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Current Affairs – 12 November 2021

Donations to regional parties from ‘unknown’ sources

Indian Express

GS 2: Polity

Context:

  • Over 55% of the donations received by regional parties in FY 2019-20 came from “unknown” sources, the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) said in a report.
  • According to the report, electoral bonds accounted for nearly 95% of the donations from “unknown” sources.

About:

  • While the total donations received by 25 regional parties in FY 2019-20 added up to Rs 803.24 crore, Rs 445.7 crore was attributed to “unknown” sources.
  • Of the donations from “unknown” sources, Rs 426.233 crore (95.616%) came from electoral bonds, and Rs 4.976 crore from voluntary contributions.
  • Donations received by national parties from “unknown” sources added up to 98% of their income.

What is political funding?

  • Methods that political parties use to raise funds to finance their campaign and routine activities.
  • A political party needs money to pitch itself, its objectives, its intended actions to get votes for itself.

Features of electoral bonds:

  • These bonds are issued by notified banks.
  • The donor may approach these banks and purchase the bonds.
  • The donor shall be permitted to buy the bonds through cheque/digital payment. Hence the identity of the donors is protected (if the donors are identified, they may get caught up in political rivalry-especially if the donor is a businessman).
  • The donor donates these bonds to the political party.

Challenges:

  • There is no obligation on the part of the donor (individual or corporate) or the political party to reveal where the donations come from.
  • It will also go against transparency, a fundamental principle in political financing. Companies will no longer have to declare the names of the political parties to which they have donated, so shareholders won’t know where their money has gone.
  • There are possibilities of making electoral bonds a convenient channel for black money.

 

Earth’s First Landmass

Indian Express

GS 1: Geography

Context:

  • Recently a study is published by researchers from India, Australia and the US in the journal PNAS.
  • They have challenged the widely accepted view that the continents rose from the oceans about 2.5 billion years ago. This happened 700 million years earlier — about 3.2 billion years ago — and that the earliest continental landmass to emerge may have been Jharkhand’s Singhbhum region.

Sandstones of Singhbhum:

  • Scientists have found sandstones in Singhbhum with geological signatures of ancient river channels, tidal plains and beaches over 3.2 billion years old, representing the earliest crust exposed to air.
  • They found a particular type of sedimentary rocks, called sandstones. These rocks are 3.1 billion years old, and were formed in ancient rivers, beaches, and shallow seas.
  • All these water bodies could have only existed if there was continental land. Thus, they inferred that the Singhbhum region was above the ocean before 3.1 billion years ago.

The analysis

  • The researchers studied the granites that form the continental crust of Singhbhum region.
  • These granites are 3.5 to 3.1 billion years old and formed through extensive volcanism that happened about 35-45 km deep inside the Earth and continued on-and-off for hundreds of millions of years until all the magma solidified to form a thick continental crust in the area.
  • Due to the thickness and less density, the continental crust emerged above surrounding oceanic crust owing to buoyancy.
  • The researchers believe the earliest emergence of continents would have contributed to a proliferation of photosynthetic organisms, which would have increased oxygen levels in the atmosphere.

 

The Char Dham Road Debate

Indian Express

GS 2: Government policies and interventions

Context:

  • The Supreme Court reserved its judgment on an appeal by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for relaxing its September 2021 order that specified the road width under the Char Dham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojana (Char Dham Highway Development Project) of the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways (MoRTH).

About:

  • A flagship initiative of the Centre is the Rs 12,000-crore highway expansion project, which was envisaged in 2016 to widen 889 km of hill roads to provide all-weather connectivity in the Char Dham circuit.
  • It covers Uttarakhand’s four major shrines — Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri — in the upper Himalayas.

The controversy:

  • In 2018, the road-expansion project was challenged by an NGO for its potential impact on the Himalayan ecology due to felling trees, cutting hills and dumping muck (excavated material).
  • The Supreme Court formed a high-powered committee (HPC) under environmentalist Ravi Chopra to examine the issues.
  • In July 2020, the HPC submitted two reports after members disagreed on the ideal width for hill roads.
  • In September, the Supreme Court upheld the recommendation of four HPC members, including Chopra, to limit the carriageway width to 5.5 m (along with 1.5 m raised footpath), based on a March 2018 guideline issued by MoRTH for mountain highways.
  • The majority report by 21 HPC members favoured a width of 12m as envisaged in the project following national highway double-lane with paved shoulder standards: 7 m carriageway, 1.5 m paved shoulders on both sides, and 1 m earthen shoulders on either side for drains and utilities (hillside) and crash barrier (valley side).
  • A wider road requires additional slope cutting, blasting, tunnelling, dumping and deforestation – all of which will further destabilise the Himalayan terrain, and increase vulnerability to landslides and flash floods.

‘No rule of law’

  • HPC chairman Chopra wrote to the Environment Ministry in August 2020, underlining how the project was being implemented in brazen violation of statutory norms “as if the Rule of Law does not exist”. These include:
    1. WORK WITHOUT VALID PERMISSION: Project work and felling of trees on different stretches, adding up to over 250 km, has been continuing illegally since 2017-18.
    2. MISUSING OLD CLEARANCES: Work started on stretches adding up to over 200 km on the basis of old forest clearances issued to the Border Roads Organisation during 2002-2012. This is illegal and defeats the regulatory purpose since the scope of work has changed drastically with “enormous hill cutting” undertaken.
    3. FALSE DECLARATION: Tree felling, hill cutting and muck dumping on stretches adding up to over 200 km commenced by falsely declaring that these stretches did not fall in the Eco Sensitive Zones of Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, Rajaji National Park, Valley of Flowers National Park etc.
    4. WORK WITHOUT SEEKING CLEARANCE: Work began on various stretches, adding up to at least 60 km, after withdrawing applications for forest clearance without furnishing reasons.
    5. VIOLATION OF SC DIRECTIVE: Work started on stretches adding up to at least 50 km, even though the state government said in an affidavit in April 2019 that stretches where work had not already begun would be subject to the direction of the SC.

The defence angle

  • Even as the project grappled to come clean, it garnered support from the MoD that moved an appeal before the Supreme Court in November, seeking “a double-lane road having a carriageway width of 7 m (or 7.5 m in case there is a raised kerb)” with 8-10 m formation width to “meet the requirement of the Army”.
  • While conceived primarily to facilitate the Char Dham yatras (pilgrimage) and to boost tourism, the project always had a strategic angle to it as the highways would facilitate troop movement to areas closer to the China border.
  • The HPC chairman and two members had recommended that “no credence should be given to the needs of the armed forces”.

Speed versus stability

  • The wider the road, the quicker the defence deployment and supplies. But widening a mountain highway, particularly on the young, still-unsettled Himalayas, runs the risk of leaving the slopes more unstable.
  • In fact, the HPC argued that “a disaster-resilient road is much more critical” than a wider road “prone to frequent blockages, landslides and recurring slope failures”, concluding that an intermediate width for Himalayan highways was more judicious even for the country’s defence needs.
  • During the recent hearing, the counsel for the NGO pointed out how three valleys in Pithoragarh situated close to the China border were cut off due to landslides for two months, pleading that the Army, as well as civilians, required a safe, reliable road and not one that remained blocked or got washed away periodically.

The way things stand

  • The NGO underlined the government’s disregard for the September 2020 court order when MoRTH unilaterally relaxed its guideline for hill roads last December, the government furnished a two-page report on the steps taken for landslide mitigation.
  • The judgment is likely to serve as a benchmark for “balancing both concerns” within the legal framework, and draw a not-so-fine line between vanity projects and strategic imperative.