Current Affairs 14th August

More Afghan cities fall as Taliban near Kabul #GS2 #IR

The Taliban seized more major cities on Friday as they raced to take full control of Afghanistan and inched closer to Kabul, with the U.S. and Britain deploying thousands of troops to evacuate their citizens from the capital.

The evacuation orders came as the Taliban took control of Kandahar — the nation’s second-biggest city — in the insurgency’s heartland, leaving only Kabul, Mazar-i-Sharif, Jalalabad and pockets of other territories in government hands.

The Taliban also captured the capital of Logar province, just 50 km from Kabul, with a local lawmaker saying the insurgents were in complete control of Pul-e-Alam city. Earlier on Friday, officials and residents in Kandahar said government forces had withdrawn en masse to a military facility outside the southern city.

“Kandahar is completely conquered. The Mujahideen reached Martyrs’ Square,” a Taliban spokesman tweeted, referring to a city landmark. Hours later, the Taliban said they had also taken control of Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighbouring Helmand province.

A security source confirmed the fall of the city, saying that the Afghan military and government officials had evacuated Lashkar Gah after striking a local ceasefire deal with the militants. The government has now effectively lost most of the country following an eight-day blitz into urban centres by the Taliban that has also stunned Kabul’s American backers.

Civilian footprint

Meanwhile, Washington and London announced plans late on Thursday to pull out their Embassy staff and citizens from the capital.

“We are further reducing our civilian footprint in Kabul in light of the evolving security situation,” U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, while noting that the Embassy would remain open. “This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not the wholesale withdrawal.”

The Pentagon said 3,000 U.S. troops would be deployed to Kabul within the next 24 to 48 hours, underscoring that they would not be used to launch attacks against the Taliban.

The insurgents have taken over more than a dozen provincial capitals in the past week and encircled the biggest city in the north, the traditional anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif, which is now one of the few holdouts remaining.

As the rout unravelled, three days of meetings between key international players on Afghanistan ended in Qatar without significant progress Thursday. In a joint statement, the international community, including the United States, Pakistan, the European Union, and China, said they would not recognise any government in Afghanistan “imposed through the use of military force.”

More plastic items to be banned #GS3 #Environment

Come July next year, the manufacture of a range of plastic products will be banned. These include earbuds with plastic sticks, plastic flags, ice-cream sticks, thermocol for decoration, plates, cups, glasses, cutlery such as forks, spoons and knives, straws, trays, wrapping or packing films around sweet boxes, invitation cards, and cigarette packets, plastic or PVC banners less than 100 microns, and stirrers.

The Environment Ministry on Friday notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules, 2021, which prohibit specific single-use plastic items which have “low utility and high littering potential” by 2022.

Plastic packaging waste is not yet covered under the phase-out of single-use plastic items. The Ministry informed the Rajya Sabha in July its proposal to phase out some categories of single-use plastic by 2022.

A draft outlining the way forward was issued in March and involved amending the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016. Currently the rules prohibit manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of carry bags and plastic sheets less than 50 microns in thickness in the country. There is a ban on sachets using plastic material used for storing, packing or selling gutkha, tobacco and pan masala.

At the fourth United Nations Environment Assembly in 2019, India piloted a resolution on addressing pollution caused by single-use plastic products.

The Ministry, in a note on Friday, said the waste management infrastructure in the States and the Union Territories was being strengthened through the Swachh Bharat Mission. They had been “requested” for setting up of a special task force for elimination of single-use plastic and effective implementation of the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016.

A national-level task force had also been constituted by the Ministry for taking coordinated efforts to eliminate identified single-use plastic items and effective implementation of the waste management rules, 2016.

New museums on J&K, Buddha, freedom struggle #GS1 #Culture

New museums on Jammu and Kashmir, Gautam Buddha, Indian armour and the freedom struggle are expected to be completed this year, according to the Culture Ministry.

The museum on Jammu and Kashmir will be set up at a cost of Rs. 13 crore in the Capital, as per data provided with Culture Minister G. Kishan Reddy’s reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on August 9. The museum was expected to be completed by December 31, 2021.

“The museum on Jammu and Kashmir, first of its kind in India, captures the essence and spirit of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh as an integral part of the nation since ages as Bharat, Hindustan, India. The museum elaborates this by tracing the roots of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh since prehistoric times to the present day and telling unheard stories of the region and people which have been lost in the centuries of time,” the written reply stated.

The Ministry was also working on five other museums to be set up this year, including a museum on Gautam Buddha, being established by the National Museum at a cost of Rs. 7.5 crore by September 30.

“The museum is being developed in a renovated century-old majestic building and spread over an area of about 15,000 square feet, surrounded by a lush green landscape. Seen through the masterpieces in the National Museum collection, the museum on Gautama Buddha focuses on the religious and traditional aspects of Buddhist heritage in India, forging a new outlook on its spread, development, and cultural synthesis over centuries,” the reply stated.

A first of its kind museum on Buddha, the new museum would have over 200 objects from the 1st Century CE to 19th Century CE, including stone and bronze sculptures, terracotta heads and costumes.

In addition, the Ministry was setting up a museum dedicated to the freedom struggle at a renovated barrack at the Red Fort. The museum would be completed by the end of 2021 at a cost of Rs. 13 crore, the Minister’s reply said.

“The museum will narrate the story of the country’s freedom struggle in an interactive manner with more emphasis on the unheard stories of people’s participation in India’s freedom movement representing contribution of all regions,” the reply said.

Another museum being developed at the Red Fort by end of October would showcase arms and armour of India through the ages . The Ministry is also in the process of setting up a museum dedicated to freedom fighters at the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata, called ‘Biplobi Bharat’, in August, and the Prime Ministers’ Museum at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library by October.

Taliban gains complicate India’s options #GS2 #IR

Even by the most pessimistic prognoses of the situation, the fall of major Afghan cities and provinces to the Taliban has been swift, and the impact on India’s interests is coming clearly into focus.

The first concern is for Indian diplomats, personnel and citizens based in Afghanistan, and over the past year, since it became clear that the U.S. troops would leave the country, India has pared down its diplomatic presence there. In April 2020, the government flew home all Indian staff at its missions in Herat and Jalalabad, given the security and COVID-19 concerns. In the past month, consulates in Kandahar and Mazar have been closed as well, and the Kabul Embassy, the only working mission, has issued stern advisories telling all Indian citizens they must take commercial flights out at the earliest.

The External Affairs Ministry has said that it has already helped more than 383 members of the Hindu and Sikh community to “return” to India, and will provide assistance to any of these minorities. However, it is unclear, especially in light of the government’s push for the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) that does not include other persecuted Afghan citizens, whether India will welcome thousands of others, in the manner it did in the past.

With the Taliban in power in much of Afghanistan, India has other concerns as well. One worry is that groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad could now have more ungoverned spaces to carry out attacks against India. The Taliban’s control will also mean a bigger hand for the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies to influence outcomes for the country, which will mandate a much smaller role for Indian development and infrastructure work that has won it goodwill over the past 20 years.

In addition, trade through Afghanistan under a Taliban regime would be routed through Karachi and Gwadar, and the Indian investment in the Chabahar port, meant to circumvent Pakistan, may become unviable. In addition, there is the threat of growing radicalisation and space for pan-Islamic terror groups in India’s neighbourhood.

India has four options

Given all these concerns, India has four options, none of which are easy, nor without repercussions. The first option is to stick to its principle of backing only a democratically-elected government in Kabul, and providing political and humanitarian support while that lasts.

The second one would be to go further and supply the ANDSF with military supplies, including ammunition and air power, possibly via the Iranian route. In an interview to NDTV on Friday, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen threatened consequences for India if it did that, however.

The third would be to accelerate contacts with the Taliban. However, this is unlikely to give India much leverage, given the Pakistan factor, as well as the fact that all regional and donor countries have already done so.

Finally, India could simply wait and watch, until the chaos of conflict reveals a winning side, and weigh its options accordingly. This option seems expedient, but it also denies India relevance at the “high table” where Afghanistan’s future is being discussed, especially the “Troika-plus” grouping of special envoys of U.S.-Russia-China with Pakistan, that met again this week, while India was included in a group at Doha of more distant countries with a much lower stake in the future of Afghanistan.

AB-PMJAY gave Rs. 2,794 cr. for COVID treatment #GS2 #Governance

Under the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (AB PM-JAY), the Union government’s health insurance scheme, approximately 20.32 lakh COVID-19 tests and 7.08 lakh treatments were authorised from April 2020 to July 2021. The total value of the tests and treatment stood at Rs. 2,794 crore, a senior official told The Hindu .

While several States had made testing and even treatment of COVID-19 free, the cover allowed beneficiaries to avail free testing and treatment across all empanelled hospitals — both public and private. “Besides this, State governments were provided with the flexibility of modifying the Ayushman packages as per the local requirements,” said the official.

‘Dynamic response’

The National Health Authority (NHA) is the nodal agency responsible for the nationwide roll-out and implementation of the AB PM-JAY scheme. It noted that the response towards COVID-19 had been dynamic, keeping pace with the spread of the disease. The prevalence of the disease had not followed a uniform pattern across States.

“All Ayushman beneficiaries are eligible,” said the NHA in a statement while explaining that the NHA provided flexibility to States to deploy ways and means to ensure that beneficiaries availed free COVID-19 testing and treatment under the scheme. “The priority was to ensure that no beneficiary is denied entitlement to free testing and treatment under AB PM-JAY,” it added.

Many State governments decided to make COVID-19 testing and treatment free under the scheme for all the residents. While some of them used the Ayushman Bharat PM-JAY ecosystem, including the IT platform, others also made it free but without recording the transaction on the NHA’s IT platform.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry on Friday noted that the Union Cabinet had approved a new scheme — India COVID-19 Emergency Response & Health System Preparedness Package: Phase-II (ECRP-II package) — on July 8, 2021 amounting to Rs. 23,123 crore.

“To fast-track the implementation of the ECRP-II, on July 22 this year, Rs. 1,827.80 crore was released to the stakeholders as 15% advance to undertake preparatory activities. Further, 35% funds are being released on Friday to the States and Union Territories, thus, making a total of 50% release of funds so as to ensure implementation of critical activities at the State and District levels to prepare the public healthcare systems in response to the evolving pandemic,” said the release.

This scheme is a Centrally sponsored scheme with some Central sector components.

Intranasal vaccine gets nod for phase 2/3 trials #GS3 #SnT

Bharat Biotech’s BBV154 intranasal vaccine has become the first of its kind to receive the regulatory approval for phase 2/3 trials, according to a release issued by the Ministry of Science and Technology on Friday.

“This is the first of its kind COVID-19 jab to undergo human clinical trials in India. BBV154 is an intranasal replication-deficient chimpanzee adenovirus SARS-CoV-2 vectored vaccine. The company has in-licensed technology from Washington University in St. Louis, USA,” said the release.

The development of the vaccine was supported by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and its PSU, Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC), the release stated.

As per information released by the Ministry, phase 1 clinical trial has been completed. “The company reports that the doses of the vaccine administered to healthy volunteers in the Phase I clinical trial, has been well tolerated. Previously, the vaccine was found to be safe, immunogenic and well tolerated in the pre-clinical toxicity studies. The vaccine was able to elicit high level of neutralising antibodies in animal studies,” noted the release.

Safety, efficacy

Renu Swarup, Secretary, DBT and Chairperson, BIRAC, said the department, through Mission COVID Suraksha, was committed to developing safe and efficacious COVID-19 vaccines.

Govt. allows GM soy meal import to support poultry industry #GS3 #Environment

There was some relief for the beleaguered poultry industry this week with the Union government deciding to allow the import of crushed genetically modified (GM) soybean, which is a major ingredient of poultry feed. However, environmental activists have raised concerns about the permission given for something derived from a genetically modified plant to enter the human food chain, given that India’s regulatory system has yet to approve GM foods.

The poultry industry has been crushed by multiple disasters over the last year and a half. In January 2020, a false rumour that COVID-19 could be spread by eating chicken meat led to a crash in demand. If the losses in both the broiler and layer sectors are included — that is, both meat and eggs — it amounted to Rs. 28,000 crore, according to All India Poultry Breeders Association chairman Bahadur Ali. A year later, avian flu cases led to another crash, followed by a crippling rise in the prices of poultry feed.

“Poultry feed makes up 65% of the cost of production for the farmer. Soy meal [which is left over after oil is extracted from the bean] is the main protein ingredient in the feed, especially for broilers. Over the last three to four years, soy meal has been available at an average cost of Rs. 34 to 36/kg. This month, it shot up to Rs. 96/kg,” said Mr. Ali.

The poultry industry has been lobbying for the import of soy meal to tide over domestic shortages and tame prices, but have been stymied by the grey area of regulation regarding genetically modified ingredients.

On August 10, the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying (DAHD) notified the Customs Department that soy meal and oil cake from GM soy would be permitted for import. In a letter to the poultry breeders, the DAHD cited the Environment Ministry, saying it had no objection “since soya de-oiled and crushed cake did not contain any living organism”.

The Coalition for a GM-Free India, which includes consumer rights groups and sustainable farming groups, termed the decision “highly objectionable and legally untenable”. It noted that the 1989 rules of the Environment Protection Act applied not just to GM organisms, but also products and substances thereof.

Are the Taliban on the brink of victory? #GS2 #IR

The speed with which the Taliban have seized Afghanistan’s key cities has triggered fears that Kabul could fall to the Islamist insurgents sooner than many had expected earlier. The Taliban now control at least 17 provincial capitals, including Kandahar and Herat, the second and third largest cities in the country, and are pressing on with their offensive. In many places, government troops retreated en masse .

The map showing who controls which part of Afghanistan is changing by the hour. If the government had controlled all 34 provincial capitals and more than half of the country’s 421 districts before May 1, the Taliban are now firmly in control of more than 60% of territories.

According to the Longwar Journal , 242 Afghan districts are now controlled by the Taliban, while the government has 65 districts under its control. The rest are contested. The Taliban captured Zaranj, the first city, on August 6. In eight days, they have taken 17 provincial capitals.

Taliban’s strategy

When international troops started withdrawing on May 1, the Taliban started an offensive in the north, northeast and western districts of Afghanistan. The plan appeared to be consolidating their position in the hinterlands as well as surrounding the big cities. The Taliban captured most districts in Badakshan and Takhar provinces, which had hosted the Northern Alliance that continued to fight the Taliban during 1996-2001.

After capturing the districts, the Taliban turned their focus to the border crossings. They seized the Sher Khan Bandar crossing with Tajikistan, which was partly built with U.S. funds, the Islam Qila crossing with Iran and Spin Boldak with Pakistan. By taking these crossings, the Taliban squeezed the Kabul government out of critical revenues, leaving a financial blow. The control over the northern border would also allow the insurgents to check potential aid coming from neighbouring countries to their enemies in the future if a 1990s-type civil war breaks out.

After taking the districts and key border crossings, the Taliban turned fighting towards the cities. They had already laid siege to the main cities such as Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz and Ghazni.

All they had to do was to start an all-out offensive breaking through government defences. They first took smaller cities in the north and then moved to the bigger ones such as Herat and Kandahar. The plan appears to isolate and surround Kabul to force the government of Ashraf Ghani to surrender or launch an offensive on the city.

Is Kabul in danger?

The fall of Ghazni, Herat and Kandahar are the heaviest setbacks to the government so far in the war. Ghazni sits on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, roughly 150 km south of Kabul, linking the Taliban-controlled areas with the capital city. The way Ghazni fell surprised many. The Governor of the province, Daud Laghmani, handed over his office to a senior Taliban commander without any resistance. “He gave a flower to the Taliban commander and congratulated him,” an official in the Governor’s office told the Wall Street Journal .

Ghazni fell on the morning of August 12, and in the evening, Herat was also in the Taliban’s control. Within hours of Herat’s fall, the jihadists took Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. Clearly, the Taliban are encircling Kabul from all sides. The Taliban’s advances have pushed foreign governments into swift action.

The U.S. and the U.K. are sending more troops to evacuate their diplomats and civilians from the country. India recently closed its consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif. Earlier in the week, Afghanistan’s acting Defence Minister Khalid Payenda quit his job and left the country, which speaks of the mood in the government.

The U.S. intelligence, which had earlier concluded that Kabul could fall within six months, revised its assessment that the Taliban could capture the capital within 90 days, according to the Washington Post . The situation looks a lot worse than what it was in 1989 when the Soviet troops pulled back after 10 years of military intervention in Afghanistan.

The Communist government of Muhammed Najibullah clung on to power in Kabul for three more years, despite repeated attacks by the Mujahideen, who were backed by the ISI and the CIA. Najibullah’s regime fell in 1992, only after supplies from Moscow dried up following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. It took four more years for the Taliban to reach Kabul in 1996. Now, with the U.S. occupation set to end in two weeks, the Taliban seem to be eyeing Kabul before the winter sets in.

Vehicle-scrappage policy will promote circular economy: PM #GS3 #Economy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled the National Automobile Scrappage Policy and said the initiative will promote a circular economy and make the process of economic development more sustainable and environment friendly.

The policy, aimed at recycling old and unfit vehicles, will give a new identity to India’s mobility and auto sector, Mr. Modi said in his address while virtually unveiling the initiative during an ‘Investors Summit’ organised in Gandhinagar.

The summit, which saw the participation of potential investors and industry players, was organised to attract investment for setting up vehicle-scrapping infrastructure under the Voluntary Vehicle Fleet Modernisation Programme, as per an official release. “This policy will play a major role in removing unfit vehicles from our roads in a scientific manner. It will modernise the vehicular population on our city roads,” he added.

Under this policy, people who give their old vehicles for turning them into scrap, will be given a certificate by the government, he said.

People having this certificate will not be charged any registration fee on the purchase of a new vehicle, said Mr. Modi, adding that such vehicle owners will also be entitled for some rebate on road tax. The policy would attract an investment of Rs. 10,000 crore and create thousands of employment opportunities.