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Policy&Politics

More than Chintan, it’s time to worry

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CONG HOPES RAHUL’S YATRA WILL CATAPULT PARTY TO POWER IN KARNATAKA

The day Congress’ three-day Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir concluded in Udaipur, the BJP’s two-day Chintan Shivir began in Ahmedabad. A discussion over these two camps is quite natural. Every person who believes in democracy wants a strong Opposition. On one hand, BJP has a dedicated team with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah active round the clock and working tirelessly every day of the week and chalking out strategy every moment, and on the other, what is the condition of Congress? The question before everyone is what is the message that came out of the three-day Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir of Congress in Udaipur? Did it invigorate the party workers spread across the country? How is Congress preparing for the coming Assembly elections or for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections? And of course, when will Congress get a full-time president? Many such questions are awaiting answers.

After the Chintan Shivir, the Congress gave the slogan ‘Bharat Jodo’! When this slogan was coined, a veteran Congress leader who dedicated his whole life to the party, told me that the party should first put its own house in order! India will automatically connect with the Congress! “When your party itself is not connected, what is the point of talking about the country?” When G-23 leaders talk about reforms in the party organisation, they are considered rebels. But the most important thing is that for a strong democracy, a strong Opposition is necessary and it is the moral responsibility of the Congress to give one. It has been the country’s oldest party and has been leading the nation for a long time. The real discussion in the Chintan Shivir should have been on the issue of why Congress is not able to understand the mood of the people. Why is the voter not able to believe in it? What is the reason that the party got cut off from the people at the grassroots level? Rahul Gandhi himself is saying this. The leaders at the Chintan Shivir should have expressed concern over this and come out with a roadmap to connect with the people but nothing of the sort happened. How will you understand the sentiments of the people and how will you explain your point of view to them?

If Rahul Gandhi arrived by train to attend the Udaipur camp, the objective was clear that he wanted to connect with the masses. He was being welcomed at every station till as late as 5 am and he was reciprocating by meeting the workers too. This is good but what about the local Congress leaders from Udaipur who sought to know why the party high command did not meet them? Just imagine how disappointed the Congress leaders and activists from Udaipur must have been? Such a disappointment kills enthusiasm. One more question remains unanswered as to why the Congress did not invite its ministers and MPs to such an important Chintan Shivir? Congress is in power only in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and it is a ruling partner in Maharashtra. It has only 53 MPs, yet not all had been invited.

Even the ministers of Rajasthan were not invited! 450 leaders were called for the camp out of which 430 attended. More than half of them were youths who are supporters of Rahul Gandhi. The rest were those leaders who have been occupying various posts in Congress for a long time. Ask them what steps they have taken to strengthen the party in recent years and they will have no answers. Instead of strengthening the party, these leaders spend their energy settling scores with each other. A young Congress leader asked me how many of the top leaders have a mass base? Can they win elections on their own? This question is valid. As long as the party does not send such black sheeps to political exile, revitalisation of the party will remain a mere dream!

Congress has decided to launch ‘Bharat Jodo’ campaign from Kanyakumari on October 2. A Congress observer asked me why is the Congress’ campaign not being launched from Kashmir when usually such campaigns begin from Kashmir to Kanyakumari? He himself gave the answer that if the campaign started from Kashmir, Ghulam Nabi Azad would have to be taken along. Azad saheb has expressed his opinion many times to reform the party organisation, so how could he be taken along? He has been a part of the G-23.

To take him along would have meant bowing down to the critics! Hearing all this, I remembered the couplet of the great personality of the 15th century Sant Kabir who says, ‘Nindak niyare raakhiye…’ This means you should have critics close to you, for only then you will know your weaknesses. You will be able to improve, and you will be able to walk on a better path. The army of sycophants has always been responsible for the sinking of the ship.

The Congress leaders who have spoken bitterly to make the party better are not foes of the party. They are not agents of the BJP. They should be heard. Does the party think why the youth leaders are moving away from it? The party had great expectations when it brought Hardik Patel into its fold. Why did he leave then? While parting ways, he said his condition was as if the new groom had been sterilised! Why did Sunil Jakhar leave the party? The bitter things Jakhar spoke about should have been the subject of Chintan Shivir. The BJP is welcoming leaders of all parties to its fold and yet Congress is not bothered.

This may sound bitter but it is true that the party does not have any roadmap at this juncture. Sonia ji has held the post of interim president for almost three years. Surely she is trying her best but who will deny that without a full-time president, how will the confidence of the workers be boosted? Rahul Gandhi says that he will not become the president and his caucus wants to see him in the president’s chair so that he remains the power centre.

Congress leaders attribute the precarious state of the party to the uncertainty over Rahul Gandhi. Moreover, the party seems to be confused about its policies of secularism. Now Congress leaders are doing exactly what BJP is doing!

But the moot question is, does the writ of high command run large at the lowest level? In fact, when there is a delay in the decision at the upper level, it results in confusion, and the morale of the workers breaks down. Congress has taken a long time to put its house in order. Nevertheless, the Congress followers are still waiting for it in every village!

The author is the chairman, Editorial Board of Lokmat Media and former member of Rajya Sabha.

Everyone is curious to know about the outcome of Congress’ Nav Sankalp Chintan Shivir. Has any roadmap been drawn which the Congress can firmly follow in the coming elections? Can it play the role of a strong Opposition necessary for democracy? A slogan of ‘Bharat Jodo’ has been given for sure, but the need of the hour is for Congress to put its own house in order and revitalise itself!

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Economy

Macro & financial stability, boost to infra, extended PLI likely key areas in Modi 3.0

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If one were to go by the Central Government’s poll manifesto which has stayed aligned to the pre-poll interim Budget, a strong adherence to the path of macro and financial stability as priorities, marked by low inflation, strong external balances, high growth, and fiscal prudence, appears to be the likely scenario if it comes back to power. A DBS Group research by Radhika Rao, senior economist, DBS Group Research and Taimur Baig, MD and Chief Economist, DBS Group Research indicates that the government will continue with the infrastructure push, policies to expand the manufacturing sector, and establish the country’s position as a voice of the Global South.

On the first, the focus will be on improving physical and digital infrastructure, marked by new metro networks, new railway tracks, new-age trains, improved connectivity, new bullet trains, roads, and energy infrastructure. Concurrently, besides expanding the 5G network, improving rural broadband connectivity, exploring 6G technology and the digitization of land records, amongst others, were highlighted in the to-do lists, as per Rao and Baig.

Secondly, Make-in-India and PLI schemes are likely to be expanded, with an emphasis on employment creation, simplification of regulatory processes, appropriate infra for manufacturing hubs, and R&D. A mix of traditional and new-age sectors will likely be prioritized, including a globally competitive food-processing industry, and core sectors (steel, cement, metals, engineering etc), besides a push towards indigenous defense manufacturing, pharma, new age & chip manufacturing, auto and electric vehicles, amongst others.

Existing social welfare programs are likely to be enhanced with better outreach, including, a middle-class focus through the provision of high-value jobs, quality healthcare and infra to improve ease of living, amongst others. Also on the radar is affordable housing program expansion with a focus on slum redevelopment, sustainable cities, etc. The PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana is to be a priority, which will continue to provide free foodgrain ration to about 800 mn residents. On healthcare, Rao and Baig see continuity to provide quality free health treatment to up to 500,000 poor families under Ayushman Bharat.

The economists are also of the view that the PM Ujjwala Yojana, which has already benefited 100 mn with cooking gas connections, will be expanded. Subsidies for solar panels on roofs of 10 mn households up to 300 units/month under the PM Surya Ghar Muft Bijli Yojana, unorganized workers, farmers and continuation of financial assistance to farmers under PM Kisan, farm self-sufficiency, etc.), start-ups and micro-credit enterprises, will be the other focus areas to boost the economy from a bottom-up approach.

Rao and Baig foresee limited fiscal implications from these announcements as part of these were included in the interim budget and the manifesto did not outline any new big-bang reforms or fresh social welfare spending programs. “We maintain our FY25 fiscal deficit assumption at -5.1% of GDP with the existing borrowing program,” says the economists.

A broad-based push towards more contentious structural reforms (land, labor, farming, etc.) did not receive a mention in the manifesto, which may still be prioritized if the party returns for a third term. In our view, the incoming government is neither limited by nor will be restricted by the poll promises. To that extent, the scope of reforms can be wider than what has been laid out in the respective manifestos.

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Policy&Politics

Govt extends date for submission of R&D proposals

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The Government has extended the deadline for submission of proposals related to R&D scheme under the National Green Hydrogen Mission. The R&D scheme seeks to make the production, storage, transportation and utilisation of green hydrogen more affordable. It also aims to improve the efficiency, safety and reliability of the relevant processes and technologies involved in the green hydrogen value chain. Subsequent to the issue of the guidelines, the Ministry of New & Renewable Energy issued a call for proposals on 16 March, 2024.

While the Call for Proposals is receiving encouraging response, some stakeholders have requested more time for submission of R&D proposals. In view of such requests and to allow sufficient time to the institutions for submitting good-quality proposals, the Ministry has extended the deadline for submission of proposals to 27th April, 2024.

The scheme also aims to foster partnerships among industry, academia and government in order to establish an innovation ecosystem for green hydrogen technologies. The scheme will also help the scaling up and commercialisation of green hydrogen technologies by providing the necessary policy and regulatory support.

The R&D scheme will be implemented with a total budgetary outlay of Rs 400 crore till the financial year 2025-26. The support under the R&D programme includes all components of the green hydrogen value chain, namely, production, storage, compression, transportation, and utilisation.

The R&D projects supported under the mission will be goal-oriented, time bound, and suitable to be scaled up. In addition to industrial and institutional research, innovative MSMEs and start-ups working on indigenous technology development will also be encouraged under the Scheme.

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Policy&Politics

India, Brazil, South Africa to press for labour & social issues, sustainability

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The Indian delegation also comprises Rupesh Kumar Thakur, Joint Secretary, and Rakesh Gaur, Deputy Director from the Ministry of Labour & Employment.

India, on Thursday, joined the G20’s two-day 2nd Employment Working Group (EWG) meeting under the Brazilian Presidency which is all set to address labour, employment and social issues for strong, sustainable, balanced and job-rich growth for all. India is co-chairing the 2nd EWG meeting, along with Brazil and South Africa, and is represented by Sumita Dawra, Secretary, Labour & Employment.

The Indian delegation also comprises Rupesh Kumar Thakur, Joint Secretary, and Rakesh Gaur, Deputy Director from the Ministry of Labour & Employment. India has pointed out that the priority areas of the 2nd EWG at Brasilia align with the priority areas and outcomes of previous G20 presidencies including Indian presidency, and commended the continuity in the multi-year agenda to create lasting positive change in the world of work. This not only sustains but also elevates the work initiated by the EWG during the Indian Presidency.

The focus areas for the 2nd EWG meeting are — creating quality employment and promoting decent labour, addressing a just transition amidst digital and energy transformations, leveraging technologies to enhance the quality of life for al and the emphasis on gender equity and promoting diversity in the world of employment for inclusivity, driving innovation and growth. On the first day of the meeting, deliberations were held on the over-arching theme of promotion of gender equality and promoting diversity in the workplace.

The Indian delegation emphasized the need for creating inclusive environments by ensuring equal representation and empowerment for all, irrespective of race, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic background. To increase female labour force participation, India has enacted occupational safety health and working conditions code, 2020 which entitles women to be employed in all establishments for all types of work with their consent at night time. This provision has already been implemented in underground mines.

In 2017, the Government amended the Maternity Benefit Act of 1961, which increased the ‘maternity leave with pay protection’ from 12 weeks to 26 weeks for all women working in establishments employing 10 or more workers. This is expected to reduce the motherhood pay gap among the working mothers. To aid migrant workers, India’s innovative policy ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ allows migrants to access their entitled food grains from anywhere in the Public Distribution System network in the country.

A landmark step in fostering inclusion in the workforce is the e-Shram portal, launched to create a national database of unorganized workers, especially migrant and construction workers. This initiative, providing the e-Shram card, enables access to benefits under various social security schemes.

The portal allows an unorganized worker to register himself or herself on the portal on self-declaration basis, under 400 occupations in 30 broad occupation sectors. More than 290 million unorganized workers have been registered on this portal so far.

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Policy&Politics

India to spend USD 3.7 billion to fence Myanmar border

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India plans to spend nearly $3.7 billion to fence its 1,610-km (1,000-mile) porous border with Myanmar within about a decade, said a source with direct knowledge of the matter, to prevent smuggling and other illegal activities. New Delhi said earlier this year it would fence the border and end a decades-old visa-free movement policy with coup-hit Myanmar for border citizens for reasons of national security and to maintain the demographic structure of its northeastern region.

A government committee earlier this month approved the cost for the fencing, which needs to be approved by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, said the source who declined to be named as they were not authorised to talk to the media. The prime minister’s office and the ministries of home, finance, foreign affairs and information and broadcasting did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Myanmar has so far not commented on India’s fencing plans. Since a military coup in Myanmar in 2021, thousands of civilians and hundreds of troops have fled from there to Indian states where people on both sides share ethnic and familial ties. This has worried New Delhi because of risk of communal tensions spreading to India. Some members of the Indian government have also blamed the porous border for abetting the tense situation in the restive north-eastern Indian state of Manipur, abutting Myanmar.

For nearly a year, Manipur has been engulfed by a civil war-like situation between two ethnic groups, one of which shares lineage with Myanmar’s Chin tribe. The committee of senior Indian officials also agreed to build parallel roads along the fence and 1,700 km (1,050 miles) of feeder roads connecting military bases to the border, the source said.

The fence and the adjoining road will cost nearly 125 million rupees per km, more than double that of the 55 million per km cost for the border fence with Bangladesh built in 2020, the source said, because of the difficult hilly terrain and the use of technology to prevent intrusion and corrosion.

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Policy&Politics

ONLY 2-3% RECOVERED FROM $2-3 TN ANNUAL ILLEGAL TRADE THROUGH BANKING: INTERPOL

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However, Stock highlighted the enormity of the challenge, noting that between 40% and 70% of criminal profits are reinvested, perpetuating the cycle of illicit financial activity.

In a press briefing held on Wednesday, Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock unveiled alarming statistics regarding the extent of undetected money laundering and illegal trade transactions plaguing the global banking network. Stock revealed that over 96% of the money transacted through this network remains undetected, with only 2-3% of the estimated USD 2-3 trillion from illegal trade being tracked and returned to victims.

Interpol, working in conjunction with law enforcement agencies and private financial sectors across its 196 member countries, is committed to combating the rising tide of fraud perpetrated by illicit traders. These criminal activities encompass a wide spectrum, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, arms dealing, and the illicit movement of financial assets.

Stock emphasized the urgent need to establish mechanisms for monitoring transactions within the global banking network. Currently, efforts are underway to engage banking associations worldwide in setting up such a framework. However, Stock highlighted the enormity of the challenge, noting that between 40% and 70% of criminal profits are reinvested, perpetuating the cycle of illicit financial activity. The lack of real-time information sharing poses a significant obstacle to law enforcement agencies in their efforts to combat money laundering and illegal trade.

Stock underscored the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in exacerbating this problem, citing its use in voice cloning and other fraudulent activities. Criminal organizations are leveraging AI technologies to expand their operations and evade detection on a global scale. Stock emphasized the importance of enhanced cooperation between law enforcement agencies and private sector banking groups. Realtime information sharing is crucial in the fight against illegal wealth accumulation.

Drawing inspiration from initiatives such as the “Singapore Anti-Scam Centre,” Stock called for the adoption of similar models in other countries to strengthen the collective response to financial crimes. In conclusion, Stock’s revelations underscore the pressing need for concerted action to combat global financial crimes. Enhanced cooperation between public and private sectors, coupled with innovative strategies for monitoring and combating illicit transactions, is essential to safeguarding the integrity of the global financial system.

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Policy&Politics

FM defends Atal Pension Scheme, highlights guaranteed returns

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman defended the Atal Pension Yojana (APY) against Congress criticism, asserting its design based on choice architecture and a guaranteed minimum 8% return. She emphasized the scheme’s opt-out feature, facilitating automatic premium continuation unless subscribers choose otherwise, promoting retirement savings. Sitharaman countered Congress allegations of coercion, stating the APY’s guaranteed returns irrespective of market conditions, supplemented by government subsidies.

Responding to Congress’s claim of scheme misuse, Sitharaman highlighted its intended beneficiaries – the lower-income groups. She criticized Congress for its alleged elitist mindset and emphasized the scheme’s success in targeting the needy. Sitharaman accused Congress of exploiting vote bank politics and coercive tactics, contrasting it with the APY’s transparent framework. The exchange underscores the political debate surrounding social welfare schemes, with the government defending its approach while opposition parties raise concerns about implementation and efficacy.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s robust defense of the Atal Pension Yojana (APY) against Congress criticism highlights the ongoing debate over social welfare schemes in India. Sitharaman’s assertion of the APY’s design principles, including its opt-out feature and guaranteed minimum return, underscores the government’s commitment to promoting retirement savings among lower-income groups. The Atal Pension Yojana, named after former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was launched in 2015 to provide pension benefits to workers in the unorganized sector. It aims to address the significant gap in pension coverage among India’s workforce, particularly those employed in informal and low-income sectors. The scheme offers subscribers fixed pension amounts ranging from Rs. 1,000 to Rs. 5,000 per month, depending on their contribution and age at entry, after attaining the age of 60. Sitharaman’s response comes after Congress criticism alleging the APY’s inefficacy and coercive tactics in enrolment.

Congress General Secretary Jairam Ramesh described the scheme as poorly designed, citing instances of subscribers dropping out due to unauthorized account openings. However, Sitharaman refuted these claims, emphasizing the APY’s transparent and beneficiary-oriented approach. The finance minister’s defense focuses on three key aspects of the APY: Choice Architecture: Sitharaman highlights the opt-out feature of the APY, which automatically continues premium payments unless subscribers choose to discontinue.

This design element aims to encourage long-term participation and ensure consistent retirement savings among subscribers. By simplifying the decision-making process, the scheme seeks to overcome inertia and promote financial discipline among participants. Guaranteed Minimum Return: Sitharaman underscores the APY’s guarantee of a minimum 8% return, irrespective of prevailing interest rates. This assurance provides subscribers with confidence in the scheme’s financial viability and incentivizes long-term savings.

The government’s commitment to subsidizing any shortfall in actual returns further strengthens the attractiveness of the APY as a retirement planning tool. Targeting the Needy: Sitharaman defends the predominance of pension accounts in lower income slabs, arguing that it reflects the scheme’s successful targeting of its intended beneficiaries – the poor and lower-middle class. She criticizes Congress for its alleged elitist mindset and suggests that the party’s opposition to welfare schemes like the APY stems from a disconnect with the needs of marginalized communities. Sitharaman’s rebuttal also addresses broader political narratives surrounding social welfare policies in India.

She accuses Congress of exploiting vote bank politics and coercive tactics, contrasting it with the transparent and inclusive framework of the APY. The exchange underscores the ideological differences between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress, with each side advocating for their vision of social welfare and economic development. In addition to defending the APY, Sitharaman’s remarks shed light on the broader challenges and opportunities facing India’s pension sector.

Despite significant progress in expanding pension coverage through schemes like the APY, the country still grapples with issues such as financial literacy, informal employment, and pension portability. Addressing these challenges requires a multifaceted approach involving government intervention, private sector participation, and civil society engagement.

As India strives to achieve its vision of inclusive and sustainable development, initiatives like the APY play a crucial role in promoting economic security and social equity. Sitharaman’s defense of the scheme underscores the government’s commitment to addressing the needs of vulnerable populations and ensuring their financial well-being in the long run.

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