Current Affairs 4th April

5 security men killed in Sukma encounter #GS3 #Security

Five security personnel were killed and more than 12 injured in an encounter with Maoists in Sukma district of Chhattisgarh on Saturday. Two of the dead were from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). At least three Chhattisgarh police personnel are missing.

The body of a woman Maoist was recovered from the site of encounter, a senior CRPF official said. One more cadre was said to have been killed.

According to the official, a joint team of the Chhattisgarh Police comprising the District Reserve Guard (DRG) and the Special Task Force (STF), along with various teams of the CRPF, proceeded for a combing operation in south Bastar. The region is said to be a Maoist stronghold. More than 2,000 security personnel from various camps are said to have joined the operation.

A 400-strong team of security forces came under attack by a People’s Liberation Guerilla Army (PLGA) platoon in the Tarrem area near the Sukma-Bijapur border. The exchange of fire lasted more than three hours.

He said at least seven personnel were evacuated by helicopters as they required urgent medical attention.

The deceased CRPF personnel have been identified as constable Babloo Rabha and Somaiya Mandvi. Mr. Rabha belonged to the elite Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) of the CRPF, a unit specially trained for operations in areas affected by left-wing extremism. The nearest camp of security forces is located 12 km from the encounter site.

Another official said further clarity would emerge by Sunday morning as the area did not have adequate communication facilities. The attack comes close on the heels of the March 23 incident when five DRG personnel were killed as Maoists blew up a bus carrying security personnel with an IED in Narayanpur district.

Panel submits report to SC on ISRO espionage case #GS2 #Governance

A high-level probe panel appointed by the Supreme Court to take erring cops to task for causing “tremendous harassment” and “immeasurable anguish” to Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) scientist Nambi Narayanan in the 1994 espionage case has submitted its report to the Supreme Court.

The SC had on September 14, 2018 appointed a three-member panel headed by its former judge D.K. Jain while directing the Kerala government to cough up Rs. 50 lakh compensation for compelling Mr. Narayanan to undergo “immense humiliation”.

The scientist was arrested when the Congress was heading the government in Kerala. The panel, after investigation, submitted its report in a sealed cover to the Supreme Court recently.

The CBI, in its probe, had held that the then top police officials in Kerala were responsible for Mr. Narayanan’s illegal arrest. The case also had its political fallout, with a section in the Congress targeting the then Chief Minister, the late K. Karunakaran, over the issue that eventually led to his resignation.

Over a period of almost two-and-a-half years, the panel headed by Justice Jain examined the circumstances leading to Mr. Narayanan’s arrest.

The case

The espionage case, which had hit the headlines in 1994, pertained to allegations of transfer of certain confidential documents on India’s space programme to foreign countries by two scientists and four others, including two Maldivian women.

The 79-year-old former scientist, who was given a clean chit by the CBI, maintained that the Kerala Police had “fabricated” the case.

India extends condolences to Taiwan #GS2 #IR

India conveyed condolences to Taiwan after the worst rail accident in the history of the island nation left at least 50 dead. The message triggered a series of exchanges among the officials on both sides, a rare sight in public diplomacy between the two countries that do not maintain full-fledged diplomatic ties because of objections from Beijing.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of so many lives in the railway accident in Taiwan. Our deepest condolences to the families. And our prayers for the early recovery of the injured.

The message drew a prompt response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Taiwan, which in a social media message thanked the Ministry of External Affairs and said, “The government is working to ensure rescue and recovery efforts continue apace while making certain those affected receive all requisite support.”

Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu also came on social media and thanked India “for the expression of sentiment and support”. “This genuinely friendly gesture will touch the people, and bring Taiwan and India closer in a real and lasting manner.

The India-Taipei Association also issued a statement expressing condolences and wished a “speedy recovery to those injured in the accident”.

Tunnel accident

The express train with around 500 passengers crashed inside a tunnel after hitting a truck that had fallen on the track. The train was heading to the eastern city of Taitung from capital Taipei.

Taiwan and India have maintained strong trade relationship over the last three decades, but they continue to maintain bilateral relation at the level of Trade Representatives because of objections from China. Both sides are however expected to intensify collaboration in the post-pandemic scenario in high-end industrial sectors as well as in the production of vaccines.

No trade with India now: Imran #GS2 #IR

Prime Minister Imran Khan decided that Pakistan cannot go ahead with any trade with India under the current circumstances after holding consultations with key members of his Cabinet on importing cotton and sugar.

The Prime Minister on Friday instructed the Ministry of Commerce and his economic team to immediately take steps to facilitate the relevant sectors, value added, apparel and sugar, by finding alternative cheap sources.

Various proposals have been presented to the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC), which considers these suggestions from an economic and commercial point of view. After consideration by the ECC, its decisions are presented to the Cabinet for ratification and final approval.

In the present case, a proposal was presented to the ECC to allow the import of cotton, cotton yarn and sugar from India keeping in view domestic requirements. The ECC had decided on commercial grounds to recommend the imports for the Cabinet consideration.

While the decision was not on the formal agenda of the Cabinet meeting, the issue was brought up by members and the Prime Minister instructed that the ECC’s decision be deferred and immediately reviewed, the report said.

The Cabinet rejected the proposal of the high-powered committee to import cotton from India, with Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi saying there can be no normalisation of ties until New Delhi reverses its decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019.

Pakistan’s U-turn on Thursday came a day after the ECC, under newly appointed Finance Minister Hammad Azhar, recommended importing cotton and sugar from India, lifting a nearly two-year-long ban on its import amid tensions over the Kashmir issue.

India has said it desires normal neighbourly relations with Pakistan in an environment free of terror, hostility and violence. India has said the onus is on Pakistan to create an environment free of terror and hostility.

‘Talks and terror’

India has also told Pakistan that “talks and terror” cannot go together and has asked Islamabad to take demonstrable steps against terror groups responsible for launching various attacks on India.

The ECC’s decision had raised hopes of a partial revival of Pakistan-India trade relations, which were suspended after the August 5, 2019 decision of New Delhi to revoke the special status of J&K.

In May 2020, Pakistan lifted the ban on the import of medicines and raw material of essential drugs from India amid the pandemic. The revocation of the special status angered Pakistan, which downgraded diplomatic ties and expelled the High Commissioner in Islamabad. It also snapped all air and land links and suspended trade.

What is driving the second wave in India? #GS3 #SNT

With a steady increase in the daily fresh cases since the third week of February, with over 89,000 cases reported on April 2, the seven-day average test positivity rate climbing to 6.8% as on April 2, and with the reproduction number (R0) — how many people each infected person will infect on average — above 1.5 and steadily increasing over the last two–three weeks, the second wave has well and truly begun in many States.

The rate of increase in cases in India during March has been faster than at any other time during the pandemic, which is also reflected in the modelling studies by Indian researchers, including Gautam Menon, Professor of Physics and Biology at Ashoka University.

While the onset of the festival season since the pandemic peaked in mid-September in India, winter, no restrictions on movement, large gatherings and not-so-good adherence of mask wearing and other non-pharmaceutical interventions did not cause any spike in cases across the country, what is driving the current surge in cases in many States?

Cited reasons

The Health Ministry has cited the general laxity among people regarding COVID-19 appropriate behaviour, including mask wearing, and lack of containment and management strategy at the ground level as reasons for the surge in cases. The role of variants, either the imported ones or those that have originated in India, are not seen to be responsible.

But Dr. Giridhara Babu, epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI), Bengaluru cites three important factors — the virus, the host, and the environment — constituting the epidemiological triad for the surge in cases in many States.

New variants of concern might be in circulation, which is probably more infectious, and some can be an immune escape as well.”

The host factors include waning antibodies, not following COVID-19 appropriate behaviour and incomplete vaccination, while the environmental factors include super-spreader events and poor compliance with preventive measures. The misconception that vaccination prevents even infection might also be contributing to rising cases.

Indian variants

Explaining the tricky question of why no surge was seen between mid-September 2020 to end-February this year despite perfect conditions for the virus to spread wildly, Dr. Babu says the threshold for population immunity cannot be held as a yardstick when the virus is changing or when the immunity is waning.

Any infectious disease will have outbreaks whenever the susceptible pool builds up. Also, there has been the introduction of other variants due to international travel in some parts of the country, which can be more infectious than the earlier strain.

Surge in large cities

Large cities including Mumbai and Pune, which had recorded large infection rates during the first wave, are witnessing a surge. It is unclear if cases in such cities are only in virus-naïve people or if reinfections constitute a significant proportion. “There is no data I know of that is available in the public domain to address this question.

Specifically, we don’t know what fraction of these new cases might reflect a new, more transmissible, immune escape variant that is responsible for reinfections. An ICMR study covering January-October 2020 found reinfection, most likely due to older strains, accounting for about 4.5% of cases.

According to Dr. Babu, in the cities that reported more than 50% of seroprevalence (at least in some parts), resurgence of cases would either suggest that the antibodies are rapidly waning (and are below threshold levels to mount a response) or presence of newer variants.

An imported variant (UK variant) has been identified in a few States. A double mutant variant has also been identified in at least a few States but all three experts feel that it is too early to conclusively say if this variant is responsible for higher transmission leading to a surge in cases or increased disease severity and death. This is because epidemiological link has so far not been established.

That said, the U.K. variant and double mutant variant are considered to be more infectious and therefore more likely to contribute to intense transmission resulting in a faster peak wherever the variants are found.

Systematic study needed

One way to know if the variant is more infectious is by undertaking concurrent genomic sequencing of the cluster of cases and establishing the chain of transmission of the variants among the contacts.

Only such a systematic study will help establish the epidemiological linkage of the variant. Also, in vitro testing is necessary to establish infectiousness. Similarly, the extent of morbidity caused by the variant can be established by tracking the clinical parameters of individual patients.

Also, against a target of sequencing at least 5% of positive samples across India to know the emergence of new variants, only 7,664 samples — less than 1% of the total positive samples from January to March 18 — have been sequenced.

Undertaking studies to understand infectiousness of the double mutant variant becomes all the more important as noncompliance to COVID-19-appropriate behaviour is uniformly poor across India. Yet, the surge in cases is seen only in 19 States, and mainly in about a dozen States. In the absence of timely results of such studies, which will help policy making, placing all the blame on people appears to be the easy way out.

How Asian desert dust enhances Indian summer monsoon #GS1 #Geography

Carl Sagan once described Earth as a ‘small speck of dust’, a seemingly insignificant tiny particle. But dust has incredible power: it is known to influence monsoons, hurricanes and even fertilize rainforests. A new study now details how dust coming from the deserts in the West, Central and East Asia plays an important role in the Indian Summer Monsoon.

Reverse effect

The researchers also explain how the Indian Summer Monsoon has a reverse effect and can increase the winds in West Asia to produce yet more dust.

Dust swarms from the desert when lifted by strong winds can absorb solar radiation and become hot. This can cause heating of the atmosphere, change the air pressure, wind circulation patterns, influence moisture transport and increase precipitation and rainfall. A strong monsoon can also transport air to West Asia and again pick up a lot of dust. The researchers say this is a positive feedback loop.

Lead author Qinjian Jin, lecturer and academic program associate at the University of Kansas explains a new hypothesis formulated by the team to The Hindu . “Not just the dust from the Middle East [West Asia], we think the Iranian Plateau also influences the Indian Summer Monsoon. The hot air over the Iranian Plateau can heat the atmosphere over the plateau, strengthen the circulation over the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and increase dust emission from the Middle East [West Asia].”

Aerosols transported

He explains how deserts across the globe play important roles in monsoons. “The dust aerosols from deserts in West China such as the Taklamakan desert and the Gobi Desert can be transported eastward to eastern China and can influence the East Asia summer monsoon. And in the southwest United States, we have some small deserts that influence the North African monsoon..”

When asked if anthropogenic dust from vehicles, mining, construction can influence monsoons, he explained: “Some studies have found that the anthropogenic aerosols emitted from the Indian subcontinent can decrease summer monsoon precipitation, while others found that absorbing aerosols such as dust can strengthen the monsoon circulation. However, in our study, we use the carbon model to simulate the impact of anthropogenic aerosols on India and our results showed that they can strengthen Indian summer monsoon rainfall.” The findings were recently published in Earth-Science Reviews.

Why study dust?

But why is it important to study dust? Many studies have shown that the dust emission scheme is extremely sensitive to climate change and the team writes that understanding these mechanisms and effects of dust will help understand our monsoon systems in the face of global climate change.

Minor components

The team has now planned to study the minor components of desert dust aerosols. “We used to think that dust from deserts across the globe will have the same components, but we now know that different deserts have different chemical compositions and this can influence the dust’s properties.

For example, we think that dust from the Middle East [West Asia] has more absorbing ability of solar radiation than dust from North Africa and this difference in absorbing ability might influence monsoon systems.

Maintaining the inflation target at 4% #GS3 #Economy

The story so far: On the last day of the financial year 2020-21, the Finance Ministry announced that the inflation target for the five years between April 2021 and March 2026 will remain unchanged at 4%, with an upper tolerance level of 6% and a lower tolerance level of 2%. This is the retail inflation target that will drive the country’s monetary policy framework and influence its decision to raise, hold or lower interest rates.

Why is this important?

India had switched to an inflation target-based monetary policy framework in 2015, with the 4% target kicking in from 2016-17. Many developed countries had adopted an inflation-rate focus as an anchor for policy formulation for interest rates rather than past fixations with metrics like the currency exchange rate or controlling money supply growth.

Emerging economies have also been gradually adopting this approach. In adopting a target for a period of five years, the central bank has the visibility and the time to smoothly alter and adjust its policies in order to attain the targeted inflation levels over the medium term, rather than seek to achieve it every month.

What is the rate of consumer price inflation?

Terming India’s inflation trends “worrisome”, Moody’s Analytics recently pointed out that volatile food prices and rising oil prices had already driven India’s consumer price index (CPI)-based inflation past the 6% tolerance threshold several times in 2020 and that core inflation trends were rising again.

Retail inflation has remained below 6% since December 2020. However, it accelerated from 4.1% in January 2021 to 5% in February. D.K. Srivastava, chief policy adviser at Ernst and Young India, reckoned that core CPI inflation also increased to a 78-month high of 6.1% in February 2021.

While inflation headwinds remain, especially with oil prices staying high, there was some speculation that the Central government, whose topmost priority now is to revive growth in the COVID-19 pandemic-battered economy, may ease up on the inflation target by a percentage point or two.

This would have given the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) more room to cut interest rates even if inflation was a tad higher. That the government has desisted from doing this and left the inflation target untouched has been welcomed by economists who believe that the new framework has worked reasonably well in keeping inflation in check over the last five years.

They attribute the few recent instances when the upper target was breached to the exceptional nature of the COVID-19 shock.

What is the RBI’s position on this?

The RBI had, in recent months, sought a continuance of the 4% target with the flexible tolerance limits of 2%. The 6% upper limit, it argued, is consistent with global experience in countries that have a large share of food items in their consumer price inflation indices. Accepting inflation levels beyond 6% would hurt the country’s growth prospects, the central bank had asserted.

Why should this concern consumers?

Suppose the inflation target were to be raised to 5% with a 2% tolerance band above and below it, for consumers, that would have meant that the central bank’s monetary policy and the government’s fiscal stance may not have necessarily reacted to arrest inflation pressures even if retail price rise trends would shoot past 6%.

For instance, the central bank has been perhaps the only major national institution to have made a pitch for both the Centre and the States to cut the high taxes they levy on fuels that have led to pump prices for petrol crossing Rs. 100 a litre in some districts. As high oil prices spur retail inflation higher, the central bank is unhappy as its own credibility comes under a cloud if the target is breached.

If the upper threshold for the inflation target were raised to 7%, the central bank may not have felt the need to seek tax cuts (yet). Thus, the inflation target makes the central bank a perennial champion for consumers vis-à-vis fiscal policies that, directly or indirectly, drive retail prices up.

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