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The Hindu Editorial Analysis | PDF Download

Date: 10 October 2019

Chemistry Nobel to trio for work on batteries

Lithium batteries have transformed cars and phones, cut use of fossil fuels

  • Three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for their work developing lithiumion batteries, which have reshaped energy storage and transformed cars, mobile phones and many other devices and reduced the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.
  • The prize went to John B. Goodenough, 97, a German-born engineering professor at the University of Texas; M. Stanley Whittingham, 77, a British-American chemistry professor at the State University of New York; and Japan’s Akira Yoshino, 71, of Meijo University. Oldest to win Nobel At 97, Mr. Goodenough is the oldest Nobel winner.
  • The three each had a set of breakthroughs that laid the foundation for the development of a commercial rechargeable battery. Lithium-ion batteries, the first truly portable and rechargeable batteries, took more than a decade to develop.
  • The work had its roots in the oil crisis in the 1970s, when Mr. Whittingham was working on efforts to develop fossil fuel-free energy technologies. He harnessed the enormous tendency of lithium, the lightest metal, to give away its electrons to make a battery capable of generating over two volts.
  • By 1980, Mr. Goodenough had doubled the capacity of the battery to four volts by using cobalt oxide in the cathode one of two electrodes, along with the anode, that make up the ends of a battery.
  • But that battery remained too explosive for commercial use and needed to be tamed. That’s where Mr. Yoshino’s work in the 1980s came in. He substituted petroleum coke, a carbon material, in the battery’s anode. This step paved the way for the first lightweight, safe, durable and rechargeable commercial batteries to be built and enter the market in 1991.
  • “We have gained access to a technical revolution,” said Sara Snogerup Linse of the Nobel committee. “The laureates developed lightweight batteries with potential to be useful in many applications — truly portable electronics: mobile phones, pacemakers, but also electric cars.”
  • The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in April last year asked payment firms to ensure their data are stored exclusively on local servers, setting a tight six-month deadline for compliance. That deadline was said to have been missed by some foreign firms including credit card giants Visa and Mastercard.
  • The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a proposed free trade agreement (FTA) between the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and its six FTA partners (China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand).
  • RCEP negotiations were formally launched in November 2012 at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia.
  • In 2017, prospective RCEP member states accounted for a population of 3.4 billion people with a total Gross Domestic Product (GDP, PPP) of $49.5 trillion, approximately 39 percent of the world's GDP, with the combined GDPs of China and India making up more than half that amount.
  • RCEP will be the world's largest economic bloc, covering nearly half of the global economy. According to estimates by PwC, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP, PPP) of RCEP member states is likely to amount to nearly $250 trillion by 2050, or a quarter of a quadrillion dollars, with the combined GDPs of China and India making up more than 75% of the amount. RCEP's share of the global economy could account for half of the estimated $0.5 quadrillion global (GDP, PPP) by 2050.

 GEMINI system to warn fishermen of danger

  • It also shows fish catch probability
  • To avoid communication blackouts that led to 20 fishermen going missing in the aftermath of Cyclone Ockhi in 2017, a slew of government departments, research agencies and private companies have developed GEMINI, a portable receiver linked to ISRO satellites, that is “fail-proof” and warn fishermen of danger.
  • The Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS), a Hyderabad institute collaborated with Accord, a private company, to develop a box-shaped receiver that has an antenna and in-built battery that can last three to four days, according to a brochure describing the device.
  • GEMINI works on GAGAN, developed by ISRO and the Airports Authority of India, and is an India-made global positioning system. It relies on the positioning system of ISRO’s GSAT satellites.

 Storm alerts

  • When GEMINI is connected to an app, it also lets fishermen know the probability of fish catch in the surrounding seas.
  • “Even now we provide services such as storm alerts and advisories of potential fish catch. However, it’s dependent on the mobile services provided by your phone company,” said Satish Shenoi, director, INCOIS.
  • At ₹9,000 a device, it’s relatively expensive, say officials, but attempts are on to subsidise it by as much as 90%.

  • Indian National Center for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) is an autonomous organization of the Government of India, under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, located in Pragathi Nagar, Hyderabad. ESSO-INCOIS was established as an autonomous body in 1999 under the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) and is a unit of the Earth System Science Organization (ESSO). ESSO- INCOIS is mandated to provide the best possible ocean information and advisory services to society, industry, government agencies and the scientific community through sustained ocean observations and constant improvements through systematic and focussed research.
  • Potential Fishing Zone (PFZ)
  • Tsunami Early Warning System (TEWS)
  • Ocean State Forecast (OSF)
  • Ocean Observation Group (OOG)
  • Hasina defends LPG export deal with India Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday defended her government’s decision to export LPG to India. At a press meet in Dhaka, Ms. Hasina said Bangladesh was not exporting natural gas but LPG.
  • The criticism of deals between Bangladesh and India gathered momentum as a student was beaten to death allegedly by the ruling party’s student wing over the issue. Ms. Hasina said the guilty students “will be punished”.
  • Answering a question, she said Bangladesh would provide 1.82 cusecs of water from the Feni to Tripura. “Very little” water was being given to Tripura and it should not create a problem, she said.
  • Regarding bulk export of LPG, she said the gas was “not produced” in Bangladesh. Hasina defends LPG export deal with India Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday defended her government’s decision to export LPG to India. At a press meet in Dhaka, Ms. Hasina said Bangladesh was not exporting natural gas but LPG.
  • The recent calm in India-China relations might have erased images of the turbulent chapter that preceded it. For much of the period between 2014 and 2017, uncertainty regarding the other side’s policies and intentions leading to tension, mistrust, and competition characterized the relationship. It was an unusual spike in the post-Cold War era and only subsided in 2018.

Wuhan and after

  • Over the past decade, three historical forces have been shaping India-China relations. Some of these forces have been pushing both countries towards competition and some impelling them towards cooperation and collaboration.
  • The first is a changing world order and the rise of Asia, a phase that is generally traced to the period after the 2008 global economic crisis.
  • The second is the idea that with the West’s declining capacity and inclination to responsibly manage international and Asian affairs, India, China and other re-emerging powers are being thrust into new order building roles that would require coordination and cooperation to preserve global stability and co-develop new governance institutions and norms.
  • The third is a changing South Asia with China’s 2013 and 2014 policy declarations of deepening ties with its periphery including with subcontinental states, followed soon after with the ambitious Belt and Road initiative and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in April 2015.
  • While all three factors contributed to the complexity of India-China relations in the period leading up to 2017, the region became the main arena of interaction, with both sides adopting antagonistic approaches and strategies. Much of this acrimonious build-up can be traced to China’s decision to expand linkages with its southwestern periphery and India’s perception and reaction to that process. In retrospect, the Doklam episode in the high Himalayas was really the culmination of a deeper festering question — how would India and China relate to each other as their footprints grew in their overlapping peripheries?
  • It was only with the outbreak of the border crisis and the possibility of a conflict that both leaderships undertook a sober assessment of the complex historical forces at play. When situated against the broader picture of an emerging multipolarity, uncertainty on the future of globalisation, and, the still long journey towards social and high-tech rejuvenation of their economies, it led to a similar conclusion by the two leaderships: a lessening of regional tension was in the national interest of both countries. This, in essence, was the backdrop to the April 2018 “informal summit” in Wuhan, where both sides decided to arrest the deterioration in the relationship and attempt to chart a fresh course.

Creating some order

  • Both leaderships also discovered the void of a contemporary framework to guide their complex relationship in a rapidly changing and uncertain international environment. Recall that the 1988 modus vivendi was built on a very pragmatic understanding that despite their decades-old territorial dispute, both sides would keep the ball rolling so to speak and develop all-round ties until the time was ripe for a dignified settlement of their dispute. But there was nothing in that understanding to either guide a geopolitical accommodation or regulate the depth and range of issues that have come to define the relationship in the ensuing decades. Wuhan 1.0 was an attempt to articulate some norms that could serve as a renewed set of guidelines to policymakers and bureaucracies in both countries. It was built on five pillars. The “simultaneous emergence of India and China”, two major powers with independent foreign policies is a reality. The relationship has regained importance and become “a positive factor for stability” in the global power flux. Both sides recognise the “importance of respecting each other’s sensitivities, concerns and aspirations”. Both leaderships would provide “strategic guidance to their respective militaries” to manage the border peacefully. And finally, both sides would strive for “greater consultation on all matters of common interest”, which includes building a real “developmental partnership”.
  • Subsequently, the Wuhan approach was critiqued for not going far enough in terms of laying out a blueprint to resolve differences. There is some merit in that interpretation. Yet, the fact is both sides have contained much of the spiralling competition and mistrust, and, there is little doubt that an uncertain international environment motivated both sides towards such a choice. It has also been claimed that China had tactical reasons for a truce with India in order to focus on strategic competition with the U.S. This is also true. But what has not been emphasised enough is India too benefits from not having to overburden its military, weak economy, and underresourced diplomatic corps from having to focus on two fronts in a region-wide rivalry with China. As India’s Foreign Secretary stated in February 2018, “India has to find and define for itself a relationship with China which allows us to maintain our foreign policy objectives and at the same time allows us a policy that is prudent enough that does not lead us to conflict on every occasion.” In essence, Wuhan was grounded in realpolitik considerations.

 Three-point road map

 Going forward, India’s China policy should be guided by three grand strategic goals:

  1. an inclusive security architecture in Asia that facilitates a non-violent transition to multipolarity without disrupting economic interdependence;
  2. a fair and rules-based open international order to better reflect Indian and developing economy interests; and,
  3. geopolitical peace and sustainable economic development in the neighbourhood.
  • China is important to the successful pursuit of each of these goals, and the principal task before Indian policymakers is to envisage and execute a policy framework that allows for progress on these three ends.
  • The historian Odd Arne Westad recently advised, “The more the U.S. and China beat each other up, the more room for manoeuvre other powers will have.” One could equally apply that mantra to India and China.

Unrestrained competition only benefits other powers.

  • The recent stability in India-China relations is a choice made by both sides. History is obliging both countries to step up and play constructive roles to shape the emerging world order even as it is impelling both sides to learn to co-exist in a common neighbourhood.
  • The government made two recent announcements at two ends of the spectrum to mitigate the economic crisis. One concerns a new indexation of NREGA wages meant to increase rural incomes. The second is a reduction in corporate tax rate.
  • Prices of commodities increase each year, so it’s important to accurately estimate how much a NREGA labourer should earn in 2020 if she earned ₹179 (national daily average NREGA wage) in 2019. For this, we need a good index to benchmark and revise the wages. Indices are (weighted) averages of the prices of a basket of goods consumed and the index must be based on the main items of consumption for rural households. NREGA daily wages are to be indexed with an updated inflation index called the Consumer Price Index-Rural (CPI-R) instead of the older Consumer Price Index-Agricultural Labourers (CPI-AL).
  • The calculation of CPI-AL involved more food items in the consumption basket while the calculation of CPI-R involves more non-food items such as healthcare and education.
  • CPI-R better reflects the rural consumption basket compared to CPIAL.

 Increase base wages

  • Although this new indexation is critical, it will have a sizeable impact on increase in rural incomes only if the base NREGA wages are high. For example, let’s assume a 10% increase in wages due to the new indexation. Then NREGA wages in Kerala at ₹271 per day, one of the highest, would become ₹298. However, if NREGA wages were equal to the State minimum wages, the wages in Kerala would increase from ₹490 to about ₹540. A substantial increase in NREGA wages and subsequent indexation with CPI-R would be meaningful for the workers and the economy. But barring three States/UTs, NREGA wages are still lower than the State minimum wages elsewhere, in violation of the law.
  • Minimum wages are neither a dole nor an act of charity. They are a legal mandate that are arrived at by calculating the minimal nutritional requirement and basic needs of an individual.
  • In fact, the Fair Wages Committee of the Ministry of Labour (1949) noted in a progressive report that a “living wage” should also include education, healthcare and insurance besides the bare essentials. In Sanjit Roy v. State of Rajasthan (1983), the Supreme Court held that paying less than minimum wages is akin to “forced labour”. In Workmen v. Management of Raptakos Brett (1991), it said that the aforementioned provisions must be added to arrive at a moral “living wage” to ensure basic dignity of life. Yet, the current daily NREGA wages are just a quarter of the minimum daily living wage of ₹692 as outlined in the 7th Pay Commission.

 Increase inequality

  • The current corporate tax cut will only widen economic inequality. According to the Oxfam Inequality Report 2018, in one year, the wealth of the richest 1% in India grew by ₹20.91 lakh crore, which is equivalent to the 2017-18 Budget. According to estimates by CRISIL, due to the recent tax cut, 1,000 companies would have annual savings of around ₹37,000 crore. In comparison, the last annual NREGA budget is ₹60,000 crore. So the estimated gains of more than a 1,000 companies would be equivalent to the annual earnings of around 7.2 crore NREGA labourers. What is worse is that the budget allocation for NREGA gets exhausted by October of each financial year, leading to delays in payment of wages. These are all legal violations.
  • According to a 2015 IMF report, “if the income share of the top 20% (the rich) increases, then GDP growth actually declines over the medium term”, while “an increase in the income share of the bottom 20% (the poor) is associated with higher GDP growth”. While corporate tax cuts and lower interest rates would give corporations some liquidity, it is unlikely that rural demand will increase. On the contrary, without a substantial increase in NREGA wages, the wages would barely match inflation levels leading to wage stagnation in real terms. It is therefore economically prudent to substantially increase the budget for public programmes such as NREGA. This would lead to higher disposable income for the poor which in turn would have positive multiplier effects in the economy.
  • On economic, ethical, and legal counts, it behoves the government to pay attention to the poor. However, the ruling party seems to pander to the super rich. In circumstances of unsustainable wages, the poor would be forced to become part of the migrant labour force eager to eke out a modicum of existence. India Inc. would, in turn, benefit by absorbing them at throwaway daily wages leaving no alternatives for labourers. Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen’s poignant imagery of India having pockets of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa is still eerily true