The HINDU Notes – 24th February 2018 - VISION

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Saturday, February 24, 2018

The HINDU Notes – 24th February 2018






📰 U.S. tightens H-1B approval process, IT firms worried

Fresh documentary requirements specified for workers at third-party worksites

•The U.S on Thursday announced fresh measures to tighten the scrutiny of H-1B visa petitions, mandating fresh documentary requirements for workers at third-party worksites.

•The move will impact Indian IT services providers that place employees with H-1B visas at American companies that contract them, by imposing more paper work and processing hurdles.

•The companies filing H-1B petitions for their employees will have to associate a particular project to the individual visa, which could be approved only for the duration of the project.

Close scrutiny

•The measures are intended to bring the client-vendor -employee relations in business models based on bringing high skilled H-1B workers to America under closer scrutiny.

•Industry insiders said the scrutiny of this model had been increasingly stringent in recent years, and that the requirements included in Thursday’s announcement represent a further tightening of the screws. Vendors that get contracts from American companies often subcontract the job to other companies or hire H-1B employees brought by other companies, creating multilevel structures, a practice that immigration authorities have been monitoring more closely and trying to curb. Industry insiders said lower level jobs would be hit harder under the new regulations.

•In order for a H-1B petition involving a third-party worksite to be approved, the petitioner must show by a “preponderance of evidence that, among other things: the beneficiary will be employed in a specialty occupation; the employer will maintain an employer-employee relationship with the beneficiary for the duration of the requested validity period,” the U.S Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said in a statement.

📰 Adopting a ‘wait and watch’ approach

Why India and Iran had modest expectations of President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to New Delhi this month

•Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit this month was a subdued affair compared to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran last May. The reason is the differing preoccupations in both countries. The future of the Iran- P5+1-European Union (EU) nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), concluded in 2015, has a Damocles’ sword hanging over it, given U.S. President Donald Trump’s visceral opposition to it. In addition, Iran is focussed on developments in Syria and Yemen. For India, dealing with China’s growing footprint in the Indo-Pacific and challenges in its immediate SAARC neighbourhood assume priority. Yet, there is a geographical dynamic that creates its compulsions for both countries.

A short-lived convergence

•It was geography that created the 2,000 years of cultural and civilisational connect that Mr. Modi had sought to highlight during his visit last year. During the 1950-60s, differences persisted on account of the Shah’s pro-U.S. tilt, and after the 1979 revolution, it was the pro-Pakistan tilt. It was only during the late 1990s and the early years of the last decade that both countries achieved a degree of strategic convergence. India and Iran (together with Russia) cooperated in supporting the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan against the expanding role of the Pakistan-backed Taliban.

•In 2003, President Mohammad Khatami was the chief guest at the Republic Day when the New Delhi Declaration was signed, flagging the role of Chabahar port in providing connectivity to Afghanistan and further into Central Asia. Then the times changed: The U.S. declared Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil’, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accelerated Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme leading to progressively more sanctions, and India’s economic engagement with Iran was impacted. Simultaneously, India was pursuing its nuclear deal with the U.S. which was concluded in 2008. During this period, India’s vote against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) generated unhappiness in Tehran. This is why it has taken 15 years for another Iranian presidential visit.

•With Mr. Trump, Iran’s uncertainties are increasing. The JCPOA, spearheaded by the Obama administration, eased sanctions, helping India increase its oil imports from Iran and reactivate work at Chabahar. In January, President Trump renewed the 120-day sanctions waiver but announced that this was the last time he was extending it. Therefore, when the current waiver ends on May 12, U.S. sanctions on Iran will snap back unless a new agreement is reached. This is highly unlikely.

Uncertainties of JCPOA

•Speaking at a public event on February 17 in New Delhi, Mr. Rouhani declared that Iran had faithfully complied with the JCPOA (a fact certified by the IAEA), and a violation by the U.S. would be a repudiation of the sanctity of negotiated outcomes. He also warned that if it violated the JCPOA, the U.S. would “regret” it.

•The JCPOA is not a bilateral deal between Iran and the U.S.; other parties are China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K., and the EU. Further, the JCPOA was unanimously supported by the United Nations Security Council (Resolution 2231) enabling Security Council sanctions to be lifted. The problem is that the U.S. has imposed multiple and often overlapping sanctions on Iran pertaining not only to nuclear activities but also to missile testing, human rights, and terrorism. To give effect to Resolution 2231, it was obliged to lift secondary nuclear sanctions so that other countries could resume commercial activities with Iran. The threat of the U.S. snapback means that third country companies may now attract U.S. sanctions. This uncertainty has been adversely impacting the sanctions relief since Mr. Trump’s election.

•The unrest that erupted in December in Mashhad and that spread to many cities in Iran claiming more than 20 lives was a reaction to rising prices amidst stories of growing corruption. Part of the reason for the economic grievances is the slower than promised sanctions relief, which would imply that Mr. Rouhani is in no position to offer any further concessions. Russia, China, and the European countries have indicated their full support for the JCPOA. However, in the absence of economic countermeasures, which is a lever that only the EU and China have, Mr. Trump is unlikely to be deterred.

•Backing Mr. Trump in his anti-Iran sentiment are his allies, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Both blame Iran for aggressive behaviour — the former with regard to the growing influence of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and the latter for the prolonged war in Yemen which was initiated as a quick operation in 2015 by the Crown Prince to restore President A.M. Hadi. While many European countries may also like to constrain Iran’s missile and regional activities, the fact is that the JCPOA is exclusively about restraints on Iran’s nuclear activities. According to them, only successful implementation of the JCPOA over a period of time can create the political space for additional negotiations; destroying the JCPOA is hardly the way to build upon it.

Outcomes of the visit

•Meanwhile, Iran has also increased its role in Iraq, and activated links with the Taliban in Afghanistan, adding to the U.S.’s growing impatience and unhappiness. With these developments, it is hardly surprising that Mr. Modi’s characteristic ‘diplohugs’ were missing and the outcome has been modest, even compared to last year. India conveyed its support for the full and effective implementation of the JCPOA, the need for strengthening consultations on Afghanistan, and enhancing regional connectivity by building on the Chabahar. Nine MoUs were signed relating to avoidance of double taxation, visa simplification, cooperation in diverse fields including agriculture, traditional systems of medicine, health and medicine, postal cooperation, trade remedial measures, and a lease contract for an interim period of 18 months for Phase 1 of Chabahar. The last is a move forward after the inauguration of the first phase of the Chabahar port in December by Mr. Rouhani. Earlier in October, Iran had allowed a wheat shipment of 15,000 tonnes for Afghanistan through Chahbahar.

•However, there has been little forward movement on the big projects that were highlighted when Mr. Modi visited Tehran last year. The negotiations on the Farzad-B gas field remain stuck, with both sides blaming the other for shifting the goalposts. Understanding on it was reached during the sanction period but remained on paper because of Iranian unhappiness over India’s stand in the IAEA. These were reopened after sanctions relief kicked in post-JCPOA when more countries showed interest.

•There was talk about an aluminium smelter plant and a urea plant to build up Indian investments in the Chabahar free trade zone which in turn would catalyse port activity and justify railway connectivity out of Chabahar. The railway link has been mentioned in the context of connectivity to Afghanistan but the economic rationale for the $2 billion investment has been missing. One positive thing is the exploration of a rupee-rial arrangement which could provide an alternative channel for economic and commercial transactions in case U.S. sanctions do kick in, making dollar denominated transactions impossible. However, the sanctity of this will need to be tested before private parties on both sides begin to use it. So far, trade between the two countries has hovered around $10 billion, with two-thirds of it accounted for in terms of oil imports from Iran.

•It is clear, therefore, that both countries approached the visit with modest expectations. The near-term developments in its neighbourhood are a priority for Tehran even as Mr. Modi tries to find a balance with his stated preference to develop closer ties with both the U.S. and Israel. The uncertainties surrounding the JCPOA provide the justification for adopting a ‘wait and watch’ approach.

📰 Concerned about new Indian tariffs, says U.S. official

‘Economic relationship has been more difficult than strategic partnership’

•The Donald Trump administration has moved the U.S. closer to India than any previous administration on strategic issues, but disagreements on commercial issues remain challenging, according to a senior administration official. The official told The Hindu that the recent union budget might “make it more challenging”.

•“We are concerned about this budget and the new round of tariffs. And I do think that this will make it more challenging, in attracting U.S. investors and improving the trade relations... We have our work cut out for us, in terms of really reaching the potentials of trade and economic partnership,” the official said.

•“The economic relationship has been a bit more difficult than the strategic area of the relationship. This administration is very interested in having fair and reciprocal trade relations with India. The President has committed to opening market access for U.S. companies, obviously India also has investments in the U.S. We would like to see trade increase, we have had a little bit of success in reducing trade deficits, we hope it is a long-lasting adjustment,” the official said.

Trade imbalance

•Mr. Trump mentioned high tariffs on high-end motorcycles in India recently. Trade figures in the last quarters has reported a reduction in the imbalance, which is likely because of the energy import by India from the U.S.

•The official said trade issues would be discussed during the trade policy forum in June between the two countries. According to the official, these commercial disagreements are playing up at a time when the strategic cooperation between the two countries has reached an unprecedented level. The official pointed out that no other country finds as many position mentions as India does in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), on dealing with South Asia and Indo-Pacific. The official said the administration has taken a long-term view on China, and this will not be susceptible to any short-term compromises.

•“The NSS is very clear on this administration’s view on China, which is a long-term view. It is clear about how we assert values that we share with India — freedom of navigation, rule of law, transparency, financing of infrastructure projects, resolution of disputes, etc. It is a long-term vision and the U.S. has been forthright in asserting that vision,” the official said, noting that the recent revival of the Quad dialogue is a tangle outcome of this approach.

•“The U.S. is very clear-eyed in dealing with China, and the U.S. sees India playing an important role in that... this idea that the U.S. might be making any short-term changes to its strategy [is not true] — it is a long-term vision.”

•Defence cooperation is a very important part of the relationship, and the administration is “looking to move forward on Sea Guardian” drone negotiations, the official said. The U.S. is willing to do much more with India on defence, the official said, seeking more cooperation from India. “….to do that we need India to cooperate. Of course we have to protect our highest technologies. So there has to be a cooperative arrangement between the two countries,” the official added

📰 Leaders break ground on Afghan section of TAPI

Pipeline will unite countries, says President Ghani

•Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India on Friday ceremonially broke ground on the Afghan section of an ambitious, multi-billion dollar gas pipeline expected to help ease energy deficits in South Asia.

•Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov joined Pakistani premier Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and India’s Minister of State for External Affairs M. J. Akbar for the ceremony at gas-rich Turkmenistan’s border with Afghanistan.

•Speaking at the ceremony, Mr. Ghani said the pipeline would “unite [the] countries”. “There were pessimistic voices, but now we are witnessing the construction of the TAPI gas pipeline,” he said, using the acronym for the conduit which takes its name from the four countries.

•The quartet aims to complete the 1,840 km pipeline and begin pumping natural gas from Turkmenistan’s giant Galkynysh gas field by the beginning of 2020.

•While the pipeline will traverse war-wracked Afghanistan, raising security concerns, the bulk of the 33 billion cubic metres of gas to be pumped annually through the conduit will be purchased by Pakistan and India.

•Mr. Berdymukhamedov, whose country currently depends heavily on China as a market for its natural gas exports, called diversification of gas deliveries an “important part of the politics” of the isolated Central Asian country.

India’s stand

•India’s commitment to the pipeline has previously been questioned over its relationship with Pakistan and easy-access to liquified natural gas markets seen as potential stumbling blocks.

•But Mr. Akbar hailed the project as “a symbol of our goals” and “a new page in cooperation” between the four countries.

📰 Govt. schedules meeting on Lokpal for March 1

Leader of single largest Opposition party too will attend

•In a turnaround from its earlier position, the government will invite the leader of the single largest Opposition party to attend a meeting scheduled for March 1 to discuss the long-pending appointments to the anti-corruption ombudsman, Lokpal.

•At a brief hearing before a Bench led by Justice Ranjan Gogoi on Friday, Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal said the meeting would have the Prime Minister, the Lok Sabha Speaker, the Chief Justice of India and the leader of the single largest Opposition party in attendance. Advocate Prashant Bhushan, appearing for petitioner NGO Common Cause, said the single largest Opposition party leader was attending as a “special invitee.” Justice Gogoi asked the government to update the court in an affidavit on March 5.

•This is a significant development as the government has for years taken the position that Lokpal appointments could be made only after amending the law to replace the Leader of the Opposition with the single largest party Opposition leader on the high-level selection committee. The Bench posted the next hearing for March 6.

•Under the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act of 2013, the high-level selection committee for appointments to Lokpal comprises the Prime Minister, Lok Sabha Speaker, the LoP, the Chief Justice of India and an eminent jurist chosen by them. The 16th Lok Sabha does not have an LoP as the Congress party failed to get the required 10 per cent membership in the Lok Sabha post the 2014 parliamentary elections. However, an April 2017 judgment by the Supreme Court did not buy the government’s argument that an amendment in the provisions to replace the LoP with the single largest Opposition party leader was necessary to get on with the Lokpal appointments.

•The judgment authored by Justice Gogoi called the Lokpal Act of 2013 an “eminently workable legislation” in its present form itself. He observed that the 2013 Act provided enough room for the appointment of Lokpal chairperson and members even in the absence of a recognised LoP.

📰 No second thoughts on issues: Naidu

Centre’s indifferent approach will not deter A.P., he says

•The Union government’s “indifferent approach” and “failure in implementing the A.P. Reorganisation Act and assurances given in Parliament” will not deter Andhra Pradesh from achieving its target of becoming the world’s preferred destination by 2050. The State government is determined to make Andhra Pradesh one of the top three States by 2020 and the number one State in the country by 2029, said Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.

•“Special Category Status, assurances given on the floor of the Rajya Sabha and provisions made in the bifurcation Act are our rights,” he said addressing e-Pragati officers on Friday.

•Mr. Naidu, however, added that Andhra Pradesh would be a loser if only “fighting mode” was adopted. The government had “no second thoughts” on realising the rights of the State. It would not compromise on the State’s interests. The fight would continue until the Centre fulfilled its bifurcation promises.

•“At the same time,” he said, “We should not forget our goals and targets. Our efforts should be to make A.P. the most preferred destination by 2050.”

Digital literacy

•Mr. Naidu said the government’s goal was to ensure that every family had one digitally literate person. The government would impart training in digital literacy to one crore people in 2018-19. The government’s vision was also to see that every family had an entrepreneur.

•Inter-linking of five A.P. rivers, the Polavaram project and the construction of a greenfield capital Amaravati, which would be one of the top five destinations in the world, were some of the other goals, he said.

📰 Frame a law to oversee auditors, SC tells govt.

Their failures have resulted in scandals in the past: Bench

•The Supreme Court on Friday directed the government to frame a law to regulate the auditing profession, saying “failures of auditors have resulted in scandals in the past.”

•In a judgment, a Bench of Justices A.K. Goel and U.U. Lalit highlighted the manner in which multi-national accounting firms violate auditing and financial laws.

•The apex court said these firms comply with Indian laws and code of ethics only in form and not in substance.

•The judgment came on a petition filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation seeking an investigation into PricewaterhouseCoopers Private Limited (PwCPL) and their network audit firms operating in India for alleged violations of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy, the Reserve Bank of India Act (RBI) and the Foreign Exchange Management Act.

•The petitioner said how “Pricewater House, Bangalore, was the auditor of the erstwhile Satyam Computer Services Limited (Satyam) for more than eight years but failed to discover the biggest accounting scandal which came to light only on confession of its Chairman in January 2009.”

•The apex court directed the Centre to constitute a three-member committee of experts within two months to frame a law for an oversight mechanism over auditors.

📰 Pak. to face monitoring by international review group

U.S, India work behind the scenes; China comes on board

•Pakistan, which has been put back on the “Grey List” for terror financing by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Plenary on Friday, will, under a “Compliance Document,” now be required to furnish a fresh report to the International Co-operation Review Group (ICRG). Accordingly, the country will undergo a review at the next Plenary in June, when it would be presented a full action plan on how it is expected to crack down on terror groups banned by the UN Security Council.

•The move was pushed by four nominating countries, the U.S., the U.K., Germany and France. In mid-January, they had written to the FATF stating that even though Pakistan had an anti-money laundering/anti-terror funding regime in place, effectiveness of the implementation was inadequate.

•Some countries pointed out that Pakistan’s actions had only come because of recent FATF pressure, and it would be counter-productive to let it off the hook just when the pressure was producing results.

•Meanwhile, a rally by LeT chief Hafiz Saeed, and the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa state’s decision to raise funding for Haqqani group-linked seminaries over the week didn’t help Pakistan’s case, said Western diplomats.

•Earlier this week, Pakistan had claimed victory in the ongoing FATF meeting, as a preliminary discussion in the ICRG failed to build a consensus on putting it again on the watch list, after China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and GCC countries objected to Pakistan’s nomination. However, U.S. and Indian officials had called the claim “premature” and said a final decision was still to come.

•Informed sources said that behind the scenes, the U.S. worked hard to bring Saudi Arabia around, Germany worked on the GCC, while India was able to speak to Russia. According to the sources, China may have been incentivised to help because it had become Vice-Chair of the FATF committee, and would like to play a responsible role at the international grouping.

•At the end of the Plenary session, when the FATF Chair asked, there were no objections to the nomination of Pakistan, a move that could see it face financial strictures, and ratings downgrades by international banking and credit rating agencies until Islamabad carries out a full crackdown on terror groups. It was another tweet, this time from Pakistani Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal who thanked Turkey for “standing with Pakistan as one” and didn’t mention any others, that confirmed the final outcome.

📰 Grid stability is key

The ambitious plan to help farmers earn from solar power generation hinges on small details

•Electricity is a major concern in rural India, especially for farmers. The Government of India has come up with an original plan to address this problem. Instead of transmitting electricity to the farmers, the government, to start with, wants farmers to use solar energy to power their irrigation pumps. According to the January 2018 report of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, there are about 142,000 solar pumps in India. The government is planning to install one million solar pumps by 2021.

Solar capacity

•To achieve this, the Union Budget 2018 has allocated close to Rs. 48,000 crore to set up the Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (KUSUM). This programme will help set up more than 28 GW of combined solar capacity through these solar pumps. Additionally, to ensure optimal use of this solar energy, and to incentivise farmers to shift to renewable energy, the government plans to purchase the surplus power through electricity distribution companies. This proposal will almost certainly increase agricultural incomes and reduce electricity losses when transmitting power to remote rural areas. Analysts claim that losses from distribution could fall to about 12% from the current level of at least 23%. However, the feasibility of purchasing surplus solar power seems problematic. There is a need to address the issue of grid stability that this injection of surplus power is bound to create.

•The advantage of this scheme is that transmission losses and power theft would drop significantly. Most rural retailers of power also lose money as they sell power at a subsidised rate to the poor and the farm sector. The state-run distribution companies were thus running a loss of Rs. 4.3 trillion as of September 2015. Local generation of power in the manner proposed would take care of the above issues.

•We believe the disadvantages currently outweigh the advantages because of the issue of grid stability. This is an issue that is often neglected. All power grids require balancing. This balancing entails meeting the demand with adequate supply 24x7 to ensure there is no blackout. The reason for striking this balance is that electrical energy cannot readily be stored, meaning that power generation ought to work round the clock. These electrical gridlines were created to depend on reliable and controllable generators (coal, oil and even hydroelectric). However, with more and more power being generated through fluctuating power generators (solar and wind), a more precise balance will have to be created, which may cause more failures.

•Take the example of solar panels that farmers use. These panels will only generate electricity during daylight hours, so to maintain a consistent round-the-clock power delivery the grid operators will need to have a back-up source of power in the form of coal or oil. During the day as well, they will have to be ready to quickly adjust output to compensate for the rise and fall of solar power generation due to changing weather and rain.

•Output from solar panels can also change due to clouds. Variations in weather patterns make it more difficult for the grid operator to predict the balance of electrical energy that will be required to meet the demand. Because wind and solar power sources constantly generate shortfalls and excesses, the grid operators send a signal to power plants every few seconds to ensure that the total amount of power demand at the grid is consistently equal to the total power supply.

•Most countries handle inputs from renewable energy sources similarly. But India is short of power. Thus, while other nations see solar and wind power as an energy management problem, India also sees this as a capacity management problem. Because of India’s sheer size, the variability factor considerably increases: if some areas have low consumption, others are likely to have high consumption. More stability can be achieved by integrating the grids into all-India grids. Expected advances in storage technology would also significantly improve grid stability.

•The plan of the Government of India to purchase solar power from farmers has nevertheless taken off on a good note. In the Union Budget 2018, the Finance Minister asked governments to put in place adequate procedures to purchase the excess solar power from farmers. This sale of excess power has also discouraged overutilisation of groundwater.

•However, the only problem that the government seems to be focussed on is to adequately remunerate the farmers and increase their incomes. We believe attention also ought to be provided to the stability of the grid, lest the grid network collapses due to the uncertainties of power supply and demand.

📰 Canary in coal mine

Opening up the coal sector to private players is a timely reform

•Forty-five years after India nationalised its coal-mining industry, the Central government has allowed the re-entry of commercial mining firms into the sector, turning the clock back. India’s coal industry was predominantly driven by the private sector after Independence until the Indira Gandhi government decided to transfer all coal holdings to Coal India through the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973. The key reason cited for taking coal out of the private sector’s hands was that it was essential to meet power needs. Now, India’s coal market is a virtual monopoly for the public sector behemoth. Coal India accounts for over 80% of the country’s coal supply. Another public sector firm, Singareni Collieries Company, and some captive coal mines allotted to private players for specific end-uses such as in the steel and power industries, account for the rest. Opening up commercial mining and sale of coal for private players is an overdue reform. India has a high dependence on coal for power generation. Despite an aggressive push for renewable and nuclear sources, 70% of electricity generation is through coal-fired thermal plants. In recent years there has been a significant surge in imports as Coal India, despite its rich coal-bearing belts and increased output, is unable to keep pace with demand from new power plants.

•To be sure, the NDA government has moved swiftly to fix the mess it inherited from the UPA, especially irregularities in allocation. In September 2014, the Supreme Court cancelled the allocation of 204 coal mines to public and private players, after the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found fault with the allocation mechanism. An ordinance was brought in quickly and a transparent auction process was evolved for the affected mines, benefiting from lessons learnt from the telecom spectrum allocation mess. The intention was to ensure that there are no supply shocks for power producers on account of abrupt disruptions in mining operations. Enabling provisions for commercial mining and sale of coal were already included in the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act of 2015; the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs has now allowed their operationalisation by clearing the methodology to be followed for auctioning rights. The government says the move will boost energy security, making coal affordable and creating jobs. To ascertain the quality of outcomes, it will be important to see which blocks are actually offered to private players; they should not just be the mines Coal India isn’t keen on. Norms to ensure miners’ safety must be upgraded. Lastly, the integrity of the process is key, so that auctions don’t translate into a winners’ curse as has happened in sectors like telecom. The import-dependent energy sector cannot afford it.

📰 PM warns of action against financial fraud

Modi says the government has been taking strict action against irregularities and that the loot of public money will not be tolerated

•Breaking his silence over the Rs. 11,500-crore fraud at the country’s second-largest public sector bank, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday warned of stringent action against those involved in financial irregularities and said

•Speaking at the Global Business Summit organised by a financial daily , Mr. Modi asked the managements of financial institutions and supervisory bodies to do their job diligently to check such frauds.

•“I want to make it clear that this government has been taking strict action against financial irregularities and will continue to take strict action,” the Prime Minister said.





Calls on regulators

•Without naming the alleged kingpin of the fraud or the Punjab National Bank, the Prime Minister said the managements of financial institutions, auditors and regulators should perform their duty earnestly.

•“I want to make an appeal to those who have been entrusted with the job of framing rules and policies and maintaining ethics to do their job faithfully and diligently,” Mr. Modi said, adding this should specially be followed by those who have been given the responsibility of supervision and monitoring.

•Mr. Modi lauded his government’s economic agenda which he said was “job-oriented” and aimed at bringing “people-centric growth.”

•He also mentioned the announcements made in his government’s last full-year Budget, including pro-agriculture steps such as paying farmers a price that is 50% more than the cost of production. “Some economists are speculating about price rise [because of this decision]. These economists must also consider about our duty towards our annadata [referring to farmers],” he said. “I feel we should support every decision taken to increase farmer’s income.”

•Industry should contribute to the decisions taken by the government, Mr Modi said. ‘Speed, scale, and sensitivity’ were needed for policies to reach people, he said. “In the past four years, the government has stressed job-centric, people-centric growth [and focussed on] an economy which gives poor financial inclusion and takes care of middle-class aspirations.”

📰 ‘Unplanned development plan threatening Netravathi basin’

‘River diversion will cause irreplaceable loss of biodiversity’

•An unplanned development path adopted by “unscrupulous decision-makers” is threatening the ecologically sensitive regions in the Netravathi river basin in the State, according to a study report released by a team of researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, here on Friday. The report titled “Carrying capacity of Netravathi river basin based on the ecological sensitiveness” was released by Energy and Wetlands Research Group (EWRG), Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), IISc, at Alva’s College during the pre-lake 2018 conference jointly organised by the IISc and Alva’s Education Foundation.

•It said that river diversions, hydro electric projects, coastal reservoirs, commercial plantations, unscientific tourism, etc., would cause irreplaceable loss of rich biodiversity in the river basin. Referring to the river basin, it said that Netravathi having a catchment area of 4,409 sq km covers 11 taluks in Chikkamagaluru, Hassan, Kodagu, Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts. It originates in Bangrabalige valley, Yelaneeru Ghat of Kudremukh in Chikkamagaluru district. The basin is part of the ecologically fragile Western Ghats, one among the 35 global hotspots of biodiversity. “It is the lifeline of Dakshina Kannada region supporting the enormous population with rich resource base and diverse cultures,” it said.

•The 203-page report from T.V. Ramachandra, co-ordinator, EWRG-CES, Bharath Setturu and Vinay S., researchers, said that rivers/streams in the ecologically sensitive regions should not be diverted or manipulated as that would affect the water retention capability of the catchment area and ground recharge potential. It would affect the sustenance of water in the streams and affect the downstream users’ right to adequate freshwater. The report said that of the 433 villages in the basin, 111 are in ecologically sensitive region (ESR) I followed by 69 villages in ESR II, 119 villages in ESR III and 134 villages under ESR IV. “Persistence of the endemic (rare, threatened, etc.,) species in ESR I and ESR II calls for serious attention from conservationists and decision-makers to initiate programmes immediately for conservation,” the report said. The report assumes significance in view of the ongoing Yettinahole diversion project in the Netravathi basin.

•Earlier, a group of researchers from IISc, led by Mr. Ramachandra, had, in a report, questioned the State government’s estimation of the project yielding 24 tmcft of water for diversion to parched districts. The group said that only 0.85 tmcft of water could be diverted from the project. The group had warned that the project would lead to water scarcity in Hassan and Dakshina Kannada and would not benefit Chikkaballapur, Kolar and Tumakuru districts.

📰 The champions of clean air

Clean air is turning into a rare commodity as India’s towns and cities become the dumping ground for a variety of pollutants. In this seemingly bleak scenario, Bahar Dutt profiles five Indians whose courageous battle for cleaner air offers a ray of hope to fellow citizens

•In November 2017, when pollution was at its peak in New Delhi, 38-year-old Brikesh Singh, a runner, decided to run the Delhi Half Marathon 10 days before the event. He had a purpose: to record with a device the pollution level on the route to be taken by the runners.

•Singh, a former staffer with Greenpeace Turkey, was appalled by the idea of holding an outdoor sporting event at a time when ambient air pollution levels in the city were at an all-time high. So, he shot a video as he ran the 20 km stretch, documenting at each turn the spiralling pollution levels on his device, and uploaded it on social media.

A marathon battle

•Singh argued that runners or sportspersons engaged in rigorous outdoor activity were at far greater risk than average citizens going about their daily routine. An athlete running at an easy pace for about three hours would inhale the same quantity of air as a sedentary person would in two days. The intake of air increases considerably when we exercise, as we take deeper and more frequent breaths, which is why health professionals warn against outdoor exercise when pollution is high.

•Eventually, the Delhi Half Marathon did take place. But it managed to spark a public debate on whether sports events should be held in a city where lungs are exposed to such high levels of particulate matter. Singh’s video got over 150,000 hits, and pushed the Indian Medical Association to issue a warning against the event. The sponsors of the event, too, issued a statement about the associated health risks, adding that they would reconsider sponsoring the event the following year. Says Singh, on his decision to speak out against the Half Marathon: “Nobody seemed to care that 33,000 people would be breathing the poisonous Delhi air for a few hours. Breathing toxic air is becoming acceptable among the public, and this has encouraged the government to organise sports events such as the FIFA Under-17 World Cup and marathons. I wanted to start a debate on responsible sports. I wanted the media to start questioning the rationale behind organising this marathon. I wanted the government and the organisers to get a 
message that this is not okay.”

•But sharing things on social media has its downside as well. Singh had to face an onslaught by trolls on Twitter, as well as a backlash from Delhi’s running community, which questioned his motives. For him, this was a sign of not just citizens’ apathy but also of a prevalent belief that if you are running in polluted air, you are negating the impact of air pollution on health.

•Singh says that the tipping point for a true citizen’s movement will come when not only activists but citizens, too, demand their right to clean air. Notwithstanding the trolls, he is steadfast in his goal of getting Delhi to clean up its air like Beijing did. He is now focussing on bringing together about 30 organisations and individuals, all working on issues related to air pollution, under one umbrella called the Clean Air Collective. He says it is too soon to call his work a “victory”, but agrees that it is a “step in the right direction when everyone works together for a common goal.”

Bhopal in slow motion

•Shweta Narayan, 39, who is a product of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, had been deeply moved by the social movement seeking justice for victims of the Bhopal gas disaster, and had met victims who had been fighting for compensation more than 20 years after the incident. Her exposure to other people’s movements opened her eyes to the class, caste and gender perspectives on environmental issues. “The biggest inspiration for me was the women of Bhopal — a bunch of people whose fight was more for the world than for themselves. They wanted to make sure that another Union Carbide does not rob people like us of our future,” she says.

•Motivated by what she saw in Bhopal, Narayan decided to start a campaign for clean air in Cuddalore, an industrial hotspot on the western coast, just a few hours from Chennai. The area around the town had become a hub of intensely polluting units after the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu set up of a 200-hectare industrial estate 8 km away from Cuddalore town. Toxic chemical compounds were being released as effluents by the 18 companies in the industrial area. They were damaging the environment and the health of more than 20,000 people in 20 villages. Narayan helped set up a Community Environmental Monitoring (CEM) team in December 2003, which started monitoring the area’s air pollution using low cost devices. “In Cuddalore, people were living in a Bhopal unfolding in slow motion. Both these experiences had a lasting impact on the way I see and understand environment and human rights,” says Narayan.

•It was the CEM report on air quality in 2004 that prompted the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee to direct the Central Pollution Control Board to formulate standards for voluntary organic compounds in the air. Narayan didn’t stop there — CEM programmes were successfully implemented in other industrial clusters in Kodaikanal, Mettur and Trichy in Tamil Nadu, and among pollution-impacted communities in Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh.

•“I spent my childhood in Bokaro Steel City, a small and verdant town in Jharkhand. Environmental issues have always been close to my heart even though, while growing up, the meaning of ‘environment’ for me was limited to trees, birds, animals and rivers. As I went from school to college, my perspective on the environment began to broaden,” she says.

•It has been a long journey for Narayan but with many small victories along the way. Based on the air sample results and air monitoring, residents of Kosumpaly village in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh filed a case of environmental violations against coal mines in the vicinity, being operated by JSW and South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL) in 2014.

•In April 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), through an interim order, imposed an initial fine of Rs. 5 crore each on JSW and SECL and ordered further investigation. The case is ongoing and is being heard by the NGT in Delhi. In December 2017, a high-level committee of the Ministry of Coal and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released its report holding both companies responsible for widespread environmental violations and damage.

•Similarly, communities in north Chennai stalled the environmental clearance for the 660 MW Ennore thermal power plant by going to court with data on air quality and its impact on the health of the people in the region.

•Taking on powerful people and polluting companies hasn’t been easy, but Narayan’s philosophy is simple: “By reclaiming their environment, people also reclaim their dignity. For me that’s a win. It’s a win when communities take charge of their shared environmental destiny, when they train themselves and take on the scientists and engineers of the project in challenging their false data, and when they hold regulators accountable.”

How to stop stubble-burning

•Up north, in the town of Faridkot in Punjab, 55-year-old Umendra Dutt is also busy mobilising the local community. In his case, it is the farmers who burn crop residue. When it’s time to harvest the paddy, plumes of smoke turn the sky grey as the farmers burn the stubble left behind by the big threshing machines over thousands of acres.

•Dutt says that the Green Revolution may have made Punjab the food bowl of India, but it has left behind other problems for the farmers to grapple with. He insists that it is the government policy of trapping farmers in the cycle of wheat and paddy cultivation that has created the problem, which, for him, is not merely one of stubble burning but also about falling soil productivity and rising vulnerability to pests.

•“Promoting long duration varieties of paddy such as PUSA-44 have created this problem. Long duration varieties are harvested in the first week of November. But this is also the appropriate time for the sowing of the next crop, which is wheat. It is because of this small window of time available that farmers prefer to burn the field rather than adopt other methods of incorporating the stubble into the soil, which takes time,” Dutt explains. “If we have to stop stubble burning, we have to change the way agriculture is practised in Punjab.”

•That is why he has set up the Kheti Virasat Mission, a training hub for the second Green Revolution that he believes Punjab’s farmers need. He trains and gives lectures to farmers on the concepts of agricultural ecology, highlighting how the State’s climatic conditions are actually better suited for millet, oilseeds and pulses.

•So what does he make of the recent efforts by the government to compensate farmers for stubble burning? “The cash compensation policy is similar to the ‘on-the-spot-marching’ that we used to do in our school days,” says Dutt. “You think you are moving ahead but actually you are stuck at the same spot. And we cannot move ahead until the government changes its agricultural paradigm.”

•Dutt envisions a method of farming where farmers move away from monocropping and mulch the soil with the stubble. “The way forward, if we have to combat pollution and improve agriculture, is organic farming. It is the only answer to the problem of air pollution caused by stubble burning. The government should recognise this and establish it as mainstream farming. The philosophy and science of organic farming never allows for the burning of even a single straw of weed, within or outside the field,” he says.

•Of course, this is easier said than done, but Dutt’s organisation has already shown the way. He has developed a manual on organic farming and trained over 30,000 farmers. Not one of these farmers who till thousands of hectares of land burns any stubble. “Our biggest achievement has been that we’ve been able to change the farmers’ mindsets,” he says. “They now understand that there is no need for synthetic and harmful chemicals, and no need to burn the stubble. They are convinced of the importance of having a harmonious relationship with the soil, air, water and biodiversity, and of the values of concern and compassion. Despite several years of challenges and failures while they learnt the ropes of organic farming, these farmers did not give up, they stuck with it.”

Protecting baby lungs

•Not far from Punjab, in the national capital, Gopal Sankaranarayanan, 39, an advocate with the Supreme Court, decided to use what he knew best to fight the battle for clean air. Except that instead of fighting the case in his own name, he chose to do it as a father, and filed a petition on behalf of his bronchitis-afflicted toddlers.

•“Having read up on the pollution issues in the National Capital Region, I started following the proceedings in the M .C. Mehta case. I realised that although a special body with wide-ranging powers, the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority had been set up for this precise purpose, there had been very little progress over the last 15 years. This was also borne out by a World Health Organisation report in 2013, which showed Delhi as the city with the world’s most toxic air. I felt we needed to have targeted measures, and what better way for a bunch of lawyers to do it than through the court,” says Sankaranarayanan. So, in 2015, five lawyers and an artist filed a petition seeking relief on behalf of their children.

•Sankaranarayanan, like Singh, has received his share of brickbats. The case was criticised for being too focussed on Diwali, and as not addressing other issues. “The petition addresses all issues related to pollution,” he says in his defence. But with the media coverage focussing on the fireworks issue — partly because the results stemming from it were more directly evident than from cleaner fuel or transport — the order had a number of targeted reliefs.

•Nonetheless, the apex court did ban the sale of crackers in 2017, and post-Diwali pollution levels were at their lowest compared to the three previous years. But Sankaranarayanan is acutely aware that it is too soon to celebrate. “We can’t pat ourselves on the back yet because we have a huge mountain to climb. I think the petition we filed did have a great impact in bringing the issue to the forefront and making people feel that they should participate in securing the Earth for future generations. I feel most motivated by my three children. Their lungs are precious, and as a dad, whatever the price, I will keep fighting and hope for a better tomorrow.”

Data to the rescue

•Scientist Sarath Guttikunda, a self-confessed data geek, has been using science to change the public discourse on pollution. He was one of the first to point out that conversations around air pollution peaked around Diwali, and tended to die down for the rest of the year.

•Guttikunda, who is in his 40s, is a product of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and a National Aeronautics and Space Administration Earth Science Fellow. He has travelled the world presenting hard-hitting data on air pollution to change the conversation on air quality. He is the founder of Urban Emissions, a website that forecasts air quality for over 640 districts in the country. His strength is his ability to present air quality data in an easy-to-comprehend format. This could help transform the public discourse on air pollution by making it grounded in sound science rather than mere political rhetoric.

•Guttikunda is also the developer of the SIM-air (Simple Interactive Models for Better Air Quality) family of tools. With applications for Asian, African, and Latin American cities, it is capable of assessing short- and long-term air pollution scenarios in a multi-pollutant environment. He is credited with taking the pollution conversation beyond Delhi through forecasting models that show what the ambient air pollution levels will be in cities across India.

•His ‘Air Pollution Knowledge Assessments city program’ launched in 2017 provides a starting point for understanding air pollution in Indian cities. It focusses on 20 cities, with more likely to be added later this year. The initiative aims to provide the necessary information base to pollution control authorities so that they can prioritise interventions — which could either be local (such as with public transport and waste management) or regional (power plants) — for better air quality.

•“Today, public interest in the subject is a hundred times more than what it used to be even two years ago,” says Guttikunda. “However, the same cannot be said for the amount of information in the public domain, both for ambient monitoring and the air pollution modelling perspective. I hope this will change. I hope the pollution control boards will recognise that more information needs to be generated, and more information needs to be modelled for a better understanding of pollution trends, pollution contributions, and pollution consequences, so that better policies can be formulated and implemented for cleaner air.” He is clear that there is no winning the pollution battle without the right kind of information.

•“Most of the available tools are complex (state-of-the-art) and data-intensive (multi-purpose) and there is a need for some intermediate understanding that takes into account the availability of information, form of information, and institutional challenges,” says Guttikunda. “And for generating information, we first need more air pollution monitors.”

•His analysis has shown that the country simply doesn’t have enough pollution monitors. “A city like Patna, for instance, has just three monitors, whereas it needs at least 26. Likewise, Bengaluru has 13 but it needs at least 41 monitors. Most cities have very few monitors, and this is a big problem because they can only generate a statistically insignificant sample to represent the range of sources contributing to the pollution problem in the city.”

•Regretfully, the response from most politicians and policymakers has been to pass on the buck to the neighbouring States when confronted with the air pollution problem. What is easily forgotten is that most cities share a common air shed (a part of the atmosphere that behaves in a coherent way with regard to the dispersion of pollutants). So what happens in a small district in Punjab, for instance, will impact cities more than 300 km away. Individuals like Singh, Narayan, Guttikunda, Dutt, and Sankaranarayanan are leading the way, offering hope that there might be a way out of the toxic haze, hope that we can clean our air and that we can do it now.




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