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GS: 1


History:

New book claims Netaji died in 1945(The Hindu)

Context

Reports by Japanese and other international authorities have conclusively proved that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose died in an air crash on August 18, 1945, a new book has claimed

Book

Findings have been made in the book titled Laid to Rest: The Controversy over Subhash Chandra Bose’s Death by author Ashis Ray

Netaji’s remains

Netaji’s only living child and heir Anita Pfaff, has urged Japan and India to conduct DNA testing on the remains at the Renkoji shrine of Tokyo for final confirmation

Backdrop

The air crash has long been at the centre of speculations as it was reported initially to be the cause of his death. However, mystery persisted over Netaji’s final moments and it was felt that he might have fled the crash site to avoid being arrested by the victorious Allied powers of the Second World War

Why the mystery?

Book claims that the tension between Netaji’s older brother Sarat Chandra Bose and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru might have played a role in preventing a frank conversation about the heartbreaking truth of Bose’s death which was confirmed by Japanese government in an interim report to the American general Douglas MacArthur, whose forces occupied Japan after its surrender in the Second World War

  • Book states that the lingering doubts over Netaji’s death in the air crash might have resulted from the early death of Sarat Bose himself in 1950 as he alone could have made a public declaration on his brother’s death

GS: 2


International relations:

Analysis: could a jail term for Khaleda Zia spell unrest in Bangladesh? (The Hindu)

Context

Verdict to be announced on February 8th on the case of alleged embezzlement of Tk. 21 million in foreign donations meant for the ‘Zia Orphanage Trust’

Threat of violence

The BNP, backed by its Islamist allies, has warned that it would take to the streets if the verdict goes against their leader

Views

Many senior BNP leaders said that if their leader is convicted, “a disastrous situation” might be created in the country, no matter whether the BNP announces any protest programme or not

  • However, independent analysts do not foresee any major unrest as the BNP’s organisational strength has abated after the party was reduced to the status of a non-parliamentary opposition following its boycott of the 2014 general election.

Indian Constitution and Polity:

Plea to exclude SC/ST creamy layer from quota (The Hindu)

Context

The Supreme Court will hear a petition to exclude the affluent members, or the creamy layer, of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes from the benefits of reservation

What does the petition say?

The petition filed by Samta Andolan Samiti, which represents the poor strata of the SCs/STs in Rajasthan, wants the creamy layer of the SCs/STs excluded from the benefits.

Petition contends that

  • The rich among the SCs/STs are “snatching away” the benefits, while the deserving and impoverished continue to “bite the dust.” It is this lack of percolation of benefits to the poor and really backward among these communities that has led to social unrest, Naxalite movements and perennial poverty
  • no class or caste remained homogeneously backward across time. Only the backward portion of castes included in the list of SCs/STs alone are constitutionally entitled to the benefits of reservation
  • Means test: Petition refers to the Constitution Bench’s 2006 judgment in the M. Nagaraj case that the “means test [a scrutiny of the value of assets of an individual claiming reservation] should be taken into consideration to exclude the creamy layer from the group earmarked for reservation.”

Significance

This is the first time a petition has been filed urging the Supreme Court to introduce the creamy layer concept for the SCs/STs

  • Indra Sawhney case: In 1992, a nine-judge Bench of the court in the Indra Sawhney case, or the Mandal case as it was popularly known, upheld the caste-based reservation for the OBCs as valid
    • Exclusion of creamy layer of OBCs: The court also said the creamy layer of the OBCs (those earning a specified income) should not get the benefits of reservation. The ruling, however, confined the exclusion of the creamy layer to the OBCs and not the SCs/STs

A vote for state funding (The Hindu Opinion)

Context

Election Finance in India

Issues

  • Corporate donations constitute the main source of election funding in India which constitutes mainly of black money, business and corporate donations to political parties. The public disclosure system that exists is limited
  • In 2008, using the provisions of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Central Information Commission allowed disclosure of income tax returns of political parties, though it is an open secret that actual expenditure is much, much higher than what is disclosed.

Global best practices

  • Partial or full public funding: India’s privately funded election campaign stands in contrast to the trend in most countries, which have partial or full public funding or transparent regulation and financial accountability of political finance as in the U.S

Contentious features of electoral bond scheme

  • It will not carry the name of the payee: The most significant aspect of the electoral bonds scheme is that it will not carry the name of the payee as there is reluctance to donate to parties through bank instruments citing loss of anonymity
    • Benefit: Bonds will allow corporate houses to make anonymous donations through banking channels to the party of their choice
    • Disadvantages: This would lead to further opacity in the funding process and further limit oversight and accountability
  • Corporate funding not addressed: Far from reducing the large-scale corporate funding of elections, the introduction of electoral bonds does not even address this issue. The bonds scheme imposes no restrictions on the quantum of corporate donations. Consequently, electoral bonds cannot address the problems that arise from the corporate control over politics and corporate capture of government policies and decisions. Rather, electoral bonds will result in unlimited and undeclared funds going to certain political parties which will be shielded from public scrutiny as the balance sheets will not show which party has been the beneficiary
  • From 20,000 to 2000: The decision to reduce cash contributions from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000is a step in the right direction, but the net effect is debatable, since it could prompt parties to take smaller cash donations, and therefore not declare their source. This would not decrease the drift towards non-transparent funding

Hence, far from making the funding process transparent, the bond scheme could provide a backdoor to corporates and other lobbies for shaping public policy to benefit their interests

Three Steps back

Electoral bonds must be seen in conjunction with:

  • Lifting of the maximum limit of 7.5% on the proportion of the profits a company can donate to a political party, thus opening up the possibility of shell companies being set up specifically to fund parties
  • Amendment of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) opening the floodgates of foreign funding to political parties, especially those which have a foreign support base
  • The refusal of political parties to come under the RTI Act in order to conceal their sources of funding

These three things will end up strengthening the business-politics nexus

Negative amendments

Proposed amendments to the Income Tax Act and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Act will exempt parties from keeping records of donations made through bonds

ADR Report

ADR reported that nearly 70% of party funding over an 11-year period came from unknown sources; nearly Rs 7,900 Crore donations came from unknown sources in 2015-2016. Electoral bonds will not change this. In fact, political parties don’t need to reveal the donor’s name for a contribution above Rs 20,000 provided these are in the form of electoral bonds

Why high cost of elections is not good for democracy?

A major concern associated with the high cost of elections is that it prevents political parties and candidates with modest financial resources from being competitive in elections

Measures that could be taken

Such measures include strong disclosure norms, strict statutory limits on election expenses and ceiling on corporate donations to political parties

Further solutions

State funding of elections (in various forms) is a potential solution to this problem

  • The Indrajit Gupta Committee on State Funding of Elections had endorsed partial state funding of recognised political parties and their candidates in elections way back in 1998, but the lack of political will has prevented any serious discussion on this
    • The mechanics of this process need to be carefully worked out to establish the allocation of money to national parties, State parties and independent candidates, and to check candidate’s own expenditure over and above that which is provided by the state

Conclusion

Based on the experience of countries that have total or partial state funding of elections, it will not be difficult to work out a formula that is both efficient and equitable to ensure that democracy works for everyone and not just for the wealthy few

Economy:

Trans-pacific pact could hurt India (The Hindu)

Context

If India were to join the mega-regional Free Trade Agreement (FTA) called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and adopt its norms, they would severely hurt the country’s agriculture, manufacturing, services and the generic pharma industry, according to a new book

Book

Titled “Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement: A framework for future trade rules?” the book — co-edited by Abhijit Das, Professor and Head, Centre for WTO Studies (CWS), Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT) and Shailja Singh, Legal Consultant, CWS — has done an analysis of the almost the 5,544 pages of the TPP text

Backdrop

U.S. has withdrawn from the TPP. The other 11 countries (Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Mexico, Peru, Chile and Vietnam) that were part of the agreement are now expected to ink an amended version in March

Impact of TPP on India

According to the book, if India were to conform to the TPP rules on market access in goods,

  • Impact on manufacturing sector: It would pose severe challenges to India’s manufacturing sector. The domestic industry may not be able to face import competition in a duty-free regime, it added
  • On the agriculture front, the farmers will be continuously exposed to the risk of being knocked out of the market by cheap and subsidized exports, particularly from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand
  • The TPP template may pose severe challenges to the government in regulating services in the future, the book claimed
  • Impact on Pharma: Ms. Singh said the TPP also “would severely restrict the entry into the market, or the reimbursement for use, of generic medicine. If India were to adopt [TPP] rules, it would require significant changes in the domestic regulatory regime…” She added India’s export prospects in government procurement markets may continue to below, if it entered the pact.

Banking on good faith: on efforts to recapitalise PSBs (The Hindu Editorial)

Context

More structural reforms are needed to maximize the bank recapitalization effort

Benefit of recapitalization

This capital offers a fresh lease of life as it will help meet regulatory requirements under the Basel-III regime as well as cushion them to an extent from possible haircuts on stressed loans that are going through the insolvency resolution process

Accompanying reforms

Rating agencies have given the recapitalization the thumbs up, but remain unimpressed about governance reforms packaged with it. These include

  • Tweaks to existing systems for closer monitoring of big-ticket loans
  • Identifying niche areas where a bank has strengths
  • Restricting corporate exposure to 25%
  • A new performance management system

Where intent overrides impact (The Hindu)

Context

The e-way bill, set to be introduced across India from February 1 as part of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) regime, could lead to ‘large scale’ disruption in the transportation of goods, transporters caution

Intended purpose of the bill

While the bill is intended as a mechanism to prevent leakage of GST by tracking the movement of goods from one party (and place) to another

View of transport industry officials

Transport industry officials said it would have been better to have addressed ‘several key issues’ before migrating to the new system

What is e-way bill?

The Central Goods and Services Tax (Sixth Amendment) Rules, 2017, requires every person causing the movement of goods worth more than Rs 50,000 from one State to the other to generate an e-Way or electronic Way bill for each such movement

  • The transporters can manage sub-users and allocate roles to them. Large transporters can declare their various offices as sub-users
  • There is provision for cancellation of an e-way bill within 24 hours by the person who generated the e-Way Bill. The recipient can also reject the e-way bill within 72 hours of generation
  • The validity of an e-way bill is fixed as one day for every 100 km or part thereof

Issues

  • Lack of preparedness
  • Possible harassment by tax officials citing compliance issues: Transporters fear that unintended lapses on their part could lead to the imposition of heavy penalties. Also, consignments could end up getting stranded mid way due to drivers’ inability to pay the fine at remote locations.
  • The transportation industry is predominantly an offline industry. Expecting them to go online suddenly is difficult to cope with. The general feeling in the industry is that it will be impractical to roll out the e-way bill from February 1
  • Movement of project cargo or heavy cargo, which takes months to reach the destination, could suffer as a result of the e-way bill rule that mandates 100 km per day movement. Such cargo generally does not travel more than 20 km a day
  • While the e-way bill existed in some States even earlier, the countrywide introduction across all sectors is likely to pose documentation and system challenges initially to smaller businesses
  • Low literacy levels and poor technology awareness among a majority of truck owners could also create a stumbling block
  • Increased financial burden due to filing of e-way bills: A majority of the small transporters who are driver-owners will find it difficult to generate e-way bills as the process requires comfort with using electronic medium such as apps
  • In case of a breakdown in hilly areas or remote villages with no mobile connectivity, the e-way bill will not be easily updated. There is no clarity on the resolution of such issues in the rules
  • Lack of clarity on rules: There is lack of clarity on the issue of vehicle detention in the case of mis-presentation of details such as price of goods. The responsibility should lie with either the consignee or the consignor without detaining the vehicle
  • Random checks: Rules also give the right to inspect the vehicles at random(138 B) which increases the chances of harassment by inspectors, transporters fear. Inspectors have the right to unload the entire consignment to check compliance. There is no guidance provided for genuine randomness as against “targeted” check

Solution

The government must issue a blanket order to officials not to harass truck drivers in transit. If the driver has an e-way bill then [it is clear] there is no intention to cheat

Transporters have urged the government to ensure officials differentiate between errors in the e-way bill and intentional tax evasion

Counterview

  • With just the e-way bill number, all transactions can now be tracked and average waiting time for vehicles will now reduce, as verification processes will be online
  • The compulsory introduction of e-way bill may face initial glitches, but in the long-term, it will benefit not only the logistics industry, but the country as a whole

Conservative banking not bail-in, will bail us out (The Hindu)

Context

FRDI Bill 2017

New method: Bail-in

The Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill 2017 now pending before the joint committee of Parliament contains a new method for saving a failing bank — a ‘bail-in’ of customers deposits instead of a ‘bail-out’ by the government

What does Bail-in means?

A bank will be recapitalized with customers’ deposits while the owners of banks will be  granted immunity by the ‘limited liability’ of a corporate identity

  • Origins: The ‘bail-in’ owes its origin to the 2008 bankruptcy of the ‘too big to fail’ Lehman Brothers that spooked central bankers in G7 countries. Lehman Brothers was forced to file for bankruptcy due to its inability to pay $3 billion to its creditors
    • This triggered a chain reaction among banks and insurance firms financially interconnected with Lehman Brothers. As a consequence, the Financial Stability Board was set up and it proposed the ‘bail-in’ as a key attribute to cope with bank failures wherein the price for ‘financial stability’ is paid by the customer.

Unstable character of banking in India: Possibility of a Bail-in

The unstable character of banking is highlighted in the routine stress tests conducted by the Reserve Bank

  • According to the December 2017 Financial Stability Report, if customers of 54 commercial banks in India were to withdraw 15% of their uninsured deposits, 18 banks would fail to repay the deposits of customers
  • Similarly, if the top three borrower groups of each bank default, then six banks would fail to maintain their minimum capital requirement of 9%
  • In a severe economic downturn, one bank can trigger failure of 18 out of the 54 banks only because of financial interconnectedness

Fragile safeguards

The safeguards in application of a ‘bail-in’ appear fragile

  • In 2008, if ‘bail-in’ had been law, customer deposits would have been needlessly appropriated. It is equally disturbing that ‘bail-in’ may be triggered for reasons unrelated to banking
    • In 2013, European creditors dictated a ‘bail-in’ on the Laiki Bank in Cyprus in addition to other austerity measures and reforms as a precondition to a €11-billion bail-out package by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund

Way forward

If the ‘limited liability’ clause can protect the personal wealth of corporate borrowers despite the huge loans their bankrupt companies owe to public sector banks, the Centre must protect all retail customers from the ‘bail-in’ clause

Govt. may alter insolvency law(The Hindu)

Context

The insolvency law might be amended depending on recommendations of the panel reviewing issues related to the legislation, including those pertaining to home buyers, a senior government official said.

What: Insolvency Law Committee

A 14-member panel, also chaired by Mr. Srinivas, is working to identify and suggest ways to address issues faced in the implementation of the IBC — which came into force in December 2016.

Skewed in favor of financial creditors

  • There is a feeling that this law is skewed a little too much in favour of financial creditors
  • It is not adequately addressing the requirements or expectations of other stakeholders
  • According to him, competition, regulatory clearances, tax liabilities and other aspects would also be looked at.

Concerns

  • “There are also apprehensions on whether this system [insolvency law] can be abused. Can somebody trigger this system for some sort of wrongful intent?”
  • Among others, issues such as whether the insolvency process should be governed by liquidation value or enterprise value would also be looked into
  • “What are the rights of home buyers? What is the capacity of insolvency professionals? These are among the issues that has to be seen,”

Homebuyers problems

  • In recent months, there have been concerns about incomplete realty projects and consequent hardships faced by home buyers
  • Some real estate firms are also facing insolvency proceedings.
  • There have also been suggestions from certain quarters about having provisions that would help provide relief to home buyers.

Textiles sector seeks a leg-up from government(The Hindu)

Context

 A couple of major issues have impacted the country’s textile and clothing sector in the past year. Expectedly, the industry’s aspirations for the Union Budget are related to the revival of exports and the GST

‘Stagnant exports, technology upgradation need attention’

According to data available with the industry and the export promotion councils, readymade garment exports grew less than 1% between April and November 2016 in dollar terms and dropped 3.03 % in rupee terms

Exports data

  • Fabric exports were to the tune of $230.37 million in April 2017 and slumped to $113 million in October
  • Yarn exports fared better in value terms at $267.33 million in April and $354.05 million in October last year. However, in terms of volume, yarn exports stayed almost flat.
  • Apparel exports dropped 8% in December alone compared with a year earlier.

Vietnam taking over

“For the last three years, exports have almost stagnated. Countries such as Vietnam have overtaken India in yarn exports to China.”

Effect of Demonetisation and GST

The two major policy decisions of the government in the recent past, demonestisation and GST, have impacted the industry more than the economic slowdown

Stimulus package needed

  • A stimulus package will give relief to the units,said Sanjay K. Jain, chairman, CITI
  • Rebate of State levies (ROSL) is critical for revival of exports
  • Towards this, the government should sanction adequate funds for ROSL and extend it to all products instead of just garments and made-ups, said Mr. Jain.

ROSL

  • According to data available with the ministry, the allocation for ROSL for 2017-2018 was ₹1,555 crore and it has been exhausted
  • However, according to the industry, garment exporters got ROSL only for April and May and made-up exporters received rebates till July this financial year

‘Allocations must rise’

  • The industry estimates it needs about ₹2,100 crore to clear pending ROSL reimbursements and another ₹2,500 crore for the next fiscal
  • So, allocations need to go up substantially, sources said.

Steps Centre should take

  • The Centre should announce the drawback rates, restore the pre-GST level of incentives for exports and increase the import duty, said representatives of industry associations.
  • The Apparel Export Promotion Council has said that under schemes such as Advance Authorisation and EPCG, applicants should get early approvals. This will lead to higher investments.
  • Officials in the ministry said thrust areas now were going to be powerlooms, technology and export promotion.

PCA: Ministry to appraise bank heads(The Hindu)

Context

The Finance Ministry would soon initiate a performance review of heads of public sector banks that are under the RBI’s Prompt Corrective Action (PCA) as part of the reform process, official sources said

12 lenders under watch on NPA issue.

  • So far, the Reserve Bank has put 12 public sector banks (PSBs) under watch in view of lagging on certain performance parameters like unexpected level of high non-performing assets (NPAs), low capital level, low return on assets etc.
  • These parameters indicate weak financial health of lending institutions and a need to initiate remedial measures to put them on a right course

Banks

The banks include IDBI Bank, Central Bank of India, Indian Overseas Bank, Dena Bank, Allahabad Bank, Bank of India among others.

Rebuilding our cities (The Hindu Opinion)

Context

Soon after World War II, Americans chose to align their cities not with European ideals but with places that reflected American conditions. That great swathes of cheap land and newer technologies for construction were available meant that the new American city could have denser civic centres, a large component of suburban homes, private cars to access long distances, and a new conception of city life.

Dynamic Indian cities

The Indian city of the 21st century is a similarly dynamic entity, with palpable differences from its modern conception after Independence.

Examples

Chandigarh, Delhi and Mumbai etc.

Two pockets of a city

The liberalised economy of the last few decades has created two pockets of city life:

  • A small exclusive elite that occupies urban space but remains cloistered and outside of its civic forces, and a majority of dispossessed who fill the empty crevices of the city with meagre possessions and rudimentary needs.
  • A supposedly thriving middle class remains a figment of the bureaucratic imagination, while the overwhelming population is of the poor.

The Question

What does this say about the future of civic planning and urban life?

Looking to West Africa

If the bureaucrat and the politician wish to deal with the real city today, they must look closely at Lagos and Kumasi rather than Copenhagen or Shanghai.

Similarity with Indian towns

  • Like Delhi and Mumbai, West African cities are migrant towns whose development and future prospects are tied to the economy of day-to-day minor endeavours.
  • To give civic space to people with nothing, to allow for a spread of temporary commerce, cattle fairs, public festivals and vegetable markets as the mainstay of civic life makes West African towns strikingly similar to Indian cities.
  • A mix of agricultural town, rural outpost and cosmopolitan centre, the city’s migrant economy takes centre stage in civic life
  • Indian towns too rely on the surrounding farming economy or are artisan centres for small-scale — often illegal — industry

Urban centres made up of rural inhabitants

  • Consequently, the signals are all directed towards a future urbanity made up of rural inhabitants, where the more pressing needs of civic life will be addressed by informal associations
  • Norms of space occupation, building design, size and density have to therefore grow out of people’s own comfort and familiarity, not as an imposition of imaginary European models or even Indian middle-class values
  • Civic mayhem is created by persistent and erroneous calls for public space, cultural centres, stadia, etc., rather than open maidans and temporary bazaars where migrant patterns can be openly expressed in city life.

Fast changing demographics

  • Demographic changes in Indian cities occur much too fast to be acknowledged in government policy
  • In fact, perceptible changes in the city’s public disposition have already begun to project rural patterns
  • The wide open green space at Delhi’s India Gate — designed as ceremonial space for government monuments — now functions as an unselfconscious city ground for the capital’s poor
  • The northern fringe of hillocks outside Jaipur’s old city is a cataclysm of expanding tenements. Mumbai’s Marine Drive is public space without intent, as is Chennai’s Marina Beach.

Revitalising cities

Unless there is a serious rethink of the value of urban life, the city will remain mired in its present muddled state of trial, error and miscalculation.

Approaches to solving the problem

Structural Change:

  • First, given the trends of migration and the free-for-all approach to civic resources, land and facilities, the government’s inclination to appease the larger numbers should take precedence.
  • The city’s overriding plan should be directed towards an accommodation of all migratory tasks — home, employment, entertainment, and commerce — in buildings and public facilities altered to suit their primary needs
  • This may radically change the overall structure of the city
  • But when bylaws and regulations are specifically and only written for a migrant city, it would be far more acceptable than the current city profile as desperate slum.

Restrictions on entry

  • The second idea could adopt a draconian model of restrictions similar to Chinese and some European cities, allowing entry and civic facilities only to those with either home or employment
  • Physical control and access to roads, parks, housing and utilities becomes a position of fewer people sharing a limited reserve of urban space and resources.
  • As most social scientists now admit, only controlled undemocratic space can be a functioning model for a city.

Cultural cohesion

  • The third model, which is the most difficult and yet most sought-after, seeks a divergent and all-inclusive solution
  • It is what American urbanist Jane Jacobs described as ‘a cultural cohesion’ where the integration of economic disparities is so complete that it resembles a finely woven carpet
  • The design incorporates all the essential elements of habitation — home, commerce, recreation and institution — and merges them mysteriously in the carpet weave
  • The city and its neighbourhoods are no longer a visible intrusion of small private capitalist parts in a larger socialist city-state, or vice-versa, but an unconscious mixing of interdependence. People live blissfully unaware of the other’s presence, class or economic status
  • Hints of such places are visible in old European and American cities, in small medieval towns in western India, even in some long-established poorer city tenements
  • Such cities do not follow physical, statistical or design models, but are formed out of a deeper evolutionary social core — an intent that despises easy definitions of community, residence, commercial area and public space
  • It takes a brave government to believe these are worth doing, and an even braver one to attempt such coalescing.

Conclusion

The extreme variation in all three approaches still demands decisive thought and implementation. It will take civic municipalities a serious commitment to a task so far given over to a decaying formless city — part slum, part farmhouse — born out of neglect and complacency.

Environment:

Red alert on the green index(The Hindu Opinion)

Context

India’s poor ranking in the Environmental Performance Index should force a policy appraisal

India’s poor ranking in the Environmental Performance Index should force a policy appraisal

Reports, late last year, on India’s improved ranking in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ Index (from 130 to 100) have been cause for much celebration. As a follow-up to this, the government announced additional reform measures to further improve the ranking

Low green score

However, coinciding with this is the news that out of the 180 countries assessed, India ranks low in the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) 2018, slipping from rank 141 in 2016, to 177 in 2018.

Produced by: The EPI is produced jointly by Yale University and Columbia University in collaboration with the World Economic Forum

Other countries: In comparison, emerging peer economies, Brazil and China, rank 69 and 120, respectively.

Cause of Concern

The EPI ranks countries on 24 performance indicators across 10 issue categories. No index is perfect. But if an improvement in an index for ease of doing business is cause for celebration, then, equally, a drop in an index ranking environmental performance should be cause for concern and used as a context to examine our policy measures.

Ambitious targets for environmental protection

A look at recent initiatives shows that the government has set ambitious targets for environmental protection.

New coal-fired power plants: In December 2015, it notified new, strict environmental standards for coal-fired power plants, to be effective from January 2018.

Bharat Stage VI norms: An aggressive target was set to implement Bharat Stage VI emission norms from April 1, 2020, skipping Stage V norms.

Only Electric vehicles by 2030: In 2017, the Minister of State for Power and Renewable Energy said that a road map was being prepared so that only electric vehicles would be produced and sold in the country by 2030.

National Solar Mission revised targets: In order to accelerate the transition to renewable sources of power, the government, under the National Solar Mission, revised the target for setting up solar capacity from 20 GW to 100 GW by 2021-22.

Clean up of Ganga by 2018: The Centre has also assured the Supreme Court of India that the highly polluted Ganga will be cleaned up by 2018.

The Question

What are we missing then?

Gap between policy and action

Unfortunately, there appears to be a big gap between policy goals and action.

Examples

Implementing strict power plant emission norm delayed

The government has gone back on its promise of implementing strict power plant emission norms by December 2017, and may even dilute the norms.

EV target by 2047 only

The automobile industry has categorically stated that based on current estimates, full conversion to electric vehicles is realistically possible only by 2047.

Annual electronic waste collection target

After setting electronics manufacturers a reasonable annual electronic waste collection target of 30% of the products sold in the market, the figure has now been relaxed to 10%

SC reprimanded the govt on Clean Up Ganga funds allocation

And late last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General, in a report, pulled up the government for not developing an action plan and for its poor utilisation of allocated funds in the clean-up of the Ganga. The list can go on.

Ignoring environmental degradation?

Should we ignore environmental degradation as being just a cost of development?

It turns out that the costs are pretty high.

Costs of ignoring the environment

A recent study by the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington, Seattle, U.S., showed air pollution to be the cause of an estimated 1.4 million premature deaths in India, which translated into a welfare loss equivalent around 8% of India’s GDP in 2013

Poor are affected

A significant concern is also the fact that the poor are affected disproportionately because of environmental degradation.

Solutions

Pricing the fuels correctly: Rapid transition to solar energy can be accomplished not only by enabling subsidies but also by pricing the more polluting fuels correctly.

Implementation of the strict coal standards: The strict environmental standards for coal plants are expected to do precisely that — the price we pay for coal-based electricity reflect, at least partially, the true costs of producing such electricity

The failure to implement these standards would be a step backwards.

Smoother transition to EVs: Similarly, the transition to electric vehicle use would be aided by pricing petrol and diesel, and perhaps the vehicles that use these fuels, to reflect their external costs to society.

Lack of political will too

  • It is of course not the case that the current environmental mess we are in is entirely because of our recent environmental policy failures
  • It is linked also to the lack of political will to implement even existing environmental laws and regulations.

Conclusion

It is not possible to restore environmental quality overnight. However, we must ensure that we are moving forwards, not backwards, in meeting our environmental targets. Being among the four worst countries in the world in terms of environmental performance should hopefully serve as a wake-up call.

Internal security:

All borders to be fenced, says Rijiju

Context

By the end of 2018 or early 2019, smart fencing will be deployed all along the Indo-Bangladesh and Indo-Pakistan border to prevent infiltration and illegal migration, Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju said on Sunday.

Backdrop

Passing-out parade of the second all-woman batch of Central Industrial Security Force constables at Regional Training Centre in Arakkonam

Airport security

  • Home Ministry had decided to hand over charge of security at all airports in the country to the CISF
  • VIP security too would be given to the force.
  • Asked about cybersecurity threats, he said a new division had been formed in the Home Ministry for counter-insurgency cybersecurity

Science and Technology:

What are we teaching the robots? (The Hindu Opinion)

Context

Hearing ‘VR, AR, AI, Bitcoin’ in one sentence is like hearing ‘5GB, 512KB and Pentium’ in the late ’90s. It fires up your inner geek. But to the discerning, VR and AR are so 2017 that they are almost retro. And at the moment, Bitcoin is looking bubblier than a bubble bath.

AI picks up racial and gender biases, which is a cause for concern

But AI is a different story. The strides that are being made in the areas of machine learning, image processing, and natural language processing are on a scale that resembles the moon landing

Impact on the job market 

The most discernible impact of highly capable AI is in the tech field, particularly software development

  • The process of programming and testing will become increasingly automated, significantly reducing the number of people required in the supply chain

Better then the human programmers

In fact, last year, Google’s machine-learning programme started generating machine-learning programmes that were better than what human programmers could code.

Career Choices

If ‘blue-collar automation’ could be cutting jobs on the factory floors with robots, AI-driven ‘white-collar automation’ will be cutting jobs in call centres, stock exchanges and even laboratories. In this scenario, any decision to get into photography, cooking or writing after an engineering degree is starting to look quite well informed

Moral Dilemmas: Questions that arise

Beyond the more tangible questions of jobs and skills, AI also brings with it moral conundrums. There are basic questions such as ‘who should a self-driving car try to save: its driver or a pedestrian?’ and the more complicated ones such as ‘are we passing on our biases to machines?’

Picking up racial bias

  • In 2016, researchers at the University of Virginia published a paper that described how two massive image collections used to train programmes to process images that had gender biases, like associating images of cooking with women
  • These collections passed on the biases to their ‘students’, who not only reproduced the bias but even amplified them

Conclusion

If what singularity, that much-speculated-on churn of AI generating better AI, finally spits out is a version of our worst self, with a tendency for racist tweets and sexist memes, then there is much to be disappointed about.

NASA keen on India-made technology for spacecraft (The Hindu)

Context

A new thermal spray coating technology used for gas turbine engine in spacecraft developed by a Rajasthan-based researcher has caught the attention of a NASA scientist, an official said.

Satish Tailor’s thermal spray coating useful for gas turbine engine

Expressing his interest in the research, James L. Smialek, a scientist from NASA wrote to Dr. Satish Tailor after it was published in the journal Ceramics International and Thermal Spray Bulletin, said S.C. Modi, the chairman of a Jodhpur-based Metallizing Equipment Company (MEC).

Cost-effective

While working at MEC as a chief scientist, Research and Development, Dr. Tailor developed the controlled segmented Yttria-Stabilised Zirconia (YSZ)-Plasma sprayed coating technology, which according to him could reduce the thermal spray coating cost by almost 50%.

Developing vertical cracks beneficial

“In simple language, vertical cracks (segmentation) in the coating are beneficial for gas turbine engine application used in spacecraft,” Dr. Tailor said.

Present process expensive and uncontrollable

“At present, researchers are developing such cracks through very expensive processes (in several crore) and cracks are generated during the coating deposition process, and crack generation is not controllable,” he said.

Indian scientists impressed too

Scientists working at the country’s leading research organisations — the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) — are equally impressed with the new technology.

An inexpensive solution

The chief scientist at the CSIR headquarters in New Delhi, said that the outcome of the reported R&D presented an inexpensive solution for superior survival of current YSZ thermal barrier coatings produced by atmospheric plasma sprayed (APS) technique, and had a potential of wider industrial/strategic acceptability

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