Current Affairs 21st February

Ease path for businesses: Modi #GS3 #Economy

States should work towards reducing compliance burden for citizens to ensure ease of living and promote ease of doing business, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, stressing the importance of a better coordination between the Centre and the States for the development of the country.

Twenty-six Chief Ministers, three Lieutenant-Governors and two administrators attended the meeting, besides Union Ministers, special invitees and NITI Aayog officials. The Chief Ministers of Punjab, Gujarat, West Bengal and Telangana did not attend the meeting.

Speaking at a press conference, NITI Aayog Vice-Chairman Rajiv Kumar said the farm laws were not discussed during the day-long meeting.

NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant added that agriculture issues which were discussed included aligning cropping system to agro-climatic conditions at district level for optimal resource utilisation and promoting water conservation.

Benefit of the NewsNITI Aayog six issues

‘Right to peaceful protest is a non-negotiable human right’ #GS2 #Governance

Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg has extended her support to Disha Ravi, the 22-year-old environmental activist who has been charged with sedition for allegedly editing an advocacy toolkit on the farmers’ protest, and sharing it with Ms. Thunberg.

“Freedom of speech and the right to peaceful protest and assembly are non-negotiable human rights. These must be a fundamental part of any democracy. The Swedish activist’s earlier tweets, first sharing and then deleting the toolkit, had brought the advocacy document to public attention.

Fridays for Future

 FFF India emphasised that the organisation has always condemned violence of any sort. If there is one thing [Ms. Ravi’s] activism has taught us, it is to raise our voices peacefully and respectfully for those at stake, to ensure justice for everyone.

India backs the Maldives on UN role #GS2 #IR

India reiterated its support for a greater role for the Maldives in multilateral affairs. Speaking at a joint media event in the Maldives’ capital Male, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said Maldives’ Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid is “best equipped” to be the President of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly.

The senior Indian Minister said multilateral engagement was “very important” in the contemporary globalised system and maintained that India had always been “supportive” of the “larger participation of the Maldives”, and added, “By joining the Indian Ocean Regional Association, rejoining the Commonwealth and by playing a greater role in the United Nations, Maldives has demonstrated its value in the comity of nations.” The Maldives rejoined the Commonwealth in February 2020, three years after it quit the organisation.

Mr. Jaishankar handed over 100,000 additional doses of COVID-19 vaccines to his counterpart Mr. Shahid.

Benefit of the NewsIndia- Maldives relations

Modi, Morrison discuss media Bill #GS2 #IR

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has discussed Canberra’s media policy with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The conversation was held against the backdrop of the Australian government’s negotiations with tech giants, which led to a temporary suspension of many Australian Facebook accounts.

Mr. Modi’s social media post on the conversation did not highlight the portion on the Australian Bill.

Under the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code Bill 2020, tech and social media giants such as Facebook and Google will have to pay local news outlets for using their content. The move is being studied worldwide as it will set a precedent in the use of Web-based news and content that may permanently impact the use of the Internet in Australia.

It is in this context that the discussion on the domestic Australian rule between the two leaders is being viewed as unusual. It appears that following the enactment, the Bill is likely to influence other democratically elected governments struggling to contain online exchanges.

Benefit of the NewsNews Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code Bill 2020

Wettest place on Earth sees decreasing trend in rainfall #GS3 #SNT

The quiet, sleepy, yet mesmerising village of Mawsynram trounced Cherrapunji to become the wettest place in the world. Mawsynram receives over 10,000 millimetres of rain in a year.

Decreasing trend

A recent study that looked at the rainfall pattern in the past 119 years found a decreasing trend at Cherrapunji and nearby areas. The team analysed daily rain gauge measurements during 1901–2019, and noted that the changes in the Indian Ocean temperature have a huge effect on the rainfall in the region. 

They also analysed satellite data and add that there was a reduction in the vegetation area in northeast India in the past two decades, implying that human influence also plays an important role in the changing rainfall patterns.

The traditional way of cultivation known as Jhum cultivation or shifting cultivation is now decreased and being replaced by other methods. Also, previous studies have noted there is sizable deforestation in the region. Our study also saw the decrease in vegetation cover and increase in the areas of cropland mainly from the year 2006 onwards.

Increase in cropland

The analysis showed reductions in vegetation with 104.5 sqkm lost per year. On the other hand, there were significant increases in crop-land (182.1 sqkm per year) and urban and built-up lands (0.3 sqkm per year) during the period 2001–2018.

The team noted that the annual mean rainfall for the period 1973–2019 showed decreasing trends of about 0.42 mm per decade. It was statistically significant along seven stations (Agartala, Cherrapunji, Guwahati, Kailashahar, Pasighat, Shillong and Silchar).

Northeast India has the highest vegetation cover in India and includes 18 biodiversity hotspots of the world, indicating the importance of the region in terms of its greenery and climate-change sensitivity.”

Rainfall patterns

The team is currently looking at the changes in rainfall patterns across India. “We need to conserve the vegetation or forest area, biodiversity parks, the hills and valleys in the northeast. Also, solid water management strategies are inevitable to combat climate-induced changes of water bodies and ground water. Long-term plans are necessary

Benefit of the NewsRainfall change pattern

An estimate of WASH across healthcare facilities in India #GS3 #SNT

The status of WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) in healthcare facilities is an important issue in development.

They estimate that improving WASH across the pubic healthcare facilities in India and maintaining this for a year would cost $354 million (Rs 2567,00,00,000 approximately) in capital costs and $289 million (Rs 2095,00,00,000 approximately) in recurrent expenses.

The study further finds that the most costly interventions were providing clean water, linen reprocessing and sanitation while the least expensive were hand hygiene, medical device reprocessing and environmental surface cleaning. 

A 2019 joint global baseline report by WHO and UNICEF had pointed out that globally, one in four healthcare facilities lacked basic water servicing and one in five had no sanitation service and 42% had no hygiene facilities at point of care.

Impact of WASH

A WHO document on WASH in healthcare facilities points out that 8,27,000 people in low- and middle-income countries die as a result of inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene each year. Also, death of 2,97,000 children under five years can be prevented each year if better WASH could be provided.

On a positive note, a 2012 WHO report had calculated that for every dollar invested in sanitation, there was $5.50 to be gained in lower health costs, more productivity and fewer premature deaths.

Worthy goal

It is noteworthy that ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation to all is one of the 2030 sustainable development goals of the WHO.

 The goal of our study was to gather estimates of unit costs for each intervention service unit from which we extrapolated facility wide costs. “In our calculation of national cost estimates, the proportion of healthcare facilities requiring intervention were estimated primarily from literature and not from surveyed healthcare facilities.

Inadequacies in proving WASH and also lack of infection prevention and control can lead to healthcare associated infections. 

Some of the pathogens to look out for are Acinetobacter baumannii, Enterococcus faecalis, Escherichia coli, Salmonella typhi, Streptococcus pneumoniae and many more. “These pathogens are commonly implicated as causative agents of healthcare associated infections because of their ability to develop resistance to antibiotics. 

Common healthcare associated infections include central-line-associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, surgical site infections and ventilator-associated pneumonia.

Antimicrobial resistance

In the fight against the spread of antimicrobial resistance too, the importance of prevention of infections cannot be overemphasised. This study was a part of a larger project to determine the cost-effectiveness of WASH interventions to reduce healthcare-associated infections among mother and neonates across the Indian healthcare system.

According to her, while this study forms the starting point for larger costing estimates, it also highlights the need for a concerted effort from local bodies, State and Central governments to sustainably address quality and inequality issues in WASH provision.

The intersection between WASH, infection prevention and control and antimicrobial resistance is unique in that it offers policy makers an opportunity to address multiple overlapping problems through interventions on WASH in healthcare facilities.

Benefit of the NewsAbout WASH

Conclusive land titling and its challenges #GS3 #Economy

The story so far: The Centre wants to reform the country’s land markets through a fundamental legal and procedural shift in how land titles are awarded. In 2020, even as laws for farm reform and labour code reform were being enacted, the government’s think tank, NITI Aayog, took steps to initiate land reforms. 

A Model Bill on Conclusive Land Titling was sent to States and Union Territories last June seeking their comments. In September, after many States failed to send in their feedback, the Centre warned that their agreement would be presumed.

How does the current system work and what will change in the new system?

India currently follows a system of presumptive land titling. This means that land records are maintained, with information on possession, which is determined through details of past transactions. Ownership, then, is established on the basis of current possession. 

Registration of land is actually a registration of transactions, such as sale deeds, records of inheritance, mortgage and lease. Holding registration papers does not actually involve the government or the legal framework guaranteeing the ownership title of the land.

On the other hand, under a conclusive land titling system, land records designate actual ownership. The title is granted by the government, which takes the responsibility for accuracy. Once a title is granted, any other claimant will have to settle disputes with the government, not the title holder. 

Further, under conclusive land titling, the government may provide compensation to claimants in case of disputes, but the title holder is not in any danger of losing ownership, says agricultural economist T. Haque, who chaired the Special Cell on Land Policy at NITI Aayog which recommended a shift to conclusive titling in a 2017 report.

Why is conclusive land titling needed?

The main advantage is that a conclusive system will drastically lower litigation related to land. According to a 2007 World Bank study on ‘Land Policies for growth and poverty reduction’, land-related disputes accounted for two-thirds of all pending court cases in India. A NITI Aayog study on strengthening arbitration estimated that disputes on land or real estate take an average time of 20 years in the courts to be resolved.

“Right now, because land titles are based on transactions, people have to keep the entire chain of transaction records, and a dispute on any link in that chain causes ambiguity in ownership,” says Dr. Haque.

He says the potential impact is extensive. “Once conclusive titling is in place, investors who want to purchase land for business activities will be able to do so without facing the constant risk that their ownership may be questioned and their entire investment may go to waste.

Land disputes and unclear titling also create hurdles for infrastructure development and housing construction, leading to costly delays and inefficiency. In cities, urban local bodies depend on property taxes that can be levied properly only if there is clear ownership data available. Ambiguity in ownership also results in a black market for land transactions, which deprives the government of taxes.

In rural areas, the need is even more acute. Access to agricultural credit is dependent on the ability to use land as collateral. Without being able to prove their ownership of land and access formal credit from banks, small and marginal farmers are often left at the mercy of unscrupulous moneylenders, entrenching themselves in a mountain of debt.

What does the model Bill propose?

The Bill circulated by the NITI Aayog in 2020 calls for Land Authorities to be set up by each State government, which will appoint a Title Registration Officer (TRO) to prepare and publish a draft list of land titles based on existing records and documents. This will be considered a valid notice to all potential claimants interested in the property, who will have to file their claims or objections within a set period of time.

If disputing claims are received, the TRO will verify all the relevant documents and refer the case to a Land Dispute Resolution Officer (LDRO) for resolution. However, disputes which are already pending in courts cannot be resolved in this way.

Having considered and resolved all the disputed claims, the Land Authority will publish a Record of Titles. Over a three-year period, these titles and the decisions of the TRO and the LDRO can be challenged before Land Titling Appellate Tribunals, which will be set up under the law. After a three-year period, entries in the Record of Titles will be considered conclusive proof of ownership. Further appeals can only be taken up in High Courts.

What are the difficulties?

The biggest challenge is that land records have not been updated for decades, especially in rural and semi-urban areas. Land records are often in the name of the grandparents of the current owner, with no proof of inheritance. Unless they are based on updated records, conclusive land titles could create even more problems. 

He says comprehensive village-level surveys with community involvement are a necessary precursor to the land titling process. Relying on current records or even satellite imagery will not provide the same accuracy as actual, on-the-ground, local surveys. 

However, local governments have not been provided with the resources or manpower to conduct such surveys. If surveys are not conducted, the onus falls on village claimants, many of whom have no access to documentation, to proactively challenge the titling during the three-year period.

The road map for reducing public sector role #GS3 #Economy

The story so far: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her Budget speech for 2021-22, announced a new policy for central public sector enterprises (CPSEs), which she said will serve as a clear roadmap for disinvestment of government-owned firms across sectors. “We have kept four areas that are strategic where bare minimum CPSEs will be maintained and rest privatised. In the remaining sectors, all CPSEs will be privatised,” the Minister said.

What goes outside government control?

The government had revealed the broad contours of the policy in May 2020 as part of the Atmanirbhar Bharat package unveiled in the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategic sectors identified at the time for retaining certain public sector entities within the government’s control remain the same in the final policy approved by the Cabinet. 

These are atomic energy, space and defence, transport and telecommunications, power, petroleum, coal and other minerals, and lastly, banking, insurance and financial services. While the initial plan was to retain one to four public sector firms in these sectors, this has now been replaced by the phrase “bare minimum presence”.

Once the government decides what is the bare minimum number of firms it wants to retain, the rest of the firms will be privatised, merged or subsidiarised with other CPSEs, or closed. For all firms in sectors considered non-strategic, privatisation or closure are the only two options being considered. 

The policy’s objective is to minimise the public sector’s role and create new investment space for the private sector, in the hope that the infusion of private capital, technology and management practices will contribute to growth and new jobs. The proceeds from the sale of these firms would finance various government-run social sector and developmental programmes.

Why is this significant?

A bold push for disinvestment of the public sector was expected soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in May 2014 and announced that the government had “no business to be in business”. This was seen as a clear intent to privatise a huge chunk of India’s large public sector, a legacy from post-Independence policies that placed government firms at the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy.

However, the first term saw little activity by the government on this front, barring an aborted attempt to sell 76% of its stake in the loss-ridden national carrier Air India. A few public sector enterprises were merged with other PSEs and the proceeds from the transactions counted as disinvestment proceeds in the government’s accounts.

In its second innings, however, there has been some enthusiasm to privatise, with a fresh push to sell Air India(lock stock and barrel,with 100% stake sale), followed by Maharatna oil PSU Bharat Petroleum Corporation Ltd. (BPCL), and the likes of Shipping Corporation of India, Container Corporation of India and Pawan Hans. The process for those sales is under way, although timelines and investor interest were affected by the pandemic. However, the process indicated a piecemeal approach to privatisation and created uncertainty.

The new policy is significant as it goes beyond such an approach and lays down a rationale for deciding the future ownership pattern of 439 CPSEs, including their subsidiaries. For instance, it is now clear that 151 public sector firms in non-strategic sectors (including 83 holding companies and 68 subsidiaries) will either be closed or sold. The policy also brings public sector banks and insurance entities into the disinvestment ambit for the first time.

How is this different from policies in the past?

This is the first time since 2004 that India is working on a slew of privatisation deals. Earlier, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government between 1999 and 2004 had managed to sell off majority stakes in a dozen-odd public sector enterprises, including Modern Foods, Balco, Hindustan Zinc, VSNL and a few hotels. A separate Ministry had been formed just for disinvestment, led initially by the late Arun Jaitley and then by Arun Shourie, who drove the process.

An attempt to sell Air India at the time had, however, got stalled in the face of a political outcry. Prior to that, the early 1990s saw the stock market listing of minority stakes in a bunch of public sector firms, a policy that was replayed when the UPA government was in office from 2004 to 2014. 

The new policy goes beyond the Vajpayee-era privatisation drive, which was limited to a ‘case-by-case’ sale of entities in non-strategic sectors, by stressing that even strategic sectors will have a ‘bare minimum’ presence of government-owned firms.

What is likely to be sold?

The government hopes to conclude the sale of Air India, BPCL and some other entities, where some progress has already been made over the past year. Ms. Sitharaman also promised the sale of two more public sector banks and a general insurance player in her Budget speech, along with plans to list the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) of India on the stock markets.

The Union Budget has estimated Rs. 1.75 lakh crore as receipts from PSU stake sales in the year, compared to its target of Rs. 2.10 lakh crore for 2020-21, of which just about Rs. 20,000 crore has been raised so far. However, the Finance Ministry mandarins are confident of achieving next year’s target.

What is the proposed process for selecting the CPSEs to be sold or retained?

The NITI Aayog has been entrusted with suggesting which public sector firms in strategic sectors should be retained, considered for privatisation or merger or ‘subsidiarisation’ with another public sector firm, or simply closed. A core group of secretaries on disinvestment will consider the NITI Aayog’s suggestions and forward its views to a ministerial group. 

Apart from the Finance Minister, the group will include Road Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari and the minister in charge of the administrative ministry of the public sector enterprise concerned. After the ministerial group’s nod, the Department of Investment and Public Asset Management in the Finance Ministry will move a proposal to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs for an ‘in-principle’ nod to sell specific CPSEs. 

The NITI Aayog is expected to soon formalise its recommendations on which of the 77 public sector companies in strategic sectors should remain with the government.

Public sector firms and corporations engaged in activities allied to the farm sector, such as providing seeds to farmers, or the procurement and distribution of food for public distribution, will not be privatised. 

Similarly, the policy excludes departments with commercial operations like Railways and Posts, firms making appliances for the physically challenged, and those providing support to vulnerable groups through financing of SCs, STs, minorities and backward classes. CPSES “maintaining critical data having a bearing on national security”, security printing and minting companies, will also be retained in the public sector.

What are the risk factors?

The turmoil in the global economy could impact the valuations of firms being privatised, as many potential investors may not have the appetite for bidding in these times. The prospect of post-deal scrutiny by audit and investigating agencies, like the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General of India) and the CBI, will be a source of worry for officials, with similar cases pertaining to the Vajpayee-era transactions still cropping up in courts.

Lastly, as economist Pronab Sen has warned, privatisation is a good idea, but doing it during a recession may dampen economic recovery as investors will end up buying existing capacities instead of embarking on fresh investments.