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GS: 1

Society related issues:

Websites for special needs (The Hindu)

Context

To empower persons with disabilities, 100 websites of the State governments and Union Territories under the Accessible India Campaign were launched by the Union Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment Thaawarchand Gehlot at the national conference on “Improving accessibility” here on Friday

Significance

As per government, websites would help persons with disabilities understand, navigate and interact with the Web, and that they can contribute to the Web

GS: 2

International relations:

India admitted to Australia Group (The Hindu)

Context

India on Friday joined the Australia Group saying that the membership will be mutually beneficial

What is Australia group?

The Australia Group (AG) is an informal forum of countries which, through the harmonisation of export controls, seeks to ensure that exports do not contribute to the development of chemical or biological weapons. Coordination of national export control measures assists Australia Group participants to fulfil their obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention to the fullest extent possible

Significance

  • India’s entry shows that our export controls and safeguards for biological and chemical agents, equipments and technologies meet the benchmarks established by the international community
  • The entry is a show of support from the international community for India’s non-proliferation records
  • It is understood that the membership will also boost India’s membership bid for the Nuclear Suppliers Group which is being opposed by China

Backdrop

India joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in 2016 and the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) last year

  • The Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies is a multilateral export control regime

On a new keel (The Hindu Opinion)

Context

With Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit, India and Israel have fully normalised bilateral ties

Start in 1992

That process began in 1992 when India established diplomatic ties with Israel, with major milestones in 2003 when Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli Prime Minister to visit India, in 2015 when President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel, and in 2017 when Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Israel.

25-year timeline

With Mr. Netanyahu’s six-day visit, the focus is now on the future, and their joint statement drew a 25-year timeline in which to realise the potential of the strategic partnership.

The close personal equation between the two leaders was evident throughout the visit

On Business

On business, Mr. Modi welcomed Israeli partnership in Indian manufacturing, pointing to the winning combination of an India that has “size and scale” and an Israel that has “sharpness and edge”. Mr. Netanyahu’s case, made at a speech inaugurating the Foreign Ministry’s annual Raisina Dialogue, was that the two countries have a “natural partnership” and a “natural friendship” that also caters to their need for hard power.

More open conversation on peace (Palestine issue)

  • With a relationship that is more open, India has also decided to have a more honest conversation with Israel on the peace process
  • While the Modi-Netanyahu meeting in July 2017 had practically brushed aside the Israel-Palestine peace process, the joint statement issued on Monday in New Delhi “reaffirmed their support for an early resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians”.
  • This indicates that the two Prime Ministers had a deeper conversation on the issue this time, including India’s vote at the UN against the decision of the United States to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

Visit to Palestine

Mr. Modi is expected to visit Ramallah as well as meet Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who as the custodian of the holy sites in Jerusalem is leading peace efforts in the Arab world, and is due in New Delhi shortly.

India using its leverage

This would take forward India’s commitment to assisting in finding a just solution for the conflict. It will require using the leverage India has built over the decades among Israelis and Palestinians in order to join global and regional powers in pushing them back to the negotiating table

Conclusion

India must stick to its strategy of strengthening ties with Israel without damaging its commitment to the West Asian peace process, and build its friendships and alignments in a way that goes beyond an appraisal of strengths and weaknesses.

Sign of geopolitical whirlwind (The Hindu Editorial)

Context

With a New Year tweet from his handle accusing Pakistan of “lies & deceit” in return for “33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years”, U.S. President Donald Trump ‘appears’ to be radically resetting his administration’s Pakistan policy, with implications for the rest of South Asia.

A clever ploy?

A less worrisome interpretation of Mr. Trump’s outrage would be that it is a clever ploy to gain more leverage in a region where the U.S. is seemingly losing ground

Losing ground to China

It is steadily losing its Afghan war, losing ground to China in the region, and China is increasingly interested in politically managing the potential outcomes of the Afghan war

Pakistan had the best of both

And Islamabad so far is seen to have had the best of both worlds — being China’s closest ally, while remaining a non-NATO ally of the U.S. In that interpretation

Pakistan’s options: just wait it out

  • So how is Islamabad likely to deal with an apparently belligerent Trump administration?
  • Will it fall in line or decline to act against the Taliban and the Haqqani network, widely considered to be Pakistan’s proxies in Afghanistan?
  • Any tightening of the noose around the Taliban is likely to be viewed by the Pakistan army as a strategic blunder, the implications of which would outlast the irresolute U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.
  • So the reasoning likely to be, why not wait out Mr. Trump’s occasional rage?

Ill-timed outrage

The U.S. may also have ill-timed its outrage

  • Caving into U.S. demands would have grave implications for the much-weakened civilian government in Islamabad, especially when all eyes are on the general elections later this year
  • The government, then, is likely to brave Mr. Trump’s wrath, or smooth-talk its way out.
  • The response from Islamabad has so far been verbal, with threats of suspending military and intelligence cooperation with Washington
  • However, it should be noted that American aid and reimbursements (for expenses incurred by Pakistan in the war on terror) have been declining over the past several years.
  • If so, the impact of the U.S. withholding aid may not be exceptionally damaging for Pakistan.

Beijing’s role

That said, it would be instructive to watch what role Beijing would play in this war of nerves between its strategic adversary and closest ally.

Sharper fault-lines

Notwithstanding how Pakistan responds to the U.S., the latter’s strong-arm policies have implications for South Asia. 

Implications for South Asia: many emerging geo-political fault-lines

Pakistan has been steadily moving towards China from the American camp: this will now be a far quicker shift.

China-Pakistan-Russia axis

The emerging China-Pakistan-Russia axis is set to play a dominant role in the regional geopolitical order. All three members of this axis have scores to settle with the U.S. 

Role of Iran

The role of Iran — which also has hostile relations with the U.S. even as it maintains a crucial strategic partnership with New Delhi — in this grouping would be interesting to watch.

India-Russia relations

And what would it mean for India-Russia relations? Is it the beginning of the end of the special relationship between the two countries, signs of which are already apparent? Moreover, the closer India gets to the U.S., the more each of these countries would display their discomfort towards India.

The Other side: India, US and Japan

The emerging counter-pole is to be led by the U.S., with India and Japan on board, and the increasingly cautious Western powers taking a rather subdued interest.

Saudi Arabia

The one U.S. ally that has immense influence in Pakistan is Saudi Arabia with which India also maintains a close relationship. 

The Question

The question then is two-fold: Will the Americans choose to use Riyadh to put pressure on Islamabad, and will the Saudis want to do that at a time when China-Saudi relations are on the uptick? Many of these compelling scenarios will play out in various ways in the days ahead.

Implications for India

Could affect India negatively: Even though the American rhetoric against Pakistan is viewed highly favorably in India, the freezing of U.S.-Pakistan relations could potentially have negative implications for the country, certainly in the medium to long term.

End of the indirect influence: This will mean the end of the indirect influence (through the U.S.) that India has traditionally managed to exert on Pakistan, especially on terror-related issues. Stronger China Pakistan ties: Second, the ever-strong China-Pakistan ties, without the balancing effect of the U.S. in the region, could push India further to the wall

Chinese maneuvers: Finally, what happens should there be an India-Pakistan crisis like the Kargil conflict of 1999? For one, American ‘absence’ would embolden Chinese maneuvers against India, and more so, China will be a far less pro-India broker than Washington ever was. 

Dealing with Washington without shutting down others

New Delhi’s best bet would be to deal with Washington without closing its doors to Moscow or Beijing, such fine balancing would require a great deal of diplomatic acumen, strategic foresight and long-term thinking.

Real intent of Washington must be considered

In any case, New Delhi should also closely consider the real intent behind Washington’s ire at Islamabad: it’s the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani network the Americans are after, not so much India-centric terror groups

Cautious optimism

Put differently, New Delhi should view it as a clash between Pakistani and American geopolitical interests, and not get involved itself. To its credit, then, the response from New Delhi has been guided by ‘cautious optimism’. 

Conclusion

A sharper geopolitical competition in the region could also adversely impact the overall sub-systemic stability in the region: when hard-nosed geopolitics takes over, focus on infrastructure development, market access, development of regional organisations, and regional conflict resolution mechanisms is bound to suffer. And that’s precisely what India needs to carefully consider; for unlike both China and the U.S., India is deeply invested in stability in South Asia.

U.S asks Pakistan to prosecute ‘terrorist’ Saeed (The Hindu)

Context

The U.S. said on Friday that it has told Pakistan clearly that Hafiz Saeed is a “terrorist” and should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, reacting strongly to Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s remarks that there was no case against Saeed

State Department responds strongly to Pak. PM’s remarks

The reaction by the State Department came after Mr. Abbasi, during an interview to Geo TV on Tuesday, referred to Saeed sahib.

Call for legal action

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said: “We believe that he should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law… He is listed by the UNSC 1267, the Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee for targeted sanctions due to his affiliation with Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is a designated foreign terror organisation,” Ms. Nauert told reporters.

Challenging times

Acknowledging that the U.S. has had some challenging times with the government of Pakistan recently, Ms. Nauert said the administration expected Pakistan to do a lot more to address terrorism issues.

Earlier

Earlier this month, the U.S. suspended about $2 billion in security assistance to Pakistan. In retaliation, Pakistan reportedly suspended military and intelligence cooperation with the U.S. The State Department said it had not received any formal information in this regard.

Indian Constitution and Polity:

Office of profit: EC wants 20 AAP MLAs disqualified (The Hindu)

Context

The Election Commission of India (ECI) is learnt to have recommended to President Ram Nath Kovind that 20 Aam Aadmi Party MLAs be disqualified on the office-of-profit charge. The President is bound by the Commission’s recommendation.

Seven MLAs move Delhi High Court against the recommendation.

The Commission, however, refused to comment on the issue, stating that the matter was sub judice.

As and when the President issues orders for the disqualification of these legislators, the ECI will have to conduct by-polls for their respective seats.

The issue

  • Last June, the ECI ruled that the 20 MLAs de factoheld the office of parliamentary secretaries. In September 2016, the Delhi High Court set aside the AAP government’s order appointing 21 MLAs as parliamentary secretaries in March 2015 as it lacked the approval of the Lieutenant Governor.
  • Lawyer Prashant Patel petitioned then President Pranab Mukherjee seeking their disqualification
  • The petition was forwarded to the ECI for its recommendation.
  • Subsequently, the Commission started a hearing on the issue and sought responses from the MLAs, who refuted the charges, stating that they did not draw any pecuniary (relating to or consisting of money) benefits from their posts. They also cited the Delhi High Court directive stating that their appointments had been set aside.

A poor prognosis (The Hindu Opinion)

The National Medical Commission Bill is unlikely to provide a dynamic new thrust to medical care in India

Lack of clarity

The fundamental flaw in the proposed Medical Commission is the lack of clarity on its function. 

Complex tasks assigned to the commission

Unfortunately, in the National Medical Commission Bill, 2017 in the chapter titled “powers and functions of the commission”,

  • The phrase “lay down policy” occurs repeatedly
  • The Commission is also expected to “assess the requirements in healthcare, including human resources…”

Such complex tasks, which require inputs from multiple agencies, will be done poorly, if at all, by the commission

Point of integration

What type of medical practitioners should the country train? This is a matter that the government should decide. 

Failure of the government: created competition among the various streams of medicine in India

The failure of successive governments to promote scientific medicine and integrate the best of indigenous systems into one unified system has led to unhealthy competition among the various streams of medicine in India.

Western vs Allopathy

It would be great statesmanship to move to just one scientific system of medicine in India, combining all that is proven from different streams. 

Members of the Commission

Who should the members of the Commission be?

  • The present system of appointing members to the MCI has failed, resulting in rent-seekers repeatedly entering the Council.
  • The election process should be reformed, not replaced
  • The proposal to have sections of society other than medical professionals in the commission is laudable 

Proposed method wrong

  • Having an almost entirely nominated commission, as the present Bill provides, is unhealthy
  • It will lead to a collection of ‘yes men and women’ whose chief qualification will be proximity to the existing government.

Medical education

Should private initiative be allowed in medical education?

Too little patients

If the government is sincere in its objective of providing universal medical care, it is clear that high-cost private education will further exacerbate the problem of too many specialists in metropolitan areas chasing too few patients

Problems in process of approving medical colleges

  • To start a medical college, State governments first issue a certificate of essentiality
  • The MCI then decides whether the proposed college has enough facilities to start the first year. Subsequently, inspections are done every year till the first batch of students has completed the final year
  • This has led to problems, as somewhere along the way, the Council finds that some colleges are unable to meet the requirements and withdraws recognition
  • This leaves students in a lurch and they then approach the judiciary to solve their unhappy situation
  • The proposed Commission has no mechanism to prevent this from happening
  • Merely shifting this responsibility to a medical assessment and rating board is no solution.

Problems with the current bill

  • It falls between the stools of excessively ambitious objectives and micro-management
  • On the one hand the Commission is expected to formulate policy, but on the other it is to decide fee structure
  • The government should exhibit statesmanship and form a parliamentary committee to draft a new Bill altogether with clear and workable objectives

Conclusion

In the end, policy decisions should be decided by policymakers, and not bureaucrats

Freedom supreme (Indian Express) 

Context

The apex court’s order on ‘Padmaavat’ underlines truths which are conveniently forgotten, to the unholy glee of the mob

The Real issue

While Indian governments have perfected the art of the ban on the convenient fear of public disorder, the Supreme Court has returned the focus of the debate over the suppression of culture to the real issue: Protection of the constitutional right to free expression.

Back to the right question

The question is no longer: “Are anyone’s sentiments hurt?” It is back to: “Are fundamental rights curtailed?”

SC View

While hearing a petition against the selective banning by states of Padmaavat

  • Once a film has been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), it has the right to state protection for screenings
  • States cannot suspend screenings citing law and order concerns
  • Rather, it is their duty to firmly address them.
  • The decisions of a statutory body like the CBFC must be honoured, for otherwise it would be rendered irrelevant.

Principles trampled

  • These principles, and the primacy of free speech, were overridden for decades by the law and order concerns of various governments, which gave free rein to vandals to create a state of lawlessness and disorder
  • Once established, the fear that the state will not protect free speech rights is not readily dispelled. It was established by the then UPA government’s failure to prevent M F Husain being hounded out of the country by a mob.

But quality of debate better now

  • But the quality of the debate has taken a turn for the better with this case.
  • The apex court has prescribed all attempts to override the CBFC’s clearance thus reinforcing the power of the institution.
  • In addition, it has made it the business of state governments to ensure screenings and protect the cinema crew.

Another question for another day

And, most interestingly, Harish Salve, counsel for the plaintiff Viacom18, has promised — and he should be applauded for that — to argue “someday”

  • for the artist’s right to distort history

This is the argument which will sunder (split apart) the Gordian knot (an extremely difficult or involved problem) in which history, myth and tradition are now messily bound up.

History is different from folk tales, myth

Rigorous history stands apart from folk histories, myth and creative traditions. The first must be respected, while the others are ever-changing playthings and talismans which have entertained generations and given meaning to their lives. 

Conclusion

Unless we can tell one from the other, we run the risk of being rendered speechless

GS: 3

Economy:

Soon, you can make calls while flying (The Hindu)

Context

Flyers in India, as well as those flying over the country, may soon be able to make voice calls and remain connected to the Internet even when on board an aircraft as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India on Friday recommended allowing in-flight connectivity in Indian airspace.

TRAI recommends facility

  • Currently, flyers are not allowed to use mobile phones and Internet within the Indian airspace due to security concerns
  • While the government has been considering the issue for almost two years, with the latest TRAI recommendation, flyers will be able to check emails, send and receive WhatsApp messages and post statuses and photos on social networking sites.

TRAI’s view

  • People today are increasingly accustomed to stay connected anywhere, 24/7 – driven by the need to keep in touch with family, enjoy entertainment and maintain critical business communications
  • The demand for in-flight Internet access is driven by millions of smart phones, tablets and laptop computers.
  • About, 83% of passengers would prefer to fly with an airline offering in-flight connectivity and over half (55%) of all in-flight connectivity users have connected more than one device, a survey found

Cut the confusion (Indian Express)

Context

Decisions taken by the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) have recently attracted a lot of attention. The renewed focus on monetary policy has arisen due to a few factors

Key equation

Real interest rate = Nominal Interest rate – Inflation

Repo rate cut is too little

Author states that repo rate cut by Monetary Policy Committee has been too little because inflation has declined gradually over past few years while repo rate cuts have not matched its decline leading to a rise in real interest rate

A rise in real interest rate causes slowdown in growth because of lower borrowings

Neutral real rate

Author points out that the very statement that the real rate is too high or too low presupposes the existence of some neutral real rate. What is the neutral real rate and how does one determine it?

  • Economists call this neutral rate the natural rate of interest. It is defined as the rate at which the country’s output is at its potential level and inflation is stable
  • measuring this rate is difficult because it is not directly observed but needs to be inferred 

Measurement of Neutral real rate

  • Method 1: compare the real rates across countries
    • Flaw: That strategy, however, is fundamentally flawed since each country is unique in terms of its economic fundamentals and stage of development
    • Thus, the real rate in India, which is still growing at one of the highest rates in the world, cannot be compared with real rates in slower-growing developed economies or other developing countries that are at a different stage of their development process. One needs a different approach
  • Method 2: Interest rates are a key input into our saving decision.
    • When we save, we give up goods and services that we could have consumed instead. Since we all tend to prefer consuming today to tomorrow, we need to be compensated. That compensation is the interest rate offered on our saving.
    • Economic theory predicts, to a first approximation, that the real interest rate should equal the growth rate of real consumption plus the rate at which we discount tomorrow relative to today
  • Method 3:  Another method to measuring the natural rate is to examine the demand side of the market.
    • Firm owners demand funds to invest in capital.
    • Economic reasoning suggests that the interest rate that they are willing to pay for this borrowing should be related to the productivity of the additional capital that they invest in net of other costs such as depreciation of capital and taxes.
    • Based on data on capital stock, output and depreciation rates on capital available from the latest version of the Penn World Tables, this approach yields a 10-year moving average of the implied real rate between 2000 and 2014 (the last year for which the data is available) at also around 6 per cent, similar to the one derived from the other approach

What does this measure of the natural rate reveal for India?

The 10-year moving average of real consumption growth in India has averaged around 5.5 per cent since 2007. This would indicate that the natural rate of interest in India is around 6 per cent 

Significance

The natural rate in a fast-growing economy like India is extremely unlikely to be below 3 per cent. This point is only strengthened by the fact that the expected real interest rate based on the difference between the repo and expected inflation (as measured by the RBI’s household inflation survey) is even lower

  • The stance of monetary policy has to be judged by comparing the real rate with the natural rate. By this standard, the stance of monetary policy in India is still very accommodative.

Ease of data access is driving compliance (The Hindu)

Context

Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister Arun Jaitley on Friday said the ease with which corporate data is available online had put pressure on companies to ensure compliance. It was also helping in preventing improprieties due to the fear of the possibility of such wrongdoings being detected, he said, unveiling the National CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Data Portal and Corporate Data Portal.

National CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Data Portal and Corporate Data Portal

  • The National CSR Data Portal will capture information on CSR activities carried out by eligible companies, according to an official statement.
  • The CSR portal contains all filed information, which can generate predefined reports with respect to expenditure across states, districts and development sectors
  • The portal also provided for feedback on projects to be given by registered users 

Benefits

  • The open access to data is expected to help researchers, improve quality of data filed by companies as well as involve intended beneficiaries in giving valuable feedback to companies. It will help in institutionalising and consolidating the CSR activities.
  • The CSR portal would facilitate the social audit of CSR projects

User-friendly format

The Corporate Data Portal aims at making all the financial and non-financial information of the companies available in a user friendly format to the general public.

Science and Technology: 

Navy confident of commissioning aircraft carrier Vikrant in two years (The Hindu) 

Context

After several delays, the Indian Navy is confident of commissioning Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1) Vikrant, currently under construction at Kochi, by October 2020

Hold-ups in procuring major parts resolved

  • The IAC-I project has been delayed due to hold-ups in procurement especially of 18 major equipment related to aviation complex, including the arrestor and the withstanding gear, from Russia
  • There were licencing issues which have been resolved

Sea trials

The carrier is likely to be handed over to the Navy by December 2018 after which it will be put through harbour and sea trials before commissioning.

Vikrant

  • Vikrantborrows its name from India’s first aircraft carrier, the 20,000-tonne INS Vikrant purchased from the U.K. India currently operates the 44,500-tonne INS Vikramaditya procured from Russia.

STOBAR

Like INS VikramadityaVikrant too would employ the STOBAR (Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) mechanism with a ski-jump and arrestor cables to launch and recover aircraft.

 Fighter Jets on Vikrant

  • It can operate 20 fighter jets and 10 other aircraft
  • The Mig-29K fighters currently in service with the Navy would also be on the deck of Vikrant.
  • Initially the plan was to have a mix of Mig-29K and the naval variant of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas.

Chronology

  • The IAC-I project was approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in 2003 and the keel for the 260-metre ship was laid in 2009
  • The CCS had initially sanctioned ₹3,200 crore, which was subsequently revised to ₹19,341 crore.
  • In a 2016 report, the Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) said that the “delivery of the carrier with completion of all activities is likely to be achieved only by 2023.” But Navy officials stated that all issues have now been resolved and the ship would join the Navy in 2020.

IAC-II

The Navy has already set sights on the IAC-II, which it envisages to be conventionally powered and displace 65,000 tonnes with an advanced Catapult-based Aircraft Launch Mechanism (CATOBAR) similar to the U.S. Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) for aircraft launch and recovery.

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WORD POWER

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  1. Gordian knot: an extremely difficult or involved problem
  2. Pecuniary: relating to or consisting of money

 

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