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Daily CUrrent Affairs 31.03.2022 (key partner sides with Opposition in pakistan, Modi moots free trade agreement for BIMSTEC, Social media platforms must be held accountable: Centre to HC, ISRO to step up tracking of space debris, Explaining Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, The Assam-Meghalaya boundary dispute resolution)

Daily CUrrent Affairs 31.03.2022 (key partner sides with Opposition in pakistan, Modi moots free trade agreement for BIMSTEC, Social media platforms must be held accountable: Centre to HC, ISRO to step up tracking of space debris, Explaining Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, The Assam-Meghalaya boundary dispute resolution)

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1. key partner sides with Opposition

Opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif will be next PM, says Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari

Pakistan’s embattled Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday effectively lost majority in Parliament after a key partner of the ruling coalition joined the ranks of the Opposition, which has tabled a no-confidence motion against his government in the National Assembly.

At a joint press conference of the Opposition parties here, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), a key ally of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led coalition government, with its seven members, announced that it has parted ways with the government.

Mr. Khan needs 172 votes in the lower house of 342 to foil the Opposition’s bid to topple him. However, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islama Fazl (JUI-F), said the Opposition had the support of 175 lawmakers and the Prime Minister should resign.

It was also announced that Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) president and Leader of the Opposition Shehbaz Sharif would be the next Prime Minister after the removal of 69-year-old Mr. Khan.

“We want to make a new beginning for politics of tolerance and true democracy,” MQM-P chief Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui told reporters. “I announce to support the Opposition in Parliament.”

Mr. Sharif said it was an important day as all the Opposition parties had joined together to address the problems faced by Pakistan. “The premier, even if he is a selected one, should resign to set a new tradition.”

Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), said the support by the MQM was a big development and with this the Prime Minister had lost the majority. “The Prime Minister has no option and will have to resign,” he said.

Mr. Bilawal also said Mr. Sharif would soon be elected the next Prime Minister.

Another ally of the ruling coalition, the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) with five members in the lower house, announced on Monday that it had “accepted the Opposition’s invitation” to vote against Mr. Khan.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid said Mr. Khan, at a special session of the Cabinet, shared a “threatening letter”, saying that it was proof of a foreign conspiracy to topple his government.

‘Will fight till last ball’

To a question if the Prime Minister would announce his resignation, Mr. Rashid said: “No way. He will fight till the last ball.”

2. Modi moots free trade agreement for BIMSTEC

MEA says India will be the ‘security pillar’ of the grouping

Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for strengthening the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation), and welcomed the unveiling of the Charter of the organisation that connects the littoral countries of the Bay of Bengal.

The summit concluded in Colombo on Wednesday.

Addressing the meeting virtually in Hindi, Mr. Modi said: “Today we have adopted the Charter of BIMSTEC. This is an important step towards creating an institutional architecture of BIMSTEC.” The Charter had given the BIMSTEC a new orientation and concrete goals. Under this Charter, the members were expected to meet once in every two years.

Two components

The Prime Minister called for a Free Trade Agreement among the member countries. He mentioned the necessity for coastal shipping ecosystem and electricity grid interconnectivity, as two of the necessary components of the evolving shape of the BIMSTEC.

India will be the “security pillar” of the BIMSTEC, an official of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said at the conclusion of the summit.

The summit saw the declaration of the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity that would provide a framework for regional and domestic connectivity, said the MEA official.

Rudrendra Tandon, MEA’s Joint Secretary in charge of the BIMSTEC and South Asian region, stated: “The signing of the Charter was the main outcome of this summit. With the Charter, the BIMSTEC now has an international personality. It has an emblem, it has a flag. It has a formally listed purpose and principles that it is going to adhere to. It represents significant evolution of the grouping. From our perspective signing of the Charter was the most important outcome.”

What is BIMSTEC?

In an effort to integrate the region, the grouping was formed in 1997, originally with Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and later included Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. BIMSTEC, which now includes five countries from South Asia and two from ASEAN, is a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia. It includes all the major countries of South Asia, except Maldives, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Why the region matters?

  • Over one-fifth (22%) of the world’s population live in the seven countries around it, and they have a combined GDP close to $2.7 trillion.
  • The Bay also has vast untapped natural resources. One-fourth of the world’s traded goods cross the Bay every year.

Why is BIMSTEC important for India?

As the region’s largest economy, India has a lot at stake.

  • BIMSTEC connects not only South and Southeast Asia, but also the ecologies of the Great Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal.
  • For India, it is a natural platform to fulfil our key foreign policy priorities of ‘Neighborhood First’ and ‘Act East’.
  • For New Delhi, one key reason for engagement is in the vast potential that is unlocked with stronger connectivity. Almost 300 million people, or roughly one-quarter of India’s population, live in the four coastal states adjacent to the Bay of Bengal (Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal).
  • From the strategic perspective, the Bay of Bengal, a funnel to the Malacca straits, has emerged a key theatre for an increasingly assertive China in maintaining its access route to the Indian Ocean.
  • As China mounts assertive activities in the Bay of Bengal region, with increased submarine movement and ship visits in the Indian Ocean, it is in India’s interest to consolidate its internal engagement among the BIMSTEC countries.

3. Social media platforms must be held accountable: Centre to HC

‘Liberty and freedom of any individual cannot be waylaid’

The Centre told the Delhi High Court on Wednesday that social media platforms must be held accountable for “subjugating and supplanting fundamental rights like the right to freedom of speech and expression, otherwise the same would have dire consequences for any democratic nation”. 

“It is humbly submitted that liberty and freedom of any individual cannot be waylaid or jettisoned in the slipstream of social and technological advancement,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said in an affidavit.

The Ministry’s submission came in response to a petition filed by a Twitter user whose account was suspended by the microblogging site for alleged violations of platform guidelines.

The Twitter user said his account was suspended on February 24, 2022, for the reason of “ban evasion” (creating an account when a similar account was earlier banned). The complainant said Twitter suspended his accounts without giving him an opportunity of a hearing.

The Centre said when a Significant Social Media Intermediary (SSMI) such as Twitter takes a decision to suspend the whole or part of a user’s account “on its own accord” due to its policy violation, it should afford a reasonable opportunity to the user to defend his side.

The exception, the Centre said, where the SSMIs could take such a decision include “certain scenarios such as rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material, bot activity or malware, terrorism-related content etc.”.

“If an SSMI fails to comply with the above, then it may amount to a violation of IT Rules 2021,” the Centre said.

‘Must respect rights’

It said social media platforms must respect the fundamental rights of the citizens and should not take down the account itself or completely suspend the user account in all cases. “Taking down the whole information or the user account should be a last resort,” it added.

“Only in cases where the majority of the contents/posts/tweets on an account are unlawful, the platform may take the extreme step of taking down the whole information or suspending the whole account,” the Centre said.

“No platform or intermediary will be allowed to infringe upon the citizens’ rights, including but not limited to Articles 14, 19 and 21 guaranteed under the Constitution of India under the guise of violation of platform’s policies unless it constitutes a violation of extant law in force,” the Centre reminded social media platforms.

4. ISRO to step up tracking of space debris

New radars and optical telescopes under NETRA project being deployed

With space junk posing increasing threat to Indian assets in space, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is building up its orbital debris tracking capability by deploying new radars and optical telescopes under the Network for Space Objects Tracking and Analysis (NETRA) project.

A space debris tracking radar with a range of 1,500 km and an optical telescope will be inducted as part of establishing an effective surveillance and tracking network under NETRA, ISRO chairman S. Somanath told The Hindu. The government has given the go-ahead for the deployment of the radar, which will be capable of detecting and tracking objects 10 cm and above in size, he said. It will be indigenously designed and built.

Radars and optical telescopes are vital ground-based facilities for keeping an eye on space objects, including orbital junk. “We plan to have two such radars deployed 1,000 km apart for spatial diversity. At present, we have a Multi Object Tracking Radar at Sriharikota range, but it has a limited range. To protect our space assets, we need to augment our capabilities,” Mr. Somanath said.

Data released by ISRO last week also point to an increasingly grim scenario. For protecting its space assets, ISRO was forced to perform 19 collision avoidance manoeuvres (CAM) in 2021, of which 14 were in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and five in the geostationary orbit, according to ISRO’s Space Situational Assessment for the year. The number of CAMs jumped from just three in 2015 to 12 in 2020 and 19 in 2021.

Last year, the space agency monitored 4,382 events in LEO and 3,148 events in the geostationary orbit where space objects closely approached Indian assets. Fragments from the Fengyun-1C satellite (part of the anti-satellite test (ASAT) by China in 2007) and the Cosmos 2251-Iridium satellite collision in 2009 accounted for the maximum number of these threats. The observations also covered 84 “close approaches of less than one km” between Starlink satellites and Indian assets.

Space junk or debris consists of spent rocket stages, dead satellites, fragments of space objects and debris resulting from ASAT. Hurtling at an average speed of 27,000 kmph in LEO, these objects pose a very real threat as collisions involving even centimetre-sized fragments can be lethal to satellites. ISRO’s efforts towards space situational awareness (SSA) is coordinated by the SSA Control Centre in Bengaluru and managed by the Directorate of Space Situational Awareness and Management at the ISRO headquarters.

ISRO officials say the volume of debris is likely to go up in the coming years with the increase in space missions globally. Globally, 2021 saw the highest space object-to-launch ratio, the ISRO report noted.

“In other words, more space objects are placed in orbit per launch. In 2020, 522 objects were placed in space with 102 launches compared to 1,860 objects in 135 launches in 2021,” the report said.

Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO)

  • Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) is the space agency under Dept of Space.
  • ISRO headquarters are in Bengaluru, Karnataka.
  • ISRO was initiated under Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, the founding father of Indian space programme, during 1960’s. Vikram Sarabhai is the father of Indian Space Program. Hence Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre is located at Kerala.
  • Dr. K. Sivan is the ISRO Chairman, Department of Space.
  • ISRO’s vision is to harness space technology for national development, while pursuing space science research and planetary exploration.
  • Indian space programme had 3 distinct elements such as, Satellites for communication and remote sensing, The space transportation system and Application programmes

Antrix Corporation Limited (ACL)

  • ACL was established in 1992 as a Marketing arm of ISRO for promotion and commercial exploitation of space products, technical consultancy services and transfer of technologies developed by ISRO.
  • It is a Mini ratna company.

NewSpace India Limited (NSIL) (established in Mar 2019)

  • NSIL is a Central Public Sector Enterprise of Government of India and Commercial Arm of ISRO. For almost a decade, ISRO has been planning to hand the production over to public and private industries and itself focus on its core job of space R&D.
  • It was incorporated for commercially utilising research and development activities carried out by ISRO with an authorised share capital of Rs 100 crore and initial paid up capital of Rs 10 crore.
  • It is the 2nd commercial entity and a new business arm of Department of Space (Bengaluru) to promote Indian space commerce.
  • It is under the administrative control of Department of Space (DOS) and the Company Act 2013.
  • The main objective of NSIL is to scale up industry participation in Indian space programmes.

Objectives

  • Transfer of Small Satellite technology to industry: NSIL will obtain license from DOS/ISRO and sub-license the same to Industry
  • Manufacture of Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) in collaboration with Private Sector
  • Production of Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) through Indian Industry
  • Production and marketing of Space based products and services, including launch and application
  • Transfer of technology developed by ISRO Centres and constituent units of DOS
  • Marketing of spin-off technologies and products/services, both in India and abroad.
  • It would also be tasked to “commercially exploit the R&D work done by ISRO centres and DoS constituents”

5. Explaining Sri Lanka’s economic crisis

The country’s current situation is due to misguided policies and flawed external advice

The Sri Lankan economy has been facing a crisis owing to a serious balance of payments (BoP) problem. Its foreign exchange reserves are depleting rapidly. It is becoming increasingly difficult to import essential consumption goods. The country is unable to repay past debts. This article is an effort to locate the proximate causes of the current crisis and document the roles of different groups and organisations in its making.

One can, of course, trace the roots of the crisis to colonialism and Sri Lanka’s post-war developmental pathway but let us stick to the last decade for our purposes. Even in the 21st century, Sri Lanka’s economic fortunes continued to be tied to the export of primary commodities such as tea and rubber, and garments. It mobilised foreign exchange reserves through primary commodity exports, tourism and remittances, and used it to import essential consumption items including food.

When Sri Lanka emerged from a 26-year long war in 2009, it was expected that economic growth would revive. Possibly because of pent-up demand, Sri Lanka’s post-war GDP growth was reasonably high at 8-9% per annum between 2009 and 2012. However, the economy was on a downward spiral after 2013 as global commodity prices fell, exports slowed down and imports rose. The average GDP growth rate almost halved after 2013. A counter-cyclical fiscal policy was ruled out, as the hands of the then Mahinda Rajapaksa government were tied by a $2.6 billion loan obtained from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2009. During the period of the war, budget deficits were high. Further, the capital flight that accompanied the global financial crisis of 2008 drained Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange reserves. The IMF loan in 2009 was obtained in this context, with the conditionality that budget deficits would be reduced to 5% of the GDP by 2011.

With no pick-up in growth or exports, and the continuing drain of foreign exchange reserves, the new United National Party (UNP)-led coalition government approached the IMF in 2016 for another US$1.5 billion loan for a three-year period between 2016 and 2019. The IMF’s conditionality was that the fiscal deficit must be reduced to 3.5% by 2020. Other conditionalities included a reform of the tax policy and tax administration; control of expenditures; commercialisation of public enterprises; flexibility in exchange rates; improvement of competitiveness; and a free environment for foreign investment.

The IMF package led to a deterioration of Sri Lanka’s economic health. GDP growth rates shrank from 5% in 2015 to 2.9% in 2019. Investment rate fell from 31.2% in 2015 to 26.8% in 2019. Savings rate fell from 28.8% in 2015 to 24.6% in 2019. Government revenues shrank from 14.1% of the GDP in 2016 to 12.6% of the GDP in 2019. Gross government debt rose from 78.5% of the GDP in 2015 to 86.8% of the GDP in 2019.

New shocks to economy

In 2019, there were two further shocks to the economy. First, the Easter bomb blasts of April 2019 in churches in Colombo led to the death of 253 people. Consequently, the number of tourists fell sharply leading to a decline in foreign exchange reserves. The blasts dealt a severe blow to the prospects of economic recovery.

Secondly, the UNP-led government was replaced in November 2019 by a new government led by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), headed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The SLPP had promised lower tax rates and wide-ranging sops for farmers during their campaign. On the surface, these promises appeared divergent from the IMF package. However, in the absence of a concrete policy alternative to the IMF’s neoliberal package, these promises were hollow.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was quick to implement the ill-advised plan to slash taxes. In December 2019, the value added tax (VAT) rates were reduced from 15% to 8%. The annual threshold for VAT registration was raised from LKR 12 million to LKR 300 million. The annual income threshold for waiver of personal income tax was raised from LKR 500,000 to LKR 3,000,000. The nation building tax, the PAYE tax and the economic service charges were abolished.

Estimates show that there was a 33.5% decline in the number of registered taxpayers between 2019 and 2020, and close to 2% of the GDP was lost in taxes thus foregone. GST/VAT revenues were halved between 2019 and 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 made the bad situation worse. Exports of tea, rubber, spices and garments suffered. Tourism arrivals and revenues fell further. The pandemic also necessitated a rise in government expenditures: the fiscal deficit exceeded 10% in 2020 and 2021, and the ratio of public debt to GDP rose from 94% in 2019 to 119% in 2021.

Sri Lanka annually spent about $260 million (or about 0.3% of its GDP) on fertiliser subsidies. Most of the fertilisers are imported. To prevent the drain of foreign exchange reserves, the Gotabaya government came up with a novel, but thoroughly bizarre, solution in 2021. All fertiliser imports were completely banned from May 2021, and it was declared that Sri Lanka would overnight become a 100% organic farming nation. This policy, which was withdrawn in November 2021 after protests by farmers, literally pushed Sri Lanka to the brink of a disaster. Agricultural scientists were unanimous in warning the Gotabaya government of the potential losses from the organic farming policy. They wrote to the government that yields may drop by 25% in paddy, 35% in tea and 30% in coconut if chemical fertilisers were banned.

Fertilizer ban fiasco

The scientists were proven right. In February 2022, the IMF assessed that there was a “worse-than-anticipated impact of the chemical fertilizer ban on agricultural production”, which was likely to drag down the prospects of economic recovery. As agricultural production fell, more imports of food became necessary. But increasing imports was difficult in the face of foreign exchange shortages. Thus, inflation rose to 17.5% in February 2022. Also, a fall in the productivity of tea and rubber led to lower export incomes. And thus, the organic farming policy, which aimed to soften the pressure on reserves, ended up straining them even further.

The current Sri Lankan economic crisis, then, is the product of the historical imbalances in the economic structure, the IMF’s loan-related conditionalities, misguided policies of authoritarian rulers and the official embrace of pseudo-science. The future looks bleak too. The government might approach the IMF once again for a new loan with fresh conditionalities. With the global outlook appearing dim, a renewed push to such a deflationary policy would not just limit the prospects of economic revival, but also exacerbate the sufferings of the Sri Lankan people.

6. The Assam-Meghalaya boundary dispute resolution

How did the two States reach an agreement? Will it help to solve other border rows in the northeastern region? 

On March 29, Assam and Meghalaya partially resolved a 50-year-old dispute along their 884.9 km boundary. It was facilitated by Home Minister Amit Shah who urged the States to resolve their boundary disputes by August 15, 2022, when the country celebrates 75 years of Independence.

Meghalaya was carved out of Assam as an autonomous State in 1972. The creation of the new State was based on the Assam Reorganisation (Meghalaya) Act of 1969, which the Meghalaya government refused to accept as areas of the present-day East Jaintia Hills, Ri-Bhoi and West Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya were transferred to the Karbi Anglong, Kamrup (metro) and Kamrup districts of Assam.

Starting from 1983, the two States had tried resolving the border dispute multiple times but it is only now that an agreement could be reached. According to the partial boundary deal, Assam will get 18.51 sq. km of the 36.79 sq. km disputed area while Meghalaya will get the remaining 18.28 sq. km.

The story so far: Two months after signing a draft resolution on January 29, Assam and Meghalaya partially resolved a 50-year-old dispute along their 884.9 km boundary. An agreement in this regard, termed historic, was signed between Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma and his Meghalaya counterpart Conrad K. Sangma in the presence of Home Minister Amit Shah in New Delhi on March 29. The agreement is expected to pave the way for resolving disputes in the remaining sectors of the Assam-Meghalaya boundary and similar areas of difference between Assam and three other northeastern States.

How did the boundary dispute start?

Meghalaya, carved out of Assam as an autonomous State in 1970, became a full-fledged State in 1972. The creation of the new State was based on the Assam Reorganisation (Meghalaya) Act of 1969, which the Meghalaya government refused to accept. This was because the Act followed the recommendations of a 1951 committee to define the boundary of Meghalaya. On that panel’s recommendations, areas of the present-day East Jaintia Hills, Ri-Bhoi and West Khasi Hills districts of Meghalaya were transferred to the Karbi Anglong, Kamrup (metro) and Kamrup districts of Assam. Meghalaya contested these transfers after statehood, claiming that they belonged to its tribal chieftains. Assam said the Meghalaya government could neither provide documents nor archival materials to prove its claim over these areas. After claims and counter-claims, the dispute was narrowed down to 12 sectors on the basis of an official claim by Meghalaya in 2011.

How did the two governments go about handling the issue?

The two States had initially tried resolving the border dispute through negotiations but the first serious attempt was in May 1983 when they formed a joint official committee to address the issue. In its report submitted in November 1983, the committee suggested that the Survey of India should re-delineate the boundary with the cooperation of both the States towards settling the dispute. There was no follow-up action. As more areas began to be disputed, the two States agreed to the constitution of an independent panel in 1985. Headed by Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, the committee submitted its report in 1987. Meghalaya rejected the report as it was allegedly pro-Assam. Following more disputes and resultant violence, the two governments agreed in January 1991 to jointly demarcate the border with the help of the Survey of India. About 100 km of the border was demarcated by the end of 1991, but Meghalaya found the exercise unconstitutional and refused to cooperate. In 2011, the Meghalaya Assembly passed a resolution for central intervention and the constitution of a boundary commission. The Assam Assembly retaliated with a resolution to oppose the move. But the Centre made the two governments appoint nodal officers to discuss the boundary dispute to minimise the points of difference. In 2019, the Meghalaya government petitioned the Supreme Court to direct the Centre to settle the dispute. The petition was dismissed.

How was the ice broken?

In January 2021, Home Minister Amit Shah urged all the north-eastern States to resolve their boundary disputes by August 15, 2022, when the country celebrates 75 years of Independence. It was felt that the effort could be fast-tracked since the region’s sister-States either had a Bharatiya Janata-led government or that of its “allergic-to-Congress” allies. In June 2021, the two States decided to resume talks at the CM level and adopt a “give-and-take” policy to settle the disputes once and for all. Of the 12 disputed sectors, six “less complicated” areas — Tarabari, Gizang, Hahim, Boklapara, Khanapara-Pilingkata and Ratacherra — were chosen for resolving in the first phase. Both States formed three regional committees, one each for a district affected by the disputed sectors. These committees, each headed by a cabinet minister, were given “five principles” for approaching the issue. These principles are historical facts of a disputed sector, ethnicity, administrative convenience, willingness of people and contiguity of land preferably with natural boundaries such as rivers, streams and rocks. The committee members conducted surveys of the disputed sectors and held several meetings with the local stakeholders. On January 29, the two governments signed a draft resolution prepared on the basis of the recommendations of these regional panels. This paved the way for the March 29 closure of the six disputed sectors.

Will the partial settlement impact border disputes elsewhere in the Northeast?

According to the partial boundary deal, Assam will get 18.51 sq. km of the 36.79 sq. km disputed area while Meghalaya will get the remaining 18.28 sq. km. There is no clarity yet on the villages or uninhabited stretches that would be divided, but some political parties and community-based groups in Meghalaya are unhappy about acceding any part of the disputed areas to Assam. Reactions are similar in Assam, where the opposition Congress and local organisations said the agreement boiled down to how much land Assam could save from “aggressor” Meghalaya. But officials in Assam said it was better to let go of areas where they did not have any administrative control rather than “live with an irritant forever”. However, residents in the other six disputed sectors — Langpih, Borduar, Nongwah, Matamur, Deshdemoreah Block I and Block II, and Khanduli — feel the “give-and-take” template could spell disaster for them. The fear is more among non-tribal people who could end up living in a “tribal Meghalaya with no rights for us”. The apprehension is similar for residents of Assam in disputed areas along the border with other States. According to a paper tabled in the Assam Assembly in August 2014, six neighbouring States control 77,531.71 hectares of Assam land. Apart from Meghalaya, the other States are Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Tripura and West Bengal.

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