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Current Events 18 March 2016



18 MARCH 2016

Ford Foundation taken off watch list

Days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S., the Home Ministry issued orders to remove the U.S.-based Ford Foundation from the “prior permission” category.The Ministry, on the basis of a report sent by the Gujarat government last year, had put the international non-governmental organisation on the “watch list”, citing concern to “national security”.The Gujarat government report had said that the organisation funded the “anti-India” activities of Citizens for Justice and Peace and Sabrang Trust run by Teesta Setalvad, activist.

The Ministry sent a letter to the Reserve Bank of India to remove the foundation from the watch list.The order means that banks will no longer require the Ministry’s clearance to process the foreign funds coming from the foundation to any Indian bank account.

Mr. Modi will meet U.S. President Barack Obama at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.

Several U.S. officials, including Ambassador to India Richard Verma, had taken up the Ford Foundation issue with the Centre. Apart from the diplomatic pressure, Ford Foundation complied with the government’s condition to register itself under the Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA), 1999 which enables it to receive foreign funds in its accounts.

Ford Foundation, which has been operating in India since 1952 was not registered either as an NGO or under any other category like the Indian Society Act till now. It applied under FEMA and got registered as a branch office by the Reserve Bank of India .Besides Ford Foundation, there are 15 other NGOs/associations, which are under this restricted category.U.S. ambassador Richard Verma had last year expressed “concern” on the “potentially chilling effects” of the regulatory steps taken against NGOs in India.

The Centre had last year also unblocked foreign funds to the tune of $1,50,000 to be released to the foreign donor’s bank accounts as the organisation had exhausted its options to pay salary to its staffers and made a plea before the government.

How to be free in the 21st century

In little more than a month since a partisan and heavy-handed Delhi Police arrested Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar and slapped him with the charge of sedition, reams of newsprint have been dedicated to challenging that odious legal provision of the Indian Penal Code, dating back to 1860, principally on the grounds that it is draconian and specifically that its abuse impairs a critical feature of liberal democracy-dissent

In the process the troubling history of Section 124-A of the IPC has been clearly traced, especially its remarkable survival from the pre-Independence era, when it served the colonial government as a weapon of mass suppression against all opposition, into modern India, where it has now become an untenable blot on the right to free speech guaranteed by Article 19 of the Constitution.

At the heart of this ongoing battle for India’s liberal soul is the argument that speech that is alleged to be seditious may be considered illegal only if it is an incitement to violence or public disorder, a view that has been clarified by a multitude of legal precedents including Kedar Nath Singh vs State Of Bihar (1962), Indra Das vs State Of Assam (2011), Arup Bhuyan vs State Of Assam (2011), and most recently the well-known case of Shreya Singhal v. Union of India (2013).

Yet by no means is the tension between the right to freedom of speech and the ambitions of a government to quell criticism of its policies a new dilemma for democratic politics worldwide, and indeed the experience of liberal Western democracy shines a light upon what could be considered a reasonable position on this subject.

The U.K experience

Consider first the experience of the U.K., where laws on seditious libel and criminal defamation were summarily abolished by Section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act in 2009 nearly 40 years after the British Law Commission first recommended doing so, albeit after “after a century of disuse,” according to Professor John Spencer of Cambridge University.

Modern Britain’s struggle with the chilling effects of sedition on free speech dates back centuries to the times of the Star Chamber, and was poignantly illustrated in the 1792 trial of political theorist Thomas Paine, whose work was influential in igniting the American Revolution, specifically for his publication of the second part of the Rights of Man.

In that tome Mr. Paine effectively argued that popular political revolution was permissible when a government no longer safeguarded inalienable rights of its people, rights that stemmed from nature and not any government-written document, not even a Constitution.

Unsurprisingly when an estimated 50,000 copies of Mr. Paine’s manuscript started circulating in Britain it led to a massive furore within government, a trial in absentia, and finally conviction for seditious libel against the Crown. Fortunately for Mr. Paine he was at the time a resident of France and hence “unavailable for hanging,” and so he got away with never returning to his homeland.

In the early years sedition came with rather steep punishments, including perpetrators having their ears cut off for a first offense and put to death for recidivism. Later it became punishable up to life imprisonment and/or a fine, and in most cases “Not only was truth no defence, but intention was irrelevant.”

However in line with what Professor Spencer had indicated that  on multiple occasions 21-st century debates in the House of Lords agreed that “the common law of sedition had rarely been used in England over the course of the past century,” and the last major case in the country where there was an attempt to try an individual for sedition involved the publication of Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satantic Verses.

 Reports in the U.S. Library of Congress quote allegations made that Mr. Rushdie’s book was a “scurrilous attack on the Muslim religion,” and that it resulted in violence in the UK as well as a severance of diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran.

The U.S example

In the U.S., Congress enacted the Sedition Act of 1798 in anticipation of a possible war with France, according to Professor Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago, and the Act made it a crime for any person to make any statement that brought the President, Congress, or the government into contempt or disrepute.                                                                                                                           

Unlike the U.K.’s sedition law, truth was a defence, but still it was bitterly opposed by those who sought to criticise the government, and the government used it to prosecute numerous journalists and politicians who criticised its policies.

While the Act expired by its own force in 1801 amidst condemnation as a serious violation of the First Amendment guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression, a series of compulsions relating the wartime politics, from 1798 to the present led to reinstitution of seditious libel laws.

These included, Professor Stone notes, the government putting some presses out of business during the American Civil War; the government enacting the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 during World War I, which were used to prosecute around 2,000 individuals for criticising the war and the draft; and the federal government and most states enacting laws prohibiting anyone to advocate the violent overthrow of the government During the “Red Scare” of the 1950s.

Notwithstanding this regressive shift during the war years, the U.S. Supreme Court began to address the constitutionality of these laws for the first time during World War I. Although it found them to be constitutional at that time, the Court’s questioning set off a “fierce challenge,” to sedition as a legal concept, Professor Stone said, particularly by Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis.

From that time until 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court struggled with sedition laws and ultimately came to the view in Brandenbug v. Ohio that the government could punish speech because it turned people against the government or might cause them to engage in unlawful conduct only if the speaker expressly incited unlawful conduct and only if the speech is likely to cause such conduct imminently.

Since that time no restrictions on seditious libel have been upheld in the U.S. and Professor Stone argues that this has largely been because the nation and its government have come to encompass the understanding that “It is more important to protect a vital freedom of speech than to suppress views we do not like. The suppression of criticism of the government, we have come to understand, is fundamentally incompatible with the aspirations of a true democracy.”

The Government of India frequently speaks of India becoming a superpower comparable to some democratic Western nations. Yet as this government goes about arrogating to itself the right to victimise those who challenge the legitimacy of its actions, or raise dissenting slogans against widespread inequities in the country, it may have pause for thought if it bothered to glance through the historical evolution of jurisprudential thought on sedition laws in these very same nations.

Getting medical education on track

At a time of pervasive cynicism, when politicians are perceived as uncaring of peoples’ welfare and Parliament is trending dangerously towards becoming irrelevant, the report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) on the need to reform the Medical Council of India (MCI) has come as a glimmer of hope. The PSC has broadly agreed to all the recommendations of the many reports that have been submitted over the decades and that had, until now, fallen on deaf ears.

The MCI was established in 1934 under the Indian Medical Council Act, 1933, as an elected body for maintaining the medical register and providing ethical oversight, with no specific role in medical education. The Amendment of 1956, however, mandated the MCI “to maintain uniform standards of medical education, both under graduate and postgraduate; recommend for recognition/de-recognition of medical qualifications of medical institutions of India or foreign countries; accord permanent registration/provisional registration of doctors with recognised medical qualifications; and ensure reciprocity with foreign countries in the matter of mutual recognition of medical qualifications.”

The second amendment came in 1993, at a time when there was a new-found enthusiasm for private colleges. Under this amendment, the role of the MCI was reduced to an advisory body with the three critical functions of sanctioning medical colleges, approving the student intake, and approving any expansion of the intake capacity requiring prior approval of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

Of late, the MCI has come to be seen as pushing and protecting the interests of the private sector. Its continued functioning, despite a public interest litigation filed in the Supreme Court questioning the allegedly brazen rigging of elections, is reflective of its political clout.

On grounds of corruption, the MCI faced the ignominy of being set aside by the Supreme Court in 2002 and again in 2010 by an ordinance issued by the government. Seizing the opportunity of the temporary suspension of the elected MCI, the Ministry of Health drafted a Bill to establish a National Commission for Human Resources for Health (NCHRH). This Bill sought to revamp the MCI to consist of nominated bodies to carry out the functions of human resource planning, curriculum development and quality assurance, with the elected body limited to register doctors and govern their practice in accordance with ethical standards. It was laid on the table of the Rajya Sabha in 2011.

The PSC returned the Bill with some observations to the Ministry in October 2013. In 2014, another committee under the chairmanship of Dr Ranjit Roy Chaudhury was appointed. This committee submitted its report in February 2015. The current report of the PSC is in near unanimity with this report.

Recommendations of the PSC

Explicitly acknowledging the deep tentacles of corruption and misgovernance that have consumed the MCI, the PSC has made the following recommendations: to provide a new architecture that is more in tune with current needs of the country; to replace the principle of election with nomination; to replace the existing MCI with an architecture consisting of four independent boards to deal with curriculum development, teacher training, and standard setting for undergraduate and post-graduate education; accreditation and assessment processes of colleges and courses for ensuring uniformity in standards; and the registration of doctors, licensing and overseeing adherence to ethical standards.

These reforms are expected to plan human resources required for primary care by promoting family medicine and general physicians alongside specialists; rationalise standards to make medical education affordable; and enforce a uniform national entry and exit examination — a recommendation that was overruled by the Supreme Court and is pending appeal. These are all critical recommendations that, if implemented, can have far-reaching consequences for the health sector.

Shortcomings of the report

However, the report falls short on three counts. The idea to upgrade district hospitals to government medical colleges was proposed to obviate the cost of establishing a 300-bed hospital for a new college, utilise existing specialists for teaching, and provide rural populations access to specialist services nearer their homes and at a lower cost. The Ministry of Health has recently sanctioned funds to 58 district hospitals for such upgradation. The PSC report has not provided any clear directions on this subject.

It is important to flag this issue as the experience of handing over government (district) hospitals to private entrepreneurs (for instance, in Bhuj to the Adani Group on a 99-year lease or leasing out the Raichur hospital to the Apollo Group and in 2015 the 300-bed Chittoor district hospital in Andhra Pradesh to Apollo for five years for establishing a medical college) have been controversial on grounds of the poor being denied access to free care. This policy of corporatising public assets in the name of establishing medical colleges and providing quality care is highly flawed and, as a remedy, worse than the malaise. The government needs to clearly state its policy on this issue to be consistent with the spirit and letter of the report that has strongly condemned the crass commercialisation of the health sector.

Another shortcoming is the failure to recommend that all the 400-plus existing medical colleges undergo a rigorous assessment by a high-level committee appointed for the purpose. A similar exercise done by Flexner in the U.S. in 1910 led to the recommendation that only 16 out of 155 medical schools function. Such an assessment is sorely needed to bring in the much-needed credibility to the system and stop the production of poorly trained doctors.

The PSC report has also given the Health Ministry power on the important issue of fee structure. It would have been advisable to allow the new system to evolve and regulate the fee structure within its mandate.

What next?

Parliament has done its duty. The onus is now on the government to demonstrate its commitment to bringing in ‘achche din’. Unlike its predecessors, it is not a prisoner of vested interests that control the MCI today and were allegedly behind the untimely transfer of a Union Secretary and the Cabinet Minister for Health in 2014.

The PSC has indicted the MCI and this alone is sufficient reason to set it aside with immediate effect. A group of eminent people should be appointed as a transition team to work out the new architecture, even as the Law Commission should be requested to draft an appropriate law with safeguards to ensure that the new body does not become overly centralised.

India has paid a huge price by sacrificing its traditional wisdom and not developing human resources suited to its needs. Given the disparities in the country, there is a need to guard against elitism. In the U.K. and in many European countries, medical education falls under the government. It is time for the same in India.

Let larger pictorial warnings stay

Nearly one million tobacco-related deaths take place in India every year, and in 2011, the total health expenditure burden from all diseases due to tobacco use amounted to more than Rs.1,00,000 crore, which is 12 per cent more than the combined State and Central government expenditure on health in 2011-12. The revenue earned through tobacco excise duty during the same period was a paltry 17 per cent of the health burden of tobacco. Yet, the 15-member Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation, that included the bidi baron Shyama Charan Gupta, has brazenly let commercial interests override public health concerns.

Just like last year, the introduction of pictorial warnings covering 85 per cent of the principal display area on both sides of all tobacco products hit a roadblock with the committee throwing a spanner in the works. It has said that increasing the size of the warning from the current 40 per cent on only one side of the packet to 85 per cent on both sides would be “too harsh” on the tobacco industry. It has instead recommended increasing the size to just 50 per cent.

Cigarette smokers a minority

According to the Global Youth Tobacco Survey, in 2009, of the nearly 15 per cent of children in India in the 13-15 age group who used some form of tobacco, only 4.5 per cent smoked cigarettes; 12.5 per cent used other forms of tobacco such as bidis and chewing tobacco. Similarly, in the case of adults in India, of the nearly 35 per cent tobacco users in 2009-2010, only 5.7 per cent smoked cigarettes, while bidi and chewing tobacco users were 9.2 per cent and nearly 26 per cent, respectively.

Despite the overwhelming percentage of people consuming bidis and chewing tobacco, the committee is intent on diluting the warning on these products by restricting the warning to just one side of the bidi pack; only cigarettes will have the warning on both sides of the packet. This goes against the grain of introducing larger pictorial warnings. Besides being unaware of all the risks associated with tobacco use, a vast majority of consumers in India of bidi and chewing tobacco are poor and less exposed to awareness campaigns. Larger images on both sides of the packet are the most effective and powerful way to communicate health risks to this population, provoke a greater emotional response, decrease tobacco consumption and increase motivation to quit.

India is ranked 136 among 198 countries in terms of prominence of pictorial health warnings on tobacco packaging. At 30 per cent, the only other country on the list with a smaller warning than India is Cayman Islands. Despite having relatively lower tobacco use than India, countries like Thailand (85 per cent front and back), Australia (75 per cent front and 90 per cent back), Uruguay (80 per cent front and back), Brunei (75 per cent front and back), Canada (75 per cent front and back), and Nepal (90 per cent front and back) have large-sized warnings.

A case of absurd arguments

In a weak attempt to paint pictorial warnings as ineffectual, the committee has leaned heavily on the findings of a British American Tobacco company-sponsored study while overlooking a body of evidence gathered by independent researchers. For instance, studies indicate that thanks to larger, graphic warnings, 58 per cent of smokers in Canada and nearly 54 per cent in Brazil and Thailand changed their opinion about the health consequences of smoking on seeing the warnings.

The committee’s naivety again stands exposed when it attempts to justify the reduction in pictorial warning size by arguing that tobacco consumption in India has increased and not declined after pictorial warnings were introduced in 2009. Tobacco companies too claim that there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that large, graphic health warnings reduce consumption. If these are indeed true, why is the committee afraid that the proposed health warnings would have the “potential to severely affect” farmers and tobacco companies. The pictorial warnings clearly cannot cut both ways.

The committee’s claim that pictorial warnings would encourage illicit trade is at best hollow. According to a 2015 paper in the journal Tobacco Control, a national cross-sectional survey undertaken in Australia after plain packaging was introduced found “no increase” in the use of illicit unbranded tobacco, contraband cigarettes or purchase from informal sellers. If plain packaging does not lead to increased illicit sales, there is no reason to believe that pictorial warnings would. Needless to say, sale of illicit tobacco products is more likely to be linked to cost of tobacco products than larger pictorial warnings.

Curbing illicit sales of tobacco products, if they really exist, should be a high priority for the government and the companies; there are several well-proven methods that India can adopt to fight this menace. For instance, Brazil and California use a digital tax stamp using invisible ink to keep illicit trade under check, while the European Union uses barcodes and Malaysia uses a security mark with a visible and an invisible feature.

While a comprehensive approach that includes education and awareness generation should be adopted, there is no evidence to back the committee’s claim that education and awareness generation are “more effective” than other methods. California spent millions of dollars to attain the level of awareness that Canada achieved through pictorial warnings at little or no cost to the government, notes a May 2010 study in Tobacco Control.

Unlike other measures, excise duty hike and bigger, graphic pictorial warnings are easy to enforce and have the highest impact on tobacco consumption. Considering the huge public health benefits, it is imperative that the Health Ministry ignore the recommendations of the committee and enforce pictorial warnings that cover 85 per cent of the principal display area on both sides of all tobacco products from April 1. Any dilution in the size of warning would entail a delay of several months and cost thousands of lives. The country can ill afford it.

Privacy is a fundamental right

The Central government has forced the Aadhaar Bill through Parliament in a week. Aadhaar has had an invasive and controversial presence well before the government’s attempt to legitimise it. It has been challenged before the Supreme Court, and in defending it, our Attorney General (funded by our taxes) has argued that we have no right to privacy. In this context, any version of the Aadhaar Bill would have been subject to close scrutiny. When the Bill is sprung in Parliament with little warning and mislabelled as a money bill to avoid Rajya Sabha scrutiny, it will naturally be treated with even more suspicion than usual.

There are extensive threats to privacy contained within this legislation, which seeks to institutionalise an extensive, pervasive database that links multiple other databases containing our personal information. It is unconscionable for the government to pass the Aadhaar Bill with no public consultation about the sort of privacy safeguards that are necessary for such a database.

The right to privacy in India

It is truly unfortunate that the privacy debate in India is circling back to its initial stages in 1948-49. While drafting the Constitution, amendments were moved to insert safeguards against search and seizure within the fundamental rights chapter. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar pointed out that these safeguards were already provided by the Code of Criminal Procedure but he agreed that adding them to the Constitution would make it impossible for the legislature to tamper with them. Although no convincing arguments were made against the amendment, there was commotion in the House. The vote was deferred. Eventually the amendment did not pass through the House but the debates were disappointing since they offered no discernible reason for this choice.

However, the Supreme Court soon read the right to privacy into the Constitution. Progressively, in case after case, it realised that the rights to liberty and freedom of expression cannot survive if the right to privacy is compromised. It began with recognising people’s rights against government intrusion into their homes and went on to build this norm over the years across a variety of cases. It is the right to privacy that protects us from the indiscretions of doctors who see us at our most vulnerable. It is the right to privacy that prevents the police from turning our homes inside out on a whim. It is the right to privacy that prevents, albeit fairly ineffectively, law enforcement from listening in on our phone conversations and recording them. This is all a result of the Supreme Court recognising time after time, across decades, that our other rights will not stand for much without privacy.

The Aadhaar database is a dangerous thing in itself. Like dams that wall in enormous quantities of water or plants storing toxic material, this database could cause widespread disaster if breached. It is necessary to take every possible precaution when building anything this dangerous. It is also necessary that whoever puts such a hazard among us takes full responsibility for the ill-effects if anything goes wrong. The Government of India is doing no such thing with the Aadhaar database. Despite multiple assurances of safety, it has offered citizens no guarantee of compensation or recompense if its poor choices endanger them.

In many ways, this legislation is something of a Trojan horse. We are told that its sole purpose is the noble goal of creating a functional Public Distribution System. We are also told that the sensitive information in the database is secure and inaccessible for any purpose other than authentication. However, the legislation does a fine job of obfuscation: in part labelled “protection of information”, it begins with very promising norms about not sharing information for purposes outside the legislation, and then undoes these norms completely by creating two enormously significant exceptions that permit the government to easily dip into Aadhaar data.

The exception permits the government to access the database in two separate ways. One way is if a district judge orders disclosure of information. This is very dangerous if one bears in mind that we have inadequately trained district judges all over the country, and that they are not given enough support to understand the implications of a database like Aadhaar. District judges in far-flung districts have been authorising mass blocking of online content and gag orders. These judges can now authorise access to Aadhaar data without any disclosure or discussion with the citizen affected — only the Aadhaar authority will have the right to contest the order if it is so inclined. The legislation offers no avenue where the affected party may appeal if her rights are affected. This creates a huge window for access and misuse of the database.

There is a second way in which the government may abuse its power and access the Aadhaar database. A Joint Secretary authorised by the government can direct disclosure of information “in the interests of national security”. This direction again leaves the affected party out of the equation, and nothing in the legislation compels any kind of public or independent oversight that may help ensure that there is no abuse of power. While this order will be reviewed by a committee consisting of the Cabinet Secretary and the Secretaries to the Government of India in the Department of Legal Affairs and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, this is an inadequate safeguard for multiple reasons.

Inadequate safeguards

The safeguards contained within the Aadhaar Bill are appalling even by very outdated Indian standards. By international standards, they are laughable. The Indian standards for using technology for widespread surveillance began with the use of the telephone. When large-scale telephone tapping was challenged in PUCL v. Union of India (1997), the government attempted the very same national security argument that is being used for Aadhaar. The Supreme Court ruled that telephone tapping would violate Article 21 of the Constitution unless it was permitted by the procedure established by law, and that it would also violate the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 unless it came within the permissible restrictions. The Supreme Court was very clear in this context that even when the law clearly defines the situations in which interception may take place, this law must have procedural backing to ensure that the exercise of power is just and reasonable. Having insisted on the need for procedural safeguards, the Supreme Court created a stopgap, interim administrative measure that was to act as a safeguard in the absence of a statutory mechanism. That this deeply inadequate stopgap measure continues to be our sole communication surveillance safeguard is a mark of how all governments across political lines find it difficult to restrict their own powers to respect the rights of the people.

Owing the great variation of privacy safeguards internationally, it was difficult until recently to argue convincingly for specific reforms to the system. However, that has changed since the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay published her detailed report on ‘The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age’ in July 2014. Ms. Pillay’s report stated clearly that internal procedural safeguards without independent external monitoring are inadequate for the protection of rights. This means that the system by which a Joint Secretary issues orders that are reviewed by three Secretaries is not acceptable. Ms. Pillay’s report said that effective protection of the law can only be achieved if all the branches of government as well as an independent civilian oversight agency are built into the procedural safeguards. The new Aadhaar legislation removed the independent oversight committee that was meant to monitor the operation of Aadhaar. Both its systems for access to Aadhaar data involve only one branch of government each.

Where Ms. Pillay’s report insisted that known and accessible remedies need to be made available to those whose privacy is violated, the Aadhaar legislation does no such thing. The remedies are supposed to include thorough and impartial investigation and the option of criminal prosecution for gross violation. The Aadhaar Bill excludes courts from taking cognisance of offences under the legislation, requiring that the authority that runs Aadhaar consent to prosecution for any action to be taken under the legislation. This part of the Bill completely undermines all the safeguards that do exist within it, since citizens cannot access these safeguards without co-operation from the authority which is arguably in a position of conflict of interest.

Impact of human rights violations

The government seems unable to resist the pressures of the Home Ministry. It is perfectly natural that investigating agencies will ask for as much power with as few hurdles as possible. Letting them have their way leads to a police state. It is for the government, especially one with such a significant majority, to have the intelligence and leadership to think long term.

If the object of Aadhaar is smoothly functioning government benefit schemes, we should not give law enforcement agencies or indeed anyone else access to the database at all. If the access is written in to provide for unforeseen future emergencies, the circumstances in which the state can breach our privacy must be much narrower. There must be more oversight and much more accountability in the manner in which this is done. If this system is something that the government lacks the expertise to build, it should have invited expert and other comments.

Kurds declare federal region in Syria

Syria’s Kurds declared a federal region in areas under their control in the north of the conflict-hit country, but both the government and an opposition coalition rejected the move. The announcement is likely to anger neighbouring Turkey and has complicated peace talks in Geneva aimed at ending the five-year civil war.

The U.S., a key backer of Kurdish fighters in the battle against the Islamic State (IS), has also warned that it would not recognise any self-ruled Kurdish region within Syria.

More than 150 delegates from Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other parties meeting in Syria agreed to create a “federal system” unifying territory run by Kurds across several Syrian provinces. “We have given our blessing for the establishment of a federal system in Rojava [three Kurdish cantons] and northern Syria,” said Aldar Khalil, a member of the conference’s preparatory committee.

Kurdish parties already operate a system of three “autonomous administrations” in Syria’s north, with independent police forces and schools. The three cantons stretch along Syria’s northern border with Turkey and are known as Afrin and Kobani, both in Aleppo province, and Jazire in Hasakeh province. The new “federal system” is expected to centralise governance in the three cantons under elected councils.

The declaration angered both Syria’s government and opposition. Citing a Foreign Ministry official, Syria’s state news agency SANA said the Kurdish announcement “has no legal basis and will not have any legal, political, social, or economic impact”. The Istanbul-based opposition National Coalition warned against “any attempt to form entities, regions, or administrations that usurp the will of the Syrian people”.

Nepal should stay the course on amendments

India and other members of the Human Rights Council pushed Nepal to carry out more constitutional amendments to accommodate the democratic aspirations of citizens from Nepal’s plains.

In a statement issued after the Human Rights Council’s meeting in Geneva, the Ministry of External Affairs urged Nepal to create “strong consensus” for peaceful political change. “We regard the two Constitutional amendments passed by the Nepali Parliament in January 2016 as positive developments. We hope that other remaining issues will be similarly addressed in a constructive spirit in a defined timeframe”, the MEA release stated.

Analysts have pointed out that India’s reminder on the amendments is significant as it came 24 hours after the meeting between Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar and Nepal’s Madhesi leaders in Kathmandu.

While countries like China, Pakistan, Singapore, and Maldives adopted a softer tone at the HRC’s meeting for Outcomes of the Universal Periodic Review on Nepal, India reminded Nepal to stay the course on the path of more constitutional amendments which was started to end the five-month long economic blockade by the Madhesis.

Nepali commentator views Indias’s latest position in HRC as part of “continued policy”  of India to highlight Nepal’s human rights situation in the international arena , whereas academic and Indian diplomat said that by reminding Nepal of the amenments , India has reiterated the policy that is in mutual interest.

Government eases cabotage norms

The Union government announced that it has eased cabotage rules in a bid to encourage transhipment of goods at Indian ports.

Cabotage refers to transportation of goods or passengers between two places, usually along the coast.

Transhipment is the movement of goods when a container arrivess at an intermediate point and re-loaded into another ship to be taken to some destination domestically or abroad.

The Government has relaxed cabotage restrictions for ports which tranship at least 50 per cent of the container handled by them.

To help consolidation

“The cabotage relaxation will enable shipping lines to consolidate Indian EXIM and empty containers at transhipment ports in India for onward transportation to destination ports by main shipping lines,” according to a statement by Shipping Ministry.

The rule change will also allow foreign vessels to bring goods at any of the Indian ports meant to be shipped to other destinations.

At present , foreign vessels are restricted from transporting containers between domestic gateway ports.

“The spare capacity of the foreign flag ships which could not be utilized earlier due to cabotage restrictions will now be gainfully utilized enabling them to offer competitive container slot rates to exporters and importers leading to competition led efficiency in container transportation and lower logistic costs for the shippers,” according to the statement.

Not scared of Monsanto threat

The U.S.-based seed company Monsanto is welcome to leave India if it does not want to lower prices of genetically modified cotton seeds as directed by the government, a minister said, in a sign the rift between New Delhi and the firm is widening.

The comments come as Prime Minister Narendra Modi's nationalist government expects to develop its own genetically modified (GM) cotton varieties to end Monsanto's dominance; it controls over 90 per cent of cotton seed supply.

New technologies are critical to lifting India's poor farm productivity, although even if India did develop a home-grown GM cotton variety in 2017, it would struggle to sustain a program that needs to refresh seeds every decade or so, experts warned.

The introduction of Monsanto's GM cotton seeds in 2002 helped turn India into the biggest producer of the fiber, while other crops like pulses continue to suffer as transgenic food is banned and local research has stalled.

Despite the gains GM cotton brought for more than 7 million cotton farmers in India, some of them and their associations, including one affiliated to Modi's ruling party that promotes self-reliance, have complained Monsanto overprices its products.

Under pressure to mollify farmers hit by three straight crop failures due to bad weather, Modi's government has imposed a cut of around 70 per cent in royalties that local firms pay Monsanto for its cotton technology.

India's anti-trust regulator is also investigating whether the company misused its near-monopoly to jack up rates.

A Monsanto joint venture with a local company says it is confident the allegations will be proved groundless.

Monsanto has taken the government to court over the royalty.

Re-evaluate India business

It said in a statement this month it would have to re-evaluate its India business, because it was difficult to bring in new technologies in an “environment where such arbitrary and innovation-stifling government interventions make it impossible to recoup research and development investments ...”

But Sanjeev Kumar Balyan, the junior agriculture minister, told Reuters the government was trying to rectify what he called past mistakes that allowed a foreign company to dictate seed prices and stifled local crop research. He also said that our team of scientists are working to develop (an) indigenous variety of (GM) seeds

A Monsanto spokesman declined to comment beyond the statement, but analysts said it was unlikely to withdraw from India lightly given the huge size of the market and its strategic importance now that China has bid to snap up the company's biggest rival, Syngenta, for $43 billion.

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