Current Affairs 11th May

Vaccine production is being gradually ramped up: Centre #GS3 #SnT

The Centre informed the Supreme Court that the production capacity of COVID-19 vaccines had been “gradually ramped up” in light of the immunisation drive.

“In times of grave and unprecedented crisis when the nation is fighting a disaster of unprecedented magnitude, the executive functioning of the government needs discretion to formulate policy in larger interest. It is submitted that in view of the unprecedented and peculiar circumstances under which vaccination drive is devised as an executive policy, the wisdom of the executive should be trusted.

The vaccine production was expected to increase in the next couple of months, it stated. The Serum Institute of India had ramped up production from five crore doses a month to 6.5 crore doses. A further increase was expected in July 2021.

Similarly, Bharat Biotech Intl Ltd. had hiked production from 90 lakh a month to two crore. An increase was expected up to 5.5 crore doses per month by July 2021. Lastly, the Russian Sputnik-V was expected to increase production from 30 lakh to 1.2 crore doses a month by July 2021.

“Discussions for procurement of vaccines from out of India have been going on since third-quarter of 2020, at a time when the foreign vaccine manufacturers were prioritising their domestic requirements. These negotiations are a complex undertaking, which is currently ongoing on a war-footing using all resources including diplomatic channels.

1 lakh tonnes of grain given under PMGKAY #GS3 #Economy

Of the 40 lakh tonnes of free foodgrains promised under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana for May, one lakh tonnes have been distributed so far. In the first 10 days, PMGKAY grains reached 2.03 crore of the 80 crore beneficiaries, with 13 States and Union Territories having started distribution, according to the Ministry’s data provided at a virtual press briefing.

Distribution begins

The States which have started distribution of the 5 kg of free rice and wheat include Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tripura and Uttarakhand.

The progress is on expected lines, given the eight-month experience of implementing the PMGKAY during the first wave of COVID-19 in 2020, said Food Ministry Joint Secretary S. Jagannathan. He added that 34 States had already begun lifting foodgrains from the Food Corporation of India’s stock, and 15.5 lakh tonnes had been lifted so far.

Migrant workers

Asked about the needs of migrant workers affected by the lockdown and others without ration cards, Mr. Pandey said, “This time, migrants are not facing that kind of crisis.” There was also no national lockdown this year, but only State and local lockdowns, noting that migrants who reached home would be able to collect rations in their villages, while those still in cities could make use of ration card portability.

The Centre was also selling its food grain stock at a discounted rate to NGOs and to State governments for those with State ration cards.

However, Right to Food activists have filed an intervention application in the Supreme Court’s suo motu case on migrant workers, saying that migrants are facing distress during the current local lockdowns as well, and seeking a resumption of last year’s scheme to give free food grains to those without ration cards as well.

In an open letter to the Chief Justice on Monday seeking an urgent listing of their plea, petitioners Harsh Mander, Anjali Bhardwaj and Jagdeep Chhokar said payment of minimum wages as cash transfers and appropriate transport facilities for migrant workers were needed as well.

With regard to edible oil prices, which had shot up over 50%, Mr. Pandey said the release of imported stock stuck at Kandla and Mundra ports due to COVID-19 related clearance issues would help to ease the situation.

3 naval ships bring in medical supplies #GS2 #IR

In one of the single largest consignments of emergency medical supplies from abroad, Navy’s landing ship tank INS Airavat arrived at the naval dockyard in Visakhapatnam from Singapore with eight cryogenic oxygen tanks and other critical COVID medical stores, as part of Operation Samudra Setu II.

In addition, INS Trikand and INS Kolkata reached Mumbai and New Mangalore respectively with oxygen-filled containers from West Asia.

These ships are part of nine ships deployed for COVID relief operation ‘Samudra Setu II’ for shipment of Liquid Medical Oxygen and associated medical equipment from friendly foreign countries in the Persian Gulf and South East Asia.

INS Airavat’s consignment also comprised 3,150 oxygen cylinders (empty), 500 filled oxygen cylinders, seven oxygen concentrators, 10,000 Rapid Antigen Test kits and 450 PPE kits, the Navy stated.

INS Trikand arrived in Mumbai with 40 MT of liquid oxygen. The consignment is part of the French mission, “Oxygen Solidarity Bridge”, to support India’s fight against COVID-19, the statement said.

INS Kolkata arrived at the New Mangalore port with two 27 MT oxygen-filled containers, 400 oxygen cylinders and 47 oxygen concentrators embarked from Qatar and Kuwait. Two more warships were en route to India from Kuwait and one ship was at Brunei to embark with medical supplies, the Navy added.

Singapore has also facilitated the contribution of 300 oxygen concentrators from Olam International and Temasek foundation to Tamil Nadu.

In addition, supplies also arrived from Egypt, Spain and the U.K. A shipment of 10 oxygen concentrators and 141 ventilators arrived from Spain while three aircraft loaded with medical equipment arrived from Egypt. “Total shipment includes 300 oxygen cylinders, 50 oxygen concentrators, 20 ventilators, 8,000 vials of Remdesivir and other medical equipment,” the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said on social media. Also 1,350 oxygen cylinders arrived from the U.K. gifted by British Oxygen Company and the shipment was facilitated by Qatar Airways. “This is part of their generous contribution of 5,000 oxygen cylinders.

IAF initiative

As on early hours of May 10, Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft carried out 534 sorties from various parts of the country, airlifting 336 oxygen containers of total capacity of 6,420 MT and other medical supplies and equipment, the Defence Ministry said.

IAF aircraft also carried out 84 international sorties, airlifting 81 cryogenic oxygen storage containers of total capacity of 1,407 MT along with 1,252 empty oxygen cylinders, 705 oxygen concentrators and Zeolite (respiratory oxygen raw material).

The equipment has been procured from Singapore, Dubai, Thailand, United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Australia, Indonesia and Israel.

Centre seeks a free hand in COVID-19 management #GS3 #SnT

The Centre wants the judiciary to keep its hands off the management of the COVID-19 crisis and its “waves/surges”.

The latest 218-page affidavit filed by the Centre in the Supreme Court on May 9 informs the judiciary in no uncertain terms that “though it [Centre] is duty-bound to fully assist this Honourable Court… the policy, strategy and steps taken by the Executive, based on expert medical and scientific advice, have to be appreciated in the context of the medical crisis”.

It said decisions were taken after “detailed deliberations at the highest Executive level”. Hence, no “interference” is called for in judicial proceedings. In other words, the Centre has asked the courts — Supreme Court and the High Courts — to “leave it open” for the government to discharge its functions in “larger interests”.

However, an examination of the Supreme Court orders from April 30 to May 6 show that the court acted only on the Union government’s suggestions and in consultation with it, right from revisiting the government’s “rough and ready” formula of “oxygen for bed” to the formation of a national task force.

The judiciary’s attitude can be clearly understood from the words of Justice D.Y. Chandrachud to the Centre. He made a point to say that courts refused to remain a “mute spectator” to a national calamity, but it is “together” with the government to “help the Centre” ease the pain of people.

A look at the orders show the Centre initially shifted the blame on the States for their lack of oxygen lifting prowess and making “unrealistic” demands for oxygen. All the while, the Centre had claimed that it had “no dearth of oxygen”.

The court records in its April 30 order that “the Solicitor General has stated that there is no dearth of oxygen supply in the country as on date and steps are being taken continuously to augment the supply of oxygen…

Solicitor General also admitted that there has been a shortage of supply to certain States and has attributed this shortage to various factors including the failure of State governments to lift the allocated quantity of oxygen from the supply point; transportation bottlenecks caused by inter-State movement of tankers; and technical failure of certain plants leading to reassessment of allocation on a real-time basis”.

The hearings in the Supreme Court also saw the Centre express its annoyance at the “judicial interference”. When the court termed the Karnataka High Court’s direction to the Centre on May 5 to allocate 1200 MT to the State, an exasperated Centre had reacted by offering to hand over its oxygen stock to the High Courts for distribution.

However, by May 6, the Centre toned down to admit in court that its “oxygen for bed” formula needed a “revisit” and there was an urgent requirement to form a national task force to devise an equitable way of allocation of oxygen.

In fact, the court, in its order on May 6, recounted the Centre’s submission that “the formula on the basis of which oxygen is being allocated to the States and UTs is not static but needs to be revisited”. On the formation of the national task force, the Centre had found such a move necessary “to ensure that the allocation and distribution of oxygen takes place on a rational and equitable basis”.

“It is necessary to constitute a national task force of experts which would determine the method of allocation and distribution of oxygen across States/UTs. Smaller expert committees or sub-groups may look into issues of auditing the manner in which supplies are to be distributed and utilised in each State/UT.

India variant is of global concern: WHO #GS2 #IR

The World Health Organziation said on Monday that the B.1.617 variant first identified in India last year was being classified as a variant of global concern.

“We classify it as a variant of concern at a global level,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, told a briefing. “There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility.”

Indian coronavirus infections and deaths held close to record daily highs on Monday, increasing calls for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lock down the world’s second-most populous country.

The WHO has said the predominant lineage of B.1.617 was first identified in India last December, although an earlier version was spotted in October 2020. The variant has already spread to other countries, and many nations have moved to cut or restrict movements from India.

Van Kerkhove said more information about the variant and its three lineages would be made available. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the WHO Foundation was launching a “Together for India” appeal to raise funds to purchase oxygen, medicines and protective equipment for health workers.

U.K. returnees’ citizenship to be checked #GS2 #IR

Children born to Indians staying illegally in the United Kingdom will be granted emergency travel documents to return along with parents based on birth certificates issued by the British authorities, according to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the two countries on May 4.

British citizenship is not acquired by birth alone; there are a combination of factors, including the year of birth and parents’ circumstances.

Before illegal immigrants identified by the U.K authorities are allowed to return, government officials here will conduct a probe to establish if the person is indeed an Indian citizen or not. The State police will be roped in once a request is received by the Centre.

“The U.K. will share its expertise to train specialists in the fight against document fraud and to provide its expertise in the field of detection equipment,” the MoU on migration and mobility partnership between India and the U.K.

The MoU, which has been in the works for the past three years, has been revised after India declined a proposal by the U.K. to use DNA sampling to establish the nationality of document-less illegal immigrants who the U.K suspects to be Indians.

According to an earlier estimate by the U.K government, there are around 1,00,000 Indians who entered illegally or are overstaying their visa in the U.K. India has contested the numbers saying the figure is not more than 2,000.

As per the fresh MoU, the time frame to verify the nationality of a person who holds an Indian passport and who has overstayed the visa will be not later than 30 days on the receipt of request from the U.K authorities.

In instances where a person has acknowledged that he is an Indian but does not have a passport or a ‘Visa Overstayer’ document, the time limit to establish the nationality will be 90 days. But here, the U.K authorities will have to provide either a national identity card, a driving licence or a birth certificate among others to the Indian authorities to authenticate her/his Indian nationality.

The U.K will also have to follow the same procedures if a British national is found staying illegally in India.

The MoU, which came into effect after it was signed by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and U.K Secretary of State Priti Patel on May 4 in London, will continue for seven years until terminated by either participant giving three months’ prior written notice. It will be revived automatically after seven years.

Calls grow for govt. to boost health spending #GS3 #Economy

The government has been evading its responsibility for the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and should fulfil its obligations by boosting public health spending and increasing vaccine supply, among other steps, a group of civil society organisations under the umbrella of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (JSA).

“The Central government failed to anticipate this second wave, or make any preparations for it, despite having the clear experience of many countries before it.

It added that there was a need for a “quantum jump” in public expenditure on healthcare and expanding infrastructure and human resources. The statement said the government should reverse all decisions of privatising government hospitals and review health insurance schemes to expand services.

‘Remove GST’

The JSA called for comprehensive regulation of private healthcare, including “rates of services, quality of care, treatment practices and patients’ rights.” It also demanded that GST should be removed from all medicines and medical devices for COVID-19. It also called for increasing the supply of vaccines and making distribution equitable.

‘Slow vaccination pace puts India at risk of more waves’ #GS3 #SnT

Fitch Ratings has warned that India’s slow pace of vaccination means that the country could remain vulnerable to further waves of COVID-19 even once the current surge subsides. Just 9.4% of the population had received at least one vaccine dose as of May 5, it pointed out.

Last month, the firm had said that the second pandemic wave in the country could ‘delay’ but not ‘derail’ the economic recovery. However, it has now expressed concerns about the adverse implications of a longer disruption.

We expect the shock to economic activity from the latest wave of the pandemic in India to be less severe than in 2020, even though caseloads and fatalities are much higher. The authorities are implementing lockdowns more narrowly, and companies and individuals have adjusted behaviour in ways that cushion the effects.

“Nonetheless, indicators show activity dropped in April-May, which is likely to delay the country’s recovery, and the number of newly recorded cases remains extremely high. There is a risk that disruption could persist longer and spread further than our baseline case assumes, particularly if lockdowns are introduced in more regions, or nationwide,” it added.

The latest COVID-19 infections’ wave would add to risks for financial institutions by sapping near-term momentum from the economic recovery and, the central bank’s relief measures announced last Wednesday would postpone the recognition of risky assets, the firm said. It had forecast 12.8% GDP growth in FY22.

‘Growth may slip to 8.2% if wave peaks in June’ #GS3 #Economy

India’s growth this year could slip to 8.2% if COVID-19 cases continue to rise till the end of June, rating agency Crisil said as economic risks from the second wave escalate.

The agency, which had estimated 11% growth for FY22, said that its ‘base case’ will hold true only if the surge in COVID-19 cases and lockdowns across the country peak by mid-May and ‘risks are firmly tilted to the downside’ at this point.

In a moderate risk scenario, if cases and lockdowns peak by May-end, Crisil expects growth to be 9.8% for the year. Industry’s revenue growth projections of 15% for the year will hold even in this scenario, it said.

But growth could be as low as 8.2% in a severe downside scenario, with industry revenue growth likely to be significantly lower at 10%-12%, it said in a report.

While the economy was expected to return to pre-pandemic levels by September, Crisil now expects the catch-up to be pushed beyond the September quarter in both the moderate and severe scenarios.

Though the lockdowns are less restrictive than last year, the agency pointed out they are expanding. Moreover, caseloads spreading to rural areas where healthcare infrastructure is weak are a worry.

As NASA’s OSIRIS-REx begins journey back from asteroid, the significance of its mission #GS3 #SnT

On May 11, NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft will depart asteroid Bennu, and start its two-year long journey back to Earth. OSIRIS-REx is NASA’s first mission to visit a near-Earth asteroid, survey its surface and collect a sample from it.

In October 2020, the spacecraft briefly touched asteroid Bennu, from where it collected samples of dust and pebbles. Bennu is considered to be an ancient asteroid that has not gone through a lot of composition-altering change through billions of years, which means that below its surface lie chemicals and rocks from the birth of the solar system.

Therefore, scientists and researchers are interested in studying this asteroid as it might give them clues about the origins of the solar system, the sun, the Earth and the other planets.

What is asteroid Bennu?

Asteroids are rocky objects that orbit the Sun, much smaller than planets. They are also called minor planets. According to NASA, 994,383 is the count for known asteroids, the remnants from the formation of the solar system over 4.6 billion years ago.

Bennu is an asteroid about as tall as the Empire State Building, located about 200 million miles away from the Earth. Scientists study asteroids to look for information about the formation and history of planets and the sun since asteroids were formed at the same time as other objects in the solar system. Another reason for tracking them is to look for potentially hazardous asteroids.

Why is the asteroid named “Bennu”?

Bennu is named after an Egyptian deity. The name was suggested by a nine-year-old boy from North Carolina in 2013, who won NASA’s “Name that Asteroid” competition. The asteroid was discovered by a team from the NASA-funded Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research team in 1999.

So far, we know that Bennu is a B-type asteroid, implying that it contains significant amounts of carbon and various other minerals. Because of its high carbon content, the asteroid reflects about four per cent of the light that hits it, which is very low when compared with a planet like Venus, which reflects about 65 per cent of the light that hits it. Earth reflects about 30 per cent.

Around 20-40 percent of Bennu’s interior is empty space and scientists believe that it was formed in the first 10 million years of the solar system’s creation, implying that it is roughly 4.5 billion years old. As per high-resolution photographs taken by the spacecraft, the surface of the asteroid is covered in massive boulders, making it more difficult to collect samples from its surface.

There is a slight possibility that Bennu, which is classified as a Near Earth Object (NEO), might strike the Earth in the next century, between the years 2175 and 2199. NEOs are comets and asteroids nudged by the gravitational attraction of nearby planets into orbits which allow them to enter the Earth’s neighbourhood.

Bennu is believed to have been born in the Main Asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and because of gravitational tugs from other celestial objects and the slight push asteroids get when they release absorbed sunlight, the asteroid is coming closer to Earth.

What did the spacecraft do in October 2020?

In October 2020, the spacecraft contacted the surface of the asteroid successfully and fired a burst of nitrogen gas meant to stir rocks and soil. Once the surface was disturbed, the spacecraft’s robotic arm captured some samples. The spacecraft’s engineers have also confirmed that shortly after the spacecraft made contact with the surface, it fired its thrusters and “safely backed away from Bennu”.

What will scientists do with the samples?

When the spacecraft finally returns in September 2023, it will bring back the largest sample collected by a NASA mission since the Apollo astronauts collected samples of Moon rock.

“There is no straight path back to Earth. Like a quarterback throwing a long pass to where a receiver will be in the future, OSIRIS-REx is traveling to where the Earth will be. The spacecraft will circle the Sun twice, covering 1.4 billion miles (2.3 billion kilometers) over to catch up with Earth,” NASA said in a statement.

Scientists will use the asteroid samples to study the formation of the solar system and of habitable planets such as Earth. NASA will also distribute a part of the samples to laboratories worldwide and will reserve about 75 per cent of the samples for future generations who can study it with technologies not yet created.

What is the OSIRIS-REx mission?

This is NASA’s first mission meant to return a sample from the ancient asteroid. The mission is essentially a seven-year-long voyage and will conclude when at least 60 grams of samples are delivered back to the Earth. As per NASA, the mission promises to bring the largest amount of extraterrestrial material back to our planet since the Apollo era.

The mission was launched in 2016, it reached its target in 2018 and since then, the spacecraft has been trying to match the velocity of the asteroid using small rocket thrusters. It also utilised this time to survey the surface and identify potential sites to take samples.

The spacecraft contains five instruments meant to explore Bennu including cameras, a spectrometer and a laser altimeter.