While political apathy to many pressing problems of India is glaring, one key area of national concern, generates some hope. Looking at the successive government’s actions across the partisan divide, as well as the last federal election manifestos of the two largest parties, the future of science and technology in India looks promising.
Last election cycle, the ruling Indian National Congress (INC) documented the formation of several new research institutions and promised their continued support. The main opposition party: (BJP) Bhartiya Janta Party’s manifesto, drafted by an ex-physicist, in addition to institutional support, touched on the improvements needed in the IPR regime and evolution of new funding mechanisms.
Given that in the near future Indian government would only be formed with coalition partners, several smaller parties that traditionally never had any science and technology section to their manifestos need to start clarifying their vision on this pressing issue. The third emerging force in the Indian politics, Aam Aadmi Party that recently displaced INC and BJP in the local elections of Delhi, also needs to clarify its position, as it prepares to play an increasing role at the national stage. I hope this election cycle, which starts in few weeks, witnesses a detailed science and technology manifesto released by all groups. I also hope that all prominent candidates discuss their science policy positions on the national television, just as they discuss other prominent issues.
As a young investigator contemplating return to Indian science, I have few suggestions. I am sure there will be many more suggestions by other scientists at various stages of their career. Hopefully the following small list would catalyze further discussion in the form of elaboration and extension, as well as constructive criticism and deletions.
1. Despite recent efforts, India has yet to register internationally mentionable significant strides in scientific research and education. Instead of general statement of intent, political formations need to provide specifics of preventing brain drain and encouraging reverse brain drain. Financial support for research needs to increase several fold to match the other Asian competitors of the same and even smaller population and economic sizes.
2. In India, akin to China, too much emphasis is put on proxy metrics of success, especially on the number of publications and short-term citations. In addition to funding few safe and reliable projects, government needs to start funding individuals who are willing to tread the off the beaten path. Special rewards and funding should be reserved for individuals who are successful in high-risk high-reward projects.
3. Smarter resource allocation that goes against populist sentiments is direly needed. Funding large number of institutions with suboptimal support is far inefficient than adequately supporting and promoting much smaller number of fully capable institutions. Until the persistence of resource limitation, this prioritization also needs to be extended to research areas. Indian government has recognized few focus areas but has hardly done much to promote them. Less than adequate support to the Department of Biotechnology, inadequate initiative in the key areas of Neuroscience, Supercomputing and Nanomaterials, spreading defence research budget to proven unproductive projects such as engine for LCA Tejas, are all errors that need immediate remediation.
4. In non-sensitive areas, senior positions should also be open to researchers from all nationalities, as there is an urgent need to seed novel research directions with the right starter culture. Approvals needed in some institutions for international collaborations need to be completely removed. Novel funding mechanisms needs to be established for encouraging international collaborations.
5. Modern science requires extensive cross collaboration. Indian science funding, hiring and promotions needs to break out of the traditional mold that strictly define a researcher belonging to one field only. Separate funding mechanisms need to be established for researchers crossing the conventional boundaries.
6. In addition to supporting science and technology institutions, government of India needs to step up its existing incentives to R& D companies, especially startups, beyond initial subsidies and loans, so that talent developed in scientific institutions can be best absorbed and utilized domestically.
7. The boundaries in basic science and applied science are disappearing with every passing day. A good IPR regime is a must to incentivize innovation and entrepreneurship in applied work. More encouragement should be given to researchers, who want to establish their own startup R&D companies in addition to conducting basic research, as long as their academic performance faces no negative consequence and conflict of interests.
8. Equally importantly, there is need of systematic research opportunities for students in high schools and undergraduate studies. This exposure would enable students to explore exciting careers in research streams in addition to the well-publicized engineering and medical jobs. Increasing research exposure in high schools should not be confused with sham lab and practical courses, where the same syllabus is repeated every year and students repeat or just watch demonstration experiments.
9. Barring few notable exceptions, scientists with ongoing mentionable research careers are largely absent from the policy settings. This needs immediate correction.
10. Central ethics and regulation agencies that deal with violations of proper conduct are much needed. Currently such organizations are nearly non-existent and in the rare cases of an official existence, they are practically toothless.
11. Central bodies that exist to regulate the quality of materials, tools, high-tech instruments, food and drugs, need a serious restructuring, as India attempts to provide better end products to its citizens and have an impact in the global markets. Recent controversies of Indian pharmaceuticals with the US FDA could have been prevented with better domestic inspection and certification.
India’s Victory at the International Court of Justice is the World’s Challenge to the Status Quo
For the past week, both the Indian and British media have rigorously covered the story of the re-election of India’s justice Dalveer Bhandari to the bench of judges in the International Court of Justice on Tuesday, November 21. That the Indian judge retained his position on the bench was not the sole reason for the story’s extensive coverage; his reappointment combined with the fact that it happened at the expense of the United Kingdom’s spot on the bench is why the story is making so many rounds… and no, that many Indians may see it as some sort of a comeback against Britain’s 200 years of colonial rule over the country is not the reason why it matters. It matters because this is the first time since 1946 that the UK has no judge on the ICJ bench, and that signals possible changes in the way international bodies govern and are governed. So what does this mean for India, for the UK and for the world at large?
The International Court of Justice
The International Court of Justice or the ICJ was established in 1945 by the United Nations as its principal judicial branch and is located in The Hague, Netherlands. Its job is to settle legal disputes between states that are submitted to it and give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it. The court comprises of a total of 15 judges that are elected to 9 year terms by way of voting from both the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) separately. One third of the court is re-elected every three years, and no two judges of the same nationality may assume positions on the bench simultaneously. However, the rule that led to the deadlock between the candidates from India and UK is that a candidate must obtain an absolute majority in both the UNGA and the UNSC in order to be elected to the bench.
UN General Assembly vs UN Security Council: The Race in Numbers
On November 9 and November 13, in seven rounds of voting justice Bhandari secured between 110 and 121 votes from a total of 193 in the UNGA against figures between 68 and 79 secured by his British counterpart Sir Christopher Greenwood. However, among the UNSC, justice Bhandari lost out by 5 votes to 9 in favour of Sir Greenwood. In the face of uncertainty, the UK then pushed for a ‘joint conference’ under the rules of the court between the UNSC and the UNGA. Under the ‘joint conference’ three countries from each side then determine the name for the court. However, the rules do not mention the procedure to select these countries and understandably so, since the option was last invoked in 1921. Fearing not enough support from the council, criticism for invoking the charter, and harming its friendly as well as economic relations with India, the UK eventually chose to not follow through with the process and withdrew its candidature for the post. In the end, India secured the seat with a total of 183 votes out of 193 at the UNGA and all 15 at the UNSC.
There is More to the Victory than Meets the Eye
The result means different things for the parties involved and also for the balance of power and influence between countries. For the UK, there are hardly any positives to take away from this result amid already turbulent times. Many in the British media have viewed this loss as ‘a blow to British international prestige’ and the country’s acceptance of a diminishing role in global affairs. This was the UK’s second major defeat at the ICJ after it lost a vote by a margin of 94 to 15 countries in June when the UNGA voted in favour of referring the question of decolonisation and self-determination of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean to the ICJ, which is currently under its control. Many within and outside the country have also been quick to blame Brexit for the situation in which they find themselves today, arguing that the other states, especially the ones within the European Union would have been less willing to snub the UK had the UK chosen not to leave the alliance. In the face of defeat, British diplomats have continued to maintain that they are happy that their close friend India has won, but have also not been shy of hiding their natural disappointment at their own loss.
For India, their victory in having a judge win the contest in getting elected to the ICJ bench against a permanent member of the UNSC is more symbolic than anything else. It reinforces India’s image at the highest stage as a major emerging global player and its ability to bring in greater reforms that push for more involvement from developing countries and emerging economies. Also, having a judge on the ICJ bench gives India an edge over Pakistan in the case involving former Indian Navy Officer Kulbhushan Jadhav who has been sentenced to death by a Pakistan military court on the charges of espionage. True, a judge on the ICJ does not represent his/her country or their interests. However, as suggested by repeated criticism the court receives for being biased in favour of the states who appoint the judges, having a judge on the panel is certainly an asset for any country, no matter what the rules dictate on paper.
The most important takeaway from the whole episode far exceeds the ambitions of just the two countries and a race for a seat at the ICJ. India’s victory at the court reinforces the belief that power does not necessarily reside or has to reside with the ‘few global elite’, a sentiment which was expressed clearly when most member states of the UNGA backed India’s justice Bhandari to be re-elected against the choice of the permanent members or P5 of the UNSC. There seems to be an acknowledgment among the member states of the UN of the beginning of a change which sees an increasing shift in the balance of power away from the traditional powers of the world or the P5 – Britain, China, United States, Russia, and France. Of these countries, China was the only member to not have a judge on the ICJ between 1967 and 1985 till the final decision last week, when they were joined by the UK in the list. Last year, Russia was voted off the United Nations Human Rights Council. In the 2016 elections, France lost out on securing a position in the International Law Commission. While diplomats at the UN continue to maintain that there are no winners and losers here, that it is all part of a bigger picture, these developments undoubtedly mark diplomatic victories for the Group of 77 or the G77, a coalition of developing nations at the UN that have constantly pushed for an enhanced negotiating capacity. What remains to be seen is just to what extent they bring about a change in the status quo.
Iran’s Chabahar Port: How India, Afghanistan, and Iran Gain From it
November 11, 2017 was a significant day diplomatically and geopolitically for Iran, India, and Afghanistan. A trilateral cooperation between the three countries saw Afghanistan receive its first shipment of wheat from India which was set in motion by India’s minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj on October 29 along with her Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani. The shipment was the first among a series as part of India’s commitment to supply 1.1 million tons of wheat to the people of the country suffering from decades of war and instability. At the center of this achievement lies Iran’s Chabahar port and the trilateral International Transport and Transit Corridor Agreement between the three countries.
The Iranian port in Chabahar: why it is so important
The Iranian port is located in the country’s southernmost city of Chabahar, and has periodically found itself making headlines especially as the Asian powerhouses in India and China compete for influence in the seas to establish trade relationships across Asia, Europe, and Africa. As China pumps more and more investment into its mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a modern take on the Silk Route to connect 60 countries across the three continents through land and sea routes, the port of Chabahar has over a period of time found its suitors in prime opponents of the BRI such as India and Japan with the former already investing around USD 500 million in the port. While the idea for the port’s development was first proposed in 1979, it is expected to be fully operational by the end of 2018.
It would be rather unrealistic to assume that the Chabahar port will challenge China’s BRI as a whole to a direct geopolitical contest. However, once fully operational, the port is expected to connect the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean with St. Petersburg in Russia and further ahead with Europe through the International North South Transport Corridor or the INSTC. India, Afghanistan, and Iran stand to gain in different ways both collectively and individually through this development in trade routes.
A win-win-win situation
The development of the Chabahar port presents the key for India to reforge an oil based relationship with Iran and to forge trade relations beyond Afghanistan with countries in Central Asia. Once the port is fully developed, it is expected to also carry a larger variety of cargo, including heavy engineering goods and electronics. With a much shorter route to Europe, the time taken to transport goods from ports in India to countries in Europe is expected to be reduced by more than half from the 45 days it currently takes for the cargo to reach its destination. It is also estimated the cost of the deliveries will be reduced by about 30-40%. Moreover, it seems extremely unlikely that India will be a part of the Chinese proposed BRI, given that an integral component of the initiative is the China Pakistan Economic Corrdior (CPEC) that runs through the Kashmir region whose ownership is hotly contested by both India and Pakistan. In that regard, the Chabahar port offers India the opportunity to challenge China at least in some capacity in their ever expanding contest for trade and influence across the globe, by connecting it to rail networks of different countries in Central Asia.
For a landlocked Afghanistan which has no direct access to the seas, the development of the Chabahar port and its agreement with India and Iran coming to fruition holds great significance. The port opens up the country to the world, and provides it with better access to trade, vastly reducing its dependency on its neighbour Pakistan and enabling it to forge even closer ties with India. Pakistan has in the past disallowed India to access the land route to Afghanistan for the provision of aid to the country. Now an alternate route through Chabahar allows for the same to reach the country first from the port to Zaranj, which is adjacent to Afghanistan’s border with Iran, and then further 218 km ahead into the country via the Zarang-Delaram highway.
For Iran, a fully functional seaport in Chabahar appears to be strategically important since it is located away from the historically contested waters of the Arabian Gulf. Recovering now from easing sanctions, Iran looks to climb the geopolitical ladder and reestablish itself in the coming decades. Amid worsening ties with the United States, it has caught the attention of China, Russia, and other countries in Europe and also looks to gain from its relation with India. The Chabahar port may just be the key to put an end to its economic isolation. Even with the United States and India recognising each other as allies, Iran has not yet found any opposition from the US against India’s cooperation with Iran on the port, and that is because the US recognises the benefit that Afghanistan is able to attain from India’s efforts through the Chabahar port.
India, Iran, and Afghanistan share historical civilisational ties and similarities and the same was referenced by Indian minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj. “This shows the convergence between the ancient civilisations of India, Afghanistan and Iran to spur unhindered flow of commerce and trade throughout the region,” said Swaraj as she flagged off the first shipment of wheat to Afghanistan on October 29.
A Choking City: What the Ongoing Toxic Week in Delhi Means for its People
A joke on the morbidity of New Delhi is circulating among Delhiites (people from Delhi) that while the lives of the citizens were disrupted in November last year due to ‘note-bandi’ (ban on currency), November of this year presents an even tougher test for the people with ‘saans-bandi’, a ban on breathing. The receding autumn or advent of winter was a once beloved season of a good number of people in the city who welcomed the change with a complete revamp of their wardrobes with colourful woollens. It is now characterized with bleak skies, an air of gloom and a little bit of grey in everything you see outside of your house.
For the past three days, I have been acutely aware of the air I am breathing, felt unproductive and apprehensive in spells for no good reason, and felt the need to confine myself to my house for as long as possible. These are some of the less apparent effects of the thick blanket of smog that has engulfed the national capital region. As a number of people donned with different types of masks on the roads and on Snapchat serve as a constant visual reminder of how the city is choking, a flurry of articles and news updates have presided over my feed. One of them included a horrifying viral video recording of vehicles ramming into each other due to poor visibility on the Noida-Agra Expressway as people scrambled to get themselves and their children out of the way, while some other articles argued about how currently breathing in Delhi for a day is the equivalent of smoking twenty cigarettes.
A sudden state of emergency
Less than two days ago, when the air quality in Delhi visibly worsened, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal likened the city to a ‘gas chamber’. The PM 10 and PM 2.5 levels in different parts of the capital have rocketed above the levels that are considered safe, and the Safar (System of Air Quality and Weather Forecasting And Research) has declared the air quality as ‘severe’ for at least the next three days after which the level may drop to a not so safe either ‘very poor’ level. In some parts of the city, the AQI (air quality index) was detected on monitors at 999, the highest possible reading, which suggests that the level might be even higher. The visibility during the early hours has also dropped to very low levels. Among the different reasons for the observed level of pollution in Delhi, slow winds at this time of the year have been identified as the prime contributor along with stubble burning by farmers in the neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana. Combined with the dust particles present in the air, omissions from vehicles that plague the roads in the region throughout the day, and those from factories and construction activities, these factors dictate a recipe for creating uninhabitable conditions.
Making amends: A scramble for order
The Indian Medical Association on 7th November declared Delhi to be in a state of public health emergency, urging the Delhi government and other bodies to take adequate steps to ensure minimum risk to citizens, especially young children and the elderly, who are most likely to suffer from the effects of pollution. After a worsening situation, the government has ordered all schools in the capital to remain shut till Sunday, and has rolled out plans to implement the odd-even scheme for vehicles in the city from next week. Parking fee throughout the city has also been increased fourfold and the prices for travel by the metro have been substantially reduced for the time being to promote the use of public transport. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has also banned all construction and industrial activities till November 14 in a bid to provide the citizens of Delhi a breath of better quality air. Mr. Kejriwal has also approached his counterparts from Punjab and Haryana over the issue of stubble burning by the farmers but it remains to be seen how the move plays out in the coming days.
As the government battles against the situation, the public is taking measures to protect themselves in whatever way they can. An increasing number of doctors and specialists on the matter have advised people not to go out for morning walks or outdoor activities so as to not inhale excessive quantities of toxic pollutants. Some doctors have even advised their patients to leave the city for the time being if possible. Air purifiers for houses and masks for travelling outside have seen a huge rise in sales as nearly everyone has become an expert on the subject of filters and N95 and N99 have become trending words from pharmacies to WhatsApp conversations.
A year ago, while New Delhi wrestled with more or less the same conditions, UNICEF had called on the rest of the world to consider the situation as a wake up call. “It is a wake up call that very clearly tells us: unless decisive actions are taken to reduce air pollution, the events we are witnessing in Delhi over the past week are likely to be increasingly common”, it had said in a statement. If we are doing better than last year, it is still not enough, and all one needs is less than a minute in the open to be convinced of that. As the world battles with the effects of climate change, India’s bid to have a major global footprint in the coming decades is bound to take a serious hit if so many of its cities, and especially its capital follow a trend of being unlivable for a chunk of time at the end of every year.
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