GS: 2

International relations

India yet to find reason for darkening Siang (The Hindu) 

Context

The Union government has conveyed its views and concerns to the Chinese authorities, including at the highest levels of the government, on the unusual darkening of the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh, Union Minister of State for Water Resources Arjun Ram Meghwal said in reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on Thursday

Cause of darkening

  • Excessive silt: Official reports of the colour of water in the Siang changing emerged from the Arunachal Pradesh office of the Central Water Commission (CWC) on November 10, attributing it to excess silt
  • High levels of iron: Another report from the Arunachal Pradesh Water Supply Department showed that iron levels were beyond permissible limits and samples from the river beyond Pasighat and Jonai showed higher Aluminum and iron levels
  • Landslide/earthquake: The reason for change in water of River Siang may possibly be because of any landslide/earthquake/any other activity in upstream region of Tuting site across the international border with China for which information is not available. Exact reason is not known as yet

Siang

The Siang enters India from Tibet, where it flows for about 1,500 km as the Tsangpo and becomes the Brahmaputra after it flows into Assam

Sharing concerns with China

Reports from Arunachal Pradesh and Assam blamed tunnel construction by China in Tibet. India nevertheless raised the issue with Wang Yi, Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, during his visit to India on December 11, 2017

Indian Constitution and Polity 

‘Punish the guilty for their crimes, not their poverty’ (The Hindu)

Context

A convict’s poverty should not be the reason for him to spend years in prison even after serving a substantial prison sentence, that too, merely because he is unable to pay the fine amount the criminal court had imposed on him, the Supreme Court said in a humanitarian judgment

SC’s views

  • Take financial condition of the convict into consideration: The financial condition of the convict after a long period of incarceration and the plight of his “innocent” family should be taken into consideration to prevent, if at least reduce, the time he would spend behind bars for not being able to pay the fine imposed on him at the time of sentencing by the trial court

Justice Kurian’s views

  • Citing a 2013 apex court judgment, Justice Kurian observed that suffering another extended period of imprisonment solely due to inability to pay the fine because of poverty causes serious prejudice not only to the convict but also to his family

What happens when a convict is not able to pay a fine?

  • Penal laws, besides sentencing a person to prison, also mandate him to pay a fine, which could run to lakhs of rupees, as punishment. If the fine is not paid, or if the convict cannot afford it, as an alternative, he is made to suffer another prison term of up to one-fourth of the period of his substantial sentence. This second prison term for defaulting in payment of fine begins immediately after his substantial sentence for the crime committed comes to an end 

Taking on the gatekeepers (The Hindu Opinion) 

Context

As long as courts affirm ‘community’ claims, don’t expect the Censor Board to protect free speech

Backdrop

Censor board has constituted a six-member panel was being constituted to review the film Padmavati, before it could be granted a censor certificate and publicly exhibited. Members of the panel include historians as well as representatives of the royal family of Mewar

Author’s contention

Author states that it is highly amusing as to what professional historians have to do with a piece of entertainment that is historical fiction at best, and the retelling of a myth at worst? And why has the royal family seemingly acquired a veto over the clearance of a film?

Task of Censor Board

The task of the Censor Board is to ensure that a film complies with the laws of the land and the guidelines of the Cinematograph Act, a task that does not require it to judge “historical accuracy”, or to subject a film to the scrutiny of self-appointed community gatekeepers. It is a legal and constitutional task, not a sentimental or popular one

Sanctioned by SC
Author points out that the recent approach by CBFC has been sanctioned by Supreme Court itself on a number of recent occasions

  • That in order to qualify for constitutional protection, a work must have an objectively defined social value — that is, it must be good for something, whether it is spreading scientific or historical knowledge, inculcating patriotic values, or advocating good social habits
  • If the work refers to or is about a certain segment of society, then that segment automatically acquires the power to decide whether or not it has been “offended” by it — a power that is exercised by the self-appointed gatekeepers of the community
    • Example: Jolly LLB 2
      • Huge uproar: Before the film could be released, there was an uproar because it was alleged to have “insulted” lawyers and the legal system
      • Petition filed: A petition was filed in the Bombay High Court
      • Panel appointed by Bombay HC: Ignoring what the CBFC itself had to say about this, the Bombay High Court appointed a three-member panel of lawyers, to “review” the film
      • Apt questions: Where the High Court found the power to do so, and why lawyers were appointed to review a film that satirises lawyers are questions that have no answer
      • In any event, the panel suggested four deletions
      • SC declined to interfere: In the meantime, the producers had rushed to the Supreme Court, which, however, declined to interfere
      • Producers had to accept cuts: Faced with the delayed release of their film, and the possibility of an eventual defeat in the Supreme Court, the producers swallowed their pride, accepted the four cuts, and received clearance for the film in the nick of time.

Underlying idea

The idea underlying the actions of both the court and the Censor Board is that every self-identified “community” – no matter how loosely- or ill-defined – has an automatic right of veto over any work of art, expressed through its self-proclaimed and most noisy gatekeepers.

Against the constitutional idea

Author states that this scheme of things is against the constitutional idea that India is not a nation of individual citizens, but an agglomeration of homogenous, clearly defined “communities”, and that it is these communities that come to be the measure of all values. The Constitution, however, clearly repudiated this view when it placed the individual – and individual rights – at its heart

SC should learn the lesson

The constitutional vision needs to be appreciated by SC which, in 2007, upheld a book ban on the ground that in a country as diverse as India, no community should feel offended or have its feelings hurt. The court didn’t see fit to say that in a country as diverse as India, everyone should learn spirit of tolerance

Obscenity law

Ever since the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of obscenity law in 1964, it has given a clear indication that “useful art”, or art that can serve a “social purpose”, may be exempted from the penal consequences of obscenity, or other similar speech-restricting laws. In assessing the famous movie Bandit Queen, for example, the Court pointed out that certain disputed scenes – involving sexual assault – were actually meant to instil revulsion and disgust in the minds of the readers, and in that sense, the film was serving a socially useful purpose in depicting such scenes 

Similar metric for padmavati

If Padmavati, according to the historians, is historically accurate, it will pass muster. But if it is “distorting history” (to echo the most famous complaint against it), then it serves no feasible social role, and the state is justified in refusing it screening permission

Mistake ridden approach

Author points out that there are, however, two serious mistakes in the above approach,

  • Who decides? Even if we concede that art ought to have a social purpose (which we shouldn’t), the task of deciding whether a particular work of art is “socially useful” or not will be left to judges who, with the best intentions, will only end up reproducing the dominant conceptions of what is useful
  • Future value: There is simply no way of knowing what uses a work might be put to in the future. The Churchmen who sentenced Galileo to house imprisonment were no doubt sure that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and that Galileo’s research, apart from being heretical, was simply useless

A larger battle

We need to remember that it is the Supreme Court which, in the last analysis, sets the norms, principles and values that trickle down the judicial ladder. Consequently, as long as the freedom of speech continues to be treated as a minor inconvenience that needs to be regulated and controlled in the “public interest”, and as long as the court continues to affirm “community” claims as having priority over individual freedoms, we cannot really expect the CBFC to protect free speech in a meaningful way. The battle for free speech must be waged both at the bottom and at the top

A necessary reform (The Hindu Opinion) 

Context

Eliminating conflict of interest

Author’s contention

Author contends that there is a need for removing discretion and codifying the conflict of interest inherent in having senior bureaucrats assuming corporate roles post-resignation or retirement

Conflict of interest

Vested interests have increasingly captured regulatory boards — consider the case of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India. This regulator is theoretically supposed to be independent in monitoring food safety and yet, until 2014, industry representatives were regularly been appointed to scientific committees

Official policy

  • No codified mechanism: India has an official policy, regulated by the Ministry of Personnel, whereby senior bureaucrats have to seek permission for commercial employment after their retirement. However, such grants of permission within cooling-off period depend primarily on government discretion, with no codified mechanism.

There is nothing wrong in letting experienced bureaucrats utilise their expertise in the private sector — if adequate rules are framed and followed that enable the elimination of any conflict of interest 

What needs to be done?

There is a need of legislation that makes non-disclosure of a conflict of interest punishable

  • As with E.M.S. Natchiappan’s private member’s bill (The Prevention and Management of Conflict of Interest Bill, introduced in 2012), the legislation ought to cover all arms of governance, including the judiciary, the legislature and the executive
  • The recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Department of Personnel and Training (Report No. 60 dated May 3, 2013), calling for early retirement if interested in post-retirement private service is established, needs to be implemented
  • Increase the cooling off period: The mandatory cooling period should be extended to five years so that no undue influence can be exerted by the retired bureaucrat. Also, the reasons for declining their requests for joining such firms need to be laid out clearly, to limit political concerns
  • Public disclosure: A culture of transparency needs to be fostered. Public disclosure of their interests would clear the air, enabling their views to be given appropriate merit. An open, public data platform enlisting all post-retirement appointments of civil servants will increase transparency

Conclusion

Cleaning up business interests, and strengthening a moral code over such conflicts is needed. Without such transformation, India’s society, governance and its private sector will remain open turf for insider trading

Women hail Bill against triple talaq (The Hindu)

Context

Passage of Triple Talaq Bill by LS

News

A day after the Lok Sabha passed the contentious bill on instant triple talaq, the development was hailed by several Muslim women involved in the judicial war against the practice, with a rider that the government should have also banned polygamy

Reaction of women & women organisations

  • A new beginning: The women, including those who waged the war against the practice in the Supreme Court, said with the passing of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill in the lower House, “a new beginning has been made” and it will prove to be a deterrent for the husbands from saying talaq-e-biddat to their wives
  • Should have also banned polygamy: They said the new law should have also banned the practice of polygamy among Muslim men which, they said, was “worse than triple talaq.”
  • Expressed satisfaction: The women, advocate Farah Faiz, Rizwana, Razia, who were associated in the fight against triple talaq and polygamy in the apex court, expressed satisfaction that at least “a start” has been made by the present NDA dispensation
  • Advocate Chandra Rajan, who had represented All India Muslim Women Personal Law Board (AIMWPLB), also hailed the legislation
    • “If this new law is implemented in true spirit then it will go a long way and prove to be a deterrent for the husbands from saying ‘talaq-e-biddat’ to their wives,” she said

What is Nikah Halala?

‘Nikah halala’ is a practice intended to curb incidence of divorce. Under this, a man cannot remarry his former wife without her having to go through the process of marrying someone else, consummating it, getting divorced, observing the separation period called ‘Iddat’ and then coming back to him

GS: 3

Economy

Lok Sabha amends bankruptcy law (The Hindu) 

Context

Amendment made to Insolvency & bankruptcy law

What has been done?

The Lok Sabha has amended the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code law to prevent wilful defaulters and existing promoters from taking part in insolvency proceedings of stressed assets of companies unless they make their bad loans operational by paying up interests 

Bill replaces the ordinance

The bill will replace an ordinance that was brought in November to prevent unscrupulous promoters from misusing the provisions of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC)

Finance minister’s views

IBC law has been learning process for the government as changes have had to be made to ensure that ineligible people don’t find loopholes to walk back into the companies against who insolvency proceedings were initiated 

Reactions: All bad loans not due to wilful default

Commenting on the changes to the IBC, tax experts said that while the intention of the government is good, all bad loans may not be the result of wilful default, diversion or misappropriation of funds.

  • “In a market driven economy, failure can be for various reasons like change in market conditions, severe competition, change in technology, change in Government policies, stay by Supreme Court, bona fide management decisions (which later proved to be incorrect) and many others,”V.S. Datey of Taxmann, a consultancy service.

Govt. injects funds into 6 public banks (The Hindu)

Context

Injecting funds in the banks

What has happened?

The Centre has released the much-required equity capital to six stressed public sector banks (PSBs) as some of these lenders were on the verge of breaching minimum capital norms on December 31, 2017

Which banks have received the funds?

The PSBs are

  • Bank of India (₹2,257 crore)
  • Central Bank of India (₹323 crore)
  • Dena Bank (₹243 crore)
  • IDBI Bank (₹ 2,729 crore)
  • Bank of Maharashtra (₹650 crore)
  • UCO Bank (₹1,375 crore)

These lenders would be asked to improve on parameters such as bad loans and recovery to which effect a communication would be sent shortly.

Government is sending a message

According to bankers, some of these lenders could have breached the minimum regulatory capital requirement, as mandated by the RBI, at the end of the third quarter. “By infusing capital, the government wants to give a strong signal to the public that it will not allow its banks to go down,” said a senior banker from a PSB

Mandatory conditions for banks

Banks are mandated to maintain minimum 9% capital adequacy ratio (CAR) plus a capital conservation buffer of 2.5%. Within the CAR, minimum common equity tier-I (CET 1) capital ratio is prescribed at 5.5%

Backdrop

All these banks are saddled with huge non-performing assets and are under the prompt corrective action (PCA) framework of the Reserve Bank of India — which means certain operations of these banks have been curtailed by the regulator

‘E-way bill to boost GST compliance’ (The Hindu)

Context

E way bill system

News

The mandatory implementation of the e-way bill system from February 1 for all inter-State movement of non-exempted goods will help boost compliance under the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime, according to Hasmukh Adhia, Finance Secretary

Backdrop

The July 1 implementation of GST has seen revenue collections from the new nationwide indirect tax falter in recent months and the Centre, already struggling with a wider than budgeted fiscal deficit, is keen to tighten tax compliance under the new regime. The decision to advance the roll-out of the nationwide e-way bill system to February 1 is line with this objective

No inspector raj

Mr. Adhia sought to allay fears that the implementation of the e-way bill system would result in a return of ‘inspector-raj’ and said only in the initial period would a few random vehicles be stopped en route to check if the goods being transported were accompanied by an e-way bill

  • Vehicle to be stopped only once: Also, once a vehicle had been stopped and checked it would not face any further inspections along the rest of its route, even if it traversed multiple States 

Exemptions

The number of exemptions for complying with the requirement of an e-way bill was also extensive, including about 50% of the CPI (Consumer Price Index) basket of goods

Jump in the tax collections

Given the experience of States which had implemented similar e-way bills as part of the earlier VAT regime, there is clear evidence that tax collections jumped following implementation of the system

  • These States saw a 15% to 20% increase in revenue the year after they implemented it

Finance Ministry follows RBI, warns about cryptocurrencies (The Hindu) 

Context

Cryptocurrency

What has happened?

The government has joined the Reserve Bank of India in cautioning potential customers about investing in cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, likening them to ponzi schemes where investors risk losing their money

What did the government issued statement say?

  • VCs don’t have any intrinsic value and are not backed by any kind of assets. The price of bitcoin and other VCs therefore is entirely a matter of mere speculation resulting in spurt and volatility in their prices. There is a real and heightened risk of investment bubble of the type seen in Ponzi schemes which can result in sudden and prolonged crash exposing investors, especially retail consumers losing their hard-earned money
  • Consumers need to be alert and extremely cautious as to avoid getting trapped in such Ponzi schemes
  • The government added that since VCs are stored in an electronic format, this makes them vulnerable to hacking, loss of password, malware attacks, etc, which could also result in a permanent loss of money

Private sector players agree

  • Private sector cryptocurrency players agree with the Finance Ministry’s call for caution, adding that the bulk of the cryptocurrencies in the market are not reliable
  • Responsibility of Finance ministry to warn consumers: “It becomes more challenging for us to build a credible image,” Ashish Agarwal, founder of Bitsachs said. “I won’t say the Finance Ministry is wrong. Apart from the major currencies like Bitcoin, about 90% of the other currencies are scams. It is the responsibility of the Finance Ministry to warn consumers.”

Warnings by RBI

The Reserve Bank of India has issued three warnings, two of them this year, about the potential financial, operational, legal, customer protection, and security related risks associated with investing in virtual currencies.

Environment

NGT orders closure of 19 tanneries (The Hindu) 

Context

National green Tribunal’s latest order

What has happened?

The government added that since VCs are stored in an electronic format, this makes them vulnerable to hacking, loss of password, malware attacks, etc, which could also result in a permanent loss of money

High powered committee

A Bench headed by former Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar constituted a high-powered committee to inspect 61 industries and directed it to prepare a complete and comprehensive report on tanneries

  • Mandate of the committee: The report would submit on source of water of these tanneries, consumption of water, whether any flow meters to the conveyor belts have been fixed and if they have permission from Central Ground Water Authority
  • Members: The high powered committee would comprise Member Secretary of State Pollution Control Board, senior most environmental engineer, nominated by the chairman of the Central Pollution Control Board, representative not below the rank of scientist from Environment Ministry and others
  • Comprehensive report: This committee shall
    • Personally inspect all the 61 industries
    • Prepare a complete and comprehensive report stating inter-alia source of water, consumption of water
    • Whether any flow meters to the conveyor belts have been fixed or not
    • Whether unit has permission from Central Ground Water Authority or not
    • The number of tanning hides that are processed by the industry
    • Whether the unit is providing primary treatment
    • Whether the unit has its own chromium recovery plant
    • If the chromium is recovered, how it is utilised, mode of management
    • Disposal of sludge and ultimate point of discharge

What did the Bench say?

  • We direct that the 19 industries which according to the Punjab Pollution Control Board, are non-compliant and are polluting and they have been found to be violating various parameters they are directed to be closed forthwith.
  • “They would not be permitted to carry their manufacturing or any other tannery activity unless they submit appropriate application for obtaining the consent of the Board,” the Bench said.

Majuli island to be protected from erosion, says Gadkari (The Hindu) 

Context

Union Minister Nitin Gadkari on Friday expressed hope that people living on the shrinking Majuli island will be able to put their worries to rest once the Central and State government schemes to prevent the isle from erosion are successfully implemented

Benefit

The projects, if properly handled, will be able to reclaim lost land

Majuli Island

Majuli island is surrounded by the Brahmaputra on the south and the Kherkatia Suti, Luit Suti and Subansiri rivers on the North.

Measures by Assam government

The Assam government had in the past constructed embankments to protect the island from floods. These measures, however, could offer marginal protection

Brahmaputra board

The Union Minister said that the Brahmaputra Board – set up under the Ministry of Irrigation – has been taking initiatives to protect the island since 2004 in line with the recommendations of an expert committee

  • Due to unprecedented floods, massive land erosion had taken place in lower Majuli in 2007. The Brahmaputra Board then took several pro-siltation measures along the banks

Expert committee

The expert committee, constituted by the Union Water Resources Ministry, had extensively toured the island in March, and suggested more steps to prevent erosion

  • Based on those suggestions, the Brahmaputra Board prepared a detailed project report for an estimated cost of Rs. 233.54 crore
  • The Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region (MoDONER) has agreed to allocate Rs. 207 crore for the project
  • The remaining amount will be borne by the Brahmaputra Board 

Albania is losing its national bird to rampant poaching (The Hindu) 

Context

It is Albania’s national symbol, but the eagle may soon only be found on the flag. The majestic bird is threatened with extinction due to widespread poaching of raptors

Species: Common Buzzard

Country: Albania

IUCN Status: Least Concern (LC)

Protected species

The buzzard is a protected species just like the golden eagle

Up for sale

Whether the customers want to stuff them or to keep them in captivity, they can find these birds for sale on the street

Expert view

  • According to experts, some 25 years ago there were between 100 and 200 couples of golden eagles
  • As per Mirjan Topi, author of Albania’s first bird guide, that number today has been cut in half, “a dramatic decline”

Least concern

On a global scale, the golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) is not classified as a threatened species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Hunting ban

There has been a hunting ban in Albania since 2014. Authorities say it has curtailed a large number of the 2,000-3,000 Italian hunters who are estimated to have killed more than 150,000 birds, including hundreds of raptors over the last decade

  • Now there are plans to toughen the law, including prison terms for all offences that contribute to the disappearance of protected animals

Another threat

Another threat, perhaps even more insidious, hangs over the raptors: the poisoned carcasses that shepherds leave in the field to protect their flocks from wolves.

  • A single carcass is enough to kill several vultures if they find it before the wolf,” says Nexhip Hysolokaj, an environmental expert in the Orikum region where in March, six eagles and vultures were found dead from poison
  • Fines have never been issued over this practice which shepherds seem to have no intention of giving up

Science and Technology 

ISRO to launch 31 satellites in one go aboard PSLV on Jan. 10 (The Hindu)

Context

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on Friday said it would launch 31 satellites, including India’s Cartosat-2 series earth observation space craft, in a single mission on January 10

1st PSLV mission after failure of IRNSS-1H

The mission will be the first ‘Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle’ (PSLV) mission after the unsuccessful launch of the navigation satellite IRNSS-1H in August 2017

Scheduled for January 2018

  • The launch is tentatively scheduled for January 10

What would be the payload for the mission?

Cartosat-2 series: The mission’s main payload would be India’s Cartosat-2 series earth observation satellite. The high-profile Mission Readiness Review committee and Launch Authorisation Board is scheduled to meet soon to take the final call.

  • PSLV-C40 will be used for the launch from the spaceport in Andhra Pradesh’s Sriharikota, about 100 kilometres from Chennai

A combination of satellites

The mission would be a combination of

  • 28 nano satellites from abroad, including Finland and the U.S.
  • one micro and one nano satellite from India
  • one Cartosat satellite

Backdrop

  • On August 31, India’s mission to launch its backup navigation satellite IRNSS-1H on board PSLV-C39 was unsuccessful after a technical snag on the final leg
  • In February this year, PSLV-C37 launched the first Cartosat-2 series satellite along with 103 co-passenger satellites in a single flight.

Photovoltaic road tested in China (The Hindu)

Context

China successfully tested its first photovoltaic highway based on home-grown technology in the country’s eastern Shandong province on Thursday, according to reports from Xinhua. The road has wireless charging systems for electric vehicles

Road constructed using solar panels

The road is constructed using solar panels which have a thin sheet of clear concrete on top of them, protecting the surface

  • The panels were built to transfer energy to electric vehicles passing on top of them
  • The one-kilometre segment of solar-powered highway covers a surface area of 5,875 sq.m
  • The stretch has three layers. At the bottom is an insulator to prevent moisture from getting to the photovoltaic devices in the middle layer, and on top is the layer of transparent concrete
  • The tested segment of highway can generate 817.2 KW of power and is expected to generate 1 million KW hours of electricity each year. The electricity generated will be connected to China’s national power grid

China becomes 2nd country

China has become the second country to construct a photovoltaic highway. France introduced the world’s first photovoltaic road fitted with solar panels in late 2016.

Disaster management: 

Violators must pay: on fire tragedies (The Hindu Editorial) 

Context

The loss of at least 14 lives in the fire in a Mumbai rooftop restaurant

Author’s contention

Author contends that the fire in a Mumbai rooftop restaurant where 14 lives were lost must compel a relentless campaign for safety in buildings, punishment for those guilty of breaking rules; exemplary compensation for families of the dead and for the injured; and zero-tolerance enforcement of safety requirements

Lesson from uphaar tragedy

Author points out that government has learned nothing from the Uphaar cinema hall fire in New Delhi in 1997 that killed 59 people. In that episode, the exits had been blocked by unauthorised seating

What needs to be done?

An impartial inquiry is needed to determine what building and other rules were violated in Mumbai, and to identify the officials who allowed them. It would be wrong to categorise deliberate acts as instances of mere negligence. Those responsible must be prosecuted without leniency

  • Assessing the fire: Author states that assessing a fire professionally involves an inquiry that focusses on established construction codes:
  • whether the possibility of igniting it was actively reduced
  • whether provision was made for controlling the spread of fire and smoke
  • whether the design enabled occupant escape and firefighter access, and
  • whether the structure was built to avoid collapse
  • Public report: The inquiry ordered by the Maharashtra government must produce a public report on all these parameters
  • It must be followed up with meticulous prosecution

Violation of norms

The absence of a strong law of torts accompanied by a slow criminal justice process and rampant bureaucratic and political corruption have contributed to the brazen violation of building norms and a system of special schemes to regularise such death traps for a fee

Conclusion

It is wrong for courts to take a benign approach to such blatant, complicit measures. On the other hand, they should be concerned that their orders issued to ensure public safety — road safety is one example — remain mostly on paper. It should worry us that the lives of Indians seem to be of little value

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