The HINDU Notes – 26th October 2019 - VISION

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Saturday, October 26, 2019

The HINDU Notes – 26th October 2019

📰 Activists cry foul as govt. notifies RTI rules

‘Information Commissions will function like caged parrots’

•Activists on Friday decried new rules under the Right to Information Act that have reduced the tenure of Information Commissioners from five years to three, saying the changes would affect their independence. The government had notified the rules on Thursday.

•The Right to Information (Term of Office, Salaries, Allowances and Other Terms and Conditions of Service of Chief Information Commissioner, Information Commissioners in the Central Information Commission, State Chief Information Commissioner and State Information Commissioners in the State Information Commission) Rules, 2019 notified by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions set the tenure of Information Commissioners at three years and gave the government the discretion to decide on “conditions of service” for which no express provisions are made in the rules.

•The Chief Information Commissioner’s salary has been fixed at ₹2.5 lakh and an Information Commissioner’s at ₹2.25 lakh.

‘Violation of procedures’

•Reacting to the notification, activist Anjali Bharadwaj of the Satark Nagrik Sangathan said the government had amended the RTI Act in July and had not issued the prescribed rules for nearly three months after the amendment received the President’s assent on August 1. She said the rules had been drafted and promulgated in a “completely surreptitious manner in flagrant violation” of the procedures laid down in the Pre-Legislative Consultation Policy of 2014.

•“The policy requires all draft rules to be placed in the public domain for comments/suggestions of people. The draft was not available in the public domain and no consultations were held with members of the public,” the citizens’ group said in a statement.

•Among new rules, the government has been given the “power to relax” their provisions, which raised “serious concerns that the government could potentially invoke these powers to determine different tenures for different Commissioners at the time of appointment”, she said.

📰 India’s big foreign policy shake-up

The Modi government’s hyper-activism marks a clear break with the past. But is it also backed by an underlying vision?

•India’s foreign policy is undergoing a series of fundamental transformations in terms of its underlying narratives, processes and desired endgames. There is a conscious and consistent effort to break with the past, no matter how the outcomes might look eventually.

•What could potentially make this change last longer than initially thought is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the mandate, the capability and the willingness to effect major changes and re-conceptualise the country’s external security orientation. And yet, one must ask: Does this really mark a fundamental policy shift or does it just amount to a slew of optics-friendly acts that are well-choreographed but not visionary?

Taking risks

•One of the most striking features of the Modi government’s foreign policy is its propensity for risk-taking — quite unlike most previous governments barring perhaps that of Indira Gandhi. Armed with a clear majority, the government is keen to play offensive, undoing the decades-old defensive Indian strategic behaviour. New Delhi’s actions at Doklam; its surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016 after the Uri terror attacks; and the Balakot air strikes in the wake of Pulwama attacks this February — notwithstanding the questionable material outcomes in all these cases — are examples of this new-found offensive streak and risk-taking tendency.

•The August 5 decision by the Central government on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to read down Article 370 was also a risk-ridden move. When previous governments engaged in offensive behaviour, they couched it in normative language. Today, speech is act too.

•A high-pitched rhetoric around Pakistan, J&K and terrorism complements the Modi regime’s propensity for risk-taking even as these themes remain the mainstay of its foreign policy. There are unfailing invocations to these themes in almost all forums where India is represented as well as in bilateral meetings with countries ranging from the U.S. to New Zealand.

•In an overstated manner, then, terrorism and Pakistan have come to dominate our foreign policy pursuits, instead of other forward-looking and system-shaping narratives. One wonders whether this unrelenting obsession would require compromises by the government in its negotiations with other countries in return for their pro-India stance, which is rapidly running out as days pass by.

•The fixation with terror, Pakistan and J&K also means that the country’s valuable political and diplomatic capital as well as its accumulated goodwill in the comity of nations would have to be spent on tactical goals.

Clarity at the cost of nuance

•Mr. Modi’s foreign policy, for the most part, has displayed unprecedented doses of clarity, though often at the cost of nuanced approaches to complex issues. New Delhi appears, and certainly claims, to know what it wants, is willing to pursue it doggedly, and to pay the associated costs. In politics and foreign policy, there has traditionally been some distance between rhetoric and reality, but in this case, rhetoric seems to closely resemble reality. While past governments tried to balance their rhetoric and reality — for instance, when it comes to India’s relations with Israel — the present government’s policy resembles its rhetoric, with on occasion rhetoric forcing policy choices. A clear example of this rhetoric-reality match is found in India’s ties with the U.S. — the two are unprecedentedly close and despite its nativist leanings, the present regime seems to offer no excuses or qualifiers for getting so close to a superpower, for it knows that hardly any challenges are posed to its foreign policy pursuits in the domestic sphere. Consequently, there is little talk of ‘strategic autonomy’.

•However, too much clarity tends to blur out some much-needed nuance. Take, for instance, New Delhi’s apparent inability to play a noteworthy role in the emerging Afghan geopolitics at a crucial time such as this. It is imperative, as many commentators have pointed out, to engage the Taliban, which is bound to be a dominant actor in Afghanistan in the days ahead. And yet, New Delhi is unable to reach out to the group thanks, at least partly, to its hyper-ventilating and un-nuanced positions on extremism and terrorism. How can India talk to the Taliban and at the same time remain adamant that it won’t engage the many militant groups or even the pro-autonomy voices in J&K?

•India’s foreign policy has traditionally been, for the most part, couched, if not always practised, in a normative grammar. It desired to practise a normative foreign policy, often struggled to match its rhetoric with its actions, and more often seemed uneasy with the mismatch. As a consequence, New Delhi often refused to act with determination; the use of raw power for political outcomes was tempered with normative language when it did act; and deliberate ambiguity was deployed when this posed a moral dilemma. This moral sheen has seemingly come off now, by design.

•New India’s foreign policy has not only given up the Nehruvian normative angst but has even shunned the pretences of normative behaviour. Economic and military power today are seen as tools to gain advantage vis-à-vis others, be it neighbours or the larger international system. To that extent, there is a strong link between internal and external posturing, unlike in the case of most previous governments which made a deliberate attempt to be internally liberal and externally realist.

Weighing domestic costs

•Foreign policy, for the Modi government, is a two-level game, to paraphrase political scientist Robert Putnam. While traditionally, foreign policy has had little impact on domestic political outcomes, today, given the manner in which external behaviour has been domestically politicised, the leadership seems to weigh the domestic costs while making foreign policy decisions. More to the point, foreign policy decisions are often undertaken to cater to domestic opinion. To that extent then, audience costs will continue to determine Mr. Modi’s foreign policy choices.

•Being cognisant of the domestic political implications of foreign policy behaviour in the age of mass communication and social media is understandable. But the flip side is that it leads the leadership to a commitment trap as well as binds its hands when the external circumstances demand a change in behaviour.

•Domestic politicisation of foreign policy also instils a ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality in the ruling dispensation, thereby shrinking the domestic space for consensus building. Looking similar to the Opposition, which domestic consensus building in a way leads to, doesn’t help the government in the eyes of the public but looking different does win it brownie points. This is already making the Opposition irrelevant, and decision making is centralised.

•Is there, however, an underlying vision to India’s new foreign policy? For instance, does India’s hyper-activism on the foreign policy front enable it to be a system-shaper and a global rule-maker or is it still a rule-taker? What, in that sense, are the big foreign policy achievements of this government à la, for instance, the India-U.S. nuclear deal of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) vintage? Are membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or the UN Security Council in the offing? Or has our diplomacy resolved any of our key conflicts? For, after all, it’s the foreign policy outcomes that we should not lose sight of.

📰 A delayed imperative: On BSNL-MTNL merger

The move to revive BSNL and MTNL and merge them comes at a crucial time for the industry

•The Cabinet’s approval this week for a plan to revive the loss-making public sector telecommunications providers Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd. (MTNL) has come not a moment too soon. From having been monopoly providers of telephone connectivity, the state-run telcos have had to contend with sweeping change since the opening up of the industry to private players and entry of wireless telephony in the 1990s. In just over two decades, the mobile phone revolution has catapulted India to the second rank in terms of wireless subscribers, with only China ahead. But the radical transformation of the industry landscape — wrought by the runaway growth in user numbers, rapid technological advances, and bruising competition — has come at a substantial price. The private sector saw the relatively older, large firms using mergers and acquisitions to consolidate as smaller rivals found themselves unable to cope with bitter tariff wars and the capital costs of bidding for spectrum and upgrading their technologies. BSNL, for its part, was saddled with the legacy of having been a large-scale provider of jobs as well as state-mandated connectivity to remote corners of the country. It is in the fulfilment of the state’s social objectives that the public sector enterprises (PSEs) racked up substantial costs, which the Centre’s revival plan aims to help address.

•The proposal includes the allotment of critical spectrum to the two PSEs for offering fourth-generation wireless services, including broadband. The Centre will fund the spectrum’s cost through an infusion of ₹20,140 crore of capital while also bearing the related GST levy of ₹3,674 crore. And besides providing a sovereign guarantee on ₹15,000 crore of long-term bonds, which would help the firms restructure debt and partly fund expenses, the government will extend budgetary support of ₹17,169 crore for ex-gratia payments on a crucial voluntary retirement scheme. A lot will hinge on this VRS plan given that BSNL’s workforce of over 1,65,000 employees end up cornering about 75% of the telco’s total income. The Cabinet has also given an ‘in-principle’ nod for the two PSEs to merge, a move that would add market heft to the merged entity. A successful revival of BSNL will have far-reaching implications for the industry, this at a time when two of the three surviving private players are faced with not only sliding market share but a government bill of about ₹75,000 crore following the loss of a legal challenge. The reach of its network, especially in remote parts, makes BSNL a “strategic asset” that has national security implications given its role in serving the armed forces and responding to natural disasters. The revival plan, even if years late, is a clear recognition by the government of this indisputable fact.

📰 CSIR offers free mapping of Indian genomes

There is already a backlog of at least 400 individuals for the project

•Anyone looking for a free mapping of their entire genome can sign up for the IndiGen initiative, a programme managed by the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) and the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB).

•Those who do get their genes mapped this way will get a card and access to an app, which will allow them and doctors to access “clinically actionable information” on their genomes.

•The programme is a culmination of a six-month project by the CSIR in which 1000 Indians, had their genomes scanned in detail. They were chosen from across the land to represent the width of genetic variability.

•The aim of the exercise was twofold: To test if it’s possible to rapidly and reliably scan several genomes and advise people on health risks that are manifest in their gene and, understand the variation and frequency of certain genes that are known to be linked to disease.

•Not everyone who signs up will be guaranteed a scan. There’s already a backlog of at least 400 individuals and in a year or so, CSIR scientists say, partnerships it is negotiating with several pathological laboratories, will see such scans being performed by companies for a price.

•“As of today anyone can apply via our website,” said Vinod Scaria, a senior scientist at the CSIR-IGIB who’s associated with the initiative. “But there are already several to be scanned. Eventually the idea is that people will connect with laboratories via their doctors who will interpret their test for them. Much like a CT scan, for instance.”

•Private laboratories say that they see potential from the results of the genome mapping to translate into affordable genetic tests. “By partnering with IndiGen 1000 genome project we wish to bring accurate diagnostics to the people of India at an affordable price,” Dr. Vandana Lal, Executive Director, LalPathLab Ltd said in a statement.

•A genetic test, which is commercially available at several outlets in the country, usually involves analysing only a portion of the genome that’s known to contain aberrant genes linked to disease. A whole genome sequencing is more involved and expensive — it’s about ₹100,000 and a single person’s scan take a whole day — and generally attempted only for research purposes. The human genome has about 3.2 billion base pairs and just 10 years ago cost about $10,000. Now prices have fallen to a tenth.

•“The outcomes of IndiGen will have applications in a number of areas including faster and efficient diagnosis of rare genetic diseases,” said Union Science Minister, Harsh Vardhan, at a press conference, “The IndiGenome card and app ensures privacy and data security, which is vital for personal genomics to be implemented at scale.”

•The CSIR exercise ties into a larger programme coordinated by the Department of Biotechnology, which plans to scan nearly 20,000 Indian genomes over the next five years, in a two-phase exercise, and develop diagnostic tests that can be used to test for cancer.

📰 Cutting risk: On India’s anti-polio drive

Though India has excellent polio immunisation coverage, there is no room for complacency

•The world polio day on October 24 marked an important milestone in the war against polio when the Global Commission for the Certification of Poliomyelitis Eradication officially declared that wild poliovirus type 3 has been eradicated. The last case of wild poliovirus type 3 was seen in northern Nigeria in 2012. This is the second wild poliovirus to be declared eliminated — the first was in 2015 when type 2 wild poliovirus was declared as eliminated. With two of the three wild polioviruses eliminated, only type 1 wild poliovirus is still in circulation and is restricted to just two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan. As on October 23, there were 18 cases of polio caused by wild virus type 1 in Afghanistan and 76 polio cases in Pakistan this year. While the number of cases reported this year from Afghanistan is quite close to the 21 reported last year, there has been over six-fold increase in the number of cases in Pakistan. Though India has excellent polio immunisation coverage and measures have been put in place to prevent the spread from polio-endemic countries, there is no room for complacency.

•What does the official declaration of wild type 3 poliovirus elimination mean in the war against polio? Put simply, it opens up the possibility of switching from the currently used bivalent oral polio vaccine containing type 1 and type 3 to a monovalent vaccine containing only type 1. The globally synchronised switch in April 2016 from a vaccine containing all the three types (trivalent) to a bivalent vaccine was done to reduce the number of vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDVP) cases. Until 2015, the type 2 strain in the trivalent oral vaccine accounted for over 90% of VDVP cases globally. While the type 3 poliovirus in the vaccine is the least likely to cause vaccine-derived polio, it has the greatest propensity to cause vaccine-associated paralytic polio (VAPP). Though the risk of VAPP is small, it is caused when the live, weakened virus used in the vaccine turns virulent in the intestine of the vaccinated child or spreads to close contacts who have not been immunised. VAPP can be greatly reduced if there is a switch from the bivalent to a monovalent vaccine containing only type 1. Alternatively, the risk of VAPP can be reduced 80-90% if every child receives the bivalent vaccine and one dose of inactivated polio vaccine injection. Though India does not count VAPP cases, a 2002 paper and a communication indicated that India had 181, 129 and 109 cases in 1999, 2000 and 2001, respectively. A recent paper suggests that post 2016, India might have 75 VAPP cases annually due to global IPV vaccine shortage and “delay in IPV implementation in India’s national immunisation programme”.

📰 Credit growth gets festive boost

Banks extend loans worth over ₹1 lakh crore during the last three fortnights

•After being lacklustre for several months amid a slowing economy, credit growth is showing some signs of pick- up during the festival season with banks extending loans worth just over ₹1 lakh crore in the last three fortnights.

•According to latest data released by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), bank credit growth was in positive territory on year-to-date basis, after several fortnights. For the fortnight ended October 11, loans grew by ₹21,645 crore, on the top of the ₹59,653 crore in the previous fortnight and ₹20,998 crore the fortnight before that. As a result, credit growth was 0.2% till October 11; the figure was in the negative zone for several fortnights.

Single digit growth

•However, on year-on-year basis, credit growth is still in single digit, at 8.8%.

•The healthy credit off take in the last three fortnights comes on the back of several steps taken by the government which were implemented by the banks.

•The Finance Ministry had asked public sector banks to organise “shamiana meetings” in several districts this month to extend loans to non-banking finance companies and retail borrowers, like home buyers and farmers. Banks have tied up with several non-banking finance companies also for loan co-origination to extend credit facilities to the MSMEs. This has helped banks to leverage to reach last mile customers of NBFCs.

•To boost credit flow that could help the economy recover, the RBI has reduced interest rates by 135 bps between February and now, which has allowed banks to lower their lending rates.

•So far as deposit growth is concerned, banks have mobilised ₹31,070 crore of deposits during the fortnight ended October 11, RBI data showed. Deposits recorded 9.8% growth on a year-on-year basis and 2.9% in the financial year so far.

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