Current Affairs 27th March

Poll bond sale can go ahead: SC #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court refused to stay the sale of electoral bonds prior to the Assembly elections in crucial States such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. A three-judge Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde, said the scheme began in 2018 and continued in 2019 and 2020 without “any impediments”.

Chief Justice Bobde, who read out the judgment, said the court found no reason to stall the sale of the electoral bonds now.

The judgment came on an urgent application moved by an NGO, Association for Democratic Reforms, represented by advocate Prashant Bhushan, to stay the sale of the bonds scheduled between April 1 and 10.

The NGO, also represented by advocate Neha Rathi, voiced serious apprehension that sale of electoral bonds before elections in States, including West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, would “further increase illegal and illicit funding of political parties through shell companies”.

The court agreed that the scheme protects the identity of purchasers of electoral bonds in a cloak of anonymity, but highlighted that such purchases happened only through regular banking channels. The State Bank of India would eventually know the identity of the buyer.

“While the identity of the purchaser of the bond is withheld, it is ensured that unidentified/unidentifiable persons cannot purchase the bonds and give it to the political parties. Under Clause 7 of the scheme, buyers have to apply in the prescribed form, either physically or online, disclosing their particulars.

The court rubbished the charge of electoral bonds facilitating anonymous and hefty donations from corporate houses to political parties. Anyone buying bonds will have to fulfil KYC (Know Your Customer) norms.

Purchase of electoral bonds was through banking channels. It would be easy to trace the money spent on buying electoral bonds from the expense sheets of companies. Mr. Bhushan had argued that electoral bonds purchased using white money through banking channels could be re-purchased by an anonymous entity using black cash.

“This contention arises out of ignorance of the scheme. Under Clause 14, the bonds are not tradeable. Moreover, the first buyer will not stand to gain anything out of such sale except losing white money for the black,” the court responded in its order.

The court debunked fears that electoral bonds would help foreign corporate houses influence domestic electoral politics. It said the bonds could be purchased only by a person who was a citizen of India or incorporated or established in India.

India, Bangladesh must fight terror together: PM #GS2 #IR

Contemporary Bangladesh was created with the blood of the freedom fighters, and of the Indian soldiers who were martyred in the War of Liberation of 1971.

Addressing a special gathering on the National Day celebrations that marked the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence, Mr. Modi said the creation of Bangladesh received support from all sections of the Indian political class.

The visiting leader also said the two countries should fight jointly against terrorism. “Bangladesh is sustained by the blood of the freedom fighters of the country as well as of the Indian soldiers. This blood will create such a relation that will not break under any kind of pressure.

Recollecting the atrocities unleashed by the Pakistani military, Mr. Modi blamed the “Operation Searchlight” of March 25, 1971 for unleashing a reign of terror in the country.

Mr. Modi said India and Bangladesh shared common goals and challenges, and that the two countries should remain focused on dealing with the challenges such as terrorism.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Modi paid rich tributes to the martyrs at the National Martyrs’ Memorial at Savar and said the sacrifice of the participants in the historic war would remain a lasting legacy in South Asia. He also planted an ‘Arjun’ sapling at the memorial grounds which contain unmarked graves of the martyrs.

Beginning his interactions for the two-day visit, Mr. Modi met the leaders of the ruling alliance in Dhaka and interacted with a delegation of muktijoddha s, or former guerrillas who fought in the war. He also met leaders of Bangladesh’s religious minorities.

The PM will travel to Tungipara, where he will pay his tribute at the mazar of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on Saturday. Mr. Modi will also travel to Orakandi to interact with Matua Hindus.

India, U.S. agree to resolve key bilateral trade issues #GS2 #IR

India and the United States have agreed to work constructively to resolve key outstanding bilateral trade issues and to take a comprehensive look at ways to expand the trade relationship, the Biden administration has said. United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai discussed the important trade and investment relationship between the two countries during her maiden phone call with her Indian counterpart Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal.

Shared objectives

“They committed to strengthening cooperation on shared objectives and to revitalise engagement through the US-India Trade Policy Forum. They also agreed to work constructively to resolve key outstanding bilateral trade issues and to take a comprehensive look at ways to expand the trade relationship,” the United States Trade Representative (USTR) said in a readout of the call on Thursday.

Ms. Tai, who was confirmed by the Senate only a few days ago, stressed the critical importance of cooperation on a broad set of issues, including digital trade, intellectual property, agriculture, labour, and climate and environment.

Ms. Tai and Mr. Goyal agreed to hold the next Ministerial-level meeting of the Trade Policy Forum during 2021, the USTR said.

India, Pak. hold brigade commander-level meet #GS2 #IR

A brigade commander-level meeting between the Indian and the Pakistani armies was held in J&K’s Poonch district on Friday, the first such meet since the February 25 joint statement by the two countries reaffirming their commitment to abide by the 2003 ceasefire agreement.

An Army spokesman, in a tweet, said that post the Directors General of Military Operations Understanding 2021, a brigade commander level flag meeting was held between Indian and Pakistan armies at Poonch’s Rawalkot crossing point on Friday “to discuss the implementation mechanism as per the understanding”.

The meeting comes amid a complete peace maintained by the two armies along the Line of Control (LoC).

The fresh meeting between the two armies has fuelled speculations of a further widening of the scope of the confidence building measures along the LoC, which also houses two main trading points in Jammu and Kashmir.

Significantly, Poonch’s Rawalkot is also a trading point, which was closed by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2019 after reports of “terror funding”.

The top Indian and Pakistani Army officers’ meet comes a day after Army Chief General Manoj Naravane confirmed that silence prevailed on the LoC “for the first time in around five to six years, as not a single shot was fired in March, barring an odd incident”.

However, Gen. Naravane was quick to add that “the terror infrastructure, including terrorist launch-pads on the Pakistani side, remained intact”.

Suez Canal blocked, India eyes Cape of Good Hope #GS3 #Economy

With $200 billion of India’s trade flows with Europe, North America and South America at risk due to the blockage of the Suez Canal, the Department of Commerce has worked out an action plan to cope with the crisis, including possibly re-routing shipments through the Cape of Good Hope.

More than 200 vessels are waiting on the North and South sides of the Suez Canal and about 60 vessels are joining this queue daily.

“If two more days are taken before the efforts result in clearance of the canal (digging on both sides, extra barges being added on every high tide, tugboats, etc. to straighten the stuck vessel), the total backlog created would be about 350 vessels.

Export promotion agencies have been asked to identify cargo with perishable items that need priority movement. Container Shipping Lines Association was advised to explore the option of re-routing ships via the Cape of Good Hope.

“Such re-routing usually takes 15 additional days’ time,” officials were informed at a meeting. Shipping firms have promised to honour existing freight contracts, while ports have been advised to be ready for a bunching up of vessels once the canal is unblocked.

Move health to Concurrent list #GS3 #Economy

Health should be shifted to the Concurrent list under the Constitution, and a developmental finance institution (DFI) dedicated to healthcare investments set up.

Making a case for enhancing government spending on health to 2.5% of GDP by 2025, Mr. Singh said primary healthcare should be a fundamental commitment of all States in particular and should be allocated at least two-thirds of such spending.

Bringing health into the Concurrent list would give the Centre greater flexibility to enact regulatory changes and reinforce the obligation of all stakeholders towards providing better healthcare. Addressing the NATHEALTH summit, he said the health sector was in dire need of a DFI similar to the one being set up to stimulate infrastructure investments.

Such a DFI would increase healthcare access in tier-2 and tier-3 cities and also come in with technical assistance that ensures proper usage of funds. He also emphasised the importance of universalising healthcare insurance as a large section of the society still remained uncovered.

“While the PMJAY covers the bottom two income quintiles, commercial insurance largely covers top-income quintile, thereby creating a ‘missing middle’ class in between.

“This refers to people in the middle two income quintiles, where the population is not rich enough to afford commercial insurance and not poor enough to be covered under government-sponsored health insurance schemes.

How the electoral bonds scheme has worked so far, and why it has been challenged in SC #GS3 #Economy

Supreme Court dismissed petitions seeking to stay the sale of fresh electoral bonds ahead of Assembly elections in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry. Although the court said there is no justification to stay the current sale, the larger constitutional challenge to the electoral bonds scheme filed in 2017 is still pending.

What is the pending challenge?

It was filed by the Association for Democratic Reforms, which works for electoral transparency and accountability, along with Common Cause, another non-profit. The court had admitted the plea and sought responses from the government and the Election Commission of India (EC).

However the case has not been heard in detail since then. Apart from challenging the constitutionality of the electoral bonds scheme, the petitioners had asked the court to declare all political parties as public offices to bring them under the ambit of the Right to Information Act and compel political parties to disclose their income and expenditure.

Friday’s ruling came on another plea by the petitioners seeking a stay on the current sale, until the court decides on the pending petition.

What are electoral bonds?

Announced in the 2017 Union Budget, electoral bonds are interest-free bearer instruments used to donate money anonymously to political parties. A bearer instrument does not carry any information about the buyer or payee, and the holder of the instrument (which is the political party) is presumed to be its owner.

The bonds are sold in multiples of Rs 1,000, Rs 10,000, Rs 1 lakh, Rs 10 lakh, and Rs 1 crore, and State Bank of India is the only bank authorised to sell them. Donors can buy and subsequently donate bonds to a political party, which can encash the bonds through its verified account within 15 days.

There is no limit on the number of bonds an individual or company can purchase. If a party hasn’t enchased any bonds within 15 days, SBI deposits these into the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. A total of 12,924 electoral bonds worth Rs 6534.78 crore have been sold in 15 phases between March 2018 and January 2021.

When first announced in then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s Budget speech of 2017, electoral bonds were understood to be a way for companies to make anonymous donations. However, the fine print of the notification has revealed that even individuals, groups of individuals, NGOs, religious and other trusts are permitted to donate via electoral bonds without disclosing their details.

Why have they been challenged?

The point of contention is the anonymity provided to donors of electoral bonds. Through an amendment to the Finance Act 2017, the Centre has exempted parties from disclosing donations received through electoral bonds. In other words, they need not disclose these details in their mandatory contribution reports to the Election Commission every year.

This means voters will not know which individual, company, or organisation has funded which party, and to what extent. Before the introduction of electoral bonds, parties had to disclose details of all donors who have contributed more than Rs 20,000. According to transparency activists, the change infringes the citizen’s ‘Right to Know’ and makes the political class even more unaccountable.

“Moreover, while electoral bonds provide no details to the citizens, the said anonymity does not apply to the government of the day, which can always access the donor details by demanding the data from the State Bank of India (SBI).

This implies that the only people in dark about the source of these donations are the taxpayers. It may also be noted that the printing of these bonds & SBI commission for facilitating the sale and purchase of the bonds is paid from the taxpayers’ money by the central government,” the ADR said in a recent statement.

How popular are these bonds?

By virtue of the anonymity they offer to donors, electoral bonds have become the most popular route of donation. More than half the total income of national parties and the regional parties analysed by ADR for the financial year 2018-19 came from electoral bonds donations.

The BJP is the biggest beneficiary, having received Rs 1,660.89 crore, or 60.17% of the total Rs 2,760.20 crore received by parties via electoral bonds in 2017-18 and 2018-19.

What is the EC’s stand?

In its submission to the Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice in May 2017, the EC had objected to amendments in the Representation of the People Act that exempt political parties from disclosing donations through this route. In a letter to the Law Ministry the same month, the EC had asked the government to “reconsider” and “modify” the above amendment.

Asking the government to withdraw the new proviso, the EC had written, “In a situation where the contribution received through electoral bonds are not reported, on perusal of the contribution report of political parties, it cannot be ascertained whether the political party has taken any donation in violation of provision under Section 29(b) of the RP Act which prohibits the political parties from taking donations from government companies and foreign sources.”