Current Affairs 18th March

Quick, decisive steps required to curb ‘second peak’, says PM #GS3 #SnT

Warning of another possible nationwide COVID-19 outbreak, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday urged the States and the Union Territories to work towards stopping the emerging “second peak” of infections immediately, and stressed the need for quick and decisive steps.

“The confidence which came from our achievements in the battle against coronavirus should not turn into negligence. While the general public should not be allowed to go into a panic mode, we can incorporate our past experiences in our efforts against the spread of the virus.

Genome testing

Mr. Modi reiterated that the States and the Union Territories should follow up on sending samples for genome testing to track virus variants of concern.

All States and Union Territories have been tagged to 10 national labs under the INSACOG consortium with the National Centre for Disease Control as the nodal institute. The standard operating procedures issued by the Health Ministry for surveillance of international travellers and their contacts must be implemented rigorously.

He stressed on the need to be serious about “test, track and treat”, and said it was important to track every infected person’s contacts in the shortest time and keep the RT-PCR test rate in the country above 70%.

Mr. Modi cautioned against wastage of vaccines, and asked the Chief Ministers to monitor vaccine doses daily. “The States should work towards zero wastage of vaccines with a set target. There is a need to create more sessions to vaccinate more healthcare and frontline workers.

The PM said over 96% of patients in India had recovered, and the country was currently reporting one of the lowest fatality rates in the world. He, however, expressed concern over the high positivity rate in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and the rising number of cases in Punjab and Maharashtra. “Seventy districts witnessed a 150% rise in the past few weeks.

Serious issue if 3 cr. ration cards were cancelled, says SC #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court said it was a “very serious” matter if the Centre had really cancelled around three crore ration cards, even those of tribal people and the poor, solely because they could not be biometrically linked with Aadhaar.

A Bench, led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde, asked the Centre to respond to the allegation made in a petition by Koili Devi, represented by senior advocate Colin Gonsalves, that such cancellations had led to starvation deaths across the country.

The insistence on Aadhaar and biometric authentication had led to the cancellation of nearly four crore ration cards in the country, according to the Union of India. The Union of India casually gives an explanation that these cancelled cards were bogus.

The real reason is that the technological system based on iris identification, thumb prints, non-possession of Aadhaar, non-functioning of the Internet in rural and remote areas, etc., led to largescale cancellation of ration cards, without notice to the family concerned,” said a report submitted by the petitioner.

Mr. Gonsalves said the “petition is based on reports that an estimated two to four crore ration cards have been cancelled in the country without prior notice to the beneficiaries”. Right to food, which the ration card symbolised, cannot be curbed or cancelled because of lack of Aadhaar.

Investigation sought

Ms. Koili Devi’s 11-year-old daughter, Santhoshi Kumari, was allegedly a victim of hunger death in Jharkhand in 2017. She said the family’s ration card was cancelled due to non-linkage with Aadhaar. She sought an independent investigation into the starvation deaths, restoration of the cancelled ration cards and compensation for the death of her daughter.

Mr. Gonsalves said the government’s continued emphasis on Aadhaar was unfortunate as the Supreme Court had laid down in clear terms that “no insistence on Aadhaar can be done for statutory entitlements”.

“Tribals either do not have Aadhaar cards or the identification does not work in tribal and rural areas. Because of this reliance on Aadhaar cards, can you imagine three crore cards are gone…” he submitted.

He argued that the States were in a denial mode, blaming the deaths on diarrhoea and malaria.

“In fact, anything but lack of food. This cruel exercise deprived millions of Indians living below the poverty line of food and led to starvation deaths in Jharkhand, U.P., Odisha, Karnataka, M.P., Maharashtra, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and other States,” the petitioner’s side said in a report prepared after going through the responses obtained from the States.

Additional Solicitor General Aman Lekhi said the statements made by the petitioner side were misplaced. Issuance of ration card was not dependent on the Aadhaar card. Alternative mechanisms were in place. Besides, the issuance of ration cards was primarily the responsibility of the State governments.

Mr. Lekhi said the petitioners should ideally move the respective High Court, rather than file an omnibus petition in the apex court. He said the petitioners had come directly to the apex court without raising their issue with the grievance redressal mechanism under the National Food Security Act.

“We are persuaded to consider this case because of their [petitioners’] statement that ration cards have been cancelled… That is a very serious matter,” Chief Justice Bobde said in response to Mr. Lekhi’s submissions for the Centre.

Even as the government highlighted the redressal mechanism within the Food Security Act as the right place to go, the petitioner side countered in its report to the court that “not a single State has appointed independent nodal officers or district grievance redressal officer under the Act”.

“All the States have mechanically granted additional designations to existing officers. In many cases, the officers given additional designations are from the Food Supply Department, and they are the main persons responsible for corruption in the food distribution system,” the report said.

It referred to the directions imposed by the Supreme Court in the Swaraj Abhiyan cases on the implementation of the Food Security Act, which included social audits, framing of rules and setting up vigilance committees.

The Hunger Watch Report of the Right to Food Campaign in 2020 characterised the hunger situation in India as “grave”. India ranks 94 out of 107 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2020 and is in the ‘Serious Hunger Category’.

India known as first, reliable responder, says Jaishankar #GS2 #IR

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said in the last few years, India had developed a reputation of being the first and reliable responder in the region, stating that the country had provided “Made in India” vaccines for COVID-19 to 72 countries. Medicines have been supplied to 150 nations, 82 of them as grants.

In a statement to Parliament on the Vaccine Maitri initiative, Mr. Jaishankar said Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision had provided an overarching framework to make the country’s goodwill meaningful in terms of practical initiatives and activities.

We already saw that in our humanitarian assistance and disaster responses, whether in Yemen and Nepal or Mozambique and Fiji. As a result, in the last few years, India has developed a reputation of being the first and reliable responder in the region. We saw that too in critical negotiations of global importance like the Paris Agreement, where we had a key bridging role.

The Minister said the supply of vaccines abroad was based on the assessment of adequate availability at home. “From the Caribbean to the Pacific Islands, the message has been clear that the Prime Minister of India not only has the willingness to engage them personally, but to back that up with concrete development programmes. It is this outlook of human-centric global cooperation that is the driving force of Vaccine Maitri.

No decision on national NRIC till now #GS2 #Governance

The Union government informed the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday that “till now”, it had not taken any decision to prepare the National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) at the national level.

Union Minister of State for Home Nityanand Rai stated this in a written reply to Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) member Abdul Wahab, who asked whether the government had any plan to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) throughout the country in toto .

Widespread protests

From December 2019 to March 2020, as many as 69 persons were killed in various incidents in the wake of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Population Register (NPR) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

The Minister had stated the same position in reply to a question on the nationwide NRC by Binoy Viswam of the Communist Party of India on March 4, 2020, and Tiruchi Siva of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam on March 18, 2020.

However, in the same month in 2020, the Union Home Ministry had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court that the NRC was a “necessary exercise for any sovereign country for mere identification of citizens from non-citizens”.

2018 statement

In 2018, before the passage of the CAA, the then Minister of State for Home Hansraj Gangaram Ahir had informed the Rajya Sabha that “as per the provisions contained in Rule 3 of the Citizenship Rules 2003 framed under the Citizenship Act, 1955, the Registrar General of Citizen Registration shall establish and maintain the National Register of Indian Citizens and prepare the Population Register”.

The National Population Register’s link with the NRC and the yet-to-be-implemented CAA has been opposed by many States and civil society groups across the country.

On November 16, 2016, the then former Minister of State for Home Home Kiren Rijiju stated: “The Government has approved the preparation of Population Register comprising details of usual residents in the country. The preparation of Population Register is a part of preparation of NRIC under provisions of the Citizenship Act, 1955 read with the Citizenship Rules (2003).”

Though the government is now denying that the NRC is on the cards, the Citizenship Rules framed in the year 2003 say that NPR is the first step towards compilation of NRC. NPR was first collected in 2010 and then updated in 2015; it already has a database of 119 crore residents. The rules have not been amended or scrapped.

The CAA passed by the Parliament on December 11, 2019 allows citizenship on basis of religion to six undocumented communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh who entered India on or before December 31, 2014.

There are apprehensions and fear that the CAA, followed by a countrywide NRC, will benefit non-Muslims excluded from the proposed citizens’ register, while excluded Muslims will have to prove their citizenship.

An NRC has been compiled in the State of Assam on the directions of the Supreme Court and more than 19 lakh of the 3.29 crore applicants in Assam were left out of the final register.

‘India should make a move for peace’ #GS2 #IR

Pitching for trade between Pakistan and its neighbours such as India, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said the entire region would benefit “if India makes a move, if the Kashmir issue is resolved”.

The comments came amid signs of a possible easing of relations, including a visit by the first sporting teams from Pakistan in years and talks on the Indus water treaty next week. Indian and Pakistani border commanders had last month agreed to abide by a ceasefire.

The Foreign Ministers of both countries have also been invited to the same regional conference on Afghanistan to be held in Dushanbe on March 30, which could be the first such opportunity for senior officials to meet since 2019.

“With India, it is very unfortunate that we have tried to resolve our issues through dialogue like civilised neighbours, but it has not worked out. Our only issue is basically over Kashmir,” Mr. Khan said at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, repeating an earlier statement made in Colombo in February.

He called India’s decision to amend Article 370 and reorganise Jammu and Kashmir as a “big jolt” that led to a “full breakdown in ties”.

“India will also benefit with more trade and connectivity to Central Asia. This [Kashmir] is the one issue that holds us back. We will try our full efforts but it is for India to make a move, until they do that, we cannot move forward,” he added, in a possible indicator that Pakistan expects steps from New Delhi on Jammu and Kashmir’s status before making the next move on trade.

Mr. Khan’s visibly softened tone on India follows a speech by Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla on Monday that also appeared to have toned down some of the language on Pakistan. “India desires good neighbourly relations with Pakistan and is committed to addressing issues, if any, bilaterally and peacefully.

However, any meaningful dialogue can only be held in a conducive atmosphere and the onus is on Pakistan to create such an atmosphere,” Mr. Shringla said, giving India’s stated position, but without the usual reference to state-sponsored terrorism from Pakistan.

‘Quad summit strengthens U.S. hand ahead of talks with China’ #GS2 #IR

The U.S. has sought to build strength before engaging China later this week and the Quad summit is an example of this, a senior administration official said on Tuesday night during a briefing call with reporters.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan are scheduled to meet China’s Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi and State Councilor Wang Yi. Both U.S. officials have been extensively engaged with allies, primarily in Europe and the Indo Pacific, since the administration kicked off on January 20. Mr. Blinken is currently visiting Tokyo and Seoul along with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Working together

“I think sometimes folks think of our allies and partners piece here as just being about choreography that somehow we just need to talk to our allies before we talk to China,” the official, who did not want to be named, said. “I want to stress that that’s actually not the case. Obviously that sequencing is part of the equation here, but we’re working actually with allies and partners to strengthen our hand.”

“The Quad [summit] last week was probably the most important very clear illustration in practical terms of exactly what we’re trying to achieve here, bringing together the four leaders in a virtual summit for the first time to actually do something together that we couldn’t do individually, particularly on the vaccine distribution deliverable that was big and affirmative for the region.

“This isn’t just about something that is here to counter China. This is about something that’s actually about doing something that enhances our leverage, enhances the quality of life in the region in meaningful ways.

U.S. President Joe Biden hosted the first ever summit level meeting of the Quad grouping — the U.S., India, Australia and Japan — last Friday. The group announced a plan to produce and distribute up to 1 billion vaccines to overcome shortages in Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

The official said it was important for Beijing to hear directly from Mr. Blinken and Mr. Sullivan and that sometimes there is a “hope in Beijing that our public message is somehow different” from private message.

“And we think it’s really important that we dispel that idea very early, and that we’re very clear with delivering the same messages in private that you have heard from us in public,” they said.

The U.S. has said it will discuss a long list of concerns with China — these include human rights abuses, Chinese aggression in the neighbourhood, an erosion of democratic norms in Hong Kong and some of Beijing’s economic practices and policies.

No joint statement

A meeting that involved both the Secretary of State and the National Security Adviser is also expected to send a message to Beijing that different parts of the administration were singing from the same song sheet.

The official said Beijing had a track record of “attempting to try to play favourites within an administration and in particular to play the Secretary of State and National Security Adviser off each other.” The official also said there will not be a joint statement from the U.S. and China following this week’s meetings and that the U.S. is also not expecting “ specific negotiated deliverables” from the talks.

New DFI must curb reliance on foreign funds, says K.V. Kamath #GS3 #Economy

Making a case for an upgrade in India’s sovereign rating, former New Development Bank president K.V. Kamath on Wednesday said the new development finance institution (DFI) cleared by the Union Cabinet must be careful about preventing ‘excessive reliance’ on foreign funds.

“With all the efforts that the government is making, I would think that the sovereign rating itself would need to move up. I don’t think that they can hold India’s rating where it is; wherever you look at, this rating is misplaced by at least a notch, if not more,” Mr. Kamath said.

The Economic Survey 2020-21 had also argued India’s sovereign ratings did not reflect its fundamentals. “Never in the history of sovereign credit ratings has the fifth-largest economy in the world been rated at the lowest rung of the investment-grade (BBB-/Baa3),” it had noted, adding that it also damages foreign portfolio investment flows.

Speaking at a programme titled ‘Shaping Development Finance Institutions: New Opportunities and Policy Options’ hosted by the India International Centre and RIS, Mr. Kamath said the new DFI should be able to borrow from abroad at sovereign rates but called for careful consideration before foreign capital was pursued.

“The institution will have to carefully assess if you are going to use external borrowing for rupee needs, what the total cost is and if it’s still attractive to a borrower.” He stressed even global development banks’ soft loans were ‘not really soft’ and ‘excessive reliance on international funds’ would not be prudent.

NPAs likely to rise in first half of 2021: FICCI-IBA #GS3 #Economy

Asset quality of banks, which saw some improvement in the second half of 2020, is likely to worsen during the first six months of 2021. The findings are part of the 12th round of bankers’ survey carried out by FICCI-IBA between July and December 2020. The survey was conducted on 20 banks, including public sector, private sector and foreign banks.

In the current round of the survey, half of the respondent banks reported a decline in NPAs during the second half of 2020. About 78% of participating state-run banks cited a reduction in NPA levels. “However, in terms of outlook, nearly 68% of respondent bankers expect the NPA levels to be above 10% in the first half of 2021. Close to 37% of respondents expect NPA levels to be upwards of 12%.