Society and women related issues:
In the 41st edition of his Mann Ki Baat radio broadcast on 25th February, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stressed the need to have women as equal partners in the development of the country.
- Apart from women’s rights, Prime Minister Modi spoke at length about National Safety Day, National Science Day and issues such as clean energy.
- He has urged the people to inculcate safety in their day-to-day lives, stressing that India had to become a “risk-conscious” society.
- Prime Minister Modi has also referred to the newly launched “Gobar Dhan” scheme.
About the “Gobar Dhan” Scheme:
- It is a scheme for converting rural waste into clean energy through biogas under the government’s Swachch Bharat campaign.
- ‘Gobar Dhan’ — Galvanising Organic Bio Agro Resources would ensure a hygienic environment in villages and monetise cattle dung and solid agricultural waste.
Justin Trudeau’s discovery of India(The Hindu Opinion)
- Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried hard to expand his understanding of India and foster closer India-Canada relations.
- The Canadian delegation should have avoided the controversy concerning the Khalistan movement, but it was self-inflicted.
- It stemmed from the ruling Liberal Party’s soft approach on extremist and separatist activities in Canada.
- In its quest for votes of sections of the Sikh community in Canada, India’s basic interests were surprisingly given short shrift by the Liberals.
Important agreements signed:
- From the Indian viewpoint, the most important agreement signed during the visit is the “Framework for Cooperation between India and Canada on Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism”.
- It commits the two nations to combating this phenomenon in all its “forms and manifestations”, and to facilitate “effective cooperation” on security, finance, justice, law enforcement and operations.
- Through further interaction, New Delhi is certain to ensure and monitor closely that Ottawa delivers on this commitment. Progress in this realm will spur positivity in other domains of mutual cooperation
Regional, bilateral issues
- The two leaders called for dismantling the infrastructure of support to terrorism “from across borders of Afghanistan”, a clear reference to Pakistan.
- The Maldives government was urged “to ensure early resumption of the political process.”
- On Myanmar, the need for voluntary, safe and sustainable return of the Rohingya refugees was stressed.
- Canada and India showed a common perspective on freedom of navigation and over-flight “throughout the Indo-Pacific region” and respect for international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
- Canada implicitly shared India’s reservations on China’s mega Belt and Road Initiative.
- The two sides agreed on their analysis of the situation in the Korean Peninsula.
- They considered peacekeeping as “an effective response to global challenges”.
- Mr. Trudeau extended strong support for India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
- A business leader saw India-Canada cooperation anchored on five Es: economy, energy, education, entertainment industry linkages, and empowerment of women.
- Progress on two government-level agreements, one on investment and the other on trade was minimal as expected, but the two leaders directed officials to intensify their negotiations.
- India’s need for continued uranium exports from Canada and for state-of-art technologies relating to clean energy and renewables came through vividly in discussions.
- The decision to expand the scope of Ministerial Energy Dialogue also took place.
- New Canada-India Track 1.5 Dialogue on Innovation, Growth and Prosperity was launched.
- This aims to establish contours of convergence through sustained research and brainstorming among experts, officials and business people.
India-Canada bilateral relationship
- The two sides had forged close cooperation on energy and trade, including a civil nuclear cooperation agreement and a commitment from Canadian pension funds to invest in India.
- India and Canada have much in common as two pluralistic, diverse democracies with very strong people-to-people ties: there is an Indian diaspora of 1.3 million in Canada, besides 100,000 Indian students.
As a capital, technology and innovation-rich economy and an open, inclusive and multi-cultural society, Canada is highly relevant to India. It is sharpening its role as a Pacific Ocean power. India’s commitment to peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific should deepen geopolitical affinity. Thus mutual interests are likely to impel the two nations to strengthen their strategic partnership. However, for this vision to turn into reality, the Canadian leadership needs to demonstrate greater sensitivity to India’s core concerns than what Mr. Trudeau could muster last week.
Regulating the future(The Hindu Opinion)
- Alan Turing speculated in 1950 that around the turn of the century, it would be possible to make computers that matched the capacity of human brains, packing in about a billion neurons.
Why is in news?
- Alan Turning predicted that if these machines were pitted against a human interrogator in what is now known as the Turing test, they would end up fooling the interrogator into guessing that he or she was playing against a human contestant 70% of the time.
- It is now nearly 70 years since then, and neither has the Turing test been surpassed by any robot, nor have humans succeeded in creating artificial brains that have this capacity.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its implications:
- It is the challenge of programming the human adeptness to learn that is one of the most crucial challenges facing developers of artificial intelligence (AI) that could stand up to human competition.
- The ongoing rise of AI will also challenge the human condition, for example through displacement from jobs, threat of inhuman errors, and threats of hacking that can damage or even hijack the robot from its assigned duties.
- The 21st century has seen major breakthroughs in numerous fields such as gene editing methods that can, in principle, produce designer babies to robots that assist in surgery, computer programs that defeat humans at various games, drive cars, and write news reports.
- Rather than respond with fear or suppression, it is time to start working on methods of regulation and moderation that can deal with the inevitable AI-human interaction.
Indian Constitution and Polity:
Centre may enact law against fugitives(The Hindu )
- The Union government may consider enacting the Fugitive Economic Offenders Bill to confiscate assets of those who flee the country and refuse to return after committing frauds in excess of Rs. 100 crore.
- Such a law assumes significance as major bank frauds have come to light.
- Nirav Modi, a diamond merchant accused in the Rs. 11,400-crore Punjab National Bank case, and his family members are currently abroad.
- In another case involving Rs. 389 crore of the Oriental Bank of Commerce, a Delhi-based jewellery exporter and his business partners fled the country in 2014. Under the existing laws, the bank has failed to recover the dues in the past three years.
Fugitive economic offenders Bill:
- A draft of the Bill, which is in consonance with similar legislation in several countries, was circulated last May seeking comments from all stakeholders.
- The Bill was cleared by the Union Law Ministry with certain recommendations on reconciliation of provisions with the existing laws.
- The draft Bill followed an announcement in the Union Budget for 2017-18 that the government planned to introduce a legal measure to confiscate assets of the economic offenders who flee to foreign jurisdictions to escape the clutches of law
- The move came after Vijay Mallya, who owed more than Rs. 9,000 crore to the public sector banks, flew out of the country and refused to come back.
- As proposed, the Enforcement Directorate will be empowered under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) to initiate the proceedings.
- It has a provision enabling repayment of dues to creditors by disposing of confiscated assets, in case the accused offender continues to evade prosecution.
- As listed in the draft Bill’s schedule, it will be applicable to various financial and allied offences as defined under the Indian Penal Code, the Prevention of Corruption Act, the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, Customs Act and so on.
Definition of fugitive economic offenders:
- The draft Bill defines a fugitive economic offender as any individual against whom an arrest warrant has been issued and who has either left the country or refuses to come back to face prosecution.
Judicial appointments in a flux(The Hindu)
The retirement of Chief Justices of various High Courts just within a few days of their appointments as Chief Justices, reveal that judicial appointments in the High Courts remain in a constant state of flux.
- Chief Justices of various High Courts and several SC judges will retire this year
- Also, the posts of Chief Justice in seven High Courts have been lying vacant for the past several months, with Acting Chief Justices at the helm.
- Further, in the Supreme Court, with Justice Amitava Roy retiring on February 28, the vacancies will go up to seven, reducing the number of judges to 24.
- The sanctioned strength is however 31.
- There will be five more retirements in the Supreme Court in 2018, including that of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra.
- There has been increasing concern over rising vacancies.
- The concern has also been highlighted in a judgment delivered by a Supreme Court Bench, led by Justice A.K. Sikri.
- Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra formed a five-judge Constitution Bench, to resolve the conflict between two three-judge Benches of the Supreme Court, which has again brought to the fore the simmering tensions within the court.
Tinkering with judicial discipline:
- Trouble started when Justice Kurian Joseph, one of the five senior-most judges, voiced his concern in open court about fellow judges “tinkering with judicial discipline” and how the judges should function as “one” rather than in disparate voices.
- Justice Kurian was reacting to a February 8 judgment of a Bench of Justices Arun Mishra, A.K. Goel and M.M. Shantanagoudar which had overruled a 2014 judgment of a co-ordinate Bench of the then Chief Justice, R.M. Lodha, and Justices Madan B. Lokur and Kurian.
- Justice Kurian passed scathing remarks about how judicial discipline did not allow a three-judge Bench to overrule the decision of another three-judge Bench.
- The day after Justice Kurian made these remarks, Justice Mishra and Justice Goel referred the land acquisition cases before their Benches to the Chief Justice.
- They asked the Chief Justice of India to decide on whether these matters should be heard by a larger Bench.
- The February 8 judgment delivered by Justice Mishra’s Bench was on compensation paid to landowners, mostly farmers, when their land was acquired.
States can relax highway liquor ban(The Hindu)
- The Supreme Court gave the State governments the discretion to decide, on facts, whether areas covered by local self-governing bodies or areas proximate to municipal pockets should be exempted from the court’s nationwide prohibition on sale of liquor within 500 metres along the highways.
- On July 11, 2017, the court exempted municipal areas from the prohibition.
- The purpose of the ban, imposed in a December, 2016 judgment, was to prevent drunken driving along these busy thoroughfares.
- States, especially Tamil Nadu, came to the court, asking whether panchayats would also come under the definition of “municipal areas” mentioned in the July 11 order.
- Tamil Nadu said “municipal areas” were not “intended to exclude areas within the jurisdiction of local self-governing bodies.”
- The States reasoned that in future, these panchayats might be developed in a manner similar to municipalities, or some of them might be geographically proximate to an urban agglomeration.
- They sought a clarification about the “obvious uncertainties” thrown open by the order.
Can banking recover?(The Hindu Opinion)
- The Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI’s) attempt to purge the banking system of bad loans has begun to resemble the spring-cleaning of a long-neglected kitchen cupboard.
- Indian banks recognise a loan as an NPA if its interest or principal repayments are overdue for more than 90 days.
Statistics of Gross NPA:
- Gross NPAs of Indian banks, after staying below the Rs. 1 lakh-crore mark between FY06 and FY11, began to gallop from FY12.
- Jumping to Rs. 1.4 lakh crore in March 2012, gross NPAs proceeded to rise almost six fold over the next five years to Rs. 7.9 lakh crore by March 2017.
- In March 2017, they held Rs. 6.8 lakh crore of the Rs. 7.9 lakh crore bad loans; private sector banks held Rs. 91,900 crore and foreign banks the rest.
- Persisting losses pose a threat to continued operations for a bank because they eat into its capital buffers.
- RBI can stop worrying about capital adequacy, if only the gross NPA ratios of Indian banks showed signs of peaking out.
- The higher ‘stressed advances’ ratios of Indian banks hint at more bad news to come.
- While the gross NPA ratios of banks were at 10.2% as of September 2017, their ‘stressed assets’ were higher at 12.2%.
- While the gross NPAs of Indian banks reflect overdue loans recognised in their books, there’s a whole bunch of dubious loans outside these, known as ‘stressed assets’.
- As the Economic Survey noted, resurrecting Indian banks requires four Rs — recognition, resolution, recapitalisation and reforms.
- It is also important that newer bank loans given out in the last three years display good behaviour.
- But provisioning and losses from these NPAs are expected to stretch on for the next year or two.
- Depositors can take comfort from the fact that the capital adequacy problem has been addressed by the Centre’s mega recapitalisation package for public sector banks.
Is the endgame for NPAs in sight?(The Hindu)
- The bank frauds involving Punjab National Bank (PNB) and the associated companies comes at the time when the Indian banking system is already reeling under the pressure of growing NPAs, or non-performing assets which will touch nearly Rs. 10 lakh crore by March this year.
Reasons of bank frauds involving Punjab National Bank (PNB) and the associated companies:
- The PNB scam relied on the existence of an unusual financial instrument, the letter of undertaking (LoU).
- These LoUs which are equivalent to providing credit and should be recorded as contingent liabilities were not so recorded.
- Also, senior management and auditors did not track these problematic transactions for years.
- The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) did not monitor banks properly and created opacity with new financial instruments.
- The Finance Ministry failed in its oversight and regulation.
- And successive Central governments, including the present one, did and have not done anything to address the obvious problems that were festering, and made them even worse.
- The RBI may have been too occupied in counting old currency notes and dealing with the other damaging consequences of demonetisation to pay enough attention to its real job — of bank regulation.
Impact of bank frauds involving Punjab National Bank (PNB) and the associated companies:
- Many analysts within and outside government have responded to these scams by pointing the finger at public sector banks, claiming that they are more vulnerable to influence peddling and crony capitalism.
- The current mess has also become an excuse to demand the privatisation of state-held banks.
- But, poorly regulated private banks are even more prone to scams and failure as the financial sector is rife with information asymmetries and market imperfections.
PNB: freeze on lending feared(The Hindu)
- The Indian industry had called for better control systems to check financial frauds and also suggested gradual reduction in government holding in public sector banks (PSBs).
Why in news?
- Recently, PNB found that the SWIFT system had been misused by junior-level branch officials, who had fraudulently issued letters of undertaking (LoUs) on behalf of some companies for availing buyer’s credit from overseas branches of Indian banks.
Solutions for the banking sector:
- Government, regulators and industry must act fast to address systemic risks in the financial sector.
- The three key solutions for the banking sector are better management and operational efficiencies, use of technology such as blockchain and big data analytics, and lowering government shareholding in public sector banks.
- Assocham cautioned against allowing the alleged fraud in the PNB to halt the entire system of corporate lending as demoralisation would set in among the top functionaries and employees of government-owned banks.
- Lenders are now planning to increase insurance cover against delinquencies by their employees to protect bottomlines.
Why has coal mining been opened up?(The Hindu)
- The Centre opened up commercial coal mining for the private sector recently.
- About 70% of power generated in India uses coal.
- Domestic coal has been able to meet only 75% of our annual coal demand.
What is the significance of the move?
- With this decision, the sector will move from an area of monopoly to that of competition.
- The government has termed it the most ambitious coal sector reform since 1973 when the sector was nationalized.
- The State-owned Coal India Limited (CIL) was set up in 1975. Ever since, it has monoplised the sector, and is now the world’s largest coal-producer.
What led to this move?
- The coal ministry had, from 1993 to 2011, allocated 218 coal blocks to eligible Public Sector Undertakings and private firms for specified end-use projects, as well as for commercial mining by PSUs.
- These allocations were challenged before the Supreme Court , which in August 2014 cancelled the allocation of 204 blocks after finding that the allocations were arbitrary and illegal.
- To manage and reallocate the cancelled blocks, the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act, 2015 was enacted.
- In March 2017, the coal ministry brought out a discussion paper on auction of coal mines for commercial mining.
How will the recent decision be implemented?
- The approved methodology for auction of coal mines / blocks for sale will prioritise on transparency and ease of doing business.
- There will be an ‘ascending forward auction’ — a two-stage online auction comprising (i) technical bid and (ii) financial bid with initial and final price offers.
- There will be no curbs on the sale or use of coal from the mine.
What are the benefits?
- It is expected to bring in greater efficiency, technology, higher investment and more employment.
- It would also lead to more revenue that can be used for development of the area and inhabitants around the mine by the State. Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Maharashtra would benefit the most.
- This is the first step towards the full privatisation of the mining sector.
- However, coal blocks would be commercially viable only if they are offered in minimum blocks of 40-50 million tonnes.
Lithium ion batteries charge up rural houses(The Hindu)
The shift towards lithium ion batteries from the older technology of lead acid batteries has allowed firms like KAHO India Private Limited to help the Centre achieve its rural electrification target even in areas beyond the reach of the grid
About KAHO India:
- KAHO India is a Lithium Ion Battery based Solar Lighting System provider.
- Established in 2012, it seeks to provide last-mile energy access through compact solar modules to areas that are so far not connected to the grid.
Change in technology:
- The firm had initially developed a unit using lead acid battery but found that the short lifespan of these batteries rendered the entire product all but useless
- Subsequently, the firm began looking at other battery options and settled on lithium ion batteries.
- The government has been buying Kaho India’s units under the REC plan and the Saubhagya scheme. (Cost: Rs. 50,000 per unit)
Advantages of lithium ion batteries:
- Cheaper for the government on a per-energy cost basis
- They are much lighter than lead acid batteries. Therefore it became easy to deliver these units to remote locations.
- Charging time is much less than that of lead acid batteries
OVL drops plan to build Iran LNG facility(The Hindu)
ONGC Videsh Ltd. has dropped plans to build a $5 billion LNG export facility in Iran
- ONGC Videsh Ltd. has opted to only invest in developing a giant gas field in the Persian Gulf for which the revised cost is being worked out
- In 2017, OVL, the overseas arm of state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), had made its ‘best’ offer to spend $11 billion in developing the Farzad-B field in the Persian Gulf as well as in building the infrastructure to export the gas
- However, Iran had dithered on awarding rights for the field to the Indian firm owing to differences over investments and price of gas.
- The company has now agreed to do just the upstream field development part, leaving fuel marketing to Iran, the official said.
- As had been agreed during the visit of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in early February, a team of OVL officials will be visiting Tehran to discuss modalities of the upstream development.
Security and Defence:
Rustom-2 UAV takes to the skies(The Hindu)
- Recently, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) carried out a test-flight of the unmanned aerial vehicle Rustom-2.
- The flight was conducted at its Aeronautical Test Range in Chitradurga of Karnataka.
- This flight assumes significance because this is the first flight in user configuration with a higher power engine.
- Rustom-2 belongs to a family of UAVs under development, besides Rustom-1 and Rustom-H.
- It is a medium-altitude long-endurance drone (MALE) and will fill a critical capability gap in the inventory of the armed forces.
- It can fly up to an altitude of 22,000 feet and has an endurance of over 20 hours.
- It is capable of carrying payloads for electronic and signal intelligence missions.
- Currently, the three services employ hundreds of Israeli drones and have projected a requirement of hundreds of more UAVs, including armed variants, in the near future.
- The DRDO is also developing other drones in different categories.
U.K. industry body to shut India office(The Hindu)
- A U.K. industry body which facilitates defence and aerospace partnerships has decided to shut its office in India.
What is more in news?
- While a few large U.K. companies such as BAE Systems have their own offices in India, the Small and Medium Enterprises which cannot afford to do so utilise the services of ADS to connect with the Indian industry.
- But ADS (Aerospace, Defence, Security and Space) Group has decided to shut down its India office by March end.
- It is likely due to funding issues.