Current Affairs 28th Jan 2022

Central Asia meet forms Afghan group #GS2 #IR

Overcoming the lack of land connectivity between India and Central Asia’s landlocked countries was one of the “main issues of discussion” during the first India-Central Asia Summit hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the Presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, officials said on Thursday.

The leaders also spoke at length about concerns over Afghanistan, sharing the “same concerns and same objectives” in broader terms and agreed to setting up a Joint Working Group (JWG) of senior officials, said Reenat Sandhu, Secretary (West) in the Ministry of External Affairs, listing those concerns as the need for immediate humanitarian assistance, ensuring the formation of a truly representative and inclusive government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking, and preserving the rights of women, children and minorities.

Mr. Modi tweeted that all countries at the summit were “concerned about the developments in Afghanistan”. “In this context, our mutual cooperation has become even more important for regional security and stability,” he said.

More meetings proposed

Mr. Modi also proposed a number of high-level exchanges between the two sides, including biannual summits and annual meetings of the Foreign, Trade and Cultural Ministers and Secretaries of Security (National Security Advisers) to “strengthen cooperation in the areas of political and development, partnership, trade and connectivity, culture and tourism and security”, the officials said, adding that these proposals were accepted, along with a plan to build a “Central Asia Centre” in New Delhi. They also announced two “Joint Working Groups” on Afghanistan and the Chabahar port project.

“Further development of mutual connectivity is essential for enhanced trade and commerce between India and Central Asian countries in the context of their landlocked nature and lack of overland connectivity with India,” said the “Delhi Declaration” joint statement issued at the end of the 90-minute summit.

“The leaders emphasised that connectivity projects deserve priority attention and could be a force-multiplier for trade and economic cooperation and contacts between countries and people,” it added, but did not directly refer to the blocks on transit trade imposed by Pakistan.

The leaders discussed possibilities of increasing Indian trade with the region beyond the currently low levels of about $2 billion, welcoming options over sea provided by Iranian ports including the Chabahar port terminal managed by India and the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) through Bandar Abbas that is promoted by Russia and Iran, and which is due to include both Chabahar and Turkmenistan’s Turkmenbashi port.

Notably, the statement recorded that President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov had “stressed on the importance of TAPI gas pipeline project” that runs from Turkmenistan’s Galknyshk oil fields near Mary (Marv) through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India, but did not record any support from India on the project. The TAPI project, inaugurated in 2015, has run into issues over India-Pakistan tensions and the situation in Afghanistan, though the Taliban officials recently said they hope to restart work on the pipeline in September 2022.

Early signs of a flat caseload, says govt. #GS3 #SnT

There are early indications of a plateau in COVID-19 cases being reported in certain geographies, but the trend needs to be observed and required precautions need to be continued, the Union Health Ministry said on Thursday.

At the weekly briefing, Lav Agarwal, Joint secretary, Health Ministry, said 10 States contributed to more than 77% of the total active cases in the country. Karnataka, Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu led the tally.

90% in home isolation

Data released by the Ministry added that Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Odisha, Haryana and West Bengal were registering a steady decline in daily caseload, while Pune, Ernakulam and Nagpur were flagged as districts of concern. Also more than 90% of active cases are under home isolation at present — indicating mild to moderate clinical severity, Mr. Agarwal said.

“A clear trend in terms of fewer COVID cases requiring oxygen-supported beds or ICU beds has been observed,” he said.

Not for third party in LAC talks, China tells U.S. #GS2 #IR

China’s military said on Thursday it was “opposed to third-party involvement” in the India-China border dispute, as it hit out at comments from Washington about Beijing “intimidating” its neighbours.

“The China-India border issue is a matter between China and India, and both sides have expressed their opposition to third-party involvement,” People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence, said in Beijing. He appeared to be referring to comments from Washington ahead of the 14th round of talks between Indian and Chinese military commanders earlier this month saying the U.S. was “closely monitoring” the situation and that it was concerned about Beijing’s “destabilising” behaviour and “attempt to intimidate its neighbours”.

“Some people on the U.S. side like to use the word ‘coercion’ but they do not know that the U.S. is the originator and master of ‘coercive diplomacy’,” Col. Wu said, adding that China was “firmly opposed to the U.S. engaging in ‘coercive diplomacy’ with other countries”.

“China will work together with the Indian side to continue to properly deal with the border issue through negotiations,” he added. The PLA spokesperson described the 14th round of talks as “positive and constructive”. He referred to the joint statement put out by both sides after the talks agreeing to “stay in close contact and maintain dialogue” to work out a “mutually acceptable resolution” of remaining issues along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

While there was no agreement to disengage in the three remaining areas of difference — the focus of the 14th round was Hot Springs, where both sides are thought to be close to agreeing on a plan to disengage, while differences in Demchok and Depsang are more pronounced with the prospects of an early resolution unlikely — the joint statement struck a more positive note than the previous round, when both sides traded accusations and failed to issue a joint statement.

China, Indian officials have said, has dragged its feet in the negotiations to return to status quo on the LAC, prior to the multiple transgressions by the PLA starting in April 2020.

The PLA spokesperson said there were four points of agreement reached in the last round. “First, the two sides agreed that they should follow the guidance provided by the leaders of the two countries and work for the resolution of the remaining issues at the earliest,” he said. “

Second, the two sides agreed to consolidate the previous outcomes and take effective efforts to maintain the security and stability on the ground in the Western Sector including in winter. Third, they agreed to stay in close contact and maintain dialogue via military and diplomatic channels and work out a mutually acceptable resolution of the remaining issues at the earliest. Fourth, they agreed that the next round of the Commanders’ talks should be held at the earliest.”

Covishield and Covaxin get conditional market approval #GS3 #SnT

Conditional market authorisation was granted on Thursday by the Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) to COVID-19 vaccines Covishield and Covaxin for use in adults. Announcing the decision, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya tweeted: “The @CDSCO_INDIA_INF has now upgraded the permission for Covaxin and Covishield from restricted use in emergency situations to normal new drug permission in the adult population with certain conditions.”

The conditions set down by the DCGI include supply for programmatic settings including registration on the CoWin platform and continued submission of safety data on a six-monthly basis, the Minister added, referring to rules under the New Drugs and Clinical Trials Rules, 2019.

Adverse events following immunisation will continue to be monitored.

Conditional market authorisation is a new category of market authorisation that has emerged during the current global pandemic of COVID-19. The approval pathways through this route are fast-tracked with certain conditions to enhance the access to certain pharmaceuticals for meeting the emerging needs of drugs or vaccines, the Health Ministry explained.

Adar Poonawalla, CEO of Serum Institute of India (SII) which manufactures Covishield said, “We are delighted to receive the conditional market authorisation for Covishield from the DCGI. With this, our focus should be to reduce the gap between the 2nd and the 3rd dose to six months, as it is done globally. Our objective must be to get the population fully vaccinated to curb the spread of the pandemic.”

India seen boosting budget spending on infrastructure #GS3 #Economy

India plans to raise spending on infrastructure in its annual budget next week to set the economy on a firmer footing, but fiscal constraints leave little chance of concessions for households hurting from the pandemic, officials said.

Asia’s third-largest economy is estimated to expand 9.2% in the fiscal year that ends in March, following a contraction of 7.3% in the previous fiscal year.

Yet private consumption, which makes up almost 55% of GDP, is below pre-pandemic levels amid rising household debt, while retail prices have swelled almost a tenth since the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020.

The Feb. 1 budget comes days before the start of elections in five States, which could spur Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to promise higher rural spending and subsidies on food and fertiliser.

Yet these are likely to be overshadowed by spending to beef up transport and healthcare networks, which analysts estimate could rise between 12% and 25% in the next fiscal year.

“We will focus on reviving the economy through higher investments, while individual and corporate taxes will be kept steady,” one official, who sought anonymity, told Reuters, adding that reviving growth would be a priority.

To attract investments that create jobs and spur growth, Ms. Sitharaman could also boost incentives tied to production in more industries.

“Continuing on its capex push, we expect another 25% increase in capital expenditure by the central government … we expect budgetary allocations for roads, highways and railways to rise.

Bonds, rupee weaken as Fed tone sparks outflow concerns #GS3 #Economy

Indian bond yields spiked while the rupee struck a one-month low on Thursday on concerns of potential outflows after the Federal Reserve delivered a more-hawkish-than-expected update, saying a U.S. interest rate increase was likely in March.

The Fed also reaffirmed plans to end its bond purchases around the same time, calling time on a long phase of easy money. India’s benchmark 10-year bond yield rose 7 basis points to 6.73%, its highest level since December 19, 2019. Bond yields rise when prices fall.

So far in January, foreign investors have dumped $2.2 billion of Indian shares after having bought a net $3.76 billion in 2021. They had bought $23.29 billion worth shares in 2020 and $14.23 billion in 2019. They are still, net buyers of $575.35 million worth debt so far this month after having sold $3.66 billion in 2021.

The rupee was trading at 75.15/16 per dollar at 0555 GMT, after touching 75.24, its weakest since December 23depreciated by 31 paise to close at a more than four-week low of 75.09 against the dollar. High global oil prices have added to bearish pressure on the rupee, as India imports more than two-thirds of its oil needs, and rising fuel costs will spur domestic inflation.

“The concerns around oil are still very much alive and we now have Fed tightening coming up,” a senior trader at a private bank said. Markets are likely to stay jittery, he added, as the Centre is set to deliver its annual budget of February 1, while the Reserve Bank of India’s monetary policy committee will meet on February 7-9.

Economists at HDFC Bank expect volatility in the rupee-dollar exchange rate to continue through early February.