The HINDU Notes – 22nd January 2019 - VISION

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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The HINDU Notes – 22nd January 2019






📰 Centre proposes to hike monthly pensions for the elderly poor, disabled and widows

Plan likely to be part of interim Budget

•Ahead of the 2019 election, the Rural Development Ministry has proposed that the monthly pensions of the elderly poor, disabled and widows be increased from the current ₹200 to ₹800. For those above the age of 80, the proposal is to increase the pension from ₹500 to ₹1,200 a month.

•The Ministry has submitted the proposal, which would have an additional annual cost implication of ₹18,000 crore, to the Finance Ministry to be considered for inclusion in the interim Budget to be presented on February 1.

•“The proposal is being scrutinised for the possibility of inclusion in the Budget speech,” said a senior official of the Rural Development Ministry, which administers the National Social Assistance Programme (NSAP).

•If the proposal is announced, the Ministry will then move the Cabinet to approve the increase in pensions, said the official.

•Separately, a study has been launched to consider doubling the number of people covered by the scheme, a promise originally made in last year’s Budget.

•Discussions are also being held with the State governments on a proposal to merge the Central and State pension schemes. The BJP’s defeat in the recent Assembly elections has forced the Centre to consider sops for rural India.

•The Centre has been considering various welfare measures to benefit rural Indians and farming communities before the Lok Sabha election. Senior government officials have mentioned income support, interest waivers and increased access to credit as some of the other measures being considered.

•The NSAP is a Centrally Sponsored Scheme with an annual budget of ₹9975 crore. It currently covers more than three crore people who are below the poverty line (BPL), including about 80 lakh widows, 10 lakh disabled and 2.2 crore elderly. Those who are older than 80 years are paid ₹500 per month, while the rest are given ₹200 per month. These amounts have not been revised since 2007. State governments add their own contribution, ranging from less than ₹500 to ₹2000 per month.

•“The scheme will need a total budget of ₹30,000 crore in order to increase the pension amounts to ₹800 and ₹1200,” said the Ministry official.

•In his last budget speech in February 2018, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had said that the government “is implementing a comprehensive social security and protection programme to reach every household of old, widows, orphaned children, divyaang and deprived as per the Socio Economic Caste Census (SECC).”

•If SECC data was used to determine the number of people covered under the scheme instead of the current BPL criteria, coverage would double to about six crore people. Despite that, Mr. Jaitley said allocation for the scheme would be unchanged. Without additional funds, there has been no concrete move towards using SECC data.

•However, prodded by a Public Interest Litigation petition filed in the Supreme Court demanding universal pension coverage and higher pensions, the Rural Development Ministry decided to commission a comprehensive study to evaluate State and Central schemes before proposing a revamp of the system. That study is likely to be completed by the end of June, said the Ministry official.

•“There is a possibility of merging State and Central schemes to increase coverage. The evaluation study will allow us to take an informed decision. But we will have to decide a new cost-sharing ratio [between Centre and States],” said the official, adding that initial discussions with State governments had been held on January 16. Several States, including Rajasthan, Telangana, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, have already shifted to SECC data for their own pension schemes.

•In its December 13 order on the PIL, the SC had said: “It is high time that the Government of India has a relook at these schemes and perhaps overhaul them with a view to bring about convergence and avoid multiplicity. In particular, the Government of India and the State Governments must revisit the grant of pension to the elderly so that it is more realistic. Of course, this would depend upon the availability of finances and the economic capacity of the Government of India and the State Governments.”

📰 The ambiguity of reservations for the poor

While the constitutional amendment may survive the ‘basic structure’ test, the hardest test will be its implementation

•The 103rd Constitution Amendment Act introducing special measures and reservations for ‘economically weaker sections’ (EWS) has been perceived as being obviously unconstitutional. This article is sceptical of such a reading and takes the view that a constitutional challenge to the amendment will take us into unclear constitutional territories. The strongest constitutional challenge might not be to the amendment itself but to the manner in which governments implement it. There is no foregone conclusion to a potential challenge and we would do well to start identifying the core constitutional questions that arise. To be clear, I am here concerned only with questions that arise within constitutional law.

Special measures

•Article 15 stands amended enabling the state to take special measures (not limited to reservations) in favour of EWS generally with an explicit sub-article on admissions to educational institutions with maximum 10% reservations. The amendment to Article 16 allows 10% reservations (and not special measures) for EWS in public employment and does so in a manner that is different from reservations for Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. The amendment leaves the definition of ‘economically weaker sections’ to be determined by the state on the basis of ‘family income’ and other economic indicators. Also critical to this amendment is the exclusion of SC/STs, OBCs and other beneficiary groups under Articles 15(4), 15(5) and 16(4) as beneficiaries of the 10% EWS reservation.

•A good point to start the consitutional examination is the Supreme Court’s view on reservations based purely on economic criteria. Eight of the nine judges in Indra Sawhney (November 1992) held that the Narasimha Rao government’s executive order (and not a constitutional amendment) providing for 10% reservations based purely on economic criteria was unconstitutional. Their reasons included the position that income/property holdings cannot be the basis for exclusion from government jobs, and that the Constitution was primarily concerned with addressing social backwardness.

Basic structure doctrine

•However, the decision in Indra Sawhney involved testing an executive order against existing constitutional provisions. In the current situation, we are concerned with a constitutional amendment brought into force using the constituent power of Parliament. The fact that we are not concerned with legislative or executive power means that the amendment will be tested against the ‘basic structure’ and not the constitutional provisions existing before the amendment. The pointed question is whether measures based purely on economic criteria violate the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution? I do not think it is a sufficient answer to say that ‘backwardness’ in the Constitution can only mean ‘social and educational backwardness’. Citing the Constituent Assembly debates is not going to take the discussion much further either. It is difficult to see an argument that measures purely on economic criteria are per se violative of the ‘basic structure’. We can have our views on whether such EWS reservations will alleviate poverty (and they most certainly will not), but that is not really the nature of ‘basic structure’ enquiry. Providing a justification for these measures as furthering the spirit of substantive equality within the Indian Constitution is not very difficult.

•Economic criteria (if seen as poverty) forms the basis for differential treatment by the state in many ways and it would be a stretch to suddenly see it as constitutionally suspect when it comes to ‘special measures’ and reservations in education and public employment. Poverty inflicts serious disadvantages and the prerogative of the state to use special measures/ reservations as one of the means to address it (however misplaced it might be as a policy) is unlikely to fall foul of the ‘basic structure’ doctrine.

•A challenge to the amendment may lie in the context of Article 16 by virtue of shifting the manner in which reservations can be provided in public employment. Under Article 16(4), reservations for backward classes (SC/STs, OBCs) are dependent on beneficiary groups not being ‘adequately represented’ but that has been omitted in the newly inserted Article 16(6) for EWS. The amendment through Article 16(6) ends up making it easier for the state to provide reservations in public employment for EWS than the requirements to provide reservations for ‘backward classes’ under Article 16(4). In a sense that is potentially a normative minefield for the Supreme Court. On the one hand, it is confronted with the reality that ‘backward classes’ like SC/STs and OBCs are disadvantaged along multiple axes and on the other, it is now far more difficult for the state to provide reservations to these groups compared to the EWS. The response might well be that ‘representation’ is not the aim of EWS reservation and questions of ‘adequacy’ are relevant only in the context of representation claims like those of the backward classes under Article 16(4).

Questions and challenges

•In many of the responses to the amendment, breaching the 50% ceiling on reservations has been cited as its greatest weakness. It is hard to see the merit of that argument because the amendment by itself does not push the reservations beyond 50%. While it might be a ground to challenge the subsequent legislative/executive actions, the amendment itself is secure from this challenge. But even beyond this narrow technical response, the 50% ceiling argument is far from clear. In Indra Sawhney, the majority of judges held that the 50% ceiling must be the general rule and a higher proportion may be possible in ‘extraordinary situations’. Fundamentally this argument stems from an unresolved normative tension in Indra Sawhney. While committing to the constitutional position that reservations are not an ‘exception’ but a ‘facet’ of equality, the majority in Indra Sawhney also invokes the idea of balancing the equality of opportunity of backward classes ‘against’ the right to equality of everyone else. When governments implement the EWS reservations and push quotas beyond 50%, the Supreme Court will be forced to confront this normative tension. If reservations further equality, what then are the justifications to limit it to 50% when the identified beneficiaries constitute significantly more than 50%? The answer to that question might lie in Indra Sawhney’s position that the constitutional imagination is not one of ‘proportional representation’ but one of ‘adequate representation’. However, as discussed above, if abandoning the ‘adequacy’ requirement per se is upheld for EWS reservations, the basis for a 50% ceiling becomes unclear.

•While the constitutional amendment by itself might survive the ‘basic structure’ test, the hardest test for governments will be the manner in which they give effect to the amendment. The definition of ‘economically weaker sections’ will be a major hurdle because the political temptation will be to go as broad as possible and include large sections of citizens. But broader the definition, greater will be the constitutional risk. For example, if beneficiaries are defined as all those with family income of less than ₹8 lakh per annum, it must necessarily fail constitutional scrutiny. To justify that an individual ‘below poverty line’ and another with a family income of ₹8 lakh per annum belong to the same group for purposes of affirmative action will involve constitutional jugglery at an unprecedented level. But then, the history of our constitutional jurisprudence has prepared us well for such surprises.

📰 Summit 2.0: the second Trump-Kim meeting

A second Trump-Kim meeting could do with a Chinese nudge and a South Korean whisper

•Even though there was little progress in achieving the goals set in the historic meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un of North Korea in June 2018, the announcement of a second summit next month is a step in the right direction. The fact that Pyongyang has ceased its nuclear muscle-flexing, and has not tested any nuclear- capable device or launched any missile for more than a year, is reason for continued patience and confidence in the dialogue. The Singapore meeting generated mutual goodwill and hopes of a breakthrough. But in the declaration the leaders had promised a denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula without indicating a timetable or the modalities of reaching that far-sighted end- goal. In the months since the meeting, Pyongyang’s anticipation of an easing of U.S. sanctions have not materialised, while information about the inventory of North Korean nuclear stockpiles that Washington had sought as a first step towards a verifiable dismantling of the North Korean arsenal, has not been forthcoming. Underscoring the stalemate, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence stated days before the announcement of the coming bilateral summit that Pyongyang had made little headway on its commitments. Similarly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s persistent efforts since the Singapore meeting have come to nought. The concept of “complete denuclearisation” of the Korean Peninsula that formed the crux of the Singapore declaration has become a subject of conflicting interpretations. Pyongyang insists that the expression must have a wider meaning and include the U.S. military umbrella that extends across South Korea and Japan. It contends that North Korea will be the first target in the event of a pre-emptive U.S. strike. For nuclear hawks in Washington, the stalemate is at best a case of Mr. Trump’s diplomatic gambit having gone awry and at worst, an impasse that allows Pyongyang to prevaricate and give nothing away.

•Against this backdrop, the prospects for any meaningful progress appear to hinge on mediation by Beijing and Seoul. Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s President, favours rapprochement with the neighbour, and a lasting resolution of the Washington-Pyongyang nuclear imbroglio, advocating dialogue. After his recent meeting with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Mr. Kim reinforced his pledge to rid the region of nuclear arms and expressed a willingness for another summit with Mr. Trump. But he emphasised Pyongyang’s need for security guarantees, replacing the decades-long armistice with a formal peace treaty to mark the end of the 1950-1953 Korean War. Toning down his rhetoric, President Trump has displayed a readiness to wait and watch. It is not certain if the sober mood will translate into tangible outcomes. But that would be a credible offer that can lure Mr. Kim to reciprocate on the nuclear front.

📰 Why EVMs must go

Paper ballots claim legitimacy by passing the three tests of a free and fair election, which EVMs don’t

•The recent Assembly elections — the last major polling exercise before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls — were not devoid of Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) malfunctions. Though the discourse at present makes no distinction between a ‘malfunction’ (which suggests a technical defect) and ‘tampering’ (manipulation aimed at fraud), there were several reports of misbehaving EVMs. Alarmingly, in Madhya Pradesh alone, the number of votes polled did not match the number of votes counted in 204 out of the 230 constituencies. The Election Commission’s (EC) explanation is that the votes counted is the actual number of votes polled — a circular logic that precludes cross-verification.

•A discrepancy of even one vote between votes polled and votes counted is unacceptable. This is not an unreasonably high standard but one followed by democracies worldwide. It might therefore be helpful to briefly look beyond the question that has hijacked the EVM debate — of how easy or tough it is to hack these machines — and consider the first principles of a free and fair election.

Electoral first principles

•The reason a nation chooses to be a democracy is that it gives moral legitimacy to the government. The fount of this legitimacy is the people’s will. The people’s will is expressed through the vote, anonymously (the principle of secret ballot). Not only must this vote be recorded correctly and counted correctly, it must also be seen to be recorded correctly and counted correctly. The recording and counting process must be accessible to, and verifiable by, the public. So transparency, verifiability, and secrecy are the three pillars of a free and fair election.

•Regardless of whether one is for or against EVMs, there is no getting away from the fact that any polling method must pass these three tests to claim legitimacy. Paper ballots obviously do. The voter can visually confirm that her selection has been registered, the voting happens in secret, and the counting happens in front of her representative’s eyes.

•EVMs, however, fail on all three, as established by a definitive judgment of the German constitutional court in 2009. The court’s ruling forced the country to scrap EVMs and return to paper ballot. Other technologically advanced nations such as the Netherlands and Ireland have also abandoned EVMs.

•If we take the first two criteria, EVMs are neither transparent nor verifiable. Neither can the voter see her vote being recorded, nor can it be verified later whether the vote was recorded correctly. What is verifiable is the total number of votes cast, not the choice expressed in each vote. An electronic display of the voter’s selection may not be the same as the vote stored electronically in the machine’s memory. This gap was why the Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) was introduced.

•But VVPATs solve only one-half of the EVMs’ transparency/verifiability problem: the voting part. The counting part remains an opaque operation. If anyone suspects a counting error, there is no recourse, for an electronic recount is, by definition, absurd. Some believe the VVPATs can solve this problem too, through statistics.

•At present, the EC’s VVPAT auditing is restricted to one randomly chosen polling booth per constituency. In a recent essay, K. Ashok Vardhan Shetty, a former IAS officer, demonstrates that this sample size will fail to detect faulty EVMs 98-99% of the time. He also shows that VVPATs can be an effective deterrent to fraud only on the condition that the detection of even one faulty EVM in a constituency must entail the VVPAT hand-counting of all the EVMs in that constituency. Without this proviso, VVPATs would merely provide the sheen of integrity without its substance.

•The third criterion is secrecy. Here too, EVMs disappoint. With the paper ballot, the EC could mix ballot papers from different booths before counting, so that voting preferences could not be connected to a given locality. But with EVMs, we are back to booth-wise counting, which allows one to discern voting patterns and renders marginalised communities vulnerable to pressure. Totaliser machines can remedy this, but the EC has shown no intent to adopt them.

•So, on all three counts — transparency, verifiability and secrecy — EVMs are flawed. VVPATs are not the answer either, given the sheer magnitude of the logistical challenges. The recent track record of EVMs indicates that the number of malfunctions in a national election will be high. For that very reason, the EC is unlikely to adopt a policy of hand-counting all EVMs in constituencies where faulty machines are reported, as this might entail hand-counting on a scale that defeats the very purpose of EVMs. And yet, this is a principle without which the use of VVPATs is meaningless.

Unjustified suspicions

•Despite these issues, EVMs continue to enjoy the confidence of the EC, which insists that Indian EVMs, unlike the Western ones, are tamper-proof. But this is a matter of trust. Even if the software has been burnt into the microchip, neither the EC nor the voter knows for sure what software is running in a particular EVM. One has to simply trust the manufacturer and the EC. But as the German court observed, the precondition of this trust is the verifiability of election events, whereas in the case of EVMs, “the calculation of the election result is based on a calculation act which cannot be examined from outside”.

•While it is true that the results come quicker and the process is cheaper with EVMs as compared to paper ballot, both these considerations are undeniably secondary to the integrity of the election. Another argument made in favour of the EVM is that it eliminates malpractices such as booth-capturing and ballot-box stuffing. In the age of the smartphone, however, the opportunity costs of ballot-box-stuffing and the risk of exposure are prohibitively high. In contrast, tampering with code could accomplish rigging on a scale unimaginable for booth-capturers. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to detect EVM-tampering. As a result, suspicions of tampering in the tallying of votes — as opposed to malfunction in registering the votes, which alone is detectable — are destined to remain in the realm of speculation. The absence of proven fraud might save the EVM for now, but its survival comes at a dangerous cost — the corrosion of people’s faith in the electoral process.

•Yet there doesn’t have to be incontrovertible evidence of EVM-tampering for a nation to return to paper ballot. Suspicion is enough, and there is enough of it already. As the German court put it, “The democratic legitimacy of the election demands that the election events be controllable so that... unjustified suspicion can be refuted.” The phrase “unjustified suspicion” is pertinent. The EC has always maintained that suspicions against EVMs are unjustified. Clearly, the solution is not to dismiss EVM-sceptics as ignorant technophobes. Rather, the EC is obliged to provide the people of India a polling process capable of refuting unjustified suspicion, as this is a basic requirement for democratic legitimacy, not an optional accessory.

📰 Justice delayed is markets stymied

In a market economy like India, a strong judiciary is required for quick settlement of disputes

•Since the 1991 economic reforms, India has improved tremendously in almost all economic indicators, and is now one of the fastest growing nations in the world. Various economic policies of the current government have enabled the economy to move faster than ever before. These include tax reforms leading to the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, reforms making India more competitive in the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ index, and implementation of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code. But it has never been more important to also strengthen the quality of the material which makes up the engine of the economy, i.e. India’s institutions. As a democracy, India has an advantage: the roots of all its institutions are strong. However, they have simply failed to grow with the growing population and with increasing demands. The judicial system, in particular, is far from reaching the pace required for efficient functioning.

An inefficient judiciary

•The importance of the judiciary cannot be underplayed in a market economy. Three things are crucial for the market economy to function efficiently: transparency in information, efficient dispute settlements, and contract enforcement in a time-bound manner powered by an effective judiciary. In a market economy, the government has little role to play in transactions among players. However, it plays an effective role by setting up efficient dispute settlement mechanisms, so that the costs of transactions are minimal. In such an economy, the judiciary plays the pivotal role by enforcing contracts in the case of disputes through minimal costs.

•Over the years, and with the advent of the Internet, India has taken a leap towards transparency of information. However, little progress has been made in the case of dispute settlement mechanisms due to an inefficient judiciary. The situation is so desperate that the Economic Survey of 2017-18 had to set aside an entire chapter on the need for ‘Timely Justice’. It noted that the current working capacity of the High Courts and the Supreme Court is only 63.6%. Plus, there are huge numbers of pending cases: 1.8 lakh in six of the major tribunals, and close to 3.5 million in the High Courts. For economic cases, the average duration of pendency is about 4.3 years for the five major High Courts. The Centre and the States approximately spend 0.08-0.09% of the GDP on administration of justice, which is very low. In 2017, India spent about ₹0.24 per person on the judiciary; the U.S. spent ₹12. Even though, understandably, it is a little punitive to compare India’s budget with that of the most powerful economy in the world, the point is to set out a benchmark for India.

The problem is with economic theory

•Unlike our policymakers, those in other countries seem to have realised the importance of the judiciary in the efficient functioning of a market economy. The problem here lies with economic theory. The proponents of reform belong to the school of neoclassical economics, and are taught that transactions are costless. However, the writings of Richard Coase and Douglass North have taught us that in reality, the rules and regulations that affect economic activity determine whether transactions are costless or not. This theory of new institutional economics questions the two crucial assumptions of neoclassical economics — costless transactions and perfect information — and stresses the role of institutions in facilitating market exchange by reducing transaction costs, providing a predictable framework for exchange, and overcoming imperfect information. In India, there are few practitioners of new institutional economics and that could explain why this aspect has not been addressed in the past decade.






•The low focus on the judiciary obviously implies that non-compliance of contracts is not at all costly in India. The official dispute settlement mechanism does not deliver justice in a time-bound manner. Consequently, players are willing to bypass the system by paying rents to government officials, a system that became customary in the License Raj. Officials are willing to accept quick money since there is little chance of getting caught, making venality a norm. Of course, studies in political economy have shown that strengthening institutions and political power enjoyed by the incumbent are in conflict of interest. Thus, the Opposition also has a major role to play in the solidification of institutions, including, and especially, the judiciary. Strong institutions are the key to move India up the economic ladder. Otherwise, India will remain a land of crony capitalists.

📰 Election Commission mulls legal action on anti-EVM campaign

“It has come to the notice of Election Commission of India that an event claiming to demonstrate EVMs used by ECI can be tampered with, has been organised in London."

•The Election Commission on Monday said it was examining the option of taking legal action on the claims made at a press conference in London that the Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) used by the electoral body could be hacked and that the 2014 Lok Sabha polls were rigged.

•Syed Shuja, a U.S.-based cyberexpert levelled the allegations via Skype at an event hosted by the Indian Journalist Association and the Foreign Press Association in London. He claimed that he had intended to travel to the U.K. from an undisclosed location in the U.S. four days ago but was attacked and injured and was unable to travel.

•He also alleged that the individuals who were meant to bring an EVM to the venue for him to be able to demonstrate alleged tampering had been “offered a great deal of money” and “decided not to show up.”

•“It has come to the notice of the Election Commission of India that an event claiming to demonstrate EVMs used by ECI can be tampered with, has been organised in London. Whereas the ECI has been wary of becoming a party to this motivated slugfest, ECI firmly stands by the empirical facts about the foolproof nature of ECI-EVMs deployed in elections in India,” said the Commission.

•“It needs to be reiterated that these EVMs are manufactured in Bharat Electronics Limited and Electronics Corporation of India Limited under very strict supervisory and security conditions and there are rigorous standard operating procedures meticulously observed at all stages under the supervision of a committee of eminent technical experts constituted way back in 2010. It is being separately examined as to what legal action can and should be taken in the matter,” the EC said.

•Congress leader Abhishek Manu Singhvi said: “We cannot deny it, we cannot affirm it. But, it is clear that it adds to the significant body of thoughts which has grave doubts about the authenticity, objectivity and correctness of these machines.”

📰 ‘Taliban-U.S. meeting took place in Qatar’

•The Taliban said it met with U.S. officials in Qatar on Monday. The U.S. has not officially commented on the reported meeting, which follows the last confirmed talks between the two parties in the UAE in December.

•“Following American acceptance of the agenda of ending the occupation of Afghanistan and preventing Afghanistan from being used against other countries in the future, talks with American representatives took place today in Doha, the capital of Qatar,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

📰 Plastic waste imports to India go up: report

Plastic waste imports to India go up: report
Influx of PET bottles quadrupled from 2017 to 2018, according to green body

•In spite of a ban on the import of plastic waste into India, the influx of PET bottles has quadrupled from 2017 to 2018 thanks to legal loophole, says a Delhi-based environmentalist organisation, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay Smriti Manch (PDUSM).

•“Indian firms are importing plastic scraps from China, Italy, Japan and Malawi for recycling and the imports of PET bottle scrap & flakes has increased from 12,000 tonnes in FY 16-17 to 48,000 tonnes in FY 17-18 growing @ 290%. India has already imported 25,000 MT in the first 3 months of FY 18-19,” says a note by the organisation.

Wide gap

•Government and industry estimates suggest that India consumes about 13 million tonnes of plastic and recycles only about 4 million tonnes.

•A lack of an efficient waste segregation system and inadequate collection is the root cause, according to experts, for much of the plastic not making its way to recycling centres.

•To incentivise domestic plastic recycling units, the government had banned the import of plastic waste, particularly PET bottles in 2015. In 2016, an amendment allowed such imports as long as they were carried out by agencies situated in Special Economic Zones. It’s this loophole that’s been exploited.

•A senior Union environment ministry official, who declined to be identified, told The Hindu that while the ministry couldn’t vouch for whether such plastic imports had quadrupled, it was true that the imports had “substantially increased” and action was being contemplated. “We’ve been apprised of these imports and they’re quite substantial. We’re beginning internal investigations to see how this can be addressed,” the official added.

•Ravi Agrawal, director of Toxics Link, an organisation that works on plastic waste management, said that figures were “plausible” as China, once a major global importer of plastic waste for recycling, had banned such imports.

•“It’s possible that some of that is making its way to India but I can’t be sure of these numbers,” Mr. Agrawal said.

📰 The fault lines of diplomatic recrimination

The Huawei episode raises serious concerns over issues that are germane to international business and trade

•One of the world’s largest telecom companies, Huawei, is at war with a few powerful western nations led by the United States. This is not a new spat. The conflict, which has been simmering for quite a few years, reached its crescendo on December 1, 2018 with the detention and arrest of Sabrina Meng Wanzhou, its Chief Financial Officer, in Vancouver, Canada, for allegedly breaking U.S. sanctions on Iran by way of bank frauds. The U.S had asked Canada to detain her.

•Ms. Meng, a tech heiress, is the daughter of Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei and was arrested while in transit at the airport. A Canadian court has granted her bail, but she could face extradition to the U.S. The incident, which has led to an uproar in China, has left Canada embarrassed, as any decision will have a bearing on its ties with Beijing.

•The more recent conviction (January 14) of a Canadian national Robert Lloyd Schellenberg to death by a court in China for drug trafficking has only aggravated the controversy. Significantly, this conviction was based on a retrial that took place after the arrest of Ms. Meng. The fact that Canada does not have a death sentence on its statute books complicates relations between the two countries. The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has assailed this as a political move. Additionally the recent detention in China of two other Canadian citizens (one, a diplomat on leave) on national security grounds has muddied the waters further.

•The Chinese assessment is that the U.S. is exercised over the growing stature of Huawei and the resultant threat to U.S. technology companies and links this to the action against Ms. Meng. It must be remembered that Huawei has overtaken Apple to become the second largest maker of smartphones, and its investments in research and development are growing at a frenetic pace.

Need for protocol

•The conflict between China and the West, especially the U.S., raises serious concerns over issues that are germane to international business and trade. The first is its impact on the troubled state of international relations and international law that operates in such cases. There is also the issue of the apparent ease and arbitrariness with which a nation determined to outwit a rival can hit the latter hard. There does not seem to be an ethical set of rules.

•No one suggests that Ms. Meng did not transgress U.S. law. She may have acted surreptitiously to counter U.S. sanctions against Iran. The point, however, is whether such drastic action against a top executive was warranted, especially in the context of the fragile relationship between the two nations. The implications of the incident, in terms of the need for a protocol between nations in the area of criminal justice must be pondered over. Some experts cite the concept of ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ in support of the U.S. action — such jurisdiction empowers a nation to enforce its laws and rules over foreign entities, generally through courts.

•The concept has a political colour to it and, therefore, questionable in cases such as Ms. Meng’s arrest. The Chinese criminal action against three Canadian nationals also smacks of vindictive conduct.

•On the other side, the detention of Ms. Meng was obviously meant to send out a signal not only to China but also to prospective violators of U.S. sanctions. If this was the objective, this was achieved, with the rider that a nation acting so peremptorily may have to brace itself to meet retaliatory action by the targeted nation, as borne out by the Chinese action against the three Canadians, one of whom now faces execution. This collateral damage to Canada should set alarm bells ringing, especially in the West.

Issue of cybersecurity

•A second important issue relates to cybersecurity. China, along with Russia, has long been suspect in the eyes of the West for spying, the basis for this being proven instances of online attacks and unestablished cases of breaches in western computer systems. In the case of Huawei, the western line is that as it is a corporation close to the Chinese establishment, its activities cannot be purely technological and commercial. Ren Zhengfei had links with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The specific charge against Huawei is that in every piece of hardware sold by it, there are microchips and devices that provide substantial information to the Chinese authorities. The irony is that there has been no major irrefutable evidence communicated to the rest of the world to substantiate this charge. Western agencies say that Huawei is so smart and skilful that it is impossible to ferret out such evidence. On its part, the latter has dismissed the charges against it as fanciful and motivated, only in order to keep it at bay after its successful forays into American hardware bastions.

•Third is the issue of the continued fragility of cybersecurity as far as the average computer user is concerned. Breaches even in highly protected environments across the globe hardly instil confidence in ordinary customers who have bought devices and follow procedures, often at great expense, to plugging security loopholes in their systems. There is, therefore, a growing reluctance on the part of many large corporations to invest more in cybersecurity. From this perspective, an emerging philosophy is that security can never be 100%, and that one should not be unduly agitated over inevitable cyberattacks, as long as they do as they do not cause major loss, economic or reputational.

•There is no means to guess the impact of the U.S. action on to-be-released and game-changing 5G technology, and in which Huawei has great stakes. China maybe expected to up the ante if any Western nation actually goes to the extent of banning Huawei from a role in the upgradation. China suspects that the anti-Huawei campaign is only at the instance of its competitors to cut it down to size on the eve of the launch of a valuable product. But this again is in the realm of speculation.

📰 Climate ‘time bomb’ for groundwater is ticking

‘Only half of it will replenish in 100 years’

•Future generations face an environmental “time bomb” as the world’s groundwater systems take decades to respond to the present day impact of climate change, scientists warned on Monday.

•Groundwater is the largest useable source of freshwater on the planet and more than two billion people rely on it to drink or irrigate crops.

•It is slowly replenished through rainfall — a process known as recharge — and discharges into lakes, rivers or oceans to maintain an overall balance between water in and water out.

•Groundwater reserves are already under pressure as the global population explodes and crop production rises in lockstep.

•But the extreme weather events such as drought and record rainfall — both made worse by our heating planet — could have another long-lasting impact on how quickly reserves replenish, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change .

•An international team of researchers used computer modelling of groundwater datasets to put a timescale on how reserves may respond to the changing climate.

•Mark Cuthbert, from Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, and his team found that only half of all groundwater supplies are likely to fully replenish or re-balance within the next 100 years — potentially leading to shortages in drier areas.

•“This could be described as an environmental time bomb because any climate change impacts on recharge occurring now, will only fully impact the baseflow to rivers and wetlands a long time later,” Mr. Cuthbert said.

•The process through which rainwater is filtered through bedrock and accumulated underground can take centuries and varies greatly by region.

📰 ‘Bihar outgrew others in FY18 GDP’

After five years, State rose to clock 11.3% growth; A.P. registered 11.2%, says report

•Bihar and Andhra Pradesh led the pack among States in terms of GDP growth in financial year 2017-18, clocking 11.3% and 11.2% growth, respectively, compared with the national GDP growth of 6.7% for the year, according to a report by Crisil.

•According to the report, 12 of the 17 general category States grew faster than the national growth rate.

•However, it noted that this growth was not equitable, with the gap between the per capita incomes in low-income and high-income States widening over the last five years.

•“In fiscal 2018, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, and Gujarat were top-rankers in terms of GSDP growth among the 17 non-special States considered in our analysis,” the report said. “Jharkhand, Kerala, and Punjab were at the bottom.”

•The analysis found that between the financial years 2012-13 and 2016-17, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka were the fastest growing states, on average.

•While all three managed to maintain their GSDP growth higher than the all-India GDP growth in 2018, only Gujarat remained in the top three. Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka both saw their rankings slip to 9 and 4, respectively.

•The States at the bottom, similarly, saw a reversal of fortunes. West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar had ranked at the bottom in the past five years. In financial year 2017-18, however, Bihar rose to the top spot and West Bengal rose to the sixth rank, with a growth of 9.1%, significantly stronger than the national GDP growth rate. Jharkhand, however, remained at the bottom.

•“In Gujarat and Karnataka, manufacturing was the main driver, while in Madhya Pradesh, agriculture and allied activities drove growth on average,” the report said. “Among the laggards, West Bengal was dragged down by mining, Jharkhand by electricity and other utilities.”

•On the fiscal front, the report noted that most veered off the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act (FRBM) line of maintaining their fiscal deficits at 3% of their respective state GDPs.

•“With little fiscal legroom for the Centre, States are now the new engines of government spending [over 65% in total government spending],” the Crisil report said.

Capex in State spending

•“Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh topped the tally in proportion of capex in state spending in the past three years. But most states are not spending as they ought to, in areas such as health, irrigation, and education.”

•“States must also be wary of their debt profiles,” Dipti Deshpande, senior economist at Crisil, said. “While the FRBM Act had helped states recover their fiscal health considerably, recent trends show they are slipping. Debt ratios have risen in many States—with the assimilation of Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana (UDAY), farm loan waivers, and Pay Commission hikes.”

•The combined fiscal deficit of States crossed the 3% of GSDP threshold, in both fiscals 2016 and 2017. This improved in fiscal 2018 to 3.1%, but this was still higher than the FRBM limit, and also the 2.7% of GSDP budgeted for the year, the report noted.

•Looking ahead, in a separate report, India Ratings and Research (Ind-Ra) said that it expected the aggregate fiscal deficit of the States to come in at 3.2% in financial year 2019-20, which is higher than what it forecast in its FY19 Mid-Year Outlook.

•“Although this is higher than the fiscally prudent level of 3% of the gross domestic product (GDP), Ind-Ra believes this will not pose a significant upside risk to States’ aggregate debt burden in FY20,” the report said. India Ratings added that the “competitive populism” in the form of farm loan waivers and other financial support schemes would likely take centre stage in the run-up to the general elections in May 2019.

•“A larger impact is expected on fiscal and revenue deficit to gross state domestic product ratios for Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Rajasthan, among non-special category States, in FY20,” the report said.

📰 Protest against proposed bird sanctuary in Manipur

Villagers claim fishing ban in Loktak lake will hit their livelihood

•The Manipur government’s plan to set up a bird sanctuary at the Loktak lake in Bishnupur district has met with stiff opposition from the villagers in nearby areas.

•A large number of residents of Thingnunggei village took out a massive procession against the government’s proposal on Sunday.

•“The villagers of Thingnunggei are poor and they have no other means of earning a livelihood except for catching fish and plucking vegetables from the lake. If fishing is banned in the lake, the villagers would starve. We are all for protection of birds, most of whom are migratory, but the new scheme should not be implemented at the cost of the poor villagers,” said one of the protesters.

Declining number

•Thousands of migratory birds flock to the Loktak lake, the largest freshwater lake in north-eastern India, every year. However, in the past few years there has been a sharp decline in the number of migratory birds coming to the lake.

•Reports indicate that bird poachers are active in the area, targeting the winged guests. Officials of the forest department's wildlife wing say in view of the widespread bird poaching at the lake, setting up of the sanctuary is a must.

•Birdwatchers on the other hand blame human intrusion, bird poaching and hydroelectric power project near the lake for the decline in the number of migratory birds and brow-antlered deer in the Keibul Lamjao national park in the vicinity.

Brow-antlered deer

•Some decades ago, the villagers of the lake islets had agitated against setting up of the Keibul Lamjao National Park, the natural habitat of the endangered brow-antlered deer.

•They wanted the land demarcated for the park to be made available to them for cultivating paddy.

•Now, several years later, the latest census suggests that there are only 260 brow-antlered deer in the Keibul Lamjao national park.

📰 Death by design: on jallikattu

Tighter regulations cannot eliminate the element of danger intrinsic to jallikattu

•In situations involving humans and animals, Murphy’s law takes a strong hold: if things can go wrong, they most likely will. Jallikattu may have drawn the attention of animal rights activists for the innumerable accounts of cruelty to bulls, but the deaths fall mostly on the human side of the ledger. The animals suffer but generally survive the ordeal, while a few youth lose their lives. A tragedy as in Viralimalai in Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu, where two men were gored to death by bulls, was waiting to happen. Whatever the precautions taken, and there were many, one cannot prepare for the behaviour of a rampaging bull. Viralimalai jallikattu may not be as famed as the Alanganallur or Palamedu events, but this year it had the full weight of the government behind it. The event was organised by Health Minister C. Vijaya Baskar, a bull-owner himself, in an attempt to create a ‘record’ for the largest number of bullsin a single arena. The event got a bigger profile with Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami in attendance. Multi-tier metal galleries were erected on either side of the arena to accommodate the thousands who had turned up to watch the contest. Double barricades were in place at the vaadivasal, the entry point for the bulls, but the tragedy happened at the exit point, the open area for collection of the bulls after the event. The contest was over, and the bull-tamers were no longer chasing the bulls. But how were the bulls to know? An owner trying to rein in his bull was gored to death by another behind him, and a spectator who wandered out of the protective cover at the scene of action bled to death on being pierced in the abdomen.

•Could anything have been done differently? In keeping with the guidelines set by the Supreme Court to regulate the sport, the Health Department had also deployed teams of doctors from Pudukottai. Medical experts from Tiruchi and Thanjavur Medical Colleges were deployed to attend to emergency cases. A makeshift operation theatre was also set up at the venue. After Sunday’s tragedy, jallikattu events of the future might have barricades at the collection points too. But danger is in the very nature of the blood sport that is jallikattu. Unpredictability is intrinsic to the sport. Attempts to ban the sport have been opposed on the ground that it is an inseparable part of Tamil Nadu’s culture. The Tamil Nadu government in 2017 took the ordinance route to allow for the holding of jallikattu following a ban by the Supreme Court, and the Centre exempted bulls from the rules framed for ensuring the well-being of performing animals. After every loss of human life the regulations might get tighter, but the danger to the life and limb of participants, spectators, and bull-owners will remain in the conduct of jallikattu.

📰 19 amphibian species are critically endangered: ZSI list

Ecologists call for more field studies to fill in missing data

•An updated list of Indian amphibians was released on the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) website last week, with 19 species being treated as critically endangered and 33 species as endangered.

•Nirmal U. Kulkarni, a herpetologist and conservationist from Mhadei Reseach Centre said, “Since 2009, the scientists of the ZSI in collaboration with other institutes have been updating the Indian amphibian checklist periodically. In 2009, the total number of species listed was 284. In 2010 it was 311, in 2011 it was 314, in 2012 and 2013 it was 342, in 2015 it was 384 and in 2017 it was 405 species.”

•The list also notes if the species are in danger, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

IUCN status

•The current list bears the names of 432 amphibian species from India, the year of discovery and their IUCN ‘red list’ conservation status.

•Among the amphibians listed, 19 species are treated as critically endangered and 33 species as endangered, Mr. Kulkarni said, noting that the list describes 19% of amphibians as data deficient species and 39% as not assessed by the IUCN.

•“It is high time that we assess the IUCN status for the Indian ‘not assessed’ amphibians (169 species) based on species-specific field exploration,” said the conservationist, who conducts studies along the Mahadayi of the Western Ghats. The list has been compiled by several scientists, including K.P. Dinesh from the Zoological Survey of India (Western Regional Centre, Pune); C. Radhakrishnan from Calicut, B.H. Channakeshavamurthy from ZSI Calicut, P. Deepak from Mount Carmel College, Bengaluru, and Mr. Kulkarni himself.





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