1. China on mind, India, France step up ties

Two decades since India, then facing heat from western nations in the aftermath of nuclear tests, signed its first strategic partnership with France in 1998, the partners today stepped up cooperation in the Indian Ocean significantly. French President Emmanuel Macron and PM Narendra Modi at delegation-level talks agreed on a reciprocal logistics agreement between their armed forces as well as a joint strategic vision document on the Indian Ocean region.

  • This is along the lines of a vision document announced with the US on the Indo-Pacific in 2015. India has a coastline of 7,500 km, more than 1,380 islands and 2 million sq km of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the region.
  • France has a military base in Reunion Island and 1.6 million of its citizens reside in the territory owned in the Indo-Pacific, including a 9.1 million sq km of EEZ.
  • Indian and French space agencies will now provide end-to-end solution for detection, identification and monitoring of vessels in the region.
  • On counter-terrorism, the joint statement names groups including Al-Qaida, ISIS, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hizbul Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Toiba with an agreement to strengthen counter-terrorism efforts at multilateral fora such as the UN, Financial Action Task Force) and G20.

2. 14 agreements signed; Jaitapur N-plant, counter-terrorism on list

  • In all, 14 pacts were signed between the two sides, including one on finding a way forward to expedite the stalled Jaitapur nuclear power plant contract
  • To be built by the French State-controlled EDF, it will be the largest nuclear power plant in the world with a capacity of 10,000 MW
  • Pact on strengthening counter-terrorism efforts at multilateral fora, such as the UN, Financial Action Task Force and G20

3. What is Special Category status (SCS)?

While the Constitution does not have any provision for categorisation of any state as a Special Category Status (SCS) State, but considering the fact that some areas in India are historically disadvantaged as compared to others, the Centre has assisted states with funds in the past allocated by the former Planning Commission body called the National Development Council (NDC). 

In the past, the NDC considered factors such as difficult and hilly terrain, low population density and/or a sizeable share of tribal population, strategic location along borders, economic and infrastructural backwardness, and non-viable nature of state finances. The NITI Aayog, which has replaced the Planning Commission, has no power to allocate funds  — therefore, the discretion that the ruling party at the Centre had to dole out special favours to states through the Plan panel, no longer exists.

  • The Centre pays 90 per cent of the funds required in a centrally-sponsored scheme to special category status category states as against 60 per cent in case of normal category states, while the remaining funds are provided by the state governments. 
  • However, the Centre has agreed to give “special assistance” to AP for five years, which would make up for the additional central share the state might have received during these years — 2015-16 to 2019-20, as envisaged by Singh’s 2014 statement. 
  • AP is demanding that special assistance funding should be in the 90:10 ratio (Centre: state) for both EAPs and centrally-sponsored schemes — which adds up to about Rs 20,010 crore of central assistance.
  • Aside from Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Bihar had demanded SCS status. However, they have not been granted the status as they did not fulfill the criteria to be qualified as an SCS State.
  • The NDC  first accorded SCS in 1969 to Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Nagaland. Over the years, eight more states were added to the list — Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim, Tripura and, finally, in 2010, Uttarakhand. 

4. India lost 40% of its mangroves in the last century. And it’s putting communities at risk

The sight of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, straddling India and Bangladesh, is humbling. This biodiversity hotspot is home to 180 species of trees and plants growing within its marshy boundaries, the Gangetic dolphin, estuarine crocodiles, river terrapins, hawksbill turtles, horseshoe crabs and of course the iconic Bengal tiger. The tides in this 10,000 sq.km. swamp are so dramatic that about a third of the land disappears and reappears every day. It has been happening for centuries, but the changes have become more extreme in the past few decades.

In this delta of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, the sea is rising more dramatically than in other parts of the world, research shows. Known as the biggest carbon sink in South Asia, these mangrove forests are recognised as a world heritage site.

One of the major obstacles to the growth of mangroves is rapid and largely unregulated coastal development. Although India has framed laws to protect its coastline, they are honoured mostly in the breach. For instance, Mumbai has less than 45 sq.km. of mangrove forests left. This is all that remains after almost 70% was lost to land reclamation and other developmental projects. India has lost 40% of its mangrove area in the last century, mainly due to agriculture, aquaculture, tourism, urban development and overexploitation, researchers from the Indian Institute of Science have found.

TheState of Forest Report 2017, released last month by the Forest Survey of India, says that the mangrove cover in the country is increasing only marginally in the past two decades and now covers some 4,921 sq.km. 

5. ISA: International Solar Alliance

India proudly hosted ISA conference on 11 March ,Rashtrapati Bhavan. ISA is Prime Ministr Narendra Modi ‘s Vision of bringing world together for harnessing solar energy towards the objective of providing universal energy access at affordable rates to the masses.

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