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📰 India, U.K. in talks over education

Major area of bilateral ties, says envoy

•India and the United Kingdom (U.K.) were holding talks to seal an agreement on mutual recognition of educational qualifications, London’s envoy said here on Friday.

•Speaking to a group of journalists, Sir Dominic Asquith said that education was a major area of bilateral cooperation between the two sides which was likely to feature in official discussions during the upcoming London visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

One-year masters

•“We have 14,000 masters students from India in the U.K. Students form an important part of bilateral ties. But the one-year masters degrees given by the UK universities are not recognised in India. So discussion is under way for an agreement to mutually recognise these degrees. This will open up more opportunities for the students and this also seems to be fair to the students,” Mr. Asquith said.

•India’s non-recognition of the one-year masters programmes given by various British universities had been an issue between two sides as these courses are popular among Indian students.

•One of the factors that had prevented India from recognising the one-year master courses was the fact that several less-reputed educational institutions were also found to be offering such courses, often jeopardising academic prospects of students. But Mr. Asquith assured that the government of Prime Minister Theresa May had undertaken steps to prevent Indian students from falling for such institutions. “We are taking steps against the bogus universities,” said Mr. Asquith.

Agreement with France

•India last month signed an agreement on mutual recognition of educational degrees with France, during the visit of President Emmanuel Macron to Delhi. The British envoy observed that ongoing talks between London and Delhi were on the lines of the Indo-France one.

•Educational cooperation would be one of the major issues on the table during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to London next week when he is scheduled to participate in the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM) and hold bilateral talks with Prime Minister May’s team. While international issues like the attempted assassination of an ex-Russian spy and his daughter with nerve chemical agent were expected to be the talking points at the Commonwealth meeting, the bilateral issues like cybersecurity cooperation and data protection were also expected to be on top of the agenda.

📰 Office-of-profit case: EC to hear AAP MLAs on May 17

•Pursuant to a Delhi High Court order setting aside the disqualification of 20 Aam Aadmi Party MLAs last month, the Election Commission will on May 17 resume an “oral hearing” on office-of-profit allegations against them.

•The commission on Friday issued instructions to the AAP legislators to appear, either in person or through authorised legal representatives. The hearing would be conducted before the Chief Election Commissioner, O.P. Rawat, and two Election Commissioners, Sunil Arora and Ashok Lavasa.

•“The Commission has decided to conduct oral hearing in the above mentioned matter on May 17 at 3 p.m.,” said the order.

Notification quashed

•On March 23, the High Court had quashed the notification issued by President Ram Nath Kovind, on a recommendation from the EC, to disqualify the MLAs.

•A Bench of Justices Sanjiv Khanna and Chander Shekhar referred the issue back to the EC, stating that the commission’s recommendation dated January 19 was vitiated because of the failure to give the legislators an oral hearing or opportunity to address their argument on merits.

•The MLAs had submitted before the Court that the EC recommendation was in “complete violation of natural justice” as they were not given the opportunity to properly explain their stand before the Commission.

•The AAP MLAs have been accused of holding offices of profit as they were appointed Parliamentary Secretaries in the Delhi government in March 2015.

•In September 2016, the Delhi High Court had set aside their appointment on the grounds that they were not made with the Delhi Lieutenant-Governor’s approval.

📰 SC to examine plea on ‘master of roster’ issue

Bench seeks help of A-G on petition filed by former Law Minister Shanti Bhushan against ‘absolute discretion’ of CJI

•The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to examine a petition filed by former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan to declare that the authority of the Chief Justice of India as “master of roster” should not be reduced to an absolute, singular and arbitrary power.

•A Bench of Justices A.K. Sikri and Ashok Bhushan asked Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal to assist the court and posted the next hearing for April 27.

•The Bench will hear the petition despite two separate judgments by the Supreme Court in November 2017 and on April 11, 2018, upholding the Chief Justice’s complete administrative authority to allocate cases and constitute Benches. Both judgments were pronounced by Benches led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra. The April 11 verdict called the CJI an “institution in himself”.

•In his petition, Mr. Bhushan said such “absolute discretion” could not be confined in just one man, the Chief Justice of India.

Judges Case ruling

•Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, for Mr. Bhushan, referred to the Judges Case of 1998 to argue that the Supreme Court itself had interpreted the term “Chief Justice of India” to mean the entire Collegium for the purposes of appointments and transfers of judges.

•Mr. Dave argued that certain ‘sensitive’ cases are allocated to Benches as per the special order of the CJI. It is the allocation of these core cases which requires the collective attention of the Collegium. They should not be left to the “absolute discretion” of the CJI.

•“Be he ever so high, he is not above the law... Why is it that certain matters are presented before certain judges. There are instances in the past, and unfortunately, there will be hundreds to come,” Mr. Dave submitted.

‘Not feasible’

•Justice Sikri observed it was “not feasible” for the Supreme Court Collegium of the Chief Justice of India and his four seniormost judges to convene two or three times every week to allocate ‘sensitive’ cases among various judges. Justice Bhushan told Mr. Dave that “what may be ‘sensitive’ for you may not be sensitive for us [the Supreme Court]”.

•“ Prima facie , I dont think the Collegium should be treated as the Chief Justice of India,” Justice Sikri said.

•“But if My Lord remembers, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had said the CJI may also be a man of many failings,” Mr. Dave replied.

•Both judges said a procedure for allocation of cases to judges was an ‘in-house’ affair. The judges themselves should evolve a self-governing mechanism. “Is this issue even justiciable,” Justice Sikri asked Mr. Dave.

•But senior advocate Kapil Sibal rose to answer, saying: “If you do not desire a procedure to be evolved [for transparent allocation of sensitive cases], public faith will be lost. You say you cannot decide the question judicially and you also say you will not do it administratively... This is unacceptable.”

•“We are troubled. This is painful. We are not against any individual, but the way it [Supreme Court] is being handled today. We respect the institution and do not want to attribute any motives,” Mr. Sibal said.

•Mr. Sibal said four Supreme Court judges had highlighted the issue of selective allocation of cases to preferred Benches in a press conference on January 12.

•“We will not go into that. Don’t bring that here for many reasons and obvious reasons,” Justice Sikri responded.

•Mr. Dave said the April 11 judgment declared the Supreme Court an “independent safeguard” of democracy. “We are now saying that the safeguard is compromised,” he said.

•In his petition, Mr. Bhushan asked the Supreme Court to “clarify the administrative authority of the Chief Justice of India as the master of roster and for the laying down of the procedure and principles to be followed in preparing the roster for allocation of cases”.

📰 Centre to seek death for rape of minors

Under POCSO Act, the maximum punishment is life term

•Following the uproar over the gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl in Kathua in Jammu and Kashmir, Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi said on Friday that the government would try to amend the POCSO Act to ensure the death penalty for rape of minors under 12 years of age.

•Under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, which deals with sexual crimes against minors, the maximum punishment is life imprisonment.

•“I am deeply disturbed by the rape case in Kathua and all the recent rape cases on children. I, and the Ministry, intend to bring an amendment to the POCSO Act asking for death penalty for rape on children below 12 years,” she said in an audio message uploaded on the Ministry’s Twitter handle.

•R.K. Shrivastava, Secretary to the Ministry, said the issue was being examined and the Law Ministry would be consulted.

Lip service, says lawyer

•However, senior Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover said: “The comments show bankruptcy, complete abdication of any responsibility and shows that they are happy to pay lip service. In Kathua and Unnao, the issues were that on the one hand, there are people in positions of power who are able to skirt the entire legal system, while the legal machinery doesn’t respond in any positive way to complaints from women from marginalised and vulnerable sections of society. FIRs are not being registered, trials are being obstructed, where is the issue of sentencing coming in, where is the conviction? Stop misleading the country. The state’s responsibility is to assist the victims.”

📰 Preventing accidents

Fixing road design and enforcingsafety protocols should be priorities

•Bald data on Indians killed or injured in road accidents put out annually by the Centre obscure the human impact of the carnage on national and State highways, as well as urban and rural roads. Given the level of official indifference, it would be unsurprising if the deaths this week of at least 23 children and many others in a school bus crash in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, or of the 18 labourers in a lorry accident in Maharashtra, or of nine people in a truck mishap in Uttar Pradesh are mere blips on the radar of administrators. Bringing sanity to the roads of a fast-motorising country seems to be nobody’s responsibility. India as a whole is inured to the ghastly toll every year, although the Supreme Court has been trying to shake governments out of their apathy through the Committee on Road Safety it constituted in 2014 and several specific and time-bound directions. The response of the Centre and the States has been far from responsible. Take the issue of safety black spots on roads that were identified on the basis of fatal accidents between 2011 and 2014. The Union Road Transport Ministry stated in March this year that only 189 out of 789 such spots had been rectified, while funds had been sanctioned for another 256, and the rest were either under State jurisdiction or awaiting sanction. Incremental approaches such as this result in the shameful national record of about 150,000 dead and several hundred thousand injured annually.

•The Kangra accident needs to be probed by qualified transport safety experts to determine the factors that caused it. There needs to be a report on the crash, to identify lapses, if any, and to take up remedial road engineering measures. The apex court has directed that the performance of district committees should be reviewed periodically. This should ideally follow mandatory public hearings every month for citizens to record road risk complaints. Forming the much-delayed National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board, with a provision for State governments to participate, has to be a top priority. Without expert help, executive agencies such as the Police and Public Works Departments are unable to conduct a technical investigation into an accident. Only a scientific system can stop the routine criminalising of all accidents. The present investigative machinery does not have the capability to determine faults, enabling officials responsible for bad road design and construction and lax traffic managers to escape liability. For accident victims, there is also the heavy burden of out-of-pocket expenditure on medical treatment. The government had promised to address this issue through a cashless facility, but it has not been able to do so as the requisite amendments to the Motor Vehicles Act have not yet been passed. Ultimately, road safety depends on enforcement of rules with zero tolerance to violations, and making officials accountable for safety. That can be ensured even today.

📰 Divided we fall

The debate on the Finance Commission’s terms of reference needs reshaping

•Prime Minister Narendra Modi thinks vested interests are behind the “baseless” allegation that the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission are biased against certain States or a region. He did not name the region, but he was clearly responding to growing clamour from the southern States for a rethink on the parameters for the Commission to determine revenue-sharing between the Centre and the States. The southern States are concerned that the Commission is switching from the 1971 Census to the 2011 Census. This means States that have done relatively better to control population growth could see their allocations, as a fraction of the total resources, reduced. However, speaking in Chennai Mr. Modi said a State like Tamil Nadu would actually benefit from the Commission’s mandate as the Centre has mooted incentives for those who have done well on population control. That the Prime Minister has had to wade in to try and manage a controversy, days after Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had termed it as ‘needless’, signals the Centre’s concerns about the narrative turning against the BJP ahead of the Karnataka election.

•One will have to wait till October 2019, when the Finance Commission’s final recommendations come in, to assess the actual impact on States’ cash flows, but framing the issue as a southern vs northern States debate is not constructive. The 14th Finance Commission had also given a 10% weightage for the 2011 Census in its calculations and there was no discernible impact on allocations to the more populous States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Also, there are other States whose share of India’s total population has declined between 1971 and 2011, including West Bengal, Goa, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab. Finally, it is misleading for State governments to assume that all positive changes in demographics are a result of their own actions or policies — there are a variety of factors at play when individuals make decisions about procreation. For the Commission, it is more critical to ensure that resources reach those who need them the most and that the genuinely needy are not deprived, wherever they may be. States may spend their energies better by seeking more clarity on the Commission’s other terms of reference, especially the incentives proposed for shunning populism and the move to give the Centre a larger share of the resources to build the New India it envisions by 2022. Whether mid-day meals for children or employment schemes for the rural poor amount to populist pandering is an extremely subjective call. And the Centre’s attempt to increase its share from the divisible pool of resources from the present 58% is something that should concern all States, whether populous or not.

📰 FRDI Bill: Banks’ loss is Postal dept.’s gain?

•The Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance (FRDI) Bill, 2017, seems to have a positive impact on the Postal department, if the increase in the total deposits in post offices across the Andhra Pradesh Circle in the last two years is any indication.

•People are apparently switching over to Postal service from commercial banks fearing flight of their savings. The total deposits touched Rs. 16,132.28 crore in 2017-18 against Rs. 14,947.24 crore in 2015-16 financial year. The net deposits stood at Rs. 2031.78 crore in the last fiscal compared with Rs. 507.13 crore in 2015-16. The number of accounts being opened in the post offices has also increased considerably. Five lakh accounts were opened during 2017-18 financial year alone. Though the Postal department did not study the reasons for the ‘impressive growth’, senior officials, in private, say that the FRDI Bill is one of the factors.

📰 Turtle with punk hairdo on endangered species list

Elusor macruruslives in the Mary River in Australia

•Boasting a green, punk hairdo and the unusual ability to breathe through its backside, an Australian turtle has become famous overnight — but not only for its eccentricity.

•Unfortunately, just as many people are discovering the Mary River Turtle’s tantalising traits, it has become the latest creature to join the “EDGE of Existence” list of endangered species compiled by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

•A native of Queensland, Australia, the turtle was one of 100 reptiles added to the catalogue this week.

•It lives only in the Mary River from which it takes its name. The inventory has no shortage of weird and wonderful creatures — a limbless lizard, the world’s largest sea turtle, a blind snake, and a chameleon named after Tarzan. But the Mary River Turtle might just be the strangest of them all.

•The species is known to scientists as Elusor macrurus . It can breathe underwater through specialised glands in the cloaca — orifices through which the turtle excretes urine and waste, and lays eggs.

•“This turtle is able to spend so much time underwater — up to three days — without coming up for air due to its strange ability to breathe through its bum,” said Rikki Gumbs of the Imperial College London, who helped compile the EDGE reptile list.

•“They have specialised organs in their cloaca which process oxygen from the surrounding water.”

•But perhaps the computer screen-sized turtle’s most distinguishing feature is the bright green, spiky mohawks sprouting on the heads of some.

Green mohawk

•This is not hair, but algae. “The Mary River Turtle spends so much time submerged underwater that some individuals become covered in algae — and can end up with some pretty impressive bright green hairstyles!” said Mr. Gumbs.

•According to Australia’s department of the environment, the Mary River Turtle’s rapid decline was sparked by its popularity as a house pet in the 1970s and 80s, known then as the “Penny Turtle”.

•The creature was only recognised and listed as a distinct species in 1994.

•“The Mary River Turtle takes an exceptionally long time to reach sexual maturity, with individuals not breeding before the age of 25,” said the ZSL.

•Destruction of the creatures’ natural habitat through the building of dams, as well as the collection of its eggs for the pet trade, piled on the survival pressure.

📰 North Indian reservoirs run dry as summer sets in

Poor pre-monsoon rain last month has contributed to the shortage

•North India saw good rains last week, but its reservoirs are precariously deficit. The total live storage now is 3.62 BCM (billion cubic metres), which is 20% of capacity. The storage during the corresponding period last year was 23% and the average storage of the last 10 years during the corresponding period was 27% of live storage capacity.

•“Thus, the storage during the current year is less than the corresponding period of last year and is also less than the average storage of the last 10 years during the corresponding period,” the Central Water Commission (CWC) said in its weekly note. The northern region includes Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan. There are six reservoirs under CWC monitoring, having a total live storage capacity of 18.01 BCM.

•Poor pre-monsoon rain last month contributed to the water shortage. According to figures from the India Meteorological Department (IMD), north-west India, which normally gets 5.9 cm of rain from March 1 to April 12, got only 3.4 cm — a 42% decline.

A national problem

•The water shortage in reservoirs is a national problem. According to data available from the CWC, storage in 91 major reservoirs for the week ending on April 12, 2018 was 40.857 BCM which is 25% of total storage capacity. This is lower than the 27% for the week ending April 5, 2018. The level of water storage in the week ending on April 12, 2018 was 84% of the storage of the corresponding period of last year and 90% of storage of the average of last ten years.

•The total storage capacity of these 91 reservoirs is 161.993 BCM, which is about 63% of the total storage capacity of 257.812 BCM estimated to have been created in the country; 37 reservoirs out of these 91 have hydropower benefit with installed capacity of more than 60 MW. The decline in storage comes on the back of warnings of a scorching summer. The summer months from March-May will be “warmer” than normal and several parts of north India, at least a degree hotter than their average summer temperatures, the IMD had said in its annual forecast. The ‘normal’ temperatures refer to the mean temperatures during those months between 1981 and 2010.

•While rains are necessary to increase storage in the reservoirs, farmers in the north-west are anxious. Widespread rain during the past few days in parts of Punjab and Haryana could delay the harvesting of the standing wheat crop by at least a week, officials told The Hindu on Wednesday. This, even as a fresh western disturbance could bring more rain in the region on April 15 and 16. While the IMD hasn’t yet announced its monsoon forecast, private agencies have said India is likely to get a normal monsoon.

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