Current Affairs 20th July

Rahul, Prashant Kishor, ex-EC Lavasa on list of spyware targets #GS3 #Security

Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, former Election Commissioner Ashok Lavasa, election strategist Prashant Kishor, Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee and Union Ministers Ashwini Vaishnaw and Prahlad Patel appeared on a leaked list of “potential” or actual targets for spying by the Israeli company NSO’s Pegasus spyware

Two mobile phones used by Mr. Gandhi appeared on the list — one was added in 2018 when he was the president of the Congress and the other after the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Numbers belonging to at least five of Mr. Gandhi’s close friends and other Congress officials, including Sachin Rao and Alankar Sawai, also figured on the list, which has the names of dozens of journalists, activists and healthcare experts.

At least one number once used by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan as well as hundreds of others in the country also appeared on the list.

The phones targeted were infiltrated by a malicious software called Pegasus, which is sold by the NSO Group. The spyware can secretly unlock the target’s phone, computer or other devices, collect information and transfer it to another device without the permission of the user. The Israeli company has said it sells Pegasus only to government agencies to fight terrorism and other serious crimes and that it does not operate the spyware licensed to its clients.

Those who were targeted in India included The Wire’s editors Siddharth Varadarajan and M.K. Venu, journalist Sushant Singh and Mr. Kishor, a forensic analysis found. The phone of Mr. Kishor, who worked with the Trinamool in West Bengal and the DMK in Tamil Nadu that went to the polls in April, was found to have been compromised as recently as July 14.

Investigations confirmed the Pegasus attack, or signs of potential targeting, on phones linked to 10 Indian numbers and 27 phones around the world.

 The family members of a Supreme Court employee who had accused the then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019 are on the list. Mr. Lavasa, who is on the list, served as an Election Commissioner between January 2018 and August 2020, and had expressed dissenting views on the three-member election panel’s ruling that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not violated the Model Code of Conduct in 2019.

Others on the list include Gagandeep Kang, a well-known virologist, M. Hari Menon, the India country head for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and two employees of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in Delhi. Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based non-profit organisation, and Amnesty International got access to the list of thousands of potential targets worldwide and shared it with 17 media publications, including The Wire, The Guardian and The Washington Post .

Amnesty’s International’s Security Lab provided forensic analyses and technical support, while Forbidden and the media houses conducted the investigation, called the Pegasus Project. Responding to the reports, Mr. Gandhi called targeted surveillance “illegal and deplorable”. “If your information is correct, the scale and nature of surveillance you describe goes beyond an attack on the privacy of individuals.

It is an attack on the democratic foundations of our country. It must be thoroughly investigated and those responsible be identified and punished,” he said in a statement. India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, according to The Washington Post , said the claim of government surveillance of specific people “has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever.” However, the government refused to answer to a question on whether it is a client of NSO.

Modi conveys ‘best wishes’ to new Nepal PM Deuba #GS2 #IR

Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a telephonic conversation with the newly appointed Nepal Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba. The call has established a communication line between Mr. Modi and Mr. Deuba, who won a vote of confidence in the House of Representatives on Sunday night.

“Spoke with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to convey my congratulations and best wishes. We will work together to further enhance the wide-ranging cooperation between India and Nepal, including in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taking over

Mr. Deuba was appointed as Prime Minister on July 12 by a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court of Nepal, which observed that his predecessor, K.P. Sharma Oli, had violated constitutional norms and had to step down.

Mr. Modi had congratulated Mr. Deuba after he won the vote of confidence. In a message to Mr. Deuba, he said both sides should work on “all sectors”. The Ministry of External Affairs said the two leaders focused primarily on battling the pandemic.

Mr. Oli had been criticised for his alleged failure to contain COVID-19, which has left at least 9582 people dead.

Vaccine challenge

Nepal’s main challenge is its inability to access COVID-19 vaccine, for which it had initially depended on the Serum Institute of India. Supply of Indian vaccines was interrupted during March-May when the second wave peaked in India. Subsequently, the U.S. stepped up efforts and Nepal will receive 1.5 million vaccine doses from it.

Bilateral interaction between the two neighbours turned cold last year owing to the Kalapani territorial dispute and top- level visits were blocked because of the pandemic and diplomatic spat. However, in January last, Oli’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali visited India. Mr. Deuba has appointed a five-member Cabinet but he is yet to appoint a foreign minister.

Speedy trial a fundamental right: HC #GS2 #Governance

The Bombay High Court on Monday said “speedy trial is a fundamental right”, highlighting the issue of people languishing in prisons waiting for the trial to begin. A Division Bench of Justices S.S. Shinde and N.J. Jamadar made the comment with respect to those accused in the Bhima Koregaon caste violence case.

The Bench said, “Charges are not framed in the case… How many witnesses will be examined, how many years will it take? They are languishing in jail. For how many years without trial can people languish in jail? Speedy trial is a fundamental right.”

The court was hearing a petition, filed through senior advocate Mihir Desai, seeking a judicial probe into the death of tribal rights activist Stan Swamy on July 5. Mr. Desai told the court that he was not looking for the cause of the death, but an inquiry into what happened in jail that ultimately led to his death.

Filing of report

He also sought the filing of a report in court and that the next of kin of Father Frazer Mascarenhas be allowed to participate in the inquiry. He said, “I want the probe to follow the guidelines issued by the National Human Rights Commission and the report should be filed in the High Court.”

Justice Shinde said, “We have every respect for his work to society. We watched his funeral online and that it was done in a very dignified and gracious manner.” The matter would be heard on July 23. Swamy, 84, was the last of the 16 to be arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case and sent to prison.

Protecting children is a priority #GS2 #SocialIssues

The Centre has informed the Delhi High Court that it has asked the States to ensure immediate action for rehabilitation of children orphaned due to COVlD-19, in accordance with the provisions of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act and leveraging the facilities under child protection services.

The Ministry of Woman and Child Development, in an affidavit, said children in distress situations, such as those affected by the pandemic, are mandated care and protection under the JJ Act, 2015.

“The Act provides a safety net of statutory service delivery structures, along with provisions of Institutional and Non-Institutional care and protection of children in need of care and protection of Children in conflict with law,” the Ministry said. It added that “implementation of the Act is the primary responsibility of the States and Union Territories”.

The Ministry’s affidavit came in response to a petition before the High Court seeking directions to safeguard the interests of the children who lost their parents to COVID-19 and who do not have any one else to take care of them and face the risk of being trafficked.

The petition also sought grant of appropriate financial compensation to the family members of those citizens who lost their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic after being denied access to adequate health care infrastructure in terms of hospital admission, oxygen cylinders, injections and medications.

Mental health care

The Ministry acknowledged that the second wave of the pandemic, “given its spread and severity, has created much anxiety and panic across the country”.

“As it is a matter of fact, children have been particularly vulnerable to the psychosocial and mental health impacts of the pandemic. Under these circumstances, service providers might also be finding it challenging to support children with their psychosocial and mental health care needs, along with other decisions about placement and safety,” the Ministry admitted.

Rain deficit may hit oilseed farmers #GS3 #Economy

The lull in the monsoon post June 23 has resulted in a 32% rainfall deficit during that period, and is likely to push farmers into changing their kharif crop patterns, according to an analysis by CRISIL research issued on Monday.

Especially in northwest and central India, which are seeing rainfall deficits as high as 55%, farmers may be forced to move from oilseeds such as soybean and groundnut to crops which have lower water requirements, such as cotton and maize. Overall, sowing was slower than last year, with the total sown acreage lagging behind 12%.

The southwest monsoon arrived in the country on June 3 this year, and had covered almost 93% of kharif acreage by June 23, a week before its usual onset. Until that point, there had been a 28% surplus rainfall. After that point though, the monsoon played truant, resulting in a 32% deficit compared with the long period average, between June 23 and July 12.

The highest deficit of 55% was in the northwest region, with Punjab and Haryana recording 70% and 80% deficits respectively. However, CRISIL noted that this may not have too much of an impact on sowing as these States have high levels of irrigation. It’s a different story in Rajasthan, which saw a 58% deficit during that period. “If not recovered within the next 10 days, [this] may effectuate a shift from soybean to maize in key deficit areas.

Central India saw a 39% rainfall deficit, with Gujarat hit particularly hard. “A continued dry spell in the State this marketing year could effectuate a major crop shift from groundnut to cotton. By July 16, Maharashtra’s total kharif acreage was down 11% in comparison to the previous year, and farmers may shift from soybean to cotton if the rainfall deficit does not recover. Similarly, Karnataka farmers, facing a 37% deficit during this period, are likely to opt for cotton and maize.

Oxfam report highlights sharp inequalities in health indicators #GS3 #Economy

Sharp inequalities exist across different caste, religious, class and gender categories on various health indicators, according to a report by Oxfam India.

The report titled “India Inequality Report 2021: India’s Unequal Healthcare Story” shows that the “general category is better off than the SCs and STs, Hindus are better off than Muslims, the rich are better off than the poor, men are better off than women, and the urban population is better off than the rural population” on most health determinants, interventions and indicators. The findings are primarily based on secondary analysis from rounds 3 and 4 of the National Family Health Survey and various rounds of National Sample Survey.

The report shows that while women’s literacy has improved across social groups over the years, SC and ST women lag behind the general category by 18.6% and 27.9%, respectively. There exists a gap of 55.1% between the top and bottom 20% of the population in 2015-16. Though the female literacy rate among Muslims (64.3%) is lower than all religious groups, inequality has reduced over time.

As far as sanitation is concerned, 65.7% households have access to improved, non-shared sanitation facilities in the general category while SC households are 28.5% behind them and ST are 39.8% behind them. An examination of health interventions too shows disparities.

The share of institutional deliveries in India has increased from 38.7% in 2005-06 to 78.9% in 2015-16, but inequalities persist with ST households 15% below the general category, Muslims 12% behind Hindus and a 35% gap between the poorest and richest 20% of the population.

India on course for 11% growth this fiscal, to meet deficit goal’ #GS3 #Economy

Playing down concerns about high inflation and rising commodity prices, Chief Economic Adviser (CEA) Krishnamurthy Subramanian said on Monday that India was on course to grow at about 11% and meet the fiscal deficit target of 6.8% of gross domestic product this year.

Asserting that the Union Budget’s plan to scale up capital spending by 35% in FY22 would boost construction activity and create jobs in the informal sector, Mr. Subramanian said this would boost demand and enable the country to get growth without high inflation.

“I don’t foresee a problem at all in meeting those estimates for infrastructure spending,” the CEA said in an interaction with the Indian Construction Equipment Manufacturers Association, before warning them against a potential risk of ‘irrational exuberance’ over the coming few years.

“We should not repeat the mistakes of bank-led infra funding which led to this entire bad assets’ problem. The main lesson for all of you should be not to repeat the mistakes we had after the global financial crisis,” he said, asserting that a limited focus on revenue expenditure after the 2008 crisis had led to runaway inflation.

Inflation, he contended, was a ‘touch higher’ due to temporary supply-side effects from recent economic restrictions. “I don’t anticipate inflation to be a problem when you create growth by working on the supply side,” he said, arguing that India’s failure to undertake supply-side reforms after the 2008 crisis led to a triple whammy of high fiscal and current account deficits with runaway inflation.