Daily Current Affairs - Civil Services - 15-04-2021

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Useful compilation of Civil Services oriented - Daily Current Affairs - Civil Services - 15-04-2021

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    • SECTION 1 - TEN NEWS HEADLINES
  1. Indian Politics - Covid update - India registered 2,00,739 fresh Covid-19 infections on 15-04-2021, a record high since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2021. This is the highest single-day increase in terms of the new Covid cases that India has ever seen. More than one thousand Indians lost their lives in the last 24 hours. The official health bulletin released by the Centre shows that 1,038 individuals died due to Covid-19. This is the 9th consecutive day when India has seen more than 1 lakh new corona infections. In a matter of 11 days, India doubled the new infections from 1 lakh daily caseload to 2-lakh mark. The present wave seems to be a result of the double-mutant variant running wild, and it may soon be considered a VOC - variant of concern.
  2. Science and Technology - Aluminium-Air Battery - State-owned Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. has entered into a joint venture with Israel-based battery technology startup, Phinergy to develop aluminium-air technology based battery systems for electric vehicles and stationary storage, as well as hydrogen storage solutions. Top automakers, including Maruti Suzuki and Ashok Leyland, have already signed letters of intent with the newly formed joint venture to commercially deploy the battery solutions produced by IOC Phinergy. Aluminium-air batteries are said to be a lower cost and more energy-dense alternative to lithium-ion batteries which are currently in widespread use for electric vehicles in India. Aluminium-air batteries utilise oxygen in the air which reacts with an aluminium hydroxide solution to oxidise the aluminium and produce electricity. Such electric vehicles are expected to offer much greater range of 400 km or more per battery compared to lithium-ion batteries which currently offer a range of 150-200 km per full charge. The aluminium plate in an aluminium-air battery is converted into aluminium trihydroxide over time and that aluminium can be reclaimed from aluminium trihydroxide or even traded directly for industrial uses. Such batteries are also expected to be significantly cheaper than lithium-ion batteries, thereby reducing the cost of electric vehicle. But they cannot be recharged like lithium-ion batteries. Therefore, large scale use of aluminium-air battery based vehicles would require the wide availability of battery swapping stations.
  3. Indian Economy - KGDWN-98/2 BLOCK - The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) has called on buyers to bid for natural gas from the Deepwater fields of the KGDWN-98/2 block off of the east coast of India. ONGC is set to supply about 2 Million Metric Standard Cubic Metres per Day (MMSCMD) of natural gas from the fields starting at the end of June. The ramping up of production from the KG-DWN 98/2 block by ONGC is a key component of the government’s plan to boost domestic production with the block expected to reach peak production of 15 MMSCMD by 2024. This would account for about a 20 per cent increase above the company’s current production level of about 70 MMSCMD. Natural gas production from the Krishna Godavari basin is a key part of India’s plans to reduce import dependence by boosting domestic production. India currently imports about half of its natural gas requirements of 175 MMSCMD.
  4. Social Issues - The NSCS portal - Government of India launched the “Online Grievance Management Portal of National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC)”. This NCSC Grievance Management portal would make it easier for Scheduled Castes population to register their complaint from any part of the country. The portal is designed in collaboration with the Bhaskaracharya Institute for Space Applications and Geoinformatics (BISAG-N), a Centre of Excellence under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) was set up under the Article 338 of the Constitution of India with the objective to investigate and monitor all issues pertaining to the safeguards provided for the Scheduled Castes under any law for the time being in force or under any order of the Government of India.
  5. Science and Technology - Electronic nose for H2S detection - Scientists have developed an electronic nose with biodegradable polymer and monomer that can detect hydrogen sulphide (H2S), a poisonous, corrosive, and flammable gas produced from swamps and sewers. H2S is the primary gas produced from the microbial breakdown of organic matter in the absence of oxygen, and this necessitates easy detection of its emission from sewers and swamps. Responding to this challenge, scientists from the Centre for Nano and Soft Matter Sciences (CeNS), Bangalore, an autonomous institute of the DST have developed an exceptionally sensitive and selective H2S Gas sensor developed by impersonating the neuron responsible for identification of airborne molecules or olfactory receptor neuron (ORN). The fabricated sensor consists of a heterostructure consisting of two layers – the top layer a monomer and is realized with a novel chemical tris (keto-hydrazone), which is both porous and contains H2S specific functional groups, and the bottom layer is the active channel layer which plays a key role in altering the current and mobility of charge carriers.
  6. Science and Technology - Supress the new mutant viruses fast - Experts are opining that the rise of new mutant SARS-CoV-2 viruses has created a new problem for India, and active suppression must be done. Such efforts should be accompanied by - (a) genomic surveillance programs to identify and quickly characterise emerging variants in as many countries as possible around the world, (b) rapid large-scale “second-generation” vaccine programs and increased production capacity that can support equity in vaccine distribution, (c) studies of vaccine effectiveness on existing and new variants of concern. (d) adapting public health measures (such as double masking) and re-committing to health system arrangements (such as ensuring personal protective equipment for health staff), (e) behavioural, environmental, social and systems interventions, such as enabling ventilation, distancing between people, and an effective find, test, trace, isolate and support system. COVID-19 variants of concern have changed the game. The world needs to recognise and act on this if future waves of infections are to be avoided.
  7. Environment and Ecology - Reducing risk of Zoonosis in food production - The World Health Organization (WHO), World Organization for Animal Health and the United Nations Environment Programme have laid down fresh guidelines for governments to reduce the risk of transmission of zoonotic pathogens to humans in food production and marketing chains. Covid-19 has brought new attention to this threat, given the magnitude of its consequences. A zoonosis is an infectious disease that jumps from a non-human animal to humans. Zoonotic pathogens may be bacterial, viral or parasitic. They can spread to humans through direct contact or through food, water and the environment. Concern - Animals, particularly wild animals, are the source of more than 70% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans, many of which are caused by novel viruses. Most emerging infectious diseases – such as Lassa fever, Marburg hemorrhagic fever, Nipah viral infections and other viral diseases – have wildlife origins. Significant problems can arise when traditional food markets allow the sale and slaughter of live animals, especially wild animals, which cannot be properly assessed for potential risks – in areas open to the public. Such environments provide the opportunity for animal viruses, including coronaviruses, to amplify themselves and transmit to new hosts, including humans.
  8. Environment and Ecology - Indian Rhino Vision 2020 - The Indian Rhino Vision 2020 (IRV2020) program has come to a close with the recent translocation of two rhinos to Manas National Park in Assam. It was the eighth round of rhino translocation under IRV2020. Launched in 2005, Indian Rhino Vision 2020 was an ambitious effort to attain a wild population of at least 3,000 greater one-horned rhinos spread over seven protected areas in the Indian state of Assam by the year 2020. Seven protected areas are Kaziranga, Pobitora, Orang National Park, Manas National Park, Laokhowa wildlife sanctuary, Burachapori wildlife sanctuary and Dibru Saikhowa wildlife sanctuary. Wild-to-wild translocations were an essential part of IRV2020 – moving rhinos from densely populated parks like Kaziranga NP, to ones in need of more rhinos, like Manas NP. It is a collaborative effort between various organisations, including the International Rhino Foundation, Assam’s Forest Department, Bodoland Territorial Council, World Wide Fund - India, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
  9. Indian Economy - From Smbhav to Asmbhav - Over six lakh small Indian traders and sellers have organised an event to protest against alleged unfair practices of foreign e-commerce players. The event called 'Asmbhav', or 'impossible' in Hindi, coincides with the first day of Amazon's virtual summit named 'Smbhav', or 'possible'. 'Asmbhav' summit seeks to highlight the challenges traders face while selling online to foreign retailers. Indian traders, who are a crucial part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's support base, have long alleged that Amazon and Walmart Inc's Flipkart benefit a few big sellers and that the companies engage in predatory pricing that harms their businesses. The companies say they comply with all laws. Amazon has said it "does not give preferential treatment to any seller on its marketplace". The latest dispute comes as India also considers revising foreign investment rules for e-commerce which could force companies like Amazon to rework the relationships it has with big sellers.
  10. Governance and Institutions - Internet needs new rules around the world: Facebook - Facebook India head Ajit Mohan said the internet needs new rules, not just in India but around the world. "We operated for a very long time with not enough clarity on...traffic lights...we should think...about how we navigate complex issues where there are competing trade-offs," he said. Organisations should be more transparent about how they use customer data, he added.
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    • SECTION 2 - DAILY CURRENT AFFAIRS
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    • 1. ECONOMY (Prelims, GS Paper 3, Essay paper)
Privatizing government banks in India
  1. The story: Banking plays a very important economic role in India, and is a key driving force in any economy. However, in recent years, the Indian banking sector has witnessed multiple Public Sector Banks (PSBs) facing huge challenges due to high Non-Performing Assets (NPAs). Due to this, suggestions that the government ought to privatize PSBs were made. Now, the RBI and the government are contemplating privatizing some banks.
  • Be careful: Before taking any major decision, the government has to consider the pros and cons of PSBs remaining nationalized, or getting privatised. Expert opinion exists for merits in both. We present an analysis below.
  • Pro nationalisation:
  1. Banks in India were nationalized for the first time in 1969. Before that, they had been lending majority of their funds (67%) to industry and virtually nothing to agriculture. The commercial banks couldn’t lend money to farmers because they were only present in less than 1% of villages. Farmers were thus out of the mainstream, and unable to get bank loans just when the Green Revolution was getting underway and they needed credit to buy the expensive inputs required to increase output.
  2. So nationalizing banks (by Indira Gandhi government) helped in the democratization of banking services of the masses. Public banks opened more branches, ATMs, banking facilities, etc. even in the non-profitable rural areas of India or the poorer sides where the possibility of getting big deposits or making money is less.
  3. Most East Asian success stories have been underpinned by financial systems effectively controlled by governments. The governments of western countries, where banking is largely in the hands of the private sector, have had to rescue private banks from bankruptcy.
  4. Government ownership of banking in India created the right environment for large-scale public service functions like the opening of crores of Jan-Dhan accounts, or the launch of mega public goods distribution schemes (DBT into Aadhar-linked accounts for Ujjwala scheme, etc.)
  5. Nationalised banks work for social justice, via reservations for the disadvantaged classes of India viz., SCs, STs and OBCs. Private sector has no such function, and privatisation of a nationalised bank would mean a reverse jolt for social equality efforts.
  • Pro privatisation:
  1. Privatization means selling wholly or partially a government-owned company to the private sector, or transferring ownership to the private sector.
  2. This step was first truly contemplated as a part of a new economic policy commencing 1991, to liberalize India’s economy from being a relatively closed one. Various committees formed to assess the Indian banking situation also recommended moving in this direction (Narsimham Committee, etc.)
  3. In recent years, the banking system has been overburdened with the non-performing assets (NPAs), the majority of them lying in the public sector banks. PSBs are dually controlled by RBI (under the RBI Act, 1934) and Finance Ministry (under the Banking Regulation Act, 1949). The RBI does not have all the powers over PSBs that it has over private sector banks, such as the power to revoke a banking license, merge a bank, shut down a bank, or penalize the board of directors.
  4. Further, public sector bank boards are still not adequately professionalized, as the government still has a major say in board appointments. This creates an issue of politicization and interference in the normal functioning of Banks, resulting in the practice called telephone banking, whereby the politicians ringing bank officials with instructions to lend money to their cronies.
  5. Private banks are profit-driven whereas the business of PSBs is disrupted by government schemes like farm loan waivers etc. If the corporate sector is allowed to dominate banking again, profit will become the prime motive rather than the desire to serve the public.
  • Way forward: In order to improve the governance and management of PSBs, there is a need to implement the recommendations of the PJ Nayak committee. There is a need to follow prudential norms for lending and effective resolution of NPAs. In this context, the establishment of the bad bank and speedy resolution of NPAs through the Insolvency Bankruptcy Code may be steps in the right direction, if executed properly. Also, rather than blind privatization, PSBs can be made into a corporation like Life Insurance Corporation (LIC). While maintaining government ownership, will give more autonomy to PSBs.
  • Caution: Even though the private sector banks have better balance sheets than PSBs, it is very important to consider that privatization alone would not solve all of the problems faced by the sector. A better solution than privatization may well be giving PSBs autonomy to reform themselves and function free of political interference. And private sector is no paragon of virtue, as the tales of misdemeanours emerging from the YES! Bank fiasco clearly showed (it had to be rescued by a public sector bank).
  • Knowledge centre:
  1. Early history of banking in India - 1770 - The first bank established in India – Bank of Hindostan (by agency house of Alexander & Company) (failed 1832) | 1786 - The second bank in India is established - General Bank of India (failed in 1791) | 1806 - East India Company established Bank of Bengal (1806), Bank of Bombay (1840) and Bank of Madras (1843) as independent units and called it Presidency Banks | 1865 - Allahabad Bank established (by Europeans) | 1894 - Punjab National Bank established at Lahore | 1906-1913 - Bank of India, Central Bank of India, Bank of Baroda, Canara Bank, Indian Bank, and Bank of Mysore set up | 1920 - The three Presidency Banks merged into Imperial Bank of India (mostly European shareholders) | 1935 - The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) set up in 1935 (based on recommendations of Hilton Young Commission) | 1913-1948 - Periodic failure of banks, more than 1100 existing (mostly small) | 1949 - The Banking Companies Act, 1949 enacted, later changed to Banking Regulation Act 1949 as per amending Act of 1965 (Act No. 23 of 1965) | RBI nationalised on 01-01-1949 | 1955 - Nationalisation of the Imperial Bank of India and changing it to State Bank of India (SBI) to act as the principal agent of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and to handle banking transactions of the Union and State Governments
  2. Nationalisation of banks in India - In 1955, nationalisation of the Imperial Bank of India and changing it to State Bank of India (SBI) to act as the principal agent of Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and to handle banking transactions of the Union and State Governments was done. Then, in 1959, seven banks forming subsidiary of State Bank of India (SBI) were nationalised. On 19th July, 1969, a total of 14 major commercial banks were nationalised by PM Indira Gandhi. Finally, in 1980, as part of second phase of nationalisation, Indian banking sector reforms were carried out in 1980 with seven more banks (with deposits over Rs.200 crore). This step brought 80% of the banking segment in India under Govt. ownership.
  3. Non Performing Assets (NPAs) - A NPA is a loan asset/account in which the principal or interest payment or both have remained overdue for a continuous period of more than 90 days. A SMA or Special Mention Account is the loan asset/account in which principal or interest payment or both are overdue but for a period less than 90 days. (It refers to an account which may be showing any other non-financial signs of stress. SMA is more of a precautionary measure to recognise a financial stress early and therefore take corrective action to contain that stress and prevent an account from turning into a NPA). Banks/FIs are required to set aside a portion of their income as provision for the loan assets so as to be prepared for any losses that may arise soon. The amount of provision to be kept by the bank/FI, will depend on the probability of loan recovery. This probability depends on asset classification of the loan. More than Rs.7.5 lakh crore were in NPA category in 2021.


 

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    • 2. ENVIRONMENT AND ECOLOGY (Prelims, GS Paper 3, Essay paper
Heat-trapping methane surged in 2020
  • The story: Methane concentrations in the atmosphere surged at a record rate in 2020, NOAA scientists announced yesterday. Aquatic ecosystems, many altered by human activities, played a surprisingly large role. The Earth-warming gas increased by 14.7 parts per billion, the largest annual rise since scientists started taking measurements in the 1980s.
  • Worries: So, it’s worrying news for the climate. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, especially in the short term. Over a 20-year period, its climate-warming potential is more than 80 times stronger than CO2. Recent increases in atmospheric methane have been a source of both concern and debate among scientists.
  1. Methane steadily rose in the atmosphere between 1983, when scientists first started measuring it, until about 2000, when it temporarily leveled off. Around 2007, concentrations abruptly started climbing again—and they’ve been rising ever since.
  2. Scientists have found it challenging to explain why. There are many sources of methane around the globe, some natural and some human-made. They include carbon-rich wetlands, oil and gas operations, and methane-belching cows. Many of these sources are notoriously difficult to monitor. That’s made it hard for scientists to pinpoint which ones are most responsible for the latest spikes.
  3. Recent research is slowly starting to reveal a clearer picture of what’s going on.
  • Wetlands contributing: One study in the journal 'Nature Geoscience' suggests that wetlands may account for a bigger proportion of global methane emissions than scientists previously believed. Aquatic ecosystems could be responsible for as much as half of the world’s methane emissions. That’s in contrast to other studies, which have suggested that direct human-caused emissions, such as the burning of fossil fuels, account for around 60% of all global methane emissions.
  1. The new research reassesses methane emissions from 15 kinds of aquatic ecosystems, including rivers, lakes, mangrove forests and rice paddies. It takes a bottom-up approach, estimating emissions from each individual source and then adding them together.
  2. The study suggests that aquatic ecosystems may account for a bigger share of global methane emissions than previous studies have indicated. They may be equally as important as direct human sources, or perhaps even more so.
  3. There are still many uncertainties about methane emissions from aquatic environments. But if the new research is on the right track, it still doesn’t mean that all of these emissions are completely natural. The study notes that human activities strongly influence methane emissions from aquatic sources.
  • Artificial systems: Human-made systems, like rice paddies or aquafarms, tend to produce higher emissions than natural ecosystems, like salt marshes or mangrove forests. Fertilizer and other agricultural waste can increase methane production when it runs off into nearby water systems. And other human disturbances, like dams, can also boost emissions.
  1. At the same time, there’s growing evidence that methane from some direct human sources may be higher than previous estimates suggest. A number of recent studies have suggested that methane leaks are widespread in oil and gas infrastructure and that these emissions are often much larger than official estimates would indicate.
  2. Although increased fossil emissions may not be fully responsible for the recent growth in methane levels, reducing fossil methane emissions are an important step toward mitigating climate change.
  3. Year 2020's methane jump is notable for more than one reason. Not only was it a record spike—it also happened despite the global shutdowns associated with the pandemic.
  • Did it drop: Studies suggest that global carbon dioxide emissions took a temporary dip in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. That said, CO2 levels still increased in the atmosphere in 2020, rising by about 2.6 parts per million. Even with the economic turndown, it was still the fifth-highest rate of increase on record. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide levels are still marching higher in 2021. In April 2021, the NOAA announced that atmospheric CO2 had exceeded 420 parts per million for the first time since scientists started taking measurements in the 1950s. Scientists believe that these levels are the highest the Earth has seen in several million years.
  • Knowledge centre:
  1. Greenhouse effect - The greenhouse effect is a natural process that warms the Earth's surface, via the so-called "greenhouse gases" (GHGs). These include water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, ozone and some artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The absorbed energy warms the atmosphere and the surface of the Earth. This effect is what made complex life possible on Earth. The process is called the greenhouse effect because the exchange of incoming and outgoing radiation that warms the planet works in a similar way to a greenhouse.
  2. Runaway greenhouse effect - If a planet is not able to "throw away" (radiate) thermal radiation but only goes on absorbing incoming radiation from the Sun, then it cannot cool itself, and a runaway greenhouse effect will happen. It is a greenhouse effect that keeps getting stronger until all of a planet's greenhouse gases are in its atmosphere, and all liquid water from surface vanishes. The planet Venus in our solar system has a surface temperature of about 900 degrees Fahrenheit (465 degrees Celsius), hot enough to melt lead. This is a result of the runaway greenhouse effect. On Earth, the Eocene, which occurred between 53 and 49 million years ago, was the Earth's warmest temperature period for 100 million years. However, this "super-greenhouse" eventually became an icehouse by the late Eocene.


 

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    • 3. FOREIGN AFFAIRS (Prelims, GS Paper 3, Essay paper)

The BIMSTEC story
  • The story: In 2021, the foreign ministers of BIMSTEC (the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) met in a virtual conference. This is the first ministerial since the globe has been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. For India's regional aspirations, this forum is important, though it is yet to gain enough traction.
  • What it is: The BIMSTEC as a regional organization has achieved a lot in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and security, including counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and coastal security cooperation. But there still are many obstacles that limit the regional body in realizing its full potential.
  • Highlights of the 2021 meeting: The foreign ministers cleared the draft for the BIMSTEC charter, recommending its early adoption, and endorsed the rationalization of sectors and sub-sectors of activity, with each member-state serving as a lead for the assigned areas of special interest. The ministers also conveyed their support for the Master Plan for Transport Connectivity, which will be adopted at the next summit in Sri Lanka. Preparations have been completed for the signing of three agreements relating to mutual legal assistance in criminal matters, cooperation between diplomatic academies, and the establishment of a technology transfer facility.
  • Evolution of BIMSTEC: It was first established as a grouping of four nations — India, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka — through the Bangkok Declaration of 1997, and expanded later to include three more countries — Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan.
  • Initially, BIMSTEC didn’t hold much geopolitical weight. This can be reflected by only just three summits in the first 20 years of its formation.
  • But BIMSTEC suddenly received special attention as India chose to treat it as a more practical instrument for regional cooperation, as SAARC continues to remain defunct.
  • BIMSTEC Leaders’ Retreat, followed by their Outreach Summit with the BRICS leaders in Goa in October 2016, drew considerable international limelight to the low-profile regional grouping. At the second swearing-in of Modi in May 2019, the leaders of BIMSTEC, not SAARC, were invited as honored guests.
  • The Gujral Doctrine - India would have to counter the impression that BIMSTEC is an India-dominated bloc, in that context India can follow the Gujral doctrine that intends to chalk out the effect of transactional motive in bilateral relations.
  • Challenges: The BIMSTEC Free Trade Area Framework Agreement is an unfinished agenda, as it was signed in 2004, but over 20 rounds of negotiations it is still to be operationalized. A strong BIMSTEC presupposes cordial and tension-free bilateral relations among all its member-states. This has not been the case, given the trajectory of India-Nepal, India-Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh-Myanmar ties in recent years. But both Nepal and Sri Lanka want the SAARC summit revived. However, India maintains that terror and talks can’t go hand in hand.
  • China: China’s decisive intrusion in the South-Southeast Asian space is causing a limiting effect on India’s zone of influence. A Bangladeshi scholar argued at a recent conference that BIMSTEC would make progress if China is accepted as its principal interlocutor and partner. The military coup in Myanmar, brutal crackdown of protesters, and continuation of popular resistance resulting in a protracted impasse have produced a new set of border management challenges for India.
  • The road ahead: A BIMSTEC FTA must be pushed hard. It should cover trade in goods, services, and investment; promote regulatory harmonization; adopt policies that develop regional value chains, and eliminate non-tariff barriers. India has led through constant focus and follow-up — to the extent that some member-states have complained about the ‘over securitization of BIMSTEC. Hence, there is a need to ensure maintaining security and forging solid arrangements for economic cooperation. As BIMSTEC readies itself to celebrate the silver jubilee of its formation next year, it faces a serious challenge: to effect “a paradigm shift in raising the level of our cooperation and regional integration.”
  • Knowledge centre:
  1. APEC - APEC is the premier Asia-Pacific economic forum, with the primary goal to support sustainable economic growth and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. The idea of APEC was firstly publicly broached by former Prime Minister of Australia Bob Hawke during a speech in Seoul, Korea, on 31 January 1989. The founding members were Australia; Brunei Darussalam; Canada; Indonesia; Japan; Korea; Malaysia; New Zealand; the Philippines; Singapore; Thailand; and the United States. Later, China; Hong Kong, China; and Chinese Taipei joined in 1991. Mexico and Papua New Guinea followed in 1993. Chile acceded in 1994. And in 1998, Peru; Russia; and Viet Nam joined, taking the full membership to 21. Between 1989 and 1992, APEC met as an informal senior official- and ministerial-level dialogue. In 1993, former US President Bill Clinton established the practice of an annual APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting to provide greater strategic vision and direction for cooperation in the region.
  2. RCEP - In order to broaden and deepen the engagement among East Asian countries, and to enhance parties’ participation in economic development of the region, the leaders of 16 participating countries (minus 1) established the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), on 15th Nov. 2020. The RCEP was built upon the existing ASEAN+1 FTAs with the spirit to strengthen economic linkages and to enhance trade and investment related activities as well as to contribute to minimising development gap among the parties. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has free trade agreements with six partners namely People’s Republic of China (ACFTA), Republic of Korea (AKFTA), Japan (AJCEP), India (AIFTA) as well as Australia and New Zealand (AANZFTA). All fifteen (except India) are a part of RCEP now. The 15 member countries account for about 30% of the world's population (2.2 billion people) and 30% of global GDP ($26.2 trillion) as of 2020, making it the biggest trade bloc in history.


 

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    • 4. GOVERNMENT SCHEMES (Prelims, GS Paper 2, Essay paper)

Data Protection Regime (DPR) in India
  • Pandemic, digital and protection: The Covid-19 pandemic automatically increased people’s participation in the digital economy. Unfortunately, the number of personal data breaches from major digital service providers has increased worryingly in the same period. While the EU and other nations have legislated proper data protection laws, India has none till date.
  • The first signals: The need for a more robust data protection legislation came to the fore in 2017 post the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment in Justice K.S. Puttaswamy (Retd) v. Union of India established the right to privacy as a fundamental right. In the 9-0 judgment, the Court called for a data protection law that can effectively protect users’ privacy over their personal data. So, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology formed a Committee of Experts under the Chairmanship of Justice (Retd) B.N. Srikrishna to suggest a draft data protection law.
  • Mobikwik breach: The March 2021 data breach at fintech firm MobiKwik was perhaps India’s biggest breach with the data of 9.9 crore users at risk. Given the significance of data in this age, robust data protection regimes are necessary to prevent such events and protect users’ interests. Presently, how different entities collect and process users’ personal data in India is mainly governed by the Information Technology Act, 2000, but this data protection regime falls short of providing effective protection to users and their personal data.
  • PDP pending: The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 (which is now under scrutiny by a Joint Parliamentary Committee) could play a big role in providing robust protections to users and their personal data.
  • Associated issues:
  1. Consent - Data aggregator entities could override the protections in the regime by taking users’ consent to process personal data under broad terms and conditions. This is problematic given that users might not understand the terms and conditions or the implications of giving consent.
  2. Data Privacy poof - The frameworks under IT Act emphasize data security but do not place enough emphasis on data privacy. While entities must employ technical measures to protect personal data, they have weaker obligations to respect users’ preferences in how personal data can be processed.
  3. Data Protection poof - The data protection provisions under the IT Act also do not apply to government agencies. This creates a large vacuum for data protection when governments are collecting and processing large amounts of personal data.
  4. Obsolete - The IT Act was enacted in 2000 and further amended in 2008. However, technology and cross-platform integration have increased exponentially. So, the current data protection regime seems to have become inadequate in addressing risks emerging from new developments in data processing technology.
  • How PDP helps: This Bill brings a meaningful change to personal data protection in India through this regime. The proposed regime under the Bill seeks to be different from the existing regime in some prominent ways.
  1. Roles defined - The Bill envisages codifying the relationship between individuals and firms/state institutions as one between “data principals” (whose information is collected) and “data fiduciaries” (those processing the data) so that privacy is safeguarded by design. The Bill seeks to apply the data protection regime to both government and private entities across all sectors.
  2. Privacy focus - The Bill seeks to emphasize that data principals will have to maintain security safeguards to protect personal data and also have to fulfill a set of data protection obligations and transparency and accountability measures.
  3. Citizens rights - The Bill seeks to give users a set of rights over their personal data and means to exercise those rights. For instance, a user will be able to obtain information about the different kinds of personal data that an entity has about them and how the entity is processing that data.
  4. Regulator - The Bill seeks to create an independent and powerful regulator known as the Data Protection Authority (DPA). The DPA will monitor and regulate data processing activities to ensure their compliance with the regime. The DPA will give users a channel to seek redress when entities do not comply with their obligations under the regime.
  • Associated issues: Many provisions in the Bill create cause for concern about the regime’s effectiveness. These provisions could contradict the objectives of the Bill by giving wide exemptions to government agencies and diluting user protection safeguards. For instance, under clause 35, the Central government can exempt any government agency from complying with the Bill. Government agencies will then be able to process personal data without following any safeguard under the Bill. This could create severe privacy risks for users. Similarly, users could find it difficult to enforce various user protection safeguards (such as rights and remedies) in the Bill. The Bill threatens legal consequences for users who withdraw their consent for a data processing activity. This could discourage users from withdrawing consent for processing activities they want to opt-out of. The DPA will be tasked with regulating the provisions of the bill to frame regulations on issues such as mechanisms for taking consent, limitations on the use of data, and cross-border transfer of data. The supervisory mandate of the DPA is sweeping, given the fact that it has to regulate a wide array of preventive obligations, such as security safeguards and transparency requirements.
  • The road ahead: In this digital age, data is a valuable resource that should not be left unregulated. So to have have a robust data protection regime is crucial. The Joint Parliamentary Committee scrutinizing the Bill was expected to submit its final report in the Monsoon Session of Parliament in 2021. This interim period shall be utilized to make some changes in the Bill targeted towards addressing various concerns in it could make a stronger and more effective data protection regime.


 

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    • 5. POLITY AND CONSTITUTION (Prelims, GS Paper 2, GS Paper 3)
Laws of India, and the helpless Constitution
  • Strange laws, stranger reality: In 21st century India, the courts may soon have to deal with a string of absurdities, which involve clear violations of the Indian constitution, and principles therein. For example, can an individual standing trial accused of serious crimes pardon himself, pre-emptively? From first principles, this seems absurd. Another absurd question: Can such an under-trial person pardon other people for other crimes?
  • US case: The US president can pardon federal crimes and since he lost the election, Donald Trump has handed out many pardons. He now has the dubious distinction of being the only US president to be impeached twice. His trial in the Senate will take place after he remits office on January 20. Will he pardon himself before the Senate convenes for the impeachment? Will he hand out more pardons?
  1. It is understandable this unprecedented situation has never been debated in US Supreme Court rulings. The US Constitution is a wide-ranging document but nobody envisaged a scenario where a president was impeached for whipping up a mob that stormed Congress.
  2. So much for 21st century America. In 21st century India, the courts may soon have to deal with a string of absurdities, which involve clear violations of the Indian constitution.
  • Love Jihad: There’s the “Love Jihad” legislation in Uttar Pradesh, and some other states too. This interferes with the fundamental rights of adults to live with who they choose, and to follow, or ignore, or change, whatever religious practices they choose to follow, ignore, or change. India has a Special Marriage Act precisely because many Indians choose to marry without religious clutter. India also supposedly guarantees freedom of religion.
  • Comedy of law: There’s also the case of the stand-up comic jailed in Indore, not because he told an “offensive” joke but because somebody believes that he would have told an offensive joke if he hadn’t been prevented from doing so. This is not only a violation of freedom of expression; it is a violation based on telepathic knowledge about this person's 'future' speech. Another one from Madhya Pradesh is the proposal that women should inform the local police before stepping out of their houses and then be tracked by the police for their own safety. This is wrong, and violative in so many ways that it is difficult to parse.
  • Rights of Indians: Indians supposedly have the right to freedom, and the right to equality, which cuts across gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc. So why pick on women and circumscribe these rights? In passing, it is worth mentioning a large proportion of sexual assaults take place in the home. Tracking women outside the home ignores the existence of the creepy uncle who plays the lead role in so many rape stories. Policemen are also frequent offenders when it comes to sexual assault.
  • Of marriages: There’s also a clause in the Hindu Marriage Act, which allows men estranged from their wives to demand “restitution of conjugal rights”. Stripped of legal jargon, that’s the green signal for forced physical relationship. Since the institution of marriage is under the lens, maybe that clause is worth examining as well as it seems violative of fundamental rights?
  • Women and farmers' agitation: The Chief Justice of India himself had once suggested that women should not participate in the farmers’ agitation! ("why have they been kept at the protest sites?") Now, the 2011 Census indicated that 98 million women worked in agriculture. Ten years down the line, there are probably quite a few more. Why should women not have their say?
  • Biometrics: The latest proposal is that domestic workers in Noida (UP) should submit their biometrics to be stored in a mobile app that the police will use to track them. The privacy and consent of employer and employee will be violated, if this app goes through. This should not occur in a democracy which has a constitution that guarantees multiple fundamental rights. Since these things do seem to occur on a routine basis, a question arises: Is India really a democracy where citizens enjoy constitutional rights?
  • Judiciary, step up: The only pillar that can now stop this reverse slide is the judiciary of India. 


 

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    • 6. SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY (Prelims, Various GS Papers)
HGCO19: mRNA Vaccine Candidate
  • What it is: India's mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccine candidate - HGCO19 - has received additional government funding for its clinical studies. This funding has been awarded under the 'Mission Covid Suraksha’.
  • Points to note:
  1. HGCO19 - The novel mRNA vaccine candidate HGCO19 has been developed by Pune-based biotechnology company Gennova Biopharmaceuticals Ltd. in collaboration with HDT Biotech Corporation, USA. It has demonstrated safety, immunogenicity, neutralization antibody activity in the rodent and non-human primate models. Gennova has initiated the enrolment of volunteers for Phase 1/2 clinical trials for its vaccine candidate HGCO19.
  2. mRNA Vaccine vs Traditional vaccines - Vaccines work by training the body to recognise and respond to the proteins produced by disease-causing organisms, such as a virus or bacteria. Traditional vaccines are made up of small or inactivated doses of the whole disease-causing organism, or the proteins that it produces, which are introduced into the body to provoke the immune system into mounting a response. But the mRNA vaccines trick the body into producing some of the viral proteins itself. They work by using mRNA, or messenger RNA, which is the molecule that essentially puts DNA instructions into action. Inside a cell, mRNA is used as a template to build a protein.
  • How mRNA vaccines work: To produce a mRNA vaccine, scientists produce a synthetic version of the mRNA that a virus uses to build its infectious proteins. This mRNA is delivered into the human body, whose cells read it as instructions to build that viral protein, and therefore create some of the virus’s molecules themselves. These proteins are solitary, so they do not assemble to form a virus. The immune system then detects these viral proteins and starts to produce a defensive response to them.
  • Advantages of Using mRNA based vaccines: The mRNA vaccines are considered safe as mRNA is non-infectious, non-integrating in nature, and degraded by standard cellular mechanisms. They are highly efficacious because of their inherent capability of being translatable into the protein structure inside the cell cytoplasm. The mRNA vaccines are fully synthetic and do not require a host for growth, e.g., eggs or bacteria. Therefore, they can be quickly manufactured inexpensively to ensure their "availability" and "accessibility" for mass vaccination on a sustainable basis.
  • Mission Covid Suraksha: It is India’s targeted effort to enable the development of indigenous, affordable and accessible vaccines for the country. The Centre had announced this package during the third economic stimulus. The Mission with its end-to-end focus from preclinical development through clinical development and manufacturing and regulatory facilitation for deployment consolidate all available and funded resources towards accelerated product development. It is led by the Department of Biotechnology and implemented by a dedicated Mission Implementation Unit at Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC).
  • BIRAC: The Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) is a not-for-profit Section 8, Schedule B, Public Sector Enterprise. It has been set up by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) as an Interface Agency to strengthen and empower the emerging Biotech enterprise to undertake strategic research and innovation, addressing nationally relevant product development needs.
  • Knowledge centre:
  1. Viruses - A virus is a submicroscopic infectious agent that multiples only inside the living cells of an organism (unlike bacteris). Viruses can infect all life forms - animals, plants, microorganisms, bacteria and archaea. Both viruses and bacteria share a common ancestor – a fully functioning, self-replicating cell that lived around 3.4 billion years ago, shortly after life first emerged on the planet. From this cell, bacteria have evolved in the direction of increasing complexity, while viruses have gradually shed genes they found they didn’t need – until they could no longer even reproduce on their own. A key step in the virus evolutionary journey came about around 1.5 billion years ago, when 66 virus-specific protein folds came on the scene. These changes are to proteins in the virus’ outer coat – the machinery viruses use to break into host cells. Today’s bacteria and viruses have many proteins in common. Most viruses have either RNA or DNA as their genetic material. The nucleic acid may be single- or double-stranded. The entire infectious virus particle, called a virion, consists of the nucleic acid and an outer shell of protein. The simplest viruses contain only enough RNA or DNA to encode four proteins. An estimated 10 nonillion (10 to the 31st power) individual viruses exist on our planet—enough to assign one to every star in the universe 100 million times over.
  2. Spike proteins - The Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) behind the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 disease has a key biological characteristics of- the presence of spike proteins that allow these viruses to penetrate host cells and cause infection. The coronavirus spike protein is a class I fusion protein. Their spike proteins work a bit like shape-shifting lock picks. They can change shape to interact with a protein on the surface of human cells. The spike protein (S protein) is a large type I transmembrane protein ranging from 1,160 amino acids for avian infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) and up to 1,400 amino acids for feline coronavirus. A notable distinction between the spike proteins of different coronaviruses is whether it is cleaved or not during assembly and exocytosis of virions.


 

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    • 7. SOCIAL ISSUES (Prelims, GS Paper 2)
Decriminalising begging in India
  • The story: The Supreme Court of India has asked the Centre and four States to file their response on a plea seeking a direction to repeal the provisions criminalising begging. It has been argued in the plea that a person, who is compelled to beg due to certain circumstances, cannot be faulted for his actions. The Ministry of Railways has also proposed to decriminalise begging on trains or railway premises.
  • Points to note:
  1. Why decriminalising begging - An earlier judgment on decriminalisation was by the Delhi High Court, which had decriminalised begging in the national capital stating that provisions of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, which treats begging as an offence, cannot sustain constitutional scrutiny.
  2. Against Right To Life - The provisions of the statutes criminalising the act of begging put people in a situation to make an unreasonable choice between committing a crime or not committing one and starving, which goes against the very spirit of the Constitution and violates Article 21 i.e. Right to Life.
  3. Social security angle - The government is mandated to provide social security to everyone and ensure that all had basic facilities, as embedded in the Directives Principles of State Policy (DPSP) in the Constitution. The presence of beggars is evidence that the state has failed to provide basic facilities to all its citizens. Thus, it is irrational and not socialistic to punish the vulnerable.
  • Suggestion: The plea in SC has claimed that the 'Abolition of Begging and Rehabilitation of Beggars Bill 2018' had been introduced in the Lok Sabha but till now, this bill is not passed and is wedged in length parliamentary procedures. So, it must be fast forwarded. The petition has also sought directions to declare as “illegal and void” all provisions, except some sections, of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959, Punjab Prevention of Beggary Act, 1971, Haryana Prevention of Begging Act, 1971 and Bihar Prevention of Begging Act 1951. It has sought to declare all other similar Acts prevailing in any part of the country as illegal.
  • Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959: There is no central Act on beggary, many states and Union Territories have used the Bombay Act as the basis for their own laws. The Act defines a “beggar” as anyone having no visible means of subsistence, and wandering about or remaining in any public place in such condition or manner, as makes it likely that the person doing so exists by soliciting or receiving alms. “Begging” under the Act includes soliciting or receiving alms in a public place, whether or not under any pretence of singing, dancing, fortune-telling, performing or offering any article for sale.
  1. The Act gives the police the power to arrest individuals without a warrant. It gives magistrates the power to commit them to a detention centre for up to three years on the commission of the first “offence”, and up to 10 years upon the second “offence”. Before that, it strips them of their privacy and dignity by compelling them to allow themselves to be fingerprinted. The Act also authorises the detention of the family of the beggar, and the separation of children over the age of five.
  2. Certified institutions or detention centres have absolute power over detainees, including the power of punishment, and the power to exact “manual work”. Disobeying the rules of the institution can land an individual in jail.
  • Beggars In India: The Census 2011 found the total number of beggars in India to be 4,13,670 (including 2,21,673 males and 1,91,997 females) and the number has increased from the last census. West Bengal topped the chart followed by Uttar Pradesh and Bihar at number two and three respectively. Lakshadweep merely has two vagrants according to the 2011 census. Among the union territories, New Delhi had the largest number of beggars 2,187 followed by 121 in Chandigarh. Among the northeastern states, Asam topped the chart with 22,116 beggars, while Mizoram ranked low with 53 beggars.
  • Road ahead: The Centre made an attempt at repealing the Act through the Persons in Destitution (Protection, Care and Rehabilitation) Model Bill, 2016, with provisions including doing away with the Beggary Act and proposing rehabilitation centres for the destitute in each district. The Persons in Destitution Bill, 2016, needs to see the light of the day. Bihar government’s Mukhyamantri Bhikshavriti Nivaran Yojana is a scheme worth emulation. The scheme, instead of detaining persons under the Act, provides for open homes and community outreach for destitute persons. Now, rehabilitation centres have been set up, with facilities for treatment, family reintegration and vocational training. The very real problem of organised begging rackets will have to be addressed by other means, perhaps based on the law of trafficking.


 

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      • 8. MISCELLANEOUS (Prelims, GS Paper 1, GS Paper 2)

    eFuel (electro fuels)
    • The story: The auto firm Porsche has joined hands with Siemens Energy to produce "eFuel" by 2022. The project of eFuel production is called Haru Oni project. It is based in Chile due to its windy climate. The joint project aims to produce 1,30,000 litres of eFuel by 2022. Later this is to be increased to 550 million by 2026.
    • What is eFuel: eFuel is a complex hydrocarbon. It is created based on the following process:
    1. Water is separated into hydrogen and oxygen using wind generated electricity.
    2. This hydrogen is then combined with the carbon dioxide filtered from the air to form methanol.
    3. The methanol is then converted into gasoline using ExxonMobil licensed technology.
    4.  The eFuel shall be used in any cars.
    5.  The cost of production of eFuel is 10 USD per litre. Over time, this is expected to come down to 2 USD per litre.
    6. The eFuel is a kind of Electro Fuel.
    • Electro Fuels: The Electro Fuels are the emerging class of carbon neutral fuels. They are also called Synthetic fuels. They are seen as an alternative to biofuels. They are made by storing electrical energy from renewable sources in chemical bonds of liquid of gas fuels. Audi is working on E-gasoline synthetic fuel. It is a liquid iso octane fuel. It is a carbon-neutral fuel. Also, E-Gasoline is free from sulphur and benzene. Audi is also working on E-diesel. E-diesel is also called Synthetic diesel. It is created from carbon dioxide, electricity and water with a process powered by renewable energy. This creates liquid energy carrier called blue crude (just like crude oil). The blue crude is refined to get e-diesel.


     

    Deadly algae kill 4,000 tonnes of Salmon in Chile
    • Mass destruction: Deadly algae have killed more than 4,000 tonnes of Salmon in Chile. The algal bloom in the water reduced the amount of oxygen suffocating the salmon fishes.
    • Impact: More than eighteen salmon fish farms that produce 26% of world salmon have been affected. What are the reasons for the death of the Salmons? The presence of urea and ammonia in the salmon farms led to the algal bloom. Three different types of harmful algae were detected in eighteen farms.
    • Salmon production: Salmon is the king of fish. Chile is the second largest producer of Salmon in the world after Norway. It exported more than 4.4 billion USD of fish in 2020. Chile produces more than 26% of world Salmon.
    • Algal Bloom: It is a rapid increase of algal population in marine water or fresh water. It occurs due to the nutrients from phosphorous or nitrogen fertilizer run off. They create harmful effects such as blocking of sunlight. This causes depletion of oxygen level in water. The dissolved oxygen in water is the most important water quality factor. A pond supporting an aquatic ecosystem will have more than 10 ppm oxygen dissolved in it. On the other hand, atmosphere has 200,000 ppm of oxygen. The oxygen concentrations below 3 ppm will stress the species of fish in the water. The oxygen concentrations below 2 ppm will kill the fishes.
    1. Oxygen dissolves in water in two ways. One is through atmospheric contact that happens at the surface. The other primary source of dissolved oxygen is from algae. The algae add dissolved oxygen to the water by photosynthesis, thereby supporting lives in the water system. In that case, how did the algal bloom in Chile kill thousands of fishes?
    • How does Algal Bloom kill fishes?
    1. During day, the algae produce oxygen through photosynthesis. While at night, in the absence of sunlight, it stops photosynthesis and starts respiring just like other organisms in the water system. Respiration is taking in Oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. Thus, during night the dissolved oxygen drops too low suffocating the fish in the water system. As the algal bloom increases, it forms thick blanket over the water surface. This prevents sunlight from penetrating the water. Thus, the second source of oxygen where the oxygen dissolves in water at the surface contacts is blocked.
    New Zealand Climate Change law for financial firms
    • The story: New Zealand introduced a bill on Climate Change for financial firms. The bill is the first of its kind in the world. New Zealand has fixed 2050 as the deadline to become carbon neutral.
    • What the Bill proposes: It will require the insurers, banks and investment managers to report the impacts of their funding on the effect of climate change. It will also force the financial firms to evaluate the companies they are lending in terms of environmental impacts. All the banks in New Zealand with total asset more than 1 billion New Zealand dollars (703 million USD) will now have to make disclosures about their asset management. The financial firms will now have to explain how they will manage climate related risks and opportunities.
    • Other New Zealand Legislations on Climate Change: The NZ Government has lately taken several climate changes measures to lower green house gas emissions in the country. Some of them are as follows:
    1. In 2019, the Climate Change Response Act, 2002 was amended. According to the amendment, New Zealand intended to implement climate change policies in accordance with the Paris Agreement.
    2. Carbon Neutral Government Programme was set up to accelerate the reduction of emissions within the public sector.
    3. New Zealand Green Investment Finance was launched to reduce Greenhouse gas emissions. The main objective of the finance is to accelerate funding of projects that have the potential to reduce emissions.
    • Nationally Determined Contributions of New Zealand: In 2015, New Zealand ratified the Paris Agreement. The Nationally Determined Contributions of New Zealand under the agreement are to reduce green house gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.


     

    National Housing Bank: Rs 10,000 crore Special Refinance Facility
    1. The story: The NHB (National Housing Bank) has launched the “Special Refinance Facility”, 2021. Rs 10,00 crores has been allocated to this facility.
    2. Special Refinance Facility, 2021: The main objective is to provide short term refinance support to the housing finance companies and other eligible Primary Lending Institutions. The facility will aid in meeting the short-term liquidity requirement in the Public Lending Institutions.
    3. Background: The National Housing Bank has launched the initiative with the support from Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The RBI had recently announced under its Monetary Policy Review that Special Liquidity Facility-2 of Rs 10,000 crores will be allocated to National Housing Board for one year. This was done to support the housing sector. The NHB has now launched the refinancing facility based on this allocation made by the Reserve Bank.
    4. Refinance support: Between May 2020 and August 2020, the National Housing Board provided refinance support of Rs 14,000 crores under the Additional Special Refinance Facility and Special Refinance Facility. It was under another short term liquidity support provided by RBI under Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. In May 2020, the RBI had announced refinance facility of Rs 15,000 crore for SIDBI. In April 2020, RBI announced refinance facility of Rs 25,000 crores for NABARD. This was to refinance regional rural banks, micro finance institutions and cooperative banks.
    5. Legality of Special Refinance Facility: The facility is provided by the Reserve Bank of India under Section 17 (3) of Reserve Bank of India Act, 1934. Basically, the Section 17 defines how the apex bank shall conduct its business.



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      • SECTION 3 - MCQs (Multiple Choice Questions)

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