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Daily CUrrent Affairs 21.03.2022 (Beleaguered Imran pats India, flays Pak. Army, ‘Japan still hopes India will join RCEP’, ‘Quad has accepted Indian stand’, India hopes to put down roots in Arctic, The complexities of introducing African cheetahs to India )

Daily CUrrent Affairs 21.03.2022 (Beleaguered Imran pats India, flays Pak. Army, ‘Japan still hopes India will join RCEP’, ‘Quad has accepted Indian stand’, India hopes to put down roots in Arctic, The complexities of introducing African cheetahs to India )

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1. Beleaguered Imran pats India, flays Pak. Army

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan on Sunday criticised the Pakistan Army and the Opposition as his government faces a no-confidence motion on March 25.

“My country’s foreign policy should be for the welfare of our people. Today, I congratulate our neighbour India because they always maintained an independent foreign policy,” Mr. Khan said at a rally in Malakand of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

2. ‘Japan still hopes India will join RCEP’

Collaborations between the two countries may suffer if it stays out, says Kishida Cabinet official

Japan has still not given up hope that India might reconsider joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) from which it opted out in 2019, a senior Japanese official said, indicating that India-Japan collaborations in other countries may be impacted if India continues to stay out.

In particular, the official said that the RCEP “Rules of Origin” clause could also make it more difficult for products that have an Indian component to be sold easily among the 15-member grouping countries in future.

“RCEP will benefit the Indian economy with a better supply chain, especially with ASEAN countries,” Japan’s Cabinet Secretary for Public Affairs Noriyuki Shikata said in an interaction with journalists during the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

“India will be treated exceptionally as a founder member and if India is willing to negotiate its re-entry to RCEP, Japan would be happy to take a lead on that,” Mr. Shikata said, acknowledging, however, that the Modi government has not shown any interest in the process.

India and Japan signed a number of economic agreements and focused in particular on projects in India’s northeast region during the annual summit meeting.

The two leaders also set a target of five trillion yen in Japanese investment, including loans, foreign direct investment (FDI) and assistance for the next five years.

However, plans for joint collaborations in third countries, including using Indian-made components in products, could run into higher tariffs and barriers, Mr. Shikata explained. In particular, the RCEP includes a “Rule of Origin” certification requirement that would given free trade access only to goods made in RCEP countries, which have pledged to eliminate tariffs on 91% of goods.

Largest trade deal

The 15-nation RCEP, which is the world’s largest trade deal and includes China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand and 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and represents about 30% of global GDP and population, came into force on January 1 this year.

India was a founding member at the negotiations that began in 2012, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his government was walking out of the agreement in 2019, after being unable to resolve issues, mainly over concerns on dumping from China and allowing Indian services free access in the region.

Since then, Japan and Australia, two countries that continue to convene the trilateral trade dialogue they started during RCEP negotiations with India, have said that they would welcome India back to the agreement if it decides to re-join, which was accepted by the RCEP grouping as well.

According to Mr. Shikata, plans to review the India-Japan FTA signed in 2011, have not yet made any headway, nor has the government given any indications that it could review the 2019 decision to leave RCEP.

3. ‘Quad has accepted Indian stand’

Modi has used his contacts to call for an end of the conflict, Australian envoy says

There is no reason to be unhappy with the Indian position regarding the Ukraine crisis, the Australian envoy to India said here on Sunday.

Addressing the media here, High Commissioner Barry O’Farrel appreciated India’s efforts in this regard and said Canberra is hopeful of concluding the early harvest trade deal by the end of the March.

“[The] Quad countries have accepted India’s position, each country has bilateral relationship and it’s clear from the comments of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Prime Minister that he has used his contacts to call for an end of the conflict and no country will be unhappy with that,” said Mr. O’Farrel.

The comments from the Australian diplomat set the stage ahead of the virtual summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison, who is expected to highlight Australian concerns about the ongoing Russian attacks against Ukraine.

Australia has imposed an array of sanctions against senior Russian officials involved in the execution of the military campaign against Ukraine. Canberra has also pledged to punish those who amplify media narratives that support Russia’s claims regarding “de-nazification of Ukraine”.

India, in comparison to the aggressive Australian position, has taken the moment to strengthen energy ties with Russia. Indian energy companies have ordered large supplies of crude that Moscow is making available at a ‘discount’.

This move to secure energy from Russia has made India an exception in the Quadrilateral alliance of the Indo–Pacific where the other partners — the U.S., Japan and Australia — have hit Russia with sanctions.

Continued support

Despite the divergence in the Indian approach, the Modi–Morrison dialogue will provide Canberra an opportunity to press India to increase coordination with other members of the Quad regarding Ukraine.

Australia, however, it was learnt, will continue to support India’s quest for sustainable energy security and there is a possibility of both sides exploring joint projects to source precious minerals like lithium from Australian mines.

Mr. O’Farrel also indicated that the dialogue between Indian and Australian officials has been proceeding on the trade front since it was launched by the Trade Ministers — Piyush Goyal and Dan Tehan — in February.

“We are hopeful of signing the phase-1 — early harvest — trade deal by the end of this month,” said Mr. O’Farrel. The early harvest trade deal is expected to focus on commodities trade and will be followed by the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, CECA.

India and Australia have been in dialogue regarding CECA since 2011, but this is the first time that they have agreed on an early harvest trade deal.

4. India hopes to put down roots in Arctic

Nation aspires to have a permanent presence with more research and satellite stations in the region

India aspires to have a permanent presence with more research and satellite ground stations in the Arctic region, suggests a perusal of its Arctic Policy document officially unveiled last week.

India now has a single station, Himadri, in Ny-Alesund, Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, where research personnel are usually present for 180 days. India is in the process of procuring an ice-breaker research vessel that can navigate the region.

Through its existing satellites, India aspires to capture more detailed images to “assist in the development of the Arctic region”.

Eight nations — Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Russia, Sweden and the United States — make up the Arctic Council. The region is home to about four million, a tenth of them being indigenous tribes. India has had a research base in the region since 2008 and also has two observatories.

Arctic weather influences the Indian monsoon and hence has been of interest to Indian researchers for decades. Climate change and the melting of ice caps imply changes to the Arctic weather. India has sent 13 expeditions to the Arctic since 2007 and runs 23 active science projects.

Nearly 25 institutes and universities are currently involved in Arctic research in India and close to a hundred peer-reviewed papers have been published on Arctic issues since 2007, the Ministry of Science and Technology said in a statement.

India has the status of ‘Observer’ member — 12 other countries have such a status — in the Arctic Council and participates in several meetings that are mostly themed around research. Beyond science, India also expects business opportunities.

“Explore opportunities for responsible exploration of natural resources and minerals in the Arctic… identify opportunities for investment in Arctic infrastructure such as offshore exploration, mining, ports, railways, information technology and airports. It also expects Indian private industry to invest in the establishment and improvement of such infrastructure,” says the document.

5. The complexities of introducing African cheetahs to India

Why are environmentalists upset with the plan to bring vulnerable big cats from the African savanna to Kuno national park in M.P.?

Historically, Asiatic cheetahs had a very wide distribution in India. There are authentic reports of their occurrence from as far north as Punjab to the Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu. The cheetah’s habitat was also diverse, favouring the more open habitats: scrub forests, dry grasslands, savannas and other arid and semi-arid open habitats.

The consistent and widespread capture of cheetahs from the wild over centuries, its reduced levels of genetic heterogeneity due to a historical genetic bottleneck resulting in reduced fecundity and high infant mortality in the wild, its inability to breed in captivity, ‘sport’ hunting and bounty killings are the major reasons for the extinction of the Asiatic cheetah in India.

The main goals of the cheetah Action plan is to make cheetahs perform its functional role as a top predator and to use the cheetah to restore open forest and savanna systems. Both of which are already being done by extant species like the Asiatic lion and the leopard.

The story so far: The cheetah, which became extinct in India after Independence, is all set to return with the Union Government launching an action plan. According to the plan, about 50 of these big cats will be introduced in the next five years, from the Africa savannas, home to cheetahs, an endangered species.

What was the distribution of cheetahs in India? What were the habitats?

Historically, Asiatic cheetahs had a very wide distribution in India. There are authentic reports of their occurrence from as far north as Punjab to Tirunelveli district in southern Tamil Nadu, from Gujarat and Rajasthan in the west to Bengal in the east. Most of the records are from a belt extending from Gujarat passing through Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Odisha. There is also a cluster of reports from southern Maharashtra extending to parts of Karnataka, Telangana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The distribution range of the cheetah was wide and spread all over the subcontinent. They occurred in substantial numbers.

The cheetah’s habitat was also diverse, favouring the more open habitats: scrub forests, dry grasslands, savannas and other arid and semi-arid open habitats. Some of the last reports of cheetahs in India prior to their local extinction are from edge habitats of sal forests in east-central India, not necessarily their preferred habitat.

In Iran, the last surviving population of wild Asiatic cheetahs are found in hilly terrain, foothills and rocky valleys within a desert ecosystem, spread across seven provinces of Yazd, Semnan, Esfahan, North Khorasan, South Khorasan, Khorasan Razavi and Kerman. The current estimate of the population of wild Asiatic cheetahs is about 40 with 12 identified adult animals. They occur in very low density spread over vast areas extending to thousands of square kilometres.

What caused the extinction of cheetahs in India? When did they disappear?

The cheetah in India has been recorded in history from before the Common Era. It was taken from the wild for coursing blackbuck for centuries, which is a major contributor to the depletion of its numbers through the ages. Records of cheetahs being captured go back to 1550s. From the 16th century onwards, detailed accounts of its interaction with human beings are available as it was recorded by the Mughals and other kingdoms in the Deccan. However, the final phase of its extinction coincided with British colonial rule. The British added to the woes of the species by declaring a bounty for killing it in 1871.

The consistent and widespread capture of cheetahs from the wild (both male and female) over centuries, its reduced levels of genetic heterogeneity due to a historical genetic bottleneck resulting in reduced fecundity and high infant mortality in the wild, its inability to breed in captivity, ‘sport’ hunting and finally the bounty killings are the major reasons for the extinction of the Asiatic cheetah in India.

It is reported that the Mughal Emperor Akbar had kept 1,000 cheetahs in his menagerie and collected as many as 9,000 cats during his half century reign from 1556 to 1605. As late as 1799, Tipu Sultan of Mysore is reported to have had 16 cheetahs as part of his menagerie.

The cheetah numbers were fast depleting by the end of the 18th century even though their prey base and habitat survived till much later. It is recorded that the last cheetahs were shot in India in 1947, but there are credible reports of sightings of the cat till about 1967.

What are the conservation objectives of introducing African cheetahs in India? Is it a priority for India? Is it cost effective?

Based on the available evidence it is difficult to conclude that the decision to introduce the African cheetah in India is based on science. Science is being used as a legitimising tool for what seems to be a politically influenced conservation goal. This also in turn sidelines conservation priorities, an order of the Supreme Court, socio-economic constraints and academic rigour. The issue calls for an open and informed debate.

Eminent biologist and administrator T.N. Khoshoo, first secretary of the Department of Environment, spoke out strongly against the cheetah project in 1995. “The reintroduction project was discussed threadbare during Indira Gandhi’s tenure and found to be an exercise in futility,” he said, pointing out that it was more important to conserve species that were still extant such as the lion and tiger, rather than trying to re-establish an extinct species that had little chance of surviving in a greatly transformed country.

Mr. Khoshoo’s views are in sync with the 2013 order of the Supreme Court which quashed plans to introduce African cheetahs in India and more specifically at Kuno national park in Madhya Pradesh.

The officially stated goal is: Establish viable cheetah metapopulation in India that allows the cheetah to perform its functional role as a top predator and to provide space for the expansion of the cheetah within its historical range thereby contributing to its global conservation efforts.

African cheetahs are not required to perform the role of the top predator in these habitats when the site (Kuno) that they have identified already has a resident population of leopards, transient tigers and is also the site for the translocation of Asiatic lions as ordered by the Supreme Court of India in 2013. In other open dry habitats in India there are species performing this role, e.g., wolf and caracal, both of which are highly endangered and need urgent conservation attention. Even the Government’s official estimate is expecting, at best only a few dozen cheetahs at a couple of sites (that too only after 15 years) which will require continuous and intensive management. Such a small number of cats at very few sites cannot meet the stated goal of performing its ecological function at any significant scale to have real on ground impact. Clearly, there are far more cost-effective, efficient, speedier and more inclusive ways to conserve grasslands and other open ecosystems of India.

Apart from establishing a cheetah population in India, the stated objectives include: To use the cheetah as a charismatic flagship and umbrella species to garner resources for restoring open forest and savanna systems that will benefit biodiversity and ecosystem services from these ecosystems.

Asiatic lions and a variety of species already found in these ecosystems can very well perform this role and more. If the government is serious about restoration and protection of these habitats, it first needs to remove grasslands from the category of wastelands and prevent further degradation, fragmentation and destruction of these habitats. Investing directly in science-based restoration and inclusive protection of these ecosystems will yield results much more quickly and sustainably than the introduction of African cheetahs.

Another goal is to enhance India’s capacity to sequester carbon through ecosystem restoration activities in cheetah conservation areas and thereby contribute towards the global climate change mitigation goals. Experts contend that this objective does not require the introduction of African cheetahs, at a cost of ₹40 crore, with the attendant risks of diseases which haven’t really been dealt with.

What is the current status of this project? What are the chances of it succeeding?

According to the Government, Kuno is ready to receive the cheetahs. About a month ago a team of government officials visited Namibia to inspect the cheetahs that would be sent to India, review the arrangements and to reach an agreement for the transfer of the cats. It is being reported that Namibia wants India’s support for lifting the CITES ban on commercial trade of wildlife products, including ivory. The draft memorandum of understanding shared by Namibia reportedly contains a condition requiring India to support Namibia for “sustainable utilisation of wildlife”. Negotiations are currently underway to finalise the MoU and it is expected to be signed by the end of March.

The cheetahs are to be provided by the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an NGO, and not the Namibian government. Three to five cheetahs are expected to be part of the first group of cats and these are expected to arrive as early as May 2022 and released in the wild by August 15.

Given all the challenges, especially the lack of extensive areas extending in hundreds if not thousands of square kilometres with sufficient density of suitable prey, it is very unlikely that African cheetahs would ever establish themselves in India as a truly wild and self-perpetuating population. A likely unfortunate consequence of this initiative will be the diversion of scarce conservation resources, distraction from the real conservation priorities and a further delay in the translocation of lions to Kuno.

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