Tuesday, 29 May 2007


By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

Finally, on the last day of the Ecosummit, the organisers presented a 'Beijing declaration', which called for more environmentally sensitive development and highlighted the important contribution that ecology could make in reaching this goal.

Having greatly enjoyed his previous talks, I decided to attend Rusong Wang’s morning session on transitions in urban ecosystem management. We heard about efforts to create ecocities in the North and South, and the ways in which both environmental sustainability and social justice considerations could be incorporated into urban planning.

The general idea of planning for people rather than cars was central to a presentation by Richard Register. Criticising BP’s recent biofuels grant of $500,000,000 to the University of California, Berkeley, Register stressed that instead, a move away from personal transport (and thus vehicle fuels) was fundamental to the ecocity challenge and was possible through a radical rethink of how our cities are built.

Later in the session, a comparative paper looking at the environmental management of the Hudson (New York) and the Huangpu (Shanghai), pointed to the important role that civil society had played in the US case. Questions were raised from the floor about the downstream impact that the Three Gorges dam might have in allowing increased coastal erosion around the Shanghai area, including possible impacts on the new ecocity development of Dongtan.

The afternoon session included three talks spanning from the micro to the macro level of ecology. John Lee of the University of Manchester discussed “intentional” (planned) experiments and “unintentional” experiments (those based on ecological monitoring following anthropogenic environmental change), and pointed to examples from the UK, Netherlands, Sweden, China, Mongolia, Norway, South Korea and Brazil.

Jizhong Zhou gave us an insight into emerging techniques in microbial ecology, such as the use of microarrays for analysing microbial community genomics as they respond to environmental change. Next, Alan Covich, president of the Ecological Society of America, discussed the total value of ecosystem services, including ecological, economic and social values. Through an improved understanding of ecosystem impacts gained from studies of, for example, invasive species, as well as new scientific infrastructure such as that provided by the US National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), Covich argued that our capacity for predicting the total ecosystem services impacts from global climate change was increasing. One of the most pressing challenges, he said, was the need to avoid the current (narrow) approach to ecosystem services by incorporating social values into this work. More productive partnerships between natural and social sciences would be key to overcoming this hurdle.

Felix Müller closed the EcoSummit by again highlighting the need to integrate insights from various disciplines. We could learn a lot, he said, from ancient Chinese scientific/philosophical ideas, and he pointed to the great opportunities for collaboration with the Chinese colleagues who we had met at the conference. Finally, Bai-Lian (Larry) Li, chair of the conference’s international scientific committee, presented a declaration which had been formulated by the organisers of the conference, in consultation with representatives of the many participating organisations. The declaration called for more environmentally sensitive development and highlighted the important role of the ecological sciences in informing policies to that end.
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Friday, 25 May 2007


By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

From the role of 'ancient wisdom' in responding to climate change to the challenges of planning a sustainable Beijing to 2050, a recognition of the complementary importance of tradition and innovation permeated many of the talks on very busy and diverse day.

At 8.30am sharp I went straight to the first symposium – 'Ecosystem Services in China and the USA', where we heard from both Chinese and American scholars about ongoing work into valuing the benefits than human beings derive from functioning ecosystems. Delegates discussed the differences in the values emerging from studies across space and time, and explored opportunities for future collaboration. Amongst the interesting topics discussed was the challenge of incorporating the perspectives of those benefiting from the various services (such as rural people deriving cultural and spiritual benefits from ecosystems) as well as those of expert analysts.

it was to Japan and South Korea next as I paid a visit to the session on 'Land Use Policy with Ecological Sustainability: Cases from the Perspective of Socio-Environmental Integration', about studies from those two countries. Finally, Rusong Wang gave a presentation on ecological land use and sustainability in China, focussing especially on planning for the city of Beijing. He drew, as he had done in his presentation on day 1, on ancient Chinese notions of fēng shŭi and on balancing the five “elements” of water, wood, metal, soil and fire. The discussion at the end of the session reiterated that many ancient East Asian cities had been designed around principles such as these, and that the adoption of modern technological infrastructure should not mean that they are necessarily abandoned.

After a delicious lunch - somewhat unadventurous in comparison to those on previous days - I went to the session on 'Inclusive Ecological Perspectives: Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science, and Decentralized Planning in the Face of Global Climate Change'. In the introduction to this session, the chair Betty Faust outlined the role of grounded, indigenous knowledge, which had co-evolved over millennia to suit local environments, in adapting to and coping with the uncertainties associated with environmental change. The session went on to hear about several empirical studies from Mexico.

My final session of the day was entitled 'Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) and Biodiversity Conservation'. Again, this session focussed on agricultural practices that had arisen within specific ecological, socio-economic and cultural contexts, and the need to recognise and support them. There was a strong focus on traditional Chinese agricultural principles and practices, with at least four speakers referring to integrated rice-fish farming systems, which in addition to their food security benefits (with carbohydrates supplemented by valuable protein content from the fish) also claim to reduce malaria (through the predation of mosquito larvae).

Although I inevitably had to miss some interesting talks, I was more than satisfied with the broad selection that I’d managed to fit into the day. Tomorrow I’ll be faced with another morning of difficult decisions – which sessions to attend on the last day of the EcoSummit?
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By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

The latest theory and practice in ecological science, topped the bill on Day 2 of the Ecosummit, as well as some “big picture” viewpoints looking at humankind's place in ecosystems, from modern cities right back to the Neolithic age.

Wolfgang Haber gave a fascinating picture of some highly significant, irreversible developments in the history of our species. These included the discovery of fire (which left us requiring a supply of wood fuel); the adoption of agriculture over hunting and gathering (necessitating specific land and soil resources); and the industrial revolution (which unleashed our burgeoning appetite for fossil fuels). Haber called these developments the “ecological traps” of humankind. To me, the idea that what might alternatively be called pathways to unsustainability (as opposed to the STEPS Centre's approach of 'pathways to sustainability') had been taken as far back as the Neolithic placed ideas of “technological lock-in” and “path-dependency” in a whole new light. If ecology (in its widest sense) was to help us avoid further “traps”, then the role of technology in socio-techno-ecological systems had to be taken much more seriously than at present, exactly what the STEPS Centre is seeking to do.

Felix Müller of the University of Kiel started the morning by giving an overview of the theory and practice of ecological indicators, as it has developed over the past few years. He suggested that a reduction of complexity (through the aggregation of primary indicator data) was often demanded by politicians, however necessarily came at the expense of scientific exactness. The challenge, he said, at a time when a focus on ecological systems and functions had taken over from the previous focus on structures, was to try to reduce ever larger levels of complexity while doing minimum violence to scientific integrity.

Pierre Laconte, President of the International Society of City and Regional Planners, gave us a world tour of urban planning responses to “the age of mass individualism”, where our love of the automobile seems insatiable. Drawing on examples from the USA, Europe, Japan, China, Brazil and Singapore he outlined more democratic and sustainable approaches to managing land use under increasing population density. The imperative to invest in public transport infrastructure was especially acute in certain areas of China, he said.

The concept of ecological engineering, which has been gaining recognition in both China and West for 30 years, was introduced by Bill Mitsch of Ohio State University. Ecological engineering includes not only the repair of damaged ecosystems, but also the engineering of new systems that can help to remedy existing environmental problems or guard against natural disasters. But was it ecology, engineering or a trans-discipline combining the two? Mitsch suggested that it was time that ecological engineering assumed its rightful position alongside theoretical and applied ecology as the “third leg of the ecology stool.”

Jianguo Liu talked about research he had been conducting at Michigan State University on household dynamics. Even if population was declining in some parts of the developed world, social factors such as divorce and the ageing population were leading to an increase in the number of households, which, globally were growing at a rate much higher than population. This was important as many ecologically-relevant production and consumption activities took place at the household level. In addition, per capita resource and energy consumption, as well as land-use, were higher in smaller households. On a lighter note Liu showed some of the press stories that had picked up his findings, including “Divorce is not only bad for the kids, but also for the environment”, published in “Divorce” magazine. Feigned concern was also expressed from the older members of the audience at the prospect of having to welcome their kids (and families) back into their homes in the interests of saving the planet.

Sven Jørgensen of Copenhagen University lastly outlined “a new ecology”: a systems approach which drew upon brain-storming discussions in which he recently took part on the Danish island of Møn. Drawing on these conversations with his colleagues, Jørgensen identified the very basic properties of ecosystems, consistent with 10 propositions which could be considered an “ecosystem theory”. This theory was necessary, he argued, to explain a number of empirical observations, but also to open up a wider range of applications for ecological sciences in environmental management.

With plenty of ideas over which to ruminate, we adjourned to lunch, which today included ducks’ necks and pigs’ ears. The following two days of the EcoSummit do not include plenary sessions, and I’m looking forward to investigating some of the more specialised fields of research represented at the conference.
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Thursday, 24 May 2007


By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

The first morning of the EcoSummit 2007 started with a plenary session of four “state of the art” keynotes, delivered to a packed hall of delegates. Each of the speakers highlighted the growth in interdisciplinarity and international collaboration as fundamental to the challenges posed by ecological complexity and sustainability.

First, James Collins of the US National Science Foundation outlined his vision of the future direction of ecology, highlighting some of the high-profile efforts that NSF was funding. He focussed especially on the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), which would compliment existing programmes such as Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER), which focussed on local communities across long time-scales, by extending across space to link ecological data right up to the continental and international levels. Will networks of automated sensors linked by cyberinfrastructure (as used by NEON) replace field ecologists and local knowledge in the future? Let’s hope not!

Rusong Wang, President of the Ecological Society of China and Vice President of the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment, gave a fascinating insight into his concept of “ecoscaling”. Drawing upon ancient Chinese philosophy and modern ecological and social sciences, he stressed the limitations of these in simplifying ecological/human complexity to quantitative values. I was interested to hear what he said about China’s ecodevelopment policy, which focuses on different levels from the farm up to the province, to form one integrated “eco-unit”. I’m hoping to learn more about these policies over the coming few weeks.

Gunter Pauli, of the Zero Emissions Research Initiative (Switzerland) gave an entertaining and provocative talk, drawing on his experience in eco-innovation dating back to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Highlighting some of the impressive projects in which his foundation had invested, he provided an optimistic picture of the ways in which bottom-up innovation and entrepreneurialism, especially amongst the most desperate sections of society, could deliver solutions to some of its most pressing environmental and development needs. When asked from the floor whether he thought that his ideas were feasible from a “hard-nosed” economics point-of-view, he replied “current capitalist systems are dinosaurs; the rules of the game will be changed by entrepreneurs on the ground.” “David beat Goliath”, he said, “because he changed the rules of the game.”

Lastly, Robert Costanza gave a wide-ranging and informative account of some of the analytical tools and institutions that are emerging to meet some of the complex problems highlighted by the previous speakers. Recognising the co-evolution of humans, their culture and their interactions with the larger ecological system, he described the need for spatially explicit analysis and modelling tools that incorporated social, human (including knowledge), built and natural capital. Such models (e.g. the global unified metamodel of the biosphere – GUMBO - should involve multiple disciplines and stakeholders, and thus act also as consensus-building tools. He also described innovative adaptive management institutions that promise to better manage human activities to achieve societal goals, such as common asset trusts like the Earth Atmospheric Trust.

I left the hall, my brain full of new ideas, to enjoy my first EcoSummit 2007 lunch (amongst the delicacies on the menu today: chicken knees).
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Tuesday, 22 May 2007


By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

I was keen to try and cut my carbon footprint in coming to Beijing for the Ecosummit and had been lucky enough to find the time and the resources necessary to travel to the conference by land, which allowed me the opportunity to enjoy a fascinating journey.

I left for Beijing from Brighton, UK on 10 May, initially heading to Brussels on the Eurostar for a workshop of the Safe Foods project and continuing on the train all the way to China.

Eurasia is a very big place, and seems even bigger when viewed from a cramped four-berth cabin on the trans-Mongolian express.

My journey took me on through the deciduous forests of Eastern Europe and Western Siberia (see photo to the right),

skimming past the taiga of the Central Siberian Plain (see photo on the left),

around the Southern tip of Lake Baikal (photo below, right).

Then on through the grasslands of the Russian and Asian steppes (below, left),

and the desert scrublands of Mongolia (to the right).

At last we passed the Great Wall of China (if you look hard enough at the photo on the left you might see the Great Wall on the hill on the right!)

And after a total journey of 11 days (including stop-overs), the train finally delivered me to Beijing Central Station (see photo at the top of the blog) yesterday, on 21 May.

I am in China to attend the Ecosummit 2007 in Beijing representing STEPS and over the next five days will report back periodically here on The Crossing. For the next two months, I will also be meeting with Chinese researchers and trying to learn Mandarin.
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By ADRIAN ELY, STEPS Centre member

I am in China on the eve of Ecosummit 2007 attending the conference in Beijing to represent STEPS. For the next two months, I will also be meeting with Chinese researchers and trying to learn Mandarin.

It’s 9pm on 22 May and I have just returned from the 'welcome reception' for the EcoSummit 2007, in advance of the start of the conference tomorrow. We were welcomed by Ru-Song Wang, President of the Ecological Society of China, who remarked on the ability of air travel to bring like-minded researchers together with relative ease, whilst at the same time drawing attention to the local and global environmental changes associated with it. The Chinese word for “crisis”, he said, represented both “opportunity” and “risk”, and the heart of the EcoSummit was to balance the challenges of human development and environmental sustainability.

Following the opening ceremony tomorrow, the programme begins with four keynote speeches which draw on 'ecology in the 21st century', 'science and entrepreneurship', 'an integrated, trans-disciplinary science of humans-in-nature' and 'ecoscaping', demonstrating the enormous breadth of the disciplines and ideas represented at the conference. The diversity of the nationalities represented (600 people from 70 countries, in addition to the same number of Chinese delegates) is also wonderful. I’m really looking forward to the forthcoming five days, and will be reporting back periodically on “The Crossing” with some of the highlights.
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Each year, the 22nd of May is celebrated as the ‘International Day for Biological Diversity’. This year’s theme has been designated as ‘Biological Diversity and Climate Control’. The links between biodiversity and climate change run both ways: biodiversity is threatened by human-induced climate change but, biodiversity resources can reduce the impacts of climate change on people and production.

For example, the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity can strengthen ecosystem resilience, improving the ability of ecosystems to provide critical services in the face of increasing climatic pressures. Moreover, the conservation of habitats can reduce the amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere. Currently deforestation is estimated to be responsible for 20 per cent of human-induced CO2 emissions.

One area of particular concern in the interactions between biological diversity and climate change is the conservation of stress tolerant crops, which can reduce the disastrous impacts of environmental shocks and stresses, such as drought, insect pest infestations and crop diseases. The biological diversity found within each crop is the raw material that enables plant breeders and farmers to develop higher yielding, more nutritious, and stress-resistant varieties. Thus, it represents the cornerstone of successful adaptation to climate change in many risk-prone farming environments, such as those found in Sub-Saharan Africa. But much of this diversity, held in developing country gene banks, is threatened by decades of under-funding and neglect, as well as by wars and natural disasters.

Thus, it should be welcome news to anyone concerned about biodiversity, climate change and food security issues to hear that the UK Government announced today that it is donating £10 million (US$20 million) to the Global Crop Diversity Trust an independent international organisation which exists to ensure the conservation and availability of crop diversity for food security worldwide. This follows an even larger donation of nearly £15 million (US$30 million) to the Trust from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. To date, the Trust has received pledges of over £67.5 million (US$135 million).

Among other things, these crop biodiversity preservation grants are meant to fund programmes to conserve so-called ‘orphan crops’ – such as sorghum, millet, yam, cassava and cowpea. These are crops that are important to poor people, but largely neglected by modern plant breeding because of their limited commercial value, but which have the potential to fill seasonal food shortfalls, provide essential vitamins and micronutrients, produce reasonably high yields in unfertile, acid soils, and tolerate drought conditions.

Until recently, the majority of the world's seed collections have been operating on extremely tight budgets. Many developing countries find it difficult to keep the electricity running, let alone support the activities needed to ensure the safe long-term conservation of the crop diversity they hold. Yet this diversity is critical in the fight to improve food security, particularly at a time of rapid environmental change and growing uncertainty. But there can be no food security without first securing the basis of our food production – the genetic diversity of every crop.

The initiative announced this week by the Global Crop Diversity Trust and its partners aims to secure over 95 percent of the endangered crop diversity held in developing country genebanks and aid the implementation of the new UN Food and Agriculture Organization's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. Some of the funds will finance research into inexpensive conservation techniques for crops that are difficult to cultivate and reduce conservation costs by 75 percent, improving the security of the collections of such crops. The grant will also fund a global information system allowing plant breeders to search genebanks worldwide ― including existing banks in Ethiopia, Rwanda and the southern Africa region ― for strains that can survive diseases and cope with climate change. The facility will include 4,000,000 samples of more than 2,000 species of more than 150 crops, amounting to 85 percent of the diversity of all agricultural crops.

By providing access to crop genetic information, plant breeders in developing countries may be able to adapt their crops to varieties that will grow in different climate conditions. Investing in this future may help improve the resilience and capacity of agricultural systems to adapt to climate change.

What appears to be missing from this new international initiative – at least from the press releases and associated news bulletins – is a clear role for the very people who have helped create the tremendous agricultural biodiversity that scientists are now seeking to conserve – the farmers. Decisions about what agricultural biodiversity is to be conserved, how it should be managed and for whom, should be based on an understanding of local livelihoods and people’s own definitions of well being. Most agricultural professionals have tended to project their own categories and priorities onto local people and their agricultural systems. In particular, their views of the realities of the poor, and what should be done, have generally been constructed from a distance and sometimes for professional convenience. This implies the need for the adoption of a learning process approach in the management of agricultural biodiversity and its functions.

This will involve mobilising farming communities, including indigenous and local communities, to help them develop, maintain and apply of their knowledge and practices in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity and encouraging developing countries to set up and maintain local level forums for farmers, scientists and other stakeholders to evolve genuine partnerships to identify, conserve and develop seed varieties that meet the needs of the poor.

To achieve this, the Global Crop Diversity Trust and its partners need to use some of their substantial new funding to help:
• ensure inclusive and equitable representation (gender, class, ethnic origin, age) in the selection of crop varieties and setting of priorities
• provide capacity building for technical and scientific personnel to foster the participatory skills, attitudes and behaviour needed to learn from farmers and rural people
• organise institutional space and incentives for professionals to understand social and cultural complexity as well as the origins of agribiodiversity
• support joint problem-solving, participatory research agendas and co-management agreements between local people, scientists and others
• promote the participatory monitoring and evaluation of national policies, land use plans, and production technologies to include the perspectives of all stakeholders
• encourage the use of local indicators and criteria in monitoring and evaluating projects, as well as guiding subsequent technical support, policy changes and allocation of resources for agricultural biodiversity conservation and management.

John Thompson
Co-Convenor, STEPS Food and Agriculture Domain
Research Fellow, Knowledge, Technology and Society Team, Institute of Development Studies
j.thompson@ids.ac.uk .
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Thursday, 17 May 2007


By ESHA SHAH, STEPS Centre member

A deadly strain of disease has been identified as spreading fast across the wheat fields of Asia and Africa and scientists are worried that it could potentially cause mass starvation, according to new reports in the Indian and the UK press.

The Hindu recently picked up on an article that first appeared in the UK Sunday newspaper the Observer. While black stem rust inflicted wheat fields for many years in the past, it was believed to have been eradicated in the 1960s as new resistant varieties were developed.

The new threat from black stem rust is so great that international agriculture expert and Nobel prize-winner Norman Borlaug has spoken out, saying the new strain of the fungus has immense potential for destruction as it attacks through the resistant genes in the new varieties. Borlag told New Scientist magazine "This thing has immense potential for social and human destruction." He blames complacency.

According to the Hindu and Observer reports "stem rust spores have destroyed harvests in Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia" and have“blown across the Red Sea into the Arabian peninsula and infected wheat fields in Yemen. Spores have also blown northwards into Sudan" and likely to affect India and Pakistan.

What is intersting about this news is that it is not entirely new. But what is unprecendented is that the scientists who were instrumental in developing first generation of new wheat varieties, like Norman Borlaug, are publicly starting their concern. The militant resurgence of deadly strains of old and repressed diseases, which were believed to be localised , now appear to have the potential to have a global effect. And clearly the science is clueless about any “quick fix solutions”, at least in this instance.

Most importantly, any attempts to answer question such as 'where does this resurgence come from?' and 'why has it appeared?' point in the direction of the role of the science and technology-based agrarian development paradigm adopted since the Green Revolution. There indeed are no quick fix solutions.

This post links to a series of blogs that tie in with the STEPS Centre project on risk, uncertainty and new technologies with special reference to India. Read more


By ESHA SHAH, STEPS Centre member

India has allowed the introduction of a new insecticide called Gaucho which has been banned in some parts of Europe. The seeds of all major crops in India, including the controversial Bt cotton, are treated with Gaucho chemical which slowly releases active chemicals in the sap, nectar and pollen. (picture credit: Demonstration against Gaucho in Paris / Gilles Ratia www.apiculture.com)

It is claimed that the crops grown from the seeds treated with this insecticide do not need any more pesticides for the initial period of 45 to 60 days. The chemical is partially banned in France after a long legal battle fought by the French beekeepers. While the French are very concerned about the Gaucho, Indian farmers have enthusiastically embraced it. Gaucho acts via plant nectar: when the nectar oozes out of seeds it kills all insects by making them loose sense of direction.

And while the chemical is under observation in other parts of Europe, including UK, it has been introduced in India without any serious inquiry or debate. The controversy over Gaucho in France however raises serious issues with respect to the role of science in regulatory policy-making. The scientific evidences on Gaucho’s impact on bees remain inconclusive and even contradictory in France while the beekeepers steadfastly continue their battle for a complete Gaucho ban.

This post links to a series of blogs that tie in with the STEPS Centre project on risk, uncertainty and new technologies with special reference to India.
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By ESHA SHAH, STEPS Centre member

Controversy over the extent to which private pharmaceutical interests can creep into the debates around public good has arisen recently here in India. A technical expert committee constituted by the government of India to look into the patent laws with respect to new pharmaceuticals and micro-organisms recently withdrew its report.

The report, originally submitted in December 2006, was withdrawn following the allegations that it had been influenced by the interests of multinational pharmaceutical companies and the key findings were plagiarised from another report allegedly funded by a UK based think tank (also funded by multination companies).

While lawyers and legal experts debate TRIPs compliance of new patents, the Mashelkar report and its endorsement by some multinational companies raises important issues with respect to public vs private interests, but also what counts as technological innovation. While the legal front is fighting the thin line of control between a new chemical entity and a new medical entity, the social and public health risk of leaving the field of innovation to patentability and market forces needs a substantial debate.

Raising similar issues and responding to the controversy, the Norwegian minister for international development - including Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) and AIDS/HIV advocacy groups - have pleaded with the Norwegian multinational Novartis to withdraw its case against Indian patent law (which is at the heart of the controversy) on humanitarian grounds. If this case goes in Novartis' favour, it would prove detrimental to the access of cheap AID/HIV drugs in Africa and Asia.

In yet another development related to this case, the former president Bill Clinton “forcefully” endorsed Brazil and Thailand’s decisions to break patents held by the US pharmaceutical companies in the interests of thousands of AIDS/HIV patients.

What this controversy in India and associated statements by the world leaders points at is that the international patent law clearly contradicts the interests and well being of thousands of individuals in need of urgent medical care.
You can see the withdrawn report at www.dipp.nic.in
And you can find out more on the Mashelkar committee report blog.

Look out for more postings on the clash of private and public interests on pharmaceuticals. This post links to a series of blogs that tie in with the STEPS Centre project on risk, uncertainty and new technologies with special reference to India.
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By ESHA SHAH, STEPS Centre member

Our time is marked by a rapid technological change and associated anxieties about public and private risks, a significant part of which remain uncertain and unpredictable and yet could have enormous potential to influence our present and future.

The STEPS Centre is looking into how different institutions and groups frame and respond to risks and uncertainties associated with different areas of rapid scientific and technological change. As part of the project I will be posting regular updates here on The Crossing blog to bring issues related to risk, uncertainty and regulation, with special reference to India, to the fore.
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