Green nod for Neutrino project suspended Fresh approval is needed, says NGT
Author: Shubashree DesikanT.K.RohitChennai
The Southern Bench of the National Green Tribunal on Monday suspended the Environmental Clearance (EC) granted to the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) that was to come up in Theni and asked the project proponent to make a fresh application. During the arguments, the Tribunal was informed that the Madhikettan Shola National Park in Idukki district of Kerala was just about 4.9 km from the proposed project site and the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border was just a kilometre away, making it a Category ‘A’ project. New facts The Bench comprising Justice P. Jyothimani and expert member P.S. Rao said: “In the light of new facts that have come to light during the arguments, it will be appropriate for us to keep the EC in abeyance.” The MoEF had called it a Category ‘B’ project, for which an Environmental Impact Assessment is not necessary, but the department processed it as an additional measure, a source said. However, under the guidelines laid down by the Ministry, any project that falls within 5 km from an inter-State boundary or within a notified national park or a sanctuary has to be considered a Category ‘A’ project that involves a number of processes before an EC is granted, the source said. Since it was near a national park, the INO was also asked to get clearance from the National Board for Wildlife. Taking into account these new facts, the Bench disposed of the petition and asked the INO to make a fresh application.
Ganga, Yamuna termed ‘living persons’ Uttarakhand HC names officials to act as parents for the rivers and tributaries
Author: Kavita UpadhyayDehradun
In a first in the country, the Uttarakhand High Court, on Monday, declared that the rivers Ganga and Yamuna were “living persons.” On March 15, New Zealand river Whanganui became the first in the world to be granted a legal human status. Order on PIL plea Five days later, the Division Bench comprising Justice Alok Singh and Justice Rajiv Sharma, while hearing a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition filed by one Mohammad Salim in 2014, gave a landmark judgment stating that the Ganga and the Yamuna must be treated as living entities. “…to protect the recognition and the faith of society, rivers Ganga and Yamuna are required to be declared as legal persons [or] living persons,” stated the court order. “The Ganga and [the] Yamuna, all their tributaries, streams… are declared as juristic [or] legal persons [or] living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person in order to preserve and conserve river Ganga and Yamuna,” it added. The two rivers, which are sacred for the Hindus, sustain millions of people in the country. In a state of neglect However, they have been in a state of neglect and even though several government initiatives, including the Centre’s Namami Gange programme, are aimed at restoring their health, not much has been achieved yet. The court ordered that the Director of the Namami Gange programme, the Uttarakhand Chief Secretary, and the Advocate-General of Uttarakhand would serve as “parents” for the rivers and would be the human faces to “protect, conserve and preserve” the rivers and their tributaries.
Circular worries medical institutes Government hospitals, last hope for the poor, may have to hike user charges
Author: Afshaan YasmeenBENGALURU
The Union Finance Ministry’s circular to all centrally-funded autonomous institutions asking them to generate 30% of the additional financial impact incurred on implementing the 7th Pay Commission has left healthcare institutions wondering how they would do it without burdening patients. Most institutions have now written to the Union Finance Ministry’s Department of Expenditure explaining the difficulty. The circular, issued on January 13, will impact nearly 600 autonomous bodies in the country, including major hospitals such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Jawaharlal Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) and the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience (NIMHANS), apart from around 200 commodity bodies, an equal number of research organisations and educational institutions, including the Kendriya Vidyalayas and Navodaya Vidyalayas. The worst affected are hospitals for whom it may be inevitable to hike patient user charges if they have to generate the funds. In NIMHANS, the country’s premier mental health organisation, which has close to 800 employees including 200 faculty members, nearly ₹165 crore of the total ₹370 crore annual government grant is spent on salaries and other employee benefits. Although there are no figures available on the additional financial impact of the 7th Pay Commission’s recommendations, sources said it would be a difficult task to generate 30% of the additional requirement. NIMHANS collects over ₹20 crore every year as user charges of ₹20 per patient. Waiting for direction Hoping that the Union Ministry will allow implementation of the 7th Pay Commission recommendations from next month, the institute has saved a portion of its annual grants for the purpose. “We can use the amount if we get any directions in the next few days. If not, we will have to explain why we have not spent the total annual grants,” the sources said. “It will be impossible to generate any additional funds without passing it [the financial burden] on to patients. When nearly 80% of those with mental disorders are not receiving any treatment due to associated stigma, mental healthcare should be made affordable at least for those who seek treatment,” a senior doctor from NIMHANS said. NIMHANS Director B.N. Gangadhar said it was a new challenge for the institute. “Keeping in mind patient welfare, we will discuss and come out with innovative ideas to generate funds. Although it is difficult, it is not impossible,” he said. The situation is the same in hospitals across the country. Although institute heads are not expressing their apprehensions openly, the issue has become a matter of concern for all. Sources in JIPMER, Puducherry, and AIIMS, New Delhi, said that the institutions will be left with no option other than to collect more charges from patients. Making optimum use of high-end diagnostic equipment such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and CT (computed tomography) scan machines is another option for generating additional funds, sources said. However, JIPMER Faculty Association President Gopalakrishnan M.S. said the move asking hospitals to generate funds is a double-edged sword. “While it will definitely hurt poor patients, it will also create accountability for optimal use of equipment in institutions,” he said. He also expressed concern that doctors might now hesitate to do the full set of investigations. “Earlier, a doctor would advise an MRI or a CT scan or any other investigations for a patient without a second thought as it could be done at subsidised rates at the hospital based on which we could take an informed decision. However, if the charges are hiked, it will mean out of pocket expenses for the patients and we will have to think twice before prescribing any tests,” he said.
Sea change: Hospitals like the AIIMS will have a tough task in generating more funds.V.V. Krishnan
Internships may soon be a must for technical degrees AICTE effort to make students more industry-ready
Author: Vikas PathakNEW DELHI
Technical education institutions in India will soon have internships as a mandatory requirement for the award of degrees. The All-India Council for Technical Education — the regulator for maintaining norms and standards in technical education — has set the ball rolling to make internships a mandatory part of technical education in the country. “For a beginning, we are asking institutions providing technical education to arrange for internships for 75% of their students. We will also help by trying to get industry bodies and MSMEs on board for this. The institutions can then contact these bodies to facilitate internships,” said a senior official of the AICTE who did not wish to be named. “Once we get this process streamlined, we will in about three years make internships a mandatory requirement for the award of degrees.” In other words, while the onus would first be on the technical educational institutions to put in place systemic arrangements to facilitate internships, it would soon transform into a regime where the onus would also be on the students to intern somewhere to become eligible for the degree. “The final vision is to ensure that those who pass out have interned and thus have experience of industry pace and requirements,” an official said. Vast purview The purview of the AICTE is vast: it covers programmes of technical education, including training and research, in engineering, technology, architecture, town planning, management, pharmacy, applied arts and crafts, hotel management and catering technology, etc. The Ministry of Human Resource Development – under which the AICTE is an autonomous institution – has also been in the loop regarding this change. Internships, it is felt, would make the students more industry-ready, providing a set of hands-on skills and experience of the work environment in the industry to complement their academic and theoretical insights into their discipline.
Developing skills: A file picture of a summer internship programme at a college at Paritala in Andhra Pradesh. V. RAJU
Mandate for renewal Uttarakhand’s unique challenges demand a concerted effort by the new BJP government
Heading into Assembly elections in Uttarakhand, the Bharatiya Janata Party had a clear edge after months of political turmoil in the State, that included a spell of President’s Rule and the Supreme Court’s intervention. Chief Minister Harish Rawat had sought to turn the elections into a referendum over the tribulations that his government was subjected to by both the BJP and its government at the Centre. At the same time, his government had struggled to defend itself against allegations of graft. In the event, the BJP managed to repeat its performance of the Lok Sabha election in 2014, when it won in all five parliamentary constituencies and led in 63 out of 70 Assembly segments. By winning 57 seats in the Assembly elections, the BJP has for the first time managed a decisive majority in a State that has traditionally returned close verdicts. By all indications, it reaped the benefit of anti-incumbency due to issues such as migration from the hills to the plains and out of Uttarakhand as well, lack of adequate employment opportunities and infrastructure, and persisting problems relating to the 2013 floods. In 2014, the BJP’s pitch on “development” received significant support and it has now promised to focus on the issue. Conversely, the Congress’s lament that it did not receive adequate Central support in both flood relief and reconstruction apart from developmental work in the State clearly found few takers among the voters, who simply chose the party in power at the Centre. The Congress also made the mistake of limiting the election campaign to a personality contest centred on Mr. Rawat. Stung by the defection of many leaders to the BJP, especially from the Garhwal region, and faced with the formidable challenge of overcoming the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the party came up short. The success of the BJP must also take into account the fact that 11 of its 57 MLAs are defectors from the Congress. By appointing Trivendra Singh Rawat as the Chief Minister instead of its hopeful former Chief Ministers, the BJP has sought to empower a loyal RSS hand who is close to party president Amit Shah and Mr. Modi. Despite the overwhelming majority for the party which should allow the new Chief Minister to concentrate on administrative tasks instead of constantly managing MLAs to defend narrow majorities in the House, he faces an uphill battle. Since the separation from Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand saw high economic growth till around 2012-13, justifying the bifurcation. But the floods had a devastating impact on its economy, and the long-time decline of the agrarian economy in the hills and the consequent migration of people to the plains have deepened the challenges facing the State. It will take a concerted effort to overcome them.
Pakistan’s headcount The Sharif government must conduct a census despite the resistance from various groups
Pakistan’s decision to launch a national census, after much delay, is a welcome step that would allow it to formulate realistic policies to address the challenges it faces. The data are critical as key federal decisions such as resource allocation for provinces and delimitation of electoral constituencies are taken based on demographic numbers. This would be the first census in 19 years. The government is supposed to do it every 10 years, but Pakistani authorities, under pressure from political parties and ethnic groups, have delayed the process. The Nawaz Sharif government actually moved into action after a Supreme Court order set a March deadline to start the process. The army has provided 200,000 personnel for security for the 70-day campaign. It is not difficult to see why traditional political parties and ethnic leaders oppose the data-gathering. Since the last census was conducted in 1998 by the second Sharif government, Pakistan has undergone major changes. There has been a massive influx of people into Sindh, while the population growth in Punjab is slowing down. But political parties in Sindh say many Sindhis in rural Sindh may not be counted as they do not have national identity cards. Punjabis fear the current edge they have in Pakistan’s politics on the strength of demographics may be diminished. In Balochistan, local political groups had demanded that the process be delayed till hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are returned to Afghanistan. The refugees have been excluded from the process following a ruling by the Baloch High Court. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, tribal groups have opposed the census citing reverse migration of locals and influx of Afghan refugees. But such challenges will always be there, given the influence of ethnic groups and provincial satraps in Pakistani politics. What is more important for Islamabad is to not give in to pressure to delay critical administrative decisions. The census is not merely an exercise of counting heads. It provides information on key indicators such as population density, gender ratio, literacy rate, financial conditions and employment numbers. As the 19-year-old census data are obsolete, it is crucial for the government to obtain an updated picture of the country’s socio-economic composition to make the right policy choices. The government’s announcement that it will go ahead with the census, even if under pressure from the court, also suggests an increasing sense of confidence in Islamabad. Pakistan is going through a relatively stable phase, economically and politically. The Sharif government doesn’t face any existential challenge and is set to become the second elected government in Pakistan’s history to finish its full term next year. Economic growth has also picked up. This allows Mr. Sharif to take some risks for long-term reforms. He should stay the course towards working out a realistic reallocation of resources and parliamentary seats to the provinces based on the new census data.
Sound, fury, but not much clout As it courts Pakistan and wades into Afghan diplomacy, the question is whether Russia is truly a world power
“Strategy is the central political art,” writes Lawrence Freedman in Strategy: A History. “It is about getting more out of a situation than the starting balance of power would suggest. It is the art of creating power.” If this is so, consider the case of a country that is economically smaller than Italy, Australia, or South Korea. Its economy has indeed shrunk over the past two consecutive years, and income per capita sits below that of Malaysia or Slovakia. Male life expectancy is worse than in North Korea. Worse still, the country has been sanctioned by five of its six biggest export markets, and its currency has lost half its value over the past three years alone. And yet, this country — which is, of course, Russia — has somehow succeeded in projecting itself as a great power in virtually every corner of the world stage. But as Moscow turns its attention to South Asia, courting Pakistan and wading into Afghan diplomacy, we should ask whether it has truly created power, or merely spun an illusion. Aggressive diplomacy Reasonable people can disagree on the strategic balance sheet. Territorially, Russia is in the black. It has annexed Crimea, controls a swathe of eastern Ukraine through proxy rebels, and enjoys access to military facilities in Syria, Iran, Egypt, and soon enough Libya. Diplomatically, it has driven a formidable wedge between Turkey and NATO, while deepening ties with Western allies from Israel to Japan. It has also persuaded China to sign an agreement on “global strategic stability”, while the two sides hold naval exercises in the South China Sea. All this has come at a cost. As long as Russia continues to fuel a Kargil-type war in Ukraine, it will continue to be battered by European and U.S. sanctions. Yet Russia’s trade with Europe is still four times larger than that with China, suggesting that Beijing offers a rather limited safety net. Russian defence expenditure is likely to fall this year and next, with nuclear modernisation taking a larger slice of the budget. Meanwhile, Russia’s ‘victories’ have also prompted the first-ever deployment of NATO forces at the Russian border, without the presence of the Cold War-era Warsaw Pact buffer. Even neutral states are alarmed, with Sweden to reintroduce conscription next year. Meanwhile in Washington, Russia’s audacious election meddling has made it a toxic quantity in Congress and in parts of the administration, making it hard to envisage a grand bargain, even setting aside the serious differences over Iran and arms control. In short, Russia has gained diplomatic influence at the cost of goodwill and growth, while enmeshing itself in several open-ended wars. But whether or not one judges this trade-off to have been worthwhile, there is a deeper point: influence demands investment. Russia has created power only where it has been able to change facts on the ground, usually by force of arms, and only where larger, richer, and more cohesive Western forces have dithered or abstained. In Ukraine, Moscow’s initial arm’s-length low-profile intervention faltered until Russian troops flooded in. Russian advisers in Syria, who were present long before 2015, could not stop the rot — until Russian air power showed up. Russia has been flirting with renegade Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar for some time, hosting him aboard the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov in January as an eye-catching gimmick. But it is Russia’s deployment of special forces to Libya’s borders this month that’s far more important. In all these cases, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, Russia is a bigger part of the conversation because it has taken risks, and put down chips. The South Asian game plan In South Asia, by contrast, Russia’s presence is largely smoke and mirrors. Its flurry of activity in the region is by now well known. Last September, Moscow batted away Indian objections to hold its first-ever joint drills with Pakistani special forces, having earlier agreed to sell four attack helicopters to Pakistan. In next-door Afghanistan, Russia’s moves have been even starker. In December 2015, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, declared that “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours”, while both Afghan and Western officials decried Russian support to parts of the insurgency. At the Heart of Asia conference a year later, Mr. Kabulov followed this up by playing down Pakistan’s role and rebuking an Indian journalist who had asked about this. Contrast this to the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, who told Congress in February that as long as insurgents’ “senior leaders remain insulated from pressure and enjoy freedom of action within Pakistan safe havens … they have no incentive to reconcile”. Then, in the same month, Russia infuriated Kabul by holding a trilateral summit with Pakistan and China. Russia’s intentions are plain. In systematically exaggerating the Islamic State’s presence in Afghanistan, the aim is to weaken the U.S. and discredit what, in actual fact, have been remarkably successful U.S.-Afghan counterterrorism efforts. Meanwhile, Russia can pose as a powerful regional broker. But a campaign of disinformation, bluster, and summitry can only take Moscow so far in the absence of any actual leverage. NATO countries have 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, while Russia has none. Indeed, even Italy (over 1,037 troops), Germany (980) and Georgia (870) are all more important than Russia on the ground. If the new U.S. administration increases troop numbers in Afghanistan, as seems possible, this will further constrain Moscow’s ability to persuade Kabul to attend similar summits which cut out the combatant powers. Steady economic slide Meanwhile, Russia is poorly endowed in other key respects. In economic terms, it is an irrelevance. Its trade with India, Pakistan, and Iran has actually fallen in recent years. Russian aid to Afghanistan is trivially low, and it is no position to offer concessionary terms for significant defence sales to Pakistan. While Pakistan hungrily absorbs Chinese investment and India looks globally for an infusion of capital, Russia has almost nothing to offer, beyond the politically opaque machinations of state-dominated energy companies. Much more meaningful is Russia’s defence engagement with India. Russian arms sales continue to be a strategic factor in Indian defence policy. One key aspect is the lease of a second nuclear submarine. A second is the sale of the advanced S-400 air defence system. These are significant long-run contributions to India’s subsurface operations and air power, respectively. Russia’s most advanced defence technology is certainly a rare and valuable asset. But these deals provide limited leverage. They are commercially important to Russia’s frail defence industry, and Russia’s market share is being ruthlessly shrunk by Israeli and American competition. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, it is Chinese arms — built on a Soviet legacy, Moscow would note, ruefully — that are cornering the market. Where does all this leave Russia? To some extent, prestige is itself a currency of power. If Russia appears ascendant, thanks to land-grabs in Europe and air strikes in Aleppo, it will be so. It will be sought by friends, consulted by neutrals, and discussed by all. But these efforts must have some solid foundation. There must be the possibility, if not the promise, of some economic, political, or military effect. In an age of geopolitical uncertainty — the rise of China, the growth of nationalism, and the erosion of U.S. leadership — hedging is prudent. Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India all have good reasons to reinforce ties to Russia, though each is differently placed to weather the potential consequences. But even if it had the resources, Moscow’s room for manoeuvre would be very limited. NATO is not going to pull out of Afghanistan entirely, China looms far larger in Pakistan and in the region more generally, and Russia’s Afghanistan-Pakistan gyrations have hardly endeared it to New Delhi. What are we left with? Sound, fury, but not much clout. Shashank Joshi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London
Framing the right prescription Strategic shifts are needed in the level of government control on the financing and provision of health
saachi bhalla & nachiket mor
India spends close to 5% of its GDP on health. While this may appear low when compared to 18% of the U.S., data show that Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries spend 8-11%, middle-income countries close to 6%, and India’s peers, the lower-middle-income countries 4.5%. By these measures, India’s health-care spending, while still somewhat low, is not unusually so. However, on an index measuring country performance on the health-related Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) indicators, India ranks poorly at 143 out of 188 countries. If we look in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), a measure that more accurately corresponds with our actual standard of living, India is the third largest economy in the world, at almost PPP $8 trillion. Given the large size of our population, our 5% allocation to health translates to a mere $267 per individual, a number far lower than the OECD average of $4,698. Yet, countries with comparable or even lower per capita health expenditures, including Indonesia, Thailand, and Ghana, are ranked better on the SDG Index at 91, 112, and 141, respectively, out of 188, and offer us hope and a few lessons. Interestingly, two of the most important differences between India and these countries are the extent of pooling of health expenditures and the level of government control of the health system. Pooling of expenditure First is the pooling of health expenditure: India has among the lowest pooled expenditure for health care; between 2004-2014, approximately 4-7% of households fell below the poverty line as a result of high out-of-pocket expense. Pre-payment and pooling of resources are critical to ensure financial protection against catastrophic health shocks. The extent of pooling is determined by the government’s tax allocation to health and insurance coverage in the country. India’s low tax to GDP ratio and allocations of around 5% of general government expenditure to health impact the total quantum of funds available. Countries such as Thailand which have a comparable tax to GDP ratio have prioritised health within their budgets and allocate 13% of it to health care. To increase pooled funds for health care, India needs to both provide a significantly higher level of allocation to health care in its annual Budgets, as in Thailand, as well as extend schemes such as the Employees’ State Insurance Scheme (ESIS) — currently a mandatory insurance scheme only for low-wage earners in the formal sector in India — to all employees. Gradually the informal sector, both in upper and lower income, can be included by making it mandatory for all residents to buy into national or state health insurance schemes as has been successfully done in Kyrgyzstan, China, and South Korea. Government control Second is the control exercised by the government on the health system: Successful health systems, the world over, including in entirely free market developed economies such as Germany, Switzerland, South Korea, and Japan, do not necessarily have the government as a provider. Nevertheless, they all have a high degree of direct government control on the services that are offered; the pricing of health services, referral pathways, and treatment protocols that are followed. Governments such as those of Japan and Switzerland exercise direct price controls on services like how much physicians and hospitals may charge. Similar to the control in some mandated drug pricing, setting a price control on what hospitals and physicians may charge for their services, are critical elements that India may consider. The other area could be instituting licensing processes for hospitals, similar to the Certificate of Need process in the U.S., which can help a regionally-equitable distribution of hospitals by incentivising the setting up of facilities in poorly served areas. It is clear that significant, strategic shifts in the level of control that the government exerts on both the financing and provision of health are urgently required. India can build on learning from core design principles from global experiences, including prioritising resources for health within government budgets, pooling existing resources, and greater government control over the health sector. It can also allow for a customised approach based on its context. Such a path will allow India to deliver on quality health care and equitable health outcomes to all of its people. Saachi Bhalla and Nachiket Mor are with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s India Office. The views expressed are personal
Bystander Effect/ Psychology Sickened by the reports of people casually walking past the victim in hit-and-runs? Social psychologists Bibb Latanï¿½ and John Darley came up with the concept of ‘bystander effect’ to explain such behaviour, based on the murder of a woman, Kitty Genovese, in New York in 1964. Genovese was stabbed outside her apartment and bled to death; bystanders did not assist, let alone call the police. Latane and Darley attributed this behaviour to a combination of two factors: the perceived diffusion of responsibility, the belief that others might help; and social influence — taking cue from the inaction of others.
Overweight and at risk On the association between BMI and liver disease
Author: R. Prasad
Men who become overweight and obese from an early age are at a higher risk of developing severe liver disease and even liver cancer, according to a new study. The risk is increased when they develop diabetes. The study, “High BMI in late adolescence predicts future severe liver disease and hepatocellular carcinoma: a national, population-based cohort study in 1.2 million men”, published in the journal Gut, is based on the data of more than 1.2 million Swedish men enlisted for military conscription between 1969 and 1996. Compared with men who have normal weight, those who are overweight (BMI more than 25 kg/sq m) have about 50% greater risk, and obese men (BMI more than 30 kg/sq m) are more than twice likely to develop liver disease and liver cancer in later life. An earlier study involving nearly 50,000 men showed that there was an association between high BMI at an early age and increased risk of end-stage liver disease. It was based on data collected in 1969-70, when being overweight and obese were relatively uncommon, so the study was not statistically powered to confirm an association between high BMI and increased risk of end-stage liver disease. But the latest study found that people who have higher BMI even at an early age are at higher risk of developing severe liver disease as the “duration of being exposed to a high BMI” increases the risk. The greatest risk was for those with BMI greater than 30 kg/sq m. The non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is likely to be the “main driver” of severe liver disease in adolescent men, the study says. Alcohol consumption and smoking were taken into account and those who had developed alcoholic liver disease were excluded from the final analysis. This did not change the overall finding. But the risk of severe liver disease was “highly affected” by development of type 2 diabetes during follow-up across all BMI categories. People with high BMI are at increased risk of developing diabetes, which in turn is associated with heightened risk of developing severe liver disease. Yet, increased risk of severe liver disease was seen even in overweight men who did not have diabetes. Therefore, even if the risk is increased in overweight and obese men who develop diabetes, the association of high BMI at an early age and severe liver disease at a later date “cannot solely be explained” by type 2 diabetes, the study says. The takeaway: there should be targeted intervention to prevent diabetes and more than normal BMI at an early age.
Kishenganga off the menu in Indus talks But India, Pak. hold ‘frank discussions’ on other schemes
Author: MUBASHIR ZAIDIISLAMABAD
India and Pakistan began discussions on the Indus Water Commission on Monday after 22 months amid optimism that the meeting may lead to resumption of the composite dialogue between the neighbours. After the first day of talks, officials on both sides said the meeting was held in a cordial manner, and they had frank discussions. P.P. Saxena, Indus Water Commissioner of India, is leading a 10-member delegation in talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Mirza Asif Baig. Sanctity of treaty Prior to the meeting, Pakistan’s Minister for Water and Power Khawaja Asif expressed the hope that both countries would respect the sanctity of the Indus Water Treaty. Because of the Pakistani position, Kishenganga and Ratle were not discussed in the latest round of talks. But the designs of the Pakal Dul, Lower Kalnai and Miyar hydroelectric plants were taken up. The talks will conclude in Islamabad on Tuesday, though the earlier plan was to do so in Lahore. The talks were suspended in May 2015 after the Pakistani Commissioner objected to the designs of the Kishenganga and the Ratle hydropower projects of India. Last year, the secretaries of power of both countries agreed to third-party resolution through the World Bank. But the World Bank announced late last year that Pakistan and India should hold bilateral talks. Following the World Bank’s reluctance to pass an order, both sides would meet in Washington in April on the Ratle project.
India’s milestone: A file photo of the headrace tunnel of the Kishenganga hydel project at Bandipora. Nissar Ahmad
Modi to fast-track his visit to Oman Nation not on PM’s itinerary so far, but recent developments have made a trip imperative
Author: Kallol BhattacherjeeNEW DELHI
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to visit Oman within weeks. Planning for the visit has been under way since Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos on March 2 nominated his cousin Sayyid Asad Bin Tariq Al Said as the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of international affairs, sources told The Hindu on Monday. The sources said the nomination of Sayyid Asad had given a clear signal that he was the most likely successor of Sultan Qaboos, who has been the ruler of the strategically located Gulf country since taking over power in a coup in 1970. Sultan Qaboos has been ailing for some years. A source familiar with the government’s policy on Oman said the visit was necessary to boost bilateral ties, especially since Oman had been a steady partner of India in the region. “It is true that we have moved slowly in Oman. India had set up the first bilateral infrastructure fund with Oman, but the project has not moved as fast as expected. That apart, they had asked to give them food security by signing an MoU with India for assured supplies of wheat, rice and sugar and they expressed willingness to invest in an Indian cooperative anywhere of our choosing. These options need to be pursued,” said the source explaining that the agenda for the visit should take these pending issues into consideration. Strong partnership India and Oman has a strong strategic partnership and Oman was one of the first Gulf countries to warm to the Modi government in the summer of 2014. Both countries formed a joint front against terrorism in October 2014. However, Mr. Modi has not visited the country, though he has been to the UAE and Saudi Arabia and has hosted the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. India had tried to host Sultan Qaboos, who was partially educated in India, as the chief guest of the Republic Day parade in 2012 but the visit could not take place. But recent trends showed a warming up in ties as Oman hosted the India-Oman Partnership Conference in Muscat on December 14, 2016, which was attended by Minister of State for External Affairs M. J. Akbar.
New Delhi, Kabul talks soon to boost trade Islamabad to be asked to facilitate transit of goods through Pakistan
India will soon hold talks with Afghanistan on ways to boost bilateral trade and investment. The first such meeting since January 2014 and the first during the tenure of the NDA Government led by Mr.Narendra Modi, is also aimed at mounting pressure on Islamabad to facilitate trouble-free transit of goods from India to Afghanistan through Pakistan (Wagah-Attari route), official sources told The Hindu. This is to help in the development of Afghanistan which is a land-locked and Least Developed Country (LDC) as well as to boost trade and investment in South Asia through better regional connectivity, the sources said. They said it will also help India to improve trade ties with Central Asian nations. In this regard, the ‘India-Afghanistan Joint Working Group on Trade, Commerce and Investment’ meeting will discuss ways to make use of the United Nations TIR (Transports Internationaux Routiers or International Road Transport) Convention to boost trade between India and Afghanistan through Pakistan. The TIR Convention facilitates trade and international road transport by permitting customs-sealed vehicles and containers to transit nations without them being generally inspected at border crossings. The Union Cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi had earlier this month granted its nod for India’s accession to the TIR Convention. Pakistan and Afghanistan are also ‘contracting parties’ to the TIR Convention. Thanks to the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), Afghanistan can use Pakistan’s territory for transit trade while Pakistan’s goods can move through Afghanistan to nations bordering Afghanistan. However, Islamabad has not agreed to allow using APTTA for goods to be transported from India to Afghanistan through Pakistan’s territory (via the Wagah-Attari route). India is keen to join APTTA and Afghanistan has backed India’s readiness to be an APTTA member but Pakistan has so far rejected such a proposal. The sources said while India is likely to soon make renewed efforts to be an APTTA member, it will also look at how the UN TIR Convention can help send goods to Afghanistan through Pakistan. While there have been informal proposals recommending India and Afghanistan joining the over $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), India has strategic concerns regarding the CPEC that would cover areas including Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. CPEC is the so-called ‘flagship’ project of China’s One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) initiative. The OBOR is aimed at developing infrastructure in more than 60 countries. Transit route In the absence of transit route through Pakistan, India depends on other countries, including Iran, to send goods to Afghanistan even though it increases time and costs for Indian exporters. India is also planning to strengthen air cargo links with Afghanistan as well as help expedite the development of Chabahar Port in Iran to bypass the Pakistan route to increase trade relations with Afghanistan, Iran and Central Asian countries.
NPCI denies loophole in BHIM app
National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), which developed the application for the Unified Payment Interface (UPI), has denied reports about technical malfunction or vulnerability of the app. In a statement issued on Monday, NPCI said there was no vulnerability or loophole reported in Bharat Interface for Money (BHIM) application or the UPI system. ‘Robust security’ “NPCI has done intensive testing, robust design of security controls and continuous monitoring of its UPI infrastructure. The environment in which BHIM or UPI is run by NPCI is highly secure and certified with best global practices like PCI DSS ISO 27001. The packages have also been audited by reputed IT security firms. NPCI has put in place adequate governance mechanism for banks to report any fraud or system issues and its redressal,” the statement said. Earlier this month, Pune-based Bank of Maharashtra had filed a first information report in Pune against 50 people for allegedly pulling out money using the UPI app causing a loss of ₹6 crore to the bank. “The technical lacunas …were present in the application. These were noticed by some unscrupulous elements and taken undue advantage of. However, the bank has taken all necessary steps and corrections have been made in the system so as to prevent the recurrence of similar incidence in future and MAHA UPI will continue to provide the services to the customers,” Bank of Maharashtra said in a statement.