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Coronavirus – Health and Governance Issues

Uniting South Asian region to combat Covid

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : SAARC

Mains level : Paper 2- South Asian countries' response to pandemic

The article analyses how South Asia is dealing with the pandemic and the need for coordinated action by the countries across the region.

Varying response across the region

  • Governments in South Asian countries have responded in varying degrees to counter the health and economic crises.
  • India resumed its economic activities on a limited scale following a strict lockdown.
  • Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka did the same after an extended lockdown.
  • Bhutan and the Maldives have managed to largely contain community transmission and avoid prolonged lockdowns due to a higher testing rate.
  • This is consistent with the hypothesis that countries that have conducted more tests have been more successful in containing the pandemic.

Low mortality in the region

  • Unlike other regions, South Asian countries are experiencing a lower mortality rate despite having a higher infection rate.
  • However, epidemiological studies and the World Health Organization’s reviews have been sceptical about the data reliability.

Effectiveness of state responses

  • India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives have unveiled stimulus packages.
  • The rest of the countries are yet to announce any concrete support for their low income and lower-middle income population still suffering from the economic fallout of the crisis.
  • In late March, India announced a $22.5 billion relief package to ensure food security and cash transfers to save the livelihoods of an estimated 800 million people living in poverty.
  • The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) slashed the repo and reverse repo rate to create liquidity for businesses.
  • In early April, Bangladesh announced a stimulus package worth about $8 billion in addition to an earlier $595 million incentive package for export-oriented industries.
  • Although countries like India and Bangladesh announced financial and material stimulus packages, distribution concerns remain unaddressed.

United response by SAAR

  • The region need to look beyond narrow geopolitical rivalry and come together to work towards a well-coordinated response mechanism.
  • A SAARC COVID-19 fund was created following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to South Asian leaders.
  • Bbut governments are yet to decide on its modus operandi.
  • The region could leverage its existing institutional framework under the umbrella of SAARC to effectively respond to the crisis.
  • For instance, SAARC Food Banks could be activated to tackle the imminent regional food crisis, and the SAARC Finance Forum can be activated to formulate a regional economic policy response.

Conclusion

Faced with an unprecedented crisis, this is the right time for the leaders of the region to come together and take on the challenge collectively.

Higher Education – RUSA, NIRF, HEFA, etc.

Issues with E-learning in India

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 2- Online education and issues with it

Pandemic has forced learning to the online mode. But there are several concerns with the online leaning. The article discusses the same.

Providing learning opportunity in pandemic

  • The main thrust of providing learning opportunities while schools are shut is online teaching.
  • There are several sets of guidelines and plans issues by the government, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) for this purpose.
  • The Internet space is teeming with learning schemes, teaching videos, sites and portals for learning opportunities.

3 issues with online learning

1) Increasing inequality

  • Calamities, be they natural or man-made, affect the underprivileged the hardest,  COVID-19 is no exception.
  •  The COVID-19 shutdown has affected opportunity for the poor even harder than their counterparts from well-to-do sections of society.
  • The government began plans for students with no online access only by the end of August.
  • But online or digital education is available is for students with only online access.
  • Thus, digital India may become even more unequal and divided than it already is.

2) Pedagogical issues leading to bad quality education

  • The quality of online teaching-learning leaves much to be desired.
  • Listening to lectures on the mobile phone, copying from the board where the teacher is writing, frequent disconnections can hardly and organically connect the child’s present understanding with the logically organised bodies of human knowledge.
  • The secondary students are in a better position still because of their relative independence in learning and possible self-discipline.
  • The beginners in the lower primary can get nothing at all from this mode of teaching.

3)  An unwarranted thrust on online education, post-COVID-19

  • All reliable studies seem to indicate that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the classroom helps in already well-functioning systems, and either has no benefits or negative impact in poorly performing systems.
  • That does not indicate much hope from IT in our education system.
  • Transformation of schools in the current understanding of pedagogy, suitability of learning material and quality of learning provided through IT will further devastate the already inadequate system of school education in the country.
  • Of course, IT can be used in a balanced manner where it can help; but it should not be seen as a silver bullet to remedy all ills in the education system.

Importance of institutional environment

  • The institutional environment plays an important role online teaching.
  • Even when the institutions function sub-optimally, students themselves create an environment that supports their growth morally, socially and intellectually in conversations and interactions with each other.
  • The online mode of teaching completely forecloses this opportunity.

Conclusion

Our democracy and public education system should try to address the issues raised here while promoting the online mode of education.

Agricultural Sector and Marketing Reforms – eNAM, Model APMC Act, Eco Survey Reco, etc.

Putting farmers first

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much

Mains level : Paper 3- Agri bills related to agri markets and contract farming

The faremers have been protesting against the agri bill. This article explains the rationale behind the bill and how it could help the farmers.

Challenges Indian agriculture face

  • Indian agriculture has been characterised by fragmentation due to small holding sizes, weather dependence, production uncertainties, huge wastage and market unpredictability.
  • This makes agriculture risky and inefficient with respect to both input and output management.

Recent steps to help farmers

  • The  government has taken various steps in this direction, for example-
  • The implementation of the Swaminathan committee’s recommendation regarding fixing MSP at least 50 per cent profits on the cost of production.
  • Increasing the agri budget by more than 11 times in the past 10 years.
  • Establishing e-NAM mandis.
  • An Agriculture Infrastructure Fund of Rs 1 lakh crore under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Package, the scheme for the formation of 10,000 FPOs, etc.

What the agri bills seek to achieve

  • The bills will create an ecosystem where farmers and traders enjoy the freedom of choice of sale and purchase of farming produce.
  • This freedom of choice will help to facilitate remunerative prices to farmers through competitive alternative trading channels.
  • This will promote barrier-free inter-state and intra-state trade and commerce of farming produce outside the physical premises of markets notified under state agricultural produce marketing legislation.
  • The farm bills also lay the ground of a legal framework for fair and transparent farming agreements between farmers and sponsors.
  • This framework will facilitate greater certainty in quality and price, adoption of quality and grading standards, linkage of farming agreements with insurance and credit instruments and also enable the farmer to access modern technology and better inputs.
  • These recommendations have been made by the Swaminathan Committee, which suggested the removal of the mandi tax, creation of a single market and facilitating contract farming.

Safeguard in the bill

  • The bill have several safeguards such as the prohibition of sale, lease or mortgage of farmers’ land and farmers’ land is also protected against any recovery.
  • Farming agreements cannot be entered into, if they are in derogation of the rights of a sharecropper.
  • Farmers will have access to flexible prices subject to a guaranteed price in agreements.
  • The sponsor has to ensure the timely acceptance of delivery and payment of produce to farmers and farmers’ liability is limited to only the advance received and cost of inputs provided by the sponsor.
  • Disputes will be resolved through a Conciliation Board, to be constituted by the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM), failing which an aggrieved party may approach the concerned SDM for the settlement of the dispute.

Consider the question “What are the changes introduced by the two recent bills passed by the government related to agri markets and contract farming how will these changes be helpful to the farmers?”

Conclusion

These farm bills will bring transformative changes in our agricultural sector and reduce wastage, increase efficiency, unlock value for our farmers and increase farmers’ incomes.

Capital Markets: Challenges and Developments

What is Infrastructure Investment Trusts (InvITs)?

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : REITs, INVITs

Mains level : Not Much

The National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has come up with its Infrastructure Investment Trust (InvIT) issue.

Try this PYQ:

Q.Which of the following is issued by registered foreign portfolio investors to overseas investors who want to be part of the Indian stock market without registering themselves directly?

(a) Certificate of Deposit

(b) Commercial Paper

(c) Promissory Note

(d) Participatory Note

Significance of the issue

  • The issue will enable NHAI to monetize its completed National Highways that have a toll collection track record of at least one year.
  • The NHAI reserves the right to levy a toll on identified highways and it will help the company raise funds for more road development across the country.

What are InvITs?

  • Infrastructure investment trusts are institutions similar to mutual funds, which pool investment from various categories of investors and invest them into completed and revenue-generating infrastructure projects, thereby creating returns for the investor.
  • Structured like mutual funds, they have a trustee, sponsor(s), investment manager and project manager.
  • While the trustee (certified by Sebi) has the responsibility of inspecting the performance of an InvIT, sponsor(s) are promoters of the company that set up the InvIT.
  • In the case of Public-private partnership (PPP) projects, it refers to the infrastructure developer or a special purpose vehicle holding the concession.
  • While the investment manager is entrusted with the task of supervising the assets and investments of the InvIT, the project manager is responsible for the execution of the project.

How will it work for NHAI?

  • NHAI’s InvIT will be a Trust established by NHAI under the Indian Trust Act, 1882 and SEBI regulations.
  • The InvIT Trust will be formed the objective of investing primarily in infrastructure projects.
  • The fund raised can be invested in the project SPVs by way of an issue of debt.
  • The trust can utilise it to repay their loans or even for prepayment of certain unsecured loans and advances.

Why does NHAI need fund?

  • At a time when private sector investment in the economy has declined, fund-raising by NHAI and spending on infrastructure will not only provide a fillip to the economy but will also crowd-in private sector investment.
  • So NHAI’s InvIT offer is a way for the government to tap alternative sources of financing to boost public spending in the roads and infrastructure sector.
  • It is important to note that in October 2017, the Centre had launched Bharatmala Pariyojana, its flagship highway development programme, for development of 24,800 km of roads.
  • In order to complete the projects, NHAI needs adequate funds and one of the options is to monetize the completed and operational NH assets.

How does it benefit the investor?

  • Retail or even large financial investors may not be typically able to invest in infrastructure projects such as roads, power, energy etc.
  • InvITs enable these investors to buy a small portion of the units being sold by the fund depending upon their risk appetite.
  • Given that such trusts comprise largely of completed and operational projects with positive cash flow, the risks are somewhat contained.
  • The investors can benefit from the cash flow that gets distributed as well as in capital appreciation of the units.
  • Unitholders also benefit from favourable tax norms, including exemption on dividend income and no capital gains tax if units are held for more than three years.

Indian Missile Program Updates

[pib] ABHYAS Air Vehicle

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : ABHYAS-HEAT

Mains level : Not Much

Successful flight test of ABHYAS – High-speed Expendable Aerial Target (HEAT) was today conducted by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) from the Interim Test Range, Balasore in Odisha.

Try this PYQ:

What is “Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)”, sometimes seen in the news?

(a) An Israeli radar system

(b) India’s indigenous anti-missile programme

(c) An American anti-missile system

(d) A defence collaboration between Japan and South Korea

ABHYAS Air Vehicle

  • ABHYAS is designed & developed by Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), DRDO.
  • The air vehicle is launched using twin underslung booster.
  • It is powered by a small gas turbine engine and has a MEMS-based Inertial Navigation System (INS) for navigation along with the Flight Control Computer (FCC) for guidance and control.
  • The vehicle is programmed for fully autonomous flight. The check out of air vehicle is done using laptop-based Ground Control Station (GCS).
  • During the test campaign, the user requirement of 5 km flying altitude, vehicle speed of 0.5 mach, the endurance of 30 minutes and 2g turn capability of the test vehicle were successfully achieved.

Its uses

  • Abhyas’s radar cross-section (RCS), as well as its visual and infrared signatures, can be augmented to simulate a variety of aircraft for air-defence weapon practices.
  • It can also function as a jammer platform and decoy.
  • The HEAT system is utilized to do away with the post-launch recovery mode, which is time-consuming and difficult in a scenario as the sea.

Minority Issues – SC, ST, Dalits, OBC, Reservations, etc.

[pib] Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) Scheme

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : MANF Scheme

Mains level : Not Much

The Ministry of Minority Affairs has provided information about the progress of MANF Scheme in the Parliament.

Note: As the name suggests, the scheme particularly aims to target the Minority community. Here, six major groups are considered a minority. Statement based questions often create bluffs on such conditions.

MANF Scheme

  • The Ministry of Minority Affairs implements MANF Scheme for educational empowerment of students belonging to six notified minority communities i.e. Buddhist, Christian, Jain, Muslim, Sikh, Zoroastrian (Parsi).
  • The Scheme is implemented through the University Grants Commission (UGC) and no waiting list is prepared under the Scheme by UGC.
  • Candidates belonging to the Six centrally notified minority are considered for award of fellowship under the MANF Scheme.
  • The selection of candidates is done through JRF-NET (Junior Research Fellow- National Eligibility Test) examination conducted by the National Testing Agency.
  • Prior to 2019-20, the merit list was prepared on the basis of marks obtained by the candidates in their Post Graduate examination.
  • However, in 2018-19, only the candidates who had qualified CBSE-UGC-NET/JRF or CSIR-NET/JRF were eligible to apply.

Digital India Initiatives

[pib] YuWaah Platform

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : YuWaah Portal

Mains level : Not Much

Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports and United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) are set to establish YuWaah, Generation Unlimited (GenU), a global multi-stakeholder platform in India.

 YuWaah Platform

As per the Statement of Intent, the objectives of this project are:

  • Support young people by providing entrepreneurship classes (online and offline) with successful entrepreneurs and experts, towards establishing an entrepreneurial mindset among young people.
  • Upskilling of young people on 21st-century skills, life skills, digital skills through online and offline channels and support them through self-learning, for their productive lives and the future of work.
  • Create linkages with aspirational economic opportunities to connect young people with employment opportunities, including building pathways to connect them with jobs or self-employment.
  • Providing career guidance support to young people through career portal as well as through job-readiness and self-exploration sessions to make young people career-ready.