The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) is an important source of study material for IAS, especially for the current affairs segment. In this section, we give you the gist of the EPW magazine every week. The important topics covered in the weekly are analysed and explained in a simple language, all from a UPSC perspective.
1. Parched Present, Parched Future?
- Faced with a worsening water crisis, the state needs to exercise prudence in water management.
Water crisis in rural India
- Women in the settlement of Barde-Chi-Wadi in Maharashtra’s Nashik district risk their lives to descend 60 feet into a well to collect potable water for their families.
- Water stress also re-emphasises inequalities of gender, caste, and region. While women have been burdened with the responsibility of arranging for water.
- In a remote villages of Maharashtra men marry, second or third time for the sole purpose of getting “water wives” or “paaniwaali bais” to fetch water through the day.
- Such villages are incidentally close to rivers and dams, but the supply being directed towards Mumbai women plough on to get water covering long distances, even as they are the last in their households to get to use it.
- Among rural households, only 18% are said to have access to piped water. Small farmers are worse off and are forced to take their lives or migrate in drought conditions.
Water crisis in urban India
- In cities like Chennai and Ranchi, water stress led to violent clashes, distress, and desperation, as the lakes and reservoirs dried up and people had to fight and fend for water for their everyday needs.
- Cities in India thrive on the water brought from far away locations at a high cost and with loss involved in transmission. They have ignored maintenance of structures like tanks.
- Chennai alone has lost over 350 lakes. The expansion of cities fails to take into account access to water, and to mandate provisions to harvest rainwater, and reuse, recycle and treat waste water.
- The real estate boom has promoted the tanker lobby and increased water extraction, along with usurping of the floodplains and the green cover.
- Encroachment on the “land” retrieved after levelling waterbodies, has led to reduced storage and seepage of water, and aggravates flood situations.
- The quality of water that is discharged by the cities and the industries remains of no concern to them. Due to such an approach, close to 70% of the country’s water supply is contaminated, leading to an estimated two lakh deaths in a year.
- Most of the farming close to cities is being done using the untreated wastewater, which contains heavy metals and toxic chemicals, further compromising public health.
- The delay in monsoon or poor rainfall is not the only reason
- The effect of drought has been felt more intensely also because it is becoming difficult to scrape for the smallest amounts of water after digging even deeper.
- Water scarcity, certainly cannot be treated as a standalone instance or problem. It is a process in which the water stress has accumulated in the absence of steps to prevent it.
- The present water crisis has encouraged parallels with the “day zero” situation of Cape Town by many, including the Niti Aayog, among other such doomsday predictions.
- However, such projections also create a situation of panic, and a push to “solutions” that, in fact, will worsen the situation.
- The interlinking of rivers, pushed for despite evidence of poor functioning of existing hydro projects, will only spell disaster and more conflicts.
- In view of the looming water crisis, and associated food and health insecurity, it is vital to exercise prudence to manage water efficiently. It is a situation whose future trail can be changed.
- It will, however, mean a move towards water-prudent crops and lifestyles, augmented storage and regulation of the usage of water and policies that take into account the inequalities in access, and real time data of its consumption.
- Instead of mere engineering and technocratic fixes, somewhere an acceptance is also needed that waterbodies in their healthy and natural state have the ability to replenish themselves.
2. Simultaneous Elections vs Accountability
- “One Nation, One Election’’ has been an issue of great priority for the present government.
- Elections are not mere instrument to elect the government but a meaningful democratic exercise.
One Nation, One Election
- The governement seeks to define the idea of holding simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.
- Certain opposition parties have opposed it on the ground that it may adversely affect constitutional democracy and federalism.
- Though the idea of holding simultaneous elections is not new, as it was mooted by the Election Commission in 1982 as well as the Law Commission in 1999,
- The recent impetus has come from a discussion paper by NITI Aayog members as well as a report by the Law Commission.
- Furthermore, this idea has been pushed forcefully by the Prime Minister in his speeches and monologues, thereby giving it political weightage.
Rationale behind simultaneous elections
- Primarily, the rationale for this idea rests on the arguments for efficiency and expenditure.
- The simultaneous conduct of elections is said to help reduce the overall expenditure on holding elections in a staggered and sequential manner, as has been the general precedent since 1969.
- Moreover, it would also remove the impediment in taking policy decisions due to the adherence to the model code of conduct at different points in time.
Arguments against the idea
- The implementation of this idea would demand the curtailment of the ongoing tenure of several state legislatures, which would effectively mean undermining the democratic mandate.
- Even if this process is to be ensured without invoking Article 356 and were to be carried out consensually, it would stand to harm the federal principle.
- Specificities of state-level issues and the regional forces addressing them prominently find better scope and space with the singular focus being on the elections in particular states.
- Various assembly elections that happen to be held separately from general elections to the Lok Sabha can exercise democratic pulls and pressures on the union government.
- Besides, elections held at different times can possibly force the union government to correct its anti-people policies, and pay heed to the demands of the masses.
Accountability of the executives
- The proposals put forward to sustain the simultaneity stand in brazen contravention to the principle of accountability of the executive to the people through the legislature.
- It is so because the sustenance of simultaneous elections demands a provision for fixed tenure.
- With the absence of such a provision, the pattern of simultaneity may be broken if a successful no-confidence motion against a government, at the union or state level were to necessitate mid-term elections.
- Such eventuality is sought to be addressed through proposals, such as a so-called constructive no-confidence motion President’s rule, or immediate election for a curtailed period.
- Much premium is put on the value of stability and continuity while advocating the fixed tenure, and the positively disruptive destabilising (for the status quo) of the quality of democracy is sought to be willy-nilly sacrificed.
- Ideas such as the constructive vote of no-confidence dilute the accountability to legislature and raise the question as to whether, in a democracy, stability can be given precedence over accountability.
- Such dilution would also entail further entrenchment of the ongoing process of the Presidentialisation of the polity by stealth.
- This process also gets a boost as the simultaneous elections would unduly favour the big national parties—better endowed with resources and reach—and make the political contest increasingly bipartisan and centred on personalities of leaders.
- The aforementioned “managerial instrumental” conception is fundamentally at odds with the normative content of democracy, embodied in the idea of popular sovereignty.
- Such a conception looks at elections as a mere procedure or method to elect the government to govern the people-nation.
- It imagines that people are passive voters who have to vote every five years and then withdraw from public activity, entrusting it to the executive.
- Along with popular extra-parliamentary agitations and movements, elections in various states also provide a scope for the expression of this activity of the masses which is essential for the health of democracy.
- After all, elections are an exercise whereby the principle of popular sovereignty is put into practice
- One can debate how far such popular activity is possible in money- and media-dominated elections, but the underlying logic of simultaneous elections seeks to foreclose such a possibility itself.
3. Rethinking India’s Approach to China’s BRI
- The second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in April 2019 witnessed a transformed discourse on China’s grand connectivity initiative.
- In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the launch of both the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, infrastructure development and investment initiatives that would stretch from East Asia to Europe.
- The project, eventually termed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but sometimes known as the New Silk Road, is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects of China
Current Challenges faced by China
- China has faced a growing tide of criticism against its ambitious connectivity plans in recent years, particularly from India and more advanced Western economies.
- Some of it is not without basis, as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has faced problems ranging from cost overruns to allegations of corruption and lack of transparency in the conception of projects.
- Contrary to the exaggerated image of Chinese banks sweeping vulnerable states into the orbit of an empire, Beijing has discovered that some of the states where the BRI is finding traction have accumulated massive Western debt over the years.
- Such precarious economies view the BRI as a lifeline to recover their macroeconomic stability, often by servicing older Western debt through Chinese loans.
- Stabilising the global economic landscape and creating a conducive environment for Chinese capital and companies to flourish in non-Western economies is now vital for China’s continued growth.
- Prolonged trade tensions with Washington have convinced Beijing that a successful BRI is more necessary than it was two years ago. Chinese foreign direct investment to the United States (US) plummeted by 80% in 2018.
- Since Trump administration imposed the first round of tariffs in 2018, China’s exports to the US have declined by 12%
- American protectionism against mainland China’s exports is also increasing the importance of other Asian locales towards whom trade is being diverted (towards the US) and which could host some of China’s manufacturing industries.
- In short, the BRI remains a vital endeavour for China’s continued economic transformation and stability, but it also needs other actors to share the risks of this grand initiative.
India and BRI 2.0
- India’s main concern has been that the BRI is designed to stamp China’s geopolitical dominance.
- India’s debate is also occurring against the backdrop of new evidence on the BRI. Researchers have begun questioning the simplistic assessment of the BRI as a “debt-trap.”
- Some argue that such a fear might be misplaced for “all great infrastructure and connectivity ventures—throughout history—have altered the prevailing geo-economic matrix, and hence the resulting geopolitical balance.
- While the geopolitical effects are short-lived, the geo-economic benefits survive over time.
- Evidences been discovered of Chinese banks “deliberately over-lending or funding loss-making projects to secure strategic advantages for China”
- Even the infamous case of Hambantota, a Sri Lankan port that slipped into China’s hands after its commercial viability never materialised, is now seen as an outlier rather than the trend.
- Nearly all of India’s neighbours have expressed a preference for: non-alignment or strategic autonomy as a guiding principle in their foreign relations multidirectional economic engagement with India, China, US, Japan, and other powers
- Sensitivity towards India, including publicly disavowing any move towards offering military facilities or bases to external powers and, thus, reassuring India on its vital interests.
- As one study recently observed, subcontinental states “largely still see India as the dominant power in South Asia, suggesting that Chinese economic activity, will not necessarily translate into major military or strategic gains”
- Obviously, South Asian states have their own agency and are able to juggle foreign policies that are deferential to core Indian interests while engaging China.
Order-building in the Subcontinent
- It is widely recognised that an under-resourced and incoherent policy setting stifles India’s ability to offer quality and time-bound regional infrastructure projects.
- Yet, overcoming such structural problems has been an elusive exercise because they are linked to a highly distorted political economy that lacks the industrial–technological repertoire and surplus finance capital of East Asian economies.
- The result is for all to see: merely 5% of South Asian trade is intra-regional and investment flows within the subcontinent constitute less than 1% of total investment in the region.
- Such a fragmented subregion with the barest forms of socio-economic interdependence is an unacceptable reality given the transformations that have occurred elsewhere in Asia.
- In the meanwhile, dissuading China from altering the economic landscape is a self-defeating policy because a veto—to the limited extent that India can continue to play a spoiler’s role—does little to advance India’s lofty vision for the subcontinent.
- China’s infrastructure projects could also increase South Asia’s internal connectivity. Much of the viability of logistical networks and energy projects is linked with India’s economy and access to its large market.
- For example, hydropower projects developed by China with India as the main eventual market could be a form of trilateral cooperation.
- There is a quixotic belief in India that a period of sustained economic growth will by itself restore Indian authority in the subcontinent.
- This is delusional because India’s growth is, for the most part, not being accompanied by innovative institutions, scientific and industrial heft, or the socialisation strategies that rising powers have historically relied upon to cohere their regions.
- China’s presence is a reality that cannot be wished away or held at bay through India’s negative veto power over its neighbours who, albeit in a clear-eyed fashion, are deepening their geo-economic links with Beijing.
- Shaping this changing setting would require India to exercise leadership in more imaginative ways, recognise its domestic weaknesses, be attentive to its neighbours’ desire for a better life, and tap into China’s strengths.
- India’s policy debate must shift away from an ideological and overly securitised posture to China’s geo-economic involvement, and towards an order-building approach where regional modernisation becomes the heart of India’s geostrategy.
- Multilateralising China’s engagement through a subcontinent-wide network of norms is more likely to convert the BRI into an advantageous proposition rather than a purely competitive approach
- Over time, a sophisticated approach propelled by bilateral and multilateral projects, including partnerships between Indian and Chinese firms, and establishing sub regional manufacturing zones and industrial parks
- This will be the shrewdest response to changing the way the BRI is operationalised in the region.
For more EPW articles, read “Gist of EPW