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GS: 2


International relations:

U.S. tightens H-1B approval process, IT firms worried(The Hindu)

Context:

The U.S. government has announced fresh measures to tighten the scrutiny of H-1B visa petitions

Details:

  • The new visa policy makes the procedure of issuing H-1B visas to those to be employed at one or more third-party worksites very tough
  • The companies filing H-1B petitions for their employees will have to associate a particular project to the individual visa, which could be approved only for the duration of the project
  • In order for an H-1B petition involving a third-party worksite to be approved, the petitioner must show by a preponderance of evidence the beneficiary will be employed in a speciality occupation and the employer will maintain an employer-employee relationship with the beneficiary for the duration of the requested validity period.
  • The new policy empowers the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to issue H-1B visas to an employee for only the period he/she has work at a third-party worksite.
  • Currently, H-1B visas are issued for three years at a time.

Impact on Indians and Indian IT Companies

  • Indians and Indian IT companies will feel the impact the most because they are the biggest users of this visa.
  • The shorter durations may even make the transition from H-1B to a Green Card next to impossible.
  • There will be a huge impact on the Indian IT services providers that place employees with H-1B visas at American companies that contract them, by imposing more paperwork and processing hurdles.

Significance of the new measures:

The measures are intended to bring the client-vendor -employee relations in business models based on bringing high skilled H-1B workers to America under closer scrutiny.

Adopting a ‘wait and watch’ approach(The Hindu Opinion)

Context:

  • Differing preoccupations in both countries, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit this month was a subdued affair compared to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran.

Geographical dynamic:

  • The future of the Iran- P5+1-European Union (EU) nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), concluded in 2015 is at stake for it has been given U.S. President Donald Trump’s visceral opposition to it.
  • In addition, Iran is focussed on developments in Syria and Yemen.
  • For India, dealing with China’s growing footprint in the Indo-Pacific and challenges in its immediate SAARC neighbourhood assume priority.

Uncertainties of JCPOA:

  • The JCPOA is not a bilateral deal between Iran and the U.S.; other parties are China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K., and the EU.
  • Further, the JCPOA was unanimously supported by the United Nations Security Council (Resolution 2231) enabling Security Council sanctions to be lifted.
  • The problem is that the U.S. has imposed multiple and often overlapping sanctions on Iran pertaining not only to nuclear activities but also to missile testing, human rights, and terrorism.
  • The threat of the U.S. snapback means that third country companies may now attract U.S. sanctions.
  • This uncertainty has been adversely impacting the sanctions relief since Donald Trump’s election.

Major takeaways from the visits( Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s visit to India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Tehran)

  • India conveyed its support for the full and effective implementation of the JCPOA, the need for strengthening consultations on Afghanistan, and enhancing regional connectivity by building on the Chabahar.
  • Nine MoUs were signed relating to avoidance of double taxation, visa simplification, cooperation in diverse fields including agriculture, traditional systems of medicine, health and medicine, postal cooperation, trade remedial measures, and a lease contract for an interim period of 18 months for Phase 1 of Chabahar.
  • The last is a move forward after the inauguration of the first phase of the Chabahar port in December.
  • Earlier in October, Iran had allowed a wheat shipment of 15,000 tonnes for Afghanistan through Chahbahar.
  • There was talk about an aluminium smelter plant and a urea plant to build up Indian investments in the Chabahar free trade zone.
  • One positive thing is the exploration of a rupee-rial arrangement which could provide an alternative channel for economic and commercial transactions in case U.S. sanctions do kick in, making dollar denominated transactions impossible.

Conclusion:

  • It is clear, therefore, that both countries approached the visit with modest expectations.
  • The near-term developments in its neighbourhood are a priority for Tehran even as Mr. Modi tries to find a balance with his stated preference to develop closer ties with both the U.S. and Israel.
  • The uncertainties surrounding the JCPOA provide the justification for adopting a ‘wait and watch’ approach.

Concerned about new Indian tariffs, says U.S. official(The Hindu)

Context:

  • The Donald Trump administration has moved the U.S. closer to India than any previous administration on strategic issues, but disagreements on commercial issues remain challenging.

What is more in news?

  • The union budget and the new round of tariffs is seen ro make commercial issues more challenging, in attracting U.S. investors and improving the trade relations.
  • The economic relationship has been a bit more difficult than the strategic area of the relationship.
  • This administration is very interested in having fair and reciprocal trade relations with India.
  • The President has committed to opening market access for U.S. companies, obviously India also has investments in the U.S.

Trade imbalance:

  • The US mentioned high tariffs on high-end motorcycles in India recently.
  • Trade figures in the last quarters have reported a reduction in the imbalance, which is likely because of the energy import by India from the U.S.

India’s holds an important position:

  • The official pointed out that no other country finds as many position mentions as India does in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS), on dealing with South Asia and Indo-Pacific.
  • The U.S. is also  willing to do much more with India on defence, the official said, seeking more cooperation from India.

Leaders break ground on Afghan section of TAPI(The Hindu)

Context:

  • The long-awaited mega gas pipeline project of Turk­menistan, Afghanis­tan, Pakis­tan and India (TAPI) connecting the energy-rich Central Asian nation with the South Asian countries was inaugurated on Friday.

Introduction:

  • Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India ceremonially broke ground on the Afghan section of an ambitious, multi-billion dollar gas pipeline expected to help ease energy deficits in South Asia.
  • The quartet aims to complete the 1,840 km pipeline and begin pumping natural gas from Turkmenistan’s giant Galkynysh gas field by the beginning of 2020.
  • The pipeline will traverse war-wracked Afghanistan, raising security concerns, the bulk of the 33 billion cubic metres of gas to be pumped annually through the conduit will be purchased by Pakistan and India.

India’s stand:

  • India’s commitment to the pipeline has previously been questioned over its relationship with Pakistan and easy-access to liquified natural gas markets seen as potential stumbling blocks.

About Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI):

  • The Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI), also known as Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, is a natural gas pipeline being developed by the Galkynysh – TAPI Pipeline Company Limited with participation of the Asian Development Bank.
  • The pipeline will transport natural gas from the Galkynysh Gas Field in Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then to India

Indian Constitution and Polity:

Govt. schedules meeting on Lokpal for March 1(The Hindu)

Context:

  • The government will invite the leader of the single largest Opposition party to attend a meeting scheduled for March 1 to discuss the long-pending appointments to the anti-corruption ombudsman, Lokpal.

Significant development:

  • This is a significant development as the government has for years taken the position that Lokpal appointments could be made only after amending the law to replace the Leader of the Opposition with the single largest party Opposition leader on the high-level selection committee.

Lokpal and Lokayukta Act of 2013:

  • Under the Lokpal and Lokayukta Act of 2013, the high-level selection committee for appointments to Lokpal comprises the Prime Minister, Lok Sabha Speaker, the LoP, the Chief Justice of India and an eminent jurist chosen by them.
  • The 16th Lok Sabha does not have an LoP as the Congress party failed to get the required 10 per cent membership in the Lok Sabha post the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Eminently workable legislation:

  • The judgment authored by Justice Gogoi called the Lokpal Act of 2013 an “eminently workable legislation” in its present form itself.
  •  He observed that the 2013 Act provided enough room for the appointment of Lokpal chairperson and members even in the absence of a recognised LoP.

About The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013:

Background:

  • The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013, commonly known as The Lokpal Act, is an anti-corruption Act of Indian Parliament which “seeks to provide for the establishment of the institution of Lokpal to inquire into allegations of corruption against certain public functionaries and for matters connecting them”.
  • The Bill was tabled in the Lok Sabha on 22 December 2011 and was passed by the House on 27 December as The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill, 2011.
  • It was subsequently tabled in the Rajya Sabha on 29 December.

Corruption Perceptions Index:

  • In 2011, India ranked 95th in the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International.
  • A recent survey estimated that corruption in India had cost billions of dollars and threatened to derail growth.
  • India lost a staggering $462 billion in illicit financial flows due to due to tax evasion, crime and corruption post-Independence, according to a report released by Washington-based Global Financial Integrity.

No second thoughts on issues: Naidu(The Hindu)

Context:

Recently, Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu has said that the Union government’s “indifferent approach” and “failure in implementing the A.P. Reorganisation Act and assurances given in Parliament” would not deter Andhra Pradesh from achieving its target of becoming the world’s preferred destination by 2050.

Details:

  • According to Naidu, the State government has been determined to make Andhra Pradesh one of the top three States by 2020 and the number one State in the country by 2029
  • Mr. Naidu, however, added that Andhra Pradesh would be a loser if only “fighting mode” was adopted.
  • The government had “no second thoughts” on realising the rights of the State. The fight would continue until the Centre fulfilled its bifurcation promises.
  • Mr. Naidu said the government’s goal was to ensure that every family had one digitally literate person. The government would impart training in digital literacy to one crore people in 2018-19.
  • Other goals include inter-linking of five A.P. rivers, the Polavaram project and the construction of a greenfield capital Amaravati

Frame a law to oversee auditors, SC tells govt.(The Hindu)

Context:

The Supreme Court has directed the government to frame a law to regulate the auditing profession, saying “failures of auditors have resulted in scandals in the past.”

Details:

  • The judgment came on a petition filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation seeking an investigation into PricewaterhouseCoopers Private Limited (PwCPL) and their network audit firms operating in India for alleged violations of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy, the Reserve Bank of India Act (RBI) and the Foreign Exchange Management Act
  • In the judgement,the Bench highlighted the manner in which multinational accounting firms violate auditing and financial laws.
  • The apex court said these firms comply with Indian laws and code of ethics only in form and not in substance.
  • The Supreme Court has directed the Centre to constitute a three-member committee of experts within two months to frame a law for an oversight mechanism over auditors

Pak. to face monitoring by international review group(The Hindu)

Context:

  • Pakistan  has been put back on the “Grey List” for terror financing by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) Plenary.

What is more in news?

  • The country will, under a “Compliance Document,” now be required to furnish a fresh report to the International Co-operation Review Group (ICRG).
  • Accordingly, the country will undergo a review at the next Plenary in June, 2018.
  • It would be presented a full action plan on how it is expected to crack down on terror groups banned by the UN Security Council.
  • The move was pushed by four nominating countries, the U.S., the U.K., Germany and France.

Background:

  • In mid-January, the four countries have written to the FATF stating that even though Pakistan had an anti-money laundering/anti-terror funding regime in place, effectiveness of the implementation was inadequate.
  • Meanwhile a rally by LeT chief Hafiz Saeed, and the Khyber Pukhtunkhwa state’s decision to raise funding for Haqqani group-linked seminaries over the week didn’t help Pakistan’s case.
  • Earlier this week, Pakistan had claimed victory in the ongoing FATF meeting, as a preliminary discussion in the ICRG failed to build a consensus on putting it again on the watch list, after China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and GCC countries objected to Pakistan’s nomination.
  • At the end of the recent Plenary session there were no objections to the nomination of Pakistan.
  • A move that could see it face financial strictures, and ratings downgrades by international banking and credit rating agencies until Islamabad carries out a full crackdown on terror groups.

Behind the scenes:

  • The U.S. worked hard to bring Saudi Arabia around.
  • Germany worked on the GCC.
  • India was able to speak to Russia.
  • According to the sources, China may have been incentivised to help because it had become Vice-Chair of the FATF committee.

GS: 3


Economy:

Grid stability is key(The Hindu Opinion)

Context:

  • Instead of transmitting electricity to the farmers, the government, to start with, wants farmers to use solar energy to power their irrigation pumps.

What is in news?

  • According to the January 2018 report of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, there are about 142,000 solar pumps in India.
  • The government is planning to install one million solar pumps by 2021.

Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (KUSUM):

  • The Union Budget 2018 has allocated close to Rs. 48,000 crore to set up the Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (KUSUM).
  • This programme will help set up more than 28 GW of combined solar capacity through these solar pumps.
  • The government plans to purchase the surplus power through electricity distribution companies.
  • This proposal will almost certainly increase agricultural incomes and reduce electricity losses when transmitting power to remote rural areas.
  • The advantage of this scheme is that transmission losses and power theft would drop significantly.
  • The feasibility of purchasing surplus solar power seems problematic.
  • There is a need to address the issue of grid stability that this injection of surplus power is bound to create.

Loss of rural retailers of power:

  • Most rural retailers of power also lose money as they sell power at a subsidised rate to the poor and the farm sector.
  • The state-run distribution companies were thus running a loss of Rs. 4.3 trillion as of September 2015.
  • Local generation of power in the manner proposed would take care of the above issues.

Balancing of power grids:

  • All power grids require balancing.
  • This balancing entails meeting the demand with adequate supply 24×7 to ensure there is no blackout.
  • The reason for striking this balance is that electrical energy cannot readily be stored, meaning that power generation ought to work round the clock.
  • These electrical gridlines were created to depend on reliable and controllable generators (coal, oil and even hydroelectric).
  • However, with more and more power being generated through fluctuating power generators (solar and wind), a more precise balance will have to be created, which may cause more failures.

Way ahead:

  • India is short of power; thus, while other nations see solar and wind power as an energy management problem, India also sees this as a capacity management problem.

Canary in coal mine(The Hindu Opinion)

Context:

  • The Central government has allowed the re-entry of commercial mining firms into the sector.

Key reasons for taking coal out of the private sectors hand:

  • India’s coal industry was predominantly driven by the private sector after Independence until the Indira Gandhi government decided to transfer all coal holdings to Coal India through the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act, 1973.
  • The key reason cited for taking coal out of the private sector’s hands was that it was essential to meet power needs.

India’s coal market:

  • Today, India’s coal market is a virtual monopoly for the public sector behemoth.
  • Coal India accounts for over 80% of the country’s coal supply.
  • Another public sector firm, Singareni Collieries Company, and some captive coal mines allotted to private players for specific end-uses such as in the steel and power industries, account for the rest.
  • Opening up commercial mining and sale of coal for private players is an overdue reform.
  • India has a high dependence on coal for power generation. Despite an aggressive push for renewable and nuclear sources, 70% of electricity generation is through coal-fired thermal plants.
  • In recent years there has been a significant surge in imports as Coal India, despite its rich coal-bearing belts and increased output, is unable to keep pace with demand from new power plants.

Irregularities in allocation:

  • In September 2014, the Supreme Court cancelled the allocation of 204 coal mines to public and private players, after the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found fault with the allocation mechanism.
  • An ordinance was brought and transparent auction process was evolved for the affected mines.

Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act of 2015:

  • Enabling provisions for commercial mining and sale of coal were already included in the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act of 2015.
  • The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs has now allowed their operationalisation by clearing the methodology to be followed for auctioning rights.
  • The move will boost energy security, making coal affordable and creating jobs.

Way ahead:

  • Norms to ensure miners’ safety must be upgraded.
  • The integrity of the process is key, so that auctions don’t translate into a winner’s’ curse as has happened in sectors like telecom.

PM warns of action against financial fraud(The Hindu)

Context:

  • PM  Modi warned of stringent action against those involved in financial irregularities .

Introduction:

  • PM Modi was speaking at the Global Business Summit organized by a financial daily.
  • He asked the management of financial institutions and supervisory bodies to do their job diligently to check such frauds.

Calls on regulators

  • He said the managements of financial institutions, auditors and regulators should perform their duty earnestly.
  • Policy makers should maintain ethics by doing their jobs faithfully and diligently.
  • Mr. Modi lauded his government’s economic agenda which he said was “job-oriented” and aimed at bringing “people-centric growth.”
  • ‘Speed, scale, and sensitivity’ were needed for policies to reach people, he said.
  •  In the past four years, the government has stressed job-centric, people-centric growth which gives poor financial inclusion and takes care of middle-class aspirations.

Environment:

‘Unplanned development plan threatening Netravathi basin’(The Hindu)

Context:

According to a study, an unplanned development path adopted by “unscrupulous decision-makers” is threatening the ecologically sensitive regions in the Netravathi river basin in Karnataka.

About the Study Report:

The report titled “Carrying capacity of Netravathi river basin based on the ecological sensitiveness” was released by Energy and Wetlands Research Group (EWRG), Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), IISc

Highlights of the Report:

  • According to the report, river diversions, hydro electric projects, coastal reservoirs, commercial plantations, unscientific tourism, etc., would cause irreplaceable loss of rich biodiversity in the river basin
  • The report said that rivers/streams in the ecologically sensitive regions should not be diverted or manipulated as that would affect the water retention capability of the catchment area and ground recharge potential.
  • It would affect the sustenance of water in the streams and affect the downstream users’ right to adequate freshwater.
  • The report further highlighted that of the 433 villages in the basin, 111 are in ecologically sensitive region (ESR) I followed by 69 villages in ESR II, 119 villages in ESR III and 134 villages under ESR IV.

Previous Studies:

  • Previously, a group of researchers from IISc, led by Mr. Ramachandra, had, in a report, questioned the State government’s estimation of the project yielding 24 tmcft of water for diversion to parched districts.
  • The group said that only 0.85 tmcft of water could be diverted from the project.
  • The group had warned that the project would lead to water scarcity in Hassan and Dakshina Kannada and would not benefit Chikkaballapur, Kolar and Tumakuru districts.

About the Netravathi River Basin

  • Netravathi basin has a catchment area of 4,409 sq km
  • It covers 11 taluks in Chikkamagaluru, Hassan, Kodagu, Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts.
  • It originates in Bangrabalige valley, Yelaneeru Ghat of Kudremukh in Chikkamagaluru district.
  • The basin is part of the ecologically fragile Western Ghats, one among the 35 global hotspots of biodiversity.
  • It is the lifeline of Dakshina Kannada region supporting the enormous population with rich resource base and diverse cultures

The champions of clean air(The Hindu Opinion)

Context:

At a time when clean air is turning into a rare commodity in India, battle of five Indians for a cleaner air offers a ray of hope to fellow citizens

Here are five inspiring stories:

  1.  A marathon battle:
  • In November 2017, when pollution was at its peak in New Delhi, Brikesh Singh, a runner, decided to run the Delhi Half Marathon 10 days before the event.
  • His purpose was to record with a device the pollution level on the route to be taken by the runners.
  • He shot a video as he ran the 20 km stretch, documenting at each turn the spiralling pollution levels on his device, and uploaded it on social media.
  • Singh argued that runners or sportspersons engaged in rigorous outdoor activity were at far greater risk than average citizens going about their daily routine.
  • When Delhi Half Marathon took place, it managed to spark a public debate on whether sports events should be held in a city where lungs are exposed to such high levels of particulate matter.
  1. Bhopal in Slow motion:
  • Shweta Narayan, had been deeply moved by the social movement seeking justice for victims of the Bhopal gas disaster
  • Motivated by what she saw in Bhopal, Narayan decided to start a campaign for clean air in Cuddalore
  • The area around the town had become a hub of intensely polluting units after the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu set up of a 200-hectare industrial estate 8 km away from Cuddalore town.
  • Toxic chemical compounds were being released as effluents by the 18 companies in the industrial area.
  • Narayan helped set up a Community Environmental Monitoring (CEM) team in December 2003, which started monitoring the area’s air pollution using low cost devices.
  • It was the CEM report on air quality in 2004 that prompted the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee to direct the Central Pollution Control Board to formulate standards for voluntary organic compounds in the air
  • CEM programmes were also successfully implemented in other industrial clusters in Kodaikanal, Mettur and Trichy in Tamil Nadu, and among pollution-impacted communities in Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh.
  1. How to stop stubble-burning
  • In the town of Faridkot in Punjab, Umendra Dutt has been busy mobilising the local community- the farmers who burn crop residue.
  • During paddy harvest, plumes of smoke turn the sky grey as the farmers burn the stubble left behind by the big threshing machines over thousands of acres.
  • He insists that it is the government policy of trapping farmers in the cycle of wheat and paddy cultivation that has created environmental problems, such as stubble burning, falling soil productivity and rising vulnerability to pests.
  • He has set up the Kheti Virasat Mission, a training hub for the second Green Revolution
  • He has been training and giving lectures to farmers on the concepts of agricultural ecology, highlighting how the State’s climatic conditions are actually better suited for millet, oilseeds and pulses.
  • He has developed a manual on organic farming and trained over 30,000 farmers.
  1. Protecting baby lungs
  • Gopal Sankaranarayanan, an advocate with the Supreme Court had filed a petition on behalf of his bronchitis-afflicted toddlers.
  • The case was criticised for being too focussed on Diwali, and as not addressing other issues.
  • However, the Supreme Court had banned sale of crackers in 2017
  • Post-Diwali pollution levels were at their lowest compared to the three previous years.
  1. Data to the rescue
  • Scientist Sarath Guttikunda has been using science to change the public discourse on pollution.
  • He was one of the first to point out that conversations around air pollution peaked around Diwali, and tended to die down for the rest of the year.
  • He is the founder of Urban Emissions, a website that forecasts air quality for over 640 districts in the country.
  • Mr. Guttikunda is also the developer of the SIM-air (Simple Interactive Models for Better Air Quality) family of tools.
  • With applications for Asian, African, and Latin American cities, it is capable of assessing short- and long-term air pollution scenarios in a multi-pollutant environment.
  • He has been credited with taking the pollution conversation beyond Delhi through forecasting models that show what the ambient air pollution levels will be in cities across India.
  • His ‘Air Pollution Knowledge Assessments city program’ launched in 2017 provides a starting point for understanding air pollution in Indian cities.
  • The initiative aims to provide the necessary information base to pollution control authorities so that they can prioritise interventions — which could either be local (such as with public transport and waste management) or regional (power plants) — for better air quality.
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