Current Affairs 17th October

New Delhi to host NSAs on Afghan issue #GS2 #IR

Two months after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, India is planning to engage regional powers on the future of Afghanistan. It is sending an official team to attend the Moscow process of talks on October 20 that will include the Taliban Government’s Deputy Prime Minister.

India has also invited regional National Security Advisers to New Delhi for a meeting in November, including Pakistan’s NSA, Moeed Yusuf, in a rare departure from the otherwise bitter bilateral ties. According to sources, New Delhi has reached out to countries that participated in the “Regional Security Dialogue” in Tehran — Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — for the meeting to be chaired by National Security Adviser Ajit Doval.

A Pakistani official confirmed receiving the invitation, but said a decision on participation was yet to be taken.

The invitation to Pakistan for a multilateral format meeting follows weeks after a three-member Indian delegation participated in the Regional Anti-Terror Mechanism meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO-RATS) at Pabbi in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan.

According to a number of verified reports, which the government has not denied, Mr. Doval has led a series of back-channel consultations with the Pakistani military and security officials over the past year.

Jaishankar to visit Israel for high-level engagement #GS2 #IR

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar will leave on a five-day visit to Israel on Sunday, for the first such high-level engagement with the four-month-old Government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, and his first visit to the country as Minister, the Ministry of External Affairs announced on Saturday.

During the visit, Mr. Jaishankar will hold bilateral talks with Foreign Minister of Israel Yair Lapid, who is also the Alternate Prime Minister, and is expected to take over the PM’s post in 2023, as part of the coalition agreement of the Israeli Government that succeeded Benjamin Netanyahu.

He is also expected to call on President Isaac Herzog, PM Bennet and the speaker of the Knesset Mickey Levy, all of whom have taken their new posts in the past few months. The Israeli Ambassador-designate to India, Naor Gilon, who has yet to present his credentials in India, said the visit would be “intensive”.

“Awaiting to accompany Dr. S Jaishankar on his first visit as EAM,” Mr. Gilon wrote in a tweet, adding that “a very intensive visit is planned, aiming to further solidify the Strategic Partnership announced during the 2017 historic visit to Israel of PM.”

The 2017 visit marked the first time an Indian Prime Minister had visited Israel. “Since then, the relationship between the two countries has focused on expanding knowledge-based partnership, which includes collaboration in innovation and research, including boosting the ‘Make in India’ initiative,” the MEA statement said, indicating that Mr. Jaishankar would also interact with business leaders in the hi-tech and innovation industry.

Tribute to soldiers

He is also expected to travel to Haifa to pay tribute to Indian soldiers who were killed during the First World War, and will hold meetings with the “Indian-origin Jewish community, Indologists and Indian students who are currently pursuing their education in Israeli universities”, the statement added.

Mr. Jaishankar’s travel to Israel also comes close on the heels of the Pegasus surveillance controversy, and revelations that a number of Indian journalists and key political and business figures among people from other countries had their phones hacked using Israeli company NSO’s Pegasus software.

While the company NSO insists it only sells software to government agencies, and deals must be cleared by the Israeli Government, New Delhi has denied carrying out the surveillance, that allegedly began after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel and meetings with former Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Global Hunger Index not based on an opinion poll #GS3 #Economy

German non-profit Welthungerhilfe (WHH), which co-published the Global Hunger Index (GHI) this year, rubbished the Union Government’s allegation on Saturday that its ranking of India as among the 16 worst countries was based on an opinion poll. It also said the Government was wrong to confuse “undernourishment” with “undernutrition”.

Following the launch of the GHI on Thursday that ranked India 101 out of 116 countries, the Government expressed its shock and questioned the “unscientific” methodology used by its two publishers, Concern Worldwide and Welthungerhilfe, which relied on a “four-question” opinion poll to calculate one of the four indicators used to arrive at the GHI score. The Government singled out the “undernourishment” indicator, because it was the only one where India’s performance deteriorated relative to previous years — undernourishment prevalence rose from 14% to 15.3% between 2017-2019 and 2018-2020. “The GHI uses the prevalence of undernourishment indicator, which is assessed by FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization] using Food Balance Sheet data from each country,” Miriam Wiemers, Advisor, Global Hunger Index, told The Hindu in an email.

A Food Balance Sheet presents a comprehensive picture of the pattern of a country’s food supply during a specified reference period. It shows for each food item the sources of supply and its utilisation.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development on Friday said instead of relying on a poll, the index should have used the measurement of weight and height to calculate the “undernourishment” indicator.

“This represents a misunderstanding of the undernourishment indicator. Undernourishment is a measure of the proportion of the population with inadequate access to calories and is based on data regarding the food supply in the country. It is not a measure of weight and height.

Army Air Defence steps up procurement #GS3 #Defence

After several delays in its modernisation process, the Army Air Defence (AD) is looking at major progress in the next few months in terms of deals and trials. These include additional indigenous Akash surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, the under-development medium range surface-to-air missile (MRSAM) and Igla-S very short range air defence (VSHORAD) systems from Russia, according to defence officials.

The Army had contracted a small number of Igla-S systems from Russia under emergency procurement through the Vice-Chiefs emergency financial powers and deliveries were expected soon, two officials confirmed.

“The Army has two Akash regiments in service and negotiations are on for two more. Contract is expected to be concluded by January,” an official said.

Akash is the indigenously designed and developed medium-range SAM system with a range of 25 km.

In addition, the Army variant of the MRSAM, being jointly developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), is nearing induction with the final stage of trials scheduled to be held in the next few months. “It’s in the penultimate state of induction,” the official said.

Air defence functions at three levels – gun/missile system, medium range and high range. Within this, the AD guns are of two types: AD gun missile system and the AD self-propelled guns. The Army is looking for guns in both the categories. In the medium segment, it has the indigenous Akash SAM, while MRSAM fits in the high range.

Last month, the first deliverable firing unit of the MRSAM System was handed over to the Indian Air Force (IAF), which can engage targets up to a range of 70 km.

The repeatedly delayed Igla-S VSHORAD deal, which has seen several controversies over the past few years, was on track and close to conclusion, the two officials said. The contract should be concluded by January, one of them said.

The Igla-S bid from Rosoboronexport of Russia was declared the lowest bid (L1) in the tender in 2018 from among three contenders. The other contenders, MBDA of France and SAAB of Sweden, lodged a protest after Igla-S was declared the winner. Further, SAAB lodged an official complaint detailing procedural violations in the evaluation process.

The Request for Proposal (RFP) was first issued in October 2010 for over 5,000 missiles, 258 single-launchers and 258 multi-launchers with an estimated cost of Rs. 6,400 crore and trials began in 2012.

Air Defence guns

On October 14, 2021, the Army issued the Request For Proposal (RFP) for 220 air defence guns and 1,41,576 rounds of ammunition to be procured under the buy and make category of the acquisition procedure. Within this, 25 guns and 44,440 rounds of ammunition would be procured under the buy portion and the remaining under the make portion of the contract, as per the RFP. The last date for submitting bids is January 6, 2022.

In another category, while a global tender to procure Quick Reaction SAMs (QRSAMs) has been delayed, an indigenous project by the DRDO is moving ahead. “The DRDO has presented the proof of concept, and so far, three trials have been conducted.

Industry seeks role in framing regulations for medical devices #GS3 #Economy

The proposed drugs, cosmetics and medical devices Bill should align with the Medical Devices Rules (MDR), 2017, experts have said.

They noted that an inclusive framework of industry experts and representatives was needed for a holistic understanding of all issues and perspectives while framing the new Act.

Chairman of the Medical Technology Association of India Pavan Choudary said medical devices were governed by the MDR 2017, which were meticulously developed by the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) after extensive consultations with stakeholders.

“These rules also follow the World Health Organisation Regulatory Framework for Medical Devices (including in vitro diagnostics) and adhere to the step-wise approach to regulating medical devices based on guidance documents developed by the Global Harmonization Task Force (GHTF) and the International Medical Device Regulators Forum (IMDRF),” Mr. Choudary said.

He pointed out that the harmonised regulations also enable Indian manufacturers to get greater acceptability of their products in global markets, furthering the Make in India objective of the Government and keeping India aligned to global supply chains.

Sanjay Bhutani, country manager, Bausch and Lomb, explained that the industry had worked extensively with the CDSCO to strengthen the regulatory framework and would continue to do so to further patients’ access to quality medical devices.

Managing director of German medical and pharmaceutical device major B. Braun Medical (India) Indranil Mukherjee said that over the last decade, and especially with the pandemic, the regulatory authorities and policymakers have realised the urgent need for establishing a well-defined and comprehensive framework for medical devices, diagnostics and equipment.

“An inclusive framework of industry experts and representatives in this expert network is required and will help in a holistic understanding of all issues.

Saline soil reclamation works wonders in Sundarbans #GS3 #Environment

In the last week of May 2021, when large areas of the Sunderbans were inundated by saline water under the impact of Cyclone Yaas, farmers across the region had given up hope for fresh crop this season. Based on earlier experiences of cyclones, many farmers like Biswajit Jana thought that they might not cultivate for the next few years.

However, a unique project of reclamation of soil salinity in the Sonagaon village in Gosaba block has given hope to many farmers of the region.

Restoration project

A group of conservationists and scientists has come together in this restoration project cultivating paddy in a 10-bigha plot months after the cyclone has ravaged the landscape. “Usually, the focus in the Sundarbans after a cyclone is on short term relief but what we tried to do is to provide a long-term sustainable ecological and economic empowerment to the people,” Diya Banerjee of Uttarayan Wildlife told The Hindu .

Ms. Banerjee said initially those behind the desalination project were not very sure about the success but the yield of paddy has surprised everyone. The novel initiative is supported by the Uttarayan Wildlife and the Nature Mates provided logistical support to the initiative. Both the organisations have been working in the Sundarbans for quite some time.

Pradip Sen, retired additional director research, Department of Agriculture, said the only technique known for desalination is freshwater irrigation which is very difficult in the Sunderbans.

“The salinity of the plot after the cyclone was 17.4 dS/m [salinity is measured using deciSiemens per metre -dS/m] but after the desalination exercise it was down to 2.04 dS/m. We also cultivated a variety of paddy which is relatively less resistant to soil salinity and the output has been very encouraging,” said Dr. Sen, who is associated with the Uttarayan Wildlife and provided scientific support to the desalination exercise.

Zeolite oxygen concentrators: chemistry in three dimensions #GS3 #SnT

hemists, when they are designing or building new molecules, can be thought of as architects and builders. An organic chemist can plan a blueprint for a new molecule, and synthesize it with precision out of atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and so on. After centuries of fine-tuning this skill, chemists in the early 20th century moved up to synthesizing long, thread-like one-dimensional polymers. The polyethylene of plastic bags is made from repeating units of the ethylene molecule, (importantly, the units are linked by the same firm chemical bonds as are seen within an organic molecule. This provides the stability that ensures that a shirt made from polyester-mixed yarn is long lasting). In biological systems, proteins are 1-dimensional polymers of amino acids.

Adding new dimensions

In recent years, this has been taken to a new level by the creation of extended 2- or 3-dimensional structures from linking together molecular units just as was done for polymers, but in two or three dimensions. The basic units go on fitting together to form large networks, like a wire mesh fence. The network is constructed by repeated additions of a molecule with symmetry. A few such networked sheets, when stacked one over another, form a functional 2-D entity. Because words like polymer do not do justice to this complex arrangement of atoms, such molecular networks are called frameworks.

Uses for these Covalent Organic Frameworks (COFs) take advantage of their stability, large surface area, controlled pore sizes, and tunable chemical environments. Just as you choose the size of the ‘pore’/hole in a wire mesh, frameworks can be designed to act as sieves in separating out molecules of a specified size. The smallest whiff of a toxic gas could be sensed – in an industrial environment, or in airline baggage. They are also suitable for both storing energy (as capacitors) and for conducting it (along membranes in fuel cells).

Metal Organic frameworks (MOFs) are structured like COFs but have metals in complexes with organic entities. The choice of metals is wide, from Beryllium to Zinc, though relatively abundant metals are preferred for economic and environmental reasons. They offer great advantages: for gas storage, as in the case of hydrogen storage in fuel cells; in catalysis, where they replace very expensive metals; in sensors; and in drug-delivery – anti-cancer and other drugs with severe side effects can be trapped in the porous confines of MOFs, to be released in small and steady doses.

Use of zeolites

Zeolites are highly porous, 3-D meshes of silica and alumina. In nature, they occur where volcanic outflows have met water. Synthetic zeolites have proven to be a big and low-cost boon. One biomedical device that has entered our lexicon during the pandemic is the oxygen concentrator. This device has brought down the scale of oxygen purification from industrial-size plants to the volumes needed for a single person. At the heart of this technology are synthetic frameworks of silica and alumina with nanometer-size pores that are rigid and inflexible. Beads of one such material, zeolite 13X, about a millimeter in diameter, are packed into two cylindrical columns in an oxygen concentrator.

The chemistry here is tailored to the task of separating oxygen from nitrogen in air. Being highly porous, zeolite beads have a surface area of about 500 square meters per gram. At high pressures in the column, nitrogen is in a tight embrace, chemically speaking, with the zeolite. Interaction between the negatively charged zeolite and the asymmetric nucleus (quadrupole moment) of nitrogen causes it to be preferentially adsorbed on the surface of the zeolite.

Oxygen remains free, and is thus enriched. Air has 78% nitrogen, 20.9% oxygen and smaller quantities of argon, carbon dioxide, etc. Once nitrogen is under arrest, what flows out from the column is 90%-plus oxygen. After this, lowering the pressure in the column releases the nitrogen, which is flushed out, and the cycle is repeated with fresh air.

Global volunteer efforts have made available very detailed instructions on building your own oxygen concentrator, with locally available resources. In India, IISc has transferred the technology of making oxygen concentrators to over 20 companies.

Vaccine for malaria #GS3 #SnT

The story so far: On October 6, the World Health Organization made a historic announcement, endorsing the first-ever malaria vaccine, RTS,S, among children in sub-Saharan Africa, and in other regions with moderate-to-high Plasmodium falciparum malaria transmission. It made its recommendations based on the results from a pilot programme administering the vaccine to children in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.

Why is this significant?

Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by micro-organisms that belong to the genus Plasmodium, and is transmitted by infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. In 2019, according to the WHO, there were an estimated 229 million cases of malaria, and the estimated deaths were 4,09,000. About 67% of the deaths were among children aged under five, the group most vulnerable to malaria. Furthermore, 94% of the cases and deaths due to malaria occurred in the WHO African region, a disproportionately high share of the burden. But the WHO says its regions of Southeast Asia, eastern Mediterranean, western Pacific, and the Americas are also at risk. While research for a vaccine and therapeutics for malaria had been on for nearly half-a-century, success has been elusive until recently. While preventive and treatment interventions have continued (bed nets and indoor residual insecticide spraying) over the years, it was clear that the best tool against the constantly mutating pathogen would not emerge until an effective vaccine was at hand.

As Matthew B. Laurens argues in a paper in Human Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics : “An effective malaria vaccine would be an important tool to combat the enormous socioeconomic burden caused by this disease. Vaccines promote both individual and public health, and are thus considered among the most highly successful public health tools. After provision of clean water and sanitation, vaccination against infectious diseases has contributed the greatest to public health worldwide, compared with other human interventions.” And it was at a time when it was believed that anti-malarial research was flailing, that RTS,S did emerge. Pilot projects rolled out in sub-Saharan Africa showed that among children aged 5-17 months who received the recommended four doses of RTS,S, the vaccine prevented approximately 4 in 10 (39%) cases of malaria over four years of follow-up; about 3 in 10 (29%) cases of severe malaria, with a significant reduction in overall hospital admissions due to malaria or severe anaemia (a side effect). The need for blood transfusions to correct life-threatening anaemia also came down by 29%.

What path did the RTS,S vaccine take?

RTS,S/AS01 is a recombinant protein-based vaccine that acts against P. falciparum, believed to be the deadliest malaria parasite globally and the most prevalent in Africa. It reportedly offers no protection against P.vivax malaria, found in many countries outside Africa. The development of the vaccine was led by pharma major GSK over 30 years ago. In 2001, GSK began collaborating with PATH’s Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI). A five-year Phase 3 efficacy and safety trial that concluded in 2014 was implemented through a partnership between GSK and MVI, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a network of African research centres. In July 2015, the European Medicines Agency authorised the use of the vaccine, concluding that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks. Known side-effects include pain and swelling at the injection site and fever, similar to the other children’s vaccines. It is associated with an increased risk of febrile seizures within seven days of administration. In the Phase 3 trial, children who had febrile seizures after vaccination recovered completely, and there were no long-lasting consequences, the WHO reported.

Pilots were launched in Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya over 2019. Health workers reported that the vaccine was easy to introduce and integrate into their schedule. The data were submitted to the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation and the Malaria Policy Advisory Committee that gave the go-ahead for the first ever anti-malarial vaccine.

Will India use it too?

Malaria is a major public health problem in India, endemic to many States, and involves multiple Plasmodium species, including P. falciparum, said the authors of a paper in Acta Tropica , an international journal on infectious diseases. India will therefore benefit from the vaccine, and Bharat Biotech has entered into a partnership with GSK for technology transfer and production. This vaccine is likely to be ready for use in India, in a couple of years, as per reports.

What is the extent of India’s coal crisis? #GS3 #Economy

The story so far: India could be on the verge of a power crisis as the stock of coal held by the country’s thermal power plants has hit critically low levels. Many power plants are operating with zero reserve stock or with stocks that could last just a few days. Some States have witnessed partial load-shedding aimed at saving power. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, however, is reported to have termed worries about a possible shortage of coal and power supplies “absolutely baseless” and is said to have asserted during the course of a trip to the U.S. that India is now a power-surplus country.

How bad is the problem?

According to data released by the Central Electricity Authority, as of Wednesday, India’s 135 thermal power plants overall had on average coal stock that would last just four days. In all, 112 of the 135 power plants are operating with stocks that are at critical or super-critical levels. The government usually mandates the power plants to hold stocks that would last at least two weeks. It has, however, reduced this requirement to 10 days now to avoid hoarding and ensure more equitable distribution of coal among the plants.

India relies on coal to meet over 70% of its power needs, and Coal India Limited (CIL) supplies over 80% of the total coal. The current coal crisis comes amid a broader energy crisis across the world with the prices of natural gas, coal and oil rising sharply in the international market.

What has caused it?

The current crisis in the availability of coal has been the result of lacklustre domestic production and a sharp drop in imports over the last few years. According to BP Global Energy Statistics, domestic coal production in India has stagnated since 2018. It peaked at 12.80 exajoules (EJ) worth of coal in 2018. At the same time, the amount of coal imported from other countries to meet domestic demand, too, has dropped significantly. Coal imports have dropped from the peak of 6.46 EJ in 2016 to 4.22 EJ in 2020.

Stagnating supply did not cause trouble last year with the economy shut down to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. But the rise in power demand this year has exposed the government’s inability to push domestic production or compensate for insufficient domestic production by increasing imports. In fact, the government last year said it would stop all coal imports by FY24.

Many factors have been blamed for the insufficient supply of coal this year. These include short-term issues like flooding in coal-mining areas, transport issues, labour disruptions in major coal-mining countries and the sudden rise in power demand as the economy revives from the pandemic. But it should be noted that deeper structural problems have plagued the power industry in general for long. Populist politics has ensured that the price that many consumers pay for power is not commensurate with the production costs.

In FY19, for instance, the revenues of distribution companies covered only about 70% of their total costs. This has discouraged private investment in power generation and distribution even as the demand for power continues to rise each year. It has also increased the debt burden on public sector distribution companies as they have not been compensated for the losses they incur while selling power at subsidised rates. According to the credit rating agency ICRA, the consolidated debt of public sector distribution companies is expected to hit ₹ 6 trillion in FY22.

It should also be noted that the mining of raw materials such as coal is nearly monopolised by public sector companies like CIL that are not run primarily for profits. In fact, CIL has kept the price of its coal low even as international prices have risen significantly this year. It has also been forced to share some of the pain of power generation and distribution companies.A

According to the government, indebted power generators and distributors owe over ₹21,000 crore to CIL. So, overall, there is very little financial incentive that major producers across the supply chain, including miners, possess to ramp up production.

What lies ahead?

In recent years, many countries have been trying to cut down on their fossil fuel consumption in order to meet emission targets. But with the current energy crunch, which is prevalent not just in India, fossil fuels are likely to make a strong comeback. India and China, the top two consumers of coal in the world, are expected to further increase production of fossil fuels. The Indian government has been pushing CIL to ramp up production to meet the rising demand and cut down on the country’s reliance on imported coal.

However, it is expected to ease restrictions on imported coal in the near future to tide over the crisis. The government last week mandated the thermal power plants to blend imported coal with domestic coal up to a limit of 10%. Meanwhile, China, which consumes half of the world’s coal output and has committed itself to reducing its carbon emissions by 65% by 2030, is set to install more coal-powered power plants to meet its rising energy needs.

Structural problems that have plagued the Indian power industry, however, are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Allowing the price that consumers pay for power to be determined by market forces is likely to remain politically unpopular, so fundamental pricing reform is unlikely. But with coal selling at high prices in the international market and CIL unable to meet production targets, many power generators may be unable to increase their output unless they are allowed to price their output freely.