Smart or dumb: Cities should be safe

Bhubaneswar emerged as the top candidate among the 20 cities chosen to be part of the Government of India’s Smart Cities Mission. One hopes that the plans of turning the city into a smart one will include strengthening risk resilience, particularly in places that are supposed to ensure safety and health of the citizens.

By Nidhi Gupta (@nidhi1902)

Image credits: NAVFAC (Monthly Safety Stand Down) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Image credits: NAVFAC (Monthly Safety Stand Down), via Wikimedia Commons

A major fire that broke out earlier this week in the SUM Hospital in Bhubaneswar took lives of over 20 people and caused injuries to over 100. The fatalities caused were mostly patients who were on ventilator support in the ICU ward. One was immediately reminded of the fire that broke out at Murshidabad Medical College and Hospital in August this year and the one at the AMRI Hospital in Kolkata in 2011. Given the large number of hospitals that the country has, these incidents of fire may seem statistically insignificant. However, some places of safety (like the hospitals, police stations, etc.) are expected to not only have zero tolerance for human negligence and errors, but also a foolproof disaster management plan. Incidents such as these point to our society’s stubbornness to not learn from history and to our Government’s callous attitude towards loss of life and property.

A healthcare facility in Odisha is governed by the Odisha Clinical Establishments (Control and Regulation) Act, 1990, which lays down standards relating to fire safety. However, it has been reported that only 3 hospitals out of the 568 in Odisha currently have the clearance from fire department and most of the hospitals lack the basic fire-fighting equipment. Moreover, SUM Hospital did not follow fire safety norms and overlooked an advisory that was issued to them by the fire department in 2013. While the hospital management at the SUM Hospital has asserted that owing to diligence shown by its staff the casualty number was low, it can be argued that there should have been no casualties in the first place.

Passing the buck around or offering some monetary compensation does little to console the victims’ grieving families. Reactionary measures like suspending hospital staff (as in the case of SUM Hospital) or board of directors (as in the case of AMRI hospital) cannot be substitutes for ensuring the structural and operational resilience of hospitals. It is of utmost importance that the healthcare facilities in our country are regularly audited for compliance with safety standards and that the staff is periodically trained on safety and evacuation. It is also imperative that the management of facilities found with dubious certificates are heavily penalised. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) of India has issued very comprehensive guidelines for hospital safety, including those for fire safety in hospitals. While these guidelines are not binding, it is expected that hospitals implement these in earnest and be prepared to handle any disasters and be optimally functional immediately afterwards in order to respond to the medical requirements of the affected community.

Bhubaneswar was ranked first in the Smart City Challenge competition held by the Government of India earlier this year and is one of the 20 cities each of which will receive Rs 1000 crore of funding from the Centre and the State Governments. One sincerely hopes that the emphasis being laid to improve “quality of life” for the citizens will also include measures that ensure that the lives of the said citizens are first protected.

Nidhi Gupta is Head, Post-Graduate Programmes at the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @nidhi1902

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GST Bill: A Successful Exercise of Consensus-Building in Democracy


Image courtesy of The Indian Express

Bhavani Castro is a Fellow of Indian Studies, Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo

The first half of 2016 was marked by several setbacks for democratic institutions and liberal values all over the world. From the Turkish government’s repressive response after the failed military coup to the rise of radical parties in Europe, a controversial impeachment process in Brazil and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, it seems that democracy has recently been under significant pressure. Intense animosity and partisan divisions are challenging the way democracy works and its core values, undermining decision-making processes in parliaments, blocking key reforms, and leading to authoritarian administrative measures. However, in the midst of many worrying examples of flaws in democratic regimes in different parts of the world, it is possible to identify one case of significant success when it comes to democracy’s capacity to overcome division and build consensus: the passage of a groundbreaking tax reform by the Indian Parliament.

Goods and Services Tax Bill (GST) was passed in August in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, and approved by President Pranab Mukherjee on 8 September. The GST, now turned into law, creates a single tax system in India, and represents a significant breakthrough that in practice will transform the Indian states into a common market. This notable success generated little reaction in the international media, especially in emerging and developing countries; however, it holds important lessons on how game-changing reforms can be implemented in a democracy.

The world should look at the ratification of the GST law as a substantial example for effective democracy for a variety of reasons. First, it shows the capacity of a messy, multiparty parliamentary system. Since the 1990s, the Indian government needs to recur to coalitions to rule at the national level, as the increasing number of national and state parties make it impossible for a single party to rule alone. This means often making deals and negotiating not only with the opposition, but also with strong regional parties that seek policies that benefit only – or mostly – their local constituencies. Similar phenomena are visible in other large democracies like Brazil, where large coalitions make governing extremely difficult.

An increase in polarization usually means fewer laws pass in Parliament. For emerging countries like India, where there is a necessity of progressive reforms to manage the economic transformation and push for social improvements, political fragmentation and a lack of consensus building can have devastating effects. To avoid setbacks, the strategy adopted by the Indian government was to engage and include strong regional parties in the discussion, rather than coercing and embracing a combative tone. At the same time, the biggest opponent, the Congress Party, was slowly isolated and eventually, faced by the risk of having its image damaged, had to accept the bill and enter the negotiation. Consequently, opposition parties contributed to changes in the bill, while the ruling coalition yielded to demands and offered concessions in the final written version. The process was not simply an exchange of favours as it is usually observed in multiparty democracies, but instead a conciliatory process of political commitment by all parties involved.

Moreover, the GST, when implemented, will go against an ongoing international trend of isolating peoples and markets – the new tax system has even been called a “reverse Brexit”. While the European Union is going through one of its biggest crises – with rise in partisanship and the exit of an important economic member – India is showing the world that democracies can do better. The new tax system will replace dozens of different tariffs that made selling a product to another Indian state as hard as selling products abroad. That means connecting 1.2 billion people in a European-style market and an expected increase of 1-2 per cent to the country’s GDP growth rate.

Finally, it is important to consider the dimension of this tax reform. The GST was designed along the lines of the value-added tax (VAT) model from OECD countries, and it is considered a key reform for restructuring economies. For India, it is one of the biggest institutional reforms since its independence in 1947. Most countries still struggle to enact legislation that will lead to this type of revolutionary work, as it can negatively affect some industry sectors and interest groups. Brazil, another populous democracy, has been trying for years to design a tax reform to substitute its inefficient system; however, it never even managed to produce an initial project for a new tax scheme. India’s lessons on the GST law-making process could be extremely valuable for countries like Brazil, which could follow India’s steps: first creating a highly skilled committee to design a uniform tax system, and then submitting the initial proposal to the legislative for a comprehensive discussion and adjustments between all political parties.

India still faces many problems threatening its democracy, including an ongoing civil upsurge in Kashmir, brutally suppressed by the government, and a severe water-sharing dispute that increases tensions between southern states. However, in the case of the GST process, the government proved that it is possible to use democracy as a tool to reach potentially painful but necessary reforms in a pluralistic country. It took more than a decade to pass the GST Bill, but democracy is a slow process and does not provide fast solutions to urgent problems. India’s political system can be inefficient, polarized, disorganized and sometimes exhausting, but hopefully this experience will be a positive example for other democratic countries still struggling with much-needed institutional reforms.

Bhavani Castro is a Fellow of Indian Studies, Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo

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Towards 24×7 Electricity Supply in Andhra Pradesh

The emergence of Andhra Pradesh as a power surplus state is a testament to the cooperation between the Union and State governments.


Image courtesy of The Hindu

By Revendra (@adj_r_squared)

The AP Reorganisation Act – 2014 put the state of Andhra Pradesh at a huge disadvantage with its provisions that favoured more power supply to the state of Telangana. As a result, the state faced a capacity loss of 1,142 megawatts (MW) and an annual energy shortage of 8,700 mega units (MU). After the reorganisation of Andhra Pradesh, the state had a total generation capacity of 8,307 MW (as per power allocation), 6.9% of energy deficit and 17.6% of peak deficit units.

The major thermal power stations (Dr. N. Tata Rao TPS, Rayalaseema TPS, and Simhadri TPS) had coal stocks lower than the specified critical levels, not lasting for more than a day. The finances of the DISCOMS too did not look encouraging. The higher purchase power agreements rate and lower power tariffs led to a debt of Rs. 11,000 crores, and the capital expenditure loans and bond-related liabilities came to about Rs. 3,700 crores to the DISCOMS. The interests on these debts burden the DISCOMS with Rs. 330 crores annually. Lastly, the average per unit price was around Rs. 7.30, burdening both consumers, and the government.

Energy resources

Andhra Pradesh has negligible sources of non-renewable energy. No coal deposits exist, and the crude oil and natural gas reserves are estimated at 13.19 million tonnes and 48.44 billion cubic meters respectively. Though the sources of renewable energy estimated at 54,916MW, look promising, only 2192.6MW of this electricity produced is connected to the grid. Thus, the infrastructure is not available to harness renewable energy to produce electricity for consumption in the state.

Power for All

In addition to the lack of energy resources ailing DISCOMs and the poor state of power sector, the growing energy and peak demand are estimated to be 82,392 MU and 13,436 MW respectively by FY2018–19. Together, these issues presented significant challenges to put the State’s power sector back on track. Without dodging a bullet, both the State and Union governments got to the bottom of the issues, and jointly came up with the “Power for All” initiative to provide reliable 24×7 power to the domestic, industrial and commercial consumers, supply 9 hours per day of electricity to the agricultural consumers, electrification of all unconnected households, augmentation of generation and distribution capacity to meet the projected demand, and keep the transmission and distribution losses to a minimum.

This ambitious “Power for All” initiative requires resolve and a systematic approach from both governments to ensure fuel resources for thermal and gas-based power plants, electrification of all households in the state, and the financial turnaround of the DISCOMs.

The first challenge is to address the unavailability of energy or fuel resources. In the last two years, the coal supply to power plants has significantly improved with the coal stocks’ availability ranging from 2 weeks to 2 months of consumption per power plant. Additionally, coal reserves of approximately 930 million tonnes were allotted to the Government of Andhra Pradesh. The domestic coal suppliers have certain constraints to match the demand of thermal power plants in Andhra Pradesh. Keeping this in mind, Andhra Pradesh is permitted to import coal stocks of 3-5 metric tonnes per annum till 2019. The LNG fuel is available to generate only 500MW of the 2770MW of installed LNG based power plants in the state. These initiatives are taken by the Union to allocate gas in a phased manner to all power plants before 2019.

The second priority is electrification of un-electrified households and strengthening the systems of distribution and transmission networks, and improving the electricity access in rural and urban areas. A sum of Rs. 899.8 crores was sanctioned through the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana for rural areas, and Rs. 653.95 crores were sanctioned under Integrated Power Development Scheme (IPDS) for urban areas. The funds from IPDS were reserved to establish IT-enabled data, disaster recovery and customer care centres, and improve meter-based billing and efficiency in collections.

The Ujwal DISCOM Assurance Yojana (UDAY) provided benefits of Rs. 4,200 crores during the turnaround period, saving Rs. 330 crores to the DISCOMS annually. Further, the state DISCOMS will enjoy a benefit of Rs. 6,200 crores every year post-turnaround period.

Apart from these, to meet the immediate power requirements, the Union Ministry of Power is providing 525MW of power to Andhra Pradesh from the Central Generating Stations. At the power exchange, average price per unit is less than Rs. 3.00. The Andhra Pradesh government has benefitted by procuring 385MW from the power exchange.

The sustained efforts from both the governments led to 100% electrification in the state, an increase in per capita power consumption to 982 units, reduction of the transmission and distribution losses to 9%, addition of 4,265MW of installed power, and reduction of the energy and peak shortages to nil.

The assistance from the Union Ministry of Power has been valuable in realising 24×7 power supply to all domestic, commercial and industrial consumers in Andhra Pradesh.

[Views in this article belong to the author. It is part of a blog series tracking governance in the reorganised Andhra state]

Revendra is a Bangalore based student of Public Policy and tweets at Revendra (@adj_r_squared)

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India needs a new refugee policy

India needs an asylum policy to be able to allocate resources appropriately, to monitor the sheltering of  refugees that it hosts, and to disallow unwanted infiltrators from entering its territory. 

By Manasa Venkataraman (@nasac)

Image Credit: Human Rights Watch:

Image Source:

Caught off guard by millions of persecuted Syrians fleeing to safer lands, last year saw countries react differently to the sudden influx. Over the past year, many states have taken varying stances on providing asylum to refugees arriving from strife-ridden regimes. Influx, legal or illegal, by refugees or migrants seeking better opportunities, is not new to India. Although it is unlikely that Syrian refugees land at Indian shores to seek asylum (due to geographical difficulties), India has hosted refugees from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan from time to time without having a central asylum regime governing the providing of such harbour.

India needs a refugee policy. The absence of such a framework in India makes it prone to inconsistent and ad-hoc reactions to refugee crises – an unsustainable solution. Although three separate bills have been tabled before the Indian Parliament to bolster the Indian asylum policy, they remain pending.

In order to frame a robust asylum granting framework, it is essential to examine the cause that gives rise to this migration – unstable political environments, insurgencies by non-state actors and the precarious footing on which feeble governments stand are principal reasons. Persistent situations like this lead people to abandon their homes and flee to safer lands. International law recognizes this plight of refugees and urges sovereign nations to follow a principle of “non-refoulement”, i.e., host countries should not refuse to shelter refugees and turn them away to the country they fled from. This principle is so inherent to the protection of human rights that it forms part of customary international practice to shelter refugees on humanitarian grounds.

While it is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, 1951, India has followed the principle of non-refoulement whenever helpless asylum seekers have knocked on its doors. Nevertheless, it is essential to build regulations surrounding the non-refoulement principle that specify when the principle is to be invoked, what are the remedies for wrongful or non-invocation of the principle and how it is to be monitored.

Benchmark global practices are available for India to evaluate, before framing its own refugee policy. While Germany’s efforts earlier in 2015 opening its doors to refugees from Syria are well known, Australia has been criticized for having a controversial policy to cordon its coasts off to many asylum seekers. From providing “no benefits” to refugees upon their arrival on its coast to turning ships away to Indonesia and other South East Asian countries from international waters, Australia has undertaken several measures to create disincentives for refugees to take shelter on its territory.

India’s refugee policy must also strike a balance with its environmental and security related concerns in harbouring persons on its lands, especially via the seas. A refugee policy is only successful if India has the ability to control its borders, which in turn enables it in deciding whom it provides asylum to. As India’s coastline is vast and vulnerable, the need is felt now more than ever to create a robust and centralised coastal border patrolling and securing system.

Illegal and unregulated influx via the (already inadequately regulated) coasts are not only a blind spot in Indian national security but also interfere in the demographic makeup of the region. This affects it economically and politically as measures are framed bearing in mind the regulated persons in the region. Further, post facto regulation of immigrants becomes difficult as there was no law to regulate their entry in the first place.

As the protection of asylum seekers is a significant additional cost to the government, the refugee policy must introduce a system by which immigrants coming to India for economic or other gains are screened from persons seeking refugees. It is also advisable to place the refugees under the supervision of a Welfare or other ministry of the government rather than the military. In fact, smaller and less developed host countries (like Turkey and Jordan) are beginning to recognize the economic and infrastructural cost that is required to be borne to accord refugees the shelter they need.

Additionally, resettlement efforts must be made with the country from which such refugees arrive, after strife is over. Resettlement engagements may also be undertaken between India and other affluent countries that has better physical and economic infrastructure so that the refugee influx is better managed and does not cause a permanent strain on the resources of a less wealthy host country.

Manasa Venkataraman is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution and tweets from @nasac.

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Boycotting Chinese goods: Impractical and harms the national interest

The plan to boycott Chinese imports is neither practical nor is it in the Indian national interest.

By Anupam Manur (@anupammanur)


There has been many nationalist calls for boycotting Chinese goods as a retaliation against China for blocking India’s bid at the UN to designate Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar as a terrorist, following the Uri attacks and the subsequent surgical strikes carried out by the Indian army. Presumably, India is tired and frustrated of China tacitly supporting Pakistan and thus, the clarion call is for consumers to boycott all Chinese products en masse, so as to hurt the Chinese economy, especially at a time when it is reeling. This has obtained mass support from not only the ordinary citizens, but is being backed by influential MPs and others from the political class.

Such a move is neither practically feasible in order to obtain the desired result, nor will it be in our national interest to do so. Let us examine the feasibility angle first.

India is the biggest importer of Chinese consumer goods and the trade deficit of India with China is one of the biggest between two significant trading partners. India imports almost seven times more from China than it exports to it. The range of goods that we import from China is massive: consumer durables such as electronic products, mobile phones, plastic items, industrial goods, vehicles, solar cells, essential pharmaceutical products, including tuberculosis and leprosy drugs, antibiotics, among many others.

Impractical, at best. Impossible, in reality

Even if we wanted to, it is nearly impossible to keep China out of our daily lives. There’s a little bit of China in every product we consume. Ironically, the laptops and mobile phones that we use to forward the message to boycott Chinese goods are made in China itself. The modern day production process is complex and interconnected. Every good that we use has different components from various countries. Take the mobile phones: it will have some rare earth elements from China, uses the labour and land from China, has investment and capital from the US or an European country, has entrepreneurship from Japan or Korea, and it finally, might use software made in India. Thus, it is impossible to isolate any country and boycott its products.

It is also important to understand that this kind of consumer boycott movements is hardly new or unique. It has been tried and it has failed many times in the world previously. China itself tried to boycott all Japanese products in the early 1930s to protest against Japanese colonisation. The US consumer forums tried to boycott French goods in 2003 to protest against France declining to send troops to Iraq post 9/11. Ghanians boycotted European goods; Jamaicans boycotted goods made from Trinidad and Tobago; Russians boycotted European agricultural products, etc. The list goes on. The only common thing between all these various events is that none of the boycotts were successful in their mission. It all failed and dissipated within a few weeks and the reason for that is always simple: economics. To understand why the boycott movements started, we have to understand why the countries imported these goods in the first place. We have to realise why India is so heavily dependent on China for imports.

Comparative Advantage

Why does India rely so heavily on China for its imports? The answer lies in practical economics. China can produce many of these goods cheaper and more efficiently than India can. Thus, the average consumer, who is price conscious, does not really care whether the products are made in China or in Eritrea, as long as he gets the best goods for the cheapest price. The only practical way to boycott Chinese goods is to deploy an import-substitution method and produce alternatives at home, which is far from ideal. If we as a nation would want to boycott Chinese goods, we would be traveling back in time to the autarkic nation that we were post-independence and this would effectively harm overall social welfare. We tried import substitution methods in the 1960s and 1970s and our rate of economic growth was low and stagnant for a long period. Basic economic theory tells us that each nation will produce the goods that it has a comparative advantage in and then trade it for goods with other countries.

If India were to try and make all the products that we currently import from China at home, it would involve a considerable reallocation of our resources from productive to unproductive uses. Immediately, the range of products available as a choice to the consumer would diminish, the quality of the products would be worse and the prices would be higher. The welfare gains from trade would be wiped out and the cost of all the products would become considerably higher and the retailer and the consumer who relied on cheaper imports would suffer.

What is India’s national interest?

The important thing here is to distinguish what is in India’s national interest. If we define our national interest as the greatest good (higher income) for the greatest number of people, then import substitution would just not work. Imported products allows consumers from all income levels the ability to consume these products at lower prices and retailers to maximise on their sales.

How do you respond to the Chinese actions in the UN, then? It is a political problem and largely needs a political resolution. If we were to impose trade sanctions against each country that has mildly annoyed India in the geopolitical realm, we would be left with no one to trade with. The US has traditionally given monetary aid to Pakistan despite Pakistan’s unwillingness to curb home grown terrorism. Can we afford to not trade with the US? Saudi Arabia and other middle Eastern economies fund Pakistan’s terrorism directly or indirectly. Can we afford to stop importing oil from these countries?

Harming one’s own citizen’s in order to extract revenge on another country seems to be an ill-advised move. Each citizen can take a call on what they want to buy or not. If Chinese made plastic diyas during Deepavali is not to your liking, don’t purchase it. But, that’s no reason to call for a universal boycott on Chinese imports.

Finally, is this dependence on China for imports good? Perhaps not. As of now, we do not have a comparative advantage in producing the goods that we import from China. However, with the right policies, we can produce some of these items or contribute a greater amount in the global production value chain. For that, we need to improve our productivity, free up labour laws, reform land acquisition policies, fix our credit system, and so on.

Anupam Manur is a Policy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution.

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Colombia’s Path to Peace

REUTERS/John Vizcaino

REUTERS/John Vizcaino

By Swati Sudhakaran

The historic collapse of an almost-historic peace accord

A mere formality gone wrong?

The citizens of Colombia just voted out what could have been an historic peace accord to end the war ravaging their country for the last 50 years. The plebiscite was supposedly just another box to be ticked in the checklist to get the peace accord in action – a fait accompli. The result however, makes one question if the aggressive selling of the plebiscite is what led to its defeat. The dismal voter turnout –less than 37%– and the ‘No’ camp’s victory by a slight martin says a lot about people’s perceptions on the decision making process and its execution in the country.

What was the war about?

The war began as a tussle between the Colombian government and the left wing guerrilla group FARC – Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. FARC rose from the remnants of La Violencia period of agrarian rural warfare that gripped Colombia in the 1920s. Although the conflict had its share of socio-political and economic factors, the aim of achieving social justice led the communist FARC to adopt gruesome tactics like drug trafficking and child soldiering, which eventually resulted in their loss of popularity.

The American government, then led by President John. F. Kennedy, established a Peace Corp to counter the civil disturbance in the country. This move became highly counterproductive as ‘volunteers’ of the Corp, who were tasked to help the natives in education and agricultural development, began collaborating with American mafia, leading to a growth of cocaine and narcotics.

The network and the will of FARC soldiers to keep the fight on however has seen significant downfall in recent years. In 2002, the number of FARC soldiers was near 20,000 but recent studies show them to have dwindled down to 6000-7000. Discontent and hope to rejoin the society is high among FARC soldiers who just want to lead ‘normal lives’ again.

REUTERS/Juan B. Diaz

REUTERS/Juan B. Diaz

The Peace Accord

The peace talks began in 2012 in Cuba, between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader and negotiator Timoleon Jiminez. After going back and forth for 4 years, both parties reached consensus in 2016. They finally arrived at a 6-point plan to formalise the ceasefire, which would have confirmed that the weapons possessed by FARC would be “beyond use”.

According to the 297-page agreement, the FARC leaders had agreed to handover their weapons and be monitored by UN inspectors. Additionally, a political party would be formed which would have 10 seats assured in the Congress during the 2018 and 2022 elections.

Amnesty would be granted to FARC members who confessed their crimes i.e. instead of facing prison, they would engage in social work – helping victims, de-mining war zones, repairing damaged infrastructure etc.

So why did the people vote No?

The ‘No’ wasn’t a denial for the peace accord but for the terms under which it was being finalized. The local phrase in trend to comment on the accord was “swallowing toads”. People felt betrayed by the thought that the FARC leaders who committed grave crimes against humanity would not serve any jail time.

Former President Alvaro Uribe, leader of the ‘No’ campaign whose father was slain by the FARC, said that people wanted justice and not impunity for FARC leaders. While his military approach to deal with the rebels was the reason they agreed to the peace talks in the first place, Uribe feels that the present accord is in need of major corrections to serve the interests of citizens.

Social media also played a huge role in yielding influence. Many have blamed it for being a platform of misinformation spreading false stories that the state of Colombia, post the accord, would be much like Venezuela where narco-traffickers work hand in hand with the government or that it would usher in a communist regime in Colombia.

Homophobia and gender insensitivity could also be a reason, as many voters were supposedly against the gender provisions made in the accord, especially the LGBTQ segments. A sub-commission on gender and women issues had submitted its suggestions on reintegration methods of female FARC soldiers into society. Their points had found a place in the accord but the strong opinion circulating in the media was that these issues were not urgent and could be tackled under a separate slab.

The campaigning style of the two camps was a crucial factor. The Santos government actually put forth questions that were biased to the accord and increased pressure by retorting to statements in ads, that those voting No would be supporting the continuation of war.

The No camp could effectively communicate to people, in simple messages about the dangers of the peace accord while the Yes camp could never really portray its benefits. This goes on to show how manipulation works in modern democracy. Under the garb of political assertion of masses, leaders work the questions in a certain way to elicit certain responses.

The Nobel Twist

The announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize just days after the failure of the peace accord is a positive development for Santos. Awarded in recognition of his efforts to bring peace to Colombia, the Nobel provides much needed strength to his cause. The award is also a tribute to the victims of the conflict and to all parties that cooperated in the peace talks. The Nobel Prize also implicitly shows the support of the international community to be with the Santos government.

What Next?

As uncertainty looms over the next course of action for the Colombian government, the FARC-EP has maintained its stance on keeping peace. However, with FARC leaders thinking that they have already given too many concessions, the possibility of them agreeing for jail term for their members seems highly unlikely.

Though the Santos government is quite unpopular now, Santos still has command over the congress and can still garner support with the right strategy. The recent meeting of Uribe and Santos after almost 6 years to discuss the changes in the accord is a major step-up in the process.

Even if the renegotiated peace accord gets voted through by the people, problems for the government won’t stop there. There are numerous issues to be confronted even then such as reintegration of FARC soldiers, some of them children, into society. To make those who have only known a life of violence abide by rules and follow societal norms will be a mammoth task.

But let’s not jump the gun. This time the government must keep aside the haste and arrogance portrayed last time and work on an inclusive accord and democratically fair plebiscite.

Swati Sudhakaran is a student of the Masters in Public Policy Programme, jointly run by the Takshashila Institution and Mount Carmel College, Bangalore.

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Commercial models for Public Wi-Fi

Can we have a proliferation of broadband access through public Wi-Fi networks? What are the issues and challenges?


The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India held a public workshop in Bangalore on the 28th of September 2016. The objective of the workshop was to look at the possible commercial models for providing public Wi-Fi hotspots.

The first welcome step in this workshop was the emphasis on finding commercial models for providing public Wi-Fi and not on making Wi-Fi free for all. It is quite surprising that a vast majority of people expect public Wi-Fi systems to be provided for free of cost.

The present number of Wi-Fi hotspots in India is abysmally low compared to most other countries. There are 35,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in India compared to around 10 million in the US. The real challenge is to build a network of Wi-Fi hotspots through the country that can provide seamless internet access to millions of Indians.

The different network operators shouldn’t consider public Wi-Fi as being a competitive threat to their sale of data plans. Mobile data and public Wi-Fi has to work in tandem to provide seamless connectivity. However, there is an obvious benefit by increasing the reach of public Wi-Fi. The average cost of accessing the internet through the cellular network is around 23 paisa per minute as against 2 paise per minute on Wi-Fi.

Present Challenges for Public Wi-Fi hotspots:

There are numerous challenges for creating public Wi-Fi hotspots, which needs careful attention at this early stage:

  1. There are inherent hardware limitations: Where do you put the modems and routers and in what frequence? Do each of the ISPs get their own routers? These are not small or insignificant logistical problems.
  2. Who will be responsible for the service and maintainence of these routers? What about the electricity needed to run these stations?
  3. How do you ensure about quality of service and uninterrupted broadband access? How do we check and maintain records of those who are logging on the public Wi-Fi systems? Security concerns are definitely a non trivial concern for providing public Wi-Fi
  4. How can we ensure business viability for the ISPs who provide the internet access?
  5. How can we ensure interoperability between the different ISPs? Do we need to log in separately for each ISP that we choose in different areas?
  6. There’s also the problem of the availability of infrastructure needed to provide public Wi-Fi hotspots. Specifically, this sort of operation needs plenty of unlicensed spectrum for ISPs.
  7. Finally, how to ensure smooth and easy payment systems? If the payment procedure is arduous and time consuming, many people will be dissuaded right away.

Once the problems were identified, the rest of the workshop focused on attempting to find solutions for these, though it slightly fell short, according to my assessment. The broad ideas were in the right direction, but the specifics of the mechanism got lost in a beauty contest of the different solution providers.

Pipe vs. Platform model:

One of the interesting big ideas was the emphasis on switching from the current piped model to a more open platform model. In short, the pipe model would expect the entire vertical of setting up public Wi-Fis to be done by the ISPs. This would involve each ISP to get spectrum, provide the internet access, set up routers, authenticate consumers, accept payments, and so on. Instead, using an open-ended platform would allow for innovation in the different layers of the verticals. The payment can be taken care of an external app based on UPI/mobile wallets, etc. The authentication and KYC can be taken care of using Aadhar or any trusted authentication method (even mobile phone numbers can act as auntheticating tools). Local shop-keepers can take up the initiative for setting up routers and ensure its maintainence if they are compensated correctly for this.

More importantly the viability of a truly public Wi-Fi network would work only if individual users are allowed to resell broadband access. This is like the solar rooftop model, where individuals can set up solar power generators and sell it back to the grid. Imagine an open national grid, where each individual can sell/resell their broadband access. This would create a truly seamless public Wi-Fi system.

Anupam Manur is a Polcy Analyst at the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @anupammanur

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SAARC: A Sunk Cost

Following the Uri Attacks, the 19th SAARC Summit that was due to take place on the 15th and 16th of November has been postponed. India refused to attend the summit, placing the blame on cross border terrorism perpetrated by a single country. Soon, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan also chose to opt out of the summit meeting which was due to take place next month. Pakistan placed the blame on India for derailing processes of regional cooperation and reiterated its commitment to the SAARC charter. For now however, the seven heads of South Asia will not be meeting until India and Pakistan have simmered down tensions.

The Indian media has been quick to attribute the postponement of the SAARC meeting to the success of Modi’s diplomacy. However, SAARC meetings have always been susceptible to bilateral tensions. While the group is supposed to meet annually, it concedes that the regional organisation meets only once in a year and a half or so. No wonder SAARC’s initiatives have been characterised by failure: the countries cannot fulfill commitments to meet but intermittently.

The first time the SAARC Summit was derailed was in 1989 when Sri Lanka protested against the delay of the IPKF’s withdrawal from the country. The 7th Summit in 1992 was pushed by a year because of the Babri Masjid riots. A year later, India-Pakistan contentions impacted SAARC processes and the 8th Summit was pushed to 1995. The period between 1998 and 2003 saw repeated postponement of the 11th Summit because of a number of low intensity conflicts between India and Pakistan (from the Kargil War in 1999 to the Parliament Attacks of 2001). The 12th Summit was derailed because of the coup in Nepal and the Dhaka bombings.  After the 26/11 Attacks, the summit was again pushed by a year because of contentions between India and Pakistan. 2012 Summit

The postponement of the SAARC Summit is not a victory of Indian diplomacy but a feature of the SAARC mechanism. Unlike organisations like the ASEAN which have managed to keep channels of communication open even during times of conflict, SAARC’s history remains intertwined with the Indo-Pak power politics. It is unable to accomodate power dynamics of the region and allows for bilateral contentions to easily derail any processes. Even if the SAARC summit had taken place, what would have the result been? SAFTA is dead while the South Asian Economic Union is a pipe dream; regional trade remains at a meagre percentage.

At the 2014 Kathmandu Summit, hullabaloo was created about the launch of a SAARC satellite and cooperation of forces to deal with disasters. The Kathmandu Summit had taken place in the first year of the Modi rajya and there was much talk of the neighbourhood gaining importance- a move indicated by Modi’s unprecedented invitation to the heads of South Asian States to attend his swearing in ceremony. Two years later, bilateral ties between India and the remainder of the South Asian states (the case of Pakistan is debateable) are definitely on the upswing, however, the SAARC remains as ineffective as it has always been.

India needs to acknowledge that this multilateral initiative is not a success and direct its attentions towards the external neighbourhood. It needs to de-hyphenate itself from being merely a South Asian power and look at a larger region such as the Indo-Pacific. India is gradually improving ties with countries in South-East Asia and West Asia, which is the way to go. Maybe it is time to recognise that SAARC is a sunk cost and invest those resources in a more fruitful venture under the larger Asian security architecture.

Hamsini Hariharan is a Research Scholar with the Takshashila Institution and tweets at @HamsiniH

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Thucydides Revisited-Indian Army’s Surgical Strike on September 29

The Indian resolve to strike at Pakistani terror camps as a fitting response to Uri attacks and call Pakistan’s bluff demonstrates clearly why Pakistan must learn from military history

The latest surgical strike by India across the Line of Control (LoC) has called off the ‘nuclear blackmail’ bluff by Pakistan. Ever since the Uri incident on September 18 in which 18 Indian soldiers were killed, the laundry list of responses that India had was met with the veiled threat of nuclear retaliation by Pakistan. The TV anchors on both sides of the border had effectively decided what their government strategies would be. It now emerges that the Indian government’s response to Uri attack was a well planned riposte to repeated sabre rattling by Pakistan in the form of aggressive posturing at the UN General Assembly. Had the Pakistani Military-Jihadi complex bothered to learn a little bit from military history, they would have realised how wrong they were.

In the ‘History of the Peloponnesian’ war, Thucydides succinctly brings out the nuances of negotiation between a strong and a weak power. In what is famously known as the Melian Dialogue, there are striking parallels in what happened over the past fortnight or so. Melians were the inhabitants of Melos, a much weaker power that went to war with Athens. They had a close ally in Sparta, a geographically distant power. All along the Melians thought that Athens would not dare attack because Sparta would help Melos. Athens would not be stupid enough to ruin itself by such a risky gambit and come to grief.

In the final dialogue between representatives of both the sides, the Athenians wanted to impress upon the dire consequences that could befall Melos if it persisted with its stubborn stand. The Melians as usual were recalcitrant and unrelenting in their pursuit. The parting shot of Athenian representative summed it all.

“……judging from this decision of yours, you seem to us quite unique in your ability to consider the future as something more certain than what is before your eyes, and to see uncertainties as realities, simply because you would like them to be.

Post the Uri attack, in the diplomatic confrontation between India and Pakistan, the US always lurked in the background of Pakistani mindset as the proverbial Sparta who would come to its aid. The Pakistani establishment seemed to carry a historical baggage when the US would come to its aid in the event of any confrontation with India. The same was buttressed recently when the US stopped short of naming Pakistan as a sponsor of terror. Little did Pakistan realise that it was the same US that did not hesitate to violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity to kill Osama Bin Laden in a top secret mission. India gave all the warnings and tell tale signs of a fitting retaliation that fell on deaf ears of Pakistani policymakers.

‘Any crossing of the LoC would be met with severe retaliation’ was the oft repeated cliche by Pakistan. To state that such a provocation would be a red line from which India could not retreat had gained currency across the spectrum of Pakistani political and military establishments. To call off such a bluff, the strike had been planned immediately after Uri attack. Every opportunity was given to Pakistan that always hid behind the oft repeated excuse of ‘non state actors.’ As the highly successful strike by the Indian army demonstrated, a threshold in confrontation was crossed. Not only this. Like an astute chess player, the Indian political, diplomatic and security establishments would surely have their strategy mapped out for the next twenty moves or so. India did not blink. Just like Athens did not when confronted with an obstinate Melos!

Guru Aiyar is a Research Fellow in Geostrategy programme at Takshashila Institution

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Book Review: Not War, Not Peace?

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

[An edited version of this review first appeared in The Business Standard Newspaper on 4th October 2016]

A lucid and comprehensive account of India’s strategic predicament in countering Pakistan-backed terrorism

Not War, Not Peace? — Motivating Pakistan to Prevent Cross-Border Terrorism
Authors: George Perkovich and Toby Dalton
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 297
Price: INR 695

‘Prescient’ would be an underwhelming adjective to describe a book that claims to be “the first comprehensive assessment of the violent and non-violent options available to India for compelling Pakistan to take concrete steps towards curbing terrorism originating from its homeland”. The timing of this publication can perhaps be compared only to the timing of Virat Kohli’s strokeplay.

In this book, the authors George Perkovich and Toby Dalton (both from the DC based think tank — Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) provide some much-needed clarity to questions such as: how should India respond to Pakistan’s usage of sub-conventional warfare? and what are the costs and benefits for each of India’s options?

As a piece of analytical writing, the book avoids the trap of a recency bias—excessive jingoism calling for retribution in response to terrorist attacks such as Uri can lead to an error in decision-making, hurting India in the long run. Instead, the authors identify four objectives for any response by the Indian side to an act of terror: one, satisfying the domestic political—psychological need to punish the perpetrators; two, motivating Pakistani authorities to prevent the next attack; three, deterring Pakistani authorities from escalating the conflict in reaction to India’s punitive moves; and four, ending the conflict in ways that doesn’t leave India worse off than it would have been, had it responded with less destructive means.

With these objectives as the backdrop, the authors describe five strategies: a proactive strategy not very different from the surgical strikes deployed in the aftermath of the Uri attacks, limited airborne strike on terrorist targets in Pakistan, covert operations to take out terrorists and their infrastructure, a change in India’s nuclear force posture allowing India to punish Pakistan in ways currently unfeasible, and finally, non-violent methods involving alliances with other states to inflict costs on Pakistan.

The book proceeds in a structured manner: each chapter picks up one strategy and then assesses what the likely next steps on the escalation ladder could be. Authors also identify the benefits and costs of each stage of escalation. To borrow a computer programming terminology, the book picks up an option and passes it through several “nested, if then else loops” systematically.

Some other highlights of the book. One, the book is severely damning of the “tendency in India, verging on standard operating procedure to announce or publicly discuss operational concepts or weapon systems before they actually exist.” We have seen glimpses of this tendency recently as well: whether it was the case of the PM raising Balochistan in the Independence Day speech, the case of a possible review of the Indus Water Treaty or DRDO’s claims on programmes such as ballistic missile defence systems. Premature sabre-rattling without credible capacity only motivates the irreconcilable entities in Pakistan, while India is caught off-guard when these forces retaliate.

Two, the book incriminates the below par performance of India’s military-industrial complex, saying that this lacuna constrains many of India’s military options. Three, the two authors’ assessment of the US role in Pakistan is also noteworthy. They accurately cite that even today, the US remains Pakistan’s biggest export market and a substantially large provider of economic and military aid. Getting the US to stop supporting Pakistan, financially and militarily, still remains an unfulfilled task.

A few sections in the book however, are based on long disproved assumptions. For instance, the first chapter derives that India’s position with respect to Pakistan is undermined, at least partly, due to a lack of “strategic culture”. The proof for this claim are statements by retired and serving defence officers, who place the blame on political leaderships through the years. In any case, this strategic culture fallacy doesn’t hold water. Just because India’s strategic aims were not Alexander-like in nature does not imply that there was no strategic culture. In fact, India’s strategic aim for long has been the consolidation of markets and states in the subcontinent. The chapter does make a redeeming point: the lack of a “defence economics” practice in India. Questions such as — how much and on what basis should be spent on its defence? Would the armed forces agree to a reduction in manpower in favour of better hardware? — still remained unasked and unanswered.

The authors are excessively charitable towards Pakistan when they criticise Pakistan for its “unwillingness or inability to prevent cross border terrorism against India”. After all, Pakistan has been directly involved in several cases of cross-border terrorism. The “rogue actor” model, often used to bury this unsettling fact can’t explain the following: how is it that there is a high substitutability of labour between the army and the jihadi groups, and between jihadi groups themselves? And what explains the fact that any efforts of peace talks between Pakistan and India are promptly followed by acts of violence, terror and intimidation from and within Pakistan?

Pakistan is not one geopolitical entity, but two. The first is a putative state; currently represented by a civilian government. The second entity is not just the military, as it is generally held. Instead, it is the the military—jihadi complex (MJC): a dynamic syndicate of military, militant, radical Islamist and political-economic structures that pursues a set of domestic and foreign policies to ensure its own survival and relative dominance. Policies towards Pakistan will continue to be ineffective unless these two Pakistans are explicated and internalised.

The book also claims that “today and in the foreseeable future, the choice Indian leaders will face is between doing nothing and doing too much.” Perhaps, there is a space for a third option: Ignore Pakistan while building up defences, resolving the political issues in Jammu & Kashmir, and shaping international morality against states that support terrorism as a policy.

Finally, Not War, Not Peace is a must-read for anyone interested in the India—Pakistan protracted conflict. Long-time Pakistan watchers will enjoy the exhaustive nature of the analyses while new readers will find the language easy enough to grasp. One final regret: such a comprehensive and lucid assessment of India’s options was written first by experts in the US, and not in India.   

Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas) is a Research Fellow at the Takshashila Institution.

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