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The Hindu Editorial Analysis | PDF Download

Date: 20 August 2019

Something Special

  • India and Bhutan have a good thing going; each must take the other’s concerns seriously
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two day visit to Thimphu affirmed a long-standing tradition between India and Bhutan, where the leaders of both countries have given visiting each other a major priority early in their tenures. Mr. Modi returned a state visit to India by Bhutan Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering in December 2018; this visit was actually delayed to include outcomes such as the inauguration of the 720 MW Mangdechhu hydropower plant. The relationship is indeed built on a traditional closeness, one that is unique in today’s world. Open borders, close alignment and consultation on foreign policy, and regular, open communications on all strategic issues are the hallmark of the relationship that has maintained its consistency for the past many decades. Bhutan’s unequivocal support to India on strategic issues has meant a lot to India on the international stage and at the United Nations. Equally, Bhutan’s leadership has not flinched in opposing threats to India; for instance, the former King’s efforts in 2003 to drive out ULFA rebels or more recently, support for India’s stand against Chinese troops on the Doklam plateau. India’s assistance to Bhutan’s planned economy, to constructing its highest revenue earner of hydropower generated electricity, and then buying the electricity generated has also ensured a symbiotic and mutually beneficial base to the relationship, which has been nurtured by the leaders in both countries, in a manner Mr. Modi called “exemplary”.
  • It would however, be a mistake for New Delhi to take the relationship with Thimphu for granted. In the past few years, ties came under a strain over India’s sudden change in its power purchasing policy, rigid rates and refusal to allow Bhutan to join the national power grid and trade with third countries like Bangladesh. These issues are being addressed now. Another concern that could create differences is over Bhutan’s worry that too much trade, transport and tourism from India could put its environment at risk.
  • India’s plans for a Motor Vehicles Agreement (MVA) in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal grouping have been held up, and a Bhutanese proposal to levy entry charges on Indian tourists could cause differences with India. Earlier generations of Bhutanese students never looked beyond India, but in recent years young Bhutanese have shown a preference for education destinations in Australia, Singapore and Thailand. There is thus much to repair in the ties. More importantly, New Delhi will have to remain alert to strategic powers which are courting Bhutan assiduously, as is evident from the high-level visits from China and the U.S. In a world of growing options, it remains in India’s and Bhutan’s best interests to make each other’s concerns a top priority.
  • The fourth national tiger survey has generated much euphoria, whereas the first one in 2006 had cast a pall of gloom. However, missing from all the four survey reports are details necessary to assess the reliability of the tiger numbers. A brief history of India’s tiger censuses can shed some light on this issue. The tradition of reporting tiger numbers dates back to the 1970s. These numbers were based on the ‘pugmark census method’, which simple-mindedly assumed that the pugmarks of every tiger could be found, recognized and tallied. As scientific critiques showed, these assumptions failed, rendering the numbers meaningless. However, the forest bureaucracy (the Ministry of Environment and allied institutions) ignored the problem for decades.

New methods

  • In the 1990s, many tiger scientists and statistical ecologists working in collaboration developed robust new methods for tiger monitoring. These methods could estimate numbers using ‘distance sampling’ and the extent of tiger habitat employing ‘occupancy sampling of tiger spoor’. Critically, they could even directly estimate numbers, survival rates and and recruitment in each population employing ‘photographic capture-recapture sampling’. These methods were independently honed in tiger reserves across India and over 25,000 sq km in the Western Ghats harbouring 20% of India’s tigers.
  • By 2004, the new methods had rapidly been adopted worldwide for assessing populations of threatened cat species such as leopards and jaguars. However, the Director of India’s Project Tiger derided these as fancy sampling methods, inferior to India’s indigenous pugmark census.
  • Then in 2005 came the shocking revelation that all tigers in Sariska Reserve had been poached, even as the pugmark censuses claimed all was well. A Tiger Task Force (TTF) appointed by the Prime Minister discarded the pugmark census. The Director of Project Tiger performed a breathtaking backflip, now denouncing the pugmark census as “trash”.
  • I had hoped these dramatic events would lead to a serious revamping of India’s tiger monitoring methods. India’s remarkable conservation efforts had rescued the tiger from the brink of extinction; they deserved an honest evaluation to identify both successes and failures. The dire situation demanded technically rigorous tiger population surveys conducted by independent, qualified scientists.
  • However, blocking this progress was a serious conflict of interest: The same forest bureaucracy that managed tiger populations was also expected to assess its own successes or failures by monitoring tiger populations. This had led to the fiascos in Sariska and other places.
  • Changes in tiger numbers, survival rates, and recruitment in key tiger populations have to be monitored every year to track the fate of tigers in real time. Periodic assessments of colonization and extinction of tiger populations across larger regions by employing the cost-effective ‘occupancy sampling of tiger spoor’ method are required. A public-private partnership framework led by qualified scientists is needed to conduct such independent monitoring.
  • However, instead of calling for better monitoring methods, TTF ended up further strengthening bureaucratic monopoly over tiger monitoring. Inevitably, the new National Tiger Estimation method, also created by the forest bureaucracy, ignored or distorted critical elements underpinning the new tiger survey methods. These flaws were masked by misleading technical jargon, hype about advanced technologies and cursory reviews by ‘foreign experts’.
  • Consequently, in spite of all the effort and expenditure, four tiger surveys have not generated ecologically credible results. Nor are they practically useful. For instance, in spite of spending crores of rupees on official tiger research and monitoring, the government has failed to generate estimates of annual rates of changes in tiger numbers, survival or recruitment in tiger populations at key sites.
  • Plainly put, the tiger numbers reported are useful only to generate the media spin to meet the needs of the forest bureaucracy and to satisfy momentary public curiosity. This is clear from the 2006 survey report, which made a bold confession: India’s tiger numbers had collapsed by a massive 61% (from 3,642 to 1,411 tigers) in just four years! This made no sense because the first number was from the discredited pugmark census and the second from the wobbly new survey method.
  • However, this confession killed three birds with one stone. It gained public acceptance of the new “scientific method”; it set an unrealistically low baseline of 1,400 tigers, around which future claims could be tailored; and the National Tiger Conservation Authority walked away unblemished from tiger declines, blaming them on State governments.
  • The results of subsequent surveys show that the new methodology is flexible enough to generate increases or decreases in coarse-scale estimates of tiger numbers and habitat occupancy. And this is what seems to be going on now, in preparation for claiming a ‘doubling’ of India’s tiger population at the next Global Tiger Summit in 2022.
  • Over the past decade, independent researchers have published several critiques of the design, models and flaws in field implementation in India’s tiger surveys. Most of them had to rely on sparse information gleaned from skimpy survey results in the public domain. The magnitude of the problem that could be revealed by a deeper examination of actual survey data is mind-boggling.
  • The forest bureaucracy, however, has stubbornly blocked qualified scientists from conducting any such deeper scrutiny. The astuteness with which it has maintained monopolistic control over tiger monitoring is a testimony to its political skills.

Nothing has changed

  • While releasing the 2010 tiger survey results, Planning Commission Member Montek Singh Ahluwalia suggested “aggregate tiger survey data” to be shared in the public domain. He pointed out how Economics had progressed through such data transparency. Unfortunately, nothing has changed since. The hiding of tiger data by the forest bureaucracy is in clear defiance of scientific ethics and public interest. Sadly, even larger conservation NGOs have not challenged this.
  • When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi set out to rescue India’s wild tigers, there were less than 2,000 left. Intense struggles of foresters and conservationists for five decades resulted in sporadic population recoveries at some sites, and continuing losses elsewhere. How many tigers should India now aspire for, given that habitat potential exists for 10,000-15,000 tigers? The current crop of forest bureaucrats, in spite of being flush with resources, believe we cannot have more than 3,500. Surely a nation aspiring to be a $5 trillion economy should set its sights higher? India’s political leadership recognizes past successes achieved by infusing creativity and private enterprise in sectors like communication technology. These became possible only after jettisoning inefficient, over-funded, self-serving government monopolies, not by pandering to them. Conservation cannot be an exception.
  •  By launching a trade war against China, the United States government that had pressured many a country to liberalize trade and globalize seems to have turned against its own agenda. In a series of aggressive moves, the U.S. — the one-time votary of freer trade — has put in place and widened the coverage of a protectionist shield aimed at stimulating domestic production and reducing the country’s trade deficit. While these moves initiated by the Donald Trump administration were on occasion targeted at multiple countries and involved rewriting the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, the focus of the trade and technology war has been China.

Steps against China

  • China-specific tariff aggression began with a 25% tariff on imports worth $50 billion, out of the total of $540 billion imported by the U.S. from China in July 2018. Soon, an additional $200 billion worth of imports from China were subjected to tariffs of 10%, and those levies were also raised to 25% in May this year. Most recently on August 1, the balance of around $300 billion worth of imports from China were subjected to a phased 10% levy, with a clear threat that these levies too can be raised to 25%.
  • China’s responses to U.S. actions, which came at every step of the trade war, have in turn led to the $120 billion of goods it imports from the U.S. being subject to a 25% duty. The U.S. has also imposed sanctions on and shut off business relations with individual Chinese firms, such as Huawei, on grounds varying from national security to alleged theft of intellectual property from U.S. firms. This prevents the firms targeted from either selling in U.S. markets and that of its allies or buying goods, services and technology from U.S. firms or those of its allies.
  • Parallel to all this, based on the allegation that the Chinese authorities have deliberately allowed the yuan to depreciate vis-à-vis the dollar to support its exporters, the U.S. Treasury has designated China as a currency manipulator. What additional action that would lead to is yet unclear. What is clear, however, is that given the importance of China as a global manufacturing hub, these measures have disrupted global value chains and production networks that are the hallmark of globalization.
  • Deglobalisation may yet be a distant prospect, but the fact that the world’s leading superpower is willing to disrupt globalization provides both an example and the justification to other governments that find the need to move in that direction.
  • The U.S. argument
  • The U.S. justifies its actions against China by citing that country’s significance as a source of inadequately reciprocated imports into the U.S. Imports from China account for more than a fifth of aggregate U.S. imports. With exports to China being nowhere as large, the U.S. runs an annual trade deficit with that country of around $420 billion, which ‘imbalance’ is attributed to Chinese policy.
  • There are, however, two important facts that this argument sidesteps. First, the gains to the U.S. from its economic relationship with China are inadequately captured by the trade figures. A major gain for U.S. companies, even if not for the U.S. per se, is the local sales by subsidiaries of American multinationals located in China. Official statistics from the U.S. indicate that U.S. multinational affiliates based in China notched up local sales of $222 billion in 2015, which do not figure in trade calculations. Second, these subsidiaries are responsible for a chunk of China’s exports to the U.S. According to one estimate, more than half of Chinese exports to the U.S. originate in foreign invested enterprises which are either U.S. multinational arms or firms with parents in other advanced economies. That is, the U.S. trade deficit with China is the result of the offshoring associated with globalisation, rather than to Chinese policy favouring its own firms.

Reading Trump

  • Not surprisingly, it troubles the neoliberal policy establishment that the fallout of this kind of trade aggression can set back globalization across the world. Members of the G20 other than the U.S. have strenuously and unsuccessfully tried to get the latter to sign on to another call for strengthening free trade. The International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and a host of international institutions have warned of the dangers of the new protectionism. Implicit in their reasoning is that the tariff aggression is an error being made by a maverick or misguided administration. But that does not take into account the fact that Mr. Trump had been railing against trade agreements that hurt the U.S. even in the course of his election campaign and withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement days after he took office. It also ignores the fact that a section hurt by the Trump tariffs — U.S. farmers for whom China was a $6 billion market in 2018 with it absorbing 60% of U.S. soyabean exports — still support him. A survey by the Purdue Center for Commercial Agriculture found that 78% of farmers held that the Trump tariffs will in time benefit them and a Pulse survey by Farm Journal found that Mr. Trump had a 79% approval rating among farmers.
  • The faith in Mr. Trump and rejection of economic liberalism are telling. These farmers along with U.S. industrial workers have for long felt they had been left behind in the neoliberal years when elites in developed and developing countries alike captured all the benefits of growth and inequality increased hugely. With the increase in income and wealth at the top of the pyramid accruing largely through transactions in the financial sector, productive activity that could have delivered benefits to others has been lagging.
  • The idea that the benefits of whatever growth occurred under the neoliberal regime would trickle down to the poor and lower middle classes was shown to be what it was: patently false. Seen in that context, Mr. Trump is no maverick, despite his wild twitter and vocal outbursts. He tapped into a genuine grievance and railed against elements of a regime he too was a beneficiary of. That brought him to power once. It may well return him to power again. When in power he needs to adopt at least some policies that go against the grain of free market philosophy and the globalisation that flows from it.
  • In Europe
  • That this is not confined to the U.S. comes through from the rise of what is dismissed as “right wing populism” in Europe, which is not just skeptical of free trade even within the European Union but is coming out against the fiscal conservatism promoted by financial interests that leaves the continent mired in a trajectory of low growth and high unemployment and individual countries reeling under austerity.
  • Combining this with anti-immigrant rhetoric delivers a toxic mix that is helping them gain popularity and even a seat in some governments. On the other hand, sections of the centre left that had bought into the neoliberal paradigm are being shown the door. The pleasure derived by the advocates of neoliberalism from the significant decline of the left in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union (which deprives the progressive critique of neoliberalism of a strong political base) has proved short-lived.
  • Needless to say, the far right is hardly committed to the anti-globalization strain implicit in its rhetoric. It is as wedded to the hegemony of capital and the markets as are the neoliberal dogmatists. Their ideological pragmatism is opportunistic and fickle. Yet for the moment, their actions, especially that of Mr. Trump, have disrupted globalization.
  • India remains politically committed to the completion of the Jaitapur nuclear power project, which is being built in partnership with France. A statement regarding the project was made as the External Affairs Ministry announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will attend the outreach session of the G7 meet at Biarritz, France, where India is a special invitee.
  • “We are politically committed to completing the Jaitapur nuclear power project as soon as possible. In December 2018, we have signed the Industrial Way Forward Agreement. The techno commercial offer is in active discussion between the technical agencies,” said G. Balasubramaniam, Joint Secretary, Western Europe Division in the Ministry.
  • The visit to Biarritz is part of the multi-nation tour that Mr. Modi will undertake from August 23. He will visited the UAE, Bahrain and France.
  • The invitation to visit France was extended by President Emmanuel Macron after Mr. Modi was re-elected to a second term in office.
  • At the G7 summit, Mr. Modi is expected to highlight climate change and counter-terrorism with partner countries.
  •  The interactions with the French leadership is likely to include solar energy and multilateral.
  • The Indian leader is expected to hold several bilateral meeting with global leaders, though the Ministry did not confirm the meetings.