Indian telcos carry most data in world

When it comes to global internet traffic, India sees the heaviest data carried on its network after the country’s data usage grew five times in the last one year. The country’s network carries 2.1 exabytes of data per month (1 exabyte = 1 million terabytes) — way ahead of North America, European Union, Latin America (Latam), China, Eastern Europe and Middle East & Africa.

The entry of Jio has proved to be a game changer of sorts with average data consumption sky-rocketing and prices falling by more than half. “The key tussle between the top-three telecom operators has been for high ARPU (average revenue per user) data-using subscribers. This has resulted in data cost falling from Rs 12/GB to Rs 5/GB currently,” said Piyush Nahar, equity analyst, Jefferies. The price cuts are more visible in prepaid than in post-paid packs.

“This 60% cut in data prices has driven a sharp increase in volumes. Total data carried per month by the top four operators has increased five times over the past 12 months.We believe that this fight for data subscribers will continue and data prices may actually bottom out at a lower pricing,” Nahar added.

Airtel attributed this boom to digital consumption of social media, music, videos and more on smartphones. Data also showed this boom has led to the average Indian consuming four times more data in the last one year.

“Increasing penetration of high-speed 4G networks along with affordable smartphones and budget friendly data packs with large bundles of GBs is leading to a massive boom in data consumption in India. In fact, video is now touted as the new language of internet and is seeing the highest growth,” said a spokesperson from Airtel, which saw total data traffic on its mobile network grow by more than 550% to over 1 million TB during quarter ended Dec 2017.


IRDAI cuts rates

Insurance regulator IRDAI cut rates on average between 10% and 20% for bikes, cars and taxis, effective April 1.

The steepest year-on-year increase in motor third-party insurance rates was for luxury motorcycles at 110%. The new rates will be effective from April 1, 2018.

The IRDAI cut rates by as much as 24% for small mopeds — small-capacity scooters and two-wheelers with engine capacity below 75cc — to Rs.427 this April from Rs.569 last year. For scooters and motorbikes with engine capacity between 75cc and 150cc, there was no change in premium at Rs.720.

For high-powered bikes (between 150cc and 350cc), there has been a nominal increase (1.5%) to Rs.985. For luxury bikes with engine capacity above 350cc, rates have been jacked by 110% to Rs.2,323 from Rs.1,114.

For small car owners (below 1,000cc), there has been a premium cut of 10% to Rs.1,850. For sedans (1,000-1,500cc) and SUVs (above 1,500cc), there has been a uniform rate cut of 8.5% to Rs.2,863 and Rs.7,890 respectively.

While taxi aggregators have reason to cheer, as private cabs now get a 17% cut, auto rickshaws will have to shell out more. Rates for auto rickshaws and e-rickshaws increased 6.5% to Rs.2,595 and Rs.1,685 respectively. Taxi owners of smaller commercial cars like hatchbacks will pay Rs.5,437 annually, those plying entry-level sedans might have to shell out Rs.7,147 a year. Luxury cars in the segment gets a break with the 17% cut.

For goods carrying public vehicles, insurance rates have increased from 6% to 13%. Public transporters will now have to pay anywhere between Rs.24,190 and Rs.39,367. For those small trucks plying vegetables, fruits and flowers within city streets, there is reason to cheer as premiums go down by 11% to Rs.7,144.

But transporting perishable goods, grains and other commodities inter-state might prove more expensive as insurance for trucks goes up 8.2% to Rs.15,620. Large trailers carrying cars, petroleum and LPG will see the benefit of a 9.4% cut with premium of Rs.1,318.

Small motorised three wheeler vegetable and fish carts also get a 25% cut with insurance now at Rs.4,544. For those plying eco-friendly models the premium is lower at Rs.3,175. Motor pedal cycles, three-wheelers and e-carts get a 33% cut to Rs.3,150 and Rs.2,579 respectively. While small tractors less than 6 HP (horsepower) get a 14% cut to Rs.714, other specialised trailers and vehicles used in agriculture have seen a 12.5%.

Is judiciary relevant? : Justice J Chelameswar

After leading an unprecedented press conference of senior SC judges against CJI Dipak Misra in January, Justice J Chelameswar has sought a debate with all his colleagues in the SC on ‘relevance of judiciary’ after accusing the Centre and a ‘loyal’ Karnataka chief justice Dinesh Maheswari of bypassing the SC to attempt scuttling the appointment of a HC judge.

Justice Chelameswar has written a five-page letter to the CJI and the other 22 SC judges, venting his disappointment and shock that Justice Maheswari, at the biding of the law ministry, sought to improperly reopen a sexual harassment complaint against judicial officer P Krishna Bhat, despite being cleared of charges by the then CJI in 2016, ahead of being recommended as an HC judge.

“Surprisingly, the government selectively withheld Bhat’s elevation and accepted the remaining five though all five are junior to him,” Justice Chelameswar said. “The Karnataka CJ has been more than willing to do the executive bidding, behind our (SC collegium’s) back,” he said.

He slammed the law ministry’s recent practice of selectively acting on the recommendations of the collegium, a system against which he had recorded a strong dissent in the famous NJAC judgment in October 2015. He said: “For some time, our unhappy experience has been that the government accepting our recommendations is an exception and sitting on them is the norm.”

“Inconvenient but able judges or to be judges are being bypassed through this route,” he said. The Centre has been sitting on the collegium’s January 11 recommendations for appointment of Uttarakhand chief justice K M Joseph and senior advocate Indu Malhotra as judges of the SC.

Justice Chelameswar made stinging comments on the law ministry for directly sending an ‘improper and contumacious’ letter to the HC CJ, bypassing the SC. He said: “The Chief Justice (Maheswari), establishing himself to be more loyal than the King, acts on it (law ministry’s letter), convenes a meeting of the administrative committee, and decides to reinvestigate the issue, thus burying the previous chief justice’s findings on the same issue, given at our asking.”

“We only have to look forward to the time, which may not be far-off if not already there, when the executive directly communicates with the high courts about the pending cases and what orders to be passed. We can be happy that much of our burden is taken away. An honourable chief justice like Dinesh Maheswari may perhaps be ever willing to do the executive bidding, because good relations with the other branches is a proclaimed constitutional objective... Let us not forget that bonhomie between the judiciary and the government in any state sounds death-knell to democracy. We both are mutual watchdogs, so to say, not mutual admirers, much less constitutional cohorts,” he said.

The January 12 press conference at Justice Chelameswar’s residence, by him and three senior judges, had targeted the CJI for allotting hearing on petitions seeking an independent probe into judge B H Loya’s death in alleged suspicious circumstances in Nagpur in 2014 to a ‘junior judge’ and the alleged attempt to give a ‘particular judge’ serious cases of national importance for a verdict favourable to the Centre. The ‘junior judge’ later recused himself from hearing petitions on Loya, but not before giving vent to his ire against the four seniors in a meeting of SC judges.

Justice Chelameswar had earlier set the bells ringing by unilaterally constituting a five judge bench, a power vested only with the CJI, for hearing of a medical scam. Both Loya case and the medical scam issue have found mention in the draft removal motion being prepared for tabling in Parliament by lawyer-politicians in the opposition.

ISRO launches GSAT-6A

When GSLV Mk-II ejected the satellite GSAT-6A into orbit, for many it was a boost for communications in the country, for some it was a step forward for military strength but for Indian Space Research Organisation it was a dress rehearsal for its second mission to the moon. The space agency tested certain improved critical systems in the launch vehicle that may eventually be used in its future missions. It was also to attract foreign satellites that could use the rocket for launches.

“The launch vehicle demonstrated the capability of GSLV as an operational launcher. It has evolved as a workhorse,” said P Kunhikrishnan, director at Satish Dhawan Space Centre. At 4.56 pm, the Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle took off for its 12th flight with an indigenous cryogenic upper stage from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh. Around 17 minutes after lifting off, the three-stage rocket injected the satellite into a geosynchronous transfer orbit. In the coming days, the scientists will fire the thrusters on board the satellite to manoeuvre it to a geostationary orbit at an altitude of 36,000 km from earth.

“This GSLV is not like any other vehicle. The importance of this mission is that we have enhanced the performance of the vehicle with an improved Vikas engine that has increased thrust by 6%, thereby enhancing payload capability by 50%,” said Isro chairman K Sivan.


Deadline to link Aadhaar extended

The government has extended until June 30 the deadline for linking Aadhaar numbers with welfare schemes in which benefits are transferred to citizens from the Consolidated Fund of India.

An office memorandum of the ministry of electronics and information technology, issued on December 7 last year, said the linking must be done by March 31. The fresh memorandum on Wednesday referred to the earlier order and said the deadline now may be read as June 30.

The Supreme Court had on Tuesday declined to issue any direction to extend the deadline.

On March 13, the top court had extended the March 31 deadline for linking Aadhaar numbers with bank accounts and mobile phones until a verdict was given in a bunch of cases challenging Aadhaar’s validity being heard by the Constitution bench.

Manipal snaps up Fortis Healthcare

TPG Capital-backed Manipal Health Enterprises has closed the deal with Fortis Healthcare.

A marathon Board meeting at Fortis Healthcare continued till Tuesday night to finalise the contours of the complicated two-step deal.

Sources said that TPG Capital will finance the acquisition through MHE. The deal includes SRL Diagnostics, which is under Fortis Malar Hospitals — a separate listed entity.

According to Bloomberg, the TPG-backed investor group is in negotiations to acquire stakes in SRL Diagnostics from private-equity investors who hold about 30% of the company.

The deal could value SRL in the range of Rs.3,400 crore to Rs.4,000 crore for a 51% stake in the diagnostics business.

Eventually, both the hospital chains will merge, giving MHE a pan-India presence and also an edge over its rival.

The new promoters of Fortis Healthcare shall not be held responsible for the any discrepancies and anomalies done till now.

Singh brothers, the promoters of the hospital network are under scrutiny for allegedly siphoning of Rs.473 crore without Board’s consent.

Air India's Flight Plan announced

The government unveiled the contours of its long-awaited plan to divest Air India. It proposes to sell 76% of Air India along with low-fare subsidiary Air India Express and a 50% stake in AISATS, a ground handling joint venture with Singapore Airport Terminal Services, as a single entity along with most of the national carrier’s debt and prefers an open bidding route for the sale.

The government has also decided to retain a 24% stake in this entity after the divestment, it said in the expression of interest document released. Air India's new owner will take on debt of ₹33,392 crore, which could make it less attractive for potential bidders. The sale of Air India, long a drag on the exchequer, has been attempted several times before, making this one of the key initiatives of the government and sparking political opposition. EoIs have to be submitted by May 14, 2018, and the government intends to complete the sale by the end of 2018.

“As a part of the disinvestment, 76% equity stake in Air India along with Air India’s 100% equity stake in Air India Express and Air India’s 50% equity stake in AISATS is being disinvested by the government of India,” the document said. “Air India has interests in other entities which are in the process of being transferred to a separate SPV (special purpose vehicle) and will not be a part of the proposed transaction.”

These other entities that will be transferred to the SPV include Air India Engineering Services, ground-handling company Air India Air Transport Services, Airline Allied Services (which operates Alliance Air) and Hotel Corporation of India. The SPV will also house the airline’s real estate assets and will be called Air India Asset Holding, which will take on about ₹15,389 crore of the debt. Air India’s total debt was ₹48,781 crore at the end of March 2017.

“For all other entities, EoIs will be floated eventually and bids will be called separately,” a senior aviation ministry official said.

Analysts said the government is looking to generate maximum investor interest but sticking to the timeline may be difficult.

“We expect a significant interest in Air India divestment, as there are not any deal breakers in this except, perhaps, keeping significantly higher-than-expected, non aircraft debt on AI’s books,” said Kapil Kaul, CEO of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation in India. “However, meeting the end-December divestment deadline may be challenging.”

Investors would have preferred a 100% divestment, “as we think retaining 24% may potentially dilute interest,” Kaul added.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who’s attempting to unify opposition parties, tweeted her resistance to the plan. “I am sorry to read in the media about the govt inviting expression of interest for selling Air India, the jewel of our nation. We strongly oppose this and want this order to be withdrawn immediately. This govt must not be allowed to sell our country,” she said.

The government said the companies or consortiums bidding for the national carrier will need to have a net worth of ₹5,000 crore.

To facilitate participation by Indian carriers, the government has also allowed those with zero or negative net worth to participate provided they form a consortium with others that will together meet the threshold.

All non-core assets, such as the Air India building in Mumbai and other offices, will become part of the AIAHL.

India’s most backward district

Mewat, Gurgaon’s immediate neighbour in Haryana and just a couple of hours’ drive from Delhi, is India’s most backward district, finishing bottom of a Niti Aayog ranking.

The Aayog released the baseline ranking based on 49 indicators across five sectors that included health and nutrition, education, agriculture and water resources, financial inclusion and skill development, and basic infrastructure.

A few more — around 10 from Odisha, four from West Bengal and one from Kerala — will be added to the list, taking the total to 116. The 35 worst Maoist-affected districts are included in the list. As part of its “naming and shaming” strategy, the government think tank will come out with a delta ranking of these districts every month from May 2018 based on their “incremental progress” to be monitored on a real-time basis. The dashboard developed for real time data collection and monitoring will be open for public from April 1 and will help monitor the progress of these districts.

Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant said, “People will know which districts are performing well and which are lagging behind.”

Kant said unless these backward districts improve, India cannot progress at high growth rates.

With an eye on the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched the ‘Transformation of Aspirational Districts’ programme in January to transform some of the most underdeveloped districts of the country.


Of Indians abroad....

Delhi becomes first city running on BS-VI fuel

If you live in Delhi, you may have felt your car engine running a tad more smoothly of late. The reason is that, unknown to motorists, Delhi has already switched to Bharat Stage-VI fuels, ahead of the scheduled April 1 launch for the capital.

State-run fuel retailers have been pushing cleaner petrol and diesel — similar to, but not exactly the same, as Euro-VI fuels — since February to flush supply pipelines and tanks at petrol pumps. Almost all the 397 petrol pumps in the capital are selling BS-VI fuels.

This makes Delhi the first city in the country to run on BS-VI fuels, two years ahead of the 2020 deadline the Centre had set for rolling out cleaner fuels across the country. The decision to jump the deadline for Delhi was taken in November when smoke from burning of crop stubble by farmers in neighbouring states choked the capital. The blame was also put on vehicular emissions, especially from ill-maintained commercial vehicles with old engines crowding the city.

Amid a public outcry over the capital’s poor air quality, oil minister Dharmendra Pradhan stepped in by ordering state-run fuel retailers to supply BS-VI fuels in Delhi from April 1, 2018 and examine introducing these fuels in NCR by April 2019.

Oil company executives claimed that BS-VI fuels will have “better” emission than vehicles running on CNG. But auto experts said introducing BS-VI fuels without the vehicles tuned for such fuels will only yield partial benefit since these will be used by vehicles with BS-IV or BS-III engines plying on Delhi’s roads. Currently, only Mercedes sells BS-VI cars, while the certification process is on for other auto manufacturers.

Pune Ring Road snippets

It will take more than three years to construct the first phase of the ring road planned along the outskirts of the city.

The project by Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority under the Bharamala project will connect roads in the city to state highways on the outskirts.

Once ready, it is expected to decongest the traffic on the internal roads in Pune and Pimpri Chinchwad, a major cause for the rising number of accidents, since most heavy vehicles will use it. The ring road link would improve the traffic flow on internal roads as well, experts said.

The first phase of the 129 km ring road will take at least three years to complete and nearly seven years for the entire stretch to be open to the public.

It recently got a central budgetary allocation of Rs.2,468 crore. The state government has agreed to part with Rs.812 crore worth land.

Work on the first stretch between Satara and Ahmednagar Road of 32 km will get underway with the central budgetary allocation. Heavy vehicles and passenger traffic moving in the city to access these highways will use the ring road.

Moreover, the proposed easterly and westerly bypasses to be implemented by Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation will provide succour to commuters who have to travel through the city to reach highways. Land acquisition for both projects is going on.

MSRDC officials said the projects will take at least three years. “From land acquisition to alignment, there are technical issues and unless they are addressed it will delay the process,’’ the officials added.

Former town planner Ramchandra Gohad said decongestion of the city’s roads is a priority and work must be speeded up so that congestion can be reduced immediately.

Heavy vehicles blatantly use the internal roads in the city.


View on page ‘Justice Clocks’ to start ticking in all HCs soon

The Centre will soon install ‘Justice Clocks’ —LED message display boards—in all 24 high courts to show the daily rate of disposal of cases, the number of pending cases and individual rank of each of these courts.

The idea, floated by PM Narendra Modi last year to create public awareness in judicial matters, will be implemented later in all subordinate courts.

The aim is also to create competition among the courts and rank them according to performance when it comes to disposal of cases. A model of this ‘clock’ was first installed in the Delhi office of the law ministry’s justice department last year. 

FPIs pump ₹8,440 crore into equities: March 2018

Foreign portfolio investors have infused Rs.8,440 crore in equity markets so far (March 1-23) on expectations of a rebound in corporate earnings and easing of global oil prices.

However, they pulled out nearly Rs 10,000 crore from debt markets during the period under review, depositories data showed. This comes after an outflow of over Rs.11,000 crore from equities and more than Rs.250 crore from debt markets last month. 

Mann Ki Baat

PM Narendra Modi used his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ to address farmers and their distress, elaborating on the budget promise to pay a support price that is one and half times the cost incurred. But the formula he laid out does not cover comprehensive cost that a section of farmers has been demanding. Instead, the government will go for the A2+FL formula that covers cost and imputed value of unpaid family labour.

“It has been decided that the MSP of notified crops will be fixed at least one and a half times their cost. The MSP will include labour cost of other workers employed, expenses incurred on own animals and cost of animals and machinery taken on rent, cost of seeds, cost of each type of fertilizer used, irrigation cost, land revenue paid to the state government, interest paid on working capital, ground rent in case of leased land,” Modi said.

“Not only this but also the cost of labour of the farmer himself or any other person of his family who contributes his or her labour in agricultural work will be added to the cost of production, ” he added.

All the cost and imputed value of unpaid family labour, enlisted by Modi, is referred as A2+FL formula. A section of farmers’ has, however, demanded use of comprehensive cost formula, which takes into account rental value of owned land and interest on fixed capital apart from A2+FL. Modi’s remarks on Sunday gave a clear signal that the government won’t go for C2 formula while fixing MSPs of kharif (summer sown) crops which will be marketed from October. “Efforts are on to connect local village ‘mandis’ to wholesale markets and on with the global market. Twenty-two thousand rural ‘haats’ in the country will be upgraded by creating the necessary infrastructure and these will be integrated with APMC and e-NAM platform so that the farmers would not have to go to distant places for selling their produce,” he said.

His remarks came a day after a group of farmer organisations presented a report, highlighting poor ground situation even at present level of MSP.


BJP wins 28 seats in Rajya Sabha elections

The Bharatiya Janata Party -led National Democratic Alliance is set to improve its tally in the Rajya Sabha, winning 28 of the 59 seats that went to polls this year.

Rajya Sabha election results declared Friday showed that the BJP won nine of the 10 seats in Uttar Pradesh, and one each in Karnataka, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.

While 33 Rajya Sabha seats witnessed no election, 26 went to polls on Friday. Of the 33 elected unopposed, 16 were from the BJP, three from its allies and five from the Congress, among others.

The Rajya Sabha election results showed that incumbent regional parties in states such as West Bengal and Telangana continue to perform well.

The BJP’s performance ensures that its dominance as the largest party in the Upper House continues, though the NDA is still short of a majority.

The biggest loser from Uttar Pradesh is the Samajwadi Party, which had six out of the 10 Rajya Sabha seats that went to polls. It retained only one seat, that of Jaya Bachchan.

The BJP won a historic mandate in the Uttar Pradesh elections last year—giving it an edge in the Rajya Sabha elections this year. The party’s gains come at the cost of the Akhilesh Yadav-led SP, which was voted out of power last year.

Union finance minister Arun Jaitley is among the BJP candidates who has entered the Upper House from Uttar Pradesh.

The counting of votes was delayed in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Karnataka following complaints by members from different political parties.

In Karnataka, the Congress won in three out of four seats, while the BJP’s tally got reduced to one seat. Overall, the Congress’ gain was on two seats in the state while the BJP lost out on one.

In West Bengal, the chief minister Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress maintained its tally by retaining four seats. In the fifth, Congress’ Abhishek Manu Singhvi won. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, lost out on one seat that it held earlier.

The TMC’s Subhasis Chakraborty, Abir Ranjan Biswas, Nadimul Haque, and Santanu Sen won. Singhvi, who was backed by the TMC, received 47 votes. The CPM’s Rabin Deb, who was backed by other Left parties, lost.

In Telangana, the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi won all three Rajya Sabha seats without any hitch. Its winning candidates were Banda Prakash, Lingaiah Yadav and Santosh Kumar. The Congress lost out on two seats which it held earlier.

In Jharkhand, the Congress managed to retain one seat it held earlier and the BJP gained one seat. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha lost out on the one seat it held before the Rajya Sabha elections.

The BJP maintained status quo in the one seat that went to polls in Chhattisgarh. The party’s national general secretary, Saroj Pandey, defeated the Congress’s Lekhram Sahu.

In Kerala, leader of Sharad Yadav-led Janata Dal (United) splinter faction, M.P. Veerendra Kumar, won with 89 votes. He was supported by the Left Democratic Front, which has 91 seats in the 140-member state assembly.

The lone seat had fallen vacant because of Kumar’s resignation from the Rajya Sabha in December, in protest against JD(U) chief and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar joining ranks with the NDA.

Six members of Kerala Congress (Mani) abstained from voting. The lone BJP member, O. Rajagopal, and independent member P.C. George also abstained. One member of the Indian Union Muslim League could not vote due to ill-health.

Air India makes history

Air India’s maiden flight to Israel has landed in Tel Aviv, reducing the travel time substantially after Saudi Arabia for the first time allowed a commercial flight to use its airspace, indicating a thaw in relations between the Arab kingdom and the Jewish state.

Heralding a new beginning in the people-to-people contact and diplomatic ties between India and Israel, the state-run Air India introduced the direct thrice-a-week flight from New Delhi to Tel Aviv on Friday.

Saudi Arabia permitted the airline to use its airspace, enabling it to take a shorter route, covering the distance in 7.25 hours, about 2.10 hours less as compared to the only other airline that flies between the two countries — Israel’s national carrier El Al.

HC restores status of 20 AAP MLAs

In a stunning reversal of fortunes for 20 Aam Aadmi Party MLAs, the Delhi high court restored their status as legislators after it set aside the Election Commission of India’s disqualification decision for violating principles of natural justice. The court ended any scope for by-elections in Delhi in the near future as it remanded the original complaint of advocate Prashant Patel of breach of office-of-profit norms back to the EC so that the lawmakers get an oral hearing and a chance to address the arguments on merit.

This means the MLAs are not off the hook on the tricky issue of whether they held an office of profit or not as EC will now have to take a fresh call. But till then, they continue to remain legislators since the HC didn’t go into the merits of the case and limited itself to the EC’s lapses in procedure.

A bench of justices Sanjiv Khanna and Chander Shekhar also quashed the President’s order disqualifying the AAP MLAs on the ground that the EC opinion “is vitiated and bad in law for failure to comply with principles of natural justice”. In a detailed 79-page order, the bench set aside the EC’s opinion for “violation of principle of natural justice, namely failure to give an oral hearing and opportunity to address arguments on merits of the issue.”

Interestingly, the order didn’t come as a surprise to many MLAs since during the day-to-day hearings, the bench had specifically sought their stand on whether they had any objection to the court sending the matter back to EC for an oral hearing.

The MLAs, who were appointed parliamentary secretaries, had challenged their disqualification for holding an office of profit. In response to the HC poser, they had requested it to remand the case back to the poll panel with a direction to hear the matter afresh, a plea that was answered in their favour on Friday.

In its judgment, HC noted that while EC was free to frame its rules and procedure on how to conduct hearings, these must be fair and not arbitrary. The “flexibility” provided to EC in this regard, the court pointed out, ends once it decides to go deeper into facts of a particular complaint. Proper hearings must then be accorded since “consequences of disqualification are serious as an elected representative of the people would cease to be a member of the legislature. Factual disputes and legal issues could arise and require determination.”

HC also faulted the failure of EC to communicate to the petitioners that one of the commissioners, O P Rawat, had first recused from the case and then rejoined.

In its defence, EC had filed a list of reference cases from 2008 onwards in which no oral hearing or hearing was given. Backing its recommendation to the President for AAP MLAs’ disqualification, the poll panel had submitted that the legislators cannot claim that they were not holding an office of profit as they were appointed parliamentary secretaries to ministers in the Delhi government in March 2015.

In September 2016, the Delhi high court had abolished their appointment as parliamentary secretaries but the EC maintained the violations don’t get erased automatically, a point Friday’s bench agreed with.

Somewhere in Karnataka....

JioMusic, Saavn to merge

Reliance Industries struck a deal to shore up content for its telecom business by merging its digital music company JioMusic with streaming service provider Saavn. The merger will create a $1-billion entity.

The deal will benefit Reliance Jio, which would get access to a large library of music content. This transaction comes nearly a month after RIL had acquired a 5% stake in media firm Eros International.

The companies said, “The integrated business will be developed into a media platform of the future with global reach, cross-border original content, an independent artist marketplace, consolidated data and one of the largest mobile advertising mediums.”

RIL will invest up to $100 million in the new entity, of which $20 million will be invested upfront for growth and expansion of the platform. The company will continue to operate as an over-the-top media platform, available in all app stores.

The three co-founders of Saavn — Rishi Malhotra, Paramdeep Singh and Vinodh Bhat — will continue in their leadership roles and will drive growth of the combined entity.

JioMusic will also acquire a partial stake from existing shareholders of Saavn for $104 million. Shareholders of Saavn include Tiger Global Management, Liberty Media and Bertelsmann, among others.

Sensex, Nifty drop to 5-month lows

The 410-point drop in the sensex on Friday — which brought it down to a closing level of 32,597, a more than five-month low — came despite a Rs.1,628-crore net buying by foreign funds. This has raised hopes among Dalal Street investors that the Indian market may have, to a large extent, already discounted the tariff war between the US and China. Also, the sensex’s 1.2% loss was much lower than the crash of 4.5% in the Japanese market, 3.4% in China and 3.2% in Korea.

The day’s session left investors poorer by Rs.1.60 lakh crore with the BSE’s market capitalisation now at just over Rs.144 lakh crore. On the NSE, the Nifty lost 117 points (also 1.2%) and closed at 9,998 — below the psychologically important 10k mark for the first time since mid-October 2017.

Friday’s slide in the Indian market came mainly on the back of a 724-point drop in the Dow Jones index after US President Donald Trump announced a $50-billion tariff on China for violating intellectual property rights. As a retaliatory measure, China too imposed tariffs on US goods. Analysts globally now fear that the trade war — being termed as ‘Trump’s tariff tantrums’, as it was started by the US president — will escalate.

A report by domestic financial major Edelweiss noted that India is relatively insulated in the current trade war between US and China, but there would be some impact on it since all the emerging markets will be hurt.


IAF fighter base cleared at Deesa

The Cabinet Committee on Security headed by PM Narendra Modi cleared a long-pending Indian Air Force plan to set up a forward fighter base close to Deesa in Banaskantha district, near India’s western border in northwest Gujarat, adding teeth to its military capabilities against Pakistan.

Defence ministry officials said, on the condition of anonymity, that the CCS has cleared the initial investment of around ₹1,000 crore to extend the runway, build fighter-pens and administrative facilities. 4,000 acres for the air base, which will plug the critical air defence gap between the Barmer and Bhuj air bases, was acquired nearly two decades ago.

Dish TV-Videocon d2h merger

Dish TV, Asia Pacific’s largest direct-to-home company, has now become the world’s second-largest DTH operator post Videocon D2h’s merger with itself. US-based DirecTV is currently the world’s largest DTH player.

The company, which is part of the Essel Group, said that it has completed the merger of Videocon D2h into and with Dish TV India Ltd. The merger got effective on March 22, 2018, post completion of all the steps outlined in the scheme of arrangement for amalgamation.

Jawahar Goel, chairman and managing director, Dish TV India Ltd, said that the two companies have become one entity now.

The merger paves way for the creation of the largest listed media company in India taking into consideration the last reported full-year revenue and earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation numbers of the two DTH players on a pro-forma basis.

Dish TV and Videocon D2h reported separate revenue and Ebitda numbers which at a pro-forma level added up to Rs.6,086.2 crore and Rs.1,990.9 crore for the last fiscal.

Besides, talking into account the subscriber base of Dish TV (16.1 million) and Videocon D2h (13.4 million), the merged entity is now the world’s second largest DTH operator with 29.5 million subscribers. Both brands will continue to be offered to new subscribers in the market post completion of this merger.

The Migrant Capital of India

Delhi’s population grew by nearly 1,000 a day in 2016, out of which over 300 were migrants who came to the city to settle down. The share of migrants in the capital’s population growth reached 33% — highest in 15 years we have data for. The city state’s booming services economy and its highest per capita income among states makes it the number 1 destination for migrants from all parts of the country

Somewhere in Mumbai....

Around 85 Olive Ridley baby turtles hatched on Versova beach much to the delight of beach clean-up brigade volunteers and morning walkers.

Afroz Shah and his volunteers known for their manual beach cleanup drive stumbled upon the hatchlings at 9.30 am near Sagar Kutir Wadi on Versova beach on Thursday and informed the forest officials to allow them to go back into the sea without hindrance.

Prashant Deshmukh, range forest officer, west, Mumbai, told Mirror, “85 Olive Ridley babies that were found were released into the sea. These sea turtles come to lay their eggs on the same spot where they are born. They were sighted after 20 years. The hatchlings emerged from a three feet deep pit and then they come back on top of the shore.We will be there for five days and the area will be under surveillance to look for more female turtles. Oliver Ridley has mass nesting. There must be one female. If there is more nesting, more babies will be present. One female turtle lays 100-200 eggs at a time.”

Deshmukh said that these sea turtles play an important role as scavengers and do the job of cleaning the sea waters. “Just like how hyenas feed on the leftover of the big cats, Olive Ridley turtles feed on the leftovers of the whales and other big fish,” said Deshmukh.

For Afroz Shah this is the 126th week (2.5 years) since he embarked on the Versova beach clean-up drive. Twiteratti congratulated Shah and his team of volunteers for this unusual phenomenon.

“Olive Ridley turtles existed in all beaches of Mumbai 20 years back. They come to nest, hatch and go back. When they hatch they have to go into the sea immediately. They come back to the place they were born to nest and hatch. For the past 20 years, there was no sighting of Olive Ridley turtles. Now, with the campaign on freeing ocean of marine debris, automatically the turtles come back. Along with my volunteers I have removed 13 million kgs of plastic.This is a personal journey for me and the volunteers to connect with the ocean. This journey will continue till we get our ocean and marine species back in our life,” said Shah.

Deshmukh said,“Dogs came to feed on the baby sea turtles. A pathway was made by Shah and team for the turtles to go back into the sea safely. None of the turtles died.”

Gratuity Amendment Bill Gets RS Approval

Opposition parties took a break from their protest in the Well of the Rajya Sabha and passed the Payment of Gratuity (Amendment) Bill that will entitle a woman to 26 weeks of maternity leave from the present 12 weeks and also double the ceiling of gratuity from ₹10 to ₹20 lakh.

Minister of State for Labour and Employment Santosh Gangwar moved the Bill for passage in the Rajya Sabha soon after the House met for the day. Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu asked the protesting members to cooperate and pass the important legislation which has already been cleared by the Lok Sabha.

Gangwar requested the House to pass the Payment of Gratuity (Amendment) Bill, 2018 without a discussion and it was cleared by a voice vote. Since the Lok Sabha has already passed the Bill, it will now go to the President for his assent. It will replace the Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972. As per the recommendation of the 7th Pay Commission, the ceiling for gratuity has been increased from ₹10 lakh- fixed in 2010-to ₹20 lakh. The new Act will also increase the maternity leave from 12 weeks- as mentioned in the 1972 Act to 26 weeks as per the amendment done in the Maternity Benefit (Amendment) Act, 2017.

BrahMos with indigenous seeker test-fired at Pokhran

India successfully tested the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, jointly developed with Russia, with an indigenous seeker for the first time at the Pokhran test range in Rajasthan.

The missile, which currently has a range of 290-km and flies at almost three times the speed of sound at Mach 2.8, “flew in its designated trajectory” and hit the pre-set target 33 km away with “pinpoint accuracy” during the test at about 8.45 am.

“The seeker, used for missile guidance, is one of the critical technologies involved. With the development of the indigenous seeker by DRDO and BrahMos Aerospace, the import content of the missile from Russia (around 60% now) will reduce,” said an official.

The Army is now preparing to induct the 4th BrahMos Regiment, which will be the missile’s Block-III version that has steep dive, trajectory manoeuver and top-attack capabilities. The Navy has deployed the BrahMos missiles on over 10 frontline warships, while the IAF has also inducted two squadrons of the landlaunched missiles.

India's Tourism Economy

India is expected to establish itself as the third largest travel and tourism economy by 2028 in terms of direct and total GDP, a 2018 economic impact report by World Travel & Tourism Council has said.

The WTTC report also said India will add nearly 10 million jobs in the tourism sector by 2028 and that the total number of jobs dependent directly or indirectly on the travel and tourism industry will increase from 42.9 million in 2018 to 52.3 million in 2028.

Calling India the seventh largest travel and tourism economy in the world, Gloria Guevara, president and chief executive of WTTC, said India should work on improving tourist infrastructure.

Guevara welcomed the government’s ambition to make the country a global cruise destination with the creation of the new cruise port in Mumbai.

The WTTC, however, once again red flagged the sector’s concerns over the three-level implementation of GST in the hospitality sector and said the government must bring in tax reforms to make India’s tourism sector more competitive with other countries in the region.“I share the worry of many in the Indian hospitality sector that setting GST at 28% for hotel bedrooms over 7,500 ($115) risks curtailing the very demand which reforms to visas and international market have created,” Guevara said.


Goldman lowers India GDP forecast

Investment bank Goldman Sachs downgraded its forecasts for India’s economy in the wake of a more than $2 billion fraud at Punjab National Bank, warning it could spark tighter regulation of the banking sector that would constrain credit growth.

In a note to clients, Goldman Sachs lowered its real gross domestic product forecast on India for the year to March 2019 to 7.6 per cent from 8 per cent earlier.

Last month’s disclosure of the fraud by PNB, India’s second-largest state-run lender has sent bank shares tumbling.

The case has sparked new concerns that credit growth is unlikely to pick up quickly in an economy where state-run lenders that account for two-thirds of banking assets are already saddled with a mountain of bad debt.

The Goldman warning is a blow for the government, which had hoped that a $32 billion, two-year, bank recapitalisation programme it unveiled last year would help banks to begin to restart lending, spurring elusive job growth in the economy.

State-run lenders account for the bulk of the close to $150 billion of soured debt. They have already seen the amounts they must set aside to cover bad debts grow due to new central bank rules.

Cabinet Gives Nod to New Healthcare Scheme

The Cabinet approved the launch of the centrally sponsored National Health Protection Scheme to give more than 100 million families health cover of ₹5 lakh each. Separately, in a move expected to be a “major boost” for the country’s health infrastructure, the Cabinet also approved the continuation of the National Health Mission with budgetary support of ₹85,217 crore as the Centre’s share between April 2017 and March 2020.

NHPS, dubbed ‘Modicare’ by some ministers, is expected to be the world’s largest government-funded health programme. The ₹5 lakh cover will take care of “almost all” secondary care and most tertiary care procedures, according to a release following the Cabinet approval. The plan had been announced in finance minister Arun Jaitley’s February 1 Budget.

The Budget allocated to the National Health Mission will be integrated with the proposed NHPS scheme under Ayushman Bharat, it stated. In order to implement NHPS, an Ayushman Bharat National Health Protection Mision Agency will be put in place, it said. States and Union territories will be advised to implement it using a dedicated entity known as the State Health Agency, it added.

“The expenditure incurred in premium payment will be shared between the Central and state governments in a specified ratio as per ministry of finance guidelines in vogue,” the government said, adding that the total expenditure will depend on actual market-determined premiums paid in the states and Union territories where it will be rolled out.

In regions where the scheme will be implemented using a trust model, the Central share of the funds provided will be based on actual expenditure or the premium ceiling, whichever is lower, in a predetermined ratio. The scheme is expected to rein in patient hospitalisation expenditure, which has increased nearly 300% over the last decade in India.

The Cabinet also gave its approval for moving official amendments in the Surrogacy (Regulation) Bill, 2016, to control unethical practices in surrogacy in India, prevent commercialisation and prohibit potential exploitation of surrogate mothers and children born through surrogacy.


Best Cities to live in India

The relatively low crime rate and pleasant weather in the `City of Pearls’ has helped it hold on to its top rank among Indian cities in the latest Mercer Quality of Living Rating 2018.

Hyderabad has been able to retain its position as the top Indian city for the fourth year in a row, but has had to share the numero uno slot with Pune, which has been jumping up the ranking chart over the last two years.

The two cities ranked at the 142nd spot, the highest among the seven Indian cities, including Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, that featured in the survey.

New Delhi, on the other hand, ranked the lowest among the Indian cities for the third consecutive year thanks to the continuing challenges it faces in terms of traffic and air quality.

Other metros, including Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Bengaluru, also ranked lower on the Quality of Living Index than the relatively newer technology hubs of Pune and Hyderabad. Both the IT cities have been rising in the rankings, with Pune jumping three spots this year.

“While Hyderabad and Pune have jumped in rankings this year, they have done so relative to other cities, while showing negligible change on factors evaluated,” the report said.

Environmental factors such as relatively lower crime and climate hold Hyderabad in relative good stead, while Pune attracts due to its averagely good housing facilities and good availability of consumer goods for international employees,” the report said. In fact, all Indian cities surveyed scored high on factors such as communication and access to food consumables.

Globally, Vienna retained its top position among the list of 450 cities, the ninth consecutive year at the top of the Index. This was followed by Zurich, which ranked second, while Auckland and Munich shared the third spot.

Vancouver was the fifth top city worldwide with the best quality of living in North America. Singapore, with a score of 25 on the scale, was the highest ranked city in Asia and Montevideo, with a ranking of 77, the highest in Latin America.

A separate ranking on city sanitation, which analysed a city’s waste removal and sewage infrastructure, levels of infectious disease, air pollution, water availability and quality — all important aspects of a city’s attractiveness for both talent and businesses, was also introduced this year.

Amongst Indian cities, Bengaluru ranked the highest on this count at 194, followed closely by Chennai at 199 and Pune at 206 rank. However, both New Delhi and Kolkata ranked among the bottom five cities worldwide in terms of city sanitation, closely following each other at 228 and 227 rank respectively. Hyderabad ranked at 209 in the city sanitation ranking.

“The results show that Indian cities are yet to make any marked leaps on the quality of living scale, from 2017. However, this is the 20th anniversary of our survey globally and, though few Indian cities have decreased in their ranking, over a 20-year period these cities have been continuously improving their living standards. A key driver has been the considerable investment in physical infrastructure including airports, public transport and communication facilities — among the many factors used to evaluate city living standards,” said Padma Ramanathan, India Practice Leader, Global Mobility, Mercer.

Government confirms 39 Indians killed in Iraq by IS

Close to four years after 39 Indian workers went missing in Iraq, the government announced that the men were dead after their bodies were recovered from a hillock near Badush, not far from Mosul, and DNA tests had confirmed their identities.

Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj made the announcement in a statement in the Rajya Sabha, saying DNA tests carried out by Iraq’s Martyrs Foundation had confirmed the identities of those killed. The men were feared to have been kidnapped by the Islamic State soon after Mosul fell to the terror group in June 2014.

The announcement was anticipated as the government, not having heard from any of the victims for months despite the liberation of Mosul in July 2017, had, in October last year, started collecting DNA samples of family members of the missing workers.

A lone survivor, Harjit Masih, who claimed to have played dead, had said that he saw other members of the group being killed. However, the government pursued leads from sources who it said had informed that the Indians were still alive.


Chennai Metro snippets

When Chennai's northernmost suburb is connected to the IT hub in the south in Phase 2 of metro rail, commuters will have eight interchange stations where they can shift between corridors to reach their destinations, including Central and Egmore railway stations and the airport.

The eight stations will allow commuters to traverse more than 91 km across two corridors.

Chennai Metro Rail Ltd officials said Madhavaram, Sholinganallur, Kilpauk, Thousand Lights, Mylapore, CMBT, Alandur and St Thomas Mount will be interchange stations where the two lines of Phase 2 intersect. Commuters will be able to shift between the two corridors in Phase 2 and the two corridors of Phase 1 in these stations.

People from Madhavaram will be able to alight at CMBT and get to the bus terminus or shift from the Phase 2 to the Phase 1 corridor to take a train to Egmore or Central or board a direct train to the airport. Commuters from Sipcot in Siruseri in the south will be able to alight at Alandur and shift to the Phase 1 corridor to get to the airport, CMBT or Central.

CMRL will first take up two of Phase 2’s three corridors — Madhavaram to Sipcot (46.1 km) and Madhavaram to Sholinganallur (45.2 km). It will start on a fourth corridor only after a final decision on its extension.

The three corridors will connect at four stations: Madhavaram, Sholinganallur, CMBT and Thirumaiylai (Mylapore).

The fourth corridor, between CMBT and the lighthouse (17.1 km), is to extend up to Poonamallee. CMRL will soon have a detailed project report prepared. There are stations in five localities, Kilpauk, Thousand Lights, CMBT, Alandur and St Thomas Mount. In Phase 2, CMRL will build facilities at these stations for commuters to easily move between corridors of the two phases.

In Phase 1, Alandur serves as an elevated interchange station and Central as an underground hub that connects the two corridors.

Domestic Air Traffic Up 24% in February

Indian airlines registered a more than 24% increase in passenger traffic in February compared with a year earlier. Indian carriers flew 10.7 million passengers in the past month, up from 8.6 million in February 2017, as per the DGCA.

All key scheduled carriers flew their planes with more than 80% seats full. SpiceJet maintained its pole position in terms of load factor at 96.3%, followed by IndiGo at 91.8% despite problems with its Airbus 320neo aircraft.

Vistara was a surprise third, flying its planes with 91.2% seats full, the highest ever for the airline that flies its planes in a three-class configuration: economy, premium economy and business.

In terms of operating flights on time, Jet Airways remained the worst performer for the fifth consecutive month. While Jet Airways operated 62.2% of its flights on time, SpiceJet topped the list operating 78% of its services on time. IndiGo was second at 74.8%.

SpiceJet said the February performance was the best ever for the airline in terms of both on-time operations and passenger load factor.

IndiGo remained the market leader, flying 39.9% of the industry passenger traffic. Jet Airways came in next with 16.8%, followed by national carrier Air India with 13.2%.

Travel industry insiders said the growth trend in the aviation space was set to continue in the coming months too.


Current Account Deficit Widens

India’s current account deficit, the excess of imports of goods and services over their exports, widened to 2% of GDP in the third quarter as oil prices rose and inbound shipments of electronics surged, likely dealing a blow to an already weakening rupee.

The deficit touched $13.5 billion in the three months ended December from $8 billion, or 1.4% of GDP, a year earlier and $7.2 billion (1.1% of GDP) in the preceding quarter.

The data showed the CAD widened due to a higher trade deficit of $44.1 billion on account of an increase in merchandise imports, mainly crude oil and other petroleum products, which accounted for more than 40% of India’s overall merchandise import bill. Crude oil prices have risen by over $10 a barrel between December 2016 and December 2017. Of late, there has been a surge in electronics imports as well.

Net services receipts increased by 17.8% from a year earlier on the back of a rise in earnings from software services and travel receipts. Private transfer receipts, mainly representing remittances by Indians employed overseas, amounted to $17.6 billion, an increase of 16%.

In the capital account, while net foreign direct investments at $4.3 billion were lower than $9.7 billion a year earlier, portfolio investments recorded a net inflow of $5.3 billion as against an outflow of $11.3 billion in Q3 last year on account of net purchases in both the debt and equity markets.Net NRI deposits amounted to $3.1 billion as against net repayments of $18.5 billion a year ago.

The overall balance of payments, including the position in the current account and the capital account, ended in a surplus of $9.4 billion on account of a $22 billion surplus in the capital account.


The Telugu Desam Party broke away from the National Democratic Alliance and joined ranks with arch-rival YSR Congress to move a no-confidence motion against the Centre. The step poses no threat to the BJP-led government at the Centre as the party has a majority on its own in the Lok Sabha.

TDP, which had earlier pulled out its ministers from the union Cabinet, did not want to cede any space to the YSR Congress on the locally emotive issue of obtaining special category status for Andhra Pradesh. The Speaker did not take up the motion on technical grounds that the House was not in order.

YSR Congress MP YV Subba Reddy had written to the Lok Sabha secretary general on Thursday giving notice for moving a no-confidence motion against the council of ministers. The party had also asked TDP to support the move.

TDP, which has been feeling the heat from YSR Congress over the last few months, decided to make common cause with its rival. Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu announced that TDP was withdrawing from NDA due to the Centre’s apathy towards the state, saying PM Modi did not meet him even once during his 29 visits to New Delhi to discuss the issue.

As a result, TDP MP Thota Narasimham also gave notice for moving a no-confidence motion. Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan announced in the House that she has received the notice but could not take up the matter because Opposition members were crowding the well over different issues. She said the Chair will take up the issue on March 19.

On the numbers front, BJP is secure with 274 members, which excludes the Lok Sabha Speaker. For a no-confidence motion to qualify, at least 50 Lok Sabha MPs have to sign the letter. TDP has 16 members while YSRCP has 9. Shiv Sena is yet to take a call but with Congress and NCP working on an alliance in Maharashtra, the hope in BJP is that Uddhav Thackeray may not go the distance.

Shiromani Akali Dal, LJP, RLSP, Apna Dal and JDU are part of the NDA and despite some nagging issues and differences, BJP insiders said, they would not want to topple the government.

YSRCP and TDP are in the middle of a pitched battle in Andhra Pradesh. The YSRCP’s sustained high decibel campaign against TDP for failing to influence the Centre to grant special status to Andhra Pradesh despite being part of the NDA resulted in Naidu re-evaluating his political situation.

BJP, for its part, is now beginning to look at the positives like increasing its own footprint in the state, knowing well that it’s favourably positioned to reopen conversation with any of the two parties post 2019.


Exports Growth Dips to 4.48% in February

India’s merchandise exports growth slowed to 4.48% in February from 9.06% the previous month, hit by a fall in shipments of engineering goods, ready-made garments and gems and jewellery.

However, the trade deficit narrowed to $12 billion, a five-month low, as imports growth too slowed at 10.4% compared with 26% in January. Imports of gold and transport equipment shrank last month.

Exports totalled $25.8 billion, while imports were $37.8 billion.

Exports in 18 out of 30 sectors grew. The major groups showing year-on-year expansion were petroleum products (27.44%), organic & inorganic chemicals (30.41%), drugs & pharmaceuticals (13.92%), rice (21.29%) and electronic goods (29.71%). Gold imports, meanwhile, declined 17%.

However, industry was disappointed by this meagre increase in exports. EEPC India chairman Ravi Sehgal said it was disconcerting to see Indian exports faltering when the global economy was on an uptick.

In comparison to India’s exports, China’s shipments rose a whopping 44.5% in February, the strongest in three years.

With a high 20.4% expansion in services exports outpacing the 17.1% growth in services imports, the services surplus rose to a 25-month high of $6.5 billion in January 2018.

With banks tightening the noose around the gems and jewellery sector following the Punjab National Bank scam, the industry is not very optimistic on gold imports and gems and jewellery exports.

Slow disbursement of Goods and Services Tax refunds and currency volatility could also weigh heavily on exports, experts said.

In the first 11months of this fiscal year, merchandise exports rose 11% to $273.7 billion from a year earlier, while imports rose 21% to $416.9 billion.

Draft Forest Policy

After 30 years, India is set to get a new National Forest Policy which addresses the new realities – climate change, human-animal conflict and declining green cover.

The ministry of environment, forest and climate change has framed a new draft National Forest Policy 2018 which proposes climate change mitigation through sustainable forest management. The new policy, which aims to bring a minimum one-third of India’s total geographical area under forest cover through scientific interventions and enforcing strict rules to protect the dense cover, will replace the existing one that has been guiding the government to manage forests since 1988. Unlike the previous policies, which stressed on environmental stability and maintenance of ecological balance, the 2018 policy focusses on the international challenge of climate change.

While the ministry has done away with the environment cess that was proposed in the scrapped 2016 draft policy, it has retained several controversial clauses in its 2018 draft.

The environmentalists had seen red in involving private concerns for afforestation and reforestation activities pointing out that this would mean privatisation of India’s natural resources and creating “private forests”. The 2018 draft policy retains this clause saying, “public-private participation models will be developed for undertaking afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas and forest areas available with Forest Development Corporations and outside forests.”

Ajay Kumar Saxena, forestry expert at Centre for Science and Environment, said: “The draft policy raises more questions than it answers as to how these objectives will be achieved considering the competitive demands for forestlands. It is worth noting that most of the objectives mentioned in 1988 policy have not been met so far. The draft policy orients itself more on the conservation and preservation of forest wealth rather than regenerating them through people’s participation.”

The policy also addresses the issue of human-animal conflict. It proposes short term and long term measures to reduce this. The draft says, “Quick response, dedicated teams of well equipped and trained personnel, mobility, strong interface with health and veterinary services, rescue centres, objective and speedy assessment of damage and quick payment of relief to the victims would be at the core of the short-term action. Monitoring and management of population of wildlife would be adopted on a longterm basis within and outside forests for maintaining the balance.”

The policy does not discuss in detail the contentious issue of diversion of forest land for mining and other purposes.

“Safeguard forest land by exercising strict restraint on diversion for non-forestry purposes, and strict oversight on compliance of the conditions,” is the only reference to diversion. Saxena said, “Although the draft policy mentions the importance of forests in Northeast India, it fails to address the forest diversion issues for projects in the region.”

The policy still does not address the issue of forest rights of forest dwelling tribal communities. “Forest dependent communities have been fighting tooth and nail to get their forest rights recognized and the attitude of forest departments in supporting the law has been discouraging so far,” said Saxena.


India Likely to Grow 7.3% in FY19, 7.5% in FY20: World Bank

India’s economy is expected to grow 7.3% in the next financial year and accelerate to 7.5% in 2019-20, bottoming out from the impact of demonetisation and GST, the World Bank said even as it highlighted private investments and exports as the two lagging engines of growth.

In its biannual publication, India Development Update, the World Bank said it expected Indian economy to clock a growth rate of 6.7% in the current financial year. “India’s long-term growth has become more steady, stable, diversified and resilient,” said Junaid Ahmad, World Bank country director in India.

The report was discussed with chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian last week. The World Bank, however, observed that a growth of over 8% will require “continued reform and a widening of their scope” aimed at resolving issues related to credit and investment, and enhancing competitiveness of exports.

India’s GDP growth saw a temporary dip in the last two quarters of 2016-17 and the first quarter of 2017-18 due to demonetisation and disruptions surrounding the initial implementation of GST. Economic activity has begun to stabilise since August 2017, it said. India’s economic growth had slipped to a three-year low of 5.7% in April-June quarter of the current fiscal, though it recovered in the subsequent quarters. The economy is expected to grow at 6.6 % in 2017-18, as per the second advanced estimates of the Central Statistics Office, compared to 7.1% in 2016-17. The earlier estimate was 6.5%.

However, unlike Economic Survey, Higher private sector investments, revival of bank credit, making exports competitive and leveraging external conditions are the priority areas for reform, according to the report. The share of both Indian goods and services exports in world exports has declined.

The World Bank also emphasised on cleaning up banks’ balance sheets, realising the expected growth and fiscal dividend from GST, and continuing the integration into the global economy as it praised IBC as an important reform.

Rare depression in Arabian Sea

The weather bureau and independent meteorologist to the Maharashtra government said the formation of a tropical depression (low pressure weather system) over Arabian Sea is a rare phenomenon for March and is a first for the country.

According to experts, such a weather system is observed only in the months of April and May. India Meteorological Department officials and independent weather agencies have called this a rare occurrence.

The impact of this weather system, currently over southeast Arabian Sea, has paved way for heavy rain over south India states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala and light showers have been predicted for Karnataka, Maharashtra including Mumbai, Pune and Nashik, on Thursday and Friday. On Wednesday, Mumbaiites woke up to an overcast sky.

“We have checked the cyclone e-atlas records and this is the first weather depression in Arabian Sea since records began in 1891,” said Akshay Deoras, meteorologist and independent meteorological.

“Moisture from this depression will form clouds over Maharashtra, which will lead to a drop in day temperatures for coastal and interiors parts of the state on Thursday and Friday. It is advisable for farmers and local agricultural markets to protect harvested or ready to harvest crops such as wheat, jowar and horticultural crops during these light showers.”

Deoras added the weather system developed owing of the Madden Julian Oscillation – a rain bearing system that travels across the globe and triggers storms at sea owing to increased moisture.

The state government issued a weather advisory on Wednesday evening, highlighting cloudy weather, drop in maximum temperatures and the possibility of light rain over Konkan (including Mumbai), central Maharashtra, Marathwada and Vidarbha on Thursday and Friday. However, New Delhi-based private weather forecasting agency Skymet weather issued thunderstorm and hailstorm warning for Marathwada and Vidarbha.

“It is correct that this is the first such historical documentation of a weather system developing over the Arabian Sea during the month of March that might give rain over the west coast,” said Mrutunjay Mohapatra, head of climate services, IMD.

He added, “Our weather models suggest that a well-marked low pressure area intensified into a depression, which is moving at a pace of 20 kilometres per hour over, currently over Lakshadweep, giving heavy rain over southern states. However, as the system moves northwestwards on Thursday, it is likely to weaken, and result in moisture incursions over Karnataka and Maharashtra coast, which give isolated light showers.”

He added that along with the depression over Arabian Sea, weather systems over Bay of Bengal, a system over the central Indian peninsula, and a trough over Iran and Afghanistan, were all responsible for developing rain bearing systems along the west coast.

Mumbai, however, has recorded rainfall in March — 10mm on March 5, 2016, 6.5mm on March 1, 2015, and 12.7mm rain on March 10, 2012, which is the alltime high 24 hour rainfall for the month.

Mohapatra added that this is the first time that such weather conditions affected the west coast in March.

Urban Governance

Pune came on top in the fifth edition of the Annual Survey of India’s City-Systems, edging out Thiruvananthapuram which had topped the previous two editions of the survey. Bengaluru was ranked at the bottom.

Thiruvananthapuram dropped two ranks to be placed third out of 23 cities spread across 20 states in the survey done by urban governance watchdog Janaagraha Centre for Citizenship and Democracy, which evaluated the quality of governance in India’s cities by assessing laws, policies and institutional processes currently in place.

The key finding of the survey is that India’s cities are improving at a snail’s pace, scoring between 3 and 5.1 out of 10 in the City-Systems framework. Global benchmark cities like London and New York score 8.8 on the same framework of evaluation, while Johannesburg, a city in a similarly placed developing country, scored 7.6.

Half of the 23 ASICS 2017 cities, which comprise a fifth of India’s urban population, do not generate enough revenue internally to even pay the salary of municipal staff. A third of municipal staff positions remains vacant. And the average tenure of a municipal commissioner is only 10 months. One reason for the persistence of poor delivery despite a wide consensus on the problems ailing India’s cities is the lack of local democracy, with only two of the 23 cities putting in place ward committees and area sabhas at least on paper, the survey pointed out.

“India’s cities have virtually no platforms where citizens can participate in matters in their neighbourhood. This impacts not just municipal accountability, but the quality of democracy itself,” the report said.

Due to limited accountability, even the city budgets are largely “fictitious,” said Srikanth Viswanathan, chief executive officer of Janaagraha. “The average variance between what’s budgeted and what is actually spent is as much as 50%,” he said.

Only 9 of the 23 cities had a citizen’s charter, a powerful tool for accountability and grievance redress. Even in the cities where such a charter exists, there is no mention of service levels, or timelines for service delivery, or mechanisms for obtaining relief when service levels are not met, the report said. An ombudsman, specifically for resolving citizen’s issues, is also missing in all but three Indian cities—Bhubaneswar, Ranchi and Thiruvananthapuram.

As a result of this prevalent atmosphere of weak accountability, 19 of the 23 cities don’t release even basic data about their functioning in usable formats.

The report also pointed out that most Indian cities use town and country planning acts which were drafted decades before the economy was liberalized and the lack of a modern, contemporary urban planning framework may be costing India 3% of its GDP every year.


Somewhere in Maharashtra....

If you are a Mumbai resident and think that you can get away with violating traffic laws in Pune, then think twice. In the next three months, Maharashtra could become the first state in the country to have a state-wide integrated e-challan system under its programme ‘One State One e-Challan’ – a project estimated to cost around Rs.60 crore.

This effectively means, the state police will serve you an e-challan irrespective of the district or city you have violated a traffic law in.

In phase one, the police have asked for 4,500 handheld devices out of which, 1100 will be used in Mumbai.

“We have asked for better network connectivity and multiple service provider compatibility so that it can be used even in remote parts of the state,” said Amitesh Kumar, joint commissioner of police (traffic).

The police will be able to charge a driver for violation of traffic rules even if he has broken it in another part of the state.

For Phase one, the control room will be set up in Mumbai’s traffic police headquarters, which will monitor Mumbai, Pune, Thane, Navi Mumbai and Nagpur.

For the second phase, which will cover the entire state, a centralised control room will be set up at the State Highway Police headquarters in Mumbai.

Maharashtra police have demanded that the centralised system should have e-challan server software and e-challan back office with database, which will enable them to handle, operate and maintain at least 1500 handheld devices at any point in time.

With the implementation of the project, the police intend to lessen manpower for charging traffic violators and making the system more transparent.

The police have also expressed the specifications of the server, software and handheld devices that they will want.

According to the specifications, the system proposed by the developer should be able to input and print multiple offences on the same challan and also store data of the stolen vehicles, including a backup of previous offences by the number plate.

Apart from the connectivity, the developer will be responsible for supply, installation, system integration and commissioning of hardware and the software infrastructure for five years.

The police have asked for camera application in the handheld device, which should be able to identify relevant data for challan by capturing a photograph of the driver’s license plate and send it directly to the control room.

Along with the hand held devices, an application will also be created with multiple features.

When a vehicle number is entered, the server will be able to send all details relating to the vehicle including previous offence history and outstanding amount due from previous offences.

It would also include day end reports, which will be sent to all senior police officials via SMS from the central server.

This data will then easily be searchable by entering the first few characters of the offence including pending challan information for a particular vehicle/ driving license, which should be automatically fetched from the server.

RBI forbids banks from issuing LoUs

The Reserve Bank of India has barred banks from issuing letters of undertaking, the instruments used by Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi to defraud Punjab National Bank, in a move that may deal a blow to trade financing in India and raise credit costs for importers.

RBI also barred lenders from issuing letters of comfort as trade credit for importing goods into India with immediate effect. It, however, allowed banks to continue to issue letters of credit and bank guarantees.

The central bank’s move is likely to lead to a freeze in trade financing activities in India, increasing costs for importers who have relied on these instruments to get cheaper overseas credit to pay suppliers. It will also put companies that have received credit based on LoUs in a spot, as they have to now repay their borrowings since there will no rollover of existing LoUs.

Importers prefer taking loans based on LoUs as they are denominated in foreign currency and are cheaper than rupee credit. A letter of credit, on the other hand, is used to establish the credit worthiness of the buyer in the purchase of goods.

Lenders will have to look at alternative instruments like bank guarantees. LoUs and LoCs are used widely in several industries including gems and jewellery, oil and gas, electronic goods, solar panels and metals.

Until the PNB fraud surfaced, buyers’ credit was seen as a safe business because of its short term nature and the risk of default was essentially on another lender. That apart, it provided the LoU-issuing bank with a source of fee income.

Aadhaar linking deadline of March 31 extended

The Supreme Court extended the March 31 deadline to link Aadhaar with various government services, bank accounts, Permanent Account Numbers for filing tax returns and even mobile phone connections indefinitely until after it delivers a final verdict on petitions questioning the validity of the unique identification number.

Extension of the deadline offers relief to consumers bombarded by messages from service providers including banks and mobile phone companies asking them to link their accounts to Aadhaar before the deadline.

A five-judge bench led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra said the extension will not apply to government services and benefits like pensions and scholarships, subsidised foodgrains under the Public Distribution System, subsidised cooking gas and the flagship job guarantee plan for rural households.

Such benefits are covered by Section 7 of the Aadhaar Act, which deals with the delivery of financial benefits and subsidies and services under government welfare programmes.

Those drawing such benefits will be required to provide the biometric ID details and number assigned to them by the Unique Identification Authority of India.

The court restrained the authorities from insisting on Aadhaar for issuance of tatkal passports, which are processed faster.

In December last year, the top court extended until March 31, the December 31, 2017 deadline for mandatorily linking various services with their Aadhaar number, which has become the bedrock of government welfare programmes, the tax administration network and online financial transactions.

The bench is currently hearing petitioners who have questioned the validity of Aadhaar and subsequent rules making the number mandatory for such services. The government will respond after the petitioners present their case.

A final judgment is unlikely before the end of this month.

Naxals strike twice in 4 hours

Nine CRPF men were killed after Maoists blasted their mine-protected vehicle in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh. The casualties raised questions of a “tactical error” as troopers were attacked in less than four hours.

With last-minute changes in the travel plan after the first attack on Tuesday morning, a road opening party that provides security to the troop movement, could not be put in place, making the CRPF men soft targets..

Nearly 150 Red cadres struck around 7.30 am during a scheduled visit of the Central Reserve Police Force and local police led by the superintendent of police of Sukma from Kistaram to a new campsite at Potakpalli, deep inside the “core area” controlled by Maoist leader Hidma.

However, since the police team led by the SP had already reached, the decision was revised and the teams decided to go ahead with the original plan.

It was this team of the 212 Battalion of CRPF headed to the newly proposed campsite that was targeted in the second attack in which the nine men were killed around 12.15 pm, barely 300 metres from the spot of the earlier assault.

Sources said the visit to the new campsite should have been cancelled after the first attack, particularly because there was intelligence about the presence of over 100 Maoists in the area.

Last year, 12 troops were killed by the Maoists.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh called the “deeply distressing”. “My heartfelt condolences to the families of those personnel who lost their lives in Sukma blast. I pray for the speedy recovery of the injured jawans,” he tweeted.


The Farmer's Long March

In a desperate attempt to be heard by the government of Maharashtra, around 50,000 farmers from across the state walked into Mumbai yesterday. The demands of the farmers, who gathered at Azad Maidan, include an unconditional waiver of loans as well as electricity bills, implementation of the Swaminathan Commission recommendations, along with an announcement of minimum support price for agriculture produce and a pension scheme for farmers.

People from all age groups have been a part of the protest. Eighty-year-old farmer Vishram Yeshwant Lilake from Dindori (Nashik) has come with the sole hope that his ancestral property, which has been a source of income for his family, will be transferred to his name.

The march, which started a few days ago, has seen participation from even youngsters. Sixteen-year-old Mahesh Ramdas Kharpare from Shahpur says that education and water are on the top of his priority list.

The farmers are garnering support from people from different walks of life. Mumbaikars, including celebs, have tweeted in their support.