Current Affairs 19th March

SC to hear plea against sale of electoral bonds #GS2 #Governance

Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde agreed with advocate Prashant Bhushan on Thursday to urgently hear a plea by NGO Association for Democratic Reforms to stay the sale of a new set of electoral bonds on April 1, before the Assembly elections in crucial States such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu.

Mr. Bhushan said the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the Election Commission had both said that the sale of electoral bonds had become an avenue for shell corporations and entities to park illicit money and even proceeds of bribes with political parties. “Every time there is an election, the sale is opened. Every time this happens, we have moved the Supreme Court to stay it,” he submitted.

“Not so, but parties had been asked to submit records in sealed cover… But a proper stay has to be considered. There are two documents from the RBI and the Election Commission that say the electoral bonds scheme is detrimental to democracy,” Mr. Bhushan replied.

Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta informed the Chief Justice that Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal would be appearing in the case. “His submissions in the Maratha quota case will start today [March 18] and he may finish it by Wednesday [March 24.

“Surely, he will find time in a matter like this!” Chief Justice Bobde retorted. The NGO, also represented by advocate Neha Rathi, voiced serious apprehensions about the sale of electoral bonds before elections.

‘Illegal sale windows’

“Data obtained through RTI has shown that illegal sale windows have been opened in the past to benefit certain political parties… There is a serious apprehension that any further sale of electoral bonds before the upcoming State elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam would further increase illegal and illicit funding of political parties through shell companies,” the NGO submitted.

It said the scheme had “opened doors to unlimited political donations, even from foreign companies, thereby legitimising electoral corruption at a huge scale, while at the same time ensuring complete non-transparency in political funding”. The application reminded the court that both the central bank and the poll panel had objected to the electoral bond scheme.

The government notified the scheme on January 2, 2018. It defended the scheme in court, saying it allowed anonymity to political donors to protect them from “political victimisation”.

The Ministry of Finance’s affidavit in the top court had dismissed the Election Commission’s version that the invisibility afforded to benefactors was a “retrograde step” and would wreck transparency in political funding.

The government affidavit had said the shroud of secrecy was a product of “well thought-out policy considerations”. It said the earlier system of cash donations had raised a “concern among the donors that, with their identity revealed, there would be competitive pressure from different political parties receiving donation”.{“sender”:”offer-0-ZwejT”,”displayMode”:”modal”,”recipient”:”opener”,”event”:”resize”,”params”:{“width”:600,”height”:0,”iframeId”:”offer-0-ZwejT”}}

Roads to be freed of toll booths in a year: Gadkari #GS3 #Economy

India will implement a GPS-based toll collection system and do away with all toll booths within a year. He also shared details of the vehicle scrapping policy, first announced in the Union Budget for 2021-22, according to which the automobile industry in India will see a jump in turnover to Rs. 10 lakh crore from Rs. 4.5 lakh crore.

Separately, the Minister also expressed concern over the number of accidents and asserted that road accidents had taken away more lives in 2020 compared with the COVID-19 pandemic. It means that toll collection will happen via GPS. The money will be collected based on GPS imaging [of vehicles].

He said 93% of the vehicles were paying toll using FASTag — a system that facilitates electronic payment of fee at toll plazas seamlessly — but the remaining 7% had still not adopted it despite paying double the toll.

He also made a statement in the Lok Sabha on the government’s new scrapping policy which, he claimed, would reduce pollution, improve fuel efficiency, and increase government’s revenue collection from the sale of new vehicles.

The new policy provides for fitness tests after the completion of 20 years in the case of privately owned vehicles and 15 years in the case of commercial vehicles. Any vehicle that fails the fitness test or does not manage renewal of its registration certificate may be declared as an End of Life Vehicle.

All government vehicles and those owned by PSUs will be de-registered after 15 years. The government will implement the policy in a phased manner, Mr. Gadkari said.

The policy will kick in for government vehicles from April 1, 2022. Mandatory fitness testing for heavy commercial vehicles will start from April 1, 2023, and for all other categories of vehicles, including personal vehicles, it will start in phases from June 1, 2024 .

To encourage owners to take their old vehicles to scrapping centres, the government has announced several incentives, including advisories to the States to give up to 25% rebate in road tax for personal vehicles and up to 15% rebate for commercial vehicles. The government will also offer waiver of registration fees on the purchase of new vehicles. The Minister said the Centre would issue an advisory to automakers to offer 5% rebate for those who buy a new vehicle after producing a scrapping certificate.

The Ministry has proposed that commercial vehicles be de-registered after 15 years in case of failure to get the fitness certificate, and a private vehicle will be de-registered after 20 years if its fails fitness certification.

There are 51 lakh light motor vehicles older than 20 years and 34 lakh light motor vehicles older than 15 years, the Minister said.

‘India has offered support to Sri Lanka’ #GS2 #IR

India has assured Sri Lanka of its support at the UN Human Rights Council, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage has said, just days before member countries vote on a new resolution on the island nation’s rights record.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs declined to comment on the Sri Lanka Foreign Secretary’s statement. Sources in the government told The Hindu that no decision on the vote had been “conveyed” yet, while Mr. Colombage said Sri Lanka “greatly appreciates” India’s position, “being the superpower they are”.

The state-run Daily News on Thursday reported the senior Foreign Ministry official’s remarks, made at a recent “digital dialogue” hosted by Sri Lanka’s Media Centre for National Development, a month-old initiative aimed at publicising the government’s efforts locally and internationally.

Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva usually invoke sharp responses from nationalist forces within Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist majority, who see the process as “targeting” their country and “interfering with its sovereignty”.

The Rajapaksa government, whose core support comes from Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, has “categorically rejected” the UN Human Rights chief’s latest report, while accusing the Council of being “politically motivated”, even as a “core group” comprising the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Malawi and Montenegro tables the new resolution.

The Rajapaksa government, whose core support comes from Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, has “categorically rejected” the UN Human Rights chief’s latest report, while accusing the Council of being “politically motivated”, even as a “core group” comprising the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Malawi and Montenegro tables the new resolution. Colombo has also been reaching out to member countries during the past weeks, pitching its version of Sri Lanka’s post-war realities that the UN resolutions seek to address.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, among other leaders, seeking support at the 47-member Council, where Colombo anticipates a hostile resolution.

Mr. Rajapaksa spoke to Mr. Modi over telephone last week, reportedly following up on the letter sent earlier. China has officially declared its support to Sri Lanka.

All eyes are on India’s vote, not only because of its “influence” in the Council, but also because of its own tensions with Colombo, following the Rajapaksa government’s recent decisions on strategic projects involving India and China. Given India’s pressing geopolitical concerns in the island nation, and stated support for Tamil aspirations, it remains to be seen how New Delhi will approach the vote scheduled on March 22.

The only official intervention made by India so far on Sri Lanka at the ongoing 46th session of the Council in Geneva, was the statement by Permanent Representative (PR) of India Ambassador Indra Mani Pandey, who spoke of India’s “consistent position” resting on two pillars of support to Sri Lanka’s unity and territorial integrity, and an “abiding commitment” to Tamil aspirations for “equality, justice, peace and dignity”.

“These are no either-or choices,” the PR had said, calling for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. Apart from reminding Sri Lanka of its several pending commitments and failed promises on delivering truth, justice, and promoting reconciliation, the latest resolution calls for power devolution through the 13th Amendment.

Govt. welcomes dissent on social media #GS2 #Governance

Union Communications and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that climate activist Disha Ravi’s arrest was based on law and order and it is under judicial process. He added that the House should consider “should some people abuse social media internationally to defame India to promote secessionism”.

Replying to a question by Congress member G.C. Chandrashekhar regarding Ms. Ravi’s arrest for editing a ‘toolkit’ about the farmers’ protest, Mr. Prasad said, “India is proud to have nearly 140 crore social media users. LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook are free to do business in India. They have empowered ordinary Indians.

The government welcomes dissent. The issue is not of use of social media, the issue is of abuse and misuse of social media … Internet is a powerful invention of the human mind, but it should not become the monopoly of a few. And we have taken a position, any attempt to create imperialism of Internet by a few companies is not acceptable.”

He said the government welcomes criticism on social media, but “some people who sermonise and do not provide their identity … then these guidelines ensure that social media companies will ask them to voluntarily verify their identities”.

The Ministry recently released the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, which specify that “due diligence” should be followed by all intermediaries, including social media intermediaries.

Mr. Prasad also said his department works in close coordination with the Election Commission. “The Election Commission has set up a dedicated cell to weed out fake news, fake media designed to influence (voters),” he said, adding that Cambridge Analytica has been banned and a CBI probe is going on against the U.K.-based data analytics firm.

SC transfers COVID-19 vaccination case to itself #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court stayed suo motu proceedings before the Delhi High Court on the administration of COVID-19 vaccines and transferred the case to itself.

A Bench led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde said a similar case concerning the vaccination drive was already pending in the Supreme Court, and the case from the Delhi High Court could be heard along with it.

Vaccine makers Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech argued that vaccination was an “all- India” issue and needed to be heard by the Supreme Court for a final decision.

Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta agreed with the vaccine makers to have the cases pending in High Courts, including the Bombay High Court, to be transferred to the Supreme Court. The Bench issued notice on a plea by vaccine makers to transfer a vaccination-related case from the Bombay High Court too.

Earlier in March, the two companies were asked by the Delhi High Court to reveal their capacity to manufacture vaccines on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

‘Commercial war’

Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi said the companies could not be made to run from one High Court to another, responding to questions about daily production and revealing details of their vaccines. Senior advocate Harish Salve, for the Serum Institute, said there was a “vaccine commercial war” brewing. Disclosure would harm interests. He said courts should not ideally enter into this domain.

The Delhi High Court had on March 5 asked the companies to “disclose the daily off-take of the vaccines from their respective institutes and how much excess quantity of the vaccine is lying unutilised”. It had wanted the companies to indicate “whether they can scale-up their capacities, if the need arises”.

It had also questioned the government’s rationale behind keeping a “strict control over the class of persons who can be presently vaccinated”. “Under the present arrangement, persons above the age of 60 years and those falling in the age group of 45-60 years with serious co-morbidities alone can receive the vaccinations. The rationale for such a classification should also be disclosed,” the court had said.

‘Vaccine export curbs may hit U.K.’ #GS2 #IR

With India, and particularly Maharashtra, witnessing a renewed surge in COVID-19 cases, the United Kingdom’s vaccination programme could hit a roadblock as the Indian government is temporarily staying exports to address the increased vaccination demands in India.

Adar Poonawalla, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Serum Institute of India (SII), which is manufacturing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, told the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper that the situation was solely dependent on the Indian government and had nothing to do with the Serum Institute.

‘Nothing to do with SII’

“It is solely dependent on India and it has nothing to do with the SII. It is to do with the Indian government allowing more doses to the U.K. According to the paper, Mr. Poonawalla confirmed that five million doses of the Oxford vaccine had already been delivered to the U.K. early this month.

The Telegraph quoted a source stating that the second batch of five million doses that the SII is due to give the U.K. will only be delivered once it was approved by the Indian government, which is deliberating on how to combat the renascence of the pandemic.

Of India’s 2.35 lakh-odd active cases, Maharashtra contributes to more than 60%, with the State reporting an average daily spike of more than 15,000 cases for the past one week to take the active case tally beyond 1.50 lakh cases. Eight of the 10 most-affected districts, including Pune and Nagpur, are from Maharashtra.

Remarking that the Uddhav Thackeray-led Maharashtra government’s emphasis was on ramping up its vaccination drive, State Health Minister Rajesh Tope said he had written to Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan that the State needed 2.20 crore doses from the Centre for the drive. This translates to a requirement of 20 lakh doses per week.

Rajya Sabha passes Bill to raise FDI limit in insurance sector #GS2 #Governance

The Rajya Sabha passed the Insurance Amendment Bill, 2021 that increases the maximum foreign investment allowed in an insurance company from 49% to 74%, amid criticism from the Opposition parties on the clause enabling “control and ownership” by foreign investors.

The Opposition parties unsuccessfully tried to stall the house demanding that the Bill not be moved in a haste and instead be sent to a standing committee. They marched into the well of the House after Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman moved the Bill. The House was adjourned four times.

Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma questioned the very justification and intent for such a bill. He asked when the government has majority in both Houses why was it in a hurry to pass the Bill ducking due parliamentary scrutiny that the Opposition was demanding. He said the insurance companies hold the people’s money in trust and that this Bill broke it. He also accused the government of violating the assurance given in 2015 that “Indian ownership and control” would remain.

Mr. Sharma said, “We are not opposed to the policy of disinvestment, but is it disinvestment or leapfrogging towards privatisation and embarking on grand clearance sale of national assets built assiduously over the years.”

He also flagged that the big insurance firms are not in shortage of capital and that the Bill differed from the government motto — “Atmanirbhar Bharat”.

DMK MP Tiruchi Siva pointed out that none of the insurance firms had managed to get FDI even up to the present limit of 49% and questioned the justification to increase the limit.

Replying to the debate, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman assured the House that the policy holder’s money will not leave Indian shores and have to be compulsorily invested here. She argued that more FDI would mean greater competition and thus better negotiated premiums for the end user.

Countering the key criticism by the Opposition parties on handing over “control and ownership” to foreign firms, Ms. Sitharaman said it came with safeguards. The key management personnel would have to be Indians and therefore would be governed by the Indian laws.

Don’t stereotype women in court rulings, SC tells judges #GS2 #SocialIssues

The Supreme Court forbade judges from making gender-stereotypical comments like “good women are sexually chaste”, women who drink and smoke ‘ask’ for sexual advances or presume that a sexually active woman consented to rape while hearing cases of sexual offence.

A Bench of Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and S. Ravindra Bhat stopped judges from trying to mandate marriage or compromise between a molestor and his victim. The Bench, in a judgment, proscribed judges from granting bail to suspected sexual offenders on the condition that they perform “community service” or apologise to their victims. The Supreme Court forbade the accused from getting in touch with the survivor.

The court said the victim should be immediately notified if the accused is given bail in a sexual offence case. She should be given a copy of the bail order within 48 hours.

The 24-page verdict, authored by Justice Bhat, set aside a Madhya Pradesh High Court order granting bail to a suspected molestor provided he visits his victim at her home and ‘allows’ her to tie a rakhi on him.

“Using rakhi tying as a condition for bail, transforms a molester into a brother, by a judicial mandate,” Justice Bhat wrote.

In a scathing verdict, Justice Bhat said judgments and orders continue to reflect “entrenched paternalistic and misogynistic attitudes” even after 70 years as a Republic. “A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is an exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view,” Justice Bhat quoted Henrik Ibsen in exasperation.

Judges should not fall into the trap of stereotyping. A judge’s address is not limited to the parties in a case but extends to the broader legal community of other lawyers, judges, legal academics, law students and indeed the public at large, Justice Bhat warned.

COVID-19 cases cross 37,000 #GS3 #SnT

India reported its highest single-day spike this year with 35,871 new COVID-19 cases and 172 deaths in the 24 hours to 8 a.m, on Wednesday, according to data released by the Health Ministry.

The Ministry added that the total number of cases in the country for the U.K., South Africa and Brazil variants was 400 as of Wednesday.

India has so far reported a total of 1,14,74,605 cases, and a death toll of 1,59,216. The active caseload is 2,52,364. The top 10 districts in India in terms of active cases include Pune (32,359), Nagpur (21,496), Mumbai (15,410), Thane (14,644), Nashik (9,821), Aurangabad (9,621), Bengaluru-Urban (7,344), and Jalgaon (4,610).

The tests per day per million population were more than 140 and the daily positivity rate was 3.37%, said the release.

Five States — Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu — continued to report a surge, and 79.54% of the new 35,871 cases were from these States. “Maharashtra has reported the highest daily new cases at 16,620 (accounting for 63.21% of the daily new cases).

It is followed by Kerala with 1,792 while Punjab reported 1,492 new cases. It added that a rising trajectory was seen in eight States — Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka and Haryana — while Kerala has been reporting a declining trend over the last one month.

India reported 17,741 recoveries in the past 24 hours, with cumulative recoveries at 1,10,63,025. The national recovery rate was 96.41%. Five States accounted for 84.88% of the new deaths. Maharashtra, at 84, saw the maximum casualties, followed by Punjab with 35 deaths. Kerala reported 13 deaths in the 24 hours.

The case fatality rate remains below 1.5% (1.39%) and is continuously declining. Eighteen States/UTs have not reported any COVID-19 deaths in the 24 hours. These include Rajasthan, Assam, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Odisha, Jharkhand, Puducherry, Lakshadweep, Sikkim, Ladakh and Manipur.

‘Raise CAA, S-400 deal with India #GS2 #IR

Saying the Indian government is moving away from democratic values, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, has written to U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin asking him to raise concerns about democracy and India’s purchase of the S-400 Russian missile defence system during his visit to New Delhi. Mr. Austin is expected to meet Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and senior national security officials between March 19 and 21 when he is in New Delhi.

“I would like to see the U.S.-India partnership grow, but we must acknowledge that the partnership is strongest when based on shared democratic values and the Indian government has been trending away from those values,” Mr. Menendez said in the letter dated March 17.

“I also expect that you will raise the administration’s opposition to India’s reportedly planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system,” he wrote.

Among his concerns, Mr. Menendez cited crackdown on journalists and critics of the government, its handling of the farmers’ protests and the use of sedition laws, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).

“The Indian government’s ongoing crackdown on farmers peacefully protesting new farming laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy,” Mr. Menendez says.

“Moreover, in recent years, rising anti-Muslim sentiment and related government actions like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the suppression of political dialogue and arrest of political opponents following the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, and the use of sedition laws to persecute political opponents have resulted in the U.S. human rights group Freedom House stripping India of its ‘Free’ status in its yearly global survey,” he says.

CAATSA sanctions

India’s purchase of S-400 for just under $5.5 billion could attract sanctions under a 2017 law, the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). The Trump administration’s repeated message was that sanction waivers are not automatic and decided on a case-by-case basis. Congress forced the Trump administration’s hand in December last year by requiring it to sanction Turkey for purchasing the S-400. In 2018, China was sanctioned for purchase of Russian equipment.

While India is not a treaty ally of the U.S. and is increasing its purchase of U.S. arms — mitigating circumstances as per U.S. law — the Menendez letter suggests that sanctions are still, at least in theory, an option as India is expected to take delivery of the S-400 later this year.

It reads: “India’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system is also a matter of concern. I recognize that India is not a U.S. treaty ally and has historical ties with the Soviet and Russian militaries. However, 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.”

Rising cases may lead RBI to delay liquidity normalisation’ #GS3 #Economy

India’s central bank may have to delay the start of monetary policy normalisation by three months amid rising COVID-19 cases, but barring the return of stringent lockdowns there is no significant threat to the economy’s recovery, analysts say.

Having seen a peak of daily cases of almost 1,00,000 in late September, infections had been on a steady decline but have now started rising again over the last month.

“Even as the increase in the current caseload points to the risk of a second wave, more localised and less stringent restrictions will help contain the economic impact versus the initial wave,” said Radhika Rao, an economist with DBS Bank.

DBS has retained its assumptions for a stronger pick-up in March quarter growth versus the December 2020 quarter. India reported 35,871 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, the highest in more than three months, with Maharashtra alone accounting for 65% of that.

Though analysts are unlikely to rush to review their growth forecasts, several believe policy normalisation, may now take a backseat. Monetary policy normalisation might be pushed back by a quarter as authorities monitor developments closely,” Ms. Rao said.

The RBI in early January said it wanted to start restoring normal liquidity operations in a phased manner. “Growth concerns due to rising pandemic cases… could push back market expectations on the timing of policy normalisation.