1. A new home for old artefacts

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; Polity & Governance

The National Museum in Delhi is a repository of India’s rich history and proud heritage. Over the past few months, many critical pieces have been written about the government’s decision to move the museum to the North and South Blocks. However, examples from other countries show that a planned move can serve the collection, comfort, and audience experience needs of the National Museum better. In addition to Egypt, where the impressive Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza will replace the crowded Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo, many national museums have moved to new premises.

Limitations

The current building, though impressive, has limitations in being a national institution. The new location will provide a space that is over four and half times bigger than the current space. The museum has over 2,00,000 cultural collections and less than 6% of them are in display. The move can provide an opportunity to bring more collections from storage to be displayed through the creation of several more galleries. Additionally, it will also provide much more space for storage, especially with more collections being constantly added from excavations, donations and repatriations.

From the time an exhibition of Indian art was organised at the Royal Academy in London, and later in Rashtrapati Bhavan, which led to the creation of the National Museum, the collection numbers have been increasing manifold. They will only increase further in the next few decades.

The North and South block buildings are a prominent part of Delhi’s landscape. Once they are retrofitted to provide a fitting external façade (without compromising on heritage), international standard exhibition and collection storage areas, and spaces for education and visitor services, they can become a landmark location. The increase in space would allow for more gallery spaces to include both ancient and contemporary Indian art and culture. The current museum also struggles in terms of finding a space with adequate environmental controls for travelling exhibitions. There will be an opportunity in the new location, with the increased space available, for accommodating both international and national travelling exhibitions. The National Museum as the nodal agency for all outgoing and incoming cultural collections, including repatriated collections, will be able to serve these collection needs better.

Key skills for students

The National Museum Institute (NMI), whose highly skilled graduates not only serve the needs of the museum but also the broader needs of India’s cultural sector, will benefit much from the move. The students could gain a lot from the collections, their storage, conservation and interpretation. They can greatly benefit with a large increase in laboratory, gallery and teaching facilities. There is also an interest to expand NMI and incorporate its programmes in Museology, Art History and Conservation along with other programmes in Archaeology, Archival Studies and so on, under a new institute. The benefits would only be greater from an expanded operation.

The exhibition areas in the current building are still operational. A new Buddhist gallery is being opened at the adjoining Archaeological Survey of India building. In this context, keeping the collections safe in the current building and getting the new location ready before carefully moving the collections with safe packing and transport is important. The risks of damage to collections during transit can be greatly minimised. A better designed and new collection storage area in the new location will minimise risks from the environment, disasters and pests.

A revamped National Museum that looks at both people and collection comfort; has galleries that provide excellent audience experience; good education spaces; and uses technology creatively for interpretation, outreach and education could become a ‘must visit’ for every visitor. In fact, it could become the anchor for a vibrant museum movement in India.

Source: The Hindu

2. What’s next for Benjamin Netanyahu?

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; IOBR

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, may finally be on his way-out. Eight political parties, from the rightwing Yamina to the Arab-majority Ra’am (United Arab List), have come together to form a new coalition, which, if proves majority in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, could oust Mr. Netanyau, who has been in power since 2009.

Why a new coalition?

Israel saw four national elections in the past two years. In all these elections, no party won a majority on its own. After the March 2020 polls, Mr. Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud party joined hands with Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White to form a unity government. But the fractious coalition did not last long.

In December, the government collapsed after the Knesset failed to pass the annual budget, pushing Israel into another election. In the March 2021 election, the voters gave another split verdict. Likud emerged as the biggest party with 30 seats out of the 120-member Knesset, but failed to form a coalition with the support of 61 lawmakers — the majority-mark. After Netanyahu’s failure to form the government, President Reuven Rivlin invited Yair Lapid, leader of Yesh Atid, which is the second largest party in the current Knesset with 17 members, to form the government. It’s Mr. Lapid who put together the ‘change’ coalition.

Who all are there in the coalition?

In 2020, Mr. Lapid’s Yesh Atid fought the elections as part of the Blue and White coalition. But when Blue and White leader Mr. Gantz decided to join Mr. Netanyahu’s unity government, Mr. Lapid parted ways. He was the Opposition leader in the last Knesset. Now, Mr. Lapid and Mr. Gantz have come together again. Their parties have 25 MKs (Members of Knesset) together. Six other parties have also joined them – the rightwing Yamina (7 MKs), centre-right New Hope (6 MKs); centre-left Meretz (6MKs) and Labour (7 MKs); secular right Yisrael Beiteinu (7 MKs); and Arab Ra’am (4 MKs). The eight-party coalition has 62 MKs among themselves. But one of Yamina MKs, Amichai Chikli, has already said he would not support the coalition. That has left the coalition with a razor-thin majority of one seat.

What happens next?

According to the coalition agreement, Yamina leader Naftali Bennet, who was earlier with the far-right-religious Jewish Home party, could be the next Prime Minister. Mr. Bennet, a kippa-wearing politician who is opposed to the creation of an independent Palestinian state, could be the first leader forming a government with support from an Arab party in Israel’s history. Mr. Bennet, according to the coalition pact, could remain the Prime Minister for two years and then Mr. Lapid will get the top job. But the coalition has hardly anything in common but their goal to see Mr. Netanyahu go. So it has to be seen how long the coalition will last.

By signing the unity agreements, Mr. Lapid, the architect of the coalition, has passed the first test. But the next is the most important one – win the confidence of the Knesset. The current Speaker is Likud’s Yariv Levin. Mr. Lapid has accused him of delaying the vote so that Mr. Netanyahu will have more time to try to persuade rightwing MKs (of Yamina and New Hope) to vote against the Bennet-Lapid government. One Yamina MK has already revolted against Mr. Bennet’s decision. Another one, Nir Orbach, has expressed his doubts about the coalition. If he switches sides, the coalition won’t have a majority. But two members of the Joint List (another Arab platform that has 6 MKs) are undecided how to vote. If they vote for the ‘change’ government, it could sail through despite the rebellion within Yamina.

What’s next for Netanyahu?

For Mr. Netanyahu, the best outcome is Mr. Bennet’s failure to prove majority in the Knesset. The country would then move into another round of elections, and he could stay in power until the next government is formed — which could be months away. Being in power would also offer some immunity to Mr. Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption. If ousted, he could remain the Opposition leader.

He has already launched a broadside against Mr. Bennet, saying he is forming a left-wing government that would endanger Israel’s security. But Mr. Netanyahu’s repeated failures to form a stable government have shaken his hold over Likud. Out of power, he could face leadership challenges within the party. In 2019, Gideon Saar had unsuccessfully challenged him for Likud’s leadership. It may be too early to write Mr. Netanyahu off. But if the ‘change’ coalition forms a government, Mr. Netanyahu’s political future would be thrown into uncertainty.

Source: The Hindu

3. Covid-19 advance: Should you dip into your PF account?

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

On Monday, the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) allowed its over 5 crore subscribers to avail a second Covid-19 advance, with the second wave of infections having impacted families across the country. As members weigh their options, experts say EPF should not be the default option but individuals should definitely consider withdrawing from the fund if they are in need of money or need to repay a debt to preserve their credit score, or to have an emergency fund in the absence of other sources of funds.

How much advance can you withdraw?

For the second time in successive years, the EPFO allowed subscribers to avail a Covid-19 advance. In March last year, the Centre announced an online facility to allow members to withdraw an amount not exceeding the basic wages and dearness allowances for three months or up to 75% of the amount standing to a member’s credit in the EPF account, whichever is less. That scheme was notified on March 27, 2020 and the online facility launched on March 29. On Monday, the option of a second Covid-19 advance was made available. The government has permitted members who already availed the first Covid-19 advance last year, to opt for a second advance.

Prior to the pandemic period, withdrawal conditions allowed subscribers to take a non-refundable advance or withdraw money before retirement only for specified purposes, such as a medical emergency, marriage, higher education or purchase of a house, etc.

Also, subscribers who have been unemployed for more than a month can withdraw up to 75% of their balance.

When should you consider dipping into your EPF?

One must remember that EPF earns you a higher interest rate in comparison to bank FDs or small savings instruments, and in 2020-21 the interest rate offered to members was 8.5%. This is post-tax interest income and is equivalent to pre-tax interest income of around 12.5% for someone in the highest tax bracket of 30%.

Usually, this would be enough reason for an individual to leave the EPF corpus untouched until retirement, unless it is for meeting critical goals such as home purchase, children’s education or their wedding. However, the last 15 months have been financially very challenging for a number of individuals.

If on the one hand people have seen disruptions in income, many have suffered huge medical expenses and, in some cases, have lost their near ones. These circumstances have not only dried individual savings in a lot of cases but have potentially forced many people to go for either a personal loan or other expensive sources of borrowing.

In such circumstances, one should not hesitate to withdraw from one’s EPF account. It is better to do that rather than go for additional borrowing and pile on debt at a time when one is already facing disruptions in income and struggling to service their existing debts.

Personal finance experts, however, caution that one should only consider withdrawal from EPF after having exhausted other options, and withdrawal should be driven by need rather than ease of access. “It should not be the default option. One should only dip into it only if he/ she has dried up other options such as fixed deposits, debt mutual funds or other small savings instruments,” said Vishal Dhawan, founder and CEO, Plan Ahead Wealth Advisors.

Should you withdraw to repay debt?

If individuals are finding it tough to service their existing debt and have no other source of funds to repay it, experts feel they can withdraw funds from EPF to repay some of the debt in order to make it manageable; otherwise, the credit history of the individual could be at stake.

Credit history may impact the borrower’s ability to secure a loan from a financial institution in the future, Dhawan observed, stressing that it is not a good idea to let your credit history get impacted. If your Cibil rating is one consideration that you should look at, it is also important to note that if your EPF is earning you lower interest income than the interest outgo on your existing loan, then it must be utilised to repay the loan.

Should you withdraw for other reasons?

While it may be a decent idea to withdraw some money from EPF and keep it liquid as an emergency fund if you have no other source of funds left in these uncertain times, you must avoid pulling it out for investing elsewhere.

At a time when equity markets have done well and mutual funds have seen investors pulling out money to invest directly in stocks, there could be an urge to pull EPF money out and invest in stocks for higher returns, but experts advise against this. EPF is a key element of asset allocation and individuals should follow a healthy mix of debt and equity asset allocation. If equities are doing well, it doesn’t mean all the money from debt investments should be diverted into equities. While equities help generate higher return, debt provides stability to the portfolio. And since EPF is a key component of retirement planning, investors should avoid pulling money out to invest in equities.

“While there could be a tendency to access the EPF money now and invest in equities, which are doing well, investors should not do that. EPF provides stable return and is not volatile,” said Dhawan.

How many availed the facility earlier?

As on May 31, 2021, the EPFO settled more than 76.31 lakh Covid-19 advance claims, disbursing a total of Rs 18,698.15 crore, a government statement said. Until December 31 last year, the EPFO had settled 56.79 lakh claims worth Rs 14,310.21 crore under the advance facility after the Covid-19 pandemic. A total of 197.91 lakh final settlements, and death, insurance and advance claims worth Rs 73,288 crore were settled during April-December. Exempted establishments, which run their own PF trusts, also settled 4.19 lakh claims disbursing Rs 3,983 crore.

Source: The Indian Express

4. US sets, then suspends tariffs on India, 5 others over digital taxes

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

The United States government on Wednesday announced further suspension of punitive tariffs for six months on India, Austria, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom while it continues to resolve the digital services taxes investigation amid the ongoing multilateral negotiations at the OECD and in the G20 process.

Concerns over taxes on Digital Services

“The US is focused on finding a multilateral solution to a range of key issues related to international taxation, including our concerns with digital services taxes. The US remains committed to reaching a consensus on international tax issues through the OECD and G20 processes. Today’s actions provide time for those negotiations to continue to make progress while maintaining the option of imposing tariffs under Section 301 if warranted in the future,” US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said.

Taxes against American companies

The suspension came after the conclusion of a year-long investigation into taxes which the US has stated are against tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook. In January 2021, following investigations, the USTR determined that the digital services taxes adopted by Austria, India, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and the UK discriminated against US digital firms.

The US Wednesday announced 25 per cent tariffs on over $2-billion imports from these six countries, but then immediately suspended the duties to allow time for international negotiations.

In case of India, USTR’s proposed course of action includes additional tariffs of up to 25 per cent ad valorem on an aggregate level of trade that would collect duties on goods of India in the range of the amount of DST that India is expected to collect from US firms.

Around 26 categories of goods are in the preliminary list of products that would be subject to the additional tariffs. This includes shrimps, basmati rice, cigarette paper, cultured pearls, semi precious stones, silver powder and silver articles of jewelry, gold mixed link necklaces and neck chains and certain furniture of bentwood. Initial estimates indicate that the value of the DST payable by US-based company groups to India will be up to approximately $55 million per year, the USTR report said.

The NDA government had moved an amendment in Finance Bill 2020-21, imposing a 2 per cent digital service tax on trade and services by non-resident e-commerce operators with a turnover of over Rs 2 crore, effectively expanding the scope of equalisation levy that, till last year, only applied to digital advertising services.

Source: The Indian Express

5. Model Tenancy Act: what changes for property owners and tenants

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; Polity & Governance

After releasing the draft in 2019, the Union Cabinet on Wednesday approved the Model Tenancy Act (MTA) to streamline the process of renting property in India and aid the rent economy in the estate sector.

Why this Act

As per Census 2011, more than 1 crore houses were lying vacant in urban areas. “The existing rent control laws are restricting the growth of rental housing and discourage owners from renting out their vacant houses due to fear of repossession. One of the potential measures to unlock the vacant house is to bringing transparency and accountability in the existing system of renting of premises and to balance the interests of both the property owner and tenant in a judicious manner,” says the new Act, piloted by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.

States can adopt the Act as it is with fresh legislation, since it is a state subject, or they can amend their existing rent acts to factor in the new MTA. States and Union Territories have MoUs with the Centre under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Urban which has this provision.

The government says the Act aims to formalise the shadow market of rental housing, unlock vacant properties, increase rental yields, ease/remove exploitative practices, reduce procedural barriers in registration, and increase transparency and discipline.

How it was conceived

In 2015, before the Housing for All by 2022 Mission (Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana-Urban) was launched, it was decided that 20% of the two crore houses to be created should be exclusively for rent. The decision was based on a 2013 report by a Task Force for Rental Housing, which held that affordable rental housing “addresses the issues of the underprivileged and inclusive growth, in an even more direct manner than affordable ownership housing”. The Expenditure Finance Committee cleared an outlay of Rs 6,000 crore for a rental component in PMAY-U; the Centre would bear 75% with the rest borne by states, urban local bodies, or through NGOs or CSR activities of the private sector.

Where it applies

After enforcement of this Act, no person can let or take on rent any premises except by an agreement in writing. Repeal of local rent control Acts has been a politically sensitive issue in cities with high-value rent markets, such as especially South Mumbai, where old properties in prime locations have been occupied for decades by tenants at negligible rent. The Model Act has been in the making since 2015, but has been held up on this point.

The new Act will be applicable prospectively and will not affect existing tenancies.

The Act seeks to cover urban and as well as rural areas.

What’s new

States will set up a grievance redressal mechanism comprising of Rent Authority, Rent Court and Rent Tribunal to provide fast-track resolution of disputes. Disposal of a complaint/appeal by the Rent Court and the Rent Tribunal will be mandatory within 60 days.

There is no monetary ceiling. At present, in many old properties let out under archaic rent-control Acts, such ceilings have left landlords stuck with outdated rent amounts.

A digital platform will be set up in the local vernacular language or the language of the State/Union Territory for submitting tenancy agreement and other documents. Rent Authority will keep a tab on these agreements.

Verbal agreements will be out of the picture, as the MTA mandates written agreement for all new tenancies which is to be submitted to Rent Authority. Tenant will continue to pay the rent even during the pendency of a dispute with a landlord.

Subletting of premises can only be done with the prior consent of the landlord, and no structural change can be done by the tenant without the written consent of the landlord.

Practices enshrined in the Act

The security deposit to be paid by the tenant should not exceed two months’ rent for residential property (six months’ rent in case of non-residential property), and should be a minimum of one month’s rent for non-residential property.

The Act lists the kinds of repairs each party would be responsible for, with the proviso that money for repairs can be deducted from the security deposit or rent, as applicable, if a party refuses to carry out their share of the work. No arbitrary eviction of a tenant can be done during currency of the tenancy period, except in accordance with provisions of the Act.

The Rent Court can allow repossession by the landlord if the tenant misuses the premises, after being served a notice by the landowner. Misuse of the premises, as defined, includes public nuisance, damage, or its use for “immoral or illegal purposes”. If the tenant refuses to vacate, the landlord can claim double the monthly rent for two months, and four times the monthly rent thereafter.

In case of a force majeure event, the landlord shall allow the tenant to continue in possession until a period of one month from the date of cessation of such disastrous event, on the terms of existing tenancy agreement.

Source: The Indian Express

6. The Kedar Nath sedition ruling

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; Polity & Governance

The Supreme Court on Thursday quashed case of sedition filed against journalist Vinod Dua in Himachal Pradesh for allegedly making remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the government’s handling of the migrant crisis during the Covid-19 lockdown last year.

In doing so, the court also reiterated the principles in the landmark case on sedition — Kedar Nath Singh v Union of India (1962).

What were the cases against Dua?

In a video, Dua had criticised Prime Minster Modi and the Centre for the handling of the migrant crisis last year. BJP leader Ajay Shyam filed a case of sedition against Dua. Section 124A of the IPC penalises sedition as punishable with either imprisonment ranging from three years to a lifetime, a fine, or both.

The Himachal Pradesh government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, argued in the Supreme Court that Dua had attempted to spread misinformation or incorrect information and cause panic in the perception of the general public— “for example, the statement that some people feared that there could be food riots post lockdown was without any basis and had clear potential of spreading panic.”

Both the state and the Centre argued against quashing the FIR because the state wanted to investigate whether such statements were “deliberate” or “unintended and innocent assertions”.

What has the court ruled?

While the Supreme Court shielded Dua from arrest earlier, the case itself was quashed on Thursday by a two-judge bench comprising Justice U U Lalit and Justice Vineet Saran. It held that his remarks constituted genuine criticism of the government and could not be labelled seditious.

Dua had also sought that the court direct that FIRs against persons belonging to the media with “at least 10 years’ standing not be registered unless cleared by a committee to be constituted by every State Government, the composition of which should comprise of the Chief Justice of the High Court or a Judge designated by him, the leader of the Opposition and the Home Minister of the State” to prevent misuse of the sedition law.

Did the Supreme Court grant this prayer?

No. The court said that formulating such a committee would amount to encroachment of the legislature’s domain, although such screening committees have been appointed by courts for doctors and in domestic violence cases for example.

“It must however be clarified that every Journalist will be entitled to protection in terms of Kedar Nath Singh, as every prosecution under Sections 124A and 505 of the IPC3 must be in strict conformity with the scope and ambit of said Sections as explained in, and completely in tune with the law laid down in Kedar Nath Singh,” the court said.

What are the Kedar Nath Singh guidelines?

In the landmark 1962 Kedar Nath Singh case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the sedition law, it attempted to restrict its scope for misuse. The court held that unless accompanied by an incitement or call for violence, criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition.

Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code states: “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in [India], shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”

Seven principles in the Kedar Nath Singh ruling specify situations in which the charge of sedition cannot be applied.

* The expression “ ‘the Government established by law’ has to be distinguished from the persons for the time being engaged in carrying on the administration. ‘Government established by law’ is the visible symbol of the State. The very existence of the State will be in jeopardy if the Government established by law is subverted.”

* “Any acts within the meaning of Section 124-A which have the effect of subverting the Government by bringing that Government into contempt or hatred, or creating disaffection against it, would be within the penal statute because the feeling of disloyalty to the Government established by law or enmity to it imports the idea of tendency to public disorder by the use of actual violence or incitement to violence.”

* “Comments, however strongly worded, expressing disapprobation of actions of the Government, without exciting those feelings which generate the inclination to cause public disorder by acts of violence, would not be penal.”

* “A citizen has a right to say or write whatever he likes about the Government, or its measures, by way of criticism or comment, so long as he does not incite people to violence against the Government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.”

* “The provisions of the Sections read as a whole, along with the explanations, make it reasonably clear that the sections aim at rendering penal only such activities as would be intended, or have a tendency, to create disorder or disturbance of public peace by resort to violence.”

* “It is only when the words, written or spoken, etc. which have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that the law steps in to prevent such activities in the interest of public order.”

 

* “We propose to limit its operation only to such activities as come within the ambit of the observations of the Federal Court, that is to say, activities involving incitement to violence or intention or tendency to create public disorder or cause disturbance of public peace.”

What has been the impact of that verdict?

The significance of the verdict lies in the Supreme Court’s subsequent reiteration of the Kedar Nath Singh principles. A fresh constitutional challenge by two journalists, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha and Kanhaiya Lal Shukla, against the sedition law pending before the Supreme Court, and the ruling in Dua’s case, make a strong case against keeping the colonial law in the books.

Source: The Indian Express