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Admin 2020-03-17

17 March 2020: The Hindu Editorial Analysis

1) Back to SAARC: On Modi's video conference with leaders


  • CONTEXT:
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to convene a video conference of leaders of the eight-member SAARC on Sunday represents a much-needed “out-of-the-box” thinking as the world faces the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

  • POLITICAL BORDERS:
  • Pandemics do not recognise political borders, and in times of trouble, reaching out to neighbouring countries is the most obvious course of action.
  • To that end, PM had a hour-long discussion with the leaders of Afghanistan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Special Assistant on Health to the Pakistan PM.
  • They all came up with shared and unique perspectives in dealing with the virus that has affected 1,75,250 people and claimed over 6,700 lives worldwide.
  • The meeting saw Mr. Modi’s proposal for a COVID-19 emergency fund — India will contribute $10-million — as well as a decision on technical task forces.
  • Afghanistan and Pakistan have specific challenges as they share long borders with Iran, which has emerged, after China and Italy, as a major hub of the virus.
  • Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka worry about the impact on tourism, which is a mainstay of their economies.

 

  • SPREAD IN THE CONTINENT:
  • With close to 300 positive cases, South Asia has seen a much lower incidence globally, but given its much higher population density, it is clear that any outbreak will lead to far more casualties.
  • Other concerns are about under-reporting, as fewer people are being tested in much of South Asia, and whether public health services can cope.
  • It remains to be seen how closely the SAARC countries will cooperate to deal with the virus.
  • PM Modi did well to engage with leaders of South Asia on combating COVID-19.
  • While speaking to his counterparts was a part of Mr. Modi’s message, it was, however, certainly not the whole.

 

  • REACHING OUT TO SAARC:
  • The fact that he decided to make the video conference available live indicates his desire to also reach out to and reassure the public in the SAARC region.
  • Beyond this is the message sent out by deciding to engage with the more or less moribund SAARC neighbourhood grouping.
    • Rather than other organisations the government has preferred to engage with recently such as BIMSTEC, BBIN and IORA.
  • In fact the virtual summit is the first high-level SAARC meet since 2014, and comes after India’s pulling out of the 2016 summit following the Uri attack; it was to have been hosted in Islamabad.
  • Pakistan too has made its concerns over Jammu and Kashmir a sticking point in re-engagement, and PM Imran Khan’s absence on Sunday, and his nominee’s attempt to raise the issue of restrictions in Kashmir indicate that this attitude persists.

 

  • CONCLUSION:
  • Clearly, reviving the SAARC initiative, which countries in the region including Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan have advised, will not be easy, given poor ties between SAARC’s two largest members, India and Pakistan.
  • But it is significant that New Delhi seems to be willing to try to put politics aside when dealing with the pandemic that confronts all.

 

2) Fight for the finite: On budgetary allocation for health


  • CONTEXT:
  • It is an incontrovertible truth that material resources are finite. Demand in most sectors will continue to exceed supply in times of a pandemic.
  • With the number of SARS-CoV-2 positive cases on the rise, and the number of deaths going up as well, the question is whether national and state health systems will be able to cope with ever-rising demands — for testing kits, for hospital beds, ventilators, why, even masks and hand sanitisers.

  • DEMAND:
  • This extraordinary demand has traditional production and systems of delivery choking and most often, unable to match supply to demand.
  • Health-care resources, limited to begin with, are even more so when under stress.
  • At a time the disease did not have a name, and much less by way of character, in mainland China.
    • The rapidly climbing numbers went far beyond the capacity of the country’s renowned industry (where a hospital was built in record time), and the health systems struggled to cope.
  • Reports indicate that in Italy, which has emerged the hub of the epidemic outside of China, the strain on health systems is massive.

 

  • INDIA'S HEALTHCARE:
  • With India crossing 100 positive cases, it is impossible to ignore the question about whether the health system is robust enough to meet this emergency. What is known, however, does not inspire confidence.
  • For years, India’s health expenditure as a percentage of GDP has been abysmal at about 1%.
  • As per the National Health Profile, 2019, collated by the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence unit of the Directorate General of Health Services, there has been no significant change in health-care expenditure since 2009-2010.
  • The highest it has been in the decade is 1.28 % of the GDP, and hit the nadir at 0.98 % in 2014-2015.

  • PER CAPITA EXPENDITURE:
  • The report does record that per capita public expenditure on health in nominal terms went up from ₹621 in 2009-10 to ₹1,112 in 2015-16.
  • A WHO bulletin of 2018 records that out-of-pocket payments remain common in India, which in 2014, was estimated at 62% of total health expenditure.
  • While questioning whether these incremental efforts are sufficient, one needs to factor in the substantial skew in different States in terms of public sector health infrastructure and wherewithal.
  • There is evidence to show that increased public spending on health care has resulted in less financial hardship for communities and better health outcomes.

 

  • WAY FORWARD:
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a promise to increase public health spending to 2.5 % of GDP by 2025.
  • His government would do well to treat this epidemic as an opportunity to drastically scale up budgetary allocations for health to facilitate expansion of capacity.
  • Health budgetary allocation must go up if India is to prepare for an unpredictable epidemic.
  • Epidemics are known to change the course of history; India must steer this one to harness finite resources optimally for the benefit of all.

 

3) From virtual conferencing to real leadership


  • CONTEXT:
  • After lying moribund for years, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has suddenly acquired a new lease of life since last Sunday.
  • Through a dramatic counter-intuitive initiative by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, SAARC, has become the ‘virtual’ platform through which leaders of the eight countries of our troubled region agreed to work together to combat unarguably the greatest immediate threat to the people: the COVID-19 health pandemic.

  • ALL EYES ON INDIA:
  • The success of the Modi-SAARC initiative will largely depend on India — the dominant power of the region, in every sense.
  • Once New Delhi demonstrates that it has the capacity, the political willingness to institutionalise and to lead a mutually beneficial cooperative regime in the region, Pakistan’s “churlish” behaviour will become marginal to SAARC.
  • Various international relations theorists view this as a function of “hegemonic stability”.
  • What therefore is at test is India’s leadership, not Islamabad’s follies.
  • The initial steps announced by Mr. Modi are laudable, including-
    • the proposal to set up the COVID-19 Emergency Fund for SAARC countries, with India making an initial non-trivial offering of $10 million; and;
    • the formation of a Rapid Response Team (of doctors, specialists, testing equipment and attendant infrastructure) to be put at the disposal of the SAARC, at this moment of grave peril.
    • But much more will need to be done by New Delhi to establish that the video conference was not a mere event.
    • Delhi should show its assertive expression of its new willingness to stabilise the region through cooperative mechanisms, for our common future.
    • And while doing so it shouldn't be distracted by short-sighted disingenuous ploys of a troubled Pakistan or being put off by its grandstanding.
  • This is a moment thus of a rare opportunity for India to establish its firm imprimatur over the region; and to secure an abiding partnership for our shared destiny.

 

  • SPARK OF SOUTH ASIA:
  • SAARC was born at a moment of hope in the 1980s.
  • The idea was initiated by one of the most inscrutable leaders of the region, General Zia Ur Rehman of Bangladesh, who, met many of the other leaders personally and dispatched special envoys to the capitals of the countries of the region.
  • Dhaka’s persistence resulted in the first summit of the seven leaders of the region in 1985. Afghanistan joined in 2007.
  • In the nearly 35 years of its existence, even its champions will concede however that SAARC has, to put it euphemistically, not lived up to the promise of its founder.
  • South Asia is the world’s least integrated region; less than 5% of the trade of SAARC countries is within.
  • A South Asian Free Trade Zone agreed on, in 2006, remains, in reality, a chimera.
  • The last SAARC summit, scheduled to be held in Islamabad in November 2016, was postponed after the terrorist attacks in Uri.
  • None has been held since then, and until Mr. Modi’s initiative, no major meeting had been planned.
  • A quick look at some of the questions posed in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha on SAARC, in the last years, suggest that Indian MPs seek answers on why India is still a member of SAARC and on the strength of other organisations such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) that India is engaged with. Thus SAARC had become almost marginal to our collective consciousness.

 

  • BRIGHT SPOTS:
  • There have been some sunny moments in SAARC’s dismal and dysfunctional history.
  • During the tenure of Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who had been fed a sumptuous diet of the possibilities of cooperation on the Track II circuit before he became Prime Minister, there was movement.
  • At the Male Summit in 1997, for instance, a Group of Eminent Persons was set up to provide a vision for SAARC 2020.
  • Equally, I.K. Gujral often confided that it was at Male that Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had told him in Punjabi:
  • “I know you cannot give me Kashmir; and you know I cannot grab it from you; but let us just talk and move on.”
  • But these moments of candour that could have injected practical common sense, remained few and far between.

 

  • THE FADEOUT AND A REVIVAL:
  • The reasons for the failure of SAARC have been enumerated several times as well.
  • Clearly, most of the smaller states and external players believe that the India-Pakistan conflict has undermined SAARC.
  • Bilateral issues cannot be discussed in SAARC.
  • Since the organisation relies on the principle of unanimity for all major decisions, Pakistan has often undermined even the most laudable initiative lest it give India an advantage: relative gains by India are more important for Pakistan than the absolute gains it secures for itself.
  • For India, Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of foreign policy has made normal business impossible.
  • But the world is suddenly being transformed. Not since the influenza pandemic of the Spanish Flu of 1918 has South Asia’s health been more in danger.
  • Laura Spinney’s masterly account of the Spanish Flu reminds us of the memoirs of the great poet, ‘Nirala’, Surya Kant Tripathi, and what a tragedy was inflicted even on ordinary people by the flu.
  • Nirala wrote : “I travelled to the riverbank in Dalmau and waited…[t]he Ganga was swollen with dead bodies.
  • At my in-laws’ house, I learned that my wife [too] had passed away. This was the strangest time in my life..[m]y family disappeared in the blink of an eye.”
  • There is no doubt that the impact of COVID-19 will be unprecedented, in terms of those it targets and the way we live.
  • It is too early to judge the consequences, but it will take years for the world to return to the old and familiar.
  • Strategies to cope with this new insidious, scheming and diabolic strain of the coronavirus have to be dynamic and ad hoc.
  • In the United Kingdom the idea of letting low-risk residents being infected by the virus as a way of generating immunity (the herding principle) seems to have been misplaced and disastrous .

 

  • CONCLUSION:
  • Containment and the possible prevention of community transmission are the only two principles that are firmly tested.
  • If community transmission occurs and cannot be contained, the consequences will be calamitous.
  • This is indeed a time for SAARC and the experts of the region to think and act together and India can lead this effort.
  • It is evident that Mr. Modi is an out-of-the box lateral thinker, especially on foreign policy.
  • In 2014, Mr. Modi surprised the world by inviting all the SAARC leaders for his inauguration.
  • In December 2015, he was even more audacious by almost living the dream of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by spending his morning in Kabul, afternoon in Lahore and evening in Delhi.

 

  • WAY FORWARD:
  • More important, the tragedy of COVID-19 may provide an opportunity for India to demonstrate its compassionate face to secure a region at peace with itself.
  • India cannot afford to not to harvest this opportunity, after having sowed the seeds of a New South Asia.

 

4) A crisis-hit Iran at the crossroads


  • CONTEXT:
  • Iran, the hardest-hit among the West Asian countries in the global pandemic, is on the front line of the battle against the coronavirus that causes the causes coronavirus disease, COVID-19.
  • With nearly 900 deaths and over 14,000 cases of infection, its health-care system is reeling under the combined effect of the pandemic and American sanctions.

  • NEW CHALLENGE FOR IRAN:
  • The new challenge for Iran comes about two months after the killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander General Qassem Soleimani, in January.
  • In end-January, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had condemned U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for Palestine and had vowed to support armed Palestinian groups.
  • Mr. Khamenei had said in November 2019 that Iran’s main strategy was to inure itself from the effect of sanctions and to emerge resilient.
  • The masses thronging the streets some weeks ago may have receded out of fear of both the coronavirus and the wrath of the regime.
    • But there is a possibility of social unrest resurfacing if the government’s response to the spread of the virus is ineffective and shortages are exacerbated.
  • Iran has already approached the International Monetary Fund for $5-billion in emergency funding to combat the pandemic.
  • The U.S. Treasury had announced in end-February that it was lifting some sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran to facilitate humanitarian trade such as the import of testing kits for COVID-19.
  • Clearly, Iran thinks this is inadequate.

 

  • NUCLEAR POLICY:
  • May 8, 2020 will mark the second anniversary of the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the “Iran Nuclear Deal”.
  • Following the U.S.’s decision to jettison the deal, Iran had announced that it would resume its nuclear activities but had agreed to respect the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and enhanced monitoring as part of its obligations under the additional protocol.
  • The JCPOA limited Iran to enrich uranium only up to a 3.67% concentration and its stockpile to 300 kg of UF6 (corresponding to 202.8 kg of U-235).
    • It further capped its centrifuges to no more than 5,060, besides a complete cessation of enrichment at the underground Fordow facility.
  • It also limited Iran’s heavy water stockpile to 130 tonnes.
  • However, since July 2019, Iran has lifted all restrictions on its stockpiles of enriched uranium and heavy water.
  • It has been enriching uranium to 4.5%, beyond the limit of 3.67%. Moreover, it has removed all caps on centrifuges and recommenced enrichment at the Fordow facility.
  • As of February 19, Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile totalled 1,020.9 kg, compared to 372.3 kg noted in the IAEA’s report of November 3.
  • In a second report issued on March 3, the IAEA has identified three sites in Iran where the country possibly stored undeclared nuclear material or was conducting nuclear-related activities.
  • The IAEA has sought access to the suspect sites and has also sent questionnaires to Iran but has received no response.
  • The United Kingdom, France and Germany had invoked the JCPOA Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DRM) as early as in January this year.

 

  • NPT AND UNSC RESOLUTION:
  • The next Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) set to take place in New York from April 27 to May 22, 2020.
    • Iran’s threat to abandon the NPT if the European Union takes the matter to the UN Security Council (UNSC) may yet only be bluster, but the failure of the DRM process would certainly put Iran on a collision course with the UNSC.
  • A sympathetic China, which holds the rotational presidency of the UNSC for March, should diminish that prospect, albeit only temporarily.
  • As things stand, the terms of UNSC Resolution 2231, which had removed UN sanctions against Iran in the wake of the JCPOA, are reversible and the sanctions can be easily restored.
  • That eventuality would prove disastrous, compounding Iran’s current woes.
  • While recognising that cocking a snook at the NPT in the run-up to the NPT RevCon and the U.S. presidential elections will invite retribution, Iran may use the global preoccupation with the pandemic to seek a whittling down of sanctions and to continue its nuclear programme.
  • In the event that the NPT RevCon is postponed due to the prevailing uncertainty, Iran may yet secure some more breathing time.

  • TIES WITH CHINA:
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to implement its “maximum pressure policy”.
  • China remains the only major country that continues to defy U.S. sanctions and buy oil from Iran, apart from a small quantum that goes to Syria.
  • The sale of oil to China, however, does little to replenish Iran’s coffers.
  • China is eschewing payments in order to avoid triggering more sanctions against Chinese entities.
  • According to reports, Iran uses the credit to service its debt to China Petrochemical Corp (Sinopec) and China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) for the development of Iran’s super-giant Azadegan and Yadavaran oil fields.
  • When seen in the context of the trilateral naval exercise between China, Iran and Russia in the Strait of Hormuz in the end of December 2019 codenamed “Marine Security Belt”, these developments suggest a further consolidation of Sino-Iran ties in a region of great importance to India.
  • Over time, this could expand into a “Quad” involving China’s “all-weather friend” Pakistan in the Indian Ocean and the northern Arabian Sea, with broader implications for India as well as the “Free and Open” Indo-Pacific.
  • The first round of Iran’s parliamentary elections in February showed that the hardliners are firmly ensconced.

 

  • CONCLUSION:
  • The fundamental underpinnings of Iran’s foreign policy are likely to remain unchanged.
  • Yet, the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the region creates fresh possibilities for cooperation between Iran and its neighbours, if regional tensions are relegated to the back-burner.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to develop a coordinated response to the pandemic in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation framework, indeed, sets a laudable example.
  • Much though will depend on Iran’s willingness to rein in its regional ambitions and desist from interference in the domestic affairs of others.