1. Christina Koch’s longest spaceflight

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

Recently, NASA astronaut Christina Koch returned to Earth from the International Space Station, where she set the record for the longest single spaceflight in history by a woman. Koch arrived along with Soyuz Commander Alexander Skvortsov of Roscosmos and Luca Parmitano of European Space Agency.

The records, in context

Koch launched on March 14, 2019 and completed 328 days in space. The previous longest single spaceflight by any woman was 289 days by Peggy Whitson, also an American, who set that record in 2017. Among Americans across genders, just Scott Kelly (340 days) is ahead of Koch. The world record across genders is 438 days by Valery Polyakov of Russia.

Additionally, Koch is also seventh on the list of American astronauts in terms of cumulative time in space across one or more spaceflights. Whitson holds the American record for the longest cumulative time in space for any astronaut, at 665 days, which is also the world record for women. Across genders, the world record holder is a Russian astronaut, Gennady Padalka at 879 days. Among Americans, those ahead of Koch are Whitson, Jeff Williams (534 days), Scott Kelly (520), Mike Fincke (382), Mike Foale (374) and Don Pettit (370).

Koch completed 5,248 orbits of the Earth and a journey of 220 million km, the equivalent of almost 300 trips to the Moon and back. She conducted six spacewalks during 11 months on orbit, including the first three all-woman spacewalks (the historic first being with Jessica Meir), spending 42 hours and 15 minutes outside the station. She witnessed the arrival of a dozen visiting spacecraft and the departure of another dozen.

Lessons from her flight

Koch’s extended mission will provide researchers the opportunity to observe effects of long-duration spaceflight on a woman as the agency plans to return humans to the Moon under the Artemis program and prepare for human exploration of Mars.

Her work included participation in a number of studies to support those future exploration missions, including research into how the human body adjusts to weightlessness, isolation, radiation and the stress of long-duration spaceflight.

One particular research project Koch participated in is the Vertebral Strength investigation, which better defines the extent of spaceflight-induced bone and muscle degradation of the spine, and the associated risk for broken vertebrae. This is expected to provide insight into the development of future countermeasures, such as preventative medicine or exercise. These results also could provide recommendations for limiting the amount of force astronauts are subjected to during launch.

Other experiments included work on the Microgravity Crystals investigation, which crystallises a membrane protein that is integral to tumour growth and cancer survival. Results may support the development of cancer treatments that target the protein more effectively and with fewer side effects.

Source: The Indian Express

2. What is Direct Tax Vivad se Vishwas Bill?

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper III; Economics

On Wednesday, when the government introduced The Direct Tax Vivad se Vishwas Bill, 2020, it led to an uproar in Parliament. Leaders of the Congress criticised the Bill first for the use of Hindi words in its name, arguing that this was government’s way to impose Hindi on the non-Hindi speakers, and also argued that the Bill treats honest and dishonest people equally.

What is The Direct Tax Vivad se Vishwas Bill, 2020?

In essence, the Bill is aimed at resolving direct tax related disputes in a speedy manner. In her Budget speech on February 1, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said that “in the past our Government has taken several measures to reduce tax litigations. In the last budget, Sabka Vishwas Scheme was brought in to reduce litigation in indirect taxes. It resulted in settling over 1,89,000 cases”. She then unveiled the Vivad se Vishwas Scheme, which was to do for direct tax related disputes exactly what Sabka Vishwas did for indirect tax related disputes.

According to the Finance Minister, at present there are as many as “4,83,000 direct tax cases pending in various appellate forums i.e. Commissioner (Appeals), ITAT, High Court and Supreme Court”. The idea behind the scheme is to reduce litigation in the direct tax arena.

Vivad se Vishwas Bill: What are the specifics of the scheme?

The Finance Minister had clarified that “under the proposed Vivad Se Vishwas scheme, a taxpayer would be required to pay only the amount of the disputed taxes and will get complete waiver of interest and penalty provided he pays by 31st March, 2020. Those who avail this scheme after 31st March, 2020 will have to pay some additional amount”. However, the scheme will remain open only till June 30, 2020. The scheme also applies to all case appeals that are pending at any level.

How much money is at stake?

According to reports, over Rs 9 lakh crore worth of direct tax disputes are pending in the courts. The government hopes to recover a big chunk of this in a swift and simple way, while offering the taxpayers the relief of not having to fight the case endlessly. For a government that is staring at a big shortfall in revenues, especially tax revenues, the scheme makes a lot of sense.

What was the response to the Sabka Vishwas scheme?

At last count, the government expected to have raised Rs 39,500 crore from the Sabka Vishwas scheme, which was only about indirect tax disputes. The amnesty window for Sabka Vishwas closed on January 15 and close to 1.90 lakh crore applications, in relation to taxes worth Rs 90,000 crore were received.

One of the standout successes of this scheme was Mondelez India Foods Pvt Ltd (which was earlier known as Cadbury India) settled one of its most controversial tax disputes, pertaining to its alleged plant in Baddi, Himachal Pradesh, with the government under this scheme. The firm was accused of evading taxes to the tune of Rs 580 crore (excluding taxes and penalties). In the end, Mondelez paid Rs 439 crore on January 20 under the amnesty scheme.

Has the government responded to the Opposition for its criticism of the name of the scheme in Hindi?

The official name of the Bill is Direct Tax Vivad Se Vishwas Bill. However, in her Budget speech, the Finance Minister had mentioned the English name of the scheme — No Dispute, But Only Trust. She said the name has nothing to do with imposing Hindi.

Source: The Indian Express

3. Sedition law — what courts said

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

Recently, a sessions court in Mumbai rejected the anticipatory bail application of a 22-year-old student booked under Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) along with 50 others. The sedition charge was filed on the basis of slogans that the student had raised in favour of another student who has already been booked for sedition. The court said the slogan “attracts the ingredients of sedition”.

Sedition law: The grounds, the arguments

The FIR filed by the Azad Maidan police on February 3 claims that Urvashi Chudawala is seen raising the slogan, “Sharjeel tere sapnoko hum manzil tak pahuchaenge,” at the LGBTQ Solidarity Gathering on February 1. Sharjeel Imam, a JNU student, was booked for sedition and on other charges for an anti-CAA speech in which he is reported to have spoken about “cutting off the Northeast from India” by blocking roads and railway tracks. He is in custody.

Chudawala’s lawyer, Vijay Hiremath, argued that “in the intensity of sloganeering”, certain names were mentioned. He said Imam’s name was said only once, “for two seconds”. “It was raised against Imam’s arrest, whose sedition itself is not proved yet. To say that his arrest is wrong, cannot be considered sedition. We may disagree with what she has said, but it still does not attract sedition,” Hiremath said.

Chief public prosecutor Jaising Desai, on the other hand, submitted that the slogan “was in support of a person who is an enemy of the country”. He said the police had also found that Chudawala had shared and liked a Facebook post that said, “Release Sharjeel Imam Unconditionally.”

The court, while rejecting the application, said the offences registered against Chudawala were “serious”. “The court is required to keep in mind the effect of the order on the public at large,” the judge said.

Hiremath has filed an appeal against the sessions court order in the Bombay High Court. The appeal is likely to come up for hearing on Friday.

The sedition law and its validity

Section 124A IPC 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 a fine may be added; or, with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added; or, with fine.”

Section 124A has been challenged in various courts in specific cases. The validity of the provision itself was upheld by a Constitution Bench in 1962, in Kedarnath Singh vs State of Bihar.

That judgment went into the issue of whether the law on sedition is consistent with the fundamental right under Article 19 (1) (a) which guarantees each citizen’s freedom of speech and expression. The Supreme Court laid down that every citizen has a right to say or write about the government, by way of criticism or comment, as long as it does not “incite people to violence” against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder.

In the current Mumbai case, Chudawala’s lawyer submitted that the slogan was not raised with the intent of inciting violence, nor had it led to any public disorder.

What the High Court said

The High Court in 2015 referred to the Kedarnath judgment and said there was a need to lay down parameters for the invocation of Section 124A. “Otherwise a situation would result in which an unrestricted recourse to Section 124A would result in a serious encroachment of guarantee of personal liberty conferred upon every citizen of a free society,” the court had said.

Apart from the Kedarnath judgment, the High Court referred to five other judgments, including a Supreme Court judgment (Balwant Singh vs State of Punjab) regarding raising of slogans by three men after former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. The SC then ruled that “casual raising of slogans, once or twice by two individuals alone cannot be said to be aimed at exciting or attempt to excite hatred or disaffection by the government”.

The court observed, “It is clear that the provisions of Section 124A of IPC cannot be invoked to penalise criticism of the persons for the time being engaged in carrying on administration or strong words used to express disapprobation of the measures of the government with a view to their improvement or alteration by lawful means.”.

The court, however, said it did not feel the need to dwell on the subject further as the state government at the time had proposed that it would issue guidelines in the form of a circular to all its police personnel, as submitted before the court by the then Advocate General. The AG had said the circular would indicate the parameters to be followed for invocation of Section 124A.

Source: The Indian Express

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