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Current Events 26 April 2016

 

NEWS 

25th APRIL 2016 

GS II: POLITY 

Ten years on, all nine Muslim accused discharged from case

Ten years after the Malegaon Muslim community was placed on the terror map — first as victims and then as perpetrators of the 2006 blasts, a Special Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) court  formally discharged all nine accused arrested by the Maharashtra Anti Terrorism Squad (ATS) from the case due to lack of evidence. As Judge V.V. Patil pronounced the order, four of the nine accused present in the court broke down.

On September 8, 2006, three bomb blasts in Malegaon killed 37 people and left 312 injured after the Friday prayers on a Shab-e-Baraat day at Hamidiya Masjid, Bada Kabrastan, and at Mushawarat Chowk.

The Maharashtra ATS went on to arrest Noorul Huda Samsudoha, Shabbir Ahmed Masiullah, Raees Ahmed Rajab Ali Mansuri, Salman Farsi Abdul Latif Aimi, Farogh Iqbal Ahmed Magdumi, Mohammad Ali Alam Sheikh, Asif Khan Bashir Khan alias Junaid, Mohammad Zahid Abdul Majid Ansari and Abrar Ahmed Gulam Ahmed from various locations in Malegaon and Mumbai. The ATS alleged that they were members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) and had executed the blasts to foment communal unrest.

Later, the CBI, which took over the probe, confirmed the charges. Subsequently, in 2011, the NIA was asked to investigate and the agency arrested a group belonging to the majority community that continues to be accused in the case.

GS III: SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY-(SECURITY)

All new mobiles to have panic button from 2017

Starting next year, all mobile phones sold in India will come with a dedicated ‘panic button’ that can be used to send out a signal in case of distress.

The Panic button and Global Positioning System facility in all mobile phone handsets Rules, 2016, notified by the Department of Telecommunications on April 22, are aimed at improving the safety of women and ensuring a quick response from security agencies.

The notification says that no handset shall be sold in India from January 1, 2017, without a panic button and all handsets must also have GPS from January 1, 2018.

“Technology is solely meant to make human life better and what better than using it for the security of women. I have taken a decision that from January 1, 2017, no cell phone can be sold without a panic button and from January 1, 2018, handsets should also have GPS inbuilt,” Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said on Monday.

Once the panic button is pressed, a signal/call will be made to the nearest security agency. However, the details of how the system will work are yet to be finalised.

GS III: DISASTER MANAGEMENT

Water will continue to be scarce

The incidence of drought can no longer be considered a rare event. Climate change has quickened the occurrence of extreme events such as drought, floods and cyclones in different parts of India. It is alarming that the frequency and severity of such extreme events has increased in recent decades. India has experienced numerous drought years in the past, but the frequent recurrence after 1988 — in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2015 — is highly worrisome. It causes enormous hardships to resource-poor farmers, who are forced to fend themselves through sale of assets and migration to urban areas. Though the impact of drought varies across regions, it invariably affects human, livestock and natural resources.

Severe drought conditions are being experienced in some parts of the country this year as well. The Union government has already declared that the country is grappling with severe drought conditions which are estimated to have affected a sizeable population, nearly 330 million people. More than 50 per cent of the districts across the country have had rainfall deficit, many in tandem with high temperatures of above 45 degrees Celsius. The most severely affected States include Maharashtra, Karnataka, Jharkhand and Telangana. Given the current scenario, the government has initiated drought relief programmes to compensate crop losses, encourage judicious use of groundwater, and has sent ‘water trains’ to the highly water-scarce areas besides extending financial help to the States to cope with the emerging crisis.

As much as these relief measures are essential to ease the drinking water shortage, the problem is deep-rooted and has important implications for the agricultural sector that provides livelihood to almost 75 per cent of the population directly and indirectly. Drought conditions would severely affect the production and the productivity of key crops viz. wheat and rice, which contribute substantially to India’s food basket. In a situation of a continuous decline in the level of water tables and low capacity of water reservoirs, irrigation would contribute little to help in the drought conditions.

Scaling up irrigated area

Government statistics have hardly shown any increase in the total net irrigated area, which has been hovering around 63 million hectares and constitutes only 45 per cent of the total area sown in the country. Some improvement in irrigation intensity has taken place in Assam, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in recent years. But it appears to be insignificant in view of a massive increase in real public investment in major, medium and minor irrigation from Rs.235 billion in 2004-05 to Rs.309 billion in 2013-14. While the capital expenditure in major projects increased by 3.5 times, the investment in minor irrigation increased by 2.5 times only. A virtually stagnancy in irrigated area — especially of the area under canal irrigation — raises concerns about the efficiency of the ongoing investments and the quantum of investment that is further required to scale up area under irrigation.

A study carried out by International Food Policy Research Institute shows a sharp drop in the marginal returns from additional public investment in major and medium irrigation from 1.41 per cent during the nineties to 0.12 per cent when expenditure incurred during the 2000s is also considered. Evidence also shows that the ratio of irrigation potential created from public expenditure is higher for minor irrigation projects than medium and large irrigation projects. Unfortunately, minor irrigation projects have received only scant attention from policymakers over time. Minor irrigation structures play a significant role in recharging of wells, drought mitigation and flood control.

Long-term remedial options

While the India Meteorological Department has forecast above average rainfall during the upcoming South-West monsoon and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley expressed confidence that agriculture would withstand the ongoing drought, the situation calls for long-term solutions. Increased water conservation and promoting cultivation of less water-intensive crops can go a long way towards coping with the crisis. The other remedial option could be to adopt drought-resistant crop varieties as has been done in some parts of Odisha for paddy/rice through the help of the International Rice Research Institute. This can maintain productivity and income of the farmers and also ensure price stability to the consumers. It is important for the government to sustain an increased investment in irrigation but at the same time gear up towards faster completion of the ongoing projects.

Micro irrigation system comprising drip and sprinkler irrigation has greater potential to improve water use efficiency in agriculture. Despite various promotional efforts undertaken by State governments, their level of adoption and spatial spread has remained low. Studies show that micro irrigation system helps save water, reduce cost of cultivation and improve crop yield. Various studies showed that the net return per inch of water supplied through drip irrigation was 60-80 per cent higher than that of conventional irrigation system. However, among others, high initial capital cost, suitability of designs to different soil conditions, problems in receiving subsidy and small holdings are reportedly affecting the adoption of this technology. Subsidy being an important factor influencing adoption decision of farmers, delay in disbursement and appropriation by better-off farmers seems to have affected the vast majority of resource-poor small and marginal farmers in accessing this technology.

The Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana is a good policy initiative that would accelerate public investment in both micro and macro irrigation. During the recently organised India Water Week, 2016, India has also partnered with Israel, a water-scarce country, to learn and adopt innovative strategies to harness rainwater. Small vegetable-growing farmers near Solan, Himachal Pradesh, have long adopted Israel’s water-saving technology through the assistance of the Mother Dairy retail chain that procures their fresh produce. It is an opportune time to scale up technology adoption.

Finally, the shortage of drinking water can be addressed through promoting conservation and generating awareness among people to use the scarce resource with utmost care. Media reports indicate that the funds allocated by the Centre for drinking water projects have remained underutilised in many of the States hit by water scarcity. The States must act responsibly and gear up to come out of the current situation of water crisis.

GS II: POLITY 

Sensitise States, don’t intimidate them

In a rather curious Budget proposal which has gone unnoticed, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley mooted the idea of a Centre-State investment agreement to be signed between the Centre and various State governments to ensure effective implementation of BITs or bilateral investment treaties. BITs protect investments made by an investor of one country into another by regulating the host nation’s treatment of the investment. Mr. Jaitley noted in his Budget speech that “this will ensure fulfilment of the obligations of the State government under these treaties. States which opt to sign these Agreements will be seen as more attractive destinations by foreign investors.” It is believed that the Centre will not make it mandatory for States to sign the agreement, but if any State chooses not to, this will be informed to India’s BIT partner.

Reportedly, the Finance Ministry has already begun preparing a model Centre-State investment agreement and the draft is likely to be placed before the Union Cabinet for approval in the next two or three months. The motivation behind the proposal — “to facilitate ease of doing business for foreign investors and their domestic recipients” — is certainly laudable. However, there are two key issues that emerge from this which require a more detailed discussion.

Obligations under international law

Let us assume that a State government does not sign an agreement with the Centre. Further, through omission or commission this government infringes the rights enjoyed by a foreign investor under the BIT. If the investor challenges this as a violation of the BIT under international law, can the Central government, while responding to the claim against the Indian republic, say that it is not liable as this alleged violation is because of a particular State government’s measure?

The answer to this question is a resounding ‘no’. As laid down in Azadi Bachao Andolan v Union of India(2004), a combined reading of Entry 14 of the Union list, which provides for entering into treaties, and Article 73, which extends the power of the Central government to matters in the Union list, shows that the Central government has the power to enter into treaties on behalf of the Indian republic. This includes, but is not limited to, BITs. Once the Central government has acceded to the terms of a treaty on behalf of the republic, the international obligations assumed thereunder, generally speaking, bind the entire country, including its constituent States, at least externally. This is irrespective of whether the Central government has entered into an agreement with the State governments regarding the implementation of the said treaty. Internally, the Centre does not bind India (courts, State governments, etc.) till the treaty has been incorporated — usually through enabling legislation — into domestic law.

However, as far as India’s international law obligations are concerned, the Central government cannot justify the non-compliance of its BIT obligations by invoking “provisions of its municipal law, or because of any special features of its governmental organisation or its constitutional system.” This is consistent with the unitary conception of a sovereign nation under international law, where distribution of sovereign powers among its constituent states is deemed to be an internal matter, not regulated by international law. The Centre’s proposal to warn their counter parties about non-compliant States before they make their investment in the State, unless framed as a reservation to the BITs, does not carry much legal significance.

Cooperative federalism


Apart from the legal confusion ensuing from the proposal, there are practical considerations. India is a quasi-federal structure with a multiparty system. The Centre and State governments are often politically non-aligned. In this context, a proposal by the Centre to enter into investment agreements with States as an optional arrangement may further sour fragile Centre-State relations for two reasons. First, the State governments will not like the shifting of the blame for violation of a BIT from New Delhi to State capitals. Second, the State governments will also not like the Centre informing India’s BIT partner country that a particular State government has not signed the agreement and thus, by implication, is not a safe destination for foreign investment.

One of the objectives of the proposal could be to sensitise State governments about India’s BIT obligations given the fact that many regulations of State governments directly impact foreign investors. However, this objective would be better served by institutionalising the involvement of State governments in the process of treaty-making. A forum such as the NITI Aayog, which has all the Chief Ministers as members of the governing council, could be used to create a Centre-State consultative process on treaty-making. Also, this sensitisation should not be restricted to BITs but also extend to other international agreements like the World Trade Organisation treaty, numerous Free Trade Agreements, and Double Taxation Avoidance Agreements. The trade treaties are especially important because they cover many issues such as agriculture, which fall under the State list in our Constitution, and thus directly impact State governments. Cooperative federalism requires that Centre and States work together, which in turn would ensure better implementation of international treaties.

GS II: ENVIRONMENT 

First damage, then fix?

A highway cutting through Central India’s deep forests and a festival that was held along the banks of Delhi’s dying Yamuna river have thrown up related questions pertaining to the environment. In the first case, the “very dense forests”, as per the classification of the Forest Survey of India, connecting the Kanha and Pench tiger reserves are being cleared for the widening of National Highway 7 (NH7). In the second case, a section of the Yamuna floodplain was flattened for an Art of Living-backed World Culture Festival. Both incidents involve environmental damage and in both cases, the court has ordered the respective polluters to pay for environmental degradation. The glaring question is, do polluters pay so they can pollute further? Do we need to make distinctions in the way environmental compensation is meted out? What safeguards should we put in place to prevent violations of existing laws which get sanitised by compensation?

Wrong precedents

In the case of NH7, thousands of trees were cut even before forest clearance was granted. It is alleged that undue pressure was put on clearing one portion of forest land (a 37-km stretch which is part of the Kanha-Pench tiger landscape) as the rest of the highway had already been broadened. In the case of the Yamuna floodplains, the festival was held despite the National Green Tribunal (NGT) finding that clearances were faulty. In both cases, the activities were eventually condoned under the polluter pays principle — while in the first case the National Highways Authority of India was asked to make contributions to the Compensatory Afforestation Fund, in the second the NGT gave its go-ahead to the festival after imposing an initial fine of Rs. 5 crore on the Art of Living foundation for damages caused to the plains. What we learn from this is that the polluter pays principle allows the project to go ahead and, given the illegal/predetermined nature of certain projects, the system in the current form has aided wrong precedents.

In essence, the polluter pays principle, when combined with a reading of fait accompli (predetermination), creates a complex nexus. In the case of NH7, activists point out that if the 37-km stretch was not widened, there would have been tailgating and bottleneck formations in the area, what with the rest of the highway broadened already. While clearances should have been granted to the project holistically instead of through this sort of pressure, the Art of Living case is even more problematic.

Citizens of the National Capital Region took the World Culture Festival organisers to court on their choice of location — acres of the active Yamuna floodplain. The NGT slammed the project, but eventually allowed it with an environmental compensation. Justice Swatanter Kumar observed that there was fait accompli in this case: several arrangements had already been made, and much of the set-up was ready at the time the matter was being heard. In allowing the festival, the court went against the spirit of its earlier judgment that did not allow any constructions, temporary or permanent, on the floodplain. There was simply no denying that the agency was paying to pollute in this case.

This also throws up a related question: on what grounds should there be differentiation between public and private bodies for activities that cause environmental degradation? The environment is understood through the lens of the public trust doctrine which India follows. The environment is a public entity which needs to be safeguarded for future generations. If a project causes pollution or environmental degradation, it is to be compensated for. But very broadly, this is usually restricted to activities which are to do with public interest. A national highway, even if bearing less traffic, is touted to be in public interest.

Ecosystem services

Undoubtedly, there is a need to adopt an ecosystem services approach to understand damage and the cost of the damage to the environment. In the Art of Living case, the NGT is yet to impose final costs on the foundation. Apart from ecological damage or loss of ecosystem services, it is possible to further nuance environmental damage and amount of compensation according to the nature of activity. Should more costs be paid if an activity is only for limited or private gain, say, for instance, a music festival?

The courts stress that one cannot pay for the express purpose of polluting. The polluter pays principle in effect says that if found to be environmentally damaging, the actor/developer needs to compensate people as well as bear costs of environmental restoration. In Vellore Citizens Welfare Forum Versus Union of India (1996), the court found that the “onus of proof” is on the actor or the developer/industrial to show that his action is environmentally benign. In Research Foundation for Science (18) v Union of India (2005), the court found that the polluter pays principle means that the producer of goods and other items should be responsible for the cost of preventing or dealing with any pollution that the process causes. In effect, this also implies that the principle also does not mean that the polluter can first pollute and pay for it.

The final problem remains: paying compensation gives some respectability to the polluter, while damage to the environment may not always get reversed. However, the most insidious scenario is when fait accompli gets tied in with the concept of compensation. The idea that nothing can be done to save the ecosystem is questionable. Even more questionable is the idea that paying cash as compensation is acceptable. Working out a metrics for measuring environmental damage and how it can be compensated will be of great importance and is urgent today.

It is a challenge to public policy to test not just the limits of payments but also the thresholds the environment or a particular ecosystem can handle before getting degraded.

GS II: EDUCATION 

IITs asked to teach Sanskrit, says Smriti

The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) have been asked to teach Sanskrit for facilitating the study of science and technology as reflected in its literature, the government informed the Lok Sabha.

A committee, chaired by the former Chief Election Commissioner, N. Gopalaswami, had recommended in its report that the IITs facilitate the study of science and technology as reflected in Sanskrit literature along with inter-disciplinary study of Sanskrit and modern subjects, Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani said in a written reply.

“Accordingly, the IITs have been requested to teach Sanskrit, especially with reference to the study of works which contain scientific knowledge,” she said. — PTI

GS I: GEOGRAPHY 

Amazon surprises with new reef system

Scientists have discovered a new reef system at the mouth of the Amazon River, the largest river by discharge of water in the world.

As large rivers empty into the world’s oceans in areas known as plumes, they typically create gaps in the reef distribution along the tropical shelves — something that makes finding a reef in the Amazon plume an unexpected discovery.

Scientists from University of Georgia in the U.S. and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil on an expedition to study the Amazon River plume looked for evidence of a reef system along the continental shelf. The Amazon plume — an area where freshwater from the river mixes with the salty Atlantic Ocean — affects a broad area of the tropical North Atlantic Ocean in terms of salinity, pH, light penetration and sedimentation, conditions that usually correlate to a major gap in Western Atlantic reefs.

“Our expedition into the Brazil Exclusive Economic Zone was primarily focused on sampling the mouth of the Amazon,” said Patricia Yager, an associate professor at UGA. The team used multi-beam acoustic sampling of the ocean bottom to find the reef and then dredged up samples to confirm the discovery. We brought up the most amazing and colourful animals I had ever seen on an expedition,” Ms. Yager said.

The Amazon River plume and its effects on the global carbon budget converged with the discovery of the reef system to provide scientists a wider view of the reef community. Microorganisms thriving in the dark waters beneath the river plume may provide the trophic connection between the river and the reef. “The paper is not just about the reef itself, but about how the reef community changes as you travel north along the shelf break, in response to how much light it gets seasonally by the movement of the plume,” said Ms. Yager.

Reef transitions

“In the far south, it gets more light exposure, so many of the animals are more typical reef corals and things that photosynthesise for food,” she said. “But as you move north, many of those become less abundant, and the reef transitions to sponges and other reef builders that are likely growing on the food that the river plume delivers,” Ms. Yager said.

However, the reefs may already be threatened. “From ocean acidification and ocean warming to plans for offshore oil exploration right on top of these new discoveries, the whole system is at risk from human impacts,” she said.

 

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