The HINDU Notes – 29th February 2020 - VISION

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Saturday, February 29, 2020

The HINDU Notes – 29th February 2020

📰 India to attend U.S.-Taliban peace deal ceremony in Doha

Kabul has sent a six-member official delegation, which will begin the intra-Afghan negotiations with the Taliban soon after the peace deal with the U.S.

•India has accepted an invitation to witness the signing of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal in Doha, official sources confirmed. India’s Ambassador to Qatar P. Kumaran will represent the country at Saturday’s event, which will be hosted by the Government of Qatar and will be attended by representatives of about 24 countries.

•The decision to send Mr. Kumaran to the ceremony came even as Kabul hosted Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla who met the Acting Foreign Minister of Afghanistan Haroon Chakhansuri in the Afghan capital. “Foreign Secretary conveyed India’s support for the people of Afghanistan in their pursuit for sustainable peace, security and development,” Ministry of External Affairs Official Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said after the meeting. “They reviewed and positively assessed developments in bilateral strategic partnership,” Mr. Kumar observed, adding that the Foreign Secretary reiterated India’s commitment to Afghanistan’s pursuit of “sustainable peace and reconciliation”. 

•Officials had earlier indicated that India would like the peace process to be inclusive — Afghan owned, Afghan led and Afghan controlled — and the participation of the Afghan government’s delegation in the ceremony in Doha would show that the upcoming intra-Afghan peace negotiations would be following the path desired by India. Kabul has sent a six-member official delegation, which will begin the intra-Afghan negotiations with the Taliban soon after the peace deal with the U.S. is signed on Saturday.

•Officials here maintain that India will consider the sensitivities of the Kabul government while framing future policies regarding Afghanistan. The peace deal between the Taliban and the U.S. comes after a long and risky negotiation and includes several difficult proposals that will unfold in phases after the deal is signed. During this time, the Taliban had opened up formal channels of communication with other countries like China, Russia, Iran. However, India did not conduct any negotiations with the group. 

•The deal will face its first test when Kabul sits for negotiations with the Taliban as the latter has extracted a promise from the U.S. for freeing a large number of its cadre from the Afghan government’s prisons. That apart, the Taliban’s participation in the overground political process remains a difficult issue that will also be worked on after the signing of the accord.

•India has been a key stakeholder in the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan.

•In a significant move, India had sent two former diplomats in “non-official” capacity to a conference on Afghan peace process in Moscow in November 2018.

•The conference organised by Russia was attended by a high-level Taliban delegation, representatives of Afghanistan as well as from several other countries, including the U.S., Pakistan and China.

•Major powers such as the U.S., Russia and Iran have been reaching out to the Taliban as part of efforts to push the stalled Afghan peace process.

•India has been supporting a national peace and reconciliation process which is Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan controlled.

•India has also been maintaining that care should be taken to ensure that any such process does not lead to any “ungoverned spaces” where terrorists and their proxies can relocate.

•Ahead of peace deal, India has conveyed to the U.S. that pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terror networks operating from its soil must be kept up though Islamabad’s cooperation for peace in Afghanistan is crucial.

📰 Growth slows to 4.7% in Q3, ‘bottomed out’, says Centre

Slump in manufacturing drags down momentum

•India’s third-quarter growth decelerated to 4.7%, the slowest pace in about seven years, as a slump in manufacturing weighed on overall economic momentum.

•The Centre, however, asserted that the slowdown had bottomed out, with Economic Affairs Secretary Atanu Chakraborty citing a recent uptick in core sector output.

•On Friday, the National Statistical Office (NSO) released data showing that the Gross Domestic Product expanded by 4.7% in the quarter ended in December 2019, compared with 5.6% in the year-earlier period.

•“We have already bottomed out,” Mr. Chakraborty told journalists after the data was released. “Sustained improvement in agriculture and services continue to drive growth. The turnaround in growth in the eight core sector industries index in December 2019 and January 2020 also augurs well for the manufacturing sector,” he added. These core industries showed a growth of 2.2% in January, according to data released by the Commerce Ministry on Friday.

•Asked about the possible fallout that the coronavirus outbreak in China, which now threatens to affect an increasing number of countries, could have on India’s economy, he said it was an “unfolding story” and refused to speculate on the likely impact.

•The NSO also released the second advance estimates, projecting a GDP growth of 5% for 2019-20, in comparison with 6.1% in 2018-19. The projection remains unchanged from last month.

•However, the NSO revised upward its GDP growth estimates for the first two quarters of the current fiscal year: growth in the first quarter of 2019-20 was pegged at 5.6%, higher than its earlier estimate of 5%. For the second quarter too, it increased the estimate to 5.1%, from 4.5%.

•According to senior Finance Ministry officials, the government’s increased spending, especially on infrastructure, had helped spur a modest economic recovery. They also saw positive signs in foreign direct investment, mining and agriculture, and claimed an improvement in demand in rural areas.

•The impact from last year’s corporate tax rate cut on investments could not be judged at this point, said a senior official, terming it a “long-term, generational, structural” change that could take years to pay off. Officials also admitted that the sharp downward revision of 2018-19 GDP growth estimates, from 6.8% to 6.1%, could cause some distortion in this year’s growth estimates.

📰 Will hear Sabarimala case before taking up contempt pleas on police reforms, says Supreme Court

Apex court spells out its priorities clearly after advocate Prashant Bhushan seeks urgent hearing

•The Supreme Court on Friday made it clear that it would hear Sabarimala petitions on the extent of religious freedom available to citizens across multiple faiths before applying its mind to whether authorities should be hauled up for contempt for not complying with its 13-year-old judgment that police should not become a tool in the hands of authoritarian regimes and political bosses.

•The occasion came when advocate Prashant Bhushan sought an urgent hearing of contempt petitions pending on the non-implementation of the Prakash Singh judgment of September 22, 2006, which had issued specific directives to unshackle the police from political influences.

•Mr. Bhushan made the urgent mention especially in the light of criticism that the Delhi Police did not act with alacrity to prevent violence and save lives before and during the riots which rocked the National Capital.

•However, Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde, before whom the request was made, said the court would first hear the Sabarimala case. A nine-judge Constitution Bench has been set up to decide the extent of religious freedom under Article 25 and on what would conform as essential religious practices.

•It was only on February 26 that Supreme Court judge K.M. Joseph, while hearing the Shaheen Bagh protest case, commented on the “lack of professionalism” shown by the Delhi Police in not stopping people from making hate speeches, which led to the Delhi riots.

•“If you had not allowed people to get away after inflammatory remarks, all this would not have happened,” Justice Joseph had said.

•Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, who was the lead judge on the Shaheen Bagh Bench, had also described the instances of communal violence in Delhi as “deeply unfortunate”.

•A third Supreme Court judge, Deepak Gupta, had at a public forum, red-flagged the hike in sedition cases against activists, lawyers and students and branding voices of dissent as “anti-nationals”. Expressing dissent to government’s policies did not amount to acting against the nation, he had said.

•The Prakash Singh judgment had held that “commitment, devotion and accountability of the police has to be only to the rule of law”.

•“The supervision and control has to be such that it ensures that the police serves the people without any regard, whatsoever, to the status and position of any person while investigating a crime or taking preventive measures,” the Supreme Court had held in 2006.

•The apex court had underlined that the approach of the police should be service oriented. The police should not act in a such a way that rule of law became a casualty.

•If the police crossed the limits of law, the guilty among them should be brought to book.

•The judgment had referred to ‘Political and Administrative Manipulation of the Police’ published in 1979 by Bureau of Police Research and Development, warning that excessive control of the political executive and its principal advisers over the police has the inherent danger of making the police a tool for subverting the process of law, promoting the growth of authoritarianism and shaking the very foundations of democracy.

📰 COVID-19 | WHO raises global virus risk to maximum level

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the risk was being raised to “very high” because of the continued increase in cases and the number of new countries affected in recent days.

•The World Health Organisation on February 28 raised its global risk assessment of the new coronavirus to its highest level after the epidemic spread to sub-Saharan Africa and caused financial markets to plunge.

•WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the risk was being raised to “very high” because of the continued increase in cases and the number of new countries affected in recent days.

•These developments “are clearly of concern”, Dr. Tedros told reporters in Geneva.

•But he added: “We still have a chance of containing this virus, if robust action is taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients and trace contacts.”

•The virus has proliferated around the globe over the past week, emerging on every continent except Antarctica, prompting many governments and businesses to try to stop people travelling or gathering in crowded places.

•Switzerland became the latest country to announce drastic measures on February 28, saying all events with more than 1,000 participants would be suspended until March 15.

•The ban forced the cancellation of the Geneva International Motor Show — a major item on the global auto industry calendar — that was due to start next week.

•Carnival celebrations, rock concerts and a major watchmaking trade show also had to be scrapped.

‘Struggling with containment’

•The virus has killed more than 2,800 people and infected over 83,000 worldwide — the vast majority in China — since it emerged apparently from an animal market in a central Chinese city in late December 2019.

•The number of deaths and new infections has been tapering off in China, following unprecedented quarantine efforts locking down tens of millions of people in the worst-hit cities.

•But infections elsewhere have started to surge, with Iran, Italy and South Korea becoming the major new hotspots and cases being confirmed in around 50 countries.

•“We see a number of countries struggling with containment,” said Michael Ryan, head of WHO's health emergencies programme.

•The WHO has voiced particular concern about Africa's preparedness, warning that the continent's health care systems were ill-equipped to respond to a COVID-19 epidemic.

•Cases had previously been reported in Egypt and Algeria, but not in the sub-Saharan region until February 28when Nigeria reported its first case: an Italian man in densely populated Lagos.

Markets tank

•Stock markets around the world have plummeted this week as it has become increasingly clear the virus will take a huge toll on the global economy.

•“Stock markets are well on their way to their worst week since the global financial crisis,” said Craig Erlam, senior market analyst at Oanda trading group.

•Several companies have said they expect the virus to hit their earnings because of weaker demand.

•Oil prices also dived 4% to their lowest levels for more than a year, with Brent oil for April delivery sinking as low as $50.05 a barrel.

•Analysts have warned that China, the world's second largest economy, will see a major cut in growth this quarter as the country remains largely paralysed by quarantines and containment measures.

China hope

•Still, signs in China offered hope that the outbreak could be contained.

•China reported 44 more deaths on February 28, raising its toll to 2,788, with 327 new cases — the lowest daily figure for new infections in more than a month.

•The main concern for health officials is outside of China, with governments this week forced into increasingly drastic measures in an attempt to battle spiralling epidemics.

•The biggest death toll outside China is in Iran, where 34 people have died.

•As elsewhere, the virus has mostly killed the elderly or people who had other health conditions.

•South Korea also now has the most cases outside China, with more than 2,000 infections and 13 deaths.

•The virus has had wide-ranging impact, even forcing K-pop megastars BTS to cancel four Seoul concerts due in April.

Cruise ship victim

•In Japan, the Health Ministry said a British man who was on board a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo had died, bringing the death toll to six.

•The unidentified man's death is the latest linked to infections on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where more than 700 other people tested positive for the illness.

•The death comes as the governor of Japan's rural northern island of Hokkaido urged people to stay at home this weekend in a desperate effort to contain the outbreak.

•In Europe, the largest epicentre is Italy with 650 cases and 17 deaths — mostly in cities in the north.

•Wide-ranging measures to halt the spread of the virus have affected tens of millions of people in northern Italy, with schools closed and cultural and sporting events cancelled.

•Experts said the virus had probably “circulated unnoticed for several weeks” before the first confirmed cases — possibly since January.

📰 Farmers’ not to be hurt by govt. move to cut crop cover premium: Bhutani

Lack of long-term, consistent data reason for unsustainable premiums, he says

•The Centre’s move to reduce its subsidy share in the case of high premium crops under its flagship agricultural insurance scheme will not increase the cost to farmers, said Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) CEO Ashish Kumar Bhutani. However, it should spur States to take steps to ensure that premiums are reduced, he added. “Farmers share of premium under PMFBY is not going to change under any circumstances,” said Dr. Bhutani at The Hindu Business Line’s Agri Summit on Friday. The scheme, which has so far been mandatory for farmers with crop loans, is becoming optional from April and is expected to see a 30% drop in enrolment. In such a scenario, Dr. Bhutani was at pains to reassure farmers that they could continue to avail comprehensive protection at the existing low premium rate: 2% for kharif and 1.5% for rabi crops.

Clarifies on cap

•However, he clarified the Centre had capped its subsidy for premium rates up to 30% for unirrigated crops and 25% for irrigated areas and crops.

•This means that so long as the premium for a crop in a particular district is below the cut-off figure of 30%, the Centre will equally split the subsidy burden with the State. If the premium is above 30%, the State will have to pay the entire additional amount, he said.

•“When you have a premium rate of 60%, that should not be called insurance. We should be finding other ways to help farmers manage risk in such cases,” he said, listing the lack of long-term, structured and consistent data as the main reason for unsustainable premiums.

•States should take steps to ensure that such data is made available or be prepared to bear the extra cost, said Dr. Bhutani. The other reason for high premiums may be that the crop is simply not viable in that area, in which case also insurance schemes are unsustainable, he added.

📰 Regional bonding

India needs to engage with its neighbours for the realisation of its global ambitions

•At a time when India has more or less shut down all conversations on the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and walked away from the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s push for regional economic integration and for India-Pakistan dialogue should be studied carefully by New Delhi. Speaking at The Hindu ’s Huddle conclave last week, Mr. Wickremesinghe set out a number of suggestions. He blamed India-Pakistan tensions for bringing economic integration within the SAARC region to a “standstill”, explaining that the original purpose of the South Asian group was to build a platform where bilateral issues could be set aside in the interest of regional growth. Decrying the lack of economic integration in South Asia, and the failure of SAARC, as well as BIMSTEC (which includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand), to engender more intra-regional trade, Mr. Wickremesinghe suggested an even smaller sub-grouping of four countries with complementary economies: India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Thailand, to begin the process of reducing tariffs and demolishing non-tariff barrier regimes. When it comes to the intra-regional share of total trade, SAARC and BIMSTEC languish behind groupings such as ASEAN, EU and MERCOSUR. The Sri Lankan leader also suggested that with India’s leadership, a more integrated South Asian region would be better equipped to negotiate for better terms with RCEP so as not to be cut out of the “productivity network” in Asia, and envisioned an Economic Integration Road Map to speed up the process.

•Given the current policy trajectory of the Modi government, it is unlikely that any of the suggestions will be welcomed. The government has made it clear that talks with Pakistan are strictly off the table, and that a SAARC summit, which has not been held since 2014, is unlikely to be convened anytime soon. Second, the government, which has taken a protectionist turn on multilateral trade pacts, is relying more on direct bilateral deals with countries rather than overarching ones that might expose Indian markets to flooding by Chinese goods. For any regional sub-grouping in South Asia to flourish, it is India that will have to make the most concessions given the vast trade deficits India’s neighbours have at present, which it may not wish to do. However, the overall projection that India’s global reach will be severely constrained unless it is integrated with its neighbours, and tensions with Pakistan are resolved, cannot be refuted. India needs to be more accommodative for the realisation of its ambitions.