Thursday, 25 September 2014

India sent its MOM to Mars and is proud of it

PM Narendra Modi with Isro chief Radhakrishnan
The sky really seemed the limit on Wednesday morning as the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) spacecraft entered Mars’ orbit and into Indian space history. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while congratulating the scientists at the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), rightly noted that we have achieved “the near impossible”. Given the technological limitations and financial constraints, the Mangalyaan, or the Mars mission, is unique in many ways. On a shoe-string budget of Rs. 450 crore, it is an indigenous programme completed for launch in less than two years. This is much quicker and less expensive than any other Mars mission.
Only a handful of countries have been able to cross this frontier of interplanetary exploration, and India’s entry into this elite club comprising the United States, Russia and Europe is amazing. The space exploration arena is getting crowded and it is important to be ahead of your competition. India, by becoming the first Asian country to launch a successful Mars mission, has taken the wind out of the sails of nations like China, Japan and South Korea which have ambitious space programmes planned.
Isro’s Mars mission is predominantly a technology demonstrator. The success of MOM shows that India has the potential for deep space remote controlling and communication and navigation. The MOM — which will orbit Mars for six months — is also carrying scientific equipment and will study the planet’s surface and atmosphere, especially the presence of methane gas.
Scientist working on MOM
Mangalyaan’s success is also expected to increase India’s launch capabilities. Isro has successfully combined state-of-the-art technology and frugal engineering thereby setting the benchmark  for future interplanetary missions by any country/agency. While the mission is a major achievement, there are areas where Isro has to focus. At present, it is only capable of launching payloads below two tonnes. The government must encourage science education by investing more in research and development in schools and universities.
As former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, under whom Mangalyaan was approved, said during the 101st Indian Science Congress: “Science education in our country requires much more attention…. We must increase our annual expenditure on science and technology to at least 2% of our GDP.” However, for the moment, let’s bask in our moment in the sun, or shall we say stars?

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

A united West Asia to fight ISIS: It's easier said than done

The Islamic State (ISIS), by beheading two American citizens, has drawn international attention and has made US President Barack Obama send American troops as military advisers to Iraq. In his speech last week, Mr Obama stressed the need for a coalition of countries to tackle ISIS. Britain has decided not to be directly involved but France and Australia have extended support. US secretary of state John Kerry is in West Asia, stitching together a coalition of regional players. Several Arab countries have reportedly reciprocated, expressing willingness to join in airstrikes on ISIS. The details are yet unclear, but forging a grand coalition amid the complex politics of West Asia is easier said than done.
John Kerry with Arab leaders after the Jeddah meet on ISIS
The role of Arab governments, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, in the growth of ISIS is well known. So why would they now want to destroy ISIS? The rise of ISIS, a Sunni terror group, which targeted Shias and other minorities, was acceptable  — even desirable — for Sunni kingdoms in West Asia. For them ISIS’ anti-Shia drive meant the ultimate weakening of Iran, the Shia heavyweight in West Asia. However, the equation changed the moment ISIS revealed its grand plans for an Islamic caliphate. Put differently, the snakes in the backyard have turned homeward. Also many countries fear that their local Sunni population might get influenced by ISIS. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others put their forces on alert in July since the caliphate was declared.
The US does not want Iran and Syria to be part of the coalition, thereby making it a largely Sunni group. Turkey’s reluctance to join the coalition also weakens the drive against ISIS. Ankara is wary of the Kurdish resistance in the country and 49 Turkish diplomats are in ISIS’ custody. But it shares a 1,200-km-long border with Iraq and Syria and can choke ISIS by tightening its border and stopping the flow of oil from ISIS-controlled areas. It needs to be seen how much the US and its allies will be willing to attack ISIS in Syria without aiding the Bashar al-Assad government. The regional coalition should also check terror groups in, say, Libya, Egypt, etc. Focusing solely on ISIS and leaving other groups is half the job done. ISIS, through its call for an Islamic caliphate, is hoping to rekindle the passion for Arab nationalism. More importantly, it wants West Asia to unite and oppose Western powers that have ‘subjugated’ the region for more than two centuries. Given this, there is a grain of truth when Mr Obama said that “…this is not our fight alone” and “nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing the region”. The success of the coalition depends on a united West Asia that overlooks sectarian and national differences. Unless the Arab nations take up the fight, the attack on ISIS will be viewed as Western propaganda against Islam and the region — and ISIS will continue to terrorise the world.

Friday, 12 September 2014

ISIS: Is Obama doing the same mistake Bush did in West Asia?

                                   Barack Obama                Pic: Telegraph
US President Barack Obama’s strategy, which he unveiled on Wednesday, against the Islamic State (ISIS), had the stench of a stale dish. Only a week ago when he was asked about the US’ strategy on ISIS, Obama said: “We don’t have a strategy yet.” He was criticised for this response and Wednesday’s speech was expected to minimise that damage. The US president’s plan involves attacking the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, increasing assistance and training for all forces fighting ISIS (except the Bashar al-Assad government), cutting off the funding and recruitment channels for the terror group and continuing humanitarian assistance to those affected.
Obama has done the right thing — though late in the day — in deciding to pursue the ISIS “wherever they are”, but his strategy leaves many questions unanswered. There is no clarity on the specific roles of the US’ coalition partners. There is no stipulated timeframe— experts estimate will take two to three years to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the ISIS.
After the 9/11 attacks, Washington was quick to respond, first by invading Afghanistan and later Iraq. As The New York Times’ Carlotta Gall in The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 writes: “…by going to war in 2001, the United States was walking into the Islamists’ trap. It was just what al Qaeda wanted: for Afghanistan to serve again as a battleground for Muslim fighters against a superpower”. Is the US repeating the same mistake and walking into an ISIS trap?
While speaking about sending troops to the region, Obama said: “…American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” The usage of the word “dragged” gives the impression that in 2003 the US was forced to invade Iraq. This is not true.
The US invaded Iraq in search of fictitious weapons of mass destruction and left an ineffective ‘democratic’ government, headed by Nouri al-Maliki. Not only did Maliki favour Shias but he also cracked down on protests and alienated the Sunnis. Chelsea Manning, former US army intelligence analyst, recently said the US did nothing to stop the “brutal crackdown against political dissidents by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and federal police”. This prepared a fertile ground for al Qaeda to recruit and build its network in Iraq.

                                                                                                     Pic: CBS News
Nothing explains Obama’s dilemma better than the crisis in Syria. Since pro-democracy protests broke out in 2011, the US has been trying to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad government. The US and its allies in the region have been aiding various rebel groups and the Central Intelligence Agency has been running training camps in Jordan for the Free Syrian Army, which is fighting against Assad. If ISIS bases are attacked in Syria, Washington will be indirectly helping Damascus, thereby strengthening Assad. It would be interesting to see how Obama plans to weaken the ISIS in Syria and at the same time not give Assad an advantage.
The plan to train and aid rebels is a myopic one — and Obama should know it. In July, the Pentagon said that it was difficult to identify ‘moderate rebels’ and train them against Assad. The rebels are an amorphous group of fighters, many of whom are pro-al Qaeda. Obama’s idea of picking the best among the worst is similar to America’s perception of the ‘moderate’ Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
After the hasty retreat from Iraq and setting a deadline for pulling out of Afghanistan, Obama had shown an obdurate reluctance to intervene in foreign conflicts. Obama, especially in the second term, has focused on internal matters, leaving foreign policy to his secretary of state, John Kerry. Obama’s foreign policy arc has been so limited that suddenly Sarah Palin’s “they’re our next door neighbours” comment on Russia looks brighter.
Obama’s speech came on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and if the US is at the drawing board, chalking out plans after more than a decade in the region, one would at least expect Washington not to repeat past mistakes. However, Obama’s move to aid rebels sounds more like his predecessor George W Bush’s ‘War on Terror’. And that’s not good news.
(This appeared as an article in the Hindustan Times on September 12)

Monday, 8 September 2014

Andhra Pradesh: The dangers in Vijayawada being the state capital

N Chandrababu Naidu
Vijayawada will be the new capital of Andhra Pradesh. Chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu has conveniently ignored the Centre-appointed Sivaramakrishnan committee report while naming the city on the banks of the Krishna river in his haste to get things moving in his state. The report gives three options for a capital city which are well worth considering.
Mr Naidu has, however, agreed to the committee’s suggestion to decentralise power. His political opponents have raised the fact that Mr Naidu chose Vijayawada as it has a powerful Kamma presence — a community that has traditionally backed the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). That notwithstanding, Mr Naidu’s choice also seems to have miffed the people of the Rayalaseema region, with reports that even ministers from the region were unhappy with the choice. It is now up to the CM to ensure that the people of Rayalaseema do not feel alienated and that the new capital will also help in culturally unifying the whole state.
One of the major criticisms against choosing Vijayawada was the lack of government land. Right from the time of the bifurcation, following speculation, the Vijayawada-Guntur corridor saw a real estate boom and now the government will have to buy land at a premium. The Sivaramakrishnan committee report suggests that only a quarter of the estimated `4.5 lakh crore required for the new state capital will come from the Centre.
The state will have to raise the remaining amount and in such a scenario purchasing private land at exorbitant prices will put pressure on the state exchequer. Another area of concern, which was also raised in the report, was that large areas of fertile agricultural land in and around the Vijayawada-Guntur delta region will have to be acquired. This will impact the food security of the state and will likely displace a large number of farmers. This is cause for concern in a state where about 52% of the total workforce is employed in agriculture and related services. The environmental impact real estate expansion will have on the Krishna river and its adjoining area cannot be ignored. This gains significance in view of reports that the CM is keen to have key government offices near Amaravati, a historical town situated on the river bank.
Mr Naidu, like his Telangana counterpart K Chandrashekar Rao, has a golden opportunity to build a model state and not just a capital. In his previous tenure as CM of undivided Andhra Pradesh Mr Naidu focused extensively on building urban assets — he was instrumental in transforming Hyderabad into an IT hub in the country — but was criticised for ignoring development in the rural areas. He must not repeat this mistake with Vijayawada.