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Daily Current Affairs 02.05.2022(e-Shram to help settle workers’ accident claims,Funding woes haunt Indian science,The Delhi dual governance conundrum,The recent woes of the jute industry in West Bengal)

Daily Current Affairs 02.05.2022(e-Shram to help settle workers’ accident claims,Funding woes haunt Indian science,The Delhi dual governance conundrum,The recent woes of the jute industry in West Bengal)

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1. e-Shram to help settle workers’ accident claims

Direct benefit transfer via unique ID

Top functionaries of the Union Labour and Employment Ministry said last week that the Ministry was working on a mechanism to process accident insurance claims by unorganised workers registered on the e-Shram portal, which has seen over 27 crore registrations so far.

The portal was launched six months ago with the aim of creating a national database of unorganised workers and to facilitate social security schemes for them. Among the promises made then was that the workers would be eligible for ₹2 lakh as accident insurance.

A senior official of the Ministry said discussions were on to link the e-Shram portal with the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana, the Centre’s existing accident insurance scheme. The scheme would allow the workers to get the direct benefit transfer (DBT) through the e-Shram unique ID number. The official added that the unique IDs on the e-Shram portal carried the same series from the Employees Provident Fund Organisation’s universal account number (UAN).

Another functionary said that a “mechanism for disposal” of the claims was in the works.

More than 3 crore unorganized workers are now registered on E-shram portal.

  • By Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE)
  • It is the web portal for creating a National Database of Unorganized Workers (NDUW), which will be seeded with Aadhaar. 
  • It seeks to register an estimated 398-400 million unorganised workers and to issue an E-Shram card containing a 12-digit unique number.
  • Registered workers will be eligible for Rs 2 Lakh on death or permanent disability and Rs 1 lakh on partial disability.

Significance of e-Shram portal – National Database on Unorganized Workers (NDUW)

  • Targeted identification of the unorganized workers was a much-needed step and the portal which will be the national database of our nation builders will help take welfare schemes to their doorstep, who are the builders of our Nation.
  • Targeted delivery and last mile delivery, has been a major focus of the schemes of government of India and the National Database of Unorganised workers (E-Shram portal) is another key step towards that.

2. Funding woes haunt Indian science

NRF could be a game-changer by its intent of democratisation of the knowledge base

Far back in time, science, like monasticism, attracted people who were singularly driven by a passion for seeking the truth. Largely ignored by the rulers and the state machinery of those days, science was either supported by the enlightened and munificent elites or by the investigators themselves from their personal funds. The times have changed since, and we have never had so many people supported by the state, whose purported purpose of work is to understand the world better. Thus, knowledge generation of the natural world has become a highly competitive endeavour among the nations and science funding has often been touted as a marker of social advancement.

India’s R&D expenditure

With very little participation from the private sector in the country that includes some of the richest by global standards, curiosity-driven basic research in India is primarily sustained by direct funding from the government. Still, it remains static in India and hovers between a paltry 0.6 to 0.8% of GDP over a decade, way below the United States, China, Japan, the European Union countries and South Korea. While India’s global R&D expenditure remains static at 1-3% of the global total, the U.S. and China accounted for 25% and 23%, respectively. This trend of under-funding is also reflected in the low proportion of qualified researchers available in India, considering its huge population.

The World Bank statistics indicate that India had 255 researchers per million people in 2017 — a minuscule fraction for its size and population, in contrast to 8,342 per million in Israel, 7,597 in Sweden and 7,498 in South Korea. Compared to 111 in the U.S. and 423 in China, India has only 15 researchers per 1,00,000 population.

The budgetary allocations over the last several years show a consistent downward trend. Much of the total of the funding available goes to DRDO, Department of Space and Atomic Energy, leaving only 30 to 40% for agencies such as Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Department of Science and Technology (DST), Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR); it is from this last-mentioned allocation that the extra-mural research from the individual investigators are supported. The current financial year (2022-23) is no exemption, borne out by the budgetary allocations for scientific research. The Union Ministry of Science and Technology has earmarked ₹14,217 crore in the 2022-2023 Union Budget — a drop of 3.9% from last year; the DST and DBT are supposed to receive ₹5,240 crore and ₹2,961 crore, respectively.

While the funding trend remained frozen between 2011 and 2018, the number of universities jumped from 752 to 1,016, and doctoral degrees escalated from 10,111 to 24,474, which means that the available number of people required to do scientific work as a career option enlarged exponentially.

Probably realising this demand from the new generation of researchers from the universities, the 2021-22 budget offered ₹10,000 crore ($1.37 billion) every year starting from 2021, over the next five years, for a new funding agency called the National Research Foundation (NRF). This agency is expected to boost university science research, as well as the work in social sciences. The journal Nature in its editorial dated February 9, 2021, in a somewhat euphoric tone, called it “a ground-breaking change”, giving the fullest credit to the then Principal Scientific Adviser K. Vijay Raghavan for seeding this idea to the point of fruition.

This newly proposed idea is also in tune with what is being stated in the National Education Policy 2020: “The NRF will provide a reliable base of merit-based but equitable peer-reviewed research funding, helping to develop a culture of research in the country through suitable incentives for and recognition of outstanding research, and by undertaking major initiatives to seed and grow research at state universities and other public institutions where research capability is currently limited”.

The NRF’s importance

Despite the announcement of the NRF and a huge fund infusion in the science budget, the 2021 budget speech had also expressed the intention of investing about ₹4,000 crore over five years for deep-ocean research and biodiversity conservation; and promised to four centres for virological research and a commitment to developing hydrogen energy. Planned to be an autonomous body and therefore less bureaucratic, the NRF was expected to bring thousands of colleges and universities under its ambit. As most of the country’s scientific research is being conducted by government laboratories and a few premier institutes, this new forum was thought to be a game-changer by its intent of democratisation of the knowledge base. But it is anybody’s guess why the current-year budget was eloquently silent on this initiative of the last financial year, which is yet to be approved by the Cabinet. Such a lack of continuity in government policy towards science funding is a huge deterrent to achieving the fullest potential in scientific research in India.

Gallup poll of sorts among the researchers would surely nail the biggest hindrance in Indian science — the financial bureaucracy, again a legacy of British colonial governance. To unleash the fullest potential of Indian science, a vibrant and responsive financial system is required. Such a system should be autonomous and more participatory, and less bureaucratic — a problem also compounded by the fact that the finance person is made more accountable to the ministry rather than the secretary of the department. It is widely felt that it is often less difficult to have a project approved than to have funds periodically released. A corollary question is how to regain the autonomy of scientific institutions in financial management that has undergone considerable erosion. India must choose to break the bureaucratic barriers that exist in the government departments and develop innovative ways to help basic research flourish.

India cannot aspire to be a global leader in scientific research if enough funds are not injected into basic research by committing to raise the R&D spending to at least 1% of the GDP. It is also important for the private sector to chip in. But for that to happen, the government should incentivise the private players by giving them tax breaks, etc. The promise to set up NRF, independent of political interference, and the related financial commitment needs to be realised. Another option is to upgrade the SERB (Science Engineering Research Board) to play the role assigned to the NRF. There are a lot of cues to be obtained from China on how it managed to become a world leader in scientific research. For all this to achieve, a foremost requirement is a dynamic R&D ecosystem, which India lacks today.

3. The Delhi dual governance conundrum

How did the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court rule on the powers of the Delhi govt. vis-a-vis the Lieutenant Governor? What followed this?

The status of Delhi being a Union Territory under Schedule 1 of the Constitution but christened the ‘National Capital Territory’ in 2014 put the dynamics of the relationship between the State and the Central Government under severe strain.

The Supreme Court ruled that the L-G shall act as a facilitator rather than anointing himself as an adversary to the elected Council of Ministers. At the same time, the Court ruled that the NCT of Delhi cannot be granted the status of a State under the constitutional scheme

After the Constitution Bench laid down the law on the broad issues involved, the contested questions were listed before a two-judge Bench. While one Judge found that services were totally outside the purview of the Government of NCT, the other held that officers below the rank of joint secretary are under the control of the Government of NCT.

Delhi has been the flashpoint of innumerable power struggles but 2015 was a momentous year in the history of the metropolis. The country’s two main political parties failed miserably in an election to see who controls the National Capital Territory. The Aam Aadmi Party swept the election, winning 67 of the 70 seats. However, in the absence of statehood for Delhi, there has been a prolonged confrontation on the relative powers of the territorial administration and the Union government.

Dilemmas of dual governance

The status of Delhi being a Union Territory under Schedule 1 of the Constitution but christened the ‘National Capital Territory’ under Article 239 AA, engrafted by the Constitution (Sixty-ninth Amendment) Act, 2014, put the dynamics of the relationship between the elected Council of Ministers in Delhi and the Central Government under severe strain. The Administrator of Delhi, renamed as the Lieutenant Governor (L-G) under the aforementioned amendment, crossed swords with the elected government on multiple issues, including control over agencies, namely the Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Civil Services and the Electricity Board. The issues pertaining to the power to appoint the Public Prosecutor in Delhi and to appoint a Commission of Enquiry under the Commissions of Enquiry Act, etc. were vexed legal questions necessitating interpretation of the Constitution.

Though the Delhi High Court decided in favour of the Central Government relying on the status of Delhi as a Union Territory, on appeal by the NCT, the Supreme Court referred the matter to a Constitution Bench to decide on the substantial questions of law pertaining to the powers of the elected government of Delhi vis-a-vis the L-G.

The five-judge Bench opened a new jurisprudential chapter in the Administration of NCT by invoking the rule of purposive construction to say that the objectives behind the Constitution (Sixty-ninth Amendment) Act shall guide the interpretation of Article 239AA and breathed the principles of federalism and democracy into Article 239AA, thereby finding a parliamentary intent to accord a sui generis status in distinction from other Union Territories.

The Court declared that the L-G is bound by the “aid and advice” of the Council of Ministers, noting that the Delhi Assembly also has the power to make laws over all subjects that figure in the Concurrent List, and all, except three excluded subjects, in the State List. The L-G ought to act on the “aid and advice” of the Council of Ministers, except when he refers a matter to the President for a final decision.

Regarding the L-G’s power to refer to the President any matter on which there is a difference of opinion between L-G and the Council of Ministers, the Supreme Court ruled that “any matter” cannot be construed to mean “every matter”, and such a reference shall arise only in exceptional circumstances. L-G shall act as a facilitator rather than anointing himself as an adversary to the elected Council of Ministers. At the same time, the Court ruled that the National Capital Territory of Delhi cannot be granted the status of a State under the constitutional scheme.

Split verdict on services

After the Constitution Bench laid down the law on the broad issues involved, the contested questions were listed before a two-judge Bench. The Court unanimously held that while the Anti-corruption Bureau belongs to the province of the Centre, the Electricity Board under Government of NCT is the Appropriate Authority under the Electricity Act of 2003. While it held that only Central Government has the power to constitute enquiry Commission under the 1952 Act, the power to appoint Public Prosecutor is vested with Government of NCT. While one Judge found that services were totally outside the purview of the Government of NCT, the other held that officers below the rank of joint secretary are under the control of the Government of NCT.

Back to the Constitution Bench?

This split has resulted in the present hearing before a three-Judge Bench presided over by the Chief Justice, in the course of which the Solicitor General sought reference to a Constitution Bench. This has been opposed by the Government of the NCT of Delhi, whose counsel argued that forming another Constitution Bench to decide the matter would amount to a “review” of the earlier Constitution Bench ruling. The 3-Judge Bench has reserved its orders on the question.

It is germane to remember the observation of Justice Ashok Bhushan penned as part of the Constitution Bench decision on NCT (2018) that, “From persons holding high office, it is expected that they shall conduct themselves in faithful discharge of their duties so as to ensure smooth running of administration so that rights of all can be protected.”

Unless the stakeholders recognise this axiomatic precept, Delhi would continue to be under administrative and political distress.

The 2021 amendment to the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act,1991, is a pointer to the possibility that the tug-of-war will not end. The aforementioned amendment is also under challenge before the Supreme Court.

4. The recent woes of the jute industry in West Bengal

Is West Bengal’s jute industry reeling under a crisis? What are the reasons for it?

Mills are procuring raw jute at prices higher than what they are selling them at after processing. A September 30, 2021, notification mandated that no entity would be allowed to purchase or sell raw jute at a price exceeding ₹6,500 per quintal

The cyclone Amphan in May 2020 and the subsequent rains in major jute producing States aggravated the crisis.

Bangladesh provides cash subsidies for varied semi-finished and finished jute products. Hence, the competitiveness emerges as a challenge for India to explore export options in order to compensate for the domestic scenario

The story so far: Member of Parliament (MP) from Barrackpore constituency in West Bengal, Arjun Singh, met Textile Minister Piyush Goyal on Saturday to apprise him about issues concerning jute farmers, workers and the overall jute industry. Mr. Singh later said in a tweet that the meeting was very positive and expressed hope that the issues would be resolved soon. The Barrackpore MP had earlier written to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, seeking her intervention into the “arbitrary decision” of capping the price for procuring raw jute from the mills. He was referring to the Office of the Jute Commissioner (JCO)’s September 30 notification mandating that no entity would be allowed to purchase or sell raw jute at a price exceeding ₹6,500 per quintal.

Mr. Singh had also written to Chief Ministers of other jute producing States as Assam, Tripura, Odisha and Bihar, seeking their intervention.

The West Bengal BJP vice president, in a letter, mentioned that the operations of 20 jute mills in his constituency, with lakhs of people dependent on them, were adversely affected with many forced to shut down and many others on the verge of closure.

A mill executive on the condition of anonymity told The Hindu, “We have been held hostage it seems.” He said that of approximately 60 mills operating in the State, 15 had shut down because of the crisis.

What is the problem?

In simple words, mills are procuring raw jute at prices higher than what they are selling them at after processing. Let’s understand the mechanism first. Mills do not acquire their raw material directly from the farmers, but instead through intermediaries. As a standard practice, the middlemen charge mills for their services, which involves procuring jute from farmers, grading, bailing and then bringing the bales to the mills.

The government has a fixed Minimum Support Price (MSP) for raw jute procurement from farmers, which is ₹4,750 per quintal for the 2022-23 season. However, as the executive stated, this reached his mill at ₹7,200 per quintal, that is, ₹700 more than the ₹6,500 per quintal cap for the final product. Though the Union government has come up with several schemes to prevent de-hoarding, the executive believes the mechanism requires a certain “systematic regulation”.

What happened to supply?

What made the situation particularly worrisome recently was the occurrence of Cyclone Amphan in May 2020 and the subsequent rains in major jute producing States. These events led to lower acreage, which in turn led to lower production and yield compared to previous years. Additionally, as the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) stated in its report, this led to production of a lower quality of jute fibre in 2020-21 as water-logging in large fields resulted in farmers harvesting the crop prematurely.

Acreage issues were accompanied by hoarding at all levels – right from the farmers to the traders.

Where is jute used?

Bulk of the final jute produced is used for packaging purposes. The provisions of the Jute Packaging Material (Compulsory use in Packing Commodities) Act, 1987 or the JPM Act mandate that 100% production of foodgrains and 20% sugar production must be packaged in jute bags. The share of jute used for sacks, therefore, increased from 67.9% for the TE (TE: Triennium Ending or three years ending) 2010-11 to 78.3% in TE 2020-21. On the other hand, jute used for manufacturing other products (such as furnishing materials, fashion accessories, floor coverings or varied applications in paper and textile industries) has declined from 15.5% to 9.7% during the same period.

As per the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), India is the largest producer of jute followed by Bangladesh and China. However, in terms of acreage and trade, Bangladesh takes the lead accounting for three-fourth of the global jute exports in comparison to India’s 7%. This can be attributed to the fact that India lags behind Bangladesh in producing superior quality jute fibre due to infrastructural constraints related to retting, farm mechanisation, lack of availability of certified seeds and varieties suitable for the country’s agro-climate. What also does not bode well for India is that jute acreage competes with crops as paddy, maize, groundnut, and sesame. The increased availability of synthetic substitutes is further bothering the demand for jute domestically.

Further, as the CACP report stated, Bangladesh provides cash subsidies for varied semi-finished and finished jute products. Hence, the competitiveness emerges as a challenge for India to explore export options in order to compensate for the domestic scenario.

What is at stake?

As the jute sector provides direct employment to 3.70 lakh workers in the country and supports the livelihood of around 40 lakh farm families, closure of the mills is a direct blow to workers and indirectly, to the farmers whose production is used in the mills. West Bengal, Bihar and Assam account for almost 99% of India’s total production.

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