Daily Current Affairs 19.03.2023 (India suits up for deepest dive yet, Kochi fiasco: NGT Bench imposes ₹100-cr. penalty on Corporation, Telcos and the return of the Net neutrality debate, Tamil Nadu’s novel initiative results in reduced TB deaths, What is India’s stand on same-sex marriage?, Centre must expedite GST rationalisation: CII)

Daily Current Affairs 19.03.2023 (India suits up for deepest dive yet, Kochi fiasco: NGT Bench imposes ₹100-cr. penalty on Corporation, Telcos and the return of the Net neutrality debate, Tamil Nadu’s novel initiative results in reduced TB deaths, What is India’s stand on same-sex marriage?, Centre must expedite GST rationalisation: CII)


1. India suits up for deepest dive yet

All eyes: MATSYA’s journey will be filmed by 12 cameras, fitted along the submersible to capture a 360-degree view of the descent.

NIOT is set to spearhead a 6,000-metre dive into the Indian Ocean, a mission to explore marine biodiversity and potential of the seabed

The influence of James Cameron, the Canadian-American filmmaker, whose cinema has frequently explored the mysteries of the deep ocean, looms large on scientists at the National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT) in Chennai.

“Have you seen the film [Deepsea Challenge]?” Ananda Ramadass asks this correspondent. The documentary charts Mr. Cameron’s solitary, 10,000-metre journey down the Marianna Trench — the deepest point in earth’s seabed — in 2012 aboard the Deep Sea Challenger, a submersible. “It is incredible,” he adds.

Dr. Ramadass and his colleagues aspire to capture some of the aura of the ocean depths when India’s indigenous submersible, MATSYA-6000, plunges into the bowels of the Indian Ocean, with a three-person crew onboard. At 6,000 metres, this will be shallower than Mr. Cameron’s excursion but the deepest dive yet by Indians. If India’s mission — expected to take place in late 2024 or in 2025 — were to be successful, it would make it only one among six countries to have piloted a manned under-sea expedition beyond 5,000 metres.

Much like the early days of India’s space programme, which prioritised public utility over Cold War spurred space races, India’s motivations are guided by pragmatism – explore the potential for precious metals and scope marine biodiversity. “India’s seabed and the relevant zones with economic potential aren’t deeper than 6,000 metres. Our technology and vehicles are designed and developed for our needs,” said Dr. Ramadass.

Samudrayaan, or the journey into the sea, and NIOT mission can be conceptualised as the reverse of the forthcoming Gaganyaan mission — The Indian Space Research Organisation’s attempt at a manned mission into space.

However, the journey to the ocean depths will likely be “far more comfortable” than a sojourn into space, said a key scientist of the mission.

A dive into the ocean will be a cruise. Ballast tanks on the submersible pull in water from the ocean and the weight gradually sinks the watercraft aided by “trim” tanks that allow more precise manoeuvring. The submersible, oxygenated and equipped with life-support, is capable of floating underwater and collecting soil and rock samples from the seabed with attached robotic arms. “Except for the turbulence of surface waves, the journey down is expected to be much smoother,” said Dr. Sathianarayanan, a scientist who manages multiple components of Samudrayaan. Ensconced in a spherical, titanium hull, three navigators — over a fortnight and about 1,500 km away from Kanyakumari — will undertake multiple trips, each lasting about 12 hours.

“Descent and ascent will be eight hours, with four hours of exploration, surveying and scientific activity,” he said. “It will be cold inside, but regular warm apparel will suffice. You can eat during descent and ascent, but because you’ll be in a 2.1 metre sphere with two others, it may feel claustrophobic and cramped.”

At a depth of 6,000 metres, the weight of water would be nearly 600 times that at sea level which make the pressurised hull the most important component of the submersible.

At present, NIOT has made multiple, prototype steel hulls into which personnel can climb into, one at a time, and test the necessary instruments to steer the vehicle. While strong, steel is heavy and the corrosion from marine environments means unsuitable for long-term research. Hence, the material of choice for submersibles globally is titanium alloy.

However, no commercial fabricators in India were capable of fashioning such a titanium hull, until the NIOT found an ally in ISRO.

Two hemispheres of titanium alloy have to be fused to create a single hull becoming thus the only barrier between the inhabitants of the submersible and the crushing water columns. Yet, at the same time, it can be no more than 80 millimetre thick — to be relatively light, manoeuvrable and eke out a few more precious inches of space for the crew.

“Only ISRO here can make this. We will have two such hulls manufactured and that we hope will be sufficient for our research and exploratory programmes for many decades,” said Dr. Ramadass. By early 2024, NIOT is expected to undertake a 500-metre exploratory dive in the titanium sphere and a few more at greater depths prior to the main mission.

About 60% of the submersible, said Dr. Sathianarayanan, was manufactured in India. These mainly comprise the external frame, ballasts and pressurised casing. Components such as cameras, sensors, communication systems were bought from international vendors.

2. Kochi fiasco: NGT Bench imposes ₹100-cr. penalty on Corporation

A major fire broke out at the Brahmapuram dumping site on March 2 and people are facing health issues as they inhaled toxic fumes.

The civic body has been asked to pay environmental compensation for its continuing neglect of duties, resulting in a fire at dumping site in Brahmapuram; amount to be deposited with the Chief Secretary within a month for remediation measures

The Principal Bench of the National Green Tribunal on Friday imposed an environment compensation of ₹100 crore on the Kochi Corporation for its continuing neglect of duties, resulting in a crisis at its dumping site in Brahmapuram following a major fire on March 2.

The Bench led by chairperson Adarsh Kumar Goel issued an order on Friday directing the civic body to deposit the money with the Chief Secretary within a month for necessary remediation measures and to address the health issues faced by people who had inhaled toxic fumes from the dumping site.

Apart from above, “we direct the Chief Secretary, Kerala, to fix accountability of the officers concerned for such gross failures and initiate action under criminal law as well as by way of departmental proceedings following due process and place the same in public domain within two months,” it said.

The Bench issued the orders after it took suo motu notice of The Hindu report “Kochi chokes as fire at waste dump still rages; govt. asks people to stay indoors” published on March 6.

The Bench said the State and its authorities have been utter failure and have rampantly violated the statutory solid waste management rules and orders of the Supreme Court in writ petition 888/1996, Almitra H. Patel vs. Union of India & Others, and various orders of the tribunal since December 2016.

No accountability for such a serious failure has been fixed and no senior person has been held accountable so far. Except for giving future plans, no fixing of accountability is proposed even now and this is a matter of regret. No prosecution has been launched against the guilty for criminal offences under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, it said.

The Bench asked the State Police Chief and the Chief Secretary to uphold the Constitution and the mandate of the environmental law.

Mayor M. Anilkumar said the Corporation will file an appeal against the NGT verdict.

3. Telcos and the return of the Net neutrality debate

Fresh demand: Net neutrality is the concept that all traffic on an Internet network has to be treated equally. 

Since November 2022, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents Bharti Airtel, Vodafone Idea, and Reliance Jio, the three major telecom operators in India, has been demanding that platforms such as YouTube and WhatsApp pay a share of revenue as network costs. This has reignited the debate around Net neutrality.

In an immediate response to the demand, the Broadband India Forum (BIF), which represents Internet firms such as Meta and Google, wrote a letter to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) rebutting the COAI’s demands.

“This concept of paying for the use of infrastructure is an excellent concept wherein any entity that uses another entity’s infrastructure should pay for it,” Debashish Bhattacharya, senior deputy director of BIF, wrote. “However, the revenues earned by the infra provider [telecom operators] should also be shared with the entity using it in the same proportion.”

Mr. Bhattacharya also hit out at the apparent claim by the telecom operators that content providers do not build any of this infrastructure on their own. “The infrastructure for any communication network also includes data centres, undersea cables, content hosting centres, content delivery networks (CDNs) and so on — all of which are built by the OTT platforms,” he said.

In 2016, Internet activists celebrated as the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) ruled in favour of Net neutrality, the concept that all traffic on an Internet network has to be treated equally.

The telecom regulator capped a highly publicised debate on the subject, and concluded that programmes such as Free Basics by Facebook (now Meta) and telecom operators’ plans to charge extra for data calls using apps such as Viber would be prohibited, as all Internet access had to be priced equally.

The Department of Telecommunications in 2018 embedded the Net neutrality concept into the Unified Licence, whose conditions all telecom operators and Internet providers are bound by.

The case for a fee

The COAI’s argument is that its current demand has nothing to do with Net neutrality. “There seems to be [a] lack of appreciation of the fact that Net neutrality pertains to non-discriminatory treatment of content which has no nexus to the usage fee issue,” the COAI argued in a press note on February 27.

“We reiterate that all our member TSPs [telecommunication service providers] are committed to follow the Net neutrality principles as per their licensing conditions,” Lt. Gen. S.P. Kochhar (retd), Director-General of COAI, said.

However, last Monday, Amrita Choudhury, director, CCAOI, a cyber advocacy-focused public policy entity, wrote, “Charging a network fee will break the core essence of an open Internet.”

Telecom operators and platforms support “each other’s growth, and neither can exist without the other”.

Ms. Choudhury argued that instead of this, the government could reduce spectrum fees and support telecom companies with the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF).

Net neutrality activists (as well as content providers) have argued that imposing such a fee, even on a limited number of large players, was a distortion of the Internet’s architecture, where content providers and telecom operators enjoy a symbiotic relationship without charging each other, and users pay both, in the form of fees or advertisements, or both.

The debate takes us back a decade, when the usage fee demand was made in India by Airtel’s CEO Sunil Bharti Mittal, who termed the proposal an “Internet tax” in 2013, complaining that content providers were “consuming a massive amount of resources on our network”, and that “somebody’s got to pay for that”.

Usage on networks

In essence, telecom operators have gone from demanding payment to manage scarce resources on their networks, to demanding payment for enormous usage on their networks.

Telecom operators in the European Union are also demanding similar usage fees from content providers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a prominent Internet rights advocacy group in the U.S., warned against such moves.

“Fundamentally network usage fees are a ploy by the largest ISPs to extract monopolistic rents, kill competition, and further entrench their monopolistic power,” the EFF said in a blog post in December. “…The costs ISPs incur for delivering traffic have not been drastically rising despite increases in traffic.”

The EU is holding consultations on the issue this year before it finalises its stand. Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw indicated that the Union government would wait and see what the international moves in this space are before making a call on the telcos’ demands. “Telecom is an industry where everything is benchmarked to the world,” Mr. Vaishnaw said in February. “Whatever we do will be in sync with the global trends.”

4. Tamil Nadu’s novel initiative results in reduced TB deaths

Deaths within two months of TB diagnosis (early TB deaths) have reduced from more than 600 in

April 2022 to less than 350 in December 2022

Tamil Nadu has pioneered an initiative across the State to reduce the mortality rate among people with tuberculosis. The initiative — TN-KET (Tamil Nadu Kasanoi Erappila Thittam, meaning TB death-free project) — which began in April 2022 in 2,500-odd public healthcare facilities that diagnosed TB in 30 districts, has already achieved significant reduction in the number of early TB deaths.

Nearly 70% of all TB deaths among notified TB patients take place in the first two months after diagnosis. In Tamil Nadu, thanks to TN-KET, deaths within two months of TB diagnosis, referred to as early TB deaths, have reduced from more than 600 in April 2022 to less than 350 in December 2022. Also, the average time to death after diagnosis doubled from less than 20 days before April to 40 days in July 2022.

Differentiated TB Care

The heart of the initiative is the ‘Differentiated TB Care’ aimed at assessing whether people with TB need ambulatory care or admission in a health facility to manage severe illness at the time of diagnosis. The differentiated TB care guidelines, released by the Central TB Division in January 2021, requires comprehensive assessment of 16 clinical, laboratory and radiological parameters. But the challenge is that undertaking the comprehensive assessment would take time, and most PHCs, many taluk and block-level healthcare facilities lack clinical and diagnostic capacity to carry out these assessments.

In lieu of the 16 parameters, Chennai-based National Institute of Epidemiology (ICMR-NIE), which is spearheading TN-KET along with the State TB Cell, found that preliminary assessment (triaging) of patients based on just three conditions — very severe undernutrition, respiratory insufficiency, and inability to stand without support — was feasible for quick identification at diagnosis and referral for admission in a healthcare facility for comprehensive assessment and further management of the disease.

The comprehensive assessment is mainly for identifying the medical conditions that require immediate treatment. Using only three conditions meant that people with severe TB illness needing immediate care were identified and admitted to a healthcare facility on the same day of diagnosis even under programmatic conditions, thus vastly cutting down the delay and increasing the chances of saving lives. The State has identified around 150 nodal inpatient care facilities with nearly 900 beds earmarked for people with TB who are severely ill.

“Based on the death data in Karnataka, where we piloted triaging of TB patients at diagnosis based on severity in late-2020, we realised that at least 30-40% of the deaths can be prevented if triaging and appropriate care is provided to people who have severe illness,” says Dr. Hemant Deepak Shewade, senior scientist at NIE, who is leading the initiative with the support of ICMR-NIRT in Chennai and the WHO India. The Tamil Nadu government is implementing the programme.

According to him, of the over 42,500 adults who were diagnosed with TB between April and December 2022 in Tamil Nadu, nearly 3,300 were referred, comprehensively assessed and confirmed as severely ill at nodal inpatient care facilities. Of this, 3,100 (94%) were admitted for inpatient care. In December 2022, the referral, comprehensive assessment and confirmation of severe illness among eligible people improved to 88%.

“The triaging based on naked eye observation and measurements for oxygen saturation and respiratory rate to know respiratory insufficiency, especially during the pandemic, was highly doable. And we trained our supervisory staff, who are not nurses, to carry out these measurements at PHCs and triage people with TB,” says Dr. Asha Frederick, Tamil Nadu State TB Officer, who is leading TN-KET with Dr. Shewade.

Target achieved

“The TN-KET initiative has already achieved the initial target of 80% triaging of patients, 80% referral, comprehensive assessment and confirmation of severe illness, and 80% admission among confirmed,” says Dr.Shewade. “In December 2022, we reached the 90%-90%-90% goal at State level and now our target is to achieve the same in each district.

Another challenge is to increase the duration of admission. For instance, people with very severe undernutrition, which comprises 50% of the admitted patients, the duration of treatment has to be long.“At the State level, the average admission duration was five days between April and December last year, which improved to six days in December,”Dr.Shewade says. “With the support of district TB officers and physicians in the nodal inpatient care facilities, our next goal is to increase the average admission duration to more than seven days.”

5. What is India’s stand on same-sex marriage?

With the government saying only the legislature has the right to frame laws on the issue and the Supreme Court referring it to a Constitution Bench, which institution will take a call on equal rights for a marginalised community?

The story so far:

On March 13, a Bench led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud referred petitions to legally recognise same-sex marriages to a Constitution Bench of five judges of the Supreme Court. The Court has listed the case for final arguments on April 18.

What is the case?

The Court has been hearing multiple petitioners’ requests for legal recognition of same-sex marriages under a special law. Initially, it took up the case of two partners who said the non-recognition of same-sex marriage amounted to discrimination that strikes at the root of “dignity and self-fulfilment” of LGBTQIA+ couples. The petitioners cited the Special Marriage Act, 1954, which provides a civil marriage for couples who cannot marry under their personal law, and appealed to the Court to extend the right to the LGBTQIA+ community, by making the “marriage between any two persons” gender neutral.

Why does the community want this right?

Even if LGBTQIA+ couples may live together, legally, they are on a slippery slope. They do not enjoy the rights married couples do. For example, LGBTQIA+ couples cannot adopt children or have a child by surrogacy; they do not have automatic rights to inheritance, maintenance and tax benefits; after a partner passes away, they cannot avail of benefits like pension or compensation. Most of all, since marriage is a social institution, “that is created by and highly regulated by law,” without this social sanction, same-sex couples struggle to make a life together.

Which way are the Courts leaning?

The Courts, leaning on Article 21 that guarantees the right to life and liberty, have time and again ruled in favour of inter-faith and inter-caste marriages, directing the police and other rights organisations to give them protection when they were threatened by parents or society, pointing out that “all adults have the right to marry a person of their choice.” In Navtej Singh Johar (2018), when homosexuality was decriminalised, the Court said, “Members of the LGBT[QIA+] community are entitled to the benefit of an equal citizenship, without discrimination, and to the equal protection of law”; “The choice of whom to partner, the ability to find fulfilment in sexual intimacies and the right not to be subjected to discriminatory behaviour are intrinsic to the constitutional protection of sexual orientation.” Last November, the Court transferred same-sex cases pending before several High Courts to itself.

What is the Centre’s stand?

At depositions in courts and outside, the Centre has opposed same-sex marriage, and said judicial interference will cause “complete havoc with the delicate balance of personal laws”. While filing a counter-affidavit during this hearing, the government said that decriminalisation of Section 377 IPC does not give rise to a claim to seek recognition for same-sex marriage. After the K.S. Puttaswamy verdict (2017) which upheld the right to privacy and Navtej Singh Johar (2018) that decriminalised homosexuality, there was hope that same-sex marriages would be legalised, but that has not been the case, prompting many couples to move court.

In its affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the government said that the “notion of marriage itself necessarily and inevitably presupposes a union between two persons of the opposite sex. This definition is socially, culturally and legally ingrained into the very idea and concept of marriage and ought not to be disturbed or diluted by judicial interpretation.” It submitted that despite the decriminalisation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the petitioners cannot seek same-sex marriage to be treated as a fundamental right and be recognised under the laws of the country. “Parliament has designed and framed the marriage laws in the country, which are governed by the personal laws/codified laws relatable to customs of various religious communities, to recognise only the union of a man and a woman to be capable of legal sanction, and thereby claim legal and statutory rights and consequences” and that “any interference with the same would cause a complete havoc with the delicate balance of personal laws in the country and in accepted societal values.” The government said that even if such a right (allowing same-sex marriage) is claimed under Article 21, the “right can be curtailed by competent legislature on permissible constitutional grounds including legitimate state interest.”

The government submitted that statutory recognition of marriage as a union between a ‘man’ and a ‘woman’ is inextricably tied to acceptance of the heterogeneous institution of marriage and acceptance of Indian society based on its own cultural and sociological norms acknowledged by the competent legislature.

Are the executive and the judiciary on opposing sides on this?

With the government saying that the concept of marriage “ought not to be disturbed or diluted by judicial interpretation,” and the Court leaning towards granting equal rights, including marriage of same-sex couples, citing the Constitution and changing norms, it is clear that the two organs of the state are not in agreement on this. Even if the Court rules in its favour, the march towards equality for the LGBTQIA+ community will be hard. Enforcing something like same-sex marriage in a diverse country with well-entrenched traditions will not be easy. Rights activists are calling for awareness on sex, gender and constitutional rights from the school level to change things on the ground.

Without social and legal sanction, same-sex couples struggle to make a life together

6. Centre must expedite GST rationalisation: CII

Rates must be lowered especially on items such as cement, which benefits so many sectors including infrastructure, says CII President

The government must expedite the GST rate rationalisation process and look to lower rates on items such as cement, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) president Sanjiv Bajaj said in an interview. While the sharp pace of rate increases by the U.S. Federal Reserve catalysed the woes of lenders such as Silicon Valley Bank, which had to sell treasury bond holdings to meet commitments, Mr. Bajaj said Indian financial institutions did not have such asset-liability mismatches. However, he expressed concern about further rate increases by the RBI. Excerpts:

The government has put on hold the rationalisation exercise, initiated two years ago, to rejig the multiple GST rates and slabs. Could a rationalised GST rate structure be a trigger for domestic growth?

Absolutely. This continues to be one of CII’s asks as well, including reducing the [28% rate] GST on cement because that benefits so many different sectors, including the whole infrastructure sector. It makes your cost of doing business that much lower and we hope that the government takes an early look at this. Again, as one is talking about private sector needs to look at growth, I guess they also need to see how to balance their fiscal deficit and bring it back within an acceptable norm. I am hopeful that if the RBI goes back to a neutral stance and then, thereafter to a stance that’s accommodative to growth, you should start seeing the cycle of expansion of the economy taking place in the coming quarters. And that should then give confidence to the government also that their collections on taxes will increase, and they can review the rationalisation of the GST slabs.

Do Indian financial institutions need any support or forbearance to cope with the type of asset-liability mismatches troubling U.S. banks?

We have no reason to believe that there is significant mismatch overall. We also have to keep in mind that we have a finite number of banks and a proactive regulator. But it once again shows that banking as an institution is a long-term conservative institution and has to be run that way. I think the immediate contagion effect has hopefully been taken care of by the action in the U.S. But it is for the entire banking system to ensure that it has a robust balance sheet with assets and liabilities as matched as possible, and investments are made in a diversified set of instruments. Very often, what happens is because the interest rate curve differs in the short term and long term — if a lending institution is willing to play to get a higher return by borrowing more short and investing long, then when the short borrowing comes up for refinancing, you may not have the money or that cost may have gone up dramatically. This is what happened in this case. So prudent behaviour in banking is very important.

What about the impact on start-ups?

In hindsight, while it is probably very convenient for most of the start-up ecosystem to get access from one bank as it understands that space, you can’t have one player with 40% market share. For India, the third-largest start-up nation, how do we ensure that our funding options for start-ups are strengthened and institutionalised? Tech start-ups’ growth trajectory is very different from other small companies and traditional parameters for lending or investment would not work. We need to think about this… what is a prudent but supportive financial ecosystem for the start-up industry? We will take this issue up.

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