Current Affairs 13th March

Quad leaders for ‘open, free’ Indo-Pacific #GS2 #IR

Members of the Quadrilateral framework, or Quad, will become “closer than ever before”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, in his address to the first-ever leadership summit of the grouping.

Addressing the virtual summit, Mr. Modi, President Joe Biden of the United States, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison highlighted cooperation among the member countries to beat the COVID-19 pandemic, with joint partnership on vaccines and emphasised the need for an “open” and “free” Indo-Pacific region.

“We are united by our democratic values and our commitment to a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Our agenda, covering areas like vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies, make the Quad a force for global good. 

We will work together, closer than ever before on advancing our shared values and promoting a secure, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” said Mr. Modi, who described the Quadrilateral framework as an “important pillar of stability in the region”.

The member countries agreed to ensure “equitable” access to vaccines. A joint statement, titled ‘The Spirit of the Quad’, said: “We will join forces to expand safe, affordable, and effective vaccine production and equitable access to speed economic recovery and benefit global health.”

Mr. Biden emphasised that the Indo-Pacific region should be governed in accordance with human rights. “And we’re renewing our commitment to ensure that our region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values and free from coercion. 

Mr. Morrison laid out the agenda of the Quad in the near future. “We join together as leaders of nations to welcome what I think will be a new dawn in the Indo-Pacific through our gathering,” he said.

Prime Minister Suga acknowledged the new dynamism that the Quad had received because of the meeting of the top leaders. “With the four countries working together, I wish to firmly advance our cooperation to realise, a free and open Indo Pacific, and to make a tangible contribution to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the region, including overcoming COVID-19.

The Quad had been taken to the “apex level”, Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla said during a special briefing on the leaders’ summit.

“We are all committed to free and open, inclusive, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific. Today’s summit adopted a positive vision to address contemporary issues with vaccine cooperation. Leaders agreed to strengthen, peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region

He said the U.S., Japan and Australia would finance the vaccine initiative that India welcomed. “We look forward to participating in the initiative whole-heartedly. During the discussion there was wholesome appreciation of the Vaccine Maitri initiative.

The vaccine expert working group, a critical and emerging technology working group, and a climate working group for technology, capacity building and climate finance were cleared during the summit. The Foreign Secretary also said the Quad leaders had agreed to meet in person in the coming months.

“The Quad does not stand against anything, it stands for something,” Mr. Shringla said, explaining that the Quad was a value-based grouping that was trying to deal with the need for vaccines, climate change and other such issues. He informed that the issue of military takeover in Myanmar came up for during the discussion among the leaders.

Bureaucrats cannot be State Election Commissioners: SC #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court held that independent persons and not bureaucrats should be appointed State Election Commissioners. A Bench, led by Justice Rohinton F. Nariman, in a judgment, said giving government employees the additional charge of State Election Commissioners is a “mockery of the Constitution”.

The top court directed that the States should appoint independent persons as Election Commissioners all along the length and breadth of the country.

‘Give up post’

It said government employees holding the post of State Election Commissioners as additional charge should give up the post. The Supreme Court said its direction should be followed strictly.

The independence of Election Commissions cannot be compromised at any cost, the Bench said, adding that it was “disturbing” to see government employees manning State Election Commissions as an add-on job.

The judgment criticised the Goa government for giving its Law Secretary the additional charge of State Election Commissioner. “Under the constitutional mandate, it is the duty of the State to not interfere with the functioning of the State Election Commission.

The judgment came on an appeal against an order of the Bombay High Court which had set aside the election notification issued by the Goa State Election Commission in the municipalities of Margao, Mapusa, Mormugao, Sanguem and Quepem.

The Supreme Court ordered the Goa State Election Commission to issue a notification for panchayat polls within 10 days and complete the election process by April 30.

Novavax reports 96.4% efficacy on original virus #GS3 #SnT

Novavax, a U.S.-based biotechnology company developing a recombinant vaccine for COVID-19, announced a final efficacy of 96.4% against mild, moderate and severe disease caused by the original SARS-CoV-2 strain in a pivotal Phase-3 trial in the U.K. 

In January, the company reported that its vaccine had proved to have 89% efficacy in preventing infection in some trial volunteers in the U.K. The Serum Institute of India has an agreement with Novavax to manufacture a substantial volume of the vaccine.

It is likely to conduct a bridging study (that determines the vaccine’s safety and immunogenicity in Indians).

Novavax in January also reported results of a trial in South Africa, testing the vaccine in two groups of healthy individuals as well as a small group of 245 individuals who were HIV positive and medically stable. Overall, the efficacy was 48.6% — a result, the company says, was due to the pre-dominance of the variant ‘South African’ strain, B.1.351/501Y.V2. In just the HIV group alone, the efficacy was 55%. Across both trials, NVX-CoV2373 demonstrated 100% protection against severe disease, including all hospitalisation and death.

15,000 participants

“We are very encouraged by the data showing that NVX-CoV2373 not only provided complete protection against the most severe forms of disease, but also dramatically reduced mild and moderate disease across both trials. Importantly, both studies confirmed efficacy against the variant strains.

In the U.K. trial, the study enrolled more than 15,000 participants between 18 and 84 years of age, including 27% over the age of 65.

The primary endpoint of the U.K. Phase 3 clinical trial was based on the first occurrence of PCR-confirmed symptomatic (mild, moderate or severe) COVID-19 with onset at least 7 days after the second study vaccination in serologically negative (to SARS-CoV-2) adult participants at baseline.

Placebo group

Efficacy was 96.4% (95% CI: 73.8, 99.5) against the original virus strain and 86.3% (95% CI: 71.3, 93.5) against the B.1.1.7/501Y.V1 variant, or the so-called UK variant. Five severe cases were observed in the study, and all occurred in the placebo group. Four of the five severe cases were attributed to the B.1.1.7/501Y.V1 variant.

An analysis of trial results by the company in January had suggested that prior infection with the original COVID-19 strain might not completely protect against subsequent infection by the variant predominantly circulating in South Africa.

However, the complete analysis of the South Africa trial indicates that there could be a late protective effect of prior exposure with the original COVID-19 strain.

India and China to continue LAC talks #GS2 #IR

India and China will hold another round of talks between military commanders “as soon as possible” to continue the disengagement process in friction areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). This was agreed on as officials from both sides virtually held the 21st meeting of the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs (WMCC).

The talks led by senior Foreign Ministry officials, along with the parallel military-level talks between Corps Commanders, have been the two key channels for both sides to take forward disengagement, with Friday’s meeting of a mechanism that has in the past convened only twice a year, the seventh held since the June 15 clash in the Galwan Valley last year.

The two sides reviewed the situation along the LAC and “had in-depth discussions on the remaining issues”, a statement from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said, adding that both “agreed that the completion of the disengagement in North and South Bank of the Pangong lake provided a good basis for the two sides to work towards early resolution of these remaining issues.”

A 11th round of talks between Corps Commanders would be held “as soon as possible to further ease the situation on the ground and jointly safeguard the hard-won peace and stability in the border areas”, it said.

At the 10th round on February 20, both commanders noted “the disengagement in the Pangong lake area was a significant step forward and it provided a good basis for the resolution of other remaining issues along the LAC”.

Since the meeting, there has been no official word so far on the progress of disengagement in the Gogra-Hot Springs area and in Demchok.

Long-running tensions

There are also long-running tensions involving the blocking of patrols in the Depsang plains, which Indian officials have said pre-dated the current crisis.

The MEA said both sides agreed to “continue their dialogue to reach a mutually acceptable solution for complete disengagement from all friction points at the earliest”, which “would enable two sides to look at broader de-escalation of troops in the area and work towards restoration of peace and tranquillity in the border areas.”

Both also agreed that “in the interim, two sides should continue to maintain stability at ground level and prevent any untoward incident.”

A statement from China’s Foreign Ministry said both sides “agreed to maintain close communication and dialogue through both the diplomatic and military channels” and to hold the 11th round of the commanders meeting “at an early date so that two sides could work towards complete disengagement from the remaining friction areas”.

“The two sides spoke highly of the results of the disengagement between the front line troops of the two countries in region around Pangong Tso lake area and they had a candid and in-depth exchange of views on promoting the settlement of other issues in border area, adding that “the two countries agreed to keep the China-India border situation under control and avoid any repeat of border clashes.”

Bring down benzene emission at fuel outlets, says panel #GS3 #SnT

A joint committee appointed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to study air pollution in the State has recommended the installation of vapour recovery system at fuelling stations and retrofitting of diesel vehicles with particulate filters to improve air quality.

The report submitted before the Southern Bench of the tribunal pointed out that petrol refuelling stations were a major source of benzene emissions, volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter 2.5 concentration. 

Therefore, installation of vapour recovery system is an important step in improving air quality. This is to be implemented in coordination with the Petroleum and Explosives Safety Organization [PESO] shortly.

The joint committee comprises officials of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Central and State Pollution Control Boards, and the CSIR-National Environment Engineering Research Institute, Chennai. The committee was directed to assess the ambient air quality levels in the State, especially in Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Kochi, Alappuzha, Kozhikode, Thrissur, Kasaragod, and Kannur.

The committee recommended stringent action against industrial units that do not comply with emission standards. The Pollution Control Board had already issued circulars suggesting retrofitting of emission control devices of generators and replacing diesel generators by gas-based generators. 

Other recommendations include promoting battery-operated vehicles, ban on old diesel vehicles in a phased manner, greening of open areas, and creation of green buffers along traffic corridors.

The short-term measures recommended include strict action against visibly polluting vehicles (to be initiated by the Motor Vehicles Department), introduction of wet / mechanised vacuum sweeping of roads, controlling dust pollution at construction sites, and ensuring transport of construction materials in covered vehicles.

The tribunal has asked the committee to assess the air quality in the post-pandemic phase to study the scenario when activities are expected to peak. The committee has said that the study could be held in June, anticipating that educational institutions may reopen, and public transport will return to normal.

‘Exclusive blocs’ should not target ‘third party’: China #GS2 #IR

In a statement just hours before the first summit of the four leaders of the Quad framework, China has said cooperation between nations should not “target or damage interests of a third party” and countries should not “pursue exclusive blocs”.

“Exchanges and cooperation between nations should contribute to mutual understanding and trust among nations rather than target a third party or damage interests of a third party,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said in response to a question about the Quad virtual summit of India, United States, Japan and Australia.

“We hope that relevant countries uphold the principles of openness, inclusiveness and win-win results, refrain from pursuing exclusive blocs, and do things that are conducive to regional peace and stability.

The first Quad leaders’ meet is being closely followed in China and covered by the State media, which has broadly framed it as a U.S.-led effort aimed at “containing” China. At the same time, Chinese experts have sought to play down the significance of the meet.

“I can give you my comment on the Quad in one sentence,” he told the channel. “None of the four countries would like to sacrifice its own interests [with regard to China] for the interests of the other three countries,” he said, referring to their different relationships with China, particularly on trade.

“If you ask all four, are you against China or is this an anti-China club, they say no,” he said. “My conclusion is the Quad is definitely established because of China, although they would not say that it is against China. But if you look at this club as a military alliance, India would totally deny that. [The Quad] is still developing and coming into shape, but it is difficult for them to decide which way it will go, be it military or economic.”

China has said it wants a reset with the new Biden administration, but has laid the blame for the past four years of strained ties at the door of Washington. The Biden administration, in statements so far, has suggested it might continue at least some of the previous administration’s policies with respect to China, including on trade. Mr. Blinken in a March 3 speech described ties with China as “the biggest geopolitical test”.

Mr. Zhao said, “China’s position on China-U.S. relations is clear.” “We ask the U.S. to view China and China-U.S. relations in an objective and rational manner, reject the Cold-War and zero-sum game mentality, respect China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” he said.

Stop influx from Myanmar: Centre #GS2 #IR

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has written to the Chief Secretaries of Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh to “take appropriate action as per law to check illegal influx from Myanmar into India.” The directive comes weeks after the military coup and subsequent crackdown in the neighbouring country led to several persons crossing over into India.

The Ministry said the State governments had no powers to grant “refugee status to any foreigner” and India is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 and its 1967 Protocol. More than a dozen people including policemen and women from Myanmar have fled to Mizoram fearing a military crackdown.

The Tatmadaw, or Myanmar military, had taken over the country after a coup on February 1. India and Myanmar share 1,643-km border and people on either side have familial ties.

Large-scale flow

In a letter dated March 10 to the four States and Assam Rifles, the Ministry said, “As you are aware, there is a probability of large-scale illegal influx into Indian territory through IMB (India-Myanmar border) due to current internal situation in Myanmar. 

In this regard, the MHA has already issued an advisory Dated 25.02.2021 to Chief Secretaries of Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and also to Border Guarding Force(BGF) along IMB (Assam Rifles) to stay, alert and take appropriate action to prevent a possible influx into Indian territory.” The letter stated that it has been reported that “illegal influx from Myanmar has started.”

It recalled the guidelines addressed to all States on August 8, 2017 “wherein instructions were issued to sensitize all law enforcement and intelligence agencies for taking prompt steps in identifying the-illegal migrants and initiate the deportation processes expeditiously and without delay.” 

It also mentioned another set of guidelines to States sent on February 28, 2018 “advising them to sensitize the law enforcement and intelligence agencies for taking appropriate prompt steps for identifying illegal migrants, their restrictions to specific locations as per provisions of law, capturing their biographic and biometric particulars, cancellation of fake Indian documents and legal proceedings including initiation of deportation proceedings as per provisions of law.”

Centre’s reply sought on plea against Places of Worship Act #GS2 #Governance

The Supreme Court asked the government to respond to a plea challenging a special law enacted in 1991 by the Congress government, which freezes the status of places of worship as it was on August 15, 1947.

A Bench led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde issued notice to the Union Ministries of Home, Law and Culture on a plea filed by advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay against various provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991.

Mr. Upadhyay said the “arbitrary, irrational and retrospective” cut-off date bars Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs from approaching courts to “re-claim” their places of worship which were “invaded” and “encroached” upon by “fundamentalist barbaric invaders”.

“The Act declared that the character of places of worship-pilgrimage shall be maintained as it was on August 15, 1947 and no suit or proceeding shall lie in court in respect of disputes against encroachment done by fundamentalist barbaric invaders and law breakers and such proceeding shall stand abated. The petition said Sections of the Act that dealt with the bar on legal claims were against the principles of secularism.

Modi flags off padyatra to commemorate salt march #GS2 #Governance

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday flagged off the foot march to re-enact the historic Mahatma Gandhi-led Salt March, while launching the ‘Azadi Ka Amrut Mahotsav’, the government’s initiative to mark 75 years of India’s Independence.

The padyatra is being undertaken by 81 persons on April 5. The march from Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad to Dandi in Navsari district, a distance of 386 km, will take them 25 days. It will mark the 91st anniversary of the historic march against the tax on salt imposed by the British in India.

Prime Minister Modi said the 75th anniversary celebrations would continue till August 15, 2023. He reiterated the five themes of the celebrations, Freedom Struggle, Ideas at 75, Achievements at 75, Actions at 75 and Resolves at 75, as the guiding force for moving forward, keeping dreams and duties as the inspiration.

At the flagging off ceremony, Mr. Modi said salt was in fact a symbol. Salt was never valued on the basis of mere cost. For Indians, salt represented honesty, trust, loyalty, labour, equality and self reliance. At that time, salt was a symbol of India’s self-reliance. Along with the values of India, the British had also hurt this self-reliance. People of India then had to depend on salt coming from England.

He said Gandhiji understood this chronic pain of the country, understood the pulse of the people and turned that into a movement.

U.S. NSA implies LAC situation discussed at Quad leaders meet #GS2 #IR

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters after the Quad leaders summit that China was discussed at the meeting but was not the focus. He also implied that one of the China-related challenges discussed was the India-China border situation.

The four leaders did discuss the challenge posed by China and they made clear that none of them have any illusions about China but today was not fundamentally about China.

Mr. Sullivan implied that the situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) was discussed by the Quad leaders as one of several examples of Chinese aggression. He was responding to a question on his and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s meetings next week with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, Alaska.

This is our effort to communicate clearly to the giant Chinese government, how the U.S. intends to proceed at a strategic level. What we believe are fundamental interests and values, and what our concerns with their activities are, whether it’s on Hong Kong or Xinjiang or in the Taiwan Strait, or frankly, the issues that we heard today from our Quad partners: their coercion of Australia, their harassment around the Senkaku Islands, their aggression on the border with India.

“The Quad at the end of the day — at the end of today — is now a critical part of the architecture of the Indo Pacific. Also discussed were cybersecurity incidents impacting Quad members.

The discussions included not just the cyberattacks on U.S. targets (Microsoft Exchange and SolarWinds ) but also cybersecurity incidents in India, Japan and Australia. Weeks ago, news broke that spyware originating in China had made its way into several Indian power installations and port facilities.

‘Quad isn’t a new NATO’

Mr. Sullivan reiterated that the Quad was not a military alliance or NATO equivalent (it has been referred to by some commentators an ‘Asian NATO’). He was responding to a question on whether there would be greater Quad security cooperation with Taiwan so that it would become more costly for the Chinese to move against Taiwan. 

“So the way that we look at this is that the Quad is not a military alliance. It’s not a new NATO, despite some of the propaganda that’s out there,” Mr. Sullivan said, adding that it was an opportunity to cooperate on economics, technology, climate and security. 

While maritime security, humanitarian and disaster response were core to the Quad agenda , “where we go from there on everything from freedom of navigation to broader regional security questions that has to be worked through,” he said.

Huawei decision

Asked about recent news that India was likely to block Indian telecom operators from using Huawei equipment for security reasons, Mr. Sullivan said it was a sovereign decision for India to make but consistent with the decisions the U.S. has been advocating. The U.S. — during the Trump administration — campaigned internationally for countries to exclude Huawei from its 5G networks, citing security concerns.

Inflation quickens as Jan. IIP contracts #GS3 #Economy

Retail inflation quickened in February to 5.03%, a three-month high, spurred by higher food and fuel prices.

Food price inflation as measured by the Consumer Food Price Index (CFPI) accelerated to 3.87% last month, from 1.96% in January. While the prices of oils and fats surged 20.8% from a year earlier, those of pulses and products climbed 12.5%, while meat and fish prices increased 11.3%, eggs (11.1%) and fruits (6.28%).

Prices of vegetables, which have been softening in recent months, saw the contraction narrow to 6.27%, after falling 15.8% in January.

Inflation in the transport and communication category was 11.4%, a sharp jump from January’s 9.3%. The spurt in retail inflation mainly originated from higher food inflation, said Sunil Kumar Sinha, Principal Economist at India Ratings and Research.

“Weakening of base effect in February 2021 contributed to higher food inflation. Vegetable prices remained in deflationary mode for the third consecutive month. However, deflation slowed down considerably to 6.3% in February 2021.

Mr. Sinha added that higher retail prices of fuel due to a combination of higher crude prices and elevated excise duties pushed transport and communication inflation to a four-month high. “Health inflation… at 6.3% was a 17-month high and is turning structural.

Factory output retreats

Industrial production contracted 1.6% in January, mainly on account of a decline in output of capital goods, manufacturing and mining sectors, Press Trust of India reported, citing a separate official release.

Output of the manufacturing sector, which constitutes 77.6% of the Index of Industrial Production (IIP), shrank by 2% in January, as against a growth of 1.8% in the same month last fiscal.

‘Some distance to cover’

“The contraction in IIP numbers at -1.6% for January comes as a bit of surprise after turning positive in December (1.04%). “The manufacturing sector continues to contract at 2% and shows that we still have some distance to cover before the economy recovers.

“Going forward, the excess liquidity in the system combined with volatility in fuel prices can pose an upward risk to inflation. “The RBI might take some measures to drain excess liquidity.

‘Centre to infuse Rs. 14,500 cr. into banks under PCA soon’ #GS3 #Economy

The Finance Ministry is likely to decide on infusion of Rs. 14,500 crore mainly in banks that are under the RBI’s prompt corrective action (PCA) framework, to improve their financial health. Indian Overseas Bank, Central Bank of India and UCO Bank are currently under this framework that places several curbs, including on lending and management compensation.

The Ministry has almost finalised its names of probable candidates for capital infusion. The infusion will be made in the next few days, the sources said, adding the biggest beneficiary of this round of capital infusion would be the banks that are under the PCA framework.

The capital infusion will help these banks to come out of the RBI’s enhanced regulatory supervision.

‘Funds from market’

Most large state-owned lenders — including State Bank of India, Punjab National Bank, Bank of Baroda, Canara Bank, Union Bank of India and Indian Bank — have already raised money from market sources, including share sale on a private placement basis.

For the current financial year, the government had allocated Rs. 20,000 crore for capital infusion into PSBs to help them meet their regulatory requirements.