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Pakistani Gwadar Port: A double-edged sword for Iran

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Authors: Vahid Pourtajrishi & Elaheh Shirvani

Gwadar port is located in the province of Baluchistan in Pakistan and on the coast of Arabian Sea. The port’s plan was first established in 1954 when it was owned by the Oman’s kingdom. The distance between Gwadar and Karachi, the main commercial city of Pakistan, is 533 km and the distance to Iran’s border is 120 km. After 200 years of Oman’s Kingdom governance over Gwadar Port, by US mediation in the negotiations between Pakistan and Oman, finally this port was sold to Islamabad on 8th Dec. 1958 at the price of 3 million dollars.

The initiary plans for the development of Gwadar was first introduced in 1992 but due to lack of resources on one hand and international sanctions against Islamabad for examining atomic bomb on the other, the plan did not become operational. Finally by the agreements that were reached between Pakistan and China and China’s investment in this project, the first phase of the development plan started to be studied and constructed in 2002. In 2007 the construction of the first phase was completed and on 15th March 2008 Gwadar Port was launched by the entrance of a 70000 ton cargo. (www.psagwadar.com.pk)

The new plans for developing Gwadar were first proposed by the Prime Minister Parviz Mosharaf in 2007 (New York Times, Jan 2013).
Gwadar Port’s Construction Trends:
In fact construction of Gwadar is divided into two separate phases which are as follows:

Phase I (2002-2006)
As it was mentioned earlier, the first phase of this project was first introduced in 2002 and was completed in 2006 by the cost of 248 million dollars. The measures which were taken in the first phase are as follows (the official website of Gwadar Port www.gwadarport.gov.pk):
•    Docks: construction of 3 multi-purpose docks with the capacity of commercial ships of 30000 tons
•    Length of dock: 6.2 m
•    Dimensions of the port’s entrance channel: 4.5 km length, 12.5 m depth
•    Turn-round tank: 450 m
•    Repair dock: a dock with the length of 100 m
•    The required infrastructure equipment in the port including staff boat, hauler, researching ships and etc.
But as we are aware, development of Gwadar Port goes back to the financial agreement which was signed between china and Pakistan (CPEC) in 2015. At the time of signing the contract, China guaranteed to invest 1.62 billion dollars for the construction and development of this port based on BOT contract (China Daily News Paper, July 2016). The goal of this project was connecting Pakistan to western China.

The two countries plans for development and construction of phase II are:
•    Construction of 2 container docks along 3.2 km of Gwadar coast
•    Construction of 1 bulk cargo terminal
•    Construction of 1 grain special terminal
•    Construction of 1 Ro-Ro terminal
•    Construction of 2 oil terminals
•    Port’s entrance channel: the depth of channel will be increased to 14.5 m
•    Construction of a four-lane highway to connect Gwadar Port to Makran Coastal Hwy
•    Construction of a new airport
•    Construction of a gas terminal with a capacity of storing 500 million cube meters daily (for storage of the transported gas from Iran based on peace pipeline contract)
•    Construction of special economic zone with the area of 2292 hectares
•    Construction of water desalination center
•    Construction of 360 MW power plant for electricity production with fossil fuel

Future plans estimated in phase II:
•    Increasing port’s entrance channel to 20 m
•    Constructing150 docks by the year 2045
•    Increasing cargo arrival and departure capacity up to 400 million tons per year

But what draws the attention of each and every expert in the field of international transport is the reason behind Chinese investment in this new port and investigating the future of rival neighboring ports such as Chabahar Port in Iran.

1)    China’s One belt-One road Policy:
As we know, one belt-one road Policy was introduced by China’s president Shi Jen Ping. The new Silk Road or one belt-one road plan is an investment plan in the infrastructure of more than 60 countries of the world and development of two commercial routes of “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “Maritime Silk Road” which were introduced by China in 2013. This plan plus China’s military power can lead to China’s hegemony in East Asia and turn this country into a super power (Monthly Review, Jan 2017). “Silk Road Economic Belt” links the traditional Silk Road to Europe through Central Asia, Russia and Middle East. “Maritime Silk Road” connects China to southeast of Asia and Africa via the sea. The reason behind introducing these two plans was that China’s economy including the development of the local economy infrastructure and exporting goods to the developing countries was not as effective as before. Furthermore, western economies have encountered recession and there was a decrease in returning of the local investment due to the industrial production surplus in China. Therefore the mail goal of the plans was to strengthen Chinese economy and turn the Chinese manufacturing companies into international companies which operate to develop the infrastructure in different countries under the brand “one belt-one road”. China has specifically designated 65 countries as the targets of infrastructure investments.
In order to develop goods and energy transport in Moscow highway to Kazan in Russia, Beijing is seeking investments to launch projects such as Kazakh Railway from Khorgas to Aktau Port on the bank of Caspian Sea, some pipelines from Turkmenistan to China, China-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan railway, Trans-Asia railway from China to Europe via Kazakhstan and Russia, Silk Road railway from China to Iran (via Kazakhstan) and China-Pakistan highway (Financial Times, 14th Sep, 2015).

2)    One belt-one path, Chinese Version of US’s TPP
By the time that Donald Trump was elected as the president of US in 2017, most of Obama’s adventurous goals and ambitions regarding a liberal economy and international trade reached to an end. One of the international accords of US during Obama’s government was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Most of the opponents of this accord believe that accords such as TPP will do nothing for US except extensive costs.
In fact one belt-one rath is a substitute for Obama’s unsuccessful TPP which is proposed by Beijing this time.

3)    Gwadar Port and China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)
China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is considered as one of Beijing’s solutions for achieving one belt-one road policy and confronting the difficulties of passing through Indian Ocean without India’s disturbance as the most important regional rival of China. Providing the requirements for one belt-one road project will be burdensome and costly. The initiary investment for CPE was estimated about 46 billion dollars by China but later this amount was increased to 54 billion dollars. As estimated by Pakistan, the worn-out transport network of this country results in wasting almost 3.5% of Pakistan’s GDP. As the framework of this project, new networks of transport will be built which will connect Gwadar and Karachi ports to northern Pakistan, Western China and Central Asia. Based on the statistics given by Chinese experts, modernizing the mentioned transport network will cost 11 billion dollars, make 2.3 million job opportunities between the years 2015-2030 and increase the country’s economic growth by 2-2.5% annually. Based on what was mentioned earlier, CPEC is considered as China’s main plan for achieving the required technical and economic infrastructures in Pakistan.

4)    Chabahar Port
In fact Chabahar International Port is the most important project of Gwadar port which is considered as one of the main competitions between Iran and Pakistan. Chabahar port at a glance:
1.    Entrance to Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean which consists of a sensitive and suitable geographical location
2.    The only ocean port in Iran
3.    Consists of more than 541 km maritime border
4.    The least land distance to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. Transit of goods via this port is considered as the most economical port with the least transportation cost
Chabahar and International Transit of Goods
Chabahar port is the intersection of two important corridors; North-South and East-West corridor. In the recent measures taken by Pakistan’s government, Makran’s Coastal Highway was established in South of Pakistan which links Karachi port in Pakistan to Gwadar and then to Rimadan Border Market in Chabahar (Iran).
Chabaahr-Zahedan-Mashhad Railway Project, 1350 km
Chabaahr-Zahedan Railway is located in Sistan and Baluchestan province in Southeast of Iran. This railway connects Chabahar Port to the city of Zahedan and then Mashhad. Currently the speed limit is estimated to be 120 km/h for passenger trains and this number is 90 km/h for freight trains.
Based on the estimations, 300000 passengers and 1.3 million tons of freight will be carried by this railway in the first year of its operation and these numbers will be increased to 500000 passengers and 35 million tons of freight by the twentieth year.
Technical Specifications of the Project:
–    Maximum gradient of the route: 15 in 1000
–    Minimum radius within curve: 1000 meter
–    Number of specific tunnels: 17
–    Total length of tunnels: 11000 meter
–    Number of tunnels: 20
–    Number of stations: 5 main stations and 25 grade III stations
Based on the contract between Iran and India, New Delhi has undertaken to invest 500 million dollars for developing and launching Chabahar port based on BOT contract.
Lack of required rail infrastructure is the main difficulty of Chabahar port to transport the cargo to Afghanistan. Due to this reason the cargo needs to pass through Pakistan by road which decreases the competitiveness of Chabahar port since this will become a permanent challenge for the customers in long term. To transport freight from Chabahar to Herat in Afghanistan, 1784 km of rail is needed which is way less than Gwadaar-Karachi-Afghanistan route.

5)    The Role of the Railways of the Islamic Republic of Iran:
Based on Chabahar’s project development plan, this port has been linked to the transit routes of Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan Republic via rail and in fact Chabahar links to the North-South Corridor at Bafgh intersection.
–    According to China’s strong support of the construction and development of Gwadar port, the future of Chabahar is completely dependent on its construction speed.
–    On the other hand, Kabol and Afghanistan do not fulfill their duties to RAI. Afghanistan is the only country which benefits from both Chabahar and Gwadar projects since linking to these two ports can solve Afghanistan’s geo-economic problems for connecting to international waters.
–    Attempting to rehabilitate Pakistan’s worn-out lines and linking it to Zahedan is considered important since in this way Afghanistan’s attempts to become the rail transit path between Pakistan, Central Asia and Turkey will remain unfruitful.
–    Another treat for Gwadar port project in one road-one path framework is China and Pakistan’s attempt to connect to Europe via the Caspian Sea.
Based on UIC reports, there are a total of 7 routes for connecting China to Europe. Due to inappropriate consition of the infrastructure along the route and the need for development, the travelling time for China to Europe via Tehran cannot be estimated.

Hurry up Iran!
Based on what was mentioned before, what is obvious is that the time factor plays an important role in making Iran as the key to access Poland as the main Europe transit hub. Iran needs to act faster in launching and strengthening all the corridors passing through the territory of Iran. Iran needs to put India under pressure by emphasizing the threats made by India’s rivals, i.e. China and Pakistan, to complete the project in the shortest time possible.
Another measure proposed to Tehran for confronting with the negative impacts of Gwadar port on the rail transit through south of Iran is to launch ITI corridor which is a win-win project for China and Iran since by putting Islam Abad-Zahedan route into operation, at least some parts of China’s exported goods to Europe can be transported through Iran to Turkey instead of being transported via the insecure route of Afghanistan. ITI corridor is way less expensive than the corridor passing through Caspian Sea. This is an opportunity for Iran to attempt to activate ITI corridor before China launches Afghanistan’s route.

First published in our partner Mehr News Agency

Vahid Pourtajrishi is an expert at planning unit of the department of the international affairs of the Railways of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He has worked as journalist at correspondent of Mehr News Agency.

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The Persecution of Individuals from Hazara Community in Balochistan

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The drastic situation was being faced by the individuals of Hazarajat in Balochistan province of Pakistan once again because the eleven persons from the affected Hazara community were being slaughtered by the terrorists of Islamic State of Iraq & Levant’s Khurasan chapter that continued the legacy of sectarian and ethnic violence that used to be conducted by the extremists and terrorists of Lashkar e Jhangvi (LeJ) in the region. The community of Hazara is quite vulnerable and the violence against them has no doubt the capability of potential fault line for the state of Pakistan being exploited by foreign players the war anti-state elements give fuel to the violent sectarian and ethnonationalists of Balochistan province of Pakistan. In this mean study, the very focus will be made towards the possibilities of foreign intervention in case of Hazara persecution in the region which provenly had involvements of Indian agencies via the territory of war-affected Afghanistan.

The persecution of Hazara peoples had been a major violation of International Humanitarian Law because it is not only common in the region of Pakistan but also inside the state of Afghanistan. The historic factors of their settlement in the regions of Pakistani Balochistan and Afghanistan as well as their strong connection with the Shia Muslim community of Iran are major catalysts which makes them as the easy target of being killed, tortured or slaughtered by the extremist Wahabi tendencies or racist tendencies among Pashtuns and Balochis. In the current era specially after the events of 9/11 and further strengthening of Wahabi extremist doctrine in the region had paved ways for the spreading of sectarian violence against the Shia Hazara Muslims inside Balochistan province of Pakistan. The major persecution events that keeps a lot importance in the unfortunate violence being committed against the people of Hazaras were the massacre on the day of Ashura at Quetta in 2004, the killings of Hazara people in Mastung Massacre, the playground massacre in Quetta, slaughter of Hazara pilgrims coming back from Islamic Republic of Iran, the two major bombings against Shia Hazaras in the year of 2013, the massacre in Akhtarabad, the 2003 bombing on Hazara Imam Bargah and most importantly the recent slaughter of Hazara peoples in Mach District of Balochistan province of Pakistan. Even in the target killings, some major political figures, social workers and sportsmen also remained aim of target killings inside the extremist and sectarian violence.

No doubt, such massacres and large scale killings of the people specifically of the community of Hazara Shias who also remained the target of socio-economic discrimination and structural violence due to the factors that were paved by the administrative bodies in Pakistan but the confirmation of Indian agency’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW)’s major agent Kulbushan Jadhav confessed in the very statement after he was arrested by Pakistani authorities in espionage operation that India had been involved in the fueling of ethnonationalist and sectarian violence in the region. The government of Pakistan had also shown quite many concerns regarding the matter that the hands of Indian state agencies and government can possibly be involved in the backing of outfits like ISIL (Khurasan) which operates from Afghanistan while conducting of violence in the province of Pakistani Balochistan. The dots are being matched by different Pakistani officials and think tanks that the involvement of Indian government with confirmed sources towards the secessionist tendencies in the province in shape of Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) and Baloch Republican Army (BRA) that the possibility can be there in also of backing the extremist militants and terrorists of ISIL (Khurasan) while fueling the violence in the region on sectarian basis. Prime Minister Imran Khan Niazi said in his statement that the hands of India are there in the recent activities of sectarian violence that was happened in the region of district of Mach of Balochistan. The possibilities of Indian government and state agencies backing the militant factions against the state of Pakistan had been also proved by the state intelligence agencies of Pakistani state including Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Directorate General of Military Intelligence (MI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB). Even it is confirmed through the sources in form of statements of leading Indian think tanks, journalists and retired military officials that the fault lines inside Pakistan are to target the Shia communities for paving ways for the violence and to make platform for the conduct of violence on sectarian basis by creating a lot of chaos among the different Muslim sects inside the state of Pakistan. These are the major possible factors which had proven the point that the sectarian violence specially the one which was conducted against the coal miners belonging from the Shia community of Hazara has proven the very point that the factors of possibility is quite much there of the involvement of Indian government as actor of fueling violence.

In the very crux of the study, it is added with the point that the persecution of Hazara peoples had been a major violation of International Humanitarian Law because it is not only common in the region of Pakistan but also inside the state of Afghanistan. The historic factors of their settlement in the regions of Pakistani Balochistan and Afghanistan as well as their strong connection with the Shia Muslim community of Iran are major catalysts. The radical condition was being faced by the individuals of Hazarajat in Balochistan province of Pakistan once again because the eleven persons from the affected Hazara community were being massacred by extremist tendencies. The possibility of the terrorist wings being supported by Indian government in this regard because of the past confirmed terror activities in which the position of India was quite much cleared. such massacres and large-scale killings of the people specifically of the community of Hazara Shias who also remained the target of socio-economic discrimination and structural violence due to the factors that were paved by the administrative bodies in Pakistan but the confirmation of Indian agency of R&AW.

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Is India fearful of internationalisation of the Kashmir dispute?

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At the time of Partition, India knew that its policies with regard to the Princely states were inconsistent. So, it feared internationalisation of the Kashmir dispute. Vallabhai Patel, presented Kashmir to Liaquat Ali Khan in a platter, so to say, in exchange for Junagadh and Hyderabad. Liaquat Ali Khan did not accept the offer. Saifuddin Soz, former Congress minister and a prominent Kashmiri politician, told The Print Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on NDTV’s Walk The Talk show  that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel was happy to let Kashmir go to Pakistan in exchange for Hyderabad.

Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India, took Patel’s offer to Pakistan on the exact day the Indian Army landed in Srinagar to push back intruders from Pakistan in October 1947. “From the very first day Sardar Patel was adamant that Kashmir should go to Pakistan. In the partition council, he tried his level best to convince Liaquat Ali to take Kashmir and leave Hyderabad-Deccan,” Soz said.

“But as Sardar Shaukat Hayat Khan writes in his book,” Soz said, “Liaquat Ali neither understood history, nor geography. So, he did not accept the offer..”(Sardar Patel was adamant, give Kashmir to Pakistan, take Hyderabad. Nehru saved it: Soz,  The Print June 25, 2018).

Till the 1990s, internationalisation remained India’s nightmare. Former Indian foreign-secretary Jagat S. Mehta’s formula. Mehta presented a formula which offered many concessions to Pakistan in exchange for a promise not to agitate the  Kashmir dispute on international forums and keep it on backburner for ten years. He presented his ideas in an article, ‘Resolving Kashmir in the International Context of the 1990s’ (Hindustan Times editor Verghese also gave similar proposals). Mehta had also proposed (a) Conversion of the LoC into “a soft border permitting free movement and facilitating free exchanges…”

(b) Immediate demilitarisation of the LoC to a depth of five to 10 miles with agreed methods of verifying compliance. (c) Pending final settlement, there must be no continuing insistence by Pakistan “on internationalization, and for the implementation of a parallel or statewide plebiscite to be imposed under the peacekeeping auspices of the United Nations”. (d) Final settlement of the dispute between India and Pakistan can be suspended (kept in a ‘cold freeze’) for an agreed period. (e) Conducting parallel democratic elections in both Pakistani and Indian sectors of Kashmir. (f) Restoration of an autonomous Kashmiriyat. (g) Pacification of the valley until a political solution is reached.

Mehta’s quasi-solution, re-coined as  Musharraf/Qasuri solution, was advocated by the United States’ Institute of Peace also. . Voracious readers may refer for detail to Robert G. Wirsing, India, Pakistan and the Kashmir Dispute (1994, St Martin’s Press).

UK MPs concern on Kashmir

To India’s chagrin, a day after debating  persecution of minorities in India,  the members of the British House of Commons turned to human-rights violations in the occupied Kashmir and “called for  the European Union and the United nations to be given access to the disputed state and for Boris Johnson to raise the issue with Prime minister Narendra Modi and for the UK  government to `use its influence with India and Pakistan’ and send its own delegation to assess the human rights situation (UK MPs call for Britain to `use its influence  for human rights in Kashmir’, Times of India January 15, 2021). MP Naz Shah asked, `Without the UN rapporteurs allowed into the region and with every report in the region censored how can anyone assure this house that genocide in Kashmir is not taking place. The MPs expressed concern  about the continuing lockdown and Internet restrictions in J&K as well as allegations of rapes, detentions without trial, unexplained and uninvestigated deaths disappearance, curfews, communication blackouts and mass arrests’.

The Indian High Commission in London shrugged off the allegation of “genocide, rampant violence and torture” as “unsubstantiated”.

Ten MPs, drawn equally from Labour and the Conservatives, took part in the debate on “Political situation in Kashmir” . India labeled them as “backbenchers”.

Conservative MP James Daly  called  for the UK government , “working with our European  partners with President – elect Biden in America” to came up with an international programme through the UN that will give hope  to those poor people in Kashmir”. Mp Sarah Own  highlighted plight of  Kashmiri under constant lockdown, “enforced by half a million soldiers” for ten months. She said, ‘I have heard[that there are] women in Kashmir that are terrified of being assaulted by the thousands of soldiers on their doorstep. Women fear for their lives and do not feel safe”. She urged the UK government to take position against Kashmir’s illegal annexation”.

Kashmir: An international issue

Earlier  in June 2020, also, British MP Andrew Gwynne, Chairman of Labour Friends of Kashmiris, along with several other UK MPs had, in online conference, termed  Kashmir “an international issue, requiring “ international intervention to resolve the dispute taking into consideration aspiration Kashmiris’ (UK MPS: Kashmir is an international issue’: `Reorganization of Indian-administered Kashmir  in contravention of Geneva convention, UN resolutions, says lawmaker, Andalou Agency June 4, 2020).

With no cogent answer India indulges in malicious allegations

Instead of answering questions raised about human rights violations India alleged that “ImranKhan government in Pakistan reportedly spent Rs. 30 lakh on member of British parliamentary group visit to the country [Pakistan] and Pakistan occupied Kashmir [Azad Kashmir] (Pakistan paid Rs. 30 lac to British MPs to visit Pakistan, spread false narrative on Indian forces in Jammu and Kashmir, Zee News, July 19, 2020).

Questions India parried

India is still to answer why it disallowed opposition leaders including Rahul Gandhi to visit occupied Kashmir while according VVIP reception to anti-Muslim group of EU MPS? Why it disallowed UK MP Debbie Abrahams to visit occupied Kashmir?

Debbie alleged she was denied as she had been critical of India’s decision to abolish special status of the disputed state. She tweeted, `Why did the Indian Government revoke my visa after it was granted? Why didn’t they let me get a visa on arrival? Is it because I have been critical of the Indian government on #Kashmir human rights issues?”

Madi Sharma, a self-styled `international business broker’ arranged anti-Muslim EU MPs all-expense-prepaid visit to occupied Kashmir. Why India did not publicise the expenditure incurred.

Madi Sharma: A Raw surrogate

EU DisinfoLab and India’s own NDTV exposed fake identity of NGOs run by Madi Sharma. The NDTV reached out to Ms Sharma. Having received no response, it asked, `Will the Prime Minister tell as to who is Madi Sharma? Why and in what capacity is Madi Sharma fixing an appointment of Prime Minister with a delegation of EU MPs on a personal visit and why is Government of India facilitating it? Where is the money to finance the entire trip coming from? Why has Ministry of External Affairs been totally sidelined?

Opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi – whose delegation was turned back from the Srinagar airport – have questioned why European lawmakers were allowed amid such restrictions but opposition politicians in India were not. AFP has reported that the European parliament and European Union hierarchy were not involved in this visit. Several European embassies in Delhi were unaware of the visit. It also quoted an unnamed EU official in India as saying the visit was not official and the lawmakers had come at the invitation of an NGO, the International Institute of Non-Aligned Studies (IINS). It is a fake entity  owned by the Srivastava Group of Companies, which was found to have been behind EP Today, a news and opinion website that largely drew its content from state-funded Russian media RT. EP Today’s address, the group’s Brussels office, and the International Council for Inter-Religious are all listed under the same address: 37 Square de Meeûs in Brussels. Since POLITICO’s reporting, incorporating research done by NGO EU vs Disinfo, both Facebook and Twitter had shut down the website’s presence on their platforms.

The visit, described as private, was sponsored by the International Institute for Non-Aligned Studies, a think tank, according to Madi Sharma’s emails. Its office in Delhi was locked.

Chris Davies, a British Renew Europe MEP, said Madi Sharma invited him to the India trip, promising a “prestigious VIP meeting” with Modi, according to the email he received from her. Davies said his invitation was rescinded after he told Sharma he wanted to meet local Kashmiris unsupervised.

Sharma had reached out to Davies in her official capacity as the director of WESTT, but it is unclear how a think tank with an operating budget of less than €25,000 and one full-time staff member had direct access to the Indian prime minister’s office, its top military officials and its foreign minister — who featured on the trip’s itinerary. Davies tweeted `the visit a “PR stunt.”

Sharma’s work is also heavily featured on the website EP Today, including her trips to the Maldives and Bangladesh. Sharma herself has written op-eds for the website. In one article she called India’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status — widely condemned by human rights groups — a “victory” for Kashmiri women. But, she did not respond to NDTV’s repeated requests for an interview.

Madi Sharma was present when the European MPs met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.

Inference

India is reminded of the proverb `Pot calling kettle black’. It should do some soul searching instead of blaming Pakistan for portraying Kashmir’s real situation.

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More about how democracy should be elected -Interview with Tannisha Avarrsekar

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Tannisha Avarrsekar. Image source: startocure.com

Tannisha Avarrsekar, a political activist who wants to increase equality in the representation of political candidates in India. In this interview, Tannisha discusses more about her journey, political beliefs and her platform Lokatantra.

Why did you start Lokatantra?

I started it because I wanted to make politics more accessible for the youth.

I moved to London for my undergrad when I was 18, so 2019 was the first election that I was able to vote in. But after I came back, I found that gathering information about the registration process, as well as probable candidates took more time and effort than it should.

I began realizing that for citizens like me, who wanted to be more politically aware or socially conscious, there was the dearth of a platform where they could educate themselves and engage with those they were considering electing. And that’s how Lokatantra came along.

Tell us more about Lokatantra.

Lokatantra.in is an online political platform that aims to make the youth more politically aware and socially conscious. It attempts to bridge the gap between voters and politicians by empowering voters with comprehensive information about their candidates and the voting process, after verifying its authenticity and organizing it in a manner that makes it quick and easy to understand. It also does telephone voter registrations for those having trouble with it.

On the flip side, the social enterprise also collects data on citizens’ opinions on key issues through polls and surveys, and then analyses and publishes the results, to aid in the decision-making of leaders. In this way, the platform sheds light on the accomplishments of politicians- especially independents who can’t afford expensive campaigns, as well as the troubles of the common man.

The Lokatantra.in website and mobile application prides itself on its treasury of information about each and every candidate from the Mumbai City district. This extensive material includes details about these candidates’ educational qualifications, past political affiliations, career highlights, controversies, criminal records, and standpoints on critical debates. The platform also allows users to ask candidates questions, as well as rate them so as to help other voters from their constituency make their choice.

What do you think can make journalism more neutral?

More crowdfunded platforms. Limits on investments by big corporations, and complete transparency in the finances of media houses. Also, stricter penalties on misinformation.

Why is equal representation in politics important?

Equal representation in politics is important because it encourages newer political faces and fresh ideas into our country’s governance, which has been largely polarized and dominated by big political parties, with old loyalists and deep pockets. It allows us to choose our leaders based on more than just their party symbol and spending power, and instead take into account their character, ideology and objectives.

How is Lokatantra a unique platform? What do you do differently?

Before an election, Lokatantra interviews all the candidates standing, with a uniform questionnaire to gather their opinions on issues that play a key role in deciding who to vote for and are yet often not a part of mainstream discourse. The answers from these interviews are then fed into an algorithm, which allows voters to answer the very same questions, and then ranks the candidates in their constituency based on how much their political opinions match. What makes this quiz truly extraordinary is the fact that it takes into account the nuances of one’s answers, by letting you weigh how much each issue affects your vote.

We also spend a lot of time answering personal questions and engaging in individual conversations about politics, with members of our community that message us.

Tell us more about your personal political affiliations.

As the face of a politically neutral platform, I’m not permitted to have political affiliations. But I would describe my personal ideology as socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

What do you think are the biggest electoral problems India is facing at the moment and what do you think are the solutions?

I think it is the shocking mass disappearances of voter names from electoral lists, which has caused erosion of public faith in the democratic process.

A colleague of mine- Siddhant Kesnur and I, recently wrote a policy memo about the solutions to this, and if I had to pick one that I think would be most effective it would be stopping the misuse of the ECI’s Form 7, which is an application for voter deletion that ridiculously enough can be sent on behalf of any citizen by any citizen. Simply communicating the receipt of this form to those on whose behalf it has come in, would significantly curb its abuse.

What do you think will pose the greatest challenge to India’s growth in the future?

The move from patriotism to nationalism. In May 2018, Kaushik Basu the economist had cautioned Bangladesh saying that “vibrant economies have been derailed by zealotry many times throughout history”. He had given three examples to support his point: (1) the golden era of economic growth in Arab cities like Damascus and Baghdad which passed when religious fundamentalism began to spread about a thousand years ago (2) Portugal’s position as a global power in the 15th-16th century, which ended when Christian fanaticism became it’s driving political force, and (3) Pakistan’s economy, which after performing fairly decently started slipping from 2005 onwards because of military rule and Islamic fundamentalism.

It makes me sorry to say that the extremist rhetoric we witness in India these days is an alarming harbinger of this kind of zealotry, which has the potential of not just derailing us economically but also causing lasting damage to the social and cultural fabric of our nation.

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