big tech, Commentaries, Health care, media and internet, tech and media, USA and Canada

Revisiting Orientalism: Pandemic, politics, and the perceptions industry

The reordering of global power relations with the emergence of the East has begun to alter the West’s imagination, narratives and processes of self-identification. One discernible and strengthening trend arising from this changing political landscape is the increasing deployment of reductive stereotypes in the Western media, reminiscent of the colonial era when the West appropriated to itself the “burden of civilising the savage” East.

This effort to devalue, deplore and defame the East is now a recurrent theme and, perhaps, is an attempt to define oneself as distinct from the “other” in these troubled times. More insidiously, it is also deployed as a method of control and as a projection of a superior agency for achieving definitive economic and political goals. Simply put, the West seeks to tower above all by diminishing the East.

With its increasing economic influence (the pandemic notwithstanding), greater presence in world affairs, and an emerging and louder identity (with passionate supporters and detractors), India’s actions and policies have come under close and often critical scrutiny in powerful sections of the liberal media in the Atlantic system. This, by itself, is both natural and unsurprising.

What is disturbing is the near universal, vicious and negative portrayal of a land that is proud of its democratic politics (just as many other nations are), with a loud, disruptive and often aggressive media, and mobilisations led by communities that have toppled governments and, sometimes, catalysed perverse outcomes. It is a far from perfect, largely low-income country, with its fragilities debated with gusto at home and judged at the hustings repeatedly. What is curious about the naked aggression of the liberal Western media is its visible conflation of the domestic debates of their land with those in foreign lands; their sense of loss of their old place and space and the externalisation of grievance onto the “outsider”; and, their weaponisation of differences in much the same manner as their far Right counterparts.

Many a time, this “reduced” portrayal of India or other lands may be just journalistic or editorial carelessness. When it does happen, it must be called out and now is a good time to engage with this trend. The distasteful grammar, and gloomy imagery that dominates Western coverage on India says less about the country under the scanner and more about the malaise within media organisations as they move from editorial and ownership structures of the past to the digital and decentralised realities of today. The ugly underbelly of a section of the media continues to reveal itself as it engages with India and its efforts in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the last two months, organisations such as the BBCthe Atlantic , the Washington Post and the New York Times, among others, have run series of reductive commentaries on the state of India’s preparedness and its capacity to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. If we are being honest, they are being biased and blasé about it.

From alarmist commentaries (one report hypothesised that half of India could be infected!) and ridiculing the capacity and agency of the government, to deriving vicarious delight by focusing on well-known social inequities, their reporting has been “misery porn” with the spotlight being on India’s vulnerabilities and shortcomings in the fight against the pandemic. These are embellished through a cleverly selected presentation of events and facts; compelling images of poverty, denial, and deprivation; and, an overdose of virtue showboating.

The recurring portrayal of marginalised communities and migrants lacking economic, social, and political agency is presented as distinct from the values of esteem, equality and harmony, which form the bedrock of a “civilised” society. This narrative deliberately ignores the universal acceptance of these “ideals” to meet its singular objective — the perpetuation of a needless discourse of discord instead of a more worthwhile debate on the failure of globalisation and the extant economic models, something which is on stark display around the world.

This media narrative on India is perhaps not meant to only highlight inequality within the country because inequality is all prevalent around the world, more dazzlingly so in the West. It appears to be an attempt to distance a country and its mainstream from the civilised “self” which resides in the moral and emancipated world of publishers, editors and reporters. India and its large population are being painted as the proverbial “other” even as New York, the beacon of Western civilisation, is being scorched by the scourge.

Incidentally, and expectedly, many of these reports have been penned by native authors. This old trick affords plausible deniability to the publications against any allegations of White bias or racism, which is still resplendent in each of these reports. Nobel Laureate professor Amartya Sen and renowned pan-Africanist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon have argued how centuries of colonial subjugation and cultural infantalisation have left deep imprints on the self-image of the colonised, with the natives often viewing themselves and their cultures through the coloniser’s prism of prejudice. This phenomenon is one of colonialism’s most dehumanising byproducts and has now achieved viral potency alongside the pandemic.

Literary critic and linguist Namvar Singh, in his essay Decolonising the Indian Mind, alluded to this desperate urge that resides within Indian English-language writers to be accepted and understood by Western audiences as being part of their own identity continuum. The absurdity of the writings are, therefore, astounding. Just how absurd can be guessed from the assertion that a country with a per capita income of $2,000 must have the governance infrastructure and attributes similar to those with multiple times the resources and capacity — the leitmotif of much that is published on India. What is often forgotten in the “one village” discourse perpetuated by this class is that this village never was and never will be. This pandemic is the story of “millions of villages” seeking their own salvation as the “global ethic” promoted by the liberal media was the first victim of, and culprit-in-chief for, the pandemic and its heavy toll.

For a nation the size of a continent with many inherent challenges, India’s response has been bold and feeble at the same time, just as it has been universal and differentiated. While states such as Kerala and some others appear to have contained the crises well, other states with more complex and complicated politics are battling to keep this virus in check. There are shortcomings galore but most importantly, there is resolute intent across society and politics to fight the pandemic. States are adopting different models — unique to their local situation — drawing heavily from aspects as diverse as their specific cultural practices, topography, information systems and technology, along with government intervention.

Arguably, some states in India have outperformed some of the developed nations. A fair and balanced reportage should have presented these myriad experiences in combating the novel coronavirus, rather than just those narratives that build stereotypes and biases. In fact, the odd positive story out of India has the focused objective of establishing chaos and disorder as the norm — the outlier province with West-like predisposition, the snake-charmer and the bazaar magician, the bandar and the bandarlog, and other such notions lurk among words and between lines. This is reminiscent of the debates in 19th-century Britain with its praise of some quaint developments in India and its resolute determination to tame the East.

Celebrated political thinker Edward Said situated this impulse in the colonial domination of the non-West by the West, and the attendant perceptions of superiority that accompanied such domination. He argued that the West was able to manage, and even produce, the non-West by projecting itself as progressive, rational, civil and humanistic as opposed to the non-West. This reductive narrative was a purposeful one, created to morally justify the colonial enterprise and legitimise the civilising mission which was the “White man’s burden”.

This civilising purpose perpetuated through literature, popular culture and politics for over two centuries has not only informed and influenced the trajectory of colonial politics and popular Western imagination, but has also become embedded as the indisputable truth, forever colouring Western understanding of the Orient.

Starting with James Mill’s influential History of British India (1817) to Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927), diminished narratives on native agency, Professor Amartya Sen argues, have informed the views of generations of the Western intellectual and political elite, from Alexander Duff to Theodore Roosevelt and beyond. Works such as Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, whom George Orwell called the “prophet of British Imperialism”, are considered reflective of this seemingly benign ethnocentric trajectory of colonial discourse.

French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas traces this bias to the West’s philosophical bearing, where identity is sought in the indurate logic of the self, rather than the expression of self in relation to difference. This predisposition manifests in a skewed representation of non-Western experiences. It is the cornerstone of the age-old identity debates that have troubled and defined human interactions. The sense of “Us versus Them”, or our superior agency versus theirs, proliferates the reports around Covid-19. The articles in the New York Times deploy a lack of empathy to create the “identity distance”. The Atlantic deploys lack of agency as a missing virtue, and social inequity defines the coverage of the BBC and the Washington Post in this instance. Unfortunately, the pandemic has a different tale to narrate.

A study of infection patterns in New York, for instance, presents vivid glimpses of elite depredations. The Black and marginalised communities have been significantly more affected than the rest, with one report assessing that Black Americans were thrice as likely to die from the infection than their White compatriots. The virus has indubitably driven a wedge between the economic haves and have-nots in the US, with significantly higher than average infections and deaths even among caregivers, who are people of colour, than their White counterparts. This isn’t very different from the Indian experience where the more impoverished are facing the fury of the pandemic.

Universally, and without exception, catastrophic events such as the raging pandemic tend to disproportionately affect the economically and socially marginalised more. In India, struggling migrants seek a path back to their hamlets. In the US, the rich and powerful escape to the Hamptons. This is an identity discourse of another variety that poses the same question for all humanity on the form and format of our economic agenda and priorities.

Colonial biases and stereotypes form an intractable part of the Western subconscious. However, the representation also needs to be viewed within a grander scheme. Beyond the articulation of the reductive occidental logic, it also offers a convenient moment for some to mobilise the newly dispossessed intelligentsia against the new nationalist urge that is shaping India’s political and economic discourse.

The story of the media reportage on India’s response to Covid-19 is, perhaps, not about the country’s efforts and its successes and failures. It is a narrative of perverse politics where the increasingly under threat elite opinion makers — the post-colonial custodians of virtue — are expressing (through their media) their contempt for those who do not see their path as either divine or preordained. This is political coverage, not one on the pandemic, and it has been scripted with the ink of exclusion.

This commentary originally appeared in Newslaundry.

Cyber and Technology, Health care, India, media and internet, tech and media

Digital Epiphany? COVID19 and our Tech Futures

Processes that were once subject to national jurisdictions – be it political conversations, trade and commerce, or national security considerations – are increasingly migrating to ungoverned digital spaces, creating what I have earlier called a “platform planet”. It is clear that the coronavirus will accelerate this process and more permanently fuse our technological and
social systems while encoding inequities and cleavages therein.

Most pertinent to this is the issue of access to digital technologies. Think of the pressure on governments today to deliver governance and services in the age of social distancing, the clamour from parents whose children cannot access educational opportunities, or demands from historically marginalized groups who may not be able to work remotely. Life, protection, and livelihood will all need to be guaranteed virtually and most capitals around the world will struggle to provide these.

Some positive transformations will be driven by technology companies looking to break new ground and compete for consumers among the millions of social and commercial interactions that will now be permanently online. Videoconferencing platforms, for instance, have emerged as the go-to technology keeping governments and businesses running even as social distancing is being practised. And still more change will be driven by governments adopting digital tools to carry out health surveillance measures or to enforce quarantines. Evolving debates and assumptions on user agency, privacy and data protection may be significantly altered in the year ahead.

Undoubtedly, the most important structural change will be in the form and format of the relationship between technology and society. Over the past two decades, there have been two fundamental notions that have shaped this ever-evolving relationship. The first, roughly corresponding to the first decade of the 21st century, was a near universal belief in the emancipatory potential of emerging technologies and a social willingness to accept new technologically induced disruptions. The second perspective, corresponding to the second decade, was the antithesis of the first – a “tech-lash” or scepticism about the role of emerging technologies in our social lives and a growing degree of suspicion about the intent and actions of “big tech” and “strong states”.

The coronavirus outbreak will demand a synthesis of these, and other, perspectives under extraordinarily compressed timelines. The many decisions that will be made over the coming year will either become entrenched or will reinforce certain pathways in the decade ahead. Technologies that society would have once expected greater regulatory scrutiny around –such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare – will likely be fasttracked and deployed. Meanwhile, consumer technologies that are scaling rapidly, such as videoconferencing and fintech platforms, will face additional scrutiny from consumers and states as they become more utility-like in their deployment.

Technologies that society would have once expected greater regulatory scrutiny around –such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare – will likely be fast-tracked and deployed.

As this process of synthesis unfolds over the coming year, the international community will be confronted with a new set of opportunities as well as risks. Perhaps the first and most visible risk emanates from a largely ungoverned digital public sphere. Indeed, this pandemic has also been accompanied by an “infodemic”, with misinformation and disinformation flooding most social media platforms, which for all practical purposes play the role of both traditional media and discussions rooms of yore that shaped public opinion.

Fake news alone, however, is not the only dimension of this risk. The response to it may be equally dangerous. The COVID-19 outbreak may end up creating stronger censorship regimes in an attempt to curb the spread of disinformation. Equally worrying is the power of technology platforms to mediate these spaces during times of crisis and the dangerous collaboration or confrontation brewing between technology companies and governments. For instance, certain technology platforms took down content by President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil because they deemed it spread disinformation. But should platforms have the ability to censor the content of a head of state? On the other hand, should they partner with governments and dilute freedom of expression through new measures that may outlast this pandemic?

second related risk is the data-sharing  practices that technology companies, health institutions and governments are adopting – with little oversight or accountability – to combat COVID-19. This trend will not only be about the data generated today. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely create a new battlefield, one that will be defined by the datasets generated by the fusion of our biological and digital worlds. Indeed, one set of technologies that were already being deployed rapidly before the virus outbreak were those related to genomics. The practices around genetic privacy – and the institutions that manage them – in the year ahead may well create new and unexpected risks to our fundamental rights as unique living beings.

third risk likely to challenge our technological futures are efforts to undermine the integrity of the cyber realm. While most nations remain worried about threats to critical infrastructure (the United Nations has already called for a digital ceasefire) the COVID-19 outbreak will also exacerbate “petty” cyber-crimes. These are minor cyber incidences; those that may not pose systemic national security threats but will affect the financial and social lives of individuals dramatically. The sudden uptick in COVID-related phishing scams, telemedicine scams and attacks on medical institutions all point in this direction. Trust in technology will be undermined at a time when the digital is the ether for globalization to survive.

The fourth risk is of individuals being permanently left behind as the process of digitalization continues to accelerate. Inequality has been the defining political zeitgeist of our generation – one that digital technologies have often accentuated. In countries without full or robust access to the internet, citizens are suffering from multidimensional socio-economic challenges as the pandemic snatches away their access to essential public goods.

But the challenge goes beyond this. Just as individuals are beginning to learn that not all work requires formal office spaces, businesses may well realize that not all operations require humans. The rapid adoption of AI and robotics energized amid the pandemic could accelerate a process that governments and policy-makers have been concerned about for years – technology-induced unemployment.

The final risk could end up being a product of how states actually respond to these various challenges amid a rapidly digitizing global society. No two societies are the same – they are defined by different political values, social practices and economic priorities. With COVID-19 forcing more of our social lives, business operations and governance online, the race to infuse the global digital world with a particular set of values and technological standards will only accelerate. Digital “code wars” may well be this century’s ideological confrontation that may partition the world in the end.

Think of the UN, the centrepiece of the liberal international order, partnering with Tencent, the digital champion of a vast surveillance state, to conduct its remote work operations. This has become a cause for concern for many countries. Reports indicate that the UN is already backtracking from its decision under pressure from human rights groups and democratic nations. Indeed, the varied digital societies that are emerging may fuel loud “geotechnological” competition.

That said, policy-makers may also see in the COVID-19 crisis an opportunity to reform political and administrative practices that were earlier hobbled by legacy institutional constraints. The most obvious, perhaps, is the accelerated adoption of what the UN calls “digital public goods”. These are the common digital “railroads”, which act as force multipliers for a range of business and governance operations.

For instance, India’s Digital ID system has helped the country navigate the pandemic by ensuring cash transfers and digital payments for a range of essential goods. The demand for similar architectures has been growing around the world. Singapore had already signed an MoU with the Indian government, even before the virus outbreak, to develop such a system. Similarly, Google has cited India’s digital payments infrastructure to call on the Federal Reserve to enable similar innovations in the US. These trends could see universal strengthening at this time.

This moment offers an opportunity for states to respond to the needs of a growing global informal workforce. The informal labour force and the “gig economy” workforce need new systems of social protection. The absence of this has placed them at great risk and at the frontline of this pandemic. These political reforms may not be ignored much longer. The idea of a universal basic income – a measure that is supported both by the Pope and The Financial Times – could also find favour and catalyse a new dimension for the future of work.

Perhaps the most significant opportunity will be for states and individuals to realize the potential of a truly global digital society. Responding to COVID-19 has compelled governments and communities to share sporadic information, some best practices and critical technologies rapidly. Consider for, instance, a rapidly growing community of entrepreneurs sharing opensource 3D printing designs for ventilators. Perhaps civil society organizations and policymakers can use the COVID-19 moment to push for new pipelines that will enable the transfer of technologies and innovations and encourage them to rethink rigid intellectual property regimes, which hindered this earlier.

Perhaps the most significant opportunity will be for states and individuals to realize the potential of a truly global digital society. Responding to COVID-19 has compelled governments and communities to share sporadic information, some best practices and critical technologies rapidly

Over a century ago, when individuals were isolating themselves amidst a far deadlier Spanish Flu, many (primarily Americans) turned to the telephone to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues. Of course, it was a nascent technology at the time and services promptly broke down because of the rapid rise in demand. But rather than crippling the industry and the technology forever, the Spanish Flu only served to underscore how essential it was to modern society. Over a century later, it is clear that the telephone was instrumental in shaping our global village.

We are at a similar junction today. And decades later, historians may well scrutinize the decisions made in the year ahead when studying how the digital shaped individuals, communities, nations and the world they inherited.

This essay originally appeared in World Economic Forum.

climate change, Commentaries, Health care, India, Sustainable Development

In the lockdown, a breath of fresh air

One of the few positive spin-offs of the ongoing nationwide lockdown to combat Covid-19 has been a dramatic reduction in air pollution. Recent Nasa data reveals that air pollution in north India has dropped to a 20-year low. In Delhi, the levels of harmful microscopic particulate matter, PM 2.5, plunged after the lockdown began — falling from 91 mg per cubic metre (mg/m3) on March 20, to 26 mg/m3on March 27.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) released by vehicles and power plants also saw a significant fall of 71% during the period. The air in Delhi is now clear, the skies are blue, and we can hear birdsong again on the boulevards.

Unfortunately, these are but temporary gains, and should not distract us from the dangers of air pollution.

An urgent warning comes from a Harvard University study (, which establishes a correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and Covid-19 mortality. The study finds that people living in polluted cities are more likely to have compromised respiratory, cardiac and other systems — and, therefore, are more vulnerable to Covid-19.

We should be very worried because India has 21of the 30 most polluted cities in the world. Air quality in some of our cities is 10 times over the safe limits recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and, as per some estimates, air pollution claims more than one million lives each year.

Therefore, even as India flattens the infection curve, addressing the air pollution problem should continue to be a high priority for all policymakers. Today’s cerulean skies remind us that clean air and the right to breathe must be available to all citizens. And if India were to achieve this, there will be huge collateral benefits. We would not only become much more globally competitive, but we could also be well on our way to exceeding our climate ambitions outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

There are many ways in which an economic revival package can get India to this Green Frontier. For instance, new investments could be directed towards renewable energy, with larger allocations and subsidies to initiatives like the National Solar Mission. We could adhere to deadlines for the Bharat Stage 4 standards and accelerate timelines and infrastructure investments for electric vehicle (EV) adoption.

Large electric battery factories could be established to enable localised energy storage solutions. Bailouts and incentives to the auto, aviation and construction sectors could encourage green transitions and clean air ambitions. The Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) in the residential sector could be enforced and a 2011policy relating to energy efficiency in MSME clusters could be integrated with the fiscal support to this sector.

Global experience suggests that crises create political opportunities for embracing change. After the 2008 global financial crisis, China spent nearly a third of its $568 billion stimulus towards projects that addressed environmental goals. China has since become a global leader in solar, wind and hydropower markets.

Britain and Germany also undertook green transformations post 2008 crisis. Similarly, India could use this Covid-19 crisis to undertake a far-reaching green revival.

We will find support. After the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a renewed focus on mega black and white swan shocks that can lead to immense loss of lives and destroy trillions of dollars of economic output. It is now much easier to convince policymakers, bankers and investors that awarming climate may well be the single-biggest macro shock the world will have to face. Green revival packages are bound to emerge around the world and global finance will inevitably align to this endeavour.

India is already the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Even optimistic predictions suggest that our emissions will nearly double in the next decade or so. A green revival package could be designed to ensure that India’s post-Covid economic resurgence becomes a key contributor in mitigating global emissions. It must be branded as the single-most important initiative for the world to meet and exceed Paris Agreement goals.

This will also give India more leverage in influencing the global financial community, and compel them to more pragmatically price risk, transparently rate creditworthiness, and bring down regulatory barriers that restrict the flow of capital to green projects in the developing world.

The battle for clean air requires structural reforms across multiple sectors, institutions and processes.

Public and private funds need to be redirected to green investments.

While temporary reductions in noxious emissions are certainly a huge relief, they are not the panacea for a country that has the onerous task of becoming the first $5 trillion economy in a carbon-constrained world. And, we must do this without gasping for breath.

economy, Gender, Gender Issues, Health care, Indian Defence, Public Health, Sustainable Development

ORF takes on the budget

Budget 2019, budget, interim budget, healthcare, education, cyber security, defence modernisation, economic diplomacy, gender issues, India, Oommen C. Kurian, Bedavyasa Mohanty, Ameya Kelkar, Samir Saran, Antara Sengupta, Vidisha Mishra, Mission for Protection and Empowerment for Women, Gender Responsive Budgeting, Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, Ujjawala Yojana, Higher Education Financing Agency, higher education, Sustainable Development Goals, National Education Mission, Samagra Siksha Abhiyan, development finance, Indian Overseas Direct Investment, Indo-Pacific, BIMSTEC, IORA, Maldives, Chabahar, development partnerships, Indian military, Chinese military, defence modernisation, defence budget, Digital India, National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, NITI Aayog, automation technologies, PMJAY, Ayushman Bharat

The allocation for health of around INR 63,540 crore is about a 13% increase from last year. Much of it has been to PMJAY, the flagship scheme of the government, which saw allocation rise from INR 2,400 crore last year to INR 6,400 crore in the interim budget. Ayushman Bharat’s second arm, the HWCs also got considerable hike in budget allocation — from INR 1,200 crore to INR 1,600 crore. FSSAI as well as the National AIDS Programme have also seen improvements in allocation.

Budget 2019, budget, interim budget, healthcare, Oommen C. Kurian, PMJAY, Ayushman Bharat, India
Photo: Atul Loke/Getty

However, an exclusive focus on PMJAY can result in a possible de-prioritisation of core health system functions, with slow-down or reduction of allocations under various heads, including NHM. Capital outlay on medical and public health, for example, has come down from 3047.67 crore in 2017-18 (actual) to 2391.33 crore in 2018-19 (RE) to 1675.90 crore in 2019-20. This can potentially impact health system’s capacity to expand in areas that need health services the most. Neglected areas can remain neglected unless there is specific focus. The budget document stated that of the 3,508 HWCs already operational, only 582 are in the aspirational districts, or the districts lagging in health development.

An exclusive focus on PMJAY can result in a possible de-prioritisation of core health system functions, with slow-down or reduction of allocations under various heads, including National Health Mission.

Lastly, it is easy to celebrate the INR 6,400 crore allocation, meant for around 50 crore PMJAY members. Still, the money allocated remains around INR 1,000 crore short of a conservative estimate of PMJAY spending this year. To put things in perspective, healthcare coverage to just around 35 lakh CGHS beneficiaries will cost the exchequer INR 3,000 crore, of which INR 2,850 crore was allocated in the interim budget. In addition, delays in payment of sanctioned amounts undermining efficiency of PMJAY remains a real risk, as with many health schemes. As of now, reports indicate that of the INR 2,400 crore allocated last year for PMJAY by the MoF, INR 1,000 crore has yet not been released, and that there are outstanding payments from the Centre to the States amounting to INR 1,700 crore under PMJAY. This can potentially impact the sustainability and effectiveness of the scheme.

It was decided by the government that India’s government health spending will be 2.5% of its GDP by 2025. At the current pace, it will be impossible. As a percentage share of total budget, the interim budget outlay on health was just 2.2%, below the figure in 2017-18, where the proportion of health outlay peaked under the Modi regime at 2.4%. Health in India needs significant additional resources, and not reallocation of existing resources. Ayushman Bharat becoming the flagship health initiative cannot and should not lead to a case of the government missing the forest for the trees. Without expansion of real health infrastructure, Ayushman Bharat will be just band-aid.

AI and automation technologies

Bedavyasa Mohanty

Budget 2019, budget, interim budget, cyber security, Bedavyasa Mohanty, Digital India, National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence, NITI Aayog, automation technologies

The Union Budget 2019 signals early forays into artificial intelligence by the Indian government with the announcement that a National Centre on AI will soon be set up. This centre will presumably work in close coordination with Centres of Research Excellence in Artificial Intelligence (COREs) that were first proposed by the NITI Aayog in its discussion paper: National Strategy for Artificial Intelligence. While the NITI Aayog identified five areas primed for AI intervention, namely healthcare, agriculture, education, smart cities and smart mobility, the Union Budget speech hints that four more priority areas have been identified.

In a manner now idiosyncratic of the Modi government, the Minister of Finance also announced plans for the creation of an ‘national AI portal.’ Details of what this portal will achieve or what it will be meant for remain unclear. Also missing from the budget are critical details around the quantum of investment in AI and automation technologies that are being planned.

Conspicuously missing from the budget are any references to digital payments or cyber security — both strong protagonists in Modi’s Digital India.

The Finance Minister’s speech also revealed ambitious plans to digitise one lakh villages over the next five years as a part of the Digital India programme by providing WiFi access to these villages. This initiative will be spearheaded by the Common Service Centres that now serve as nodal points of delivery for public utility services.

Conspicuously missing from the budget though are any references to digital payments or cyber security — both strong protagonists in Modi’s Digital India. This absence will likely be felt by Indian tech companies who for a few years now have been demanding economic relief for domestic players to level the playing field and compete with the seemingly limitless cash inflow that US and Chinese tech startups seem to be riding on.

Indian defence

Ameya Kelkar

Budget 2019, budget, interim budget, defence modernisation, Ameya Kelkar, Indian military, Chinese military, defence budget
Navy Day 2018. Source: Press Trust of India

While the defence budget has been pegged at INR 3.05 lakh crore, an increase in absolute terms, the percentage of the GDP used for India’s defence for the year 2019-2020 remains at the measly 1.5% mark, still very low for any effective modernisation to take place. The interim finance minister, in his budget speech, has stated that the current defence personnel will see a rise in the Military Service Pay (MSP), while at the same time allocating funds for special allowances of Air Force and naval personnel who are stationed in high-risk zones. Apart from this funding of the military, the government has also earmarked a separate INR 35,000 crore as part of its OROP pension payments, in line with the BJP election manifesto. However, this defence budget still does not take into account the modernisation needs of the country, pegging only INR 1.08 lakh crore for new weapon systems, while the day-to-day expenses have been given a budget of INR 2.10 lakh crore.

This budget, while being touted as the largest increase in the defence budget of India, still reveals the fact that the Indian military is not being given enough room to upgrade its current equipment to keep pace with the rapid modernisation of the Chinese military. The budget highlights the fact that the government is only willing to keep its military functioning at the level it already is, not taking into account the asymmetry between itself and its neighbours in terms of both technology and equipment possessed. While there is no doubt that this year’s budget is a step forward in the right direction with more money being pooled in the upkeep of the military, serious attention needs to be paid to the slow speeds of modernisation of the military’s resources, which will prove to be a major factor in the coming years, in a time where the Chinese have begun downsizing and modernising and indigenising their equipment to meet the new threats of both the present and the future.

This budget, while being touted as the largest increase in the defence budget of India, still reveals the fact that the Indian military is not being given enough room to upgrade its current equipment to keep pace with the rapid modernisation of the Chinese military.

Towards economic diplomacy

Samir Saran

Budget 2019, budget, interim budget, economic diplomacy, Samir Saran, development finance, Indian Overseas Direct Investment, Indo-Pacific, development partnerships, Modi, Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a joint session of the United States Congress at the US Capitol, 8 June 2016, Washington, DC. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty

Compared to an allocation of INR 12,620 crore in 2014-15, the overall grant to the MEA in 2018-19 is INR 16,061 crore.

India’s allocation towards economic diplomacy has steadily crossed the USD 1 billion mark.With India already contributing nearly 15% to global growth, it must interrogate the consequences of its development partnerships more closely as allocations rise over the next decade.

Two notable heads this year are aid to the Maldives and the Chabahar port. Following the establishment of a friendlier government in Male, India has more than quintupled its aid to Maldives — from INR 109 crore in 2018-19 in the original estimate, to INR 440 crore in the revised 2018-19 estimate, and to INR 575 crore this year. And continuing a new practice from last year, India has allocated INR 150 crore for the development of the Chabahar port.

These investments reveal India’s crucial connections to both the Indo-Pacific and the Eurasian landmass. However, while South Asian states receive the bulk of India’s economic assistance, India’s aid to Eurasia stands at INR 25 crore this year.

India’s investments in regional institutions also remains unfortunately low: INR 8 crore each for the SAARC and BIMSTEC Secretariat. While the BIMSTEC budget has doubled over the past two years, it remains insufficient to create effective human or technical capacity in the institution.

Over all, the 2019-20 Budget makes clear that India must recalibrate its approach to economic diplomacy in the region, especially given its domestic constraints.

For one thing, India must begin to identify priority sectors and States — especially in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. Development projects that create social and economic value for local communities and where India has a comparative advantage will be key. Supporting institutions like BIMSTEC and the IORA will also be important.

Second, convincing India’s private sector to invest in the infrastructure needs of developing countries will also be crucial. Indian Overseas Direct Investment in developing countries is still limited. Budgetary support by way of concessional financing for Indian companies investing in strategic infrastructure projects abroad also remains low.

Third, India’s concessional LoC framework must be made more competitive and transparent. Many privately admit that loans are arbitrarily granted to a select few Indian actors. There is also little available data on the economic benefits that accrues to India.

Fourth, plugging India’s capital gap will require imaginative collaboration with international donors. India must explore multilateral cooperation mechanisms with the US, the EU, Japan and Australia have all announced new economic initiatives in the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia.

Given that India will emerge as one of the largest sources of development finance in the coming years, it is time for the Government to release a white paper on how development partnerships can advance India’s economic and strategic interests.

Education: Less money to State institutes and technical colleges

Antara Sengupta

Budget 2019, budget, interim budget, education, Antara Sengupta, Higher Education Financing Agency, higher education, Sustainable Development Goals, National Education Mission, Samagra Siksha Abhiyan, India
Source: Getty

The Interim Budget 2019 allocated INR 93,847.64 crore to education, which is although the largest till date with about a 10% increase from last year’s budget allocation — it is still only about 3.3% of the GDP. While the increase in allocation is a good sign, it has again failed to target the recommended 6% of the GDP required for India to inch closer to the Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Unlike last year, this year’s budget speech gave little importance to education as a priority sector for the economic development of the country.

Of the total budgetary allocation, school education yet again received the highest revenue of INR 56,386.63 crore, up from 50,000 crore in 2018-19. The National Education Mission (which comprises the Samagra Siksha Abhiyan for school education from pre-primary to class 12 and teacher training programmes) saw the maximum outlay of INR 36,472 crore, up from INR 31,212 crore in 2018-19. Although this is an increase, it is not enough to address the issues in school education, which has a massive near-perfect enrollment rate. Allocation to mid-day meal scheme that is known to increase attendance and improve health among children has seen paltry increase of INR 500 crore from last year. Most disheartening is to see a reduced outlay of about INR 87 crore for central schemes such as National Scheme for Incentive to Girl Child for Secondary Education, National Means cum Merit Scholarship Scheme, National Award to Teachers and Digital India e-learning.

While the increase in allocation is a good sign, it has again failed to target the recommended 6% of the GDP required for India to inch closer to the Agenda 2030 of Sustainable Development Goals of the UN. Unlike last year, this year’s budget speech gave little importance to education as a priority sector for the economic development of the country.

As for higher education, it has yet again failed to garner the attention of the policymakers. This year’s interim budget allocated INR 37,461 crore, which is a small increase of about INR 2,000 crore for 903 universities, 39,050 colleges and 10,011 standalone institutions in the country. Fund allocations to statutory bodies like UGC, AICTE, have decreased, which means lesser money to state institutes and technical colleges. Rashtriya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA), which funds all the State universities and colleges has seen an allocation of INR 2,100 crore, which is about INR 700 crore more from last year. This is highly insufficient for the upgrade of educational institutes in the States that are in a pitiable condition. To fund major infrastructural projects through loan grants, last year Higher Education Financing Agency (HEFA) was allocated INR 2,750 crore, however that too has been reduced to INR 2,100 crore this year. HEFA also funds capital expenditure of the elite institutes that have been asked to allow 10% EWS quota and increase their intake capacity by 25%. These will need major revenue boost, that seems impossible from the current budget outlay. Fund allocation to central universities too have been reduced. The only major improvement in higher education seems to be the increase in salary scale for professors and funds allocated to research and innovation activities.

Greater gender integration, but decline in women-specific schemes

Vidisha Mishra

Budget 2019, budget, interim budget, gender issues, Vidisha Mishra, Mission for Protection and Empowerment for Women, Gender Responsive Budgeting, Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, Ujjawala Yojana, India

In the last budget before the national elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government pitched for transforming “women’s development to women-led development.” Adopted on the evidence-backed premise that gender-neutral policies lead to gender-unequal outcomes, India formally adopted Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB) in 2005. Every budget since has included a statement that lists out two parts — Part A, which reflects ‘Women Specific Schemes’ which have 100% allocation for women, and Part B, which reflects ‘Pro Women Schemes’ where at least 30% of the allocation is for women.

On Friday, interim finance minister Piyush Goyal proposed to increase the budget allocation for the Mission for Protection and Empowerment for Women from INR 121,961 crore in 2018-19 to INR 131,700 crore for 2019-20, reflecting an overall increase of INR 174 crore. The mainstreaming of gender budgeting across sectors is demonstrable in the fact that more than 70% of beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, which offers financial support to small and micro enterprises, were women. Similarly, the Ujjawala Yojana, which has already provided 6 crore free LPG connections, and aims to provide another 2 crore free connections by next year, has a very direct impact on homemakers, especially in rural areas. Further, an increase in budgetary allocation of schemes such as the National Rural Livelihood Mission (INR 4,512 crore), MGNREGA (INR 20,000 crore) and the PM’s employment generation programme (INR 2,327 crore) is also reflected in the gender budget.

The recognition of the cross-cutting nature of gender concerns and their firm integration in fiscal policies is good news. At the same time, it is noteworthy that the budgetary allocation on “women-specific schemes” has declined from INR 4,271.09 crore (budget estimates/BE) to INR 2,573.66 crore (revised estimates/RE) in 2018-19. Hence, an overall increase in the gender budget does necessarily translate into higher spending on women without careful implementation and gender audits.