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Current Affairs: 14 January 2019

NATION

Justice Sikri turns down Centre’s offer
  • Justice A.K. Sikri, the Supreme Court judge whose vote in the Prime Minister-led high-power committee became decisive for the removal of Alok Verma as CBI Director, on Sunday turned down an offer from the government to nominate him to the London-based Commonwealth Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal (CSAT).
  • The government had made an “oral” offer to Justice Sikri in the first week of December last year to nominate him as president/member of the CSAT.
  • The judge, scheduled to retire from the Supreme Court on March 6, 2019, heard nothing further from the government after that.
  • The removal of Mr. Verma led to a storm of public criticism. Following this, on Sunday, media reports appeared about Justice Sikri’s nomination to the CSAT.
  • The source said the position did not involve any monthly remuneration nor was it in the nature of a regular assignment. It involved two or three sittings a year.
  • The statute of the CSAT, which was adopted first by Commonwealth governments in 1995, requires the eight-member CSAT to comprise Commonwealth nationals of “high moral character” who had held “high judicial office in a Commonwealth country” or jurists of recognised competence with not less than 10 years’ experience. Their tenure is four years with room for one additional term.
  • The tribunal determines applications regarding non-observance of contractual obligations involving staff members of the Commonwealth Secretariat or international/intergovernmental Commonwealth body/organisation, and the Commonwealth Secretariat or Commonwealth international/intergovernmental bodies.
    It is not a nod for Mekedatu: Centre
    • The Centre has informed the Supreme Court that the conditional clearance given to Karnataka for preparing a detailed project report (DPR) on Mekedatu balancing reservoir-cum-drinking water project is subject to the amicable resolution of connected inter-State matters.
    • The Centre submitted that the conditional clearance for preparing the DPR was as per guidelines of submission, appraisal and acceptance of irrigation and multi-purpose project-2017. The technical parameters have not been finalised yet.
    • It said the nod of the Cauvery Water Management Authority would be a “pre-requisite” for consideration of the DPR for techno-economic approval by the advisory committee of the ministry. The government said it was fully conscious of the interests of farmers of the Cauvery delta and would not permit any activity detrimental to the their livelihood.
    • It argued that even the conditional clearance was based on the premise that the reservoir would help Karnataka fulfill its obligation to release Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu.
    • Tamil Nadu had submitted that the Mekedatu project in its present form violated the decisions of the tribunal and apex court for equitable apportionment of Cauvery water.
    • Karnataka had, however, termed Tamil Nadu’s grievances against the unilateral approval granted by the CWC to prepare the DPR for the project as “false, frivolous and vexatious.”
      Survey spots 3 new bird visitors
      • A waterbird survey conducted in the Upper Kuttanad region has recorded 16,767 birds of 47 continental and local species. The survey, conducted as part of the annual Asian Waterbird Census, has spotted three new species — Greater flamingo, Grey-headed lapwing, and Blue-cheeked bee-eater.
      • However, compared to the previous years, the number of winged visitors to the region has declined drastically. In 2017, the survey recorded 28,198 birds whereas 41,576 were spotted last year. According to B. Sreekumar of the Kottayam Nature Society and Harikumar Mannar, the birder who led the survey, the August deluge and subsequent delay in preparing paddy fields for the Puncha crop season could be the reason behind the sharp fall.
      • This year, the survey was conducted in 15 places.
      • It was jointly organised by the Social Forestry wing of the Forest Department, Kottayam Nature Society, and Alappuzha Natural History Society.
      • The Asian Waterbird Census is part of the global International Waterbird Census carried out each January as a voluntary activity. The survey would help understand the changes to wetland systems, change in migratory pattern of birds, and impact of climate change. The information would be used to promote the designation and management of protected areas, Ramsar Sites, Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas, and so on.
      Train hits killed 49 elephants in 3 years
      • In 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC) released ‘Eco-friendly measures to mitigate impacts of linear infrastructure’, an advisory document for mitigating human-animal conflicts. Despite this advisory, and many others issued by conservationists and organisations, deaths of wild animals in road and railway accidents have continued unabated.
      • The MoEFCC told the Rajya Sabha that 49 elephants were killed in Railway accidents between 2016-18 (nine in 2015-16, 21 casualties in 2016-17 and 19 in 2017-18). In the same 3-year period, three tigers were killed in road accidents while eight tigers were mowed down by trains.
      • West Bengal and Assam together accounted for 37 out of the 49 deaths of elephants on train tracks across the country. While the number of elephant casualties on railway tracks in West Bengal has fallen from five in 2015-16 to three in 2016-17 to two in 2017-18, the number of elephants dying in railway accidents in Assam have increased in the same period .
      • According to the Ministry, several notifications have been issued, including one on December 28, 2016, to Chief Wildlife Wardens, to implement precautionary measures for minimising elephant deaths caused by train accidents.
      • Jose Louise, a conservationist with the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), which has developed a mobile app for monitoring road kills, said that when the infrastructure was developed, “it was never thought it could lead to the death of so many wild animals.”
      • Mr. Louise said data generated from the app can also provide answers on regulating traffic and cutting wildlife casualties in the future.
      Nair rues delay in human spaceflight plan
      • India could have put an astronaut in space in 2015 had the original plan for the human spaceflight programme worked out, former ISRO chairman G. Madhavan Nair has said.
      • Mr. Madhavan Nair, who headed the space agency from 2003 to 2009, attributed the delay to political factors and the changed priorities of the subsequent ISRO management.
      • “But it’s never too late. ISRO now has a strong chairman in K. Sivan. The human spaceflight mission will be a turning point in the Indian space programme,” he told responding to ISRO’s formal announcement that it plans to put three Indians in space in December 2021.
      • According to Madhavan Nair, it was in 2005 that ISRO decided that it was time to think beyond the grand vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. 
      • The human spaceflight programme was a natural choice as a target for the future, he said.
      • “Human access to space had become very important for various reasons. One, ISRO had improved in terms of launch vehicle technology. Second, if we are to send humans to the Moon and Mars, we have to make a beginning,” he said.
      • In 2008, ISRO prepared a project report and submitted it to Space Commission. The same year, a small team was formed at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) to study various aspects of spaceflight and the technologies that such a venture called for. 
      • “In 2009, the Planning Commission gave the green light for the programme.
      Gujarat to implement 10% quota
      • Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani announced on Sunday that the State would implement the 10% quota in government jobs and higher education for the economically backward sections in the general category from January 14. 
      • This makes Gujarat the first State to implement the quota.
      Govt. re-promulgates triple talaq ordinance
      • The government has re-promulgated the ordinance banning the practice of instant triple talaq (‘talaq-e-biddat’).
      • Under the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Ordinance, 2019, issued on Saturday, divorcing through instant triple talaq will be illegal, void and would attract a jail term of three years for the husband. A Bill to convert the earlier ordinance, issued in September, 2018, was cleared by the Lok Sabha in December and was pending in the Rajya Sabha. Since the Bill could not get the Parliamentary approval, the fresh ordinance was issued. 
      • Seeking to allay fears that the proposed law could be misused, the government has included certain safeguards, such as adding a provision of bail for the accused before trial.
      India for Afghan-led peace talks
      • India supports the efforts of the government and the people of Afghanistan to build an inclusive nation, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said at a meeting with the Foreign Ministers of Central Asian countries and Afghanistan on Sunday.
      • The statement indicated India’s support for a peace process that will help end the war that has haunted the country for decades.
      • “The violence and terror imposed on Afghan people should end. It should strengthen unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country,” Ms. Swaraj said in her speech at the Samarkhand event.
      • The ministerial statement indicates India’s unchanged position regarding peace building in Afghanistan.
      • Last week, the Chief of the Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, had urged India to begin talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which did not receive support from the government with the External Affairs Ministry saying that India wanted the peace process in Afghanistan to be “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled”.
      • A joint statement issued after the Samarkand meeting highlighted the opportunities that the collaborative platform would provide for the people of Afghanistan and asked for Kabul’s participation.
      • The regional Ministers described Afghanistan as a “land link” in the region that will help in connectivity among the nations.
      At mini 2+2, India, U.S. review progress on pacts
      • India and the U.S. reviewed the progress on finalising two key agreements during the 2+2 intercession meeting last week, apart from taking stock of the overall defence cooperation. The agreements are the Industrial Security Annex (ISA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation (BECA), a foundational agreement.
      • The inaugural 2+2 dialogue was held last September and was chaired by the Defence and External Affairs Ministers and their U.S. counterparts. The third foundational agreement, Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement, was signed on the sidelines. As the next step in furthering defence cooperation, negotiations are on to conclude the ISA and BECA.
      • The U.S. has already shared a draft of BECA, the last foundational agreement to be signed.
      • The ISA is particularly essential as the Indian industry looks for a greater role in defence manufacturing. It allows sharing of classified information from the U.S. government and American companies with the Indian private sector, which is so far limited to the Indian government and the defence public sector undertakings. The ISA draft is currently going through the official process in Washington.
      • The next 2+2 dialogue will take place this summer, by which time India will have a new government.
      ‘Pak should boost ties with India, neighbours’
      • Pakistan should strengthen its ties with India and other neighbours instead of becoming a U.S. client state, former Pakistan Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar has said.
      • She said Pakistan cannot command respect in the comity of nations with a begging bowl in both hands.
      •  She said Pakistan must get out of the Afghan war and refuse to become a front-line state again. Pakistan had suffered the most damage in the Afghan war.
      India to grow crops for UAE, Saudi Arabia
      • Union Commerce Minister Suresh Prabhu announced here on Sunday that the UAE and Saudi Arabia had decided to use India as a base to address their food security concerns.
      • Mr. Prabhu was speaking to presspersons after meeting delegates from the two countries, along with representatives from 44 others, at a summit of the Confederation of Indian Industry here.
      • “The UAE and Saudi Arabia will use India as a base in addressing their social security concerns. For the first time, India’s export policy identifies the potential of agriculture along with horticulture, dairy, plantation and fisheries,” Mr. Prabhu said. 
      • The farm-to-port project will be similar to a special economic zone but in the style of a corporatised farm, where crops would be grown keeping a specific UAE market in mind. The concept has been accepted by both governments.
      ECONOMY

      Panel pulls up govt. for diverting coal cess
      • The 42nd standing committee on energy in its report on stressed gas-based power plants tabled in Parliament earlier this month has pulled up the government for diverting coal cess to compensate States for revenue loss post-GST, and recommended financial support to the stressed gas-based power projects in the country from National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF).
      • The NCEF was created out of cess on coal at ₹400 per tonne to provide financial support to clean energy initiatives and an Inter Ministerial Group chaired by the Finance Secretary was constituted to approve the project/schemes eligible for financing under NCEF.
      • The coal cess collected from 2010-11 to 2017-18 amounts to ₹86,440.21 crore, out of which only ₹29,645.29 crore has actually been transferred to the NCEF. The amount financed from NCEF for projects is only ₹15,911.49 crore, or only about 18% of the total amount collected as coal cess. “The Committee feels that the fund should be used for its intended purpose i.e. to support clean energy initiatives and it should not be diverted to compensate GST losses.
      • It recommended that financial support be extended to gas-based power projects from the NCEF. The Ministry of Power should pursue this matter with the Ministry of Finance, said the panel.
      • Out of India’s total installed capacity of about 345 GW of power, gas-based capacity is about 25 GW or 7.2% of the total. However, its share in terms of generation is only 3.8% as 14,305.30 MW of gas-based capacity is stranded due to non availability of domestic gas and unaffordability of imported gas. The consequence is that a large amount of assets in this sector have turned ‘non-performing’ or ‘unproductive’.
      • The revival will also help all these plants service outstanding debt of ₹50,000 crore with banks, he added.
      RBI warns of NPA spike in MUDRA loans
      • The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has raised a red flag over spike in non—peforming assets (NPAs) under the government’s flagship scheme to support micro enterprises in the country — the Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana.
      • Finance Ministry sources said, the RBI has cautioned that the scheme might turn out to be the next big source of NPAs that have plagued the banking system. 
      • RBI said that bad loans under PMMY had risen to ₹11,000 crore. The caution comes at a time when the country’s financial system is reeling under severe stress due to IL&FS crisis.

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