Current Affairs 22nd April

India at 142nd rank on press freedom index #GS3 #Economy

The 2021 World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), a French non-government organisation, has again ranked India at 142nd out of 180 countries. This is despite the fact that for a year, on directions from Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, an index monitoring cell worked to improve the rankings, even holding a meeting between the Indian Ambassador to France and the RSF officials to lobby for a change in the ranking.

In 2016, India’s rank was 133, which has steadily climbed down to 142 in 2020. The RSF report says India is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists trying to do their job properly.

They are exposed to every kind of attack, even police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.

In February last year, fearing such an adverse assessment, the cell was set up in 18 Ministries to find ways to improve the position on 32 international indices. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry was delegated to look at the freedom of press index.

According to the report of this cell, accessed by The Hindu , on April 26 last year, the Additional Director-General, Public Information Bureau, first wrote to RSF chairman Pierre Haski asking for the criteria on the basis of which it compiles the index, for a better understanding of the ranking.

The minutes of this September meeting are part of the report of the cell. Mr. Ashraf said the openness of the government to be criticised and questioned with respect to subjects such as economy, international affairs and defence deals such as Rafale were indicators of press freedom.

Internet ban in J&K

The RSF representatives, however, questioned the Internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir from August 5, 2019, which went on for nearly a year. The Ambassador said the shutdown was for the security of the region.

Members of the press could access the Internet through the Internet kiosks set up by the government and there was active reporting in Indian and international media on the situation in Kashmir, which could only have been possible with unhindered access to the Internet and freedom of the press.

The minutes also note that on the issue of violence raised by the RSF, Mr. Ashraf said, “many incidents reported as attacks on journalists are often a consequence of the law and order situation in some areas of India. This is often misrepresented as targeted attacks on journalists by the State in western media.”

Very few post-vaccine infections: ICMR #GS3 #SnT

The Indian Council of Medical Research on Wednesday said only a “small” fraction of people who had been vaccinated with either Covaxin or Covishield had tested positive for COVID-19. However, these instances of “breakthrough” infections did not undermine the efficacy of the vaccines.

“These vaccines definitely, definitely protect against disease. However, the immune response begins to develop usually two weeks after every dose and there are variations within individuals, too. Even after the first dose, if exposure to the virus happens, one can test positive.

Of the 9.3 million who received the first dose of Covaxin, 4,208 tested positive; and of the 1.7 million who received the second dose, 695 tested positive. For Covishield, of the 100.3 million who received the first dose, 17,145 tested positive; of the 15 million who got the second dose, 5,014 tested postive.

Key reasons

Two key reasons for this, Dr. Bhargava said, were that healthcare and frontline workers, who were among the first to be vaccinated, were as a population far more exposed to the virus and therefore, more susceptible. Second, the emergence of “the highly transmissible second wave (newer variants)” may have contributed to instances of infection among those vaccinated.

Several variants, which have mutations that have been shown to avoid detection by the immune system and in some cases, reduce the efficacy of vaccines, have been reported globally, including in India.

“This is roughly around two in 10,000 and is a very, very small fraction. We have seen similar rates of reinfection internationally, too, from the use of other vaccines,” said V.K. Paul, Chairman, National Expert Group on Vaccination that oversees the COVID-19 management strategy.

When comparing patterns of infection and mortality in the first and second waves of the pandemic, a slight percentage increase in cases among those in the age group of 10-20 is seen in the current wave — 8.5% compared with 8.07% earlier. There is an increase in cases among those in the 40-70 age group from the previous wave, and the same fraction of those in the 30-40 age group persists.

In terms of deaths — that is now nearly 2,000 a day — COVID-19 continues to be disproportionately fatal for those over 70 years.

There were 22% deaths among those in the 70-80 years in the second wave compared to 19% in the first wave, and 9.8% deaths in those above 80 compared to 7.8% previously.

There is no evidence of any change in patterns of death in the younger age groups of 30-70 years, with about 70% deaths during both waves falling in this age bracket. However, for the mortality comparison, a far smaller sample — 24,814 — was used in the second wave compared with the 83,189 in the first wave.

India adds 3.15 lakh cases, 2,091 deaths in 24 hours #GS3 #SnT

For the first time, India recorded more than 3 lakh COVID-19 cases in a single day. The country reported as many 3,15,660 cases and 2,091 deaths as of 11.15 p.m. It is the highest-ever single-day case count in the world.

The figures do not include cases and deaths in Tripura and Ladakh. The data are sourced from , an independent aggregator of daily COVID-19 figures. The country has so far reported a total of 1,59,24,914 cases and 1,84,662 deaths. Maharashtra reported 67,468 infections, accounting for 22% of the new cases, followed by Uttar Pradesh (33,214) and Delhi (24,638). Maharashtra also recorded the maximum casualties (568). Delhi followed with 249 deaths, while Uttar Pradesh registered 187 new casualties.

As many as 16,39,357 samples were tested in India on Tuesday (results of which were made available on Wednesday), the highest-ever number of tests conducted in a single day in the country. This is the first instance when the number of daily tests crossed the 16-lakh mark.

Covaxin phase 3 trial shows vaccine has 78% efficacy #GS3 #SnT

The efficacy of Covaxin has dropped a tad lower to 78% from the 81% reported in March.

Bharat Biotechannounced results from an interim analysis of its phase 3 trial. The efficacy against severe COVID-19 disease was 100%, the company said, but that against protecting from asymptomatic COVID-19 infection was 70%. The analysis was on a data set of 127 COVID-19 positive volunteers.

Efficacy, a measure of risk reduction from a vaccine, varies among vaccines commercially available. Ranking by reported efficacy gives relative risk reductions of 95% for Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, 94% for the Moderna shot, 90% for Sputnik V, and 67% each for the J&J and AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccines, according to a review article in the Lancet Microbe.

The safety and efficacy results from the final analysis will be available in June, and the final report will be submitted to a peer-reviewed publication. “Based on the achievement of the success criteria, placebo recipients have now become eligible to receive two doses of Covaxin.

In a press briefing on Wednesday, Balram Bhargava, Director-General, ICMR, furnished data to show that four in 10,000 of those who had been inoculated with Covaxin went on to test positive.

Even if it had been five or 10 per 10,000, it wouldn’t be a cause for worry because the objective of the vaccine is to protect against severe disease, and we have demonstrated that in protecting against severe disease it is 100%

The vaccine had been tested against emergent international variants of concern, such as the U.K. strain and the Indian B.1.617 strain, the scientist said. “Because the vaccine produces a very broad range of antibodies, unlike many other vaccines that are solely directed at the spike protein, it does a great job at neutralising the various.”

The company has reported efficacy against the U.K. variant in a peer reviewed journal ( Journal of Travel Medicine ) but is yet to publicise results on the vaccine’s efficacy against the Brazilian strain. “Covaxin has been found to effectively neutralise the double mutant variant as well,” the ICMR tweeted on Wednesday.

Krishna Ella, chairman and managing director, Bharat Biotech, said, “Efficacy against SARS-Cov-2 has been established. Covaxin is now a global innovator vaccine derived from Research and Development from India. The phase 3 study enrolled 25,800 participants in the age group of 18-98, including 2,433 above 60 and 4,500 with comorbidities.

India should be a ‘country of particular concern’: U.S. panel #GS2 #IR

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent bi-partisan commission, has recommended for the second year in a row that the State Department put India on a list (‘Countries of Particular Concern’ or CPCs) for the worst violations of religious freedoms in 2020. One of the 10 USCIRF commissioners presented a dissenting view.

The USCISRF recommended that the administration impose targeted sanctions on Indian individuals and entities for “severe violations of religious freedom”.

A second recommendation was for the administration to promote inter-faith dialogue and the rights of all communities at bilateral and multilateral forums “such as the ministerial of the Quadrilateral [the Quad]”. Another recommendation — to the U.S. Congress — was to raise issues in the U.S.-India bilateral space, such as by hosting hearings, writing letters and constituting Congressional delegations.

The USCIRF recommendations are non-binding and the Trump administration had rejected the USCIRF recommendation to designate India a CPC last year, when it released its own determinations in December.

The key concerns of the 2021 report include the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The report says, “Mobs sympathetic to Hindu nationalism operated with impunity,” and used “brutal force” to attack Muslims in Delhi’s riots in February 2020.

On the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the report says, “The consequences of exclusion — as exemplified by a large detention camp being built in Assam — are potentially devastating…” Efforts to prohibit interfaith marriage — such as those in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh — are also highlighted as a concern.

These efforts targeting and delegitimising interfaith relationships have led to attacks and arrests of non-Hindus and to innuendo, suspicion, and violence toward any interfaith interaction,” the report notes.

In an apparent reference to the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz in March 2020, the USCIRF says, “At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation and hateful rhetoric — including from government officials — often targeted religious minorities, continuing familiar patterns.”

Johnnie Moore, an evangelical who is the president of The Congress of Christian Leaders as per his USCIRF bio, included a dissenting note in the text of the report saying India should not be designated a CPC but was at a “crossroads”. India is “diversity personified” and “its religious life has been its greatest historic blessing.

“India’s government and people have everything to gain and nothing to lose from preserving social harmony and protecting the rights of everyone,” he said. Last year, three of 10 commissioners — including Mr. Moore — had presented dissenting views.

Indian ads further gender stereotypes, shows study #GS2 #SocialIssues

An analysis of Indian advertisements on television and YouTube has shown that while they are superior to global benchmarks insofar as girls and women have parity of representation in terms of screen and speaking time, their portrayal is problematic as they further gender stereotypes — they are more likely than male characters to be shown as married, less likely to be shown in paid occupation, and more likely to be depicted as caretakers and parents.

These are some of the findings of a study released on Monday by UNICEF and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDI) titled “Gender bias and inclusion in advertising in India”. The research measures over 1,000 television and YouTube advertisements aired across India in 2019. The ads analysed were those that received the most reach.

The study finds that women characters dominate screen time (59.7%) and speaking time (56.3%), but one of the drivers of this is their depiction for selling cleaning supplies and food and beauty products to women consumers. For example, almost all the detergent and food commercials depicted a woman caretaking for her family who speaks directly to women viewers about caring for their families.

In comparison, in a separate study by the GDI for setting global benchmarks, it was found that ads in the U.S. show women with half the screen time (30.6%) and nearly half the speaking time (33.5%).

A greater percentage of female characters is depicted as married than male characters (11.0% compared with 8.8%). Female characters are three times more likely to be depicted as parents than male characters (18.7% compared with 5.9%).

While male characters are more likely to be shown making decisions about their future than female characters (7.3% compared with 4.8%), the latter are twice as likely to be shown making household decisions than male characters (4.9% compared with 2.0%).

Female characters are more likely to be shown doing the following activities than male characters — shopping (4.1% compared with 2.3%); cleaning (4.8% as against 2.2%); and being involved in the purchase or preparation of meals (5.4% against 3.9%).

For characters where intelligence is part of their character in the ad, male characters are more likely to be shown as smart than female characters (32.2% compared to 26.2%). Male characters are almost twice as likely to be shown as funny than female characters (19.1% compared to 11.9%).

Two-thirds of female characters (66.9%) in Indian ads have light or medium-light skin tones — a higher percentage than male characters (52.1%). Female characters are nine times more likely to be shown as “stunning/very attractive” than male characters (5.9% compared with 0.6%). Female characters are also invariably thin, but male characters appear with a variety of body sizes in Indian advertising

“Misrepresentation and harmful stereotypes of women in advertising have a significant impact on women — and young girls — and how they view themselves and their value to society. While we do see female representation dominate in Indian ads, they are still marginalised by colorism, hypersexualisation, and without careers or aspirations outside of the home,” said Geena Davis, Academy Award Winning Actor, Founder and Chair of the GDI adding that the stark inequality must be addressed to ensure an equitable society.

Exporters fret over delay in rebate rates #GS3 #Economy

Even as exporters fret over an inordinate delay in notification of the rates under a new WTO-compliant scheme for rebating taxes and duties to the export sector, they are also seeking greater clarity from the government on some grey areas in the scheme’s functioning, according to tax consultancy firm RSM Astute.

‘Very near future’

Commerce Secretary Anup Wadhawan had said that the rates under the RoDTEP (Remission of Duties and Taxes on Export Products) scheme, which came into effect on January 1, would be notified in the ‘very, very near future’.

Exporters have been urging the government to lift the uncertainty over the benefits that would accrue to them under the scheme, as they are it finding it difficult to price fresh global orders in the absence of the crucial information especially in sectors with thin margins.

“The trade and industry is hopeful that the scheme’s operation would be smooth, and concerns would be addressed in the early stages of operationalisation. “Due to COVID-19, India’s exports may require more stimulus and the exporters hope that RoDTEP would not be an impediment to their business plans.

Grey areas

The consultancy flagged the power given to Customs officers to suspend the scrips or refund credits or even to bar exporters from utilising these scrips especially as the grounds on which such suspensions could be done have not been spelt out.

As per government statements, the refund of taxes on exports would be credited to exporters’ ledger account with the Customs department, which could be utilised to pay basic customs duty on imported goods.

“Clarity would be required whether the refund could be utilised to pay other taxes on imported goods such as IGST and Social Welfare Surcharge,” the tax consultant said. Under the MEIS scheme, which RODTEP has replaced, these refund credits could be used to pay customs duty, additional customs duty (with some exceptions) as well as central excise duties.

The delay in operationalising the scheme is affecting the exporters by restricting their ability to price products competitively and the uncertainty was making it harder to finalise contracts.

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