The HINDU Notes – 10th February 2018 - VISION

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Saturday, February 10, 2018

The HINDU Notes – 10th February 2018






πŸ“° Maldives crisis: India in touch with U.S., China

Trump, Modi talk over phone, decide to work together

•With the emergency in the Maldives still in place and worries about a constitutional crisis, New Delhi is in touch with both Washington and Beijing over the situation, officials confirmed on Friday.

•U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke on the telephone to discuss the upcoming 2+2 ministerial- level meeting in Delhi, when the situation in the Maldives was discussed, the White House said.

•“Both leaders expressed concern about the political crisis in the Maldives and the importance of respect for democratic institutions and rule of law,” a readout from Mr. Trump’s office said on Friday, adding that they had also discussed “working together to enhance security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”

MEA caution

•However, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) also cautioned the Maldives against any plan to bring in Chinese naval or security reinforcements to Male.

•“We note that China has said that the Maldives government has the ability to protect the security of Chinese personnel and institutions in the Maldives. We hope that all countries can play a constructive role in the Maldives, instead of doing the opposite,” the MEA spokesperson said.

•According to the readout, Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi also spoke of the situation in Myanmar, the “plight of Rohingya refugees” and the “denuclearisation of North Korea.” The MEA, however, made no comment on the conversation, and the nature of cooperation India and the U.S. would undertake in the Maldives.

•In Beijing, foreign ministry officials also confirmed that China was “in touch with India” and the U.S. China was one of the three countries, including Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, that Mr. Yameen sent special envoys to discuss reasons for his actions. India rejected the envoy’s visit.

πŸ“° Modi in Ramallah today, to discuss peace process

Begins three-nation West Asia tour with stopover in Jordan, where he holds bilateral discussions with King Abdullah II

•Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his three-nation West Asia tour on Friday with a stopover in the Jordanian capital, Amman, where he met King Abdullah II.

•On Saturday, Mr. Modi will travel to Ramallah in the West Bank, the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, where he will hold talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Mr. Modi is the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Ramallah.

•At Jordan’s Queen Alia International Airport, the Prime Minister was welcomed by Acting Prime Minister Mamdouh Abbadi, Minister of State for Investment Affairs Muhannad Shehadeh, Amman Mayor Yousef Shawarbeh, the Indian Ambassador in Amman and a number of civic and military officials, according to Jordan’s Petra News Agency. Jordan’s Indian community representatives also greeted him.

•“Talks between the two sides covered the Palestinian cause, and Jordan’s role in protecting Islamic and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, based on the Hashemite custodianship over the holy shrines,” Petra reported.

•Later, Mr. Modi thanked the Jordanian King. “Landed in Amman. I thank His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan for facilitating the transit,” Mr. Modi tweeted. “Had a wonderful meeting with His Majesty King Abdullah II of Jordan. Our discussions today will give great strength to India-Jordan bilateral relations,” he said in another tweet, posted both in Arabic and English.

•In Ramallah, bilateral issues and the Israeli-Palestine peace process will be discussed by Mr. Modi and Mr. Abbas, Palestinian officials in Ramallah said.

Abbas’s view

•Earlier in an interview, Mr. Abbas said they would discuss the possible role India could play in the peace process. “We will discuss the recent updates with Prime Minister Modi, and the recent developments in the peace process, the bilateral relations, and the regional situations. And the possible role India can play in enhancing peace in the region, as well as discussing different economical aspects beyond the existing ties we already possess,” he said.

•In Ramallah, the Prime Minister will lay a wreath on the tomb of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, tour the Arafat museum (both are located on the Palestinian Presidential Secretariat premises), hold bilateral discussions and have lunch with the Palestinian leader. “All programmes will be held in Muqata (Presidential compound). The PM is unlikely to travel elsewhere in Ramallah,” one Indian diplomat said.

•The visit comes weeks after Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to New Delhi. In July last year, Mr. Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel. Indian diplomats say the visit to Ramallah through Jordan without crossing through any of the Israeli checkpoints is consistent with India’s “de-hyphenation policy”.

•A Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader said India’s growing ties with Israel could benefit the Palestinians. “The growing ties between them could be positive, because now India has more leverage with Israel and can pressure it in our favour,” Ahmad Majdalani, a PLO Executive Committee member, told The Jerusalem Post.

πŸ“° PM Modi begins Arab outreach from Jordan

Holds bilateral discussions with King Abdullah II in Amman stopover; four-day tour to region includes historic visit to Palestine today

•Prime Minister Narendra Modi held bilateral discussions with King Abdullah II of Jordan on Friday, the External Affairs Ministry said in an official statement. The parleys with the king in Amman was the first of Mr. Modi’s meetings during the four-day trip to the West Asian region, which will include a historic first visit to Palestine scheduled for Saturday.

•“Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a very cordial meeting with His Majesty King of Jordan immediately upon arrival in Amman. In a gracious and personal gesture, the king invited the Prime Minister to his residence for the meeting,” Ministry spokesperson said in a social media message.

•The meeting in Amman is likely to serve as a warm-up session as King Abdullah II is scheduled to visit Delhi. “The King described the meeting as the beginning of a new chapter in our ties. Prime Minister expressed sincere thanks for logistical support extended for smooth facilitation for his Palestine visit,” the Ministry said.

Dehyphenated tour

•The visit to Palestine to begin officially on Saturday is a de-hyphenated tour as Mr. Modi will enter the territory of West Bank without having to go through Israel. He is expected to leave for Ramallah, the Palestinian capital in a helicopter and leave for the United Arab Emirates after a daylong visit.

•“The Presidency announced that President Abbas and his guest, Prime Minister of India, will hold a session of important talks, which will address the latest developments in the political process in the region because of India’s international weight,” a statement from the office of President Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine said. The statement described the visiting Indian Prime Minister as the “grand guest.” In Ramallah, President Abbas will hold a luncheon in honour of Mr. Modi and his delegation.

UAE trip

•Following the trip to Ramallah, Mr. Modi will leave for the UAE for a two-day trip which is expected to culminate in a number of bilateral agreements. The UAE media reported on Friday that India and the UAE were expected to launch the first-ever naval exercise in the Gulf region, near the coast of Abu Dhabi in March. Apart from such military and security cooperation, 12 to 14 agreements are likely to be signed, regional media has reported.

•Mr. Modi will have a busy schedule in the UAE, with meetings lined up with the country’s leaders, the Indian community and businessmen, India’s envoy in Abu Dhabi said.

•He will arrive in Abu Dhabi on Saturday from Palestine and then will have bilateral engagements followed by a banquet, Navdeep Singh Suri said. On Sunday, the Prime Minister will go to Dubai where he will watch the live-streaming of a temple inauguration ceremony and then address the Indian community at Opera House.

πŸ“° UAE will ensure freedom of worship, says envoy

•The United Arab Emirates will ensure the freedom of worship for Indian workers and professionals, its Ambassador to India, Ahmed Al-Banna, has said.

•Speaking to The Hindu ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE on February 10 and 11, Dr. Al-Banna said his country was one of the first to realise the need for the religious rights of the Indian community in West Asia, and the government would continue to welcome Indian workers.

•“With the arrival of Indian workers and professionals during the 1950s, we facilitated the construction of the first Hindu temple in Dubai a decade later. Soon, a Gurdwara was built between Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” he said.

•He welcomed the ground-breaking ceremony for a temple at which Mr. Modi would take part during his Abu Dhabi trip.

Work to begin soon

•The External Affairs Ministry announced on February 6 that Mr. Modi would preside over the ceremony, and the construction of the temple would begin shortly. Once ready, the temple will be the second Hindu place of worship in the UAE.

•“The discussion to have one more temple, on the request of the Indian community, was started during Mr. Modi’s visit in 2015,” he said, pointing out that the UAE followed “modern Islam” and wanted to build cross-spectrum cooperation with India.

•Sources said the previous governments in India had raised the need to have additional temples in the UAE.

•Mr. Modi arrived in Amman, Jordan, on Friday at the start of the February 9-12 tour of Palestine, the UAE and Oman.

•His visit to these countries is crucial in the backdrop of tensions within the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, also known as the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the economic sluggishness which has frequently affected the Indian workers in the Arab economies.

•However, Dr. Al-Banna said the UAE would take measures to facilitate the continued arrival of Indian workers and professionals to the country.

Hassle-free environment

•“Starting with biometrics and quick processing of applications and good conduct certificates, we have undertaken several steps that will ensure that Indian workers have a hassle-free experience in the UAE,” he said, arguing that greater security measures would not hinder the arrival of Indian workers in West Asia.

•Security and counter-terror cooperation are likely to get a boost during Mr. Modi’s visit as both sides have emerged as key players in countering threats to security and regional instability. “Terrorists have no religion. Their actions can take place anywhere and at any time, and therefore our two countries need to work together on this front,” he said, urging the international community to oppose funding and hosting of terrorists anywhere.

πŸ“° For here or to go?

Caught between an administration hostile to immigrants and a progressively tougher visa regime, the fate of more than 1.5 million Indian green card applicants hangs in the balance. Varghese K. George reports on how Indian Americans are now mobilising for legalreforms that would allow them to pursue their American dream

•“For here or to go?” is what a customer is asked every time a meal is ordered at an American fast-food restaurant. For the estimated 1.5 million Indian Americans waiting for a green card, or permanent residency, in America, this is more than a question about a meal. “It is an existential question for us,” says Rishi B.S., an Indian American technology professional in Silicon Valley who wrote and produced a film, that released last year to critical acclaim — For Here or to Go ?

•The film, on the dilemma of H-1B visas faced by people living in the U.S., is a slice of his own life. “We have a permanent temporary status,” he says. After obtaining a master’s degree in the U.S, he got an H-1B visa in 2007, and is now in the queue for a green card.

•Until two decades ago, for here or to go (back to India) was a question that most Indians who came to America could resolve by themselves. Karthik (who wants to go only by his first name because the Indian company that employs him in America on an H-1B visa has a gag order on employees) recalls that his aunt Sandhya, who came to the U.S. in the early 1990s, was offered a green card almost immediately. But she wasn’t sure where she wanted to stay. Finally, in 1999, she took a permanent residency and became a U.S. citizen in 2004.

•Growing up in Chennai, Karthik learnt about America through his aunt. In 2008, the first time a lottery was introduced to select the 65,000 annual recipients of H-1B visas, Karthik qualified for one. “Many of my colleagues were praying and fasting for one. I wasn’t much bothered, but landed one. Everyone thought I was lucky,” he recalls.

Endless uncertainty

•But it was only the beginning of a long and continuing phase of uncertainty for Karthik, who joined the queue for a green card in 2014. “America has given me a lot. And America has taken a lot from me,” he says, remembering how he once left his wife in Chennai though she was about to give birth, just to ensure that he stuck to the conditions of the visa. Later, he had to rush back to Chennai to be by his dying father, risking visa renewal. Having taken extra care to be always on the right side of the labyrinthine rules that govern the H-1B visa programme, Karthik is aggrieved that the ongoing immigration debate in America is largely unmindful of his plight. “At this rate, it will be 70 more years before I get a green card,” he says.

•In a move to corner the Democrats, the Donald Trump administration has pushed the question of ‘dreamers’, a section of the estimated 11 million undocumented residents in America, into the forefront of its immigration agenda for 2018. Dreamers are those who arrived in America illegally when they were children. Mr. Trump has ordered, starting March 5, the end of the protection they receive from deportation under an executive order titled ‘Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals’ (DACA) by his predecessor Barack Obama. Democrats are fighting hard to protect the dreamers but Trump is demanding support for funding for a border wall and restrictions on the existing legal immigration system in return for amnesty for dreamers. Nearly 800,000 dreamers face a dire situation as they will begin to lose their legal status beginning early next month. No resolution is in sight even as the administration and Republicans continue to portray the Democrats as benefactors of illegal immigrants.

•Amidst this urgent yet fraught debate on dreamers, skilled Indian Americans are trying to get their voice in. In the 11 years until 2017, of the 34 lakh applications for H-1B visas, 21 lakh were from Indians, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USICS) data. Though exact numbers are not available, it is estimated that around two-thirds of the 85,000-plus H-1B visas granted every year goes to Indians. There isn’t an exact figure available on the total number of Indian immigrants in the U.S., or their break-up into various categories of status, but activists calculate that there are 1.5 million of them in the green card queue as of today. Of the million-plus green cards issued by the U.S. every year, around 140,000 are employment-based — the category that most Indians already in the U.S. are eligible for. But according to the existing system, only about 9,800 of these can go to immigrants from any particular nation. Each year, at least 50,000 new Indians join the queue, creating an ever-bulging backlog of applicants.

•Kevin Yoder, a Republican lawmaker from Kansas, described the situation as follows, in a speech in the House of Representatives last year: “Right now, there is a mother in Greenland whose unborn child will be able to obtain permanent residence in America before someone from India who has already been working here for years... That’s absurd and wrong.”

•Yoder represents a district that has a significant number of Indians. One of them, 32-year-old Srinivas Kuchibhotla from Hyderabad, was killed in an act of racist violence last year. Yoder is pushing a legislation called the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act, which will remove country caps in green card allocations. Nearly 300 lawmakers from both parties support the proposal to end country caps for green cards. But changes in legal immigration are not on the immediate agenda of the Trump administration or of the Democrats.

‘Legal dreamers?’

•Of particular concern is the situation of children in the green card queue, as they can remain as dependents of their parents only until they turn 21. “These are children who have done everything that the dreamers have done. They were brought here by their parents, went to school here, have not known any other country as their homeland, and want to pursue the American dream. They are all what the dreamers are, plus they also have the legal papers,” says Ramesh Ramanathan, whose daughter Akshita has become the face of a campaign of children who call themselves “legal dreamers”.

•“I was born in India in 2004. When I was one-and-half years old, my parents brought me to the U.S. Until last year, I was as happy as I could be. I had everything. It felt as if nothing was wrong, until I learnt the truth that someone is waiting in the dark to snatch the land away from below my feet,” Akshita says. “It sounds scary when I think that the day I turn 21, I would be made to feel a bit like an alien or a misfit in the country in which I grew up.”

•At 21, these students will have to obtain an international student visa, which will also mean paying international tuition rates that are often several times higher than the fees for domestic students. “While we pay higher tuition, we are also denied the tax credits that are available to domestic students,” says A.V.S. Naidu, whose 17-year-old son Sai Addala has been admitted to the University of South Florida, Tampa. In some States, universities allow ‘in State’ status for students on dependent visas. But this comes with another catch — they cannot enrol for any paid internships, which, in turn, limits their career prospects upon graduation. They are largely ineligible to join projects funded by federal grants.

•As a large number of Indian workers who came to the U.S. in the later part of the 2000s are stuck in the green card queue, their children, who arrived as toddlers and are now in high school, are staring at an uncertain future. The route to a green card began to clog up after 2005.

•There are several bills in the U.S. Congress proposing measures to reform the H-1B programme and the immigration system — some in a hostile fashion and some with a genuine sense of reform. Indian American skilled workers who gathered in the Capitol this week under the banner of Skilled Immigrants in America (SIIA) are pushing for the passage of the Immigration Innovation Act released by Senators Orrin Hatch and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, in the last week of January.

•Called the I-Squared Act, it includes a part of Yoder’s Bill but there is more. The proposed law will link the number of H-1B visas each year to market conditions, make the visa permanent (thereby reducing the worker’s dependency on employers), increase their mobility, and clear the existing backlog for green cards. To address concerns regarding the misuse of the programme, it proposes to raise wages, ensure stricter enforcement, and provide funds for training American science and technology talent.

•The Trump administration is reviewing the H-1B visa programme and it is likely to bring new restrictions in its administration. Democrats and American businesses also agree that the current H-1B programme needs to be reworked to plug loopholes for misuse.

Banking on ‘merit’

•Indian American skilled workers in general are, however, upbeat about Mr. Trump’s approach to immigration. At least three different campaigns descended on the U.S. capital this week, and all three supported the President. A Republican Hindu Coalition group chanted slogans that “Trump loves Hindus”. Another group, called Immigration Voice, even offered to pay extra fees on the green card application that could partly fund the border wall. “The Trump administration loves the merit-based immigration system. He wants to end the diversity lottery and family-linked immigration and give that to skilled immigrants. These are all positive for us,” says Anirban Das, Vice President of SIIA, which had its hundreds of workers meet dozens of U.S. lawmakers on Thursday. Afzal Alam, who designed the platform’s logo, is from Odisha and agrees with this view.

•Das is confident that Hatch’s Bill has the tacit approval of the White House. On the basis of the group’s meeting with lawmakers and their aides, he says Republicans are hopeful of a vote in the Senate on the issue, but a lot would depend on the view of the Democrats. “Democrats are not opposed to this Bill, though they are more focussed on the issue of DACA. As long as the provisions of I-Square are added to any legislation to deal with immigration, that is good for us,” he says.

•While the Trump administration has been advocating ‘merit-based immigration’ in principle, it has not offered any detailed proposal on this. But the White House and the Republican party are on a relentless campaign against the existing immigration system. Calling for an end to the “inflow of low-skilled labour through both our legal immigration system” and “through porous borders,” the White House on Thursday proposed to “reallocate some of the visas to help reduce backlog of high-skilled, employment-based immigrant cases.”

•An immediate crisis that many of these families might encounter is the likely termination of work permits of H-1B spouses. Rashi Bhatnagar was in the forefront of a campaign that won spouses like her the right to work in 2014. She was getting ready to start a business. “That is when the new uncertainty happened. Right now I am not pursuing it,” she says. The administration has announced that it is reviewing the decision to allow some spouses to work. “There are many people who started businesses, franchises of American companies, etc. They are all facing a tough situation now,” she adds.

•American companies have strongly opposed some legislative moves against the H-1B programme, but they are also mindful of the political realities. “There is a high degree of convergence among all stakeholders in the debate that given the historically low unemployment rate in America, robust economic growth and shortage of skilled workers, the country needs immigrant workers to come in. At the same time, there is dislocation of workers in certain parts of the country, where unemployment and underemployment are higher. This geographical mismatch in an otherwise robust economy will have to be accounted for in the H-1B debate,” says Nisha Biswal, President of the U.S.-India Business Council and former Assistant Secretary of State.

•“While companies based in Seattle and Silicon Valley are very vocal in their support of any move to clear the green card backlog, companies in the Midwest and the south are the ones who could influence the debate further,” notes Raja Krishnamoorthi, Member of the House of Representatives.

No special treatment

•Krishnamoorthi also warns against the tendency to interpret Trump’s policy as favourable to Indian Americans: “There are people who think that President Trump loves Hindus. They should see how many people from India land at an airport with proper visas, but are threatened with deportation. Technically, at the port of entry, the authorities can turn them back though the U.S. missions have issued them visas. I recently had to intervene in the middle of the night to get a gentleman from Gujarat released from the airport. There are huge supporters of the current administration, but do they think that they are getting special treatment from this administration because Diwali was celebrated at the White House?” He adds that he intervened personally at least 20 times in the last year in similar cases.

•Sangay Mishra, Assistant Professor, Political Science, Drew University, and author of Desis Divided , a book on Indian Americans, says: “The issue of green card backlog for H-1B visa holders is a very serious issue that has been building up for a while. It has not received enough attention in the current immigration debate and their frustration is completely understandable. The long wait is creating all kinds of problems for families and their future in the U.S. There is a line of thought among people who are mobilising to highlight the backlog issue that seeks to disconnect it from the larger conversation on immigration, which includes the fate of DACA recipients, the possible reduction in family reunification visas, and diversity visas. It is reflected in direct or indirect suggestions that since DACA recipients came to this country illegally, somehow their claims are less justified than those who came on legal visas. It is absolutely fine to push for an immediate solution to the green card backlog but it is highly unfair and very short-sighted to lend their voices to a narrative that the issue of DACA has somehow less legitimacy because they came here without documents. Such an approach completely misunderstands the current administration’s view on the issue of immigration, which is marked by a commitment to drastically reduce immigration and that includes skilled immigrants too. It is also indicative of possible unfortunate fractures within immigrant communities along the lines of class and skill levels.”

•He adds: “It is also important to keep in mind that the current push by the administration to reduce family reunification visas is going to impact the Indian community in a big way. Approximately 50% of Indian Americans immigrate on the family reunification visa and a reduction has a real consequence for the entire community. This should figure in any mobilisation that Indian Americans do.”

πŸ“° ‘We need India’s help to solve the impasse’

Maldives ex-President Nasheed says only New Delhi can be the ‘game changer’

•International actors may intervene to try and resolve the current crisis in the Maldives, but India alone can be the game changer, according to the island nation’s exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed.

•“I have faith in India,” he said, amid few indications from New Delhi on its response to the development.

•“Without doubt, we need India’s robust physical presence there to solve this problem,” he said, in a select media briefing on Thursday. The ex-President — who has been living in London since 2016, after the U.K. granted him political asylum — is currently in Colombo.

Increased scrutiny

•On February 5, the Maldivian government declared a state of emergency, following it up with a spate of high-profile arrests that have put President Abdulla Yameen under increasing international scrutiny.

•The U.S., the U.K., the European Union, India and the UN have all criticised his government for defying a Supreme Court order which had called for the release of his jailed political opponents, including Mr. Nasheed.

•Earlier this week, the former President had appealed to India, asking for military intervention in the Maldives.

•Observing that he was aware of India’s “ambivalence” towards him, Mr. Nasheed said it was on account of two reasons — his opening of the Chinese embassy in Male ahead of SAARC summit in 2011, and the position he took around the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009, that the increase in global temperature should be below 2°C which, he said, was not well received by India. He had reasons for both, he explained, pointing to diplomatic obligations and his own campaign against climate change.

•He, however, said he felt a close connection with India — be it through literature, Bollywood films or food. “India may not like me [for some reasons], but all I am saying is please listen to me.” His Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) and India have common interests and shared concerns — like the increasing Chinese presence in the Maldives, and the apparently growing Islamist radicalisation — he said.

‘Time is running out’

•Mr. Nasheed has in the past accused China of grabbing land in the Maldives — he said he has commissioned research papers on the topic — and of creating a debt trap. “While we are not against FDIs, we don’t need vanity projects and roads leading nowhere.”

•Indicating that time was running out, he urged India to intervene soon. According to the Maldives’s Constitution, the Parliament needs to approve declaration of a State of Emergency within 48 hours.

•If the House is not in session — the government has indefinitely postponed Parliament session citing security concerns — it has to convene within 14 days.

•Meanwhile, a popular, privately-owned television network in the Maldives shut down late on Friday, citing threats to its staff, as the government continued its crackdown on dissent.

Channel shuts down

•RaajjeTV, which airs news in the local Dhivehi language as well as English, had started receiving threats following its coverage of the February 1 Supreme Court ruling that set off the crisis.

•“In spite of serious threats and intimidation, which escalated after the government’s declaration of a state of emergency, the police service has stopped protecting RaajjeTV, while security is being provided to government-backed TV stations,” the channel said in a statement, adding that it had no choice but to suspend its regular services safety to ensure the security and security of the station and its staff.

πŸ“° Beijing calls for ‘home-grown’ solution

During his interaction Mr. Wang stressed that China will not interfere in the internal affairs of Maldives.

•China has speeded up its effort to find a home-grown solution to end the crisis in Maldives, to avoid tensions with India and ensure further improvement of post-Doklam ties with New Delhi.

•The urgency of finding an early solution to the crisis was evident when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Mohamed Saeed, the special envoy of the Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, on Thursday.

•During his interaction, Mr. Wang stressed that China will not interfere in the internal affairs of Maldives. “China will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives. This is also an important principle enshrined by the UN charter,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang quoted Mr. Wang as saying.

‘The India factor’

•Official sources told The Hindu that it was unlikely at this stage that China will embark on active mediation to ease the situation in Maldives.

•The sources said that China’s activism in the Maldives was significantly driven by the “India factor”. “It (the Maldives development) should not become another problem (between China and India)” the sources said.

•The sources pointed out that with the Doklam border crisis behind them, ties between India were now advancing well, and the momentum of this improvement had to be taken forward.

•A diplomatic source told The Hindu that the two visits in December to India — by Foreign Minister Wang and Politburo member Yang Jiechi — had built on the “fresh start” talks in September between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the BRICS summit in Xiamen.

•In a timely gesture, the Chinese side has re-opened the gates of the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage for Indian travellers through Nathu La in Sikkim. The route was closed last year in the wake of the Doklam stand-off.

•During his interaction with Mr. Saeed, the Chinese Foreign Minister backed the Yameen administration by saying that the “Maldives government and people have the ability and wisdom to properly resolve the current issue and restore the normalcy in the country in accordance with law”.

•Besides, he advocated an inclusive domestic dialogue by pointing out that Beijing supported the “Maldives government to properly resolve the issue through dialogue and consultation with relevant parties and uphold the independence, sovereignty and the legitimate rights and interests of Maldives.”

πŸ“° SC stays new Tribunal Rules

•The Supreme Court on Friday effectively stayed the applicability of provisions of the Central Tribunal, Appellate Tribunal and other Authorities (Qualification, experience and other conditions of service of members) Rules, 2017 which gave the government primacy in making key appointments to tribunals, including the National Green Tribunal.

•A Bench led by Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, acting on a petition filed by Congress MP Jairam Ramesh, directed that the terms and conditions of service of members of the National Green Tribunal shall be governed by the provisions of the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010.

•The Bench also accepted the suggestions made by the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) Bar Association, represented by senior advocate C.A. Sundaram, which froze the implementation of the new Rules framed under the Finance Act of 2017.

•Primarily, the court accepted the formation of an interim search-cum-selection committee in respect for appointment of both judicial and administrative members to CAT.

•The panel includes, the Chief Justice of India or his nominee, Chairman of the Central Administrative Tribunal, and two secretaries nominated by the Government of India.

•The court has been pushing for an interim arrangement to be arrived at in respect of the composition of the committee appointing members to key tribunals.

•It is considering the question whether the 2017 Rules were a blow to the independence of the tribunals.

•It has been argued that the Finance Act (and the rules framed thereunder) strikes at the root of the independence of quasi-judicial bodies, such as the National Green Tribunal.




πŸ“° Are fiscal risks increasing?

The fiscal deficit rule has been honoured more in breach than in observance. We need better discipline

•After the enactment of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act in 2003 and the related FRBM Rules in 2004, the target fiscal deficit to GDP ratio of 3% for the Union government was achieved only once, in 2007-08, when it was 2.5%. That achievement has yet to be emulated again. The FRBM Act was amended twice, in 2012 and 2015. The revisions in 2015 shifted the date for achieving the 3% target to 2017-18. By this year, the amended revenue deficit target was put at 2% of GDP.

Resetting the framework

•Budget 2018-19 has proposed amending the FRBM Act again, which will shift the target of 3% fiscal deficit-GDP ratio to end-March 2021. No target has been set for revenue deficit. The new statutory anchors relate to the general and Central government debt-GDP ratios that are to be reduced to 60% and 40% of GDP, respectively, by 2024-25, based on the recommendations of the report by the FRBM Review Committee. However, only a diluted version of the recommendations has been accepted.

•Missing the fiscal responsibility targets year after year and changing the statutory framework time and again bring the credibility of the government’s commitment to fiscal discipline in the spotlight. As per the requirement of the FRBM Act of 2003, and amended in 2015, a medium-term fiscal policy statement has been presented by successive governments in each Budget, setting three-year rolling targets for fiscal, revenue, and effective revenue deficits and outstanding debt of the Central government. A review of these shows that the targets for all the four variables have almost always been missed, often by big margins. Thus, with reference to the new anchor of the Centre’s debt-GDP ratio, the target set in the 2015-16 Budget was 42.8% for 2017-18. In the 2016-17 Budget, it was reset to 46.8%. The revised estimates for 2017-18 show the ratio at 49.1%. Thus, the deviation of the targets from the revised estimate (RE) was 6.3 percentage points of GDP when it was first set; even after being reset the next year, it was 2.3 percentage points. There was only one exception when the fiscal deficit target of 3.5% for 2016-17 (which was set in 2015-16) equalled the corresponding realisation. However in the 2017-18 RE, it has remained stuck at the 3.5% level.

•The average rate or margin by which different governments have reduced the fiscal and revenue deficits relative to GDP has been quite low. The average margin of reduction over two periods, namely 2009-10 to 2013-14 and 2014-15 to 2018-19, for fiscal deficit relative to GDP was 0.3 percentage points per year in the first period and 0.2 percentage points per year for the second period. The same margins applied for revenue deficit reduction. For the Centre’s debt-GDP ratio, the average reduction margin was 1.1 percentage points and 0.5 percentage points per year for the two periods, respectively. The current Budget has retained the fiscal deficit at 3.5% of GDP, missing the budgeted target of 3.2% which was itself a deviation from the stipulated target of 3% for 2017-18 in the amended FRBM Act. A slippage margin of 50 basis points implies a delay in reaching the target by two and a half years given the average margin of reduction of 0.2 percentage points per year. In the absence of improvement in the fiscal deficit level in 2017-18, the debt-GDP ratio has increased to 49.1% in 2017-18 from 48.7% in 2016-17 rather than falling, which was the trend until recently.

Diluting recommendations

•In the proposed amendment to the FRBM Act, key recommendations of the review committee were not accepted. It had wanted the target at which the fiscal deficit to GDP ratio was to be stabilised set at 2.5%. The committee had derived the 2.5% target by reference to the annual estimate of available investible resources at 10% of GDP consisting of surplus savings of the household sector and sustainable net capital inflows. It assessed that half of it, that is 5%, could be pre-emptively shared equally by the Central and State governments, keeping their fiscal deficits at 2.5% of GDP each, leaving the balance of 5% for public sector and corporate borrowing. The government apparently did not accept this framework and continued with the 3% target. If this was to be the case, we might as well have continued with the present FRBM Act. In fact, it can be shown that were the government to abide by the 3% mandate beyond 2020-21, the debt to GDP ratio would come down to 40% by 2024-25 with a nominal growth assumption of 11.5%. Thus, specifying the fiscal deficit target of 3% would have been enough to achieve the debt target.

•Second, the committee had not given up on the desirability of achieving revenue account balance. It had specified a revenue deficit glide path, reaching 0.8% by 2022-23. This too was not accepted. The target of revenue account balance is well recognised in the so-called ‘golden rule’ wherein a country may borrow as long as the entire borrowing is spent on capital spending. This can only be achieved by keeping the revenue deficit to zero. In the Indian context, the revenue deficit with some adjustments reflects government dis-savings. Unless government dis-savings are eliminated, it will be difficult to reverse the trend of a falling savings rate.

•Third, the Central government did not accept another recommendation of setting up a fiscal council, which could independently examine the economic case and justification for deviating from the specified targets. Unconstrained fiscal flexibility, both in approach and statutory provisions, adds to a climate of avoidable fiscal risks.

•Fourth, in the committee’s recommendations, the debt-GDP levels of 60% and 40% of GDP for the general and Central governments, respectively, were to be achieved by 2022-23. These target dates have been shifted to 2024-25.

Fiscal risks

•Fiscal risks may also be higher with the reliance on extra-budgetary resources for financing a number of ambitious government spending programmes. In the Budget for 2018-19, the total outlays for three focus areas, namely, agriculture and rural livelihoods, infrastructure and education, and health and social sectors, amount to 11.6% of GDP as per Annexures 1, 2 and 3 of the Finance Minister’s speech. These are to be funded using budgetary and extra-budgetary resources. Budgetary resources constitute only 16.4% of the total outlay. The balance, 83.6%, is to be raised as an extra-budgetary resource by the public sector enterprises concerned, special purpose vehicles and other similar institutions. Thus, the extra budgetary resources are meant to contribute almost 9.7% of GDP to finance the stipulated outlays as detailed in the annexures to the Minister’s speech. A substantial part of this may only be based on borrowing as the relevant bodies may have limited surpluses. Any dependence on borrowing for these extra-budgetary resources along with the borrowing requirements of the State governments while the saving rate is falling can put considerable pressure on interest rates.

•The projected fiscal deficit of 3.3% of GDP for 2018-19 is itself contingent upon revenues rising to the budgeted levels and expenditures being contained at levels indicated in the Budget. There are concerns and doubts on both counts. Another year of slippage can be damaging. We also need to note that interest payments to revenue receipts of the Centre stand at 35.3%. This restricts the space for other development expenditures. Some people ask whether it is at all necessary to have such rules as mandated fiscal deficits or inflation targets. Rules versus discretion is an old issue that has been debated extensively. If the rules are too rigid, they are likely to break down. But a complete abandonment of rules can lead to instability. In fact, the fiscal deficit rule in India has been honoured more in breach than in observance. More than ever, the fiscal deficit needs continued vigilance. We need to stay the course.

πŸ“° Testing the diagnosis

Why traditional and scientific medical systems cannot be integrated

•All medical systems strive for one purpose — help the ill get well. Would it not be ideal if traditional and scientific medical systems were integrated into one system of curative medicine? If the physician knew all systems, the patient could be treated with the best, instead of the patient choosing a particular system. This romantic view, desiring the integration of all medical systems, is naive and unrealistic. Traditional and scientific medical systems cannot be integrated.

The traditional way

•To understand this cruel reality, we must know what is common and what the differences are among them. All cultures wanted explanations why some fell ill while others did not, and, what remedies cure different illnesses. All had come up with concepts, dogmas and beliefs, as well as many treatment modalities. Three examples that have survived the test of time are the ancient Indian and Chinese traditional systems and the more recent homoeopathy. All of them are together called ‘traditional medicine’.

•In homoeopathy, the basic doctrine is that molecules of chemicals that simulate symptoms similar to those in illnesses, given in minute and non-toxic quantities, are the remedies. The principle similia similibus curentur (likes cure likes) is implied in the name homoeopathy, in contrast to allopathy (synonym of scientific medicine), in which antidotes counter the causes of diseases.

•The major doctrine in the Chinese system is that Qi, life’s vital energy, flows via ‘meridians’ that connect all organs and tissues. If any gets blocked, illnesses result. Acupuncture, acupressure, massages, specific exercises and special diets and herbal medicines are applied as remedies. Ayurveda has the Thridoshadoctrine. Imbalances between three hypothetical doshas cause illnesses; remedies are herbal concoctions, oils, oil massages, special diets, purgation, deworming, etc. We do not know how these concepts and therapeutics came to be two-three millennia ago, but we do admire their systematisation in textbooks and many treatment successes.

•Europeans had lagged behind — until two-three centuries ago. Scientific medicine developed and grew in Germany, Austria, France, Britain and the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries through an iterative and cumulative process. Natural sciences (physical and biologic, including microbiology, biochemistry and genetics) with their methods of inquiry and emphasis on objective evidence heavily influenced its growth, which continued in the 20th century and is still continuing. Scientific medicine can and must question and revise dogmas, concepts, explanations and therapeutics through research inquiries — that is what science is all about.

•In traditional systems, doctrines and therapeutics are given and fixed. Students accept them en route to becoming physicians of such systems. Traditional and scientific systems follow contrasting definitions of ‘truth’. In the former, truth is what one is taught and is believed subjectively. It need not and cannot be verified by research. In the latter, truth is what has been verified through experimentation. By definition and practice, objective evidence can be reconfirmed by anyone who repeats experiment.

•Verifiability in modern medicine comes with a price — as well as a prize. The price is that the physician’s diagnosis and treatment can be scrutinised and assessed against the system’s norms. Liability to negligence arises if norms were not followed; if guilty the physician can be penalised. The prize is correct diagnosis and treatment, irrespective of who the physician is — an immense benefit to the patient.

•Since the scientific system is open to verification, physicians have accountability to make evidence-based diagnosis and formally recommended remedies. Any two independent physicians are required to make the same diagnosis and the same guidelines of therapy. All diseases have been named, numbered and classified into a compendium — the International Classification of Diseases, the 10th edition being in current use and 11th edition in the making. If one physician makes a diagnosis and treats as such, the patient has the right to ask if both are based on evidences available in books and periodicals. In case the physician had not followed such norms, he/she is liable to be tried for medical negligence and the patient compensated, if so proven.

Question of accountability

•In other words, scientific medicine demands ‘accountability’ on the part of the physician — for ‘correct’ diagnosis and treatment. Since such verifications and detailed classifications are not present in traditional medical systems, a physician diagnoses and treats as best as he/she could, but without verifiability or accountability. Fortunately, therapies in traditional medicines are generally harmless — hence patients do not face much risk.

•But the scientific system is far too complex to be mastered by one person; hence the need for specialities and specialisations and diagnostic laboratory services.

•Does a physician of a medical system have to believe in its doctrines or could the physician apply the remedies while disbelieving the doctrines? Since the doctrines and their ‘truths’ are disparate and often contradictory, all of them cannot be believed honestly as true by one person. Traditional and scientific medical systems cannot be integrated. But one physician can learn any or all systems; but then should a physician practice a system in which he/she has no faith in its doctrines? Can a priest of one religion learn the rituals of another and function as its priest also?

πŸ“° Mars on earth: simulation tests held in remote desert of Oman

200 scientists from 25 nations are putting their minds together for the project, as public and private ventures race towards setting foot on the red planet

•Two scientists in spacesuits, stark white against the auburn terrain of desolate plains and dunes, test a geo-radar built to map Mars by dragging the flat box across the rocky sand.

•When the geo-radar stops working, the two walk back to their all-terrain vehicles and radio colleagues at their nearby base camp for guidance. They can’t turn to their mission command, far off in the Alps, because communications from there are delayed by 10 minutes.

•But this isn’t the Red Planet, it’s the Arabian Peninsula. The desolate desert in southern Oman, near the borders of Yemen and Saudi Arabia, resembles Mars so much that more than 200 scientists from 25 nations chose it as their location for the next four weeks, to field-test technology for a manned mission to Mars.

•Public and private ventures are racing toward Mars. Both former President Barack Obama and SpaceX founder Elon Musk declared humans would walk on the Red Planet in a few decades.

•New challengers like China are joining the U.S. and Russia in space with an ambitious, if vague, Mars program. Aerospace corporations like BlueOrigin have published schematics of future bases, ships and suits.

•The successful launch of SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket this week “puts us in a completely different realm of what we can put into deep space, what we can send to Mars,” said analog astronaut Kartik Kumar.

•The next step to Mars, he says, is to tackle non-engineering problems like medical emergency responses and isolation.

•“These are things I think can’t be underestimated.” Mr. Kumar said.

•While cosmonauts and astronauts are learning valuable spacefaring skills on the International Space Station and the U.S. is using virtual reality to train scientists, the majority of work to prepare for interplanetary expeditions is being done on Earth.

•And where best to field-test equipment and people for the journey to Mars but on some of the planet’s most forbidding spots?

Searing heat

•Seen from space, the Dhofar Desert is a flat, brown expanse. Few animals or plants survive in the desert expanses of the Arabian Peninsula, where temperatures can top 51 degrees Celsius.

•On the eastern edge of a seemingly endless dune is the Oman Mars Base — a giant 2.4-ton inflated habitat surrounded by shipping containers turned into labs and crew quarters.

There are no airlocks.

•The desert’s surface resembles Mars so much, it’s hard to tell the difference, Mr. Kumar said, his spacesuit caked in dust. “But it goes deeper than that — the types of geomorphology, all the structures, the salt domes, the riverbeds, the wadis, it parallels a lot of what we see on Mars.”

•The Omani government offered to host the Austrian Space Forum’s next Mars simulation during a meeting of the UN’s Committee On the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Gernot Groemer, commander of the Oman Mars simulation and a veteran of 11 science missions on Earth, said the forum quickly accepted.

•Scientists from across the world sent ideas for experiments and the mission, named AMADEE-18, quickly grew to 16 scientific experiments, such as testing a “tumbleweed” whip-fast robot rover and a new space suit called Aouda.

•The cutting-edge spacesuit, weighing about 50 kg, is called a “personal spaceship” because one can breathe, eat and do hard science inside it. The suit’s visor displays maps, communications and sensor data. A blue piece of foam in front of the chin can be used to wipe your nose and mouth.

•“No matter who is going to this grandest voyage of our society yet to come, I think a few things we learn here will be actually implemented in those missions,” Mr. Groemer said.

•The Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of Sputnik ignited a space race between Moscow and Washington to land a crew on the Moon. But before the U.S. got there , astronauts like Neil Armstrong trained suspended on pulleys to simulate one-sixth of Earth’s gravity.

Breaking point

•“You can test systems on those locations and see where the breaking points are, and you can see where things start to fail and which design option you need to take in order to assure that it does not fail on Mars,” said JoΕ—o Lousada, one of the Oman simulation’s deputy field commanders who is a flight controller for the International Space Station.

•Faux space stations have been built underwater off the coast of Florida, on frigid dark deserts of Antarctica, and in volcanic craters in Hawaii, according toPacking For Mars , a favorite book among many Mars scientists, written by Mary Roach.

•“Terrestrial analogs are a tool in the toolkit of space exploration, but they are not a panacea,” said Scott Hubbard, known as “Mars Czar” back when he led the U.S. space agency’s Mars program. The Oman team’s optimism is unflinching.

•“The first person to walk on Mars has in fact already been born, and might be going to elementary school now in Oman, or back in Europe, in the U.S. or China,” Mr. Lousada said.

πŸ“° Murky mining

Mining activity in Goashould now begin on a clean slate

•The Supreme Court order to halt the murky course that mining has taken in Goa should help restore some balance to the exploitation of iron and manganese ore in the ecologically fragile State. As the court observed this week in the Goa Foundation case, commercial mining activity can be rapacious in the absence of clearly laid down and strictly enforced conditions. This is exactly what has happened in Goa, with the State government displaying shocking disregard for rules and processes while renewing licences for a second time in 2015. It inexplicably chose not to exercise its right to view the licences as fresh leases that require new environmental impact assessments. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Goa invited a cloud of suspicion by hastily launching the renewal of licences just a day after it unveiled a Grant of Mining Leases Policy on November 4, 2014. Quite extraordinarily, it issued 31 orders on a single day, January 12, 2015, apparently to pre-empt the Centre’s Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Ordinance that came into force the same day. Now that the Supreme Court has ordered the termination of 88 licences, grant of fresh licences and proper accounting of the losses, mining activity in its entirety should begin on a clean slate. Future decisions should be guided solely by the true cost to the environment and to human health.

•Goa has argued that the mining industry is crucial to its economy as it brings in foreign exchange, provides employment and supports a transport industry. Yet, it is also true that the ore mined in the State is low in iron, reducing its value to the domestic steel industry. Given that mining has a severe destructive impact on the ecology, resumption of large-scale activity should await a scientific audit of how sustainable it is. Any more mining should also account for the loss of employment while calculating economic gains. Just last year, public protests over contaminated groundwater and fouled air, as in Sattari taluk, underscored the need for strict environmental controls. It is relevant to point out that the Union Environment Ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee found in 2013 that many of the past leases had been issued without the approval of the National Board for Wildlife, and miners had extracted ore in excess. The requirement for clearance from the Central Ground Water Board was ignored. Going forward, the Environment Ministry must display zero tolerance to such violations, reversing its indefensible decision of 2015 to lift its own abeyance order issued against unsustainable mining. The Supreme Court’s directions provide Goa with an opportunity: to change course and become a mainstream tourist State. It can regain its position as a top destination for global visitors and broaden employment in services. Tourist charters need to replace its open cast mines and dust bowls.





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