, members of the United Nations will be meeting in New York to arrive at a global accord on conservation of the oceans, quite like they did at Paris on climate change (though the US, under Donald Trump, pulled out later). The treaty will, apart from establishing safeguards for the ocean, lay down rules on resource-sharing and commercial activity, including mining, research, etc.
A major concern of the negotiations will agreement on creation of marine protected areas (MPAs)—regions that are off-limits to at least specified commercial activity, if not all. MPAs can’t ward off the effects plastic dumping in oceans, or the impact of climate change on oceans (such as increasing acidity, temperatures, etc), but they can give marine populations a protected area.
As per a Nature report, there is scientific consensus that nearly 30% of the global ocean needs to be “cordoned off” to stave off mass extinction of marine populations—on paper, 7% is protected while the UN aims for 10% by 2020, but in reality, just 2% of the ocean and 0.5% of international waters are completely no-go areas today.
Thus, the challenge before the New York meet will be to get countries to make ambitious commitments on creation of MPAs. This will mean large-scale giving up on exploration of oceanic resources for human needs before ways are found to do this sustainably.
The other challenge will be to get the treaty, along with punitive provisions, enforced. While monitoring of violations is easy with satellite technology, prosecution of regulatory breaches will be a political issue and eventually depend on the will of each nation to work towards a consensus.
Q4. Northern Indian phenomenon. is a combination of the rapid increase in pollution sources due to urbanisation and its inherent geographical disadvantage. Comment
A case in point is the latest survey by the World Health Organisation (WHO) — conducted every two years — of the most polluted air in cities around the world. It shows that 14 of the 15 worst cities were from north India, forming a band from Jodhpur in the west to Muzaffarpur in the east. Kanpur figured right on top of the list.
Kanpur’s average PM 2.5 levels were 17 times the WHO limit in 2016, the cut-off year for the current study. It was followed by Faridabad, Varanasi, Gaya and Patna. Delhi figured sixth, which is hardly any consolation. One should recall that in 2014, the WHO listed Delhi the worst in the world in terms of particulate matter (PM) 2.5, the smallest measurable pollutant, 30 times less than the width of human hair, and most hazardous. The authorities drew some comfort in 2016 when that dubious distinction went to Zabol in Iran, but with Gwalior and Allahabad coming a close second and third.
Northern Indian phenomenon. is a combination of rapid increase in pollution sources due to urbanisation and its inherent geographical disadvantage that is landlocked that makes this region extremely vulnerable to winter inversion leading to massive trapping of pollution. This region does not have the advantage of a coastline.
At the same time, air pollution sources are proliferating that include motorisation, proliferation of industrial units using extremely dirty fuels without pollution control, extensive use of solid fuels for cooking, massive construction activities, enormous problem of waste mismanagement and big dust impacts. This region requires more stringent interventions to counter its disadvantages.”
Other experts have cited how the Indo-Gangetic plains are sandwiched between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas and are home to more than 600 million people with winds blowing from north-west to east, especially in winter, which carry pollutants from other regions.
In the 1970s, for example, when the central government was worried about the threat from air pollution to the Taj Mahal — which has resurfaced, with the surface of the “miracle in marble” turning brown — it found that winds were carrying sand particles which impacted the monument and discoloured it.
The entire north-west belt is prone to high temperatures, which caused the recent deadly storms in UP (including Agra), Rajasthan and Uttarakhand. Temperatures have ranged over 40 degrees C of late. A cyclonic circulation over Haryana — rain storms and dust storms originate from the same meteorological conditions — was apparently the trigger, leading to wind speeds of over 100 km per hour.
In May 2016, Phalodi in Rajasthan registered 51 degrees C, the all-time highest ever in the country. In his influential non-fiction work, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, novelist Amitav Ghosh records how he faced a tornado in Delhi in 1978, which many would indeed find “unthinkable”.
It would be a mistake, however, if the authorities blame regional meteorological conditions alone for causing pollution in north Indian cities and throw up their hands in despair. Global climate change is also responsible for these increasingly high temperatures and frequent storms and much of this is man-made.
This is nothing less than a national public health emergency, which the authorities at all levels seem blissfully unaware of. Two years ago, a study on the cost of air pollution co-authored by the World Bank found that the country lost 1.4 million lives due to such contamination in 2013, shaving off a massive 8.5 per cent of GDP. The case for controlling such pollution is thus incontrovertible in economic terms, if not in saving lives. Indians can live four years longer if we comply with WHO norms.
Last year, the late Environment Minister Anil Dave dismissed a study on the global burden of disease by the Health Effect Institute in the US, which showed that India tops the list of countries — beating China — in registering the highest number of early deaths due to ozone pollution. Dave said that there was no conclusive evidence linking mortality and air pollution and that Indian institutions should be trusted in such matters. Such ostrich-like parochialism can have no place when it comes to matters of life or death.
To adapt what environmentalists prescribe: Think regionally, but act locally. Beijing, Shanghai and other Chinese cities have demonstrated that where there is the political will, there is a way to tackle air pollution. Measures that need to be taken aren’t rocket science: More efficient means of treating crop residue; replacing smoky chulhas with efficient models if not LPG cylinders; cracking down on construction debris and polluting thermal power stations; restricting the number of vehicles being some of the main ones.
In order of priority, the chulhas are probably the most urgent because 200 million households continue to burn biomass within homes. Switching to mass public transport in cities — not necessarily expensive metros, which many can’t afford — is well within the capacity of every city.
The WHO report shows, surprisingly, that Mumbai is the fourth most polluted mega city (with more than 10 million inhabitants) globally. Its PM 10 levels are less only than Delhi, Cairo and Dhaka, despite being on the coast.
It is a measure of the ecological illiteracy of the Maharashtra government and municipal corporation that work is about to start on a 29-km-long, Rs 15,000-crore coast road that will deprive the country’s financial capital of whatever clean air it enjoys as a coastal city. The project is going through without a single public hearing and the refusal of the authorities to engage with any critics.