Current Affairs 28th February

COVID-19 upsurge: Cabinet Secretary reviews situation #GS3 #SnT

With Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Telangana and Jammu & Kashmir reporting a high active COVID-19 caseload and an increasing trend in new cases last week.

The States have been advised not to lower their guard, enforce pandemic-appropriate behaviour and deal firmly with violations. They are also required to follow effective surveillance and tracking strategies in respect of potential super spreader events.

The Health Ministry said Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat had also shown a surge in new cases in the last 24 hours, taking the active caseload to 1,59,590. Maharashtra continues to report the highest daily new cases at 8,333, followed by Kerala with 3,671 while Punjab reported 622 new cases, it said. India reported 16,488 new cases in the last 24 hours.

Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Karnataka and Haryana are displaying an upward trajectory in daily new cases. In the last two weeks, Kerala has shown the maximum decline in the number of active cases, from 63,847 on February 14 to 51,679, while Maharashtra has shown the highest rise, from 34,449 to 68,810.

Six States/UTs account for 82.3% of the 113 deaths reported in the last 24 hours. Maharashtra saw the highest number of casualties (48). Punjab reported 15 daily deaths and Kerala 14 while 17 States and UTs have not reported any deaths.

Benefit of the News- New Covid cases in surge

PM calls for e-marketing of Channapatna toys #GS1 #Culture

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called upon Channapatna toymakers to explore the possibility of e-marketing their traditional wares across the country and the world.

Mr. Modi suggested that artisans make use of the advanced technology to popularise their toys across the world and use the Information Technology (IT) workforce available in Bengaluru for the purpose.

He hoped the Government of Karnataka held a workshop bringing together IT professionals and start-ups from Bengaluru and artisans to come up with a new project to popularise Channapatna toys not only across India, but across the globe.

Mr. Modi also stressed on the need for innovation in the toys. During the interaction with the artisans, he asked those from Channapatna if they held any competitions on innovation in their industry. When an artisan replied in the affirmative and said a Hanuman toy made by an artisan had bagged a prize in the competition on innovation.

Earlier, the artisans from Channapatna displayed a set of toys, including an abacus and a plane, to which Mr. Modi said he was being reminded of his childhood.

The artisans said there were about 2,000 of them engaged in the Channapatna toy industry, which had a history of over 200 years old. The artisans pointed out that they used only vegetable dyes that were free from chemicals in the manufacture of the toys.

Benefit of the NewsAbout Channapatna toy industry

India-Pak. ceasefire had high-level nod: experts #GS2 #IR

The decision of the Directors-General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of India and Pakistan was unlikely to have been purely local, say experts, pointing to the language of the joint statement while declaring an observance of the 2003 ceasefire from the midnight of February 24/25, which had a high-level “imprimatur” on it, though there is little clarity on the nature of the back-channel operating between the two countries two days after the announcement.

The DGMOs had announced a similar decision to observe the ceasefire line in December 2013 and May 2018 after similar hotline conversations. Ceasefire violations (CFVs) have been increasing year-on-year for the past decade, with a sudden spike after 2018, according to data from the Army, which is matched by the Pakistani side. From just four CFVs in 2004, the number reported in 2014 was 583, which grew nearly tenfold by 2020 to 5,133.

While Pakistan Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on National Security Affairs denied a specific report that he was conducting the talks with the National Security Adviser that are believed to have led to the LoC announcement, neither New Delhi nor Islamabad has denied a series of reports that suggested that there have been secret talks for the past few months.

Speculation over the timing of the announcement has also grown, as it came amid the India-China disengagement talks, and just hours before a conversation between External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, where they agreed to establish a hotline between them. However, Mr. Jacob said he doubted that the DGMO talks were the result of a “package deal” to stabilise relations with China on the eastern front and with Pakistan on the northern and western front.

The government of India perhaps decided to make sure that at least one front is defused, that is, Pakistan. And then negotiations with China happened

Mr. Raghavan dismissed criticism of the DGMO agreement as a “climbdown” from the government’s earlier policy of not talking to Pakistan until terrorism ends, while the Imran Khan government had said there would be no talks until India restores Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomous status.

Asked what was likely to be the next step, if in fact the DGMO agreement indicates a deeper dialogue, Mr. Raghavan felt that the first step could be the restoration of High Commissioners to the missions in Delhi and Islamabad, who were pulled in the aftermath of the government’s decision to amend Article 370 in J&K in August 2019.

He also felt that cooperation on COVID-19 and healthcare was another area the two sides could make immediate progress.

Benefit of the NewsIndia-Pakistan current situation

Footfalls in the flurry: tracking the elusive snow leopard in Himachal #GS3 #Environment

Himachal Pradesh’s high-altitude hilly terrains could be harbouring as many as 73 snow leopards ( Panthera uncia ), says a recent study based on a scientific enumeration of the elusive animal. Snow leopards are one of the most endangered wildlife species. The study observed that local communities are the strongest allies in conservation.

We are the pioneers in getting snow leopards count done in a scientific manner in the country. Till now, it was only a guess work surrounding the population of snow leopards. But now we have numbers which are reliable. We detected 44 individual snow leopards at 187 occasions in this study. 

From this dataset of 44 individuals, we estimated that the snow leopard population size is likely to be 51 individuals and this population can be reliably estimated to be up to 73 individuals, excluding cubs. This is an encouraging count.

In Himachal Pradesh, the snow leopard’s habitat covers a greater part of the districts of Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur. Its potential habitat also extends into the upper regions of the districts of Shimla, Kullu, Chamba and Kangra.

The wildlife wing of the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department commenced the snow leopard enumeration project in 2018, with techniques aligned to the protocols prescribed by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change under the Snow Leopard Population Assessment in India (SPAI).

“This project is the first systematic effort at a large regional scale that utilised a stratified sampling design to estimate the snow leopard population over an area of 26,112 sq. km. The entire snow leopard habitat of the State [of Himachal Pradesh] was first stratified into three categories — high, low or unknown snow leopard occurrence, based on questionnaire surveys of local communities residing in these areas. Camera trap surveys were then carried out in areas under each of the categories.

The population of the primary wild ungulate prey of snow leopards — blue sheep and ibex — for the entire snow leopard habitat was assessed by using the double observer survey technique. “We found that the snow leopard density was positively correlated with the wild prey density, indicating that higher wild prey densities corresponded to higher snow leopard densities. Spiti and Tabo recorded the highest densities of both snow leopards and their prey, while Chandra and Bharmour recorded the lowest densities of both snow leopards and their prey.

Local support

The entire camera trapping exercise was led by a team of eight local youth of Kibber village in Spiti, who have been working on such surveys across the upper Spiti landscape since 2010.

Snow leopards at times attack the livestock of villagers. Over the past few years, NCF has tried to convince villagers to get their livestock insured. This has helped in a way that in case anyone has lost livestock to snow leopards, the sense of anguish against the animal is not there, eventually helping in its conservation.

Benefit of the NewsSnow leopard conservation

‘Provision to block content under IT rules not new’ #GS2 #Governance

The Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting clarified that no “new provision” had been added to the existing law, after the uproar over a provision of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, under which the Secretary of the Ministry can block public access to any information in case of emergency.

Certain misgivings are being raised regarding Rule 16 under Part III of the rules, which mention that in a case of emergency nature, interim blocking directions may be issued by the Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. 

It is to inform that this provision is exactly the same as being exercised by the Secretary, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), since the past 11 years under the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Blocking for Access of Information by Public) Rules, 2009.

The Secretary, MeitY, has been replaced by the Secretary, I&B Ministry, as the rules have been amended to suitably to bring over-the-top (OTT) platforms and the digital media within the ambit of the I&B Ministry.

The government has drawn severe criticism for bringing in rules to govern the digital media without any consultations with the news portals.

Flak from forum

Digipub News India Foundation, the largest collection of digital news publishers in India, has called the new rules unfair, the process of their formulation undemocratic and the method of their implementation an infringement upon the freedom of expression. 

These Rules in some places appear to go against the fundamental principle of news and its role in a democracy. While rules and laws already exist to hold news media accountable, the aforesaid rules enable the executive government to even remove content published as current affairs or news (Rule 14) among other things.

Benefit of the NewsProvision for digital media

India, Bangladesh agree to speed up border fencing #GS2 #IR

The Home Secretaries of India and Bangladesh met virtually and both sides and discussed early completion of pending fencing along the Indo-Bangladesh border as agreed to by the Prime Ministers of the two countries.

The 19th Home Secretary level talks between India and Bangladesh was held in the backdrop of ‘Mujib Barsho’and 50 years since the Bangladesh Liberation War.

India and Bangladesh attach highest importance to their bilateral relations. Both Secretaries reiterated their commitment to further expand and strengthen mutual cooperation in the security and border related issues. Both sides reaffirmed not to allow the territory of either country to be used for any activity inimical to each other’s interests

Fight against terror

It added that both sides appreciated the cooperation between the two countries and the action taken to address the menace of terrorism and extremism.

The effective functioning of the Coordinated Border Management Plan (CBMP) to control the illegal cross border activities was appreciated by both sides. The holding of the inaugural Police Chiefs’ Dialogue in January, 2021, implementing the decision taken at the Home Minister Level Talks (HMLT) held in August, 2019, was noted with appreciation by both sides. 

Both sides agreed to further enhance the level of cooperation to prevent the smuggling of Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN) and contraband.

Benefit of the NewsIndia- Bangladesh relations

Nanosheets help in the detection of uric acid in urine, alcohol in breath #GS3 #SnT

Mass spectrometry is an importantat tool and has helped win several Nobel Prizes. It provides valuable information about the composition and structure of molecules and has found applications from drug testing to carbon dating. 

Using this, researchers can ionise or break down the compound into simple ions and then identify the molecules based on their masses. The current process of ionisation requires electrical potential of a few kilo volts, heat or high energy ultraviolet lasers (UV-lasers). But now, researchers have developed a new method of soft ionisation using nanosheets which eliminates the need for external energy sources completely.

Sheet-like structures

The team used a simple filter paper as a support material and coated this with 2D molybdenum disulphide (MoS2). “The 2D materials are sheet-like structures and graphene is a perfect example. You pull out sheets of carbon and create graphene. 

Similarly, this molybdenum disulphide was created as a thin sheet and spread on a paper. This modified paper produces an electric current when liquids flow over it.

The team observed that a flow of pure methanol over the nanosheet generates a record-high current of 1.3 microampere. The sample to be tested can be mixed with this methanol, and the induced current helps make ions of the compound to be tested.

The team then tested the device to measure uric acid. By simply flowing raw urine (about 5 microlitre) over the nanostructured surface and measuring the corresponding current (with no other stimulus), the team detected the uric acid in the urine of a healthy individual.

They also demonstrated that the device can be used as a self-energised disposable sensor for breath alcohol detection. The device was modified in such a way that the breath of a drunken person can interact directly with the flowing liquid on the MoS2-coated surface. 

A volunteer who had consumed 650 mL of beer containing 9% (v/v) alcohol blew over the paper, and the corresponding current was measured. While standard breath analysers detect breath alcohol concentration above 5%, this device could detect even less than 3%.

Many applications

The device can find many more applications: check glucose in blood, toxic chemicals in any liquid, pesticide or any contaminants in drinking water. The main plus point is that it can even detect very low levels. The current wet chemical or reagent-based methods are lengthy and require skilled labour. The new method is cost-effective, and all you need is simple paper coated with nanostructures. By just flowing the liquid and studying the spectrum, molecular detection has now been made simple and easy.

Benefit of the NewsUse of Nanotechnology

Super-spreaders and rise in COVID-19 cases #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: Experts remain divided on the question of whether the slow yet steady rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in the country over the last week of February is indicative of the onset of a ‘second wave’. But the Centre and some State governments are on the alert against the rising numbers and are reinforcing aggressive testing and proper social and hygiene protocols. In several States, some restrictions have come back into play, though in a watered-down form.

What is happening around the globe?

Globally, nations in Europe that witnessed a spike in May 2020 have slowly started emerging out of the grip of COVID-19. As the number of cases dropped, countries also let their guard down, opened up the economy, and resumed travel and near-normal activity. In the summer of 2020, people started travelling across Europe, eager to be released from the confinement and stress of the lockdown.

In November, the second wave struck. Experts said every country in Europe that had managed to get away lightly with the first wave was nearly crippled by the second one. Even nations that had suffered badly initially, including Italy, were hit hard again. Hospitals started filling up, beds went scarce again, and the death rate started climbing. 

Stricter lockdowns were introduced, with curfews and restrictions on gatherings in public places; schools were shut down again, as governments struggled to cope with this new wave. In late 2020, the emergence of newer, mutated strains of the virus in Britain and South Africa meant a faster-spreading variant had established dominance in some countries. However, scientists said there was no evidence to show that the new British strain caused a more severe disease.

Are cases growing in India?

After infections peaked in September last year, cases across the country had been steadily declining, with the exception of Kerala, an outlier State that continued to see high numbers after having seen initial success in flattening the curve. However, in the last week of February this year, the trend reversed, with some States beginning to report higher numbers. 

While the overall rise was rather gradual, the average was skewed by high spikes in some districts in the States — particularly in Maharashtra and Punjab. The average increase was around 14,000 new infections per day and the upward trajectory began around the last week of February. Two States, Maharashtra and Punjab, led the increase in the number of cases, even as their testing numbers had dipped over the past few months.

The Union Health Ministry said on Saturday nearly 86% of the over 16,400 cases recorded in the previous 24 hours were from six States and one Union Territory. The Cabinet Secretary chaired a review meeting with eight States and UTs that have shown a surge in infections recently, namely Telangana, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, West Bengal and the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

What is causing the spike?

“The spikes in Maharashtra were caused by a series of super-spreader events, or clusters,” said V. Ravi, nodal officer for Genomic Confirmation of SARS-CoV-2, government of Karnataka. He was speaking at a seminar organised recently by Neuberg Diagnostics on “Coronavirus — Variants and Vaccines”. The rise in the number of cases was not due to a variant of the virus with a tendency to transmit faster, but because of select super-spreader events, he said.

V. Ramasubramanian, infectious diseases specialist at Apollo Hospitals and part of the Tamil Nadu task force on COVID-19, says, “With common sense, and looking at a little bit of history globally, a second wave could be down the line for India. I don’t see any reason why India shouldn’t have a second wave. However, the severity this time round may be milder.”

In general, there seems to be an impression among people that the country is over the worst phase of the pandemic, and hence, many are letting their guard and masks down. During the previous surge, strict regulations imposed by States along with fines and penalties for violating protocols helped ensure compliance. However, with the seeming let-up in virus activity in terms of the number of positive cases being reported daily, safety measures were overlooked, possibly leading to the clusters that have pushed the numbers up again.

There are others who believe that a ‘second wave’ is not really a wave, but more of a blip. In an interview to The Hindu , Manindra Agrawal, deputy director at IIT Kanpur and a leading mathematician involved with the National ‘Super Model’ initiative, said India is unlikely to see a second wave. He said based on the model, the cases would “at most rise to 11.3 million or 11.5 million infections by April 2021 — or about 300,000-500,000 new confirmed infections over the next 10 weeks (approximately)”.

One reason for this, he said, could be the fact that 60% of India’s population had already been exposed to the virus and the country may have approached herd immunity. But the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), according to the third national serological survey conducted from December 17, 2020 to January 8, 2021, had reported that around 21% of Indians were estimated to have been exposed to COVID-19.

Earlier, T. Jacob John, former Professor of Clinical Virology at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, had cited the consistently low number of cases in Tamil Nadu despite poor compliance and said that fewer people may be susceptible or vulnerable to catching the infection.

What is the way ahead?

“There are only two ways of getting immunity from the virus, one is getting infected, and the other is via a vaccine,” says Dr. Ravi. It is important to fast track the vaccine programme across the country, but testing is equally important. “Testing is the most powerful tool in our hands,” he says, and adds that contact tracing is key for disrupting the chain of transmission. 

The number of tests must go up again and contact tracing, ideally 20 persons for every case, should be taken up intently, he recommends. Experts call for a renewed emphasis on following safety protocols, such as wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining physical distance to fend off a possible ‘second wave’ or a sustained hike in the numbers. Draconian total lockdowns are no longer necessary, they add.

New rules for social media, OTT platforms #GS2 #Governance

The story so far: On Thursday, in a long-anticipated move, the government notified guidelines that seek to provide a grievance redressal mechanism for users of digital platforms of all kinds — social media sites, messaging apps, over-the-top (OTT) streaming services, and digital news publishers. 

The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 also mandate that social media and messaging platforms will have to adhere to new requirements in assisting investigative agencies of the government. Launching the guidelines, Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said they were a “soft-touch oversight” mechanism to deal with issues such as the persistent spread of fake news and other misinformation.

Broadly, what do the new rules require digital platforms to do?

Although there is no single set of rules that uniformly applies to the different kinds of digital platforms, the broad themes of the guidelines revolve around grievance redressal, compliance with the law, and adherence to the media code. Social media platforms like Google or Facebook, or intermediaries, for instance, will now have to appoint a grievance officer to deal with users’ complaints. 

There are additional requirements on ‘significant’ social media intermediaries — meaning the platforms whose registered users in India are above the threshold notified by the government. Such intermediaries have to appoint a ‘Chief Compliance Officer’, who will have to ensure that the rules are followed; the officer “shall be liable in any proceedings relating to any relevant third-party information, data or communication link made available or hosted by that intermediary”. The intermediaries will also have to appoint a nodal contact person for “24×7 coordination with law enforcement agencies”.

The other key requirement is that such a social media intermediary would have to “enable the identification of the first originator of the information on its computer resource” as may be required by a judicial order. 

In other words, a problematic message, that is considered “an offence related to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign states, or public order, or of incitement to an offence relating to the above or in relation with rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material”, will have to be traced to its initiator on messaging applications like WhatsApp and Signal.

For digital publishers of news and current affairs as well as video streaming services, an identical three-tier structure for grievance redressal has been mandated. This structure will look into grievances in relation to a Code of Ethics, which is listed in the appendix to the rules. 

Among other things, the Code of Ethics includes the ‘Norms of Journalistic Conduct’ as prescribed by the Press Council of India, as also content that shall not be published — “content which is prohibited under any law for the time being in force shall not be published or transmitted”, and the Programme Code under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. 

The guidelines also require streaming services to classify content based on its nature and type. So, for instance, content “for persons aged 16 years and above, and can be viewed by a person under the age of 16 years with parental guidance shall be classified as U/A 16+”.

What is the context in which these rules have been framed?

The question of stricter regulation of digital media has come up unceasingly in different forms and forums over the last few years. The issue came up last year when the Supreme Court was hearing a case involvingSudarshan TV. In the course of the case, it asked the government for suggestions to improve the self-regulatory mechanism for electronic media. The government, in its affidavit, highlighted the need to regulate web-based media.

There has also been a face-off between the government and Twitter in recent weeks over the social media platform’s non-compliance with its order to block several hashtags and handles of journalists, activists and politicians in the backdrop of the ongoing farmers’ protests. Twitter eventually complied, though not fully.

Questions about how social media platforms can be made accountable for the spread of fake news and pornographic content have been raised in Parliament and by the Supreme Court in recent years, something that has been highlighted by the government in its release as well. Taking all this into account, it was no surprise that such rules were being envisaged, but critics have said some of these guidelines will lead to restriction of free speech. 

There have been many controversies involving content on over-the-top platforms. In one such recent incident, two BJP leaders filed a case against the makers ofTandavfor hurting religious sentiments. There have been calls to censor content that appears on digital platforms.

What has changed from earlier?

The scope of regulation of the digital space has been expanded. The new guidelines not only replace the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, but go a step further. They also regulate digital news publishers and streaming services, which was not the case earlier. The 2011 rules were a narrower set of guidelines for intermediaries.

Under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, the intermediaries are not liable for user-generated content, provided they adhere to the rules — “an intermediary shall not be liable for any third-party information, data, or communication link made available or hosted by him,” it states. These rules have been tightened now.

Why are the rules being criticised?

For digital news media, these guidelines will subject it to governmental regulation in a way. The three-tier structure of regulation will entail oversight by a government committee at the highest level. Any grievance that does not get satisfactorily solved at the self-regulatory levels will get escalated to the government panel. The Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), a digital liberties organisation, refers to this as “excessive governmental control over digital news and OTT content”.

The other rule that has been criticised by the IFF is the requirement of traceability of the originator of a problematic message. The news guidelines do suggest that this will not be required “where other less intrusive means are effective in identifying the originator of the information”. 

They also suggest that in identifying the originator, “no significant social media intermediary shall be required to disclose the contents of any electronic message”. But the IFF reckons that the government has powers under the Information Technology (Procedure and Safeguards for Interception, Monitoring and Decryption of Information) Rules, 2009, to make demands for the content of the messages. The rules have also been criticised for increasing the potential for censorship and surveillance.