Monday, October 25, 2010

Russia's U-turn on arms sale

Russia has thrown its defence ties with Iran on the altar of its “reset” with the United States. President Dmitry Medvedev last week imposed a sweeping ban on defence sales that goes beyond even the international sanctions on Iran and is likely to have a long-term negative impact on Moscow-Tehran relations.

The decree “On Measures to Implement the U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929 of June 9, 2010” Mr. Medvedev signed bans supplies of Russian tanks, fighter jets, helicopters, ships, heavy artillery systems and missiles, including the S-300 air defence systems, to Iran. Russia will also stop supplying spares and components for the weapons sold earlier, and ban the transit of arms bound for Iran through its territory. The decree contains a list of Iranian officials involved in the country's nuclear programme, who will henceforth be prohibited from entering Russia.

By and large, the Russian sanctions are in line with the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, which Moscow backed, except for one crucial point: the S-300 missiles do not fall under the category of offensive weapons banned by the U.N. resolution. The move added another puzzling zigzag to Moscow's back-and-forth policy on Iran.

Resolution 1929 states: “All states shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to Iran […] of any […] missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.” Meanwhile, the Register clearly states that its definition of missiles or missile systems “ does not include ground-to-air missiles” (emphasis added.)

In justifying Mr. Medvedev's cancellation of the S-300 deal, Russian officials refer to the U.N. resolution's call on all states “to exercise vigilance and restraint over the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture and use of all other arms and related materiel.”

That said, Resolution 1929 contained no explicit ban on air defence systems and Mr. Medvedev's decree went a step too far. Ironically, defending Moscow's ban on S-300, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in the same breath, lambasted unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran as being “ethically and morally wrong” and a “violation” of the U.N. resolution.

The $800-million contract for supply of five batteries of S-300 air-defence complexes to Iran was signed in 2007. (A typical S-300 battery contains 48 missiles on 12 mobile launchers.) If delivered to Iran, the S-300 would change the rules of the game in the region. In combination with Tor-M1 short-range air-defence missiles Russia supplied to Iran in 2008, the long-range S-300s would have deterred any aerial attack on Iran.

In December 2008, the Russian government news agency, RIA-Novosti, quoting defence sources, reported that Moscow had begun “implementing” the S-300 contract. The report was later denied but Moscow continued to affirm its commitment to supply S-300 missile systems to Iran. “We have a contract to deliver these systems and we will honour it. Delays have been caused by technical problems in tuning up the systems,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated as recently as February. Even after Resolution 1929 was approved, Russian lawmakers and arms exporters maintained that the new sanctions would not affect the delivery of S-300.

“The S-300 systems are not covered by the sanctions and work on the contract is going forward,” Mikhail Dmitriyev, Director, Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, said in June. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley also conceded at the time that Washington had failed to secure a clear-cut ban on the supply of S-300.

However, Russian diplomats' valiant efforts to save the S-300 deal from being axed under the U.N. resolution were in vain. The Kremlin used it as a bargaining chip with the White House. The fate of the S-300 contract was apparently sealed when Mr. Medvedev paid an official visit to the U.S. in June and secured President Obama's promise to help Russia modernise its economy. On his return, Mr. Medvedev called for allying Russia with the West. “We need to build modernisation alliances with our main foreign partners … above all with Germany, Italy, the European Union and the United States of America,” he said in a keynote speech to Russian diplomats in July.

The formal ban on Russian arms exports to Iran came three months later, timed for the U.S. Congress debate on the New START, a Russian-American nuclear arms pact Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Obama signed in April.

Moscow attaches paramount importance to START ratification, seeing it as a turning point in its relations with Washington that would pave the way for other deals — U.S. endorsement of a long-pending civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the two countries and Washington's support for Moscow's bid to join the World Trade Organisation.

The S-300 ban was designed to facilitate the START's passage through the U.S. Senate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee in mid-September approved the U.S.-Russian treaty and sent it to the Senate floor, but its ratification is still hanging in the balance. The administration would like the Senate to vote on the treaty before it breaks for the November elections on October 8 because the Democrats may see their majority reduced in the new Senate. Mr. Medvedev clearly sought to impress the American public opinion and sway hesitant U.S. Senators in favour of backing the START.

The White House “strongly” welcomed the “faithful and robust implementation” by Moscow of the U.N. sanctions resolution. “We believe President Medvedev has demonstrated leadership on holding Iran accountable to its international obligations from start to finish,” said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer.

Mr. Medvedev's Iran arms ban is a big gift to the embattled Obama, who can now argue that his policy of “reset” with Russia is bringing tangible dividends. Moscow hopes a grateful Obama will lift the ban on high technology transfers to Russia. Time will tell whether these hopes are justified.

Sceptics point out that Russia halted its defence ties with Iran once in the past also, in the vain hope of getting U.S. aid and investments. Under a secret agreement brokered in 1995 by the then Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and U.S. Vice-President Albert Gore, Russia agreed to stop selling weapons to Iran. The deal dealt a hard blow to Russia's struggling defence industry, depriving it of what was emerging as the third largest market for Russian arms after India and China. The U.S. “thanked” Russia by pushing NATO to its doorstep and bombing out its traditional ally, Yugoslavia. In 2000, Russia pulled out of the Gore-Chernomyrdin deal and resumed arms supplies to Iran.

The new ban on weapon sales to Iran will have dire consequences for Russia, critics say. Direct financial losses from the scrapping of the S-300 contract could exceed $1 billion. According to the Russian Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade, Russia will lose at least $11 billion in weapon supplies to Iran through 2025. “Iran will never forgive Russia for this second sell-out in the past 15 years,” says defence expert Konstantin Makienko of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST). “Russia may lose forever the Iranian market of not only defence but also civilian technologies.”

Aviation industry sources said Iran had already stopped negotiations to acquire Russia's Tu-204SM passenger aircraft. Russia's refusal to supply S-300 systems has put a big question mark on a wide-ranging energy cooperation road map Moscow signed with Tehran just a couple of months ago.

Geopolitical costs for Russia could be even higher. “The cancellation of the S-300 contract undermines its reputation as a reliable defence partner among its current and potential customers,” Mr. Makienko said. “China will only be too happy to fill the vacuum left by Russia.”

Tehran's recent announcement that it had begun work on its own missile system, analogue of the Russian S-300, Russian experts said, was an indication that the Chinese came to Iranians' help, offering expertise gained in cloning the S-300 Russia had earlier sold to China.

As for rewards from Washington, U.S. officials warn Moscow not to expect too many. “The objective is not actually to develop a good relationship with Russia. The goal here is to advance our national security and economic interests and to promote universal values,” a senior White House official said commenting on the Russian arms ban to Iran. In fact, the Russian concession has encouraged U.S. strategists to put higher demands on Moscow. “Some Russia sceptics aren't so sure that Moscow has yet made the strategic decision to turn away from Iran and towards the United States,” Josh Rogin wrote in his blog on The Foreign Policy website.

To convince these sceptics, Russia should stop cooperation with Iran on the Bushehr nuclear reactor, tear up energy deals and support tougher economic sanctions on Tehran. To quote a relevant Russian saying: “Put a finger in his mouth and he will bite your arm off.”

New economic idiom in Look East policy

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's civil nuclear diplomacy towards the United States, and now ‘pacifist' Japan, is viewed in East Asia as a new message to the region about India's posture as a “rising power.”

Politically more visible, though, is a bunch of economic pacts that is beginning to fill India's pocket. Dr. Singh's economic diplomacy was, therefore, in prime focus, as he held talks in Tokyo on October 25, beginning a visit to Japan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

East Asian leaders have often traced India's Look East policy to the diplomatic realism of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao at a time of national crisis in the 1990s. Against this background, a dominant view in East Asia today is that Dr. Singh is setting the terms for India's long-term engagement with key regional powers. Inevitably, such diplomacy will extend beyond the economic realm. India's strategic calculations are easily discernible too.

Some officials in the region privately comment on how India has, in recent months, stayed the course of difficult trade negotiations with remarkable resoluteness. Obviously, it is not for the East Asian officials to worry about the economic fall-out these agreements might produce for the people in India, especially as seen by its various political parties.

In Japan, the political mood towards India is remarkably friendly on the economic front. A Japan-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA/EPA) was finalised by the negotiators on both sides in time for celebration during this visit.

It took them nearly four years to firm up Tokyo's first-ever pact with a big economy. India is behind only Japan and China in Asia in terms of their macro-level gross domestic products and related indices. No less significantly, Tokyo does not have an economic pact with either its long-standing ally, the U.S., or with an immediate neighbour like the ascendant China.

In this big picture, there is considerable macro-level asymmetry between India as a developing economy and Japan as a developed country. But Tokyo has viewed its negotiations with India as a unique exercise, without worrying about striking a model agreement between a developed country and a developing economy. The secret of success, despite delays during the Japan-India talks, is said to be economic realism driven by political will. The automotive industry in the two countries and their respective services sectors required sensitive attention during the talks.

According to a Japanese negotiator, Takeshi Matsunaga, the EPA provides for “a high level of liberalisation” of tariff by both sides and places them on “an equal footing.” Also built into the agreement is India's preferred principle of free “movement of natural persons.” Not amounting to migration, this will mean a free flow of professional talent in the services sector. This will benefit both countries, with India gaining an acceptance of this principle in the first place. Investment and several other aspects of a full-fledged economic pact are also covered.

The CEPA/EPA does reflect the new-found “importance of India to Japan” in the emerging world of several rising powers and a stagnant superpower. This formula about India's “importance” was first cited by a top Japanese official in June this year, when he informed The Hindu of Tokyo's decision to begin civil nuclear talks with New Delhi. Two rounds of talks have been held so far.

The negotiators face the challenging task of harmonising a pacifist principle with a pragmatic policy. New Delhi holds its voluntary moratorium on nuclear-weapon tests as inviolable pragmatic policy.

At the other end, Japan, as an “internationalist” and a “pacifist,” might have to “suspend” or even “stop” its civil nuclear cooperation with India, if New Delhi were to test an atomic bomb once again. America's nuclear umbrellas for its allies, including Japan, are in a different category altogether. In all, however, a Japanese official, Hidenobu Sobashima, told this correspondent in Singapore a few days ago that the Japan-India civil nuclear talks “will continue.” It is, therefore, possible that Japan will not risk writing off the new “importance” of India in a hurry, especially as long as the current fluidity in global affairs persists.

In Malaysia

If the Japan-India engagement is now dictated by high stakes, New Delhi's ties with Malaysia, too, are entering a qualitatively significant phase. India and Malaysia have firmed up a Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA). According to a top Malaysian official, Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria, the two countries would, during Dr. Singh's visit to Kuala Lumpur at this time, announce that the legally-binding text of CECA would be signed by the end of January next year. The CECA might then come into force from July next year.

As a measure of economic pragmatism, India and Malaysia negotiated the CECA in less than one year, truly a feat of fast-track parleys. The two sides are also keen to have a genuine strategic partnership. However, the world-view of Malaysia, which belongs to the Organisation of Islamic Conference, may not always be in sync with India's on all issues. At another level, the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF)-Makkal Sakthi, which seeks to espouse the cause of Malaysian-Indian minority, wants Dr. Singh to raise issues relating to its welfare in his talks with his counterpart, Najib Tun Razak.

As a banned organisation, HINDRAF has added the Tamil label of “Makkal Sakthi,” meaning “people power” which is in vogue in this region, in a bid to stay within the ambit of law. On a related front, Mr. Najib has signalled goodwill towards Malaysian-Indians by promising, most recently, government's contribution to the education foundation set up by the Telugu Association of Malaysia.

In Vietnam

In Hanoi, Dr. Singh will have to switch from the nuances of bilateral diplomacy to the compulsions of multilateralism during India's annual summit with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). India's Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN is already in force, providing a relative new framework for the summit.

At the annual East Asia Summit (EAS), Dr. Singh will be sitting with, among others, the leaders of South Korea and Singapore, with which India already has comprehensive economic pacts. But the EAS, which includes China, is a strategic forum, and this aspect will get heightened with the likely admission of the U.S. and Russia into this organisation. Issues of acute sensitivity to all major powers will then arise, especially in the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM+) forum, which might be co-opted by an expanding EAS as its security wing.

There are already indications that the issues might range from the long-term U.S. role in the region to the perceived flashpoints in the South China Sea or East China Sea or even Kashmir.

What to expect from Obama's visit

The visit of the head of state of the sole, though somewhat depleted, superpower provides us a timely opportunity to apprise our guest of our assessment of the strategic environment surrounding us and to engage him in an in-depth discussion on how to deal with the common threat to our countries and peoples, nearly all of which emanates from the Af-Pak region. The success of Barack Obama's visit should be judged, not so much by whether the U.S. lifts the sanctions on ‘the entities' or whether or not he softens his rhetoric on outsourcing, important as these issues are. There are far more serious subjects which should occupy the limited time the leaders spare for a tête-à-tête or talks at the delegation level. A candid discussion of the strategic implications of the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan must be carried out.

The war in Afghanistan, it seems, is not a major issue in the forthcoming mid-term congressional and gubernatorial elections in America. Mr. Obama would no doubt wish to make it an equally not-a-critical issue when it is time for him to start campaigning for a second term. Indeed, it is this factor which has dominated his approach to the Afghan war, as Bob Woodward has brought out so conclusively in Obama's Wars. Henry Kissinger could not resist the temptation of being clever when he said the ‘exit strategy' was all about exit and not about strategy; in fact, however, Mr. Obama has been discussing strategy almost since his first week in office.

Obama's Wars also brings out the President's preoccupation with Pakistan, persuading its leaders to cooperate with America in degrading and defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan. As one of Mr. Obama's advisors said during the endless hours spent on discussing the ‘options' the President could consider, all the persuasion took the form of carrot and no stick. Nearly $20 billion has been sunk into Pakistan since 2001 and more is being pledged almost every week. It must be the highest investment, with very little to show for it, per sq km in the world. The Americans have also felt obliged to assure Pakistan that their President will visit Islamabad next year, as well as not to make too much of a fuss over the Sino-Pak civil nuclear deal. It is not only India that has to be pragmatic in its foreign policy.

One reads in the Woodward book that the Americans have identified 150 targets which they would bomb in case of another 9/11-type attack on the American homeland that was traced to Pakistan's badlands. Perhaps the Pakistan military takes the American threat more seriously than India's when it says another ‘Mumbai' would engender a robust response from us. Happily for India-U.S. relations, Mr. Obama's initial inclination to include India, or more specifically Kashmir, in Richard Holbrooke's mandate was quickly discarded, thanks to New Delhi's timely and effective intervention. Nonetheless, the President, and more so his advisors, have convinced themselves that the key to obtaining Pakistan's full cooperation lies in prevailing upon New Delhi to ‘cooperate' with Islamabad in tackling the root causes of the crisis between ‘the two nuclear-armed arch enemies', as India and Pakistan are invariably described in the American media.

The extent to which the Americans and others in the western world have bought the Pakistani line should be a matter of concern to us. It also shows that Pakistan's propaganda machine is working ceaselessly in all those capitals. One explanation for this bias is that Pakistan is considered an underdog and the world always has sympathy for underdogs. Pakistan's very weakness is its strength. But there is no getting away from the fact that we have to intensify our PR efforts; the lobbying firms we have hired in Washington should be made to produce better results. It is here that Mr. Obama's visit provides us with an excellent opportunity to disabuse him of the falsehoods Pakistan has been spreading about us.

For example, many in the West, and perhaps elsewhere as well, believe that India does present a threat to Pakistan and that the threat would become the most acute if there was a pro-India government in Kabul. The concept of ‘strategic depth' is not dismissed summarily by others, least of all by the Pentagon. Pakistan's argument that India and an India-friendly Afghanistan could join forces and attack it, however laughable, is not scoffed at by all think tanks abroad. In this writer's interaction with several think tanks recently in America, he was told that India must not take advantage of Pakistan's precarious position at this stage, that India must “give comfort” to Pakistan, that India must engage Pakistan in a composite dialogue, including specifically on the question of Kashmir, etc. One influential think tank even suggested that in order to bring Pakistan fully on board in the war against the al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it must be offered a ‘quid' in the shape of a sphere of influence in the Afghan provinces adjoining Pakistan.

When pointed out that this would in effect mean conceding a sphere of influence to China, they were least concerned. All this, despite the Indian government's persistence with dialogue notwithstanding Pakistan's stalling of proceedings against the perpetrators of 26/11 and the undisputable links between the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The pressure on us would have been severer had we refused all contact with Pakistan after 26/11. However, the government's knee-jerk reaction every time Pakistan utters the ‘K' word is un-understandable. We have a perfectly good case on Kashmir and in fact we should be the ones to want to discuss Kashmir, since it is Pakistan which aggressed against us and is still occupying our territory. We should not be afraid of the ‘K' word. We should ask those who want us to discuss Kashmir with Pakistan: “What is it that you want us to discuss regarding the Kashmir issue? Are you even sure that Pakistan wants to ‘solve' the issue, except by the only way that we will never agree to, namely to hand over the whole of Kashmir, or at least the entire Valley to them?” Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf came close to concluding an agreement on Kashmir, but that has been disowned by Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

President Obama might not necessarily ‘buy' these arguments from the think-tankwallahs, although the think tanks in America are as aggressive in pushing their ideas on decision-makers as their businesses are in pushing their products in overseas markets. But he is looking for a way out of the Afghan quagmire and is most anxious that the process of ‘reconciliation' with the Taliban should succeed. He does seem to be persuaded that Pakistan's help in this process is indispensable, even though President Hamid Karzai may have his doubts about conceding anything more than a consultative role to Pakistan. Reports that Pakistan arrests any Taliban commander believed to be talking to the representatives of the Kabul government indicate Gen. Kayani's determination to keep the process firmly in Pakistan's control. The U.S. is anxious not to risk alienating the General described by Mr. Holbrooke as the most important political factor in Pakistan. (Woodward's book has the following gem. Secretary Hillary Clinton asked Mr. Karzai during his visit to Washington in May 2010: “Do you really think the ISI could pick up Mullah Omar if they wanted?” Karzai reached over and plucked a chocolate chip cookie from his plate. “They could deliver Mullah Omar like I can pick up this cookie,” he said.)

Every such visit does not have to be “highly successful” or “historic.” The success or otherwise of the visit must not be judged by our getting concessions on some bilateral issues. Nor should Mr. Obama expect to clinch the deal for sale of 126 American fighter aircraft at this juncture. The President might say something about India's ambition for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. His advisors presumably have explained to him that the Indian public opinion will not be satisfied with some vague formula of the U.S. being sympathetic to India wanting to play a bigger role on international forums including the U.N., etc. If he does not bring himself to expressing unambiguous support, he would be well advised not to say anything on the subject.

The real criterion for measuring success would lie in assessing whether or not the two leaders have reached consensus on defining the dangers that their, and other, countries face from the Af-Pak area and how they intend to tackle it. They must agree on a mechanism for arriving at such assessment and there is only one way of doing it. What is needed is a trilateral forum of consultations consisting of the U.S., India and Afghanistan.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

At climate meet, India will not bend

As the week-long UN climate summit begins in New York on Tuesday, India has said it would like to be a part of a deal maker and not the deal breaker.

Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh pointed out that while India would not budge from its position on legally binding carbon emission cuts, it would like to be part of a solution and not be a deal breaker (Watch full interview below).

The summit will be key to advancing negotiations that are currently at an impasse over emission targets for developing nations, ahead of an agreement during the UN conference in Copenhagen this December.

The Copenhagen agreement would then replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, requiring mandatory cuts in atmosphere-warming gases. The Kyoto Protocol expires at the end of 2012. As far as India is concerned, the main sticking point is America's demand that it accept legally binding emission cuts.

India is clear that it will not accept any legally binding cuts on carbon emission. It also insists that its per capita emission of carbon is lower than that of America or other developed countries.

India also feels it should be given credit for its large-scale afforestation programme.

Asked about India being called uncooperative and stubborn, Jairam said: "Not at all. I think the world is completely wrong on this. We have got an image that is contrary to what we have been doing. The message that I am trying to convey is that we have not caused the problem of global warming but we want to be part of the solution at Copenhagen. We want to be a deal maker not the deal breaker.

"We are taking very aggressive adaptation measures. We are also being very aggressive unilaterally, voluntarily on mitigation. We are thinking of domestic legislation to enhance the measure of credibility on our mitigation actions and all our measures have been widely appreciated."

On America emitting 22 per cent of emissions and asked whether an international agreement on climate change was possible without the US on board, Jairam said: "Without the US there is no agreement. The US has to come up with a substantial cut on its emissions by 2020. There is no doubt about it but the politics of it seems to be difficult.

"There is the health care debate, the economic slowdown. So many other issues, the war in Iraq, Afghanistan. I don't see what the appetite is for a successful deal in Copenhagen. We are hopeful. India is trying to do its best to work with the United States and to create conditions that will facilitate the US to make meaningful cuts because without the US there is not going to be any meaningful deal and we know that. Chianti knows it, India knows it and so does Europe."

Climate action: Will India go China's way?

India is poised to follow China's example and likely to propose a target to slow down growth in its greenhouse gas emissions, but not cap these altogether.

China last week said it would cut carbon emissions per unit of economic output by up to 45 per cent by 2020.

India says it could cut such carbon intensity by 24 per cent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels.

India, the world's fourth highest emitter, is under pressure to announce details of how it will control its growing carbon emissions, and issuing targets will probably strengthen New Delhi's position at the Copenhagen negotiations.

Jairam Ramesh, minister of state, Environment and Forest said, "We now have taken on performance targets in energy, building, forestry and various sectors of the economy. We are not going to be taking any legally binding emission cuts. That is simply out of the question, but we can look at various alternatives. Incidentally, our carbon intensity is very low. The Chinese have just announced a carbon intensity decline by 2020 and according to that, they will be in the year 2020 where India was in 2005 as far as carbon intensity is concerned."

India is under considerable pressure to set emission targets ahead of Copenhagen. India has taken a tough stand saying as a developing nation it has its own agenda.

India has said there is no question of legally binding emission cuts while the developed western countries are continuously pressurising India to quantify cuts.

As per the latest position, India is considering carbon intensity reduction targets ahead of Copenhagen climate summit as the west wants.

A national plan has also been launched to cut the carbon use and also for mitigation of climate change effects. The west wants India to stretch further and announce a trajectory that India's emissions will take.

Eco Facts

Pollution: Each kind of pollution- air, noise, water- has significant impacts to our everyday lives, affecting all living and non-living factors in the biosphere and the atmosphere and also involve socio-economic factors. These impacts have caused significant changes to the environment we are living in.
Deforestation: They are the earth’s largest depository of natural resources and house half of the planet’s dryland species. But man’s greed is putting a saw through the fragile ecosystem and over the years half of the world’s forests have been transformed into a concrete jungle. Indiscriminate felling of trees for fuel and timber or for housing and agriculture purposes has gone on unabated despite the clichés mouthed by environmentalists and a line of successive governments.
Soil Erosion: Floods and soil erosion are two of India's greatest problems. Neither is new, but there can be no doubt that in recent years floods are taking an increasing toll on crops and the rapid progress of soil erosion in different parts of the country has caused grave concern. India is thought to be losing 4.7 billion tons of topsoil a year, mostly through water erosion. Its monsoonal climate, with the concentration of rainfall during a few months of the year, leaves its exposed soils vulnerable to erosion. About 60 percent of soil that is washed away ends up in rivers, streams and lakes, making waterways more prone to flooding and to contamination from soil's fertilizers and pesticides. Soil erosion also reduces the ability of soil to store water and support plant growth, thereby reducing its ability to support biodiversity.
Land Degradation: Decline in land quality caused by human activities has been a major global issue during the 20th century and will remain high on the international agenda in the 21st century. The importance of land degradation among global issues is enhanced because of its impact on world food security and quality of the environment. High population density is not necessarily related to land degradation; it is what a population does to the land that determines the extent of degradation. People can be a major asset in reversing a trend towards degradation. However, they need to be healthy and politically and economically motivated to care for the land, as subsistence agriculture, poverty, and illiteracy can be important causes of land and environmental degradation.
Waste Management: Urban India is likely to face a massive waste disposal problem in the coming years. Until now, the problem of waste has been seen as one of cleaning and disposing as rubbish. But a closer look at the current and future scenario reveals that waste needs to be treated holistically, recognising its natural resource roots as well as health impacts. Waste can be wealth, which has tremendous potential not only for generating livelihoods for the urban poor but can also enrich the earth through composting and recycling rather than spreading pollution as has been the case. Increasing urban migration and a high density of population will make waste management a difficult issue to handle in the near future, if a new paradigm for approaching it is not created.
Increasing Energy Consumption: India faces a huge energy deficit: till 2001, only 44 per cent of Indian households had access to electricity. But consumption’s galloping: between 1947 and 2001, India’s per capita power consumption rose from 15 to 592 units. If India has to move ahead economically, it must find ways to bridge the deficit.
High Carbon Emissions: Carbon dioxide emissions are causing the Earth’s climate to change and warm, which will have catastrophic results if we do not act to reduce them. Carbon dioxide emissions in our atmosphere are at their highest levels in recorded history, spanning over 650,000 years. The effects of climate change can be seen now. Temperatures are increasing, glaciers are receding at unprecedented speeds and storms are becoming more frequent and severe.

Global warming could leave cities flattened

With climate change taking its toll on Earth, rock avalanches and landslides have become more common in high mountain ranges over the last decade.

The collapses are caused by melting glaciers and permafrost, which remove the glue that binds steep mountain slopes together.

However, the worse part may be to come. Thinning glaciers on volcanoes could destabilize vast chunks of their summit cones, triggering mega-landslides capable of flattening cities such as Seattle and devastating local infrastructure.

To assess the risk, Daniel Tormey of ENTRIX, an environmental consultancy based in Los Angeles, studied a huge landslide that occurred 11,000 years ago on Planchón-Peteroa.

He focused on this glaciated volcano in Chile because its altitude and latitude make it likely to feel the effects of climate change before others.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Delhi delivers, the Games are on

Over the last few weeks, as the events leading up to the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in New Delhi unfolded like scenes from a B-grade Bollywood disaster movie — featuring a collapsed foot overbridge, flooded building basements, stained bedcovers, and dirty, stinking toilets in the Games Village — sports fans might have forgotten that what was scheduled to take place in the nation's capital was actually a sports event. But now that CWG 2010's rocky ride towards the starting grid has culminated in an extravagant Opening Ceremony that showcased India's rich and pluralistic culture, sport can at last take centre-stage. The central government and the Delhi administration, as well as the reconstituted Organising Committee, did well to respond to what was pretty much an emergency. The Games Village was cleaned up on a war footing and the Army did commendable work in putting up a Bailey foot overbridge in under six days. The eleventh hour damage-control exercise has apparently pleased all the visitors, going by the feedback from the teams. Disastrous consequences were averted by a late response, but a lot remains to be done over the next 10 days if the host is to turn the Games into a widely acclaimed success. This alone can advance India's cause if the world's second most populous nation hopes to bid for the Olympic Games in the conceivable future.

But now that ‘play' has been called in New Delhi, attention must turn to the athletes who have gathered in the nation's capital in quest of glory. The Delhi Games feature a record number of 6,700 athletes and officials (it was 5,766 in the last edition in Melbourne). India itself is fielding a 619-member contingent and, following rigorous preparation in several disciplines, expects to double its 2006 tally of 50 medals. While CWG standards are not comparable to world standards in sports such as tennis, wrestling, archery, weightlifting, and boxing, shooting may be an exception. India may be confident of reaping a good harvest in most of these sports. But despite the withdrawal of a few superstars such as Usain Bolt, the world and Olympic record holder in 100 and 200 metres, and the multiple Olympic gold medalist swimmer Stephanie Rice of Australia, the focus will not necessarily be on Indian athletes. There are several world-class performers in athletics and swimming: world and Olympic pole vault champion Steven Hooker of Australia, Nancy Jebet Langat, the women's 1500m Olympic champion from Kenya, and Liesel Jones, the Olympic breaststroke champion from Australia, are just the best-known among several visiting athletes who have it in them to provoke clucks of awe from the fans in the stadia and those watching on television.

Turkey: the country of contrasts

On September 12, 58 per cent of the electorate that went to the polls in Turkey voted in favour of a constitutional reform package put forth by the governing Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP). The symbolism was lost to none: the referendum took place on the 30th anniversary of Turkey's last direct military intervention. Its interpretations, though, varied wildly. The government, along with the United States and the European Union, hailed the result as a step towards greater democracy and a blow to the country's junta-made 1982 Constitution. The Opposition, which had framed the amendments as a sugar-coated attempt by the Islamist-rooted AKP to wrest control of the country's fiercely secular judiciary, bemoaned that the outcome would take Turkey closer to a one-party dictatorship.

Domestic developments in Turkey have been attracting a great deal of attention from the outside world in recent years — testament to the country's growing international stature. Turks are not used to being under the spotlight so much, at least not for the right reasons: as recently as a decade ago, the country mostly made the news for its political and economic crises, military interventions, tensions with its neighbours and gross human rights abuses.

Today's headlines tell a different story. A member of the G20, Turkey's economy grew fastest next to China's in the first half of 2010; a stark contrast to the gloomy picture across the European Union, which has long been keeping Turkey at the door. Ankara is also strengthening its ties with most of its neighbours, while mediating conflicts further afield. There is an increasing talk of a Turkish ‘soft power', defined by a flurry of cultural, economic and diplomatic hyperactivity in all directions.

Yet despite the positive press, those who look at Turkey from the outside often see a country divided along ideological, political and ethnic fault lines: secularists vs. Islamists, liberals vs. nationalists, Turks vs. Kurds, etc. For many observers, the referendum process was a further confirmation of Turkey's divisions. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan brazenly labelled all those who opposed the reform package as “coup supporters,” while many in the secular Opposition blamed the outcome on the “ignorant masses” that were easily manipulated.

Contrasting narratives are increasingly being adopted by outside observers as well. There is a heated debate, particularly within western foreign policy circles, as to what to make of a changing Turkey: is Ankara's increasingly assertive and independent foreign policy merely a reflection of its growing economic and political clout in the wider region; or is it a sign that Turkey is abandoning the West for a coalition of eastern or Islamic allies, such as Iran and Syria, under the AKP government?

Turkey's curse

The problem with most analyses of Turkey, both domestic and foreign, is that they attempt to explain a complex socio-political transformation on the basis of caricaturised dichotomies. Perhaps it is the inevitable curse of being labelled “the bridge between the East and the West”: its challenges are invariably reduced to an existential rift between two neatly separated civilisational camps. In the end, “the bridge” rarely holds and the country is presented with a stark choice: it can either be eastern or western; Muslim or democratic; backward or modern.

The reality, however, is that many diverse and seemingly contradictory processes are taking place simultaneously in today's Turkey. The chief concern of the Kemalist old guard — that is, the military-bureaucratic establishment — and the secular urban middle class has long been that Prime Minister Erdogan and his party are working to replace Kemal Ataturk's secular regime with an overtly Islamic one. But the AKP is as much a product of Turkey's transformation as it is the cause. There is no denying that after decades of exclusion from public life, Islam is resurgent in Turkey. A visitor who last passed through the provinces of Anatolia 20 years ago will probably find fewer shops selling alcohol and more women wearing the Islamic headscarf.

Yet the same visitor may also notice that there are more people, including women, on the streets and the ghost towns of yester-decade have become vibrant business and investment hubs in their own right. In fact, it is partly on the back of a rising Anatolian middle class, which is at once pious and entrepreneurial, that Turkey's recent economic (and the AKP's political) achievements have come about. This is not an easy transition: the collision of secular and pious lifestyles that were once socially and geographically separated often creates tensions. A recent assault by a local mob on several newly established art galleries in Tophane, a poor immigrant neighbourhood of Istanbul that is being rapidly gentrified, is a case in point.

For many secular Turks, these are dreadful signs of Turkey's creeping ‘Iranisation.' But tales of mutual suspicion and intolerance represent only part of the picture. The other part is about a country where a long disenfranchised majority is being gradually integrated into the socio-political system largely through democratic means and economic growth and, in the process, having to reconcile its traditional values with its newfound affluent tastes and liberal practices. Had the Shah achieved a similar feat, Iran may have never needed a revolution.

The many faces of Erdogan's Turkey

Turkey is a country of striking contrasts. It has more Facebook users than most western countries, yet YouTube remains banned by a court decision for broadcasting videos that insult Ataturk. Istanbul, the European capital of culture for 2010, has the highest number of mosques of any city, a vibrant art scene, a bustling nightlife, as well as sprawling shantytowns that are lately being replaced by government-funded housing blocks. It has a growing civil society that bravely confronts national taboos, as well as nationalist movements that fight to keep them intact.

Mr. Erdogan's AKP has managed to dominate Turkey's political life for the past eight years, because it embodies most of its contrasts. It is the only party that has significant electoral presence in the country's industrial west, conservative heartlands, and conflict-torn Kurdish southeast, as well as across most social and political divides. In 2007, when the party won nearly one of every two votes in a general election, its supporters included liberals, social democrats, and businesspeople, Islamists, nationalists as well as a significant number of Kurds.

Its democratising reforms have significantly trimmed the military's political tentacles, and won Turkey the EU candidate status in 2005. Its economic and fiscal policies attracted record levels of foreign investment, and helped avert the worst effects of the latest financial crisis. Its leaders, on the other hand, have become increasingly intolerant of dissent, taking cartoonists to court and putting pressure on critical journalists and newspapers. They have also been criticised for handing out lucrative business contracts to firms close to the party, and making appointments to local government positions, universities and the police on the basis of personal connections or association with various religious fraternities.

In 2009, the AKP government launched bold initiatives to normalise ties with Armenia, with which Turkey has no diplomatic ties, and find a democratic end to the bloody, three-decade-old Kurdish insurgency. Faced with a nationalist backlash, however, it soon reverted to populist rhetoric on both fronts. Finally, the AKP has gone further than any civilian authority to expose and cleanse the Turkish state of its ultra-nationalist, putschist and criminal elements; that is, the so-called “deep state”. It now risks squandering that possibility by turning the court case, known as ‘Ergenekon,' into a vendetta against political opponents.

It is no surprise, then, that the newly approved constitutional reform package also represents a mixed bag. The amendments remove legal obstacles preventing the trial of the junta that carried out the 1980 coup, which is responsible for the death and torture of thousands of people, particularly in the Kurdish provinces, but not the anti-democratic institutions it put in place. They break the monopoly of the Kemalist elite over the judiciary, which has been deeply ideological and shut down numerous political parties, but allow the executive to pack the courts with its own candidates.
<>Perhaps most importantly, the referendum process revealed a widespread demand for a brand new democratic Constitution. Political actors should respond to that demand without delay. The government should also catch what could be the last train towards a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue within the framework of a unified Turkey, by maintaining dialogue, both in public and in private, with the Kurdish nationalists.

Turkey's multi-faceted transformation is yet to be complete: the country is facing a historic moment to create its own brand of modernity — one that is vibrant, democratic and multicultural. This is by no means a foregone conclusion, however, and the pitfalls ahead are as daunting as the opportunities are enticing.