1.China’s water concerns (Live Mint)

2.Focus on regime for vaccine development (Live mint)

3.Island hopping (The Hindu)

1.China’s water concerns (Live Mint)
Synoptic line: It throws light on the China’s policy towards water diplomacy. (GS paper II)

Overview

  • Sporadic reports on China’s water diversion plans on the Yarlung Tsangpo, the upper stream of the Brahmaputra river, are invariably met with sustained overreactions in India. Late last month, reports of China planning a 1,000km-long tunnel system to divert these waters to arid Xinjiang were followed by thick black soot coming from the Siang tributary of the Brahmaputra.
  • It led to Ninong Ering, member of Parliament (MP) from East Arunachal Pradesh, writing a letter to the prime minister. This was followed by visual, online and print media, as also the MP, doing their bit in highlighting this as yet another example of the dragon’s evil designs. The chief minister of Assam and the Congress state committee took it from there until Union minister Arjun Meghwal clarified that preliminary findings of the Central Water Commission suggested this was caused by the earthquake that hit Tibet on 17 November.

What does this episode tell us? 

  • First and foremost, it takes an MP over a week to make the relevant authorities take notice of the thick black soot in Siang which, of course, continues to destroy the aquatic life, birds, flora and fauna and even the livelihood of thousands in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam as the water remains unusable. Its long-term ecological and environmental impact will also reach lower riparian Bangladesh. Whether its trigger was man-made or natural does not alter the intensity of its impact.
  • Second, India’s snail-paced response in providing even a preliminary assessment, and inaction in providing relief from this contamination, is now leading to calls for setting up hydrological labs across the region. However, there is not much hope that this will be implemented any time soon. Remember, it’s been decades since India has been unsuccessfully trying to clean the river Ganga. This track record makes pressing all panic buttons our first response to seek attention.
  • Third, of course, is China’s continued disregard of even agreed norms and the overall tenor of India-China relations, which surely leads policy experts to begin with no less than the worst-case scenario.

China’s intentions

  • Even a cursory check tells us how, despite China having 50% spatial share of this 3,000km-long water system, low precipitation and desert conditions mean that Tibet generates only 25% of its total basin discharge, while India, with 34% of the basin, contributes to 39% of the total discharge. So, it is not China’s water diversions, but intentional flooding or contamination that should be a major concern for India. Is India working on preparing itself to tackle such eventualities?
  • China has been building at least five hydropower projects in addition to the 510-megawatt one at Zangmu that was commissioned in October 2015. These are claimed to be run-of-the-river projects, but can also facilitate storage if required. Given the seismically sensitive and geologically evolving Himalayas, such storages can unleash man-made or natural disasters. Unlike Tibet, the Indian side has scores of population centres on the banks of these river systems.
  • To recall, the entire debate on India-China ‘water wars’ was triggered in 2000 by the sudden burst of one such dam, causing flash floods that resulted in 25 deaths and damage to property and livestock. This is what perturbed India when China began building its Zangmu hydropower project in 2008 and this high-pitch rhetoric over water continues to linger.
  • There is no denying that China has been reticent, allowing no more than a snail-paced incremental increase in its cooperation. Starting from their 2002 memorandum of understanding (MoU) for exchange of data on water levels, discharge and rainfall during the monsoon season, China and India had set up an expert-level mechanism for the Brahmaputra and Sutlej rivers in 2006. In their follow-up MoUs of 2013 and 2015, China agreed to supply data between 15 May and 15 October every year, with India agreeing to pay for these services.
  • However, the last meeting of this mechanism was held in April 2016 and India has received no data for this year. First in the name of the Doklam standoff and then on the pretext of ongoing upgrade and renovation of data-collection stations in Tibet, China has refused to share hydrological data with India. But these excuses fall flat as Bangladesh continues to receive the same data.

Steps for India (Way ahead)

  • There is a need to refrain from populist high-octane China bashing, which has been counterproductive so far. India must build its own capabilities to redress and withstand such disasters. It is only from such a position of sanity and strength that India can get China to regularize existing mechanisms and expand them beyond just data exchange on water flows, levels, rainfall, etc. These need to expand to cover quality of water and mutual inspections by joint or third-country observers.
  • The plans for gigantic diversions seem formidable, if not fanciful. These have been floated occasionally over the past two decades but repeatedly faced serious financial and technical impediments.
  • The impact on India, if ever, would depend on factors like wherefrom and how much of Yarlung Tsangpo water can be diverted. Undertaking such a project in the seismically sensitive virgin high Himalayas carries deadly ecological and environmental implications for China. The impact on India would follow later and will be marginal.

Question–  It is not China’s water diversions, but intentional flooding or contamination that should be India’s major concern. Comment.

 

2.Focus on regime for vaccine development (Live mint)

Synoptic line: It throws light on how the creation of incentives to produce vaccines for poverty-associated infections is key to improving public health. (GS paper III)

Overview

  • The flaws in a system appear most vividly when it fails where it is most required to work. Tuberculosis (TB) is one of India’s severest health crises. It kills two Indians every 3 minutes and more than 1,000 people every day. India accounts for 27% of the world’s 10.4 million new TB cases, and 29% of the 1.8 million TB deaths globally. Surely, this says something about the crisis in our public health policy.

State of health

  • World Health Organization (WHO) deputy governor Soumya Swaminathan lamented, saying that India doesn’t have a good TB vaccine. “Polio could be eliminated because we had a vaccine. On all three fronts diagnostics, drugs and vaccines we have a long way to go in terms of new drug discovery. With drug resistance coming up, we will need a pipeline of new drugs. So this is where India has to step up. Along with other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries. We should no longer wait for other countries to do the research.

Menace of disease

  • TB is difficult to diagnose, and the BCG vaccine that is currently in use (developed in the early 20th century) is ineffective for young people and adults. A new vaccine, cheaper and effective diagnostic tests, and treatment for the drug-resistant strains of TB are needed.
  • Research and development (R&D) requires a concerted effort by both governments and the private sector. The government typically supports basic research while pharmaceutical companies focus on product development, clinical research or implementation research.
  • The lack of progress in developing a vaccine for TB is part of a larger problem. Relative to their social need, there is a dearth of overall R&D on diseases concentrated in poor countries. Only 10% of global health research is devoted to conditions that account for 90% of the global disease burden—the ‘10/90 Gap’. Specifically with regard to TB, while the public sector globally contributed 61% of the R&D funding between 2009-15, the private sector only spent 17%.

Lack of investment

  • One reason for the lack of private investment is that the potential consumers (patients and governments) are poor. But there are two other reasons: First, the benefits of the research on these diseases spill over to many countries, so none of the small countries has an incentive to unilaterally support the research. Second, governments have a poor record of respecting patents.
  • WHO’s The Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) has provisions for ‘compulsory licensing’ that allow governments to license the production of essential drugs to local manufacturers who must then pay royalties to the innovator.
  • The problem, therefore, is that the medical innovation industry doesn’t consider poor countries as their market. The solution, then, lies in increasing the value proposition of serving these markets. This has been done in the past, when the US Orphan Drug Act of 1983 created incentives for companies to create drugs for rare diseases like Huntington’s and muscular dystrophy diseases which affect less than 200,000 people in the US and hence have a limited market.
  • Over 200 new orphan drugs have been developed since 1983 and as of 2000, biotechnology companies had sponsored more than 70% of the projects in the US.
  • Thus, the creation of incentives to complete the research cycle, from product development to implementation, is key to controlling the infectious diseases associated with poverty. One important proposal in this regard is made by Harvard researcher Michael Kremer and Rachel Glennerster of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, who suggest the use of advance purchase commitments (APCs). In an APC, a sponsor (whether a government or a donor agency) commits to fully or partially finance the purchase of vaccines for a disease at a pre-specified price.
  • The funds are spent only if the desired product is developed. This would create a larger market, with more certainty, which would attract more firms to develop new products. Thus, APCs could replicate the incentives that have led pharmaceutical companies to pursue drugs to treat baldness and depression in dogs, while millions are sick from preventable or treatable infectious diseases.
  • During the budget speech in 2017, the finance minister announced the goal to eliminate TB by 2025. The main features of the proposed National Strategic Plan (NSP) for TB Elimination, 2017-2025 are providing incentives to private hospitals to follow standard protocols for diagnosis and treatment, giving cash transfers to patients to compensate them for the direct and indirect costs of undergoing treatment as well as incentives to complete treatment.
  • This is in addition to free diagnostics and treatment for TB at government hospitals. Given the fact that incomplete treatment and improper care leads to the development of drug-resistant TB, these interventions are welcome.

Way ahead

  • Prevention is better than cure. All these years, the government should have focused more on creating a vaccine; they are easy to administer, need little diagnosis before use and can be taken in a few doses rather than involving long treatments.
  • But what is gone is gone and the government must take steps to encourage research, both basic and applied, using APCs. It could make budgetary accommodation, or use its position in global diplomacy to encourage other nations and donors to do so. Ultimately, it will have to appeal to the interest of private companies for medical innovations.

Question: The lack of progress in developing a vaccine for TB is part of a larger problem. Comment.

 

3.Island hopping (The Hindu)

Synoptic line: It throws light on the issue of free trade agreement between the Maldives and China. (GS paper II)

Overview

  • The Maldives will soon become the second country in South Asia, after Pakistan, to enter into a free trade agreement (FTA) with China, after it was passed agreement in an ‘emergency’ parliament sitting. A free trade agreement between the Maldives and China is another sign of Beijing’s success in its outreach in South Asia.

China’s increasing presence in Indian Ocean 

  • After its push for maritime linkages across the Indian Ocean, including naval exercises and port projects, and for the enhancement of regional connectivity through the Belt and Road Initiative, China seems to be ready to ramp up business ties across South Asia.
  • China already has an FTA with Pakistan, and is exploring or negotiating FTAs with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.
  • The rapid growth in China-Maldives ties is driven by massive infrastructure projects, including the development of Hulhule Island and the “Friendship” bridge connecting it to Male. Apart from investments of $1 billion, Chinese companies are exploring tourism prospects in the Maldives, leases to resort islands, and reclamation projects.

Reasons for India worry

  • The Yameen government had recently said that it is not satisfied with the working of the FTA with India. That statement, made by the Fisheries Minister at a press conference in Colombo, is likely to be discussed in detail between New Delhi and Male.
  • The FTA had not come through regular sitting manner, but the FTA was rushed through Parliament in a matter of minutes at midnight, with opposition members complaining they had not received enough notice, suggests a haste that would naturally worry India.
  • The move also shows that the Yameen government is not inclined to pay much heed to international concerns over internal unrest. The one reason Mr. Yameen keeping India out of the loop on the FTA talks may be New Delhi’s new policy of engaging with the Maldivian opposition, especially former President Mohammad Nasheed. The biggest worry for India is that the FTA will draw the Maldives more closely into China’s security net.

Way ahead

  • Though it has been stated that the Maldives will remain a “demilitarised zone”, but there are concerns that the PLA-Navy might be looking for a military base in the islands linked to projects in Djibouti, Gwadar and Hambantota.
  • China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean presents a challenge to India as it looks to define its place in the U.S.-led “Indo-Pacific” realignment.

QuestionThe Maldives’ FTA with China can be seen as drift in Delhi-Male ties. Critically analyse.