Current Affairs 26th January 2022

Centre to remind States again of IAS cadre rules #GS2 #Governance

The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) will send another reminder to States to respond to its proposal to amend the Indian Administrative Service (Cadre) Rules, 1954, with which Indian Administrative Service (IAS), Indian Police Service (IPS) and Indian Forest Service (IFoS) officers could be deputed to the Union government and Ministries without necessarily taking the State government’s nod.

So far, 16 States have responded.

Seven States — Haryana, Manipur, Madhya Pradesh, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Arunachal Pradesh, all governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — have given their consent to the proposal.

Five States — Odisha, Meghalaya, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and West Bengal — have responded to the DoPT, opposing the amendments. The Chief Ministers of three other States — Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana — have written to the Prime Minister to register their opposition.

A senior government official said that January 25 was the deadline to respond but as many States have not sent their replies, the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions will send another reminder this week.

The Union government is facing an acute shortage of All India Services (AIS) officers, and despite existing provisions, States are not sponsoring adequate numbers of officers for Central deputation, and the available officers are not sufficient to meet requirements, the DoPT has said.

As reported by The Hindu , the DoPT had earlier sent three letters on December 20, December 27, and January 6, seeking comments from the States, but after half-a-dozen States opposed the move and the rest did not respond, it further revised the proposal on January 12.

The initial proposal (of December 20), only had two amendments — first, States had to send a list of all officers available for the Central deputation reserve, and the “actual number of officers to be deputed… shall be decided by the Central Government in consultation with State Government concerned”; and second, in case of any disagreement, the State will give effect to the decision of the Centre “within a specified time”.

SC seeks ECI, govt. response on ‘poll freebies’ #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court sought responses from the Union government and the Election Commission of India (ECI) on the continued ‘tamasha’ of political parties promising or distributing ‘irrational freebies’ using public funds.

A Bench of Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, Justices A.S. Bopanna and Hima Kohli issued notice to the Centre and the EC on a plea filed by advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, represented by senior advocate Vikas Singh, to issue stringent guidelines to deregister errant political parties and seize their election symbols.

“The ‘tamasha’ has been going on for decades. Promises always remain as promises. Most of them, except freebies, are not implemented,” the petition said and contended that the offer of these freebies amounted to bribery and undue influence.

The court, however, drew a skeptical note about how Mr. Upadhyay, in his plea, named only a few, select political parties and States. Mr. Upadhyay said he did not mean to target only a few parties and offered to make all political parties respondents in the plea.

The court said it would start, for the time being, by issuing notice to the Centre and the ECI, which have been named respondents now. The court listed the case after four weeks. In the hearing, Mr. Singh submitted that parties, even in debt-ridden States, were promising/distributing freebies to garner votes and to create an uneven playing field before polls.

“Promise/distribution of irrational freebies from public fund before election unduly influences the voters, shakes the roots of free-fair election, disturbs level playing field, vitiates the purity of election process and also violates Articles 14, 162, 266(3) and 282,” the plea said.

It highlighted how the ECI had held a meeting with the political parties and issued guidelines which mandated that their election manifestos should not contain anything repugnant to the Model Code of Conduct.

Mr. Singh submitted that arbitrary promises of irrational freebies violated the ECI’s mandate for free and fair elections, and distributing private goods-services from public funds clearly violated the Constitution.

Rather than promising better rule of law, equal pay for equal work, clean water, equal quality education, quality healthcare, quality infrastructure, speedy justice, free legal aid, citizen charter, judicial charter, efficient police system, effective administrative system, political parties arbitrarily promised irrational freebies from public fund, he argued.

Inaccuracies, procedural violations’ in Great Nicobar EIA report #GS3 #Environment

The details of the recently released draft environment impact assessment (EIA) report for the mega development project in the Great Nicobar Island have raised serious questions related to submission of incorrect or incomplete information, scientific inaccuracy and failure to follow appropriate procedure. A public hearing to discuss the report has been scheduled for Thursday at Campbell Bay, the administrative headquarters.

The matter is related to the NITI Aayog-piloted Rs. 72,000-crore integrated project in Great Nicobar that includes construction of a mega port, an airport complex, a township spread over 130 sq. km of pristine forest and a solar and gas-based power plant. Andaman and Nicobar Islands Integrated Development Corporation Ltd. (ANIIDCO) is the project proponent.

The pre-feasibility report for the project was prepared in March 2021 by the Gurugram-based consultant AECOM India Pvt. Ltd. A committee of the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued terms of reference (ToR) to prepare the EIA report in May 2021.

Concerns raised

Ecologists and researchers have been raising concerns about this project for over a year (“NITI Aayog vision for Great Nicobar ignores tribal, ecological concerns”, The Hindu , March 21, 2021), and the recent draft EIA has not been able to allay those fears. Concerns begin with the role of the Hyderabad-based Vimta Labs Ltd. hired for conducting the EIA.

While the ToR for preparing the EIA was finalised only in May 2021, the report itself lists many instances of Vimta staff being in the field and conducting studies as early as December 2020.

How is it possible that Vimta knew the details of the projects and the needs of the EIA months before the contract was awarded and even the project details were finalised? This could have only been through the project proponent or the DPR consultant and appears a violation of the ToR, which had stated that the DPR consultant should be independent of the EIA consultant.

“The consultants appointed to carry out the draft EIA have only one empanelled expert on ecology and biodiversity in its team — and it is not clear what his area of expertise is. It is also clear that several of the ToRs have not been complied with, as admitted in the draft EIA Report itself,” says Debi Goenka, veteran environmental campaigner and executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust. He also points out that the rapid assessment study carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India and the baseline survey by the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), both appended as annexures, too were commissioned before the issue of the ToR.

‘Incomplete data’

There are also serious issues of of scientific accuracy and integrity where the data presented is concerned. Large parts of Section 3.9, which is on ecology and biodiversity, have in-text citations but no references. Tables with lists of plants and animals found in the island are incomplete and with no sources provided. The information in other places is internally inconsistent and/or incorrect. The area of the island is mentioned in one place as 1,045 sq. km, while it is 910 sq. km (the current official figure) in another.

The executive summary mentions that the Galathea port area does not record any coral reefs, whereas the ZSI study appended to the EIA, reports a coral reef spread over 116 hectares in Galathea Bay.

Chapter 3 similarly says 330 species of fauna are recorded in the island, while the same ZSI study puts the number at more than double at 695.

Institutional callousness

The EIA says in another place no migratory birds have been reported from Great Nicobar, whereas it is well known that these islands are located along two globally significant bird flyways and more than 40 species of migratory birds have been recorded from Great Nicobar

The callousness continues in the approach of the statutory authorities. The EIA report was expected to have details of the project proponent’s environment policy such as its standard operating process, procedures for highlighting violation of environmental and forest norms and for ensuring compliance with environmental clearance conditions.

All that the project proponent, ANIIDCO, has said in response is that no such policy exists and that they undertake to comply with all laws of the country related to the environment, forests and coastal regulation zone. A statutorily mandated set of requirements is being given the go-by, raising further questions on the validity of the EIA. Equally illustrative is the undertaking issued by the Directorate of Tribal Welfare, the agency tasked with the primary job of securing the rights of the indigenous people on the islands.

It first assures that “the right of the tribal shall be well protected and taken care of” and then goes on to conclude that “whenever any exemption from the existing regulations/policies/law of the land are required to be provided for the execution of the project, this Directorate will seek required exemptions(s) from the competent authority to that effect”.

‘Tick box exercise’

“Can there be bigger evidence that this EIA has been approached less as a document to ask important questions and more as an exercise in merely facilitating clearances and ensuring that the project goes ahead,” asks a senior tribal researcher who did not wish to be named. Environmental lawyer Sreeja Chakraborty says, “It is evident that there are serious procedural lapses, lack of transparency and a lack of any seriousness in this EIA process. The EIA has been reduced to a mere ‘tick box’ exercise and inspires no confidence at all.”

No interim order on FCRA plea #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to pass an interim order directing the government to extend the validity of licences of NGOs under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) which expired on September 30 last year, instead opting to pronounce its judgment first in a pending case challenging the very constitutionality of the amendments to the law on the flow of foreign funds into India.

A Bench led by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar was hearing a plea made by a U.S.-based organisation, Global Peace Initiative, represented by senior advocate Sanjay Hegde, which challenged the expiry of the FCRA licences of nearly 6,000 NGOs. The organisation urged the court to let these NGOs continue with their licences until further orders.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the government had extended the licences of 11,594 NGOs which applied within time. Mr. Mehta further questioned the locus standi of the petitioner, asking how an organisation based in Houston was concerned with the FCRA licences in India.

The court refused to intervene in the issue though it allowed the petitioner to approach the authorities with a representation which would be considered on merit.

India to extend immediate relief assistance to Tonga #GS2 #IR

India on Tuesday expressed “deep sympathy” to the tsunami-hit Kingdom of Tonga in the Pacific Ocean and extended an immediate relief assistance of $200,000 to deal with the disaster that was triggered by the explosion of a massive underwater volcano. “India has firmly stood by Tonga during times of crisis and devastation caused by natural disasters, as during Cyclone Gita in 2018. Disaster Risk Reduction and Management is an important pillar of India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans’ Initiative (IPOI) announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in November 2019,”

Shortage of reagents, funds hits sequencing #GS3 #SnT

Amidst the third wave of COVID-19, several laboratories tasked with genome sequencing are limiting the number of coronavirus samples they analyse for a variety of reasons, The Hindu has learnt, including a paucity of necessary reagents, a fund shortage or a deluge of sampling requests.

Some of these labs are part of the INSACOG network, the pan-India consortium of 38 laboratories tasked with monitoring the genomic variations in SARS-CoV-2.

An internal note by the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology (RGCB), Thiruvananthapuram, for instance says the “reagent shipment is highly impacted” and only limited number of samples would be taken up for sequencing. The institute however said it expected the shortage to resolve within a week.

The Delhi-based National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) refused to analyse cases (determining the variant) involving “adverse outcomes” and directed that they be sent to the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences, also in Delhi. “No samples to be sent to NCDC as they have run out of [test] kits,” said another note to labs viewed by The Hindu .

Both the RGCB and the NCDC are part of the INSACOG network. A January 10 note by the INSACOG made public on January 23 said India was now in “community transmission”, the first time a government body has conceded so. It said Omicron and its related variant, BA.2, was the dominant variant driving infections across the country.

That the true extent of the spread of the Omicron variant is unknown, is apparent from the same INSACOG note, which says only 517 instances (as of Jan 10) have been confirmed to be Omicron. This, when India had started to report over 1,00,000 cases every day.

One scientist, connected to the genome sequencing effort, said on condition of anonymity that genome sequencing relied almost entirely on imported chemicals, and the case surge in Europe meant that supply shortages were inevitable. “NCDC is a blackhole with little data sharing.”

Some labs were not getting the necessary funds promised by the government and therefore unable to keep pace with demand, The Hindu has learnt.

Rakesh Mishra, former Director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, also an INSACOG lab, said not conducting enough tests ran the risk of not detecting future variants of concern.

Some laboratories relied on a genome sequencing technology from Nanopore, a United Kingdom-based company, that could be causing disruptions in supply.

West is ‘united’ against Russia: Biden #GS2 #IR

U.S. President Joe Biden declared “total” unity among Western powers on Monday after crisis talks with European leaders on deterring Russia from an attack against Ukraine, while the Pentagon said 8,500 U.S. troops were put on standby for possible deployment to boost NATO.

“I had a very, very, very good meeting — total unanimity with all the European leaders,” Mr. Biden told reporters shortly after finishing a one-hour-and-20-minute video conference with allied leaders from Europe and NATO.

In London, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office also said “the leaders agreed on the importance of international unity in the face of growing Russian hostility”.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said, “it is up to Russia to undertake visible de-escalation”, while NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned of “severe costs” if there is “any further aggression” by Moscow against Ukraine.

Also on the call were the leaders of France, Italy, Poland and the European Union.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said a force of up to 8,500 U.S. troops was on “heightened alert” for potential deployment to reinforce any activation of the NATO Response Force in the region, where there are growing fears of spillover from the Ukraine conflict.

“What this is about… is re-assurance to our NATO allies,” Mr. Kirby said. “It sends a very clear signal to Mr. Putin that we take our responsibilities to NATO seriously.” NATO also said it was sending jets and ships to bolster its eastern flank.

The French government announced that Russian and Ukrainian officials would meet, along with French and German counterparts, in Paris on Wednesday to try to find a way out of the impasse. French President Emmanuel Macron “thinks there is a space for diplomacy, a path to de-escalation,” an aide said, confirming that Mr. Macron would speak to Mr. Putin “in the coming days.”

Washington is trying to maintain transatlantic unity to build a credible threat of sanctions as a deterrence against Moscow. However, members of the 27-nation EU have starkly differing approaches and ties to Russia, which supplies about 40% of the trade bloc’s natural gas supplies.

NATO ‘on standby’

The U.S.-led NATO alliance said members were placing troops “on standby” and sending ships and jets to bolster eastern Europe’s defences, pointing to recent mobilisations by Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands. Mr. Stoltenberg said the alliance “will continue to take all necessary measures to protect” members. The Kremlin accused NATO of “hysteria.”

It also claimed that Ukrainian troops fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country could launch an offensive, prompting President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office to say that Ukraine will not “succumb to provocations.”