Current Affairs 26th August

Separate probe by Bengal into snooping can wait, observes SC #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court on Wednesday urged the West Bengal government to wait and not go ahead with a separate judicial inquiry into the Pegasus snooping allegations when the apex court is already seized of the issue.

A Bench of Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana and Justice Surya Kant did not pass a formal order staying the work of the government-appointed commission of inquiry after senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi gave an oral assurance to convey the top court’s message of “restraint” to the government.

The commission of inquiry comprises retired Supreme Court judge Justice Madan B. Lokur and retired Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court Justice Jyotirmay Bhattacharya. Senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for the petitioner, an NGO called ‘Global Village Foundation’, submitted that there cannot be a parallel inquiry when the top court was hearing the issue.

The petition has challenged the government notification, which appointed the commission in July. It said the commission had no jurisdiction to embark on such an inquiry. Mr. Salve submitted that a public notice was issued by the commission of inquiry and proceedings were taking place on a day-to-day basis.

The Bench said it may take up the Pegasus cases next week and pass a comprehensive order. It tagged the petition with the Pegasus cases pending before it.

‘Pan-India impact’

“We expect some restraint… We expect you to wait,” Chief Justice Ramana addressed Mr. Singhvi. Justice Kant said any decision in the Pegasus issue would likely have a pan-India impact.

The Supreme Court issued a pre-admission notice to the Centre on August 17 on petitions seeking an independent inquiry into the charges that the government used the Israeli spyware to snoop on journalists, activists, dissenters, parliamentarians, Ministers and other citizens.

After issuing the notice, a Bench of the CJI and Justices Kant and Aniruddha Bose said it would consider the further course of action, including the formation of a committee, to inquire into the allegations, in due time.

The notice was issued after the government, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, stood firm by its two-page affidavit, denying “all and any” allegations. Mr. Mehta said any revelation about any software allegedly used by the government to counter terrorism would compromise national security.

Probe agencies too hit by lack of manpower: CJI #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court on Wednesday said probe agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) suffered from the dearth of manpower and infrastructure that the judiciary too faced. Both were overburdened.

“Everybody says ‘CBI, CBI…’ We don’t want to demoralise the investigative agencies. They are overburdened… Similarly, one trial court handles 1,000 cases. How do you expect them to function? We had asked for special courts to hear exclusively cases under specific legislation… but nothing,” Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana, heading a Special Bench of three judges, remarked orally.

Pending cases

The Bench, including Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Surya Kant, was hearing a petition about the hundreds of criminal cases pending against MPs and MLAs, both sitting and former, for years together. Some of these cases, investigated by agencies such as the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate (ED), have been pending for over a decade.

A report submitted by the court’s amicus curiae , senior advocate Vijay Hansaria, assisted by advocate Sneha Kalita, said 51 MPs and 71 MLAs were accused of offences under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), 2002.

Similarly, out of the 121 cases pending trial against MPs and MLAs before the CBI courts across the country, 58 were punishable with life imprisonment. In 45 cases, even the charges have not been framed, though the offences were alleged to have been committed several years ago.

A total of 37 CBI cases against legislators were continuing in the stage of investigation for years on end now. One of these cases, according to the CBI, was “expected” to be completed by 2030, the report said.

“In some cases, you have not filed a chargesheet in 10 or 15 years… In one case, you have attached assets worth over Rs. 200 crore, but not filed a chargesheet. Simply attaching property will not serve any purpose,” Chief Justice Ramana addressed Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for both the CBI and the ED.

“The information given by the ED and CBI present a really, shocking, disturbing and gloomy picture,” Mr. Hansaria submitted.

The Chief Justice reasoned with Mr. Mehta to complete the trial in these cases quickly rather than have them hanging over the heads of the accused like a Damocles sword.

Plea for directive

The Solicitor-General urged the Bench to pass a judicial order directing lower courts to complete the pending trial proceedings in a “mandatory time-bound manner”, possibly within the next six months.

He submitted that in some cases, the High Courts intervened and granted stay of the trial.

But the CJI did not agree, saying the High Courts had stayed trial in only seven cases and the Supreme Court in one.

Mr. Mehta then said ED cases were held up because they spanned to tax havens abroad, which refused to cooperate with investigations.

The CJI stated efforts would be made to “rationalise” the number of cases before each trial court. The judiciary was slowly but surely dealing with the problem of scarcity of judges — High Courts have 455 judicial vacancies as on August 1. Besides, lower courts also have other urgent cases of bail, custody matters and so on to hear and decide.

The Bench said a mechanism would be put in place soon to monitor the progress of criminal trials involving legislators soon. This would include special courts.

In the previous hearing, the apex court questioned the Centre’s commitment towards the speedy trial and prosecution of criminal politicians. It also directed that a criminal case against an MP or MLA could be withdrawn only after getting the consent of the High Court concerned.

“We deem it appropriate to direct that no prosecution against a sitting or former MP or MLA shall be withdrawn without the leave of the High Court… Various State governments have resorted to withdrawal of numerous criminal cases pending against MP/MLA by utilising the power vested under Section 321 CrPC. The power under Section 321 CrPC is a responsibility which is to be utilised in public interest, and cannot be used for extraneous and political considerations. This power is required to be utilised with utmost good faith to serve the larger public interest,” a three-judge Bench led by the CJI had directed in its last order.

Delta sub-lineage AY.12 found in India #GS3 #SnT

Some cases of the novel coronavirus Delta variant, the most widely prevalent variant of concern in India, are being “reclassified” to another sub-lineage that has been associated with a large number of cases in Israel, the India SARS-CoV-2 Genome (INSACOG) Consortium said in a report on Monday.

The Delta variant (B.1.617.2) has birthed several sub-lineages called ‘Delta plus’ variants that bear most of its characteristic mutations but are different in other ways. One of these sub-lineages, called AY.12, has all the characteristic Delta mutations except one.

The spike in cases in Israel is of concern because it is a country with nearly 60% of its adults fully vaccinated and reports that the Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness in that country is significantly less than what emerged over clinical trials.

“The reclassification is primarily to assist micro-epidemiology and is not based on acquisition of significant mutations. Thus, it is not currently known whether AY.12 is clinically different from Delta,” the INSACOG report noted. “No new mutations of concern are noted in the spike protein (S). However, its rapid growth in Israel means that it should be examined further.”

The Delta variant, because of its preponderance in coronavirus cases globally, has several sub-lineages, making it necessary to reclassify them as not doing so would make naming them unwieldy, said Anurag Agrawal, Director, CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology. “A large number of cases in Israel have been linked to AY.12. In India, there are several micro-lineages and some of them are AY.12. We need to wait and watch to see how significant this micro-lineage is in driving infections in India. But as of now, it has exactly the same risk classification, no more and no less, than Delta,” he told The Hindu .

Making an estimate

A complete reclassification and estimating the prevalence of AY.12 in India is expected to take some time, according to the INSACOG. “Since the AY.12 definition is inconsistent, final numbers will take some time. AY.12 analysis will be added to the portal (a public website), along with other new lineages, once there is greater consensus,” the report noted.

So far, according to INSACOG, about 70,000 coronavirus samples have been sequenced for their genomic structure, of which 50,000 have been allotted to various lineages. About 60% of them consist of international variants of concern or interest (VoC or VoI) that are globally tracked and linked to outbreaks as well as instances of vaccine breakthrough and reinfections. Within these VoC, the Delta variant comprises 70% of samples. The Delta plus cases, in which AY.12 is included, only number 67, though this is expected to swell after the reclassification.

Though the overall trajectory of daily cases in India is downwards, Kerala has reported nearly 31,000 cases on Wednesday, which accounts for nearly all of India’s caseload.

Centre raises fair price of sugar cane #GS3 #Economy

The Union government has increased the minimum price that sugar mills must pay to sugar cane farmers by Rs. 5 a quintal, setting the fair and remunerative price (FRP) at Rs. 290 a quintal for the 2021-22 sugar season, which runs from October to September.

Despite demands from sugar mills, however, the Centre refused to hike the minimum price at which they can sell the processed sugar, citing consumer interests.

Wednesday’s decision by the Union Cabinet comes a day after Punjab cane farmers wrested an additional Rs. 35 a quintal price hike from their government, and amid demands from Uttar Pradesh farmers for a similar hike after three consecutive years of unchanged rates. Both the States go to the polls next year.

The Rs. 290 a quintal national FRP will apply for a recovery rate of 10%.

“The decision will benefit five crore sugar cane farmers and their dependents as well as five lakh workers employed by sugar mills and related industries,” Food Minister Piyush Goyal said at a press conference after the meeting. This was the highest ever FRP so far, he noted. The Centre had hiked FRPs by 38% since the Rs. 210 a quintal rate of 2013-14. He pointed out that this year’s hike was only half the Rs. 10 increase seen last year.

‘Quite reasonable’

Sugar mills welcomed the decision as “quite reasonable”, but demanded that the minimum selling price (MSP) also be hiked. “The MSP of sugar has remained static for over 30 months, though the cane FRP was increased by Rs. 10 a quintal in 2020-21 season,” said a statement from Abinash Varma, director-general of the Indian Sugar Mills Association, seeking a hike from the current MSP of Rs. 31 a kg to Rs. 34.50 or Rs. 35.

However, Mr. Goyal made it clear the Centre had no intention of increasing the MSP at this time, arguing that the mills received governmental support for exports and to divert surplus sugar to ethanol production. “The delicate balance of the interest of farmers and consumers, as well as the industry, has been maintained in this decision,” he said.

Mr. Goyal also addressed the problem of late payment of dues to farmers, which is a thorny political issue, especially in western Uttar Pradesh’s sugar belt, noting that Rs. 91,000 crore was being paid to the farmers in the current sugar season. The payout for 2021-22 was expected to cross Rs. 1 lakh. The largest sugar producer, U.P., had also managed to clear all pending dues till 2019-20, and had paid out Rs. 27,000 crore for the current season until August 14, he observed.

Most major sugar-producing States have set their own cane prices over and above the national FRP and a sore point for the U.P. farmers had been that the State had not hiked its price of Rs. 315 a quintal for the past three years. Over the last week, Punjab’s farmers took to the streets for an increase in the State price and negotiated a Rs. 50 a quintal hike to Rs. 360.

Priyanka’s charge

On Wednesday, Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra took to Twitter to accuse the U.P. government of failing to match up. “The Congress government of Punjab listened to the farmers and raised the price of sugar cane to Rs. 360/quintal. The U.P. BJP government, which came with a promise of Rs. 400/quintal for sugarcane, has not raised a single penny on the price of sugar cane for 3 years and threatens to “see” if farmers raise their voices,

India anticipated Taliban takeover #GS2 #IR

India anticipated the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, said the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, here on Wednesday.

Speaking at a think tank event, he observed that India was ready to deal with a possible upsurge in terror activities that may be an indirect outcome of the victory of the Taliban.

“Everything that has happened was something that had been anticipated, only the timelines have changed. From the Indian perspective, we were anticipating the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan,” said Gen. Rawat at the event titled, “The India-US Partnership: Securing the 21st Century” and organised by the Observer Research Foundation.

The event was attended by Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (US-INDOPACOM) Admiral John C. Aquilino, who also met the tri-service chiefs and Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar.

Gen. Rawat expressed India’s concern over a possible increase in terror activities following the arrival of the Taliban fighters in Kabul. India’s “contingency planning” had been ongoing and the Indian forces were “prepared for that”, he asserted

He expressed surprise over the fast pace in which the Taliban moved into various cities of Afghanistan and captured Kabul. “The timeline has surprised us because we were anticipating this happening, may be a couple of months down the line.”

The visit of Admiral Aquilino came ahead of the 25th edition of MALABAR, which will be held during August 26-29 in the Philippines Sea.

The Indian Navy said, “The aim of the exercise is to increase interoperability amongst the participating navies, develop common understanding and SOPs for Maritime Security Operation”. The MALABAR-21 would witness exercises covering all three domains of maritime warfare, including live weapon firing, anti-surface, anti-air and anti-submarine warfare drills, joint manoeuvres and tactical exercises.

Campaign for one million soak pits in 100 days #GS2 #SocialIssues

The Jal Shakti Ministry has launched a campaign to create a million soak pits in villages across the country over the next 100 days, to help manage grey water and prevent the clogging of waterbodies. Though the Central government does not have any comprehensive estimate of the total number of soak pits needed countrywide, the States have been asked to develop their own targets.

“The household or community soak pit is the simplest solution for grey water management,” said Additional Secretary Arun Baroka, who heads the flagship Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). “With modernisation, people feel that the only solution is to have drains for waste water, which is then dumped in a common village pond. However, that is not the best solution for most villages which are generally dry, where grey water can be safely and inexpensively filtered through a soak pit,” he said. A household soak pit could be constructed for Rs. 3000-5000 in most cases, he noted.

The Swachh Bharat Mission’s first phase was to achieve open defecation free (ODF) status by constructing a toilet in every rural household and persuading all villagers to use it. The second phase, termed ODF+, aims to sustain and extend these sanitation gains by focusing on solid and liquid waste management.

‘Sujalam’ campaign

Unlike the toilet construction phase, however, where targets were uniform across the country, the second phase has required a more nuanced approach. In a letter to the States regarding the launch of the 100-day ‘Sujalam’ campaign on Wednesday, Mr. Baroka asked them to “develop ambitious and measurable targets” of their own. In regions such as Punjab where the water table was high, the soak pit would not be viable. So, there was no nationwide estimate of the number of pits required.

A dashboard would be made public within the next two weeks to enable proper monitoring of ODF+ work.

Afghans can enter India now only on e-visas #GS2 #IR

In a move that could affect hundreds of Afghans desperate to leave the country, India decided on Wednesday to “invalidate” or cancel all visas issued to Afghan nationals, including about 2,000 issued in the last few months, as the Taliban began to make advances across the country.

The Union government announced that all Afghans must enter India now only on special e-visas applied online. “Keeping in view some reports that certain passports of Afghan nationals have been misplaced, previously issued visas to all Afghan nationals, who are presently not in India, stand invalidated with immediate effect. Afghan nationals wishing to travel to India may apply for e-Visa at,” said a statement issued simultaneously by the Union Home Ministry and the External Affairs Ministry.

The news has come as a blow for Indian national Ashiya Iqbal, who is married to an Afghan, and received visas for her husband and in-laws in the hours before the Taliban claimed Kabul on August 15. Ms. Iqbal was able to return on the evacuation flight operated by the government from Kabul, but not her family. With the new rule, Ms. Iqbal said they would have to reapply for visas.

When asked about the announcement, officials said the government was concerned that passports deposited by Afghan nationals for visas, which were being stored at the Indian Embassy and the Indian visa centre in Kabul, could get into the hands of anti-India terror groups. As a result, the Home Ministry decided to cancel them.

However, the processing of “e-Emergency X-Misc visas” also appears to be delayed, and sources said “very few” e-visas have been issued more than a week after the launch. Only about 20 of those “closely associated” with India have been allowed to travel on evacuation flights.

No curbs on inter-State travel, says Centre in new guidelines #GS2 #Governance

The Health Ministry, in its revised ‘Guidelines for domestic travel (flight/train/ship/ bus inter-state travel)’ issued to States and Union Territories on Wednesday, has said that there shall be no restrictions on inter-State travel by air, rail, water, or road.

The revised guidelines, according to the Ministry, has been issued following a “declining trajectory of COVID cases across the country after a peak in reported cases during mid-May as part of the second wave”.

“…To facilitate inter-State travel, while observing required precautions, the guidelines for domestic travel (flight/train/ship/bus inter-state travel) are revised so as to have a uniform protocol for domestic travel across the country,” said the Ministry.

It added that in case RT-PCR or RAT tests are required prior to entry into a State, as notified by the State government, it must be publicised widely to maximise traveller convenience.

As per the revised guidelines, the requirement of a negative RT-PCR or RAT test report can be done away with for asymptomatic persons who have taken both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, on the condition that 15 days have gone by since the administration of the second dose. Such persons must be able to show the vaccine certificate from the Co-Win portal.

It added that previously States were allowed to develop their own protocols with regards to quarantine and isolation as per their assessment of the local COVID-19 situation. According to the revised guidelines, passengers who are found symptomatic on arrival shall be subjected to Rapid Antigen Test at the terminal to aid early identification.

“In the event of an unusual surge in cases in any State or Union Territory, the States or Union Territories may institute appropriate public health measures promptly and States may implement additional restrictions, based on local requirements.

Search for COVID-19 origins stalled #GS3 #SnT

The international scientists dispatched to China by the World Health Organization to find out where the coronavirus came from said on Wednesday the search has stalled and warned that the window of opportunity for solving the mystery is “closing fast.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. intelligence review ordered up by President Joe Biden proved inconclusive about the virus’s origin, including whether it jumped from an animal to a human or escaped from a Chinese lab, The Washington Post reported on Wednesday.

Chinese reluctance

In a commentary published in the journal Nature , the WHO-recruited experts said the origins investigation is at “a critical juncture” requiring urgent collaboration but has instead come to a standstill. They noted among other things that Chinese officials are still reluctant to share some raw data, citing concerns over patient confidentiality.

Earlier this year, WHO sent a team of experts to Wuhan, where the first human COVID-19 cases were detected in December 2019, to probe what might have triggered the pandemic now blamed for nearly 4.5 million deaths worldwide, with more than 10,000 people a day succumbing despite more than 5 billion doses of vaccine administered.

In their analysis, published in March, the WHO team concluded the virus probably jumped to humans from animals, and they described the possibility of a laboratory leak as “extremely unlikely.” But the WHO experts said their report was intended only as a first step and added, “The window of opportunity for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast: any delay will render some of the studies biologically impossible.”

For example, they said, “Antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns.”

China said on Wednesday that officials should “concentrate on other possible avenues that may help trace the origin” of COVID-19 and suggested studies should be pursued in other countries.

Fukushima nuclear water to be released via undersea tunnel #GS3 #Environment

The operator of the wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant said on Wednesday it plans to build an undersea tunnel so that massive amounts of treated but still radioactive water can be released into the ocean about 1 km away from the plant to avoid interference with local fishing.

The operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings, said it hopes to start releasing the water in spring 2023. TEPCO says hundreds of storage tanks at the plant need to be removed to make room for facilities necessary for the plant’s decommissioning.

An official, Junichi Matsumoto, said TEPCO will construct the undersea tunnel by drilling through bedrock in the seabed near its No. 5 reactor, which survived the meltdowns at the plant, to minimise possible underground contamination or leakage of radioactive ground water into the tunnel. Radioactive water has been stored in about 1,000 tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi plant since 2011, when a massive earthquake and tsunami damaged three reactors and their cooling water became contaminated and began leaking.

The government decided in April to start discharging the water, after further treatment and dilution, into the Pacific Ocean in spring 2023 under safety standards set by regulators, a move opposed by fishermen and neighbouring countries. Under the new plan, the water will be released at a depth of about 12 m below the ocean’s surface.

Inflation to remain within 4%-6% range #GS3 #Economy

Inflation will remain within the range of 4% to 6% and the government is taking periodic steps to contain it, Revenue Secretary Tarun Bajaj said on Wednesday.

“The RBI has come out with guidance on inflation and it has said that inflation, which is little bit up, will cool down in some time. And we also feel that once the crops come out, inflation should come down,” Mr. Bajaj told a press conference in Mumbai.

The government had adopted various strategies to cool inflation including reduction of duties on several products including edible oil and pulses. “By periodically opening up imports of pulses, edible oil, reducing customs duty on them, we have managed to [ensure] supplies get a boost.

Cabinet clears Rs. 15,000 cr. NMP-linked FDI proposal #GS3 #Economy

The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) on Wednesday cleared a foreign direct investment (FDI) proposal entailing an investment of up to Rs. 15,000 crore in Anchorage Infrastructure Investment Holding (AIIH) Ltd., a company incorporated to invest in the infrastructure and construction development sectors.

The government said the investment would prove to be a “significant boost to the recently announced National Monetisation Pipeline (NMP)” as AIIH had proposed downstream investments in some of the sectors covered under the NMP. This would include investments in leasing out of state-owned infrastructure assets including roads, railways, airports, sports stadiums, power transmission lines and gas pipelines to private operators.

The foreign direct investment proposal also entails the transfer of shares of Bangalore International Airport Limited (BIAL) to Anchorage, and an investment of Rs. 950 crore in AIIH by 2726247 Ontario Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of the administrator of OMERS, one of Canada’s largest pension funds.