In an exclusive interview for Indiastat, Chairman of Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Sunjoy Joshi speaks to Senior Journalist Mahima Sharma and shares his words of advice for India. Right from India’s geo-political situation and the Afghanistan crisis 2021, to its economic situation amid the COVID19 pandemic and of course the sky rocketing fuel prices in the last few months - Mr Joshi shares all the concerns that India needs to address steadily in order to avoid an overall socio-economic crisis in days to come. Let's read his suggestions, especially the ones that might ensure that future health calamities don’t throw education and economy in the back gear.
MS: Taliban takes over Afghanistan where ISIS seems to add more crisis & chaos to the region via consistent terror attacks. Rising voices from Pakistan for the Taliban to intervene in Kashmir. Amid all this, what could be the far-reaching social and economic impact on India? And what key steps must India take to avert the same?
SJ: Afghanistan actually presents a difficult Hobson's choice not just for India, but the entire world. And when I say world, I mean everybody, including in some measure Pakistan too. Russia is worried, China is also worried. Russia is worried because this causes instability in Central Asia. You cannot have an influx of terrorism: narco-terrorism, gun running, arms smuggling. So Russia is deeply worried, as is China. The only two parties happy with an unstable Afghanistan would be the Islamic State and, not so much Pakistan, as the Pakistani generals and their ISI intelligence services. The latter are happy with an unstable Afghanistan because an unstable Afghanistan gives them the leverage to be able to punch far above their weight. It keeps them relevant. Talking of India, we must admit that India is on a weak wicket. The question of recognizing the Taliban government does not arise. So what does India do? Engage through other parties, which have a stake in a stable Afghanistan. Russia, Iran, and even China. In the long run even Pakistan would be threatened by the forces it has created there. Instability only provides a fertile breeding ground for the Islamic State, and others like them. Meanwhile India has to find partners in the region, work with those who have similar interests in maintaining stability in Afghanistan. How this will be done, whether by creating pressure upon the Taliban, or engaging with them Taliban - is something we will have to decide in consonance with many others.
MS:On the other hand, we all are aware of the West's role in elevating China, and the constraints that it placed on India. And now an unstable Afghanistan is quite important to China. In short, even the China threat looms larger now. What parallel key steps need to be taken in India to dilute this geographical and political threat?
SJ: Eventually as I have said, an unstable Afghanistan. They are both linked to each other because China has an interest in aligning itself with Pakistan to create trouble for India and India's alliances.. India needs to rebuild and strengthen other alliances in the region, alliances such as it may not have paid as much heed to in the past. Following the US withdrawal we can see that many such conversations have begun. You've had the Russian and Indian NSA having a conversation. We are in talks with the Americans, and I'm sure we are also in discussion with the Iranians who are equally worried about what a Sunni majority Taliban implies for Iranian interests in the region. These are countries that will be willing to work with India to work toward a stable Afghanistan which does not export terror.
MS: Recently we read one of your views: "The rise of the Indo-Pacific represents not only the strategic reality but also the geoeconomic contours of the 21st century." In the wake of the Taliban and China threat, what should be the Indo-Pacific strategies ahead, beyond the QUAD nations gearing up their maritime force?
SJ: For the US, as far as Afghanistan has been concerned, the Pakistan relationship has more than any relationship with India. Will this change after the events of August 2021? If Pakistan remains as important in the equation, as it was in the past, and the US refuses to see through its plans and take measures to contain them, then there is a problem between India and the US and its Indo Pacific partners in the Quad.. Australia has sent forces to fight with the allies. It has been part of Afghanistan problems, but they've all been subservient to the larger, overarching interests of the US. whose US position has been that of the NATO allies, for whom Pakistan has been more important than India. It is not possible for India to imagine an Indo-Pacific that does not include its Western starboard and after the US withdrawal that becomes even more important and is bound to impact its strategic interests.
MS: Is India ready for the 3rd wave of COVID19, especially in the paediatric wing, where supposedly the threat looms larger? And if we are not ready, what could be immediate measures towards minimal damage?
SJ: I don't know whether there's a third wave coming or not coming or when it will come, or where COVID will become endemic and stay with us and we therefore will need to learn to live with it.. I think when we talk of health policies and preparedness and readiness. It is time we realized that stable, strong health infrastructure is required not just for COVID, but for future pandemics and the larger health crisis that is very much a part of the living reality we face in India today. Besides Covid, we have incidents of the children dying because of dengue related hemorrhagic fever and other ailments. The larger challenge remains that of a weak health infrastructure. That is not something that can improve overnight. Can we have a healthy population, a healthy young population, and a sound human resource to take us into the 21st century? We need to learn our lessons from COVID and plan better. Let us build a resilient infrastructure that can battle not just COVID but the many health problems that lie in wait for us.
MS: India struggles to recover from the COVID19 pandemic, given the uncertain and unequal economic recovery. What's your take on it, especially towards the corrective measures that need to be taken on an immediate basis?
SJ: COVID has been a huge learning experience not just for India, but for the world as well. It has exposed the weakness of global supply chains across manufacturing as also across health and vaccination. It has taught us the importance of resilience. Taught the world not to put all its eggs in one basket viz, China. And that is precisely one initiative the QUAD has taken. To be prepared, to be ready we must be hedging our bets.
MS: How must India be reshaping its educational curriculum, its related technology and pedagogy to reach out to the children/youth that have been left behind by two years due to lack of means and resources?
SJ: The first challenge that India faces, along with many other countries, is about bridging the huge digital divide. You cannot have successful online learning or distance education given the widening gap between the haves and the have nots. Education has become a function of poverty, if you are poor, you will have access only to poor quality education. If we are talking about the use of technology in education, we have to be prepared to invest more. We need to create incentives that ensure access to data and services at the last cost. India today has the cheapest telecom services anywhere in the world; the lowest cost of data anywhere in the world. India has to make sure that this is available not just to the metros but deep into the villages, and that everyone has access to basic devices that provide universal and equal access to data and education. That having been said there's no substitute for actual face to face education. No avoiding the fact that education is a process of socialization, it is not a technology process. Let us not become overly optimistic that technology will deliver all the solutions. we have to find a via media where both coexist.
MS: India's ongoing smart cities project, its degrading green cover amid rising calamities. All this despite a repeated call from the BRICS experts to enhance green energy power. What's your advice on this situation?
SJ: There is always this battle ongoing between development and sustainability. Any project that increases your energy footprint at the moment is going to increase your carbon footprint. Whether it is smart cities, whether it is raising manufacturing, whether expanding services and whether expanding the health infrastructure. Given the state of the existing energy economy, any expansion will make our carbon footprint bigger. So first, we have to lower the carbon footprint of our production as well as our energy consumption. Again, that is not something that happens overnight, that is something that takes time. It is something for which we need to plan a transition. There needs to be a conversation between countries on the pathways to this energy transition. Unfortunately, that is the conversation that is not taking place. We still talk in terms of all nothing, as if it were a zero-sum game. The transition plan must be discussed; how it is to be implemented must be discussed. The problems with the transition plan must be on the table, must be part of that conversation and be addressed as problems, and not be dismissed.
MS: The gap in electricity supply and demand for renewable sources of energy is increasing in BIMSTEC nations. In this situation, what key strategies would you like India to adopt to stride ahead in a better and faster manner?
SJ: India today has an international solar alliance and is recognized as a leader. India rapidly scaled up its Solar Photovoltaic capacity. But it is time we thought further. First of all (this is not just for India, but for all with respect to the green transition). We have to be technology agnostic. The world of energy has indeed been all about disruption, so let not allow policy to pick winners and losers. Technology has constantly come forward to change the constitution of what resources rule our energy consumption. A green transition is different from greenwashing. As long as our grid is going to be coal based, without a credible road map for the adoption and actual absorption of green energy into the grid, electric vehicles compound the problem. They end up increasing your carbon footprint. The same holds for Hydrogen based fuels. Both electricity and hydrogen are mere carriers of energy; they are not primary sources. For a proper green transition the source of electricity or hydrogen must be green, otherwise we are only greenwashing and window dressing.
MS: What's your take on the economics of current oil prices and future scenarios in context to Indian taxation on petroleum products that are out of GST?
SJ: Since 2015, that is when international crude prices started falling, India has been one of the few countries which have always made sure that prices remained substantially high. Because whenever international prices fall, India collects more in taxes. That is a very controversial policy decision. Because the fact is that if your fuel costs rise, your cost of manufacturing rises, the cost of transportation rises. You are actually fueling inflation, you are impacting the GDP. At the end of it all, these factors weigh on economic growth and the country actually collects less and less taxes. So, a fuel taxation policy that impacts growth cannot be very healthy for a growing economy. In India, the problem has been compounded because fuel, especially oil and gas are out of the purview of GST. What does that mean? That means that though energy is an extremely important input into any manufacturing service, you do not have input tax credit available for a major input cost. So, that is raising the cost of service, that is raising the cost of manufacturing, that is against the grain of doing business. That is making us non-competitive in the global market. We must rationalize fuel prices and taxation policies. If you're talking about one nation, one tax, energy which is such a large component of this economy cannot be kept out of it.
MS: You once wrote: Governments need dissent. Dissent is the lifeblood of a democracy. What's your viewpoint when you go back to this statement, in the wake of the ongoing farmers' protest and no solution to it, running parallel with the new social media & media laws?
SJ: My take is simple. In a democracy, the laws need to be debated and discussed in the parliament and the various specialized committees of the Parliament. If we can do that properly, then they do not need to be discussed on the streets. Unfortunately, that is not happening. Either the laws have been discussed in closed chambers of the executive or then they spill on to the streets. There does not seem to be any dialogue between the two sides - between the government and the opposition on how to basically agree on the fundamental norms of legislative democracy. It is important to establish the sanctity of the legislature, as far as laws are concerned.
As far as social media is concerned - the second part of the question: There is I don't think anybody today who would disagree social media needs to be regulated. But the point is what kind of regulation? The right balance between regulation and autocracy becomes extremely important and that is a negotiation that will need to take place between civil society and the government, which is an ongoing process. We do not have at the moment a credible vision or the proposal on the table. So let us go ahead and see how this shapes up.
About Sunjoy Joshi, ORF Chairman
Mr. Sunjoy Joshi Heads the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), New Delhi as its Chairman and Chief Executive. He has over the last 10 years spearheaded the rise of the ORF as India's premier think tank and window into the world of Global Affairs.
He joined the Madhya Pradesh Cadre of the Indian Administrative Services in 1983. Took premature retirement in 2009 in order to pursue his academic interests. He has been Visiting Associate at the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London and Distinguished Visitor to the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, University of Stanford, USA. He speaks, publishes and comments on the world of technology, energy, and development, framing them in the context of global shifts and the challenges to growth and employment faced by emerging economies. Has a regular YouTube commentary on Global and Current Affairs called 'India's World' which is also available as a podcast.
About the Interviewer
Mahima Sharma is an Independent Journalist based in Delhi NCR. She has been in the field of TV, Print & Online Journalism since 2005 and previously an additional three years in allied media. In her span of work she has been associated with CNN-News18, ANI - Asian News International (A collaboration with Reuters), Voice of India, Hindustan Times and various other top media brands of their times. In recent times, she has diversified her work as a Digital Media Marketing Consultant & Content Strategist as well. Mahima can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org