Current Affairs 7th March

COVID-19 cases breach 18,000 again amid Maharashtra surge #GS3 #SnT

New COVID-19 infections reported crossed the 18,000-mark for the first time since January this year. According to the Union Health Ministry, 18,327 new cases were reported, with Maharashtra registering the maximum at 10,216, followed by Kerala at 2,776 and Punjab at 808.

The Centre has dispatched teams to Maharashtra and Kerala to visit hotspots and “ascertain reasons for the surge”. India has 1,77,435 active cases and more than 1.11 crore confirmed cases.

Last week, a Union Health Ministry team visited Maharashtra and reported that among the possible reasons for the growing number of cases were COVID-inappropriate behaviour due to “lack of fear of disease”, pandemic fatigue, missed cases, super-spreading events, gathering of crowds due to the recent gram panchayat elections, marriage season and the re-opening of schools, and crowded public transport.

‘New areas’

“The virus is spreading to hitherto unaffected areas and most cases are asymptomatic. People are not forthcoming for strictly following quarantine or getting tests done. Sense is that the current wave is less virulent. The health machinery also may have become lax after cases came down after September.

“Some amongst the doctor fraternity — especially private — may not be counselling patients for testing or following protocols, dismissing it as flu. District/State-wise participative plan, engaging the community may yield better results rather than knee-jerk reactions.

India, Japan cool to Colombo offer of new port project #GS2 #IR

Days after the Sri Lankan Vabinet decided to allocate Colombo’s West Container Terminal (WCT) to an Adani Group consortium to compensate for cancelling the East Container Terminal (ECT) agreement, previously signed by India and Japan, both New Delhi and Tokyo have signalled their distancing from the decision.

We understand that GoSL has engaged directly with investors on this project,” added Mr. Srivastava, indicating that New Delhi had not been apprised of the negotiations directly.

The Japanese government has not yet responded officially to the Sri Lankan offer for the WCT, but it had reacted sharply to being ousted from the previous Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) with India and Sri Lanka for the neighbouring ECT project, and had called the decision “regrettable”.

“We (Japan) have been in touch with (governments of) India and Sri Lanka, but Japan has not made any decision regarding the West Coast Terminal (WCT). However, another diplomatic source said both India and Japan were keen to remain engaged in Sri Lanka.

When it was signed in May 2019, the trilateral MoC between India, Japan and Sri Lanka for the ECT was a government-to-government agreement, expected to send a strong strategic signal in the region, as India and Japan planned to collaborate to fund and develop infrastructure projects in South Asia, where thus far China had a bigger role. Japan is understood to have offered very generous terms at the time, for a 40-year soft loan with a 0.1% interest rate to help fund the ECT.

Japan’s reluctance to accept the WCT offer instead of the ECT could be a blow to the new agreement, which is now a public-private partnership driven by the Adani group.

In the Sri Lanka port project, Adani group is committed to make investment to the tune of $400 million (approximately Rs. 3,000 cr) to develop the terminal and other infrastructure. He added that the investment would be met from the company’s own resources, and not linked to funding from Japan.

Only NRI quota seats for OCI cardholders #GS2 #Governance

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has reiterated through a gazette notification that Overseas Citizens of India (OCI) cardholders can lay claim to “only NRI (Non Resident Indian) quota seats” in educational institutions based on all-India entrance tests such as National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), Joint Entrance Examination (Mains), Joint Entrance Examination (Advanced) or other such all-India professional tests.

The notification also reproduced a part of the guidelines issued by the Ministry on November 15, 2019 regarding benefits to OCI cardholders, which said that OCIs are not entitled to undertake any “missionary, mountaineering, journalism and tabligh activities” without prior permission of the Government of India. The notification provides legal teeth to the guidelines.

The notification says that the OCI cardholder shall be required to obtain a “special permission or a special permit” from the competent authority or the Foreigners Regional Registration Officer (FRRO) or the Indian Mission “to undertake research, Missionary or Tabligh or Mountaineering or Journalistic activities, undertake internship in any foreign diplomatic missions or foreign Government organisations in India or employment in any foreign diplomatic missions in India and visit any place which falls within the Protected or Restricted or prohibited areas as notified by the Central Government or competent authority”.

OCI citizens are of Indian origin but they are foreign passport holders and are not citizens of India. India does not allow dual citizenship but provides certain benefits under Section 7B(I) of the Citizenship Act, 1955 to the OCIs.

The fresh notification replaces three previous notifications issued on the subject on April 11, 2005; January 5, 2007; and January 5, 2009, respectively. The previous notifications did not specify the special permission required for “missionary, Tabligh, mountaineering or journalistic activities” and were merely part of the November 2019 guidelines.

Petitions filed

A Ministry official said that several OCI cardholder students have filed petitions in courts that they are eligible to get admission against general seats in medical, engineering and other government colleges if they clear the all-India tests.

In March 2019, the MHA clarified to the Karnataka High Court that students with OCI cards had “parity with Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and can lay claim only on the NRI quota seats based on the all-India tests”.

However on December 15, 2020, the High Court of Karnataka directed that students under the OCI category are to be considered as “citizens of India” for admission to professional courses and asked the State government to admit them to undergraduate professional courses, including engineering, medical, and dental, even under the government and institutional quotas, and not to restrict their admission only under the NRI quota.

The March 4 notification by the MHA said that OCI card holders will have parity with NRIs in the matter of “appearing for the all India entrance tests such as National Eligibility cum Entrance Test, Joint Entrance Examination (Mains), Joint Entrance Examination (Advanced) or such other tests to make them eligible for admission only against any Non-Resident Indian seat or any supernumerary seat: Provided that the OCI cardholder shall not be eligible for admission against any seat reserved exclusively for Indian citizens.”

What changes after COVID-19 vaccination? #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: Nearly 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in India so far. However, as the vaccination drive gains momentum, questions have emerged about appropriate behaviour after being vaccinated. In the United States, last week, Texas removed its mask mandate and lifted all other COVID-19-related restrictions. In India, the Union Health Ministry on Friday said six States — Maharashtra, Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi — were reporting a surge in new cases. Health officials said the rise in the number of cases across States could be because of the negligence that has set in regarding established COVID-19 protocols.

Can the mask come off?

Whether it is okay to lose the mask now is a question that some people have been asking; others feel confident in shedding their masks, after two, or even just one shot of the vaccine. However, not wearing a mask would be a bad idea, say experts. At various places, infection clusters have been reported that are linked to people who participated in group events, such as marriage ceremonies, without wearing masks or maintaining physical distancing.

Tamil Nadu’s Health Secretary, J. Radhakrishnan, is leading the efforts to stem a gradually rising COVID-19 graph in the State. “To not wear masks would be nothing short of criminal now. Just as in the case of Maharashtra, we have identified family clusters of COVID-19 cases in a couple of cities here. In most instances, it has been because of attending weddings or other family functions, and not wearing masks or being in close proximity to others. 

We are reinforcing the absolute need to continue wearing masks. Even a vaccine is a secondary tool for us, many may not have got it yet, but everyone can wear a mask and remain safe,” he said.

What does being vaccinated really mean?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), being fully vaccinated means a period of two weeks or more following the receipt of the second dose in a two-dose series, or two weeks or more following the receipt of a single-dose vaccine. In India, currently, both vaccines being used — Covishield and Covaxin — follow a two-dose regimen. Typically, the immune response takes a while to build up after a vaccine shot.

In an episode of Science in 5 , Katherine O’ Brien of the World Health Organization (WHO) said after the first jab of a two-dose vaccine, a good immune response kicks in within about two weeks. It is the second dose that boosts the immune response “and we see immunity get even stronger after that second dose”. But it is still unclear how long immunity lasts from the vaccines at hand now. 

She said whether or not the immune response is durable, how it performs with the passage of time, and how long it lasts can be found out only by monitoring people who have already been vaccinated over a period. While clinical trials have demonstrated that vaccines protect people against the disease, it is not clear if they prevent getting the infection or a severe form of the disease, or if those vaccinated can transmit the virus to others. If the vaccinated individual is still carrying the virus, the vaccine may provide immunity from severe disease for him or her, but the individual could still transmit the virus to someone who is not yet vaccinated, and therefore, vulnerable.

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s FAQ document on vaccines says, “Protective levels of antibodies are generally developed two weeks after receiving the second dose of COVID-19 vaccine.”

In a tweet, United States’s White House adviser and top infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci said, “Currently we do not have enough data to say with confidence that the vaccines can prevent transmission. So, even if vaccinated, you may be able to spread the virus to vulnerable people.”

What changes after you get a vaccine shot?

“After vaccination, your risk of severe disease from COVID-19 goes down dramatically. Once 70-80% of a population has been vaccinated, many current restrictions may be lifted,” said Priya Sampathkumar, infectious diseases consultant and medical director, infection prevention and control, Mayo Institute, U.S. However, there is concern that vaccinated people may get asymptomatic COVID-19 and transmit it to others. “So, until a large proportion of the population is vaccinated, please wear a mask to protect others,” she added.

The CDC on its website also highlights the need to continue with masks: “While available COVID-19 vaccines have demonstrated high efficacy at preventing severe and/or symptomatic COVID-19, there is currently limited information on how much the vaccines might reduce transmission and how long protection lasts. 

In addition, the efficacy of the vaccines against emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants is not known. At this time, vaccinated people should continue to followcurrent guidanceto protect themselves and others, including wearing a mask, staying at least six feet away from others, avoiding crowds, avoiding poorly ventilated spaces, covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands often…”

Dr. O’ Brien pointed out in the episode that while we are still learning about what vaccines can do, there is out-of-control transmission in many countries.

There is not enough evidence yet of vaccine response for some age groups, and vaccines are in short supply in the community. Hence, following COVID-19 protocols is essential, she added.

Dr. Sampathkumar dealt with another question in a Twitter thread recently — what if everyone in a small family or social group is vaccinated? “In a small group in which everyone has been vaccinated, it is okay to meet without masks. The risk is low. In work settings, masks are still recommended as verifying vaccination and the health status of co-workers is tricky,” she said.

She added that one may visit a fully vaccinated family member if they have also been fully vaccinated. However, travelling freely might not yet be safe. “Also, a lot depends on what we learn about the ability of vaccines to prevent asymptomatic infections and stay effective against COVID-19 variants,” she said. However, if you have been fully vaccinated, as per the recommended dosage, you can safely go eat indoors in restaurants, and the risk would be extremely low.

The CDC urges that even fully vaccinated people who get exposed to COVID-19 but do not quarantine should watch for symptoms for 14 days following the exposure. If they experience symptoms, they should be clinically evaluated for COVID-19, including SARS-CoV-2 testing, if indicated.

For how long should we continue following safety protocols?

“Time is going to tell. Once we get broad vaccination coverage … we can slowly start taking our foot off the pedal,” said Dr. O’ Brien. Meanwhile, with cases rising in India, States are hustling to reinforce COVID-19 protocols, impose fines for violations, and reintroduce a diluted version of restrictions. After rules were relaxed gradually following an exhaustive year-long campaign and pandemic fatigue set in among people, safety measures were overlooked. However, unless there is evidence that vaccination prevents transmission, or until herd immunity is achieved with a combination of vaccination and natural immunity from infection, it is clear that giving the mask up or other safety measures is dangerous. To do so would be to keep alive the cycle of transmission of the virus in the community.

‘Red Echo’ over India #GS3 #Security

The story so far: On March 3, Maharashtra Power Minister Nitin Raut announced that a State Cyber Cell probe had found 14 Trojan horses in the servers of the Maharashtra State Electricity Transmission Company. These malwares had the potential to disrupt power distribution in the State. The announcement came in the wake of a report from Recorded Future, a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm, stating that a group linked to the Chinese government, which it called ‘Red Echo’, had targeted 10 vital nodes in India’s power distribution system and two seaports. 

Recorded Future claims the cyber intrusions from China began in May 2020 amid heightened tensions at the border. It also suggested that these malwares could be the cause of the massive power outage in Mumbai last October. 

On Monday, the Power Ministry said Chinese hacker groups had targeted various Indian power centres but these groups had been thwarted after government cyber agencies warned it about their activities. The Ministry said there had been “no data breach” from the threat.

How did Recorded Future track malware in Indian systems?

Recorded Future did not look directly into the servers of India’s power system. Instead, it found a large number of IP addresses linked to critical Indian systems communicating for months withAXIOMATICASYMPTOTEservers connected to Red Echo. 

These servers had domains spoofing those of Indian power sector entities configured to them. For example, it had an ‘’ domain, which spoofs the AXIOMATICASYMPTOTE servers act as command-and-control centres for a malware known as ShadowPad.

What is ShadowPad?

ShadowPad is a backdoor Trojan malware, which means it opens a secret path from its target system to its command-and-control servers. Information can be extracted or more malicious code delivered via this path. Mr. Raut had said that there was an attempt to “either insert or remove around 8 GB of data from the server”.

Security firm Kaspersky says ShadowPad is built to target supply-chain infrastructure in sectors like transportation, telecommunication, energy and more. It was first identified in 2017, when it was found hidden in a legitimate software produced by a company named NetSarang. Trojanised softwares, or softwares that have dangers hidden in them, like the eponymous Trojan horse from Greek mythology, are the primary mode of delivery for ShadowPad.

How are ShadowPad and Red Echo linked to China?

Kaspersky states that several techniques used in ShadowPad are also found in malware from Winnti group, “allegedly developed by Chinese-speaking actors”. Security analysis firm FireEye links ShadowPad to a group known as ‘APT41’, which it says overlaps with the Winnti group. Microsoft has been tracking another group under the name ‘Barium’. 

In September 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that a federal grand jury had indicted “five computer hackers, all of whom were residents and nationals of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with computer intrusions affecting over 100 victim companies in the United States and abroad”. 

The U.S. Department of Justice confirmed that these were the intrusions that various security researchers were tracking using different threat labels such as ‘APT41’, ‘Barium’, ‘Winnti’, ‘Wicked Panda’, and ‘Wicked Spider’. The Department of Justice statement said the “defendants also compromised foreign government computer networks in India and Vietnam”.

Security firm FireEye also “assesses with high confidence” that ‘APT41’ “carries out Chinese state-sponsored espionage activity in addition to financially motivated activity potentially outside of state control”, i.e., the group not only spies for the Chinese government but also does cybercrime when it suits them. The group has been known to target the video-game industry.

Recorded Future in its report notes large overlaps in the systems used by Red Echo and ‘APT41/Winnti/Barium’. “At least 3 of the [Red Echo] targeted Indian IP addresses were previously seen in a suspected APT41/Barium-linked campaign targeting the Indian Oil and Gas sectors in November 2020,” it says.

What were Red Echo’s targets?

Recorded Future lists these as suspected targets: Power System Operation Corporation Limited, NTPC Limited, NTPC Kudgi STPP, Western Regional Load Despatch Centre, Southern Regional Load Despatch Centre, North Eastern Regional Load Despatch Centre, Eastern Regional Load Despatch Centre, Telangana State Load Despatch Centre, Delhi State Load Despatch Centre, DTL Tikri Kalan (Mundka), Delhi Transco Ltd (substation), V. O. Chidambaranar Port and Mumbai Port Trust.

What is the objective of Red Echo?

Recorded Future says the kind of infrastructure sought to be accessed by Red Echo, such as Regional Load Despatch Centres, has minimal espionage possibilities. However, it adds, “we assess they pose significant concerns over potential pre-positioning of network access to support Chinese strategic objectives.” Prepositioning in cyber warfare means to have malware assets in crucial places that can be called on when an actual attack is launched.

Spectrum sale, price test and the road ahead for 5G #Gs3 #Economy

The story so far: Tuesday saw the end of India’s first auction of telecommunications spectrum in five years, with the government generating a revenue of Rs. 77,815 crore from the exercise. Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Jio accounted for close to 60% of the spectrum bought, followed by Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea. On offer was over 2,308 megahertz (MHz) of spectrum valued for the auction by the government at Rs. 3.92 lakh crore, and bids were successfully received for 37% or 855.6 MHz. The auction lasted less than two days.

How has the industry been since the last auction?

A lot has changed in the industry since 2016, when the previous auction took place. The participants then included Tata Teleservices, Idea Cellular, Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel, Vodafone India, Reliance Communications and Aircel.

In the last few years, there has been a consolidation in the industry, as a result of which there are only three major players now — Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea. An IIFL Securities report last December suggested that Jio and Bharti Airtel are, by increasing their market share, shaping the industry toward “a near two-player structure”. On the other hand, Vodafone Idea, it said, is struggling financially.

In recent years, while the user base has grown, the industry itself has witnessed unforeseen financial stress in the form of an important court case against it. The reference is to the Supreme Court verdict last September that ordered telecom players to share revenues coming from even non-telecom services with the government. It gave telecom companies 10 years to pay their adjusted gross revenue (AGR) dues to the government, with 10% of the dues to be paid by March 31, 2021. Vodafone Idea and Bharti Airtel were the worst-hit by this order.

Why was an auction needed now?

All three players needed to renew some of their spectrum as the validity was set to expire later this year.

Wasn’t this for the 5G rollout?

No. The auction for that is likely to happen later. In the auction that was held on March 1 and 2, the government offered spectrum for 4G in the following bands: 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 900 MHz, 1,800 MHz, 2,100 MHz, 2,300 MHz and 2,500 MHz.

What do these bands stand for?

To explain this, we have to begin with the term ‘spectrum’, which, in this context, stands for the portion of the electromagnetic wave range that is suitable for communication purposes. As this is a huge economic resource, which also provides unimaginable benefits to any population, it is controlled by the government.

Industry organisation GSMA, a body that represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, says in its blog that one slice of this spectrum is not the same as another slice. The difference is in terms of the frequency of these waves (the number of times the waves repeat themselves in a second). It says, “Spectrum bands have different characteristics, and this makes them suitable for different purposes. In general, low-frequency transmissions can travel greater distances before losing their integrity, and they can pass through dense objects more easily. Less data can be transmitted over these radio waves, however. Higher-frequency transmissions carry more data, but are poorer at penetrating obstacles.”

In this context, hertz is a measure of the number of cycles per second, and 1 megahertz stands for 1 million hertz. Telecom providers cover their bases by using both low and high-frequency bands.

Who bought what in the auction?

Reliance Jio was the biggest spender in the auction. It shelled out Rs. 57,122 crore, just over 60% of which was to acquire spectrum in the 800 MHz band, according to a report by Edelweiss. It spent the remaining on 1,800 MHz and 2,300 MHz bands.

Bharti Airtel, which dished out Rs. 18,699 crore, spent half of its money on the 800 MHz and 900 MHz bands. It also spent on the 2,100 MHz and 2,300 MHz bands.

Vodafone Idea, the report said, “was the most conservative of the lot”. It used almost two-thirds of its Rs. 1,993-crore spend on the 900 MHz band. It spent the remaining on the 1,800 MHz band. The spectrum will be assigned to bidders for a period of 20 years.

How do analysts view the auction strategy of these three companies?

Though the auction is largely seen as an opportunity to renew expiring spectrum, analysts say Reliance Jio’s “higher-than-expected” spend is an attempt to improve network experience. The Edelweiss report says Reliance Jio could have gone for it because “in recent quarters, Bharti Airtel has onboarded a disproportionately higher share of smartphone subscribers leveraging its superior network”. Vodafone Idea’s low-key presence in the auction is linked to its balance-sheet constraints. It is also likely that the players are preserving their resources for the upcoming 5G era.

Why did the 700 MHz band have no takers?

The 700 MHz band, as also 1,800 MHz, 2,100 MHz, and 2,300 MHz bands, are seen playing an important role in the 5G rollout (the fifth generation of mobile networks that promises to connect everybody as also everything much faster and at much lower latency). The 700 MHz band was not expected to find any takers given its prohibitive floor price. Some see this as an opening for the government to scale down the reserve price when it comes up for bidding in future. What an ICICI Securities report called the “king” in 5G, the C-band, which is the band between 3,300 MHz and 4,200 MHz, was not on offer in this round of auctions.

How did this auction compare to the last round?

In 2016, about 40% of the 2,355 MHz of spectrum (at a reserve price of Rs. 5.6 lakh crore) was sold, giving the government Rs. 65,789 crore in revenue. This time, the Centre has managed to get more.

The government said the revenue generated by the auction has exceeded its expectations, which was about Rs. 45,000 crore, according to Telecom Secretary Anshu Prakash. The expectations were low because of the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that the top three telecom players were looking to renew expiring spectrum and consolidate holdings in select bands.

Govt. open to evaluate, explore cryptocurrencies #GS3 #Economy

Union Minister Anurag Thakur said the government is open to evaluate and explore new technologies, including cryptocurrencies, for improving governance.

 “Let me say that we welcome innovation and new technology… blockchain is a new emerging technology,” Mr. Thakur said. “Cryptocurrency is a form of virtual currency. I firmly believe that we must always evaluate, explore and encourage new ideas with an open mind,” he added. A high-level inter-ministerial committee (IMC) was constituted under the chairmanship of the economic affairs secretary on digital currencies and it has submitted its report.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday said the government is still formulating its opinion on cryptocurrencies and will take a calibrated position.

Reserve Bank of India Governor Shaktikanta Das had last week said the apex bank had certain “major concerns” over the impact cryptocurrencies may have on the financial stability in the economy and had conveyed the same to the government.

The RBI had virtually banned cryptocurrency trading in 2018. The Supreme Court had asked the Centre in 2019 to frame policies for crypto, and in 2020, struck down the curbs imposed by the RBI.