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Current Affairs - 20 May 2017

General Affairs 

Kerala Passes Resolution Against Genetically Modified Mustard
  • The Kerala Legislative Assembly today unanimous passed a resolution rejecting genetically modified or GM Mustard seed. Just a little over a week ago, on May 11, the apex body that clears GM crops, the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee, had approved commercial cultivation and sale of GM Mustard and it was awaiting final approval by Union environment minister Anil Dave, who died yesterday.

    Kerala's agriculture minister VS Sunil Kumar pointed out that the cultivation of genetically-modified seed varieties is subject to authorization from both the centre and state governments. Approval by the centre makes rejection by a state meaningless as GM crops do not look physically different from non-GM crops and therefore they could easily sneak in.

    So far only two genetically-modified crops, Bt cotton, and Bt brinjal were approved by the centre for commercial cultivation. Permission for Bt brinjal, which was given in 2009, was withdrawn by the centre itself in 2010.

    The resolution pointed out that the centre had not allowed genetically modified crops as there were health and environment safety issues. 

    "Hence by approving GM Mustard the central government is putting the health of the people and the purity of farming at risk. India is aiming to achieve self-sufficiency in edible oil, and using this as pretext some vested interests are trying to push through their sinister agenda of approving GM Mustard," the resolution said. 

    At least 72 crop species are undergoing genetic-engineering and those who oppose GM crops argue that once GM Mustard is approved, the others would be pushed for clearance too.

    A parliamentary standing committee on agriculture had suggested that even field testing of GM crops should be stopped.

    The Kerala assembly resolution has listed out reasons why they opposed GM mustard. It says it is not proved that genetically-modified crops give more yield than normal varieties and that GM crops attract new pests and controlling them needs the use of highly hazardous and expensive chemical pesticides. New kinds of fertilizers would also be necessary to support crop growth. 

    The resolution also raises concerns about ecological and health issues and says it is expensive and could destroy the gene pool of indigenous varieties. 

    Concern has also been raised about GM crops being the property of monopoly companies, though the GM mustard under consideration is developed by an Indian scientist.

    Threat to organic farming and also honey bee population that feed on mustard, and are important for pollination, has also been raised by activists.

    Several other states in the country, including Delhi and Odisha have also rejected genetically modified crops.

President Pranab Mukherjee Stresses On Clean, Renewable Energy To Meet Power Demand
  • Days after the Union Cabinet cleared a proposal for setting up ten nuclear reactors, President Pranab Mukherjee today stressed on the need for using clean and renewable energy to meet the country's growing power demand.

    The president was inaugurating the country's first-ofits-kind microgrid power project at the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology (IIEST) at Shibpur in Howrah that uses solar, wind and biogas energy to produce electricity.

    He said he was "happy" that the Cabinet has decided to ramp up power generation by clearing a proposal to build ten indigenous Pressurised Heavy Water Reactors, each with a capacity to produce 700 MW.

    President Mukherjee said more than 300 million people in the country still do not have access to power. "We have to provide electricity to ordinary people," he said, adding that there is a need to emphasise on renewable energy to meet the demand.

    While lauding the progress in space science made by India, he also stressed that electricity and clean, arsenic free drinking water be provided to the people, particularly those in rural areas.

    President Mukherjee also inaugurated the Centre for Water and Environmental Research, which will focus on ways to supply safe drinking water, besides irrigation.

    Former ISRO chairman and chairperson of the IIEST Board of Governors, K Radhakrishnan, its director Ajoy Kumar Ray, and registrar Biman Bandyopadhyay were present at the programme, besides West Bengal Power Minister Sovandeb Chattopadhyay.

    The Integrated Renewable Energy Smart Microgrid Centre at the institute utilises 600-1,000 Kg of kitchen and food waste from the entire campus to produce biogas energy.

    It can offer a complete solution for 24x7 electricity access in regions having either no grid or weak and unreliable grid, project coordinator professor Hiranmay Saha said.

    The smart grid is a project of the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency.

Arvind Kejriwal Into Money-Laundering, So Opposed Notes Ban: Kapil Mishra
  • Sacked Delhi minister Kapil Mishra today accused Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of money-laundering and said that was the main reason he had opposed Prime Minister Narendra Modi's notes ban. Mr Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has rubbished the charge, calling it another example of the BJP using Mr Mishra to spread lies.

    "Why did he (Kejriwal) fiercely oppose demonetisation? Why did he travel across the country against the move? Because his men, who hoard black money, were being raided by enforcement agencies," the suspended Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader alleged at a press conference. He also charged that AAP's donors included shell companies and wondered how the party accepted funds from companies that were slapped notices "for not paying VAT (Value Added Tax)".

    Mr Mishra was sacked over a week ago and later suspended by the party as he went nuclear, targeting the AAP leadership, especially Mr Kejriwal. He accused his former boss of taking bribes and also facilitating deals for his relatives. His attacks on Mr Kejriwal have been regular and unwavering.

    Embellishing his latest set of charges with a PowerPoint presentation, Mr Mishra also alleged that Delhi-based businessman Mukesh Kumar, who claimed to have donated Rs. 2 crore to AAP in 2014, was only a front for "proclaimed black money offenders".

    "Ten days before AAP took office in 2013, Mukesh Kumar's company was slapped a notice by the Delhi government for not paying VAT. And then this person goes on to donate Rs. 2 crore to AAP," he said. 
    He also questioned Mr Kejriwal and Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia for not acting against Mukesh Kumar for defaulting on VAT after AAP came to power in Delhi in 2013.

    Mr Kejriwal's first stint as Delhi Chief Minister ended within 49 days when he abruptly quit after accusing the Congress and the BJP of blocking the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill.

    "In order to tarnish AAP's image, BJP is developing a new ploy every day," AAP's Sanjay Singh said later, asserting that every donation was in the public domain and "declared as per rule".

    "For the last two years the BJP is trying to find ills in AAP, but they are not able to find anything," he commented.

Homoeopathy, Indian Medicinal Systems Playing Key Role In Healthcare: President Pranab Mukherjee
  • President Pranab Mukherjee today highlighted the "important role" played by homoeopathy and Indian systems of medicine in the country's healthcare sector.

    Speaking at a homoeopathy award ceremony at the Science City Auditorium in Kolkata this morning, he said the medicinal system was becoming more popular as it was cheaper compared to allopathy, besides having no side-effects.

    Homoeopathy and systems of Indian medicine such as unani and siddha are playing an important role in the country, which faces a severe shortage of quality medical practitioners, he said.

    The president said centres of homoeopathy and others have been opened at the Rashtrapati Bhavan and that these were attracting more and more patients.

    Speaking just before the president, Ashok Kumar Das, executive director of the event's organiser Allen Homoeopathy, said Mukherjee should be elected to a second term in office.

    The president presented the 6th Dr Malati Allen Noble Award to some of the toppers of 196 homoeopathic medical colleges of the country and two toppers from two colleges in Bangladesh. The other toppers will be awarded later this month.

    He also conferred the Dr Allen Mahatma Hahnemann Award, the Dr Sarkar Allen Swamiji Award and the Dr Malati Allen Memorial Award on several recipients.

    G P Sarkar, managing trustee of the Dr Malati Allen Charitable Trust, said homoeopathy at present catered to 60 per cent of the country's population and the aim was to make it more popular.

    Earlier today, President Mukherjee paid floral tributes at a portrait of former president Neelam Sanjiva Reddy on his birth anniversary at the Raj Bhavan. Mr Reddy was the president between 1977 and 1982. West Bengal Governor K N Tripathi was present on the occasion.

    Later in the day, he will inaugurate the Integrated Renewable Energy Smart Microgrid Centre and the Centre for Water and Environmental Research at the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology (IIEST) at Shibpur in Howrah, before leaving for Delhi.

Amid EVMs (Vote Machines) Controversy, Election Commission's Demo Tomorrow
  • Amid a debate over EVMs or Electronic Voting Machines, the Election Commission will hold a live demo tomorrow to prove that the machines cannot be tampered with. A nearly two-hour demo will be held on the sidelines of a press conference tomorrow at the Vigyan Bhawan in Delhi.

    The powerful election body is also likely to announce dates for its EVM "challenge" to those who have alleged that the machines have been rigged in recent elections to favour the ruling BJP.

    Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Congress have been the loudest in suggesting that EVMs were manipulated in the state polls as well as Delhi civic elections to ensure that most votes went to the BJP, no matter what the voter chose.

    Last week, after the Election Commission met all political parties to discuss a range of subjects including EVMs, AAP claimed its proposal of holding a 'hackathon' has been "rejected" by the Commission.

    At a special session of the Delhi Assembly earlier this month, AAP claimed that it had cracked the code for hacking EVMs and also gave a demo - but on a prototype. AAP said the gadget it used was built by IIT grads and there was "not even 1 per cent difference" between the prototype and actual voting machines.

    Opposition parties have told the Commission that it should revert to the paper ballot system as people's faith has eroded in the machines. The Commission recently clarified that the next general election in 2019 will use only upgraded machines that offer instant evidence of the vote recorded by printing a paper receipt that is visible before it drops into a sealed box.

Business Affairs 

GST rates are out: From ACs to air travel, this is how the new tax structure will impact you
  • After months of waiting, there is finally a clarity on what essential goods and services will cost under the new tax regime with the GST Council deciding what commodity will fall under which basket after a two-day meet in Srinagar.

    There were no major surprises, with essential commodities such as food grains (rice, dal, wheat) exempted and essential daily-use commodities like sugar, tea, coffee (barring instant coffee) and edible put under the lowest tax basket of 5 per cent, almost the same as under the current tax structure.

    For services, the GST Council finalised four tax rates that will apply to services including telecoms, insurance, hotels and restaurants. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that the services will be taxed in four different slabs with standard rate of 18 per cent and luxury rate of 28 per cent. The tax rates for services will be 5, 12, 18 and 28 per cent.
    GST - NO TAX ITEMSDaily items like milk, paneer and curd won't be taxed under the GST. The GST Council decided not to tax metro travel, religious travel and Haj yatra under the new tax structure. There won't be any tax on healthcare and education under the new taxation system. Basic food items like cereals, eggs and meat will attract no tax after the GST is effective.

    GST- 5 per cent (Lowest tax items)After the new tax structure, electricity generation will get cheaper as the GST council has brought down the current tax on coal to 5 per cent from the current tax rate of 11.69 per cent. Sweets will attract 5 per cent tax under the GST. Apart from this, the life-saving drugs have been kept at 5 per cent rate.
    The Council kept transport services in the lowest tax bracket of 5 per cent. This rate will apply to cab aggregators like Ola and Uber as well as those who currently pay 6 per cent tax. Non-AC train travel will be exempt and the 5 per cent will be levied on AC travel tickets.

    Here are some other key announcements:
    Restaurants: Non-AC restaurants will charge 12 per cent GST on food bill. Tax rate for AC restaurants and those with liquor licence will be 18 per cent, while 5-star hotels will charge 28 per cent GST. Restaurants with Rs 50 lakh or below turnover will go under the 5 per cent composition.
    Hotels and lodges:
     Under the new tax rules, hotels and lodges charging per day tariff of Rs 1,000 will be exempt from GST. Tax rate for hotels with tariff of Rs 1,000 to 2,000 per day would be 12 per cent while those with tariff of Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000 would be 18 per cent. GST for hotels with tariff above Rs 5,000 will be 28 per cent.
    Motorcycles of more than 350 cc engine capacity will attract a total of 31 per cent tax under the GST regime, same as the tax incidence on private aircraft and luxury yachts. All cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles including moped as well as personal aircraft and luxury yachts will attract a peak Goods and Services Tax of 28 per cent.

    Air Travel: Economy class air travel will attract 5 per cent GST while business class will be charged 12 cent.

    Entertainment: Under the GST, entertainment tax will be merged with service tax and a composite 28 per cent tax rate will apply on cinema services as well as gambling or betting at race course.
    Tobacco products:
     Filter and non-filter cigarettes not exceeding 65 mm will attract cess of 5 per cent plus Rs 1,591 per 1000 sticks. For cigars, a hefty levy of 21 per cent or Rs 4,170 per 1000 sticks, whichever is higher, would be levied. Branded gutkha will be slapped with a cess of 72 per cent, while smoking mixtures for pipes and cigarettes will attract a levy 290 per cent.
    Luxury items:
     On gold, states demanded a 4 per cent tax even though the rate is not among the 5, 12, 18 and 28 per cent approved bands. The GST Council agreed to impose cess on luxury goods over and above the peak tax rate of 28 per cent.

GST rates unlikely to impact medicine prices as life saving drugs get marked in in low tax basket
  • The much awaited announcement on the Goods and Services Tax (GST) tax rates is out. While the Indian pharma gets down to studying the fineprint to get clarifications for their reservations, the quiet on their part indicates that it is in line with their expectations.  Though they would have expected slightly lower rate on the APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients) - the bulk drugs that go into the making of final pills and tablets - most seem to find them as rates they could live with.
    "The rates - 5 per cent for life saving medicines (zero earlier), 12 per cent on formulations and 18 per cent on APIs - are more or less in line with what the industry was expecting but a larger concern for the industry would be how the transition would be made to these new rates. We are hoping that the transition would be smooth and the disruptions minimised," says Kedar Upadhye, CFO, Cipla, a major player in the domestic market. The new rates and how they are implemented would be an area of huge interest for the pharma sector and in turn, his company.
    In fact, this view seem on the GST administration seems to run across others comapanies of pharma sector as well. All eyes now seem to be now on GST administration and the infrastructure expected to be ready for the transition. Many for instance, are hoping to get some clarity on the transition day stocks and what would be the view on the stock on the day of transition. More so, if the new rates are to take effect from July, the question is on how ready is the system for the transition.
    As far as the rates are concerned, the only concern was on the rate for APIs as the rate on the inputs is higher than on the end product. But then, the argument in favour of the new rate is that the value addition of the end products - the formulations - will be able to handle the higher rate on the APIs. Though some feel, there is need for more clarity here as it may not always work and it would all depend on the API cost as a proportion of the formulation cost. Today for formulations at 12 per cent is more or less with the rates today considering that excise duty plus VAT (value added tax) is also around 9 to 10 per cent. The rate on APIs, is today also more or less at around 18 per cent with the current taxes.

NASSCOM calls for re-skilling workforce to check IT job cuts
  • While the Information Technology sector is in a state of panic due to the recent layoffs , industry body NASSCOM has stated that almost half of the sector's workforce needs to be trained to keep up with the technological advancements of the field.
    NASSCOM asserted that 40 per cent of the approximately four million strong workforce has to be re-skilled in the coming five years to come if they are to keep up with the changing face and automation of the industry, in a report by the Times of India. In a press communiqué earlier this week, NASSCOM tried to allay fears of extensive layoffs in the IT sector.
    IT professionals in the country have to be well-versed with new technologies as artificial intelligence, virtual reality and augmented reality set to be the next big thing here, NASSCOM Chairperson Raman Roy was quoted in the report.
    Employees engaged in the industry were given a scare after several top IT companies with their operations in India asked their employees to leave. Fears of losing jobs intensified after reports of top seven IT companies planning to terminate several thousand employees by the end of this year started doing the rounds.
    IT techies even went ahead to demand government intervention in the matter. Protectionist policies of Trump government, Brexit and Indian IT sector failing to improve itself with technological advancements seen around the world were cited as major reasons behind these layoffs.
    The companies, however, rubbished these reports , with IBM even calling the big numbers 'factually incorrect'. The companies maintain that job cuts were part of the annual appraisal cycle and employees were fired on performance grounds. It will not be as widespread as feared, government officials have assured.
    IT Secretary Aruna Sundararajan has stated a few days ago that IT sector will continue to hire and has added 5 lakh jobs in the last 2.5 years. 
    On similar lines, NASSCOM stated that IT sector in India is still in better shape. Despite cloud computing-based automation technologies becoming popular in the industry, 1.7 lakh jobs were created in 2016-17 alone.

    Steel PSUs not holy cows, must compete with private players, says Steel Minister
    • Steel PSUs are not holy cows and should step out of their comfort zone to perform and compete with private players, Steel Minister Chaudhary Birender Singh said today.
      "I have told my PSUs, especially those that produce steel, that there is a new environment where PSU is not a holy cow. You should perform and compete with your private players," the minister said in an interview to PTI.
      The minister warned that the PSUs cannot afford to sit on their laurels in the changing scenario in the world.
      "So, either perform or perish," Singh said, in a blunt message.
      The PSUs should diversify their activities and go for high-end steel production, Singh suggested.
      "Diversify your activities, go for high-end steel production and also diversify into those activities where you can make best use of your land which is available to you.
      There is about one lakh acres of land with steel plants of our PSUs," Singh said.
      According to steel ministry sources, the minister had earlier talked about SAIL barely achieving blast furnace productivity at 1.7 tonnes per cubic metre per day (tpcm/d) in contrast to over 2.5 tpcm/d by its private counterparts and global standard of over 3 tpcm/d.
      The minister had earlier rapped SAIL for slow progress in modernisation as well as capacity ramp-up as deadlines were missed.
      The government has already set up a committee to suggest measures to fast-track modernisation of steel public sector firms SAIL and RINL. The panel is chaired by the steel secretary and has CMDs of SAIL and RINL as its members.
      Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a leading global management consultancy, is also part of the panel, besides outside experts.
      Till February, Rs 64,986 crore have been spent by SAIL towards modernisation and expansion, mines and related schemes.

    Modi's policy reforms effect: FDI up 9 per cent to highest level of USD 43.48 billion in FY17
    • Inflow of foreign direct investment (FDI) into India increased by 9 per cent to record level of USD 43.48 billion in 2016-17 on account of reform measures undertaken by the government.
      In 2015-16, the country had attracted USD 40 billion foreign investments.
      "Increased FDI inflows in the country are largely attributed to intense and bold policy reforms the government undertook to bring pragmatism in the FDI regime. The country has now become the topmost attractive destination for foreign investment," the commerce and industry ministry said in a statement.
      "The FDI equity inflow received during 2016-17 is USD 43.48 billion... It is the highest ever for a particular financial year," it said.
      It also said that the total FDI including re-invested earnings increased to a "new all time high" of USD 60.08 billion last fiscal from USD 55.6 billion in 2015-16.
      During the last three years, the statement said, the government eased foreign investment norms in as many as 21 sectors covering 87 areas.
      "This has resulted in increased FDI inflows which year after year is setting up new records," it added.
      Provisions were relaxed in sectors such as construction development, broadcasting, retail trading, air transport, insurance and pension.
      Further, the ministry said the FDI policy easing and improvement in ease of doing business help promote domestic industry, restricts import, create jobs and results in conserving valuable foreign exchange.
      "It has been the endeavor of the government to put in place an enabling and investor friendly FDI policy. The intent all this while has been to make the policy more investor friendly," it added.
      Further, it said the FDI equity inflows in the last three financial years rose by about 40 per cent to USD 114.41 billion as against USD 81.84 billion during previous three fiscal (2011-14).
      Of this, FDI worth USD 11.69 billion was received through the government approval route.
      "The overall manufacturing sectors have witnessed a growth of 4 per cent in comparison to previous three financial years (from USD 48.03 billion to USD 50.09 billion)," it said.
      After the launch of Make in India initiative (October 2014 to March 2017), the FDI flows increased by 62 per cent to USD 99.72 billion as compared to USD 61.41 billion during the previous 30 months (April 2012 to September 2014).
      Foreign investments are crucial for India, which needs around USD 1 trillion (about Rs 6.4 lakh crore) for overhauling its infrastructure sector such as ports, airports and highways to boost growth.
      It helps improve the country's balance of payments situation and strengthen the rupee value against other global currencies, especially the US dollar. 

    General Awareness

    India ranks at 154, below Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, on healthcare index

    • India has ranked 154th among 195 countries on healthcare index in Lancet medical journal’s report titled ‘Global Burden of Disease’Performance of countries was assessed for a period of 25 years from 1990-2015, based on death rates from 32 diseases that could be avoided by effective medical care.
      • Tuberculosis, diabetes, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus and measles, treatable cancer, rheumatic heart disease, hypertensive heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and maternal or neonatal disorders are some of the diseases for which death rate was tracked.
      • This study has been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
      Highlights of ‘Global Burden of Disease’:
      Even though healthcare quality and access has improved over 25 years, the inequality between the best and worst performing countries has widened.
      • India’ index score was 44.8, which marks an improvement of 14.1 points as compared to 1990.
      • However, India has underperformed in treating tuberculosis, diabetes, rheumatic heart diseases and chronic kidney disease.
      • Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only SAARC countries which have ranked lower than India.
      Performance of India’s Neighbouring countries:
      CountryIndex Score
      Sri Lanka72.8
      Healthcare Industry in India:
      The Indian healthcare industry has been growing at a phenomenal rate. During 2008-20, it is expected to clock a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 16.5%.The industry size is expected to touch US$ 280 billion by year 2020.
      • Despite of this, state of healthcare services in India remains dismal, on account of poor accessibility to healthcare, doctors, and medical facilities.
      • As announced in new National Health Policy, released in March 2017, Indian Govt aims to increase health spending to 2.5% of GDP. It is to be noted that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recommended spending 5% of GDP.

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