Current Affairs 20th August

U.S. not interested in trade pact: Goyal #GS2 #IR

Hopes of an India-U.S. trade pact are off the table even as India is keen to resolve trade issues with the U.S., Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal said on Thursday, after referring to signals from the Joe Biden administration that it is not interested in a free trade agreement.

The comments are significant as this is the first time that the stance of the Biden administration on the FTA negotiations, something the previous Donald Trump administration was keen to work on, has been spelt out officially.

“The U.S., as of now, has kind of indicated that they are not looking for new trade agreements, but we will look at working with them on market access issues on both sides,” Mr. Goyal said during an interaction with exporters. The Minister added that even resolution of these issues would boost outbound trade to the U.S.

Resolving issues such as non-tariff barriers, entering mutual recognition agreements, and aligning with each other on higher quality international standards would help spur trade between the countries. On his recent visit to India, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken had said India and the U.S. must continue to grow their trade relationship to fuel the economic recovery.

“… Beyond that, we have to keep working through the barriers that stand in the way of greater bilateral investment and deeper commercial ties. If we create the right conditions from more trade and investment and innovation, there really is no limit to what our private sectors can achieve together,” he said at a joint briefing with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar on July 28.

Harvest deal

Mr. Goyal said India had begun working on an FTA with Bangladesh and was close to sealing an early harvest deal with Australia “which has almost agreed” on the matter, with a similar deal being worked out with the U.K.

“Australia is first on the list, the U.K., then the UAE, and if the UAE happens, the pact with GCC [countries that are part of the Gulf Co-operation Council] will also be expedited. We have already started the dialogue with the UAE and one more country from the Middle East,” said Mr. Goyal on the FTAs currently on the priority list of the government, which also includes Israel.

While talks with Canada got waylaid amid the pandemic, the Minister said the dialogue was expected to pick after the Canadian elections conclude in the next few months. The European Union, he said, had agreed to restart renegotiations after abandoning earlier talks in 2013, purely on the basis of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “goodwill”.

New species of cascade frog discovered in Arunachal #GS3 #Environment

Researchers have discovered a new species of cascade frog from Arunachal Pradesh and named it after the Adi hills, the abode of Adi tribes. Amolops adicola , the new species discovered by a team of Indian and American biologists from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), University of Delhi, India, and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science, the U.S., is a predominantly brown colour frog, with a size ranging roughly between 4 cm and 7 cm.

Cascade frogs are named so because of their preference for small waterfalls or cascades in flowing hill streams, for which they have developed certain morphological features such as expanded digit tips and extensive foot webbing that makes them adapt to strong water currents.

The discovery was made when biologists were investigating a group of medium- to large-sized cascade frogs (scientifically belonging to genus Amolops) from northeast India over the last five years.

“This study is once again testament to how little is known about the most threatened animal groups, frogs, in northeastern India. Many frogs in this region are reported to occur widely but, in fact, have relatively small geographical ranges and require special attention for conservation before they go extinct forever. “Northeast India is a treasure house of species still unknown to science.”

The species draws its nomenclature from Adi tribes, an indigenous group of people from the Himalayan regions of Arunachal Pradesh. The region from where the discovery was made is also referred as Adi hills — adi literally means “hill” or “mountain top”. Historically, this region was also known as Abor hills.

“The new species was discovered while revisiting a century-old Adi expedition in 2018, and named after the land of the Adi tribe in Arunachal Pradesh, where this species dwells particularly during the post-monsoon season,” said Dr. Abhijit Das from WII.

The details of the discovery can be accessed in the publication titled ‘Phylogenetic position of the poorly known montane cascade frog Amolops monticola (Ranidae) and description of a new closely related species from Northeast India’ published in the Journal of Natural History .

“The new species, formally described as Amolops adicolasp.nov., is morphologically distinguished from its congeners by a suite of characters that include adult size, body colouration and markings, skin texture, snout shape, foot webbing and digit tip morphology,” the publication reads. Apart from the external morphology, Amolops adicola was identified based on DNA and a distinct calling pattern.

Resolving confusion

The study also resolved century-old taxonomic confusions surrounding the identity of another cascade frog species, Amolops monticola , which was described from the Sikkim Himalayas 150 years ago. The genus Amolops is one of the largest groups of ranid frogs (family Ranidae), with currently 73 known species that are widely distributed across northeast and north India, Nepal, Bhutan, China, through Indochina to the Malaya peninsula.

Tough wait for Indians in Afghanistan #GS2 #IR

With as many as 450 Indians possibly still stranded inside Afghanistan, the Government of India is coordinating with the embassies of the United States and other countries to assist in their return, as transport to the airport as well as flights from Kabul to Delhi are proving to be a challenge. In addition, four days after the Taliban militia took control of the capital, there was no formal government in place, making it harder for those who do not have all the necessary documents, officials said.

“Our biggest problem is that even those in Kabul aren’t able to leave their residences without approval from Taliban guards to travel to the airport,” an official said. While U.S. troops were in charge of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, located just 10 km from the Indian Embassy, they were unable to provide support outside it for convoys to reach, and it became necessary to deal with local militia at every checkpoint, the official said.

On Monday, Indian diplomats trying to leave the city after closing the embassy faced several issues, after most of their convoy was turned around by Taliban gunmen posted near the city outskirts, and it took them more than a day to make the necessary arrangements to leave. As a result, one of the special military C-17 flights operated by the Indian Air Force (IAF) had to return to Delhi with only 40 passengers, as the rest could not make it to the airport. Another C-17 that had landed, was asked to fly to Dushanbe, in neighbouring Tajikistan, after the tarmac got overrun by Afghans desperate to leave.

Officials said the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as well as its diplomats in Delhi have been helping by providing their teams access to the airport and security within the area, and had also been providing them updated information on their movements so that the government could “plan ahead”.

U.S. officials also coordinated parking slots for the C-17 that finally flew out on Tuesday carrying the remaining 120 Indian diplomats and about 20 others.

Among the Indians left behind who have reached out to the government are doctors, university professors and engineers, many of whom had tried to leave Afghanistan earlier, but had been unable to find seats on Air India flights to Delhi, which were suspended this week. On Thursday, Air India officials told The Hindu that no new flights had been planned at present.

The speed with which the Indian Embassy had to be closed also left several Afghans stranded, as they had submitted their passports in order to receive their visas, and those could not be returned before they left. “We are in danger here, but without the passports we can’t do anything right now,” Mohammad Farhan (not his real name), a Ph.D. student who is one of four students who applied some months ago for their visas, told The Hindu over the telephone from Kabul.

Hundreds of calls have come in to the External Affairs Ministry at a “Special Afghanistan cell” manned round the clock by about 20 officers. The cell was originally set up on Monday night, just as diplomats and personnel from the Indian Embassy were leaving so as to ensure “seamless contacts” for Indians who are still stranded inside the country. The officers are preparing an updated database based on the calls received, on what sort of assistance they need. They gave estimates of between 300 and 450 Indians who still remain and need to be evacuated.

Newly launched visa

The special cell is also coordinating visa applications for the newly launched “e-Emergency X-Misc Visa” for Afghan nationals wanting to flee the country urgently, which will be processed after security clearances by the Union Home Ministry.

According to sources, hundreds of applications have already been filled out online by Afghans, many of them belonging to minorities and sects such as the Hazara community that fear being at risk of harm from the Taliban. However, when asked, officials said the visas will likely take some time to process, and only a few have been issued so far.

Centre monitoring booster dose move in U.S. #GS2 #IR

The Union Health Ministry on Thursday said it was “closely following the developments in the United States”, which has given the green signal for booster dose of COVID-19 vaccines.

Doctors in India are also advocating a booster dose. They said some research papers had suggested that giving a third dose after a space of six or eight months had been shown to increase immune response markedly.

Sandeep Kharb, senior consultant, endocrinology, QRG Health City, Faridabad, said, “So in view of the new emerging variants, booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines should be used in high-risk groups. It will add to herd immunity too.”

Akshay Budhraja, senior consultant, pulmonology, Aakash Healthcare, observed that booster doses would definitely be a requirement in future. But there was a big vaccine gap between low-income and high-income countries, which was why the World Health Organization (WHO) had recommended a stop to it for now.

“The scenario in the U.S. is different, as most of the population has been fully vaccinated, so there is no harm in giving booster doses, although we will only be able to understand its benefits after studies are conducted on it. It is certainly going to be a trend in future to get a booster dose every year, just like the flu vaccine. As the virus keeps on mutating, even vaccines need to be updated with the latest strain annually. It has to be decided whether it would be administered on a yearly basis or not or whether every person would require it,” he said.

All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Director Randeep Guleria had earlier said that India would have to take a serious look at bringing in booster doses to ensure that the population was able to keep up the antibody levels.

Viswesvaran Balasubramanian, interventional pulmonologist at Yashoda Hospitals, Hyderabad, said that currently the U.S. FDA had agreed to the booster doses for mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.

No clear guidelines

“However, with respect to J&J vaccines, there are no clear-cut guidelines regarding the booster dose yet. There are still considerations for mixing of vaccines as a booster dose, which is still a matter that needs further studies and research data. Currently in India, we still do not have guideline recommendations for booster doses of vaccine. However, with the upcoming scientific evidence, we may see a role for such booster doses in the near future,” he said.

Arunesh Kumar, senior consultant, pulmonology, Paras Hospital, explained that with variants of the virus coming in, it had become more important that people had neutralising antibodies at a higher level to prevent breakthrough infection.

“It may be planned in a phased manner, everyone who is a vaccine candidate may need a booster and perhaps it could be administered first to people who are more exposed to the virus — healthcare and frontline workers — and then can be rolled out for all age groups,” he suggested.

The Indian Council of Medical Research on Thursday said the country had achieved a milestone of conducting 50 crore COVID-19 tests on August 18. “With an average daily testing of more than 17 lakh in August, India has tested 50 crore samples till date and the last 10 crore tests in only 55 days. On July 21, India had tested 45 crore COVID-19 samples, which reached the 50-crore-mark on August 18.

Loan scheme to be notified soon, says FM #GS3 #Economy

A Rs. 60,000 crore loan guarantee scheme for helping sectors hit the hardest by COVID-19 is yet to get off the ground, 52 days after it figured at the top of an economic relief package to cope with the shocks of the second wave.

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said work on it was under way, and it will be notified and implemented soon. “It’s all happening and is in the process,” she toldThe Hindu.

This proposed credit support was part of a new Rs. 1.1 lakh crore loan guarantee scheme for COVID-affected sectors, announced on June 28 under a relief package whose financial implications were pegged at nearly Rs. 6.29 lakh crore by the government.

Of the Rs. 1.1 lakh crore additional credit that was to flow to COVID-affected businesses, Rs. 50,000 crore was earmarked for healthcare projects in non-metro cities and was approved by the Union Cabinet two days later.

This proposed credit support was part of a new Rs. 1.1 lakh crore loan guarantee scheme for COVID-affected sectors, announced on June 28 under a relief package whose financial implications were pegged at nearly Rs. 6.29 lakh crore by the government.

Of the Rs. 1.1 lakh crore additional credit that was to flow to COVID-affected businesses, Rs. 50,000 crore was earmarked for healthcare projects in non-metro cities and was approved by the Union Cabinet two days later. For other sectors, including tourism, a Rs. 60,000 crore loan guarantee scheme was promised with the interest on such loans capped at 8.25%, as opposed to prevalent rates of 10%-11% without such a guarantee. An official statement at the time indicated more decisions may be taken later “based on evolving needs”.

With none of the expected credit flowing to them yet, the Federation of Hotel and Restaurant Associations of India had urged Ms. Sitharaman to intervene to notify the scheme “with immediate effect” in a communique last week. It cited the “colossal damage suffered by the tourism and hospitality sector” after the second wave added to the losses they have suffered since the onset of the pandemic.

The Federation also pointed out that lenders were not processing applications of several members and small enterprises for loan restructuring or assistance under the existing Emergency Credit Line Guarantee Scheme (ECLGS).

The relief package announced in June had enhanced the ECLGS cap from Rs. 3 lakh crore to Rs. 4.5 lakh crore, stating that contact intensive sectors are “already covered” under the scheme and “shall be continued”.

‘Terror groups continue to work with impunity’ #GS2 #IR

Terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) continue to operate with both impunity and encouragement, India told the UN Security Council (UNSC), asserting that the international community must never host sanctuaries for terrorists as it recalled the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, Pathankot air base and Pulwama attacks carried out by Pakistan-based terrorists.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, chairing a high-level United Nations Security Council briefing on ‘Threats to international peace and security caused by terrorist acts’ held under India’s current presidency of the UNSC, said the heightened activities of the proscribed Haqqani Network justified this growing anxiety.

“In our own immediate neighbourhood, ISIL-Khorasan [ISIL-K] has become more energetic and is constantly seeking to expand its footprint. Events unfolding in Afghanistan have naturally enhanced global concerns about their implications for both regional and international security,” he said.

“Whether it is in Afghanistan or against India, groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed continue to operate with both impunity and encouragement,” Mr. Jaishankar said.

‘No complacency’

It is, therefore, vital that the Security Council does not take a selective, tactical or complacent view of the problems we face. “We must never countenance sanctuaries for terrorists or overlook their raising of resources. Mr. Jaishankar, slamming Pakistan, where proscribed terrorists and terror groups enjoy safe havens and state support, said: “When we see state hospitality being extended to those with innocents’ blood on their hands, we should never lack the courage to call out this double-speak.”

Record sugar exports help reduce cane dues #GS3 #Economy

Sugar mills have surpassed their 60 lakh tonne export target this year, making it easier for them to pay sugarcane farmers and reducing arrears for this year to less than Rs. 9,000 crore, according to government data. Pending dues to cane farmers are a thorny political issue in several States, provoking protests in western Uttar Pradesh and Punjab.

Given that India produces more sugar than it consumes, leading to liquidity concerns for mills and delayed payments to farmers, the Centre has been encouraging diversion to exports and ethanol production. Exports have increased more than 10 times from just 6.2 lakh tonnes in 2017-18, with the Centre now providing assistance to the tune of Rs. 6,000 per tonne to facilitate exports.

As against an export target of 60 lakh tonnes this year, contracts of about 70 lakh tonnes have been signed, according to a statement from the Food Ministry on Thursday.

High demand

As global prices have also spiked substantially in the last month and there is high demand for Indian sugar in the international market, the Ministry has advised domestic mills to sign forward contracts with importers for the next season, and some have already done so.

Along with the diversion for ethanol production, which the government sees as a more permanent solution to the problem of surplus stocks, the export revenue has allowed mills to partially pay off their dues to cane farmers.

At the end of May, unpaid cane dues for 2021-21 stood at Rs. 18,820 crore, along with pending payments from previous years worth Rs. 2,501 crore.

However, by mid-August, mills had bought a record Rs. 90,872 crore worth of cane from farmers, against which Rs. 81,963 crore have been paid, leaving arrears of Rs. 8,909 crore. Pending payments from previous years are also down to Rs. 142 crore.

Protest in Punjab

In Punjab, farm unions will block rail and road traffic on Friday, with a dharna on the Jalandhar highway, demanding that arrears of Rs. 200 crore from the last season, mostly from private mills, be cleared at once.

By law, cane farmers must be paid within 15 days of delivery. On August 4, the Supreme Court issued notices to 11 cane growing States as well as industry bodies to reply to a plea from Maharashtra farmers to set up a mechanism to ensure timely payment and attach the assets of mills with accumulated arrears.

Activists flay exemption to disability quota rule #GS2 #SocialIssues

The Centre has exempted posts under the Indian Police Service (IPS) from the mandated 4% reservation for persons with disabilities (PwD) in government jobs, a move that rights groups say goes against the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.

On Wednesday, the Social Justice Ministry issued a notification saying that Section 34 of the RPD Act, which provides for 4% reservation in jobs for PwD in government establishments, would not apply to all categories of posts of IPS, the Indian Railway Protection Force Service and the police forces of Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep and Daman and Diu and Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

Combat roles

At the same time, the Ministry issued another notification on Wednesday making a distinction between combat and non-combat roles in the security forces. The Ministry exempted all combat posts in the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, the Central Industrial Security Force, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, the Sashastra Seema Bal and the Assam Rifles from the non-discrimination and reservation provisions of the RPD Act.

V. Muralidharan, general secretary of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled, called for a withdrawal of the notification regarding the police forces. “Exemptions should be granted only in cases of combat roles in keeping with the intent and spirit of the proviso under Section 34 of the RPD Act. It is regrettable that a department that is supposed to safeguard the rights of the disabled and empower them is doing just the opposite,” he said, referring to the Department of Empowerment of PwD under the Social Justice Ministry.

He added that the proviso of the Act did not intend to give blanket exemptions from hiring PwD, but to make sure that combat roles are not assigned to them. He said the decision was even more shocking given the fact that the Delhi Police had in October 2019 issued an advertisement for “head constable (ministerial)”, with reservations for PwD.

In March this year, the Goa Police invited applications for various posts, including 34 posts of “lower division clerk”, with four posts reserved for PwDs.

A rights activist and doctor, Satendra Singh, of the Doctors with Disabilities group, said there were many roles that PwD could fill within police forces and exempting all categories of roles was wrong.

Ministry floats draft rules for gencos’ power sale to third party #GS3 #Economy

The Ministry of Power has proposed to amend rules for facilitating electricity producers to sell power to a third party, which it said can pare fixed costs and cut retail tariff for end consumers.

The ministry on Thursday circulated the draft Electricity (Late Payment Surcharge) Amendment Rules, 2021, seeking comments for the same. The draft amendment rules are placed on the website of the Ministry of Power.

The ministry said in a statement that it proposed to take one more step towards reducing the burden of the distribution licensee (discoms) in order to reduce the retail tariff for the electricity consumers.

The ministry added that the power generating companies are being given an option to sell power to third parties and recover costs.

To this extent, the fixed cost burden of the distribution licensee shall be reduced, the ministry stated.

If a distribution licensee has any payment, including late payment surcharge, outstanding after the expiry of seven months from the due date as prescribed in the PPA (power purchase agreement), the generating company may sell power to any consumer or any other licensee or power exchanges, for the period of such default, the ministry said.

The ministry added that the claim would be retained on payment of fixed charges or capacity charges from the distribution licensee, after giving a notice of at least 15 days to the distribution licensee.

“The claim, if any, shall be reconciled on an annual basis and shall be limited to only underrecovery of the fixed charges or capacity charges,” the power ministry said in the statement.

Ind-Ra raises growth forecast to 9.4%, flags rising inequality #GS3 #Economy

India Ratings & Research (Ind-Ra) on Thursday revised upwards its GDP growth forecast for 2021-22 to 9.4%, considering the ‘surprisingly faster recovery’ after the second wave of COVID-19, higher exports and sufficient rainfall.

The ratings agency had earlier expected the economy to grow 9.1% in a scenario where vaccination of all adults gets pushed to March 2022; and 9.6% if the Centre achieved its target of rendering vaccine doses by December. Ind-Ra said the government was likely to miss its target, and vaccinating all adults would spill over to March, but revised the growth forecast upwards.

The recovery in June and July from the after-effects of the second wave of the pandemic had been ‘surprisingly fast’, said Ind Ra’s principal economist and director of public finance, Sunil Kumar Sinha, calling it as one of the main reasons for the revision. Global markets are also ‘doing good’ as the COVID threat ebbs, leading to higher exports for India, while the southwest monsoon had revived, thus increasing prospects on the rural front, he said.

He, however, pointed out that the high growth was driven by a low base. Mr. Sinha also flagged concerns over rising inequality, saying the pandemic had pushed a large number of people back into poverty. “Whatever recovery we talk about now will be a ‘k-shaped’ recovery,”