Daily Current Affairs 19.01.2023(Central panel asks Arunachal to review hydropower project, Objectives of SIMI against basic fabric of Constitution, Report flags widening learning gaps, Oil demand may see high on China’s COVID-19 reopening, Check, do not cross Government should work towards systemic reform; not attack the judiciary, Admonishments that endanger the Constitution)

Daily Current Affairs 19.01.2023(Central panel asks Arunachal to review hydropower project, Objectives of SIMI against basic fabric of Constitution, Report flags widening learning gaps, Oil demand may see high on China’s COVID-19 reopening, Check, do not cross Government should work towards systemic reform; not attack the judiciary, Admonishments that endanger the Constitution)


1. Central panel asks Arunachal to review hydropower project

The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the Union Environment Ministry has asked the Arunachal Pradesh government to submit a revised request for permission to divert 1,165 hectares of forest land in the State’s Dibang valley for the Etalin hydropower project.

The FAC’s rationale was that there was widespread local opposition to the project and this ought to be addressed more comprehensively by the State government. The original proposal was sent way back in 2014 and it was “imperative” to review estimates on the number of trees that needed to be felled. There were also “concerns” regarding the biodiversity and protection of wildlife and this needed further assessment and safeguards to be incorporated. In its 2014 estimate, the diversion of forest area would mean the felling of close to 2,80,000 trees.

Moreover, in the earlier approved projects where forest clearance had been accorded, there was a “poor record” of compliance with the conditions stipulated by the FAC. In light of this, the FAC requested the State government to review the status of all approved projects and the extent of their compliance with FAC recommendations and submit a status report to the Environment Ministry at the earliest, the record noted.

List of projects

The Etalin hydropower project is a joint-venture between Jindal Power and Hydro Power Development Corporation of Arunachal Pradesh Limited.

The Arunachal Pradesh government has been promoting a slew of hydropower projects with several involving private companies. However, many of them have come unstuck or interminably delayed with cost escalation and local protests. The State government has recently handed over the execution of some stalled projects to Central Public Sector Units.

2. ‘Objectives of SIMI against basic fabric of Constitution’

SIMI aims to mobilise students/youth in the propagation of Islam and obtain support for jihad, the Centre tells Supreme Court in its affidavit, while listing reasons for banning the organisation

The Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) is mobilising Muslim support to create a “caliphate”, it wants to replace Indian nationalism with an “international Islamic order” and considers idol worship a “sin”, the Union Home Ministry has listed objectives before the Supreme Court for banning the organisation.

A petition seeking to revoke a July 2019 ban on SIMI as an unlawful association under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 came before a Bench led by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul on Wednesday. The court adjourned the hearing.

The Home Ministry, in an affidavit, said the objectives of SIMI was against the basic fabric of Constitution.

“SIMI aims to mobilise students/youth in the propagation of Islam and obtain support for jihad. The organisation also emphasises on the formation of Shariat based Islamic rule through Islami Inqalab. The organisation does not believe in nation-state or in the Indian Constitution, including its secular nature. It further regards idol worship as a sin, and propagates its ‘duty’ to end such practices,” the affidavit said.

The Centre said the financial situation of SIMI was “sound”, with donations and memberships from Gulf countries. The funds received within the country can be broadly classified in two different heads; jhakat/donation and funds by robberies and dacoities.

Wide reach

“SIMI through its members has contacts in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Nepal. Being an organisation for students/youth, SIMI is influenced by and used by various fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organisations operating inter alia from the State of Jammu & Kashmir,” the affidavit said.

Terrorist organisations such as Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) have successfully managed to penetrate into the SIMI cadres to achieve their anti-national goals. It is active in States including Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and West Bengal.

It has regrouped under names such as ‘Wahadat-e-Islami’ in Tamil Nadu; ‘Indian Mujahideen’ in Rajasthan, Karnataka, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi; ‘Ansarullah’ in Karnataka; ‘Muslim Muttahida Mihad’ in Uttar Pradesh; ‘Wahadat-e-Ummat’ in Madhya Pradesh; and ‘Nagarik Adhikar Suraksha Manch’ in West Bengal, it said.

3. Report flags widening learning gaps

The ASER 2022 report shows that government schools saw a sharp rise in enrolment for the first time in 16 years; basic literacy levels of children have taken a big hit, with their reading ability, as compared with numeracy skills, worsening much more sharply and dropping to pre-2012 levels

As schools reopened after nearly two years of closure due to COVID-19, student enrolments increased to more than pre-pandemic levels, but the learning gap widened for foundational skills in reading and arithmetic, reversing several years of improvement, finds the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2022, released by Pratham, a non-governmental organisation, on Wednesday.

The national-level study shows that despite school closures during the pandemic, the overall enrolment figures, which have been above 95% for the past 15 years for the six-to-14 age group, increased from 97.2% in 2018 to 98.4% in 2022.

The ASER is a household survey conducted across 616 rural districts covering 6.9 lakh children in the three-to-16 age group to record their schooling status and assess their basic reading and arithmetic skills. The report is being brought out after four years and records the impact of school closures in 2020 and 2021, as well as the return to school of children in 2022. The proportion of children in the three-to-16 age group who are not currently enrolled dropped to its lowest level ever from 2.8% to 1.6% in 2018, when the last full-scale ASER survey was conducted.

Government schools have seen a sharp increase in children enrolled from 65.6% in 2018 to 72.9% in 2022, reversing another trend of a steady decrease in student enrolments seen since 2006, when it was at 73.4%. Children’s basic literacy levels have taken a big hit, with their reading ability compared with numeracy skills worsening much more sharply and dropping to pre-2012 levels.

The percentage of children in Class 3 in government or private schools who were able to read at the level of Class 2 dropped from 27.3% in 2018 to 20.5% in 2022. This decline is visible in every State, and for children in both government and private schools. The States showing a decline of more than 10 percentage points from the 2018 levels include those that had higher reading levels in 2018, such as Kerala (from 52.1% in 2018 to 38.7% in 2022), Himachal Pradesh (47.7% to 28.4%), and Haryana (46.4% to 31.5%). Large drops are also visible in Andhra Pradesh (22.6% to 10.3%) and Telangana (18.1% to 5.2%).

Nationally, the proportion of children enrolled in Class 5 in government or private schools who can at least read a Class 2-level text fell from 50.5% in 2018 to 42.8% in 2022. The States showing a decrease of 15 percentage points or more include Andhra Pradesh (from 59.7% in 2018 to 36.3% in 2022), Gujarat (from 53.8% to 34.2%), and Himachal Pradesh (from 76.9% to 61.3%).

Basic reading ability

The drops in basic reading ability are smaller for Class 8 students, where 69.6% of children enrolled in government or private schools who could read at least basic text in 2022 falling from 73% in 2018.

Class 3 students who were able to at least subtract dropped from 28.2% in 2018 to 25.9% in 2022. While Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh maintained or improved slightly over 2018 levels, steep drops of more than 10 percentage points are visible in Tamil Nadu. The proportion of children in Class 5 across India who can carry out division has also fallen slightly from 27.9% in 2018 to 25.6% in 2022.

The performance of Class 8 students in basic arithmetic is more varied. Nationally, the proportion of children who can do division has increased slightly, from 44.1% in 2018 to 44.7% in 2022. This increase is driven by improved outcomes among girls as well as among children enrolled in government schools, whereas boys and children enrolled in private schools show a decline from the 2018 levels. Children in Class 8 in government schools did significantly better in 2022 than in 2018 in Uttar Pradesh (from 32% to 41.8%) and Chhattisgarh (from 28% to 38.6%), but were worse off in Punjab (from 58.4% to 44.5%).

While families withdrew students from private schools to save money on fees, they invested in private tuitions, which increased as the proportion of such students rose from 26.4% in 2018 to 30.5% in 2022 in private and government schools. This may be the reason learning gaps are sharper in reading because students typically choose to study maths and science in tuition classes.

4. ‘Oil demand may see high on China’s COVID-19 reopening’

Two wild cards dominate this year’s oil market outlook — Russia and China, says IEA; agency points out driver of 2023 GDP, oil demand growth will be timing, pace of China’s recovery

The lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in China is set to boost global oil demand this year to a record high, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Wednesday, while price cap sanctions on Russia could dent supply.

“Two wild cards dominate the 2023 oil market outlook: Russia and China,” the energy watchdog said in its monthly oil report. “Russian supply slows under the full impact of sanctions (while) China will drive nearly half this global demand growth even as the shape and speed of its reopening remain uncertain.”

Weak industrial activity and mild weather helped cut oil demand by close to a million barrels per day in OECD countries in the last quarter of 2022. But despite likely mild recessions in Europe and the U.S., China’s expected reopening is set to fuel rebounds in nearby Asian economies and see it take the lead from India as the leader in oil demand growth.

“The pre-eminent driver of 2023 GDP and oil demand growth will be the timing and pace of China’s post-lockdown recovery,” the IEA said.

The main growth in oil supply is set to come from the U.S. as output from the OPEC+ group will decline.

5. Editorial-1: Check, do not cross Government should work towards systemic reform; not attack the judiciary

There is something rude and unpleasant in the way the Government is going about the task of demanding a big say in the appointment of judges in constitutional courts. The latest salvo is from Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju, who has written to the Chief Justice of India to request that the executive be given a role in the appointment process, which now is being handled by a Collegium of judges. Reports say that the Minister wants the formation of a search-and-evaluation committee, with Government representatives, to suggest names to the collegiums in the High Courts and the Supreme Court for appointments. He is also understood to have asked for a representative of the Union government in the Supreme Court collegium, and a State government’s representative in the High Court collegiums. The letter comes as the latest in a series of official fulminations against the judiciary. Mr. Rijiju has been at the forefront of this attack, frequently questioning the collegium system by rightly highlighting some of its acknowledged flaws. There is little doubt that the Government’s anger is towards the 2015 judgment of a Constitution Bench striking down the formation of a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC). While few would disagree that the Collegium system needs reform, the Government’s motive in carrying on a campaign against the judiciary in the name of seeking reform in the appointments process is questionable.

The answers to some of the issues raised by the Government are quite simple, and has been repeatedly pointed out by the Court, as well as the political opposition. It can address the need for a more transparent and independent process by making a fresh legislative effort to establish a neutral mechanism that does not impinge on the independence of the judiciary. Until such an exercise to amend the Constitution achieves fruition, it has to abide by the law of the land, that is, the present system of appointments through the Collegium. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the Government’s tactics are bordering on veiled warnings: deliberately delaying action on recommendations; ignoring reiterated names even after multiple reconsiderations; and carrying on a campaign to delegitimise the institution. It is surprising that it seeks to rein in a judiciary that has been quite accommodative of the Government’s concerns on the judicial side in recent years. The only conclusion is that the current regime wants absolute control over who gets to be a judge in this country. A system of checks and balances that prevents any one branch gaining the upper hand is essential for democratic functioning.

6. Editorial-2: Admonishments that endanger the Constitution

Come April and it will be 50 years since the Supreme Court of India delivered its verdict in Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala. The judgment is widely recognised as a milestone in India’s history. In holding that Parliament’s power to amend the Constitution was not plenary, that any change that damages the document’s basic structure would be declared void, the Court, it was understood, had helped preserve the essence of our republic.

In the years since the verdict — if not in its immediate aftermath — its importance has been recognised by successive governments. During this time, most criticism of the doctrine has been confined to the manner of its application rather than its legitimacy. But last week, India’s Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar launched a salvo of attacks at the Supreme Court, by calling into question the ruling’s correctness. Faced as we are with far greater issues of civic concern, this debate might well be regarded as tedious, if only the arguments made against the judgment were not part of what appears to be a concerted effort at undermining the judiciary’s importance.

Collegium as target

Over the course of the last few months, not a day has gone by without one member or the other of the political executive excoriating the Court over its apparent excesses. Much of this criticism has been aimed at the functioning of the collegium — a body of senior judges that makes binding recommendations on appointments and the transfer of judges. The Union Minister of Law and Justice, Kiren Rijiju, and indeed Mr. Dhankhar, have repeatedly doubted the Court’s judgment in 2015, in which it struck down efforts to replace the collegium with a National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC). That criticism has now turned sharper, with the Vice-President’s diatribe against Kesavananda.

In his maiden address to the Rajya Sabha in December 2022, Mr. Dhankhar claimed that the striking down of the NJAC had no parallels in democratic history. A “duly legitimised constitutional prescription,” he claimed, “has been judicially undone.” Speaking on January 11 at the 83rd All India Presiding Officers (Assembly Speakers) Conference in Jaipur, Rajasthan, he said that “in a democratic society, the basic of any basic structure is supremacy of people, sovereignty of parliament…The ultimate power is with the legislature. Legislature also decides who will be there in other institutions. In such a situation, all institutions must confine to their domains. One must not make incursion in the domain of others.”

Mr. Dhankhar then heightened his criticism by doubting the legitimacy of the basic structure doctrine. The correctness of the Court’s view, he said, “must be deliberated…Can Parliament allow that its verdict will be subject to any other authority? In my maiden address after I assumed the office of Chairman of Rajya Sabha, I said this. I am not in doubt about it. This cannot happen.”

To be sure, genuine criticism of both the Collegium’s functioning and the Court’s judgment upholding the body’s legality ought to be welcomed. But seeing as the Government, as Mr. Rijiju confirmed in Parliament last month, has no plans to implement any systemic change in the way we appoint judges, and given that the Government itself has done little to promote transparency in the process, the present reproach is, at its best, unprincipled, and, at its worst, an attempt at subverting the judiciary’s autonomy. That it is likely the latter is clear from the fact that the Vice-President has now carried his denunciation to a point where his admonishments are reserved not just for the collegium but also for the ruling in Kesavananda.

The foundation of the Constitution

Were we to begin with the elementary premise that India’s Constitution, as originally adopted, comprises a set of principles that together lend it an identity, we will see that the raison d’etre for the basic structure doctrine is not difficult to grasp. On any reasonable reading of constitutional history, one can see that the Constitution is a product of a collective vision. That vision was built on distinct, if interwoven, ideals: among others, that India would be governed by the rule of law, that our structure of governance would rest on Westminster parliamentarianism, that the powers of the legislature, the executive and the judiciary would be separate, that the courts would be independent of government, and that our States would have absolute power over defined spheres of governance.

Now, ask yourself the following questions: what happens when an amendment made to the Constitution harms one or more of these principles in a manner that alters the Constitution’s identity? Would the Constitution remain the same Constitution that was adopted in 1950? Should Parliament amend the Constitution to replace the Westminster system with a presidential style of governance, would the Constitution’s character be preserved? Or consider something rather more radical: can Parliament, through amendment, efface the right to life guaranteed in Article 21? Would this not result in the creation of a document of governance that is no longer “the Constitution of India?”

It is by pondering over questions of this nature that the majority in Kesavananda found that there was much that was correct in the German professor Dietrich Conrad’s address in February 1965 at the Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi. There, Conrad had pointed out, that “any amending body organized within the statutory scheme, howsoever verbally unlimited its power, cannot by its very structure change the fundamental pillars supporting its constitutional authority”.

As the Court would later explain in Minerva Mills vs Union of India (1980) — and incidentally at stake there was the very survival of the idea that fundamental rights are inviolable — “Parliament too is a creature of the Constitution”. Therefore, it can only have such powers that are expressly vested on it. If those powers are seen as unlimited, Parliament, the Court found, “would cease to be an authority under the Constitution”; it would instead “become supreme over it, because it would have power to alter the entire Constitution including its basic structure”. In other words, the principle that Parliament is proscribed from changing the Constitution’s essential features is rooted in the knowledge that the Constitution, as originally adopted, was built on an intelligible moral foundation.

On this construction, it is possible to see the basic structure doctrine as implicit on a reading of the Constitution as a whole. But it is also deductible, as Justice H.R. Khanna wrote in his controlling opinion in Kesavananda, through an interpretation of the word “amendment”. The dictionary defines “amendment” to mean a “minor change or addition designed to improve a text”. As Justice Khanna saw it, when the Constitution that emerges out of a process of amendment as stipulated in Article 368 is not merely the Constitution in an altered form but a Constitution that is devoid of its basic structure, the procedure undertaken ceases to be a mere amendment.

Since its judgment in Kesavananda, the Supreme Court has identified several features that are immutable. There is no doubt that on occasion, the Court’s interpretation of these features has sufferessd from incoherence. But to suggest that the basic structure doctrine is by itself unsanctioned is to place the Constitution at the legislature’s whim. When taken to its extreme, accepting the Vice-President’s claims would mean that, in theory, Parliament can abrogate its own powers and appoint a person of its choice as the country’s dictator. Consider the consequences.

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