Current Affairs 16th October

TB deaths up in pandemic: WHO #GS3 #SnT

The COVID-19 pandemic has reversed years of global progress in tackling tuberculosis and for the first time in over a decade, TB deaths have increased, according to the 2021 Global TB report released recently by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Worse, India (41%) was on the list of countries that topped those which contributed most to the global reduction in TB notifications between 2019 and 2020. India, along with Indonesia (14%), the Philippines (12%), China (8%) and 12 other countries, accounted for 93% of the total global drop in notifications.

The WHO estimated that some 4.1 million people currently suffer from TB but had not been diagnosed with it or had not officially reported to the national authorities. This figure is up from 2.9 million in 2019.

There was also a reduction in the provision of TB preventive treatment. “Some 2.8 million people accessed this in 2020, a 21% reduction since 2019. In addition, the number of people treated for drug-resistant TB fell by 15%, from 1,77,000 in 2019 to 1,50,000 in 2020, equivalent to only about 1 in 3 of those in need,’’ it pointed out.

In 2020, more people died of TB, with far fewer people being diagnosed and treated or provided with preventive treatment compared with 2019, and overall spending on essential TB services falling, it noted.

It explained that the first challenge was disruption in access to TB services and a reduction in resources. In many countries, human, financial and other resources had been reallocated from tackling TB to COVID-19, limiting the availability of essential services. The second was that people struggled to seek care during lockdowns.

Aim is to make India a military power on its own strength: PM #GS2 #Governance

Under the initiative of Atmanirbhar Bharat, the goal is to make India a military power globally on its own strength and also develop a modern indigenous defence industry, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday.

Formally launching seven new Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSU), incorporated after the dissolution of the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB), he stated, “As India enters 75 years of Independence, we are completing projects that were stuck for a long time. The decision to revamp 41 Ordnance Factories, the launch of seven new companies, is a part of that journey. This decision was pending for the last 15-20 years. I am confident that these seven companies will become a major base of India’s military strength in the times to come.”

Today, there was more transparency, trust, and technology-driven approach in the defence sector than ever before, the Prime Minister said. Defence exports have increased by 325% in the last five years. “While competitive cost is our strength, quality and reliability should be our identity,” he asserted.

On June 16, the Union Cabinet approved a long-waited reform to corporatise the OFB, following which effective October 1, all its assets, employees and management were transferred to the incorporated DPSUs.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has converted all pending orders with the 41 factories of the OFB into deemed contracts worth over Rs. 65,000 crore for the new companies. It has also decided that 60% of the annual price of the indents would be paid by the Services to the new DPSUs as mobilisation advance against the targets of FY 2021-22 amounting to Rs. 7,100 crore.

The over 70,000 employees of the OFB (Group A, B & C) belonging to the production units and also the identified non-production units have been transferred en masse to the new DPSUs on terms of foreign service without any deputation allowance initially for a period of two years.

‘Strategic asset’

Speaking at the event, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh observed that the infrastructure and skilled manpower of the OFB were an important and strategic asset of the country, but in the last few decades, “concerns have been raised regarding high costs, inconsistent quality and delay in supply of OFB products by the armed forces”.

“The new structure will help overcome these various shortcomings in the existing system of OFB and encourage these companies to become competitive and explore new opportunities in the market including exports,” he noted.

The seven new companies are Munitions India Limited, Armoured Vehicles Nigam Limited, Advanced Weapons and Equipment India Limited, Troop Comforts Limited, Yantra India Limited, India Optel Limited, and Gliders India Limited.

Former CECs flag security concerns over e-voting #GS2 #Governance

Former Chief Election Commissioners (CEC) have raised a range of concerns, from maintaining secrecy of ballots to bringing political parties on board, around the idea of online voting and remote voting, at a time the Telangana State Election Commission (SEC) is set to carry out an e-voting experiment and the Election Commission of India (EC), too, is exploring remote voting.

The Telangana SEC would be carrying out a smartphone app-based online voting experiment on October 20, the State Government had announced last week. The EC, on the other hand, had said last year that it was looking at the option of remote voting for those electors unable to reach the polling stations they are registered at. However, this could entail voting from another location set up by the authorities and not Internet-based voting from home.

Former CEC S.Y. Quraishi said he wished the Telangana team the best, but “developing an app is child’s play”. He said the ECI had ruled out the option.

“Even the simplest technology, the Electronic Voting Machine [EVM] that is based on the 17th Century calculator, is a matter of legal disputes… The technology is simple, credibility and trust in the technology is the issue,” he said. He asked if EVMs were still being challenged, how could an Internet-based system of voting be acceptable.

O.P. Rawat, who was the CEC in 2018, agreed with Mr. Quraishi’s argument that if the security of EVMs that are standalone devices was questioned from time to time, then Internet-based voting would have even more critics.

“It is a dicey proposition because elections are conducted with the total trust of voters, political parties, candidates and the public at large. One has to see to it that during voting, the voter ID, the environment [that is if there is any coercion], and the security of ballots cast till the time of counting are maintained,” Mr. Rawat said.

He said that based on what was known about the e-voting plan publicly so far, it was not clear how verification of voter identification, maintaining a free voting environment and secrecy of ballots would be maintained. “It is near impossible,” he said.

‘Long journey’

Former CEC N. Gopalaswami was of the view that “security issues can be overcome”, but it would be “political hurdles” that would be difficult to cross. He said the EVM itself had had a long journey. “It took 10 years for the required law to be passed,” he said.

On the proposal of remote voting, Mr. Gopalaswami gave the hypothetical example of a State election, say the Bihar Assembly polls, where 50,000 to 1 lakh registered voters from there live in Tamil Nadu. The voters would be registered across the 243 constituencies of Bihar and it would be impossible for the ECI to keep 243 EVMs in each of the remote voting locations, so an electronic solution would be needed, he explained. Then the issue of campaigning for outstation voters would also crop up, he said.

Ultimately, it would be the political parties that would have to find it acceptable, he said.

Govt. slams ‘methodology’ after India’s position tanks in Global Hunger Index #GS3 #Economy

The Government on Friday challenged India’s poor ranking in the the Global Hunger Index 2021 and the methodology used calling it “devoid of ground reality and facts”.

The Index launched on Thursday ranked India at 101 position of 116 countries. India is also among the 31 countries where hunger has been identified as serious. India ranked 94 among 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index (GHI) released last year.
‘Unscientific method’

“The publishing agencies of the Global Hunger Report, Concern Worldwide and Welt Hunger Hilfe have not done their due diligence before releasing the report. The methodology used by FAO is unscientific. They have based their assessment on the results of a ‘four question’ opinion poll, which was conducted telephonically by Gallup,” the Ministry of Women and Child Development said in a statement.

According to the Index, only 15 countries fare worse than India. They are Papua New Guinea (102), Afghanistan and Nigeria (103), Congo (105), Mozambique and Sierra Leone (106), Timor-Leste (108), Haiti (109), Liberia (110), Madagascar (111), Democratic Republic of Congo (112), Chad (113), Central African Republic (114), Yemen (115) and Somalia (116).

India was also behind most of the neighbouring countries. Pakistan was placed at 92, Nepal and Bangladesh at 76 and Sri Lanka at 65.
The Government has contested the performance of these neighbouring countries on the Index.

“It is noted with surprise, from the FAO report ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021’, that other four countries of this region — Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka — have not been affected at all by COVID-19 pandemic induced loss of job/business and reduction in income levels, rather they have been able to improve their position on the indicator ‘proportion of undernourished population’ by 4.3%, 3.3%, 1.3% and 0.8% points respectively during the period 2018-20 over 2017-19,” the statement adds.

The GHI scores are based on the values of four component indicators — undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting and child mortality. Each country’s GHI score is classified by severity, from low to extremely alarming.

Undernourishment data are provided by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and child mortality data are sourced from the U.N. Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation. Child wasting and stunting data are drawn from the joint database of UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the World Bank, among others.

It is the FAO report used for assessing undernourishment that the Government has questioned. This is also the only indicator in the report that has shown deterioration in India, the other three either show an improvement or have remained unchanged.

Figures on the rise
The Government has questioned the poll-based assessment that “has increased the value of ‘proportion of population undernourished’ from 14.0% for the previous period 2017-19 to 15.3% for the latest period 2018-20,” according to an official.

According to the FAO report, prevalence of undernourishment in a population is calculated in a very scientific manner that includes habitual dietary energy intake levels, information on the population structure and median height in each sex and age.

Bhutan, China sign MoU for 3-step process to expedite boundary talks #GS2 #IR

In a step towards resolving their boundary disputes, Bhutan and China signed an agreement on a three-step roadmap to help speed up talks, at a meeting of Foreign Ministers held via videoconference on Thursday, a development that New Delhi said it has ‘noted’.

The roadmap “for Expediting the Bhutan-China Boundary Negotiations”, is expected to kickstart the progress on the boundary talks process that has been delayed for five years, first due to the Doklam standoff in 2017 and then by the pandemic. The timing of the agreement is particularly significant for New Delhi, given the border talks on their 17-month old standoff at the Line of Actual Control appear to have hit an impasse this week.

“The [Bhutan-China] Memorandum of Understanding on the three-step roadmap will provide a fresh impetus to the boundary talks. It is expected that the implementation of this roadmap in a spirit of goodwill, understanding and accommodation will bring the boundary negotiations to a successful conclusion that is acceptable to both sides,” said a press release issued by Bhutan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Bhutanese Embassy in Delhi declined to comment on the details of the three steps and sources said information on the process of negotiations is ‘sensitive’ and could not be shared at this stage. According to the MFA statement, the roadmap had been finalised during the 10th expert group meeting in Kunming in April 2021, and presented for approval to their Governments in Thimphu and Beijing respectively.

The Ministry of External Affairs did not respond to a question from The Hindu about whether India was informed about the details of the MoU in advance, and whether a possible ‘exchange’ of disputed territories involving the Doklam trijunction area was a particular concern for India.

Fall in stubble burning incidents in Punjab & Haryana, says panel #GS3 #Environment

There is a 70% reduction so far in instances of stubble burning in Punjab and 18% in Haryana from last year, according to a report on Friday by the Commission for Air Quality Management.

Last year in Punjab, there were 4,216 instances of stubble burning from September 15 to October 14. This dropped to 1,286 in the corresponding period this year. There were 487 incidents this year compared with 596 last year, a press statement by the commission claimed.
In eight districts of Uttar Pradesh, there were 22 instances of burning this year compared with 42 last year.

This, however, is a preliminary analysis as harvesting is still under way and the day-to-day variation in the number of fires is extremely high.
Ravinder Khaiwal, who closely tracks pollution trends and its impact on health at PGIMER, Chandigarh, and monitors data from a NASA satellite that can detect thermal radiation, told The Hindu that when comparing data till October 15 in Haryana, there’s an increase in fires by 24% and till October 13 — a 30% decrease in fires. Similarly, in Punjab, a comparison till October 15 shows a reduction by 5%, whereas till October 13 it was a reduction of 67%.

“Because we are far from the peak of harvesting there will be a significant variation every day and we will have to wait for a few weeks to know if there are fewer fires this year than in previous years,” he told The Hindu .

Dr. Khaiwal added that he was optimistic there would be a decrease in fires this year because of a decrease in the area allotted to paddy sowing this year.
“There are several initiatives taken such as the increased use of happy seeder [harvesting equipment] and the use of bio-decomposers but this will take time for results to show. Also, it is important to underline that meteorological conditions play a significant role in worsening pollution.”

The CAQM made a similar observation last week reporting that a 7% decrease in the area allotted to paddy and moving crops away from the popular variety PUSA 44 (that leaves behind more stubble in its wake) along with measures by the governments of Punjab and Haryana were likely to reduce fire count instances.

Over the years it has been observed that fire counts increase when there is too little time between the paddy being ready for harvesting and the right time to sow wheat. This year, excessive moisture in northern India due to an overhanging monsoon and a delay in the markets opening for trading, may further squeeze the time available for farmers to harvest and sow, further forcing them to set their fields alight.

This year the major districts in Punjab that reported instances of burning were Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Patiala and Ludhiana that accounted for 72% of burning events. In Haryana, Kaithal, Karnal and Kurukshetra accounted for 80% of the instances.

Of the total 1,795 sites where burning had been reported, 663 fields had been inspected by officials and fines, or “environmental compensation” as they are called, were imposed on 252.

India opens to foreign tourists; too late, says travel industry #GS3 #Economy

The government’s decision to issue fresh tourist visas for those arriving on charter planes from Friday has received a tepid response from the travel industry, which says the move has come too late to help reap any benefit during the travel season.

“Unfortunately, charter operations in Europe are planned six to eight months in advance and we are already booked for destinations like Dominican Republic, Mexico, Maldives and Kenya. India is very late in opening itself to foreign tourists, and it is unlikely that at this stage there will be a sudden influx of foreign tourists,” J.J. Singh, president, Indo-Polish Chamber of Commerce and Industries, and president of IATA Travel agents in Poland, told The Hindu from Warsaw.

According to a DGCA official, by Friday they had only received a few queries on charter operations but there were no formal applications for chartered flights. He said they were waiting for detailed guidelines to seek greater clarity on important issues such as RT-PCR tests for arriving passengers.

While the government has said that from November 15, foreign tourists entering into India by flights other than chartered aircraft will be issued fresh visas, travel and tour operators have been left flummoxed. “The government has provided us with bullets, but there is no gun to use them. How will tourists come into India if the government doesn’t restart scheduled international flights,” Subhash Goyal, chairman, Stic Travels, said.

India allows international travel only with 28 countries with which it has signed air bubble agreements. “The decision shows that the government is not opening up with confidence. Without opening international flights, the government will fail in encashing the tourism season and helping the industry to revive,” said Jyoti Mayal, president, Travel Agents Association of India.

Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism, Arvind Singh, told The Hindu that in the beginning the government planned to issue visas only to those who arrive from one of the 28 countries with which India had air bubble agreements. Sources also said that the Ministry of Civil Aviation could hold consultations to expand air bubbles to more countries as well as increase the number of flights with those it already had bubble tie-ups depending on the travel demand.

“We welcome the decision announced by the government. However, it should be accompanied with opening up of commercial international flights as well as back-end work for e-visa documentation so that people don’t face bottlenecks,” said Ashish Gupta of The Federation of Associations of Indian Tourism & Hospitality (FAITH).

U.S.-India ministerial dialogue adds focus on climate finance #GS3 #Environment

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen met on Thursday for the eighth ministerial meeting of the U.S.-India Economic and Financial partnership. Also in attendance were Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and RBI Governor Shaktikanta Das (who attended virtually).

The ministerial held a session dedicated to climate finance for the first time, as per a joint statement.

In the run-up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow at the end of the month, India has been pushing for rich countries to meet their Paris Accord climate finance commitment of $100 billion per year. The two sides “reaffirmed the collective developed country goal to mobilise $100 billion annually for developing countries from public and private sources, in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation,” the statement said.

Holding such a session, the statement said, reflected the “critical” role climate finance has to play in achieving global climate goals and the two sides’ commitments to drive “urgent progress” in combatting climate change.

“We intend to engage further on addressing climate change between our two ministries, as well as through the Finance Mobilization pillar of the recently launched Climate Action and Finance Mobilization Dialogue under the U.S.-India Climate and Clean Energy Agenda 2030 Partnership.”

India has been under pressure, including from the U.S. and U.K., to provide a deadline to reach ‘Net Zero’ emissions. India has so far not made commitments beyond its Paris-related goals and has argued that rich countries must move towards ‘net minus’ commitments.

India showing signs of steady economic recovery, says FM #GS3 #Economy

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman attended the Development Committee — i.e., the Joint Ministerial Committee of the Boards of Governors of the World Bank and IMF — on Friday and told the Committee that the Indian economy was showing signs of steady recovery despite pandemic-related challenges, the Ministry of Finance said.

Ms. Sitharaman also welcomed the World Bank Group’s $157 million in support to more than 100 countries and for approving vaccine projects in 50-plus countries, enabling the purchase of 290 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, the Ministry said via Twitter.

The International Monetary and Finance Committee (IMFC) — which directs the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and sets its agenda — had met on Thursday as part of the annual meetings of the IMF and World Bank.

Finance ministers and central bankers, who constitute the committee, including Ms. Sitharaman, were present. A communique from the IMFC noted that while the world economy is recovering from the pandemic, divergences exist between various economies driven by differences in vaccine availability and different levels of policy support.

The IMFC also welcomed the new SDR (Special Drawing Rights) allocation, reserve assets of the IMF, $650 billion of which were newly created this year.

In her statement, Ms. Sitharaman called for closer examination of the impact on emerging markets of “faster than expected” normalisation of policy in advanced economies. She said the Fund would need to play a key role in ensuring the smooth transition of policy withdrawals.