Current Affairs 23rd November

Unpredictable norms key impediment to bilateral trade #GS2 #IR

U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai on Monday flagged India’s ‘unpredictable’ regulatory norms, high tariffs and market access restrictions as key impediments to bilateral trade, emphasised America’s continued interest in agriculture market access, and conveyed that “worker-centric” policies will be the pivot for the Joe Biden administration’s approach to trade policy.

On a maiden two-day visit to revive the U.S.-India Trade Policy Forum (TPF) after a four-year hiatus, Ms. Tai said the relationship is a top priority both for President Biden and for her, but highlighted that bilateral trade “never seems to quite live up to its significant potential”.

“At the USTR’s office, we hear very frequently from our stakeholders, who are not shy, on issues that will be familiar to those of you involved in moving goods and services between our two countries — market access restrictions, high tariffs, unpredictable regulatory requirements, restrictive trade measures… These are issues where we intend to make progress on and they will be on the top of my list while I am here,” Ms. Tai said.

Signalling a major switch to a “worker-centric” focus in the U.S. policy, Ms. Tai said: “President Biden is convinced that the U.S. policy needs a fundamental shift to ensure that our policies and actions focus on the impact that trade and trade agreements have on the lives of real working people.”

She said she will work closely with the Indian Government ‘colleagues’ including Labour and Employment Minister Bhupendra Yadav on connecting trade “more directly with working people”.

“There is a huge potential for growth in our two countries, in areas like the digital economy, services, health-related trade and yes, even agriculture. I believe that a revive TPF can help our trade relationship keep pace with our other areas of engagement,” she said after a meeting with Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal.

“India and the U.S. also face shared challenges like climate change and sustainability, vulnerable supply chains and promoting market-oriented principles and structures. These are areas that are ripe for closer collaboration now,” Ms. Tai said, underlining that the U.S. is committed to ensuring a robust and sustainable trade partnership.

“Delivering results and further integrating our two economies will require concerted efforts from our Governments, businesses, civil society, our people as both workers and consumers,” she said on the eve of the TPF meeting on Tuesday.

Mr. Goyal said he was pleased that the trade policy forum is being rejuvenated after “languishing for four years” and expressed confidence that the two sides will be able to resolve issues in an amicable manner and send a message to the world that the U.S. and India are strong partners. “Citizens from both our countries look towards India-U.S. partnerships with great optimism and hope. The U.S. and India share a partnership that can not only help each other but the entire world to recover, if we were to work together.

JPC retains exemption clause, adopts personal data Bill #GS2 #Governance

A secure nation alone provides the atmosphere which ensures personal liberty and privacy of an individual, the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill, 2019, has argued in its report defending the controversial exemption clause that allows the Government to keep any of its agencies outside the purview of the law. The committee has retained the clause with a minor change.

The report on the PDP Bill was adopted on Monday at the committee meeting in Delhi. The committee has been deliberating on the report since 2019.

Clause 35, in the name of “public order”, “sovereignty”, “friendly relations with foreign states” and “security of the state”, allowed any agency under the Union Government exemption from all or any provisions of the law. Six of the 30 members of the committee have filed dissent notes against the exemption clause. Sources said two more members would be filing a dissent note in the next few days.

Widely debated

This was one of the widely debated clauses in the panel meetings, where the members had argued that “public order” should be removed as a ground for exemption. They had also pressed for “judicial or parliamentary oversight” for granting such exemptions. The members had also suggested that “there should be an order in writing with reasons for exempting a certain agency from the ambit of the Bill”. Some of them had asked that only partial exemption should be given to the agency if needed.

The final report that The Hindu has accessed did not accept any of these suggestions, arguing that there was a need to balance the concerns regarding national security, liberty and privacy of an individual. Conceding that there could be no easy choice between these concerns, the report said, “A secure nation alone provides the atmosphere which ensures personal liberty and privacy of an individual whereas multiple examples exist where without individual liberty and privacy, national security itself gives rise to autocratic regimes.”

The report noted that this clause was for “certain legitimate purposes” and also said there was precedent in the form of the reasonable restrictions imposed upon the liberty of an individual, as guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution and the Puttaswamy judgment. At the same time, the committee expressed concerns with possible misuse. The committee, therefore, said though the State had rightly been empowered to exempt itself from the application of this Act, this power may, however, be used only under exceptional circumstances and subject to conditions as laid out in the Act, the report said.

In one of the longest dissent notes, Congress leader Manish Tiwari rejected the Bill in its present form in entirety for its design flaw. He raised specific objections to 37 clauses. This included an objection to the Government exemption clause of 35. He said the Bill created two parallel universes — one for the private sector where it would apply with full rigour and one for the Government where it was riddled with exemption, carve outs and escape clauses. “A Bill that seeks, therefore, to provide blanket exemptions either in perpetuity or even for a limited period to the ‘state’ and its instrumentalities, in my estimation is ultra vires of the Fundamental Right to privacy as laid down by the nine-judge Bench of the Supreme Court of India in Puttaswamy (2017) judgment,” he said.

‘No adequate safeguards’

In a joint dissent note, Trinamool Congress leaders Derek O’Brien and Mahua Moitra said the Bill did not provide adequate safeguards to protect the right to privacy and gave an overboard exemption to the Government. Clause 35 was open to misuse since it gave unqualified powers to the Government.

Among its key recommendations, the committee pitched for stricter regulations for social media platforms. It recommended that all social media platforms, which did not act as intermediaries, should be treated as publishers and be held accountable for the content they host, and should be held responsible for the content from unverified accounts on their platforms.

It said no social media platform should be allowed to operate unless the parent company handling the technology sets up an office in India and that a statutory media regulatory authority, on the lines of the Press Council of India, may be set up for the regulation of the contents on all such platforms irrespective of the platform where their content is published.

Some of the other recommendations of the committee included development of an alternative indigenous financial system for cross-border payments on the lines of Ripple (U.S.) and INSTEX (European Union).

SC seeks info on ex gratia for COVID victims #GS3 #SnT

The Supreme Court on Monday directed the Centre to “gather information” from the States on the progress made by them in disbursement of the ex gratia compensation of Rs. 50,000 to the kin of those who died of COVID-19.

A Bench of Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and C.T. Ravikumar also sought information on the headway made so far by the States in constituting grievance redressal committees to hear complaints made by the families regarding compensation payment.

Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta said the information would be available on Monday.

The Bench, however, expressed its dissatisfaction with a modified Government resolution (GR) issued by the Gujarat Government on the process of compensation payment.

In the previous hearing, the Bench pulled up Gujarat for “overreaching the directions” of the court by constituting a scrutiny committee to check on the genuineness of the applications made by the victims’ kin for compensation.

The court said the compensation should be automatically paid on the presentation of the death and RT-PCR certificates of the patient. But Justice Shah said the process continued to be complicated. Now, the State has come out with a list of documents to be presented before the scrutiny committee.

Mr. Mehta, who is appearing for Gujarat along with the Centre, sought more time to sit with officials and iron out the issues with them. “I will sit with the responsible officers and take a call on the same. Let me examine this. let me examine…” he observed.

The court gave him time till Monday. It asked the Gujarat Chief Secretary, who was virtually present, to discuss the issue with Mr. Mehta. The court stated that in the meanwhile, the Government should start disbursing compensation to families of victims whose details are already available on the CoWin website.

Gujarat cautioned

It cautioned Gujarat that it would be compelled to appoint Secretary of the Legal Services Authority as ombudsman, as during the Gujarat earthquake, unless the compensation is paid, at least as a starting point, to the families of 10,000 victims.

Domestic workers’ survey kicks off #GS2 #SocialIssues

The first All-India Survey on Domestic Workers was flagged off by Labour and Employment Minister Bhupender Yadav on Monday. The Ministry said the work would be completed in a year.

The survey, being carried out by the Labour Bureau, was aimed at estimating the number of domestic workers at the national and State levels, those engaged in informal employment, and migrant and non-migrant workers; the proportion of domestic workers who stay at their employers’ homes and those who do not; the wages of such workers; and other socio-economic factors, a Ministry statement said.

The survey would also include details of the number of households with “live-in and live-out” domestic workers and the average number of workers engaged by various kinds of households, it said.

Questionnaire given out

The questionnaire, which was released by Mr. Yadav at Monday’s function, would include details about the size of the household, religion, social group, monthly consumption expenditure and the nature of the dwelling unit. Information about the domestic workers, including their age, social group, migrant status, duration of work and type of remuneration, would be collected as well, the Ministry noted.

The impact of COVID-19 on wages would be a part of the survey in the States and Union Territories, covering 1.5 lakh households in 742 districts. The result was expected within one year.

Addressing the virtual launch, Mr. Yadav said this was a first such survey in Independent India, which showed the “commitment of the Government towards evidence-based, data-driven policy”. Though domestic workers were a significant part of the total informal sector employment, there was a lack of data on the employment conditions.

China doesn’t seek hegemony, says Xi #GS2 #IR

Chinese leader Xi Jinping on Monday said his country will not seek dominance over Southeast Asia or bully its smaller neighbours, amid ongoing friction over the South China Sea.

Mr. Xi made the remarks during a virtual conference with the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, held to mark the 30th anniversary of relations between China and the grouping.

Two diplomats said ASEAN member Myanmar was not represented at Monday’s meeting after its military-installed Government refused to allow an ASEAN envoy to meet with ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and other arrested politicians. Military ruler Gen. Min Aung Hlaing was also barred from representing his country at the last ASEAN summit.

China has repeatedly sought to overcome concerns about its rising power and influence in the region, particularly its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea that overlaps the claims of ASEAN members Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines.

“China resolutely opposes hegemonism and power politics, wishes to maintain friendly relations with its neighbours and jointly nurture lasting peace in the region and absolutely will not seek hegemony or even less, bully the small,” Mr. Xi said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Mr. Xi’s remarks came days after Chinese coast guard ships blocked and sprayed a powerful stream of water at two Philippine boats carrying supplies to troops at a disputed South China Sea shoal and forced them to turn back.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte highlighted the incident in his remarks at the conference, referring to the shoal by its Philippine name.

“We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments. This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership,” Mr. Duterte said, according to a statement from his office.

Mr. Duterte also called on China to respect the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea which establishes maritime entitlements and sovereign rights over maritime zones, along with a 2016 Hague arbitration ruling that mostly invalidated China’s South China Sea claims. China has refused to recognize the ruling.

“We must fully utilise these legal tools to ensure that the South China Sea remains a sea of peace, stability and prosperity,” Mr. Duterte said.

On Monday, the Philippines redeployed the two supply boats to provide food to the marines based at Second Thomas Shoal aboard a Second World War-era warship which it deliberately ran aground in 1999 in a move to fortify the country’s claim. Chinese vessels have surrounded the shoal and demanded the Philippines tow away the ship, the BRP Sierra Madre .

At a daily briefing on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian reasserted China’s position rejecting the 2016 arbitration ruling and claiming that its “territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea are backed by sufficient historical and legal basis.”

“Any attempt to challenge China’s sovereignty and interests will not succeed,” Mr. Zhao said. “At present, the situation in relevant waters in the South China Sea are generally calm, and China and the Philippines are maintaining close communication.”

Centre allows exporters time till Jan. 31 on origin e-certificate #GS3 #Economy

The Centre has suspended till January 31 a mandatory obligation imposed on exporters from November 1 to obtain online Certificates of Origin (CoO) for every outbound consignment, days after The Hindu reported businesses were facing severe operational challenges in complying with the diktat.

The online CoO system, put in place in late 2019 for exports to countries with whom India had a preferential trade pact, was expanded to cover all merchandise exports from November through a trade notice issued on October 18.

In a fresh notice last Monday, the Department of Commerce said that ‘the transition period for mandatory filing of applications for Non-Preferential Certificate of Origin through the e-CoO platform had been extended’ till January 31.

“The existing systems for submitting and processing non-preferential CoO applications in manual/paper mode is being allowed for the stated time period and the online system is not being made mandatory,” the department clarified.

Several exporters across States had reported difficulties in registering on the e-CoO platform on the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) portal with the stipulated high-quality digital signature certificates and obtaining the certificates for their shipments. The department, which oversees DGFT, has now requested exporters to register onto the platform at the earliest.

Earlier this month, when the online certificates were mandatory, the department had downplayed exporters’ concerns and said the move was aimed at improving the ease of doing business.

Industry bodies had noted that intermediaries had not been able to upload exporters’ data, as the DGFT had not shared the API.