[op-ed snap] A parallel chessboard


Mains Paper 2: IR | Important International institutions, agencies & fora, their structure, mandate

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Not Much

Mains level: Digital Media and nuclear deterence



Digital media creates an alternative chessboard, out of sight of the main political protagonists. The players on this other board are non-state micro-actors — who are not in the command-and-control chain leading to the nuclear buttons.Why we may need a new theory of nuclear deterrence for a post-digital age.

Recent Conflict and nuclear deterrence

  • The latest conflagration across the India-Pakistan border, triggered by the February 14 suicide bombing attack in Pulwama, has set a new watermark for the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
  • The classic deterrence logic from nuclear game theory would suggest that the present state is the best solution to a region in a state of perpetual conflict:
  • Either side has the ability to annihilate the other — and that awareness deters any meaningful escalation of hostility and flips both sides back to a peaceful equilibrium.
  • In the nuclear deterrence community, there is an idea called the stability-instability paradox:
  • The overhanging threat of nuclear retaliation offers an insurance policy, which gives rise to moral hazard, a common problem in the insurance business.
  • The safety net of insurance creates incentives for low-level risky behaviour. This helps explain a tendency towards proxy wars on the ground or dogfights in the air of the kind we witnessed recently.

Impact of digitalisation

  • Digital media creates an alternative chessboard, out of sight of the main political protagonists
  • Technology permits them to broadcast messages, and push the pieces on the parallel board and at some point their configuration of pieces infiltrates action on the main chessboard, because the protagonists being political entities must respond to the moods of their constituencies, the micro-actors.
  • The magic of digital media is that it often introduces change through imperceptible moves, which then gather force over powerful transmission mechanisms and hop across different media, from television to Twitter, WhatsApp and Facebook.
  • False and fiery narratives, in particular, have a way of being buoyed by the logic of digital transmission.
  • They get elevated and travel further, partly because people are motivated to send more extreme messages and the digital media companies profit from more eyeballs — and more advertising exposure — on these messages.

Worsening the situation

  • To be sure, the digital medium is a powerful force not just as a transmitter of narratives or as an organiser of hashtag tribes; it is also a force to be reckoned with as a cyber weapon.
  • Pulwama, unsurprisingly, also led to a spike in cyber-attacks.
  • The official website of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was hacked and defaced as was the website of Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.
  • This follows a rather long tradition of cyber tit-for-tat between India and Pakistan, that pre-dates WhatsApp.
  • As far back as 1998, Pakistani hackers had made their way into India’s Atomic Research Centre. Since then the attacks have only grown in volume and frequency.
  • Over the years, targets have ranged from embassies to government ministries to a myriad others, including military sites, universities, airports and e-banking systems.
  • The tools have included a mix of website defacement, spear phishing and malware.
  • Such malware can activate webcams, steal data and take screenshots of victims’ computers. They are not just annoyances, they can compromise national security assets and even prevent essential systems from operating.
  • Digital attacks can be sophisticated enough to directly interfere with nuclear systems. Consider the case of Stuxnet, a highly sophisticated worm that infects computers and targets centrifuges for producing enriched uranium for nuclear reactors.
  • In other words, there are many ways to disrupt the clean calculus of nuclear deterrence in the digital age. Inadvertent nuclear launches could be triggered by reliance on false information and corrupted data or the failure of a major piece of infrastructure.


It is time that the players on the main chessboard, the policymakers on both sides of the Indo-Pak border, and the digital platform companies, Facebook, WhatsApp, Google and Twitter, that are enabling that other chessboard, wake up to a new crisis around the corner. This one could have implications even more serious than the ones about election misinformation or privacy breaches that dominated the headlines in the last year. It is hard enough playing chess on a single chessboard.






[op-ed snap]Disempowering gram sabhas


Mains Paper 2: Governance | Mechanisms, laws, institutions and Bodies constituted for the protection and betterment of the vulnerable sections

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Various Forest Rights Acts and their provisions

Mains level: Supreme Court Order on  Eviction of forest dwellers and violations of forest rights act



On February 13, the court ordered the eviction of 1.8 million Adivasi and forest-dwelling claimants under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, to stem supposed forest destruction.

Diversion of forest land and it’s impact

  • Since 1980, through the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) has “diverted for non-forest use” (bureaucratese for destroyed) over 1.5 million hectares of forest.
  • Stripping these forests has yielded thousands of crores of rupees for corporations to which a bulk of these forestlands were diverted, and for forest departments via compensatory funds.
  • But how have the original inhabitants of these forests, already among the most marginalised, coped with the loss of homes and livelihoods!
  • Shouldn’t the destruction of over 1.5 million hectares of forest, and the misuse of the FCA, seize the court and petitioners? And how would the FRA perform on forest stewardship, where the FCA is failing?

Forest Rights Act

  • The FRA was enacted to recognise the pre-existing rights of forest-dwellers.
  • Recognising them as “integral to the survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem,” the FRA gives their gram sabhas “the responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance.”
  • A key 2009 regulation actualised gram sabha powers by mandating that all forest diversion proposals and compensatory and ameliorative schemes be presented in detail to the relevant gram sabhas to award or withhold its free, prior, informed consent, and also be preceded by the settlement of all rights under the FRA.
  • This long overdue move created for the first time a space for forest communities to participate in decision-making around diversion proposals, making forest governance more accountable, ecologically informed and resource just.

Violation of spirit of Law

  • A decade on, the state and corporations are shredding this reform to bits. In 2016, for instance, I studied a proposal whereby the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) sought 1,400 acres of forestland across seven Adivasi villages of Keonjhar in the ecologically sensitive Gandhamardan mountains, for an iron ore mine.
  • The diversion proposal sent by the OMC and the Odisha government to the MoEF included seven copycat gram sabha resolutions, supposedly representing the seven villages.
  • Each identical resolution depicted villagers, over 2,000 in all, as saying they were not using the forests for cultivation, house-building or any livelihood, had no individual or community claims to it, and that they “request” the government to implement the forest diversion.
  • In the villages, these resolutions evoked shock and rage.
  • After  news report on the case in 2016, the MoEF asked the State government to probe the matter.
  • The probe report, neither shared with villagers nor made public, glossed over testimonies it gathered of 11 villagers.
  • Last October, despite letters by villages about the forgery and pending FRA claims, the MoEF issued permission to the OMC to destroy this stretch of forest.
  • On February 26, the MoEF tried to formalise this travesty by writing to all States that FRA compliance is not needed for ‘in-principle’ approval for diversions.
  • Violating the FRA, this damaging move eliminates gram sabhas from decision-making, and makes diversion a violent fait accompli for forest-dwellers.

Reactions to such violation

  • Communities are increasingly rejecting such disempowerment, evident from protests like a 30-km march days ago by villagers in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand against the MoEF’s recent decision to divert over 2,000 acres of forest to a mine, despite gram sabha forgery complaints.

Way Forward

A model of forest governance, forged on the back of usurping gram sabha powers, is servicing a ruthless resource grab. The Supreme Court should examine this sabotage of the FRA that is damaging our forests and our democracy.






Forest Conservation Efforts – NFP, Western Ghats, etc.

[op-ed snap]On the learning curve: transforming education outcomes in India


Mains Paper 2: Governance | Issues relating to development & management of Social Sector/Services relating to Health, Education, Human Resources

From the UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Saksham

Mains level: Initiatives taken in field of education reforms and their effectiveness.



The systemic approach to transforming education outcomes in India is leading to success.


  • Among the lakhs of employees on the payrolls of State governments in India, the education department, unarguably, has the largest share of employees.
  • Besides frontline service providers (teachers), there are a number of other officials and administrators who form an important part of the educational set-up.

The Haryana case study

  • Given the size of the education department, any effort to introduce education reforms must ensure that the incentives of all stakeholders are aligned throughout the system to ensure their participation.
  • Education transformation programmes by States run the risk of falling flat, as they are often unaccompanied by a single transformation change road map that all key actors agree upon and work towards.
  • A successful example of implementing such a road map can be seen in Haryana, which has created a race among its administrative blocks to be declared as ‘Saksham’ (Hindi for abled/skilled), i.e. have 80% or more students who are grade level competent.
  • Under this campaign, State officials nominate their block for the ‘Saksham Ghoshna’ once they are reasonably confident that their block has achieved the 80% target — as a result of remedial programmes, teacher training and internal assessments.
  • This self-nomination is then followed by rigorous rounds of third party assessments to vet their claims.
  • If a block is found to be ‘Saksham’, the block officials are recognised by no less than the Chief Minister, and a large-scale ‘show and tell’ event is organised to honour them.
  • Further, when all blocks in a district are declared as ‘Saksham’, the entire district is also accorded ‘Saksham’ status.
  • According to the latest third party assessment in February 2019, 94 blocks out of a total of 119 in Haryana have been declared ‘Saksham’ and overall grade competence has been assessed at 80%, which is a giant leap in learning outcomes when compared to the overall grade competence of 40% in 2014.
  • Given these early successes, many other States are also embarking on such programmes.
  • The valuable lesson from all this is that inducing competition among administrative units helps invigorate key stakeholders to work in tandem in order to achieve intended outcomes.

Benefits of Ranking of states

  • Since its inception, the NITI Aayog (National Institution for Transforming India), has also been a believer in competitive federalism that puts pressure on policymakers across States to perform better on pre-defined goals and metrics.
  • To translate this to education, we have now developed the State-level ‘School Education Quality Index’ (SEQI), which seeks to make improvements in learning outcomes a focal point of governance.
  • It gives scores to States based on their educational performance and puts this data out in the public domain.
  • The SEQI uses three data sources, including the National Achievement Survey, to come out with 33 indicators to measure education outcomes, of which the largest weightage (48%) is given to learning outcomes.
  • By having a two-fold ranking system — one which recognises well-performing States via an overall performance score, and a delta ranking that measures the level of improvement made by States from their base year — the NITI’s Aayog’s State ranking not only encourages competition among States but also rewards and motivates other States to consistently improve.

District Programme

  • The NITI Aayog’s Aspirational Districts programme, launched in early 2018, also draws from this template.
  • Here, 112 under-served districts across the country compete with each other in order to achieve targets in five crucial sectors; these includeeducation, which has among a weightage of 30%.
  • These districts are monitored real-time and ranked on the basis of their progress.
  • The follow-up for each indicator is handled by the respective Ministry in charge of the same, while NITI Aayog handles the data compilation and dissemination.
  • Most importantly, there is a constant focus on recognising and disseminating best practices of select districts to other States, which act as a reward for well-performing local administrations while providing impetus to other districts to adopt similar measures.
  • This strategy has already shown success; districts that were ranked low in baseline surveys, such as Virudhunagar (Tamil Nadu), Nuapada (Odisha), Gumla (Jharkhand), Siddharthnagar (Uttar Pradesh), and Vizianagaram (Andhra Pradesh), have shown remarkable progress in subsequent rounds of assessment.
  • The fact that this programme has huge support and buy-in from the Prime Minister personally ensures that all stakeholders are spurred into action and energised to achieve the stated goals.
  • Given the success of these initiatives, it is abundantly clear that the right incentive structures for stakeholders lead to administrative efficiency, which then improves the quality of service delivery.
  • States therefore need to induce competition and give a boost to put all key actors in education in the driver’s seat to improve their learning levels.

Way Forward

  • The successes that we are already witnessing in India with the systemic approach to transforming education are inspiring.
  • Improvement in learning outcomes is an immediate goal for India to fulfil its aspirations of playing a greater role in the global economy and a systemic transformation is the best solution that we have so far.






e-Commerce: The New Boom

RBI governor bats for permanent status to Finance Commission


Mains Paper 2: Polity | Functions & responsibilities of the Union & the States, issues & challenges pertaining to the federal structure

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Finance Commission

Mains level: Read the attached story


  • The 15th Finance Commission, constituted in November 2017, will give recommendations for devolution of taxes and other fiscal matters for five fiscal years, commencing April 1, 2020.
  • RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das has said increasingly it is felt that there is a need to give permanent status to the Finance Commission and constitution of State Finance Commissions every five years.

Addressing various challenges

  • According to Das, there is now general agreement in the country about the importance of fiscal consolidation roadmap both at national and sub-national levels.
  • Successive finance commissions have made efforts to address the emerging issues and challenges, but in a democracy like India, the debate goes on.
  • Geopolitical risks have necessitated higher expenditure on defence and internal security.
  • Natural calamities and disasters have called for higher expenditure on relief and rehabilitation.
  • In parallel, aspirations of people and the country as a whole have required that the government spends more on developmental programmes.

Why such move?

  • The Commission can function as a leaner entity in the intervening period till the next Finance Commission is set up in a full-fledged manner.
  • Over past several decades, Finance Commissions have adopted different approaches with regard to principles of tax devolution, grants to be given to states and fiscal consolidation issues.
  • There is a need to ensure broad consistency between Finance Commissions so that there is some degree of certainty in the flow of funds, especially to the states.
  • This has become even more critical in the post GST scenario.

Imbibing Continuity

  • According to Das, finance commissions have over the past several decades adopted different approaches with regard to principles of tax devolution, grants to be given to states and fiscal consolidation issues.
  • In other words, there has to be continuity and change between finance commissions.
  • Increasingly, therefore, it is felt that there is a need to give permanent status to the finance commission.
  • A commission can function lean till the next finance commission is set up in a full-fledged manner.
  • During the intervening period, it can also address issues arising from implementation of the recommendations of the finance commission.

Other recommendations

  • The principle of decentralisation works better when powers and functions are delegated based on which tier of governance is best suited to fulfill that responsibility.
  • The constitution has already provided for delegation of certain functions to the urban and rural local bodies; but it is seen that there is still good distance to traverse when it comes to devolution of funds to these local bodies.
  • It is essential that State Finance Commissions are constituted every five years as per the mandate in Article 243I of the Constitution and arrangements are made for their robust functioning.


Finance Commission

Finance Commission of India: Powers, Functions and Responsibilities

Finance Commission – Issues related to devolution of resources

Parrotfish in Andaman


Mains Paper 3: Environment | Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment

From UPSC perspectives, the following things are important

Prelims Level: Bumphead Parrotfish

Mains Level: Read the attached story 


  • Coral cover protection along the existing protected marine areas in Andaman and Nicobar islands is necessary for conservation of the endangered Bumphead Parrotfish, a new study has suggested.

Bumphead Parrotfish

  • Bumphead parrotfish, Bolbometopon muricatum, is an important component of coral reef ecosystem, but is highly endangered globally.
  • It is categorized as ‘vulnerable’ in the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
  • This fish is a highly prized resource, but is threatened due to limited knowledge about its distribution and abundance in Indian waters.
  • A research recently studied the distribution, abundance and dangers to this species in the waters of Andaman and Nicobar islands.


  • A large body size, aggregating behaviour and limited activity at night make B. muricatum an easy target for spear-fishers.
  • Combined with slow growth and low replacement rates, this has resulted in population decline across the Indo-Pacific and Red Sea region.
  • The study reports that the presence of a protected area, live coral and algal cover, significantly influenced the distribution and abundance of muricatum.
  • Incidental catch by fishers and degradation of coral reef habitats are two potential threats to the species.
  • Evidence of low abundance of muricatum on ocean reefs surrounded by deep waters, and traits such as limited dispersal and gregariousness, could also have influenced the distribution and abundance of this fish.
  • The findings suggest the necessity to ban night fishing for the species and to implement regulations regarding reef fishing.
Wildlife Conservation Efforts

India sets up private sector alliance for DRR


Mains Paper 3: Disaster Management | Disaster & disaster management

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level:  ARISE India

Mains level: Various DRR initiatives


  • India has set up private sector alliance for disaster resilient communities, known as ARISE, an initiative supported by the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR).


  • ARISE stands for the UNISDR Private Sector Alliance for Disaster Resilient Societies.
  • It is a UNISDR-led network of private sector entities, whose members voluntarily commit to align with the Sendai Framework.
  • Already 140 companies worldwide are members of ARISE.
  • Its members share information, experience, activities, and projects, while the level of involvement and resources is at the discretion of each member.
  • Most activities and interactions are a local and regional level, and ARISE is structured accordingly.

Why such move?

  • The government has taken the initiative to strengthen private sector participation and investment in building disaster resilient infrastructure and bring down disaster losses, one of the key goals of the Sendai framework for disaster risk reduction.
  • This will bring Indian corporates to work in tandem with the government to take action before a disaster strikes and build back better after a calamity.
  • ARISE India would turn the private sector’s attention to the importance of action before a disaster strikes and to take advantage of opportunities that emerge to build back better after a disaster hits.

India’s losses to disasters

  • A study released by the UNISDR last year said India suffered economic losses of $80 billion during the 20-year period of 1998 to 2017.
  • India has been ranked among world’s top five countries in absolute economic losses.


United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction

  • The UNISDR created in December 1999, is the successor to the secretariat of the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.
  • It was established to ensure the implementation of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.
  • It is part of the United Nations Secretariat and its functions span the social, economic, environmental as well as humanitarian fields.
  • UNISDR supports the implementation, follow-up and review of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction adopted by the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction on 18 March 2015 in Sendai, Japan.
Disasters and Disaster Management – Sendai Framework, Floods, Cyclones, etc.

Exercise Sary-Arka Anti-terror 2019


Mains Paper 2: IR | Bilateral, regional & global groupings & agreements involving India &/or affecting India’s interests

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: SCO, Ex Sary-Arka

Mains level: Strategic importance of SCO


  • India, Pakistan and the other member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) will take part in a joint anti-terrorism exercise to be held this year by the grouping.

Ex Sary-Arka Anti-terror 2019

  • The decision to hold the joint exercise was announced during the 34th meeting of the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) council held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
  • Delegations of the competent authorities of India, Kazakhstan, China, the Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and the RATS Executive Committee attended the meeting.
  • Chaired by Russia, the meeting also declared plans to hold the first stage of the joint border operation “Solidarity 2019-2021”.

About RATS

  • Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) is a permanent organ of the SCO which serves to promote cooperation of member states against the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. It is headquartered in Tashkent.
  • Its head is elected to three-year term. Each member state of SCO sends permanent representative to RATS


Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s (SCO)

  • The SCO, in which China plays an influential role, is also comprised of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan.
  • India and Pakistan were admitted into the bloc in 2017.
  • It is Eurasian economic, political and security organisation headquartered in Beijing, China.
  • Its main objective is military cooperation between member states. It is primarily centred on security-related concerns of Central Asian members with main threats being terrorism, separatism and extremism.
  • It was established in June 2001 as a successor of Shanghai Five mechanism which was established in 1996 with China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan as members.
  • Iran, Afghanistan, Belarus and Mongolia enjoy observer status of SCO.
  • Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Nepal are dialogue partners of SCO.
Foreign Policy Watch: India-SCO

[pib] Exercise Mitra Shakti-VI


Mains Paper 2: IR | Bilateral, regional and global groupings and agreements involving India and/or affecting India’s interests

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important:

Prelims level: Ex Mitra Shakti

Mains level:  India-Sri Lanka Strategic relationship



  • It is conducted annually as part of military diplomacy and interaction between armies of India & Sri Lanka.
  • The joint exercise for the year 2018-19 will be conducted in Sri Lanka.
  • Troops from 1st Battalion the BIHAR Regiment of the Indian Army and Gemunu Watch Battalion of Sri Lankan Army would be jointly undertaking the exercise.
  • The aim of the exercise is to build and promote close relations between armies of both the countries and to enhance ability of joint exercise commander to take military contingents of both nations under command.
  • The exercise will involve tactical level operations in an international Counter Insurgency and Counter Terrorist environment under United Nations.
Foreign Policy Watch: India-Sri Lanka