The HINDU Notes – 07th November 2019 - VISION

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Thursday, November 07, 2019

The HINDU Notes – 07th November 2019

πŸ“° India, Russia to form aftersales support groups

IGA on mutual

•India and Russia on Wednesday agreed to form specific working groups for aftersales support of key defence platforms and intensify efforts to finalise a cooperation programme for 2021-2030.

•This was agreed between Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and his Russian counterpart General Sergei Shoigu at the 19th India-Russia Inter-Governmental Commission on Military and Military Technical Cooperation meeting.

•Mr. Singh is on a three-day visit to Russia. The Ministers directed the respective teams to work closely for early conclusion of the India-Russia Inter-Governmental Agreement on Reciprocal Logistics Support.

•In September, the two countries had signed an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) for mutual cooperation in joint manufacturing of spares, components, aggregates and other material related to Russian or Soviet-origin defence equipment.

πŸ“° ‘Give report on CIC postings’

SC has asked the govt. to look beyond retired bureaucrats

•The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the Centre and eight States to present a report card on appointments made to the Information Commissions, the apex bodies constituted under the Right to Information Act to help citizens fight for transparency in governance.

•The direction comes nearly eight months after the apex court ordered the government to look beyond the coterie of retired bureaucrats for appointment as Information Commissioners, in a judgment delivered on February 15, 2019.

•A Bench led by Justice S.A. Bobde directed the Union of India, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Telangana, West Bengal, Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat to file a report on their compliance with the February 15 verdict.

•The court listed the case for hearing on December 16.

•The petition was filed by activist Anjali Bhardwaj, Commodore (Retd) Lokesh Batra and Amrita Johri. They were represented by senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, advocates Pranav Sachdeva and Rahul Gupta.

•Mr. Bhushan submitted that vacancies had not been filled despite the February judgment.

‘Strange phenomenon’

•In its February verdict, the apex court had concluded that the Central Information Commission (CIC) and State Information Commissions have been bastions for government employees and their retired counterparts.

•It called the propensity to favour bureaucrats for appointments a “strange phenomenon.”

•It said the Right to Information Act of 2005 itself required people from varied domains to man the Commissions.

•The apex court had found that the “official bias” in favour of bureaucrats and government employees was evident from the very beginning of the process for appointments.

πŸ“° An unwanted booster dose for vaccine hesitancy

The unchallenged spread of misinformation from a UN-based platform could affect the global vaccination programme

•In January this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed “vaccine hesitancy” as among the top 10 threats to global health this year; it is defined as [a] “reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines”.

•According to WHO, vaccination prevents between two-three million deaths each year, a figure that will rise by another 1.5 million if vaccine coverage improves. Yet, a survey of over 1,40,000 people from 140 countries has revealed the striking difference in how people trust vaccines.

•At 95%, people from South Asia trusted vaccines followed by eastern Africa at 92%. Western Europe and eastern Europe brought up the rear with just 59% and 52%, respectively. The repercussions of vaccine hesitance are now playing out globally — as on October 10, 2019, nearly 4,24,000 children have confirmed measles, as against a figure of 1,73,000 in the whole of 2018.

The Indian perspective

•Vaccine hesitancy has been a concern in India. For instance, one of the main reasons for five times low uptake of oral polio vaccine in the early 2000s among poor Muslim communities in Uttar Pradesh was the fear and the misconception that the polio vaccine caused illness, infertility and was ineffective. Similarly, as recently as 2016, Muslim communities in two districts in north Kerala reported low uptake of diphtheria vaccine. One of the reasons: propaganda that the vaccine may contain microbes, chemicals and animal-derived products which is forbidden by Islamic law.

•Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, which have traditionally seen high vaccine acceptance, witnessed low uptake of the measles-rubella vaccine when it was introduced in 2017. A reason was again a fear, spread through social media, of adverse effects from vaccination.

•As a December 2018 study points out, vaccine hesitancy continues to be a huge challenge for India. The study found nearly a quarter of parents did not vaccinate their children out of a fear of adverse events; this was in 121 high priority districts chosen by the Health Ministry for intensified immunisation drive to increase vaccine coverage.

At the UN

•Against this background, last week, on November 1, self-styled “yogi, mystic and visionary” Jaggi Vasudev tweeted a dangerous message. “The significance of vaccination against many debilitating diseases should not be played down. But at the same time, it is important it is not overdone, without taking into consideration the many side-effects or negative impacts of vaccinations.”

•The dangerous sweeping statement on vaccine side-effects will give anti-vaxxers the much-needed impetus and ammunition to scare parents from vaccinating their children. Stirring fear in people by falsely blaming vaccines for unrelated diseases is the bedrock of the anti-vaccination movement across the globe, India included. Even today, the message of the discredited study (in 1998) by British physician Andrew Wakefield, who linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism, is used in spreading vaccine doubts and conspiracy theories.

•Besides the dangerous message, it is difficult to fathom the sudden provocation for the tweet. The tweet has a link to an article published on the Isha website on October 3, which is an excerpt of a conversation between Jaggi Vasudev and Dr. Soumya Swaminathan (Chief Scientist at WHO) that was held at the United Nations General Assembly on June 27, 2019. (The article also has a link to the taped conversation, on YouTube.)

•During the conversation with Dr. Swaminathan, he is seen advocating vaccination and spelling out the gains India made by preventing children from becoming crippled through oral polio vaccination. But soon he veers off track and ends up spreading dangerous misinformation about influenza (commonly referred to as flu).

•With a disclaimer that he is not a medical expert, Jaggi Vasudev says: “…From listening to parents [in California], this is what I gathered. I thought some of the things they were giving vaccines for were just absurd. If a child catches a flu, or something like this, it is all right to go through some of these illnesses when you are growing up.”

•This might turn out to be the most irresponsible and dangerous piece of misinformation to have ever been said from the hallowed platform of the UN. Unfortunately, the patently wrong message went unchallenged, giving it a ring of truth. The incorrect messaging did not stop there; it is now posted on the Isha website, increasing the chances of more people being misled. The blithe comment about flu sans any evidence is in stark contrast to the seriousness with which WHO and the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) treat it.

•The CDC website says, “Flu illness is more dangerous than the common cold for children” especially in those younger than five years. Children older than six months and younger than five years belong to the high-risk category, the reason why the CDC recommends “vaccination against flu each year”. WHO too recognises children below five years as a high-risk group and recommends vaccination each year.

Good defence

•The reason why influenza should be taken seriously is because in the U.S. alone, since 2010, an estimated 7,000-26,000 children younger than five are hospitalised each year; many end up dying. It is already proven that vaccination offers the best defence against flu and its potentially serious consequences, reduces flu illnesses, hospitalisations and even deaths.

•Despite H1N1 (swine flu) becoming a seasonal flu virus strain in India even during summer, the uptake of flu vaccine in India is poor — the reason why thousands of cases and deaths get reported each year. As on November 3 this year, there have been 28,109 H1N1 influenza cases and 1,203 deaths this year in India. The number of H1N1 influenza cases (42,592) and deaths (2,991) in India peaked in 2015.

•Despite its effectiveness varying from one season to another, several studies have shown that the flu vaccination can reduce the risk of flu illness by 40-60% when there is good match between the strains used in the vaccine and the circulating virus. A study in 2017 that looked at flu seasons between 2010 and 2014 found that vaccination reduced flu-associated deaths by 65% among healthy children. The vaccine can also prevent hospitalisation, reduce the severity of illness and “prevent severe, life-threatening complications” in children.

•As per WHO’s recommendation, since September 2018, the protection offered by flu vaccines has been widened with the availability of vaccines containing four strains instead of three.

πŸ“° After RCEP opt-out, the challenge of a shape-up

India must shed its defensive mindset in trade deals and, instead, work on creating globally competitive sectors

•In an unprecedented move, India decided to withdraw from the 16-member mega regional free trade agreement, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). At the Third RCEP Summit, in Bangkok, Thailand, earlier this month, the Prime Minister announced India’s decision to withdraw from the RCEP; the summit was convened to announce the conclusion of negotiations before the agreement was finally signed. The Leaders’ Statement issued at the summit end announced the conclusion of negotiations, but when it was done, one of the most important RCEP participating countries (RPCs) had ceased to be a part of the deal.

Vulnerabilities in agriculture

•What led India to disassociate itself from an agreement which, till recently, was backed by the Union Commerce and Industry Minister? The immediate answer lies in the concerns expressed by all major stakeholders, namely, farmers, trade unions, major industry associations and civil society organisations, about the adverse implications of import liberalisation. Despite being a fairly open economy, India still uses tariffs to protect the significant levels of vulnerabilities, especially in agriculture but also in the manufacturing sector. The present structure of tariff protection is so designed that together with the relatively and generally low tariffs on most manufactured imports, moderately high tariffs are imposed on agricultural imports. The preponderance of small and marginal farmers and their inability to face competition from global agri-business has been the primary reason why the government has always excluded agriculture from import liberalisation, both in the World Trade Organization (WTO) as well as in bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs). Thus, in the FTAs with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Korea and Japan, most of the major agricultural products were excluded from import tariff cuts.

On import protection

•The RCEP threatened to alter the template of import protection that was an almost settled issue for India. The “Guiding Principles and Objectives for Negotiating RCEP”, the de facto negotiating mandate, stated that “RCEP will aim at progressively eliminating tariff and non-tariff barriers on substantially all trade” and that tariff “negotiations should aim to achieve the high level of tariff liberalization”. The wording of the negotiating mandate left little scope for India to maintain its regime of import protection in response to domestic vulnerabilities, as for example in agriculture. Yet another implication of the RCEP negotiating mandate on tariff elimination for India was that China would have had to be given similar levels of market access. This set alarm bells ringing for India’s manufacturing sector which faces an increasing threat from cheap Chinese products. The major concern of this sector was that imports from China increased from less than $11 billion in the middle of the previous decade to over $76 billion in 2017-18; this could quickly increase further when India grants preferential tariffs to its northern neighbour as a part of the RCEP deal.

•The agriculture and dairy sectors also got into the mix of tariff cuts essentially because of the presence of Australia and New Zealand, two countries that have significant interests in these sectors. Australia has large export interests in wheat and sugar, two of the most politically sensitive commodities for India. It is important to point out that in recent months, Australia has initiated a dispute against India in the WTO arguing that subsidies granted to sugarcane producers violate the rules of the Agreement on Agriculture. Three other RPCs, China, Indonesia and Thailand, have joined the dispute as third parties. The strategy of these countries is to ensure that India reduces sugar subsidies, which would threaten the viability of sugar producers in the country. The resultant vacuum can then be plugged by these interested parties. Given this backdrop, India’s commitment on market access under the RCEP could have provided an additional handle to exploit India’s market.

Concerns over dairy sector

•The threat faced by stakeholders in the dairy business from the RCEP has been widely discussed. New Zealand is the second largest exporter of milk and milk products, and this group of products has contributed between a third and a fourth of the country’s total exports in recent years. New Zealand milk producers are also more efficient than India’s small producers, which would have given the former a price advantage in India’s market — if the market for dairy products was opened under India’s RCEP commitments.

•Above all, the factor that militates against India’s acceptance of any commitments under the RCEP is the declining fortunes of both the agriculture and manufacturing sectors. The growth numbers that were used to show India as the fastest growing economy have now been replaced by significantly lower growth expectations. Under these circumstances, an aggressive opening of the Indian economy would have only added to the uncertainties faced by the domestic entities, and whose impact on the labour market could have been catastrophic.

Tariff issue

•It is interesting to note that the government has been aware of the need to protect India’s agriculture and manufacturing sectors, both within and without the RCEP. Within the RCEP, the government’s first offer on tariff liberalisation made in 2015 (that was also put out in the public domain), took a rather conservative position. It spoke of a tariff elimination on 80% of imports from ASEAN and just 42.5% of imports from China, which would have addressed the vulnerabilities discussed earlier. Subsequently, India changed its stance and agreed to deep cuts in tariffs. Two critical process issues need to be raised in this context: the first is that the circumstances under which the change from the initial negotiating position was made is not clear. And the second is that unlike the initial tariff offer, the subsequent offers that the government made in the negotiations were not brought in the public domain.

•India’s continued engagement in RCEP negotiations on market access that had set complete tariff elimination as the objective seemed even more intriguing because the government had resorted to reversing the process of autonomous liberalisation since 2017. In response to the demands made by several sectors, tariffs were increased; as a result, average tariffs for manufactured products increased from below 11% in 2017 to nearly 14% in 2018, while for agricultural products, the average tariff hikes were from below 33% to nearly 39%.

Addressing competitiveness

•A final issue that needs to be addressed is whether joining the RCEP could have contributed in any way in increasing India’s exports and participation in value chains. This is an issue that has repeatedly been spoken of in the aftermath of India’s pull-out from the mega regional trade agreement. The reality in this regard can be understood by taking a quick look at the FTAs with ASEAN, Korea and Japan. In all these agreements, India has run increasing trade deficits, essentially because the exports have not seen the desired levels of expansion. The explanation of this phenomenon lies in the lack of competitiveness of Indian enterprises, both in agriculture and the manufacturing sectors. Throughout the period in which economic reforms have played out, successive governments have not focused on policies that can increase the efficiency of domestic enterprises. As the dust settles after the RCEP exit, the government must focus on the mechanisms through which India can create globally competitive sectors that can demand market access in India’s partner countries. Until then, India will be saddled with a defensive mindset in trade negotiations.

πŸ“° Rs. 25,000-cr. fund to help housing sector

Centre, SBI and LIC to pool funds

•The Union Cabinet has approved the creation of an Alternative Investment Fund (AIF) of Rs. 25,000 crore to provide last-mile funding for stalled affordable and middle-income housing projects across the country, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced on Wednesday.

•The Minister had announced the proposal to create this fund in mid-September, which the Cabinet has now approved. All affordable and middle-income housing projects that are net worth positive and are registered with the Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA) and that have not been deemed liquidation-worthy will be eligible.

•“The fund size will initially be Rs. 25,000 crore with the government providing Rs. 10,000 crore and the State Bank of India and the Life Insurance Corporation providing the balance,” Ms. Sitharaman said. “The fund is not capped at Rs. 25,000 crore and will likely grow as a lot of sovereign funds have shown interest.”

•The funds will be set up as Category-II Alternative Investment Fund registered with the Securities and Exchange Board of India and will be managed by SBICAP Ventures Limited.

•According to the government’s estimates, there are more than 1,600 housing projects in which 4.58 lakh crore units are stalled.

•The Finance Minister, however, did not provide details about what the total funding requirement was to complete all these projects.

•The Cabinet decision amends the original announcement by allowing housing projects that have been classified as non-performing assets (NPA) and that are under National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) proceedings also to be eligible for financing.

•“Earlier, when I had made the announcement, we had decided that the fund would be used for non-NPA and non-NCLT projects,” Ms. Sitharaman said. “Now we have withdrawn the non-NPA and non-NCLT provision. If the project has not been declared liquidation-worthy, it is eligible to be covered under this scheme.”

•The Finance Minister added that the fund would be professionally managed and that the financing would not be provided in a lump sum. Instead, the required amount for each stage of completion would be provided as required at that stage. The AIF is expected to pool investments from other government-related and private investors, including public financial institutions, sovereign wealth funds, public and private banks, domestic pension and provident funds, global pension funds and other institutional investors.

•“The fund is therefore expected not only to support the sector but also generate commercial return for its investors,” the government said in a release. It further expected this fund to not only ease the stress in the real estate sector but also in other major sectors of the economy as well.

•“The creation of special window for affordable and middle-income housing projects would revive the real estate sector and generate considerable employment,” the release added. “Besides, revival of the sector will also lead to demand of cement, iron & steel industries giving further impetus to generate more employment. This initiative will have a positive effect in releasing stress in other major sectors of the Indian economy as well.”

πŸ“° Prepare schemes to stop stubble burning: SC

Bench sets three-month deadline for the Centre to wean farmers off the practice that is choking Delhi

•The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the Centre to prepare a comprehensive national scheme, in consultation with States, within three months to wean small and marginal farmers away from stubble burning, which has been identified as a major source of air pollution choking the national capital.

•“Punishing poor farmers for burning stubble is not a solution,” Justice Arun Mishra, who led the Special Bench also comprising Justice Deepak Gupta, said.

•The Bench also ordered States to distribute crop residue management tools and machines to small and marginal farmers free of cost. The States need to use their own funds to finance the scheme, it said. The court would take a decision on the sharing of financial liability between the Centre and the States on a later date.

•It further ordered an incentive of Rs. 100 per quintal for small and marginal farmers who engage in the management of the residue of their non-Basmati variety rice crop in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.

•Meanwhile, it asked the Delhi government to submit an action plan to deal with issues of garbage dumping and burning, pock-marked roads and the state of traffic congestion in the capital city. The court gave the government three weeks to repair the potholes.

•The Bench sat hours beyond regular hours to address the problem of stubble-burning. It hauled up the Chief Secretaries of Punjab, Haryana and U.P. for doing almost nothing to prevent farmers from burning their crop residue. A democratically-elected government cannot afford to not do anything. The elected government and administrative machinery cannot sit aloof in their ivory towers. The government cannot afford to fail the people, Justice Mishra said.

•The court initially gave a seven-day deadline for the three States to collect stubble before the farmers burn them.

•The Bench sat long beyond regular hours to address the problem of stubble-burning. It hauled up the Chief Secretaries of Punjab, Haryana and U.P. for doing almost nothing to prevent farmers from burning their crop residue.

•A democratically-elected government cannot afford to not do anything. The elected government and administrative machinery cannot sit aloof in their ivory towers. The government cannot afford to fail the people, Justice Mishra said. The court initially gave a seven-day deadline for the three States to collect stubble before the farmers burn them.

•“People are dying. Is this not total failure of the Centre or you (States),” Justice Mishra asked.

πŸ“° NGT issues ultimatum to ban certain RO systems

Asks Environment Ministry to issue notification

•The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has given a “last opportunity” to the Union Environment Ministry to issue notifications pertaining to prohibition on the use of RO (reverse osmosis) systems, which result in wastage of almost 80% of water.

•The NGT was referring to an order passed by it in May this year where it had directed that “wherever RO is to be permitted, condition of recovery of water to the extent of more than 60% is required”.

•A Bench headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel warned of action against concerned officials if the order is not complied with by December 31.

•“During the hearing, the officials have not shown any valid reason for non-compliance... Delay in compliance of order is causing harm to public health and environment in terms of an expert committee report to which the (environment ministry) is a party,” the Bench observed.

•The Bench said that in case of non-compliance of orders the concerned officials will not be entitled to draw salaries from January 2020.

•The Bench had ordered the Environment Ministry to issue “appropriate notification prohibiting the use of RO where Total Dissolved Solids in water is less than 500 mg/l”. “Further provision must be laid down for recovery of water up to 75% and use of such RO reject water for purposes such as utensil washing, flushing, gardening, cleaning of vehicles and mopping,” the Bench had held, based on a report furnished by an NGT-appointed committee.

πŸ“° As the seas come closer

Most of the people at risk from coastal flooding live in Asia’s developing countries like India and China

•How many people will be forced to migrate as a result of climate change? Figures range from tens of millions to hundreds of millions, but the multiple entanglements of climate change make it difficult to get accurate estimates. People may move because of drought, violence, degradation of local ecosystems, war or job loss. Poverty, adverse effects of globalisation and conflict may get worse with climate change, which is why it is often referred to as a “threat multiplier”.

•Getting accurate sea level rise (SLR) projections has also always been difficult. Along with expansion of warm waters and melting of glaciers, subsidence of land also increases relative SLR. Models for glacier melt are not as well developed as other models that study global warming. SLR projections going beyond 2050 are therefore not as accurate as those until mid-century. There is broad agreement that if high emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) were to continue, average global SLR could be as high as two metres by the end of this century.

Effects of sea level rise

•Past studies, which used NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) database, underestimated the land and people affected by SLR because tree-tops and tall buildings caused errors in assessments. A new study by Scott Kulp and Benjamin Strauss, published in Nature Communications, uses neural networks to improve accuracy and finds that the area affected by SLR will be substantially more than previously estimated. This means that the various effects from SLR: coastal flooding, salt water intrusion into land, destruction of coastal infrastructure, communities and ecosystems will be much more than anticipated.

•While earlier measures suggest that five million people in India will be annually affected by coastal flooding, the new estimates point to 36 million; similarly, in Bangladesh instead of five million, 42 million will be threatened. By 2050, in a scenario that limits warming to 2°C above average pre-industrial temperatures, about 150 million people worldwide will be permanently below the high tide line along the coast and, by 2100, the numbers will rise to 360 million people. The new estimates indicate that about a billion people reside on land along the coast going up to an elevation of 10 metres (the low elevation coastal zone) and the bulk of them, more than two thirds, are below the five-metre elevation.

•Most of the people found to be at risk from coastal events live in Asia — residing in countries like China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and Japan.

•Very large fractions of coastal populations in these countries will be vulnerable. Other than Asia and the Netherlands, there are 20 countries (13 of which are small island nations) in which more than a tenth of their population are expected to reside below the high tide line by 2100, and this is with deep cuts to emissions. Coastal cities, such as Alexandria, Ho Chi Minh City, Basra and Shanghai are among the most vulnerable and large portions of Mumbai and Kolkata will be fully submerged by 2050.

•The effects on the economy, coastal communities, infrastructure and land will be immense and people living along the coast will be forced to move inland, probably to nearby towns and cities. When this is not possible, such as on small island nations or in low-lying delta regions like Vietnam, people will be forced to move across borders, thus affecting political stability.

What should India’s policies be?

•Denial cannot be a mechanism to deal with these anticipated challenges from climate change.

•Preparing for SLR will entail protecting the coast through measures such as natural barriers, levees, flood barriers and even hard barriers. But engineering protection mechanisms are expensive and have consequences for the coastline. Stopping infrastructure construction along the coast and integrating anticipated SLR effects into coastal planning are essential. The government should not be in a situation of moral hazard where it ends up bailing out investors, insurers and others who have increased their exposure to risk. Planning for retreat from the most vulnerable areas well ahead of time is essential. Urban policies, especially in mid-size towns, should integrate proposals for new migrants.

•Turning border regions into fortress worlds will also not be justified, both in practical and ethical terms. What is required is preparation in advance with regional policies for labour, regional agreements for migration and for advance skill development.

•Given that South Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change and the countries here share ecological zones, borders and coastlines, in addition to language and family histories, coordinated management of extreme events, advance preparation for migration into mid-size towns and better ecosystem support in the hinterland are useful ways to collaborate and build regional partnerships. And, since migrants in general cannot, for the most part, be distinguished from climate migrants, rights, services and policies need to be applied to all migrants. Otherwise, countries will create multiple classes of migrants — as many have accused Australia of doing — based on their reasons for moving and places of origin.

•It is tempting to assume that these are impossible goals to set for India, but that is a short-sighted perspective. Our long history has shown that the subcontinent has always been a place that welcomes people. Investing in the rural economy, reducing unemployment, reducing poverty and improving measures for sustainability can improve people’s lives and increase their resilience and openness to “others”. The protests across the world by people of all ages show that there is fervour for transformation to deal with the climate crisis. This is our historic moment to act decisively.

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