In a calibrated move, the Modi government is dialling down aggressive postures in bilateral ties
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched down in the Maldives in mid-November to attend the swearing-in of Ibrahim Mohamed Solih as the country’s President (picture), it was easy to count the “firsts” in his visit. Among them: this was Mr. Modi’s first visit to the Maldives, the only country in South Asia he had not yet visited in his tenure, and the first by an Indian Prime Minister in seven years. The only time a visit by Mr. Modi had been planned, in 2015, he cancelled his travel plan abruptly, to register a strong protest at the treatment of opposition leaders, who are now in government. The one “first” that was not as prominent, however, was that despite inviting all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) leaders to his own swearing-in ceremony in May 2014, the Maldives visit marked the first time Mr. Modi attended the swearing-in ceremony of any other leader. The fact that he did, and chose to be one among the audience rather than on stage, may be a more visible sign of a new, softer neighbourhood policy than the one Mr. Modi’s government has pursued in previous years.
All in 2018
The current year, 2018, has marked a year of reaching out in the region by the Modi government in general, with a view to dialling down disagreements that otherwise marked ties with major powers such as Russia and China. But while Mr. Modi’s “Wuhan summit” with Chinese President Xi Jinping and the “Sochi retreat” with Russian President Vladimir Putin merited much attention, it is important to take stock of attempts at rapprochement in the immediate neighbourhood.
With Nepal, the government’s moves were a clear turn-around from the ‘tough love’ policy since the 2015 blockade. Then, the government seemed to want nothing more than to usher Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli out of power. In 2018, however, when Mr. Oli was re-elected, despite his anti-India campaign, the Modi government wasted no time in reaching out and, in a highly unconventional move, despatched External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu even before Mr. Oli had been invited to form the government. Since then, Mr. Oli has been invited to Delhi and Mr. Modi has made two visits to Nepal, with a third one planned in December to be part of the “Vivaha Panchami” festival. The frequency of visits in 2018 is in stark contrast to the three preceding years, when Mr. Modi did not visit Nepal at all.
Similar comparisons abound with India’s reaction to major developments in the neighbourhood. In the Maldives, when emergency was declared by the previous regime of Abdulla Yameen, New Delhi made no attempt to threaten him militarily despite expectations of domestic commentators and Western diplomats. When Mr. Yameen went further, denying visas to thousands of Indian job seekers and naval and military personnel stationed there, New Delhi’s response was to say that every country has a right to decide its visa policy.
With elections in Bhutan (completed) and Bangladesh (to be held in December), as well as the ongoing political crisis in Sri Lanka, India has chosen to make no public political statement that could be construed as interference or preference for one side over the other. Earlier this year, the government even allowed a delegation of the Bangladesh opposition to visit Delhi and speak at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-affiliated think tanks, although it later deported a British QC lawyer for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
Perhaps the biggest policy shift this year was carried out as a concession to the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul. After a policy of more than two decades of refusing to engage with the Taliban, or even sit at the table with them, in November India sent envoys to the Moscow conference on Afghanistan, where the Taliban’s representatives were present. The U.S. chose to send a diplomat based in Moscow as an “observer”, but the Indian delegation of former Ambassadors to the region represented non-official “participation” at the event. The shift was palpable. Earlier, the government had stayed aloof from the process, explaining that any meeting outside Afghanistan crossed the redline on an “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led solution”. While the change in position was eventually achieved by a high-level outreach by the Russian government, which has projected the conference as a big diplomatic success, India’s participation had been nudged by President Ghani himself. He had made a strong pitch for backing talks with the Taliban during a visit to Delhi in mid-September. Both in his meeting with Mr. Modi and in a public speech, Mr. Ghani had stressed that the Islamic State and “foreign terrorists” were the problem in Afghanistan, as opposed to the Afghan Taliban itself, and talks with them had the support of the Afghan people. Whatever India’s reservations may have been about the Taliban, the Modi government eventually decided to extend its participation to the Moscow event.
The Kartarpur link
Given the context, it may be possible to see the government’s latest shift, in sending two Union Ministers to Pakistan this week to join Prime Minister Imran Khan for the ground-breaking ceremony for the Kartarpur corridor, as part of the larger pattern of softening towards the neighbourhood. No Indian Minister has visited Pakistan since the Uri attack in September 2016, and after the cancellation of Foreign Minister talks at the UN this year, it was assumed that the government would not pursue conciliatory proposals with the new government in Islamabad. It is also significant that the BJP and the Prime Minister have chosen not to make Pakistan an electoral issue in the current round of State elections, as they did during last year’s Assembly polls. While it seems unlikely that the larger shift required for a Prime Ministerial visit to Pakistan for the SAARC summit is possible before elections next year, it is not inconceivable that people-to-people ties, of the kind Mr. Modi spoke of in his speech comparing the transformative potential of the Kartarpur corridor to the falling of the Berlin wall, will be allowed to grow.
All these moves lead to the question, why has the government decided to make the change from playing big brother in the neighbourhood to a more genial and avuncular version of its previous self? One reason is certainly the backlash it received from some of its smallest neighbours like Nepal and the Maldives, that didn’t take kindly to being strong-armed, even if New Delhi projected its advice to be in their best interests. Another could be the conscious rolling back of India’s previous policy of dissuading neighbours from Chinese engagement to now standing back as they learn the risks of debt-traps and over-construction of infrastructure on their own. India’s own rapprochement with China post-Wuhan in the spirit of channelling both “cooperation and competition together” has also led to this outcome.
Temporary or durable
It must be stressed, however, that retreating from an aggressive position must not give the impression that India is retrenching within the region, opening space for the U.S.-China rivalry to play out in its own backyard. The most obvious reason for the government’s neighbourhood policy shift of 2018, that resounds closer to the “neighbourhood first” articulation of 2014, is that general elections are around the corner. This leads to the question, is the new policy simply a temporary move or a more permanent course correction: Neighbourhood 2.0 or merely Neighbourhood 1.2.0?
Together in an uncertain world
The EU’s road map for strengthening ties with India must be acted upon by both
Last week saw the European Union releasing its strategy on India after 14 years. Launching the strategy document, the European Union (EU) Ambassador to India, Tomasz Kozlowski, underlined that “India is on the top of the agenda of the EU in the field of external relations… this strategy paper reflects that EU has taken India’s priorities very seriously. We are ready for a joint leap.” The 2004 EU-India declaration on building bilateral strategic partnership, which this road map replaces, has not had much of a success in reconfiguring the relationship as was expected.
The new document is sweeping in its scope and lays out a road map for strengthening the EU-India partnership, which has been adrift for a while in the absence of a clearly articulated strategy. The new strategy underscores a transformative shift in Brussels vis-à-vis India and talks of key focus areas such as the need to conclude a broader Strategic Partnership Agreement, intensifying dialogue on Afghanistan and Central Asia, strengthening technical cooperation on fighting terrorism, and countering radicalisation, violent extremism and terrorist financing. More significant from the perspective of the EU, which has been traditionally shy of using its hard power tools, is a recognition of the need to develop defence and security cooperation with India.
Despite sharing a congruence of values and democratic ideals, India and the EU have both struggled to build a partnership that can be instrumental in shaping the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the 21st century. Each complain of the other’s ignorance, and often arrogance, and both have their own litany of grievances.
But where India’s relations with individual EU nations have progressed dramatically over the last few years and the EU’s focus on India has grown, it has become imperative for the two to give each other a serious look. In this age when U.S. President Donald Trump is upending the global liberal order so dear to the Europeans, and China’s rise is challenging the very values which Brussels likes to showcase as the ones underpinning global stability, a substantive engagement with India is a natural corollary.
The Narendra Modi government too has shed India’s diffidence of the past in engaging with the West. New Delhi has found the bureaucratic maze of Brussels rather difficult to navigate and in the process ignored the EU as a collective. At times, India also objected to the high moralistic tone emanating from Brussels. Where individual nations of the EU started becoming more pragmatic in their engagement with India, Brussels continued to be big-brotherly in its attitude on political issues and ignorant of the geostrategic imperatives of Indian foreign and security policies.
The result was a limited partnership which largely remained confined to economics and trade. Even as the EU emerged as India’s largest trading partner and biggest foreign investor, the relationship remained devoid of any strategic content. Though the Modi government did initially make a push for reviving the talks on EU-India bilateral trade and investment agreement, nothing much of substance has happened on the bilateral front.
But as the wider EU political landscape evolves after Brexit, and India seeks to manage the turbulent geopolitics in Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific, both recognise the importance of engaging each other. There is a new push in Brussels to emerge as a geopolitical actor of some significance and India is a natural partner in many respects. There is widespread disappointment with the trajectory of China’s evolution and the Trump administration’s disdain for its Western allies is highly disruptive. At a time when India’s horizons are widening beyond South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, Brussels is also being forced to look beyond its periphery. The EU will be part of the International Solar Alliance, and has invited India to escort World Food Programme vessels to transport food to Somalia. The two have been coordinating closely on regional issues.
Taking it forward
The new India strategy document unveiled by the EU, therefore, comes at an appropriate time when both have to seriously recalibrate their partnership. Merely reiterating that India and the EU are “natural partners” is not enough, and the areas outlined in the document, from security sector cooperation to countering terrorism and regional security, need to be focussed on. India needs resources and expertise from the EU for its various priority areas, such as cybersecurity, urbanisation, environmental regeneration, and skill development.
As the EU shifts its focus to India, New Delhi should heartily reciprocate this outreach. In the past, India had complained that Brussels does not take India seriously and that despite the two not having any ideological affinity, the EU-China relations carried greater traction. Now all that might change.
The ILO’s report underlines the need for wage expansion that is robust and also equitable
The International Labour Organisation’s Global Wage Report has put into sharp relief one of the biggest drags on global economic momentum: slowing wage growth. Global wage growth, adjusted for inflation, slowed to 1.8% in 2017, from 2.4% in 2016, it shows. Worryingly, this is the lowest rate since 2008. Excluding China (given its high population and rapid wage growth it tends to skew the mean), the average was even lower (1.1% in 2017 against 1.8% in 2016). Across a majority of geographies and economic groupings, wage expansions were noticeably tepid last year. In the advanced G20 countries the pace eased to 0.4%, with the U.S. posting an unchanged 0.7% growth and Europe (excluding Eastern Europe) stalling at about zero. The emerging and developing economies in the G20 were not spared a deceleration, with the growth in wages slowing to 4.3%, from 4.9% in 2016. In the Asia and Pacific nations, where workers had enjoyed the biggest real wage growth worldwide between 2006 and 2017, it slid to 3.5% from the previous year’s 4.8%. The obvious impact of this low pace has been on global economic growth with consumption demand hurt by restrained spending by wage-earners. Slow wage growth prompted U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell to observe in June that “in a world where we’re hearing lots and lots about labour shortages — everywhere we go now, we hear about labour shortages — but where is the wage reaction? So it’s a bit of a puzzle.”
The ILO report observes that the acceleration of economic growth in high-income countries in 2017 was led mainly by higher investment spending rather than by private consumption. Extending the time horizon, it reveals that real wages almost tripled in the developing and emerging countries of the G20 between 1999 and 2017, while in the advanced economies the increase over the same period aggregated to a far lower 9%. And yet, in many low- and middle-income economies the average wage, in absolute terms, was so low it was still inadequate to cover the bare needs of workers. The intensification of competition in the wake of globalisation, accompanied by a worldwide decline in the bargaining power of workers has resulted in a decoupling between wages and labour productivity. The fallout has been the weakening share of labour compensation in GDP across many countries that the ILO notes “remain substantially below those of the early 1990s”. The Washington-based Economic Policy Institute uses the U.S. example to buttress the argument that widening inequality is slowing demand and growth by shifting larger shares of income “to rich households that save rather than spend”. For India’s policymakers, the message is clear: to reap the demographic dividend we need not only jobs, but wage expansion that is robust and equitable.
Destruction in the delta
As Tamil Nadu struggles to restore normalcy in the districts affected by Cyclone Gaja, Jayant Sriram and B. Kolappan report on the devastation visited upon the region’s coconut cultivators, and how farming in this predominantly agrarian belt could be made more disaster-proof
When T. Govindarajan, 51, began growing coconut saplings alongside the groundnut crop on his 1.5 acre plot in Orathanadu, Tamil Nadu, nearly two decades ago, he thought he was making a safe bet on his future. A decade later, as the tall trees completely replaced the groundnut crop, his portion of land, though not large, began to provide a stable income that allowed him to dream of better things for his family. “I have two sons. One in class 11, and the other in class 6. Both go to a private school. Every other investment I have been able to make is thanks to this coconut plantation.”
Standing under a cloudy sky that now casts a forbidding pall over the Orathanadu region near Thanjavur district, Govindarajan can only look on helplessly as his coconut farm lies flattened. It was just another casualty of Cyclone Gaja which ripped through the delta districts of the State about 10 days ago.
As farm hands work to clear away fallen leaves and tree trunks, he trades stories with other farmers whose plots adjoin his. They talk about B. Sunderraj, a farmer, who is said to have committed suicide over the loss of his coconut trees. And of the plight of N. Karunanidhi, also from their village, who was planning to sell an acre of his coconut farm in order to conduct a grand wedding for his daughter but can no longer do so. They speak with an anxiety about the future, and about the possibility of planting hybrid varieties of coconut saplings that would provide yields quicker. As they talk, they cannot help but acknowledge a grim reality — that they too are not safe from the agrarian distress that has affected paddy farmers in the region.
In the deluge of reports about the destruction wreaked by Cyclone Gaja, there is one statistic that stands out, and is also viscerally evident — that it felled 60-80% of all coconut trees in the region. Initial estimates by the State government show that around 75 lakh coconut trees were damaged either fully or partially in the gale winds.
Initially, Gaja was forecast to affect the area around Chennai and Puducherry, but made landfall further south on Tamil Nadu’s east coast, covering the districts along the State’s famous East Coast Road. The districts affected most severely include Pudukottai, Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam. The last three make up what is known as Tamil Nadu’s delta region, encompassing the lower reaches of the Cauvery river. Of these, Nagapattinam, the worst affected, falls on the coast line, with Gaja making a direct line inward over Tiruvarur and Thanjavur. Famous for rice farming, these areas have also begun contributing up to a quarter of India’s total coconut production, with the highest yield per hectare.
In field after field of coconut trees across these districts, which have been either uprooted or stand tilting dangerously, the same story repeats itself: of marginal and small farmers affected by changes in climate and weather patterns. It has been difficult for them. When the frequent failure of the monsoons forced them to diversify their crop patterns, recurring cyclones could threaten to blow all their work away.
About 30 years ago, farmers from various towns in the region, including Pattukkottai, Thambikottai, Peravurani and Orathanur began the switch to coconut plantations. The move was prompted by uncertainty over the release of water from the Mettur dam following the dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka over the sharing of Cauvery river water. In subsequent years, as rainfall patterns became more erratic, farmers with smaller holdings also wanted an alternative. Says V. Narayanaswamy, a schoolteacher who also started growing coconuts on his two acre plot some years ago, “For many of us, apart from the water issue, paddy farming was just too labour intensive. Regardless of how much we made on the paddy, we could still end up with a loss after paying for the labour.” Farmers in the region also took a collective decision: first to grow trees such as jackfruit and coconut along with the regular crop, and then to move into coconut farming wholesale.
The State’s granary
This region, famous for its fertile soil, has always been known as the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu. But the character of its landscape is changing as fields of green paddy now share space with an expanding number of groves and orchards. To go with the burgeoning coconut plantations, farmers in towns like Vedaranyam, Katipulam, Chembodai and Pushpavanam in Nagapattinam district were also expanding farms with fruit trees such as mango, cashew nut and tamarind. However, it was coconut that made the most economic sense. Unlike paddy crop, which provides a yield every six months and is water intensive, coconut trees, which are a perennial crop, provided fruit every two months. “A raw coconut would fetch anything between ₹12 and ₹18,” explains Narayanaswamy, with the husk being sold at ₹1 a piece and the shell also being sold separately. Though the soil in this region is a bit saline and despite being away from the coastal region, the coconuts thrived. “Even for a farmer with about 1.5-2 acres of land, the trees would provide upward of 3,000 coconuts every two months,” Narayanaswamy says.
Despite the growing supply, there was never a shortage in demand. Quite the opposite, in fact. Earlier this year, it was reported that while the demand for copra (dried coconut kernels from which oil is obtained) was growing at nearly 8% per annum, the supply of copra had been growing at just 2%. All the farmers in Thanjavur district cite the company, Marico, which makes oil under the ‘Parachute’ brand, as a regular buyer. A news report from earlier this year says that the company even stepped in to help farmers, bringing in agricultural experts to advise those whose trees were not yielding enough fruit either due to pest infestation or unscientific crop management.
In contrast, the fortunes of paddy farmers have continued to fluctuate. Last year , for instance, was one of relative drought, with the Southwest and Northeast monsoons failing. There were crop failures in Thanjavur, Tiruvarur and Nagapattinam districts, and sporadic reports of farmers ending their lives. It is not hard to see why coconut farming is more attractive and appealing as a sustainable and profitable enterprise — a virtual failsafe. On the issue of cyclones, several farmers in the region say the idea of insuring their crop did not occur to them as they had never even imagined that a cyclone could cause so much damage.
Those who still have vivid memories of the past recall the last major cyclone in the region, and one of a comparable magnitude — in 1952. Yet, the frequency is worrying. A report in the Down to Earth magazine says that Gaja has been the 10th major cyclone to affect Tamil Nadu in the past 16 years. The number of cyclones that hit the State between 1891 and 2002 was 54, which works out to 0.49 cyclones per year. Between 2003 and 2018, this went up to 0.63 per year, a rise of 30%.
The State’s action plan for climate change identifies cyclones as a major concern. In the past two years alone, it has seen the effects of three devastating cyclones that have caused major losses to life, property and tree cover. These are Ockhi, which struck in Kanyakumari in June last year, Vardah, which hit Chennai in late 2016, and now Gaja. This is quite apart from the fact that the Tamil Nadu coast has always been one of the most cyclone-prone regions in the country. Back in 1968, in the Tamil blockbuster, “Thillana Mohanambal”, the heroine’s mother mentions the place name Nagapattinam. In response, Nagesh, the comedian, quips: “Is a cyclone coming?”
Waiting for relief
Despite the region being cyclone-prone, the State government has hardly taken note of the fact that most houses in the villages of Nagapattinam, Thanjavur and Tiruvarur are thatched roof structures. Landless labourers make up about 31% of the population of these districts, and are the worst hit in times of both drought and cyclones. This is one of the few regions in Tamil Nadu which has remained predominantly agrarian. It has not seen the expansion of industry or the trend of land being sold for real estate. Those old enough to remember the cyclone of 1952 recall similar destruction, but not much seems to have changed since then.
In the immediate aftermath of Gaja, officials admit that the extent of damage has been beyond their comprehension. This despite their having taken active measures to establish emergency control centres in six coastal districts. Gagandeep Singh Bedi, an official in charge of rehabilitation in Thanjavur district, says the damage to property and infrastructure is 10 times more than what was caused by Cyclone Thane, which had hit the eastern coast along Puducherry and Cuddalore in 2011. At that time, Thane had become a reference point for disaster management officials, who had to contend with the loss of tree cover and destruction of numerous electrical posts and transmitters. If the overall damage to property in the delta districts is significantly worse, a big element of this is the destruction of virtually every thatched roof structure in these villages.
Two weeks after Gaja hit, people are still camped out in temporary shelters, all along the main roads in Nagapattinam, Tiruvarur and Thanjavur, waiting for relief materials to be handed out. These camps, each comprising 20 to 30 people, display signs that announce their having been affected by Cyclone Gaja and in need of assistance.
Many of them use the relief rations to cook food for people in the village. They are able to manage just one meal a day. The damage caused to the power supply means that there is no drinking water in many of these villages.
In several villages, for example, Rayanallur Katakam near Tiruvarur, most residents have had to sleep in some of the concrete structures that have escaped damage. In most of the houses, the roofs have either collapsed or the floors are too damp with heavy rains continuing in the area. In almost every camp, villagers say that relief workers travel along the main roads, refusing to move inside the villages and judge the extent of damage to the smaller houses.
In its report to the Centre detailing the damage caused by Gaja, the Tamil Nadu government has estimated the number of people rendered homeless to be 3.7 lakh, and houses destroyed at 3.4 lakh. The State has submitted a memorandum to the Centre seeking about ₹15,000 crore for restoration, rehabilitation and mitigation, and another ₹1,431 crore for immediate relief work. These funds are imperative in order to re-establish a basic framework of normality — getting people back to their homes and restoring the supply of drinking water and electricity.
Across the cyclone-affected areas, perhaps the only sight as common as fallen coconut trees are damaged electrical transformers. According to figures available with the State government, the cyclone has damaged 201 power substations, upended 886 transformers, and snapped 53,21,506 electricity connections.
The Central government has sanctioned ₹200 crore to overhaul power networks in the region. Nearly 25,000 workers of the Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation (TANGEDCO) are on the job. Trucks with teams of electrical workers are a common sight now across districts in the delta region. They are often accompanied by large truckloads of concrete pillars (to reconnect the wires) that have come in from neighbouring Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
Cyclone Gaja has so far claimed over 40 lives, but the toll could have been much worse had it not been for the early evacuation of 2.5 lakh people. Given the extent of damage to property, it is clear that the State needs to come up with a more comprehensive disaster preparedness plan. This should start, first of all, with the rebuilding of houses to make them more weather-resistant. A step in this direction was taken when Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami announced on November 29 his government’s decision to build one lakh concrete houses for those who had lost their huts in the cyclone. This is a start, but much more needs to be done.
He also announced that relief materials such as rice, oil and clothing would reach those would have been affected within the next five days. So far, however, the distribution of relief materials has been sporadic at best, with some in the camps claiming that they get daily rations of rice, while others in the interior areas saying that they have to wait for hours just to receive even a couple of biscuit packets.
Question of compensation
There is also the larger question of damage to farm property and how the region will move forward. While paddy crop remains a huge risk, given the erratic monsoons, they can nonetheless be sown again the next year if affected by unseasonal weather. Coconut saplings, on the other hand, will need about seven or eight years to take full root and start providing a harvest. Most farmers in the region are still unclear about the level of compensation that the State government will offer for their crop.
The coconut producers union in Thanjavur says that it has asked the Coconut Development Board to raise the issue with the Union Agriculture Ministry and seek compensation to the fullest possible. The union says that the damage to coconut trees as estimated by the State government is about ₹3,000 crore. While farmers want between relief of ₹20,000 to ₹25,000 per coconut tree, petitions are being filed in district courts that seek an amount of up to ₹50,000 per tree. In neighbouring Nagapattinam, mango farmers, who claim that each tree used to yield a tonne of mangos in a year, are likely to demand more.
Going forward, crop insurance is likely to be a key factor in encouraging farmers to rebuild all that they have lost. Unfortunately, there is very little awareness about this except among paddy farmers who are more accustomed to the process of filing for insurance.
According to the Pudukkottai MLA, N. Rangarajan, who is also a farmer, the issue is being studied. “There are loan schemes for coconut crops from the Coconut Development Board and under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (crop insurance scheme), which has a coconut palm insurance scheme.” Both offer very low amounts as compensation, he says and farmers in the region are looking at alternatives.
Rangarajan adds that he plans to encourage farmers to go in for cashewnut crop instead of coconut as they have low-lying branches and less likely to be affected by strong winds. “For the regions near the coast, however, there is no choice but to opt for coconut again despite the risk of another cyclone,” he says, “as the soil type is best suited for coconut farming.”
Institutes such as the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, which had initially advised and helped many of the farmers to switch to coconut farming, can also play a role in offering help and advice, he adds.