Current Affairs 28th March

Over 50% don’t wear masks, finds govt. survey #GS3 #SnT

Almost 90% of the COVID-19 deaths in India continue to be in the category of those aged above 45. Internal surveys showed that while 90% people were aware of the importance of masks, only 44% actually wore them, reflecting “laxity” in adhering to strictures, such as wearing masks and avoiding crowding.

These concerns rose to the fore at a meeting chaired by Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan with key officials from 12 States and Union Territories (UTs) as well as Municipal Commissioners and District Collectors of 46 districts that are the most affected by rising cases and mortality. The States and UTs are Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Punjab and Bihar.

India has seen the sharpest rise in weekly COVID-19 cases and fatalities since May 2020 (7.7% and 5.1% respectively) and 46 districts contributed 71% of the cases and 69% of the deaths this month. India registered 62,258 new cases over the 24 hours.

Maharashtra reported the highest daily new cases at 36,902. It is followed by Punjab with 3,122 while Chhattisgarh reported 2,665 new cases.

One infected person could spread COVID-19 to an average of 406 other individuals in a 30-day window without restrictions which could be reduced to just 15 by decreasing physical exposure to 50% and to a further 2.5 (average) by decreasing physical exposure to 75%. It was also highlighted (at the meeting) that the concept of ‘second wave’ reflected more the laxity among everyone regarding ‘COVID appropriate behaviour’ and COVID containment and management strategy at the ground level.

The total vaccination coverage in India approached six crore, with India being the third largest vaccinator in the world behind the United States and China.

More than 5.81 cr (5,81,09,773) vaccine doses have been administered through 9,45,168 sessions as on Saturday. These included 80,96,687 health care workers (first dose), 51,44,011 HCWs (second dose), 87,52,566 frontline workers (first dose) and 35,39,144 FLWs (second Dose). There were 61,72,032 beneficiaries aged more than 45 years with specific co-morbidities (first Dose) and 2,64,05,333 beneficiaries aged more than 60 years.

States were advised to increase testing in all districts and increasing RT PCR tests, to more than 70% of total. Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) to be mostly deployed as a screening tool in flushing out cluster cases from densely populated areas.

Millions depend on Teesta, Hasina tells Modi #GS2 #IR

Bangladesh reiterated that the livelihood of “millions” of its citizens depended on Teesta river and the country should receive a proper share of its waters. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reiterated Bangladesh’s long-pending request for concluding the interim agreement on the sharing of the waters of Teesta river.

She underscored that to alleviate the sufferings and save the livelihoods of millions of people dependent on the Teesta river basin, it is necessary that Bangladesh receives its fair share of the waters, the draft agreement of which has already been agreed upon by both governments in January 2011,” declared a joint statement issued at the end of bilateral discussions between the two delegations.

The two leaders also instructed their Ministries of Water Resources to firm up the Framework of Interim Agreement over the six common rivers — Monu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla and Dudhkumar. Sharing of water resources has been a contentious issue between the two neighbours because of the number of stakeholders.

The two Prime Ministers also agreed that the incidents of killings along the settled Indo-Bangladesh borders is a matter of concern and instructed their respective border guards to initiate “people-oriented” border management.

The Joint Statement said the leaders have expressed their desire to bring the number of such incidents involving civilians to ‘zero’.

The killing of citizens of Bangladesh along the borders has been in the centre of bilateral ties over the last decade. India reiterated its demand for completion of the border fencing by Bangladesh “at the earliest”.

Bangladesh has called upon India to revive the jute sector with investment and through public private partnership. In this regard, Dhaka urged Delhi to withdraw the duties that were imposed on jute products of Bangladesh since 2017.

Both sides reviewed a slew of measures that have been under way over the last several years that will ease connectivity between the north-eastern States of India and West Bengal.

The two Prime Ministers inaugurated the Mitali Express, a new AC train that will connect Jalpaiguri with Dhaka. Bangladesh also offered the airports of Sylhet and Chittagong for the passengers of the North-eastern States, especially of Tripura saying these airports will help in improving connectivity in the region.

India sends 2 lakh doses of vaccine to UNPKF #GS2 #IR

India delivered on its promise of 2,00,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines for the United Nations Peacekeeping Force (UNPKF) worldwide, sending a shipment bound for Copenhagen. The cargo of AstraZeneca Covishield vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India (SII) in Pune was sent despite the government’s decision to reduce exports in view of the need for vaccines domestically.

Officials said that the Indian donation, combined with a Chinese commitment for 3,00,000 doses of vaccines would ensure that the entire force of more than two lakh soldiers, which comprises about 91,000 active personnel and 1,11,512 uniformed personnel, receives the requisite two doses each.

‘Steadfast supporter’

India is a long-standing and steadfast supporter of peacekeeping and I want to thank the Government and people of India, who have generously donated COVID-19 vaccines to benefit our peacekeeping personnel and enable them to continue their life-saving work in a safe manner.

This week, government sources said India would be considering how to “calibrate” its exports, given the vaccine roll-out domestically amid a sudden surge in cases of COVID-19.

SII CEO Adar Poonawalla informed several countries that there had been several “obstacles” in expanding production, including a fire at their facilities, and he could not guarantee supplies.

A statement from the GAVI global alliance for vaccines, which is purchasing doses for lower income countries under the COVAX initiative, also confirmed that supplies from India in March and April were uncertain, and that they had thus far received only about a third of the 90 million due by May.

UNICEF also predicted delays from India, citing “export controls”, although the government has denied banning vaccine exports. Speaking at the UNGA on Friday, India’s Deputy Permanent Representative Nagaraj Naidu expressed concern about a global vaccine shortage, especially for poorer countries.

India has exported 62 million doses of vaccines, while it has vaccinated about 55 million people, many of whom have taken only the first dose.

India’s donation to the UNPKF will also benefit Indian soldiers, who make up one of the largest contingents of peacekeeping troops and police, with more than 5,000 men and women deployed in the Congo, South Sudan and Lebanon, among other countries.

“[India’s] important donation will allow us to ensure that UN peacekeepers are able to remain healthy and deliver in some of the most difficult environments in the world without relying on already stretched national health systems or ongoing COVAX efforts.

Covovax trial begins, launch by Sept.: Adar #GS3 #SnT

Serum Institute of India (SII) CEO Adar Poonawalla said the clinical trials of COVID-19 vaccine Covovax have begun in India, and the company hopes to launch it by September.

In August last year, U.S.-based vaccine maker Novavax Inc. had announced a licence agreement with SII for the development and commercialisation of NVX-CoV2373, its COVID-19 vaccine candidate, in low and middle-income countries and India.

Covovax trials finally begin in India…It has been tested against African and U.K. variants of #COVID19 and has an overall efficacy of 89%. Hope to launch by September 2021. The development and commercialisation agreement between Novavax and SII excludes major upper-middle and high-income countries, for which Novavax continues to retain rights.

China, Iran sign a 25-year ‘strategic pact’ #GS2 #IR

China and Iran signed what was described as a 25-year “strategic cooperation pact”, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s ongoing six-nation tour to West Asia.

The deal, which has been in the works for five years, was signed between Mr. Wang and his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif, AFP reported from Tehran. Mr. Wang is visiting Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman.

Nuclear deal talks

The agreement comes amid a major push from China to back Iran, which counts on Beijing, its largest trading partner, as it deals with the continuing weight of sanctions re-instated following then U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal.

China and Russia called for the U.S. to “unconditionally return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as soon as possible and revoke the unilateral sanctions against Iran” as their Foreign Ministers met in China. In this context, they proposed “the establishment of a regional security dialogue platform to converge a new consensus on resolving the security concerns of countries in the region”.

Chinese and U.S. officials also held talks on the Iran nuclear deal on Thursday. Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu, who held a phone conversation with U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, said that with “new changes in the Iranian nuclear situation, all parties need to increase the sense of urgency” and “the U.S. side should take concrete actions as soon as possible and both the U.S. and Iran need to meet each other half way for the latter’s return to compliance at an early date”.

Five-point initiative

While details of the new 25-year pact were not immediately available, it includes “political, strategic and economic” components, AFP reported, quoting Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh as saying “this document can be very effective in deepening” relations and would establish a blueprint for “reciprocal investments in the fields of transport, ports, energy, industry and services”.

In Riyadh, Mr. Wang proposed “a five-point initiative on achieving security and stability in the Middle East” advocating “mutual respect, upholding equity and justice, achieving non-proliferation, jointly fostering collective security, and accelerating development cooperation.”

He said China was keen to deepen its Belt and Road Initiative in the region, “expand areas of growth such as high and new technologies”, as well as “look forward to early conclusion of a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council” with China’s trade with Arab States reaching $240 billion last year, establishing it as the region’s largest trading partner and a major buyer of crude oil that counts on the region for half of its imports.

Linking the East with the West #GS2 #IR

The last time the Suez Canal was closed for navigation was in 1967, after the Six-Day War between Israel and Arab nations broke out. Prior to that, the channel had been shut for less than a year during the Suez War of 1956 when Israel, France and Britain invaded Egypt. What wars did in the past was done by a container ship now. M.V. Ever Given got stuck in a dust storm and strong winds on March 23 and ran aground in the channel blocking off traffic.

The 193-km-long canal across Egypt’s Isthmus of Suez connecting the Mediterranean Sea in the north and the Red Sea in south — thereby bringing the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean closer — has been a critical artery for global trade since the mid-19th century.

If the channel is blocked, ships from Europe will have to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa to reach Asia, and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, this single incident has turned the global spotlight to this man-made channel connecting two continents.

The idea of linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Erythraean Sea (today’s Red Sea) had excited both Egypt’s rulers and colonisers from ancient to modern times. Pharaoh Senausret III (1887-1849 BC) built the first canal linking the Erythraean Sea in the south to the Nile river in the north and thereby opening a waterway to the Mediterranean.

Pharaoh Necho II, who died in 595 BC, started building another canal from the Nile to the south. It was Persian Emperor Darius I who completed the canal. Over the centuries, the canal would be ignored by leaders particularly as navigation becomes impossible due to silt and reopened by some, including Ptolemy II Philadelphus in second century BC.

Many geologists believe that the Red Sea receded over the centuries and its coastline moved southward away from the lakes in Suez. This, coupled with persistent accumulations of silt, made it difficult to keep the waterways open. So for centuries, the canal was abandoned by Egypt’s rulers — until the arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798 as part of his global campaign to weaken the British Empire. He wanted to build a canal across Suez under the French control because he thought it would leave a twin blow to the British.

One, it would provide the French a quicker and easier access to the Indian Ocean. Two, by opening a new trade route from Europe to Asia, France could hurt the British who controlled the existing route around the Cape of Good Hope. But a miscalculation in the geological study of the region prompted Napoleon to abandon the project.

Napoleon gave up the project but the idea of the Suez canal outlived the emperor. In the mid-19th century, French diplomat and engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps won permission from Egypt’s Ottoman-appointed ruler Said Pasha to start building the canal. In 1858, Universal Suez Ship Canal Company was formed to execute the project and construction work began a year later.

Britain, which controlled the route around the African continent, continued to oppose the project as a new waterway would hurt its interests. But in 1869, the canal was officially opened for traffic. Britain would move from being an adversary of the project to a key beneficiary in six years when the Egyptian government, straddled with financial problems, sold its stake in the canal to London in 1875. Since then, France and Britain operated the canal, until Egypt’s socialist President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised it in 1956.

The Suez crisis

On October 29, 1956, three months after Nasser nationalised the canal, Israeli troops attacked the Egyptian Sinai. French and British troops joined in later. The plan was to retake control of the canal and remove Nasser, who was being emboldened by the Soviet support. But the invasion did not go ahead as planned. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened Israel, Britain and France with rocket attacks unless they withdrew troops from the Sinai.

U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, partly upset that the British went ahead with the invasion without American approval and partly out of strategic concern that the invasion would play into the hands of the Soviet Union, threatened Britain and others with economic sanctions unless they withdrew the troops.

By March 1957, the invading troops were fully withdrawn and Egypt’s authority over the canal was recognised. Interestingly, the Suez crisis also marked Great Britain’s dwindling influence in West Asia, a region it controlled since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and the arrival of the U.S. as the new great power in the region. The canal was closed again during the 1967 war. It would be reopened only in 1975 after Egyptian-Israeli relations started warming following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power through a coup in 2013, launched an ambitious $8.5-billion expansion project at the canal in 2014 as part of which a second line was dug along its northern section, allowing two-way traffic. The canal is an important source of revenue for Egypt’s battered economy.

 Last year, Egypt generated $5.61 billion in revenues from the canal and the authorities expect this to double by 2023. About 19,000 ships passed through the channel in 2020 carrying 1.2 billion tonnes of cargo, according to the Suez Canal Authority.

As much as 13% of all maritime trade, from oil to automobiles, pass through the canal every year. So a delay in reopening the channel will have a huge impact on export businesses, commodities, ship and cargo companies and even Egypt’s national economy.

New species of red algae seen in west, south east Indian coast #GS3 #SnT

Two new species of seaweed have been discovered by a group of marine biologists from Central University of Punjab, Bathinda. Named Hypnea indica (after India) and Hypnea bullata (because of the blisterlike marks on its body – bullate), the seaweeds are part of the genus Hypnea or red seaweeds.

They grow in the intertidal regions of the coast, namely the area that is submerged during the high tide and exposed during low tides. The discovery was recorded in the journal Botanica Marina.

Adding to the number

The genus Hypnea consists of calcareous, erect, branched red seaweeds. “There are 61 species of which 10 were reported in India. With our two new species, the total number of species now would be 63,” says Felix Bast, from the Department of Botany, in the University, who led the research.

While Hypnea indica was discovered Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu, and Somnath Pathan and Sivrajpur in Gujarat, Hypnea bullata was discovered from Kanyakumari and Diu island of Daman and Diu.

To rule out the possibility that the species had been around earlier, but that now had been documented, the researchers compared characteristics of these specimens with all the 61 currently accepted species of Hypnea one by one.

Comparison not only included morphology, but also DNA sequences. Such a polyphasic approach combining morphology (traditional) with DNA sequencing (modern) is the gold standard in species discoveries in taxonomy these days.

Chance discovery

The researchers were on a routine survey and collected a large number of species. “Our heuristics involve making a checklist of obviously known species (by carefully examining the morphology) and shortlisting unique specimens that do not conform to existing species descriptions. Such unique specimens would be subjected to DNA barcoding to check homology with other sequences worldwide (to reduce the costs).

Food industry

Species of Hypnea contain the biomolecule carrageenan, which is widely used in the food industry. As the two species have been found on the west and south east coasts of India, it suggests good prospects for their cultivation which can be put to good use economically.

The study also reports one other species of Hypnea for the first time in Indian coasts, Hypnea nidifica. The extensive calcareous deposits on the body that has been observed also provides room for thought. Several recent studies have shown that algae with calcareous mineral deposits are prone for the damage from ocean acidification – an aftermath of climate change.

As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gets dissolved in ocean waters, the seawater becomes more acidic. Algae like Hypnea cannot survive in acidic seawater, hence, the only way to help these species is to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by adopting sustainable lifestyle choices.

Questions around COVID-19 virus mutants #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: The National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), a unit of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, reported this week that a unique “double mutant” variant of the novel coronavirus had been found in India.

It was reported in about 200 cases in Maharashtra, and some in Delhi and Punjab. The NCDC also said about 771 cases of variants of concern (VOCs) were detected in over 10,000 samples shared by States and Union Territories.

When did mutations start emerging?

The emergence of new mutations in the novel coronavirus is par for the course. Variants pique scientific interest when scientists sequence the genomes of the virus sourced from RT-PCR-positive samples from a diverse population and compare changes in the genetic structure to the original strains from the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Often, there are changes in the genetic alphabet that appear to give the virus a better evolutionary advantage in being able to continue spreading in the population. Some of these changes confer a massive advantage and become the dominant variant.

Thus, a mutation called D614G in the early stages of the pandemic emerged last year, involving aspartic acid (D) in the 614th position of the amino acid being replaced with glycine (G). This gave the virus a significant advantage in gaining more efficient entry into the body. It emerged that while before March 1, 2020, only 10% of 997 global genome sequences had the mutation, 67% of sequences between March 1 and March 31 and 78% of the sequences between April 1 and May 18 had it.

What are the existing mutant combinations?

As new variants evolve, scientists start assessing if certain combinations of mutations are more likely. A mutation N501Y last year was independently reported in South Africa and Australia, and in the United Kingdom it was correlated with a threefold spike in cases last December, where half the cases carried it.

The N501Y allowed the spike protein of the virus to take hold better. The ‘UK variant’ (B.1.1.7), as it eventually came to be known, had at least 14 key mutations. However, another key mutation, E484K, which helped the virus dodge the immune system more frequently, also began to gain ground.

Both these mutations together started to appear frequently in South Africa and were correlated with a large spike. That became the ‘South African’ variant, B.1.351.

These two variants, along with another called the Brazilian variant (P.1), given their spread, infectivity and ability to somewhat reduce the efficacy of vaccines are the only ones internationally termed as ‘Variants of Concern’ (VOC).

How significant is the ‘double mutant’ variant?

The double mutant variant reported by the NCDC has the simultaneous presence of two mutations — E484Q and L452R — that have been independently found in other variants in several countries associated with local outbreaks.

The latter mutation has been individually linked to local outbreaks in California, United States, and has been shown to evade monoclonal antibodies (antibodies made in a lab with a niche targeting mechanism) produced in response to COVID-19 infection. It has also been linked to increased infectivity.

The E484Q can escape four kinds of monoclonal antibodies and even some polyclonal antibodies derived from COVID-19 patients’ blood serum. So far, nobody knows how the combined presence of these mutations would work. About 10,787 Indian genomes have been sequenced so far and around 200 samples in Maharashtra have been found to contain the variant with the mutation, as do a handful in Delhi and Punjab.

The spike in cases — now over 60,000 a day — particularly in these States has led to the speculation that whether it is due to mutant strains. But not enough has been done to establish that. For that, genome samples from a district or a cluster reporting a spike in cases have to be sequenced and then compared to whether a significant fraction of them has the mutations of interest.

However, experts say the U.K. variant (B.1.1.7) may be of greater concern. As of March 23, the variant had spread to a total of 125 countries across all six WHO regions and is the dominant strain in Britain. It has also been reported to have over 60% higher mortality rate, the WHO says. Earlier this week, the NCDC said about 81% of 401 samples sent for genome sequencing from Punjab were found to have the U.K. variant.

“This variant is more likely to contribute to an intense second wave,” Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport, toldBBCrecently.

What does this mean for public health?

Very little so far. As the NCDC and the Health Ministry underline, the standard prescription of wearing masks, avoiding potential super-spreading events and getting a vaccine, if eligible, remains the best defence against the virus variants.

Threatening variants emerge from the increased opportunity for the virus to replicate and reducing opportunities for this continues to be the best defence. A consortium of 10 labs in India, called the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), has been sequencing a proportion of RT-PCR-positive samples and 771 have been found positive for three VOCs — the U.K., South African and Brazilian strains.

The new variant combination in India is yet to be assigned a formal lineage name. Once that is done, there will be studies that seek to establish its frequency and association with spurts in cases. Then there will be studies that will check if the variant causes available vaccines to be less effective, or whether they are linked to severe disease. Based on what they reveal, we may have a ‘variant of concern’ uniquely associated with India

The Afghan endgame #GS2 #IR

The story so far: As the May 1 deadline for pulling out all American troops from Afghanistan nears, United States President Joe Biden faces some difficult decisions. The U.S. could abide by the promise made in the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February 2020 to withdraw the last of the around 2,500 American marines stationed in Afghanistan, but Mr. Biden has said it would be tough given the levels of violence there.

The U.S. could negotiate with the Taliban for an extension of the agreement, offering other incentives like the release of more prisoners and the delisting of sanctioned Taliban terrorists, although the Taliban has thus far rejected that suggestion.

The other option is that the U.S. could scrap the 2020 agreement and back the Ashraf Ghani government to continue towards a negotiated settlement, even as U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan to stabilise the security situation.

What is the U.S. likely to do?

During his visit to Delhi last week, U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said an extensive review of the U.S.’s plans for Afghanistan is still under way and that “no decision on the length of stay or troop numbers have been made to this point”. At a press conference, Mr. Biden said he did not foresee U.S. troops staying in Afghanistan “for a long time” or until 2022, but that adhering to the May 1 commitment at this point would be “hard”. No U.S. troops have been targeted by Taliban militants in the past year, but violence against Afghan civilians, particularly women, journalists, students and activists has gone up manifold, and despite the peace agreement, more than 3,000 civilians were killed in 2020.

The U.S. has shown some impatience with the Ghani government as well, believing that it is dragging its feet on intra-Afghan negotiations that began last year in Doha but have stalled for the moment. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote in a letter, which has been leaked and not denied, that Mr. Ghani must understand the “urgency of [his] tone” as he proposed a new peace plan.

The plan proposes that Mr. Ghani step up negotiations with the Taliban for “power-sharing”, discuss principles of future governance with the Taliban, and step aside eventually for a “more inclusive” or interim government.

The tone of the letter seems to make it clear that the U.S. is not in favour of completely scrapping the 2020 agreement. Therefore, it is most likely to pursue the option of negotiating for an extension of the agreement, according to experts, as it builds other dialogue platforms.

What are those platforms?

Apart from the intra-Afghan negotiations in Doha, the U.S. revealed this month that it has been part of a “Troika” with Russia and China that have met several times since March 2019 along with Pakistan in search of a regional solution. The extended Troika met last on March 18 in Moscow, where Turkey, Qatar and Afghan and Taliban leaders were also invited.

In his letter, Mr. Blinken proposed another mechanism for regional envoys to be led by the United Nations, which would include India and Iran as well. The next round of intra-Afghan Negotiations will be hosted in Istanbul in April, according to Mr. Blinken’s proposal.

What is President Ghani’s plan?

Mr. Ghani has proposed his own peace plan. The plan was announced by Afghan Foreign Minister Haneef Atmar during his visit to Delhi this week, where he reached out for support. It would involve a full ceasefire, inviting the Taliban to participate in early elections in Afghanistan, and then for Mr. Ghani to hand over power to the elected government.

Mr. Atmar told The Hindu that the proposal was a “generous” offer from Mr. Ghani, who has completed just a little over a year in his present term as President. He also said no regional talks could be successful if they did not include India, which is a development partner and a stakeholder, and called the Troika meet in Moscow that did not include India, ostensibly due to objections from Pakistan and China, a mistake.

Where does India stand?

India’s position has been to back an “Afghan-owned, Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled” peace process, backing the elected government in Kabul, and it has not yet held talks with the Taliban directly. As a result, its option remains to stand with the Ghani government and support the constitution that guarantees a democratic process and rights of women and minorities, over any plans the Taliban might have if they come to power.

At the same time, India has not foreclosed the option of talking to the Taliban if it does join the government in Afghanistan, and, in a first step, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar addressed the Doha inauguration of intra-Afghan talks last year.

The government has not yet announced a special envoy on Afghanistan who could be a part of the UN-led process for regional countries, but it has made it clear that it seeks to be an integral part of the process, as the outcomes will have a deep impact on India’s security matrix as well.

Permanent commission for women in Army #GS2 #Governance

The story so far: The Supreme Court in Secretary, Ministry of Defence vs. Babita Puniya last February directed the government to ensure that women officers in the Army are granted permanent commission (PC) as well as command postings in all services other than combat. Later, questioning the compliance of the Army with the directions in the judgment, around 80 women short service commission officers approached the Supreme Court challenging the arbitrary process, including unjust medical standards, applied to deny permanent commission to women officers.

On March 25, the Supreme Court in Lt. Col. Nitisha vs. Union of India held that the Army’s selective evaluation process discriminated against and disproportionately affected women officers seeking permanent commission.

What did the Supreme Court observe?

A Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud observed that the pattern of evaluation inherently caused economic and psychological harm to women short service commission officers. The judgment, authored by Justice Chandrachud, said the evaluation criteria set by the Army constituted “systemic discrimination” against the petitioners.

The Bench found several deviations in the standards adopted by the Army for evaluating women officers. “This disproportionate impact is attributable to the structural discrimination against women, by dint of which the facially neutral criteria of selective ACR [annual confidential reports] evaluation and fulfilling the medical criteria to be in SHAPE-1 at a belated stage, to secure PC [permanent commission] disproportionately impacts them vis-à-vis their male counterparts,” the court said in its judgment. Fitness is assessed under five categories, under the code letter SHAPE that includes psychological including cognitive function abnormalities, hearing, appendages, physical capacity and eyesight.

The court observed that the reliance placed on women officers’ ACRs for determining the grant of permanent commission was unfair.

What is the procedure for granting permanent commission?

In 1992, the Union Government issued a notification making women eligible for appointment as officers in select non-combat branches. In 2008, the government extended the permanent commission to women in two branches — Judge Advocate General (JAG) and Army Educational Corps (AEC).

In a long legal battle for equality, 322 women officers had approached the top court for granting permanent commission, and the Supreme Court delivered its landmark verdict in February 2020. In July 2020, the Defence Ministry issued the government sanction letter, specifying grant of permanent commission to women officers in all streams in which they are presently serving — Army Air Defence (AAD), Signals, Engineers, Army Aviation, Electronics and Mechanical Engineers (EME), Army Service Corps (ASC), Army Ordnance Corps (AOC) and Intelligence Corps.

How did the Army respond to the sanction letter?

Following the sanction letter, the Army constituted a special selection board for screening women officers for grant of permanent commission who joined the service through the Women Special Entry Scheme (WSES) and Short Service Commission Women (SSCW). Of the 365 optee officers who were considered fit for permanent commission by the Special No. 5 Selection Board, 277 women short service commission officers (WSSCOs) were granted permanent commission after medical scrutiny. However, some petitioners said the process followed was arbitrary and challenged it in the top court.

What are the fresh directives?

The Supreme Court noted that the Army’s process of benchmarking women officers against the officers lowest in merit in the corresponding male batch is “irrational and arbitrary”, and said this requirement should be removed.

All women officers who have fulfilled the cut-off grade of 60% in the Special Selection Board held in September 2020 shall be entitled to the grant of permanent commission, the judgment said, subject to their meeting the prescribed medical criteria and receiving disciplinary and vigilance clearance.

“In the spirit of true equality with their male counterparts in the corresponding batches, the WSSCOs must be considered medically fit for grant of PC by reliance on their medical fitness, as recorded in the 5th or 10th year of their service,” the court said.

Other than “non-optees”, the cases of all WSSCOs, including the petitioners who have been rejected on medical grounds, shall be reconsidered within a month and orders for the grant of permanent commission must be issued within two months. Further, the court directed that the method of evaluation of ACRs and the cut-off must be reviewed for future batches to assess a disproportionate impact on WSSCOs who became eligible for the grant of permanent commission in the subsequent years of their service.

Also, for theBabita Puniyacase, the court held that for officers within the service bracket of 10 to 14 years who have been denied permanent commission, it has allowed them to continue in service till they attain 20 years of pensionable service.