Current Affairs 9th April 2022

All adults to get precaution jab #GS3 #SnT

The Union Health Ministry on Friday announced that the precautionary or third dose of COVID-19 vaccine would be made available to the 18+ population at private vaccination centres. It would be the same as the previous doses.

The administration of this dose would begin on April 10. All those who have completed nine months after the administration of the second dose would be eligible, it stated. Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya termed the extension of the vaccination drive an “extra layer of safety”.

1,109 new infections

The decision comes even as India logged 1,109 new coronavirus infections taking the total tally of COVID-19 cases to 4,30,33,067, while the active cases dipped to 11,492, according to the Health Ministry data updated on Friday.

Cases had dipped to triple digits but there’s been an uptick in some States. Kerala has reported 2,321 cases in the last week, accounting for nearly 30% of the country’s new cases along with an increase in positivity (number of confirmed positives relative to tests) from 13.45% to 15.53%. This has prompted the Health Ministry to write to the State’s Health Secretary on Friday to monitor clusters of new cases, increase testing and take required steps in areas with high positivity and step up genome sequencing of samples.

This week, reports emerged from Maharashtra of the likely detection of the XE variant, a highly infectious variant of the coronavirus that is a genetic offshoot of the BA.1 and BA.2 Omicron variants. Though not associated with increased disease severity, it has been linked to a spike in infectivity in the U.K. and parts of Europe. However, Union Health Ministry officials and Maharashtra State officials have differed on whether it was indeed the XE variant.

Home Ministry seeks six months to frame CAA rules #GS2 #Governance

The Ministry of Home Affairs has sought another six months to frame the rules of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), a legislation to fast-track the citizenship process of six non-Muslim undocumented communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Without the rules being framed, the Act cannot be implemented.

The Ministry has written to the subordinate committee on parliamentary legislation of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, seeking an extension till October 9, a senior government official confirmed. This is the fifth extension sought by the government. The last extension was sought on January 9 on the grounds that the framing of rules need more consultation and the delay is on account of the pandemic. A senior government official confirmed that the request for an extension till October 9 has been sent to the parliamentary committee.

The CAA was passed by Parliament on December 11 in 2019 and it received assent from the President on December 12. In January, 2020, the Ministry notified that the Act will come into force from January 10 that year. Earlier, the Ministry had sought time from the committees till April 9, 2021, which was extended to July 9, 2021. A request was made to further extend the period to January 9, then April 9 and now till October 9 to notify the rules which are to be published in the Gazette of India Eight-three persons were killed in protests after the CAA was passed in 2019.

SC upholds new curbs on receiving foreign funds #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court on Friday upheld amendments introducing restrictions in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) while holding that no one has a fundamental or absolute right to receive foreign contributions.

In a judgment that may hit non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working at the grass-root level with no direct link to foreign donors, the court reasoned that unbridled inflow of foreign funds may destabilise the sovereignty of the nation.

The restrictions involve a bar on using operational FCRA accounts to get foreign contributions and mandatory production of the Aadhaar card for registration under the FCRA. They require NGOs and recipients to open a new FCRA account at a specified branch of the State Bank of India in New Delhi as a “one-point entry” for foreign donations.

The petitioners, including individuals and NGOs engaged in cultural, educational, religious activities, argued that the amendments suffered from the “vice of ambiguity, over-breadth or over-governance” and violated their fundamental rights. They said the new regime amounts to a blanket ban on the capacity of intermediary organisations in India to distribute foreign donations to smaller and less visible NGOs. But the court countered that the amendments only provide a strict regulatory framework to moderate the inflow of foreign funds.

“No one can be heard to claim a vested right to accept foreign donations, much less an absolute right,” a three-judge Bench led by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, who authored the verdict, said.

Free and uncontrolled inflow of foreign funds has the potential to impact the socio-economic structure and polity of the country. “Philosophically, foreign contribution (donation) is akin to gratifying intoxicant replete with medicinal properties and may work like a nectar. However, it serves as a medicine so long as it is consumed (utilised) moderately and discreetly, for serving the larger cause of humanity.

Otherwise, this artifice has the capability of inflicting pain, suffering and turmoil as being caused by the toxic substance (potent tool) — across the nation,” Justice Khanwilkar wrote in a 132-page judgment.

The court said charity could be found at home. NGOs could look within the country for donors. “The presence/inflow of foreign contribution in the country ought to be at the minimum level, if not completely eschewed. The influence may manifest in different ways, including in destabilising the social order within the country,” it noted.

Fundamental rights have to give way in larger public interest to the need to insulate the democratic polity from the “adverse influence of foreign contributions”.

Govt. nod to supply fortified rice via PDS #GS3 #Economy

The government on Friday approved the distribution of fortified rice across government schemes such as the public distribution system, and nutrition services for school children and anganwadi beneficiaries.

The entire cost of the scheme of Rs. 2,700 crore will be borne by the Centre until it is fully implemented by June, 2024.

The initiative will be implemented in three phases. In the first phase, anganwadi centres under Integrated Child Development Services and PM POSHAN (or erstwhile mid-day meals) will be covered. A government statement said that this was slated to be achieved by March 2022, but is still under implementation.

The second phase will cover targeted public distribution system and other welfare schemes in all 291 aspirational districts as well as districts with high burden of stunting by March 2023. In the final phase the remaining districts of the country will be covered by March 2024.

The Food Corporation of India and State agencies are engaged in procuring fortified rice and so far nearly 88.65 LMT [lakh metric tonnes] of fortified rice has been procured, a press release stated.

India studying U.S. sanctions on Alrosa #GS2 #IR

The United States’ decision to impose stricter sanctions on Alrosa of Russia, a major player in India’s gems and jewellery industry, was being evaluated, sources in the industry said on Friday.

The “blocking sanctions” on the largest diamond mining company of the world was announced by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday. “The United States is imposing blocking sanctions on two Russian state-owned enterprises. We will keep raising the cost for President Putin’s unconscionable war and atrocities against Ukraine,” he said.

Diamond has been a major component of India-Russia trade in recent years and the sector also received attention at the top political level.

Biggest supplier

The latest sanctions on the biggest supplier of Russian diamonds to India, came hours after India and the United States announced the April 11 “2+2” ministerial meeting where Mr. Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will engage External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.

Alrosa, which has been recognised as a state-owned entity (SOE) by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, was targeted by the U.S. authorities during the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine. The Department of the Treasury described Alrosa as the “world’s largest diamond mining company”, which supplies “90%” of Russia’s rough diamonds. Western capitals have described Alrosa’s supplies as “conflict diamonds” because of its perceived links with top Russian officials. Alrosa’s supplies to India had paused briefly earlier this year but resumed last month even as the Indian gems and jewellery sector grappled with the challenges of making payments through German banks.

Curbs on Alrosa chief

Soon after the beginning of the Russian military campaign, the Chief Executive of Alrosa, Sergei Sergeevich Ivanov, was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury. He is the son of Sergey B. Ivanov, one of the closest officials of President Vladimir Putin.

Friday’s U.S. announcement said, the latest measures are “expanding previous sanctions by designating Alrosa”. The order says that all property of Alrosa that are in possession of American citizens are “blocked and must be reported” to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) of the Department of the Treasury. Therefore, all India-Russia diamond trade that have participation of U.S. citizens are likely to be affected.

The Department of the Treasury further tightened the sanction by declaring “… any entities that are owned, directly or indirectly, 50 percent or more by one or more blocked persons are also blocked. All transactions by U.S. persons or within (or transiting) the United States that involve any property or interests in property of designated or otherwise blocked persons are prohibited unless authorized by a general or specific license issued by OFAC, or otherwise exempt”.

Strict regime necessitated by experience of abuse: SC #GS2 #Governance

Its goal of ‘ease of doing business’ did not stop the government from bringing a “strict” regime of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) in 2020 to stop the abuse and misutlisation of foreign funds, the Supreme Court said in a judgment on Friday.

“Ordinarily, convenience of business and persons engaged in doing business must be uppermost in the mind of the Parliament/Legislature to effectuate the goal of ease of doing business… the strict regime became essential because of the past experience of abuse and misutilisation of the ‘foreign contribution’ and cancellation of certificates of as many as 19,000 registered organisations on the ground of being grossly non-compliant,” a three-judge Bench, led by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar, said in support of the restrictions in the 2020 FCRA amendments.

Permitting inflow of foreign contribution, which is a donation, is a matter of policy of the State backed by law, the top court held. It was open for the State to even have a regime which may completely prohibit receipt of foreign donation, as no right inheres in the citizen to receive foreign donations.

Besides, the court said, anyone wanting foreign contributions cannot be said to be engaged in “usual or ordinary business”.

Particular bank branch

One of the amendments criticised by NGOs involved a bar on operating existing FCRA accounts in scheduled banks of their convenience and the opening of a new bank account at the State Bank of India branch at Sansad Marg in New Delhi. Foreign donations can be remitted from abroad only through this “primary” account in this particular branch and no other.

But the court said FCRA account operators could not claim the right of continuity of a “deficient and flawed framework”. Opening an account at the Sansad Marg branch was only a one-time exercise to ensure inflow of foreign contribution through one channel only.

“There is no restriction regarding utilisation of the funds only through that (primary) FCRA account. For, it is open to the recipient to operate multiple accounts in other scheduled banks for its utilisation,” Justice Khanwilkar, accompanied by Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and C.T. Ravikumar on the Bench, said.

“The Parliament must be credited with having taken recourse to corrective dispensation for eradicating the mischief, which any sovereign country can ill-afford… The Parliament is supreme and has a final say in matters of legislation,” the court said.

Gujarat reports its first case of XE variant of coronavirus #GS3 #SnT

On a day the Centre expanded the availability of precaution doses, the XE variant of coronavirus, a more infectious but not severe than the Omicron variant, has been found in Gujarat, a highly placed official confirmed to The Hindu .

This week, Mumbai civic officials reported a case of the XE variant from a sample isolated in February, but officials at the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG), a network of labs that tracks sequences, and the Union Health Ministry, are yet to confirm if it is an XE variant.

“Samples from Gujarat have been sent to NCDC, but from what we see, this fits the definition of XE more than the Mumbai one,” the person cited earlier said on condition of anonymity.

An INSACOG laboratory in Gujarat, the Gujarat Biotechnology Research Centre (GBRC), has reportedly confirmed the variant.

While several variants of the coronavirus have emerged in the last two years because of mutations, recombination variants occur when, in extremely rare situations, two different lineages of the virus co-infect the same cell in the host and exchange fragments of their individual genomes. This generates a descendent variant having mutations that occurred in both the original lineages of the virus. The XE variant, for instance, is a recombinant of the BA.1 and BA.2 subtypes of the Omicron variant.

While the current XE variant has generated public concern because the World Health Organisation has signalled its potential for increased infectivity, there have been other recombinants of the SARS-CoV-2 that have been identified by genome scientists.

So far, only 600 instances of the XE variant have been officially reported in the global repository GISAID and this is causing confusion among scientists on what relative proportion of genetic material from the BA.1 and BA.2 would qualify for a variant to be in the ‘XE’ category.

Centre sets up task force to promote animation, gaming #GS3 #SnT

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry has constituted an Animation, Visual Effects, Gaming and Comics (AVGC) promotion task force.

Headed by the I&B Secretary, the task force will submit its first action plan within 90 days. It has representation from the industry, academia and State governments.

Earlier, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her Budget speech, had announced the creation of AVGC promotion task force.

The body will frame a national AVGC policy; recommend national curriculum framework for graduation, post-graduation and doctoral courses in AVGC-related sectors; and facilitate skilling initiatives in collaboration with academic institutions, vocational training centres and industry. It will boost employment opportunities and help in the promotion and market development activities to extend global reach. of the Indian industry; enhance exports and recommend incentives to attract foreign direct investment in the sector.

The I&B Ministry said the AVGC sector in the country had the potential to become the torch bearer of “Create in India” and “Brand India”. “India has the potential to capture 5% of the global market share by 2025, with an annual growth of around 25-30% and creating over 1,60,000 new jobs annually,” it said.

The task force comprises Secretaries of the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, and the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade.

The industry representatives are Biren Ghosh of Technicolor India, Ashish Kulkarni of Punaryug Artvision, Jesh Krishna Murthy of Anibrain, Keitan Yadav of Redchillies VFX, Chaitanya Chinchlikar of Whistling Woods International, Kishore Kichili of Zynga India, and Neeraj Roy of Hungama Digital Media Entertainment.

It also includes representation from Karnataka, Maharashtra and Telangana, heads of education bodies such as the All India Council of Technical Education, National Council of Educational Research and Training, and industry bodies.

RBI to ‘focus’ on inflation, lifts estimates #GS3 #Economy

The Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Policy Committee on Friday raised its estimate for inflation in FY23 to 5.7%, from the 4.5% forecast in February before Russia invaded Ukraine, and stressed that it would now turn its focus to the “withdrawal of accommodation to ensure that inflation remains within the target going forward”.

“In the sequence of priority we have now put inflation before growth,” RBI governor Shaktikanta Das said at a press conference after announcing the MPC’s decision to hold interest rates at its first policy review of the new fiscal year. “For the last three years growth was ahead of inflation in sequence. This time we have reversed it because we thought the time is appropriate,” he added.

The RBI has also started withdrawing some of the accommodation it had provided in the last two years, though gradually.

“The stance continues to be accommodative but we are now focussing on withdrawal of accommodation. So, gradually we are moving away from an ‘accommodative’ stance which has been there for more than two years,” Mr. Das stressed.

Elaborating on the change in tack, RBI Deputy Governor Michael Debabrata Patra said, “We have taken the policy repo rate to an all-time low which is 4%. If you adjust it with the targeted inflation then the real rate is zero. That was ultra accommodation. The situation is changing and now we want to withdraw the ultra accommodation but there is scope to remain accommodative.”

‘War-induced factors’

Mr. Das said the MPC had decided to revise the inflation projections for FY23 upwards with the estimate for Q1 at 6.3%; Q2 at 5.8%; Q3 at 5.4%; and Q4 at 5.1% due to “war-induced factors”.

He pointed to the sharp increase in crude oil, edible oil and wheat prices, and the cost of feed — which has pushed prices of poultry, egg and dairy products — as reason for the higher estimates. Earlier, the MPC voted unanimously to keep the policy repo rate unchanged at 4%.

Mr. Das said escalating geopolitical tensions had cast a shadow on India’s economic outlook. As a result, real GDP growth for FY23 has been projected at 7.2%, compared with 7.8% estimated earlier.

Asked about the likely impact of any economic fallout due to India’s ongoing trade with Russia, which is facing sanctions from western nations, Mr. Das said, “The government is seized of the issue… as far as RBI is concerned, we will not do anything that goes against the sanctions.”

RBI adds a standing deposit facility to ‘normalise’ liquidity #GS3 #Economy

The Reserve Bank on Friday took steps towards normalisation of liquidity management to pre-pandemic levels, with the introduction of the standing deposit facility (SDF) as the basic tool to absorb excess liquidity, and narrowing the liquidity adjustment facility (LAF) corridor to 0.50% from 0.90%.

Governor Shaktikanta Das said the SDF would be at 3.75%, i.e., 0.25% below the repo rate and 0.5% lower than the marginal standing facility (MSF) which helps the banks with funds when required. The SDF has its origins in a 2018 amendment to the RBI Act and is an additional tool for absorbing liquidity without collateral.

By removing the binding collateral constraint on the RBI, the SDF strengthens the operating framework of monetary policy, he said, adding that it is also a financial stability tool. “The SDF will replace the fixed rate reverse repo as the floor of the LAF corridor,” he added.

“The LAF corridor will be symmetric around the policy repo rate with the MSF rate as the ceiling and the SDF rate as the floor with immediate effect,” Mr. Das said, announcing the first policy review of FY23.

“At both ends of the LAF corridor, there will be standing facilities – one to absorb and the other to inject liquidity. Accordingly, access to SDF and MSF will be at the discretion of banks, unlike repo/reverse repo, OMO and CRR which are available at the discretion of the Reserve Bank,”

World food prices rose to a new record in March #GS3 #Economy

World food prices jumped to a new record high in March as the war in Ukraine caused turmoil in markets for staple grains and edible oils, the U.N. food agency said on Friday.

The Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) food price index, which tracks the most globally-traded food commodities, averaged 159.3 points last month versus an upwardly revised 141.4 for February.

Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of wheat, corn, barley and sunflower oil via the Black Sea, and Moscow’s six-week-old invasion of its neighbour has stalled Ukrainian exports.

FAO warned last month that food and feed prices could rise by up to 20% as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, triggering a jump in global malnourishment.

FAO also cut its estimate of world wheat production in 2022 to 784 million tonnes from a forecast of 790 million last month as it factored in the possibility that at least 20% of Ukraine’s winter crop area would not be harvested. It also lowered its projection of global cereals trade in the 2021/22 marketing year.