Current Affairs 20th October

Rain claims 23 more lives in Uttarakhand #GS3 #DM

Forty-two more people were reported killed in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region on Tuesday as several houses collapsed following the incessant downpour, taking the toll due to rain-related incidents to 47.

The connectivity to Nainital was restored in the evening after hours of struggle amid inclement weather, officials said. Most rivers in the State are in spate. “The number of casualties in the Kumaon region alone has crossed 40. Twenty-eight people were killed in Nainital district, six each in Almora and Champawat, and one each in Pithoragarh and Udham Singh Nagar districts, the official said.

Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami undertook an aerial survey of the rain-hit areas and also interacted with the affected people. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Mr. Dhami on the phone and assured him of all help.

Interacting with the disaster-affected people in Rudraprayag, Nainital and Udham Singh Nagar districts, Mr. Dhami said people need to have patience in this hour of crisis. He announced a compensation of Rs. 4 lakh each to the next of kin of those killed in rain-related incidents.

DIG Bharne said that despite bad weather and continuing showers, the blocked roads in Nainital were cleared. With connectivity restored, stranded tourists began to leave for their destinations through Kaladhungi and Haldwani, he said.

Many people yet to get second dose, says Centre #GS3 #SnT

A sizeable number of eligible COVID-19 vaccination beneficiaries have not received their second dose, and the States have been asked to focus on this, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan has said.

He reviewed the progress of vaccination with senior health officials of the States and the Union Territories (UTs) earlier this week.
The country launched the vaccination programme on January 16.

Mr. Bhushan noted that the nation was close to administering a billion doses. Many States had adequate doses to vaccinate those awaiting the second dose. “The Central Government is in a position to provide additional vaccine doses to the States/UTs so that they can complete the second dose vaccination. We also need to improve the momentum of the vaccination drive.”

The Health Ministry said the Government had advised the States and the UTs to identify and prioritise districts having low coverage for focused action.

The Ministry pointed out that it was in the process of reviewing international travel guidelines in consultation with all stakeholders, including the Ministry of Home Affairs, the Bureau of Immigration, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, and the Ministry of External Affairs.

EU food recall linked to GM rice from India #GS3 #Economy #GS2 #IR

When candy giant Mars Wrigley carried out a mass recall of several batches of its Crispy M&Ms across Europe this August, it was due to the use of one ingredient: rice flour with genetically modified (GM) contamination that allegedly originated in India, according to notifications on the European Commission’s rapid alert system.

However, the Commerce Ministry pointed out that GM rice is not grown commercially in India, let alone exported, and promised a thorough enquiry by its agricultural exports authority. The Ministry alleged that the case was a “futile conspiracy to malign the image of India as a reliable food security provider”.

Worried farmers’ groups and environmental activists, however, noted that multiple GM rice varieties had been approved for confined field trials, and warned that any cross-contamination could dampen the country’s agricultural export ambitions. India’s annual rice exports amount to 18 million tonnes worth Rs. 65,000 crore, and reach more than 75 countries, according to the Ministry.

According to the European Commission’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, 500 tonnes of broken rice imported from India and converted into rice flour by a French company named Westhove was flagged during a regular check.

On June 21, France issued a notification for unauthorised genetically modified rice flour, identifying India as the point of origin. Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States were alerted as possible destinations of products made with the flour.

In a statement on August 4, Mars Wrigley announced that it was recalling four packaging sizes of its Crispy M&Ms product with two affected best-before dates. According to German NGO site Informationdienst Gentechnik, the European Commission announced that 144 tonnes of the contaminated rice flour had been processed by Mars, while more flour went into 11 types of baked goods manufactured in Italy and further distributed to other countries, all of which were recalled.

Commerce Ministry spokesperson D.J. Narain said that the whole issue appeared to be “infructuous”. He pointed out that “the GM ingredient may have been added in Europe to cut costs, not in India where commercial GM cultivation is banned. The quantity involved is too big to have come from leaked output from controlled trial cultivation.”

However, he also added that “APEDA is collecting all the details and will enquire every aspect of it thoroughly with the technical and scientific institutions like GEAC and strictest form of action will be taken accordingly.”

Farmers groups say the issue of cross contamination from field trials has been raised previously. “The issue with GM field trials is that once they take place, they can contaminate crops long after the actual trials either directly or through seed leakages,” said a letter from the Coalition for GM-Free India, sent on Tuesday to authorities at the Environment, Agriculture and Commerce Ministries. It pointed to a 2006 case, where a Bayer food trial contaminated rice and seeds in the U.S., leading to a plunge in exports from that country.

Chinese patrolling slightly up in east #GS2 #IR

There has been a marginal increase in Chinese patrols in the eastern sector along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), while the scale and durations of its exercises has increased in their depth areas since the stand-off in eastern Ladakh last year, said Eastern Army Commander Lt. Gen. Manoj Pande on Tuesday. He noted that both India and China were attempting to develop infrastructure close to the LAC.

The Army is countering the Chinese presence by incorporating technological advancements with specific focus on expanding surveillance capabilities like long range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and radars, Lt. Gen. Pande said while also stating that the Army’s 17 Mountain Strike Corps, meant for the border with China, had been fully operationalised.

Giving an overview on the situation along the LAC in the eastern sector in an interaction with a group of journalists from Delhi, Lt. Gen. Pande said, “Some of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] reserve formations which were mobilised continue to remain in their training areas, that again is in the operational depth. Both sides are attempting to develop infrastructure closer to the LAC and that leads to certain issues at times.”

Since this infrastructure had come up close to the LAC, there had been a marginal increase in the number of border defence troops already deployed there, he pointed out.

Enhanced surveillance

Speaking of the measures taken, he observed that the first step was enhancing surveillance both close to the LAC and in the depth areas. This was being done by synergising resources right from satellites at strategic level to troops on the ground and “we have adequate forces in each sector for any need that may arise”.

They were also looking at maximising technology, especially in terms of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, communications and likewise, he reiterated. Of the 3,488 km-long LAC, 1,346 km fall in the eastern sector.

The raising of the new 17 Mountain Strike Corps commenced in 2014. By now it was fully operationalised and all its units, including combat, combat support and support, had been fully equipped, the Army Commander asserted.

“Its employment philosophy is stabilised. The formations of the corps have been carrying our validation and integrated training with other formations,” he said.

To further enhance the operational efficiency, they were were looking at Integrated Battle Group (IBG) model for the mountain strike corps so that “we have better options for its employment and its areas of application”, he remarked.

Equipment deployed

IBGs are brigade-sized agile self-sufficient combat formations meant to swiftly launch strikes against adversary in case of hostilities. The concept had been tested in exercises and fine-tuned.

There had been a major push for development of infrastructure in the region. The induction of equipment such as Chinook heavy-lift helicopters, which enabled faster movement, and deployment of M777 Ultra Light Howitzers have strengthened their position.

In addition, there is major expansion of roads in the region which will facilitate faster mobilisation of men, resources and equipment. Several tunnels are under construction while a railway line is also planned to Tawang.

India, Russia face common threats from Afghanistan #GS2 #IR

India and Russia face “common threats” emanating from Afghanistan, said India’s outgoing Ambassador to Russia, confirming India’s presence at the “Moscow format” meeting, which will include the Taliban Deputy Prime Minister, on Wednesday, and a meeting of National Security Advisers in Delhi in November, where NSAs of China and Pakistan are also invited.

“The situation in Afghanistan poses similar problems in terms of instability, drug trafficking, terrorism threat, and also the instability that may radiate towards Central Asia,” Ambassador Venkatesh Verma, who is set to return to Delhi shortly, said in a “farewell interview” to the Kommersant daily.

“Both sides recognise common threats emanating from Afghanistan affect India and Russia — probably more than any other set of countries,” he added.

The Moscow format meet will see an official Indian delegation led by Joint Secretary for Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran J.P. Singh, and Joint Secretary for Eurasia Adarsh Swaika participate for the first time. Officials from 10 countries, including Taliban Deputy PM Abdul Salam Hanafi, will attend the meeting, though the US, whose special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad resigned on Monday, has announced that it will not participate due to “logistical difficulties”.

Military situation

During the meeting, which will be addressed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Ministry said the participants would “discuss prospects for development of the military-political situation in Afghanistan and the formation of an inclusive government”, adding that a separate meeting of Russia, China and Pakistan took place in Moscow on Tuesday.

Ambassador Verma also confirmed an upcoming meeting of the Russia-India-China (RIC) trilateral via a videoconference format soon, amid a slew of Russia-India bilateral engagements towards the end of the year.

“Unfortunately, due to the COVID pandemic, we could not have a summit in 2020. It is our intention and both sides are in active discussion on this, that President Putin will be able to visit India towards the end of this year,” Mr. Verma said, adding that there would be a visit by Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu for the intergovernmental defence commission, along with the “2+2” format meetings of Defence and Foreign Ministers as well as an Economic Joint Commission to prepare for the bilateral summit.

The Ambassador also confirmed that the S-400 missile systems were “on track” for delivery in December this year.

Asked about the possibility of U.S. reservations over the deal, which Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman called “dangerous” and “not in anyone’s interest” earlier this month, Mr. Verma said India “stands on its own feet, thinks with its own mind and pursues its own interests.”

INSACOG to track SARS-CoV-2 in sewage #GS3 #SnT

The decline in daily new infections across India has prompted INSACOG, the consortium of labs focused on sequencing coronavirus variants, to “prioritise” new surveillance approaches.

In a bulletin dated October 11, but made public on Monday, INSACOG (India SARS-CoV-2 Genome Consortium) notes: “In view of currently declining cases and importance of early detection of increased transmission in the future, INSACOG will prioritise developing and expanding a SARS-CoV-2 sewage surveillance program.”

The CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, which is also part of the INSACOG network, has since early 2020 been collecting sewage from large drains in cities to check for the presence of the virus. Because a large fraction of those afflicted by the virus are asymptomatic but are carriers of infection, their body fluids and stool often contain traces of the virus. Finding large proportions of it in public drains can often be a precursor to a fresh outbreak, with a rise in symptomatic infections.

A study on these lines in Hyderabad had estimated that nearly 6% of the city may have been exposed to the virus from March to August 2020.

India has been observing a steady decline in new infections with a seven-day average of 16,000 cases a day. The all-time low, since the first wave abated in February, was around 11,000 daily. It was after this decline that the second wave started, primarily led by the emergence of new variants such as Alpha, Kappa and Delta.

“Delta (B.1.617.2 and AY.x) continues to be the main VOC (Variant of Concern) in India. No new VOI (Variant of Interest) or VOC are noted in India,” the communique noted. As of last week, 1,04,441 coronavirus samples have been sequenced for their genetic structure, though the bulk of these are from two States: Maharashtra and Kerala.

UN urged to stop attacks in Bangladesh #GS2 #IR

The Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) on Tuesday called for the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to Bangladesh in the wake of attacks on Hindus in that country. Addressing a press conference here, VHP joint general secretary Surendra Jain compared the attacks to the “brutality of the Nazis”.

The VHP also called on Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to ensure security for the minority Hindu community.

“It is the clear view of the VHP that due to the Islamic character of Bangladesh, the governments there have not only been looking the other way when Hindus are attacked, but also proving to be the motivators and patrons of the radical Islamists. They cannot get out of the clutches of fundamentalists without declaring Bangladesh a secular country instead of an Islamic country,” the VHP statement read. He announced that a demonstration would be held outside the Bangladesh High Commission here on Wednesday.

Strategy meet discusses Chinese cyberattacks #GS3 #Security

The rising cyberattacks from China on critical installations was discussed at the National Security Strategies Conference chaired by Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday.

The Madhya Pradesh police gave a presentation on various lacunae in the legal and administrative sphere that were an impediment in investigating such cases.

The participants were told that while the Pakistani cyberattacks focused on stealing identity and personal data, the Chinese hackers were more sophisticated and they settled down in any network, striking at will.

“There are several choke points that deter investigation, such as the origin of the message and from where the data packet was uploaded. The Minister agreed to expedite any legal framework required to plug the gaps,” said an official who attended the conference.

Power centres targeted

On March 1, the Union Power Ministry said the government thwarted “state-sponsored” Chinese hacker groups targeting various Indian power centres in November 2020 and February 2021.

The U.S. cybersecurity and intelligence firm Recorded Future discovered that Chinese state-sponsored actors may have deployed malware into Indian power grids and seaports after border tensions between India-China began escalating in May 2020.

The conference, an annual event held at the Intelligence Bureau headquarters, was attended by Director General of Police of all States and Directors-General of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF). The nine-hour conference was divided into separate sessions. A detailed discussion was also held on illegal migration and counter-terrorism measures.

Islamic terrorism

“The counter-terror session centred on Islamic terrorism. There was no mention of extremism involving other religions,” said the official. The session on undocumented migrants encapsulated the Rohingya migrant crisis. Rohingya, an ethnic group from Myanmar, mostly Muslims who faced persecution in the neighbouring country. have taken shelter in Bangladesh, India and Saudi Arabia since 2012.

Though the Home Ministry informed Parliament last March that there was no accurate data on Rohingya, it had said there were around 40,000 Rohingya in India. The consequences of the Taliban taking over power in Afghanistan was not discussed at the meeting.

An official said the topic would be discussed threadbare at the annual Director-General of Police (DGP) meet to be chaired by Prime Minister Narenda Modi later this year. The role of certain non-government organisations (NGOs) in stoking protests was also highlighted.

“Deliberations were detailed and expansive, given the presence of all DGPs and DGs of CPFs. The conference deliberated on various internal security challenges and discussed ways to tackle them firmly,” the Home Ministry had tweeted.

India, Israel, UAE and U.S. launch quad forum #GS2 #IR

India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States have decided to launch a new quadrilateral economic forum, as External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar joined his counterparts at a videoconference from Jerusalem, where he is on a five-day visit.

The quadrilateral, which followed his bilateral meeting with Israeli Alternate Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, builds on ongoing cooperation between the U.S., Israel and the UAE after the Abraham Accords last year, and the India, Israel and UAE cooperation that was launched since.

Mr. Jaishankar said it was a fruitful first meeting with Mr. Lapid, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “on economic growth and global issues”.

In an interesting aside, Mr. Jaishankar’s travel to Israel is also routed via the UAE, on flights that started as a consequence of the Abraham Accords and the opening of diplomatic missions and flights between them.

Infrastructure projects

Mr. Lapid added that the grouping had decided to establish an international forum for economic cooperation, and specifically discussed “possibilities for joint infrastructure projects”.

The U.S. State Department said that during the meeting on Monday, the four Ministers discussed “expanding economic and political cooperation in the Middle East and Asia, including through trade, combating climate change, energy cooperation, and increasing maritime security,” as well as ways to counter the COVID-19 pandemic.

Foreign Ministers of the U.S., Israel and the UAE had met in Washington on October 13 to discuss modalities of trilateral cooperation, and set up two working groups: on religious coexistence and the other on water and energy.

Business groups in India, the UAE and Israel have also been in talks for trilateral cooperation since diplomatic ties were established, and the International Federation of Indo-Israel Chambers of Commerce (IFIIC) has predicted that the potential for agreements backed by Israeli innovation, UAE funding and Indian manufacturing, given India’s close ties and strategic partnership with the two other countries could cross $100 billion by 2030. In the first such venture, a UAE project for robotic solar panel cleaning technology was signed by Israeli company Ecoppia that has a manufacturing base in India.

Significantly, neither the quadrilateral meeting, nor the trilateral meeting discussed the issue of Palestine and resuming the “Middle East peace process”, although the Joe Biden administration has expressed support for a “two-state solution”, that is in line with India’s broader position.

Bilateral talks

On Monday, Mr. Jaishankar and Mr. Lapid held bilateral talks, agreeing to resume long-pending negotiations for a free trade agreement, a mutual recognition agreement for COVID-19 vaccine certificates, beginning with Israeli acceptance of Indian travellers vaccinated with Covishield, and Israel’s joining the International Solar Alliance.

Moody’s raises banking system outlook to ‘stable’ #GS3 #Economy

Moody’s Investors Service on Tuesday raised the outlook for the Indian banking system to ‘stable’ from ‘negative’ citing moderate deterioration of asset quality since the onset of the pandemic and a likely pick-up in credit growth with economic recovery.

Moody’s expects India’s economy to continue to recover in the next 12-18 months, with GDP growing 9.3% in the fiscal year ending March 2022 and 7.9% in the following year.

“The pick-up in economic activity will drive credit growth, which we expect to be 10-13% annually. Weak corporate financials and funding constraints at finance companies have been key negative factors for banks but these risks have receded,” Moody’s said in its ‘Banking system outlook — India’ report. The quality of corporate loans has improved, indicating that banks have provisioned for all legacy problem loans in this segment. The quality of retail loans has deteriorated, but to a limited degree because large-scale job losses have not occurred, it said.

Gross NPAs of banks to rise to 8-9% from 7.5%: Crisil #GS3 #Economy

Gross non-performing assets (NPAs) of banks are expected to rise to 8-9% this fiscal from 7.5% as on March 31, but they would still remain below the peak of 11.2% seen at the end of fiscal 2018, Crisil Ratings said in a report.

COVID-19 relief measures, such as the restructuring dispensation and the Emergency Credit Line Guarantee Scheme (ECLGS), would help limit the rise. “With 2% of bank credit expected under restructuring by the end of this fiscal, stressed assets — comprising gross NPAs and loan book under restructuring — should touch 10-11%,” the ratings agency said.

“The retail and MSME segments, which together form 40% of bank credit, are expected to see higher accretion of NPAs and stressed assets this time around,” said Krishnan Sitaraman, senior director and deputy chief ratings officer.

‘Write-off effect’

“Stressed assets in these segments are seen rising to 4-5% and 17-18%, respectively, by this fiscal end. The numbers would have trended even higher but for write-offs, primarily in the unsecured segment,” he added.

The rural segment, which was hit harder during the second wave of the pandemic, has also seen a strong recovery. Therefore, stressed assets in the agriculture segment are expected to remain relatively stable, the ratings agency pointed out.

‘Base-case scenario’

It said the estimates were predicated on a base-case scenario of 9.5% GDP growth this fiscal and continued improvement in corporate credit quality. A virulent third wave and significant deceleration in demand growth could pose significant downside risks to these estimates, it added.