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SEPTEMBER 26, 2017

Worrying downgrade

  • The elusive and charismatic snow leopard has lost its endangered status in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, causing genuine worry among wildlife biologists, who believe this sends out the wrong signal to those working to protect it. If the argument for a downgrade to vulnerable status from endangered is that conservation actions have reduced the threat to the cat, there is an equally persuasive response on how little scientists know about its population health, given its remote habitat in the alpine zones of the Himalayas and trans-Himalayas. As a major range country, India has worked to protect these animals, and even launched a programme on the lines of Project Tiger for its conservation, covering 128,757 sq. km of habitat in Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. There is also an upcoming international collaborative effort, the Global Snow Leopard and Ecosystem Protection Program, involving the countries that make up the range of this graceful animal. It is vital that this momentum should not be lost merely on account of the technicality that the estimated numbers have crossed the threshold for an ‘endangered’ classification, which is 2,500. If anything, studies on its vulnerability have to be intensified, and the task of monitoring its entire habitat of high mountains speeded up.
  • It would be a disservice to conservation if governments shift their focus away from the big challenges to the snow leopard’s future: trafficking in live animals in Central Asia, and hostility from communities because of its attacks on livestock.
  • India handled the problem of the cat preying on goats, sheep, donkeys and other animals by roping in communities in conservation, and compensating them for any losses. An insurance programme in which residents of a part of Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh participated also worked well.
  • New research indicates that even when wild prey is available, the attacks on livestock by snow leopards have cumulatively been on the rise. The response to this finding must be to insulate the owners from losses and encourage them to move away from traditional pastoral grazing.
  • A more fundamental worry is over the likely loss of habitat owing to changing climate patterns. Fortunately, research models indicate that there are considerable stretches of steppes in High Asia that could withstand climate-related changes in the greater Himalayan region, creating refuge lands for snow leopards.
  • Today, the factors that pose a threat to the species remain unchanged, and the IUCN down-listing, which changes the classification since 1986, should not be misread by policymakers. If conservation has protected the cat, it must be strengthened by enlarging protected areas in all the range countries, and keeping out incompatible activities such as mining and human interference.

Solving food challenges with more research

  • The world’s population is booming. According to estimates, the global population is likely to exceed 9 billion by 2050, with 5 billion people in Asia alone. The capacity to produce enough quality food is falling behind human numbers. Food production in the region must keep pace, even as environment sustainability and economic development are ensured. The answer to these challenges lies in research for sustainable development. As the second goal of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals says: “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.”

Investing in research

  • India’s fivefold increase in grain production over the past 50 years is largely the result of strong scientific research that has focussed on high-yielding crop varieties, better agronomic practices, and pro-farmer policies. However, India continues to face challenges such as food insecurity and malnutrition, particularly in rural areas.
  • There is considerable potential in targeting underused crops such as millets, pulses, and vegetables as a sustainable means of increasing agricultural production and improving nutrition and health in high-need areas. In one project, researchers tested the sustainable use of traditional crops, vegetables, and fruit trees, as well as greater livestock diversity, to increase income and improve food and nutrition security in rural India. This project demonstrated that in three Indian “agro-biodiversity hotspots”, home gardens could provide households with up to 135 kg of legumes, vegetables, tubers, leafy greens, and gourds per year — more than double the amount of vegetables they were buying in local markets. These crops add value to existing farming systems by providing an additional source of income and/or more nutritious food for the family.
  • The Food Security Act of 2013 was welcome, as was the inclusion of millets in the Public Distribution System as millets are superior to common grains in many ways and are also climate-resilient. Bio-fortification is also important in overcoming hidden hunger caused by micronutrient deficiencies such as iron, iodine, zinc, vitamin A, and vitamin B12.

Empowering women

  • Studies show that women make up nearly half of agricultural labourers, yet they carry out approximately 70% of all farm work. Women are among the most disadvantaged because they are typically employed as marginal workers, occupying low-skilled jobs such as sowing and weeding. Our research shows that empowering women is one of the best ways to improve nutrition. Research needs to continue focussing on the needs of women farmers to ensure that they are the direct recipients of development impacts, such as access to markets and income, to improve theirs and their children’s access to adequate and diversified diets.
  • Most importantly, it is crucial to continue to identify issues and seek evidence-based solutions through research. Building on the momentum of recent efforts by the government to improve understanding of India’s nutritional situation, there is considerable potential in building partnerships to extend the reach of research for development and to improve the connections between agricultural and nutritional research with extension services and policy. Taking a multisectoral approach that links agricultural and nutritional outcomes will help India sustainably grow, feed its people, and maintain the agricultural sector over the coming decades.

Waiting for a signal

  • For decades the lack of consistent political direction has affected the Railways. The country lacks civilian expertise on railway matters and only a few politicians are interested in the railways. Railway officers are professional and have the expertise. However, results are determined by the Ministry-Railway Board relationship and how much the Minister is willing to follow professional advice, especially when it does not gel with the political compulsions of pandering to constituencies.
  • The results are a haphazard introduction of trains, subsidising passenger fares by overcharging freight, investment in unwanted new facilities, and modernisation and induction of new technologies without a plan. The fallout of all this is a balkanisation of the organisation on departmental lines, with each following its own narrow interests. Decision-making revolves around pursuing immediate goals that can show the department in a good light.

Safety concerns

  • Safety is not something that can be separated from the normal functioning of the Railways and is a window that reveals the underlying health of the system. The Utkal accident shows that the numbers of trains have now reached a level where field staff are unable to carry out maintenance without cutting corners.It appears that the practice of repairing tracks without blocking trains is quite widespread, which is cause for concern.
  • The situation is the outcome of pursuing three inconsistent goals at the organisational level. These are:
    • moving more people by continuously adding trains even when sections are saturated;
    • focussing on increasing speed and punctuality;
    • and diverting freight earnings to subsidise passenger fares.
  • These are incompatible with the declared objective of safety, especially when there is a shortage of capacity to run existing services. Unless the numbers of trains can be brought down to what the system can handle without cutting corners in track, signalling and rolling stock maintenance, there is really no way to make the system both safe and punctual.
  • The problem is further exacerbated by a lack of money to replace old assets or purchase spares. The Utkal train accident is a distressing example of how incompatible organisational goals connect to unsafe behaviour at the field level.

It can be done

  • The task before Mr. Goyal may be politically challenging but is doable technically. He has to make difficult political decisions such as cutting back on trains on saturated sections and putting punctuality on the back burner, at least until the system can recoup its capacities. He has to accept that time has to be allotted for maintenance systems to stabilise even at the cost of delaying trains. His aim must be to restore the strong culture that underpinned every decision in the field — that no unsafe condition would be allowed to exist and be addressed even at the cost of delaying or slowing down trains. For this, the judgment of the supervisory staff must be respected. There is also a need to restore the well-established practice of field inspections at all levels to grasp what is happening in the field. He needs to ensure money for maintenance and replacement of aged assets. This should be done by freeing freight from subsidising passenger fares through a subvention from the general Budget.

Diary of a very long year

  • It has been one year since the special forces of the Indian Army carried out surgical strikes to destroy terror launchpads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir on September 29, 2016. It is important to take stock at this point on how India-Pakistan bilateral relations and the regional security situation have evolved over the past year since the strikes.
  • At the United Nations General Assembly a few days ago, for instance, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj termed Pakistan a “pre-eminent exporter of terror” — to which Pakistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi, responded: “India is the mother of terrorism” in South Asia.
  • The future direction of the foremost regional forum, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), remains unclear after India dropped out of the 2016 Islamabad summit in the wake of the Uri terror attack. (The summit was eventually postponed.) The regional security situation remains embattled, thanks to confused American policies in South Asia, continuing turmoil in Afghanistan, heightening India-China rivalry, and the India-Pakistan hostility.

Regional stability

  • From a regional stability point of view, the surgical strikes do not seem to have had much of an adverse impact. The fact that Pakistan neither acknowledged the attacks nor responded in kind shows that the general deterrence between the South Asian nuclear rivals remains intact. It is easy to talk about nuclear use and threaten nuclear retaliation, as Pakistan has been doing for long. It is, however, not easy to translate such talk into action. In that sense, the surgical strikes have called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. And that certainly is good news for regional stability.
  • But such higher-level stability seems to have come with heightened lower-level instability — and that is the bad news. There are two sets of challenges that are more apparent today, one year after the surgical strikes.
    • The recurrent, and almost daily, occurrence of border battles between the two militaries in Jammu and Kashmir today have a worrying potential for escalation to higher levels..
      • While this was common even prior to the surgical strikes, the September 2016 operation has made ceasefire violations more worrisome in at least two ways: first, Pakistan has been retaliating ever since the surgical strikes by increasing the pressure on the frontlines; and second, surgical strikes have reduced the critical distance between ceasefire violations and conventional escalation. While stealthy surgical strikes may not, strictly speaking, qualify as conventional escalation, they certainly reduce the psychological distance between sub-conventional violence and conventional escalation in the classical sense. That sure is bad news for regional stability.
    • The second challenge is more practical than theoretical. The perils of preventive strikes, in other words, are unpredictable. Preventive strikes are pregnant with immense potential to lead up to a ‘competition in risk-taking’, a tendency already prevalent on the frontlines of the India-Pakistan border in J&K. Put differently, preventive strikes in hyper-nationalist bilateral settings could defy our expectations and go out of control, with disastrous implications.

Deteriorating environment

  • Have the surgical strikes helped the country’s overall national security environment? The first obvious question to ask is whether the strategy of punishment has worked vis-à-vis Pakistan.
  • There are two reasons why the strategy of punishment may not have worked.
    • For one, a strategy of punishment requires consistency and commitment. The momentum achieved by the surgical strikes was not followed up (despite several attacks thereafter), nor was the government committed to its declared determination to respond firmly to terror strikes, thereby lacking in both consistency and commitment.
    • Second, and more importantly, Pakistan’s responses thereafter of supporting insurgency in Kashmir, aiding infiltration across the border, and allegedly supporting attacks on the Indian army convoys and bases continued without much reaction from New Delhi. This has led to a visible lack of credibility on New Delhi’s part which makes one wonder whether, bereft of domestic political uses, there was any strategic planning behind the September operation.
  • Let’s also look at some figures from J&K. Credible media reports show that 110 militants, and 38 army personnel were killed between January and September 2016 (i.e. prior to the surgical strikes). However, since the surgical strikes, at least 178 militants and 69 Army personnel have been killed. Forty-four army personnel were killed between January and September this year, compared to 38 last year between January and September (including those killed in the Uri Army base attack). One might argue that the terrorist casualties have also gone up. While that is true, more militants killed can be a barometer of the level of militancy too.
  • Surgical strikes, then, may have been a tactical victory for New Delhi, but its strategic value is far from settled.

The big picture

  • With two hostile neighbours on either side, terror attacks against India on the rise, and the South Asian neighbourhood unsure of India’s leadership any more, New Delhi has a lot to be concerned about the continuation of its pivotal position in the region and the nature of its future engagement with it. The events since September last year have further contributed to South Asia’s regional ‘insecurity complex’. For a country that has traditionally been the regional stabiliser, New Delhi seems to be quickly embracing the virtues of geopolitical revisionism. The costs of aggression, self-imposed regional exclusion and an absence of strategic altruism are bound to become starker sooner or later.