Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained a frenetic pace, renewing contacts with world leaders ever since the results of general election 2019. He was the cynosure of all eyes at the G-20 meeting in June, in Osaka. At the BRICs informal meeting, also in Osaka, he called for the strengthening of the World Trade Organisation and for a global conference on terrorism. He discussed counter-terrorism and climate change issues at separate meetings with China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. He participated in the JapanIndia-U.S. trilateral grouping, arguing for a “rules based order” in the IndoPacific region. He met with U.S. President Donald Trump, to discuss the future of India-U.S. relations.
A vastly altered situation
This may convey an impression that everything bodes well for India in the external realm. What is often overlooked is that while we were fortunate in the past to be able to take advantage of a rare combination of favourable conditions, this situation no longer exists. The 2019 election verdict was a definitive victory for Mr. Modi, but it hardly carries an assurance that India can pursue the same policies as before. While it has become commonplace for most Indians to affirm that India has arrived, there are a host of issues that exist which need to be reconciled before we can achieve what we aspire for.
The past cannot be a guide to the future. In the past, we did manage a shift from non-alignment to multi-alignment, could improve our relations with the United States without jeopardising our long-term relationship with Russia, and paper over our prickly relations with China without conceding too much ground; all the while maintaining our strategic independence. This is too much to hope for at the present time.
The global situation that made all this possible has altered. Rivalries among nations have intensified. There is virtual elimination of the middle ground in global politics, and it has become far more adversarial than at any time previously. Even the definition of a liberal order seems to be undergoing changes. Several more countries today profess support for their kind of liberalism, including Russia and China. At the other end, western democracy appears far less liberal today.
China, U.S. and Asian realities
In this backdrop, India needs to rework many of its policies in the coming five years. South Asia, in particular, and the region of our highest priority, according to the new External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, needs close attention. The region is one of the most disturbed in the world and India has little or no say in any of the outcomes taking place. India-Pakistan relations are perhaps at their lowest point. Tarring Pakistan with the terror brush is hardly policy, and stable relations continue to be elusive. India has no role in Afghan affairs and is also excluded from current talks involving the Taliban, the Afghan government, Pakistan, the U.S. and even Russia and China. India might have recouped its position more recently in the Maldives, but its position in Nepal and Sri Lanka remains tenuous. In West Asia again, India is no longer a player to reckon with.
Across much of Asia, China is the major challenge that India has to contend with. Smaller countries in the region are being inveigled to participate in China’s programmes such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India and Bhutan are the only two countries in this region that have opted out of the BRI, and they seem like the odd men out. The challenge in the coming years for India is to check the slide, especially in Asia, and try and restore India to the position it held previously. India cannot afford to wait too long to rectify the situation.
Deepening India-U.S. relations today again carry the danger of India becoming involved in a new kind of Cold War. This is another area that needs our special focus. India must ensure that it does not become a party to the conflicts and rivalries between the U.S. and a rising China, the heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia, and also avoid becoming a pawn in the U.S.-Iran conflict.
There is little doubt that current India-U.S. relations provide India better access to state-of-theart defence items; the recent passage of the National Defence Authorisation Act in the U.S. makes India virtually a non-NATO ally. However, such close identification comes with a price. It could entail estrangement of relations with Russia, which has been a steadfast ally and a defence partner of India’s for the better part of half-a-century. Closer relations with the U.S. also carries the risk of aggravating tensions between India and China, even as China and the U.S. engage in contesting every domain and are involved in intense rivalry in military matters as well as competition on technology issues.
The U.S.-China-Russia conflict has another dimension which could affect India adversely. The strategic axis forged between the Mr. Putin’s Russia and Mr. Xi’s China will impact not only the U.S. but also India’s position in both Asia and Eurasia, with India being seen as increasingly aligned to the U.S. Hence, India needs to devise a policy that does not leave it isolated in the region.
Again, notwithstanding the ‘Wuhan spirit’, India cannot but be concerned about China’s true intentions, given the regional and global situation and its desire to dominate the Asian region. Within the next decade, China will become a truly formidable military power, second only to the U.S. The ongoing India-U.S. entente could well provoke a belligerent China to act with greater impunity than previously. As it is, China would be concerned at the rise of a ‘nationalist’ India, which is perhaps not unwilling in the prevailing circumstances of today to become embroiled in a conflict over ‘freedom of navigation’ in the South and East China seas.
The new buzzword
On another plane, as India intensifies its search for state-of-the-art military equipment from different sources, it may be worthwhile for India to step back and reconsider some of its options. Military power is but one aspect of the conflicts that rage today. Experts point out that outright war, insurgencies and terror attacks are fast becoming passé. Nations confront many other and newer threats at present. Today, disruptive technologies have tremendous danger potential and nations that possess these technologies have the ability to become the dominant powers in the 21st and 22nd Centuries.
A major challenge for India will hence be how to overcome our current inadequacies in the realm of disruptive technologies rather than remaining confined to the purely military domain. The U.S., China, Russia, Israel and few other countries dominate these spheres as also cyberspace and cyber methodologies. New policy parameters will need to be drawn up by India, and our capabilities enhanced in areas such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology and cyber methodology, all of which constitute critical elements of the disruptive technology matrix.
The economy needs attention
None of this would, however, be possible unless India pays greater heed to its economy. Despite a plethora of official statements, the state of the economy remains a matter of increasing concern. Even statistics regarding the economy are being questioned. Notwithstanding India’s ambition to become a $5-trillion economy by 2024-25, the reality today is that the economy appears to be in a state of decline. Jobs, specially skilled jobs, are not available in sufficient numbers and this should be a matter for concern. The ability to sustain a rate of growth between 8.5% and 9.5% is again highly doubtful. Neither the Economic Survey nor the Budget contain useful pointers to a more robust economy, one that is capable of providing a higher rate of growth, more opportunities for skilled labour, and greater potential for investments.
The looming challenge for India in the coming five years, therefore, would be how to build a strong economic foundation, one that is capable of providing the kind of power structure needed for an emerging power, and also one possessing the best liberal credentials.
In a report last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) called the Chennai floods of 2015 a “man made disaster”, a pointer to how the encroachment of lakes and river floodplains has driven India’s sixth largest city to this ineluctable situation. The Chennai floods are a symbol of consistent human failings and poor urban design which are common to most urban centres in India if not urban centres across the world. Now, Chennai is in the midst of another crisis — one of water scarcity.
Unlike issues such as traffic congestion or crime which are visible, environmental degradation is not what most people can easily see or feel in their every day lives. Therefore, when the consequences of such degradation begin to wreak havoc, it becomes difficult to draw the correlation between nature’s vengeance with human failings. In Chennai, more than 30 waterbodies of significance have disappeared in the past century. Concretisation or the increase in paved surfaces has affected the percolation of rainwater into the soil, thereby depleting groundwater levels to a point of no return.
Urbanisation without vision
Chennai, however, is not alone in terms of suffering from the consequences of human folly. Urbanisation at the cost of reclaiming water bodies is a pan-India if not worldwide phenomenon. There are examples in cities such as Bengaluru, Hyderabad and even Mexico city. In Bengaluru, 15 lakes have lost their ecological character in less than five years according to a High Court notice to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike, the city’s administrative body responsible for civic amenities and some infrastructural assets.
The lakes, which are now encroached areas, find use as a bus stand, a stadium and, quite ironically, as an office of the Pollution Control Board. In Mexico city, what was once a network of lakes built by the Aztecs in the 11th and 12th centuries, has given way to a downtown city centre. Parts of the city, especially downtown, sink a few metres every year causing immense damage to buildings.
In Telangana, the byzantine network of tanks and lakes built by the Kakatiya dynasty has disappeared over the years. However, the question is not about what follies were committed in the past, but about what we can do in the present and, more importantly, for the future. In Telangana, “tanks have been the lifeline of the State because of its geographical positioning”. The State’s “topography and rainfall pattern have made tank irrigation an ideal type of irrigation by storing and regulating water flow for agricultural use”.
The Telangana example
There are a number of lessons that can be learnt. The Chief Minister of Telangana launched a massive rejuvenation movement in form of “Mission Kakatiya” which involves the restoration of irrigation tanks and lakes/minor irrigation sources built by the Kakatiya dynasty. From the perspective of intergenerational justice, this is a move towards giving future generations in the State their rightful share of water and, therefore, a life of dignity. The city of Hyderabad is now moving towards a sustainable hydraulic model with some of the best minds in the country working on it. This model integrates six sources of water in a way that even the most underdeveloped areas of the city can have equitable access to water resources and the groundwater levels restored in order to avoid a calamity of the kind that has gripped Chennai now.
The larger question is: Can we not take inspiration from the following examples? When Mexico city can create a new executive position of a “resilience officer” to save its sinking urban sprawls, Bengaluru can reclaim Kundalahalli lake (once a landfill) through corporate social responsibility funds in a Public Private Partnership model, and Hyderabad and the larger state of Telangana rebuild its resilience through a combination of political will and well-designed policies such as the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Scheme and Mission, what stops us from learning from each other?
Why should other urban centres shy away from adopting, remodelling and implementing some of the best water management practices to avoid disaster? The answer perhaps lies in the tendency of policymakers to discount the future and of their obsession of focussing on the here and now.
It is estimated that in just 30 years from now, half of India will be living in cities. If we truly envision a great future for this country, how can we possibly risk the lives of half of our people and the next generations who could be facing a life in cities parched by drought, stranded by floods, mortified by earthquakes or torn by wars over fresh water? What has happened in Chennai now or what happened in Kerala last year in the form of floods are not a case of setting alarm bells ringing, but one of explosions. If we do not wake up now, we have to be prepared to face the consequences of nature wreaking great havoc on humanity. We would not need nuclear bombs for our obliteration. Crime and Criminal Tracking Network & Systems (CCTNS)