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The Hindu Editorial Analysis | PDF Download

Date: 09 September 2019

So close, yet so far

  • Chandrayaan-2 might have failed in an objective, but the mission itself is not a failure
  • The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) came tantalizingly close to creating history in the early hours of September 7 when the robotic lander Vikram followed the predetermined descent trajectory and came just within 2 km of the lunar surface before contact was lost. While it is unfortunate that the lander failed to safely touchdown, it is apt to remember that ISRO was attempting powered landing for the first time. To put it in perspective, there have been 38 attempts so far by other countries to land a rover on the moon and have succeeded only a little more than half the time. This April, Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander crashed to the lunar surface. But early January this year, China’s Chang’e-4 touched down on the lunar far side and deployed the Yutu-2 rover to explore the South Pole-Aitken basin. In Vikram, the velocity was successfully reduced from about 6,000 km per hour at the start of the descent at 35 km altitude to a few metres per second before communication snapped. That strongly indicates that powered landing went as per plan till about 2 km altitude from the lunar surface.
  • While the powered landing of Vikram and exploration of the moon’s surface for 14 earth days by the Pragyan rover were one of the main objectives of Chandrayaan-2, it is wrong to think that the mission itself has failed. On the contrary, 90-95% of the mission objectives have already been “accomplished”. The orbiter is safe in the intended orbit around the moon. And with the “precise launch and mission management”, its life span will extend to almost seven years. Carrying eight of the 13 payloads, the orbiter will spend the next nearly seven years making high-resolution maps of the lunar surface, mapping the minerals, understanding the moon’s evolution, and most importantly looking for water molecules in the polar regions. Some of the impact craters in the South Pole are permanently shadowed from sunlight and could be ideal candidate sites to harbour water. Water on the moon would, in principle, be used for life support and manufacturing rocket fuel. With the U.S. wanting to send astronauts to the South Pole by 2024, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), in particular, will be keen on data from the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter. The ISRO’s Moon Impact Probe and NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper on board Chandrayaan-1 had already provided evidence of the presence of water in the thin atmosphere of the moon, on the surface and below. A NASA study last year found regions, within 20° of each pole in general and within 10° in particular, showed signs of water. The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter will now possibly reconfirm the presence of water on the moon.
  • Democratic decentralization is barely alive in India. Over 25 years after the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments (they mandated the establishment of panchayats and municipalities as elected local governments) devolved a range of powers and responsibilities and made them accountable to the people for their implementation, very little and actual progress has been made in this direction. Local governments remain hamstrung and ineffective; mere agents to do the bidding of higher level governments. Democracy has not been enhanced in spite of about 32 lakh peoples’ representatives being elected to them every five years, with great expectation and fanfare.
  • The ground report
  • Devolution, envisioned by the Constitution, is not mere delegation. It implies that precisely defined governance functions are formally assigned by law to local governments, backed by adequate transfer of a basket of financial grants and tax handles, and they are given staff so that they have the necessary wherewithal to carry out their responsibilities. Above all, local governments are to report primarily to their voters, and not so much to higher level departments.
  • Yet, none of this has happened, by a long shot. Where did we go wrong? Was the system designed to fail?
  • The Constitution mandates that panchayats and municipalities shall be elected every five years and enjoins States to devolve functions and responsibilities to them through law. This is regarded as a design weakness, but on closer look, is not one. Given diverse habitation patterns, political and social history, it makes sense to mandate States to assign functions to local governments. A study for the Fourteenth Finance Commission by the Centre for Policy Research, shows that all States have formally devolved powers with respect to five core functions of water supply, sanitation, roads and communication, streetlight provision and the management of community assets to the gram panchayats.
  • Key issues
  • The constraint lies in the design of funding streams that transfer money to local governments.
  1. First, the volume of money set apart for them is inadequate to meet their basic requirements.
  2. Second, much of the money given is inflexible; even in the case of untied grants mandated by the Union and State Finance Commissions, their use is constrained through the imposition of several conditions.
  3. Third, there is little investment in enabling and strengthening local governments to raise their own taxes and user charges.
  4. The last nail in the devolution coffin is that local governments do not have the staff to perform even basic tasks. Furthermore, as most staff are hired by higher level departments and placed with local governments on deputation, they do not feel responsible to the latter; they function as part of a vertically integrated departmental system.
  • If these structural problems were not bad enough, in violation of the constitutional mandate of five yearly elections to local governments, States have often postponed them. In 2005, when the Gujarat government postponed the Ahmedabad corporation elections, a Supreme Court constitutional bench held that under no circumstances can such postponements be allowed. Subsequently, the Supreme Court rejected other alibis for election postponement, such as delays in determining the seat reservation matrix, or fresh delimitation of local government boundaries. Yet, in Tamil Nadu, panchayat elections have not been held for over two years now, resulting in the State losing finance commission grants from the Union government.

Downside of centralization

  • Successive Union governments have made a big noise about local involvement in a host of centrally designed programmes, but this does not constitute devolution. Indeed, the current Union government has further centralized service delivery by using technology, and panchayats are nothing more than front offices for several Union government programmes. The beaming of homilies over the radio to captive audiences of local government representatives does nothing to strengthen local governments.
  • Union programme design for cities is inimical to decentralization. The ‘Smart City’ programme does not devolve its funds to the municipalities; States have been forced to constitute ‘special purpose vehicles’ to ring fence these grants lest they are tainted by mixing them up with municipality budgets. There cannot be a greater travesty of devolution.
  • Sadly, except for a few champions of decentralization in politics and civil society, people do not distinguish the level of government that is tasked with the responsibility of delivering local services. Therefore, there is no outrage when the local government is shortchanged; citizens may even welcome it.
  • On corruption
  • Are local governments as corrupt as they are alleged to be? Doubtless, criminal elements and contractors are attracted to local government elections, tempted by the large sums of money now flowing to them. They win elections through bribing voters and striking deals with different groups. Furthermore, higher officers posted at the behest of Members of Legislative Assemblies, often on payment of bribes, extract bribes from local governments for plan clearances, approving estimates and payments. Thus, a market chain of corruption operates, involving a partnership between elected representatives and officials at all levels. Yet, there is no evidence to show that corruption has increased due to decentralization. Decentralised corruption tends to get exposed faster than national or State-level corruption. People erroneously perceive higher corruption at the local level, simply because it is more visible.
  1. To curb these tendencies, first, gram sabhas and wards committees in urban areas have to be revitalised. The constitutional definition of a gram sabha is that it is an association of voters. Because of our erroneous belief that the word ‘sabha’ means ‘meeting’, we try to regulate how grama sabha meetings are held and pretend that we are strengthening democracy. Cosmetic reforms of the gram sabha by videography of their meetings, does little for democracy. Consultations with the grama sabha could be organized through smaller discussions where everybody can really participate. Even new systems of Short Message Services, or social media groups could be used for facilitating discussions between members of a grama sabha.
  2. Second, local government organizational structures have to be strengthened. Panchayats are burdened with a huge amount of work that other departments thrust on them, without being compensated for the extra administrative costs. Local governments must be enabled to hold State departments accountable and to provide quality, corruption free service to them, through service-level agreements.
  3. Third, we cannot have accountable GPs, without local taxation. Local governments are reluctant to collect property taxes and user charges fully. They are happy to implement top-down programmes because they know that if they collect taxes, their voters will never forgive them for misusing their funds. The connection between tax payment and higher accountability is well known, but we wish to ignore these lessons.
  • India’s efforts in decentralization represent one of the largest experiments in deepening democracy. Decentralisation is always a messy form of democracy, but it is far better than the operation of criminal politicians at the higher level who appropriate huge sums of tax-payer money, without any of us having a clue. We can keep track of corrupt local government representatives; at the higher level, we will never know the extent of dirty deals that happen.
  • We have given ourselves a reasonably robust democratic structure for local governance over the last two decades and more. It is for us to give life to this structure, through the practice of a robust democratic culture. Be warned; if we do not tell our higher level governments to get off our backs so that we can better govern ourselves, they will not. It is as important to tell higher level governments to stay away as it is for us to hold our local governments to account.
  • Last month, the impromptu visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to the G-7 summit caught many leaders, especially the U.S. President, Donald Trump, off guard. Mr. Zarif was in Biarritz, the venue, at France’s behest and though there were no meetings or negotiations with the American delegation, he was able to meet with the French President, Emmanuel Macron, and continue discussions about recent initiatives between the Presidents of Iran and France on the Iranian nuclear issue.
  • European leaders, and France in particular, have highlighted the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” plan in regard to Iran being a way with no end. And this was why they had decided to try and keep the nuclear deal going despite Iran’s seizure of tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. The division between the European Union (EU) and the U.S. over Iran has been one of the most pressing security challenges since Mr. Trump decided last year to abandon the deal that was struck in 2015. The European nations want to preserve the deal, or the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), even if they seem worried about a growing list of violations by Iran of the deal.
  • Iran has deliberately violated its terms by producing more low-enriched uranium than the agreement permits.
  • Ensuring energy security
  1. First and foremost, the major reason is that Europe needs to keep the Persian Gulf open to guarantee the flow of oil and ensure its economic security. However, on this issue, France and Germany have refused to join the American plan called “Project Sentinel” to protect ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz.
  2. Second, the Europeans are fearful of getting involved in another war in West Asia which they do not want. The truth is that they do not trust that Mr. Trump will keep his word: that he will not attack Iran. 3. Third and last, the Europeans have been trying to find ways for their businesses to work around American sanctions on Iran. France, Germany and the United Kingdom have developed a mechanism to trade with Iran legally using a trading system known as INSTEX, short for Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges. It has been designed to permit countries to trade with Iran without the use of American dollars, so as to avoid the U.S. financial system. For many European companies, the risk of facing sanctions because of trade with Iran outweighs any gain from trading with the Islamic Republic and more specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which is targeted by the U.S. as a terrorist organisation.
  • No appetite for war
  • The Iran crisis and the debate it has fuelled reflects the strains between the U.S. and Europe over the maximalist political approaches of the U.S. President. But it also shows the wariness of America’s allies about the warmongering intentions of Mr. Trump’s hawkish advisers to provoke a war with Iran no matter what the consequences are for the rest of the world. As such, the G-7 summit was not a success, especially with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, trying to make a move against the EU on the JCPOA with the need to keep Mr. Trump on his side for an eventual trade deal following Brexit. Let us not forgot that relations between Iran and the U.K. are not as rosy as one might think. Iran’s recent seizure of a U.K.- flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz has thrust the relationship between London and Tehran into deep turmoil. This comes at a sensitive time when the Europeans are trying to salvage the Iranian nuclear deal.
  • Regional politics
  • As can be seen, no European country wants to trigger a military confrontation with Iran, one which would draw in other regional states and non-state actors. Despite the drone war between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia and the Lebanon Hezbollah and Israel which risks drawing in Iran in a new war in West Asia, European powers could play a major role in ending U.S.-led economic warfare against Iran and building a more effective diplomatic process in West Asia.
  • However, the reality is that at this time the situation is at a deadlock. It appears that the Trump administration will need to make its own calculations, without the advice of its partners, in light of the costly setbacks that some of its recent policies have experienced in the region.
  • As for the Iranian government, the most immediate priority for containing public unrest and preventing social instability inside the country is to ask for help from France and Germany in finding a way out of the current economic crash dive. But ultimately, Iran will need to show some signs of flexibility that could possibly lead to a situation where some of the arrangements arrived at in the nuclear deal are enlarged and applied to other key issues; these could include a mutually acceptable range for Iran’s missile forces as well as Iran’s clandestine military adventures with the help of the IRGC in countries such as Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
  • Consequently, if it is true that the Islamic Republic still does not possess nuclear weapons and its conventional capabilities are still no match for those of the U.S., it is also clear that Iran has hybrid warfare capabilities and an expanded network of proxies and allies in the region which gives it a sharpened capacity to practice its hegemony in West Asia.
  • Saudi Arabia and the UAE are allies. When they launched the Yemen offensive in March 2015, their common goal was to defeat the Shia Houthi rebels, who had captured the capital Sana’a. After over four years, they are not even close to meeting this goal, and there are growing frictions within the anti-Houthi coalition.
  • The Yemeni government, which Riyadh is backing, is headquartered in the southern port city of Aden and is practically operating from Saudi Arabia where the Yemeni President is residing. Aden was captured by southern separatists, who were part of the Saudi coalition, last month.
  • The separatists are backed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia’s partner. Late last month, Emirati warplanes carried out airstrikes against Yemeni government troops, backed by Saudi Arabia, which were trying to recapture Aden from the UAE-backed separatists. In practical terms, there are three power centres and multiple militias in today’s Yemen:
  1. The Houthis, who control Sana’a and the northern towns,
  2. the southern separatists who are strong in and around Aden, and
  3. the internationally recognized government that is run from Saudi Arabia.
  • Weak on the ground
  • How did Saudi Arabia lose the war? Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the main architect of the war, may have thought Yemen would be a cakewalk for the Saudi troops. The Houthis lacked real battleground experience and are nothing in terms of a conventional military force against the Saudi war machine. The Saudis also enjoyed the support of the U.S., and had a coalition of Sunni Muslim countries backing them. The plan was to oust the Houthis quickly and restore the Saudi cherry-picked administration of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in Sana’a.
  • But the Saudi coalition was weak on the ground. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the troops loyal to him joined hands with the Houthis in a tactical alliance. President Hadi, who is living in Saudi Arabia, has been anything but an inspiring, charismatic wartime leader. Within the coalition, there has been historical mistrust between the predominantly northerners-dominated government troops and the rebels in the south, who want the south to be a separate country.
  • The Houthis, on the other side, got support from Iran. They did not just prevent Sana’a from being recaptured, but also started attacking Saudi Arabia with short-range missiles and drones. The Saudi plan was to turn the war around using air power. But the problem is that air power alone doesn’t win a war; credible allies are needed on the ground, which Saudi Arabia lacked. Its excessive use of air power has turned Yemen into a humanitarian catastrophe: thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands displaced, and the country pushed to the brink of a famine.
  • When it came evident that Saudi Arabia was not winning the war, fissures started emerging within the coalition. To stabilize the country, Saudi Arabia has turned to Islah, a political Islamist party in Yemen that has roots in the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE is opposed to it. It began betting directly on the Southern Transitional Council, the separatists based in Aden. The UAE’s calculus is that even if the war slips into a stalemate, it could retain its influence in Aden, which is a strategically important port that offers access to the Arabian Sea as well as to the Horn of African coast.
  • Unclear role
  • The U.S. has signalled that it will facilitate talks among the multiple factions in Yemen through Oman, a neutral player. But it’s still not clear what Saudi Arabia will do. The Saudis hold the key to peace in Yemen. But they are also a strategically weak point. They haven’t got Sana’a. They have almost lost Aden. The government they back is practically a ghost government of militias that are on the loose. Prolonging the war is also not an option. Having no credible ally on the ground and no effective strategy to turn around the war, dragging on the conflict would only pull Saudi Arabia further deeper into the morass. The sooner the Saudis realise that they have lost the war, the better it will be for everyone, including the devastated Yemeni public.