Current Affairs 17th August

Taliban assert control over Afghanistan #GS2 #IR

Victorious Taliban militants patrolled Kabul on Monday after a stunningly swift end to Afghanistan’s 20-year war, as thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee the group’s feared hardline brand of Islamist rule.

President Ashraf Ghani flew out of the country on Sunday night as the insurgents encircled the capital, capping a military victory that saw them capture all cities in just 10 days.

After police and other government forces gave up their posts in Kabul on Sunday, Taliban militants took over checkpoints across the city and entered the presidential palace. Militants with rifles slung over their shoulders also walked through the streets of the Green Zone, the formerly heavily fortified district that houses most Embassies and international organisations.

The Taliban, however, sought to reassure the international community that Afghans should not fear them, and said they will not take revenge against those who supported the U.S.-backed alliance. In a message posted on social media, Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar called on the militants to remain disciplined after taking control of the city.

China ready for ties

China was the first major nation to flag support for the Taliban, stating it was ready for “friendly relations”.

There were desperate scenes at Kabul’s airport on Monday as people tried to board the few flights available. Senior U.S. military officials say the chaos at the airport left seven people dead, including some who fell from a departing American military transport jet, according to Associated Press.

Govt. dismisses snooping charges #GS2 #Governance

The government in the Supreme Court on Monday dismissed allegations of snooping using Pegasus spyware as mere “conjectures and surmises” based on “unsubstantiated media reports or incomplete or uncorroborated material”.

A two-page affidavit filed by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) in the Supreme Court, however, said the government would form a Committee of Experts to dispel the “wrong narrative” spread by “vested interests”.

However, some of the petitioners termed the government’s response “skimpy” and “delightfully non-committal”. They urged a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana to have the Union Home Secretary clarify on oath in an affidavit whether or not the government used the military-grade technology to snoop on citizens.

“The sum and substance is they [petitioners] are not satisfied with your limited affidavit. They want to know in clear terms whether the government has used Pegasus or not… If you want time to file a detailed affidavit, you can take time,” Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana addressed Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta.

‘Sensitive issue’

But Mr. Mehta said even a “detailed affidavit” may not appease the petitioners. He asked whether the petitioners would swear to withdraw from court if the government said “no” to using the Pegasus in a further “one-page affidavit”. Mr. Mehta indicated that things were not “so simple”. Any discussion on this issue would involve national security.

“We are dealing with a sensitive matter. Attempts are being made to make it sensational,” Mr. Mehta complained.

“If the government is reluctant about filing a detailed affidavit, how can we compel them to?” the CJI turned to senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for veteran journalists N. Ram and Sashi Kumar.

“Well, that would mean they don’t want to admit or deny [to using Pegasus]… Then I can argue that they have not denied. Then the matter gets more serious… We want a straight answer. Did the government or any of its agencies use Pegasus? That question does not deal with national security,”

Agencies brace for rise in drug trafficking #GS3 #Security

The anti-drug law enforcement agencies are suspecting a steep surge in cross-border trafficking of heroin and crystal methamphetamine with the rapid Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

“Drugs have been a major source of revenue for the Taliban. With the collapse of Afghanistan’s economy, the Taliban will rely heavily on drugs money to maintain control over their cadres. In the recent past, we have already noticed an increase in drug trafficking in the region, mostly through maritime routes,” said a senior Customs official.

According to the latest World Drug Report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan reported a 37% increase in the extent of land used for illicit cultivation of opium poppy during 2020 compared to the previous year. Heroin is manufactured using the morphine extracted from opium.

The country accounted for 85% of the global total opium production last year. Despite the improved capabilities of Afghan specialised units over the years, drug seizures and arrests had minimal impact on the country’s opium-poppy cultivation and production. “The economic crisis brought on by the pandemic will only increase the appeal of illicit crop cultivation,” said the report.

This apart, Afghanistan is also turning out to be a major source for methamphetamine. In the neighbouring Iran, the proportion of Afghan-origin methamphetamine seizure increased from less than 10% in 2015 to over 90% in 2019, while seizures in Afghanistan increased almost sevenfold that year compared to 2018. The drug is prepared using ephedrine extracted from Ephedra plants in Afghanistan.

The report stated that going by the best estimate, illicit cultivation of opium poppy in 2009 was spread across 1.23 lakh hectare, which increased to 2.24 lakh hectare in 2020. Based on the findings, it said the potential production of over-dry opium was 6,300 tonnes last year compared to 4,000 tonnes in 2009.

Afghanistan’s southwestern region (Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Uruzgan, and Zabul Provinces) continued to dominate opium-poppy cultivation and accounted for 68% of the national total in 2020.

Broader representation must: India #GS2 #IR

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) held its second meeting on Afghanistan in 10 days, as the country witnessed chaotic scenes over the weekend, with the Taliban taking over Kabul.

Addressing the meeting, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres asked the insurgents to protect the rights of Afghans. “The world is following events there with a heavy heart and deep disquiet about what lies ahead,” he said.

“I remind all parties of their obligation to protect civilians,” he said. “I call upon the Taliban and all parties to respect and protect international humanitarian law and the rights and freedoms of all persons.”

Mr. Guterres said there were “chilling” reports of “severe restrictions on human rights” emerging from across the country. He said he was particularly concerned about the rights of women and girls and that their “hard-won” rights must be protected.

Afghanistan’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ghulam Isaczai said, “We are extremely concerned about Taliban not honouring their promises and commitments made in their statements at Doha and other international fora.”

India’s Permanent Representative T.S. Tirumurti said the situation was of great concern to India. “As a neighbour of Afghanistan and a friend to its people, the situation is of great concern to us in India. Everyone is concerned about the increasing violations of the fundamental rights of Afghan citizens,” he said. Saying a dispensation with a broad representation would gain more “acceptability’ and ‘legitimacy”, Mr. Tirumurti called for the voices of Afghan women, the aspirations of its children and the rights of its minorities to be respected. The Ambassador did not refer to the Taliban by name during his speech.

Afghanistan’s neighbours and the region would feel safer if there was zero tolerance for terrorism and if Afghanistan did not become a base from which terrorists could attack other countries, he said.

American Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said civilians, including journalists and non-combatants, must be protected. The U.S. said Afghanistan cannot ever again be a base for terrorism. It was joined by China in this. Beijing’s deputy representative Geng Shuang said terror groups had developed in Afghanistan and named the IS, the Al-Qaeda and the ETIM (East Turkestan Islamic Movement) as examples.

“China takes note of what was said by the Afghan Taliban on Sunday that war in Afghanistan had ended and that it would negotiate to establish an open inclusive Islamic government and it will take responsible actions to ensure the safety of Afghan citizens and foreign missions.

SC raises query on Tribunal Reforms Bill #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court on Monday challenged the government to produce material showing its reasons for introducing the Tribunal Reforms Bill, 2021, which abolishes nine appellate tribunals and revives provisions of an ordinance struck down by the Supreme Court, in Parliament.

A three-judge Bench, led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, put the government in the dock about the complete absence of material justifying the Bill and the lack of proper debate in Parliament before it was made into law.

The Bill replaced the Tribunals Reforms (Rationalisation and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2021. The provisions in the ordinance regarding conditions of service and tenure of Tribunal Members and Chairpersons were struck down by the Supreme Court. However, the provisions re-appeared in the Tribunal Reforms Bill introduced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on August 2 in the Lok Sabha.

The Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha by voice vote without a debate amid protests by the Opposition parties over the Pegasus controversy and other laws. The Rajya Sabha cleared the Bill on August 9.

“In spite of the ordinance being struck down by the court, the Bill has been passed. There was no debate. We did not see any. We are not questioning the wisdom of the Parliament… We are not saying anything about the Parliament’s power…. But at least we must know the reasons of the government in introducing the Bill… the Honourable Minister has but just one word… Please show us the debate which took place on the Bill. This is a serious issue,” Chief Justice Ramana said.

Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta submitted that the Bill had matured into an Act. It was passed by Parliament in its wisdom.

“Can you show us the records giving the reasons for which the Bill was placed in the Parliament? Can you show us what was discussed about the Bill before it was passed,” Chief Justice Ramana asked.

The CJI said that despite the Supreme Court’s observations in an August 6 hearing and production of a note showing over 240 vacancies in key tribunals where thousands of cases were pending, not a single appointment had been made.

Mr. Mehta insisted that some appointments had been made to the Central Administrative Tribunal. The rest of the appointments were “under process”.

“Show us one appointment that you have made… Whenever we ask the Ministry about tribunal appointments, you say it is ‘under process’… If you want to make appointments, nothing prevents you from appointing… Till yesterday, we did not hear anything about any appointments to tribunals,” the CJI voiced the court’s scepticism.

The CJI repeated his question whether the government was moving towards closing down the tribunals.

July WPI inflation slows slightly to 11.2% #GS3 #Economy

Inflation in wholesale prices slowed marginally to 11.2% in July, from June’s 12.1%, with the pace of price gains in primary articles, food as well as fuel and power moderating. Manufactured product prices, on the other hand, gained momentum last month.

On a month-on-month basis, the Wholesale Price Index (WPI), however, increased 0.6% in July from June 2021.

Inflation in fuel and power at the wholesale level was at 26% in July, slowing from 36.7% in May and 32.8% in June, while manufactured products inflation accelerated from 10.9% in June to 11.2% in July. The Food Index saw 4.46% inflation compared with 6.66% in June.

“The high rate of inflation in July 2021 is primarily due to low base effect and rise in prices of crude petroleum & natural gas; mineral oils; manufactured products like basic metals; food products; textiles; chemicals and chemical products as compared to the corresponding month of the previous year,” the office of the Economic Adviser in the Commerce and Industry Ministry said in a statement.

ICRA chief economist Aditi Nayar attributed the deceleration in WPI inflation for the second month in a row, from 13.1% in May, to a favourable base effect and a softening of food price pressures. The uncertainty related to the variant of thel coronavirus had arrested the rise in commodity prices, which had also helped, she added.

However, headline WPI inflation is expected to remain in double digits until October, giving little respite to the RBI’s Monetary Policy Committee on the prices front, according to the economist.

‘Focus on growth’

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that retail inflation was now well below the 6% ceiling for monetary policy and was expected to remain below it.

“I wouldn’t allow it to worry me as I focus on growth, and we are constantly monitoring price trends and ensuring supply constraints are removed swiftly and if needed, import relaxations are being done so that the economy and consumers don’t suffer over essential items,” the minister said.

“Reflecting the base effect and the supply-side measures taken by the government related to pulses and oilseeds, the primary food index was flat at the year-ago level in July 2021, after having reported a year-on-year inflation for the previous five months,” said Ms. Nayar.

“With rising tomato prices posing some concern, we expect the wholesale food index to record a mild inflation in August 2021, before slipping into disinflation for the next few prints, aided by the base effect,” she noted. ICRA expects core-WPI inflation to have peaked at 10.8% in July, Ms. Nayar added.