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Analysis

Trump avoids rout in ‘referendum’, deadlock looms in split Congress

Facing the challenge, Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning “Two can play the game” and threatened counter investigations of Democrats.

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New York, Nov 7 : Political deadlock and a series of hobbling investigations loomed over the US with the Republican Party losing control of the House of Representatives even as President Donald Trump avoided a rout in the midterm elections billed as a referendum by retaining control of the Senate.

“In a certain way, I am on the ballot,” Trump declared ahead of Tuesday’s elections taking up the challenge of a referendum the Democrats had thrown at his polarising leadership.

A big Blue Wavea of Democratic support that could totally destabilise Trump did not quite materialise as he appeared to have held onto his base, even though his suburban support bled.

But the split control of the Congress will put a brake on Trump’s conservative agenda and increase pressure on him and those close to him through a newly empowered Democratic Party’s promised wave of investigations starting with the revival of the Congressional probe into the alleged Russian manipulation of the 2016 presidential election.

Facing the challenge, Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning “Two can play the game” and threatened counter investigations of Democrats.

This was probably the most hotly fought midterm in modern history framed by burning hot rhetoric, a campaign spending of $5.2 billion – the highest in midterms – and one of the biggest voter turnouts.

While the nation-wide results were incomplete on Wednesday morning, the Democrats had sealed their control of the House – the lower chamber of the Congress – winning 219 seats of the 535 – and projected to gain at least 29 seats — while Republicans retained the Senate with at least 51 seats of the 100 with a gain of at least two.

The scale of the losses of House seats by the Republicans this time were nowhere near the 63 seats lost by the Democrats in former President Barack Obama’s first midterm in 2010.

Legislators in the House of Representatives have only a two-year term which sets up a midterm challenge for the presidents who have a four-year term. (Senators have a six-year term.)

Trump went into the midterms with a strong economy – a 3.7 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in about 50 years, and a booming stock market – and foreign policy gains in forcing new trade deals with Canada and Mexico and a nuclear retreat by North Korea.

That muted some of the opposition to him and the Democratic Party’s ambivalence towards illegal immigration as a caravan of several thousands of Central Americans marching under the flags Guatemala and Honduras marched towards the US roused Trump’s base.

But his personal style of bombast and intimidation and deeply divisive rhetoric turned off many voters and brought on a big, angry turnout of voters in support of the Democratic Party.

The division was amplified by the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, who faced decades-old allegations of sexual misconduct as a teenager and a student. It became the rallying cry for women and liberals who saw it as further endorsement of misogyny and sexual misconduct that Trump had been accused of and as endangering legal abortion and other women’s rights.

“When Democrats win, and we will win tonight, we will have a Congress that is open, transparent and accountable to the American people,” Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to the reclaim the speakership, said on Tuesday night.

While she had earlier ruled out impeaching Trump as many in her party want to, her declaration about transparency and accountability were a warning about the expected investigations.

Trump countered with a challenge of his own in a tweet on Wednesday morning, “If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else.”

Any changes to immigration law, matters relating to minorities and gays, and the budget and economic reforms requiring Congressional approval would be at stake.

But Trump’s solid control of the Senate would give him free rein in appointing federal judges all the way to the Supreme Court as well as officials requiring Senate approval.

In some key races the Republicans leads over their Democratic Party rivals had been whittled down.

Among them were Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Georgia governorn candidate Brian Kemp who had barely a 2 percent lead over Stacy Abrams, an African American woman.

(Arul Louis can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @arulouis)

Analysis

Tactical Infrastructure: Securing the future through trade

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Investments by countries to secure strategic financial and regional advantages have been strategies for a long time. In the face of rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics, a renewed push by India to secure crucial consumption supplies through partnering with trading nations is an area that requires attention.

India’s role will be both as a trading partner as well as a partner in infrastructure creation with the partnering nation. One needs to look across commodities and products that India is a big importer of to identify areas where it can add value through supply chain infrastructure creation. The infrastructure can span the spectrum from farmlands to ports. Identifying and removing bottlenecks in the supply chains of partner nations can help create stronger trade relations and more stable value of imports.

The first step in strategic infrastructure creation is identifying the most critical sectors and industries. This identification must be made based on two fundamental factors.

Firstly, one must determine the consumption sectors that will see increased demand given the rapid pace of urbanisation and rising incomes in India. Principally, this focuses on current imports. Identifying the most crucial import commodities, especially those that face significant price volatility, to create infrastructure in the relevant trading nations is a path that needs focus.

Secondly, policymakers need to watch for future sectors that will require imports for commodities that are not available in India. For example, for the renewable energy revolution to get further impetus and for electric vehicles to be deployed on a large scale, energy storage through batteries is crucial.

An article, “India’s Storage Opportunity”, by Manish Pant in “Power Today” magazine, highlights an interesting point: “India’s production of rare earth minerals like lithium and cobalt, which are essential components in storage batteries, is negligible.”

Securing lithium and cobalt supplies through trade partnerships that go beyond merely importing the commodity will be vital as the energy ecosystem transforms. While making the energy ecosystem completely free from imports may not be possible, a better-planned approach that sees the Indian government working with the private sector to create the infrastructure for securing strategic advantages is essential.

Primarily, India must ensure greater energy independence, and not a shift away from oil dependence to dependence on other commodities. While natural resource allocation in a country is beyond one’s control, strategic trade partnerships and infrastructure creation are not.

After the identification of the most critical industries is made, the second step is identifying nations that are growing the fastest in the sector. These are trade partners where India can add value through financing and partnering in infrastructure creation. The fastest-growing producers need not be the largest. The vital step is creating symbiotic relationships with long-term trading partners who benefit from Indian financial and technical expertise, and India generates value by securing supplies of essential commodities.

It is imperative to bear in mind that these strategic investments need not only be big-ticket. Whether for products that are increasingly being consumed or energy independence, it is vital to chip away to reduce the volatility around the commodity gradually. While better trade partnerships with the top five producers of any commodity is a step in the right direction, so is a renewed push to partner with smaller nations.

Investing in supply chain infrastructure in crucial products is a structural shift that will add value over decades. Gradual partnerships and tactical infrastructure creation by India that allows it to create and improve symbiotic relationships with trading partners is the need of the hour.

In the infrastructure space, it is crucial for each commodity with each trading partner to identify as to where in the commodity supply chain India can add value. As commodities transform throug” “space, time and fo”m” before reaching Indian markets, it will be vital to make the best use of Indian capital and expertise.

In summary, an agile approach to trade and infrastructure creation can aid India in creating a secure and stable source for essential commodities.

(Taponeel Mukherjee heads Development Tracks, an infrastructure advisory firm. Views expressed are personal. He can be contacted him at [email protected] or @Taponeel on Twitter)

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Analysis

Is Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna destined to remain a pipe dream?

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Other than food and water, shelter forms the third most important component of the basic human requirements. It was fitting that the government turned its attention to that. It wasnt for the first time, though, and will definitely wont be the last. For years, Indian cities have been clogged by ever-growing population and the inability to shelter them.

“Housing for All”, or the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY), was intended to solve this issue. But will it? Launched with much fanfare in 2015, three years down the line, the achievement is anything but satisfactory.

The four components of the scheme include a credit-linked subsidy, in-situ development of slums, 35 per cent reservation for economically weaker sections (EWS) and an opportunity to build individual houses. While the intentions look noble, at least on paper, in practice it’s far from it. The scheme has many glaring loopholes.

Take, for instance, the slum rehabilitation scheme. This component allows private builders to redevelop slums and, subject to certain conditions, avail benefits from the state government for each housing unit built. It basically involves taking a portion of a slum, building multi-storey flats on it and then moving the displaced people into those flats.

With frequent demolitions and evictions, it is almost impossible to provide paperwork to prove the permanent residency of a particular plot in a slum. Even if it is assumed that the evicted person rebuilds his house on the same exact plot each time it is demolished, the amount of effort required to produce documents like electricity or water bills to prove this is asking for too much. Though not mentioned explicitly, these dwellings are in many ways informal shanties and where basic amenities like electricity and water connections aren’t provided — they are managed illegally. Official documents, in many cases, just don’t exist.

The provision of a cut-off date to be eligible for availing the benefit means that people don’t have enough time to put all documents in place. Instead of getting rehabilitated, they are on the verge of getting evicted to make way for people who have documents to show. Corruption?

Now take a look at the credit-linked subsidy scheme (CLSS). The scheme provides for varying credit-linked subsidies to home buyers up to an income of Rs 18 lakh. The provision defines LIG (low income group) as someone with annual income between of Rs 3-6 lakh and an EWS (economically weaker section) individual as one with annual income below Rs 3 lakh. As per the Minimum Wages Act, the most that an unskilled sweeper can manage per annum is below Rs 1 lakh (monthly wages are pegged at Rs 8,238) and with the prices of most dwelling units much higher than this, they are surely going to be left out.

They can neither afford them on their own, nor are they eligible for any subsidies. Even for the ones who can get subsidies, the amount is too low to afford even a single room in big cities, forcing them to look for houses far from the city – which has its own problems.

Finally, individual house construction is just not happening. PMAY is also designed to help people repair or rebuild their homes, provided they can prove that the land on which their house rests is their own. It’s a well-known fact that most of the houses in slums have been built on government land and there is no way, other than a forged document, to prove otherwise. The government may very well claim that land for itself.

Another component of the scheme involves building affordable housing units on government land with or without the partnership of private developers. In such cases, where private parties are engaged, the subsidy is provided to the developers once they reach the plinth level. On completion of their project, they can sell half of their stocks in the open market and rest to the EWS and LIGs at government-sponsored rates, during which the subsidy received by them is passed on to the buyers. It doesn’t take much time to figure out that, ultimately, the subsidies are going to lie with builders, as, even with aid, EWS and LIGs can’t afford houses close to the cities.

Other than these loopholes, there are at least two more drawbacks to the scheme. One is its inherent design which makes it almost impossible to build affordable dwelling units in close vicinity of cities, and the other is the time involved.

With high land prices and low incomes, builders will be forced to move farther away from the main city to become affordable. But, people who work in cities cannot afford to live too far from their workplaces. The additional costs involved will negate any gain that they might have, which is negligible to begin with.

The other is the time required to get approvals. Despite all the hype about Ease of Working, the process still remains too complex and time-consuming. It takes anywhere between six months to a year to get all the necessary approvals. If the land is yet to be acquired, the project could take years, leading to cost over-runs and erosion in profits.

As a policy framework, PMAY needs a lot of fixing, some big and some small. While providing housing for all should be a priority, this cannot be achieved by a shoddy scheme. In its three years of existence, the scheme has not been as successful as it was envisioned by the Prime Minister. Most of the projects have been stuck at different stages. If the government wants the policy to work, it will have to clear the roadblocks with regard to capital, land, approvals and documentation.
Unless that’s done, PMAY will remain a pipe dream. The scheme should be made implementable in the way the Prime Minister intended it to be.

(Neh Srivastava is Under Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs and President, Central Secretariat Service Officers Society, CSSOS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected] )

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Analysis

Air pollution cuts average Indian’s life expectancy by over 4 years: Study

Concentrations in Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, and the National Capital Territory of Delhi are substantially higher, and the impact on life expectancy exceeds six years.

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New Delhi, Nov 19 : India is the world’s second most polluted country, slightly trailing only Nepal, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC) said on Monday.

Particulate pollution is so severe that it shortens the average Indian’s life expectancy by more than four years relative to what it would be if World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines were met.

This is up from about two years in the late 1990s due to a 69 per cent increase in particulate pollution, it said.

Concentrations in Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, and the National Capital Territory of Delhi are substantially higher, and the impact on life expectancy exceeds six years.

Its new air pollution index, known as the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), finds that air pollution reduces global life expectancy by nearly two years, making it the single greatest threat to human health.

The tool gives figures like — for an average resident of Delhi, gain in life expectancy if the WHO guidelines are met, could be up to 10.2 years.

Likewise, it gives numbers of years lost to pollution for every district of India for a span of 18 years between 1998 and 2016.

What makes AQLI unique is that it converts pollution into perhaps the most important metric that exists — life expectancy. It does so at a hyper-local level throughout the world.

Further, it illustrates how air pollution policies can increase life expectancy when they meet the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline, existing national air quality standards, or user-defined air quality levels.

This information helps informing local communities and policymakers about the importance of air pollution policies in very concrete terms.

Loss of life expectancy is highest in Asia, exceeding six years in many parts of India and China; some residents of the US still lose up to a year of life from pollution.

Fossil fuel-driven particulate air pollution cuts global average life expectancy by 1.8 years per person, according to the pollution index and accompanying report produced by the EPIC.

“Around the world today, people are breathing air that represents a serious risk to their health. But the way this risk is communicated is very often opaque and confusing, translating air pollution concentrations into colors, like red, brown, orange, and green. What those colors mean for people’s wellbeing has always been unclear,” Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics and Director of the EPIC, said.

Greenstone also noted: “My colleagues and I developed the AQLI, where the ‘L’ stands for ‘life’ to address these shortcomings. It takes particulate air pollution concentrations and converts them into perhaps the most important metric that exists, life expectancy.”

The AQLI is based on a pair of peer-reviewed studies co-authored by Greenstone that quantify the causal relationship between long-term human exposure to particulate pollution and life expectancy.

The results from these studies are then combined with hyper-localised, global particulate matter measurements, yielding unprecedented insight into the true cost of air pollution in communities around the world.

Seventy-five per cent of the global population, or 5.5 billion people, live in areas where particulate pollution exceeds the WHO guideline.

The AQLI reveals that India and China, which make up 36 per cent of the world’s population, account for 73 per cent of all years of life lost due to particulate pollution.

On average, people in India would live 4.3 years longer if their country met the WHO guideline, expanding the average life expectancy at birth there from 69 to 73 years.

In the US, about a third of the population lives in areas not in compliance with the WHO guideline.

Those living in the country’s most polluted counties could expect to live up to one year longer if pollution met the WHO guideline.

Globally, the AQLI reveals that particulate pollution reduces average life expectancy by 1.8 years, making it the greatest global threat to human health.

By comparison, first-hand cigarette smoke leads to a reduction in global average life expectancy of about 1.6 years.

Other risks to human health have even smaller effects: alcohol and drugs reduce life expectancy by 11 months; unsafe water and sanitation take off seven months; and HIV/AIDS four months.

Conflict and terrorism take off 22 days. So, the impact of particulate pollution on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, twice that of alcohol and drug use, three times that of unsafe water, five times that of HIV/AIDS, and more than 25 times that of conflict and terrorism.

“While people can stop smoking and take steps to protect themselves from diseases, there is little they can individually do to protect themselves from the air they breathe,” Greenstone said.

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