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23 March 2017 Editorial

 

23 MARCH 2017

Superpower dreams

India’s rank of 131 among 188 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index for 2015 and its ‘medium’ performance pose the uncomfortable question: would not the score have been significantly better if the higher economic growth trajectory of two and a half decades of liberalisation had been accompanied by a parallel investment in people? Few will argue that the rise in incomes that came with a more open economy has not translated into a higher quality of life for many Indians and raised overall life expectancy at birth by more than 10 years from the 1990 level, to reach 68.3 years. Progress has also been made in raising awareness about issues affecting women’s empowerment, such as public safety, acid attacks, discrimination in inheritance rights and lack of equal employment opportunity. Policy reforms have been instituted in some of these areas as a result. But as the HDI data show, significant inequalities persist, particularly between States and regions, which act as major barriers to improvement. The percentage of women in the workforce is the lowest in India among the BRICS countries, and the national record on the population that lives in severe multidimensional poverty is also the worst in the bloc. These are clear pointers to the lost decades for India, when universalisation of education and health care could have pulled deprived sections out of the poverty trap.

A central focus on social indicators is necessary for India to break free from its position as an underachiever. The fiscal space now available has been strengthened by steady economic growth, and more should be done to eliminate subsidies for the richest quintile — estimated by the UNDP to be $16 billion in 2014 in six consumption areas including gold and aviation fuel. The rise in revenues from all sources should go towards making public education of high standards accessible to all and delivering on the promised higher budgetary outlay for health care. Bolstered by a conscious effort to help traditionally backward regions, such policies will help eliminate the losses produced by inequalities that lower national human development indices. One crucial metric that gets insufficient attention in the measurement of development is the state of democracy, reflected among other things in access to justice. It is relevant to point out that India has not ratified UN conventions on torture, rights of migrant workers and their families, and protection against enforced disappearance. This is a serious lacuna for a country that otherwise has a commitment to democracy and the rule of law. With the growing realisation that development is a multidimensional achievement, the gains of economic reforms must help build capabilities and improve the health of all sections. Sustaining and improving the quality of life will depend on policies crafted to handle major emerging challenges such as urbanisation, the housing deficit, access to power, water, education and health care.

 

 

Russian connection

The first open hearing into the alleged links between the campaign of Donald Trump and unnamed parties associated with the Russian government kicked of this week, even as the President put out a series of social media posts that seemed to mischaracterise statements coming out of that hearing. Ground-shaking revelations have come from the grilling of FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Michael Rogers by the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee. The first was from Mr. Comey, who confirmed that the FBI was investigating Russia’s efforts to interfere in the presidential election, including links between specific individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Last month Mr. Trump’s nominee for National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned from his post after it emerged that he had withheld information about being in contact with Russia’s Ambassador in Washington prior to Mr. Trump’s inauguration. This month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the probe into alleged Russian meddling when it came to light that he had met the Ambassador prior to the election. Yet he continues to head the institution charged with the inquiry. Mr. Comey revealed that the FBI investigation began in July 2016, when evidence emerged that the Democratic National Committee had been hacked by Russia-related entities and emails handed over to WikiLeaks.

Even as the U.S. intelligence community scrambles to put together the pieces of the Trump-Moscow puzzle, it has, ironically, found itself in the crosshairs of exposure. Earlier this month WikiLeaks released a trove of confidential CIA documents , a series labelled “Vault 7”, which showed the Agency’s penetration of the security systems of household electronic devices that could then be used for covert surveillance. While such timed “leaks” are meant to target his political opponents, Mr. Trump’s own tweets are at odds with revelations in the House hearing. In early March, he accused former President Barack Obama of ordering wiretaps on Trump Tower — yet Mr. Comey said neither the FBI nor the Department of Justice had any information to support that allegation. Mr. Rogers dismissed the White House suggestion that Mr. Obama had asked British intelligence to spy on Mr. Trump, a claim the U.K. has denied. The last straw came when the U.S. President’s account tweeted, as the hearing proceeded, “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process,” only to have this statement debunked by Mr. Comey at the hearing, live on TV. Mr. Trump’s tendency to resort to unsubstantiated, even misleading, claims to stall a probe into alleged collaboration with a foreign power is not helping his credibility, which is already low in the eyes of so many Americans.

 

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