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Current Events 8 April 2016



8th APRIL 2016


Make GM mustard biosafety data public: CIC

The Central Information Commission (CIC), the arbitrator on Right To Information requests, has asked the Environment Ministry to make public all the data pertaining to the safety of genetically-modified (GM) mustard, sans proprietary intellectual property data. GM mustard is likely to be the first transgenic seed, to be available in farmer fields. It has had a tumultuous history in India with activist groups claiming that it will be a gateway to several other GM food crops — tomato, rice, brinjal, etc — and that these may pose health and ecological risks. Currently GM cotton is the only transgenic crop commercially available in farmer fields.

The GM mustard in question has been developed by Deepak Pental, a geneticist at the Delhi University, with support from the National Dairy Development Board and the Department of Biotechnology. The technology involves using a complex of genes, sourced from soil bacterium, which makes it easier for seed developers to easily develop hybrid varieties of mustard, generally a self pollinating plant. Hybrids varieties are generally known to produce greater yields but they necessitate farmers to keep going to seed companies every year to buy fresh seed.

The technology, according to Pental, will contribute to increasing yields of such hybrids by 25% of existing varieties. Kavitha Kuruganti, who leads the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, which also campaigns against GM crops. Kuruganti—who petitioned the CIC-- avers that the GM seeds so produced aren’t substantially better than existing mustard varieties and that seed developers and biotechnology regulators have colluded to “push” GM mustard. She’s also argued that inspite of multiple requests the department hasn’t made a copy of the biosafety dossier, which details the GM mustard variety’s performance, available publicly.

“The Commission directs the public authority to verify and provide such information,specifically the bio-safety dossier as submitted by the crop developer and any other material submitted by them and under review, after separating confidential information if any, as per their independent decision. The Commission also directs all biosafety data pertaining to all other GMOs in pipeline as that is part of voluntary disclosure under Section 4 of the Right to Information Act.” reads the order. These details are expected to be made available by April 30 after the seed developers have edited out potential proprietary information, Kuruganti added. 

A spokesperson for the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, the environment ministry body that adjudicates on tests and the safety of potential GM crops and against whom the petitions were filed to make biosafety data available, declined comment. 


World military spending up in 2015, India in sixth position

India is the sixth largest military spender in 2015 having spent $51.3 billion even as the world spent $1,676 billion reversing a global trend which was on the decline since 2011., as per the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

India moved one rank up from last year accounting for 3.1 percent of global military expenditure. Over a ten-year period from 2006-15 this represents a 43 per cent jump. India is also ahead of countries like France, Germany and Israel who happen to be among its top arms suppliers.

World military expenditure rose by 1 per cent in 2015, the report noted said it reflects continuing growth in Asia and Oceania, Central and Eastern Europe, and some Middle Eastern states.

Sam Perlo-Freeman, head of SIPRI’s military expenditure project said that the military spending in 2015 presents contrasting trends. “On the one hand, spending trends reflect the escalating conflict and tension in many parts of the world; on the other hand, they show a clear break from the oil-fuelled surge in military spending of the past decade,” he said in the report.

The U.S. remained by far the world’s largest spender in 2015 despite its defence expenditure falling by 2.4 per cent to $596 billion followed by China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and U.K.

China’s expenditure rose by 7.4 per cent to $215 billion.


MGNREGS: Centre to release funds in a week

The Centre informed the Supreme Court that Rs. 11,030 crore will be released to States within a week to run the MGNREGA programme, especially to generate employment in drought-hit areas. In an affidavit filed by the Rural Development Ministry, the government told the Supreme Court that the amount will take care of pending wage liability of Rs. 7,983 crore under the MGNREGA scheme as on March 31, 2016 pertaining to the financial year 2015-16.

“This includes the wage liability of Rs. 2723 crore in 10 drought affected States where the ministry has allowed additional 50 days of employment to households,” the affidavit said.

It said that as per the Annual Master Circular (2016-17) funds would be released to States and union Territories in two tranches.

“The first part of the first tranche will be released within one week in April 2016 and the second part of the first tranche in June 2016 after the regular budget is passed in the Parliament. The second tranche will be released to the States in October 2016 subject to fulfillment of conditions,” the ministry affidavit said.

It said since 95 percent of wages are credited electronically delay has been drastically cut down.Ministry officials told the court earlier in the day that they were able to provide up to 48 days of work to beneficiaries in 2015-16.

The affidavit was filed after the Centre was pulled up on April 6 by a Bench led by Justice Madan B. Lokur for not releasing sufficient funds to drought-hit States for employment generation under the MGNREGA scheme.

The Bench was hearing a PIL filed by Swaraj Abhiyan to treat the situation as a calamity and provide guidelines for the effective implementation of National Food Security, MGNREGA and basic water supply to drought-hit States in the country.

The court had said that unless the Centre allocated funds, the States would remain helpless onlookers unable to fully implement schemes like MGNREGA.


India’s GST is of paramount importance: U.S.

Underscoring the need for tax reforms in India, the United States has said the proposed Goods and Services Tax (GST) is of paramount importance.

Given India’s tremendous needs, its very low tax ratio, at 10 per cent of GDP, is notable.Accordingly, there is meaningful scope to address tax policy and compliance,” Treasury Under Secretary Nathan Sheets told a Washington audience on Thursday.

This is where GST scores’

“This is also where the pending Goods and Services Tax (GST) is of paramount importance,” he said in his remarks before the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The deadweight loss that flows from India’s States treating their internal boundaries as though they were international borders is apparent to all,” he said. “The resulting inefficiencies include slow transit times, unnecessary red tape in tax administration and disruptions in the business climate. We support the government’s ongoing efforts to accomplish this important reform,” Mr. Sheets said in his appearance before this think-tank ahead of the next week’s visit of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Progress on bilateral tax issues

India and the U.S., he said, “are making progress on our bilateral tax issues.” The U.S. and India negotiated and signed a reciprocal intergovernmental agreement to implement the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, or FATCA, pursuant to which both countries will collect and exchange information about the financial accounts of their respective tax residents, he has said.

“This is an important tool to combat tax evasion in both our countries. In addition, the two countries will begin accepting applications for bilateral Advanced Pricing Agreements; this will benefit industries participating in cross-border business, he added.


Colombo tries to strike a balance between India, China

A year ago, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had just returned to power after a gap of over 10 years, chose Guruvayur, a temple town in Kerala, to make a pertinent observation on his country’s ties with two big neighbours: “Sri Lanka is neither pro-India nor pro-China,” he said.His comments came at a time there were concerns in India about China’s rising involvement in Sri Lanka.

It was during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa that Chinese presence in Sri Lanka became more perceptible through its involvement in big-ticket infrastructure projects such as the $1.4-billion Colombo Port City Project. Even though, in the run-up to the January 2015 presidential election, Mr. Wickremesinghe had campaigned against the project, the new government took a more pragmatic approach. A senior academician points out that the present dispensation appears to be more “objective and transparent” on the project than before.

In mid-2015, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, then the Defence Secretary, told a seminar in Colombo that India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval once asked him to halt the project, citing India’s security concerns.

The port city project has been proposed alongside the Colombo port, which has become a vital player in the Indian scheme of economic activity. This was why New Delhi had initially viewed the project with suspicion in view of reports of the Chinese project promoter getting land ownership rights.

Though India has not made its position public to Colombo’s renewed move to revive the project, what has comforted it is that Sri Lanka has made it clear that land will be provided on a long-term lease and not on free hold. Sugeeswara Senadhira, an aide of Mr. Sirisena, feels Sri Lanka has to keep in good humour both the powers by reviving the Port City project and going along with India for the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement.

While favouring deeper economic engagement with China, experts on foreign affairs argue that Sri Lanka should not do anything that will be perceived by India as a security threat.


Israel seeks to partner Nabard in agro-tech

A delegation from Israel led by Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development Uri Ariel visited National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development (Nabard) headquarters in Mumbai to explore opportunities for collaboration in the field of agro-technologies and water conservation technologies.

“The delegation held discussions relating to expanding the Agricultural Centres of Excellence supported by the governments of Israel and India, dissemination of critical Israeli technologies in water management, water purification technologies, promoting Israeli dairy technologies and post-harvest technologies,” Nabard said in a statement.

Both sides discussed about building capacities of farmers, bankers and developing appropriate instruments for financing the technologies for use in India.

Israel also wanted to know whether Nabard would be interested to leverage its research and development fund to adopt Israeli technologies in India.

“The delegation offered to build capacities of Indian stakeholders in Israel and in India,” Nabard said.

Nabard, on its part, has offered the facilities of Bankers Institute for Rural Development, its in-house training facility at Lucknow, for building capabilities. It has also offered to conduct joint training programmes in the areas of hi-tech agriculture and agro technologies.

The delegation also evinced interest in availing of the services of Nabcons, the consultancy wing of Nabard, for collaborative advisory services in hi-tech agriculture, the statement added.


All you need to know about WhatsApp encryption

You may not feel it but , IIT post-doctoral-level algebra started being applied to those pictures of your child spreading paint on the floor that your old schoolmates don’t want to see but are too polite to say.WhatsApp, which has come to replace text messaging as the go-to tool for teens and bosses, went in for full end-to-end encryption . Here’s how it works:

What is end-to-end encryption?

If you are using any system with end-to-end encryption, it means that any electronic message that you send (mail/text/video et al) is scrambled in such a way that it makes sense only on the system of your intended recipient.

WhatsApp had started encrypting your text messages in late 2014 itself. It started encrypting even your calls, photos and videos.

How do I check if my WhatsApp chat is encrypted?

If your WhatsApp app is updated to the latest version (the older iPhones and Android versions will not have it), encryption is active by default.

To verify that your conversation with someone is encrypted, tap on the name of the contact. Conversations with those on updated WhatsApp will be shown as “secured with end-to-end encryption.” Chats with those on older versions will not be encrypted.

How to verify if the encryption is on?

Users have the option to verify after tapping on the message that says the conversation is “secured with end-to-end encryption. The user can then view a QR code and a 60-digit number. It’s also possible for the person you are conversing with over Whatsapp to scan your QR code or compare the 60-digit number.

What about groups?

Group chats will not be encrypted if even one of the group members is on an older version of WhatsApp.

How is it being done?

WhatsApp is using a system that encrypts each of your messages with a unique key. That means even if someone cracks one key they will most probably get only a part of the conversation and cannot use that key to decrypt the rest of that conversation. The basis of the encryption is the Signal Protocol, designed by Open Whisper Systems.

Why is it a big deal?

WhatsApp has a billion active users. That means it is next only to Facebook as a social communication tool. It has replaced text messaging for most people and voice calls for many.Events from birthday parties to terror attacks are being planned on it. Though WhatsApp never stores any of your messages or photos in a database that authorities could demand access to -- unlike Google or Facebook -- the possibility of interception in air remained. End-to-end encryption now makes it impossible for anyone from data thieves to legally-sanctioned probes to sniff out the conversations in a legible form.

The police are not interested in me, only in terrorists. So why bother?

Sure, in most countries. But many of WhatsApp’s users are in countries where that is not an assurance. AndWhatsApp founder Jan Koum, who grew up in the Soviet Ukraine in the 1980s, probably understands it quite well.


KLR Act overlooked in issuing land orders

Relevant provisions of the Kerala Land Reforms (KLR) Act, 1963 were reported to have been overlooked by the Cabinet for issuing the controversial land assigning orders.

According to Revenue Department sources, had the government not repealed the order granting exemption from the KLR Act to 127 acres owned by controversial godman Santhosh Madhavan, it would have amounted to criminal conspiracy and set the ground for a protracted legal tussle.

The government reserves the authority to assign only up to one acre of excess land to the family of a landless agriculture labourer. On deciding to allocate land for what it deems to be a public purpose or return the excess land taken over from an institution or individual, the government should first file a case in the High Court against the Taluk Land Board chairman and secure a verdict in its favour before returning the land. Such procedures were followed while issuing the order granting exemption to Santhosh Madhavan. Violation of such provisions would amount to criminal conspiracy and those culpable of taking such decisions may attract imprisonment up to five years or a fine up to Rs.2 lakh, sources said.

The company had sought an exemption from the Act for 95.44 acres of land at Puthenvelikkara village in Ernakulam district and 32.41 acres of land at Madathumpady village in Kodungalloor in Thrissur district for setting up hi-tech/IT parks. In the face of strong protest, the government decided to cancel the order issued on March 2.

The decision to assign 714 acres of land for Hope Plantations in Peerumade too was made in violation of the provisions of the Kerala Plantation (Additional Tax) Act and also the Plantation Labour Act, 1956. Though the government has the prerogative to arrive at a conclusion in such cases, the touchstone for considering a land as a plantation is the Plantation Act. The vital provisions on both Acts were not considered before deciding to dole out the land.

Top Revenue Department officials are understood to have apprised the political leadership that much more than the political controversy what was more relevant was the fact that the controversial orders would not stand legal scrutiny and thus it was decided to repeal both orders, sources said.



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