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GS: 1

Society and women related issues:

26-week maternity leave for women contract employees

What has happened?

In a significant verdict, the Kerala High Court has ruled that women contract employees working in government funded projects are entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave as applicable to women employees under the service rules.

Kerala’s view

The State government contended that the petitioners were not entitled to 26 weeks of maternity leave as provided in the Maternity Benefit Act or 180 days of leaves provided under the Kerala Service Rules, as the petitioners were contract employees under a project under the centrally-sponsored scheme.

Court Observed

The court observed that the inalienable obligations of maternity “should not and cannot be a reason to deny equal opportunities to women employees”


GS: 2


International relations:

A move to equivalence(The Hindu Opinion)

Context

  • Recent agreement on “mutual recognition of educational qualifications” between India and France
  • It provides an opportunity for India to refine its policy on higher education by inking such pacts with other countries, thereby seamlessly integrating the Indian student community across the world

Current policy framework: Problem of Degree Recognition

  • Dealt on a case-by-case basis: The issue of recognition of academic qualifications is dealt with on a case-by-case basis by the Association of Indian Universities (AIU), which provides Indian students with equivalence certificates based on eligibility requirements and the duration of courses
  • Condition to pursue PhD or JRF-NET

In the current system, if a person has a postgraduate degree from abroad, an equivalence certificate is essential to pursue a PhD or qualify for a career in academia through the Junior Research Fellowship-National Eligibility Test (JRF-NET)

  • 1 year degree holders are ousted from Indian system

Returnee students from foreign universities need to apply for equivalence certificates, but students who hold one-year degrees from abroad are immediately ousted from the Indian system

Current framework supporting brain drain

This ad hoc arrangement for recognition of degrees has discouraged students from pursuing research careers in India. Rather, it precipitates their departure to other global destinations.

With UK

  • The earlier provision of a six-month bridge course introduced by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2013 to ensure recognition of one-year master’s degrees from the U.K. has been discontinued by the current government
  • It’s not just the MA degree, the two-year MPhil courses from some of the best universities are also not recognised as equivalent to even a lower-level master’s degree in India, if the student does not possess a two-year master’s degree before the MPhil
  • This is despite the fact that some of these degrees have been partially or fully supported by the Indian government with a condition to revert and contribute to their home country.

Conclusion

The aim of establishing “world-class” institutions in India cannot materialise without first utilising the knowledge and expertise that their own Indian scholars have to offer.

Situation not ripe for pilgrimage, Pakistan told(The Hindu)

Context

Row over denial of visas to pilgrims from Pakistan to Ajmer

Reason given by India

Prevailing circumstances are not suitable for pilgrimage between India and Pakistan

Pakistan’s view: India violated the protocol

The visit was to take place under the 1974 Pakistan-India Protocol on Visits to Religious Shrines and is a regular annual feature

Ongoing diplomatic problems

Pakistan’s allegation on non-issuance of visas came in the context of the ongoing problem between the diplomats on both sides which includes blocking of the portal of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad which disallows normal delivery of consular services.

U.S. wants India on board to ease Rohingya crisis(The Hindu)

What has happened?

Amid growing worries about the coming monsoon that could flood a third of the main Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, Washington has offered to partner with New Delhi on joint efforts to assist Bangladesh

Background

Recent visit to the region by Deputy Assistant to U.S. President Donald Trump and the Director for South and Central Asia, Lisa Curtis, as well as Director for India and the Indian Ocean BasantSanghera

The Problem

  • Upcoming Monsson/cycloneseason in Bangladesh

From April to June could force refugees to pack in closer on higher ground, thereby spreading the risk of diseases

  • World’s single largest refugee camp now

Kutapalong-Balukhali camp in Bangladesh, is now the world’s single largest

Refugee camp, housing about 600,000 people.

Appeal for Aid by the ISCG (UN’s Inter-sector Coordination Group)

The UN’s Inter-sector Coordination Group (ISCG) that runs all the camps in Bangladesh, has recently launched an appeal for $950 million for food and shelter for the next year

Countering China

The U.S. proposal to India may be seen as an attempt to counter China that had last year brokered a repatriation agreement (yet to be implemented) signed by Bangladesh and Myanmar

Treaty that backfired?(The Hindu Opinion)

Context

The Shimla Agreement of 1972

India’s objectives behind Shimla Agreement

  • Alasting solution to the Kashmir issue

Or, failing that, an agreement that would constrain Pakistan from involving third parties in discussions about the future of Kashmir

  • New Beginnings

It was hoped that the Agreement would allow for a new beginning in relations with Pakistan based upon Pakistan’s acceptance of the new balance of power

  • Achieving above objectives without pushing Pakistan to the wall

It left open the possibility of achieving both these objectives without pushing Pakistan to the wall and creating a revanchist anti-India regime.

Failure of the Shimla Agreement

  • Military in power: India was unable to prevent the military from taking power in Islamabad in 1977 and executing Bhutto
  • Nuclear Deterrence: Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear capability created a situation of deterrence negating India’s superiority in conventional power and instated de facto military parity between the two countries.

Example:

  • The 1999 Kargil War validated the success of deterrence when India desisted from taking the war into Pakistani territory.
  • Deterrence also provided the shield for the Pakistani military to take the “war” into Indian Kashmir through its proxies, the terrorist groups created and supported by the ISI.
  • Nuclear weapons prevented India from retaliating on Pakistani territory.

Conclusion

The Shimla Agreement did not fully achieve any of India’s objectives. If anything, it may have whetted the Pakistani military’s appetite to try to turn Kashmir into India’s Bangladesh.

Indian Constitution and Polity:

First step in a long journey(The Hindu Opinion)

Context

The National Medical Commission Bill seeks to make structural changes in an exploitative health-care system

Some Problems that NMC bill seeks to address

  • India needs 3,00,000 more doctors in order to meet the World Health Organisation standard of the ideal doctor-population ratio.
  • There is an 81% shortage of specialists in community health centres (CHC), the first point of contact for a patient with a specialist doctor.
  • Those most affected by this are poor and rural patients who are then forced to consult quacks. Another fact is that 82.2% of providers of “modern medicine” in rural areas do not have a medical qualification and only 21% of the country’s doctors serve them.

Solutions offered by the bill

  • Monetary Penalty: The Bill puts in place a mechanism to assess and rate medical colleges regularly, with a high monetary penalty for failure to comply with standards.
  • De-recognition: Three such failures will result in the de-recognition of a college.
  • Regulation of fees by the government: There is also an enabling provision for the government to regulate the fees of up to 40% seats in private medical colleges.
  • Relaxation of criteria for setting up of new colleges:
  • The Bill goes a step further with a relaxation of the criteria for approving a college in specific cases.
  • Currently, there is a blanket standard for establishing a medical college in India, which disregards the contextual realities in some areas such as difficult terrain or a low population density.

Example: Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland do not have a single medical college.

Strengthening Primary Centres

Strengthening primary centres can ensure that patients who can be treated at the “base” (SCs or PHCs) are treated there only.

Utilising AYUSH practitioners as mid-level providers

With the government now planning to revamp 1,50,000 sub-centres into health and wellness centres by 2022, there is need for an equivalent number of mid-level providers

For this, India’s 7,70,000 AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) practitioners can be tapped

  • Bridge Course: The Bill has facilitated this by providing for a bridge course for AYUSH/non-allopathic doctors
  • This course, to be designed by a joint sitting of all medicinesystems, will ensure that non-allopathic doctors are trained to prescribe modern medicines in a limited way, within the scope of primary care.

Preventing cross-pathy

An added measure in the Bill prevents “cross-pathy” or the unqualified cross-over of health-care providers from one system to another

  • The Bill provides for two separate national registers – allopathic doctors, and AYUSH doctors who complete the bridge course, respectively.

Conclusion

In the end, the Bill seeks to make structural changes in a stagnant and increasingly exploitative health-care system. While it is no magic bullet, it should be looked at as a step in the right direction.

Centre plans law on online hate speech(The Hindu)

What has happened?

  • Moving a step ahead towards framing a distinct law for online “hate speech,” the Home Ministry has written to the Law Commission to prepare a draft law
  • The provisions will deal with offensive messages sent through social media and online messaging applications

T.K Viswanathan Committee recommendations

  • A committee headed by former Lok Sabha Secretary General T.K. Viswanathan submitted a report recommending stricter laws to curb online hate speech
  • The panel was formed after Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000, was scrapped by the Supreme Court in 2015.

Proposed Law

Whoever on grounds of religion, race, caste or community, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, place of birth, residence, language, disability or tribe, uses any means of communication to – (a) gravely threaten any person or group of persons with the intention to cause fear of injury or alarm; or (b) advocate hatred towards any person or group of persons that causes, or is likely to cause, incitement to commit an offence.

What Next?

The Law Commission has been asked to include its earlier recommendations, and those from the Viswanathan and M.P. Bezbaruah committees, to give a “comprehensive draft law”

Bezbaruah Committee

  • The Bezbaruah Committee was constituted by the Centre in February 2014 in the wake of a series of racial attacks on persons belonging to the northeast
  • Though the committee submitted its report in July 2014, the Home Ministry sent out letters to States for their opinion almost four years later, in February this year

Govt apathy towards construction workers puts Shakespearean tragedy to shame: SC(The Hindu)

Context

SC’s judgment on a public interest plea by the National Campaign Committee for Central Legislation on Construction Labour (NCC-CL) seeking the enforcement of the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and the Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1996

How many building and construction workers are there in India?

Government estimate shows there are over 4.5 crore building and construction workers in the country. As of now, 2.8 crore have been registered under the 1996 laws for welfare

Observations made in the judgement

  • A total of ₹37,400 crore was collected for the benefit of construction workers over 22 years since 1996. Only ₹9,500 crore was utilised for their benefit.₹28,000 crore meant for the welfare of construction workers lie stagnant with state governments
  • State apathy in a situation such as this virtually amounts to exploitation of the construction workers, and if the state turns exploitative, there is little hope for vulnerable sections of society

Directions issued

Issuing series of specific and general directions to Union Labour and Employment Ministry and the States and UTS, the court noted the directions passed by it from time to time have been “flouted with impunity” and similarly multiple directions issued by the Centre were “disregarded” by the states and UT administrations


GS: 3


Economy:

Time to move beyond subsidies(The Hindu Opinion)

Context

Challenge to India’s export promotion schemes by United States Trade Representative (USTR) in WTO

What are the arguments given by USTR?

The main argument of the USTR is that

  • India’s five export promotion schemes violate Articles 3.1(a) and 2 of the SCM (Subsidies and Countervailing Measures) Agreement, since the two provisions prohibit granting of export subsidies
  • Exception to these articles: Annex VII countries were an exception as these 20 developing countries (including India) were allowed to use these subsidies as long as their per capita Gross National Product (GNP) had not crossed $1,000at constant 1990 dollars, for three consecutive years.  Except Annex VII countries, all other developing countries were allowed a period of eight years from the entry into force of the WTO Agreement, i.e. 1995, to eliminate export subsidies

India crossed the threshold in 2015& sought extension

India crossed the $1,000 GNP per capita threshold in 2015 became known when the WTO Secretariat produced its calculations in 2017

  • In the Doha negotiations, India and several other Annex VII countries sought an amendment of the agreement so as to enable them to get a transition period
  • In a submission made in 2011, India, along with Bolivia, Egypt, Honduras, Nicaragua and Sri Lanka, argued that the Annex VII countries should be eligible to enjoy the provisions applicable to the other developing countries, namely, those that had GNP per capita above the threshold. But this proposal, like all other proposals made as a part of the Doha Round negotiations, remains unaddressed

Has US previously also put India’s export promotion schemes under the scanner?

Yes.

  • In 2010, the U.S. had questioned the export incentives provided to the textiles and clothing sector as a whole, arguing that this sector had a share in global trade exceeding 3.25% and had therefore become export competitive. The U.S. pointed out that according to Article 27.5 of the SCM Agreement, any Annex VII developing country which had reached export competitiveness in one or more products must gradually phase out export subsidies on such products over a period of eight years
  • There was, therefore, considerable pressure on the Department of Commerce to consider its future strategies regarding export promotion schemes.

What needs to be done?

In the mid-term review of the FTP released in December 2017, the Indian government showed its awareness that the country was at the verge of losing the benefits of being an Annex VII country. A subsequent reduction of export subsidies and removal of the infrastructural deficiencies that ail the Indian export sector is the need of the hour wherein government should invest in trade-related infrastructure and trade facilitation measures, which can deliver tangible results on the export front.

SEBI for phased roll-out of governance norms(The Hindu)

Context

The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) plans to introduce new corporate governance norms as proposed by the Kotak Committee, in a phased manner for listed entities, with only the bigger companies required to comply in the initial phase as opposed to all the listed companies

Why not implement it at one go?

There are proposals that, if implemented for the complete market at one go, would create genuine hurdles and so the view is that a phased implementation would work better

Kotak Committee

The 23-member committee under the chairmanship of Uday Kotak had submitted its 177-page report to SEBI in October. It proposed, among many other things, that

  • Separation of the roles: Roles of chairman and managing director at listed firms should be separated and chairmanship should be limited to only non-executive directors. Listed firms with more than 40% public shareholding should have separate roles of chairperson and MD/CEO with effect from April 1, 2020. After 2020, SEBI may examine extending requirement to all listed entities with effect from 2022.
  • Minimum board strength: It should be increased to 6 members and at least one woman should be appointed as independent director. At least five board meeting for listed firms should be held in year up from current practice of four meetings. Firms’ board should at least once a year discuss succession planning and risk management.
  • Independent Directors: At least half of board members to be independent directors at listed companies, while all directors must attend at least half of board meets. Public shareholders’ nod must be mandatory for non-executive directors over 75 years of age.
  • Shareholder meeting and cash flow statement: Top 100 firms by market capitalisation should webcast shareholder meeting and all listed firms should have cash flow statement every six months. It should be mandatory disclosure of quarterly consolidated earnings by listed firms.
  • Credit ratings: Updated list of all credit ratings obtained by the listed entity must be made available at one place, which would be very helpful for investors and other stakeholders.
  • Minimum remuneration: Independent directors must get minimum remuneration of Rs 5 lakh per annum and sitting fee of Rs 20,000-50,000 for each board meet. It should be mandatory for firms to seek public shareholders’ approval for annual remuneration of executive directors from promoter family if amount is above Rs 5 crore or 2.5% of firm’s net profit. In case of more than one such director, same condition should apply for aggregate annual remuneration exceeding 5% of the net profit. The approval of shareholders must be required every year in which annual remuneration payable to single non-executive director exceeds 50% of total annual remuneration payable to all non-executive directors
  • Risk management and IT committee: Top-500 listed companies should have risk management committee of boards for cyber security. In addition, listed entities must constitute an information technology committee that will focus on digital and technological aspects.

‘PSB recap: open offer not needed’(The Hindu)

Context

Markets regulator SEBI exempted the central government from making an open offer for the shareholders of Punjab National Bank, Canara Bank and four other state-owned lenders following capital infusion

Under SEBI norms, an entity whose shareholding in a listed company goes beyond a particular threshold would have to make an open offer

What is an open offer?

It is a part of the takeover code as defined by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI). When a company acquires up to 15 per cent stake in another listed entity, an open offer gets triggered

  • This means the acquiring company must make an offer to existing shareholders to buy an additional 20 per cent stake in the company. And, it is typically kept open for about a month, from the date of announcement. It is aimed at providing the shareholders an exit option, as there may be a management change post-acquisition and investors may perceive potential risks in the business

Internal security:

To be fighting fit(The Hindu Opinion)

Context

The government must order a comprehensive strategic review of the future threats to India. Author provides his suggestions in the backdrop of an allegedly insufficient defence budget

The present situation

According to a recent report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,

  • India was the largest arms importer in the last five years, accounting for 12% of global imports
  • The Indian defence budget has now overtaken that of the U.K. to become the fifth largest in the world

Impact of an insufficient budget

  • An insufficient defence budget impacts not only modernisation but also the current operational readiness of the force
  • Reduction in revenue allocation means cutting down on training requirements and routine replacement of items like surveillance and protective equipment.

Why, more defence allocation is needed?

  • Multipolar Asia: Author states that Asia is developing a multipolar strategic environment with Russia, China, India and the U.S. competing for greater influence
  • State-on-state conflictpossibility: One region where such a possibility exists is South Asia. India faces not only a long-term strategic challenge from China but also the continuing efforts by Pakistan to maintain military balance with India by keeping the Indian Army tied down in Kashmir, and developing a credible nuclear force

What should be done?

  • Regular consultations: Regular strategic consultations between the political and military leadership are needed so that government and military are in the same page
  • Comprehensive strategic review: Government to order a comprehensive strategic review of the future threats to India. This will provide a clear picture to the political leadership, and also directions to the military. A long-term capability development plan can then be prepared by the military and approved by the government. This will form the basis for the defence budget thereby avoiding the annual squabbles over allocation
  • Comprehensive and an integrated approach to border management: The government must also take a holistic look at all border-guarding forces — the Army, Assam Rifles, the Border Security Force and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP). While the Army leads in responding to all Chinese provocations such as Depsang, Chumar and Doklam, the border is technically the responsibility of the ITBP under the Home Ministry
  • Understanding realities of India’s finance:The military also must understand the realities of India’s finances and look to reconstruct itself. A country may provide its military with generous budgets and large cadres of manpower, but if the military’s doctrine is misguided, the training ineffective, the leadership unschooled, or the organization inappropriate, military capability will suffer.The military must stop talking in terms of numbers, of squadrons, ships and divisions, and focus on capability. Utilization of modern technology like robotics, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence can be the key to enhancing capability

Conclusion

Civil-military differences over defence budgets are an inevitable part of any democracy. However, these differences can be minimised if there is a common understanding of the national security strategy, and of the genuine requirements of the military for putting this strategy into effect. On its part, the military must focus on capability for future warfighting, not mere numbers.

Environment:

Bending the rules — on nod for Neutrino project(The Hindu Opinion)

Context

A year after the National Green Tribunal suspended the environmental clearance granted to the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO), the Expert Appraisal Committee (Infra 2) of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has overturned the NGT verdict and granted environmental clearance for the project

Location of the observatory

Bodi West Hills in Theni district, Tamil Nadu

  • The laboratory cavern will be located 1,300 metres underground, with an access tunnel. The rock cover is necessary to minimise the naturally occurring cosmic ray backdrop

Why the project has become controversial?

The project has become controversial on environmental grounds, given the proposed site’s proximity to the Mathikettan Shola National Park in Kerala’s Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot

Has the final consent been given?

No. Considering the project’s national importance, the Environment Ministry had taken up the proposal for clearance as a “special case”. The green signal is conditional on getting the consent of the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board and the National Board for Wildlife

Flaws in the clearance process

  • Approved under wrong category: The project has been approved under category B item 8(a)building and construction projects — of the Schedule to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006. But it should have been treated as category A as the project lies just 4.9 km from the national park in Idukki district of Kerala
  • The NGT had ruled that it was indeed a category A project and the Tamil Nadu State expert appraisal committee also noted that it could not be appraised under category B 8(a) as tunneling and other activities went beyond the scope of the section

Provision as per the EIA notification

  • According to the 2006 notification, projects or activities that come under category A require “prior environmental clearance” from the Environment Ministry. Side-stepping the EIA requirement on technical grounds both by the project proponents and the Ministry is surely not the ideal way to go about such matters
  • For one, the EIA was done by the Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, which is an “unaccredited agency”. And though a public consultation with local people who have a “plausible stake” in the project was conducted in July 2010, the details of the meeting were submitted only by the end of February 2018

Conclusion

The importance of the project notwithstanding, treating it as a special case and bypassing the environmental clearance protocol sets a wrong precedent.

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