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Current Events 8 March 2016



8 MARCH 2016



108-feet Jain Teerthankar idol enters "Guinness book of records"

A 108—feet tall idol of Lord Rishabhdeva, the first Teerthankar of Jains, carved out of a single rock, has entered the “Guinness World Records” as the world’s tallest Jain statue. The impressive statue is located atop Mangi Tungi mountain near Teharabad village of Baglan tehsil in this North Maharashtra district. The idol was consecrated in
February 2016 during a grand ceremony. After locating the single rock atop Mangi Tungi, the carving work, that involved more than 300 sculptors, started in 2012.

Till now, the 57 feet idol of Lord Bahubali in Shravanabelagola in Karnataka was considered the world’s tallest Jain statue.



Proposal to tax EPF withdrawn: Jaitley

Following a backlash both in and outside Parliament for dipping into retirement savings of the working class, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced the withdrawal of the budget proposals regarding the taxation of EPF.

In view of representations ‎received, including from Members of Parliament, said Mr. Jaitley: "the Go‎vernment would like to do comprehensive review ...and therefore I withdraw the proposals".

The proposal of 40 per cent exemption given to National Pension Scheme (NPS) subscribers at the time of withdrawal remains, the Finance Minister clarified in his statement. He also said that the objective of the reform proposed in the budget that was withdrawn was "not to get more revenue but to encourage the people to join the Pension Scheme".

The decision to withdraw it, however, was taken after suggestions were received from MPs that the change will "force people to invest in annuity product even if they are not willing to do so". The main argument, he said, is that the employees should have the choice of where to invest.

The proposal withdrawn sought to make upto 60 per cent of savers' corpus withdrawn from the EPF tax free if invested in Annuity, according to the statement Mr. Jaitley laid in Lok Sabha. The period return on the Annuity was to be taxable.



Six or more anchor banks likely to lead consolidation

The government will identify six to ten public sector banks which will drive the consolidation process among the state-owned banks, according to bankers. Called the anchor banks, they will be identified by October 31, 2016, the banker.

Large lenders like State Bank of India (SBI), Bank of Baroda (BoB), Punjab National Bank (PNB) and Canara Bank could become the anchor banks, they said. The government will set up an expert panel for the consolidation process. The Bank Board Bureau headed by former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) Vinod Rai, which was recently formed to select chief executives and board members of public sector banks, will also help in the consolidation process.

There are 22 public sector banks in the country apart from five associate banks of State Bank of India.

The financial performance of public sector banks reflected a sharp deterioration after the RBI conducted an Asset Quality Review (AQR). During the review, the central bank’s inspectors found that many accounts, which ideally should have been treated as non-performing, were not classified so by the banks. The RBI then directed the banks to classify those accounts as non-performing and provide accordingly during the October-December and January-March quarters. As a result, as many as 11 public sector banks including Bank of Baroda, IDBI Bank, Bank of India and Indian Overseas Bank reported losses last quarter. The current quarter will be equally challenging for many banks.

“Things have changed since the AQR,” a banker pointed out. “There are many banks which will find it difficult to survive without capital infusion from government. If a bank remains weak, then it will lose business. In such a situation, merging with a relatively stronger bank seems to be the only option.”



Tata Motors enters pact with Bharat Forge, General Dynamics to bid for Rs 60,000 crore defence order

The competition for a Rs 60,000 crore defence order for the supply of 2610 Future Infantry Combat Vehicles (FICV) to the Indian Army has intensified with Tata Motors entering into a strategic agreement with Bharat Forge Ltd and General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) of the US to bid for this project.

Other large Indian companies in the race include Larsen & Toubro and Mahindra & Mahindra. The winning consortium will need to supply these advanced combat vehicles over a period of 25 years.

Tata Motors, which has been supplying combat vehicles to the Indian Army for years, will lead this consortium. Bharat Forge has come on board as a partner, while General Dynamics Land Systems will bring in its much proven expertise in combat vehicle platforms.

Tata Motors Ltd. said, “Through this partnership we will be better positioned to help the country realize its ‘Make in India’ vision, for the first completely indigenized combat vehicle, at the same time cater to the opportunities available right here in India.”

To be developed under the ‘Make Category’, the FICV is a high mobility armoured battle vehicle, for infantry men to keep pace with new advancements in weaponry system.

The FICV needs to be compact, tracked and amphibious, no heavier than 18-20 tonnes, so that it can be air-portable and transportable by other means, onto combat zones. The vehicle must fire anti-tank guided missiles, to ranges beyond four kilometers, with a capability to carry a crew of three and eight combat-kitted infantrymen.

The FICV will replace the Indian Army's fleet Russian-designed BMP (Sarath BMP-II) series armed vehicles, that are in operation since 1980.



Condoning illegalities on the Kutch coast

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a Rs.25-crore fine on the port infrastructure and mining giant, the Adanis, in January 2016. It also quashed the 2013 environmental approval for expansion of the Hazira port in Gujarat, stating that it would impact fishing livelihoods and that expansion had been initiated prior to the necessary approvals. This judgment offers an important lesson for those interested in the place of rule of law in environmental governance.

This lesson is most critical for the Environment Ministry that routinely determines not just project approvals but cases of non-compliance of laws as a trade-off between development and its environmental consequences. By responding to the legal issues in these cases through a bureaucratic ‘negotiation’ rather than legal principles, the Ministry undermines its own protocol of impact assessments, expert appraisal and grant of conditional clearances that is mandated by law. It is no surprise then that environmental laws and court judgments are observed more in the breach.

A recent decision of the Ministry on the long-pending violations by the Adani Port and Special Economic Zone Limited (APSEZ) located on Gujarat’s Kutch coast shows that this government too might be unwilling to take a tough stand on habitual environmental offenders. The Ministry’s file notings are disappointing specifically because this is one of the few cases where there is ample evidence of illegality in the project and official acknowledgment about the same by regulatory agencies. Yet, the Central government’s final orders on APSEZ’s Waterfront Development Project (WFPD) are soft on the project’s environmental abuse and ignore the difficulties caused to the coastal communities of Kutch.

Set up in 2009 in a unique inter-tidal landscape, through multiple clearances to variously named companies, APSEZ was legally challenged soon after because construction activities had been initiated prior to the grant of environmental approval, significantly impacting the pastoralists and the fisher communities.

By December 2010, complaints from the Machimar Adhikar Sangharsh Samiti led the Ministry to undertake a site inspection and issue a show-cause notice to the company. Both documents concluded that the coastal regulation and environment impact assessment notifications under the Environment (Protection) Act had been violated. As complaints continued, including from the Kheti Vikas Seva Trust, a local NGO in Mundra, the Ministry set up a committee under the chairpersonship of Sunita Narain, head of the Centre for Science and Environment. Following the committee’s report in April 2013, another show-cause notice was issued in September that year, highlighting the continuation of violations.

The Adanis responded saying they had not violated any clearance conditions and had taken considerable steps to protect fishing livelihoods and mangrove plantations. It has been quite natural for companies to refuse any role in damaging the environment even when they are engaged in the most extractive operations. They also blur the difference between mandatory obligations towards local communities and the environment and voluntary CSR activities.

Drawing a conclusion based on Adanis’ responses and the committee’s observations, a Ministry official in charge of the case justified action against revocation of clearance. A file note by the then Special Secretary stated in December 2014: “There is large-scale and conclusive evidence of violation of environment conditions. Cancellation of EC will further halt development and economic growth, whereas ecosystem restoration along with carrying out Cumulative Impact Assessment will not only restore damage done to the environment but also appropriately guide future development activities with the boundaries determined by environment parameters”.

In June 2015, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar sought details of the evidence on mangrove destruction, blocking and bunding of creeks, and dredging. In response, a note by the Ministry’s Joint Secretary in August 2015 read: “The records made available in the committee report and the observations therefrom are based on changes in satellite imagery between… 2005 and 2011. It is not possible to clearly establish whether such changes took place before 2007 when the land came in possession of PP or [the] period thereafter.” This is contrary to official conclusions and testimonials of the affected communities, and also mimics claims made by the project proponent.

Despite all the evidence of the illegalities of the APSEZ, the final orders dated September 18, 2015 from the Environment Ministry have allowed the project to proceed with an approval process for the north port, which had earlier been restricted due to non-compliance; questioned the legal basis of the payment of Rs.200 crore recommended by the Sunita Narain Committee as a restoration fund; declared the neighbouring Bocha island a conservation zone which will impose restrictions on the fishermen rather than the project; and recommended yet more studies for mitigation.

This order and the show-cause notices of 2010 and 2013 allow us to conclude that non-compliance by big-ticket projects can be condoned.



Pakistan fishing boats in Sir Creek: Security officials on tenterhooks

Several ageing Pakistani fishing boats have been washing ashore in the Sir Creek area in Gujarat in the last few months, leading to much speculation in the security establishment.

At least eight rickety wooden boats have been recovered in the past four months, officials said. Until November 2015, no such boats were recovered by the Border Security Force (BSF), which mans the swampy terrain.

Credible evidence has emerged that a major global drug smuggling racket is active in the waters off Gujarat. In April 2015, a boat carrying drugs worth over Rs. 600 crore was seized off Gujarat. A few weeks later, an Iranian fishing boat was found floating in the waters off Kerala.



Tiny Marshall Islands takes on India in nuclear disarmament fight

A small chain of Pacific islands - tiny republic of the Marshall Islands  - some of whose islands were once vapourised by atomic bomb tests - sought in court to force India, the world's second-most populous country, to get on board with nuclear disarmament.

The country, with a population of less than 70,000 people, says that the world's nine nuclear weapons states have violated various obligation to negotiate in good faith to dismantle their nuclear arsenals.

Three of them - India, Pakistan and Britain - are bound by previous commitments to respond to cases brought at the International Court of Justice. India was the first to be heard followed by Pakistan and Britain. They say the claim is beyond the jurisdiction of the court in The Hague.

Nobody expects the Marshall Islands to force the three powers to disarm, but the archipelago's dogged campaign highlights the growing scope for political minnows to get a hearing through global tribunals.

The island republic, a U.S. protectorate until 1986, was the site of 67 nuclear tests by 1958, the health impacts of which linger to this day.

"Several islands in my country were vapourised and others are estimated to remain uninhabitable for thousands of years," said Marshallese Minister Tony deBrum, describing seeing the sky "aflame" from a test 200 miles distant as a nine-year-old boy. "Many died, suffered birth defects never before seen and battled cancer from the contamination," he added.

The other nuclear powers - including declared powers China, France, Russia and the United States and undeclared nuclear states Israel and North Korea have not responded to the suit the islands filed in 2015.

The islands say the declared states are bound to negotiate disarmament by the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while the other states face similar obligations under customary international law.



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