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Daily Current Affairs 08.08.2022 (The workings of the Supreme Court collegium, The Great Barrier Reef’s recovery and vulnerability to climate threats, Why are regulators swooping down on stablecoins?, India-democracy and the promised republic, Tapping technology to check minor mineral plunder, Cooling the temperatures, Focused on inflation)

Daily Current Affairs 08.08.2022 (The workings of the Supreme Court collegium, The Great Barrier Reef’s recovery and vulnerability to climate threats, Why are regulators swooping down on stablecoins?, India-democracy and the promised republic, Tapping technology to check minor mineral plunder, Cooling the temperatures, Focused on inflation)

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1. The workings of the Supreme Court collegium

How is the collegium constituted and what are its responsibilities? Who is set to be the next Chief Justice of India?

The collegium of the Supreme Court consisting of the Chief Justice of India and four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court make recommendations for appointments to the apex court and High Courts. 

The CJI and the judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President under clause (2) of Article 124 of the Constitution. The appointment to the office of the CJI should be of the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court considered fit to hold the office. 

The increase in the number of judges has not guaranteed lower pendency of cases in the apex court over the years. The number of pending cases has risen to 71,411 as on August 1, 2022 from a little over 55,000 in 2017.

Krishnadas Rajagopal

The story so far: The Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana’s tenure is drawing to an end in a few days. The Ramana Collegium has been particularly successful. Meeting frequently and working quickly, they took the perennial problem of judicial vacancies by its horns and turned it around. The collegium, as a united front, was able to recommend numerous judicial appointments and scripted history by getting nine Supreme Court judges appointed in one go. Of the nine, Justice B.V. Nagarathna, is in line to be the first woman CJI in 2027.

What exactly is the collegium system?

The collegium system was born out of years of friction between the judiciary and the executive. The hostility was further accentuated by instances of court-packing (the practice of changing the composition of judges in a court), mass transfer of high court judges and two supersessions to the office of the CJI in the 1970s.

The Three Judges cases saw the evolution of the collegium system. In the First Judges case, the court held that the consultation with the CJI should be “full and effective”. The Second Judges case introduced the collegium system in 1993. It ruled that the CJI would have to consult a collegium of his two senior-most judges in the apex court on judicial appointments. The court held that such a “collective opinion” of the collegium would have primacy over the government. It was the Third Judges case in 1998, which was a Presidential reference, that expanded the judicial collegium to its present composition of the CJI and four of his senior-most judges.

How does the collegium system work?

The collegium of the CJI and four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court make recommendations for appointments to the apex court and High Courts. The collegium can veto the government if the names are sent back by the latter for reconsideration. The basic tenet behind the collegium system is that the judiciary should have primacy over the government in matters of appointments and transfers in order to remain independent. However, over time, the collegium system has attracted criticism, even from within the judicial institution, for its lack of transparency. It has even been accused of nepotism. The government’s efforts to amend the Constitution and bring a National Judicial Appointments Commission was struck down by a Constitution Bench.

How are judicial appointments to the Supreme Court made?

The appointment of the CJI and judges of the apex court is governed by a Memorandum of Procedure. The CJI and the judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President under clause (2) of Article 124 of the Constitution. The appointment to the office of the CJI should be of the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court considered fit to hold the office. The Union Law Minister would, at an “appropriate time”, seek the recommendation of the outgoing CJI on his successor. Once the CJI recommends, the Law Minister forwards the communication to the Prime Minister who would advise the President on the appointment.

In the case of an appointment of a Supreme Court judge, when a vacancy is expected to arise in the apex court, the collegium would recommend a candidate to the Union Law Minister. The CJI would also ascertain the views of the senior-most judges in the Supreme Court, who hail from the High Court from where the person recommended comes from. The opinions of each member of the Collegium and other judges consulted should be made in writing and form part of the file on the candidate sent to the government. If the CJI had consulted non-judges, he should make a memorandum containing the substance of consultation, which would also be part of the file. After the receipt of the Collegium recommendation, the Law Minister would forward it to the Prime Minister, who would advise the President in the matter of appointment.

Has the increase in judicial appointments lowered pendency in the Supreme Court?

The increase in the number of judges has not guaranteed lower pendency of cases in the apex court over the years. The number of pending cases has risen to 71,411 as on August 1, 2022 from a little over 55,000 in 2017. This is despite the fact that the sanctioned judicial strength of the court was increased to 34 judges in August 2019. A steady rise in arrears regardless of the periodic increase in judicial strength has been a constant phenomenon since 1950.

In 1950, the Supreme Court had eight judges and a pendency of 100-plus cases. A decade later, in 1960, the judges’ strength in the Supreme Court grew to 14 while pendency rose to 3,247. In 1978, the number of apex court judges was 18 and pendency had crossed the 14,000-mark. In 1986, there were 26 judges in the Supreme Court while pendency increased to 27,881. In 2009, the number of judges in the Supreme Court reached 31 though pendency went beyond 50,000. In 2014, the number of judges remained 31 but pendency had burgeoned to over 64,000. In 2020 and 2021, the pandemic added to the pendency rate in the apex court. The year 2020 ended with a backlog of 64,426 cases and 2021 with 69,855 cases.

The court currently has 31 working judges. Four serving judges, including Chief Justice Ramana, would retire in the next few months. His successor Justice U.U. Lalit, is scheduled to retire in November 8, with hardly a three-month tenure as top judge. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud is in line as per the seniority norm to be the 50th CJI Chief Justice in November. The problems of arrears and vacancies in the apex court may likely fall on his shoulders in a year of churn.

2. The Great Barrier Reef’s recovery and vulnerability to climate threats

What is the extent of recovery recorded in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef? What are the potential threats to its health?

The highest levels of coral cover, within the past 36 years, has been recorded in the northern and central parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, according to the annual long-term monitoring report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

Australia’s GBR is the world’s largest reef system stretching across 2,300 km and having nearly 3,000 individual reefs.

The new survey shows record levels of region-wide coral cover in the northern and central GBR since the first ever AIMS survey was done. The record levels of recovery were fuelled by increases in the fast-growing Acropora corals. However, scientists warned that these fast growing corals are also the most susceptible to environmental pressures such as rising temperatures, cyclones, pollution etc.

Diksha Munjal

The story so far: The highest levels of coral cover, within the past 36 years, has been recorded in the northern and central parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR), according to the annual long-term monitoring report by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). The researchers behind the report have warned, however, that this could be quickly reversed owing to rising global temperatures. This came after the reef experienced a mass coral bleaching event in March this year.

What are coral reefs?

Corals are marine invertebrates or animals which do not possess a spine. They are the largest living structures on the planet. Each coral is called a polyp and thousands of such polyps live together to form a colony, which grow when polyps multiply to make copies of themselves.

Corals are of two types — hard corals and soft corals. Hard corals extract calcium carbonate from seawater to build hard, white coral exoskeletons. Hard corals are in a way the engineers of reef ecosystems and measuring the extent of hard coral is a widely-accepted metric for measuring the condition of coral reefs. Soft corals attach themselves to such skeletons and older skeletons built by their ancestors. Soft corals also add their own skeletons to the hard structure over the years. These growing multiplying structures gradually form coral reefs.

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system stretching across 2,300 km and having nearly 3,000 individual reefs. It hosts 400 different types of coral, gives shelter to 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 types of mollusc. Coral reefs support over 25% of marine biodiversity even as they take up only 1% of the seafloor. The marine life supported by reefs further fuels global fishing industries. Besides, coral reef systems generate $2.7 trillion in annual economic value through goods and service trade and tourism. In Australia, the Barrier Reef, in pre-COVID times, generated $4.6 billion annually through tourism and employed over 60,000 people including divers and guides.

What does the new report say?

The annual long-term monitoring by AIMS began 36 years ago, and reefs are surveyed through in-water and aerial techniques. The current report surveyed 87 reefs in the GBR between August 2021 and May 2022. The report states that reef systems are resilient and capable of recovering after disturbances such as accumulated heat stress, cyclones, predatory attacks and so on, provided the frequency of such disturbances is low.

The new survey shows record levels of region-wide coral cover in the northern and central GBR since the first ever AIMS survey was done. Coral cover is measured by determining the increase in the cover of hard corals. The hard coral cover in northern GBR had reached 36% while that in the central region had reached 33%. Meanwhile, coral cover levels declined in the southern region from 38% in 2021 to 34% in 2022.

The record levels of recovery, the report showed, were fuelled largely by increases in the fast-growing Acropora corals, which are a dominant type in the GBR. Incidentally, these fast growing corals are also the most susceptible to environmental pressures such as rising temperatures, cyclones, pollution, crown-of-thorn starfish (COTs) attacks which prey on hard corals and so on. Also, behind the recent recovery in parts of the reef, are the low levels of acute stressors in the past 12 months — no tropical cyclones, lesser heat stress in 2020 and 2022 as opposed to 2016 and 2017, and a decrease in COTs outbreaks.

Does this mean the reef is out of the woods?

Besides predatory attacks and tropical cyclones, scientists say that the biggest threat to the health of the reef is climate change-induced heat stress, resulting in coral bleaching.

Corals share a symbiotic relationship with single-celled algae called zooxanthellae. The algae prepares food for corals through photosynthesis and also gives them their vibrant colouration. When exposed to conditions like heat stress, pollution, or high levels of ocean acidity, the zooxanthellae start producing reactive oxygen species not beneficial to the corals. So, the corals kick out the colour-giving algae from their polyps, exposing their pale white exoskeleton and leading to coral starvation as corals cannot produce their own food. Bleached corals can survive depending on the levels of bleaching and the recovery of sea temperatures to normal levels. Severe bleaching and prolonged stress in the external environment can lead to coral death.

Over the last couple of decades, climate change-induced rise in temperature has made seas warmer than usual. Under all positive outlooks and projections in terms of cutting greenhouse gases, sea temperatures are predicted to increase by 1.5°C to 2°C by the time the century nears its end. According to the UN assessment in 2021, the world is going to experience heating at 1.5°C in the next decade, the temperature at which bleaching becomes more frequent and recovery less impactful.

The concern is that in the past decade, mass bleaching events have become more closely spaced in time. The first mass bleaching event occurred in 1998 when the El Niño weather pattern caused sea surfaces to heat, causing 8% of the world’s coral to die. The second event took place in 2002. But the longest and most damaging bleaching event took place from 2014 to 2017. Mass bleaching then occurred again in 2020, followed by earlier this year. According to the Australian government’s scientists, 91% of the reefs it had surveyed in March were affected by bleaching.

Notably, half of the total reefs were surveyed before the peak of this year’s mass coral bleaching event in the GBR. Since surveys to determine the effects of bleaching need to occur during or after the summer heatwave, the authors of the report say that the full impact of this year’s mass bleaching would only be known in next year’s report. The aerial surveys by AIMS included 47 reefs and coral bleaching was recorded on 45 of these reefs. While the levels were not high enough to cause coral death it did leave sub-lethal effects such as reduced growth and reproduction.

The AIMS report says that the prognosis for the future disturbance suggests an increase in marine heatwaves that will last longer and the ongoing risk of COTs outbreaks and cyclones. “Therefore, while the observed recovery offers good news for the overall state of the GBR, there is an increasing concern for its ability to maintain this state,” the report says.

3. Why are regulators swooping down on stablecoins?

How do stablecoins feature within the crypto market? What has led to the sudden scrutiny?

A stablecoin is a digital currency whose value is pegged to a ‘stable’ asset, such as the U.S. dollar or gold. The best-known stablecoin in the crypto ecosystem today is Tether (USDT).

For a cryptocurrency trader, tracking stablecoin flows can help them gauge the state of the market, or even make educated guesses about future cryptocurrency price movements.

Stablecoins are only as stable as their investors’ faith in the peg. In early July, the Financial Stability Board (FSB), a body which advises major economies on international finance, promised to push for stablecoin regulation, citing “recent turmoil” (the TerraUSD crash) in the cryptocurrency market.

Sahana Venugopal

The story so far: In early July, the Financial Stability Board (FSB), a body which advises major economies on international finance, promised to push for stablecoin regulation, citing “recent turmoil” in the cryptocurrency market. The international body said it is “working to ensure that crypto-assets are subject to robust regulation and supervision.” The group is slated to report in October to G20 Finance Ministers and Central bank governors on regulatory and supervisory approaches to stablecoins and other crypto-assets. The FSB is not the only organisation seeking to regulate stablecoins. Last month, the European Commission and EU-based lawmakers agreed on the Markets in Crypto-Assets, or MiCA law, to enforce strict controls on the companies distributing cryptocurrencies classified as stablecoins.

What are stablecoins?

A stablecoin is a digital currency whose value is pegged to a ‘stable’ asset, such as the U.S. dollar or gold. The best-known stablecoin in the crypto ecosystem today is arguably Tether (USDT), whose market cap is close to $66 billion, putting it below Ethereum, the second largest cryptocurrency in existence.

1 USDT is meant to be worth 1 USD, though market factors can take prices slightly above or below this mark. Other stablecoins such as USD Coin (USDC) and Binance USD (BUSD) are also pegged to the U.S. dollar and are known for their high market cap values. Tether also recently launched a stablecoin pegged to the British pound. Stablecoins are not authorised for use by country lawmakers or central banks, which means that investors take on considerable legal and financial risk to hold them.

What roles do stablecoins play in the crypto ecosystem?

For a cryptocurrency trader, tracking stablecoin flows can help them gauge the state of the market, or even make educated guesses about future cryptocurrency price movements. For example, when the stablecoin supply on crypto exchanges spikes, it might be a sign that investors are cashing in their stablecoins to buy cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin (BTC), Ether (ETH), or even other alt coins.

Many traders believe this can lead to upward price moves. On the other hand, if the stablecoin supply on crypto exchanges suddenly drops, one might conclude that traders are buying relatively steadier assets. This could mean traders want to hedge against future risk and volatility, or are driven by fear.

What are the use cases for stablecoins?

Across the world, stablecoins can serve as lifelines. In countries such as Turkey, Nigeria, and Argentina where the local currency is rapidly losing value, converting funds to stablecoins is one way for residents to try and safeguard their earnings. In Taliban-occupied Afghanistan, with remittance channels choked by U.S. sanctions, stablecoin transfers have helped a few crypto users live to see another day. For this reason, a large section of the crypto community does not want stablecoins to be controlled by centralised laws or standards.

How ‘stable’ are stablecoins?

Stablecoins are only as stable as their investors’ faith in the peg. Tether has been dragged through the American legal system as investigators struggled to ascertain whether the top stablecoin company really backed every USDT against a U.S. dollar. This type of peg is called a “fiat collaterised” stablecoin. Tether’s market cap, shooting up by billions of dollars in the past year and potentially threatening the balance of the U.S. dollar itself, did not help allay these fears.

In October 2021, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) ordered Tether to pay over $40 million, “for making untrue or misleading statements and omissions of material fact in connection with the U.S. dollar tether token (USDT) stablecoin,” according to its press release. Tether’s market cap — totalling more than $80 billion in April this year — has slipped down to around $66 billion in July.

How is the Terra fallout linked to stablecoins?

TerraUSD (UST) is an algorithmic stablecoin. It is linked to another token’s supply. The other cryptocurrency, LUNA, is adjusted to help UST maintain its peg. This method of linking with another token helps keep crypto firms from buying reserve assets such as dollars or crypto or even gold. Yet shortly before its May crash, founder Do Kwon announced his plan to buy billions in Bitcoin and other assets to further strengthen the UST stablecoin — an ambition which did not pan out as expected.

Soon afterwards, a multitude of market factors and company failures collided, resulting in the UST stablecoin coming loose from its peg — before losing nearly 100% of its value. As billions of dollars were blown up in the May 2022 crash, partially due to UST, several other stablecoins like USDT also lost value temporarily as investors panicked.

Now, crypto analytics show a rising demand for USDT’s rival USDC, which comes just below it in market cap. Roughly $11 billion divides the two stablecoins, and many are watching to assess how USDT faces its legal hurdles.

What is the path ahead for stablecoins?

The risks within the stablecoin ecosystem are very high. And now, as regulators step in, the market is expected to make traders more fearful. Terra is not the first or only fault line in the stablecoin market, and it won’t be the last.

4. Editorial-1: India, democracy and the promised republic

At 75, the country must be judged by the extent to which it has advanced human development

Within a few days, India will complete 75 years as an independent political entity. The event is not without historical significance, for among the countries that emerged from Britain’s vast South Asian empire in 1947, India alone has maintained some stability. Stability, however, would be a low standard by which to judge India’s journey since 1947. So, how should it be judged, then? A recent commentator has argued that India may not have succeeded in economic terms but has remained a democracy, which is something to be proud of. But, surely, democracy is not only about the protocols of governance but as much about the outcomes that it produces. Thus, while the idea of democracy being ‘government by discussion’ establishes the norm that decision-making under a democracy ought to be participatory, this representation loses sight of democracy’s central aim.

Empowering the individual

The significance of democracy is that it aims to empower the individual to lead the kind of life that he or she values. With this understood, on its 75th anniversary India must be judged by the extent to which it has advanced human development. When the economy is viewed as an ecosystem for enabling human development, the extent to which it has succeeded must be part of the assessment of democracy itself.

This was implicit in Jawaharlal Nehru’s message to the nation on August 15, 1947. Nehru had first queried, rhetorically, “Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour?”, and answered this as follows: “To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India. To fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease. To build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions that will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.” This understanding of the goal of Indian independence by the most consequential Indian of the moment was shared by millions of his compatriots who had participated in the movement for national independence.

Distant goal of opportunity

Nehru himself was not sanguine about the challenges that lay ahead, though. In his speech to the Constituent Assembly the previous day he had asked if India’s political representatives would deliver what was at stake, which was an India where equal opportunity prevailed. We can now see that this goal is far from having been attained.

From an economic point of view, though the demarcation is not always clear cut, there is a layering of the population according to caste and gender. Gender-based inequality is rampant in India; within every social group, women are worse off than their men. They are less nourished, less educated and have a representation in the institutions of governance far lower than their share of the population. While they participate equally in the elections, they are denied a place at the high table of governance, as it were. What is not evident in the official statistics, though, is the extent of women’s autonomy with respect to their lives. This is reflected in the very low female labour force participation in India compared to the rest of the world. It reinforces their secondary position in society by adding economic deprivation to the social restriction that discourages them from working outside the home.

Regional differentiation

On development indicators pertaining to health and education, not to mention poverty, China does far better than India. While this should hardly lead us to rush to celebrate human development in China — for personal freedoms are severely restricted in that country — it should certainly alert us to the failure of democracy in India to advance it.

However, the cliché that “whatever you may say about India, the opposite is also true” carries over in this instance too. There are States in India which compare quite well with China on human development indicators. So, there is a regional differentiation when it comes to development here. The commonly remarked upon pattern is that the south and the west do better than much of the rest of the country, the exception being the northeastern States, some of which have made remarkable strides in this sphere. And, the difference is considerable. For instance, data released by NITI Aayog in 2021 show multi-dimensional poverty in Bihar to be over 50% while it is only a little more than 1% in Kerala. Why, it may be asked, is it that in a country with mostly uniform laws across it, social and economic development is so uneven?

As with many institutions, democracy too is embedded in society, leaving some of its functioning to be determined by the social structure. The south and the west of India show greater development because they have witnessed greater social transformation. This has taken the form of a weakening of the traditional hierarchy, allowing for a greater say in governance of once-excluded groups, which leads to the adoption of a public policy that furthers the well-being of the latter.

For instance, the superior human development indicators of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have followed this social transformation. However, despite the progress made, the imprint of patriarchy and caste, respectively, remain writ large over the social map of even these States, pointing to the distance to be travelled to the attainment of equality of opportunity.

Nehru seems to have anticipated that merely adopting democracy as a form of governance would not assure a fulfilling life for all Indians. He could see that it was necessary to create the “social, economic and political” institutions that would enable this. It is important to realise that such institutions are not exclusively built or even promoted by the state. They can also arise from civil society, i.e., they may be created by the people themselves. However, in an India where universal public education was not seriously attempted, the potential for the creation of such institutions was limited.

Subversion of democracy

Not even Nehru was prescient enough to see the subversion of democracy by the Indian state that was to come after his time. First, there was the Emergency, and today, while the Constitution may not have been abrogated, civil liberties have a precarious existence. The freedom of expression of individuals is curtailed, the press has been intimidated and the religious minorities, particularly Muslims, feel insecure. There is a perceived weaponisation of the law by the state.

Towards the end of his life, Nehru publicly rued the fact that India had not achieved sufficient progress in agriculture, wryly observing that we seem to have imagined that crops would “somehow grow on their own”. After 75 years, we may have come to recognise a similar truth about our democracy. We seemed to have imagined that simply leaving things to our political representatives would somehow deliver us a happy country. Now we have learned that, rather like a plant, democracy too needs nurturing and realised what is meant by the maxim “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”. It is not as if all Indians have ignored their role, as seen in the heroic efforts of Right to Information activists who have at times paid with their life for challenging both vested interests and the Indian state. On balance, though, India’s middle classes, who have benefited greatly from the economic policies of the past 75 years, have contributed relatively little to safeguard democracy in their country.

Some fear that the era of civil liberties is over in India, but this would be premature. We are still an electoral democracy, and the history of elections holds a clue to possibilities in the present. For a poor country, Indians displayed an unusually strong commitment to civil liberties in 1977. However, in 1989 and 2014, they conveyed that they also want their representatives to be free of even the slightest taint of corruption. Indeed, the political parties that led the restoration of liberty in 1977 would have been aided by Jayaprakash Narayan’s incorruptibility.

5. Editorial-2: Tapping technology to check minor mineral plunder

India has grossly underestimated the issue of illegal mining, which damages the environment and causes revenue loss

With the increase in the pace of development, the demand for minor minerals such as sand and gravel has crossed 60 million metric tons in India. This also makes it the second largest extractive industry on the planet, after water. However, while laws and monitoring have been made stringent for the mining of major minerals consequent to the unearthing of several related scams across the country, the fact is that rampant and illegal mining of minor minerals continues unabated. In many instances, one comes across gravel being removed from agricultural lands or fallow lands of the government near major highways or construction projects, as the contractor finds it easier and cheaper to do so even though the estimates for such work include the distance (called ‘lead’) to transport such gravel from authorised quarries.

Issue of regulation

Unlike major minerals, the regulatory and administrative powers to frame rules, prescribe rates of royalty, mineral concessions, enforcement, etc. are entrusted exclusively to the State governments.

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Notifications of 1994 and 2006 made environmental clearance compulsory for mining in areas more than or equal to five hectares. However, the Supreme Court of India after taking cognisance of a report by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change on Environmental Aspects of Quarrying of Minor Minerals (2010) directed all State governments to make the requisite changes in the regulatory framework of minor minerals, requiring environmental clearance for mining in areas less than five hectares. Consequently, the EIA was amended in 2016 which made environmental clearance mandatory for mining in areas less than five hectares, including minor minerals. The amendment also provided for the setting up of a District Environment Impact Assessment Authority (EIAA) and a District Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC).

However, a State-wise review of EACs and EIAAs in key industrial States such as Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, shows that these authorities review over 50 project proposals in a day and the rejection rate at the State level has been a mere 1%. This raises a pertinent question on whether introducing clearances alone can help eliminate irregularities in the illegal mining of minor minerals? The situation now indicates that the problem is even more complex and widespread and that a robust technology-driven enforcement approach is required.

The problem of illegal mining of minor minerals is often under-estimated, thus accentuating undesired environmental consequences. There have been numerous cases of the illegal mining of dolomite, marble and sand across States. For example, in Andhra Pradesh’s Konanki limestone quarries alone, 28.92 lakh metric tonnes of limestone have been illegally quarried. However, the relentless pace of sand mining poses grave concerns.

Observations by agencies

The United Nations Environment Programme, in 2019, ranked India and China as the top two countries where illegal sand mining has led to sweeping environmental degradation. Despite this, there is no comprehensive assessment available to evaluate the scale of sand mining in India. Nevertheless, regional studies such as those by the Centre for Science and Environment of the Yamuna riverbed in Uttar Pradesh have observed that increasing demand for soil has severely affected soil formation and the soil holding ability of the land, leading to a loss in marine life, an increase in flood frequency, droughts, and also degradation of water quality. Such effects can also be seen in the beds of the Godavari, the Narmada and the Mahanadi basins. As has been pointed out in a study of the Narmada basin, sand mining has reduced the population of Mahseer fish from 76% between 1963 and 2015.

It is not just damage to the environment. Illegal mining causes copious losses to the state exchequer. As per an estimate, U.P. is losing revenue from 70% of mining activities as only 30% area is legally mined. Similarly, the absence of royalty has caused a loss of ₹700 crore in Bihar while non-payment of various cesses due to unregulated mining has resulted in a loss of ₹100 crore to Karnataka and ₹600 crore to Madhya Pradesh in 2016-17.

Judicial orders, state response

Judicial orders are often neglected by State governments. For instance, as in the report of the Oversight Committee by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), Uttar Pradesh (where illegal sand mining has created a severe hazard) has either failed or only partially complied with orders issued regarding compensation for illegal sand mining. Such lax compliance can be seen in States such as West Bengal, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh too.

A State-wide review of the reasons behind non-compliance suggests a malfunction of governance due to weak institutions, a scarcity of state resources to ensure enforcement, poorly drafted regulatory provisions, inadequate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms, and excessive litigation that dampens state administrative capacity.

Protecting minor minerals requires investment in production and consumption measurement and also monitoring and planning tools. To this end, technology has to be used to provide a sustainable solution.

The power of technology

Satellite imagery can be used to monitor the volume of extraction and also check the mining process. Even for past infractions, the NGT and administrative authorities can obtain satellite pictures for the past 10 to 15 years and uncontrovertibly show how small hillocks of earth, gravel or small stone dunes have disappeared in an area. Recently, the NGT directed some States to use satellite imagery to monitor the volume of sand extraction and transportation from the riverbeds. Well-planned execution of these directions increased revenue from minor minerals mining in all these States.

Additionally, drones, the internet of things (IoT) and blockchain technology can be leveraged to monitor mechanisms by using Global Positioning System, radar and Radio Frequency (RF) Locator. State governments such as Gujarat and judicial directions such as the High Court of Madras have employed some of these technologies to check illegal sand mining.

6. Editorial-3: Cooling the temperatures

The U.S., China and Taiwan are left picking up the pieces after Nancy Pelosi’s visit

That the four-day military exercises conducted by China, in the waters and airspace surrounding Taiwan, concluded on August 7 without incident comes as a relief to the region. The drills saw the Chinese military not only cross the median of the Taiwan Strait but fire conventional missiles above Taiwan, aggressive acts that could have easily led to unintended escalation. That they did not lead to any incidents is credit to the sober response from Taiwan’s military, which said it monitored China’s exercises, some of which were held within 12 nautical miles of Taiwan, but chose to neither engage Chinese aircraft and warships, nor shoot down missiles. If the drills were certainly provocative, China’s justification is that they were a needed response to draw a red line after what Beijing has seen as needless American provocation that triggered this entire crisis. The August 3 visit of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, the first such high-level engagement in 25 years, was in China’s view further evidence of Washington “hollowing out” its commitment to a One China Policy.

As the dust settles now, it is difficult to see what all three parties – the U.S., Taiwan and China – will ultimately gain from a visit that appears to have been driven more by Ms. Pelosi’s political inclinations than any well-considered long-term strategic objectives. It is thus not hard to see why even U.S. President Joe Biden and the U.S. military had cautioned against a trip that brings no lasting strategic benefits for Washington. For Taiwan’s 23 million people and for President Tsai Ing-wen, the rare high-profile foreign visit was no doubt welcome in the face of increasing global isolation on account of China’s pressure. That short-term benefit may, however, be offset by the fact that Ms. Pelosi has arguably left Taiwan with a far worse strategic environment. China’s military has indicated its actions have now heralded a new normal in military activity across the Taiwan Strait, bringing it ever closer to Taiwan’s shores. Beijing and Washington, meanwhile, are left picking up the pieces of an already strained relationship that is now teetering on the edge of an abyss. The focus must now turn to cooling the temperatures. Doing so will be easier said than done with the low levels of trust between the world’s two biggest powers. In response to Ms. Pelosi’s visit, Beijing last week said it will cut off military channels with Washington by cancelling three key dialogue mechanisms, that too at a time of heightened military tensions. War, it is said, is too important to be left to the generals. The same may be said of relations between nations: they should not be hostage to personal ambitions of politicians.

7. Editorial-4: Focused on inflation

A rate increase was needed to prevent inflation expectations from stymieing growth

The RBI’s Monetary Policy Committee on Friday raised the benchmark interest rate for a third straight meeting as policymakers battle to rein in inflation that has persistently ‘remained at or above’ the prescribed upper tolerance threshold for six months. The 50 basis points raise takes the policy repo rate to 5.4%, and, more significantly, to a level last seen in the pre-pandemic second quarter of fiscal 2019-20, when a growth slowdown and retail inflation of about 3.2% warranted a rate cut. As the MPC’s Jayanth Varma had pointed out in June, when the MPC had recommended a 50 basis points increase, the impact of the 90 basis points total increase from May still left the real policy rate at the time lagging behind the RBI’s 100 basis points increase in retail inflation projection for the year — from 5.7% to 6.7%. It is only now that the cumulative increase totals 140 basis points, and puts the central bank slightly ahead of the curve. Still, as Governor Shaktikanta Das acknowledged, consumer price inflation, even if off April’s eight-year high, remains ‘uncomfortably high’ with inflationary pressures broad-based. And with the MPC’s own forecasts for the second and third quarter pegging retail price gains well above the upper tolerance mark of 6%, at 7.1% and 6.4%, respectively, the rate setting panel had little option but to continue the withdrawal of monetary accommodation to prevent inflation expectations from getting unmoored and stymieing growth by retarding consumption.

From an external sector and exchange rate perspective as well, globalised inflationary surges are prompting policy tightening in advanced economies that is in turn roiling currency markets including appreciably weakening the rupee and adding imported inflation to the mix. Noting that ‘successive shocks to the global economy’ had led multilateral institutions including the IMF to lower their global growth projections and ‘highlight the rising risks of recession’, Mr. Das remarked, “disquietingly, globalisation of inflation is coinciding with deglobalisation of trade”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resultant impact on trade flows from the conflict zone have upended supply chains for several commodities and added to price pressures for a range of goods. The latest geopolitical tensions triggered in East Asia by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in the face of Beijing’s dire warnings, and China’s decision to respond with aggressive military drills around one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, could also impact global trade at a time when uncertainty and risk aversion are already high. Mr. Das’s confidence in the ‘resilience’ of the economy’s fundamentals notwithstanding, it is probably apposite for the MPC to hereafter heed Mr. Varma’s exhortation by ‘providing projections of the future path of the policy rate’. This would help anchor price gain expectations firmly and surely enhance the RBI’s inflation-fighting credentials.

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