Current Affairs 11th November

Union Cabinet brings back MPLAD Scheme #GS2 #Governance

Citing economic recovery, the Union Cabinet on Wednesday restored the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) that was suspended in April 2020 subsuming the funds for the scheme in the consolidated fund of India.

The scheme was suspended for two financial years (2020-21 and 2021-22) but the Government on Wednesday announced a partial rollback. The MPs will get Rs. 2 crore instead of the annual approved Rs. 5 crore.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur said, “I am happy to state that since we are on the road to economic recovery, with many sectors reporting a positive growth, the Union Cabinet has decided to restore the MPLAD Scheme for the remaining part of the financial year 2021-22.”

When the suspension was announced last year, the Government had claimed that Rs. 8,000 crore that would have otherwise been spent under the scheme will go to the consolidated fund of India and will be used for fighting the pandemic.

Opposition leaders pointed out that the Government so far has not given a record of how it spent the savings from suspending the scheme for a year.

DMK’s Rajya Sabha member P. Wilson pointed out that the Centre, by way of suspending the MPLAD Scheme, withheld funds for the States during the peak of pandemic when they were battling with financial strain themselves. Senior RJD leader Manoj K. Jha said the Government should come up with a detailed account of how it used the money saved by suspension of MPLAD funds.

NSA meet seeks urgent help for Afghans #GS2 #IR

The Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan held here on Wednesday called for “urgent humanitarian assistance” to the Afghan people. The call was given in the meeting chaired by the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, who urged close cooperation and consultation among the regional countries over the Afghan scenario. Russian representative Nikolai P. Patrushev said multiple dialogue mechanisms “should not complicate” the unfolding situation in the Taliban controlled Afghanistan.

A joint statement titled the ‘Delhi Declaration’ issued after the meeting called for “collective cooperation” against terrorism and drug trafficking in the region and “expressed concern over the deteriorating socio-economic and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and underlined the need to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan”.

The statement emphasised that the aid should be provided in an “unimpeded, direct and assured manner” and that the help should be distributed across the country in a “non-discriminatory manner across all sections of the Afghan society”.

New online certification system puts exporters in a fix #GS3 #Economy

After crossing $30 billion for seven successive months, India’s merchandise exports have hit a home-grown stumbling block in the first 10 days of this month — a new system mandating online issuance of Certificates of Origin (CoO) for every outbound consignment from November 1 that has put exporters in a tizzy.

Several small exporters are facing challenges in registering on to the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) portal which requires high-quality digital signature certificates, with many reporting outages on the portal that was earlier used only to issue CoOs for shipments to countries with whom India had a preferential trade pact.

“For the last four days, we have been trying to register on the platform and get a CoO issued for a consignment,” said a Mumbai-based exporter, adding that the process used to take much less time earlier. “This used to take an hour earlier through the State’s industry chamber and other agencies that were allowed to issue certificates,” he said. The Government said the move was to improve the ease of doing business in line with its ‘Digital India’ focus, but industry bodies from several States have flagged concerns with its implementation.

The Government said the move was to improve the ease of doing business in line with its “Digital India” focus, but industry bodies from several States have flagged concerns with its implementation. Most critically, existing export facilitation intermediaries such as customs house agents (CHAs), who handle most of the export paperwork, have not been able to share data on exporters’ behalf, as the DGFT has not shared the API (Application Programming Interface) for the new system.

“For CoWin and Aadhaar, we have an API-sharing system so that information can be shared. Unfortunately, this facility is not there and we have flagged the issue but there hasn’t been a favourable response,” said an industry representative. The Commerce and Industry Ministry which oversees the DGFT, entrusted with formulating and implementing the foreign trade policy, told The Hindu that the online CoO portal had a simple registration process and its design allowed the principal user or the exporter to provide access rights to the other secondary users such as the CHAs.

The Ministry did not respond to a query on whether API-sharing is being considered, but said 85 agencies were “now enabled on the portal”. On hardships faced by exporters in registering to the online system, it said, “No problem has been reported on this account based on our experience with the preferential exporting community.” “ Many exporters are facing issues and we have sent emails to the DGFT and called on their call centre, but to no avail,” countered an exporter, adding that the problem is particularly acute for micro, small and medium exporters in smaller towns.

Separate payments

Even larger exporters, with multiple shipments heading out at a time, are facing challenges due to a norm that stipulates separate payments for each certificate issued. “Issues relating to bulk fee payment, etc. are areas which can be looked at in a phased manner based on the extent of interest shown by various users,” the Ministry said.

The Federation of Indian Exporters’ Organisations said that while the new digital portal was a step in the right direction that would address a number of concerns of exporters and importing countries, teething challenges needed attention and permitting API integration would facilitate faster on-boarding of the exporting community into the new system.

Over seven lakh preferential CoOs have been issued from the online DGFT portal since its launch in September 2019, the Ministry said. With all merchandise exporters now required to use the same platform, the volumes to be handled by the portal have gone up. Asked if the portal’s capacity has been enhanced accordingly, the Ministry said the portal had scalability and was hosted on a cloud server.

“All IT systems being dynamic in nature, can be tweaked to accommodate the larger concerns of a majority of users based on the exporter feedback. In fact, a number of changes were implemented recently in October 2021 based on the exporter feedback and user experience of authorised agencies,” it said.

Nashik-based Santosh Mandlecha, president of the Maharashtra Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, told The Hindu that exporters, including those dealing with perishable farm produce consignments, had been facing challenges since November 1 for myriad reasons, including difficulties in registering their digital signatures on the DGFT portal.

“The online certificates are a good idea but the Government must consider allowing both offline certificates and online certificates till the on-boarding challenges are resolved. We have been taking this up with the Ministry for a few months now,” said Mr. Santosh Mandlecha.

India’s first fishing cat collaring project to begin in Coringa #GS3 #Environment

Conservation biologists of the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, will begin collaring 10 fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus ) in the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) in Andhra Pradesh next week. The country’s first such project will be led by Bilal Habib.

In Asia, a similar project had been done in Bangladesh. The project that was planned in 2020 had to be postponed due to the spread of COVID-19. The State Forest Department had already released Rs. 45 lakh of the Rs. 75 lakh total project cost being entirely funded by the Vedanta group. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had also permitted the the project.

“Our team of researchers will begin the fishing cat collaring project next week in the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary. The project begins with enumerating the fishing cat in the sanctuary before selecting the animals for collaring,” Dr. Bilal Habib, the principal investigator, told The Hindu over phone on Wednesday.

“The project involves the fishing cat estimate and collaring, and how it survives in the sanctuary,” Dr. Bilal Habib said. “The three-year project will also study its habitat, feeding habits, threats, and movements,” he added. The census conducted in 2018 had recorded the existence of 115 fishing cats. A significant portion of the Coringa mangrove ecosystem had recently been disturbed because of the clandestine manufacturing of ID liquor in the Godavari estuary.

There is, however, no scientific study on the impact of the illegal activity on wildlife in general and the fishing cat in particular. The sanctuary spreads above 235.7 square km. In October, 177 square km area surrounding the sanctuary was declared as eco-sensitive zone. “The collars to be used in the project are imported,” C. Selvam, Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife), Rajahmundry, said.

Breeding centre

“According to a senior official, who was earlier associated with the project, the research will offer more scientific clues on the species and facilitate the setting up of a national-level breeding centre for fishing cat,” Mr. Selvam said. The Coringa sanctuary is yet to be declared as a Ramsar site, despite facing various threats to its ecology.

Armed forces need to be ready for any contingency: Rajnath #GS2 #Governance

Referring to the “volatile situation” on the borders, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Wednesday told the IAF brass that the armed forces must be prepared to respond at “short notice for any contingency” while IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal (ACM) V.R. Chaudhari emphasised on development of multi-domain capability to give a “swift and befitting response” to any misadventures by adversaries.

“The role of IAF in conflicts is crucial and it needs to harness the capabilities and opportunities offered by AI, Big Data Handling and Machine Learning,” Mr. Singh said at the second bi-annual IAF Commanders’ Conference being held from November 10 to 12.

“The efforts in the field of indigenisation through Make in India initiative are showing results and the orders of LCA Mk 1A and C-295 will open new opportunities in the indigenous aerospace sector.” On the process of theaterisation of the armed forces, Mr. Singh said enhancing jointness is essential and the structure should be evolved after closely examining options.

Prepared for challenges

According to the Defence Ministry, inputs from all stakeholders would be taken into consideration. Complimenting the commanders for maintaining a high state of readiness despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, ACM Chaudhari emphasised on joint training with the Army and Navy for synergised application of combat power.

The commanders will brainstorm on situations which may affect national security and focus on measures to enhance operational capability, the statement said.

“Uncertainty in the geo-political landscape makes it an imperative for the armed forces to train, equip and adapt to rapid changes.” Issues pertaining to strengthening training and optimising HR policies for effective utilisation of manpower will also be discussed.

Centre approves incentives for sugar cane, cotton, jute farmers #GS3 #Economy

In the run-up to the first anniversary of protests against three farm reform laws, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) has approved a slew of measures that will support farmers growing sugar cane, cotton and jute.

At a meeting on Wednesday, the CCEA increased the price of ethanol extracted from sugar cane juice for blending in petrol to Rs. 63.45 a litre in the coming sugar marketing season starting December. This is an 80 paise hike from the previous year’s. The rate for ethanol extracted from C-heavy molasses has been increased by 97 paise a litre, while that of ethanol extracted from B-heavy molasses is up Rs. 1.47 as well.

Ethanol blending with petrol is expected to reach 10% next year and 20% by 2025. Oil marketing companies buy ethanol from sugar mills and distilleries at the rate set by the Government. By reducing the sugar surplus and increasing mills’ liquidity, the rate hike is expected to reduce their pending arrears in payment to sugar cane farmers. Cane growers make up a sizeable chunk of protesters from western Uttar Pradesh and could also be critical voters in the State’s coming Assembly election.

The ethanol blending programme also reduced the dependence on crude oil imports, said an official statement.

Price support to CCI

The CCEA also approved a committed price support of Rs. 17,408.85 crore to the Cotton Corporation of India (CCI) as reimbursement for its losses in procuring crops from farmers at minimum support prices (MSP) over the past seven years.

“In order to safeguard the interests of the cotton farmers, it was expedient to conduct price support operations in cotton years 2014-15 to 2020-21 as prices touched the MSP. Price support operations help stabilise the prices and alleviate farmer’s distress,” said the statement, adding that around 58 lakh farmers and more than 400 people engaged in processing and trade were dependent on cotton for their livelihood.

The CCI is mandated to procure all Fair Average Quality grade cotton from farmers without any quantitative ceiling, as and when prices follow below the MSP rates set by the Centre, in a bid to protect farmers from distress sales. Over the last two seasons during the pandemic, the CCI procured a third of the country’s cotton production, paying 40 lakh farmers more than Rs. 55,000 crore.

Jute in packaging

The CCEA approved reservation norms for the mandatory use of jute in packaging this year, stipulating that 100% of foodgrains and 20% of sugar must compulsorily be packed in jute bags. Such reservation consumed two-thirds of the total raw jute production last year. As the Centre itself purchases jute sacking bags worth approximately Rs. 8,000 crore a year to pack grains, it also ensures a guaranteed market for the produce of 40 lakh jute farmers, mostly in eastern India, and supports 3.7 lakh jute mill workers, largely in West Bengal.

India, U.S. monitoring defence trade projects #GS2 #IR

As part of efforts for co-production and co-development of defence equipment under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), India and the U.S. agreed on a revised Statement of Intent (SOI) to strengthen the dialogue by “pursuing detailed planning and making measurable progress” on several specific projects, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said on Wednesday.

The agreement was made at the 11th DTTI group meeting held virtually on Tuesday. It was co-chaired by Secretary (Defence Production) Raj Kumar and Gregory Kausner, performing the duties of Under-Secretary of Defence for Acquisition and Sustainment from the U.S. Department of Defence. The meetings are normally held twice a year, alternating between India and the U.S. However, this meeting was held via videoconferencing consecutively for the second time on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, a MoD statement said.

The aim of the group was to bring sustained leadership focus to the bilateral defence trade relationship and create opportunities for co-production and co-development of defence equipment, the statement noted. Four Joint Working Groups focused on land, naval, air and aircraft carrier technologies had been established under the DTTI to promote mutually agreed projects.

“The groups reported to the co-chairs on ongoing activities and collaborative opportunities, including a number of near-term projects targeted for completion on priority,” the MoD stated.

The two sides recently signed the first project agreement for Air-Launched Unmanned Aerial Vehicle under the Joint Working Group Air Systems. A virtual expo of the Defence Industry Collaboration Forum was also conducted on Monday. This forum offers an opportunity for Indian and U.S. industries to be directly involved in DTTI and facilitates dialogue between government and industry on issues that impact industrial collaboration,” the statement added.

Balance security, green concerns: SC #GS3 #Environment

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said a balance between defence and environmental concerns is a better goal to achieve rather than to pit one interest against the other. The court was hearing a plea against the environmental clearance given to widen the Char Dham roads by felling trees. These Himalayan roads are crucial to the defence preparedness along the Indo-China border, the Government said.

“There is no defence versus environment… What you do for the defence is not contrary to the civilian needs or environmental needs,” Justice D.Y. Chandrachud observed during the hearing. The court is mulling on the extent to which it could intervene on environmental grounds when the defence of the nation is at stake in the light of the recent skirmishes on the border with China.

“We cannot deny the fact that at such a height, the security of the nation is at stake. Can the highest constitutional court say we will override the defence needs particularly in the face of recent events? Can we say environment will triumph over the defence of the nation? Or we say defence concerns be taken care of so that environmental degradation does not take place,” Justice Chandrachud had asked senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, appearing for an NGO, Citizens for Green Doon, on Tuesday.

The court had said it was facing a serious predicament when the Government is citing defence needs for the widening of the feeder roads. Attorney General K.K. Venugopal said the roads need to be widened for transport of heavy military equipment like missile launchers and even tanks.

“The Forces have to take heavy vehicles, tanks, self-propelled artillery and troops to the Indo-China border… It is the specific need of the armed forces to defend the country against any possible external aggression at the northern border,” the government affidavit had said.

It had said bottlenecks would delay deployment in emergency situations if feeder roads are not developed to requisite standards. The Army has been using these roads post the war with China in 1962.

Voices on Capitol Hill back CAATSA sanctions waiver for India #GS2 #IR

The Chairman of the powerful U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), Gregory Meeks (Democrat), has encouraged the Biden administration to consider a waiver of sanctions for India for the purchase of the Russian S-400 Triumf missile defence system, which New Delhi is expected to take delivery of by the end of this year.

“I’d encourage the administration’s consideration of a waiver for India. Taking a long view, the potential of our long-term strategic partnership with India, and its positive impact on our own security interests, certainly outweighs any kind of benefit from sanctioning India because of its purchase of the S400,” Mr. Meeks told The Hindu recently in an email sent through his communications team. The Hindu had approached his office asking where HFAC and Mr. Meek’s stood on the issue.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the U.S. Congress have, in recent weeks, urged President Joe Biden to waive sanctions on India under a 2017 U.S. law, the Countering Americas Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

The President is required to impose sanctions on entities doing business with the intelligence or defence divisions of the Russian government under Section 231 of CAATSA. However, Congress also gave the President the authority to “waive the initial application of sanctions” under certain conditions.

While the Biden administration has not articulated its position on CAATSA publicly yet, and declined to provide comments for this story, it is understood to be deliberating on questions such as whom specifically to sanction and at what point in the process sanctions kick in.

The President’s National Security Council (NSC) declined to comment on the White House’s position to an October 26 letter from Senators John Cornyn (Republican) and Mark Warner (Democrat), co-chairs of the Senate India Caucus, asking Mr. Biden to waive sanctions on India.

The Hindu also reached out to the Pentagon and three State Department bureaus which provide input into this decision: South and Central Asia (SCA), International Security and Non-proliferation (ISN), and the Bureau of Political Military Affairs (PM) to discuss where they stood in the CAATSA sanctions process. They declined to comment. It is no accident that the executive has uniformly put off articulating a position on this highly sensitive issue before it needs to show its cards.

Strategic Partnership

The U.S.-India ‘Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership’ is expanding and strengthening, including in its security aspects. Apart from the investments both countries are making in the partnership for its own sake, India is also a key element of the U.S’s overall strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Imposing sanctions and talking about them with India is therefore a delicate and awkward matter, and timing counts for a lot.

“My guess is that the administration is withholding a judgment on CAATSA as long as they can, and at least until after the 2+2 meeting in December, perhaps to see what deliverables come out of it. You certainly wouldn’t announce sanctions on India before the 2+2,” said Sameer Lalwani, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington DC-based think tank.

The ‘2+2’ is a dialogue between the two countries’ Foreign and Defence Ministers.

“The administration is looking for India to produce a mitigation strategy that reassures them that once India gets the S-400 system, it will not have an adverse effect on any other U.S. supplied system that India may also operate concurrently,” said Ashley Tellis, a former adviser to the George W. Bush administration and U.S. foreign and security policy expert with the Carnegie Endowment.

“And so that mitigation strategy is what the administration started discussing with India several months ago. My understanding is that that process is still underway,” he said.

Another factor that repeatedly came up during conversations The Hindu had with experts in Washington is that those who work in national security as it relates to Russia might be in favour of sanctions if they believe the benefits of containing Moscow outweigh the costs of sanctioning New Delhi.

Then there is the fact that India is vital to the U.S.’s interests in the Indo-Pacific.

“One thing that plays in India’s favour is that its importance to the United States as part of its own overall China strategy has increased dramatically, I would say, in the last year to two years,” said Lisa Curtis, who was Senior Director for South and Central Asia in former President Donald Trump’s National Security Council.

Bipartisan support

Additionally, the administration is also keeping an eye on what Congress is thinking. Bipartisan support for a waiver, especially from Republicans, Ms. Curtis said, will make it “a lot easier” when it comes to considering a waiver.

Three Republican Senators, led by Ted Cruz, had introduced legislation, last week, to make it harder for the administration to impose sanctions on a member of the Quad — i.e., India, Japan or Australia. However, the Cruz-led amendment was time bound, and India would be expected to “deepen ties with the Quad” and not keep shopping for weapons in Moscow in about 10 years’ time, a Senate Republican aide had told The Hindu .

As far as Congress is concerned, it is not just Republicans whose support is important to this Democratic administration. The Senate is tied 50:50 with Vice President Kamala Harris holding a tie-breaking vote. Mr. Biden cannot afford to alienate a single Senate Democrat on the CAATSA waiver, as he needs every vote to carry forward his domestic agenda.

“So, even if they have decided on a waiver, why stoke the flames? They have constituencies in Congress, including Senator [Bob] Menendez, that they don’t want to irritate unnecessarily by saying to India: ‘Don’t worry, you’re going to get a waiver’,” said Jeff Smith, a South Asia specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Mr. Menendez, who is the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to raise the S-400 issue with New Delhi on a trip to India in March this year. His office did not respond to multiple requests from The Hindu for a comment on his current position on a CAATSA waiver for India.

The administration also does not want to give “the wrong impression to Turkey or other countries that CAATSA is no big deal and waivers are easy to come by,” Mr. Smith said.

Jobs, demand, credit growth to kick-start investment cycle #GS3 #Economy

India’s economy is set for an accelerated uptick in job creation and demand, backed by strong prospects of a revival in investment, a surge in bank credit and easing of inflation pressures, the Ministry of Finance said on Wednesday.

“Armed with necessary macro and micro growth drivers, the stage is set for India’s investment cycle to kick-start and catalyse its recovery towards becoming the fastest growing economy,” it stated in its review of the economy for October.

With the progress of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign and festival season activity lending renewed optimism to the ongoing economic recovery, “further demand stimulation, fuller restoration of supply chains, narrowing of demand-supply mismatches and greater employment generation are in the offing,” the Department of Economic Affairs added in the monthly review.

Forecasting ‘a strong possibility’ of faster credit growth, it noted that bank credit had been buoyant in September with ‘healthy credit penetration in labour-intensive sectors’ that augured well for job creation.

“In addition, high growth in personal loans and loans for consumer durables track an uptick in consumer spending in the festive season,” it pointed out.

Inflation outlook

Flagging hardening input costs and ‘ripple effects of escalating global crude oil prices’ as concerns, the Economic Affairs department said such concerns were, however, not yet embedded in ‘self-fulfilling inflationary expectations’ as seen in the RBI’s inflation survey.

“Further, the recent cut in central excise duty on petrol and diesel prices is expected to soften inflationary pressures exerted by rising crude oil prices,” it emphasised.