The HINDU Notes – 10th August 2019 - VISION

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Saturday, August 10, 2019

The HINDU Notes – 10th August 2019

πŸ“° Incisive interventions that blunt the RTI’s edge

With the kernel of the Information Act under threat, the independence of the information commission is in peril

•When we describe India as a democracy what do we really mean? Are we referring merely to a system of popular sovereignty founded in universal adult franchise? Or are we suggesting something more — perhaps an assurance, grounded in the Constitution, of a set of rights, of the rights, among others, to a freedom of expression, life and personal liberty, and equal opportunity and status?

•These are questions, as Astra Taylor argues in her remarkable new book, Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone, that we must perpetually ask ourselves. If nothing else to remind oneself that while there can be reasonable disagreements over how a republic ought to be structured, seeing democracy as purely an enforcement of majoritarian will, where the only end in mind is the selection of a representative government, leads to self-rule “becoming not a promise but a curse”. Evidence throughout history has shown us that just results do not necessarily follow from a simple guarantee of equal status enshrined in a right to vote. The wealthy and the dominant classes find uncanny ways to ensure concentration of power. Democracy, therefore, has to percolate beyond the bare promises of formal political equality.

•It is to this end that India’s Constitution provides a framework for governance by pledging to people a set of inviolable guarantees. But realising the full value of those guarantees at times requires a parley with the state. It was one such long battle, fought over nearly two decades, driven by the unstinting efforts of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, that resulted in the enactment in 2005 of the Right to Information Act (RTI Act). By any account, the law proved transformative to India’s democracy; it revolutionised the citizen’s ability to engage with the state, arming people with a mechanism to ferret out some of the truth from the government’s otherwise secretive operations.

Deep-reaching amendments

•Today, though, the kernel of the RTI Act is under threat. New amendments have been passed without subjecting the draft law to scrutiny by a parliamentary committee. A feature common to every law enacted by Parliament in its present session, this portends the reduction of governance to a form of democracy by crude acclamation. The changes made include an alteration to the term in office of the information commissioners (ICs) and to the manner of determination of their salaries. In place of the existing five-year term accorded to the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) and the various ICs the law grants to the Union government the power to notify their terms through executive regulations. What is more, the amendment deletes the RTI Act’s mandate that the salary paid to the CIC and the ICs ought to be equivalent to that paid respectively to the Chief Election Commissioner and the Election Commissioners (ECs). Now, the salary, allowances, and terms and conditions of service of the CIC and the ICs will be determined by executive guidelines.

•On its face, a reading of these amendments might not strike us as being especially harmful. The changes may appear to be nothing more than matters of legislative niceties. But the RTI Act is not an ordinary statute. It is a law that enlivens and animates the basic right to freedom of information. Although such a right is not enumerated in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed its position as intrinsic to the right to freedom of expression (for example, in PUCL v. Union of India, 2004).

•It might be difficult to see the merit in this finding if we take democracy to mean governance by the many and nothing more. But as the courts have wisely recognised, information often acts as a great leveller; it helps anchor democratic action. Therefore, for democracy to be valuable, citizens must possess a right to freely express themselves. It ought to follow then that it is only when citizens have a right to know what the state is up to, where governance is transparent, can their speech have genuine meaning; only then can they constructively participate in the veritable marketplace of ideas.

•It was with a view to giving effect to these constitutional promises that the RTI Act was formulated. Extensive debate was held both in Parliament and within parliamentary committees before it was decided that public authorities ought to be mandated by law to making a series of voluntary disclosures on their structure, their functioning, and their financial management. Besides this basic directive, citizens are also empowered under the RTI Act to seek and obtain any information from public authorities, barring a few exempted categories such as information which might affect the sovereignty of the country or private information which might have a bearing on a person’s right to privacy.

Ferreting out the truth

•This freedom to secure information that the law provides has, in many ways, redesigned the structure of India’s democratic governance. It has helped open the government up to greater scrutiny. For example, it was through a response to a request made under the RTI Act that it was discovered that between 2006 and 2010 more than ₹700 crore had been diverted from Delhi’s special component plan, intended for the development of Scheduled Caste communities, to projects related to the Commonwealth Games. More recently, an exposΓ© by Rohini Mohan into the horrifying processes of the “Foreigners Tribunal” in Assam was made on the back of securing information through the RTI Act. Even there, as Ms. Mohan has pointed out, only five out of the 100 functioning tribunals replied to requests for copies of the orders delivered.

•It is when a plea for information goes unheeded that the CIC and the ICs play an especially vital role. Should the initial request for information made to a public information officer, designated by each public authority, fail, the petitioner is entitled to lodge an appeal to an authority within the department concerned. Should that entreaty fail too — and it often does since this is a virtually illusory remedy — a further appeal can be made to the office of the CIC or the State Information Commission.

•Until now, the RTI Act granted an acceptable level of independence to ICs. By placing their terms of service on a par with those of the ECs the law insulated the ICs from political influence. This protection was not dissimilar to the autonomy accorded to members of the higher judiciary. The basic idea remained the same: security in office is imperative if members must intervene without fear or favour to ensure that the law’s mandate is met.

•It could well be argued that the RTI Act, in its original form, was far from flawless, especially in that it did not do enough to open up public authorities to complete scrutiny. But the present amendments, far from strengthening the existing regime, subvert the independence of the information commission. The delegation of the power to fix the tenure and the salaries of the CIC and the ICs to the political executive places the information commission’s autonomy in a state of peril. With the withering of that independence, the right to freedom of information also begins to lose its thrust. Ultimately, therefore, the new amendments represent a classic piece of totalitarian legerdemain. Democracy, to borrow the American philosopher Cornel West’s conception, demands a “leap of faith”. If the new amendments are allowed to stand, making that leap becomes all the more implausible.

πŸ“° Not the final word from Islamabad and Delhi

There are already signs that the Kulbhushan Jadhav case between Pakistan and India might return to the ICJ

•The publication of the International Court of Justice’s award in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case on July 17, 2019 was heralded by both India and Pakistan as a victory to their side; the truth probably lies somewhere in between. The award vindicated India’s claims on merit, concurring that Pakistan was guilty of multiple violations of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR): by failing to inform Mr. Jadhav of his rights under Article 36 of the treaty, by neglecting to notify India of his arrest without delay, and by denying him consular access. Nonetheless, the ICJ rejected India’s claims on two crucial grounds: fair trial rights and remedy.

The bedrock

•Much of India’s case hinged on Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees individuals the right to a fair trial. By convicting Mr. Jadhav through a military tribunal, using video evidence of a confession obtained under coercive circumstances, and by denying Indian consular officers the opportunity to arrange for his legal representation, India argued that the Pakistani state had employed an unjust procedure in his trial. Predictably, however, the ICJ chose to hinge its jurisdiction in this case on Article 1 of the Optional Protocol to the VCCR, which grants the ICJ compulsory jurisdiction only over disputes arising out of the application or interpretation of the Consular Convention. The unfortunate consequence of this choice was that disputes pertaining to violations of other international law norms, such as the human rights obligations under the ICCPR, were ruled to be outside the remit of the ICJ’s jurisdiction. India’s attempts to have the ICCPR piggyback on the VCCR, by claiming that the latter was also, in essence, a human rights treaty and by asserting that the inclusion of the ICCPR was necessary for an effective remedy, were rejected out of hand.

Issue of remedies

•The more troubling aspect of the ICJ’s award, from the Indian perspective, concerns the ICJ’s decision on remedies. It denied India’s prayer to set aside Mr. Jadhav’s conviction by the military tribunal, and for his release. Instead, it ruled that the appropriate remedy would be for Pakistan to carry out an “effective review and reconsideration” of the tribunal’s conviction and sentence. What this means, in simpler terms, is that Pakistan will have to provide Mr. Jadhav a judicial mechanism to assess the prejudice caused to him by a denial of consular access, and to reconsider (and possibly alter) his sentence and conviction based on its findings.

•While not entirely unforeseeable, this decision is worrying for several reasons. First, this remedy carries a fraught history: it has only ever been used before by the ICJ in LaGrand and Avena, which involved an identical denial of consular access to nationals of Germany and Mexico, respectively, by the United States. Crucially, the unsatisfactory implementation of this remedy and the weak review mechanisms provided by the U.S. in response to the ICJ’s decision in both cases have been widely noted in academic literature. Second, the remedy does little to account for the violation of Mr. Jadhav’s fair trial rights. This means that the review procedure Pakistan opts for might well be one carried out by a military tribunal, and also one that continues to rely on the allegedly-forced video confession. But perhaps the most troubling aspect of this remedy, and the one that makes it most ripe for further litigation, is that it is intrinsically ambiguous.

•Apart from asserting that the review and reconsideration of Mr. Jadhav’s conviction “must be effective”, the ICJ has offered little guidance on how it must be carried out. It is known, from the Avena judgment, that providing Mr. Jadhav access to a clemency petition (as Pakistani law does) is an insufficient form of review, since it does not entail the use of a judicial mechanism. The Pakistani Supreme Court, in Said Zaman Khan v. Federation of Pakistan, ruled that the state’s civilian courts could only review the decision of a military tribunal on the narrow grounds of coram non judice (i.e., an absence of jurisdiction) or mala fides (bad faith). It is unlikely that Mr. Jadhav’s denial of VCCR rights falls under either category. However, the decision in Said Zaman Khan is under review, following the Peshawar High Court’s attempts to widen it in 2018, in the Abdur Rashid case.

Heading back to The Hague?

•The outcome of the latter case may well portend the use of a civilian review mechanism for Mr. Jadhav’s case. Even if the Rashid case fails, Pakistan could potentially be required to alter their laws to provide a more effective review mechanism for decisions of military tribunals: a fact alluded to by the ICJ, which stated that “Pakistan shall take all measures to provide for effective review and reconsideration, including, if necessary, by enacting appropriate legislation” [emphasis added].

•Ultimately, though neither state will admit it, the Jadhav decision will be a bitter pill to swallow for both India and Pakistan. For Pakistan, making a significant alteration to its legal system would amount to an admission that the ICJ’s judgement was a public admonition of Pakistan’s judicial review mechanism: a prospect Pakistan is unlikely to welcome. For India, any review mechanism that fails to acquit Mr. Jadhav will be seen as procedurally unsound, and an attempt by Pakistan to further shirk its international legal responsibilities. It does not help that both countries have dug themselves into holes by thoroughly politicising the ICJ’s verdict.

•The likely consequence is that, irrespective of what review mechanism Pakistan implements, both nations will be soon be back, knocking on the door of the International Court: the ICJ’s Statute allows parties to approach the court again, asking it to interpret its judgment. Signs of this outcome can already be witnessed, with Pakistan refusing India unimpeded access to Mr. Jadhav through a note verbale issued mere weeks after the ICJ’s decision. India’s counsel, Harish Salve, has publicly stated that the state will not hesitate to return to the ICJ if Pakistan’s conduct proves to be unsatisfactory. It is increasingly likely that we haven’t heard the last of the Jadhav litigation. For now, however, the ball remains in Pakistan’s court.

πŸ“° Economic milestone and a poignant anniversary

Bank nationalisation eased rural credit and aided financial inclusion. Any move to reverse it would be self-defeating

•The nationalisation of banks in 1969 was a watershed moment in the history of Indian banking. From July 19 that year, 14 private banks were nationalised; another six private banks were nationalised in 1980. It is certain that one cannot locate a similar transformational moment in the banking policy of any country at any point of time in history.

•At the time of Independence, India’s rural financial system was marked by the domination of landlords, traders and moneylenders. In 1951, if a rural household had an outstanding debt of ₹100, about ₹93 came from non-institutional sources. From the 1950s, there were sporadic efforts to expand the reach of the institutional sector, particularly in the rural areas. Despite these measures, the predominantly private banking system failed to meet the credit needs of the rural areas.

Class to mass banking

•India’s banking policy after 1969 followed a multi-agency approach towards expanding the geographical spread and functional reach of the formal banking system. First, as a part of a new branch licensing policy, banks were told that for every branch they opened in a metropolitan or port area, four new branches had to be opened in unbanked rural areas. As a result, the number of rural bank branches increased from 1,833 (in 1969) to 35,206 (in 1991). Second, the concept of priority-sector lending was introduced. All banks had to compulsorily set aside 40% of their net bank credit for agriculture, micro and small enterprises, housing, education and “weaker” sections. Third, a differential interest rate scheme was introduced in 1974. Here, loans were provided at a low interest rate to the weakest among the weakest sections of the society.

•Fourth, the Lead Bank scheme was introduced in 1969. Each district was assigned to one bank, where they acted as “pace-setters” in providing integrated banking facilities. Fifth, the Regional Rural Banks (RRB) were established in 1975 to enlarge the supply of institutional credit to the rural areas. Sixth, the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) was constituted in 1982 to regulate and supervise the functions of cooperative banks and RRBs.

•The outcomes of such a multi-agency approach were admirable. The share of institutional sources in the outstanding debt of rural households increased from just 16.9% in 1962 to 64% in 1992.

Growth spurring

•India’s nationalisation experience is an answer to mainstream economists who argue that administered interest rates cause “financial repression”. According to this view, if the government administers interest rates, the savings rate would decline, leading to a rationing of investment funds. On the contrary, India’s nationalisation led to an impressive growth of financial intermediation. The share of bank deposits to GDP rose from 13% in 1969 to 38% in 1991. The gross savings rate rose from 12.8% in 1969 to 21.7% in 1990. The share of advances to GDP rose from 10% in 1969 to 25% in 1991. The gross investment rate rose from 13.9% in 1969 to 24.1% in 1990.

•Nationalisation also demonstrated the utility of monetary policy in furthering redistributionist goals. Some economists argue that banks cannot be used to right “historical wrongs”. On the other hand, India’s nationalisation shows that monetary policy, banks and interest rates can be effectively used to take banks to rural areas, backward regions and under-served sectors, furthering redistributionist goals in an economy.

A retreat

•Yet, strangely, arguments in favour of financial liberalisation after 1991 were based on the theory of financial repression. The Narasimham Committee of 1991 recommended that monetary policy should be divorced from redistributionist goals. Instead, banks should be free to practise commercial modes of operation, with profitability as the primary goal.

•Taking the cue, the Reserve Bank of India allowed banks to open and close branches as they desired. Priority sector guidelines were diluted; banks were allowed to lend to activities that were remotely connected with agriculture or to big corporates in agri-business, yet classify them as agricultural loans. Interest rate regulations on priority sector advances were removed.

•The outcomes were immediately visible. More than 900 rural bank branches closed down across the country. The rate of growth of agricultural credit fell sharply from around 7% per annum in the 1980s to about 2% per annum in the 1990s. This retreat of public banks wreaked havoc on the rural financial market. Between 1991 and 2002, the share of institutional sources in the total outstanding debt of rural households fell from 64% to 57.1%. The space vacated by institutional sources was promptly occupied by moneylenders and other non-institutional sources.

A to and fro

•The government and the RBI probably saw the danger coming. In 2004, a policy to double the flow of agricultural credit within three years was announced. Only public banks could make this happen. So, in 2005, the RBI quietly brought in a new branch authorisation policy. Permission for new branches began to be given only if the RBI was satisfied that the banks concerned had a plan to adequately serve underbanked areas and ensure actual credit flow to agriculture. By 2011, the RBI further tightened this procedure. It was mandated that at least 25% of new branches were to be compulsorily located in unbanked centres.

•As a result, the number of rural bank branches rose from 30,646 in 2005, to 33,967 in 2011 and 48,536 in 2015. The annual growth rate of real agricultural credit rose from about 2% in the 1990s to about 18% between 2001 and 2015. Much of this new provision of agricultural credit did not go to farmers; it largely went to big agri-business firms and corporate houses located in urban and metropolitan centres — but recorded in the bank books as “agricultural credit”. For this reason, the share of institutional credit in the debt outstanding of rural households in 2013 stood at 56%, still lower than the levels of 1991 and 2002. Yet, in achieving the high growth of credit provision, the expansion of public bank branches was pivotal.

•After 2005, public banks also played a central role in furthering the financial inclusion agendas of successive governments. Between 2010 and 2016, the key responsibility of opening no-frills accounts for the unbanked poor fell upon public banks. Data show that more than 90% of the new no-frills accounts were opened in public banks. Most of these accounts lie dormant or inactive, but it is unmistakeable that the fulfilling of the goal required the decisive presence and intervention of public banks. The same public banks were also India’s vanguard during the global financial crisis of 2007 when most markets in the developed world, dominated by private banks, collapsed.

•However, despite such a stellar track record, the macroeconomic policy framework of successive governments has hardly been supportive of a banking structure dominated by public banks. In times of slow growth, the excess liquidity in banks was seen as a substitute for counter-cyclical fiscal policy. Successive governments, scared of higher fiscal deficits, encouraged public banks to lend more for retail and personal loans, high-risk infrastructural sectors and vehicle loans. Here, banks funded by short-term deposit liabilities were taking on exposures that involved long-term risks, often not backed by due diligence. Unsurprisingly, many loans turned sour. Consequently, banks are in crisis with rising non-performing assets. The same fear of fiscal deficits is also scaring the government away from recapitalising banks. The solution put forward is a perverse one: privatisation. The goose that lays golden eggs is being killed.

πŸ“° President Kovind gives assent to UAPA Bill

•President Ram Nath Kovind has given assent to legislation under which individuals can be declared terrorists and their properties seized.

•The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Amendment Act, 2019 also provides for putting a travel ban on such individuals once they are declared terrorists.

•The President gave his assent to the legislation late on Thursday night, a Home Ministry official said. The Lok Sabha passed the amendment Bill on July 24 and the Rajya Sabha on August 2.

•Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed and Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar are likely to be the first two to be designated as terrorists under the legislation, the Ministry official said.

πŸ“° Home buyers can start bankruptcy cases against errant builders

Supreme Court upholds law giving them status of ‘financial creditors’

•The Supreme Court on Friday upheld a central law which empowered harassed home buyers to initiate bankruptcy proceedings against errant real estate builders.

•The judgment gains significance as many real estate builders have been under fire for incomplete projects leaving home buyers in dire straits.

•A three-judge Bench led by Justice Rohinton Nariman confirmed the constitutional validity of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Second Amendment) Act of August 2018, which gave home buyers the status of “financial creditors” with power to vote in the Committee of Creditors.

•The Act had brought the home buyers on par with the creditor banks of the property builder. Prior to the law, the home buyers were often left in the lurch. With their dreams of owning a home shattered, they were made to wait blindly for a solution to come up, either in the form of a completed apartment or a refund.

•Before the Amendment Act of 2018 came into existence, the assets of the bankrupt builder were divided among his employees, creditor banks and other operational creditors. Home buyers had hardly figured, though their hard-earned savings may have provided a major chunk of the housing project.

•The Amendment Act allowed home buyers, as financial creditors, to trigger bankruptcy proceedings under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code of 2016 and have their “rightful place” on the Committee of Creditors (CoC). The CoC, by voting, makes important decisions on the future of the bankrupt builder. These calls include what to do with his assets and who should finish the pending housing projects.

•The builders had challenged the Amendment Act. They said making home buyers financial creditors was like “forcibly inserting a square peg in a round hole.” The builders argued that home buyers were already armed with the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act (RERA), another piece of legislation which protected the interests of the individual investor in real estate projects. Adding the Amendment Act to the armoury of the home buyers was like using a sledgehammer to kill a gnat, the builders argued.

•Justice Nariman dismissed these contentions. The judge reasoned that the IBC and the RERA operate in different spheres and can be used harmoniously for the interest of home buyers. The IBC deals with the replacement of the bankrupt builder from the helm of affairs and hit upon a resolution plan to benefit all the stakeholders. The RERA’s purpose is to protect individual home buyers by requiring the promoter to strictly adhere to the purchase deal and complete the project within a stated period.

•The builders said home buyers were a large, amorphous group. Their presence in the CoC would be a nuisance. Here, the judgment referred to the submissions made by Additional Solicitor General Madhavi Divan, who had argued that home buyers finance from 50% to even 100% of a housing project. Their absence from the CoC and denying them a voice on future plans would be “manifestly arbitrary.”

•The court further reasoned that no home buyer would frivolously move the National Company Law Tribunal under the IBC. This is because ironing out a resolution plan under the IBC is a long-drawn process.

•“An allottee/home buyer who prefers an application under Section 7 of the Code takes the risk of his flat/apartment not being completed in the near future, in the event of there being a breach on the part of the developer. Under the Code, he may never get a refund of the entire principal, let alone interest…On the other hand, if such allottee were to approach the Real Estate Regulatory Authority under the RERA, it is more than likely that the project would be completed early or full amount of refund and interest together with compensation and penalty, if any, would be awarded... Thus, it is only an allottee who has completely lost faith in the management of the real estate developer who would come before the NCLT under the Code hoping that some other developer takes over and completes the project,” Justice Nariman reasoned.

•The court further directed the Centre to fill up the vacancies in the NCLT and its appellate tribunals so as to deal with the rising number of bankruptcy litigation in the real estate sector. The government was ordered to file compliance affidavit in this regard within three months.

•The court also ordered copies of the judgment to be sent to chief secretaries of States and Union Territories. Those States and Union Territories who have still not set up a Real Estate Regulatory Authority and Appellate Tribunal have been given three months to do it. The court would take up the issue in January 2020.

πŸ“° ‘FPI tax issues put divestment at risk’

Players meet FM, say Centre may take steps to revive overseas investor interest in capital markets

•The government could risk missing its record ₹1.05 lakh crore divestment target that has been set for the current financial year as foreign portfolio investors (FPIs) could stay away from such share sales if the ongoing tax concerns are not resolved soon, according to capital market participants.

•The participants, who met Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday, also urged her to address the liquidity concerns of non-banking finance companies (NBFCs) — especially those focussed on consumer spending — before the festive season begins, to spur overall consumption growth in the country.

•According to persons familiar with the deliberations, the government has taken the suggestions ‘positively’ and has hinted that it would take all possible steps to revive overseas investor interest in the Indian capital markets.

•“The Finance Minister was quite receptive and said that the government would take all necessary steps to allay the concerns of foreign investors,” said a person, who was part of the meeting.

•“Even the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] is involved and is keen to address the tax concerns, which are impacting the capital markets. There was unanimity that the tax surcharge could discourage FPIs from participating in the divestment offerings in the coming months and hence need to be urgently reviewed,” he added on condition of anonymity.

•In the Union Budget 2019-20, the Finance Minister introduced a surcharge for individuals earning more than ₹2 crore. However, FPIs became the collateral damage of the proposal as bulk of such investors structure themselves as trusts or a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) that are not recognised as a corporate entity by the Income Tax Act and hence are taxed as per the individual tax slabs based on their earnings.

Selling spree

•FPIs, often looked upon as prime drivers of any bull run in the Indian stock market, ended July as net sellers at ₹12,419 crore. This was the first time since January 2019 when foreign investors ended a month as net sellers.

•Between February and June, FPIs bought shares worth nearly ₹83,000 crore. In the current month till date, FPIs have net sold shares worth ₹11,135 crore.

πŸ“° Industrial production growth slips to 2% in June

•Industrial production growth dropped to 2% in June, mainly on account of poor show by mining and manufacturing sectors, according to official data released on August 9.

•Factory output, as measured by the Index of Industrial Production (IIP), had expanded by 7% in June 2018.

•There was a slowdown in the manufacturing sector, which grew at 1.2% in June as compared to 6.9% a year ago. The expansion in power generation sector stood at 8.2%, compared to 8.5% earlier.

•Mining growth dropped to 1.6% in June from 6.5% in the corresponding month of the last fiscal.

πŸ“° Ocean warming, overfishing increase methylmercury toxin in fish

The researchers warn that human exposure to the toxin through fish consumption is bound to increase as a result of climate change.

•Despite a decrease in seawater concentration of methylmercury since the late 1990s, the amount of toxin that gets accumulated in certain fish which are higher in the food chain have been found to increase. The amount of methylmercury in fish higher in the food chain can change due to two reasons — ocean warming and dietary shifts due to overfishing by humans.

•Based on 30 years (1970s and 2000s) of data and ecosystem modelling, researchers have found that there has been up to 23% increase in methylmercury concentration in Atlantic cod fish in the Gulf of Maine in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean.

•The increase in the methylmercury concentration in cod fish has been due to changes in diet caused by overfishing. As a result of diet change, cod fish in the 2000s relied more on larger herring and lobster, which have higher concentrations of the toxin than other prey fish consumed in the 1970s.

•In contrast, there has been 33-61% reduction in methylmercury concentration in spiny dogfish fish between 1970s and 2000s. This is because, in the 1970s, spiny dogfish fish consumed more of squid and other cephalopods, which have a higher toxin concentration.

•“This work showed that as a result of a change in the diet due to overfishing, there was a increase in methylmercury concentration in Atlantic cod fish while there was an decrease in the case of spiny dogfish,” says Prof. Asif Qureshi from the Department of Civil Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Hyderabad and co-author of a paper published in the journal Nature.

•Besides dietary changes, ocean warming too causes changes in the methylmercury accumulation in fish. Fish metabolism is temperature dependent. So as ocean temperature increases, fish experience higher metabolism and more energy obtained from food is spent on maintenance rather than growth, leading to more methylmercury getting concentrated in predatory fish, says Prof. Qureshi.

•Based on modelling, the researchers found how seawater warming can lead to an increase in the toxin concentration in Atlantic bluefin tuna fish. The model predicts an estimated 56% increase in the toxin concentration in Atlantic bluefin tuna between 1970s and 2000s, which is also consistent with the 2017 observational data.

•The model predicts that a combination of three factors — 20% reduction in methylmercury concentration in seawater, 1 degree C increase in ocean temperature and change in diet — can either increase or decrease the amount of methylmercury present in fish. In the case of Atlantic cod fish, there can be a 10% reduction in methylmercury concentration while there can be a 70% increase in the toxin in the case of spiny dogfish.

•“This estimated increase in tissue MeHg [methylmercury] exceeds the modelled 22% reduction that was achieved in the late 1990s and 2000s as a result of decreased seawater MeHg concentrations,” the researchers write.

•The researchers warn that human exposure to the toxin through fish consumption is bound to increase as a result of climate change. Hence, there is a need for stronger regulations to protect ecosystem and human health.

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