Saturday, March 24, 2018

Bending the rules — on nod for Neutrino project


A year after the National Green Tribunal suspended the environmental clearance granted to the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), the Expert Appraisal Committee (Infra 2) of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has overturned the NGT verdict and granted environmental clearance for the project. The observatory, which is to come up in Bodi West Hills in Theni district, Tamil Nadu, is regarded as a symbol not just of India’s push for research in particle physics; it also signals the intent to nurture centres of excellence. Neutrinos are subatomic particles that are extremely difficult to detect. The laboratory cavern will be located 1,300 metres underground, with an access tunnel. The rock cover is necessary to minimise the naturally occurring cosmic ray backdrop. The project has become controversial on environmental grounds, given the proposed site’s proximity to the Mathikettan Shola National Park in Kerala’s Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot. However, considering the project’s national importance, the Environment Ministry had taken up the proposal for clearance as a “special case”. The green signal is conditional on getting the consent of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the National Board for Wildlife. Despite the 17 conditions laid down by the Expert Committee while granting approval, the manner in which the clearance was granted leaves much to be desired.

The project has been approved under category B item 8(a) — building and construction projects — of the Schedule to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006. But it should have been treated as category A as the project lies just 4.9 km from the national park in Idukki district of Kerala. The NGT had ruled that it was indeed a category A project and the Tamil Nadu State expert appraisal committee also noted that it could not be appraised under category B 8(a) as tunnelling and other activities went beyond the scope of the section. According to the 2006 notification, projects or activities that come under category A require “prior environmental clearance” from the Environment Ministry. Side-stepping the EIA requirement on technical grounds both by the project proponents and the Ministry is surely not the ideal way to go about such matters. For one, the EIA was done by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, which is an “unaccredited agency”. And though a public consultation with local people who have a “plausible stake” in the project was conducted in July 2010, the details of the meeting were submitted only by the end of February 2018. The importance of the project notwithstanding, treating it as a special case and bypassing the environmental clearance protocol sets a wrong precedent.

Source:The Hindu

Accord under strain — on Colombia peace pact


Colombia’s presidential election, due in May 2018, will have a bearing on the fragile peace accord of 2016 that ended one of the longest civil wars in history. The result of the parliamentary election held this month has framed the stiff challenge the pro-peace parties face. The accord between the Colombian security forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had won President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize; it is to his credit that the government managed to implement the accord in bits and pieces despite unremitting hostility from the right-wing opposition led by former President Álvaro Uribe. Now, in the March 11 parliamentary vote, Mr. Uribe’s Democratic Centre Party has emerged as the largest bloc in the Senate with 19 seats. Two other right-wing parties, Radical Change and Conservative Party, finished second and third with 16 and 15 seats, respectively. In all, the anti-accord parties have 50 seats in a House of 102. They may not have a clear majority, but the popular support they have mustered is undeniable. The ruling Social Party of National Unity won just 14 seats. FARC, contesting polls for the first time, finished with less than 1% of the vote, but is assured representation in parliament thanks to the accord.

Over the last year, the record of implementation of the steps in the peace accord has been patchy, though major strides were made in the form of demilitarisation and disbanding of the FARC and its conversion into a legitimate political force. The other key aspects of the accord required Bogota to protect mainstreamed FARC leaders and to prevent right-wing militias from targeting left-wing leaders sympathetic towards the FARC. Yet, in the past year, several left-wing activists — such as leaders of teachers’ unions and mining workers’ unions — have been assassinated by right-wing militia groups. This has prevented the possibility of a similar peace accord with the other remaining insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), whose leadership fears reprisal by militias if they lay down their weapons. Moreover, while the FARC leadership is committed to the accord, some elements of the group are holding out in the jungles, refusing to demilitarise and instead keep fighting. The next couple of months will be crucial for the pro-accord forces, with the parliamentary vote showing how much work they have ahead of them if they want to convince a sceptical electorate — for which memories of the civil war are still quite raw — that peace deserves a chance. For this, they will have to take dedicated steps to overcome the urban-rural disconnect in Colombia. If this not done, the chances of the accord coming undone are dispiritingly high.

Curbing misuse: on SC ruling on the anti-atrocities law

Will laying down procedural safeguards to curb false accusations work against the interest of protecting the oppressed from discrimination and caste-based atrocities? This is the salient question that arises from the Supreme Court verdict that has taken note of the perception that the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, is being rampantly misused to settle personal scores and harass adversaries. On the face of it, it is difficult to fault the court’s approach. It is settled law that the mere scope for misuse of an Act is not a ground to invalidate it. Constitution courts seek to preserve the spirit of such legislation on the one hand and to evolve guidelines to prevent its misuse on the other. This is precisely what the two-judge bench has aimed to do. It has ruled that Section 18, which bars grant of anticipatory bail to anyone accused of violating its provisions, is not an absolute bar on giving advance bail to those against whom, prima facie, there is no case. In addition, the Bench has prohibited the arrest of anyone merely because of a complaint that they had committed an atrocity against a Dalit or a tribal person. In respect of public servants, no arrest should be made without the written permission of the official’s appointing authority; and for private citizens, the Senior Superintendent of Police in the district should approve the arrest.

In doing this, the Supreme Court has sought to strike a balance between protecting individual liberty and preserving the spirit of a law in favour of oppressed sections. Without any doubt, atrocities against Dalits are a grim social reality, necessitating a stringent law to combat it. The Act was amended in 2015 to cover newer forms of discrimination and crimes against Dalits and tribals to add teeth to it. It is true that conviction rates under the Act remain low. The lackadaisical approach of investigators and prosecutors to bring home charges against perpetrators of such crimes among the dominant castes is reflected in statistics. Even if courts are right in taking note of the tendency to misuse this law, society and lawmakers must be justifiably worried about the sort of messaging contained in their rulings and observations. In an ideal system, as long as every charge is judicially scrutinised and every investigation or prosecution is fair and honest, one need not worry about misuse and its adverse effects. However, social realities are far from being ideal. It ought to concern us all, including the courts, that some laws designed to protect the weakest and most disempowered people do not lose their teeth. Words of caution and rules against misuse may be needed to grant relief to the innocent. But nothing should be done to de-fang the law itself.

Source:The Hindu

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Xi unlimited: on Xi Jinping's presidential term


The Chinese Communist Party’s proposal to abolish term limits on the presidency, and thereby allow Xi Jinping to stay on in power beyond 2023 when his second term ends, is not completely unexpected. When he was re-elected party chief and President for a second term in October, no one was projected as a potential successor. This was a break with tradition and triggered speculation about him remaining President beyond the second term. Mr. Xi is arguably the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong. At the 19th Party Congress in October, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” was written into the party charter, setting him apart from his recent predecessors. He does not just control the main pillars of the Chinese state — the party, the government and the military. In 2016, the party accorded him special stature by making him the “Core Leader”. Just as Deng Xiaoping oversaw China’s economic rise, Mr. Xi has raised its profile in global geopolitics. He has pursued a more assertive foreign policy in China’s neighbourhood and launched massive infrastructure programmes across the world as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. But despite the power amassed, long-term projects launched and his own apparent ambitions, the constitution was seen as a limit to his stint in power. With the latest proposal on removing the term limit, which is certain to be endorsed by parliament, Mr. Xi may find greater room for manoeuvre in speeding up the next generation of economic reforms.

The timing of the announcement itself, however, has taken many by surprise. Mr. Xi was about to begin his second term as President next month, and so has five years to introduce the constitutional changes needed. But with a proposal moved to amend the constitution a week ahead of a People’s Congress convention, Mr. Xi has made it clear he does not want to leave anything to chance while consolidating his position. At present there is no rival power centre within the Communist Party to challenge Mr. Xi. But the centralisation of so much power in one individual, which is the antithesis of China’s professed commitment to ‘collective leadership’, may well impact the power dynamics, given the succession battles of the past. The party introduced the term limit in the post-Deng era principally to bring in order and stability at a time when China was becoming an economic powerhouse. Two of Mr. Xi’s immediate predecessors stepped down after their second term, having groomed the next generation of leaders, including Mr. Xi. By breaking with this pattern, Mr. Xi risks taking China back to the days of personality cults, internal power struggles and possibly chaotic successions.

Going grey: on Pakistan and the FATF watch list

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) that monitors countries on action taken against terror-financing and money-laundering has decided to place Pakistan back on its watch list, or “greylist”, from June. The decision is both appropriate and overdue, given Pakistan’s blatant violation of its obligations to crack down on groups banned by the Security Council 1267 sanctions committee that monitors groups affiliated to the Taliban (which originally included al-Qaeda affiliated groups), such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and the Haqqani network. Their leaders like Hafiz Saeed and Masood Azhar continue to hold public rallies and freely garner support and donations. In the process, both the LeT and JeM, which continue to praise and claim credit for terror attacks in India, have grown their bases in Pakistan, with fortress-like headquarters in Muridke and Bahawalpur that the authorities turn a blind eye to. By doing this, successive Pakistani governments have jeopardised ties with India, and shown disregard for the outcry against terrorism worldwide. One violation was a Pakistani court’s bail to Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, LeT operational commander and a key planner of the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Under the 1267 sanctions ruling, banned entities can get no funds, yet Lakhvi received the bail amount, and the authorities have since lost track of him.


It is surprising, then, that the first round of talks of the International Cooperation Review Group that makes its recommendations to the FATF plenary failed to reach the consensus needed to list Pakistan, despite a formidable team of the U.S., U.K., France and Germany proposing the resolution against it. That the initial support for Pakistan came from China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries is cause for concern in New Delhi, given the recent diplomatic outreach by India. Equally significant, however, is China’s turnaround in the plenary session two days later, when it dropped objections to the resolution, indicating that its support for Pakistan is negotiable and not set in stone. The FATF listing will not miraculously change Pakistan’s behaviour, and this is not the first time it has been listed as a country with “strategic deficiencies” in countering terror-financing and money-laundering. However, if the greylisting comes as part of a concerted campaign to hold Pakistan accountable, and pressure is ratcheted up with financial strictures on its banks and businesses and targeted sanctions imposed against specific law enforcement and intelligence officials, it may yet bear fruit. The hope is that such sanctions will persuade Pakistan to stop state support for these terror groups and become a responsible player on the global stage and a responsive neighbour.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Spirit of Paris: on the climate change meet in Bonn

The 23rd conference of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change under way in Bonn faces the challenge of raising the ambition of the world’s leaders, and giving practical form to the provisions of the Paris Agreement. Although 169 countries have ratified the accord, and there is tremendous support for greener, low-risk pathways to growth worldwide, the Trump administration in the U.S., one of the top emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs), has announced it will withdraw from the pact. Even if it will take until 2020 to achieve an actual withdrawal, the U.S. action reverses the overall momentum achieved in Paris in 2015, and negates President Barack Obama’s legacy of regulations designed to reduce America’s GHG emissions, especially from the use of coal. It is heartening that China, which has achieved rapid economic growth and leads in GHG emissions, is firmly behind the pact to reduce the risk of climate change. There is steady progress in the growth of renewable energy sources as they become cheaper and the efficiency of solar, wind and energy storage technologies improves. As UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa has said, the time is now to firm up the tasks set out in the agreement reached in Paris, notably on funds to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The Agreement has a benchmark of raising $100 billion a year by 2020.

Major risks from climate change, such as extreme weather phenomena, loss of agriculture, water stress and harm to human health, pose a threat to millions around the world. For some countries, such as Fiji, which holds the presidency of the Bonn conference, and other small island-states, the future is deeply worrying because of the fear that sea levels may rise sharply due to climate change. The recent Emissions Gap Report from the UN underscores the terrible mismatch between the voluntary pledges made by countries for the Paris Agreement and what is necessary to keep a rise in global average temperature below 2º C, preferably 1.5º C. All major countries, especially those that have depleted the global carbon budget by releasing massive amounts of GHGs since the Industrial Revolution, have to respond with stronger caps in their updated pledges under the Paris Agreement. India’s emissions have been rising overall, but it has committed itself to lowering the emissions intensity of its GDP by 33-35% by 2030 from the 2005 level. By some estimates, India has been awarded among the highest levels of multilateral climate funding at $745 million since 2013. Securing funds for mitigation and adaptation is a high priority for India, but it must ensure that States acquire the capacity to absorb such assistance efficiently. While the emphasis on a giant renewable energy programme has won global acclaim, the focus is equally on India’s readiness to embrace green technologies across the spectrum of activity, including buildings and transport.

Source:The Hindu

Royal flush: on the Saudi Crown Prince's surprise crackdown


Ever since he was named the defence minister of Saudi Arabia in 2015, Mohammed bin Salman has had little patience for the way the kingdom is being ruled. In June, two and a half years into the reign of his father King Salman, he replaced Mohammed bin Nayef as Crown Prince. In recent weeks, he had taken on the Salafi religious establishment. On Sunday, he sprang another surprise by ordering the arrest of senior government ministers, officials and 11 Princes, including the billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal, and the powerful chief of the National Guard, Mutaib bin Abdullah. The immediate reason for the arrests is not known. The palace version is that they were carried out as part of a new campaign against corruption that is spearheaded by Prince Mohammed. But the recent crackdowns suggest that Prince Mohammed is consolidating his power. He first had Prince Nayef removed from his path to the throne as Crown Prince. As one of the richest among Saudi royals, Prince Alwaleed is known for his cosy ties with Western governments and less conservative views. Prince Mutaib, a favourite son of the late King Abdullah, is an influential figure within the palace. By arresting both, Prince Mohammed has potentially neutralised the money and power centres that could pose challenges to him in the future.

With the latest arrests, at just 32 years of age Prince Mohammed appears to have established himself as the most powerful Saudi Crown Prince in decades. He is practically in charge of key policy decisions and has taken control of all branches of the Saudi security services — the military, internal security and the National Guard. He clearly has the King’s ear. Still, Prince Mohammed is playing a risky game. In a short span of time, he has opened multiple fronts in the still-unfolding internal power struggle. In Saudi Arabia, where the rulers traditionally distribute power among the different branches of the royal family as a balancing tactic and get their decisions approved by the ulema for legitimacy, Prince Mohammed’s moves are upending tradition. By concentrating power in his own hands and turning against other Princes as well as some clerics, he has upset the balance in the system. Quick consolidation of power could perhaps allow him to reshape the governance model. The anti-corruption campaign, which sounds much like that led by Chinese President Xi Jinping, will have popular support, which he could use to continue to target his rivals. But Prince Mohammed’s track record so far is devoid of any major achievement. His ambitious plan to reform the economy has been a non-starter. His foreign policy moves also backfired with the Yemen war spinning further out of control and the Syrian civil war turning in favour of President Bashar al-Assad, who is seen as an adversary by Riyadh. If he continues to make mistakes the game could go awry, triggering an open power struggle within the House of Saud. With the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry in West Asia hotting up again, these developments are also bound to have repercussions beyond Saudi Arabia.

Source:The Hindu