1. What are the requirements for Indians travelling to Turkey?

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; International Relations

Effective Saturday, travellers flying to Turkey from India will no longer have to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival as long as they are fully vaccinated, the Turkish Embassy in New Delhi said.

So, what are the requirements to travel to Turkey?

All passengers who have been inoculated by a World Health Organization (WHO)-approved vaccine will be exempt from the 14-day quarantine rule upon arrival in Turkey.

“The vaccines that have been approved by WHO or the Turkish government are covered under this exemption. In addition to WHO-approved vaccines, the vaccines approved by Turkish government are Pzifer-Biotech, Sputnik V and Sinovac. For the same, a traveller must have taken the second dose — if Johnson & Johnson one dose is sufficient– at least 14 days prior to the date of travel.

“Indian travellers who are vaccinated with Covishield will also be allowed to travel to Turkey. Once, Covaxin get a nod from the WHO, travellers vaccinated with the same will also be able to visit Turkey,” a press release read.

Such travellers will also need to carry a negative Covid-19 RT-PCR certificate for a test taken up to 72 hours before departure.

What if someone is not vaccinated?

Non-vaccinated passengers, who will also have to carry a pre-departure negative RT-PCR certificate, will be subjected to the 14-day quarantine at their residence or any address they declare. On the 10th day of their quarantine, they will have to be tested again, and if negative, they will be released from quarantine. In the absence of a 10th-day test, they will be released from quarantine after 14 days.

Passengers under the age of 12 years will be exempted from the RT-PCR and vaccine certificate requirements.

What is the update on other international destinations?

While regular international scheduled flights have been banned by the Indian government, flights are operating under the air bubble arrangements with a number of countries. Notably, on account of the second surge of Covid-19 in India during April, several countries had restricted their borders for entry of travellers from India.

In May, the United States, for example, had issued a ban for Indian travellers except their own citizens. However, it later relaxed travel for student visa holders.

Last month, Germany reclassified India to “high (Covid) incidence areas”, down from the higher travel restriction level of “virus variant areas”. With this, it removed the entry ban for travellers from India.

Other countries to have allowed travellers from India include France, Spain and the UAE. The UAE recently started issuing tourist visas to Indian citizens.

Source: The Indian Express

2. What are the new I-T rules on PF savings?

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

The Finance Ministry on Tuesday notified new Income Tax rules to implement a fresh tax on Provident Fund (PF) savings. In her Budget 2021-22 speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had proposed taxing the income on PF contributions of over ₹2.5 lakh a year. This limit was later enhanced to ₹5 lakh for PF accounts where employers make no contributions. However, there was a lack of clarity on how this tax was to be levied that the new rules seek to address.

What is the government’s rationale behind the move?

Till this year’s Budget, all income on provident fund savings was exempt from tax. The provision aimed at ensuring people retire with an adequate nest egg was being misused, according to the Finance Ministry. Ms. Sitharaman, asserted in her Budget speech that ‘some people go to the extent of contributing ₹1 crore each month’ (into their PF accounts). For such people to get tax concessions as well as an assured income, is not comparable with an employee who earns ₹2 lakh and gets 8% return on their PF savings, she said. “This exemption without any threshold benefits only those who can contribute a large amount to these funds as their share,” the Budget documents explained.

After facing criticism over the proposal, the Revenue department later highlighted that more than 1.23 lakh high net worth individuals (HNIs) had deposited over ₹62,500 crore into their employees’ provident fund (EPF) accounts in 2018-19. The largest EPF account has a staggering ₹103 crore balance, they pointed out, while the top 20 HNIs have a cumulative balance of ₹825 crore. Of an estimated 4.5 crore EPF accounts, the source said about 0.27% members had an average corpus of ₹5.92 crore and so were earning over ₹50 lakh a year as ‘tax-free assured interest’.

This is the second time the NDA government has sought to tax EPF savings — in 2016, a Budget announcement to tax 60% of EPF account balances at the time of withdrawal was rolled back. In the previous year’s Budget, contribution by employers into employee welfare schemes like the EPF or the National Pension System (NPS) or a superannuation plan, was capped at ₹7.5 lakh a year.

Which PF accounts will be affected?

EPF accounts managed by the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) and the General Provident Fund (GPF), where government employees save for retirement, will be impacted. There are also a few thousand large companies that manage the retirement savings of their workforce in-house through ‘exempt’ EPF trusts, in order to ensure their employees don’t have to run from pillar to post to access these savings when in need or at the time of retirement. Public Provident Fund (PPF) accounts are not affected by the new tax, nor are retirement savings accumulated under the National Pension System (NPS).

EPF accounts are mandatory for employees earning up to Rs 15,000 a month in firms with over 20 workers, with 12% of the basic pay and dearness allowance deducted as employees’ contribution and another 12% remitted by the employer. However, government as well as private sector employees are allowed to make voluntary contributions over and above the statutory deductions into the GPF or EPF, respectively. The ₹2.5 lakh annual contribution limit shall apply for EPF members, while in GPF or other PFs where there is no contribution from the employer, the threshold has been set at ₹5 lakh.

Why were new rules needed to implement this tax?

A similar tax provision was introduced in the Budget for income from annual premium payments of over ₹2.5 lakh into unit-linked insurance products, but that clearly stated that maturity benefits will be subjected to capital gains tax.

In the case of PFs, although the intent behind the tax levy was elaborated on, there was no clarity on how it was to be operationalised. For instance, practitioners were not clear if the tax has to be imposed at the time of retirement or withdrawal from the PF account, or each year at the time of annual income accrual. If it had to be done annually, should the PF trustees deduct the tax at source on such income, or should a tax assessee include it in her or his income tax return and pay taxes, and so on. There were also concerns that this tax could be levied on future income on past PF contributions over the new tax-free limits.

The Central Board of Direct Taxes’ chairperson at the time, P.C. Mody, had told The Hindu that taxpayers should factor in the interest income earned on contributions beyond ₹2.5 lakh or ₹5 lakh as the case may be, at the time of filing their tax returns. As interest credits from EPFO are seldom effected in the same year, due to delays in declaration of the annual EPF rate and actual credits to members’ accounts, this formulation posed another implementation problem.

What do the new Income Tax rules say about levying the PF tax?

For calculation of taxable interest relating to contribution in a provident fund or recognised provident fund, exceeding the specified limit, a new Rule 9D has been added. The rule requires all PF accounts to be split into separate accounts – one with the taxable contribution and interest earned on that component, and another with the non-taxable contribution that shall include the closing balance of the PF account as on March 31, 2021 and all fresh non-taxable contributions and interest thereon.

While the government has said this will help arrive at the taxable PF income for a year, it is still not clear if the tax has to deducted from the concerned EPF account or the taxable part added to one’s total income at the time of filing returns. As things stand, the proposed solution to create two accounts seems to suggest that the EPFO and PF trusts may have to deduct tax on the income earned on the ‘taxable contribution’ of the EPF account and remit it to the exchequer each year.

Maintaining two separate accounts is an onerous requirement for EPFO and other PFs’ trustees to comply with. To put the administrative overhaul required for such accounting in perspective, consider that EPFO has 24.77 crore members with EPF accounts, of which 14.36 crore members had been allotted Unique Account Numbers (UANs) by the end of 2019-20. About 5 crore of these members were active contributors into their EPF accounts during 2019-20. Even if a technological solution is devised to rejig existing systems and provide for two EPF accounts for each member, there are other concerns. Deducting tax at source would require the EPFO or trustees of individual PFs to issue tax deduction certificates or the IT Form 26 AS for all such members. Whether the EPFO, the country’s largest retirement fund manager with around ₹15 lakh crore of assets under management, was consulted over the rules or is prepared for the transition to the proposed system, is not known at this point.

Do you need to do anything to your PF account to comply with the new rules?

As of now, as a PF account holder, there is not much for you to do except keep a close watch on developments. If your contribution as an employee is over ₹20,833.33 a month into EPF or ₹41,666.66 in the case of PF accounts with no employer contribution, you may want to reassess whether such contributions should continue, if done on a voluntary basis. With bank deposit rates low and inflation high, you could consult your accountants or investment advisers whether EPF income remains relatively attractive even after the tax deductions as per your income tax bracket.

The responsibility for creating two accounts out of each PF account ostensibly lies with the administrators of the EPF, GPF and company-managed PF trusts. So keep an eye out on communiques from the EPFO about any formalities that may arise to bifurcate EPF accounts. If your employer manages your PF in-house through an exempt trust, look out for similar missives or updates from its trustees or your HR/Accounts Departments about the next steps they plan to take.

Source: The Hindu

3. Soil microbes can make for a greener revolution

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

Plants appear to be simple enough in their organisation. Whether small shrubs or tall trees, all they seem to be made up of is leaves, flowers, fruits, stems and roots. But simple they are not. Being rooted to one spot has required very special personality traits. The ability to make food from sunlight and the carbon dioxide in air has given them a central position in life forms on earth. They cannot run, but ably defend themselves. A fascinating aspect of their abilities lies out of sight, in the soil from which they sprout, and from which they derive water, micronutrients, and a host of other benefits.

Ancient association

The association between plants and fungi is ancient. Fossils of plants from about 400 million years ago show the first evidence of roots, and these roots are fungus associations – rhizoids – suggesting that roots co-evolved with fungi. One good example is species of Penicillium, the fungus from which Alexander Fleming isolated the antibiotic penicillin. Fungus–root associations, called mycorrhizae, appear at first glance to be simple mutualisms that are beneficial to both. The root-invading fungus gains nutrients made by the plant, and the plants get difficult-to-find minerals like phosphorus from the microbe. But the association is deeper.

The Wood Wide Web

Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia, working in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, made an interesting finding. In carefully controlled experiments with saplings of birch and fir trees enclosed in clear plastic bags that contained some radioactive carbon dioxide gas, she showed that the birch converted this labelled gas to radioactive sugars by photosynthesis, and within two hours, traces of this radioactive sugar appeared in the leaves of the fir saplings growing nearby. The exchange is mainly though the mycelia of fungi, and may extend through the whole forest, with young trees that are struggling on a dry patch being helped out by carbon transfer from their luckier counterparts. A reviewer writing in the journal Nature called such systems as the Wood Wide Web.

Bacteria that associate with roots are called rhizobacteria, and a very wide range of these species are plant growth promoters. Like the fungi, mutualism operates in these relationships too. In exchange for sugars, these bacteria offer plants a wide range of benefits. They may help plants ward off pathogens that cause diseases of the root. They may even trigger systemic resistance to a pathogen throughout the plant.

Hybrid vigour

The green revolution brought a sea change in the growing of agricultural produce in our country. The key to this was the establishing of hybrid varieties of crop plants. Today, a vast majority of commercially grown crops are hybrids, where two inbred lines are crossed, with their first-generation hybrid offspring exhibiting a vigour that is lacking in either of its parents. The property of hybrid vigour, called heterosis, has been known for centuries, but remains only partly understood.

Root cause

A new and fascinating aspect to hybrid vigour has been found in the rhizomicrobiome – the rich collection of microbes that surround the roots of every plant. Maggie Wagner of the University of Kansas (at the heart of one of the great corn-producing areas of the world) addressed heterosis from the viewpoint of plant–root microbe interactions. Using maize as the model crop, her group has recently shown that the rich biomass of roots in hybrid maize, as well as other positive traits, is reliant on appropriate soil microbes (PNAS, Volume 118(30), July 27, 2021). In laboratory-sterilised soils that are totally devoid of microbes, both the inbred parents and hybrid offspring grow equally well, there being no sign of vigour in the latter. Then they started to ‘rebuild’ the soil environment, one bacterium at a time.

They could attain the normal parent–offspring difference in vigour by introducing just seven species of bacteria into the sterile soil. The experiment could be extrapolated to the fields too: Fumigating, or steaming the soil in one experimental plot led to decreased heterosis, because this soil was depleted of microbes.

Agronomists estimate that depending on the fertility of the soil, hybrid maize requires 180–225 kg of artificial fertilizer for a yield of nine tons of grain per hectare. Producing this fertilizer is an energy intensive task.

As our nation strives towards lofty goals for sustainable agriculture, using simple microbial ways of improving crop quality (and quantity) would be a small step in that direction.

Source: The Hindu

4. Punjab package to spur industrial use of paddy stubble

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Environment

Close to the autumn every year, stubble burning returns to contribute to air pollution across India’s northern plains. However, to curb the menace during the paddy harvesting season, Punjab — the key grain producing State — is all set this year to promote paddy straw as a “resource to create wealth”.

The State government is working to present ‘paddy straw’ as a resource that creates value and wealth for industry and the farming community, rather than being a waste product of paddy cultivation.

While farmer outfits have welcomed the move, some industry bodies have their reservations.

As boiler fuel

The government recently decided to permit certain categories of industries to install paddy straw fired boilers, for which the industries will be given fiscal incentives. The industries included in this scheme are sugar mills, pulp and paper mills, besides any industry having boiler installation with steam generating capacity more than 25 tonnes per hour (TPH). Also, new and existing units of distilleries and breweries, proposing replacement of old boilers or expansion with installation of new boilers, are required to use paddy straw as fuel in boilers.

To spur the offtake of straw, the government has decided to provide cumulative fiscal incentives of ₹25 crore to the first 50 existing industries on ‘first come first serve’ basis. Besides, the government has also approved non-fiscal incentives to industries in terms of availability of ‘panchayat’ land for storage of paddy straw with lease agreement of upto 33 years.

Managing residue

Asserting that Punjab is very seriously cognizant of the stubble burning issue, Chief Secretary Vini Mahajan, told The Hindu that Punjab is taking all measures possible to promote both in-situ and ex-situ management of paddy straw.

“For ex-situ management in particular we have come out with innovative measures. Under this, to promote the use of paddy straw in boilers as fuel, several incentives are being extended to the industry. We look forward to the industry to respond positively to these measures so that we are able to productively use this biomass. We are hoping that paddy straw can be demonstrated as reasonably good source of energy. We have been in touch with the Power Ministry to request that NTPC should also increase the use of paddy straw in their thermal plants as it would immensely be helpful in dealing the menace,” Ms Mahajan said.

The paddy crop, which is harvested with combine harvester machines leaves behind a stubble in the farm. To destroy this stubble many farmers find burning the residue the most effective and cheap method as they want to prepare their fields for the next winter crop. The short time-window between paddy harvesting and sowing the wheat crop — just about three weeks — is one of the primary reasons why farmers resort to stubble burning.

In Punjab and Haryana, the paddy harvesting is usually done between second half of September till October end. The sowing of wheat crop normally starts from first week of November and continues for over a month and a half.

Krunesh Garg, member secretary of the Punjab Pollution Control Board said the whole idea behind promoting ex-situ management is to present ‘paddy straw’ to the industry and the farmers as a resource that creates value and wealth.

“Till the time paddy straw is considered as waste it’s difficult to curb the menace. The idea is to present it as resource which will create wealth, and it’s primarily possible through ex-situ management. Paddy straw has to be established as fuel resource or product before the industry. We have 5-6 industries in Punjab, which consume around 3 lakh tonnes of paddy straw as fuel. We are hopeful that after the new incentives more industries will start using paddy straw as fuel for boilers. Already few industries have shown interest and we are expecting the consumption of paddy straw as fuel will rise to 5 lakh tonnes this season. It’s a long-term solution for curbing the menace,” he said.

Not easy process

However, expressing concern over the government’s move, Badish Jindal, president, Federation of Punjab Small Industries Association said the paddy straw contains a lot of mud and cleaning it is not an easy process.

“The government should purchase and process the stubble from farmers and provide it to the industry free of cost. Also, the paddy straw contains silica, and hence the metallurgy for boilers needs to be chrome based, which makes it costlier,” he said.

Jagmohan Singh, general secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union-Ekta (Dakonda) welcomes the government’s decision. “It’s a positive step and but its success shall depend only if the farmer is given a suitable price for the stubble,” he said.

Despite the ban on stubble burning and action against those burning crop residue under the Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981, year after year farmers continue to resort to the practice, claiming lack of alternatives.

According to the government data, in 2020 as many as 76,590 cases of farm fire occurrence were reported in Punjab. In 2019 there were 52,991 such incidents, while in 2018, 51,766 incidents were recorded.

It is estimated that over 15 million tonnes of paddy straw is burnt in the open fields ahead of the winter sowing.

Source: The Hindu

5. How does South Korea’s ‘anti-Google’ law free up in-app payments?

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; International Issues 

On August 31, the South Korean Parliament passed an amendment to the country’s Telecommunications Business Act that has been dubbed the “anti-Google” law. The law prevents dominant app store operators — effectively Alphabet’s Google and Apple — from forcing South Korean app developers to use their in-store payment systems. This effectively prevents Apple and Google from charging commissions on payments made in their app stores. The law also empowers the South Korean government to intervene in payment disputes within app stores, and to haul up app store operators for delaying the publishing of apps or deleting them.

What have Google and Apple been doing?

Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store strictly regulate how apps in their environment charge money from their users. Till recently, app publishers had been allowed to deploy only Google’s and Apple’s proprietary payment systems to collect money from app store users for digital purchases, which include the apps themselves, or ‘in-app purchases’ such as additional content or services. Google and Apple charged a 30% commission on all such purchases. As many app developers started to push back against what they said was a steep commission, Google announced in March this year that it was cutting the commission to 15%. However, it later announced that the change was being postponed to March 2022. In November 2020, Apple cut its commission to 15% for developers with less than $1 million in annual sales on its platform. On September 2, in response to a fair trade probe in Japan, Apple changed its policy to allow some app developers like Netflix and Spotify to add links that will send their users outside the app to make payments, effectively bypassing its commission. Recently, in response to a U.S. lawsuit, Apple agreed to let app developers email users about other options of payment. On the apps front, Google has a more relaxed approach than Apple, which does not allow users of its iPhones to download apps from any other source than the App Store. Phones with Google’s Android can ‘sideload’ apps; that is, download and install apps from websites or other sources. Android phones also support downloads from multiple app stores.

What makes the South Korean law important?

It is the first legal restriction on Google and Apple’s control over how money changes hands within their app stores. This could become a template for the many countries that have been looking at ways to control the clout of these online behemoths that take a cut from the digital sales of everyone from the gaming industry to publishers. The European Union has a draft Digital Markets Act in the pipeline that would force large internet “gatekeeper companies” that act as platforms for others to conduct transactions to change their business practices and level the playing field for smaller companies. In the U.S., Senators have introduced a Bill similar to the South Korean one that would force Apple and Google to allow app makers to deploy different payment systems. There is more trouble brewing in the U.S. as a federal judge is set to rule on the case by Epic, the makers of the ‘Fortnite’ videogame, against Apple’s in-app payment practices. Epic has sued Google in a separate case but on the same grounds. Adding to Google’s woes is another case filed by 36 U.S. States. In another indication that the trend is spreading globally, Reuters is reporting that Apple faces a legal challenge to its in-app payment system in India. The case is reportedly being reviewed by the Competition Commission of India.

How have Apple and Google responded?

Both companies point to the cost of maintaining the app store environment to justify the commissions. Responding to The Verge, an American technology news website, on the South Korean law, Apple said opening up the payment system will expose users to fraud and security breaches. Google argues these charges are a major reason why it is able to keep its Android mobile phone operating system free, and hence lower the cost of phones running on it. “Just as it costs developers money to build an app, it costs us money to build and maintain an operating system and app store,” a Google spokesperson told The Verge. “We’ll reflect on how to comply with this law while maintaining a model that supports a high-quality operating system and app store.”

Source: The Hindu

6. How Supreme Court judges are appointed

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

Nine judges of the Supreme Court took oath on Tuesday, the biggest ever number at one go. A third of the new judges are women, another first, even though the 33-strong Bench still has only four women. How are Supreme Court judges appointed?

Who appoints Supreme Court judges?

Articles 124(2) and 217 of the Constitution governs the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court and High Courts respectively. Under both provisions, the President has the power to make the appointments “after consultation with such of the Judges of the Supreme Court and of the High Courts in the States as the President may deem necessary”.

Over the years, the word “consultation” has been at the centre of debate on the executive’s power to appoint judges. In practice, the executive held this power since Independence, and a convention of seniority was evolved for appointing the Chief Justice of India.

This changed, however, in the ’80s in a series of Supreme Court cases, in which the judiciary essentially impounded the power of appointment to itself.

What were these cases?

The tussle between the executive and the judiciary over judges’ appointment began following the Indira Gandhi-led government’s move in 1973 to supersede three senior judges and appoint Justice A N Ray as the CJI.

In three cases — which came to be known as the Judges Cases — in 1981, 1993 and 1998, the Supreme Court evolved the collegium system for appointing judges. A group of senior Supreme Court judges headed by the CJI would make recommendations to the President on who should be appointed. These rulings not only shrank the executive say in proposing a candidate for judgeship, but also took away the executive’s veto power.

In the First Judges Case — S P Gupta v Union of India (1981) — the Supreme Court ruled that the President does not require the “concurrence” of the CJI in appointment of judges. The ruling affirmed the pre-eminence of the executive in making appointments, but was overturned 12 years later in the Second Judges Case.

In the Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association v Union of India (1993), a nine-judge Constitution Bench evolved the ‘collegium system’ for appointment and transfer of judges in the higher judiciary. The court underlined that the deviation from the text of the Constitution was to guard the independence of the judiciary from the executive and protect its integrity.

In 1998, President K R Narayanan issued a Presidential Reference to the Supreme Court over the meaning of the term “consultation” — whether it required “consultation” with a number of judges in forming the CJI’s opinion, or whether the CJI’s sole opinion could by itself constitute a “consultation”. The ruling on this established a quorum and majority vote in the collegium to make recommendations to the President.

In 2014, the NDA government attempted to claw back control on judicial appointments by establishing the National Judicial Appointments Commission through constitutional amendments. Although the law, which gave the executive a greater foot in the door in appointments, had support across political parties, the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.

How many judges does the Supreme Court have? How is the number decided?

Currently, the Supreme Court has 34 judges including the CJI. In 1950, when it was established, it had 8 judges including the CJI. Parliament, which has the power to increase the number of judges, has gradually done so by amending the Supreme Court (Number of Judges) Act — from 8 in 1950 to 11 in 1956, 14 in 1960, 18 in 1978, 26 in 1986, 31 in 2009, and 34 in 2019.

Even with Tuesday’s record nine appointments, the court continues to have one vacancy, and eight more judges are due to retire next year.

How did this backlog accumulate?

In 2019, the Supreme Court was functioning at its full strength of 34. When CJI S A Bobde took over, he inherited just one vacancy, that of his predecessor Ranjan Gogoi. However, the collegium headed by CJI Bobde could not reach a consensus in recommending names, leading to an impasse that led to accumulation of vacancies, of which now only one remains (until the retirements next year).

The High Courts on average have over a 30% vacancy. The age of retirement is 65 years for SC judges and 62 for HC judges — unlike in, say, the United States where Supreme Court judges serve for life. Thus means that in India, the process of appointing judges is a continuous one and the collegium system is multi-step process with little accountability on even the timelines that the judiciary has set for itself.

For High Court appointments, the process is initiated by the HC collegium and the file then moves to the state government, the central government and then to the SC collegium after intelligence reports are gathered on the candidates recommended. This process often takes over a year. Once the SC collegium clears the names, a delay also happens at the government level for final approval and appointment. If the government wants the collegium to reconsider a recommendation, the file is sent back and the collegium can reiterate or withdraw its decision.

Has the number of women judges always been low?

Lack of representation in terms of caste and gender has been an issue in the higher judiciary.

Before Tuesday’s appointments, Justice Indira Banerjee was the only woman judge in the Supreme Court. Justice B V Nagarathna is in line to become India’s first woman CJI —80 years after Independence.

In 1989, justice Fathima Beevi became the first judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court. Since then, however, the SC has had only 11 women judges, inducing the three women appointed recently.

A 2018 study by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy noted that while representation of women in the lower judiciary is higher at 27%, they hit a glass ceiling in higher appointments — as district judges and subsequently at the high court level.

Source: The Indian Express