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Daily Current Affairs 10.03.2022 (Cabinet nod for new firm to monetise land assets, Water management needs a hydro-social approach, China looks for ‘acceptable solution’ on LAC, Reviving the inland water transport system for the Northeast , UPI123Pay: Payment solution for feature phone users)

Daily Current Affairs 10.03.2022 (Cabinet nod for new firm to monetise land assets, Water management needs a hydro-social approach, China looks for ‘acceptable solution’ on LAC, Reviving the inland water transport system for the Northeast , UPI123Pay: Payment solution for feature phone users)

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1. Cabinet nod for new firm to monetise land assets

Govt. eyes substantial revenues

The Union Cabinet on Wednesday approved the setting up of a new government-owned firm for pooling and monetising sovereign and public sector land assets. The National Land Monetisation Corporation (NLMC) is being formed with an initial authorised share capital of ₹5,000 crore and paid-up capital of ₹150 crore.

The government will appoint a chairman to head the NLMC through a “merit-based selection process” and hire private sector professionals with expertise.

The NLMC will undertake monetisation of surplus land and building assets of Central public sector enterprises (CPSEs) as well as government agencies.

“The government would be able to generate substantial revenues by monetising unused and under-used assets,” an official statement said.

What is NLMC?

  • The National Land Monetisation Corporation (NLMC) is being formed with an initial authorised share capital of ₹5,000 crore and paid-up capital of ₹150 crore.
  • The government will appoint a chairman to head the NLMC through a “merit-based selection process” and hire private sector professionals with expertise.
  • The NLMC will undertake monetization of surplus land and building assets of Central public sector enterprises (CPSEs) as well as government agencies.

How will it function?

  • NLMC will own, hold, manage and monetise surplus land and building assets of CPSEs under closure and surplus non-core land assets of Government-owned CPSEs under strategic disinvestment.
  • This will speed up the closure process of CPSEs and smoothen the strategic disinvestment process of Government-owned CPSEs, the statement said.
  • NLMC will undertake surplus land asset monetisation as an agency function, and assist and provide technical advice to the Centre in this regard.
  • The NLMC board will comprise senior Government officers and eminent experts, while its chairman and non-Government directors will be appointed through a merit-based selection process, the statement said.
  • The Corporation will have minimal full-time staff, hired directly from the market on a contract basis.

Stipulated tasks

  • CPSEs have referred around 3,400 acres of land and other non-core assets to the Department of Investment and Public Asset Management (DIPAM) for monetisation.
  • Monetisation of non-core assets of MTNL, BSNL, BPCL, BEML, HMT, is currently at various stages of the transaction, as per latest data in the Economic Survey 2021-22.

Significance of NLMC

  • The government would be able to generate substantial revenues by monetizing unused and under-used assets.
  • The new corporation will also help carry out monetization of assets belonging to public sector firms that have closed or are lined up for a strategic sale.

2. Water management needs a hydro-social approach

Freshwater resources are under stress, the principal driver being human activities in their various forms

The Global Water System Project, which was launched in 2003 as a joint initiative of the Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) and Global Environmental Change (GEC) programme, epitomises global concern about the human-induced transformation of fresh water and its impact on the earth system and society. The fact is that freshwater resources are under stress, the principal driver being human activities in their various forms.

Fresh water, water valuation

In its fourth assessment report in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlighted the link between societal vulnerability and modifications of water systems. It is globally estimated that the gap between demand for and supply of fresh water may reach up to 40% by 2030 if present practices continue.

The formation of the 2030 Water Resource Group in 2008, at the instance of the World Economic Forum, and the World Bank’s promotion of the group’s activity since 2018, is in recognition of this problem and to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on water availability and sanitation for all by 2030 (SDG 6). Formally, it is: “to ensure safe drinking water and sanitation for all, focusing on the sustainable management of water resources, wastewater and ecosystems….” The latest UN World Water Development Report, 2021, titled ‘Valuing Water’, has laid stress on the proper valuation of water by considering five interrelated perspectives: water sources; water infrastructure; water services; water as an input to production and socio-economic development, and sociocultural values of water.

Designing a comprehensive mix of divergent views about water (along with ecological and environmental issues) held by stakeholder groups is necessary. In this context, a hydro-social cycle approach provides an appropriate framework. It repositions the natural hydrological cycle in a human-nature interactive structure and considers water and society as part of a historical and relational-dialectical process.

Inter-basin transfer projects

The anthropogenic factors directly influencing a freshwater system are the engineering of river channels, irrigation and other consumptive use of water, widespread land use/land cover change, change in an aquatic habitat, and point and non-point source pollution affecting water quality. The intra- and inter-basin transfer (IBT) of water is a major hydrological intervention to rectify the imbalance in water availability due to naturally prevailing unequal distribution of water resources within a given territory.

There are several IBT initiatives across the world. One recent document indicates that there are 110 water transfer mega projects that have either been executed (34 projects) or being planned/under construction (76 projects) across the world. The National River Linking Project of India is one of those under construction. These projects, if executed, will create artificial water courses that are more than twice the length of the earth’s equator and will transfer 1,910 km3 of water annually. They will reengineer the hydrological system with considerable local, regional and global ramifications. Based on a multi-country case study analysis, the World Wildlife Fund/World Wide Fund for Nature (2009) has suggested a cautious approach and the necessity to adhere to sustainability principles set out by the World Commission on Dams while taking up IBT projects.

Some of the key assumptions

Recently, inter-basin transfer of water drew attention in India due to a provision made in Budget 2022 for the Ken Betwa river link project which is a part of the National River Linking project (mooted in 1970 and revived in 1999). This decision raises larger questions about hydrological assumptions and the use and the management of freshwater resources in the country. We shall ponder over some of them.

First, the basic premise of IBT is to export water from the surplus basin to a deficit basin. However, there is contestation on the concept of the surplus and deficit basin itself as the exercise is substantially hydrological. Water demand within the donor basin by factoring present and future land use, especially cropping patterns, population growth, urbanisation, industrialisation, socio-economic development and environmental flow are hardly worked out. Besides this, rainfall in many surplus basins has been reported as declining. The status of the surplus basin may alter if these issues are considered.

Second, there is concern about the present capacity utilisation of water resources created in the country. By 2016, India created an irrigation potential for 112 million hectares, but the gross irrigated area was 93 million hectares. There is a 19% gap, which is more in the case of canal irrigation. In 1950-51, canal irrigation used to contribute 40% of net irrigated area, but by 2014-15, the net irrigated area under canal irrigation came down to less than 24%. Ground water irrigation now covers 62.8% of net irrigated area. The average water use efficiency of irrigation projects in India is only 38% against 50%-60% in the case of developed countries.

Agriculture, grey water use

Even at the crop level we consume more water than the global average. Rice and wheat, the two principal crops accounting for more than 75% of agricultural production use 2,850 m3/tonnes and 1,654 m3/tonnes of water, respectively, against the global average of 2,291m3/tonnes and 1,334m3/ tonnes in the same order. The agriculture sector uses a little over 90% of total water use in India. And in industrial plants, consumption is 2 times to 3.5 times higher per unit of production of similar plants in other countries. Similarly, the domestic sector experiences a 30% to 40% loss of water due to leakage.

Third, grey water is hardly used in our country. It is estimated that 55% to 75% of domestic water use turns into grey water depending on its nature of use, people’s habits, climatic conditions, etc. At present, average water consumption in the domestic sector in urban areas is 135 litres to 196 litres a head a day. Given the size of India’s urban population (469 million estimated for 2021), the amount of grey water production can be well imagined. If grey water production in the rural areas is considered it will be a huge amount. The discharge of untreated grey water and industrial effluents into freshwater bodies is cause for concern. The situation will be further complicated if groundwater is affected.

Apart from the inefficient use of water in all sectors, there is also a reduction in natural storage capacity and deterioration in catchment efficiency. The issues are source sustainability, renovation and maintenance of traditional water harvesting structures, grey water management infrastructure, groundwater recharge, increasing water use efficiency, and reuse of water.

Planning ahead

Looking into these issues may not be adequate to address all the problems. Nevertheless, these measures will help to reduce demand supply gap in many places, and the remaining areas of scarcity can be catered to using small-scale projects. The axiom that today’s water system is co-evolving and the challenges are mainly management and governance has been globally well accepted. Water projects are politically charged and manifest an interplay of social relations, social power, and technology.

It is important to include less predictable variables, revise binary ways of thinking of ‘either or’, and involve non-state actors in decision-making processes. A hybrid water management system is necessary, where (along with professionals and policy makers) the individual, a community and society have definite roles in the value chain. The challenge is not to be techno-centric but anthropogenic.

3. China looks for ‘acceptable solution’ on LAC

Military-level talks to be held by the two sides tomorrow will focus on Patrolling Point 15 in Hot Springs

China on Wednesday said it hoped military-level talks with India set for Friday would “move forward” the long-running negotiations on disengagement along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) towards “an acceptable solution” for both sides.

The talks this week, the 15th round held to take forward disengagement since the crisis of 2020, will focus on Patrolling Point 15 in Hot Springs. Disengagement has already been undertaken on the north and south banks of Pangong Lake, Galwan and Gogra.

Indian defence sources earlier told The Hindu that both sides are focusing on the remaining friction areas — there are also differences in Demchok and Depsang — and that “recent statements by both sides to find a mutually acceptable solution have been encouraging and positive in nature”.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry made a similar observation on Wednesday with spokesperson Zhao Lijian saying the previous round in January saw both sides hold “a candid, in-depth exchange of views” and that Beijing “hopes this round of meeting, on the basis of previous meetings, can move forward, further enlarge consensus, narrow differences and work for a solution that is acceptable to both parties”.

Mr. Zhao referred to remarks made by Foreign Minister Wang Yi during the National People’s Congress in Beijing this week when he said “relations encountered setbacks in recent years, which do not serve the fundamental interest of the two countries and people” and needed to “move forward on the right track”.

Mr. Zhao said China “always believe[s] that the China-India relations are mature and multi-dimensional”. “The border issue doesn’t represent the whole of the China-India relations and should be put in an appropriate position in bilateral relations and under effective control,” he said.

“We hope India will work with China to continuously enhance mutual trust, strengthen practical cooperation and ensure that the bilateral relations will move forward in the right track, bring more benefits and make greater contributions to the region and beyond.”

4. Reviving the inland water transport system for the Northeast

How is the transport of cargo services through waterways in Bangladesh possible?

The docking of the MV Lal Bahadur Shastri carrying 200 MT of food grains for the FCI has rekindled hope for the inland water transport system in the Northeast.

The vessel passed through Bhagalpur, Manihari, Sahibganj, Farakka, Tribeni, Kolkata, Haldia, Hemnagar in India, Khulna, Narayanganj, Sirajganj and Chilmari in Bangladesh and again to India on the NW2, through Dhubri and Jogighopa covering 2,350 km.

Transportation of cargo service through waterways in Bangladesh is possible because of the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade signed between the two countries.

The story so far: A month after setting sail on the Ganga from Patna, the MV Lal Bahadur Shastri carrying 200 metric tonnes of food grains for the Food Corporation of India (FCI), docked at Guwahati’s Pandu port on the southern bank of the Brahmaputra on March 6. The occasion is believed to have taken inland water transport, on two of India’s largest river systems, to the future.

Why is a Ganga-Brahmaputra cargo vessel in focus?

There is nothing unusual about a cargo vessel setting sail from or docking at any river port. But a host of VIPs lined up to receive MV Lal Bahadur Shastri, a cargo vessel operated by the IWAI (Inland Waterways Authority of India), at Guwahati’s Pandu port on March 6. They included Union Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways, Sarbananda Sonowal, Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, Guwahati MP Queen Oja and IWAI chairperson Sanjay Bandopadhyay.

The vessel had on February 5 started sailing from Patna on National Waterway-1 (NW1, river Ganga).

It passed through Bhagalpur, Manihari, Sahibganj, Farakka, Tribeni, Kolkata, Haldia, Hemnagar in India, Khulna, Narayanganj, Sirajganj and Chilmari in Bangladesh and again to India on National Waterway-2 (NW2, river Brahmaputra) through Dhubri and Jogighopa covering 2,350 km. The docking of the vessel carrying 200 MT of food grains for the FCI has rekindled hope for the inland water transport system which the landlocked northeast depended on heavily before India’s independence in 1947.

Is this the first such shipping of cargo?

The shipping of cargo from Patna to Pandu via Bangladesh was FCI’s pilot project. A similar experiment was carried out in 2018 when two 1,000-tonne barges carrying 1,233 tonnes of bagged fly ash travelled 2,085 km from Bihar’s Kahalgaon to Pandu for more than a month. A private firm had procured the fly ash from the National Thermal Power Corporation’s plant in Bihar for use in its cement factories in Assam and Meghalaya. But the FCI cargo is expected to lead to regular services between NW1 and NW2 “heralding a new age of inland water transport” for the northeast. According to the IWAI, the process has already started with a 252 MT cargo destined for eastern Assam’s Numaligarh bio-refinery having reached central Assam’s Silghat from Haldia in West Bengal on February 15. Another vessel, MV Ram Prasad Bismil with two barges named Kalpana Chawla and APJ Abdul Kalam started its voyage from Haldia on February 17 and is expected to reach Pandu soon.

How would regular inland water service impact the northeast?

Around Independence, Assam’s per capita income was the highest in the country primarily because of access for its tea, timber, coal and oil industries to seaports on the Bay of Bengal via the Brahmaputra and the Barak River (southern Assam) systems. Ferry services continued sporadically after 1947 but stopped after the 1965 war with Pakistan, as Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan then.

The scenario changed after the river routes were cut off and rail and road through the “Chicken’s Neck”, a narrow strip in West Bengal, became costlier alternatives. “The start of cargo movement through the Indo-Bangladesh Protocol (IBP) route is going to provide the business community a viable, economic and ecological alternative. Seamless cargo transportation has been a necessity for the northeast,” Mr Sonowal said.

He attributed the rejuvenation of the historical trade routes via Bangladesh to the PM Gati Shakti initiative envisaged to slowly convert the northeast into a connectivity hub and ramp up the swift movement of cargo on the Brahmaputra, which meets the Ganga in Bangladesh. These rivers are called Jamuna and Padma in that country.

How did the water cargo service through Bangladesh come about?

The resumption of cargo transport service through the waterways in Bangladesh has come at a cost since the Protocol on Inland Water Transit and Trade was signed between the two countries.

India has invested 80% of ₹305.84 crore to improve the navigability of the two stretches of the IBP (Indo-Bangladesh Protocol) routes — Sirajganj-Daikhowa and Ashuganj-Zakiganj in Bangladesh.

The seven-year dredging project on these two stretches till 2026 is expected to yield seamless navigation to the north-eastern region.

IWAI officials said the distance between NW1 and NW2 will reduce by almost 1,000 km once the IBP routes are cleared for navigation.

The Government has also undertaken the Jal Marg Vikas project with an investment of ₹4,600-crore to augment the capacity of NW1 for sustainable movement of vessels weighing up to 2,000 tonnes.

A few issues remain, though. Sailors who made the cargo trips possible have had difficulties steering clear of fishing nets and angry fishermen in Bangladesh.

These hiccups will get sorted out with time, officials say.

5. UPI123Pay: Payment solution for feature phone users

What is the latest RBI initiative ‘UPI123Pay’? How will it facilitate financial transactions without internet connectivity?

The new UPI-based service is designed to bring the digital payments platform to a significant number of feature phone mobile subscribers in the country, which is estimated to be more than 40 crore.

Feature phone users can avail four options to make payments without internet connectivity: Interactive Voice Response (IVR), app-based functionality, missed call facility and proximity sound-based payments

M-PESA, Africa’s leading mobile money service, is one of the few mobile service providers who do not use internet for financial transactions.

Ishan Patra

The story so far: On March 8, the Reserve Bank of India launched a new Unified Payments Interface (UPI) payments solution for feature phone users dubbed ‘UPI123Pay’. UPI, which was introduced in 2016, has become one of the most used digital payments platforms in the country. The volume of UPI transactions has already reached ₹76 lakh crore in the current year, compared to ₹41 lakh crore in FY21 , RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das said. However, at present, efficient access to UPI is available largely via smartphones, the Central bank noted.

How does the new solution work?

The new UPI-based service is designed to bring the digital payments platform closer to a significant number of feature phone mobile subscribers in the country, which is estimated to be more than 40 crore. UPI123Pay will materially improve the options for such users to access UPI, who could earlier access the digital transactions platform through the USSD-based process, using the short code of *99#, which according to RBI is not popular. The USSD-based process is considered cumbersome, with users required to send multiple messages and charged for the same, and not supported by all mobile service providers, T Rabi Shankar, RBI Deputy Governor, noted.

With the UPI123Pay, feature phone users will be required to go through an onboarding process where they have to link their bank account to their feature phone and then set a UPI PIN using their debit card for authenticating transactions. Once they have completed this initial process, users will be able to use the new UPI facility for person-to-person as well as merchant transactions, among others, through one of the four distinct payment options that don’t require an internet connection.

“The launch of UPI123Pay makes facilities under UPI accessible to that section of society which was so far been excluded from the digital payments landscape. In that way, it is promoting great amount of financial inclusion in our economy,” Mr. Das said.

How will users make payments without internet?

The new UPI payments system offers users four options to make payments without internet connectivity: Interactive Voice Response (IVR), app-based functionality, missed call facility and proximity sound-based payments. Using the IVR option, users would be required to initiate a secured call from their feature phones to a predetermined IVR number and complete UPI on-boarding formalities to be able to start making financial transactions like money transfer, mobile recharge, EMI repayment, balance check, among others.

The missed call facility will allow users to access their bank account and perform routine transactions such as receiving, transferring funds, regular purchases, bill payments, etc., by giving a missed call on the number displayed at the merchant outlet. The customer will receive an incoming call to authenticate the transaction by entering UPI PIN.

They could also install an app on their feature phone through which several UPI functions, available on smartphones, will be available on their feature phone, except scan and pay feature which is currently not available.

Finally, they could utilise the proximity sound-based payments option, which uses sound waves to enable contactless, offline, and proximity data communication on any device.

Do other countries have something similar?

Mobile payment systems that do not rely on internet connectivity like the ones based on USSD or SMS technology were introduced many years ago and are still being used in some developing countries.

In fact, one of the major mobile payment systems globally was introduced by Vodafone’s Kenyan associate, Safaricom in 2007. M-PESA, which is Africa’s leading mobile money service, operates across the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique and Tanzania, with 51 million customers making over $314 billion in transactions per year through the service, according to Vodafone.

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