Current Affairs 5th December

Omicron tally hits 4 as Gujarat, Maharashtra report a case each #GS3 #SnT

Two more persons in India tested positive for the Omicron variant of the coronavirus on Saturday, taking the tally to four. A 72-year-old in Gujarat and a 33-year-old in Maharashtra, both men, were confirmed by the health authorities as affected by the variant. The elderly person had travelled to Jamnagar from Zimbabwe via Mumbai.

Officials confirmed to The Hindu that he had “mild symptoms” but his vaccination status could not be confirmed. It is unclear, however, if he is an Indian national or a non-resident Indian.

“A person has been found Omicron positive in Jamnagar. We have isolated him and are monitoring him. A micro-containment zone has been created where he is living. We will be tracing and testing all his contacts,” Manoj Aggarwal, Additional Chief Secretary, Health, Gujarat, said.

The 33-year-old, who is unvaccinated, arrived in Mumbai on November 24 from Cape Town through Dubai and Delhi. Earlier this week, two persons in Karnataka were confirmed with the new variant. Madhavi Joshi of the Gujarat Biotechnology Research Centre, which tested the 72-year-old’s genome sample, stated that the Omicron variant was confirmed and it had the ‘S gene dropout’.

The S gene is a spike protein gene, and the use of a particular RT-PCR test called Taqpath returns a ‘negative’. It is useful to quickly screen for a suspected case of Omicron but only a genome sequencing exercise can actually confirm the variant.

The Mumbai man, residing under the Kalyan-Dombivali Municipal Corporation limits, had mild fever on November 24. He had no other symptoms and is being treated at a COVID-19 Care Centre. Thirty-five of his contacts have been traced and they have all tested negative for COVID-19.

Stay alert

The Union Health Ministry on Saturday directed Mizoram, Odisha, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Jammu and Kashmir and Kerala to heighten surveillance in “light of the emergence of Omicron”. The States have either reported a high caseload or some of their districts are exhibiting a high positivity rate.

They have been directed to increase surveillance of international travellers, continue monitoring of emerging hotspots, and conduct prompt and comprehensive contact tracing of positive individuals and follow-up for 14 days. They should send all positive samples for genome sequencing, identify early cases through adequate testing and review health infrastructure preparedness, including in rural areas and for paediatric cases.

Culture mapping of 80 villages kicks off #GS1 #Culture

Culture mapping of 80 villages associated with noted personalities in history, in particular the freedom movement, unique crafts and festivals has been started as a pilot project, Culture Ministry officials said.

The project is expected to be completed this financial year, they added.

From Sempore in Kashmir to Kanjirapally in Kerala, villages with a connection to the freedom movement as well as those with their own art practices have been selected for the project, being conducted by the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA).

Sachidanand Joshi, member-secretary of IGNCA, said the institution was assigned the work in September. “The aim is to create a database related to our villages and the culture, customs and traditions there,” he said.

E-commerce platform

In a reply to MP K.C. Ramamurthy’s question in the Rajya Sabha on December 2, Culture Minister G. Kishan Reddy said the project would lead to a “national register and interactive database of artists and art practices from the villages of India”. Each artist would be given a unique ID and an e-commerce platform set up.

“The work under the mission involves coordinating the data collection through ground and field surveys conducted on the basis of detailed formats and questionnaires, mobile application, interactive web-portal and an over-the-top (OTT) platform to showcase ethnographic documentaries/ cultural events/ festival/ melas etc. of villages,” the reply stated.

On the list of villages selected, as detailed in Mr. Reddy’s reply, is Sempore or Pandrenthan in Budgam district of Jammu and Kashmir that is associated with 14th Century mystic Lal Ded or Lalleshwari.

From Ladakh, the pilot project included Choglamsar and Wanla villages, known for wood carving. Khatkar Kalan village in Punjab, which has a memorial of Bhagat Singh; Reni village of Uttarakhand, where the Chipko movement started; and Kathputli Colony in Delhi, known for the “migrant kathputli artists”, are also on the list.

Sites of religious importance, including Shringverpur in Uttar Pradesh which, the Minister said, was “associated with Lord Rama – Lord Rama stayed here for one night after Nishadraj Guha”, were also included in the list of villages. Two villages in Tamil Nadu — Ettayapuram (the birthplace of poet Subramania Bharathi) and Thiruchigadi (a village of “women potters”) — are also on the list. Kanjirapally village, associated with Accama Cherian, an Independence activist known as the Jhansi Rani of Travancore, was on the list.

While the Culture Ministry had launched the culture mapping mission in 2017, the project had been slow to take off, before it was handed over to the IGNCA this year.

India, Russia set to ink AK-203 rifle deal worth Rs. 5,000 crore #GS2 #IR

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has given its final approval for a deal with Russia to manufacture over six lakh AK-203 assault rifles in India. The deal, estimated to be worth over Rs. 5,000 crore, is scheduled to be signed on December 6 during the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to India.

“In an endeavour to provide a big boost to self-reliance in defence manufacturing in India, the Government has approved the plan for production of over five lakh AK-203 assault rifles at Korwa, Amethi in U.P.,” a government source said.

The 7.62 x 39 mm calibre AK-203 rifles will replace the INSAS rifles inducted over three decades ago. Having an effective range of 300 m, they are lightweight, robust and easy-to-use.

Increased effectiveness

“They will enhance the operational effectiveness of the Indian Army in counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations,” the source said. Mr. Putin is scheduled to visit India on December 6 and 7 for an annual summit, during which the two countries will also hold the inaugural 2+2 ministerial dialogue.

The project will be implemented by Indo-Russian Rifles Private Ltd (IRRPL) jointly with the erstwhile OFB (now Advanced Weapons and Equipment India Limited) and Munitions India Limited of India and Rosoboronexport (RoE) and Kalashnikov Concern of Russia.

Modified proposal

In February 2019, India and Russia signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement for AK-203 rifles, following which the IRRPL was set up. The Ministry of Defence already floated a Request For Proposal (RFP) to the joint venture for the supply of 6.71 lakh rifles but the final deal had been held up over the high cost of each rifle. The RFP has now been modified to 6.1 lakh after a recent deal for 70,000 rifles through the emergency route.

Packed agenda awaits Putin in short visit #GS2 #IR

Ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s December 6 visit, India and Russia appear to differ on the Indo-Pacific region and its various dimensions.

President Putin will pay a short visit on Monday evening and return after attending the annual summit with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during which the bilateral focus is expected to be on the ongoing delivery of the S-400 missile defence systems and big-ticket defence agreements.

Russia’s position on India’s Quad initiative with the U.S., Australia and Japan and the idea of “Indo-Pacific” was countered by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on November 26 during the Russia-India-China (RIC) meeting where he favoured the “Asia-Pacific” which he described as more “inclusive”. The “Indo-Pacific”, according to Mr. Lavrov, is an unequal partnership.

Mr. Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu will arrive here on Sunday to participate in the first “2+2” meeting with their counterparts S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh.

Issue-based cooperation

Informed sources indicated that India considers both Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific structures are meant for “issue-based cooperation”. They said Moscow had been appreciative of India’s demand to maintain “open and inclusive” sea channels which will also benefit the Chennai-Vladivostok maritime corridor that is aimed at connecting Russia’s far east with India.

The coming months will witness increased cooperation to boost industrial activities in the region from where 11 Governors are expected to participate in the Vibrant Gujarat summit in January.

The ghlight of Monday’s visit will be the ongoing delivery of the S-400 missile defence systems that have increased the chances of India coming under CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). India has however maintained that its defence procurement policy is guided by “strategic autonomy” which prioritises national security interests.

Both sides are expected to seal several defence deals on Monday which is being described as the “Day of Russia”. An agreement to manufacture AK-203 assault rifles will be a high point of the day.

Both sides are also expected to sign the Reciprocal Exchange of Logistics Agreement (RELOS) which will make Russia the seventh country that India has similar agreements with. Another important agreement may be the over 10-year defence cooperation. The Igla-S shoulder-fired missiles may also come up for discussion.

The discussion is expected to focus on Afghanistan and other “hotspots” where tense situation is prevails.

Spill over of terrorism

India’s concern about spill over of terrorism from Afghanistan and Pakistan is expected to feature in this section. However, it is not clear if the tension along the Line of Actual Control with China will come up for discussion.

Russia has maintained a cautious position throughout the Sino-India tension starting with the Galwan clashes of June, 2020 and the delivery of S-400 systems is expected to help India establish strategic balance in the region. President Putin’s visit is taking place against the backdrop of a worsening COVID-19 crisis in Russia which has mobilised its military along the border with Ukraine for a possible armed confrontation.

SC condemns red tape in sexual harassment cases #GS2 #Governance

The right against sexual harassment at workplace is part of the fundamental right to a dignified life and it takes a lot of courage for a subordinate to overcome the fear to speak up against a lewd superior, the Supreme Court has held in a judgment.

A Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud said the courts should not be “hyper-technical” while dealing with sexual harassment cases, and be aware of the odds that a survivor has to overcome to bring to light the sexual misconduct.

“It is important to be mindful of the power dynamics that are mired in sexual harassment at the workplace. There are several considerations and deterrents that a subordinate aggrieved of sexual harassment has to face when they consider reporting sexual misconduct of their superior,” Justice Chandrachud wrote.

The judgment highlighted a rising trend of invalidation of proceedings inquiring into sexual misconduct on “hyper-technical interpretations of the applicable service rules”. At times, court turns the legal process into a punishment in cases under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act 2013.

The case involved an appeal filed against the Calcutta High Court decision to quash a sexual harassment proceeding initiated on the complaint of a Border Security Force constable against his superior.

No deaths yet as Omicron grips 38 countries: WHO #GS3 #SnT

The Omicron variant has been detected in 38 countries but no deaths have yet been reported, the WHO said on Friday, as authorities worldwide rushed to stem the heavily mutated COVID-19 strain’s spread amid warnings that it could damage the global economic recovery.

The U.S. and Australia became the latest countries to confirm locally transmitted cases of the variant. The WHO has warned it could take weeks to determine how infectious the variant is, whether it causes more severe illness and how effective treatments and vaccines are against it. “We’re going to get the answers that everybody out there needs,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said.

The WHO said on Friday it had still not seen any reports of deaths related to Omicron, but the new variant’s spread has led to warnings that it could cause more than half of Europe’s COVID-19 cases in the next few months.

The new variant could also slow global economic recovery, just as the Delta strain did, International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva said on Friday. “Even before the arrival of this new variant, we were concerned that the recovery, while it continues, is losing somewhat momentum,” she said. “A new variant that may spread very rapidly can dent confidence.”

A preliminary study by researchers in South Africa, where the variant was first reported on November 24, suggests it is three times more likely to cause reinfections compared to the Delta or Beta strains. South African doctors said there had been a spike in children under five admitted to hospital since Omicron emerged, but stressed it was too early to know if young children were particularly susceptible.

When can an individual get statutory bail? #GS2 #Governance

The story so far: The National Investigation Agency (NIA) has approached the Supreme Court against a Bombay High Court order granting bail to advocate and activist Sudha Bharadwaj. In its bail order, the court has asked the NIA Court to decide the conditions for her release on December 8. While she was given ‘default bail’, eight others were denied the benefit in the same case. The case highlights the nuances involved in a court determining the circumstances in which statutory bail is granted or denied, even though it is generally considered “an indefeasible right”.

What is default bail?

Also known as statutory bail, this is a right to bail that accrues when the police fail to complete investigation within a specified period in respect of a person in judicial custody. This is enshrined in Section 167(2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure where it is not possible for the police to complete an investigation in 24 hours, the police produce the suspect in court and seek orders for either police or judicial custody. This section concerns the total period up to which a person may be remanded in custody prior to filing of charge sheet.

For most offences, the police have 60 days to complete the investigation and file a final report before the court. However, where the offence attracts death sentence or life imprisonment, or a jail term of not less than 10 years, the period available is 90 days. In other words, a magistrate cannot authorise a person’s judicial remand beyond the 60-or 90-day limit.

At the end of this period, if the investigation is not complete, the court shall release the person “if he is prepared to and does furnish bail”.

How does the provision vary for special laws?

The 60- or 90-day limit is only for ordinary penal law. Special enactments allow greater latitude to the police for completing the probe. In the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, the period is 180 days. However, in cases involving substances in commercial quantity, the period may be extended up to one year. This extension beyond 180 days can be granted only on a report by the Public Prosecutor indicating the progress made in the investigation and giving reasons to keep the accused in continued detention.

In the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the default limit is 90 days only. The court may grant an extension of another 90 days, if it is satisfied with a report by the Public Prosecutor showing the progress made in the investigation and giving reasons to keep the accused in further custody. These provisions show that the extension of time is not automatic but requires a judicial order.

What are the laid-down principles on this aspect?

Default or statutory bail is a right, regardless of the nature of the crime. The stipulated period within which the charge sheet has to be filed begins from the day the accused is remanded for the first time. It includes days undergone in both police and judicial custody, but not days spent in house-arrest. A requirement for the grant of statutory bail is that the right should be claimed by the person in custody.

If the charge sheet is not filed within the stipulated period, but there is no application for bail under Section 167(2), there is no automatic bail. In general, the right to bail on the investigation agency’s default is considered an ‘indefeasible right’, but it should be availed of at the appropriate time.

What happened in Sudha Bharadwaj’s case?

In the Bhima Koregaon case, which is under UAPA, the prosecution got the 90-day limit extended to 180 days. Ms. Bharadwaj completed 90 days in prison in January 2019, but the charge sheet was filed only in February. Meanwhile, she had applied for default bail on the ground that the extension given by a Sessions Court earlier was without jurisdiction.

The court agreed that only a Special Court could have authorised the extension beyond 90 days. Therefore, she was entitled to statutory bail. However, eight others, who had argued that the court order taking cognisance of the charge sheet was defective, but did not specifically seek default bail, were not given the same relief.

Detecting Omicron #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: The Omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been confirmed in India and in at least 30 other countries by the World Health Organization (WHO). While the variant can only be reliably confirmed with genome sequencing, the WHO has also recommended that certain commonly used COVID-19 detection tests, with ‘S-gene dropout’ capabilities, can be used to quickly screen for an Omicron infection.

What is the S-gene drop out?

Tests usually look for three target genes related to parts of the virus: S (spike), N2 (nucleocapsid or inner area) and E (envelope or outer shell). The S-gene refers to the gene that codes for the spike protein, or the most distinctive part of the coronavirus. The SARS-CoV-2, like many other coronaviruses, has key protein-regions that define its structure: The envelope protein (E), thenucleocapsid protein(N), the membrane protein (M) and the spike protein (S). To accurately identify the virus, diagnostic tests are made that can identify characteristic genes that make these proteins. To maintain the balance between cost, turn-around time and efficiency, makers of diagnostic kits usually target 1-3 genes on these regions. The SARS-CoV-2 virus incidentally has one of the largest genomes in the coronavirus family. One popular kit, called the TaqPath COVID-19 assays, identifies three gene targets from three regions one of which is the S region to confirm or rule out the presence of the coronavirus. Some versions of the coronavirus, notably B.1.1.7, known as the Alpha variant, and the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529), have characteristic amino acids missing on the S protein. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein.

When tests designed to look for the ‘S’ gene encounter these coronaviruses with the missing amino acids, they show up as negative for the S gene and this is called the S Gene Targeted Failure or popularly S-gene drop out. Despite the negative ‘S’, the test will return positive in case of the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus because the genes on the ‘E’ and ‘N’ will likely signal a match. Some parts of the coronavirus are more conserved, or don’t change too much, and make for more reliable test targets. The spike protein can change a lot—the coronavirus is continually evolving, trying to adapt to antibodies created from vaccines or prior infections—and tests too must keep changing to find appropriate targets.

How is this useful in the case of Omicron?

On November 26, the WHO declared Omicron as a variant of concern, practically the highest level of risk that it attributes to specific variants. It noted that several labs from around the world indicated that for “one widely used PCR test”, one of the three target genes is not detected and this therefore could be used as a marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant had been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.

The WHO appeared to be referencing the TaqPath test but this by no means is the most widely used test in India. A challenge with RT-PCR tests is that companies often don’t reveal what primers, or chemical tools, they employ to look for specific viral genes. Therefore, it is hard to determine which test is best for certain variants and which can fail. “The TaqPath is one of the few that looks for three genes whereas India’s official rules are that they must only be equipped to detect at least two,” said a genome scientist, who declined to be identified. “Their test is a useful surrogate and a quick fix. Other variants and mutations can also cause a dropout and it is possible that the TaqPath doesn’t pick it up.” If a person manifests symptoms and is returning positive on a RT-PCR test, that also returns negative on the S gene, then it’s a sign that the sample ought to be sent for a genome scan.

India only scans a small percentage of positive samples to ascertain genomes and so a test that throws up intriguing results such as an S-gene dropout, may be prioritised for a more thorough genome scan.

What is the most reliable way to check for the new variant?

The Union Health Ministry has stated that all of the standardised RT-PCR tests coupled with genome sequencing are effective at detecting Omicron. While factors such as clinical symptoms and viral loads help in determining the virus, a variant can only be confirmed by genome sequencing which means waiting for a day or even weeks depending on available facilities.

What is the debate on the Dam Safety Bill? #GS2 #Governance

The story so far: The Dam Safety Bill, 2019, which provides for the surveillance, inspection, operation and maintenance of all specified dams across the country, and has been debated for decades, finally got the nod of the Rajya Sabha on Thursday (December 2), after a four-hour discussion. In August 2019, the Bill was approved by the Lok Sabha.

Why is a law on dam safety required?

India ranks third globally with 5,745 large dams in operation. According to the National Register of Large Dams prepared in June 2019 by the Central Dam Safety Organisation (CDSO) in the Central Water Commission (CWC), 67 dams were built prior to the 20th century and 1,039 dams during the first 70 years of the 20th century. For stakeholders of the water sector, ageing of dams in the country has been a matter of concern. Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat told the Rajya Sabha that since 1979, there were 42 instances of dam failure, the latest being Annamayya reservoir in Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh that led to the death of at least 20 people in November 2021.

Even though the CWC, along with the CDSO, has been functioning as the apex body to advise States on issues of dam safety, there is no specific Central law that governs the subject, given the situation that the ownership of dams and their maintenance predominantly falls in the purview of the States. In July 1986, a panel of experts recommended to the Centre that a legislation be framed. In 2007, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal Assemblies passed resolutions empowering Parliament to come up with a law on dam safety, under Article 252. Since 2010, different versions of the Bill were introduced.

What does the legislation seek to do?

The Bill covers those dams having the height of over 15 metres and between 10 and 15 metres with certain stipulations. It seeks to create two national institutions — National Committee on Dam Safety to evolve dam safety policies and recommend necessary regulations, and the National Dam Safety Authority to implement policies and address unresolved issues between two States. The legislation also envisages the formation of State Dam Safety Organisations and State Committees on Dam Safety. Dam owners will be held responsible for construction, operation, maintenance and supervision of dams.

Why has the Bill become contentious?

In the last 10 years, several States, including Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Odisha, opposed the legislation on the ground that it encroached upon the sovereignty of States to manage their dams. Critics also raised the constitutional validity of the legislation in the light of water being a State subject. The silence on the payment of compensation to people affected by dam projects was cited as another shortcoming.

Tamil Nadu has all along been a critic of the legislation as it fears that it will lose its hold over four of its dams, which are located in Kerala. The dams include Mullaperiyar, whose structural stability and safety are being debated for over 40 years, and Parambikulam, an important reservoir that caters to irrigation requirements of the western districts of Tamil Nadu including Coimbatore.

Taking a cue from the 2011 report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources to invoke Entry 56 of the Union List, the Centre framed the legislation, declaring that “it is expedient in public interest that the Union should take under its control the regulation of uniform dam safety procedure for specified dams.” In his speech in the Rajya Sabha on Thursday, Mr. Shekhawat contended that Entry 17 of the State List (dealing with “water”) was no bar for the Union to frame a law on the subject.

However, the PRS Legislative Research, a New Delhi-based think tank, opined that even then, “it is unclear how Parliament would have the jurisdiction to frame a law for dams on rivers where the river and its valley are entirely within a State.” Another point adduced in support of the legislation is that inter-State basins cover 92% of the country’s area and most of the dams, making the Centre competent to enact such a law.

What is the way forward?

Given the sentiments expressed by a number of parties, including the AIADMK, an ally of the BJP, on the Bill, the Centre can hold talks with the States to allay their fears and frame rules suitably for legislation.