– by ORKASH Labs, Copyright: ORKASH Services Pvt Ltd

The strategic importance of Iran’s Chabahar port is as a viable alternative land route to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan. However, more significant is its potential as a new trade route to Central Asia’s minerals and markets of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries east of the Caspian Sea.
(The article first appeared on South Asia Monitor China sniffs around Chabahar: Will India get its act right? ). 

Recent news of China’s offer to Iran to upgrade the Chabahar port on the Persian  Gulf (72 km west of Gwadar port in Pakistan that is also formally under Chinese control), has once again stepped up pressure on the Indian government to act quickly and decisively in investing in Chabahar.

Several other reasons, besides countering Chinese dominance, have been cited: inter alia access to Afghanistan bypassing Pakistan, role in ending Iranian isolation and facilitating US-Iran rapprochement.

However, this article argues that knee jerk reactions to disparate geo-strategic events and rhetoric are not fruitful in this case. Utility of a port is as good as the logistic linkages that connect it to major areas of influence, markets and investment destinations, infrastructure in and from the port, and most importantly, a clear strategy on how connecting areas are to be used.

And in this context the Indian establishment is making the same mistakes with idea of Chabahar that it has repeated over and over again in the region – lack of a long term geo-strategic plan. The question is not whether India needs to invest in Chabahar or not, the geo-political and energy security stakes for not upgrading are too high. What needs to be asked is the purpose of this exercise, and work backwards for formulating decisions on developing infrastructure, engagement with stakeholders and addressing challenges that exist.

Without a clear plan on how and for what Chabahar is to be used the idea will fall into oblivion like many of India’s other initiatives, including the International North South Trade Corridor (that begins from Bandar Abbas port in Iran and via three separate routes connects to Europe)

Challenges to developing Chabahar Port

Significant challenges exist on the side of all stakeholders, which have to be systematically addressed as part of the broad strategy of developing Chabahar.

Feasibility of Logistical linkages

Despite its strategic location as an invaluable access point not only to Afghanistan, but also to Central Asia, Russia and Europe there is no evidence that traffic has actually increased in Chabahar, or significant investments pumped in. This has raised questions about the logistical linkages from and to Chabahar, including quality of connecting road and rail links, ease of traffic movement, toll and border custom structures and support infrastructure.

Most major road routes at the moment run from Chabahar to northern Iran close to the Afghanistan border and then enter Afghanistan (through either Zaranj in south western Afghanistan and then connect to Highway A77 to Kabul and Qandahar or through north western Herat province), Uzbekistan (via Afghanistan’s Herat province to Tashkent) and Tajikistan (via Turkmenistan). Several alignments on these roads are disjointed and not wide enough to allow movement of big trucks and trailers. Around major cities like Mashhad (north eastern Iran) and Zahedan (east Iran) , significant improvements have taken place, however overall quality of roads requires major investments. In addition, three major rail routes have been proposed in the area that will connect to Herat, network links from Bandar-Abbas and to Central Asian countries.

Two hurdles arise in this regard:

From the Iranian quarter, the most important challenge exists in their ability to complete proposed rail and road links and upgrade infrastructure in the region, given the paucity of financial investments, due to US and EU imposed sanctions.

Second,  no clear mapping of logistical and security challenges has been done on the ground on the route connecting to Afghanistan and Central Asia, including the reign of local ‘warlords’ in the region, crime, extortion and militancy.

The curious challenge of Afghanistan

Notwithstanding multiplicity of intentions, Afghanistan remains central to India’s lean towards Chabahar and is a key stakeholder for development of all proposed connecting infrastructure.

In this regard, another significant challenge to the development of Chabahar, lies in strong ‘alternate power centers’ that exist within the Afghan establishment and have a stake in ensuring that the route through Pakistan’s Karachi port remains viable.

Second, the uncertain situation in Afghanistan post the withdrawal of US troops also indicates that India must proceed with caution. As much as Indian pro-active involvement is required to stabilize the region, one of the most important reason for developing Chabahar, remains commercial and investment potential. Like the ‘Wait and watch’ attitude of the Chinese in the Aynak (in Logar province) copper mines where almost no mining activity has commenced, even though it was awarded in 2007 and several other infrastructure projects, India needs to see where the balance of power tilts post 2014. Exploitation of rich mineral deposits in north and central Afghanistan, including Hajigak (iron ore mines in Bamiyan, where India’s Iron and Steel Consortium has won mining rights), can only be viable with the support of the Afghan government, whose legitimacy is uncertain at the moment.

Absence of strategic planning by India

The last challenge for India centres on an absence of strategic planning on how Afghanistan and Central Asian markets and investment opportunities are to be tapped. Separate plans will have to be drawn out for strategic purpose of both International North South Trade Corridor and Chabahar and logistic linkages, since India has emerged as a prime player in both these initiatives. The plan is to use Bandar Abbas as a gateway to economic relations with larger Commonwealth of Independent States and Europe and Chabahar for Afghanistan and Central Asia. However, little planning has been done on capitalization of trade and investment opportunities, barriers that exist and political negotiation strategy in these countries.

A blueprint also needs to be made about how the US establishment will be tackled over proposed massive investments by India into the Iranian infrastructure. And here India has the potential to play a strategic game – a) by reducing US’s dependence on Pakistan for supply routes, and b) creating ‘economic stakes’ for Iran to be drawn out of isolation and integrated with transnational commercial activities.

Balancing out the Odds

Notwithstanding the challenges to development of Chabahar port and logistic linkages that have been highlighted above, the aim of this piece is not to question the Indian decision to invest in Chabahar, but rather to suggest steps that can help make an informed decision. Strategically, development of Chabahar can be a ‘Game Changer’ for all those involved:

For India, it can give access to new markets and investment opportunities, securing the hydrocarbon supplies. For Iran, it will inject much needed resources into the economy – whether in the form of cash or creation of infrastructure and help the regime in integrating with the global commercial activities. For Afghanistan, access to an alternative warm water port can help reduce dependence on Pakistan’s Karachi port and give a boost to investments in the country.

And for the US, an alternative logistics route can open up that bypasses Pakistan, thus reducing dependence of US and NATO forces on Pakistani establishment. In addition, the trade and transport movement that this will unleash has the power to create ‘economic stakes of stability’ for Iran.

However, certain operational, logistical and security related questions will determine ‘How, When and in what way’ should these investments be made by India. A Four-Step Approach is proposed:

Step 1: On-ground visits and surveys must be undertaken on priority to understand the operational, logistical and security feasibility of the port and which logistic linkages should be developed. Combining sophisticated technology tools like Geographic Information System, Intelligence and Risk Management Systems etc with pro-active ‘on-ground’ intelligence can help in determining the nature and timing of investments.

Step 2: A Return on Investment must be calculated for investments in Chabahar – centering on geo-political stability and energy security on the one hand, but also trade and investment feasibility.  For this, India must get right its strategic vision for the region, including its export and investment model in Afghanistan and Central Asia, access to hydrocarbon resources and how a network of pipelines, roadways and railways can help further its vision.

Step 3: It is necessary to understanding all relevant stakeholders, their motivations and especially where the balance of power is likely to tilt in Afghanistan.

Step 4: Formulation of a strategy to negotiate with the US and other Western powers. The biggest challenge for engaging with Iran remains the US intolerance of any country engaging in commercial relations with Iran. India has rightly played the card of access to Afghanistan as the sine-qua-non of their interest in Chabahar to get a US bye-in. The Indian diplomacy will have to work overtime to ensure more such strategic initiatives.

Conclusion:

Development of Chabahar and its logistic linkages presents a unique opportunity to India to strengthen its geo-strategic hold in Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asia, to secure its supplies of energy, to boost trade and investment and play a counter to Pakistan and China. However, the capitalization of this potential will require careful planning – strategic, operational and commercial.

In addition, the ground level operational questions will have to be in the framework of India’s broad strategic vision in the region: Trade and Investment, Geo-political and Energy security and Ripple effect for creation of additional infrastructure – pipelines, highways and railways.

 

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  •  The New Companies Bill makes it mandatory for companies to earmark atleast 2 percent of their average net profits for the preceding three financial years, for implementing a Corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy.
  • The bill is applicable to companies with a net worth of Rs. 500 crore or more, a turnover of Rs 1,000 crore or more and a net profit of Rs 5 crore or more during any financial year.
  • Thus the bill makes it compulsory to not just earmark the funds but also form a CSR committee (of board members consisting 3 or more directors out of which atleast one is an independent director), formulate a CSR policy , allocate the amount to different activities and monitor the implementation from time to time. Further, the CSR policy is to be disclosed on the company website.
  • With regard to implementation, only project based investments, and not mere donations, will be accepted as CSR which involve innovative social inventions/initiatives that factor in hazards, risks and vulnerabilities. Baselines surveys, social impact assessment and meticulous evaluation including documentation is mandatory along with training and re orientation of the staff.
  • The CSR amount unused/unlapsed in a particular year will be carried forward to the following year. CSR budget itself hence is non lapsable.
  • With regard to failure to spend the requisite amount, the bill states that the company shall have to provide sufficient reasons for not spending the allocated CSR budget. While no specific penalties are contemplated in the Bill with respect to CSR, sections 450 and 451, provide for general penalties for flouting the rules and repeat offences.
  • An estimated 2,500 companies fall into this “mandatory” CSR-reporting category.
  • CSR activities in the first year would be between Rs. 9,000 crore and Rs. 10,000 crore spent in social welfare.

Implications for the Companies

The new bill has two important provisions with regard to CSR. The first is that the board is mandated to ensure that the company will spend on the CSR.

Second being that they have to give an explanation regarding the spending. So, effectively although there is no mandatory obligation on the company, but a responsibility is cast upon the board members.An explanation that is unsatisfactory can empower the regulator to question the roles and duties of the directors making it not just a provision on paper but an obligation on the board, which they may not be able to get away from easily.

The idea has also been to make the spending transparent and more than just ad hoc philanthropy. By mandating a CSR team, with 3 directors including one Independent Director, a CSR strategy, ensuring implementation and monitoring of results are all in the direction of pushing companies to develop a management level approach by targeting operational risk mitigation through CSR, as an effective tool. They may be further propelled to understand ground realities, leading to an amalgamation of stakeholder interests with the company’s long term goals. This will be an optimal concept, enhancing welfare of all the concerned entities.

CSR Strategy
Central Tenets of a CSR Strategy

Challenges Ahead

  • The first and most important challenge is that of political pressure by local politicians especially for PSU’s to spend in their constituencies. The mandatory spending and the essential baseline suveys along with social impact assessment will lose its meaning if the initiatives cant be directed in areas which need them the most with regard to mitigation of operating risks.
  • Another concern is that a mandatory spending is nothing but tax. Hence, mandatory CSR increases the country’s already high corporate tax, implicitly. It stands at 32.5% which itself is higher than the global average of 24.09 %. The figure for other countries, China, Vietnam and Indonasia stand at 25%. Thailand and Turkey are at 20%, South Africa 28% and Nigeria at 30%. Increase in the corporate tax may hamper the country’s ranking as an investment destination, leaving India at a competitive disadvantage in the global marketplace.
  • An added issue is the monetization of the Returns on Investment (ROI) for the company’s initiatives. This is because CSR based initiatives may have a huge gestation period and so calculating returns on investments like scholarships for deprived sections or benefit to the environment by adoption of cleaner fuels etc. may be lengthy propositions.
  • Companies may be forced to do some reshuffling within the organization which could lead to diversion of its manpower away from the core activities. Because of lack of expertise, this will further pave way for CSR consulting in huge proportions. Hence, the process of empanelment of expert agencies into the CSR framework of an organization, must be eased.
  • Finally, though the Companies bill is a great step forward, efforts must be made to clear the haze around the kind of activities that may be taken up by companies under CSR to prevent the initiative from getting mired by emergence of corruption with companies trying to ‘greenwash’ their profitable activities under the garb of CSR.
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– by ORKASH Labs, Copyright: ORKASH Services Pvt Ltd

Owing to its unique geo- climatic conditions, India’s has high vulnerabilities posed by national disasters such as floods, droughts, cyclones, earthquakes and landslides. According to a Ministry of Home Affairs report, about 60 % of the landmass in India is prone to earthquakes, 12 % is prone to floods; about 8% of the total area is prone to cyclones.

Large scale disasters typically warrant two stages of response. An initial stage of information collation which enables emergence of an accurate picture, on the scale and geographic spread of the disaster. Thereafter, the stage of critical co-ordination between various state/private agencies, to provide rescue and relief.  Building blocks for the needed technology architecture is depicted in the picture below.

Disaster Management

Overcoming Opaqueness

Studies have shown that in most disasters a bulk of relief material and response capabilities invariably reside within or near the disaster zone, however, invariably reaches the victims with a time lag. Reason is that the opaqueness induced by  disaster is overwhelming, almost like the ‘Fog of War’ experienced during intense military operations. Lots of information and data exists but is unearthed only with time, by which time an earthquake ( for example)  has resulted in large scale fires and then may easily mutate into an epidemic due to shortage of clean drinking water.  Break down of law and order and attendant crimes may further delay the emergence of an accurate assessment of the disaster.

Hence, given the certainty in paucity of accurate information post disaster, the rapid creation of robust communication grids, and command and control network remains the existential challenge post a disaster. Core of such a structure needs to be an integrated net centric platform for operations planning, sourcing collective intelligence/ data, contingency planning, managing the deployment and redeployment of rescue, relief and rehabilitation, to enable a faster and efficient response to disasters.

In this context, Social Media is a versatile mean for information exchange.  Take the case of Uttarakhand floods. Many Facebook pages  became a crucial source of information. Even Twitter proved to be pretty helpful as the hashtags like #UttarakhandHelp were on the top of the trending topic list. It is also estimated that Rs 18 Crore was collected through online medium towards Prime Minister’s relief fund for Uttarakhand disaster relief, based on efforts over social media.

Most importantly, social media creates an adhoc community of ‘first responders’ who initiate and spread information and awareness, that mitigates loss of life and property. Their response is not restricted by knowledge of distress frequencies on HF /VHF or by government telephone/fax numbers.  An instant “ Stranded at Balaipur in front of State Bank building.Water gushing. Grim chances”, is enough for any twitter follower or FB friend to get into the rescue act or reach out to emergency services.

Situational Awareness

During the Thailand floods of 2011, social media had surpassed every other means of communication as a source of information. The floods were perhaps the country’s worst disasters, wherein flooding which commenced in July, lasted until December. Over 13 million people were impacted, with more than 800 deaths, with an estimate of $45 billion in terms of economic damage. As per the study titled ‘Role of Twitter during a natural disaster: Case study of 2011 Thai Flood’ , the tweets of Thai flood were classified into 5 categories:

  • Situational Announcements/ Alerts: Tweets about up-to-date situational and location-based information related to the flood such as water levels, traffic conditions and road conditions in certain areas
  • Support Announcements: Tweets about free parking availability, free emergency survival kits distribution and free consulting services for home repair, etc.
  • Requests for Assistance: Tweets requesting rescue and any types of aid; such as food, water, medical supplies, volunteers or transportation.
  • Requests for Information: Tweets including general inquiries related to the flood and flood relief such as inquiries for telephone numbers of relevant authorities, regarding the current situation in specific locations and about flood damage compensation.
  • Other: Tweets including all other messages, such as comments, complaints and opinions.

Orkash Technology

Snapshot of ORKASH Technology

Indeed, social media is rapidly evolving due to collaboration between technology and human behaviour. Virtual associations, information sharing and grass-roots rendezvous are empowering individuals during disasters, aiding rescue and relief in an unexpected manner.

Hurricane Sandy which struck the east coast of US in end October 2012, was one of the most voilent natural disasters to strike the North American continent.  Prior and during this mega Hurricane, nicknamed “Superstorm Sandy” , Twitter and Facebook were used extensively by individuals, agencies and utility companies,  to relay information, share evacuation advisories and provide updates on the storm.

Mobilising Public Resources

Even before Hurricane Sandy, New York city’s social media presence attracted 3 million followers across more than 300 city accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr etc. In addition to managing NYC.gov, the city maintains numerous channels, including Facebook pages, Flickr, Google+, Tumblr, Twitter (in both English and Spanish) and YouTube. Right through the response and recovery phases of Sandy, these platforms provided the city with the means to share information in various formats, thus proving that henceforth social media would be a crucial cog in any disaster management initiative.

Inevitably, social media also became a source for rumours. Information was verified and rumours were dispelled via a variety of tools. As a case in point, when false reports and images began circulating of New York Stock Exchange being under three feet of water, first responder agencies such as the New York City Fire Department posted messages on Twitter and other social media sites to correct misinformation.

Hurricane Sandy

As per data derived from the website www.emergencymgmt.com, the Red Cross pulled more than 2 million posts for review during Hurricane Sandy, choosing specific keyword searches relevant to Red Cross services, such as shelter and emotional support. Thirty-one digital volunteers responded to 2,386 of the reviewed posts. About 229 posts were sent to mass care teams, and 88 resulted in a change in action on ground operations.

Apps and Open Sourced Applications

The American Red Cross also offered a Hurricane App for both iPhone and Android device users to assist in individual recovery.

In fact, Apps are open sourced solutions are being tailor made for disaster management solutions. On the fully interactive Google map, geographical information related to the flooding submitted by official sources and users is aggregated in location pinpoints. During the Uttarakhand floods, Google launched a ‘Person finder’, a portal, where people could type the name of the missing person and through its immense database, Google did the matching and threw up co-relating results.

Without doubt, the challenges confronting Disaster Management in India can get a fillip with use of technology. However, many of the repetitive shortcomings experienced have been linked to organisational structure and multi agency coordination. Take the hypothetical case of a localised earthquake. Chances are that part of cellular network will survive the disaster and harnessing it in the immediate aftermath of the disaster will remain crucial.  However, mobile telecom towers can always be inducted from neighbouring regions not impacted by the disaster. For this action to take place in an expeditious manner, database/ templates of mobile infrastructure would need to be available on a Command and Control portal. Similarly, the locations of hospitals/nursing homes, including their stock of emergency medicines, can be part of the database.

ORKASH’s Integrated Disaster Management and Command & Control Solution has a Social Media Intelligence Module that greatly improves the efficiency of crises management. The solution encompasses Social Media monitoring and mining to improve the situational awareness of crisis managers and by facilitating the bidirectional communication between the public and the emergency managers.

Use of technology allows the processing of large amounts of data, therefore enabling us to collect unbiased conversations from social media (Twitter, Facebook), broadcast media (radio, TV), mobile technologies and citizens directly. In addition, the exchange of information between citizens and emergency managers, or the facilitation of communication between citizens using the know-how gathered, will allow for a timely and effective actuation of people on site. This could be for purposes like additional data collection, organizing help or simply asking people to stay away from a problem area. Coincidentally, the introduction of new structured communication channels takes load off the traditional command & control centre, thereby reducing overload situations during crises. It also helps various government and non-government agencies involved in the disaster response effort to create rapid and flexible channels of communications and information exchange using Social Media networks.

This solution innovates in technological, sociological, ethical and operational aspects and validates its findings by conducting field exercises with emergency management organizations to leverage the increasingly significant role of new communication media in crisis and disaster management and define guidelines and solutions to encourage and valorise the communication between police/law enforcement/first responders and the public, using social media.

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