A push for GM mustard disregarding science, the law
A determined battle by environmentalists in the Supreme Court of India against Delhi University’s genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant (HT) mustard is all that stands between GM food and Indian farmers and consumers. GM crops are quite different from conventional varieties and hybrids, such as those developed by farmers, agricultural research institutions and companies. Biotechnologists insert select genes at a random location in the DNA of a plant to develop a GM crop. The insertion makes a GM crop express traits that it ordinarily would not. For instance, GM mustard has been altered to withstand the broad-spectrum plant-killer or herbicide glufosinate. This makes it easier to develop hybrid mustard seeds for higher yields. And farmers growing GM mustard can spray the herbicide to kill all plants except the mustard.
GM crops in India, the debate
India has seen a robust debate on GM crops in the last two decades. Environmentalists, scientists, politicians, farmers, consumers and the higher judiciary have asked probing questions about the safety, efficacy and even the very necessity of GM food.
Many have been alarmed by the experience with Bt cotton, the first and only GM crop approved in the country. Long-term research suggests that Bt cotton has provided only fleeting benefits to farmers, while enormously increasing their costs of cultivation and risk. On the other hand, some seed companies have profited handsomely from the expensive GM seeds.
In the wake of the fierce debate, two Standing Committees of the Parliament independently and comprehensively examined GM crops and food. The Supreme Court also appointed a Technical Expert Committee (TEC) in the public interest litigations filed separately by the non-government organisation Gene Campaign and the environmentalist, Aruna Rodrigues.
Thus there are two reports concerning GM food from the highest legislative body in the country — one by the Standing Committee on Agriculture in 2012 during Manmohan Singh’s government, and another by the Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests in 2017 during Narendra Modi’s government. Both committees included Members of Parliament from the ruling and Opposition parties.
Convergence in risk assessment
Working across an interval of five years, the two committees unanimously highlighted major weaknesses in the regulatory system, and called for utmost caution before releasing GM food. The Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests made a specific reference to GM mustard, and asked the government to conduct a thorough, independent, and transparent assessment of long-term biosafety, environmental risk and socio-economic impacts. Five of the six TEC members also pointed to grave deficiencies in the safety assessment of GM crops in their report that was released in 2013. They found HT crops “completely unsuitable in the Indian context” and warned of serious harm to the environment, rural livelihoods and sustainable agriculture if they were released.
This is a case of decisive convergence among noted scientists and the people’s elected representatives. This is as compelling a case as can be against releasing any HT crop, and for comprehensively strengthening regulation before allowing GM food. Such convergence refutes the prejudice that critics of GM crops are against development.
Given the overwhelming political and technical consensus, the government needs to approach the issue of HT crops transparently and robustly with an emphasis on precaution. Instead, the government is pushing ahead with GM mustard with reckless disregard for both science and the law. For instance, it has not placed the full biosafety dossier of GM mustard in the public domain, despite the provisions of the Right To Information Act and a declaration to this effect by the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee of the Environment Ministry. Nor is it adequately responding to criticisms from agricultural scientists that already available non-GM mustard hybrids have better yields than GM mustard.
Misleading the court
In recent hearings in the Supreme Court, to get around the growing evidence of long-term ecological and health risks of HT crops, the government has argued that GM mustard should not be considered HT at all — since the objective for developing it was to improve yields. In fact, a crop that can withstand herbicides is an HT crop. As far as the science of biotechnology and ecology go, there is no doubt that GM mustard is an HT crop. The government’s argument is nothing but a red herring, designed perhaps to confuse the Supreme Court. It would be shocking if scientists involved with developing GM mustard were to go along with misleading the Court and the public.
The apparent disregard with which the government is steamrolling science-based concerns and opposition to GM mustard is horrifying. Instead of seriously engaging with constitutional issues involving public health, environmental protection and agricultural livelihoods, the government is making a mockery of facts and logic before the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court allows GM mustard to go through, it will likely pave the way for the release of other HT crops such as cotton, rice, and maize. The future of farming and India’s food culture and heritage hangs in the balance.
Rather than engaging with constitutional issues involving public health, environmental protection and agricultural livelihoods, the government is disregarding facts and logic before the Supreme Court.
TNA categorically rejects Ranil’s offer of devolution
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on Tuesday “categorically rejected” Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s offer to implement the 13th Amendment sans police powers, terming his proposal for development and power devolution “another hollow promise”.
The 13th Amendment is an over 30-year-old Sri Lankan legislation on the devolution of power from Colombo to the nine provinces but has never been fully implemented.
“If the government is not willing to implement what is already in our Constitution, it is a revelation of the lack of political will to go beyond the 13th Amendment, and meaningfully devolve power,” TNA spokesman M.A. Sumanthiran told The Hindu, following a meeting convened by Mr. Wickremesinghe with Tamil political parties. “We categorically rejected the President’s proposal,” the Jaffna MP said.
The meeting, and the President’s position on the 13th Amendment assume significance ahead of Mr. Wickremesinghe’s scheduled visit to India on July 21. India has consistently underscored “full implementation” of the legislation, which was enacted after the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. It remains the only legislative guarantee of some power devolution, following the Sri Lankan Tamils’ historic demand for the right to self-determination.
However, the 13th Amendment seeks to devolve power to all nine provinces, incuding seven that have Sinhala-majority populations. Successive governments in Colombo have refused to part with land and police powers in the provinces. Meanwhile, the military is visibly present in the Tamil-majority north and east till date, 14 years after the civil war ended.
At Tuesday’s meeting, President Wickremesinghe shared an elaborate dossier with the Tamil leadership, outlining his government’s plans in regard to truth-seeking mechanisms, reconciliation, accountability, development, and power devolution.
Monsoon’s uneven march could fuel food inflation, caution economists
Despite a wetter July so far lifting the overall rainfall above the long period average, the southern peninsula, Deccan Plateau and the eastern region continue to experience a below-normal monsoon and kharif sowing remains lower than last year for crops like rice and pulses, risking faster food price inflation.
By July 15, the overall sown area of kharif crops was 2% lower compared with the same time in 2022, with maize (-5.6%), rice (-6.1%) and pulses (-13.3%) being some of the major crops facing shortfalls in sowing this year. The widest fall was recorded in Arhar, with the area sown more than 38% lower than last year, Bank of Baroda’s economics researchers observed in a note.
Worryingly, reservoir levels in the western and southern regions were also at lower marks than last year, even as there had been uneven distribution of rainfall, with parts of West and North India seeing excessive rainfall, while it was deficient in States like Bihar and Jharkhand.
With the Indian Meteorological Department signalling that parts of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Punjab, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu may see less than normal rainfall this month, sowing of paddy and pulses could be further affected. These effects were already exacerbating food inflation, reckoned analysts at Motilal Oswal.
“Deficient rainfall, and consequently lower rice and pulses sowing, has pushed prices higher,” the analysts noted. “July is a crucial period for sowing kharif crops as about 32% of monsoon precipitation typically occurs during this month,” they added.
A fascinating fusion of rock art in A.P.’s Rudragiri
Rudragiri hillock, located in the village of Orvakallu, Atchampet mandal, in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, boasts a celebrated historical past and remarkable archaeological monuments.
This site unveils a fascinating combination of prehistoric rock paintings from the Mesolithic period and exquisite artwork from the Kakatiya dynasty. D. Kanna Babu, former Superintending Archaeologist of the Temple Survey Project (Southern Region) at the Archaeological Survey of India, shared his discoveries with The Hindu, shedding light on the significance of this hidden gem.
Rudragiri, nestled amidst the Eastern Ghats, features five naturally formed rock shelters at its foothills, facing westward. These shelters served as living quarters for people during the Mesolithic age around 5000 B.C., and they bear witness to the luminous rock paintings of that era.
Interestingly, two natural caves at the southern end of the hillock also exhibit exceptional murals from the renowned Kakatiya kingdom.
Mr. Kanna Babu described the physical condition of the Kakatiya artworks.
“These caves showcase the artistic brilliance of the Kakatiya period. While many have suffered damage over time due to exposure to the elements, some sketches and outlines have managed to survive. The paintings, adorned with a variety of colours derived from white kaolin and different pigments, depict captivating scenes from the epic Ramayana. Despite the impact of nature’s wrath, fragments of these paintings offer valuable insights into their creation during the 13th century A.D.,” he said.
The first cave, starting from the southern end of the hillock, presents a narrative mural portraying the intense battle between the Vanara brothers — Vali and Sugriva.
In the middle cave, a grand sketch of Hanuman, accompanied by sacred symbols of the conch (Sankha) and the fire altar (Yagna Vedi), captures visitors’ attention. Hanuman is depicted carrying the Sanjivani hill in his hand, symbolising his mission to save Lakshmana’s life.
The third cave houses the prehistoric rock paintings from the Mesolithic era. Interestingly, the Kakatiya artist chose the same rock shelter to superimpose the elegant figure of Hanuman, who is portrayed in a unique ‘Anjali’ posture, folding his hands in a divine offering.
Remarkably, the Ramayana figures neither overshadow the Mesolithic drawings nor diminish their scenic beauty.
Visitors today can marvel at the ancient drawings from two distinct periods, appreciating the artistic techniques employed.
India reports a record 93% DPT3 immunisation coverage in 2022: WHO
The coverage rate for DPT3, the third dose of diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus vaccines, in India rose to an all-time of 93% in 2022, surpassing the previous pre-pandemic best of 91% recorded in 2019, and also marking a sharp increase from the 85% recorded in 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said.
The WHO and UNICEF estimates for national immunisation coverage for 2022, released on Tuesday, showed that in the WHO South-East Asia Region, the coverage rate for DPT3 recovered to the pre-pandemic level of 91%, a sharp increase from the 82% recorded in 2021. The region also witnessed a 6% improvement in the coverage of the measles vaccine, rising to 92% in 2022 from 86% in 2021.
The number of zero-dose children (those that have not received even the first dose of DPT vaccine) halved to 2.3 million in 2022 from 4.6 million in 2021. Similarly, the number of partially vaccinated children (those that have received at least one dose of DPT vaccine but did not complete the primary series of three doses) reduced to 6.5 lakh in 2022 from 1.3 million in 2021.
The region had the best immunisation recoveries among all the WHO regions. This can be majorly attributed to the efforts being made by India and Indonesia, Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia, said. She said every child deserved to be protected against life-threatening diseases with routine immunisation, adding that the momentum built with impressive efforts and immunisation service must continue to benefit every child.
Indonesia reported a DPT3 coverage of 85% in 2022, the same as in 2019, but rising sharply from the 67% recorded in 2021. Bhutan recorded 98% and the Maldives 99%, surpassing their pre-pandemic rates. Bangladesh with 98% and Thailand 97% demonstrated consistency in routine immunisation coverage throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, the report said.
Derailed India-Russia Vande Bharat deal is back on track
After nearly three months of being derailed, the India-Russia Vande Bharat joint venture deal is back on track. On Tuesday, Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd. (RVNL) informed the exchanges that a share purchase agreement had been signed by it; Kinet Railway Solutions Ltd., its wholly owned subsidiary; Metrowagonmash; and another joint stock company, Locomotive Electronic Systems.
In the current deal, the RVNL has a minority stake of 25%, while Metrowagonmash retains a majority stake of 70%.
Another 5% is held by Locomotive Electronic Systems. The disclosure that the share purchase agreement has been signed comes three months after the formation of Kinet Railway Solutions by the RVNL on April 20.
The Hindu reported on June 1 that the joint venture had run into troubled waters after the RVNL was insistent that the terms of the JV deal be flipped, and that the RVNL should get the 69% majority shareholding instead.
This demand made by the RVNL was vehemently opposed by Russia’s Metrowagonmash.
The joint venture requires Metrowagonmash and the RVNL to manufacture 120 Vande Bharat train sets each at ₹120 crore. The RVNL had earlier requested majority shareholding in the interest of ‘smoother movement’ of the project as spare parts for the trains have to be imported from Western European and American counterparts. After the Russia-Ukraine war, there is an imminent ‘loss of trust’ that Russia is facing from the supplier countries, a railway official said, and the RVNL wanted a majority shareholding stake as a “confidence building measure”.
RVNL has a minority stake of 25%, while Metrowagonmash retains a majority stake of 70%
The India-UAE deal to trade with rupees
What are the two MOUs signed by the Reserve Bank of India and the Central Bank of UAE? How will trading in local currencies help? What are the benefits of linking UPI and its UAE-counterpart Instant Payment Platform? Will it make remittance flow easier?
The story so far:
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the UAE, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and its Abu Dhabi-headquartered counterpart the Central Bank of the UAE signed two memoranda of understanding (MoUs). While the first established a framework to promote the use of local currencies for cross-border transactions, the other was for interlinking payment systems.
How will local currencies be promoted?
The first of the two MoUs aims to establish a Local Currency Settlement System (LCSS) to promote the use of rupee and the dirham bilaterally. It will cover all current and permitted capital account transactions. This, the RBI said, would enable exporters and importers to send invoices and pay in their respective domestic currencies, which in turn would help the development of the INR-AED foreign exchange market. It would also help promote investments and remittances between the two countries. Broadly, the arrangement would help optimise transaction costs and settlement time for transactions, including for remittances from Indians residing in UAE.
Why is it significant for exporters?
The focus on denominating export contracts and invoices in the local currency helps avert exchange-rate risks (such as when a third currency is being used as a standard), which further facilitates the scope to discover competitive pricing. Moreover, it could also lead to enhanced avenues for cooperation among the banking systems of the two countries, thereby contributing to the expansion of trade and economic activity for both. The major items of export from India to the UAE include mineral fuels, mineral oils and products, bituminous substances, mineral waxes, followed by pearls, precious stones and metals, electrical machineries and equipment, among other things. The major items imported by India are petroleum crude and petroleum related products. India-UAE trade rose to $85 billion in 2022. Furthermore, the UAE was India’s third largest trading partner and second-largest export destination in FY2022-23. Conversely, India was the UAE’s second largest trading partner.
What about the interlinking of payment systems?
The second of the two MoUs links India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) with its UAE-counterpart Instant Payment Platform (IPP). This is alongside the linking of card switches, that is, RuPay switch and UAESWITCH. Card switches entail facilitating communications and transactions between different payment service providers. The agreement would also explore linking of payment messaging systems of the two countries. The apex banking regulator in India said that the UPI-IPP linkage would enable users in either country to “make fast, convenient, safe, and cost-effective cross-border fund transfers”. As for card switches, the regulator stated, it will “facilitate mutual acceptance of domestic cards and processing of card transactions.” This is relevant to 3.5 million resident Indians living in the UAE (figure as of 2021).
How will this help?
One of the several issues with sending remittances back home, especially for low wage earners, is the high costs of transactions. This may entail fees and exchange rate margins, among other potential costs. In fact, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in a larger context, had stated in a November 2022 report, “Because formal remittances involve high fixed costs and hence are expensive to provide, low-income individuals refrain from remitting, or are incentivised to use cheaper informal alternatives,” it stated. It is challenges like these that the UPI-IPP linkage would try to address in real-time.
The development follows up on similar endeavours undertaken in the recent past. In March, the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) finalised a collaboration with Singapore’s PayNow for facilitating cross-border real time money transfers. In fact, it was noted by officials at the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) that facilitating remittances would become 10% cheaper.
Furthermore, the NPCI had in January permitted non-resident accounts with international numbers to be onboarded into the UPI ecosystem. At the onset, it included users from 10 countries — Singapore, Australia, Canada, Oman, Qatar, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the U.K and Hong Kong.
The World Bank noted in the 2023 Migration and Development Brief that India experienced a 24.4% increase in remittances to $111 billion in 2022 on a year-over-year basis. This represented 3.3% of the GDP. It further stated that at present, remittance inflows from GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, which accounts for about 28% of the country’s total remittance inflows, also soared in 2022. “High energy prices favoured the employment and incomes of the less-skilled Indian migrants in the GCC countries, while the GCC governments’ special measures to curb food price inflation shielded migrants’ remitting potential,” the report argued. About 36% of the remittances were attributed to high-skilled and largely high-tech Indian migrants in the U.S., the U.K., and Singapore, the report pointed out.
During Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the UAE, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and its Abu Dhabi-headquartered counterpart, the Central Bank of the UAE signed two memoranda of understanding (MoUs).
The first of the two MoUs aims to establish a Local Currency Settlement System (LCSS) to promote the use of rupee and the dirham bilaterally. It will cover all current and permitted capital account transactions.
The second of the two MoUs links India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) with its UAE-counterpart Instant Payment Platform (IPP). This is alongside the linking of card switches, that is, RuPay switch and UAESWITCH.