Current Affairs 20th March

5 States account for most new cases, Maharashtra alone 65% #GS3 #SnT

India reported 39,726 new COVID-19 cases, the highest since November 29 last year. It also reported 20,654 recoveries and 154 deaths in the last 24 hours, the Health Ministry said. Three States — Maharashtra, Kerala and Punjab — currently account for 76.48% of the total active cases.

“Some States in the country are reporting a surge in the daily new COVID-19 cases. Maharashtra, Punjab, Karnataka, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh together account for 80.63% of the daily new cases.

It added that Maharashtra continues to report the highest daily new cases at 25,833 (65% of the daily cases). It is followed by Punjab with 2,369, while Kerala reported 1,899 new cases. India’s total active caseload stands at 2.71 lakh (2,71,282).

The release added that the country’s cumulative recoveries stand at 1,10,83,679 on Friday, with a national recovery rate of 96.56%. Sixteen States/UTs have not reported any COVID-19 deaths in 24 hours. These include Andhra Pradesh, Chandigarh, Odisha, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Lakshadweep, Sikkim, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.

States can pass resolutions against Central laws: Supreme Court #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court on Friday prima facie found no harm in State Legislative Assemblies, such as those in Kerala and West Bengal, passing resolutions against Central laws like the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act or the controversial new farm laws.

A Bench, led by Chief Justice Sharad A. Bobde, said these resolutions are merely “opinions” of the majority members of a Legislative Assembly and do not have the force of law.

The court was hearing a PIL filed by a Rajasthan-based NGO, Samta Andolan Samiti, that said State Assemblies, such as of Rajasthan, Kerala, Punjab and West Bengal, have no business passing resolutions against Central laws that come under the Union List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution.

The Samiti, represented by senior advocate Saumya Chakraborty, asked the Supreme Court to quash the resolutions and declare them void. The hearing mostly focused on the resolution passed by the Kerala Assembly on December 31, 2019, criticising CAA as a law violating the right to equality. The Assembly had called upon the Centre to abrogate the CAA.

“It is the opinion of the majority in the Kerala Assembly… They have not told people to disobey the law, they have only told Parliament to abrogate the law. It is only an opinion and does not have the force of law

But the petitioner said that the Kerala Assembly should not be having an opinion whether the law is “good, bad or indifferent”. “Since they (State Assemblies) cannot make laws on the subjects in the Union List, they cannot also have a casual opinion on them,” Mr. Chakraborty argued.

He said the Resolution was made even as about 60 petitions were pending in the Supreme Court against the CAA.

‘Biggest hurdle to Indo-Pak. peace is terror’ #GS2 #IR

Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh on Friday termed Pakistan-sponsored terrorism as the biggest hurdle to normalising relations between India and Pakistan.

General Bajwa should first control “his ISI”, and then talk about stability in Indo-Pak relations, said the CM, adding that India cannot afford to go soft on Pakistan till they walk the talk and prove their sincerity.

“Infiltration into India from across the border is still happening, Indian soldiers are being killed at the borders every day. They (Pakistan) are dropping arms and heroin into Punjab via drones every other day. Efforts to create trouble in my State continue to take place. All this should stop first, only then we can talk peace,” said Captain Singh.

“Given the way the situation has evolved over the past few months, Pakistan’s increasing collusion with China, which has been causing a whole lot of trouble for India on the other border, is a matter of concern.

If Islamabad seriously wants peace with New Delhi, they should send out the message to Beijing, loud and clear, that Pakistan is not with them in the dangerous escapades at the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Centre asks HC to stop WhatsApp’s new privacy policy #GS2 #Governance

The Centre asked the Delhi High Court to restrain WhatsApp from implementing its new privacy policy, which is likely to take effect on May 15. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), in an affidavit, said the policy was not in tune with the IT (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules, 2011.

“Notably, the rules require a body corporate who collects, stores or otherwise deals with data to issue a privacy policy providing for certain safeguards, in addition to imposing various other obligations. The impugned privacy policy violates the 2011 Rules..,” MeitY said.

The Ministry said WhatsApp’s policy “fails to specify types of sensitive personal data being collected”. Crucially, there is no distinction between personal data or sensitive personal data which is being collected.

“The privacy policy mentions the involvement of third-party service providers that may have access to the data. However, the names of these service providers and other associated details have not been provided,” it said.

‘Withdraw consent’

“This is also the case for other Facebook companies, that are allowed to receive and share information about the user from and with WhatsApp. “The new privacy policy fails to provide an option to withdraw consent retrospectively.”

The Ministry’s stand came in response to a petition filed by Seema Singh, represented by advocate Meghan, challenging WhatsApp’s new privacy policy, which provided for sharing information with third party service providers and other Facebook companies. The High Court has posted the case for April 20.

This policy is mandatory for the users to use the platform, and also mentions that the data will be used by the company and its holding companies for them to analyse, said the petition, also filed by advocate Meghan and Vikram Singh.

This is the one of the petitions filed before different courts across India against WhatsApp’s new privacy policy.

New IT rules target digital news producers, says plea #GS2 #Governance

The Delhi High Court on Friday asked the Centre to respond to a petition challenging the new Information Technology rules which seek to regulate digital news media.

A Bench of Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh asked the Ministries of Electronics and Information Technology and Information and Broadcasting to submit their responses on the plea by April 16, the next date of hearing.

The petition filed by Quint Digital Media Ltd. has been tagged with a similar petition filed earlier by the Foundation for Independent Journalism and The Wire news portal. The latest petition has challenged the constitutional validity of the IT Rules under the provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000.

“The present petition challenges the IT Rules, 2021 only in so far as they affect digital news portals, and is not with reference to ‘publishers of online curated content’, that it, OTT media platforms or any other entities sought to be regulated by the impugned Rules,” the plea said.

Vague conditions

It said the new rules purport to apply to “publishers of news and current affairs content” as part of digital media, and consequently regulate these entities under the Rules by imposing government oversight and a Code of Ethics which stipulates such vague conditions as “good taste”, “decency” and prohibition of “half-truths”.

Creating a differential classification by way of subordinate legislation, when not contemplated by the parent IT Act, is an overreach by itself and this has been done to specifically target digital news portals, by subjecting them to an unprecedented regulatory burden and state interference, which no other form of news publication is subject to.

The petitioners said they bring out a wholly digital news and current affairs publication called The Quint and are directly impacted by the new IT Rules, which is also an overreach by subordinate legislation.

Govt. questions Global Hunger Index method #GS2 #Governance

Union Minister of State for Agriculture Parshottam Rupala, in the Rajya Sabha on Friday, questioned the methodology and data accuracy of the Global Hunger Index (GHI) report, which has placed India at 94th out of 107 countries in 2020.

Mr. Rupala claimed that children considered healthy were also counted to determine the ranking. The Minister said that the government had written to NGO Welthungerhilfe, which compiles the report, expressing concerns about their methodology, data accuracy and sample size and was yet to hear from them.

Mr. Rupala was responding to a question by Sanjay Singh of the Aam Aadmi Party who pointed out that the Minister’s written reply showed that India’s ranking had improved from 102 in 2019 to 94 in 2020.

Mr. Singh sought to know why India was ranked below countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Myanmar, when it was among top 10 food-producing countries in the world.

Mr. Rupala said, “Some NGO in the world has done the survey. We have asked them on what basis have you reached this conclusion? They have not replied yet. Whenever a street dog gives birth in our village, even though it bites, our women provide them with sheera (sweet dish).

So, in a country where such a tradition exists when an NGO comes and releases such a report about our children, we should not be sensitive to such reports. As far as these surveys are concerned, even healthy and strong children are counted… there should be awareness in society, our dynamic minister Smriti [Irani] ji has started a jan andolan, and 13 crore events have been done.”

In a written reply, the Ministry stated that according to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4, the percentage of wasted, stunted and malnourished children in 2015-16 stood at 21, 38.4 and 35.7, respectively.

It said that compared to NFHS-4 data, the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey (CNNS) of 2017-18 showed an improvement of 4%, 3.7% and 2.3% in wasted, stunted and malnourished children respectively.

The first-ever CNNS was commissioned by the government in 2016 and was conducted from 2016-18, led by the Union Health Ministry, in collaboration with the UNICEF. The findings were published in 2019. CNNS includes only nutrition data, whereas NFHS encompasses overall health indicators.

Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani informed the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday that 10 lakh children were malnourished in the country. According to the GHI website, the data for the indicators come from United Nations and other multilateral agencies, including the World Health Organisation and the World Bank.

GHI is a peer-reviewed annual report, jointly published by Concern Worldwide, an Ireland-based humanitarian group, and Welthungerhilfe, a Germany-based NGO, designed to comprehensively measure and track hunger at the global, regional, and country levels. It says the aim of publishing the report is to trigger action to reduce hunger around the world.

LS passes MMDR amendment Bill #GS2 #Governance

The Lok Sabha passed a Bill to amend the Mines and Mineral (Development and Regulation) Act (MMDR Act) through a voice vote, with Mines Minister Pralhad Joshi stating that the amendments will create jobs and allow private players with enhanced technology into the mining sector.

“The reform in the mining sector would generate 55 lakh direct and indirect jobs. To enhance mining activity, we will allow the private sector with enhanced technology in mineral exploration, “Mr. Joshi told the Lok Sabha while moving the Bill. He said India produces 95 minerals and has same potential like South Africa and Australia but the mining sector was under-explored and India still had to import minerals like gold and coal.

The Minister said the mining sector right now contributes 1.75% to the country’s GDP but the proposed reforms will raise the contribution to 2.5% as it seeks to make a large number of mines available for auctions by resolving legacy issues.

Mr. Joshi said the Bill removes the distinction between captive and non-captive mines and seeks to introduce an index-based mechanism by developing a National Mineral Index (NMI) for statutory payments. The National Mineral Exploration Trust (NMET), to see the functioning of the sector, will be made an autonomous body.

‘Exclude tribal areas’

Taking part in the debate, Congress MP Vincent Pala asked why the Mines and Minerals Bill was being amended every year and said either the officials of the Ministry were incompetent or some lobby was at work. He asked the government asked to exclude tribal areas under the Sixth Schedule.

“We are not against mining operations but we are against the way the hasty auctions which you are doing,” S.S. Ulaka, another Congress MP said. He suggested that a joint committee that included tribal members of Parliament, those from mining areas, besides officials from the ministries of Tribal Affairs ministry, Environment and Forest ministry and Mines Ministry should be formed.

Extending his support to the Bill, Biju Janata Dal MP, Pinaki Misra said the Mines Ministry and the Environment Ministry should work in synergy to promote the growth of the sector.

COVID may have doubled poverty in India #GS3 #Economy

India’s middle class may have shrunk by a third due to 2020’s pandemic-driven recession, while the number of poor people — earning less than Rs. 150 per day — more than doubled, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center. In comparison, Chinese incomes remained relatively unshaken, with just a 2% drop in the middle-class population, it found.

The report, uses World Bank projections of economic growth to estimate the impact of COVID-19 on Indian incomes. The lockdown triggered by the pandemic resulted in shut businesses, lost jobs and falling incomes, plunging the Indian economy into a deep recession. China managed to avoid a contraction, although growth slowed.

“The middle class in India is estimated to have shrunk by 3.2 crore in 2020 as a consequence of the downturn, compared with the number it may have reached absent the pandemic,” said the report, defining the middle class as people with incomes of approximately Rs. 700-1,500 or $10-20 per day.

NREGA demand up

“Meanwhile, the number of people who are poor in India (with incomes of $2 or less a day) is estimated to have increased by 7.5 crore because of the COVID-19 recession. This accounts for nearly 60% of the global increase in poverty, estimating an increase from almost 6 crore to 13.4 crore poor people. It also noted the record spike in MGNREGA participants as proof that the poor were struggling to find work.

The vast majority of India’s population fall into the low-income tier, earning about Rs. 150 to 700 per day. Pew’s projections suggest this group shrank from 119.7 crore to 116.2 crore per day, with about 3.5 crore dropping below the poverty line.

The middle-income group is likely to have decreased from almost 10 crore to just 6.6 crore, while the richer population who earn more than Rs. 1,500 a day also fell almost 30% to 1.8 crore people.

Pew warned that the situation may actually be worse than estimated. “The methodology in this analysis assumes that incomes change at the same rate for all people,” it said. “If the COVID-19 recession has worsened inequality, the increase in the number of poor is likely greater than estimated in this analysis. The middle class may have shrunk by more than projected,” it added.

Lloyd Austin begins India visit by meeting PM Modi #GS2 #IR

United States Secretary of Defence General (Retd.) Lloyd J. Austin met Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the start of a three-day visit to India, the first such outreach by the new U.S. administration less than two months after President Biden assumed office.

“India and the U.S. are committed to our strategic partnership that is a force for global good. The Ministry of External Affairs’ Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava added that their discussions “covered bilateral, regional and global issues of mutual interest”.

Gen. Austin, who will meet Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on Saturday, is expected to discuss Indo-U.S. strategic cooperation, defence sales and technology transfer, as well as Indo-Pacific strategy as a part of the Quad.

In addition, he is likely to deliver a message on the U.S.’s concerns over India’s plans to take delivery of the Russian S-400 missile defence system later this year, which could attract U.S. sanctions under its CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) law.

New phase of U.S.-China ties comes with tests for India #GS2 #IR

A sharp exchange between top U.S. and Chinese officials in Alaska on Friday, played out fully in the eyes of the gathered media, marked the start of a new phase in U.S.-China relations — one that comes with fresh challenges for India.

If the acrimonious public exchange appeared to be a surprising departure from the diplomatic norms usually followed in such scripted meetings, it was, on one level, entirely expected.

After all, both sides had made clear in the lead-up to the Biden administration’s first in-person engagement with China that the meeting in Anchorage was more about drawing red lines than any real attempt at a reset. Even describing what the meeting actually was had emerged as a point of discord, labelled by Beijing as a “strategic dialogue” even as Washington disputed that description.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, accompanied by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan for the talks with Yang Jiechi, Politburo member and Director of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Wang Yi, the Foreign Minister, set the tone by expressing “deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyberattacks on the U.S., and economic coercion toward our allies”.

What followed was a 16-minute speech from Mr. Yang, going far beyond the expected two-minute opening statement. To Washington’s contention that it was engaging China from a position of strength — the Alaska meeting pointedly followed the Quad leaders’ summit last week and Mr. Blinken’s recent visits to Japan and South Korea — Mr. Yang retorted, “the U.S. does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength”. The remarks were widely circulated in the Chinese media, welcomed as reflecting a new dynamic in the relationship.

The message from Beijing was that if Washington expected this meet to be about a one-way drawing of the red-lines, it was clearly mistaken. Meanwhile, the unequivocal message from Washington was that the Biden administration will certainly not be an Obama 2.0, a time when both sides emphasised cooperation.

Key takeaways

The main takeaway from Alaska is that any reset in ties from the turbulent Trump era is unlikely. At the same time, the acrimonious beginning, which to some degree was a result of public posturing by both sides who were concerned about sending the right messages to their audiences at home, may give way to some cautious engagement.

If China made a concession by travelling to Alaska, a point made by its officials, a return visit to Beijing by Mr. Blinken in coming months, should it take place, will underline that both sides are still seeking spaces to work together amid the rancour. Both, for instance, could still agree to cooperate on issues like climate change, the global economic recovery, and Afghanistan.

The other takeaway is the emergence of a drawing of battle lines between Washington and its allies on one side, and on the other, Beijing and its main ally when it comes to the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia, Russia. China was quick to announce, before the Alaska talks, that Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will visit Beijing, days after President Biden called Russia’s Vladimir Putin “a killer”.

This will particularly pose a test for India’s diplomacy, starting with affecting India’s defence supplies from Russia, with the U.S. making it clear that importing Russian equipment like the S-400 missile defence system will attract sanctions as well as the U.S. withholding high-tech exports.

While India confronts its own problems with China amid a slow-moving disengagement process along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), it has still made clear it does not want to be part of any alliances. This balancing act is reflected in India’s varying multilateral engagements, ranging from the Quad to groupings like RIC (Russia-India-China), the BRICS, and the China and Russia-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

The U.S.-China divide will also mean a tightrope walk for India at the UN Security Council, where it is serving a two-year term as non-permanent member, as the split between the U.S., the U.K. and France on the one hand and Russia and China on the other grows ever wider, as seen in response to the Myanmar coup.

‘Advanced nations failed world on climate change #GS3 #Economy

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman admonished advanced countries for failing to keep their financing commitments to help emerging economies cope with climate change, invoking the recent Uttarakhand disaster as an example of the vulnerabilities that need to be addressed.

The government, she said, was committed to building infrastructure that would not only revive the economy but also prove resilient to the risks of climate change. “We are looking at innovative systems that can certify [that] the resilience of the infrastructure is established. A global standard for certification for resilient infra is also something we are thinking of,” Ms. Sitharaman said at the International Conference on Disaster Resilient Infrastructure.

Arguing that advanced economies had failed to fulfil their ‘quantitative commitment’ to provide $100 billion a year to help smaller countries, she pointed out that this amount itself was ‘meagre’, to begin with.