CURRENT AFFAIRS – 20/06/2023

CURRENT AFFAIRS – 20/06/2023

Archaeologist finds Mesolithic-era rock painting in Andhra’s Guntur

A Mesolithic period rock painting depicting a person tilling a piece of land has been found by D. Kanna Babu, former Superintending Archaeologist of the Temple Survey Project (Southern Region) of the Archaeological Survey of India, Chennai, in Orvakallu village in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh.

Mr. Kanna Babu told The Hindu that while surveying the lower River Krishna Valley to ascertain the architectural features of shrines, he identified a new prehistoric rock painting on the walls and ceiling of natural rock shelters on a hillock at Orvakallu.

“After an intensive exploration, it was noticed that these were shelters for prehistoric humans who lived at this place. Among these five naturally formed caves, two are embellished with distinguished depictions of rock paintings on the back walls and ceilings executed by people of Mesolithic Age, roughly [from] 5000 BC,” he said.

Mr. Babu added that the paintings were made with “natural white kaolin and red ochre pigments”, as well as that most of them had been “badly damaged” due to exposure to “air and wind”. “However, some of the sketches and outlines are still intact for the visitors,” he said.

Ochre is a pigment composed of clay, sand, and ferric oxide. Kaolinite is a soft, earthy, and usually white mineral produced by the chemical weathering of aluminium silicate minerals like feldspar.

Culture of people

According to Mr. Babu, the find throws light on aspects of the social life and culture of the people who lived in the area.

One of the paintings depicted a man catching wild goat with his left hand while wielding a hook-like implement to control it. Another showed two couple standing with their hands raised while a child stood behind them.

Mr. Babu also singled out a painted figure of a man holding a plough and appearing to be tilling land — an indication, in his telling, “of a semi-settled life pattern” in which members of this community cultivated crops.


Refugees as assets to their new countries

As we commemorate yet another World Refugee Day (June 20), we honour the courage and resilience of the 103 million individuals who have endured forced displacement due to conflicts and unrest worldwide. These staggering figures mask countless human stories marked by loss and shattered dreams.

This day is a reminder of our collective responsibility as global citizens and a call for engagement and empathy. It is a day to promote solidarity between communities, and, most importantly, to reflect on the importance of welcoming refugees and displaced persons into our communities.

Global conflicts which include the ongoing wars in Ukraine, Myanmar and Sudan among others, and the protracted situations in Afghanistan, and Somalia present an unprecedented challenge. These crises extend to our region where many individuals have been uprooted from their homes.

Sadly, South and Southeast Asia are not immune to the challenges of displacement. India is home to some 250,000 forcibly displaced persons, with women and children constituting half of that population. India continues to graciously host and assist refugees and asylum-seekers within its territory — a testament to our shared humanity. We thank the Government of India for its steadfast support in generously hosting refugees throughout its history in a manner that deserves to be applauded and emulated.

Refugees want opportunities, not handouts

Today, we are reminded of the story of a young Afghan refugee, Ahmed, (the names used in this article are not real names to protect the individuals) who sought refuge in India fearing persecution in his home country. After pursuing his education through distance learning programme from the National Institute of Open Schooling, he is now teaching refugee and local children and aspires to serve the community that uplifted him from being “a nobody” to a valuable member of the society. It is remarkable to note how institutional support empowered him in realising his potential and making him a valued contributor to his community and society.

For refugee youth, it is not just a matter of talent; it is a matter of prospects. They want opportunities, not handouts. They wish to be self-reliant and are eager to use their talents and passions to contribute to the communities hosting them. We can all do more to give them hope and those opportunities while they are away from home.

Examples are aplenty where we have seen an extraordinary show of resilience and talent from refugee youth when given the right opportunity. With career support and strong will, Taslima, a stateless person and twice displaced Rohingya woman in India, could fulfil her dream of being educated and is now a role model for other girls in her community. Similarly, with skill and guidance from experts, Ayesha, an Afghan refugee, is slowly making her way towards pursuing a career as an artist-designer. She designed a line of swimwear recently for an up-and-coming brand, which is now on sale through an online store.

Dismantle the barriers

Refugees and asylum seekers encounter a myriad of obstacles, such as legal recognition and challenges in obtaining government-issued documents, which hinder their access to essential services, including financial support and health care. It is incumbent upon us to dismantle these barriers and ensure that they are afforded equal opportunities in employment, education, housing, and health care.

Our efforts in creating an inclusive society must cater to the unique needs of refugee youth. To ensure that truly no one is left behind, we should engage with and include youth, especially refugee youth, in the realisation of the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Addressing the rising number of the forcibly displaced is an urgent moral imperative that demands our collective action. The Global Compact on Refugees acknowledges the magnitude of the displacement crisis and calls for solidarity through a whole of society approach. It is built on the understanding that the responsibility towards the forcibly displaced is not limited to governments but extends to each one of us including individuals, the private sector, non-government organisations and community-based organisations. It also recognises that the Global South is disproportionately affected and that host communities need assistance.

The Global Compact on Refugees strives to enhance the international response, support host countries, promote self-reliance, and explore long-term solutions such as resettlement and safe returns.

Let us embrace the principle of equitable burden-sharing and fulfil our responsibilities to refugees, ensuring their well-being and the well-being of their generous host communities. By doing so, we can create a world where the potential of every refugee, such as Ahmed, can be realised, and where hope and opportunities abound for those in need.

This is a critical moment in our lifetimes when we have the power to shape future generations. And we invite individuals, the private sector and governments to do their part in supporting youth from refugee and host communities. Together, we can truly ensure the Government of India’s vision of ‘Viksit Yuva Viksit Bharat’ is realised.

As we mark today’s World Refugee Day, let us recommit ourselves to standing in unison with refugees and displaced persons, recognising their strength, indomitable hope, and untapped potential. Together, we can dismantle barriers, create pathways to meaningful opportunities, and restore their sense of dignity. We should never look away.

Refugee youth wish to be self-reliant and are eager to use their talents to contribute to the communities hosting them.


A rising India, in waltz dance steps with the U.S.

India and America are BFF (best friends forever), and each needs the other more than ever before today, united by powerful mutual interests. India took 63 years to reach $1 trillion GDP, seven years to hit $2 trillion, three years to hit $3 trillion, and is estimated to reach $25 trillion by 2047 (according to PricewaterhouseCoopers), 100 years after Independence.

In 1700, India accounted for over 35% of global GDP, making it the world’s biggest, and by the time of the economic crises in 1991, it was down to almost 1%. Today, it is at around 4%-5% and rising. The United States needs this market desperately, and India needs America’s capital and its technology — military and non-military, both.

By 2030, India will have a working population of one billion, which is more than the entire G-8 population; today, it has Internet coverage almost equal to it. As recently as eight years ago, India’s per capita mobile data consumption was one of the lowest in the world (122nd), and today it is ranked at one, more than that of the U.S. and China combined, which is helping take prosperity to every nook and corner of India.

A ‘green-friendly’ success story

Let us look at the infrastructure story, which is a significant success, and its multiplier effects — benefits will reverberate in the next five to 10 years for these are long-gestation projects. Infrastructure spend has shot up, while fiscal prudence has been maintained. Fiscal expansion and yet fiscal prudence are a very tough act to pull off and the Finance Ministry has done well. Let us take the example of how a combination of carbon tax on fuel coupled with a coal cess and an infrastructure development cess, found enough savings to fund at least a part of the rail, roads and ports expansion. It was “green”, for the infrastructure being built was green-friendly and the tax was on non-green items. The fuel subsidy has come down from about ₹50,000 crore in 2015 to just ₹7,000 crore now. And if extrapolated on a rising GDP, then the savings would be of the order of $9-$10 billion.

What is often scarcely appreciated is that even a mere listing of a project on PRAGATI, or Pro-Active Governance and Timely Implementation (the monthly review of every Union, State government stakeholder by the Prime Minister) makes officials issue long-pending government orders or clearances, and generally positively smoothens the system to ‘debottleneck’ infrastructure. A lot of preparation goes behind each PRAGATI review, across departments and States, to ensure that there are decisions (and not dilly-dallying), which is what is making infrastructure delivery happen. Alongside it, GatiShakti, a Geospatial Information Systems overlayer powerful tool prevents unnecessary and random cutting of roads and forests, saving time and resources.

Further, for the first time, the private sector was allowed into commercial coal mining, leading to Odisha, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh, all non National Democratic Alliance States, reaping huge rewards. While no new oil exploration contracts were awarded between 2010-17, by 2023-end, five lakh square kilometres will be under exploration contracts.

A boost to transparency and efficiency

Money for megainfrastructure spend was also made possible due to another unspoken reform of the Public Financial Management System. It is a centralised transaction system to improve the transparency, accountability, and efficiency in government financial spending and to plug waste and leakages. It has driven what was often considered impossible to do — a centralised core database integration of different platforms with banks, thereby enabling direct payments to beneficiaries, reducing time and cost while enhancing efficiency. To date, about 1,200 million beneficiaries, and 592 banks covering over 12,000 central and State government schemes have done over 6,000 million transactions with a transaction value of $1.64 trillion.

Likewise, while impressive progress has been made on road construction across India, what is not much talked about is the Parivahan system, which is a one-stop system for transport across 1,400 transport offices, enabling leakage proof revenue collection of ₹4,000 billion through the registration of about 350 million vehicles and 150 million licences.

India gets $100 billion in remittances and at around 20 million, is a tad less than the overall global migrant population of about 280 million, who are influential and now extremely proud and confident on the global stage. Earlier, India would stand as one among the 195 countries of the world at any global gathering, but, today, it stands shoulder to shoulder with the G-8, as an equal.

India’s global rise is largely because of the Prime Minister’s personal outreach and ability to build strategic friendships with world leaders, quickly and with mutual value. To add to this, one has External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar’s astute understanding and articulation of India’s position on global stages. He addressed a closed door meeting of a major global management consultancy firm in the United States, faced tough questions and answered them with ease.

India needs to give up its non-alignment hang-ups of the past and measure each situation on its merit and national interest, like it did with Russian oil. India got oil at a competitive price and did the deal, refined, and sold a “Made in India” product back to the Europeans. This was the kind of deal which would do any global private equity fund proud — whatever hypocritical lens the world may want to view it through.

There is much to be done

Indeed, a lot remains to be done. India needs greater digitalisation of internal processes and better services delivery using India Stack, revive stalled agriculture reforms, build up supply chain capability and move manufacturing to India as companies look for other homes outside China, and carry out deeper judicial reforms, to name a few. India has a $290 billion balance of trade deficit (9% of GDP and two times of its pre-COVID-19 highs); almost 50% of India is still stuck in agriculture and manufacturing remains stuck at 14%-15% of GDP. U.S. capital and technology can help in many of these areas. As India completes 75 years of Independence, it cannot be stuck in ‘Ambassador car’ defence technology and needs critical U.S. help to modernise and build its own capabilities too.

Both the Republicans and Democrats see India as a valued civilisational ally and a strategic partner over many years, and an astonishing waltz is on. This is reflected in the fact that after Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, Narendra Modi becomes the only major world leader to address their U.S. Congress, twice. That is not an easy recognition which America bestows, and they are certainly not bhakts.

India and the U.S. are friends, but not allies (and Pakistan is an ally, not a friend), Stephen Cohen often said. The journey from friendship to ally is a short one and needs to be walked by both sides, here and now. Why not start with an easy win? The U.S. allows the completion of immigration formalities in 15 locations worldwide including Abu Dhabi. As visa issues will be on the table this time, why not include Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi to this list, which will make travel so much easier for the average citizen?

The views expressed are personal

The Republicans and Democrats see India as a valued civilisational ally and a strategic partner as there are powerful mutual interests with the United States.


A summit with substance

As world leaders and finance moguls land in Paris for the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact, it’s time to take concrete steps for sustainable finance and not let this be another international summit without substance. French President Emmanuel Macron says the agenda is to increase “financial solidarity with the [Global] South”. India, the president of the G20 this year, is co-chairing the steering committee of the summit with France and can be counted on to be that voice of the Global South.

Promises and payment

Every day, the cost of climate change and inaction becomes dearer, particularly for low- and middle-income countries that face the brunt of it. According to One Planet Lab’s white papers released for the Summit, the scale of investment needed to meet the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, climate COP21 and Biodiversity COP15 objectives set at the global and national levels is to the tune of an additional $4 trillion every year. If you break down the maths, that’s over $2 trillion a year to meet the Paris Agreement objectives and $2 trillion required to achieve the UN SDGs. But the hard truth is that only $204 billion of official development assistance came last year – a record in itself.

This gap between promises and payment goes to show that international funding is unpredictable and poorly structured, and does not address the liquidity challenges of developing countries. For instance, only 25% of global climate investment goes to South Asia, Latin America, and Africa, which house some of the most vulnerable regions. Further, global funds clamp down on the fiscal independence of these countries by posing several conditions before the money comes in. Domestically, too, the tax structures of developing countries lead to institutional weakness, illicit finance flows, and higher risk perceptions. The consequence: Developing countries pay for their own development transitions through limited public funds. And it’s hard to mobilise private players to take the jump here because the returns are not high enough to bear the real or perceived risks of investing in low- and middle-income countries. Can Mr. Macron’s summit turn the tide?

Three components

The finance summit is scheduled in the middle of a consequential year, which includes discussions around reforms of the World Bank, India’s G20 presidency, the UN’s SDG Summit, the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Ambition Summit, and COP28 that will include the first Global Stocktake under the Paris Agreement. The summit will be successful if it can serve as a critical point for the transformation of international financial and development architecture. It must, therefore, include three components: Pact, platform, and pathway.

First, create a pact for global flows of finance that covers two levels of social contracts — domestic and international. At the domestic level, high debt limits the fiscal space of developing countries. Increasing this space of countries would need modernising and standardising existing tax structures, clamping down on illegal cross-border money movement, empowering tax administrations and curbing ineffectual fossil fuel subsidies. These efforts should be accompanied by proportionate taxation of actors and goods involved in emission-intensive global flows.

At the international level, finance is needed for adaptation as well as loss and damage stemming from climate change. Therefore, the international social contract must rest on a strong foundation of global solidarity rather than empty pledges. New resources can be mobilised by tapping into global flows, such as taxing the production of fossil fuels, shipping of goods, and transportation of fossil fuels. For instance, taxing each barrel of oil just one dollar would generate around $30 billion per year. Such an approach decouples financing for the vulnerable from the political resistance of taxpayers in rich countries.

Second, create a global platform to de-risk finance and mobilise large volumes of private investment in sustainable infrastructure. Vulnerable countries need several types of blended finance – for scaling renewables, clean tech for livelihoods, transitioning away from fossil fuels, and the co-development of emerging clean technologies. Financing these needs novel mechanisms, such as a Global Clean Investment Risk Mitigation Mechanism that pool risks across geographies and lower costs for all. Particular attention should be given to hedging against currency fluctuation risks that increase the cost of finance. Transparency and real-time data can bridge the psychological and financial divides.

Finally, chart a political pathway that creates time-bound deliverables on climate finance from one summit to another. Everything won’t be achieved in a single finance summit but the France summit can prevent the can from being kicked further down the road. The summit must outline the maths of finance, the mechanisms of delivery, and establish the momentum for real investment over the next two years. When we approach the 80th anniversary of the UN in 2025, reformed finance for sustainable development should have formed the basis for renewed and meaningful multilateralism. The Global South, from where the bulk of global growth will come, has earned its seat at the table; the dishes served must now suit their palate.

Macron’s finance summit must outline the pathway to real investment.


Phonons on the chopping block: Are ‘sound particles’ quantum too?

H. Qiao, E. Dumur et al, ‘Splitting phonons: Building a platform for linear mechanical quantum computing’, Science, June 8, 2023

Quantum computers and artificial intelligence are two of the emerging areas of interest in the realm of computing. Recently, IBM published a paper in which it claimed to have demonstrated that a quantum computer could solve a useful problem that today’s conventional computers can’t, a result merited by concerns that their computations might become too unreliable when they also become complicated.

What are qubits?

Quantum computers use qubits as their basic units of information. A qubit can be a particle — like an electron; a collection of particles; or a quantum system engineered to behave like a particle. Particles can do funky things that large objects, like the semiconductors of classical computers, can’t because they are guided by the rules of quantum physics. For example, these rules allow each qubit to have the values ‘on’ and ‘off’ at the same time. The premise of quantum computing is that information can be ‘encoded’ in some property of the particle, like an electron’s spin, and then processed using these peculiar abilities. As a result, quantum computers are expected to perform complicated calculations that are out of reach of the best supercomputers of today.

Other forms of quantum computing use other units of information. For example, linear optical quantum computing (LOQC) uses photons, the particles of light, as qubits. Just like different pieces of information can be combined and processed by encoding them on electrons and then having electrons interact in different ways, LOQC offers to use optical equipment — like mirrors, lenses, splitters, waveplates — with photons to process information.

In fact, any particle that can be controlled and manipulated using quantum-mechanical phenomena should, on paper, be usable as an information unit in a quantum computer.

Understanding phonons

Physicists thus wondered whether they can use phonons as qubits. Photons are packets of light energy; similarly, phonons are packets of vibrational energy. Therefore, the question is — can we build a quantum computer whose information unit is, colloquially speaking, sound? According to a paper published in Science this month, it should be possible.

While researchers can manipulate electrons using electric currents, magnetic fields, etc. and photons with mirrors, lenses, etc, they needed new tools to manipulate phonons. To this end, in the new study, researchers from the University of Chicago have reported developing an acoustic beam-splitter.

Beam-splitters are used widely in optics research. Imagine a torchlight shining light along a straight line. This is basically a stream of photons. When a beam-splitter is placed in the light’s path, it will split the beam into two, that is, it will reflect 50% of the photons to one side and let the other 50% pass straight through.

While it seems simple, the working of a beam-splitter actually draws on quantum physics. If you shine a million photons at it, it will create two beams, each of 5,00,000 photons. We can then reflect these two beams to intersect each other, creating an interference pattern . However, researchers have found that an interference pattern appears even when they shine photons at the beam-splitter one by one.

They are two reasons behind this. First, particles can also behave like waves, and second, until an observation is made, a quantum system exists in a superposition of all its possible states (like a qubit being partly ‘on’ and partly ‘off’ at the same time). So, when the single wave interacts with the beam-splitter, it enters a superposition of the two possible outcomes — reflected and transmitted. When these states recombine, an interference pattern shows up.

The findings of the study

In the new study, the researchers developed an acoustic beam-splitter — a tiny device resembling a comb, with 16 metal bars jutting out of it. It was placed in the middle of a two-mm-long channel of lithium niobate. Each end of the channel had a superconducting qubit — a qubit whose circuit components were superconducting — that could both emit and detect individual phonons. The whole setup was maintained at an ultra-low temperature. If these phonons were converted to sound, their frequency would be too high for humans to hear. Each phonon in the study represented, according to the paper, the “collective” vibration of around one quadrillion atoms.

The team found that these phonons interacted with the comb just like photons interact with an optical beam-splitter. When a phonon was emitted from the left side of the channel, it was reflected half of the time and transmitted to the right side the other half.

When phonons were emitted simultaneously from the left and the right sides, they both ended up on one side (as expected).

A phonon-based computer…. ?

“The basic science question is whether phonons … actually behave the way quantum mechanics says they should,” Andrew Cleland, a physicist at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and a member of the study team, told Physics magazine. His team’s tests proved that they do.

But it’s still a long way from here to a functional quantum computer that uses phonons as units of information. As University of Nottingham physicist Andrew Armour put it more broadly to Science News: “What you’re doing is extending the [quantum] toolbox… People will build on it, and it will keep going, and there’s no sign of it stopping any time soon.”


India gifts INS Kirpan to Vietnam, focuses on enhancing defence relations, security

Fresh ties: Rajnath Singh and Vietnam Defence Minister General Phan Van Giang in New Delhi on Monday. Special Arrangement

India gifted the indigenously-built in-service missile corvette INS Kirpan to Vietnam to enhance its naval capabilities. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced this on Monday after bilateral talks with his visiting Vietnamese counterpart General Phan Van Gang.

“Progress on various bilateral defence cooperation initiatives was reviewed during the meeting, with both sides expressing satisfaction at the ongoing engagements,” a Defence Ministry statement said on the talks while stating that the two Ministers focused on enhancing cooperation between defence industries of both countries and maritime security.

Both Ministers identified means to enhance existing areas of collaboration, especially in the field of defence industry cooperation, maritime security and multinational cooperation, the Ministry said. Gen. Phan also visited headquarters of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and discussed ways to enhance “defence industrial capabilities by cooperation in defence research and joint production”.

Earlier in the day, Gen. Phan laid a wreath at the National War Memorial and was later given a triservice guard of honour. He arrived in India on Sunday on a two-day visit.

INS Kirpan is a Khukri class missile corvette displacing 1,350 tonnes and was commissioned into the Navy on January 12, 1991. It has a displacement of close to 1,400 tonnes, a length of 91 metres, a beam of 11 metres and is capable of speed in excess of 25 knots. The ship is fitted with a medium range gun, 30 mm close range guns, chaff launchers and surface-to-surface missiles, according to the Navy.

In June 2022, India and Vietnam signed an MoU on mutual logistics support in presence of the two Defence Ministers during Mr. Singh’s visit to the South East Asian nation. The two Defence Ministers also signed the ‘Joint Vision Statement on India-Vietnam defence partnership towards 2030’.

Hanoi has procured 12 high speed patrol boats for the Vietnamese border guard force under a $100mn Line of Credit (LoC) extended in 2014.