Current Affairs 17th March

Vaccines to foreign countries not at the expense of Indians: Centre #GS3 #SnT

Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan told the Rajya Sabha that COVID-19 vaccines were not being supplied to other countries at the expense of Indian citizens. He said, 30 lakh people were administered the vaccine, and till now nearly 3 crore people had been inoculated.

A healthy balance is being maintained. Over 30 lakh people got the vaccines. The criteria has been fixed according to the World Health Organization and other international standards. It is a dynamic process.

Even today among the priority groups if anyone who wants a vaccine can register on Co-WIN portal and get vaccinated. Vaccine is free in all government hospitals. Private hospitals can only charge Rs. 250. Rs. 100 has been fixed for hospital arrangements. He said as a strategy, the price of vaccine had been fixed at Rs. 150.

The Minister said 5.94 crore doses of vaccines had been sent to 72 countries till now. “Science is global. The technology could be local but the benefit should be shared with all.”

‘It will take 18 years’

Congress member Shaktisinh Gohil rued the slow pace of vaccination and said only 0.35% of the population had been vaccinated so far. At this rate, it will take 18 years to complete the vaccination process

Benefit of the News– Vaccination drive

Delhi remains most polluted capital: report #GS3 #Environment

Delhi remained the most polluted capital city in the world but India, on the whole, had improved its average annual PM2.5 (particulate matter) levels in 2020 than in 2019, according to a report from IQ Air, a Swiss air quality technology company specialising in protection against airborne pollutants, and developing air quality monitoring and air cleaning products.

Delhi’s PM2.5 concentration level, based primarily on data from the Central Pollution Control Board, was 84.1 μg/m³ in 2020, a 15% improvement from the 98.6 μg/m³ recorded in 2019 when the city was ranked the world’s most polluted capital for the second straight year.

Average pollution levels were 51.9 μg/m³ in 2020 compared with 58.1 μg/m³ in 2019, making India the third most polluted country in 2020, unlike in 2019, when its air was the fifth most noxious.

India ranked third

Bangladesh and Pakistan were the countries in 2020 with worse average PM2.5 levels than India, said the report. China ranked 11th in the latest report, a deterioration from the 14th in the previous edition of the report.

In the 2020 report, 106 countries were evaluated. The pollution levels are weighted averages, meaning that the population of a country influences the pollution values reported.

In 2020, 84% of all monitored countries observed air quality improvements. Other improvements in major cities over 2019 included a 11% drop in Beijing, a 13% drop in Chicago, a 17% drop in Paris and a 16% drop in London and Seoul.

However, of the 106 monitored countries, only 24 met the World Health Organization annual guidelines for PM 2.5, the report underlined. When ranked by cities, Hotan in China was the most polluted, with an average concentration of 110.2 μg/m³, followed by Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh at 106. Of the 15 most polluted cities, 13 were in India.

In spite of being a pandemic year, 2020 was a particularly severe for agricultural burning. Farm fires in Punjab increased 46.5% over 2019.

Benefit of the News– World Polluted cities

Cannot send back Myanmar exiles, says MP #GS2 #Governance

A Rajya Sabha member from the Mizo National Front (MNF) said that more than 300 people who have entered Mizoram from Myanmar fearing the military crackdown in that country include pregnant women and children.

K. Vanlalvena told The Hindu that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) was indulging in doublespeak as the Chief Minister had been assured recently that no one would be deported but on the other hand, the Ministry sent a letter to the State governments of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Mizoram that said people fleeing the coup should be identified and deported. The four States share a border with Myanmar.

The Tatmadaw, or the Myanmar military, had taken over the country after a coup on February 1.

Over 300 Myanmar nationals who have crossed the border include 150 police personnel who favoured the (pro-democracy) protesters. The State government and NGOs have given immediate help and shelter to these refugees. Meanwhile, the MHA has given directions to not entertain Myanmar refugees.”

“It will not go down well with people in Mizoram if the Central government insists on deporting them. Being the largest democracy in the world, it is the responsibility of India to encourage and support any struggle to protect and uphold democratic rights and principles. They are our brothers; sending them back to Myanmar will mean killing them.

Benefit of the News– India- Myanmar relations

Changes to NCT Act revive power tussle #GS2 #Governance

Three decades after it was enacted, significant amendments have been proposed to the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Act, 1991, bringing contradictions between the Central and Delhi governments to the fore once again.

The Hindu spoke to a cross-section of legislative officials, constitutional experts and political analysts on the impact and import of the Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021.

Some were of the opinion that the new Bill would seek to render the office of the Chief Minister as a vestigial organ in the name of simplifying administration in the Capital. Others sought to argue it would iron out “needless” issues arising out of politics in a city where the Lieutenant-Governor had “always been the government”.

Senior advocate at the Supreme Court Rebecca John said the Act would snatch away from the residents of Delhi the accountability and answerability they sought from the elected representatives and hand them to a nominated official.

“It [the Act] would be a tragedy since Delhi has long sought statehood; that the longstanding wish of the city’s residents should fructify in this way is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution,” she said. “The will of the people cannot be thwarted in this way,” she added.

Federal principles

Professor Pradip Kumar Datta, an independent academic formerly associated with JNU, said the Act seemed to go against the federal principles and was a setback for popular representation.

“Centralisation has been increasing in both formal and informal ways after this government came to power at the Centre. This [Act] will seemingly just speed up the pace of centralisation of power,” he said.

The amendment, according to senior advocate at the Supreme Court Sanjay Hegde, would set in motion a reversal of the clock on statehood for Delhi which was the BJP’s own demand in the past.

The Bill seemed to negate whatever small gains had accrued to the Delhi government after its tussle with the Centre reached the judiciary, he said.

According to Manisha Priyam, political analyst and researcher, the Bill may seek to clarify who or what the term “government” meant in the city but residents may not necessarily take kindly to the exercise. Governance in a city like Delhi presented many challenges which could be confronted better through synchronised efforts at helping those among its lowest strata.

“Over the last several decades, this city has tasted democracy and witnessed a robust democratic process. People may not take very kindly to losing such significant aspects of living in Delhi. “A majority of residents have tenuous lifestyles and administration here would be better handled with the deepening of democracy, not by weakening it.

In the [Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi] Act, 1991, it is already clear that the Lieutenant-Governor is the government. This [amendment] seems to be a positive step for the welfare of the people of Delhi.

S.K. Sharma, a constitutional expert said the two governments — the Centre and the Delhi governments — were not concurrent. The first one is the actual government while the other falls under the definition of what B.R. Ambedkar called local administration.

The Delhi Assembly, as far as the larger constitutional picture is concerned, is not comparable to other legislatures because Delhi is not a State. It [the Assembly] is just a small set-up of elected representatives whom the L-G can consult from time to time.

Benefit of the News– About recent changes asked via National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amendment) Bill, 2021

‘Census interim data by 2024’ #GS2 #Governance

The provisional data for the latest Census and National Population Register (NPR) will be available before the Lok Sabha election in 2024. The Ministry informed the committee that Census and update of the NPR would be among the major thrust areas for the financial year 2021-22.

The previous Census was conducted in 2011 and the NPR, which has a database of 119 crore residents, was last updated in 2015. The first phase of Census House-listing and Housing Census that was to be conducted along with the NPR from April 1, 2020, was indefinitely postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tentative timeline

The Ministry shared a tentative timeline with the parliamentary panel, saying that provisional Census results will be released in the financial year 2023-24 and the primary Census abstracts (PCA) will provide village-level data on important indicators.

A mobile application has been developed for collecting the Census details and NPR and residents can also self-enumerate The fieldwork for the first phase of Census 2021 that will provide data on housing conditions, household amenities and assets possessed by the households is expected in 2021-22.

The fieldwork for population enumeration phase to provide data on demography, religion, SC/ST, language, literacy and education, economic activity, migration and fertility will be done in 2023-24. The committee was informed that the mobile app through which Census will be conducted will be available in 16 languages.

The Ministry said the NPR database had been created by collecting family-wise data and it can be strengthened by linking Aadhaar to each member.

It said “consolidated details of a family” are not available through Aadhaar and based on it “a family structure” cannot be created without visiting each household and collecting information such as relationship among family members.

“Further, the Aadhaar database may not be made available to this office due to legal provisions in the Aadhaar Act, 2016. During the next update of NPR, the Aadhaar number is being collected voluntarily. The presence of the Aadhaar number in the NPR database will facilitate its integration with other databases.

Benefit of the News– On-going process for Census 2021

Rajya Sabha passes MTP Bill #GS2 #Governance

The Rajya Sabha passed the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020 that increases the time period within which an abortion may be carried out.

Opposition MPs pointed out that the Bill still did not give women the freedom to decide, since she would need a nod from a medical board in the case of pregnancies beyond 24 weeks. The Opposition’s demand to send the Bill to a parliamentary Select Committee for detailed scrutiny was defeated by a voice vote.

Currently, abortion requires the opinion of one doctor if it is done within 12 weeks of conception, and two doctors if it is done between 12 and 20 weeks. The Bill allows abortion to be done on the advice of one doctor up to 20 weeks, and two doctors in the case of certain categories of women, between 20 and 24 weeks.

For a pregnancy to be terminated after 24 weeks in case of substantial foetal abnormalities, the opinion of the State-level medical board is essential. The Bill was passed in March last year in the Lok Sabha.

Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said the amendments in the Bill had been made after studying global practices and after wide consultation within the country.

The amendments, he said, had been made pursuant to the rising number of pleas in the court. There are 23 petitions in front of the Supreme Court and many hundreds in the High Courts. “Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we will not frame any law which harms women. This is to preserve and protect the dignity of women,” he said. The original Bill was framed in 1971.

During the debate, however, many of the Opposition members, while welcoming the Bill, pointed out the severe lacunae and problems with its approach.

Congress leader Ami Yajnik, who opened the debate, said the medical board had to have specialists but government data itself showed a grave shortage in availability of doctors. “Should the State intervene when the pregnant woman is worried about her own life, about the well-being of the foetus, and also about the stigma involved?”

Shiv Sena leader Priyanka Chaturvedi said it was wrong to say the Bill was based on a “right based” approach. Instead, it had a “need based” approach.

Benefit of the News– Passing of Medical Termination of Pregnancy (Amendment) Bill, 2020

Cabinet gives nod to Bill for setting up DFI #GS2 #Governance

The Union Cabinet approved a Bill to set up a Development Finance Institution. The Minister said the government had mentioned in the Budget that it would be setting up a national bank for funding infrastructure and development activity. As of December 2019, she said, there were over 6,000 brownfield and greenfield projects requiring funding.

“Even as the Budget session is still on, the Cabinet has already cleared the setting up of a Development Finance Institution,” she said, adding that the Budget provided for an initial amount of Rs. 20,000 crore for the institution.

Benefit of the News– Setting up a Development Finance Institution

Energy meet calls for faster shift to renewables #GS3 #Environment #SnT

The COVID-19 crisis offers an unexpected opportunity for countries to decouple their economies from fossil fuels and accelerate the shift to renewable energy sources, says the World Energy Transitions Outlook report, brought out by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Previewed at the virtual Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue, which began on Tuesday, the report proposes energy transition solutions for the narrow pathway available to contain the rise of temperature to 1.5 degree Celsius.

Highlighting the need for countries to change direction with careful recalibrating of stimulus packages and recovery measures, director general of IRENA Francesco La Camera said, “The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the cost of tying economies to the fate of fuels prone to price shocks. Amid this, renewables have shown remarkable resilience.”

IRENA observed that the emergence of a new energy system based on renewable technologies and complemented by green hydrogen and modern bioenergy. It estimated that by 2050, 90% of total electricity needs would be supplied by renewables, followed by 6% from natural gas and the remaining from nuclear. The agency has identified 30 innovations for the integration of wind and solar PV in power systems.

Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Natake, who delivered the keynote address, criticised the leaders for continuing to invest in fossil fuel commitments, saying, “We cannot eat coal and we cannot drink oil.”

Maharashtra told to plan for the worst #GS3 #DM

The Health Ministry has cautioned Maharashtra to plan for a “worst-case scenario” with sufficient lead time as the State continues to report the highest number of new daily COVID-19 cases and deaths across India. It has also directed the resumption of death audits to support public health action and minimise mortality.

In a letter to the State earlier this week, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said while the available health infrastructure was adequate, Maharashtra needed to look into vaccine hesitancy among frontline workers, “as their services would be required if the trajectory follows the upward swing as is being witnessed now”. He also said the State should also expedite vaccinating those with comorbidities and the elderly.

The letter comes a day after the State government announced a series of restrictions, mandating cinema halls, hotels, restaurants and offices to function only at 50% capacity till March 31 and prohibiting all social and religious gatherings.

After its visit to Maharashtra, the Central team has recommended that treating physicians should be re-sensitised on clinical management protocols.

“Maharashtra is in the beginning of a second wave of COVID-19 pandemic. There is very limited active effort to track, test, isolate cases and quarantine contacts. There is no adherence to COVID appropriate behaviour among people both in rural and urban areas,” the team noted.

The Health Ministry has now recommended monitoring of the situation at the highest level, strengthened surveillance enhanced involvement of private practitioners, increased testing and reviewing the practice of isolating 80-85% of active cases kept at home. It added that measures such as night curfews and weekend lockdowns had limited impact on containing/suppressing the transmission.

State Health Minister Rajesh Tope denied that the Maharashtra government was “not serious” about tackling the surge, and said he had sought 2.2 crore vaccine doses from the Centre.

Benefit of the News– Surge in cases of Covid in Maharashtra

‘Post-vaccine blood clots a form of rare cerebral thrombosis’ #GS3 #SnT

Scientists at the Germany-based Paul-Ehrlich-Institut report that the blood clots observed in some of those vaccinated are a “special form of very rare cerebral vein thrombosis”. This corresponds to a deficiency in platelets and bleeding following vaccination with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. The recommendations from the institute were the reason Germany put on hold ongoing vaccinations until a full review by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

The EMA last week said that several cases of immune thrombocytopenia, a lack of platelets in the blood that can lead to bleeding and bruising, had been reported under its vaccine safety monitoring process.

Several EU countries — France and Italy for instance — have called a halt to the AstraZeneca vaccine after reports from Denmark and Norway of possible serious side-effects, including bleeding and blood clots.

EU nations suspend use

Denmark was the first country to suspend the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine on March 11 as a precautionary measure. Iceland and Norway followed suit.

Last Friday, Bulgaria suspended the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine as it probed caused the death of a woman with several underlying conditions who was inoculated. Sweden and Latvia, too, have suspended use.

The blood clots observed post vaccination, however, are less than the background number of such thrombosis events even without vaccination. The World Health Organization (WHO) has ruled out any link between AstraZeneca’s vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and reported blood clots.

“We do not want people to panic and we would, for the time being, recommend that countries continue vaccinating with AstraZeneca,” WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan was quoted as saying by news agency AFP.

India also is reliant on Covishield, which is based on the AstraZeneca vaccine, and forms the bulk of the nearly 30 million vaccines that have been so far administered to the population. However, officials say no instances of such blood clots have been reported so far.

Quad officials hail vaccine drive #GS2 #IR

The vaccine initiative announced by the Quad leaders last week was a “path-breaking effort” at a “truly historic” summit, said Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan, as officials in the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. coalition also said that details of the plan to provide 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Southeast Asian countries by 2022 are being worked out.

“The Quad vaccine collaboration initiative is a pathbreaking effort, envisioning manufacture of U.S. vaccines in India — and delivery to countries in the Indo-Pacific region with support of Japan and Australia. It is an example of collective efforts which can be leveraged for global good in these challenging times.

In Canberra, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced the pledge of an additional $77 million for the Quad effort, in addition to about $400 million that Australia has already committed for regional vaccine access.

“Quad partners will take opportunities to implement joint or closely coordinated programmes of support for our partner countries in the Indo-Pacific with a particular focus on Southeast Asia.

He added that the Quad countries’ plan to make “investments will ramp up vaccine manufacturing capacity, fund the procurement and distribution of vaccines and provide last mile delivery support”.

According to a “Fact Sheet” released by the Ministry of External Affairs and other Quad partners, the billion vaccines planned would be manufactured at a Hyderabad-based private company “Biological E” (BE), with U.S. support.

“The United States, through the DFC (US International Development Finance Corporation, will work with Biological E Ltd., to finance increased capacity to support Biological E’s effort to produce at least 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2022 with Stringent Regulatory Authorization (SRA) and/or World Health Organization (WHO) Emergency Use Listing (EUL), including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

U.K. turns to Indo-Pacific in post-Brexit foreign policy #GS2 #IR

Britain wants to expand its influence among countries in the Indo-Pacific region to try to moderate China’s global dominance, a document laying out post-Brexit foreign and defence policy priorities said on Tuesday.

The document sets out a planned increase to Britain’s nuclear arsenal to weigh against evolving global security threats, and underlines the importance of strong ties with the U.S. while naming Russia as the top regional threat.

Britain’s biggest foreign and defence policy review since the end of the Cold War sets out how Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to be at the forefront of a reinvigorated, rules-based international order based on cooperation and free trade.

Calling the Indo-Pacific “increasingly the geopolitical centre of the world”, the government highlighted a planned British aircraft carrier deployment to the region.

“China and the U.K. both benefit from bilateral trade and investment, but China also presents the biggest state-based threat to the U.K.’s economic security,” the report said.

Britain, the world’s sixth-largest economy, is dwarfed economically and militarily by China, but believes through soft power and strategic alliances it can help persuade Beijing to play by the rules of a new, more dynamic international system.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab acknowledged Britain’s attempts to influence Beijing had been marginal so far, telling Times Radio it was better acting “in concert with clusters of like-minded countries… to have the maximum impact and moderating impact on China”.\

Tackle CNG vehicle cost, bring it under GST’ #GS3 #Economy

India needs to bring CNG under the GST regime and tackle challenges such as high vehicle cost and limited boot space for the growth of the natural gas vehicle market, according to a report by Nomura Research Institute Consulting & Solutions India.

The report on ‘natural gas vehicle (NGV) market’ stated that the CNG vehicle market has seen compounded annual growth rate of 7% to 33.76 lakh units in March 2020 from March 2016, mainly driven by passenger vehicles (cars and taxis). The demand for such vehicles, however, is concentrated in Maharashtra (30%), Gujarat (29%), Delhi (23%), Uttar Pradesh (9%), and Haryana (5%).

“India has large domestic reserves of natural gas as compared to crude oil. India has explored about 5 trillion cubic metres of recoverable reserves, of which less than 0.5% is used as fuel in the current CNG fleet.

High vehicle volume and favourable conditions in the Indian automotive market presented an opportunity to promote NGVs, it added.