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November 2019

Foreign Policy Watch: India-Middle East

[op-ed snap] Down, but still a potent terror force


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : ISIS - falldown and way ahead


The U.S. President announced last week of the death of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the Idlib Province of northwest Syria. 

Similar to Osama

    • This incident reminds of the elimination of Osama bin Laden. This perpetrator of violence and hatred was also hunted down in Abbottabad, Pakistan and liquidated by the Americans.

Economic background

    • Osama bin Laden was the older of the two and was from an affluent business family. Baghdadi had a modest economic background and was from a family of farmers. 


    • But both had a religious streak and a university education with somewhat modest attainments. 


    • The violence came naturally to both, except that bin Laden seemed more rational in the choice of his targets.


    • Baghdadi’s vision was narrower and confined itself to West Asia, particularly Iraq and Syria. He exploited the opportunity created by bin Laden and retreating into a shell to escape American operations. 


    • The al-Qaeda and the IS operated independently although not always at cross-purposes. 
    • They never complimented each other. The IS came into existence after bin Laden became nearly moribund. It believed in spectacular action and did not get bogged down to theory or ideology.


    • Osama bin Laden never spoke in terms of sovereignty or territory. His appeal favored an ideology that considered all non-Muslims as infidels who needed to be dealt with the utmost severity. 
    • Baghdadi believed in the power of control over geographic territory and the full use of the state apparatus with all its resources, including oil, to spread and perpetuate the IS’s message. 

What lies ahead

    • No leader needed – The movement thrives solely on an individual’s spirit of vengeance and does not call for any extraordinary organising capacity. 
    • Immediate response – The short audio clipping that was released announcing the appointment of leader warned the U.S. of severe reprisal for Baghdadi’s killing. 
    • The situation in Iraq and Syria – It makes one believe that Iraq and Syria are in for a turbulent time. The partial withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria has led to the escape from custody of a number of IS prisoners and their families.
    • Cadre – The IS’ new leadership may be expected to make an intense appeal to its cadres not to become demoralised after the elimination of Baghdadi.
    • They may scale up revenge against the remaining American forces.
    • Extended organisation – There may not be any immediate attrition in the IS’s ranks which are spread over a wide area encompassing most of West Asia and parts of Asia and Africa. 
    • The basic structure would comprise what is known as Wilayats headquartered in a number of provinces in each country.

What it means for India

    • India has enough reason to be apprehensive about the developments in West Asia. 
    • There is the possibility of ‘lone wolf’ IS attacks across the nation. MHA is apprehensive about attacks on high dignitaries. 
    • The raids by NIA in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere suggest an IS presence in the country. 
    • A few misguided Indian youths crossed into Iraq in the early days of the IS to fight for jihad. Most were disillusioned in a quick time and a few returned home with horror stories of the state of IS camps. 
    • Others might have stayed back and could be the dangerous part of IS’s core.

Way ahead

    • Security agencies should keep a close eye on the returnees so that they do not lapse into mischief and allow themselves to be used as ‘sleeper cells.
    • They should also assist the authorities in deradicalisation as well as checking new recruitment to the IS. 
    • Both tasks require enormous community alertness and swift communication with security agencies.

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)

[op-ed snap] Lost opportunity


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : RCEP - why India should have stayed?


India has chosen to hold back from joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement.

Opposition to RCEP

    • Domestic opposition to joining the RCEP is rooted in 
      • fear of the influx of cheap Chinese products
      • non-tariff barriers which tend to restrict market access
      • cheaper dairy products from New Zealand that would worsen the trade deficit and dent the domestic industry.
    • State of the economy – deeper than expected slowdown in the economy may have tilted the balance in favor of not joining.

Concerns with the decision

  • Short term – The loss to the economy far exceeds the short-term perceived benefits of staying out of the pact. 
  • Protectionism – This action signals a shift towards a protectionist stance
  • Sector-wise approach lacking – Indian side should have made greater effort to convince other countries for carve-outs for certain sectors, and for allowing a gradual phasing out of tariffs to ease domestic fears. 
  • No focus on reforms – India should have used this opportunity to push through contentious but necessary reforms that would boost competitiveness. 
  • Policy dilemma – On the one hand, India wants to become a manufacturing hub. Staying out of the RCEP reduces opportunities for trading with these countries, which account for roughly a third of global trade. 
  • Missed supply chains – Manufacturing today requires greater integration with global supply chains. 
  • Chinese slowdown advantage – Signing the agreement would have signaled an embrace of freer trade. It could have aided in the shift of companies out of China to India. 
  • Strategic loss – With this, India has also ceded space to China to have a greater say in the region.


The failure to persuade on long-run benefits and bowing to the pressure of various interest groups shows that parliamentary strength alone is not sufficient to push through contentious but necessary reform.

Medical Education Governance in India

[op-ed snap] Back to the blackboard


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : NEET - findings and need to reorient


Recent data from Tamil Nadu that became available through the Madras High Court showed a clear link between coaching classes and securing a medical seat. This is a worrisome situation. 


    • As per data submitted to the Madras High Court by the government of Tamil Nadu, the bulk of the students who secured MBBS seats in the State in 2019 had taken coaching classes to prepare for the exam. 
    • Only 1.6 % of all students who joined the government medical colleges had managed to get a seat without undergoing any preparatory coaching program. 
    • Even in private medical colleges, only a marginally higher – 3.2% had got through without coaching classes. 
    • Data also showed that a significant percentage of students in both government (66.2) and private colleges (64.4) had to take multiple attempts at NEET to score a seat. 
    • The costs of coaching classes are huge and run into lakhs of rupees. It clearly puts medical education out of the reach of the poorer sections.

Opposition to NEET by TN

    • Cost – prohibitive cost factor has been in the list of arguments against NEET right from the beginning. 
    • Out of reach to many – It would keep a segment of students out of the race was the point posited by the State, citing the example set by the IIT-Joint Entrance Examination. 
    • Marginalised groups – coaching classes would determine entry to courses and put out of the race, students who were poor, or hailed from rural areas. 
    • Quality of education – the shortcoming in this sector makes expensive coaching classes the norm. 
    • State of classrooms – reports such as the ASER have revealed sad neglect of a key nation-building function — school education. 

Way ahead

    • Ensuring that quality education is imparted at schools by well-trained teachers would obviate the need for coaching outside of classes. 
    • NEET hopes to choose the best students for a career in medicine and remains value-neutral in every other way. 
    • States should put in place a series of steps that would make learning meaningful and fun for children, and in the interim, provide free NEET coaching classes to help disadvantaged students make that leap.

Trade Sector Updates – Falling Exports, TIES, MEIS, Foreign Trade Policy, etc.

Explained: Balance of Trade and its significance


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Trade Deficit

Mains level : Balance of Trade issue in India

  • A key reason that India forwarded for declining to sign on was the existence of trade deficits with many of the constituents of the RCEP.

What concerned India?

  • India was concerned that joining the RCEP trade pact could lead to Chinese goods flooding the Indian markets, and India’s trade deficit ballooning against most of the RCEP members.
  • This, India argued, would have led to several sectoral producers such as those in the dairy and steel sector being dominated by foreign competition.

India’s trade deficit

  • For instance, against the 10 member ASEAN, India’s trade deficit was nearly $22 billion in 2018.
  • Against South Korea it was $12 billion, against Australia $9.6 billion, against Japan almost $8 billion.
  • Worst of all is the trade deficit with China – $53.6 billion.

What is Trade Deficit?

  • Simply put, the trade “balance” of a country shows the difference between what it earns from its exports and what it pays for its imports.
  • If this number is in negative – that is, the total value of goods imported by a country is more than the total value of goods exported by that country – then it is referred to as a “trade deficit”.
  • If India has a trade deficit with China then China would necessarily have a “trade surplus” with India.

What does it mean?

  • A trade deficit broadly can mean two things. One, that the demand in the domestic economy is not being met by the domestic producers.
  • For instance, India may be producing a lot of milk but still not enough for the total milk demand in the country. As such, India may choose to import milk.
  • Two, many a time a deficit signifies the lack of competitiveness of the domestic industry.
  • For instance, Indian car manufacturers could import steel from China instead of procuring it from the domestic producers if the Chinese steel was decidedly cheaper, for the same quality.
  • More often than not, the trade deficit of a country is due to a combination of both these main factors.

Is a trade deficit a bad thing?

  • No trade is ever balanced. That’s because all countries have different strengths and weaknesses.
  • India may have a trade deficit with China but a surplus with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. It all depends on whether a country is playing to its strength or not.
  • Trade typically enhances wellbeing all across the world by forcing countries to do what they can do most efficiently and procure (import) from the rest of the world what they cannot produce efficiently.

Do higher tariffs help in bringing down trade deficits?

  • Of course, they do. For instance, if cheaper milk and steel from New Zealand and China, respectively, was held off by India levying higher.
  • Then the people most hurt would be Indian consumers of milk and steel – a number far in excess of the number of Indian producers of milk and steel.
  • The consumers would have to either pay a higher cost for imported steel or use equally costly or poorer quality domestic steel or indeed, go without milk (at least the poorer consumers).


  • That is not to say that trade doesn’t have elements that compromise a country’s strategic interests and that is why there are some commodities in which every country wants to maintain self-sufficiency.
  • But merely levying higher tariffs or not choosing to trade do not bring about self-sufficiency.
  • For attaining self-reliance, a country’s domestic industry has to improve and the best of this happening is when one learns from the competition.

Land Reforms

[pib] Wastelands Atlas of India – 2019


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Wastelands in India

Mains level : Land records management

  • Realizing the importance of the availability of a reliable database on the wastelands of the country, the Union Minister for Rural Development released the Wastelands Atlas – 2019.

Wastelands Atlas – 2019

  • The Department of Land Resources in collaboration with National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), Department of Space has published Wastelands Atlases of India – 2000, 2005, 2010 & 2011 editions.
  • The new wastelands mapping exercise, carried out by NRSC using the Indian Remote Sensing Satellite data is brought out as the fifth edition of Wastelands Atlas – 2019.
  • This 2019 Atlas provides district and state wise distribution of different categories of wastelands area including mapping of about 12.08 Mha hitherto unmapped area of J&K.

Need for such Atlas

  • Unprecedented pressure on the land beyond its carrying capacity is resulting into degradation of lands in the Country.
  • Therefore, robust geospatial information on wastelands assumes significance and effectively helpful in rolling back the wastelands for productive use through various land development programmes / schemes.
  • India with 2.4% of total land area of the World is supporting 18% of the World’s population.
  • The per capita availability of agriculture land in India is 0.12 ha whereas World per capita agriculture land is 0.29 ha.

Highlights of the Atlas

  • The changes in wastelands between 2008-09 and 2015-16 have been presented in the Atlas.
  • The effort has resulted in estimating the spatial extent of wastelands for entire country to the tune of 55.76 Mha (16.96 % of geographical area of the Country i.e. 328.72 Mha).
  • During this period 1.45 Mha of wastelands are converted into non wastelands categories.
  • There is a net conversion of 0.84 Mha (0.26%) of different wasteland categories in the country during 2008-09 to 2015-16.
  • A reduction in wasteland area was observed in the categories of land with dense scrub, waterlogged and marshy land, sandy areas, degraded pastures / grazing land and gullied and / or ravinous land.

Tourism Sector

[pib] ICEDASH & ATITHI Initiatives


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : ICEDASH & ATITHI Initiatives

Mains level : Various Digital India initiatives

  • Union Ministry of Finance and Corporate Affairs unveiled two new IT initiatives – ICEDASH and ATITHI.


  • ICEDASH is an Ease of Doing Business (EoDB) monitoring dashboard of the Indian Customs helping public see the daily Customs clearance times of import cargo at various ports and airports.
  • With ICEDASH, Indian Customs has taken a lead globally to provide an effective tool that helps the businesses compare clearance times across ports and plan their logistics accordingly.
  • This dashboard has been developed by CBIC in collaboration with NIC.
  • ICEDASH can be accessed through the CBIC website.


  • With ATITHI mobile app,  CBIC has introduced an easy to use mobile app for international travelers to file the Customs declaration in advance.
  • Passengers can use this app to file declaration of dutiable items and currency with the Indian Customs even before boarding the flight to India.
  • ATITHI would in particular create a tech savvy image of India Customs and would encourage tourism and business travel to India.

Skilling India – Skill India Mission,PMKVY, NSDC, etc.

[pib] SkillsBuild platform


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SkillsBuild platform

Mains level : Various initiatives for skill education

  • The Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship (MSDE) launched the SkillsBuild platform in collaboration with IBM.

SkillsBuild platform

  • As part of the programme, a two-year advanced diploma in IT, networking and cloud computing, co-created and designed by IBM will be offered at the ITIs & National Skill Training Institutes (NSTIs).
  • The platform will be extended to train ITI & NSTI faculty on building skills in Artificial Intelligence (AI).
  • The platform is deployed with the support of leading NGOs like Unnati and Edunet Foundation.
  • IBM Volunteers along with the NGOS will offer students personalized coaching and experiential learning opportunities.


  • The digital platform will provide a personal assessment of the cognitive capabilities and personality via MyInnerGenius to the students.
  • They will then learn foundational knowledge about digital technologies, as well as professional skills such as resume-writing, problem solving and communication.
  • Students will alsos receive recommendations on role-based education for specific jobs that include technical and professional learning.

About “New Collar Curriculum” initiative  

  • IBM joined hands with Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship (MSDE) in early 2018 to launch a first-of-its kind ‘New Collar Curriculum’.
  • This initiative is part of IBM’s global commitment to create a job-ready workforce and to build the next generation of skills needed for new collar careers.

Disasters and Disaster Management – Sendai Framework, Floods, Cyclones, etc.

Red Atlas Action Plan Map


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Red Atlas Action Plan Map

Mains level : Flood control and management in India

  • The Vice President has launched the red atlas action-plan map as part of the coastal flood warning system developed for Chennai.

Red Atlas Action-plan Map

  • The Atlas has been prepared by the Ministry of Earth Sciences to aid Tamil Nadu government in effective flood mitigation in Chennai.
  • The atlas with probable scenarios for different rainfall periods is aimed at flood mitigation, preparedness, operations and management aspects.
  • The manual provides information including on corporation wards that are likely to be affected due to flooding and the areas that may need evacuation in Chennai taking into account all historical datasets.

Coastal Flood Warning System app for Chennai (CFLOWS)

  • Launched by NIOT, CFLOWS is India’s first integrated coastal flood warning system.
  • It is an integrated GIS-based decision support system to provide forecast on potential inundation 10 days in advance.
  • CFLOWS can simulate the scenario and predict what will happen in a particular area.
  • It will be hosted and made operational at National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR) with meteorological data inputs from IMD, National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF) and Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS).

Wildlife Conservation Efforts

Species in news: Polypedates bengalensis


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Polypedates bengalensis

Mains level : NA

  • Researchers have recorded a new species of tree frog in West Bengal.

Polypedates bengalensis

  • The new species has been named Brown Blotched Bengal Tree Frog (Polypedates bengalensis).
  • The name is derived from a series of six to nine dark brown blotches that extend laterally from behind the frog’s eye to the vent.
  • The frog’s body colour is yellowish-brown to greenish-brown.
  • The frogs were seen perched on vegetation, including bamboo, banana and taro leaves, and were calling from a height of 1.2-1.8 m above ground, over stagnant waters bodies that were mostly rainwater pools.