Daily Current Affairs : 20th and 21st October 2020

Daily Current Affairs for UPSC CSE

Topics Covered

  1. Malabar Exercise
  2. Fertiliser Subsidy
  3. Poll Expenditure 
  4. Hybrid model of ‘smart’ fence
  5. India – Taiwan
  6. Kaleshwaram Project
  7. Asafoetida 
  8. Buy Back of Shares
  9. Facts for Prelims

1 . Malabar Exercise


Context : Ministry of Defence on Monday announced that Australia would join the Malabar 2020 naval exercise, consisting of India, Japan and the U.S., to be held next month, more than three years after Australia first requested to join.

Background

  • Australia joined the exercise once in 2007 and it drew a sharp response from Beijing.
  • In April 2017, Australia made a request for observer status in the trilateral exercise and since then, it has made repeated requests to join the exercises.
  • In January 2018, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had said talks on the Malabar exercises were “progressing well”. However, India did not include Australia in the exercises in 2018 and 2019.
  • Following an invitation from India this year, Australia have decided to participate in Exercise Malabar 2020.
  • This will formally bring together the militaries of the four countries in the Quad group.

About Malabar 2020

  • The exercise is scheduled to be held by the end of November.
  • In 2018, the exercise was conducted off the coast of Guam in the Philippine Sea, off the coast the Japan in 2019 and was expected to be held in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea this year. This year, the exercise had been planned on a ‘non-contact – at sea’ format.

About Malabar exercise

  • Exercise Malabar began as a bilateral naval exercise between India and the U.S. in 1992, and was expanded into a trilateral format with the inclusion of Japan in 2015.
  • The exercise has been more regular since 2004 with other Asian nations joining in the annual event.

Significance of inclusion of Australia

  • This decision could bring all Quad countries together as part of the annual war games. India is already a member of the Quad and attended the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue held in November 2019. Quad is the informal strategic dialogue between India, the USA, Japan and Australia with a shared objective to ensure and support a free, open and prosperous” Indo-Pacific region.
  • Australia’s inclusion can be seen as a possible first step towards the militarisation of the Quad coalition, something Beijing has opposed in the past. China has been uncomfortable with the informal coalition of four democracies, which was first formed in 2004 to help nations in the Indo-Pacific after the tsunami and revived in 2017. Post the coronavirus pandemic, the grouping has been coordinating efforts every month with Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand.
  • The inclusion would also mark a major shift for India’s Indo-Pacific plans.

2 . Fertiliser Subsidy


Context : The Centre is working on a plan to restrict the number of fertiliser bags that individual farmers can buy during any cropping season. What are the implications, including for its fertiliser subsidy bill?

What is fertiliser subsidy?

  • Farmers buy fertilisers at MRPs (maximum retail price) below their normal supply-and-demand-based market rates or what it costs to produce/import them.
  • The MRP of neem-coated urea, for instance, is fixed by the government at Rs 5,922.22 per tonne, whereas its average cost-plus price payable to domestic manufacturers and importers comes to around Rs 17,000 and Rs 23,000 per tonne, respectively. The difference, which varies according to plant-wise production cost and import price, is footed by the Centre as subsidy.
  • The MRPs of non-urea fertilisers are decontrolled or fixed by the companies. The Centre, however, pays a flat per-tonne subsidy on these nutrients to ensure they are priced at “reasonable levels”. The per-tonne subsidy is currently Rs 10,231 for di-ammonium phosphate (DAP), Rs 6,070 for muriate of potash (MOP) and Rs 8,380 for the popular ‘10:26:26’ complex fertiliser, with their corresponding average MRPs at Rs 24,000, Rs 17,500 and Rs 23,500 per tonne, respectively.
  • Decontrolled fertilisers, thus, retail way above urea, while they also attract lower subsidy.

How is the subsidy paid and who gets it?

  • The subsidy goes to fertiliser companies, although its ultimate beneficiary is the farmer who pays MRPs less than the market-determined rates. Companies, until recently, were paid after their bagged material had been dispatched and received at a district’s railhead point or approved godown.
  • From March 2018, a new so-called direct benefit transfer (DBT) system was introduced, wherein subsidy payment to the companies would happen only after actual sales to farmers by retailers. Each retailer now has a point-of-sale (PoS) machine linked to the Department of Fertilisers’ e-Urvarak DBT portal. Anybody buying subsidised fertilisers is required to furnish his/her Aadhaar unique identity or Kisan Credit Card number. The quantities of the individual fertilisers purchased, along with the buyer’s name and biometric authentication, have to be captured on the PoS device. Only upon the sale getting registered on the e-Urvarak platform can a company claim subsidy, with these being processed on a weekly basis and payments remitted electronically to its bank account.

What was the new payment system’s underlying purpose?

  • The main motive is to curb diversion. This is natural with any under-priced product, more so in urea, whose basic MRP (excluding taxes and neem-coating cost) has been raised by hardly 11% from Rs 4,830 to Rs 5,360 per tonne since April 2010. The same period — from when all other fertilisers were decontrolled — has seen the per-tonne MRP of DAP rise from Rs 9,350 to Rs 24,000, while similarly going up for MOP (Rs 4,455 to Rs 17,500) and ‘10:26:26’ (Rs 7,197 to Rs 23,500).
  • Being super-subsidised, urea is always prone to diversion for non-agricultural use — as a binder by plywood/particle board makers, cheap protein source by animal feed manufacturers or adulterant by milk vendors — apart from being smuggled to Nepal and Bangladesh. The scope for leakage was more in the earlier system, right from the point of dispatch till the retailer end.
  • With DBT, pilferage happens only at the retailer level, as there is no subsidy payment till sales are made through POS machines and subject to the buyers’ biometric authentication.

What is the next step being proposed?

  • At present, the Centre is following a “no denial” policy. Anybody, non-farmers included, can purchase any quantity of fertilisers through the PoS machines. That obviously allows for bulk buying by unintended beneficiaries, who are not genuine or deserving farmers.
  • While there is a limit of 100 bags that an individual can purchase at one time, it does not stop anyone from buying any number of times. One plan under discussion is to cap the total number of subsidised fertiliser bags that any person can buy during an entire kharif or rabi cropping season. This, it is expected, would end even retail-level diversion and purchases by large buyers masquerading as farmers.

What’s the way forward?

  • The time has come to seriously consider paying farmers a flat per-acre cash subsidy that they can use to purchase any fertiliser. The amount could vary, depending on the number of crops grown and whether the land is irrigated or not.
  • This is, perhaps, the only sustainable solution to prevent diversion and also encourage judicious application of fertilisers, with the right nutrient (macro and micro) combination based on proper soil testing and crop-specific requirements.

3 . Poll Expenditure 


Context : The Law Ministry has increased the ceiling on poll expenditure for Assembly and Lok Sabha elections by 10%. The move follows a recommendation by the Election Commission in view of curbs imposed during the coronavirus [COVID-19] pandemic.

Background

  • Over a month ago, the EC had recommended a 10% increase in expenditure for all elections to be held during the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping in mind the problems that candidates may face while campaigning under the various COVID protocol laid down by the poll panel.
  • The last time the expenditure ceiling was enhanced was in 2014 just ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.

Details of the Increase in Expenditure Limit

  • The notification issued by the Law Ministry said the maximum expenditure a candidate can incur for campaigning in Lok Sabha polls is now Rs 77 lakh. It was so far Rs 70 lakh.
  • For Assemblies, it has been hiked from Rs 28 lakh to Rs 30.8 lakh. The maximum expenditure limit for candidates to spend for their campaigning varies from state to state
  • The ceiling on poll expenditure varies across States, with candidates in Assembly elections in bigger States like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu now allowed to spend up to ₹30.8 lakhs as against ₹28 lakhs earlier.
  • For a candidate contesting a Lok Sabha poll in these States, the revised ceiling on poll expenditure is now ₹77 lakhs instead of the earlier amount of ₹70 lakhs.
  • Goa, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and a few Union Territories, based on the size of their constituencies and population, have a lower ceiling on poll expenditure. Here while the enhanced ceiling for a Lok Sabha candidate is now ₹59.4 lakhs those contesting an Assembly can spend up to ₹22 lakhs.

Need for Campaign expenditure Limits

  • Limits on campaign expenditure are meant to provide a level-playing field for everyone contesting elections.
  • It ensures that a candidate can’t win only because she is rich.
  • The 255th Report of the Law Commission on electoral reforms argued that unregulated or under-regulated election financing could lead to “lobbying and capture, where a sort of quid pro quo transpires between big donors and political parties/candidates”.

Previous Ceiling Limits

  • The Election Commission (EC) imposes limits on campaign expenditure incurred by a candidate, not political parties.
  • Expenditure by a Lok Sabha candidate was capped between Rs 50 lakh and Rs 70 lakh, depending on the state she is fighting from.
  • In Assembly elections, the ceiling is between Rs 20 lakh and Rs 28 lakh.
  • This includes money spent by a political party or a supporter towards the candidate’s campaign. However, expenses incurred either by a party or the leader of a party for propagating the party’s programme are not covered.
  • Candidates must mandatorily file a true account of election expenses with the EC. An incorrect account, or expenditure beyond the ceiling can attract disqualification for up to three years under Section 10A of The Representation of the People Act, 1951.

Effectiveness of cap

  • There is evidence to suggest that candidates may be spending beyond their ceilings. An analysis of expenses for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections by the nonprofit Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) found that even though candidates complained that the EC’s limits were too low and unrealistic, as many as 176 MPs (33%) had declared election expenses that were less than 50% of the limit in their constituency — indicating that candidates may not be providing true accounts of their poll expenses to the EC.

4 . Hybrid model of ‘smart’ fence


Context : A hybrid model is now being adopted instead of smart fencing system due to higher cost

Background

  • The Army has significantly improved its electronic surveillance along the Line of Control (LoC) to check infiltration, and work on converting the existing border fence into a smart fence integrated with several sensors is under way
  • However, there is a rethink on converting the entire fence over a 700 km stretch into a smart one due to the high cost. A hybrid model is now being adopted.

About Smart Fencing

  • Smart fencing uses a number of devices for surveillance, communication and data storage
  • Sensors like thermal imager, underground sensors, fiber optical sensors, radar and sonar will be mounted on different platforms like aerostat, tower and poles as part of the smart fence
  • The ‘laser fence’ and other gadgets have been integrated and a CCTV-like feed will be given to a
    BSF post so that immediate action can be taken against any intrusion or infiltration attempt
  • The initiative is part of the comprehensive integrated border management system (CIBMS) proposed to be deployed at these two borders by the Modi government as part of its decision to completely seal the two borders to stop infiltration and illegal migration.
  • The new system provides for round-the-clock surveillance on the border and in different weather conditions be it dust storm, fog or rain
  • The proposal for a hi-tech fence was to cost around ₹10 crore for 2.4 km.

About the Hybrid Model

  • The new hybrid model of the smart fence being tested will cost around ₹10 lakh per km and 60 km is being attempted this year
  • This has some rudimentary smartisation. The fence will be integrated with LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors, infrared sensors and cameras among others.

Current Fence

  • The existing fence called the Anti-Infiltration Obstacle System (AIOS) is located about 700 m from the LoC. The double row fence consisting of concertina wire was constructed between 2003 and 2005.
  • With its high rate of degradation every year due to snow, the Army came up with a proposal to install a smart fence with various sensors integrated into it and a pilot project was subsequently taken up.

5 . India – Taiwan


Context : China on Tuesday asked India to approach ties with Taiwan “prudently and properly” and said it would “firmly oppose” any official exchanges between New Delhi and Taipei.

India’s relations with Taiwan

  • India and Taiwan do not have formal diplomatic relations but since 1995, both sides have maintained representative offices in each other’s capitals that function as de facto embassies. However, in a sign of the sensitivities involved, both offices don’t mention the word “Taiwan” in their names. Taiwan has the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center in New Delhi, and India has the India Taipei Association in Taipei.
  • India has backed the “one-China principle”, whereby countries formally recognise and have diplomatic ties only with China, and this has found mention in bilateral documents. In mid-2018, when relations between India and China were on the mend following the military standoff at Doklam, state-run Air India changed the name of Taiwan to Chinese Taipei on its website, in line with similar moves by other airlines following protests from Beijing. At the time, the external affairs ministry spokesperson had said the decision was “entirely consistent with international norms and our own position on Taiwan since 1949”.
  • However, India and Taiwan recently posted highly regarded diplomats as de facto envoys in each other’s capitals, signalling a desire to give impetus to their ties.
  • India and Taiwan in 2018 already signed a bilateral investment agreement. India-Taiwan trade ties have expanded since and Taiwanese firms are prominent investors in India, although India and Taiwan do not maintain formal diplomatic relations.

China’s position

  • At the end of China’s civil war, the defeated nationalists made Taiwan their seat of government in 1949 and the island nation was known as “National China” before the name of “Republic of China” was chosen for it.
  • The Communists, who established the People’s Republic of China on the mainland, have threatened to use force to reunify Taiwan.
  • Against the backdrop of China’s increasingly aggressive actions in recent months, fears have grown among experts about a possible military action against Taiwan, largely because of the US ceding its dominant security role around the world, though it continues to have a strong military relationship with Taiwan.
  • Taiwan’s defence minister Yen De-fa told Parliament this month the air force had scrambled 2,972 times against incursions by Chinese aircraft this year, reflecting the gravity of the threats.
  • Beijing has also been angered by the Indian media’s coverage of Taiwan in recent weeks, with the Chinese embassy sending a letter to journalists with dos and don’ts for covering Taiwan’s national day on October 10. President Tsai Ing-wen and foreign minister Jaushieh Joseph Wu have both raised their profiles in India with a string of tweets highlighting the need for closer ties between the two sides.

6 . Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project


Context : National Green Tribunal (NGT) has held that environmental clearance (EC) to Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project (KLIP) was granted ex post facto, after completion of substantial work, by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) “in violation of law”.

What is the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project?

  • The Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation System is considered to be one of the world’s largest multi-purpose projects.
  • It is designed to provide water for irrigation and drinking purposes to about 45 lakh acres in 20 of the 31 districts in Telangana, apart from Hyderabad and Secunderabad.
  • The cost of the project is Rs 80,000 crore, but is expected to rise to Rs 1 lakh crore by the time it is completely constructed by the end of 2020.

What does the project entail?

  • This project is unique because Telangana will harness water at the confluence of two rivers with Godavari by constructing a barrage at Medigadda in Jayashankar Bhupalpally district and reverse pump the water into the main Godavari River and divert it through lifts and pumps into a huge and complex system of reservoirs, water tunnels, pipelines and canals.
  • The project has set many records with the world’s longest water tunnels, aqueducts, underground surge pools, and biggest pumps. By the time the water reaches Kondapochamma Sagar, the last reservoir in the system, about 227 kms away in Gajwel district, the Godavari water would have been lifted to a height of 618 metres from its source at Medigadda.
  • The total length of the entire Kaleshwaram project is approximately 1,832 km of which 1,531 km is gravity canals and 203 km comprise water tunnels. There are 20 water lifts and 19 pump houses in the project.
  • The massive project is divided into seven links and 28 packages and involved digging of 20 reservoirs in 13 districts with a total capacity to store 145 TMC. The reservoirs are interconnected through a network of tunnels running about 330 km, the longest being 21 km long connecting Yellampalli reservoir with Medaram reservoir in Peddapalli district.
  • While the intricate canal network covers approximately 1,832 km, the farthest point is Narketpally in Nalgonda district which is 500 km away from the source. Except for a few stretches involving pipelines and canals, much of the project is complete. The project was inaugurated by Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao on June 21 last year. 

How important is KLIS to Telangana?

  • Kaleshwaram will transform Telangana into an agricultural powerhouse. The project will enable farmers in Telangana to reap multiple crops with a year-round supply of water wherein earlier they were dependent on rains resulting in frequent crop failures. This year, Telangana farmers have already delivered bumper rabi crops of paddy and maize due to better irrigation facilities and an extended monsoon.
  • KLIS covers several districts which used to face rainfall deficit and the groundwater is fluoride-contaminated. Apart from providing water for irrigation to 45 lakh acres, a main component of the project is supply of drinking water to several towns and villages and also to twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad.
  • Mission Bhagiratha, the Rs 43,000-crore project to supply drinking water to every household in villages, draws a large quantity of water from the KLIS and some quantity from projects on River Krishna. There is a burgeoning fresh water fishing industry in the state as the numerous water bodies created under the project are also being used to grow fish and locals are given rights to fish and sell.

What is the recent order of the National Green Tribunal?

  • Principal Bench of the National Green Tribuna ruled that the Environmental Clearance given to the project in December 2017 was void as the Telangana government subsequently changed the design of the project to increase its capacity. The NGT observed that by increasing its capacity to pump 3 TMC water from 2 TMC, which was originally planned, major changes were made in the project due to which large tracts of forest land and other land was taken over and massive infrastructure was built causing adverse impact on the environment.
  • The Telangana Government’s argument that the expansion of the project to extract 3 TMC instead of 2 TMC did not involve any infrastructural changes and therefore a fresh EC was not required, was not accepted by the NGT. “Extraction of more water certainly requires more storage capacity and also affects hydrology and riverine ecology of Godavari River. Such issues may have to be examined by the statutory authorities concerned.
  • The NGT also directed the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change to constitute a seven-member Expert Committee within a month to assess the extent of damage caused in going ahead with the project’s expansion and identify the restoration measures necessary. The Expert Committee will complete its exercise within six months. The NGT directed the Telangana Government to stop all work except the drinking water component and obtain a Forest Clearance from the Centre before going ahead with the project.

7 . Asafoetida or heeng


Context : Scientists at CSIR-Institute of Himalayan Bioresource, Palampur (IHBT), are on a mission to grow heeng in the Indian Himalayas. The first sapling has been planted in Himachal Pradesh’s Kwaring village in Lahaul valley last week.

What is asafoetida and where is it commonly cultivated?

  • Ferula asafoetida is a herbaceous plant of the umbelliferae family. It is a perennial plant whose oleo gum resin is extracted from its thick roots and rhizome. The plant stores most of its nutrients inside its deep fleshy roots.
  • Asafoetida, or heeng, is a common ingredient in most Indian kitchens –– so much so that the country imports Rs 600 crore worth of this pungent flavoured herb every year.
  • Asafoetida is endemic to Iran and Afghanistan, the main global suppliers. It thrives in dry and cold desert conditions. While it is very popular in India, some European countries too use it for its medicinal properties.

How is India entering into heeng cultivation?

  • Heeng is not cultivated in India. Government data states that India imports about 1,200 tonnes of raw heeng worth Rs 600 crore from Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
  • Between 1963 and 1989, India once attempted to procure asafoetida seeds, the ICAR – National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR), New Delhi stated. However, there are no published results of the same.
  • In 2017, IHBT approached NBPGR with an experimental project idea to cultivate heeng in the Indian Himalayas.
  • For research, heeng seeds were imported from Iran and they remained in the custody of NBPGR. There, the seeds were subjected to a number of tests while being kept under quarantine, to rule out fungal or infectious diseases, possibility of pest attacks and other adverse effects to an area if these seeds were cultivated in fields. This process can take up to two months.
  • After acquiring all regulatory approvals from Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), six accessions of heeng (EC966538 with Import Permit-318/2018 and EC968466-70 with Import Permit-409/2018) were introduced by IHBT, who have been carrying out further R&D since 2018. At this Palampur institute, the seeds were studied, and then put to test to see if they would germinate under a controlled laboratory set-up.
  • The challenge for the scientists here was that heeng seeds remain under a prolonged dormant phase and the rate of seed germination is just one per cent. “Each of the six accessions imported showcased varying degrees of germination.
  • To tackle this dormancy, which according to scientists is part of the plant’s adaptation technique to survive in desert conditions, they subjected the seeds to some special chemical treatments.
  • After about 20 days, the seeds –– all six accessions gathered from various regions of Iran –– germinated under controlled laboratory conditions
  • In June this year, the CSIR institute inked an MoU with the agriculture ministry of Himachal Pradesh. Jointly, the project will be spearheaded over the next five years in the state.

Which regions offer favourable conditions for asafoetida cultivation in India?

  • The agriculture ministry has identified four locations in the valley and has distributed heeng seeds to seven farmers in the region.
  • Asafoetida best grows in dry and cold conditions.
  • “The plant can withstand a maximum temperature between 35 and 40 degree, whereas during winters, it can survive in temperatures up to minus 4 degree. During extreme weather, the plant can get dormant,” said Kumar.
  • Regions with sandy soil, very little moisture and annual rainfall of not more than 200mm are considered conducive for heeng cultivation in India. Some initial experiments were conducted in high altitude districts of Mandi, Kinnaur, Kullu, Manali and Palampur in Himachal Pradesh. Besides, the researchers plan to expand their experiments to Ladakh and Uttarakhand. The institute will provide cultivation knowledge and skilling to local farmers. Seed productions centres are also in the offing.

What are some of the benefits of asafoetida? 

  • Published studies list out a range of medicinal properties of heeng, including relief for digestive, spasmodic and stomach disorders, asthma and bronchitis. The herb is commonly used to help with painful or excessive bleeding during menstruation and pre-mature labour. Being an anti-flatulent, the herb is fed to new mothers.

8 . Buy Back of Shares


Context : India has asked at least eight state-run companies to consider share buy-backs in the fiscal year to March 2021, two government officials said, as New Delhi searches for ways to raise funds to rein in its fiscal deficit.

Reasons for Buy Back

  • India is unlikely to be anywhere near its fiscal deficit target of 3.5% of GDP for 2020/21 as COVID-19 curbs hit tax collections and delayed efforts to privatise Bharat Petroleum Corp. and flag carrier Air India.

How Buy back leads to disinvestment and thereby raising Funds

  • The PSUs will buy back the shares held by the Government
  • It will reduce the govt shareholding in the PSUs, resulting in disinvestment
  • Buy back of shares are done with a pre-determined price per share for the buyback. During the Buy back process govt divulges its shareholding and the shares are bought back by the PSUs at a predetermined Price per share.

9 . Facts for Prelims


INS Chennai & Brahmos

  • A NAVAL version of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile was successfully test-fired on Sunday from the Navy’s indigenously built stealth destroyer INS Chennai, hitting a target in the Arabian Sea
  • Commissioned in 2016, the indigenously designed Kolkata-class stealth-guided missile destroyer, the INS Chennai is designed to carry the BrahMos surface-to-surface missile system, thus giving the ship the capability to strike at shore-based and naval surface targets.
  • An amalgamation of the names of Brahmaputra and Moskva rivers, the BrahMos is designed, developed and produced by BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture company set up by DRDO and Mashinostroyenia of Russia.
  • Various versions of the BrahMos, including those that can be fired from land, warships, submarines and Sukhoi-30 fighter jets, have already been developed and successfully tested in the past.
  • CRUISE MISSILES like the BrahMos are a type of system known as “standoff range weapons”, which are fired from a range sufficient to allow the attacker to evade defensive fire from the adversary. These weapons are in the arsenals of most major militaries in the world. BrahMos Aerospace was set up in 1998 with the aim to build such missiles.

Ghar Tak Fiber Scheme

  • Ghar Tak Fibre’ scheme aims to connect all the villages with high-speed internet 

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