Various initiatives taken by the government recently to boost Industrial Manufacturing

Government of India has taken several steps to improve the quality standards of products manufactured under the AatmaNirbhar Bharat Campaign. These inter alia include:

Quality Control Orders (QCOs): Since the announcement of AatmaNirbhar Bharat campaign, Central Government through its various Ministries/Departments has notified 156 products under compulsory BIS certification through issuance of QCOs. As per these QCOs, the products specified therein shall conform to the requirements of relevant Indian Standards and bear a Standard Mark under a license from Bureau of Indian Standards.

 

Production-Linked Incentive (PLI)Scheme: To provide a major boost to manufacturing, Government has launched Production Linked Incentive (PLI) Scheme for 13 sectors with an outlay of Rs 1.97 lakh crore over the next five years.

Udyog Manthan: DPIIT in collaboration with D/o Commerce, QCI, NPC, Bureau of Indian Standards, Industry Chambers and line ministries conducted Udyog Manthan, a two- month long series of webinars comprising 46 sessions, focused on Quality and Productivity in all major sectors of manufacturing and services.

The steps taken by Government to uplift the startups and to promote ‘vocal for local’ campaign are as under:

  1. Government of India has extended relaxations on prior experience, prior turnover and earnest money deposit as per the provisions of GFRto ease public procurement fromstartups.
  2. Government of India has taken up Fund of Funds for Startups (FFS) Scheme and Startup India Seed Fund Scheme (SISFS) to uplift the startups in the country . The objectives of Fund of Fundsscheme include accelerating innovation driven entrepreneurship and business creation, mobilizing larger equity- like resources for startups. The SISFS aims to provide financial assistance to startups for proof of concept, prototype development, product trails, market entry and commercialization.

The steps taken by Government to help startups and other local manufacturers in using the e- Commerce and online platforms are as under:

  1. Government e-Marketplace (GeM) is set up for providing an online platform for procurement of common use goods and services by government organizations. Any entity including DPIIT recognized startups can register on GeM as sellers and sell their products and services directly to government entities.
  2. Startup Runway is developed by GeM in collaboration with DPIIT, which is a unique initiative for promoting entrepreneurship through innovation. It has been developed as a dedicated platform for startups to list their products and services for government procurement with relaxed procurement norms and regulations.

PENCiL Portal

The government has appealed to citizens to report the instances of Child Labour on PENCIL Portal or by calling on Childline-1098, India’s first 24 – hour, free​, emergency phone outreach service for children in need of care and protection.

The Platform for Effective Enforcement for No Child Labour (PENCiL) Portal is an electronic platform organised by the Ministry of Labour and Employment involving Centre, State, District, Governments, civil society and the general public in achieving the target of child labour free society.

The portal was launched in 2017 under the Ministry of Labour and Employment’s National Child Labour Project (NCLP). 

NCLP is a Central Sector Scheme launched in 1988 to rehabilitate children indulged in child labour. Under the scheme District Project Societies (DPS) are set up at the district level under the Chairmanship of the Collector/District Magistrate for overseeing the implementation of the project.

At district level District Nodal Officers (DNOs) are nominated to take action on the complaints of their respective districts. Complaints about child labour filed on PENCiL are forwarded to the DNOs for further action. Rescue measures are undertaken in coordination with police.

Rescued children are sent to centres where they get an education or are imparted vocational training. Children less than 8 years are enrolled in schools under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan; children in the 8-14 year bracket are sent to special training centres (STCs) and 14-18-year-olds are enrolled in vocational (skill) training centres.

India has 1.01 crore child labourers, according to Census 2011, against 1.26 crore in 2001.

The Child Labour (Prohibition & Regulation) Amendment Act, 2016 

  • The Act amends the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986. It completely prohibits the employment of children below 14 years.
  • The amendment also prohibits the employment of adolescents in the age group of 14 to 18 years in hazardous occupations and processes and regulates their working conditions where they are not prohibited.

Exceptions

  • While the Act prohibits the employment of children below 14 years in any occupation or process, they are allowed to work in two cases. 
    • They can help their families or family enterprises if the work is not hazardous and only after school hours or during vacations.
    • They can also work as artists in an audio-visual entertainment industry (including in advertisements, films and television serials, or in sports activities other than circuses) if such work follows appropriate safety measures. Children can only do this kind of work if it does not affect their education.

 

Global Cyber Security Index (GCI) 2020

Recently, India has been ranked 10th in Global Cyber Security Index (GCI) 2020 released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations (UN) agency for information and communication technologies (ICT).

The US topped the chart, followed by the UK and Saudi Arabia tied on the second position, while Estonia was ranked third in the index.

GCI assessment is done on the basis of performance on five parameters of cybersecurity including- 

  • Legal measures,
  • Technical measures,
  • Organisational measures,
  • Capacity development, and
  • cooperation

Increasing pace of Cyber attacks in India

In today’s era, despite several measures taken, India has a high rate of cyber attacks which is increasing day by day as India is one of the largest internet and smartphone economies with 624 million internet users across the country. The primary reason for such an increasing number of cyber attacks is the digitization of Society.

As of now, Cyberspace is a 133 billion dollar economy which may reach 403 billion dollars by 2027. By 2025, Cyber crime may account for 10.5 trillion dollars of revenue loss as number of cyber attacks is increasing by 10-15% every year.

In 2020, India has recorded 7 lakh cyber security incidents which is more than the combined data of the last 4 years. Around 71% of cyber attacks are financial related attacks which is a primary concern for the country.

Challenges faced in tackling Cyber crime 

  • Lack of awareness about the evolving technologies among the masses.
  • Absence of data privacy lawfor protecting the data of Government, Business and Individuals who are key drivers for the country’s development.
  • Use of offensive technologies and encrypted appsby terrorists to spread fake news, hack the personal data etc.
  • Tracing fake propaganda accounts.

 

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and its impact

The stringent nature of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which renders it difficult for one held under it to obtain bail, is being seen as one of the principal reasons for Fr. Swamy’s death as a prisoner in a hospital. This has raised questions about the liberty of many others, including 15 others arrested in the Elgar Parishad case and incarcerated under the same law, which is also India’s main anti-terrorism legislation.

Origin of the UAPA?

The Union government was considering a stringent law against calls for secession in the mid-1960s. In March 1967, a peasant uprising in Naxalbari imparted a sense of urgency. On June 17, 1966, the President had promulgated the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Ordinance “to provide for the more effective prevention of unlawful activities of individuals and associations”. Its stringency created a furore in Parliament when it was tabled, leading to the government dropping it. Instead, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, which was not identical to the ordinance, was passed.

Its scope and how has it been expanded over the years

The Act provided for declaring an association or a body of individuals “unlawful” if they indulged in any activity that included acts and words, spoken or written, or any sign or representation, that supported any claim to bring about “the cession of a part of the territory of India”, or its “secession”, or which questions or disclaims the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Prior to the UAPA’s enactment, associations were being declared unlawful under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 1952. However, the Supreme Court held that the provision on bans was unlawful because there was no judicial mechanism to scrutinise the validity of any ban. Therefore, the UAPA included provisions for a Tribunal which has to confirm within six months the notification declaring an outfit unlawful. In its present form, the Act, after the amendments in 2004 and 2013, covers the declaration of associations as unlawful, punishment for terrorist acts and activities, acts threatening the country’s security, including its economic security (a term that covers fiscal and monetary security, food, livelihood, energy ecological and environmental security), and provisions to prevent the use of funds for terrorist purposes, including money laundering.

The ban on organisations was initially for two years, but from 2013, the period of proscription has been extended to five years. After the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), 2002, was repealed, the UAPA was expanded to include what would have been terrorist acts in earlier laws. The 2004 amendments were also aimed at giving effect to various anti-terrorism resolutions of the United Nations Security Council.

In 2012, there was a set of amendments, which was notified from early 2013, seeking to bring the UAPA in line with various requirements of the Financial Action Task Force, an inter-governmental body, to combat money laundering and terrorism financing. In 2019, the Act was amended to empower the government to designate individuals as terrorists.

How do UAPA provisions differ from regular criminal law?

Just like other special laws dealing with narcotic drugs and the now-defunct laws on terrorism, the UAPA also modifies the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) to give it more teeth. A remand order can be for 30 days instead of the usual 15, and the maximum period of judicial custody before the filing of a chargesheet is extendable from the usual 90 days to 180 days. This extension, however, depends on the Public Prosecutor filing a report on the progress in the investigation and giving reasons for seeking another 90 days to complete it. The law also makes it more difficult to obtain bail.

Cthe controversy about its bail provisions

Under Section 43D(5) of the Act, bail cannot be granted to a suspect if the court is of the opinion that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the charges are prima facie true. A Supreme Court judgment on this has clarified that this meant that the court considering bail should not examine the evidence too deeply, but must go by the prosecution version based on broad probabilities. This means that the onus is on the accused to show that the case is false but without inviting the court to evaluate the available evidence. This is why human rights defenders feel that the provision is draconian, virtually rendering it impossible for anyone to obtain bail until the completion of the trial.

The heavy footprint of a light rail

The historic term light railway was used because it dated from the British Light Railways Act 1896, although the technology used in the DLR system was at the high end of what Americans considered to be light rail.

A light rail is a symbol of modernity that would surely appeal to the vanity of a society’s establishment. What is less evident though is the cost at which it could come. These are not just the upfront costs of installing one but also the hidden environmental impact, which can vary enormously according to geography and the project’s spread. A light rail project has found favour with the Government of Kerala. It’s unique selling proposition, apparently, is that it will reduce very substantially the travel time between the two extremities of the State, namely the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram in the south and the town of Kasargod in its north. So far, the project has mostly drawn criticism from environmental groups but there are also economic considerations that must be brought to the table when judging its desirability. It may seem odd to say this as the economy is embedded in nature and we cannot ignore environmental cost. However, there are instances when the environmental impact of alternative projects is the same but the economic returns vary significantly and vice versa.

Environmental costs

What are the environmental costs of yet another rail line in Kerala? The land here is of an undulated topography combined with an often rocky surface that is prone to crumbling when dislodged. Excessive quarrying and construction have already left it vulnerable to torrential rain, as seen in the devastating landslides recorded across the State in recent years. Therefore, the first thought that comes to mind when contemplating another railway, light though it may be, is how it will impact the stability of the earth’s surface along its course. So far, we have only considered the consequences of the land use at stake. However, natural capital comprises not only the earth’s surface, and the services it renders to us, but also the ecosystem as a whole. It has been pointed out that a part of the land that

has been earmarked for acquisition for the project are wetlands, including paddy fields.

This should concern us. Paddy is the staple food of Malayalees. Its production in Kerala has been in decline for over half a century. Part of this is explained by economic factors but some part of it is due to the lack of an assured water supply. A double whammy of building over paddy fields and shrinking water bodies threatens food security. There is a recognisable pattern to the development strategy of the present government in Kerala.

Two years ago, it had dismissed protests by the villagers of Keezhattur in Kannur District against a highway project that would destroy their paddy fields. It now has a chance to listen to citizens’ concerns on the plan to install a light railway across the State, the consequences of which will be far more widespread.

Taking into account alternatives

It is not anyone’s case that the government should not develop transportation. The point is that it should take into account all alternatives. Kerala already has a railway line that is two-laned for the most part. There is an international airport in every urban conurbation. It is well connected by road, with one of the higher road densities among States. But of the highest promise are the possibilities of transportation over water. There is at present an ongoing project for transportation through inland waterways. Finally, nothing prevents the government from developing a sea-borne ferry service connecting Thiruvananthapuram with Kasargod, and all the ports in between. This would leave the land untouched.

There is an irony in the pitch for a light rail by a Communist government. In the 1950s, when it was believed that land reforms would deliver the land to them, the peasants hopefully sang “we will (one day) harvest all the fields”. Now, by their actions, the ruling class seems to be saying to the workers who installed them in power “we shall (one day) kill all the fields”. Spoken in Malayalam, the statements rhyme.

Punjab’s unprecedented power crisis

Punjab power crisis: As the temperatures have soared and it is peak season for paddy transplantation, the demand for power has touched 14,225 MW. However, but the power utility has only been able to supply 12,800 MW.

As temperatures shoot up across Punjab where paddy transplantation is also in full swing, the state is facing an acute shortage of power. Even as the agriculture sector is not getting its promised eight-hour power supply, domestic consumer have been left to sweat it out because of long power cuts. To add to this, the state owned power utility PSPCL has imposed a two-day compulsory cut on high-consumption industries to divert power for crops and domestic sector. Also, there is a ban on running of air conditioners in government offices, whose timings have already been curtailed from 8 am to 2 pm because of the shortage.

What is the power crisis in Punjab?

As the temperatures have soared and it is peak season for paddy transplantation, the demand for power has touched 14,225 MW. However, but the power utility has only been able to supply 12,800 MW. The gap of 1,425 MW has triggered power cuts of up to 14 hours in the domestic sector.

Now industries has been shut down for two days to ensure that the agriculture sector gets enough supply and the precious window of transplanting paddy is not lost. A few days ago, farmers and domestic consumers had hit the streets in protest. Industry bodies are complaining how this is the last thing they wanted in the middle of a pandemic which has badly hit all businesses.

What is the gap between demand and supply?

In 2019, the maximum demand during peak season was 13,633 MW. Every year the state records increase in demand by about 500 MW. In 2020, during the Covid lockdown it was 13,150 MW. The PSPCL failed to anticipate that this year the demand would jump to 14,500 MW and made arrangements for only 13,000 MW of supply. The gap is now too huge, leaving the government embarrassed and consumers harassed.

What has driven the power crisis in the state?

Among the first decisions taken by the present Congress government in Punjab was to shut down the government-run thermal plant in Bathinda and two units of another government thermal plant in Ropar with a combined capacity of 880 MW. After shutting down of these plants, no alternate arrangements were made to make up for the production loss.

Further, in 2018, PSPCL’s plan to install a 100-MW solar plant at Bathinda thermal plant, which could have come up within a year, was rejected by the government. Similarly, a PSPCL proposal to convert a unit of Bathinda thermal to process biomass fuel using paddy straw was also rejected.

Also a unit of private TSPL Power Plant at Talwandi Sabo has been shut since March 8 for want of repairs. The unit supplies 660 MW. Former PSPCL chairman Baldev Singh Sra says this had to be shut down because of faulty Power purchase Agreements (PPAs). “There is no provision in PPAs regarding availability of private power plants during peak season even as other states like UP and Gujarat have this. I find it surprising as the unit is shut for four months. When there will be no financial liability on the private plants, why would they expedite repairs,” asked Sra.

Why can’t Punjab purchase power?

PSPCL is facing a fund crunch. The government along owes it Rs 5,000 crore on account of agriculture subsidy and government offices owe PSPCL Rs 2,000 crore. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, during a recent power review meeting, had directed the department of finance to release Rs 500 crore to the utility for purchase power. Also, even if it bought more power, the state has a transmission capacity of only 13,000 MW and the Punjab State Transmission Corporation Limited (PSTCL) is blamed for not enhancing the transmission capacity by upgrading capacity of 400/220 KV transmission lines and ICTs.

Why has the government not made alternate arrangements?

Squarely blaming the government for lack of planning, Sra underlined that the government has not appointing a regular CMD of PSTCL since its inception in April 2010 and same is headed by IAS as additional charge. “Similarly, the CMD of PSPCL, A. Venu Prasad, who is a bright officer, is too overburdened. He holds the charge of other offices like Excise and Taxation. How do you expect him to provide time. All the crisis is a failure in planning and acting at the right time,” he said, adding that efforts to ensure dependence on private power plants is also to be blamed for the situation in the state.

Have the tough measures on consumption helped?

On Friday, the demand came down to 12,600 MW after these drastic measures. But officials and employees were fuming, especially since expensive labour has to sit idle during the period.

What is the government’s take?

PSPCL CMD A Venu Prasad blamed shortage of power on the failure of the Talwandi Sabo power plant. Also, he said, the hailstorm between June 10 and 15 had contributed to the shortage. “It took us many days to repair. At places, we are still repairing as the damage was huge.”

Prasad said that the water level was going further down in the state and more power was required to pull out water from the deep bore wells. He said the government was committed to supplying power and they had already started purchasing power from outside to tide over the crisis. The situation was already under control, he said.

Countries that allow gender self-identification, and the law in India

Self-identification, or ‘self-id’, is the concept that a person should be allowed to legally identify with the gender of their choice by simply declaring so, and without facing any medical tests.

The Spanish government on Tuesday approved the first draft of a bill that would allow anyone over the age of 14 to legally change gender without a medical diagnosis or hormone therapy, its Equality Ministry said.

The bill will now go to a public hearing, and will then come for a second reading in the national cabinet. To become law, it then has to be approved by the lower house of the Spanish parliament.

Currently, for someone to change their gender in official records, the law first requires two years of hormone therapy and a psychological evaluation. The proposed law will remove these requirements for everyone above 14 years of age. Those between 14 and 16, however, would require parental approval.

What is gender self-identification?

Self-identification, or ‘self-id’, is the concept that a person should be allowed to legally identify with the gender of their choice by simply declaring so, and without facing any medical tests. This has been a long held demand of trans-right groups around the world, including in India, as prejudice against trans people remains rampant.

In Europe, this issue has remained divisive not only on liberal-conservative lines, but also within the LGBT community, reports The Economist. While some believe that the current processes for declaring one’s desired gender are lengthy, expensive and degrading, some feminist and gay-rights groups insist that such a law could endanger women and cause more gay teenagers to be told that they might be trans and thus encouraged towards hormones and surgery.

Feminist forums that believe that sex is not something which can be chosen have insisted that allowing self-identification could put at risk all laws that specifically prevent discrimination against women, and have instead asked lawmakers to look at concerns that they say are more pressing, such as the gender pay gap.

Where is self-ID legal?

As per the advocacy group ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), 15 countries around the world recognise self-ID, including Denmark, Portugal, Norway, Malta, Argentina, Ireland, Luxembourg, Greece, Costa Rica, Mexico (only in Mexico City), Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay.

In Denmark, the law requires a six-month reflection period for formalising gender change. In Portugal, changing one’s gender for the second time requires going to court.

Italy does not allow self-ID, and neither does Germany, where last month a bill was voted down that would have legalised gender-reassignment surgery from the age of 14 regardless of opposition from parents, as well as introduced a fine of 2,500 euros for referring to a trans person based on their natal sex. In Hungary, a newly adopted law effectively bans all content about homosexuality and gender change from school curriculum and television shows for children under the age of 18.

What is the process for declaring one’s desired sex in India?

In India, the rights of transgender persons are governed by the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019 and the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Rules, 2020. Under the Rules, an application to declare gender is to be made to the District Magistrate. Parents can also make an application on behalf of their child.

A much-criticised previous draft of regulations required transgender persons to go through a medical examination for declaring their desired sex. This requirement was omitted in the final Rules, which state that the District Magistrate will “subject to the correctness of the applicant’s particulars, get the application processed based on the affidavit submitted declaring the gender identity of any person, without any medical or physical examination, and thereafter, issue an identification number to the applicant, which may be quoted as proof of application.”

As per the Rules, state governments have also been directed to constitute welfare boards for transgender persons to protect their rights and interests, and facilitate access to schemes and welfare measures framed by the Centre.

Ration card reform

The Supreme Court has directed all states and UTs to implement the One Nation, One Ration Card system.

The Supreme Court directed all states and Union Territories to implement the One Nation, One Ration Card (ONORC) system, which allows for inter- and intra-state portability, by July 31.

What is One Nation One Ration Card (ONORC)?

The ONORC scheme is aimed at enabling migrant workers and their family members to buy subsidised ration from any fair price shop anywhere in the country under the National Food Security Act, 2013.

For instance, a migrant worker from, say, Basti district of Uttar Pradesh will be able to access PDS benefits in Mumbai, where he or she may have gone in search of work. While the person can buy foodgrains as per his or her entitlement under the NFSA at the place where he or she is based, members of his or her family can still go to their ration dealer back home.

To promote this reform in the archaic Public Distribution System (PDS), the government has provided incentives to states. The Centre had even set the implementation of ONORC as a precondition for additional borrowing by states during the Covid-19 pandemic last year. At least 17 states, which implemented the ONORC reform, were allowed to borrow an additional Rs 37,600 crores in 2020-21.

How does ONORC work?

ONORC is based on technology that involves details of beneficiaries’ ration card, Aadhaar number, and electronic Points of Sale (ePoS). The system identifies a beneficiary through biometric authentication on ePoS devices at fair price shops. The system runs with the support of two portals —Integrated Management of Public Distribution System (IM-PDS) (impds.nic.in) and Annavitran (annavitran.nic.in), which host all the relevant data.

When a ration card holder goes to a fair price shop, he or she identifies himself or herself through biometric authentication on ePoS, which is matched real time with details on the Annavitaran portal. Once the ration card details are verified, the dealer hands out the beneficiary’s entitlements. While the Annavitaran portal maintains a record of intra-state transactions — inter-district and intra-district — the IM-PDS portal records the inter-state transactions.

How many people will it benefit?

Under the National Food Security Act, 2013, about 81 crore people are entitled to buy subsidised foodgrains — rice at Rs 3/kg, wheat at Rs 2/kg, and coarse grains at Re 1/kg – from designated fair price shops. As on 28 June 2021, there are about 5.46 lakh fair price shops and 23.63 crore ration card holders across the country. Each NFSA ration card holder is assigned to a fair price shop near the place where his ration card is registered.

What factors led to the launch of ONORC?

Earlier, NFSA beneficiaries were not able to access their PDS benefits outside the jurisdiction of the specific fair price shop to which they have been assigned. The government envisioned the ONORC to give them access to benefits from any fair price shop. Full coverage will be possible after 100% Aadhaar seeding of ration cards has been achieved, and all fair price shops are covered by ePoS devices (there are currently 4.74 lakh devices installed across the country).

ONORC was launched in August, 2019. Work on ration card portability, however, had begun in April 2018 itself, with the launch of the IM-PDS. The idea was to reform the PDS, which has been historically marred by inefficiency and leakages.

ONORC was initially launched as an inter-state pilot. However, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced thousands of migrant workers to return to their villages last year, a need was felt to expedite the rollout.

As part of its Covid economic relief package, the government announced the national rollout of ONORC in all states and Union Territories by March 2021.

What has been the coverage so far?

Till date, 32 states and Union Territories have joined the ONORC, covering about 69 crore NFSA beneficiaries. Four states are yet to join the scheme — Assam, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and West Bengal.

According to the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution, about 1.35 crore portability transactions every month are being recorded under ONORC on an average.

“A total of more than 27.83 Crore portability transactions (including intra-state transactions) have taken place all across these States/UTs since the inception of ONORC in August 2019, out of which almost 19.8 Crore portability transactions have been recorded during the COVID-19 period of April 2020 to May 2021 itself,” the Ministry stated on June 3.

While inter-state ration card portability is available in 32 states, the number of such transactions is much lower than that of intra-district and inter-district transactions.

Why have these four states not implemented it yet?

There are various reasons. For instance, Delhi is yet to start the use of ePoS in fair price shops, which is a prerequisite for the implementation of ONORC. In the case of West Bengal, the state government has demanded that the non-NFSA ration card holders — ration cards issued by the state government — should also be covered under the ONORC.

Roadblocks to a ‘vaccine passport’

Currently, Americans are issued a white paper card as evidence of their COVID-19 shots, but these can easily be forged, and online scammers are already selling false and stolen vaccine cards.

With all US adults now eligible for COVID-19 vaccines and businesses and international borders reopening, a fierce debate has kicked off across the United States over whether a digital health certificate (often and somewhat misleadingly called a “vaccine passport”) should be required to prove immunization status.

Currently, Americans are issued a white paper card as evidence of their COVID-19 shots, but these can easily be forged, and online scammers are already selling false and stolen vaccine cards.

While the federal government has said it will not introduce digital vaccine passports by federal mandate, a growing number of businesses — from cruise lines to sports venues — say they will require proof of vaccinations for entry or services. Hundreds of digital health pass initiatives are scrambling to launch apps that provide a verified electronic record of immunizations and negative coronavirus test results to streamline the process.

The drive has raised privacy and equity concerns, and some states like Florida and Texas have banned businesses from requiring vaccination certificates. But developers argue that the digital infrastructure is secure and will help speed up the process of reopening society and reviving travel.

Governments, technology companies, airlines and other businesses are testing different versions of the digital health passes and are trying to come up with common standards so that there is compatibility between each system and health records can be pulled in a safe and controlled format.

The process comes with great technical challenges, especially because of the sheer number of app initiatives underway. For the certificates to be useful, countries, airlines and businesses must agree on common standards and the infrastructure they use will need to be compatible. In the United States, there is an added complexity of getting individual states to share immunization data with different certificate platforms while maintaining the privacy of residents.

Here’s what we know about the current status of digital health passes and some of the roadblocks they are facing in the United States.

Can everyone get a vaccine passport?

In March, New York became the first US state to launch a digital health certificate called Excelsior Pass, which verifies a person’s negative coronavirus test result and if they are fully vaccinated.

The app and website, which has now had more than 1 million downloads, is free and voluntary for all New York residents, and provides a QR code that can be scanned or printed out to verify a person’s health data. The pass has been used by thousands of New Yorkers to enter Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden and other smaller public venues.

Most businesses require people to show their state ID along with their Excelsior Pass to prevent potential fraud.

In Israel, where more than half the population is fully vaccinated, residents must show an electronic “Green Pass” to attend places such as gyms, concerts and wedding halls and to dine indoors.

The European Union has endorsed an electronic vaccine certificate to be recognized from July 1, which a number of European countries have begun using, but each individual member country will be able to set its own rules for travel requirements. Britain has also started testing a COVID-19 certificate system that aims to help businesses reopen safely.

Some airlines including Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and Jet Blue have started to use the digital health app, Common Pass, to verify passenger COVID-19 test results before they board flights. The International Air Transport Association’s Health Pass is being used by more than 20 airlines and allows passengers to upload health credentials necessary for international travel.

Are they legal?

It depends on state regulations. The Biden administration has said there will be no federal vaccination system or mandate. Individual states hold primary public health powers in the United States and have the authority to require vaccines.

“We expect a vaccine passport, or whatever you want to call it, will be driven by the private sector,” Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said at a briefing in March. “There will be no centralized, universal federal vaccinations database and no federal mandate requiring everyone to obtain a single vaccination credential.”

In April, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas issued an executive order banning government agencies, private businesses and institutions that receive state funding from requiring people to show proof that they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, issued a similar order, saying that requiring proof of vaccination would “reduce individual freedom” and “harm patient privacy” as well as “create two classes of citizens based on vaccinations.”

But those orders may not stick.

“The governors are on shaky legal ground,” said Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “Certainly, the legislature has authority to regulate businesses in the state, and it can also preempt counties and local governments from issuing vaccine passports. But a governor, acting on his or her own, has no inherent power to regulate businesses other than through emergency or other health powers that the legislature gives them.”

Where will the information come from?

In the United States, there is no centralized federal vaccine database. Instead, the states collect that information. All states except New Hampshire have their own immunization registries, and some cities, like New York, have their own.

Currently states are required to share their registries with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the data is not public and could be withheld.

That means anyone developing a digital vaccine certificate in the United States would have to obtain immunization data from individual states, which could be problematic in states that oppose health pass initiatives.

Why are people opposed?

One of the issues is with terminology. A passport is issued by a government and certifies personal data including a person’s legal name and date of birth. Many people fear that if they are required to have one related to the coronavirus, they will be handing over personal and sensitive health data to private companies that could be stolen or used for other purposes.

“There are a whole lot of valid concerns about how privacy and technology would work with these systems, especially as Silicon Valley does not have a great history delivering technologies that are privacy enhancing,” said Brian Behlendorf, executive director of Linux Foundation Public Health, an open-source, technology-focused organization.

“And the concept of privacy here is complicated because you are ultimately trying to prove to somebody that you received something,” he said. “You aren’t keeping a secret, so the challenge is to present and prove something without creating a chain of traceability forever that might be used.”

The Linux Foundation is working with a network of technology companies called the COVID-19 Credentials Initiative to develop a set of standards for preserving privacy in the use of vaccine certificates. The main aim of the initiative is to establish a verifiable credential (much like a card in one’s wallet) that contains a set of claims about an individual but is digitally native and cryptographically secure.

Some argue that such a credential would intrude on personal freedoms and private health choices.

“‘Vaccine passports’ must be stopped,” former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, wrote in a tweet last week. “Accepting them means accepting the false idea that government owns your life, body and freedom.”

Others worry that an exclusively digital system would leave some communities behind, especially those who do not have access to smartphones or the internet.

Pulses MSP and rising prices

While the government is encouraging an increased cultivated area of pulses, barely a month back, an all-out war had begun to control its prices.

When on June 9 the Centre announced the minimum support price (MSP) of this year’s kharif season, the highest absolute increase was reported for sesame (til), urad and tur.

The oilseed had seen an increase of Rs 453/quintal rise (increasing it to Rs 7,307 from the previous Rs 6,855), while urad and tur MSPs were raised by Rs 300/quintal to their present value of Rs 6,300.

The official release, issued by the Press Information Bureau, talked about a special initiative to be undertaken in the khairf season to attain self-sufficiency in pulses, which would include free distribution of seeds.

However, while the government is going all-out to encourage increased area of pulses, barely a month back, an all-out war was started to control the prices of pulses.

Steps to control the price of pulses started towards the end of March, when the Central government announced its intent to import pulses. This is a routine affair. The country imports around 10-15 lakh tonnes of pulses like tururad and moong, and this announcement is made towards the end of April or early May with a condition that the imports have to be completed before the start of the major kharif pulses.

The early announcement, trade sources said, was an indirect effort to cool down the prices of pulses, especially tur, just before the crucial state elections. A slight correction notwithstanding, pulses like tur and chana continued to trade well above or near their MSP almost all of April as a supply demand mismatch had hiked the prices.

On May 5, the Central government again waded to control the prices and allow free import of pulses. This was a major policy shift as earlier only licensed daal millers and traders were allowed to import.

Jitu Bheda, president of the Indian Pulses and Grains Association (IPGA), welcomed the move and explained how it will enable traders to quickly import the required quantity of tur, moong and urad to fulfil the shortage of pulses.

“We are expecting minimum 250,000 tonnes of tur, 150,000 tonnes of urad and around 50,000-75,000 tonnes of moong beans to be imported primarily from Myanmar, African and the neighbouring countries,” he had said.

With retail prices of most pulses still trading above Rs 110-130/kg, soon another step was taken, which sent out shockwaves in the markets. On May 14, Anupam Mishra, joint secretary of the Ministry of Commerce, Food and Public Distribution, directed chief secretaries of all states and Union territories to ask daal millers and traders to declare available stocks with them.

The ministry had directed the state governments to verify the same. Such orders were issued under the Essential Commodities Act, 1966, an act, which the Narendra Modi-led government had amended last year.

For the daal trade, this move was the penultimate step towards the final weapon in government’s arsenal and a step away from imposition of stock limits. The prices of tur and chana had corrected immediately in wholesale markets after.

This led to protest by the industry with the Maharashtra Dal Millers’ Association writing to the Prime Minister, expressing their displeasure against it.

In their letter, the association stated the government had toiled hard to increase the acreage of pulses and the country has reaped benefit of it. “..Also lower prices on the start of the sowing season will prompt many farmers to shift to other lucrative crops like oilseeds, maize and sugarcane. This will hamper the hamper the availability in coming years. We need to keep better prices so the farmers do not move away from pulses sowing,” the letter read.

Farm activist Vijay Jawandhiya said announcing a higher MSP was no guarantee of them being realised at the farm level. The present price rise both in pulses and oilseeds was mostly due international pressures than the government intervention, he added.

“If conditions changes, the government would be in position to guarantee MSP to farmers. My grouse against the Congress announcement was that they had allowed cheap food grains to city dwellers at expense of the rural farmers. Unfortunately, the present government is doing the same,” he said.

PASIPHAE

The project has been funded by the world’s leading institutions, signalling India’s growing expertise in building complex astronomical instruments.

The mysteries surrounding the origin of the universe continue to draw human curiosity. The development of a vital instrument, which will be used in upcoming sky surveys to study stars, is being led by an Indian astronomer. The project has been funded by the world’s leading institutions, signalling India’s growing expertise in building complex astronomical instruments.

What is PASIPHAE?

Polar-Areas Stellar-Imaging in Polarisation High-Accuracy Experiment (PASIPHAE) is an international collaborative sky surveying project. Scientists aim to study the polarisation in the light coming from millions of stars.

The name is inspired from Pasiphae, the daughter of Greek Sun God Helios, who was married to King Minos.

The survey will use two high-tech optical polarimeters to observe the northern and southern skies, simultaneously.

It will focus on capturing starlight polarisation of very faint stars that are so far away that polarisation signals from there have not been systematically studied. The distances to these stars will be obtained from measurements of the GAIA satellite.

By combining these data, astronomers will perform a maiden magnetic field tomography mapping of the interstellar medium of very large areas of the sky using a novel polarimeter instrument known as WALOP (Wide Area Linear Optical Polarimeter).

Scientists from the University of Crete, Greece, Caltech, USA, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), India, the South African Astronomical Observatory and the University of Oslo, Norway, are involved in this project, steered by the Institute of Astrophysics, Greece.

The Infosys Foundation, India, Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Greece and USA’s National Science Foundation have each provided a grant of $1 million, combined with contributions from the European Research Council and the National Research Foundation in South Africa.

Why is PASIPHAE important?

Since its birth about 14 billion years ago, the universe has been constantly expanding, as evidenced by the presence of Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation which fills the universe.

Immediately after its birth, the universe went through a short inflationary phase during which it expanded at a very high rate, before it slowed down and reached the current rate. However, so far, there have only been theories and indirect evidence of inflation associated with the early universe.

A definitive consequence of the inflationary phase is that a tiny fraction of the CMB radiation should have its imprints in the form of a specific kind of polarisation (known scientifically as B-mode signal).

All previous attempts to detect this signal met with failure mainly due to the difficulty posed by our galaxy, the Milky Way, which emits copious amounts of polarised radiation.

Besides, it contains a lot of dust clouds that are present in the form of clusters. When starlight passes through these dust clouds, they get scattered and polarised.

“It is like trying to see faint stars in the sky during daytime. The galactic emission is so bright that the polarisation signal of CMB radiation is lost,” said S Maharana, a PhD student at IUCAA who is involved in this project.

The PASIPHAE survey will measure starlight polarisation over large areas of the sky. This data along with GAIA distances to the stars will help create a 3-Dimensional model of the distribution of the dust and magnetic field structure of the galaxy. Such data can help remove the galactic polarised foreground light and enable astronomers to look for the elusive B-mode signal.

What is WALOP?

Wide Area Linear Optical Polarimeter (WALOP) is an instrument, when mounted on two small optical telescopes, that will be used to detect polarised light signals emerging from the stars along high galactic latitudes.

A WALOP each will be mounted on the 1.3-metre Skinakas Observatory, Crete, and on the 1-metre telescope of the South African Astronomical Observatory located in Sutherland.

“Once built, they will be unique instruments offering the widest ever field of view of the sky in polarimetry. It will be capable of capturing images within ½ ° by ½ ° area of the sky during every exposure,” said A N Ramaprakash, senior IUCAA scientist and fellow at IA, Crete.

In simple terms, the images will simultaneously have the finest of details of a star along with its panoramic background.

WALOP will operate on the principle that at any given time, the data from a portion of the sky under observation will be split into four different channels. Depending on the manner in which light passes through the four channels, the polarisation value from the star is obtained. That is, each star will have four corresponding images which when stitched together will help calculate the desired polarisation value of a star.

As the survey will focus on sky areas where very low polarisation values (<0.5 per cent) are expected to emerge, a polarimeter with high sensitivity and accuracy clubbed with a large field of view was needed, so WALOP was planned sometime in 2013.

This was after the success of the RoboPol experiment survey during 2012-2017, in which some PASIPHAE collaborators were involved. Since then, the design, fabrication and assembly, led by Ramaprakash, is underway.

WALOP and its predecessor RoboPol share the single shot photometry principle. But the 200 kg weighing WALOP will be capable of observing hundreds of stars concurrently present both in the northern and the southern skies as opposed to RoboPol, which has a much smaller field of view in the sky.

Development of the instrument is in an advanced stage currently and progressing at the instrumentation facility in IUCAA.

Why WALOP will be deployed on 1-metre class optical telescopes?

A major limitation while using large optical telescopes is that they cover a relatively smaller area of the sky, defeating the overall purpose of PASIPHAE.

Whereas the 1-metre-class telescopes enable both larger fields of view of the sky combined with the minutest details of distant stars.

Since the sky survey will continue for four years, it will be a challenge to devote a sizable amount of observation time of any large telescope solely towards studying star polarisation.

“So, the maximum observation time offered by the smaller telescopes will be diverted for the PASIPHAE sky survey using WALOP,” added Ramaprakash, also a visiting faculty at Caltech.

The attempt to press-in the 1-metre-class telescopes is also to demonstrate that breakthrough science and challenging experiments can be undertaken using smaller telescopes, even in the era of large and extremely large telescopes.

Does the Milky Way move like a spinning top?

The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, which means that it is composed, among other components, of a disc of stars, gas and dust, in which the spiral arms are contained. At first, it was thought that t

he disc was completely flat, but for some decades now it is known that the outermost part of the disc is distorted into what is called a “warp”: in one direction it is twisted upwards, and in the opposite direction downwards. The stars, the gas, and the dust are all warped, and so are not in the same plane as the extended inner part of the disc, and an axis perpendicular to the planes of the warp defines their rotation.

In 2020, an investigation announced the detection of the precession of the warp of the Milky Way disc, which means that the deformation in this outer region is not static, but that just like a spinning top the orientation of its axis is itself rotating with time. Furthermore, these researchers found that it was quicker than the theories predicted, a cycle every 600-700 million years, some three times the time it takes the Sun to travel once round the centre of the Galaxy.
Precession is not a phenomenon which occurs only in galaxies, it also happens to our planet. As well as its annual revolution around the Sun, and its rotation period of 24 hours, the axis of the Earth precesses, which implies that the celestial pole is not always close to the present pole star, but that (as an example) 14,000 years ago it was close to the star Vega.

Now, a new study by Žofia Chrobáková and Martín López Corredoira has taken into account the variation of the amplitude of the warp with the ages of the stars. The study concludes that, using the warp of the old stars whose velocities have been measured, it is possible that the precession can disappear, or at least become slower than what is presently believed. To arrive at this result the researchers have used data from the Gaia Mission of the European Space Agency (ESA), analysing the positions and velocities of hundreds of millions of stars in the outer disc.

“In previous studies it had not been noticed,” explains Žofia Chrobáková, a predoctoral researcher at the IAC and the first author of the article, “that the stars which are a few tens of millions of years old, such as the Cepheids, have a much larger warp than that of the stars visible with the Gaia mission, which are thousands of millions of years old.”

“This does not necessarily mean that the warp does not precess at all, it could do so, but much more slowly, and we are probably unable to measure this motion until we obtain better data,” concludes Martín López Corredoira, and IAC researcher and co-author of the article.

European Space Agency’s EnVision mission to Venus

EnVision is an ESA led mission with contributions from NASA. It is likely to be launched sometime in the 2030s.

Following NASA’s footsteps, the European Space Agency (ESA) on Thursday announced that it has selected EnVision as its next orbiter that will visit Venus sometime in the 2030s. Last week, NASA selected two missions to the planet Venus, Earth’s nearest neighbour. The missions called DAVINCI+ and VERITAS have been selected based on their potential for scientific value and the feasibility of their development plans. NASA is expected to allot $500 million to each of these missions that will launch between 2028-2030.

So what is EnVision?

EnVision is an ESA led mission with contributions from NASA. It is likely to be launched sometime in the 2030s. The earliest launch opportunity for EnVision is 2031, followed by 2032 and 2033. Once launched on an Ariane 6 rocket, the spacecraft will take about 15 months to reach Venus and will take 16 more months to achieve orbit circularisation.

The spacecraft will carry a range of instruments to study the planet’s atmosphere and surface, monitor trace gases in the atmosphere and analyse its surface composition. A radar provided by NASA will help to image and map the surface

EnVision will follow another ESA-led mission to Venus called ‘Venus Express’ (2005-2014) that focussed on atmospheric research and pointed to volcanic hotspots on the planet’s surface. Other than this, Japan’s Akatsuki spacecraft has also been studying the planet’s atmosphere since 2015.

Why are scientists interested in studying Venus?

At the core of the ESA’s mission is the question of how Earth and Venus evolved so differently from each other considering that they are roughly of the same size and composition. Venus is the hottest planet in the solar system because of the heat that is trapped by its thick cloud cover.

“What history did Venus experience to arrive at this state and does this foretell Earth’s fate should it, too, undergo a catastrophic greenhouse effect? Is Venus still geologically active? Could it have once hosted an ocean and even sustained life? What lessons can be learned about the evolution of terrestrial planets in general, as we discover more Earth-like exoplanets?” these are the key questions that ESA’s mission aims to answer.

On the other hand, the results from DAVINCI+ are expected to reshape the understanding of terrestrial planet formation in the solar system and beyond. Taken together, both missions are expected to tell scientists more about the planet’s thick cloud cover and the volcanoes on its surface.

Further, scientists speculate about the existence of life on Venus in its distant past and the possibility that life may exist in the top layers of its clouds where temperatures are less extreme.

Last year, a team of scientists reported that they had found phosphine gas (a chemical produced only through biological processes) in the atmosphere of Venus that triggered excitement in the scientific community that some life forms might be supported by the planet. But the existence of life on the planet is nearly impossible given the high temperatures of Venus and its acidic atmosphere. Even so, this discovery could mean that life forms could have existed on Venus before when it was habitable. As per this theory, the discovery of phosphine could simply be remnants from the past.

About Venus

For those on Earth, Venus is the second-brightest object in the sky after the moon. It appears bright because of its thick cloud cover that reflects and scatters light. But while Venus, which is the second closest planet to the Sun, is called the Earth’s twin because of their similar sizes, the two planets have significant differences between them.

For one, the planet’s thick atmosphere traps heat and is the reason that it is the hottest planet in the solar system, despite coming after Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun. Surface temperatures on Venus can go up to 471 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to melt lead, NASA notes.

Further, Venus moves forward on its orbit around the Sun but spins backwards around its axis slowly. This means on Venus the Sun rises in the west and sets in the East. One day on Venus is equivalent to 243 Earth days because of its backward spinning, opposite to that of the Earth’s and most other planets. Venus also does not have a moon and no rings.

Have humans visited Venus?

Because of the planet’s harsh environment, no humans have visited it and even the spacecraft that have been sent to the planet have not survived for a very long time. “Venus’ high surface temperatures overheat electronics in spacecraft in a short time, so it seems unlikely that a person could survive for long on the Venusian surface,” NASA says.

So far, spacecraft from several nations have visited the planet. The first such spacecraft was the Soviet Union’s Venera series (the spacecraft, however, could not survive for long because of the planet’s harsh conditions), followed by NASA’s Magellan Mission that studied Venus from 1990-1994. As of now, Japan’s Akatsuki mission is studying the planet from Orbit.

Which missions did NASA announce?

Both missions called DAVINCI+ and VERITAS are part of the space agency’s Discovery Program, which began in 1992 to give scientists the chance to launch some missions that use fewer resources and have shorter developmental times. The two selections are a part of the ninth Discovery Program and were made from proposals submitted in 2019.

What do these missions plan to achieve?

DAVINCI+ is short for ‘Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging’ and is the first US-led mission to the planet’s atmosphere since 1978. It will try to understand Venus’ composition to see how the planet formed and evolved. This mission also consists of a descent sphere that will pass through the planet’s thick atmosphere and make observations and take measurements of noble gases and other elements.

Significantly, this mission will also try to return the first high resolution photographs of a geological feature that is unique to Venus. This feature, which is called “tesserae” may be comparable to Earth’s continents, NASA says. The presence of tesseraes may suggest that Venus has tectonic plates like Earth.

The second mission called VERITAS is short for ‘Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy’ and will map the planet’s surface to determine its geologic history and understand the reasons why it developed so differently from Earth.

VERITAS will orbit Venus with a radar that will help to create a three dimensional reconstruction of its topography which might be able to tell scientists if processes such as plate tectonics and volcanism are still active there. This mission will also map the emissions from Venus’s surface that may help in determining the type of rocks that exist on Venus–a piece of information that is not exactly known yet. It will also determine if active volcanoes are releasing water vapour into the atmosphere.

Sardar Sarovar Dam providing irrigation water in summer

The Sardar Sarovar Narmada Dam is a terminal dam built on the Narmada river at Kevadia in Gujarat’s Narmada district. Called the ‘lifeline of Gujarat’, it usually has no water for irrigation during summers. However, this year, in the ongoing summer, the dam released about 1.3 Million Acre Feet (MAF) water for irrigation between April 1 and May 31 in its command area of 21.29 lakh hectares.

And for the first time in the history of the dam, as many as 35 dams and reservoirs, close to 1,200 check dams and 1000 village tanks have been filled with Narmada water this year, according to the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL).

The status as on date

As of June 3, the dam had 122.72 metres with live storage of 1,711 million cubic metres. With an inflow of about 15,000 cusecs, the total outflow from the dam is at around 43000 cusecs —of which 12,965 cusecs is being released after generation of power from the Canal Head Power House and 30,361 cusecs from the Riverbed Powerhouse.

River Narmada is a classic case of Integrated River Basin Planning, Development, and Management, with water storage available in all major, medium, and minor dams on the main river and its tributaries, shared amongst four party states – Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra — in the ratio stipulated by the 1979 award of the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal.

Out of the 28 MAF capacity of Narmada basin, Gujarat has been awarded a share of 9 MAF, while Madhya Pradesh has 18.25 MAF, Rajasthan 0.50 MAF, and Maharashtra 0.25 MAF. The power benefits from the project are to be shared thus: Madhya Pradesh at 57 per cent, Maharashtra at 27 per cent, and Gujarat at 16 per cent.

In 2017, the dam was raised to a height of 138.68 meters (spillway level until 2017 was 121.92 meters) and 30 gates were installed. The dam achieved its Full Reservoir Level (FRL) for the first time in 2019. It also attained FRL in the monsoon of 2020 but SSNNL officials say that the live (utilisable) water storage capacity of Sardar Sarovar Dam does not even make up for 50 per cent of the annual water needs of the party states and, therefore, the water management at Sardar Sarovar becomes critically dependent on the regulated releases from the upstream reservoirs in Madhya Pradesh, where hydropower generation ensures water inflow from time to time.

The water management initiatives that helped harness water

During the monsoon from July to October, the reservoir operation is well synchronised with the rain forecast in the catchment area. The strategic operation of River Bed Power House (RPBH) ensures that minimum water flows downstream into the sea and maximum water is used during the dam overflow period, which is not calculated in the annual water share. These measures help in maximizing the annual allocation of water share. Similarly, in non-monsoon months, the measures for efficient use of the allocated share typically include minimising the conventional and operational losses, avoiding water wastage, restricting water-intensive perennial crops, adopting of Underground Pipelines (UGPL); proper maintenance of canals and structures and operation of canals on a rotational basis. In SSP, about 60 per cent of canals constructed so far are UGPL.

How has Full Reservoir Level (FRL) helped?

Although the Sardar Sarovar Dam, after attaining its full height, was inaugurated in September 2017, it could not be filled up to the FRL of 138.68 meters in 2017 and 2018 due to monsoon deficit. However, good rainfall in the catchment in 2019 and 2020, ensured that it achieved FRL for two consecutive years. “The live storage capacity of the Sardar Sarovar Dam increased by 3.7 times after the permission to close the gates was received in 2017. Its real benefit is realised now with the dam filled upto FRL for two consecutive years,” an SSNNL official said.

The annual share allocated to Gujarat during the last two water years was 8.86 MAF (million acre-feet) in 2019 and 10.08 MAF in 2020, respectively. “However, in 2019-20, reservoir operation and water management were constrained a lot because it was the first time that the dam was to be filled to full capacity and stringent safety considerations were to be followed in order to check the strength of the structure for the first time,” the official added.

Has the Covid-19 lockdown helped in preserving water in the basin?

The industrial consumption of the water from the Narmada dam is very less as compared to other uses. “Out of the 9 MAF awarded to Gujarat, the water quantity earmarked for industrial use is only 0.2 MAF, which is roughly only 2 per cent. The present utilisation of water by the industries is 0.07 per cent MAF even during full operational years in normal times. Therefore, the lockdown or partial closure of industries has not impacted the storage levels much,” the SSNNL official says.

How would the summer level of over 121 meters of the dam reservoir help in the functioning of the powerhouses during the next water year, beginning on July 1?

A water year is counted from July 1 to June 30. “A comfortable water level at the beginning of monsoon can definitely lead to higher hydropower generation during non-summer months as we have experienced during the last two years. In the water year 2019-20, 4784 MU (million units) of hydropower was generated and in the current year 2833 MU are generated so far with June to go. It is noteworthy here that in a single month of September 2019, 988 MU were generated, and at present also, four turbines of RBPH (river bed power house) are in operation. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are getting 57 per cent and 27 per cent share respectively,” the SSNNL official said, adding, “However, considering the limited storage capacity available at Sardar Sarovar Powerhouse and the requirements of the party states, it is not possible to forecast the scenario of the hydro power generation for the next water year as much will depend on the coming monsoon.”

Does the Garudeshwar Weir, located 12 km downstream from Narmada dam, help in maintaining water level in dam reservoir?

The RBPH discharges almost 42,000 cusec at its peak operation phase, which would be wasted by getting drained downstream into the river and eventually going into the sea. The 200 meter wide and 32.75 meter high Garudeshwar Weir can contain 850 lakh square meter water that is released downstream after hydro power generation at the underground RBPH, stationed 165 meters from the dam, on the right bank of the river. The RBPH has six Francis-type reversible turbines, each of 200 MW installed capacity, to recycle this water stored in the Weir during non-peak hours of the grid because the power consumption per minute of reversing the water back from the Weir is more than the per unit generation capacity. While the Garudeshwar Weir does not directly help in maintaining the water level in the main dam, the storage of water after the generation of hydropower is of help in the non-monsoon season. This water stored in the Weir also helps maintain a water level in the river around the Statue of Unity, where there is a ferry service called the Ekta Cruise.

How is the dam spillway operated to maximize storage in the dam reservoir and mitigate the risk of flood as seen in 2020?

The SSNNL explains that the operation of Dam Spillway Gates is a specialized and complex issue, involving domain expertise and experience in hydrology, flood routing, and hydraulics. “It is about striking a balance between the safety of the dam as well as the population and environment located downstream and the likelihood of having scarce water storage. The dam has to have an adequate flood absorption capacity by maintaining cushion levels and must also harness the available flood water in order to ensure that there is no water scarcity. Ideally, as a general guideline, a major dam should not be filled more than 60 per cent as of July 31, more than 75 per cent on August 31, and more than 85 per cent on September 15. Therefore, excess flood water received after attaining these levels is allowed to flow downstream by opening the gates. Each spillway gate level is decided after duly considering the storage and flood absorption capacity in the upstream dams, the rain forecast, flood conveyance capacity of the river in downstream, and balancing hydropower generation with power grid requirements,” SSNNL says

The ‘sea snot’ outbreak in Turkey, and its effect on the marine ecosystem

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said considerable steps will be taken to solve the problem and protect the country’s seas. But what is ‘sea snot’ and how did it cause the present crisis?

There has been growing environmental concern in Turkey over the accumulation of ‘sea snot’, a slimy layer of grey or green sludge in the country’s seas, which can cause considerable damage to the marine ecosystem.

Turkey’s Sea of Marmara, that connects the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea, has witnessed the largest outbreak of ‘sea snot’. The sludge has also been spotted in the adjoining Black and Aegean seas.

As the slimy layer spreads across the country’s seas, there are urgent calls now to tackle the crisis.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said considerable steps will be taken to solve the problem and protect the country’s seas.

What is causing ‘sea snot’ in the seas of Turkey?

‘Sea snot’ is marine mucilage that is formed when algae are overloaded with nutrients as a result of water pollution combined with the effects of climate change. The nutrient overload occurs when algae feast on warm weather caused by global warming. Water pollution adds to the problem.

Environmental experts have said that overproduction of phytoplankton caused by climate change and the uncontrolled dumping of household and industrial waste into the seas has led to the present crisis.

The thick slimy layer of organic matter, which looks like a viscous, brown and foamy substance, has spread through the sea south of Istanbul and also blanketed harbours and shorelines.

Erdogan has said dumping of sewage in the sea along with rising temperatures is causing the crisis. He has blamed the outbreak on discharge of untreated water from cities like Istanbul, which is home to 16 million people, into the seas.

A ‘sea snot’ outbreak was first recorded in the country in 2007. Back then, it was also spotted in the Aegean Sea near Greece. But the current outbreak in the Sea of Marmara is by far the biggest in the country’s history.

How badly can the crisis affect the marine ecosystem?

The growth of the mucilage, which floats up on the surface of the sea like a brown phlegm, is posing a severe threat to the marine ecosystem of the country. Divers have said that it has caused mass deaths among the fish population, and also killed other aquatic organisms such as corals and sponges.

The mucilage is now covering the surface of the sea and has also spread to 80-100 feet below the surface. If unchecked, this can collapse to the bottom and cover the sea floor, causing major damage to the marine ecosystem.

Over a period of time, it could end up poisoning all aquatic life, including fishes, crabs, oysters, mussels and sea stars.

Besides aquatic life, the ‘sea snot’ outbreak has also affected the livelihoods of fishermen. They have said that the sludge is getting collected in their nets, making them so heavy that they break or get lost. Moreover, the mucilage coating the strings make the nets visible to fish and keep them away.

Some fishermen have also pointed out that the problem has already existed for a long time and aquatic life was getting poisoned by the dumping of waste and global warming. Over the years, their catch has considerably reduced and there have been less fish in the sea. This has compounded the economic crisis for fishermen.

Some experts have also warned that the ‘sea snot’ can cause an outbreak of water-borne diseases such as cholera in cities like Istanbul.

Ecologists said that the brown mucilage floating in the seas of Turkey is a sign of how the marine ecosystem can be damaged and the effect it can have on the environment as a whole if serious steps are not taken to tackle the twin crisis of pollution and global warming.

What steps are being taken by Turkey to solve the crisis?

President Erdogan has said steps will be taken to “save our seas from this mucilage calamity, leading with the Marmara Sea”. “My fear is, if this expands to Black Sea… the trouble will be enormous. We need to take this step without delay,”

Turkey’s environment minister Murat Kurum said the entire Sea of Marmara will be turned into a protected area. Moreover, steps are being taken to reduce pollution and improve treatment of waste water from coastal cities and ships.

“Hopefully, together we will protect our Marmara within the framework of a disaster management plan. We will take all the necessary steps within three years and realise the projects that will save not only the present but also the future together,

He also said Turkey’s biggest maritime clean-up operation is being launched on Tuesday, and called on local residents, artists and NGOs to join hands to extend assistance. He further said that Turkey has planned to reduce nitrogen levels in the sea by 40%, which would help tackle the crisis.

However, not everyone is convinced, especially after Erdogan’s ruling coalition rejected a proposal from the main opposition CHP party to set up a parliamentary committee to investigate the “sea snot” crisis.

Ali Oztunc, a lawmaker from CHP, has called on the Erdogan government to approve the Paris Agreement on climate change which aims to cut down on carbon emissions and reduce global temperatures.

“The Sea of Marmara is an inland sea but, unfortunately, it is becoming an inland desert because of the wrong environmental policies,” he told AFP, adding that the government should impose strong penalties on waste disposal facilities that fail to follow the rules.

Mustafa Sari, dean of Bandırma Onyedi Eylül University’s marine faculty, told Al Jazeera that he had warned about the crisis more than a year ago but nothing was done. He pointed out that untreated waste and agricultural runoff have been poured straight into the sea for decades. “For 40 years, it’s been done wrong. There is not one specific cause of this but many problems. Everyone is to blame. This is a last warning that we must do something about it,” he said.

There have also been growing concerns over President Erdogan’s $15bn Istanbul canal mega-project, which aims to dig a nearly 17 km channel between the Black and Marmara seas. Ecologists have argued that the move could seriously damage an already ailing marine ecosystem.

Rural India played the economy’s ‘saviour’ in 2020-21. Can it do so again?

The economy saw its worst-ever contraction in 2020-21, but the farm sector actually grew by 3.6%. In the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, farmers face new challenges and uncertainties.

2020-21 saw the Indian economy register its worst-ever contraction since Independence and also the first since 1979-80. The National Statistical Office has, in its Provisional Estimates released on May 31, pegged the growth in real gross value added at basic prices (previously known as GDP at factor cost) for 2020-21 at minus 6.2%. But what’s unusual this time is that the farm sector (agriculture, forestry & fishing) has grown by 3.6%. As the chart below shows, there have been four instances of negative GDP growth earlier: 1979-80, 1972-73, 1965-66 and 1957-58. All four were drought years, with agricultural de-growth surpassing that of overall GDP in each of them. 2020-21 has been different. There has been record economic contraction, yet no drought; the farm sector actually grew by 3.6%.

There are two main reasons why agriculture didn’t suffer the fate of the rest of the economy last year.

The first is the monsoon.

All-India rainfall during the southwest monsoon season (June-September) was 788.5 mm in 1957, 709.3 mm in 1965, 652.8 mm in 1972, and 707.7 mm in 1979, way below the long period average of 880.6 mm. 2019 and 2020, by contrast, were above-normal monsoon years, with the country receiving an area-weighted rainfall of 971.8 mm and 961.4 mm for the corresponding June-September periods, respectively. The rains were good not just in the main monsoon, but also the post-monsoon (October-December), winter (January-February) and pre-monsoon (March-May) seasons of 2019 and 2020. It led to the filling of reservoirs and recharging of groundwater tables and aquifers, unlike after the deficient monsoons of 2014 and 2015 and the near-deficient one of 2018. Not surprisingly, 2019-20 and 2020-21 produced back-to-back bumper harvests.

The second reason had to do with agriculture being exempted from the nationwide lockdown that followed the first wave of Covid-19.

The Home Ministry’s initial guidelines of May 24-25, 2020 only spared PDS ration shops and other stores selling food, groceries, fruits & vegetables, milk, meat and fish, animal fodder, seeds and pesticides. But within days, on May 27, an addendum was issued, extending the lifting of curbs to fertiliser outlets, all field operations by farmers and farm workers, intra- and inter-state movement of agricultural machinery, sale of produce in wholesale mandis and procurement by government agencies.

The conscious policy call taken to permit agriculture-related activities — and, of course, the inherent resilience and adaptability of rural economic actors — meant that the farm sector was relatively insulated from lockdown-imposed supply-side restrictions. This is clear from all-India retail sales of fertilizers touching 677.02 lakh tonnes (lt) in 2020-21, a sharp jump from the 617.10 lt and 575.69 lt of the preceding two years. It is further corroborated by official sowing data: Total crop acreage in 2020-21 was higher compared to the previous year both during the kharif (from 1,053.52 lakh hectares to 1,113.63 lh) as well as rabi (from 665.59 lh to 684.59 lh) seasons. Simply put, farmers made sure they did not waste a good monsoon, finding ways to even mobilize harvesting and planting labour during peak lockdown.

The problems agriculture encountered due to the lockdown had more to do with the demand side. The closure of hotels, restaurants, roadside eateries, sweetmeat shops, hostels and canteens — and no wedding receptions and other public functions — resulted in a collapse of out-of-home consumption. This was demand destruction not from rising prices — “movement along the demand curve”. Instead, it was from forced consumption reduction, translating into lower demand for farm produce even at the same price — “a leftward shift in the demand curve”

The Narendra Modi government sought to partly address the demand-side problem through enhanced state crop procurement. The minimum support price (MSP) value of such purchases of wheat, rapeseed-mustard, chana (chickpea), tur (pigeon-pea), paddy and cotton amounted to roughly Rs 130,000 crore during April-July 2020. Together with nearly Rs 21,000 crore of first-installment direct transfers to farmer accounts under the PM-Kisan scheme, it added up to over Rs 1.5 lakh crore of liquidity infusion into the agricultural economy. One must emphasize that MSP procurement was effective largely in crops and regions where the institutions undertaking such operations — be it the Food Corporation of India, NAFED, Cotton Corporation of India or even cooperative dairies — were active and could stem price declines during the period of demand destruction from late-March till July. Such intervention wasn’t possible in non-mainstream produce (vegetables, fruits, poultry, fish, flowers, spices, etc) and regions (maize in Bihar), where the corresponding institutional mechanisms were non-existent.

The demand situation improved, though, with the gradual lifting of lockdown restrictions and also the recovery in global agri-commodity prices. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s food price index had plunged to a four-year low in May 2020, following synchronous worldwide lockdowns to contain the spread of the novel corona virus. But as economies unlocked, prices started rising from around August and the index hit an 83-month-high in April 2021

The benefits of price recovery were really felt during the marketing of the 2020-21 rabi crop, which was a bumper one like that harvested during last year’s lockdown. But this time round, many farmers also realized good prices. The average price of mustard in mandis, according to the official Agmarknet portal, was Rs 5,696.43 per quintal in April 2021, as against Rs 4,492.71 for the same month last year and the government’s MSP of Rs 4,650. It was the same for chana: Rs 5,173.33 versus Rs 4,404.68 and the MSP of Rs 5,100 per quintal. For the first time during the Modi government’s tenure, farmers experienced a Goldilocks moment — of neither drought (like in 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2018-19) nor low prices (2016-17 and 2019-20). Both production and prices were “just right”. Even government wheat and paddy procurement, at 40.5 million tonnes (mt) and 79 mt, respectively so far, has already crossed last year’s all-time-highs.

The effects of good monsoon, lockdown exemptions, stepped-up government procurement, and better price realizations were also borne out by domestic tractor sales. At almost 9 lakh units in 2020-21, these, like with fertilizers, were the highest ever for any single year (see chart below). Farm inputs apart, industries such as FMCG and cement, too, seemingly rode high on rural demand.

While agriculture grew amid an unprecedented economic contraction, 2020-21 was also notable for the record 389.35 crore person-days of employment generated under MGNREGA. With a total spend of Rs 111,207.77 crore, Rs 77,921.25 crore in wages alone, this flagship employment scheme was yet another source of liquidity infusion and, again, a pre-existing programme that the government could deploy to support rural incomes during a crisis. Rural consumption, in turn, provided some cushion to the economy and preventing a bad situation from turning much worse.

The question to ask: Can the above story — of rural playing “saviour” — be repeated in 2021-22?

The one obvious difference between now and last year is Covid-19 cases. Rural areas were mostly unaffected by the pandemic’s first wave. Farm-related activities could, then, go on relatively unhindered, which government policy, whether to do with lockdown or public procurement, also facilitated. That situation has changed with the second wave and rising share of rural districts in total cases, even without factoring in the higher probability of underreporting in these places. Covid’s impact on agriculture per se would depend on the spread, intensity and duration of the infection. Given that the main kharif planting season will take off only after mid-June with the arrival of the monsoon rains, a reduction in the active caseload by then can help avert significant operational disruptions. While fear of the virus may induce precautionary behaviour and postponement of purchases of tractors, two-wheelers or white goods, it is unlikely to affect normal agricultural operations. And if last year’s experience is any guide, the adaptability of farmers and myriad rural economic agents should not be underestimated.

The second factor to be considered is the monsoon. The India Meteorological Department, in its latest June 1 update, has forecast a 74% probability of rainfall during the current season being “normal”, “above-normal” or “excess”. The good news this time is that there is no El Niño — the abnormal warming of the tropical central and eastern Pacific Ocean surface waters, resulting in increased evaporation and cloud-formation activity around South America and away from Asia. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted a 67% chance of “neutral” El Niño-Southern Oscillation conditions prevailing through June-August. It has further pointed to increasing chances of a La Niña — El Niño’s counterpart that is associated with above-normal rains and lower temperatures in India — for the autumn and winter months. That augurs well for the next rabi crop too.

It is necessary, however, to note that not every drought or poor-rainfall year (notably 2012 and 2014) has had El Niño, just as 2019 recorded a “strong” El Niño event and yet turned out the wettest-ever year in a quarter of a century. Besides, the monsoon is also influenced by the so-called Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD): A “negative” IOD — wherein the eastern Indian Ocean waters off Indonesia and Australia become unusually warm relative to the western tropical part — is seen as detrimental to rains in India. The IOD is currently “neutral”, but some global models are indicating the possibility of negative conditions developing during the monsoon months. That, along with unseasonal summer showers upsetting the normal heating pattern over the Indian landmass necessary for formation of low-pressure areas (rainfall has been 74% surplus this May), should temper the optimism vis-à-vis El Niño.

A third source of uncertainty is prices. Global prices — be it of wheat, maize, soyabean, palm oil, sugar, skimmed milk powder or cotton — have scaled multi-year highs in the recent period, helping India’s agri-commodity exports in 2020-21 to recover to near their peak 2013-14 levels

But can export demand alone sustain prices, especially in a scenario where job and income losses, accelerated post the pandemic, have severely dented domestic purchasing power? Moreover, even the benefits reaped by farmers from improved prices in many crops since October-November have been significantly eroded by rising input costs. Diesel prices alone have gone up by over a third in the last one year; so have that of most non-urea fertilizers.

Beyond 2021-22, the real challenge for Indian agriculture and farmers will be on the demand side. That is specifically going to come from declining real incomes and particularly affecting demand for milk, pulses, egg, meat, fruits, vegetables and other protein/micronutrient-rich foods. While rising rural wages and overall incomes is what propelled the demand for these foods in the past — in turn, contributing to dietary and cropping diversification — the ongoing slide presents a frightening proposition. This is a topic deserving separate analysis.

चक्रवात ताऊ ते (Tauktae)

अत्यंत गंभीर चक्रवाती तूफान ताऊ ते अरब सागर में एक शक्तिशाली उष्णकटिबंधीय चक्रवात है। जो 1998 के गुजरात चक्रवात के बाद से भारतीय राज्य गुजरात में लैंडफॉल बनाने वाला सबसे मजबूत उष्णकटिबंधीय चक्रवात बन  गया

चक्रवात तौके का क्या मतलब है?

चक्रवात Tauktae (Tau’Te के रूप में उच्चारित) को इसका नाम भारत के पड़ोसी देश म्यांमार से मिला है, जिसका अर्थ है “गेको”। गेको बर्मी बोली में एक अत्यधिक मुखर छिपकली है

चक्रवातों के नाम कैसे रखे जाते हैं?

विश्व मौसम विज्ञान संगठन (डब्ल्यूएमओ), संयुक्त राष्ट्र आर्थिक और सामाजिक आयोग एशिया और प्रशांत जैसे वैश्विक निकाय चक्रवातों को नाम देते हैं। इसके अलावा, क्षेत्रीय विशिष्ट मौसम विज्ञान केंद्र (आरएसएमसी), साथ ही उष्णकटिबंधीय चक्रवात चेतावनी केंद्र भी चक्रवातों के नाम तैयार करते हैं।

चक्रवातों का नाम क्यों रखा जाता है?चक्रवातों का नाम लोगों के लिए तूफानों को याद रखना और उनकी पहचान करना आसान बनाने के लिए रखा जाता है । एक नाम के साथ, जागरूकता पैदा करना और अलर्ट भेजना और एक क्षेत्र में कई चक्रवाती सिस्टम होने पर भ्रम को दूर करना आसान है। अगले चक्रवात का नाम क्या होगा?अगले चक्रवात को ‘यस’ कहा जाएगा, एक नाम ओमान ने दिया था। उसके बाद चक्रवात ‘गुलाब’ क्षेत्र में दस्तक देगा। पाकिस्तान ने चक्रवात गुलाब का नाम सुझाया है। आईएमडी के अनुसार, आने वाले महीनों में इस क्षेत्र में आने वाले चक्रवातों में शाहीन (कतर द्वारा दिया गया नाम), जवाद (सऊदी अरब द्वारा दिया गया नाम), आसनी (श्रीलंका द्वारा सुझाया गया नाम), सीतांग शामिल हैं। थाईलैंड द्वारा सुझाया गया एक नाम), मैंडौस (यूएई द्वारा सुझाया गया नाम), और मोचा (यमन द्वारा सुझाया गया नाम)।

Centre bypassing political executive in the states

Centre to work in coordination with states

Wielding power at the Centre comes with great responsibility. A major responsibility in a federal country with strong centralising features is to maintain the balance, as well as mutual respect, between political structures at the central and State levels. In particular, it is an obligation of the Centre to refrain from bypassing the elected leadership while dealing with States.

Centre giving direct instructions to State officials

Two recent developments have raised concern that the Centre wants to give instructions to officials functioning under elected State regimes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has held two virtual meetings with district magistrates and State officials to review the COVID-19 situation.

Union Education Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal held a virtual meeting to discuss the National Education Policy, and related matters such as the conduct of Class XII examinations with State Secretaries in charge of education. While such meetings may help the Prime Minister or any Union Minister get some feedback from the field across India, it is quite unusual for leaders in the central political executive to bypass their counterparts in the States. The Tamil Nadu Minister for School Education, Anbil Mahesh Poyyamozhi, took the right stand by not deputing any official to represent the State in Mr. Pokhriyal’s virtual interaction. The idea was not to boycott the meeting, but to say the Minister ought to have been included in a discussion on the NEP.

No precedent

The Prime Minister addressing district magistrates, or collectors, does have a precedent.

Rajiv Gandhi addressed the heads of the district administration in Uttar Pradesh, when it was under Congress rule, on the issue of Panchayati Raj. The defence then was that such direct interactions were permissible under the Constitution, citing Articles 256 and 257.

These provisions stipulate that the States are obliged to comply with laws made by Parliament and also allow some directions from the Union government. If the Prime Minister belongs to one party, and the officials addressed are from a State run by another, there is bound to be resentment that the elected representatives of the State are being bypassed. In the present case, it is true that the Centre has a major role in the pandemic response. The Disaster Management Act has been invoked to specify guidelines on lockdowns, restrictions and relaxations and to ensure smooth medical supplies. However, it would be in the larger interest of the country if events and discussions are held in such a way that the political structures at the State are not seen to be undermined. There ought to be no scope for complaints, such as the one made by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, that Chief Ministers felt humiliated when all of them were not allowed to speak to the PM in a virtual interaction.

China’s ‘Zhurong’ rover, set to explore Mars

The spacecraft’s impressive descent to the surface of Mars is a major milestone in China’s growing ambition to position itself as a “great space power”

China’s uncrewed ‘Tianwen-1’ spacecraft landed safely on the surface of Mars on Saturday, making the country only the second in the world to send a rover to explore the mysterious Red Planet. Onboard the lander was the ‘Zhurong’ rover, which will soon be deployed to study the Martian atmosphere and geology.

The Chinese spacecraft landed on a large plain located in the northern hemisphere of Mars, known as Utopia Planitia, according to state media reports. Congratulating the team behind the mission, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “You were brave enough for the challenge, pursued excellence and placed our country in the advanced ranks of planetary exploration.”

The spacecraft’s impressive descent to the surface of Mars is a major milestone in China’s growing ambition to position itself as a “great space power”, as Jinping said earlier this year.

What is China’s Mars mission?

Launched by the China National Space Administration from southern China in July 2020, the Tianwent-1 mission consists of an orbiter, a lander and a golf cart-sized rover called ‘Zhurong’, after an ancient fire god from Chinese folk tales.

The spacecraft arrived in Mars’ orbit in February this year. The mission aims to make full use of the window that emerges once every two years, when Earth and Mars are closest together during their journey around the sun.

Chinese scientists are hoping to explore Mars and study its geology for at least 90 days via the rover.

What do we know about the ‘Zhurong’ rover?

The ‘Zhurong’ rover will not immediately be offloaded from the lander. The probe will first survey the Utopia plane and take several high-resolution images to locate the safest spot to put the rover down. The aim is to find a stretch of land devoid of craters or large boulders.

After a few days, the rover will roll off the lander and join the US’ Perseverance and Curiosity rovers to explore the surface of the Red Planet.

Weighing about 240 kilograms, the ‘Zhurong’ rover is slightly heavier than NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but only one-fourth the weight of Perseverance and Curiosity, according to the New York Times.

The Chinese rover is powered by retractable solar panels and fitted with seven primary instruments — cameras, ground-penetrating radar, a magnetic field detector and a weather station. The purpose of the radar is to look for signs of ancient life as well as subsurface water.

How did the rover land on Mars?

Landing on Mars is no easy feat. After orbiting around the Red Planet for about three months preparing for a safe landing attempt, the lander carrying the rover separated from the orbiter and descended towards the surface of Mars. The target was to land on Utopia Planitia — which is also where NASA’s Viking-2 touched down in 1976.

If ‘Zhurong’ is deployed without a hitch, China will become the first country to successfully orbit, land and offload a rover during its maiden Mars mission.

Which other countries have managed to send rovers to Mars?

Apart from China, only the United States has been able to deploy rovers to study the surface of the Red Planet. The first successful landing was made by NASA in July 1976, when the Viking 1 rover touched down on Mars. Shortly after that, Viking 2 arrived on the Red Planet. In the decades that followed, the US successfully sent the Opportunity and Spirit rovers to explore Mars.

In 1971, the former Soviet Union managed to launch a Mars probe, however, communication was lost within seconds of it landing.

Most recently, in February this year, NASA’s Perseverance rover landed at the Jezero Crater on the Red Planet, after which it resumed work to look for signs of past life.

The vast plain, measuring over 3,000 km across, was formed by an impact very early in the history of Mars, according to the BBC. Satellite findings have indicated that a significant amount of ice is stored deep beneath Utopia’s surface.

China Space News said there was “nine minutes of terror” as the landing module entered the Martian atmosphere, decelerating and gradually descending to the surface. During the descent, the rover was covered with an aeroshell for the initial phase. The speed of the capsule was lowered after it started pushing up against Martian air. At a predetermined point, a parachute was released to reduce the capsule’s velocity even further.

Soon after which, China’s Xinhua news agency declared: “China has left a footprint on Mars for the first time, an important step for our country’s space exploration.”

This is not the first time China has attempted to send a spacecraft to Mars. Nearly ten years ago, the country launched the Yinghuo-1 mission, which ultimately failed after the spacecraft burnt while still in the Earth’s atmosphere after the Russian rocket that was carrying it failed in flight.

 

How a US pipeline came under a cyberattack, how it impacts oil prices

A ransomware attack on a key US pipeline network has led to a disruption in fuel supplies in the eastern part of the United States. Colonial Pipeline Company, which transports about 45 per cent of all petrol and diesel consumed on the east coast of the US was forced to shut down operations after a cyberattack on May 7.

The shutdown led to the US federal government declaring a regional emergency to allow transportation of fuels through tanker trucks to tide over the impact of shortages. What kind of attack was this, and how did it impact oil prices?

What is a ransomware attack?

A ransomware attack is a cyber-attack using malware that encrypts the victim’s files and requires users pay a ransom to decrypt the files.

According to experts, with companies having moved to real-time backups, hackers have, as in the case of the Colonial Pipeline attack, also added the element of downloading all the data on an enterprise network before encrypting it. The hackers can then threaten to leak the data if the ransom is not paid. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed on Monday that a criminal gang called Darkside was responsible for compromising the Colonial Pipeline network.

How did this attack impact oil prices?

Oil prices rose in response to the attack on Colonial Pipeline, with the price of Brent crude rising to $69 per barrel on Monday before falling to $67.8 on Tuesday.

The Colonial Pipeline company has said that it is restoring operations in a phased manner with the goal of “substantially restoring operations” by the end of the week.

Experts noted that a prolonged shutdown of the operations of the pipeline could push up petrol prices in the US as demand peaks during the summer. The disruption has already led to an uptick in international refining margins, pushing up the price of auto fuels. An increase in the price of petroleum products in Asia could provide a further push to petrol and diesel prices in India, which are already at record high levels. Crude oil prices have risen over the past fortnight despite a surge in Covid-19 infections in Asia due to expectations of increasing crude oil demand from the US and Europe.

How can oil and gas companies deal with such attacks?

Experts noted that there was a need to move towards fortifying approaches to prevent attacks including employing a zero-trust security framework in enterprise networks. “A zero-trust approach means anything is suspected whenever any activity is done on the network, and every user, including the CEO, will have to be verified time and again,” said a cybersecurity consultant who did not wish to be named. This expert added that other measures such as Cloud Access Security Brokers (CPAB), which act as intermediaries between users and cloud service providers, could “give teeth” to an overall cybersecurity strategy.

The expert noted that India’s oil and gas PSUs were making efforts to beef up security, and that organisations managing critical infrastructure such as pipelines and refineries were required by the government to implement certain security measures.

The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas did not respond to emailed requests for comment on the vulnerability of critical oil and gas infrastructure to cyber attacks.

Existing reservation quota limit of the Indian states

Reservation in India is provided to Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) at the rate of 15%, 7.5% and 27%, respectively, in case of direct recruitment on all India basis by open competition.

The Supreme Court on May 5 struck down the Maharashtra government’s decision to exceed 50 per cent reservation for the Maratha community in education and jobs. The court said the Maratha community was not Educationally and Socially Backward Category (ESBC).

The court said, “The 2018 Maharashtra state law violates the right to equality. We won’t re-examine the 1992 verdict which capped reservation at 50%.”

As per existing instructions, reservation is provided to Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) at the rate of 15%, 7.5% and 27%, respectively, in case of direct recruitment on all India basis by open competition. In direct recruitment on all India basis, other than by open competition, the percentage fixed is 16.66% for SCs, 7.5% for STs and 25.84% for OBCs.

10% reservation under the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) category applies to those not covered under the existing scheme of reservations for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, and the Socially and Educationally Backward Classes.

The Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act 2019 passed by Parliament enables the State (i.e., both the Central and State Governments) to provide reservation to the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) of the society. Whether or not to provide reservation to the EWS of the society for appointment in State Government jobs and admission to State Government educational institutions, as per provisions of the newly inserted Articles 15(6) and 16(6) of the Constitution, is to be decided by the State Government.

Since the 1992 order, several states have passed laws breaching the 50% ceiling, including Haryana, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.

Laws made by many of these states have either been stayed or are facing legal challenges.

Constitution Bench of Supreme Court on May 5 held the Maharashtra government Maratha reservation, more than the 50% ceiling fixed by a 9-judge Bench in the Indra Sawhney case, illegal.

Many states have breached the 50% ceiling before and intend to bring more reservations. A notable example is in Tamil Nadu. Its Act of 1993 reserves 69% of the seats in colleges and jobs in the state government. However, this was done by amending the Constitution, to place the law in the Ninth Schedule after the Indra Sawhney judgment.

In January 2000, the Governor of the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh declared 100% reservation to Scheduled Tribes (ST) candidates in posts of school teachers in Scheduled Areas. However, it was ruled unconstitutional by the apex court.

Have a look at the states where presently how much reservation quota of states exists.

In Haryana and Bihar, it is 60% quota after including 10% EWS quota.

In Telangana right now is 50% but four years ago in 2017, the Telangana government had passed a bill hiking the reservation of Muslims from 4 to 12% and Scheduled Tribes from 6 to 10% , taking the overall reservation in the State beyond 50%.

While in Gujarat, it is 59% after including EWS quota, there is 60% in jobs in Kerala.

Currently, Tamil Nadu has 69 per cent reservations, including 18 per cent for Scheduled Caste, 1 per cent for Scheduled Tribes category, 20 per cent for Most Backward Castes (MBC) and 30 per cent reservation for Other Backward Castes (OBC). The OBC quota includes reservations for minority communities, including a 3.5 per cent reservation for Muslims.

The Chhattisgarh government had decided to hike reservation for OBC’s to 27% — that took the overall quota to 82% in the state including 10 % EWS quota from 58%. But in October 2019, the division bench of the high court had stayed the reservation order.

The Madhya Pradesh government in 2019 raises the total quota in state government jobs to 73%, including the 10% reservation for the economically weaker section (EWS) from the upper castes but the HC stayed this.

The reservation to scheduled categories in Jharkhand is currently capped at 50 per cent, besides the 10 per cent quota to the EWS (Economically Weaker Section) in the general category. While the Scheduled Tribes (ST) get a 26 per cent quota, Scheduled Castes (SCs) get 10 per cent and OBCs have 14 per cent reservation.

In Rajasthan, including 5% reservation for most backward classes (MBCs) and 10% for economically weaker sections (EWS), the total reservation is 64%. The State government has tried thrice to give 5% reservation to Gujjars as a ‘Special Backward class’, but the Rajasthan High Court struck down the legislation every time. It ruled that the quota had not only exceeded the 50% limit but was also not supported by the quantifiable data. The matter is being heard in the court.

Following the 2001 State Reservation Act, the total reservation in Maharashtra was 52%. With the addition of 12% (Education)-13% (Jobs) Maratha quota, the total reservation in the state had gone up to 64-65%. The 10% quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) announced by the Centre in 2019 is also effective in the state. But after the Supreme Court order on the Maratha reservation, the total reservation of the state stands at 62% including 10% for EWS.

 

Intellectual property waiver for Covid-19 vaccines

aThe United States on Wednesday announced support for waiving intellectual property protection for Covid-19 vaccines, saying extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the US will pursue “textbased negotiations” on the waiver at the World Trade Organization (WTO). Text-based negotiations involve negotiators exchanging texts with their preferred wording and then thrashing out a consensus on the working — a fairly long-drawn affair.

Negotiations are expected in a mix of virtual and in-person meetings. They “will take time given the consensus-based nature of the institution and the complexity of the issues involved”, Tai said. All 164 WTO members must agree on the draft, and any one member can veto it. The European Union, which had earlier opposed the waiver, has now stated its intent to discuss the US-backed proposal.

What does the intellectual property waiver for Covid-19 vaccines mean?

The IP waiver might open up space for production of Covid vaccines with emergency use authorisations (EUA) — such as those developed by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Novavax, Johnson & Johnson and Bharat Biotech — on a larger scale in middle-income countries. Most production is currently concentrated in high-income countries; production by middle-income countries has been happening through licensing or technology transfer agreements. Ramping up production capacities will be a lengthy process — a reason being cited by pharmaceutical companies against the move. Most analysts expect this to take at least a few months; it is likely the agreement will be targeted by the WTO’s next ministerial conference in end-November.

The US support for an IP waiver stems from a proposal by India and South Africa in the WTO last year. That proposal had, however, called for a waiver on all Covid interventions, including testing diagnostics and novel therapeutics.

Experts said the IP waiver proposal should include other interventions going forward. Amid the pandemic, the “widest possible” access to these interventions is limited by production capacity as well as the propensity of high-income countries to acquire “most of the supplies”, Public Health Foundation of India president Prof K Srinath Reddy said.

Countries including Canada, South Korea, and Bangladesh have shown interest in making Covid vaccines if they can get a patent waiver, Prof Reddy said.

What are the deterrents for the waiver?

In a joint letter to US President Joe Biden in March, pharma companies including Pfizer and AstraZeneca had opposed the proposed waiver — saying eliminating IP protections would “undermine the global response to the pandemic”, including the ongoing efforts to tackle new variants. It could also create confusion that could potentially undermine public confidence in vaccine safety and create a barrier to information sharing, they had said. And, “most importantly, eliminating protections would not speed up production.”

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has expressed reservations against tweaking IP rules and sharing Covid-19 vaccine technologies. “The thing that’s holding things back, in this case, is not intellectual property. It’s not like there’s some idle vaccine factory, with regulatory approval, that makes magically safe vaccines,” Gates said in a recent interview to Sky News. His justification for not sharing vaccine tech with developing countries is “that it would not be feasible for a company to move vaccines to a developing nation”. Gates mentioned India, and said that even if the transfer were to happen, it is because of “our grants and expertise”.

The argument that these countries do not have the capacity to speedily produce vaccines goes against earlier moves towards a patents regime for generic drugs. Experts said the same reasoning can be used now for the production of vaccines. “They will question the capacity and quality. But a number of companies from different countries have said they are ready to produce, and quality can always be assessed. Between 1972 and 2005, India had adopted process patenting rather than product patenting, and built up a huge generic industry. If western companies are interested in contracting Indian companies for manufacturing their vaccines in India, then how can they say you do not have the quality to produce on your own?” Prof Reddy said.

What was the earlier proposal from India and South Africa?

In October 2020, India and South Africa had asked the WTO to waive certain conditions of the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement that could impede timely access to affordable medical products to combat Covid-19. The countries had asked the TRIPS Council to recommend, “as early as possible”, a waiver on the implementation, application and enforcement of four sections in the second part of the agreement. These sections — 1, 4, 5, and 7 — pertain to copyright and related rights, industrial designs, patents, and the protection of undisclosed information. The proposal had said that developing countries “especially”, may face institutional and legal difficulties when using flexibilities available in the TRIPS Agreement.

What are patents and IP rights?

A patent represents a powerful intellectual property right, and is an exclusive monopoly granted by a government to an inventor for a limited, pre-specified time. It provides an enforceable legal right to prevent others from copying the invention. Patents can be either process patents or product patents.

A product patent ensures that the rights to the final product is protected, and anyone other than the patent holder can be restrained from manufacturing it during a specified period, even if they were to use a different process. A process patent enables any person other than the patent holder to manufacture the patented product by modifying certain processes in the manufacturing exercise.

India moved from product patenting to process patenting in the 1970s, which enabled

India to become a significant producer of generic drugs at global scale, and allowed companies like Cipla to provide Africa with anti-HIV drugs in the 1990s. But due to obligations arising out of the TRIPS Agreement, India had to amend the Patents Act in 2005, and switch to a product patents regime across the pharma, chemicals, and biotech sectors.

Besides patents, what are the other roadblocks to scaling up production?

The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) has pointed to other “real challenges” in scaling up production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. These include trade barriers, bottlenecks in supply chains, scarcity of raw materials and ingredients in the supply chain, and the unwillingness of rich countries to share doses with poorer nations.

The scarcity of raw materials has been a growing issue for ramping up production; several manufacturers have been relying on specific suppliers, and alternatives are limited. Also, countries like the US had blocked exports of critical raw materials used in the production of some Covid-19 vaccines using regulations like the American Defence Production Act. This led to a delay in the production of Covid vaccines by some companies in India. Mahima Datla, managing director of Biological E, which is making the J&J vaccine in India, had said US suppliers have told global clients they may not be able to fulfil their orders because of the Act, according to a report in the Financial Times.

Vaccine makers such as Adar Poonawalla of Serum Institute of India (SII) had said that the use of the DPA had blocked exports of plastic bags, filters, and certain media used in the production of its version of the Novavax vaccine. On April 25, the White House said the US had identified sources of “specific raw material” that were “urgently” required for the manufacture of Covishield, SII’s version of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and they would be “immediately” made available for India.

Supreme Court’s Maratha quota verdict

In its judgment striking down Maharashtra’s Maratha quota, a five-judge Constitution Bench was unanimous on 3 issues and split 3:2 on another 3. A look at how the Bench ruled on these 6 issues.

A five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down the Maharashtra law granting reservation to the Maratha community in admissions and government jobs in the state. The court had framed six questions of law on the issue; it unanimously agreed on three of those issues, while the verdict was split 3:2 on the other three.

Issue 1: On revisiting the Indra Sawhney ruling

One of the key issues before the court was to examine whether the 1992 landmark ruling in Indra Sawhney v Union of India had to be revisited. The ruling by a nine-judge Bench, in which the Mandal Commission report was upheld, laid down two important precedents. First, it said that the criteria for a group to qualify for reservation is “social and educational backwardness”. Second, it reiterated the 50% limit to vertical quotas reasoning that it was needed to ensure “efficiency” in administration. However, the court said that this 50% limit will apply unless in “exceptional circumstances.”

The Maratha quota exceeded the 50% ceiling. The arguments by state governments before the court was that the Indra Sawhney verdict must be referred to a 11-judge Bench for reconsideration since it laid down an arbitrary ceiling which the Constitution does not envisage. Additionally, in some judgements subsequent to Indra Sawhney, the Supreme Court itself had made exceptions to this rule.

In a unanimous opinion on Wednesday, the court held that there is no need to revisit the case. The court said that the 50% ceiling, although an arbitrary determination by the court in 1992, is now constitutionally recognised.

Issues 2&3: On whether the Maratha law can be saved under the exception

Since the 50% ceiling is held valid, the court looked into whether the Maratha quota law falls under the exceptional circumstances contemplated by Constitution Bench in Indra Sawhney’s case. The court also looked into the Maharashtra State Backward Commission report that the Maharashtra government had relied on to see if a case can be made out for exceptional circumstances.

The state government’s argument was that since the population of backward class is 85% and reservation limit is only 50%, an increase in reservation limit would qualify as an extraordinary circumstance.

All five judges disagreed with this argument. “The Marathas are dominant forward class and are in the main stream of National life. The above situation is not an extra-ordinary,” Justice Ashok Bhushan and Justice Abdul Nazeer held. Their view was accepted by the remaining three judges — Justice Nageswara Rao, Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice Ravindra Bhat.

Issues 4, 5 & 6: On state’s power to identify SEBCs, and 102nd Amendment

The Constitution (One Hundred and Second Amendment) Act, 2018 gives constitutional status to the National Backward Classes Commission. The Amendment also gives the President powers to notify backward classes. Several states raised questions on the interpretation of the Amendment and argued that it curtails their powers. The Bench unanimously upheld the constitutional validity of the 102nd Amendment but differed on the question whether it affected the power of states to identify socially and educationally backward classes (SEBCs).

Attorney General K K Venugopal, appearing for the central government, clarified that this was not the intention of the law. He argued “that it is inconceivable that no State shall have power to identify backward class”, and explained that the state government will have their separate list of SEBCs for providing reservation in state government jobs and education, whereas Parliament will only make the central list of SEBCs which would apply for central government jobs.

However, the Supreme Court held that “the final say in regard to inclusion or exclusion (or modification of lists) of SEBCs is firstly with the President, and thereafter, in case of modification or exclusion from the lists initially published, with the Parliament”.

“In the task of identification of SEBCs, the President shall be guided by the Commission set up under Article 338B; its advice shall also be sought by the state in regard to policies that might be framed by it. If the commission prepares a report concerning matters of identification, such a report has to be shared with the state government, which is bound to deal with it, in accordance with provisions of Article 338B. However, the final determination culminates in the exercise undertaken by the President,” Justice Bhat held.

This interpretative reading was preferred by Justice Bhat in his separate opinion, which was concurred by Justice Rao and Justice Gupta. Justice Bhushan and Justice Nazeer, however, preferred a textual reading of the Amendment and said it does not take away the state’s powers to identify SEBCs.

The majority opinion on this aspect by Justice Bhat also said that while the identification of SEBCs will be done centrally, state governments retain power to determine the extent of reservation and make specific policy in the spirit of “cooperative federalism”.

This raises a question: How does this impact interventions by other states to provide reservations for other communities, for example Jats in Haryana and Kapus in Andhra?

The majority opinion by Justice Bhat essentially says that now the National Backward Classes Commission must publish a fresh list of SEBCs, both for states and the central list.

“The Commission set up under Article 338B shall conclude its task expeditiously, and make its recommendations after considering which, the President shall expeditiously publish the notification containing the list of SEBCs in relation to states and union territories, for the purpose of the Constitution.

“(vii) Till the publication of the notification mentioned in direction (vi), the existing lists operating in all states and union territories, and for the purposes of the Central Government and central institutions, continue to operate. This direction is issued under Article 142 of the Constitution of India,” Justice Bhat held.

 

New SEBI rule for fund manager compensation

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has said that a minimum 20% of the compensation of mutual fund managers and other key personnel in an asset management company (AMC) should be in the form of units of the mutual fund schemes they manage. Key personnel here refers to the likes of chief executive officer, chief investment officer, research head and their direct reportees.

What’s new in this circular? Isn’t pay linked to performance?

The compensation of fund managers — at least the variable pay component — is linked to performance. What SEBI has done here is crystallise the rules and extend it beyond fund managers to so-called key employees. Moreover, SEBI has specified the rules of allocation of this 20% by saying that is should be proportional to the assets under management of the schemes in which an employee has a role or oversight. For example, a CEO who has overall oversight will have 20% of her compensation spread across all the schemes. On the other hand, a fund manager who manages only one fund will have at least 50% of this type of compensation in the scheme she manages and the remaining in other schemes of the mutual fund that are riskier. The regulator has also specified that these units offered by way of compensation are locked-in for three years.

What has led to such a decision from SEBI?

The SEBI circular said this was to “align the interest of the key employees of the AMCs with the unit holders of the mutual fund schemes”. In other words, SEBI wants fund managers to have skin in the game, or demonstrate to investors that they have confidence in the schemes they manage.

This could also be a fall out of the events at Franklin Templeton which shuttered six debt funds in March 2020. A forensic audit alleged that some employees of the mutual fund redeemed their holdings just before the closure of the six schemes. Even earlier, there have been allegation of front running by mutual fund employees.

How will this help retail investors?

This move by SEBI will boost the transparency of fund manager compensation. It helps build accountability. It ensures that fund houses actually link the pay of fund managers to performance and go beyond lip service. Besides, since a whole lot of employees’ compensation is linked to how well a mutual fund is doing, it could encourage whistleblowing if wrongdoing is happening. It will give a lot of psychological comfort to investors that their fund manager has skin in the game. Whether it will lead to higher returns is something we will have to wait and see.

Why is the mutual fund industry unhappy then?

The common refrain from mutual fund CEOs has been that SEBI’s intention is good but the rules are too clunky to follow. For instance, a money market fund manager (where annual returns may not be more than 6-7 per cent) might have a huge risk appetite and channel all her investments in equity funds. This rule by SEBI, which in effect specifies percentages of investments in different schemes, could conflict with the personal finance goals of the fund managers. This could even lead to a flight of talent from the industry, warn fund house CEOs.

Creating critical thinkers: On Educational curriculum

Despite the pandemic unleashing in full force, the debate over the last month has entailed a mindless conversation over holding or postponing board examinations instead of exploring alternatives. Rather than viewing this unprecedented situation as a unique opportunity for re-imagining educational assessments and evaluations in a world that no longer looks the same, the government insists on the possibility of holding exams in person and posing a further threat to the lives of loved ones.

Alternative ways of thinking

Students and parents have valid concerns about the future, which include admissions to higher educational institutions. Nonetheless, considering we are in a worldwide crisis where India cannot afford to have gatherings of small/big groups, why aren’t virtual educational committees being organised to rethink approaches on assessing student learning? For instance, one of the challenges is deemed as students ‘cheating’ if the exams were to be conducted online. However, if question papers were designed in a way that encouraged students to critically engage with the material, contest perspectives and build opinions, no book would be able to provide all the answers.

Relatedly, in light of the right to education that affirms the importance of formative assessments, teachers could be invited to engage in evaluating student’s performance across the year. If there are concerns around the tendency of schools to self-bolster thei performance, reports, portfolios, samples of responses and grades could be shared across a pool of schools so that teachers can anonymously assess and provide insightful feedback on student performance, until a sense of self-accountability and trust can be cultivated.

Opening up possibilities of evaluating students on their performance through the year will contribute towards making evaluation and learning much more holistic.

Further, inviting higher educational institutions to facilitate online entrance exams could be another option to explore as students gear up for college admissions. Eventually, the goal could be to involve students in self and peer evaluations so that the ability to reflect while participating in learning communities and giving/receiving feedback prepares them for what lies ahead.

The National Curriculum Framework of 2005 affirms the importance of embracing the emotional, social, physical and intellectual growth of children within a framework of human values. Thus, a question to consider is whether academic performances can continue to be the sole representation of student growth or we can begin to redefine student success based on social, emotional and spiritual development benchmarks.

Redefining education

We have an opportunity to redefine meaningful education and even though it does require a concerted change across curriculum in K-12 schools, the entrance criteria determined by higher educational institutions and what we value as communities and societies, we have to start somewhere. Viewing this crisis as a signal for urgent change, core issues can be engaged with and re-evaluated to prevent students from being trapped in the current system of cramming, rote learning and anxiety. The government needs to give complete autonomy to educational committees composed of students, teachers, educational leaders, scholars and researchers who can advocate, organise and implement this change nationally and internationally. Raising the quality of educational assessments and evaluations by involving higher educational institutions may even prevent a mass exodus to international universities so that young leaders can be nurtured to engage with underlying national challenges and add value by advocating for and sustaining the fabric of a diverse and nonstratified India.

Plight of Indian fishermen arrested by Pakistan

Ramesh Taba Sosa, an Indian fisherman, is the latest victim of an inhuman and skewed system involving India and Pakistan, in which mortal remains of prisoners are not repatriated for months. Sosa died in a prison hospital in Malir Jail, Karachi, Pakistan, on March 26, 2021, but there is no guarantee when his family in Nanavada, near Kodinar in Gujarat, will be able to conduct his last rites. Sosa was arrested in May 2019 when the fishing boat he was in allegedly entered Pakistani waters. His sentence in the Pakistani prison ended on July 3, 2019. However, not only was he not repatriated, but he was also not given consular access till his death. Sosa’s case is one more statistic in a long story of insensitivity between the two governments that do not implement agreements. More than anything else, it is an issue of basic human rights.

India and Pakistan signed the Agreement on Consular Access in 2008. Though the deal has a few lacunae, it was significant. Section 4 of the agreement said, “Each government shall provide consular access within three months to nationals of one country, under arrest, detention or imprisonment in the other country.” Further, Section 5 of the agreement stated, “Both governments agree to release and repatriate persons within one month of confirmation of their national status and completion of sentences.”

A long wait

More than 300 Indian fishermen remain in Pakistan’s custody in Malir jail. Consular access is an exception. Without it, the nationality of the person is not confirmed and the repatriation process cannot begin. Though the agreement does not state a time limit, there are numerous instances in which both countries have not confirmed nationality for as long as 18 months, during which the arrested men languish in jails. Sosa’s case has many precedents. A shocking case is of Vaaga Chauhan, an Indian fisherman, who died in custody in December 2015. His mortal remains reached his village in Gujarat only in April 2016. Chauhan’s family went through unimaginable trauma and reached out to every resource for help. Then, there is Latif Qasim Sama’s case. Hailing from a village in Kutch near the International Border, he inadvertently crossed over to Pakistan in 2018. He was arrested and his sentence ended in April 2019. Latif still does not have consular access. His relative, Ismail Sama, returned from a Pakistan jail in January this year, though his sentence ended in 2016. Sama and Latif are not fishermen, they live near the International Border and inadvertently crossed it. Ismail returned home after 13 years. Worse, his family was informed a decade after his arrest. Fishermen from the Saurashtra region of Gujarat often get arrested when they unintentionally cross over into Pakistani waters. They suffer, and so do their families, who are now even more worried because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sluggish mechanisms

Ideally, prisoners should be released and repatriated the day they complete their prison sentence. But this has happened in just one case, with Hamid Ansari, the only person who was released and repatriated on the day of completion of their sentence. Dharam Singh from Kashmir, who had unknowingly crossed over in 2003, spent 18 years in a Pakistani prison. He was eventually sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment, which ended in December last year. But he reached home only this month.

In 2007, India and Pakistan set up a joint judicial committee on prisoners comprising four retired judges from each side. The committee used to convene twice a year to meet prisoners. It made unanimous recommendations, including on the release and repatriation of fishermen and women prisoners. Its last meeting was held in 2013, after which it was discontinued. In 2018, efforts were made to revive it, but Pakistan is yet to nominate judges or call for a meeting. The delay is costing lives.

Assam earthquake: Seismic hazard along HFT faultline

Several houses and buildings were damaged after an earthquake of magnitude 6.4 on the Richter scale hit Assam around 8 am on Wednesday. Six aftershocks, of magnitude ranging from 3.2 to 4.7, occurred in the two-and-a-half hours following the main tremor.

On a fault line…

The primary earthquake had its epicentre at latitude 26.690 N and longitude 92.360 E, about 80 km northeast of Guwahati, and a focal depth of 17 km, the National Centre for Seismology (NCS) said.

“The preliminary analysis shows that the events are located near to Kopili Fault closer to Himalayan Frontal Thrust (HFT). The area is seismically very active falling in the highest Seismic Hazard zone V associated with collisional tectonics where Indian plate sub-ducts beneath the Eurasian Plate,” the NCS report said.

HFT, also known as the Main Frontal Thrust (MFT), is a geological fault along the boundary of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Kopili Fault is a 300-km northwest-southeast trending fault from the Bhutan Himalaya to the Burmese arc.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), a scientific agency of the US federal government, defines a fault as “a fracture along which the blocks of crust on either side have moved relative to one another parallel to the fracture”.

According to the USGS, “When an earthquake occurs on one of these faults, the rock on one side of the fault slips with respect to the other. The fault surface can be vertical, horizontal, or at some angle to the surface of the earth.”

…Seismically unstable

Prof Chandan Mahanta of the Department of Civil Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, said: “The Northeast is located in the highest seismological zone, so we must have constant earthquake preparedness at all levels. Continuous tectonic stress keeps building up particularly along the faultlines. Today’s earthquake was an instance of accumulated stress release — probably, stress was constrained for a fairly long time at this epicentre, and hence the release was of relatively higher intensity.”

Prof Mahanta said the timing of the earthquake and its duration ensured the damage was restricted. “The earthquake occurred early in the day when people were mostly home. Had it happened during working hours, say when there were workers at under-construction high-rise buildings, the earthquake might have taken lives,” he said.

“The duration is also important,” Prof Mahanta said. “Had the main tremor continued for more than 30 seconds with the same intensity, the resultant acceleration and resonance could have cause greater damage to structures.”

History of quakes

The NCS report said “historical and instrumentally recorded earthquake data” show the region has seen several “moderate to large earthquakes”. The worst of these was the great Assam-Tibet Earthquake that occurred on Independence Day in 1950.

“The Assam quake…stands out amongst the biggest temblors which have shaken our planet,” says a piece on the UC Berkeley Seismology Lab blog. The tremors were “so strong that it caused huge landslides which in turn blocked many rivers in the mountainous region”, it says.

The earthquake “had a moment magnitude of 8.6 and hence was in the same league as the Great Chile Earthquake, with its magnitude of 9.5, ten years later or the Tohoku-oki quake off the coast of Honshu in 2011, for which the magnitude was determined to be 9.0”.

The piece concluded, “No matter what the mechanism, there is one item all seismologists agree upon: The collision zone between India and Eurasia along the tremendous Himalayan mountain range has one of the highest seismic hazards in the world.”

Another great earthquake, of magnitude 8.1, had shaken Assam earlier on June 12, 1897.

The abstract of a scientific paper on the quake in the journal Nature recorded, “The great Assam earthquake of 12 June 1897 reduced to rubble all masonry buildings within a region of northeastern India roughly the size of England, and was felt over an area exceeding that of the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake.”

A 2015 paper by O Baro and A Kumar of IIT-Guwahati noted about the 1897 earthquake: “The shaking due to this earthquake was felt at several places across the Indian subcontinent. Large fissures of 18 to 30 m ran parallel to the banks of the Brahmaputra River and its various tributaries.”

 

A green partnership: On U.S.-India climate pact

The U.S.-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership raises expectations that the coming decade will see sustained financial and technological cooperation between the two countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

At the Leaders Summit on Climate organised by U.S. President Joe Biden, the world’s attention was focused on countries responsible for the highest carbon emissions. India ranks third, behind the U.S. and China, although its per capita CO2 emissions are less than 60% of the global average, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out.

There is little confidence in a pandemic-stricken world, however, that future growth pathways will be aligned away from fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency, in fact, expects a dramatic rise in emissions as countries race to shake off the impact of the coronavirus, as they did after the 2008 financial crisis. Yet, the years to 2030, as President Biden put it, are part of a “decisive decade”, and action to scale up funding and innovation can help all countries move closer to keeping global warming well below 2°C or even 1.5°C, as the Paris Agreement envisages. There are many aspects to the bilateral pact that could be transformative for energy-intensive sectors in India, starting with renewable power expansion to 450 GW. With open source technologies, India could incorporate innovativematerials and processes to decarbonise industry, transport and buildings, the biggest emitters, apart from power.

Many developed countries tend to view India’s reluctance to commit to a net zero emissions target as recalcitrance, but the climate change crisis originated not here but in the industrialised world, which has used up much of the world’s carbon space. A forward looking policy should, therefore, envision green development anew, providing funding and green technologies as compensation for the emissions space lost by poorer countries. This is a win-win game, since it would aid sustainable development, boost employment, clean up the environment and, crucially, help all countries emerge healthier from the pandemic. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who announced enhanced ambition at the summit for Britain to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 over 1990 levels, advanced the agenda by calling for climate funding by rich nations to exceed the decade-old goal of $100 billion. For the India-U.S. agreement to yield results, Mr. Biden would have to persuade industry and research institutions at home to share knowledge and subsidise transfer of technologies. He has won commendations for steering America around from the science-deprived Trump years and announcing enhanced ambition: cuts in emissions by 50% to 52% by 2030 over 2005 levels. But much of his climate effort will rely on executive authority, rather than bipartisan support. With political will on both sides, the engagement with India can become a model.

Russia to leave the International Space Station

Russia now plans to build and manage its own space station, which it aims to launch into orbit by 2030. According to an Interfax report, its space module is being assembled by the Energia corporation, and is set to cost at least $5 billion.

After more than two decades of international cooperation in space research, Russia this week announced that it would be withdrawing from the International Space Station in 2025, and build and manage its own floating laboratory that will be launched into orbit by 2030.

The decision to leave also comes at a time when relations between Russia and the US have been steadily deteriorating on multiple fronts, with the two powers also accusing each other of militarising space.

Roscosmos space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency, “If in 2030, in accordance with our plans, we can put it into orbit, it will be a colossal breakthrough.”

“The will is there to take a new step in world manned space exploration.”

What does the International Space Station do?

A space station is essentially a large spacecraft that remains in low-earth orbit for extended periods of time. It is like a large laboratory in space, and allows astronauts to come aboard and stay for weeks or months to carry out experiments in microgravity.

The Mir space station of the former Soviet Union, and later operated by Russia, was functional from 1986 to 2001. The ISS has been in space since 1998, and has been known for the exemplary cooperation between the five participating space agencies that have been running it: NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada).

For over 20 years since its launch, humans have continuously lived and carried out scientific investigations on the $150 billion ISS under microgravity conditions, being able to make breakthroughs in research not possible on Earth.

As per NASA, 243 people from 19 countries have so far visited the ISS, and the floating laboratory has hosted more than 3,000 research and educational investigations from researchers in 108 countries and areas, carrying out cutting edge research in various disciplines, including biology, human physiology, and physical, material and space science.

The recent US-Russia space rivalry

Russia has been a crucial player in making the ISS a success, with other space agencies relying on advanced Russian modular space station construction technology to build the space station in the initial years, as per a Financial Times report.

Russia was also indispensable because of its Soyuz passenger vehicle, which served as the only way for transporting astronauts to the ISS ever since the US retired its Space Shuttle Program in 2011. This reliance on Russia ended last year, however, when the US started to use the SpaceX system developed by Elon Musk.

This was a major blow for Roscosmos, as this meant an end to the funding it received from NASA for carrying astronauts to the space station. Between 2011 and 2019, NASA had spent $3.9 billion on the Soyuz flights, the report said.

Next year, the US is also expected to have another domestic option apart from SpaceX, as Boeing’s delayed Starliner capsule is expected to become operational.

The development also comes at a time when relations between the West and Russia have been going from bad to worse. The US has blamed the Kremlin for carrying out the “SolarWinds” hack and interfering in the 2020 election. Last week, Russia received flak from the NATO alliance after it was accused by the Czech Republic of being involved in a 2014 explosion at an arms depot.

Last year, the US accused Russia of carrying out a weapons test after a projectile was said to have been fired from a Russian satellite. Russia, in return, blamed the US for treating space as a “military theatre”.

So, what does Russia plan to do now?

Russia now plans to build and manage its own space station, which it aims to launch into orbit by 2030. According to an Interfax report, its space module is being assembled by the Energia corporation, and is set to cost at least $5 billion.

The station will reportedly orbit the Earth at a higher latitude, enabling it to better observe the polar regions, especially since Russia plans to develop the Arctic sea route as the ice melts.

Building a new station would also help Russia tide over challenges that its cosmonauts currently face on the ageing ISS, such as conducting experiments and adapting the latest technology to a hardware architecture that is over two decades old.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said, “We can’t risk the lives [of our cosmonauts]. The situation that today is connected to the structure and the metal getting old, it can lead to irreversible consequences – to catastrophe. We mustn’t let that happen”.

However, leaving the ISS would also mean that Russian researchers would lose access to a laboratory that has seen over 15 years of engineering and assembly work to build it, and whose research potential is only now truly expected to take off. NASA has ruled out retiring the ISS until at least 2028, and may continue to use it after that by upgrading key systems, the FT report said.

Borisov also said that Russia would manage the space station itself, but has left the door open for other countries to join. Last year, Russia rejected a US offer to be a part of the Artemis program, and last month signed an agreement with China to jointly develop a lunar base.

 

RBI continues to target GDP growth instead of inflation

Inflation is the rate at which the general price level increases between one time period to another. So if the price level — captured by an index such as the Consumer Price Index (basically a basket of goods) — goes up by 10% in April this year over what it was in April last year, the inflation rate is 10%.

Sometimes, prices fall over the past year. In such a case, we call it deflation. It is like negative inflation.

But this is a rare occurrence.

What mostly happens is inflation — that is a rise in prices. However, sometimes the inflation rate itself may slow down. Suppose prices increase by 10% in January (over last January), 5% in February (over last February) and 2% in March (over last March) — that is referred to as disinflation, which signals a decline in the inflation rate.

So the intriguing question last April was: Will the price level in India fall, or rise or rise at a slowing pace or rise at a progressively increasing pace (galloping inflation)?

To be sure, on paper, all the options were possible.

Prices could fall because in a lockdown, the overall demand for goods and services in the economy would collapse. Add to that the effect of people losing jobs, or facing salary cuts, and thus they will demand less of even the most essential items while cutting down all discretionary expenses (such as buying a fancy new phone or going for a vacation).

But prices could have also risen sharply because the lockdown could have completely disrupted the supply chains. Everything from onion to your favourite breakfast cereal to cars to computers could either not be produced or not transported to you because of the lockdown. A sudden crunch in supply could spike prices, especially of food and other essential commodities, notwithstanding the fall in demand.

Whether we had deflation (due to the collapse of demand) or a sharp spiralling of inflation (due to a supply crunch) was not just of academic interest. All of this mattered because India’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of India, is mandated by law to target the inflation rate.

In other words, keeping the rate at which the general price level facing the consumers increases from one year to another is RBI’s main policy goal. And it is noteworthy that governments don’t always help out the RBI in this regard.

For instance, throughout the past 12 months, the central and state governments have been piling on taxes on petroleum products, thus leading to higher retail prices of petrol and diesel. This, in turn, fuelled inflation because transporting goods became that much more costly. The governments (Centre and states) did this in their bid to shore up revenues in a slowing economy and with little regard to how this may affect the RBI’s plans to maintain retail inflation within the band of 2% and 6%.

The latest Monetary Policy Report of the RBI has a neat chart, reproduced below, which shows that, unlike most advanced and emerging economies, India saw prices going out of its central bank’s comfort zone. In this list, only Turkey performed worse than India in containing price rise.

What is the policy significance of this?

India’s growth was decelerating before the onset of the Covid pandemic and as such, right through 2019, the RBI was in the mode to cut interest rates and incentivise economic activity. For the most part, it did not have to worry much about retail inflation at the time. The RBI doubled down on this resolve when the economy got hit by the Covid pandemic in March-end last year.

Right through the past financial year — April 2020 to March 2021 — the RBI kept signalling that it would support growth and in doing so allowed the inflation rate to stay out of its mandated range.

In other words, the RBI accorded primacy to boosting GDP growth instead of meeting its legal requirement of maintaining inflation within the mandated range.

On paper, the argument was that as and when the economy revives, the RBI would revisit its stance and re-start (in a manner of speaking) targeting inflation instead of growth. To be sure, several observers were of the view that the Indian economy had posted a very sharp recovery in the second half of the past financial year — that is from October 2020 to March 2021.

But by the time the RBI’s Monetary Policy Committee met earlier this month — April 5 to 7 — to decide on its policy stance, India was already in the grip of the second Covid wave. The daily new caseload had already crossed the previous high and was well past the 1-lakh mark.

That meant the RBI was back to square one: Yet again in April, Covid had disrupted India’s already iffy growth trajectory and forced the RBI to choose between boosting growth and containing inflation. To be sure, not only did retail inflation continue to be high in March but even the wholesale inflation spiked to over 7%.

Predictably, the RBI stuck to last year’s playbook. As such, even as it revised upwards its inflation forecast for the year, it declared — once again — that it will continue to support growth for as long as required.

Is there a risk in what RBI is doing?

Yes, there is a chance that inflation may spike — the RBI acknowledged it in the policy statement.

“Pump prices of petroleum products have remained high…The impact of high international commodity prices and increased logistics costs are being felt across manufacturing and services. Finally, inflation expectations of urban households one year ahead showed a marginal increase over the three months ahead horizon according to the Reserve Bank’s March 2021 survey,” it stated.

There is one more factor that may contribute to rising inflation later on in the year: Monsoon.

India has had two normal monsoons and the chances of a third normal monsoon are pretty slim. According to a Crisil report, “in the past 20 years, only once has the Indian economy seen three good monsoon years in a row”. A bad monsoon could spike food inflation, which contributes the most to retail inflation.

If the surge in Covid numbers continues as predicted by experts such as Bhramar Mukherjee (Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan), India could be hitting a daily caseload of up to 10 lakhs (or 1 million) by the middle of May, with deaths peaking with a lag of a fortnight to anywhere between 4,500 to 5,500 level.

In other words, India’s economic growth prospects for this year could be significantly dented. Not surprisingly, most forecasters in town have dialled down their GDP growth rate projection for India.

An iffy growth coupled with persistently high inflation could further weaken the Indian currency and, in doing so, make imports such as crude oil and other commodities, even costlier, thus fuelling domestic inflation further.

The simplest solution to all woes of the Indian economy lies in vaccinating as fast as possible while saving the lives of those who are critically ill.

 

The proposed Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021 and RBI plans ahead:

Uncertainty over the legal status of cryptocurrencies is unnerving Indian investors who, according to unofficial estimates, hold around $1.5 billion (Rs 10,000 crore) in digital currencies. The government, which plans a law to ban private digital currencies, favours a digital currency backed by the Reserve Bank of India.

While existing investors could get breathing space to exit their holdings in the event of a ban on trading, mining and holding cryptos, the proposed legal structure may seek declarations of holdings and transactions retrospectively from investors and traders.

On the other hand, RBI has indicated it’s “very much in the game”, and getting ready to launch its own digital currency. “Central bank digital currency is a work in progress. The RBI team is working on it, technology side and procedural side…how it will be launched and rolled out,” Governor Shaktikanta Das said recently.

The proposed law

The Cryptocurrency and Regulation of Official Digital Currency Bill, 2021, which will prohibit all private cryptocurrencies and lay down the regulatory framework for the launch of an “official digital currency”, was to be introduced in Parliament’s Budget session, but was held up as the government continues discussions with stakeholders.

“We have held extensive deliberations. There is the expert panel’s report, followed by inter-ministerial discussions, meetings by the Cabinet Secretary and submissions by various people concerned. The Bill will take all of that into account,” a senior government official said, without committing to a timeline.

A 3-6 month exit period prior to banning the trading, mining and issuing of cryptos has been discussed in inter-ministerial discussions. The high-power inter-ministerial committee has previously recommended a ban on all private cryptocurrencies. The final draft Bill is yet to go to the Cabinet, a source said.

RBI and digital currency

RBI had said central banks are exploring DLT (Distributed Ledger Technology) for application in improving financial market infrastructure, and considering it as a potential technological solution in implementing central bank digital currency (CBDC). Sources indicated the government is open to supporting a central bank-backed digital currency. “A fiat currency cannot have the kind of volatility and fluctuations you see in Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. We have an open mind. We are very open to a digital currency, the RBI is working on that,” the official said.

A recent survey of central banks conducted by the Bank for International Settlements found that some 80 per cent of the 66 responding central banks have started projects to explore the use of CBDC in some form, and are studying its potential benefits and implications for the economy.

RBI had expressed concern over other cryptocurrencies, saying they can be used for illegal activities, and pose a threat to financial stability. In April 2018, RBI banned banks and other regulated entities from supporting crypto transactions after digital currencies were used for frauds. In March 2020, the Supreme Court struck down the ban as unconstitutional. One of the reasons it gave was that cryptocurrencies, though unregulated, were not illegal in India.

Various start-ups dealing with cryptocurrency have come up in India, such as Unocoin in 2013 and Zebpay in 2014 (Tracxn, 2019). But volatility in Bitcoin prices and instances of fraud have underlined regulatory concerns, RBI says. Both the government and RBI have said they have not authorised or issued regulation for any entity to deal with cryptocurrencies, and individuals dealing with them would bear all risks. RBI has issued several warnings against dealing in cryptocurrencies.

Volatility in prices

Government officials and experts argue cryptocurrency prices are too volatile to serve as a fiat currency — govt issued currency which is not backed by gold or any commodity – even as its proponents say volatility would ebb over time with greater acceptance.

Monark Modi, Founder & CEO, Bitex, a digital asset and cryptocurrency exchange, said, “Since mid-February, Bitcoin has witnessed a phase of drops and consolidation and crossed an all-time high of $61K, reflecting a larger trend. Bitcoin’s price has risen more than 10-fold over the last year.”

While the current price rise can be attributed to the increased institutional exposure to Bitcoin and global progress in fostering a friendlier legislative environment for cryptocurrencies, it is also the net effect of a large supply reduction coupled with increasing demand.

“I hope the speculation around a ban on cryptocurrency in India is over soon, and the government takes note of the growing demand for Bitcoin among investors closer home,” Modi said. Bitcoin has the potential to hit $100K by the end of the year, he said.

Volatility in prices

Government officials and experts argue cryptocurrency prices are too volatile to serve as a fiat currency — govt issued currency which is not backed by gold or any commodity – even as its proponents say volatility would ebb over time with greater acceptance.

Monark Modi, Founder & CEO, Bitex, a digital asset and cryptocurrency exchange, said, “Since mid-February, Bitcoin has witnessed a phase of drops and consolidation and crossed an all-time high of $61K, reflecting a larger trend. Bitcoin’s price has risen more than 10-fold over the last year.”

While the current price rise can be attributed to the increased institutional exposure to Bitcoin and global progress in fostering a friendlier legislative environment for cryptocurrencies, it is also the net effect of a large supply reduction coupled with increasing demand.

“I hope the speculation around a ban on cryptocurrency in India is over soon, and the government takes note of the growing demand for Bitcoin among investors closer home,” Modi said. Bitcoin has the potential to hit $100K by the end of the year, he said.

 

The significance of Earth Day 2021

Earth Day 2021: This year’s theme focuses on natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems.

April 22 is Earth Day, an international event celebrated around the world to pledge support for environmental protection. The year 2021 marks the 51st anniversary of the annual celebrations. This year’s theme for Earth Day is ‘Restore Our Earth’.

In 2009, the United Nations designated April 22 as ‘International Mother Earth Day’.

“Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is a chance to set the world on a cleaner, greener, more sustainable path,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement.

“Mother Earth is clearly urging a call to action. Let’s remind more than ever on this International Mother Earth Day that we need a shift to a more sustainable economy that works for both people and the planet”.

The importance of Earth Day

Earth Day was first observed in 1970, when 20 million took to the streets to protest against environmental degradation. The event was triggered by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, as well as other issues such as smog and polluted rivers.

For over the next half century, Earth Day continued to play an important role in environmental activism.

The landmark Paris Agreement, which brings almost 200 countries together in setting a common target to reduce global greenhouse emissions, was signed on Earth Day 2016.

According to earthday.org, Earth Day aims to “build the world’s largest environmental movement to drive transformative change for people and the planet.” The movement’s mission is “to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide.”

According to the United Nations, International Mother Earth Day is celebrated to remind each of us that the Earth and its ecosystems provide us with life and sustenance. This Day also recognizes a collective responsibility, as called for in the 1992 Rio Declaration, to promote harmony with nature and the Earth to achieve a just balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations of humanity.

This day provides an opportunity to raise public awareness around the world to the challenges regarding the well-being of the planet and all the life it supports.

Theme 2021

According to earthday.org, this year’s theme focuses on natural processes, emerging green technologies, and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems.

“In this way, the theme rejects the notion that mitigation or adaptation are the only ways to address climate change. It is up to each and every one of us to Restore Our Earth not just because we care about the natural world, but because we live on it. We all need a healthy Earth to support our jobs, livelihoods, health & survival, and happiness. A healthy planet is not an option — it is a necessity,” it says.

This year, seven major climate-related events are taking place in parallel on April 22, including the Leaders’ Summit on Climate hosted by the United States, and the Exponential Climate action Summit on Financing the Race to Zero emissions.

Ingenuity, the first helicopter on Mars

On Monday NASA announced that Ingenuity had performed its first flight. “…the first flight of a powered aircraft on another planet!” NASA said in a post on Twitter. The helicopter’s main task is to carry out a technology demonstration to test the first powered flight on Mars, which it seems to have accomplished today. Since the first flight has succeeded, the Ingenuity team will attempt up to four test flights within a 31-Earth-day window.

Other technology demonstrations of the same kind include the Mars Pathfinder rover Sojourner and the Mars Cube One CubeSats that flew by Mars in 2018.

What is Ingenuity?

Ingenuity, the first helicopter to fly on Mars was carried by NASA’s rover called Perseverance that was launched in July last year and will help collect samples from the surface from locations where the rover cannot reach.

The helicopter got its name because of a high school student Vaneeza Rupani of Alabama. Rupani originally submitted the name for the Mars 2020 rover, which was ultimately called Perseverance. But the NASA officials felt that Ingenuity–which means the skill of thinking, performing, or using things in new ways, esp. to solve problems (definition as per the Cambridge dictionary)– was a suitable name for the helicopter whose team had given a lot of creative thinking to get the mission off the ground.

How and when did it get to Mars?

Perseverance landed at the Jezero Crater of Mars in February year. It will remain on the Red Planet for about two years and look for finding past signs of life. The rover is designed to study signs of ancient life, collect samples that might be sent back to Earth during future missions and test new technology that might benefit future robotic and human missions to the planet.

What will it do on Mars?

The helicopter’s mission is experimental in nature and completely independent of the rover’s science mission – which is searching for signs of ancient life and collecting samples of rock and sediment in tubes for potential return to Earth by later missions.

Ingenuity is able to fly using counter-rotating blades that spin at about 2,400 rpm. It has a wireless communication system, and is equipped with computers, navigation sensors, and two cameras. It is solar-powered, able to charge on its own.

The helicopter project’s chief engineer is J (Bob) Balaram, a graduate of IIT Madras who later went on to work at NASA. According to NASA, the helicopter was placed on the Martian surface to test — for the first time ever — powered flight in the planet’s thin air. Its performance during these experimental test flights will help inform decisions about small helicopters for future Mars missions — where they can perform a support role as robotic scouts, surveying terrain from above, or as full standalone science craft carrying instrument payloads.

Taking to the air would give scientists a new perspective on a region’s geology and even allow them to peer into areas that are too steep or slippery to send a rover, a NASA fact sheet said. In the distant future, they might even help astronauts explore Mars.

NASA will try and demonstrate rotorcraft flight in the extremely thin atmosphere of Mars with this helicopter, which is why the mission is so crucial.

 

 

Importance of the middle class for India’s economy and its democracy

There are two main reasons why the novel Coronavirus has been such a disaster for the world economy: One, that it infects everyone — regardless of their economic status, and two, because it essentially spreads just the way economic growth does — via human interaction. In other words, controlling the virus’ spread and limiting the damage on the health side necessarily, by definition, results in incurring economic losses.

While this was known from day one, this odious trade-off explains why so many governments and populations have been caught napping with more damaging second and third waves.

India is no exception. But, unlike other countries such as China, which controlled the virus much sooner, or the US and the UK, which despite being hit hard by Covid had the financial resources to protect the livelihoods of their people, India has suffered grievously.

Starting April, it was expected that India’s economy will register a fast economic rebound and quickly make up for the losses incurred in 2020. But the massive and unabated surge in Covid cases all across the country, which has exposed the government’s lack of preparation over the past year as grossly inadequate, points to the possibility of a scenario where India may not even be able to make up for the economic (GDP) contraction it suffered in the last financial year (2020-21).

But what does it mean in real terms?

Such a sharp contraction in GDP growth essentially means that millions of people will not only lose part or all of their current incomes but also the means to earn their income. What’s worse, since India’s economy was already decelerating before the pandemic, people do not have the savings to fight for long. Sooner rather than later they will see a sharp worsening in their economic, physical and social wellbeing.

A lot of focus has been on the pitiable state of India’s migrant workforce, but there is an equally primal shriek of desperation being let out by India’s middle class — one which has largely gone unheard.

Last month, the US-based Pew Research Centre put out some exact numbers in this regard (see charts below).

“Prior to the pandemic, it was anticipated that 99 million people in India would belong in the global middle class in 2020. A year into the pandemic, this number is estimated to be 66 million, cut by a third. Meanwhile, the number of poor in India is projected to have reached 134 million, more than double the 59 million expected prior to the recession,” stated the Pew report.

While the fact that 75 million people will be pushed back to abject levels of poverty (of living at less than $2 a day), what is equally, if not more, worrisome is that fact that India’s middle class was reduced by one-third — and that is just the impact of the last year. Given its severity, the current second wave and its economic impact could well mean that India’s middle class will be reduced to half of what it was before the pandemic.

What exactly is the middle class?

Typically economic researchers tend to use income or expenditure (as a proxy for income) to spot the middle class. For instance, in the above case, the poor live on $2 or less daily, low income on $2.01-$10, middle income on $10.01-$20, upper-middle income on $20.01-$50 and high income on more than $50. But it is possible to define the middle class as those whose expenditure ranges between 75% to 125% of the median expenditures.

Further, cash is not the only marker of being middle class.

It is also characterised by certain values, mindsets, educational and occupational choices. For instance, people belonging to the middle-class aim to have decent well-paying jobs or small businesses, hope to own a house of their own, seek to have a secure retirement, and want to secure the healthcare and educational needs of their family. Every generation of a middle-class household hopes that its next-generation would be slightly better off.

Why does the middle-class matter?

Unlike its humble name, the middle class is often considered the glue that keeps modern liberal democratic economies from falling apart under the strain of ever-rising inequalities.

In his 1984 article in the New York Times, well-known political economist Lester Thurow said the shrinking of the American middle class was a “cause of concern for the American political democracy”. “What Karl Marx saw as an inevitable revolution was based on the assumption that the economy would eventually generate a bipolar income distribution composed of rich and poor. Once this bipolar situation existed, he said, the poor would revolt, destroy the rich, and establish communism. But Marx’s predicted revolution did not occur because he did not foresee the rise of the middle class. The middle class had an interest in preserving capitalism and voted to alleviate the worst excesses of capitalism with social welfare programs. Their very presence gave the poor hope that they too could escape from poverty,”

Beyond the political aspect, it is now well established that economic growth is stronger in countries that have a strong middle class. A 2011 Asian Development Bank paper, titled “The Role of the Middle Class in Economic Development: What Do Cross-Country Data Show?” looked at no less than 72 developing countries, including India, to confirm the finding by researchers like Nobel winners Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo and many others that middle class has a salutary impact through various ways. For instance, the middle class is where entrepreneurs that foster innovation and growth emerge. Middle class “values” also encourage the accumulation of human capital (via education) and savings (that can then be used for productive investment in the economy).

Moreover, in comparison to the poor, the middle class has the ability and power to demand better public service delivery and greater accountability from public officials, and support growth-oriented policies.

But the world over, the middle class has been shrinking and this trend is considered worrisome. “Among middle-class households, there is now a growing discontent with economic conditions. In this context, the stagnation of middle-class living standards in OECD countries has been accompanied in recent years by the emergence of new forms of nationalism, isolationism, populism and protectionism. Nationalistic and anti-globalization sentiments can arise because a shrinking middle class produces disillusionment and damages political engagement, or turns voters towards anti-establishment and protectionist policies. Political instability is an important channel through which a squeezed middle class may upset economic investment and growth,” states a 2019 OECD book, titled “Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class”.

In India, all the data pointed to the middle-class coming under severe strain even before the pandemic. Unemployment levels had risen to a 45-year high even as consumption expenditures had fallen sharply (although the latter survey was disowned by the government). Health and nutrition data also showed a significant decline even as educational outcomes continue to lag. National accounts data showed Indians getting more and more indebted since 2017. Further fuelling the middle-class discontent in recent years has been the high retail inflation especially led by heavy taxation on every fuel like petrol and LPG.

It was at this juncture that the Covid pandemic wreaked havoc.

So what can be done to remedy the situation?

The ADB paper concluded that “policies that factor in the welfare of the middle class and nurture their growth may be a more effective long-term strategy for alleviating poverty compared to policies focusing solely on the poor”.

That’s because a growth strategy that includes the middle class is likely to be more sustainable, given that more people across different racial and ethnic groups share in the growth process.
“A politically and economically strong middle class is more likely to hold a government accountable, which would, in turn, ensure the rule of law, protection of property rights, and continued economic reform,” it stated.

More specific to the Indian middle class, the starting point has to be a reordering of the taxation and benefits matrix. In other words, the overall tax burden should be reduced even as the benefits such as public healthcare — which has been exposed to be woefully inadequate — and education are ramped up. Doing this would necessarily require the government to make the tax system more progressive and demand higher taxation from the rich.

Similarly, the government must do everything it can to bring down the cost of living for the middle class. For instance, making housing affordable.

The third big thrust has to be to address the lack of jobs and falling labour force participation rate. In particular, this will require a concerted effort to improve the skills of India’s middle class.

 

Aadhaar-related problems in distribution of rations and benefits

The Supreme Court recently asked the Centre to respond to allegations made in a PIL by a Dalit woman from Jharkhand that 3 crore ration cards have been cancelled in the country because of the insistence on Aadhaar linkage and biometric authentication, and that this has resulted in the denial of foodgrains to poor citizens, which in turn has caused starvation deaths including that of the petitioner’s 11-year-old daughter. Poor Internet in remote areas was also flagged as an issue. The Supreme Court said it would hear the PIL in detail at a later date.

Survey findings

Some findings from our national and state surveys are related to this issue. In its National Election Study (NES) during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Lokniti-CSDS had asked electors whether they had ever been denied foodgrains due to non-possession/production of an Aadhaar ID or because their Aadhaar biometric details didn’t match or on account of technical or server issues. On analysing the responses of those from ration-card-holding households, (four-fifths of the 12,000+ electors interviewed said their household held one), it turned out that 28% or over one in four households had indeed experienced such a situation.

While in percentage terms this may not seem all that high a figure to some, in absolute terms (extrapolating to the general household population) it would be huge. Moreover, although we only asked people whether they had ever experienced such a denial and not about the frequency of it or about ration card cancellation specifically, the fact that so many were denied their ration entitlement even once raises questions about the system put in place, especially for a matter relating to food security. Ever since Aadhaar-based biometric authentication was introduced in PDS, there have been numerous reports about people’s fingerprints not getting confirmed by the e-PoS device at the ration shop, iris scanners not being there as backup, and a poor Internet connection forcing people to spend on another trip to the shop. Our survey confirms this and puts a number to it.

Rural vs urban, the states

Contrary to the notion that seeding and authentication problems are occurring mostly in remote areas, our data indicates that they are nearly of the same magnitude in villages and towns/cities —while 28% of respondents belonging to ration card-holding households in rural areas were refused ration due to Aadhaar-related issues at some point, in urban areas this was 27%. Some big cities were slightly better off, however. In both rural and urban areas, the poorest were worst affected – 39% of households with a monthly income below Rs 2,000 said they were at some point denied PDS ration due to Aadhaar problems.

The most striking difference was noticed when we disaggregated the responses by a grouping of Hindi-speaking heartland states vis-à-vis the rest. In the Hindi belt — Bihar, Jharkhand, MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, UP and Uttarakhand, states once described as ‘Bimaru’ by some economists for their backwardness — as many as 40% of RC-holding households reported a denial of ration due to Aadhaar issues, compared to 20% households in the rest of the country. Our data also suggests that the problem may be less due to non-possession of Aadhaar and more due to biometric authentication and server issues, as respondents from 95% of RC-holding households in the ‘Bimaru’ belt did report having Aadhaar.

Coincidentally, 5 of the 7 heartland states — Bihar, Jharkhand, MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh —also had Assembly elections either after the 2019 national election or just before, and in surveys during these elections Lokniti asked the very same question as during NES 2019. We can therefore double check, using much larger samples, whether the situation in these states is as grave as the NES data suggests. We find it indeed is. The proportion of RC-holding households that reported having experienced ration denial due to Aadhaar-related factors was: in Rajasthan, 36%; in Chhattisgarh, 39%; in MP and Jharkhand, over 40%; and in Bihar, particularly high at 56%.

Conclusions

While our data only indicates a denial of PDS grains due to Aadhaar-related issues and doesn’t confirm the allegation of ration card cancellation (since our question wasn’t that specific), the fact that one-fourth households did at some point not get ration they were entitled to because of the Aadhaar compulsion is a serious matter. Moreover, the problem isn’t just limited to PDS. Our surveys also asked people whether their household had ever been denied benefit of a government scheme it was eligible for due to Aadhaar-related issues, and the responses and trends were quite similar.

 

15th April- Himachal Day: The day when the state of Himachal Pradesh came into existence

Himachal day is celebrated on April 15th every year. It was on this day in 1948 that Himachal Pradesh was created as a province of India.

History of Himachal Day

Following independence from Britain in 1947, the Chief Commissioner’s Province of Himachal Pradesh was created on April 15th 1948 as a result of the integration of 30 petty princely states (including feudal princes and zaildars) in the promontories of the western Himalayas.

Most of the areas of Himachal Pradesh were a part of Punjab state and during that time this region was divided into four different regions i.e. Chamba, Mandi, Mahasu and Sirmaur.

On the 15th April Chief Commission inaugurated this territory and after that this day was celebrated as ‘Himachal Day’ every year. Later in the 1970 the union territory was declared as a separate state. On December 18th 1970 the State of Himachal Pradesh Act was passed by Parliament and the new state came into being on January 25th 1971. Himachal then became the eighteenth state of the Indian Union. This event is marked by the public holiday of Statehood Day in Himachal Pradesh on January 25th each year.

Himachal Pradesh has developed rapidly after coming into existence on April 15, 1948, following the merger of 30 princely states. Difficult geographical conditions, inaccessible areas, and other complexities could not affect the courage of the people.

Himachal Pradesh is in northern India. Bordering Tibet, it is noted for its Himalayan landscapes (Himachal means ‘snow-laden region’) and is a popular tourist destination for trekking and enjoying the natural beauty.

The state also has the fourth highest per capita income of the Indian States and is the third fastest growing economy in India.

Some Facts about Himachal Pradesh

  1. The word “Himachal” is derived from two Sanskrit words, “Hima” (snow) and “Anchal” (lap). The state, situated amid valleys and hills, virtually sits in the lap of the Himalayas.
  2. The main language spoken in the state is Hindi but there are several local dialects like Mahasu, Pahari, Mandeali, Kangri, Kullvi, Bilaspuri and Kinnauri.
  3. The recorded historyof Himachal Pradesh goes back to the Maurya period, that is, 4th Century B.C.
  4. A large part of Himachal Pradesh is in the Alpine zone with an average altitude of 4,500 metre.
  5. Himachal Pradesh boasts of spectacular snow-capped ranges like the Dhauladhar, Pir Panjal and the Zaskar.
  6. Tourism and agriculture are the backbone of the economy of Himachal Pradesh.
  7. The state has beautiful tourist destinations like Shimla – the queen of hill stations, Bilaspur, Mandi, Chamba, Kullu, Dalhousie, Kasauli, Kangra, Palampur, Solan, Manali and Dharmshala.
  8. The Kalka-Shimla Railway, often called the “toy train”, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  9. The Kalka-Shimla Railway traverses the steepest slope (over 5800 ft) in roughly 95 km. The train crosses several bridges and tunnels.
  10. Himachal Pradesh has 26 Wildlife Sanctuaries and four National Parks namely Great Himalayan NP, Pin Valley NP, Khirganga NP and Inderkila NP

 

 

Freedom of Navigation Operations, US’s 7th Fleet and India’s EEZ

The US Navy announced that the USS John Paul Jones from its 7th Fleet had “asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent, consistent with international law”. It said “India requires prior consent for military exercises or maneuvers in its exclusive economic zone or continental shelf, a claim inconsistent with international law”, and the “freedom of navigation operation (“FONOP”) upheld the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging India’s excessive maritime claims”.

The Ministry of External Affairs responded that the government’s stated position on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) “is that the Convention does not authorise other States to carry out in the Exclusive Economic Zone and on the continental shelf, military exercises or manoeuvres, in particular those involving the use of weapons or explosives, without the consent of the coastal state”.

FONOP: Simply put, the Freedom of Navigation Operations involves passages conducted by the US Navy through waters claimed by coastal nations as their exclusive territory. According to the US Department of Defense (DoD), the FON Program has existed for 40 years, and “continuously reaffirmed the United States’ policy of exercising and asserting its navigation and overflight rights and freedoms around the world”. The DoD says these “assertions communicate that the United States does not acquiesce to the excessive maritime claims of other nations, and thus prevents those claims from becoming accepted in international law”.

While this is not the first time something like this has happened, this is the first time the US Navy has issued a public statement giving details of the operation. Usually, in the past, the DoD has mentioned all FONOP challenges and assertions in its annual report to Congress.

7TH FLEET: It is the largest of the US Navy’s forward deployed fleets. According to its website, “at any given time there are roughly 50-70 ships and submarines, 150 aircraft, and approximately 20,000 Sailors in Seventh Fleet”, which is commanded by a 3-star Navy officer.

India had a close encounter with the 7th fleet during the 1971 war with Pakistan. According to military historian Srinath Raghavan, US President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger “believed that there was an outside chance for a ceasefire before the Pakistan army caved in on the eastern front”. Nixon instructed his Chief of Navy “to assemble an impressive naval task force and move it off the coast of South Vietnam, into the Malacca Straits, and onward to the Bay of Bengal”. Task Group 74 included the largest aircraft carrier in the US navy, the USS Enterprise. (1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh)

EEZ: According to UNCLOS, the EEZ “is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea, subject to the specific legal regime” under which “the rights and jurisdiction of the coastal State and the rights and freedoms of other States are governed by the relevant provisions of this Convention”.

As per India’s Territorial Waters, Continental Shelf, Exclusive Economic Zone and Other Maritime Zones Act, 1976, the EEZ of India “is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial waters, and the limit of such zone is two hundred nautical miles from the baseline”. India’s “limit of the territorial waters is the line every point of which is at a distance of twelve nautical miles from the nearest point of the appropriate baseline”. Under the 1976 law, “all foreign ships (other than warships including sub-marines and other underwater vehicles) shall enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial waters”, innocent passage being one that is “not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of India”.

Why the Rupee is among biggest losers over the past few weeks

The Indian Rupee hit a nine-month low of 75.4 against the US Dollar on Tuesday and has lost nearly 4.2 per cent over the last three weeks — one of the biggest losers among the emerging market currencies. The Rupee came under severe pressure over the last three weeks in line with the sharp rise in Covid-19 cases and RBI’s announcement, last week, to maintain fairly accommodative monetary policy and that it will inject liquidity through the Government Securities Acquisition Programme (G-SAP) programme — starting with Rs 1 lakh crore in the current quarter. As concerns are growing over the delay in recovery of the economy and normalisation, the Rupee has taken a hit.

How has it fallen and how does it compare to other currencies?

From trading at a level of 72.38 to USD on March 22, the Rupee slipped to levels of 75.42 on Tuesday (afternoon trading hours) thereby witnessing a decline of 4.2 per cent in a matter of three weeks. On Tuesday, it lost 43 paisa to a dollar, hitting a nine-month low. Data shows the Rupee has been one of the biggest losers over the last three weeks as concerns are growing over rising Covid cases and its impact on economic activity across the country.

The Rupee has been one of the weakest emerging market currencies over the last three weeks as has lost 4.2 per cent since March 22 against the dollar. In the same period, only the Turkish New Lira has lost more than the Rupee as it declined 4.36 per cent against the dollar.

While Brazilian Real has lost 3.99 per cent in the same period, Russian Ruble has weakened by 3.25 per cent. Thai Baht and Indonesian Rupiah have lost 2.33 per cent and 1.5 per cent in the same period against the dollar.

What are the key reasons for the decline?

Rising Covid numbers — over 1.6 lakh fresh daily cases — have emerged as a key concern. As several states are now considering more stringent lockdown measures, market participants are concerned over delay in the recovery of the economy, that was hit hard in 2020-21 by the pandemic.

Besides, the strengthening of dollar in line with expectations of better growth in the US economy, has also put pressure on the Rupee. While the Dollar was trading at 1.233 to a Euro in early January 2021, it is currently trading at 1.189 to a Euro and has gained over 3.5 per cent. Since March 1, 2021, the Dollar has gained close to 1.5 per cent against the Euro.

Last week, RBI’s announcement of G-SAP programme to infuse liquidity has also put additional pressure on the Rupee. This is being read as a sort of quantitative easing policy the global central banks had followed, in which the RBI will support the government’s elevated borrowing programme through infusion of liquidity.

Another factor that is putting additional pressure is the dwindling support of the foreign portfolio investors, who pumped huge inflows into Indian equity markets between October and February. While the FPIs invested a net of Rs 1.94 lakh crore between October and February (in the Indian markets) in the month of April they have pulled out a net of Rs 2,263 crore (till date).

Is the weakness likely to continue?

Market participants say the Rupee may hit levels of 77-78 over the next couple of months and that can be a cause of concern for importers, or other individuals who have planned expenditure in foreign currency.

With Covid numbers rising as of now, it continues to pose a threat to the pace of recovery and that is raising concerns over INR. A concern over economic activity and growth of the economy in turn is slowing down the pace of FPI inflows which provides a strong support to Rupee.

Many feel that with the country looking to push manufacturing and exports, RBI too may not intervene to arrest the decline of the Rupee, if it is gradual. So there is a sense that while RBI may step in to curb high volatility, they would not step in for a gradual decline.

 

‘refugees’ and ‘illegal immigrants’, : India’s stance

Last week, the Supreme Court appeared to accept the Centre’s contention that the Rohingya people in India are illegal immigrants when it refused to order the release of 300 members of the community, most of who are in a detention camp in Jammu, and others in Delhi. It said they should be deported according to procedures under the Foreigners Act, 1946.

Illegal immigrant vs refugee

Under the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and the subsequent 1967 Protocol, the word refugee pertains to any person who is outside their country of origin and unable or unwilling to return owing to well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Stateless persons may also be refugees in this sense, where country of origin (citizenship) is understood as ‘country of former habitual residence’. (Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies)

The UN has said the flight of the Rohingya following the Myanmar military crackdown in Rakhine state in 2017 had created the world’s biggest refugee crisis. Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh is the biggest refugee camp in the world today. Myanmar maintains that the Rohingya, who are predominantly Muslim, are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

During a visit to Bangladesh last month, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed appreciation at the generosity of Bangladesh in sheltering and providing humanitarian assistance to the 1.1 million forcibly displaced persons from the Rakhine State of Myanmar”, according to a joint statement. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked India to play a strong role in the “repatriation” of the Rohingya to Myanmar. Modi told her India wants a “return of the refugees in a sustainable manner”, according to a PTI report.

But when it comes to dealing with some 40,000 Rohingya who fled to India, the government’s response has been ambiguous. The government had allowed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to carry out verification and provide some of them with identity cards. Some 14,000 Rohingya have been identified as refugees in this way.

In the Supreme Court however, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta referred to them as illegal immigrants. Combined with public and political rhetoric about terrorism and communal slurs, there is a demand that they be “deported” immediately.

India & UN convention

India has welcomed refugees in the past, and on date, nearly 300,000 people here are categorised as refugees. But India is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention or the 1967 Protocol. Nor does India have a refugee policy or a refugee law of its own.

This has allowed India to keep its options open on the question of refugees. The government can declare any set of refugees as illegal immigrants — as has happened with Rohingya despite the UNHCR verification — and decide to deal with them as trespassers under the Foreigners Act or the Indian Passport Act.

The closest India has come to a refugee policy in recent years is the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, which discriminates between refugees on the basis of religion in offering them Indian citizenship.

Myanmar coup

Since the Myanmar Army seized power on February 1, there has been an influx of people into Mizoram. Many of them are democracy activists belonging to the Chin ethic group, or policemen who said they disobeyed orders to shoot at protesters. They fear the Myanmar Army will kill them if they go back.

In refugee terms, there is no real difference between Rohingya and these new arrivals. Both have fled the Myanmar Army, although in different circumstances. The only difference is that Myanmar accepts one lot as citizens while it rejects Rohingya, who are stateless.

New Delhi’s response to those seeking shelter in Mizoram and Manipur will be keenly watched by the Rohingya.

So far, New Delhi’s confusion about this situation in the Northeast has been evident. It directed security forces to stop more people from crossing over, a decision opposed by the Mizoram government. The Chief Minister has expressed solidarity with those arriving from Myanmar and held a meeting with members of the “democratic government in exile”, blindsiding Delhi again.

In Manipur, a government order asking people not to provide food or shelter to anyone from Myanmar had to be hastily withdrawn after it was widely criticised.

Deportation, non-refoulement

While the Supreme Court has ordered “deportation” of Rohingya “following all procedures” under the Foreigners Act, this is much more complex than it sounds. This is evident from the failed attempt by the Assam government to send back a 14-year-old Rohingya girl, separated from her parents in a Bangladesh refugee camp. The girl was detained while entering Assam at Silchar two years ago. She has no family left in Myanmar, but last week, Assam officials took her to the Moreh border at Manipur to be deported. Myanmar did not accept her.

The bottom line to legal deportation — as opposed to just pushing people back over the border — is that the other country must accept the deportee as its national. Over the last four years, all efforts by Bangladesh to persuade Myanmar to take back the Rohingya at Cox’s Bazaar have been unsuccessful. India managed to send back a handful with much difficulty.

But in terming Rohingya in India as “illegal” (in contrast to calling them refugees in Bangladesh) and pledging to send them back to Myanmar, India is going against the principle of “non-refoulement”, to which it is bound as a signatory to other international treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Non-refoulement means no refugee shall be returned in any manner to any country where he or she would be at risk of persecution. India made the case at the UN as recently as 2018 that this principle must be guarded against dilution, and also argued against raising the bar for granting of refugee status, saying this leaves out a lot of people “pushing them into greater vulnerability”.

How India deals with refugees from different countries differently is also evident in the case of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees, many of them in camps in Tamil Nadu. The state government provides them an allowance and allows them to seek jobs, and their children to attend school. After the end of the Sri Lanka civil war in 2009, India has encouraged return through the method of voluntary repatriation — they decide for themselves in consultation with an agency like the UNHCR, if the situation back home is safe. This method adheres to the principle of non-refoulement.

UNHCR says it is its priority “to create an enabling environment for voluntary repatriation… and to mobilize support for returnees.” Which means it requires the “full commitment of the country of origin to help reintegrate its own people”.

Myanmar is right now far from the point where Rohingya or pro-democracy activists would want to voluntarily return home.

 

New findings about Antarctica’s ‘Doomsday Glacier’

The melting of Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier – also called the “Doomsday Glacier”– has long been a cause of concern because of its high potential of speeding up the global sea level rise happening due to climate change.

Researchers at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg are now saying that fears related to Thwaites’s melting are worse than previously thought, owing to the supply of warm water flowing underneath at a rate underestimated in the past.

What is the glacier and why is it important?

Called the Thwaites Glacier, it is 120 km wide at its broadest, fast-moving, and melting fast over the years. Because of its size (1.9 lakh square km), it contains enough water to raise the world sea level by more than half a metre. Studies have found the amount of ice flowing out of it has nearly doubled over the past 30 years.

Today, Thwaites’s melting already contributes 4% to global sea level rise each year. It is estimated that it would collapse into the sea in 200-900 years. Thwaites is important for Antarctica as it slows the ice behind it from freely flowing into the ocean. Because of the risk it faces — and poses — Thwaites is often called the Doomsday Glacier

What have previous studies said?

A 2019 study had discovered a fast-growing cavity in the glacier, sized roughly two-thirds the area of Manhattan. Then last year, researchers from New York University detected warm water at a vital point below the glacier. The NYU study reported water at just two degrees above freezing point at Thwaites’s “grounding zone” or “grounding line”.

The grounding line is the place below a glacier at which the ice transitions between resting fully on bedrock and floating on the ocean as an ice shelf. The location of the line is a pointer to the rate of retreat of a glacier.

When glaciers melt and lose weight, they float off the land where they used to be situated. When this happens, the grounding line retreats. That exposes more of a glacier’s underside to seawater, increasing the likelihood it will melt faster. This results in the glacier speeding up, stretching out, and thinning, causing the grounding line to retreat ever further.

In the NYU study, scientists dug a 600-m-deep and 35-cm-wide access hole, and deployed an ocean-sensing device called Icefin to measure the waters moving below the glacier’s surface.

What has the new study revealed?

Unlike the NYU study, where a hole had been dug, the Gothenburg study used an uncrewed submarine to go under the Thwaites glacier front to make observations.

“These were the first measurements ever performed beneath Thwaites glacier,” said Anna Wåhlin, professor of oceanography at the University of Gothenburg and lead author of the study that has been published in Science Advances.

As per Gothenburg’s press announcement on Friday, the submersible called “Ran” measured among other things the strength, temperature, salinity and oxygen content of the ocean currents that go under the glacier. Using the results, the researchers have been able to map the ocean currents that flow below Thwaites’s floating part.

The study was “more successful than we had dared to hope,” the press release said.

Crucially, the researchers have been able to identify three inflows of warm water, among whom the damaging effects of one had been underestimated in the past. “The researchers discovered that there is a deep connection to the east through which deep water flows from Pine Island Bay, a connection that was previously thought to be blocked by an underwater ridge,” the press release said.

The study also looked at heat transport in one of the three channels which brings warm water towards the glacier from the north. “The channels for warm water to access and attack Thwaites weren’t known to us before the research. Using sonars on the ship, nested with very high-resolution ocean mapping from Ran, we were able to find that there are distinct paths that water takes in and out of the ice shelf cavity, influenced by the geometry of the ocean floor,” the press release quoted Dr Alastair Graham of the University of Southern Florida as saying.

Why is this a cause of worry?

The study shows that warm water is approaching the pinning points of the glacier from all sides, impacting these locations where the ice is connected to the seabed and where the ice sheet finds stability. This has the potential to make things worse for Thwaites, whose ice shelf is already retreating.

Wåhlin also said, though, “The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that is necessary to model the dynamics of Thwaite’s glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations.”

 

 

G-SAP: Securities acquisition plan for market boost

Keeping policy rates unchanged, the Reserve Bank of India on Wednesday sought to quell the concerns of market participants over rising bond yields. Reiterating the RBI’s commitment to maintaining the current accommodative policy stance until the economy is back on track, the Governor enthused the markets with a new programme — Government Securities Acquisition Programme (G-SAP) — through which it will purchase government securities worth Rs 1 lakh crore in the first quarter of FY22. The RBI also announced that it will continue with a variable rate reverse repo to suck excess liquidity. While the 10-year G-Sec bond yields dropped 0.6% to 6.08 on Wednesday, the benchmark Sensex gained 0.9% to close at 49,661.7.

What do the two announcements mean?

In the backdrop of the government’s elevated borrowing for this year, which the RBI has to ensure goes through without causing disruption, G-SAP aims to provide more comfort to the bond market, market participants said.

At the same time, since liquidity is already in a large surplus, RBI will continue with variable rate reverse repos at the short end. A note by Axis Mutual Fund said, “This can be construed as Operation Twist, with liquidity being withdrawn at the short end and injected at the long end, which should effectively compress ‘term-premia’ (normalising the curve).” Currently, while the 10-year GSec yield is over 6%, the yield on 5-year Gsec is around 5.6% and that on 3-year Gsec is under 5% — around 4.85%.

What other benefits does the G-SAP offer?

Market participants say they have always wanted to know the RBI’s Open Market Operations (OMO) purchase calendar and the RBI has now provided that to the market through this announcement on GSAP. A report by Edelweiss Mutual Fund states that it will provide certainty to the bond market participants with regard to RBI’s commitment of support to the bond market in FY22.

“The RBI has purchased ~Rs. 3.13 trillion worth of bonds from the secondary market in FY21. However, it was carried out in an ad hoc manner with the market awaiting RBI OMO purchase announcements with bated breath on weekly basis. A structured purchase program of similar size such as this will definitely calm investors’ nerves and help market participants to bid better in scheduled auctions and reduce volatility in bond prices,” the report said.

The report notes that the announcement of this structured programme will help reduce the spread between the repo rate and the 10-year government bond yield. That, in turn, will help to reduce the aggregate cost of borrowing for the Centre and states in FY22.

The move to introduce G-SAP “would rein in sharp spike in GSec bond yields.” While introduction of long-term VRRR (variable rate reverse repo) is an extension towards normalising liquidity, “liquidity surplus however will and is likely to continue. It is expected the yield curve to flatten from the current levels with the longer end of the yield curve compressing faster than the short end.”

Why did the equity markets rise?

The Sensex at the Bombay Stock Exchange, which had fallen significantly in February and March on account of rising bond yields, rose 460 points or 0.94% to close the day at 49,661. Following the RBIs monetary policy announcements that included the securities acquisition programme, the 10-year GSec bond yield dropped around 0.6% on Wednesday and was trading at 6.08 as against Tuesday’s closing of 6.122.

While a decline in bond yield is positive for the equities markets, the fact that the RBI has now come out with a structured purchase programme to manage liquidity in the market, and that it will keep bond price volatility in control, is a big positive for market participants.

The RBI’s commitment towards continuing liquidity support also played a role in lifting market sentiments.

While a rise in bond yields in February and March led to weakness in the equity markets, a decline or stabilisation in yields will see equity investor sentiment moving up once again. Not only will domestic investors move towards equity, FPI inflow into equities too could regain momentum.

 

Concept of net-zero and India’s standpoint

The US President’s Special Envoy on Climate, is currently on a three-day visit to India trying to rekindle a climate change partnership that had been all but put on hold during the four years of the Donald Trump administration. The immediate purpose of the visit is to exchange notes ahead of the virtual Climate Leaders’ Summit convened by US President Joe Biden on April 22-23 where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is one of the invitees. This is Biden’s first big international intervention in climate change, and his administration would be keen to ensure a substantive outcome from it.

In its bid to reclaim the global climate leadership, the US is widely expected to commit itself to a net-zero emission targets for 2050 at the summit. Several other countries, including the UK and France, have already enacted laws promising to achieve a net-zero emission scenarios by the middle of the century. The European Union is working a similar Europe-wide law, while many other countries including Canada, South Korea, Japan and Germany have expressed their intention to commit themselves to a net-zero future. Even China has promised to go net-zero by 2060.

India, the world’s third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, after the US and China, is the only major player holding out. One of the objectives of Kerry’s visit is to explore whether New Delhi can be nudged to drop its hard opposition, and open up to the possibility of pledging itself to a 2050 net-zero goal.

The net-zero goal

Net-zero, which is also referred to as carbon-neutrality, does not mean that a country would bring down its emissions to zero. Rather, net-zero is a state in which a country’s emissions are compensated by absorption and removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Absorption of the emissions can be increased by creating more carbon sinks such as forests, while removal of gases from the atmosphere requires futuristic technologies such as carbon capture and storage.

This way, it is even possible for a country to have negative emissions, if the absorption and removal exceed the actual emissions. A good example is Bhutan which is often described as carbon-negative because it absorbs more than it emits.

A very active campaign has been going on for the last two years to get every country to sign on to a net-zero goal for 2050. It is being argued that global carbon neutrality by 2050 is the only way to achieve the Paris Agreement target of keeping the planet’s temperature from rising beyond 2°C compared to pre-industrial times. Current policies and actions being taken to reduce emissions would not even be able to prevent a 3–4°C rise by the turn of the century.

The goal of carbon neutrality is only the latest formulation of a discussion going on for decades, on having a long-term goal. Long-term targets ensure predictability, and continuity, in policies and actions of the countries. But there has never been a consensus on what this goal should be.

Earlier, the discussions used to be on emission-reduction targets, for 2050 or 2070, for rich and developed countries, whose unregulated emissions over several decades are mainly responsible for global warming and consequent climate change. The net-zero formulation does not assign any emission reduction targets on any country.

Theoretically, a country can become carbon-neutral at its current level of emissions, or even by increasing its emissions, if it is able to absorb or remove more. From the perspective of the developed world, it is a big relief, because now the burden is shared by everyone, and does not fall only on them.

India’s objections

India is the only one opposing this target because it is likely to be the most impacted by it. India’s position is unique. Over the next two to three decades, India’s emissions are likely to grow at the fastest pace in the world, as it presses for higher growth to pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. No amount of afforestation or reforestation would be able to compensate for the increased emissions. Most of the carbon removal technologies right now are either unreliable or very expensive.

But on principle as well as practice, India’s arguments are not easy to dismiss. The net-zero goal does not figure in the 2015 Paris Agreement, the new global architecture to fight climate change. The Paris Agreement only requires every signatory to take the best climate action it can. Countries need to set five- or ten-year climate targets for themselves, and demonstrably show they have achieved them. The other requirement is that targets for every subsequent time-frame should be more ambitious than the previous one.

Implementation of the Paris Agreement has begun only this year. Most of the countries have submitted targets for the 2025 or 2030 period. India has been arguing that instead of opening up a parallel discussion on net-zero targets outside of the Paris Agreement framework, countries must focus on delivering on what they have already promised. New Delhi is hoping to lead by example. It is well on its way to achieving its three targets under the Paris Agreement, and looks likely to overachieve them.

Several studies have shown that India is the only G-20 country whose climate actions are compliant to the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperatures from rising beyond 2°C. Even the actions of the EU, which is seen as the most progressive on climate change, and the US are assessed as “insufficient”. In other words, India is already doing more, relatively speaking, on climate than many other countries.

New Delhi also repeatedly points to the fact that the developed nations have never delivered on their past promises and commitments. No major country achieved the emission-cut targets assigned to them under the Kyoto Protocol, the climate regime preceding the Paris Agreement. Some openly walked out of the Kyoto Protocol, without any consequences. None of the countries has delivered on the promises they made for 2020. Even worse is their track record on their commitment to provide money, and technology, to developing and poor countries to help them deal with the impacts of climate change.

India has been arguing that the 2050 carbon-neutrality promise might meet a similar fate, although some countries are now binding themselves in law. It has been insisting that the developed countries should, instead, take more ambitious climate actions now, to compensate for the unfulfilled earlier promises.

At the same time, it has been saying that it does not rule out the possibility of achieving carbon-neutrality by 2050 or 2060. Just that, it does not want to make an international commitment so much in advance.

 

Pre-pack: Insolvency resolution option for MSMEs

The central government has promulgated an ordinance allowing the use of pre-packs as an insolvency resolution mechanism for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) with defaults up to Rs 1 crore, under the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code.

The move comes soon after the end of a one-year suspension of insolvency initiation imposed by the government in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The government had last year also increased the minimum default threshold for insolvency proceedings from Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1 crore.

What are pre-packs?

A pre-pack is the resolution of the debt of a distressed company through an agreement between secured creditors and investors instead of a public bidding process. This system of insolvency proceedings has become an increasingly popular mechanism for insolvency resolution in the UK and Europe over the past decade. Under the pre-pack system, financial creditors will agree to terms with a potential investor and seek approval of the resolution plan from the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT).

The approval of a minimum of 66 per cent of financial creditors that are unrelated to the corporate debtor would be required before a resolution plan is submitted to the NCLT.  Further NCLTs are also required to either accept or reject any application for a pre-pack insolvency proceeding before considering a petition for a CIRP.

What are the benefits of pre-packs over the Corporate Insolvency Resolution Process (CIRP)?

One of the key criticisms of the CIRP has been the time taken for resolution.  At the end of December 2020, over 86 per cent of the 1717 on-going insolvency resolution proceedings had crossed the 270-day threshold. One of the key reasons behind delays in the CIRPs are prolonged litigations by erstwhile promoters and potential bidders.

The pre-pack in contrast is limited to a maximum of 120 days with only 90 days available to the stakeholders to bring the resolution plan to the NCLT.

Another key difference between pre-packs and CIRP is that the existing management retains control in the case of pre-packs while a resolution professional takes control of the debtor as a representative of financial creditors in the case of CIRP. Experts note that this allows for minimal disruption of operations relative to a CIRP.

What is the key motivation behind the introduction of the pre-pack?

According to sources aware of developments, pre-packs are largely aimed at providing MSMEs with an opportunity to restructure their liabilities and start with a clean slate while still providing adequate protections so that the system is not misused by firms to avoid making payments to creditors.

“Prepacks will help corporate debtors to enter into consensual restructuring with lenders and address the entire liability side of the company,” said Rajiv Chandak, partner at Deloitte India, noting that the government should consider setting up specific benches of the NCLT to deal with pre-pack resolution plans to ensure that they are implemented in a time-bound manner.

How are creditors protected from misuse by promoters to simply reduce liabilities and retain control?

Experts noted that the pre-pack provisions introduced by the central government also provided for adequate protection to ensure the provisions were not misused by errant promoters. The pre-pack mechanism allows for a swiss challenge for any resolution plans which proved less than full recovery of dues for operational creditors. Under the swiss challenge mechanism, any third party would be permitted to submit a resolution plan for the distressed company and the original applicant would have to either match the improved resolution plan or forego the investment.

Creditors are also permitted to seek resolution plans from any third party if they are not satisfied with the resolution plan put forth by the promoter.

What next?

The pre-pack is expected to be rolled out to all corporations over time as legal issues around the provisions are settled through case law, according to experts.

 

Detention despite bail: Why District Magistrates love the NSA

A close scrutiny of the orders by District Magistrates invoking the National Security Act shows why the draconian law is so readily invoked. For, the NSA empowers the state to detain a person without a formal charge and without trial.

Under the NSA, a person is taken into custody to prevent him or her from acting in any manner prejudicial to “the security of the state” or for “maintenance of the public order.”

It is an administrative order passed either by the Divisional Commissioner or the District Magistrate — and not detention ordered by police based on specific allegations or for a specific violation of the law.

Even if a person is in police custody, the DM can slap NSA against him. Or, if a person has been granted bail by a trial court, he can be immediately detained under the NSA. If the person has been acquitted by the court, the same person can be detained under the NSA.

 

Indeed, an analysis of records shows how the draconian law was invoked in UP to prevent the person from being released from judicial custody even if the accused had got bail.

In 12 detentions under NSA between January 2018 and December 2020, the person remained in jail more than 200 days after the criminal court had already granted bail; in three detentions, the persons remained in jail for more than 300 days — in one case, for 325 days, and in another, for 308 days.

The law also takes away an individual’s constitutional right to be produced before the magistrate within 24 hours as is the case when the accused is in police custody; the detained person also does not have the right to move a bail application before a criminal court.

Also, the DM who passed the detention order is protected under the Act: no prosecution or any legal proceeding can be initiated against the official who carried out the orders.

Therefore, the writ of Habeas Corpus is the only protection guaranteed under the Constitution against the unchecked state power of taking people into custody under the NSA.

The higher judiciary has held that the preventive detention under NSA has to be strictly construed keeping in view the “delicate balance between social security and citizen freedom”. The Supreme Court has held that to prevent “misuse of this potentially dangerous power, the law of preventive detention has to be strictly construed” and “meticulous compliance with the procedural safeguards” has to be ensured.

One crucial procedural safeguard under the NSA is granted under Article 22(5), where all the detained persons have the right to make an effective representation before an independent advisory board, which consists of three members; and the board is chaired by a member who is, or has been, a judge of a High Court. Significantly, in all the 120 cases under scrutiny, the board upheld the detention

Why sticking to RBI’s inflation targeting regime is justified

The week that went by featured several significant developments for the Indian economy.

In positive news, for the sixth month in a row, the government collected over Rs 1 lakh crore as GST. Further, data also showed that in March, India’s exports grew by almost 60%.

On the downside, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index ranked India at a lowly 140 out of 156 countries.

Still, the biggest news on the economic front from the last week has to be the Central government confirming that India’s central bank, the RBI, will continue to target maintaining retail inflation within the band of 2% to 6%.

On the face of it, this may sound like a non-event. After all, this “inflation targeting” regime was put in place in 2016 and has just been renewed for another five years.

But the fact is that RBI’s mandate of inflation targeting has been heavily criticised in the past — sometimes even by the voices within the government.

Why?

RBI is the main monetary policy authority for the country. In this regard, apart from being the lender of last resort as well as the regulator for the banking system, the RBI sets the benchmark for interest rates and credit growth.

Now, there are two diametrically opposite ways in which the RBI, or for that matter any central bank, can go about its business.

If the RBI sees that its main job is to boost growth in the economy then it could keep the interest rates lower while relaxing the regulations to enable quick and easy ways for the banking system to give out new loans. Cheaper loans will make it easier for firms and governments to borrow and spend/invest — thus boosting economic growth.

On the other hand, if the RBI sees that its main job is to maintain financial stability and control prices in the economy, then it would keep a tight leash on the interest rates and the norms determining the provisioning of new loans. This would, in turn, constrain economic growth.

Between 2016 and 2020, there were many times when the RBI’s single-minded focus on keeping retail inflation within the 4% +/- 2% band was blamed for interest rates being too high for businesses, and thus hurting India’s economic growth.

The odd thing with inflation targeting is that it can justifiably be questioned on several counts.

To begin with, one could argue that instead of headline retail inflation, the RBI should focus on the retail core inflation rate, which is the inflation rate without taking into account the fluctuations in the prices of fuel and food items.

Since fuel and food prices often shoot up in the short-term due to temporary factors — say, excessive rains or some other supply disruption — it is best for the RBI to focus on core inflation. The logic being that it is the core inflation that is the most robust indicator of the rate of rise in prices.

Others can argue that the RBI should not be looking at retail inflation at all. Instead, it should look at wholesale inflation.

Why?

Because RBI’s move to tweak interest rate affects the credit available to businesses, which, in turn, are affected by wholesale inflation, and not retail inflation. It can be argued that if retail prices of fruits and vegetables spike due to unseasonal rains, thus pushing up retail inflation, then raising interest rates — an action that would make it costlier for all manufacturing and services firms to get a loan — will not help matters anyway.

Proponents of this view pointed to the vast gap between the retail and wholesale inflation rates in recent years.

Still others say that ideally, the RBI should neither use the wholesale nor retail inflation rate as targets. Instead, it should create a Producer Price Index — a more focussed inflation rate index to best suit RBI’s need.

The questioning of inflation-targeting was not limited to what type of inflation rate should be targeted but also included the extent of this targeting.

Why should RBI maintain inflation at 4%? Why not 5%? Why should the range be between 2% and 6%? Why not wider or narrower?

As you would understand, each such decision would tweak the degrees of freedom the RBI has in terms of setting the credit policy in the economy.

But, of course, the opposition to inflation targeting regime was also from those who argued that the whole idea was inadvisable. For many, such a singular focus on maintaining price stability is a counter-productive choice for a developing economy such as India.

They argue that instead of being overly finicky about the inflation rate — be it wholesale or retail —the RBI should be working with the government towards ensuring fast economic growth. If that means reducing interest rates and relaxing lending norms so that borrowers (companies as well as governments) can borrow at easy terms then the RBI should play ball. By applying onerous prudential norms that are used in the West and prioritising price control, the RBI is hurting India’s growth potential, or so goes the argument.

What fuelled many such reservations and criticisms was India’s decelerating economic growth rate since the start of 2017. It also mattered that in the past RBI never had an explicit mandate to target a particular level of inflation. Even so, India did avoid being as severely impacted by several global financial crises in the past. So the argument was: Inflation targeting is not the only way to be prudent about macro-financial stability.

Given this long list of complaints, it was a significant event that RBI’s mandate has not been changed at this crucial juncture.
Already, since the time current RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das took charge, there has been a clear shift in the RBI’s stance towards doing everything in its power to boost economic growth. This phase has largely coincided with the economic disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the past 12 months, the RBI has either relaxed or suspended several regulatory norms to soften the blow of economic distress.

But this is also a phase where the inflation rate has consistently stayed above RBI’s comfort zone. It is important to point out that a high inflation rate is the most regressive kind of tax — the poorest are hit the hardest.

As India starts a new financial year, there is a tremendous and understandable urgency to grow fast and get back to the days of high GDP growth rate.

But it is also true that in the months and year ahead, as banks start recognising bad loans or non-performing assets on their books, macro-financial stability will come into sharp focus. Moreover, with fuel prices staying high and another wave of Covid-induced lockdowns likely, supply bottlenecks could lead to inflation rates spiking again.

Under the circumstances, it is a wise decision by the government to not ask the RBI to give up targeting retail inflation. This non-event will likely ensure that India’s poorest, who are already hit by the pandemic, do not get further penalised.

This week, the RBI will act on this freshly renewed mandate as its Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) announces its bi-monthly credit policy review. It is widely expected that, given the concerns about inflation, the MPC will avoid tweaking the benchmark interest rates.

Lastly, another noteworthy development this week would be the release of International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook late Monday evening.

 

A step in Pakistan’s ‘rational shift’, result of multiple pressures

The reopening of trade at Wagah for cotton and sugar exports from India to Pakistan after two years is among the first substantive relaxations in bilateral ties following the February 25 restoration of the ceasefire at the Line of Control Pakistan had stopped all trade with India in protest against the August 5, 2019 changes in Jammu and Kashmir. It had also said it would not be sending a High Commissioner to New Delhi; in retaliation, India had withdrawn its High Commissioner in Islamabad. In recent days, Pakistan had signalled a softening of its stand that it would not talk to India before a full rollback of the changes in J&K. Although both India and Pakistan were cautious not to link their reaffirmation of the ceasefire to any wider improvements in ties, it had been apparent that a backchannel process had been at work, and that the ceasefire was likely the first step towards other moves to normalise ties. There have been indications that trade ties would be the easiest to normalise. Over the last few months, there has been pressure from the Pakistan textile lobby for resuming import of Indian cotton yarn. On Wednesday, cotton prices in Pakistan touched a 11-year-high of Rs 11,700 per maund, Dawn reported. Prices have been rising due to a steep fall in cotton yields in Pakistan. Pakistan has also allowed private traders to import up to 0.5 million tonnes of white sugar from India.

Generals’ different strategy

The Pakistan military establishment, the power behind Imran Khan’s civilian government, is certainly signalling a “rational” shift in the way it views relations with India, and the rest of the region and the world. Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said recently that Pakistan had rethought its national security paradigm from purely military defence to economic security.

Underpinning this review of national security, said Bajwa in a landmark speech in Islamabad, was “our desire to change the narrative of geo-political contestation into geoeconomic integration”.

The rethink coincides with fresh troubles for Pakistan’s financial assistance-dependent economy. The sweeping changes in West Asia, especially after the Abrahamic accords, have left Pakistan isolated among countries that it saw as “brothers” who would help out now and then with a moratorium on payments for oil, or a loan on easy terms. But Saudi Arabia and UAE have been talking tough with Pakistan in recent months. China has rescued it a couple of times, but Pakistan is as wary of borrowing too much from Beijing as others in the region.

An IMF loan with tough conditions has helped the country stay afloat but has not made the government popular. Earlier this week, Pakistan received a tranche of $500 million of the $6 billion loan, which had been on hold since February 2020 pending decisions that it has now taken, such as increases in electricity tariff, freeing the central bank from government control, and withdrawal of income tax exemptions.

 

Pakistan has always viewed itself as a “special” country because of its location at an important crossroads between Asia and Eurasia. It has believed this could help achieve its strategic objectives in the region and beyond.

But the realisation that location could be used to Pakistan’s economic benefit was clearly not actionable until the military establishment got on board the idea.

During Gen Pervez Musharraf’s decade-long rule, there was some experimenting with connectivity; the Iran-Pakistan-India oil pipeline was perhaps the earliest effort. New Delhi was a hesitant participant, and threatened to pull out over transit fees that Pakistan was negotiating. The project turned a non-starter after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. By then, India had signed the nuclear deal with the US. Pakistan alleged that the Indian pullout was under US pressure. Efforts to get a bilateral Iran-Pakistan pipeline going are yet to bear fruit.

All through this time, Pakistan has denied India transit rights overland for trade with Aghanistan due to security and economic concerns, while granting Afghanistan limited transit rights for export of dried fruit to India. This Afghan-India trade has continued even through the last two years.

The answer to whether the decision by the government in Islamabad to set Kashmir aside and start trade with India is a strategic shift lies in how ready Pakistan’s generals are to put their money where their mouth is on connectivity and “geo-economics”, and grant India overland rights to trade with Afghanistan.

New Delhi has for years pushed the India-China model of bilateral relations, where trade has taken the front seat and the contested boundary is the subject of long-drawn negotiations. If Pakistan is beginning to see it this way too, that would indeed be a huge change.

Untapped potential

Trade between India and Pakistan has always been hostage to their hostile relationship. For years, Pakistan traded with India on the basis of a positive list, changing to a negative list only in 2009. Other efforts to ease trade have been unsuccessful, including a 2011 push by Pakistan to reciprocate India’s grant of MFN. It came a cropper on a campaign by Hafiz Saeed, head of the LeT/JuD to portray that this was a huge concession to India. His translation of MFN into Urdu — sabse pasandeeda mulk — rattled Islamabad.

India withdrew MFN status to Pakistan after the Pulwama attack. It has to be seen whether the two countries will grant each other this status, which is a WTO obligation. In the first few years of the last decade, the move to relax the visa regime for businessmen did not go far.

While the total value of bilateral trade has hovered around $2 billion, unofficial trade through third countries such as UAE is valued at far more.

Trade numbers have been next to non-existent since August 2019. The beneficial impact of even limited trade resumption will be felt on both sides.

“The economic impact of India-Pakistan trade suspension since 2019 has been significant in border economies like Amritsar. Annual bilateral trade of around $2.5 billion is the minimum that could not be realised during the suspension period. This loss also has a spillover effect on other stakeholders. Labourers at the border crossing lost their livelihoods, transporters, clearing agents, restaurants, workshops, all got impacted,” said Afaq Hussain of the Delhi-based think tank BRIEF (Bureau of Research on Industry and Economic Fundamentals).

 

The 2006 Supreme Court ruling on police reforms; how states circumvent it to influence postings

Political interference in police postings continues despite the landmark Prakash Singh judgment nearly a decade-and-a-half ago that addressed the issue and was pegged to be a watershed moment in police reforms.

The latest episode of allegations of lobbying by several IPS officers in Maharashtra and of ‘power brokers’ deciding on postings in cahoots with the government shows little has changed in the system.

What is the SC’s Prakash Singh judgment on police reforms?

Prakash Singh, who served as DGP of UP Police and Assam Police besides other postings, filed a PIL in the Supreme Court post retirement, in 1996, seeking police reforms. In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court in September 2006 had directed all states and Union Territories to bring in police reforms. The ruling issued a series of measures that were to be undertaken by the governments to ensure the police could do their work without worrying about any political interference.

What measures were suggested by the Supreme Court?

The seven main directives from the Supreme Court in the verdict were fixing the tenure and selection of the DGP to avoid situations where officers about to retire in a few months are given the post. In order to ensure no political interference, a minimum tenure was sought for the Inspector General of Police so that they are not transferred mid-term by politicians. The SC further directed postings of officers being done by Police Establishment Boards (PEB) comprising police officers and senior bureaucrats to insulate powers of postings and transfers from political leaders. Further, there was a recommendation of setting up State Police Complaints Authority (SPCA) to give a platform where common people aggrieved by police action could approach. Apart from this, the SC directed separation of investigation and law and order functions to better improve policing, setting up of State Security Commissions (SSC) that would have members from civil society and forming a National Security Commission.

How did states respond to these directives?

The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), in its report on September 22, 2020 that tracked changes made in the police force following the 2006 judgment, found that not even one state was fully compliant with the apex court directives and that while 18 states passed or amended their Police Acts in this time, not one fully matches legislative models.

How has Maharashtra’s track record been?

The Maharashtra government under former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis passed the Maharashtra Police (Amendment and Continuance) Act, 2014 that was meant to incorporate the changes suggested in the Prakash Singh judgment.

Recently, former Maharashtra State Intelligence Department Commissioner Rashmi Shukhla forwarded a document to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray alleging rampant political interference in transfers.

If the Maharashtra government made the necessary changes, why has the situation not improved?

The new Maharashtra Police Act had been criticised for being “flawed” and only making piecemeal changes to save themselves from the ire of the Supreme Court that was pulling up states that had not followed its directives. However the state Acts were deliberately formulated in such a way that “it just gave legal garb to the status quo that existed before”.

How did the Maharashtra government circumvent the SC directives to continue controlling the police?

A government official told The Indian Express that in the updated Maharashtra Police Act of 2014, a section 22(N)(2) had been added that gave the CM special powers to transfer officers at any point in case of ‘administrative exigencies’. Thus, while the SC directive was that an officer should not be transferred before the given tenure, CM’s have used this section for mid-term transfer thereby maintaining control on transfers. The recent transfer of the former Mumbai Police Commissioner Param Bir Singh too was done under this section.

How has the government interfered in postings and transfers when there are Police Establishment Boards (PEB)?

Several senior officers, some of whom have been part of the five-member PEB, told The Indian Express that the officers on the committee are ‘unofficially’ informed by the government about which officer would be preferred for which post. “Either that or in meetings to decide postings of senior IPS officers, when even the Additional Chief Secretary (home) is present, the officers go with what the ACS Home says. They believe that his say is what the government wants. Among five officers, even if one or two do not agree, the majority usually sides with what the postings that the government of the day is interested in,” a senior official said. Thus in spite of PEB’s in place, the system has continued as before, several officers said.

What about the State Police Complaints Authority (SPCA) that was set up in Maharashtra as per the SC court directive?

In January 2017, the SPCA was set up by the Maharashtra government and former IPS officer PK Jain was one of the members. While the complaints body did receive several complaints at their office in Mumbai, the SPCA was struggling to set up offices in rural areas. Several activists had alleged that the SPCA was toothless as it could recommend action against any officer found guilty. The decision on whether any action was to be taken eventually rested with the government. Over the past years, however, the body has struggled due to lack of staff members.

What has been the response of the Supreme Court to these issues?

Prakash Singh said that he has followed up on these issues and has had nearly five contempt petitions issued in the past decades to states found to be non-compliant. Singh said that bigger states like Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and UP have been the worst when it comes to bringing about systemic changes in line with the judgment and that it is only the North-Eastern states that have followed the suggested changes in spirit. Singh said states like Maharashtra make their own laws that are not effective. The need of the hour is an all-India Act that all states have to follow and small changes can be made in exceptional cases relating to the situation in a particular state.

 

Why Pakistan is lifting its ban on Indian imports?

Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) has allowed the import of cotton and yarn from India.

The top decision-making body was meeting on March 31 afternoon to discuss the possibility of restarting the import of cotton, cotton yarn, and white sugar following its nearly two-year long ban on trade with India.

The ECC meeting was still ongoing, and a debate was continuing on whether the import of sugar should also be allowed, the Reuters report said.

What was the nature of trade relations between the two countries, and why did they sour? And why does Pakistan want to ease the ban on imports of these products now?

India and Pakistan’s trade relations before the ban

Trade between the subcontinental neighbours has always been linked to their political interactions, given their tumultuous relationship.

For instance, India’s exports to Pakistan dropped by around 16 per cent to $1.82 billion in the 2016-17 financial year from $2.17 billion in 2015-16. This coincided with the rise in tensions between the two countries following the terrorist attacks in Uri in 2016, and the surgical strikes by India against Pakistan-based militants.

Trade between the two countries grew marginally in subsequent years despite continuing tensions, with India’s exports to Pakistan increasing nearly 6 per cent to $1.92 billion in 2017-18, and by around 7 per cent to $2.07 billion in 2018-19.

Imports from Pakistan, though much lower than India’s exports to the country, also increased by 7.5 per cent to $488.56 million in 2017-18 from $454.49 million in 2016-17.

Growth of imports from Pakistan slowed to around $494.87 million in 2018-19 — an increase of around 1 per cent — before political relations between the two countries took a turn for the worse in 2019.

Why did Pakistan ban trade with India?

Pakistan’s decision to suspend bilateral trade with India in August 2019 was primarily a fallout of India’s decision to scrap Article 370 — the constitutional provision that recognised the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and afforded it a certain amount of autonomy.

Pakistan called the move “illegal”, and took this trade measure as a way of showing its dissatisfaction.

However, an underlying reason for suspending trade between the two countries was also the 200 per cent tariff imposed by New Delhi on Pakistani imports — a move that India implemented earlier that year after revoking its status as a Most Favoured Nation following the suicide bomb attack on the CRPF in Pulwama.

 

Pakistan’s announcement, coupled with India’s decision to revoke its MFN status and hike duties on its goods, were considered by some experts to be one of the most drastic trade measures taken in the souring diplomatic relations between the nations.

Trade between the two countries suffered greatly in 2019-20, with India’s exports to Pakistan dropping nearly 60.5 per cent to $816.62 million, and its imports plummeting around 97 per cent to $13.97 million.

Why is Pakistan’s ECC meeting to discuss allowing cotton and sugar imports now?

The proposal to lift the ban on cotton imports came in the backdrop of a shortfall in raw material for Pakistan’s textile sector, which has reportedly been facing issues due to a low domestic yield of cotton in the country. On top of this, imports from other countries like the US and Brazil have reportedly been more expensive, and take longer to arrive in the country.

“A meeting was held with the Prime Minister @ImranKhanPTI escalating prices of cotton yarn were discussed,” tweeted Abdul Razak Dawood, Adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for Commerce and Investment, on March 29.

He added that the Pakistani Prime Minister, who was “sympathetic” towards the sector, had advised that “all steps be taken through cross-border imports of cotton yarn, including by land” in order to ease the pressure on yarn and “keep momentum of value added exports”.

Cotton has been one of Pakistan’s major imports from India. In 2018-19, Pakistan imported $550.33 million worth of cotton from India. When coupled with $457.75 million worth of organic chemicals, these products made up around half of its total imports from India. In 2019-20, however, India’s cotton exports to Pakistan dropped to $64.25 million.

Where sugar is concerned, trade experts feel it is a result of a long-standing interdependence between India and Pakistan over such agricultural commodities and a potential shortage in domestic supply. Interestingly, Pakistan’s imports of sugar between July-February 2020-21 soared by nearly 6,296 per cent to 278,733 metric tonnes from 4,358 metric tonnes in the same period in 2019-20. In terms of value, Pakistan spent $126.99 million on these imports, according to the country’s trade statistics.

“The import bill this year also increased because we had to import wheat and sugar to stabilise the market prices,” stated Dawood in a tweet on March 2 about the country’s provisional trade data.

“There has been sugar dependence between the two countries forever. Typically, what happens is, (because) they also produce sugar and we also produce sugar, whenever they have a shortage, we have supplied their requirement and vice versa,” said Prof Nisha Taneja of the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, an expert on India’s regional trade.

“Even when we had a very small positive list (of goods for trade with Pakistan), agricultural commodities were always there in the list,” she said.

If finally approved, cotton and sugar would be the second and third commodities allowed for export from India to Pakistan after Islamabad lifted the ban on medicine and related raw material imports in May 2020 to ensure sufficient supplies of essential drugs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The country imported $183.18 million worth of organic chemicals and pharmaceutical products from India from April-January 2020-21.

 

Why is it becoming more difficult to detect deepfake videos, and what are the implications?

Doctored videos or deepfakes have been one of the key weapons used in propaganda battles for quite some time now. Donald Trump taunting Belgium for remaining in the Paris climate agreement, David Beckham speaking fluently in nine languages, Mao Zedong singing ‘I will survive’ or Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk in a pilot episode of Star Trek… all these videos have gone viral despite being fake, or because they were deepfakes.

Last year, Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, said deepfakes are as potent as nuclear weapons in waging wars in a democracy. “In the old days, if you wanted to threaten the United States, you needed 10 aircraft carriers, and nuclear weapons, and long-range missiles. Today, you just need access to our Internet system, to our banking system, to our electrical grid and infrastructure, and increasingly, all you need is the ability to produce a very realistic fake video that could undermine our elections, that could throw our country into tremendous crisis internally and weaken us deeply,”

The potential danger of deepfakes lies in the fact that the level of manipulation is so perfect that it can be seemingly impossible at times to distinguish them from real videos. And the more difficult it becomes to detect the falsity, the greater the threat it possesses to pass off as real and cause the havoc it intends to. But with more sophisticated tools powered by artificial intelligence available now to produce these videos, is it becoming more difficult to detect deepfakes?

What are deepfakes and how are they created?

Deepfakes constitute fake content — often in the form of videos but also other media formats such as pictures or audio — created using powerful artificial intelligence tools. They are called deepfakes because they use deep learning technology, a branch of machine learning that applies neural net simulation to massive data sets, to create fake content.

It employs a branch of artificial intelligence where if a computer is fed enough data, it can generate fakes which behave much like a real person. For instance, AI can learn what a source face looks like and then transpose it onto another target to perform a face swap.

The application of a technology called Generative Adversarial Networks (GAN), which uses two AI algorithms — where one generates the fake content and the other grades its efforts, teaching the system to be better — has helped come up with more accurate deepfakes.

GAN can also come up with computer-generated images of fake human beings, which has been used by a website called ‘This Person Does Not Exist’. This makes it virtually impossible to detect whether the videos or images we see on the Internet are real or fake.

Deepfakes can be really difficult to detect. For instance, many people had fallen for Tiktok videos of Tom Cruise playing golf which were later revealed to be deepfakes.

Is it becoming more difficult to detect deepfakes?

A paper presented at the Winter Conference on Applications of Computer Vision 2021 describes a new technique which renders deepfakes more foolproof, making it difficult for traditional tools to detect them.

“Current state-of-the-art methods for deepfake detection can be easily bypassed if the adversary has complete or even partial knowledge of the detector,” states the paper titled ‘Adversarial Deepfakes: Evaluating Vulnerability of Deepfake Detectors to Adversarial Examples’

“Adversarial inputs are slightly modified inputs such that they cause deep neural networks to make a mistake. Deep neural networks have been shown to be vulnerable to such inputs which can cause the classifier’s output to change. In our work, we show that an attacker can slightly modify each frame of a deepfake video such that it can bypass a deepfake detector and get classified as real,”

What are the threats posed by deepfake videos?

With a proliferation of deepfake videos, there is a growing concern that they will be weaponised to run political campaigns and can be exploited by authoritarian regimes.

In 2019, a research organisation called Future Advocacy and UK Artist Bill Posters created a video of UK PM Boris Johnson and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn endorsing each other for the prime minister’s post. The group said the video was created to show the potential of deepfakes to undermine democracy.

Also, last year, before the Delhi Assembly polls, videos of Delhi BJP president Manoj Tiwari speaking in English and Haryanvi went viral. In these videos, Tiwari was seen criticising Arvind Kejriwal and asking people to vote for BJP. The videos, which were shared in over 5,000 WhatsApp groups, were later revealed to be deepfake, digital media firm Vice reported.

Deepfakes are also a cause for concern at a time when WHO has stated that the Covid-19 crisis has triggered an infodemic and there have been “deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals”.

Moreover, doctored videos — which includes manipulating the content by using incorrect date stamp or location, clipping content to change the context, omission, splicing and fabrication — are increasingly used nowadays on social media to deliberately misrepresent facts for political ends. Most of these videos are not examples of deepfakes but show how easy it can be to obfuscate facts and spread lies based on manipulated content masquerading as hard evidence.

The other big concern about deepfake videos is the generation of nonconsensual pornographic content. In 2017, a user deployed a face-swapping algorithm to create deepfake pornographic videos of celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson, Gal Gadot, Kristen Bell and Michelle Obama, and shared them on a Reddit threat called “r/deepfake”. The account had nearly 90,000 subscribers by the time it was taken down in February next year.

Of the thousands of deepfake videos on the Internet, more than 90% are nonconsensual pornography. One of the most horrifying AI experiments last year was an app called DeepNude that “undressed” photos of women — it could take photographs and then swap women’s clothes for highly realistic nude bodies. The app was taken down after a strong backlash.

Also, as it is being widely reported, deepfake videos are being increasingly used to generate revenge porn by spurned lovers to harass women.

“The threat posed by Deepfake videos is already apparent,” Neekhara and Hussain told indianexpress.com. “There are malicious users using such videos to defame famous personalities, spread disinformation, influence elections and polarise people. With more convincing and accessible deepfake video synthesis techniques, this threat has become even bigger in magnitude,” they added.

Is there a crackdown in the offing?

Most social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter have banned deepfake videos. They have said as soon as they detect any video as a deepfake, it will be taken down.

Facebook has recruited researchers from Berkeley, Oxford, and other institutions to build a deepfake detector. In 2019, it held a Deepfake Detection Challenge partnering with industry leaders and academic experts during which a unique dataset consisting of more than 100,000 videos was created and shared.

However, not all deepfakes can be detected accurately and it can also take considerable time for them to be found and taken down. Moreover, a lot of pornographic sites do not exercise the same level of restrictions.

Neekhara and Hussain said, “To detect deepfake videos more accurately, we need adversarially robust models by incorporating an attacker while training such deepfake detection models. A long-term solution is watermarking or digitally signing the images and videos from the device they are captured. The watermark or digital signature should get disrupted if the deepfake techniques like face swaps are applied. A deepfake detector can then just verify the signature or the watermark. However, this would require establishing a watermarking standard across all cameras and mobile phones. Therefore, it can be a while until this becomes a reality.”

 

Quran case, and the powers of judicial review

A PIL in Supreme Court has sought that 26 verses of the Quran be declared unconstitutional and non-functional. A look at the limitations of judicial review where a holy book is concerned, various aspects of the petition, the deeper context of the verses flagged by the petitioner, and a previous plea on the Quran.

public interest litigation has been filed in the Supreme Court by Wasim Rizvi seeking declaration of 26 verses of the Quran as unconstitutional, non-effective and non- functional on the ground that these promote extremism and terrorism and pose a serious threat to the sovereignty, unity and integrity of the country. Millions have memorised the Quran; the petitioner has not mentioned how any court can delete these verses from their memory.

The petition has led to protests among Muslims, and several clerics have issued fatwas against the petitioner. In Vishwa Lochan Madan (2014), the Supreme Court has already observed that such fatwas have no validity. Shia clerics have excommunicated Rizvi from the fold of Shias.

Parties to petition

Rizvi had named three secretaries of the Centre as respondents. He also named 56 private persons such as Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, who is the current Syedna of Bohras, Chancellor of Aliah University in Kolkata, principals of some colleges such as Islamia English Medium Higher Secondary in Kerala, leaders of political parties such as Asaduddin Owaisi etc. The Muslim Personal Law Board comes at number 57. It is not clear why Vice-Chancellors of Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia (or its Chancellor) and Maulana Azad University were not made respondents.

In purely legal terms, the writ jurisdiction lies against the “state’” and all these persons named as respondents are certainly not ‘state’ within the meaning of Article 12 of the Constitution. Ideally he should have made Muslim God, Allah, as respondent number one as Muslims believe him to be the sole author of the Quran. Under Indian law, idols are juristic persons and recently Ram Lalla won the historic Babri Masjid case.

Power of judicial review

Under Indian law, only a “law” can be challenged as unconstitutional. Article 13(3) defines law, which includes any ordinance, order, by-law, rule, regulations, notification, custom or usage having in the territory the force of law. “Laws in force” on the commencement of the Constitution include laws enacted by a legislature or other competent authority. This definition certain does not cover any religious scripture including the Quran. Similarly, neither the Vedas nor the Gita, nor the Bible, nor the Guru Granth Sahib can be said to be “law” under Article 13 and thus challenged in a court of law. To term the Quran or other religious scriptures as custom or usage, as this petition claims, is absurd. Anyone with common sense knows customs and usage are repeated practices of human beings. Words of divine characters can never be considered as customs. The divine books can be sources of law but not law in themselves. Thus Quran in itself is not “law” for the purposes of Article 13. It is the paramount source of Islamic law and Muslim jurists extract laws from it through interpretation and also taking into account other sources of law such as Hadees (Prophet’s sayings), Ijma (juristic consensus), Qiyas (analogical deductions), Urf ( customs), Istihsan (juristic preference) and Istisilah (public interest).

As a matter of fact, the Quran itself abrogated several shameful customs of Arabs such as female infanticide, and therefore the Quran can never be called custom. If Quran is not law, it is not subject to judicial review. No court can sit in judgment on any sacred book.

Terrorism already a crime

The petition claims the Quran promotes terrorism and therefore these 26 verses must be removed. Assuming for the sake of argument that someone like the petitioner believes that the Quran commands him to indulge in terrorism, can such a belief be protected under freedom of religion? Certainly not, as freedom of religion under Article 25 is subject to public order, health, morality and other fundamental rights. No one can take away anybody’s life as it would be contrary to Article 21, which guarantees right to life and personal liberty to everyone. But Muslims are certainly entitled to believe that the Quran is the “infallible word of God”. No court has the power to examine the veracity of this belief.

While killing of a human being is punishable under Section 302 of the IPC, 1860, UAPA was passed in 1967 and amended in 2008 in compliance with the UN resolutions to combat terrorism. We also had laws like TADA, 1985 and POTA, 2002. UAPA was made far more stringent in 2019. Thus there are a number of laws that already prohibit and severely punish terror activities. No terrorist can defend himself by relying on his religious texts as the law of the land, not the Quran, will apply in such cases. There are religious practices which the laws prohibit, such as sati under the Sati (Prevention) Act, 1987 or untouchability under Article 17 of the Constitution and the SC & ST Atrocities Act, 1988. It is true that despite such laws, untouchability is still practised in hundreds of Indian villages.

PILs & petitioners

PILs or pro bono public litigations became popular post-Emergency when the Supreme Court was suffering from a crisis of legitimacy due to its pro-government decisions. Through PILs, the court started winning the trust of the people. Within a decade or two, abuse of PILs became rampant. The court soon realised it and tried to contain the misuse. In Narmada Bachao Andolan (2000), Justice B N Kirpal said public interest litigation should not be allowed to degenerate to become “publicity interest litigation” or “private inquisitiveness litigation”.

Rizvi’s petition is clearly in the teeth of these guidelines, and is nothing more than a publicity interest litigation.

To restrict use of PILs, the first question courts ask today is about the credentials and motives of the petitioner. In Ashok Kumar (2003), Justice Arijit Pasayat held that the court has to be satisfied about the credentials of the petitioner, his information must not be vague, and the information should show gravity and seriousness. No PIL petitioner can be allowed to indulge in wild allegations about the character of others. Rizvi’s petition has made 14 crore Indian Muslims potential terrorists.

To look at Rizvi’s credentials: He has never stood up for Muslim causes, and has been changing political loyalties. Based on the UP government’s recommendation, the CBI filed two FIRs against him in November 2020 for the alleged misappropriation of Waqf properties (he is a former chairman of Shia Waqf Board). Youth Congress leader Sharad Shukla has filed a case against him for making sexist remarks against Priyanka Gandhi. Although Rizvi’s petition mentions the FIRs against him, it is silent about the CBI’s move.

Controversial verses

While the petitioner claims he had done extensive research on the Quran, he has not annexed any book or article published by him on the Quran. The petition wrongly mentions “chapter” and “verses” although there is a difference between the two. Even the translation of the Quran he relies on — The Clear Quran by the controversial Egyptian-Canadian imam Dr Mustafa Khattab — is not considered the authoritative translation.

The petitioner seems to have no clarity about the fundamental distinction under International law between the laws of war and laws of peace. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), known as the father of international law, titled his book De jure belli ac pacis (The Rights of War and Peace). Until 1945, war was not prohibited for any nation. Article 2, Para 4 of the UN Charter now prohibits use of force. But even today under Chapter VII, a nation may resort to war in exercise of its right to self-defence.

The verses quoted in the petition are not only about war but refer to a particular situation of persecuted Muslims who had to migrate to Medina and were expecting an attack by the Meccans within the premises of a sacred mosque in Mecca during Haj. Even in such a situation, Muslims were permitted to fight only those who fight them (2:190). As a result of this verse, no violence indeed took place and not a single person was killed when Muslims went for pilgrimage in the year 8 AH. Even the following year, when Mecca was finally conquered, only 3 Muslims and 17 Meccans were killed. Moreover, the Prophet granted general amnesty to everyone.

The Quran was revealed over a period of 23 years depending upon the situation. The petitioner has overlooked the text, the context and usage of the revelations, and ignored the basic intrinsic moral and spiritual values that Quran promotes. The petitioner has cited some verses asking Muslims not to trust and befriend the enemies of God and the Prophet and to kill them wherever they are found. For instance, Covid-19 restrictions are peculiar to the current context and would come to an end when the pandemic ends.

The Quran is not a systematic book but an extended homily, and its verses must be understood in the proper situational context rather than general instructions for all times and in all situations. Its core is respect for human life, brotherhood, tolerance and plurality. At a number of places, the Quran commands humanity as a whole not to fight with one another since only God knows the whole truth. “If it had been thy Lord’s will, they would all have believed — all who are on earth! Wilt thou then compel mankind, against their will, to believe!” (10:99). Arabic words, like words of other languages, have multiple meanings in different contexts and also overlapping shades of meaning in similar contexts. No single word in any language has an inherent atomic meaning.

At times, the petition questions interpretation rather than verses, but at other times he questions verses themselves. He has even alleged that the entire Quran is not divine and some of these verses were added by the first three Caliphs. The problem with this wild allegation is that such a claim was never made even by Ali or Hussain for whom Shia Muslims have the highest reverence. No Shia cleric had ever questioned the divinity of the Quran.

Earlier petition on Quran

Chandmal Chopra had filed a petition for a ban on the Quran in Calcutta High Court in March 1985 as it allegedly incites violence and promotes enmity among different sections. The petition was disallowed by the High Court on May 17, 1985. Justice B C Basak, relying on the Supreme Court judgment in Veerabadran Chettiar (1958), held that the Quran was an object held sacred by Muslims within the meaning of Section 295 of IPC and as such fell beyond the purview of offence of blasphemy under Section 295A. The court also noted that verses were quoted out of context and did not reflect any malicious or deliberate intention to outrage the feelings of non-Muslims. The court went on to observe that banning the Quran would violate Article 25 and the Preamble of the Constitution. It categorically held that it cannot sit in judgment on holy books like Quran, Bible, Gita and Guru Granth Sahib. The court concluded that public tranquillity had not been disturbed at any material time by reason of existence of the Quran and there was no reason to apprehend that there was likelihood that there would be such a disturbance in future. The court said that in fact the petitioner, by filing this petition, has promoted disharmony and feelings of enmity between different communities and this is blasphemy within the meaning of Section 295A.

On November 24, 1985 , a Divisional Bench of Justices D K Sen and S K Sen upheld the High Court decision and categorically held that “we hold that courts cannot sit in judgment over the Koran or the contents thereof in any legal proceedings. Such adjudication of the religion itself is not permissible”. These judgments, though of mere persuasive value for the apex court will certainly be considered by the Supreme Court in the disposal of Rizvi’s petition.