CURRENT AFFAIRS – 08/07/2023

CURRENT AFFAIRS – 08/07/2023

The long road to finding true peace in Yemen

In April this year, just as the Saudi-led war in Yemen completed eight years, a diplomatic delegation from the kingdom reached Sanaa airport for talks with its Houthi enemies. Some details of the talks soon became public: building on the year-long ceasefire, the two sides agreed to a six-month truce, to be followed by talks over three months to agree on a two-year “transition” period when the details of the Yemeni state that would emerge after the war would be finalised. The Houthis asked that the blockade of Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port be eased and the kingdom to pay the salaries from the country’s oil revenues. An immediate exchange of prisoners was also agreed to.

Death and destruction in Yemen

Saudi Arabia, leading a coalition of some Arab forces, had initiated military operations on March 26, 2015, to prevent the Houthis, a Shia militia representing the marginalised Zaidi community and aligned with Iran, from taking control of Yemen, with which the kingdom shares a porous 1,400-km border.

However, the war has ground to a stalemate, with the Houthis controlling the capital and the principal port, Hodeidah. The coalition controls the sea and the sky and large parts of the south, thus preventing essential food, medical and energy supplies from reaching the population. With a death toll of about 4,00,000, including 85,000 children, and several million displaced, Yemen is in the throes of a severe humanitarian crisis: 80% of its people (over 20 million) need assistance, while six million are on the brink of starvation.

Given the estimated expenditure of about $60 billion in the eight-year conflict, Saudi Arabia has been anxious to obtain a face-saving exit. The Saudi-Iran accord brokered by China in March provided this opportunity. There are reports that Iran has agreed to curtail military supplies to the Houthis and facilitate a peace process, thus opening the doors for the Saudi-Houthi engagement in April.

What has been achieved so far is the exchange of prisoners and the easing of the blockade on Sanaa and Hodeidah; humanitarian aid has come in and flights have taken Yemeni pilgrims, including Houthi leaders, to Mecca for the Haj.

Challenges to the peace process

Challenges coming in the way of the peace process include the Houthi insistence that the kingdom pay the salaries of all government officials, including armed forces personnel, for the last few years from Yemen’s oil revenues. The Saudis are hardly enthusiastic about funding their former enemies. The Houthis are also seeking “compensation” from the Saudis for war damage; the latter are willing to consider contributing to reconstruction, but baulk at the idea of “compensation”.

The Houthis are also reluctant to engage with the eight-member Saudi-supported Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) that heads the internationally-recognised Yemeni government. They insist on direct negotiations with the Saudis, while the latter wish to be “mediators” between the Yemeni factions.

The crucial point relating to the Yemen scenario is that the Houthis have won the war and the Saudis are desperate to get out of the country. Thus, the Houthis have the upper hand in the negotiations vis-à-vis the Saudis and the PLC set up by them. Even as Saudi involvement with Yemen decreases, the PLC will lose its standing and credibility and open the country, particularly the northern areas, to Houthi control.

But there is another matter that muddies the Yemen scenario. The Southern Transitional Council (STC), a United Arab Emirates (UAE)-backed movement based in Aden, wants the southern provinces that constituted the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), an independent communist country from 1967 to 1990, to once again become an independent state. A UAE academic has caused considerable disquiet in Yemeni circles by suggesting possible names for the new entity: “Arab Southern State” or “Arab Hadhramaut State”.

This reflects the competing geopolitical interests of Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen. The UAE’s control over ports in south Yemen, Eritrea and Somaliland, as also the island of Socotra in the Gulf of Aden and Perim Island at the mouth of the Bab al-Mandab, has already given it a dominant geopolitical and commercial position in the western Indian Ocean. It is backing the STC’s independence agenda to retain these advantages.

Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is seeking a united Yemen so that it can assert influence over the south Yemeni provinces of Hadhramaut and Al-Mahra: Hadhramaut shares an 800-km border with the kingdom, while Al-Mahra could provide an oil pipeline to Saudi Arabia to the Indian Ocean, bypassing the Strait of Hormuz. Hence, the kingdom has sponsored its own Hadhramaut National Council that rejects the independence agenda of the STC and is content with autonomy in a united Yemen.

Recent reports also suggest that Saudi Arabia, anxious to leave Yemen, might accept a north-south division but would want to elbow the UAE out and itself control Aden and the southern areas.

Another complicating feature is that, despite the Saudi-Iran bonhomie, Iran may be expected to maintain ties with the triumphant Houthis, retain its influence in Yemen, and even consolidate its presence in the Red Sea.

Thus, despite the cessation of hostilities in the war-ravaged country, rivalries between the diverse Yemeni factions and the competing interests of regional powers will ensure that peace and stability will remain a long way off.

Despite truce talks, Yemen’s outlook remains grim.


‘Words like fake, false, misleading in IT Rules problematic’

The Bombay High Court on Friday said words like, “fake, false and misleading” that are part of the new Information Technology Rules were “problematic”.

A Division Bench of Justices Gautam Patel and Neela Gokhale was hearing a bunch of petitions filed by political satirist Kunal Kamra, the Editors Guild of India and the Association of Indian Magazine and regional channels challenging the constitutional validity of the IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Amendment Rules, 2023.

The new Rules require social media intermediaries to censor or otherwise modify content that relates to the Union government if a government-mandated fact checking unit (FCU) directs them to do so.

“The wordings of the IT Rules where words like fake, false and misleading are problematic. Those are the only three criteria [to flag content as false]. We don’t know the business of the Central government. The expression like fake is extremely problematic. One might argue something is false. Falsity puts us in a binary, fake doesn’t even attempt to do that. The word ‘misleading’ in the Rules is an extremely problematic area since it is an opinion. Calling something ‘misleading’ is subjective, what is misleading for one may not necessarily be misleading for another,” the Division Bench noted.

The court went on to say, “Analysts may have their own figures. Is it fake news? I want to know what happens to editorial content online. You may find any editorial extremely hard hitting. For example, India’s relations with China. Words like fake, false, misleading are used in amendment. We are concerned about authority conferred on FCU.”.

Bombay High Court expressed concern about the authority conferred on fact-checking unit.


Gita Press a living faith, no less than a temple, says PM Modi

Attending the closing ceremony of the centenary celebrations of the Gita Press in Gorakhpur, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday described the publishing house as “not less than any temple”. The publisher is “guiding humanity” through its work, he said.

The Prime Minister added the government has accorded the Gandhi Peace Prize to Gita Press on completing the 100 years and highlighted the emotional attachment of Mahatma Gandhi with the Gita Press.

The Prime Minister, who is on a two-day visit to Uttar Pradesh, also flagged off Vande Bharat Express trains and laid the foundation stone of Gorakhpur Railway Station redevelopment work.

While flagging off the Vande Bharat trains, he described them as a boon to middle class.


Delhi to host test run of hydrogen fuel-cell buses later this year

Later this year, the first test runs of hydrogen-powered buses will likely be under way in Delhi followed by other States. The buses, developed under a joint venture involving Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. and Tata Motors, will ply — as part of a scientific test experiment — between Delhi and Faridabad, and thereafter on some “iconic” routes, according to S.S.V. Ramakumar, Director (R&D), Indian Oil.

“This will include, for instance, Delhi-Agra; Vadodara to Kevadia [Statue of Unity], in Gujarat, Thiruvananthapuram airport to Thiruvananthapuram city centre [in Kerala],” he said at a press conference in Delhi on Friday.

The hydrogen buses in this experiment are like an electric bus, in that hydrogen interacts with a ‘fuel cell’ battery producing electricity and no carbon emissions. The hydrogen fuel-cell buses to be deployed are “indigenously manufactured” in India but the actual fuel-cells are reportedly imported.

“We have applied to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways for route permits and are currently in the process of homologation. The first three buses are expected to ply in October,” Mr. Ramakumar added, “This will be a structured scientific process.”

“There are several road-worthiness tests that have to be passed and special tracks have to be created to test these buses,” said Ashish Lele, Director, CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory.

This is not the first time that hydrogen powered buses will dot Delhi’s roads. In 2020, the Delhi government tested 50 hydrogen-powered CNG buses.

(With inputs from Alisha Dutta)


Govt. to share PM Gati Shakti data

The government is working out a mechanism to share data with industry and potential investors about multi-modal connectivity as well as other physical and social infrastructure captured on the PM Gati Shakti platform, a top official said on Friday.

The Network Planning Group (NPG) under the platform which has multiple layers of geospatial data from across the country, has so far managed to evaluate and facilitate 85 large central infrastructure projects worth nearly ₹5.4 lakh crore so far, said Sumita Dawra, Special Secretary in the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT).

At the NPG’s 51st meeting chaired by DPIIT Secretary Rajesh Kumar Singh on Friday, the group evaluated five national highway projects worth ₹15,600 crore, which included two highways in Maharashtra, a ring road around Kanpur, and a tunnel project in Mizoram to help commuters and goods bypass the capital city of Aizawl.

A clutch of projects worth ₹719 crore, which are essentially disaster risk mitigation measures for Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region, were also taken up. These include 20 road stretches prone to landslides and 11 sinking zones.

Responding to a query from The Hindu on when the Gati Shakti portal may be opened up for investors and other stakeholders outside government, Ms. Dawra said the issue was discussed and ministries were working together to reach a consensus on the modalities.

“Geospatial data sharing has to be compatible with the Science Ministry’s policy, while the Ministry of Electronics and IT has been asked to examine issues relating to data protection and privacy. All ministries are working out what data can be shared,” she said, without indicating a time frame for implementation.