Current Affairs 14th November

Govt. under pressure to revisit ‘travel bubble’ policy #GS2 #IR

With airfares for returning students and families from Europe and North America doubling and even quadrupling this winter, and permitted flights from a limited 28 countries running packed, the Union Government is facing pressure from many quarters, including foreign embassies and the tourism industry, to restore regular international flights. These flights had been cancelled due to the COVID pandemic in March 2020.

Diplomatic sources told The Hindu that a number of embassies have written to the Ministry of External Affairs and Ministry of Civil Aviation demanding an end to what they see as an “unfair” system, where only those countries that the government has chosen to sign “air travel bubble” agreements with are able to run flights, and even those are limited by the Government’s reciprocal agreements.

Further the agreements are meant to be only “end to end”, i.e. not valid for onward travel to a third country, meaning that travellers often have to break their journeys at multiple points to travel to a destination to which India doesn’t permit a direct flight. At a recent event in the capital, Minister of Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia faced several questions from ambassadors and high commissioners on the issue, and was “besieged” by requests to normalise flights to pre-COVID levels, according to attendees.

“There is a general feeling that air bubbles have dragged on for far too long. International flights could reopen in December-January. The thinking in the government has changed recently as COVID cases are on the wane,” one official told The Hindu , conceding that the government is now feeling the pressure to reconsider its policy.

With nearly 100 countries now accepting Indians vaccinated with WHO-approved Covishield and Covaxin, travel agents and airlines are also asking why India is not rationalising flights, even suggesting that the government is holding out for renegotiating its air service agreements. “The so-called bubbles, I don’t really think are driven by COVID.

Because we’ve heard of the desire on the part of the Indian Government to renegotiate their air service agreements. I think COVID is being used to mask a different issue,” International Air Transport Association (IATA) President Willie Walsh said at a press conference in Geneva earlier this month. The Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to requests for a comment on the allegations.

However, The Hindu spoke to a number of officials who accepted that the issue over air travel bubbles was growing, especially as more travellers seek to visit India from countries that used to fly directly to India, but aren’t at present. This has particularly hit European countries.

Switzerland, for example, had approached the government to restart direct flights of the Swiss International Airlines in February 2021, but no permissions have come through yet. A Chennai-Zurich ticket could now cost a traveller a whopping Rs. 2.75 lakhs. Flights from the U.S. and Canada can cost more than Rs. 1lakh one-way, while some European passengers have to break journey in two places to travel to India.

Turkish Airlines, one of the more popular airlines with more than 200 flights to 90 countries, has had no flights to India for 20 months, and the Polish airline LOT, that inaugurated its first flight in September 2019, has not been able to run flights since March 2020 despite several reminders from embassies.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/govt-urged-to-rethink-travel-bubble-policy/article37483043.ece

Glasgow summit runs into extra time #GS2 #IR

Government negotiators from nearly 200 countries have adopted a new deal on climate action after a last-minute intervention by India to water down the language on cutting emissions from coal. Several countries including small island states said they were deeply disappointed by the move to “phase down,” rather than “phase out” coal power, the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

A tearful COP26 president Alok Sharma closed the UN climate summit as the deal came despite a last-gasp hitch from China and India seeking to water down language on fossil fuels in the summit’s text. An emotional Mr. Sharma told delegates: “I apologise for the way this process has unfolded. I am deeply sorry.”

At the 26th edition of the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) at Glasgow, Scotland, talks extended into Saturday after the meeting was formally scheduled to end on Friday.

The summit ended when an agreement, or more specifically a cover text of the agreement, issued by the COP Secretariat led by Mr. Sharma, was agreed upon by all members. The latest version of the draft agreement was issued at 8 a.m., local time, on Saturday. Later versions of the draft differed only subtly from previous versions, with a line dropped out, a word added in, a verb modified.

India intervened to state that it was not very happy with the text, especially on sections that suggested the phasing out of subsidies for coal. “I’m afraid consensus remains elusive…It is known that some countries have achieved wealth and prosperity from fossil fuels….targeting any particular sector is uncalled for. Every country will achieve net zero as per their own circumstances. Developing countries have a right to their fair share of the global carbon space,” said Environment Minister, Bhupender Yadav.

A key demand from several island nations and countries in the African Union had been the establishment of a “Glasgow Facility” that would provide money to countries already suffering from the impacts of climate change. This money would be part of an “adaptation fund” to be financed by developed countries.

Developed countries had committed to providing $100 billion annually by 2020. This was a clause enshrined in 2009 but none of it has actually made its way to developing countries and continues to be a major bone of contention.

India has said that it will take on targets of achieving net zero by 2070 or shifting quicker to renewable energy sources by 2030, if money is coming. The draft exhorted developed countries to double collective adaptation finance from 2019 levels by 2025 and to scale up greenhouse gas emission cuts that ought to be announced latest by next year. India has demanded one trillion dollars over the next decade from developed countries to mitigate the challenges from warming, and has made this a condition for delivering on its commitments.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/glasgow-summit-runs-into-extra-time/article37482941.ece

Stop misleading ads on crypto: Govt. #GS3 #Economy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi chaired a meeting to consider the regulatory prospects for cryptocurrencies with the top brass of the Reserve Bank of India and the Ministries of Home Affairs and Finance, where a strong consensus was reached to stop ‘attempts to mislead the youth through over-promising & non-transparent advertising’.

Noting that unregulated crypto markets cannot be allowed to become avenues for money laundering and terror financing, the PM and other attendees concluded that a close watch and pro-active steps are necessary for the sector, senior Government sources said.

“There was consensus also that the steps taken in this field by the Government will be progressive and forward-looking,” a source said, stressing that the Government will continue to pro-actively engage with experts and other stakeholders.

Collective strategies

“Since the issue cuts across individual countries’ borders, it was felt that it will also require global partnerships and collective strategies,” the source added. The PM-steered meeting comes ahead of a Parliamentary committee hearing on Monday, November 15, with industry experts on the challenges and opportunities that cryptocurrencies throw up.

Tight-lipped

The Finance Ministry has been tight-lipped on the progress of a Cryptocurrency Bill which had been readied for the Union Cabinet’s approval as far back as August, as per earlier statements by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

The Bill is now expected to be tabled in the winter session of Parliament that begins on November 29. On Friday, the Ministry’s top brass shied away from queries about who would be held responsible if investors betting on crypto-assets were to make heavy losses.

With advertisements for cryptocurrency exchanges and trading on their platforms proliferating across the country, particularly during the recent cricket events, the Government has been expected to bring in some regulatory framework to rein them in and ensure investors don’t lose their savings.

In the absence of a clear regulatory framework, even as several investors, especially the youth, have been betting on cryptocurrencies for seemingly easy returns, there’s still uncertainty on the Government’s treatment for the same. While the Supreme Court has lifted the ban on trading of cryptocurrencies imposed by the central bank, the RBI continues to have concerns over them.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/stop-misleading-ads-on-crypto-govt/article37482947.ece

U.S. lawmakers meet Modi ahead of S400 delivery #GS2 #IR

Ahead of the expected year-end delivery of the sophisticated Russian S400 surface-to-air missile defence system, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with a high-power U.S. Congressional delegation here on Saturday.

The Russian missile system will increase India’s chances of coming under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) but official statements issued after Saturday’s meeting avoided mention of the matter. A statement from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said the delegation led by Senator John Cornyn discussed issues related to the developments in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.

“Prime Minister appreciated the consistent support of the U.S. Congress in deepening the India-U.S. strategic partnership ,” stated a press release that was issued by the MEA after the meeting.

Following the meeting Senator Cornyn, who is the co-founder and co-Chair of the Senate caucus on India and Indian-Americans, said that both sides discussed “pandemic and supply chain stability.” The meeting with Mr Modi took place a day after External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar hosted the delegation and discussed Afghanistan.

Though official statements on both occasions chose to avoid mention of the Russian missile system, three Republican Senators have already moved a bill to exempt India from possible CAATSA sanctions for taking the delivery of the S400 missile system. The visiting Congressional delegation however conveyed a positive outlook of India-U.S. relationship.

“Prime Minister and the visiting delegation noted the increasing convergence of strategic interests between the two strategic partners and expressed desire to further enhance cooperation with an aim to promote global peace and stability.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/us-lawmakers-meet-modi-ahead-of-s400-delivery/article37482944.ece

Local bodies receive funds for healthcare #GS3 #Economy

The Department of Expenditure, Ministry of Finance, has released an amount of Rs. 8,453.92 crore as health sector grant for rural and urban local bodies of 19 States, including Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Chhattisgarh, according to a release issued by the Union Government on Saturday.

The grants have been released as per the recommendations of the Fifteenth Finance Commission.

The commission, in its report for the period from 2021-22 to 2025-26, had recommended a total grant of Rs. 4,27,911 crore to local governments. The grants recommended by the commission inter alia include health grants of Rs. 70,051 crore. Of this amount, Rs. 43,928 crore has been recommended for rural local bodies and Rs. 26,123 crore for urban local bodies.

These grants are meant to strengthen healthcare systems and plug critical gaps at the primary healthcare level.

The commission has also identified interventions that will directly lead to strengthening the primary health infrastructure and facilities in both rural and urban areas and earmarked grants for each intervention.

These interventions include support for diagnostic infrastructure to the primary healthcare facilities in rural areas (Rs. 16,377 crore), block-level public health units in rural areas (Rs. 5,279 crore), construction of buildings at sub centres, PHCs, CHCs in rural areas (Rs. 7,167 crore), among others.

The release said that the health grants recommended to be released in the financial year 2021-22 total Rs. 13,192 crore and includes Rs. 8,273 crore for rural and Rs. 4,919 crore for urban local bodies.

“Rural and urban local bodies can play a key role in the delivery of primary healthcare services, especially at the ‘cutting-edge’ level and help in achieving the objective of universal healthcare. Strengthening the local governments in terms of resources, health infrastructure and capacity building can enable them to play a catalytic role in epidemics and pandemics too,” said the release.

Health grants to the remaining nine States will be released after proposals are received from them through the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/local-bodies-receive-funds-for-healthcare/article37482973.ece

Zika virus outbreaks, an opportunity to improve healthcare in India #GS3 #SnT

Viruses are ubiquitous, most are innocuous and some, such as SARS CoV-2, turn out to be pernicious. Zika virus, first detected in rhesus monkeys in the Zika forest in Uganda in 1947 and then identified in humans after a few years, appears to be re-positioning itself. For the first 60 years after detection, only 14 human cases had been reported, from Asia and Tropical Africa.

The first ever outbreak of Zika virus was reported in 2007 in the island of Yap (a federated state in Micronesia) in the Pacific. Zika virus received global attention with the start of a major outbreak in Brazil in March 2015, which then spread to many countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean. The outbreak was associated with higher incidences of microcephaly (a condition which results in a small brain in the fetus) as well as the increased neurological symptoms such as Guillain-Barré syndrome and neuropathies in adults and children infected with the virus.

On February 1, 2016, Zika virus outbreak was designated a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) by the World Health Organization (a classification a step before a disease is declared as pandemic). Between 2015 and 2017, nearly 550,000 suspected and 175,000 confirmed Zika virus cases were reported, which included nearly 2,700 cases of microcephaly in Brazil alone. The outbreak had subsided by mid-2017; however, by late 2019, the Zika virus has been reported from at least 87 countries across the world.

The earliest evidence of Zika virus in India is in 1952-1953. The prevalence studies conducted by the National Institute of Virology, Pune, in different parts of India, had detected the antibodies against the Zika virus from humans.

Zika in India

The first two outbreaks of Zika virus infections in India were reported in 2017. This included three human cases from Ahmedabad, Gujarat (January-February, 2017) and one case from Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu (July 2017). There were two more outbreaks in 2018 from Madhya Pradesh (130 cases) and Rajasthan (159 cases). In 2021, at least three Zika virus outbreaks have been reported. In Kerala (at least 89 cases) and then in Maharashtra (Around 12 cases), both in July, and most recently from Uttar Pradesh in October-November, 2021 (nearly 110 confirmed cases till now).

Zika virus is primarily a mosquito-borne illness, transmitted by the Aedes mosquitoes (which transmit chikungunya and dengue). However, Zika virus is transmitted from infected mother to fetus during pregnancy, through blood and other body floods and organ translation as well as sexual contact. Most people do not develop any symptoms; however, a few may develop fever, rashes, redness in eye, muscle and joint pain, headache, and generalised fatigue.

It is a mild illness for all age groups except for the pregnant women, whose fetus may develop congenital malformation, especially abnormal brain development, microcephaly and other related neurological outcomes.

The symptoms are very similar to other common viral illnesses. Infection is suspected if there is ongoing Zika virus transmission in the area, travel history or contact history with a confirmed case. The laboratory confirmation is done from blood or urine samples.

There is no licensed vaccine to prevent disease and no specific treatment available. People are advised to take rest, eat well and drink plenty of fluids.

Need to step up

The current reports of Zika virus outbreaks are not a matter of immediate concern for citizens in India. However, knowing that the vector for Zika virus, the Aedes mosquito is present in all States of India, there is a need for stepping up preventive and public health measures. India should use the recent disease outbreaks as an opportunity to strengthen the disease surveillance system and health data recording and reporting systems in the country. The laboratory capacity for COVID-19, developed in the last 18 months, needs to be optimally used to conduct testing for other emerging infections.

One of the key considerations is that the outbreak which had started in Brazil in 2015 was caused by a new variant of Zika virus, termed as American lineage. Though originated from South Asian lineage, it has crucial mutation S139N, attributed to higher incidences of microcephaly and other neurological conditions.

All previous outbreaks in India have been due to South-East Asian lineage and no case of microcephaly has been reported from the country. However, there is a need for a systematic surveillance of evolutionary trends in Zika virus, which can be built upon newly developed genetic sequencing capacity for SARS CoV2.

Considering most Indian states have reported Zika virus for the first time, there is a need for enhanced surveillance and equipping laboratories with testing kits for Zika virus. In areas where cases are reported, active case findings and surveillance and mosquito control measures (elimination of breeding sites and the public awareness campaigns, especially for specially for pregnant women should be prioritised. It is also the time to ensure coordinated actions between the State government and municipal corporation to develop joint action plans against vector borne diseases and share responsibilities for public health actions.

The emergence and re-emergence of viral diseases is partly unavoidable. However, with a stronger public health system , application of principles of epidemiology and use of data, their impact can be minimised.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sci-tech-and-agri/zika-virus-outbreaks-an-opportunity-to-improve-healthcare-in-india/article37482983.ece

Fighting mosquito-borne diseases: work in progress #GS3 #SnT

Mosquito-borne diseases have been a scourge for thousands of years, with huge armies defeated, and economies shattered. We were therefore relieved to read reports announcing an effective malaria vaccine, following clinical trials in Burkina Faso conducted by the University of Oxford, the Serum Institute of India and others. This West African country has a long and hot season followed by monsoon rains, when mosquitoes emerge in huge swarms.

The R21 vaccine has shown an efficacy of 77%, and targets the ‘circumsporozite’ protein (CSP) of the malarial parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. The sporozite stage of this parasite secretes CSP. Mosquito bites transfer the CSP and sporozites into the human bloodstream, and the CSP nudges the parasite towards the liver, where it enters liver cells, matures and proliferates. The release of mature merozites marks the onset of the symptoms of malaria.

Efficient vaccines

The WHO has just cleared another vaccine, called Mosquirix, from Glaxo Smith Kline (GSK) of the U.K. With the involvement of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the vaccine has been tested in Kenya, Malawi and Ghana on over 800,000 children and shows an efficiency of over 50% in the first year, but dropping as time progresses. The Global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) is planning to purchase the vaccine for countries that request it. (See a report by Apoorva Mandavilli published in New York Times ). Bharat Biotech of Hyderabad has entered into a deal with GSK to develop this vaccine in India, with a dedicated facility at Bhubaneswar.

Another rapidly spreading disease is dengue. It is spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which happily grow in small stagnant pools of water, such as in discarded tyres. Four serotypes of the dengue virus are found. Serotypes make vaccine development difficult, as a different vaccine is needed against each serotype. A vaccine against dengue, DENGVAXIA, from Sanofi Pasteur, is approved in several countries and shows efficacies ranging from 42% to 78% against the four serotypes of the virus.

Fighting dengue

In India, Zydus Cadilla has been developing a DNA Vaccine against dengue. Dr. Easwaran Sreekumar at the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology, Thiruvananthapuram has modelled a consensus of the four serotypes, which is the basis for Zydus Cadilla’s DNA vaccine, using a platform that the company successfully developed for their COVID-19 vaccine.

Using parasites

Other innovative methods to fight dengue have been in the pipeline. One particularly interesting strategy involves a bacterium, Wolbachia pipientis, an intracellular parasite commonly found in many insects, but not in the dengue-carrying mosquito. When introduced into this mosquito’s cells, this parasite competes successfully against other parasites such as the viruses that cause dengue, chikungunya, yellow fever and Zika.

Aedes mosquitoes, doped with Wolbachia in the laboratory, are released in localities where the disease is prevalent. They quickly spread the bacterium to native Aedes mosquitoes, and the incidence of new dengue cases starts to decline. In a controlled release study in Djakarta, researchers from the Gadjah Mada University placed clusters of Aedes mosquito eggs infected with Wolbachia in 12 localities of the city in December 2017 (9 other localities served as controls – no Wolbachia released). By the time the study was halted in March 2020 due to the pandemic, the 12 localities registered 77% fewer cases of Dengue fever compared to the control localities. The intensity of the fever was less, too, with an 86% drop in hospitalisations due to Dengue.

Prevention of disease

Another way of preventing, rather than curing, mosquito-borne diseases is to accurately predict the next outbreak, and focus your healthcare and mosquito control machinery accordingly.

Both mosquitoes and the Plasmodium parasite need warm, moist weather to flourish. Using data continuously gathered by environmental satellites such as the NOAA-19, scientists at ICMR’s National Institute of Malaria Research have built elaborate models that correlate monthly rainfall data and data on annual state-wise incidence of dengue and malaria with the El-Nino Southern Oscillation, which influences global atmospheric circulation.

The result is an early warning tool that forecasts the start of an outbreak and the dynamics of its progression, along with estimates of the likely number of cases. Therefore, health authorities can begin cautionary measures, several weeks in advance, to minimise the impact of an outbreak. This information is currently available for Indian States. Refining it to the district level should be the next step.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sci-tech-and-agri/fighting-mosquito-borne-diseases-work-in-progress/article37482982.ece

Gilts for all #GS3 #Economy

The story so far: The RBI had in February announced proposals for the Retail Direct Scheme for investors in government securities and the Integrated Ombudsman Scheme. The schemes were unveiled by the Prime Minister on November 12.

What is the Retail Direct Scheme?

Under the Retail Direct Scheme, small investors can now buy or sell government securities (G-Secs), or bonds, directly without having to go through an intermediary like a mutual fund. It is similar to placing funds in debt instruments such as fixed deposits in banks. However, the same tax rules apply to income from G-Secs.

But, with the Government being the borrower, there is a sovereign guarantee for the funds and hence zero risk of default. Also, government securities may offer better interest rates than bank fixed deposits, depending on prevailing interest rate trends. For example, the latest yield on the benchmark 10-year government securities is 6.366%. India’s largest lender, State Bank of India, offers 5.4% on deposits of less than Rs. 2 crore for a tenure of five to 10 years.

How can individuals access G-Sec offerings?

Investors wishing to open a Retail Direct Gilt account directly with the RBI can do so through an online portal set up for the purpose of the scheme. Once the account is activated with the aid of a password sent to the user’s mobile phone, investors will be permitted to buy securities either in the primary market or in the secondary market. The minimum amount for a bid is Rs. 10,000 and in multiples of Rs. 10,000 thereafter. Payments may be made through Net banking or the UPI platform. Retail participants would be bidding for the securities under the “non-competitive segment of primary auctions of Government Securities and Treasury Bills”, the RBI said in a November 12 notification.

Why was it necessary to introduce this scheme?

The RBI said the scheme would help “broaden the investor base and provide retail investors with enhanced access to the government securities market — both primary and secondary.” It said the scheme was a “major structural reform placing India among select few countries which have similar facilities”. This scheme, among others, would “facilitate smooth completion of the Government borrowing programme in 2021-22”.

The Government intends to borrow up to Rs. 12 lakh crore this year ending March 31, 2022. The significant spike in borrowing — that is expected to spur infrastructure and social funding — follows a steep decline in the economy last fiscal. The Union Government, hence, wishes to broaden the base of investors signing up for bond purchases. The added benefit of the Government accessing retail investors could be the freeing up of room for companies to mop up funds from institutional investors; funds that may otherwise have been cornered by the government to fund its expenses.

Why is the RBI setting up an Integrated Ombudsman?

Prior to the introduction of this scheme, the RBI had three different ombudsman schemes to aid dispute resolution with respect to banks, NBFCs, and non-bank pre-paid payment issuers (PPIs). They were operated by the RBI through 22 ombudsman offices. With the introduction of the integrated scheme, the earlier ones stand repealed.

When the regulator unveiled the proposal for an Integrated Ombudsman in February, it said it wished to make dispute resolution more “simpler, efficient and responsive”. Hence the proposal to integrate the three ombudsman schemes and introduce the centralised processing of grievances. This, it said, was intended to make the process of redress of grievances easier “by enabling customers to register their complaints under the integrated scheme, with one centralised reference point”.

The RBI would appoint the Ombudsman and a Deputy Ombudsman for three years. Complaints may be made either physically to the Centralised Receipt and Processing Centre or the RBI’s offices; or electronically through the regulator’s complaint management system (https://cms.rbi.org.in/).

What about grievances pending adjudication?

Though the three earlier schemes have been repealed, the RBI clarified that the adjudication of pending complaints, appeals and execution of the awards passed “shall continue to be governed by the provisions of the respective Ombudsman Schemes and instructions of the Reserve Bank issued thereunder”.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-miscellaneous/tp-others/gilts-for-all/article37482924.ece

Will India be sanctioned for S-400 purchase? #GS2 #IR

The story so far: India is preparing for a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin for an annual bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early December, but it is the arrival of the $5.4-billion Russian long-range surface-to-air missile defence shield “S-400”, also expected next month, that is likely to generate more international headlines. The United States Government has made it clear that the delivery of the five S-400 systems is considered a “significant transaction” under its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) of 2017, which could trigger sanctions against Indian officials and the Government.

What kind of sanctions?

The CAATSA is designed to ensure that no country is able to increase military engagement with Iran, North Korea and Russia without facing deterrent punitive action from the U.S. The sanctions are unilateral, and not part of any United Nations decision, and therefore no country is bound to accept them.

The law that was pushed through by Democrat Congress representatives was signed by President Donald Trump under some protest, as he was keen at the time on improving relations with Russia, and was hoping to broker a deal between the Koreas as well. Section 231 says the President shall impose no fewer than five different sanctions on any Government that enters into a significant defence or intelligence deal with the Russian Government. Section 235 lists 12 options, including stopping credit lines from U.S. and international banks such as the IMF, blocking sales of licensed goods and technology, banning banks, manufacturers and suppliers, property transactions and even financial and visa sanctions on specific officials.

However, the law empowers the President to waive sanctions or delay them if he/she certifies that the deal is not a threat to the U.S. and allies, that waiver of sanctions is in the U.S.’s “vital national security interests” or that the country being sanctioned promises to reduce its future dependence on the “adversary country”.

Has the U.S. used CAATSA before for S-400 sales?

The U.S. has already placed sanctions on China and Turkey for purchase of the S-400. In 2018, the State Department said it, along with the Department of the Treasury, would impose sanctions on the People’s Liberation Army’s Equipment Development Department, and in particular its Director, Li Shangfu, for the purchase of the S-400 system-related equipment and Sukhoi-35 combat aircraft from Russian defence exporter Rosoboronexport.

The sanctions included denial of export licences, ban on foreign exchange transactions, blocking of all property and interests in property within the U.S. jurisdiction and a visa ban. In 2020, the U.S. sanctioned its NATO partner Turkey, which it had warned about CAATSA sanctions for years, besides cancelling a deal to sell Ankara F-35 jets.

The sanctions on Turkey’s main defence procurement agency, SSB, also included a ban on licences and loans, and blocking of credit and visas to SSB president Ismail Demir and other officials. While U.S. officials hope the sanctions and the promise of a sale of F-16 jets would stave off Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s plans to deploy S-400, a deadlock continues.

Which way is the Biden administration leaning on India?

The Biden administration has not given any firm indication on where it leans on India’s case yet. Last month, during a visit to Delhi, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the U.S. had made it clear that the S-400 is “dangerous and not in anybody’s security interest”, but left the determination on sanctions after India takes delivery of the missiles to President Biden himself. In subsequent weeks, Congress representatives, including the Chairman of the powerful House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), Gregory Meeks, a Democrat, as well as several Republicans have called upon the Biden administration to consider a special waiver for India, given India’s importance as a defence partner, and as a strategic partner on U.S. concerns over China and in the Quad. “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 S-400

On the other hand, in April 2021, ahead of U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Delhi, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (also a Democrat) had urged Mr. Austin to raise the S-400 issue with Indian officials, and make it clear that the purchase would lead to sanctions.

“If India chooses to go forward with its purchase of the S-400, that act will clearly constitute a significant, and therefore sanctionable, transaction with the Russian defense sector under Section 231 of CAATSA. It will also limit India’s ability to work with the U.S. on development and procurement of sensitive military technology

Saudi Arabia has also reportedly negotiated with Russia for the S-400, and some experts in the U.S. feel that giving a waiver to India would be the wrong signal for others seeking to go ahead with similar deals. New Delhi may receive a clearer picture on which way the U.S. will go when External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh are due to meet their American counterparts in the next few weeks in Washington.

What is India’s position?

India has not backed down in the face of U.S. opposition thus far, however, and is scheduled to receive the first S-400 deliveries in December. In preparation for the induction, two teams of technicians from the Indian Air Force were trained on the system by the manufacturer, Almaz Antey, in Russia this year.

After signing the deal in October 2018, during Mr. Putin’s last visit to Delhi, India and Russia had protected the advance payments from triggering U.S. sanctions by ensuring a rupee-rouble transfer. In response to questions about Ms. Sherman’s tough remarks on the S-400, the Ministry of External Affairs conceded that the issue was “under discussion” between India and the U.S. for some time. “It was raised, and we have discussed it and explained our perspective. And discussions on this are ongoing,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said in a non-committal response in October.

Why is the S-400 deal so important to India?

Senior Indian officials have held firm that S-400 is very important for India’s national security considerations, especially as it faces new threats from China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, calling it a “game changer”. The system will also offset the air defence capability gaps due to the IAF’s dwindling fighter squadron strength. Integrating the S-400 into the national air defence architecture will be much easier as India has a large number of legacy Russian air defence systems, a major reason India did not consider the U.S. air defence systems as a viable alternative.

For both political as well as operational reasons, the deal is at a point of no return. When asked about the threat of U.S. sanctions, the outgoing Indian Ambassador to Russia, D.B. Venkatesh Varma, told The Hindu that India “will do what we have to do and is necessary for India to preserve and protect its national security interests”.

In addition, buying the S-400 is a way for the Narendra Modi Government to assert its ‘strategic autonomy’. This stated principle of Indian foreign policy wavered under pressure from the Trump administration, when India agreed to stop buying Iranian oil over the threat of sanctions in 2019, a move that caused India both financial and reputational damage. Not giving in to the U.S.’s unilateral sanctions over the S-400 would be one way to restore some of that.

https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/explained-will-india-be-sanctioned-for-s-400-purchase/article37481472.ece

Will MPLADS be changed for post-pandemic needs? #GS2 #Governance

The story so far: Under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme, every MP is entitled to ₹5 crore a year, adding up to ₹3,950 crore for the 790 members. The fund is to be utilised for “creation of durable community assets and for provision of basic facilities, including community infrastructure, based on locally felt needs”. This money does not directly go to the account of the MPs. They can only recommend works. Thereafter, it is the responsibility of the district authorities to sanction, execute and complete the works within the stipulated period. More money is released only on receipt of the completion certificate. The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation monitors the scheme.

When was the scheme started?

It was launched during the Narasimha Rao Government in 1993 with the grant of ₹50 lakh a year to each MP. This sum was increased to ₹1 crore during 1994-95. The third revision to ₹2 crore happened in 1997-98. The United Progressive Alliance Government in 2011-12 raised the annual entitlement to ₹5 crore. There have been regular demands from MPs across party lines to increase the amount further.

How does it work?

Each Lok Sabha member has to designate a district as the nodal district. The District Magistrate is responsible for handling the funds and monitoring the projects sanctioned under the scheme. A Lok Sabha member can recommend works in his constituency alone, while a Rajya Sabha member can use the funds for works anywhere in a State.

In case of a natural calamity, the MPs from non-affected areas in both Houses of Parliament can recommend works estimated at a maximum of ₹25 lakh a year in disaster-hit places.

What are the controversies?

The scheme was first challenged in 1999 by Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party chief Bhim Singh and an NGO, Common Cause. They alleged that in the absence of any guidelines, the funds were misused by MPs. In 2005, a sting operation showed some MPs allegedly demanding money from contractors to award work for projects under the scheme. The exposé led to the expulsion of members from both Houses.

In 2006, the scheme made the headlines because of the allegations that a Trust run by the family of the then Election Commissioner, Navin Chawla, got funds under the scheme. Finally, on May 6, 2010, the scheme’s constitutional validity was upheld. The Supreme Court said in its judgment that mere allegations that the funds were prone to misuse could not be the ground for scrapping the scheme. However, it suggested improvements to the scheme.

When was the scheme suspended?

On April 6, 2020, the scheme was suspended for two years. The Government argued that it needed every last penny to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. The scheme’s budget of ₹7,900 crore for two years was to be subsumed under the Consolidated Fund of India. This move was severely criticised by the Opposition MPs, who said the State Governments had already been cash-strapped, and they were in a dire need of the funds under the scheme.

Senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor argued that the scheme was the only means for an MP to direct development resources to his constituency. “Now the money will be allocated by the Centre and will follow the priorities and preferences of New Delhi, rather than reflect 543 sets of local needs,” he wrote on Twitter.

When and why was it restored?

Last Wednesday, the Union Cabinet brought back the scheme, almost six months before its expected restoration. According to a statement from the Government, the country is on the road to economic recovery, and the scheme continues to be beneficial to the creation of durable community assets, the fulfilment of the aspirations of the locally felt needs of the community, the skill development and creation of jobs across the country, thus helping to achieve the objective of Atamnirbhar Bharat. For 2021-22, it is only a partial restoration, since instead of ₹5 crore for each MP, the sum will only be ₹2 crore.

What are the changes expected?

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a significant change in the policy decisions. The Government may refine the scheme to suit the post-pandemic world. Currently, the funds are only to be spent on “durable assets”, but many MPs have demanded that the guidelines be altered for the funds to be spent on smartphones and laptops for poor students to ensure that they did not miss out on online education in future as they did during the pandemic. This issue was also raised at a meeting of the Rajya Sabha Standing Committee on MPLADS on Friday.

https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/explained-will-mplads-be-changed-for-post-pandemic-needs/article37481526.ece