Posts tagged Economic and Social Development

What internet means to an island economy

What internet means to an island economy

(Friends, I’ll show how to take notes from this article a bit later.)

24 Aug 2020 Deborshi Chaki

The Andamans just became one of the last Indian territories to get high-speed net. Will new businesses come up?
While the internet in itself will not solve persistent developmental challenges, it does offer a pathway to amplify economic transformations which are already underway.

MUMBAI : On 10 August, when the Prime Ministerinaugurated India’s first 5G-ready undersea optical fibre cable network between the Andamans and Chennai, life came full circle for Sunil Gupta. Around a year ago, he had made the difficult decision to wind up his startup in Bengaluru, a B2B tech platform for the tourism industry, and return to his hometown Port Blair in order to spend more time with his ageing parents.
“I had to close the company because the internet was dismally slow in Port Blair which makes remote working impossible,” said Gupta, who has since his return has opened a tourist hostel for budget travellers in Wandoor beach about 25km from Port Blair. But with data speeds set to improve dramatically once the undersea cable becomes fully operational, Gupta said that those plans have suddenly changed.

“Once connectivity improves, then it doesn’t really matter whether one is in Port Blair or in Bengaluru, rather the cost of operations will be less in Port Blair,” he said.

The 2,300km submarine optical fibre cable link, a long-standing demand among the local population, will deliver a bandwidth of 2×200 gigabits per second (Gbps) between Chennai and Port Blair, and 2×100 Gbps between capital Port Blair and the other islands. Though the internet arrived in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands via satellite connectivity in the early 2000s, data transfer speeds during all these years have been rudimentary.

While users in the Indian mainland upgraded to superfast digital ecosystems, the islands have remained in the 2G era (Lakshadweep will also get an undersea cable soon). Though technically speaking 4G service is available on the islands, it seldom worked. In the absence of proper connectivity, internet bandwidth, a precious commodity in the islands, was kept largely for the exclusive use of the local government machinery, leaving a large portion of the local population without any form of digital connectivity.

Now, the arrival of the undersea cable is expected to usher in an IT and ITes revolution on the islands. The islands have a high literacy rate of 86.6% and a ready workforce made up of a large English-speaking young population. While the internet in itself will not solve persistent developmental challenges—ranging from geographic remoteness to a heavy reliance on the government for the supply of goods and services—it does offer a pathway to amplify economic transformations which are already underway. The internet may finally offer the islanders a reasonable shot at diversifying beyond tourism.

A decade long wait

Located around 1,200km from the Indian mainland in the Bay of Bengal, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a former prison colony, carefully chosen for its sheer inaccessibility and remoteness, served as a natural prison for more than a century. The nearest continental landmass from the Andamans is the coast of Myanmar, which is about a day’s journey by sea from the capital Port Blair.

The island group is India’s largest union territory and is centrally administered by the union government through a lieutenant governor, the highest-ranking official of the local administration. The islands are scattered across an 800km zone from north to south. The main island clusters of Andaman and Nicobar are separated by high seas and lie to the north of the Malacca Strait, a busy sea route through which one-third of the world’s sea trade passes. Over the years, the islands have emerged as a sought-after tourist destination as well as a strategic point in the Bay of Bengal for the defence forces and currently serves as the headquarters of India’s first tri-services command, which is headed by all the three services on a rotation basis. While the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) initiative began in 2011 to provide broadband connectivity to over 200,000 gram panchayats across all 26 states and union territories, it did not include the Andaman and Nicobar Islands due to technical challenges. Telecom providers in the islands, therefore, were left to rely on expensive satellite connectivity to provide 2Mbps speeds. The high cost meant digital connectivity remained out of reach for a large section of the population.

3G services provided by the state-run BSNL and by private operators worked only intermittently. Uploading a single file could take hours. “For years, it was simply impossible for local businesses in the islands to stay competitive due to the lack of proper connectivity,” said M. Vinod, president of the Andaman and Association of Tour Operators. “Right from managing flight and hotel bookings online to accepting payments digitally, everything was a big challenge,” he said, adding: “But we expect things to be markedly better in the coming months.”

Lt General A.K. Singh, former lieutenant governor of the islands who played a key role in getting the project sanctioned, agrees. “It is a defining moment, a game-changer in multiple fields—education, health, governance, e-initiatives. The feeling of isolation which prevailed among the people will reduce; business opportunities will enhance. The islands are well placed for establishing call centres & BPO industry. The people are multilingual and there are no labour issues. In anticipation of the undersea cable, we had started foreign language classes to prepare our people. The possibilities are immense,” he told Mint.

The idea of optic fibre connectivity to the islands was first introduced by the erstwhile Planning Commission in 2010, following which it constituted a technical committee for studying the existing available bandwidth, future requirement and the strategy to be adopted for providing adequate bandwidth through reliable connectivity to the islands.

The technical committee after conducting several rounds of discussion with stakeholders such as the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), the ministry of defence and the local administration submitted its report to the Commission in January 2011. In its report, it proposed provisioning submarine optical fibre connectivity to six major islands which include Port Blair, Havelock, Little Andaman, Car Nicobar, Kamorta and Campbell Bay and satellite connectivity for other islands.

As per the proposal, the six islands were to be connected through one of the existing consortium cables passing through the region to the Indian mainland. Based on the report of the technical committee, the Planning Commission, in April 2011, conveyed its in-principle approval for laying the undersea optical fibre cable to connect the six major islands. Soon after, the Andaman and Nicobar administration prepared a proposal and invited bids for implementation of the project including its operation and maintenance for 15 years on a turnkey basis. The financial bids of the project were first opened in March 2013, with an initial estimated project cost of ₹413.55 crore. However, the project went into cold storage soon after and was revived only in 2016 under the Modi government.

A strategic asset

In addition to improving digital connectivity to the islands, the project is expected to provide heft to India’s strategic ambitions in the Indian Ocean region, where China’s dominance has been on a steady rise.

Over the years, the Chinese have steadily increased their presence in neighbouring Myanmar. In 1992, China is believed to have established a SIGINT (signals intelligence) gathering station on Great Coco Island to monitor Indian naval activity and missile launches in the Bay of Bengal. In addition to that, the Chinese are believed to have constructed an airstrip in the islands for surveillance-related purposes.

“The Andaman Nicobar Islands are like an unsinkable aircraft carrier of India in a very strategic location in the Bay of Bengal, overlooking the sea lines of communication (SLOCS) and the Malacca Straits,” said Lt. General Singh. “Communication was a huge challenge even for our defence forces. The three-tier security around the islands will be greatly facilitated. The west coast of the islands, which is very sparsely inhabited, can now be continuously monitored using technology,” he added.

When conceived, it was also suggested that the undersea cable connectivity be extended from Kolkata to the Andamans, in addition to Chennai. The resulting ring-like structure will reduce downtime of the optic fibre cable significantly, which takes a relatively long time to repair and restore given the complexities involved. Additionally, Trai had also suggested that the connectivity from Kolkata may be used to route traffic from the entire North-Eastern region of the country directly to Chennai, bypassing the large fault-prone terrestrial part of the international connectivity from Kolkata to Chennai. Trai had further argued that the optimum fibre network may also be used to provide connectivity to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) nations such as Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Further, connectivity could be extended beyond Chennai to Sri Lanka and the Maldives via submarine cable. Experts say that the project, if extended by another 1000km eastward, will open up a host of opportunities for India in the Asean region and help counterbalance China. With this, experts feel that countries such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam too will eventually connect their respective digital highways with the project.

In conclusion

With digital connectivity already up significantly in several pockets in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands due to the cable, the transformative impact of the project has begun showing results.

The islanders say that dealing with rising covid-19 cases, which poses an extinction threat to the indigenous tribes of the island, will be relatively easier now. In the absence of proper connectivity, locals claim that the infections have been on a steady rise as people are forced to venture out for daily chores risking themselves and others. Alongside, students who have returned to their homes from the mainland continue to sit out of online classes in the absence of internet connectivity. But that may not be for long. With digital connectivity set to improve, it is the service sector which harbours the highest level of anticipation and hopes regarding newer job opportunities and new possibilities.

“When I arrived (in the islands) in July 2013, I witnessed first-hand the great challenges faced by the people there. Communication was one of them,” said Lt General Singh. “To see the project get complete is very satisfying,” he added. In the long-run, it may also turn out to be an important milestone in India’s long-standing Look East policy, an effort to cultivate extensive economic and strategic relations with the nations of Southeast Asia in order to bolster its standing as a regional power.

Above all, the long-awaited project will create a sense of integration and confidence among the islanders, who are living in one of India’s remotest corners and who have until now been disadvantaged and deprived of their ‘right to internet access’–a fundamental right no less.

Nutrition is India’s next big headache

(Friends, I’ll show how to make notes from this article a bit later)

Nutrition is India’s next big headache

25 Aug 2020

Amir Ullah Khan, Saleema Razvi

Covid could leave behind a silent food crisis that will put the demographic dividend at risk. What can be done?
Food insecurity must be closely monitored in the months ahead. Data sets generated by the national sample survey should include questions on people’s food and nutritional distress

Several months into the pandemic, the long-term effects of covid-19 are only just beginning to surface. In at least a small subset of patients, symptoms persist for months, resulting in fatigue and even permanent damage to the lungs, heart or the brain. The long shadow of the pandemic may thus stay with us for many years to come.
But it is in the realm of nutritional deficits—amplified substantially by the economic fallouts—where this shadow may be the most pronounced and have the most far-reaching effects. Hunger and malnourishment is tragic in any case, but in the long run, they also strike at the root of the demographic dividend that India has been banking on.

Even if the eventual covid death toll is low, the disease could still play havoc with India’s prospects if it triggers a rise in the share of the population that grows up without adequate nutrition, resulting in an inevitable spike in wasting and stunting. That eventuality would also damage the handsome gains that the country has made in the recent past fighting widespread malnutrition among children and women.

The roughly 12 million new entrants into the workforce every year and the 26 million new babies need quality education and, more importantly, adequate food and nutrition to be productive and independent. Neglecting these two requirements will turn the dividend into a disaster.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, Oxfam estimates that an additional 100 million Indians are vulnerable to food distress. Those particularly hard hit are women and women-headed households. Many of them will go hungry soon, if not already. The neo-poor, those who had earlier earned decent wages as taxi drivers and hotel workers, are now unable to buy wholesome food.

Surveys and estimates indicate that 30% of urban India has run out of all savings, which means that their food distress will only grow substantially in the months ahead. Rural India, covered by the PM-Kisan and MGNREGA, has fared relatively better. But with the relentless growth in infections, and the acceleration in the number of job losses, the food crisis striking the country is eerie and silent.

In the patriarchal family structure that India has, children (and the girl child in particular) and women will bear the brunt of this calamity. At least 21 million women underwent pregnancy under the shadow of covid. The ripple effects could emerge in various horrifying ways in the future and needs to be addressed right away. The country’s stimulus package promised large amounts of money as loans that will take time to reach the poor, but hunger is an immediate problem as former Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan also pointed out recently.

The current reality

Why did malnutrition and malnourishment go up even as the economy started growing at a steady pace after 1991 and at a fast clip after 2004? If per capita incomes were growing all around, and consumption levels were increasing dramatically, why would the average Indian not spend on food and nutrition? The paradox is even more baffling in urban areas. High malnutrition rates are common even in urban India, with nearly 25% stunted.

India’s children consume large amounts of carbohydrates, very little protein and almost no fruits or vegetables. The uninformed nutrition debate remains a shouting match between animal versus plant-based food advocates, and what we end up with is a situation where less than 15% of children get eggs to eat and only the rich get to consume dairy products.

It is rare for parents to understand that a balanced diet for a child is at least as important as the quantity and quality of food consumed. The dietary quality of the India population is marked by a declining demand for fruits, vegetables and animal proteins, which are the main source of essential micronutrients in the diet. Disruptions in supply chains during covid also mean limited access to perishable foods particularly. This shortage in supply would automatically lead to households shifting to nutrient-poor diets.

Efforts made through public food distribution programs typically deliver non-perishable staples, oils, and pulses, which could only increase the inclination toward poor-quality diets. The International Food Policy Research Institute’s studies show that nutrient-rich non-staple foods are up to ten times more expensive than staple foods in most poor countries. With reduced incomes, households very quickly move to buying the cheapest calories to eat—the aim being to maintain quantity and not quality. As a result, anaemia, stunting, wasting and other nutritional deficiencies are bound to increase.

And in a country like India, which is already home to the world’s largest population of malnourished children, this effect is going to be even more pronounced. In the 2019 Global Hunger Index, India ranks 102 out of 117 qualifying countries. Even Bangladesh at 88 and Pakistan at 94 perform better than India.

How did India get left behind in this race? Why does India have the highest number of undernourished people in the world (almost 24% of the total)? A comparison among countries in the emerging world shows that China which was at the top at the turn of the century rapidly reduced the numbers of undernourished, while India’s numbers have simply plateaued (see Chart 1). One of the most worrying fallouts of 2020 may be the reversal of even this modest progress in maternal and child health.

The disruption of the cooked meal programme, in particular, could worsen the already existing under-nutrition in children. With schools closing, access to the mid-day meal scheme—a free nutritious meal for approximately 100 million children between the ages of 6-14 years—was also halted.

The Centre had earlier advised states to distribute dry rations to the beneficiaries of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), but national and local lockdowns have led to the closure of many manufacturing units which make the raw materials for the mid-day meal scheme.

Roots of a slide back

Ever since the nutrition crisis was highlighted by the HUNGaMA report and termed a national shame in 2012 by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India has seen significant improvements in the indicators. Over the last fifteen years, after the District Level Health Survey in 2004 showed that 53% of children in India’s worst-affected 100 districts were underweight, there has been a steady decline in these numbers.

The mid-day meal scheme, the national health mission, MGNREGA, the rise of women’s self-help groups and a decisive movement by the government toward setting up the POSHAN Abhiyan have all resulted in tangible improvements. Nutrition had finally gotten its due, with rigorous efforts from the government to reduce child mortality and improve nutritional interventions.

The wins have been fairly substantial. In the north-eastern states, where two-thirds of infant deaths occur, persistent communication and outreach have resulted in a significant increase in early initiation of breastfeeding. The percentage of stunted children under 5 came down from 48% in 2005-06 to 38.4% in 2015-16 (see Chart 2).

However, at the same time, there has been a rise in the national share of children who display symptoms of wasting—from 19.8% to 21%. A high increase in the incidence of wasting was noted in Punjab, Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Sikkim. Wasting refers to a process by which a debilitating disease causes muscle and fat tissue to “waste” away. Apart from India, only three countries in the world have wasting above 20%—Djibouti, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan.

Ways forward

Give this mixed progress report and the threat of a pandemic-induced slide back, there are at least some steps that India can take to protect and preserve its demographic dividend.

Firstly, we need to monitor food insecurity closely in the months ahead. Large datasets generated by the national sample survey (NSS) should include detailed questions on people’s food and nutritional distress. We should also carefully record antenatal visits, anganwadi worker outreach and the impact on women’s health. In a situation where we cannot supply mid-day meals, the anganwadi centers should ramp up the provision of dry food ration, and maybe even double or triple the quantity. Cash transfers have been known to have a positive impact on nutritional outcomes and that is what India has not used effectively until now in its pandemic support policy for the poor.

Secondly, the Integrated Disease Surveillance Program (IDSP) is our central disease monitoring network. Curiously, the IDSP’s weekly updates have disappeared after the twelfth week of 2020. The IDSP must continue to publish weekly updates to help keep a check on future disease outbreaks.

Thirdly, on the agriculture front, our godowns are stocked and overflowing with 77 million tonnes of food grains. If not now, when are we going to use this reserve?

Fourthly, immunisation, public health screening, family planning and other such programmes should be resumed fully with physical distancing and other safety protocols in place. The prevention of wasting in children can also be easily integrated into the mandate of the existing health infrastructure, especially in cities.

Finally, given the importance being given to the new National Education Policy (NEP), it is important to underline the fact that it fails to acknowledge the importance of school education in the healthy development of a child. We have 159 million children below 6 years of age and they are so much more vulnerable today that they were last year, with the prospect of high nutritional and learning deficits. We often ignore the strong correlation between educational outcomes and the level of nourishment.

Undernourished children have learning difficulties, are inattentive in class and, in today’s context, have lower immunity levels making them vulnerable to infections. The ICDS should have been underlined in the NEP and financed sufficiently to provide balanced diets, supplements and physical exercise for India’s children.

The economics behind the impact of undernutrition and malnutrition on the demographic dividend needs to be reiterated. Substantial economic returns from investing in interventions to improve the nutritional status are proof that poor nutrition is bound to cause economic losses, especially in India which is a young country. Under-nourished children score poorly on tests of attention, fluency and memory, which is important to consider given the strong linkages between cognitive skills and earnings and income in adulthood. A malnourished workforce, which is unable to work with full efficiency, will keep India’s productivity low and will severely hurt our long-term economic competitiveness.

Amir Ullah Khan is professor of development economics at the MCRHRDI and Saleema Razvi is a senior research economist at the Copenhagen Consensus Center.