Daily Current Affairs for 30th Jan 2024

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Western countries paused funding to UNRWA

Why in the news?

  • UN officials urged countries to reconsider their decision to suspend the funding for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), assuring that it would take strict action against any staff member found to be involved in Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel.
  • The agency also highlighted that two million Palestinians in Gaza are dependent on UNRWA services that would be scaled back as soon as February if the funding is not restored.

https://bbcgossip.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/01/which-countries-have-cut-funding-to-unrwa-and-why.pngWhat is the matter?

  • The US and eight other Western countries, which together provided more than half of UNRWA’s 2022 budget, cut the money after Israel accused some of the agency’s staff members of involvement in the October 7 attack.

What is UNRWA?

  • UNRWA stands for UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. It was founded in 1949 to provide aid to about 700,000 Palestinians who were forced to leave their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
  • The UN agency operates in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a s well as Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan — countries where the refugees took shelter after their expulsion. According to UNRWA’s website, it runs education, health, relief and social services, microfinance and emergency assistance programmes inside and outside refugee camps based in the aforementioned areas.
  • Currently, around 5.9 million Palestine refugees — most of them are descendants of original refugees — access the agency’s services.
  • According to reports in Gaza, where some 85% of the enclave’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes after the latest Israel-Hamas conflict, over 1 million are sheltering in UNRWA schools and other facilities.
  • UNRWA is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions by donor states like the US. It also gets a limited subsidy from the UN, which is used only for administrative costs.

What has Israel accused UNRWA of?

  • The details of the accusations are scant. Israel has alleged that 12 staff members of UNRWA were involved in the October 7 attack. It has also claimed that Hamas siphons off funds given to UNRWA and fights from in and around the agency’s facilities.
  • Israel has alleged that “Hamas tunnels (are) running next to or under UNRWA facilities and accuses the agency of teaching hatred of Israel in its schools.

How has UNRWA responded?

  • The UNRWA has denied all the allegations, saying it has no links to Hamas. In the statement, UN officials said out of 12 staff members who were accused of being involved in the attack, nine have been terminated. One is confirmed dead and the identity of the two others is being clarified.
  • Any UN employee involved in acts of terror will be held accountable, including through criminal prosecution.

What happens now?

  • UNRWA is crucial for the survival of people living in Gaza, which has plunged into a humanitarian crisis after the outbreak of the conflict. The agency has been the main supplier of food, water and shelter to civilians of the enclave.
  • UNRWA, however, would run out of money needed for its aid work within weeks if the funding isn’t restored.



Grow seafood outside the sea

Why in the news?

  • Kochi-headquartered ICAR-Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) has entered into a collaborative research agreement with a private-sector start-up offering cultivated meat technology solutions to grow fish meat in the laboratory.

What is lab-grown fish?

  • It is merely a type of lab-grown — or cultivated/ cultured — meat. Seafood without the sea is ‘grown’ in the same way as other cultivated meats are grown — without the need to raise and kill an animal.
  • Cultivated fish meat is produced by isolating specific cells from fish and growing them in a laboratory setting using media that is free of animal components. The final product is expected to replicate the flavour, texture, and nutritional qualities of ‘real’ fish meat.

Need to grow fish meat in the lab

  • Experiments are ongoing in many countries on developing commercially viable lab grown fish meat, which is expected to address the ever growing demand for seafood, and reduce excessive pressure on wild resources. Overfishing — the removal of fish faster than the resource can replenish itself — has resulted in dramatic reductions in populations of certain species, which has impacted entire marine ecosystems in many areas.
  • In theory, lab grown fish meat has significant potential for ensuring food security and environmental benefits. Besides taking some load off traditional fishing, lab grown fish meat will be antibiotics- and environmental contamination-free, and will have no contact with microplastics or heavy metals in the polluted oceans.

Countries growing fish meat in the lab

  • Large-scale commercial manufacture of lab-grown fish meat is probably still some years away, but a number of countries have made great strides in this pioneering technology. Israel is the frontrunner, followed by Singapore, the United States and China.
  • Earlier this month, Israel-based Forsea Foods successfully produced lab-grown freshwater eel meat, and hopes to be able to make this meat available in markets in the next couple of years. Last year, Israel’s Steakholder Foods said that in association with Singapore-based Umami Meats, it had 3D printed the first ever ready-to-cook fish fillet using animal cells grown in a laboratory.
  • This project aims to accelerate development in this field, ensuring India is not left behind in this emerging industry.
  • It marks a crucial step in bridging the gap between India and other nations like Singapore, Israel, and the USA, who are already advancing cultured seafood research.

What other kinds of meat are being produced in labs?

  • Several dozens of companies around the world are now reported to be working on developing lab-grown meat from cells, including chicken, pork, lamb, fish and beef.
  • In June 2023, the US Department of Agriculture cleared the sale of lab grown chicken meat in the country. Two California-based companies, Good Meat and Upside Foods, were granted permission to supply lab-grown chicken meat to restaurants and supermarkets.



Quota row in UGC draft norms

Why in news?

Why did UGC issue the guidelines?

  • The University Grants Commission already has guidelines for implementing reservations, issued in 2006. About a year ago, the higher education regulator assigned a four-member committee the task of working on a new draft that would incorporate all updated government instructions.
  • Since the 2006 guidelines, there have been changes, including new DoPT circulars based on court orders. It was observed that there was considerable confusion regarding the existing rules on implementing reservations.
  • The objective was to develop a fresh set of guidelines that would clarify the latest government position,” said one of the committee members, on the condition of anonymity.
  • This exercise by the UGC was similar to what the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) undertakes from time to time to ensure that the government’s updated instructions are followed regarding the implementation of reservations.
  • The draft guidelines formulated by the UGC committee were made public on December 27, with public feedback sought by January 28. The document lists all pertinent court cases and subsequent government orders that have tweaked or clarified the process of implementation reservation in higher education.
  • It is organised into chapters covering the determination of quotas in faculty posts, the preparation of reservation rosters, de-reservation, verification of caste claims, and reservation in student admissions.
  • It was the chapter on de-reservation that sparked controversy after it went viral on social media.

What does the de-reservation chapter state?

  • The chapter states that while there is a general ban on the dereservation of reserved faculty vacancies in the case of direct recruitment, in exceptional circumstances, it can be done if a university can provide adequate justification. In this context, direct recruitment means the process of appointing teachers by inviting applications after publicly advertising the posts.
  • Dereservation, on the other hand, means opening up faculty positions that were originally reserved for specific categories (SC, ST, OBC, EWS candidates) to applicants belonging to the general category if those positions remain vacant despite efforts to fill them.
  • The draft guidelines specify that proposals for dereservation of Group A and Group B level jobs should be submitted to the Education Ministry, while proposals for Group C and D level posts should be forwarded to the Executive Council, the highest decision-making body of the university, for special permission.
  • In a university, all faculty positions (assistant professor, associate professor, and professor) fall under Group A. Section officers in a higher education institution typically hold Group B level positions, clerks and junior assistants fall under Group C, and multitasking staff, such as peons, are classified under Group D.
  • According to the draft UGC guidelines, the proposal for dereservation would need to include information such as the designation, pay scale, name of the service, responsibilities, required qualifications, efforts made to fill the post, and reasons why it cannot be allowed to remain vacant in the public interest.

Why did this chapter cause an outcry?

  • In current academic practice, reserved faculty positions are not converted to recruit general candidates. Although the DoPT permits dereservation in exceptional circumstances exclusively for Group A posts under the central government, this provision has not been implemented in higher education institutions. According to a former UGC officer who did not wish to be identified, unfilled quota positions in universities are re-advertised and special recruitment drives are carried out till suitable candidates are identified.
  • In fact, even in replies to questions asked in Parliament, the Education Ministry’s official position is that “there is a ban on dereservation of reserved vacancies for SC, ST, and OBC in direct recruitment.”
  • The draft UGC guidelines were basically seen to be paving the way for dereservation in faculty positions, and this caused the outcry.

Government’s reaction

  • When the dereservation chapter went viral on social media, the government swiftly took action to control the damage. The Ministry of Education issued a clarification stating there is no new instruction permitting dereservation.
  • The ministry Reservation in Central Educational Institutions (CEI) is provided for all posts in direct recruitment in Teacher’s cadre as per the Central Educational Institutions (Reservation in Teachers’ Cadre) Act, 2019.
  • After enactment of this Act, no reserved post is to be de-reserved. The Ministry of Education has given directives to all the CEIs to fill up the vacancies strictly as per the 2019 ACT.”
  • UGC chairman M Jagadesh Kumar satd that this is to clarify that there has been no dereservation of reserved category positions in Central Education Institutions (CEI) in the past, and there is going to be no such de-reservation. It is important for all HEIs to ensure that all backlog positions in reserved categories are filled through concerted efforts.



Non-urea fertilizers under price control

Why in news?

  • The government has brought di-ammonium phosphate (DAP), muriate of potash (MOP) and all other such fertilisers that receive nutrient-based subsidy (NBS) support under “reasonable pricing” controls.

How pricing was before?

  • NBS fertilisers — unlike urea, whose maximum retail price (MRP) is fixed by the government are technically decontrolled.
  • Under the NBS scheme, introduced in April 2010, their MRPs are supposed to be market-determined and set by the individual companies selling them.
  • The government merely pays a fixed per-tonne subsidy on each of these fertilisers, linked to their nutrient content or specific percentage of nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), potassium (K)

Recent changes?

  • Department of Fertilisers (DoF) has now, in an office memorandum dated January 18, issued detailed guidelines for the evaluation of “reasonableness” of the MRPs for all non-urea fertilisers covered under NBS.and sulphur (S).
  • The guidelines, to be effective retrospectively from April 1, 2023, have prescribed maximum profit margins that will be allowed for fertiliser companies – 8% for importers, 10% for manufacturers and 12% for integrated manufacturers (those producing finished fertilisers as well as intermediates such as phosphoric acid and ammonia).
  • Companies earning “unreasonable profit”, i.e. over and above the stipulated percentages, in a particular financial year (April-March) will have to refund the same to the DoF by October 10 of the following fiscal.
  • If they don’t return the money within the said time limit, “an interest @12% per annum on pro-rata basis would be charged on the refund amount from the next day of end of financial year (i.e. in case of FY 2023-24, the interest would be charged from April 1, 2024),”
  • the new guidelines impose indirect MRP controls on non-urea fertilisers by capping the profits that companies can earn from their sales.
  • These will be based on their “total cost of sales”, which would cover cost of production/ import, administrative overheads, selling and distribution overheads, and net interest and financing charges.
  • Deduction for dealer’s margin will be allowed to the extent of 2% of the MRP for DAP and MOP, and 4% for all other NBS fertilisers.



India-Saudi Arabia joint military exercise ‘SADA TANSEEQ’

Why in news?

  • The inaugural edition of India-Saudi Arabia joint military exercise ‘SADA TANSEEQ’, which seeks to develop interoperability, bonhomie and camaraderie between troops from both sides, began in Rajasthan.
  • The exercise is scheduled to be conducted till February 10.

India, Saudi Arabia Joint Military Exercise Commences In Rajasthan

What is this military exercise about?

  • The Saudi Arabian contingent comprising 45 personnel is being represented by Royal Saudi Land Forces.
  • The Indian Army contingent also comprising 45 personnel is being represented by a battalion from the Brigade of the Guards (Mechanised Infantry),” the defence ministry said in a statement.
  • The aim of the exercise is to train troops of both sides for joint operations in semi-desert terrain under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.
  • It will enable both the sides to “share their best practices in the tactics, techniques, and procedures of conducting operations in sub-conventional domain”.
  • The exercise will “facilitate developing interoperability, bonhomie and camaraderie between troops from both sides.
  • It will involve the establishment of mobile vehicle check post, cordon and search operation, house intervention drill, reflex shooting, slithering and sniper firing.
  • The exercise will provide an opportunity to both the contingents to strengthen their bond, officials said.
  • “It will act as a platform to achieve shared security objectives, enhance the level of defence cooperation, and foster bilateral relations between the two friendly nations,” the statement said.

India Saudi Arabia relation

  • The two countries established diplomatic relations in 1947.
  • They have always enjoyed cordial and friendly relations that reflect their socio-cultural and economic ties going back centuries.
  • The visit of King Abdullah to India in January 2006 was a watershed moment in the relationship.
  • The royal visit resulted in the signing of the Delhi Declaration, which was followed in 2010 by the Riyadh Declaration that elevated bilateral ties to a strategic partnership.
  • Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Riyadh in April 2016 captured the spirit of enhanced cooperation in the political, economic, security, and defence realms. King Salman conferred on the Prime Minister the kingdom’s highest civilian honour, the King Abdulaziz Sash, indicating the importance Saudi Arabia attached to its relationship with India.
  • India is Saudi Arabia’s second-largest trade partner; Saudi Arabia is India’s fourth-largest trade partner. Bilateral trade in FY2022-23 was valued at $52.76 billion.
  • Saudi direct investments in India amounted to $3.15 billion (as of March 2022).
  • Among the major investors are Aramco, SABIC, Zamil, e-holidays, and the Al Batterjee Group. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) has invested in several Indian startups such as Delhivery, FirstCry, Grofers, Ola, OYO, Paytm, and PolicyBazaar through SoftBank Vision Fund.
  • Saudi Arabia is a key partner for ensuring India’s energy security, and was its third largest crude and petroleum products source for FY23. 



Mars rover data confirms ancient lake sediments on red planet

Why in news?

  • NASA’s rover Perseverance has gathered data confirming the existence of ancient lakesediments deposited by water that once filled a giant basin on Mars called Jezero Crater, 
  • The findings from ground-penetrating radar observations conducted by the robotic rover substantiate previous orbital imagery and other data leading scientists to theorize that portions of Mars were once covered in water and may have harboured microbial life.

Who carried the research and it was based on?

  • The research, led by teams from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Oslo, was published in the journal Science Advances, opens new tab.
  • It was based on subsurface scans taken by the car-sized, six-wheeled rover over several months of 2022 as it made its way across the Martian surface from the crater floor onto an adjacent expanse of braided, sedimentary-like features resembling, from orbit, the river deltas found on Earth.

Findings of the research?

  • Soundings from the rover’s RIMFAX radar instrument allowed scientists to peer underground to get a cross-sectional view of rock layers 65 feet (20 meters) deep, “almost like looking at a road cut.
  • Those layers provide unmistakable evidence that soil sediments carried by water were deposited at Jezero Crater and its delta from a river that fed it, just as they are in lakes on Earth.
  • The findings reinforced what previous studies have long suggested – that cold, arid, lifeless Mars was once warm, wet and perhaps habitable.
  • Scientists look forward to an up-close examination of Jezero’s sediments – thought to have formed some 3 billion years ago – in samples collected by Perseverance for future transport to Earth
  • In the meantime, the latest study is welcome validation that scientists undertook their geo-biological Mars endeavour at the right place on the planet after all.
  • Remote analysis of early core samples drilled by Perseverance at four sites close to where it landed in February 2021 surprised researchers by revealing rock that was volcanic in nature, rather than sedimentary as had been expected.

Why this conclusion drawn?

  • The RIMFAX radar readings found signs of erosion before and after the formation of sedimentary layers identified at the crater’s western edge, evidence of a complex geological history there.
  • There were volcanic rocks and the real news here is that now driven onto the delta evidence of these lake sediments, which is one of the main reasons of this conclusion.

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