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Current Events 10 March 2016



10 MARCH 2016


Opposition sees amendment through in Rajya Sabha, again

In what is a major embarrassment to the government in the Rajya Sabha, the Opposition got an amendment passed to the President’s address, the second time in a row for the government and the fifth time in independent India’s parliamentary history.

This despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealing to the Opposition not to move the amendment, when he began his speech, responding to the debate on the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address.

Referring to the 300 amendments moved by the Opposition, he said: “I would appeal to you to withdraw the amendments and pass the motion unanimously to preserve the dignity of that office.” After the hour-long speech, in which Mr. Modi took potshots at the Congress, the Opposition did not relent.

The amendment regretted that the President’s address did not support the rights of citizens to contest in panchayat elections, in the backdrop of restrictions imposed in Haryana and Rajasthan, both ruled by the BJP.

Leader of the Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad moved the amendment, which was carried with 94 votes in favour and 61 against.

When the Opposition moved the amendment, Leader of the House Arun Jaitley argued that the amendment could not be moved as it referred to an issue that was a State subject. “If we put this to vote, every State will have the right to move a resolution criticising the decisions made by Parliament,” he said.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu also pointed out that the right to contest elections was not a fundamental right, unlike the right to vote. He said the Centre had no role in the decision.

Despite the government’s attempts, Mr. Kurien permitted the amendment as it did not refer to any State. “There is no mention of any State legislature. If there was a direct mention, we could have considered it in a different way,” he said, deciding to put the amendment to vote.



LS passes Bill to amend Enemy Property Act

The Lok Sabha passed a Bill to amend a 48-year-old law to guard against claims of succession or transfer of properties left by people who migrated to Pakistan and China after the wars.

The Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Bill, 2016, which amends the Enemy Property Act, 1968, was passed by voice vote amid the government’s assertion that the measure should not be seen from the prism of religion or caste.

A demand by the Opposition for sending it to the Standing Committee of Parliament was turned down.

Replying to a debate on the Bill, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said, “It does not pertain to Pakistan alone, but also to those Chinese who left India after the 1962 China-India War. Even their property comes under the ambit of this Bill.” In the wake of the India-Pakistan war of 1965 and 1971, there was migration of people from India to Pakistan and under the Defence of India Rules framed under the Defence of India Act. The government of India took over the properties and companies of such persons who had taken Pakistani nationality. These enemy properties were vested by the Union government in the Custodian of Enemy Property for India.

The amendments include that once an enemy property is vested in the Custodian, it shall continue to be vested in him as enemy property irrespective of whether the enemy, enemy subject or enemy firm has ceased to be an enemy due to reasons such as death. The new Bill ensures that the law of succession does not apply to enemy property; that there cannot be transfer of any property vested in the Custodian by an enemy or enemy subject or enemy firm and that the Custodian shall preserve the enemy property till it is disposed of in accordance with the Act. The amendments are aimed at plugging the loopholes in the Act to ensure that the enemy properties that have been vested in the Custodian remain so and do not revert to the enemy subject or firm.



After Rs. 5 crore fine, nod for Sri Sri event

Imposing an initial fine of Rs. 5 crore, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) gave the go-ahead to the ‘World Culture Festival’, a three-day cultural extravaganza being organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation on the flood plains of the Yamuna.

It also directed the Art of Living to bear the cost of restoring the area into a biodiversity park after the completion of the event, holding it responsible and liable for the damage caused to the environment, ecology, bio-diversity and aquatic life of the river. After imposing the initial token ‘environmental compensation’ on Art of Living — which has to be deposited before the event begins on March 11 — the green watchdog also pulled up the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC) and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), stating that they hadn’t discharged their statutory functions.

A Bench, headed by NGT Chairperson Justice Swatanter Kumar, slapped a fine of Rs. 5 lakh on DDA and Rs. 1 lakh on DPCC.

The Tribunal directed Art of Living to give an undertaking that enzymes will not be released into the Yamuna and no further degradation of environment will happen.

Art of Living said that it would file an appeal in the Supreme Court against the fine. A spokesperson said: “The festival will go on as planned and since we have not violated any rules we will appeal against the NGT order.”

The event came under the scanner of the NGT after petitions were filed demanding its cancellation.

Coming down heavily on the AoL, the Tribunal stated that it had not obtained any permission as yet from the Delhi Police, Fire Department, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. The AoL has been directed to obtain all required permissions.

Environmental activist Anand Arya rued that over 1000 acres of mostly marshland had been stripped.



Army officers find it demeaning

There is widespread anger in military circles against the government’s decision to deploy the Army for building two pontoon bridges for the World Culture Festival being organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living Foundation.

Many of them see a growing pattern of the Army being called in at the drop of the hat, often made to do work that is demeaning, such as laying mats for International Yoga Day. In an interview to a television channel, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar referred to the Army being involved in activities such as the Kumbh Mela, and said in this case “it was done with the sole purpose of avoiding accidents”.

Officials defended the decision saying that it was done in view of “public interest” as several lakh people were expected to attend. But this assertion found few takers with several serving officers questioning the logic of the Army being involved and some calling for drawing a distinction on the matter. “If this was an event of national pride, interest or significance, saving human lives and dignity, then yes, but if not, the military should not be the first agency,” said Lt. Gen. Anil Chait, former Army Commander.

Another officer Lt. Gen. Thomas Mathew (retd) said, “The Army is being reduced to a contractor doing outsourced work.”The former Army Chief Gen. V.P. Malik, while observing that there was nothing illegal, wished that they did not do such things.

“There is nothing illegal about it but when wartime equipment is employed for this kind of event, which is private, it should be the last resort,” he said.



Supreme Court issues notice to Delhi, TN over advertisements

The Supreme Court issued notice on a plea to initiate contempt action against the Delhi and Tamil Nadu governments for allegedly defying an apex court judgment barring the publication of Chief Ministers’ photographs in government advertisements.

The petition was filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan.

The notice came after a day-long hearing, which saw the T.N. government and the Centre join forces to challenge the logic in barring photographs of CMs from government advertisements in a judgment dated May 13, 2015.



Sharp drop in aid to SAARC nations

Contrary to the NDA government’s “Neighbourhood First” diplomatic posture, the development assistance for all SAARC countries has been significantly reduced in the 2016-17 Budget. Except Pakistan, all other six members of SAARC receive significant financial assistance from India.

The slashing of the assistance to SAARC countries is in line with the cut in Budget to the Ministry of External Affairs this year that has fallen by about Rs. 500 crore, if one counts the allocation for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) that was merged with the MEA this year.

“We are at the Budget estimates stage where we have received Rs.500 crore less. We will, of course, continue with all our aid programmes for all the neighbouring countries, and if we do feel that we have need for additional funds, then at the revised estimates stage, we will seek those additional funds,” explained MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup.

Despite the expectation that Nepal will need increased assistance as it begins its reconstruction programme this year, the allocation has seen a drop of 28.6%. Sri Lanka and the Maldives have seen cuts of 54% and 78.1% compared with the previous year. And even the countries with the lowest GDP, Afghanistan and Bhutan, saw cuts this year of 23% and 10.8% respectively.

Similarly, officials handling the other SAARC countries said that many projects that were started between 2005-2010 had been completed or were nearing completion and needed less assistance. For example, in Afghanistan, the Rs. 969-crore Parliament building that was completed and inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015, was started in 2009; the Salma hydel power project was nearing completion, and no new big projects had been announced.

In Bhutan, hydel projects such as Punatsangchhu I and II or the massive 720 MW Mangdechu were in the preliminary stages of progress, and hence, India’s assistance had not yet been raised. Bhutan accounts for over 70% of India’s foreign assistance.

The government also pointed out that in the case of Bangladesh, with a 40% cut, lines of credit at concessional rates had replaced direct development assistance. As of this year, India has extended an $862-million line of credit, while another $2 billion is in the pipeline.

The one exception to the Budget proposals is Myanmar (not a SAARC nation), and saw a major 48% increase in development aid, due to the government’s focus on the Kaladan multi-mode transport corridor project, as well as the ‘Trilateral Highway’ project.

Sachin Chaturvedi, director general of the MEA-run think tank RIS (Research and Information Systems for Developing Countries) claims that capacity building, lines of credit, bilateral trade, technology transfers, loans and direct grants would all be counted together to show India’s development aid to its neighbours and other countries. While the new accounting system will take a few years to implement, the Modi government may have to face more criticism from its neighbours over the allocations in the more immediate future, with a cut in aid to SAARC nations between 2015-16 and 2016-17 totalling a whopping 17.8% overall.



Why India must heed geography

It is not possible for India to be a world leader or an Asian leader without first being a South Asian leader. What’s more, it is important for India to work on uniting, connecting, and sharing its prosperity with its neighbours before seeking the same from outside. “If you cannot integrate with your region, you cannot integrate with other regions,” said former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran in a keynote session at the conference.

Participants from the region were more specific. The delegate from Nepal said that border connectivity, despite India’s promises, remains poor. What’s more, border infrastructure for India’s more peaceable neighbours to the north and east — Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar — is much less developed than for countries to its west.

Adding to that, no Indian centre of excellence or modern city has been developed close to India’s northern borders or can be accessed easily by its neighbours, and India’s poorest, least developed States border these four countries. As a result, SAARC road and rail connectivity requires immediate attention, and the still-not-developed Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal corridor compares unfavourably to the 38,400-km ASEAN Highway Network or the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link, while China’s first-ever cargo train to Tehran heralds the way for a China-Afghanistan-Iran rail and road link as well.

The second message was that India’s neighbourhood desires cooperation rather than competition between India and China. Calling for a coordinated approach between India’s Connect Central Asia policy and China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative (OBOR), former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai said the two countries need “positive symmetry”. Why can’t India see that its neighbours look to China for its economic power and not see it as a threat, asked former Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga. These are powerful words that India can ill afford to ignore. While it is possible for the subcontinent’s largest country with the greatest security interests to cavil at U.S. F-16 aircraft sales to Pakistan, Pakistan’s JF-17 aircraft sales to Sri Lanka, or Chinese submarines docking in Colombo or Male port, it is much harder to stop development projects without evoking a negative response in the region. Leadership comes at a price, and until India becomes a net provider of prosperity in the region, it will be harshly judged for blocking aid pipelines. It was unfortunate that the government didn’t use the conference’s theme of ‘Asian connectivity’ to clarify what India’s position on OBOR is, and how it correlates to India’s plans. Worse, the ministers and Foreign Secretary did not even refer to the project directly.

A Finance Ministry memo seeks to curtail rather than increase visits by Ministry of External Affairs diplomats abroad. The move, along with a diktat to secretaries not to travel above four times a year without prior permission from the Prime Minister, seems absurd, if not completely out of sync, with India’s ambitions. Likewise, this year’s Budget proposal, that shows a significant drop in developmental assistance to six SAARC countries, casts doubts on the seriousness of the government’s ‘Neighbourhood first’ programme.

It is important then that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar himself shot down the proposal made by U.S. Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry B. Harris during the conference, when the U.S. commander called for joint Indo-U.S. patrols to secure freedom of movement in the South China Sea. India’s valid concerns about China’s increased aggression towards China’s maritime neighbours must be balanced with India’s desire to resolve land-border issues as well as cooperate on developing the entire region along with China, which despite all the issues has been India’s largest trading partner since 2008.

On the international front, India is making considerable efforts to build international consensus around the UN Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, a proposed treaty which intends to criminalize all forms of international terrorism and deny terrorists, their financiers and supporters access to funds, arms, and safe havens. India had proposed this convention in 1996 and has since demanded it consistenly, especially in the wake of 26/11.

Currently, the negotiations are deadlocked because of differences over the definition of terrorism. For example, what distinguishes a "terrorist organisation" from a 'liberation movement'? And do you exclude activities of national armed forces, even if they are perceived to commit acts of terrorism? If not, how much of this constitutes 'state terrorism'?"



Closer relationship to secure energy supplies

Eighty per cent of India’s oil is imported, as is about 20 per cent of its coal — though in recent years, coal imports have increased by as much as 56 per cent in a single year. India also imports 40 per cent of its uranium. And it is increasingly importing natural gas.

Import-dependent energy policies are always fraught with risk, and India’s is no exception. Many, if not most, of its hydrocarbon imports come from unstable or faraway regions; two thirds of its oil comes from West Asia, and distant Venezuela is also a key source of oil. Additionally, India sees great potential in gas-rich Central Asia. However, because Pakistan denies India transit rights to Afghanistan, India lacks direct access to the region.

Though New Delhi has scored some successes in Central Asia — including uranium cooperation with Kazakhstan — it has largely lost out on many opportunities, even while China has seized them. New Delhi seeks to enhance its access to Central Asia by developing the Chabahar port in southern Iran; however, so long as Afghanistan remains unstable, access to Central Asia via Chabahar will be difficult. Afghanistan’s security problems also make the TAPI gas pipeline an unlikely prospect.

Meanwhile, the lifting of sanctions on Iran following its nuclear deal with the U.S. opens up energy possibilities for India, which has reduced its imports from Iran in recent years. However, New Delhi faces serious competition from other importers rushing to cash in.

Australia can provide immense energy benefits to India. It already provides sizeable quantities of coal. The two sides have explored uranium cooperation. And most importantly, Australia is a top global producer of LNG. With LNG prices having fallen by 75 per cent since 2014, the timing could not be more ripe to explore deeper energy cooperation — particularly given the volatile location of Qatar, the top current source of India’s LNG imports.

Additionally, India could leverage a closer relationship with Australia to engage more deeply with the latter’s neighbour, Indonesia, which provides India more than 60 per cent of its current coal imports. This would help advance New Delhi’s “Act East” policy. Cultivating deeper energy relationships with these two relatively close-by Southeast Asian countries — an objective that the quadrilateral relationship can help bring about — would ease the burden on India’s naval forces of protecting energy assets in areas more far-flung than Southeast Asia.



U.S. industry body says India agreed to not issue ‘compulsory’ drug licences

India has given private assurances that it will not grant licences allowing local firms to override patents and make cheap copies of drugs by big Western drug makers, a U.S. business advocacy group said.

The comments were revealed in a submission by the U.S.-India Business Council (USIBC) to the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), which is reviewing global intellectual property laws for an annual report identifying trade barriers to U.S. companies.

The USTR has placed India on its “priority watch” list for two years in a row saying the country's patent laws unfairly favour local drug makers. A bone of contention has been a legal provision that allows the overriding of patents on original drugs and granting of ‘compulsory licences’ to local firms to make cheaper copycat medicines.

India can grant such licences under certain conditions, such as public health emergencies, to ensure access to affordable medicines. It granted the first such licence in 2012, allowing local firm Natco Ltd. to sell a copy of German drugmaker Bayer’s cancer medicine Nexavar at a tenth of the price.

Since that ruling, big Western pharmaceutical companies have criticised India’s patent law and lobbied for it to be changed. However, health activists have criticised the review, saying India is buckling under U.S. pressure and compromising patients.

The Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) charity, which largely depends on India to supply antibiotics and drugs to combat HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis for the developing world, called India's position “a deep concern”.


“India should take note that today globally patent monopolies are considered as the core reason for the ever-upward spiral of drug prices,” said Leena Menghaney, the South Asia head of MSF's access campaign.



Resolution passed to convert Sri Lankan Parliament into Constitutional Assembly

The Sri Lankan Parliament adopted unanimously a resolution to convert itself into a Constitutional Assembly. Introduced by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in January 2016, the resolution, since then, has undergone a number of changes on the basis of amendments proposed by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Joint Opposition and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.

Though the preamble of the original resolution, which talked of providing a Constitutional resolution of the Tamil question, has been removed, Dr. Wickramaratne said “everything would be on the table [for discussion]”. The abolition of executive presidency and the introduction of electoral reforms are among the subjects which were likely to be covered during the process.





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