24th JANUARY 2019

A) The gap within: on inter-State disparities

We Need To Address The Issue Of Slower Growth In Our Poorer States

India, as the world’s fastest-growing major economy, may well be catching up with the richer economies in terms of absolute size. But economic convergence within the country remains a distant dream as poorer States continue to lag behind the richer ones in economic growth. A report from the rating agency Crisil found that the inter-State disparities have widened in recent years even as the larger economy grows in size and influence on the global stage. Many low-income States have experienced isolated years of strong economic growth above the national average. Bihar, in fact, was the fastest-growing State this year among the 17 non-special category Statesevaluated by the report. But they have still failed to bridge their widening gap with the richer States since they have simply not been able to maintain a healthy growth rate over a sustainedperiod of time. Richer States like Gujarat, for instance, have been able to achieve sustained economic growth and increase their gap over other States. The report found that there was a slight, albeit weak, convergence in the per capita income levels of the poorer and richer States between fiscal years 2008 and 2013, but the trend was reversed in the subsequent years. Between fiscal years 2013 and 2018, there has been a significant divergence rather than convergence in the economic fortunes of the poorer and richer States. This was the result of richer States continuing to show strong growth while the poorer States fell behind. In fact, only two of the eight low-income States in 2013 had growth rates above the national average over the next five years. On the other hand, six out of the nine high-income States recorded rates higher than the national average during 2013-18.

What explains the divergence in the economic fortunes of States? The report suggests that, at least during fiscal year 2018, government spending may be what boosted gross domestic product growth in the top-performing States, particularly in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh whose double-digit growth rates have come along with a burgeoning fiscal deficit. The impact of greater spending was that 10 of the 17 States breached the 3% fiscal deficit limit set by the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act. Many other big-spending States, however, have not managed to achieve growth above the national average. Punjab and Kerala, which are at the bottom of the growth table, are ranked as profligates by the report. This suggests that the size of public spending is probably not what differentiates the richer States from the poorer ones. Other variables like the strength of State-level institutions, as gauged by their ability to uphold the rule of law and create a free, competitive marketplace for businesses to thrive, and the quality of public spending could becrucial determinants of the long-run growth prospects of States.

B) A reckless experiment: on gene-edited babies

Editing The ‘Human Germline’ Is An Exercise Fraught With Unknown Risks

The saga of the Chinese scientist who created the world’s first gene-edited babies last November has forced researchers everywhere to take a hard look at the ethics of gene-editing. Chinese authorities have since condemned the researcher, He Jiankui, with a government report this week saying he violated both ethics and laws. But though Mr. He’s actions drew internationaloutrage, they weren’t revolutionary in technological terms. Editing DNA to correct diseasemutations has been possible for a while now, which means others can also do what Mr. He did. The promises of such gene-editing are boundless; over a dozen clinical trials are currently on to treat diseases like HIV, multiple myeloma and other forms of cancer, using the Crispr-Cas9 editing system. But none of them involve editing the so-called human germ-line; instead, they have restricted themselves to fixing genetic flaws in sick adults. In contrast, Mr. He deactivated a gene in two human embryos, which means that the changes he made could be inherited by the next generation. In doing so, he violated the widely held ethical consensus that it is too early for germline editing, for we simply don’t know enough yet about the risks of such fiddling.

One pitfall of embryo gene-editing is that it is not as precise as we need it to be today. Studies have shown that the technology can result in unintended mutations, which in turn can cause cancers. Then there is the danger of mosaicism, in which some cells inherit the target mutation, while others don’t. To be sure, the error-rates of Crispr are falling with each passing year. But we aren’t in the clear yet. What is more, even when gene-editing becomes fool-proof, the decision to edit embryos will still be a weighty one. This is because, today, scientists are far from understanding how exactly individual genes influence phenotypes, or the visible traits of people. Every gene likely influences multiple traits, depending on the environment it interacts with. This makes it hard to predict the ultimate outcome of an embryo-editing exercise without decades of follow-up. This uncertainty became evident in Mr. He’s experiment, in which he sought to immunise a pair of twins from HIV by tinkering with a gene called CCR5. The problem is that while protecting against HIV, a deactivated CCR5 gene can also make people more susceptible to West-Nile Fever. Every gene influences such trade-offs, which scientists barely understand today. This is why several scientific societies have advised abundant caution while fiddling with the human germline. In a 2017 report, the U.S.’s National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said such an intervention would be defensible only in very rare situations, where no alternative exists. The He Jiankui incident shows it is time to translate these advisories into regulations. Unless this happens, the Crispr revolution could well go awry.