The HINDU Notes – 21st February 2018 - VISION

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Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The HINDU Notes – 21st February 2018

📰 India remains in the best position to help us: Mohamed Nasheed

Gunboat diplomacy doesn’t mean an attack, it means a show of strength, says the former Maldivian President, who currently lives in exile
The Maldives remains in crisis after President Abdulla Yameen imposed emergency on February 5, following the Supreme Court overturning the imprisonment of his political rivals. Among them is a former Maldivian President and leader of the opposition, Mohamed Nasheed, who wants India to intervene in the situation. In a wide-ranging interview conducted over many days as political developments in the Maldives unfold, Mr. Nasheed, who is with the Maldivian Democratic Party, says he believes that the emergency is not the biggest crisis the Maldives faces. He lists China’s “land grab” and the threat of the Islamic State (IS) as bigger challenges. Excerpts:
The situation in the Maldives appears to be fluid, with the Yameen government’s decision on the emergency. However, given that it appears to control both the judiciary and the parliament, has the opposition run out of options?

•The government is unable to extend the state of emergency legally, because they don’t have the 43 MPs in the Majlis that must vote in favour of it. This means that the emergency, and any extension to it, is illegal. It also means that any actions taken by the government or security forces using emergency powers are illegal. Meanwhile, the Chief Justice and another Supreme Court Justice have been illegally detained. This means anything decided by the remaining SC justices is invalid. President Yameen is ruling down the barrel of a gun. There is zero legitimacy to anything he is doing.

India has asked that the government abide by the court’s original ruling and lift the emergency. What is your reaction to that?

•I welcome the statement by the Ministry of External Affairs. I urge the government to fully comply with it.

The government has offered multiparty talks as well. How do you respond to that?

•We would like to see the government create an environment that is conducive to talks. It is very difficult for us to sit down while the Chief Justice is in jail, other judges are in jail, the former President is in jail, and all political leaders are in jail, and there is emergency rule. So, we would like President Yameen to create an environment where both sides can trust each other and sit down [for talks]. But, at present, the general view is that President Yameen is trying to buy time. So, when we sit down to try to find a solution, we do want the international community to underwrite talks. The United Nations should be engaged in them as well.

•There is a whole host of things that have to be done now before we sit down. Even a month ago… we were quite willing to sit down without any conditions. But now [Mr. Yameen] has dragged the situation down so much, it is very difficult to talk.

You’re saying he must revert to the status quo ante. What else would it take for you to feel comfortable to enter into these talks?

•For instance, the Supreme Court ruling [dismissing charges against nine political opposition leaders] cannot be part of political talks.

How sure are you of your strength in the Majlis? You had started a process to impeach the Speaker that didn’t succeed. And the ruling Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) claims it has a majority in the House.

•Let’s do it then — let’s have all our MPs in and let’s have a vote. We clearly have a parliamentary majority. And we believe there are several members of the PPM who are not happy with the status quo and who do not want to support what President Yameen has done. So I think we will have more than the 44 required for a majority. It may be 55.

And if elections take place, will the opposition be united? Will your coalition include leaders like President Yameen’s former Vice President Ahmed Adeeb, or businessman Gasim Ibrahim, who are accused of attempted murder and terror?

•Well, the coalition is between all the parties, not individuals. It will have the Adhaalath Party, the Jumhooree Party, and the PPM that is led by [former] President Gayoom and the Maldivian Democratic Party.

You have appealed to India to send an envoy to the Maldives. What is it that you want India to do?

•I think India must be on the ground in Male with an envoy and try to ensure that President Yameen relents. My view is that India has a number of other tools and I believe India has the imagination to use them. I have never asked for boots on the ground.

But you have used the term gunboat diplomacy, which evokes war scenarios. That sounds quite drastic.

•No. In fact, gunboat diplomacy doesn’t mean an attack; it means a show of strength. I feel we are at a defining moment in the Indian Ocean and we must depart from the past. There is an effort on to change the state type in the Maldives… to move from democracy back to dictatorship, using money power. So, what I am saying is not drastic. If, in August 2018, President Yameen is elected unopposed, the Maldives will go into at least 10 years of autocratic rule, and after that I don’t think India or any other country will be able to pull us out of it. We have always seen India as a net provider of security and safety in the region, for the past 600 years. So, we mustn’t lose the moment.

Do you see the Maldives becoming an area of contestation, buffeted by the roles that India, China and the U.S. now play in the Indian Ocean?

•Yes, we seem to be a bit sandwiched there. The U.S., however, seems to be looking more and more inwards, and we don’t feel they are willing to exert their power in the ocean, and have outsourced their policy to others. So, India remains in the best position to help us.

What do you think will happen next?

•I think Mr. Yameen is trying to get the Chief Justice to resign, so he will have the emergency rule until he is able to achieve that. The Chief Justice’s family told me that he remains strong, and I am hopeful he will not resign. If he doesn’t resign, I think the emergency will carry on.

In 2012, you too had ordered the detention of a judge who gave bail to an Islamist group that had defaced some statues during the SAARC summit. The accusation against you is that when you were in power, you did the same thing.

•Well, power does have this sense of continuity. As a leader, I came in after decades of single party autocratic rule, and some systems remained strong. You can topple a dictator, but it is very difficult to uproot dictatorship. Yes, if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have done that. We were very young in democracy; our political party was only 12 years old. But yes, given a chance, I would have done otherwise.

Despite all this, you have often said that the real crisis in the Maldives is not dealing with dictatorship. Describe the situation you see there, and what is of deepest concern to you.

•Yes, you are right, this is not the real crisis in the Maldives. I have been tortured twice; I have spent the good half of my adult life in jail. But I’m afraid this is not the real crisis. The real crisis in the Maldives springs from two recent developments. First, the development of a state within the Maldives by the IS. Second, attempts by emerging powers to change state type, with a view to drive land grab. During the last 40 years, Saudi Arabia has propagated a very narrow version of Islam that has created a breeding ground for jihadi movements. We are now in a very worrying situation where the Maldives has sent the most number of people per capita than any country to fight for the IS. Hundreds of Maldivians have joined jihadi groups. This could not have been achieved without a very solid network in the Maldives. At present, the issue becomes a crisis as the IS is being flushed out of Syria and the Levant. They are coming home to the Maldives.

•But also, a far more sophisticated attack on the Maldives is happening without a single shot being fired. Although land grabs are occurring worldwide, they are more common in countries where the protection of human rights is poor. Due to a combination of international and domestic drivers, the Maldives has become a flourishing land-grab paradise. Without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land than what the East India Company had at the height of the colonial era. They have weaponised foreign direct investments. Instead of rifles, bayonets and cartridges, the weapons in the new colonial arsenal are bribery, corruption and dubious investments. I don’t have anything against foreign direct investment, per se. But there is a process that must be followed: there should be open tenders, competitive bidding, and democratic scrutiny.

You were President for four years. During your tenure, you allowed the Chinese mission to be set up and invited Chinese business. Why didn’t you do anything then?

•In 2007, President Gayoom visited China and appointed a Maldivian Ambassador there. In our government I had no choice but to allow that. In India, there seems to be a trust deficit about us. But establishing an embassy doesn’t mean that we were also facilitating land grabs.

India was the only country in the region, minus Bhutan, which didn’t join China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). What must India do to counter China’s troublesome, but obviously attractive, influence in South Asia?

•It’s not about deep pockets. Look, in the past, the Maldives became a middle-income country, primarily through development loans from the State Bank of India. And people in the Maldives don’t forget that. It’s not about how deep your pockets are but how you run the process. India has the ability to provide more sustainable loans for Indian Ocean countries, and that is where it has an edge.

If you were to come to power, you may be able to reverse the crisis with the land grab. But how would you reverse the IS problem?

•Well, first you have to tackle the problem internally, as that is how radicalisation works. How did IS take over a big city like Mosul? Because first they eat it from the inside, they go deep and spread their ideas inside, so when they attack, no one counters it. And my fear is, that process is already under way in the Maldives.

📰 ‘China deploys warships in Indian Ocean’

Report says the Blue 2018A fleet of the Chinese Navy has been training in the East Indian Ocean for a ‘week or so’

•BEIJING/ NEW DELHI: A Chinese naval contingent has been deployed in the East Indian Ocean for more than a week at a time when the Maldives is undergoing a political crisis , a Chinese website has reported.

•The website,, has linked the deployment of the warships, including an amphibious vessel that can transfer troops from sea to land, to the evolving situation in the Maldives.

•“At present, the Indian Ocean region is not peaceful and the political situation in the Maldives continues to be turbulent,” says the post. The article flagged on Sunday pointed out that the Chinese Navy’s ‘Blue 2018A’ fleet has been training in the East Indian Ocean for a “week or so”. However, Indian defence sources denied any movement of Chinese ships near the Indian Ocean island nation.

•China had earlier warned against external intervention in the Maldives after the country’s exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed called for New Delhi’s intervention to release political prisoners. The Sina report quoted a statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry “that other countries should not interfere in the internal affairs of the Maldives”.

•The detachment of the People’s Liberation Army-Navy comprises two 052D destroyers, a 054A frigate, and a 071 dock landing ship. A supply ship is also part of the flotilla.

•An Australian website,, underscored that the entry of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean marks a significant shift in regional power. “They’re there to keep India away from Beijing’s interests in the strife-torn Maldives Islands.”

•“Sending warships to operate off the Maldives is a new and concerning development, because it shows that China is trying to exercise influence over a small state more usually within India’s strategic view. New Delhi will read this as a worrying move. It will intensify strategic competition and increase mistrust between China and India,” it quoted Peter Jennings of the Australian Policy Institute as saying.

•The 7500 tonnes Type 052D guided missile destroyer (Luyang-III class) boards a crew of 280 members. Land attack cruise missiles, as well as other projectiles which can target submarines, aircraft and hostile warships provide it credible firepower.

•The Type 054A frigate (Jiangkai II) has a hard-to-pick stealthy design and good anti-ship and counter-submarine capability.

•The Type 071 amphibious transport ship is geared for beach landing troops. An array of amphibious landing craft, assault vehicles and two back-up helicopters are used for sea-to-land deployment of around 800 troops, equivalent of an army battalion. “Overall, the Chinese Navy is sending out an amphibious convoy fleet with strong regional air defence, anti-ship and anti-submarine capabilities and the ability to deliver rather large-scale amphibious troops quickly,” Sina observed.

More ships

•The post highlighted that two additional naval groups, already deployed for anti-piracy escort missions of commercial ships, beef up the Navy’s overall deployment in the Indian Ocean at this time.

•These include the 27th escort convoy comprising a destroyer, frigate and a replenishment ship that may have entered the south Indian Ocean, having crossed the southern tip of Africa, after completing its mission in the Atlantic more than 10 days ago.

•It partners with the Navy’s third ship contingent in the Indian Ocean — the 28th convoy escort formation in the western Indian Ocean. “Just this time, 11 warships of the three naval formations have appeared in the east, west and south Indian Ocean at the same time. This reaction speed and mobilisation ability can be achieved by the few state navies in the world,” the article claimed.

Not near Maldives

•Meanwhile, Indian defence sources said no movement of Chinese ships was detected near the Maldivian waters. “The closest the Chinese ships came near Maldives was about 2,500 nautical miles away,” a defence source said on Tuesday.

•A couple of weeks back, a Chinese naval task force has entered the Indian Ocean from the Sunda Strait for exercises in international waters closer to Australia and has since left via the Lombok Strait, the source explained.

•Indian Navy Spokesperson Capt. D.K. Sharma said without getting into the specifics: “Indian Navy has a robust maritime domain awareness and we have a clear picture of the happenings in the Indian Ocean Region.”

📰 ‘China quietly holding talks with Baloch militants for CPEC’

Pakistani officials have welcomed the talks between Baluch rebels and Chinese envoys, even if they do not know the details of what has been discussed.

•China has been quietly holding talks with Baloch militants in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province for over five years to protect its $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor initiative, according to a media report.

•The 3,000-km-long CPEC is aimed at connecting China and Pakistan with rail, road, pipelines and optical cable fiber network. It connects China’s Xinjiang province with Pakistan’s Gwadar port, providing access to China to the Arabian Sea.

•The project, when completed, would enable China to pump its oil supplies from the Middle East through pipelines to Xinjiang cutting considerable distance for Chinese ships to travel to China.

•“China had been in direct contact with militants in the south-western province, where many of the scheme’s most important projects are located,” three officials were quoted as saying by the Financial Times.

•For more than half a century, Beijing has maintained a policy of non-interference in the domestic politics of other countries. But that has been tested by its desire to protect the billions of dollars it is investing around the world under its Belt and Road Initiative to create a “new Silk Road” of trade routes in Europe, Asia and Africa.

•“China’s willingness to get involved in Pakistani politics has fuelled concerns in New Delhi, which is worried about China’s growing political influence in neighbouring countries, including Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka,” the report said.

•As it seeks to boost the Chinese economy, China’s plans for a new Silk Road has pitched China into some of the world’s most complex conflict zones, the report said.

•The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), over which India has conveyed its protests to China.

•Pakistan, which is set to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the infrastructure initiative, is one of the riskiest parts of the world in which to do business. Last year, 10 local workers were killed by unidentified gunmen while working near Gwadar port, the linchpin of the economic corridor.

•Pakistani officials have welcomed the talks between Baluch rebels and Chinese envoys, even if they do not know the details of what has been discussed.

•“Ultimately, if there’s peace in Baluchistan, that will benefit both of us,” the paper quoted an Pakistani official as saying.

•Another said the recent decision by the U.S. to suspend security assistance to Pakistan had convinced many in Islamabad that China was a more genuine partner.

•One provincial tribal leader who was not identified in the report said many young men had been persuaded to lay down their weapons by the promise of financial benefits.

•“Today, young men are not getting attracted to join the insurgents as they did some 10 years ago,” he said. “Many people see prosperity” as a result of the China-Pakistan corridor, he said.

📰 Maldives on a collision course with India

New Delhi had sent a message asking the government not to extend the state of emergency

•The Maldives on Tuesday looked set for a collision course with India, as a parliamentary committee voted to extend the state of emergency by 30 days, defying India’s expectation conveyed hours earlier.

•According to an official statement from President Abdulla Yameen’s office, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on National Security voted for the extension, by “easing constitutional restrictions”. The extension, the statement said, was submitted at the request of Mr. Yameen due to the present “threat to national security and the constitutional crisis” following a February 1 ruling.

•The Supreme Court had ordered the release of nine jailed Opposition leaders, including exiled former President Mohamed Nasheed, and the reinstatement of 12 expelled legislators.

•Earlier on Tuesday, the Ministry of External Affairs said: “It is our expectation that the Government of Maldives will not be seeking extension of the state of emergency so that the political process in [the] Maldives can resume with immediate effect.”

•Mr. Yameen had declared emergency rule on February 5, for 15 days, after defying the Supreme Court order. The Opposition termed the move illegal.

‘Illegal extension’

•Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Nasheed said the government can’t extend the state of emergency legally, because it does not have the 43 legislators in the Majlis (Parliament) that must vote in favour of it. “The Constitution states that 43 MPs must be present during a vote on a matter of public compliance and a state of emergency is a matter of public compliance.”

•By implication, Mr. Nasheed said, the emergency, or any extension to it, is illegal. “It also means that any action taken by the government or security forces using emergency powers are illegal.

•“President Yameen is ruling down the barrel of a gun. There is zero legitimacy to anything he is doing,” said Mr. Nasheed, who had earlier sought Indian military intervention to resolve the problem in Male.

•However, in a tweet on Tuesday evening, the President’s office said: “It is unconstitutional to say that the state of emergency cannot be declared.”

‘Implement SC ruling’

•While India is yet to indicate its strategy in responding to the ongoing political and constitutional crisis in its neighbourhood, New Delhi on Tuesday reiterated its position and urged Male to implement the SC ruling.

•“It is important that Maldives quickly returns to the path of democracy and the rule of law so that the aspirations of Maldivian people are met and the concerns of the international community are assuaged,” it said in a statement.

•The UN, the U.S., the U.K., the European Union, Australia and Canada, among others, had earlier asked Mr. Yameen to comply with the ruling and ensure that the rule of law prevails.

•Many countries have issued travel advisories directing citizens to avoid travelling to the Maldives.

•Earlier, Karu Jayasuriya, Speaker of the Sri Lankan Parliament and the Chairman of the Association of SAARC Speakers and Parliamentarians, appealed to the Speaker of the Majlis to “immediately take steps to restore normalcy and respect for the rule of law in the country through dialogue”.

📰 Ask Myanmar to take back Rohingya: Hasina

‘India should be more assertive on this’

•India should put pressure on Myanmar to take back the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said on Tuesday.

•Speaking to a group of media professionals, Ms. Hasina said that New Delhi should be more assertive so that the Rohingya can return to their homeland.

‘Rains approaching’

•“We want India should put pressure on Myanmar to take back the Rohingya refugees.... rainy season... is fast approaching and we are worried about how will they live in the current condition,” said Ms. Hasina.

•She also said that her government has cracked down on terrorism and insurgency and has a ‘zero-tolerance’ attitude towards terrorism. She added that neglecting the condition of the Rohingya may create conditions for violence.

•Ms. Hasina reiterated that all countries having territorial boundaries with Myanmar should play a role in finding a solution to the Rohingya crisis.

•“India, China, Bangladesh, Laos, and Thailand have land borders with Myanmar but only Bangladesh gave them refuge. So all sides should be consulted in finding a solution,” said Ms. Hasina.

•Bangladesh and Myanmar recently signed an agreement under which Dhaka gave a list of approximately 8,000 refugees to be returned Myanmar, but Bangladesh wants the entire million-plus Rohingya refugees to return home.

📰 Indian H-4 entrepreneurs in limbo as the U.S. rethinks visa rules

Trump administration may end work authorisation for H-4 visa-holders, which could impact thousands of Indians

•Nitin Venugopal is an Indian engineer who has an H-1B visa but has chosen to be on an H-4 visa, meant for dependents of H-1B visa-holders, to pursue his entrepreneurial dream. H-1B visa regulations require its holders to earn a salary.

•Mr. Venugopal invoked his dependent status, linked to his wife’s H-1B visa, when he co-founded a gaming start-up with two American colleagues in New York. “Salary was not available then,” he told The Hindu . People like Mr. Venugopal — hundreds of them — are facing a serious risk now, as the Trump administration may end work authorisation for spouses of H-1B holders.

•It was a 2015 executive action by the administration of President Barack Obama that allowed these people to leave jobs and become job creators in America.

•“We have six full-time employees, excluding three of us owners. All except me are American citizens,” Mr. Venugopal, who is the also Chief Technology Officer of the company, said.

•His company — he doesn’t want its name published — has been growing well, has raised funds twice and is on the way to a third round.

More jobs

•The Trump administration said in December 2017 that it was considering the discontinuation of work authorisation for H-4 visa holders, to open up more jobs for Americans. But the story of Mr. Venugopal and several others who turned to entrepreneurship appears to be in line with the rationale behind the previous administration’s decision to grant them work permits.

Job authorisation

•“By providing the possibility of employment authorisation to certain H-4 dependent spouses, the rule will ameliorate certain disincentives for talented H-1B non-immigrants to permanently remain in the U.S. and continue contributing to the U.S. economy...” the U.S. government had said in 2015, as explanation for its decision.

•“This is an important goal considering the contributions such individuals make to entrepreneurship and research and development, which are highly correlated with overall economic growth and job creation.

•“The rule also will bring U.S. immigration policies concerning this class of highly skilled workers more in line with those of other countries that are also competing to attract and retain similar highly skilled workers,” it added.

•Since then more than 1,00,000 spouses of those who are waiting for permanent residency in the U.S. received Employment Authorisation Documents (EAD).

•The new rule allowed a pool of highly skilled workers to participate in the U.S. economy as employees, but people like Mr. Venugopal fall in a distinct category within the cohort — entrepreneurs.

•Mr. Venugopal still has his H-1B visa, and can continue to be part of the company even if he loses the H-4 work authorisation, but for the Gajera couple, Alpa and Linesh, in Atlanta, Georgia, such a change is dreadful.

Hotel business

•In the last two years, Ms. Gajera opened two restaurants in the city using her H4 EAD. “We had our hearts in business always, but being on H-1B, that was not an option until 2015,” Mr. Gajera said. They bought an American restaurant that was in the red, turned it around with their own hard work, and added another one a year later.

•“She has been planning to open a third one this year, and that is when this news struck. We are in a limbo. We have already invested all our money and mortgaged our house to raise more money for the business. And now, we don’t know what will happen in the next few months,” Mr. Gajera said. All employees in both restaurants are American citizens.

•Renju Nataraj, a civil engineering graduate from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, also had the option of working under an H-1B visa, but chose to make use of the H4 EAD to pursue her dream of teaching — part-time at a community college in Indianapolis, Indiana, and running a tutoring business. A resident in America for more than a decade now, her Veda Tutoring has been on an upswing ever since its establishment in 2015.

•“Teaching is my passion. Evenings and weekends, I teach 27 hours per week at the community college,” she said, pointing out that under H-1B rules, she would have to work more hours per week to maintain her status.

Worst affected

•“What is curious about these people is — these are exactly the kind of people that the President [Donald Trump] says he wants to bring to America. High-skilled, entrepreneurial and creating jobs in America. Unfortunately, if this move to end H4 EAD goes through, they will be the ones worst affected,” said Rashi Bhatnagar, who spearheaded an online campaign that put the spotlight on the untapped talent pool in the U.S ahead of the 2015 decision.

📰 China outbids India for stake in DSE

Dhaka Stock Exchange to sell 25% to Chinese consortium, rejects NSE, others

•Bangladesh has agreed to sell a large stake in its stock exchange to a Chinese consortium, an official said on Tuesday, rebuffing a rival bid from India that raised political sensitivities.

•The Dhaka Stock Exchange on February 10 had approved the Chinese offer to buy a quarter of the bourse’s 1.8 billion shares, but Bangladesh’s financial regulator asked it to “further scrutinise” the decision.

•“The board has reconfirmed its decision about approving the Chinese consortium’s bid as it is higher than its nearest competitor’s,” said stock exchange spokesman Shafiqur Rahman after the meeting on Monday.

•India’s NSE had offered 15 taka ($0.18) per share during the tender process this month. China’s Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges made a joint higher bid of 22 taka per share, or $122 million, and offered additional technical support worth nearly $37 million.

Allegations of meddling

•The intervention by the Bangladesh Securities and Exchange Commission in the sale sparked allegations in local media that it was trying to favour India. The Bangladesh office of Transparency International, the Berlin-based corruption watchdog, issued a statement “strongly condemning” what it called unethical and illegal meddling. The regulator — which, at the time, defended its final authority to override decisions made by the stock exchange — was not immediately available for comment. The competing bids have exposed tensions in Bangladesh as it juggles growing interest from China against long-standing ties with its huge neighbour India.

•New Delhi threw its weight behind the 2014 elections that returned Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to power, despite boycotts by the opposition who feared the vote would be rigged.

•Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has made big investments in Bangladesh and Indian companies have won multi-billion contracts in key sectors in recent years.

•But increasingly it must counter China, which has also courted India’s arch-rival Pakistan and strategic Indian Ocean nations including Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

📰 Mahanadi tribunal gets Central nod

Chhattisgarh and Odisha in dispute over water sharing

•The Union Cabinet on Tuesday approved the setting up of a tribunal to settle a row between Odisha and Chhattisgarh on sharing the waters of the Mahanadi river.

•This is in keeping with a Supreme Court order last month directing the Centre to set up a tribunal in response to a plea by the Odisha government to stop the Chhattisgarh government from constructing several weirs on the river.

•The tribunal is expected to determine water sharing among basin States on the basis of the overall availability of water in the complete Mahanadi basin, the contribution of each State, the present utilisation of water resource in each State and the potential for future development, official sources said.

•The order on constituting a new tribunal comes even as the government plans to introduce a new bill that would have a single tribunal to replace all existing water tribunals.

‘Extremely inefficient’

•The driving motive for such a tribunal was, according to senior official in the Water Ministry, that tribunals had a decades-long history of being “extremely inefficient” at settling disputes quickly and fairly. The bill, called the Inter-State River Disputes (Amendment) Bill, was introduced in the Lok Sabha by former Water Resources Minister, Uma Bharti, last March but is yet to be debated. “It is expected to be placed in Parliament after it reconvenes after the recess of the Budget session,” an official said.

•Were such a Bill to become law, it could affect the composition of the members of various tribunals. Currently, all tribunals are staffed by members of the judiciary, nominated by the Chief Justice.

•The proposed Bill has provisions for members, even a chairperson, outside the judiciary. “It is possible that a newly-constituted tribunal, such as for Mahanadi, will have to be re-formulated were the new law to come into effect,” said another Water Ministry official.

Chhattisgarh projects

•Over the last year, Uma Bharti as well as the incumbent Minister Nitin Gadkari had asked the governments of Chhattisgarh and Odisha to settle their differences over water sharing and avoid the setting up of a tribunal, a long-standing demand of the Odisha government.

•Odisha had moved the court in December, 2016, for an order asking Chhattisgarh to stop its construction work in projects on the upstream of Mahanadi, saying it affected the river flow in the State.

Delayed awards

•According to the provisions of the Inter-State River Water Disputes (ISRWD) Act, 1956, the tribunal is required to submit its report and decision within a period of three years, which can be extended for a period not exceeding two years. Only three out of eight tribunals have given awards accepted by the States. Tribunals for Cauvery and Ravi Beas have been in existence for several decades. “Delays are on account of there being no time limit for adjudication by a tribunal, no upper age limit for the Chairman or the Members, work stalling due to occurrence of vacancy and no time limit for publishing the report of the tribunal,” the government had said in note last March.

📰 SC: spell out stand on MPs’ salary revision

What is the govt.’s view on it, asks court

•The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Union government to take a “categorical stand” on establishing an independent body to review the salaries and allowances of Members of Parliament and, possibly, scrap their post-retirement benefits and perks.

•A Bench, led by Justice Jasti Chelameswar, said the time had come for the government to make clear its position on the issue which had been publicly debated since 2006.

•The petition, filed by NGO Lok Prahari, said the pension and perks given to MPs, after they demitted office, were contrary to Article 14 (right to equality) of the Constitution. It said Parliament had no power to provide benefits to lawmakers without making any law. It argued that there were no guidelines for granting allowances.

•The NGO highlighted how a person in his mid-twenties, a one-time MP, was eligible for pension for the rest of his life, and such an expenditure was a drain on the exchequer.

•“Have you taken a categorical position? We know the Government of India’s policy is very dynamic. The issue has agitated the minds of people since 2006. What is the government’s view? Your counter-affidavit does not disclose a categorical stand,” the court questioned counsel for the Centre and senior advocate Ajit Kumar Sinha.

•Mr. Sinha sought a week to file a detailed response. In a preliminary submission, he said the establishment of an independent commission to review the salaries and allowances of MPs was still under consideration.

•“Irrespective of the government in power, this is a matter of concern. How long should it remain pending?” the Bench observed.

📰 For cleaner, fairer elections

Removing opacity in party funding and campaign finance is still a work in progress

•Electoral reforms in the hands of politicians is a classic example of a fox guarding the henhouse. While there are many policies that both major parties disagree with each other on, they form a remarkable tag team when it comes to electoral reforms. Unsurprisingly, the Supreme Court, over the last few decades, has readily stepped in to introduce electoral reforms. However, most of these interventions are directed at candidates, and rarely at the parties. The Supreme Court’s recent decision on information disclosure (Lok Prahari v. Union of India) paves a way for future constitutional interventions in India’s party funding regime, including the scheme of electoral bonds.

An extension

•In 2002, the Supreme Court, in a landmark decision in Association for Democratic Reforms v. Union of India (ADR), mandated the disclosure of information relating to criminal antecedents, educational qualification, and personal assets of a candidate contesting elections. Sixteen years later, the court has extended the disclosure obligation to further include information relating to sources of income of candidates and their “associates”, and government contracts where candidates or their associates have direct or indirect interests.

•The principled basis of the court’s decision is that voters’ right to know about their candidate is an extension of their freedom of expression; voters cannot be said to have freely expressed themselves (by voting) without having appropriate information about the candidates. They should have the opportunity of receiving relevant information “to make an appropriate choice of his representative in the Legislature”. What Lok Prahari does is that it extends the ADR decision to include information about the candidate’s “associates”; relevant information for voters is no more limited to the candidate’s personal information. What does this decision tell us about party funding?

•If there is one piece of information that a voter is most deprived of in India, it is that about party funding. While the scheme of electoral bonds has received much attention, another significant facilitator of opacity is an obscure, yet significant provision of the Representation of the People Act, 1951: Section 29C(1)(a). The provision exempts political parties from disclosing the source of any contribution below ₹20,000. This gives political parties a convenient loophole to hide their funding sources by breaking contributions into smaller sums, even ₹19,999 each. As a result, a vast majority of donations to political parties come from sources unknown to voters. The new scheme of electoral bonds takes away even the facade of disclosure requirements that used to exist in earlier law.

•Is the information about party funding relevant for a voter in choosing a candidate? Upholding the constitutionality of disclosure requirements for funding sources in Buckley v. Valeo, the U.S. Supreme Court held, “The sources of a candidate’s financial support also alert the voter to the interests to which a candidate is most likely to be responsive.” Therefore, it is essential for voters to know the funding sources of their candidates. Parties in India play at least two crucial roles in the election of candidates, namely financial support to candidates, and, more importantly, setting the agenda. Not much needs to be said about direct and indirect ways in which parties financially support their candidates.

Another point for disclosure

•However, even if one assumes that parties do not fund their candidates, there is another rationale for disclosure of party-funding sources. Parties occupy a special space in India when it comes to agenda setting. By virtue of a strong anti-defection law in India, all elected legislators are bound by their party agenda. If an elected legislator refuses to toe the party line, she can be disqualified. In Kihoto Hollohan v. Zachillhu And Others, the Supreme Court, upholding the anti-defection amendment, noted: “A person who gets elected as a candidate set up by a political party is so elected on the basis of the programme of that political party.” Parties cannot lay claim to the representation of a candidate, and at the same time argue that information about party funding is not relevant for voters. In short, you cannot have your cake and eat it too.

•As a matter of policy, one may argue that strict transparency norms may not always be desirable. However, as a matter of legal principle, the court’s recent judgment in Lok Prahari, read along with our constitutional structure, strikes a blow against the provisions discouraging transparency in party funding. If the court’s jurisprudence is consistently applied, the scheme of electoral bonds could be declared unconstitutional.

📰 Commercial coal mining opened for private sector

Coal India to lose monopoly; government okays methodology for auction of coal mines for sale of coal.

•Opening up commercial coal mining for Indian and foreign companies in the private sector, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs on February 20 approved the methodology for auction of coal mines/blocks for sale of the commodity. 

•The government described the move as the most ambitious reform of the sector since its nationalisation in 1973. Coal accounts for around 70% of the country’s power generation, and the move for energy security through assured coal supply is expected to garner attention from majors including Rio Tinto, BHP, Vedanta, Anglo American, Glencore and Adani Group.  

•The auction — on an online transparent platform — will be an ascending forward auction whereby the bid parameter will be the price offer in rupees per tonne, which will be paid to the State government on the actual production of coal. There shall be no restriction on the sale and/or utilisation of coal from the mine, an official statement said on the decision taken by. 

•“This reform is expected to bring efficiency into the coal sector by moving from an era of monopoly to competition. It will increase competitiveness and allow the use of best possible technology into the sector,” it added. Public sector undertaking Coal India was so far the lone commercial miner in the country for over four decades. The company accounts for 84% of India’s coal output.

•The methodology okayed on February 20 gives highest priority to transparency, ease of doing business and ensures that natural resources are used for national development, the statement said. 

•As the entire revenue from the auction of coal mines for sale of coal would accrue to the coal bearing States, this methodology shall incentivise them with increased revenues which can be utilised for the growth and development of backward areas and their inhabitants including tribals, it said. States in Eastern part of the country will be especially benefited.
•Coal Minister Piyush Goyal said the move will bring efficiency and competition in coal production, attract investments and best-in-class technology including for ‘safe and efficient mining’, and help create more jobs in the sector. He said the government was in the process of identifying some mid- and large-sized coal blocks for auctions for non-captive purposes, adding that the timelines for the same are yet to be fixed. 

•Kameswara Rao, partner and leader — energy, utilities and mining, PwC, said in a statement that “new owners of distressed assets will no longer worry about uncertain fuel supplies and can contract with commercial coal suppliers to revive their projects.” He added that “we will see industry consolidation, and rise of large vertically-integrated energy companies with interests in coal mining, power generation, transmission and distribution to retail supply. Mr. Rao said the volume growth and cost reduction from commercial coal development will keep import prices in check. However, he added that the government must auction larger blocks in sufficient numbers in order to attract new investment in high-capacity fleet and competition.

•The official statement said the higher investment that the sector will now attract will create direct and indirect employment in coal bearing areas especially in mining sector and will have an impact on economic development of these regions.

•According to the government, it had promulgated the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Ordinance, 2014 in October 2014 for management and reallocation of cancelled coal blocks. It was aimed at ensuring smooth transfer of rights, title and interests in the mines/blocks along with its land and other associated mining infrastructure to the new allottees to be selected through an auction or allotment to government company, as the case may be, it had said.

•That move followed the Supreme Court order in September 2014 cancelling 204 coal mines/blocks allocated to the various Government and Private Companies since 1993 under the provisions of Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973. In a bid to bring transparency and accountability, the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Bill 2015 was passed by the Parliament which was notified as an Act in March 2015. Enabling provisions have been made in the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act, 2015 for allocation of coal mines by way of auction and allotment for the sale of coal, the government said. 

📰 Cabinet committee clears several rail, road projects

Will counter left wing extremism, boost tourism

•The government on Tuesday approved several railway projects, including a 130 km-long Jeypore-Malkangiri project at a cost of ₹ 2,676 crore and another 425 km-long Jhansi-Manikpur and Bhimsen-Khairar line doubling-cum-electrification projects costing ₹ 4,956 crore. The Jeypore-Malkangiri new line project, likely to be completed by 2021-22, will cover the left wing extremism (LWE) affected districts of Koraput and Malkangiri of Odisha, an official statement said.

Boost to Malkangiri

•At present, Malkangiri has no rail connectivity. The new line will provide infrastructure support for overall development and help combat left wing extremism, the statement said.

•The Jhansi-Manikpur and Bhimsen-Khairar projects are likely to be completed by 2022-23. The projects will cover the districts of Jhansi, Mahoba, Banda, Chitrakut Dham in Uttar Pradesh and Chhatarpur in Madhya Pradesh.

•The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) also approved 116.95 km-long Bhatni-Aurnihar line doubling-cum-electrification at a cost of ₹1,300.9 crore. Likely to be completed by 2021-22, it will cover the districts of Deoria, Ballia, Mau and Ghazipur in Uttar Pradesh.

•The CCEA also gave its approval to the construction of 4.5 km-long two-lane bi-directional Silkyara Bend-Barkot Tunnel as part of ‘Chardham Mahamarg Pariyojana’. The construction period of the project is four years.

📰 A Canadian project, inspired by India

Amarjeet Sohi, the country’s Minister of Indian origin, talks about Smart City challenge

•Amarjeet Sohi, Canada’s Minister of Infrastructure and Communities, on Tuesday spoke of his country’s Smart City Challenge, something that has been inspired by India, from where he migrated in 1981.

•“IT companies are of particular interest. We want to see how we can help with Smart City challenges of major urban centres. Problems of transportation, social laws, etc. If we partner, we can find innovative solutions to these issues. The way the challenges work is we call municipalities to identify problems and then technology is used to solve these problems. We then fund viable projects. This is something that is inspired by Indian Smart City challenges,” Mr. Sohi said. The Minister in Justin Trudeau’s Cabinet was delivering the keynote address at the Canada-India Mumbai Business Forum in the city on Tuesday. “Economic growth is top on the agenda of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Growth that helps everyone as businesses and individuals. The same values are also shared by Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” he said.

•“Each time I come to India, it gives me an opportunity to reflect on the time when I was a young man and went to Canada and built my life there,” said Mr. Sohi, a Sikh who was born in 1964, in Sangrur district of Punjab.

•Mr. Sohi explained that Canada’s Smart Cities Challenge aims to find the city that possesses the boldest, most experimental, inclusive, empowering, and digitally transformative ideas in the country. “As a former city councillor, I know first-hand that local leadership understands best what their communities need,” the minister said. “When talented people come together in pursuit of a common goal, they can come up with inspired solutions that will have a real and tangible impact. We are calling on everyone to step up and give us their best ideas on how technology can make our cities even better places to live.”

📰 A deeper malady: on PNB fraud case

Address the breakdown in internal controls and supervisory mechanisms in banks

•Barely days after news of the ₹11,500 crore fraud at Punjab National Bank broke, another but very different scam of a ₹3,695 crore wilful loan default has surfaced. The Central Bureau of Investigation has registered a case against three directors of a Kanpur-based company, and others including unknown bank officials, on allegations of cheating a consortium of banks by siphoning off loans disbursed to the company. If the two cases must be compared, the similarities lie in the breakdown in internal control mechanisms and in the supervisory failure at the banks. In the case of Kanpur-based Rotomac Global, it had availed credit limits from a consortium of seven public sector banks. Given that the facility was made available from 2008 (in the case of Bank of Baroda, which filed the complaint with the CBI), and was used for a range of seemingly unrelated transactions including the import of gems and jewellery and the export of wheat, it is especially surprising that it took such a long time for this diversion of funds to surface as a criminal complaint. It is one thing for individual bank officials to have been complicit in the commission of frauds as has been claimed in the PNB case but quite another for supervisory cadre and risk detection and management systems to have delayed taking remedial action as they did in the Rotomac case. It took too long for the criminal complaints to be filed against the defaulters. On Bank of Baroda’s website Rotomac was listed as its top defaulter almost a year ago; the account had been classified as an NPA in 2015.

•In the case of the Punjab National Bank fraud, letters of undertaking were issued bypassing the bank’s reporting system; the three-tier audit failed to detect the malfeasance. In contrast, BoB was not oblivious of the Rotomac default and took unconscionably long to act. It is important to determine why the Reserve Bank of India, which is vested with keeping an eye on bank books, was unable to take prompt corrective action in this case. Rather than routinely reiterate the importance of strengthening corporate governance in public sector banks and promising to infuse greater professionalism, transparency and accountability, it is time the Centre, the major shareholder in these institutions, takes serious steps to translate this intent into action. Any improvement in the functioning of the PSBs cannot be undertaken without empowering bank managements and securing their independence from political interference while enforcing strict accountability for lapses. To restore the depositor’s faith in the banking system, the government, the RBI and the judiciary must ensure that prompt and salutary action is taken. The economic cost of doing otherwise is too painful to imagine.

📰 Experts urge more funds to tackle Tuberculosis crisis

4.2 lakh Indians die of the disease every year

•Stating that tuberculosis (TB) has become a national crisis in India, the Health Ministry assured the TB community that eliminating the disease by 2025 had the ‘highest level of commitment from the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office.’

•Senior Health Ministry official Sunil Khaparde, who heads the TB programme voiced the assurance at the opening day of the 5th Global Forum on TB Vaccines in New Delhi.

•Nearly 4.2 lakh Indians die of TB every year. Out of the 10 million cases globally, India shoulders the maximum burden with 2.8 million cases. According to Health Ministry data, only 63% of the patients infected with the airborne disease are currently under treatment. Further, 1,47,000 patients are resistant to first and second line TB medicines. At the current rate of progress, global targets to eliminate TB by 2030 will be missed by a 150 years.

•Against this backdrop, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, deputy director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that globally, governments need to invest more in TB research and development to meet the global targets.

•WHO representative to India Hendrick Bekedam added that TB vaccine was a global public health good, which meant governments need to invest if they want to own it later.

📰 The politics of AI

Private capital must be made to pay if it wants to use people’s personal data for commercial gain

•Public discourse around artificial intelligence (AI) is often hijacked by themes that belong in fantasy rather than the real world. Iconic AI from pop culture such as HAL 9000 and Agent Smith epitomise a Manichaean obsession with the idea of ‘superintelligence’ (‘the Singularity’) that could prove to be good or evil, vested as it is with the power to turn humans into either immortals or slaves oppressed by parasitic machines. But the Singularity is not what humanity needs to worry about right now.

•Machine learning (a more precise term for AI) will certainly continue to surpass human capabilities in specific domains such as medical diagnosis and facial recognition. But an AI that can match human intelligence in all respects is unlikely because it is impossible for AI technology to replicate that which makes human intelligence what it is — its embodiment in a biological substrate refined by millions of years of evolutionary feedback loops.

The Big Data leap

•This doesn’t mean the advent of AI is no cause for concern. International Data Corporation, the market intelligence agency, estimates that worldwide spending on AI solutions will grow to $57.6 billion by 2021. The lion’s share of the investments is being made by the Big Five: Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

•Given the scale of investment that it is attracting from the Big Five, all hailing from the most profitable sector of global capitalism (technology), it’s clear that AI is critical for future profitability. This is in keeping with the dynamic of late capitalism that began in the 1970s.

•Capitalism faced a crisis of profitability in the 1970s. Opinions differ regarding its causes, but the global elite had no doubts about the solution: financialisation and globalisation. Also known as the “neo-liberal turn”, it helped solve the problem of falling rates of profit by empowering capital to flow across national borders to wherever the returns were the highest, buy up state-owned assets and enterprises cheaply, and use labour arbitrage to appropriate a greater share of produced value.

•The outcome of all this was a diminishing share of wages in profits. So, to prop up demand and keep the economy on the growth path, consumer spending was sustained through debt, which entailed further financialisation of the economy. It was around this time, in the 1990s, that capitalism welcomed its newest saviour: digitalisation.

•If financialisation and globalisation made it possible for corporates to tap into markets anywhere in the world, digitalisation gave them the means to do so. Uber is the perfect example of what capitalism wants to be when financialisation, globalisation, and digitalisation come together. Huge volumes of financial capital bankrolled Uber through year after year of huge losses as it expanded across the globe, offering rides at prices that disrupted local transportation markets. But it owned no vehicles, employed no drivers. What it did own was data about customers and commute patterns, and a proprietary algorithm that put them to good use.

The oil is data

•AI thus heralds the next phase of digital capitalism where capital accumulation is powered by the ‘oil’ of the networked economy: data. To take an obvious example, traditionally the world’s leading content producers, newspapers and television channels, received the bulk of advertising revenue. But in 2017, 25% of global ad revenue and 60% of online advertising were gobbled up by two companies that produce no content at all: Facebook and Google.

•So where does their value come from? Well, both are platforms: one is a search platform and the other is a social networking platform. As Nick Srnicek argues in Platform Capitalism, businesses structured as platforms are the digital equivalent of oil rigs, ideally placed to mine the networked economy’s most valuable resource by inserting themselves between different sets of users, turning every interaction into a data point, and feeding it all into an algorithm.

•From this perspective, India’s own data-mining initiative, the Aadhaar project, is an ambitious attempt to run a single pipeline through multiple oil rigs with the aim of securing free and unlimited access to an endless stream of personal data that could be monetised by whoever controls it.

•Platform businesses leverage their ability to scale-up the digitisation of a given activity (Uber digitises taxi rides while Airbnb digitises hospitality) to quickly build monopolies that, in turn, boost their ability to collect more data. Unlike what we’ve heard for a long time about Facebook and Google, this data-collecting spree is not about selling it for money or using it to target advertisements better. Rather, it is about using them to train algorithms. Once a platform is in place to ensure a steady supply of fresh data to train an algorithm, the company can eventually move to a position where it can offer an array of AI solutions for which, unlike online search or social networking, you have to pay.

Need for compensation

•All this foregrounds two inter-related issues that citizens must consider carefully: data ownership and labour protection. Put bluntly, the platform-based, chargeable AI services being rolled out by the likes of Amazon and Google were not only made possible by user-generated data, but they often border on rent-seeking. So, there is no reason why people should continue to surrender ownership of their personal data without due compensation.

•The time has come to put in place a new data ownership regime so that private capital is made to pay if it wants to use people’s personal data for commercial gain.

•Second, AI is set to eliminate thousands of skilled jobs in the services sector — from paralegals and sales executives to drivers and radiologists. Unlike what unfolded in the 20th century when the loss of blue-collar jobs to automation was offset by a boom in service sector employment, the rise of AI isn’t about to open up a great number of jobs in any new sector, which is why tech tycoons such as Elon Musk are advocating a universal basic income.

•And yet, every time someone writes a Facebook post or types into Google search, she is not only giving away data about herself, she is also bringing that data into existence, in addition to continually reproducing her physical self so that she can go on being both a producer of data and the agent ensuring that the databases feeding the AI remain populated and active.

•So, contrary to neoclassical economic wisdom, AI cannot sever the link between labour and economic value, though it does substitute dead labour (capital) for living labour. A more equitable distribution of the profits derived from data is essential to ensure that the original owner-producers of data get their due share.

•Ultimately, the AI-enabled digitalised economy cannot survive without the ‘oil’ that can only come from non-AI (human) sources. Unless citizens exercise political control over how data is mined and used, even without the rise of a ‘superintelligence,’ the bulk of humanity risks being reduced to little more than hyper-connected sheep, kept well-fed and well-entertained on (plat)farms under the supervision of AI well-trained to optimise the production of digital wool.