The HINDU Notes – 10th May 2020 - VISION

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Sunday, May 10, 2020

The HINDU Notes – 10th May 2020

πŸ“° New road to Kailash Mansarovar runs into diplomatic trouble

Nepal says India has breached a 2014 agreement

•India’s plans to shorten the travel time for pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar ran into a diplomatic trouble as Nepal strongly objected to the new link road from India to China which was inaugurated by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Friday. In a strongly worded statement, Nepal’s Foreign Ministry said the decision to build the road through territory at the Lipulekh pass that it claims as its territory is a breach of an agreement reached between the two countries to discuss the matter.

•“The Government of Nepal has learnt with regret about the ‘inauguration’ yesterday by India of ‘Link Road’ connecting to Lipulekh, which passes through Nepali territory,” said the statement on Saturday.

•“This unilateral act runs against the understanding reached between the two countries including at the level of Prime Ministers that a solution to boundary issues would be sought through negotiation,” the statement said, referring to the agreement between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and (then) Nepal PM Sushil Koirala in 2014 for Foreign Secretaries to work out the “outstanding boundary issues” on Kalapani (where Lipulekh lies) and Susta.

MEA response

•The Ministry of External Affairs said the road going through Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district “lies completely within the territory of India”.

•“The road follows the pre-existing route used by the pilgrims of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. Under the present project, the same road has been made pliable for the ease and convenience of pilgrims, locals and traders,” the MEA said, adding that the boundary delineation exercise with Nepal is ongoing, and that “India is committed to resolving outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue and in the spirit of our close and friendly bilateral relations with Nepal”.

•Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, along with Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda”, both of whom are co-chairmen of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) issued separate statements, referring to India’s decision to build the road during the coronavirus pandemic as “deplorable”, and urged India and Nepal to take steps to resolve the issue.

•Several student activists from the All Nepal National Free Students Union (ANNFSU) affiliated to the ruling Nepal Communist Party and other groups protested outside the Indian embassy in Kathmandu over the new road. “Leaders within the ruling party are also putting pressure on the government to take initiatives in the matter,” a senior Nepali official told The Hindu.

•The road that starts from Dharchula in Uttarakhand and runs 80 km to the Lipulekh pass was built by the Border Roads Organisation to help shorten the travel time to reach Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet by about three days each way. Mr. Singh had ‘inaugurated’ it via video conference on Friday, flanked by Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat and Chief of Army Staff General Manoj Mukund Naravane.

•“The Government of Nepal calls upon the Government of India to refrain from carrying out any activity inside the territory of Nepal,” the Nepal Foreign Ministry added.

•Nepal’s latest objection comes months after another protest in November 2019 by Mr. Oli’s government against the publication of Indian maps that included the Kalapani area. At the time, the Ministry of External Affairs had rejected Nepal’s contention, asserting that the map “accurately depicts the sovereign territory of India”.

•In its latest statement, the Nepali Foreign Ministry also referred to previous notes verbales issued in 2015, after India and China included Lipulekh pass in an agreement on bilateral trade routes, during PM Modi’s visit to China, and said the pending boundary issues, that surfaced in 1997 when India and China agreed to reopen the pass, should be resolved through “diplomatic means”.

•“With this in mind, the Government of Nepal has proposed twice the dates for holding the meeting of the Foreign Secretaries of the two countries, as mandated by their leaders, for which the response from the Indian side is still awaited,” the Foreign Ministry said.

πŸ“° How can inter-State workers be protected?

Should a 1979 law on migrant workers be retained or must it be subsumed under a proposed labour code?

•The story so far: On Friday, May 8, 16 migrant labourers who were trying to return to Madhya Pradesh, their home State, on foot were killed when a goods train ran over them between Jalna and Aurangabad districts in Maharashtra. Following the novel coronavirus pandemic, the nationwide lockdown announced on March 24 at short notice has caused immense distress to migrant workers around the country. Hundreds have been seen trying to walk home to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha from their places of work in Rajasthan, Delhi, Maharashtra, Gujarat and so forth. Questions are being raised about their welfare and the lack of legal protection for their rights. Those working in the field of labour welfare have recalled a 1979 law to regulate the employment and working conditions of inter-State migrants, but feel that the lack of serious implementation has led to their rights being ignored. As part of the present regime’s efforts towards consolidating and reforming labour law, a Bill has been introduced in Parliament called the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019. The proposed code seeks to merge 13 labour laws into a single piece of legislation. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, is one of them. Activists fear that specific safeguards given to migrant workers may be lost as a result of this consolidation.

What does the 1979 law envisage?

•The Act seeks to regulate the employment of inter-State migrants and their conditions of service. It is applicable to every establishment that employs five or more migrant workmen from other States; or if it had employed five or more such workmen on any day in the preceding 12 months.

•It is also applicable to contractors who employed a similar number of inter-State workmen. The Act would apply regardless of whether the five or more workmen were in addition to others employed in the establishment or by the contractors.

•It envisages a system of registration of such establishments. The principal employer is prohibited from employing inter-State workmen without a certificate of registration from the relevant authority. The law also lays down that every contractor who recruits workmen from one State for deployment in another State should obtain a licence to do so.

What are the beneficial provisions for inter-State migrants in it?

•The provision for registration of establishments employing inter-State workers creates a system of accountability and acts as the first layer of formalising the utilisation of their labour. It helps the government keep track of the number of workers employed and provides a legal basis for regulating their conditions of service.

•As part of the licensing process, contractors are bound by certain conditions. These include committing them to providing terms and conditions of the agreement or any other arrangement on the basis of which they recruit workers. These terms include “the remuneration payable, hours of work, fixation of wages and other essential amenities in respect of the inter-State migrant workmen”.

•The wage rates, holidays, hours of work and other conditions of service of an inter-State migrant workman shall be the same as those extended to other workmen in the same establishment, if the nature of their work is similar. In other cases, it would be as prescribed by the appropriate government. In no case, shall the wages be lower than what is prescribed under the Minimum Wages Act.

What does the proposed Code say on migrant workers?

•The attempt to consolidate laws relating to occupational safety, health and working conditions means that many separate laws concerning various kinds of workers and labourers will have to be repealed. The proposed law seeks to repeal 13 Acts such as the Factories Act, Mines Act, Dock Workers’ Act, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, and other enactments relating to those working in plantations, construction, cinema, beedi and cigarette manufacture, motor transport, and the media.

•Regarding inter-State migrant workers, the Act includes them in the definition of ‘contract labour’. At the same time, an inter-State migrant worker is also separately defined as a person recruited either by an employer or a contractor for an establishment situated in another State. The Code has a chapter on ‘contract labour and inter-State migrant workers’, but the Parliamentary Standing Committee has recommended that the provisions relating to migrant workers be covered in a separate chapter “so that the safety, health and working conditions of the Migrant Workers be clearly spelt out for implementation, besides making special provisions for them, as has been done by the State Government of Kerala”.

•The Code contains provisions similar to the 1979 Act regarding registration of establishments, licensing of contractors and the inclusion of terms and conditions on hours of work, wages and amenities. Further, both the old Act and the proposed Code envisage the payment of a displacement allowance and a journey allowance to inter-State migrant workers.

Is there a loss of benefits for inter-State workers if the Code comes into force?

•Even though the Code seeks to preserve many of the protections and rights given to inter-State workers, trade unions feel that it is always better to have a separate enactment. The unprecedented distress and misery faced by migrant workers due to the current lockdown has drawn attention to a beneficial legislation dedicated to their welfare.

•The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has highlighted the fact that both the States where they work and home States have obligations cast upon them in the existing law. Despite the fact that it has been poorly implemented, if at all, labour unions feel that preserving the separate enactment and enforcing it well is a better option than subsuming it under a larger code.

πŸ“° Sal forest tortoise habitat stretches over unprotected areas

Protected areas are designated in a largely mammal-centric way, many equally threatened reptiles and amphibians live outside these

•The sal forest tortoise is widely distributed over eastern and northern India and Southeast Asia. However, it is not common in any of this terrain. In fact, 23 of the 29 species of freshwater turtle and tortoise species found in India come under the threatened category in the IUCN red list and are under severe existential threat due to human activities. Also known as the elongated tortoise (Indotestudo elongata), the sal forest tortoise, recently assessed as critically endangered, is heavily hunted for food. It is collected both for local use, such as decorative masks, and international wildlife trade.

•A recent study by ecologists in the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, finds that the area designated as a protected area network has only a small overlap with the actual habitat it roams around in. According to the authors of the study published in the journal Herpetological Conservation and Biology, over 90% of the potential distribution of the species falls outside current protected area’s network. Also, in northeast India, the representation of the species in protected areas is least, and there is little to no connectivity among most of the protected areas where the species is present.

•The study also found that 29% of the predicted distribution of the species falls within high occurrence fire zones or areas where there is management burning. “This includes Uttarakhand State which is the “westernmost” distribution limit of the species and where field surveys were conducted with the help of Uttarakhand forest department,” says Abhijit Das, an author of the study, from the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, in an email to The Hindu. According to him, especially in northeast India, which is a suitable habitat for the species, they experience jhum fire. Such an intervention may not only directly kill the animals but also open up habitats, which, in turn, increases the chance of people finding the tortoise easily. Forest fires also perturb soil moisture which may impact forest floor thus changing the whole community on which the reptiles depend.

•According to the IUCN the population of the species may have fallen by about 80% in the last three generations (90 years).

Monitoring needed

•Dr. Das says: “We need to realise that tortoises are no less threatened than tigers. Thus, they should be part of regular monitoring effort. In summer days, these tortoises select moist patches such as dry stream beds. Such areas should be protected from the spread of forest fire.”

•The study covers not only parts of India but also Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. Dr. Das observes: “It is not difficult to go to these countries for research or even in having collaborations. However, transboundary research has not picked up in our countries. For tigers, yes, there are some efforts in this line, but not for many other species which are equally threatened globally.” There is for tigers, the “Tiger Conservation Unit” and transboundary conservation reserves such as Manas for the Indo-Bhutan region, the Sundarban for the India-Bangladesh region. “However, there are many species such as our study species which have very large distribution but it is rare and overexploited throughout its range. The critically endangered brackish water turtle (Batagur baska) distributed in India and Bangladesh also needs such support,” he adds.

•There is little information on the population sizes of the sal forest tortoise, or any such species, mainly because they are so rare, live in remote areas of the forest and funding opportunities to study them are few. Species having large distribution may suffer myriad problems. “Protected areas are designated in a largely mammal-centric way. Many reptiles and amphibians which are equally threatened live outside protected areas where exploitation risk is more,” says Dr. Das.

πŸ“° How different is the PM CARES Fund from the PM’s National Relief Fund?

Does not India already have a fund with similar objectives?

•The story so far: On March 28, the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund, or the PM CARES Fund, was set up to tackle distress situations such as that posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In one-and- a-half months, the fund has raked in thousands of crores worth of donations including unlimited tax-free contributions from major corporates.

Who may contribute to the fund?

•The fund receives voluntary contributions from individuals and organisations and does not get any budgetary support. Donations have been made tax-exempt, and can be counted against a company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) obligations. It is also exempt from the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010, and accepts foreign contributions, although the Centre has previously refused foreign aid to deal with disasters such as the Kerala floods. The Prime Minister chairs the fund in his official capacity, and can nominate three eminent persons in relevant fields to the Board of Trustees. The Ministers of Defence, Home Affairs and Finance are ex-officio Trustees of the Fund.

Does not India already have a fund with similar objectives?

•Yes. The Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) was set up in January 1948, originally to accept public contributions for the assistance of Partition refugees. It is now used to provide immediate relief to the families of those killed in natural calamities and the victims of major accidents and riots and support medical expenses for acid attack victims and others.

•The PMNRF was originally managed by a committee which included the Prime Minister and his deputy, the Finance Minister, the Congress President, a representative of the Tata Trustees and an industry representative. However, in 1985, the committee entrusted the entire management of the fund to the Prime Minister, who currently has sole discretion for fund disbursal. A joint secretary in the PMO administers the fund on an honorary basis.

•As of December 2019, the PMNRF had an unspent balance of ₹3,800 crore in its corpus. Opposition leaders have questioned the need for a new PM CARES Fund, given that the PMNRF has similar objectives. States also have similar Chief Minister’s Relief Funds, and State governments have appealed for donations noting that they bear the major burden of implementing COVID-19 relief operations.

Are donations pouring in?

•In its 45-day existence, PM CARES has attracted a large amount of donations. Within the first half hour after the PM’s tweet on March 28, donors as varied as the IAS Association and Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar had pledged to contribute ₹21 lakh and ₹25 crore, respectively, to the fund. In the first week, news reports suggested that publicly declared donations added up to at least ₹6,500 crore.

•In the month since then, lakhs of public and private sector employees have donated a day’s salary to the fund, with some claiming it was done without their permission or knowledge. Among major donations include ₹500 crore from employees of the Defence Ministry, Army, Navy, Air Force and defence public sector units, as well as ₹500 crore each from the Tata Group and Reliance Industries. Protests have been raised against companies such as Reliance which have made major donations to PM CARES even while cutting salaries of their own employees, as well as the Railways, which donated ₹151 crore to PM CARES, but could not provide free transport for destitute migrant workers.

•The Centre has not responded to queries on how much money is in the PM CARES Fund, or how and when it will be used to provide relief. A senior official told The Hindu that an announcement will be made “once a respectable amount of money” has been collected.

What are some of the other concerns around it?

•It is not clear whether the fund comes under the ambit of the RTI Act or oversight by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, although independent auditors will audit the fund. One RTI query to the PMO by activist Vikrant Tongad was refused, citing a Supreme Court observation that “indiscriminate and impractical demands under RTI Act for disclosure of all and sundry information would be counterproductive”, while other RTI queries have not received a response even after the statutory 30-day period.

•The PM CARES web page is opaque regarding the amount of money collected, names of donors, the expenditure of the fund so far, or names of beneficiaries. The PMNRF provides annual donation and expenditure information without any detailed break-up. The PM CARES Fund’s trust deed is not available for public scrutiny.

•The decision to allow uncapped corporate donations to the fund to count as CSR expenditure — a facility not provided to PMNRF or the CM’s Relief Funds — goes against previous guidelines stating that CSR should not be used to fund government schemes. A government panel had previously advised against allowing CSR contributions to the PMNRF on the grounds that the double benefit of tax exemption would be a “regressive incentive”.