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Current Affairs: 19 January 2019

NATION

Once again a palace fit for the Nizams
  • While Hyderabad’s heritage structures and sites are being seen as prime real estate up for grabs, the restoration of the Chowmahalla Palace to its age-old grandeur, putting it on top of the city’s must see bucket list, is a silver lining.
  • Once spread over 60 acres near the city’s Mecca Masjid, the palace complex with its eight buildings is restricted to just about 12 acres now. A big moment was the coronation of Mukarram Jah Nizam VII in 1967 after the demise of his grandfather Nizam VI Mir Osman Ali Khan.
  • After 1976, however, the palace complex was left untended and uncared for till Princess Esra, former wife of Mukarram Jah, stepped in to begin restoration efforts in 2000.
  • “We used a lime-friendly product and matched it to the original colour. We scraped off layer after layer and found the original colour. We used a 20% darker shade as lime fades as it sets in. The real challenge was marbling the front pillars, which was done for the first time. It took us six months of trial and error and close to 500 samples to get it right,” recalled Ms. Naik. The result is a stunning transformation in which pillars appear to have a glaze of newness.
  • Inside, there is a subtle change in the colour schemes and a more resplendent finish to the walls and ceiling with delicate daubs of colour on the intricate stucco work that dominates the building.
  • “This is an ongoing process. The upper floor of the darbar hall has been carefully restored taking care of the steel spans and beams,” said Princess Esra with a hint of pride.
U.P. govt. nod for reservation
  • The Uttar Pradesh government on Friday approved 10% reservation for economically backward among upper castes in jobs and educational institutions.
  • The nod was given at a meeting here of the State Cabinet presided over by Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, senior Cabinet Minister and U.P. government spokesperson Shrikant Sharma told mediapersons.
  • Uttar Pradesh became the third State after Gujarat and Jharkhand to approve the legislation which has to be ratified by at least half the State Assemblies in the country.
  • The Constitution (124 Amendment) Bill, 2019, providing for 10% reservation in jobs and educational institutions to the economically weaker sections in the general category was passed by Parliament in its recently concluded winter session.
  • President Ram Nath Kovind has since given his assent to the Bill.
  • Meanwhile, a meeting between Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma, who holds the Higher Education portfolio, and State and private universities, approved a proposal for implementing the 10% reservation for upper caste poor in higher education institutions after the Cabinet approval.
Rajasthan’s State bird may be extinct soon
  • Almost two years after the Rajasthan government proposed setting up of captive breeding centres for the Great Indian Bustards to boost their wild population, the wildlife activists here have called for enforcement of recovery plan for the country’s most critically endangered bird. The GIB’s last remnant wild population of about 50 in Jaisalmer district accounts for 95% of its total world population.
  • No progress has been made on the proposal for establishing a captive breeding centre at Sorsan in Kota district and a hatchery in Jaisalmer’s Mokhala village for conservation of the State bird of Rajasthan. The previous BJP regime had taken up the work in 2017 after the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change sanctioned ₹33.85 crore to facilitate the two centres and authorised the Wildlife Institute of India to be its scientific arm.
  • A group of wildlife activists, who met Rajasthan Minister of State for Environment & Forest Sukh Ram Bishnoi here earlier this week, offered to formulate an emergency action plan for conservation of GIB in order to help the State government tackle the issue methodically.
  • Tourism & Wildlife Society of Indian honorary secretary Harsh Vardhan, who was among those who met Mr. Bishnoi, said the decisions after the launch of the Project Bustard in 2013 had not been followed up for five years. 
  • The group pointed out that the WII had not nominated any scientist to work exclusively on GIB in the State despite the related issues discussed at a meeting held here in April 2017 to decide for setting up the conservation breeding centres. 
  • Mr. Vardhan said the group had suggested to the Minister that an incubation unit be set up at Jaisalmer district’s Sudasri — considered the sanctum sanctorum of the Desert National Park — so as to step up recruitment rate of the critically endangered species. 
  • Mr. Bishnoi told the group that he would visit the DNP after the ongoing session of the State Assembly was over and convene a meeting of WII, forest officers and wildlife activists to take the GIB programme forward. He agreed that the endangered bird should get the highest priority in the conservation plans.
Gaganyaan top priority: ISRO
  • The priorities for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) this year are working on the human space flight programme Gaganyaan and launching a major student outreach apart from the scheduled missions, said its Chairman Dr. K. Sivan on Friday, while stating that India is no less than China in its space programme.
  • “A separate Human Space Flight Centre has been formed in ISRO. The Gaganyaan project will come under it and that’s how we will target the first unmanned mission in December 2020,” Dr. Sivan said.
  • Responding to questions on the Chinese space programme, he said China had gone slightly ahead following its human space programme but, “Once Gagayaan is launched, we will be equal to them in all respects.”
  • Stating that this year ISRO is planning to spread its wings in new areas, Dr. Sivan announced a Young Scientist Programme (YSP) and termed it their most important project to reach out to students.
  • Under the YSP, three students, 8th standard pass, would be selected from each of the 29 States and seven Union Territories and will spend one month at ISRO during which they will be given lectures, get access to research and development and will be given experience to build a satellite.
  • “If the satellite is good, we will launch it. This programme is similar to U.S. space agency NASA’s student outreach,” Dr. Sivan stated. This year ISRO has planned 32 missions, including 14 launch vehicles, 17 space craft and one demo.
Rural housing achieves only 66% target
  • With two and a half months to go for the end of this financial year, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Grameen) scheme to provide housing for the rural poor has achieved only 66% of its target to complete one crore houses.
  • The Ministry of Rural Development still hopes to advance further towards the goal by the deadline of March-end, given that about 15 lakh homes have reached the late stages of construction with roofs ready to be added. Another 11 lakh homes have reached the lintel level, and may be completed in the next few months even if they do not meet the March 31 deadline. The scheme has been successful in reducing the average time of construction from 314 days to 114 days, according to an official statement.
  • However, there has been little headway with regard to one bloc of beneficiaries: the landless, who do not possess the land on which to construct the PMAY homes they are entitled to. In a letter to States dated January 4, the Ministry pointed out that only 12% of the 4.72 lakh identified landless beneficiaries had been provided land for house construction.
  • According to data provided in the letter, some of the most laggard States as of July 2018 were Maharashtra, which had provided land for only 890 of 1.39 lakh landless beneficiaries and Assam, which had provided land for 574 of 48,283 landless beneficiaries. In Bihar, only 55 out of 5,348 beneficiaries had been allotted land. West Bengal had not allotted land for even a single one of its 34,884 landless beneficiaries.
No adverse finding by SC: MoD
  • The Defence Ministry, which on Friday disputed The Hindu report on the steep price escalation in the deal for 36 Rafale fighter jets, said that “hidden deep in the article itself” was the statement that the price was 14.2% higher compared to the escalated price. “Probably this figure does not attract as much attention as a 41.4% higher price.”
  • The Ministry statement said that “the author has rightly pointed out” that the cost of the basic aircraft in the 2016 deal was better than the offer of 2007 after considering escalation but however, said, “Surprisingly, in the headline of the article, the author has compared the un-escalated price of 2007 with the price of 2016 without considering the escalation factors inherent in the price bid.”
  • Observing that even the UPA government had “rightly” rejected the European consortium EADS offer of a 20% discount in 2012 after opening of bids as violative of procedure, the statement said that consideration of this offer by the government would have again made it subject “to the charge of violating basic procedure”.
  • In September 2016, India and France signed a €7.87 billion Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) for 36 Rafale multi-role fighter jets in fly-away condition following the surprise announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2015 citing “critical operational necessity” of the IAF.
  • Referring to the Supreme Court verdict over the issue, the statement said the court had not found “anything adverse in the deal” and had refused to order an investigation.
  • “The Comptroller and Auditor-General (CAG) has been given access to all the files related to the Rafale deal. It is best to await the report of an authoritative agency like the CAG,” the statement said.
Northeast to see publicity blitz
  • Worried over the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the northeastern States, the Centre has decided to push a “region-specific” narrative to gain support.
  • A senior official said the government was planning publicity material to push the stand that the Bill would help many non-Muslims from Pakistan and Afghanistan who had fled their countries fearing persecution and were now settled in western parts of the country.
  • Submissions by the Home Ministry before the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Bill said 31,313 persons from minority communities (Hindus: 25,447, Sikhs: 5,807, Christians: 55, Buddhists and Parsis: two each) who have been given long-term visas on the basis of their plea of religious persecution in their respective countries want Indian citizenship. These persons will be the immediate beneficiaries of the Bill.
  • The Bill seeks to grant Indian citizenship to Hindus, Christians, Parsis, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs who entered India till December 2014. It reduces the mandatory requirement of a 12-year stay in India to seven years to be eligible for citizenship if they do not possess any documents.
  • In the northeast, the government will try to highlight the atrocities faced by Hindus in Bangladesh and the “change in demography” along the border.
  • There has been a strong resistance to the Bill in BJP-ruled Assam and other northeastern States as it would pave the way for granting citizenship, mostly to illegal Hindu migrants from Bangladesh in Assam, who came in after March 1971, in violation of the agreement of the Assam Accord, 1985.
  • The official said there was a misconception that all those excluded from the NRC would immediately get citizenship once the legislation is passed by the Rajya Sabha.
  • The official said people would be made aware of the declining Hindu population in Bangladesh over the decades, which had come down 8.4% in 2011 census from 14 % in 1974.
  • However, on July 19, 2018, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha that population of the Hindus in Bangladesh had increased by more than 2% in 2017 from the 2011 figures.
DMK moves HC against 10% quota
  • DMK organising secretary R.S. Bharathi has filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court, challenging the legal validity of the recent amendment made to the Constitution granting 10% reservation in jobs and higher education admission for the economically weaker sections in the open competition category.
  • In his affidavit, Mr. Bharathi argued that caste-based discrimination had been plaguing Indian society for about three millenniums. He said the division on the basis of Jati or Varna was due to the contents of the Vedas, particularly the Rig Veda, which differentiates human beings on the basis of their profession.
  • The arbitrary division created between priests and teachers (Brahmins), warriors and rulers (Kshatriyas), farmers and traders (Vaishyas) and labourers (Shudras) had led to their segregation in all forms of life beginning from dietary habits to social life and caste began to determine the value of a human being, he said.
  • Post-Independence, the Constitution abolished untouchability and reservation was provided for the oppressed and backward classes in education and public employment “to heal the wounds of centuries of discrimination and to uplift the social status of people belonging to these classes.”
  • Contrary to the intent behind providing reservation for the socially backward communities, the Centre had now enacted the Constitution (103rd Amendment) Act, 2019 enabling the State to make reservation based on the economic criterion alone which was unconstitutional and amounts to altering the basic structure of the Constitution.
India ranks third in research papers on artificial intelligence
  • India ranks third in the world in terms of high quality research publications in artificial intelligence (AI) but is at a significant distance from world leader China, according to an analysis by research agency Itihaasa, which was founded by Kris Gopalakrishnan, former CEO and co-founder of Infosys.
  • The agency computed the number of ‘citable documents’— the number of research publications in peer-reviewed journals — in the field of AI between 2013-2017 as listed out by Scimago, a compendium that tracks trends in scientific research publications.
  • India, while third in the world with 12,135 documents, trailed behind China with 37, 918 documents and the United States with 32,421 documents.
  • However, when parsed by another metric ‘citations’— or the number of times an article is referenced — India ranked only fifth and trailed the United Kingdom, Canada, the U.S. and China. 
  • Given India’s traditional strength in information technology and AI said to pose a transformation in industry and academic circles, the report was an attempt at mapping the state of AI-based research in India.
  • There were only about 50 to 75 principal researchers in the AI-space in India and they were tended to collaborate with each other. The Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Information Technology were among the key centres for AI research.
  • Healthcare, financial services, monsoon forecasting, retail and education were the key fields likely to benefit from AI and the field was “unlikely to lead” to a destruction of jobs — a key global concern regarding the field.
  • India’s national think-tank, the NITI Ayog, last June released a discussion paper on the transformative potential of AI in India that said the country could add $1 trillion to its economy through integrating AI into its economy.
ECONOMY

Inflation volatility is a challenge, says RBI Governor
  • Amid a growing demand for a reduction in interest rate in the upcoming monetary policy review scheduled for February 7, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) Governor Shaktikanta Das said wide divergences and volatility in inflation pose challenges for its assessment.
  • The case for a rate cut has been cited by economists and industry lobbies on the back of a sharp fall in retail inflation in recent months with the latest data showing December CPI inflation at 2.2%.
  • “While food inflation has turned negative since October 2018 and fuel inflation has been highly volatile, inflation, excluding food and fuel, remains sticky at close to 6%,” he said adding such ‘wide divergences and large volatilities’ pose challenges for inflation assessment
  • “Balancing the objectives of inflation and growth under a flexible inflation targeting framework would warrant careful analysis of every new data,” he said in his speech at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit.
  • Observing maintaining price stability in the economy was a basic mandate for a central bank, the Governor acknowledged that easing of global crude oil prices augured well for inflation outcomes. Mr.Das also spoke about challenges that Indian firms may face due to developments around Brexit.
  • On the banking sector, the Governor reiterated the central bank’s financial stability report assessment that gross NPA ratio of the banks could further come down to 10.3% in March 2019 compared with 10.8% in September 2018.
  • He also said banks had improved their profitability ratios and capital positions and also the provision coverage ratio which increased to 52.4% in end-September 2018 from 48.3% in end-March 2018.
  • The Governor, however, pointed out that the area where policy action is required is corporate governance in banks with a focus on transparency and accountability. He also described cyber risk as a major challenge.
  • Governor said the debt default of ‘a systemically important NBFC’ had highlighted the vulnerability and need for strengthening regulatory vigil on the sector and on asset liability management (ALM) framework in particular.
‘Let Indians have control of their data’
  • Flagging concerns about increasing data colonisation by global corporations, Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani on Friday urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take steps against the way some global corporations were ‘colonising data’ of Indian users in the rapidly growing digital economy in the country.
  • He also insisted that Indian data must be owned by Indians.
  • Addressing the Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit, Mr. Ambani said “data is a new oil and new wealth” and therefore must be “controlled and owned by Indian people and not by corporates, especially global corporations.”
  • Citing Mahatma Gandhi’s movement against political colonisation during the struggle for Independence, Mr. Ambani said India now needed a new movement against data colonisation, especially against global corporations colonising data of Indian users.
  • Calling the Prime Minister a ‘man of action’, Mr. Ambani urged him to make the movement against data colonisation one of the principal goals of the Digital India mission.
  • Last month, Mr. Ambani, chairman of the country’s largest conglomerate with interests in energy to telecom, had said data of an individual or business belonged to them and not to corporates who could use it to monetise from them.
  • It may be noted that the Indian government wants companies doing business in India to store all customer data locally, a demand some global corporations are not inclined to comply with.
  • Besides the Centre, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), in April 2018, ordered companies to store the “the entire data relating to payment systems operated by them... in a system only in India” so as to ensure “unfettered supervisory access” for “better monitoring.” Global Internet giants like Google had complained about the six-month deadline.
  • The Union Government has been considering a draft data security law that requires data centres for all companies to be physically located within India to store data of Indian consumers.

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