Current Affairs 7th April 2022

India offers help to end Russia-Ukraine conflict #GS2 #IR

India will be “glad” to help in bringing about a resolution for the crisis in Ukraine, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said on Wednesday. Speaking in the Lok Sabha during a discussion under Rule 193 regarding the crisis in Ukraine and its implications, Dr. Jaishankar said that Russia is “a very important partner” but also held that India is against the conflict. He acknowledged the support from Russia, Ukraine and even Indian nationals based in Eastern Europe during Operation Ganga to evacuate Indian students from Ukraine.

“In terms of diplomacy, India continues to press forcefully for an immediate cessation of hostilities and an end to violence. We encourage talks between Ukraine and Russia, including at the level of their Presidents. The Prime Minister has spoken to them both. This was precisely the message that was conveyed to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov when he was in Delhi. If India can be of any assistance in this matter, we will be glad to contribute,” he said.

The Minister stated that the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, Yulia Svyrydenko, had requested him over a telephone call for more medical supplies to deal with the crisis. “Our effort today is to stabilise economic transactions between India and Russia because this is very important for us. Russia is a very important partner in a variety of areas,” Dr. Jaishankar said, indirectly referring to the crucial role Russia plays in India’s defence sector.

Russia continues to remain the largest arms supplier to India despite strong competition from France, Israel, the United States and other western countries. The specific remarks on economic ties with Russia came after Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury sought an explanation on how India would conduct business with Russia as it was hit by western sanctions.

“At the moment, there is an inter-Ministerial group, which is led by the Finance Ministry, which is seeing how the payments issue can be best addressed. There are experiences from the past which are relevant in this regard,” Dr. Jaishankar said, indicating at the pivotal role the Finance Ministry will pay in ensuring a smooth channel for transactions with Russia.

Dr. Jaishankar conveyed India’s strong opposition to the ongoing conflict. “We believe no solution can be arrived at by shedding blood and at the cost of innocent lives. In this day and age, dialogue and diplomacy are the right answers to any dispute and this should be borne in mind. If India has chosen a side — it is the side of peace and it is for an immediate end to violence. This is our principled stand and it has consistently guided our position in international forums and debates, including in the United Nations.”

The Minister also reiterated India’s commitment to supply humanitarian goods to Ukraine. He stated that the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, Yulia Svyrydenko, had requested him over a telephone call for more medical supplies to deal with the crisis.

Non-military fallout

The Minister pointed to the non-military fallout of the crisis, which has affected a wide spectrum of economic activities like the energy and fertilisers sectors, and said the government is trying to ensure food security for common people in the country as well as in countries abroad. As part of the government’s response to the crisis, he assured, India will step forward to meet “global demands for food, grains and other materials”.

The Minister said that the conflict in Ukraine, which was invaded by Russia on February 24, posed a unique challenge in evacuating Indian students trapped in Kharkiv, Sumy and Kyiv, among other locations.

Centre says it has no data on phone tapping #GS2 #Governance

Even as the controversy over the alleged deployment of Pegasus spyware by the Union government to snoop on top politicians, journalists and others refuses to die down, the Union Home Ministry has sprung a surprise saying it maintains no data of lawful interceptions made by authorised intelligence and law-enforcing agencies.

In a written submission before the Central Information Commission, the Ministry said it was unable to provide information called for by an applicant on the details of phone tapping by 10 agencies during a certain period, saying it does not maintain any statistical information or data related to lawful interception and monitoring and that the desired information is not available.

The Ministry made it clear that such records were weeded out every six months in compliance with provisions under Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act, 1885, and Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The subject matter being highly classified information, minimal records were maintained and statistical data was not compiled.

The Ministry, in its affidavit to the CIC, said records pertaining to directions for interception and of the intercepted messages were destroyed every six months unless such data was required for functional requirement.

Explaining the power of interception in larger national interest in preventing terrorism, drug trafficking and busting of narcotic drugs racket, it placed reliance on a list of cases where major cases were detected or cracked by the use of the laid-down procedure of interception.

The case arises out of a petition calling for the number of lawful interceptions made by 10 agencies between January 1, 2016 and December 27, 2018. The Ministry’s Public Information Officer and the First Appellate Authority declined the information sought by claiming exemption under Section 8(1)(a), (g) and (h) of the RTI Act, 2005.

However, the CIC, in its May 2021, order made it clear that the information called for by the petitioner was not exempted under Section 8 or 9 of the Act since it was mere disclosure of statistical information. “Since the Appellant has not sought any personally identifiable information in respect of any individual, or even the locations in which the orders under Section 69 of the IT Act were passed, there is no question of endangering the life or physical safety of any person.

The information sought by the Appellant does not seek disclosure of any assistance given in confidence for law enforcement and security purposes either,” Chief Information Commissioner Y.K. Sinha wrote and remanded the case back to the FAA, Joint Secretary, Cyber & Information Security, MHA, to revisit the matter and pass orders.

Change of stance

Complying with the CIC order, the FAA passed an order a couple of months later, this time not claiming exemption under the Act from disclosure of information called for by the petitioner, but on the grounds that the information was destroyed and hence not available.

The FAA also contended that “on the surface, any statistical data may seem benign, but when data is aggregated, analysed and interpreted with respect to context, its sensitivity escalates. Therefore, deniability of statistical information should be seen in the wider context of totality of fact and circumstances of the case and not in isolation”.

Highly classified

Justifying the non-availability of information sought by the petitioner, the FAA said lawful interception and monitoring was governed by Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act, 1885, and Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000. “These are highly classified information and therefore minimal records are maintained… Since information sought is not available as on date, the same cannot be provided.”

Aggrieved by the second decision of the FAA, the petitioner moved the CIC challenging it. After hearing both sides, Mr. Sinha ruled on January 28, 2022 that the information sought in the case, though not exempted under Section 8 or 9 of the RTI Act, was not held by or under the control of the public authority.

Such information falls within the exclusive jurisdiction of the specified 10 agencies empowered to utilise and exercise the powers under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, subject to approval of the competent authority as per the provisions of law, rules and Standard Operating Procedure. Therefore, the Ministry could not be considered the actual custodian of information nor responsible for dissemination of the information under the purview of the RTI Act.

The CIC directed the PIO to submit an affidavit affirming that the Ministry does not maintain any statistical information/data, related to lawful interception and monitoring and that the desired information was not available as on date and hence the same cannot be provided to the petitioner.

HAL in tie-up to convert aircraft #GS3 #Defence

In a significant development, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to convert civil passenger aircraft to multi mission tanker transport (MMTT) aircraft in India.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been looking to procure new mid-air refuellers for sometime.

“Under the pact signed recently, HAL will convert pre-owned civil (passenger) aircraft into air refuelling aircraft with cargo and transport capabilities. The move will provide India’s defence ecosystem with new capabilities and cost-effective solutions in the market,” HAL said in a statement.

The scope of the MoU also covers “passenger to freighter aircraft” conversion along with MMTT conversions, it stated. A defence official said the aircraft likely to be converted was a Boeing 767 passenger jet.

‘Long-standing partner’

“We are glad to join hands with our long-standing partner IAI in this venture of MMTT conversion business, which is one of the strategic diversification avenues identified by HAL,” R. Madhavan, Chief Managing Director HAL, said.

The IAF at present has six Russian IL-78 tankers and has been looking to procure six new aircraft for sometime, but the deal has been repeatedly delayed. It has been looking to reissue the tender but the financial crunch had made it rethink the acquisition.

To meet requirements in the interim, it has been looking at leasing some mid-air refuellers, an option introduced in the Defence Acquisition Procedure, 2020.

Mid-air refuelling significantly enhances the range and payload of fighter jets. It also allows the aircraft to stay in the air much beyond their normal limits allowing better exploitation of the platforms capabilities.

Third list

As reported by The Hindu earlier, IAF officials had stated that broadly wet lease of platforms could be used for peacetime use and dry leasing to cater to operational requirements.

In wet lease, the platforms have to be maintained by the company supplying them, be it the original equipment manufacturer or the aggregator.

On Thursday, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is all set to release the third positive indigenisation list, the items in which cannot be imported by the Services. The earlier lists have barred imports of 209 major platforms and systems.

Global warming behind record March heat #GS3 #Environment

With India having recorded the hottest March in 121 years, Science Minister Jitendra Singh said in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday that “global warming” was to blame.

“One of the reasons for the rise in temperatures and increase in heatwaves is global warming, associated with the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The global average temperature has risen by around one degree Celsius since pre-industrial times. This magnitude and rate of warming cannot be explained by natural variations alone and must necessarily take into account changes due to human activities,” he said in a written response.

At an average 33.1 degrees, the median maximum temperature of March was at an all-time high of about 1.8 degrees above normal when compared to the reference period of 1981-2010. Temperatures over four to six degrees Celsius of the usual historical maximum were being experienced over many parts of the country.

Stand on Ukraine: govt. planning diplomatic outreach #GS2 #IR

As differences with the U.S., the E.U. and other allied partners grow over India’s position on Russia and Ukraine, the Union government is planning a number of high-level diplomatic meetings in the next few months, sources said.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will travel to Washington over the weekend for “2+2” ministerial talks with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defence Secretary General Lloyd Austin (retd.) and other meetings from April 11 to 13 and visit Tokyo later this month for another “2+2”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to visit India on April 21 and 22, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is himself expected to travel to Germany for bilateral meetings, to Denmark to attend the Nordic Summit in the first week of May, and to Tokyo for the Quad summit with leaders of Australia, Japan and the U.S. in June.

The sources stressed that each of these visits had been planned for some time and could not take place earlier because of the pandemic. However, the ongoing war in Ukraine and discussions on how to stop the Russian military operations there, will be at the top of the agenda for all the foreign dignitaries engaging with India.

While the programme is still being finalised, officials said they are discussing a possible summit in Gujarat for Mr. Johnson and Mr. Modi on April 21. The two leaders are expected to sign a number of agreements with the officials putting a breakthrough on the India-U.K. Free Trade Agreement talks as the “top priority”, as well as discussions on increasing cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Visit to Germany

Mr. Johnson, who has been at the forefront of economic strictures and actions against Russia in the past few weeks, is definitely expected to discuss India’s position on Ukraine, and the Modi government’s decision to buy more Russian oil at discounted prices and set up a rupee-rouble payment mechanism to circumvent sanctions..

Mr. Modi is expected to travel to Germany on May 1 and 2 to hold the biannual inter-governmental meeting, his first with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has been leading the European Union’s (E.U.) actions with Russia and talks over the Ukraine crisis.

The conversations in Copenhagen, where Mr. Modi is expected to be on May 3–4, are expected to be similarly focused, as the leaders of the Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden — gather for the summit last held in Stockholm in 2018.

UNGA to vote on Russia’s HRC suspension #GS2 #IR

India’s vote at the UN General Assembly will be watched closely, as a resolution sponsored by the U.S., U.K. and other countries seeks to suspend Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), where it is an elected member, after the discovery of mass graves and human rights excesses in the Ukrainian city of Bucha.

Thus far, India has abstained on at least 10 resolutions critical of Russia at the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly, Human Rights Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

On Thursday, the UNGA is expected to vote on the resolution calling for the suspension of Russia from the Human Rights Council, after which members will make their statements on the situation in Ukraine.

The vote will follow after a series of foreign officials and Ministers from countries that are part of the U.S.-EU led sanctions regime visited Delhi in the past two weeks, calling on India to change its position on Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had also visited Delhi last week, praising India for its “independent” position.

When asked about India’s vote on the UNGA resolution, officials said that while India had called for an “independent enquiry” into the killings in Bucha, an investigation team had yet to be constituted and it might be more difficult to vote until there was a definitive conclusion about who was responsible for the excesses.

According to an official, the vote is not just about Russia and Ukraine, but the principle of whether such a procedure should be used to suspend an elected member at the UN body.

Toughening stance

In what was seen as a toughening of its stance, India on Tuesday condemned the killings of civilians in Bucha and called for an independent enquiry into them, although its statement at the UNSC didn’t directly refer to Russia.

As a result, the vote, the first such resolution since Libya was suspended by a unanimous UNGA decision in 2011, will be watched keenly for whether India would change its stand from the previous abstentions. If India abstains in this case, the vote would work in favour of the U.S.-led resolution which needs a two-thirds majority of the “present and voting” members in the UNGA on Thursday.

ADB projects India FY23 growth at 7.5% #GS3 #Economy

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) forecasts that India’s GDP growth will moderate to 7.5% in 2022-23, from an estimated 8.9% in 2021-22. The multilateral lender, however, sees the pace picking up in 2023-2024 to reach 8%.

The ADB has factored in the Russia-Ukraine conflict’s implications for India, which would be largely indirect through higher oil prices, and has assumed that the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic would subside with a rise in vaccination rates.

Although oil prices will exert upward pressure on inflation, the impact would be moderated by fuel subsidies and oil refineries stocking up on cheap crude from the Russian Federation, the ADB noted, predicting an average inflation rate of 5.8% in 2022-23, and 5% in 2023-24. There would still be an upward pressure on consumer prices with oil prices expected to average more than $100 a barrel through 2022.

In its Asian Development Outlook report released on Wednesday the bank stated that food prices were expected to rise in tandem with increasing commodity prices.

Higher public capital spending was expected to improve the efficiency of India’s logistics infrastructure, crowd-in private investment, generate jobs in construction and sustain growth, the bank said, emphasising that economic activity this year would hinge on catalytic effects of public investment.

The ADB expects capacity utilisation rates in Indian industry to improve over the first half of 2022-23, creating room for fresh investments, as private consumption could pick up amid the ebbing pandemic severity and mobility restrictions.

‘A key challenge’

“Inflation will accelerate and the current account deficit will widen due to the surge in global oil prices,” it said, identifying the mobilisation of domestic resources as a key challenge at ‘all levels of government’ as India’s tax to GDP ratio of about 17% has been largely unchanged since the early 1990s.

Mobilising resources was particularly challenging for the State governments and improving their fiscal resources was critical for India’s sustained and inclusive growth, the lender said.

“This is especially important because of rising State fiscal deficits since 2011-12 and higher ratios of State debt-to-GDP since 2015-16. Worsening State finances have macroeconomic implications, especially on general government finances,” the ADB noted. India’s general government debt, a third of which was accounted for by the States, touched almost 90% of the GDP in 2020-21 and was expected to stay high in the medium term.

Stressing that States were constrained in ‘how much and from where they can borrow’, the ADB highlighted that the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax had reduced their autonomy to raise revenues.