Friday, July 31, 2009

Defeating Naxal Violence

The recent increase in the spate of naxal violence(Lalgarh West Bengal, Bastar region, Chattisgarh) must have startled every average Indian citizen like me. One question that must have come to everyone's mind was, are our security forces well-equipped to fight this menace? In this blog post, I wish to put forth my views on why we are not approaching this problem in a correct manner and what will it take to solve this decades old evil.

Naxal violence constitutes an asymmetric war that needs unconventional responses. The traditional response based on unleashing the armed forces is not enough. I call this war asymmetric because of the disparity of resources between the opposing sides. One one side we have the government with all its material resources and well-equipped armed forces, while on the other side we have the ill-equipped but ideologically driven naxals. Despite this difference in potential, the armed forces have only been partially successful in making inroads. To understand why this is the case, it is imperative to understand the roots of naxalism.

Ever since independence, chronic poverty and gross inequalities between the rich and the poor have plagued vast sections of our society. The State, for various reasons, has not been able to provide basic necessities like water, sanitation, nutrition, health, education, housing and employment guarantees to the majority of our population. In addition, corruption, red-tapism in our bureaucracy, political insensitivity and common instances of high handedness and harassment meted out to the poor and the disadvantaged have only disenchanted the people with the democratic process. Added to this, we have a section of people who feel that they have been socially excluded and marginalised. Certain elements of these sections decided to leave the mainstream and take up arms to fight the state and its insensitivities. They hope to achieve an egalitarian society through violent means.

Their actions include destroying government properties, killing the security forces, threatening the rich for money and so on. They are prepared to do socially horrifying things in order to pursue their goals. They are well aware of their insufficient material, human resources and hence resort to unconventional warfare like guerrilla tactics. They generally pick soft-targets and seek to destroy every symbol of government authority. When the round-the-clock media brings this violence to our homes, it provokes indignation among us. We seek an immediate response from our political masters and security forces. The immediate reaction of the State is to ban these outfits, pass tough legislations and unleash the armed forces. In the course, basic human rights are violated and sometimes the common man becomes a victim leading to further alienation of the people. Thus we enter a vicious cycle where violence feeds further violence.

This should bring us to the realization that conventional strategies based on military doctrines are simply not enough to fight this menace. Such doctrines are more suited to situations where we have countries fighting conventional wars. In this case, the enemy is invisible and comes from the common population. Once his job is done, he melts away into the population and it becomes difficult to track him. For the security forces, it is like searching for a needle in the haystack.

The first step then towards fighting naxalism is to endear to the local population. Instances like taking over land from the local farmers for development purposes without properly rehabilitating them, constructing projects leading to displacement of tribals only serve to further alienate the people. The State has the obligation to consult the effected parties before embarking on any development projects. If the development project is in the national interest and the farmers are not ready to part with their land, the government needs to come up with effective rehabilitation measures under the terms set by the effected parties.

Next, the politicians need to realize that armed strategies can only be quick fixes putting the real issues on the back-burner. The real issues relate to distributive social justice and provision of basic necessities. They need to come up with structural reforms that ensure eradication of poverty and minimisation of inequalities. Only then can we win the hearts and minds of the people. Once we have the people on our side, the local support for the insurgents would automatically decrease.

To conclude, enlightened and visionary approaches based on just and political solutions should replace chaotic and myopic approaches based on military doctrines. We need the civil society, media and politicians to come together and debate more on the real causes of naxalism and offer practical solutions. If India were to emerge as an economic super power in this century, it is imperative that it solves one of its major societal menace, naxalism as soon as possible.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Women Reservation Bill

The Women Reservation Bill(WRB) has undergone a roller coaster ride ever since its inception by the Deve Gowda government in 1996. Many a time, the bill has been introduced in the parliament without getting passed due to lack of political consensus. The bill seeks to reserve 33% of seats in parliament and state legislatures to women. The proponents of the bill argue that such a move would contribute to the overall empowerment of women. Women have been historically deprived in India. They were considered subservient to men through long periods of our history. The proponents believe that increased political participation of women would help them fight the abuse, discrimination and inequality that they still suffer in the society.

The opponents however argue that only the women from elite groups would be able to take advantage of the reservation. The disadvantaged sections of the society would continue to be marginalized. So they propose quotas within the quota. Some others argue that such a move is only a populist move and could never really contribute to the empowerment of women. They cite examples of how certain women like Jayalalitha and Mayawati were able to achieve political success even without any reservation. They rather prefer fighting against societal ills such as dowry harassment, female foeticide, domestic violence than passing such symbolic measures.

Given these opposing arguments, it is highly unlikely we would achieve any consensus in the near term. The government should go ahead and pass the bill without any hesitation. They certainly have the numbers to pass the bill given that the main opposition party supports the bill in its present form. One only needs to take a look at how similar reservations in the Panchayti Raj (via 73rd constitutional amendment) have gone a long way in empowering and improving the status of rural women.This is a golden opportunity for the men of this country to correct some of the prejudices that they hold against women.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Nanotechnology is the application of scientific and engineering principles to create and utilize very small things. Such small things are usually of the size between 1 and 100 nm (10-9 m). The principle underlying nano-science is that some substances exhibit surprising and useful properties when reduced nano-scale. For instance, some substances that behave as insulators in their bulk form when reduced to nano-scale become semi-conductors. Scientists could leverage this peculiar phenomena in various applications.

Currently, two particular nano-structures are dominating the research. These are the nano-wires and the carbon nano-tubes. Nano-wires are wires whose diameter equals 1 nm or so. These wires could be used to create extremely small transistors for computer chips. It would enable us create small and powerful computers at cheap rates. In contrast, nano-tubes are obtained by rolling a sheet of carbons atoms into a cylinder like structure. Depending upon how you roll the sheet, you could obtain different properties from the nano-tube. For instance, by a particular arrangement, we could obtain nano-tubes that are a 100 times stronger than steel but six times lighter. Such nano-tubes could be used in the building material of air-crafts and cars rendering them lighter and fuel-efficient.

Some of the other current applications in nanotechnology include

1. Sunscreen

Sunscreen lotions made of zinc oxide nano particles do not give the traditional white tinge when applied to the skin.

2. Clothing
By coating fabrics with zinc oxide nanoparticles, we can obtain better protection from UV radiation.

By coating fabrics with titanium dioxide nano particles, we can obtain clothes that clean themselves. That is the particles break down food and dirt stains in the presence of sunlight.

Some other nanoparticles could be utilized to produce stain resistant, wrinkle resistant clothing.

3. Scratch resistant coatings
Adding aluminum silicate nanoparticles to the scratch resistant polymer coatings improve their effectiveness considerably. Such scratch resistant coatings could be found on cars and eye lenses

4. Health
Nanosized robots could be inducted into the body to fight cancerous cells or malignant foreign bodies.

5. Environment
Nanosized robots could be introduced into the atmosphere to rebuild ozone layer, reduce CO2 concentrations or they could be used to clean ocean waters off pollutants.

The above applications are only a small indicator of what this technology could accomplish. In fact we could pretty much create anything we want - diamonds, food etc by manipulating the atoms. Such applications could have certain ethical concerns and impact the world in a tremendous manner. Moreover, some nanosubstances are considered toxic. Nevertheless nanotechnology is here to stay and we haven't seen its complete potential yet.

India - Afghanistan relations

India and Afghanistan have shared close cultural ties throughout history. India has supported successive governments in Afghanistan during the cold war period. For instance,it has supported the regime installed by the Soviet Union after its occupation of Afghanistan. The relations however soured with the arrival of the Taliban regime in Kabul during the 1990s. During this turbulent period, India supported the efforts of Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban. The terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001 have once again turned the tide in relations. With the overthrowing of the Taliban by the NATO and the emergence of democratic forces in Afghanistan, India sought to revive the ties. The relationship ever since could be summarised in the following points.

1. India has steadfastly supported the new government at Kabul especially the government of Mr Hamid Karzai.

2. India has been the region's leading donor with promised aid to the tune of more than a billion dollars (750 million USD + 450 million USD).

3. India has sought to improve the infrastructure of this war torn country by building roads, dams, electricity transmission lines, schools, hospitals and even the new parliament building in Kabul which is a true symbol of democracy.

4. It built a road link between Zaranj and Delaram which is eventually connected to the deep sea Iranian port of Chahbar. This link provides an alternate route to Afghanistan by avoiding Pakistan. It is also working on the construction of Salma dam(power project).

5. It is involved in the training of Afghan civil servants so that they could administer their country more effectively.

6. India has played a major role in the entry of Afghanistan to SAARC.

Afghanistan is a key country for India to develop strong relations because

1. It acts as a gateway to the oil rich central Asian countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

2. It could be used as a leverage against Pakistan. Pakistan is indeed threatened by the growth in relations between these two countries. Pakistan has traditionally viewed Afghanistan as its own backyard.

3. The reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan provide business opportunities for Indian companies.

Friday, July 03, 2009

SEZs boon or bane

An SEZ or Special Economic Zone is a geographically demarcated area which is treated as a foreign territory for the purposes of taxation, labour laws etc. The main objective of a government to set up an SEZ is to encourage domestic, foreign entrepreneurs to set up industries in these zones. The new industries, it is hoped, would generate additional employment and promote economic growth. By offering tax exemptions and freedom from application of various stringent labour laws, the governments woo huge investments in these areas.

On paper this seems to be a good idea and the Chinese experience has only validated it. In the 1980s, the Chinese set up a few SEZs (6 or so) along their coast to promote export oriented growth. They were able to successfully attract huge foreign investments in these zones. Thus China became the pillar of many manufacturing industries like electronic parts, automobiles and spare parts etc. Compared to the Chinese, the Indians took time in this regard. It was only in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the government decided to promote SEZs as an instrument of economic growth.

Since then, it has been a rough ride for the governments promoting SEZs. There were frequent conflicts between various stakeholders like the farmers whose land was to be acquired to set up the SEZs and the industry owners. It has also been alleged that the SEZs were not successful in promoting the kind of economic growth that the government had hoped for. Nevertheless, SEZs did offer a few benefits to the Indian society. They increased the productive capacity of the country by providing quality employment to the millions of educated youth in this country. Thus SEZs are both a boon and a bane.

Lets first discuss the drawbacks of the concept of SEZ and then focus on how to correct these drawbacks so as to ensure that SEZs play a fruitful role in the overall economic growth of our country. The main drawbacks are

1. The SEZ act offers a whole host of tax breaks to the companies that are ready to invest in them. Typically, a company doesn't have to pay income tax on their profits for the first 5 years and then pay 50% for the next 2 years. This could further be extended to 3 or more years. In case of the IT industry, there are instances where in the companies do not have to pay tax for 10 years or so. It is popularly knows as tax holiday. Further, the developers building the SEZ are exempt from taxes on cement, steel they buy and the machinery they might import.

These tax breaks harm the fiscal position of our country and are disproportionate to the export earnings that the companies generate. The moot point here being whats the advantage of offering tax breaks when in most cases, these SEZs contribute to only about 5% of India's total exports. The Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in the Domestic Tariff Area (The area outside the SEZ which is not applicable for any special treatment) earn up 35% of India's export earnings. By creating uneven environment for them to compete, we are only trying to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

2. There have been frequent conflicts between the farmers whose land was to be acquired to set up the SEZ and the government, Industry. It has been alleged that government procures the land from the farmers at a price below the prevailing market rates. Some wonder why the government procures the land in the first place. It should be left to the farmers and the industry to decide the price etc. Moreover, there has been criticism that some of the most fertile lands have been diverted to set up SEZs. At a time, when India isn't completely food secure and millions of its people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition, it is not advisable to convert fertile farm land into SEZs. Finally, the farmers who have lost the land lose their livelihood and have to relocate to other areas. Thus they become refugees in their own country. Monetary compensation cannot alone guarantee livelihood to the farmers who lose their land. It is just not the farmers who own the land that are effected. Tenant cultivators and sharecroppers also lose their livelihood.

3. There has been criticism that not all the land demarcated for an SEZ is used to produce goods and services. Only about 25% is used to set up factories etc. The remaining land has been used by the developers to develop real estate and make money out of it. Also, there is no obligation on the companies to export a certain percentage of their output to earn foreign exchange for the country.

4. The SEZ act allows the government to deny labour benefits for the people working in the SEZ. For instance, the the government may decide that for a particular SEZ, the Minimum Wages Act may not apply. This is a gross violation of the directive principles of state policy enshrined in our constitution. For example, article 42 of the constitution urges the government to make provision for just and humane conditions of work. It has been alleged that labour commissioners have been stripped of their rights to inspect SEZs and ensure that humane and safe conditions prevail there.

Thus the current policy of SEZs has seen many drawbacks and it has the potential to raise many social conflicts that India could ill afford if it were to emerge as a first rate economic power by 2020. The following remedies are being proposed to overcome the hurdles stated above.

1. Only the industries within the SEZ must be entitled to tax breaks and that too for a limited period like 5 years with no provision for extension. The SEZ developers should not be entitled to any benefits. There should be a rationalisation of tax between SEZs and Domestic tariff Areas to ensure that the industries in DTAs are not at an advantage. It has been observed that SEZs have not been very successful in adding new investments. There have been cases where in the investments have moved from DTAs to SEZs to avail tax benefits.

2. The farmers must be entitled to compensation at prevailing market prices. The government needs to come up with a base market price for each location and industry would have to pay a price more than the base price while acquiring land. The farmers must be entitled to equity shares in the companies and at least one member of their family must be provided wage employment in the SEZ. The effected must also be entitled to a percentage of small contracts emanating from the companies. If there is a large scale displacement then the government must ensure that the whole community is properly rehabilitated.

Fertile land should never be diverted to setting up SEZs. Saline land and land suffering from various abiotic stresses should be used to set up an SEZ. If acquiring fertile land is inevitable then only rain fed and single crop lands must be diverted. Farms that produce multiple crops within an year and which have good irrigation facilities must never be diverted.

3. There should be a regulation that at least 50% of the land acquired must be used a a processing area. The rest could be used to set up schools , buildings, houses for the employees working within the SEZ. Moreover, companies must be obliged to export at least 60% to 70% of their output so as to meet the main objective of an SEZ - export oriented growth.

4. Labour laws must be applicable within SEZs also. The labour commissioners must have the right to freely inspect the SEZs and report any gross violations with respect to conditions of work. There is simply no justification in providing exemption from labour laws.

To conclude we can say that government policy with respect to SEZs must ensure a fair deal to all the stakeholders - entrepreneurs, SEZ developers, farmers and workers. India must pursue industrialization with a human face. Both the industry and agriculture must advance in a mutually reinforcing manner. SEZs must not be treated as foreign enclaves where in entrepreneurs have unlimited freedom to exploit the labour and maximise profits.