Daily Current Affairs 03.02.2023(‘Govt. can seek rethink on collegium recommendations’, Cut in MGNREGS outlay is not a concern: Somanathan, CITES database reveals red sanders smuggling, Rejigged credit guarantee plan for MSMEs to take effect April 1, Ladakh and its people need the urgent attention of the government , ChatGPT and the future of journalism)

Daily Current Affairs 03.02.2023(‘Govt. can seek rethink on collegium recommendations’, Cut in MGNREGS outlay is not a concern: Somanathan, CITES database reveals red sanders smuggling, Rejigged credit guarantee plan for MSMEs to take effect April 1, Ladakh and its people need the urgent attention of the government , ChatGPT and the future of journalism)


1. ‘Govt. can seek rethink on collegium recommendations’

Asserting that the Union government can seek a reconsideration of the names recommended by the Supreme Court Collegium (SCC), Law Minister Kiren Rijiju on Thursday informed the Rajya Sabha that there are 18 such cases.

“Government can seek reconsideration on names recommended by the SCC, and as on 31.01.2023 there are total 18 proposals on which reconsideration of SCC has been sought. SCC decided to reiterate six cases, in seven cases SCC has desired updated inputs from the High Court Collegiums, and five cases have been decided to be remitted by the SCC to the High Courts,” Mr. Rijiju said, in a written reply to a question by CPI(M) member John Brittas.

The Law Minister’s response comes amid a tussle between the government and the SCC over the delay in the appointment of judges.

‘Missing deadlines’

In response to another question, Mr. Rijiju said various High Court Collegiums were in “breach” of the six-month timeline to send advance recommendations to fill upcoming judicial vacancies.

As on January 30, recommendations for 236 vacancies — 191 existing and 45 anticipated during the next six months — were yet to be received from the High Court Collegiums, he said.

He said a total of 142 proposals recommended by the High Court Collegiums were at “various stages of processing”.

Of these, four are pending with the SCC, while 138 are under various stages of processing within the government.

According to the existing procedure, the High Court Collegiums send their proposals for the appointment of judges to the Law Ministry’s Justice Department, which then attaches Intelligence Bureau reports on the candidates and forwards the proposal to the Supreme Court Collegium to take a call. Against the sanctioned strength of 1,108 judges in various High Courts, as on January 30, 775 judges were working while 333 posts were vacant. Referring to the vacancies in the SC, he said only 27 judges, including the Chief Justice of India, were now working against the sanctioned strength of 34 judges. “The Supreme Court Collegium has recently made seven recommendations to fill up all the vacancies of judges,” Mr. Rijiju said.

Social diversity

Replying to another question to BJP member Sushil Modi, regarding the proportion of judges coming from different social categories, the Law Minister said that as many as 430 High Court judges — out of a total of 554 appointed since 2018 — belong to the general category.

He added that 58 judges were OBCs, 27 were religious minorities, 19 were SCs, while six belonged to the ST community. The general category judges accounted for over 77% of all appointments.

“The government… has been requesting the Chief Justices of High Courts that while sending proposals for appointment of judges, due consideration be given to suitable candidates belonging to SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities and women to ensure social diversity,” Mr. Rijiju said.

2. Cut in MGNREGS outlay is not a concern: Somanathan

Workers employed under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in Telangana.

There has been an enhancement in rural outlays under other schemes which will generate similar work opportunities, Union Finance Secretary says, stressing that the economy is in a better shape

Union Finance Secretary T.V. Somanathan on Thursday defended the reduction in Budget 2023-24 allocation for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), stressing that the economy was in a better shape and there had been an enhancement in rural outlays under other schemes which would generate similar work opportunities.

The Union Budget presented on Wednesday allocated ₹60,000 crore for the MGNREGS in 2023-24, 18% below the current year’s Budget Estimates and almost 33% lower than the Revised Estimates of ₹89,000 crore.

Housing scheme

“We have major increases in allocations this year in the PM Awas Yojana (Grameen) which is even larger than the PM Awas Yojana (PMAY) as a whole,” Mr. Somanathan explained in an interview with The Hindu.

Allocations for the housing scheme are up 66% to ₹79,000 crore, but the Grameen or rural component is up over 100%, the official said.

“There’s also a big increase in Jal Jeevan Mission and the area where this is spent is the same area where MGNREGA is in operation. So roughly ₹40,000 crore extra is going through these sources into the rural areas through the Central government’s own programmes,” he pointed out, noting these spends would “obviously have some effect” on demand for MGNREGS work as they would be for the same type of people with similar type of jobs. “So we will definitely see some reduction in demand in terms of the actual availability of employment in those areas through these two big programmes. Third, the economy is doing much better than in 2020. So the normal economic push will also be in favour of lower MGNREGS demand,” he said.

Since the MGNREGS is a demand-driven scheme, the Finance Secretary said that Budget allocations would be revised upwards during the year if there was a higher demand.

“…But we are estimating a reduction in demand. Now people can disagree with that demand… and if it warrants an increase, we will consider it at the revised estimate stage,” Mr. Somanathan said.

Taking on criticism about feared reductions in spending on farmers’ welfare as “selective” data interpretation, he said agriculture and allied sectors’ spends had actually gone up, if the PM Kisan scheme is excluded.

“The PM Kisan allocation is declining from ₹68,000 crore this year to ₹60,000 crore next year. Why? Essentially, the database has been updated after a three-year gap — there were people who were ineligible, there were people who were getting it in two places and there are those who have left or migrated and those who were tax payers but had not disclosed this,” he explained.

“We are not denying anybody the benefit, but the eligible number of people has come down by 10% due to the database cleaning,” he concluded.

3. CITES database reveals red sanders smuggling

At risk: Red sanders is under severe threat from illegal logging and harvesting. 

There is a clear discrepancy in the reporting of the trade in the endangered species by the exporting and importing countries, says wildlife trade monitoring organisation TRAFFIC

The CITES trade database has recorded 28 incidents of red sanders confiscation, seizure and specimens from the wild being exported from India, a fact sheet prepared by TRAFFIC, a global wildlife trade monitoring organisation has revealed. CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments, whose aim is to ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species.

“These consignments were exported to China (53.5%), Hong Kong (25.0%), Singapore (17.8%) and the United States of America (3.5%) from 2016 to 2020,” the fact sheet said. Red Sanders (Pterocarpus santalinus), or red sandalwood, is an endemic tree species with distribution restricted to the Eastern Ghats of India. The species found in Andhra Pradesh and growing up to a height of 10 to 15 metres is reported to be one of India’s most exploited tree species, and is under severe pressure from illegal logging and harvesting. Under the foreign trade policy of India, the import of Red Sanders is prohibited, while export is restricted.

“India reported an export of more than 19,049 tonnes of logs. In comparison, the importing countries reported about 4,610 tonnes of logs, 127 tonnes of sawn wood, 20 tonnes of transformed wood and 980 kg of wood products, clearly indicating a discrepancy in reporting of red sanders trade,” the fact sheet said.

China remains the largest importer with more than 13,618 tonnes of the products, followed by Hong Kong (5,215 tonnes) and Singapore (216 tonnes).

“Red sanders is under severe pressure from illegal logging and harvesting. Its heartwood is in demand in both domestic and international markets and is used to make furniture and handicrafts, while the red dye obtained from the wood is used as a colouring agent in textiles and medicines. Rampant illegal logging has been reported across its range State,” Merwyn Fernandes, coordinator of TRAFFIC’s India office, said.

Listed under Schedule IV of the Wildlife Protection Act and categorised as endangered as per the IUCN Red List, red sanders is a very slow-growing tree species that attains maturity in natural forests after 25-40 years.

“Enforcement agencies such as the Forest Department, Customs, Railways, Police, DRI (Directorate of Revenue Intelligence), and Coast Guard must coordinate efforts to curb Red Sanders trafficking by sharing information on hotspots and transit routes and real-time intelligence,” TRAFFIC has said. It has also called for forests within the species’ geographical range to be declared as “high conservation areas”.

4. Rejigged credit guarantee plan for MSMEs to take effect April 1

The revamped credit guarantee scheme for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) will take effect from April 1, through infusion of ₹9,000 crore in the corpus, said Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman while presenting the Union Budget 2023.

“This will enable additional collateral-free guaranteed credit of ₹2 lakh crore. Further, the cost of the credit will be reduced by about 1%,” she said.

“Further, in cases of failure by MSMEs to execute contracts during the COVID-19 period, 95% of the forfeited amount relating to bid or performance security will be returned to them by government and government undertakings. This will provide relief to MSMEs,” the Finance Minister said.

The total allocation for the MSME Ministry will see an almost 42% increase for 2023-24 at ₹22,138 crore compared with ₹15,629 crore this fiscal. Schemes such as Raising and Accelerating MSME Performance (RAMP) and Scheme for Fund for Regeneration of Traditional Industries (SFURTI) will see significantly higher allocation in the next fiscal.

The Federation of Indian Micro and Small & Medium Enterprises and the Coimbatore District Small Industries Association said in press statements that to ensure MSMEs received payments on time, the Budget has proposed that deduction for expenditure incurred on payments made to MSMEs will be allowed for buyers only when the payment is actually made.

This means buyers cannot claim deduction without paying the MSMEs.

5. Editorial-1: Fire and ice

Ladakh and its people need the urgent attention of the government

Picturesque Ladakh has been on edge ever since it was carved out as a Union Territory (UT) from the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. After a brief period of jubilation over the status of a separate UT, a long-pending demand from Buddhists of the region, the locals have only grown restive. An agitation demanding the inclusion of the region in the Sixth Schedule under Article 244 of the Constitution (special protection to tribal populations) boiled over last week after Sonam Wangchuk, a Magsaysay winner, went on a fast. Soon after its creation as a UT in August 2019, Ladakh came under a bureaucracy that the local population found to be hostile and irresponsive. The constant tussle between locals, elected representatives of two Hill Councils of Kargil and Leh, and the bureaucracy only widened over the months. Leh’s political and religious bodies formed the Leh Apex Body (LAB) in 2020, headed by former BJP leader and former Member of Parliament Thupstan Chhewang (he is also an elected president of the influential Ladakh Buddhist Association). In Kargil district, political parties, including the National Conference and the Congress, and Shia Muslim-affiliated seminaries joined hands in November 2020 to form the Kargil Democratic Alliance (KDA). Kargil, unlike Leh, is for re-joining with the erstwhile J&K State and restoration of its special status under Article 370.

Despite the differences in their political stands, LAB and the KDA are now together over common goals. They have put forth four major demands before the Centre, which include restoration of full-fledged Statehood, constitutional safeguards under the Sixth Schedule, separate Lok Sabha seats for Leh and Kargil districts and job reservation for locals. They describe the demands as key to protecting Ladakh’s identity, culture and the fragile environment. The Centre appears to be in a bind as the two committees it appointed to reassure the local populations have made little headway in the last two years. In fact the second committee appointed this year under Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai has only deepened local anger, as it has no mandate to address the issues being raised. Ladakh witnessed a major military incursion from China in 2020, just 10 months after J&K’s special status was scrapped and the erstwhile State divided. That conflict remains unresolved. In the absence of drastic measures to assuage the locals by meeting their genuine demands, the region will only remain embroiled to the advantage of those intent on fomenting trouble.

6. Editorial-2: ChatGPT and the future of journalism

The AI-based chatbot can simplify news, but there is nothing to match eyes and ears on the ground

In the initial days of the ChatGPT excitement, I conducted an experiment with the Artificial Intelligence-based chatbot. I used it in a race against another writer, who was using the traditional research route, to produce an article on the Iranian morality police. Even with fact checks and touch-ups to the language, I won hands down.

So, what does this mean for the profession of journalism?

I posed this question to the purported villain of the piece itself. I asked ChatGPT, “How will ChatGPT impact journalism?” The AI politely suggested that it could be used to generate “simple news articles,” thus “freeing up journalists to focus on more in-depth and investigative reporting.” It even gave a caveat that it was not to be trusted as it can give “biased or inaccurate information.” It ended on a rather philosophical note: “Ultimately, the impact of language models on journalism will depend on how they are used and integrated into the news production process.” If it has more nefarious plans, it is definitely good at hiding them.

The AI is by and large correct in its assessment of its own impact on journalism. At least for the near future, AI will be a tool in the hands of a journalist rather than the journalist itself. If any journalist is worried that AI may take their job, the chances are higher that the job will be taken by a journalist who knows how to use AI.

There are, of course, areas within journalism that are ripe for disruption with AI-based systems. Any reporting based on structured data such as corporate earnings reports, sports score cards, and press releases may be out of human hands soon. In fact, it already is in some newsrooms. AI may also take over the writing of context-building articles and proof-reading. However, there is much to journalism that an AI application will find hard to replicate now, such as finding the location of a secret corporate board meeting in New York City based on who had hired the most limousines for the day. This took some non-artificial thinking on the part of the business journalist who pulled it off. There is nothing to match eyes and ears on the ground, at least for now.

Not new to the industry

While journalists may just be getting introduced to the possibilities of AI, the news industry itself has been dabbling in it for some time now. When you visit any major website, chances are that at least some of the articles you see have been specifically selected for you. These websites often track your reading habits and then apply machine learning to figure out which articles to show you so that you stay on at the site. For all our grouses with the social media companies, news media did learn a trick or two from them.

At The Hindu, we are trying out AI tools, particularly in Natural Language Processing, to create versions of our articles for various modes and durations of consumption. This involves training the machine to simplify an article without the crux of it being lost. In this context, it was self-affirming to see the vendor of an AI service confidently feeding in our editorial for the day and the machine failing to provide a coherent output. We now had virtual evidence for what we and millions of India’s civil service aspirants have always believed – there is no better way of stating the fact of the matter than The Hindu’s editorial.

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