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The Hindu Editorial Analysis | PDF Download

Date: 11 October 2019

Trade, border dispute likely to dominate Modi-Xi talks No joint statement, MoUs or agreements are expected after informal summit

  • Trade issues, boundary disputes and multilateral cooperation are expected to dominate the “informal summit” at Mamallapuram as the seaside resort on the outskirts of Chennai prepares to host Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday and Saturday. Mr. Xi will land in Chennai past 2 p.m. — about two hours after Mr. Modi. He will head to the Mamallapuram temple complex for an evening with Mr. Modi, which will include a tour of the monuments and a dance performance at the Shore Temple at sunset, followed by dinner. On Saturday, the talks will be more structured and will include time for a “one-on-one” meeting, followed by delegation-level talks.

 Beyond formalities

  • “The objective is to ensure that the communication between the leaders is one which is routinised, easy going and indicates that President Xi Jinping and PM Modi are getting down to business in an informal way, not simply at a structured meeting where prepared statements are read out in a much more practical way,” a senior official, briefing the media about the expectations from the summit, had said.
  • Both leaders would be received by Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit, Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami and MEA officials, including Indian Ambassador to China Vikram Misri.
  • No joint statement is expected after the talks, nor have any MoUs or agreements been prepared as the outcome, officials involved in the planning said. They suggested that the Indian side will hope to keep discussions on the issue of Kashmir at a minimum.
  • Much will depend on the “personal chemistry” between the two leaders, say officials, who expect the discussions over bilateral concerns and joint initiatives will be smoother than those over contentious issues involving other countries, including ties with the U.S., India-Pakistan tensions, and Jammu & Kashmir.

Assam tea estates violating labour laws’

  • Oxfam report says State’s move to provide living wages to the workers should be supported
  • A report by Oxfam, a confederation of independent charitable organisations focussing on the alleviation of global poverty, has flagged violation of labour rights in the tea estates of Assam. Tea industry captains, however, said there was nothing new in Oxfam India’s report finding tea plantation workers with “no toilets, crumbling houses, poor wages, lack of quality health and education entitlements”.
  • Along with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Oxfam India had conducted the research that yielded the report ‘Addressing the Human Cost of Assam Tea’ through interviews with 510 workers in 50 tea estates of the State. The report noted that the Assam government’s commitment to increasing the minimum wages of tea plantation workers to ₹351 met with hurdles of financial viability in the sector.

 ‘Struggling tea industry’

  • It hoped that the proposed Occupational Health and Safety Bill would help the “struggling Assam tea industry” be viable and at the same time “ensure fair living wages and decent working and living conditions for tea plantation workers and their families”.
  • The report attributed the condition of plantation workers to the “relentless squeeze by supermarkets and brands on the share of the end-consumer price for tea”. The researchers found that despite working for over 13 hours a day, workers earn between ₹137-167, while tea brands and supermarkets “typically capture over two-thirds of the price paid by consumers for Assam tea in India — with just 7% remaining for workers on tea estates”. Oxfam asked consumers, supermarkets and brands to support the Assam government’s move to provide living wages to workers and to ensuring more of the price paid by the consumers trickle down to them.

‘Vulnerable existence’

  • “We welcome the attempts of the government to increase the wages of tea plantation workers and the upcoming Occupational Health and Safety Bill. Both have the potential to address the systemic injustice faced by the tea workers in Assam. However, our research points to the fact that tea plantation workers and their families are living a very vulnerable existence. The wages they earn are very low, and their working and living conditions call for an urgent response,” said Amitabh Behar, CEO, Oxfam India. A spokesperson of the Indian Tea Association declined to react, beyond saying that “such reports keep coming out to batter an already-battered” industry. Parliamentary Committee takes unanimous decision

Sinha panel to review economy first

  • In an unanimous decision, the Parliamentary Committee on Finance, which has BJP members in majority and is chaired by the ruling party’s former Minister Jayant Sinha, has agreed to discuss the state of economy as the first subject to be taken up at its meeting on October 17.
  • At the beginning of the meeting, a list of 13 subjects for review for this year was circulated. None of the subjects listed delved into the state of economy.
  • According to sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy was the first to raise a red flag. He is reported to have said that given the economic downturn, the committee could ill afford to discuss any other issues.
  • Mr. Roy was backed by Congress MP Manish Tewari, the sources said, adding that none of the BJP members on the committee objected to either Mr. Roy or Mr. Tewari’s comments.
  • “There was unanimity that the state of the economy is very worrying and has to be the first subject to be looked at,” a committee member, who did not wish to be identified, told The Hindu.

Demands for grants

  • “Finance Ministry officials and independent experts will be called in to depose. Subsequently, a questionnaire will be circulated based on those briefings and then we will look at demands for grants,” the member added.
  • Many members also demanded a comprehensive review of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). This would cover its structure, functioning, its mandate and its role. The review would also bring into focus the controversial move of the central bank to transfer ₹1.76 lakh crore of its reserve funds to the union government.
  • “We have, for now, scheduled the meeting three weeks later,” another Opposition member of the panel said. “The RBI Governor who has deposed in front of the committee in the past will be called,” this member added.
  • The list of 13 subjects circulated at the beginning of the meeting by Mr. Sinha had steered clear of any controversial issues. The topics included “efficacy of overall taxation framework”, “financing the innovation ecosystem”, and “performance and regulation of capital markets”.
  • The BJP-led government decided to break with parliamentary tradition and kept the post of the chair of the Finance Committee with the ruling party. In the last Lok Sabha, the committee headed by Congress leader Veerapa Moily had given the government some embarrassing moments including in its review of demonetization.

Panel set up to expedite privatisation of trains

  • The Ministry of Railways on Thursday constituted an empowered group of secretaries to work on the development of 50 railway stations as well as handing over operations of 150 trains to private operators. The move follows NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant’s letter to Railway Board Chairman V.K. Yadav pointing to the delay in the Railways’ project of developing 400 stations. Mr. Kant had recommended that an empowered group of secretaries be set up to “drive the process in a time-bound manner”.
  • As per the Ministry order, the committee will look into the approval, and monitoring of the bidding process along with bid documents. It will monitor the process and will take decisions to ensure award of projects “in a timebound manner”.
  • The committee will be chaired by Mr. Kant, with the Railway Board Chairman, Economic Affairs Secretary, Urban Affairs Secretary and Financial Commissioner (Railways) as members. Additionally, Railway Board Member (engineering) and Member (traffic) will act as the co-opted members for their respective projects.
  • In his letter, Mr. Kant had said that while the Railways was required to take up the stations for development, actual implementation had not happened, except for a few isolated cases.
  • “I had a detailed discussion with the Minister of Railways wherein it was decided that there is a necessity to take up the matter on priority for at least 50 stations. Considering the recent experience in privatisation of six airports, a similar process for setting up an empowered group of secretaries to drive the process is required.”
  • Mr. Kant had added that the empowered committee could also be tasked with driving the initiative of handing over of 150 trains to private operators.

 India slams Turkey for Syria action

 ‘Ankara’s campaign is unilateral’

  • India on Thursday described Turkey’s military action in Syria as “unilateral” and asked Ankara to respect Syria’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) called upon Turkey to exercise restraint.
  • “We are deeply concerned at the unilateral military offensive by Turkey in northeast Syria. Turkey’s actions can undermine stability in the region and the fight against terrorism. Its action also has the potential of causing humanitarian and civilian distress,” the MEA said in a release.
  • Turkey on Wednesday launched a military campaign, Operation Peace Spring, targeting the Kurdish YPG rebels, a branch of the PKK of Turkey that it considers a terrorist organisation.
  • Ankara claims the groups being targeted in the operation are already designated as terrorists in the U.S. and the European Union. Turkey has accused the PKK/YPG of killing 40,000 civilians.
  • Tough diplomatic exchanges between Turkey and India have intensified in recent weeks following India’s decision to end the special status of Kashmir. India issued a strong statement expressing “deep regret” after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took up the Kashmir issue in his speech at the UN General Assembly.
  • “We call upon Turkey to exercise restraint and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. We urge the peaceful settlement of all issues through dialogue,” said the MEA.

 Some stress points

  • Ties have experienced some turbulence of late. China’s position on issues such as Masood Azhar, India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group membership, the yawning trade gap and inroads into South Asia, have all played a role.
  • Mr. Modi’s vision of an inclusive Indo-Pacific region, outlined at the Shangri La event in Singapore in June last year, has helped allay some concerns over America’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. China’s public support for Pakistan on Jammu and Kashmir has created a new stress point. • The slowdown in the Chinese economy and the geo-strategic competition with the United States point to further uncertainty. The idea of a China-centric order in Asia has met with resistance.
  • Even at the Minsk Dialogue Forum in Belarus this week, several speakers referred to cooperation between the EU-Eurasian Economic Union and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with palpable unease, citing China’s lack of adherence to global standards and disregard for the environment and labour rules. During Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Beijing this week, Mr. Xi is reported to have stated that China is “paying close attention” to the situation in Kashmir and that China would support Pakistan on its core interests, inviting a quick riposte by the Indian Foreign Ministry that it is not for others to comment on the internal affairs of India.

 On Kashmir

  • China maintains that the question of Jammu and Kashmir should be settled on the basis of the UN Charter, UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements.
  • What is of note is that its boundary agreement with Pakistan of March 2, 1963 and the ChinaPakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have de facto altered the status quo and violated the spirit of the very UN Security Council Resolutions that China cites in support of Pakistan. China holds approximately 38,000 sq km of land in Aksai Chin and a further 5,180 sq km illegally ceded by Pakistan to China under the 1963 agreement. The latter agreement recognizes under Article 6 that the settlement is an interim arrangement under which China would reopen negotiations with the concerned sovereign authority once the question of Kashmir is settled.
  • China’s endorsement of the CPEC has been rejected by India as it passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Straws in the wind suggest that China may have realized that the CPEC was a hasty decision, without proper consultations with India. However, considering its flagship status, it will be difficult for China to review it. Nor can China easily pull away from its strategic “iron brother” Pakistan.
  • India-China relations have witnessed many peaks and troughs. The frequency is greater, but the cycles of disruption have become shorter.
  • After the border war in 1962, it took 14 years to normalize relations at the ambassadorial level. In the wake of India’s nuclear tests in 1998, it took only two years to normalize ties. After the stand-off at Doklam (2017), the two leaders met within days at the BRICS Summit. Obviously, there is greater maturity in the ties. Both India and China are keen to deepen engagement and impart stability and predictability to their relations.

 Significance of the setting

  • The informal summit at Mamallapuram offers yet another opportunity to both the strong leaders to reset relations in an era of geostrategic flux. Their strategic guidance to the stake-holders on both sides would act as a compass in finding the true north in ties.
  • Mamallapuram is not a place without significance. Wuhan, the site of the first informal summit, is the place where Mao Zedong had displayed his vitality by swimming in the currents of the Yangtse river. Today, it straddles the great rail connectivity route to Europe envisioned in the BRI. The coastal town of Mamallapuram is evocative of ancient maritime links between the Pallava empire and China 2,000 years ago. Bodhidharma, the founder of the Dhyan school of meditation at the Shaolin monastery in Henan province in China, hailed from this region. When the two leaders gaze out at the sea, they will be greeted by the same expanse of waters of the Indo-Pacific that once united, not divided, India and China.
  • The choice of Mamallapuram as a venue also highlights the scope of the India-China economic partnership across India. There is much untapped potential for Chinese investments in India. Chinese FDI has seen a welcome spike since 2015. According to the Chinese side, cumulative FDI in India stands at $8 billion. Mutual investments provide the ballast for the ship of bilateral relations.

Global context

  • The second informal summit comes within weeks of the so-called Quad meeting at the Foreign Ministers’ level.
  • It also takes place at a time when tensions between the U.S. and China are mounting along a broad front, from trade to military, with the latest kindling being the blacklisting of 28 Chinese Artificial Intelligence firms for their involvement in the alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang. China’s 70th anniversary celebrations of communist party rule on October 1 were marred by continuing protests in Hong Kong, raising questions about the realization of the “China Dream” by 2049 through the full reintegration of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Further, the ‘One Country Two Systems’ applied to Hong Kong, meant to be a model for Taiwan’s return to the fold, could be viewed with skepticism.
  • There is no gainsaying the fact that India and China must work together to forge stable relations in which competition does not lead to conflict nor differences to disputes. India and China will always have to co-exist cheek by jowl, as they have done for millennia. It is in the larger interests of the two peoples that there be greater trust and cooperation and that there be deeper friendship at all levels.
  • At Mamallapuram, the cool sea breeze, the palm fronds and the ancient temples and monuments will provide a perfect setting to the two leaders to muse over our timeless ties and their future.
  • Helpful steps that can contribute to better relations include firewalling the bilateral track from third-party considerations, fighting stereotypes through objective media coverage, encouraging high level and other exchanges, especially among the youth, enhancing confidence building measures between the armed forces, balancing India’s trade deficit of $58 billion and injecting greater transparency in China’s growing presence in South Asia.
  • China expects the world to accommodate its rise and core concerns on Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Likewise, China too needs to adjust to the rise of India and accommodate its concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity. This could pave the way for furthering cooperation under the India-China Plus framework.
  • The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill, 2019 passed by the Lok Sabha on July 23 and by the Rajya Sabha on July 31 has 63 clauses with the aim of reducing road traffic fatalities and injuries in India.

The amended MVA has several new provisions:

  1. a) Increased compensation for road accident victims,
  2. b) A motor vehicle accident fund to provide compulsory insurance cover to all road users,
  3. c) Defining a good samaritan,
  4. d) Recall of a defective motor vehicle,
  5. e) Development of a national transportation policy,
  6. f) A national road safety board,
  7. g) Recognizing taxi aggregators and
  8. h) Increased penalties for several offences.
  • All these are intended to reduce traffic crashes by at least 50% by 2030 (a target set by the United Nations). Out of the many amendments proposed in the Act, the increased penalties have been implemented in many States from September 1, 2019; at the same time, many States have decided to “dilute” the suggested increase in penalties.

Penalties as deterrents

  • New penalties have been introduced for ‘faulty registration details, the concessionaire or the contractor who is responsible for a faulty road design or has not followed standards, and for guardians of juvenile offenders to be penalized. While there have to be penalties for offenders, there does not seem to be any correlation between stricter and higher penalties and a reduction in road traffic crashes in countries where road traffic deaths have reduced over the years’, examples being West Europe, the United States, Japan and Australia.
  • The idea of higher fines as a deterrent to traffic crashes is based on the assumption that a driver is careless and that the fear of a higher penalty will encourage “careful” behaviour while on the road. This goes against current scientific understanding in reducing traffic crashes that promotes the design of a system which can forgive mistakes made by road users. Road safety experts suggest that road designs such as lane width, shoulder presence, number of lanes and median design influence driving behaviour such as operating speeds, lane changing, etc.
  • Therefore, one could expect that ‘roads themselves play an important role in road safety, and improved geometry design and infrastructure could in turn help to improve road safety. Drivers can modify their behaviour based on what they see on the road ahead of them. Drivers are more likely to fall asleep or experience boredom on straight, monotonous, dual carriageway roads with little traffic’. Stricter penalties and intensive driver training cannot reduce the risk of driver fatigue. However, road engineers can change the road design to reduce boredom and monotony.
  • Given the understanding from traffic safety theories of the last 50 years, safety interventions have to be based on three important principles:
  • recognition of human frailty, acceptance of human error, and creation of a forgiving environment and appropriate crash energy management. Experience from the U.S. and European countries shows that road standards alone cannot ensure safe roads for all unless safety performance is evaluated.
  • There is another factor in India. The density of small towns and villages along highways and the presence of tractors, three-wheelers, cars, buses, trucks and truck trailers on these highways present a very different traffic mix as compared to North America and western Europe where most highway standards have been developed. Pedestrian and motorcyclist involvement in fatal crashes on highways is greater than those involving other road users. In the past two decades, there have been major investments in expanding the national highway system in India. Yet, fatalities have continued to grow. Can the amended MVA address these concerns?
  • Despite the efforts of the last few decades, the number of road traffic fatalities has continued to increase in India.
  • A Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH) report of 2018 has listed 1,51,430 fatalities. However, for the same year, the World Health Organization estimates nearly 300,000 deaths. In fact a government of India study by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India (‘The Million Death’ study) also reports at least a 50% under-reporting of traffic fatalities and a higher share of pedestrian and motorized two wheelers as Road Traffic Collision victims when compared to the MoRTH report. The MVA amendments do not address the reliability of crash estimates, which form the basis of designing preventive strategies.
  • Road safety data
  • It has been a tradition in ‘road safety to analyze road safety data in order to understand why crashes occur, which factors influence risks, and what determines crash severity, and then, based on this understanding, to arrive at reliable conclusions on how to prevent them most effectively and efficiently. This is called a data-driven approach.
  • In this approach, priorities are derived by using crash data, background data, exposure data and data on safety performance indicators’. This is what researchers call as a scientific method and evidence-based interventions. India has still not created a culture of producing scientific evidence for designing preventive strategies. A report from New South Wales, Australia in 2007 evaluated the effectiveness of stricter penalties which said: “It is suggested that substantial increases in fines and licence disqualifications would have limited potential in deterring recidivist offenders. The present analysis failed to find any evidence for a significant relationship between [the] fine amount and the likelihood that an offender will return to court for a new driving offence. Nor was there any evidence from our analyses to suggest that longer license disqualification periods reduced the likelihood of an offender reappearing before the courts.” Increased fines alone, as suggested in the amended MVA, will not have the intended effect of reducing traffic crashes. Current traffic safety science suggests that if road users do not have their share of responsibility, for example due to a lack of knowledge or competence, or if personal injuries occur, or for other reasons that lead to risks, the system designers (road designers) must take further measures to prevent people from being killed or seriously injured.
  • Therefore, if there is to be a reduction in India in the growing health burden due to traffic crashes, it requires establishing a system or institutional structure which enables the generation of new knowledge-new road standards thereby ensuring safe highways and urban roads. Thus, we have a long way to go in ensuring “safe road behaviour”.