Current Affairs 31st July

SC to hear plea against snooping next week #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court agreed to hear next week a petition filed by senior journalists N. Ram and Sashi Kumar for an independent investigation, headed by a former or a sitting judge, of mass surveillance of more than 142 potential “targets”, including journalists, lawyers, Ministers, Opposition politicians, constitutional functionaries and civil society activists, using the military-grade Israeli spyware Pegasus.

The petition was mentioned by senior advocate Kapil Sibal before a Bench headed by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana. He submitted that the petition ought to be heard urgently as it concerned issues affecting the fundamental rights and civil liberties of citizens and even national security. The issue was making waves not only in India but also globally.

“Such mass surveillance using a military-grade spyware abridges several fundamental rights and appears to represent an attempt to infiltrate, attack and destabilise independent institutions that act as critical pillars of our democratic set-up.

It sought a full disclosure from the government of whether it had authorised the snooping which, the petition said, seemed to be an attempt to muzzle free speech and chill dissent. The government had still not given a straight answer to whether the hacking was done with its blessings

“Respondents [Ministries of Home, Information Technology and Communications] have not categorically ruled out obtaining Pegasus licences to conduct surveillance in their response, and have taken no steps to ensure a credible and independent investigation into these extremely serious allegations.

The spying had caused serious dents on the rights to free speech and privacy. It had no legal basis. In fact, the legal regime for surveillance under Section 5(2) of the Telegraph Act had been completely bypassed. Civilians had become targets, it said.

‘A criminal offence’

“Surveillance/interception is justified only in cases of public emergency or in the interests of public safety, and the existence of such conditions must be inferred reasonably and cannot be determined solely on the assessment of the government… The hack/interception/decryption occasioned by the Pegasus spyware constitutes a criminal offence.

The Pegasus software, built by the NSO Group, is “extremely advanced and capable of infecting a mobile phone/device without any interaction with the owner”.

Govt. introduces Bill on insurance firms #GS2 #Governance

The Union government introduced the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Bill and the General Insurance Business (Nationalisation) Amendment Bill, amid the din. However, a scheduled discussion on the COVID-19 situation could not be held.

The proceedings had just begun at 11 a.m. when Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said the party had been demanding a discussion on the Pegasus snooping case since the first day of the monsoon session, and that there were also other issues linked to farmers, COVID-19 and price rise. “We want a discussion in the House… But the government should change its approach,” he said.

The Speaker said Mr. Chowdhury could raise the matter after the Question Hour, during which several Opposition members kept shouting slogans.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi later intervened to make an appeal to the protesting members. Stating that IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnav had already given a detailed statement on the Pegasus matter in both the Houses, he said they were raising a non-issue, over which Parliament had not been functioning properly for the past seven or eight days. He said the government did not want to pass any Bills without a discussion.

“The government is ready for a discussion, but most unfortunately, they [Opposition members] are not allowing Parliament to run. The Question Hour is the right of the members. More than 350 members want the Question Hour to run. In spite of that, it is unfortunate if they behave like this…,” he said.

However, as the sloganeering continued, the House was adjourned till noon.

Thereafter, Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman sought the leave of the House to introduce the Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Areas Bill and the General Insurance Business (Nationalisation) Amendment Bill.

Revolutionary Socialist Party MP N.K. Premachandran strongly opposed the insurance Bill, stating that it would lead to a total privatisation of the general insurance companies. He said the Bill was vague, indefinite, ambiguous and not in consonance with the original Act. He urged the government to withdraw the Bill and defer it as the House was not in order. Congress MPs Kodikunnil Suresh and Santokh Singh Chaudhary also opposed the introduction of the insurance Bill.

In her reply, Ms. Sitharaman said: “Yes, I also wish that the House discusses this Bill. I also wish that the members, understanding the importance of a Bill of this nature, also participate in the debate… However, I still like to say that the apprehensions mentioned by the members are not well founded at all.”

She said through the Bill, the government was bringing in some provisions to enable the common citizens’ participation in the general insurance companies. “Our markets can raise money from the retail participants who are Indian citizens. Through that, we can have greater supply of money, bring in greater inclusion of technology and also enable faster growth of such general insurance companies in India.

India and China to hold 12th round of talks today #GS2 #IR

India and China are scheduled to hold the 12th round of Corps Commander talks with the focus on working out an agreement for the second phase of disengagement from Gogra and Hot Springs in Eastern Ladakh. The talks are scheduled to be held at Moldo on the Chinese side opposite Chushul at 10.30 a.m.

Based on an agreement reached in February, the two sides completed disengagement from both the banks of Pangong Tso (lake). However, there has been no progress on further disengagement and de-escalation since despite talks at various levels. Progress is expected on disengagement from Gogra and Hot Springs during this round of talks, according to defence officials. A round of Major General level talk is also scheduled to be held once the 12th round of talks is over.

Friction areas

Further friction areas remain at Demchok and Depsang Plains, which will be taken up once disengagement is complete at Patrolling Points 15 and 17A in Gogra and Hot Springs.

Once the disengagement from all friction areas is complete, the de-escalation of the massive troop build- up along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh would be discussed, after which both sides will work out new guidelines for patrolling in these areas.

As reported by The Hindu last week, since the stand-off began last May, the two sides, in addition to 11 rounds of Corps Commander talks, have also held 10 Major General level talks, 55 Brigadier level talks and around 1450 calls over the established hotlines. There are two hotlines for communication at Chushul and Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO).

Google removed over 1.5 lakh content pieces #GS3 #Security

Google India removed over 1,50,000 pieces of content from its social media platforms in May and June, following complaints received from individual users, according to the transparency report released by it on Friday.

Additionally, it took removal actions on 11,61,223 pieces of content as a result of automated detection processes during the two months.

The report follows the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 that came into force on May 26. The Rules require social media platforms with more than 50 lakh users in India to publish compliance report every month, mentioning the details of complaints received and action taken.

As per the report for May, Google removed 71,132 pieces of content from its platforms, following 34,883 complaints received from individual users located in India via the designated mechanisms. In 98.9% of the instances, the removal action was taken due to copyright related issues. Other reasons for content removal include issues related to defamation, counterfeit, circumvention and graphic sexual content.

We evaluate content reported to us under our Community Guidelines, content policies and/or legal policies. Based on this review, removal action may be taken for one of the request reasons. Each unique URL in a specific complaint was considered an individual ‘item’ and a single complaint may specify multiple items that potentially related to the same or different pieces of content.

In June, Google received 36,265 complaints from individual users in India via the designated mechanisms, resulting in removal of 83,613 pieces of content. The content removed under ‘Copyright’ continued to account for majority 99.3% of the removals.

Study calls for sensitive reporting of rape cases #GS2 #SocialIssues

A study on “Sexual violence and the news media: issues, challenges and guidelines for journalists in India” has recommended that nationally, a charter for news reporting of rape and sexual violence can be established by news industry leaders, which would ensure accountability and commitment to sensitive reporting of the same.

The UNESCO study, authored by Chindu Sreedharan, Associate Professor of Journalism, Bournemouth University, and Einar Thorsen, Executive Dean, Faculty of Media and Communication, Bournemouth University, was based on content analysis of 10 newspapers over six languages, and semi-structured interviews with 257 journalists across 14 languages. Through this, the study provided insights into routines journalists follow and the challenges they face on the field.

The study stated that there was a conspicuous lack of formal editorial guidelines in use across newsrooms in the country, and said that only 13% of the respondents had access to written guidelines while 14% had no guidelines at all. The recommendation to have a charter nationally suggested that it be based on a public pledge that newsrooms can adopt, which included a commitment to best practices.

As many as 20% of the respondents, more women than men, said that they had experienced distress, and 55% of women journalists said that they had directly experienced or witnessed workplace sexual harassment. The study also highlighted patterns in daily news about sexual violence, and said that news outlets often tended to disproportionately publish unusual cases which led to a misleading picture of how sexual violence manifests in the country.

While 78% of journalists said they felt responsible for effecting change in relation to sexual violence, below 7% of stories focused on solutions. Sources, and news gathering challenges too, while covering sexual violence, were examined.

The recommendations offered based on the study, called for the establishment of peer support networks for journalists experiencing trauma, training in law enforcement procedures through a national initiative which covers both rural and urban journalists and more material on responsible reporting for media and journalism students in their curriculum.

Differently abled to scale the Siachen to set record #GS2 #SocialIssues

On August 15, a team of retired special forces personnel, under CLAW Global, will lead a group of differently abled people to attempt a world record by trekking the Siachen Glacier, the world’s highest battlefield.

“The Government of India has accorded sanction to Team CLAW to lead a team of people with disabilities to scale Siachen Glacier and create a new world record for the largest team of people with disabilities to scale the world’s highest battlefield.

Initially, a team of 20 people with disabilities would be selected to undergo training and three-stage acclimatisation, after which the final expedition team shall be selected, Maj. Ambathy stated. “Tentatively, a minimum of six people with disabilities shall be part of the final expedition team who will trek from the Siachen Base Camp to Kumar Post.”

Kumar post is located at an altitude of about 15,632 feet. This was the land world record expedition part of ‘Operation Blue Freedom Triple World Records’ being undertaken, a statement from CLAW Global said.

The 20 selected will undergo all the three stages of acclimatisation and training at Leh (Stage 1), Siachen Base Camp (Stage 2) and North Pullu (Stage 3). The final team would be then be selected, subject to the logistical bandwidth of the Siachen Base Camp and intermediate camps between the base camp and Kumar Post.

On the medical screening to be followed, the statement said, a specialist panel of doctors would screen the participants in Delhi before the launch of the expedition. “They will be assessed for their disability, vitals and a battery of clinical tests to check their suitability of inducting into high-altitude terrain ranging upto 16,000 ft.”

Final ascent

The final ascent team selected after the three stages shall undergo a second round of medical screening at the Siachen Base Camp just before the start of the expedition from the base camp to Kumar Post.

CLAW Global was set up in January 2019 by Major Vivek Jacob, a Para SF officer, who had to hang up his boots following a combat skydive injury after 14 years of service in the Army, with the aim of teaching lifeskills to adventurers and people with disabilities (PWD).

BRICS plan to counter terror finalised: govt. #GS2 #IR

The BRICS Counter Terrorism Action Plan that will strengthen counter-terror cooperation among the members of the grouping has been finalised. The discussion in this regard was held at the sixth meeting of the BRICS Counter Terrorism Working Group held on July 28-29. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has announced that the Action Plan will help bring “result-oriented cooperation” among the BRICS member states.

The meeting of the Working Group, held virtually, saw participation from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — the member countries of the grouping. “During the Working Group meeting while condemning terrorism in all its forms and manifestations whenever, wherever and by whomsoever committed, the BRICS countries also exchanged views on terrorism threat assessment at national, regional and global level and resolved to further enhance counter terrorism cooperation in line with the Action Plan.

CMC Vellore to hold mixed-vaccine trial #GS3 #SnT

The Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) has approved a clinical trial to evaluate if a mixed-vaccine combination can work as opposed to the current policy of both doses being the same vaccine. The Christian Medical College, Vellore, will conduct the trial.

India has administered 45.6 crore vaccine doses so far of which nearly 88% are of Covishield. With limited supplies of Covaxin, a mixed dose regime may help cover a supply shortfall.

“After detailed deliberation, the committee recommended for grant of permission for conduct of the Phase 4 clinical trial,” said the minutes of the meeting that were made public on Friday, though details of the trial were not.

A Phase 4 trial is intended to study the effects of treatment or medical product once it has been licensed for public use. In this case, because both Covaxin and Covishield have been approved under emergency use authorisation, the trial is expected to investigate a range of questions, including whether combining vaccines elicits a different level of antibodies to the virus, whether a combination may be more effective against variants and if such a regime would be safe.

“Safety, immunogenicity and reactivity are among the main questions that we will be investigating,” said Jacob John, of the Christian Medical College, Vellore and one of the investigators of the trial. He said that those participating in the trial would be a mix of health workers and people in the community and said that 500-600 volunteers would be potentially available.

Many other countries have experimented with having different vaccines in trial mode, most prominently the Com-Cov clinical trial in the United Kingdom, which mixed Pfizer with AstraZeneca, and the Spanish CombivacS trial which again tested the same vaccine combination. Provinces in Canada have allowed vaccines to be mixed and matched. While the effectiveness of these combinations is not proven, experts said safety was unlikely to be a major concern, though it would take a very large pool of volunteers to establish it either way.

Core sectors grew 8.9% in June #GS3 #Economy

Output at India’s eight core sectors grew by 8.9% in June but the pace remained below the production levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic as well as its second wave this year, indicating the economy’s recovery remains uneven.

Crude oil was the only component whose output shrank from a year earlier in the June Index of Eight Core Industries released by the Commerce and Industry Ministry on Friday, contracting 1.8%. Natural gas and steel both posted growth of more than 20%, while cement, coal, electricity, petroleum and fertilisers recorded moderate expansions in the range of 2% to 7.4%.

The core sectors had expanded by 60.3% in April and by 16.3% in May, thanks to the base effect linked to the sharp contraction in output last year due to the national lockdown. The government also revised the March index, pegging growth in that month at 12.6% from an earlier estimate of 6.8%.

CARE Ratings chief economist Madan Sabnavis said June’s core sector data had “once again been influenced by the negative base effect syndrome” which would continue to dominate most economic data.

“Despite the gradual unlocking after the second wave, the sequential uptick in the overall core index in June was mild at just 1.1%, with double-digit increases in cement and fertilisers, dampened by a month-on-month decline in petroleum refinery products and coal,” ICRA chief economist Aditi Nayar said in a note.

‘Incomplete recovery’

Stressing that core sectors’ output was 4.7% lower than the pre-COVID level of June 2019, and also lower than the April print, Ms. Nayar said this was consistent with “the picture of an incomplete recovery” suggested by other high-frequency indicators.

The index of industrial production (IIP), in which core sector output weighs in at 40%, could grow at 12%-17% in June, the ICRA economist reckoned, while Mr. Sabnavis projected a 15%-20% increase.