Current Affairs 16th April

India records 2.16 lakh new cases, 1,153 deaths #GS3 #SnT

India registered 1,97,842 new COVID-19 cases and 1,019 deaths. The country has so far reported a total of 1,42,68,940 cases and 1,74,172 deaths.

The figures do not include cases and deaths from Andaman and Nicobar, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Ladakh, Tripura and Sikkim. Over 13.84 lakh tests were conducted on Wednesday.

Most deaths too

Maharashtra reported 61,695 infections (accounting for nearly 31% of new cases) on Thursday, followed by Uttar Pradesh with 22,339 cases and Delhi with 16,699 cases. Maharashtra also recorded the most casualties (349) on Thursday. Delhi followed with 112 deaths, while Uttar Pradesh registered 104 casualties.

A total of 33.13 lakh doses of vaccines were administered in the 24 hours ending at 7 a.m. on Thursday. It is about 6.6 lakh doses more than what was recorded in the previous 24 hours. However, it is about 8.2 lakh doses lower than what was recorded the previous Thursday.

India continues to lead the world in terms of average daily cases detected. The nation now accounts for one in every four cases reported globally every day. As of April 14, India recorded over two times the average daily cases detected in the United States.

The U.S. records the second-most number of average daily cases — about 71,200 infections. As of April 14, India recorded the second most number of average daily deaths. Brazil, with more than 3,000 average daily fatalities, is leading the world in this category.

Annuity clause goes for NPS subscribers #GS3 #Economy

The National Pension System (NPS) will no longer compel investors to convert 40% of their accumulated retirement corpus into an annuity, as poor yields on annuities and high inflation are translating into negative returns, the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority (PFRDA) Chairman, Supratim Bandyopadhyay, said on Thursday.

The regulator will issue fresh rules to soon allow those saving up to Rs. 5 lakh in the NPS to take the whole amount at retirement, up from Rs. 2 lakh at present. The pension fund regulator is also hoping to launch the first guaranteed return NPS scheme in the coming year.

Separately, amendments will be made to the PFRDA Act of 2013 to allow NPS members with a balance over Rs. 5 lakh to retain 40% of the corpus in the NPS or wind it down over a few years through a system akin to a systematic withdrawal plan.

“Post-retirement, a person has to take 40% of the total corpus as an annuity as per the law’s mandate, and 60% can be commuted and taken as a lump sum. But the annuity rates always track the interest rates in the market which have come down drastically. So much so, if someone opts for a lifetime annuity at retirement with a return of purchase price to the nominee when the person dies, the rates are varying between 5% and 5.5%.

Tax, inflation hits

Since annuities are taxable, deducting the tax and factoring in inflation means annuities are yielding negative returns. A lot of people are complaining about that. We have thought of giving them one more choice of retaining the 40% with our pension fund managers, and giving them a better return,” he said, suggesting a systematic payout scheme could be offered to them over 15 years instead of an annuity.

The Finance Ministry has announced plans to amend the PFRDA law since Budget 2019-20 and to make legislative changes to override the statutory annuitisation provision. The need to raise the lump sum withdrawal bar from Rs. 2 lakh to Rs. 5 lakh.

Centre to push judges’ appointments #GS2 #Governance

The Union government offered to decide in three months the Supreme Court Collegium recommendations for appointment of judges in the High Courts pending with it for over half a year.

Appearing before a Special Bench of Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde and Justices S.K. Kaul and Surya Kant, Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal made a statement that the High Courts continued to have 220 vacancies because their collegiums had not forwarded any names. Mr. Venugopal said those collegiums should be put on a clock to forward their recommendations.

‘Two timelines’

There are two timelines. One for the government and another for the HCs. The Chief Justice says he will deal with the High Court timelines. As regards the timeline for the government, you tell us on the next date… We are only asking you to tell us the timeline within which the government and the judiciary will cooperate.

Mr. Venugopal said the Memorandum of Procedure guided the government and the judiciary through the appointment process. The procedure did not insist on a deadline but only loosely says the process should be completed within a reasonable time.

On March 23, the Bench had asked the government to come clear on the status of 55 recommendations made by the collegium for judicial appointments to various High Courts six months to nearly a year-and-a-half ago.

Forty-four of the pending recommendations were made to fill up vacancies in Calcutta, Madhya Pradesh, Gauhati, Rajasthan and Punjab High Courts. Every one of these recommendations had been pending with the government for over seven months to a year.

Recommendations of names made by the collegium to the Delhi High Court had been pending for seven months. In the previous hearing, the court had asked Mr. Venugopal to enquire with the Union Ministry of Law and Justice and make a statement on April 8 about their status.

India, Australia must stand together: Morrison #GS2 #IR

India and Australia should stand together for democratic freedoms amid “a great polarisation” in the region between authoritarian countries and liberal democracies.

Mr. Morrison said India and Australia “share a deep friendship, or, as you say in India, maitri ”, and shared in common a “passion for democratic freedom, commitment to the rule of law, and a free and open Indo-Pacific region”.

The Australian Prime Minister described the region as “dynamic” and “full of promise”, but said Australia was “not blind to the geopolitical reality” of it becoming the “epicentre of strategic competition”.

‘Indo-Pacific region’

“The Indo-Pacific is the region that will shape our prosperity, our security and our destiny, individually and collectively,” Mr. Morrison said, as he warned of tensions due to territorial claims as well as “unprecedented” military modernisation.

Mr. Morrison did not name China, but spoke of foreign interference and economic coercion, two issues that have emerged as strains in the Australia-China relationship.

“Democratic sovereign nations are being threatened and coerced by foreign interference. “Cyberattacks are becoming more sophisticated, including from state-sponsored actors. Economic coercion is being employed as a tool of statecraft.

Liberal rules and norms are under assault and there is a great polarisation that our world is at risk of moving towards — a polarisation between authoritarian regimes and autocracies, and the liberal democracies that we love.

Mr. Morrison called for “like-minded nations”, including India and Australia, to “act more consistently, more cohesively, more often, in our shared interests” and to protect “liberal values that underpin the global order”.

‘Strategic balance’

Countries should come together “to build a durable strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific”, a balance that he said, quoting former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “favours freedom”.

China tried to change status quo #GS2 #IR

China tried to change the status quo in Eastern Ladakh by the use of disruptive technologies without using force, and thought that India as a nation would “succumb” to the pressure due to its technological advantage. We stood firm on the northern borders and proved that we will not get pushed.

“They [China] feel they have arrived. They have superior armed forces because of the technological advantage that they have. They have been able to create disruptive technologies that can paralyse systems of the adversaries. So they believe that by some shove and push they can compel nations to give into their demands.

The international community has come to our support and said, yes, there is an international order that every nation must follow.

In India, it’s believed that every community, irrespective of the religion that they follow, their caste, creed and colour of the skin, everybody has equal rights. As far as humanity is concerned, the world must stand together in ensuring that people get their human rights. It is a call the international community has to take.

Nations that have developed disruptive technologies feel that they will be able to impose their will on other nations by saying that if they [other nations] don’t come to my terms, I have other means of bringing you into conflict by unconventional means.

In the context of the Ladakh stand-off, he said, “Nations are trying to become assertive… This is what China attempted to say — it’s my way or no way… Such nature of undeclared war will place dilemma in the minds of decision makers [on] whether or not to resort to kinetic force and thus be labelled as aggressor…”

‘Grey zone tactics’

Japan’s Chief of General Staff General Yamazaki said China was attempting to unilaterally change the international order. He added that it was necessary to cooperate with other countries to counter such “grey zone tactics”.

General Angus Campbell, Chief of the Defence Force, Australia, said grey zone tactics were a way to nibble away at territory.

Noting that this was seen in the South China Sea, he said it was very challenging to respond without breaching the line that led to open conflict. On the tensions in the Taiwan strait “Conflict over the island of Taiwan will be a disaster for the people of the region and something we all must work to avoid.”

UNFPA’s population report launched #GS2 #Governance

Nearly half the women from 57 developing countries do not have the right to make decisions regarding their bodies, including using contraception, seeking healthcare or even on their sexuality, according to the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) flagship State of World Population Report 2021 titled ‘My Body is My Own’.

This is the first time a United Nations report has focused on bodily autonomy, defined as the power and agency to make choices about your body without the fear of violence or having someone else decide for you.

The report shows that in countries where data is available, only 55% of women are fully empowered to make choices over healthcare, contraception and the ability to say yes or no to sex. It also highlights that only 75% of countries legally ensure full and equal access to contraception.

Some examples of violation of bodily autonomy include, child marriage, female genital mutilation, a lack of contraceptive choices leading to unplanned pregnancy, unwanted sex exchanged for a home and food or when people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities cannot walk down a street without fearing assault or humiliation. Under its ambit also fall people with disabilities stripped of their rights to self-determination, to be free from violence and to enjoy a safe and satisfying sexual life.

Women around the world are denied the fundamental right of bodily autonomy with the COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbating this situation… Realising bodily autonomy is essential to achieving the UNFPA’s goals of ending the global unmet need for contraception, preventable maternal deaths, gender-based violence and harmful practices by 2030.

Centre plans to import medical oxygen #GS3 #SnT

Stating that there has been increasing demand for medical oxygen, especially from 12 States — Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan — with a high burden of active COVID-19 cases, the Centre on Thursday said it would be mapping the oxygen sources of these States.

The Union Health Ministry said that in view of the increasing demand for medical oxygen, the import of 50,000 tonnes of medical oxygen was also being looked into. “The States like Madhya Pradesh do not have any production capacity to meet their demand for medical oxygen and there is a trend of increasing demand in oxygen-producing States such as Gujarat, Karnataka, Rajasthan,” a release said.

It added that a Ministry-level review meeting was organised to assess the availability of essential medical equipment and oxygen during the pandemic.

The Health Ministry also said that it was working at identifying another 100 hospitals for Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) plants manufacturing oxygen.

This will help hospitals become self-sufficient in their requirement for medical oxygen while also reducing the burden on the national grid for supply of medical oxygen. Over 160 PSA plants sanctioned under PM-Cares are being closely reviewed for early completion to enhance self-generation of oxygen in hospitals especially in remote areas.

Centre eases guidelines for OCI cardholders #GS2 #Governance

The Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) will not be required to register for a fresh OCI card every time a new passport is issued in her/his name, except for those below 20 years of age.

The Ministry stated that presently the OCI card is required to be reissued each time a new passport is issued up to 20 years of age and once after completing 50 years of age “in view of biological changes in the face of the applicant”.

‘Reissue only once’

With a view to facilitate the OCI cardholders, it has now been decided by the Government of India to dispense with this requirement. A person who has got registration as OCI cardholder prior to attaining the age of 20 years will have to get the OCI card reissued only once when a new passport is issued after his/her completing 20 years of age, so as to capture his/her facial features on attaining adulthood.

If a person has obtained registration as OCI cardholder after attaining the age of 20 years, there will be no requirement of reissue of the OCI card. It added that the details of the new passports obtained by the OCI cardholder can be uploaded online within three months of receiving the passport.

It has been decided that he/she shall upload a copy of the new passport containing his/her photo and also a latest photo on the online OCI portal, each time a new passport is issued up to 20 years of age and once after completing 50 years of age.

The Ministry added that foreign spouses registered as OCIs will be required to upload a copy of the new passport and also a latest photo, along with a “declaration that their marriage is still subsisting, each time a new passport is issued. The documents will have to be uploaded within three months of receipt of new passport.

India restores e-visa for 156 countries #GS2 #IR

The Union Home Ministry has restored the electronic visa (e-visa) facility for foreigners from 156 countries who intend to visit India for business, conferences and medical reasons, including for medical attendants. E-visa for tourists is yet to be restored.

Though available to people of 171 countries before restrictions were announced in 2020, the facility has been restored only for 156. China, the U.K., Canada, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are notable exclusions.

In an order on March 30, the Ministry said, “e-Visa under the following categories viz. e-business visa, e-medical visa, e-medical attendant visa and e-conference visa has been restored with immediate effect.”

The relaxation comes in the wake of a deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of persons infected with COVID-19 increased from 59,118 on March 25 to nearly two lakh.

India had earlier relaxed visa restrictions on October 22, 2020 enabling foreigners to come to India for business, conferences, employment, education, research and medical purposes on getting regular visas from missions and embassies abroad. An e-visa is provided in five categories — tourist, business, conference, medical, and medical attendant.

Under the arrangement, a foreigner can apply online four days prior to travel. After the details are verified, an electronic travel authorisation (ETA) is generated, which has to be presented at the immigration checkpost on arrival. Entry through e-visas is allowed only at 28 designated international airports and five major seaports in India.

International air travel to and from 107 immigration checkposts was suspended by the Ministry on March 23, 2020, a day before the lockdown in view of the pandemic. Later in the year, the Ministry allowed foreign nationals from the U.S., the U.K, Germany and France on “business, medical and employment” visas under an air bubble scheme.

WPI inflation quickens to a record 7.4% #GS3 #Economy

Inflation based on the wholesale price index (WPI) accelerated last month to a record 7.4%, a surge that is expected to feed into higher retail prices in the near term. The price gains at the wholesale level were driven by a 10.3% increase in fuel and power, the quickest pace in two years, and the sharpest surge in manufactured products’ inflation at 7.3%.

March’s wholesale price inflation marks the highest level since the present Wholesale Price Index (WPI) series began, and economists expect the trend to continue for a few more months due to the base effects of last year’s national lockdown and a fresh spate of partial lockdowns that could disrupt supply chains.

The annual rate of inflation stood at 7.39% (provisional) for the month of March 2021. However, month-on-month (March 2021 over February 2021) rate of inflation stood at 1.57 %. The prices of crude oil, petroleum products and basic metal substantially increased in March 2021 as compared to the corresponding month of last year

The nationwide lockdown in March 2020 had also affected the computation of the WPI index, with an inflation of 0.4% recorded that month, the department pointed out.

Edible oil prices surge

The WPI food index hardened to 5.28%, from 3.31% in February, despite vegetable and cereal prices easing as manufactured food inflation touched a 49-month high of 9%. Within manufactured food products, edible oils recorded 34.2% inflation in March.

Among manufactured products, mild steel prices recorded 14.5% inflation, in line with the rise in global metal prices, and fed into other basic metals’ inflation rate which touched 17%.

‘Negligible policy space’

ICRA expects the headline and core WPI inflation to rise further over April and May, peaking at about 11.0-11.5% and 8-8.5%, respectively. “The expected trajectory of the WPI inflation, and its partial transmission into the CPI inflation going ahead, supports our view that there is negligible space for rate cuts to support growth.

RBI sets up authority to review regulations #GS3 #Economy

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has set up the Regulations Review Authority 2.0. The authority will review regulatory prescriptions internally as well as by seeking suggestions from RBI-regulated entities for simplification and ease of implementation.

Deputy Governor M. Rajeshwar Rao has been appointed as the Regulations Review Authority. The authority would have validity for a period of one year from May 1. The RBI had set up a similar authority in 1999 for reviewing regulations, circulars, reporting systems.

The recommendations enabled streamlining and increasing the effectiveness of several procedures, paving the way for issuance of master circular and reducing reporting burden on regulated entities.

Assessing Covid reinfection risks for the young #GS3 #SnT

A past Covid-19 infection does not completely protect against reinfection in young people, according to a new observational study published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.

The study was among more than 3,000 healthy members of the US Marines Corps, most of whom were in the age group 18-20. Of 2,346 Marines followed long enough for this analysis of reinfection rate, 189 were seropositive and 2,247 were seronegative at the start of the study, between May and November 2020. Around 10% of participants who were previously infected with SARS-CoV-2 (19 out of 189) became reinfected, compared with new infections in 50% (1,079 out of 2,247) of participants who had not previously been infected.

Implications beyond cohort

The authors say that despite previous infection and the presence of antibodies, vaccination is still necessary to boost immune responses, prevent reinfection, reduce transmission, and that young people should take up the vaccine wherever possible.

Although the study was in young, fit, mostly male Marine recruits, the authors believe that the risk of reinfection found in their study will apply to many young people, but that the exact rates of reinfections will not be applicable elsewhere. This is owing to the crowded living conditions on a military base and close personal contact required for basic training likely contributing to a higher overall infection rate than seen elsewhere.

For example, a study of 4 million people in Denmark also found that the risk of infection was five times higher in people who had not before had Covid-19. Only 0.65% of people who had Covid-19 during Denmark’s first wave tested positive again during the second wave, compared with 3.3% of people who tested positive after initially being negative.

In addition, a preprint study including British healthcare workers found that those who had been not previously infected had a five times higher risk of being infected than people who had a past infection.

Antibodies & viral load

To understand why reinfections occurred in the study of Marine recruits, the authors studied the reinfected and not infected participants’ antibody responses. They found that, among the seropositive group, participants who became reinfected had lower antibody levels against the SARS-CoV-2 virus than those who did not become reinfected. In addition, in the seropositive group, neutralising antibodies were less common.

Comparing new infections between seropositive and seronegative participants, the authors found that viral load in reinfected seropositive recruits was on average only 10 times lower than in infected seronegative participants, which could mean that some reinfected individuals could still have a capacity to transmit infection, but the authors note that this will need further investigation.

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