The HINDU Notes – 23rd July 2019 - VISION

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Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The HINDU Notes – 23rd July 2019

📰 PM Modi asked me to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir: Trump

“If I can help, I would love to be a mediator,” the U.S. President said.

•U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday offered to mediate the decades-long Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, saying Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to.

•"I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago and we talked about this subject and he actually said 'Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator', I said 'Where', He said 'Kashmir'. Because this has been going on for many, many years," Mr. Trump said at the White House, where he was hosting Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan.

•"If I can help, I would love to be a mediator. If I can do anything to help, let me know," he added.

•His statement signalled a shift in long-standing policy that the issue must be solved bilaterally.

•“I think they (Indians) would like to see it resolved. I think you (Khan) would like to see it resolved. And if I can help, I would love to be a mediator. It should be....we have two incredible countries that are very, very smart with very smart leadership, (and they) can’t solve a problem like that. But if you would want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do that,” Mr. Trump said.

•“We have a very good relationship with India. I know that your relationship (with India) is strained a little bit, maybe a lot. But we will be talking about India (it’s) a big part of our conversation today and I think maybe we can help intercede and do whatever we have to do. It’s something that can be brought back together. We will be talking about India and Afghanistan both,” Mr. Trump futher told Mr. Khan.

•Mr. Khan welcomed Mr. Trump’s remarks and said if the U.S. agreed, prayers of more than a billion people will be with him.

•Mr. Khan was accompanied by Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt. Gen Faiz Hameed and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi among others.

Helping hand

•It is far from the first time that Mr. Trump has offered to intervene in a seemingly intractable international dispute. U.S. mediation, which has long been sought by Pakistan, is likely to be rejected outright by New Delhi.

•On Friday, Mr. Trump said he remained at the ready to help South Korea and Japan solve their lingering dispute over World War II-era forced labor that has blighted their trade ties.

•In 2017, he offered to mediate territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam and other Asia-Pacific countries -- a proposal that did not move forward.

Strained ties

•India maintains that the Kashmir issue is a bilateral one and no third party has any role.

•India has not been engaging with Pakistan since an attack on the Air Force base at Pathankot in January of 2016 by Pakistan-based terrorists, maintaining that talks and terror cannot go together.

•Early this year, tensions flared up between India and Pakistan after a suicide bomber of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammed (JeM) killed 40 CRPF personnel in Kashmir’s Pulwama district.

•Amid mounting outrage, the Indian Air Force carried out a counter-terror operation, hitting the biggest JeM training camp in Balakot, deep inside Pakistan on February 26.

•The next day, Pakistan Air Force retaliated and downed a MiG-21 in an aerial combat and captured an Indian pilot, who was handed over to India on March 1.

📰 Human Rights Bill cleared amid protests

Amit Shah counters opposition charge that amendments will pack NHRC with ‘yes men’

•The Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was cleared by a voice vote in the Rajya Sabha amid criticism from the Opposition that the legislation will ensure that only the government’s nominees are appointed to the National Human Rights Commission. The Bill was cleared by the Lok Sabha on Friday.

•Responding to the criticism, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said at the conclusion of the debate that such an apprehension was unfounded. “The chairperson is not appointed by Prime Minister on recommendation of Home Minister. There is a committee which includes Prime Minister and Opposition leaders of both the Houses. The House should trust the wisdom of such a committee,” he said.

Choice of Chairperson

•The Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill, 2019 amends the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 to include the provision that apart from a former CJI, a former judge of the Supreme Court can be the Chairperson of the NHRC. Under the Act, only a person who had been the CJI could be made the NHRC chairperson.

•Congress MP Vivek Tankha, speaking during the debate, said many provisions in the Bill gave discretionary powers to the government to pick the NHRC chairperson.

•“The Bill says that if a Chief Justice of India is not available for the post, then there is an option to appoint a Supreme Court judge. But there is no clarity that if there is an existing Chief Justice, will he be overlooked and a certain hand-picked judge be appointed chairman,” Mr. Tankha said.

•RJD MP Manoj Jha echoed the criticism saying the Bill paved the way for appointment of “yes men” on the body.

•The discussion on the Bill started amid an uproar from the Opposition benches who had been protesting since morning on the Sonabhadra killings and political crisis in Karnataka. The House was adjourned at 2.20 p.m. Later when the house met at 3 p.m., Trinamool Congress leader Sukendu Shekar Ray registered his protest saying that the House did not get enough time to study or move amendments.

•Trinamool leader Derek O’Brien, while opening of the debate, had raised the same point saying that the Bill was cleared by the Lok Sabha on Friday and moved in Rajya Sabha this morning. None of the amendments moved by members were circulated. It is a violation of the rights of members he said. The party members walked out of the House.

📰 The judicial presumption of non-citizenship

In further strengthening the Foreigners Tribunal, the judiciary has failed to fulfil its duty as the last protector of rights

•On May 17, in a very short hearing, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court (the Chief Justie of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Deepak Gupta and Sanjiv Khanna) decided a batch of 15 petitions under the title Abdul Kuddus v Union of India. Innocuously framed as resolving a “perceived conflict” between two paragraphs of the Schedule to the Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, the judgment — little reported in the media — nonetheless had significant consequences for the ongoing events in Assam surrounding the preparation of the National Register of Citizens (“the NRC”).

Two parallel processes

•What was the issue in Abdul Kuddus? In short, it involved the status of an “opinion” rendered by a Foreigners Tribunal, as to the citizenship (or the lack thereof) of any individual. The issue arose because, in the State of Assam, there are two ongoing processes concerning the question of citizenship. The first includes proceedings before the Foreigners Tribunals, which have been established under an executive order of the Central government. The second is the NRC, a process overseen and driven by the Supreme Court. While nominally independent, both processes nonetheless bleed into each other, and have thus caused significant chaos and confusion for individuals who have found themselves on the wrong side of one or both.

•The petitioners in Abdul Kuddus argued that an opinion rendered by the Foreigners Tribunal had no greater sanctity than an executive order. Under the existing set of rules, this meant that an adverse finding against an individual would not automatically result in their name being struck off the NRC. Furthermore, the Tribunal’s opinion could be subsequently reviewed, if fresh materials came to light. This was particularly important because, as had been observed repeatedly, citizenship proceedings were riddled with administrative (and other kinds of) errors, which often came to light much later, and often by chance. And finally, the petitioners argued that if the opinion of the Foreigners Tribunal was used to justify keeping an individual out of the NRC, then that decision could be challenged and would have to be decided independently of the decision arrived at by the Tribunal. In short, the petitioners’ case was that the two processes — that of the Foreigners Tribunal and of the NRC — should be kept entirely independent of each other, and without according primacy to one over the other.

Flawed tribunals

•The Supreme Court rejected the petitioners’ arguments, and held that the “opinion” of the Foreigners Tribunal was to be treated as a “quasi-judicial order”, and was therefore final and binding on all parties including upon the preparation of the NRC. There are, however, serious problems with this holding, which will severely impact the rights of millions of individuals.

•To start with, neither in their form nor in their functioning do Foreigners’ Tribunals even remotely resemble what we normally understand as “courts”. First, Foreigners Tribunals were established by a simple executive order. Second, qualifications to serve on the Tribunals have been progressively loosened and the vague requirement of “judicial experience” has now been expanded to include bureaucrats. And perhaps, most importantly, under the Order in question (as it was amended in 2012), Tribunals are given sweeping powers to refuse examination of witnesses if in their opinion it is for “vexatious” purposes, bound to accept evidence produced by the police, and, most glaringly, not required to provide reasons for their findings, “... as it is not a judgment; a concise statement of the facts and the conclusion will suffice” (although the Court, as an offhand remark, also added “reasons” to “facts” and “conclusions”). Subject to provisions of this manner, Tribunals are left free to “regulate [their] own procedure for disposal of cases.”

•Unsurprisingly, over the last few months, glaring flaws in the working of the Foreigners Tribunals have come to light. Questions in Parliament showed that as many as 64,000 people have been declared non-citizens in ex-parte proceedings, i.e., without being heard.

•Testimonies reveal these people are often not even served notices telling them that they have been summoned to appear. Alarmingly, an investigative media report featured testimony by a former Tribunal member who stated that his compatriots competed to be what was jokingly referred to as “the highest wicket-taker”, i.e. the one who could declare the highest number of individuals “foreigners”.

•When adjudicating upon a person’s citizenship — a determination that can have the drastic and severe result of rendering a human being stateless — only the highest standards of adjudication can ever be morally or ethically justifiable. But in further strengthening an institution — the Foreigners Tribunal — that by design and by practice manifestly exhibits the exact opposite of this principle, the Supreme Court failed to fulfil its duty as the last protector of human rights under the Constitution.

Unwelcome departure

•The Court attempted to justify this by observing that “fixing time limits and recording of an order rather than a judgment is to ensure that these cases are disposed of expeditiously and in a time bound manner”. This, however, is the reasoning of a company CEO, not that of the highest Court of the land, adjudicating upon a matter that involves the rights of millions of people. When the stakes are so high, when the consequences entail rendering people stateless, then to allow such departures from the most basic principles of the rule of law is morally grotesque.

•The Court’s observations in the Kuddus case, and indeed, the manner in which it has conducted the NRC process over the last few months, can be traced back to two judgments delivered in the mid-2000s, known as Sarbananda Sonowal Iand II. In those judgments, relying upon unvetted and unreviewed literature, without any detailed consideration of factual evidence, and in rhetoric more reminiscent of populist demagogues than constitutional courts, the Court declared immigration to be tantamount to “external aggression” upon the country; more specifically, it made the astonishing finding that constitutionally, the burden of proving citizenship would always lie upon the person who was accused of being a non-citizen. A parliamentary legislation that sought to place the burden upon the state was struck down as being unconstitutional.

•What the rhetoric and the holdings of the Sonowal judgments have created is a climate in which the dominant principle is the presumption of non-citizenship. Apart from the absurdity of imposing such a rule in a country that already has a vast number of marginalised and disenfranchised people, it is this fundamental dehumanisation and devaluation of individuals that has enabled the manner in which the Foreigners Tribunals operate, the many tragedies that come to light every week in the context of the NRC, and judgments such as Abdul Kuddus. It is clear that if Article 21 of the Constitution, the right to life, is to mean anything at all, this entire jurisprudence must be reconsidered, root and branch.

📰 Six reasons why the Economic Survey’s presentation of MGNREGA is misleading

The Economic Survey presents an unbalanced view of the technical interventions in MGNREGA

•A chapter in the recent Economic Survey on the “transformational” impact of Aadhaar on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) merits scrutiny. It presents a skewed and unbalanced view of the programme’s technical interventions instead of taking a comprehensive view of the implementation. The Survey draws heavily from the Indian School of Business’s working paper titled “A Friend Indeed: Does The Use of Digital Identity Make Welfare Programs Truly Counter-Cyclical?”

•A rebuttal of this working paper, published in November 2018, highlighted glaring flaws on three counts — factual, methodological and conceptual. Yet the paper has been uncritically accepted and widely cited in the Survey. This raises questions about the credibility of the Chief Economic Adviser’s (an affiliate of the ISB) office. Here are six reasons why the Economic Survey’s presentation of the MGNREGA is misleading.

•Aadhaar has to be understood as merely being a pipeline for funds transfer in the MGNREGA. A lack of adequate financial allocation, pending liabilities and low wages have dogged the programme over the past eight years. About 20% of the Budget allocation in each of the last five years is of pending wage liabilities from previous years. It was worst in 2016-17, when pending liabilities were 35% (₹13,220 crore) out of a total allocation of ₹38,500 crore. MGNREGA wages in many States are about 40% lower than the Ministry of Labour’s national minimum wage. Instead of sufficiently funding MGNREGA, a legal right, in times of severe drought, there is disproportionate attention by the government towards creating a complex architecture based on technical solutions.

Technological inputs

•Second, the Economic Survey misrepresents the continuous technological interventions in the MGNREGA since its inception. Electronic funds transfer started as far back as in 2011 through the Electronic Fund Management System (eFMS), and became symbolic of the Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT). This served as the basis for the National Electronic Fund Management System (N-eFMS), introduced, in 2016. The Survey uses the term “ALP” for Aadhaar-linked payments and conflates it with the DBT by repeatedly referring to the time before 2015 as “pre-DBT” to make its claims. The conflation of terms prevents one from making an honest assessment on the effect that different interventions have had.

•Third, the Survey makes strong assertions that timely payment of wages have positively impacted worker participation. To support this, the Survey makes dubious causal claims on reduction in payment delays due to the introduction of Aadhaar. However, their understanding of payment delays is faulty.

•Wage payments to MGNREGA workers happen in two stages. The first is the time taken by the blocks to generate the electronic Funds Transfer Orders (FTO) and send it digitally to the Central government. The second is the time taken by the Central government to process these FTOs and transfer wages to workers’ accounts. While it is true that delays in the first stage have reduced, those in the second stage continue to be unacceptably high. Only about 30% of the payments are credited on time; the Central government takes more than than 50 days (which is the second stage) to transfer wages to workers.

•The Survey only considers the delays in the first stage. Aadhaar has no role in reducing the delays in the first stage but comes into play only in the second stage. Therefore the claim in the Survey that the “ALP has positively impacted the flow of payments under the scheme” is a manipulation of facts.

•Fourth, the Survey attributes an increase in demand for and supply of work in drought-affected areas to Aadhaar ignoring other crucial factors. For instance, it ignores the Supreme Court’s orders on drought (Swaraj Abhiyan vs. Union of India (2015), which coincided with the duration of the working paper’s analysis. Taking cognisance of the Court’s orders and continuing monitoring, the Ministry of Rural Development issued strict directives (between 2014 and 2017) to ensure allocation of works and on-time payment of wages.

•These judicial-administrative directives, which came into effect after Aadhaar was introduced, played an important role in the increase in the MGNREGA work uptake in drought areas. Not accounting for the Court’s orders as a contributing factor in their “causal” analysis makes their findings unreliable. In fact, in Rajasthan, under the new State government, the ‘work demand’ campaign initiated in December 2018 has resulted in a 67% increase in employment generated and a record number of households having completed 100 days of work under the MGNREGA. There is a three-fold increase in employment generation in Karnataka in 2019 compared to 2018. This demonstrates how political and administrative priorities can have a strong positive impact on the programme.

•Fifth, while the Survey rightfully acknowledges the nature of positive targeting of the MGNREGA — with women, Dalits and Adivasis benefitting the most — it wrongfully attributes it wholly to the introduction of Aadhaar. The argument denies the unambiguous impact of the universal access of the MGNREGA without having to meet any eligibility criteria. It is disappointing that in independent India, an official document on the state of the economy compares a constitutionally backed legal guarantee to the largesse of feudal kings. This should have been expected as the Survey misses the point that the programme was introduced as a legal right and not as an act of charity. Indeed, to this end, the Minister for Rural Development recently made an odd comment: “I am not in favour of continuing with MNREGA because it is for the poor and the government wants to eradicate poverty.”

•Sixth, the Survey’s claims about the ALP identifying “ghost beneficiaries” is exaggerated as an RTI query showed that they accounted for only about 1.4% of total households in 2016-17.

Violation of rights

•The technology historian, Melvin Kranzberg, wrote, “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” It is telling that the Survey completely ignores numerous instances where technology has resulted in violation of workers’ rights under the MGNREGA — some examples are not registering work demand, not paying unemployment allowance and compensation for payment delays among others.

•In fact, another ISB study, not cited in the Economic Survey shows that 38% of the Aadhaar-based transactions in Jharkhand were diverted to a different account. Overlooking these fundamental issues, cherry-picking studies and using flawed analyses to justify technocracy is an example of ethical paralysis. While the Economic Survey harps about an ill-designed technological pipeline, the fact is that a landmark labour programme is being put on a ventilator.

📰 Smoking e-cigarettes is more injurious to health

The government’s ban proposal needs to be welcomed

•The Narendra Modi government’s proposal to ban e-cigarettes and other electronic nicotine delivery systems (ENDS) needs to be welcomed as such a move will ensure that Indians, especially, children, are kept away from these pernicious products. Such a ban has also been recommended by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which called for a “complete prohibition on ENDS and e-cigarettes in India in the greater interest of protecting public health, in accordance with the precautionary principle preventing public harm from a noxious agent.”

•The Health Ministry last year issued an advisory asking the States to ensure that products like e-cigarettes and e-nicotine-flavoured hookahs are not manufactured, distributed advertised or sold. Following this, 15 States, including Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir and Mizoram, banned them. Several of the bans were under the Drugs and Cosmetics Act or the Poisons Act, under which nicotine was included as a ‘poison’. Further, the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (Anti-Smuggling Unit) and the Drug Controller General of India directed all their officials to ensure compliance with the advisory.

Popularity among youth

•Introduced about 10 years ago in India, e-cigarettes rapidly gained popularity, especially among the youth. A misconception among students, parents and teachers that these cigarettes are free of nicotine also contributed to their appeal. The reality is that the tobacco industry, hit by the success of the state’s efforts to reduce tobacco use, had developed such products to hold on to customers who would have otherwise quit. Research suggests that many youngsters, who would otherwise have never started using nicotine, took up conventional smoking after being introduced to e-cigarettes.

•While the tobacco companies promote e-cigarettes as a ‘less risky’ smoking option, some industry documents show that their real goal is to introduce ENDS products as an alternative to quitting. One company started selling its e-cigarette brand in 2014, promising that it will give the consumers the ‘pleasure of smoking any time anywhere’ (suggesting that they could use the product even at public places, where smoking is banned).

•Further, even though warnings on many ENDS products clearly indicate that they are not a ‘smoking cessation product’, e-cigarettes are often promoted that way. Dozens of studies show that smokers who use e-cigarettes are less, not more, likely to quit smoking. In fact, most of them become ‘dual users’, continuing to smoke cigarettes while also taking to e-cigarettes. This makes them vulnerable to added health risks.

•The tobacco industry plans to expand by achieving these twin objectives — attracting more youngsters and reducing quitting by adults. After all, the industry’s end goal is profit and not improvement in health indicators. The fact that the industry continues to produce and sell conventional cigarettes, its flagship product that brings it the greatest amount of profit, despite marketing e-cigarettes as an alternative is evidence enough of its sinister design.

Myths and reality

•A recent white paper by the ICMR and several other research studies have contradicted several claims of the industry. First, the industry says that ENDS products provide a safer alternative to conventional cigarettes. However, the reality is that ENDS users are almost at the same risk of contracting lung diseases and cancer as conventional cigarette users. In fact, ‘dual users’ are at greater risk of heart attacks.

•Further, the industry claims that the sale of ENDS products does not violate any regulations despite the fact that the companies are in clear violation of WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which prohibits the sale of any product that appeals to minors. The marketing of ENDS products, targeted at youth, also impacts minors and schoolchildren. The industry’s assertion that e-cigarettes are safe is contradicted by the many fires and explosions caused by devices, resulting in injuries, loss of lives and property. Further, their accidental ingestion by children has also caused some deaths.

•All these points make it clear that the Central government has shown great foresight in bringing out the ban proposal, a move that is likely to avoid causing another epidemic of nicotine addiction in the country. The ban needs to apply to all forms of ENDS products, including all ‘heat-not-burn’ devices that profess to be an alternative to the existing tobacco products.

📰 What’s NEXT?

National Exit Test should overcome legal and political opposition and avoid the NEET way

•In its second iteration, the National Medical Commission (NMC) Bill seems to have gained from its time in the bottle, like ageing wine. The new version has some sharp divergences from the original. Presented in Parliament in 2017, it proposed to replace the Medical Council Act, 1956, but it lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. The NMC will have authority over medical education — approvals for colleges, admissions, tests and fee-fixation. The provisions of interest are in the core area of medical education. The Bill proposes to unify testing for exit from the MBBS course, and entry into postgraduate medical courses. A single National Exit Test (NEXT) will be conducted across the country replacing the final year MBBS exam, and the scores used to allot PG seats as well. It will allow medical graduates to start medical practice, seek admission to PG courses, and screen foreign medical graduates who want to practise in India. Per se, it offers a definite benefit for students who invest much time and energy in five years of training in classrooms, labs and the bedside, by reducing the number of tests they would have to take in case they aim to study further. There are detractors, many of them from Tamil Nadu — which is still politically opposing the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) — who believe that NEXT will undermine the federal system, and ask whether a test at the MBBS level would suffice as an entry criterion for PG courses.

•The Bill has also removed the exemption hitherto given to Central institutions, the AIIMS and JIPMER, from NEET for admission to MBBS and allied courses. In doing so, the government has moved in the right direction, as there was resentment and a charge of elitism at the exclusion of some institutions from an exam that aimed at standardising testing for entry into MBBS. The government also decided to scrap a proposal in the original Bill to conduct an additional licentiate exam that all medical graduates would have to take in order to practise, in the face of virulent opposition. It also removed, rightly, a proposal in the older Bill for a bridge course for AYUSH practitioners to make a lateral entry into allopathy. It is crucial now for the Centre to work amicably with States, and the Indian Medical Association, which is opposed to the Bill, taking them along to ease the process of implementation. At any cost, it must avoid the creation of inflexible roadblocks as happened with NEET in some States. The clearance of these hurdles, then, as recalled from experience, become fraught with legal and political battles, leaving behind much bitterness. NEXT will have to be a lot neater.

📰 Lok Sabha passes Bill amending RTI Act amidst strong objection from Opposition

Opposition accuses the government of trying to dilute the effectiveness of the law

•The Lok Sabha on Monday passed the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill, 2019 three days after it was introduced. It seeks to amend the landmark transparency law and bring in changes involving the salaries and tenures of Information Commissioners (ICs) at the States and Centre.

•As per the amendment ICs — who currently have five-year tenures — will have “terms as may be prescribed by the central government” and salaries, instead of being on par with that of Election Commission officials, will be decided by the Central government.

•Speaker Om Birla announced that the Bill was passed with 218 ‘yes’ votes as against 79 ‘no’ votes.

•The Bill states that the functions being carried out by the Election Commission of India and the Central and State Information Commissions are totally different. The Election Commission is a Constitutional body. On the other hand the Central Information Commission and the State Information Commission are statutory bodies established under the Right to Information Act, 2005.

•The Bill saw sharp opposition with allegations that the government was trying to dilute the effectiveness of the law. Some MPs even called it the ‘RTI Elimination Bill.’

•Leader of the Congress in the House Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said, “The amendments they (Centre) are trying to bring are dangerous. They are trying to attack our democratic right to information. This government wants to keep a tab on the Commission, and kill its freedom.”

•Mr. Chowdhury also accused the government of not having distributed copies of the Bill to members of the House two days in advance.

•“This Bill is removing the two greatest armours of institutional independence and on top of that, by controlling the State Information Commissioners, by taking over the power to determine their salaries, the Central government is destroying it,” Congress MP Shashi Tharoor said.

•“Are you bringing this amendment because an Information Commissioner asked the PMO to reveal the PM’s educational details? What is the hurry in bulldozing every Bill without scrutiny? Why is the government delaying constituting the parliamentary standing committees?”

•DMK’s A. Raja dismissed the government’s argument that the CIC cannot be equated with the CEC since the former is a statutory body, while the latter is a constitutional body.

•“Today is a dark day for democracy. Democracy is a continuous process, it doesn’t end with elections,” he said.

•Arguing that this was the ``blackest day’’ for democracy N.K. Premachandran, MP from Kollam, Kerala said: “This Bill weakens every known institution in the country and compromises the power of Parliament as well as the judiciary. It will adversely impact our democracy for benefiting the Central government and we cannot allow that to happen.”

•Trinamool MP Prof. Saugata Roy, who stood to oppose the introduction of the Bill, said, “This Bill seeks to dilute the Information Commission of its powers.”

•He alleged that of the 11 Bills passed by Parliament in the 17th Lok Sabha, no Bill has been sent for legislative scrutiny to the Standing Committee. AIMIM MP Asaduddin Owaisi said the Bill is anti-federal. “It lacks competence. It takes away the powers of the state.”

•The government, however, argued that there is no question of degrading the information commissioners and it was only trying to remove some anomalies in the Act. “We are not interfering and will not do anything to affect the autonomy of the institution,” said Jitendra Singh, Minister for Personnel Department.

📰 Odisha renews effort to revive gharial population

Five reptiles, fitted with radio transmitters, released into Satkosia gorge of Mahanadi

•Odisha has renewed its effort to revive the population of gharials, a “critically endangered” species of crocodile, in their natural habitat by releasing five reptiles into the Satkosia gorge of Mahanadi — the southernmost limit of gharials’ home range in India.

•These gharials, including three females and two males, were bred at the Nandankanan Zoological Park. They were released into the gorge on Saturday. The gharials are individually marked and fitted with radio transmitters for future identification and tracking of their migration route.

•“The gharials are of appropriate age and size — more than three years of age and one meter in length. They will help in gathering information on migration and factors affecting their survival,” said Ajay Mohapatra, Principal Chief Wildlife Warden, Odisha.

Plan to release more

•“We plan to release 30 gharials in the future in a phased manner — 10 of them in a year. The technical assistance for biotelemetry is being provided by the gharial Telemetry Project, The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust,” he added.

•The department has engaged three postgraduate research scholars for day-to-day observation and keeping track of the released reptiles.

•According to the wildlife wing of the Odisha State Forest Department, gharials, the large reptiles which were abundant in the main rivers and tributaries of the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra and Mahanadi-Brahmani, are now limited to only 14 widely spaced and restricted locations in India and Nepal.

•Furthermore, Odisha is the only State in India having all three species — gharial, mugger and saltwater crocodile. The State forest department began conservation of these crocodile species in 1975 by establishing three rearing centres — Tikarpada for gharials in Angul district, Ramatirtha for muggers in Mayurbhanj and Bhitarkanika for saltwater crocodiles in Kendrapara district.

📰 After Chandrayaan-2, ISRO plans a third moon trip with Japan

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has initiated talks on the nation's third moon shot in partnership with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), as indications show.

•After an Indian lander mission shot off to the Moon on Monday, is a Chandrayaan-3 in the offing around 2024 to bring soil and rock samples back from the lunar South Pole?

•The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has initiated talks on the nation's third moon shot in partnership with Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), as indications show.

•We first heard about a Chandrayaan-3 from chiefs of ISRO and JAXA in November 2017 during the Asia Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum APRSAF-24 held in Bengaluru.

•Two inter-governmental discussions during the Prime Minister's visit, in March this year and October 2018, also mention a 'joint lunar polar exploration mission'.

•Plans for an Indo-Japan lunar sample return mission were in early stages and the initial studies and tasks of the two agencies were being worked out, the then ISRO Chairman and Secretary, Department of Space (DoS), A.S. Kiran Kumar; and JAXA president Naoki Okumura said almost two years back. The two space-faring countries are friends but have had little space talk together so far.

•ISRO should send a third lunar trip soon, once it completes the crewed space mission ‘Gaganyaan’ in 2022, Chaitanya Giri, fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme of Gateway House (Mumbai international relations think tank), told The Hindu.

•“[Chandrayaan-2] is a precursor of Chandrayaan-3, which is scheduled to make a sample return mission in 2023-2024,” said Dr. Giri, who has been part of the European Space Agency's Rosetta mission to a comet and worked in the area in the U.S. and Japan.

•India, which has set out to pioneer explorations in the Moon's South Pole with the spacecraft launch on Monday, should not get left behind in the global space race. In the next 4-5 years alone, major space- faring nations are planning to send at least seven missions to the lunar South Pole. There would be big dividends from that region, from mining to habitation, he said.

•Dr. Giri observed that the U.S. is returning to the Moon around 2024 with crewed Artemis fly-bys and landers. Russia has lined up Luna 25 and 26 to pave the way for a future robotic habitat. China, which recently landed Chang'e-4 on the Moon's far side that is always turned away from the Earth, has lined up Chang'e-5 late this year or next year to bring samples back from South Pole, and may also send two follow-ons. Chang'e-5 is said to be the first lunar sample return mission being attempted since 1976.

•The space agency should take up speedy construction of Chandrayaan-3 and develop a `public-private ecosystem of space capabilities', he said. In his view, the DoS must stop depending solely on ISRO and increasingly involve public and private sector entities, universities, start-ups and research labs to get this and other scientific projects quickly off the mark.

📰 Cryptocurrency panel for ban on private digital currencies, jail time of up to 10 years

The report says that it would be advisable to “have an open mind” regarding the introduction of an official, government-backed cryptocurrency in India

•The committee set up to look into the legality of cryptocurrencies and blockchain has submitted its report to the Finance Ministry and recommended that private cryptocurrencies be banned completely in India.

•It has also drafted a law, the ‘Banning of Cryptocurrency & Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2019’, which mandates a fine and imprisonment of up to 10 years for offences. The committee, however, said the government should keep an open mind on the potential issuance of cryptocurrencies by the Reserve Bank of India.

•The government had constituted an Inter-Ministerial Committee on November 2, 2017, under the Chairmanship of Economic Affairs Secretary Subhash Chandra Garg and comprising senior officials of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, SEBI and the RBI. “The committee notes with serious concern mushrooming of cryptocurrencies almost invariably issued abroad and numerous people in India investing in these,” the report said. “All these cryptocurrencies have been created by non-sovereigns.”

•The report went on to highlight the fact that cryptocurrencies do not have any intrinsic value of their own and lack any of the attributes of a currency. That is, they neither act as a store of value nor are they a medium of exchange in themselves.

•“Therefore, the Committee is of clear view that the private crytocurrencies should not be allowed,” the report said. “These cryptocurrencies cannot serve the purpose of a currency. The private cryptocurrencies are inconsistent with the essential functions of money/currency, hence private cryptocurrencies cannot replace fiat currencies.”

•The Committee, however, leaves the door open for the central bank issued cryptocurrencies, adding that it endorsed the RBI’s stance of banning any sort of interface of cryptocurrencies with the banking system in India.

•“The Committee recommends that all private cryptocurrencies, except any cryptocurrency issued by the state, be banned in India,” the report said. “The Committee endorses the stand taken by the RBI to eliminate the interface of institutions regulated by the RBI from cryptocurrencies.”

•However, the report goes on to say that it would be advisable to “have an open mind” regarding the introduction of an official, government-backed cryptocurrency in India. But it also added that it is currently unclear what the advantages of such a currency in India would be.

•In light of this, it recommended that the government constitute a committee under the Department of Economic Affairs and the participation of the RBI, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), and the Department of Financial Services to further look into the matter.

•The draft law says that anybody who mines, generates, holds, sells, deals in, transfers, disposes of or issues cryptocurrencies with will face a fine and/or jail time of between 1 and 10 years. The fine has been set at the either three times the loss or harm caused by a person, or three times the gain made by the person, whichever is higher.

Process welcomed

•While the committee has taken a strong stance against cryptocurrencies, it has highlighted the benefits of the underlying technology—the distributed ledger technology (DLT) and blockchain.

•“The Committee recommends that the RBI examine the utility of using DLT based systems for enabling faster and more secure payment infrastructure, especially for cross-border payments,” the report said. “The Committee recommends that blockchain based systems may be considered by MEITY for building a low-cost KYC system that reduces the need for duplication of KYC requirements for individuals.”

•Further, the report said that DLT-based systems can be used by banks and other financial firms for loan tracking, collateral management, fraud detection, claims management in insurance, and reconciliation systems in securities markets.

•“Similarly, DLT can be beneficial for removing errors and frauds in land markets if the technology is implemented for maintaining land records,” the report added. “The Committee therefore recommends that various state governments may examine the feasibility of using DLT for land-records management.”

📰 Perfect launch for Chandrayaan-2

•India’s second lunar journey and its first-ever interplanetary mission to be spearheaded by two women, Project Director M. Vanitha and Mission Director Ritu Kharidhal, got a boost after the ambitious Chandrayaan-2 mission, headed to the moon’s South Pole region, and achieved an orbit 6,000 km more than what was targeted.

•The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) put behind last week’s setback and achieved a perfect launch at 2.43 p.m. on Monday from the second launch pad at Satish Dhawan Space Centre, SHAR, in what was the GSLV-MKIII’s first operational flight.

•From the scientists at the Mission Control to those at the Viewing Gallery, the media centre, and millions watching on television across the nation, the launch seemed like a nail-biting sports match. The cheers, whistles and claps every time a launch objective was achieved, at the Viewing Gallery and the Media Centre, gave the launch a semblance of the reception normally given to film stars or excellent sportspersons.

📰 Soaring to the moon

Chandrayaan-2 will help India test the technologies for deep-space missions

•A decade after the first successful mission to the moon with Chandrayaan-1, the Indian Space Research Organisation successfully launched its sequel, Chandrayaan-2, to further explore the earth’s natural satellite. Earlier this year, China landed a robotic spacecraft on the far side of the moon, in a first-ever attempt. Now India is attempting a similar feat — to land its rover Pragyan in the moon’s South Polar region, attempted so far by none. The equatorial region has been the only one where rovers have landed and explored. The launch by itself is a huge achievement considering that it is the first operational flight of the indigenously developed Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark-III (GSLV Mark-III) to send up satellites weighing up to four tonnes. The orbiter, the lander (Vikram) and the rover (Pragyan) together weigh 3.87 tonnes. Having reached the earth parking orbit, the orbit of the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft will be raised in five steps or manoeuvres in the coming 23 days before it reaches the final orbit of 150 x 1,41,000 km. It is in this orbit that Chandrayaan-2 will attain the velocity to escape from the earth’s gravitational pull and start the long journey towards the moon. A week later, on August 20, the spacecraft will come under the influence of the moon’s gravitational pull, and in a series of steps the altitude of the orbit will be reduced in 13 days to reach the final circular orbit at a height of 100 km. The next crucial step will be the decoupling of the lander (Vikram) and the rover (Pragyan) from the orbiter, followed by the soft-landing of the lander-rover in the early hours of September 7. Despite the postponement of the launch from July 16 owing to a technical snag, the tweaked flight plan has ensured that the Pragyan robotic vehicle will have 14 earth days, or one moon day, to explore.

•Unlike the crash-landing of the Moon Impact Probe on the Chandrayaan-1 mission in November 2008, this will be the first time that ISRO is attempting to soft-land a lander on the earth’s natural satellite. A series of braking mechanisms will be needed to drastically reduce the velocity of the Vikram lander from nearly 6,000 km an hour, to ensure that the touchdown is soft. The presence of water on the moon was first indicated by the Moon Impact Probe and NASA’s Moon Mineralogy Mapper on Chandrayaan-1 a decade ago. The imaging infrared spectrometer instrument on board the orbiter will enable ISRO to look for signatures indicating the presence of water. Though the Terrain Mapping Camera on board Chandrayaan-1 had mapped the moon three-dimensionally at 5-km resolution, Chandrayaan-2 too has such a camera to produce a 3-D map. But it will be for the first time that the vertical temperature gradient and thermal conductivity of the lunar surface, and lunar seismicity, will be studied. While ISRO gained much with the success of Chandrayaan-1 and Mangalyaan, the success of Chandrayaan-2 will go a long way in testing the technologies for deep-space missions.

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