Thursday, November 16, 2017

Crisis moves in Ganges clean-up

One of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s core promises when he swept to power in 2014 was a clean-up of the Ganges.

India’s main river, sacred to Hindus and therefore to the heartland of Modi’s support, is in places little more than an open sewer, polluted with human and industrial waste — and often with the half-burnt bodies from some of the least efficient ghats, or crematoriums, that line its banks.

The problem has been too tough for many past Governments, but Modi, with a can-do reputation as the former Chief Minister of Gujarat, claimed he would succeed where others had failed.  

After deciding that the previous National Ganga River Basin Authority was not up to the task, he replaced it with a new high-powered agency, the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMGC).

But there it has seemed to rest and before long critics were describing the NMGC as just another ineffective bureaucracy. Now, with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) just 18 months away from the next General Election action is sorely needed.

In fact work has been progressing, and sewage treatment plants at Haridwar and Varanasi have been approved and are under way, but these large-scale projects take time and will probably not come on line until 2020.

Work has progressed at a painfully slow pace as officials found land for the plants and then negotiated with local constructors.

The same problems have arisen with the ghats on the banks of the river where the bodies of the faithful are burned and their ashes delivered to the holy river. So far only a fraction have been converted into modern crematoria.  

For the casual observer raw sewage continues to flow into the Ganges and its tributaries, and the stink is as bad as ever.

Earlier this year Modi was reportedly outraged when told that more than three quarters of the sewage dumped into the river was still untreated.

Which is why the NMGC has turned to a new project which it hopes will produce short term results — bacterial bioremediation, or to put it simply, sewage-eating microbes.

In pilot projects in India and other places around the globe this method has attacked raw sewage in watercourses and significantly reduced stench.      

The NMGC says bioremediation is significantly less costly and shows clear results six to eight months after the microbes are released into polluted water.

“Implementing these techniques prevents degraded quality of water from flowing directly into the Ganga and its tributaries,” the agency said.

Maybe, but at best this is a face-saving exercise that may give the BJP some breathing space on the issue as it ramps up its re-election campaign in 2019. Modi’s much vaunted declaration that the Ganges will “flow pristine from the mountains to the sea” is still a long way from reality.

For the moment large stretches of the river still run a sullen black, interspersed with bobbing plastic and other waste that make it a rich breeding ground for millions of mosquitoes

Should Modi get another five years in which to fulfil his pledge a great deal more will have to be done.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Beware globalisation’s new champion

When United States President Donald Trump lands in Beijing during his marathon Asian tour we can expect (as much as we can expect anything from this mercurial leader) for his talks to centre around North Korea, terrorism in general and attempts to win back jobs to the US.

It is unlikely there will be much reference to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature project, the so called One Belt One Road (OBOR) — a plan to put a 21st century slant on the medieval Silk Road trading network that once connected East Asia with Europe. Protectionist Trump simply won’t be interested.

In promoting the OBOR, Xi has styled himself as a sterling supporter of globalisation at the same time as the US seems to sinking back into it its pre-war isolationism under Trump’s America First slogan.

Earlier this year Xi became the first Chinese leader to speak at the summit of capitalism, the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland, where he attacked protectionism as “locking oneself in a dark room in order to defend oneself, but in doing so cutting off all light and air”.

All this sounds like manna from heaven for supporters of globalisation who in recent years have taken a great deal of flak from a variety of pressure groups who argue it is creating wealth for the already rich West at the expense of the poor — but on closer inspection, the devil is very much in the details.

The OBOR Belt consists of three overland routes, or economic cooperation corridors, through 25 countries. The Road is actually a trade route connecting China to Europe through the South China Sea (which China claims as an integral part of its territory) to the Indian Ocean in one direction and from China though the South China Sea to the South Pacific in another.

In all, the initiative will involve 64 countries and 15 Chinese Provinces.

However, as Lindsay Hughes, of the Indian Ocean Research Program, points out in his analysis, the infrastructure required to support these routes is going to come at great cost and Beijing will take steps to ensure to bears as little of the burden as possible.

He says the OBOR will require massive investment in transport and port facilities along its length.

“One of the criticisms of the Silk Road plan is that host countries may struggle to pay back loans for huge infrastructure projects being carried out and funded by Chinese companies and banks,” Hughes says.

In fact the initial enthusiasm from countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh is beginning to wear thin as they count the cost of picking up much of the tab.

The feeling was summed up in a report in the Asia Times which stated the $56 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor had yet to translate into a game-changer for its sponsors.

“Worse than that, the unparalleled tax breaks and mounting security costs involved have already saddled Islamabad’s Exchequer with a hole in its finances of more than $2.5 billion,” the report states.

China is offering loans to cover the amount, which is great business for its banks at six per cent interest, while all but the most menial tasks involved in building these corridors is going to be done by Chinese workers, keeping the jobless rate down at home.

One country that is staying aloof is India, long suspicious that the whole project is part of a plan to encircle and neutralise it as China’s main rival in Asia.

That aside, New Delhi believes it is simply a bad deal for everyone except China, a point made by Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj when she emphasised the need to first build trust in the region.

In this she was echoing Prime Minister, Narendra Modi who said economic growth in the region could occur “only when there is a climate of mutual trust and confidence, respect for each other’s sensitivities and concerns, and peace and stability in our relations along our borders.”

A warning to all that President Xi’s new status as the champion of globalisation should be treated with the utmost caution.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Modi courts the Italian connection

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is at his best on the world stage — and the visit to New Delhi of his Italian opposite number, Paolo Gentiloni — the first by an Italian leader in a decade — has been a welcome chance to shine at home.

In this case, the event has been more than a friendship exercise. Relations between the countries were strained by an incident off the Kerala coast five years ago in which two marines on board the oil tanker, Enrica Lexie, were arrested for killing two Indian fishermen.

Following the shooting the Indian coastguard chased down the vessel and the marines were taken into custody.

At a time when piracy and ship hijackings were prevalent, it was claimed the two men, Latorre Massimiliano and Salvatore Girone, had mistaken the fishermen’s vessel for a terrorist boat.

The situation was complicated by the Italian claim that as the incident occurred on the high seas, the marines could be judged only by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and that as the marines were on official duty they held diplomatic immunity.

India disputes both positions but after a protracted wrangle allowed the men to return to Italy pending a ruling from the Court of Arbitration at The Hague which both countries are still awaiting.

However, that was then and this is now, and both leaders have good reasons to put the past behind them, at least for this visit. Italy is India’s fifth largest trading partner in the European Union with bilateral trade totalling in excess of $US8.5 billion.

In addition more than 600 Italian companies have a presence in India, while Italy’s Indian community totals about 180,000, the third largest behind that of the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.

Both countries believe these ties can be strengthened to their mutual benefit and during the visit a number of agreements have been signed on a range of issues including railways, security, energy and investment.

As one senior Indian official said, there is a realisation that past differences had resulted in missed opportunities.

“The relationship should not be held hostage…there is a strong desire on the part of the Government that while [the issue of the marines] needs to be resolved, it can be dealt with separately,” the official said.  

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Damn fools and Trump supporters

History holds that the shortest American political speech on record belongs to John ‘Long John’ Wentworth when he was running for Mayor of Chicago in the 1860s.

When a large crowd gathered outside his office, demanding that he come out and address them a scowling Wentworth was reported to have said:

“You damn fools, you can either vote for me, or you can go to hell.”

US President Donald Trump does not have Wentworth’s gift of brevity, but he is essentially saying the same thing.

While most successful politicians attempt to hold out an olive branch to their opponents and talk about “governing for everyone” in their election night speeches, Trump has broken that mould.

Those who demonstrate against his policies are dismissed as “rabble” and “rent-a-crowd”. The Democrats in Congress are “sad” news outlets that criticise him are inevitably “failing”, even members of his own Republican Party who speak out against him “could not even win an election for dog-catcher”.

Yet time and again, the president has returned to the heartland of his support with rallies in the mid-west and south of the country where the jibes and insults to his opponents always raise a cheer. It is as if the election campaign is still in progress — and in a way it still is.

Almost every action since the inauguration, from the Mexican wall to the rolling back of climate change initiatives, has been aimed at shoring up his political base — and when there are things he cannot do without the support of law-makers in Congress, most notably the axing of his predecessor’s Affordable Healthcare Act, he lashes out in one of now infamous Twitter tirades.

Trump’s aim, of course, is to beat the waverers into submission, but some are refusing to lie down. They include Arizona Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, who had is doubts about the president from the beginning and is now increasingly the focus for mounting opposition to him within the Republican Party.

In a recent speech accepting an award for his decades of public service, McCain defended American idealism and condemned “half-baked, spurious nationalism” that was dividing Americans.  

He castigated those who would “abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe” and “refuse the obligations of international leadership”, who would rather “find scapegoats than solve problems”.

 “We live in a land made of ideals, not ‘blood and soil’ (a reference to the Nazi slogan chanted at recent right-wing rallies which Trump has been hesitant in condemning). We are the custodians of those ideals at home and abroad.

“We have done great good in the world, but we will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We would not deserve to”.

The saddest thing about the tenor of McCain’s speech is that it seems to be almost an anachronism in the current climate.

Governments change and policies will be framed which take the country in a different direction than had been the case previously — that is simply part of democracy, and those who disagree know the time will come when their opposition will be heard.

But what we are experiencing today is getting perilously close to gang warfare — a battle for survival with barrages of hate-filled tweets aimed at getting just enough votes to hang on to power while those who disagree can, in John Wentworth’s words, “go to hell”.  

If the US continues down this course it is in danger of experiencing greater divisions within its society than at any time since the Civil War — and that is not a situation the nation, or indeed the world, can contemplate lightly.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Hopes of a soft Irish border fading

A report from the Irish Revenue Commission appears to rule out any hope of a so-called ‘soft border’ between the Republic and Northern Ireland should the United Kingdom leave the European Union without a comprehensive trade deal.

The report states that after Brexit “the UK will become a third country for customs purposes and the associated formalities will become unavoidable”.

These “associated formalities” will include customs posts at routes across the 500 kilometre border and long queues as goods are checked for the required paperwork and passports are scrutinised.

This was the main reason why the people of Northern Ireland voted solidly against Brexit, only to see their preference negated in the overall UK context.

It is also why, ever since, the Government at Westminster has been desperate to come up with some kind of compromise that can equate a continuation of the current border situation with the decision to quit the EU.

Among the suggestions: Allow traffic to flow normally each way only to be halted at unobtrusive places a distance from the actual border for checks; make the border between the island of Ireland and the UK mainland; handle all the formalities in cyberspace so there is no need for any physical barriers at the border.

These and other proposals have been derided as “magical thinking” by one EU official, who added that the British proposals were long on aspirations but short on workable solutions.

Both the Republic and the UK fear that a ‘hard border’ will reignite passions over a united Ireland that has poisoned relations between the countries in the past and could lead to a resurgence of violence sponsored by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the boundary between north and south has essentially disappeared. It has been stated many times that the only way drivers can tell they have travelled between jurisdictions is when the road signs (kilometres in the south, miles in the north) change.

With Ireland united in all but name, this largely destroyed the IRA’s raison d’etre and ushered in a prolonged period of peace and stability as both sides put the notorious ‘Troubles’ behind them.

However, all bets are off should a border be reinstituted.

Writing for the Centre for European Policy Studies, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Queen’s University, Belfast, Katy Hayward, says a customs border would also raise the economic attractiveness of smuggling. 

She calls for "flexibility and imagination" to be employed in finding a system that would somehow overcome the difficulties that inevitably lie ahead.

It used to be said that when the UK sneezed, Ireland caught a cold. So much so the Republic felt it was obliged to follow its larger neighbour intro the EU is 1973.

Things have changed drastically since. 

Ireland has prospered under EU membership, and is currently recovering strongly from the effects of the global financial crisis of 2008. Its continued membership is in no doubt.

The border issue was never properly put to the electorate during the febrile referendum campaign of last year. It is just one of the consequences that are now becoming clear.

One of the biggest constitutional issues that has faced the country in 100 years should never have been disposed of in a simple first-past-the post vote, the result of which split the nation almost down the middle.

History will condemn the hubris of those who so casually entered into the arrangement, but it is done and the UK’s leaders must rise to the challenge.

There is still time for wise heads to prevail and for a ‘confirmation referendum’ to be held when negotiations are complete and all the facts and consequences of Brexit are on the table.

A mature, democratic society that cares for the rights of all its people — not just those who shout loudest — can have no other choice.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The unforgotten forgotten

We hear a lot these days about the ‘forgotten people’ — United States President Donald Trump refers to them repeatedly; they are supposed to have voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union last year; in Australia, One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson claims to be their champion.

Rather than being forgotten, they appear to be the most talked about people in Western democracy — but who exactly are they? 

It rather depends on the time and the place. The first reference that I can find belongs to William Graham Sumner, a professor at Yale University in the United States during the 1880s. His forgotten people were those who “attend no meetings, pass no resolutions, never go to the lobby, are never mentioned in the newspapers, but just work and save and pay”.  

In other words the solid middle class, the nouveau riche or not so nouveau riche who were emerging from the melting pot of post-Civil War America and were rapidly becoming the backbone upon which the country would transform into a world power.

They popped up again in quite a different form less than half a century later when in an election speech in 1932, US presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that national prosperity depended upon plans “that build from the bottom up and not the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the financial pyramid.”

In 1932, as the US economy was spiralling into the Great Depression, this was an obvious reference to the poor workers forming ever increasing dole queues, unable to feed their families and with seemingly no hope for better times ahead.

No more than a decade later and Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, at that time temporarily out of office, claimed the life of his nation “is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, for what their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of the race”.  

Move on and US President Richard Nixon was speaking about the “silent majority” bewildered by irrational protests over the Vietnam War, and not much later another US President, Ronald Reagan hailed the “heroes of America” a classless majority made up of factory workers and entrepreneurs.

So it goes on.

What are we to make of this? The forgotten are the staunch middle class with a solid work ethic; the poor and the unemployed; the god-fearing propagators of the race; pro-war and anti-war; factory workers calling for isolationism to protect their jobs and entrepreneurs revelling in the global marketplace.

One thing they are not is forgotten.

They have been courted by politicians the world over, hoping to achieve power by the populist road. They have been promised the earth — their jobs back in industries where the work is now being done by robots; a return to flag waving nationalism in a world that increasingly draws its wealth from inter-dependence.

They are the tools by which political parties and individuals climb to power. They are indispensable to every potential demagogue with simple answers to complex questions.

They will be tricked, lied to, duped, filled with false hope, always to be eventually disillusioned — but they will never be forgotten.    

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Macron’s vision for a new Europe

Perhaps inevitably, French President Emmanuel Macron has become public enemy number one among the United Kingdom’s anti-European leaders and their rabidly pro-Brexit (and largely overseas owned) media backers.

Late last month in a 100-minute speech in Paris, Macron set out a series of initiatives for a future EU – they included the creation of a military intervention force, a common defence budget and new agency to curb illegal immigration.

These are measured and reasonable steps to make in the progression of the European project, broadly according to the vision of the EU’s founding fathers who saw the Treaty of Rome as the first step on the road to full European unity.

Indeed, it was also the view of the UK’s wartime leader, Winston Churchill who in a speech in Switzerland on 19 September 1946, looked forward to a “United States of Europe” as a counter to conflicts such as the one that had just ended.

In that respect the EU has been remarkably successful, presiding over a period of sustained peace within its borders.

But the time has come to move on and Macron’s roadmap is not simply timely, it is essential.

Not so according to the UK’s main European attack dog, Nigel Farage who in a comment that sounded uncannily like one of United States President Donald Trump’s tweets, claimed the EU leaders were “bad people. They treat countries like the communists did”.

Farage’s outburst comes at a time when he should be celebrating the success of his friends in Germany’s far right where the Alternative for Germany Party won enough votes in the country’s General Election to enter Parliament for the first time — a rare success after the firm rejections of similar parties in France and the Netherlands.

But it also comes at a time when his beloved Brexit is in trouble. As commentator and geopolitical specialist Colin Chapman* points out, after the British voted by a narrow majority to leave the EU (with more than a quarter of voters abstaining) little progress has been made.

“UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s weakened and divided Government has switched tactics,” Chapman writes.

“Having been prepared to walk away from the world’s strongest economic bloc (“no deal is better than a bad deal”), her position is now that Britain remains in the EU in all but name for at least two years after the official exit in early 2019.

“Britain will try to secure open access to the EU single market for UK manufacturers and services.”

Chapman says that May appears to be moving from a ‘hard’ Brexit to a ‘soft’ one, but these new tactics are not bearing results.

“May’s fragile Cabinet unity is collapsing, with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resisting an EU divorce payment and breaking ranks to host an event this week for a new think tank, the Institute of Free Trade, that argues for a hard Brexit,” Chapman writes.  

“And at the conclusion of Labour’s annual conference this week, the popular party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, changed his position, arguing for Britain to remain in the EU single market and customs union.

“Labour has only to gather a few Tory rebels — and there are a growing number — and the Government faces defeat in Parliament and another General Election. On current polls, Corbyn would win.”

In the face of this chaos, the last thing the Brixiteers need is a Europe with a renewed focus and an attractive vision. It is no wonder that increasing calls for a second referendum when the terms of exit are finally known is being greeted by strident, almost hysterical rebuffs from the UK Government’s Department for Exiting the European Union.  

*Colin Chapman writes for Australia Outlook, a program of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.