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September 2019

Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)

[op-ed of the day] The art of deploying diplomacy to advance our trade interests


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : RCEP

Mains level : India's concerns with RCEP


  • The external affairs minister recently said that trade interests, and not diplomacy, will decide India’s participation in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement.
  • While it is obvious that any trade agreement must be decided on its merits, smart diplomacy can aid in advancing our overall trade and strategic interests.

Diplomacy is crucial

  • Trade benefits may emanate not only from the deal being negotiated, but also from strengthening existing trade relations.
  • The deal provides for opening of new trade avenues, and the fostering of competitiveness among domestic producers.
  • The collateral benefits would include enhanced investment, policy certainty and regional security. For all this to happen, diplomacy is crucial.
  • In other words, when trade and diplomatic initiatives complement each other, and are not pursued in isolation.

India’s concerns with RCEP

  • India has genuine concerns with the RCEP over possible import surges from countries like China, NZ and Australia, particularly in the agricultural and dairy sectors.

Why RCEP is crucial?

The early conclusion of RCEP negotiations and its implementation offers several strategic benefits to India.

A say in rule-making

  • It will send a strong signal to the global trade community that the international trading system is alive and kicking, and India is ready to participate in the rule-making process for it.
  • Given that RCEP countries constitute more than one-third of global GDP, close to half of its population, and around 30% of its trade, not being party to it would be counterproductive to India’s interests.

Extension of own policies

  • India’s participation can be viewed as a natural extension of its Act East and Act Far East policies, for it will enhance our maritime connectivity in the Indo-Pacific region.
  • The RCEP holds enormous potential to facilitate economic growth and stability in the region, and to help make it free, open and inclusive.
  • It could also be used as a key instrument to balance Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific constructs for shared prosperity with security.

Intra regional collaboration

  • India can use RCEP as an anchor to launch several mini-lateral initiatives in the region, with countries like Australia and Japan, to strengthen our maritime connectivity and allow for the emergence of alternative power centres.
  • RCEP can be leveraged by India to make investments in connectivity and infrastructure development in our extended neighbourhood, such as the Sabang port in Indonesia, and Cam Ranh port in Vietnam.
  • It can also help Indian companies form joint ventures for exploring and sourcing strategic resources, such as natural gas from countries like Vietnam and Myanmar.

Clinging to our Foreign Policy

  • A mature vision has already been displayed by the PM, whose strong push in favour of the country’s Act East and Act Far East policies.
  • This has given Indian negotiators the vigour needed to quickly conclude negotiations for the RCEP.
  • National interests cannot be allowed to be hijacked by a few industries, and the government must look at the greater good for the biggest numbers.
  • It is possible to take a macro view of the medium-to-long-term future, and act accordingly to make the most of the economy’s trade potential.

Benefits outpower the concerns

  • While one needs to be cautious about any overestimation of such a negative impact, as portrayed in popular media, we should not forget that there will be gains for industries and for consumers at large.
  • In addition, the RCEP can be leveraged to help Indian industry become more competitive, participate in global value chains, and seek additional market access.

Possible reasons for India’s reluctance

  • Leveraging the benefits of RCEP would require overcoming several domestic challenges, particularly related to infrastructure and input markets.
  • For instance, at present, road transport in India costs $7 per km, while the cost is only $2.50 per km in China.
  • Similarly, economical and timely access to land, labour, capital and technology remains a challenge in our country.
  • Correcting the situation will require domestic input market reforms and heavy investment in infrastructure to enable Indian companies to participate effectively in global value chains.

Supporting the impaired economy

  • A troika of optimal competition, industrial and trade policies could help usher in such reforms and allow the Indian economy to compete with its RCEP counterparts.
  • Given that India is experiencing a structural and cyclical slowdown, the RCEP can also serve as an additional external factor for reformers to push for difficult yet important domestic reforms.

So, what can be done?

  • We can show maturity by acceding to the RCEP’s spirit of multilateralism while initiating parallel discussions with select countries on special safeguard mechanisms.
  • We could designate some tariff lines as special products and even have tariff rate quotas for some others.
  • While it has been reported that RCEP countries have decided to ease the application of investor-state dispute settlement procedures, the agreement may provide for the creation of an independent arbitrator.


  • Once the RCEP is in place, diplomatic efforts will be required to achieve convergence between the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) and the RCEP.
  • Over time, the RCEP may expand to include Russia and other central Asian countries.
  • All this would require smart diplomacy in favour of our trade, investment and strategic interests.

Foreign Policy Watch: India-United States

[op-ed snap] Raja Mandala: India and the US need to address the vexed issues in trade


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Nothing much

Mains level : India and USA - way ahead


The event at Houston brought together Indian diaspora. This must yield tangible outcomes.


  • India and the US are wrapping up the negotiations on trade that have been underway for some time. 

Past relation – sensitive to others’ needs

  • Then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh offered quick unilateral support in May 2001 when US President George W Bush’s announced an initiative to build missile defences and move away from the doctrine of deterrence through nuclear terror. 
  • Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s strong support for Bush’s war on terror immediately after 9/11 set the stage for a political and strategic approach to the Indo-US relationship.
  • Bush extended unprecedented support for India’s rise by changing the US domestic nonproliferation laws as well as international regulations to lift a long-standing nuclear blockade against India. 
  • The resolution of the nuclear issue created the basis for a productive partnership with the US.
  • This saw liberalisation of US technology transfers, launch of counter-terror cooperation, the expansion of defence relationship and political cooperation on regional and global issues. 
  • Modi reoriented India’s policy to make Delhi part of the solution in the stalled international negotiations on mitigating global warming. Obama helped finalise the nuclear agreement and integrate India into the global nonproliferation regimes.

Trade issues

  • India’s prickly attitude towards trade liberalisation put it at odds with its major trading partners. 
  • Market access has been an issue that has troubled the relationship in recent years. 
  • A trade deal with the US will make it a lot easier to deal with his administration on a range of issues including terrorism, Kashmir and the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan. 

Way ahead

  • The two countries need to change the direction in bilateral commercial engagement.
  • They need to communicate their interests to each other and signal the political will to overcome domestic obstacles.
  • A new trade agreement must prepare India for profound changes in the global economic order and technological disruption. 

Way ahead

Getting India’s most important trade relationship right in the near term and charting a course for a mutually beneficial commercial partnership with the US over the long term are urgent and worthy goals in themselves.

Higher Education – RUSA, NIRF, HEFA, etc.

[op-ed snap] Inequality of another kind


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Faheema Shirin v. State of Kerala Judgment

Mains level : Expanded scope of Art. 21


  • Recently, in Faheema Shirin v. State of Kerala, the Kerala High Court declared the right to Internet access as a fundamental right forming a part of the right to privacy and the right to education under Article 21.
  • While this is a welcome move, it is important to recognise the right to Internet access as an independent right.

Digital inequality

  • Inequality is a concept that underpins most interventions focussed on social justice and development.
  • It resembles the mythological serpent Hydra in Greek mythology — as the state attempts to deal with one aspect of inequality, many new aspects keep coming up.
  • In recent times, several government and private sector services have become digital. Some of them are only available online.
  • This leads to a new kind of inequality, digital inequality, where social and economic backwardness is exacerbated due to information poverty, lack of infrastructure, and lack of digital literacy.

Indian case

  • According to the Deloitte report, ‘Digital India: Unlocking the Trillion Dollar Opportunity’, in mid-2016, digital literacy in India was less than 10%.
  • We are moving to a global economy where knowledge of digital processes will transform the way in which people work, collaborate, consume information, and entertain themselves.
  • This has been acknowledged in the SDGs as well as by the Indian government and has led to the Digital India mission.

Benefits of Digital Equality

  • Offering services online has cost and efficiency benefits for the government and also allows citizens to bypass lower-level government bureaucracy.
  • However, in the absence of Internet access and digital literacy enabling that access, there will be further exclusion of large parts of the population, exacerbating the already existing digital divide.

The economics behind

  • Moving governance and service delivery online without the requisite progress in Internet access and digital literacy also does not make economic sense.
  • For instance, Common Service Centres, which operate in rural and remote locations, are physical facilities which help in delivering digital government services and informing communities about government initiatives.
  • While the state may be saving resources by moving services online, it also has to spend resources since a large chunk of citizens cannot access these services.
  • The government has acknowledged this and has initiated certain measures in this regard.
  • The Bharat Net programme, aiming to have an optical fibre network in all gram panchayats, is to act as the infrastructural backbone for having Internet access all across the country.

The importance of digital literacy

  • Internet access and digital literacy have implications beyond access to government services.
  • Digital literacy allows people to access information and services, collaborate, and navigate socio-cultural networks.
  • In fact, the definition of literacy today must include the ability to access and act upon resources and information found online.

What’s so special with the recent judgement?

  • The Kerala HC judgment acknowledges the role of the right to access Internet in accessing other fundamental rights.
  • It is imperative that the right to Internet access and digital literacy be recognised as a right in itself.
  • In this framework the state would have-
  1. a positive obligation to create infrastructure for a minimum standard and quality of Internet access as well as capacity-building measures which would allow all citizens to be digitally literate and
  2. a negative obligation prohibiting it from engaging in conduct that impedes, obstructs or violates such a right.

Expanded scope

  • A right to Internet access would also further provisions given under Articles 38(2) [minimising inequalities in income] and 39 [right to an adequate means of livelihood] of the Constitution.
  • It has now become settled judicial practice to read fundamental rights along with DPSP with a view to defining the scope and ambit of the former.

For an ‘information society’

  • Unequal access to the Internet creates and reproduces socio-economic exclusions.
  • It is important to recognise the right to Internet access and digital literacy to alleviate this situation, and allow citizens increased access to information, services, and the creation of better livelihood opportunities.


  • The courts have always interpreted Article 21 as a broad spectrum of rights considered incidental and/or integral to the right to life.
  • Recognising this right will also make it easier to demand accountability from the state, as well as encourage the legislature and the executive to take a more proactive role in furthering this right.

Organic Farming – Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojna (PKVY), NPOF etc.

Explained:  Participatory Guarantee Scheme


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : PGS

Mains level : Read the attached story

  • The head of India’s food safety regulator has said that she expects the Union Agriculture Ministry’s Participatory Guarantee Scheme (PGS) to incentivise more farmers to grow organic food.

Participatory Guarantee Scheme

  • PGS is a process of certifying organic products, which ensures that their production takes place in accordance with laid-down quality standards.
  • The certification is in the form of a documented logo or a statement.
  • PGS is is an internationally applicable organic quality assurance initiative that  emphasize the participation of stakeholders, including producers and consumers, and operate outside the framework of third-party certification.
  • PGSs are “locally focused quality assurance systems” that “certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange”.
  • PGS, according to the definition, is “a process in which people in similar situations (in this case small holder producers) assess, inspect and verify the production practices of each other and take decisions on organic certification”.

Four pillars of PGS

  • The government’s 2015 PGS manual underlines that the system in India is based on “participatory approach, a shared vision, transparency and trust”.


  • Stakeholders such as producers, consumers, retailers, traders, NGOs, Gram Panchayats, and government organisations and agencies are collectively responsible for designing, operating, and decision-making.
  • Direct communication among the stakeholders helps create an integrity- and trust-based approach with transparency in decision-making, easy access to databases and, where possible, visits to farms b consumers.


  • Collective responsibility for implementation and decision making is driven by a common shared vision.
  • Each stakeholder organisation or PGS group can adopt its own vision conforming to the overall vision and standards of the PGS-India programme.


  • At the grassroots level, transparency is maintained through the active participation of producers in the organic guarantee process.
  • It can include information-sharing at meetings and workshops, peer reviews, and involvement in decision making.


  • A fundamental premise of PGS is the idea that producers can be trusted, and that the organic guarantee system can be an expression and verification of this trust.
  • The mechanisms for trustworthiness include a producer pledge made through a witnessed signing of a declaration, and written collective undertakings by the group to abide by the norms, principles and standards of PGS.

Advantages of PGS

Among the advantages of PGS over third-party certification, identified by the government document, are:

  • Procedures are simple, documents are basic, and farmers understand the local language used.
  • All members live close to each other and are known to each other. As practising organic farmers themselves, they understand the processes well.
  • Because peer appraisers live in the same village, they have better access to surveillance; peer appraisal instead of third-party inspections also reduces costs
  • Mutual recognition and support between regional PGS groups ensures better networking for processing and marketing.
  • Unlike the grower group certification system, PGS offers every farmer individual certificates, and the farmer is free to market his own produce independent of the group.


  • PGS certification is only for farmers or communities that can organise and perform as a group within a village or a cluster of continuous villages.
  • It is applicable only to farm activities such as crop production, processing, and livestock rearing, and off-farm processing “by PGS farmers of their direct products”.
  • Individual farmers or group of farmers smaller than five members are not covered under PGS.
  • They either have to opt for third party certification or join the existing PGS local group.
  • PGS ensures traceability until the product is in the custody of the PGS group, which makes PGS ideal for local direct sales and direct trade between producers and consumers.

Air Pollution

Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) of Gujarat


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : ETS, Carbon trading

Mains level : About the Scheme


Emission trading in Gujarat

  • Last week, the Gujarat government launched what is being described as the world’s first market for trading in particulate matter emissions.
  • While trading mechanisms for pollution control do exist in many parts of the world, none of them is for particulate matter emissions.
  • For example, the CDM (clean development mechanism) under the Kyoto Protocol allows trade in ‘carbon credits’; the EU’s Emission Trading System is for greenhouse gas emission; and India has a scheme run by the Bureau of Energy Efficiency that enables trading in energy units.

Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS)

  • Launched in Surat, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is a regulatory tool that is aimed at reducing the pollution load in an area and at the same time minimising the cost of compliance for the industry.
  • ETS is a market in which the traded commodity is particulate matter emissions.
  • The Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) sets a cap on the total emission load from all industries.
  • Various industries can buy and sell the ability to emit particulate matter, by trading permits (in kilograms) under this cap.
  • For this reason, ETS is also called a cap-and-trade market.

Why was Surat chosen for the scheme?

  • In the last five years, the quality of air in Surat has deteriorated.
  • In 2013, when the project was conceptualised, the PM10 level at Air India Building in Surat was 86 micrograms per cubic metre.
  • According to GPCB annual reports, pollution levels have increased between 120-220 per cent, with PM10 in 2018 reaching upto 261 µg/cu. M.
  • Surat was chosen because its industrial associations agreed to run the pilot scheme.
  • Also, industries in Surat had already installed Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems, which makes it possible to estimate the mass of particulate matter being released.

Trading process

  • At the beginning of every one-month compliance period (during which one emission permit is valid), 80 per cent of the total cap of 280 tonnes for that period is distributed free to all participant units.
  • These permits are allocated based on an industry’s emission sources (boilers, heaters, generators) as this determines the amount of particulate matter emitted.
  • GPCB will offer the remaining 20 per cent of the permits during the first auction of the compliance period, at a floor price of Rs 5 per kilogram.
  • Participating units may buy and sell permits among each other during the period.
  • The price is not allowed to cross a ceiling of Rs 100 per kilogram or fall below Rs 5 per kg, both of which may be adjusted after a review.


  • These take place on the ETS-PM trading platform hosted by the National Commodities and Derivatives Exchange e-Markets Limited (NeML).
  • All participants must register a trading account with NeML. Transactions are linked to the bank accounts of the users, who can view updates through these accounts.
  • There are two types of auctions. In the Uniform Price Auction, the week’s permit price is discovered by participating members through bidding.
  • Second, there is a continuous market between Wednesday where members will buy and sell permits whose prices were fixed on Tuesday.
  • For a true-up period of 2-7 days before the completion of the compliance period, units may continue to buy and sell any remaining permits at the final auction price to meet their compliance obligations.

Punitive actions for non-compliance

  • Based on permits held by units at the close of the compliance and true-up periods, units will be declared compliant or non-compliant.
  • Environmental damage compensation at Rs 200/kg will be imposed for emissions in excess of a unit’s permit holdings at the end of the compliance period.
  • This amount will be deducted from an environmental damage compensation deposit that each unit has to submit before the start of the scheme — Rs 2 lakh for small units, Rs 3 lakh for medium ones and Rs 10 lakh for large units.
  • After any deduction, a unit will have to deposit extra money to meet that shortfall.
  • To prevent any participant from hoarding permits, an upper limit has been set — 1.5 times the initial allocation for the compliance period, or 3 per cent of the market cap for the compliance period.
  • Also, no unit may sell more than 90 per cent of its initial allocation.

Significance of ETS

  • These permits are not a way to allow industries to keep polluting.
  • Purchasing permits is only an interim measure for many of these units who find it financially difficult to install air pollution control measures.
  • In other words it helps buy some time and make investments later.
  • So the idea of this scheme is also to make sure that some units realise that it is cheaper to install APCM and reduce emissions rather than buy permits at a higher cost that will vary due to the bidding process.

Aadhaar Card Issues

Multipurpose National ID Card (MPNIC)


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : MPNIC

Mains level : Need for MPNIC

  • India could have a single multi-purpose unique card that will serve as an identity card and double up as a voter card, PAN and even a passport said Union Home Minister.

Multipurpose National ID Card (MPNIC)

  • MPNIC was first suggested by a 2001 report on “Reforming the National Security System” by an empowered Group of Ministers during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.
  • The GOM report itself was a response to the K Subrahmanyam-led Kargil Review Committee, which was instituted in the wake of the Kargil conflict of 1999.
  • The GOM included LK Advani, (MHA), George Fernandes (Minister of Defence), Jaswant Singh (MEA), and Yashwant Sinha (Minister of Finance) recommended MPNIC in relation to the growing threat from illegal migration.

Are we seeing the reprise of the MPNIC?

  • It is difficult to surmise if MPNIC exactly is being reprised.
  • Although there is no such scheme in the offing, it was possible to get rid of excess processes and cards such as the Aadhaar card, the voter card, the identity card etc.
  • But the government would want to link various databases if it intends to create a card that works as a single point of access to various accounts held by an individual.
  • Moreover, technology has taken a giant leap since the MPNIC was first proposed in 2001.
  • A good example of that is the existence of the Aadhaar database, which now has almost all residents of India on it.


National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID)

  • The government is expected to launch the NATGRID by the start of 2020.
  • The Natgrid would reportedly be used by 10 agencies such as Intelligence Bureau (IB), Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), CBI, and ED among others.
  • It aims to scour data real-time from 21 databases such as airline travel, credit card transactions etc with the aim to track and prevent terror and illegal immigration activities.
  • The existence of the Natgrid would obviate the original need of MPNIC – that of tracking terror suspects and illegal immigrants.

Air Pollution

Clean Air Coalition and Clean Air Fund


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Clean Air Coalition, Clean Air Fund

Mains level : Curbing air pollution

  • WHO is launching a “Clean Air Coalition” led by the Governments of Spain and Peru, while a group of philanthropic organizations and foundations were poised to launch a new “Clean Air Fund”.
  • Both aim to spur investment in reducing sources of air pollution, which also contribute to climate change.

Clean Air Coalition

  • The Clean Air Coalition is being supported by the UN Secretary General’s Office and the Climate and Clean Air Coalition of UN Environment.
  • The fund brings together “a group of like-minded philanthropic foundations” which have recognized that tackling air pollution will have “huge benefits for health as well as for climate.”

Why such move?

  • A report has found that philanthropic investment in air quality initiatives is disproportionately low in comparison to the burden disease caused by air pollution – which is estimated to kill some 7 million people around the world every year.
  • Most money is spent only in a few countries – even though WHO estimates that over 90% of people around the world breathe unhealthy air.

Clean Air Fund

  • The new Clean Air Fund aims to support projects that “democratize” air quality data, making knowledge about air quality more widely accessible to large numbers of people in cities.
  • The Fund works with a coalition of philanthropic foundation partners who have interests in health, children, mobility, climate change, and equity, bringing them together to strengthen their collective investment, voice and impact.

Health Sector – UHC, National Health Policy, Family Planning, Health Insurance, etc.

[pib] UMMID Initiative


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : UMMID Initiative

Mains level : Prevention of genetic diseases


  • UMMID stands for Unique Methods of Management and treatment of Inherited Disorders.
  • DBT has started the UMMID Initiative which is designed on the concept of ‘Prevention is better than Cure’.
  • Taking into account the congenital and hereditary genetic diseases are becoming a significant health burden in India, and realizing the need for adequate and effective genetic testing and counselling services.
  • The UMMID initiative aims
  1. to establish NIDAN Kendras to provide counselling, prenatal testing and diagnosis, management, and multidisciplinary care in Government Hospitals wherein the influx of patients is more,
  2. to produce skilled clinicians in Human Genetics, and
  3. to undertake screening of pregnant women and new born babies for inherited genetic diseases in hospitals at aspirational districts.

Why such initiative?

  • In India’s urban areas, congenital malformations and genetic disorders are the third most common cause of mortality in newborns.
  • With a very large population and high birth rate, and consanguineous marriage favored in many communities, prevalence of genetic disorders is high in India.

NIDAN (National Inherited Diseases Administration) Kendras

  • As a part of this initiative, in the first phase, five NIDAN Kendras have been established to provide comprehensive clinical care.
  • Screening of 10,000 pregnant women and 5000 new born babies per year for inherited genetic diseases will be taken up at the following seven aspirational districts.

[pib] PACEsetter Fund programme


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : PACEsetter Fund programme

Mains level : Not Much

  • The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy recently awarded Grants to the awardees of the second round of PACEsetter fund programme.

PACEsetter Fund

  • The PACEsetter fund was constituted by India and the USA in 2015 as a joint fund to provide early-stage grant funding to accelerate the commercialization of innovative off-grid clean energy products, systems, and business models.
  • The mission of the Fund is to accelerate the commercialization of innovative off-grid clean energy access solutions by providing early-stage grant funding that would allow businesses to develop and test innovative products, business models and systems.
  • The Fund’s main purpose is to improve the viability of off-grid renewable energy businesses that sell small scale (under 1 megawatt) clean energy systems to individuals and communities without access to grid connected power or with limited/intermittent access. (less than 8 hours per day).